The survivors of the battle with Shuyin put themselves back together.
"Ah! Sir Auron, there you are."
A crumbling drainage ditch was an unlikely destination for morning prayers. Yet there was no mistaking the green robe, high collar, and wide ceremonial band stitched with Yevon's signs from throat to knees. /Yevon's toilet paper/, Kinoc had called it, and died in it.
The priest climbed down into the muck. "Goodness gracious. I suppose even legendary guardians are mortal, aren't they? Not too mortal, though, I hope. Let me see." Humming to himself, he began to circle Auron, ignoring the stagnant water and blood wicking up the hem of his robes.
Cool healing magic lapped out from his hands in unseen ripples. A light drizzle pattered down, glazing the priest's bald head. The damp tasted of salt, not only from the breath of the harbor below: there were tears in that rain, tears never shed by their owner when she had eyes to weep. The sour odor from the outflow pipe reeked of Sin and the living.
Auron gritted his teeth as bones shifted back into place, following the ley lines of the pyreflies. Breathing became easier, but his ribs still ground together like a sack of charcoal. He stared warily at the man shuffling around him. "Do I know you?"
"Zuke. A failed summoner. A madman too, perhaps. I dreamt I was to meet you here."
"Hmph." The pain began to subside, but Auron's hand still screamed as if he were gripping molten metal. What had Lulu done to him, flare crossed with /bio/?
"There. I fear that's the best I can manage. Can you stand? I must get you to Yuna's Cloister."
Auron shook his head as Zuke helped him up. "I need to reach the Chamber of the Fayth."
"I beg your pardon, sir guardian, but I was instructed to—" he coughed—"'thundaga your ass' if you did not come willingly."
"I...see." Auron glanced up at the sky, squinting. Did Lulu know about old friends trapped in the bowels of St. Bevelle?
/There/. Sin was lurking in the thunderheads, a dark shape embedded in a wall of gray cloud over the gutted husk of the palace. The tower was gone, but its image seemed to hang in mid-air, projected like a sphere recording onto the canvas of falling rain.
"Yevon preserve us!" Zuke drew Yevon's sign over his heart.
The sun began to break through, sending feeble shafts towards the phantom tower's peak. They drew the eye towards a gleam of white poised on the edge of a high balcony. Abruptly it dropped. Glyphs of light exploded outwards, magnifying the tiny human figure to aeon's size. They glimpsed a girl in a fluttering gown like a comet's plume, serene in her headlong plummet with her hands outstretched towards heaven.
"No!" Zuke took a step forward, rapt with horror. "Who...?"
Even Auron found himself transfixed: he had been too busy herding the rest of the party away to see Yuna's masterful performance. So had Lulu, for that matter, but she commanded a coccoon of pyreflies now. They doted on anything that made a deep impression.
The finale was brief but spectacular. A winged aeon came whirling down out of the clouds, a phoenix-like shape with wings the color of flame and shell. It swooped under the girl, catching and cradling her like a pearl on a velvet bed. They glided off together. The vision expanded, blurring at the edges, focused on the gazes of girl and aeon locked in soul's communion. As the mirage began to fade, Yuna turned and looked down upon the battered city with a solemn, cryptic expression that Auron suspected would soon find its way into temple portraits. The drizzle dwindled to a pale mist, then ceased. Sin vanished, taking the pyrefly-vision with her.
"It is a sign," Zuke said, wiping his eyes. "Did you see it? Did you see /her/?"
"I saw Yuna." Auron scowled. He could already hear it in the man's voice, an unspoken benediction: in fifty years, half of Spira would be praying "in Yuna's name." Lulu, what are you doing? You've been with Yu Yevon too long.
"Yes. Lady Yuna. Once again, Yevon denies its savior! The people pray to her; we denounce them as heretics. She's been watching over us, interceding on our behalf, blunting Sin's wrath—"
Auron hunched behind his collar. "And Lulu?"
"Guarding her still, I suppose... and troubling an old man's sleep." Zuke gave a weak laugh. "Forgive me, sir. You are hurt, and I'm sure these reminders of old friends are no great comfort."
