Title: Love Her and Despair
Chapter 44: Chrysalis
Final Fantasy X/X-2
Characters:Auron/Lulu, Lucil, Nooj, Paine, Baralai, Wakka, Rikku
Word Count: 4500
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Map of Pilgrimage - Links to All Chapters
Our Story So Far: Against all odds, Auron, Isaaru and their allies have not only defeated Sin, but delivered its fayth from Yu Yevon's bonds. And what now? Friends and comrades regroup on Brother's airship.
A/N: I'm almost afraid to post this until I've written the last chapter. But I still know where it's going, and I have bits and pieces of the rest ready to go. It's just hard to kickstart the action again after the "Battle of the Pelennor Fields" and get onto the final leg of the saga.
Question: would anyone be interested in an .mp3 version? It seems like vanity, but on the other hand, some people like books on tape.
The off-duty cabin of the Celsius was ruddy and warm with laughter, with drink, and with the throbbing glow of light-strips that Lucil had almost ceased to eye with wary curiosity. Old friends and new had gathered at the bar for a leisurely flight back to the capital. There was mud on the deck and clumps of chocobo down spiraling overhead, souvenirs of the airship's stopover in Moonflow Village. No one begrudged a few feathers in Hypello ale.
"It's not a gun; he says it's a sphere
and the teachings of Yevon are perfectly clear,
so that's what he carries beneath his robes,
and the maester's got nothing beneath his robes,
but a pair of very small spheres."
Nooj leaned back in his chair. "At least, that's a rough translation. I'm still not quite fluent in Al Bhed."
"I've heard something like it in the barracks," Lucil said, matching his deadpan.
Two pairs of eyes were riveted upon Nooj as if he had just sprouted fluffy yellow wings and pranced along the countertop singing the latest show tunes from Luca. It took them a moment to register that he had ceased chanting.
"I'm still not sure I've heard it," said Baralai.
"Sin's toxin," Juno said. "Sometimes it takes a while to wear off."
A tattoo of loud bangs jarred them from drinks. Something like hailstones was pelting the other side of the cabin door. The ship's captain was also a target, apparently; Brother's plaintive cries echoed down the corridor. Lucil was the first off her barstool, seizing her cane. Baralai reached for his gun.
"It's not weapons fire," Nooj said, one hand slipping to the back of Juno's chair nonetheless, putting his shoulder between her and the commotion.
"And if it is, I'm off-duty, so do me a favor and stay put," she said, taking a casual swig from her tankard. "I've already got one maester to worry about."
Baralai rolled his eyes. "Warning: nursemaid with sword," he said to Nooj. "You sure you want her back?"
"Absolutely." The frank intensity in his tone made Juno sit up straight.
"This Nooj," she said, when she found her voice, "is going to take some getting used to."
The door lurched partway open, revealing a corridor occupied by four giggling children, Brother flat on his back moaning with theatrical pathos, and Cid standing stupefied in the lift at the far end of the hall. A swarm of about fifty blue spheres — no, miniature rubber blitzballs -- were ricocheting off ceiling, walls and floor. Whooping, Vidina grabbed up a handful from the deck and pitched them at the nearest wall, setting off another frenetic barrage. A few hurtled into the room and caromed off cups, chairs, and the back of Nooj's head before bouncing to a halt. Baralai's robes took a glancing arc of ale from a tumbling drink.
"Ahuikr!" Cid roared. The door hissed shut. Slowly, the hubbub began to subside.
Shaking her head, Lucil eased back onto her stool. "I confess I had expected Lord Isaaru's Calm to be...calmer."
"Not if Lady Shelinda has anything to say about it," Baralai said. "She was plotting the parade route when we left."
"Honoring whom?" Juno sighed, leaning back against Nooj's arm. "You guys did half the work."
"Does it matter?" he said.
"You misunderstand Shelinda's tactics," Lucil said. "She feared a stampede back to the city when we shut down the evacuation camps. We may, however, need to postpone festivities until the High Summoner has recovered." She nodded toward a smaller door at the opposite end of the living area, through which Isaaru's guardians had carried him earlier. "In any event, you may be sure credit will be given where due."
