9.

Auron met the first Chocobo Knight almost an hour after he had started to walk. He had Braska slung half over his shoulder, half carried him in his arms. The Knight was one of the eager girls, and her bird skidded to a halt in front of him, making her fall off and land at his feet on her hands and feet.

"Sir Auron!" She scrambled up, looked at him, looked at the lifeless man in his arms. "Is…is lord Braska…"

"The new Calm has started," Auron interrupted her tonelessly. "The Summoner has fulfilled his task."

"A Calm…" Her eyes were uncertain, even though a tentative smile widened her mouth. His impassive face seemed to disconcert her, and she heaved a sigh of relief when three other Knights came running.

"Calli! Jits! Brana! Lord Braska's defeated Sin!" An Indian howling rose into the air, but it died down quickly when Auron began to walk again.

"Sir Auron! Wait!"

 The Guardian kept walking.

"Sir Auron!" The girl and one of the boys, who had dismounted, ran after him. "Sir, wait! You don't have to walk."

"I don't mind." The boy touched his shoulder, and he flinched, making the boy flinch in turn.

"…think he's in some kind of shock…"

"…shouldn't walk…Lord Braska…" Their whispered conversation beat against his ears like a drum.

Yes, he thought, I might be in shock. And I shouldn't walk all the way back. It's undignified. A Summoner should not be brought in like a sack of potatoes. A bark of mirthless laughter constricted his throat, and he halted in his tracks.

"You're right," he said. "I shouldn't walk. I need to get to the agency as soon as possible. And Braska…Can you take Lord Braska, boy?" The boy overlooked being called a boy, and nodded gravely.

"Do you want to ride my Chocobo, sir?" a girl asked. "I can pair up with Brana." Auron smiled, but by the looks of it, he didn't succeed very well.

"I'm not…that good with Chocobos." He said. "Can your bird carry the both of us?" She flushed, then looked down, and grew even redder as she noticed how flushed she was.

"Of…of course, Sir Auron." Another wry smile twisted Auron's mouth.

Girl, if you'd only knew how extremely hilarious this shyness of yours is…I'm not some hero you should idolise. You're not some girl I'd ever even contemplate flirting with. All you are is the boss of this bird, and I need you to get to some place. But he said nothing, helped the boy hoist Braska's body in front of him on the back of his Chocobo, and clambered up behind the girl on the other bird, loosely wrapping his arms around her slender waist. Her breath was coming fast, and her voice was high and breathless as she urged her mount to a walk.

The Chocobos feathered body was soft and warm as it moved beneath him, the scent of it—a bit like that of chickens, a bit like that of a horse—strangely reassuring. With every step, the sphere coins he had taken from Braska's satchel clinked in his pocket.

Zanarkand. I hope the sphere's still working. I'll have a talk with her, make her tell me what exactly she thought she was doing. If necessary, I'll kill her. The Final Aeon is a lie, anyway. And when I come back, I'll tell Yuna how her father died a hero. That he died, but…oh, Braska…How can I tell her? How can I tell that sweet little thing that you'll never come back?

"Sir Auron…" the girl whimpered, and he released the crushing grip he had on her waist.

"I'm sorry. I…I was…thinking."

"Are you alright?" one of the other girls asked. "You look awfully pale. Calli knows some spells…"

"No. I'm fine." As fine as you can be, when your whole world has come tumbling down…He looked up as the rest of the Crusaders galloped into view, and a dozen voices asked and screamed and called…and he heard his own voice explaining how Braska had died, and that Sin had been defeated, and that there would be a Calm. Banshu, riding an enormous pale-yellow Chocobo male, studied him, a grave expression on his face.

"So it's finished, then." Auron nodded.

"Yes. For now."

"Where is the other Guardian? Jecht?"

"Gone." The Crusader opened his mouth to ask more, but Auron looked away and bowed his head. "Gone." he whispered, and no more questions interrupted his thoughts for a long while.

They halted in front of the agency, and Auron blinked. The building looked as if a giant had stamped his foot just behind the back of the place, and sent it flying into the air before it crashed back into the ground. Long cracks ran down from the split roof, and one of the walls had fallen inwards completely.

"Is this…what happened? Is this the effect of our fight?" Banshu inclined his head, smiling grimly.

"Oh yes. We were all just saddling up when the ground began to shake, and the sky in the west grew black as soot. We almost lost the Chocobos, they went completely wild. When I left this place, that roof had just come down." He kicked against a piece of debris. "The rest of it must've happened while we were out looking for you."

"You were looking for me?" The elder man nodded.

