(New to the story? Start at the beginning.)
The hush that fell over the group after Auron's pronouncement was total. Yuna lifted her head from her hands and stared at him, dumbstruck. Everyone else seemed equally stunned. Of course they were; as far as they had all known until now, he was still Sir Auron, legendary champion of Yevon. For him to turn on his old masters had to be a lot for them to take in. He was a little shocked himself.
Paine and her friends were exchanging looks again, and after a moment the other three faces all turned to Nooj, as one. With that, Auron's early suspicion was confirmed -- the others might do most of the talking, but Nooj was their leader. After a moment, Nooj nodded decisively, then raised his head and his voice.
"Sir Auron," he said. "The four of us have dedicated ourselves to bringing about the end of Yevon. It would be an honor and a privilege to fight by your side in the furtherance of this cause."
Paine looked up at Nooj for a moment. Then she turned to Auron, awe shining in her eyes, and nodded. "Yes, Uncle. He speaks for all of us. We are with you."
Satisfied that he had convinced one group, Auron turned to the other, more difficult one. "Yuna?" he asked.
"I--" Yuna looked at Kimahri, then at Lulu, swung her gaze over to Tidus, and then back to Kimahri again. "I don't know what to do!" Her voice cracked, anguished.
Tidus knelt down by her feet and took her hands in his. "Yuna, you know what you want, right? You want to help Spira. We thought that stopping Sin was the best way to do that, but what if Auron and Baralai are right? What if stopping Yevon is the best way?"
The summoner smiled weakly and squeezed the boy's fingers with a nod, then slipped her hands free. She twisted around and looked up at Lulu, questioning.
The black mage looked just as lost as her charge. "I don't know," she murmured. "This is all so sudden. There is sense in what they say, but opposing Yevon, the teachings... the teachings. All my life I have put my faith in them, all my hope. To turn my back on them now, even if they are false..." She shook her head as her voice trailed away
Wakka let out a growl, finally unfreezing from the tight stance he had held for several minutes now. "This... this is totally crazy, ya? We can't go against Yevon!"
Lulu sighed. "I know how you feel, Wakka, but I can't ignore this evidence, either."
"Evidence!" Wakka spat. "What evidence? The word of four strangers?"
"And Sir Auron," Lulu reminded him.
Wakka deflated as quickly as he had puffed up. "And Sir Auron," he admitted, scratching the back of his head.
Yuna turned her attention to the remaining guardian, whose strong blue fingers still curled around her shoulder, holding her up. "Kimahri?"
The Ronso bowed his head and responded in his quiet, deep voice. "Kimahri protects Yuna. Yuna is summoner; Yuna must decide. Wherever Yuna goes, Kimahri will follow."
"Even if I choose to fight against Yevon?" she asked him.
"Even then," he replied.
Yuna stood slowly and looked at Auron. "We should eat," she said. "We need to eat, and I need to think."
Auron inclined his head respectfully. "Of course," he replied. He was not disappointed in her response. A quick answer would probably not have been favorable -- best to allow her some time to consider the situation fully.
Tidus, who had drawn meal duty for the afternoon, lit a fire, pulled out the cook pot, and prepared to reheat the stew and slice the bread left over from the previous evening's meal. Yuna helped him, although clearly her thoughts were not on the cooking. Lulu and Wakka stepped off to the side and began to talk in low tones, while Kimahri returned to his typical sentry position. At first, Auron watched Yuna, but when he realized that any attempt to read her mind would be futile, he turned his attention to Nooj's team.
The group of four had settled in together to wait for lunch, off a little distance, and Auron found himself watching their interplay. Paine looked up at Nooj, who propped himself against the cliff wall as the others sat at its base. She reached into a pouch and pulled something out; he glanced down at her hand, then shook his head brusquely. She glanced over to Baralai with an eyeroll. The Yevonite turned his attention to Nooj and raised his eyebrows in an unspoken question, which the other answered by narrowing his eyes and shaking his head again, more forcefully this time. Baralai returned his gaze to Paine with a small shrug. She slumped slightly and had started to put whatever it was back into her pouch when Gippal stretched, reaching over her, and palmed the item instead. She flashed him a grin, then buried the smile under a serious expression. The total interaction had lasted only a few seconds, without a single word exchanged, and yet Auron was left with the impression that an entire discussion had taken place.
He had been able to do that once, understand or convey volumes in the twist of a mouth or the quirk of an eyebrow. At the beginning of his first pilgrimage, he and Braska and Jecht had been strangers, an unlikely group, destined to hate one other, to fail. But they had done neither one of those things. Instead, they had developed a rapport much like the one Auron saw in these refugees from the Crimson Squad. And they had succeeded in defeating Sin, for a little while anyway.