Nooj's dark eyes twinkled. "And court martials?"
"Possibly," said Baralai. "Or an honorable discharge. I haven't decided yet."
"Baralai!" Juno glared. "You wouldn't."
"It depends." He raised his cup, turning it thoughtfully. "I wondered if you might like to join the Al Bhed for a while."
"Oh." She stilled under Nooj's suddenly intent gaze. "The city's a mess. You need me. So does the Guard."
"We need someone we can trust as a liaison to Cid."
"Business later, Baralai," Lucil admonished. "The captain is right. We're off-duty tonight. Drink."
"In that case," Nooj said, "Has anyone informed Sir Auron that he's out of a job?"
They turned to follow his cocked eyebrow towards the lone figure standing at the rail above them, a dark silhouette in the gallery overlooking the bar. His shock of white hair stood out like a torch, tinted by the sunset beyond the windows. The hilt of his massive sword jutted up above his shoulder, defining his stiff spine and shoulders with its canted weight. He had not moved in over an hour. Already he seemed a relic, a statue for priests to dust and antiquarians to embalm in learned tales.
Oblivious to their scrutiny, Auron kept vigil with his back to the room. Beyond the glass canopy of the ship's hull, the last poppy gleams of a vivid orange sunset were swallowing the dwindling ranks of pyreflies spiraling up from Sin's—Yevon's grave. In the distance, a bristling shadow-carpet glittered with dark flecks of sapphire, ruby, emerald and topaz, the crystalline fringe of Macalania's enchanted forest. The deck tilted subtly as the ship swung westward, away from the stormy plains.
For a moment, Auron hoped that Lulu could see this: not the first delicate dawn since her imprisonment, but the first sunset, fierce embers cooling to velvet dusk. Then a gray flat strip on the distant horizon gave one almighty flash of fire. He stiffened. That smooth mirror could only be Lake Macalania, melted and refrozen too recently for snows to roughen its surface. Not only the fayth lay entombed in its ice. Monks, acolytes and orphans had been Sin's final victims.
Maybe it was better that Wakka and Rikku had bundled Lulu off into private quarters the instant they came aboard.
Grimacing, he turned towards the end of the gallery, where a small door led to the guest room over Isaaru's. Through the bulkhead he could hear Wakka's grumbles, Rikku's banter. How many Trials had he spent like this, waiting on the wrong side of a door? But they were friends, not fayth. He trusted them. (He was not angry at being shut out. He did not envy. He would not howl at the door like a fiend). Besides, he needed time to collect himself as much as Lulu did. He had come dangerously close to giving her too much of himself with entrust, that soul-gift of life's fire. He wondered if she had retained a piece of it.
"Sir Auron," Maester Lucil called from below. "Will you not join us? This celebration is in your honor as well."
Almost he ignored the invitation. However, he could do with a drink. With another dour glance at the door walling him off from the lodestone of his thoughts, Auron moved to the stairs. There he paused to set his sword against the door-frame. Leaving it like a talisman, he descended and approached the small gathering at the bar with a curt nod for their greetings and smiles.
"Is there any word?" Baralai said. "I'm not the healer that Isaaru is, but I am temple-trained. If you wish, I could—"
Auron saw Juno's fingers tighten around her drink. There was no real danger from this quarter, but it was a reminder. "Lulu needs rest and those she trusts. But thanks."
Their faces burned with curiosity. Turtling behind his collar, he moved to an unoccupied seat, and gave his full attention to the tankard Lucil pushed towards him.
"Gippal should be here," Juno said after an expectant pause. "He's going to miss the party."
"He's headed to Luca after he drops off Elma," Baralai reminded her. "I'm sure the celebrations there will exceed Bevelle's."
"Still gunning for a date with the hot Commander," Nooj said drily. "As I recall, he always wanted to join the Crusaders."
"Did he? Excellent," said Lucil. "I hope your friend has fortitude. Elma's breaking-in of potential officers can be quite strenuous." Her eyes crinkled as Baralai began to cough into his drink.