"I saw the Guardians of the previous Summoner who instituted the Calm. He'd had three, and one of them was a good friend of mine. They were all broken, both in mind and body. We never found the third one, and the other two were raving like lunatics. One of them is still alive, but he remembers nothing because of the toxin. Best thing ever happened to him. The other one committed suicide. Drowned himself." He briefly touched Auron's shoulder. "I didn't want to see that happen to you, or the other man."

"I'm fine."

"Of course you are." He shook his head. "I know how much Braska, Lord Braska, Yevon bless his soul," a sign of prayer, "meant to you. I can only tell you one thing. It will pass. The pain of it. In time, it will become easier to bear."

"I know."  Auron said, not listening. He slid down from his chocobo, nodded at the girl, and caught his friend's body as the boy gently lowered it to the ground. He was still limp, still slightly warm. Just as if he were only sleeping, or…

No. he's dead. Braska is gone.

A new shock of pain flashed through his chest, so badly that he had to squeeze his eyes shut and clench his teeth together to keep from moaning aloud. Braska was gone…

"He has to be buried. Get a memorial," said Banshu. He rested his hand on Auron's shoulder. "And you…need rest. A drink, perhaps?"

"No." It would be too painful to drink, with those memories of Braska and Jecht so vivid in his head. "No, I don't want anything to drink. I…" He dug his hands in his pockets, encountered several small, hard fiches. "I need to do something else."

But then he looked at Braska's body again, and bit his lip. The man deserved more than a simple burial. But to arrange that ceremony…it may have been the task he was still alive for, but…

The ache in his chest intensified for a second, then throbbed and diminished again. Auron knew for certain that he wouldn't be able to arrange anything for Braska. Not with this mixture of seething anger against Yunalesca and the agony of his best friend's death coiling in his heart. Not if he wanted to keep his sanity. And yet…How could he leave him like this?

"I can take care of him," Banshu suggested softly. "I know those who can preserve him, and I'm sure that all temples want to help to give him a fitting burial ceremony."

Auron nodded gratefully.

"Thank you. It is…I find it impossible…What I mean to say is, I can't…" he grimaced. "I can't bury him. I simply can't. And I need to…see someone. First." At the mere thought of Yunalesca's red-lipped smile his stomach cramped with fury, and he closed his eyes again. Banshu's eyebrows rose, but he said nothing.

"Whatever you want, Sir Auron."

Auron smiled, a smile so bitter that the elder man winced. Sir Auron. Braska's Guardian. And then to think that there were people who were Guardian to more than one Summoner. How could they manage that without ending up in a blubbering heap when their Summoner died? Or weren't they their Summoner's friends? How could you guard someone if you didn't love him or her as much as life itself?

"Sir Auron?"

He shook himself.

"Yes. I should go."

"Go where, if I may ask?"

"You may," said Auron, and fished the small Zanarkand chip out of his pocket. "But I won't tell you. Does the sphere still work?"

Not waiting for a reply, he strode towards the machina, tapped lightly on the flickering bulb. It was still functioning, but not all too well; he'd seen a sphere break-down before, and this one was very close. Travelling it would be dangerous, but then, what did he care about danger now?

" I don't think…" Banshu began, but Auron held up his hand to silence him.

"Good bye, Banshu. If all goes well I will be back soon enough to attend the…funeral. If not…no, I will return. I must tell Yuna, I promised my Lord."

"Auron, if you…"

"Farewell, Banshu," Auron said abruptly, dropped his coin in the dented sphere slot and spirited away.

He was in Luca only long enough to choose his destination. Zanarkand was still on the list, just as Jecht had said. He never even thought about the possible fact that the sphere wouldn't take him there, or that he might crash; he simply selected the name and pressed the button. If the pull on his body was stronger, the ride more hitchy, he didn't notice. As he opened his eyes again and saw the rubble lying around him, his lips twitched into another one of his bitter half-smiles, but it had less to do with pleasure than satisfaction at coming here without any more delay.

Auron wasted no time with preparations—what kind of preparations could he possibly make when facing Yunalesca? She was holy, a creature of pyreflies. How could he even hurt her, if she refused to answer? Nevertheless, as he entered the stadium, he had his hand curled loosely around his sword, wishing, secretly, that she would give him reason to use it on her. The fury he'd felt in the Calm lands was gone now, at this moment he felt nothing at all.

He did not need to go through any trials. Everything was still the same as they had left it, more than a week ago. If he looked closely, he could even see the traces of their footsteps in the dust; new dust had settled in and half-obscured them, but they were still visible. Footsteps of the past.

