In fact, it was well after dawn before a curiously shrill sound cut through the canvas walls of the lodge.
Auron woke at once and glanced down, contemplating a view more alien to him than the unworldly Aeons in all their glory. Monastic life had certainly not prepared him for it. Hesitant wonder smoothed his stern features into a relaxed smile that would have astonished his comrades. Then again, the rest of the party would have been flabbergasted to discover the mage and warrior dozing peacefully in each other's embrace. Lulu's wan cheek rested in the hollow of his breastbone near his heart, her raven hair spilling over his chest. Even in sleep, she was clutching his hand like a talisman. The sight of her white shoulder peeking out from under his coat hit Auron in the gut, and he wondered whether he should have been so quick to dismiss Wakka's and Tidus' ongoing debate whether the sorceress dressed that way to boost their morale or torment them.
Spectating would have to wait. Yuna had begun calling Lulu's name. Auron cautiously loosened his arm that had stolen around her waist while he slept. The mage groaned and blinked awake groggily, chasing his fleeting kiss as he gently rolled her onto her side and slid out from under the blankets. It proved less easy to separate their hands wedded together.
"Lulu!" The rising urgency in the Summoner's voice gave a few seconds' warning. Auron sat up, swung an arm out to right the overturned cot, and met Lulu's open-mouthed alarm with a wry smile and a shrug. A triangle of gray light splashed across him. Yuna stepped inside, let the curtain-door drop, and pulled up short with a gasp.
"Good morning, Yuna," Lulu said pleasantly, sounding a little fuzzy. Her back was to the door, but she could see the faint twinkle in Auron's eye.
"Um," the young woman said eloquently, giving Sir Auron a hard look. Her cheeks colored slightly.
"She had my coat," he stated, unruffled. "And nightmares. Apparently our expedition yesterday was more difficult than Lulu cared to admit."
"Remember that the next time you tackle a Tonberry and leave me to finish the job," Lulu growled, struggling to collect herself. She released his hand with a pat. "Now go. I appreciated the company, but I will not appreciate our comrades' gossip if they start jumping to conclusions."
Sir Auron arched an eyebrow at the Summoner, who was still standing agape just inside the door. "You have a point." Unhurried as ever, he reached for his breastplate.
Yuna covered her mouth with a startled laugh. "Oh! I'm sorry, I thought maybe I was...intruding." She moved towards Lulu, blushing fiercely.
With an amused snort, the older Guardian drew his armor around himself and began flipping the clasps shut along the seam. "Lulu. Remember what I said," he added gruffly. "Forget past pilgrimages. Yuna will finish what she starts. We'll see her to Zanarkand." He leaned towards the mage to tug his coat back over her exposed shoulder. The careless brush of his hand against her cheek conveyed a separate, private message. Giving Yuna a curt nod, Auron straightened and strode out.
Lulu waited for the sound of the tent-flap, then sat up, clutching the blankets around herself with head bowed. "Is he gone?"
"Yes." Yuna slipped over to her, curious and tentative. "That was... strange." She brushed her fingertips across the scuffed red fabric. "He still forgot his coat. Do you think Sir Auron could be a little afraid of you, Lulu?"
The mage gave a ragged chuckle. "Somehow I doubt it." A weak smile danced across her lips as she recalled his clenched jaw and muscled torso arched beneath her while she licked his skin with molten lines of magical heat. Well, maybe a little. Shaking her head, she leaned over to retrieve her dress, inspecting it for damage. The torn sleeve and dry, cracked leather around several buckles were not too noticeable, but they offended her sense of order. Unfortunately there was no time for mending. With a sigh, Lulu started to draw the garment over her head, but was checked by Yuna's surprisingly firm grip on her elbow.
"Wait." The younger woman gave one of her determined smiles. "Let me have a look at you, Lulu. 'Sound Guardians keep a Summoner safe', remember?"
"Oh. Very well." Lulu gathered her dress into her lap, praying that potions had healed the finger-marks enough to disguise their origins. "I suppose I can't protest after making Wakka let you tend that burn." Yuna's soft giggle was comfortingly familiar.
The mage sat with head bowed, listening to the faint twitterings of swallows in the canyon outside. The sides of the lodge creaked and billowed softly like sails set in a breeze too weak for travel. Muffled by canvas, the subdued murmur of morning conversation from people moving outside rustled in the chill air, but she could not pick out one voice among the rest. Lulu's lids began to droop as Yuna circled her, peering at the scabbed-over lacerations on her arm and hip.
