Title: Love Her and Despair
Chapter 39: Eight of Swords
Final Fantasy X/X-2
Characters: Nooj, Baralai, Gippal, Paine, Lulu/Auron
Word Count: 2200
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Map of Pilgrimage - Links to All Chapters
Our Story So Far: Auron and his allies lure Sin to the uninhabited ruins of Old Guadosalam, hoping that the firepower of an ancient weapon will be sufficient to disable the foe. Unfortunately, Sin has laid a trap for Auron as well.
A/N: I pulled the ending of Ch. 38 forward; it seems to fit better here.
"Hey, Bar, how's it coming?" Gippal called over the link. "That's one hell of a big cannon."
"Eight minutes," Nooj said. "Cut the chatter. Baralai's having a hard time getting target lock. Vegnagun's itching to blast everything in sight."
"Well, tell him to hurry up!" Cid interjected. "Sin's moving this way, and that energy shield's fixin' to blow!"
"Shut...up." Sweat shone on Baralai's brow as his fingers swam across the keys, pounding out a chaotic scale. The volume was building. So too were the vibrations in Vegnagun's frame. Arcs of energy circled the outside of the cockpit like a dynamo, skittering along the barrel of the main cannon extruding from the machina's torso. "Nooj, raise the nose ten degrees."
An eardrum-popping concussion buffeted the air. All the fog sheared away. Laid bare to the sky, they could see Sin's monstrous shadow bearing down on them through the clouds. The globe of energy around it was beginning to coalesce into a pulsing fist, gathering a maelstrom of light dead ahead.
"Baralai," Nooj said, easing Vegnagun back on its haunches, tracking the enemy's approach.
"I know," he said. "Nooj, fall back to the south side of the crater. Cid, Gippal, get out of the way. Seven minutes."
Ice needles pricked Auron back to consciousness. His trousers, his gauntlet, even his hair were frozen and stiff. His face was numb. He was lying on his back in a snowdrift, deeply buried. Nevertheless he laughed. He half expected Ronso pups to start dragging him out by the boots for another round of lessons, one more bout with their all-too-breakable guardian. His lungs ached when he sucked in frigid air, but it was an ache as familiar as his eye's scar. He trusted it more than Besaid's perfect blue skies.
Rising, he nearly tripped over a sword thrust into the snow. Black chains linked it to another sword standing nearby, and another, all of them linked in a circle like the posts of a child's carousel. More heavy chains formed spokes radiating from a central hub, which was...
Lulu. She stood like one more sword, straight and defiant, buried to the knees. A tangled mesh of black straps, barbed metal and rusted buckles encased her from the neck down. A leather band covered her eyes. Another twisted her arms behind her back. Her wild mass of hair was hopelessly snarled in the eight chains stretched from sword-hilts to iron hoops cutting into her upper arms, wrists, calves, hips, ribcage and throat. The snow around her legs was stained red. To add insult to injury, the weapons staking her to the mountainside were swords that he had once wielded: Chaos Blade. Beastmaster. Blurry Moon. Shiranui. Kotetsu. Murasame. Masamune.
Auron knew the cruel vision might be another trap, but if so, this lure was more effective than the last.
"Lulu." He hurried towards her, stepping over the chains. Fleeting contact with one made him stagger: a powerful jolt of electricity had shot through his ankle. He snatched his hand away from another chain that burned.
I believe I may have annoyed him. So she had remarked during their last encounter in the Via Purifico: how many days ago? How many hours, minutes, seconds? Realization struck with the same bitter rage that had possessed him when he saw Yu Yevon sinking into Braska's final aeon. Then as now, he wanted to lash out, but a friend's body stood in the way.
It took nearly a minute to edge his way into the center of the web. He wasted more time fumbling with her blindfold. The buckles were coated with rime. His fingers numbed instantly. The ice-caked seal would not break.
Lulu shook her head and leaned against him. Auron could feel every quiver and jerk of her taut muscles resisting unseen blows. Her breaths came in ragged gulps, then stopped altogether. She stiffened, waited, and exhaled slowly through her nose. It was the only thing she could still control, he realized: she was refusing to make a sound. He held her, swallowing bile while he surveyed her prison cell for weak points.
Remember, guardian, your power is to break things...and to free them.
The fayth who gave him that advice perished soon after, but there was no better plan. Auron first stooped to whisper, "I'm ending this. Now." It was vital that she believe.