I hadn't noticed that the past crept up so fast, Auron thought. That the 'now' could turn into days gone by so quickly.

He shook his head to clear it, but as he ascended the stairs to Yunalesca's great hall, it seemed to him that all the pyreflies from the dead had gathered in his skull, their hum drowning out the sound of his own thoughts. And when he saw her, standing there as if nothing at all had happened, as beautiful and terrible and serene as the week before, it was as if he looked at a statue.

"Yunalesca."

At first, she did not acquiescent his presence, but he knew she had heard him, for her body stiffened slightly, and her head inclined a little, as if she waited for him to go away. Auron smiled to himself, and kept standing where he stood, as motionless as she was, and just as patient.

In the end, she turned around and gave him a small nod.

"Guardian."

"Not anymore."

Her ruby lips parted in a satisfied smile.

"Yes. He is gone."

And even though he knew that she meant Sin and not Braska, the frozen calm in Auron's head dissipated as if she'd fired an arrow into his brains.

"Why?!" he screamed, unable to control himself. "Why didn't you tell us? What happened to Jecht—why did he have to become the final Aeon? I saw what happened to him…Sin… Whatever lived inside Sin…ate him."

Yunalesca smiled gently.

"Sin is eternal." She stated, rather like a Yevon disciple. "Every aeon that defeats it becomes Sin it its place...And thus is Sin reborn."

Auron shook his head, threw out his arms.

" But…Where is the sense in all this? Braska," the man's name kindled the flame of anger that was steadily growing hotter, "Braska believed in Yevon's teachings and died for them!                 And Jecht believed in Braska and gave his life for him! Was it all for nothing? Did Braska die only so Jecht could become the next Sin? Why didn't you tell us that that would happen?? Why????

"Tell me! I need to know!"

The ghostly woman in front of him shrugged.

"They chose to die..." she said beatifically, and red flared in front of Auron's eyes, "because they had hope. They gave others hope. Who wouldn't want to die for that?"

He couldn't even remember drawing his sword. All he knew that he wanted to kill, kill this dreadful cheating holy bitch, kill the murderess of his best friends, this fiend, this…

He never made it within striking distance. She gathered a mass of energy in her hand and casually flung it into his stomach. Auron went flying backwards, landed with a thud on the ground, several yards away from her.  His sword flew out of his hand and skidded away.

"Go home, Guardian," she said. "Celebrate your Calm. Find me next time Sin surfaces."

Auron barked a breathless laugh. His left arm was numb, and something in his side felt torn, and there was blood in his mouth, but he pushed himself to his knees, to his feet, stumbled to where his sword was lying.

"Oh no," he whispered hoarsely. "No, I don't think so. I didn't come here to be told to go home. You…" he wiped wetness from his chin. His hand stung as he did so. "You killed Braska…and Jecht…I won't let you kill other Summoners as well. Not like this. Not like this!"

Yunalesca raised her eyebrows.

"And how, my dear Guardian, do you propose to accomplish that? Surely you won't be as stupid as to attack me?"

"Watch and learn, bitch." Auron snarled, and launched at her once more. This time he didn't let her energy bolt throw him back; he ducked it, and slashed, and managed to cut through her defence; but her next attack caught him full in the face, and half his vision exploded in red light before turning irrevocably black. Pain as he had never known before crashed through his body, seared his face, but even as his body fell, he held on to consciousness with a stubbornness that Jecht, would he have seen it, would have called almost obscene.

No. no. I won't be beaten like this. I will not let her win that easily.

Pyreflies swirled above him, and as he desperately tried to keep his eyes open (though one didn't want to open at all), Yunalesca's face appeared in front of him. Her eyes shone so bright they all but blinded him; her whole figure seemed to be tinged with blood.

"I will remember you," she said, touching his right cheek with her fingers—a new pain bloomed into existence—"Don't you worry about that, Guardian. Your death will not have been for nothing. I will be more careful in the future."

Auron tried to raise his arm, to grab one of her shining tresses, but she twisted away and his arm fell uselessly to the ground.

"No…" he whispered. 'Wait…I'm not…finished with you…yet…"

"Yes, you are," Yunalesca said from far away. "You are finished, Guardian." A tinkering laugh surfaced in her voice. "Let me know when you need sending. I will see what I can do for you then…"

*

It was some time before he regained consciousness. Yunalesca was gone, but the pyreflies clung to his body with disturbing attachment. He attempted to get up, but even breathing made red bursts explode in front of his one seeing eye. As he felt the right side of his face, he met a thick crust of dried and half-dried blood. His right eye was either gone or damaged; he couldn't see anything with it, and the pain made him dizzy. There was another pain in his chest and in his side, the kind of pain that betrayed broken and crushed bones, and internal injuries that would most likely kill him if he didn't get treated soon.

