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Love Her and Despair

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Burgundy sails snapped in a fitful wind that set the sailors muttering. The sea-witch had her ways, they said, and owned both sea and sky. Ships plied the waves by her permission, or not at all. There had been frost at sunrise, great spears of rime coating the rails and ropes. The tropical sun had banished it quickly, but it was one more sign of Sin's proximity. That, and the lightning's balefire dancing on the mast at midnight.

"Land ho!"

The call was hardly needed. All eyes not bent to shipboard tasks were fixed on the wisps of smoke billowing on the horizon, fading now like the last breath of a dying fire. The rising column veiled half the sky in a grayish-pink fume that stretched clear back to Djose. For six disquieting days, the SS Konna had sailed under that gray pall, seeing only an orange smudge where the sun should be. Flecks of ash came fluttering out of the sky, dissolving to powder wherever they touched. A stark whiff of burning hung in the air.

One of the harpooners began to sing the Hymn of the Fayth. The subdued refrain spread out in ripples from the ship's bow as roughened sailors' voices took up the chorus. Eight warrior monks, cleaning weapons on the aft deck in preparation for landfall, added their voices in prayer. On the railing above them, a red-haired man in priestly robes smiled and cupped his hands in Yevon's sign. Neither he nor the pair of guards flanking him joined in the singing.

Boots clattered up the ladder beside them. Stepping onto the hurricane deck, the woman raised her arm in salute. "Your Grace. We'll make Besaid by sunset."

"Very good, Captain. Tell your crew the danger is past. Sin is at least a day from here by now."

"With all due respect, milord," she said, deference barely keeping in check a rising note of disbelief. Suddenly, she pivoted towards the man keeping watch before the mast. "Tatts, what's that trinket you're wearing?"

The sailor's hands flew to the bone pendant that had slipped out from the bib of his overalls. "It's, ah, it's nothing, Cap'n. Just a carving of a pretty lady, y'know, that caught me fancy." His wind-scoured cheeks reddened.

"Sin!" she spat. Heads turned as the petite woman stalked towards him, sea-boots hammering the planks. "The Grand Maester of Yevon sails with us, and I have an idol-worshipper who wears Sin over his heart! Hand it over, or I'll throw you overboard with it."

The sailor blanched. Torn between duty and devotion, the wretched man drew the thong over his neck and dropped the pendant into her waiting palm. Raising her arm, the captain prepared to fling it into the waves.

"Please, let me see it," the maester said.

For a moment it seemed that she might feign deafness. Grand Maester Isaaru was a soft-spoken man, after all, and the sails boomed like a drum-head. However, his shorter bodyguard, a heavyset youth who looked too green for such an important post, was blocking her throw. Scowling, the captain held out the necklace. "I'm sorry, Your Grace. Sailors are too far from the temples, too close to the sea. And that one came close to meeting his unholy god six months ago. The toxin—"

"He survived a Sin attack?" said the second guard, an older man with dark skin and a hawk's profile, all angles where his younger counterpart was rounded like fresh dough.

Isaaru examined the bone charm intently. At a distance, its triangular silhouette could easily be mistaken for a shark's tooth. With economy of line, the stylized carving captured the shape of a woman's head and shoulders, square jaw and fine features. There was a haughty arch to the brows— or rather, brow, since the left side of the face was cut away at a slant. Negative space showed where the hair should be.

"The same face," he mused. "Always the same."

When he slipped the sacrilegious amulet into his robes, the captain stiffened. He chuckled at her expression. "Have no fear, Kiyuri. A scrap of whale-bone the size of a thumbnail is hardly likely to draw Sin's attention...or mercy," he added to the anxious watchman. "If it returns, we are all in equal peril."

"But, Your Grace—"

"Look after your ship, Captain, and let the maesters look after Yevon, no?"

"My lord." The woman gave a jerky salute, glared at Tatts and went below.

"Now," Isaaru said, turning to him with a reassuring smile. "Perhaps you can tell us what you saw. We need to know all we can, since Sin has changed its ways."

"Aye, it has, me lord," the sailor stammered. "That is, She don't bother any ship that leaves her waters in peace. Stray not west o' Besaid if ye sail under Yevon's holy seal. The Al Bhed heathens live free of Sin's wrath, they say, all around the western isles. Me last ship, me captain tried to make the old run from Luca to Bevelle the short way 'round. Three days northwest o' Luca, the Lady put the ice to us till every sail and line were coated with it and men couldna walk the deck. Then the gale-winds came up and shattered the sheets. At the last, lightning struck the mast and split the hull right down into the water like roots o' tree."

Isaaru nodded at a tale that could be heard in one form or another in every port. "How did you escape?"

"Al Bhed ship picked me up, then, didn't it? Me and a few other souls. Dropped us off near the ruins of Old Guadosalam."

"And you saw Sin? What did it—"

"Your Grace," the younger guard interrupted, "can't we finish this later? You're too exposed up here. There could be sinspawn in the harbor."

"Just a moment, Pacce."

The second guard cut in. "No, Isaaru, he's right. Yevon's your job, but ours is keeping you safe, and you don't make it easy for us! Get under cover. I'll stay up here with our Sin-worshipper and find out what else he knows."

"All right, Maroda, all right," Isaaru shook his head. "Tatts, for all of Spira's sake—" he would have said Yevon, but this man clearly followed a different allegiance— "please answer my brother's questions as well as you can. May High Summoner Yuna bless you."

"Th-thank you, Your Grace."

A melancholy smile played across the maester's features as he descended the ladder. Sin and the temples might be scrapping for souls these days, yet oddly enough, no one had lost faith in the High Summoner, although her Calm was coming to an end.

Lost in thought, Isaaru was nearly flung overboard himself when the ship gave an abrupt heave. Lunging to block his fall, Pacce helped him down the last few rungs. Cries of Sin rang out. The harpooners leapt to their posts.

"I'll cover you, Big Brother!" Pacce said eagerly. He planted himself in front of Isaaru, shielding him as a wave crashed over the side. "The wheelhouse, it's closer!"

Isaaru shook his head and grasped a line, steadying himself. "Pacce, it's not Sin, it's—"

A flurry of scales and long fins burst from the waves in a surge of battering spray. Thudding onto the deck, huge fishy forms landed among the sailors and pounced upon them with terrifying speed. Pacce drew his sword with a yell and jammed it at the nearest one, twisting the blade in a gush of pyreflies.

Blood was already running over the boards. Sinspawn were tearing through unarmed sailors with cruel, snapping jaws. Before he could summon them, Isaaru's warrior monks came charging across the deck, straight into the mob of fiends swarming between them and the ship's crew. Some monks started hacking through the living barrier with bayonets. Others raised their rifles, trying to pick off the sinspawn with screaming victims, but the pitching deck and furious melee thwarted their shots.

Isaaru flinched at a shriek from above. Looking up, he saw Tatts pressed against the railing, trying to fend off two fiends with his arms crossed in front of his face.

Forgetting his brothers' admonitions, the ex-summoner raised his hands, letting fly a silent call to the aeon of Besaid. Pterya, old friend, we need you. He had not summoned in so long. Would she heed his prayer?

Everywhere was din, panic and chaos, yet to Isaaru's inner ear there was a hollow silence. No Hymn of the Fayth sang in his mind. No beating wings unfurled around a crimson-feathered spirit arrowing down from heaven's gates.

He watched in anguish as one of the sinspawn clamped down on the sailor's arm, another on his leg. Where was his brother? A thrusting spear answered his question an instant later, but it was one instant too long. Even as Maroda dispatched one of the creatures, the other leapt off the deck, dragging its screaming victim overboard.

Pterya was not answering his summons, and Isaaru saw with painful clarity that many lives would be lost if he left the warrior monks and Maroda to deal with the threat alone. But the deck would surely buckle under Spathi's weight, assuming there was even room for Bevelle's massive aeon. Pitch, rope and oiled boards were ill-suited for Grothia's fire, but Isaaru was running out of options. Shutting out the sounds of melee, he sketched a familiar series of gestures in the air that he had not needed in thirteen years.

Few here had seen an aeon, and there were more screams of horror when the flaming hulk burst from the deck with a defiant roar. Snarling at its master's command to refrain from flames, the ill-tempered spirit charged into the fray, pummelling and biting. Although these sinspawn had the edge in speed, there were so many that Grothia's swipes usually found targets. It slapped them aside like an ogre swatting wasps.

Gradually, the chaos died down as fighters and aeon gained the upper hand. Blades and spears flashed through eddies of rising pyreflies. Shielded by Pacce, Isaaru moved from one wounded man to the next, healing those he could save. He would send the others later.

When the battle was over, the ship cast anchor a league out from shore. The surviving crew set to work clearing the carnage and repairing the damage. There beneath a shroud of smoke and a bloody sunset, Isaaru performed his grimmest duty, sending the spirits of the dead before their bodies were committed to the deep. Tatts' corpse was not among them, but there were probably a few other closet heretics who would have been comforted to know that the summoner who sent them carried Sin's token in the folds of his robes.

 
*[A/N: In Final Fantasy X, Isaaru's aeons look just like Yuna's, but have different names: Pterya, Grothia and Spathi for Valefor, Ifrit and Bahamut. Perhaps each summoner has a unique name for his/her aeon that arises out of the bond between them.]



They spent a restless night in the lee of Besaid Island, huddled to the southwest where the air was clear of ash. At dawn they weighed anchor and headed towards the harbor, hugging the shore. Soaring green cliffs splashed with plunging waterfalls would have made an idyllic landscape, if not for the enormous, jagged gashes in the slopes of the jungle high above. It was hard to imagine a force that could shatter trees and blast away dirt right down to bedrock, a full ten fathoms above the waterline.

Obviously, there was no question of mooring at Besaid's dock; that much was clear before they reached the harbor. Rounding the point, the Konna encountered a grisly soup of bobbing planks, rope, snarled fishing nets and slats of boats, all thumping and scraping past the prow. To the crew's dismay, a few bodies were tangled in the floating debris. They heaved the dead aboard with nets meant for other kinds of catch. The warrior monks set to work wrapping the pitiful remains in funeral shrouds. At this rate, they might run through their stock even before they came ashore.

The beach had been scoured, its once-golden sands strewn with muck and dead fish. A fine layer of white ash coated everything. Beyond the beach, acres of blackened trunks made shocking inroads into Besaid's verdant jungle. Some of the trees still smoldered. A few carrion-birds circling the bluffs were the only signs of life— almost.

Robe blazing red in the dawn, a man stood upon the water. No, not on the water. One scrap of dock had escaped Sin's wrath. An uneven platform leaned on pilings in the middle of the harbor. Excited murmurs spread across the ship, whispering a name— or, more often, a title.

The Legendary Guardian. He was back again, from wherever heroes were stowed when the world did not need them.

"It's Sir Auron!" Pacce was beside himself. "I don't believe it! It's really him!"

Maroda was silent. His thoughtful look meant that he and Isaaru would be having a difficult conversation later, out of their younger brother's earshot.

So, then: a brief detour to pick up a singular passenger. Isaaru ordered a dinghy to be lowered. The crew's fear had evaporated at the sight of the warrior silhouetted against the smoking treeline, and Kiyuri had to select rowers from among too many volunteers. While they winched the boat down to the water, Maroda argued vigorously with Isaaru. The spearman seldom lost his battles. A short time later, Isaaru and a frustrated, fuming Pacce were watching the small craft sculling across the harbor, shoving its way through debris-choked water.

Approaching the patient figure standing on the water, Maroda called out to him. "Sir Auron! What are you doing here?"

The response was inaudible to those left aboard, but Pacce would dig it out of his brother later. "Waiting for a ship."

Chapter Text


"So have you been on Besaid all this time? Or did you just come here to fight Sin?" Pacce seemed bent on extracting every scrap of information from his idol as soon as Sir Auron stepped aboard. Not that the legendary hero was doling out many scraps. Surrounded by a semicircle of murmuring sailors, he stood in his customary slouch with an arm tucked in his coat, a dour expression, and a crop of more white hair than Isaaru recalled from their last unhappy meeting. Warrior monks shoved forward to form an impromptu honor guard. Maroda and Pacce, as usual, stood to the maester's right and left.

Auron shrugged. "I followed a hunch."

"A hunch?" Maroda said, incredulous. "You can predict where Sin will strike?"

"No."

"Then how—"

"Lord Isaaru." Auron cut through questions with a swordsman's efficiency. "I assume a maester of Yevon did not come all this way just for the festival."

The maester shook his head. "Tidings of the attack reached us en route to Lady Yuna's anniversary celebrations in Luca. We came to aid the survivors."

"There aren't any."

Such simple words. Auron had spent a day searching the rubble of the village for any sign of Yuna's former guardians, a second day sifting the corpses tossed up on the beach. A few faces had been vaguely familiar, but Auron had not spent enough time on the island to know its inhabitants. The current Sin would have recognized almost all of them.

"Not much use in going ashore then," Maroda said.

"Isaaru can still send them, though, right?" Pacce said.

There was a heavy silence. Auron raised his head and looked from one to the other, causing Pacce to straighten self-consciously. The brothers made an incongruous trio. Isaaru was neither tall nor short, with long red-brown hair pulled back in a ponytail. He had lost some of the effeminate delicacy of his youth, but most of his girth was simply layers of priestly robes. Maroda, slightly younger, was dark, tall and rangy, with black hair cropped short above hawkish features. His hauberk and greaves were probably Crusader issue. Pacce was a head shorter than Maroda, a chunky youngster of about nineteen with a round and earnest face. He wore the undented, burnished armor of a warrior monk cadet. His short black hair stood up like Auron's, but instead of giving him a grizzled air, he simply looked as if he'd tried to yank it out. They might not be brothers by blood: Sin's predations restructured families with depressing frequency.

Auron nodded to himself and returned his attention to Isaaru. "There's something else you should see."

"Yes, we should at least pay our respects." Isaaru raised his voice. "Captain Kiyuri, we'll need both boats lowered this time."

"Yes, Your Grace." She took a step towards the gathered sailors and began barking orders. "Back to your posts, slack-jaws— or are you all volunteering for oar duty? Winch teams, port and starboard! You heard the maester. Hop!"

The sailors were less keen to set foot on Besaid's ravaged beach than they had been to ferry a celebrity, but the captain was skilled with the verbal lash. Boats were soon lowered and launched. Kiyuri took charge of the rudder in Isaaru's boat, charting a meandering course between fetid rafts of flotsam snagged on the reef.

Chatter died as they breasted the breakers and shipped oars, letting momentum sling the boats up the beach ahead of the waves. Keels hissed in the sand and stuck fast. The sailors hopped out to steady the boats while the passengers disembarked, stepping carefully to avoid heaps of debris. Then they fanned out on the shore. A sailor gave a horrified cry before Auron warned them what lay beneath the row of smashed boats. He had not spent all his time marooned on the shattered dock, it seemed.

It was a subdued group that gathered under the bluffs near the head of the trail leading to the village.

"Now," Isaaru said, addressing the anxious knot of sailors huddled around Kiyuri, "I must ask you to do a hard thing. Sir Auron says there is no one left in Besaid to prepare the dead for sending. For pity's sake, we must give them this, since we are too late to save them. I will leave my warrior monks here to assist you and protect you from fiends—" he held up a hand to forestall Maroda's protest— "while my brothers, Sir Auron and I take the jungle road to learn what we can and tend the village's slain."

"And if we don't see you by sundown?" Kiyuri said.

Pacce huffed, but Isaaru spoke with soothing assurance at odds with his reply. "Return to the ship and look for our signal tomorrow. If you have not seen us in three days, bring word to Maester Lucil in Luca."

"Aye, sir."

He beckoned to the warrior monks who had accompanied him from Bevelle. "I need three of you to accompany us to the village. Sergeant Durren, you know some healing arts, yes? The rest of you, remain here and tend the dead."

The chorus of "Yes, Your Grace," was ragged, but more than one of Kiyuri's crew looked relieved. After exchanging Yevon's bow with those staying behind, Isaaru's party plunged into the jungle.

It was slow going, even with Auron's sword. He hewed through limbs and fallen trunks as easily as necks of fiends. Trees snapped by gale-force winds barred the path like obstacles in a particularly aggravating Cloister of Trials. Sinscales, too, had multiplied during the week since the attack, and Pacce had plenty of chances to observe his hero in action and test his recent training. It was nearly mid-day before they reached the village outskirts.

They halted outside the uprooted stockade to survey the damage. Sir Auron stood a little apart from the others, leaning on his sword and gazing impassively towards the stumps of columns on a stone platform on the far side of the village.

"Like Operation Mi'ihen," Maroda said.

Pacce had gone pale. "Or the Ronso," he choked. Isaaru set a hand on his shoulder.

Before them was a paved square surrounded by rings of damp, burnt timbers: the foundations of the few huts spared by the rising tide. Cables of kelp were snarled around the stumps of nearby trees. A row of fresh graves under palm fronds lined one side of the square. Auron had even buried what was left of the dog.

Stupid, happy dog. It had once brought Yuna a slobbery, drool-drenched gift that had turned out to be a cloth book on Besaid Temple's aeon. Yuna and Lulu had spent the rest of the afternoon poring over moldy pages, trying to untangle an obscure passage that promised to unlock the aeon's sleeping powers in a new devastating attack. In his mind's eye, Auron could see the pair of young women sitting in the shade of the temple with their heads together, summoner and guardian finishing each other's sentences in low voices punctuated by fleeting laughter. It was a glimpse of their old life, the one they had left behind when friend became guardian, following Yuna to her death.

Here, ten years before her pilgrimage, Yuna's father Braska uttered the words that had unwittingly joined their fate.

"Auron. When this is over...could you bring Yuna here? I want her to lead a life far away from this conflict."

Little had they known.

You shouldn't have chosen a place with a temple, my lord.

There was no temple now.

Isaaru halted at the foot of cracked steps and stared. "What force of machina or nature could do such a thing?"

The brunt of the maelstrom's fury seemed to have been unleashed against the temple. Huge blocks of stone were scattered over a wide area, some of them flung into the crowns of distant trees. Mosaic floors were laid bare to the sky; some parts had melted and fused into a glassy, blackened mass. Here and there, spears of palm-leaves and ceramic tiles had embedded themselves in stone blocks as easily as harpoons into blubber. The rear of the temple platform had collapsed, revealing the maze of the Cloister of Trials hidden beneath. At the far end was a smoking crater where the Chamber of the Fayth had been.

"So that is why," Isaaru sighed.

Sir Auron raised an eyebrow. "The aeon?"

"I tried to summon her yesterday, when our vessel was attacked. I could not reach her."

"Interesting."

"Interesting?" Isaaru took a few steps towards the cloister's rubble-choked stairwell. "It is rather more than that, when a fayth is lost. I shall not forget her. She was a girl of uncommon courage, much like Lady Yuna. She had lost her whole family, but rather than yielding to despair, she joyously offered her soul to Yevon so that others might not suffer."

Auron gave a noncommittal grunt. "And now she can rest."

"I hope Sin's not getting smarter," Maroda said. "That's the last thing we need."

"Hey, look at this!" Pacce called. "Lady Yuna's safe!"

Auron grimaced, although he knew what the boy meant.

Gazing down from the retaining wall, they saw Pacce on the hillside below, where Yuna's statue had miraculously landed on its base intact. The others hurried over to peer up at the slender, dancing figure, around whose shoulders a few tattered garlands still fluttered. Frozen in stone, the youngest High Summoner twirled on the slopes of her childhood home with staff held high.

"It's a sign!" Pacce said, hopping exuberantly.

Isaaru smiled. "You may be right, Pacce."

"Yes, but of what?" Maroda said.

Isaaru knelt before Yuna's statue and cupped his hands above and below his heart in Yevon's prayer. He remained motionless for several minutes. Finally he arose and turned to Sir Auron. "An overdue apology. When last we met, it was my sad duty to carry out Yevon's orders for Lady Yuna's execution. I have never been more gratified by my own failure. But I never had the chance to beg her forgiveness before she was gone, saving a world that had turned its back upon her." He bowed low. "I owe you an apology as well, Sir Auron."

Auron shrugged. "What do you intend to do?"

"We must bring tidings back to Bevelle. I shall discuss the matter with my fellow maesters. Along the way..." He gave a sidelong glance to Maroda. "Sir Auron, after Lady Yuna defeated me, you told me that my pilgrimage was over. I fear I must once again ignore your counsel. Yet I would be honored if—"

"Fine," said the legendary guardian. "Let's go."

Chapter Text


FFX Auron Fanart: The Empty Cradle


The sea-breeze buffeting the headland had faded. The air felt pinched and still, as if Sin's passing had peeled away part of the atmosphere. In the village square, smoke-trails spiralled upwards in straight columns. The torches' blue flames barely flickered. In ones and twos, drifting pyreflies chased the smoke like furtive children stealing out after curfew to play in the fiend-haunted jungle.

Below, guardians and monks kept vigil while Isaaru circled the graves, his solemn gestures a restrained echo of Lady Yuna's whirling dance. Maroda watched intently, but for less than pious reasons: he had noticed his brother's knit brows and taut face. The summoner was waging an inner battle far from his guardians' aid. At last, Isaaru halted and sagged. Maroda started towards him.

The maester waved him off. "It is done. They are free." He nodded to the monks, who bowed and fanned out to clear away the trappings of ritual.

"Leave the torches," Sir Auron called from the temple platform, keeping watch. "We'll need them tonight."

"What?" Pacce said. "But if we hurry, we can reach the beach by sunset!"

Maroda raised his eyes to the sun setting beyond the snaggle-toothed roof of the jungle. "If we hurry, we could run straight into the jaws of fiends," he said. "Sir Auron's right. We don't want to get caught in the forest after nightfall. Don't worry. The ship's not going to leave without us."

"I'm sorry, Pacce," said Isaaru. "I've put us in some peril in order to perform a proper sending. But I have faith in my guardians." He winked. "It's like old times together, no?"

Pacce managed a strained grin. "Yeah. I suppose."

"Come on," Maroda said. "There's cots and mats in the Crusader lodge we might be able to salvage. We can spread them out by the campfire—"

"Out in the open where nothing can sneak up on us. Right."

Isaaru sank onto a block of stone, observing the give and take between his brothers that was almost on equal footing now. It would have to be. Their last pilgrimage had been sheer folly: Pacce had been a child, Maroda a hot-headed young man with more guts than training; Isaaru, too, had been green and naive. Yuna's sacrifice had saved them from an unhappy and futile end. He closed his eyes in a silent prayer of thanks to the High Summoner.

Gravel crunched nearby. "A hard sending," Auron said at his shoulder.

"Indeed. The only spirits clinging to their bodies after so many days are those who don't want to leave: and they are bitter, stubborn or in pain. But we were in time for a few."

"Maester thirteen years, yet you still think like a priest," Auron said. "All Spira needs you. You may not have the luxury of saving a few."

"Perhaps not." Absently he reached for the bone pendant tickling his skin under the stiff collar of his robes. "But I think High Summoner Yuna would have done the same."

"Yuna made mistakes."

"As have I," Isaaru said. "I trust, Sir Auron, you will share with us what you know of the journey ahead, so that I may avoid other mistakes."

"You're awfully quick to trust."

"Yes and no." The maester gave him an odd smile. "I wonder, Sir Auron, if you are still a traitor to Yevon. If so, I should like to know what you make of this." He drew the necklace over his head and cupped it carefully, shielding it from the view of the nearby monks.

Auron arched an eyebrow. "An odd talisman for a maester of Yevon."

"It belonged to a sailor on the ship that brought us here. I believe he carved it from memory. He had encountered Sin at sea. Do you recognize the image?"

"May I see it?" Auron always sounded gruff, but there was a strain in his tone that Isaaru noted and filed away. He placed the delicate triangle of bone in the man's gloved hand, watching him closely.

After a moment, the guardian shrugged. "Another of Sin's victims, no doubt."

"You think so?" Isaaru lowered his voice. Pacce and Maroda had returned, and were arranging cots and mats in a semicircle nearby. "There are those who call Sin The Lady now, and hold her in greater awe than Yevon. Sin's cult is growing. They thank her for the good harvests these last few years, for the gardens of Djose and the rains on Bikanel. Those who breathe Sin's toxin see this face... say she is Sin. They steadfastly maintain that Sin is a woman, a siren of deadly beauty. Yet according to other sightings, Sin appears the same as ever, a terrifying behemoth covered in loathsome scales. Who is she?"

"Sin." Auron's fingers closed loosely around the image, forming a cage.

Isaaru waited for the man to go on, but the stones of the ruined temple would probably speak sooner. The warrior's attention seemed fixed on the simple token.

"Ah." The maester leaned forward. "Then...who was she?"

Auron raised his head and squinted towards the jungle. For a moment Isaaru thought the guardian was still ignoring him. Then he felt it: the earth was shuddering. Before Isaaru could frame a question, the pulse crossed hearing's threshold, and from the heart of the forest came a tramping, splintering sound of trees groaning and breaking. Something massive was churning through storm-tossed trunks. There was a sliding crash as a whole bank of broken tree-tops, upheld only by a snarl of limbs and thick vines, gave way at the crest of the hill. The jungle canopy tossed and thrashed in the path of something unseen. Limbs and leaves began raining down from the eaves.

"Durren!" Isaaru called, rising to his feet. "Get back! Come away from the trees!"

His monks had laid aside their gear and reached for their rifles— one innovation of his predecessors that he had not set aside— and were lining up at the edge of the village clearing.

Sir Auron jammed the necklace into his belt and marched towards them with a terse, "Don't summon yet."

Pacce and Maroda dropped what they were carrying and snatched up their weapons, jogging towards Auron. "What've we got?" Maroda said.

A rattle of gunfire broke out as the monks fell back. The nearest trees gave way and fell outward with splintering crashes as a hulking form lurched into view. Branches and vines trailed from the iron giant's joints. It reached the stupefied monks in four strides. A huge blade flashed in the dusk. Guns clattered to the ground as three torsos jerked and fell sideways like heads of grain.

Isaaru cried aloud in anguish, but his guardians took no notice, converging on the foe from three points. Maroda's spear glanced off with a clang. Pacce lunged beneath another scything stroke. Sir Auron, slower, caught the brunt of it. Somehow his hauberk held: he skidded backwards across the flagstones and fell to his knees, parrying the blow with his sword braced before him. He barked something, but his words were drowned out by the ring of battle. Maroda and Pacce darted in and out, harrying the creature while Auron hammered at its knees. Yellow sparks flew from the older guardian's blade. Suddenly all three broke and ran for the cover of the woods. The behemoth roared and swung around, stomping after them.

Praying he had understood, Isaaru pointed his staff at the sky, gathering himself for the most difficult of summons. Green fire leapt from his shoulders. He felt a breath of benison on his upraised cheeks as the amber-streaked heavens split open, seared by a mighty star plummeting through glyphs etched in living light. The ground quaked again as Bevelle's aeon alighted with a roar, great wings beating the air as it lunged towards the fray. Spathi, youngest and eldest, a child taken captive from Zanarkand who might have become the greatest summoner of all had he not been bound: he never failed to make Isaaru feel like a child before him.

This aeon could dwarf a giant. There was no contest between the two, with Auron's gift for turning armor to eggshells. Ancient plates buckled under Spathi's massive fists. Curlers of rising steam turned abruptly to a shimmer of pyreflies as the iron giant toppled backwards and hit the ground with a final teeth-jarring concussion. Spathi roared in victory and hurtled upwards, swiftly vanishing from sight.

Isaaru made his way wearily towards the sad remains of the monks. Maroda and Pacce emerged from the wreckage at the forest's edge and stumbled towards him.

"We're fine," Maroda said, answering his keen glance.

"Speak for yourself—" Pacce said, and stopped short.

"It should not have been here," Isaaru said, barely able to hear his own voice after the deafening din. "Do you remember? We fought such creatures on the Thunder Plains." He shook his head and stooped over the bodies, stomach clenching at the puddle of warm blood seeping into his shoes. "Forgive me, old friend." He closed the monk's eyes and moved to the next corpse, barely registering Maroda's hand clamping onto his elbow to steady him.

Out of the corner of his eye he noted the tears dribbling down Pacce's grimy cheeks. Usually he had sure words of comfort to bolster the youth's bright spirit, but now that well was dry.

Durren had been a fine tutor.

One more summoning. One more sending. Spira's next Calm could not come too soon.

I'm too old for this.

Auron tasted blood and irony on his lips as he lowered himself with a grunt onto a leaf-plastered bench set in a clearing well back among the trees. Dimly he registered the struts and shredded canvas of a ruined hut looming behind and partially overhead. Drawing a small flask from the inner pocket of his coat, he pulled the cork with his teeth and spat, then drank deeply. The cool potion slid down his throat.

Auron sagged as the stabbing ache of a cracked rib subsided. He allowed himself a fleeting memory of this place, glancing up and filling the shadows above with curved beams and a dome of tapestries backlit by moonlight. Below, the blush of candlelight played across Lulu's shoulder-blades where the witch lay draped in casual elegance across a surprisingly plain bed. The scent of the damp jungle and the dried bundles of herbs and spell-components hanging from the ceiling mingled with the musky hint of a perfume he had despised for the first half of the pilgrimage. He remembered the murmur of her voice rising and falling as she read to him the tale of two pagan gods that a follower of Yevon ought not to know. Despite the title, it had not provided many clues for their sigil-quest.

"And Venus born of sea-foam renewed her virginity each year—"

"Some trick."

"—bathing in the waves by the grotto where first she had come ashore. There he waited for her, and for one night only war was in abeyance. For then did Mars put off his shield and panoply to help her renew her womanhood."

"Not much use in the bath, then."

She opened her hand, and the scroll rolled itself shut with a crack. "We should be heading back."

"I thought you said you'd burn through the hull of the airship if you were cooped up in that machina one more night."

"Yes, but your thick skull is starting to look tempting."

"My skull?"

Lulu's languid laughter had always been more dangerous than her barbs. "Among other things."

A slithering rustle in the underbrush drew Auron's mind back to the present. The jungle darkened as the vision faded away. He'd taken more than enough time for ribs to knit. Lifting his sword and laying it across his knees, he ran gloved fingertips along the edge, finding a few notches. There was no nimble-fingered Al Bhed to sharpen it for him tonight.

"Sir Auron?" Pacce's anxious calls filtered back through the trees. The summoner must have finished the sending. Heaving himself to his feet, Auron started back towards the village.

Something snapped under his boots when he stood up. He looked down. Peering through the gloom, he could just make out the broken bones of a wicker cradle. Someone else must have moved into Lulu's old home when she did not return.

Auron knelt, fishing the sailor's charm out of his belt. He stared at the face of bone gleaming in the darkness. After a moment's hesitation, he draped the necklace over the barren cradle's shell with care, rose quickly and stalked away.

Chapter Text

"You have my thanks. And Lady Yuna's as well, you may be sure. May she guide our path and shield us from Sin's fury. For now we sail... to Kilika!" The maester raised his hands and drew them together in Yevon's sign with a graceful bow.

There was a ragged cheer from the sailors and monks gathered at the waterline. They scattered at once to make ready the rowboats, even before the torches had reverted from blue to orange. It was disrespectful to the dead, but Isaaru did not begrudge their eagerness to quit this marred island paradise. 

They had worked hard. The beach was swept clean, and they had even washed down treetrunks and leaves to remove clinging ash. Brightly-colored prayer flags— many of them products of Besaid's famous weavers— fluttered on poles thrust into the sand. The ocean sparkled under a fierce noonday sun, masking the last few pyreflies drifting up from submerged coffins jostling on beds of coral. Besaid's harbor had been too choked with flotsam to use for the sending, but they had ferried the dead around to a more sheltered cove.

"Will somebody rebuild here, do you think?" Pacce asked Maroda as they headed for the rowboats.

"In the next Calm, maybe," Maroda said. "Not before."

Both looked to their brother, but Isaaru seemed to have missed the exchange, although he walked between them. Wordlessly they held a boat steady for him to board, then helped the sailors drag it down into the water until the stern floated free.

"Hey," Pacce said, tumbling into his own seat, "Where's Sir Auron?"

"For a guardian, he sure doesn't seem to guard much," Maroda muttered.

Isaaru smiled. A commanding figure was just striding out from the edge of the trees. Sir Auron sloshed out to them and stepped into the bow without breaking stride. 

"No sign of Sin," he said. "We should have clear running tonight, although it may be another story in Kilika."

Captain Kiyuri, taking her place at the rudder, shot Auron a jaundiced stare over the backs of the rowers that told plainly what she thought of the legendary hero: landlubber.

It was a subdued company that ferried the maester and his guardians back to the ship. Isaaru had not spoken a word since his speech. He sat with chin lowered, gripping the sides and swaying jerkily as if struggling to match the rhythm of the swells. Halfway across the open water, Kiyuri ventured a soft, "Are you all right, my lord?" barely audible above the chop of the oars.

"My heart is heavy, Captain." He turned in his seat with a well-honed smile. "But I am also pleased. The dead of Besaid will rest easily, and we have gathered much that should assist my pilgrimage. Our trip was not in vain."

"We have?" Maroda mouthed behind him. 

"Yeah, and we've got Sir Auron, now!" Pacce said.

"Yes, Pacce." The maester glanced at the man's broad back and shoulders, wrapped as usual in his imposing red coat. "Ah, that reminds me. Captain, no need to hoist my sigil. In fact, if you can, fly no symbol of Yevon at all."

"My lord?" Kiyuri's voice rose in astonishment. "But it is an honor to convey the Grand Maester, and ill luck to sail without Yevon's blessing!"

"Yevon's blessing you will have, Kiyuri, so far as it is in my power to grant it," Isaaru said. "But your crew has faced perils and sorrows enough. If Sin's wrath is truly roused against Yevon, then I shall not needlessly endanger them. Yevon will bring Sin to account, but that battle is for summoners and guardians, not ordinary sailors and soldiers."

There was a faint humph from Sir Auron. Maroda's somber nod conveyed more: thirteen years gone, the ghosts of Operation Mi'ihen still haunted all the maesters who had witnessed that bloody debacle.

"Aye, sir." Kiyuri braced her elbow against the tiller to give Yevon's prayer. "And thank you."

Back aboard the SS Konna, Isaaru remained on deck just long enough to make sure that the sails had been changed to plain canvas sheets from the ship's stores. Then, yielding to Maroda's urging, he retired to his cabin.

"For I am weary," Isaaru admitted. "Five sendings in three days is a record I hope never to repeat."

Freed from duties for a while, Pacce joined Sir Auron on the observation deck. The veteran guardian acknowledged him with a spare nod. Side by side they watched Besaid shrink and fade into the blue haze. 

Tongue-tied, it took Pacce some while to muster up his courage. "Sir Auron? Do you think Sin is after Isaaru?"

"Not directly," Auron said. "Or not yet. But Isaaru's guess is correct. Sin is targeting Yevon."

"Wow," Pacce said. "I didn't know it could think."

Auron snorted.

Pacce folded his arms along the railing and rested his chin on his forearms. "I don't get it," he said. "Sin's the punishment for our sins, right? Isaaru says that good deeds can balance lack of faith, so we shouldn't blame Sin's return on the heathens, but still— why does Sin leave the Al Bhed alone and attack us? Shouldn't it be the other way around?"

"Yevon directly opposes Sin," Auron reminded him. "The Al Bhed avoid it."

"Huh." Pacce ran a hand through his hair, leaving it flattened on one side and straight up on the other like a half-mowed field. Wrestling with Yevon's teachings and coming no closer to a solution, he gave up and changed tack. "So, um...what happened to Lady Yuna's other guardians, anyway? Is Sir Tidus still alive?"

"No." His voice held a painful note of finality.

"Aw, man." The boy drooped. "I liked him. He was cool."

Auron added with more gentleness than was his habit: "He died protecting the woman he loved." It was a platitude, but Pacce looked young enough to notice romance more than stupidity.

"The Final Summoning, huh?" 

"Seymour," Auron growled.

"Maester Seymour? Wasn't he...unsent? Though I guess Maester Mika was, too." Pacce's round face blanched at a memory. "You got rid of Seymour finally, right? Lady Yuna sent him?"

"Yes." So much could be packed into one brittle word: a summoner's tears, the death of hope, a holy fury that had reduced Auron's last bellowing charge against his betrayer to a mere squeak. Lulu must have been proud of Yuna, through the teeth of her own bitter rage. They had all come to love Tidus, each in their own way.

"And the others?" Pacce said. "The other guardians?"

Auron grimaced. "I never found a trace."

"Damn." The younger guardian kicked at the deck-boards. "I'm sorry."

Auron roused himself, focusing on the young man beside him. "I didn't see them fall, Pacce. Yuna's last command was for us to stay back when she performed the Final Summoning. I didn't listen, and nearly paid the price. If they obeyed, there's a good chance they're still alive." There. A vital lesson. It was partly a lie, since Kimahri had refused to leave Yuna's side and perished in the blast. But Auron's task now was to prepare new guardians for their own pilgrimage, not brood over the last one. There was one other matter of ancient history, however, that Auron could not leave unexamined.

"Pacce," Auron said. "What happened to Mika?"

"Oh!" The youth's round cheeks reddened. "Grand Maester Mika? He, uh...Didn't you hear the proclamations? Maybe you were still coming back from your pilgrimage. He died. Isaaru said his heart gave out when he learned how Seymour had murdered the other maesters and the Ronso."

"Hmph." The white-haired guardian stroked his chin, eyes suddenly narrowing. "Was that before or after your brother was appointed maester?"

"After...no, before, I think." Pacce ducked his eyes. "I'm sorry, sir; I don't really understand everything that happened back then. I was just a kid. You should ask Isaaru or Maroda about it."

Auron nodded minutely, preoccupied.

Fidgeting, Pacce abandoned the railing and pulled himself up in a self-conscious salute. "Well. Speaking of Isaaru, I'd better go check on him. It was, uh, nice talking to you, Sir Auron!" 

Hurrying forward, Pacce failed to notice Maroda lurking behind the mast until an arm shot out to check him. "Isaaru's asleep," Maroda said in a low voice. "Pacce, did Sir Auron say anything about how he got to Besaid?"

Pacce shook his head. "I didn't ask."

"Or why he knew Sin was coming?"

"Not really." The youth raised his eyes, troubled. "You don't trust him, do you?"

Maroda gave his shoulder a firm squeeze. "Don't worry about it. Just...be careful. I know he's Sir Auron, and Isaaru wanted him as guardian. But he's not telling us everything." 

"Yeah, well." Pacce shot a guilty grin over his shoulder. "Who does?"

A clear, star-drenched night sent the SS Konna flying on the wings of a pure, cold wind that blew them towards sunrise. Only a few wisps of haze hung in the southwest. A lacelike curtain of lightning had flickered and danced there for an hour or so, but it had faded away before dawn.

By mid morning, Kilika's green spur was rising out of the sea like a prow against the burnished sky. White gulls flew out to escort them. A few leagues out from land, the Konna passed through a necklace of fishing boats floating in a wide arc where the ocean changed from jade to blue. Fishermen dropped nets to gawk and wave, hailing her with cries of welcome and wonder. The stately three-masted vessel dwarfed any ferry that had plied these waters in living memory.

Isaaru and his guardians joined the captain in the wheelhouse to discuss plans for the brief layover.

"We only need to re-water," Kiyuri was saying. "But I wouldn't mind a few hours to inspect the hull. There's a slow leak somewhere; the hold's damp."

"Very good," Isaaru said. "Meanwhile, my guardians and I will pay our respects at the temple."

"Wait, are you serious?" Pacce said. "A leak? That's not good!"

"You'll find the same in any old ship, boy," said the captain, giving the cabin wall a sturdy rap. "We're not going down, don't worry."

As if in response, there was a hollow boom underfoot more felt than heard, and the ship gave a disquieting lurch. All the lanterns suspended from the ceiling swung slowly to one side. Compartments and trunks rattled. On the upper deck, the ship's bell began to clang wildly. 

"Sin," Auron said. Outside, sailors began taking up the cry.

Kiyuri swore and lunged for the door, flinging it open just as a huge wall of spray crashed over the deck and blasted into the wheelhouse, knocking her back into Maroda's arms. She jammed an elbow in his gut to extricate herself. "Well, don't just stand there, man; defend the ship!"

"Stay here," he said, setting the woman on her feet and grabbing a harpoon from the wall; he'd left his spear in his cabin. "Pacce, come on!"

Following them grimly, Isaaru and Auron stepped out into all-too-familiar chaos. The ship was heeled over at a terrifying angle. Towering waves broke over the rails. A seething tide of snapping sinspawn had spilled across the deck, covering it with squat hard-shelled creatures armed with jagged, crablike claws. They darted and caromed off curbs and walls, tearing into the legs and limbs of anyone who held their ground. Sailors who let go of ropes and spars to dodge them risked being swept overboard.

The three guardians waded into the fray, clearing a swath through the swarm. Auron took point, whirling his sword in a great figure eight and hammering tough shells until they cracked and split in a shower of sparks. Maroda and Pacce closed ranks behind him to skewer and hack the weakened fiends to pieces.

"Above you!" Isaaru cried, following in their wake as he sought a clear space to summon. Pacce skidded to a crouch and stared upwards, aghast. A small fishing boat, raised on high by the surge, hung suspended at the level of the mast-head for a surreal moment before plunging down, down, smashing full force upon the deck. The trio scattered, barely leaping clear of the wreckage in time.

Before they could regroup, a few gunshots rang out from the upper deck in an anemic salvo. Either most of the warrior monks had been swept away, or their rifles had been damaged by seawater. There was no time to find out. Just off the starboard bow, the white curtain of water had parted to reveal a looming wall of scabrous gray flesh, the body of Sin itself driving on a course nearly parallel to their own. Its vast shadow blotted out the sun.

"It's heading for Kilika," Maroda shouted.

"I have to turn it," said Isaaru. He seized a metal cleat bolted to the mast, bracing against another deluge.

"But that'll bring Sin back on us!" Pacce cried. He still had his hands full with sinspawn, pouncing on one of the crab-creatures to drag a sailor out from under it.

"No good." Auron's black blade sliced through its arms at the joints. "Your aeons are too weak." 

The bulk of Sin had nearly passed. The ship quivered and groaned with a long, rattling vibration as Sin's pitted hide scraped against the hull. They could hear Kiyuri's foghorn voice bellowing orders in the wheelhouse.

"I won't let Kilika follow Besaid," Isaaru said, raising his hands to begin his most potent summons.

"So be it." Auron banked his weapon across his shoulders, broke from the melee and charged towards the bow where the ship's sides drew together, sloping upwards in a steep ramp. The swordsman picked up speed, oblivious to the bucking of the ship.

"Sir Auron!" Pacce cried. He stared in horror as Auron barrelled towards the bowsprit and vaulted over it, vanishing into the surf. "He'll drown!"

Sunlight streamed through the curtain of water off the bow. Sin had passed them by. A ragged cheer went up as the spray cleared. Sir Auron, a tiny red figure against the sky, was climbing a horny peak of scale and bone. He held his sword above his head, fending off sinspawn tumbling down on him from above. Abruptly he dropped to his knees, raised the blade high and slammed it downwards, crying out a name.

The mountain convulsed beneath him. Huge green waves rolled forward off the sloping snout. Sin's forward momentum abruptly slowed. 

For a moment a collision seemed certain, but the captain's orders had come just in time. The ship canted in a steep turn. One of the rowboats hanging over the side was sheared off and tumbled into the frothing sea, but the Konna staggered clear of Sin's mass and rode out the swells beyond it, righting herself with a final heave. Her crew saw the green surge racing ahead of them to crash over Kilika's high stone seawall, built to shield the port against such assaults. Many of the fishing vessels were dashed against the breakwater, but the town was spared the brunt of the onslaught— for now. 

Sin halted. Vast and menacing, it loomed high above the 's main mast, brooding over the sprawling fishing port laid out on the water before it. A hive of gigantic round eyes roiled on Sin's brow below a shelf where spires and barbs bristled like a city's skyline. Human sight seemed to slide off Sin's sides. For an inexorable moment it seemed to gather itself for some cataclysmic assault that would vaporize everything in its path. Then, suddenly, the field burst. Bracing themselves for dissolution, the watchers found themselves bathed in a fine drizzle of warm, gentle rain, salty like tears. A shower of rose petals came whirling on the wind, sticking wetly to cheeks and hair, deck and masts and stays. A rainbow arched overhead.

Murmurs of The Lady rippled across the battered ship.

Sin was once more wreathed in a soft cascading mist. Above it reared a wavering vision familiar from temple portraits, yet on a far grander scale. High Summoner Yuna danced on a flowerlike pillar of water, whirling and dipping with her staff to paint ribbons of pyreflies on the wind. Higher and higher she spun, hypnotic, dreamlike, achingly joyful: an image of innocence so pure it burned the soul as the sun seared the eyes. At the apex of her dance, there was a burning flash and a rumble. A bolt of flames— no, not a mere bolt, a massive meteor of balefire shedding embers the size of bombs— carved a blinding path overhead, stabbing towards Kilika's highest point. A fireball mushroomed up over the tops of the trees in eerie silence.

Isaaru gasped and clenched a hand over his heart, sagging against the mast. "Grothia..."

Boom. The sound of distant devastation buffeted their ears many seconds later.

With a mighty inrush of water and a mournful wail at the edge of hearing, Sin sank beneath the waves and vanished, leaving only a vast drift of rose petals bobbing on the surface of the sea to mark where it had been.

Of Auron, there was no sign.

Chapter Text

Auron slogged through darkness. He felt the lash of bitter rain against his skin like tiny sullen barbs, warning him to keep his distance. Now and again lightning flickered, but never long enough to show him what kind of landscape this dream-world might be. He felt parched despite the rain, and his feet and limbs were numb with cold. At last, after he had forgotten what time and distance meant, he found a leaping wall of flame barring his path. He braced himself for the searing heat and pushed through.


On the far side of this barrier, darkness took on clarity and shape. It was the black and silver of moonlight, wisps of cloud and patches of night sky overhead where stars glittered. At his back was a whispering jungle, shimmering with crickets and the distant cries of fiends. Its lush, fiercely alive scents nearly smothered him. Before him lay a placid harbor, gentle flecks of crested waves rising and falling like a woman's breast in sleep.

Sensing his destination now, he kicked through sand towards the breakers beyond the point where seaweed flexed over rocks jutting out from shore. When the sand gave out, he waded into the warm saltwater. Water had never been his element, but it was Sin's, and it suited her now as much as fire's wrath, lightning's flash and icy disdain had suited her before.

There. A glimmer of white. Easing himself over the sharp edges of shells, he pulled up short, arrested by the same vision that had spawned a cult. Familiarity was no defense.

Lulu lay back against the rocks and purple seaweed with regal indolence, black braids swirling around her waist each time a wave lapped over her. Fishnets still clung to her legs, but that was all she wore. No, not quite all. Her hands were cupped behind her head, but manacles bound her wrists, discreetly hidden by hair. She was chained to the rocks.

He stood gazing too long, apparently. A stinging smack of seawater drenched him, burning his eyes with salt. "Yevon has me still," Lulu warned. "And you, I suppose. You never meant to stay."

He shrugged. "I made a promise."

"Another chain."

For a moment he was not certain whether he still had his sword— Sin's dream was a haphazard slice of reality— but then he felt its reassuring weight. Bracing himself for the downward stroke, he raised it slowly, inexorably, like a guillotine's indrawn breath. Lulu, watching him, did not flinch. The blade dropped. There was a bone-jarring clang. Sparks flew from the chains, but it was the sword's edge that came away notched.

"Yu Yevon has me," she said again. "I am nearly his now. I've fought him for so long, Auron. He rides anger so easily." For a moment, an image of Yuna was dancing on the crest of a nearby wave. Then she tumbled beneath it, lost from view. It was hard to see in the moonlight, but the damp sand left behind by retreating waves was now stained red.

"Yes, I knew all their names," she said, eyes remote. "Even the infant's."

"You make a good Sin."

That set off a ripple of laughter, enough to set the waves sparkling under the moon. "Of course," she said with a hint of professional pride. Then the haughty smirk faded, and the moon withdrew behind a cloud. "Thank you for stopping me, this time."

"You stopped yourself."

"No." The mage shook her head, chains clanking faintly as she flicked a hand dismissively towards herself. "There's just one way I've found to keep Yu Yevon out of my mind for a while. One way...and it is a momentary diversion at most." Her lips twisted in a faint smile, self-deprecating, coolly amused. "None of them are you."

With a wrench it came whirling back to him, those nights late in the pilgrimage when weariness and delay were eating at his mind, threatening to unravel him with the transition to fiend that all unsent must undergo soon or late. She had helped him keep the madness at bay with a different kind of abandon.

He gave a soft snort. For Lulu, even the arts of Venus were a weapon.

Even now he sensed the siren's allure of her presence like the tug of the moon on the tides— dream though this was, and both their bodies a lie meant to fool the living. Stooping, he wedged the black sword in a bank of mussels, then lowered himself into the tidepool and dropped to one knee, gathering her face in his hands.

She greeted him with a profoundly private, delicate, almost reverent kiss, like those she used to give his ruined eye the few times he'd let her touch it; yet the merest graze of her lips now threatened to drag him under and drown him on the spot. Perhaps he waited a little longer than necessary for her lids to droop and her breathing to quicken. The wind picked up, driving flecks of foam against his face and bare arm. Reluctantly he pulled away, caressing her cheek. Even that seemed to sear his skin right through the glove.

"Sorry," he said. "No time for worship. Lulu, I must know: why is Yu Yevon freeing the fayth?"

Sir Auron! Abruptly a voice from a different life cut shrilly through the timeless music of lapping waves and surf, transgressing Sin's inner sanctum. Please, sir, wake up!

The dream-world rippled, shattered in spreading rings, and smoothed out again.

"Isn't it obvious?" she said. "Yuna and I, and you and Kimahri, we came very near to destroying Yu Yevon. The pilgrimage has become a threat."

Auron frowned. Something was inside out. For a moment he could not place it, until he realized that they were no longer seeing eye to eye, his left mirrored by her right. The sweep of black hair covered the wrong side of her face. He reached out to brush the black curtain aside. When it fell back, her face had reversed from left to right beneath his touch.

"You know," she whispered urgently. "Yu Yevon thinks he knows."

"Sir Auron!" The braying summons came again. Auron abruptly felt himself fighting for air, choking, straining to hold the fabric of the dream around himself like a fraying cloak. The sea hissed angrily. Lightning tracers scurried across the sky. Her braids coiled around his arms, his legs, his chest and throat, spilling into his lungs. Mine, mine, the surf seemed to snarl. His vision went from half to none. It felt like a crew of Al Bhed was nailing his brain to the inside if his skull.

Then smooth arms were lifting him towards the surface as gently as jungle fronds reaching for the sun. Sharp concern washed over him in a fading echo. "Go. Hurry. Be. Look for me in my garden, Auron; we'll talk later."

And the dream tore.

Chapter Text


It wasn't every day that the dead returned to the light of day to find themselves drowning.

That was Auron's second thought. The first— no, not a thought, just instinct— was to punch the dark figure crouched over him, compressing his chest with deep thrusts accompanied by a crackling, gurgling noise that he failed to recognize as the sound of his own lungs. The water gushing out of his nose and mouth should have been a clue, but Auron's skull was still pounding like Luca Stadium. Luckily, the second thought made him chuckle, and that triggered a gut-wracking fit of coughing that kept him occupied until he had reclassified Maroda as a non-target. He clamped onto the man's wrist and pushed him away. "Enough."

"Whew!" Pacce's moon-face hovered into view. "You all right now, sir?"

That voice. Still half-drowned by dream, Auron transferred his grip to Pacce's collar. "Where is she?"

"Oh, great," said Maroda. "Sin's toxin." He sat back on his heels, glaring. "Hands off, or I'm throwing you back where I found you."

"Sorry." Releasing the boy, Auron turned away and squinted towards the ocean, resting on his side until another fit of coughing had passed.

"Were you trying to rescue somebody?" Pacce said, standing to scan the harbor.

There was still a harbor. Auron lay on a sloping shelf of rocks hemming the shore. To his right a sturdy causeway extended out to the village and marina. Quivering puddles gleamed on plank walkways. Wails from the nearest hut told of broken bodies on the breakwater, fishermen who had gone out each day to feed their families, setting themselves on Sin's altar as daily offerings. Pyreflies were spiralling up from the hut's smoke-hole. But the harbor was clear, apart from a few listing boats and the imposing mass of the S.S. Konna moored to the end of the main pier. Murmuring locals clustered in scattered knots along the docks, huddled together like restive gulls driven ashore by the outriders of a storm. There would be more sendings today, but the village had been spared obliteration.

You're welcome, Lulu.

"Sir?" Pacce prodded. "Do you want us to help look for her?"

Sitting up and squinting, Auron searched the strip of ocean visible beyond the seawall. Sparkling blue sped off to the horizon without the faintest scar to mark Sin's passage.

"No," he said. "She's gone."

"Oh." Blinking back tears, Pacce bowed in Yevon's prayer for some imagined damsel in distress.

Fighting the weight of his waterlogged coat, Auron hoisted himself to his feet and grunted at Maroda. "Thanks."

"Sure thing." The dark man grinned and got up, loping over to the end of the causeway to retrieve his spear propped against the pilings. "Just don't make a habit of it, man. I thought I was going to need a winch."

"I can't believe you jumped overboard with your sword and armor," Pacce said. "Weren't you afraid they'd pull you down?"

Auron shrugged. "Didn't matter. I can't swim."

"Correction," Maroda said, raising his voice. "It's not Sin's toxin. He's just crazy."

"Pilgrimage entails a certain degree of folly," Isaaru said, walking towards them from the hut where wails had given way to poignant silence. A pair of warrior monks marched behind. Isaaru's face was haggard, but his summoner's smile was undimmed. "Sir Auron. The villagers have asked me to convey their utmost gratitude; they saw your fight from afar. Your courage has saved Kilika."

"Partly."

The summoner raised his eyes to the smoke billowing up from the heart of the jungle behind them. "Yes. If you are recovered, we must go to the temple at once. There may be survivors. If not, we can at least pay our respects."

"Is that a summoner's command, or a priest's?" Auron said. "Sin won't wait."

"No. But where it is now, Yevon only knows."

Auron grimaced and said nothing.

"Sir Auron?" Pacce said shyly. "You know where Sin's going next...don't you?"

"Djose." He fixed the maester with a level stare. "After that, probably Macalania and Bevelle."

"No!" Isaaru pressed a fist to his breastbone as if trying to staunch a wound. "The aeons...and thousands of people in Bevelle—"

"Now, wait just a minute!" Maroda burst out. "With all due respect, sir, it's about time you explained how you're able to predict Sin's movements."

"You said it yourself," Auron said, ignoring the spear angled towards him.

"Yes." Isaaru set his hand above Maroda's, silently commanding him to stand down. "Sin is growing smarter. She's making the pilgrimage ahead of us to prevent the Final Summoning, yes?"

Auron arched an eyebrow at his choice of pronouns. "Correct."

"So why'd Sin get so clever all of a sudden?" said Pacce.

"It's like someone's telling it where we're going," Maroda growled.

"Maroda, please." Isaaru raised his hand, warding off further debate. A delegation of villagers was trickling towards them along the causeway, led by an old man, a woman and several children. The little ones bore armloads of flowers, purple jungle blossoms and fuchsia interwoven with white rose petals. The straggling procession halted a few paces away and bowed in Yevon's prayer.

"Your Grace?" the woman said hesitantly. "My Lord Summoner?"

"Yes?"

"Welcome to Kilika," the old man said, flashing a snaggletoothed smile. "Though so far it's not been a welcome fit for a summoner, let alone the Grand Maester of Yevon. We'd like to make amends, my lord."

At his nod, the children tumbled over the side of the bridge and fanned out across the rocks, each one carrying a garland to Isaaru or one of his guardians. Isaaru bent, smiling, allowing one boy to hang a lei around his neck. "Even Sin cannot quench Kilikan hospitality."

"And we'd also like to welcome your guardians," the woman said. "Please accept these small tokens of thanks. Tomorrow will be a feast of thanksgiving. We hope you'll join us as guests of honor."

The youngest girl had taken too long in choosing a target and stood frozen, staring at the water dripping off the hem of Auron's sodden coat. He held out his hands. Mistaking the gesture, she scampered towards him with outstretched arms. He hesitated, expression inscrutable, then scooped her up and lifted her onto his shoulder. The urchin squealed and poked at his glasses. "He's old."

"Deir," the woman chided. "Please give Sir Auron his flowers."

Chastened, the girl hastened to drape the garland haphazardly around Auron's head, snagging it over one ear. She fussed for some time with the arrangement, trying it both outside and inside his collar before wrapping a few loops around the earpieces of his glasses and turning the garland into a wreath. His damp, salt-caked hair attracted her attention as well, and she gave it a thorough grooming with her fingers. Auron stood patiently until she was finished, then set her down with a gruff, "Thanks." A few nervous titters arose from nearby spectators.

Isaaru's lips twitched. Maroda tapped the end of his spear against a rock impatiently.

A woman's sneer drifted out to them from the curtain of vines fencing the jungle path. "Enjoying ourselves, are we?"

"Oh, great," Maroda muttered.

Dona stalked out into the sunlight and halted, propping a hand on her hip to survey the gathering. The former summoner appeared little changed, save that her summoner's ribbons were conspicuously absent. Her guardian Barthello blundered into the open behind her, acolyte's robes giving him the appearance of a badly-upholstered couch. He was smudged with soot.

"Barthello!" Pacce cried, taking an eager step towards the bulky man before remembering his post. Blushing, he altered course and planted himself by Isaaru.

"Lady Dona," Isaaru said with a courtly nod. Unruffled, he turned back to the villagers. "I and my guardians are honored and humbled by your generosity, people of Kilika: you're what makes a pilgrimage worth doing. I wish we could stay, but we can't rest until Sin is stopped. I'll send your fallen before we go. My warrior monks will remain here to tend the wounded and clear away sinspawn; they can follow on the ferry. Now, if you will excuse us—" He stooped to lift the smallest child back onto the causeway, ruffling her hair. "It seems that Lady Dona would like a few words with me."

"Your Grace," The woman bowed reverently.

"Come back when you've put Sin to rights, then!" the old man said brightly. "We'll have another feast. See he doesn't forget, eh, lads?" He winked at Pacce and Maroda.

"Uh." Maroda peered down at the village elder as if checking him for signs of toxin. "Right."

"Good lad." The old man gave him a sympathetic pat, then turned to help herd the children and spectators back towards the village. There were many warm and beaming smiles as they departed, but no one save the children and the codger would meet Isaaru's kindly gaze directly.

"You can save yourselves the trouble of a climb," Dona said. "There's nothing left."

"The priests?" Isaaru said. "The nuns?"

Dona shook her head. "We lost three and five— more, if this idiot hadn't decided to play hero." Barthello straightened and flexed. "The survivors are gathering what's left for sending. We'll be getting back to them after I've checked on things here. So what exactly happened?" She nodded towards the village. "Not as bad as I expected."

"Sir Auron was an idiot!" Pacce crowed. "He jumped on Sin's back and attacked it! He turned it away!"

Barthello's wooden face barely twitched, but his eyes shone. Auron gave a minute sigh.

"Must be getting senile," Dona said, eying the white-haired guardian skeptically. "Sin, that is. I assume this was after it blasted the temple into a molten crater."

"Before, actually," Maroda said.

"Hmph. Well, I suppose we should thank you, Sir Auron, although Isaaru's going to miss that aeon." She cocked her head at Isaaru. "Are you on pilgrimage, or do I need to come out of retirement?"

Barthello drew a step closer to her and gave Isaaru a pleading look.

"No." The maester smiled. "I trust that won't be necessary. Defend Kilika. I hope Sin will not trouble you again before I and my guardians have dealt with it."

"Thanks. Enjoy being Spira's new darling — not that you weren't already." For a moment she seemed at a loss, smirk covering a hint of worry or regret. Then she shook it away. "Come on, it looks like the village needs a few sendings. Why don't you boys play in the jungle while Isaaru and I finish up here." She snapped her fingers in dismissal at the four guardians, then stepped onto the causeway beside Isaaru. "Nice perk," she commented of his warrior monk escorts. "Maybe I should try for maester myself."

"Rumor has it there may soon be an opening," Isaaru said, offering his arm as they started back towards the village.

"Come on, Barthello!" Pacce said, clapping the giant on the shoulder. "Let's find Sir Auron a sword! Sin took his. You've got to see his killer armor breaking move!"

"I'll catch up with you all later," Maroda said. "One of us should guard Isaaru. Don't get hurt."

Chapter Text

A spectacular Kilikan sunset of amber and gold had painted a picture-perfect backdrop for the departure of Isaaru and his guardians, duly sphere-recorded by several spectators. The whole village had turned out to see them off. They had been escorted aboard with cheers, hymns, a refill of Auron's jug from Kulukan the pubmistress, and an unusually frank, "Good luck, Isaaru— sorry you're finally getting your chance," from Dona. Now they sailed north, muffled in a fog that seemed intent on blotting out the ship's lanterns, crew's voices, and any sign of a world beyond the ship's rails. The gates to the Farplane could hardly be more impenetrable.

Auron sat in the dank, gloomy night outside the door to Isaaru's cabin, sharpening the cast-off Crusader's blade that Pacce and Barthello had found for him. It had barely sufficed to cut through an ochu's hide. While that had given them a chance to show off to their idol, it might cost someone dearly in his next battle. He wondered if his old black sword was still lodged in Sin's skull.

Maroda slouched against the cabin wall on the other side of the door. The quiet, steady snick of the whetstone had been cutting the air between them for an hour, keeping awkward questions at bay. A delaying action at best, but it had given Auron time to prepare.

"So who was the wreath for?" Maroda said finally, breaking the unspoken armistice. Sir Auron had gone aft and cast the bedraggled garland overboard. The fog had swallowed it without a sound.

"A woman Sin killed on my last pilgrimage. She...mattered to me." Auron's former comrades would have been floored by the oblique admission. It irked him that a thirteen-year-secret could be so casually breached for the sake of tactics.

"Huh." Maroda's double-edged cordiality softened a notch. "Sorry, man. No offense, but you don't seem the type. Is she the one you were looking for today?"

"Yes." He grimaced. "I saw her in the water. Sin's toxin, perhaps."

"Well, we all saw somebody," Maroda said. "But to me it looked like High Summoner Yuna. I could almost believe that Sin was marking the anniversary of its own destruction."

"Could be."

Maroda exhaled explosively. "Okay, look, Isaaru may be as patient as a Hypello, but I'm not. You've been holding out on us. You know what we'll find in Zanarkand, but you won't say a damned thing. You've survived two pilgrimages, when as far as I know, all your fellow guardians and summoners are dead. You know where Sin's going. It spared you today, and I don't think that was the first time. Just what is Sin to you? Your ticket to fame? Your...pet?"

Auron smiled sourly. Maroda's gambit was a good one, but it was not the first time a guardian had tried to provoke him into spilling secrets. Of course, Lulu's technique had relied on finesse more than a spear's thrust, turning his oaths against him.

"So that's it? You're going to withhold every scrap of knowledge about Zanarkand, so you can play some game with Yuna's life? And Tidus' too— or is he party to your plan?"

"I promised their sires I'd protect them. They still have to find their own path."

"And wind up dead just like Lord Braska and Sir Jecht! Exactly where in the teachings is it written that summoners have to enter a fiends' den blindfolded?" In her desperation, Lulu had let slip a secret of her own. And yet her impotent cruelty had almost swayed him, for he guessed its source. She seemed too young to bear the weight of a dead summoner on her shoulders, but that night— just the second of their journey together, before she had come to matter — he had suddenly understood what anvil had forged the mage's twice-hammered steel.

"If I reveal what lies ahead, Yuna might turn back from the pilgrimage. But perhaps that's what you want." He, too, could wield words as a goad.

"What I want is not a matter for discussion. And there is nothing and no one in Spira that can convince Yuna to turn aside."

"I take it you tried?"

"For two years." The ache in the mage's voice echoed the one that had kept him this side of the Farplane.

Then he had slipped. Auron had not realized until much later what seeds his words had sowed, or how far back Lulu had set foot on the first step leading to Yunalesca's lair. "I will tell you this. The summoner isn't the only one who pays the price for the Final Summoning."

"I... see."

"Do you?"

"Maybe." The curious calm in that one word should have alerted him, but Auron had been distracted, trying to head off her next question. "Except... you said Sir Jecht is still alive, did you not?"

"If Yuna knows the Final Summoning's true cost, she might turn back— or, if her will is as strong as you say, she'll give us the slip, try to finish the pilgrimage alone, and die far from our aid. No, Lulu. Let her find the answers she seeks in the Hall of the Final Summoning, with all of us at her side."

Auron grimaced. He had broken his resolve after all, and his words had sent Yuna to her death. Or perhaps he had made no difference. One guardian was gone by the time they reached Yunalesca. He might have changed the story.

Maroda was waiting. The crack of knuckles in the dark was a subtle hint that the younger guardian would sooner or later resort to more than mere words to get answers. Had Auron already said too much? No, this warrior lacked the witch's knack for adding up half-truths to find the whole.

"Her name was Lulu," he said. "Another of Yuna's guardians. She trusted no one and nothing else to protect her summoner so well as herself. A trait you share. Yet when at last I answered all her questions, it changed nothing: except that she then chose the path I meant to take, and perished in the Final Summoning."

"Ah." Maroda affected sympathy. "I think I remember her. Busty, wore black?"

Auron smirked, wondering what sort of verbal fireworks that description might have earned from her. "Yes."

"You know, I'm sorry to hear about your friend— honestly— but that still doesn't explain anything about Sin. What's it doing? Why's it wiping out whole islands one day and showering us with flowers and rainbows the next? And what's with that vision of Lady Yuna that it plastered across the sky?"

Auron stared into the clinging, dismal fog, recalling the texture of dew-drenched fur and the scent of wet leather. Was tonight's weather natural, or was Lulu out there somewhere in the darkness, grappling with Yu Yevon's toxin and the more potent poison of regret? "Sin destroys. Sin grieves. It kills and honors the fallen. It's trapped in the spiral as much as we are."

"Huh. So why's it killing off the fayth this time around?"

"Freeing them is my guess," Auron said. "Maybe it thinks they're trapped in the same spiral."

"Except they volunteered for the job. A little like us, eh?" Maroda missed Auron's wry expression in the dark. "You know, if it succeeds, Isaaru won't die. He can't fight without aeons."

"Would that stop him?"

"No." Maroda slapped the wall with an angry thump. "And sooner or later, it'll kill us all. We've simply got to stop it from getting to Djose. Any ideas, old man?"

"Steal the fayth."

"Huh?"

"Remove the statue from the temple."

"Hey, that's a thought."

"It may not work. It depends on whether Sin can sense the spirit inside."

For once, Maroda's respect sounded unreserved. "Yeah, but it's worth a try. Thanks, man."

Second Cloister of Trials passed. Now Auron simply had to deal with Isaaru. The man seemed as innocent as Pacce, but Auron knew better than to judge summoners by their smiles. And he was still a maester of Yevon.

Chapter Text

The faint lights of Luca glittered across the bay, a child's playhouse erected in memory of a half-forgotten dream. The last shreds of fog clung to the looming shell of the stadium. A few tinny strains of music drifted over the water. Apart from that faint heartbeat, the city slept.

Auron stood on the upper deck and took a swig of Kulukan's ale. He frowned. Either he was forgetting how to taste, or it lacked the bite of Zanarkand's brew. Then again, that dream of a dead city was stretched across the threshold of the Farplane like a spider's web; no surprise its spirits suited his tastes better.

Auron had not returned to Jecht's ghostly Zanarkand in thirteen years, although he had heard the whisperings of the dead city's fayth flowing down from Mt. Gagazet's peak. He'd killed Jecht and failed to save his son Tidus; Auron could do no more for the rest of the city's damned souls. Of course, his sword would have found plenty of fiends to cleave there now. Sin's attack on the dream-city had made it real, transmuted the memories of the dead into a living nightmare. Or had Gagazet's fayth reset their dreaming to a time before the attack? Maybe Jecht and Tidus had been resurrected, pyrefly simulacra playing out variations of their tragic story in another endless cycle.

No, Auron would not return to dream-Zanarkand. He had unfinished business in the ruins of the real one.

A kindly voice sliced through his reverie. "You, at least, will not be wanting a blessing."

Auron snorted and looked down at the summoner standing on the deck below. Isaaru had emerged from his cabin a short time ago, taking care not to rouse Pacce dozing with his back to the door-post and his head buried in his arms. They would leave the S.S. Konna behind in Luca, where she would remain for much-needed repairs. Isaaru had been making his final rounds of the vessel, seeking out each member of the crew, speaking soft words of praise and blessing for their part in tending to Besaid's dead and saving Kilika.

Isaaru mounted the stairs and joined Auron on the observation deck. The shadows cast by the ship's lanterns gave the summoner a hollow-eyed look, but his guardian noted it was not merely a trick of the light: he moved with slow deliberation, as if will were required. Auron knew the feeling well.

Compassion aside, it was time to inventory weapons. "You still have three aeons?"

"Two," Isaaru said. "I have not been to Macalania."

Auron nodded. "There's one more in the Calm Lands... maybe."

Remiem Temple was intact, as far as he knew, but the Cavern of the Stolen Fayth was deeply buried. The Ronso had come out of hiding to help the Crusaders in the nearby canyon dig out, but Auron had not told them of the hidden fayth statue or asked them to unseal the cave. The Ronso were too few to risk in that death-trap. Besides, the fayth statue had likely been pulverized. Yuna was not the first summoner Lulu had lost.

"That is good to know." Isaaru splayed his hands on the rail. "Sir Auron, I am depending on you as no summoner has relied on a guardian before. I know you have reasons not to trust—"

Third trial. Auron shrugged. "If I didn't trust you, Isaaru, I wouldn't have offered my services as guardian."

"Unless you had other motives." Isaaru raised an arm with a swish of fabric and gestured towards the horizon behind them. "Lady Yunalesca, for example?"

"What?" Auron's eyes narrowed.

"You seek revenge. She killed Lord Braska, Lady Yuna, Sir Jecht and his son Tidus, no?" The summoner spoke with quiet compassion, but the rhythm of his speech was too well-rehearsed. "Our goals are the same, Sir Auron. I want to free Spira from her grip... and her lord father's. I want the teachings— the good we now call Yevon grown from roots of fear— to be disentangled from their lies, including the pilgrimage."

"And yet you intend to make one."

"For the same reason you remain a guardian, I suspect. We must play Yunalesca's game and beat her." He shook his head. "Yet I am at a loss. If I refuse the Final Summoning, what weapon will suffice?"

"I don't know." Twenty-three years, and Auron still hadn't come up with a surefire way to beat the bitch and free a friend. "Did Mika tell you this?"

"No. Maester Mika...passed...without instructing a successor. But I have spent long nights combing Bevelle's archives for clues. Not easy, with so many records purged." Isaaru sighed. "At least you can confirm my guesses, perhaps? First and foremost: Sin dies and is reborn. That makes it an aeon, surely, for aeons return from seeming death, summoned again and again. Only by destroying the housing of their fayth can we truly vanquish them."

"Correct." The housing of their fayth. Cold words to describe the Venus-blessed curves of a young woman's body.

"In Yevon's name." Isaaru smiled crookedly at Auron's sour expression. "Yes, that's the second lie, isn't it? We pray now in ignorance to Bevelle's ancient foe. Yu Yevon, Zanarkand's greatest summoner and tyrant, girded himself with Sin, using it as both armor and spear of vengeance for his fallen city. What we now call Yevon's teachings were originally rites, taboos and austerities meant to appease his wrath. The question is this: if Sin is an aeon, then whose is its fayth?"

Auron was silent. How could this man bear to uphold the teachings of Yevon, knowing them to be an embalmed corpse with a rotten core?

The pre-dawn air was so still that every creak of the ship and the thudding of the hold's pumps sounded like drums. Isaaru lowered his voice to a whisper. "It's Yunalesca, isn't it? That was the truth that eluded me for so long. I once thought that Sin was her husband, Lord Zaon, but no: he is the Final Aeon, a two-edged sword gifted by Lady Yunalesca to summoners who pose a threat. He is the one aeon who could not, would not destroy the one he loves more than his own life. The Calm is a sham meant to raise our hopes; the pilgrimage is a net. And now Spira is beginning to worship Yunalesca just as we live in thrall of her Lord Father, Yu Yevon." He sighed. "Lady Yuna came near to defeating them, I guess, and so they have changed tactics. Have I hit the mark?"

"Close enough." Auron thrust aside a twinge of irritation at Zaon being named Sin's lover. Irrelevant. Isaaru understood almost everything that mattered; surely he was ready for the rest. Yet something in his manner still smacked of Yevon hypocrisy. "What happened to Mika?"

Only one trained in melee would recognize the way Isaaru tensed as if to dodge a blow. "Passed away in his sleep. I fear grief and remorse were too much for him, when the full scope of Maester Seymour's crimes was laid bare."

"I... see." Stalemate: they both had secrets to keep. "I take it the other maesters have not heard what you just told me."

"No. Although Maester Baralai knows something: he, too, frequents the archives, and never says what he seeks."

"Baralai?"

"A former Crusader, a survivor of Operation Mi'ihen."

"Ah."

There were more voices below now as the ship awoke. A drab gray light was growing. Isaaru paused to listen, head cocked, then went on. "Well, it is some comfort to have a confidante. But we are no closer to a solution. We must protect the other fayth, since Sin seems intent on wresting away those weapons. Sooner or later we must confront Yunalesca. But will the remaining aeons, my brothers and your strength be enough to defeat her?"

"Too close to call." Lulu's magic would have tipped the scales, but there was no coming back from the path she had chosen. Unless—

"Then we need machina. It will not be easy. Some of my fellow maesters still blame the disaster of Operation Mi'ihen on the use of forbidden machina, and the Al Bhed remain wary of Yevon. Have you any allies left among them?"

"A trader, but no one of consequence."

"Maester Baralai has negotiated with them, but he's in Bevelle. First, we must—"

The sounds of raised voices on the deck below were growing distracting, especially since one was Maroda's. "What do you mean, you don't know where he is? Isaaru! Isaaru!"

"First, I had better calm Maroda before he rips out Pacce's hair," he amended ruefully. "Excuse me."

Chapter Text

Despite Isaaru's pleas, Kiyuri insisted on flying Bevelle's crests for arrival in Luca. The Grand Maester would have his due, even if it dashed his hopes of slipping through the city quickly and quietly. Judging by the din from the docks, he would do neither. Other cities welcomed maesters with hymns and ceremonial; only Luca could sprout souvenir stands and hawkers in the time it took for the S.S. Konna to hoist sails at sunrise and put into port. Cheering crowds waved prayer flags. Sphere cameras flashed up and down the waterfront like so many pyreflies. Children clutched collectible summoner statues and played dueling aeons while waiting for the ship to dock. Over the general hubbub, the public address system blared a breezy patter, the local equivalent of pious homage.

"Ladieeees and gentleman, we'll return to the pre-game show shortly. But first, here's an exclusive update on today's developing news story. The S.S. Konna has arrived at Dock Three. We can now confirm that Grand Maester Isaaru is aboard. We repeat, Grand Maester Isaaru has arrived! We missed him at the High Summoner's festival, but he's joined us for Luca's most famous tournament, the Eleventh Annual Sir Tidus and Sir Wakka Memorial Cup! And it looks like all Luca's turned out to welcome the ruler of Yevon and the undisputed leader of Spira!"

"While we wait for the maester's party to disembark, Jimma, this is a good time to remind folks of the new security measures in place at the stadium for our fans' safety. All bags will be searched, and machina not approved by Yevon will be confiscated. Sphere cameras with Yevon's seal are permitted. If you're wearing goggles, please remove them as you approach the turnstyles—"

Isaaru waved to the crowd placidly while the crew prepared to lower the ship's ramp. Maroda shook his head at the broadcast. "It's only going to get worse, the longer Sin's out there."

Isaaru nodded. "One more reason to be on our way."

"Some people are sayin' the Al Bhed are planning to attack Yevon," Pacce explained to Auron. "They've almost disappeared in the last year except at blitzball tournaments. The warrior monks say they're up to something."

Auron snorted. "Keeping out of Sin's path."

"We know that," Maroda said. "But the rest of Spira needs a scapegoat."

"The maesters know it too," Isaaru said firmly. "There will be no war between Yevon and those who should be our allies this time, Maroda, I promise you."

"That depends on your replacement," Maroda said. "I still think you shouldn't step down."

Captain Kiyuri, barking orders over her shoulder, abruptly caromed between guardians and summoner. "Hey! Get that dock cleared before you drop a gangplank on someone's head!" She turned to Isaaru. "Almost ready, Your Grace. But I wish you'd reconsider. The repairs should only take a few days. Seal a few seams, replace a few beams— we can catch up to you in Djose, bring you the rest of the way home to Bevelle."

"Nay, Kiyuri, you've played your part. Mine is to tread the summoner's road; yours to keep your ship intact. Your chances of that will be better without me aboard to draw Sin's ire. If you would yet serve Yevon, hasten to Bevelle and bring tidings to the other maesters. Tell them what we have seen of Sin and advise them to evacuate the citadel in preparation for an attack on the temple."

"Yes, Your Grace." She bowed. "We'll pray for you. And... you, there! Where'd you learn to coil a line like that, Besaid's weaving guild? It's rope, not a rug!" With that, the captain charged off again. Isaaru pinched the bridge of his nose and resumed waving, his smile fraying ever so slightly as the announcers' commentary washed over them.

"Lord Isaaru replaced Grand Maester Mika thirteen years ago at the beginning of High Summoner Yuna's Calm, and no maester has done more to restore Spira's confidence in Yevon. He's always on the move, visiting villages and ports to help Bevelle keep in touch with all of Spira."

"Speaking of High Summoner Yuna, wasn't Lord Isaaru a summoner himself once upon a time? No wonder he treats his maestership like a pilgrimage."

"That's right, Jimma! And by the way, it looks like his old guardians are with him today. The man with the tan is Maroda, captain of the Yocun Crusaders who've finally made the Calm Lands live up to their name. On the right is their little brother Pacce, fresh from training and a full-fledged warrior monk of Bevelle!"

"Quite an accomplishment at his age, Bobba. You know, by my calculations, he must have been less than ten years old the last time he was a guardian—"

"Stop puffing," Maroda muttered. "You look like a rutting chocobo."

"Do not!" Pacce said, glancing back at Auron furtively to see how he was handling the publicity.

The white-haired guardian seemed oblivious, slouching with his arm slung in his coat and a vaguely bored expression. He stirred when the gangway came to a stop. "Let's move."

Isaaru strode to the top of the ramp and paused there for a sweeping bow, bestowing Yevon's blessing on those below. A spreading ripple of bows flowed out across the crowd. At the base of the ramp, a semicircle of Crusaders was holding back the crush of people. An officer in a red uniform stood at attention before them. Isaaru was spared the need for speechmaking by the loudspeaker crackling to life again.

"Hoooooold everything, folks, do you see what I see? It's the one, the only, the legendary Siiiiiiiir Auron, guardian to both High Summoner Braska and Yuna, the most successful guardian in history!"

"He sure is, Bobba. It looks like Grand Maester Isaaru's pulling out all the stops to add 'High Summoner' to his resumé."

"I keep tellin' you, Isaaru," Maroda said. "Spherecasts use forbidden machina. For Yevon's sake, ban them." The two younger brothers marched shoulder to shoulder ahead of Isaaru. Auron, as usual, was guarding the rear.

"Your Grace," the waiting officer said crisply, dissolving into a broad grin as they drew close. "About time you got here. Follow me, please. The general sent me to make sure you didn't get away."

"Thank you, Elma," Isaaru said. "Maester Lucil is here, I hope? We've much to discuss."

"Yes, sir. I hope you've got a speech ready, sir. She's expecting you at the stadium. There'll be time to talk once the game's started. This way, sir." Shooting Sir Auron a curious glance, the wiry woman gestured for her Crusaders to surround them. She set off at a brisk clip.

Just in time: a reporter with a cameraman in tow was using a large microphone like a ship's prow to cleave a path through the crowd. "Your Grace!" she called after them. "We'd just like a quick interview...Lord Isaaru, please!"

"Don't look back," Maroda growled. "Whatever you do, don't make eye contact."

"I trust you to defend me, my brother," Isaaru said with serene dignity, "even from those who wield such fearsome machina."

"Phew," Pacce said as they broke free of the main press of people piled onto the dock. "Almost as bad as the field exam."

"Congratulations, by the way," Elma said.

"Thank you, ma'am!"

"You owe me fifty gil, Commander," Maroda said.

"Not until I see his sword-work for myself," she said affably. "Gotta make sure they didn't go easy on him for your sake."

"Like we'd pull any strings."

"No, but those machina-wielding sissies spend all their time playing temple doorposts and escorting dignitaries in places that never see fiends. They're probably terrified of Captain Maroda and his gang of Calm Lands thugs."

"Elma," Isaaru said quietly. "Please. I lost several warrior monks on our voyage. Good men."

"Oh...dear. I'm very sorry, Your Grace."

"...Isn't this exciting, folks? And now we continue our live coverage of the opening ceremonies. Be sure to stay tuned at halftime for all the latest news on Besaid and Kilika. We'll have interviews with the captain and crew of Lord Isaaru's vessel, including an exclusive eyewitness report giving a play-by-play of a guardian's epic battle with Sin!"

Elma raised an eyebrow. "Epic battle?"

"Sir Auron, of course," Isaaru said. "You'll hear the whole story shortly."

"We'd better," she said, giving Auron another respectful glance. "We feared the worst, Your Grace, when your ship didn't turn up for Lady Yuna's festival."

"Didn't you get my messages?" Isaaru said, dismayed. "A merchant promised to relay them. I pray he did not meet with some mishap!"

"We got 'em, sir, but the general was fit to be tied when she heard where you'd gone. If you hadn't turned up today, she'd have sent me after you as soon as the tournament was over."

Auron, who had been scanning the tide of faces flowing past, abruptly spoke. "Wakka. Is he here today?"

"Not that I've heard, sir," Elma said. "The tournament was named for him and Sir Tidus, but he's not been seen in Luca in ten years. Don't you know where he is?"

"We...parted ways after the pilgrimage."

"Ah." Elma frowned and exchanged glances with Maroda, who shook his head.

Isaaru was starting to lag behind. "Commander," he called with a chuckle, "not all of us are trained to keep up with chocobos."

"Oh! Pardon me, sir." She dropped back a few paces. "Wish I could've met you with a few, but there just isn't room for 'em in town."

For a time they were carried along by the late crowd rushing for the stadium until a jam outside the main entrance caused another check. Elma veered off and led them around to a side entrance, surprising a sentry. "Biggs— yep, we've picked up a stray maester; have stadium security on full alert. Don't let Shaami and her reporters in here. Use batons if you have to— this way, your Grace!"

