Title: Love Her and Despair
Chapter 36: Thaw Before the Storm
Final Fantasy X/X-2
Characters: Paine/Nooj, Auron, Isaaru
Word Count: 3600
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Map of Pilgrimage - Links to All Chapters
Our Story So Far: Thirteen years after Yuna fell in the Final Summoning, Isaaru's pilgrimage is drawing to an uncertain close. Sin has destroyed most of his aeons, leaving him with no choice but to use Vegnagun, a fearsome weapon from a thousand-year-old war. Meanwhile the victims of Shuyin, a vengeful ghost who forced those he possessed to betray or kill those close to them, must try to move on.
A/N: Yes, this should be two chapters. But it's not, so nyah. Also, photo ref for Paine, wearing a modified version of warrior monk's armor.
Night was falling along with the temperature. Snow swirled over the lip of the cockpit, melting on Vegnagun's skin. A low tremulous hum, a faint vibration, and a few scattered blue lights hinted that the machina was not quite dormant. Far below, the lake creaked and popped under the settling weight of its massive feet slowly embedding themselves in ice. Pyreflies drifted up from the frozen surface, mingling with the fog that shrouded the giant machina like a cocoon.
A second, higher-pitched whine of engines rumbled across the lake and faded. Juno stood, raised a rifle to her shoulder and peered out. Minutes later, a solitary figure emerged from the darkness and limped across the broken ground towards Vegnagun's head. Nooj's cane tapped against the ice as he struggled over the broken ground. At last, he halted below her, shielding his eyes from spotlights and peering upwards.
"May I come up?" he called. "I'm unarmed."
"Unarmed" was a relative term for someone who could punch through armor with a fist, but Juno lowered the rifle.
She propped the weapon behind her and resumed her vigil from the pilot's chair, wrapped in an old Crusader blanket. Nooj's limbs clanked against the hull as he pulled himself up. He had to wedge his artificial hand in crevices to keep from slipping. Juno tensed more with every sound, but left him to find his own way.
At last, Nooj rolled over the top and tumbled down into the well beside her feet, chest heaving. Dusted white, the long ropes of his hair rattled against the deck.
Juno gave him a chance to catch his breath before demanding, "Does Baralai know you're here?"
"So. What are you doing here?"
"Wanting to talk." He raised his eyes. "If you still want to talk."
"I...needed time." She hesitated, then held out the edge of the blanket. The odd lumps sewn into its layers were fire marbles, shining through the fabric like glow worms.
The simple gesture triggered a flood of emotion behind his eyes. He touched her hand— her gauntlet, rather; she was still armed for combat. Then, hitching himself around in the cramped quarters, Nooj leaned back and settled carefully against her legs. Greaves and knee-guards regulated the contact in a way her old leathers had not. She drew the blanket around both of them and resumed scanning the fog.
"Why didn't you ever try to contact me?" she said.
"I thought you were dead."
"Don't lie, Nooj. I heard what Shuyin said. You weren't sure."
"And if I had sought you out, don't you think he would have made sure?" Years of pent-up frustration lanced through Nooj's voice like a fish-hook. "If you lived, you were a threat to him. Gippal and Baralai, too, but you most of all. Sooner or later, you would have realized what was wrong with me." His hands clenched under the blanket. "I nearly killed Shinra a month ago, and he's just a friend."
Juno exhaled, breath frosting over his head. "Nooj." She cradled the name gingerly. "I'm sorry I stopped looking for you."
"You looked? Gods, I'm glad you didn't find me."
She stared at her hand resting on her thigh, just a few inches from his shoulder. "So. You've been with the Al Bhed. Doing what?"
"Salvaging machina, mostly. Not entirely my idea, but it was fascinating work." He tipped his head back, a hint of regret in his eyes. "'Friend' is the wrong word. Shinra's almost a son to me. You'll meet him tomorrow when he comes to examine Vegnagun. I gather you've also picked up a protegé?"
"Eh?" She frowned, vaguely unsettled by the idea of Nooj with a foster-son. "Oh, Pacce. It's not like that. Maroda asked me to help whip him into shape for their next pilgrimage."
"And Baralai?" His voice softened. "You two seem close."
