With a Summoner as headstrong as Yuna, it's not wise to keep her waiting too long. Time for the cavalry to show up and make endearing nuisances of themselves.
In Spira, even the dead can dream...
A cool wind wind off Kilika Bay was rocking battered boats against their pilings, causing Auron's heavy coat and the leather straps of Lulu's skirt to creak faintly like stiff sails. The fur trim of her dress ruffled gently around her shoulders and breasts. Gulls wove sweet, mournful music high above in which the Hymn of the Fayth seemed to hover just out of hearing. Out of the corner of her eye, the sorceress saw a billow of blue fabric: Yuna.
The Summoner's dance was breathtaking in its beauty. She whirled with arms and fingers spread wide to taste the wind, scattering drops as her feet skipped across the water's surface, staff describing the space around Auron and Lulu with sweeping artistry. The corners of her sleeves whispered past their faces like wings as she leapt and flew. Pyreflies curled up from their clasped hands in lazy wisps. A loving smile brighter than the moon shone on Yuna's face as she circled them.
Auron and Lulu stood rooted in a different sort of orbit, like two old trees growing together. Straight and unmoving, the swordsman and sorceress faced one another on the end of Kilika's splintered dock where the broken boards fell away into the sea. The water around them was glass. A blood-red sunset set Auron's coat blazing and dyed Lulu's skin with a deep blush like light from an Al Bhed oil lamp. Around them in a wide circle on the water and the dock were gathered all of their friends. Kimahri kept watch by the torches, whose flame shifted from gold to blue as Yuna's dance continued. Tidus, slouching in the shallows, was tossing a blitzball back and forth with Wakka, who stood forlorn and marooned on the sea-weathered planks.
Lulu chafed inwardly, noting how far the boy who could not be from Zanarkand had sunk into the bay. She had meant to explain to him about the undertow. There was no time now. Anyway, this time was for Auron and for her.
"No tears, Wakka," Yuna reminded the crestfallen blitzer as she soared past.
"Ya, I know, but--" Wakka descended into an unintelligible mumble, nearly dropping the ball when it came tumbling through the middle of her graceful dance.
"Buck up, Wakka!" Tidus called, leaping out of the water with a hearty splash to snag the ball as it spun back towards him. "The new season starts soon!"
Lulu smiled wistfully. She could not remember the last time she had felt so at peace in herself, floating upon the soft lapping of the water and the homelike scent of surf and fishing nets, sun-baked wood. Auron's face filled her sky and held her gaze with the same burning intensity as the sun. She would not mind standing here forever, feeling the faint, slow pulse moving between their laced fingers, slower than it had been while they were alive. And yet--
"They'll be all right," Auron rumbled quietly. A few more pyreflies drifted up from his collar.
"I know," Lulu replied, hoping Yuna would not notice the wetness on her own cheeks. "But I wish I could have seen her to Zanarkand."
"We will. With Braska."
Yuna's dance was drawing to its conclusion, and her feet were no longer touching the ground. A swirl of pyreflies was bearing her aloft. Her staff twirled past Lulu's ear, brushing her braids and setting the beads clicking behind her. "Go on, you two," the Summoner said fondly.
Auron bent his head gravely, Lulu tipped her face upwards, and they fell together in a sweet, tentative kiss very different from their early, rougher play. Rikku's raucous cheer barely penetrated the bubble of Calm around them. Their friends began to clap and applaud. All were reduced to a faint music of forest crickets behind the stirring thrum of Auron's profound presence, the wild spill of his gray hair tickling her cheek, the citadel of his once-solid frame.
These pyreflies were growing distracting. Lulu's skin prickled with tiny searing points of flame as they fluttered away from her. Her vision began to darken and fade, and she felt her body rising upwards through his kiss into the sky. /Give us one more moment/, she pleaded silently to Yuna, but the Summoner brought her staff down with emphatic finality. Kilika vanished. Black shadow flowed over the docks, the sea, the sunset, and Auron's halved gaze, fixed and steady upon her face until the end.
Darkness bore down on her. Disoriented, Lulu found herself lying against a cold and unyielding floor. Fluttering ashes tickled her cheeks where tears had been.
I had expected the Farplane to be brighter somehow.
An after-image of Kilika's sunset seemed to cling to her eyes for a moment longer -- or had it come first? There was a flash of gentle, golden light. Petals opened like a flower, every color of dawn. A flame-colored arrow of feathers and talons and furled wings came diving down and down, plunging halfway through the hulking mass of a looming fiend with the force of a lightning stroke. Pyreflies blossomed.
Somewhere nearby, Rikku let out a lusty cheer. "Good going, Yunie!"