"Hey. You still with me, Lulu? Maybe I should've let you sleep in."
"Certainly not. I've already held us up more than enough," Lulu said crisply, coming back to herself.
"It's all right." Yuna dropped to her knees facing the Guardian and met her gaze with subtle concern. "Sir Auron said... you were having bad dreams about the pilgrimage?"
"And a few good ones." Bless her, Yuna was asking about more than nightmares, but so discreetly that Lulu could pretend not to have noticed. The mage set her hands on the girl's shoulders and smiled thinly. "Let's just say that this place brings back powerful memories, for good or ill. But Sir Auron is right. Every pilgrimage is different. You find trouble, Yuna, but you always find your way out again, even when Yevon itself confounds us. Your father would be very proud of you."
Yuna blushed again. There was a brief silence while the Summoner mustered her own tingling strain of magic, so very different from the dark mage's harsh slaps of power. The young woman drew her palm down slowly before the mage's eyes in a gesture reminiscent of banishing, and Lulu felt the toxic ache of unseen bruises drain downwards into the soil. Potions were all very well, but love given by a Summoner, whether to a single friend or the whole of Spira, had the power to overwhelm Sin itself, let alone mend a few minor bumps and scratches. Even wounds that an innocent heart could scarcely fathom were touched by that gentle nurturing. Lulu's hands twisted around the straps of her dress as her friend's fingers hovered unknowingly on either side of her waist, washing her through and through with invisible currents the texture of pure moonlight. The jangling wrongness was still there, coiling and twitching somewhere deep inside like worms in the stomach, but a friend's touch surely had more claim on one's flesh than a stranger's fleeting violation.
Suddenly, Lulu's spare words spoken to keep Yuna distracted seemed inadequate. "As am I," the Guardian added fiercely.
"Thank you, Lulu," Yuna said shyly, ducking her eyes with that sweet moon-smile that caused so many to underestimate her. Then she gave another tinkling laugh. "Okay! You'd better get dressed before anyone else stops by. Poor Tidus."
Lulu smirked faintly. "I'm sorry, Yuna, but he should have knocked." The leather felt soft and comforting against her skin as she threw the garment over her head slid into the black sheath of her gown.
"I cannot believe you let Sir Auron stay." Yuna scooted around behind the sorceress to lace her in while she started brushing out her unkempt mane. "Oh, Lulu, how can you stand all that hair? Maybe I should call Rikku for backup; she'd probably enjoy seeing you with pillow-hair anyway."
"Excuse me?" Lulu frowned. "Why would Rikku want to see me looking like a Guado?"
Yuna chuckled. "Well, you usually look immaculate, no matter what we run into. And you're so /grown up/, as she puts it. Would you believe that my cousin is jealous?"
"Oh." Lulu shrugged and kept brushing. "Give her three more years, and she'll have all the males on Spira wriggling at her feet. That should make her happy."
"Hey." Yuna gave the cord a firm yank. "Rikku's my cousin, remember?"
The sorceress chuckled. "Sorry." Honestly, she was in no mood for idle chatter, but she was keenly aware of how few of these mornings they had left. So many precious moments had unfolded during their dawn ritual between prayers and breakfast, before Wakka and Chappu came bursting out of their hut to tease the girls or turn temple chores into a noisy game. In her mind's eye, Lulu could see the piers of the temple tinted pink by sunrise while Yuna clung to her hand and poured out her wish to become Summoner. During such a dawn, Lulu had admitted to herself and to her friend how she truly felt about Chappu one spare word at a time. Yuna had been there for her, the day the icy shell had melted enough for her to speak her first words since news came of Chappu's death. Lulu had held the girl silently and glared away nosy onlookers after the first disastrous failure of her Summoner's trials, meted out sternly by a priesthood unwilling to be perceived as playing favorites with the island's most well-loved orphan and celebrity. Many mornings they barely spoke, but the silent communion of their hands weaving braid alongside braid were a sort of shared prayer.
Yuna finished tying the bodice and reached up to divide off a skein of hair. "Actually, Lulu, I wanted to ask you a favor."
Yuna hesitated. "Would you keep an eye on Rikku for me?"
When I'm gone. The unspoken words hung in the air like a feather drifting slowly downward. Lulu sighed. "If she'll let me. But I don't think you need to worry. Rikku's a smart girl. Besides, she has a father to watch over her."