Perhaps this group could do something even more unlikely.
"Soup's on!" Tidus waved him over, the forced cheeriness of his call jarring in the silence and breaking Auron from his reverie.
Gippal peered into his palm. The pill was almost completely crushed and the powder lay in the center of his hand. Now to get it into the bowl of stew Nooj was preparing to spoon up. The Al Bhed moved lightly to his Captain’s side. "Just how important is that guy Auron anyway?"
Nooj turned aside from the log on which his lunch lay and glared at the mechanic. "Just one of the most celebrated and revered Guardians who has ever lived. Are all Al Bhed ignorant of Spiran history?"
The instant his friend had moved, Gippal had reached around his back and sifted the pulverized pill into the thick mixture of meat and vegetables. "Nope, just ones like me who skipped class that day."
He darted quickly back to his own place, casting a conspiratorial glance at Paine who was ladling out food for Baralai and herself. She nodded slightly and promptly cast her eyes down to her task again.
Once everyone was served, Paine sat on the ground at Nooj's feet and wolfed down her food, still tossed by a tumult of emotions at this unexpected encounter with Auron. She took a swallow of water to wash down the last bite of bread, then turned to Nooj.
"I want to go talk with my uncle, catch up on family stuff," she told him. "I'll be back shortly."
Nooj nodded but said nothing. She thought he seemed nonplussed by this development; Paine felt guilty for springing her secret family connections on him, on all of them. But there had been no time to explain, and her personal history wasn't something she liked talking about.
When the four had first taken shelter behind the bushes and Paine moved to watch the meeting of the groups before and behind them, she had only expected to let the others know when the coast was clear. As she took in the scene, she had noticed the flash of a familiar crimson coat, but its significance hadn't registered. Then she'd heard a rough baritone that she thought she knew, but she dismissed it -- surely her uncle was dead, lost when Lord Braska had defeated Sin. If he had survived, wouldn't he have returned for her? But when the Maester's party had moved away, leaving her with a clear view of the pilgrims, she could deny the recognition no longer. Auron was alive and their best chance for safety. As soon as she felt the Guado Maester had gotten far enough away, she'd dashed out of hiding to make her plea. When he'd recognized her and agreed to hear them out, her relief had been so staggering that she hadn't thought about any of the other implications of seeing him again. Now it was time to go deal with the rest of it.
Auron had taken a seat on the ground, a little distance from the others of his party, eating sparingly from his bowl. Paine approached him tentatively, but when he looked up to see her standing over him, his expression warmed, and he stood, setting down his food.
"Paine," he said. "In all this excitement, I've had no chance to tell you how glad I am to see you alive and well."
"Thank you, Uncle," she replied. "It's nice to see you, too."
"So the temple treated you well? I hope growing up there wasn't too difficult for you." She tried not to wince, but the reaction was difficult to hold back. Auron saw, and his thoughtful expression deepened into a frown. "What happened?" he asked.
Paine sighed. "It's a long story. Let's just say I didn't really fit in there. I left as soon as I was old enough. Well, maybe a little sooner than that. I was eleven."
"Eleven?" He raised an eyebrow, then shook his head. "I am sorry, Paine. I wish I could have been there, given you a better life than that."
Then why didn't you? Only respect for her elder, her only living relative since both her parents had died shortly after her fourth birthday, killed in one of Sin's many attacks on Kilika, kept her from posing the question. But she couldn't keep it from her eyes, and it seemed that Auron saw that, too. Her uncle had always been a perceptive man; some things never changed.
"I wish I could easily explain why I was unable to come back," he said quietly, resting a hand on each of Paine's shoulders. "But it is difficult, complicated. I swear to you, though, that I had little choice in the matter. If I could have saved you from that place, I would have."
"I understand," Paine responded. "Perhaps, someday, when we have more time, you could tell me about it?"
"Perhaps." He leaned forward and kissed his niece lightly on her forehead. "I hope to. Someday."
The four ate for some time in silent hunger, not having had a full meal in almost two days. Paine had finished first and excused herself to Nooj with the explanation she had some family business to conduct with her uncle. Nooj had watched her go with an expression of bemused puzzlement. He was still trying to digest the fact that his lover was the niece of the legendary Auron. In fact, he was still trying to believe that he was going to be engaged in a mission with that great Warrior who was celebrated throughout Spira. Baralai and Gippal exchanged quick glances and turned back to their food.
"Why is Paine spending so much time with that guy?" Gippal demanded once the edge had been taken off his appetite.