With a summoner's grace, Isaaru masked his fatigue the moment they emerged from the stairwell into a barrage of sound. While the crowd's roar threatened to shake loose the forcefields holding the sphere pool suspended, the beaming maester led the way around the stadium's perimeter. He paused now and again to grasp someone's hand or bless a toddler held out to him. Finally he reached the raised platform on the far side, where the team captains were just exiting en route to their locker rooms. Isaaru shook hands with each of them. At last he mounted the dais where Lucil stood waiting, forearm and fist raised in a military salute despite the voluminous maester's robes she now wore. Her eyes flicked from Isaaru to those behind him, resting a beat on Sir Auron. She bowed stiffly and pushed herself away from the podium, gesturing towards it in silent invitation. Elma moved unobtrusively to Lucil's side. Isaaru strode forward confidently and took Lucil's place.

"People of Spira! Glad indeed are my brothers and I that we could be with you today by the grace of Yevon, despite Sin's obstructions." Murmurs swirled around the stadium. "I will not keep you long from the day's festivities. But I have heard your pleas in my travels, and I understand your fear. Therefore it is my humble honor to announce that I will be stepping down as maester in order to resume my pilgrimage. In Yevon's name, I vow to do all that lies in my power to shield you and serve you as Lady Yuna and her noble father did before. With Sir Auron and my brothers at my side, I have no doubt I shall succeed." He raised his hands, waiting for the roar to ebb.

"But for today, even the rigors of pilgrimage should be set aside to honor the glory of blitzball and the celebration of life which is Luca's finest art. I'm sure that Sir Tidus and Sir Wakka, who once played in this very stadium, would say that the game is another form of courage in Sin's despite.

"Last but not least, it is my great delight to introduce to you a man who needs no introduction, mentor to Sir Tidus and guardian to Lady Yuna and Lord Braska, the legend himself. Sir Auron, would you care to share a few words with us about your fellow guardians, in whose honor today's tournament is named?"

Auron gave him a withering look and stepped forward into the range of the hidden microphone. "Two," he said. "As Wakka and Tidus used to say before battle: 'Let's blitz.'"

A thunderous burst of applause crashed over them. Isaaru sank into the high seat next to Lucil. Guardians fanned out on his right while Elma's Crusaders sealed off the left side of the platform. The buzzer sounded. Lucil turned to Isaaru as the match began.

"Resigning, my lord? That idea should have been broached first with your fellow maesters. But I am glad indeed to see you and your brothers in one piece, and Sir Auron as well."

"My apologies, General, but there wasn't time. Sin's stepped up its attacks. Besaid is gone. Kilika was spared, apart from the temple. We fear Djose will be the next target."

"If so, it will pass here first." Lucil glanced at Elma.

"The watch is on full alert, ma'am. We'll know the instant Sin shows so much as a scale."

"Very good, Commander. All right, my lord, tell us your tale."

Chapter Text


The carnival ambiance of the blitzball tournament ebbed and flowed around Isaaru and his companions like another world pinned by pyreflies to a gigantic sphere. Fans screamed and cheered for their favorite players, bickered over team loyalties, lived and died with every goal. In the maesters' box, all was still.

Isaaru had been uncharacteristically stark, blunt, and brief as he narrated the bare bones of their journey. Now he and Lucil sat between two worlds, surrounded by a sea of noise, clapping when the crowd roared and feigning interest in a match that none but Pacce had actually watched, waiting for the final moments of a Bevelle upset ("That's one for the history books, folks!") to play out so that they could slip away to ponder the fate of the world.

As soon as the buzzer sounded and fans began piling towards exits and vendors, Isaaru and Lucil retired to a VIP suite below the maester's dais. The chamber was as dark as a Cloister of Trials, despite a few skylights. Luxurious furniture and refreshments could not disguise the fact that it had been built into the stadium's walls as a fortified retreat against attack— from Sin, or from an angry mob, to judge by its defenses. Years ago, Lucil had commanded the removal of all hidden machina weapons embedded in the heavy doors leading out to the stadium, but the peepholes of gunsights and the stripped mountings on the doors' inner face were a sober reminder of what Yevon could be.

Isaaru settled into a high-backed chair, his guardians forming a triangle around him. Elma discreetly helped Lucil into the seat across from him. The maester in charge of Yevon's military concealed her infirmity in public, but a chocobo accident had left her partially paralyzed below the waist. The younger woman— no longer young; there was a brown scar cutting a bare swath through her short salt-and-pepper hair, and her face had been tanned and weathered by years of riding— returned to the entrance to relay a few quick orders to the guards stationed outside, then pulled the doors shut and ambled back. "There. No one's going to disturb us for anything short of a Sin sighting. The next match is in forty-five minutes, if you mean to keep up appearances."

"Thank you, Commander," Isaaru said, forgetting that he was technically no longer the senior official in the room.

"Djose, then." Lucil steepled her hands in her lap, gazing at the wall as if her mind's eye were fixed on something past it. "Elma. Provide Summoner Isaaru and his party with mounts and escort them to Djose. Send ahead couriers to Mushroom Rock Lodge, advising the captain there to begin battle preparations and await your arrival. We will need his ground forces as well for this operation—"

"Maester Lucil," Isaaru said, half-rising from his seat. "With all due respect, what do you think you're doing? Did we four not agree that the tragedy of Operation Mi'ihen must never be repeated?"

"I do not forget a single face of the fallen heroes whom our predecessors betrayed," she snapped. "But if Sin wipes out the aeons, it will strip summoners of our only means of protecting Spira. We must defend the fayth at any cost." Her eyes flicked briefly to her second-in-command, who gave a melancholy little smile in return.

"Actually," Maroda said, "Sir Auron had an idea about that."

Isaaru's brows jerked upwards, perhaps at his brother's sudden about-face concerning their enigmatic comrade. "Yes?"

The taciturn guardian said nothing, but looked at Maroda.

"Move the fayth." Maroda shrugged. "We can't stop Sin yet. So put the statue where it can't be harmed. Hide it."

"But won't that screw up the spirit inside?" Pacce said. "I mean, can it survive without the temple and hymns?"

"It's been done before," Auron said.

"Is that so?" Isaaru leaned towards him. "I should like to know which fayth, and where. Baaj Temple, perhaps? I have been trying to pinpoint its location, but the records are imprecise."

"We're wasting time," Lucil said. "Lord Isaaru, if my Crusaders provide wagons and engineers to move the statue, can you and the priests of Djose ensure the fayth's integrity?"

He bowed his head. "In theory, I know what prayers sustain and strengthen the bond between statue and spirit, and I have a link with the fayth which may let me soothe its unease. I believe it can be done. I cannot be certain. If we do nothing, however, the fayth will almost certainly be lost, and our hopes diminished."

"Then we must deploy, taking every care we can to minimize casualties. Elma, you will assist Lord Isaaru in removing the statue to a safe location. I suggest Lord Mi'ihen's Grotto. Order Captain Luzzu to deploy perimeter defenses around Djose Temple. Your mobile units will defend the Highroad between the temple and Mushroom Ridge. Luzzu's infantry and your knights will provide cover for the covert operation, keeping Sin at bay and staging a mock-defense of the temple."

Elma cleared her throat. "Ma'am, I hate to remind you, but Captain Luzzu is still on probation for heresy. What if he can somehow tell Sin our plans?"

"I'm satisfied with his explanation that it was the toxin speaking, Commander. And if not— and if Sin really is aware— then who better to convince Sin we are defending the fayth of Djose Temple than one of its followers? The fayth's relocation will be on a need-to-know basis. Keep the statue concealed during transport. Use the pretext of evacuating the temple, its scrolls and relics."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Heresy?" Isaaru said.

"Sin sightings are frequent off the coast of Djose, my lord, as you know," Lucil said. "Our patrols are sometimes affected by the toxin when the foe comes too close to shore, and a few have fallen prey to the Cult of Sin. I confess that is one reason for our exchange program with the warrior monks. Those who seem to be suffering a crisis of faith are sent to Bevelle, where Maester Shelinda can take them under her wing."

"Or to the Calm Lands to be whipped back into shape," Maroda said, shaking his head. "I wondered why you kept sending me your scraps."

"But Captain Luzzu has commanded the lodge at Mushroom Rock for ten years," Elma said. "He's refused promotions or transfers. He's gone a little strange. I caught him up on the headland just talking to Sin one day. He said he was keeping it company so it wouldn't attack."

Maroda snorted. "Sounds like someone else we know."

Auron ignored the jibe. "Are we finished?"

Lucil nodded. "Indeed. Summoner Isaaru, have you any last objections or additions to the plan?"

"Only that I would urge you to authorize machina for this operation. Your troops—"

"—will stand a better chance than they did thirteen years ago, if we don't use forbidden machina and provoke Sin's retribution. However, this will be a good time to test the new Lightning Rock Shield."

"Anyway, Sin's not going to blow up its garden," Elma chuckled. "It's mellowed."

"Elma!"

"Don't worry, ma'am, I'm not going to start worshipping it just because it's sending us flowers." She sobered. "So. Move statue, check. Keep it under wraps, check. Have Luzzu's lodge guard the temple, check. Chocobo Knights along Highroad. Activate shield. Fall behind the barriers the instant Sin starts glowing. Are we set?"

"You have your orders, Commander. And... Elma?"

"Ma'am?"

Lucil clasped her hand tightly as Elma reached out to help her to her feet. "I will see you when this is over. I expect a thorough debriefing. Understood?"

The officer's cheeks colored faintly. "Yes, ma'am."

Chapter Text

"Please have it," the youth said again, holding up a battered leather pouch to Maroda. "My mother carried it on pilgrimage. There's a half-dozen remedies and other needful things. She... didn't get a chance to use them."

The boy looked about Rikku's age, Auron noted, watching the familiar exchange with fatalistic detachment. He knew the pattern, he recognized the cycle, he knew every tiresome beat of this movement in futility, but somehow when the faces were new and young he could entertain a fleeting hope that it might play out differently. That had been his downfall the last time, after all.

"Well..." Maroda shot a glance at Auron, as if the legendary guardian's fame were somehow to blame for these road obstructions. At least there had been no fiends so far.

"Just take it," the older guardian muttered. "It's quicker."

No, he corrected himself sharply. Not Rikku's age. She should be almost thirty now, practically old enough to be the boy's mother. It was a minor slip, but troubling: Auron's grasp of time had been growing fuzzy lately, a warning sign that he might not have much time left.

"We will honor your mother's memory," Isaaru said warmly, "and use your gift to help us save Spira. You have our thanks."

"Get back to the village now, kiddo," Elma said. "My knights have been pulled off patrol to escort Lord Isaaru, so there may be fiends about." In fact, most of the Mi'ihen Highroad patrols had been sent ahead hours before to start preparing for the operation. The four mounted Crusaders accompanying the summoner's party were hardly sufficient to cover so much territory.

"Yes, ma'am... thank you, my lord!" The youth bowed deeply in Yevon's prayer, then turned and jogged towards the cluster of homesteads that had sprouted on the bluffs around the thriving Al Bhed inn and trading post. A few heads peeped through windows or over fences, watching the small cavalcade with awe.

Maroda passed the pouch to Isaaru as they moved off. "Fourteen-year-old potions," he said in a low voice. "Don't get them mixed up with the rest."

The summoner smiled as he slipped it into a saddlebag. "Thank Yevon he turned them over to us before someone tried to use them."

"We can drop them off at the hazardous items dump below Mushroom Ridge," Elma said. "Come on, let's put some leagues behind us. Ya!" At her urging, the chocobos put their heads down and pressed forward in a ground-eating lope.

Chocobos. Auron had never enjoyed jogging along on a giant bird whose scrawny neck stood in the way of a good swing, but speed was vital. They had already wasted half a day in Luca.

Swift couriers had been sent ahead to convey Lucil's orders, but Isaaru had stayed through the tournament to present a semblance of normality and limit the wild rumors brewing around his abdication and the attacks on Besaid and Kilika. Afterwards, the victory parade had turned into a citywide farewell celebration for Summoner Isaaru and his guardians, since the Bevelle team's upset was hailed as a good omen for the grand maester's pilgrimage. There had been balloons, showers of flower petals (but no rainbows), special pre-Calm sales from street vendors, and live music provided by the Macalania artists' colony. Sphere cameras flashed like miniature fireworks among the throngs of people lining the roads, eager to record pictures of the next High Summoner and his soon-to-be-legendary guardians. The city PA system had broadcast dramatic coverage of the parade interwoven with hastily-thrown-together retrospectives and expletive-laden interviews of sailors spinning colorful yarns about Sin's defeat at Kilika. Auron's fight with a dragon in the stadium thirteen years ago had been shown at least a dozen times.

There had been no "fireworks and wailing women," but Jecht would have been delighted. On the whole, Auron was inclined to side with Lord Braska concerning a discreet departure.

Unfortunately, fawning fans were not only found in Luca. Pacce was bubbling again, thanks to Elma's loose tongue. "Hey, Sir Auron, is that where you killed the Chocobo Eater?"

He gave an affirmative grunt.

"That's how it's done," Elma said cheerfully over the steady drumming of chocobo feet. "Local Al Bhed had been having problems with it for weeks, but all it took was a few swords and Sir Wakka beaning it with a blitzball! So much for machina!"

Not to mention a black mage capable of roasting a chocobo in ten seconds, Auron thought grimly. Apparently, sports icons and disgraced warrior monks made better celebrities than an aloof young woman, however attractive.

Riding made speech difficult, so they ceded conversation to the rushing wind for a while. At their next check, walking the birds across a bridge, Isaaru spoke again. "Commander. I understand your reluctance, but I wish you'd reconsider the use of machina. Normally I should never presume to second-guess the general's wisdom on military matters, but I am worried that personal feelings are impeding her judgment. Her desire to atone for the mistakes of Operation Mi'ihen is causing her to make another."

"Sir," Elma said, "with all due respect, if Maester Lucil allowed personal feelings to sway her judgment, she'd never have put me in charge of such a dangerous operation. For that matter, she'd not have authorized it in the first place. It kills her every time she has to send the Crusaders into battle while she sits on her ass."

Behind them, Pacce made a choking noise.

Elma grinned. "You're authorized to laugh, kiddo. There's no warrior monks around to give a damn—" she paused at and waved an arm vaguely at Auron. "At least, I don't think there are."

Auron snorted. "No."

"I respect that Lucil has always put personal...considerations aside, but that's not the same thing," Isaaru said. "It's her feelings towards machina— not for her own sake, but for the sake of her troops— that blinker her. We are pitting the Crusaders directly against Sin, something we had hoped never to do again. As the maester said, we must use everything in our power to minimize casualties."

Elma shook her head, holding the reins of his chocobo for him to remount on the far side of the bridge. "I know you're trying to save lives, sir, but you should know better. Machina fall under 'matters of conscience,' remember?"

Isaaru slumped into his saddle. "Yes. I'm sorry, Elma."

"Hey, no problem." Elma turned back to her own chocobo and swung herself up. "Look, we have safeguards in place that we didn't last time. And we're not going to engage Sin more than we have to. This is a defensive operation, not an attack."

"This is true."

"'Matters of conscience'?" Auron said as they set off again.

"Questions for which the teachings are inadequate," said Isaaru. "In practice, issues on which the Four Maesters disagree. A necessary reform, we felt, to correct Yevon's mistakes. For such questions, no one, not even a maester, may force his judgment on another. On matters of conscience, each Crusader lodge sets the rule, and any soldier who believes differently may ask for transfer to another lodge."

"Most Crusaders don't permit use of machina," Elma said. "Except for that renegade there." She grinned cheerfully at Maroda.

Maroda tapped the spear strapped beside him. "Does this look like a grenade launcher to you?"

"Don't play coy, Captain; I know how you train troops to deal with basilisks."

Maroda chuckled. "That's because my men don't use big flapping chocobos to run away."

"As you were," Elma said, noting one of the two knights ahead had checked his bird and was twisting in the saddle to glare at Maroda. "Yo, Maroda, wanna come hunting with me tonight and back up that big talk? Let's see what happens when we meet a few dual-horns."

"Elma, Maroda, please," Isaaru said. "Sparring must wait for a later date. How much farther until Mi'ihen Lodge?"

"We'll be there by sunset, sir, if we keep making good time," said Elma. "Oh! By the way, you guys haven't seen the Memorial Gardens yet, right?"

"No, we haven't," Isaaru said.

"You're in for a treat, then."

"Does Sin really make the flowers grow?" Pacce asked.

"Hard to say, kiddo. The weather's been crazy these last few years, but that still doesn't explain how we started getting roses growing in sand that's half salt." Elma laughed. "One thing I know for sure, if Sin's behind it, it's not doing it to give the off-duties some place to sneak off and get laid."

You never know, Auron thought, his quiet "hmph" masked by Pacce's nervous laughter. Nevertheless, he suspected other powers besides Venus at work.

Look for me in my garden, Auron.

He was sourly amused at himself for the impulse to kick the damn bird and urge it to run faster.

Chapter Text

Three days out from Luca, they reached the turnoff to Mushroom Rock Road as the last bars of sunset were fading from the sky. To their right, the black sea stirred and sighed restlessly, lapping the rocks below the edge of the road with leaden waves. Behind them, a beaten shelf of dirt and rock lay exposed to the elements and scoured by the wind. Ahead, a finger from the cliffs above arced down over the main road to form a natural buttress. Beyond, the land was utterly transformed. It was difficult to make out individual forms in the dusk, but swaying dark fronds draped over the arch like a lush curtain, with nodding white flowers as wide as a woman's hand winking between tendrils and broad leaves. A profusion of other plants carpeted the path below, some of them crushed or snapped by the passing prints of travellers, despite which they seemed to thrive: blue blossoms from Besaid and the coral-pink orchids of Kilika, ivy and hibiscus, lilies and irises, even the glassy trunk of a Macalania sapling with a few glowing seed-pods tucked into the forks of slender stems.

"Yevon," Isaaru breathed, reining his chocobo to a halt and gazing up at the floral tapestry in wonder. "What enchantment is this?"

"Nobody knows," Elma said. "Good thing it's so remote; even so we have to save a few tourists from fiends every month. They forget the danger. Speaking of which, be on your guard; those vines can hide a full-sized iguion. Nasty buggers; their bite can paralyze. We try to keep the path clear up to the lodge, but the plants grow back fast."

She turned left and dove into a narrow crack in the cliffs which opened into a ravine. Sentries lurking in the shadows drew back spears and saluted as they passed.

As promised, the path here was mostly cleared, but creeping vegetation spilled over the lumps and crags of the cliffs on either side. Sea-fog had collected on shelves and dimples in the rock along the edges of the winding road. The larger basins had mats of dark-green pads with pale flowers helping to illuminate the shadowy ravine. A few glowing wisps of pyreflies were spiralling upward from their fragrant blossoms.

"I don't believe it," Isaaru said. "Moon-lilies! I thought they only grew in swamps."

"Well, it rains here fairly often now." Elma spoke in a hushed voice, but sounded oddly pleased. "Folks say it's Sin's doing. Who knows?"

"They're so pretty," Pacce said, turning to gawk as they passed a ledge spilling over with white blossoms.

"Keep your eyes open, Pacce," Maroda said. "Remember what the commander told you. Macalania's pretty too, and it's got chimeras."

They jogged along in silence, going at a slower pace now so that those riders who did not know the way wouldn't steer their mounts over a precipitous drop by accident. Rustlings in the undergrowth on either hand kept them wary. However, the group was large enough to give the fiends pause, or else the Crusader patrols had been through recently to clear a way for their VIP guests.

As they penetrated deeper into the canyon, they began to pass cleared patches on the walls where registers of names had been carved into the cliff-face. Here the vegetation was sparser, but delicate ferns and stonecrop tumbled down over the inscriptions. Isaaru paused again to bow and cup his hands in Yevon's prayer; Maroda and Pacce, unusually solemn, followed suit.

Auron bowed his head, although he did not pray. He noticed a white vein of quartz cutting through a nearby pair of glyphs that might read Gatta.

Mushroom Rock's iguions were a personal pet peeve; the lizards' speed had always given him trouble. However, they were not the only menace in these parts. Auron felt his hair ruffled by a gust of wind from above, bellowed "Down!" before he remembered why, and rolled from the saddle as two huge featherless claws came down out of the gloom to rake his mount's shoulders. The chocobo shrieked, thrashed in a flurry of feathers and blood, and bolted. Unfortunately, Auron's foot was still caught in a stirrup.

He was dragged a dozen yards before he lunged for his sword in its sheath lashed to the saddlebags. A black crevasse yawned under him. Cries and shouts were erupting behind him. He felt the air pulse with the forceful beat of a garuda's wings.

Bumping and bashing against the chocobo's flank, Auron's patience had run out. He swung the sword around for an awkward blow, striking the neck and a vital artery. It wasn't a clean kill, but it sufficed. Auron leapt free as the wretched bird, jerking in its death-throes, tumbled over the edge into the dark canyon.

He would have to apologize to Elma later. These Djose Knights took their birds seriously. Staggering on legs stiffened by a day's ride, Auron turned and charged back towards the fray.

Overkill, really. Four fighters — one of Elma's knights had disappeared, and two were herding the remaining chocobos plus a protesting Isaaru out of harm's way — were more than enough to handle a garuda. They would probably have made short work of it. Auron, however, was tired, stiff, and eager to press on. Timing his strides, he barrelled in from one side, raised the sword high, and threw all his momentum behind a scything blow to the neck. The blade was nearly jarred from his arms: standard Crusader issue could not shear through bone and spine like his old sword. Nevertheless, the garuda came crashing down. He was smothered under a heavy, leathery wing.

The fiend wasn't quite dead, but now it was an easy target, twitching and gurgling in agony. Elma, Maroda, Pacce and the fourth knight waded in to finish it off. Auron lay under the suffocating weight and hoped that no one passed a weapon through him. A few moments later, the fiend dissolved into pyreflies.

Pacce immediately crouched at his side. "You okay, sir?"

"Fine," he said, standing and wiping feathers and blood out of his eyes. Forestalling an awkward conversation, he added, "My chocobo didn't fare as well. I think it fell." He gestured towards the edge of the crevasse.

"Damn," Elma said. "That's one of Clasko's chicks. Lord Isaaru, are you all right?"

"Perfectly, Commander," Isaaru called, voice echoing around the last bend. "But one of your men is not. I will tend him." There was a blue shimmer off the walls as they trooped back to find a circle of chocobos and knights fencing the summoner and prone rider. The unconscious soldier groaned, stirred, and sat up shakily.

"Good man," Isaaru said, offering his hand.

"All right, let's move before anything else pops out looking for dinner," Elma said. "Sir Auron—"

"I'll walk," he said. "I remember the way."

"Hm." Elma gave him a skeptical look. "Suit yourself. Let's go."

He might not have been so eager to have ditched the bird, Auron reflected shortly, had he realized the Al Bhed lift had been replaced with switchbacks.

A knee-breaking climb later, they emerged onto the wide shelf sweeping around to the promontory overlooking the bay. A fierce wind off the ocean scoured their cheeks with salt. Somewhere out there in the dark, where breakers crashed on a lonely beach below the bluff, a generation of Crusaders had met their deaths in a hopeless operation against Sin. Blue lightning wavered in the distance, outlining the temple's cliffs on the opposite side of the bay.

Elma turned away from the ocean towards lanterns planted on pillars around the sprawling Crusader camp on Mushroom Ridge. A clamor of voices and smith's hammers spoke of preparations for the coming battle. As they dismounted, a tall red-haired man emerged from the camp's gates and marched towards them. A few Crusaders hurried to keep up with his long stride, fanning out to take the chocobos' reins and lead them away.

"Lord Isaaru." Luzzu drew his fist to his chest. "Commander Elma. Captain Maroda. Welcome. We have quarters prepared and supper waiting for you in the main lodge."

"You'd better. A garuda tried to make dinner of us back there," Elma said.

"I'm very sorry, ma'am. Orders said we were to pull in patrols for this operation. Does anyone require a healer?"

"It's taken care of, Captain," Isaaru said. "Don't worry. My guardians needed the exercise." He gestured towards Auron, who had just slogged into view. "Some more than others," he added with a chuckle.

"Sir Auron." Luzzu saluted again. He stared hard at the white-haired guardian, then beckoned to the party. "Please, follow me. If you wish, Commander, we can review plans for the operation over your meal."

"Food first," Elma said. "Young Pacce here isn't used to a long day's march; he's only had warrior monk's training."

Auron paused outside the entrance to the camp and glanced down. There in the shadows was a delicate, ground-hugging variety of rose pounded into the dirt by foot traffic. Stooping with a grunt, he found one intact blossom. Its color was impossible to guess; a patina of salt had painted it a ghostly white. Auron plucked it, tucked it into the blue beads dangling from his belt, and followed the others into camp.

Chapter Text


Troop deployments. Supplies. Wagons. Signals. Staging. Triage tents. Auron found the evening's business, so familiar and so routine, both restful and irritating. He was no longer directly involved in such affairs. Many might die tomorrow, and for their sake, at least, he had paid attention, but he had little to contribute— or too much that needed to remain unsaid. These Crusaders knew their business. He was mildly interested to see how their Lightning Shield worked, and what effect it would have on their opponent.

On Lulu.

His clenched fist brushed against salt-rimed roses hunched low against the wind. They grew here on the promontory in stubborn defiance, overlooking the beach where her boy soldier, Chappu, had met his end. Was his name etched somewhere on these cliffs, or was he one of the forgotten? For every hero remembered, there were a thousand whose names were never memorialized in scripture or stone. The only mark they left was a scar in the hearts of those left behind.

Auron took another slow drink from his jug. After riding all day, it was foolish to be sitting out here alone in the aching damp, watching the blanket of clouds rolling in off the ocean, half-dozing in the faint scent of roses mixed with the sea's tang. The bay was jet black, impossible to distinguish from the shrouded sky except when lightning striking the opposite headland peeled away the darkness for an instant. The promontory beneath him quivered, but that was from unseen waves striking the cliffs, not thunder too distant to hear. He kept scanning the horizon for an answering flicker. Sin, as usual, was moving on its own schedule.

Lulu could be here within the hour, the day, the week. He was not concerned about what others might say if his prediction seemed to have failed, but it would be awkward if Isaaru chose to press on.

Slow, steady footsteps crunched towards him from the direction of camp. Auron straightened and waited, unsurprised to see Luzzu coming towards him. The lodge captain had been focused on tactics during the strategy meeting, barely exchanging two words with him, but he had watched Auron intently during Pacce's enthusiastic account of their last run-in with Sin.

"Sir Auron." The Crusader halted a few paces away and folded his arms, staring down at the bulky figure seated on the weathered stumps of Kinoc's observation platform. "I thought I might find you up here."

"Sir Luzzu."

The man gave a bark of laughter. "No one's called me that since Lady Yuna died."

"Hmph."

"So." Luzzu paused, staring fixedly out to sea until another fan of lightning revealed the flat horizon. His posture relaxed subtly. "Sin?"

Time for another sparring session. Auron was hardly in the mood, but their mutual association with Lulu demanded an answer and might yield a few more. "What about it?"

"Lord Isaaru said you knew... it... was coming here."

"It fits the pattern."

"Besaid Island, Kilika Temple, and that's a pattern?"

"And one other before that. It buried a fayth statue in the Calm Lands."

"Ah," Luzzu muttered to himself, as if something had clicked. "So, you've been following Sin for some time. Did you actually see it strike Besaid?"

"No." Auron could hear the strain in Luzzu's voice, knew the man was watching him as warily as the ocean, seeking some sign of Sin's passing. What did Yevon do to heretics these days, now that it was bursting with so much goodwill? "She," he amended, voice softening.

"The Lady?" Luzzu demanded, making the honorific an accusation.

"She was that." A memory brushed the edge of Auron's thoughts, no more than a fleeting impression of self-possessed elegance, a regal pillar of black and white holding the rearguard at his side.

Luzzu exhaled. "Not that we ever called her that."

Even now, Auron noted, the Crusader had danced around self-incrimination for heresy— barely. "Luzzu. I know who she is. It's all right."

"Like hell it's all right!" He lowered his head and brought up his fists, struggling to keep his voice down. "What's happened to her? Is she dead... unsent? Or is she a prisoner inside Sin? That's what I thought at first, but lately..." He made a harsh, angry sound in his throat. "Dammit. Lulu was a fine woman, Sir Auron. A good fighter, too. What went wrong?"

Auron hesitated, keenly aware of what had happened the last time he had answered that question. But Luzzu already knew the what, if not the why, and Auron needed information. "Sin... doesn't die. You can cut it down, but it grows back." He gestured towards the scraggly fringe of creepers spilling over the rim of the canyon. "It puts down roots in whoever defeats it."

"And you did not think to tell them this?" Luzzu said, voice quivering like a cocked harpoon.

"I told them," Auron said. "Lulu... thought she had come up with a way around it."

Wham. Even braced for it, he was rocked onto his back by the force of the blow. His glasses cracked and went flying, skittering off into the darkness. Auron picked himself up with a grunt, watching the man silhouetted against distant lanterns in case he wasn't finished.

The Crusader stood panting, hands still clenched at his sides. "Everyone I grew up with in Besaid is dead now," he said hoarsely. "Chappu. Gatta. Yuna. Kimahri too, I suppose?"

"Yes."

"And Lulu... worse than dead. No wonder she's so angry." He shook his head slowly as if to clear it. "You said... 'whoever defeats it.' What about the Final Summoning?"

"Lulu is the Final Summoning." Auron looked down. "The fayth of the Final Aeon must be a guardian's soul, bound by love to the summoner. Her choice. She's a stubborn woman."

Luzzu's breath hissed between his teeth. Auron recognized the sound of a swallowed oath: what was there to swear by, once Yevon had been proved a farce? "Gatta was stubborn too," Luzzu conceded finally. "That's always the way, isn't it? The young get themselves killed. We atone."

"Regrets won't bring them back, Luzzu." What was it Lulu used to say? It's pointless to think about, and sad. Yet here they were, still dwelling on immutables. It was time for answers. One name was conspicuously absent from Luzzu's list of dead comrades. "Wakka. Where is he?"

"I'm not sure," Luzzu said. "Lulu sent him somewhere far away, out of harm's reach— and hers. At least, that's the impression she gave me."

Auron grimaced. Wonderful. Dream Zanarkand, the same place Jecht's Sin had sent him. He should have checked, but that possibility had never occurred to him. He was so tired of going in circles.

Wakka would hate it, of course. Lulu had an odd knack for being cruel to him.

"Is there any way to free her?" Luzzu said.

"Only one."

"Ah." Luzzu slumped. "Maybe you should just let her be, then. She's good at what she does. She terrorizes Spira, but she makes us stronger. Not much changed, really, from how she used to treat Wakka."

"I can't leave her like this, Luzzu."

"No, I suppose not," he said. "So. What do you mean to do?"

"Take her place, if we can't find a better way to defeat her," Auron said. "Unless... has she told you what she's planning?"

"No. At least, I don't think so. She doesn't speak to me in words. Just feelings, images." Luzzu shook his head. "The last time Lulu came by, she was brooding over the summoners she'd lost. She showed me how Lady Ginnem died."

"Ah." That explained her attack on the Cavern of the Stolen Fayth, although Auron had already guessed as much.

"Is it true what Lord Isaaru said, that Besaid's been wiped out?"

"Yes," Auron said. "I'm sorry."

"Dammit, Lulu," he said. "Maybe it really is time to...end her pilgrimage."

"Past time." If not for her, for me.

"Is there anything else I should know about this operation? I'm not a fool, Sir Auron. When the orders came in, I thought this was simply a roundabout way of getting me an honorable discharge: death by Sin, instant glory. But Maester Lucil wouldn't dispatch Commander Elma out here just to evacuate a handful of nuns and priests. They're getting us out of the way so they can open that cave below Mushroom Ridge, aren't they?"

"Cave?"

"Down in the canyon. Rumor has it a crack team of Crusaders was sent in there just before Operation Mi'ihen, and none of them came out. I've heard crazy stuff: that they went mad and killed each other, or that Maester Kinoc locked them up in there to die. It's sealed off now, anyway. We use the area in front of it as a hazardous items dump to keep people away."

"I don't know anything about that," Auron said.

"Maybe they're keeping you in the dark, too."

"Possibly." Auron shrugged. "Just be ready to retreat, Captain. If you see a bubble of light start to form around Sin, have your men take cover. That's the only warning you'll get. You remember what happened last time."

"Yeah. Thanks." Hunching his shoulders, Luzzu turned to leave. "You planning on staying out all night?"

"Probably."

"Inform the sentries if you see her."

"I will."

 

Chapter Text

"Sir Auron, I must protest! You mean to tell me they're not even guardians? They should never have been permitted—"

"Neither are you, Father," Elma said.

The priest stood spread-eagled in the open doorway of the Chamber of the Fayth, blocking the workers who had been dismantling its ornate frame. "Your presence here is sheer outrage! Your men have ruined the Cloister of Trials, desecrated the fayth's very sanctuary! Why, it will take us years to repair the damage!"

"If there's anything left to repair," Pacce said.

"Hey," Maroda said. "Isaaru's communing with the fayth, remember? If you want your aeon in one piece, I respectfully suggest you shut up."

Elma, the summoner and his guardians were gathered around the fayth's prostrate statue, keeping vigil with varying degrees of awe. Lightning flickered, crawling the walls and tickling along the seams and rivets of armor like invisible insects. From the open doorway came the clatter of hammers and chisels, workmen's oaths. Yet Isaaru knelt with an expression of profound benison on his upturned face, oblivious to all disturbances. The benign, beaming smile of a summoner had slipped away, replaced by the shy, tentative smile of a boy catching his first glimpse of some rapturous vision that would anchor him all his days. A sheen of sweat lay on his brow, but for the first time since Besaid, he looked rested, whole, and at peace.

At last his eyes fluttered open. Auron, planted behind him, reached down to keep the younger man from toppling face first into the shallow glass dome over the statue.

Isaaru nodded to him and stood, swaying. "It is done," he said. "The fayth understands and accepts. Father Kyou, I beg you to do the same. If there were any other way, believe me, I would never condone this extraordinary breach of holy ground."

"B-but, my Lord!" He clenched his hands. "What of the teachings? Crusaders are ever apt to abandon Yevon for rash schemes. Even maesters betray us. But you...you were the one who warned us that day, when we brought Sin's wrath upon us."

"Kyou, I remember. After Operation Mi'ihen, I swore an oath that I would vanquish Sin before any more lives were sacrificed to such folly. High Summoner Yuna postponed my vow, but it still holds." Isaaru met the man's distraught gaze with compassion. "But I cannot fulfill my vow if every aeon is lost. Three are already gone. We must save this one, so that I can save Spira. The temple can be rebuilt. Its fayth is irreplaceable."

The former Crusader wilted. "Yes, Your Grace."

"Blessings to you." Isaaru bowed to him, cupping his hands in Yevon's sign. "And thanks. I will need your prayers, Father."

"So now what?" said Elma.

"We must crack its seal and free the statue from its bed." Isaaru said. "Sir Auron?"

"Yes?"

"The fayth asks if you would deliver the blow. He... trusts you."

Maroda snorted.

"Very well." Expressionless, Auron hefted the borrowed sword like a child's plaything. "I suggest that everyone stand back."

They retreated to the doorway, crowding into the next room with the workmen. Auron peered at the glass lens covering most of the floor, trying to gauge its thickness. Below lay a giant figure of a man pressed into a stony bed as if the mass of rock floating above the temple had been transferred onto his broad back. Auron brushed aside a pang of regret— the broad-bladed weapon tucked under the statue's arm looked to have the weight of the one he'd lost — and selected a point just past the apex of the lens-shaped dome. His boots rang as he raced forward, leapt, and raised an ear-splitting shout timed to match the downbeat of his sword-stroke. Sparks flew. The blade's tip snapped, but the floor held.

Glowering at his reflection, Auron caught a glimpse of a different shape looming above him, four-legged, all bone and sinew and scars. Ixion, Yuna had named it. Ki-rin, to her father. Eyes like embers blazed.

Remember, guardian. Your power is to break things... and to free them.

He grunted. "Thanks." Which skill did it mean, Armor Break or Magic Break? Probably both, if he could manage it.

A second time he charged, flinging out his free arm with a shout as he brought the sword crashing down. Reflected in the glass below he saw the aeon's horn slicing upwards, mirroring his swing. The sword exploded in a shower of glowing fragments. There was a brilliant blue-white flash that burrowed through skin, marrow, and nerve. Auron went sprawling as the glass floor collapsed underfoot.

Groaning, he extricated himself from blocks of crystal strewn across the bottom of a shallow pit, covering the statue like broken chunks of ice. Pacce came running over while the others, recovering from dazed shock, began to file back around the room.

"I'm fine," he said, fending him off. "The fayth?"

Isaaru dropped to his knees at the rim, hands cupped over his heart. The chamber had darkened considerably: the pulsing glow within the glass had faded when Auron cracked it. Now the lines of electricity arcing overhead were beginning to fizzle out one by one.

"Shaken," the summoner said, "but intact. Father Kyou, I need you to help me with the Hymn of Renewal, to sustain the aeon's spirit while—"

The chamber shook again with a thunderous boom, and concussion after concussion followed.

"Sin!" Maroda said. "Isaaru, we've got to get out of here!"

Kyou gave him a scornful look.

"No... no..." Isaaru said. "Have no fear. That's Lightning Rock closing its armor around the temple and its sleeping fayth. But we have little time and much to do. Commander Elma, we are in your hands now: it is time for your engineers to work their wizardry."

"Aye, my lord." She beckoned to her crew. "You three, finish up with the doorway and start clearing away the statue. Do not touch the fayth directly. The rest of you keep working on that wagon. Pacce, run and tell the rigging team we're ready for them."

The boy saluted and headed for the stairs, pushing through stonemasons and carpenters laying rails on the steps and assembling a heavy wheeled cart in the guardians' antechamber. Auron trailed after him.

"Hey!" Maroda said. "Where are you going?"

Auron grimaced, flexing his gauntlet. "To find another sword."

They threaded their way back through the Cloister of Trials, its gleaming lines of current on the floor providing the only illumination. Decorative pillars had been removed, doorways cleared and widened, and piles of chipped stone and masonry lay scattered in careless heaps left by Elma's engineers.

"Sir Auron? Can you... do you sense Sin coming?" Pacce said.

"Sometimes."

"W-what about now?"

"No."

The youth sighed. "I almost wish it would just get here and be done."

Auron grunted. "Concentrate on the task at hand. Thinking about a foe you can't see won't help."

They had reached the landing at the back of the Great Hall. Here the light was stronger, cast by dazzling pillars of electricity dancing like fountains over crystalline plinths. To Auron's eyes, however, they seemed dimmer. When he and Pacce descended the stairs, the few remaining clergy, scurrying about like rock-squirrels in the shadows, halted and looked up anxiously.

"The fayth confirms it," Auron said, voice booming out. "Sin is coming. Lord Isaaru and Father Kyou are securing the statue against attack. You have fifteen minutes to evacuate, by order of the high priest. Move!"

They scattered at once, snatching up bundles and rushing for the exit.

"Won't you get in trouble?" Pacce whispered. "I mean, Father Kyou never said—"

"Hmph." The white-haired guardian glowered over the wall of his collar. "Who's going to tell him?"

Pacce broke into a grin. "Not me!"

Auron nodded, resting a hand on his shoulder. "Get going. Tell Isaaru I'll be outside keeping watch."

It was barely brighter outdoors. A heavy curtain of rain hung beyond the point of Mushroom Rock Ridge across the bay. Dark thunderheads formed a vast ceiling that stretched for miles, roiling over the temple like gravity-defying boulders. In the stony yard before the gates, soldiers were bustling to and fro. A line of monks, nuns, and temple orphans straggled towards the bridges spanning a narrow inlet between the temple and Djose Highroad. Black silhouettes of Crusaders fenced the edge of the cliff, facing out to sea. The steep drop hid the bay from view, but a stiff wind scoured the eyes with salt.

Auron skirted the line of evacuees and trudged towards a brigade of soldiers standing at attention. Unlined faces, not a whisker among them: evidently Yevon was still recruiting children. Their captain was haranguing them in stern tones.

"...escorting them to Moonflow Village. You are authorized to engage ochu, but don't waste men or time: your first priority is to protect civilians. Once there, erect a temporary lodge and guard the town until you receive the all-clear from Djose Command." Luzzu raised his voice over a smattering of grumbles. "Your mission is a vital part of this operation. I know that you're itching to fight Sin, and that's commendable. But I shall not be adding your names to Gatta's Wall. If I find any of you trying to sneak into the front lines, you'll be demoted to cadet and sent to Clasko's stables to muck chocobo chips. Do I make myself clear?"

"Sir!" A wave of crisp salutes answered him.

"Dismissed. Yevon watch over you." Standing confidently with arms folded, Luzzu lowered his voice as Auron walked up. "Everything in order?"

"Yes." Auron ignored the eager glances darting in his direction. "Everyone's evacuated except the high priest. He and Isaaru are securing the Chamber of the Fayth."

"Filling the whole temple with rocks, or what? I hope the commander returns some of my engineers to operate the Lightning Shield." Luzzu arched an eyebrow. "So what happened to you?"

Auron glanced down at the blood dripping from his sleeve and grunted noncommittally. Blood was preferable to pyreflies, but it still felt like a cheap counterfeit.

"Ah." Luzzu grinned wryly. "Something else the heretic Captain Luzzu isn't supposed to notice. So. Is there anything you need?"

"A sword."

"Good grief. I hope you'll fill me in after this is over." He nodded towards a small outbuilding next to the temple. "See the quartermaster in there; we're using the inn for stores."

"Thanks."

"And... Sir Auron?"

The guardian halted testily.

"Sorry about your glasses."

Auron shrugged. "At least now everyone will stop mistaking me for Al Bhed."

"Ha." He shook his head. "If you've got time afterwards, drop by the command lodge. I want to show you the bouquet I've picked out for an old friend. It's just her color."

 

Chapter Text

I want to show you the bouquet I've picked out for an old friend. It's just her color.

Luzzu's jest was salt for an old wound. Auron's time with Lulu had been too brief, too occupied by their pilgrimage to permit much idle conversation, in which neither saw much point. Whereas her friends from Besaid had shared years of her life. Still, he had seen her in battle enough to know that Luzzu was right: lightning was her favorite color.

Lightning was fine, but Auron could do without the rain. The slow drip from his white forelock was growing maddening. How long were they to stand in drizzle, tarnishing Crusaders' armor polished for a maester's arrival?

It had taken the work-crews half a day to extricate the statue from the temple cloisters. Auron's job had been to keep Luzzu away, conveniently avoiding more stonecutting duties. He had suffered himself to be led in a meticulous inspection of Djose's defenses. The day had been a blur of names, introductions, soldiers crowding around for a scrap of news or a hero's handshake.

The exhausting charade had been relieved by an unlikely visitor. Maester Lucil herself had arrived on a covered wagon to deliver "gifts of Yevon" to her troops. She must have emptied every shop and storehouse in Luca, bringing an entire cartload of armor, swords and medical supplies. Their hurried distribution threw the ordered frenzy of battle preparations into utter chaos. During the confusion, Elma's team was able to trundle the tarp-wrapped statue up the loading ramp and into the back of the wagon without anyone noticing. It was neatly done, Auron had to admit. Now if only the engineers involved did not forget their oaths of silence.

At the moment, Auron wished maesters were bound by vows of silence. Isaaru had set aside the title but not the platitudes, and could not seem to pass any concentration of Spirans without making a speech. Again Auron wondered how the man dared to invoke the name of Yevon, knowing what he knew. But at least he had been brief, and the troops seemed happy enough with the blessing. Unfortunately, the general's presence demanded more tedious boot-licking before they could be on their way.

"I can't thank you enough, Your Grace," Luzzu was saying. "Your presence is a huge boost to the troops' morale. I wish you were staying longer."

"As do I, Captain. It galls me that the Crusaders may face Sin when I can no longer lead the charge." Maester Lucil's calloused fingers tightened around the pommel of a cane whose grip was wrapped like a sword-hilt. "But you have enough duties without having to babysit senior officers. So I must go. Yet I am gratified to know my troops are in excellent hands."

Luzzu bowed his head. "Ma'am."

"He looks kinda relieved," Pacce whispered to Maroda, slouched against the side of the wagon in the temple courtyard. "Guess he's not on probation anymore, huh?"

"Nah, he's just glad to have Lucil out of his hair." Maroda ruffled Pacce's scalp, already a mass of spiky tufts from the humidity.

Isaaru nudged them. "Hush."

Commander Elma stepped forward to help Lucil onto the driver's box, maneuvering around the maester's robes with practiced efficiency. Just then, a trumpet blast sounded, echoing off the natural amphitheater behind the temple. The assembled soldiers scattered like startled fish, rushing to their posts. Cries of Sin! Siiiiiiiin! broke out along the sea-wall.

Lucil pushed herself up on Elma's shoulder, squinting out to sea with narrowed eyes. "Not good. Captain Luzzu—"

"We'll hold Sin off as long as we can, General," he said. "Get the fayth to safety. Djose will put up a good fight."

Lucil's face froze for a beat. "Lord Mi'ihen guard you and yours, Captain," she said, matching his salute. "Isaaru! Guardians! Kyou! Get in. Move!"

Swearing, Maroda seized Isaaru's belt and propelled him up the loading ramp ahead of his sputtering protests. Pacce scrambled up behind. Father Kyou stayed rooted to the spot. "I will not abandon my temple to—"

"Fine," Auron said, slamming the tailgate shut and heaving himself over it. The planks of the loading ramp clattered to the ground behind them as the wagon trundled forward.

"Tend the wounded, Kyou," Isaaru called, gripping the sides of the wagon and gazing impotently at the figures of priest and soldiers receding jerkily behind them. His guardians hastened to find seats in cramped quarters as the wheels bumped and clattered over the bridge.

"It grieves me to be abandoning them like this," Isaaru said.

"We feel the same, sir," Elma said over her shoulder, perched on the driver's bench next to Lucil. "But this is what they signed on for. Don't worry! Luzzu can look after his men now that he doesn't have to look after us!"

"Eyes forward, Commander," Lucil said. "Monitor Sin's movements. Maroda, I need you to watch behind."

"Aye." Maroda clambered over Auron's legs to peer out the back. "Defenders manning their stations along the sea walls. No sign of sinspawn."

"I don't see— wait, there," said Elma. "Sin's just off the point at Mushroom Rock Ridge. I can't tell where it's headed."

"All right." Lucil spoke in crisp tones pitched to cut through a battlefield's din. "I propose that we turn off at the crossroads to the Moonflow and observe the battle from there. The banks will provide some cover. Afterwards, we can take the fayth to Mi'ihen's Grotto or return it to the temple, depending on what happens."

"I defer to the maester's judgment," Isaaru said. He had made an art of sitting still, Auron observed. Such composure must be another part of summoner's training, feigning to ignore every jolt. The man's green eyes were fixed on the temple and cliffs dwindling into the distance behind them. In his mind, perhaps, he was already sending the dead.

"The fayth?" Auron said.

Isaaru looked down, dropping a hand to the gray canvas wrapping the statue like a shroud. "He sleeps. I do not think I should disturb him, if we are attacked. But I still have Spathi, my aeon from Bevelle."

"Good call on the crossroads, ma'am," Elma said. "Sin's barely budged. If we'd tried to reach the grotto, we'd be heading straight towards it."

A pair of chocobo riders dropped behind, guiding their mounts into a ditch to let the wagon pass. The Highroad here was narrow and meandering, shielded from the sea by a stone parapet where it ran along the cliffs or earthen berms when it veered inland.

"What's Sin waiting for?" Maroda said. "Us?"

"Maybe it's visiting the gardens," Pacce said, chuckling nervously.

Auron stiffened, cursing himself for a fool. Of course! Look for me in my garden, Auron. But here he was, trapped like a fayth under glass. "Can we commander chocobos to ride?" he said. "We're nothing but deadweight in here." There was another word he needed to strike from his vocabulary.

"Negative, sir," Elma said. "It would take too long to flag down my knights and send for extra mounts. Anyway, an escort might attract attention. With any luck—"

There was a shuddering boom that rattled the metal cage reinforcing the walls.

"What the—?" Pacce said.

"So much for Mi'ihen's Grotto," Elma said grimly. "Sin's blasted the beach and the bluffs behind it. First casualties, I'm afraid."

Lucil sighed. "Let us pray the barriers shielded some of them."

Fine drizzle, more mist than rain, obscured the contours of the land, but a thin line of fire showed the profile of Mushroom Rock Ridge. A long fence of flames marked the site of the Crusaders' camp where they had lodged the night before. Dark smoke curled upwards, fusing with the overcast sky.

"Damn," Elma said. "I've lost Sin. Look sharp, people."

"She's burning her gardens," Pacce said, dazed.

"Pacce!" Isaaru said sharply.

He blinked. "Sorry. It, I mean. But why? The Crusaders say Sin always leaves the Memorial Gardens alone when it comes by. It hasn't attacked Djose since Operation Mi'ihen."

"Lightning Shield's coming up," Maroda said. "Sinspawn falling on the causeway."

"Thank you, Captain," said Lucil.

Looking back, they could no longer see the temple, camouflaged by its rocky shell. There was a flurry of movement along the stone parapets and bridges. Rain blurred the dark writhing shapes of attackers and defenders into a heaving mass. Out over the water, a white shimmer was coalescing into quivering cords of lightning like horizontal versions of the pillars in the temple great hall. These energies were channelled on a far greater scale, spanning the whole bay with a curtain of woven light. As the shield strengthened, all the veins of electricity in the crags around the temple winked out. Hair and armor began to prickle. One particularly massive bolt began to ricochet crazily from Mushroom Ridge to Lightning Rock and all around the bay in a fading discharge, reflected by Djose Spheres embedded in the rocks above the high water mark. Thunder clashed in a bewildering tumult, reverberating off every crag and cove.

"Some bouquet," Auron said, drawing a quizzical look from Pacce.

They passed another pair of mounted knights whose raised lances were limned by a blue nimbus of sea-fire. One of them lowered his spear and pointed urgently towards the water.

Maroda leaned out, straining for a better view. "It's working!" he said. "Sin's stopped dead in the center of the bay!"

There was a distant groaning scream that made Auron wince.

"'Ware sinspawn!" Elma said. "Get ready! The wagon's armored, but they may punch through!"

The wagon rocked as something heavy struck the side. One of the chocobos squawked and kicked. Luckily, these were combat-trained birds, inured by constant exposure to the fiends along the Highroad. The wagon swayed and reeled as the chocobos put on a burst of speed. Auron grabbed Maroda's harness to keep him from tumbling out the back.

"The shield's dropping!" Pacce said. "It's losing power!"

"Yevon, no," Isaaru said, voice swelling with sudden dread. "The fayth... its energies charge the very rocks around the temple with lightning's current, but now—"

More sinscales began to pound the roof. The wagon lurched again as a wheel rolled over one. On the road behind them, blue-black flickering wings were unfurling in a fast-growing crop. Pacce flung up an arm and yelped, stung by a spine burst.

"Get down!" Auron said.

"General, we've got to get out and fight!" Maroda said.

"Nearly there, Captain. We'll take shelter at the turnoff. Let's get the fayth out of Sin's line of sight."

One of the left-hand chocobos screamed and stumbled, causing the wagon to list alarmingly towards the ocean as the right-hand pair kept running at a full clip. Lucil reined them back, checking the dangerous tilt.

"I'm on it!" Elma jumped down with an exuberant yell and pelted forward, charging into the fiend and punting it over the edge of the road. She drew her weapon and hopped onto the frightened chocobo, soothing it with her free hand. "C'mon baby... yeah, yeah, I know." She raised her sword in the signal for a cavalry charge. "He's okay. Let's go!"

"Green flares going up," Maroda said.

"Fallback signal," Lucil said, icy calm. "Good."

Then many things happened at once. A hard armored snout crashed through the roof, raining splintered wood and rivets over the passengers. To his credit, Isaaru's first instinct was to fling himself across the statue. Auron lunged up onto one knee to meet the foe, but there was no room to draw his sword. Maroda, more agile and less encumbered, raised his spear from the truck-bed and braced it like a pike, fending the creature off.

Meanwhile, Pacce, staring out the back of the wagon, gave a horrified shout. "The temple!"

Out of the corner of his eye, Auron saw Sin's white flash, the rolling shockwave at the fringes of sight, stone bridges shattering into shrapnel, a soundless explosion as all the spires of Lightning Rock came crashing down inexorably over the temple. Pillars of dust billowed up into the sky, enveloping the Crusaders engaged in the desperate melee along the sea wall.

And Lucil screamed. Yuna had made just such a sound on the peak of Mt. Gagazet, with Tidus' body at her feet and his head clutched in Seymour's jagged claws.

The wagon stuck fast, tipped to the right and smacked the high bank beside the road with a grating crunch.

"Out," Auron ordered.

Maroda struggled to hold off the fiend burrowing through the ceiling until Isaaru was clear. Pacce tumbled out the back, drawing his sword and whirling it in the figure-eight he had seen Auron use back in Kilika. That kept the nearest sinscales at bay while Auron helped Isaaru clamber out. Maroda dove out the front, scrambling to reach Lucil, who had been thrown under the tongue of the wagon. Bloody feathers and shredded harnesses were all that was left of the lead chocobos. The surviving pair shrieked and struggled in their traces. There was no sign of Elma.

Shielded from sinspawn by Auron and Pacce, Isaaru staggered around to the front of the wreck. "General—"

"I'm unscathed," she said tonelessly, lying on her side where she had fallen. "Get to safety, Isaaru."

There were more sinscales on the road ahead, but they were being swept aside by a pair of Djose knights charging towards the wagon at full gallop.

"Pacce!" Maroda said. "Where are you going?"

Pacce had eased himself over the parapet, fumbling for a foothold. "Elma's... body is down there," he said, fighting tears. "I think I can reach her."

"Guard your summoner, boy," Lucil snapped.

"Run!" Auron was moving before he knew why, grabbing Isaaru and hurling him into the ditch beside the road. He had just time to identify that achingly familiar sound, the sizzling hiss of lightning's passage, an instant before air and wood and stone exploded in a searing flash with the sound of a million shields being riven into scrap metal. Every nerve shrieked pain.

No, said Auron's fading thought. Her favorite color is what follows the lightning. That settled, he yielded to black.

Chapter Text

The sky was singing. No, not the Hymn of the Fayth. It was a simpler lullaby, rocking with the ocean's rhythm, a tune suited to a child's cradle on some lush tropical island where the afternoons were drowsy and sweet. Auron wondered what had put that image into his mind, monastery raised as he was. A nun had sung over him once, laving his fevered brow while he lay on a hard pallet fighting chills after spending the night on Lake Macalania for the sake of a dare.

The soft hand stroking his brow paused. "I don't think I'd like being a nun, Auron."

He opened his eyes or his mind— it was the same thing in Sin's in-between world, this web of dreams and memories halfway between Spira and the Farplane— to darkness and the glimmer of Lulu's shoulders. Her arms were bare, but she was clad this time in something approximating her formal black gown, a strange blend of minx and mourning attire. The belts forming her skirt were more tightly-woven, showing no flash of skin. Her hair fell in a wild mass to the ground, mingling with the bed of vines and briars where he lay. The perfect line of her jaw made him want to compose a catechism, and he choked on his own laughter at the ridiculous sentiment. She laughed with him, lips curving in that rare unguarded smile he had witnessed only a handful of times.

"Thank you for coming, Auron."

Gradually Auron's eyesight acclimated to her present reality. There was no sky, only a blindness when the eye strayed upward. It had more of a quality of darkness than light, but it was only a matter of interpretation, like those riddle-glyphs that could be a cup or two faces in silhouette.

He recognized the profile of Mushroom Rock Ridge in the bluffs behind her. He lay on a ghostly facsimile of Djose Beach, its battle-scarred humps and hillocks overrun by ivy, trailing creepers, pungent rosemary, spears of tropical plants with sword-shaped leaves, purple hibiscus and luminous moon-lilies, and the crystalline spikes of Macalania trees. Everywhere, in burgeoning profusion greater than all the rest, tumbled sprays of ghost-white roses fringed with salt.

Blanketing this landscape like a dim mirage was a field of flickering flames, dancing from red to blue and back again, burning without consuming Sin's unholy garden. A gentle rain was falling. Now and again a spiderweb of lightning rippled across the bluffs behind them.

"No snow," Auron observed, watching Lulu's pleased smile broaden as he solemnly surveyed her handiwork.

"Silly." She leaned across him and snapped off a twig from one of the Macalania saplings, tracing his cheek with its icy tip. He shivered at a memory: the mage used to apply her elemental magics in the most wicked ways. But the clink of the black manacles binding her wrists snapped him back to the present. He sat up with a grimace and closed his fingers around the metal cuffs, giving the short length of chain between them an experimental tug.

Lulu shook her head, face tranquil and remote. "It's easier now," she said. "The more I yield to him, the fewer the chains. I'll be free soon."

"Not that way," Auron said forcefully.

"Shhh." The mage raised her hands to his face, palms barely grazing his stubble. "Rest now. Walk with me in my garden, Auron. We'll fight soon enough."

They stood up together, helping each other. Lulu plucked a cluster of roses and clasped them before herself in a demure feminine gesture that reminded him of Yuna.

Casting off the left side of his coat as he did going into battle, Auron slipped his arm lightly around her waist. "After you."

"My hero." She glided off. "Watch your step."

Bones hidden by the dark vegetation crunched underfoot as they strolled side by side. Gray stones poked up through the green carpet at staggered intervals. Each marker was carved with a single name. Auron recognized a few.

"You've been busy," he said. Raising his line of sight, he saw that this beach was infinitely more vast than the one at Djose where a generation of Crusaders had died. The tangled carpet of plants spread out as far as the darkness permitted the eye to roam. Sin's graveyard garden spanned the whole ocean.

"They're not all mine," Lulu said, white feet stepping daintily over a skull netted in wild strawberries. "Most are my predecessors' victims. I've been using my leisure time to learn all their names. Spira tries so hard to forget the dead; someone ought to remember them all." She paused to brush her lips against his shoulder before moving on.

The bare touch made Auron flinch. Her dress seemed to mute the effect, but the sleeping forces in her flesh were dangerously palpable now that Sin's power augmented them. Auron ignored the pleasant ache, as he often had in the last days of their pilgrimage.

"You never wasted time on regret," he reminded her. "You said it was 'pointless to think about, and sad.'"

"That was when I had something to live for." She shrugged. "Sin can't regret much, Auron. It's simple acknowledgement. Death is who I am. And I have a great deal of time on my hands, these days."

"Hmph."

Auron was content to let her lead him in an aimlessly meandering path. A few butterflies flickered past. She steered him around the red ones with a scolding glance, as if to say, Have you forgotten? Finally, Lulu paused before a bare, empty stone leaning against another that vines had nearly covered. She bent to place the bouquet of roses on the rock-face with care. Crackling like brittle slate, a pair of glyphs appeared and chewed into the stone's flesh beneath her hands. "Hardly a match for the bouquet he gave me," she said. "I shall have to try to capture its color. I forgave Luzzu long ago, you know."

Auron's arm tightened around her waist. "He said you sent Wakka away. Where is Wakka now?"

She looked up, mouth setting into a thin line. "I'd rather not tell you, Auron."

Her expression grew more peevish as he burst out with a dry, rolling laugh. "What?" she snapped.

"Nothing," he said, smirking under her baleful glare. "I missed you. Lulu, I want to talk to him."

"He doesn't want to talk to you." She chewed her lip, turning away from the tombstone. "I don't want to get him involved, Auron. And I don't think it's wise for you to seek him."

"Wisdom and strength won't solve this, Lulu. Otherwise you'd have succeeded, and Yuna would still be alive. We need something else. Something he knows better than I."

She looked up in astonishment, expression softening to tenderness. "You underestimate yourself, Auron. Besides, I loved Yuna more than my own life. That is, after all, the error all true guardians make—"

"Exactly."

Her chin lifted. "Ah." She went quiet, withdrawing into herself and considering. Auron waited. Finally, she gave a minute nod and began to walk again, expression now preoccupied.

For a while he savored the silence, the eldritch beauty of the garden of death and its sole occupant, the simple act of walking without direction. Her wild mane brushing against his arm brought back memories of moments beyond words when she had showed him a glimpse of the life he'd missed. But there were still questions he ought to ask, and the queasy feeling in his stomach told him this timeless dream would end soon.

"Lulu. Why is Yu Yevon destroying the temples?"

"That is not his doing." Her eyes flashed and her pace quickened. "He cares not what I do, so long as he endures. Although he likes it well that Spira has begun to worship Sin. If I am strong enough, he may be content to keep me a long time.

"No, I wiped out the temples. Not for myself, but for Yuna's sake and Kimahri's, and for Lord Braska and Sir Jecht and his son, and for you, too, Auron— for you most of all. Yevon banished and dishonored you in life, then made a hero of you in death. It did the same to Yuna. I mean to make Yevon atone for its crimes!

"It's vengeance, Auron, and nothing else. When I am done, Sin will be eternal, and that cowardly religion will have crumbled under the weight of its own lies. You ought to help me, you know." She looked up at him keenly, and for a moment a different note came into her voice: a ghost of a plea behind the cold pride. "Help me."

Auron pulled away, searching her face that seemed now more like an image of graven bone. The world had been growing hazy as she spoke, obscured by a glowing golden mist like Farplane clouds. His time was almost up. Auron clasped her hands and raised them to his lips, thumbs resting on cold metal. "I will."

Her true smile reappeared. "I know you will. Please give Wakka my love—"

At her final word, the golden light grew unbearably bright. A battering heat washed over him as the dream-world burned away.

I heard you, Lulu. I hope Yu Yevon didn't.

Auron awoke on burning sand. As his eyes acclimated to the real world, he realized there was no fire, only hot sun. A knot of tension he did not realize he had been holding loosed itself as he sat up, fighting numb limbs still jangling from lightning's kiss.

The blazing wastes of Bikanel's desert were a jarring change from Lulu's midnight garden, but anything was better than Zanarkand, where he had feared Wakka might be. Twisting around to get his bearings, he spotted a glint of bright green between the dunes.

Auron slogged towards it. Cresting a dune, he gazed down in astonishment. The outline of the oasis' rocky pool was unchanged, but the sparse, spindly desert flowers and scaly yuccas around it had been replaced by a garden more lush than the one he had just left, exuberantly alive and full of vibrant color. There were enormous flowers, there were fleshy vines, there was even grass in the desert, winking with tiny blue flowers between his boots. A dense grove of fruit trees scaled the dunes opposite. He saw oranges, figs, other fruits vaguely remembered from a mission to the islands south of Bevelle. Stumbling forward, he felt an odd pop and looked down to find he was trampling on squash.

"Hey!" That was not Wakka, but the youthful voice sounded familiar. "Watch where you're walkin', mister!"

"Sorry," Auron said, looking around for the speaker. His legs were still not working properly. Before he could correct his balance, he went tumbling down the slope. He crashed through rows of melons, string beans and beets until he fetched up against one of the only remaining cactuses in the whole oasis. He wasn't sure how, but he thought petulantly that even that was part of Lulu's design. She had a discerning knack for detail.

A high-pitched squeal had punctuated his fall. Blinking up at the stridently blue sky, Auron found himself squinting at a heart-shaped face and a pair of mismatched eyes, green and brown. Peering down at him under a mop of strawberry-blond hair, a little girl puckered her lower lip and tilted her head in a manner he recognized at once. "Hi!" she said brightly. "Where're you people comin' from?"

Auron was not the least surprised when a lanky boy sporting a flame-red crest bounded into view and yanked her back with a sharp, "Yunie!"

"Hey!" she yipped, pawing at him.

Ten and seven, Auron guessed, opting to lie quietly and let Lulu's design play itself out. He started to reconsider when the boy placed a sandaled foot on his collar.

"Get Pops," the boy said, glaring down at Auron.

"Vidina, stop it!" said the girl, pouting. "It's not nice to step on people!"

At least the boy did not weigh very much. "We don't know who he is, Yunie. Go get Pops. He might be a Yevon." He set his hands on his hips.

"I think he's a nice man," the girl said obstinately. "Look, he wears red too." She tugged at Auron's sleeve. "What's your name, mister?"

Finally, Auron heard the voice he had been waiting for. "Yuna? Vidina? What are you two up to, eh? You better not be messin' with Mum's tomat—"

Auron could not see much from his current position, but he had a good idea of the man's expression.

"Oh."

Eloquent as ever, Wakka. Auron could almost hear Lulu's voice in his ear.

Pinned under a child whose father might take any sudden moves amiss, the guardian lay still and counted seconds, wondering if Wakka had lost his aversion to grenades. The explosion was not long in coming.

"Get the HELL away from him!" Spluttering, he bounded towards them, blundering through vegetation on the far side of the pool. "Vidina! Take your sister back to the house, quick! You tell Mum to close dat door and don' let anybody in 'cept me, ya?"

Vidina skittered backwards and grabbed his sister's hand, craning his head to watch as he started dragging her away. Auron coughed and massaged his neck, sitting up gingerly. Wakka was bounding around the rocks at the water's edge like a charging dual-horn. He carried no grenades, at least, but the barrel of the weapon clutched in the crook of his arm looked almost broad enough to fire them.

"Don't you move," Wakka said, planting his feet and bracing the gun on his shoulder. "Vidina, what you waitin' for? Get goin', both o' you. I mean now."

"Lulu says—" Auron began tiredly.

"I don' wanna hear it!" Wakka said, clenching his teeth to keep from shouting. His eyes darted after the children, watching them scamper away. He waited until the sound of their footsteps had dwindled, then stalked forward until the gun's snout was nearly touching Auron's nose. "I donno know why you came here, old man, but I'm not gonna let you screw up my family. Weren't Lu an' Yuna enough? Rikku's gonna be mad at me, and I guess I'm sorry, but I'm gonna do what I shoulda done thirteen years ago."

Auron heard the soft click of a safety catch being released. On the whole, he reflected, it was usually best to heed the wisdom of black mages.

 



I am utterly stunned and grateful to [info]cumuluscastle for this painting.
Link to view full-sized version.

Chapter Text

I have become his Yunalesca.

Auron no longer knew what it meant to face death, but he knew what it meant to face a friend's murderer. He had a perverse wish to yield Wakka the satisfaction of revenge.

An image of Kinoc's bland face swam before Wakka's seething glare. Were the pyreflies playing tricks again? No, Wakka had put on weight, but his traces of flab showed only the fruits of living well, not living off others like a tick on Yevon's ass.

Wakka's fingers tightened on the trigger, but Auron's words had found their mark. "All right," he said, sounding irked at himself. "Tell me what Lulu said."

"And then you'll kill me?"

"You got it!"

"Not much motivation, then." Auron took a deep breath, attentive to the simple act in case it was his last for a while. "She told me to give you her love."

"Ku du ramm!" Wakka's glower darkened even further at Auron's faint smirk. "You think dis is funny, eh? Yeah, I'm Al Bhed now. They don' lie to their own people, they don't guilt you into being good with a pile of religious crap, and they care about protecting family more than anything in the world, Sir Auron." Auron was impressed by his ability to heap so much scorn onto a simple title. "So, you supposed to 'give me her love.' Now dat's funny. Like you could ever give love to anybody." Wakka was all but bellowing now. "And you know what? If it wasn't for you, we wouldn't even be having this conversation!"

Auron deflected his retort towards the absurd tautology. "Lulu would still have chosen this path. She followed Yuna."

"And so dat's supposed to make it all right, eh? Happy Festival Fireworks and all dat? Lulu stuck inside dat thing forever, while I try to make the life she can't, raise a family, be a good daddy, be happy all the time she's out there somewhere bein' Sin?"

Better than going to Zanarkand, Auron wanted to say, but that wasn't quite true. Raising Tidus for Jecht's sake had been the only oath he had ever gotten right. The boy had died, but at least he had lived.

Releasing the trigger to wipe his eyes, Wakka went on in more subdued tones. "You saw little Yunie, ya? Sometimes she tells me what Lu's thinkin', where she is right now makin' rain or snow or the flowers grow. I donno whether Yunie's makin' it all up— she's only seven— but she's got the talent. She's gonna be a healer. But no way is she gonna be a summoner. And I'm not lettin' anybody mess her up with talk about aeons, guardians, pilgrimages."

"So you've been protecting her with a lie, and now you're willing to kill to protect that lie?" Auron snorted. "Sounds familiar."

"Shut up." Wakka resettled the weapon on his shoulder and braced himself. "Man, you better not come back like Seymour."

I can't promise that. Could he? The long-ignored whisperings in the back of his mind stirred like hungry pyreflies, worms gnawing at his will.

Rikku's clear voice rang out, banishing the whispers. "Wakka, no."

The weapon's muzzle dipped as Wakka looked up, haunted eyes drawn towards the top of the dune where Auron had just taken a tumble. "Rikku," he said, cupping the name with tenderness. "I... I know it's wrong. But he deserves it, just like Seymour. Maybe more. Seymour was crazy, but Sir Auron—"

"You're not a murderer, Wakka," she said quietly.

His bluster visibly bled away, sinking through desperation to defeat. "I know." Sighing, he opened his hands. The gun hit the ground with a thud, narrowly missing a row of cabbages.

Auron had forgotten just how quickly the big man could move. Before Auron could rise, Wakka reared back and landed a punch across his jaw that felt like it had armor break behind it. The white-haired guardian flew backwards and struck the slope behind him. More vegetables paid the price. Auron found himself staring up a pair of long skinny legs and—

Auron shut his eyes quickly before Wakka found another reason to hit him.

"Dope." Rikku stepped over Auron with an exasperated sigh, walked over and wrapped her arms around Wakka as far as they would reach. She drew him into a long, unselfconscious kiss that left him beet-red by the time Auron judged it was safe to look. He saw that she had sprouted into an attractive young woman, with golden braids down past her shoulders (imitating Lulu, he guessed), lean curves, and a relaxed self-assurance in striking contrast to Wakka's fragile bravado. They wore matching yellow jumpsuits of an Al Bhed style that Auron had always found ridiculous, with cutouts and straps baring so much skin that it was a wonder their wearers wasted time putting them on. Rikku's was practically a bikini. It suited her, of course. Whereas Wakka bulged. Nonetheless...

"You look well," Auron said to both of them, and meant it. A third time he picked himself up, stiff and wobbly-kneed.

"Oh for goodness' sake," Rikku said, coming forward to help him up. "Anybody else running around out there? We've already found whassername, the chocobo lady."

"I don't know," Auron said. One of the little girl's remarks suddenly clicked. "Elma. Is she alive?"

"I don' want Sir Auron in our house," Wakka said stubbornly.

"And I don't want him bumbling around in the garden like a drunken shoopuf." Rikku picked up the gun and handed it back to her husband, coaxing. "C'mon, Wakka. We can handle it. He can't make us do anything we don't want to, right? He's a big jerkfaced idiot who goes straight for trouble and doesn't have the sense to avoid a battle that's gonna get friends killed, but he's not gonna eat the kids."

He slung the strap over his shoulder, grumbling, "Maybe...but if he says one word to Yuna about—"

"Then you hit him." She patted his arm and turned back to Auron. "So yeah. Elma's chewed up pretty bad, but I think she'll make it. Looks like she went through an ore shredder. What hit you guys, anyway?"

"Lulu."

"Oh. Right." Rikku made a face. "Let's get you back to the house. I've got a few Al Bhed potions left, though I just used a ton of 'em."

"Thanks."

She nudged Wakka. "You gonna be okay if I send the kids back out to finish collecting ingredients? At this rate we're gonna need 'em sooner rather than later."

He gave a grudging nod. Rikku winked at Auron, reached for Wakka's hand and set off towards the orchard.

Lagging behind, Auron watched the easy way they moved together, clasped hands swinging as Rikku trotted light-footed beside her trudging husband. Despite Wakka's fuming silence, Auron saw in them an echo of Yuna and Tidus, of Anna and Braska, perhaps even of Lulu and Chappu, whom he had never known save through Lulu's rare circumspect reminiscences. No wonder Lulu had been so reluctant to bring him here. She was still a guardian.

"Hey," Rikku said. "Lulu's not...still hanging around here, is she?"

"I doubt it."

"Phew." She squeezed Wakka's hand comfortingly. "We get the rains, but she never comes anywhere near us. At least, not since—"

"She's always been careful," Wakka said numbly.

They followed a meandering path up a huge dune covered with a thin layer of chalky soil, blue-eyed grass and a stand of slender young trees about twice Auron's height. Rikku picked a few mangoes as they passed among the trees, pressing one into Wakka's empty hand. Descending the far side, they came to a circular courtyard paved in sandstone, freshly swept. Auron guessed from a few pipes rising out of the pavement that it covered a large cistern. The lush vegetation of the oasis petered out here, but the flowering grass overflowed the orchard and spilled out into the sand.

On the far side of the courtyard was another huge dune, straddling the abrupt transition from oasis to desert. Its steep face was pierced by a thick sandstone arch, supporting a short tunnel with a door at the back. Recessed windows framed by smaller stone arches cut into the sides of the dune at regular intervals. A crop of antennas, pipes and vents marked the buried structure as Al Bhed, but the soft green carpet of grass anchoring the roof gave the house a more welcoming feel than most Al Bhed architecture.

"Well, here we are!" Rikku said brightly. "Pretty cool, huh? We started a fad with it."

"Hm." Auron had forgotten what a human home looked like. The last one, and in fact the only one where he had spent any length of time, was Jecht's houseboat. As if stumbling across one of Jecht's old spheres, Auron remembered with a jolt the swelling pride he had felt when passing such places on Braska's pilgrimage, be it fishermen's shacks or the stilt-houses of Kilika, Macalania snow-huts or the lavish mansions of Bevelle. Homes like these had been what Braska and he intended to die for.

Gruff and wary, Wakka spoke up as their footsteps boomed across the hollow pavement. "So, Auron. Where you been, anyway?"

"Gagazet."

"For thirteen years?" Rikku said. "Doing what?"

"Guarding the Ronso."

"Oh, cool."

Looking after the survivors of Seymour's genocide had been the least Auron could do to honor Kimahri, after the Ronso warrior had spent ten years selflessly fulfilling one of Auron's broken promises. Gagazet's lonely heights had given Auron a place to rest and to fight, far away from the madness of spherecams and fans petitioning him for training, fiend hunting, letters of recommendation and endorsements, all the odd jobs he had used to pay for Tidus' expenses until the boy grew up. Training Ronso cubs for combat had been engrossing, enjoyable despite the broken bones. It had helped keep him sane.

The door opened inwards on a large oval living room, an all-purpose hub furnished with sofas, low tables and squishy chairs at one end, a kitchenette and sit-down dining area in the other. In the middle was a hot tub covered by a locked grating. Tendrils of steam curled up through the grill and added moisture to the dry air. The archway opposite the front door opened onto a hallway that hugged the walls of the living room like a belt, presumably leading to bathrooms, bedrooms and storage rooms cut like spokes into adjacent dunes.

Vidina and Yuna crowded forward and wrapped around their parents' legs, bombarding them with questions. Yuna, at least, seem delighted the "red man" was staying for now. They bounced from one piece of furniture to the next, tagging after their parents until Rikku shooed them out to collect herbs. A five-year-old boy and a four-year-old girl, Etta and Mbelu, completed Wakka and Rikku's growing family. These two seemed less interested in their visitor than in building a block city in the deep-silled oval window behind the sofa.

Rikku pressed Auron to take a potion and disappeared into the back of the house while Wakka bustled around the kitchen, keeping a sharp eye on their guest. Auron sank gratefully into a chair that resembled a shaggy brown bag. He nodded when Rikku popped her head out of the hallway to say that Elma was still unconscious, and that "you boys" were to keep out while she finished changing the woman's bandages. By the time the light meal of fruits and spiced meats was served, the Legendary Guardian was snoring.


Chapter Text


The children were a blessing and balm to the spirit, apart perhaps from Etta, who had roused Auron by targeting his belt as a landing pad from the windowsill. They swirled around the dining room table, under no particular orders to stick to their own seats or plates as long as no food wound up on the floor or in each other's hair. (This latter rule required occasional reinforcement.) The younger children's chatter was largely in Al Bhed, apparently reflecting a switch in the household's primary language. To Wakka's annoyance, Yuna quickly latched onto Auron with a child's knack for sensing parental disapproval. Her father watched tensely while Auron answered endless questions about Ronso cubs and snow.

After the meal, Auron atoned for the damage to the garden by washing the dishes. Rikku went to work on a new batch of potions. Fleeing the stench of Al Bhed alchemy and their unwelcome guest, Wakka took the children out to the oasis for a swim. As soon as they were gone, Rikku cornered Auron in the kitchen and proceeded to grill him on recent events. For once, he was willing to speak frankly; there were only a few secrets left that Rikku did not already know. His report on the Djose operation left her shaking her head.

"Agh! Stupid Crusaders. Didn't they learn anything last time?"

"They learned to duck."

"Fat lot of good that does when Lulu kicks into overdrive. Walls block some energy attacks, but when she goes ultima on your ass, you'd better be ten miles away. That Lightning Shield sounds buff, though. I may have to smuggle somebody over there for a look. Of course, for all we know, she just soaked it up and shot it back at you."

Auron shrugged and moved to the flatware. "That's possible."

"Rrrgh. Getting usable info out of you is like getting intelligence from my brother." She looked up from the pot she was stirring. "So anyway. My real question is, what brought you here? And if you say 'Lulu,' this spoon is going right up your nose."

Auron applied himself to the scouring-rag.

"Hmph," she mimicked, rolling her eyes. "Okay, Mr. Legendary Pants, I want an answer. Lulu's steered clear of Bikanel for years. In fact, we think she's been trying to shield us; she targets Yevon ships every time they come this way. So... did you put her up to this? Why?"

"Yes. You know why, Rikku," Auron said. "I need your help. I need Wakka's advice. He knows her best."

"Wakka won't help," Rikku said. "Unless you've got a plan to free her...but even then, he wouldn't trust you."

"Do you?"

"Of course not!" She rapped the back of his head with the spoon. "You'll do whatever it takes. Whatever you think is necessary. We've got family to think about. And Wakka, he..." she sighed. "Look. It's not fair to leave Lulu like this. But killing her isn't the answer. After the kids are grown, maybe Wakka and I can find a way to get her out. But we're not gonna help you kill Lulu just so you can put someone else in her place. Who's it gonna be this time, Auron? That Elma lady... is that why you're travelling with her?"

"No. Her abduction by Sin was an accident, I think. But Lulu needs our help now. It's not just Djose that's been hit; Lulu's been targeting all the temples. Soon, summoners will no longer have any aeons left to fight her."

"Well, good!" Rikku said. "Wish she'd listened to me sooner. I don't see the problem, Auron."

"Dozens died at Djose, Rikku," he said. "Hundreds more on the southern islands. She obliterated Besaid. This isn't what Lulu wants."

"Ugh." She addressed herself diligently to the foul-smelling concoction, pondering. "I'm sorry, Auron, but that's what Sin does. You know what your problem is? You know Yevon's a sham, but you still think you've got some righteous mandate to fix everything. You can't stop the weather, you can't stop people being idiots, and you can't stop Sin. They're just—" Rikku paused. "Ah, hell. She's targeting the fayth?"

"Yes."

"Vilg." She dropped a lid over the pot she had been stirring. "Watch this. I need to make a call. If it starts to boil over, turn the heat down to sixty. If it does boil over, run."

Hurrying to the other end of the room, Rikku reached for a sphere sitting on a side table. There was a flurry of curses. After rummaging around for a base to set it on, she tapped the sphere and plopped down on a chair in front of it. She switched to Al Bhed for the call, but Auron could follow most of it.

"Linna? Hey, Linna— yeah, what? Sure, everything's cool! It's just that...oh. Oops. Sorry, Wakka left the sphere off the charger again. Could you get Pops? Great, thanks for warning me." Sprawling sideways across the armrests, Rikku kicked her feet in the air and waited.

Finally, Cid's voice bellowed through the static. "Rikku! Where in Spira have you been? We've been trying to reach you for—"

"Sorry, Pops. I left the commsphere off the charger. We're fine, okay? Sin didn't touch us. Wakka's got the kids outside swimming. But listen, Pops, I've got news. Sin's attacking all the temples of Yevon. All the fayth. It may be headed for Baaj next."

"What? Are you certain? Who told you this?"

She hesitated. "Sir Auron, Pops. He just washed up here."

"You're kidding! Why didn't that blockheaded husband of yours—"

"Pops," she said sternly. "You have to evacuate, NOW. I don't know how much time you've got."

"Roger that." There was a pause. "You all stay put, kiddo; no sense in coming down here 'til Sin's blown past us. Hug your babies for me. But once this is over, you bring Auron to me. You hear me? He and I have unfinished business, and it's long past time for him to pay up!"

"Uh," she said, glancing towards the kitchen. "Okay, Pops. Now scram, please?"

"You bet. Home out."

Rikku trotted back to the kitchen and her concoction just as the lid began to quiver ominously. She seized the pot and transferred it to a cool burner. "Sorry," she said. "You wanna take your chance with the sand wyrms, you know where the door is."

A soft chime sounded in the hallway.

"It's all right. I should apologize." Auron toweled off the last plate and put it away. "Your people have time to evacuate. It will take Sin a few hours to reach Baaj."

"Well, yeah, but you've been here a few hours." She sighed. "No, you're right. They'll be fine. We've got a good evacuation plan and plenty o' practice. I just hope she doesn't wreck everything; this Home's even better than the last one." Setting the pot on a centrifuge and locking the lid, she flipped a switch to set it spinning and moved to the sink to wash her hands. "There. That chime means Elma's awake; wanna come check on her?"

Rikku led Auron into the back of the house, opening a door at the end of the hallway. "Whoa-whoa, lady, don't you be gettin' up yet. You'll pop a seam." She scooted in and moved to the raised cot which filled most of the room. A crib— decked out with fresh blankets and a mobile of ribbons as if awaiting another occupant, Auron noticed— had been shoved into the hallway. "Hiya. Name's Rikku."

Elma, bracing herself against the walls and struggling to sit up, gave a strained smile as Rikku slipped an arm behind her shoulders. "Thanks." Her voice sounded raspy. Her face was covered with patches of smelly green ointment, and her arms and upper body were wrapped in bandages that disappeared under the blankets, but Elma seemed to have all her limbs. "Don't... remember you, soldier. Good work."

"We're not in Djose," Auron said, standing in the doorway.

"S-sir?" She turned her head slightly and winced. "Status report, please?"

"We were carried to another place by Sin. Rikku is Al Bhed. Former guardian to Lady Yuna."

"Ah...oh?" Elma peered at the younger woman's eyes. "Thought... that name was familiar."

"Ex guardian," Rikku said firmly. "Nevermind. Look, Auron's filled me in. You might pass out before you dig the whole story out o' him, so basically: a pack of sinspawn pulled you off the wagon and nearly tore you in half, Sin dropped a cliff on Djose Temple, we don't know how many Crusaders were squashed, and Sin yanked you halfway across Spira. I found you here the next day bleeding on our front porch. Here being Bikanel Island." Rearranging the pillows one-handed as she spoke, Rikku eased Elma back in a sitting position and patted her shoulder. "Did you get all that?"