"Speaking of 'breaking in.'" Juno propped her chin on her hand, eying the silent man at the end of the bar. "Sir Auron, I don't know if you're aware, but during the upheavals at the end of your last pilgrimage, the warrior monks collapsed. There was a purge. The black scrolls were burned. We had to rebuild the order. I don't suppose you would—"
She frowned. "Sir?"
"You don't need the past."
"Your training helped you beat Sin. Three times. You know what works, what's useless. That's a legacy worth passing on."
"I'm not interested in your job."
"Now who's on duty?" Baralai said, eyes twinkling. "I would think that Sir Auron has earned a vacation before he considers new career options."
The door swished open, alleviating the need for further diplomacy. Rikku's large family paraded into the room. Cid, carrying the youngest girl in his arms, was using his knees to herd a sleepy Etta towards a guest-room next to Isaaru's. A noisy argument in Al Bhed had broken out between Vidina and his uncle, a man like a human windmill whose gesticulating arms sported fresh bruises. Little Yuna trailed behind the others with head down, pajama feet slipping off her toes. A plush shoopuf bumped along the floor behind her, tugged along by its snout. At the end of the bar, she halted and turned towards Auron with an imploring look.
He shook his head. "Not yet."
"Yuna wants to see," Brother said, laboring over the Yevonite tongue. "Yuna wants to see the Woman."
"Wakka and Rikku are with her," Auron said, rising to his feet.
Yuna scurried over. Her grandfather turned and harrumphed.
Auron closed his hand around the small fingers seeking his own. "I'll take her to her parents." He nodded to the company. "Excuse me." Ignoring Cid's grumbling, the incongruous pair ascended the staircase.
Auron halted at the top, debating. Yuna seemed to guess why. Releasing her grip on his thumb, she set her shoopuf doll beside the sword, stood on tiptoe and pressed a button on the door panel. A chime sounded. After a brief delay, the door slid open to reveal Wakka filling the entryway like a Ronso, arms folded and stance wide. "Go away," he said. "She's not up yet." He faltered under Auron's unwavering gaze. "Look, Rikku hasn't done her face. You know how mad Lulu used to get if we–"
Auron snorted. "I'll risk it."
Yuna, less patient, uttered a plaintive wail. "Vedran!"
Wakka's eyes softened. "Okay, okay. Sorry. She's a little beat up, Yunie, but don't you worry. Mum's taking real good care of her."
He retreated into the unlit room, illuminated only by the twilight coming through floor-to-ceiling windows. Lulu lay sleeping like a moth under a cocoon of blankets, an undulating form resting on her side facing the sky. It was hard to make out much, but someone had washed away the grime of battle, cleaned and bandaged her wounds, and dressed her in a loose white sleep-tunic that left her shoulders bare. Her hair was wet, dripping onto the floor where it hung over the edge of the bed. Auron's ripped and bloodied coat hung from a peg by the door.
Rikku, carefully arranging Lulu's bangs over one eye, waggled a hairbrush at them as they filed in. "Heya. I wondered how long it would take for you to get in here." She lifted Yuna into her lap, but her wink was directed towards Auron. "Summoner all tucked in?"
"Yes." He took up a position just inside the door's alcove. There was another stool by the bed, clearly not meant for him.
Wakka collapsed onto it like a falling garuda, plopping his chin onto his hands. He craned one eye to watch as Yuna edged forward in her mother's lap, tentative and eager, inspecting the sleeping figure as if peering into a pool. Her outstretched fingers fluttered over sallow bruises, the faint red stripe around Lulu's throat, the gauze bandages wrapping a shoulder. Finally, the girl climbed up onto the head of the bed, lithe and silent like her mother could be, crawling over Lulu's head to peer down at her face. Eyes shining, Yuna looked up at her father.
He beamed at her through his exhaustion. "Yeah. It's really her. That's Lu."
Yuna backed away, careful not to touch. Rikku patted her arm and held out the brush, nodding towards the snarled loops of hair hanging down in a damp curtain.
Yuna settled to work at once, applying the brush too gently to make much headway. "We're taking her home, right? She's coming to live with us?"
