Authors' Note: This chapter returns us to the story's usual R rating (although this one is really more like PG-13). Thanks for reading!
The night was calm and peaceful, the sound of chirping insects and the soft, heavy breathing of sleep filling the air. It should have been restful, but Yuna simply could not relax. The battle with Sin, summoning twice in a few minutes so closely on the heels of her ordeal in the Macalania Cloister and the fight with Seymour, had taken its toll, leaving her exhausted, and she had expected to fall asleep immediately. But instead she was restless. The joint summoning with Dona had been as exhilarating as it was draining. So much power! Their bonds with Ixion melded and tied the three of them together, a jolt of lightning escaping the aeon and sparking up the connection, back into them. Her heart pounded faster just remembering it. Her mind raced as she thought of Ixion and magic, and of the way Sin had shuddered under their combined onslaught. Could enough summoners together call an aeon strong enough to destroy Sin without the Final Summoning? But surely someone had thought of that already. But what if they hadn't?
Yuna flopped over onto her other side, sighing under her breath. She wondered whether her father had ever looked for some alternative to the final summoning, whether he had ever questioned Yevon. It seemed unlikely. Braska had truly believed in the teachings with all his heart and soul, even after Yevon shunned him. Was he watching her from the Farplane, disapproving of every move? The thought of disappointing her father was unbearable. She bit her lip and rolled onto her back, staring up at the stars as her heart sank. Their cool twinkling reminded her of Ixion's bright blue light, and she was back where she'd started. It had been like that all night -- her thoughts flipping back and forth between Ixion and her father, sometimes disrupted by the image of Tidus.
Tidus. She had noticed him defending her during the battle. Yuna hardly even saw her other guardians anymore; instead, her eye was drawn to Tidus as he leaped enthusiastically into the fray, his blue sword flashing as he slashed at Sinspawn. She loved watching him move, so graceful and athletic when he fought. And then he'd catch her eye and smile at her, his faith in her so plain, giving her whatever strength she needed. Suddenly she longed to reach out for him. She would have given anything to have him lying beside her, soothing her with his quick hands. If she could nestle into his chest, feel him stroking her hair, then maybe she could sleep.
With a tiny groan of frustration, she turned over on her side yet again. Even if she'd had the courage to be so forward, she didn't dare. He was sleeping in the tent with Wakka and Sir Auron; she had opted to stay outside with Lulu and Kimahri, in the hopes that that lying on bare earth would ground her and help her relax. So much for that idea. She looked up to check the sky, hoping for a streak of dawn to signal relief from this endless night, but no sign of morning presented itself. Laying her head back down with another quiet sigh, she closed her eyes and tried to will herself into slumber.
Dona opened her eyes and rolled off the thick body which had cushioned her sleep like an extra-firm mattress. She ignored the "oof" caused by the careless placement of an elbow as she levered herself into a seated position. A huge yawn split her golden-hued face as she stretched like a hunting cat and lazily looked around to remind herself where she was. It was still mostly dark with only the faintest glow on the horizon to mark the direction of sunrise and, at first, she could not recognize her surroundings.
Oh yes, it was a rough camp on the road from the Macalania Forest to the holy city of Bevelle. One of the few tents had been provided for her use since she was a summoner and an honored member of this rag-tag Army of Liberation which had formed to unseat the ruling Maesters at the upcoming destination. These people knew what was proper for a summoner. They should, she reminded herself; they had Yuna with them as well. The little daughter of Braska was a full-fledged grown-up summoner herself now, and a pretty good one, too.
Dona thought with a wide smile of the joint effort she and Yuna had made during the skirmish with Sin. How they had called forth the aeon Ixion together and set the vastly empowered elemental force against the great monster. She shivered at the memory of the power which had run throughout her body and raised the light hairs on her arms as she had shouted the incantation in synchronization with the girl. It had been fun. She hoped the opportunity would repeat itself in Bevelle.
She was still a little tired, even after the solid sleep of the night. People who were not of her profession would never understand how much Summoning took out of one. It was like running a race, swimming a river and climbing a mountain -- all at once.
Barthello had fallen back asleep on the pallet he had spread the night before. Dona drew back her foot to kick him lightly, then thought better of it. He had had a hard day himself and had done yeoman's work not only fighting in his usual effective style but carrying her off to bed when she had completely run out of energy toward the end of the day's march. Yes, she had done well to choose this giant as her consort and guardian. He might not be a great conversationalist, but she could depend on him in every way that was important. She could always find someone to talk to among her acquaintances.
