Lulu's wrists grated like mismatched gears, and the teeth of pain gnawing at them were worse than anything she could remember. Clearly, she had grown soft since her pilgrimage days. She was no longer chained to the bars, but sometime between the time when she had fallen unconscious during their tiresome games and now --
Lulu felt it as soon as she tried to clench her fists. The bastards had broken her hands. She tried to keep her breathing quiet and eyes closed, despite the overwhelming urge to see whether her tormentors had gone.
Fortune, as usual, was doing her no favors. "I didn't think she'd lost that much blood." That was the warrior monk, sounding petulant.
The other voice belonged to the Al Bhed woman who was unpleasantly adept with a knife. "So? She's a mage. All fire and pyrotechnics, helpless as a baby without her magic."
"Hunh. Guess you're right. Chief's so scared of her. I wonder if she's really as bad as all that." He sighed wistfully. "Just have a look at those gonzagas. I really should've--"
"We're nearly back to base, sir."
There was a grunt. "Right. Fetch me one of those vials."
Lulu clenched her hands, and her breath caught between her teeth. Bad move. The pain was making it difficult to focus. Worse, they had heard her.
"Damn, the bitch is awake!"
There was a clank, and her chief tormentor stepped into the cell. She opened her eyes and was gratified to see the man's leer falter slightly at the blistering fury behind her gaze. But she was pinned in here, and they knew it. That did not stop her from trying.
Her frenzied leap caught him unprepared, knocking him down and sending him tumbling into the woman gaping behind him. There was a crunch of metal and glass as the medical kit went flying. Kicking, snarling, all but oblivious to the shooting agony when her fingers drove into spiralled green eyes, Lulu lunged for the corridor. As she scrabbled desperately to clamber over them, gauntleted hands clamped around her ankle. The butt of a gun cracking against her scalp made the struggle a brief one.
~ * ~
Yuna, Tidus, and Rikku stole through the harbor with barely a splash. Swimming made it difficult to see much above the embankments, piers, and ruined walls jutting out of the water, but they were far less likely to be spotted by the handful of sentries stationed around the mansion and along the wharves. Painstakingly, carefully, stroke by stroke, the trio swam from broken pillar to submerged rooftop to natural outcrop, using any cover available to climb out and scout. In addition to the main house, the raiders had erected several warehouses and outbuildings enough to house and feed a small army.
Rikku crept up the remains of an old spiral staircase with a bit of broken balustrade left hanging to take some readings while Tidus and Yuna waited below. After a few moments, she pitched a pebble down with a soft plunk. At her signal they climbed up after her, pressing themselves against the stones and peering over the lip of the none-too-sturdy-looking floor where she lay flattened on her stomach.
"What's up?" Tidus murmured, balancing Chappu's sword across his back to keep it from clanging against the steps.
"I'm just checking the depth," she whispered back, keying something into the small sphere she was carrying. "It's hard to see, but look." She traced a finger in the air. "They've left most of the ruins clogging up the harbor, and only cleared out a passage wide enough for their ship to navigate. Good way to keep out intruders. Over there's the dock. It looks like the Sin-ship will pass right by that bit yonder, the tower with the broken dome." She cocked her head. "Think we can lay low on that for a while?"
"Hunh?" Tidus was eloquent as ever. "But we still need to find a way into the house." He squinted over at the mansion, new walls gleaming a pale pink in the sunset in contrast to the dark brown stone of the older parts of the building. A group of men had exited one of the nearest warehouses and were rolling out low, wide carts on heavy drum-shaped wheels, taking up positions along the dock. "Looks like they're starting to get ready, too."
"Yeah, but listen. If we wait for them to take her inside, we'll still have to sneak in somehow, and the chances of finding her before they find us..." Rikku spread her hands glumly. "We might not even be able to see which building they stick her in. But what if we sneak aboard their vessel before it lands, and grab Lu as soon as they bring her out?"
Yuna gazed down at the flat, golden water lapping gently below. "You're sure the ship will be above water?"
"Pretty sure." Rikku chewed her lip. "If not, we can just wait for it to pass, then fall back on Operation Jailbreak, right?"
"Hee-eeey." Tidus flashed a thumb's up. "Sounds like a plan."
"Some of the crew may be on deck to dock," Yuna reminded them.