Auron nodded, bracing himself against shooting pain as he bent to retrieve his sword lying on the bank above them. Perhaps one of the warrior monks would know Maester Baralai's means of reaching the lower levels of the palace. He had to find Rikku: promises were all he had left.
He realized his error just before his knees gave way. Dirty tiles rushed up to meet him. There was no aeon to catch him, but he barely felt it when he struck the ground.
"Nooj is a Crusader who sacrificed his own limbs in defense of the people of Spira! You will give him all the care due our honored veterans. Do I make myself clear?"
Soft-spoken as a rule, Isaaru turned heads as his grief-hardened voice cracked through the buzzing murmur of monks, nuns, and patients being shunted back into their rooms from the underground shelter. For a moment, the open square of Yuna's Cloister resembled a temple great hall with its rows of of wooden saints: every figure froze, standing mute and astonished among close-trimmed topiaries, marble benches and ordered flower beds. Only the central fountain danced and chattered.
"Y-yes, Your Grace." The chastened monk bowed. "Captain Juno, if you'll follow me, please?"
"You'd better post a guard on Cid's room," Nooj said, draped awkwardly over Juno's shoulders. "It sounds like they're looking for scapegoats."
"They're monks, not murderers, Nooj," Isaaru said, falling back to a lifeless whisper. "And I'm sure Lady Rikku is more than capable of defending her father while he sleeps. She, too, is a guardian."
"Isaaru," Juno said. "Get some rest. I'll survey the city and check in with Maester Shelinda, then report back. There's nothing more we can do until we hear from Maester Baralai. And...Pacce?"
The youth raised his head. He had not spoken since Elma dragged him into the elevator in Vegnagun's vault.
"Guard your brother."
His eyes welled up again, but he drew himself up in a passable salute.
"Oh. One other thing." She hitched Nooj's arm around her shoulders and turned to Elma. "Speaking of maesters. You lost one, didn't you?"
The Crusader stiffened. "Yeah, why?"
"She's here. Bad dose of toxin, but alive. The SS Korra found her and Pacce on the tip of Western Isle. You're lucky the captain was stupid enough to risk Sin's waters to bring Isaaru's evacuation order here."
Pacce stirred, jarred out of his stupor. "I'm sorry! S-Sin dropped us. I pulled her out of the water, but I c-couldn't wake her."
"Sorry?" Elma seized his shoulders, beaming with relief. "Don't be silly! You've just earned yourself a promotion. Just tell me where she is!"
"Um." He shook his head. "I'm s-sorry, I don't know which room—"
"Nevermind, kiddo, I'll find her. You look after Isaaru." She ruffled his hair, then turned to the summoner. "Sir, permission to—"
"Granted." Isaaru smiled, the drawn lines in his face easing somewhat. "Go on, Commander. I'll check on her later, whenever you send word."
"Sir!" She gave Juno a minute nod and dashed off, flagging down one of the senior nuns and grilling her before rushing through an open archway.
Juno snorted and turned back to the flustered monk who had been waiting on her and Nooj with an air of mounting desperation. "All right. Lead the way."
As she navigated the vaulted passageway around the courtyard, Juno was trailed by few warrior monks eager to report in, covertly checking on their captain or snatching a glimpse of her ususual charge. One veteran saluted "Deathseeker" along with Juno. Nooj, pained by helplessness more than injury, said little, content to watch her as she dispatched subordinates with clipped orders to different parts of the city.
There was a moment's awkwardness when she deposited him in a room, accompanied by the wide-eyed monk who stared fearfully at the artificial leg he had chucked onto the bed.
"I'm not going anywhere," Nooj said with a tight smile. "If you bump into Shinra or Gippal, would you tell them to bring me some baling wire?"
Juno gave a curt nod, expression masked by her helm. "I'll...see you later."
His eyes softened at the hesitation. However, he did not comment, and Juno left briskly.
