(New to the story? Start at the beginning.)
Auron picked his way down the cliff face, Yuna and Kimahri behind him. The others of the pilgrimage party remained on the heights, triaging and tending those wounded in the battle with the warrior monks. Auron had been dreading what he might find on the beaches below and was heartened to see a large number of Crusaders and Al Bhed milling about, their mood celebratory. Despite the fierceness of the Sinspawn battle, casualties were fairly light, and the victors were giddy with survival and possibility. This disparate collection of soldiers just might have the makings of an army after all.
Usually after a battle, Nooj felt exhilarated and dirty, half-drunk on the reek of blood. Not this time. There had been too much talking for his tastes, too many compromises offered and accepted. Of course, threatening fat priests with a machina firearm did not offer the emotional and physical release of swinging a blade and feeling the sharp impact on the wrists as a head disappeared from a pair of shoulders, so he should not be surprised. However, he did remember the glory of slicing fiends on the way to the final beach during the desert training and missed the sensation and accompanying thrill. Even the almost ritual slaughter of the Sinspawn had not been enough. He had little to do during that since there were armed men and women in plenty to mop up the horrors. The truth was he missed his sword. The fact of being amongst a mass of Crusaders had reminded him strongly of his life before he was maimed and he could not help comparing the way things had been then and were now.
In addition, he was hurting. This had been his first extended battle since leaving the hospital -- he did not count the brief flurries of fiend butchering in the desert as real battles. The pain was distracting him from the duties he should be performing. Since he had actively recruited the Crusaders to fight alongside him in the struggle against the theocracy, he felt himself to be responsible for them and he had the obligation to check on their well-being, to praise the living and mourn the dead. With determination, he attempted to put the pain into another compartment and ignore it. As he straightened his back and looked around, he saw Paine weaving through the crowd in his direction. Ixion! She would be bound to notice his condition and try to do something about it. She would hold him to his promise if she could corner him. He saw no easy way to avoid her and so, with a mixture of relief and dismay, he awaited his fate.
Aquelev spied the figure of Nooj over the shorter members of the throng roiling about the area. As he grew closer, he could see his old friend was deep in conversation with a woman. So that was the way it was? The solitaire had found a companion? And a handsome one at that.
The woman was tall for her sex, with spiky pewter-colored hair kept under control by the ubiquitous gel used by Yevonite youth. Her body was lithe and toned -- a fact made obvious by the leather straps which formed her costume. The two, the man and the woman, were slightly set apart from the mass of the crowd by the shallow alcove in which they stood.
The woman held something in her palm which she was offering to Nooj. He seemed inclined to refuse until she grasped one of his braids and gave it a playful tug. Aquelev watched Nooj bend to the woman and take the object she held out to him. With a quick motion he put whatever it was into his mouth. It suddenly dawned upon the watching Al Bhed Healer that the woman was medicating the tall man. Nooj was consenting to accept a drug from her hands. Aquelev wondered what it was; probably some sort of pain reliever unless his former patient had developed some new health problems. He shook his head in amazement, remembering his difficulty in getting Nooj to agree to any help in dealing with pain during the time of the implantation of the machina limbs. There had obviously been some changes taking place in the life and attitude of the broken Warrior.
Aquelev had paused, unwilling to disturb the interaction between the couple. He saw the woman reach up to stroke Nooj's face; he covered her hand with his own and briefly pressed it against his cheek, then ran a caressing finger along her jaw. There was nothing overtly demonstrative about the motions but to one who knew Nooj as well as his former healer, the gestures spoke eloquently.
The woman turned to leave, trailing her fingers down his right arm as she walked away. Aquelev saw Nooj catch her fingertips for a moment then watch her go with an indescribable look on his face.
After a discreet interval, Aquelev continued on his path to the place where his friend and former patient stood. “I should have known I’d find you here,” he declared jocularly. “You always did manage to find the hottest fighting and get in the middle of it.”
Nooj turned at the first word and held out a welcoming hand. “I saw you during the melee. What are you doing in this misbegotten enterprise? I thought you were back at the institute, honing your skills.”
“I got restless and decide to go to Djose. I’d heard there was a program there that might be useful and ... well, I got sidetracked on the way by a one-eyed bandit who convinced a whole group of ...”
“That would have been Gippal,” Nooj interrupted with a laugh. “He’s one of mine.”
