Auron begins to lose the battle against the pyreflies. Elma comes to his rescue by distracting him.
_________The airship soared on through the night sky. There was no sign of Sin, save a thin stripe of corded cloud marching off towards Macalania. The flight deck had emptied two hours ago, after Shinra reprogrammed the autopilot to track their quarry. Now the running lights had dimmed, leaving no visible barrier between its sole occupant and the endless sweep of stars. Sir Auron sat motionless with his back against cold, hard glass, keeping vigil with only his jug of nog for company.
He had spent many such nights on Mt. Gagazet, gazing out across a black abyss just a step beyond the edge of a precipice. Even in Zanarkand, where depth was an illusion and city lights masked the stars, he had found solace on the heights. There, the unsettling tug of the Farplane was easier to ignore, subsumed by ordinary vertigo. It was like fasting: deny simple cravings (/step off, the pyreflies would sing; your life is void; run, leap, and go!/) and greater lusts could be denied.
Somewhere beyond sight, Lulu (who had been another precipice) was flying blind in a cavernous belly of bone and rot and darkness. Could the Lady see stars from her vile cocoon?
This was the watch they had once shared, the chill midnight hours, guarding younger guardians with a bleak sense of destiny on their shoulders. On most nights, they had barely exchanged a word. Yet there had been a texture and a weight to that silence as solid as a sword's grip.
Until that witch-woman who seemed almost colorless had changed the color of silence itself. Drawn by his difference, she had made an alluring offer. He, to his own surprise, had stepped off. There was something about Lulu's challenge (and not only the allurements of Venus, for he had been propositioned before-- had he not refused the high priest's daughter?) that tickled his sense of irony. A woman who meant to die with her summoner, and a man who already knew what death meant: they were the last people who should be trifling with life's distractions. Yet there was a bittersweet pleasure in cheating death for a little while, as she had promised.
They had observed strict rules of engagement, of course. They were dedicated guardians, and their professional pride demanded no less: never on duty, and never unless their summoner was somewhere safe, such as an airship three miles up. Which meant, for the remainder of the pilgrimage, their silent watches had become an agreeable form of fasting.
The game had nearly been given away when that old coot at the Monster Arena handed over the Mars Sigil. Rikku had excitedly snatched it and the Venus Crest from the mage's hair to demonstrate: "Hey, lookit, they fit together!"
"Whoa-ho," Tidus said. "Hey, Auron--"
Auron's overly brusque give me that had triggered a half-hour sulk from the Al Bhed girl, but he had been trying not to laugh. The prim look on the mage's face had been worth the price of a sword.
Lulu had caught the glint his eye, and spent the rest of the day tormenting him during combat with her blatant flirting under the guise of sending fiends to death's loving arms. "Hope you like it hot..." she would purr, scorching a Malboro to a husk of withered leaves. Or, "Thirsty?" while quenching the raging fires of a Chimera. It was a game she played, and a silly game at that, but somehow it had helped keep him sane.
Yes, Rikku. I miss her.
He allowed himself to admit it now, having escorted Rikku to a cabin an hour ago. She had gone without protest, not like the old days, jesting that she'd herded enough cactuars to bed to know better.
"Although I doubt I'll sleep much." Rikku draped bonelessly against the doorframe, shadows in the hollows of her eyes as she flashed a smile borrowed from her cousin. "Really, Auron, it's amazing how trouble follows you around like a bit of toilet paper stuck to your boot."
"Rikku. We'll find your fa—"
"Don't say it." She stuck out her tongue, but the words were too quick and sharp for teasing. "No more promises, 'kay? Alhough I guess you never gave Tidus any promises."
The door cut the space between them while he was still seeking a retort, or adequate words for atonement.
Isaaru had retired earlier, too. Something was wrong with the man. Auron was hardly in the mood for summoner's games, but he would need to find out what troubled him before they faced Sin. Most likely, Isaaru was suffering from the effects of Sin's attacks on the temples. A part of his soul had been wrested away with every aeon's loss. It was a strain with which Auron could empathize.