"You okay, Lu?" Wakka asked worriedly, fumbling for the dropped vial and setting it against her cold lips. His thatch of red hair nodded over her. "You gave us quite a scare, ya?"
The bitter taste of the Al Bhed concoction jarred Lulu fully back to wakefulness. She discovered that the stiff blanket weighing her down was Auron's coat. For that, at least, she was grateful. Potions were nothing short of magical, but she could not be certain whether the rude impress of finger-marks above and below her collar-line were all her imagination. She clutched the jacket closed and sat up with a lurch, twisting to get her bearings and search the gloom for targets. Same stone walls, same pyreflies, same wreaths of purple mist lingering in the crevices, same eerie patches of crystal pulsing in the walls: was there no end to this accursed labyrinth? Her quick scan showed three Guardians, a Summoner, and the substantial shape of an Aeon nearly filling the corridor a short distance off, but no fiends.
"We got 'em all!" Rikku crowed with a proud twirl, dancing beside her demure cousin. "Thanks to Yuna and Rikku, Legendary Heroes!"
"Hey," Tidus protested mildly, leaning on Chappu's sword on the far side of Valefor. Yuna brushed the spirit's beak fondly, then lowered her staff in a formal gesture of thanks and dismissal. The tunnel suddenly grew less crowded as the Aeon catapulted upwards and vanished from sight.
"Where is--" Lulu started to ask, but a gloved hand came up under her elbow and lifted her from the floor when she tried to stand. Auron held her arm a moment longer than necessary, then stepped back wearing his most inscrutable expression. She caught a bare hint of a whisper like a caress. "Turn around."
Swivelling in place, Lulu drew a tight breath. A dim, gray oval where no pyreflies hovered marked the entrance to the Cavern of the Stolen Fayth. Kimahri stood waiting for them with his spear bisecting the entryway, guarding the threshold between tomb and the realm of the living. The mage's eyes watered.
"We're all here, Lulu," Yuna said warmly behind her.
"Yeah," Tidus sounded tired but smug. "No thanks to the old man. He said we should stay in camp."
"As if any of us could sleep," Wakka muttered, reaching out to roll the discarded blitzball towards himself, then clambering up beside her. He was still peering at her warily, like a potter searching a dropped bowl for hairline fractures.
Auron ignored the ebb and flow of conversation, tucking his right arm against his belt as if he were still wearing his coat. "Can you travel?" he asked quietly.
Lulu's lashes dipped. At the moment, taking mental inventory was an uncomfortable process, although she was normally one of the more honest Guardians when it came to check-in after battles. She struggled for that clinical, dispassionate perspective that usually came so easily, starting with neutral spots like the back of her scalp and and her toes that had no part in her body's betrayal. Hair disordered. Feet weary. Face probably strongly overdue for a wash. Her extremities' numbness had completely vanished, or rather, it was no longer due to lightning. Her senses were dulled, her legs felt leaden, her waist felt as if someone had squeezed her with an oversized nutcracker, and the soreness between her legs was probably more imagined than real, but it still made her loathe walking. Still, she had traveled most of the way back from Yojimbo's sanctum under her own power, and it irked her that Auron would question her now.
Wakka burst in while she was honing a confident reply. "Before we go trottin' off, there's just one thing I want to know: why/?" He scowled at Sir Auron. "What were you doin' back there? Lu was almost dead. /You could've been dead, if we'd waited any longer!"
The older Guardian's gravelly laughter rolled over his interrogatives and washed them out to sea, punctuated by Tidus' predictable, "Hunh?"
"You're welcome," Auron said mildly. "Kimahri. Carry Lulu, please."
Recovering her voice, Lulu shot him a caustic glare. "I am perfectly capable of walking."
"Kimahri can walk faster," Auron said baldly. He gave her arm a light squeeze. "Rest. You've exhausted your magic. We'll need it for the mountain tomorrow."
"Wow," Rikku exclaimed,"you guys were really having fun tonight, weren't you?"
"I guess we'll hear the story later," Yuna murmured with a firmness that almost made Lulu smile, despite her weariness. "Come on, Sir Auron's right. Let's not wait for anything else to find us."
~ * ~
Despite her adamant protestations, Lulu grudgingly admitted to herself that Auron had been right, and she would have to punish him for it later. She found herself dozing intermittently as they trekked through the canyon, lulled by Kimahri's rolling stride. For a mage who lived life through the power in her fingertips, it was draining on body as well as spirit to deplete magic to the last dregs. However, that was not the only reason for her fatigue. She was secretly grateful for the rock-steady Ronso, who had served as their favorite mountain to climb for years after Yuna's arrival in Besaid. She could no more feel threatened by Kimahri's massive arms cradling her than she could by her own bed, even if she still blushed to remember his heavy paws dangling her high above the river that day she had set the tip of his tail on fire.