“One of yours? I don’t know where you found him but he’s a con man to end all con men. He convinced every one of us the defeating of Yevon was not only righteous but the path to glory.”
“Yes, that’s Gippal. He can persuade birds to breathe water. He was one of my team in the Crimson Squad.”
“So you did join them? I knew you were planning to but never heard how it came out.”
“I joined and mine was the only team which survived to fight on this day.” Nooj paused and looked bleakly into a place Aquelev could not see. “The four of us were all that survived. There was Gippal and a failed priest from Bevelle called Baralai and our recorder -- Paine.” Aquelev was astonished by the note of sorrow in the man’s voice. “Just us four out of all the candidates for the Crimson Squad.”
There was a long silence which was finally broken by the Al Bhed. “I’m glad you were one of the ones who made it. I’ve often thought about you and wondered how you were doing. We shared a lot.”
Nooj shifted to place more of his weight on his cane. Exhaustion and the effects of the medication were making him unsteady. “I’m still able to fight to a degree and that’s the important thing. Do you plan to stay with the army?”
“Yes, when I saw you I knew this was my destiny. I was your personal healer for a while back in the Crusaders and during the other thing, so here I am -- all ready and eager to be your healer again.” Aquelev stood at attention and made what he obviously thought to be a military salute.
Nooj was touched and also irritated. Must every person he encountered with the slightest talent in the medical line want to be his minder? What would Baralai think about being thus displaced by this earlier claimant to the position? Ixion! but he was tired. “Thank you, Aquelev. We shall talk again. Now I must see to my men.”
When he reached the shore, Auron paused at the foot of the trail, eye sweeping over the crowd as he searched for his new allies. Gippal and Baralai were together, Gippal tinkering with war machina that had been damaged in battle while Baralai healed similarly wounded Al Bhed fighters. Paine seemed to be wandering, lending a hand wherever one was most needed. He spotted Nooj last, emerging from a secluded spot by the cliff on the heels of an Al Bhed, and Auron turned toward the young officer, intercepting him as he headed out onto the sandy shore.
"Nice work," he said as he approached. Nooj only nodded. At close range, Auron could see that the other man was tired, his face drawn. Simple weariness from battle? Perhaps Nooj was unused to prolonged fighting under the limitations the machina imposed. "Soon we must discuss our next move. But that can wait until tomorrow, I think."
"Agreed." Nooj looked out over the throng. "We should give them time to bask in their victory and get to know one another. I was about to make the rounds, congratulate them on a job well done and check in on the injured. Would you like to join me, sir?"
Auron shook his head decisively. "I think not. You are their commander, Nooj, not me. If I come along on this errand, it will confuse matters. So I leave that to you."
Nooj did not answer at once, although the expression on his face became even more bleak. Finally he looked directly into the single eye of the guardian and snarled, "I am not their commander. I am a member of the army like any other. I do not understand and will not accept this commission you are trying to foist on me. You're trying to make me something I am not and do not want to be. I am an officer and, as such, have certain duties which I will fulfill because of the dictates of honor. But I am not and will not be their commander, sir!" The final word was spoken with an air of disgusted fatigue. "You are the leader of this enterprise, sir; I am not."
Taken aback by this vehement response, Auron took a moment to compose his response. He had been so reminded of himself as a youth by Nooj that he had expected the Crusader to be just as eager to assume command as he had been, back in the day. For a moment he thought about assuming the mantle of leadership, but he discarded the idea almost immediately. Whatever the outcome of this war, Auron would not be present to help shape the world in its aftermath. No, his days of leading men into battle were done. Nooj's were only beginning, and unless he accepted that, this enterprise would never succeed. After considering and rejecting several approaches, he took a step toward the young man, who quivered with anger and exhaustion and some other emotion that Auron could not quite place, and began to speak.
"We have discussed this before," he said. "I should not take military command of this army. The Crusaders are your first priority; mine is Yuna, and I can't have primary responsibility for both. Besides, these soldiers look at me and see a figure from the mists of legend. You saw how they reacted to me during the command center melee. They are in far too much awe of me to respond as they would to a superior officer. You command them, but at the core you're still one of them in a way that I am not, and never can be. They respect you, but they don't worship you. Your lieutenants will feel free to challenge you when it becomes necessary. Can you see them doing that to me?" Nooj did not reply, but Auron could see reluctant acceptance of this truth in the other's eyes. He continued, softening his tone. "You have to lead them, Nooj. There is no one else."