"I think so." The woman sat staring at the blankets, absorbing the news. "We failed, then. Failed them." A fit of coughing doubled her over with pain for half a minute before she could whisper, "Yevon guide the fallen."

"I'm sorry," Rikku said with some feeling, reaching for a tumbler on the nightstand. "Here, drink this. It'll settle your stomach. I had to use a lot o' potions on you. Ours work faster and pack a lot more punch, but they're rough on the system after the buzz wears off. You're gonna feel like crap for a while."

"Thank you, Rikku." The knight swallowed the drink gingerly. "What about Isaaru?" Her voice rose and cracked. "Lucil?"

"Unknown," Auron said. "The wagon was hit by lightning. Isaaru was farther away than I. Lucil was closer."

"No." Elma's eyes squeezed shut, damming tears. Rikku took the cup slipping from her hand before it spilled on the blankets. "How far is it back to Djose?"

"Far. We're several days west of Moonflow North by ship." Auron folded his arms. "I'm sorry."

"Huh?" Elma's jaunty smile looked ghastly under the oily green salve. "Oh, don't worry, sir. The general's alive; I'm sure of it! I'm just worried about my troops."

"You still suck at cheering people up," Rikku muttered to Auron.

The front door flew open with a loud thump. Shrieking, laughing children burst into the house. Elma started at the commotion, cocking an eyebrow at Sir Auron.

"That was quick," Rikku said. "Um...excuse me. Need to corral some cactuars. Back in a minute. Move, ya big meanie." She squeezed past Auron and scooted down the hallway. "Hey, hey, no running— Vidina! Mbela! You're soaking wet! Everybody up! Get towels and dry off before you sit on the furniture! And put some clothes on; we've got guests!" The sounds of chaos faded several decibels as she took charge.

A moment later, Wakka popped his head into the small room, gripping the doorframe. His hair was dripping, and he was clothed only in a towel and sandals. Breathing hard, he drew himself up for another serving of vitriol, then spotted Elma sitting up against the pillows. He ducked his head. "Uh. Hi. Sorry, ma'am. Good t' see you're in one piece." Then he turned to Auron, growling, "You didn't think to mention you'd gotten a new summoner, eh?"

Chapter Text

Auron stepped out into the late afternoon sun and squinted, ears still ringing from Wakka's marching orders. In the scant shade of the fruit trees, Isaaru and Maroda were waiting, the one meditating, the other pacing.

Maroda tensed at the scrape of the door. "Oh. It's you." A note of challenge had crept back into his voice, and he kept both hands on his spear as Auron trudged towards them. "What's going on?"

"Sir Auron." Isaaru bowed. "I'm relieved to see you unharmed. When we awoke in this Yevon-forsaken waste, we feared the worst. What is this place? We seem to have flustered the natives."

"Bikanel Island," Auron said. "Former Home of the Al Bhed."

"Ah! That would explain their alarm," said Isaaru. "Sir Auron, have you seen Pacce or the rest of our party?"

"Elma's inside. No sign of the others."

"Elma!" Maroda said. "I thought we'd lost her. That's something, at least."

Isaaru exchanged an apprehensive glance with his brother. "May we come inside? The man we met at the oasis seemed uneasy, but he invited us to follow. He told us to wait while he spoke to his wife of our arrival."

"Somehow, you don't look much like the wife," Maroda said. "Say, am I crazy, or wasn't that Sir Wakka? He shooed off the kids and bolted before we had a chance to talk."

"Correct," Auron said. "Isaaru, listen. Wakka has renounced Yevon. His wife is Yuna's cousin Rikku, an Al Bhed. They blame Yuna's death on Yevon...and on me."

"That is unfortunate," Isaaru said. "I had hoped we might solicit the aid of the Al Bhed. Maester Baralai has been working towards an alliance with them for months. Our need is now imperative. Without aeons, we can only defeat Sin with machina."

"First things first," Maroda said. "Are they going to let us in? I want to start searching for Pacce, but we need information— and supplies— before we tackle this desert."

"You may enter," Auron said, "as long as you promise not to mention summoners, guardians, or anything to do with the pilgrimage in front of the children. After losing Lulu and Yuna, Wakka is determined not to let his children follow in their footsteps."

"Lulu?" said Maroda. "Isn't that the gal—"

"Another of Yuna's guardians," Auron said. "It would be best not to mention her, either."

"So, basically, we should take a vow of silence," Maroda said.

"Nay, we need merely follow Sir Auron's lead," Isaaru said, eyes twinkling. "Say little and offer more questions than answers. Maroda, please set aside your weapon. Perhaps our conduct will ease their fears."

With some reluctance, Maroda left his spear propped against the entryway and followed Auron inside. As they filed into the living room, there was a burst of giggling from several pieces of furniture. Only one person was visible: Etta, standing stiffly in the hallway with his back to the door. His arms were spread, bent at the elbow with one hand up, one down. He spun around as they entered. "Muug uid! E's y Cactuar!"

Two beanbag chairs and a pile of pillows tittered. Isaaru stepped forward, smiling. "Oh? Well, I'm very pleased to meet—"

"Zap-zap-zap-zap-zap!" Etta crowed, leaning towards them and pointing with outstretched fingers. "Oui suja, oui muca!"

"You move, you lose!" echoed the mound of pillows.

Isaaru was caught off-balance only for a moment. Then he clutched his chest and staggered sideways, gasping, "My brother, help! The needles, they burn!"

"What the—?" Maroda grabbed his elbow to keep him from crashing into a rack of goggles and sand-jackets hanging by the front door.

Shrieks of laughter erupted, and the other children popped out from their hiding places. Stepping into the doorway behind Etta, Rikku set her hands on his shoulders. "Great job, Etta! Welcome, guests! It's Isaaru, right? Sorry for the sticky reception."

Wakka appeared behind her in the hallway, frowning. He had exchanged his towel for baggy blue trousers. Old battle scars on his bare chest were a silent warning as he folded his arms.

"Lady Rikku. Sir Wakka." Isaaru bowed deeply, offering Yevon's sign. "It is an honor to meet you. My brother Maroda and I are grateful for your hospitality...and your tolerance. We will not speak of sad memories, but please tell your people that the new maesters offer a formal apology. Yevon wishes to atone for the injuries it has done your people in the past."

"Oh, yeah?" Wakka said. "Kinda late to be sayin' dat now, eh?"

"Weeeeell, actually, they've said it a few times lately," Rikku said. "That Baralai guy's been kissing up to Pops for months. I think he wants something." She shook her head and walked into the room, steering Etta towards his siblings. "Wakka and I aren't really into politics, but thanks for the thought."

"He's a Yevon?" Vidina demanded, crawling out from the nest of pillows.

"Yeah, but don't worry," Wakka said. "He's not the really bad kind. Otherwise I woulda zapped his butt when he first showed up."

"Zap-zap-zap-zap!" said Mbela, launching herself at Etta with outstretched fingers as he hopped up on the sofa. A tickle war erupted. Squeals, thumps, and more giggles provided a surreal distraction for those lately come from the devastation of Djose.

"Are they Auron's friends?" Yuna asked, edging away from the free-for-all as Vidina flung himself onto the other two with a shout.

"Yes," Auron said.

"Hm." Wakka massaged the back of his neck. "Well, uh, have a seat. Dining room's safer until the cactuars run out o' juice. I'll get some drinks, ya? You gotta be dyin' in those robes."

"Thank you," Isaaru said.

Maroda cleared his throat. "Excuse me, but have you some way to scan the area? We had two more people with us before we got dragged here, and we haven't seen either of them. One's our baby brother."

"Aw, shoot." Wakka's face fell. "Rikku, can we break out the hover?"

"Hang on!" Rikku bounced towards the commsphere, rescuing it from flailing limbs. "We can't scan the whole desert, but I can check the spherecams at all the emergency shelters. This won't take long. In the meantime, shouldn't you be checking on Chocobo Lady? She's off at the end of the hallway, recuperating. I bet she's itchin' to say hello."

"Recuperating?" Isaaru said.

"Ya, you new maesters should take better care of your Crusaders," Wakka said. He waved towards the hall. "Through there. Last door on the right by the baby crib."

Etta and Mbela came tumbling off the sofa to try their luck on their sister, since Vidina had climbed into the windowsill and was keeping them at bay with his feet. "Safe zone!" Yuna squeaked, diving under Auron's coat and wrapping herself around his legs. "No noogies!"

"Awww," Etta and Mbela said in unison, staring up at the imposing figure.

Auron looked down and dropped a hand to the girl's hair, recalling another tousled blond head. "I'll wait here," he told Isaaru.

"You'll have to introduce us later," Isaaru said with a smile.

Sitting cross-legged on the floor with the sphere between her knees, Rikku fussed over static and dead channels while the tickle-war rolled around her. About the time the "cactuars" were reduced to limp, giggling heaps on the floor, emitting an occasional "ow" or "meanie," Isaaru and Maroda returned to the main room with Elma. Wrapped in a bathrobe, the woman was moving tentatively but under her own power.

"Hey," Wakka said, setting a tray of tumblers and an iced tea pitcher on the dining table. "Guess magic's still better for some things, eh? You look pretty good."

"Her face is green," Etta said, peering at her upside-down from the floor. "Is she a cactuar?"

Elma laughed. "Green is good, sir?" she said to Wakka. "I suppose it's better than being chopped steak. I should thank your wife for putting all my parts back in the right order."

"Ya, Rikku's good at fixin' things." He nodded at her. "Soon as she's finished checkin' spherecams, she can help ya out of those bandages and show you how to work the shower."

"Great!" She smiled at Sir Auron, who was carrying Yuna in his arms above the tickle-range of her siblings. The girl had wrapped herself around his neck and seemed to be falling asleep, face mashed against his collar. "Looks like you've found a friend, sir."

He grunted. "Yuna."

"Yuna?" Isaaru said, turning to look at her appraisingly. Her father scowled.

Rikku sat back with a sigh, switching off the sphere and setting it back on the charger. "Sorry. I got nothin'. Are you sure the rest of your gang came here?"

"When it comes to Sin, we cannot be certain of anything," Isaaru said.

"Tellin' me." Brow knotted, she gestured towards the dining room table. "Go on, folks, drink up. It's the desert, ya know."

"Is there a problem?" Auron said.

"Oh," Rikku said with forced cheer. "We've lost the signal from Home."

"What's that mean?" Maroda said.

"It means Sin's between us and them, or they've lost power, or..." She shrugged. "All we can do now is wait."

Wakka took Maroda out on the family hover to search for Pacce and Lucil. They returned after sunset, tired and discouraged, just as Rikku was setting out a meal for twice the family's usual size. Wakka waved off Maroda's apologies for a fruitless afternoon, saying that family came first, and brothers were brothers.

The children were fretful over dinner, sensing their parents' unease. Etta and Mbela, the youngest, took turns sticking their fingers in the food platters being passed around. Vidina received a stern dressing-down from Wakka after talking back to his mother. Yuna, reduced to monosyllables, refused to eat more than a few bites. Elma finally came to the rescue with a string of chocobo stories that set the children laughing. Her dramatic recital of Clasko the Hapless' quest for the Golden Chocobo helped end the evening on a merry note, although Wakka and Rikku would probably tire of the addition of "kweh" to the children's vocabulary before Mbela did.

After dishes and evening chores, the children were tucked in with bedtime stories featuring their new friend, the chocobo. Commander Elma also turned in early, before, as she put it, she got to "gnawing her own leg worrying about what's around the next bend or the last." Isaaru and Maroda stayed up later, trading news with their hosts around the dinner table. Auron listened unobtrusively from the sofa. Turned towards the window, he kept the sporadic flickers of lightning on the horizon to himself.

Wakka, despite his exasperation with Yevon, was hungry for news of old haunts. When talk turned from Luca to the southern islands, Isaaru did his best to break the story of Besaid's destruction gently.

Wakka took refuge in disbelief. "Besaid Island? No way. Must've been Kilika."

"No, we were there, man," Maroda said, shaking his head. "I'm sorry."

"We did not witness the attack," Isaaru said. "But we saw the signs. Sin must have struck swiftly: too swiftly for fear or suffering. There...was nothing left of village or harbor. I sent the dead when we arrived a few days later."

"Damn." Wakka sagged, cupping his face in his hands. "I can't believe it. Besaid Village. Our home. Dat's where our pilgrimage started."

"Exactly," Auron said from the shadows.

"You shut up," Wakka said through his fingers, drawing a raised eyebrow from Isaaru.

Rikku scooted her chair closer to Wakka's, reaching out to rub his shoulders in soothing circles.

"We found Sir Auron on the dock," Maroda said. "He was waiting for us. I still want to know how he got there."

"A merchant dropped me off," Auron said. "Gippal."

Rikku swiveled around and stared. "You're kidding! What was he doing there?"

"Returning a favor."

"Must've been some favor." Wakka scowled.

"Wait...Gippal? Weapons dealer, eyepatch?" Maroda said.

"Dat's him," Wakka said, raising his head. "He'll sell to anybody, even the Guado. You know him?"

"Sure. My lodge buys supplies from him a couple times a year. He's got a trading post on the north side of the Calm Lands." Maroda gave a lopsided grin. "Don't tell Commander Elma; she doesn't approve of grenade launchers."

"Gippal's a pain in the ass," Rikku said, "and his prices are steep, but he'll never sell you anything shoddy. He does custom work, too. Wakka's gun was a special order, made for blockheads who can't operate anything more complicated than a blitzball."

"Hey, hey!" Wakka tugged her braids.

"We should definitely get in touch with him, then," Isaaru said. "Without my aeons, I cannot hope to defeat Sin. But with powerful machina—"

"Whoa." Wakka jabbed a thumb against the tabletop. "The only thing Yevon's teachings were ever good for is to keep people from messin' with things too big for 'em to handle. No offense, but machina in Yevon's hands are a bad idea. All you'll do is stir up Sin worse than you done already, until some Seymour comes along and turns the weapons against us instead."

"Sir Wakka, I respect your concerns, truly," Isaaru said. "Lord Seymour duped me as well. He showed me how far maesters may fall in the pursuit of grand designs. Yet how can I stand idle, when other places will suffer the fate of Besaid?"

There was a faint sniffle from the hallway. Making frantic shushing motions with her hands, Rikku tapped Wakka on the shoulder and pointed.

"Huh?" He followed her gaze towards the unlit doorway and stiffened. "Uh-oh." Rising to his feet, Wakka paced across the room and knelt, spreading his arms. A small figure in pajamas darted out and burrowed against his chest, shaking with mute sobs.

"Aw, Yunie." He wrapped his arms around her, rocking her tenderly. "Another bad dream, eh? Sssh, it's okay. I've got ya, honey. You're safe. Sin's not gonna bother us here, and Pops' machina keep the fiends away, ya?"

"But the Lady's upset!" she cried. Maroda and Isaaru exchanged startled glances across the dinner table. "She's upset and she's blowing up Home! She doesn't want to. But the dark mother's there, and the Lady has to make her go away."

"Another fay—" Maroda said, but Isaaru cut him off with a sharp look.

"Yunie, it's gonna be okay," Rikku said, following Wakka and dropping to one knee beside them. She leaned close to kiss Yuna's temple. "Pops evacuated everybody. No one's gonna get hurt. Once the Lady's gone, we'll just have to clean up the mess and rebuild."

"B-b-but I don't want her gone!" Yuna said, tears redoubling. "I know she's been bad, but she makes the garden! What'll we eat?"

"Oops," Rikku muttered. She combed her fingers through the girl's mop of reddish-blond hair. "Yunie, hon, I didn't mean she's going to disappear. I just meant we'll fix Home after she goes back to the ocean, okay?"

"Nobody can make her go away, Yunie," Wakka said, glaring defiantly towards Auron. "She's too strong."

"But..." Yuna sniffed, her weeping starting to subside. She buried her face on her father's shoulder.

"That's better. See? Ya just gotta...h-hey!" As soon as Wakka relaxed, she squirmed free and squirted out of his embrace, darting across the floor towards the silent figure on the sofa.

"S-Sir Auron?" Yuna clambered onto his knees, clutching at his belt. "Are you going to make the Lady go away?"

 

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Chapter Text

"S-Sir Auron?" Yuna clambered onto his knees, clutching at his belt. "Are you going to make the Lady go away?"

Wakka made a small, strangled sound, shooting a panicked glance at Rikku.

For once, Rikku's inventiveness had exhausted itself. All she could manage was a strained, "C'mon, Yunie, he's a stranger; he's not gonna understand."

Auron said nothing, contemplating the small, tear-stricken face before him. Her mismatched eyes were a haunting reminder of her namesake and the fate that had claimed her. How often had he tried to push against the spiral of death?

"She wants you to," Yuna said softly. "She feels sick inside. Can't somebody fix her?"

"Yuna," Auron said, choosing his gruff words with care. "Can anyone but the Lady change the weather?"

"Um..." The girl pondered, then shook her head, curls flopping around her ears. "No, 'cause she's the Lady!"

"Then how can we change her? The Lady is stronger than the weather," Auron said. "But if she leaves, she will give you a gift."

"Um, Auron," Rikku said, clearing her throat and edging towards her daughter.

"Really?" Yuna said breathlessly.

"Yes," Auron said, stroking the girl's nose with a finger. "If you wish it, you'll find a way to grow gardens in the desert."

"Oooh!" Yuna said. "Garden magic? That sounds fun."

"Yunie, it's past bedtime," Rikku said. "Say goodnight to everyone, okay? I'll sing you a lullaby, but only if you come right now."

Yuna set her hands against Auron's coat, raising herself up to kiss the scar on his cheek. "Tell the Lady I said hi." Then she scrambled down and took her mother's hand, waving shyly to the other guests. "Night-night."

Monitoring them until they disappeared around the corner, Wakka turned to Auron with a grudging nod. "We're cool, man," he said. "For now."

"But who is the Lady?" Maroda said. "My brother thinks—"

"I think that we, also, must rest," Isaaru said, rising to his feet and bowing. "Sir Wakka, thank you again for your hospitality. If there is anything you're willing to tell us about the Lady, we would be grateful. But we shall not impose."

"Uh," Wakka said, accent thickening, "I donno what to tell you. Yuna got a bad case o' the toxin, and it's been messin' with her dreams ever since. That's about it. So, anyway...sleep well, ya? We'll make another sweep for your brudda in the morning."

 

Dawn found Rikku dozing on the couch in the living room, which Auron had finally vacated. As the light grew, a groggy Wakka emerged from the hallway, shuffling over to the petite figure stretched out on the sofa. He lowered himself to the floor beside her, folding his arms on the edge of the cushions and pillowing his face on his forearms. Eventually she stirred, rolled over to check the sphere on the end table, and bumped into him.

"Hey," he said, nosing her tummy above her pajama shorts. "You could take that thing back to the bedroom, ya know."

"Didn't want to keep waking you," she mumbled, rolling towards him for a sleepy kiss.

"You okay?"

"Mmm. Yeah. I just hate waiting!" She rested her cheek on his arm, stroking his ridiculous crest of red hair. "Are you okay?"

"Ya." He exhaled. "So far, so good. But how long we gotta keep 'em here for, eh?"

"Pops wants me to bring Auron to him once things calm down."

A faint buzzing noise outside the house abruptly grew to a throbbing hum that rattled the windows. There was a hollow boom that shook the walls and floor, and the sound faded to a whine, then silence.

"What the—?" Wakka peered towards the front door, hopping to his feet. "Don't tell me Sir Auron crashed the hover."

"That's not our hover," Rikku said, suddenly wide awake.

"I'll go see," Wakka said. He stalked across the room, scooped up a blitzball at the base of the coat rack, and reached for the door handle. His face relaxed into a goofy grin as the door swung open. "Heee-eeey! Who's dis bum on our front porch, eh?"

Gippal set his hands on his hips and leaned back, striking a pose. "Someone you still owe two hundred gil. Heya, Taboo, Sunshine, how've you been? How's the Cactuar Patch?"

"Doing great," Rikku said, peering past Wakka's elbow at the craft parked outside. It was a sled-like vehicle with stubby wings, turbine rotors on the rear and bottom, and a guardrail surrounding four seats clustered in a u-shape behind a windshield. A layer of sand had been blown into their home's front entryway, coating outer surfaces in a fine spray. "Keep your voice down; you may not have woken all of them. Gippal, do you have any idea what time it is?"

He spread his hands. "Sure do. Do you have any idea that Sin just flew past your house? Damn thing moves faster than I thought. Can I come in?"

"Oh, why not," said Wakka, dropping the ball and nudging it back into place with his foot. "Though we've kinda got a full house right now. But come on in; I'll get you a drink."

"Thanks, but none of that tea crap. Battery acid, please." Gippal sauntered in and threw himself down on a chair, pushing back his goggles. "Seriously. You guys have no idea how glad I was to see your lights on when I flew over. I was afraid I might find a big smoking hole in the ground."

"You flew over us in dat thing?" Wakka said. "We're lucky we aren't a hole in the ground. What'd you do to your old ship?"

"Landed four miles away. That's my new flyer. Like a hover, only it goes up, not just sideways. Pretty spiff, eh?"

"Great," Rikku said, distracted. "You mean Sin's backtracking? Gippal, what's happened to Home?"

"I was just getting to that," Gippal said. "Half flooded, no power, but it's not as bad as it could've been. Sin trashed the old Guado temple, but left most of the new construction intact. Brother and Buddy are babysitting the evacuees on Delg Island. Elder Cid's assessing the damage to Home with Shinra's salvage team. We had a major Cid-plosion when my scanners showed Sin headed back your way. He ordered me to get you guys to safety, only Sin outran me." Gippal took the glass Wakka set at his elbow. "Thanks."

"Aww, you were worried about us," Rikku said.

"Damn straight. Two hundred gil ain't chocobo chips." He tossed back the amber liquid and beamed, eyes watering. "And that ain't tea."

"Knock it off with the gil, man," Wakka said, plunking onto the sofa and curling an arm behind Rikku. "You been takin' cheatin' lessons from Rin. Speakin' o' which, I thought you were supposed to be on the mainland fleecin' the Yevonites. You decide to come home an' start makin' an honest living?"

"Oh, things were getting a little hot back in Yevonville. Sin's stirred up, and I figured it was time to clear out of the Calm Lands before summoners start showing up for the big dance."

Wakka shook his head. "Cid told everybody to clear out eight months ago, Gip."

"Yeah, well, the Crusaders have been stocking up on weapons ever since Sin came out of hiding. Rin and I made a bundle."

"Same old Gippal." Rikku said. "By the way, did Pops say anything about our...guest?"

"Actually, now that you mention it—Hey! LJ!" Gippal flashed a thumbs up towards the front door as it swung open. "Speak o' the devil. Still chasing Sin all over Spira?"

"Hmph." Auron stamped the sand off his boots and stepped inside.

"Same old Auron," Gippal said. "Long story, I suppose? Auron only does short ones."

"Yeah," Wakka said, face clouding over. "How'd you know him, anyway?"

"L...J?" Rikku added quizzically.

"Longtime customer. The LJ, or rather, O.L.J., actually. The Original Legendary Jackass. "

"And you're the new legendary jackass, I suppose?" Rikku said.

"You always were the brains here, Sunshine." Gippal took another swig and waved at Auron. "Yo. I think I've got something for you. You lose a sword in Kilika?"

The corner of Auron's mouth twitched. "Maybe."

A slow grin spread across Gippal's face. "I thought it looked familiar. Better quality than anything the Crusaders have. I reckon it'd pull in at least a thousand gil, twenty plus if I hold it until the Calm and get Rin to auction it off as memorabilia. Soooo. How much might it be worth for you to buy it back?"

"Much." Auron folded his arms. "However, it will have to be eighty-four gil."

"Broke, huh? I guess 'legendary' doesn't pay well." Gippal slapped his knee. "Nah, man, I'm just pulling your leg. You've got things to do. I heard about that stunt you pulled in Kilika. You're utterly mog-snogging nuts, Auron, you know that?"

"What'd he do?" Rikku said curiously.

"Jumped off a moving ship onto Sin's back and stuck a pin in it. And Sin stopped. He just about drowned when the thing swam off. They're all yapping about how he saved the town. By the way, where's your shiny new summoner?"

Auron nodded towards the back of the house.

"Hoo boy." Gippal began to chuckle, noting Wakka's long face. "Full house, eh? Well, look. I've got orders to take Auron to Elder Cid. I doubt he wants to give you a hero's welcome, old man, but orders are orders. So if you want, I can take the summoner, too."

"Acceptable," Auron said. "Isaaru wishes to consult Cid."

"And the others?" Wakka said, leaning towards Gippal with desperation in his eyes. "Gip, we're up to our ears in Yevonites, and Yuna's got a crush on Auron."

Gippal cuffed his shoulder. "No problem. I'll take them all off your hands."

"Oh, really?" Rikku snorted. "How much?"

"Oh." Gippal folded his arms behind his head and leaned back. "I reckon two hundred gil should cover it."

Happily, Isaaru's offer to pay their travel-fee out of Yevon's coffers tickled Wakka's sense of justice. Maroda was all for it, once Gippal explained that the sensors on his ship could scan the whole island on the way out. After a quick meal, they prepared to leave. Elma's scruples put up a brief stumbling block when she saw the small craft parked outside.

"Wait, is that thing...a machina?" She gave Maroda a lopsided grin. "You couldn't arrange something a little more appropriate for a maester, eh?"

"A maester? Man, Elder Cid's gonna love this," Gippal said. "Look, lady, all the ships off this island use machina, so you're gonna be stuck here a while."

"Er," Rikku said, scratching her cheek, "actually, so does the shower I showed you last night. And our water supply. And the toilet. Come to think of it, that outfit you're wearing—"

"Oh, no." Elma looked down with genuine alarm at the clothes she had borrowed, a loose-fitting pair of cargo pants and a midriff-baring tank top, the only option since she was a good five inches taller than Rikku. "Don't tell me there's machina in it!"

Rikku grinned. "No, no, it's just artificial fabric. Never mind. It won't eat you, I promise."

Elma reddened. "Sorry, it's just—"

Gippal snorted. "Enh, you sound just like Taboo when he first got here. Machina this, forbidden that. You'll get over it." With a shrug, he jogged towards the flyer and swung himself up by the handrails of a short ladder in back, fixed between the tail rotors. "So, is this everybody? Hop on. You comin' with us, Rikku?"

"You got room?" Rikku looked at the small craft doubtfully. "I want to check on Pops, but..."

"No prob," Gippal said, sliding into one of the front seats. "You and Yevon-lady don't weigh more than a chocobo. Just sit in my lap."

"Kweh!" Mbela said from the cluster of heads peeping around Wakka in the front entryway.

"Nice try," Rikku said, wrinkling her nose. "I'll sit on the floor, thanks."

"Don't push it, Gip," Wakka said. "Rikku, I still don't think—"

"I'll be back before you know it, hon!" Rikku said, bouncing over to him and cupping her hands on his shoulders. "Anyway, I gotta make sure Pops doesn't get sweet-talked by Isaaru into doin' something stupid. Right?"

"Okay, okay," he said, slightly dazed by her jiggling. He hauled Rikku in for a fierce kiss that left the children giggling behind his legs. Rikku dropped to a crouch to draw them into a collective hug. "Zap Dad for me," she said, ruffling Etta's hair.

"Oh," Wakka said, disentangling himself with reluctance. "Almost forgot. Isaaru, uh...this is a sphere we found in Zanarkand. It'll answer some o' your questions." He fished out a sphere, cradling it in both hands as though it were a precious heirloom, and slipped it into the pouch strapped to Rikku's hip.

Her eyes darted from Wakka to Sir Auron, who had stationed himself on the rear deck like a mast. "Hoo boy."

"We are in your debt," Isaaru said, bowing his head towards the family. "Thank you, Sir Wakka."

"So, are we leaving, people?" Gippal said. "Hop on. Wakka, you'd better get the gaggle inside so we don't sandblast you on lift-off. Be good, kiddies!" He waggled his fingers towards the children.

Yuna, scooped up by her father as he herded the children back indoors, began to cry.

"I'm going to regret this, aren't I?" Elma said cheerfully, belting herself into the wing-seat opposite Maroda's.

"Just think of it as a very large chocobo," Maroda said, tucking his spear under his feet.

"Kweh," she said sarcastically.

"Ready when you are, Gip," Rikku said, crouching behind Gippal and Isaaru and gripping the backs of their seats.

"Hang onto your jock straps, ladies and gents," Gippal said, flipping a switch. The deck trembled as the engines whined to life. There was a puff of dust, and the craft rose to the level of the treetops, swaying slightly. "The Gippal Express is ready for launch. Next stop: Home sweet Home."

Elma's heartfelt Oh, Yevon was lost in the drone of the rotors as Gippal slammed his foot on the throttle. With an unsteady lurch, the flyer catapulted forward, crested the orchard by inches, and shot off across the desert sands.

Chapter Text

The small flyer wobbled under the weight of extra passengers, punctuated by Rikku's swearing in two langauges. Maroda rode white-knuckled; his brother with serene resignation. Elma, the machina-phobe, clung to her seat with a dour expression, but gave herself away with a loud whoop when the flier hopped over a sand-wyrm that unexpectedly rose up behind a crumbling ruin. Auron simply played barnacle. Gippal was quiet too, for once, focused on steering for the sake of the two passengers with no seats, straps, or anything else to keep them from flying over the back rail if the craft dropped suddenly.

They were streaking towards a gray hump emerging from the shoulders of the dunes. The shape soon resolved itself into a bulbous, unlovely hulk of an airship with the profile of an oversized bathtub, its hull a crude patchwork of added fins, engine pods, exhaust ports and mismatched panels. It was anchored on the southern tip of the island with the bulk of its fuselage hanging out over open water. A loading ramp extended from a rear entrance down to the beach. Gippal banked sharply, angling towards it. For a terrifying moment, a collision seemed certain. Then the flyer slowed to a crawl and slithered up the ramp into the belly of the ship, coming to an abrupt halt against a stack of barrels. The engines roared in the metal bay, then faded to a whine and silence. Deafened passengers roused themselves and tried to make out their dim surroundings. Floor-to-ceiling stacks of crates and gun racks loomed on all sides, making it a wonder they had not struck anything on the way in.

"Well, here we are," Gippal said, hopping up onto the flyer's windshield to kick a knob set in the wall. The ramp and cargo bay doors began to close with a hiss of hydraulics. A few dingy amber light panels flickered to life in the ceilingas the square of daylight behind them narrowed and vanished.

"You gotta get a new paint job for this bucket, Gippal," Rikku said, standing and stretching. "It looks like a flying turd."

"Flies like one, too." Gippal dropped to the floor, circling around the small craft to secure it with magnetic clamps. "Joyride's over, people. Head upstairs. I'll be there in a minute."

Rikku pushed past Auron, scrambling over the side and heading for a long ladder scaling the forward bulkhead. Auron climbed up after her. The others followed slowly, feeling their way in the alien environment. They emerged in a dim corridor lined by steel doors staggered at intervals on both sides of the hallway. Double doors at the far end opened onto the flight deck. Here the Yevonites pulled up short. The walls, floor, and ceiling were made of a clear material that looked like glass but clanked like metal. There were four crew stations arranged in a vertical diamond in the nose of the ship: a pilot's seat suspended from the ceiling, a gunner's station inset in a well below, and navigation and operations consoles on either side.

Rikku slid into the ops station and started pecking at the controls. A sphere of blue light materialized above her fingers, a smaller version of the scanner on Cid's airship. "Oh," she said, glancing over her shoulder at the logjam of people on the short tongue of metal in front of the doors. "Take any seat but the top one. Don't touch anything."

Gippal emerged from the back as they were settling in. He chuckled at the shellshocked expressions of his Yevonite passengers. "First time flying, eh?"

Elma daringly lowered herself into the gunner's bubble with nothing beneath her but ocean. She looked up with a crazed grin. "Wow. I think I'm gonna have to do all kinds of atonement when we get back to Bevelle."

"We, uh, were on Cid's airship once," Maroda said, helping Isaaru into the navigator's seat. "But we couldn't see out like this."

"Oh, that thing." Gippal leaned past Isaaru to key in a few commands, calling up a small map and adjusting a red cursor to select the easternmost of a cluster of islands south of Bikanel. "The Fahrenheit's a luxury yacht. This slug's an old army transport—with a few customizations. Hey, Rikku, you remember how to work the scanner?"

"I'm on it." She waved Maroda over. "Take a look. Red dots are fiends. Green dots are alive. Green dots with a white circle around 'em are alive plus metal, which means people. Simple, eh?"

"Or a sand wyrm that's eaten a machina," Gippal said, climbing into the pilot's seat and pushing the steering yoke forward. The airship swooped lower, swinging out over the waves and back inland. Dunes began to scroll beneath them, gradually accelerating to a blur. "Sing out if you spot anything."

"I'm not sure if Lucil's carrying anything metal," Elma said, squinting at the desert rushing between her feet.

"Boots," Maroda suggested. "Buckles. Her cane. Is that enough for the sensors to pick up?"

"Should be," Gippal said. "Oh, that reminds me...Rikku, what's Nooj done to get himself locked up this time? He got left behind when Home was evacuated. Cid blew me off about it."

"Oh," she said. "Gip, Nooj had another fit and shot up the R&D lab. Landed Shinra in the infirmary. Pops is still trying to decide what to do about him. He's a genius with ancient machina, but if Shinra can't figure out what's making him fritz, I'm afraid he may get his death wish." She sighed. "Assuming Sin didn't save us the trouble."

"The Nooj?" Elma said. "He's still kicking? I thought he was dead."

"Not for lack of trying," Gippal said. "Hiddo umt sukchukkan."

Isaaru eased out of his seat and paced back to Auron, who had planted himself against the rear bulkhead beside the doors.

"Sir Auron?" he said, lowering his voice. "Your thoughts?"

"We're running out of time."

"Yes. But we must make certain that Pacce and Lucil are not lost in this Yevon-forsaken wilderness." Isaaru smiled at Auron's sour expression. "I know: Sin won't wait. But in all honestly, my friend, do you believe we are ready to face Sin?"

"No." Auron grimaced. "This pilgrimage is going nowhere."

"As I thought," Isaaru said, unruffled. "I must speak with Elder Cid. His machina may be our only chance of saving Bevelle."

"We won't reach it in time. Sin's heading north. We're headed south." Auron considered. "Except...its next target may be Macalania. And it's expending a great deal of power. Eventually it has to rest."

"May Yevon grant it so." Isaaru bowed in Yevon's prayer, then glanced towards Rikku. "I'm eager to learn what is on that sphere. Do you know, Sir Auron?"

"Probably."

"You don't sound pleased." Isaaru tilted his head. "Are you afraid of what it will show us?"

"You'd learn sooner or later," Auron said, shrugging. "I just hope 'sooner' turns out better than 'later.'"

An hour later, they had found nothing more than a few machina, a survey team in the ruins of Old Home, a territorial zu that kept banking off the windshield until they gave up on that sector. Elma was starting to drift off after miles of featureless sand. Gippal nudged her with his foot. "Yo. Don't touch that, lady, or you'll really have something to atone for." He leaned back, turning to Isaaru. "Well, that's the whole island. You folks satisfied? We've got to turn for Home sooner or later. Cid's gonna blow a gasket as it is."

"But—" Maroda said.

Elma jerked away from the gun controls and exhaled, staring glumly at the monotonous landscape spread out below them. "I know how you feel, Captain, believe me. But we've got a job to do, eh? Pacce's a trooper; he'll be fine wherever he is. And the general wouldn't want us wasting time on her."

"We must pray that they were left behind in Djose," Isaaru said. "Meanwhile, Sin continues its pilgrimage. We must resume ours."

Rikku gave the soft-spoken summoner a dubious look, but kept her mouth shut. She rolled her eyes at Gippal.

"I'll take that as a yes," Gippal said, throwing the steering yoke hard to one side. Elma gave a yelp as the ground tilted steeply and a burst of acceleration pressed them into their seats. Maroda went skidding backwards on the glassy floor. The dunes below quickly gave way to reef, then open water, dropping away rapidly as the ship climbed.

"Whew," Rikku said. "You've been tinkering with the engines again, haven't you?"

Gippal flashed a smug grin, easing back on the steering yoke. "You'd better believe it. Though I can't take full credit. I'm testing a new booster design for Shinra."

Maroda righted himself with a scowl at Auron, who had not budged. "Give us a little warning next time, eh?" Maroda said, coming forward again as the ship began to level off. "So how long till we reach Home?"

"We've got about six hours," Gippal said, easing back on the steering yoke. He pressed a button, pushed away the controls and propped his boots on the handlebars. "Phew. I'm beat. I've locked us on cruise. Rikku, think you could handle things up here if I crash for a while? I haven't slept in two days."

"Sure, leave it to me!" Rikku giggled at Elma's expression: the woman's eyes had rounded out to spheres at the word crash. "Don't worry. I know how to fly this thing. I just can't land!"

"Oh, great," Elma said.

"All righty, then. No rearranging the control preferences while I'm out." Gippal climbed down from the pilot's seat, giving Rikku's rump a passing swat. "I'll see you in a few hours. Buzz me if the scanner starts pinging." With a wave, he ambled past Auron and disappeared through the doors.

"Well." Maroda cleared his throat. "Since we've got some time—"

"Gotcha," Rikku said, digging Wakka's sphere out of her beltpouch. "Gimme a sec. I think I can project the recording onto the forward screens." She popped the sphere into the panel in front of her and hesitated, turning around in her seat. "Um...Auron? If you've got anything to say, better do it now."

Auron shook his head. "Just do it."

The breathtaking panorama of ocean and sky was suddenly obscured by a floor-to-ceiling hologram, a nebulous darkness spattered with stars and swirling lights. At first, it was impossible to decipher what they were looking at. Then the lower half of a girl's face flashed into view, filling most of the screen. Elma gasped. Thirteen years had passed since anyone had seen the High Summoner alive, but her etherial, sweet smile was unmistakable.

Rikku hunkered down, folding her arms tightly around herself.

The view tilted crazily as Yuna set the sphere down and stepped back, revealing a night-shrouded landscape of rubble and broken spires. The darkness was not merely black, but a tapestry of somber colors too subtle to distinguish. Rivers of pyreflies flowed over the shadowed ruins in sluggish eddies, weaving across the shells of pulverized walls and broken pavement. It a was beautiful, terrible, unreal vision, a dream flirting with the shores of nightmare.

"Zanarkand?" Maroda said in a hushed whisper.

Isaaru rose to his feet in reverent awe, sweeping his arms in a formal bow.

Floating before them, Yuna's slim form seemed to soar through a daylit expanse of open sea and puffy clouds. As their eyes began to adjust to the double image, a dark figure standing behind her suddenly stepped forward into focus. Yuna's companion was completely camouflaged by her black garments, so that her pale shoulders, neck and head seemed to be hanging in mid-air. Black hair falling at a slant over her left eye reduced her face to a white triangle.

"The Lady," Isaaru said. "In Yevon's name, who...?"

"Hello, everyone!" Yuna said brightly, clasping her hands and beaming out at them. "Um...I just want to say...thank you so much. And I'm sorry. Lulu and I have gone on ahead. But before you go chasing after us, I...I want to explain. Please, hear us out."

"Giving you a bigger head-start," Rikku grumbled under her breath.

"I know..." Yuna took a long breath, steadying herself. "I know this isn't what we talked about last night. But we've come so far. All the way to Zanarkand. I can't stop now. If I did, all we've been through— all the sacrifices of the people we've lost— would be for nothing." She trailed off and turned away, fingering a charm necklace with a Y-shaped design. Lulu opened her arms and held Yuna until she regained her composure. "And now...Sir Auron says the pilgrimage itself is a lie. But fighting Yunalesca won't bring my father back, or save Sir Jecht, or help Spira."

"A lie?"" Maroda said, turning to glare at the white-haired guardian. Auron did not answer, transfixed by the sight of old ghosts. He had stepped away from the wall. His detached mask had fallen away, replaced by raw, impotent anger so bleak that it seemed to hold a tinge of madness.

Yuna, stubborn and certain beyond the reach of any protests, kept talking. "Sir Auron, you were right: there is another way. We've talked it over. Lulu's found a way to break the cycle, really and truly. When we've finished, I'll be with Tidus, she'll be with Chappu, and Spira will be free of Sin...forever. So you mustn't be sad for us."

"Yunie," Rikku breathed, eyes starting to water.

"But we'll need every one of you for this to work. So I've got to ask you to help me one last time, although it's the hardest thing I've ever asked you to do. Please. Help me...help us end Spira's sorrow. I know we can do it, together." Again Yuna's smile flashed out like a pyrefly's gleam.

Lulu placed a hand on her shoulder and began to speak in the same measured tones that she had once used to instruct Tidus in Spira's mysteries. "Sir Auron has given us a weapon possessed by no summoner or guardian before: the truth. At last we know what the Final Summoning means, and we can prepare for it. Yuna and I will vanquish Sin. Then it will be up to you to defeat the next Sin, before Yu Yevon can replenish it. Listen closely." Another audience, one that neither Yuna nor Lulu could have anticipated, held their breaths. "In the battle against Sir Jecht, I shall expend as much power as I can. Thus, when Yu Yevon joins with me, I will be weak, and Yu Yevon at his most vulnerable. That is when you must—"

"Jecht?" Elma said, bewildered. "Yu...Yevon?"

A gruff voice cut through Lulu's speech. "You're not going."

Isaaru started, jarred from his dumbfounded trance by a familiar voice. But this, too, was part of the recording. A younger image of Auron stepped into the edge of the field of view.

"Sir Auron?" Yuna said. "You would stop me now, after guiding us all this way?"

"No." He stepped towards her, looming over the petite summoner. "If you are resolved, I am still your guardian. But there is no reason for Lulu to die."

Yuna flinched. "I...I don't want anyone else to die. But if it truly ends Sin forever..."

"Sir Auron," Lulu said, interposing herself between them. "I have trained for this moment all my life, although I did not understand clearly until now what I was preparing for. When Yuna chose the summoner's path, I made my choice, too." Her hypnotic voice rang with conviction as she turned back to Yuna, holding her friend's eyes. "I told you the morning we left: This is our journey."

"Lulu," Yuna said, hugging her.

"I made a promise to Jecht," Auron said. "And there is no need to sacrifice another guardian, when—"

"Which is precisely why you cannot be the Final Aeon," Lulu said, cutting him off. "Above all others, you cherish Sir Jecht and Lord Braska. Loyalty to them is what brought you here. I came here for Yuna. Did you not say that the bond between summoner and summoned is what gives the aeon its power? But even if Lady Yunalesca accepts you, and what you are—" she gave him a pointed look— "how could we hope to kill you, when nothing else has? Please, Auron. Help us. Don't hinder us. The others may awaken at any moment."

He stared down at her. Viewers waited with bated breath for history to reaffirm itself. Finally, he gave a grudging nod. His answer was couched in a surprisingly gentle whisper. "Let's go."

Yuna smiled fondly at both of them. "It...has been an honor, Sir Auron."

Marching away, the two guardians fell behind their summoner in lockstep. Forgotten, the abandoned sphere kept recording until they were swallowed by Zanarkand's ruins and its pyrefly custodians. Back on the flight deck, Rikku wiped her eyes, reached forward, and switched off the recording. The unobstructed view of sun-washed, cloud-studded blue sky returned.

"So," Elma said into the heavy silence, when no one else seemed inclined to break it. "About how many years should I atone, do you think, for hearing that? Operation Mi'ihen took three."

"Don't you get it?" Rikku said. "Yevon's a stupid lie. It's a big fat leech that eats guardians and summoners!"

"Hey!" Elma said, rising indignantly out of the gunner's bubble. "That's blasphemy!"

"Elma, Rikku, please," Isaaru said. Even now, he sounded unperturbed, although his smile was melancholy. "The truth, it seems, is that love defeats Sin. It transcends even Yevon: both the foe whose ravages inspired our religion, and the wise teachings that arose from that unpromising beginning."

"Sir?" Elma said. "Do I wanna know what you just said, or can I just forget it and wait for orders?"

"You've gotta be kidding," Rikku said.

"The truth," Maroda said, turning and storming towards Auron, "is that he wasn't going to tell us any of this. So when were you going to let us in on the big secret? In Zanarkand? After me or Pacce volunteered for the Final Summoning? After Isaaru was dead?"

Auron sagged back against the wall, his face hidden by his collar. As Maroda reached him, he slid to the floor, doubled over. A single pyrefly drifted from the folds of his coat. When Maroda stooped over him, Auron suddenly lashed out, swinging a wild punch that Maroda dodged with a startled curse.

"What the—?" Rikku said.

"The toxin, maybe?" Elma said.

Exasperated, Maroda threw himself at Sir Auron. He fell upon the older man with his full weight channelled into a knee to the gut, his other knee pinning the man's arm to the floor. Maroda seized his collar, barking into his face. "Just what are you playing at, old man? Are you trying to stop Sin...or protect it? No, her! The Lady's your girlfriend, is that it? You've been talking to her all along, haven't you? Haven't you?" More pyreflies floated loose as Maroda shook him. Auron snarled with bared teeth, freed his right arm from his coat and grasped for the man's throat.

"Maroda!" Isaaru said, starting towards them. "Sir Auron, stop!"

"Toxin, probably," Rikku said, slipping off her seat and edging towards the scuffle. "I guess if Lulu doesn't make 'em horny, she gives 'em PMS. Isaaru, hold up! Everyone, hold your breath!" She tossed a small pellet towards the grappling combatants.

There was a bang and a bright yellow flash, accompanied by an acrid stench. Everyone's vision tunnelled. Isaaru staggered. Maroda and Auron went down, collapsing on top of one another in a boneless heap blocking the doorway. Rikku sat down on them, kicking her heels against the floor with an air of triumph. "Wow. Is there something in the teachings that says guardians have to be blockheads?"

Chapter Text

"What have you done to them?" Isaaru hurried towards his unconscious guardians, stumbling over the hem of his robes. "In Yevon's name—"

"Calm down; they're fine!" Rikku said, tapping the back of Auron's head. "Funguar pollen: works better than a hammer on skulls like his. They'll wake in a few. You'd better sit down till your head clears."

The intercom crackled to life with a squeal of static. "Rikku, what are you doing to my ship?"

Rikku pressed her hands over her ears and wrinkled her nose. "Nothing, Gip. Maroda and Auron got into a fistfight. I hit 'em with a nightcap."

"Oh." There was a long pause. "Hull breach? Dents in the deck?"

"Ummm..." She lifted the legend's feet, first one and then the other, letting them drop with a clunk. "Nope!"

"Keep it that way."

"Right-o!"

"Sorry, Captain," Isaaru said, propping his knuckles on the wall to steady himself. A gesture of faith, that: he found himself leaning against Al Bhed glass and open sky beyond. Faith's ironies suddenly caught up with him, and he struggled to stifle a laugh that might offend. Apparently the pollen was making him light-headed.

"Apology accepted. Try to keep the Yevon love-fest under control, okay? Gippal out." There was another ear-stabbing pop, then silence.

Elma moved to Isaaru's side and slipped a hand under his elbow, falling back on familiar duties. "Funguar pollen, eh?" she muttered. "Could've used it at a few staff meetings."

"Thank you, Elma," he said. "If you would..." He nodded towards the fallen guardians. Leaning on her arm, he approached the pair and dropped to one knee to examine them. Rikku scooted out of the way, hopping to her feet and watching with hands on hips. He moved first to his brother, feeling for the pulse at his wrist, smiling at the Al Bhed woman's irritated pout. His smile drained away as he turned his attention to the older guardian. Isaaru reached out, hesitated, and slipped his hands into the man's collar, gently turning his head to a more comfortable position. Splaying his fingers over tufts of white hair, the summoner chanted a few verses of prayer.

"What's with him, anyway?" Rikku said, folding her arms. "He looked sick."

"I cannot be sure, but I fear that..." Isaaru pressed his lips together, the delicate pause masked by his deliberate manner of speaking. "Elma's guess may be correct. Sir Auron is not a young man, and he has faced Sin more times than any man alive. The toxin must linger in his very bones. It is a wonder he is still sane. Despair, perhaps, or the pain of memory triggered its effects. As for Maroda, I don't think we need blame Sin's toxin: he is worried about our missing brother, and has harbored doubts about Sir Auron since first he joined us."

"Smart guy," Rikku said. "Hey, Elma, you okay? You look like you ate a bug."

Elma, crouching next to Isaaru, was staring past his shoulder towards the drifting clouds. "Hm?" She came back to herself with a start and winked at Rikku. "Oops. Thinking: never a good idea. So, anyway. Are you all right now, sir?"

"Yes, better." Isaaru stood, boosting himself on her arm. "I should apologize, Commander."

"Sir?" she said quizzically.

"Lady Yuna's sphere." Isaaru touched her wrist in mute thanks and stepped away, smoothing out his robes. "I was somewhat braced for what we might hear. You had no warning. I know what ache you feel, Elma. Some years ago, I learned part of what you just heard. I realized then that the teachings of Yevon had arisen in the same way as the cult of Sin: rites meant to appease a fearful enemy. But I tell you, Elma, even if Yevon is not what we believed, a prayer from the heart is as true. The teachings are not Yevon-sent, but they are hallowed customs cherished, sanctified and passed down by our ancestors, a gift of wisdom to guide us in a world full of trials. Can you find some comfort in that?"

"Not really. But it doesn't much matter what I think, eh?" The dark-haired woman gave a crooked smile and dropped her eyes. "I'm sorry, sir. I'm just a soldier. Point me at a foe and I'll fight it. For now, you've got a spare guardian, until I find my troops and my general safe and sound. If you'll have me, I mean."

"It would be an honor. With my brother, Sir Auron, and Lucil's right hand to defend me, I need fear no fiend in Spira."

There was a groan from the floor. "Ugh." Maroda pushed up to his hands and knees, blinking. "What the hell?"

"Wakey wakey!" Rikku said, stooping over him and wiggling her fingers.

"Buzz off." Maroda glowered at Auron's red coat. "Jeez, did he knock me out?"

"No, I did!" Rikku said, skipping backwards hastily. "No more fighting, kids. Mr. Grouch could crack the hull if he loses it, and then we'd all be flying without a ship...straight down!"

"And we're supposed to trust this guy?" Maroda said, clambering to his feet and rubbing his neck gingerly.

Isaaru placed a hand on his shoulder. "Sir Auron's not the only one keeping secrets, remember."

"So?" Maroda said, giving his brother a jaundiced look. "I repeat: we're supposed to trust him?"

"Maroda, please. Trust me, at least. Sir Auron's bond with Sin may be a weapon we can use."

"Ha." Rikku shook her head and ambled back towards the ops console to check the readouts.

"Rikku," Maroda said. "Were Auron and Lulu lovers?"

"Ew, no way! Those two never had any fun. It'd be against the code of Grumpy Guardians or something." She jabbed at a few buttons irritably. "Besides, if he loved her, he'd never have gone along with her stupid plan."

"Not...necessarily," Elma said. She reddened under Rikku's incredulous stare. "You can't keep someone you love from doing her job just because it's risky, eh?"

"Lady Rikku," Isaaru said. "I beg you pardon, but one thing I must know. Why did Lulu's plan fail?"

"Oh." She flipped her braids behind her shoulders and applied herself to the controls, scowling. "Well, your precious Maester Seymour killed Tidus on Mt. Gagazet, so we were already short one guardian. We lost Kimahri when...when Yuna called up the Final Aeon. She told us to get back, but he tried to shield her. So then it was down to Wakka and me and Sir Auron, right? But Wakka, he...he just couldn't hurt Lulu. And I wasn't much into fighting friends either, especially when they're about fifty feet tall and dressed to kill with flames and lightning bolts shooting every which way. I know we should've tried, but...we didn't. Except for Auron. Like that worked really well. I thought she'd killed him too. Then boom, bang, major kablooie, and that's all I remember till I woke up on Pops' airship."

"She was too strong," Auron said hoarsely. "We needed aeons." Ignoring the heads swiveling in his direction, he stood and drew his arm back into his coat, leaning against the wall.

"Or maybe you didn't want to kill her either," Maroda said, the accusation muted.

"Better than becoming Sin."

"And so now you would be Sin in her stead?" Isaaru said, watching him with focused compassion. "Is that your plan, Sir Auron?"

Maroda's shoulders hunched. "Oh."

"If no better way can be found."

"But that won't help!" Rikku said, flapping her hands. "You kill another summoner, turn into Sin, and then we've got Sin Grouchypants instead of the Lady! What difference would that make, huh? Maybe that's why Lulu's been blowing up the temples, to keep you out of trouble!"

"She's destroying the temples to avenge Yuna," Auron said, "and all those killed by Yevon hypocrisy."

"Wow," Rikku said, scratching her cheek. "In that case, she should've left Baaj alone!"

"Hey!" Elma bristled. "What about my men? What've they ever done to Lady Yuna?"

"Lulu is still Sin, bound more to its will than it to hers."

"Sir Auron," Isaaru said. "I take it that Lady Yunalesca rejected you and chose your friend. That being so, what hope is there that she'll accept your offer this time?"

"Leave her no choice," Auron said, scowling. "Send your other guardians away before we enter the Hall of the Final Summoning. Yunalesca's running out of options too: Lulu's seen to that."

"So what?" Maroda said. "Rikku's right. All you're doing is buying us time, at the cost of Isaaru's life! Ten, twenty years from now, we'll have to start all over again."

"That is nothing new," Isaaru said. "All summoners accept that the Calm is only a fleeting blessing. But I may be a summoner in name only, by the time Sin is finished her work."

"You aren't one now," Auron said, earning another glare from Maroda.

Isaaru smiled. "No, not much of one. I am not Lord Braska, though I have tried to emulate his wisdom. I lack Lady Yuna's talent with aeons. But such as I am, I will help you see this through. We'll find a way, Sir Auron, I promise you."

The white-haired guardian clenched his fist, bracing himself against the wall. "I've heard this before, Isaaru."

"Yes," Isaaru said, soothing, "but perhaps my way will be different. If we can convince Elder Cid, we shall have machina to compensate for my missing aeons."

"Sir," Elma said. "Teachings aside, the Al Bhed's strongest machina couldn't puncture Sin's defenses at Operation Mi'ihen. They got creamed. I doubt they're eager for a rematch."

"Machina alone will not ensure victory, Commander. But machina, aeons and guardians, all Spira's powers united? Such an alliance may achieve what the pilgrimage cannot."

"Not likely." Rikku sighed. "Elma's right. On top of which, Pops hates how Yevon kills off summoners and guardians. He won't help you commit suicide!"

"He may make an exception for me," Auron said drily.

 


**Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction...

-- William Butler Yeats, "The Second Coming"

Chapter Text

A white wreath of steam and smoke marked the sunken island of Baaj long before the piers of New Home rose from the sea. Late afternoon sun flared off distant panels and windows. As the airship began to descend, the jumble of structures resolved itself into a circular hive of old-fashioned stone buildings built on a vast field of submerged ruins, interconnected by arching bridges of metal and glass. The town was surrounded by a fortified ring-wall of more typical Al Bhed design, an intimidating exoskeleton of girders and rusted metal, massive guns facing out to sea. Baaj Temple loomed at the heart of the settlement. Black smoke vomited from a gash in its central tower.

The temple's cracked dome was not the only testament to Sin's passing. All the windows facing north had been punched out. Struts and spans tilted at dangerous angles. Porches and awnings had been ripped away from houses. Every channel of open water was fretted by a spiderweb of snapped cables drooping from twisted pylons. Yet apart from a few missing roofs, most of the structures appeared to be intact.

Gippal, returning to the flight deck with noisy disregard for his somber passengers, patted Rikku's back before vaulting into his seat. "Buck up, Sunshine. It's not as bad as it looks."

"Easy for you to say, Gip," she said, drooped over the ops console. "You're gonna make a fortune selling building materials, right?"

"Two percent," he said. "Rin wanted a big markup, but I won't kick the home team when it's down."

"What a mess," Elma said. Ensconced in the gunner's bubble, she had a vivid bird's eye view of the devastation crawling beneath them.

"At least they had warning," Isaaru said. "Thank Yevon they fled in time."

"Besaid got hit a lot worse," Maroda observed. "Maybe Sin was trying to pull its punches?"

"If that's pulling punches, I'd hate to see a direct hit," Rikku said.

"I have," Gippal said, glancing over his shoulder at the stoic figure slouched against the bulkhead. "Wish I hadn't. Okay, people! This is where you get off. Exit's through the back, the same way you came in." Gippal flipped a switch on the steering column, hopped down and extended a hand to Elma. "Machina cooties?"

"Yevon cooties?" she shot back, grasping his forearm and pulling herself up.

Descending through the ship's bowels, they stepped out into humid sunshine and a light rain falling from a few shreds of clouds, the last wrack of the spent storm. At the foot of the loading ramp was a flooded courtyard that the Yevonites recognized as the outer hall of a temple whose dome had fallen in. A semicircle of broken summoners' statues jutted from the shallows. The area was spanned by crisscrossing catwalks, one leading to a crude square opening cut into the second story of the great stone tower that formed the hub of New Home. Cid's gaudy airship was moored on the far side.

As they stepped off the ramp, a pair of armed Al Bhed emerged from the tower, marching behind a stumpy figure in a stifling head-to-toe coat and goggled mask. It was impossible to tell age or gender, but the leader was slightly shorter than Rikku.

"Protect," Auron said.

Maroda gave a grudging nod. He and Elma closed ranks ahead of Isaaru and marched shoulder to shoulder as if they had served in the same company for years. Auron took his customary post as rearguard.

Isaaru sighed in fond exasperation. "We're among friends here, remember?"

"That remains to be seen," Auron said.

"Yo, Shinra," Gippal said, sauntering towards the small welcoming party. "Got some visitors. Where's the boss?"

"Working on the generators," the young man said, voice roughened by a respirator. There was a boom and a blue flash from the far side of the tower. "Gippal, I've found Nooj. He was still in his jail cell after all."

"He okay?" Gippal said. "Wait... are you okay? Rikku said Nooj went nuts and shot you up pretty bad."

"No and yes, thanks to Rikku's potions. Got a minute? We need help digging out Nooj."

"I beg your pardon," Isaaru said with a gracious bow. "I am Isaaru, a summoner. I came to speak to Elder Cid. But first, may I and my guardians offer aid?"

"Yevon?" one of the guards said, raising the muzzle of her weapon.

"Feyd!" Rikku interposed herself between guard and guardians. "I'll vouch for them, Shinra. They're gung ho on fighting Sin, but they don't mean us any harm."

"That's all we need," Shinra said. He peered up at the man, debating. "Well, they could help with Nooj."

"I am a healer," Isaaru said. "If one of your people is hurt—"

"This way." Shinra turned and clanked back towards the tower. "Follow me."

"We shouldn't get involved," Maroda said, dropping back to whisper in his brother's ear. "We're falling behind again. But this time, we're racing Sin, not another summoner. We've got to find Cid and finish our business here as quickly as possible. Bevelle needs you."

"Maesters Baralai and Shelinda can hold Bevelle just as well without me," Isaaru said. "And we must earn Elder Cid's trust. We need his help."

Elma gave an exasperated snort.

Entering the tower, they descended a short ladder whose bottom rungs were coated with slime and seaweed. A floating walkway bobbed slightly underfoot. Facing them were stone steps rising out of the water to ancient doors graven with runes, flung open to reveal a vast circular hall. The interior was a bizarre fusion of old and new, Yevon architecture with ornate columns and grotesque statues scattered like pieces on a gameboard between concentric rings of workstations. All the consoles and screens were dead. Several Al Bhed were crawling under the computer banks with hand-lights, inspecting a network of cables crisscrossing the floor.

Shinra waved at the technicians, but did not enter the control room. Instead he turned left, following the walkway around the perimeter of the tower. Passing several other doors, most of them smashed or sealed tight, they eventually reached another flooded antechamber. To their right, a metal ramp mounted broken stone steps leading up to a glyph-etched door. It was flanked by two squat statues of stylized dragons.

"What is this place?" Elma said, voice echoing in the dank chamber. "It looks Yevon-built."

"Correct," Shinra said. "Baaj Temple. Former prison of Seymour Guado and his mother. We use Baaj Spheres and the Chamber of the Fayth for power, the way you do at Djose."

"Hey!" Elma said. "We don't—"

"Prison?" Maroda said. "When was this?"

"When his father's hold on the Guado was less secure," Isaaru said. "Yet another dark secret of the old regime."

"It still is a prison, in a pinch," Gippal said, stepping over a tangle of metal bars whose bolts had shaken loose from the cracked stone doorframe.

They followed Gippal and Shinra into a long rectangular hall. Six more statues, two of them toppled, crouched along the walls of the chamber. Colored spheres set in steles before their knees provided eerie illumination. The far end of the chamber had collapsed, choking the portal to the Chamber of the Fayth with huge blocks. A sparse cloud of pyreflies drifted in aimless eddies over the rubble.

"No," Gippal said, sprinting towards them. "Nooj!"

"Isaaru," Maroda said, barring his brother at the door. "Stay back. Let your guardians make sure it's safe. This guy sounds dangerous."

"Oh, come on already!" Elma said, hurrying after Gippal. "Man down. Let's do something."

Shinra turned to one of his companions. "Ehvuns Amtan Cid drao'ja lusa. Rikku yht Gippal fedr dra Yevonedac." The woman nodded and slipped out.

"He's under there?" Gippal said, staring glumly at the pile of broken masonry. "You sure? He's got to be dead."

"My scanners show a pocket of open space," Shinra said, "and someone in it. Faint heartbeat. Still alive, but weak."

"Then we'd better hurry."

They converged on the rock-fall, picking their way down the aisle between the statues. The hall had been designed as a waiting room for a few guardians, not eight people, and debris clogged part of the floor. They quickly organized themselves into two brigades. Shinra, Elma and Rikku cleared away smaller fragments while Auron, Gippal and Maroda levered away the larger blocks. Isaaru, shooed off by his brother, paced around the chamber, pausing now and again to peer at inscriptions. The remaining Al Bhed stood guard by the exit, gun sloped against his shoulder.

At length they uncovered a large block that had once spanned the portal. It had dropped straight down and cracked in two, forming a triangle with the threshold. Fragments from the door's moldings were wedged under the two halves, propping them inches above the floor. An unrecognizable spur of red cloth and twisted metal jutted out from underneath.

"Wait," Gippal said. "I see him. Damn, this looks bad." He leaned against the wall, panting. "How the heck do we get that off?"

"See him where?" Maroda said. "All I see is a smashed machina."

"That's him," Shinra said. "Be careful. His leg's supporting most of the weight."

"His leg?" Elma said, staring.

Preoccupied as he was, Gippal smirked. "Yeah. You're gonna love this. Shinra, got your scanner handy?"

Auron had stepped clear of the rubble to give the Al Bhed room to plot their next move. Abruptly he swung towards the summoner, who had frozen on the plinth of a toppled statue. "What's wrong?"

"I could swear there is someone here," Isaaru said, face drawn and dazed. He gestured blindly towards the choked doorway of the inner chamber. "The fayth...it weeps, Sir Auron, but I do not think it has been destroyed! Perhaps I can reach it."

"Forget the Fayth," Elma snapped. "Haven't we lost enough people already for some damned statue? Let's just get this guy out!"

"Shhhh!" Rikku said, making frantic hushing motions with her hands.

There was a faint croak from the far side of the rubble. "...a dead man. Forget him too."

"Noojster!" Gippal said. "Not cool, man. Is your arm free? Give us a hand. You're the one with the built-in forklift."

"Ugh," Elma said. "Are we trying to rescue a man or a machina?"

"Both," Shinra said. "We replaced the arm and leg he lost in battle. My father's best work."

"Your father was a sadist," came Nooj's muffled retort. There was a scraping sound from the other side of the barrier. The two halves of the lintel shifted slightly, dust and flakes of stone pattering down between them. "No good. Can't get leverage."

"Hang on," Rikku said. She cocked her head at Isaaru. "You've got white magic, right? Life too, just in case?"

"Yes, milady. But I don't think—"

"Spirit stuff's your specialty; small explosives are mine. Take cover, everybody. Nooj, cover your head if you can." She plucked a small metal cylinder out of her belt-pouch and worked it into the widest part of the crack in the broken lintel. "You too, Gip. You don' wanna lose the other eye."

"You sure you know what you're doing, Rikku?" Gippal said, backing away reluctantly. "We're running out of replacement parts for this guy."

"I'm sure. Trust me, Gip. Get behind a statue."

She flipped a tiny recessed switch on the end of the capsule with a fingernail and scampered backwards. There was a loud pop, a white flash, and the rattle of of falling rocks. A cloud of dust obscured the rear third of the room.

"Nooj!" Gippal said. "Nooj, you still with us?"

Shinra started forward, trusting his mask to filter out the dust. "Someone give me a hand."

Expressionless, Auron followed him into the gray haze. They emerged dragging a barrel-chested man between them, his metal limbs rasping across the flagstones. Nooj's artificial leg was bent, crushed, and snapped off below the knee; dried blood obscured his face.

Auron suddenly lurched and dropped Nooj's shoulder with a clang. He staggered backwards, swatting at the pyreflies weaving around them like hungry mosquitoes.

"Hey, watch it!" Gippal said, hurrying forward to help lower Nooj to the floor.

"Sir Auron," Isaaru said. "Focus. Sin awaits, remember?"

"There's someone here," the white-haired guardian said through clenched teeth. "Unsent."

"Nooj?" Gippal said. "Dammit, Rikku, if you've killed him—"

"No, it's the fayth," Isaaru said. "It's been damaged. I've never sensed such pain! Don't listen to it, Sir Auron." He hurried over and dropped to one knee beside Nooj, compassion in his eyes as he surveyed the battered shell of a man. "Well, now. I must defer to your people's art for mending that leg. But as for the rest—"

"Point that thing somewhere else!" Elma said sharply, launching herself through a stream of pyreflies towards the silent Al Bhed by the door. The guard's gun was off his shoulder. As heads turned, he shifted his aim towards the Crusader.

"Fayd!" said Rikku.

Elma did not wait. She dropped into a sweeping kick that cut the man's legs out from under him as he fired. A bolt of energy struck the ceiling, scattering slivers of rock. Elma fell on the guard with a yell and wrenched his gun away, slamming the butt of it against his chin. The Al Bhed went limp under her.

"Elma!" Maroda said, dashing towards them. "Stop!" He reached her an instant before Gippal, grappling with her to pry the gun out of her hands. "What the hell are you doing? Calm down!"

"Calm down?" she said, jabbing an elbow in Gippal's stomach as he wrestled her off of her victim. "Machina everywhere, Yevon a lie, Sin about to wipe out Bevelle, my troops decimated, Pacce and Lenne dead for all we know—"

"Lenne?" Shinra said, looking up. "Nooj mentioned her."

"Who?" Elma bristled. "I said Lucil! Maester Lucil."

With Maroda's help, Gippal had managed to pin her arms behind her back. "Ow. Sorry life sucks, lady, but what the hell gives you the right to take out your troubles on us?"

"Your man was taking aim at our summoner!" Elma said, heaving against his grip. "And if you weren't so busy — oof! — fraternizing with these machina-lovers, Maroda, you'd have noticed he was about to blow your brother's head off!"

"Oh, great, now she's got the toxin," Rikku said, checking over the unconscious guard. "It's Lulu's PMS Overdrive."

"Commander Elma," Isaaru said, his view obstructed by the red coat of the guardian who had planted himself between the summoner and the fray. "Forgive me, but you must be mistaken. Perhaps you misconstrued his gesture."

"Isaaru," Auron said. "We need to leave this place. Now."

"And go where?" The metal ramp outside the chamber clanked under a heavy tread. Cid entered a moment later, dressed in an ugly orange jumpsuit grimed with oil and soot. He halted in the doorway and surveyed the tableau with a scowl. "Gippal. I thought I told you to keep our 'guests' secure until I got here."

"Pops!" Rikku said, springing to her feet.

"Good to see you, too, kiddo," Cid said, giving her exposed midriff a dig. "Put some clothes on."

She stuck out her tongue. "You like it when Nhadala dresses like this."

"Excuse me, but..." Gippal's voice cracked. "Nooj is dyin' over here!"

"Thought that's what he wanted." Cid said. He glowered at Isaaru, mostly hidden behind Auron. "Don't suppose you know why Sin suddenly decided to pulverize Home right before you lot showed up, eh?"

"Elder Cid," Isaaru said, rising with a bow. "Sin is targeting the temples, securing itself against the aeons' threat. I am Isaaru. Some years ago, you hosted me and my brothers in your Summoners' Sanctum. I shall never forget how your people protected us during the Guado attack. It is a debt I must repay. Please, allow me to help this man."

"Isaaru, eh?" Cid said. "I remember you. Grand Maester o' Yevon, now, eh?"

"No longer." Isaaru said. "I abdicated. A summoner's first duty is to fight Sin."

"Hmph." Cid shook his head. "You Yevonites never change. And as for you," he growled, staring murderously Auron, "what've you got to say for yourself, eh? Where's my niece?"

"I'm sorry," Auron said. "Yuna was... determined."

"Sorry?" Cid's scalp and ears flushed crimson. "You sent her to her death, and now you're sorry, eh? I'll show you sorry!" He took a step towards the man, hands balling into fists.

"Augh!" Rikku stepped between them, pressing her knuckles against her father's chest. "Can't you guys hold off pummeling each other until we've dealt with Nooj and Sin?"

"Sin?" Cid said. "You're playing guardian again, is that it? And now you and these bungling Yevonites lead Sin straight to Home, and we have to rebuild all over again!" He broke off with a violent fit of coughing, face contorting as he doubled over.

"Pops?" Rikku slipped an arm around him. "Whoa. Deep breaths. Home's gonna be fine; we'll fix it! And I'm not guarding anybody 'cept family, okay?"

"Isaaru," Gippal pleaded.

Isaaru nodded and hurried over, setting his hands on Nooj's chest.

"Great. Just great. 'We'll fix it.'" Cid wheezed with bitter laughter, his voice taking on a strange timber. "Yeah, that's right. I'll...fix it." Moving with startling agility, he yanked the gun from Maroda's hands and trained it on Auron.

"Hey!" Maroda said.

"Rikku!" Auron said, stepping away from Isaaru. "Stun him!"

Rikku scooted around Cid to block his line of fire. "Pops!"

Horror flooded Cid's eyes an instant before he pulled the trigger. Howling as she collapsed, he fired again at Auron lunging to shield her. The guardians' chamber exploded into madness, bolts of energy and shrapnel ricocheting off statues, walls, floor tiles. The others charged him, but their initial moment of shock proved costly: Maroda, Elma and Gippal were mowed down before they could reach him, and Shinra was caught diving for cover. Taking aim at Isaaru, Cid stumbled over his daughter and glanced down. His face contorted in anguish.

"Elder Cid." Isaaru rose to face him across the suddenly still chamber, voice soothing and deliberate, reaching out to him as a summoner might pray to a fiery-tempered fayth. "Stop. You are not yourself. Please, let me help you. Let me heal her. There is still time."

"Time?" Cid gave a broken laugh. "You're late... a thousand years too late. I'll avenge her. With Vegnagun and Sin." His lip curled in a sneer, noting Isaaru's hands making the sign of Yevon over his heart. "A follower of Yu Yevon, eh? See you on the Farplane."

It was a tribute to a summoner's training— or folly— that Isaaru's smile did not falter until the bolt struck.

Chapter Text


My dear son.

(Nay, lady, I am but a son of Spira. Yet I would be honored to bear your pain.)

My dear, brave son. This time of the spiral, we shall not be sundered. Do not weep, Seymour, for soon all Spira shall recognize you for what you truly are...

(...a monster!)

(The memory flashed from Isaaru's mind to hers with the unshrouded immediacy of fayth's communion -- no smile, no politic speech, no polished gesture to soften the blow -- a field of blood-red snow, mangled heaps of Ronso warriors tossed like broken trees in an avalanche's graveyard. The bodies were gutted and limp as if Seymour had spirited away their very bones, not just their souls, to fashion ghastly armor. Surely, Sin was built in this way. There had been precious few to send, and none to heal.)

A banshee scream of pain tore through coherent thought. No, no, no, you must live, you must die, you must be Spira's savior! Redeem us, avenge us, atone for our sins! All shall love and weep for thee, Yevon's true son!

(Isaaru felt arms of gray steel tightening around his neck, bloody chains digging into his throat. Burning feathers flared and fell, prickling his skin...)

"Mother!" Isaaru's eyes snapped open; he found himself weeping.

"Er... not exactly, sir."

The anguished face whose eyes brimmed with blood transmuted into Elma's plain features, grinning down at him in relief.

Isaaru wiped his eyes, dimayed to see red soaking the cuff as he drew his hand back. The world was red, too, but that was only the dull glow of a solitary Kilika sphere, pulsing weakly as if it might give out at any moment. The chamber had darkened considerably. The other spheres must have been damaged by gunfire.

"Phew. It was phoenix down." Elma brandished a broken phial, triumphant. "I always wonder who has to pluck the bird these come from."

"What did you think I used on you?" said a dry voice. "Motor oil?"

"Sorry, sir. I don't trust anything I found on an Al Bhed ship."

"A thief talking trust." Nooj laughed. "Yevon hasn't changed a bit, has it?"

"Somewhat." Isaaru found the strength to smile, despite the howling wraith in the back of his mind. "You have my thanks, Commander."

"Don't thank me, sir. Thank Nooj. He had sense enough to lay low after you revived him." She waved towards the man sitting propped in the doorway, watching them over the rim of his spectacles. "He found my field medicine kit."

"And appropriations," Nooj said.

"Right." She blushed. "I'll see to the others now, sir."

"Please do." Isaaru winced as he surveyed the bodies scattered around the dark chamber, fallen friends and allies lying in the shadows of Guado demons graven in stone. "I pray to Yevon we're in time." He crawled to the nearest victim, Shinra, whose shallow, rasping breaths sounded like sandpaper through his respirator.

"Take good care of him," Nooj said. "Kid's a genius...except in choosing his friends."

"So speaks a friend who saved us all," Isaaru said, removing the young man's mask with care. Apart from pale skin the color of shell, hair white as snow to match, there was no obvious deformity to explain his head-to-toe garb. Thrusting curiosity aside, Isaaru placed his hands over Shinra's forehead and heart, invoking Yevon's blessing for one who lay beyond it.

Elma and Isaaru executed triage in tandem, fighter's and priest's paths converging in the aftermath of slaughter. The Crusader dispensed phoenix down, while the summoner attended to the gruesome burns that the restorative left half-healed. The murmur of summoner's prayers and the faint crackle of sparks were soon masked by expletives and staccato conversation.

"Th' hell? Isaaru, are you all right?"

"Vilgehk cred fedr y puucdan bylg... Aaaah. Thanks, Yevon-babe. Hey! Just a dang second! You swiped that from my cargo hold, didn't you?"

"Kad yfyo vnus sa!"

"Er, yeah. Sorry I hit you earlier...whoa! No punching the medic."

"This is bad, Nooj. Servos fused. I'll have to replace the whole joint."

"Just splint it, kid. Give me a pin to stand on. Save the engineering miracles for later."

Elma saved Auron and Rikku for last, enlisting Maroda and Gippal to help her roll the guardian off the woman he had tried to shield. Elma pressed a phial into his gloved hand as he stirred.

"All clear, sir. Wanna help your friend?"

Auron grunted and sat up, popping the cap and shaking out wispy feathers in an economical gesture that spoke of too many years of practice. Glowing filaments rained down on Rikku's mop of braids, flared brightly and winked out. After a few seconds, she gasped and rolled over, biting his knee through his pants to keep from whimpering. Her arms wrapped around her stomach; red skin there was blistered and bubbled like half-melted plastic.

Auron handled her gently, coaxing her to uncurl. He held her while Isaaru tended her.

"Rikku," Auron said. "Your father wasn't in control of his actions."

"Gee, ya think?" she said. "Ow ow OW I think there's something I hate more than lightning."

"I hear ya, Rikku," Gippal said, wincing. "Yo, Shinra, wasn't that energy blaster one of your inventions?"

"Don't look at me. I'm just a kid."

A curaga or two later, Rikku scrambled to her feet using Auron's coat as a ladder. "Well, that sucked. Did anyone see which way Pops went?"

"No," Nooj said, "but I heard an airship's engines fire fifteen minutes ago. It sounded like the Fahrenheit."

Rikku pressed a fist to her forehead in a gesture reminiscent of Lulu. "Oh, great. Well, um... eh... heh. Gippal, you goin' anywhere? We could use a ride. Like, pronto!"

"Oh, sure," Gippal said sarcastically. "So we can get blown out of the sky? Remember, Rikku, Cid's got the big guns."

"But we can't just let him get away!"

"We can't go after him." Maroda spread his hands as several dubious pairs of green eyes turned towards him. "Rikku, look. I know you're worried about your dad. I'd be worried sick. But there's thousands of other lives at stake. If we don't get to Bevelle before Sin gets there--"

"We follow Cid," Auron said.

Maroda was not the only one who gaped. "You've got to be kidding."

Auron stooped in the doorway, raising Nooj onto his good leg with a scrape of metal on stone. "Family comes first. Let's go."

"Awww," Rikku gave a little hop and tagged after him. "So you can teach an old Yevonite new tricks."

"I've got an ugly feeling about this," Gippal said, following her out.

"Damn him," Maroda said, picking up the spear he had dropped earlier. "I swear, sooner or later, I'm going to take this and just—"

"Sir?" Elma said, hovering at Isaaru's elbow. "What's wrong?"

Maroda pivoted. "Isaaru?"

"It's all right." The man wiped away blood pooling in the corners of his eyes. "A moment." Taking several deep breaths, he waited for the other Al Bhed to clear the room, then broke into a beaming smile. "We have a weapon, my brother. Seymour's Final Aeon. At last, I have the means to finish our pilgrimage."

"Final Aeon?" Maroda frowned. "That doesn't make sense. How can you have a Final Aeon without a High Summoner?"

"Little about Lord Seymour made sense," Isaaru said. "But my suspicions were correct. He had completed his pilgrimage. He gained the Final Aeon, but he refused to face Sin. Whether through fear or greed for power, I do not know."

"You don't look well, sir," Elma said.

"Yes." Isaaru grimaced. "The fayth: his own mother. Erinyes, or such is the name she gave me. Half-mad with pain. So long as she thinks I am Seymour, the bond between us may be strong indeed. As strong, perhaps, as a true Final Summoning."

"A lie to fight a lie?" Maroda said.

"Exactly. Fitting, no?" Isaaru straightened. "But I must ask both of you to keep this a secret."

Maroda nodded. "Yeah. We sure don't want Auron telling Sin about this."

"Sounds dangerous," Elma said. "What if Erinyes figures out you're not Seymour?"

"I do not know, Commander. But one thing I do know is that we need to get off this island. Our ship is leaving. Come."

They caught up with the others at the cargo doors of Gippal's freighter, where Auron and Gippal were lugging Nooj into the hold. Rikku stood at the foot of the ramp, giving hurried instructions to a few stunned Al Bhed who had straggled out of the control room at the sounds of commotion.

"Cu, luhdehia dra nabyenc. Ihdem Shinra un E kad pylg, Pnudran'c eh lrynka. Lymm res yht damm res fryd E zicd dumt oui. Fa'mm caht hafc yc cuuh yc fa ryja yho, ugyo?" Rikku waved at Isaaru. "So, are you guys coming or not?"

"We are," Isaaru said. "Maroda, help with Nooj. Captain Gippal, we beg leave to fly with you again."

"Yeah, sure, just hurry up," Gippal said, swapping out with Maroda. "Nooj, there's a freight elevator behind those gun-racks. Show these blockheads how to use it. Everybody else, follow me. Let's move, people. Cid's got a big lead; we don't want to lose him." So saying, he jogged to the ladder, disappearing rapidly into the darkness overhead.

Rikku scurried up the loading ramp behind them as the cargo bay doors began to close. "Shinra!" she said. "You almost squashed me!"

"You're always boasting how quick you are. Come on. Gippal needs us on the flight deck."

Elma and Isaaru trooped after them, while Maroda and Auron wrestled Nooj into the elevator. No explanation of the lift controls proved necessary; Auron had not spent ten years in Zanarkand hiding on Jecht's houseboat.

Nooj watched curiously as Auron operated the elevator, turning on the lights in the dim compartment as it began to creep upwards. "One would think you knew something about machina, sir guardian."

"Hmph."

Maroda shook his head. "Give up, man. He's already said his three words for the day."

The intercom sizzled to life. "Yo. We've got Cid on the scanner. Brace for liftoff." The painful pop as the speaker cut out had barely faded before the ship lurched forward, throwing them against the rear wall. Light panels dimmed momentarily. The lift hesitated as if it might stick, then resumed its slow ascent.

Maroda cursed, taking the brunt of Nooj's metal arm in the ribs. "That guy drives like a maniac."

"This does not surprise me," Nooj said.

Auron shifted his feet, hitching Nooj's arm around his shoulders more securely.

"Don't strain yourself, old man," Maroda said. "You want me to take over?"

"Hmph."

Nooj lowered his voice, as if that could make up for the awkwardness of being almost cheek to cheek with the white-haired guardian, were it not for his collar. "It's Sir Auron, isn't it? I seem to have fallen into the company of legends."

"Legendary failures, more like," Maroda said.

"Then I'll fit right in." Nooj flicked his eyes to the dark-skinned man. "I don't think we've been introduced."

"Oh. Sorry." He raised his fist in a salute, truncated by close quarters. "Captain Maroda, Yocun Lodge, normally stationed in the Calm Lands. Currently on leave for my brother's pilgrimage."

"Maester Isaaru?" Nooj said, putting subtle emphasis on the title.

"Yeah. Speaking of which..." Maroda shifted his attention to Auron. "What the hell gives you the right to override our pilgrimage? You're a guardian! Your duty is to obey your summoner!"

Auron gave him a wooden look. "Isaaru trusts my advice. You would do well to follow his example."

"My brother is naive," Maroda said. "It wouldn't occur to him that you might be buying your lady friend time to blow up the last few aeons."

Nooj arched an eyebrow, listening with feigned detachment.

"I yielded to Yuna and Lord Braska," Auron said, impatience seeping out in a growl. "They died. It changed nothing. This time, we do it my way."

"Which is...?" Maroda thumped the floor with his spear. "Why are we going after Cid and not Sin?"

"A hunch." Inexplicably, Auron's stern manner evaporated into a soft chuckle. "Because it's the right thing to do."

"Like hell it is--"

"Gentleman," Nooj said. "With all due respect, Sin is the least of your problems. If Cid gets his hands on Vegnagun, he'll blast Bevelle off the map."

"Vegnagun?" Maroda said.

"A weapon?" Auron said, suddenly intent.

"I'll explain when we're topside. Everyone needs to hear this. Especially Gippal and Shinra. I owe them an apology. " Nooj exhaled. "Once you understand what I know, you may have second thoughts about your quaint little custom of pilgrimage."

Chapter Text

The three men squinted as they emerged from the airship's corridors into the bright sunshine of the flight deck. The ocean raced by beneath them, a great hammered mirror of pink and gold. On the horizon, a star that was no star flared as Gippal made a slight course adjustment.