"Juno, I don't mind. It's been thirteen years. I wanted you to be happy."
"So did I." She snorted. "Baralai wasn't the answer."
"Oh. I'm sorry. In that case, I'm glad you you two are still speaking to each other."
"I left for a few years." She shrugged. "Did some exploring. I worked on a cargo ship for a while, but..."
"It didn't fly."
"Hm." He removed his glasses, wiping away fog with the edge of the blanket. "Maybe we can get you up in Gippal's airship. That flyer's got more style, but it won't fly above the clouds."
"I'd...like that," she said. "But I have duties. Baralai needs me, especially now."
"Which is why he posted the captain of the guard in a snowbank eight leagues outside the city limits?"
She glared at the darkened keyboard. Vegnagun shifted uneasily beneath them, resettling with a hiss of hydraulics.
"Never mind. I gather there's no love lost between you and Baralai's pet." Nooj's grim chuckle died away. "You know what he's planning, don't you?"
"Protect Vegnagun," she said through clenched teeth, "at any cost."
"Another Deathseeker. I suppose I set a bad example." Nooj closed his eyes. "We can't let him throw his life away, Juno. Which is why...I know this is much to ask, but I need you to teach me how to fly Vegnagun."
"Is that why you came out here?" She stiffened. "So you can take his place?"
"I came here to start getting to know Juno," Nooj said. "But Baralai needs our help. Someone has to keep him from diving into the Farplane."
"I already asked. He said no. If he doesn't trust me, he certainly won't trust you."
"Ah." Nooj considered. "Then we'll have to make it worth his while. Look. Unlike Baralai, I have piloted machina, not only in simulation. And while the interface is like nothing I've seen before, I'm familiar with how machina think. My experience may be the edge we need to win."
"Maybe." She mulled over his words, expression masked as usual by the helm that covered the upper half of her face. "On one condition."
"Survive. You can't atone for what happened by sacrificing yourself in his place."
Nooj gave a wry chuckle. "You know me too well. All right. Going into a battle with Sin and Vegnagun, we could all be killed, but I'll do what I can to avoid it. Is that enough?"
"Almost." She gazed down at him, measuring. "You do realize that you'll have to lower your guard completely for this? Vegnagun's interface only works if you allow it access to your mind."
"If you can do it, I can do it."
"Baralai's going to kill me." She stood, peeling off her gloves. "Get up here."
At daybreak, summoner and guardian climbed the citadel, retracing the path that Juno had taken back to the surface. Isaaru brought one guardian only, since Pacce had finally succumbed to sleep just before dawn. Following, Auron recalled the last time it had been just one guardian and one summoner, seeking Bevelle's fayth over a lifetime ago. Guardian and summoner, fayth and faith: these had been simpler relationships once.
Isaaru's memory of the route deserted him outside the warrior monks' hidden lift. Fortunately they were in no hurry, and Auron could take it from there. He operated the keypad methodically, halting at each level to scan murky passageways and fend off fiends attracted by the elevator's lights.
"I'm sorry," Isaaru said after several floors. "I should have noted what floor it was."
"You had other things on your mind." Auron frowned, observing how Isaaru swayed each time the elevator started down. "You are unwell. We should come back later."
"No!" His lips peeled back from his teeth in a frantic smile. "I...I must see the fayth. I'm fine, Sir Auron. It's just fatigue."
"I see," Auron said, unconvinced. Grief would explain Isaaru's lethargy, but his symptoms had begun to appear well before Maroda's death. Auron had already guessed one cause: loss of his aeons had taken a heavy toll on the summoner's spirit. But something more had happened to him during their stay with the Al Bhed. Until then, he had faced every trial with bland equanimity. Since Baaj, he had become fey, erratic. Perhaps Sin's toxin had simply aggravated grief and loss, but Auron could not shake the feeling that Isaaru's inner keel had snapped.
Isaaru watched him operate the controls with vague curiosity. "You still don't trust me, do you?"
"Hmph." Auron peered out, shook his head, and keyed the next floor. "I trust no one, Isaaru. Myself included."
"Liar." The summoner's chuckle did not reach his eyes. "You trust Sin, don't you?"
