Picking up the pieces.
"Knock, knock!" Rikku's voice sang out, faintly muffled through the door. "It's just me."
Yuna glanced at Lulu, who nodded minutely. "Come in!" the younger woman called.
Rikku squeezed sideways and tapped the "close" button with her elbow before the door had finished opening. "Hey," she said warmly over the mechanism's protesting stutter. "Tidus is fine, just a bullet-hole or two. He's flying the ship, but we should be safe as long he doesn't try to land. He told me to stop slathering him with smelly potions and see how Lu was doing." Her eyes twinkled.
"I'm... almost finished." Yuna was dabbing a damp cloth against Lulu's neck, where only a few faint welts remained.
Rikku nodded sagely. "Making sure Besaid's resident goddess looks as perfect as ever, eh?" She sobered at the mage's inscrutable expression, and waited a beat for the usual barbed retort. When none was forthcoming, she edged past Yuna's stool and headed for the sink, fetched a cup of water, and pressed it silently into the older woman's hands.
Lulu took the offering with care, hands still ginger from her recent ordeal. She drained the cup in small, precise sips, then passed it back with a gentle, "Thank you, Rikku."
"Mm-hmm." Rikku whisked it away, then scooted back to perch on the edge of the cot next to Lulu, wincing at the drying bloodstains on the sheets. She would have to get those cleaned while they were in Besaid. There had not been time to prepare the spare cabin for a guest, so Rikku had offered her own room for the trip back.
Lulu sat with regal composure, hands folded across her lap, while Yuna leaned close to examine her handiwork. The healer's intimate attentions might have been intrusive, had it been anyone else but Yuna. Discreetly and efficiently, she inspected the mage's skin one area at a time and treated any remaining marks with a strong healing salve. Rikku watched the procedure for a while, chin propped on her hands, then stirred with a sudden, "Oh!" Scooting forward, she dove and fished out a brush from the floor beneath the bed. Shyly she touched one of Lulu's long black tresses and raised an eyebrow. "May I?" Again, the sorceress gave a succinct nod, but she favored the girl with a wisp of a smile. Rikku grinned back and set to work. Apparently Lulu had taken a brief shower, but right now her hair looked like a prowling mass of Sinspawn trying to devour Rikku's moogle doll collection.
"There." Yuna gently drew the sorceress' robe closed and tied it. "As soon as Rikku's finished, you ought to sleep. We'll be home in a few hours."
Lulu murmured another quiet, "Thanks," and sat as still as a Summoner's statue being dusted and decked out for festival. Yuna settled back on the stool facing her. Light and dark sisters. They were accustomed to so many years of communal silence, between prayers and temple chores and the long leagues of their shared pilgrimage, that simple presence was almost an embrace.
Rikku, however, was not one to let unspoken matters simmer. "Wasn't that something?" she chattered away while she worked. She had always enjoyed chances to play with Lulu's hair, especially since the mage had seldom permitted it after the incident with the curlers. "Who'd have thought? Sir Auron still around, swooping in at the nick of time!"
Lulu's long lashes drooped. "Yes. It was good to see him again."
"I wonder why he could not come sooner," Yuna murmured, trying to keep her voice steady. "Lulu, I'm sorry. They were using you to get at me."
"Not entirely, Yuna. Either way, you mustn't blame yourself." A hint of Lulu's usual imposing scowl reasserted itself. "You carry enough on your shoulders."
"So do you." Yuna smiled fondly. "But you never lean on us."
Rikku nodded emphatically. "Yeah, what she said! You don't always have to be so... you know... tetra-grade steel! We're your friends, Lulu."
"I do appreciate that." The sorceress inhaled deeply, shifting her attention towards the porthole, beyond which the sunset was laying out a subtle fabric of lemon-yellow clouds. "What do you want me to say? I loved. I lost. Three times."
"Whoah-whoah-whoah!" Rikku waggled the brush. "Kimahri brought Vidina to Besaid! Wakka Junior is safe and sound; you'll see him soon!"
"I know." Lulu caught Yuna's eye and dropped her gaze, as if in silent apology.