Once or twice along the way, the horned Guardian paused and sniffed at her curiously, making her tense the first time it happened. However, Kimahri never asked questions, a courtesy she appreciated more than ever tonight. The rest of the Guardians displayed no such reticence. Between naps, she feigned sleep and rested quietly against his shaggy shoulder while the others peppered Auron with questions that she was only too glad to avoid. Unfortunately, it was difficult to ignore being the chief topic of conversation. Perhaps it was time to demonstrate that she had not quite exhausted her fire-magic after all.
"So what's this 'errand' thing, anyway? Did Rin open a supply shop in there or something?" Rikku chirped sarcastically.
Sir Auron, at least, seemed to be enjoying himself, or Lulu was no judge of deadpans. "That is--"
"--her story, yeah, yeah, we get it," Tidus growled. "Can't you find a different way to say 'I know and you don't, so nyah'?"
"Perhaps," Yuna interjected softly, "Sir Auron is right. In Macalania, you never pressed me for reasons, you simply trusted me. I appreciated that so much. I knew I could rely on you, even if I could not explain."
"Like that worked so well," Rikku teased.
"Well, Yuna coulda tried to Send Seymour without havin' to kiss the bastard if we'd not come blunderin' in like that, ya?" Wakka admitted reluctantly. Deep thought was not his fortÃ©, but Lulu appreciated it when he made the attempt. "Or mebbe not. I donno. Yuna just didn't want us gettin' into trouble on her behalf. Even if we were her Guardians." He could not quite resist adding the fond dig at the end.
"Exactly," Auron grunted. "Lulu's errand had no bearing on Yuna's pilgrimage. Therefore she did not wish to endanger Yuna's Guardians."
"Look, Auron," Tidus said. "Why all the secrecy? She told /you/, didn't she?"
"Ummmm..." Rikku was probably scratching her cheek again.
"Just tell me one thing," Yuna stated quietly. "This is the second time Lulu's gone off alone. If it should happen again--"
/Enough/. Lulu exhaled and lifted her head from Kimahri's shoulder. She could not lie there like a limp Moogle while they prattled over her; sooner or later the anger brewing inside would erupt in an explosion that she would probably regret by morning. "Yuna," she called quietly, surprised to see firelight flickering off the cliffs ahead.
The young woman materialized immediately at Kimahri's elbow. "Lulu?"
"Put me /down/," the mage said in fond exasperation, blowing fur out of her nose. Kimahri rumbled and gently set her on her feet. A wall of house-sized boulders loomed up before them like monstrous teeth, and Lulu realized they must have reached the far end of the gorge. The faint glow of torches trickled up the canyon walls beyond the boulders. Auron, leading the way through a gap between them, checked his step with a grimace and turned, leaning casually against the rock-face. The rest of the party streamed around Lulu in a semicircle. She realized with an inner groan that Rikku was not the only one practically bouncing on her toes waiting for the mage to speak.
Lulu settled her eloquent hands on Yuna's shoulders, gazing into an earnest young face that held no shadows, despite Yevon's betrayal and a vile first kiss from an unworthy suitor. /Oh, I love you, sister not of my blood, but there are some things that your pure heart was not meant to know/. "I give you my word: it won't happen again." She took a deep breath, wishing that could be enough. No, the pang of worry in Yuna's mismatched eyes had to be soothed, and nothing less than the truth would fool her. Lulu sensed Auron's steely gaze on her as she spoke in her usual careful, measured tones. "There was a ghost from my first pilgrimage that I had to face, lest it come back to hinder us at a time not of my choosing. Sir Auron and I have dealt with it. I have no desire to explain or brood on it further. Please, accept my apology and allow me to put this behind me."
Yuna reached up to retrieve one of the ornate hairsticks that had tumbled out of the bun and tangled in Lulu's fraying braids. "Oh, Lulu, of course. I only wish--"
"I know." The older woman turned slowly, meeting the exasperated expressions of her fellow Guardians with a sphinx-like smile that betrayed no hint of inner turmoil. "But you have helped me, more than you realize. My thanks, all of you." She bowed deeply. It was a mere platitude, but for purely irrational reasons, she found that she meant it. The vision of a Kilika sunset was helping her ward off the shadows of Yojimbo's cave.
"Whoah," Wakka said, rubbing the back of his neck. "Don't overdo it, Lu. You sure you're okay? You're startin' to sound like Yuna."
