From Zanarkand's outskirts to the final showdown with Sin: that, too, was no easy pilgrimage. It will take much more than singing to win overdue peace for those who earned it long ago. (Aulu-centric)
"They look like snow," Rikku said in a hushed voice, lying on her back with knees jutting towards the meandering corpse-lights.
Yuna stood with a rustle of silk and paced around the campfire, standing on tiptoe to rest her palm and cheek against the Ronso's shoulder. He placed his whetstone and spear on the ground and rumbled warmly. "Kimahri fine. Spear sharp. Rest now."
"Okay." She smiled wistfully at him and retreated, meeting Tidus' solemn look as he scrambled back down the knoll he had scaled a short while ago to survey the path ahead.
"Anyone feel like dancing?" Tidus joked, flopping to the ground. His query sank unanswered into the fire, but memories stirred...
~ * ~
The first flakes had settled on hair and numb hands for some while before anyone noticed their stealthy arrival. Huddled with their backs to a cliff and their faces warmed by Lulu's sputtering, sullen attempt at a fire, five of them made a meager meal while two kept watch. The thief and mage barred the narrow trail leading up to the ledge where they had taken refuge.
"What is this stuff?" Rikku said, stamping her feet and shivering under the shaggy cloak that the Crusaders have given her.
"Falling snow," Lulu said.
"I hate snow," Rikku said vehemently, just in case the mage had missed out on all her previous complaints. She edged closer to the woman and lowered her voice, mindful of the murmur of conversation behind them. "Oh, Lulu, I'm sorry, I really don't think I can do this. We're gonna freeze to death, just like all those folks we passed on the way up here! I don't want Yunie to die!"
"Nor do I, but she won't perish on Gagazet. Nor will you." The sorceress splayed her fingers over Rikku's face, and warmth trickled down into the girl's thin body. "Better?"
"Thanks." Rikku gave the cool woman a crooked little grin, but she was not to be deflected so easily. "Why won't you stop her? Tell her you can't go on. She'll listen to you!"
"Rikku." Lulu shook her head. "It wouldn't help. Yuna would turn back just long enough to see us safely to the Ronso village, then head back up the mountain."
"Dammit! Can't we just--"
"Is there a problem?" Auron was suddenly looming behind them, frowning into the wind.
"Rikku doesn't like snow," Lulu stated baldly.
"I see." With a shrug, he turned and stooped. Both women watched completely unsuspecting while he gathered a handful of the white stuff in his glove, fluffed it appraisingly, and stood to dump it over Lulu. Half of it cascaded off her cloak; the other half tumbled into her cleavage. Conversation ground to an abrupt halt. Five pairs of eyes turned towards the stiff-backed mage in fascinated horror and disbelief. Sir Auron just stood there.
Scowling, Lulu barely raised her hand, bringing a shower of ice and snow crashing down across the waiting swordsman's head and shoulders.
Rikku jammed the heel of her hand into her mouth, shoulders trembling with stifled giggles. The rest of the party collapsed into guffaws of laughter, Wakka and Tidus thumping each other's backs even after another stormy burst of ice crystals exploded over them. Far from dampening their spirits, that signal seemed to set off a mad free-for-all. The pair started pinwheeling their arms into the nearest snowbank. Rikku shrieked as one of the two blitzballers sent a large glob hurtling towards her. "Hey! Hey!" She retaliated swiftly, cackling as Wakka dove for cover on the far side of the fire.
"Don't you dare," Lulu muttered with a gleam in her eye when Sir Auron, standing and shielding her from further indignities, made a minute brushing motion with his hand and cocked an eyebrow at her. She nodded downwards. "I don't have to see my target, you know."
Yuna ducked out from under Kimahri's sheltering arms -- he had moved to cover her when snow started flying -- and began to spin in place, sleeves and skirts fluttering. Apparently, the giddy mood had infected even the Summoner. Face tipped heavenwards with an ethereal smile, she skipped backwards onto the lip of a curling drift, feet barely sinking at all. A few pyreflies drifted around her in greeting as flakes settled on her arms and cheeks.