She bent down and shook his shoulder. "Wake up, Barthello, lover. We need to get some breakfast. I'm hungry."
His eyelids parted and he stared vacantly into her face, hauling himself to his feet before his eyes had focused. "Huh? You ok? You all right?"
"I'm fine. Let's go eat before the others scarf it all down." Dona linked her arm in his and they made their way out of the tent and to where the army was just starting to stir itself awake.
Squab pulled himself off the ground with a grunt and rubbed at his eyes. He had not slept well night before; he'd kept re-dreaming the battle against Sin and re-thinking the ways in which he might have done better, seeing every missed opportunity and every blow which fell either short or badly directed. The looming mass of Sin overhead had frightened him -- he was finally able to admit that, if only to himself. It had been like being crushed between two great celestial bodies, between a star and a sun, a planet and its moon, no escape, nowhere to turn.
The captain knew he had done his best, but it just was not good enough. He had witnessed the death of Beclem from across a sea of monsters and had been unable to go to the aid of his fellow Crusader. Beclem had been a fine warrior, one who fought with skill and intelligence as well as strength. The army would miss him. Hell, the army would miss every soul who fell in this filthy war! Squab drove his fist into the trunk of a nearby tree. The pain of the scraped knuckles was oddly comforting.
As he walked, Squab idly pressed a palm over his smarting hand and forced his thoughts from the past to the future. The battle with Sin was past; the battle for Bevelle loomed. Would there be a real battle or would the defenders of the holy city have heard what had happened at other places and decided that nothing was to be gained by a futile struggle? Would a struggle be futile? Of course it would! he chided himself. There must be no faltering in courage and belief. The rebel army was invincible. Thank Ixion strategic decisions were up to those above him in the hierarchy.
The smell of food was tempting until Squab actually imagined putting it in his mouth and swallowing. Then his appetite fled and the endless loop of self-reproach started playing from the beginning again. He wondered where Ferata was. The last he had seen him was at the healing tent yesterday, where he was busily patching up the wounded. It would be good to find his friend and even better to rejoin forces with the larger part of the army. Somehow, just being around Lucil was heartening. He hoped she had not met up with any disasters while she waited. A good robust talk around a campfire with Ferata and Lucil was exactly what he needed. He briefly considered walking on to the rendezvous point all alone before reminding himself that he was an officer and had his duties.
As the sun finally made its appearance on the horizon, Yuna gave up all pretense of sleep and stood, taking care not to disturb her guardian. Lulu woke immediately anyway, but she kept her eyes shut, not rising to a sitting position until she thought Yuna was safely gone. After giving Yuna her head start, Lulu got to her feet, following the other woman into the center of camp at a discreet distance. The summoner greeted everyone with a smile and a nod. It was her role, after all -- she could do nothing less than present her best face to the soldiers. Lulu approved, but she also noted with relief that Yuna brightened at each interaction, the polite greetings becoming more natural until she reached the tables of food that had already been set up, taking her plate and mug with a genuine smile. They were among the first people to rise, so it didn't take Lulu long to obtain her own breakfast and find the fallen log where Yuna perched.
"Good morning." Yuna stifled a yawn as Lulu took in the dark rings under her eyes and noted her pinched cheeks.
"Are you all right?" Lulu asked as she sat down, sweeping aside her skirts. "You seem tired."
Yuna stared into her mug, swirling the liquid thoughtfully, then looked up, meeting her guardian's eyes. "I suppose. I didn't sleep very well."
"I thought not -- you were awfully restless." She stopped Yuna's apology before the girl could make it with a wry smile and a gentle palm covering the closest hand. "It's all right. A lot has happened in the last few days. I understand. You must have a lot on your mind."
"Yes." Yuna took a sip of her tea. "It was hard to fight Maester Seymour, even though it was the right thing to do. And meeting Dona, and our summoning. Lulu, have you ever heard of something like that? Two summoners joining together like we did?"
Lulu shook her head. "It certainly isn't mentioned in the teachings. And no summoner I've ever known has mentioned it. Have you talked to Dona about it?"
"Not yet. We were both too tired from fighting yesterday."
"Ah, well." Lulu looked across the encampment. "Here they come." Yuna turned her head to see the other summoner and her guardian approaching them.