"In that case, as soon as Lulu has fixed her hair, we can go to bed," Auron deadpanned behind them.
"Sir Auron!" Yuna protested. "In that case, no teasing, or I'll set your boots on fire."
"Lulu already tried once tonight," he stated truthfully.
The sorceress relaxed and joined in their light laughter with the same proficiency that had honed the Summoner's smile to a burnished shine. "Now come. I have a keen interest in investigating this 'bed' Sir Auron mentioned." She turned with a sweep of skirts over dusty grass and followed him into the sheltered campsite. It was probably for the best that their comrades had defied Auron's edict and come looking. Lulu was not certain how she could have threaded her way through the Crusaders' encampment, steeling herself to face five friends with nosy dispositions. She glided past the few sentries still on duty with head held high, ignoring their curious or furtive glances.
A cot. A mat. A pile of leaves. Any of them would do right now, and she found her feet moving faster as they approached the humble lodgings nestled in the cliffs' shadow. The circle of canvas-sided huts brought her up short as she peered more closely: for an instant she found herself transported back to Besaid.
Yuna touched her arm. "We had them prepare a hut for you. Unless you'd rather stay with me and Rikku tonight?"
Lulu smiled. "I... I need to think. But thank you, Yuna." It felt good to fall back on familiar shorthand.
"All right, then." Yuna nodded towards a smaller lodge on the opposite side of the cul-de-sac from the one Auron was heading for. "Over there. I'll stop by and have a look at you in the morning, okay?"
The words were casual, but the Guardian did not make the mistake of missing the edge of command. Lulu almost wished that Yuna had not yet begun to tap into that core of steel which the mage had detected in her years ago. Almost. "Very well. Give me a whistle--" she knew that would make Yuna smile-- "before you come in." Lulu turned back to the others, still whispering over her non-answer of a few minutes ago. "Goodnight," she appended somewhat lamely.
"'Night, Lu," Wakka mumbled, something more behind his simple words than for the rest of them.
She nodded to him, a tacit acknowledgment of that something more, and turned away before he read too much into the exchange. Trudging towards the small mushroom-shaped hut, her ears pricked as the party scattered for what remained of the night.
"I'll take first watch," Auron stated.
Kimahri, however, contradicted him with a ringing note of finality, almost of challenge. "No. Sir Auron fight all day, all evening. Kimahri take his watch tonight."
Disappointed, she ducked through the hanging fabric door, waited stoically for her eyes to adjust to the faint light filtering through the canvas walls, and moved towards the nearest cot. Alone at last. Not that she really wished to be, but she had a sinking feeling that arguing with Kimahri would be unwise.
Lulu hesitated for a long moment, carefully removing Auron's coat and holding it dumbly in her hands before deciding that he could collect it in the morning. She folded it and set it across a second pallet. Then she threw herself face-down onto the cot with a thump, fingers wrapping around the utilitarian frame with a desperation that astonished and frightened her. Her body was seized with a sudden fit of trembling. Meditation verses and scriptures scattered from her mind like a school of startled fish. She tried to wrap herself again in the bittersweet vision of union and dissolution, but Auron's face kept changing to a leering stranger's when she clung too tightly to his hands.
Don't think. Feel. Lulu felt the savagery of a ghost between her thighs, fingers too strong, and an invisible tongue sliding over every patch of skin he had defiled, so much that she longed to borrow Rikku's knives, scrape away the outer layer of her flesh, and waste a few healing potions to purify herself. The horrific memory of their ordeal kept replaying itself in her mind like a broken sphere, but now she was keenly aware of Auron's silent rage, the warrior shackled in his own body's prison as silent witness and second victim. Her hands curled into fists, but there was no target for her anger.
Are you just going to sit here, stewing in your own regrets? It was his voice in her mind, telling the mage what she usually told others. The corner of her mouth turned upwards in a humorless smile. His words did not help, and she could not stop feeling. However, as he himself had remarked, her stubbornness had taken no injury from the night's fiasco. Willing her trembling to stop, Lulu sat up, stripped -- yes, stripped; she refused to bend her routine by a single buttonhole for Yojimbo's sake -- laid her hairsticks neatly in a row beside the cot within easy reach, and burrowed down under as many sleeping furs as she could find.
After tossing and turning for a while, she snagged Auron's coat and spread it meaningfully over the top of the pile of blankets, brushing her hands across it and willing it to be a talisman against the ghost of his impostor. Finally, exhaustion performed the banishment that willpower could not, and she slipped away from echoes of a fallen Aeon into her own unquiet dreams.