The younger man looked down at the ground, shielding his thoughts while he considered Auron's arguments. It was difficult to the point of impossibility to properly fulfill two major obligations and there was no doubt that the guardianship of Yuna was the principal duty assumed by the older man and the one which had the prior claim on his loyalties.
The other rationales were less firm. Nooj wished he were not so tired and that his mind was clearer and more agile. Was being regarded as something similar to a demi-god a handicap when commanding men? He could not be sure and, anyway, he thought the effect would probably lessen with time as those who now dared not speak in the presence of the great guardian grew accustomed to his being amongst them. And was it so necessary for subordinates to feel free to challenge their leaders? Maybe so; otherwise those in command might make obvious and irreparable mistakes in judgment. When Auron said it, it all seemed logical. Now, he was not sure. He did not want to be a leader; leadership had always come hard to him because of his solitary nature. He preferred to have only his own person to risk. Still, it was not in him to shirk his duty, no matter what it might be.
He sensed Auron waiting patiently for his answer and was perturbed at having wasted the time of this great man. “If you wish me to deal with the Crusaders until we can find a better candidate to command them, I will do my best to be worthy of your trust. As you say, I’m still one of them to a degree although I’m no longer fully qualified to be accepted into the Corps. I will do as you ask, sir.” He saluted smartly, straightening his back in spite of the exhaustion which still laid its ponderous hand upon him.
"Thank you." Auron nodded to Nooj as he dropped his arm and limped off to perform his duties. The youth had his rough edges, to be sure, but once they were filed off he would make an excellent leader. "Better than this cynical old man," he muttered quietly. At this point, the fits of temper that Nooj had now displayed several times were the issue of greatest concern. Auron himself had been an angry young man and that trait had led him into nothing but trouble, most notably his own death. He could only hope that Nooj was not so prone to rash behavior.
Satisfied that the Crusaders would be taken care of, Auron returned to his own responsibilities, setting off to look for Yuna.
Meanwhile, the young summoner had found her natural place in the company of healers, traveling the beach to aid and comfort the wounded. Kimahri followed, and as he watched her work, he found himself considering all the changes wrought by the past few days, primarily the presence of the four strangers who had attached themselves to the pilgrimage party. Kimahri was not sure what he felt about them. It was not his place to concern himself with those who supported the Lady Yuna, but he was charged with her defense and took his duties very seriously.
The woman was all right. He had been correct in his first assessment of her. He had watched her during the fight and she did well both with the sword and that odd machina weapon. She was related to Auron, the leader, the main protector, and he had been right to let her join. She was strong, a little skinny but with good muscles. Yes, she would do. She was worth her rations.
Then there were the two boys. Kimahri thought of them as a set although they were nothing alike -- one being Al Bhed, the other Yevonite. But they fit together. The Ronso had smelled the connection when he first met them. To his finely honed senses, there was no question they were two halves of one being so he both treated and thought of them as a singularity. They fought that way too, like they shared a common nervous system, moving easily together.
He had to grudgingly admit to himself he had not expected them to be of much use in battle but they were surprisingly efficient. He had misjudged the other youth -- Tidus -- at first as well. Lesson learned: small humans can fight too.
As for the big one, the one with the forbidden machina built into his body and the spectacles sliding down his nose, Kimahri had held his judgment until he had seen that one using a weapon. There was no doubt he was a Warrior, born and trained. He was less than he had been obviously but still a Warrior. He had the air of a serious and dedicated soldier, one who did not talk much, which was good. Kimahri did not have respect for those who talked all the time, those who bragged about their talents and deeds. In his experience, those who talked failed to do. Watching this Nooj defend the back of Auron's niece had been instructive. He would most definitely do. In fact Kimahri looked forward to more battles at the side of the machina man.
Finally, Kimahri looked down at the fragile figure of the Summoner with a possessive gaze as she knelt over a mortally wounded Al Bhed fighter, doing her best to ease the pain of his passing. She was his primary concern, his responsibility. If necessary, he would guard her alone. No one would touch her while he was by her. He bared his fangs in a reflexive challenge at the thought.