"Hello Lulu." Lulu inclined her head politely as Dona sat on Yuna's other side. "Yuna. Sleep well?"
Yuna seemed to first consider her answer for a moment and then conclude that anything other than honestly was useless. "Not really," she admitted. "I felt... energized. But tired, too, all at once." Dona nodded with understanding as Yuna glanced at Lulu. "It's hard to explain," she said apologetically.
Lulu patted Yuna's hand and then stood up. "I think the two of you have much to discuss. Why don't I leave you to it while I go find Sir Auron? He and I need to talk about what happens once we get to Bevelle anyway."
"Thanks Lulu." Yuna smiled at her friend, then turned back to Dona, slipping into intense conversation with her fellow summoner as the mage gathered her breakfast and headed back toward the guardians' sleeping place.
It seemed he had only just thrown himself down on his sleeping pad when the sun was shoving pry bars under his eye lids. "Uhnn..." he moaned, clamping his forearm across his face. "Turn off the light."
A peal of laughter greeted him. "You want me to blow out the sun? Get up, you lazy bloke."
"Who're you?" Ferata mumbled as he squinted through sleep-blurred eyes to try to make out the features of his tormentor.
"You don't know me," the boy answered. "I'm from the Macalania Temple. Call me Imaus, I was an acolyte."
"So, Imaus, what are you doing here? I didn't know any of the people from the temple joined us."
Imaus dropped down cross-legged on the ground beside Ferata and beamed into the healer's drowsy face. "A few of us thought it might be more fun to fight than to stay there memorizing old texts. So, here we are!" He spread his arms in a gesture of discovery.
"Why are you waking me up? I was busy very late last night and you don't look like you need my professional services."
"I'm all in one piece," the boy responded seriously. "When I saw it was Sin, I ran and hid. Lulu -- that's the one in black with the ... ahem, isn't it? She sent me to call the rest of the team to breakfast. You coming?"
Ferata checked his body and discovered he had an appetite. He shoved himself up and pulled on his pants, smoothed back his hair with a bit of spit in his palm and proclaimed himself ready for food.
Imaus had waited for him and Ferata was grateful. The presence of the young, healthy, carefree lad served as an excellent antidote to the events of the day before. Healers learn to shield against excessive involvement with their patients, but the long lines of exhausted and bloody petitioners had been wearing just the same. Even though most of the injuries were slight and easily mended, the sheer number of spells chanted and unguents applied was draining and required both time and diligence to dispel.
"So, what are you planning to be?" Ferata knew it was the usual trite question from an elder to a younger, but he was genuinely curious.
"Not sure. You mind if I hang around with you for a while? I watched you fixing up the warriors last night and it looked like something I'd like to know how to do. Can you teach me?" Imaus looked nervously at the middle distance and would have fallen over a root had Ferata not grabbed his arm.
"Watch where you're going! Sure, you can help me if nobody else needs you. I'll try to show you some easy spells and how to use medicines. Who knows, you may have a talent for this. It's a good profession, makes you feel worthwhile. I've even treated Nooj."
"Wow! The Metal Man? Wow! Can you tell me about it?" The boy looked at Ferata with wide eyes and the two strolled on, lost in conversation.
Tidus woke with muscle stiffness, a few aches and an overwhelming feeling of accomplishment. He turned over on the pallet and stared at the tent ceiling for a little while then, arching his back, he catapulted himself to his feet without using his hands. Wakka, next to him, suffered only a small kick and almost immediately returned to his sound if noisy sleep.
Man! He felt good! Tidus stretched, grinning as he heard his joints crack and felt his body settle into its accustomed rhythm. He was hungry and the smell of good things cooking over the campfires caught his attention. He hoped there was somebody else he knew awake this early; he wanted to relive the details of the battle yesterday. It had been one of the most intense experiences of his life and he didn't want to forget a moment.
Yuna had been spectacular. Straight as a river reed, she had stood there, fearless, her sleeves whipping in the tornado winds, holding her staff over her head and chanting in that Summoner's voice she only used when she got down to business. What a scene! Then when Dona came to help and they both got going. Wow! Ixion was the one! That blast he shot had blinded the whole army and set Sin back on his heels.