"Sir Auron is her uncle – it’s family," Nooj grunted, cleaning the last of the stew from his bowl with a crust of bread. "OK, what do you two think about all this? Do you think we can work with these people? That red-haired blockhead may be a problem."
Gippal raised the brow over his remaining eye and laughed without humor. "He’s got a thing about machina, that’s for sure. How’s he going to handle your ...?" He nodded at the prostheses and continued, "I’m more worried about the blue-furred Colossus. He looks at me like he is considering me for a light snack and he keeps sniffing at me."
"He’s Ronso. I’ve heard about them. They don’t make stupid comments about things they don’t understand. They know when to keep quiet and that's a virtue. I sense honor in that man and I will trust him in a fight." Nooj settled back against the rocky wall.
Baralai, who had eaten quickly and finished before the other two, added his sliver of information. "The red-head is native to a small island settlement. He hasn’t traveled much and is not knowledgeable about the outside world. I think we scare him a little bit. Gippal, don't feel singled out; the Ronso sniffs at me too. What do you think of Tidus?"
Nooj snorted, "That baby-face? He’s just a kid. One of those puffed up blitzers who thinks he’s a big man because he can play a boy’s game. A little smarter than the orange-haired barbarian but not of any consequence. The women are where the power in that party lies. They’re the ones with the strength and courage."
"Hey, Noojster, I’ve got a question. Is that dark woman I saw you talking to as hot as she looks?"
Nooj glared indulgently at the japester. "She did a favor for me. That’s all. If you’re so curious, go see for yourself."
"Oh well, I just thought it wouldn’t hurt to ask. I don’t want to get between you and a woman. You can really hurt me with that machina fist we made you."
"Don’t be more of an idiot than you can help. You know I was talking about ..." Suddenly a curious look came over his face to be immediately replaced by first a flash of comprehension and then a mask of fury.
"Who tampered with my food?" He spaced the words precisely so that each stood separate and entirely distinct. It was not his style to shout but the ominous tremor in his voice gave clues to the molten fury beneath. "Who put that damned medicine in my food?" He stared at his two companions who had sprung to their feet at his first angry growl and were now finding the ground of unusual interest.
Nooj's voice was low but penetrating, cutting through the hum of conversation from the nearby pilgrim camp. "Not you, Baralai; you don’t have the gall. Gippal, you did this. You, you sneak, you trickster - you did this." He rounded on Baralai. "And you watched him. It’s a conspiracy to make a fool of me, to make me look weak and helpless." He turned his back on the pair.
"Noojster." Gippal took a step forward. "It was for you. We didn’t want for you to hurt ..."
"You couldn't leave it to me to decide when I needed this ... this intrusion? You think you know better than I when I can’t handle my own problems? You are a greater ass than I thought. I permitted you to tinker with the machina which so fascinates you and you took that as a license to push yourself into my other affairs?"
Gippal scuffed his foot against the sandy earth. "Aw, Noojster, er- Nooj. I didn’t mean anything. I was just worried about you."
Baralai moved up and laid a calming hand on the angry man’s forearm. "I told him to do it. You know how I feel about ..."
Nooj struck out like a cobra. "You should know better. You’re not as stupidly impulsive as Gippal."
Her attention drawn by the argument, Paine moved swiftly behind Nooj. She had heard enough to realize their well-meaning subterfuge had turned poisonous.
"Shh," she cautioned. "Do you want to let everybody in on our private business?" She knew this would quickly bring him to himself, since he had a horror of public spectacle.
He spun around, stumbled and almost fell. Paine caught his arm and steadied him as he fought for balance. Once he was secure in his footing again, he jerked away from her touch as if it were a burning coal.
"Are you involved in this travesty, this act of treachery?" he demanded. Cognizant of her warning, he spoke more softly with less intensity. "Did you have any part in this?"
She replaced her hand on his arm. Had her uncle not been watching, she would have reached up to stroke his face. "Shh. You don’t want to make a scene here in front of Auron. We’ll talk later – in private." She gave him a look filled with meaningful promise.
Nooj glanced past her toward the larger group and saw every eye turned toward him; even the single orb of the great Guardian was resting on him with amused interest.
His livid face flushed scarlet and he shifted his posture so that he was no longer so easily visible to the strangers they had so recently met. Paine tightened her grip on him and moved with him behind a little stand of brush.
"Let it go, Captain. It’s not worth making a fuss over. Gippal won’t do it again. Will you, Gippal?"
The Al Bhed, who had prudently removed himself from the line of fire, responded by falling to his knees at the feet of his offended Captain and making the sign of the Yevonite blessing. "I will never do anything of the kind ever again. I swear it on my last eye." With a dramatic gesture, he dropped down on his face, his arms out-stretched on the ground.