It was no easy task. Severing her chains with a blade would yank her like a fish on a hook. He would have to shoulder some of the burden. Bracing himself, he knelt in the snow by one of the swords, leaning the hilt against his shoulder and grasping the links firmly in both hands. A downward snap broke the chain across the sharp edge like a wire-cutter. Pulses of dark magic scourged him as he moved around the circle: frostbite, poison, flare... One spell ceased each time he broke a segment, but the pain was quickly sapping his strength, his will. It grew harder and harder to make himself take hold of the next chain. The rushing in his ears drowned out Lulu's harsh breaths. His vision tunneled.
A memory gripped him: crawling down Mt. Gagazet, broken and dying. After twenty-three years of putting one foot in front of the other, he had almost come full circle.
Blinded, he found Masamune's outlandish shape by feel. Ultima's shockwave wrenched him from the inside out. He endured a second wave and a third as he struggled to snap the last tether. On the fifth try, the chain exploded, scattering links like shrapnel from one of Rikku's grenades. Panting, he sank to the snow until the poison and his vision cleared.
His voice rasped. "I don't think much of your tailor."
A strained smile touched her mouth and faded.
He crawled to her side and sat upright, kissing the only bare skin within reach: her knuckles. "Your garden," he said. "It's warmer. Take us there."
There was a sharp clack. The shackles around her wrists popped open.
Auron's expression softened. "As you wish." Not idle words, here.
He peeled off the manacles with delicate care, wincing at the blood welling up through crusted scabs, and unwound the thick leather strap binding her arms together. He had to clear away snow to reach her legs. She clung to his shoulders when he lifted her out and laid her gently on his coat. Then he prowled over her in a wordless ritual, kissing away chains and fetters that burst apart at his touch. When he reached her neck, there was a shimmering jingle as all the links caught in her hair let go at once. Sighing, she raised a hand and pressed two fingers against his mouth.
He nodded understanding. She reached back to unbuckle the belts around her head. The leather stuck to her skin, but he waited for her to pick it loose with her fingernails. Beneath the blindfold, there were bruises under her eyes. Her complexion was almost sallow without cosmetics. Yet the relief in her face as she flung away the last restraint was painfully beautiful.
"Well done," he said.
"I had help," she said primly.
There was a moment's hesitation: doubt or disbelief had her staring up at him, searching. She lifted a hand tentatively to ruffle his hair, mute acknowledgement of the burdens that had turned it white. "Foolish," she whispered. "You shouldn't have come alone. I might have—"
"Well. Not that, at least." She gave a wistful smile.
Then she was lunging, fingers tugging weakly at his collar, pulling him down. This time there was no siren's allure, and he was glad to surrender. It was hardly a fairy-tale kiss. Her lips were cold and chapped, and he was more of a monk than a prince. But there was magic in their weary embrace— elation and despair and old passion and fond regrets— power enough, perhaps, to make Sin stand still. For once, there was no greater duty demanding their attention. Auron kissed her until the tears came. He could not be sure that all of them were hers.
Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed a change in their surroundings. The snow was melting. Tilted gravestones, tattered ferns and brambles covered with rose hips were pushing up through it.
Finally, reluctantly, she pulled away. "You've got to leave. Yu Yevon wants to collect you. I almost gave in."
"But you didn't."
"Not quite." She sat up, gripping her face as if she wanted to tear off her own cheekbones. "But I will. Soon. Please, go." She spoke with resigned calm. "It was good to see you again, Auron."
"Hush." He slipped his hands under hers, stroking her cheeks with his thumbs. "There's one way to keep Yu Yevon out of your mind, correct? We need to put it to the test."
"What, now?" She gave a weak laugh. "Auron, this is hardly—"
"It's time." His stomach clenched: this was too much like one of Yevon's deceits, using her faith in him as a trap. He leaned close, planting a kiss between her brows. "Trust me."
The Avenger was diving in a last-ditch attempt to avoid Sin's shockwave. Its passengers were clinging to whatever support they could find, staring anxiously at the muddy expanse of the Moonflow rushing up to meet them. Shinra's clipped report was nearly lost in the engines' roar.
A looming image of Sin appeared on the forward displays. The flickering ball of energy around it was collapsing like a pricked balloon. When it vanished, Sin slowed to a halt over the edge of the dead forest. The only sign of movement was the loathsome cluster of eyes swiveling wildly on its snout.
