Chapter 16: How Does Her Garden Grow?
Final Fantasy X
Characters: Auron/Lulu, Wakka
Word Count: 2400
Summary: A meeting of old friends (and enemies).
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Map of Pilgrimage - Links to All Chapters
The Story Thus Far: The Crusaders mount a new Operation Mi'ihen in an attempt to save Djose Temple's aeon, to no avail. Auron, guarding Summoner Isaaru, is felled by lightning during Sin's attack.
The sky was singing. No, not the Hymn of the Fayth. It was a simpler lullaby, rocking with the ocean's rhythm, a tune suited to a child's cradle on some lush tropical island where the afternoons were drowsy and sweet. Auron wondered what had put that image into his mind, monastery raised as he was. A nun had sung over him once, laving his fevered brow while he lay on a hard pallet fighting chills after spending the night on Lake Macalania for the sake of a dare.
The soft hand stroking his brow paused. "I don't think I'd like being a nun, Auron."
He opened his eyes or his mind— it was the same thing in Sin's in-between world, this web of dreams and memories halfway between Spira and the Farplane— to darkness and the glimmer of Lulu's shoulders. Her arms were bare, but she was clad this time in something approximating her formal black gown, a strange blend of minx and mourning attire. The belts forming her skirt were more tightly-woven, showing no flash of skin. Her hair fell in a wild mass to the ground, mingling with the bed of vines and briars where he lay. The perfect line of her jaw made him want to compose a catechism, and he choked on his own laughter at the ridiculous sentiment. She laughed with him, lips curving in that rare unguarded smile he had witnessed only a handful of times.
"Thank you for coming, Auron."
Gradually Auron's eyesight acclimated to her present reality. There was no sky, only a blindness when the eye strayed upward. It had more of a quality of darkness than light, but it was only a matter of interpretation, like those riddle-glyphs that could be a cup or two faces in silhouette.
He recognized the profile of Mushroom Rock Ridge in the bluffs behind her. He lay on a ghostly facsimile of Djose Beach, its battle-scarred humps and hillocks overrun by ivy, trailing creepers, pungent rosemary, spears of tropical plants with sword-shaped leaves, purple hibiscus and luminous moon-lilies, and the crystalline spikes of Macalania trees. Everywhere, in burgeoning profusion greater than all the rest, tumbled sprays of ghost-white roses fringed with salt.
Blanketing this landscape like a dim mirage was a field of flickering flames, dancing from red to blue and back again, burning without consuming Sin's unholy garden. A gentle rain was falling. Now and again a spiderweb of lightning rippled across the bluffs behind them.
"No snow," Auron observed, watching Lulu's pleased smile broaden as he solemnly surveyed her handiwork.
"Silly." She leaned across him and snapped off a twig from one of the Macalania saplings, tracing his cheek with its icy tip. He shivered at a memory: the mage used to apply her elemental magics in the most wicked ways. But the clink of the black manacles binding her wrists snapped him back to the present. He sat up with a grimace and closed his fingers around the metal cuffs, giving the short length of chain between them an experimental tug.
Lulu shook her head, face tranquil and remote. "It's easier now," she said. "The more I yield to him, the fewer the chains. I'll be free soon."
"Not that way," Auron said forcefully.
"Shhh." The mage raised her hands to his face, palms barely grazing his stubble. "Rest now. Walk with me in my garden, Auron. We'll fight soon enough."
They stood up together, helping each other. Lulu plucked a cluster of roses and clasped them before herself in a demure feminine gesture that reminded him of Yuna.
Casting off the left side of his coat as he did going into battle, Auron slipped his arm lightly around her waist. "After you."
"My hero." She glided off. "Watch your step."
Bones hidden by the dark vegetation crunched underfoot as they strolled side by side. Gray stones poked up through the green carpet at staggered intervals. Each marker was carved with a single name. Auron recognized a few.
"You've been busy," he said. Raising his line of sight, he saw that this beach was infinitely more vast than the one at Djose where a generation of Crusaders had died. The tangled carpet of plants spread out as far as the darkness permitted the eye to roam. Sin's graveyard garden spanned the whole ocean.