"Then we cut 'em down!" Tidus said fiercely. "It's gonna come down to a fight, no matter what."
"Right, but let's try not to give ourselves away before we see her." Yuna nudged her cousin gently. "Rikku, did you remember to set the autopilot?"
The Al Bhed groaned. "/Yes/, Yunie. I promise. We'll have to hold off these goons for about two minutes once I send the recall signal."
"All right." Yuna smiled reassuringly, then cleared her throat. "Um. One... other thing."
Two pairs of eyes turned towards her, knowing that uneasy tone all too well.
She smiled a little at their stubborn expressions; usually at this point they would be mustering reasoned arguments to dissuade her from whatever self-endangering scheme she had in mind. "They may threaten Lulu before we reach her. Just remember. I don't want them to hurt her, but I can heal her, as long as she's still in one piece. Our goal is to bring her back, however we can."
"Oh, Yunie." Rikku breathed out. "Yeah."
Tidus slipped an arm behind Yuna's back, and she allowed herself to rest her head on his shoulder briefly. "C'mon," he said quietly. "We'd better get moving."
~ * ~
When she awoke, Lulu found the manacles were back in place. The pressure of the metal cuffs against shattered bones was enough to drive out every coherent thought. There was only one guard left, the warrior monk whom Burrell had left in charge, but he was in the cell with her. His left hand was in his pants. His right gripped the bayonet unclipped from his rifle.
"Good news," he sneered. "We're docking now, and HQ reports a small airship in the vicinity. Your friends are on their way. The chief says you need to stay down here until we've had a chance to welcome them. In the meantime, I feel like celebrating, don't you?" He stepped forward and seized her by the hair.
Hovering on wings of pain, Lulu felt detached, indifferent. Outside of this cell, only one man could have done that and survived, and he was a faded memory. On the whole, she wished very much that she were with him right now. Was it wrong to miss him too?
Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed the sparkle of broken glass and a shattered knob of wires and metal. There: a door. She thought of her son waiting for her in Besaid. But her friends were flying into an ambush for her sake. She yearned to hope. She almost trusted Yuna's aptitude for miracles, but the mage herself had tasted death and failure so many times. Whose luck would prevail? It was unthinkable that she might lose Yuna as well.
Hands yanked at the front of her corset. "How does this thing come off, anyway?" The guard twisted her around roughly against her fetters, nearly causing her to black out again, and started sawing at the laces.
The deck suddenly trembled underfoot, signalling their arrival. Lulu gritted her teeth. She prayed that Yuna would realize what had happened, hoped that the explosion would be clearly visible from the surface. Surely if the ship sank, her friends would unravel the omen. "My...little...secret..." she hissed. She tried to blot out the man's grunting breath on the back of her neck. One lace snapped, and then the next. The sorceress smirked, feeling the trickle of power flowing back into her fingers like blood into a frostbitten limb. Her gown began to slip down as her inner mantra of loathing, agony, loss and bitter disappointment mounted higher. Her parents. Chappu. Ginnem. Yevon's betrayal. Auron. Wakka. Her son's tears.
It was time.
I am going to see you again, if it's the last thing I do. And it will be. She closed her right hand into a fist, bracing herself against the pain.
~ * ~
Tidus snorted. "Oh, gimme a break. That thing doesn't look anything like Sin."
Yuna giggled halfheartedly, watching the misshapen craft slithering in their direction between pilings and submerged rubble. Its hull had been painted a mottled gray, with numerous vents and gunports capped by bulbous, irregular domes and protrusions. Many of them had barnacles and plants growing on them, while others were painted to look like huge eyes. A large boom or gantry running the length of the top deck, turned sideways and folded flat, had been decorated to resemble an enormous fin, its sides irregular and its surface pocked with a bank of round openings sealed by iris-like hatches.
"Where's the exit?" Rikku grumbled. "I can't tell what I'm looking at!"
"Get ready," Yuna whispered back. "We'll aim for the back of the ship. Aft of that fin, see it? There's some sort of cabin, but there's no windows. Let's hide behind that."
They huddled close. Hands piled one above the other in a firm three-way clasp. Then they inched up the dome on their bellies, fingers slipping on ancient tiles. The ship chugged ponderously towards them. They could hear voices drifting across the water from the shore, but so far, no one seem to have spotted the three figures plastered across the top of the sunken tower like seals.