Rikku scampered forward, grabbed Wakka's hands and started prancing, dragging him around the fire. Tidus, standing transfixed with a handful of snow dripping through his fingers, was nearly bowled over as he stood there gaping at Yuna. Lulu circled Auron more sedately, placed one hand on his elbow and the other on his shoulder, and drew him into the impromptu revel. They did not exactly dance -- the sorceress gliding in stately orbit, the swordsman shuffling along with most of his attention fixed past her ear as he kept watch -- but their unusual constellation was enough to draw a daring whistle from Tidus when he noticed. Flakes whirled faster. The fire hissed and guttered. Tail twitching, Kimahri stood rooted and aloof like the mountain while his human friends let the magic of its elements blot out thoughts of their errand for at least a little while.
At length, the Ronso's warning growl brought them to their senses. They parted to face a pair of four-armed monstrosities heaving themselves over the lip of the shelf with angry howls. Even then, the flurry of battle seemed like a continuation of the game. Afterwards, Rikku's exuberant victory dance spoke for all of them.
~ * ~
That was yesterday. This evening, no one was laughing. Clustered around the homey red glow of the flames with eldritch glimmers of pyreflies drifting around them, they felt like a tiny pocket of warmth, of life, of blood, in the midst of a vast plain of ghosts. Each was keenly aware of the silent comrades beside them, and of the Summoner upon whom all the hopes and sorrows of Spira rested.
"Sir Auron," Lulu interjected finally. "I think it is time that you told us something."
He stiffened. "This is not the time for stories."
"I think it is."
Yuna was still lost in reverie, but Wakka was blinking at Lulu, curious and puzzled, dimly aware that there was something he was missing. Rikku brushed her mop of hair out of her eyes and rolled onto her side, propping her cheek on her hand. Tidus raised his head and stopped fidgeting.
Lulu ignored all of them, meeting the swordsman's brittle scowl with a wan smile. "You say that dwelling on the past is pointless, but fretting on the future is just as vain. We have thought, we have debated, we have schemed. We still have no answer. We cannot find a better strategy until we enter the Dome of the Fayth and learn there what lies before us. So there is no point in worrying about it tonight, correct?"
"Will ya listen ta dat, Yuna?" Wakka said, finding a grin. "Lu says we shouldn't be thinkin' so much."
The young woman looked up and smiled one of those thin smiles that did not touch her eyes. "Really?"
Auron snorted. "What do you have in mind?"
Lulu steepled her fingers under her chin, too well-versed in jaundiced glares to be daunted by anyone else's. "Tell us about your pilgrimage. Yuna was seven, and Wakka and I heard only rumors. Tell us about Braska and Jecht. Yuna and Tidus ought to learn some of those stories locked away in that hard skull of yours, not just catch glimpses in spheres."
"Ah, sheesh. I don't wanna hear about my old man," Tidus grumbled. In spite of himself, though, he leaned forwards, wrapping his arms around his legs.
Yuna's face brightened. "Would you, Sir Auron?"
"Hmph." Only Lulu had seen his shoulders relax. A sly trick, but the taciturn warrior was more likely to loosen his tongue on this topic, having escaped a question he was even more reluctant to answer. "If our Summoner wishes it."
Tidus yawned widely and threw himself back against the bank of earth behind him. Everyone else drew closer save Kimahri, who listened impassively while scanning the shadows around them.
"I first met Lord Braska shortly after he returned to Bevelle. There was an uproar at the temple, since a Summoner had returned from his pilgrimage with a heathen on his arm..."
~ * ~
Lulu's suggestion had worked. Wakka was nodding off, Rikku had curled up in a double-jointed ball soon after Auron started, and Tidus looked like he was fading fast, gazing up at the sky glassy-eyed.
"... your father took two days at Djose, and I was starting to consider breaking down the door of the Chamber of the Fayth. But I had enough on my hands keeping Jecht from doing it. He'd been drinking at the hostel outside the temple already, and two days of waiting in the Cloister of Trials had given him little else to do. He was bellowing the Hymn of the Fayth at the top of his lungs when Braska stepped forth, and said--"
"Auron," Lulu interjected, watching Yuna open her eyes with a jerk for the fourth time, "I think our Summoner needs sleep."