Elma and Isaaru parted at the sound of the doors opening behind them. The Crusader flinched at the hiss of pneumatics. Isaaru, more acclimated to Al Bhed technology, simply turned to inspect Maroda and Auron for damage.

"What's our status?" Auron said.

"Hurry-hurry-he's-getting-away-and-this-bucket-can't-go-any-faster-rific," Rikku said, fidgeting on her feet next to Shinra, who was bent over the engineer's console.

A blue glowing sphere floated at his elbow, illuminated by faint outlines of islands and two yellow dots creeping across its surface. The youth was bent over the console, paging through a display screen. "The Fahrenheit is eighty miles ahead, bearing north-northwest. Cid's outrunning us, but we should be able to monitor him on the scanners."

"Take over for me, Rikku," Gippal said, hopping down from the pilot's seat and jogging back to relieve Auron of his burden. "Thanks, old man. I was beginning to wonder if you'd had a heart attack hauling him up here."

The Al Bhed slipped under Nooj's arm, winking at Maroda and jerking his chin towards the nose of the cockpit. Together they guided Nooj to the navigator's seat and strapped him in. A tense semaphore unfolded between old friends: Gippal's gestures zealously casual, Nooj politely impassive, distancing himself from the men manipulating his limbs.

"Nice spread," he said finally, eying the four stations that seemed to be soaring through the sky in formation.

"Didn't quite turn out the way we'd planned, did it?" Gippal said. He jabbed a thumb towards the seat where Rikku was perched. "That's yours once Shinra's fixed you up, Nooj."

"You'd make me the pilot?" Nooj's mouth tightened. "What about Paine?"

"Well, I reckon she'll want the gunner's station." Gippal smiled. "She's alive, Nooj. I haven't seen 'er in years, but Baralai says she's okay. I was kinda afraid to tell you."

"Thanks. I was afraid to ask, for fear I might—" He stopped, shook his head. "But that's in the past. Once this is over, I'm going to look for her."

Gippal grinned. "You still have a death wish, man. So... you gonna explain what this is all about? And give me some reason to stop watchin' my back every time I check up on you?"

"And here I thought you were being too trusting." Nooj smiled. "But first, let me apologize. To you and to Shinra. And to you also, Rikku. I fear your father's in for a rough time."

"But what's happened to him?" she said, waving her hands. "I didn't think psycho-Noojie-cooties were catching!"

"Not that, at least. Your father has been possessed by Shuyin, a man from Zanarkand killed in the machina wars a thousand years ago, whose soul still cries out for vengeance."

"A ghost?" Rikku said.

"Unsent," Auron said.

"So what's Vegnagun?" Maroda said. "Another unsent?"

"Let me start at the beginning," Nooj said. His expression hardened, eyes locking with Isaaru's. "Thirteen years ago, just before the last Calm, Yevon hatched an ingenious way to rid itself of undesirables: Operation Mi'ihen."

"For which we are still atoning," Isaaru said, resting a hand on Elma's shoulder. The woman's hands had balled into fists.

Nooj's eyes flicked to the Crusader, measuring. "You know of the Crimson Squad, then."

"We've...heard the name," Isaaru said, compassion coloring his quiet voice. "I do not know the whole tale, but it is a shadow which haunts Maester Baralai. I gather his whole squadron was massacred, and he holds Yevon responsible. You were there?"

Nooj nodded. "Baralai, Gippal and I were on the same team. The Crimson Squad was an elite corps trained to assume command of Crusader lodges and chapters."

"What?" Elma bristled. "We had excellent officers. It was the maesters who were incompetent!"

"Incompetent, or corrupt?" Nooj said. "Yevon wanted to break you, then control you. I suspect our mission's true purpose was simply to eliminate those who did not fit Yevon's mold." Again he stared at Isaaru, a note of challenge in his voice. "Like the pilgrimage."

"Jackasses," Gippal said under his breath.

Rikku jiggled impatiently. "Um, I get that you guys hate Yevon and all, but what's this got to do with Pops?"

"I'm getting there," Nooj said. "On our last training mission, we were assigned to explore the catacombs under Mushroom Ridge. That's where the entire Crimson Squad was cut down... by one another."

"What?" Isaaru paled. "In Yevon's name—"

"In Yevon's name," Nooj shot back, "we were pitted against an unsent with the power to drive us mad. And Yevon furnished us with machina weapons to make us more lethal than fiends."

Elma groaned, turned away to press her palms against curving glass. "Maybe the Cult of Sin's right. At least they know their god's out to get them."

Auron gave her a wry look.

"All those pyreflies...that was Shuyin?" Gippal hooked his hands in his suspenders, chewing on Nooj's words. "I remember, back in that cave, it felt like somebody else's feelings came crashing over me. I always figured that's what made you short out, Nooj, but I could never work out what the heck it was."

"Shuyin," Nooj said. "An unsent so obsessed with revenge that it's kept him from becoming a fiend for a thousand years. Or rather, he's become something worse."

"Damn," Maroda said. "How did you three survive?"

"Four." Nooj's eyes went distant. "We almost didn't. Paine— the sphere recorder assigned to monitor our team— stopped us from shooting each other. But it was too late. Shuyin had already claimed me, although I didn't realize it then. By the time I became aware of him, I was too weak-willed to fight him off."

"C'mon, Nooj," Gippal said. "It's not like Elder Cid's a pushover. Seems to me this Shuyin guy targets major buttheads."

"Not quite," Nooj said. "Shuyin feeds on anger and despair."

Rikku drummed her fingertips on the steering yoke. "Pops was pretty pissed, with Home getting blown up and all," she said glumly. "D'you think Shuyin would let him go if we could, y'know, cheer him up?"

Nooj laughed. "It won't be that easy. I'm afraid the best way may be to fight your father, disable him, and present Shuyin with another host. Someone expendable—"

"I'm not liking where this is going, Nooj," Gippal said.

Auron watched the exchange impassively. "What about Vegnagun?"

"A doomsday weapon built by Bevelle, which Sin— contrary to the fairy tales we're fed in temple— was summoned to counter. When Bevelle demanded unconditional surrender, threatening to use its ultimate weapon, Zanarkard's ruler responded by unleashing Sin as a final, suicidal act of defiance. That ruler was named... Yevon."

"Yu Yevon," Isaaru corrected gently.

Elma sighed. "Not this again."

"You knew?" Nooj's eyes narrowed. "That's right. You're a maester."

"I did not know," Isaaru said, "although I had begun to piece together clues from the archives. Sir Auron confirmed my suspicions about Sin—"

Maroda snorted.

"—but this is the first we've heard of Vegnagun."

"For thirteen years I've searched for it," Nooj said. "There's no sign of it under Mushroom Rock, in the hidden base where it was constructed. But Shuyin is convinced it still exists. He means to use Vegnagun to avenge himself and Lenne, the woman he loved, shot before his eyes by Bevelle's monks."

"It's in Bevelle," Shinra said, looking up from the files he'd been annotating. "Beneath the Tower of Light."

"Under the temple?" Maroda said, staring. "No way."

Nooj chuckled. "I see I wasn't the only one with secrets. Well done, Shinra."

"Don't look at me." Shinra gestured towards the screen on his console. "Baralai sent Cid all his notes on Vegnagun about two weeks ago. He asked us to help him find a way to disable it. He also asked us not to tell you."

"So that's what Baralai's been hiding," Isaaru said, exchanging glances with his brother. "A pity he could not trust us in this matter."

"And now Shuyin knows what Cid knows," Nooj said. He pointed at the sphere floating above Shinra's console. "He's heading to Bevelle— count on it. If we don't stop him before he reaches Vegnagun, Sin won't find anything left to destroy."

"Maybe we don't want to disable it, though," Maroda said slowly. "Maybe we could use it to fight Sin... without anyone getting killed."

"Except Lulu," Rikku said, giving Auron a pleading look.

"Are you crazy?" Elma said. "Even if the teachings are a great steaming pile of chocobo chips, we still shouldn't be messing with powerful machina we don't understand! Baralai probably kept this to himself to make sure nobody was stupid enough to try!"

"First things first," Rikku said. "If an Al Bhed ship shows up in Bevelle, they're gonna super-freak. And Shuyin might start shootin' people if they get in his way. We could have an Al Bhed-Yevon war on our hands. Shinra, can you contact Maester Baralai?"

"Negative. He and Cid communicated by courier."

"That'd be me," Gippal said. "And we're already pushing this rig as fast as it'll go. Cid's a tough guy, Rikku. Hopefully Bevelle's defenses can keep him occupied until we catch up with him."

"I will vouch for you to the other maesters," Isaaru said. "My colleagues have no wish for conflict between our peoples. Shelinda does not trust the Al Bhed, but Baralai does."

"Or did," Nooj said.

"Yeah." Rikku sighed. "Well, anyway, I can knock Pops out with a nightcap when we find him. If it worked on Sir Blockhead, it'll work on anybody."

"That still leaves Shuyin," Nooj said.

"If he's an unsent," Auron said, "he can be sent."

Isaaru turned to him, a smile crinkling the corners of his eyes. "Are you sure about that, my friend?"

"You're not much of a summoner," Auron said. "But you've performed more sendings than anyone in Spira."

"He has a point, actually," Maroda said, suddenly subdued.

Isaaru gave his brother a warning glance. "Indeed."

"Sounds like a plan." Nooj said. He shook his head. "Assuming any of us survives this, we can argue over what to do with Vegnagun afterwards. If Cid's attack doesn't start a war, that just may."

With many hours before they reached Bevelle, there was nothing to do but secure a meal — requiring some haggling with the ship's captain — and snatch a few hours of sleep. The Crusaders had retired to the ship's hold to spar. Elma said she needed to punch something the captain wouldn't charge for breaking, and Maroda had rashly volunteered. Gippal, meanwhile, had taken Nooj and Shinra down to his onboard machine shop to jury-rig something for Nooj's artificial leg. That left Isaaru to meditate in the relative peace of the flight deck.

Rikku, back at the ops station now that Gippal had activated the autopilot, waved Auron over. "Hey, Auron. Keep an eye on the scanner, will ya? Make sure Pops doesn't stop off in Luca for take-out. I gotta make a call."

Auron moved to stand at her elbow, watching the blue sphere and two lights inching over its surface. They were flying over open ocean now, with Bikanel creeping past on the left.

Rikku fussed over the controls for several minutes, muttering about Wakka leaving the sphere off the charger again. Finally, the forward windows shimmered and turned semi-opaque, projecting an image of Rikku's living room. The view shook violently, covered for a moment by a large hand setting the sphere on its stand. Then the view stabilized to reveal Wakka sitting on the floor, three of the children clambering over him, and a pair of bare feet just visible in the bay window behind them.

"Hey, Rikku! We were gettin' worried. What's up?"

"We are," Rikku said, eliciting squeaks of laughter from the children. "Bad news, Wakka. You know how Nooj kept going on the fritz? He's given it to Pops."

"Huh?" Wakka leaned forward, squinting anxiously. "You okay?"

"Yeah, yeah. Pops shot things up, but we're all fine. He took off on the Fahrenheit. We're going after him."

"Can't your brother go?" He frowned, still peering at the sphere. "And what are dey still doin' there?"

"Pops is headed for Bevelle, so we're giving them a ride. He's got a huge head start, Wakka. The Celsius would never catch up. Anyway, Brother's a doofus; he'd totally screw this up."

"But--" Wakka began.

"Etta ate some kak-tar seeds!" the youngest girl said. "He's gonna be a kak-tar!"

The feet in the window behind her wiggled. "Zap zap zap!"

"Then Mum's gonna have to give him tummy-medicine when she gets back," Rikku said.

"Told ya," said Vidina, sprawled across his father's legs.

"Wakka," Rikku said. "We can handle it. Long story, but basically...some crazy unsent has been riding around in Nooj's head. It jumped to Pops. We're trying to catch up to him so the summoner can send the ghost and de-Nooj-ify Pops."

"Oh," Wakka said, nonplussed. The chatter of the children rained around him while he digested this. Finally, he nodded. "Yeah, you gotta take care o' your Da. You be real careful."

"Promise." She winked. "I'll stand behind Auron, okay?"

"Right." He gave a strained grin. "Just as long as he's not takin' on somethin' you shouldn't."

"Is Auron there?" Yunie said. All that could be seen of the child was a thistle-top of orange hair sticking up behind Wakka's shoulder.

Auron moved to stand behind Rikku. "I'm here."

She stood on tiptoe, peeping out shyly. "The Lady says she's gonna go talk to the birds and the bees. After that, she's gonna go visit the dragon boy. But you'd better hurry up, 'cause she's running out of ice cream."

The corners of Auron's mouth twitched. "Understood," he said, after a moment's pause. "Thank you, Yuna."

"Okay!" she said, diving out of sight again.

Wakka folded his arms, his glare magnified to alarming proportions by the ship's forward projectors.

"Kids," Rikku said, "Mummy loves you tons, but I've gotta be gone a few days to help Pops. You listen to Da and pitch in with chores, okay?"

A chorus of mumbles seemed to satisfy her.

"Rikku, Wakka said, cheeks reddening. "I love you lots and lots. Come back soon, ya?"

"I love you too, hon," she said. "Try not to worry too much." She cut the connection and leaned back, slumping after the image of her family had been replaced by empty sky.

"'The birds and the bees'?" Isaaru echoed quizzically.

"Remiem Temple," Auron said.

"Oh!" Rikku perked up. "The chocobos and those weird bug sisters."

"And then to Bevelle, no?" Isaaru said. "I suppose your friend is sending us what warning she can, without alarming the child."

"Or alerting Yu Yevon."

The summoner's brows lifted. "I...see. Then we must use the time she has given us wisely. So, what is your counsel? Is Vegnagun the answer?"

"It will have to be," Auron said. "Once the aeons are gone, there will be nothing left to stop her."

"Auron!" Rikku said, swiveling in her chair. "Lulu's family too, y'know? You can't just give up on her!"

"I haven't." Auron's gaze flicked downward, meeting Rikku's pleading eyes. Without the armor of his glasses, the haunted strain in his face was easier to discern. "Rikku, listen. I guard Lord Isaaru. But Lulu guides our pilgrimage, just as she guided Yuna. She knows more of Sin and Yu Yevon than anyone. We have to solve the puzzle she's set for us."

"Are you certain it's your friend, not Sin's master, who steers her course now?" Isaaru asked gently. "The Lady is a prisoner, just as Nooj was. Who knows what part of her mind remains her own, after thirteen years?"

"That message did not come from Yu Yevon," Auron said stiffly.

"Seems pretty clear Lulu's just trying to end the pilgrimages," Rikku said. "She's cleaning out every temple in Spira."

"The story can't end there, Rikku." Auron scowled behind his collar. "We have to free her...one way or another."

"You know, maybe Maroda was right about you two, kinda," Rikku said, tapping her teeth thoughtfully. "You and Lulu were always on the same wavelength: grump point cynic two five. But you were so busy being bad-ass know-it-all uber-guardians that you never stopped to realize there's more to life than boom and smash and self-sacrifice. It's too bad. You two would've absolutely owned Spira's Hottest Celebrity Couples spherecast."

"Hmph." At least Yunalesca had spared them that annoyance.

"Auron." Rikku cocked her head with that same focused look she got just before darting in to disable a machina. "You miss her too, don't you?"

He stared past Rikku's keen scrutiny to a horizon that was darkening to lavender. He had never been sentimental about sunsets, but the shade was a reminder of other things he had not permitted himself to be sentimental about. Almost he yielded to Rikku's strategic pestering. Whatever answer he might have given, however, was curtailed by the presence of the summoner behind them.

"We'll get her back, Auron. Pops first, then Lulu. I know we will." Rikku reached out to pat his bare hand. "I promise."

Chapter Text

The airship soared on through the night sky. There was no sign of Sin, save a thin stripe of corded cloud marching off towards Macalania. The flight deck had emptied two hours ago, after Shinra reprogrammed the autopilot to track their quarry. Now the running lights had dimmed, leaving no visible barrier between its sole occupant and the endless sweep of stars. Sir Auron sat motionless with his back against cold glass, keeping vigil with only his jug of nog for company.

He had spent many such nights on Mt. Gagazet, gazing out across a black abyss just a step beyond the edge of a precipice. Even in Zanarkand, where depth was an illusion and city lights masked the stars, he had found solace on the heights. There, the unsettling tug of the Farplane was easier to ignore, subsumed by ordinary vertigo. It was like fasting: deny simple cravings (step off, the pyreflies would sing; your life is void; run, leap, and go!) and greater lusts could be denied.

Somewhere beyond sight, Lulu (who had been another precipice) was flying blind in a cavernous belly of bone and rot and darkness. Could the Lady see stars from her vile cocoon?

This was the watch they had once shared, the chill midnight hours, guarding younger guardians with a bleak sense of destiny on their shoulders. On most nights, they had barely exchanged a word. Yet there had been a texture and a weight to that silence as solid as a sword's grip.

Until that witch-woman who seemed almost colorless had changed the color of silence itself. Drawn by his difference, she had made an alluring offer. He, to his own surprise, had stepped off. There was something about Lulu's challenge (and not only the allurements of Venus, for he had been propositioned before) that tickled his sense of irony. A woman who meant to die with her summoner, and a man who already knew what death meant: they were the last people who should be trifling with life's distractions. Yet there was a bittersweet pleasure in cheating death for a little while, as she had promised.

They had observed strict rules of engagement, of course. They were dedicated guardians, and their professional pride demanded no less: never on duty, and never unless their summoner was somewhere safe, such as an airship three miles up. Which meant, for the remainder of the pilgrimage, their silent watches had become an agreeable form of fasting.

The game had nearly been given away when that old coot at the Monster Arena handed over the Mars Sigil. Rikku had excitedly snatched it and the Venus Crest from the mage's hair to demonstrate: "Hey, lookit, they fit together!"

"Whoa-ho," Tidus said. "Hey, Auron—"

Auron's overly brusque give me that had triggered a half-hour sulk from the Al Bhed girl, but he had been trying not to laugh. The prim look on the mage's face had been worth the aggravation of the sigil-quest.

Lulu had caught the glint his eye, and spent the rest of the day tormenting him during combat with blatant flirting under the guise of sending fiends to death's loving arms. "Hope you like it hot..." she would purr, scorching a malboro to a husk of withered leaves. Or, "Thirsty?" while quenching the raging fires of a chimera. It was a game she played, and a silly game at that, but it had helped keep him sane.

Yes, Rikku. I miss her.

He allowed himself to admit it now, having escorted Rikku to a cabin an hour ago. She had gone without protest, not like the old days, jesting that she'd herded enough cactuars to bed to know better.

"Although I doubt I'll sleep much." Rikku draped bonelessly against the doorframe, shadows in the hollows of her eyes as she flashed a smile borrowed from her cousin. "Really, Auron, it's amazing how trouble follows you around like a bit of toilet paper stuck to your boot."

"Rikku. We'll find your fa—"

"Don't say it." She stuck out her tongue, but the words were too quick and sharp for teasing. "No more promises, 'kay? Alhough I guess you never gave Tidus any promises."

The door cut the space between them while he was still seeking a retort, or adequate words for atonement.

Isaaru had retired earlier, too. Something was wrong with the man. Auron was hardly in the mood for summoner's games, but he would need to find out what troubled him before they faced Sin. Most likely, Isaaru was suffering from the effects of Sin's attacks on the temples. A part of his soul had been wrested away with every aeon's loss. It was a strain with which Auron could empathize.

Sleep sharpens swords. Any soldier past cadet knew the wisdom of that proverb. Yet here Auron was, staying up late with a jug of nog at his knee, sailing through memories to stave off sleep. Would he remember to wake up again? What fee would dreams charge for another day of existence?

Pyreflies danced at the edges of his vision, seeping away when his attention wandered. There were bone-aches in his flesh, bones that throbbed like torn muscle, ghosts of every wound he had ever sustained— before or after death, he could no longer tell. Nor could he remember whether the tepid ale on his lips came from this side of the Farplane.

Lulu was not the only one "running out of ice cream."

"Enough."

Auron set the jug down and pushed it away. Despair made the whine of the pyreflies louder, audible above the purring ship's engines. Time to focus.

The next stage of the pilgrimage was clear enough. Fight Cid. Banish Shuyin. Keep away from Isaaru, whose sendings had been giving him headaches. Reach the next treasure chest: the weapon inside would prove useful against their next foe. (Lulu in that irrevocable moment of despair, sheathed in ice and metal and a tree of lightning six hundred feet high, towering over a Yuna-sized shadow painted onto scorched bedrock.)

No. Keep moving forward. Keep alert for the next opening. There would not be many more.

Using Vegnagun was risky, but Auron had almost given up trying to save the world. He'd settle for satisfying one damned oath before the pyreflies won.

Approaching footsteps yanked him back to the here and now. Dim blue safety lights embedded in the floor flickered on. The aft doors whisked open. A wiry figure stepped out. It was not Rikku, as he thought for a moment, but the Crusader woman still dressed in Al Bhed garb, silhouetted against amber light spilling out from the corridor. He shielded his eyes with his glove until the doors closed.

Elma halted, waiting for her eyes to adjust. There was a sag in her stance that he had not seen before, not even after the first Operation Mi'ihen. He heard the release of a held breath.

Then she caught sight of him. "Oh! My apologies, sir!" She straightened at once, squaring her shoulders to parade attention. "I can go, if—"

"It's fine." He gestured to the floor next to him, a silent challenge. "Sit."

"Er...thank you, sir." She hesitated at the joint between metal deckplates and transparent glass. Past that, a rough texture frosting the surface was the only sign proving that she was not stepping out over a void. "I still don't know whether to atone or beg for a tour of duty as Al Bhed liaison. This ship..." She shook her head, forced herself to step over the seam, and moved towards him with her fingertips tracing the hull. "I wonder what the general would think."

When she slid down the wall near him and pulled her knees into her chest, Auron pushed the jug towards her.

"Heh. That obvious, eh?" She grinned and leaned over to take the offering. "You know, I was starting to think this was just for show. Lady Rikku said you never had much use for R&R."

"Hmph."

"Yeah, well." Elma sobered, swirling the jug lightly. "Next Calm, maybe?"

Auron shrugged. "Maybe." Yevon painted a captivating picture of the Farplane's delights, but he had his doubts.

"Maybe," Elma agreed with a sigh. "Gotta admit, I'm not in the mood for blitzball myself right now." She lifted the jug to the sky, composing herself, and began a quiet, rhythmic chant that petered out all too soon. "Luzzu. Kyou. Kento. Velitz. And... whoever the hell else we've lost." Anger capped the prayer instead of the customary Yevon guide them. She tossed the brew back. Then she was gasping, laughing as her eyes teared up. "Whoa! Kulukan's ale. I'd almost forgotten the stuff, since shipments got scarce."

Silence crept back into the cabin. Auron supposed the woman was trying to figure out how to pose the question that was gnawing at her. That, or she was mentally cataloging corpses. There would be forms to file, letters to write home, posthumous awards to be pinned to empty shrouds. Unlike Kinoc, she did not seem the sort of officer to delegate those duties.

"I should apologize," he said.

"Excuse me, sir?"

"Djose."

"Oh. Phllltt. Don't even." She waved a hand dismissively. "We're soldiers, sir; we know missions may fail. I just wish I hadn't abandoned my troops like this. They probably think I'm dead, too." Nails dug into her knee, and she took another drink, longer than the first. "At least the general's there to look after 'em."

Another story dangled in the gaps between her words, tied off with a tourniquet labeled To Be Continued and a question mark. An old story, as old as war itself, which the temples had been trying to hush ever since Lady Yocun and Lilith had turned their bond into another heretic summoner's triumph. Auron wondered if Maechen included their tale in his longwinded ramblings.

"There is one thing, sir," Elma said. "Would you mind a nosy question?"

"Go ahead." Tidus had mellowed him. Not that he promised answers.

"Thank you, sir." Elma laid down a screen of words while she collected her thoughts. "It's funny. I used to be the go-to officer for the cadets, the night before their first battle. They'd call me 'Mom' behind my back. You know, those islander kids...never handled anything more dangerous than a blitzball before. And now...here I am." She snorted. "So, anyway. How did you keep going, after you found out Yevon was a flat-out lie?"

"It was...difficult." Particularly the getting-killed part.

"No kidding." She gave him a look that was two parts admiration, one part exasperation. "Come to think of it, Yevon stabbed you in the back coming and going on Lord Braska's pilgrimage, didn't it?"

"You could put it that way."

"Ugh." She shivered. The tank top and cargo pants Rikku had given her were no protection against the chill seeping through the ship's hull. She took another sip and scooted away from the wall. "The Four Maesters tried so hard to restore our faith in Yevon, after Lord Mika's passing. Now..."

Auron leaned forward, suddenly alert. "How did he die?"

"Who? Oh, Lord Mika." She gave a tight, mirthless grin. "Sometimes I wonder about that, too. The official word was that he collapsed from grief and died in his sleep, but I think he committed suicide. When Lord Isaaru got back from Mt. Gagazet with news of the Ronso massacre, there was rioting in the streets. Monks firing on civilians, Crusaders fighting with warrior monks, priests holed up in the temple refusing sanctuary to anybody... it wasn't exactly Yevon's finest hour. The shame was probably too much for him."

Auron grunted noncommitally.

"So Lucil got recalled to St. Bevelle to help sort out the mess. I thought we were gonna be executed for treason, like poor O'aka. She and I had gone to protect the rebels in Besaid after the order came down to kill Lady Yuna." She smiled crookedly. "We didn't know what to do, sir, but we couldn't do that."

"Thanks." Another irony: Lulu had wiped out the one village that had defied Yevon for Yuna's sake.

Grimacing, Auron made a few mental notes on this story's discrepancies with Isaaru's and Pacce's accounts. It might have no bearing on Spira's current crop of problems, but clearly, someone was being less than forthcoming about the manner of Mika's "death." He needed to make sure they were actually lying, and not merely mistaken.

"So, anyway." Elma pressed her fingertips against her forehead, massaging in small circles. "I don't know what I'm going to tell my troops. 'Sure, go ahead, use forbidden machina...all that Yevon stuff was only hazing.' Like when they make recruits eat gysahl greens until they throw up."

"What did you tell your cadets before battle?" Auron said. "The teachings, or lessons based on your own experience?"

"Oh." Elma pondered. "Both, really. But more the latter, come to think of it."

"The church wanted you to forget that 'teachings' are only lessons, a manual written by priests. The true test comes on the battlefield. Keep what works, discard the rest."

"Hm." She mulled this over, letting the words sink in. "I think that works. Thank you, sir."

He nodded, sinking back behind his collar.

Elma took a final swig, capped the jug and pushed it back across the floor to him. Trying not to look down, she stood carefully and moved towards the doors, flinching as they slid open. There she hesitated. "Er. If you don't mind answering, sir, what did you keep?"

There it was: the only answer that really mattered, the phylactery that kept fiend's madness at bay.

"Loyalty."

Auron would have left it at that. However, there might be grim tidings waiting for them in Bevelle. Better for her to face that battle now. "To friends. And to the fallen."

She stiffened. It might have been kinder to remind her of unspoken fears while she was still holding the jug. "I...I think I can manage that, sir."

"Good."

The woman drew herself erect and clenched a fist over her heart in a formal salute. "Goodnight, sir. Get some rest."

Three ships cut through Spira's sky, steered by a madman, a goddess, and no pilot at all.

Auron did not sleep.

Chapter Text


"May I have your attention, guys and garudas! This is your wake-up call. Rise and shine! We hit Bevelle in twenty minutes."

"Hopefully without leaving a crater," Maroda muttered as he and his brother stepped onto the bridge, bracing for the pop of static as the intercom cut off.

Gippal, slouched in the pilot's seat, tossed a vague wave over his shoulder. "Yo, Yevon-dudes. Prepare for Operation Freak the Hell Out of Bevelle."

"It's already started," Shinra said, hunched over his console. "I'm reading energy discharge."

"How bad?" Maroda said, giving a grudging nod to Auron as the older guardian moved back to join him and Isaaru.

The northern sky ignited with a brilliant splash of ruby light, cutting out the shapes of distant towers and terraces against the horizon. Darkness poured back over the city at once, but a few orange splinters were left behind, twinkling like stars of ill-omen. The real stars had vanished, veiled by a skin of cloud thickening into thunderheads to the east: Sin's tracks, an even more ominous reminder.

"Hard to say," Shinra said. "The causeway's on fire. Some rooftops and towers."

There was another soundless explosion, this time spraying the clouds with lime-green light as well as red. A flower of orange and gold blossomed from some high point over the city and began to burn like a beacon-fire. Gippal nudged the steering yoke, angling towards it.

"The Tower of Light," Isaaru guessed, cupping his hands and bowing in prayer. "Yevon grant that we may be in time."

"Macalania," Auron said. "Tell them."

"Oh, right." Shinra pointed straight down, where the gloom seemed more gray than black. There was a faint moving shimmer far below them, the airship's reflection. "It's frozen solid."

"That's how it's supposed to be," Maroda said. "It's always frozen."

Isaaru nodded. "I hope to visit the temple after we've dealt with Cid."

"Unlikely," Shinra said. "The temple's embedded in the ice. My best guess is that Sin thawed the lake, flooded it, and re-froze it. You'd need mining equipment to get down there."

"No!" Isaaru's face contorted in a fleeting spasm. "Captain, we have to help them. Your weapons: have you any with the power to—"

"Belay that," Auron said. "They're already dead."

"It wouldn't work, anyway," Shinra said. "We'd just pulverize the temple."

The summoner wiped his eyes with his sleeve, struggling to master himself. "There was a monastery," he said faintly, "and a score of acolytes. I sent two orphans there just last month to begin their training."

"Sorry, man," Gippal said. "Heck of a way to go."

"Dammit!" Maroda turned on Auron, seething. "You'd better hope your friend dies when we take on Sin, mister. Everyone in Spira's gonna be calling for her execution!"

Auron gave him a stony look and said nothing.

"Maroda," Isaaru said. "Please. The Lady has no choice about Sin's predations, whatever the Cult of Sin may say."

"Like hell she doesn't! She chose to become Sin, right? Now she's choosing her targets! And if you don't think—"

The doors whisked open again. Elma marched onto the flight deck, engaged in a familiar duty. Nooj, whose new artificial limb looked like the modified stock of a rifle, was leaning on her shoulder. If the Crusader felt any discomfort from the grip of cold machina, she concealed it with a wink at Isaaru.

"Report," Nooj said, ignoring the one-sided shouting match between Maroda and Sir Auron.

"Cid took a few pot shots on the way in. Fifteen minutes to intercept." Gippal slapped the intercom again. "Yo, Rikku, the party's leavin' without you."

"Mmmrph," came a sleepy reply. "Vilg oui, Gip."

"Love to, babe, but Wakka'd use my head for a blitzball. Hurry up. Meet the landing party in the hold."

As they descended, the Tower of Light rose high above the citadel at the city's peak, living up to its name in dramatic fashion. Its crown of suspended walkways, the open-air cathedral where Yuna had once been wed in unholy matrimony, was now one vast torch. Flaming debris rained down on the city below, showing fleeting glimpses of domes, flying buttresses, airy promenades and piazzas at many different levels. For once, ordinary men not Sin were to blame for chaos and destruction, but Sin would probably have approved of their chief target.

"Where's Cid?" Nooj said.

"Crash landed," Shinra said. He pointed towards a flicker of green flames and smoke on the far side of the tower. "Northeast sector, right near the temple."

"Crashed?" Elma said, with a rising squeak that betrayed her own fears about their current mode of travel. "You don't think Cid is—"

"It doesn't matter," Nooj said. "Shuyin will seek a new host."

"Doesn't matter?" Gippal said. "Hey, Nooj, Vegnagun may be your first priority, but mine is getting Elder Cid back in one piece."

"Speaking of Vegnagun," Shinra said. "I've got something. Could be important."

Nooj pivoted towards the boy at once. "Let's hear it."

"It's using a pyrefly interface: it can actually read minds at close range. If anyone approaches it with intent to disable it, a robust cascading self-defense program kicks in. It may take aggressive counter-measures or even retreat to the Farplane. That's why Maester Baralai wanted someone working on the problem remotely."

"Not just because you're a genius?" Nooj said.

"That too, of course." Shinra continued pecking away at his workstation. "But I need more time. I'm still analyzing the sphere data he sent us."

"We'll try and buy you that time, kid."

"Translation?" Elma said, listening with a pained frown.

"Don't even think about trying to disable it," Shinra said. "Avoid using weapons near it that could damage it. No high-powered guns. No explosives."

Elma snorted. "No problem there."

"Someone had better sit on Rikku," Gippal said.

They had reached the open water south and west of the capital, where Bevelle's merchant fleet was moored on the southern shore across the straits from the city. By the dim glow of the burning causeway spanning the bay, they could make out the harbor's forest of black masts. Gippal eased the ship down, following the line of the Highbridge all the way in. Ahead, Bevelle rose up behind huge, terraced sea-walls, a manmade mountain fortified with reinforced slopes stout enough to withstand the fearsome attacks of Sin —or of ancient machina. By night, the city gave only a vague impression of looming mass. It was utterly dark, apart from the fires burning on the upper levels.

"Something's wrong," Maroda said. "I can't see any lights."

"That burning tower works pretty well, " Shinra said.

"That's not what I meant," said Maroda.

"Captain Kiyuri," Isaaru said with sudden hope. "If the S.S. Konna risked Sin's waters to convey my warning to Bevelle, she might have reached the city already. Baralai and Shelinda could be preparing for Sin's arrival."

"Seven minutes," Gippal said, banking the ship as a warning sensor gave a shrill chirp. The view around the cockpit abruptly vanished as they plunged into a curtain of smoke. "I'm gonna try to put down in the square behind the tower, near Cid. Get to the hold and find something to hang onto. I'll operate the cargo doors from here."

"Thank you, Captain," Isaaru said. "Good luck."

"And you. Oh...Auron?" Gippal glanced back as they began to file out. "Almost forgot. Your sword's in the first gun rack to the left of the ladder. Sorry I didn't give it to you yesterday: Cid's orders. You guys are so friggin' clueless. Didn't you realize I'd taken you all prisoner?"

"Yes," Auron said.

"Heh. Guess that's one way to see the boss. Now hurry up and go find him!"


Rikku was waiting for them in the hold, scrounging through lockers on the back wall. She tossed Elma a packet from Gippal's stores, then cursed and grabbed a locker frame for support as the ship lurched. "Doesn't anybody know how to fly these things?" she said. "Gippal drives like my brother."

Auron walked over to the nearest rack and set his hand on a familiar grip protruding from the shadows. With a grunt, he drew out the blade whose weight and balance were a part of himself. A new sheath had been tooled to match it: two strips of black metal bolted around an inner leather sleeve, a utilitarian Al Bhed design. The sheath bore no glyphs or decoration, but a crude talisman was bound to the sword's hilt.

"Well, I'll be," Maroda said loudly. "Looks like Auron's girlfriend left her calling card."

"Play nice, boys," Rikku said. "I gotta save my stun grenades for Pops."

"It's a sign, no?" Isaaru said, giving a melancholy smile. "The Lady blesses our endeavor."

Stiffened by seawater, a leather thong had tangled around the hand-guard in a crisscross pattern. A triangle of bone peeped out from the webbing, held fast against the scrollwork that was the sword's only ornamentation. Auron touched the crude likeness of Lulu's face in mute greeting, then slung the sword over his back, anchoring the straps to his belt and gorget.

Elma and Nooj emerged from the freight elevator just as the floor gave a violent shudder. The Crusader managed to keep him on his feet by heaving him against the wall.

"Thanks," Nooj said, wedging his metal arm in the doorframe to steady them.

"Is he trying to get us killed?" Maroda said, wisely staying on the floor where the jolt had thrown him. "This is some ride."

"All Spira must endure a difficult passage, my brother."

"Oh, good grief."

There was another jarring concussion. Air began to whistle loudly through the seals around the loading ramp in the floor.

"Um," Rikku said. "I don't think that's Gippal's fault. That's coming from outside."

"Machina weapons," Nooj said grimly. "Typical Yevon piety."

"Can we take cover somehow?" Elma said. "I don't fancy getting my toes blown off by Maester Baralai's cannons."

"Get in the flyer," Rikku said. "It may not help much, but it's a few more layers of metal."

They staggered and crawled to the small craft strapped to the forward bulkhead. Auron heaved them over the side as the buffeting worsened.

The final minutes of descent were an escalating nightmare. Spilling out of equipment racks, weapons and supply canisters started bouncing around the hold like so many pebbles in a child's rattle. The light panels wavered, then failed, plunging them into harrowing darkness. The party clung to one another desperately as the flyer shook loose from its moorings and began to skitter around the floor. The roar of the engines rose to a deafening crescendo. The hull groaned and boomed under the hail of heavy artillery as if Sin were trying to hammer its way in with its tail. At last, the loading ramp dropped partway open, twisted with a ponderous shriek, and peeled away. Orange light flickered against the ceiling through the breach. From their current position, the helpless passengers could not tell the size of the rupture, but the squeal of wind and metal suggested that it was growing larger by the second. They had no way to know whether the ship's violent pitching was the pilot's attempt at evasive action, or loss of control as the vessel began to tear itself apart.

With a final, wallowing shudder, the ship slowed and came to a swaying stop, miraculously still aloft. The barrage of weapons fire continued, but it had changed from the thudding of shells to the crackle of bullets, some of them rattling around in the hold.

"Will you guys just cut it out?" Rikku shouted, her shrill voice piercing through the din. "D'you want to get your own maester killed? We've got Isaaru!"

The clatter of gunfire died away. Groans, curses, and the creak of the ship's joints filled the jangling silence as the battered group lay stunned in the bed of the flyer, too numb to move or speak.

A woman's voice boomed out from below. "You have five minutes to surrender, or we'll kill Elder Cid."

"Paine?" Nooj said, stirring feebly under the ceiling panel that had fallen across them. "It seems Fate is toying with us."

Chapter Text

"Paine?" Isaaru said. "Nay, that is Juno, Captain of the Guard of St. Bevelle."

"That's all we need," said Elma.

"Lemme go, you big lunk!" Rikku yelped, squirming under Auron's coat. "They've got Pops!"

"Rikku, he's right," Maroda said. "They're bluffing. But they might shoot you."

Some kinder god than Yevon had kept anyone from tumbling through the gaping rent in the floor. The only serious wound among them was a deep bloody gash in Maroda's forehead. Isaaru was patching him with cura and providing a patient ear to his swearing. A burst of static from the intercom suggested that someone, at least, was still alive on the flight deck, but whatever Gippal or Shinra had to say was unintelligible.

Auron released his grip on Rikku's arms and stood, shouldering away fallen gratings and pipes. "Wait here."

"Sir Auron!" Isaaru said, attention divided between white magic and wayward guardian.

"Let your guardians handle this," Auron said. The flyer shifted under his weight as he vaulted over the railing, giving Maroda something else to grumble about.

"I'll go too. Captain Juno knows me," Elma said, shaking off the stupefied terror that had reduced hardened soldier to a knot of limbs wrapped around a seat for the last three minutes of the descent. "We'll get this sorted out, Rikku, don't worry."

Despite her greater agility, the Crusader lagged behind, laboring over the alien landscape of bins and crates and fallen struts reduced to confusing heaps of shadow. Auron hopped from one precarious foothold to the next, careless of jagged metal. For a moment he stood at the buckled edge looking down, then he put out a boot and stepped off. They saw his coat fly up, flapping, as he dropped from sight.

Hitting the ground hard, Auron crumpled to his knees in a semicircle of warrior monks he had spotted from above. The muzzles of their rifles lowered like booms, tracking him as he came down. So far so good. The hiss of drawn steel on his blind side, less good. That meant another gamble. Auron froze, resisted the urge to draw and parry. A sword almost as large as his own flashed out in an arc that ended with the sharpened edge resting against his collar.

Finding his head still attached, Auron played out his hand. "We surrender," he said, smirk concealed behind his collar. Once, he would have died to avoid saying those words. "Where's Cid?"

"Who's we?" the swordswoman demanded, setting her left hand under her right and doubling her grip in a silent message whose language he well understood.

There was a crash and spray of sparks on the pavement behind her: a section of the tower's upper parapet had tumbled down, shattering on impact. Other burning heaps, piled up like Macalania's midwinter bonfires around what he perceived to be a plaza, provided the only illumination. Warrior monks scattered, dodging flying embers. Their leader did not waver.

"Auron," he said. "Guardian to Summoner Isaaru. We've come to stop Cid."

Crimson eyes narrowed behind the slit of the woman's helm. That minute gesture threw him off-balance as the sword had not. The world flipped inside-out: for a moment he was a Farplane ghost gazing up (or was it down?) at one of the living. Monk's armor masked her features, yet the lean woman who spoke with a sword could have been a child of his own loins challenging him with Lulu's calculating gaze. There was even a silver ponytail curled on her shoulder, mirror to his. What was it Nooj had said? Fate toying with us. But no, this was no girl-child of thirteen; her voice was an adult's. Scowling, Auron purged his mind of ridiculous thoughts before the pyreflies came nagging.

"On an Al Bhed ship?" she said.

Several rifles swung away from him. Elma had used the brief distraction of falling debris to cover her own jump. She rolled and came up in a crouch with her hands raised. "Tell your men to hold their fire, Captain," she said. "He's telling the truth. Let us pass. Bevelle's safety depends on it."

"Commander?" The captain's shock was subsumed in a frown; her sword did not budge. "You were last seen at Djose, presumed dead, leading a forbidden operation against Sin. You return in an Al Bhed ship, wearing Al Bhed issue, on the eve of an Al Bhed attack. I repeat, who is 'we'?"

"Lord Isaaru, his guardians, and Cid's people, who aren't any happier about this attack than we are," Elma said. "Come on, Captain. You know I'd never sell out my own troops."

"Then...why?"

"We don't have time for a debriefing!" Elma snapped. "Look. We got caught in Sin's backwash, chucked out in Al Bhed territory. Lord Isaaru opened negotiations for aid against Sin, but Elder Cid went berserk. He shot us— even shot his own daughter— and took off for Bevelle. He's not in control of his actions, Juno. Some kind of spirit's possessed him. I know it sounds crazy."

"Yes," the woman said, voice and mouth going flat. "Yes, it does." She stepped back, lifting her sword up and away. "Cid's in custody. Tell Isaaru to get down here."

"You'll vouch for his safety?" Auron said.

She shrugged. "That's up to Maester Baralai. He'll be along shortly."

Stalemate, but at least it was one step further. Auron waited until her followers had lowered their weapons, then turned and raised a fist.

"Whoa, whoa!" Rikku's voice drifted down from above. "Lemme get the emergency chute open. We don't all have to be stupid."

There was a brief delay while an inflatable ramp popped open and unfurled, to the consternation of the palace guards. Rikku bounded down first, running smack into Auron's arm as the row of rifles came back up.

"Pops," she said, going white.

He had already seen it. On the opposite side of the plaza from the palace, lying at a slant across the tiled roofs of the College of St. Bevelle, a great black hulk lay smoking like the bones of a whale carcass silhouetted against the ruddy sky. Green flames danced over the ruptured bulbs of exploded fuel tanks. An acrid reek of burning fuel, paint and metal hung in the air, reminding him of Zanarkand's death-throes. Fate had finally caught up with a thousand-year-old-relic from that ancient city.

"He's alive," Juno said. "We found Cid unconscious on the street. No sign of other survivors."

"Yeah, he took off without a crew." Rikku exhaled. "Look, I know you're pretty pissed at him and all, but he's still my dad. I've gotta see him."

She might as well have petitioned a street-lamp. Juno had gone rigid, staring at the awkward figure disentangling himself from the ramp's fabric, which had snagged on his artificial leg as he descended. Eying her, Auron stepped back to shield Isaaru.

"Paine," Nooj said, meeting her icy glare with a melancholy smile. "Good to see you're all right."

She stared at him, then turned to address the rest of the party. "Lord Isaaru. If you and your guardians would come this way, please."

"Juno, wait!" A man with startlingly white hair had emerged from the palace gates along with a string of priests and soldiers. Some were stumbling; six were supporting one another. He passed off the young acolyte he was carrying to two monks and jogged towards Juno. "We need to get the injured to safety. Can you spare some of your team?"

She nodded. "Biggs. Guren. Rand. Escort the wounded to Yuna's Cloister." Three monks saluted and shouldered their rifles, moving off to join the evacuees.

"Good work." Baralai halted beside Juno, breathing hard. His face, hair and clothes were soot-stained, and the hem of his heavy coat was burnt. "Is this all of them?"

"There may be more on the ship."

"Maester Baralai." Isaaru bowed deeply in Yevon's salute. "Are you hurt? Please allow me to—"

"Summoner Isaaru." Baralai's hand dropped to a compact sidearm, twin to the one that hung on Juno's left hip. "I must compliment you on a brilliantly-executed pilgrimage...or, should I say, a coup?"

"Baralai, you misunderstand—"

"Do I?" He took a step to one side, smiling grimly as Auron moved to mirror him. "A mock pilgrimage to win the people of Spira to your side. A new Operation Mi'ihen, expressly against the oath we swore when we Four took office. The southern Crusaders and Maester Lucil neutralized at Djose. Orders sent to Bevelle for mass evacuations, ensuring that Shelinda and I would be distracted, the city plunged in chaos. And Sin, after two years in which it was a threat to no one, targeting vital centers of Yevon while sparing the Al Bhed. I'd like to know what you're using to control it."

"Neutralized?" Elma said, facing off with Juno. Elma and Maroda were shoulder to shoulder with Auron now.

"Hey!" Rikku said. "For your information, Sin just attacked us!"

"So you say." Baralai gestured to the palace complex behind him, whose roofs were starting to catch fire. "But this isn't Sin's doing, is it? You probably thought we'd be evacuated by now. The perfect cover for Isaaru to seize Vegnagun with his Al Bhed friends."

"Baralai!" Gippal called. He was skiing down the ramp, nearly crashing into Nooj. "Come on, man. You think I'd go along with that kind of double-faced Yevon crap?"

"You tell me," Baralai said. "Three weeks ago, I entrusted you with classified spheres to deliver to Elder Cid. Now he launches an attack. You arrive right behind him with Nooj, of all people. Something doesn't add up."

"That's what we're trying to tell you!" Rikku said, waving her hands in frustration. "My Pops is out of control! We've got to stop him!"

"Baralai," Isaaru said. "I understand your doubts. But something has happened to Elder Cid. The same thing that happened to your friend Nooj thirteen years ago, when your squadron was destroyed by something that seized men's minds."

"He's right," Nooj said, stepping out from behind the wall of guardians. "If you want to shoot someone...shoot me. But let them pass. If Cid reaches Vegnagun, Spira doesn't stand a chance."

"I don't take orders from you anymore, Nooj," Baralai said. He raised his gun. "But maybe I'll make an exception, for old time's sake."

Gippal made an abortive move towards his own weapon, scanning the ring of warrior monks with rifles at the ready. "Not cool, Baralai. You know that's what he wants."

"Is it?" Baralai said. "Whose death are you seeking, Nooj? Yours...or ours?"

Nooj gave a thin smile and raised his empty hand, palm outward. The other gripped a pipe he was using as a cane.

"Don't." Juno flicked her sword upwards, blocking Baralai's aim.

"He shot us in the back, Paine," Baralai said. "He shot you in the face."

"Paine's dead," she snapped. "But I still think they're telling the truth."

There was a growing commotion from the far side of the plaza. "What now?" Baralai sighed and lowered his weapon. "All right. Lock them up, Captain."

"Maester Baralai!" a soldier shouted, running towards them. "The prisoner's escaped! We're searching for him now, sir!"

"What?" Baralai turned, squinting in the smoky air. "Juno, have your men seal off the—"

"Don't breathe!" Rikku shouted.

A handful of small pellets showered down, exploding in bright yellow flashes. A few rifles went off, but their bullets skipped harmlessly against the pavement when the arms holding them slackened. In surreal unison, the entire circle of warrior monks slumped to the ground along with Baralai and Juno. Most of Isaaru's party managed to stagger clear, eyes streaming.

"Yeah!" Rikku jabbed her fists in the air. "Oh, whoops. Remedies on Isaaru and Machina Man. Hang on, Maroda, let the pollen settle a bit, or you'll need one too. Gippal, is Shinra okay?"

"Mm-hm. He's just minding the shop. Yo, Elma, gimme one of those." Gippal took a phial from her and waited for the cloud to dissipate, then trotted back to rouse Nooj while Elma and Maroda tended Isaaru.

Leaning on them, Isaaru peered groggily at the semicircle of prone monks. "Oh, dear. I do hope they're—"

"No time," Auron said, turned towards the palace. "Look."

Weaving in and out between heaps of smoldering wreckage, a blocky figure was running towards the rear entrance which Baralai had exited a few minutes before. Armored soldiers came charging out from one of the avenues radiating away the palace. All but one of them balked outside the gates, staring upwards and pointing at the flames and smoke curling over the roofline. One kept on, disappearing through the open doors on Cid's heels.

"Come on!" Rikku said.

"Hey, Nooj, you comin'?" Gippal held out an arm. "Ferry's leaving the dock."

"No," Nooj said. "I'll slow you down. Get going."

"In that case, I'm staying too." Gippal waved a hand at the others. "Remember what I said, Auron. Cid'll take it out of my hide if you kill him."

"Understood." Auron jogged Rikku, who was already pelting towards the gate. The others hurried after.

"Good luck," Elma called over her shoulder.

"You too, babe. Hey, after this is over, I know this great restaurant in Luca—"

Nooj gave a soft snort. "Save your breath."

"What?" Gippal retrieved his cane and set it under his hand. "Okay, so, Vegnagun and Sin are about to blow this joint to smithereens. But just in case—"

"Forget it." Nooj sighed and looked down at the sprawl of bodies around them. "Nightcap. About ten minutes, right?"

"You sure you wanna be here when they wake up?" Gippal nudged Baralai with a foot. "This isn't gonna be pretty."

"Juno." Nooj pronounced the name with deliberate care.

"Yeah, I noticed. Bar said she'd changed a lot." Gippal stooped to pry Baralai's pistol out of his fingers and tossed it away. "Your call. I could still use a navigator, after all."

Chapter Text

"Um...you should know, I can knock all of you down," Rikku said, crouched crablike behind the massive winch that operated the palace gates. She had gotten that far alone, unwisely. The squad that had faltered in pursuit of Cid seemed to think they would find redemption by running a stranger through. They advanced, bayonets forward. There was no answering explosion, despite Al Bhed bravado; Auron guessed she was running low on nightcaps. For the first time in years, he recalled why he had been glad to be rid of a warrior monk's helm. Only one man turned at the sound of thudding footsteps before he barreled straight into them.

Two went down. Auron swept an arm out, scooping Rikku from her hiding place and hoisting her over his hip. She gave an indignant yelp, but had the sense to wrap herself around him, clinging with elbows and knees as he plunged into the darkened entrance hall. The remaining soldiers fired wildly after them.

"Some guardian," Maroda said, jogging towards the gates.

"Rikku's more of a target," Elma said, matching his strides. Together, they provided at least some protection for the summoner behind them.

"You're dressed like her, you know," Maroda said, staring straight ahead. Any moment, the warrior monks would turn and see them.

"Well, good! Then they won't aim at Isaaru!"

"Stop!" Isaaru cried out. "In Yevon's name, stop! Isaaru commands you!"

It seemed these warrior monks had not yet heard of his apostasy.

"Lord Isaaru!"

"Grand Maester Isaaru!"

The stammer of gunfire died away, leaving numb silence in a vast empty plaza usually buzzing with life. The very air seemed dead: even the steady sea-breezes had abandoned the city. Every window and streetlamp was dark, save for baleful orange reflections. Overhead, a low ceiling of lumpy smoke had taken on the texture of a glowing bed of coals, growing brighter as the fires began to spread. Proud Bevelle was bleeding flames from many small wounds, and there were few inhabitants left to delay or witness its creeping ruin.

The warrior monks swarmed around Isaaru, touching his robes as if they conferred some sort of holy blessing. Wide-eyed under their helms, the soldiers clutched at rifles and started at shadows, speaking in hushed mumbles. A few bayonets swayed in Elma's direction.

Exuding calm, Isaaru moved easily among them, clapping the shoulder of one who had his gun trained on Elma. "Easy, old friend. That was Sir Auron and Lady Rikku, former guardians to High Summoner Yuna. These two you know: Captain Maroda and Commander Elma."

Stunned murmurs of Sir Auron rippled from lip to lip, prompting a snort from Maroda.

"Your Grace!" The man he had addressed spoke gruffly, fighting tears. "Why, you've got the nerve, breezin' back in the dead o' night in the middle o' bedlam, with no one the wiser! Your brother said you'd died at Djose!"

"Pacce?" Maroda said, suddenly animated. "He's here?"

"Aye, sir, you just missed him! He followed the prisoner inside!"

"Then so shall we," Isaaru said. "Sergeant, do you know Lady Shelinda's whereabouts?"

"Aye, milord. Northgate, overseeing the evacuation. But Maester Baralai—"

"Lord Baralai and Captain Juno have evacuated the palace and taken the wounded to Yuna's Cloister. Collect your squad and report to Lady Shelinda. I and my guardians will recapture Cid."

"But, Your Grace, the tower's a-fire!"

"Pray for us, my friends. But do not despair; Yevon is with us." He bowed in Yevon's blessing. "Maroda, Elma, follow."

"Sergeant Wedge?" Elma said, her hesitation a minor but uncharacteristic breach.

"Commander?" The man squinted. "I thought you were one o' them heathen Al Bhed."

"No time to explain. Do you know if—" She stopped short, grimaced, and held out her hand. "Oh, forget it. Give me your nightstick. I left my sword in Djose."

"Ma'am." Averting his eyes from her bared midriff, he unclipped the metal baton from his belt and pressed it into her palm.

"Sure you don't want to borrow a rifle, Commander?" Maroda teased.

"Choke on a chocobo chip, Captain," Elma muttered. She nodded to Wedge. "Thanks. Get your men to safety, Sergeant."

Maroda led the way into the cavernous entrance hall, where the only illumination came from the ruddy light shining down through clerestory windows. Despite the faint film of smoke hanging in stale air, the fires had not yet penetrated this section of the palace. The trio's footsteps echoed between massive columns, unseen tapestries and dead sphere-torches hanging in sconces.

Waiting for Maroda to collect a torch and shake it to life, Isaaru turned to Elma. "Commander, if it would ease your mind, go back and ask about Lucil."

"Nah, they're warrior monks. Can't expect 'em to know anything," Elma said, clinging to a dogged grin. "Anyway, I know the general's alive. Pacce can fill me in about my troops when we find him."

"He's a warrior monk too, remember?" Maroda said.

She shook her head. "I guess that's why he got MIA and KIA mixed up."

They caught up with Auron and Rikku at the first junction. Auron waited like a stump. Rikku was prowling around him in a restless orbit, scanning each corridor in growing agitation.

As the others drew near, her whispers resolved themselves into words. "...and enough with the smug-and-cryptic routine, already! You were a monk here, weren't you? You've got to know which way leads to the temple! We can't afford to wait for those—" She broke off, reverting to a normal volume. "Oh, hey, there you are. Did you guys stop off in Lulu's leather district to do some light shopping, or what? Let's scoot!"

"Sorry, my lady," Isaaru said. "I needed to put off pursuit. But fear not. Your father and Shuyin are strangers to St. Bevelle. Yevon willing, we shall reach the Cloisters first and waylay them there."

"Assuming we don't get roasted," Maroda observed, pointing his spear up at the clerestory windows showing a narrow slice of the nearby tower, its shaft now fully engulfed in flames. "Temple's right under that."

"Then it's fortunate I've a spell against fire, no?" Isaaru said, unruffled. "Lead on, my brother."

As they threaded the warren of the palace, the threat from above grew greater. Four times, they were forced to divert around smoke-filled passages. The ceiling of one was actually beginning to smolder. After the last check, Isaaru lagged behind, letting Auron catch up to him. The summoner's breathing was labored, although he made no complaint. He seemed to be fighting the weight of his robes as they hurried through the palace.

"Problem?" Auron said, eye fixed on the others marching ahead.

"Perhaps." Isaaru lowered his voice to a breathless whisper. "Elma. I fear she is a target for Shuyin in her current state."

"If you send Shuyin, it won't matter," Auron said.

"Of course. But the sending of an unwilling spirit is difficult, as well you know. I must draw close to Cid, so there will be no error. Then you must stand well apart."

Auron gave him an oblique look.

Isaaru winked. "Your task will be to draw her away, no?"

"Hmph." Auron shrugged. "You should trust your guardians."

"This from a guardian who trusts only Sin," Isaaru said, eyes crinkling. "Please, humor me."

"As you wish."

"Well, here we are," Maroda called, standing at the head of a shallow flight of curving steps that ended at at ornate stone portal with Yevon's glyphs etched into it. "You two coming?" he said, turning back to glare at Auron, as if he were the cause of Isaaru's dawdling.

"Finally," Rikku said, putting her hands on the wide metal bars that served as handles. "Ow!" She jerked away, blowing on her fingers. "Hot!"

"Stand back," Auron said. Mounting the steps and pushing between them, he set his gauntlet against one door and pushed. Sparks and embers swirled through the gap with an angry roar. Auron had a glimpse of the circular great hall lit as if by Ifrit in full frenzy. The rear half of the chamber was an inferno; the overhead portraits of Zaon and Yunalesca were boiling figures of flame. He could not but feel a twinge of bitter satisfaction as he heaved the door shut.

"Now what?" Rikku said. "I don't think NulAll can cope with that."

"That is the only way into the Cloisters, milady," Isaaru said. He smiled and opened his arms, palms tilted towards them in a priest's blessing. "I'm afraid you have but one choice: trust in Yevon."

Gippal, flattened against the pavement, lifted his head warily as Wedge's squad jogged away. "Whew. They've gone. Up you get, Nooj."

Nooj levered himself up with his cane, ignoring Gippal's hand. "We'll have eleven more of them to deal with shortly," he said, nodding towards Juno's squad scattered around them like chaff. "Some of them may wake first. Can you drag Baralai and Paine into an alley? That may buy us time."

"Aw, man. Baralai's not too bad, but I think Paine's put on weight." He rapped her armor with his boot.

"You have five minutes."

Gippal needed the full five; Baralai and his maester's robes were nearly as cumbersome as monk's mail. Nooj limped beside him, tightlipped, powerless to assist.

"You okay up there, boss?" Gippal said.

Nooj gave a soft snort. "Oddly, yes. It takes some getting used to, being in charge again."

"I bet." Gippal swore as Paine's armor rang out, colliding with a curb. "Why'd she have to — unh — go and join the warrior monks, anyway? I'd love to peel her out of this fuel tank, but she'd—" Gippal caught Nooj's frown out of the corner of his eye, and grinned— "you'd take my head off. Doesn't suit her, though."

"Doesn't suit Paine," Nooj said, retrieving her sword and lugging it across his shoulders. "But she's dead. Thirteen years ago, I suspect."

"You don't have to buy into that crap," Gippal said, puffing. "People make their own choices, Nooj."

Nooj shook his head. "I should have found a way to tell her. Apologized."

"Well, yeah, but could you?" Gippal dropped her arms with a clank and staggered to the front stoop of a doorway, plunking down with a sigh. "Not like you ever told us."

"Probably not, but at least—"

"You could try now." Juno rolled onto her side. Her face was shadowed by the helm, but her voice sounded crisp and lucid.

Nooj broke into a slow smile. "Perhaps I just did." Leaning on his cane, he stooped to hold the sword out to her, understated gallantry in the gesture. "But let me be clear: Juno, I'm sorry. I failed you. My hand, not my heart, pulled the trigger that day, but you've lived with that betrayal all this time. I'll do whatever it takes to make amends, now that I'm free."

Her hand closed tightly over his, separated by a gauntlet. Holding his eyes, she rose to her feet, taking care not to pull him off-balance. Suddenly she shifted her grip, locking her fingers around his wrist, and drew her sidearm with her free hand. "By dying?" she said, pressing the gun against his stomach.

"Paine!" Gippal said, scrambling to his feet. "You stupid—"

"That would be somewhat ironic, don't you think?" Nooj said. "But yes, of course."

"Gippal. Don't try it." Juno stepped around Nooj, pistol slipping around his ribs, using him as a shield. "What have you done with Maester Baralai? My team?"

"Hey, that was Rikku!" Gippal said. "Sleeping powder, same as what hit you. We don't like getting shot at!"

"Baralai's right here," Nooj said. "It should be wearing off any time now."

"Gippal. Wake him," she said.

"Damn, cra'c cdemm y pedlr," Gippal muttered, moving to Baralai's side to give him a firm shake. [She's still a bitch]

"Yht oui'na cdemm yh ycc," she shot back. [And you're still an ass]

Baralai awoke to the unusual sound of Nooj's dry laughter echoing in the narrow alley. The maester stood with a lurch and a step backwards, hand smacking against his empty holster. "Juno, are you still with me?" he said.

"Yes," she said, prying her sword from Nooj's hand. He offered no resistance. She stepped to Baralai's side, passing him her sidearm. He kept it trained on Nooj.

Gippal groaned. "C'mon, Bar."

"Shut up," Baralai said. He raised his eyes, expression bleak. "Bevelle's burning, and I don't have the resources to stop it. All we can do now is head off Cid and Isaaru before they reach Vegnagun. Otherwise—"

"Otherwise, Vegnagun may activate, perceiving them as a threat," Nooj said. "Baralai, we know. They know: Isaaru and the others who went after Cid. Don't worry. They won't use any weapons that might provoke it."

"Don't you get it?" Baralai said. "You think our cannons have the range to strike an airship? That wasn't Bevelle firing at you. That was Vegnagun. Cid's attack roused it. You're lucky your ship isn't as well-armed as his; it would have obliterated you before you reached the ground."

His words were drowned out by the rumble of engines. Gippal bolted for the mouth of the ally, just in time to see his airship lumbering skyward. "Shinra!"

There was a faint tinny pop from Gippal's overalls. Swearing, he fished out a sphere. "Shinra, where the hell are you taking my ship?"

"Away." Shinra's voice was hard to make out through the static. "Soldiers trying to board. Sensors show Sin's on its way. Want me to pick you up somewhere?"

Gippal shook his head. "Nope. How long until it gets here?"

"Forty minutes, maybe an hour."

"Shinra," Nooj said, "have you figured out how to deactivate Vegnagun?"

"Negative. If Sin attacks—"

"Yeah, we know, kid," Gippal said. "Get going. Stay out of the blast zone. We'll catch you after it's over, assuming we're still here."

"Affirmative. Be careful. Crimson Avenger out."

Nooj's mouth twitched. "Crimson... Avenger...?"

"Yeah, well." Gippal ducked his head. "Normally I just call her The Gippal Express. So, Baralai, what's the plan?"

"I'm going back to Vegnagun," Baralai said. "I'll move it out of Bevelle, if I have to. Juno, collect your team and warn the healers in Yuna's Cloister to prepare for Sin's arrival. Get those who are mobile into the bunkers."

"I'm coming with you," she said. "If Isaaru's false, you'll need backup. I'll order my squad to the Cloister."

"And us?" Gippal crossed his arms. "We came to help, Bar."

"Baralai," Nooj said. "That...thing...that's possessed Cid was in me for thirteen years. I'd like to help bring him down. Vengeance for all of us, if you like. And if Isaaru fails, and Cid reaches Vegnagun, I'll give my life to stop him. You have my word."

"Your word doesn't hold much weight with me, Nooj." Baralai shifted his attention to Paine, whose eyes were fixed on Nooj. "But hers does. Juno, what do you think?"

"Let them come." She grimaced, peeling off her helm. "I'd like to believe him."

Nooj drew a sharp breath, not at her words, but at her gesture. Her face was in shadow, but a deep scar ripping through one cheekbone was visible even in the dark.

"All right," Baralai said. "Stay alert. Be prepared to kill him if he tries anything. Bevelle, maybe all of Spira, will pay the price this time if he betrays us."

"Man, it's so nice getting back together like this, y'know?" Gippal said, leaking sarcasm. "You're the navigator, Bar. Lead the way."

Chapter Text

Soot lay in eddies and glyphs about their feet. The stout doors creaked, their stone bulk dampening the roar of the maelstrom beyond. The very floor quivered underfoot as if Ifrit might burst through to demand a new statue.

"Wait!" Rikku said. "There's another way in! Remember, Auron? When Kinoc and his goons caught us, they didn't take us back through the Cloisters. Those tunnels...and there was a lift, too—"

"The Via Infinito, used by the Elite Guard for initiations, interrogations, executions." Auron's face went blank to mask bitterness: not at the memory of Kinoc's betrayal, but for a darker crime. He could no longer remember the face of the hapless monk whom Yevon had executed for blasphemy, but the dead man's child would have been proclaimed Auron's son, had Auron not refused to marry the high priest's daughter. "Too far, too risky. I don't know the lower levels. I'm sorry, Rikku."

"For all we know, they've already gone up in smoke," Maroda said.

"We're running out of time," Auron said, turning to Isaaru. "Can you shield us?"

"I believe so." Isaaru drew his hands together in Yevon's prayer. "Lady Yuna's sacrifice gave me thirteen more years to refine my magic. Yet I have never put the spell to such a test. I shall not fault any of you for turning back."

Maroda stepped to his brother's side at once.

Rikku hugged herself, staring unhappily at the stone doors. "I can't abandon Pops."

"Elma?" Isaaru said kindly. "If Pacce is here, it's possible Maester Lucil may also be in the city."

"What, you think I can face her after pulling a Clasko?" The Crusader gave a strained laugh. "I'm not bailing on you guys."

"Very well. Keep close, all of you. The effect extends only a few paces around me." Beckoning them closer, he rested his hands on Maroda's and Elma's shoulders. A shell of bluish-white light sprang up around them. The soot on the steps whisked away as if struck by a hurricane blast. Auron's hanging sleeve began to flap violently, falling limp when Isaaru stepped up behind him. "Tread in my footsteps, Lady Rikku. Take care not to trip on my robes. Sir Auron, we are ready."

The guardian set his palms against heated stone and thrust outward, nearly stumbling headfirst when an unseen force wrenched their weight away and flung them them wide open. Rikku gave a startled scream as whirling embers and flames billowed towards them. At the last second, the debris was deflected by an invisible wind, streaming away from them in a fiery fan.

"Go!" Isaaru said, shouting to make himself heard above the roar. "We don't have long!"

Auron strode forward, barely glancing at the life-sized votives of pious donors being consumed like a forest of rush-lights. Near the center of the chamber, the inferno's eddies had drawn together in a spiral, forming a fire tornado. Not daring to deviate lest those behind him move out of synch, Auron marched straight into it, feeling searing heat on his face for an instant before the writhing pillar of flame exploded outwards.

Rikku was whimpering, the sound all but lost in the storm. Elma caught Auron's cowl and shouted something. He stopped, turned to see Maroda lifting Rikku onto his back. Her face was clenched in pain. For a moment Auron could not tell why, then he noticed the soles of her rubber-soled shoes dripping like wax. Auron had not registered the heat of the floor beating through the thick leather of his boots.

"I've got her!" Maroda shouted. "Go on!"

"Faster!" Elma added. She, too, appeared to be in some discomfort: her soft leather riding boots were no match for the stovetop floor.

They moved. The burning statues of Yocun and Braska were before them now, and Auron adjusted his course to the left. The flower-like pedestal on which Yuna's statue danced had transformed from faux water to living fire. Her arm and staff came crashing down on top of them as they passed beneath. Isaaru gave a cry as some of the molten steel from her staff dripped through the barrier. "Run!"

Auron reached back and grabbed Isaaru's collar, then lunged forward. A stairwell opened at his feet. Burning timbers and cracked stone were falling now, and Isaaru's magical shield was failing. Auron threw himself headlong, tumbling into darkness— how far was the nearest landing? The noise of destruction grew to a crescendo. By the sound of it, the dome of the great hall was imploding. Auron grunted as his shoulder struck a stone floor, mercifully cool. The summoner landed on top of him, partly extinguishing his burning coat. More thuds meant at least two of the others had followed. Before Auron could catch his breath, a massive fist of water came sluicing down on top of them, striking blistered flesh like a battering ram and snuffing out anything that had caught fire.

"S-sorry," Rikku hissed through clenched teeth. "Water marble."

"Good thinking," Elma said, coughing for breath.

"Steady, my friends," said Isaaru. Soothing white magic poured over them. The pain quickly receded.

Auron stood, getting his bearings. A few dying embers lay steaming on the wet steps above them, but it appeared that the head of the stairwell had been blocked when the great hall's roof collapsed. The party was all here, singed and bedraggled but more or less in one piece. Maroda had a field knife out and was cutting Rikku's shoes away. Auron moved to her side, holding her and letting her bite his forearm while the brothers tended her feet. Maroda had to slice off burnt flesh along with her shoes, but Isaaru worked quickly to repair the damage.

At length, Rikku raised her head and blew her nose on Auron's sleeve. "Ow and more ow. I don't think I could've done that if I'd known it was gonna hurt so bad."

"Forgive me, milady," Isaaru said, offering her his hand. "I did not think it would."

Tears were still trickling down her cheeks. "Enh, well, I needed another phobia."

"Can you walk?" Auron asked, in that gentle tone he used to reserve for Tidus.

"Uuuum...." She looked down and wiggled her toes. "Looks like it."

"I hate to mention this," Elma said, staring back at the debris-choked stairwell, "but if Cid's behind us, he's not going to be able to get through that."

"Great time to mention it," Rikku said, clutching at Auron as the floor shook again. "Come on. We know where Pops is headed, anyway. I doubt that creep's gonna let him turn back."

Ten levels down, they reached the depths where sanctimonious Yevon architecture gave way to secrets and blasphemy: machina, forcefields, wiring and panels pulsing with geometric designs. Maroda groaned audibly, but Rikku brightened at once. Plucking a sphere from an ornate wall panel, she waved them towards a dais at the bottom of the stairwell, where an incongruous stone pedestal stood in the midst of gaudy high-tech display. "Come on! This is the fun part." She popped the sphere into a socket on top of the pedestal. A glowing white glyph appeared under its base, covering most of the dais.

"Fun?" Elma said incredulously as they squeezed in around her. "What the heck is this?" She gave a squawk as the glyph shot sideways, then plummeted downward, carrying them with it.

To a Yevon-trained eye, Bevelle's Cloister of Trials was an incomprehensible landscape, like writing to a blind person suddenly cursed with sight. A drum-shaped chamber beneath the temple plunged down into darkness, housing a bizarre crystalline latticework of light-paths rushing up, down, sideways, diagonally. One traversed them on glowing platforms maintained by force fields, marked by the glyph of Yevon's teachings. Step off that narrow foundation, and one would plummet into the abyss.

"Whoa!" Rikku said. "Everybody off." She stepped onto a passing landing, one of several small balconies fixed on either side of the streaming paths. The transport pad slowed, backed up a few inches, and came to a halt.

"What's wrong?" Maroda said.

"Oh, nothing. There's just a break down there." Rikku pointed to the nearest junction, where a slanting pathway dropped away to the right. Partway down, a metal strut had fallen across the ramp. Above it, the patterns of colored bars, grids and circles pooled together, like water piling up behind a dam. Past it, a single line of green flowed across the gap to the next fully-lit panel. "If we cross that, the transport pad could fritz out."

"Can't we just climb down there and jump over it?" Elma said.

"The floor's not solid." Rikku waved a hand at the white glyph they had been standing on. "That is. That's it. I'll have to reroute the program. There's another ramp farther on, but right now it flows up." She retrieved the Bevelle sphere and inserted it into the base of a control panel anchored to the railing. Flipping up the lid, she pulled out a probe from her tool belt and peered into the box. "Ooo, what a mess. No wonder Yevon never goes in a straight line." She began fiddling with the toggle switches inside.

"Machina at Yevon's heart. Is it too much to ask for a little consistency?" Elma said, drooping over the guardrail.

"Maroda began to question, too, when we first saw this place," Isaaru said. "I took longer. I did not wish to see. It's one of the reasons that I loosened our interpretation of scripture. I debated whether to show this to the other maesters."

"I'm glad you didn't," Elma said. "The general breaks a drill sword after almost every Council meeting. Last time she broke my arm." Suddenly she stood and pointed. "Wait, I see them! Six levels down!"

Isaaru turned, following her finger. "Pacce!" he called, alarmed. "They're fighting!"

There was a blue flash as Rikku jerked away from the control box. "Shoot. We'll have to go around for another pass. Auron, gimme a push! Follow me, folks!"

Expressionless, he shoved the stone pillar out onto the transport pad. Everyone but Elma piled onto it.

"Come on, Commander," Maroda said. "It's still Yevon, y'know."

"I'll delay them," she said, climbing onto the guardrails running parallel to the track.

"You'll fall!" Rikku said.

"Already did!" Elma called after them with a strained laugh. As they sped away, she edged sideways along the rails to the nearest junction. There she threw one leg over the bannister of the malfunctioning ramp and slid down, disappearing from sight.

"Idiot!" Maroda said.

"Maroda, watch her," Isaaru said. "She bears up bravely, but I sense her despair. So may Shuyin."

"Folks, I need you to watch for more spheres," Rikku said.

"What are you trying to do?" Auron said.

"Trick it into—no, no, left! Aaagh! I hate Yevon!"

"Calm down," Auron said. "Your father's as trapped as we are. He's on another transport pad. Pacce's keeping him busy."

"But if one of them pushes the other off—" Maroda said.

"Have faith, my brother," Isaaru said.

"In what?" Maroda glanced down and gripped Isaaru's shoulder. "Dammit, Rikku, can't you stop this thing? I've got to get down there!"

"No room," Auron said. "Trust his training."

The moving patterns, scaffolding and crisscrossing pathways afforded only brief glimpses of the duel rushing past on a track several levels below. There: Auron spotted Cid and Pacce circling on a treacherously narrow platform, the boy whirling his sword with upward sweeps that he must have learned from Juno. Cid, wielding a rifle like a quarterstaff, was relying on darting slices, spry leaps ill-suited to his large frame. Shuyin's moves, no doubt, but why did they seem so familiar?

Irrelevant. The party had circled back to its starting point without passing a single sphere. They needed a fallback plan, quickly.

"Rikku," Auron said. "Would a memory sphere work?"

"Nah. We need a glyph sphere, 'cuz... uuuum...hey. You know, it might. For a little while, anyway. Only problem is, the floor'll go 'poof' when it shorts out." Rikku tensed, gathering herself for a spring. "Gimme a count, Auron. Any stop'll do."

"Eight. Seven. Six. Five. Four. Three. Two—"

"Yaaah!" She pushed off, landing on the same narrow siding where they had parked a few minutes before. The transport pad glided to a halt. The stone pedestal rose out of it. "Here goes!" Rikku said, snatching the sphere from the top of the pedestal and inserting it back into the control box. From her hip pouch she drew out another, slightly larger sphere. Despite her urgency, she hesitated, cupping the sphere in both hands like a rare egg.

"Will it fit?" Maroda said.

"You can only save the living," Auron said.

"Wakka's gonna kill me." Biting her lip, she jammed Yuna's sphere into a socket beside the first. Several display lights on the box's lid blinked on. Sparks began to dance over the memory sphere's surface.

"Okay," Rikku said. "Keep your feet on this balcony 'til I give the word. If I screw up, the transport pad could vanish too." Flipping the lid back up, she fished out another tool and frantically began laying down lines of solder. "Pops' Rule Number Two: never rewire when the power's on."

Smile fraying, Isaaru turned to gaze down towards the lower levels. Impulsively, he cupped his hands to his mouth. "Pacce, we're coming!"

"Don't distract him," Maroda said.

"Don't distract me," Rikku said, wincing as a spark arced across her knuckles.

Auron looked down. Pacce was parrying Cid's hammer-blows, but weakly: the boy's speed was the only thing saving him, and he seemed unable or unwilling to take advantage when Cid left legs, hips or flank wide open. He doesn't want to kill, the swordsman realized, having faced the same dilemma from time to time. Fortunate, but it left Pacce perilously vulnerable. He was down on one knee now. Maroda made a despairing sound in his throat and drew back his spear. A futile gesture: it was a thrusting weapon, and there were too many obstacles for a clean cast. Then a banshee scream echoed up through the shaft. Elma came tumbling down from above, landing on Cid's back and bringing him crashing down across Pacce. Cid rose with a roar, nearly throwing her over the side. Suddenly the odds were even. Pacce grabbed the rifle and slammed the butt-end into Cid's stomach. The larger man crumpled between them.

"Can you send?" Auron asked Isaaru.

"Not at this range."

"Done!" Rikku said, brandishing the soldering iron. There was a white flash, a whiff of burnt plastic, and every floor-segment of the maze was suddenly anchored by motionless glyphs and a fence of stone pedestals. "Let's go!"

Skidding on the glassy surface, they raced along the walkways. Clouds of pyreflies were wafting up from Cid's prone form. Below, Elma was raising Pacce to his feet. Suddenly she twisted, wrenching his sword-arm behind his back and setting the metal truncheon across his throat, lifting him off the ground.

"Rikku!" Maroda said. "Nightcap, quick! Shuyin's got Elma!"

"Last one," she said. "Here goes!" She reared back and lobbed a pellet across the gap to the path two levels down. Elma crumpled. Pacce rolled a few paces away.

Auron gripped the railing and vaulted over it, putting the forcefields to the test where he landed. Pyreflies surged around his shoulders, coyly greeting Yuna's guardian and Braska's guardian and captain of the guard and all his other past, failed selves. Ignoring the insidious chant, he lifted Cid by the shoulders and started dragging him towards the nearest solid ground. There was another landing just ahead, and the welcome sight of an ordinary staircase beyond it.

"Isaaru!" he called. "Send!"

"Sir Auron!" Isaaru said. "Please, step away from him, before I—"

The pedestals around them began to flicker in and out of sight.

"MOVE!" Rikku said. "The field's coming down." Skidding down the last ramp, she dashed towards Elma, struggling to pull her out from between the pedestals where she had fallen. Auron strode back to help, slinging the woman over his shoulder and sprinting for the exit. The brothers had reached Pacce, and were dragging him between them. As Maroda tripped and sprawled over the edge of the landing, all the glyphs and pedestals winked out. The colorful river of lines and patterns resumed its dizzying current.

Cid was coughing, pushing himself onto his hands and knees. "Dryd lnywo meddma bihg— ra'c kud ed—"

"Pops!" Rikku hurried over, stooping and patting his back. "Pops, you in there?"

"Send," Auron said again, drawing his sword and bracing it against the floor.

"Sir Auron?" the summoner said. "Very well." He raised his hands, sweeping them together in Yevon's sign to begin his stately dance.

The floor under Auron's feet seemed to be melting away. Not much of a summoner, the pyreflies whined, his own voice ringing in his skull. Not much of a summoner. How much of a guardian? He gripped the sword— his sword, the one he had carried on every pilgrimage— and hung on.

Maroda, bent over his little brother, gave a shrill cry and crumpled. Pacce exploded past him, wielding the hilt of his own sword like a battering ram. Auron took a swing at the boy, cutting the air behind him. Pacce disappeared down the steps and through an open archway. He ran with long, loping strides that seemed to belong to a taller, rangier youth. A trail of pyreflies floated in his wake.

"He...he didn't even know who I was!" Maroda gasped, doubled over and clutching at his groin.

"Tried to tell ya," Cid said. "Little punk said somethin' about avengin' his brothers. That's when Shuyin jumped him."

Chapter Text

The Cloister of Trials groaned and shuddered like the hold of a sinking ship. A handful of stinging sparks rained down. Auron cast a jaundiced eye upwards, surveying the lattice of struts and moving light-paths.

Maroda, still squirming from his brother's parting shot, snatched up his spear and pelted towards the exit. "Pacce! We're right here! Pacce, wait!"

"Wake Elma," Auron grunted, blocking Isaaru's path.

Isaaru heaved against his arm, a rare, shrill note of anger in his voice. "While my brothers try to kill each other?"

A distant concussion rocked the tower's foundations. High above, a long span twisted loose with a squeal of shorn rivets, banging off others all the way down until it crashed to a halt just overhead, wedged between the wall and a support beam. Most of the pathways winked out, leaving them in near-darkness.

"You'd leave her here?" Auron released him with a scowl and turned away. "Rikku. Hurry. This place isn't safe." Then he began to run, vaulting most of the stairs and vanishing through the open archway.

"Gee, thanks," she said, crouched by her father with her first aid kit. Soot concealed the extent of his injuries, but his limbs were slashed and bleeding, and his face was burnt. He was spluttering curses as she applied Al Bhed ointment to his blistered scalp.

Isaaru took two steps towards the exit before Auron's words penetrated. His hands moved in a feeble prayer before he shuffled back towards the crumpled Crusader.

Rikku made an exasperated noise. "Oh, for goodness' sake. Go on! Find your brothers! I'll take care of choco-lady!"

"Nay, milady, tend to your father." His voice steadied as he poured himself into the soothing mantra: Esuna, Esuna, a timid lullaby in that vast, alien hall.

Elma rolled onto her side with a groan, planting her face in the hem of the summoner's robes. "Huh? Oh!" She popped to her feet with a woozy salute. "Orders, sir?"

"Follow me. Sir Auron and Maroda are on Pacce's trail. Elder Cid, can you travel?"

"We're right behind ya," Cid said, slinging an arm around his daughter's shoulders. "I don't fancy getting flattened by your damned temple."

"Manners, Pops!" Rikku said, patting his wrist. "Yevon just saved your butt, you know."

"I'm tryin' not to think about it, kiddo."

They fled none too soon. As they reached the archway, all the lights failed. They were forced to feel their way along a dusty, disused tunnel. Ominous creaks and bangs echoed down the narrow passageway, magnified by the great drum of the cloister. They hurried away from the sounds of the tower settling, towards an archway of light at the far end.

Cid was wheezing as they stumbled along. "Hell. I shot up Bevelle pretty bad, didn't I? I don't care what you do t'me, Isaaru, but don't take it out on the Al Bhed. They had nothin' to do with this."

"The blame is Shuyin's," Isaaru said. "And the toll is less grievous than it could have been. Bevelle was evacuated ahead of Sin. Homes, as you say, can be rebuilt."

"You got that right." Cid harrumphed in oblique apology. "After this is over, my people could help with repairs."

"I fear Shuyin's attack may rekindle Yevon's suspicions of the Al Bhed," said Isaaru, sounding drained. "But I pray the maesters accept. Thank you."

"Oh!" Rikku turned to Elma. "Speaking of suspicions. Sorry I smacked you with a nightcap. We thought Shuyin was getting to you!"

"'S'okay. He almost did, actually." The Crusader gave a ragged laugh. "I told him to piss off. Maybe Lucil really is dead, but no way is some crazy unsent gonna tell me what to do about it!"

Emerging into the guardians' antechamber, where sphere-torches seemed unaffected by the tower's demise, they found that Pacce's pursuers had not gotten far. Auron was on his knees and Maroda on his face, both lashed by a flurry of sword-cuts. Blood pooled in the cracks in the floor around them. The stone portal of the Chamber of the Fayth stood open, its fanlike inner barrier torn to shreds.