Isaaru, meanwhile, had stayed rooted where he was as the party dispersed. Healers, warrior monks and the wounded swirled around him and Pacce like two snags in a river. Isaaru set his hands on his brother's shoulders, steering him gently towards the central fountain. It contained yet another statue of the High Summoner, a figure of marble and glass poised atop a flowering pillar of water. Innocent, etherial, blissful, she seemed suspended in a Calm that she had not lived to see. The brothers contemplated her in silence, feeling cool spray on their faces.
"Lady Yuna," Pacce said finally. "D-do you think she came to send Maroda? Everyone saw her."
"I sent him myself, Pacce. Yet I do not doubt she helped guide him. That vision we saw, however...I believe it was Sin's doing. Sin is the Lady. And she, too, mourns one who is gone."
"I'll explain later." Isaaru collected himself with a sigh. "Come. I think we should heed Lady Rikku's example: find food, beds, and lay low until there is news from Lord Baralai or the other airship. Yes?"
"Your Grace! Your Grace!" A nun flying from the main entrance tripped over a planter and stumbled towards them. "Lord Isaaru, come quickly!"
Isaaru clutched Pacce's shoulder and moaned quietly before he turned. "What is it, Mother?"
"Word from Father Zuke, my lord! He's found Sir Auron down by the Purifico Gate. They're bringing him in now!"
"What? He is...alive?"
"I...I think so. Father Zuke sent for a wagon, so either the guardian's too wounded for /cura/, or..."
Pacce choked back a sob. "Was there anyone with him?"
"The message only mentioned Sir Auron."
"Very well. Take us to him." Isaaru lowered his voice as his brother surged ahead. "Pacce, I wish I could affirm your hopes, but I dare not. Sir Auron is cursed with a gift that lets him endure what would kill another. I fear he is alone. Yet at least he may know our brother's fate."
Elma leaned against the doorframe, dripping, casually barring the room. "Thanks, hon. I'll take it from here. If the general wakes, I'll call you, okay?" She snatched the tray from the acolyte and nodded towards the Do Not Disturb tag swinging from the door-handle. "By the way. That isn't a suggestion. If you come back, it'll be for one of three reasons: Juno's orders, Isaaru's orders, or a Sin sighting. Anything else will have to wait. Understood?"
The girl shrank back, wringing her hands. Evidently Elma's reputation as guard dog to Maester Lucil had reached all the way to the lower ranks of the clergy in Bevelle. "Yessir, I mean, yes, ma'am—"
Elma pushed the door shut and slammed the bolt with her elbow, stalking back to the bed and setting the tray on the nightstand. "Help yourself," she said, filling both tumblers and setting one within easy reach. Then she crossed the room to a ceramic tub in the corner. The steaming water within had already begun to cool. She picked up a copper ewer and emptied out its scalding contents, sloshing the floor with the overflow when she eased back into the tub. Reaching for a sponge, she resumed scrubbing, chattering away as she sloughed off the grime of battle.
"So, where was I? Oh, right. Well, Captain Juno led us back up through the Court of Yevon. We picked up Rikku and Cid on the way out. The palace is in pretty bad shape, ma'am; the tower's collapsed and most of the temple wing's burned. But the court's intact, so hopefully the archives are okay. And no fatalities, that's the important thing. Most of the palace was evacuated before Cid got here.
"Sin was waiting for us right outside. It pulled some funky trick that made everyone see a vision of Lady Yuna. The priests are still yapping about it. Then Sin vanished, and we came here. Juno's gone off to assess the damage and check in with Maester Shelinda at Northgate. The rest of us are on standby. No word yet on Baralai. And...that's the whole story."
Elma looked up, waiting. After a moment she sighed, clambered out of the tub, and toweled herself off. "Dammit. Forgot to ask for a fresh uniform." She retrieved the skimpy Al Bhed garb, now sweaty and bloodstained. It should have been grounds for a jibe, but Lucil still lay staring at the ceiling.
Elma plopped back into the chair by the bed and took her hand. "I can't believe it's only been— what, four days? since we got separated."
There was no reply. Lucil blinked, she breathed: beyond that, she was inert. Sin's toxin, the healers had said, but they had skirted Elma's questions when she reminded them of the general's old injury.