Yuna leaned forward, sweeping long dark wisps out of the older woman's eyes just as Lulu used to comfort her during the challenges of her rigorous training. "Lulu, what is it?"
"'Wakka Junior.' If he were much younger, I... would not have been certain." She squeezed Yuna's hands lightly. "Understand, I do-- I did love Wakka very much. But I found it difficult to let go of Chappu." Again she paused, selecting and doling out each word with care. "Sir Auron helped."
"Hunh?" Rikku stared. "What's that supposed to mean?"
The mage started to speak, then frowned and closed her lips firmly. She extended an upturned palm towards Rikku, mutely requesting the brush.
"Oh, Lulu," Yuna breathed.
"I'd like some time to think," the woman said huskily.
"Of course." Yuna reached for her cousin's scarf and tugged. "Lulu, we'll be topside for a while, if you find you want to talk."
"Come." Yuna herded her out, giving the sorceress a wink that belied her own concern.
When they had gone, Lulu rose gracefully, crossed to the window, and stood there gazing out at the unreal aerial view of ocean which very few Yevonites had ever seen./ Sky and water: so vast, so powerful, yet so empty./ The few, spare tears that trickled down her cheeks seemed to belong to someone else, as did the hands meticulously setting her hair in order. If only it were as easy to untangle the heart.
~ * ~
"What did she mean?" Rikku jiggled from foot to foot in the narrow hallway. "Yunie?"
"I think you know." Yuna hugged her. "It's odd. I should be surprised, but I'm not, really."
"He-ey, what's going on?" Tidus stepped out of the next door down, towelling off his hair. A few bandages winked out between the webbing of his shorts and sleeves. "So how is she?"
Rikku's eyes widened in horror. She started to race for the bridge, voice rising in a squeak. "You stupid--!"
"Whoah, relax, I left us on autopilot. Brother's been giving me lessons." Tidus ignored Rikku's long-suffering, "oh, /great/," and turned towards Yuna. "So what's up? Is Lulu going to be okay?"
"I...I think so." Yuna reached for his hand, eyes darting towards Rikku's cabin. "Come, we shouldn't talk here. Outside?"
"Sure." There was a certain urgency in his amble as he headed for the lift. Rikku trotted behind them, still sputtering.
Soon they all piled out onto the upper deck, where a cold, brisk headwind was flowing over the hull. Islands inched past, clumps of shadows dropped from a great height into the flat gray sea. The sunset was deepening to rich purples and blues. Tidus snagged a blanket from a storage bin bolted next to the hatch, and they slipped around the side of the lift's turret to plunk down side by side with their backs to the bulkhead. Tidus drew the blanket over them and settled an arm around Yuna's waist, receiving an elbow-jab from Rikku sitting on the other side. He twisted around Yuna to grab playfully at her headband. "Hey, you."
"Settle down, you two." Yuna giggled tiredly.
"Whew." Rikku wiggled her toes out from under the edge of the blanket, soaking up the fading sunset with an emphatic sigh. "What a day."
"And--?" Tidus prodded.
"Oh, right. Lu's all fixed up and being fine-like-always, except I don't buy it." Rikku turned to her cousin questioningly. "Whatcha thinking, Yunie?"
"Well." Yuna's fingers stole across Tidus' hand under the blanket. "She's grieving, but she's grieved before. That's part of what makes her strong. But she's not letting us in. I wish Wakka--" She broke off, feeling Tidus stiffen beside her. "Do either of you remember how she was during those last few weeks of the pilgrimage, after we left Bevelle?"
"After we rescued you from Seymour?" Tidus snuggled a little closer.
Yuna smiled a little. "Something like that," she demured, recalling their ill-conceived plan to crash her wedding. "We were all so focused on the end of the pilgrimage -- bless you -- that I barely noticed it at the time. But the farther we went, the calmer Lulu became, even while all the rest of you were fretting more and more."
"Well, /yeah/," Rikku said, poking her. "Nobody wanted you to die! But Lulu just kept going. She never let it show. Just like Sir--" She stopped and screwed up her face. "Yunie, you can't be serious. He was /dead/. Dead the whole time, only we didn't know it!"