Several floors down, a Tonberry crouched just outside the doors seemed to be waiting for a ride. Isaaru lunged for the controls as its lantern bathed Auron in acrid yellow light.The doors slid closed. Even that brief exposure was enough to leave the guardian in a sweating heap on the floor. Isaaru applied cura, and Auron hastily set the lift in motion.
"Maroda always hated those things," Isaaru said with a shudder.
"So did Lulu." Rubbing his jaw where it had struck the floor, the guardian returned to the controls.
Isaaru staggered again as the floor dropped. "Sir Auron? There is...something I need to tell you. I have not been quite frank with you concerning Lord Mika."
Auron tensed. He had badgered the man repeatedly about his predecessor's whereabouts. Any unsent was a loose cannon, liable to turn up anywhere. Shuyin's example had raised an unsettling possibility. "What about him?"
He bowed his head. "I sent him, Sir Auron. Yevon forgive me: I sent Lord Mika, the most revered maester in history."
"You are sure?" Auron relaxed his grip on his sword-hilt. "Impressive."
"Thank you." Isaaru said. "I suppose you have no reason to rue his passing. But for Yevon, it is yet another secret shame. Despite our good intentions, Baralai, Shelinda and I came to power via a coup."
"Not Lucil?" Auron had little interest in politics, but he wanted to confirm Mika's removal.
"No, her hands are clean. She was in Besaid, protecting the rebels. We never told her the true story."
"Well." Isaaru hesitated, but his eyes brimmed with confession. "After my duel with Lady Yuna, I vowed to quit Bevelle and resume my pilgrimage. I thought you a traitor, you know, so your words had no power to dissuade me. But the farther we travelled, the more difficult it was to continue with eyes closed. The Crusaders, excommunicated by Yevon, were rallying to protect the people. The warrior monks had imposed martial law in Bevelle, venturing forth only to punish Lady Yuna's sympathizers. And then we reached Mount Gagazet."
"Ah," said Auron. "So it was you that tended them."
"I...pray I did some good." Isaaru passed a hand over his eyes and turned away. "I have never sent so many dead at one time, not even after Operation Mi'ihen. We found Elder Kelk just before he died. His will for justice had kept him alive just long enough to pass on what he knew: Seymour's patricide, his murder of his fellow maesters, Lady Yuna's forced wedding, his plots against the Al Bhed, Ronso and Crusaders— all condoned by Grand Maester Mika. Worse still, both were unsent, using Yevon to control the living. My faith almost died that day.
"From Gagazet my brothers and I witnessed Lady Yuna's last battle with Sin. I vowed on her memory and Maester Kelk's that I would deliver Yevon from those who had corrupted it.
"On the way home, we fell in with Baralai, a young Crusader on the run. He advised us to flee the reprisals that were coming. But I could not leave Spira to her fate. Would Sin not return all the sooner, unless we made atonement for Yevon's crimes? So I pressed him to accompany us back to Bevelle.
"There we found an ally in Shelinda, newly-appointed captain of the guard. She had heard of Kinoc's murder from O'aka before his execution, but had dismissed it as the ravings of a trickster desperate to save his own skin. She could not discount a summoner's words so easily. Despite her misgivings, she arranged an audience with Lord Mika. We laid bare what we knew, begging him to step down with honor intact, repudiate Seymour's vile deeds, and entrust Spira's welfare to a new generation." Isaaru shook his head. "The interview did not go well."
Auron snorted. "Yuna tried something similar."
"Summoners do not easily deviate from the path set by Yevon," Isaaru said. "So, my brothers, Baralai and I were arrested, held for mock-trial. But that night, Shelinda released us from our cells and diverted the palace guards long enough for me to perform the sending."
"And then you claimed Mika's position."
"Not by design, whatever Baralai may say." The summoner gave an odd, strained laugh. "He sees too much of Seymour in me."
"So." Auron arched an eyebrow. "Why tell me now?"
"I needed to ask Shelinda. I have not yet spoken to Baralai, alas: I fear I've betrayed his trust to earn yours."
"Isaaru." Auron glanced out and tapped the door controls, sealing them in. Then he stepped in front of the keypad. "If you want my trust, there's one more thing I must know."
Isaaru wiped his eyes with his sleeve. "Yes?"
"What's wrong with you. The truth."
