Rikku and Wakka deal with an unwelcome visitor.
I have become his Yunalesca.
Auron no longer knew what it meant to face death, but he knew what it meant to face a friend's death and the one to blame for it. He had a perverse wish to yield Wakka the satisfaction of vengeance.
An image of Kinoc's bland face swam before Wakka's seething glare. Were the pyreflies playing tricks again? No, Wakka had put on weight, but his traces of flab showed only the fruits of living well, not living off others like a tick on Yevon's ass.
Wakka's fingers tightened on the trigger, but Auron's words had found their mark. "All right," he said, sounding irked at himself. "Tell me what Lulu said."
"And then you'll kill me?"
"You got it!"
"Not much motivation, then." Auron took a deep breath, attentive to the simple act in case it was his last for a while. "She told me to give you her love."
"Ku du ramm!" Wakka's glower darkened even further at Auron's faint smirk. "You think dis is funny, eh? Yeah, I'm Al Bhed now. They don' lie to their own people, they don't guilt you into being good with a pile of religious crap, and they care about protecting family more than anything in the world, Sir Auron." Auron was impressed by his ability to heap so much scorn onto a simple title; even Lulu would have been hard-pressed to match it. "So, you supposed to 'give me her love.' Now dat's funny. Like you could ever give love to anybody." Wakka was all but bellowing now. "And you know what? If it wasn't for you, we wouldn't even be having this conversation!"
Irked in spite of himself, Auron deflected his retort towards the absurd tautology. "Lulu would've chosen the same path, Wakka. The only difference I made is that she knew what she was volunteering for."
"And so dat's supposed to make it all right, eh? Happy Festival Fireworks and all dat? Lulu stuck inside dat thing forever, while I try to make the life she can't, raise a family, be a good daddy, be happy all the time she's out there somewhere bein' Sin?"
/Better than going to Zanarkand/, Auron wanted to say, but that wasn't quite true. Guarding Tidus had been the only oath he had ever gotten right. The boy had died, but at least he had lived.
Releasing the trigger to wipe his eyes, Wakka went on in more subdued tones. "You saw little Yuna, ya? Sometimes she tells me what Lu's thinkin', where she is right now makin' rain or snow or the flowers grow. I donno whether Yunie's makin' it all up— she's only seven— but she's got the talent. She's gonna be a great healer. But no way is she gonna grow up a summoner. And I'm not lettin' anybody screw her up with talk about aeons, guardians, pilgrimages."
"So you've been protecting her with a lie, and now you're willing to kill to protect that lie?" Auron snorted. "Sounds familiar."
"Shut up." Wakka resettled the weapon on his shoulder and braced himself. "Man, you better not come back like Seymour."
I can't promise that. Could he? The long-ignored whisperings in the back of his mind stirred like hungry pyreflies, worms gnawing at his will.
Rikku's clear voice rang out, banishing the whispers. "Wakka, no."
The weapon's muzzle dipped as Wakka looked up, haunted eyes drawn towards the top of the dune where Auron had just taken a tumble. "Rikku," he said, cupping the name with tenderness. "I... I know it's wrong. But he deserves it, just like Seymour. Maybe more. Seymour was crazy, but Sir Auron—"
"You're not a murderer, Wakka," she said quietly.
His bluster visibly bled away, sinking through desperation to defeat. "I know." Sighing, he opened his hands. The gun hit the ground with a thud, narrowly missing a row of cabbages.
Auron had forgotten just how quickly the big man could move. Before Auron could rise, Wakka reared back and landed a punch across his jaw that felt like it had armor break behind it. The white-haired guardian flew backwards and struck the slope behind him. More vegetables paid the price. Auron found himself staring up a pair of long skinny legs and—
Auron shut his eyes quickly before Wakka found another reason to hit him.
"Dope." Rikku stepped over Auron with an exasperated sigh, walked over and wrapped her arms around Wakka as far as they would reach. She drew him into a long, unselfconscious kiss that left him beet-red by the time Auron judged it was safe to look. He saw that she had sprouted into an attractive young woman, with braids down past her shoulders (imitating Lulu, he guessed), lean curves, and a relaxed self-assurance in striking contrast to Wakka's fragile bravado. They wore matching yellow jumpsuits of an Al Bhed style that Auron had always found ridiculous, with cutouts and straps baring so much skin that it was a wonder their wearers wasted time putting them on. Rikku's was practically a bikini. It suited her, of course. Whereas Wakka bulged. Nonetheless...
"You look well," Auron said to both of them, and meant it. A third time he picked himself up, stiff and wobbly-kneed.
"Oh for goodness' sake," Rikku said, coming forward to help him up. "Anybody else running around out there? We've already found whassername, the chocobo lady."
"I don't know," Auron said. One of the little girl's remarks suddenly clicked. "Elma. Is she alive?"
"I don' want Sir Auron in our house," Wakka said stubbornly.
"And I don't want him bumbling around in the garden like a drunken shoopuf." Rikku picked up the gun and handed it back to her husband, coaxing. "C'mon, Wakka. We can handle it. He can't make us do anything we don't want to, right? He's a big jerkfaced idiot who goes straight for trouble and doesn't have the sense to avoid a battle that's gonna get friends killed, but he's not gonna eat the kids."