Elma exhaled. Worry always made her hungry. "Sorry to start without you, ma'am. Tell me if you want anything." She selected a rice ball from the tray, wrinkling her nose after popping it in her mouth. "Ugh! What is with the fermented fish glop on everything? I can't wait to get back to Luca."
There was a brief lull while she picked over the food the acolyte had delivered. "So. I'm thinking of heading back tomorrow. Yevon willing—" she made a face, catching herself too late— "I should reach Moonflow Lodge by the end of the week, Luca in ten days. That's a long time for our troops to hang on with both of us MIA, but there's no help for it. Unless that airship comes back, but I doubt they'd give me a ride. Either way, our troops need us, especially with you...here." Her voice cracked. She took a long drink of wine before continuing. "But here's the thing. Isaaru's lost Maroda and Sir Auron. Pacce's not fit for duty. If Isaaru's still determined to take on Sin, he's going to need another guardian. Juno might do it, but she's got all of Bevelle to look after, especially with Maester Baralai missing. So, should I get back to Luca ASAP, or serve as guardian for one more mission?"
A prodigious yawn interrupted her musings. "Oof. Sorry, ma'am. I didn't sleep much on the airship." She sprawled back in the chair, wiping back the hair sticking to her cheeks. "You know one good thing about finding out that Yevon's a big pile of shoopuf crap? /Al Bhed showers/. First thing I do after this mess is over: hire one of Cid's techs and get a shower installed at HQ. I bet it'll be great for your back."
Elma wilted as she began to run low on words, stroking Lucil's wrist with her thumb. "Hey. If I drop off, you poke me, okay?"
There was a faint croak from the bed. "You're out of uniform, Commander."
Elma sat bolt upright, eyes flying open. "I...uh...the sinscales—" She squeezed Lucil's hand, struggling to keep her voice steady. "Reporting for duty, ma'am. Orders?"
Lucil flexed one leg beneath the sheets and then the other, wriggling her toes. Finally she breathed out. "Lord Isaaru is safe?"
"Yes, ma'am. He's here in Yuna's Cloister. Sergeant Wedge and the palace guard are here too, keeping watch."
"Lord Baralai is missing. Lady Shelinda...?"
"Northgate, ma'am. She's been overseeing the city's evacuation, setting up camps on the south rim of the Calm Lands. Captain Juno's gone off to inspect the city and meet with her, so we should get a status report from Shelinda in a few hours."
"Very good. Lock the door."
"Excellent." Lucil raised herself on one elbow, voice firming as she spoke. "I'll need to review your report to fill in what I missed. After Juno returns, we'll confer with her on the city's defenses. We should place the Yocun Crusaders at her disposal for the remainder of the crisis. We'll convene an emergency council session this evening with Lord Isaaru, Captain Juno and Elder Cid. Hopefully we'll have tidings of Maester Baralai by then."
"Yes, ma'am." Elma released her hand and stood, a slight hitch in her salute. "Anything else?"
"Yes." Lucil seized the bottom of her tank top, tugging her towards the bed. "You are officially off-duty. Juno's errand should take at least three hours to complete."
Lucil's legs might be hampered by old injuries, but she had developed upper body strength to compensate. There was a moment's wrestling as she dragged Elma under the covers, playfully jockeying for blankets and pillow, a surfeit of riches compared to a sleeping bag spread on Djose gravel. Elma wound up wedged against her side, clutching Lucil's shoulder, mouth jammed against her own knuckles to bite back laughter that had abruptly turned to sobs. Lucil held her quietly, combing her hair.
"Sorry, ma'am," Elma said finally. "I guess overtime finally caught up with me."
"I know." Lucil slipped a finger under her chin and coaxed her to unclench. They drew together in a lingering kiss that was almost a match for one two years earlier, when Elma had vowed to carry Lucil until she could walk again.
Elma snuggled against her, drowsy and plaintive. "Um...didn't you order me to report to you for debriefing after the operation was over?"
"Tonight." Lucil smiled, lips curling against the younger woman's cheek. "You need at least a few hours' rest, Commander. Otherwise, I'm not sure you'll last through a full session. Sleep now."