Wakka cringed. "Uh, Mum and I need to talk about it."
"It's up to Lulu, honey," Rikku said. She smiled at the upwelling gratitude in Wakka's eyes. "Of course, I'd love for her to stay. She's family. She's your auntie, after all." She nodded towards the man standing in the doorway. "I'm not sure if Dad wants him underfoot, though."
Wakka blanched. "Uh..."
"That won't be necessary," Auron said.
"Oh, come on, don't be such a grouch. You too, Wakka. The Old Home salvage teams could use backup against the sand wyrms."
"Auron's a grouch," Yuna confided to Lulu. "And he came to find you. And we did too, only Da made us wait while he went to fetch you and Mum. And—" she broke off, suddenly aware of the adults listening in.
"That's right, Yunie," Wakka said. "Tell Lu and Mum where you were today."
"We went to the Moonflow!" Yuna said. "It was like the sea, but it was all greeny-brown and flat. We saw real moon-lilies. And there's this huge animal called a shoopuf, and it's not a fiend, and it's gray and it's got a long nose that rolls up. An old man with a pointy hat says it snuffles teenie-weenies. We crossed three times until Vidina jumped in the water and they made us get off. And we saw Sir Clasko and the chocobos! Etta and I rode a yellow one, and Mbela and Vidina got a brown one, and Uncle fell in the mud and everyone jumped on him, but I didn't because..." She ducked her head and trailed off. "She can't hear me, can she?"
"She can hear you." It had grown too dark to see Wakka's expression, but there was a misty tenderness in his voice. "Lulu always hears you. Go on."
"Okay." The girl bit her lip. "Um..."
"Uncle fell off his chocobo," Rikku prompted.
"Right. And I didn't play because the flowers started making pyreflies, and I wanted to watch. Buddy went with me. The pyreflies were singing. Buddy said he couldn't hear them, but I could. They were singing about you. They said you fell, and then they got really quiet. We heard the boom when you fell down. The old man told me not to cry. Then the whole river glowed, and all the lilies made pyreflies, and they were singing—" She stopped, stroking the same tangle over and over. "I danced with them. I danced on the water, just like in your garden, but it wasn't a dream this time. I really did it! The water held me up. And then it was time to come get you."
Wakka exchanged a glance with Rikku, half proud, half rueful. "Oh, man."
"I wish we'd seen it," Rikku said, squeezing the girl's shoulders.
"What did they sing?" Auron asked.
"The song," she said. "The dream song."
He nodded. "Let's hear it."
Yuna ducked her head and began to chant in a sweet, shy singsong. For a moment, everything stopped, and only Lulu was breathing. The rise and fall of the Zu-feather blankets matched the rhythm of the soothing hymn. Rikku exhaled and began stroking Yuna's back absently, head cocked to listen. There was a scrape as Wakka scooted his seat forward. He curled an arm around Rikku and Yuna, eyes watering, joining in the hymn with clumsy, tone-deaf devotion.
Auron prayed. He did not realize he was doing it until he heard his own voice, a croaking parody of a young monk's pure, pious tones. He caught Rikku's startled glance and quick grin hidden behind one hand. Lulu should have awakened just to tease him. But still she lay like a fayth under glass. The thought twisted his stomach.
There were tears trickling down Yuna's cheeks. Strange child. She could so easily reach out and shake the sleeping woman, as was clearly her desire (and Auron half wished she would). But she only waited. Or perhaps she was just sleepy. Her voice had faded to drowsy mumbles, and she was nodding. At last, the brush slipped from her fingers with a clatter, and the song trailed off. Wordlessly, Wakka helped Rikku stand and with unspoken signals determined that Rikku should carry the girl to her room.
Auron stepped aside to let them out. Stirring as she passed, Yuna reached out and bumped his chest with her toes. He started, lips quirking wryly. Thus he and Kimahri used to exchange shifts -- with fists, not feet, of course.
"You get some sleep too, Auron," Rikku said. "You're dead on your feet. Now behave, both of you."