In spite of his fury, Nooj almost laughed. He carefully steadied himself and nudged the prostrate Gippal with his right foot. "Oh, get up, you idiot."
Gippal bounced to his feet and looked earnestly up into the Warrior’s eyes. "Seriously, I am sorry. I was trying to do the right thing and I screwed up. I’m really sorry and I do swear I’ll never do anything like that again. My word on it." He held out his hand humbly, his single eye gleaming with sincerity.
Baralai joined the others. "I’m sorry, too. I didn’t think it through when I went along with the plan. You’re right, Nooj. I should have known better. The only excuse I can give is the same one Gippal has. We thought we were doing what was best for you and I swear to you I won’t make that mistake again. Will you forgive us and give us your confidence again?"
Nooj paused then held his own hand out to the others without speaking. Three right hands formed a complex knot, then in a gesture almost of blessing, Paine placed hers over the others, completing the compact.
"I wonder what that was all about." Lulu sidled up to Auron, the two of them watching as Nooj clasped his teammates' hands.
Auron wondered as well, but outwardly he only shrugged. He could ask Paine later; if it was important for him to know, she would tell him. "Whatever it was, they seem to have handled it, and it is likely not our affair."
Lulu nodded. "True. Anyway, I came over here because Yuna asked me to come get you. I think she wants to talk to you before she makes her final decision."
The two guardians walked over to Yuna, who stood quietly at the side of the road, gazing over the ocean, Kimahri waiting by her side. Auron stood in front of his summoner and looked down at her. "What say you?" he asked as Tidus slipped up next to him and Wakka approached from where he had been praying in the distance.
Yuna clasped her hands in front of her with a soft sigh, then began to speak. "All my life, I have been on one path, the path of my pilgrimage, leading to Zanarkand and the Final Summoning, to the defeat of Sin. To step off that path now would be very difficult. But I have dedicated my life to the people of Spira. If straying from this path in order to stop Yevon is what is best for Spira, perhaps that is what I should do. But I'm afraid. I am a summoner, like my father before me. If I turn away from Yevon, how can I be a summoner? The Aeons come from Yevon, and without the Aeons I am nothing more than a weak white mage."
Auron shook his head. "The Aeons do not come from Yevon, Yuna. They are not granted by the temples, or the Maesters, or the teachings. They are born of your bond with the fayth. Only the fayth can grant you the power to summon, and only the fayth can take that away." He took a step closer to the girl. "What do the fayth tell you?"
Yuna closed her eyes for a moment, then opened them. "They tell me to go to Zanarkand. And that how I get there is up to me."
"So it seems that the decision still rests with you after all," said Lulu.
Yuna nodded. She looked around at her guardians. "If I agree to this, if I decide to stand up and fight, will you join me?"
"Of course," said Tidus immediately. "I'm your guardian. That means where you go, I go. Just like Kimahri said."
Lulu looked to the sky, then at her summoner. "And I say the same." Kimahri dipped his head in a solemn nod of confirmation.
"Wakka?" Yuna turned to him.
The blitzer crossed his arms and grunted. Then he dropped them with a deep sigh. "I can't promise anything, ya? Dunno if I can fight the Maesters. But if you wanna do this, I guess I can't stop you. Yeah. I'll protect you. However I can."
"And you, Sir Auron?" Yuna swung around to look at him. "You have agreed to be my guardian, to protect me at the risk of your own life. If I choose not to fight Yevon but to quietly continue my pilgrimage, will you follow?"
Auron started, and found himself at a loss for words. He had not expected such a direct challenge from Yuna, but perhaps he should have. Steel lurked beneath that gentle exterior -- truly, she was her father's daughter. He contemplated the question for a moment. "My main goal is protecting Spira. In order to do that, I believe that we must confront and destroy Yevon. But I also have a duty to you, and to the promise that I made Braska when I told him I would take care of you." He fell silent again as he thought. There was also the matter of Tidus to consider, and his promise to Jecht that he would watch over him. After a time, he nodded to Yuna. "I have oaths to keep. And so I will follow you."
Yuna bowed to him. "Thank you. And now, I have decided." She straightened and looked around her guardians yet again. "We will go to Mushroom Rock and confront the Maesters about the things we have learned. If they have an explanation that satisfies me, we will go on our way, after assuring the safety of all the Crimson Squad survivors. If not, then I will join the cause against Yevon. Stand with me, Sir Auron, and I will stand with you."
"A fair compromise," said Auron with another nod. "All right. Let's go."