After parting from Nooj, Paine wandered the crowd. At first she was in high spirits, excited at having survived her first full-scale battle and tingling with the memory of Nooj's fingertips curling around her own, but as time passed she started to brood, her thoughts turning back to the squadron lost that morning. Compulsively, she sought out the man who had brought the news about the Den of Woe to Lucil. Finding him sitting on a rock, gnawing at a hunk of bread and some meat, she plopped down beside him and demanded, "What were the Crimson Squad people wearing before they went into the cave?"
He looked at her curiously. “Oh, they looked as sharp as they could, as banged up as they were. Their uniforms were clean and still had the creases from being folded.”
“Fayth!" Paine bent forward as if she were about to vomit. "They issued them new uniforms to die in?”
A light hand fell on her shoulder, and she looked up to see Yuna standing behind her. "I'm sorry, Paine," the summoner said. "To lose all your comrades like that... it must be terrible."
Paine could only bow her head again, throat closing with grief and memory.
Yuna squeezed Paine's shoulder reassuringly; then she dropped her hand and turned to the messenger. "So you saw it? The loss of the Crimson Squad?"
"Yes, my Lady," the Crusader replied.
He nodded, then launched into the same tale he had told Lucil earlier. Paine forced herself to listen again, swallowing her tears and replacing them with determination and anger. She would avenge her fellow recruits if it was the last thing she ever did.
When the young soldier had finished, Yuna closed her eyes briefly and shook her head. "Thank you for sharing that with me," she said. "Do you know whether they were sent?"
"I don't know, my Lady, but I doubt it," he answered. "I think the priests and warrior monks left right away."
Yuna looked up at Auron, who had appeared at her side shortly after the Crusader had begun telling his story. "I should go, perform a sending. It is the least we can do for them." The guardian responded with a nod, and the girl turned back to the messenger. "Can you lead me to this cave?"
"Of course, Lady Summoner," he said, standing with a quick bow. "Just let me tell the Captain." Spotting Lucil a short distance down the beach, he walked over to make his request.
Yuna crouched down next to Paine. "Are you all right?" she asked.
"Yes, thank you."
"Would you like to join us?"
Paine thought for a moment. It might do her good to participate in the ritual of mourning, but she still felt a little awkward around Yuna even though the two of them had engaged in perfectly pleasant conversation during yesterday's walk. She wasn't ready to share something so complicated as grieving for her teammates with this girl, who at heart was still a Yevonite, and a stranger. "Thanks, but no, I'd better stay. Nooj may still need me to help him take care of things here. I appreciate your thinking of them, though."
"It's my duty as a summoner," said Yuna seriously. "I could never do otherwise." The Crusader returned then, and he led Yuna and Auron back up the side of the bluff.
The summoner and her guardian walked behind the young Crusader, following him up the trail that wound along the side of the cliff. As they trudged up the curving switchbacks, Auron glanced at his young charge as she stared resolutely forward.
"How are you?" he asked her.
"Fine," she answered, but her voice quavered, just a little.
"Are you sure?" He stopped her for a moment, laying a gloved hand on her shoulder. "You are certain this is the path you wish to take?"
She looked thoughtfully into the distance over Auron's shoulder, then met his gaze with a slight smile. "Yes. I am certain." She turned and began to walk again. "I thought about it all day yesterday, and all morning today. The whole time I hoped that the Maester would have some reason, some answer to explain it all away. When he did not, I just knew, suddenly and clearly, that you and Nooj and the others were right, that I had to take a stand against Yevon. And so I shall, just as I promised."
Auron only nodded. He trusted Yuna to keep her word. He only hoped her resolve would be so firm when she herself had to fight a servant of Yevon.
After a few minutes, the trio gained the hilltop. They spoke to no one as they walked past the command center, heading for the lift that would take them to Mushroom Rock Road and the network of caverns beneath, but before long they heard a pair of footsteps pounding up beside them, and they all looked up to see Tidus pulling up next to Auron.
"What's going on?" he asked.
"I am going to send the fallen members of the Crimson Squad," Yuna answered.
"Can I come?"
Yuna glanced at Auron, who shrugged. It was not his decision to make. She looked back at her youngest guardian, and then nodded. "Of course," she said.
Tidus fell into step on Yuna's other side and the group, now a quartet, filed onto the lift. It reached the ground and the trek continued in silence. But Auron could feel the blitzer nearly quivering with unspoken questions and desperate curiosity. Eventually the boy's need for answers got the better of him. "Yuna," he said to her as they reached the stone stairway that led down to the Mushroom Rock caves, "I need an honest answer from you about something."
