Drained of emotion, my meeting with Relle put firmly to the back of my mind, I walked up to the waiting group. Everyone but Yuna and Kimahri had gathered in a clearing, surrounded by the trees of Macalania Woods. Wakka looked up from his seat on the ground. "Well?"
"We're all clear," I replied. "We will have to avoid Bevelle in the future." He returned his eyes to the earth. I felt an unexpected rush of sympathy for him -- he had been a true believer, steadfast and stubborn. But even he could deny the evidence no longer, and his faith in the temples was destroyed. I remembered the feeling. Now I could only hope that he'd be strong enough to bear the rest of the truth. I turned to Lulu. "Yuna?" I asked.
It was Rikku who responded. "She said she wanted to be alone."
"Of course," I said. Would she quit the pilgrimage? Everything depended on her willingness to go on. Yet I realized that I could hardly blame her if she decided to turn back now. Quiet fell back over our party, and I took a place at the edge of the clearing. I looked over the trees and cleared my mind. Lost in blankness, a moment passed before I noticed Tidus standing next to me.
I turned to him. "Maybe you should talk to her?" I said. He moved to leave, then looked at me again, his eyes full of questions that I either could not or would not answer. I exhaled softly. "I am... tired." He accepted that with a nod, then walked away, scuffing his feet on the path, head cast down. I watched him go as remembered words rang in my ears: "This is all your fault!" I had laughed at him then, during our argument in Luca, but there was some truth to his charge. He'd never have been pulled into Spira if Jecht and I hadn't dragged him here. If I was being honest with myself, I had to admit that I was using him, and before long he would know it. Tidus was the closest thing I'd ever had to a son -- until today, I suddenly remembered, the shock of Lissira fresh all over again for a moment -- and I found myself wishing for another way. But there wasn't one. I needed him to make this plan work.
I stood alone and looked at the darkening sky, watching the stars slowly appear, thinking of Jecht, and of Kinoc.
Time passed, perhaps an hour, maybe a little less. Then I was drawn out of my thoughts by the sound of footsteps. Kimahri was coming back, Yuna and Tidus a few feet behind. I saw that the pair were holding hands, and glanced over at Lulu. She caught my eye and raised an eyebrow just a hair. So.
As they drew closer to the group, Tidus dropped Yuna's hand and walked over to Rikku. She looked up at him expectantly, but he just shook his head. Her face fell, and he briefly laid a hand on her shoulder as he walked past. I wondered at the interaction for a moment, and then realized what it meant: Yuna had decided to go on with her pilgrimage. She stood alone before us, and addressed us each by name.
"Everyone?" she said then, hesitantly. "We leave at dawn. And... I'm sorry I put you through all this. And... um..."
"Enough," I said, cutting her off gently. "You need your rest."
She nodded, and went over to where Lulu had laid out her bedroll. The rest of the party followed suit. I looked over to Kimahri, who indicated with the barest motion that he would take first watch. That was my duty, normally, but I was suddenly exhausted, Kinoc's death, the battle with Seymour, and my visit with Relle all taking their toll. I lay down on my bedroll and knew no more for a time.
A few hours later, I arose and walked over to Kimahri. He stood perfectly motionless by the entrance to the road. "Anything?" I asked.
He shook his head. "Quiet."
"All right, then. Get some sleep." He nodded, and turned to go, when I had an idea. "Kimahri?"
He stopped, and looked back at me, quizzical.
"I have a favor to ask of you," I said. "After this is over, when Sin is defeated, could you give my sword to an old friend? Her name is Arelle, and she lives on a farm up in the hills." I gestured in the general direction of the property. "Would you do this for me?"
He thought for a moment. "Kimahri is honored to help Sir Auron," he replied. "On one condition -- if Kimahri falls in battle and Sir Auron does not, he does the same for Kimahri. Take Kimahri's spear to Mount Gagazet, present to Elders."
I let out a startled chuckle. It struck me as a strange request; considering the circumstances of our first meeting, Kimahri must have known that I was an unsent. But I nodded anyway. "Of course."
"Then Kimahri does as Sir Auron asks." With that, he left, and I took his place, thinking.
Ever since watching their interactions in Luca, it had been my hope that Tidus would come to care for Yuna. Any Yevonite who fell in love with a summoner would on some level accept death as a natural consequence of their pilgrimage -- we were all indoctrinated with the idea, practically from birth. But Tidus hadn't been raised with the same expectations. He loved Yuna, and he would do anything to keep her from dying.