"They're not all mine," Lulu said, white feet stepping daintily over a skull netted in wild strawberries. "Most are my predecessors' victims. I've been using my leisure time to learn all their names. Spira tries so hard to forget the dead; someone ought to remember them all." She paused to brush her lips against his shoulder before moving on.
The bare touch made Auron flinch. Her dress seemed to mute the effect, but the sleeping forces in her flesh were dangerously palpable now that Sin's power augmented them. Auron ignored the pleasant ache, as he often had in the last days of their pilgrimage.
"You never wasted time on regret," he reminded her. "You said it was 'pointless to think about, and sad.'"
"That was when I had something to live for." She shrugged. "Sin can't regret much, Auron. It's simple acknowledgement. Death is who I am. And I have a great deal of time on my hands, these days."
Auron was content to let her lead him in an aimlessly meandering path. A few butterflies flickered past. She steered him around the red ones with a scolding glance, as if to say, Have you forgotten? Finally, Lulu paused before a bare, empty stone leaning against another that vines had nearly covered. She bent to place the bouquet of roses on the rock-face with care. Crackling like brittle slate, a pair of glyphs appeared and chewed into the stone's flesh beneath her hands. "Hardly a match for the bouquet he gave me," she said. "I shall have to try to capture its color. I forgave Luzzu long ago, you know."
Auron's arm tightened around her waist. "He said you sent Wakka away. Where is Wakka now?"
She looked up, mouth setting into a thin line. "I'd rather not tell you, Auron."
Her expression grew more peevish as he burst out with a dry, rolling laugh. "What?" she snapped.
"Nothing," he said, smirking under her baleful glare. "I missed you. Lulu, I want to talk to him."
"He doesn't want to talk to you." She chewed her lip, turning away from the tombstone. "I don't want to get him involved, Auron. And I don't think it's wise for you to seek him."
"Wisdom and strength won't solve this, Lulu. Otherwise you'd have succeeded, and Yuna would still be alive. We need something else. Something he knows better than I."
She looked up in astonishment, expression softening to tenderness. "You underestimate yourself, Auron. Besides, I loved Yuna more than my own life. That is, after all, the error all true guardians make—"
Her chin lifted. "Ah." She went quiet, withdrawing into herself and considering. Auron waited. Finally, she gave a minute nod and began to walk again, expression now preoccupied.
For a while he savored the silence, the eldritch beauty of the garden of death and its sole occupant, the simple act of walking without direction. Her wild mane brushing against his arm brought back memories of moments beyond words when she had showed him a glimpse of the life he'd missed. But there were still questions he ought to ask, and the queasy feeling in his stomach told him this timeless dream would end soon.
"Lulu. Why is Yu Yevon destroying the temples?"
"That is not his doing." Her eyes flashed and her pace quickened. "He cares not what I do, so long as he endures. Although he likes it well that Spira has begun to worship Sin. If I am strong enough, he may be content to keep me a long time.
"No, I wiped out the temples. Not for myself, but for Yuna's sake and Kimahri's, and for Lord Braska and Sir Jecht and his son, and for you, too, Auron— for you most of all. Yevon banished and dishonored you in life, then made a hero of you in death. It did the same to Yuna. I mean to make Yevon atone for its crimes!
"It's vengeance, Auron, and nothing else. When I am done, Sin will be eternal, and that cowardly religion will have crumbled under the weight of its own lies. You ought to help me, you know." She looked up at him keenly, and for a moment a different note came into her voice: a ghost of a plea behind the cold pride. "Help me."
Auron pulled away, searching her face that seemed now more like an image of graven bone. The world had been growing hazy as she spoke, obscured by a glowing golden mist like Farplane clouds. His time was almost up. Auron clasped her hands and raised them to his lips, thumbs resting on cold metal. "I will."
Her true smile reappeared. "I know you will. Please give Wakka my love—"
At her final word, the golden light grew unbearably bright. A battering heat washed over him as the dream-world burned away.
I heard you, Lulu. I hope Yu Yevon didn't.
Auron awoke on burning sand. As his eyes acclimated to the real world, he realized there was no fire, only hot sun. A knot of tension he did not realize he had been holding loosed itself as he sat up, fighting numb limbs still jangling from lightning's kiss.