"That's why." Yuna smiled. "She'll listen to you. You won't try to keep her from being who she is."
"Very well." Lulu picked resignedly at a tangle. She will not replace you either. However, she left that like so many other entreaties unspoken; unlike Rikku, she knew where Yuna could or could not be budged, and saw little point in needling her about choices.
They worked in companionable silence while the light grew. Snatches of conversation from the camp drifted in indistinctly. Rikku's chipper morning patter and Wakka's sleepy grumbling made for an amusing duet, even if they could not make out the words. Lulu raised her head at a short, sharp retort from Sir Auron, and smiled faintly.
"You know something?" Yuna said softly behind her.
"Mm?" The mage was distracted, honing a retort of her own for the inevitable "sleepyhead" ribbing she was in for when they emerged.
"I think you were right about Sir Auron."
Sometimes Lulu thought the Summoner should have tried the sword's art; she had a masterful way of slipping right past one's guard. "Oh?"
Yuna chuckled."I don't think he's afraid of you, Lulu."
"Of course not. A Legendary Guardian who fought Sin is not going to be impressed by a few fireworks."
"I suppose." Gentle fingers moved up to her scalp to start working on the last braid. "That's not really what I meant. When I came in, he was... smiling. It was nice."
"Perhaps my 'pillow hair' amused him." Half alarmed, half charmed, Lulu found herself playing along with something close to enjoyment.
"Do you like him, Lulu?"
Lulu's will almost gave way, and she nearly attempted the perilous task of piecing together an honest answer. But Auron was Unsent. Would Yuna be able to dance for him when the time came, if she guessed the cost to a friend? Would Lulu be able to forgive her? "I respect Sir Auron a great deal," the mage said truthfully. "However, I have more important things to worry about on this journey. For instance, right now, why is my Summoner trying to play matchmaker instead of preparing herself for Gagazet's trials?"
"Oh, Lulu!" Yuna slipped the last bead into place and flung her arms around the older woman's shoulders in a fond hug. "I know, I just... want you to be happy."
"When the Calm comes, who knows?" Lulu allowed possibilities to hang in the air, feeling the weight of the impossible. "Maybe then I'll think about it."
"Good." Yuna giggled and gave her a final squeeze before releasing her. "Sorry, I just can't help but imagine you two being all grouchy and gruff together, like an old Ronso couple."
"Yuna," Lulu growled warningly, for appearance's sake.
"Well, that's that!" The Summoner hopped to her feet, eyes twinkling, and beat a hasty retreat. "We'd better get breakfast before they claim our share."
The mage stood with more dignity, straightening out her skirts and folding Auron's coat neatly over her arm. "Yuna?"
Lulu reached out and tucked a stray mouse-brown wisp behind her friend's ear. "Thank you."
~ * ~
Wakka's and Rikku's obligatory teasing about oversleeping was somewhat subdued, and Lulu found herself engaging in prickly speech simply to reassure the others that she was perfectly fine, thank you, and their minds ought to be on Yuna's pilgrimage. Talk turned to Gagazet's frigid nights and the labyrinth of caves rumored to bypass the deadly northeast face, but Kimahri and Auron were less than informative.
As they were clearing away bowls and cups, Sir Auron held forth with blunt words. "The Ronso's village is the last place to turn aside. Gagazet and Zanarkand test Summoner and Guardians in mind, body, and soul. No one should undertake the path to the summit who is unable to stay focused and fully committed to Yuna's quest. Any doubt, any hesitation could put our Summoner and all her Guardians in jeopardy." He scanned faces turned suddenly sullen and belligerent. "There is no dishonor in turning back for the good of the pilgrimage. Every one of you has served Yuna well and faithfully."
"Hey," Rikku protested, looking up from the hilt of the sword she was tinkering with, a replacement for Auron's missing weapon. "We all want Yunie to win! We're just not willing to let her die. If you think for one moment that Tidus and I are going to let you take her up that mountain without us--"
"Understood," Lulu interrupted coolly. "That goes for you as well, Sir Auron." Hers had not been the only soul shaken by last night's ordeal, however much he was carrying on as if nothing had happened.
Her bold words sliced through the brewing argument, as her companions turned towards her dumbfounded. Auron, however, tipped his head towards her with a sour smile. /TouchÃ©/.
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