And then there was the reverse. If Yuna loved Tidus in return, it would give her a reason to live. Ten years of brooding and hindsight had taught me many things, but perhaps the most important was this: Braska would not consider alternatives to his death because he didn't want them. No matter what he had said, regardless of anything I had told myself, Braska's pilgrimage had been a long, slow, noble suicide. He had welcomed the prospect of dying, embraced it. Yuna had resigned herself to death, but she didn't seem to anticipate it in the same way. I had looked into her eyes, tested her reactions, and I did not see any eagerness there, only determination. Perhaps her feelings for Tidus would bind her to life, make her more open to other options.
I had taken a risk by betting on their emotions, and the gamble looked to have paid off. It was my plan to enlist Tidus and Yuna to defy Yunalesca. With both of them willing, even eager to fight, it seemed more than likely that the others would follow along. If we defeated her, perhaps we could break the cycle and find another way to defeat Sin.
For the first time, I allowed myself to believe that my plans might come to fruition, that we might bring an Eternal Calm. And then perhaps the daughter I would never know, the grandchildren I would never see, could grow up in a Spira at peace.
Paine, Baralai, and Arelle sat around the table in the cottage, talking. Liss and the other cadets had retired to her old bedroom after an hour of sharing stories of the past several months of training. Half a load of bread remained on the table, the youths having made short work of the rest of the meal Arelle had prepared. Baralai reached into the bread basket and took a slice, slathering it with butter before taking a bite.
"I know I said as much already, but this bread is amazing." Baralai inclined his head respectfully to his hostess. "As was all the food. Your reputation as a chef preceded you, but it didn't nearly do you justice."
Arelle smiled "Well, aren't you the charmer," she said. "Thank you. I hear you're quite the accomplished cook yourself."
Baralai looked at Paine, who laughed. "Must have been Liss," she said.
Arelle's eyes softened as she nodded. "Yes. Liss writes quite detailed letters. She's told me all about both of you. I hear from her at least twice a month -- I couldn't ask for a more dutiful daughter."
"You're so close." Paine's smile was a touch wistful. "I wish I had known my mother as well."
"So do I." Arelle sighed. "It's tragic that she died so young, so suddenly. We never reconciled, you know, and it's my greatest regret."
"Really?" Paine's eyebrows lifted in surprise.
"Well, I didn't have much control over the situation with Auron. It happened as it was meant to." She cast her eyes down to the table. "I always knew I might not be able to hold him. You take a terrible risk when you love a hero."
Baralai glanced at his wife, whose only reaction was a sympathetic nod.
Arelle looked up then, her expression sad but clear. "Anyway, it wasn't the same with Kera. I could have mended our breach; all I had to do was agree that she was right about Auron, that I was better off not waiting for him any longer. And perhaps she was right. But I couldn't bring myself to admit that, whether not I thought it true. And we both let our anger at Auron cloud our dealings with each other. Then, when I had forgiven him, I was ready to go to Kera, to try and make up with her. But then he disappeared, and I was afraid that if I turned up on her doorstep, pregnant and alone, it would confirm all her worst opinions of him and make me look stupid in the bargain. I just couldn't face her. Not facing her became a habit; I never found the courage. And then it was too late. I let fear and pride get in the way, and so I cheated her of her niece and of our friendship."
"It's not your fault." Paine took her aunt's hand across the table.
"I suppose not." But Arelle did not sound convinced.
"Paine?" Liss's head popped out of the doorway to the bedroom. "Can you come here? I want to show you this."
"Pardon me, Auntie." Paine let go of her hand and stood, joining her cousin. The two women stood in front of the door, off to the side, talking and laughing over something. Baralai watched them for a moment, then noticed that Arelle was doing the same. Her face caught his eye, her expression a mixture of sadness, and surprise, and contentment.
"Arelle?" Baralai laid his hand on hers, just as Paine had done a moment before. "What is it?"
"Seeing them together…" Arelle looked at Baralai, but clearly she did not see him -- she was looking through him, to the memories that haunted her. "Paine looks so like her father. And Liss strongly resembles Kera and Auron both. It's almost like having all three of them back. And then I remember that they are gone, and it's like losing them all over again." She shook her head. "Usually I can look at Liss without seeing Auron. She's always been as much like me as she is like him, and even more like herself. But sometimes, every once in a while…" She stopped speaking and simply watched her daughter and her niece, visions of ghosts in her eyes.
Baralai sat silently, waiting for Arelle to collect herself. After a moment, she sighed and looked back at him. "I'm sorry, Baralai. I didn't mean to ramble on so. It's been years since I've had guests and even longer since I've been able to talk about Auron. I'm afraid I'm presuming on your sympathetic ear."