Sin. Tidus stopped grinning all at once. Sin. Sin was his old man. Sin was Jecht. Why had that had to happen? Sure, they had never gotten along, what with Jecht always picking on him and telling him he'd never be any good for anything. But that was the way it was sometimes with fathers and sons, particularly when the father was as great as something as Jecht was at blitz. Nothing wrong there. He would have proved his father wrong if they had just had a little more time. It didn't have to be like this with him having to kill his old man ... who didn't have to turn into a monster ... and make him kill him. For a minute, Tidus wanted to hit something or run to Auron and ask him to explain again. Or bawl. Or something.
Well, anyway, he had done his share of the fighting yesterday. A lot of Sinspawn and other fiends had met his sword and spilled their guts on the ground. It wasn't like he had just hung around and waited for somebody else to do the fighting while he worried about his father. No. He had taken out his share. He could feel the joyful swing of his blade and the sharp snap at his wrists when he hit something. It was a most excellent feeling and he clung to it as to an amulet.
With a bounding stride, he flung back the tent flap and went to hunt breakfast.
As the sun rose into the cloudless sky, illuminating the trees and springs of the Macalania Woods, the forms of the exhausted men and women of the rebel army began to stir. Wherever there had been a flat area wide enough to accommodate a bed roll, one had been spread out. The survivors of the back to back battles with the defenders of the Macalania Temple and then with Sin and its extensions had come close to dropping where they found themselves, worn out with both physical and emotional turmoil. Once patched up and fed, they had no more stomach for marching and sought what rest they could find.
"Owww... I can't move."
"Shut up and get out of my way."
"But, I can't move."
"Want me to come move you? With the toe of my boot?"
Battle-mates laughed at each other, glad to be alive and complaining in the age-old manner of soldiers who had survived a major skirmish.
Near the juncture of the several paths leading to the Travel Agency and through the Woods to Bevelle, a group of archers had made an encampment.
"Did you know old Kal could use a sword like that?" one asked another. He had, for some reason, dreamed about that once he had fallen asleep.
"Yeah. I saw him one time practicing at Djose. He stopped when he saw me like he was embarrassed." The other stretched and rubbed the sleep out of his eyes.
"By Ifrit, if I could use a sword like that I'd be proud."
"You're not Kal. He has his own ideas. Did you recover enough arrows last night or do you need to go back and look or make some more?"
The first man answered, "I'm a little short. You think we'll have time to make any or what?"
"Let's go see if the quartermaster has any left. Hope we don't have to hike back to the battlefield and scavenge. First, let's eat. You suppose we got anything good for breakfast?"
"They usually feed us all right. I doubt we'd find much more than points back at the place. Shafts don't last against the spawn."
The two headed for the campfires, still idly conversing, while not far away, a pair of healers crawled out of their jointly shared bag.
"I thought you were dead." The younger, still beardless one sniveled.
His companion scratched at the stubble on his chin. "I told you I'd be here for you. You ought to believe me."
"I do; it's just I was scared when I couldn't find you afterward. I went back and turned over the bodies, you know."
"No, I didn't know and you didn't have to do that. You should have waited in the healing tent until you saw me. You should have known I would come."
The boy suddenly gripped his love around the waist. "Next time, I'm staying right with you. No matter what."
"It's all right. We'll stay together. It's all right." The older man patted the youngster and kissed him reassuringly. "Now, let's go eat."
The light increased and the sounds of splashing grew louder as the members of the army washed themselves in preparation for breakfast.
Paine woke first, the rays of the rising sun finding their way through the trees and into her eyes. She blinked the sleep from them and turned to look at Nooj. His natural arm was still curled around her, holding her to his side, and his expression was one of total contentment, face completely relaxed as he slept deeply. For a time she just watched, drinking him in, feeling the slow rise and fall of his chest under her hand, remembering all that had passed the night before -- pain, blood, struggle, triumph, unity. They had made love yet again after she had awakened from her dream of victory over Death, and now she was so satiated that she could barely move, her body heavy with pleasant exhaustion, her spirit soothed and at peace with the universe.
Eventually she lifted her head to check the angle of the sun, and winced. She hadn't recovered from yesterday's battle with Sin as fully as she'd thought -- the back of her skull was still tender where it had hit the ground. And then there were the more recent injuries, a sharp pain reminding her of the bite wound in her neck as she stretched it. On top of all that, it was getting late. Sunrise was at least half an hour past, and the army would start wondering about the whereabouts of its leader before long. She was reluctant to wake him, to face the prospect of sharing him with the rest of the world again. But it didn't take long for duty and other practical considerations to win out. She laid her palm on his cheek, and he opened his eyes.