Sleep sharpens swords. Any soldier past cadet knew the wisdom of that proverb. Yet here Auron was, staying up late with a jug of nog at his knee, sailing through memories to stave off sleep. Would he remember to wake up again? What fee would dreams charge for another day of existence?
Pyreflies whined and danced at the edges of his vision, seeping away when his attention wandered. There were bone-aches in his flesh, bones that throbbed like torn muscle, ghosts of every wound he had ever sustained -- before or after death, he could no longer tell. Nor could he remember whether the tepid ale on his lips came from this side of the Farplane.
Lulu was not the only one "running out of ice cream."
Auron set the jug down and pushed it away. Despair made the thrum of the pyreflies louder, audible above the purring ship's engines. Time to focus.
The next stage of the pilgrimage was clear enough. Fight Cid. Banish Shuyin. Keep away from Isaaru, whose sendings had been giving him headaches ever since Besaid. Get to the next treasure chest: the weapon inside would be efficacious against the foe they were about to face. (Lulu in that irrevocable moment of despair, sheathed in ice and metal and a tree of lightning six hundred feet high, towering over a Yuna-sized shadow painted onto scorched bedrock.)
No. Keep moving forward. Keep alert for the next opening; there would not be many more.
Using Vegnagun was risky, but Auron had almost given up trying to save the world. He'd settle for satisfying one damned oath before the pyreflies won.
Approaching footsteps yanked him back to the here and now. Dim blue safety lights embedded in the floor flickered on. The aft doors whisked open. A wiry figure stepped out— not Rikku, as he thought for a moment, but the Crusader woman still dressed in Al Bhed garb, silhouetted against amber light spilling out from the corridor. He shielded his eyes with his glove until the doors closed.
Elma halted, waiting for her eyes to adjust. There was a sag in her stance that he had not seen before, not even after the first Operation Mi'ihen. He heard the release of a held breath.
Then she caught sight of him. "Oh! My apologies, sir!" She straightened at once, squaring her shoulders to parade attention. "I can go, if--"
"It's fine." He gestured to the transparent floor next to him, a silent challenge. "Sit."
"Er...thank you, sir." She hesitated at the joint between metal deckplates and transparent floor. Past that, a rough texture frosting the glass was the only sign proving that she was not stepping out over a void. "I still don't know whether to atone or beg for a tour of duty as Al Bhed liaison. This ship..." She shook her head, forced herself to step over the seam, and moved towards him with her fingertips tracing the hull. "I wonder what the general would think."
When she slid down the wall near him and pulled her knees into her chest, Auron pushed the jug towards her.
"Heh. That obvious, eh?" She grinned and leaned over to take the offering. "You know, I was starting to think this was just for show. Lady Rikku said you never had much use for R&R."
"Yeah, well." Elma sobered, swirling the jug lightly. "Next Calm, maybe?"
Auron shrugged. "Maybe." Yevon painted a captivating picture of the Farplane's delights, but he had his doubts.
"Maybe," Elma agreed with a sigh. "Gotta admit, I'm not in the mood for blitzball myself right now." She lifted the jug to the sky, composing herself, and began a quiet, rhythmic chant that petered out all too soon. "Luzzu. Kyou. Burri. Kento. Zalitz. And... whoever the hell else we've lost." Anger capped the prayer instead of the customary /Yevon guide them/. She tossed the brew back. Then she was gasping, laughing at herself as her eyes teared up. "Whoa! Kulukan's ale. I'd almost forgotten the stuff, since shipments got scarce."
Silence crept back into the cabin. Auron supposed the woman was trying to figure out how to pose the question that was clearly gnawing her. That, or she was mentally cataloging corpses. There would be forms to fill out, letters to write home, posthumous awards to be pinned to empty shrouds. Unlike Kinoc, she did not seem the sort of officer to delegate those duties.
"I should apologize," he said.
"Excuse me, sir?"
"Oh. Phllltt. Don't even." She waved a hand dismissively. "We're soldiers, sir; we know missions may fail. I just wish I hadn't abandoned my troops like this. They probably think I'm dead, too." Fingernails dug into her knee, and she took another drink, longer than the first. "At least the general's there to look after 'em."