"It's all right." Baralai smiled. "I trained as a priest, you know. Listening comes with the territory."
"Well, you're very good at it. Paine is lucky to have found you."
"I certainly think so," said Paine as she slid back into her seat.
"Me too." Liss took the chair next to Paine as Baralai fought down a blush. "So Mother, have you thought any more about coming to Bevelle?"
Arelle looked around the table at the younger faces, all turned expectantly to her. "I don't know," she said. "All those important people. I'd feel out of place."
"No you won't." Liss paused and thought for a moment. "Well, maybe you will at first. But I know Lady Yuna will make you welcome, and so will many other people. The High Summoner is so kind, and so easy to talk to. And I'll be with you, and Paine and Baralai. And--" She paused to take a deep breath, looking at her mother hopefully. "I think he would have wanted you to be a part of this."
Arelle blanched. Then she reached across the table and grasped her daughter's hand, the color returning to her cheeks. "All right. Yes. I'll come. We'll both go, and we'll make him proud." She turned to Paine and Baralai. "When do we leave?"
We moved on.
So did I. I had learned long ago that I could not waste any time or energy dwelling on Relle. Starting down that futile path would lead me to regret, despair, paralysis. I would not forget her, could not stop loving her, but I set my thoughts of her aside, tucking her back into the corner of my heart, walled off from the rest of me, where she had lived for the past ten years. I stashed Lissira behind that wall as well, along with my sister and Xan, my lost friends and enemies. My first duty was to Yuna, to Tidus, to Spira. My personal feelings had to be put away, and so I did. Just as I had always done.
The journey continued. Across the Calm Lands, through a cavern where a stolen fayth resided, up Mount Gagazet. It was a long journey, sober and arduous. The party was quiet, talking only when necessary, everyone lost in their private worries and fears and disillusionment. Seymour followed us, slaughtering the Ronso who stood in his path, and I saw Kimahri, too, use his feelings and then stow them away as we defeated the unsent Maester yet again. Tidus, on the other hand, finally admitted -- to me and to everyone -- that Sin and Jecht were one and the same. Whether the others truly believed, I could not tell, although Yuna seemed to. Approximately a week after our escape from Bevelle, we found ourselves nearly at the summit, the corpse of a slaughtered guard dragon at our feet.
Rikku finished administering healing potions to the group -- Yuna had used up a great deal of her strength keeping us safe and alive during the battle -- then turned around. "Can we rest a little?" she asked.
"No need," I replied. "We reach the summit soon."
"I know, that's why I want to stop for a bit." She crouched down, collecting her extensive medical kit. "Soon… that means there's not much time left." She looked up at Yuna, who was standing off to the side, staring into the sunset. I saw the desperation and frustration on the younger girl's face as she straightened and sighed. "Fine," she grumbled. "I'll think on the way." Flinging the bag over her shoulder, she flounced off, looking more like a sullen teenager than ever before.
The rest of us gathered ourselves together and began to follow, when I heard another, quieter sigh behind me. Wakka, who walked by my side, switched direction and moved back to the straggler. "Hey, let's go," he said.
"We really are almost there, aren't we." It was Tidus, his voice soft, his tone deeply unhappy.
"We've come a long way," Wakka replied, completely missing the point.
I found myself chuckling.
"What's so funny?" Tidus asked.
"You remind me of myself," I said, stopping but not turning around. When a quizzical grunt was the only reply, I continued. "Before, the closer we came to Zanarkand, the more I thought about what was to come. 'Braska will call the Final Aeon. He will fight Sin, then die.' I thought my mind was made up long before. But standing here, my resolve wavered."
"Huh," said Wakka. "Never would have figured. Legendary guardians choke sometimes too, ya?"
"Hmph!" I had finally heard that ridiculous description one too many times. "Legendary guardian?" I said, moving to face Wakka, my words dripping with bitter incredulity. "I was just a boy. A boy about your age, actually. I wanted to change the world, too. But I changed nothing." I looked the blitzer up and down. "That is my story." And with that, I had nothing more to say; instead I turned on my heel and headed down the path, brooding. How the simple act of blindly leading my best friend to his ultimately pointless death had made me a legend remained beyond my understanding. It made no sense to me, and probably never would.
I continued on the trail. The summit, Zanarkand, and Yunalesca awaited. "Almost there," Tidus had said. "Soon," I had told the others. Yes, soon. Soon I would learn whether my plan had a chance for success, or whether my plotting would come to nothing.