"He's done it!" Pacce said.
"They've done it," said Rikku.
Cid leveled off and slapped a button. "You boys see that? There's your clear shot!"
"Stand by," Nooj said. "Preparing to fire."
Ferns and clumps of asphodel had sprung up around them in a somber canopy, as if Lulu were trying to draw a blanket over them. The darkness deepened as Auron applied his last few potions to the lacerations and welts mottling her skin. Wasteful, perhaps, but it was easier to couch calculated seduction in soothing touches. Mending a serrated red line around her throat, he tried not to imagine what Vegnagun was about to do to her.
She reclined beside him, almost relaxed. Her fingers pattered against his upper arm. "You've still got your sword handy, right?"
He grunted, eyes narrowing at the question.
"Good. There's a marlboro nesting on my head." She tugged irritably at the snarls of dark hair twining around her shoulders. "I must look frightful."
He smirked, relaxing. Glimmers of vanity were a good sign. "Sin doesn't need a hairdresser."
"Yes, but I am trying to be Lulu," she said. "It's hard to remember, you know."
"I know," he said. A light kiss sealed the work half-finished: Yuna's magic would not have left a scar. "Which reminds me. There's something I've been meaning to ask you."
It was her turn to flinch. "Hm?"
"What's a panoply?"
Lulu's startled ripple of laughter felt like a victory. "Oh, Auron. It's this." She rapped her knuckles against his armored chest.
"I read somewhere that it's supposed to come off."
Her breath caught. "Then I had better do it, because I doubt you remember how." Her fingers sought the seam under his right arm, flipping catches with old familiarity.
Abruptly she tensed. There was no time to inquire before she gave a hoarse cry, reared back and punched his chest with both hands as if she were trying to push him straight through the ground.
Which, in fact, she was. He was falling again, plunging through earth and metal and bone and some foul substance that smelled like viscera. Suddenly he was expelled from Sin's carapace, hurtling through open sky. He just had time to curl into a ball, dimly aware of a silver bubble of energy around him, before he struck the ground. The impact should have broken bones, but Sin's shield had cushioned him.
He lay on his back, winded and stunned, trying to make sense of what had just happened. Directly overhead, Sin's bulk stood starkly against the sky, a horny mass of ridges and scales bathed in a searing glare like the sun. Then the world went white in a thunderous roar. A horrific scream followed, as if every fiend from Baaj to Zanarkand was wailing in unison. He shielded his eyes, squinting into the light. The lower third of the monster had vaporized, two haunches and most of the tail. What was left of Sin canted slowly on its side, writhing and howling as it began to sink. Sinscales started raining down. Scooping up his sword (and thanking the Lady that she had remembered it, even in that split second), Auron began to run.
"Perfect," Nooj said, standing to peer out at the awesome devastation. "It's a good thing there's nothing in that direction. That blast tore through Sin like it was paper."
"It's not dead, Nooj," Baralai said, tightlipped. "We wounded it, but that's all."
"It's enough. Sir Auron said we only need to breach the hull. He and Isaaru can take it from here."
"So they say. But there's no guarantee they'll—"
There was a groaning upheaval. Nooj fell backwards, nearly toppling over the back rail. The ground began to fall away as Vegnagun rumbled towards Sin: slowly at first, but rapidly gaining momentum.
"Vegnagun seems to agree with you," Nooj said, climbing back into the jury-rigged seat bolted next to Baralai's. "What's the plan?"
"Guys?" Juno's voice crackled over the link. "Don't do this."
"Juno?" Baralai's head snapped up. "You're supposed to be protecting Bevelle!"
"I am. Bevelle's in big trouble if we lose you. Fall back and recharge the main gun. If Vegnagun decides it's in danger—"
"It already has," Nooj said. "It's switched to active combat mode. I've got to take helm now, or the autopilot's going to shut me out. Talk later."
"Dammit," Baralai said, sagging in his chair. "If we survive this, I may court-martial her."
"I'm sure she knows that." Nooj banked gently to one side, altering their head-on course for a wide pass. "Now focus. Bring the secondary guns online. When you're ready, I'll try a strafing run." He smiled. "Here's your chance, Baralai. Make the most of it."
Next Chapter: Titanomachy