"Me?" He pushed away from the wall with a lurch, gesturing emphatically. "My brother dead, Yevon in shambles, my oldest aeon slated to be served up as Sin's appetizer, and you ask what's wrong with me?"
The guardian reached out and caught one of his wrists. "Stop." He turned over his forearm to show the underside of his cuff. The edge was was stained with a fresh red smear over brown.
Isaaru glanced down at the stain and blanched, reaching for his cheek with his other hand. "Erinyes," he said finally. "The aeon Seymour used to massacre the Ronso: I have it now. But it was damaged during Sin's attack on Baaj. It's half-mad, Sir Auron. It thinks I am Seymour."
"What?" Auron started. "You can't use it, Isaaru."
"But if we must sacrifice Spathi— Zaon, I mean— it's the only weapon I have left!"
"Which Yu Yevon could turn against us."
"You don't know that!" Isaaru's face contorted. "Dammit, man, why do you believe in Sin and nothing else? She's been Yu Yevon's slave for thirteen years. Who knows what thoughts are her own? Or are you telling me she destroyed all those ships, the temples, Djose's Crusaders, Besaid Village of her own free will, just to avenge Lady Yuna? What kind of monster is she? I cannot think you would cherish such a person, nor that Lady Rikku would vouch for a cold-blooded murderer!"
"That's enough." Auron's fingers tightened until Isaaru hissed in pain.
"There, you see? You love, whether or no you'll admit it! Else you would have abandoned this poor excuse for a summoner and sought the Farplane already. Your love helps you endure, Sir Auron, but it binds your wisdom. The Lady has given you different answers at different times, has she not? Which should we choose to believe? I say the aeons are a threat to Yu Yevon. If we cannot destroy Sin with machina, Erinyes is our last hope! Mad she may be, but Seymour's mother was a Final Aeon, misused as a means to power. I shall turn her to her proper purpose, if I must."
"Then Pacce will be brotherless." Auron regarded him sternly until he saw the words sink in. "Come."
Massaging his wrist, Isaaru followed him out, across the guardians' antechamber and into the fayth's inner sanctum. The summoner relaxed as he stepped over the threshold, wading into the soothing hymn. He shuffled to the edge of the dais and knelt. The discipline of prayers and meditation might have been beyond him, but the fayth was already waiting for them.
"Isaaru. I'm glad you came." The small, hooded figure was sitting cross-legged upon the glassy lens that housed his statue. "I'm sorry about your brother."
"Thank you, old friend."
"Hello again," the spirit added to Sir Auron.
He grunted, planting himself by the door.
"Spathi—" It was the name the fayth had whispered to Isaaru when their souls merged; he did not flatter himself that he knew Zaon— "Do you know what we intend to do?"
"In part." The child tilted his head curiously. "Do you?"
"In part," Isaaru echoed, rueful. "The Lady will come for you soon. Since we cannot turn her, we must move you away from the city to save it. Then we lay a trap. Baralai has salvaged a machina from the ancient wars which we hope will be powerful enough to destroy Sin once and for all."
"Once," the fayth said, nodding. "But not for all. Yu Yevon has survived Sin's destruction six times now."
"What?" Isaau's voice quavered. "Is there no way to end this?"
The fayth turned his head, contemplating Sir Auron.
Auron stared back, frowning. "Yes?"
The spirit began to recite in a lilting singsong. "There he waited for her, and for one night only war was in abeyance. For then did Mars put off his shield and panoply to help renew her—"
Auron broke in with a snort. "Venus and Mars." It was the pagan text which Lulu had read aloud to him on that sultry night in Besaid, when their thoughts kept straying from the astrological keys needed to unlock certain weapons. It was disconcerting to hear it from a child's lips, but then, Zaon's childhood had ended a thousand years ago, along with innocence.
There was something else. What was it that Lulu had said back in Kilika, when Auron had nearly drowned trying to turn her away from the port?
"There's just one way I've found to keep Yu Yevon out for a while. One way...and it is a momentary diversion at most." Her lips twisted in a faint smile, self-deprecating, coolly amused. "None of them are you."
"So, I distract her," Auron said gruffly. "That provides a narrow window when Yu Yevon is blind. Then Vegnagun can strike."
