It's been... long enough.

Not really, but they were out of time.

There had simply been too little time for friendship on this journey, although they had walked together, fought together, squabbled together, and occasionally huddled for warmth together while camping in vast unfriendly landscapes. That was part and parcel of being a Guardian, of course: heart, mind and body wholly dedicated to the safety of one's Summoner. After two prior pilgrimages, it was habit, and Lulu had almost forgotten what it was like to be able to sleep without first assigning watches, or wander without keeping one's Summoner in sight at all times.

In fact, this pilgrimage had been blessed by close friendships, although it made matters infinitely harder when every wound struck a loved one. Wakka, Yuna, Kimahri: they had known each other since childhood. Even Kimahri had been a young Ronso when he first arrived with a shattered horn and a wide-eyed sweet priest's daughter in tow. Banter, barbs, an exchange of glances or a touch -- there were rhythms of dance and flow between them that had taken years to grow, like the interwoven branches of saplings at the jungle's edge.

Yuna, bright sister, everything the black mage was not, save that both burned with indomitable stubbornness. Perhaps the dearest star in Lulu's world, now that Chappu was gone. She had never dared hope that they would pass through the tumult and remain this side of the Farplane when the victory was won. She had little desire to see Yuna's Calm without Yuna's smile in it, and so had offered herself for the Final Summoning when Yunalesca named her terrible terms. Now, instead, Lulu could do the unthinkable: watch her young friend grow old.

Wakka, oafish brother, for all their squabbling. He had chipped away at her disdain, that half-playful teasing that had somehow turned from joke to stony wall in the year since Chappu's death. Sometimes she thought he would drive her mad with his blitzballs, his bravado, his uncanny ability to be almost but not quite as good as the one she missed. There had been times on this journey when she wondered if she could stand another day with him without exploding in a shower of exasperated sparks. But she knew, deep down, that she was grateful to have him there every step of the way. He might be an oaf, but he was that old, old tree you stubbed your toe on every morning stepping out of the hut. She wouldn't think of trimming a single twig.

Kimahri, silent comrade-in-arms. They had watched over Yuna while Chappu and Wakka were still dreaming of tournament cups; they had led Yuna through her first Cloister of Trials. Hunter, sorceress: they had prowled Besaid's jungles together honing skills for the trials ahead, and learned to trust each other's competence without question. He would probably be going back to Gagazet to gather the ragged remnants of his people. She would miss him.

Tidus and Rikku, new friends, vital and unexpected sparks that had set so much in motion just by being different, by questioning and challenging. Lulu had known them far more briefly, but both had been so gregarious, so outspoken, it had not taken long to learn the shape of their hearts. Rikku's manic energy and prattle could have been wearing, but she was a sharp little tactician behind that flurry of words and bounce, and she won the mage's respect with her knack for explosions. If Lulu was Yuna's big sister, then her cousin Rikku seemed like a little one.

Tidus -- he had seemed so simple at first, vexingly so, until she found herself beginning to believe his ravings. And he had proved an able and willing student as he absorbed all her lectures. Then he had latched on to Yuna. Lulu had spent half the trip trying to deflect him -- first to protect Yuna, and then to try and protect him from heartbreak. But now it seemed he had been more devious than Auron, keeping his own secrets; there was some bond between him and the Aeons that even Yuna had not recognized. He said he would disappear at this battle's end! What had he been babbling about this time? Was he a Fayth himself, unchained from a temple statue? But he had not been possessed by Yu Yevon, so that could not be. Also, he was not disappearing.

Auron was.

She had always known that the legendary hero intended for this to be his final journey, his last battle, the old warrior fulfilling last oaths to lost comrades. It had been written in his stance, it had echoed in his gruff words: his burial plot had been laid out in his mind, and his place on the Farplane had been reserved in advance. And yet, in those few foolish moments when she imagined what it might be like to survive and see the Calm, she found herself wondering where he would go, what he would do, and whether he might go mad of boredom if they invited him back to their sleepy little island.

Mage and swordsman had held the rearguard for most of the pilgrimage, pitting magic, mettle, and experience against the threat of pursuit. More than a few Guado had died that way. Side by side, day by day, they had matched strides, and days might go by without a word exchanged between them. He was like Kimahri. One did not waste words with a comrade-in-arms -- only with raw pups like Tidus or hopeless cases like Wakka who needed guidance.

There had not been enough time. She would give so much now to retrace their steps, to steal chances with this admirable man as Tidus and Yuna had often slipped off to share words, presence, companionship. Not that brooding mage or gruff warrior were liable to romp in forest pools, but at least they could have shared hunts, traded riddles and half-spoken secrets.

She watched the pyreflies lifting from his shoulders. He held each one's gaze for a moment as he passed. A look in her direction, no more; no wasted words.

Lulu wanted to tell him there was no church of Yevon any longer to judge it sinful for him to stay. She wanted to say that he had paid his dues a dozen times over, that a lifetime spent serving others and snuffed out early was not enough, that Spira owed him a few years of enjoyment before he took his leave. She wanted to seize his shoulders and hammer words ino the comfortable silence that had grown up between them during the pilgrimage. I know you, Sir Auron. We are two edges of the same blade, you and I. Maybe together we can find ways to keep those edges sharp in this mysterious thing called Calm. You are the one friend I did not make on this journey, and I doubt I will ever meet another your equal -- or mine.

There weren't good enough reasons to call him back, so the mage held her tongue.

This is your world now, he told them.

Her eyes followed the lights spiralling upwards, but she felt as if the deck beneath them was sinking. It won't be our world, the Spira we love and honor, without the likes of you in it.

The Fayth, Yevon, the Maesters and Sir Auron were gone. What did she and her companions have left? The Calm. Spira. Hope for tomorrow. Each other.

Surely, that was enough.

A/N: Written to celebrate the one-year fanniversary of the aulu community on LJ. If you want to contribute or enjoy good fanart, LJ icons, cosplay, and read stories by fairly literate writers who write better than I do, search for user/site aulu on LJ!