"I know that! I Sent him, remember?" The ex-Summoner bit her lip. "Why did he let me? Why did she?"
"Auron told me he was tired of 'playing at life,'" Tidus observed thoughtfully. "If Lulu didn't realize he was Unsent, it must've been pretty awkward. Or maybe he just thought it was time to step aside. 'This is your world now,' like he said. I donno. Did Lulu say anything about what happened between them?"
"Not exactly." Yuna smiled wistfully. "But apparently something did."
"But Yunie," Rikku grimaced. "There's no way. I mean, ew, not to be gross or anything, but if he's dead, then they couldn't have... I mean, he couldn't have..."
"My healing magic always worked on him," Yuna pointed out delicately. "Even the life spells."
"Ugh." Rikku slammed a fist on the bulkhead, growing incensed again. "But that's just... that's just wrong! Isn't that what we fought Yu Yevon to stop? To break the cycle of all those creepy dead people holding power over us?"
Yuna swallowed. "Yes. Maybe that's why he left."
"So that Lulu could live her life." None of them had seen him arrive, but abruptly Auron was standing beside them, staring off into the distance. He was almost exactly the same, down to the slow flap of his coat and the faint rattle of blue beads dangling from the jug at his hip. His glasses were firmly in place, obscuring his expression and his scars as always. Only his hair had changed, streaked now with more white than gray.
Yuna flinched. "Sir Auron!"
"Yo!" Tidus grinned crookedly and raised a hand. "Long time no see."
Rikku leaned over and tapped a boot-top suspiciously with her fingernail. "Soooo, why'd you come back then?"
"I never left," Auron answered gruffly.
"Not such an old stiff after all, eh?" Tidus whistled.
Rikku only glared. "Why'd you let her fall for you in the first place? That was really dumb!"
Auron snorted. "Lulu is a difficult woman to refuse, once she's added you to her 'list.'" He turned towards them, gazing down at his former comrades. "But it was a mistake. I have hurt her again today."
"Yeah, well. Not like you could just sit there, if you knew she was in trouble." Rikku scratched her cheek thoughtfully. "Wow. I mean, it really is cool to see you again, you know?"
Tidus frowned. "So, Auron, you've been here all this time?"
The swordsman nodded stoically.
Yuna had been staring at him in mute awe blended with compassion. "S-Sir Auron?" she prodded.
"Yuna," he said quietly. "I need your wisdom. Lulu is strong. Will she heal? Can she leave the past in the past, where it belongs?"
"I'm probably the wrong person to ask." Yuna admitted. Her voice quavered with tender conviction. "We never really forget the dreams that have faded."
Auron waited patiently while Tidus seized her chin and drew her close for a fierce kiss. Rikku rolled her eyes and scooted away from them, giving Auron a beseeching look. The older Guardian, however, seemed to be smiling faintly behind his collar. Pouting, Rikku stood up and made a show of brushing herself off. "Okay. That's it. I'm leaving. I'm sure you three have tons to talk about." She gave Tidus' knee a light kick. "So, um, Auron, see ya around, maybe?"
"Perhaps," the swordsman replied noncommittally.
"We'd better." Rikku leapt over Tidus' casual swipe and scampered for the elevator.
"Well," Yuna said after an embarrassed pause, recollecting her thoughts. "Lulu, she... she will live for her son. But that's really all she's done since Wakka passed."
"Like Mom," Tidus put in, suddenly much more subdued.
"I see." Auron grimaced. "How is the boy?"
"Oh, Vidina!" Yuna's face lit up. "He's so sweet. You'd hardly believe he was Lulu's. That is -- oh, you know what she's like. Vidina's so sunny, all smiles, as if every day were the perfect Calm just like in the old stories. He's had a scare, now, but Lulu's coming back, so hopefully he won't be too badly shaken." She shook her head. "He doesn't remember Wakka much, unfortunately."
"You know," Tidus put in, "you were a pain in the neck sometimes, old man, but you didn't do too bad a job looking after me."
"Hmph," Auron grunted. "You say that now."