The door slid closed on Rikku's chuckle, and Auron moved to occupy her chair. Wakka's territorial scowl dissolved into a dumbfounded gape when Auron bent, picked up the brush and spread the mage's hair across his knees to finish untangling it.
"Man." Wakka passed a hand over his eyes. "What a weird day. I, uh..." he paused. "You really think Lu's gonna be okay?"
"Yeah, but... I mean, she's Lulu and all, but still."
Auron said nothing. He kept brushing to keep his hands occupied, lest he raise Wakka's hackles by doing anything else.
"I can hardly believe it, you know?" Wakka said. "We've waited so long for this. I'm afraid I'm gonna wake up and find it's just a dream. And I've spent years trying to think what I'd say to her, if we ever got her back. But I still don't know. What can we say? I mean...with Yuna and Kimahri and all."
"The truth," Auron said. "Or don't. Words can't change the past."
"You'd know all about that, huh?"
A prickly silence fell, leaving only the soft, gentle sound of bristles sliding through wet hair, so very different from the rasp of whetstone on steel. Eventually, the ex-blitzer let out an explosive breath. "'Scuze me." Rising, he pushed around Auron and tapped a switch to activate the light-strips, then disappeared into a closet-sized bathroom opposite the door. He returned shortly with a tumbler of water which he set on a small shelf above the bed. There was another moment of fumbling as Wakka edged around him to return to his seat. Auron ignored the shoving.
Indulging in the pleasantly tactile task, Auron brushed until every last snag had been smoothed to silken perfection. He started to sweep up her hair and divide it for braiding, then checked himself. Such a demonstration of familiarity with Lulu's old routine might penetrate even Wakka's ironclad skull. Instead, Auron set his hands on his knees. It took no small amount of self-discipline to keep his gaze from roving over her back and shoulders where the blanket had fallen away from them.
Gaze, nothing. His gauntlet creaked as he clenched his fist. He smiled sourly at his own foolishness.
"Hey, Auron." Wakka cleared his throat. "I...I guess I got kinda hot with you back in Bikanel, huh?"
Auron shrugged. "You had cause."
"I sure did," Wakka said. "But Rikku's told me a few things. You've been trying to get Lulu out all this time, haven't you?"
"Yes," Auron said. "I needed help."
"So that's why you showed up." Wakka circled around to his point on the third try. "Look, um... sorry I hit you, man."
"It's all right. Luzzu hit me too."
"He did? Ha. Good for him! How's the old dog doing?"
"He's dead." Auron inclined his head towards the bed.
"Aw, man." Wakka's face drained of mirth. "Seriously. How is she gonna live like this? She'll blame herself, and so will everybody else. All of Spira will hate her. "
"I've had some years to get used to that, Wakka," Lulu murmured.
"Lu!" Wakka popped out of his chair and lunged past Auron, practically knocking the guardian backwards in his haste. He checked himself from hugging Lulu, barely, and instead dared to rest a hand against her face. "Hey, you." Misreading Auron's blank expression, he strove for more eloquence. "You...you look beautiful."
"Thanks." Her lips loosened in a bleary smile. "Rikku?"
"With the kids." He reached for the tumbler. "You thirsty? Hungry? I'll get you anything."
"Water." She pronounced the word slowly, tasting it. Pliant when Wakka helped her sit up, passive when he held the cup to her lips, she seemed half-asleep until he tilted it too far and spilled cold water down her front. That roused her with a growl. "Enough! Stop fussing, Wakka; I do not require spoon-feeding or diaper changing." She batted his hand away.
"Nope," he said, face cracking into a broad grin. "But you can't scare me anymore, Lu, so you're gonna have to put up with some fussing."
"I...see." She finished with small sips, head bowed and eyes lowered. "No, actually, I don't. I can't see a thing." Her voice turned peevish. "Where are we?"
"An airship," Auron said. "Over Macalania Forest."
Wakka's brow furrowed. "It's not your eyes, Lu; it's just night out there."
"I...yes." She flexed her fingers before her face, peering at her nails. "I'm not used to this." Tilting her head, she reached for a brown scar on the side of Wakka's neck. "That I can see. Did I—?"