"In Yevon's name." Isaaru hurried over to Maroda, raising his hands to muster Curaga.

"Don't waste magic," Auron rasped. "You'll need it for sending."

"What the heck was that?" Maroda pushed himself upright with his spear. "He didn't learn that move in basic training!"

Auron frowned. "Tidus called it 'Slice and Dice.'"

"Tidus?" Rikku said sharply.

"I don't know, Rikku." Hefting his sword across his shoulders, Auron trudged towards the entrance to the Chamber of the Fayth. "He went in here."

Maroda followed on his heels, but stopped short in the doorway. "Dammit. Where'd he go?"

"Inside, all of you," Isaaru said, noting Elma's double-take. "You, too, Commander."

The heavy door dropped behind them, and they halted in varying degrees of awe. Beneath the glassy floor sprawled a titanic form bathed in golden light, its outspread pinions drawing their eyes like a mandala. A disembodied child's voice soared above, piping out the Hymn of the Fayth with heartbreaking purity. Hanging tapestries bearing Yevon's crests seemed exquisitely crafted to evoke epiphanies. Despite their urgency, they found themselves lulled by a false sense of peace, insulated from the struggles taking place in the world above.

"Well, I'll be," Cid muttered. "It's not half as creepy as Baaj."

"What now?" said Maroda, momentarily subdued.

"Search," Auron said. "There must be a hidden exit."

While his guardians circled the chamber, Isaaru knelt with head bowed. The tension in his posture bled away as he prayed. "Lady," he said, inclining his head to Rikku. "The fayth says you and your father may rest here. The warrior monks dare not profane his sanctuary, although they may barricade the chamber yonder."

"Um, tell him thanks for us, okay?" Rikku scratched her cheek. "You're bustin' all kinds of rules for us, aren't you?"

Isaaru's eyes crinkled in a wan smile. "I learned much from your cousin, milady."

"What the—?" Maroda gave a squawk from the far end of the room. "Yo! I've found it!" He withdrew his spear from the spot where it seemed to have embedded itself in the wall behind a hanging tapestry.

"Let's go." Auron looked at Rikku, brows knitting. "We'll come back for you," he said.

Rikku chewed her lip, eyes darting between her father and those disappearing though the illusory barrier. "Thanks, Auron." She raised her voice, calling after him. "No getting yourself killed, you hear? Wakka's gotta whup you for making me break Yuna's sphere!"

After they had gone, Cid scooped Rikku into a fierce hug, face puckered with the effort of holding back tears. "Dammit, kiddo, I've never been so glad t'see you! That creep had me convinced I'd sent you to Mother."

"Nope! All better, see?" she said, patting her stomach. "Isaaru's pretty good with white magic."

"He'd better be." Cid shook his head. "That Shuyin's liable to carve them into scrap metal. Good thing you're stayin' here with your old man."


Despite thirteen years and three gunshots, the former Crimson Squad members quickly slotted back into their customary orbits. Baralai shortened his stride subtly to match Nooj's limp. Gippal kept pace beside Nooj so casually that it seemed an accident when he was there as a brace against the tower's death-throes. Juno, guarding the rear, observed the trio in keen silence.

Baralai threaded an efficient path through nearly identical barracks and prison blocks beneath the Court of Yevon. When he started herding them into a cell, Gippal balked until he spotted the crack between the floor and the door-frame. Inside, Baralai tabbed the keys of an ancient control pad whose numbers had worn away. He pressed his pistol against Nooj's hip as the room began to descend.

"C'mon, Baralai, put that thing away," said Gippal. "What if you sneeze?"

Baralai shrugged. "Then we're even."

"Not quite," Juno said from her corner. "Three sneezes."

"Hey," Gippal said. "That's not funny, Dr. J."

Nooj's gravelly laughter rolled over the Al Bhed's complaint. "I see. If I'd known all I had to do for forgiveness is serve as a maester's handkerchief, I'd have come back sooner."

"There may be a few other requirements," Baralai said, stiff-lipped.

"If you think of any, let me know." Nooj was smiling— by his standards, the man was practically giddy— but quickly sobered. "About Vegnagun. Are you sure you know how to operate it? There's no margin for error."

"I'm well aware of that, Nooj," Baralai snapped. "With Sin on its way, we have little choice. I've worked out some of the basics using its training program, but there's a lot that I don't understand, and a lot more I haven't dared touch. Gippal, I'm counting on your expertise."

"It sounds pretty advanced," Gippal said. "I may not be able to help much."

The elevator car lurched. They leaned against the walls for a sickening moment of free-fall before it resumed its downward crawl.

"Damn." Baralai shot a quick glance at Juno, but her expression was masked once more by her helm. Reluctantly, he turned to Gippal. "Nooj was working in salvage operations, right? You said he had a knack for ancient machina."

"Correct," Nooj said. "But most of that was Shuyin. Now that he's not inside my head—"

"Shuyin?" Juno said, suddenly intent.

"An unsent," Nooj said, "killed in the Machina War when he tried to hijack Vegnagun. His lust for vengeance was the only thing keeping him from turning into a fiend. He touched your mind, too, Baralai; that's the vision of Vegnagun you saw."

"It's true, Bar," Gippal said. "I was there when Shuyin popped out of him. Pyreflies all over the place. Everybody was acting twitchy. Then Cid walked in, freaked out and started shooting us. Just like in that cave."

"An...interesting story," Baralai said. "If true, how do we know Nooj is free of this 'Shuyin'? Most of the Crimson Squad was affected."

"You don't," said Nooj. "He could be influencing you, too."

"Hm." Baralai lowered his pistol, but did not holster it. "Touché."

"Nooj," Juno said, leaning towards him. "If Shuyin's been haunting you all this time, what made him leave you?"

"Guess." Nooj gave her a wry look. "When Sin attacked Home, I saw a chance to be free of him. I made sure to be left behind when the Al Bhed evacuated. I hoped no one would find my body. Unfortunately, I still have friends."

"Sucks to be you, Noojster," Gippal said cheerfully.

A chime sounded. Juno steadied Nooj as the elevator came to an abrupt halt. Baralai shot a perturbed glance in her direction. Gippal let out a whistle.

The doors had opened on an enormous shaft with ribbed walls stretching out of sight above and below them. Spanning the abyss was a slender metal bridge, widening to a circular platform near the middle of the chamber. Looming over it was a monstrous horned head, its sweeping tusks forming a sort of balustrade around the platform's perimeter. Below, the bulk of Vegnagun's body clung to the platform's central pillar with squat legs the size of sand wyrms.

"Mog on a frickin' shish kabob," Gippal breathed. "That thing could eat Gagazet for dessert."

Baralai exhaled. "Nooj? I could use your help as well."

Nooj smiled. "You've got it."

A low, throbbing hum began to build towards an uncomfortable whine. Floodlights came on and swiveled towards them, blinding them. Baralai strode forward into the glare, raising a hand and speaking in the reassuring tones of a chocobo handler. "Easy. It's me. They're friends. Don't be afraid." The lights dimmed slightly. The behemoth quivered, sending vibrations through the platform where they stood. Wisps of dust rose in the gloom.

"Looks like Baralai's got a friend," Nooj said, noticing Juno's expression.

"A pet," she muttered, watching this interaction with lips pressed together in a thin line.

"Hot damn." Gippal sauntered after Baralai, gawking. "Shinra'd give his left nut to see this thing."

Juno stepped out and turned back to Nooj, still rooted inside the car. "You coming?"

"Sorry." Leaning on his cane, he limped after her. "I've dreamed of this thing for thirteen years. The nightmares didn't do it justice."

Baralai scaled a short ladder and swung himself into the sunken cockpit in the crown of Vegnagun's head. "All right, gentleman, let's get to work. Juno, keep watch. We may have visitors. Do whatever it takes to keep them away."

"Understood." She drew her sword and rested the point on the floor, facing the elevator. "They won't get near you guys."

Gippal helped Nooj up the ladder, and they squeezed in on either side of Baralai. "Man." The Al Bhed stared at the curving bank of blank keys and the curtain of gray tubes forming an upright semicircle behind them. "I don't even know what I'm looking at. Is this a dashboard or a pipe organ?"

Baralai took a steadying breath, spread his fingers, and set his hands to the keys with a gentle, almost caressing touch. Colors rippled to life, blue-white bars of light spreading out from his fingertips, mirrored by the pipes above. Lonely notes in a minor key began to coalesce as his fingers wandered, molding motion into chords, phrases, scales. The baritone drone of engines grew louder. Leaning forward in rapt concentration, Baralai launched into a wild skirl of notes, arpeggios chasing each other in a rising tide.

Gippal's jaw dropped open. "Holy..."

"It's both," Baralai said in a reverent whisper. "Don't look at the light panel. Look past it, through it, the way you'd look into a sphere."

"Unbelievable," Nooj said. "Armageddon delivered by music without a soul."

"No, that's just the bridge." Baralai was having trouble shaping words as he played. "Relax your minds. Listen. Watch. You can't control Vegnagun. You have to let it control you."

Nooj stiffened. "That's asking a lot."

"I see it!" Gippal was staring, transfixed. "I've got it now. It's like...Vegnagun's my own body. I can see the whole city. Man, the Fahrenheit got utterly trashed. Is Vegnagun going to get confused, with three of us linked in like this?"

"Juno and I...used to practice." Baralai kept playing. "I'm bringing up the navigation simulator. That's where I'm stuck. Flying's easy. But there's some way to...cut through the Farplane. Jump in, jump out. Otherwise the launch will tear Bevelle apart."

"You in here with us, Nooj?" Gippal said.

"Not yet," Nooj said, jaw clenched. "Go on. I'll try and catch up."

Gippal flinched away from the viewscreen and pointed. "Um... Baralai? Company."

"I see it." Baralai was sweating. "Take over flight controls."

"What is it?" Nooj said.

"Sin," Gippal said, reaching for the lower bank of keys as Baralai shifted to the upper. There was a painful discord of clashing notes. "Dammit. I can't do it, Bar; I don't have the foggiest clue what you're doing with the keys."

"Don't try to play anything," Baralai said. "Just relax. Vegnagun guides you as much as you guide it. I'm switching to weapons. I've got to keep overriding them manually, or we'll drop out of training mode into active combat. See if you can get through the simulation without crashing or getting eliminated by the self-defense systems."

"I'm already dead," Gippal said. "Touchy, isn't it?"

"Try again. If it decides it's being hijacked, it'll kill us."

On the platform below, Juno listened with silent longing to the rise and fall of old, familiar voices: Gippal's careless banter and Nooj's incisive remarks, Baralai's soft-spoken earnestness. When Baralai began to play, it was difficult not to turn around, climb up to watch them together. It was easy to picture Gippal agape, but Nooj— no, she dared not look, nor even to imagine his expression.

Vegnagun's clashing music drowned out the elevator's faint chime, and she missed the indicator lights until the doors opened. Chiding herself for carelessness, Juno strode towards them, sword braced against her hip for a swing.

The intruder was stocky enough for Cid, but clad in monk's armor. The tufts of black hair sticking out around his ear-flaps were instantly recognizable. Soot streaked his mail, and there were tear tracks on his round cheeks.

"Cadet. This is a restricted area," she said. "Why aren't you with Sergeant Wedge?"

"C-Captain Juno!" Pacce snapped a hasty salute. "The prisoner's escaped! The rest of my squad turned back. I-I lost him in the temple. I'm very sorry, ma'am."

She frowned. "Did you see anyone else with him?"

"N-no, ma'am."

"All right." She lowered her weapon. "Help me keep watch."

"Aye, Captain." Drawing his sword, he raised his eyes to the behemoth and the music pounding out behind her. "I don't suppose you can tell me what's going on?"

"Absolutely not," she said, turning to follow his gaze. "And you are forbidden to tell anyone anything about what you've seen here— not Wedge, not your own brothers. Speaking of whom—"

"Paine!"

Nooj's cry gave just enough warning for her to turn into Pacce's attack, taking the brunt of the strike on the front of her shin-guard instead of the back of her knee. She barely had time to think Idiot before her exposed chin slammed against the lip of the metal platform. The world went white. Her awareness narrowed to ringing pain and the iron taste of blood.

When her vision cleared, Nooj was lying on the deck beside her, metal arm warding Pacce's sword away from his own throat by failing inches. The belts securing Nooj's artificial leg had been sliced through, and it lay twisted under him at a distressing angle.

"Trying to save her this time?" Pacce laughed, flicking the blade to sever one of his shoulder-straps, scoring his chest. "Pathetic. To think I was forced to wear you for thirteen years."

Turning her head slightly, she closed her fist over the hilt of her dropped sword. Pivoting the blade upwards, she set the point against Pacce's stomach, finding the seam under his breastplate. "Leave him alone."

He gave a bark of laughter. "Go ahead," he said. "Kill the boy. Your student, isn't he? I'll find someone else. One of your friends, or..."

"No!" Baralai shouted behind her. "Gippal, put the gun down!"

Vegnagun growled and lurched, driving Juno's sword-point an inch into the leather. Pacce jerked back with a snarl.

"Baralai!" she called. "Hurry!" She rolled to her feet, parrying a flailing blow as he whirled to face her.

"So, you're Paine." The youth's chubby features twisted in an alien smirk beneath his helm. "I should thank you."

She swung at his legs, forcing him back a step. "I don't think so."

"Nooj thought about you often," A lightning-quick swipe sent her skidding sideways. "It made it easier to control him, ride his pain."

"Don't listen," Nooj said behind her, furiously impotent. "Anger is his path into your mind."

The mocking laughter in Pacce's voice was jarring, a wild braying above Vegnagun's ocean of sound. "Anger, despair, love: in the end, they're all the same road. Aren't they, Juno?"

"Shut up." She smiled grimly as he spun away from her slicing blow and pivoted to strike back. "All right, Shuyin. Let's dance."


Chapter Text

"Wait." Auron checked Maroda's hand reaching for a small glowing panel illuminating the dark end of the tunnel. "Touch that and we may not catch him."

Maroda tapped his spear against the elevator doors. "Huh? He went in here, didn't he?"

"It's a lift. Once you press that button, we won't know where Pacce got off."

"What else can we do, sir, force the doors open and jump?" Elma said. "Could be a long drop."

"Vegnagun's gotta be at the very bottom, right?" Maroda said, trying to reach around him.

"Not necessarily," Isaaru said behind them, pained. "The Via Purifico, where I fought Lady Yuna, is said to be the uttermost dungeon. Yet who knows if that is truly the bottom? In Yevon, something always lies beneath."

"Like Vegnagun, maybe?" his brother said, growling with frustration. "Come on, we're wasting time!"

"The Hymn of the Fayth," Auron said. "Start singing."

Maroda gaped. "You've gotta be joking!"

"Ah. Yes, of course." Isaaru inhaled deeply and eased into the soothing refrain with a priest's gentle drone. "Ieyui nobomenu...."

Elma joined him uncertainly, wavering in and out of key.

"Don't stop," Auron said, hand hovering over the panel until they had cycled around to a new verse. Pressing it, he started counting. Two verses. Three. Five. Seven. Just where was Vegnagun docked, under the harbor? Nine and a half—

"Keep going," he commanded as the doors slid open. "Get in." Again he waited for the start of a verse before activating the elevator controls.

Maroda's sullen tenor joined theirs as the room began to descend. The Hymn sounded oddly ordinary in close quarters, meant as it was for soaring domes and monumental halls. Nor was Elma much of a singer. Nonetheless, the shared mantra seemed to steady them, and that was all to the good. Will, not just weapons, would be needed in the coming battle.

Auron freed his left arm from his sleeve and adjusted his sword-grip. Another sound was booming up the elevator's shaft, rising to meet them: an alien, jangling music churned out by some kind of machina. It sounded like Zanarkand Stadium's halftime show with a drunk at the keyboard. No, two drunks. The pyreflies in his veins stirred in response, an unsettling itch within his flesh that he had to resist clawing. Lost your way, a fallen knight... they whispered, latching onto the music's insistent rhythm.

Not now, he snapped.

"Renmiri yojuyogo..."

Nine and a half. Auron pressed the emergency override. The car squealed to an abrupt halt. The doors opened. A wave of sound broke over them. He leapt, hit the bridge a few feet below, and launched into a dead run.

What in Spira was that racket? Auron had never entered the Farplane, but he knew with a wrench he was hearing its heartbeat. Pyreflies surged in his ears, buzzing in time to the acoustic barrage. The behemoth loomed on the bridge's far side, a monster with tusks and teeth and gigantic legs clawing the void and wings, gods, why did the big ones always have wings? Roving blue spotlights sent out feelers. One of the figures perched in its cockpit was shouting, his words overwhelmed by the musical torrent. Below, Nooj stood under Vegnagun's jaws, tottering, furious, brandishing his false leg like a club. His target was out of reach, but as Auron approached, he took aim for a throw. (No better plan than to do or to die.)

A frenetic duel raged in the midst of the span, accented by flashes of magic and blood. Juno staggered, warding off Pacce's darting attacks and flying lunges with dogged economy, wielding her sword as a shield. Her left arm hung limp. She was giving up ground, buffeted by the hacking bombardment that had shredded Auron and Maroda a short time before. Blood slicked the deck-plates. Slipping, she caught sight of Auron, raised her weapon and rallied in a burst of weak strikes. Pacce redoubled his blows, baleful laughter cackling over Vegnagun's uncanny chords.

Auron slammed his weight into the boy's back, blade hitting hard enough for a killing blow were he not armored. Pacce's body flew from the point of impact. For a instant Auron feared that he would hurtle over the edge. Then he executed a complicated aerial flip, a blitzer's move so familiar that Auron nearly skidded off himself, distracted. By the time he had checked his momentum, Pacce had rebounded and was springing towards him, laughing shrilly with sword weaving in a maddened hornet's dance.

"Wondered if you were going to show, old man." The blade sliced into the muscle of Auron's bared upper arm too swiftly for him to block with his bracer. "I hear we've met before...or is it since?"

The nagging pyrefly chorus was growing louder, harder to ignore. The ribbed walls of Vegnagun's vault were transmuting into Zanarkand's skyline. (Memories of it cloud your sight.) Soaring towers and girders blossomed around Auron like the bones of a dream. He gritted his teeth and pressed forward with an overhand swing. Shuyin bent around the blow and and pierced his side with a jab before whirling away.

"Pacce!" Maroda pelted into the fray with his spear reversed. "Fight him, Pacce! We're here!"

"I'm so glad, dear brother." Shuyin sidestepped him like a charging dual-horn and brought his sword down, chopping the spear in two. The follow-through nearly took Maroda's legs out from under him. Auron seized his harness, yanking him back from the edge.

Elma seemed to have better tactical instincts. She was skirting the melee to reach Juno and press a phial into her hands. "Potion," the Crusader shouted, turning to stand shoulder to shoulder with her. "Fork attack?"

The percussion of Vegnagun's engines obscured the clash of steel. The bridge was quaking. Pyreflies were swarming now, sliding over Vegnagun's exoskeleton in a pulsing web. The machina was growing translucent, or else fiend's madness was mazing Auron's sight. The roar of Zanarkand Stadium thundered in his ears. (Fight fight fight fight). Vegnagun's floodlights painted Pacce's spinning body in a sphere-pool glow.

Auron lunged again, drawing Shuyin's attention as the two women split in a pincer movement, attacking with sword and truncheon as he landed between them. Barely registering their blows, he flung his arms wide to shove them aside, leapt high, and raised his sword in a triumphant pose.

"Let's blitz!"

Two simple words, but Auron was frozen by them. Stunned, he failed to shield himself from the burning trails of fire and sparks raining down. Looking up, he saw not Pacce's chubby features, but the lean face of another he had failed to protect. He glimpsed blond hair, blue eyes, a cheeky smirk that was crueler, older than he remembered.

"Tidus?" he said, choking on the name.

Zanarkand. He had forgotten how much he hated it. Pyrefly spectators cheered with bloodthirsty glee as Auron began to cough, drowning— he had never been a swimmer— his blood diffusing into the water as he thrashed.

"Isaaru, send! Send now! He's taking Sir Auron!"

The referee's bellow made no sense. Auron released his sword and pressed his hands over his heart, fighting to stem the spill of pyreflies. The referee leapt in front of him, reaching for the dropped weapon, but the gesture left him perilously exposed. A scalloped blue blade darted in like a fish. There was a scream, a moment's struggle— the women were grappling with Tidus, yanking him backwards in a double tackle— and the referee went down writhing, clutching his stomach.

An anguished cry rang out. "Maroda!"

Auron grabbed for him, catching the straps of his armor as he rolled off the bridge. In his mind's eye, Auron saw another, younger face, another body dangling below him, another voice shouting his name. But his fingers were melting through the straps, losing hold. (Hopes dies. Dreams, they rip asunder...)

Maroda plummeted through the bottom of the sphere-pool with a cry, disappearing from sight. Auron was falling, too. One of the women's voices cut through the water above him, distorted and desperate: "Please, sir, you've got to send, or we'll lose Pacce too."

The pipe organ's blaring tumult suddenly ceased. All lights went out. Auron felt himself floating down, down, swathed in an unraveling shroud of pyreflies that had no color, no sound, no taste, no sensation. The last embers of his will almost wept with relief. At last, he would allow himself to strike bottom.

(The otherworld, it takes you.)

Chapter Text


Vegnagun had vanished, taking with it almost all light and sound. In the hollow silence, two distant splashes offered bleak testimony to ears that strained to hear. The only remaining illumination came from the elevator's lights and a swarm of pyreflies left behind, drifting hungrily towards the remaining combatants.

The fight had ebbed but not ended. Juno and Elma had Pacce pinned to the deck. He fought back in a snarling frenzy, thrashing and biting their arms. Nooj, meanwhile, had picked up Juno's sword and was limping towards them, using it as a crutch. He balked at the edge of the pyrefly cloud, taking a deep breath before wading in.

On the far end of the bridge, Isaaru kept lonely vigil. Weeping as he prayed, he was dancing for both the fallen and the foe.

Shuyin's madness was spreading. Juno, kneeling on Pacce's chest, suddenly bent forward to wrap her gauntlets around his throat. Elma moved to stop her, but somehow wound up grabbing the younger woman's helm, twisting it like a cork. Pacce redoubled his efforts, flailing at Elma's unprotected eyes with his fingers curled into claws. All three were sucking in pyreflies with every breath.

Nooj had reached them now. "Don't listen," he snapped. "Elma. Juno. Focus. Think of something you love. Shuyin's trying to control you."

Elma let go with a gasp. "Son of a—!"

Her oath was cut short by Juno's mailed elbow punching her in the face. She crumpled with a yelp, clapping her hands over her nose.

Taking advantage of their distraction, Shuyin gave a violent heave and broke free. Pyreflies streamed from his shoulders as he snatched up his sword and charged towards his brother.

"Dammit!" Cupping her nose with one hand, Elma swiped at empty air. "Sir! Watch out!"

For a moment Isaaru seemed unaware, twirling in a sluggish dance that mimicked the lazy arcs of the pyreflies. Then he raised his hand. "In Yevon's name," he said with strained conviction, "You will release my brother. Begone. You have no place in Spira!"

Pacce stumbled, hunkering down with fists clenched and head lowered. "Yevon? That old conjurer won't help you." He took another menacing step forward. "You've been praying to a lie, summoner."

Juno had caught up with Pacce. She gripped his hand and wrist, wrenching his sword away.

"Faith is no lie." Isaaru drew dignity about himself like a cloak and began to dance again, wet cheeks gleaming under the pyreflies. "What kind of a man were you, Shuyin, that you would destroy the world for love?" His voice rose and fell, swinging between bitter anger and quiet, gentle sorrow. "What kind of a woman was she, to deserve such a memorial? Would she take joy in causing a lover's betrayal? Daughter's blood on father's hands? Brother turned against brother? Was Lenne such a monster, to condone such cruelty?"

"No!" Pacce was trembling now, barely struggling when Juno pinned his arms behind him. Pyreflies boiled upwards like clouds of steam. "Lenne gave her heart to the world, and it betrayed her!"

"And you honor her love with hate?" Isaaru kept spinning, his gestures growing more emphatic. Yet his voice changed from stern to coaxing, swelling with sudden warmth. "Pacce. Believe in yourself. I still do."

Pacce shuddered, tears starting in his eyes. "I c-can't."

"Yes, you can, kiddo." Elma, still covering her face with her hand, limped towards him. "Nobody could fight Shuyin alone: not Elder Cid, not us, not anybody. It wasn't your fault you couldn't. But Isaaru's here now. He's the best summoner around, eh? He can kick this guy's ass."

A luminous form began to emerge from the young man's body: taller, leaner, a golden figure advancing on Isaaru with drawn sword. Shuyin was growing more transparent with every step, but still he came.

Juno released Pacce and started forward, although the battle was squarely in the summoner's hands now. But before she could overtake Shuyin, a second glowing figure coalesced in front of Isaaru. A slender woman stood there with arms outstretched, barring Shuyin's path. Her clothes were of a style unknown to them, a short ruffled dress of sparkling blue.

"You must stop!" she said.

"Lenne?" Shuyin froze. "Lenne. Is it really you?"

"You called me, Shuyin. I am here."

"But I searched. I searched for so long—"

"Shuyin, it's time to rest. Leave vengeance to the Lady."

Isaaru, still performing the sending dance, lost a step to astonishment. He stared doubtfully at the drifting lights cloaking the woman, wafting up from the depths. Something rumbled far below, a hair-raising groan at the edge of hearing.

"They deserve it," Shuyin said. "They—"

"I wrote a song for you, Shuyin." She smiled and stepped forward, drawing him into her arms. "Maybe you've heard it. Listen." Soft and low, she began to purr into his ear. "Ieyui nobomeno..."

Pyreflies converged on the pair as they embraced. Unearthly cries on the edge of hearing merged into the Hymn of the Fayth. The lovers faded one pyrefly at a time, waning into darkness. Isaaru brought his hands together to seal the ritual and fell to his knees.

Hurrying over, Juno offered him a hand up with a gruff, "Isaaru, I'm sorry."

Pacce was sobbing on Elma's shoulder. As Isaaru started towards him, a dim shape of light and shadow caught his attention. Another figure stood where Shuyin and Lenne had been a moment before, head bowed, hands folded. This woman had fuller curves, darker hair, bone-pale skin, a long black gown that fell to her feet.

"Milady?" he said, dazed.

The stranger raised a finger to her lips, then turned and glided away, pyreflies in her train. The others seemed oblivious to her presence. Isaaru gave a cry when she reached Pacce and planted a light kiss on his forehead. Then she was gone.

Far below, two warriors sank through a void with pyreflies for stars. The second was no more than a faint silhouette. The first was substantial, not yet reconciled to his condition, and raged in silent denial of the nothingness they had become.

Dammit. You know, if Isaaru hadn't been sending Shuyin, someone coulda slapped me with a phoenix down.

...Or not, I guess. What the hell did you have to go and drop me for?

Uh...right. 'No comment,' eh? Death hasn't changed you a bit. Speaking of which, what're you doing here? I'm the one with the great big hole in my gut.

Oh, no. Don't tell me. That's what you were hiding? And the sending got you, too? Jeez, man. I don't know what to say.

...Idiot, maybe. Wasn't sending Shuyin your clever plan? And now Isaaru's short two guardians.

Poor Pacce. He's gonna be a complete wreck.

So...um...hey. You're unsent, right? You pulled it off once already. So why can't we both go back? It's just killin' me, leaving 'em like this.

A woman's voice cut through the one-sided conversation: "All you need is determination."

Huh? I'm pretty damned sure I don't want to die, lady!

"None of us wants to die. But existence is more than negating a negative. What is it you cannot forsake? What drives you, warrior, that you would endure a waking death, forgoing the Farplane's peace?"

My brothers! I've got to get back to them. This totally sucks, you know?

"Such bonds may be strong. But they are not you. Who are you? What is you?"

Huh? Who are you, for that matter?

"One who exists on the boundary between life and death. The living fear me. The dead ride me."

Whatever. Look, lady, just show me the way—

"As you wish. But for you, the path goes only one way."

In the uttermost depths of the Via Purifico, two corpses struck water hard enough to fracture bones. One kept falling.

The other was not so lucky.

Auron awoke on black sand. His eyes were closed, but still he recognized where he lay. Those coarse, glassy grains radiated sunlight like a furnace, burning anyone foolish enough to dare the beach in bare feet. The air held an iron tang that told him that he was home, truly home, lying at the foot of high, faceted crags weathered red by rain and wind. The voice of waterfalls and pounding surf met together on the toes of old lava. He had forgotten that sound. The burdens of the past forty-five years had driven out all memories of of earliest childhood. But the intervening time had slipped away from him, and this was all he had left.

Fire and water had fought here, spawned burgeoning life in the fertile soil that covered older parts of the island. A fatalistic people had made the volcano their goddess for centuries, content with what she gave them, enduring when she took back the gift. But Sin had finally put an end to their covenant. The few survivors fled to Yevon, some adopting other islands, a handful reaching the mainland. They still bore the marks that set them apart, although Yevon had stamped out the lore behind them: eyes the rust color of old lava, black hair that turned ashen gray, sometimes even in youth.

He had returned home only once during warrior monk's training, fighting fiends that might have been his kin.

He could no longer remember the island's name. Then again, he could no longer remember his own.

One odor did not fit: a hint of lilac. Someone was bustling about him, composing his limbs in the manner of portraits on old Crusader coffins. His hands were crossed over the hilt of his sword, laid lengthwise along his body. His faithful jug of nog was placed at his feet. Thorny brambles and salt-stiffened leaves prickled his bare arm. His head rested against a boulder of basalt.

There was a crackling, sizzling sound like red-hot metal splitting cold stone.

Auron lurched, thrusting his left hand upwards. His knuckles scraped the headstone. The searing heat etching its surface branded his palm instead. Pain jarred him fully awake.

"You'd give up on me?" he snarled.

Agony eased as a layer of ice flowed between his palm and the smaller hand pressed against it. "Never in a thousand years, Auron. But I do not hold you to your oaths. You do."

Auron sat up, painfully aware of every aching, bleeding limb, countless breaks and fragments of bone within. He withdrew his hand and wrapped it around his sword-hilt, clutching it as an anchor. The rich greens, reds and blacks of his birthplace faded away. He found himself back in Sin's garden, the ghost of Djose's shore. The only trace of his childhood home was the spray of ohia berries spilling over the black pillow of lava behind him, its surface unmarked. All around him stretched Lulu's overgrown bower: roses and Macalania trees, orchids and moon lilies, driftwood and skulls and the endless teeth of tombstones.

He glanced down at his hand. Freshly blackened skin was branded with two glyphs, the signs of his own name. "Thanks."

There was a rustle of skirts as she settled beside him, not touching now. "You almost forgot yourself. That boy—"

"Was it Tidus?"

"No. An angry echo of an ancient war. Or rather...Tidus was the echo. Perhaps Lenne's love graced him with more nobility than the man he mirrored."

"Zanarkand." The word was a curse, a dismissal.

"Yes. Zanarkand." Her voice sharpened. "Yu Yevon is very curious what is going on in Bevelle."

"More echoes. We may have an answer for you, Lulu."

Her breath caught. "You have a surprise for me? How thoughtful!" Coquettish speech was foreign to her; the implicit warning was clear.

Auron had been struggling to avoid looking her way. Lulu remained a precipice, and his grip on his sword and his name was tenuous at best. But her indrawn breath drew his attention.

"Lulu!"

The brambles had begun to grow around her arms, her neck, intertwining with her braids and belts. There were too many of them. As he took hold of the briar tightening around her throat, it transformed into barbed metal, digging into her skin. She averted her eyes, abandoning the pretense of speech. I think you had better go. Her lips twisted into an impish smile. I believe I have annoyed him.

Auron growled in frustration. "Don't take risks, Lulu. Put me down."

Another belt was unfurling across her face, covering her eyes. Are you sure you want to go on? Others can write my story, you know.

"No," he said to both statements. "Lulu, hurry."

Very well. Soft lips brushed his cheek.

The vision of Sin's garden tore like cobwebs, catapulting him back into a body that was screaming with pain in so many places he barely noticed his burnt hand. He found himself lying in a shallow, stinking puddle at the mouth of a sewage pipe. Blood stained the fetid water the color of rust. A gentle, quiet drizzle was falling upon the smoldering city in the gray dawn.

As he groaned and rolled over, her voice came to him in the susurrus of the rain. I'll see you soon, Auron. Tell Zaon when you're ready.

Chapter Text


"Ah! Sir Auron, there you are."

A crumbling drainage ditch was an unlikely destination for morning prayers. Yet there was no mistaking the green robe, high collar, and wide ceremonial band stitched with Yevon's signs from throat to knees. Yevon's toilet paper, Kinoc had called it, and died in it.

The priest climbed down into the muck. "Goodness gracious. I suppose even legendary guardians are mortal, aren't they? Not too mortal, though, I hope. Let me see." Humming to himself, he began to circle Auron, ignoring the stagnant water and blood wicking up the hem of his robes.

Mild healing magic lapped out from his hands in unseen ripples. A light drizzle pattered down, glazing the priest's bald head. The damp tasted of salt, not only from the breath of the harbor: there were tears in that rain, tears never shed by their owner when she had eyes to weep. The sour odor from the outflow pipe reeked of Sin and the living.

Auron gritted his teeth as bones shifted back into place, following the ley lines of the pyreflies. Breathing became easier, but his ribs still ground together like a sack of charcoal. He stared warily at the man shuffling around him. "Do I know you?"

"Zuke. A failed summoner. A madman too, perhaps. I dreamt I was to meet you here."

"Hmph." Auron's hand still burned as if he were gripping molten metal. What had Lulu done to him, flare crossed with bio?

"There. I fear that's the best I can manage. Can you stand? I must get you to Yuna's Cloister."

Auron groaned as Zuke helped him up: the priest's spell had not mended everything. "I need to reach the Chamber of the Fayth."

"I beg your pardon, sir guardian, but I was instructed to—" he coughed—"'thundaga your ass' if you did not come willingly."

"I...see." Auron glanced up at the sky, squinting. Did Lulu know about old friends trapped in the bowels of St. Bevelle?

There. Sin was lurking in the thunderheads, a dark shape embedded in a wall of gray cloud over the gutted husk of the palace. The tower was gone, but its image seemed to hang in mid-air, projected like a sphere recording onto the canvas of falling rain.

"Yevon preserve us!" Zuke drew Yevon's sign over his heart.

The sun began to break through, sending feeble shafts towards the phantom tower's peak. They pointed towards a gleam of white poised on the edge of a high balcony. Abruptly it dropped. Glyphs of light exploded outwards, magnifying the tiny human figure to aeon's size. They glimpsed a girl in a fluttering gown like a comet's plume, serene in her headlong plummet with her hands outstretched towards heaven.

"No!" Zuke took a step forward, rapt with horror. "Who...?"

Even Auron found himself transfixed: he had been too busy herding the rest of the party away to see Yuna's masterful performance when it happened. So had Lulu, for that matter, but she commanded an army of pyreflies now. They doted on memories.

The finale was brief but spectacular. A winged aeon came whirling down out of the clouds, a phoenix-like shape with wings the color of flame and shell. It swooped under the girl, catching and cradling her like a pearl on a velvet bed. They glided off together. The vision expanded, blurring at the edges, focused on the gazes of girl and aeon locked in soul's communion. As the mirage began to fade, Yuna turned and looked down upon the battered city with a solemn, cryptic expression that Auron suspected would soon find its way into temple portraits. The drizzle dwindled to a pale mist, then ceased. Sin vanished, taking the pyrefly-vision with her.

"It is a sign," Zuke said, wiping his eyes. "Did you see it? Did you see the Lady?"

"I saw Yuna." Auron scowled. He could already hear it in the man's voice: in fifty years, half of Spira would be praying "in Yuna's name." Lulu, what are you doing? You've been with Yu Yevon too long.

"Yes. Lady Yuna. Once again, the temples repudiate Spira's savior, while the common folk hail her. The Lady still intercedes on our behalf, blunting Sin's wrath—"

Auron hunched behind his collar. "And Lulu?"

"Guarding her still, I suppose... and troubling an old man's sleep." Zuke gave a weak laugh. "Forgive me, sir. You are hurt, and I'm sure these reminders of old friends are no great comfort."

Auron nodded, bracing himself against shooting pain as he reached for his sword lying in the muck. Perhaps one of the warrior monks would know Maester Baralai's means of reaching the lower levels of the palace. He needed more than cura, but he had to find Rikku: promises were all he had left.

He realized his error just before his knees gave way. His head swam when he bent for his sword. Dirty tiles rushed up to meet him. There was no aeon to catch him, but he barely felt it when he struck the ground.

"Nooj is a Crusader who sacrificed his own limbs in defense of the people of Spira! You will give him all the care due our honored veterans. Do I make myself clear?"

Soft-spoken as a rule, Isaaru turned heads as his grief-hardened voice cracked through the buzzing murmur of monks, nuns, and patients being shunted back to their rooms from the underground shelter. For a moment, the open square of Yuna's Cloister resembled a temple great hall with its rows of of wooden saints: every figure stopped, standing mute and astonished among close-trimmed topiaries, marble benches and ordered flower beds. Only the central fountain danced and chattered.

"Y-yes, Your Grace." The chastened monk bowed. "Captain Juno, if you'll follow me, please?"

"You'd better post a guard on Cid's room," Nooj said, leaning against Juno. "It sounds like they're looking for scapegoats."

"They're monks, not murderers, Nooj," Isaaru said, falling back to a lifeless whisper. "And I'm sure Lady Rikku is more than capable of defending her father while he sleeps. She, too, is a guardian."

"Isaaru," Juno said. "Get some rest. I'll survey the city and check in with Maester Shelinda, then report back. There's nothing more we can do until we hear from Maester Baralai. And...Pacce?"

The youth raised his head. He had not spoken since Elma dragged him into the elevator in Vegnagun's vault.

"Guard your brother."

His eyes welled up again, but he drew himself up in a passable salute.

"Oh. One other thing." She hitched Nooj's arm around her shoulders again and turned to Elma. "Speaking of maesters. You lost one, didn't you?"

The Crusader stiffened. "Yeah, why?"

"She's here. Bad dose of toxin, but alive. The S.S. Konna found her and Pacce on the tip of Western Isle. You're lucky the ship's captain was stupid enough to risk Sin's waters to bring Isaaru's evacuation order here faster."

Pacce stirred, jarred out of his stupor. "I'm sorry! S-Sin dropped us. I pulled Maester Lucil out of the water, but I c-couldn't wake her."

"Sorry?" Elma seized his shoulders, beaming with relief. "Don't be silly! You've just earned yourself a promotion. Just tell me where she is!"

"Um." He shook his head. "I'm s-sorry, I don't know which room—"

"Nevermind, kiddo, I'll find her. You look after Isaaru." She ruffled his hair, then turned to the summoner. "Sir, permission to—"

"Granted." The drawn lines of his face eased for a moment. "Go on, Commander. I'll check on her later, if you wish."

"Sir!" She gave Juno a minute nod and dashed off, flagging down one of the senior nuns and grilling her before rushing through an open archway.

Juno snorted and turned back to the monk who had been waiting on her and Nooj with an air of mounting desperation. "All right. Lead the way."

As she navigated the vaulted passageway around the courtyard, Juno was trailed by warrior monks eager to report in, covertly checking on their captain. Some were trying to catch a glimpse of her unusual charge. One veteran saluted "Deathseeker" as well as Juno. Nooj said nothing, content to watch her as she dispatched subordinates with clipped orders to different parts of the city.

There was a moment's awkwardness when she deposited him in a room, accompanied by the wide-eyed monk who stared fearfully at the artificial leg he chucked onto the bed.

"I'm not going anywhere," Nooj said with a tight smile. "If you bump into Shinra or Gippal, would you tell them to bring me some baling wire?"

Juno gave a curt nod, expression masked by her helm. "I'll...see you later."

His eyes softened. Juno left briskly.

Isaaru, meanwhile, had stayed rooted in place as the party dispersed. Healers, warrior monks and the wounded swirled around him and Pacce like two snags in a river. Isaaru set his hands on his brother's shoulders, steering him gently towards the central fountain. It contained yet another statue of the High Summoner, a figure of marble and glass poised atop a flowering pillar of water. Innocent, etherial, blissful, she seemed suspended in a Calm that she had not lived to see. The brothers contemplated her in silence, feeling cool spray on their faces.

"Lady Yuna," Pacce said finally. "D-do you think she came to send Maroda? Everyone saw her."

"I sent him myself, Pacce. Yet I do not doubt she helped guide him. That vision we saw, however...I believe it was Sin's doing. Sin is the Lady. And she, too, mourns one who is gone."

"Huh?"

"I'll explain later." Isaaru collected himself with a sigh. "Come. I think we should heed Lady Rikku's example: find food, beds, and rest until there is news of Lord Baralai. Yes?"

"O-okay."

"Your Grace! Your Grace!" A nun flying from the main entrance tripped over a planter and stumbled towards them. "Lord Isaaru, come quickly!"

Isaaru clutched at Pacce's shoulder. "What is it, Mother?"

"Word from Father Zuke, my lord! He's found Sir Auron down by the Purifico Gate. They're bringing him in now!"

"What? He is...alive?"

"I...I think so. Father Zuke sent for a wagon, so either the guardian's badly wounded, or..."

Pacce choked back a sob. "Was there anyone with him?"

"The message only mentioned Sir Auron."

"Very well. Take us to him." Isaaru lowered his voice as his brother surged ahead. "Pacce, I wish I could affirm your hopes, but I dare not. Sir Auron is cursed with a gift that lets him endure what would kill another. I fear he is alone. Yet at least he may know our brother's fate."

Elma leaned against the doorframe, dripping, casually barring the room. "Thanks, hon. I'll take it from here. If the general wakes, I'll call you, okay?" She snatched the tray from the acolyte and nodded towards the Do Not Disturb tag swinging from the door-handle. "By the way. That isn't a suggestion. If you come back, it'll be for one of three reasons: Juno's orders, Isaaru's orders, or a Sin sighting. Anything else will have to wait. Understood?"

The girl shrank back, wringing her hands. Evidently Elma's reputation as guard dog to Maester Lucil had reached all the way to the lower ranks of the clergy in Bevelle. "Yessir, I mean, yes, ma'am."

Elma pushed the door shut and slammed the bolt with her elbow, stalking back to the bed and setting the tray on the nightstand. "Help yourself," she said, filling both tumblers and setting one within easy reach. Then she crossed the room to a copper tub. The steaming bath had already begun to cool. She picked up an ewer and added more hot water, sloshing the floor with the overflow when she eased back into the tub. Reaching for a sponge, she resumed scrubbing, chattering away as she sloughed off the grime of battle.

"So, where was I? Oh, right. Well, Captain Juno led us back up through the Court of Yevon. We picked up Rikku and Cid on the way out. The palace is in pretty bad shape, ma'am; the tower's collapsed and most of the temple wing's burned. But the Court of Yevon's intact, so hopefully the archives are okay. And no fatalities, that's the important thing. Most of the palace was evacuated before Cid got here.

"Sin was waiting for us right outside. It pulled some funky trick that made everyone see a vision of Lady Yuna. The priests are still yapping about it. Then Sin vanished, and we came here. Juno's gone off to assess the damage and check in with Maester Shelinda at Northgate. The rest of us are on standby. No word yet on Baralai. And...that's the whole story."

Elma looked up, waiting. After a moment she sighed, clambered out of the tub, and toweled herself off. "Dammit. Forgot to ask for a fresh uniform." She slipped back into the Al Bhed garb, now sweaty and bloodstained. It should have been grounds for a jibe, but Lucil still lay staring at the ceiling.

Elma plopped back into the chair by the bed and took her hand. "I can't believe it's only been— what, four days? since we got separated."

There was no reply. Lucil blinked, she breathed: beyond that, she was unresponsive. Sin's toxin, the healers had said, but they had skirted Elma's questions when she reminded them of the general's old injury.

Elma exhaled. "Sorry to start without you, ma'am, but I'm starving. Tell me if you want anything." She selected a rice ball from the tray, wrinkling her nose after popping it in her mouth. "Ugh! What is with the fermented fish glop on everything? I can't wait for us to get back to Luca."

There was a brief lull while she picked over the food the acolyte had delivered. "So. I'm considering whether to head back tomorrow. Yevon willing—" she made a face, catching herself too late— "I could reach Moonflow Village by the end of the week, Luca in ten days. That's a long time for our troops to hang on with both of us MIA, but there's no help for it. Unless I can hitch a ride on that airship when it comes back. Either way, our troops need us, especially with you...here." Her voice frayed. She took a long drink of wine before continuing. "But here's the thing. Isaaru's lost Maroda and Sir Auron. Pacce's not fit for duty. If Isaaru's still determined to take on Sin, he's going to need another guardian. Juno might do it, but she's got all of Bevelle to look after, especially with Maester Baralai missing. So, should I get back to Luca ASAP, or serve as guardian for one more mission?"

A prodigious yawn interrupted her musings. "Oof. Sorry, ma'am. I didn't sleep much on the airship." She sprawled back in the chair. "You know one good thing about finding out that Yevon's a big pile of shoopuf crap? Al Bhed showers. First thing I do after this mess is over: hire one of Cid's smiths and get a shower installed at HQ. It'll be great for your back."

Elma wilted as she began to run low on words, stroking Lucil's wrist with her thumb. "Hey. If I drop off, you poke me, okay?"

There was a faint croak from the bed. "You're out of uniform, Commander."

Elma sat bolt upright, eyes flying open. "I...uh...the sinscales—" She squeezed Lucil's hand, struggling to keep her voice steady. "Reporting for duty, ma'am. Orders?"

Lucil flexed one leg beneath the sheets and then the other, wriggling her toes. Finally she breathed out. "Lord Isaaru is safe?"

"Yes, ma'am. He's here in Yuna's Cloister. Sergeant Wedge and the palace guard are here too, keeping watch."

"Lord Baralai is missing. Lady Shelinda...?"

"Northgate, ma'am. She's been overseeing the city's evacuation, setting up camps on the south rim of the Calm Lands. Captain Juno's gone off to inspect the city and meet with her, so we should get a status report from Shelinda in a few hours."

"Very good. Lock the door."

"Done."

"Excellent." Lucil raised herself on one elbow, voice firming as she spoke. "I'll need to review your report to fill in what I missed. After Juno returns, we'll confer with her on the city's defenses. We should place the Yocun Crusaders at her disposal for the remainder of the crisis. We'll convene an emergency council session this evening with Lord Isaaru, Captain Juno and Elder Cid. Hopefully we'll have tidings of Maester Baralai by then."

"Yes, ma'am." Elma released her hand and stood, a slight hitch in her salute. "Anything else?"

"Yes." Lucil seized the bottom of her tank top, tugging her towards the bed. "You are officially off-duty. Juno's errand should take at least three hours to complete."

Lucil's legs might be hampered by old injuries, but she had developed upper body strength to compensate. There was a moment's wrestling as she dragged Elma under the covers, playfully jockeying for blankets and pillow, a surfeit of riches compared to a sleeping bag spread on Djose gravel. Elma wound up wedged against her side, clutching Lucil's shoulder, mouth jammed against her own knuckles to bite back laughter that had abruptly turned to sobs. Lucil held her quietly, combing her damp hair.

"Sorry, ma'am," Elma said finally. "I guess overtime finally caught up with me."

"I know." Lucil slipped a finger under her chin and coaxed her to unclench. They drew together in a lingering kiss that was almost a match for one three years earlier, when Elma had vowed to carry Lucil until she could walk again.

Elma snuggled against her, drowsy and plaintive. "Hey...didn't you order me to report to you for debriefing after the operation was over?"

"Tonight." Lucil smiled, lips curling against the younger woman's cheek. "You need a few hours' rest, Commander. Otherwise, I'm not sure you'll last through a full session. Sleep now."

Chapter Text

Weary as he was of piecing himself back together, Auron still resented unsolicited aid.

Gravity had been hijacked. A subtle realignment of currents had swapped Spira's core with his own cold heart, balancing bone and sinew and spirit like so many nested shells around axis mundi. The prayer was a variant of the Hymn of the Fayth, the one recited in temples across Spira to renew the bonds of fayth to statue. Two voices rose and fell in a plodding chant, weaving the binding prayer around him once, twice, thrice: once for Yevon, once for Spira, once for the end of Sin.

Irritably, Auron wondered whether Yojimbo had gone mad before or after the priests stopped coming around to burnish his chains.

His body was no statue, but the dizzying pull of the Farplane seemed to lessen, as if he had fetched up on a sandbar in the midst of a rushing torrent.

The binding ceased. The stronger voice fell silent. The ritual shifted to healing magic, a deeper, more potent strain than Zuke's. Crushed organs and hairline fractures missed by cura were patted back into wholeness, like clay wetted, shaped, and baked anew. All pain vanished except for the stinging in his palm, and that was now bearable. Finally, a simple cleansing spell — petty magic, but useful for long pilgrimages — sloughed off the stench from the gutter where Lulu had dropped him.

Auron opened his eyes and sat up with a grudging nod of respect. "Thanks."

"Thanks be to Yevon," Zuke said, sidling around his cot to help Isaaru into a chair. The cramped space and Yevon's sign on the door suggested a monk's cell.

Isaaru's face was ashen. Disturbingly, there was blood pooling in the hollows of his eyes. "Welcome back," he said, taking a clean cloth from Zuke to wipe his face. Then he shouted, voice cracking. "Pacce!"

The door opened with a jerk, and the narrow room became even more crowded as the boy bolted inside, slamming it in the faces of a press of spectators in the hallway. "S-Sir Auron?"

He nodded a greeting.

"Our brother?" Isaaru said, addressing Auron.

"Sent."

Pacce made a choking sound, probably trying to keep from breaking down in front of his idol.

"As I feared." Propping his head against the wall, Isaaru gave Zuke a weak smile. "Father, we deeply appreciate your help...and your understanding."

"Eh, well, I doubt the Grand Maester will excommunicate me for this." The bald man bowed, giving Yevon's sign as much as the close quarters permitted. "Your chambers are ready, Isaaru. I expect to find you there shortly. If you need to talk—"

"Thank you, old friend. Perhaps later."

Zuke nodded sympathetically. "Sir Auron, it has been...a most unusual honor. I pray you find what you seek." He bowed again, touched Pacce's shoulder, and coaxed him to move aside so he could slip out.

"Forgive me for enlisting Father Zuke's help, Sir Auron," Isaaru said, after the door had shut. "Your... condition... presented a challenge, and I am rather spent."

"Understandable." Auron gave Pacce a measuring glance, but his eyes registered no comprehension. In fact, they registered very little. His gaze had fallen on Auron's sword propped in a corner, and he seemed transfixed by it. Auron had seen that look before: Braska after Anna's death, Liddy pining after Jecht, Yuna cupping Tidus' head in the snow, barely able to stumble through a sending. Auron's track record in consoling bereaved comrades was dismal, but the boy reminded him enough of Tidus to prick a vague sense of duty. "Pacce. I have a message."

"S-sir?"

"The blade is not to blame for the hand that wields it."

"I'm sorry?"

Isaaru's expression softened. "He means you should not assume guilt for Shuyin's crimes."

"Oh." Pacce's chin trembled. "I know, but—"

"Only a summoner of Isaaru's talent could have opposed his will," Auron said. "You had no defense, no weapon you could have used to fight him."

Pacce nodded halfheartedly. Then his eyes widened. "Wait. Was that message from Maroda?"

"He doesn't blame you. He feared you'd blame yourself."

Pacce blinked back tears. "Oh."

Isaaru, watching his brother's face, relaxed slightly. "So. By your leave, Sir Auron, we should avail ourselves of the guest-rooms prepared for us. Assuming that I still have two guardians?"

"You intend to keep going?" Auron said.

"You're a hard man, my friend." He passed a hand over his eyes, noting Pacce's stricken expression. "I know I must, but I do not know if I can. Allow me to defer my answer a day. Unless you have cause to think Sin will return tonight?"

Auron shook his head. "No." He frowned, recalling Lulu's puzzling reference to Zaon. "She's gone off to give us more time."

"The Lady is kind." Isaaru rose with a groan. "Follow."

Threading their way through a stream of healers and patients being shuttled back to their rooms, Isaaru leaned close to Auron as they pressed against a wall to allow a stretcher to pass. "Maroda never had your way with words," he whispered. "But thank you. Losing one of them is enough."

Sin might grant a day's grace, but Yevon would not. The whine of engines braking overhead sparked a fresh panic, sending priests and nuns scurrying into the courtyard. They cowered and prayed as a huge, ungainly hulk flew low, eclipsing the sun before disappearing over the rooftops. The warrior monks fired after it. Juno, just returned from her errand, stormed out and quickly took charge. Guards were deployed to barricade the entrance. A squad of marksmen fanned out on the roof. Tense minutes ticked by. Fortunately, all precautions proved unnecessary. Baralai arrived alone, walking slowly from the direction of the plaza.

"Casualties?" he said, pushing through the wall of guards.

"One more since last we spoke," Juno said, falling into step beside him. "Maroda."

Baralai winced. Entering the courtyard, he searched the crowd and angled towards Isaaru, whom Auron had herded under the shelter of an archway. "Lord Isaaru. You have my condolences...and my sincere apology for doubting you."

Isaaru returned Baralai's bow, but politic speech had deserted him.

"Lucil's awake. Shelinda's on her way," Juno said. "Lucil's called a meeting when she arrives."

"Very good," Baralai said, lowering his voice. "Gippal's watching over the package in a safe place. We need to tell him where to deliver it."

They convened in the cloister refectory, hastily cleared for their use. Elma met them at the entrance, keeping out baffled clergy who had missed the announcement. Lucil was already there, seated opposite the doors when those she had summoned began to trickle in. Light refreshments and drinks had been set out for them, covering part of a seal of Yevon picked out in mosaic on the large circular table.

"Elder Cid, Lady Rikku," Lucil said. "Thank you for coming. We may not have time to discuss it today, but be assured that the maesters will not allow Shuyin's deeds to trigger retaliation against your people. We know you were not to blame."

"Uh...well, good." Cid harrumphed, momentarily at a loss. "Makes a nice change."

Rikku rolled her eyes and flopped down in a chair. "He means, 'Thank you.'"

"My Lady," Shelinda said, rushing in and bowing breathlessly. "I'm glad to see you well!"

"And you, my lady." Lucil waited for the others to file in, then motioned to Elma.

"Ma'am." She locked the doors behind Nooj and discreetly activated a recording sphere set on a tripod in the corner. As the others took their seats, she moved to stand behind Lucil's chair.

"This emergency Council of Yevon is now in session." Lucil's eyes rested on each face as she greeted them, starting on her left and circling the room. "Lady Shelinda. Lady Rikku. Elder Cid. Sir Pacce. Lord Isaaru. Sir Auron. Sir Nooj. Captain Juno. Lord Baralai. Commander Elma." She inclined her head towards the empty chair between Rikku and Shelinda. "The day began with sorrow, and there is another who should be among us. But I give thanks to fate — or, dare I say it, to Sin — for making possible such a roll call."

"Praise be to Yevon," Shelinda insisted.

"As you will." Lucil looked grim. "In truth, this is a Council of Yevon in name only. For today we do not speak only for Yevon, my lady, nor does Elder Cid speak only for the Al Bhed. We must take thought also for the Hypello and for the few Guado and Ronso that remain. Our choices may dictate Spira's fate for the next thousand years. Therefore I urge you and Baralai to set aside titles in this room, consider this a Council of Spira, and regard all votes as equal to our own."

Baralai said nothing until he had scanned around the table, lips moving silently as if he were making a tally. Then he nodded. "Agreed."

Shelinda darted an uneasy glance at Nooj and his metal limbs. "But I don't even know all these people!"

"Nooj," Juno said. "Former Crusader. He and Baralai served together. I mentioned him when I briefed you about Vegnagun." She took a deep breath. "I'll vouch for him."

Baralai's shoulders hunched, but he nodded. "So will I."

Nooj shook his head, muttering, "I don't deserve you people."

"And I'm Rikku!" Rikku waggled her fingers. "Ex-guardian to the High Summoner. Yuna's mom was my Pops' sister. We bumped into you a few times on her pilgrimage."

"Oh!" Shelinda said meekly. "Hello again. All right, I agree."

Lucil steepled her hands on the table. "Baralai, first: what is Vegnagun's status?"

"On standby," he said. "Gippal has it parked on Lake Macalania. Speaking of which, we've lost Macalania Temple. It looks like Sin attacked yesterday. We found no survivors."

"Oh, no." Shelinda looked stricken. "The monastery, too?"

"I'm sorry, milady." After a somber pause, he went on. "Gippal's guarding Vegnagun. His crewmate, Shinra, met us there and flew me back in their airship. They've got special spheres that broadcast to one another. We can call Gippal from here."

"Very good. Lady Shelinda, how goes the evacuation?"

"Fairly well, thanks to the warrior monks," she said, nodding to Juno, "but we're short on tents and rations. Some are waiting in line for hours for food and water. A few fights have broken out. I'd like to start moving the people back into the city as soon as possible."

"The city is not yet safe," Lucil said. "I've recalled the Crusaders of Yocun Lodge with instructions to bring extra food and rations. I'm placing them under your command for the duration of this operation."

Shelinda bit her lip. "That may help, but I'm not sure the camps are any safer than Bevelle. Sin's been circling us like a shark. Everyone's terrified."

Auron, slouched in his chair and half-dozing, sat up with a jerk.

"Sin!" Isaaru said. "Where is it now?"

"Please," said Lucil, "describe exactly what you saw."

"It's flying," Shelinda said, voice trembling. "Just like one of those airships. I've never seen anything so awful. The first time it happened just before midnight: a big dark mass in the sky howling in from Bevelle. I was afraid Isaaru's warning had come true. We all started praying for anybody still in the city. Then it swooped down over us and headed out across the Calm Lands. About five hours later, just after the watch spotted fires in the city, Sin popped out of nowhere, right on top of us! It flew back towards Bevelle. We lost sight of it in the smoke. Just after dawn, it passed us a third time, heading northeast. It's like it's hunting for something!"

"Isaaru?" Lucil said. "What do you make of this?"

"I'm not quite sure," he said. "Shortly before Lady Yuna's festival, Sin began a pilgrimage of its own, destroying temples and eliminating the aeons. That's why I sent warning to Bevelle." He turned to Auron, but the guardian had turtled behind his collar. "Sir Auron guessed Sin's next target would be Remiem Temple, beyond the Calm Lands. Something...or someone...must have caused it to turn back."

"Maybe it decided to target the temple of Bevelle during the confusion," Baralai said. "Isaaru, have you been down there since—"

"Nope!" Rikku said. "Pops and I were in the Chamber of the Fayth. It's a-ok!"

"You?" Shelinda looked appalled. "What were you doing in there?"

"I hid them there," Isaaru said. "I feared Juno's troops might still be hunting Elder Cid. If he had died at our hands, we might now be facing war between the Al Bhed and Yevon."

"Wise move," Juno said.

"Sir Auron," Lucil said. "How do you read Sin's movements?"

"It was heading for Remiem until the attack on Bevelle drew its attention. It turned back to investigate. Now it's resumed course."

"Whose attention?" Rikku said, reaching for a fruit to nibble on. "Lulu's, or Yu Yevon's?"

He grimaced. "Probably both."

"Investigate?" Nooj frowned. "That's bad. Depending on how much Sin 'sees,' Yu Yevon may have spotted Vegnagun before Baralai moved it away."

"Yu Yevon?" Shelinda said, bewildered.

"Lulu?" said Juno.

"Blast it." Baralai pinched the bridge of his nose. "I should have stranded Vegnagun in the Farplane before it was too late."

"Or I should," Nooj put in.

Juno hissed under her breath. "Don't you dare."

"Hold." Lucil raised her hand. "Elma has explained Yu Yevon to me, but this is something that everyone needs to hear. I myself find it difficult to accept. Isaaru, explain."

"If I must." Isaaru rubbed his eyes with his sleeve, visibly collecting himself. "Yu Yevon was the ruler of Zanarkand a thousand years ago: Bevelle's arch enemy, Spira's greatest summoner, the father of Lady Yunalesca. When Bevelle threatened to use Vegnagun and end the war with one stroke, Yu Yevon countered with Sin, the most powerful aeon ever summoned. Yu Yevon became eternal, wielding Sin as weapon, armor and dwelling.

"The teachings of Yevon were not written by Yu Yevon, but to appease Yu Yevon. The rites worshiping Sin outright were suppressed long ago, but now and then the Cult of Sin crops up in a new form."

"A form like, say, five foot six and a pair of blitzballs?" Elma murmured.

"Elma!" Lucil turned with a frown.

"Sorry, ma'am." The blush in the Crusader's voice was audible. "You can't help seeing her, if you patrol Djose's shore long enough. I assumed it was just toxin."

"Isaaru, this story— you found it in the archives, yes?" Shelinda said. "It must be a forgery, a heretical lie meant to shake our faith. Didn't Lady Yunalesca and Lord Zaon sacrifice everything to defeat Sin?"

"Except they didn't defeat it, did they?" Nooj said. "Nice bit of Yevon propaganda."

"Exactly," said Isaaru, sagging. "Shelinda, I found most of this in the archives, but a sphere left by Lady Yuna confirms it."

"Um," Pacce said. "Isn't...Lady Yunalesca...the Lady?"

Isaaru placed his hand over Pacce's. "That was my guess before we set out, but I was mistaken. Listen. The fayth of the Final Summoning is drawn from a guardian who sacrifices herself for her summoner. But when Sin falls, Yu Yevon endures. He possesses the Final Aeon, and from that unwilling host he conjures a new Sin."

"Her name's Lulu," Rikku said. "She was, like, Yunie's big sister. She was always the smart one, you know? But when Yunie wanted to try it, she...she just...augh!" She slapped her hands on the table. "Auron, you should've stopped them."

Cid snorted. "Yevon's the real toxin. Makes 'em act like idiots, every last one of 'em."

"It doesn't matter who she is," Juno said. "Right now, she's the enemy. How do we fight her?"

"Lulu has some freedom to steer Sin's course, provided she plays her part. That may give us an opening." Auron frowned. "There was something she said—"

"You speak to Sin?" Baralai said, eyes narrowing.

Shelinda made a despairing whimper and reached for a drink.

Auron ignored him. "'Tell Zaon when you are ready,' Lulu said."

"Anyone here got a commsphere to the Farplane?" Cid quipped.

"Ugh," Rikku said. "Don't tell me we gotta go to Guadosalam. Those ruins are creepy."

"No." Isaaru gave an odd laugh, drawing a raised eyebrow from Auron. "She means the fayth of St. Bevelle. Their true names are usually forgotten. But that child...he was a prodigy, worthy of the father he was named for. The war began when Yu Yevon's grandson was taken hostage."

"And when Zanarkand refused the price for his release, Bevelle's priests ripped out his soul." Nooj said. "Typical. I always wondered how the temples came by their 'willing sacrifices.'"

"So, like, if you talk to Zaon, he can signal her somehow?" Rikku said.

"I find all this very difficult to believe," Lucil said. "But if Sir Auron is not suffering from Sin's toxin, it comes to this: he is proposing we call Sin to Bevelle, inviting it—or rather, her—to complete the city's destruction."

"What happens if you don't call her?" Baralai said.

"She'll continue attacking Spira," Auron said. "And we forfeit our chance to choose the battlefield."

"She's dictating the battlefield," Juno said. "I don't like it. Whoever she was, she's Sin now. Slave to another Shuyin."

Pacce went white. "Um..."

"Won't she come back for the last fayth anyway?" Rikku said. "Sooner or later, Bevelle's gonna get clobbered."

"Um..." Pacce said again.

"Vegnagun," Nooj said, tossing out the name almost absently.

"No!" Baralai and Juno snapped in unison.

"Pacce," Lucil said. "Have you a suggestion?"

He blushed and dropped his eyes. "Well...um...we moved a fayth before, right? We hoped the Lady wouldn't find it. But she did. So..."

"Get it away from Bevelle, then use it as bait!" Elma said. "Good thinking, kiddo!"

Isaaru sighed. "A clever idea, Pacce, but I fear it may be impractical. The Chamber of the Fayth is deeply buried. Djose's was challenging enough. How could we raise Zaon's statue, let alone carry it down and away from the citadel?"

"That glorified conveyor belt's a start," Cid said. "I reckon that's how the builders got it down there in the first place."

"Yeah!" Rikku grinned at the others' blank expressions. "The Cloister of Trials, you ninnies! It doesn't just move people. It got a little banged up, but it's mostly intact. We could fix it, couldn't we, Pops?"

"Only trouble is, the temple's fallen over the entrance," Elma said. "We could detail work crews to clear it, but that would take weeks."

"Gippal's got heavy lifters," Nooj said. "Cutters, excavation equipment for salvage operations. Assuming they weren't damaged on the way here, we could clear the temple, pick up the statue and ship it wherever you like."

"Then fire up Vegnagun, and boom! No more Sin," Cid said. "Hot damn, I think you've finally hit on a plan with all this yapping."

"Just one problem," Baralai said. "We can't use Vegnagun. It's more dangerous than Sin."

"And a machina," Lucil said with distaste.

Shelinda nodded vigorously. "I don't care what you say about Yevon, we can't use that!"

"So let me get this straight," Cid said, "You've got the one weapon that can blow Sin out of the sky, and you're too damned chicken to try it?""

"Pops," Rikku said, elbowing him.

"Didn't you hear what Baralai just said?" Juno said. "If we lose control of Vegnagun, it could start wiping out cities—whole islands—the way Sin eats villages."

"Yes." Lucil leaned back in her chair. "Sin was foe enough. But if not Vegnagun, then what? Isaaru, I should like our summoner's counsel."

"I..." he sagged. "I do not know, my lady. I tremble at the thought of using Vegnagun. But we are running out of weapons. Three of my aeons are gone. Sin is destroying another temple as we speak."

"Then let it," Baralai said. "Isaaru, think. The Calm never lasts for more than a dozen years. What makes you believe Vegnagun will be any more effective than the Final Summoning? Maybe we should stop lying to the people and to ourselves. Sin isn't going away. We just have to learn to live with it. We've survived with it for a thousand years, after all."

"Chickabos," Cid muttered. "Every one."

Rikku looked troubled. "No, he's right, Pops," she said. "It's why you were protecting the summoners, remember? The pilgrimages were just a fancy way to knock people off. This'll kill Lulu for sure, and it could blow up in our faces. We've got to put up with Sin until we can think of something else."

"Rikku's right," Elma said.

Lucil nodded. "Sir Auron?"

"There's another voice at this council you aren't hearing," he growled, "although she's burned her message from one end of Spira to the other. Lulu says it's time for this farce to end. Now. If we wait, she'll no longer have the will to help us at all."

"In that case," Isaaru said, somewhat testily, "What does the Lady suggest?"

"She has no answer," Auron said. "If she had one, Yu Yevon would read her thoughts and put a stop to it. But Lulu's destroyed the aeons because she still has faith. In Spira. In life. In us. She's challenged us to find a new way to fight Sin. Baralai has found one. If you refuse it, Yu Yevon has won."

"Sin," Isaaru said. "Spira's sorrow... is asking us to hope?"

"So you say," Baralai said. "I'm sorry, but I could just as well say that Vegnagun votes no because it doesn't want to die."

"Pacce," Lucil said. "Your voice has also not been heard. You are a part of this council."

"I...I don't know." He swallowed, avoiding everyone's scrutiny. "But...Maroda would say we should fight. So I do, too."

Baralai's expression hardened. "Ten votes, Lucil. Five for, five opposed. So what do you say, General? Shall we gamble with every life in Spira, use a machina we barely understand, and hope Sin and Vegnagun annihilate each other without taking Spira along?"

"It's Mi'ihen, all over again," Lucil said, eyes going distant. "Three thousand Crusaders perished the last time we counted on machina to do what summoners cannot. The Al Bhed paid the price as well, Cid: I buried some of them with my own hands. Baralai nearly died there. Shelinda tended the wounded. Isaaru tended the dead. For thirteen years, their ghosts have haunted us. So the Four Maesters of Yevon swore never to repeat our predecessors' mistakes. Yet seven days ago, Isaaru convinced me to take a stand at Djose to preserve an aeon he needed for the fight. We failed, and more Crusaders paid the price."

Elma gripped the back of Lucil's chair, leaning close.

"And yet Sir Auron is right: if we refuse this battle, we surrender. The summoner's art will die. Even if we could find brave new souls to volunteer as fayth, Sin would destroy them. Spira's sorrow will be eternal. And sooner or later, another Shuyin, another Seymour will arise and lay hands on Vegnagun. Then all Spira will pay for our prudence." Lucil raised a hand as Baralai started to rise from his chair. "I heard you the first time, Baralai. You propose to fly Vegnagun to the Farplane, sacrificing yourself like a summoner. In the end, that may be our only option. But I shall not surrender Spira to Sin without a fight.

"Sir Auron, I accept the Lady's challenge. Vegnagun is our weapon. The ruins of Guadosalam will be our battlefield. This war began a thousand years ago. It is time for us to end it, once and for all."


 

They were silent for a while. At length Aragorn spoke. 'As I have begun, so I will go on. We come now to the very brink, where hope and despair are akin. To waver is to fall. Let none now reject the counsels of Gandalf, whose long labours against Sauron come at last to their test. But for him all would long ago have been lost.' ~ "The Last Debate", Return of the King

Chapter Text

Night was falling along with the temperature. Snow swirled over the lip of the cockpit, melting on Vegnagun's skin. A low tremulous hum, a faint vibration, and a few scattered blue lights hinted that the machina was not quite dormant. Far below, the lake creaked and popped under the settling weight of its massive feet slowly embedding themselves in ice. Pyreflies drifted up from the frozen surface, mingling with the fog that shrouded the giant machina like a cocoon.

A second, higher-pitched whine of engines rumbled across the lake and faded. Juno stood, raised a rifle to her shoulder and peered out. Minutes later, a solitary figure emerged from the darkness and limped across the broken ground towards Vegnagun's head. Nooj's cane tapped against the ice as he struggled over the broken ground. At last, he halted below her, shielding his eyes from spotlights and peering upwards.

"May I come up?" he called. "I'm unarmed."

"Unarmed" was a relative term for someone who could punch through armor with a fist, but Juno lowered her rifle.

She propped the weapon behind her and resumed her vigil from the pilot's chair, wrapped in an old Crusader blanket. Nooj's limbs clanked against the hull as he pulled himself up. He had to wedge his artificial hand in crevices to keep from slipping. Juno tensed more with every sound, but left him to find his own way.

At last, Nooj rolled over the top and tumbled down into the well beside her feet, chest heaving. Dusted white, the long ropes of his hair rattled against the deck.

Juno gave him a chance to catch his breath before demanding, "Does Baralai know you're here?"
"No."

"So. What are you doing here?"

"Wanting to talk." He raised his eyes. "If you still want to talk."

"I...needed time." She hesitated, then held out the edge of the blanket. The odd lumps sewn into its layers were fire marbles, shining through the fabric like glow worms.

The simple gesture triggered a flood of emotion behind his eyes. He touched her hand— her gauntlet, rather; she was still armed for combat. Then, hitching himself around in the cramped quarters, Nooj leaned back and settled carefully against her legs. Greaves and knee-guards regulated the contact in a way her old leathers had not. She drew the blanket around both of them and resumed scanning the fog.

"Why didn't you ever try to contact me?" she said.

"I thought you were dead."

"Don't lie, Nooj. I heard what Shuyin said. You weren't sure."

"And if I had sought you out, don't you think he would have made sure?" Years of pent-up frustration lanced through Nooj's voice like a fish-hook. "If you lived, you were a threat to him. Gippal and Baralai, too, but you most of all. Sooner or later, you would have realized what was wrong with me." His hands clenched under the blanket. "I nearly killed Shinra a month ago, and he's just a friend."

Juno exhaled, breath frosting over his head. "Nooj." She cradled the name gingerly. "I'm sorry I stopped looking for you."

"You looked? Gods, I'm glad you didn't find me."

She stared at her hand resting on her thigh, just a few inches from his shoulder. "So. You've been with the Al Bhed. Doing what?"

"Salvaging machina, mostly. Not entirely my idea, but it was fascinating work." He tipped his head back, a hint of regret in his eyes. "'Friend' is the wrong word. Shinra's almost a son to me. You'll meet him tomorrow when he comes to examine Vegnagun. I gather you've also picked up a protegé?"

"Eh?" She frowned, vaguely unsettled by the idea of Nooj with a foster-son. "Oh, Pacce. It's not like that. Maroda asked me to help whip him into shape for their next pilgrimage."

"And Baralai?" His voice softened. "You two seem close."

"Nooj—"

"Juno, I don't mind. It's been thirteen years. I wanted you to be happy."

"So did I." She snorted. "Baralai wasn't the answer."

"Oh. I'm sorry. In that case, I'm glad you you two are still speaking to each other."

"I left for a few years." She shrugged. "Did some exploring. I worked on a cargo ship for a while, but..."

"It didn't fly."

"Exactly."

"Hm." He removed his glasses, wiping away fog with the edge of the blanket. "Maybe we can get you up in Gippal's airship. That flyer's got more style, but it won't fly above the clouds."

"I'd...like that," she said. "But I have duties. Baralai needs me, especially now."

"Which is why he posted the captain of the guard in a snowbank eight leagues outside the city limits?"

She glared at the darkened keyboard. Vegnagun shifted uneasily beneath them, resettling with a hiss of hydraulics.

"I gather there's no love lost between you and Baralai's pet." Nooj's grim chuckle died away. "You know what he's planning, don't you?"

"Protect Vegnagun," she said, "at any cost." The brittle words held a hint of bitterness.

"Another Deathseeker. I suppose I set a bad example." Nooj closed his eyes. "We can't let him throw his life away, Juno. Which is why...I know this is much to ask, but I need you to teach me how to fly Vegnagun."

"Is that why you came out here?" She stiffened. "So you can take his place?"

"I came here to start getting to know Juno," Nooj said. "But Baralai needs our help. Someone has to keep him from diving into the Farplane."

"No."

"Juno—"

"I already asked. He said no. If he doesn't trust me, he certainly won't trust you."

"Ah." Nooj considered. "Then we'll have to make it worth his while. Look. Unlike Baralai, I have piloted machina, not only in simulation. And while the interface is like nothing I've seen before, I'm familiar with how machina think. My experience may be the edge we need to win."

"Maybe." She mulled over his words, expression masked as usual by the helm that covered the upper half of her face. "On one condition."

"Name it."

"Survive. You can't atone for what happened by sacrificing yourself in his place."

Nooj gave a wry chuckle. "You know me too well. All right. Going into a battle with Sin and Vegnagun, we could all be killed, but I'll do what I can to avoid it. Is that enough?"

"Almost." She gazed down at him, measuring. "You do realize that you'll have to lower your guard completely for this? Vegnagun's interface only works if you allow it access to your mind."

"If you can do it, I can do it."

"Baralai's going to kill me." She stood, peeling off her gloves. "Get up here."

At daybreak, summoner and guardian climbed the citadel, retracing the path that Juno had used to lead the others back to the surface. Pacce had finally succumbed to sleep just before dawn. Walking behind Isaaru, Auron recalled the last time it had been just one guardian and one summoner, seeking Bevelle's fayth over a lifetime ago. Guardian and summoner, fayth and faith: these had been simpler relationships once.

Isaaru's memory of the route deserted him outside the warrior monks' hidden lift. Fortunately they were in no hurry. Auron took charge, stopping the lift at each level to scan murky passageways and fend off fiends attracted by the elevator lights.

"I'm sorry," Isaaru said after several floors. "I should have noted what floor it was."

"You had other things on your mind." Auron frowned, observing how Isaaru swayed each time the elevator started down. "You are unwell. We should come back later."

"No!" His lips peeled back from his teeth in a frantic smile. "I...I must see the fayth. I'm fine, Sir Auron. It's just fatigue."

"I see," Auron said, unconvinced. Grief would explain Isaaru's lethargy, but his symptoms had begun to appear well before Maroda's death. Auron had already guessed one cause: loss of his aeons had taken a heavy toll on the man's spirit. But something more had happened to him during their stay with the Al Bhed. Until then, he had faced trials with maddening equanimity. Since Baaj, he had become fey, erratic. Perhaps Sin's toxin had aggravated grief and loss, but Auron could not shake the feeling that Isaaru's inner keel had snapped.

Isaaru watched him operate the controls with vague curiosity. "You still don't trust me, do you?"

"Hmph." Auron peered out, shook his head, and keyed the next floor. "I trust no one, Isaaru. Myself included."

"Liar." The summoner's chuckle did not reach his eyes. "You trust Sin, don't you?"

"Maybe."

Several floors down, a Tonberry crouched just outside the doors seemed to be waiting for a ride. Isaaru lunged for the controls as its lantern bathed Auron in acrid yellow light.The doors slid closed. Even that brief exposure was enough to leave the guardian in a sweating heap on the floor. Isaaru applied cura, and Auron hastily set the lift in motion.

"Maroda always hated those things," Isaaru said.

"So did Lulu." Rubbing his jaw where it had struck the floor, the guardian returned to the controls.

Isaaru staggered again as the floor dropped. "Sir Auron? There is...something I need to tell you. I have not been quite frank with you concerning Lord Mika."

Auron tensed. He had badgered Isaaru repeatedly about his predecessor's whereabouts. Any unsent was a loose cannon, liable to turn up anywhere. Shuyin's example had raised an unsettling possibility. "What about him?"

He bowed his head. "I sent him, Sir Auron. Yevon forgive me: I sent Lord Mika, the most revered maester in history."

"You are sure?" Auron relaxed his grip on his sword-hilt. "Impressive."

"Thank you." Isaaru said. "I suppose you have no reason to rue his passing. But for Yevon, it is yet another secret shame. Despite our good intentions, Baralai, Shelinda and I came to power via a coup."

"Not Lucil?" Auron had little interest in politics, but he wanted to confirm Mika's removal.

"No, her hands are clean. She was in Besaid, protecting the rebels. We never told her the true story."

"Which is?"

"Well." Isaaru hesitated, but his eyes brimmed with confession. "After my duel with Lady Yuna, I vowed to quit Bevelle and resume my pilgrimage. I thought you a traitor, you know, so your words had no power to dissuade me. But the farther we travelled, the more difficult it was to continue with eyes closed. The Crusaders, excommunicated by Yevon, were rallying to protect the people. The warrior monks had imposed martial law in Bevelle, venturing forth only to punish Lady Yuna's sympathizers. And then we reached Mount Gagazet."

"Ah," said Auron. "So it was you that tended them."

"I...pray I did some good." Isaaru passed a hand over his eyes and turned away. "I have never sent so many dead at one time, not even after Operation Mi'ihen. We found Elder Kelk just before he died. His will for justice had kept him alive just long enough to pass on what he knew: Seymour's patricide, his murder of his fellow maesters, Lady Yuna's forced wedding, his plots against the Al Bhed, Ronso and Crusaders— all condoned by Grand Maester Mika. Worse still, both were unsent, using Yevon to control the living. My faith almost died that day.

"From Gagazet my brothers and I witnessed Lady Yuna's last battle with Sin. I vowed on her memory and Maester Kelk's that I would deliver Yevon from those who had corrupted it.

"On the way home, we fell in with Baralai, a young Crusader on the run. He advised us to flee the reprisals that were coming. But I could not leave Spira to her fate. Would Sin not return all the sooner, unless we made atonement for Yevon's crimes? So I pressed him to accompany us back to Bevelle.

"There we found an ally in Shelinda, newly-appointed captain of the guard. She had heard of Kinoc's murder from O'aka before his execution, but had dismissed it as the ravings of a trickster desperate to save his own skin. She could not discount a summoner's words so easily. Despite her misgivings, she arranged an audience with Lord Mika. We laid bare what we knew, begging him to step down with honor intact, repudiate Seymour's vile deeds, and entrust Spira's welfare to a new generation." Isaaru shook his head. "The interview did not go well."

Auron snorted. "Yuna tried something similar."

"Summoners do not easily deviate from the path set by Yevon," Isaaru said. "My brothers, Baralai and I were arrested, held for mock-trial and execution. But that night, Shelinda released us from our cells and diverted the palace guards long enough for me to perform the sending."

"And then you claimed Mika's position."

"Not by design, whatever Baralai may say." The summoner gave an odd, strained laugh. "He sees too much of Seymour in me."

"So." Auron arched an eyebrow. "Why tell me now?"

"I needed to ask Shelinda. I have not yet spoken to Baralai, alas: I fear I've betrayed his trust to earn yours."

"Isaaru." Auron glanced out and tapped the door controls, sealing them in. Then he stepped in front of the keypad. "If you want my trust, there's one more thing I must know."

Isaaru wiped his eyes with his sleeve. "Yes?"

"What's wrong with you. The truth."

"Me?" He pushed away from the wall with a lurch, gesturing emphatically. "My brother dead, Yevon in shambles, my oldest aeon slated to be served up as Sin's appetizer, and you ask what's wrong with me?"

The guardian reached out and caught one of his wrists. He turned over his forearm to show the underside of his cuff. The edge was was stained with a fresh red smear over brown.

Isaaru glanced down at the blood and blanched, reaching for his cheek with his other hand. "Erinyes," he said finally. "The aeon Seymour used to massacre the Ronso: I have it now. But it was damaged during Sin's attack on Baaj. It's half-mad, Sir Auron. It thinks I am Seymour."

"What?" Auron started. "You can't use it, Isaaru."

"But if we must sacrifice Spathi— Zaon, I mean— it's the only weapon I have left!"

"Which Yu Yevon could turn against us."

"You don't know that!" Isaaru's face contorted. "Dammit, man, why do you believe in Sin and nothing else? She's been Yu Yevon's slave for thirteen years. Who knows what thoughts are her own? Or are you telling me she destroyed all those ships, the temples, Djose's Crusaders, Besaid Village of her own free will, just to avenge Lady Yuna? What kind of monster is she? I cannot think you would cherish such a person, nor that Lady Rikku would vouch for a cold-blooded murderer!"

"That's enough." Auron's fingers tightened until Isaaru hissed in pain.

"There, you see? You love, whether or no you'll admit it! Else you would have abandoned this poor excuse for a summoner and sought the Farplane already. Your love helps you endure, Sir Auron, but it binds your wisdom. The Lady has given you different answers at different times, has she not? Which should we choose to believe? I say the aeons are a threat to Yu Yevon. If we cannot destroy Sin with machina, Erinyes is our last hope! Mad she may be, but Seymour's mother was a Final Aeon, misused as a means to power. I shall turn her to her proper purpose, if I must."

"Then Pacce will be brotherless." Auron regarded him sternly until he saw the words sink in. "Come."

Massaging his wrist, Isaaru followed him out, across the guardians' antechamber and into the fayth's inner sanctum. The summoner relaxed as he stepped over the threshold, wading into the soothing hymn. He shuffled to the edge of the dais and knelt. The discipline of prayers and meditation might have been beyond him, but the fayth was already waiting for them.

"Isaaru. I'm glad you came." The small, hooded figure was sitting cross-legged upon the glassy lens that housed his statue. "I'm sorry about your brother."