"Now!" Yuna whispered fiercely.
They leapt together. Rikku landed awkwardly across a hatch, rolled and yelped. Tidus reached out to steady Yuna, wobbling dangerously on the curved edge of the hull. "Rikku!" she hissed.
"Sorry," the girl shot back, ducking down. All three crouched low. Tidus peered warily over the top of the huge fin and along its length, peering towards the waterfront. "I don't think they heard us."
"Whoah," Rikku said with grudging respect as they crept behind the cabin-like structure on the rear deck. "It's like a giant crane. This is the housing for the hydraulics. Keep alert in case it starts moving."
Right on cue, with a vast shuddering groan, the boom began to rise. The trio scrambled backwards as the fin lifted laboriously into the sky. When it was fully erect, it began to pivot around its base. There was another quivering rumble, and the water ahead of the bow frothed furiously as the vessel decelerated. Gradually, the fin came down again, now jutting out ninety degrees to the deck. The ship coasted in alongside the dock and ground to a halt with a hollow boom. The fin slammed onto the dock a few seconds later, forming a bridge to shore. Ground crew began to swarm aboard, laying down metal plates across the irregularly-shaped gangway and heading for a large hatch that had been hidden beneath it.
"There's the door," Rikku whispered.
Yuna twisted the caps off the her guns and glanced down, checking for seepage. "Get ready."
They waited. Sailors began to spill from the vessel's maw. With growing impatience, they monitored the crew unloading crates, racks of gray suits and weapons, heavy chests and other more old-fashioned containers that appeared to have been seized from the ships they had plundered. Every time a new figure emerged from the ship's interior, the silent observers tensed, but there was still no sign of Lulu.
Rikku grimaced at the handful of Al Bhed working alongside the others. "What are those losers doing here?"
"What about him?" Tidus nodded towards a spikey-haired figure who seemed to be in charge.
Yuna edged up a tiny bit, trying to overhear what the Guado was saying. Was it wishful thinking, or had she caught the word "prisoner"?
"Hey!" One of the sailors suddenly pointed. Heads swung in their direction.
"Guards!" the Guado bellowed at once. "Intruders on deck! Seize them immediately!"
"/Vilg/," Rikku stated succinctly, reaching for a grenade.
A cluster of sailors surged towards the stern, some brandishing blades, others machina weapons. The more alert sentries onshore raced for the gangway, waving and calling for backup. Other crew members swore and dove for cover as Yuna coolly opened fire.
"Yaaaa!" Tidus leapt up to shield Yuna and Rikku as the foremost guards barrelled around both sides of the cabin. Brotherhood was as thirsty as ever, flashing like a fish and gleaming in its own light. Cries and blood flew as the young swordsman spun and sliced. He grinned wickedly at the shocked expressions of his foes who always seemed one step behind him. Yuna's blanketing fire was keeping most of those with ranged weapons pinned at the far end of the ship. Neither she nor Tidus missed a beat in their carnage when a sudden explosion engulfed the entire forward deck, scattering shrapnel. Smoke and flames billowed out of the main hatch. Rikku bounced up with a ragged whoop and joined Tidus in mayhem, drawing her knives and dancing into the fray.
"Rikku!" Yuna called. "The gangway! Blow it up!"
"Roger that! Cover me!" The thief dodged in a crazy, drunken jig that threatened to send her tumbling into the brink as she sought to clear enough space around her for an unobstructed cast.
"High Summoner Yuna!" A loudspeaker fixed upon the dock crackled to life. "We are holding the sorceress Lulu. Surrender at once, or she will be killed."
Rikku froze in the act of sheathing her knives and palming another grenade. "Yunie?"
"Recall signal," the gunner replied determinedly. "Hurry."
The deck suddenly gave a violent heave, throwing most of their foes off their feet. Several were pitched overboard. "What the--?" Tidus gasped, hurled to his knees by the concussion. The metal plates a few yards away were bulging upward, and tendrils of smoke and steam were issuing from the seams.
"Rikku!" Yuna cried. Her cousin was nowhere in sight. A wail from the water below confirmed her second-worst fear.
One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Yuna scanned the bevy of rifle muzzles pointed at her and Tidus, and calculated that there was exactly one too many.
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