Another story dangled in the gaps between her words, tied off with a tourniquet labeled To Be Continued and a question mark. An old story, as old as war itself, which the temples had been trying to hush ever since Lady Yocun and Lilith had made pilgrimage fashionable for heretics. Auron wondered sourly if Maechen included such tales in his longwinded ramblings.
"There is one thing, sir," Elma said. "Would you mind a nosy question?"
"Go ahead." Tidus had mellowed him: not that he promised answers, even now.
"Thank you, sir." Elma laid down a screen of words while she collected her thoughts. "It's funny. I used to be the go-to officer for the cadets, the night before their first battle. They'd call me 'Mom' behind my back. You know, those islander kids...never handled anything more dangerous than a blitzball before. And now...here I am." She snorted. "So, anyway. How did you keep going, after you found out Yevon was a flat-out lie?"
"It was...difficult." Particularly the getting-killed part.
"No kidding." She gave him a look that was two parts admiration, one part exasperation. "Come to think of it, Yevon stabbed you in the back coming and going on Lord Braska's pilgrimage, didn't it?"
"You could put it that way."
"Ugh." She shivered. The tank top and leggings Rikku had given her were no protection against the chill seeping through the ship's hull. She took another sip and scooted away from the wall. "The Four tried so hard to restore our faith in Yevon, after Lord Mika's passing. Now..."
Auron leaned forward, suddenly alert. "How did he die?"
"Who? Oh, Lord Mika." She gave a tight, mirthless grin. "Sometimes I wonder about that, too. The official word was that he collapsed from grief and died in his sleep, but I think he committed suicide. When Lord Isaaru got back from Mt. Gagazet with news of the Ronso massacre, there was rioting in the streets. Monks firing on civilians, Crusaders fighting with warrior monks, priests holed up in the temple refusing sanctuary to anybody... it wasn't exactly Yevon's finest hour. The shame was probably too much for him."
Auron grunted noncommitally.
"So Lucil got recalled to St. Bevelle to help sort out the mess. I thought we were gonna be executed for treason, like poor O'aka. She and I had gone to protect the rebels in Besaid after the order came down to kill Lady Yuna." She smiled crookedly. "We didn't know what to do, sir, but we couldn't do /that/."
"Thanks." Another irony: Lulu had wiped out the one village that had defied Yevon for Yuna's sake.
Grimacing, Auron made a few mental notes on this story's discrepancies with Isaaru's and Pacce's accounts. It might have no bearing on Spira's current crop of problems, but clearly, someone was being less than forthcoming about the manner of Mika's "death." He needed to make sure they were actually lying, and not merely mistaken.
"So, anyway." Elma pressed her fingertips against her forehead, massaging in small circles. "I don't know what I'm going to tell my troops. 'Sure, go ahead, use forbidden machina...all that Yevon stuff was only hazing.' Like when they make recruits eat gysahl greens until they throw up."
"What did you tell your cadets before battle?" Auron said. "The teachings, or lessons based on your own experience?"
"Oh." Elma pondered. "Both, really. But more the latter, come to think of it."
"The church wanted you to forget that 'teachings' are only lessons, a manual written by priests. The true test comes on the battlefield. Keep what works, discard the rest."
"Hm." She mulled this over, letting the words sink in. "I think that works. Thank you, sir."
He nodded, sinking back behind his collar.
Elma took a final swig, capped the jug and pushed it back across the floor to him. Trying not to look down, she stood carefully and moved towards the doors, flinching as they slid open. There she hesitated. "Er. If you don't mind answering, sir, what did you keep?"
There it was: the only answer that really mattered, the phylactery that kept fiend's madness at bay.
Auron would have left it at that. However, there might be ill tidings waiting for them in Bevelle. Better for her to face that battle now. "To friends. And to the fallen."
She stiffened. It might have been kinder to remind her of unspoken fears while she was still holding the jug. "I...I think I can manage that, sir."
The woman drew herself erect and clenched a fist over her heart in a formal salute. "Goodnight, sir. Get some rest."
Three ships cut through Spira's sky, steered by a madman, a goddess, and no pilot at all.
Auron did not sleep.