"Thank you, old friend."

"Hello again," the spirit added to Sir Auron.

He grunted, planting himself by the door.

"Spathi—" It was the name the fayth had whispered to Isaaru when their souls merged; he did not flatter himself that he knew Zaon— "Do you know what we intend to do?"

"In part." The child tilted his head curiously. "Do you?"

"In part," Isaaru said, rueful. "The Lady will come for you soon. Since we cannot turn her, we must move you away from the city to save it. Then we lay a trap. Baralai has salvaged a machina from the ancient wars which we hope will be powerful enough to destroy Sin once and for all."

"Once," the fayth said, nodding. "But not for all. Yu Yevon has survived Sin's destruction six times now."

"What?" Isaau's voice quavered. "Is there no way to end this?"

The fayth turned his head, contemplating Sir Auron.

Auron stared back, frowning. "Yes?"

The spirit began to recite in a lilting singsong. "There he waited for her, and for one night only war was in abeyance. For then did Mars put off his shield and panoply to help renew her—"

Auron broke in with a snort. "Venus and Mars." It was the pagan text which Lulu had read aloud to him on that sultry night in Besaid, when their thoughts kept straying from the astrological keys needed to unlock certain weapons. It was disconcerting to hear it from a child's lips, but then, Zaon's childhood had ended a thousand years ago, along with innocence.

There was something else. What was it that Lulu had said back in Kilika, when Auron had nearly drowned trying to turn her away from the port?

"There's just one way I've found to keep Yu Yevon out for a while. One way...and it is a momentary diversion at most." Her lips twisted in a faint smile, self-deprecating, coolly amused. "None of them are you."

"So, I distract her," Auron said gruffly. "That provides a narrow window when Yu Yevon is blind. Then Vegnagun can strike."

"But if destroying Sin won't end Yu Yevon—" Isaaru began.

"Where is Yu Yevon?" Auron interrupted.

Isaaru's eyes widened. "Inside Sin? We must penetrate its shell?"

"Vegnagun can breach the hull. The rest is up to us. Your skill in sending may prove useful."

"Not if I send you again!"

Auron shrugged. "Get Yu Yevon, and it won't matter." It did matter, actually: he had unfinished business with Yunalesca. But if he could not stay to fulfill that task, he had a suspicion that someone else would see to it.

"A good plan." The fayth began to fade. "Don't take too long, Isaaru. Yu Yevon nearly controls Sin now. It will be difficult to fight him without her aid."

"I would rather have yours." Isaaru made a wistful motion with his hands. "I don't want to lose you, old friend. Isn't there some way to—"

"Please, Isaaru. Let us go." The fayth was no longer visible. "The Lady promised us an end. We're very tired. Will you release us?"

Isaaru drew his hands together in Yevon's prayer. "Forgive me, old friend. I was not thinking. We'll set you free."

Auron helped the man to his feet. The summoner's tears were his own now, thankfully: his cheeks were damp, but there was no fresh blood on them. They filed out of the chamber without a word.

Any chance for reflection was shattered by a lithe figure barreling across the hall. Rikku pounced Auron, latching onto his sleeve. "Sooo-oooo, what's the plan?"

Isaaru blinked. "Lady Rikku, what are you doing here?"

RIkku tugged on Auron's coat to punctuate her words. "Don't play dumb, Auron! You were up to something at the Council. You're always up to something. And you'd better be up to something, because if this whole thing is just an excuse to vaporize Lulu, you're gonna be doing it without Al Bhed help!"

Isaaru smiled weakly. "I believe we may have a plan to your liking, my lady. Sir Auron proposes to penetrate Sin's armor with Vegnagun, then confront Yu Yevon within. I take it this will be a rescue operation?"

"Oops." Rikku danced back, eyes darting towards Isaaru. "He wasn't supposed to know, was he?"

Auron looked grim. "It's the only way to defeat Yu Yevon, Isaaru. You heard the fayth."

"Fear not," Isaaru said. "If saving your friend helps save Spira, why should I object? Although I fear we'll find little left to save."

"Nah. She's still in there. Little Yunie got a message from her just two days ago." Rikku unclipped a spanner from her tool belt and brandished it. "All right. Let's get to work! Send down a crew to help me move some girders. Operation Mage Extraction, here we come!"


Half frozen, mashed into the cockpit hip to hip, Juno and Nooj had lost track of time, soaring in a thousand-year-old bubble. Juno's numb fingers beat out a spare melody of two-note intervals, more percussion than music. Meanwhile, Nooj was flying. Hated limbs forgotten, he spun in a barrel roll over the smoking remains of Bevelle's armies and let out a ragged bellow of triumph.

The simulation faded, leaving only the gray fog of dawn painting Juno's helm with rime.

"I enjoyed that far too much," Nooj said, breathing hard. "I hope Shuyin didn't leave a residue."

"Don't be modest." Grimacing, she reached for her helm, then stopped.

"I'm hardly going to avert my eyes at a scar," he said. "I need to know what I did to you."

"Shuyin." She exhaled and grasped the rim. "It was Shuyin." Peeling the helmet off, she shook loose a mane of silver-gray coming loose from a ponytail. Crimson eyes met his in silent challenge. The arch of one cheekbone was shattered, gouged by a deep furrow that showed bone at the back, scar tissue buckling at the edges like the weathered rim of the Calm Lands.

He reached out and traced her cheek just below the wound. Her face tightened.

He withdrew his hand at once. "Sorry."

"No. I just need you to promise me something." She picked her words with care as Vegnagun lurched underfoot. "Once this is over, we find a way to...send Vegnagun away. The Farplane. Anywhere."

"Agreed." He regarded her steadily. "Juno. I'm Al Bhed now. Machina are just tools. Not taboo. Not religion. Not a part of us."

"That's what I needed to hear." She leaned towards him, gripping the straps across his chest.

Their lips were cold when they met, but neither seemed to notice.


Chapter Text

"There. That should do it." Nooj hesitated, his hand poised over a blue hemisphere bolted to the console. "Baralai. I still think you should go back. If this fails, I'd rather not be responsible for the death of Bevelle's chief administrator."

"And leave you alone with Vegnagun? Not a chance." Baralai leaned forward, stroking a somber series of notes to weave a protective bubble around them. "Punch it."

"All right." A low bleeping started when he pressed the switch. Nooj hunkered down, bracing himself against the sidewall while Baralai played on. "You still don't trust me, do you?"

The maester frowned, brow knitted in concentration. "I've gotten out of the habit, Nooj. Even those I trust go behind my back."

Nooj smiled grimly. "She'll watch your back even when you don't want it. Especially then."

"I suppose you would know better than I." His voice sounded brittle.

The bleeping was rising in pitch. The cockpit began to vibrate. The lake boomed and cracked as Vegnagun pitched forward, tearing its feet free of the ice.

"Hang on," Nooj said. "Phase in ten seconds...five...four...three...two—"

There was a roar, a violent downwards lurch, and the sickening sensation of plunging through solid matter. Nooj and Baralai were enveloped in a sphere of unreality mediated by Vegnagun's awareness. Cometary plumes wailed around them with the voices of lost souls. Spira's surface unrolled overhead at a furious pace. They dodged the deep roots and bottomless pools of Macalania Forest, burrowed beneath pitted bedrock whose surface was crawling with lightning's discharge.

"Sin!" Baralai shouted, or thought: they were the same thing in this in-between state.

"What! Where?"

"This must be what it's like!"

Swimming under the iron foundations of lightning rod towers, Vegnagun began to pick up speed as if some tidal force were sweeping it forward. Nooj and Baralai sensed a yawning chasm rushing to meet them, a hole ripped in the very fabric of space. Rafts of pyreflies seemed to be flowing into it along invisible lines of force.

"Guadosalam," Baralai said. "The Farplane."

"Not yet," Nooj snapped. He strained against the mental interface, trying to regain control of navigation. Before he could wrest back the helm from Vegnagun, the machina exploded upwards through rock and vegetation into open air, stinging rain. A titanic bolt struck just behind them, blinding them momentarily.

Then they were out of the storm, plunging into a sickly green haze at the southern rim of the Thunder Plains. Shadowy forms hurtled past: shattered trunks and masses of vines piled into mountainous heaps like driftwood cast upon the shore. There was a crash of splintering wood. Vegnagun ground to a halt, claws plowing through spurs of old trees. With a final shudder, the machina hissed and settled. The fog reduced its lamps to dim, bilious spheres of dirty light.

Visibility was almost nil, but they seemed to have landed in a humpy wasteland of deadwood and tree-stumps of tremendous girth. Above, the fog thinned to drifting clumps. Ahead, the ground dropped away into a vast bowl filled with soupy brownish-green haze. Gnarled creepers the size of Shoopuf legs spilled over the crater's rim and disappeared. Pyreflies kettled up from below. There was a musty stench of fungus and rotting wood, but unlike a living jungle, there was no scent of green, growing things. Here and there, the pyreflies reflected off bits of colored glass strewn across the landscape. Those shards were the only trace of the Guado's ancient home.

"Charming spot," Nooj said. "Any idea why Lucil chose it?"

Baralai shuddered. "It's uninhabited now, thanks to Sin," he said. "Better than risking the evacuation camps in the Calm Lands."

Shinra's disembodied voice reached them through a crackle of static. "The fog may conceal our operations. Plus, there's easy access to the Farplane."

Nooj smiled. "You still with us, kid?"

"Affirmative. My sensors show you've parked right on top of my homing beacon."

"You're a genius," Nooj said. "The autopilot worked perfectly."

"Of course."

Baralai played a few sharp notes. A bowl-shaped map of the area materialized around them, complete with miniature flashes of lightning spattering the plain to the north. "Shinra. Have you dropped a beacon through the Farplane Gateway?"

"Yes, but I haven't activated it yet. Didn't want you locking onto the wrong one."

"Good thinking," Nooj said.

Gippal piped up from somewhere. "You two playin' nice? Nobody shooting anybody?"

"Not funny," Nooj and Baralai said in unison. They eyed each other as Gippal's laughter blasted out the link.

"What's your status?" Baralai said.

"We've dropped off the statue," Shinra said. "Elder Cid and Rikku are stowing the loaders. We'll move out as soon as the summoner's aboard."

"I'm parked outside," Gippal said. "I'm ready if you need to bail."

"There won't be much margin for error," Baralai said. "Please be careful."

"Trust me, Bar, I'll be in and outta there faster'n Sin can sneeze," Gippal said. "By the way. Juno told me to tell you guys to watch yourselves. She expects you back in one piece. I don't think you wanna be crossin' that gal."

"Thanks," Nooj said. "I hope we can oblige."

Baralai said nothing, suddenly preoccupied with the scanners.

Gippal listened to dead air for a few beats before closing the link. He leaned back and propped his feet on the hover's windscreen. "I think Bar's still pissed at you for letting Nooj handle that junk heap."

"He'd be even more pissed if he knew I was here." Juno peered through the murk. The dingy glow of Vegnagun's lights shone some ways off, on a level below the sheared-off stump where they were perched. A bent, white-haired figure began to coalesce at the edge of her field of vision. She averted her eyes with a scowl. Guadosalam was gone, but the Farplane ghosts lingered.

"Tellin' me. I'm surprised you and Lucil and Commander Choco-buns all came out for the party. No offense, but I've known Hypello potions with more wits than Shelinda."

"Don't underestimate her. We'd never have gotten the city evacuated in time if she hadn't spent the last five years prepping us for a Sin attack."

"Okay, okay." He raised his hands. "I'm just sayin'. Who's gonna keep Yevon together-- and off our Al Bhed butts-- if Sin takes out all of you guys?"

"Maester Lucil will be observing at a distance with Elder Cid. That should minimize the danger to essential personnel." She frowned. "Except for Baralai, and we need him to control Vegnagun."

"Essential, eh? Gee, thanks." Gippal cocked his head. "How'd you talk him into letting Nooj drive, anyway?"

"I gave him three choices: take Nooj, take me, or fight me... and if he lost, I'd smash Vegnagun into a cliff."

"Ha." He grinned. "Same old Dr. P."

"It's Juno."

"Yeah, whatever. C'mon, lighten up! This is what we trained for with the Squad, remember? Beat Sin, save the world, win everlasting glory, get laid—"

"End of discussion."

"Hey, I saw you and Noojster makin' eyes at each other—"

"End. of. Discussion."

Gippal groaned. "Man, I knew I should've brought Rikku along."

"Just...don't do anything stupid, okay?" Rikku cringed at a thunderclap but stood her ground. "You won't be much help to anybody if you're dead!" She glared at Auron as he began to chuckle softly.

"Rikku, get your butt in here, now!" Cid's bellow echoed down through the airship's cargo doors.

Auron met her eyes, bidding a silent farewell. "You should go. Sin may be here at any time."

"Yeah, well, if she takes too long, we'll drop off some sandwiches for ya." She stood on tiptoe, giving him a peck on the cheek. "See ya soon." With a parting wink, she trotted off towards Gippal's airship.

He returned his attention to the two brothers. Pacce was keeping watch while Isaaru prayed. The fayth's statue lay on its side in a shallow crater filled with rainwater, illuminated by a soft golden glow. Ferns and dark leaves spilled around it. Tendrils of fog creeping out from the dead forest seemed to shrink from its aura.

Pacce noticed Auron's scrutiny and straightened self-consciously. "Sir?"

"Guarding Isaaru is your responsibility." He drew his sword, resting its point against the ground. "My focus will be on Sin. Understood?"

The boy nodded, hollow-eyed but determined. "Yessir."

Pacce did not know it, but his presence here was due to Auron's intervention. He hoped he would not have one more death weighing on his conscience, but he could not leave the boy behind, any more than he could have left Tidus to his faux existence in Zanarkand.

"If you order him to stay, Isaaru, he will live the rest of his life knowing that you had faith in Maroda, not in him."

"But he could be killed!"

"Do you think he could live, blaming himself for one or both your deaths?"

Auron raised his voice. "Isaaru. It's time."

Pacce had to shake Isaaru to rouse him. The summoner rose stiffly, wiping mud from his knees. Blood mixed with rain trickled down his cheeks, but he was smiling. "Forgive me. My first fayth. I needed to say goodbye."

"You need to leave."

"Yes." Isaaru bowed to him in Yevon's formal blessing. "Good luck, Sir Auron. When Sin falls, wait for us. This is one battle you cannot fight alone."

Auron grunted a vague assent.

Draping an arm around Pacce's shoulders, Isaaru turned and trudged towards the airship. Suddenly Pacce gave a choking cry. A dark-skinned man was standing in the shadow of the ramp, leaning on his spear.

"It's an illusion," Auron said. "He's not there. The pyreflies are mirroring your thoughts."

"But--" Pacce stared longingly at the all-too-familiar figure.

"Come." Isaaru's voice was steady. "We'll take it as a sign. Our brother is watching over us from afar." Patting Pacce's shoulder, he marched up the ramp, right past Maroda's transparent likeness. Echo or mirage, it took no notice of them.

Auron turned back to watch the northern horizon. The ramp slammed shut with a bang: some of Shinra's repairs needed fine-tuning. Soon the engines roared to life. Rain blew sideways, then resumed its steady patter as the Crimson Avenger lifted, wheeled and headed south over the ruins of Old Guadsalam. Auron was left alone in the rain, listening to the constant rumor of thunder.

Here, too, Sin's handiwork was evident. Behind him were the looming eaves of the dead forest. Beyond its stranglehold of groping roots, a carpet of ferns and ivy spilled out across the Thunder Plains, pocked by fresh lightning scars and patches of ash. Even the bases of the towers were sheathed in scorched vines and living leaves.

A child's voice brushed his mind. Isaaru. He's a good man.

Auron was not alone after all. A small, ghostly figure was sitting on the lip of the crater, legs dangling in the pool. The fayth's bare feet made no ripples.

The guardian shrugged. They needed a good summoner, not a kindly soul. In retrospect, Dona might have been the better choice.

Believe in him. He believes in you.

"Hmph." Auron shook his head. "Naiveté is common among summoners."

Perhaps. What did the Lady give you?

For a moment, the non sequitur did not register. Then Auron drew his left hand from his coat. The brown scar was still there. In Sin's dream-world, the burnt flesh had formed the signs of his own name. Out here, the glyphs branded into his palm spelled two words: Oath Keeper. Cool rain soothed the burn but could not quench it. Pain's clarity cut through the stupefying chant of the pyreflies whispering in the back of his mind: Faithbreaker. Friendslayer. Fallen Knight...

"Auron," he said, clenching his hand into a fist. It hurt, but it was a useful reminder of body and purpose.

Precisely.

Ten, fifteen minutes ticked by. Auron kept scanning the clouds, letting his mind rest on the gentle susurrus of the rain. It might be the last time he heard it.

She is coming.

"How long?" Tucking his hand back into his coat, Auron searched the northern horizon. Lightning fit for Sin's current mistress laced half the sky.

Soon.

The Avenger lurched into motion just as Isaaru and Pacce emerged onto the flight deck. Cid swore and threw the steering yoke hard over, banking sharply to miss a lightning tower. The brothers were flung against the wall. So was Elma, standing in the nose of the cockpit next to Lucil.

"Easy there, Pops," Rikku said, tucked into the gunner's bubble. "This rig doesn't have seatbelts."

"Y'all in one piece back there?" Cid said, leveling out.

"Ow." Elma picked herself up, massaging a shoulder. "You okay, ma'am?"

"Yes." White-knuckled, the maester was gripping the sides of the navigator's console: it had saved her from a fall. "Isaaru?"

"Undamaged, milady." Isaaru stood with Pacce's help. "What news?"

"V-Team is priming weapons," Lucil said. "G-team is on standby. I gather Sir Auron refused to join us?"

Isaaru nodded. "He's convinced he can distract Sin for a short time. That should give Baralai one clear shot."

Cid snorted. "More guns, less guesses."

"He d-did it in Kilika," Pacce said.

"Very well." Lucil clung tightly to her station as Cid executed another shallow turn, rising up over the fog. "Meanwhile, Commander Elma has a request."

Elma saluted. "Reporting for guardian duty, sir!"

Isaaru blinked. "I thought you were returning to Djose, Commander."

"Yeah, well." She raised her eyes and stared out across the landscape. Past the dead zone of Guadosalam, past the green forests beyond it, the broad silver ribbon of the Moonflow meandered southeast, spanning the horizon. Somewhere on the far side lay the Djose coast. "Gippal's offered to give me a lift home when this is all over. I can't let the warrior monks get all the glory, now, can I?" She winked at Pacce.

"The Crusaders have opposed Sin for eight hundred years," Lucil said. "It seems fitting that one of us should strike a blow on behalf of all those who have fallen."

Isaaru hesitated, then bowed. "We would be honored, Commander."

"Cool!" Pacce sounded relieved.

"Thank you, sir!" Elma's eager salute brought a strained smile to the general's face.

"We've got contact." Shinra poked a button, projecting his scanner's display onto the forward screens. "Sin sighting. ETA fifteen minutes."

Rikku craned her neck, looking anxiously at the red diamond streaking down the map. "Whoa. Looks like she's in a hurry!"

"Good." Cid set the ship into park and folded his arms. "Time to see what this Vegna-whoosit can do."

Auron waited impassively. His sword-hand was tingling. The blade's edge was limned by a faint blue nimbus, the sailors' signal that Sin was near.

Above the plain, black thunderheads were churning in a boiling vortex. Pillars of lightning were leaping skywards from Bilghen's towers, converging on the turbulence in vibrating spokes. They began to weave a spherical cage, merging into a bubble of white light. Inside, a menacing shape was descending rapidly through the clouds.

Goodbye, Sir Auron, the fayth said with Braska-like serenity.

The world exploded.

Chapter Text


No one on the flight deck had spoken since Cid's low whistle. All eyes were fixed on the forward windows, where Shinra's scanners were projecting a grainy image of Auron and the fayth's statue through a film of rain and static. Past the display, they could see rank upon rank of thunderheads massing across the northern half of the sky. Sin was hidden by the clouds, but barbs of lightning were leaping towards it from the spire of every tower, forming a vast sizzling canopy.

Lucil had risen from her seat, one hand braced against the console, the other digging into Elma's arm.

Elma surreptitiously cupped her hands in Yevon's prayer, drawing a thin smile from the maester.

Rikku was leaning forward, nervously drumming her fingers on the gun controls.

Inexorably, all the strands of lightning contracted together like the spokes of thundaga magnified a thousandfold. The scanner's display went white. A blinding flash lit the Thunder Plains from end to end. Even at this distance, the gash of lightning splitting the sky from Sin's snout to the ground looked enormous.

Rikku gave a cry. "Auron!"

Isaaru blanched and pressed a fist over his heart. "Spathi."

Static obscured the viewscreen for a few seconds, then cleared. There was a new blackened crater where the statue had been. Steam curled up from the smoking ground. Auron was nowhere in sight.

"Damnfool thing to do, standing right in the bull's eye," said Cid.

"Not Sir Auron," Pacce breathed.

"Shinra," Lucil said grimly. "Signal V-team to begin their attack."

"Wait!" Isaaru said. "Sir Auron knew what he was doing. Give him time."

A loud boom shook the bridge, followed by a fading rumble: it had taken that long for the sound to reach them.

"Are you crazy?" Cid twisted in his seat, scowling at the summoner. "The man's a cinder. I reckon there ain't enough left to fill a shot glass."

"Shut up, Pops." Rikku's voice was muffled; her face was buried in her hands between her knees.

"I shall believe it when I see it." The summoner raised his voice. "Lady Rikku. Sir Auron has survived encounters with Sin before. This is what he expected to happen."

"He's a doofus." From the sound of it, Rikku was crying.

"Vegnagun's main cannon takes a while to fire anyway," Shinra said. "There's a twenty minute lag to build up the power."

"Oh, great. And you were gonna mention this when, exactly?" Elma said.

"I just did."

"Very well. Tell Lord Baralai: begin." Lucil released her vice-grip on Elma's arm, patting it in oblique apology. "And may Yevon have mercy on us all."

Lightning's wrack was already fading when Auron awoke on a bed of wet leaves. The lush scents of humus and jungle plants and sea-tang were almost overpowering. The trees around him were netted by thick flowering vines bearing azure blossoms larger than his head. A few yards away, root and vine and jungle's detritus changed to sloping sand, gray and colorless in the pre-dawn.

Yet this was Spira, the true Spira they had loved and died for, and very little of it was colorless.

The sky was dusky lavender, pink and saffron to the east. Besaid's harbor glittered below, undefiled. Beyond its fringe of foam and glassy waves lipping the sand, the water was an astonishing dark green. Its depths held other jewel-tones: carmine, pale yellow and purple corals still glowing faintly where night's shadows had not yet lifted. Darting flashes between them were small fish.

The forest sang with crickets and the chatter of waking birds. Surf breathed and sighed.

Lulu's extravagances tended towards flare more often than flowers. Auron felt for his sword.

Standing, he slung the blade across his back and slogged down the beach. Warm water seeped into his boots as he stepped out onto the reef. Coral and mussels crunched underfoot. Seaweed dragged at his legs. The air was clean, salt-kissed, as pure as if Yevon and Sin had never been born. He forced himself to go slowly and mind his footing, although his pulse quickened for the sight he expected to find.

Lulu was not there. Her chains remained, rooted firmly in a bed of anemones, but the manacles were sprung. Seawater was already beginning to reclaim them. Barnacles crusted the links. The metal was corroding fast.

Auron frowned. His palm was itching again. On a hunch, he opened his hand and glanced down to see what the glyphs might show.

Mars.

Of course. It was the part he had come to play, after all. So where—?

And Venus born of sea-foam renewed her virginity each year, bathing in the waves by the grotto where first she had come ashore.

"Ah." He lifted his eyes, scanning the shoreline.

There. Veils of mist were drifting over the entrance to a small inlet to the right of the main lagoon, separated from it by a heel of land jutting out from the low cliffs. He was no swimmer, and saw no way to reach it save by toiling back to shore and making a laborious trek inland to find a way down. But this was not Besaid, only its echo, subject to the Lady's whim.

Auron raised his left hand in a salute, displaying her calling card etched in his palm. "Mars seeks an audience," he said, voice ringing across the water.

There was a quiet splash. Out of the mist glided a low wooden boat like those the fisher-folk used, save that its beams were bleached bone-white. It turned towards him, barely rocking on the gentle waves. Auron lunged aboard as it skimmed past. The vessel wheeled slowly on an invisible eddy and turned back whence it came.

The mist changed to a pale golden-pink as the boat plunged into it. Auron glimpsed rose petals bobbing on the water, flowering vines floating out onto the surface in dark green rafts. Then the mist cleared to reveal a small, secret cove walled in on three sides by limestone cliffs. The keel slid up onto white sand and stuck fast. Auron stepped out. A trail of small, fresh footprints led up the beach. Giant conches, clams, and huge butterfly-winged shells were cast here and there like driftwood. He started walking.

At the back of the cove, the bluffs had been deeply undermined to form a grotto. Creepers of fragrant jasmine came tumbling down across its mouth in a living curtain of white flowers. They matched the gleaming figure within. His breath caught, as expected.

Teasing was also expected. "Should I be honored, or do you wear this face for all Sin's favorites?"

Lulu was reclining on a shell-shaped throne of horn and ivory, seated sideways with one leg draped over the rim. A diaphanous gown fell from her limbs in cascading folds that were practically transparent, still dripping from her dip in the sea. Dark hair spilled everywhere, pink coral and bits of sea-glass tangled in its waves. Her fishnet stockings were no longer black, but silver; her necklaces had become strings of pearls and abalone. Garlands of flowers were strewn about with artful carelessness, the one across her lap providing more modesty than her dress. There were living flowers too: blood-red roses, poppies, orchids and bleeding hearts filling the grotto around her, sprouting from bare rock and barren sand.

It occurred to him that whoever had coined the term "bed of roses" must not have tried sleeping on them.

Lulu raised a finger and beckoned him with a haughty come hither smile.

He shook his head and came forward, ducking under the hanging canopy and dropping to one knee. Gathering her hands and raising them to his lips, he glanced down to inspect them more closely. Her wrists were red, rubbed raw, the only blemish on goddess-like perfection: but the shackles had vanished.

Foreboding prickled the back of his neck as she reached for the clasps of his breastplate. Auron pushed her hands away, ignoring the enticing distraction of her body's ripe curves as she leaned forward. "Your chains?"

Smiling, she slid her fingers into the openings of his armor and drew him towards her, lips parted in silent invitation.

Auron stiffened. Thirteen years they had waited, and yet he found himself temporizing. "Lulu. Talk to me."

Her voice stole into his mind, an alluring caress. "...and for one night only war was in abeyance. For then did Mars put off his shield and panoply..."

Smooth fingers stroked his bare shoulder and arm. Auron flinched. Her touch burned. She had sometimes used magic in devious ways to tease bare skin with ice and heat. This was painful even without magic's kiss behind it. Auron felt a wave of heat flood through him as if life's blood had actually poured back into his veins. He had expected a courtly ritual, another of Lulu's coy games to thwart Yu Yevon while they enjoyed a bittersweet reunion, but suddenly fiend's primal urges were gnawing at his self-control.

He wrenched away just as violet lips brushed his own, awakening cravings he had thought dead. "Stop. Enough."

She arched an eyebrow at him. Auron gripped her jaw with his gauntlet. Even that protection could not entirely fend off the siren's call of her flesh through metal and cloth.

"I did not come here for Yevon, Sin, Venus, or any other lie! I came here for Lulu. Where is she?" Even as he snarled the question, despair crept over him. Most likely, this was Lulu: all that was left of her. He had simply come too late.

Her eyes flashed. Auron backed away, leaping to his feet. As he drew his sword, Lulu rose from her chair like Sin bursting from the depths, towering over him, an implacable figure of feminine beauty shorn of the greater beauty within. Black ribbons of hair snaked around his arms and legs. Cursing himself for carelessness, he hacked at groping tendrils. More kept coming faster than he could slice through them. The wind was picking up. A helmet-sized shell whirled past his ear like a blitzball and smashed against the cliff. Yu Yevon had laid a trap. He needed to get away.

There is no escape. Our fates are bound. Her voice in his mind was chilling, remote, hypnotic. Mars and Venus shall join. The Three Sisters shall be as gnats compared to the might of the Lord and Lady. We shall be Sin Eternal, in Yevon's name.

Suddenly he was in two places at once. In the Lady's grotto, he was struggling against dark bands wrapping around his arms, legs and neck like belts of leather. A green wave was building, thundering towards the narrow cove. Out on the Thunder Plains, lightning was leaping to meet him. A shield of energy was building around him— it— Sin— for a cataclysmic shock-wave aimed at a vague knot of menace lurking in the fog-lands to the south. He was Sin, he was a fortress, he was Spira itself, the axis around which the spiral turned—

"Auron, break free! Go. I'll hold back as long as I can."

Dimly he became aware of another will beside his own, struggling like a fish in a net. Relief washed over him. "No. Help me find you. You don't have to fight this battle alone."

With an effort of will, Auron freed his arms for a swing. The sword crashed down on the Lady's throne, cleaving it in two. The ground broke beneath it. Sin's vision of the Thunder Plains vanished. The crushing wall of water rolled over him, picked him up and flung him against the back of the grotto. He was drowning. With his last coherent thought, he wondered whether unsent could die in dreams.

Chapter Text

"Hey, Bar, how's it coming?" Gippal called over the link. "That's one hell of a big cannon."

"Eight minutes," Nooj said. "Cut the chatter. Baralai's having a hard time getting target lock. Vegnagun's itching to blast everything in sight."

"Well, tell him to hurry up!" Cid interjected. "Sin's moving this way, and that energy shield's fixin' to blow!"

"Shut...up." Sweat shone on Baralai's brow as his fingers swam across the keys, pounding out a chaotic scale. The volume was building. So too were the vibrations in Vegnagun's frame. Arcs of energy circled the outside of the cockpit like a dynamo, skittering along the barrel of the main cannon extruding from the machina's torso. "Nooj, raise the nose ten degrees."

An eardrum-popping concussion buffeted the air. All the fog sheared away. Laid bare to the sky, they could see Sin's monstrous shadow bearing down on them through the clouds. The globe of energy around it was beginning to coalesce into a pulsing fist, gathering a maelstrom of light dead ahead.

"Baralai," Nooj said, easing Vegnagun back on its haunches, tracking the enemy's approach.

"I know," he said. "Nooj, fall back to the south side of the crater. Cid, Gippal, get out of the way. Seven minutes."

Ice needles pricked Auron back to consciousness. His trousers, his gauntlet, even his hair were frozen and stiff. His face was numb. He was lying on his back in a snowdrift, deeply buried. Nevertheless he laughed. He half expected Ronso pups to start dragging him out by the boots for another round of lessons, one more bout with their all-too-breakable guardian. His lungs ached when he sucked in frigid air, but it was an ache as familiar as his eye's scar. He trusted it more than Besaid's perfect blue skies.

Rising, he nearly tripped over a sword thrust into the snow. Black chains linked it to another sword standing nearby, and another, all of them linked in a circle like the posts of a child's carousel. More heavy chains formed spokes radiating from a central hub, which was...

Lulu. She stood like one more sword, straight and defiant, buried to the knees. A tangled mesh of black straps, barbed metal and rusted buckles encased her from the neck down. A leather band covered her eyes. Another twisted her arms behind her back. Her wild mass of hair was hopelessly snarled in the eight chains stretched from sword-hilts to iron hoops cutting into her upper arms, wrists, calves, hips, ribcage and throat. The snow around her legs was stained red. To add insult to injury, the weapons staking her to the mountainside were swords that he had once wielded: Chaos Blade. Beastmaster. Blurry Moon. Shiranui. Kotetsu. Murasame. Masamune.

Auron knew the cruel vision might be another trap, but if so, this lure was more effective than the last.

"Lulu." He hurried towards her, stepping over the chains. Fleeting contact with one made him stagger: a powerful jolt of electricity had shot through his ankle. He snatched his hand away from another chain that burned.

I believe I may have annoyed him. So she had said during their last encounter in the Via Purifico: how many days ago? How many hours, minutes, seconds? Realization struck with the same bitter rage that had possessed him when he saw Yu Yevon sinking into Braska's final aeon. Then as now, he wanted to lash out, but a friend's body stood in the way.

It took nearly a minute to edge his way into the center of the web. He wasted more time fumbling with her blindfold. The buckles were coated with rime. His fingers numbed instantly. The ice-caked seal would not break.

Lulu shook her head and leaned against him. Auron could feel every quiver and jerk of her taut muscles resisting unseen blows. Her breaths came in ragged gulps, then stopped altogether. She stiffened, waited, and exhaled slowly through her nose. It was the only thing she could still control, he realized: she was refusing to make a sound. He held her, swallowing bile while he surveyed her prison cell for weak points.

Remember, guardian, your power is to break things...and to free them.

The fayth who gave him that advice perished soon after, but there was no better plan. Auron stooped to whisper, "I'm ending this. Now." It was vital that she believe.

Even simple promises were difficult. Severing her chains with a blade would yank her like a fish on a hook. He would have to shoulder some of the burden. Bracing himself, he knelt in the snow by one of the swords, leaning the hilt against his shoulder and grasping the links firmly in both hands. A downward snap broke the chain across the sharp edge like a wire-cutter. Pulses of dark magic scourged him as he moved around the circle: frostbite, poison, flare... One spell ceased each time he broke a segment, but the pain was quickly sapping his strength, his will. It grew harder and harder to make himself take hold of the next chain. The rushing in his ears drowned out Lulu's harsh breaths. His vision tunneled.

A memory gripped him: crawling down Mt. Gagazet, broken and dying. After twenty-three years of putting one foot in front of the other, he was almost back where he had started.

Blinded, he found Masamune's outlandish shape by feel. Ultima's shockwave wrenched him from the inside out. He endured a second wave and a third as he struggled to snap the last tether. On the fifth try, the chain exploded, scattering links like shrapnel from one of Rikku's grenades. Panting, he sank to the snow until the poison and his vision cleared.

His voice rasped. "I don't think much of your tailor."

A strained smile touched her mouth and faded.

He crawled to her side and sat upright, kissing the only bare skin within reach: her knuckles. "Your garden," he said. "It's warmer. Take us there."

There was a sharp clack. The shackles around her wrists popped open.

Auron's expression softened. "As you wish." Not idle words, here.

He peeled off the manacles with delicate care, wincing at the blood welling up through crusted scabs, and unwound the thick leather strap binding her arms together. He had to clear away snow to reach her legs. She clung to his shoulders when he lifted her out and laid her gently on his coat. Then he prowled over her in a wordless ritual, kissing away chains and fetters that burst apart at his touch. When he reached her neck, there was a shimmering jingle as all the links caught in her hair let go at once. Sighing, she raised a hand and pressed two fingers against his mouth.

He nodded, understanding. She reached back to unbuckle the belts around her head. The leather stuck to her skin, but he waited for her to pick it loose with her fingernails. Beneath the blindfold, there were bruises under her eyes. Her complexion was almost sallow without cosmetics. Yet the relief in her face as she flung away the last restraint was painfully beautiful.

"Well done," he said.

"I had help," she said primly.

"You're welcome."

There was a moment's hesitation: doubt or disbelief had her staring up at him, searching. She lifted a hand tentatively to ruffle his hair, mute acknowledgement of the burdens that had turned it white. "Foolish," she whispered. "You shouldn't have come alone. I might have—"

"Killed me?"

"Well. Not that, at least." She gave a wistful smile.

Then she was lunging, fingers tugging weakly at his collar, pulling him down. This time there was no siren's allure, and he was glad to surrender. It was hardly a fairy-tale kiss. Her lips were cold and chapped, and he was more monk than prince. But there was magic in a weary embrace— elation and despair and old passion and fond regrets— power enough, perhaps, to make Sin stand still. For once, there was no greater duty demanding their attention. Auron kissed her until the tears came. He could not be sure that all of them were hers.

Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed a change in their surroundings. The snow was melting. Tilted gravestones, tattered ferns and brambles covered with rose hips were pushing up through it.

Finally, reluctantly, she pulled away. "You've got to leave. Yu Yevon wants to collect you. I almost gave in."

"But you didn't."

"Not quite." She sat up, gripping her face as if she wanted to tear off her own cheekbones. "But I will. Soon. Please, go." She spoke with resigned calm. "It was good to see you again, Auron."

"Hush." He slipped his hands under hers, stroking her cheeks with his thumbs. "There's one way to keep Yu Yevon out of your mind, correct? We need to put it to the test."

"What, now?" She gave a weak laugh. "Auron, this is hardly—"

"It's time." His stomach clenched: this was too much like one of Yevon's deceits, using her faith in him as a trap. He leaned close, planting a kiss between her brows. "Trust me."

The Avenger was diving in a last-ditch attempt to avoid Sin's shockwave. Its passengers were clinging to whatever support they could find, staring anxiously at the muddy expanse of the Moonflow rushing up to meet them. Shinra's clipped report was nearly lost in the engines' roar.

"Shield's failing."

A looming image of Sin appeared on the forward displays. The flickering ball of energy around it was collapsing like a pricked balloon. When it vanished, Sin slowed to a halt over the edge of the dead forest. The only sign of movement was the loathsome cluster of eyes swiveling wildly on its snout.

"He's done it!" Pacce said.

"They've done it," said Rikku.

Cid leveled off and slapped a button. "You boys see that? There's your clear shot!"

"Stand by," Nooj said. "Preparing to fire."

Ferns and clumps of asphodel had sprung up around them in a somber canopy, as if Lulu were trying to draw a blanket over them. The darkness deepened as Auron applied his last few potions to the lacerations and welts mottling her skin. Wasteful, perhaps, but it was easier to couch calculated seduction in soothing touches. Mending a serrated red line around her throat, he tried not to imagine what Vegnagun was about to do to her.

She stretched under him, almost relaxed. Her fingers pattered against his right biceps. "You've still got your sword handy, right?"

He grunted, eyes narrowing at the question.

"Good. I woke up to find a marlboro on my head!" She tugged at the snarls of dark hair twining around her shoulders. "I must look frightful."

He smirked, relaxing. Glimmers of vanity were probably a good sign. "Sin doesn't need a hairdresser."

"Yes, but I am trying to be Lulu," she growled. "It's hard to remember, you know."

"I know," he said. A light kiss sealed the work half-finished: Yuna's magic would not have left a scar. "Which reminds me. There's something I've been meaning to ask you."

It was her turn to flinch. "Hm?"

"What's a panoply?"

Lulu's startled ripple of laughter felt like a victory. "Oh, Auron. It's this." She rapped her knuckles against his armored chest.

"I read somewhere that it's supposed to come off."

Her breath caught. "Then I had better do it, because I doubt you remember how." Her fingers sought the seam under his left arm, flipping catches with old familiarity.

Abruptly she tensed. There was no time to inquire before she gave a hoarse cry, reared back and punched his chest with both hands as if she were trying to push him straight through the ground.

Which, in fact, she was. He was falling again, plunging through earth and metal and bone and some foul substance that smelled like viscera. Suddenly he was expelled from Sin's carapace, hurtling through open sky. He just had time to curl into a ball, dimly aware of a silver bubble of energy around him, before he struck the ground. The impact should have broken bones, but Sin's shield had cushioned him.

He lay on his back, winded and stunned, trying to make sense of what had just happened. Directly overhead, Sin's bulk stood starkly against the sky, a horny mass of ridges and scales bathed in a searing glare like the sun. Then the world went white in a thunderous roar. A horrific scream followed, as if every fiend from Baaj to Zanarkand was wailing in unison. He shielded his eyes, squinting into the light. The lower third of the monster had vaporized, two haunches and most of the tail. What was left of Sin canted slowly on its side, writhing and howling as it began to sink. Sinscales started raining down. Scooping up his sword (and thanking the Lady that she had remembered it, even in that split second), Auron began to run.

"Perfect," Nooj said, standing to peer out at the awesome devastation. "It's a good thing there's nothing in that direction. That blast tore through Sin like it was paper."

"It's not dead, Nooj," Baralai said, tightlipped. "We wounded it, but that's all."

"That's enough. Sir Auron said we only need to breach the hull. He and Isaaru can take it from here."

"So they say. But there's no guarantee they'll—"

There was a groaning upheaval. Nooj fell backwards, nearly toppling over the back rail. The ground began to fall away as Vegnagun rumbled towards Sin: slowly at first, but rapidly gaining momentum.

"Vegnagun seems to agree with you," Nooj said, climbing back into the jury-rigged seat bolted next to Baralai's. "What's the plan?"

"Guys?" Juno's voice crackled over the link. "Don't do this."

"Juno?" Baralai's head snapped up. "You're supposed to be protecting Bevelle!"

"I am. Bevelle's in big trouble if we lose you. Fall back and recharge the main gun. If Vegnagun decides it's in danger—"

"It already has," Nooj said. "It's initiated an attack run. I've got to take helm now, or the autopilot's going to shut me out. Talk later."

"Dammit," Baralai said, sagging in his chair. "I should court-martial her when this is over."

"I'm sure she knows that." Nooj banked gently to one side, altering their head-on course for a wide pass. "Now focus. Bring the secondary guns online. When you're ready, I'll try a strafing pass." He smiled. "Here's your chance, Baralai. Make the most of it."

Chapter Text

 

The Thunder Plains were becalmed while Guadosalam rocked with thunder.

No living person in Spira had ever seen Sin like this: sinking, impotent, flailing in sluggish rage, lashing out with tepid lightning and feeble shock-waves that buffeted but could not shake pursuit. Vegnagun was surprisingly agile for its size, harrying and tearing Sin's back as it fell. Fiends and burning fragments rained down on the deadlands.

Above the struggle, Baralai was locked in a lover's embrace with Vegnagun's controls, miming every attack. He drew a rolling scale up the keys: a white-hot barrage of energy peppered Sin's upper hull. A cluster of base notes sent the tail swiping across its eyes, following the blow with a red beam of light that pierced shell and bone. Even thundaga, the Lady's favored element, was turned on its former mistress. Lightning leapt from Sin to Vegnagun and back again, chaining them together in a rippling lattice of sparks.

Nooj was piloting. Diving past Sin's flank, he dug into a steep turn that pressed them against their seats. Vegnagun roared back up through the yellow haze in a corkscrew spin, bursting out behind their prey. Baralai whooped and emptied the missile bank into the breach left by the main cannon.

"Don't forget it can kill us," Nooj said, but he was smiling.

"First it has to catch us," said Baralai.

"Good going, guys!" Rikku called over the open channel. "Now break off. We're coming to deliver the package."

"Negative. We've not finished yet," Baralai said, sweeping his hands together. A sphere of energy began forming between Vegnagun's tusks.

"Whoa, whoa, whoa!" Rikku said. "If you blow up Sin, Yu Yevon could jump anywhere! Let Isaaru and Sir Auron tackle the guy inside."

"If you find Sir Auron alive, please let us know," Baralai said. "Otherwise, we're taking Sin out."


"Stupid blockheaded Yevonite." Rikku kicked her feet against the glass. "Hey, Lucil, talk sense into him. He's sucking fumes."

"Maybe so, but it's working." Elma shook a fist gleefully. "Yaah!"

Sin had reached the level of the mists and was plunging into greenish-yellow haze like an anchor. A massive cloud of dust and debris billowed up, obscuring the battered leviathan from view. Shockwaves sent the fog rippling out from the crash site.

Lucil raised her arm in salute, eyes glittering. "Vengeance."

"Now that's a machina. What did I tell you?" said Cid.

Vegnagun hung over the impact plume like a monstrous dragonfly, pawing the air as if itching to trample its prey. The globe of energy between its horns swelled to bursting and catapulted downward. There was a white flash. The fog rolled back. Sin was lying on its side in a fresh crater, bleeding pyreflies. Outside an inner ring of slag and bedrock, most of Old Guadosalam was ablaze.

"Isaaru?" Lucil said. "Assessment?"

"Sin may fall, but what of Yu Yevon? Even if Vegnagun can strip away his armor—"

"Augh!" Rikku squeezed her fists against her forehead. "Shinra. Scan for Auron. He's got a sword bigger'n Gippal's ego: should be easy to spot."

"We're already on it, cupcakes," Gippal said over the link. "And we survived the blast wave, if anyone asks. G-team out."

"Um," Pacce said. "What's Sin doing?"

The fog had started to circulate around the point of impact in a slow-moving vortex. Sin's mottled surface crawled like melting wax. The flat yellow bowl of fog to the south, shrouding the rupture that had once been Guadosalam's portal to the Farplane, was rising in a churning dome.

"The Farplane!" Isaaru said. "Shinra, what do you see?"

"Scanning." Shinra pulled up a zoom of the impact zone on the forward displays. The magnified view showed iridescent ribbons of light spiraling inwards towards Sin along with the fog. Other glistening pathways snaked between the whirlpool's perimeter and the Farplane Crater to the south. "Looks like it's pulling in all the pyreflies in the area."

"Yu Yevon," Isaaru said, and somehow it was still a prayer. "He's rebuilding Sin's armor. Elder Cid, you've got to put me down there before it recovers its strength."

"Put you down where?" Cid said. "From what I'm lookin' at, the whole danged forest is on fire."

"Wherever you can. Shinra, find us a landing spot. Keep scanning for Sir Auron."


Auron had found refuge on a huge tree-stump that jutted through the sea of smoke. He was harder to spot without his coat, but the orange light glinting off his oversized sword was a handy beacon. Right now, the sword was also a prop. Auron bent as if fighting a gale, his back to Sin. Sinscales were converging on his position. He seemed not to have noticed their flickering wings creeping up the sides of his observation post. One went up in a gout of pyreflies, struck by a flying chunk of debris blasted off from Sin's carapace.

"Heeeeey, LJ!" Gippal kept a firm grip on the flyer's steering yoke, but found there was no need. Guadosalam's pall seemed to deaden the fire's shifting air currents. "Need a lift? You get one more free ride, then I start charging you triple!"

Auron vaulted across the gap. His gravity-defying leaps were part of his legend, but he stumbled upon landing and went crashing to the deck. The hover tilted dangerously over the forest's embers. Twisting in her seat, Juno snagged his collar to keep him from tumbling out. Auron ignored her, hunched double with face contorted. "Away," he rasped.

She scowled, mistaking his meaning, but did not loosen her grip.

"You got it, boss," Gippal said. The hover bolted towards open sky, fleeing the bombardment raining down behind them. "Wow, Bar's really getting carried away with his toys."

"Are you injured?" Juno said. A few pyreflies drifted past her knuckles.

Auron shook his head.

"Heh. He's kinda like Nooj," Gippal said. "Ask him ten questions, and you're lucky to get one answer. So, Auron, what the heck happened back there? First Sin's using you for target practice, then it chucks you out like a sand wyrm with a bellyache. You give Yevon indigestion, or what?"

"Maybe."

As the flyer put distance between them and Sin, Auron uncurled like a wary crab, flexing his left hand. He nodded obliquely to Juno and stood, gazing south. Vegnagun's shadow floated in the towering pyrocumulus clouds like a vulture riding thermals. He closed his eye and turned away as the machina unleashed yet another deluge of destruction. "What's our status?"

Gippal smirked at Juno. "See what I mean?"

She shrugged. "Sin's down. Vegnagun isn't. Baralai's pulverizing whatever's left. However, there's a problem."


"It's regenerating the exoskeleton at a tremendous rate. Also, it's starting to modulate its shield to match your energy weapons," Shinra was saying.

"How long have we got?" said Nooj.

"You're barely keeping up with it. I estimate half an hour before Yu Yevon's repaired most of the damage. Sin will probably be mobile before that."

"Wonderful." Nooj peered through Vegnagun's eyes at the shipwrecked foe. Every time he settled too deeply into the pyrefly interface, he had to fight the urge to struggle out of it like a panicking swimmer. Vegnagun's bulk seemed to drag at his artificial limbs. "Recommendations?"

"Don't ask me. I'm just a tech."

"Half an hour?" Baralai frowned. "I'll need five minutes to power down secondary weapons, twenty to recharge the main cannon."

"Too long." Lucil's voice was faint but firm. "V-team, fall back. G-team, stand by. Avenger will drop the summoner's party near Sin. We knew machina alone would not win this battle."

"With all due respect," Nooj said, "That's the sort of cockeyed plan I'd expect from a maester of Yevon. If Sin's rebuilding its outer shell, you can bet it's shoring up internal defenses. If we don't drive it away from Guadosalam, it's going to be impregnable. Your summoner and guardians won't stand a chance."

"As a maester of Yevon, I concur," Baralai said, giving Nooj a wry look.

There was a brief pause. "Very well. Cut its supply lines; then Lord Isaaru can move in. We will continue to monitor your situation. Avenger out."

"Well." Baralai exhaled. "I guess it couldn't be that easy."

"It never is," Nooj said. "Speaking of which, Shinra's autopilot shorted out during the fight."

"What?" Baralai ran his fingers through soot-tipped white hair, collecting himself. "So. We can't send Vegnagun to the Farplane remotely. Very well. Nooj, start moving us away from Sin. Gippal, are you there?"

"Yo. What's the plan, boss?"

"Meet us at the edge of the Thunder Plains. I'll explain there."

"Got it. We'll be there in a few."

Nooj frowned. "Shouldn't we be going after Sin?"

"Yes. But first..." Baralai hesitated, waiting for Vegnagun to get under way. The muted tones he was playing shifted to a pensive refrain. "Nooj. There's two things I should say, while we still have time. One: I apologize for doubting you. Once upon a time, I considered you the finest friend a man could have. I trusted you. I looked up to you as a role model— when you weren't trying to die. Later, I couldn't understand how I could have been so wrong about you. But I wasn't wrong, was I? After we learned the truth about Shuyin, I should have been able to accept you as the man I once knew."

"Trust doesn't pick up where it left off, after a thirteen-year hiatus. And I'm not the man I was, nor are you." Nooj smiled. "I hope we can renew that friendship."

"You already have." Baralai drew his hands away from the keys and let the music ebb. He sat blinking and blind for a few seconds until ordinary vision reasserted itself. His voice dropped. "Two: Look after Paine."

"Baralai!" Nooj floundered out of Vegnagun's mental interface in alarm, causing the machina to list sharply until its guidance systems kicked in. By the time Nooj had settled into his own body, he found Baralai's pistol pressed against his right breast. "This isn't necessary. After the battle—"

"For Vegnagun, there is no after the battle. I'd rather not emulate you this way, Nooj, but for Spira's sake, I must. Forgive me."


There was a loud burst of static over the commlink. Gippal frowned. "Uh...guys? What's going on over there?"

"Get up here immediately," Nooj said. "Baralai's hurt."

"Huh? What the—ow! Dammit, Paine, I'm going!" Gippal rubbed his elbow and glared at her, then set the flyer in motion.

Auron stood behind them, brooding. He was no longer being wracked by the insistent tug of a summons far worse than sending. Yet he knew the lull was an illusion. Behind them, Yu Yevon was weaving an armored cocoon, just as Auron had seen when Jecht's aeon vanished under layers of bone and hide. Their window of opportunity was closing. However, he understood loyalty, and held his peace.

Vegnagun was waiting for them, hunkered down like a fat spider past the edge of Guadosalam. Gippal negotiated the obstacle course of wings and horns to park on Vegnagun's sloping neck. Before the flyer came to a stop, Juno jumped out.

"What happened?" She dropped in next to Baralai, shucking her gauntlet and searching for a pulse. He was limp in his chair, head lolled back, eyes open.

"Electric shock," Nooj said, bent over the keys. His right hand drummed a monotonous rhythm, holding the machina steady. "Vegnagun decided to protect itself from whatever he was planning."

"Yeah, right," Gippal said. "You just knocked him out to play Deathseeker."

"Not funny," Juno said, hitching her hands under Baralai's armpits and heaving.

"You think I'm joking?" Gippal said.

"We're running out of time." Auron climbed out to help Juno extricate Baralai from his seat and lift him into the hover.

"I'll take Baralai's place," Juno said. "I can fly or operate weapons, Nooj. Your choice."

"No. Get Baralai to safety." Nooj had yet to look in her direction. His attention was fixed on the shifting patterns of light that served as the bridge between mind and machina. "Catch me later."

"Nooj!" Gippal said."C'mon, man, don't be like that."

Juno opened her mouth for a vehement protest, then stopped. She gave Nooj a long, searching look. "Understood." Turning her back on him, she marched to the front of the flyer. "We're leaving."

"You're kidding, right?" Gippal spread his hands. "You know damn well what he's trying to do."

"Yes." She glanced briefly at Auron, who was helping the Al Bhed strap Baralai in with a cargo net. "Hold him." Taking Gippal's seat, she threw the flyer into reverse. There was a sickening instant of freefall before the craft stabilized. Vegnagun wheeled up and away from them, heading back towards Sin.

Gippal grabbed onto one of the seats. "Paine, have you lost your freakin' mind?"

"If Nooj intended suicide, Vegnagun wouldn't obey him." She tried an experimental turn. "How's Baralai?"

"Burns, erratic heartbeat," Auron said. "He needs a healer."

"Okay, great." Gippal hung on as the flyer tipped and straightened. "So now you're suicidal. Look, you've flown this thing exactly twice now—"

"Plus two years piloting Vegnagun in simulation, two working unloaders at Moonflow Port," she said. "Now shut up and let me concentrate."

"No offense, but this is an insanely stupid time for a joy ride. And it's my flyer."

"Get a phoenix down on Baralai. If there's an Al Bhed treatment for this kind of injury, do it. Help him." The flyer wobbled again. "We're not losing either of them."


"Here we go again," Rikku said, eyes fixed on the ominous whirlpool of fog and pyreflies. "Hey, Isaaru, ya think Lu's still in there?"

"Very likely," he said. "Until Sin is destroyed, a fragment of the Final Aeon remains. But I fear the absorption of Farplane energies may further dilute whatever is left of your friend's spirit."

"Sin's moving," Shinra said.

A dark shadow began to emerge from the fog. Spines rose up like the spires of St. Bevelle. They rested on a sloping mountain that was and yet was not the Sin they knew. Its upper hide bristled with enormous spikes, as did the bony tail. A fan of gills or fins spread out from where the hindquarters had been, encircling its body. Purple sparks skipped along the vanes' edges. Chunks of exoskeleton sloughed off, crashing down as Sin ascended. Pyreflies dripped from its sides. Its eyes—

Rikku made a strangled sound.

Some eyes were as before, goggling inhuman orbs in bulbous sockets. Those damaged by Vegnagun had been replaced by eyes that looked almost human, with irises the color of blood.

"Yuck," Elma said. "I didn't think it could get any uglier."

A spear of red light pierced the fog, drilling into spongy gray flesh. More fragments dropped from Sin's hide. Bellowing, it swiveled towards its assailant. Vegnagun retreated, drifting back into the the Thunder Plains.

"I've found Sir Auron," Shinra said. "He's with G-team, but they're not responding. They've encountered sinscales."

"'Encountered'?" Elma said, gaping. "Ya think?"

Shinra's magnified displays showed the little craft lying at a precarious angle on the trailing creepers of Guadosalam's borders. The Thunder Plains' dense cloud cover shrouded the area in twilight, but red outlines on the scanner indicated a mass of fiends swarming the flyer like ants to sugar.

"How does he always manage to find trouble?" Rikku said. "Pops, can we get down there? Maybe Auron's figured out a way t'be a human lightning rod without getting zorched, but that's an awful lotta fiends even for him."

"I can reach 'em, kiddo, but it means going closer to Sin."

"I would prefer not to lose our captain of the guard and Maester Baralai," Lucil said. "How close?"

"Out of range for everything but Sin's new mana beam," Shinra said.

"Mana...beam?" said Isaaru.

Shinra pointed. "That."

In the distance, a crackling cone of energy had coalesced around Sin. The fan it had sprouted was focusing the power like a lens. A thick, corded beam of energy burst from the focal point and rammed into Vegnagun. The machina swerved, staggered. A leg and a half were sheared away. A distant boom rattled the airship's bulkhead doors.

"Ouch," Elma said succinctly.

"Ah, what the heck," Cid said. "That bastard saved my life. Guess I owe 'im one."

"Gippal, too!" said Rikku.

"Perhaps we can assist the legend for a change," Isaaru said.

Pacce's face lit up. "Yeah! Let's go rescue Sir Auron!"


Isaaru and his guardians waited in the cargo bay, clinging to supply racks and fighting nausea during the descent. The empty hold was a drum for the din of battle between clashing giants. The clamor grew louder and nearer. Isaaru began to worry that Cid had gotten the mad idea to fly into Sin's open jaws. At last, the ship slowed to a stop. The loading ramp groaned and began to open. Pacce pointed at a blue nimbus dancing on its corners and bolts.

"The Lady's fire." Isaaru nodded. "But we've no need for sailor's signs to know she's near."

"Okay. Isaaru, wait here," Pacce said, prompting a smile from Elma. He sounded like Maroda.

The pair of guardians pelted down the ramp, swords drawn. They turned to see the flyer lying under the Avenger's forward cabin. With a lusty yell, they charged into the seething pack of sinscales. A bolt of green energy whizzed past them, cutting down one of the fiends.

"Nice of you guys to join us!" Gippal called. He was crouched under the front of the flyer, banging on the forward rotor with a wrench. Auron was planted in front of him, fending off sinscales with weary strokes. Juno was beating back the fiends trying to overrun the rear of the craft. Baralai, propped against one of the center seats, had a gun braced between his knees, and was firing into the swarm.

"Stay close to the flyer!" Elma called, carving a path towards them. "As close as you can!"

Gippal swore as the craft teetered, knocking him in the head. "Yo! Quit hopping on the bed, Bar!"

"Maesters of Yevon...don't hop."

"Or use machina?"

Pacce and Elma positioned themselves at the sides of the ship. A deafening crackle of gunfire erupted directly overhead. Bullets rained down in a deadly curtain that swept around the flyer like a clock-hand. Most of the fiends in the area were mowed down. Auron glanced up to see Rikku grinning and waving madly in the gunner's bubble. The fighters dispatched the surviving stragglers with blunt efficiency.

"You guys okay?" Pacce said, drawing himself up in a salute to Sir Auron. "What happened?"

"Miss I-wanna-be-a-pilot crashed my ship," Gippal said.

"We hit a piece of Sin coming down," Juno said. "Bring Isaaru. Baralai's hurt."

"I'm fine," Baralai protested, but he could not stand. Juno climbed in to help him out of the vehicle, and willing hands carried him to the foot of the airship's loading ramp. Baralai's face was nearly as pale as his hair. Juno embraced him, then headed back to the flyer.

"How is it, my lord?" Isaaru said, placing his fingers lightly on Baralai's hands, where traces of half-healed burns disappeared into his sleeves.

"I'm not sure whether to court martial or kiss her," Baralai muttered. "Nooj?"

Elma glanced up. "Giving Sin a hell of a beating, sir."

The Avenger's hull blocked their view of the sky, but Sin's ghastly wails and the crash of energy discharges were constant reminders of the battle. Flashes of red, green and purple were interspersed with the stark white of natural lightning. Even the moist air seemed to quiver, raising hairs on skin. Luminous blue coronas flickered on the hover's upper railing and windscreen.

Its engines coughed to life. Gippal dropped his tools and jogged towards the group under the cargo bay. "You okay there, Bar?"

"Captain!" Pacce shouted.

There was a rising whine behind Gippal. He spun, waving his arms. "No, waaaaait!"

They had a brief glimpse of Juno in the pilot's chair, helmless, silver head craned towards the sky. Then the flyer lifted and zoomed away.

"Paine!" Baralai lurched to his feet, pushing Isaaru aside and stumbling out from under the airship to get an unobstructed view.

"So help me, if she puts another dent in my baby..." Gippal said.

They lost sight of her in the rain, but her destination was clear. Over the heart of the Thunder Plains, Sin and Vegnagun were circling each other like titanic coeurls. The machina was trailing smoke. Sin had surrounded itself again with a bubble of white light. The dark thunderheads over them were perturbed, sending down forks of lightning that skittered over the skin of one or the other before leaping to the tops of the nearest towers. Vegnagun fired, bathing Sin in an ominous black and red miasma, but it splashed harmlessly off Sin's shield. The machina banked sharply, barely avoiding a point-blank hit by Sin's mana beam.

There was a patter of feet down the ramp. Rikku darted towards Auron, flinging her arms around him as he swung his sword out of the way. "Hey, you," she said, rapping his chest-plate. "So, what's going on? Thought you were gonna use the flyer to get over there once Sin's down."

"We've failed," Baralai said, bitter and dazed. "It's Operation Mi'ihen all over again."

Vegnagun was dropping fast, transforming in mid-air. The main gun burst from its chest and telescoped outward. The barrel nearly scraped the ground as Vegnagun swooped low, clipping one of the towers before slingshotting back into the sky. Another bolt of lightning jumped from Sin to Vegnagun to the ground, branding their silhouettes against the clouds for a blinding instant. Then Vegnagun drove straight into Sin's belly, bayoneting it with the cannon.

Rikku gave a little scream and shrank against Auron. "Oh, Lulu."

Rigid, Auron laid an arm behind her shoulders.

"In Yevon's name," Isaaru said, cupping his hands in prayer.

"Not any more," Baralai said, squinting into the rain with fists clenched.

Sin's energy shield fizzled. Machina and monster began to fall.


Juno was flying directly into the storm. Smoke, rain, and lightning limited visibility. Spatial orientation was scrambled by the dark wall of Vegnagun's wings dropping before her eyes like a clipped sail. One thing was clear: Sin was coming down on top of Vegnagun, the latter almost perpendicular to the ground.

A stray sinscale banked off the flyer's windshield, sending it careening. Juno fought for control. The sickening drop proved a blessing in disguise. When she leveled out, Vegnagun's head was right above her.

A quick glance upwards showed a flash of red and brown, Nooj's hair streaming. He was hanging on, barely, spread-eagled in the cockpit with his metal hand and leg wedged against the keyboard and the seats. Juno killed the flyer's forward momentum, struggling not to collide with Vegnagun or stop prematurely. She tried to pretend she was simply aiming a sphere camera, zeroing in on a fast-moving target.

Nooj pushed off, tumbling head over heels.

There was a panicky moment of flailing limbs.

He hit the deck with a bang. The flyer sagged. Juno gunned the engine in reverse, praying.

A few seconds later, Sin's head roared past, so near that she could see every vein in its eyes. The stench wafting from its maw was appalling. Juno hung on grimly until it had fallen past them, then resumed backing away. At last, she kicked the parking brake and turned. "Nooj?"

He was lying flat on his back, gasping for air. She dropped to the floor and crawled towards him, falling across him in relief.

"The...High Summoner," he wheezed, "made...that maneuver look easy."

"Aeons don't have rivets."

Nooj's breathless laughter rolled out across the sky. Below, a thousand tons of machina and fiend plowed into solid rock. The concussion of the impact was loud enough to reach Bevelle. Vegnagun, crushed beneath Sin's mass, exploded in a fireball whose heat they could feel two miles above.

"Let's move," he said, patting her back weakly. "I'd hate for us to get struck by lightning after surviving that."

"Are you hurt?"

"Does it matter?" He smiled. "I'm alive."

Chapter Text

Sin lay like a split anvil, a mountainous ruin. Lightning painted it in stark relief against the clouds. Below, the flicker of energy weapons answered with feeble red fire. Cold rain pinged against acres of cooling shrapnel hurled from the Thunder Plain's newest crater.


A thunderclap and a muffled shriek pierced the air.

"You should go back," Auron said, gruff voice holding a hint of kindness.

"I'm not scared!" Rikku said, words muffled behind clenched fists. "I'm just worried about you guys. All of you, you know?"

"I know." His hand tightened around the brand across his palm that was, finally, beginning to cool. Lulu's time was running out.

Another explosion blossomed to their left. Auron adjusted his sword-grip, but he had needed to swing it only once since they left the cover of the airship's guns. Baralai and Gippal were providing an efficient escort across the fiend-infested plain. Rikku was less than helpful, hampered as she was by borderline terror, but Auron was secretly touched by her dogged presence.

He returned his attention to the scabrous gray slope rising before them like a cliff. Raw fissures in Sin's armor vented wisps of steam from the smoldering machina crushed beneath it. Drizzle sifted down through the cracks. Most of the monster's eyes were hidden from below; those that were visible seemed glazed, unfocused, barely twitching. The only other hint of movement was the slow flex and heave of broken ribs. That, and the gleam of sinscales crawling over the broken skin like maggots, shining when the lightning flashed.

There was a sizzling crackle and a shout at his back. Auron checked his stride and pivoted, readying his sword. Elma and Pacce were bracketing Isaaru, facing outwards with blades drawn. Pyreflies eddied at their feet.

"Hey, watch where you're pointing that thing!" Elma said.

"Wasn't me, babe." Gippal ambled to the left and slightly behind the summoner party, hefting an ungainly shoulder cannon. "I think Bar wants to be Grand Maester real bad."

"Thank you, my lord," Isaaru called to Baralai, a stealthy figure trailing them off to the right. "Any sign of Nooj or the captain?"

Baralai shook his head. He had barely spoken since Sin and Vegnagun rammed into the plain.

"Nope," said Gippal, halting to blast a dark shape scuttling between two piles of debris. "But the good news is, I haven't seen a single scrap of wreckage. From the flyer, anyway."

"It was pouring a minute ago," Rikku said. "They're probably just laying low unt—" A deafening crack of thunder triggered a scream. She hunkered down until Gippal's laughter brought her to her feet, glaring. "Yeah, yeah. Someone's getting sand wolf doots in his air recycling system."

Conversation tapered off as they approached the buckled edge of the crater. There were more pyreflies here, streaming towards Sin in a last-ditch effort to repair it. Auron was forced to contribute a few more, clearing away a couple of sinscales while he waited for the group to assemble on the rim.

Hugging herself, Rikku pressed close to Auron and surveyed the impact zone. The crater's basin was filled with a carpet of oily black smoke, pyrefly-flecked, churned by unseen forms. A charnel reek hung in the dank air. At this distance, Sin's craggy bulk towered over them like the eroded heart of an ancient volcano. They could hear the groan of its labored breathing, booming like the sluggish surf of a flotsam-choked bay.

"Do you think she knows we're here?"

Auron grunted, scanning for entry points.

One by one, the rest of the party reached the rim and looked down.

Isaaru closed his eyes and bowed in Yevon's prayer.

"Hoo boy," Gippal said. "Good luck, guys. Glad I'm not going in there."

"Gee, thanks," Elma said, jabbing at a pile of scrap metal that snapped back, recoiling when Gippal blasted it nearly point blank. "Hey, leave some for us!"

Pacce tried to sound nonchalant. "So, uh, we gotta get inside, right?"

"There." Auron pointed. Behind the nearest fin, there was a rupture broad enough for a hover to use as a garage. "Gippal."

"On it, boss." He adjusted a dial and laid down a wide ribbon of red fire, playing over the smoke-shrouded terrain between them and Sin. Pyreflies went up in gouts.

"Isaaru," Baralai rasped.

The summoner wrenched his attention away from their adversary. "My lord?"

Baralai bowed low, hand over his heart. "Our prayers are with you."

Compassion tinged his voice as Isaaru returned the gesture, adding Yevon's sign. "And mine with you and your comrades, old friend. Please convey my thanks, when you find them." He took a deep breath as Gippal's covering fire died away. "Sir Auron, we are in your hands."

Auron paused, glancing obliquely at Rikku.

"Yeah, yeah." She batted at his elbow. "Don't strain yourself. You said goodbye once already. Scoot."

He smirked as she mimicked his obligatory hmph. With a shrug, he shouldered his sword and started down the broken slope. Isaaru followed with a curious joy animating his features, despite his burdens. Pacce trotted along beside him, eyes darting towards every shadow. Elma fell into step behind them, taking over Auron's usual post as rearguard.

Gippal, Baralai, and Rikku watched from the lip of the crater. The summoner party's progress was slow, hampered by low visibility and the noxious fumes of burnt machina that choked them and set their eyes streaming. Isaaru had to stop several times to apply esuna. At last, Auron clambered up a metal spur protruding from Sin's body like a gantry. A cluster of sinscales hissed just in front of the breach. Auron stepped aside to let Elma and Pacce finish them off: the two guardians were growing increasingly edgy, and needed something to fight.

Sheathing his sword, Auron reached up to touch gray, putrid flesh sagging over the entrance. A feeling of...expectancy? Dread? Denial? brushed his mind.

It's time, Lulu. Stay with us.

The last of the sinscales was sputtering into pyreflies. Squaring his shoulders, Auron strode into the pitch-black opening. Isaaru followed without hesitation. Pacce had to steel himself before making a run at it, dashing through like a child trying to dodge raindrops. Last of all, Elma halted on the threshold, turned, and raised her sword in a high salute, catching the lightning's flash as she twirled the blade. Then she, too, vanished inside.

"See what I mean?" Gippal said, thumping his chest. "Captain Choco-buns is all over me. I'm telling you, Bar—"

"Shut up, Gippal," Baralai and Rikku said in unison.

"It's a good thing your shop doesn't sell clues," Rikku added, lips too tight for the smile hammered onto them, "because you're always out of stock."

"For your information— hey, did you swipe that from my stores?" Gippal frowned at a talon-shaped knife strapped to her hip. "That's custom work, you thief! No freebies."

"Ku du ramm, Gipp."

Gippal lowered his gun with an exasperated sigh and propped it against his knee. "Great, now it's both of you. Bar, stop worrying. Rikku, what's eating you? What happened to Princess Sunshine?'

She hunched her shoulders, flinching at another peal of thunder. "Three guardians," she said. "Yunie had six— five, I mean."

"Yeah, well, your uncle only had two, right? And LJ gets special treatment....whoa, Baralai, wait up."

The maester had turned away and was taking a circuitous path back towards the airship, searching Vegnagun's remains. Gippal and Rikku hurried after him.

"Yo, Rikku," Gippal said. "Did you know Sin blew up the Agency down in the gorge? I was dropping off a shipment right when it hit. Lucky for me, Auron had just showed up to buy supplies. He flung me into a packing crate and pulled me out afterwards. My trading post got pulverized, but there wasn't a scratch on him. No wonder that Maroda guy—"

Baralai straightened. "Crusader training camp. Casualties?"

"One. Mifurey, the gal who worked our front desk. The Crusaders had a few injuries, but I don't think they lost anybody. Their lodge is way the heck at the back end of the canyon. We were set up in that cave near the mouth of the gorge. They were still clearing away the rockslide when Auron and I—"

"Hey, you hear that?" Rikku said.

Baralai's head snapped up. There was a faint, chugging drone in the distance, growing louder.

A spreading grin broke across Gippal's face. "Yes! What did I tell you, Bar? Juno's a great pilot!"

After an interminable wait, the flyer skimmed into view over the ruins of the abandoned Agency. The little craft was hugging the ground like a ferret, weaving its way between obstacles. A lightning strike on one of the nearby towers showed why the pilot was risking a crash by flying so low.

Baralai exhaled. "Nooj is driving."

"Well, good. Her landing could use work."

They waited impatiently for the flyer to circle in for a landing. Baralai sprinted across the gap and scrambled into the back, no easy feat in maester's robes. He engulfed Juno in a fierce hug. "Dammit, Paine, that was a direct order."

"Take it up with the maesters." She met his embrace firmly, silently checking him over. "And look who's in fiend territory without an armed escort."

"Armed escort, eh? What do you think this is, a spitball gun?" The flyer bounced as Gippal slung his cannon onto the deck, then climbed up over the side and landed next to Nooj. "Man, it's good to see you guys."

Baralai rested his chin on Juno's shoulder, burying his face in her rain-matted hair. At length, he opened his eyes, meeting Nooj's neutral but intent scrutiny. The younger man took a deep breath and released her. Stepping forward, arms stiff at his sides, Baralai bent at the waist in a deep bow. "Nooj."

"Um," Gippal said, rubbing the back of his neck.

"I'm glad you're all right," Nooj said smoothly, holding out his hand. "Sorry about Vegnagun."

Profound gratitude flooded Baralai's features. "Like Juno always said, it's only a machina." He stepped forward and clasped Nooj's hand firmly. "Not a friend."

"Finally," she muttered.

The intercom on the dashboard bleeped. "Welcome back, kids," Cid said. "Rikku, you there? We're getting a call from the Celsius."

"The Celsius?" Nooj said. "Impossible. There's no way it could get a signal this far out."

"Beats me," said Cid. "Get Rikku on the link, pronto. I'd like to know what that damn fool son of mine needs to tell his sister that he won't tell his old man."

"Roger that. Hey, Rikku—" Gippal broke off, looking around the flyer. "Where'd she go?"

"She was right next to us," Baralai said. "Maybe she kept going towards the ship?"

"Sin," Juno said.

A splash of lightning blinded them for a few seconds. When darkness returned, they spotted Rikku as a tiny speck of orange and gold scrambling up Sin's flank.

Gippal groaned. "Oh, no. Rikku!" His bellow went unheard or ignored; the tiny figure ducked into a crack and vanished. "Vilg. If Cid doesn't kill me, Wakka will."



Every brush with Sin was a journey into darkness. There was no sullen rain prickling Auron's cheeks this time, only mist. He kept moving, ignoring the stench of scorched, rotten flesh until all odors faded. Isaaru walked behind him, resting a hand against his back. Pacce and Elma followed. They could hear distant howls, screams, the eldritch wails of pyreflies at the edge of hearing, but the only ghost-lights they saw were their own eyes playing tricks on them. The footing was yielding, spongy, wet. The damp air tasted of salt.

"So... is there like guts and all in here, or what?" Pacce said, keeping a tight grip on Elma's belt. "How are we gonna find Yu Yevon?"

"You'll see," Auron said.

"I can't see a thing, sir," Elma said. "Bet the fiends can smell us, though. Anybody got a light?"

"Save it," Auron said, halting as Isaaru lifted his hand away for spellcasting. A dim spark of light sputtered out almost before he had finished conjuring it. Auron waited again for the pressure of fingertips against his spine before moving on.

At last, he felt the subtle resistance of a membrane barring their path. He bent his head and pushed through. There was a blinding flurry of light and color. Abruptly, they found themselves in a vast plain of dark blue ice, clouded over by a thin layer of slush. Spiraling bands of glyphs formed eerie tunnels in mid-air, slowly rotating into the ground and rising up overhead. The sky was awash in all the colors of sunset, but no sun, only rafts of motionless clouds stretching to infinity.

The others pulled up short, gaping.

"Stay alert," Auron said. "Anything can happen in this place."

"Um, yeah," said Elma. "It's bleeding architecture."

Here and there, the icy surface was broken by broad, sluggish streams of dark red liquid. A strange logjam of flotsam was bumping along these arteries: metal cubes, modular blocks, windows and doorframes and huge chunks of superstructure, slowly deforming and conforming to the shape of the channels carrying them along.

"Is it the Farplane?" Pacce said.

"Close enough," Auron said.

"A dream of the fayth," Isaaru said with hushed reverence. "We're inside an aeon's shell, instead of viewing it from without."

"Or a nightmare," Elma said.

Something was whipping the fog into eddies overhead. Auron barked a warning just as a trio of winged eyes swooped down and spun towards them, leering. "Ahriman," he said, drawing his sword. "Don't meet their gaze."

Unfortunately, his reflexes were slower than Elma's. She had sprung forward, sword and eyes raised to meet their attackers. Her face went slack. Turning, she made a wild slash at Pacce's head.

"Commander!" the boy said, backpedaling.

"Hit her," Auron said, waiting for a fiend to dip within sword's range. This could be bad. Jecht or Wakka would have handled these easily, but without a mage or air specialist—

"Don't breathe!" came a familiar call. A green canister arced over their heads, striking a brassy wing and exploding on contact. The monsters went rigid, turned the color of clay, dropped and shattered.

Pacce smacked Elma's cheek with the flat of his sword. "Elma, wake up!"

She came to with a jerk. "Whoa. Sorry about that."

"I-it's okay," he said. "Maroda warned me about those things."

"At least it wasn't Auron!" Rikku said, sauntering up. "He practically cut me in two, once. Lulu always kept a doll handy to bop him." She placed her hands on her hips, surveying the bleak dreamscape. "Yuck. So much for the garden Yunie told me about. Where to?"

"My lady," Isaaru said, stunned. "How did you—?"

"You should go back," Auron said. "It's not your pilgrimage."

"Look, Mister High-and-Mighty-Pants." She waggled a finger. "You and Lulu aren't our chaperones anymore! I'm here to make sure you don't screw up."

"Hey!" Pacce said, bristling. "This is Sir Auron you're talking to! Best guardian alive! Best—" He broke off, perplexed.

Sir Auron was laughing. It was a quiet chuckle, at first, but it built into rolling guffaws that had the summoner and guardians grinning, too, staring at him incredulously.

Rikku smirked. "So, is that an 'I'm so happy Rikku is coming along with us' laugh or an 'I'm laughing so I don't have to give a straight answer' laugh?"

"It's up to the summoner."

Isaaru's tentative mirth drained away. "Elder Cid will not be pleased." He raised a hand, fending off her protest. "I have no wish to endanger any more lives than necessary. But you are a guardian, no? And Lady Yuna's cousin, as well." He paused, looking towards Auron for a sign, but the man had turned his back on them. Finally, Isaaru nodded. "Very well. If you are willing to risk it, I would be honored by your presence, my lady."

"It's Rikku. And I'm just here for Lulu, okay? I could care less about your dumb pilgrimage, especially if he's got anything to do with it."

Elma snorted. "Dumb?"

"It's all right, Commander." Isaaru chuckled. "Lady Rikku, I understand your position. Let us continue."



The plain mocked them. There seemed to be no end to it, nor to the fiends that lurked where the mist thickened. Elma's sharp nose steered them around crystalline beds of fungi, whose sickly-sweet odor she recognized from her years patrolling the Djose Highroad. Roving packs of scorpion-like fiends proved more troublesome.

Rikku was a welcome addition. She had a knack for guessing unknown fiends' weaknesses, and she had developed a new armor-cracking explosive that would weaken even an Adamantoise's shell. Elma, unsurprisingly, proved to be a formidable fighter, complementing Auron's devastating but slow attacks with leaping strikes, snap-thrusts and circling slashes that reminded him painfully of Tidus. Two other guardians meant that Auron could leave Isaaru a few steps back with Pacce, much to the boy's chagrin, whenever a fiend lurched out of the mists to bar their way. Once, at least, Pacce got to save his hero by punching a blade scorpion after Auron's legs went out from under him on the slick ground.

At last, just when Rikku's third are we there yet had reminded Auron that Yuna's pilgrimage was filled with annoyances as well as laughter, Pacce spotted a monumental stone cupola in the distance.

"Finally!" Rikku said. "Come on, Isaaru, let's see some hustle! This is your big day, right? Hup-hup-hup, we're nearly there!"

He gave a weak laugh. "I beg your pardon, milady. It seems priest's robes were not meant to keep up with Al Bhed enthusiasm."

"Well, take them off, then! At this rate, Yu Yevon could put Sin completely back together and make souvenir knock-offs before we find the bastard." She skipped ahead, disappearing into the fog. Auron tensed and started after her.

"Uh, guys?"

Damn. He glanced at Elma, who winked and charged forward, angling away to give him room to swing.

A behemoth materialized above them with a roar, flattening the pair with fists the size of wagon wheels.

"Oops," Rikku said, popping out of the fog and throwing up a glittering wall of sparks. It caused little damage, but blinded the beast long enough for Isaaru to whip off a cura or two. "What the heck is that thing?"

"Purple!" Elma said, bouncing up with a shaky grin. "Looks like we get to play tag with a thunderstorm. Yaaa!" Sprinting past Auron, she launched herself at the creature's tail with a banshee shriek.

Auron had no time to debate tactics; he was fully occupied with dodging swipes that flung him dozens of paces every time one connected. This time, the slippery footing proved a blessing: skidding absorbed some of the impact. Rikku, thankfully, was fast enough to avoid being crushed. She was there every time he went down, splashing his throat with an Al Bhed restorative that seemed to sink right into his bloodstream and speed up his reflexes. He suspected he would pay for it later, but for the moment, the giddy rush of adrenaline was keeping him between Isaaru and the enemy.

He charged in for another attack, trying to hamstring the creature as Tidus would have done. On his second blow, the tree-trunk leg buckled. The fiend came down on all fours, bellowing in pain. Auron rolled out from under it— he found himself missing Kimahri, who would have ended it right then with one spear-thrust into the belly— and saw that Elma had reached its head. Clinging with both legs and an arm wrapped around one horn, she appeared to be at an impasse, sword-arm flailing. Then the beast hunkered down and roared. One moment of relative stability was all the Crusader needed. She twisted and buried her sword to the hilts in the nearest eyeball. The behemoth convulsed, flinging her loose, and toppled chin-first into the ice. Auron was hurrying over to where Elma had landed when Rikku cried out.

"Above you!"

He looked up. Apparently the death-throes of this particular fiend included a magical component. Enormous boulders were falling like hailstones. He dropped his sword — it was more likely to survive lying flat — and braced for impact.

The concussion shook him to his knees, but that was all. He stared in fascination as a huge rock suspended over Elma's prone form slowed, then rolled to one side and hit the ground next to her with a boom. Then the bombardment was over, and he was picking his way around boulders to reach her.

She was sitting up by the time he found her, gripping her left shoulder in obvious pain, but triumphant. "Ow. That thing had quite a finishing move, didn't it?"

Shouts of Sir Auron and Hey, Choco-lady! assured him that Isaaru and Rikku, at least, were unscathed, so he knelt to examine her injury. Elma kicked him in the gut when he gripped her upper arm and gave a quick jerk, setting the bone back in its socket. Auron waved off her mortified apologies as the other three came running over.

"Oh, man, I thought we were gonna find a couple of legendary floormats over here," Rikku said. "Who needs a medic?"

Elma wriggled her toes. "Me."

"That was totally cool," Pacce said, awe tinged with envy. "Commander Elma, legendary knight!"

"Nah. Only one legend here, kiddo, and it ain't me." Elma submitted meekly to Al Bhed curatives. "Used to be, you couldn't call yourself a real Chocobo Knight until you'd wrangled your first basilisk. Please don't tell the general, though. She banned that stunt a couple years ago."

Pacce's dazzled grin held a hint of mischief. "No way! This'll make all the spherecasts in Luca!"

"Pacce," she said, looking even more pained.

"Impressive," Auron murmured to Isaaru, standing off to one side.

"I beg your pardon?"

"That wasn't an ordinary protect spell."

The summoner glanced at the nearest boulder. "Ah, no. NulEarth, I suppose you would call it. Once again, I owe a debt of thanks to Lady Yuna for allowing me to continue my studies." He gave a rueful nod towards Pacce. "I was far too rash on our first journey."

"Hm," Auron said, making a mental note.

"So. Everybody okay?" Rikku offered Elma a hand up. "C'mon, there's a treasure chest over there, and I didn't dare pop it until I had backup!"

"A treasure chest?" the Crusader said, bewildered. "Inside Sin?"

"Hey, it's no weirder than anything else."

Auron, customary backup in Rikku's treasure-hunting operations, gave her a jaundiced look. Nonetheless, he followed.