"'Morning, Captain," she said, turning her hand over and drawing the backs of her fingers down his face.
"Good morning," he replied, the words mumbled through his swollen, bruised lip.
Paine grimaced and touched a gentle fingertip to the bite she had inflicted; he winced slightly but didn't draw away. "Sorry about that."
He smiled as broadly as he could given his injury. "No you aren't."
She chuckled, and he rolled onto his side, lifting his machina arm around her and pulling her in for a careful kiss. Her hands slid into his hair and she touched her tongue to his; he groaned softly and began to stir against her.
Paine broke the kiss with another laugh. "Again?" she asked, fond amusement coloring her tone. "After all we did last night, and this morning?"
Nooj looked at her with mock sternness. "Never underestimate my appetite for you." She nuzzled his chest, still laughing, and she felt him vibrate with mirth as well. Then he sighed and dropped his face into her hair. "I love you," he murmured.
"And I love you," said Paine, her lips tracing the words into his skin, "but we need to get moving."
He sighed again. "I know." He released her from his arms and she stood up, then handed him his cane so he could struggle to his feet as well. Paine stretched, then winced again, dozens of small bruises and scratches making their presence known with aches and twinges as she moved. Then she caught sight of Nooj's back.
"Oh." He looked at her. "That looks painful."
His eyes twinkled. "You have some claws on you, woman. I suppose I look nearly as banged up as I did yesterday." His expression sobered and softened as he looked her up and down. "And you look worse." He probed at the ugly scab on her neck; she flinched at his touch, and he pulled away. "Do you have anything to cover that with?"
"Not really, not now that we've left the snowfields." Paine checked the size of the wound with her fingers and shook her head with dismay. "I can't go out like this, can I."
"Aquelev," Nooj decided. "He'll keep his mouth shut, at least in front of the others. I'll fetch him, once we've had some water and a wash."
Once refreshed as much as possible without professional help, Nooj had arranged his clothes and, settling his spectacles on his somewhat battered nose, set out to find help and avoid attention. He moved with the care of a predator tracking its prey, pausing at intersecting paths and looking sharply into nooks and overhangs. When he saw human shapes through the trees, he stopped short and identified the person before proceeding in a roundabout way. He had no desire to be the butt of jokes and hidden laughter from his underlings -- or his equals.
Finally he was fortunate enough to find Aquelev bending over a natural basin, his shirt off, whistling as he splashed water into his armpits. "Psst!" Nooj hissed at the oblivious Al Bhed. "Psst! Aquelev!"
The Healer turned, snatching his tunic close to shield his naked torso, only relaxing when he recognized his visitor. "Nooj, what's up?"
"Just be quiet and take a look." The commander limped into sight, his bruised and swollen face a shocking picture.
"By the four balls of Yojimbo, what happened to you? I thought they patched you up last night." Aquelev was horrified. "You look like you've been in another fight with a chimera."
Nooj reddened, caught between embarrassment and irritation. "Well ... we got a little ... things went ..." He stopped, clamping his lips together as firmly as he could manage. "Can you do something about my mouth or can't you?"
The healer smirked and nodded. "Naturally. Just stand still and let me work." He muttered a quick spell and ran his finger-tips over the damaged place, watching with satisfaction as the swelling disappeared and the torn edges knit together. "Anything else?"
"Take a look at my back, will you?" Nooj peeled off his tunic and turned around.
Safely out of his friend's line of sight, Aquelev indulged himself in a silent burst of laughter. The eight parallel lines down the man's back were eloquent in their testimony as to what had taken place. "Better drop your pants too, those claw marks run down past your waist," he gruffly choked out. Without a word, Nooj loosened his belt and bared his buttocks as well., the sheath on his left hip glittering in the morning sun.
"OK. All done. That should feel better now. Can I help in any other way?"
The other man replied stiffly, "Just follow that path to the right and see if Paine needs you for anything." He busied himself with rearranging his clothes, an action which apparently required a great deal of concentration and prevented his looking up to meet the Al Bhed's eyes.
Aquelev cast one last quizzical look at his friend before proceeding down the indicated trail. Once out of sight, he permitted himself a moment to wonder how Paine had come off in what appeared to be one of Nooj's more energetic passionate engagements. Should he have warned her? He shook his head with a rueful chuckle. Never in the history of the universe had cautionary words from a third party been welcomed by new lovers. Best he could do now was to hope she wasn't too badly damaged and then patch her up.