He slung the strap over his shoulder, grumbling, "Maybe...but if he says one word to Yuna about—"
"Then you hit him." She patted his bicep and turned back to Auron. "So yeah. Elma's chewed up pretty bad, but I think she'll make it. Looks like she went through an ore shredder. What hit you guys, anyway?"
"Oh. Right." Rikku made a face. "Let's get you back to the house. I've got a few Al Bhed potions left, though I just used a ton of 'em."
She nudged Wakka. "You gonna be okay if I send the kids back out to finish collecting ingredients? At this rate we're gonna need 'em sooner rather than later."
He gave a grudging nod. Rikku winked at Auron, reached for Wakka's hand and set off towards the orchard.
Lagging behind, Auron watched the easy way they moved together, clasped hands swinging as Rikku trotted light-footed beside her trudging husband. Despite Wakka's fuming silence, Auron saw in them an echo of Yuna and Tidus, of Anna and Braska, perhaps even of Lulu and Chappu, whom he had never known save through Lulu's rare circumspect reminiscences. No wonder Lulu had been so reluctant to bring him here. She was still a guardian.
"Hey," Rikku said. "Lulu's not...still hanging around here, is she?"
"I doubt it."
"Phew." She squeezed Wakka's hand comfortingly. "We get the rains, but she never comes anywhere near us. At least, not since—"
"She's always been careful," Wakka said numbly.
They followed a meandering path up a huge dune covered with a thin layer of chalky soil, blue-eyed grass and a stand of slender young trees about twice Auron's height. Rikku picked a few mangoes as they passed among the trees, pressing one into Wakka's empty hand. Descending the far side, they came to a circular courtyard paved in sandstone, freshly swept. Auron guessed from a few pipes rising out of the pavement that it covered a large cistern. The lush vegetation of the oasis petered out here, but the flowering grass overflowed the orchard and spilled out into the sand.
On the far side of the courtyard was another huge dune, straddling the abrupt transition from oasis to desert. Its steep face was pierced by a thick sandstone arch, supporting a short tunnel with a door at the back. Recessed windows framed by smaller stone arches were scattered around the dune and a few adjacent humps. A crop of antennas, pipes and vents marked the buried structure as Al Bhed, but the soft green carpet of grass anchoring the roof gave the house a more welcoming feel than most Al Bhed architecture.
"Well, here we are!" Rikku said brightly. "Pretty cool, huh? We started a fad with it."
"Interesting," Auron said abstractly. He had forgotten what a human home looked like. The last one, and in fact the only one where he had spent any length of time, was Jecht's houseboat. As if stumbling across one of Jecht's old spheres, Auron remembered with a jolt the swelling pride he had felt when passing such places on Braska's pilgrimage, be it fishermen's shacks or the stilt-houses of Kilika, Macalania snow-huts or the lavish mansions of Bevelle. Homes like these had been what Braska and he intended to die for.
Wakka spoke up gruffly as their footsteps boomed across the hollow pavement. "So, Auron. Where you been, anyway?"
"For thirteen years?" Rikku said, incredulous. "Doing what?"
"Guarding the Ronso."
Looking after the survivors of Seymour's genocide had been the least Auron could do to honor Kimahri, after the Ronso exile had spent ten years selflessly fulfilling one of Auron's broken promises. Gagazet's lonely heights had given Auron a place to rest and to fight, far away from the madness of spherecams and fans petitioning him for stories, training, fiend hunting, letters of recommendation and endorsements, all the odd jobs he had used to pay for Tidus' expenses until the boy grew up. Training Ronso cubs for combat had been engrossing and time-consuming, enjoyable despite the broken bones. It had helped keep him sane.
The door opened inwards on a large oval living room, an all-purpose hub furnished with sofas, low tables and squishy chairs at one end, a kitchenette and sit-down dining area in the other. In the middle was a hot tub covered by a locked grating. Tendrils of steam curled up through the grill and added moisture to the dry air. The archway opposite the front door opened onto a hallway that hugged the walls of the living room like a belt, presumably leading to bathrooms, bedrooms and storage rooms cut like spokes into adjacent dunes.
Vidina and Yuna crowded forward and wrapped around their parents' legs, bombarding them with questions. Yuna, at least, seem delighted the "red man" was staying for now. They bounced from one piece of furniture to the next, tagging after their parents until Rikku shooed them out to collect herbs. A five-year-old boy and a four-year-old girl, Etta and Mbelu, completed Wakka and Rikku's growing family. These two seemed less interested in their visitor than in building a block city in the deep-silled oval window behind the sofa.
Rikku pressed Auron to take a potion and disappeared into the back of the house while Wakka bustled around the kitchen, keeping a sharp eye on their guest. Auron sank gratefully into a chair that resembled a shaggy brown bag. He nodded when Rikku popped her head out of the hallway to say that Elma was still unconscious, and that the "boys" were to keep out while she finished changing the woman's bandages. By the time the light meal of fruits and spiced meats was served, the Legendary Guardian was snoring.