Humming to herself, she edged towards the wooden chest, inserted a tiny capsule into the lock and jumped back. The lock and lid popped open, but nothing exploded. Still cautious, she stood on tiptoe and peered inside. "Woohoo! Thanks, Lulu!" Swooping in, she lifted out her prize. It was a pinwheel-like shield with serrated edges and a sunburst pattern of copper, brass and ochre-colored shell. "Ta-da!"

"Wow." Elma said. "That's sure not Crusader issue."

"Yep!" Rikku strapped the targe to her left arm. Just as she was tugging on it to make sure it was secure, her face dimmed. "Oh."

"What's up?" said Pacce.

"Is there a problem, milady?" Isaaru said.

"H-huh? Nope! Now I got a gift from the Lady, too!" She spun around, showing it off. "She only gives them to heathens, so neener!"

They resumed course for the temple-like structure whose dome seemed to float over the mist. Once again, Isaaru began to fall behind. The soul-ripping loss of Bevelle's fayth, his oldest aeon, was obviously affecting him, or else the nagging presence of Seymour's aeon was making its presence felt.

Halting to let him catch up, Auron leaned close to Rikku. "What did she give you?"

"Oh, um..." She touched a copper wire on its edge, voice faltering. "Ochre Targe. Lightning Eater."

"You knew what Lulu's Final Aeon was like. You should have thought of that before following us."

"Yeah, but I thought she'd turned into Sin! I thought we'd already beaten her with Vegnagun. So all we gotta do is knock out Yu Yevon and steal her back, right?"

"It won't be that easy." Seeing the sick fear growing in her eyes, he added, "If you panic, I won't stop to help you."

"Oo-oo! You're still the biggest meanie in Spira. Remind me to hit you after this is over. With a forklift." She stuck out her tongue at him and danced away, as he had intended.

Love Her and Despair Auron Lulu

Chapter Text


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Yu Yevon seemed to have called a truce: the fiends had disappeared back into the mists that bred them. Privately, Auron wondered where they had been diverted; Sin had gulped down half the pyreflies of Guadosalam, and he doubted Yu Yevon had applied them only to Sin's outer hull. But that was a matter for later. Now...

Now he had to resist the gnawing regrets that threatened to add him to the local fiend population.

"Are you all right, sir?" said a boy, shy and solemn at his elbow. Not Tidus. More armor, less bluster.

"There has to be a portal," Auron said, barely aware of his voice. "We search."

Ignoring a red-haired man's maddening glance of compassion, Auron focused on the heavy sword braced across his shoulders, letting its weight carry him forward. Oaths to keep. The world resolidified around him, a slap of cold water. Grimacing, he stepped off the blood-veined ice into Sin's temple, a shrine to mutual failure.

Rearing out of the fog, an enormous dome rested on four piers of stone. Yevon's banners, tattered and begrimed, hung from its inner vault like cobwebs. Below lay a wide circular mosaic, scuffed and worn as if from centuries of ordinary human traffic. The memory was unmistakeable: the floor of Besaid's shattered temple was copied to the last tile. It was paved with a wheel-like mandala of concentric rings and spokes, orbiting a polygonal crest of squares and diamonds. Around the perimeter stood four monumental sculptures, twice the height of ordinary summoner statues. Reversing the usual arrangement, they faced outwards like sentinels, each one framed by a vaulted archway.

Only one of them was a summoner.

As always, Yuna danced on her pillar of water: real water, here, as much as anything in this place was real, frosted over like an iced lily. Her portrait's details were picked out with colored shells and flower petals. To her left was a cheerfully garish figure molded in plastic: Tidus, captured in mid-lunge with sword drawn, articulated like an oversized action figure from Luca's souvenir stands. To Yuna's right was a rough-hewn mass of weathered quartz and granite, vaguely Ronso-shaped, its fist wrapped around a pillar of ice. Completing the memorial was a traditional temple portrait carved out of varnished, dark-stained wood. The black sword, wine-colored coat, enigmatic glasses and gray hair of thirteen years ago were painstakingly rendered in Bevelle's classical style.

Rikku, kneeling in the lee of Yuna's statue, was gazing up at her cousin with tears trickling down her cheeks.

Privately agreeing with the sentiment, Auron stumped towards her. "Mourn later. We need to find a way in."

"They shouldn't have had to die." She pressed the heels of her hands against her eyes, sniffed, and got up to join Elma and Pacce in scouting the open-air chamber. Its patterned floor drew her attention. When she approached the center, the crest at the heart of the design rose up, dividing into four square pedestals with recessed sockets on their upper faces.

"Hey," Pacce said, hurrying over. "They're like in the Cloister of Trials, right? So it's a puzzle. There should be spheres."

"Oh, right." Rikku wiped her eyes and looked around. "Ummm..."

"With the statues, maybe?" Elma said. "And what's Sir Auron doing here? His statue, I mean."

"Well, he is a stiff," Rikku said. "That's weird. It should be Wakka's brother. Or maybe she thought Auron got killed in the Final Summoning, and now it's too late to redecorate?"

"Stay focused," Auron said. "Rikku, look." He brushed his gauntlet over a faint glyph etched into the surface of one of the pedestals. Each of the four bore a different sign.

"Huh? Oh! Four elements. 'Cept there's no lightning—" she screwed up her face— "just fire and ice and water. What's that one?"

"Air," Isaaru said, joining them. "But aren't these holes rather small for spheres?"

"Yeah. Come to think of it..." Rummaging in the pouch at her hip, she came up with a handful of glowing marbles, picked one, and popped it into the nearest socket. A plume of ice shot up. "Score! Okay, everybody. Grab a marble and— whoa, Pacce, don't touch that one, it's a dud. Here's fire, and that's water, and that one's zu poop. No, really. It's like a pocket tornado..."

"I'm lost," Elma said, shaking her head. "Just tell me what to do."

"Maybe we have to activate the glyphs, then push them in front of the statues," Pacce said.

"Sounds like a plan! Let's try...unh...dragging this one over to Kimahri. He's gotta be ice. And then..."

Exchanging mute glances, Isaaru and Auron drifted away from the bustle. Isaaru lowered his voice. "Beyond the Trials, the Final Aeon awaits, no?"

Auron nodded. "Prepare yourself for the sending. Yu Yevon won't go willingly."

"Yes." The whispered question was kind. "Will you?"

"Lulu and I...have unfinished business." He shook his head at the summoner's pained expression. "But whatever happens, don't stop. Our goal is to eliminate Yu Yevon. If we fail, there will be no more chances."

"Understood." Isaaru's shoulders sagged. "In case there is no other chance to say this: Sir Auron, I am in your debt, such that any words of thanks would fall short of the mark. I...wish you peace, wherever your journey takes you."

"Thanks."

"Hey, lazybones," Rikku called. "Come take a look at this. It's not working."

"Water goes with Tidus," Auron said, noting a pedestal topped with a tiny fountain behind Yuna's statue.

"Oh, now he tells us. Get over here and help us push these things around."

He joined Pacce in rearranging the pedestals. When the last one clicked into place, there was a familiar chime and a flash. The center of the floor vanished, replaced by a glowing glyph that was not of Yevon. Rikku gave a faint squeak, recognizing the fan-shaped symbol of Lulu's Venus Crest. A swelling globe of pyreflies started to coalesce above it.

"Uh oh," Elma said.

"Yeah!" Pacce said, so engrossed in puzzle-solving that he failed to look up. "We did it!"

"Oh, no fair!" Rikku said, turning and bolting.

Auron grasped Pacce's arm and dragged him out from under the huge marlboro as it ballooned out of the fog and dropped to the floor with a disgusting squelch. Stout green tentacles flailed in all directions, scattering drops of acid that smoked where they struck the tiles.

"Pacce," Auron said. "Protect Isaaru."

"Sir." Staring at the fiend in shock, the boy hurried to his brother, herding him towards Kimahri's statue for cover.

Auron took a deep breath of clean air and charged. To his surprise and irritation, his sword bounced off the toxic vegetable's rubbery tentacles. Elma was discovering the same problem, to judge by the curses coming from the other side. They needed fire. Pure magecraft was alien to his being; however, there was one sword-invocation that might suffice, if he could still remember it.

"Get back!" Setting his feet, he whirled the heavy blade like a hammer, drawing the nearby fog into a spinning column. The marlboro began to spin too, caught up in a roaring tornado. When it had nearly reached the ceiling, he unclipped his jug, took a quick swig of Kulukan's ale, and flung it into the midst of the maelstrom. The tornado burst into flames. The marboro came crashing down. So did part of the dome.

"And we drank that stuff?" Elma said, popping up from behind one of the pedestals and diving in with a shriek that made him wince. Apparently she had a few tricks of her own. There were flames dancing along the edge of her sword, burning as she tore into the stunned prey with bloodthirsty precision. The malboro thrashed, opened a toothless maw like the rind of a rotten fruit splitting open, and made a yawning hiss whose significance Auron remembered too late. Both guardians were engulfed in a choking black cloud.

Poisonous fire invaded Auron's mind and sinews, and he barely felt the monster's rasping gums closing around him.

He came to with the crackle of phoenix down prickling his eyelids. Rikku slapped a hand over his sword when he reached for it. "Let Isaaru deal with this one," she said, a quaver in her voice that had him on his feet even faster.

A scorched marlboro was hideous enough, but the creature looming over it was worse. Auron recognized it with a grimace: Seymour's aeon, chained and keening, swathed in mummified flesh and a furled bony shell like a living coffin. Its head snapped back with a cry. The marlboro reeled. Then the fiend simply sank into the ground, dragged under by a reddish-black miasma that smelled like bile. It did not come up again.

Erinyes turned, but it was looking past them, weeping blood from its single eye. The vestigial pair of arms around its neck struggled against its bonds. It gave another furious screech, head jerking like a whip-crack.

"Isaaru!" Pacce's cry was barely enough warning. Auron saw the creature convulse again, and Elma toppled a short distance off. It turned towards him. He raised his sword, staggering under the burning glare of hate and malice. His skull pounded as if every mother who had ever lost a child was screaming into his mind. Then, mercifully, the aeon began to dissipate, growing translucent and fading away.

Pacce was standing over Isaaru, wide-eyed and pale, sword braced for anything else that might come hurtling out of the mist. Auron nodded approval, falling into a watchful stance beside him. "Tend him."

Kneeling with a clank, Pacce fished out another capsule of phoenix down and sprinkled it over Isaaru's face. The man's eyes were leaking blood again. He came to with a mindless snarl, flailing until Pacce caught his arms and held him with a tearful, "Isaaru?"

"Is everybody okay?" Elma said, jogging up with Rikku. They pulled up short, staring open-mouthed at the usually self-composed summoner.

"Isaaru," Auron said. "Are you still with us?"

Isaaru rolled onto his hands and knees, taking slow, steadying breaths. "Not...entirely. It seems that Erinyes... has realized that I am not her son."

"Eh?" Rikku said. "Wait. That was Seymour's creepy-ass aeon, wasn't it?"

"A bad aeon?" Pacce said, distressed. "It's inside you?"

Isaaru closed his eyes. "Yes, Pacce. Do not fear. She is angry and full of grief, but she is not evil. Father Zuke can help me release her, when we return." He offered them a haggard smile that was probably meant to be reassuring. "I begin to have some inkling what being Sin is like. Let us hurry. Was that a gateway, or a trap?"

"Both," Auron said, nodding towards the ghostly sigil pulsing over the hole in the floor. "Come."

There was no sign of a bottom, no way to tell its depth. It was a black pit. Isaaru, who had followed Auron into darkness already without a qualm, did not hesitate. Mimicking the guardian, he stepped out and disappeared with snapping robes.

"It won't kill us, after all," Rikku said to Pacce, who stood looking down in shame and misery. "They would've dropped the temple on us, if they wanted us dead."

"Right." The boy nodded, fists clenched. "O-okay." He jumped.

"They dropped a marlboro," Elma said, swinging her legs over the edge. She grinned at Rikku. "So, time for a rematch."

In dreams, one might trip over a Luca balcony and die on the pavement below, or leap from the peak of Gagazet and alight on the grassy Calm Lands with barely a jolt. This was no featherless glide, but at least it was not fatal. Icy boughs tore and broke, skinning bare flesh and slowing their descent. Tangled nets of thick vines caught and gave way. Roots and gravestones made a hard landing. Winded and blinded, they lay waiting for their eyes to adjust to the darkness while Isaaru healed them.

When he was finished, Auron pressed a vial of aether into the man's hand.

Accepting it meekly, Isaaru crushed it against his throat with a gasp and looked around. "I could swear I've seen this place before."

"It's Djose," Elma said, voice tight and rueful. "Almost. What's with the big rocks?"

The darkness of Sin's garden had assumed a more specific color, blue-black to match the faceted trunks of Macalania trees. Golden light filtered down from the great crystalline moons of seed-pods snagged in their branches. Dark vines and creepers curtained everything. There were fewer flowers than Auron remembered: a solitary orchid nodding here, a spray of jasmine there with just a few waning stars left, a dusting of withered rose petals clinging to spiderwebs.

"It's beautiful," Pacce breathed.

"Yeah." Rikku reached out, brushing her knuckles against a yellow hibiscus. "Guess this is the garden Yunie dreams about."

"It's pretty and all, sir," Elma said, "but I smell an ambush. Let's get to open ground."

Auron grunted and turned to the fence of young trees penning them in. Brutal overhand swings made short work of their trunks. With only vague glimpses of the bluffs to orient him, he started clearing a path uphill.

"Hey!" Rikku said. "Bad enough that you stomped my tomatoes!"

"If all goes well, my lady, I think your friend will be glad to leave this garden," Isaaru said.

They emerged onto oceanless beach, a vast spreading wilderness of dark vegetation spilling over gravestones, bathed in a wavering mirage of blue flames that consumed nothing. Ignoring the others' awed exclamations, Auron scanned the bluffs for any sign of white.

"This one's written in Al Bhed," Pacce said.

"Huh? Let me see." Rikku crouched, pushing aside dried-up aloes to peer at a chunk of sandstone. "It's..." Her voice hitched. "Anna. My Pops' sister."

Gazing out where the sea should have been, Auron spotted a thin blush of salmon-pink tinting the horizon. Below it was a streak of the same hue, tremulous as a tongue of flame stealing along the edge of a piece of parchment.

Rikku put her hands on her hips and began to shout. "Hey, Lu! We made it! Come and get us! Come out, come out, wherever you-- aaah!" She gave a startled scream as a plump fruit let go from one of the vines, striking her on the temple and bursting open. "Ew! Thanks a lot, Lulu!" She reached up to wipe seeds and glop off her face.

"Shouldn't we keep quiet?" Pacce eyed the rustling vines fearfully.

"Heheheheh." Her chuckle was not very convincing. "Just trying to get it over with."

Auron rocked his sword back into its sheath and seized Isaaru, unceremoniously heaving the priest over his shoulder. "Run." He did not wait, but started blundering towards the cliffs, trusting the younger guardians to follow. This was no open field. The trees and vines that had broken their fall were suddenly a deadly obstacle course, concealing rocks and boulders that could send them sprawling.

Baffled but unquestioning, Elma caught up with him quickly. "Higher ground, sir?" She pointed towards a rising slope that narrowed like a funnel as it climbed. Hundreds of Crusaders had perished in its real-world equivalent, trapped in the bottleneck. Yet a few might thread the gauntlet to reach a broad shelf midway up the stepped bluffs. Auron nodded and trailed after her, ignoring Isaaru's gasping questions.

The onrushing wave was eerily silent. Had that streak of dawn not reflected off its crest, he might not have spotted it until too late.

Laden as he was, Auron reached the level ground well behind the others. Elma was making for an out-thrust leg of the cliff that had been eroded to form a natural stone arch. Inadequate, but it would at least break the full force of the water. Auron set the summoner on his feet and turned to face the menace rumbling towards them. They could hear the roar of the ocean now, crashing as it overtopped trees, bushes, memorials.

"What's she doing?" Rikku said.

"Yu Yevon's taking no chances," Auron said.

"A trap," Elma said, stoic. "Is there anything we can do, sir?"

"Everyone, stay close," Isaaru said. "I can buy us time, Sir Auron, but no more."

"Understood." Auron closed his eyes. "Pacce. Guard him well."

"Aye, sir." Apprehensive, the boy moved to stand back to back with his brother, bracing his feet and sword against the ground, his shoulders against Isaaru's. Elma and Rikku wedged themselves under the overhang. The Al Bhed, more trusting, threaded her feet into the tangle of old vines snaking around the rock. The water was rising quickly now, devouring the beach they had just vacated. The summoner was praying. A faint green membrane of light sprang up around them.

Stepping away from NulTide's flimsy barrier, Auron strode out to the edge of the natural balcony and raised his bare hand, displaying the brand she had given him. "Summoned, we have come! Lady, heed my prayer. I bring you Grand Maester Isaaru, High Priest of St. Bevelle, to answer for Yevon's crimes!"

"What the hell?" Elma said.

"What's he doing?" Pacce said.

"Avenge Yuna. Avenge Tidus. Avenge Chappu. Avenge Kimahri. Avenge all of those whose memories you guard in this dream of death."

"Making her mad," Rikku muttered.

Auron's booming voice echoed off the curving walls of the limestone bluffs, trumpeting above the sea's thunder. "Now is the time to break the spiral, Lulu! No more Yevon! No more pilgrimages! No more teachings! No more cages! No more lies!"

The swirling tide spilled over the brim of the rocky shelf. It flowed as a river, not as a wall, forcing Auron back step by step until it lifted him off his feet. He was carried backwards, narrowly missing the stone spur sheltering Isaaru and the others. His head struck the cliff. Held there by tremendous pressure, he could dimly see them clinging to each other a few paces away, surrounded by a faint sphere of light that was trembling like a soap bubble. The water rose to his shoulders, then began to recede, drawing him with it.

"Auron, you idiot!" Rikku's outburst had him smirking as the water dragged him towards the edge.

There was a splitting thunderclap. The bolt struck directly where he had been standing, but instead of fading, it opened like a fan. A blinding white figure stepped out of it.

Chains and straps of leather whipped around like angry snakes, plunging into the waves and coiling around his arms, his legs. They held him fast in a bizarre tug-of-war with the sea. The current pulled him down, down, draining through the mesh. He hung suspended against the scarp, waterlogged and half-drowned. When he could collect his wits, he clambered up the rock face using the net as a ladder, rolled over the edge and lay stunned, retching saltwater.

Yuna's Final Aeon stood over him, implacable, a figure of glass and steel and white fire whose head and shoulders rose above the heights of Mushroom Ridge. Ropes of hair flared out like Shiva's, forming the butterfly fan of the Venus Crest against the sky.

The lightning began to fall. Branching fingers coiled around the rock sheltering the summoner and guardians, blasting away the vines lacing the stone. Pacce took the brunt of the first attack and fell, mail smoking. There was a fainter flash, and Isaaru's barrier shifted from green to gold. The bolts began to flow around them. Assured that the summoner was safe for the moment, Auron pushed off the ground, slashed through his bonds and advanced upon the aeon, bracing himself for the first kiss of lightning slamming down. It staggered him, but he could bear it.

Maybe.

Chains battered him, sending jolts along the links. Heavy straps scourged his head and arms, biting with edges fringed in slivers of glass, scoring bloody welts. The electrical barrage was relentless. Clothed only in a sheath of living lightning, the aeon mauled him with pitiless talons of fire, seeking, snaring, searing nerves and flesh again and again. Every rivet and plate of his cuirass was white-hot torture.

The sheer futility of Lulu's old plan reasserted itself as he stumbled and hit the ground with his teeth.

Healing washed over him. Lifting his head, he saw Rikku through the aeon's glass calves. She was cowering, struggling to keep the targe up and not clap her hands over her ears; some of the vines and chains had wrapped around her legs, pinning her to the ground. None of the aeon's blows fell directly where she was crouched, but the recoil of the lightning strikes upon Auron and Isaaru splashed over her, sinking into the wires of her upraised shield.

He rose and moved forward, gritting his teeth in anticipation as the next shaft of lightning descended.

The pain was less. Rikku must have conjured a magic barrier from her alchemy kit as well as a restorative. Angling around so that he would be an easier target for her missiles, he closed in, throwing every break he knew against the aeon's slim ankles. Jangling bolts and elixirs crashed over him in a disorienting barrage.

This, too, was a lie. Lulu had to be here, just inches away, locked inside that murderous shell. Raising his eyes, he willed himself to see her. If he could just bend the pyreflies to his will as she had done many times since she gained Sin's powers and chains, he might twist Yu Yevon's lies back to the truth. Could he still find it in himself to believe?

Another bolt lashed him like biting words. Auron, really. Stop pretending you're a cynic.

Yes. For one moment, the mage was there, her proper size, arms raised in equivocal greeting, calling down the storm.

His sword went through.

The aeon's chrysalis shattered. Shards of silvered metal and black steel and ice and crystal came raining down, smashing and sparking across the ground. His sword went through, burrowing into layers of metal, glass, fabric, flesh, bone. He felt sick.

Lulu crumpled — black — white — red — was she still wearing his coat, or was that all blood? — and the lightning ceased.

"Auron, you didn't!" Rikku rushed forward. He snared her arm as she tried to push past him.

The mage was lying in a bed of salt-covered roses, knee-length black hair and white limbs falling in a graceful spiral as if she were still only a symbol. Lulu might have appreciated the imagery, blood staining white roses red, but he was no poet. They were just damned weeds, and she was really lying there, blood pumping from a huge gash through the fourth and fifth rib (breasts, you fool, they don't grow any finer) and he hoped he had missed the heart.

If she still had one.

"Wait," he said, drawing Rikku away.

"Let me save her!"

"Wait."

The body shimmered with blackness. A boiling cloud of red and black, viscous and foul, began to bleed upwards from Lulu's pale flesh.

"Auron, come on!" Rikku struggled against his grip.

The demon burst free and catapulted into the sky, veering wildly, searching, a churning knot of hate.

"Hurry," he said, releasing her. Then he turned. "Isaaru. Send."

Isaaru, supported by his two guardians, stepped out into the open. Curling his hands together in that accursed prayer, he began to dance.

Pyreflies lifted from Auron's collar. He turned back to Lulu. Rikku was kneeling over her, crying and shaking out six phoenix downs at once, spitting Al Bhed curses at the mage and at him. Lulu's face was bone white, that familiar spill of black hair falling across one side of her face with artful carelessness: the Lady, even now. He wanted to hold her, to press that dire wound closed, to weep like the passionate young monk who had died before she knew him. He wanted to stay long enough to see shadowed lids open, a true smile of freedom, Rikku beaming with triumph before she turned to glare at him through snot and tears and really let him have it. He had waited too many years to miss this moment. But there was a god to kill.

The fayth had been right. Isaaru was stronger than Auron had given him credit for. His sorrowful, reverent, insidious summons was paring away pyreflies like waves lapping at a sandcastle.

"Sir Auron!" The sending slackened.

For a moment, Auron thought the summoner had caved in to misplaced sentiment, then he realized Yu Yevon was bearing down on him. He moved away from the two women as the seething cloud exploded overhead. It enveloped him in a vortex of desperation, hunger, madness, cold fury and implacable will. Auron was no fayth, but he was unsent, halfway there, a last-ditch prop to latch onto. Shouting defiance from every last fiber of his being was not enough; it had not been enough for Jecht or Lulu. Yu Yevon's bottomless soul was devouring him.

"Keep sending!" There was a reason why Yunalesca had rejected him at the Hall of the Final Summoning— or so Auron hoped.

Then the world was pain.

Chapter Text

The Farplane promised longed-for release. Auron was so tired, a husk of secondhand pyreflies glued together by Phoenix Down and scars. Rest, sang the sky beyond all skies. Your journey is at an end. Yu Yevon promised nothing, but its dissonant, teeth-cracking whine turned every thought to despair, to the frenzied attack of the maddened hive. Defend, defend, defend, destroy, came the mantra, and he wanted to lash out at something, at anything, as if the violence he had just committed on Lulu's body had unleashed the ravening fiend within. All that held him back was pain, the pangs of childbirth magnified a hundredfold. Why was Erinyes screaming into his mind?

A slight pressure on his hand, faint as the swish of a braid on bare skin, was proof against chaos.Choose, Auron. Choose. This is your story.

A fiend was still a man, as long as he remembered his name.

Auron jammed himself back into his body like an ill-fitting shoe. Rikku, shaking him frantically, gave an indignant, "Hey!" as he elbowed her aside and stood, feeling the weight of sword-hilt against callouses. 

Lulu's garden was lost. In its place, brackish waters lapped from horizon to horizon, flooding the ruins of a ghost city under a bruise-purple sky. Jumbled stone blocks were scattered, patternless, a puzzle that could never have formed a coherent whole. Bolted to them were rusted pylons and transformers, a maze of drooping cables and catwalks leading nowhere. Bleached, coralline huts teetered on rotting piers, side by side with soulless skyscraper façades. A few dying Macalania trees glowed pale and dim in the shallows. Over the dome of Baaj Temple, carrion birds wheeled in an endless gyre.

No, not Baaj. Erinyes.

Seymour's aeon had sprouted from the temple foundations like an unholy mushroom, its flesh stained and gangrenous, its reflection mirrored on stagnant water. Around it orbited a pair of misshapen monoliths: last remnants, perhaps, of Lightning Mushroom Rock. At the aeon's foot stood a small figure in an old red coat.

Auron began to run. Leaping, skidding from rock to algae-covered rock, he tore a careening course across the sunken city. A blunt snout and long neck burst from the water, arching across his path. He hewed it and kept going. Crackling explosives on his heels told him that Rikku was following. There were more dark forms moving in the water around them. He should wait, make sure she was safe. But others needed him more.

"Let him go." It was Lulu's voice, hoarse with disuse: did he only imagine it? "Release the summoner. He did not kill your son, Keta. I did."

There. Between the feet of a sheared-off summoner's statue, Isaaru lay unseeing, his body arching and falling back in fierce convulsions. Pacce held him, weeping. Elma stood guard, glaring down at black fins cutting the water around their perch. Her sword was dripping pyreflies.

They would have to hold on.

So would Lulu, sinking down with one arm cast across her face in a warding gesture. Flying past her, Auron braced his sword against his hip for a full-body ram. Spray went up as he hit a thin sheet of water. A Flare spell curtained ahead of him in a rolling barrage. Puddles flashed to steam. Blinded and scalded, he crashed into the aeon at full speed, knocking the breath from his lungs. The sword plunged deep. Erinyes lurched and screamed, straining against its chains. 

Any pity he might have felt for its fayth, Yevon's newest prisoner, had been negated by the sight of what it was doing to Isaaru, what it might be doing to Lulu behind his back. "We killed Seymour," he said, when he had breath to speak.

It took all his strength to yank the blade free. With the follow-through, he swept it around in a Break, softening steel to lead and bone to sinew. Erinyes fought back, screeching into his mind. My son, my sin, my beloved! Acid waves washed over him, chewing through his body like a plague of insects. He stumbled, pitched face-forward against the aeon's armor, and felt the cold smack of a Hi-potion across the back of his neck. Lulu must have raided his coat. There was a weak tug on his belt.

Retreating, he risked dropping his guard for a glimpse of her. Scarred wrists, snarled coils of hair, the hem of his coat staining the water around her ankles red— another spike of rage threatened to snap his control. "Sorry I'm late." 

"Nonsense." Fetching another potion, she mimed drawing it from her bosom with a wink and a flourish. "You're just in time, Auron. If you would?"

"Hmph." Smiling faintly, he took the potion and tossed it back. Cool healing soothed the burning needles of pain burrowing under his skin. Then he sprang forward, throwing out his left hand in another Break that he had not needed in thirteen years. "Peeling the fruit for her," Lulu used to call it: jarring ordinary matter with pyreflies so spells hit twice as hard. Blue sparks showered around him from the oblique impact. Pivoting away, he braced as Lulu swept up her hand in an emphatic command. The air quaked. Ultima's black jaws closed around the aeon, pinching it down to a point before exploding outwards in a bubble of insanity. Just before the shockwave reached them, it reversed, crushing the aeon in torturous slow motion.

"I'm sure I told your summoner not to bring any aeons," she said, observing the spell's progress with detachment.

"Summoners are stubborn."

"Well." She half-turned. Across the water, Isaaru was sitting with his head between his knees, but at least he was no longer being jerked like a puppet. "I suppose I cannot fault him. I'd rather fight her than you."

"Hey, guys," Rikku said, popping over a high stone curb and landing next to the mage. "The flirting's kinda cute, but can we go now?" 

"Go?" Elma called over. "First we kick Yevon's ass!" 

Twice, three times space ruptured and folded, buckling the pavement almost to their feet. Puddles of water drained away, streaming into infinity. When the aeon snapped back into focus, Lulu rotated behind Auron, drawing Rikku with her. Striding forward, the swordsman renewed his attack with a flurry of hammer-blows before the aeon could recover. 

"Augh!" Rikku reached for a grenade clipped to her belt. "Guardians!" 

"Rikku, wait," Lulu said. "You've done enough. Keep clear. Wakka needs you." 

"But we need you, too!" Rikku's voice rose to a frustrated squeak. "I came to rescue you, not watch more friends die!" 

"I know. Thank you." She brushed a few strands out of Rikku's eyes as once she had clucked over a young summoner, and her words, too, recalled Yuna. "Go, now. Please... believe." 

"That's not funny, Lulu."

"Not in us. In him." The mage gave a gentle push. "Just a little longer."

Rikku might have stayed to argue, but Lulu summoned a portcullis of lightning that slammed down on the aeon and arced along its chains. Whining about black mages playing dirty, Rikku fled. She scrambled back over the wall and tumbled into waist-deep water, sloshing towards the others.

"Watch out!" Elma said, spearing a dark shape swimming below. "Super-sized piranhas down here."

"Eeee!" Flinching, Rikku tossed a grenade. The ensuing geyser drenched Isaaru and his companions, but several eel-like fiends floated to the surface and dissolved into pyreflies. The rest scattered. 

"Come on," she said, wading out to the trio. "They won't stay away long."

They shuffled Isaaru to dry ground, fighting his sodden robes. Taking refuge behind the ceramic ribs of a stripped machina, they hunkered down to watch the struggle taking place on the temple platform.

"Pacce," Elma said. "Think you can watch Isaaru's back without me?"

"No. I beg your pardon, Commander," Isaaru said, his voice a papery whisper. "Erinyes fights with talons you cannot parry. Sir Auron and the Lady... may have one advantage."

"If anyone gets killed, I'm holding you responsible," Rikku said, folding her arms.

"Grant them this battle, milady." He smiled, wan but composed. "Never again will Spira have such a chance."

"Oh, great. That's what Lu said last time."

Meanwhile, the swordsman and mage were rediscovering their old dance. Auron was always fore, attacking with ruthless overhand blows, the disciplined savagery of Ifrit's hellfire. Lulu glided behind him, fingertips whispering annihilation. Sometimes the slivers of ice and fire that fell splintering on Erinyes stung him too, but he barely noticed such love-bites under the aeon's scourges. These came at lengthening intervals; the aeon was clearly tiring. Unfortunately, so was Lulu. She had exhausted her magic too quickly in triplecasts, then burned through all the Ethers he had bought from Gippal two weeks ago on the slimmest of hopes. Now she was forced to fall back on weaker elemental spells. 

"Was I always this feeble?" she said, contemptuous. "No more Ultima, I'm afraid." 

"Good." He carved another gash in the aeon's flank. Hadn't he hit that spot earlier? "You're not Sin anymore." 

Even for Sin, the battle was surreal. Their foe stood rooted like a quintain on the warrior monks' training grounds, yet they were the ones rocked by unseen attacks. Twice the aeon's mind-rakes felled Lulu; twice, Auron dodged an unsteady Thundara while setting her back on her feet. Black ichor flowed, spattering his face and arms. He struck and struck and ceased to feel any pain. It might be their final battle together, but at least they were free, fighting for vengeance and lost chances, fighting for each other and for old comrades, staking everything on one last tryst of havoc and destruction. He thought he heard Lulu's laughter in the storm.

It was not enough. It should have been enough. The damage they had inflicted should have vanquished Sin itself, let alone an aeon. But Erinyes fed on pain like a leech. Auron wanted to warn Lulu away, shield her from what was coming, but he needed her spells to keep the foe off-balance. If they could just beat it down before...

Reality began to tatter and warp. The ground melted. The aeon dragged them down and down, deep into the bloody heart of hell where the pyreflies of lost fiends fetched up at last, a wailing void of anger and despair. There was a second Erinys down here, inverted, crowned and horned and maned with strips of desiccated flesh. It knotted its fists, roared, shattered its chains, and began to pummel them. Auron parried the first punch and the next, but blows came thick and fast, turning armor to anvil. At last, with a fiery explosion, space flipped like an hourglass. He fell, struck ground and lay in a bloody welter of pain. Lulu landed beside him, limp.

Isaaru's profound healing washed over both of them with the force of Holy. Ignoring stabbing protests from half-knitted bones, Auron arose. Elma crumpled a few paces off. The Crusader must have attemped to take his place in a head-on charge to distract the aeon. Moving like a sleepwalker, Isaaru headed towards her.

Failure. Auron felt the same sick numbness that had gripped him when he woke to find Kimahri's corpse and a blasted plain. Thrusting it aside, he dropped to one knee next to Lulu and offered his arm as a ladder. "Can you find the exit?"

"No!" Lulu's eyes blazed as she levered herself up. "We're not letting him get away, Auron. I swear to you—" 

"To hell with Yu Yevon," Rikku cried, scurrying towards them. "We can figure out how to beat him later. We're getting you out of here!"

"There are lives at stake, Lulu," Auron said.

Glancing at Rikku, Lulu drew a sharp breath. The last of the Lady's inhuman cruelty bled from her face. "Yes. All right. Let's collect your summoner."

"Pacce!" Elma said, reorienting herself after a heady dose of Isaaru's white magic. "Wait!"

The boy had darted towards the monoliths orbiting the field of battle. Auron had barely registered them: grotesque pillars like fossilized excrement turning in endless circles. An apt symbol for Yevon, he noted sourly. Pacce was blunting his sword against one of them with wild, flailing attacks. It slowed. The second one swung around and plowed into it. Erinyes gave another shriek, dropping the young warrior monk in his tracks.

"Keep back," Auron commanded, catching Elma's eye. Still woozy from a Life spell, she nodded and tackled Isaaru, hooking her arms around his elbows to hold him back. Striding over to Pacce, Auron seized him by the collar and started dragging him towards his brother. "Guard your summoner," he snapped, noticing the boy was still conscious and struggling to speak.

"Sir! Th-the stone things. Isaaru says we've got to stop them!"

Auron's brow furrowed. "What?" 

"They're healing Er—" Isaaru started, but it was his turn to collapse under Erinyes' baleful glare.

"Of course!" Lulu said. "I should have known. Rikku. Disable them." 

"Uhhh...okay." The Al Bhed unclipped another grenade. "Don't breathe!" 

A cascade of orange, purple, and shocking pink explosions engulfed both monoliths. One by one, their spinning segments ground to a halt like jammed millstones. 

"Lulu, now," Auron said. 

"Keta," Lulu murmured. "Let go. We've both lost. Let Yu Yevon lose with us." 

Flare's inferno went off like a bomb. Elma whooped and sprinted towards the aeon before the flames had completely sputtered out. Auron followed. The Crusader's blade ignited as she leapt— the woman was a lunatic, running up one of the chains to stab at the eye— while Auron pounded the aeon's trunk. Bones pulverized. Pieces of carbonized flesh and clotted blood came raining down. With a final gurgle, the aeon exploded, leaving behind a pile of fused chains and a blackened ivory pendant etched with a woman's full-length portrait. Elma fell and rolled, snuffing out flames beginning to scorch her uniform. Something black and billowing catapulted up into the sky.

For a moment, Auron feared Yu Yevon might escape, taking refuge in some back pocket of the Farplane that he and Lulu might never find. Then he looked up and realized there were other reasons why they might never find him. Lots of them.

"Augh!" Rikku said. "Incoming!" 

The air rocked with sonic booms. Featherless wings and claws came swooping down, covering Yu Yevon's flight. It was not one garuda, but many. At the same time, an army of fiends burst from the sea, surging over the platform from every side. Sinscales, tentacles, water serpents, maelspikes engulfed the party in a heaving mob of fins and teeth and spines. Auron rammed into the nearest scaled flank, reaching Rikku and Lulu just before the mass of foes grew impenetrable.

"Circle," Elma shouted, shoving Isaaru behind her and closing ranks with Pacce. They were cut off, too far away to provide mutual support to Yuna's ex-guardians.

Lulu drew back her hand and gasped, sweat beading on her skin. 

"What is it?" Auron said, slashing at blue-flickering wings over her shoulder.

"Yu Yevon." 

"Fight. Don't let him back in."

"No, not that." The tremor in her voice was close to panic. "He's sucked me dry. I couldn't light a candle!"

A cluster of spines drove into Auron's arm. He doubled over for a split second, clutching the wound. That was all it took for a leaping sahagin to shove past his guard, wedging itself between him and his friends. The amphibian reared back and spat digestive fluids in his face, delaying him further. For every foe he mowed down, two more pushed him farther away from friends.

"Lulu!" Rikku's cry was another jolt of pain, but Auron could do nothing more than keep hurling himself at the growing wall of fiends. A tumult of pyreflies swirled around him, tokens of petty victories. He was losing ground. He was losing them. The lack of pyrotechnics was an ominous sign. Either Rikku was out of small explosives, or...

Thin red lines of focused energy stabbed down, taking out two of the maelspikes looming over him. The huge tusked fishes tipped belly-up and faded away. Before he had had time to process what that meant, there was a whining roar of braking engines, a loud chuff, and a detonation on the temple platform immediately behind him. Heat blistered the back of his arms and legs. The tide of pyreflies streaming past his shoulders told him just how close he had come— to what?

A blocky figure leapt down beside him, lugging a shoulder cannon even larger than Gippal's. "Legendary jackass is right. Rikku, you okay?"

"Wakka!" Rikku hurtled out of the chaos and snuggled against him, back to back, brandishing a knife. "The Celsius?"

"Yeah. Buddy's watching the kids. Where's Lu?"

"Over here; come on!" 

Wakka's gun was cumbersome for close combat, but useful as a ram. Auron followed the pair, dispatching the fiends it knocked down. Off to their right, Elma and Pacce had been joined by Juno, forming a triangle of swords around Isaaru. More fiends fell to lances of red light from above. Looking up, Auron saw the flash of Baralai's white hair: he was leaning over the side of Gippal's flyer, picking off fiends with a marksman's precision. Nooj, braced against the opposite railing, was shooting down garuda.

"Orders, boss?" Gippal called, waving through the windshield. "Hope we're not too late to the party!" 

"Clear the fiends," Auron said. He turned, searching for Lulu. 

There: Wakka's orange crest nodded on the other side of a pack of sinscales. Cutting his way through, Auron found the blitzer stooped over the mage, tenderly applying the last of Rikku's potions while Rikku danced around him fending off fiends with knife and targe. Baralai's sniping kept her from being overwhelmed, but a few sword-strokes cleared the area more efficiently.

"You stay back," Wakka growled, not looking up. "This was your boneheaded plan, ya? Trying to get Lu and Rikku killed this time."

"Hey, I came on my own," Rikku said. "They needed someone with brains."

"The plan was mine, Wakka," Lulu said. "And now that you are here..." Opening her eyes, she raised a finger, pointing weakly at the sky. "That is the true face of Yevon. Have you brought Atonement?" 

"Lu!" The blitzer broke into a teary-eyed grin. "Yeah, she's right here. Glad I didn't have to use her on you this time." He squeezed Lulu's hand, then turned to retrieve his ungainly cannon. "That'sYu Yevon? Hard to believe anybody would pray to that thing."

Scooting away from her, he propped the gun against the ground and his shoulder, tilting it up like a mortar. The fiends had thinned enough for Auron to look away. Yu Yevon was no more than a flickering inky blot against into the clouds.

Wakka was muttering to himself. "Tryin' to play cactuar tag, huh? Dodge this." A shaft of blue-green light as thick as his arm shot from the barrel. High above, Yu Yevon swerved right into the beam. There was an eerie black explosion. Ribbons of shadow began to peel away from Yu Yevon's bloated shape. Nooj turned, aiming his smaller energy weapon at the twisting mass as it began to fall, writhing, towards the leaden sea.

"Yeah!" Rikku crowed. "Machina power!" 

A sinking heaviness seized their limbs. Air, blood, bones: everything suddenly seemed impossibly heavy, pulling them down. They could not breathe. There was a clang as Juno's heavy blade dropped, a louder clank as Wakka collapsed under the weight of his gun. The flyer's engine strained, whined, and coughed to silence. Gippal gave a shout and wrestled the stalled craft to a messy landing as it tilted and plowed nose-first into the water. Even Rikku tripped and went sprawling.

"Gravija," Lulu whispered. 

The weight of his sword dragged Auron to his hands and knees. Crawling towards the mage, he saw the frustration in her eyes, the aching powerlessness of one grown used to godlike powers.

"End this," he said, pressing his palm against hers. 

She stiffened. The pyreflies whined loud in his ears as he willed his will to her: his slow simmering anger steeped in two decades of failure and betrayals, his lost faith, his grief for the fallen, his loyalty, his broken oaths, his stubborn sense of justice, his deep-seated compassion veiled under a cynic's mask, his laughter at life's follies (especially his own), a burning love never named that kept him here, here, here— everything that drove him, Entrusted to her like fire leaping from one dead tree to the next—

Her fingers laced with his. He was uncertain whether he heard her voice aloud or in his mind. "For Chappu." Ultima's first salvo exploded outwards. Had the hover not fallen, it would have been ripped apart. "For Yuna. For Tidus. For Kimahri. For Ginnem. For Braska—" 

Again and again the sky ripped inside out and outside in, worrying the shapeless mass of Yu Yevon like a chocobo in a fiend's jaws. The two inert pillars of stone were drawn up and into the vortex, spiraling faster and faster until they slammed together with Yu Yevon crushed between them. Brilliant spokes of white light spurted out, speckled by fine black grains like charcoal sifting down. Solid rock began to unravel.

"For you." 

With a shattering roar as if all of Spira had been dissolved by the force of her last spell, Sin's nightmare burst and disintegrated. Sky and water, stone and fire flew apart. Light and darkness, sound and scent, every form of sensation ceased.

Slowly, slowly, their senses returned.

Thin and remote, a solitary lightning bolt struck a tower beneath a very ordinary bank of thunderheads.

They lay on stony ground. A light rain was falling through a net of pyreflies drifting as far as the eye could see.

Auron looked down. Lulu's eyes were closed. He bent and kissed her temple with a gruff whisper that he hoped she could hear. "Welcome home."

Chapter Text

The off-duty cabin of the Celsius was ruddy and warm with laughter, with drink, and with the throbbing glow of light-strips that Lucil had almost ceased to eye with wary curiosity. Old friends and new had gathered at the bar for a leisurely flight back to the capital. There was mud on the deck and clumps of chocobo down spiraling overhead, souvenirs of the airship's stopover in Moonflow Village. No one begrudged a few feathers in Hypello ale.


"It's not a gun; he says it's a sphere
and the teachings of Yevon are perfectly clear,
so that's what he carries beneath his robes,
and the maester's got nothing beneath his robes, 
but a pair of very small spheres."

Nooj leaned back in his chair. "At least, that's a rough translation. I'm still not quite fluent in Al Bhed."

"I've heard something like it in the barracks," Lucil said, matching his deadpan.

Two pairs of eyes were riveted upon Nooj as if he had just sprouted fluffy yellow wings and pranced along the countertop singing the latest show tunes from Luca. It took them a moment to register that he had ceased chanting. 

"I'm still not sure I've heard it," said Baralai.

"Sin's toxin," Juno said. "Sometimes it takes a while to wear off."

A tattoo of loud bangs jarred them from drinks. Something like hailstones was pelting the other side of the cabin door. The ship's captain was also a target, apparently; Brother's plaintive cries echoed down the corridor. Lucil was the first off her barstool, seizing her cane. Baralai reached for his gun. 

"It's not weapons fire," Nooj said, one hand slipping to the back of Juno's chair nonetheless, putting his shoulder between her and the commotion.

"And if it is, I'm off-duty, so do me a favor and stay put," she said, taking a casual swig from her tankard. "I've already got one maester to worry about."

Baralai rolled his eyes. "Warning: nursemaid with sword," he said to Nooj. "You sure you want her back?" 

"Absolutely." The frank intensity in his tone made Juno sit up straight.

"This Nooj," she said, when she found her voice, "is going to take some getting used to." 

The door lurched partway open, revealing a corridor occupied by four giggling children, Brother flat on his back moaning with theatrical pathos, and Cid standing stupefied in the lift at the far end of the hall. A swarm of about fifty blue spheres — no, miniature rubber blitzballs -- were ricocheting off ceiling, walls and floor. Whooping, Vidina grabbed up a handful from the deck and pitched them at the nearest wall, setting off another frenetic barrage. A few hurtled into the room and caromed off cups, chairs, and the back of Nooj's head before bouncing to a halt. Baralai's robes took a glancing arc of ale from a tumbling drink.

"Ahuikr!" Cid roared. The door hissed shut. Slowly, the hubbub began to subside.

Shaking her head, Lucil eased back onto her stool. "I confess I had expected Lord Isaaru's Calm to be...calmer." 

"Not if Lady Shelinda has anything to say about it," Baralai said. "She was plotting the parade route when we left." 

"Honoring whom?" Juno sighed, leaning back against Nooj's arm. "You guys did half the work." 

"Does it matter?" he said.

"You misunderstand Shelinda's tactics," Lucil said. "She feared a stampede back to the city when we shut down the evacuation camps. We may, however, need to postpone festivities until the High Summoner has recovered." She nodded toward a smaller door at the opposite end of the living area, through which Isaaru's guardians had carried him earlier. "In any event, you may be sure credit will be given where due."

Nooj's dark eyes twinkled. "And court martials?"

"Possibly," said Baralai. "Or an honorable discharge. I haven't decided yet."

"Baralai!" Juno glared. "You wouldn't." 

"It depends." He raised his cup, turning it thoughtfully. "I wondered if you might like to join the Al Bhed for a while."

"Oh." She stilled under Nooj's suddenly intent gaze. "The city's a mess. You need me. So does the Guard." 

"We need someone we can trust as a liaison to Cid."

"Business later, Baralai," Lucil admonished. "The captain is right. We're off-duty tonight. Drink." 

"In that case," Nooj said, "Has anyone informed Sir Auron that he's out of a job?" 

They turned to follow his cocked eyebrow towards the lone figure standing at the rail above them, a dark silhouette in the gallery overlooking the bar. His shock of white hair stood out like a torch, tinted by the sunset beyond the windows. The hilt of his massive sword jutted up above his shoulder, defining his stiff spine and shoulders with its canted weight. He had not moved in over an hour. Already he seemed a relic, a statue for priests to dust and antiquarians to embalm in learned tales.

Oblivious to their scrutiny, Auron kept vigil with his back to the room. Beyond the glass canopy of the ship's hull, the last poppy gleams of a vivid orange sunset were swallowing the dwindling ranks of pyreflies spiraling up from Sin's—Yevon's grave. In the distance, a bristling shadow-carpet glittered with dark flecks of sapphire, ruby, emerald and topaz, the crystalline fringe of Macalania's enchanted forest. The deck tilted subtly as the ship swung westward, away from the stormy plains. 

For a moment, Auron hoped that Lulu could see this: not the first delicate dawn since her imprisonment, but the first sunset, fierce embers cooling to velvet dusk. Then a gray flat strip on the distant horizon gave one almighty flash of fire. He stiffened. That smooth mirror could only be Lake Macalania, melted and refrozen too recently for snows to roughen its surface. Not only the fayth lay entombed in its ice. Monks, acolytes and orphans had been Sin's final victims.

Maybe it was better that Wakka and Rikku had bundled Lulu off into private quarters the instant they came aboard.

Grimacing, he turned towards the end of the gallery, where a small door led to the guest room over Isaaru's. Through the bulkhead he could hear Wakka's grumbles, Rikku's banter. How many Trials had he spent like this, waiting on the wrong side of a door? But they were friends, not fayth. He trusted them. (He was not angry at being shut out. He did not envy. He would not howl at the door like a fiend). Besides, he needed time to collect himself as much as Lulu did. He had come dangerously close to giving her too much of himself with entrust, that soul-gift of life's fire. He wondered if she had retained a piece of it.

"Sir Auron," Maester Lucil called from below. "Will you not join us? This celebration is in your honor as well."

Almost he ignored the invitation. However, he could do with a drink. With another dour glance at the door walling him off from the lodestone of his thoughts, Auron moved to the stairs. There he paused to set his sword against the door-frame. Leaving it like a talisman, he descended and approached the small gathering at the bar with a curt nod for their greetings and smiles.

"Is there any word?" Baralai said. "I'm not the healer that Isaaru is, but I am temple-trained. If you wish, I could—"

Auron saw Juno's fingers tighten around her drink. There was no real danger from this quarter, but it was a reminder. "Lulu needs rest and those she trusts. But thanks." 

Their faces burned with curiosity. Turtling behind his collar, he moved to an unoccupied seat, and gave his full attention to the tankard Lucil pushed towards him.

"Gippal should be here," Juno said after an expectant pause. "He's going to miss the party." 

"He's headed to Luca after he drops off Elma," Baralai reminded her. "I'm sure the celebrations there will exceed Bevelle's."

"Still gunning for a date with the hot Commander," Nooj said drily. "As I recall, he always wanted to join the Crusaders."

"Did he? Excellent," said Lucil. "I hope your friend has fortitude. Elma's breaking-in of potential officers can be quite strenuous." Her eyes crinkled as Baralai began to cough into his drink. 

"Speaking of 'breaking in.'" Juno propped her chin on her hand, eying the silent man at the end of the bar. "Sir Auron, I don't know if you're aware, but during the upheavals at the end of your last pilgrimage, the warrior monks collapsed. There was a purge. The black scrolls were burned. We had to rebuild the order. I don't suppose you would—" 

"No." 

She frowned. "Sir?"

"You don't need the past." 

"Your training helped you beat Sin. Three times. You know what works, what's useless. That's a legacy worth passing on." 

"I'm not interested in your job."

"Now look—" 

"Now who's on duty?" Baralai said, eyes twinkling. "I would think that Sir Auron has earned a vacation before he considers new career options." 

The door swished open, alleviating the need for further diplomacy. Rikku's large family paraded into the room. Cid, carrying the youngest girl in his arms, was using his knees to herd a sleepy Etta towards a guest-room next to Isaaru's. A noisy argument in Al Bhed had broken out between Vidina and his uncle, a man like a human windmill whose gesticulating arms sported fresh bruises. Little Yuna trailed behind the others with head down, pajama feet slipping off her toes. A plush shoopuf bumped along the floor behind her, tugged along by its snout. At the end of the bar, she halted and turned towards Auron with an imploring look.

He shook his head. "Not yet." 

"Yuna wants to see," Brother said, laboring over the Yevonite tongue. "Yuna wants to see the Woman."

"Wakka and Rikku are with her," Auron said, rising to his feet. 

Yuna scurried over. Her grandfather turned and harrumphed.

Auron closed his hand around the small fingers seeking his own. "I'll take her to her parents." He nodded to the company. "Excuse me." Ignoring Cid's grumbling, the incongruous pair ascended the staircase. 

Auron halted at the top, debating. Yuna seemed to guess why. Releasing her grip on his thumb, she set her shoopuf doll beside the sword, stood on tiptoe and pressed a button on the door panel. A chime sounded. After a brief delay, the door slid open to reveal Wakka filling the entryway like a Ronso, arms folded and stance wide. "Go away," he said. "She's not up yet." He faltered under Auron's unwavering gaze. "Look, Rikku hasn't done her face. You know how mad Lulu used to get if we–"

Auron snorted. "I'll risk it."

Yuna, less patient, uttered a plaintive wail. "Vedran!"

Wakka's eyes softened. "Okay, okay. Sorry. She's a little beat up, Yunie, but don't you worry. Mum's taking real good care of her." 

He retreated into the unlit room, illuminated only by the twilight coming through floor-to-ceiling windows. Lulu lay sleeping like a moth under a cocoon of blankets, an undulating form resting on her side facing the sky. It was hard to make out much, but someone had washed away the grime of battle, cleaned and bandaged her wounds, and dressed her in a loose white sleep-tunic that left her shoulders bare. Her hair was wet, dripping onto the floor where it hung over the edge of the bed. Auron's ripped and bloodied coat hung from a peg by the door. 

Rikku, carefully arranging Lulu's bangs over one eye, waggled a hairbrush at them as they filed in. "Heya. I wondered how long it would take for you to get in here." She lifted Yuna into her lap, but her wink was directed towards Auron. "Summoner all tucked in?"

"Yes." He took up a position just inside the door's alcove. There was another stool by the bed, clearly not meant for him. 

Wakka collapsed onto it like a falling garuda, plopping his chin onto his hands. He craned one eye to watch as Yuna edged forward in her mother's lap, tentative and eager, inspecting the sleeping figure as if peering into a pool. Her outstretched fingers fluttered over sallow bruises, the faint red stripe around Lulu's throat, the gauze bandages wrapping a shoulder. Finally, the girl climbed up onto the head of the bed, lithe and silent like her mother could be, crawling over Lulu's head to peer down at her face. Eyes shining, Yuna looked up at her father.

He beamed at her through his exhaustion. "Yeah. It's really her. That's Lu."

Yuna backed away, careful not to touch. Rikku patted her arm and held out the brush, nodding towards the snarled loops of hair hanging down in a damp curtain.

Yuna settled to work at once, applying the brush too gently to make much headway. "We're taking her home, right? She's coming to live with us?"

Wakka cringed. "Uh, Mum and I need to talk about it."

"It's up to Lulu, honey," Rikku said. She smiled at the upwelling gratitude in Wakka's eyes. "Of course, I'd love for her to stay. She's family. She's your auntie, after all." She nodded towards the man standing in the doorway. "I'm not sure if Dad wants him underfoot, though."

Wakka blanched. "Uh..."

"That won't be necessary," Auron said.

"Oh, come on, don't be such a grouch. You too, Wakka. The Old Home salvage teams could use backup against the sand wyrms." 

"Auron's a grouch," Yuna confided to Lulu. "And he came to find you. And we did too, only Da made us wait while he went to fetch you and Mum. And—" she broke off, suddenly aware of the adults listening in.

"That's right, Yunie," Wakka said. "Tell Lu and Mum where you were today." 

"We went to the Moonflow!" Yuna said. "It was like the sea, but it was all greeny-brown and flat. We saw real moon-lilies. And there's this huge animal called a shoopuf, and it's not a fiend, and it's gray and it's got a long nose that rolls up. An old man with a pointy hat says it snuffles teenie-weenies. We crossed three times until Vidina jumped in the water and they made us get off. And we saw Sir Clasko and the chocobos! Etta and I rode a yellow one, and Mbela and Vidina got a brown one, and Uncle fell in the mud and everyone jumped on him, but I didn't because..." She ducked her head and trailed off. "She can't hear me, can she?" 

"She can hear you." It had grown too dark to see Wakka's expression, but there was a misty tenderness in his voice. "Lulu always hears you. Go on."

"Okay." The girl bit her lip. "Um..."

"Uncle fell off his chocobo," Rikku prompted.

"Right. And I didn't play because the flowers started making pyreflies, and I wanted to watch. Buddy went with me. The pyreflies were singing. Buddy said he couldn't hear them, but I could. They were singing about you. They said you fell, and then they got really quiet. We heard the boom when you fell down. The old man told me not to cry. Then the whole river glowed, and all the lilies made pyreflies, and they were singing—" She stopped, stroking the same tangle over and over. "I danced with them. I danced on the water, just like in your garden, but it wasn't a dream this time. I really did it! The water held me up. And then it was time to come get you." 

Wakka exchanged a glance with Rikku, half proud, half rueful. "Oh, man."

"I wish we'd seen it," Rikku said, squeezing the girl's shoulders.

"What did they sing?" Auron asked.

"The song," she said. "The dream song."

He nodded. "Let's hear it."

Yuna ducked her head and began to chant in a sweet, shy singsong. For a moment, everything stopped, and only Lulu was breathing. The rise and fall of the Zu-feather blankets matched the rhythm of the soothing hymn. Rikku exhaled and began stroking Yuna's back absently, head cocked to listen. There was a scrape as Wakka scooted his seat forward. He curled an arm around Rikku and Yuna, eyes watering, joining in the hymn with clumsy, tone-deaf devotion.

Auron prayed. He did not realize he was doing it until he heard his own voice, a croaking parody of a young monk's pure, pious tones. He caught Rikku's startled glance and quick grin hidden behind one hand. Lulu should have awakened just to tease him. But still she lay like a fayth under glass. The thought twisted his stomach. 

There were tears trickling down Yuna's cheeks. Strange child. She could so easily reach out and shake the sleeping woman, as was clearly her desire (and Auron half wished she would). But she only waited. Or perhaps she was just sleepy. Her voice had faded to drowsy mumbles, and she was nodding. At last, the brush slipped from her fingers with a clatter, and the song trailed off. Wordlessly, Wakka helped Rikku stand and with unspoken signals determined that Rikku should carry the girl to her room.

Auron stepped aside to let them out. Stirring as she passed, Yuna reached out and bumped his chest with her toes. He started, lips quirking wryly. Thus he and Kimahri used to exchange shifts -- with fists, not feet, of course.

"You get some sleep too, Auron," Rikku said. "You're dead on your feet. Now behave, both of you." 

"Hmph."

The door slid closed on Rikku's chuckle, and Auron moved to occupy her chair. Wakka's territorial scowl dissolved into a dumbfounded gape when Auron bent, picked up the brush and spread the mage's hair across his knees to finish untangling it.

"Man." Wakka passed a hand over his eyes. "What a weird day. I, uh..." he paused. "You really think Lu's gonna be okay?"

"She's strong." 

"Yeah, but... I mean, she's Lulu and all, but still."

Auron said nothing. He kept brushing to keep his hands occupied, lest he raise Wakka's hackles by doing anything else.

"I can hardly believe it, you know?" Wakka said. "We've waited so long for this. I'm afraid I'm gonna wake up and find it's just a dream. And I've spent years trying to think what I'd say to her, if we ever got her back. But I still don't know. What can we say? I mean...with Yuna and Kimahri and all." 

"The truth," Auron said. "Or don't. Words can't change the past." 

"You'd know all about that, huh?"

A prickly silence fell, leaving only the soft, gentle sound of bristles sliding through wet hair, so very different from the rasp of whetstone on steel. Eventually, the ex-blitzer let out an explosive breath. "'Scuze me." Rising, he pushed around Auron and tapped a switch to activate the light-strips, then disappeared into a closet-sized bathroom opposite the door. He returned shortly with a tumbler of water which he set on a small shelf above the bed. There was another moment of fumbling as Wakka edged around him to return to his seat. Auron ignored the shoving.

Indulging in the pleasantly tactile task, Auron brushed until every last snag had been smoothed to silken perfection. He started to sweep up her hair and divide it for braiding, then checked himself. Such a demonstration of familiarity with Lulu's old routine might penetrate even Wakka's ironclad skull. Instead, Auron set his hands on his knees. It took no small amount of self-discipline to keep his gaze from roving over her back and shoulders where the blanket had fallen away from them.

Gaze, nothing. His gauntlet creaked as he clenched his fist. He smiled sourly at his own foolishness.

"Hey, Auron." Wakka cleared his throat. "I...I guess I got kinda hot with you back in Bikanel, huh?"

Auron shrugged. "You had cause."

"I sure did," Wakka said. "But Rikku's told me a few things. You've been trying to get Lulu out all this time, haven't you?"

"Yes," Auron said. "I needed help." 

"So that's why you showed up." Wakka circled around to his point on the third try. "Look, um... sorry I hit you, man." 

"It's all right. Luzzu hit me too." 

"He did? Ha. Good for him! How's the old dog doing?"

"He's dead." Auron inclined his head towards the bed.

"Aw, man." Wakka's face drained of mirth. "Seriously. How is she gonna live like this? She'll blame herself, and so will everybody else. All of Spira will hate her. "

"I've had some years to get used to that, Wakka," Lulu murmured.

"Lu!" Wakka popped out of his chair and lunged past Auron, practically knocking the guardian backwards in his haste. He checked himself from hugging Lulu, barely, and instead dared to rest a hand against her face. "Hey, you." Misreading Auron's blank expression, he strove for more eloquence. "You...you look beautiful." 

"Thanks." Her lips loosened in a bleary smile. "Rikku?"

"With the kids." He reached for the tumbler. "You thirsty? Hungry? I'll get you anything." 

"Water." She pronounced the word slowly, tasting it. Pliant when Wakka helped her sit up, passive when he held the cup to her lips, she seemed half-asleep until he tilted it too far and spilled cold water down her front. That roused her with a growl. "Enough! Stop fussing, Wakka; I do not require spoon-feeding or diaper changing." She batted his hand away.

"Nope," he said, face cracking into a broad grin. "But you can't scare me anymore, Lu, so you're gonna have to put up with some fussing." 

"I...see." She finished with small sips, head bowed and eyes lowered. "No, actually, I don't. I can't see a thing." Her voice turned peevish. "Where are we?"

"An airship," Auron said. "Over Macalania Forest." 

Wakka's brow furrowed. "It's not your eyes, Lu; it's just night out there." 

"I...yes." She flexed her fingers before her face, peering at her nails. "I'm not used to this." Tilting her head, she reached for a brown scar on the side of Wakka's neck. "That I can see. Did I—?"

"Yep. You got me pretty good, last visit." 

"Oh, Wakka." Her breath hissed between her teeth. "That was too close. I am so sorry. I thought I still had enough control. I didn't want to miss the birth. Etta, yes?"

"That's right! You really were watching, weren't you?" He smiled. "It's okay. I think Rikku's forgiven you. In fact, she wants you to come home with us."

"Mmm." She finished the drink and raised her chin, looking past his shoulder. "I... I don't know, Wakka. I need time to think." 

Auron met her searching gaze. The sharp thread between them pulled taut like a harpoon line. It was just as well that nothing needed saying, since he could not speak. 

"Same old Lu." Wakka took the cup and set it aside. "Take your time. But not too long, eh? We missed you."

"I know, Wakka. And I want to hear everything I've missed: you and Rikku, and this Al Bhed life you'd have scoffed at back in the old days. But first, you need rest. You haven't slept since you left Bikanel, have you?"

"I'm not tired! Not a bit."

"Well, I am." She smiled fondly, watching his brows knit at a fleeting moment of déja vu. "Don't worry. I'm not going to vanish during the night."

"But, Lu—"

Leaning forward, she planted a light kiss on his cheek. "Now, Wakka. Please. I will see both of you in the morning, and then you can introduce me to the children. Was Yuna here?"

"Yeah." He ducked his head. "She wanted to see you real bad, Lu."

"Tomorrow," she assured him. "Give Rikku my love."

"All right, all right. Hit that blue button by the bed if you change your mind and want company." He jerked his head at Auron. "You, too. Out."

"A moment," she said. "There's something I need to ask Sir Auron, first."

"Oh." Wakka's expression darkened. "Well, just...go easy on yourself tonight, okay? No point in dwelling on what's done, like you always used to tell me." Standing, he paused and gazed at her for a long moment, soaking up the sight of her. "Goodnight, Lu. I... er, I mean, we... I mean, I love you, too, ya?" Red-faced, he shuffled to the door and out.

Lulu laughed softly after his departure. "Oh, Wakka. I do hope Rikku understands you better than you do." Then she fell silent for a long, tantalizing minute: breathing, just breathing, as if the act itself were a revelation. At last, she opened her hands, resting them palm-upwards on the blankets. "Auron.

He moved with alacrity. The bed creaked as he knelt over her, sweeping an arm behind her back and drawing her close with fingers knotted in hair he had just brushed smooth. Solid, warm, real kisses sheared through the agony of waiting like a sword-stroke. She held him, caressed him, touching everything: the callouses of his fingers, the knotted muscles of his arms, new skin and dimpled scars on his shoulders, his stubble, his cheekbones, the furrow drilling down his face. She even tugged on his earlobes, wiggling them. 

"Yes?" he said, breaking off kissing her with an amused rumble.

"Skin!" she said with such triumphant glee that he suspected Rikku's medicines were making her giddy. "Ordinary, hairy, human skin. I'd forgotten what it was like." 

"Hmph." He palmed her cheek. "How do you feel?"

"Small." Lulu looked down and frowned at a few wrinkles disappearing into the tunic's neckline. "I got old." 

"It happens."

"Yes, but why?" She stroked the white tufts over his ears, wistful. "Arrogant of me, I suppose. I thought Sin was immune."

"Thirty-five is hardly old, or so you once told me."

"It feels like more." She let her face fall against his neck, lashes tickling as her lids drooped. Warm breaths slowed as her fingers continued to fondle what skin she could reach. "Gods, this almost makes it worth it. You. Here. I can't believe you waited."

"Lulu." He stroked her hair. "You're free. What do you want?"

"Not quite."

He stiffened. "What?"

"Ssh." She turned her head and smiled up at him, laying a finger against his frown. "I am myself again. But now I, too, have oaths. I want revenge, Auron."

"Ah." He relaxed, even as the pyrefly chorus surged in his ears: now now now is the time dare leap and go... "That may prove difficult. You're not Sin any longer."

"Oh, we'll find a way." Stretching, the mage raised her right arm indolently, fingers curling around empty air in a way he knew very well. "This time, Auron, you won't have to face her alone."

Chapter Text

Sin was dead, but for those who had passed through the eye of the spiral, old echoes kept returning. 

Here, now: a quiet space. An airship cabin. Thrumming walls and floor. Not quite room enough for two on a narrow bunk. Blue-black light spilling through a glass window curving from floor to ceiling, emanating cold. Warm blankets, the warmer flesh beneath. The mage's flickering presence dreaming nearby like a sword in its sheath, her powers slumbering, all polished curves and steel that his fingertips knew by heart. These things Auron remembered and savored, although he felt the irrevocable gulf between then and now like the knotted flesh under his right eyelid. Still once again he sat meditating on the cold deck beside her bunk, contemplating journey's end and the gleam of one pale shoulder in the first light of dawn. 

It seemed to him that Lulu's hair held a faint translucence like the boughs of Macalania trees. Or maybe he was dreaming. He was very tired.

A crash roused him. He must have dropped off after all: the sky and cabin were dusted in a pinkish-gray light. Beside him, Lulu sat bolt upright with a feral hiss and a flash that smelled of burnt feathers. Auron flicked the top blanket out from under her hands and clapped it against the floor, snuffing out sparks. 

"My sword fell," he said. "Propped outside." 

"Ah." She exhaled. Nonetheless, the rigid line of her shoulders flinched in unwilling counterpoint to the clanking beats of the weapon tumbling down the staircase. He remembered how he had found her in the heart of Sin's nightmare, chained to ice by his own swords. Swallowing a surge of anger, he gathered her hands very gently and kissed her knuckles until he felt her relax. 

"Bad dreams?" he said.

"Of course." Defiance drew her voice taut. "But they're my dreams." 

He pressed his palm against hers, then rose and moved to the door. There he listened for any sound, hoping that none of the children had been clubbed by his sword on its way down. The silence beyond was reassuring. He started to move away, then paused at a minute sound— a sniff? He thumbed the switch. The door folded back. Young Yuna stood there petrified in her pajamas, clutching her shoopuf doll over her mouth. 

"Come," he grunted, leaning out past her to check for casualties. The main cabin was deserted, but he could hear a few indistinct grumbles drifting up from the guest rooms adjoining it. The clamor must have roused most of the passengers.

"S-s-sorry." She edged around him, skittish as a minnow. Then she spotted the seated figure silhouetted against the window, barely a figure at all with head bowed and hair draping her in a veil of shadow.

Lulu failed to register the intruder before Yuna had hurtled up and into the mage's lap, thrusting the plush doll into her hands and flinging small arms around her waist. Lulu stiffened. The girl nuzzled close, making small noises like Valefor with a favorite summoner. The mage's right hand lifted in self-defense. 

"Hold," Auron snapped. 

White fingers hovered, hesitated, settled delicately on the girl's back. Time hitched. He saw the precipitous moment when shock and wonder burst over Lulu's features like a thunderclap just before she crumpled around Yuna and buried her face in the girl's hair, squishing the doll between them.

"We're on uncle's airship," Yuna said, muffled. "It's not the bad place."

"I know," Lulu said. "I hope I wasn't giving you bad dreams again."

"A little. I-it's okay."

"No, it's not." The mage was rocking her like a moogle. "I apologize."

Sleepy with trust, Yuna curled against her. Lulu continued to rock her, composed now, relaxed. Auron's skin prickled with a powerful pang of... something... not déjà vu, exactly, but thwarted possibilities, the ghost of a wicker cradle in Besaid's jungle. 

"You know who I am, right?" Yuna said.

"Of course. My little patch of sun." Lulu breathed out, ruffling the girl's red-gold curls. "Yuna." She cupped the name exactly as she used to address their summoner, a prayer after every other sacred truth had shattered. Auron grimaced. He had expected to hear some tremor of– grief? regret? But no, the child who bore Yuna's name should not be laden with guilt or ghosts. "You were singing to me last night, weren't you? Or did I dream that, too?"

"We did," Yuna said. "You heard! Dad tried too, but he can't sing." 

"No." Lulu smiled. "But look at you, now. So big! Let me see you properly."

"Hi." Uncurling, Yuna returned her inspection with shy awe. "You're smaller awake."

"I should hope so, Yuna." She raised misted eyes and looked across the room, seeking him out. "Both of you," she mouthed. He shrugged and drifted over.

Yuna gingerly touched a scar on Lulu's wrist. "It's all gone? You're not sick anymore?" 

"It's gone. Forever, Yuna. Sir Auron helped me break my chains."

"And it won't come back?" She twisted around, pleading. "You killed it for real, this time? No screw-ups?"

He nodded, mouth twitching. "We did."

"Good. I told Vidina he shouldn't have stepped on you." Her forehead crinkled. "But... no more gardens now, right? No more magic?" 

"Well..." Lulu drew out the word in a purr, eyes unfocusing in a way that made Auron start scanning the room for flammable objects. "I filled your tanks before I left: plenty for a year or two, yes? And there's a new underground lake in Old Home's ruins that a clever Al Bhed could tap. As for magic, I can still do... this!" She wiggled her fingers over the back of Yuna's neck. A few large splats of water came tumbling down.

Yuna squirmed. "Tickles!" 

"The Lady never tickles," Lulu said, raising both hands dramatically. Misunderstanding the gesture, Yuna dove towards Auron, squealing, "Safe zone!" Freed of her weight, the toy shoopuf stood up, teetering on its pudgy feet and lifting its trunk in imitation of the mage's spell-casting. There was a quite unnecessary crack of thunder. A fine caressing mist began to rain down around them, mild as a lullaby, tinted by sunrise to the color of Yuna's hair. Yuna whooped and released Auron's belt, laughing and reaching for the ceiling. The shoopuf twirled comically. Moisture beaded on windows, panels and cables along the walls, capturing the dawn in liquid gems like the ice-flecked canopy of Macalania Forest. 

"Machina don't like water," Auron said gruffly. He would never admit it, but the damp fabric of Lulu's white tunic was difficult to ignore.

Lulu gave him a coy look. "You looked thirsty." 

"Hmph." He frowned for appearance's sake, secretly glad to find her peculiar adolescent streak intact. It was her old game, masking flirtation behind magic's veils.

"Auron's a grouch," Yuna said, getting up to dance with the shoopuf. "Shoopuf, shoopuf, grumpy umpy shoopuf! Shoopuf, shoopuf, scoop 'em up....aw, wait!" She caught the doll as it toppled over, released from Lulu's spell. "Do it again!"

"Outside." Lulu ruffled her damp curls. "Outside, I'll show you how grouchy he can be when I release a cloudburst on his head... by accident, of course."

The deck pulsed once, and there was a subtle tug of deceleration. Tearing his eyes away from the pair, Auron looked out. The flare of a thousand mirrored points in the distance impressed even him. "Look." 

Below, the forested shores of Macalania were sparkling with fire. The lake was directly underneath them, safely out of sight, while the Bay of Bevelle stretched out before them, bisected by the blackened sticks of the Highbridge jutting out of the water. The sea was painted pale lemon with crests of saffron. In the hazy distance, the mountain-city of St. Bevelle rose up, a children's toy enameled in blue and scarlet, chipped here and there. The stump of a tower on its crown was barely noticeable, dwarfed by the magnificent jewel-box buildings around it. Some were tarnished or had crushed roofs, but from afar these blemishes were hardly noticeable. Every eastern-facing window flashed.

"Wow," Yuna said.

"The city of St. Bevelle," Lulu said, falling back into travelogue so easily that Auron smirked. "Seat of the four maesters of Yevon. Sir Auron trained there among the warrior monks, and my first Yuna was raised there."

"Oh-h. But she was born in Bikanel, right?"

"I believe so."

"Lady Yuna." The girl spoke in a hushed voice. "I remember your dream-pictures of her. She helped you get ready in the morning, right? You liked that." Hugging Lulu, she crawled around her carefully, settling onto the pillow behind her. She combed her fingers through the mage's long mane and divided off a section with an air of solemn ritual. Her fingers twinkled through the black as she began to braid with deft, quick movements. The mage's lashes glistened. 

Outside the window, Bevelle began to tilt, scrolling off to the left as the Celsius turned towards it. Sliding into view was a frozen headland shining with hoarfrost. Beyond it lay the open ocean, steel leafed with a broad avenue of white-hot gold leading to the sun peeping over the horizon. 

It was a dawn. Sin had bathed in many of them, surely, its hard hide unlovely in the sun's blaze under a burnished sky. But Auron had not needed his brief, dangerous merging with the Lady, when Yu Yevon had tried to absorb him, to know that Sin was blind. It sensed only things outside its shell: densities, surfaces, energies, soul-sparks, but never light. Lulu shrank and shaded her eyes but would not look away.

"We'll get you some goggles," Yuna said. "Then you can be an Al Bhed!"

"That... that would be lovely."

"Mm-hm!" Yuna poked Auron with the braid she was working on. "Hey! You help too." 

Auron glanced at the mass of hair still blanketing Lulu's shoulders. Rules of engagement tugged at the back of his mind: never on duty, never where others might see, never when someone might burst in and— Discretion be damned. It was not as if Wakka could kill him, and there was no longer an observant summoner who might balk at parting dear friends when it came time to send. Shucking his gauntlet, he plunged his hands into black waves and gathered up a tress for braiding. Lulu arched her back, leaning against his fingers as they moved across her scalp and down. The view from above was... rewarding.

Yuna beamed up at him. "Race you!" 

"You win."

Lulu chuckled, the louder for Yuna's pleased giggles.

"So," Yuna said. "You're coming home with us, right? Back to Bikanel?"

"Hmm," Lulu said. "I should like to. But there are a few things Sir Auron and I must do."

"Like what?" 

"Celebrate, for one." Lulu pointed towards the city. "When Sin falls, Yevon holds a festival to commemorate the new Calm. There will be parades and fireworks—"

Auron gave a soft snort.

"—and I hope your parents will let you stay for them. Would you like that?"

"Fireworks?" Yuna beamed. "Mum makes fireworks in the kitchen!"

"Bigger fireworks. Much bigger." 

"Ooo! Yes, please." Yuna's face fell. "But after that, you're going away? Where to?"

Auron filled in when the mage hesitated. "Mount Gagazet. To check on the Ronso."

Lulu's voice softened. "Yes. To visit Sir Auron's family."

"Auron has a family?" Yuna looked from one to the other quizzically. "But I thought—"

"As you and I are family, Yuna."

"Oh, right. The Ronso!" She reached the end of the plait, licked the tip and made a neat knot before starting on the next. "And after that?"

"We shall see. Sir Auron and I are still guardians, Yuna."

"Awww." Her pout dissolved at a sudden thought. "Hey! Since Sin's dead, I can be a summoner now, right? And would you be my guardians? Sir Auron, too?" 

The mage could not see the eyebrow Auron arched in her direction. "I'm sorry, Yuna. Even if your parents would allow it, there's no aeons left. The fayth asked me to free them. They've gone to the Farplane."

"All of them?" Yuna pressed. "But I wanted to meet them!"

Except Shiva, Auron thought, but did not say it. How many times now had Lulu undertaken one pilgrimage to head off another? "Summon dreams from the living, Yuna, not from the dead."

"But—"

""Sir Auron is right," Lulu said, voice growing husky with focused tenderness and a hint of apology. "You know what it is to be a fayth, Yuna. Love them enough to let them go."

Yuna's face clouded over. The floor pitched suddenly, cutting off another building protest. The bulkheads rattled as the ship descended, buffeted by warmer air from the bay. At first Auron thought the noise was due only to turbulence, but the pounding racket grew louder as the ship steadied. Someone was hammering on the door. 

"Daaa-aaad!" Yuna clapped her hands over her ears.

"Wakka, I hear these Al Bhed have a magical device called a doorbell," Lulu called. "Enter." 

"Morning, Lu!" Beaming, Wakka ducked under the door as it opened. "Hey, Yunie! Thought I'd find you up here." 

"We're doing Lulu's hair!" she said, waving the fluffy end of a braid. "And look! Lulu made it rain!" Hopping down, she skated across the wet floor, crashing into his legs. "Wheee!"

"That's great!" he said, catching her. "But now you gotta hold on tight. We're landing. Grab a quick bite in Bevelle, then we'll go home. Ready for some real food, Lu?"

"I...think so?" She gave a rueful laugh. "I suppose I should be famished."

Auron grunted behind her. "I am."

"But the fireworks!" Yuna wrapped around Wakka's leg, pleading. "We have to stay in Bevelle with Lulu!"

"Fireworks?" Wakka gave the mage an anxious look, then clapped his forehead. "Oh, the Calm Festival. I forgot. Well, uh..." Auron suspected that the mage's state of dress was affecting the man's vocal chords. Auron finished off a braid and moved to retrieve his coat while Wakka fumbled. "You wanna stay, Lu?" he said, bewildered. "In Bevelle?" 

"Only for a little while, of course." Lulu shrugged into the coat with more dignity than the tattered garment deserved. "It's not that I don't want to see your home, Wakka. I just..."

"...need some time to think, ya?" He smiled. "It's okay, Lu. You do what you need. Yeah, this'll work. Elder Cid has to run straight back to Baaj, but Rikku and I can stick around and bum a ride with Gippal when he comes back. The kids, too," he said, seeing Yuna's stricken expression. "Then we'll see how you're feeling." 

"Isaaru," Auron said, bracing himself against the wall through another sharp jerk. "Is he awake?"

"Uhhhh..." Wakka cleared his throat, gaze suddenly fixing on the man's hands resting in Lulu's hair. His brow furrowed. "Hey, what's he still doin' in here, anyway?" 

"Wakka," Lulu prodded. "The summoner. He was injured, wasn't he?" 

"Oh, right." Wakka shook his head. "Haven't seen him since we came aboard. Guess he's still in his cabin." 

"Go on," Lulu said, taking the braid from Auron's hands with a light touch. "We'll catch up later."

He gave her a blank look.

She smiled up at him, sad yet approving. "One of us, at least, should see a summoner home."

 

Chapter Text

Emerging into a whirligig of tumbling children, Auron was glad that Lulu remained in her cabin's sanctuary. The seating area on the mezzanine was crammed full of people. In the horseshoe of padded seats closest to her door, Cid, Baralai and Lucil had their heads together in a flurry of last-minute negotiations shouted over the rising whine of the engines. Rikku had claimed the opposite sofa, bent over some project laid across her knees — his sword, Auron realized, and felt a strange prickle of irritation and nostalgia at her tinkering. The children were everywhere, squealing with delight when a pocket of turbulence parted them from the floor for a few seconds.

One pillar of quiet kept watch over the chaos: Captain Juno, positioned in the aft corner of the lounge for a clear view of the maesters, the stairs, and Lulu's cabin door. "So who's guarding Sin?" she said as Auron stepped out in front of her.

"Sin's dead." He turned his back to her, heading for Isaaru's cabin on the floor below, but the top of the staircase was obstructed by a barrier of sofa cushions and stuffed animals.

"—Five years," Baralai was saying, earnest and intent, all but oblivious to the ship's motion or the children ricochetting around them. "We'll wave docking fees for five years. Agreed?"

"Agreed," Lucil said. Her crisp battlefield cadences had an odd squeak: apparently she was not enjoying the speed at which they were skimming over the harbor.

"Whoa!" Vidina said, climbing a denuded sofa and mashing his face against the glass. "Look at that bridge! The steel's totally melted. Way to go, Pop-pops!"

"Get down, boy," Cid said with an ominous rumble. "Now see here, Baralai—"

"Consider, Elder Cid," Baralai said, "that the lake is composed of frozen pyrefly slurry. You could refuel your ships right there."

"Provided that," Lucil said, "Macalania Temple is left undisturbed, and Lady Shelinda concurs."

"It was an accident," the younger children recited in a sing-song, apparently practicing a new word. They rebounded off the back of the empty sofa under the window. "Acci, acci, accident!"

"Kids," Rikku said mildly, "Settle down, okay? Pop-pops is working."

"Deal," Cid said, grimacing. "I'm down by one airship, mind, so don't expect a weekly ferry service. And Gippal may want compensation."

"Hey, Auron!" Rikku pushed up her goggles and set her tools aside, drumming the heavy blade across her knees in satisfaction. She beamed up at him. "You dropped something. What's rule number three, kids?"

"Don't leave toys out where Dad can trip over 'em!" Vidina crowed, surreptitiously jamming one of the mini-blitzballs from last night's romp behind the sofa. "Where's Yunie?"

"With Lulu," Auron said, coming forward to reclaim his weapon. He spun the hilt as he lifted it, letting sunlight play across the dark metal. All the nicks and scratches from the pilgrimage had vanished from the blade's edge. Rikku winked. "Thanks," he said, stepping to the edge of the balcony where he had room to sheathe it.

Cid grumbled something about too many damned passengers. At that point the engines' roar became too loud for speech. His Yevon colleagues fell silent, gripping their armrests against the careening deceleration. The outer ramparts of the first circle whipped past the window. Auron planted his feet and braced. Sputtering a few choice words about her brother's piloting skills, Rikku dropped to the floor to snag Etta and Mbela. The view outside became a dizzying blur. Air brakes shrieked. There was a final groaning vibration as the ship slowed and swung to a stop like a cart swaying in its traces. The maesters exchanged shaky smiles.

"Airships may not be blasphemy, but I shall stick to chocobos," Lucil said.

Nooj's voice filtered over the intercom. "Ladies and gentlemen, the Plaza of St. Bevelle. Our pilot cordially requests that all members of Yevon disembark. I'll see you below."

"We'd better," Juno muttered.

"Well, here we are!" Rikku said, hopping to her feet and catching the two youngest as they started towards the stairs. "Al Bhed, sit tight; Mum'll be right back. Vidina, keep 'em out of trouble. Yevon folks, follow me. You guys need to come up with a new name for yourselves, by the way. How about Ogie Fogeys?"