The girl turned toward him. "Yes?"
"This morning, when you were talking to Maester Kinoc, he said something about choosing to die for a cause, and how the summoner should understand that. What was he talking about?"
Yuna froze, then looked at Auron, eyes wide.
Auron nodded gravely. "It's time. He needs to understand."
She shook her head with a sigh. "I know. I just wish... but you're right." She pulled aside their Crusader guide and exchanged a few soft words with him; he bowed to her, then turned around and headed back for the command center, glancing nervously at Auron as he passed.
If the silence had been uncomfortable before, now it was profoundly so, hanging among the three like an extra member of their party as Yuna considered how to phrase the truth. Finally she began to speak, her voice low. "In order to defeat Sin, the summoner makes a pilgrimage to Zanarkand, stopping at each temple to receive its Aeon along the way. In Zanarkand, the summoner receives the Final Aeon, then performs the Final Summoning to defeat Sin. But in order to call the Final Aeon, the summoner must sacrifice their life."
Tidus stopped dead as Yuna's words sunk in. "Sacrifice their... you mean..." He grabbed her arm and then whirled her around to face him, although she would not meet his eyes. "No," he whispered, voice full of passion and dread. "No, this can't... it can't be true. Yuna, no!"
She looked up then. Auron was behind her, so he could not see her expression, but he could hear her resignation as she spoke. "It is. I am sorry."
"No!" His voice rose now, almost to a yell, as his face started to crumble in on itself. He let go of Yuna and stormed over to Auron, grasping the lapel of the older man's coat. "You knew about this, didn't you. Did all the others?"
Auron remained calm in the face of Tidus's emotion, responding with a solemn nod.
"Then how could they let her do it? How can you?!" Tidus was shouting now, knuckles turning white as he tightened his grip on the red cloth.
"The necessity of the summoner's sacrifice is part of Yevon's teachings," Auron replied. "We were all brought up to believe that it is the best, most noble thing anyone can chose to do. A thousand years of tradition is a difficult thing to stand against."
Tidus pushed himself away from Auron, dropping his hand with a snort of disgust. He crossed his arms over his chest and stepped back, staring at the rock walls that surrounded them.
Auron glanced in Yuna's direction and continued. "As for the others, I am sure they didn't 'let' her do anything."
"Wakka and Lulu tried to talk me out of it," Yuna agreed, still speaking softly. "But I am determined to do this. Or..." She paused then, looking to Auron again. "I was, at least."
Auron held his summoner's gaze. "Yuna, I must know. Now that you have learned the truth -- that you must sacrifice the life of a guardian along with your own, and that this guardian will be condemned to be reborn as Sin -- are you still resolved to reach Zanarkand and perform the Final Summoning?"
Yuna titled her head forward. "To reach Zanarkand, to defeat Sin, yes. This is still my life's purpose and nothing will turn me from it. But the Final Summoning? No. I will not follow Yevon's teachings, and I will not continue the cycle any longer. It ends here, with me."
"Good." Auron let out a breath that it seemed he had been holding for ten years, then checked on Tidus. The boy stood off a small distance, still hugging himself, but he seemed calmer than he had a moment ago. "I wanted you to know the truth, because I think it's important for you to realize exactly what we are spurning. But also know this: keeping Yuna alive is more important to me than anything. I did not bring you here to watch her die. We will protect her together, and bring an Eternal Calm together. Do you understand?"
Tidus nodded. Then he looked at Yuna. "I won't let you die. Never." The words were even, but Auron heard a fierceness behind them, a resolve as firm as Yuna's own. Their eyes met, and Auron discreetly stepped back, letting the two of them share the moment alone. He had sensed a bond between them from the first and had done nothing to discourage its growth; in fact, he'd once thought it might serve his purposes. With this change in plans, it seemed to matter less, but he still thought he'd let them be. They would be fighting a war soon. Best to let people snatch happiness wherever they could.
Yuna broke the spell first. "The Crusader said that the caves were just ahead."
"Go on, then," said Auron. "I will stand guard here." Yuna assented with nod, then continued forward, Tidus by her side. Auron drew his sword and turned back to the stairway, resting the point of the blade on the ground as he kept watch. He had not attended a sending since his death. Though it seemed likely that he could resist the Farplane's call, he felt it best not to take any chances. His time would come soon enough.