It might not have been Sin, but the dark, humid, murky cabin where Lulu found herself when she came groggily awake felt like the constricting maw of some vast sea creature. Her drug-hazed senses dimly registered the suffocating weight of water pressing in on the hull from all sides, adding to the queasy freefall vibration of the deck. Chilled, soaked, and nursing several bruises whose origin she could not recall, the mage surveyed her surroundings through slitted eyes, sizing up dismal odds.
Metal fetters held her hands clipped behind her to a rectangular air duct. Rivets were digging into her back. The irregular room around her was crammed with bulkheads, consoles, and panels whose unshielded wiring and mismatched materials suggested a far more makeshift craft than the Jecht or /Celsius/. Her senses were nearly overwhelmed by the stomach-churning odors of sweat, rubber, and engine oil mingled with the sedative and ship's motion.
Gradually Lulu sorted out what she was seeing. The crew, reduced to mere silhouettes by the meager lighting of a few blue ceiling panels and the glow of the ship's controls, were a ragtag bunch from all over Spira, decked in patched warrior monks' uniforms, Al Bhed jumpsuits, or the baggy trousers and suspenders of islanders. One erect figure standing behind the sailors hunched over their consoles even bore the spiked tonsure of a Guado. His slow drawl snapped her sluggish thoughts back to icy clarity:
"Prepare to fire."
"Wait." Her voice was a faint croak, but apparently the silence serum was starting to wear off. Sinking into the ocean's depths and suffocating on the stench of her incinerated victims was not how she had planned to end this voyage, but at least there were a few dear souls already waiting for her on the far shore. Numbly Lulu struggled to find the embers of /firaga/.
One of the crew, a green-eyed woman with Al Bhed tattoos on her cheeks, hopped up and hurried over, drawing a knife. "One spell," the woman snapped, "One word of incantation, and we slit your vocal chords. Understood?"
Lulu clenched her teeth as the blade was set against her skin. "You said you'd--"
Her assailant snorted. "We lied. Don't waste your breath."
"Destroy that ship, and you're no closer to finding Yuna." The sorceress struggled to speak quickly and clearly.
"Hold." The captain turned towards her, clasping his long hands over his chest and addressing her with an unctuous bow. "Lady Lulu, I beg your pardon; there has not been time for introductions. Perhaps later. But why in Spira do you think we care about the High Summoner? It's you we want."
Feeling like a traitor, although she knew that Yuna would urge her to use any means necessary to protect others, the mage spoke haughtily. "Not likely. I do not know your game, but Yuna is far more likely to come looking for me if you leave eyewitnesses."
"Hmmmmm." The captain exchanged a calculating glance with the woman holding the knife, and Lulu allowed herself a small glimmer of hope that she had guessed correctly. "You are too modest, milady. Your powers will add considerable authenticity to our humble operation."
"Unless you cut my throat." Her nails scraped metal as she tested the straps pinning her arms. "And that's exactly what you'll have to do. My husband went down on the /Winno/. Innocent lives are the only reason I can think of for sparing yours. Kill them and die."
"Oh, very well." The captain gestured to one of the sailors huddled testily over his controls. "Set course for Baaj." He flicked a hand back towards the Al Bhed guard. "Silence her."
Faster than Lulu could spit out a spell, the blond woman reversed the knife and scored her throat with lizards' teeth set in the pommel. The mage gagged mutely. Not again! Gesture, sound: she needed so little to be lethal, but without them she was as powerless as an abandoned doll. Still, she refused to allow enemies to see a glimpse of her panic. Vidina and Kimahri were safe: let that be a talisman against unbecoming fear. Squeezing her eyes shut to block out curious stares and smirks, the mage wrestled with nausea and strained her ears to sift the crew's muttered conversations for any scrap of information.
She was boxed in for now. But every Cloister of Trials must have an exit.
Sun on bare skin, wind in streaming hair, the gentle purr of the ship's hull beneath one's shoulderblades -- could life possibly be more perfect? Except, of course, for the maddening, steady plunk of a blitzball slamming into the nearby bulkhead. Luckily, Yuna could put up with almost any amount of Tidus' fidgeting. Lulu had declared some time ago that it was a good thing that he had married a saint. A pity that poor Wakka...
"Hey," Yuna interrupted her own thoughts, opening her eyes and squinting against the sun's glare. "C'mere."