"Not bloody likely," he muttered to himself. Even his vocal cords hurt. He had brought four healing potions with him, and now drank one of the three that had survived the fight. It lessened the worst of the agony, but it still took him more than half an hour to crawl to his sword sticking out of the stone floor, and use it to prop himself up. Pulling it out of the ground proved impossible, but then, Auron figured, he didn't think he'd survive any attack. Even a bunny could kill him now, only by stamping its foot on the ground.

But if I die, who will take care of Yuna? Who will find Tidus?

He did not want to go, not while Yunalesca was still alive, or rather, undead, but he was not so fanatic that he did not know that trying to fight her in his current state was madness. No, he had to go back to Besaid, speak to Yuna, and heal, and then…

As he dragged himself to the sphere, a thick trail of blood pattered on the ground, like a red path from the Dome. It seemed impossible to him that he could lose so much blood so quickly, and still live, but he was too stubborn to give up. Although he almost did so when he found out that the sphere was dead. But Yuna's face, mismatched eyes twinkling in her plain, sweet, smiling face made him grit his teeth and move on, stumbling and falling, from the city and into the mountains.

The next week was a red-cloaked haze to Auron. He only remembered that it stormed all the time, and that it was cold, so very cold indeed. If he slept at all, he did it in snatches, curled up in a rift of snow he had to dig himself out of when he woke up. He did not have any food, but since he was not hungry at all, he didn't think much about that either. The first two days after his defeat he started by drinking potions; after that, they were finished and he thought no more about it. When he had the energy, he cast spells on himself to boost his speed and endurance. He ripped up most of his coat to bandage his wounds, and as long as he did not try to think, he could actually move quite efficiently. Pain, he had found out long ago, came in gradations. When you passed a certain line, you could distance yourself from it, and retreat into your own mind. That was what he did, that whole terrible journey down Mount Gagazet: retreat into himself and relive the memories he found there.

The sphere in the Ronso Village worked. With the Storming Season raging about the Mountain, all the Ronso were inside, huddling close to the hearth, no doubt. As Auron stumbled into their village, he somehow missed the unfortunate guard who had to keep eye on the road from the mountain, and he had made it all the way to the sphere before someone noticed him. Inorhe's blue snout appeared before one of the lit windows, gazing out, and his yellow eyes widened in alarm as he spotted Auron half-lying on the foot of the sphere, counting his sphere-coins with stiffly frozen fingers. He ran out, meaning to stop him and ask him what he was doing here, but before he had reached them, Auron had found the coin he had been looking for, dropped it into the slot and disappeared.

The sphere spat him out just outside Bevelle, right in front of the Inn where they had met Kimahri. As Auron stood there, swaying, not realising yet that he was not in Besaid, as he had thought he would be, his vision doubling and wavering, he saw something large and grey-blue rising from the grass.

Fiend…Auron thought hazily, and reached for a sword that was gone. Then the blue thing barked something that sounded suspiciously like his own name and came racing to him. It walked on hands and feet, like a gigantic cat.

Sin jumped up and played the fiddle, Auron thought, it is Kimahri. He wanted to stick up his hand and greet him, but his arm refused to move.

"Aurrron…" the Ronso maowed. His pupils were drawn to slits, the feral face drawn in a frown of concern. Auron blinked his seeing eye. The other eye was closed, and burned; sometimes he thought it burned all the way through his head.

"Ki…" The moment he began to speak his lungs gave up. He began to cough, and even though he tried to hold his ribs together with the one arm that functioned, he could actually feel them pierce his lungs.

No! I can't die here, not now! I need to see Yuna, and Tidus.

"Kimahri…" he choked, and fell on one knee. The Ronso skidded to a stop at his feet, just in time to catch him as he began to crumple. "Need to…go…Yuna…Besaid…Braska's daughter…"

He felt one rough paw touch his burning face, and then the surprisingly soft fur of Kimahri's chest as he pressed him against him.

"Yuna…" Auron whispered. There was a dull roaring in his ears, that seemed to grow louder and louder. Perhaps it was Kimahri purring. He did not think so, though. "I need…to go to…Besaid."

"Later." Said the Ronso. And when he picked the Guardian up, Auron slumped in his arms in a dead faint.