"Heh." The blitzer leaned back, drumming his fingers against the deck. "Well, now that you've gone and blown your cover, why not stick around for a while?"
"It is," Auron said warily, "difficult."
"You're still here, aren't you?" Tidus grinned. "That makes two of us."
Auron gazed down at him impassively. "Yes and no. You were from Zanarkand, the city that lingered for a thousand years. You were sustained by the dreams of the Fayth, by the dreams of your father, Sin, and by the dreams of your friends. That dream never died. Whereas I am... only an echo."
Yuna winced. She felt an aching sympathy for the man, and for her part it was a quiet joy to see him again, a reassuring image from her childhood and a close friend of her father. But he was dangerously more than an image, and less than alive. Would his presence help or harm?
Tidus slapped his knee. "Hey, wait. Auron, you were touched by Sin too, right? And you were part of Zanarkand, right? You lived there ten years. Your hair even went gray. Is that normal for an Unsent?"
The swordsman touched his forelock, nonplussed. "I... do not know."
"Do you love her?" Surely his lingering was answer enough, but Yuna wanted to hear him say it.
This was Auron, however. He kept staring into the distance.
"I heard you helping me," she said finally, before the silence could grow too awkward, "during that battle against Vegnagun. Thank you."
Auron nodded. "I'm very proud of you, Yuna. So are your parents."
Tears started in her eyes. "You speak to them?"
"Once in a while." Noting Tidus' sudden keen interest, he added drily, "Jecht likes your ship."
The young man ducked his head, eyes bright. "Cool," he said, a little embarrassed. "He's still a jerk."
Yuna reached for her necklace, a smaller version of the Abes' symbol that she had worn for a few years until she returned to more modest fashions. "I think..." She blanched, pinned by the sheer intensity of Auron's sudden scrutiny. "I think that some power in you, Sir Auron -- or maybe also from outside of you -- is refusing to let go of what you were. Rage, grief, envy, greed, hate: those are the usual reasons that a Sending fails. That is why it was so hard to dismiss Lady Ginnem, Lord Jyscal, and Maester Seymour. As for love, I don't know. The Sending ritual is specifically designed to loosen love's bond enough that the living and dead can accept being sundered. When it fails, the Unsent becomes a Fiend. I don't know why you haven't. But then, I don't know why Tidus is still here."
Auron stirred restlessly. "I just want to know what is best for her."
Tidus shook his and muttered, "What's there to wonder about?"
Torn, Yuna was still mulling it over when she suddenly noticed a mechanical hum and realized that the lift was coming up from below. Inexorably, the hatch cover retracted with a hiss. An erect figure robed in white stepped out onto the hull facing away from them. "Yuna's not here," the mage said wearily. "This had better not be a prank, Rikku."
Auron stiffened. Yuna covered her mouth with one hand and clutched rapidly at his coat, whispering, "Stay!"
The sorceress turned at the sound. Yuna had to fight back tears as she watched the rare blaze of raw emotion sweep across the woman's face. Anger, wonder, terror...
Lulu hurtled towards him in three quick strides, throwing her arms around him as if trying to capture a dream in the last moment before waking. Auron's form did not turn to water or dissolve. He bent his head and met her kiss with all the force of an Aeon plummeting from the sky. Yuna and Tidus shared a poignant glance.
"Pssst!" Rikku, peeking around the doorframe, beckoned frantically, barely able to contain herself. Grinning, Tidus scooped up the blanket, and he and Yuna discreetly stood and stole around the other way, whereupon Rikku seized both of them and yanked them into the lift. "Ha!" she crowed, as soon as they began to descend. "Am I good, or what? Stupid old grouch probably would've gone 'poof' again. Good work keeping him distracted!" Rikku and Tidus exchanged a gleeful high five.
"Oh, Rikku," Yuna chided fondly. Her eyes were still watering.
"What?" The Al Bhed peered at her with sudden suspicion. "/Vilg/. You're not going to have to Send him again, are you?"
Yuna shook her head emphatically. "Don't worry. I'd sooner face Yu Yevon and Vegnagun both at once than rouse the wrath of Lulu and Sir Auron."