The blazing wastes of Bikanel's desert were a jarring change from Lulu's midnight garden, but anything was better than Zanarkand, where he had feared Wakka might be. Twisting around to get his bearings, he spotted a glint of bright green between the dunes.
Auron slogged towards it. Cresting a dune, he gazed down in astonishment. The outline of the oasis' rocky pool was unchanged, but the sparse, spindly desert flowers and scaly yuccas around it had been replaced by a garden more lush than the one he had just left, exuberantly alive and full of vibrant color. There were enormous flowers, there were fleshy vines, there was even grass in the desert, winking with tiny blue flowers between his boots. A dense grove of fruit trees scaled the dunes opposite. He saw oranges, figs, other fruits vaguely remembered from a mission to the islands south of Bevelle. Stumbling forward, he felt an odd pop and looked down to find he was trampling on squash.
"Hey!" That was not Wakka, but the youthful voice sounded familiar. "Watch where you're walkin', mister!"
"Sorry," Auron said, looking around for the speaker. His legs were still not working properly. Before he could correct his balance, he went tumbling down the slope. He crashed through rows of melons, string beans and beets until he fetched up against one of the only remaining cactuses in the whole oasis. He wasn't sure how, but he thought petulantly that even that was part of Lulu's design. She had a discerning knack for detail.
A high-pitched squeal had punctuated his fall. Blinking up at the stridently blue sky, Auron found himself squinting at a heart-shaped face and a pair of mismatched eyes, green and brown. Peering down at him under a mop of strawberry-blond hair, a little girl puckered her lower lip and tilted her head in a manner he recognized at once. "Hi!" she said brightly. "Where're you people comin' from?"
Auron was not the least surprised when a lanky boy sporting a flame-red crest bounded into view and yanked her back with a sharp, "Yunie!"
"Hey!" she yipped, pawing at him.
Ten and seven, Auron guessed, opting to lie quietly and let Lulu's design play itself out. He started to reconsider when the boy placed a sandaled foot on his collar.
"Get Pops," the boy said, glaring down at Auron.
"Vidina, stop it!" said the girl, pouting. "It's not nice to step on people!"
At least the boy did not weigh very much. "We don't know who he is, Yunie. Go get Pops. He might be a Yevon." He set his hands on his hips.
"I think he's a nice man," the girl said obstinately. "Look, he wears red too." She tugged at Auron's sleeve. "What's your name, mister?"
Finally, Auron heard the voice he had been waiting for. "Yuna? Vidina? What are you two up to, eh? You better not be messin' with Mum's tomat—"
Auron could not see much from his current position, but he had a good idea of the man's expression.
Eloquent as ever, Wakka. Auron could almost hear Lulu's voice in his ear.
Pinned under a child whose father might take any sudden moves amiss, the guardian lay still and counted seconds, wondering if Wakka had lost his aversion to grenades. The explosion was not long in coming.
"Get the HELL away from him!" Spluttering, he bounded towards them, blundering through vegetation on the far side of the pool. "Vidina! Take your sister back to the house, quick! You tell Mum to close dat door and don' let anybody in 'cept me, ya?"
Vidina skittered backwards and grabbed his sister's hand, craning his head to watch as he started dragging her away. Auron coughed and massaged his neck, sitting up gingerly. Wakka was bounding around the rocks at the water's edge like a charging dual-horn. He carried no grenades, at least, but the barrel of the weapon clutched in the crook of his arm looked almost broad enough to fire them.
"Don't you move," Wakka said, planting his feet and bracing the gun on his shoulder. "Vidina, what you waitin' for? Get goin', both o' you. I mean now."
"Lulu says—" Auron began tiredly.
"I don' wanna hear it!" Wakka said, clenching his teeth to keep from shouting. His eyes darted after the children, watching them scamper away. He waited until the sound of their footsteps had dwindled, then stalked forward until the gun's snout was nearly touching Auron's nose. "I donno know why you came here, old man, but I'm not gonna let you screw up my family. Weren't Lu an' Yuna enough? Rikku's gonna be mad at me, and I guess I'm sorry, but I'm gonna do what I shoulda done thirteen years ago."
Auron heard the soft click of a safety catch being released. On the whole, he reflected, it was usually best to heed the wisdom of black mages.
Next Chapter: Homecoming