"But if destroying Sin won't end Yu Yevon—" Isaaru began.
"Where is Yu Yevon?" Auron interrupted.
Isaaru's eyes widened. "Inside Sin? We must penetrate its shell?"
"Vegnagun can breach the hull. The rest is up to us. Your skill in sending may prove useful."
"Not if I send you again!"
Auron shrugged. "Get Yu Yevon, and it won't matter." It did matter, actually: he had unfinished business with Yunalesca. But if he could not stay to fulfill that task, he had a suspicion that someone else would see to it.
"A good plan." The fayth began to fade. "Don't take too long, Isaaru. Yu Yevon nearly controls Sin now. It will be difficult to fight him without her aid."
"I would rather have yours." Isaaru made a wistful motion with his hands. "I don't want to lose you, old friend. Isn't there some way to—"
"Please, Isaaru. Let us go." The fayth was no longer visible. "The Lady promised us an end. We're very tired. Will you release us?"
Isaaru drew his hands together in Yevon's prayer. "Forgive me, old friend. I was not thinking. We'll set you free."
Auron helped the man to his feet. The summoner's tears were his own now, thankfully: his cheeks were damp, but there was no fresh blood on them. They filed out of the chamber without a word.
Any chance for reflection was shattered by a lithe figure barreling across the hall. Rikku pounced Auron, latching onto his sleeve. "Sooo-oooo, what's the plan?"
Isaaru blinked. "Lady Rikku, what are you doing here?"
RIkku tugged on Auron's coat to punctuate her words. "Don't play dumb, Auron! You were up to something at the Council. You're always up to something. And you'd better be up to something, because if this whole thing is just an excuse to vaporize Lulu, you're gonna be doing it without Al Bhed help!"
Isaaru smiled weakly. "I believe we may have a plan to your liking, my lady. Sir Auron proposes to penetrate Sin's armor with Vegnagun, then confront Yu Yevon within. I take it this will be a rescue operation?"
"Oops." Rikku danced back, eyes darting towards Isaaru. "He wasn't supposed to know, was he?"
Auron looked grim. "It's the only way to defeat Yu Yevon, Isaaru. You heard the fayth."
"Fear not," Isaaru said. "If saving your friend helps save Spira, why should I object? Although I fear we'll find little left to save."
"Nah. She's still in there. Little Yunie got a message from her just two days ago." Rikku unclipped a spanner from her tool belt and brandished it. "All right. Let's get to work! Send down a crew to help me move some girders. Operation Mage Extraction, here we come!"
Half frozen, mashed into the cockpit hip to hip, Juno and Nooj had lost track of time, soaring in a thousand-year-old bubble. Juno's numb fingers beat out a spare melody of two-note intervals, more percussion than music. Meanwhile, Nooj was flying. Hated limbs forgotten, he spun in a barrel roll over the smoking remains of Bevelle's armies and let out a ragged bellow of triumph.
The sphere-pool of light around them faded, leaving only the gray fog of dawn painting Juno's helm with rime.
"I enjoyed that too much," Nooj said, breathing hard. "I hope Shuyin didn't leave a residue."
"Don't be modest." Grimacing, she reached for her helm, then stopped.
"I'm hardly going to avert my eyes at a scar," he said. "I need to know what I did to you."
"Shuyin." She exhaled and grasped the rim. "It was Shuyin." Peeling the helmet off, she shook loose a wild mane of silver-gray coming loose from a ponytail. Crimson eyes met his in silent challenge. The arch of one cheekbone was shattered, gouged by a deep furrow that showed bone at the back, scar tissue buckling at the edges like the weathered rim of the Calm Lands.
He reached out and traced her cheek just below the wound. Her face tightened.
He withdrew his hand at once. "Sorry."
"No. I just need you to promise me something." She picked her words with care as Vegnagun lurched underfoot. "Once this is over, we find a way to...send Vegnagun away. The Farplane. Anywhere."
"Agreed." He regarded her steadily. "Juno. I'm Al Bhed now. Machina are just tools. Not taboo. Not religion. Not a part of us."
"That's what I needed to hear." She leaned towards him, gripping the straps across his chest.
Their lips were cold when they met, but neither seemed to notice.
Next Chapter: The Summons