The older Guardian sat back and took a sip from his jug. "I think you are right."
"But Sir Auron--"
He shook his head. "We have a long day tomorrow, Yuna."
"Sorry. You're right, of course." Yuna leaned over to drape a blanket over her cousin before arranging her own bedroll.
Wakka rolled over with a groggy snort, dimly aware of a break in the conversation. "Ya know, I still can't believe Lu didn't kill Sir Auron when he plunked her with that snowball."
"Oh, I would have, if you'd done it," Lulu replied lightly.
"Auron the troublemaker," Rikku mumbled. "And Miss Grumpy..."
"That's right," Tidus said, stalling like a child's "I'm hungry" upon being sent to bed. "There's more, too. I mean like that time... uh... anyone?"
Lulu pursed her lips, avoiding Auron's stony glance. Perhaps it was just as well that they were reaching journey's end. Yuna came to their rescue before she could craft a withering retort.
Tidus sat up quickly. "Yes?"
The Summoner winked. "I think that we should stop, maybe. For now."
"Heh. Okay." Faintly crestfallen, Tidus ducked his head. "Sleep well, Yuna."
Their fingertips touched as she stretched out gracefully beside her cousin, gifting him with a perfect smile for a lullaby.
Lulu stared at the coals, tangentially aware of the whetstone being passed around the fire, and of the strong, rhythmic motions of Auron's hands as he took his turn sharpening his blade for tomorrow's battles. One last time. She ought to take her own advice: they had already said their farewells that night in the Ronso village, and it was pointless to prolong foreboding. Nevertheless, she was still sitting and not sleeping when Yuna stirred and breathed her name. "Lulu?"
Stepping over Wakka's sprawling limbs, Lulu moved to her side at once. "What's wrong?"
"Oh, nothing." The young Summoner peeled open one eye and shot a shy glance at her. "It's just... do you remember how you used to sing the Hymn to me as a lullaby?"
"Of course." She beckoned, settling her skirts around herself with a creak and patting her thigh. "Come."
Yuna nestled down with her arms and head pillowed on Lulu's legs. "Will you wake me, please? Tidus and I can take next shift."
"All right." Lulu's eyes crinkled. "So long as you really keep watch, mind you! Kimahri needs his sleep too."
"Yes." Yuna blushed.
"Very well." The mage stroked her hair slowly and began intoning the Hymn in a low soothing alto, dusky voice matching the dreamy tempo of the pyreflies.
Tidus blinked awake and stared. "Whoah."
"Hush," said Auron.
The mage gazed with profound fondness at Yuna's stubborn face until the firmness around the young woman's eyes and lips eased into a sweet innocence that barely belonged to her anymore. Her empty hands were curled tightly even in sleep, although her staff lay beside her.
Enveloped by the Hymn's magic, Kimahri rose and leaned on his spear, muzzle swinging towards Gagazet's distant peak.
At last, Lulu, Auron and Kimahri were the only ones still awake. Lulu had just started to let the mournful mantra fade when a high, raspy tenor added itself to her song. Tears started on the mage's lowered lids, but she shook her head sharply, forcing them back. For a while they sang together, the living and the dead. When she looked up, she found Auron staring at her, the hand with the whetstone still moving mechanically although the sword's edge had probably exceeded his exacting standards some time ago.
"Kimahri needs his sleep too," she said, eyes crinkling.
Auron got up and circled around the fire to sit beside them. Lulu sighed. Yuna was her first concern, and yet: she wished she could speak openly to him, touch him, steal a few last moments together. But the words were left unsaid. Lulu simply nodded down at Yuna's peaceful face and mouthed, "good work."
"I enjoyed the singing," he said, a verbal caress that made her ache.
No, there was no point in dwelling on the past, even if it was sitting right beside you. She looked away from him with an effort, staring out across the empty landscape to a patch of darkened sky where no pyreflies danced.
Lulu did not see him lift his hand, reach for her, and let it fall. And the Ronso kept his own counsel.