"Sir Auron," Lucil said, rising to her feet stiffly. "Does Lord Isaaru require assistance?"

"Probably not," said Auron. Wading through the barricade of soft toys, he started down the steps, making for the cabin directly under Lulu's.

"Do send word, if he should need a healer," Lucil called down to him, taking Cid's proffered arm with a gracious nod.

"Make sure you take Lady Whoosit when you leave," Cid added in a loud voice. "Yevon made her. Let them deal with her. I reckon Maester Baralai here's not too namby-pamby to see justice done for mass murder, eh?"

"Pops!" Rikku said.

"There will surely be an inquiry–"

The cabin door closed on Baralai's reply. Halting inside, Auron counted to ten, gritting his teeth as the pyreflies in his veins jangled to life with a dismal whine. Yevon eats his own, picks Zanarkand's bones, and Bevelle's vultures stoop for the kill. (Shut up.) Not that he had expected a hero's welcome for Lulu anywhere in Spira. Sin's sins were hers, now, and her face was too well-known. But Cid had been Shuyin's victim. He should know what it meant to have one's will violated.

"Sir?" Pacce, half-dressed, scrambled up from the floor with one greave flapping. He straightened into a salute. "Good morning, sir!"

Auron grunted and turned, examining the gray-faced man seated on the edge of his bunk, clinging to it as if the ship were still in motion. "Isaaru?"

"Here," the summoner croaked. He looked like cura stretched over a ruptured aorta, but his bland smile had returned, animated now by astonished compassion. "Sir Auron? I was not certain we would see you again."

"We've reached Bevelle," Auron said. "Can you walk?"

"I—I am unsure. Flying seems to have robbed me of both legs and stomach." Isaaru gave a weak chuckle. "I beg your pardon, Sir Auron. The loss of my aeons... but no matter. What of the Lady?"

"Erinyes, too?" Auron pressed. "Seymour's mother?"

Isaaru close his eyes, contemplating. "Gone," he said finally. "Torn from me, but for a few bloody dregs. I ought to journey to Baaj and send her."

"Later." Auron said. "See Zuke when we land." He turned to Pacce. "Break camp."

"Sir!" The boy clanked down onto the floor to finish suiting up and collecting their few belongings.

"Come, friend," Isaaru said, lowering his voice as Pacce clattered about. "We shared a pilgrimage, you and I, although our ends differed. What of yours? Have you found what you sought?" His eyes flicked to the bone token bound to Auron's sword-hilt.

"Lulu is free," Auron said. "I should thank you."

"For my part, I am glad....or rather, grateful." Isaaru sighed. "A bittersweet victory for both of us, no? Ladu Yuna is gone, and Maroda is gone, and my heart is a hollow vessel where the Hymn of the Fayth echoes like surf in an abandoned shell. Yet I would thank your friend, were it not too painful a reminder: without her sacrifice, my brother would be worse than dead, with Pacce tasked to free him. I shall not forget, Sir Auron."

"Don't forget you're alive," Auron said. He held out an arm. "Up."

Auron himself girded Isaaru in his summoner's robes for the first and last time, feeling time slip as he tugged the stole straight. Jarringly clear, a scrap of memory came to him: Braska's soothing tones barely penetrating the proud dread of a young warrior monk preparing his summoner for departure. He could recall the very scent of the fresh-dyed fabric, its rustling layers, Braska's amused laugh when he looked in a mirror and declared himself some distant cousin of an ochu, petals and all. Auron remembered stepping out into a foggy chill morning in Bevelle during dawn services, listening to the Hymn drifting down from the heights of the tower. Bevelle. How many years ago had he quit its gates with Jecht grousing over the lack of a parade? Auron's guardian duties would begin and end there.

"Sir Auron? Maroda... Maroda was right about you, wasn't he?" Pacce said, cradling his brother's name. "You've been looking for her this whole time. Why the big secret?"

"A summoner's duty is to destroy Sin, not save it."

"Maroda would have obstructed Sir Auron's quest," Isaaru said, grave and sad. "Yet I wish you could have trusted me sooner, my friend. I learned from Lord Braska and Lady Yuna that a true summoner must follow heart's guidance, even when it leads beyond Yevon's grace. Still... forgive me, Sir Auron, but I perceive that your own journey is not yet over. May I...?"

"No," Auron said, emphatic. Noting Isaaru's concerned look, he added, "Not yet."

"Huh?" Pacce said. "What else is there?"

"To see a summoner to the end of his pilgrimage. Come." Auron's gruff tone was almost fond. "I expect you'll be wanting to make a speech."


They emerged to find Lulu navigating the stairs with Yuna leading, Wakka shadowing as if he had never renounced guardian duty. The mage descended with slow, precise steps, tethered to the girl's hand. Only Lulu could have translated gauze bandages, plain Al Bhed pajamas and Auron's battle-stained coat into formal attire, but she carried herself with her customary regal poise. Pacce gaped and drew himself up in a jerky salute.

Isaaru offered a deep bow and Yevon's prayer, without a trace of mockery. "Lady Guardian."

"High Summoner." Her lips tightened in an odd smile. "Congratulations."

Isaaru started: at the title, perhaps, or at the palpable irony that Sin should be first to call him such. "Thank you, lady, but you know as well as I that summoning had little to do with it."

Yuna listened inobtrusively, eyes wide and solemn, shoopuf doll clutched over her heart. Her father cleared his throat and sank to one knee, drawing her aside with a conspiratorial whisper. "Hey, Yunie. Get your things, but don't tell the others. I've got to talk to Mum."

"Oh!" The girl roused herself with a giggle, scampered around him and Lulu twice and darted off, ignoring her siblings hooting to her from a castle of sofa cushions going up around the barstools.

Lulu watched the girl go with a love too raw lighting up her face. It was the first sign of change in her Auron recognized, although it was more a matter of atrophy: her reserved self-control had been compromised for over a decade. To Isaaru, she said, "You played your part well enough to deceive my jailor. Nor do I think Sir Auron arranged my welcoming committee. An alliance of forces: that was your doing."

Isaaru bowed his head. "Your conveyance to Bikanel was timely."

"And... that machina... where in Spira did you find it?"

"Bevelle, I'm afraid," Isaaru said. "Another weapon from the Machina War, hidden beneath our feet all this time."

"All this time?" Her smile withered, and Auron saw pain where he thought she had become inured to all regrets. Her hand made an abortive, angry movement towards him, grasped emptiness, and compressed tightly into a fist. He half expected to see sparks ripple down her braids.

Wakka paused in the act of getting to his feet. "Uh...Lu?"

There was a heavy pause. Then she waved bitterness away, derisive. "Of course. Sin was too convenient to destroy." Her features smoothed over so quickly that Isaaru and Wakka stood blinking at one another as if uncertain what had just happened. She shifted her attention to the youth standing nervously at Isaaru's elbow. "It's Sir Pacce, isn't it?"

"Ma'am!" His skin glowed pink wherever the helm did not cover it. "Pleased to meet you!"

"We've met several times now," she said gently, "and no, that was no dream. You have ridden Sin's wings from Djose Shore to Western Isle. This also was no dream: once upon a time, I caught a dying man who was very proud of you. That love sang clear in the pyreflies, through his sorrow."

"Maroda?" The color drained from Pacce's face. "You...you caught him?"

Isaaru's hand crumpled over his heart. "Lenne," he murmured, dismayed. "She came with the pyreflies, summoning Shuyin to her as I was sending him. Was that you, then? Was she there at all?"

Lulu gave him a stern look. "Both. But that is her story." To Pacce, she said, "As Djose's aeon was of lightning, so Sin was of death. It was my unhappy duty to bridge the long road between Spira and the Farplane. It is little comfort, but I can assure you that your brother made the journey in peace. With one final wish: that you live well." Her eyes shifted to Isaaru. "Both of you." She ignored the unease radiating from Wakka as he listened, brow knitted.

"Oh." Pacce swallowed.

"I see you two are still conspiring," Isaaru said with a rueful glance over his shoulder. "Sir Auron said something of the sort. But we will try. Perhaps the Lady can teach us how to find life after death..."

"...or after Yevon?" she countered.

The main cabin doors swished open. Cid stumped in, trailed by Rikku. He halted and glowered at the gathering. "Well? What're you lot still doing here?"

Wakka hurried over to Rikku and drew her aside, whispering urgently in her ear while keeping an eye on the proceedings.

"This is goodbye," Isaaru said, smiling. "Elder Cid, thank you for all your help. Will you not stay for the festival? This victory is yours as much as ours."

"Sorry, got to get to Baaj and supervise repairs, or Rin's liable to turn Home into a theme park. But I owe you, for Shuyin. And, uh..." he thrust out a hand, shooting an oblique scowl at Lulu. "I guess that summoner gig wasn't a total waste of time, eh? Gotta hand it to you for takin' care of Sin."

Isaaru tilted his head, briefly puzzled, then clasped the man's fist in a light grip. "As was my duty."

"Hmph." Cid shook his head. "Look, I'll have my hands full for a while putting Home back together, but I'll send what techs I can spare to help with Bevelle's rebuild. And Gippal's going to be adding Bevelle to his regular circuit. If you need a ride, ask Baralai to arrange a pickup."

"Thank you. I will."

Rikku stirred as Wakka finished his mumbled petition. "Happy Festival Fireworks, you mean?" she said out loud, eyes twinkling. "After Home just got blown up? Now where have I heard that before?"

"Uhhh." Wakka blushed. "Well, I mean, if you'd rather—"

"Dope." She pecked his cheek and raised her voice. "Hey, kids, how'd you like to stay in Bevelle for a holiday? There's gonna be music and dancing and a really big party, and maybe we can catch some blitzball!"

Two of the cushions fell outwards as Vidina jumped up. "Blitzball? Awesome! Will Dad play?"

"Femm drana pa ice cream?"

"Are there chocobos in Bebel?"

Cid's strained courtesy crumbled. "You are not taking my grandchildren on vacation in Saint Bloody Yevonville!" He jabbed a finger at Lulu. "And she is not allowed in Al Bhed territory, you hear me?"

Wakka's hands balled into fists. "Excuse me?"

"Get your things, kids!" Rikku said, stepping between husband and father. "Clothes, shoes, and you can have one toy each. Wakka, help them." She waved airily to Isaaru as her father screwed up his face for an explosion. "Whatcha gonna do, Pops, banish me like Auntie Anna if I don't fall in line?"

Cid's teeth clamped shut on what he was going to say, but he puffed like a bellows, reddening.

"Rikku, there's no need," Lulu said.

"Oh, but it's fun." She winked. "Catch you guys later."

They crept out as the argument escalated into an Al Bhed shouting match, enlivened by Etta and Mbela imitating Cid's mannerisms in exaggerated, hand-waving mime.

"Lady," Isaaru said, halting before the elevator until Pacce discreetly herded him inside, "If you need lodgings—"

"Temporarily." Lulu slotted into her customary place at Auron's side like an anchor falling into the sea. "Thank you."

"The abbot of Yuna's Cloister will be pleased to quarter Lady Yuna's guardians. He was a summoner once himself, after all."

Lulu's expression sharpened at the name, but she merely nodded.

Proceeding down and through the guts of Brother's airship, they emerged in the sunlit plaza before the ruined palace of St. Bevelle. There they found an armed company of warrior monks waiting at parade attention. Juno must have dispatched them as an escort. The leader, a leathery-faced old sergeant, struggled to hold his composure. "Lord Isaaru?" There were tears dribbling under his cheek-guards. "High Summoner Isaaru?"

Stepping down onto the pavement, Isaaru blessed them with Yevon's prayer. "Sergeant Wedge." He smiled into that expectant hush. "Victory."

Utter pandemonium erupted. The squad broke ranks, surging forward to scoop Isaaru onto Wedge's shoulders with cheers and shouts. The commotion drew half-dressed workmen tumbling out of the ruins, wary of the airship but eager to join in the celebration. Summoner and guardians were swept into an impromptu parade. Scattered work-crews and soldiers emptied from damaged buildings and fell in behind them as they set out. There were clergy as well, wizened scholars and elderly nuns abandoning themselves in undignified whoops of glee, some still carrying scrolls and books plucked from St. Bevelle's archives. But no children, Auron thought. The upper reaches of the city were windy, deserted, waiting like Besaid village for its people to return.

No one questioned the ill-dressed woman gliding a step behind Auron's shoulder. Those who did notice her seemed disinclined to approach, although there were a few furtive glances and whispers. Ignoring them, Lulu walked with chin raised, lids lowered and back straight, jostling against him: sun-blinded, he guessed, or perhaps still reacquainting herself with human senses and limbs. Her bare feet troubled him.

"Stop scowling," she murmured, amused. "I can see you tallying every cobblestone against Cid's account."

"Hmph."

The throng continued to swell until they reached Yuna's Cloister. There, another squad deflected most of the escort, allowing Isaaru and his guardians to pass in. They marched through the arched entryway into the well-manicured garden. Its quiet tranquility was once again thrown into chaos. Priests and nuns converged on Isaaru in a joyous tide, eager to be blessed by the summoner fresh back from his journey. Many accosted Auron as well, begging to shake his hand, gushing about how honored they were, how grateful, and how happy. Some dared to speculate on Lord Braska's or Lady Yuna's pride in his latest exploits. He fielded the adulation with grim patience. Meanwhile, Lulu had migrated into the shadow of the fountain. Keeping aloof from the hubbub, she stood gazing up at the glass and metal statue of Yuna slowly turning on toe-tip above the central jet. Noting Auron's look, she gave a minute, approving nod.

Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted a young man in an acolyte's habit stumbling towards Lulu. The priest's brown complexion, tattooed cheeks and red hair marked him as an islander. "You!" He made Yevon's sign in a warding gesture. "But...you're not real... I've atoned for my sins, I— I— Lady, let me go! I renounce you! I—"

"Your sins are your own, Treno, as is your will," Lulu said. "But there is no shame in dreams."

"No shame? I followed you. I loved you. I thought you were merciful. But you killed my son, my wife!"

Heads were beginning to turn. Isaaru looked up, alerted by Pacce, and mouthed, Go. Auron broke away from the scrum and moved to intercept. Before he could reach Lulu's accoster, a second figure bearing a senior priest's gold stripe stepped in. Auron nearly collided with the man, intending to hamper him long enough for Lulu to melt into the crowd. He stopped short at the sight of a bald head rising from Bevelle's high collar like an egg. It was Zuke.

"Now, what's the trouble, my son? Why— well, well, there's a face I haven't seen in a while! The Lady? Gracious, no, this lady is one of my oldest students, a former guardian of mine, as a matter of fact. Nothing more extraordinary than a black mage with a quick temper, so I'd advise you to leave her alone. If you'll excuse us."

Zuke curled a solicitous arm behind Lulu and steered her towards a side-door under the main archway. Auron shoved the conflicted young priest aside to follow them. Just inside, Zuke turned into an office and nearly closed the door on Auron's nose. He paused, jovial smile evaporating. "Sir Auron?" He waved him in. "Come, come. I suppose I should not be surprised to see you here, since I've apparently gone mad. Or perhaps young Treno is right, and this is all a dream sent by Sin to test a priest's convictions." Eyes brimming, he turned back to Lulu, drawing out his chair and gesturing for her to sit. "Either way, I'm delighted to see you, my dear."

She sat like a sleepwalker. Seeing her stony expression, Auron moved to the desk and lifted a pitcher, pouring a drink and pushing it towards her.

"Father." She took a sip, then released the breath she had been holding. "It's not Sin's toxin, I promise you."

"Then what?" Zuke's query held no hint of challenge, only concerned bewilderment. "I don't believe half the stories I hear, but these dreams, now, they aren't something Bevelle's crafted to keep the people calm. Even I have dreamed of you, although thankfully as yourself and not as... some pagan goddess, shall we say."

"I'm sorry. It's a long story." She sighed and exchanged glances with Auron.

"And I'm rather short on time, seeing as Isaaru's going to stand there until he gets sunstroke. I must deliver him to the maesters, who await him in the refectory. Well." Zuke puffed out his cheeks. "Whatever you've been up to, please allow me to undo some of the wear and tear?"

Lulu bowed her head. "Please." Her hands still gripped the coat over the spot where Auron's sword had gone in, although phoenix down, Al Bhed potions and Isaaru's last shreds of magic had knitted flesh and bone in the haste of battle. Zuke bent, splaying fingers over the red line ringing her throat and the scars on her crossed wrists. Auron felt the edge of the spell: a slow, uplifting rush of cura flooding the body with tingling warmth, easing aches and pains. Lulu slowly melted into the chair. "Thank you, Father," she said, voice husky. "Would you teach me that, sometime?"

Zuke's eyebrows climbed. "You've changed."

"Perhaps I've finally had my fill of destroying things."

The old man stiffened, gazing down at her. He glanced briefly at Auron for answers, but the guardian might as well be stone. Finally, Zuke patted her shoulder. "Is there anything else I can do for you?"

"Clothes and lodgings," she said. "A room for two, if possible." Noting his uncertain glance at Auron, she added, "He seems to think I need a guardian."

"A meal," Auron said. "In private."

"Hm. Yes, it might be best for you to avoid the feast." Zuke collected himself. "Very well. I'll have something brought to you while we prepare quarters. In the meantime, rest here, enjoy the garden, and pray, if you still can. And later, I trust, we can have a long talk."

Chapter Text


There's your fireworks, Jecht.

The display was excessive. It appeared that Bevelle's brand-new stadium was intent on expending a season's worth of fireworks on a single night. Gaudy team colors erupted brazenly amidst Yevon's pious greens, whites and golds. Fountains and streamers leapt from the walls and towers at every level of the city, from harbor's fringe to the ruined Plaza of St. Bevelle. They were far more colorful than those which had inaugurated Braska's Calm. Auron dimly remembered lying in the withered grass outside the city's gates, rage seeping away with his blood as Rin's makeshift bindings gave out, his halved vision fixed on the white blossoms of light hanging high above him like cold, cold stars. Perhaps Yevon had been trying to reconsecrate its heretic summoner with white's purity.

A caress on his forearm recalled him to the present. Success was so alien that it was hard for him to remain focused upon it. He needed focus now more than ever. More, he needed...this.

Surrounded by old friends, Auron stood on the parapet spanning the back wall of Yuna's Cloister along the city's ramparts. His hand rested on the small of Lulu's back. His sword's weight rested comfortably against his spine. Before them, the mountain-city's dizzying heights tumbled away into its wrinkled reflection on the bay a thousand feet below. A constant barrage of fireworks lofted weightlessly to eye level with soft chuffs, hung suspended on their own potentialities, then exploded in fiery, noisy, exuberant death-throes as spectacular as they were fleeting. Now and then a spattering of warm soot dusted the watchers' cheeks. They stood close enough to scent the gunpowder. The smoke was slowly turning to fog in the moist air, shrouding the fireworks in a ruddy cocoon that flickered eerily like drunken glow-worms from within. Between booms of thunder, the sounds of revelry skirled up from the streets below: horns and songs and spirit bells, pots and pans and raucous voices. For tonight, at least, Bevelle was the city that never slept.

Lulu watched the celebration with the detached air of an ascetic monk at a wedding. Her lips curled in a faint appraising smile for the pyrotechnics.

Auron's other companions were noisy participants in the revels. The regular residents of Yuna's Cloister, nuns and monks and mobile invalids, were watching from the enclosed garden, but Rikku's family had ventured onto the outer ramparts in defiance of safety proclamations. The children shrieked with delight as a fan of fireworks splashed along the length of the ruined Highbridge like a dragon darting past in a sweeping scythe.

"Dad!" Vidina cried. "Throw another one!"

"Just a sec," said Rikku. "Etta, put your goggles back on, or you're going inside." Rummaging in her belt pouch, she passed a handful of pellets to Wakka. He grinned at her, reared back and lobbed a high pass. Pink starbursts and orange streamers crackled to life, minnow-darting in every direction. Lulu, smiling indulgently at the small girl tugging her sleeve, leaned out and added a cascade of sheet lightning to the mix.

"And that's the last," she said above the din. 

"Awww," the girl said. "Do a purple one!" 

"I'm sorry, dear. I'm a little tired."

Another volley of official fireworks detonated just over their heads, reverberating off all the cloister's stained-glass windows with a tremendous bang that shook the stones underfoot. The children covered their ears and howled gleefully at the top of their lungs. 

"The Calm," Lulu observed, "is best celebrated with bedlam."

"Apparently," Auron said.

Her hand stroked his on the balustrade. "So, I wonder how long it will take them to forget Isaaru's speech?" She nodded towards the city below.

"Ten years."

"As much as that? Auron, you're an incurable romantic." 

"You wanted to believe him, too."

Despite the cacophony, this was the first peace they had enjoyed since their early morning respite with Father Zuke. Busy as he had been with a full house and dignitaries to entertain, he had made discreet arrangements: Lulu's first meal, a cozy room in an out-of-the-way passage at the back of the Cloister overlooking the harbor, a much-needed bath for Auron, and heavy nun's robes for Lulu that she had rejected in favor of the simple white gown of a novice. After refreshing themselves, they had rejoined Isaaru for a bumpy ride down to Northgate by chocobo-cart. There Maester Shelinda had met them with throngs of many thousands, all the evacuated citizenry of Bevelle waiting eagerly for a glimpse of Spira's deliverers. Summoner, guardians and important persons had been transferred to chocobo-drawn floats which would lead the procession, preventing a stampede and ensuring an orderly repopulation of the city level by level. 

Lulu had ridden in the lead float on the tactful insistence of Isaaru. He had started his pilgrimage with three guardians, he said, and he would end with three, for Lulu had fought beside them. The summoner's float was a grotesque diorama representing Sin crashing into the Calm Lands— left over from some previous Calm Festival— on which Isaaru and his comrades were carried aloft on a twisted form of glittering bronze representing the Final Summoning. Behind them, the maesters followed on another float styled after the Court of Yevon. Rikku and Wakka and their family represented the Al Bhed on a third float hastily commissioned by Baralai. Juno and Nooj rode on a fourth battlemented float, Nooj suffering himself to be dressed in his old uniform at Lucil's invitation. His reputation among the Crusaders was such that many veterans still saluted him as the Undying (at which title Auron and Lulu had exchanged ironic glances). Juno's warrior monks and the Yocun Crusaders escorted the final float in a doubled column, and civilians flowed after.

For hours the parade had wended its way through garlanded streets. Adoring, jubilant faces blurred together in a living wall. Gifts of flowers sailed through the air to land on the float, piling up on Sin's form in drifts of petals and green. Young people shrieked or blew kisses to newly-minted legends. Elders bowed low in Yevon's prayer to the very ones who had slain their god. This is Spira, Isaaru told his guardians, amidst dry banter or longer silences which suited all of them but Pacce. These are those you saved. But Lulu's hand pressed against the brand on Auron's palm, and in his mind's eye he saw Sin's lost dream-garden, rows upon rows of stones etched with names, cenotaphs stretching to infinity under a somber canopy of living green. That seemed real; this a dream. Later, the children would recount gushing impressions of the day's festivities: jugglers and stilt-walkers, balloons and ribbons and people trying to climb on the floats and sphere cameras and funny hats and their father beaning somebody on a rooftop who appeared to be pointing a rifle at the procession. (Wakka had left his oversized gun with Brother, but had brought along a blitzball.) 

The parade had terminated in Bevelle Stadium, where, as he must have done many times as Grand Maester, Isaaru moved to the podium to make a speech. Spheres set in the stands and streets outside the stadium amplified his soft voice.

"Friends," he began, "Sin is dead."

He stood smiling for over a minute as wild applause washed from one side of the amphitheater to the other. "With the Al Bhed's aid, Sin has been utterly destroyed. Its unwilling fayth has been freed from bondage. I swear to you now, Sin will never again return to trouble Spira. This Calm will be Eternal." The ovation that followed this announcement was deafening. The whole stadium trembled as if under assault. Nearly lost in the tumult was a bewildered buzz of conversation as neighbor turned to neighbor. Sin's fayth? What did he mean? Was Sin an aeon? Had the summoner used Al Bhed machina? 

Isaaru spread his hands and waited again for the uproar to subside. "For a thousand years, the Church of Yevon has guided you with wise teachings which warned against strife, theft and greed. Sin comes, we said, from your sins. And so we taught you to be good out of fear. Now that fear is ended. But it was never true." The maesters behind Isaaru shifted uneasily, especially Shelinda, who covered her mouth with her hands. Lucil and Baralai merely exchanged glances of rueful resignation. These minor disturbances were nothing compared to the uneasy murmur that rippled through the spectators.

Isaaru went on, serene and unshakeable. "People of Spira, I tell you now, Sin arose from hate. Sin was never a punishment for our transgressions. It was Zanarkand's revenge: one final, awful aeon left behind to spite its destroyers. And now, without fear of Sin, I fear we may fall away from the teachings of Yevon, thinking that nothing can harm us.

"We may be tempted. We will be tempted. But I say to you, my friends: we are not children, cowed by nuns' tales into being good lest fiends carry us away in the night. Let us outgrow the temple nursery and be captains of our own words and deeds. Cast off guilt and atonement. Choose virtue not out of fear, but out of love.

"Remember the love of the High Summoners who sacrificed themselves for us. Remember the guardians who gave their lives for their summoners." He turned, indicating Auron, Pacce and Lulu with a sweep of his arm: those near the podium saw his brimming eyes when he smiled at his surviving brother. "Honor the unnumbered dead, Crusaders and warrior monks, Ronso and Al Bhed, even the Guado, all those who have fallen in battle against Sin." This time he gestured to his left, where Nooj now stood with the Al Bhed contingent, and where Wakka and Rikku held their two youngest while Vidina and Yuna fidgeted against their legs. "Remember Lady Yuna, blessed daughter of Yevon and Al Bhed, whose guidance and guardians gave me the true answer that eluded Yevon's church for a thousand years.

"Keep well their gifts. Tell their stories. Make Spira a good place not out of fear, but out of love. For if you do not, and if you forget this love that drove heroes to sacrifice themselves for our sakes, Spira will fall back into its petty ways, and there will be war again. Such war will breed new Sins. Nevertheless, I do not counsel fear, only hope. Unite with all the people of Spira, for together we are stronger than any Sin. Build the Spira that countless Spirans died to save."

A stunned silence followed, broken by a few crying babies, then a few claps, then more, and then scattered cheers escalated into a frenzied crescendo that must have been audible all the way to the Calm Lands. Auron felt Lulu's nails biting his skin. "Oh, Auron," she said. "He's a good man. A poor summoner, but a good man."

"You delivered a message," Auron said. "He heard it."

And so that glorious day had passed in celebration of a victory which had once meant more to Auron than rank, honor or life. When alive, this triumph would have mattered to him. Now? Could anything still matter, after so many failures and broken oaths?

The answer lay in the pyrefly-shriven flesh beneath his hand and in the flesh and blood behind him.

"Speaking of incurably romantic," Lulu said in his ear, then straightened. "Wakka? Rikku?" she called, raising her voice. "I'm turning in. I'll see you at the morning meal, yes?" 

Wakka looked up from ministering to Vidina, who had gotten a whiff of funguar pollen from Rikku's last mix. "Sure thing, Lu. Need company back to your room?"

"Absolutely not." She stepped away from Auron, who had removed his hand from under her veil of braids when she drew attention to herself. "Goodnight, Wakka." 

Auron did not watch her go, but he heard her fond "sweet dreams" to Yuna when she stooped to kiss the girl goodnight. Time blurred as he stayed to watch the fireworks finale, an obscure gift of memory for Jecht that he doubted he would be able to deliver. While the final embers were still falling, he stepped away from the wall and turned to make his way back into the building. Rikku winked at him as he passed and gave him a covert thumb's up. Hmph was the only fitting reply.

Each step came faster than the one before, as if Sin's gravitational pull were still drawing him forward. Father Zuke had given them a long, narrow, out-of-the-way room, too large for a solitary patient and too narrow to turn beds sideways and partition the room for two. It had been serving as a storage closet. Crates, benches and bookshelves stood stacked along the corridor outside, discouraging passage. Sidling around these, Auron found the door left partway open, a rectangle of dim yellow light serving as a beacon. He stepped inside. His fingers fumbled for the bolt behind him and drew it to with a clack that made her flinch. 

Seated on a stool before a slit-window, the mage was brushing out her hair by candlelight. He paused, absorbing the comfortably ordinary sight. The plain linen gown of a novitiate fell loosely from her shoulders, obscuring womanly curves. Her black hair was too stark against undyed fabric, accentuating her pallor. Deprived of beads, earrings, cosmetics, she reminded him of an unfinished summoner's statue, unvarnished and stripped of ornamentation. But the flicker of gold lapping her pale skin was an image whose memory had warmed him often during Gagazet's long, frigid nights.

Her hands kept stroking, hypnotic, as if taking refuge in routine. There was a puzzling shimmer at the edge of his vision, and for a moment he had the disconcerting impression that she was combing away stray pyreflies. But no, it was only static electricity. Ignoring the cackling whispers of his own pyrefly chorus urging him to abandon patience for lust, he executed his customary routine with no more haste than usual. Off went the sword and back-sheath, propped in a corner within easy reach of the cot nearest the window. Off went his boots and high collar, glove and vambrace, belt and jug, piled on a small table where his coat lay folded neatly. He started to shed his hauberk, then paused, smiled inwardly at a thought, and approached with panoply in place. Stooping, he gathered her left hand from the windowsill and raised it to his lips.

The mage turned then, raising haggard eyes that softened for him, a transformation that never failed to startle him. His mellow mood evaporated at the sight of her too-brave smile. The sheen on her cheekbones was more than that of candlelight. He stepped closer. Wordlessly, Lulu placed the brush on the sill and her arms around his waist, resting her cheek against the armor over his stomach. That vulnerable gesture was almost more disturbing than her tears. Had something happened since she left his side? A ghost-memory came to him, that formula she had sometimes used to deflect Tidus, expressing a fundamental truth of her being: I'm sorry. I need to be alone for a while. I need to think. She had not been alone with her own thoughts in thirteen years.

"Lulu." He reached down to thumb the wet from her cheeks. "It's all right." It was most certainly not all right, but he trusted her to decipher inadequate words.

"But you never—"

"You're not me." He shrugged. "And for what it's worth, I did. On Yunalesca's doorstep, waiting for Braska and Jecht."

He felt the faint slump in her shoulders when pride yielded. She wept for a long time, silent and barely moving, face averted and hidden by the spill of dark hair that slanted across one eye. He let the rains fall, profoundly wrenched, wooden where a lover would have... what? He did not know. Monk's vows and death's door and all the long and weary steps afterwards had not taught him how to comfort another soul, except for one peevish boy. He did not think dangling Lulu upside-down by her ankles and waiting for the squall to pass was in any way appropriate. So he stood still. Only his hand kept moving, wiping away the tears as they came.

When at last they ceased, her voice was only a little unsteady. "We've traveled a long way, haven't we?"

"Everywhere but one," he said, the slow brush of his fingers against her skin answering as speech could not. "And three pilgrimages apiece." 

"I suppose that's some kind of record." She drew a breath, muttering with surprising venom, "Damn it." 

"Lulu. Tell me."

"Yevon's welcoming committee."

Nonplussed, he cast his mind back over the day's bustle. There had been that warrior monk trying to scale the edge of the float, eager to proffer his undying devotion, to which Lulu had cryptically replied that undying things were the one thing she abhorred. There had been Juno escorting them into the stadium with another sour look at the mage in Maroda's place. There had also been the unpleasant business this morning with the guilt-ridden priest, which clearly troubled Lulu more than she would admit. But her tone suggested some other target of bile. "The maesters?"

"And that overgrown machina, Vegnagun. A thousand years old, wasn't it? No one would have been killed, Auron, if they'd used it sooner." Her arms tightened around him in a fierce squeeze. "Noone."

"No one knew it was there, Lulu."

"Didn't they? Someone's kept it in working order. To stifle the Al Bhed, maybe, if the heathens ever became too troublesome. Or maybe Bevelle's already used it. Have you seen what's left of the original Al Bhed Home?" Her breath hissed, like the ocean rolling back before a deadly wave. "I swear, if I still had my powers, I'd raze this city right down to sea level."

"If the maesters had discovered it sooner, Seymour would've used it to seize power. Or Kinoc would have. Let it go, Lulu. You know better than this." His voice sharpened. "And you sound like Sin."

Her arms dropped to her sides. There was a moment of dead silence, during which the air seemed to grow inexplicably warmer. Then it faded. She kissed his fingertips. "I'm sorry, Auron. Really, I'm fine. I'm just tired."

"Then let's get you to bed." 

He pressed a hand against her shoulder, willing her to wait while he rearranged the furniture. The two cots had been set chastely against opposite sides of the room according to some priest's notion of propriety. This was easily remedied. Shoving them together and spreading the coverlets, he found himself wondering when he and Lulu had last enjoyed the luxury of a real bed. Airship bunks were too narrow.

A hand glided against his back. He turned, settled onto the edge of the bed, circled her waist reverently and guided her to sit crossways over his legs. Tired or no, she responded with silent fervor, draping her arms around his shoulders. For a time they lost themselves to slow, sensual kisses. Lulu's fingers wandered, sketching frost-trails and heat on his scarred arms until her hands found the catches of his hauberk and flipped them open one by one. His shell landed on the floor with a clank. Laying back, he pulled her over him onto the bed, murmuring in her ear.

"'Do you suppose that one of us could make the other feel like one of the living?'" Those words, spoken thirteen years ago, had set in motion all that had passed between them since.

Yet she stiffened. "Auron—" Her breath caught at a kiss pressed against her throat. "Oh, Auron, how could I have been so callous? I didn't understand what I was asking of you."

"I have no regrets. I hope you don't." 

"No, except...except..." She tripped over her words, distracted by his tongue, "Surely it's blasphemy. What was I thinking?" 

That elicited a startled bark of laughter. "Lulu, we've conspired with the Al Bhed, used forbidden machina, killed a maester, destroyed Yevon's god, and devastated most of the temples in Spira, andnow you're worried about blasphemy?"

"Oh." She almost laughed, then. "Well, there is that."

"You think too much." He traced her hip from waist to thigh, feeling her body curl against his touch. "This. Flesh. We're here. Never mind how. It makes no more sense than life, Lulu, and it will pass the same way. And there is no book, no teachings, no scripture, no map that applies to us." As if of their own volition, her hands began to map the scars of his chest. 

"'Don't think," she said, mimicking his gruff tones. "'Feel.'"

"Do you remember my reply to your original question?" he pressed.

She tilted her head. "I..." and then he heard the small, tired chuckle as his words came back to her."'I doubt it, but I shouldn't mind being proved wrong.'"

"You've been proving me wrong for thirteen years, Lulu. Otherwise I should have become a fiend by now." 

"Auron." That name, a whispered talisman. The brand on his palm tingled in a sympathetic pulse. She relaxed, as if the word made burdens easier to bear. "Then... please remind me what it is to be human."

Thirteen years they had waited, and now, at last, they had time. She was no longer Spira's Lady; she was his: this warmth, these curves, this refined elegance mixed with dangerous seduction, these fierce kisses, this secretly passionate woman who constrained herself with chilly reserve, with bindings and belts and braids before the public eye. For him, she was abundant. 

And Mars put off his shield and panoply, and for one night only war was in abeyance.

The pyreflies sang between them until both life and death ceased to have any meaning.

Hours later, they lay face to face, as close to sated as unquiet souls ever dared to be. Auron leaned in to press a light kiss against her brow and stated, "You have something of mine."

"Your coat is lying folded on that sideboard," she returned, drowsily affable, "Nor is it my fault that someone stuck a sword through it." 

"Not what I meant." He captured the hand fondling his stubble and drew it slowly and deliberately down against his chest.

Lulu made a soft, desolate sound in the back of her throat, and he chastised himself for being another cause of tears. But her eyes remained dry as she sought his gaze and moved their interlaced fingers to the hollow between her breasts. "Well, you have something of mine. I suppose it's too late to return it."

He embraced her, sealing clasped hands between them. "But too early to let go."




O Love and Time and Sin,
Three singing mouths that mourn now underbreath,
[...]
O Love, thou knowest if she were good to see.
O Time, thou shalt not find in any land
Till, cast out of thine hand,
The sunlight and the moonlight fail from thee,
Another woman fashioned like as this.
O Sin, thou knowest that all thy shame in her
Was made a goodly thing;
Yea, she caught Shame and shamed him with her kiss,
With her fair kiss, and lips much lovelier
Than lips of amorous roses in late spring.

By night there stood over against my bed
Queen Venus with a hood striped gold and black,
Both sides drawn fully back
From brows wherein the sad blood failed of red,
And temples drained of purple and full of death.
Her curled hair had the wave of sea-water...
[...]
Even she to whom all praise
Was as one flower in a great multitude,
One glorious flower of many and glorious,
One day found gracious among many days.

-- from "The Ballad of Death" by Algernon Swinburne

Chapter Text



A day in St. Bevelle began with the ringing of many bells from the city heights — yet too few, with gaps of silence when the Tower of Light should have boomed forth. A chilly marine fog seeped between panes and under doors. Auron and Lulu rose and dressed in silence, exchanging ironic looks as the mage bundled herself into the bulky robes of a novice nun. As the last peals died away, they slipped out, threading corridors where tardy acolytes scampered towards chapel. Those few who made eye contact were too tongue-tied by the sight of the famous guardian and his severe companion to offer more than a reverent bow. None noticed that Yevon's prayer was not returned. 

Outside, the gardens were cold, foggy and uninviting. A glimmer to the east showed where the sun would burn through. Dew lay heavy on leaf and stone. Above, invisible gulls wheeled and keened. Lulu halted at the edge of the grass and breathed in. Earth, flowers, herbs, and the homely scents of cooking from the refectory blended with the smell of the sea. Auron waited. Abruptly she bent and removed her slippers, pressing her toes into the wet earth. Loose hair flying behind her, she strode swiftly out onto the close-cropped lawn, wetting the hem of her gown, walking the concentric circles between beds of flowers and herbs. Auron followed more slowly, marching towards the fountain as she wandered aimlessly here and there, touching plants as she passed. A mental image came to Auron as he watched: her dream-bower, an infinite cage, more verdant yet utterly barren for all its fruits and flowers, a cloister of trials with no terminus for a failed guardian to pace for years without end. 

At last she reached him, turning away from the fountain and gazing back at their footprints marching in parallel across the dew-silvered grass.

"Well, that hasn't changed, at least," Lulu said.

"No." Auron was watching her feet, not the ground. She had stumbled while crossing the lawn. Unimportant, perhaps, but she had always been so sure-footed on their travels, inexplicably elsewhere whenever a foe's claw, fist or wing-tip swept towards her.

"What?" she said, noticing his scrutiny. 

He shrugged, diverting her attention back to the garden with a nod. "Hardly up to your standards."

"It's real, you mean?" Her fingers fluttered towards the stumps of a freshly-pruned rosebush. "But I think I know how it feels." The motion turned into an upswept gesture that he should have recognized sooner. "Catch." 

He had only begun to move when the ice-spur nicked his ear. Rumbling, he stepped forward and caught her wrist, nodding down at the small white flowers underfoot.

They moved to the empty lawn before the fountain, amusing themselves with old drills. She cast. He parried. Auron had to take care on his follow-through, checking swings that nearly clouted her. Suspicions confirmed: her judgment of close distances was a little suspect, or else she was having to relearn the boundaries of her own body. To judge by her prim frown, she knew it. She would not stop dueling even when a stray chunk of ice struck Yuna's statue and deflected the fountain's spray, drenching both of them. Auron's whirling blade moved faster as her footwork became more confident. Melting ice crunched underfoot, and the ground around the fountain was growing muddy. Now and then a monk or nun, cutting through the cloister on errands, gave them an agitated look and a wide berth. At last the abbot himself emerged and made a beeline towards them. Auron touched Lulu's arm and straightened, planting his sword.

"Father Zuke." Lulu's hands made an abortive gesture, and she settled for folding her arms.

"Good morning," Zuke said, bowing. "I trust you both rested well? I missed you at morning prayers."

"Very well, Father," said Lulu, averting her gaze from Auron's too-complacent expression. 

"Excellent. Is there anything you need?"

Lulu passed a look towards Auron. "No, we are content."

"Anything you wish, then?" Zuke said. Auron had the impression that the old priest was fishing for something, for all that his manner was unpressing.

"I'd like to take up your offer of healing lessons, when you have the time." 

He pursed his lips, considering. "My time is never my own, my dear, therefore, my time is yours. You are, after all, my second-best student."

"Second-best?" she said over Auron's hmph.

"Isaaru learned all that I know. You had your own notions of what mattered." Zuke's eyes twinkled. "So. Shall we remove to my office, to avoid interruptions? Sir Auron, would you like to observe?"

Auron shook his head. "Don't overdo it," he told Lulu.

"Don't coddle." 

As she stepped onto the paved colonnade surrounding the cloister, Lulu's feet nearly went out from under her on the slick flagstones. The priest looked down. His brows jerked upwards at the sight of her toes and heels plastered with mud and bits of grass. "I'm surprised to be telling you, of all people, to wipe your feet."

The mage laughed, an unrepentant sound that rippled across the cloisters. She dashed away the dirt with a water spell and followed him inside.

Auron took up his sword again and smiled.

new scene



Lessons were served over Zuke's excellent herbal tea. Lulu warmed her hands with the clay cup, listening with eyes, ears and shoulders. Absently, she stirred the steaming liquid with a fingertip capped in ice, taking small sips.

Zuke faced her earnestly across the desk, gnarled hands steepled on a nest of papers. "Curing magic is most like watera, the inviting, the offering, the opening of channels to old rains that air and soil remember. A white mage cannot force flesh to heal, bone to knit. You must rouse it, remind it of its proper form and shape. You must gather the energies of pyrefly-essence and with them— Lulu?" 

Her scowl was a thunderstorm, fierce, bitter. "Pyreflies," she said. "That I can do."

"Can you, now." He paused to shuffle scrolls and parchment, clearing away the space between them. She drained her cup slowly, ignoring the dangling interrogative. Zuke shook his head slightly and continued. "But life-energies are stronger than pyreflies, which can only reflect, sustain and magnify. And yet life is weaker— or rather, more delicate— than the elemental forces that you command. For you tap time: you summon all the lightning strikes, all the rains, every frost, every wildfire whose memory is stored in the air and soil around you. Whereas life–"

"It is ephemeral," she interrupted, "But surely, the power of life is everywhere too, for most matter in Spira has been part of living flesh at some time."

"Yes. I think that may go a long way to explaining how pyreflies build the bodies of fiends. But each life is unique, and you can't graft one to another."

"No." She set the cup down with a sharp clank, sloshing out the last few drops. "No, we can't."

Again, the crease-lines of care around his eyes deepened. He paused to refill her cup, setting it aside with his to cool. "So," he said, "we must use pyreflies to cradle and concentrate one life's frail pulse, as one shields and blows gently to nurture a spark into a blaze. White magic requires a gentle touch, supporting rather than directing. Do you understand?"

"I think so." She refocused on him with a hint of warmth. "I've watched you and Yuna do it often enough."

"Hem, yes." He looked pained but pleased. "Well, then. Let's try a simple exercise." Propping his elbows, he raised his hands, palms facing her. "Now, I'd like you to close your eyes and try to bring your hands as close to mine as you can without touching. The first step to healing magic is body-awareness, not of your own flesh, but of another's." 

"Like fayth and aeon," she murmured, leaning forward to mirror him.

He gave her a keen look. "How so?"

Again, the mage said nothing, closing her eyes and flexing her long fingers like a musician sizing up a strange instrument. Then she stilled. Zuke waited, nodding mute encouragement as she sought for unseen currents. A minute passed. Finally she began to edge towards him, reaching, swaying slowly from side to side as she probed, stalking with spread fingertips. The old man kept silent, watching her painstaking progress with a nonjudgmental eye. At length, she halted with their hands a span's breadth apart. Her eyes opened. The mage puffed her cheeks in disdain, eyeing the gap.

Zuke smiled and raised a finger, motioning for her to return to her starting point. She nodded and tried again. 

After a dozen attempts, she finished with their mirrored hands almost touching, barely offset. One of her fingers twitched, catching his skin with a nail. She cursed.

"No, that's good," he said, dropping his hands to his sides and shaking them out. "That's enough. Impressive, for one more attuned to non-living forces." He reached for his cup. "Now I think we should heed Sir Auron's counsel and call this a promising start." 

"A start," Lulu said, frowning. "Forgive me, Father, but I am in some haste. I realize that learning happens slowly, but—"

"Lulu." The loving respect in his tone nearly disarmed his words' sting. "You cannot be trying to outflank another summoner."

"No." Her face clouded. "Or rather— no. She is young. She does not yet know what she yearns for. No, Sir Auron and I have another errand. There are relics left in Zanarkand which should not be left for curious adventurers to find. It's best that we... deal with them. Soon."

"I see." Sorrow, questions and protests furrowed the fan-lines around his eyes, but he banished them with another easygoing smile. "I could loan you a healer, you know. Doddering summoners aside, there are many capable youngsters who would consider it an honor."

"And none I would risk."

"In that, you have not changed, my friend." He pondered, then stood and moved to a cabinet, drawing out a blue swirling sphere on a squat metal stand. "Very well. Let's proceed to a training sphere. It is easier to demonstrate on a real wound, or rather, on its simulacrum." Returning to his chair, he placed the artifact on the table between them and settled his hands around the sphere's lower half. "As I recall, you were always more relaxed when you need not fear casualties from a stray bolt." His brow furrowed. "Although relaxed is not quite the word. More focused, rather." 

She placed her fingers across the top. "I just didn't like anyone to see my failures, as well you know."

His eyes crinkled at her candor. "You have mellowed."

The cramped, dim office dissolved around them. The rug was replaced by an infinite plane of hard-packed gray earth, scored with a faint grid. Walls vanished, yielding to an infinite horizon. What passed for sky was a mottled, diffuse haze the color of ash. Zuke arrived first and stood waiting. Lulu tumbled into view with less than her usual poise, pyreflies eddying up from her feet like dust-motes.

He took a half-step towards her. "Lulu?"

Her form remained insubstantial, revealing the horizon through the shadow of her body. Her pale shoulders and face formed a white triangle, defined by a low neckline and the slant of dark hair that fell across one eye. The shapeless white robes of Bevelle had been replaced by an elegant black gown, once tailored, now tattered. The belts that comprised its skirt flowed out in a sweeping train that blurred into vines and creepers. The ground itself had changed in her vicinity, resolving into sand, rocks, and splintered bones. Pyreflies danced around her like drunken stars. 

"Lulu!"

Seeing his face knitted in dismay, she looked down, flung her arms up as if to ward off the pyreflies, and blinked out.

Zuke backed out of the dream-space almost as hastily, jostling the sphere off its base. The reassuring normality of his bare priest's cell rematerialized around them. He made a grab to keep the sphere from rolling off, then raised his eyes to find Lulu seated across from him. The white novitiate's gown was unchanged, and her fingers were clenched around the edge of the desk with reassuring solidity. Zuke sagged in his chair, struggling to hold his voice level. "Steady, Lulu. Ground and center."

"It's all right." She straightened, breast rising and falling in repressed heaves for some seconds before she mastered herself and folded her hands in her lap. "I'm sorry, Father. I didn't realize I was so rusty. Let's try that again." 

"Again?" He stared. "I think not, my stubborn friend."

Her mouth turned down. "I said I'm fine. I just need to focus." 

"No, Lulu. This experiment has gone far enough." He gathered up the sphere and set it on the window-ledge behind him, ignoring her swelling indignation. "I must commend your determination. But you are not yet recovered, and even if you were, this was a rash thing to try. I have no business taking an untethered fayth into the training realm."

Her eyes flashed. There was a long, crackling silence before her chin dipped in grudging acknowledgment. "You know?"

"Not at all; I'm quite agog with ignorance." He gave a mirthless huff of laughter. "But I fear I can guess what, or rather, whom, Isaaru meant yesterday, when he declared that 'Sin's unwilling fayth' has been freed." Zuke flapped a hand abruptly. "Drink your tea."

Mechanically, she reached for the earthen cup and began to take it in small sips. "I'm not... untethered," Lulu said finally. "It... I..." She gestured at herself, a slashing motion that dismissed what it indicated. "There's no statue to house the fayth of the Final Summoning, Father. Just flesh and bone. Mine. Sir Jecht's. Lady Lilith's. And all the other guardians who accompanied their summoners to the very end."

"The fayth of the Final Summoning?" he said, and stopped. Horror dawned slowly in his old eyes. "A guardian's soul? Dear Yevon, you mean to say that—"

Lulu exploded out of her chair, slamming her hands against the table. "Yevon made... me... Sin!" Her cup burst before it hit the floor.

Zuke recoiled. The room felt suddenly hot and dry. The mage's form seem to flicker again, or perhaps a bird had just flown past the window, cutting through the sunlight. High, sharp cries seem to come from a great distance, gulls or human voices distorted by the thickening air. Lulu's hair lifted from her shoulders as if from static electricity. 

Steeling himself, the priest reached across the desk, laying his papery hands across hers. Her fingers were too warm, her nails uncomfortably so. "Lulu. Daughter." His voice broke on that one word. "Whatever happened, you are not Sin now." 

The oppressive heat bled away slowly. Her head drooped. She gave a mute squeeze of acknowledgement before drawing away and turning her back. "I'm not so sure of that."

"I am," he said. "Ill-tempered as ever, and you've come back with enough firepower to melt Gagazet, I'll be bound, but that's Lulu all over." 

"Thanks a lot." She let out a chuckle that was half a whimper. "No, really. Thank you."

"The least I can do," he said. He bowed his head, resting his furrowed brow against his fingertips. "I should have looked for you, when you did not return."

"No," she said. "You couldn't have reached me. No one could." 

"Except Sir Auron, apparently." He paused. "Ah. Yes, of course. I begin to see."

"Auron." She spoke the name as a talisman. "Spira will never know what he endured to make us free."

"I suppose not." He cleared his throat. "What would you have of me, Lulu? This wish to become a healer. Are you seeking atonement?"

"To what? In whose name?" She turned back, arms folded. "My victims are dead. I'm damned. Nothing can alter that. But Sir Auron and I must return to the Hall of the Final Summoning andend this, lest another follow in my footsteps. There is little in Zanarkand which can threaten us, but I must be prepared for that little. And—" Her expression softened. "As I told you, Father, I am tired of being only a destroyer."

"There are different routes to redemption." He exhaled. "For what it's worth, Lulu, I believe that you two have the strength you need." 

"Flesh bleeds, whatever the will that binds it. And I must insist that you let me try that sphere again. I can't afford to be tripped up by a few pyreflies; Zanarkand is swarming with them." 

"Oh." He considered. "Let's reconvene tomorrow. I'd like to consult with Isaaru, if you don't mind."

The door opened. Auron stepped in, closed it, and looked between them expectantly.

"A useful lesson," Lulu said. "Thank you, Father." 

Zuke, still unsettled, lost a beat before replying, "Glad to help, my friend."

"Hmph," Auron said, but did not pry. "Yuna's asking for you."

"Lady Yuna?" Zuke said, even more bewildered.

The mage relaxed. She realized suddenly that the muffled high squeaks she had taken for birds outside Zuke's stained glass window were children's voices, and that the sunlight had grown strong enough to cast shadows. "Wakka's child. Come, Father. I'd like you to meet her."

new scene



Awash in sunshine as new as the Calm, the cloister was rather more crowded than they had left it. Younger clerics, attending to weeding and pruning, greeted the abbot with imploring, scandalized glances in the direction of the fountain. Wakka and Rikku's children were frolicking there, the youngest two sans clothing. Shrieks of delight and a blitzball's tinny thump echoed loudly through the cloister's arched galleries. Lulu gave a quiet sigh of sheer contentment. Auron glanced down at her and relaxed. Whatever had happened in Zuke's office, the color had returned to her cheeks.

"Careful, Father," Lulu said to Zuke as they strolled towards the fountain. "I sense fiends in the undergrowth." 

The ex-summoner gave her a wry look. "Very small ones, I assume."

Giggles erupted from the nearest bushes. As they drew parallel, Yuna burst out and flew across the mulched path, arms outstretched. Lulu stooped and caught her hands. "Sorry, sweetling. You're too big for me to carry, as I am now." 

"Awww."

Without breaking stride, Auron swept out an arm and scooped both of them onto the nearest bench, depositing the girl in Lulu's lap. Lulu, giving him a reproachful look, attempted to smooth her skirts beneath the wriggling child.

"Not quite the honor due the lady, sir guardian," Zuke said, expression bland.

Auron's eye narrowed. "No."

"I'm sure she'll whip him into shape," Rikku said, untangling herself from Vidina, who had imitated his sister and tackled the nearest target. "Took me about six months with Wakka, so I guess Auron'll take...oh, I donno, six years?"

Wakka, snatching the blitzball out of the air and tucking it under his arm with a sheepish expression, shuffled over and cleared his throat. "Father Zuke?"

"Sir Wakka." Zuke bowed warmly. "Welcome back. I'm glad to see the years have treated you well."

"Uh," Wakka said. "You too. Thanks for putting us up."

"Lady Rikku I have met; who are these lovely children?" 

"I'm Yuna," said the girl, squirming around to stare at him unabashedly. "And you're bald just like Pop-pops!"

"That would be Elder Cid?" he said, shrewd eyes darting from the girl's strawberry mop to Rikku's blond braids. "And I expect you know this place was named for... your aunt, yes?" 

"Are you a summoner?"

"Well, yes and no." He looked quizzically at Wakka's frantic hand-motions. "Retired. Or failed, if you like. I now serve as the abbot of this cloister. Once upon a time, your father and Lady Lulu were my guardians."

"Dad was a guardian?" Yuna said, clutching at Lulu's hair. "Like Sir Auron?"

Wakka cleared his throat noisily. "And that's Etta and Mbela, and this here's Vidina."

"Hi," said the boy, tone guarded. His attention was fixed upon Zuke's priestly vestments, the Yevon runes picked out in black embroidery on starched white fabric. The other children took no notice, tittering as their mother shepherded them out of the pool. 

Zuke bowed graciously. "Pleased to meet you."

"Yeah. Hey, you. Are you a Yevon, too?" Vidina said, looking pointedly at the woman holding his sister in her lap. "Yunie said so."

"No longer," Lulu said with cool satisfaction. "Lapsed, like your father." 

"'Lapsed'?" Vidina said, still suspicious. "What's that mean? Dad would never—"

"Breakfast!" Rikku said, clapping her hands. "Come on, everybody, towel time! Vidina, Yunie, help your father fetch the trays. Hope you don't mind, Zuke; we raided the cafeteria." 

"Not at all." The priest bowed again, returning his attention to Lulu and Auron. "I must return to my duties. Tomorrow morning, yes?"

Lulu inclined her head fractionally.

"I look forward to it." He smiled, but his stride was slow and preoccupied as he retraced his steps back to the halls.

"So," Auron said, watching him go.

"We'll need to restock your potions," Lulu said, sounding ruffled.

Yuna scampered back to them, balancing a tray across her outstretched arms. Soup was pooling in the sodden napkins, but the spicy aroma rising from a covered basket smelled heavenly. 

"Eat," Yuna said. She bumped against Lulu's knee. "Mum says it's bad for you to miss breakfast."

"Thank you, Yuna." Lulu set the tray onto the bench next to her, took a pair of chopsticks, and selected a small bite of rice. "It's good."

"See?" Yuna scrambled back onto the bench and picked up a dumpling with her fingers. "No more pyreflies. Wait till you get home. Dad's cooking's the best."

"Yes." Lulu's hesitation was so slight that even the girl did not notice. "Yes, that was one thing he always did well." 

"I heard that, Lu!" Wakka called, tossing the ball over from where he was sitting on the lawn. It bounced lightly off Lulu's shins. "We won't tell her about your cooking, ya?" 

The mage kicked it back in his general direction. Water splattered everywhere when he leapt up to intercept it, although the ball had been quite dry when it left her foot. The children shrieked with laughter.

"Hey!" Rikku said. "No blitzballs at meals, remember?" Glancing over at Lulu, she bounced to her feet abruptly. "Oh! Speaking of cooking... you didn't use any sun goo, Lulu, did you? Good thing I've still got some. You're looking a little pink from yesterday." She ambled over, digging into the pouch at her hip. Auron was beginning to suspect that she had somehow connected it to the Farplane to hold all her alchemical components. "Here we are!" She brandished a small stoppered pot and waggled it in front of the mage's nose. "One ice queen ointment, coming up! Want me to put some on or—" she lowered her voice, smirking at Auron— "should he do it?" 

"I doubt you or Sir Auron need sun protection," said Lulu. "But I'll have some, thank you." 

Auron averted his gaze while Rikku applied the ointment to Lulu's exposed skin. It was an old ritual, familiar from their long-ago pilgrimage. The women fell to mundane chatter, discussing how to "liberate" Lulu from stuffy robes which, Rikku declared, made Lulu resemble an albino flan. Absently chewing on a squashed dumpling that the child pressed into his hand, Auron drifted away from their banter. 

Retreating to the cloister's back wall, he observed the pleasant scene with detachment: a family picnicking on the lawn, acolytes bent to garden tasks, two women plotting a shopping expedition into the city. This, truly, was the Calm they had fought for, the ordinary life which seemed to him more foreign than Sin's dreamscapes. Auron marveled at how easily the mage could step back into Spira's currents. Then again, after Braska's pilgrimage, he had faced changes almost as disorienting. With all truths, all hopes, his own life extinguished, he had fallen straightaway into the utterly alien world of Tidus and Jecht's dream-Zanarkand.

Zanarkand. 

Zanarkand was waiting. Much as he wished for Lulu to savor a few days' peace, the pilgrimage road beckoned. Peace without purpose was still a vague threat to him. He needed a fixed terminus drawing him forward. He would not, could not accept the path of old Maechen, that wandering scholar who had long ago forgotten he was unsent, until he was little more than an absent-minded recording sphere with mouth and legs.

And Lulu? What would become of her?

As his thoughts circled back to her, Auron's vitals gave a disconcerting sideways lurch. For a moment, a powerful suction was dragging at him like Guadosalam's breach to the Farplane. Colored lights descended before his eyes. The chopsticks Lulu had been holding slipped and fell, spearing the dirt. Rikku chattered on, oblivious, but Yuna was patting the mage's face. Then, like a retreating wave, the nausea subsided. A faint, insistent tug remained, a minor irritant like the background hum of the pyreflies. 

Lulu was already collecting herself, features smoothing over. She chucked the girl's cheek.

Peripherally aware of the child staring at her, Auron refrained from questions. To judge by Lulu's curt head-shake, she was as baffled as he. 






Chapter Text

Lulu was knitting herself back together as methodically as she used to repair lace-embroidered sleeves before the campfire.

Auron saw it each morning when they awoke in the cramped chill. The shreds of dream that fled her eyes at first kiss were human now, most of the time. Her nightmares were fewer. The red marks at her wrists and throat had faded to ghostly white. On good mornings, he would wake to find her tangled in his arms, instead of brooding at the window or curled up coverless and apart, stiffly facing the wall.

She had dismissed the disquieting tug of the pyreflies, almost convincing him that she could not sense their insidious pull. When he pressed his doubts, she parried with a brief lecture. "Sin, the aeon that bridged the Farplane and Spira, has been eliminated. Pyreflies seek to close that breach, calling home souls who stray beyond their time. Of course, I need not fear that you will answer that summons."

Outside of their private chamber, her eyes were acclimatizing to daylight. She readily joined Rikku and Wakka's family in their games of catch and toss around the fountain, honoring the memory of the High Summoner who had so treasured laughter. Lady Yuna's statue presided over the chaos, suspended in the spray while Al Bhed chatter and giggles disrupted the cloister's hushed decorum. Not that Lulu laughed often. She moved with mute grace among the children, allowing herself to be teased and targeted. Soon she was evading their throws, pivoting out of a missile's path with belled white skirts and braids swinging.

Vidina kept trying to teach her the rules. "You're supposed to catch the ball, not dodge it!"

Two handfuls of fluffy snow materialized above his head in answer. Then all the children had wanted snow, and the lawn around the fountain had nearly become a bog before the abbot stormed out to forbid black magic’s use in the garden. Auron caught Zuke's tolerant smile as he returned to chambers, head shaking in slow wonderment.

Auron guarded. From the shadows of the colonnade, he watched those of Yevon who cast glances at the Al Bhed family sojourning in their midst. Not all looks were friendly.

Sometimes Wakka absented himself from play to watch as well, scratching the back of his head and staring at Lulu as if trying to solve a puzzle in the Cloister of Trials. Auron was occasionally implicated in that scrutiny.

Father Zuke's lessons were proceeding well. Wakka had softened enough to permit his daughter to attend their sessions, after he had extracted a firm promise from Lulu that little Yuna would hear no word of summoners, aeons or pilgrimages. The girl would play on the floor of the abbot's cell, amusing herself with bowls and marbles and her shoopuf doll. Sometimes she pretended to heal the doll's limbs while Zuke talked Lulu through white magic visualizations. During their work in the training sphere, Yuna would lean against Lulu's legs, head propped against her knee, waiting for the adults to stir from dream-trance. She never disturbed them. Lulu confided to Auron that the child's presence made it easier to enter and exit the pyrefly simulation without losing focus.

"She won't be with us in Zanarkand." Auron said.

"I know that." The mage's retort was emphasized with a hard smack of water.

Lulu and Auron had taken to drilling on the roof. There was ample room for swings and lunges, and a stray spell would not ignite the grass nor imperil passersby. At least she usually refrained from fire spells, since her borrowed robes had no magical shielding against combustion. Auron was mostly inured to frostbite by now.

The little white magics she was learning made practice easier. They were mere self-indulgence, however, as he told her bluntly. A feathering of silken magic that soothed away hurts was pleasant enough, sometimes distractingly so. But how much power could she afford to fritter away in the thick of battle?

Auron’s boots skidded on wet gravel, striking the stone curb at the roof's edge. He swung his sword out and around, forming a horizontal barrier at her back.

Lulu halted, one hand raised in the claw-cast that meant Blizzara. Exhaling, she lowered her arm and pivoted slowly, gaze dropping to the the balcony on the level below and the vertiginous plunge beyond it. Bevelle's mountain-city leapt away in steep tiers, spires cutting through wisps of morning mist. Far below, the harbor was a pool of fog. Masts poked up through its soft golden surface like tiny pins. Enameled towers blazed with bold colors in the morning sun.

Bevelle. Once Auron had been proud to guard the holy city.

"Oh." Lulu smiled. "Quite a view, isn't it?"

He stared at her until she rapped the blade with her knuckles and moved away from the brink. She had not shared Auron's fondness for heights in the old days, but a decade as Sin had clearly left its imprint.

He resumed without warning, throwing his weight into a swing. Lulu lurched sideways, white robes now scored with dark stripes from his blade. A mask of ice caught his face on the blind side. He came dangerously near to hamstringing her on the backstroke. They were not pulling punches now.

"Gravity control was Sin's," he said, an oblique rebuke. "If you still have it, we should test it."

"No." She scattered hard, round ice-nodules at his feet, causing him to stumble. "No more flying. Just Ultima, and I won't risk that here."

Ultima. That devastating spell had come to her late in the pilgrimage, during their final battle with Seymour. Always her new magics had manifested in the grip of a bitter rage, raining down blast after blast with a force that left her friends awed and somewhat guarded around her for the rest of the day. He regretted that there had not been a chance to test Ultima upon Yunalesca.

"Anything else?" he said.

"Aero." She leaned away from his next swing. "Brace."

Auron set his feet and crouched as a burst of shearing wind slammed into him like the downdraft of a Garuda's wings, pistoning the air from his lungs. Gravel and slushy ice peppered his face and bare arms.

"Use on Gagazet," Auron rasped. "Knock down foes."

"Only if we're back to back." Lulu stepped neatly over another scything stroke. "Hold."

He straightened and racked his sword against his shoulder, catching his breath. Lulu gathered a handful of fire to herself for more subtle work, diffusing it slowly and pacing the open space around them. Ice chips and puddles steamed away from the rough surface.

Auron observed her steps closely. Her footwork today had been almost flawless.

It was time.

"When do we leave?" he said.

Her movements arrested. He hated his imagination, that for a moment interpreted her regal, straight posture as that of a statue. Then she banished the illusion with a roll of shoulders and a suppressed sigh. Her eyes lifted to survey the northern horizon where the Calm Lands spread out in a green haze. "Three of my pilgrimages have ended there. On two, I lost my summoners. And you..." Her fingers caressed the air in a straight line that followed the scars hidden under his breastplate. "Those accursed plains gave you no luck either."

"You said you can't fly any more."

Her eyes flashed irritation. "Auron, don't be dense!"

He considered and discarded the disagreeable prospect of chocobos. "An airship?"

"Why not? Surely your Al Bhed merchant friend will ferry you on one last journey."

"Maybe." The corner of his mouth twitched. "He'll expect payment."

A light patter of footsteps was coming up the stairwell.

"Then perhaps we should adjourn to Macalania Woods," Lulu said. "Time to test my spells on real fiends again, hmm? We should collect some hunting spoils to cover expenses."

"Oh, no you don't!" Rikku's head popped out of the hole in the roof. "There you are! Come on, slowpokes! Blitzball tournament today, remember? Good grief, Lulu, you're a mess!" She covered her mouth in mock-horror. "I can't believe it. Is that an honest-to-gosh speck of dirt on you? Get down here and change, pronto!"

new scene

Auron took in the games with resigned boredom. His thoughts drifted to two old friends from Zanarkand who might have enjoyed the spectacle, assuming they did not make one of themselves.

Strange to think how long it had been since he had last attended a blitzball tournament outside his duties to a summoner. Isaaru was there, of course, but Auron had declined the graciously-worded invitation to join Bevelle's new icon in the maesters' box. He could just discern three wavering forms on the far side of the sphere pool: the High Summoner arrayed in Yevon's vestments with no concern for hypocrisy, a stumpy warrior monk in dress armor, and the new Grand Maester wearing an unorthodox cut of robes, trim to the hip and split to allow the illusion of a rider's chaps. For all Lucil's prudence, Auron was not convinced that it was progress for the military branch to assume supreme command from the priesthood. Happily, Spira's affairs were no longer his concern.

Lulu, at least, was enjoying the game, childhood memories sparked by the athletic forms darting through the water. Even here, she could not help analyzing.

"There. The Goers' right defender. Watch his off-hand. When he cocks it by his ear and thrusts, so, it's a Blind spell." Lulu moved only her arm to point, trying not to rouse the girl dozing in her lap.

"Ha!" Wakka winked up at Rikku, seated beside Lulu on the row behind him. "See? Lu was always good at spottin' the sneaky stuff."

"That's because Lulu's sneaky," Rikku said, elbowing the mage. "I still haven't forgiven you for that Lightning Eater, you know. You about gave me a heart attack."

"What's a Lightning Eater?" Vidina said, not peeling his eyes from the match. "A machina? A fiend?"

"A shield against electricity," Rikku said. "Lulu's favorite spell. Meanie. She sent it to me as a little reminder of what we were in for, when we went to rescue her."

"Zap zap zap!" Etta said, bouncing on his father's knees.

Yuna stirred drowsily. "Thundara?"

"Not here." Lulu brushed her cheek. "Too many people." To Rikku, she said, "I knew I'd answer to Wakka if anything happened to you."

"Damned straight," Wakka said.

Auron stretched out his legs to block Mbela, who was crawling stealthily towards the aisle. Almost he lifted the urchin by her ankles, but her parents might be less tolerant than Jecht. The girl squeaked and scrabbled back to her mother.

"Hey!" Wakka said. "He did it again! I saw it, that time. You're right, Lu, look. The shooter can't aim."

"Or swim." Lulu shook her head as the Ronso plowed into the opposing goalie. "So, are you going to explain why you've enlisted me to help scout?"

"Uhhh," Wakka said. "Who says we're scouting? We just thought you'd like to see a blitzball tournament. You've gotta be going stir crazy, cooped up in that stuffy Yevon temple!"

"Wakka. Aren't you getting a little old to be coming out of retirement again?"

Wakka reddened. "I'm not that old, Lu!"

"Shhhhh!" Rikku's eyes creased with laughter.

Lulu arched an eyebrow.

"I'm just coaching," Wakka said, lowering his voice. "Rikku's a pretty good midfielder, though. We're rebuilding the Al Bhed Psyches."

"Yeah, Pops went ballistic when he found out Rin was betting against Team Al Bhed," Rikku said, sticking out her tongue at the sphere pool. "Rin's been backing the Luca team. They get the best training, the best free agents... you know, just like the old days. We've promised to bring the Cup back Home."

"I see. So that's how you convinced Cid to leave you in Bevelle." Lulu's soft chuckle transformed into a gasp, quite lost in the crowd's roar.

"Lulu?" Yuna sat up. "What's wrong?"

"Ow!" Rikku said. She rubbed her arm. "Yo, prickly lady! What was that for?"

Lulu shook her head, abruptly collecting Yuna in a quick hug and depositing her next to her mother. "Excuse me." She stood and moved towards the aisle, face spasming in another grimace. Auron rose and moved with her, scanning the crowd behind them.

There. At the top of their section stood a solitary Guado, his crest of forking hair singling him out from the other spectators. The man's arms were uplifted as if anticipating the "wave" cheer rippling around the stadium, but his attention was riveted upon the Al Bhed family clustered in the front two rows. Even at this distance, Auron recognized the fixed hostility radiating from that elongated figure. Auron gently pressed Lulu's forearm down as she raised it for a spell-cast. Her skin felt clammy.

"I'll deal with him," he said. Exiting their row, he began to stalk up the stairs.

Stealth was impossible, and Auron's prey saw him coming. With the eel-slippery speed of his kind, the Guado wheeled and dove into the nearest access tunnel. Auron followed, breaking into a run as he passed the top tier of seats. Bevelle’s architecture helped him gain ground, since the steps were designed for human proportions, but his quarry had a formidable head start. Fortunately, the guard at the bottom of the stairs heard them coming and stepped out into the fugitive’s path.
"Hey, you! Halt!”

A thunderclap jarred the floor. The passageway was illuminated in in an electric white flash as the guard staggered.

The Guado had pulled up to cast the spell, and that was all the opening Auron needed. He barreled into the gangly figure, ramming him against the wall with bracer pressed against the nape of his neck. "Don’t try it," he growled, as his victim struggled to bring his arm up for a spell.

Seizing spiky tufts of hair, Auron hoisted and spun him around. The long, bilious face was unknown to him, but the sullen recognition in the stranger's eyes was plain enough.

"Sir Auron!" The guard came up in a wobbly salute. "What's this man done, sir?"

Ignoring the question, Auron pressed thumb and fingers around the Guado's neck in a loose throat-hold. "Who was your target?"

The answering croak was full of spite. "Whom do you think, guardian? She who destroyed my race."

 

"Sin is dead." Auron's face hardened.

"A lie," the Guado hissed. "You know the truth! Her form is changed, but the spirits of my murdered kinsmen howl for justice!"

A whispered argument at the top of the stairs alerted Auron to more witnesses. Before he could recalibrate tactics, he realized that one of the voices was Lulu's. Glancing up, he saw Wakka's orange crest silhouetted against the sunlight. The man was feebly trying to block her way, a futile effort since he lacked the will to hold her. Lulu evaded him and descended, coolly appraising the stranger pinned in Auron's grip.

Out of the corner of his eye, Auron caught an upward movement: a furtive spell-cast. Without thinking, Auron punched that wrist hard against the wall. He felt bone snap. The Guado jackknifed and began whimpering in pain.

"Sir Auron!" the guard said, pressing a button on the wall. "Please leave this to security. I don't want to have to arrest you."

"What did he do to you?" Auron growled as Lulu drifted close. Her pallor seemed more pronounced, although perhaps his imagination was playing tricks on him.

"Only Bio. Rikku had an antidote. Auron, it's all right."

"She's a fiend," the Guado said.

Wakka, following, gazed at him in mild loathing. "Look, I don't know what your problem is, man—" he started.

"The Guado have a grievance against me," Lulu said, expression remote. "Remember what happened to Guadosalam."

Wakka blanched. "Well, yeah, but..." He spread his hands. "But that wasn't you. You didn't want to do it."

"Didn't I, Wakka?"

Auron remembered: the great primordial forest reduced to blasted stumps, broken lumps of glass and slag, an opaque miasma of death issuing from the yawning chasm where the Farplane Portal had been ripped asunder. Nearly every Guado, holed up in mourning following the death of their insane leader, had been killed as the first victims to inaugurate Sin's return. Rumors claimed that there were not enough breeding individuals left to preserve their race. Even Seymour's genocide of the Ronso had not been so thorough.

Which made Auron no more inclined to mercy at the Guado's next words. "Were Lord Seymour still alive, this traitor to Yevon would have been executed for the murder of my people and my lord's lady wife, High Summoner Yuna!"

To a stranger, Lulu might appear unmoved, but Auron saw pale lips tighten, the lowered lids that meant some part of the garbled taunts had struck a mark.

Wakka's belligerent, "What?!" masked the sound of the Guado's choking.

"Auron," she said, a gentle remonstrance. "This isn’t important."

He heard only the raw fatigue in her voice, not her meaning. A surge of rising bile swamped rational thought. He found himself jerking the prisoner roughly from side to side, ignoring the clawed hands scoring his arms and the feeble kicks pecking at his shins. It took an ice-cold spill of water inside his collar to snap the world back into focus. All but snarling, he lowered the Guado to the floor. Lulu’s wet palm glanced against his knotted shoulder.

"That is enough." Juno came jogging into view, her sword halfway out of its sheath. "Release him."

Clamping down on the Farplane whispers urging fiend’s violence, Auron pried open his fingers and stepped back. His victim slid moaning to the floor.

Juno and the guard exchanged quick nods. "Sergeant. Tend him. Sir Auron, you are under arrest for—"

"Hey!" Wakka burst out, in spite of himself. "Auron got a little hot, ya, but that Guado attacked Lulu first. He magicked her with poison. I think he was trying to kill her." His outrage was tinged with incredulity.

"Is this true?" Juno glanced to her subordinate.

"I don't know, Captain," said the guard, slinging the limp Guado’s arm across his shoulder and lifting. "Their dispute began in the stands; I intercepted them here. He did cast a spell on me. Sir Auron was pursuing."

Juno pursed her lips. "All right. Sergeant, escort our guest to the healers. Lulu, you will return to Yuna's Cloister and remain there. Sir Auron may accompany you, provided there are no further incidents. Of any kind." She fixed the mage with a pointed look. "If you run into trouble, alert the city guard. There should be one within earshot all along your route. Do I make myself clear?"

"Quite clear, Captain." The mage raised a finger to stopper Wakka's protest. "Wakka, please stay. Reassure the children. You must let me know how the tournament comes out."

"But, Lu!" Wakka balled his hands into fists, eyes tracking the shambling Guado being led away. Finally, he gave Auron a grudging nod. "Look after her, ya?"

The swordsman grunted.

Lulu turned and glided off, trusting him to follow. Captain Juno waited with her hand on her sword’s hilt until Auron’s stiff back disappeared around the corner.

“Man, sorry,” Wakka said, rubbing the back of his neck. “Never seen Sir Auron go off like that before.”

Auron was stonily quiet on the long hike back to the citadel. Lulu said nothing, but the pressure of her hand tucked in the crook of his arm hinted that she was more concerned by his lapse than the assault itself. Chastened, he settled his mind with tactical exercises, evaluating their surroundings for cover and potential risks. Pedestrian traffic and hawkers’ carts provided minor problems to solve, as did the wide open streets with too much exposure and too many blind alleys, doorways and windows. Now and again the glint of a warrior monk's helm turning in their direction told him that Juno's orders had traveled quickly— unless, of course, she had issued them earlier.

Lulu did not speak until they were more than halfway back to the cloister. "Remember that I can defend myself. Rikku and I had a rather... exciting... shopping expedition, the other day."

Auron rumbled. "You didn't mention any trouble.”

"He wasn't much," Lulu said. "Although Captain Juno may guess who put one of her monks in the healers' quarters with a blistered face. Rikku's powders confused him enough that I hope he doesn't remember what happened, but," she shrugged, “I can hardly fault them.”

He quickened his tread. "If Gippal isn't here in three days, we go."

St. Bevelle, the holy city. The holy terror, he thought dourly. Long ago, he had pledged his life to guard it from Sin. Considering life’s ironies, it was no surprise that he was guarding Sin from Bevelle.

Auron's dark mood was improved somewhat by the gift they found waiting in their cell. Two satchels marked with Yevon's official crest had been placed upon the bed. A sealed scroll was tucked into the straps of one of them. Lulu broke the wax and read:

Defenders of Spira:

To those who undertake the sacred duty of pilgrimage, the College of St. Bevelle is honored to donate these offerings. We pray they may ease your hard road. All glory and praise to you, our brave saviors! Rest in the knowledge that you walk Yevon’s true path. The hopes of Spira rest with you.

Thus far the traditional wording, or so Auron gathered. Braska had received neither note nor gifts on his departure from Bevelle. However, a different hand had added a personal note at the bottom of the official scroll:

I will pray for you, friends, that you find what you seek. It is your deeds that have ensured no other will ever be so provisioned. If you need aught else, ask.

Zuke, Abbot, Yuna’s Cloister.

Lulu settled onto the bed, shifting the heavy pack and peeling back the oilcloth cover. "He knows my fear. Oh, Auron, this could outfit ten pilgrimages. When I think of those little gifts the villagers brought Lady Yuna when she left... why, this could pay for a whole new temple in Besaid."

He lowered himself and placed his hands across hers, hearing how abruptly her voice died away. "Let's sort through this and decide what we need."

They had just finished repacking when the chirruping clamor of voices in the hallway outside alerted them to their friends' return. Auron upended their bed’s shared blankets onto one of the two cots and lifted the other, propping it against the wall as if it were not in use. Rikku burst in a moment later carrying a thick bundle of folded fabric. Wakka stumped in to drop a sack and a pair of ladies' boots, then retreated to the passage outside with the children bobbing around him, miming passes and catches.

"They're done!" Rikku said, dumping her parcels onto the remaining cot. "We stopped by the tailor to pick up your new clothes. Auron, shoo, out!" She swatted him as he turned to leave. "Wait, hang on, this one's yours. With a few modifications." She thrust his old red coat at him, mended, pressed, and shockingly clean.

"Thanks," he said. He moved to join Wakka in the corridor. There Vidina began regaling them with a dramatic play-by-play. Watching the boy’s antics, Auron almost smiled, feeling an irregular hard shape in one of his coat pockets. It was a pair of Al Bhed sun goggles, almost the same shape as his Zanarkand glasses.

In the room, meanwhile, Lulu was inspecting the large pile of clothes that had been deposited on the bed.

"Okay!" Rikku said, shutting the door and advancing on Lulu. "Time to de-nun-i-fy you!"

"Rikku, you two shouldn't have paid for all these things."

"We didn't!" Rikku grinned. "I said to put them on Sir Auron's tab and send an invoice up to the Cloister. After all, we were picking up his coat."

Lulu shook her head. She drew a fur-lined cloak from the bag, turning it to inspect the silver sheen of its pale gray fabric. "I don't recall ordering this."

"That’s for when you visit the Ronso, of course!" Rikku said, a little too brightly. She threw her arms around the woman’s waist and squeezed hard. "I'm not loaning you any more fire marbles to tuck down your corset."

"Rikku." The mage lowered her voice. “Thank you.”

"Off, off, off!" Rikku shoved at the baggy folds of the novice's habit. "I hope everything fits."

Admiring, adjusting, and lacing Lulu into a new bodice took time. The noise in the hallway soon abated. Wakka must have removed the children to the garden before they started trying to play blitzpong in the hallway. Rikku had forgotten none of the mage’s vanities, and had bought a sampler of make-up, lip gloss and nail polish for her to try. They were waiting for her nails to finish drying when a low, steady throbbing in the air cut conversation short.

"Gippal!" Rikku said, jumping up. "He's back!"

The whine of airship brakes seemed to pass right through the ceiling. Lulu picked up the cloak, refolded it and started to tuck it into the top of one of the packs.

"Hey, what are you doing? Leave it. Come on!" Grabbing her wrist, Rikku dragged her towards the door and out into the hall.

Gippal had not arrived yet when they found Auron, Wakka, and the the gaggle of children in the garden. Rikku sauntered over to Wakka and mimed pulling back a curtain as Lulu approached. “Ta da!”

Gaping, Wakka nearly took a blitzball toss from Vidina on the nose.

Auron rose from the bench where he had been meditating, taking the mage’s measure. He was drily aware that he normally reserved this sort of exacting inspection for weapons, enemies or terrain.

She had girded herself again in a stiff corset whose scalloped neckline had probably caused Wakka’s distraction. The matching gown was an extremely dark burgundy like the shadowed folds of Auron’s coat. Her former outfit’s mesh of leather belts across her legs was echoed vaguely by twisting layers of textured brocades, furled like the petals of a closed blossom, slashed between panels to allow freedom of movement. A subtle pattern of rosebuds and leaves was picked out in eddies of dark green, purple and navy threads twining along hems and edges.

Rikku must have done something to Lulu’s face, but Auron’s practical experience in such matters limited his observations to: Violet lipstick. Still odd. Hairsticks, earrings and necklaces of lacquered wood picked up the subdued hues of her gown’s embroidery, supplemented with beads of purple shell and malachite. He was careful not to let his eye wander down the spill of necklaces to her full curves and the textured fabrics inviting touch.

Not for the first time did Auron wonder what alien race had deposited Lulu to be raised on simple backwater Besaid.

Wordless for more reasons than usual, he inclined his head, covering his minute bow with a hmph. Lulu raised her chin, accepting the subtle homage as her due, before turning away to face the children's uncensored critique.

"Why's she still wearing a dress?"

"'Cause she's the Lady."

"Frydc y dress?"

"The dye looks like blood."

"Zu blood."

"Cooool."

Rikku snapped her fingers in front of Wakka's face. "Beep, beep! Eyes up!"

"Sorry," he said, blushing. "Lu, you look great. You look like you."

"Thank you, Wakka."

"Where the heck is Gippal, anyway?" Rikku said, scanning the sky.

"Oh, hey. I got a commsphere." Wakka fumbled in the pockets of his overalls and tossed an oversized blue marble at her.

"Duh!" She caught it in her palm and shook it. "C'mon, work."

There was a shrill pop. Gippal's voice filtered through static. "Wakka, come in. Wakka, come in. Pick up the frickin' sphere, you big..."

"Yo, Gip," Rikku said, holding it close to her mouth.

"Ow, not so loud! Rikku, find Auron, quick."

"He's right here, Gippal. What's up?"

"Uh..." There was a weighty pause. "Shinra, tell them."

The young man's scratchy voice cut in. "My sensors detected a massive energy node coalescing over Mt. Gagazet. The wave form is unstable, but consistent with an extremely high concentration of fiends."

"And that means...?" Wakka said, frowning.

"Our foe." Lulu raised her eyes to meet Auron's. "Sin is reforming."

 

Lulu and Auron Sparring