After a few more surreptitious bounces -- the Tidus Mark III shot was stubbornly eluding his finishing touches -- Tidus tossed the ball in its hamper and jogged over. "Yo. Did I wake you?"
She stretched, hooked a thumb over the waistband of his shorts and pulled herself upright, smiling at the agreeable sight of his bare torso gleaming with perspiration. "Oh, no. It's just too beautiful an afternoon to fritter away with blitzball."
"Heh," he murmured, noticing her frank inspection, so different from the shy Summoner of six years ago. Nowadays, he tended to be the one who blushed. "Maybe you're right." The comfortable fit of his arm around her waist reminded her that yes, life could be even better.
Yuna melted him with that angel's smile and leaned close, letting his earnest blue eyes fill her sky. "I'm always ri--"
"Tidus! Yunie! Report to the bridge pronto!" Rikku's voice shrilled over the intercom.
Tidus groaned and slammed a fist into the deck-plate. "How does she know/?" he grumbled. "How does she /always know?"
"Hidden commsphere on the forward gun array?" Yuna would not put it past her cousin. However, she had not missed the urgent edge to Rikku's summons, and broke away from Tidus' stubborn kisses with a reluctant sigh. "Come on. Rikku sounds worried." She scooped up her tank top and hurried towards the main hatch, smiling a little at Tidus' grumbling at her heels.
~ * ~
"Thank you, Kimahri. We'll meet you back in Besaid." Almost, almost, her friends were taken in by Yuna's serene confidence. Any eavesdropper who had missed the beginning of the conversation might suppose that they were merely planning a casual beach get-together.
"Yuna and friends be careful." Kimahri's stern growl blasted the transmission with static.
"Don't worry about us!" Tidus brandished his familiar fist-pump. "They're the ones who need to be worrying."
"Tell Wakka Jr. his mum's gonna be okay," Rikku chimed in, uncharacteristically subdued. "We'll find her. Tell him Auntie Rikku said so, you hear?"
"Will tell. Guard Yuna," he added gruffly.
"Yep!" The Al Bhed perked up. "We'll do that!"
"Kimahri!" Yuna protested. But this was no time for idle quibbling. "We'll send word as soon as we find anything. Jecht out."
As soon as the Ronso's image vanished from the forward screen, Yuna turned towards her cousin briskly. "Rikku. Look up the ferry's route. We'll start scanning there. Tidus..."
"Break out the hunting supplies, right." He hesitated, touching her shoulder. "Hey. You okay?"
Yuna lowered her eyes, fidgeting with her necklace. "I just wish there were time for the Gullwings to rendezvous with us. Paine will be sorry to miss the fireworks."
Tidus' brows crinkled in concern. "Yeah, well, this will be like old times, eh? Just Lady Yuna and her trusty Guardians."
The High Summoner mustered a scowl worthy of Lulu herself. "Get going."
He gave her shoulder a firm squeeze, then headed for the lift.
Sagging, Yuna braced her hands on the back of the pilot's chair as Rikku folded herself into the front seat of the cramped cockpit. Rikku's lithe fingers danced over the controls. "We're on our way," she announced unnecessarily when the ship lurched into motion. Still intent on the columns of green Al Bhed characters scrolling across her monitor, she exclaimed angrily, "Who the heck are these guys? Making a ship up to look like Sin? That's pretty overboard for pirates!"
"I...don't know." Yuna stared past Rikku's crest of hair to the maddeningly tranquil blue sky beyond the windows, struck by an eerie feeling of deja vÃº. This must have been what her Guardians felt like all those years ago, when Seymour's goons snatched her from Home. Her hands itched for her guns, and targets.
"Betcha they're the same bastards that got Wakka and the Aurochs," Rikku guessed darkly. "We'll scrag 'em. Nobody messes with High Summoner Yunie's friends. Nobody."
"You're right." She wished the Jecht had the same weaponry as Cid's old airship, but once they reached Lulu, firepower should not be a problem. "I just hope she realizes we're coming."
Rikku squirmed around in her chair and rested her cheek on Yuna's fingers. "She'll be spittin' mad, but she'll be okay. Try not to fret. As long as she's got Vidina waitin' for her, Lu won't do anythin' stupid."
"True." Yuna exhaled briskly and straightened. "All right. I'd better collect ammo. Want me to put your kit together?"
"Nah, I'll come down soon as I've got our search path programmed. You and Sir Doofus stay out of my stuff; I don't want any more explosions."
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