"Yep. You got me pretty good, last visit."
"Oh, Wakka." Her breath hissed between her teeth. "That was too close. I am so sorry. I thought I still had enough control. I didn't want to miss the birth. Etta, yes?"
"That's right! You really were watching, weren't you?" He smiled. "It's okay. I think Rikku's forgiven you. In fact, she wants you to come home with us."
"Mmm." She finished the drink and raised her chin, looking past his shoulder. "I... I don't know, Wakka. I need time to think."
Auron met her searching gaze. The sharp thread between them pulled taut like a harpoon line. It was just as well that nothing needed saying, since he could not speak.
"Same old Lu." Wakka took the cup and set it aside. "Take your time. But not too long, eh? We missed you."
"I know, Wakka. And I want to hear everything I've missed: you and Rikku, and this Al Bhed life you'd have scoffed at back in the old days. But first, you need rest. You haven't slept since you left Bikanel, have you?"
"I'm not tired! Not a bit."
"Well, I am." She smiled fondly, watching his brows knit at a fleeting moment of déja vu. "Don't worry. I'm not going to vanish during the night."
Leaning forward, she planted a light kiss on his cheek. "Now, Wakka. Please. I will see both of you in the morning, and then you can introduce me to the children. Was Yuna here?"
"Yeah." He ducked his head. "She wanted to see you real bad, Lu."
"Tomorrow," she assured him. "Give Rikku my love."
"All right, all right. Hit that blue button by the bed if you change your mind and want company." He jerked his head at Auron. "You, too. Out."
"A moment," she said. "There's something I need to ask Sir Auron, first."
"Oh." Wakka's expression darkened. "Well, just...go easy on yourself tonight, okay? No point in dwelling on what's done, like you always used to tell me." Standing, he paused and gazed at her for a long moment, soaking up the sight of her. "Goodnight, Lu. I... er, I mean, we... I mean, I love you, too, ya?" Red-faced, he shuffled to the door and out.
Lulu laughed softly after his departure. "Oh, Wakka. I do hope Rikku understands you better than you do." Then she fell silent for a long, tantalizing minute: breathing, just breathing, as if the act itself were a revelation. At last, she opened her hands, resting them palm-upwards on the blankets. "Auron."
He moved with alacrity. The bed creaked as he knelt over her, sweeping an arm behind her back and drawing her close with fingers knotted in hair he had just brushed smooth. Solid, warm, real kisses sheared through the agony of waiting like a sword-stroke. She held him, caressed him, touching everything: the callouses of his fingers, the knotted muscles of his arms, new skin and dimpled scars on his shoulders, his stubble, his cheekbones, the furrow drilling down his face. She even tugged on his earlobes, wiggling them.
"Yes?" he said, breaking off kissing her with an amused rumble.
"Skin!" she said with such triumphant glee that he suspected Rikku's medicines were making her giddy. "Ordinary, hairy, human skin. I'd forgotten what it was like."
"Hmph." He palmed her cheek. "How do you feel?"
"Small." Lulu looked down and frowned at a few wrinkles disappearing into the tunic's neckline. "I got old."
"Yes, but why?" She stroked the white tufts over his ears, wistful. "Arrogant of me, I suppose. I thought Sin was immune."
"Thirty-five is hardly old, or so you once told me."
"It feels like more." She let her face fall against his neck, lashes tickling as her lids drooped. Warm breaths slowed as her fingers continued to fondle what skin she could reach. "Gods, this almost makes it worth it. You. Here. I can't believe you waited."
"Lulu." He stroked her hair. "You're free. What do you want?"
He stiffened. "What?"
"Ssh." She turned her head and smiled up at him, laying a finger against his frown. "I am myself again. But now I, too, have oaths. I want revenge, Auron."
"Ah." He relaxed, even as the pyrefly chorus surged in his ears: now now now is the time dare leap and go... "That may prove difficult. You're not Sin any longer."
"Oh, we'll find a way." Stretching, the mage raised her right arm indolently, fingers curling around empty air in a way he knew very well. "This time, Auron, you won't have to face her alone."
Next Chapter: Sunrise