Title: Love Her and Despair
Chapter 47: War in Abeyance
Final Fantasy X/X-2
Word Count: 4000
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Our Story So Far: Sin is defeated, Yu Yevon destroyed, and Yuna's old guardians assemble in the city of St. Bevelle for the Calm Festival.
There's your fireworks, Jecht.
The display was excessive. It appeared that Bevelle's brand-new stadium was intent on expending a season's worth of fireworks on a single night. Gaudy team colors erupted brazenly amidst Yevon's pious greens, whites and golds. Fountains and streamers leapt from the walls and towers at every level of the city, from harbor's fringe to the ruined Plaza of St. Bevelle. They were far more colorful than those which had inaugurated Braska's Calm. Auron dimly remembered lying in the withered grass outside the city's gates, rage seeping away with his blood as Rin's makeshift bindings gave out, his halved vision fixed on the white blossoms of light hanging high above him like cold, cold stars. Perhaps Yevon had been trying to reconsecrate its heretic summoner with white's purity.
A caress on his forearm recalled him to the present. Success was so alien that it was hard for him to remain focused upon it. He needed focus now more than ever. More, he needed...this.
Surrounded by old friends, Auron stood on the parapet spanning the back wall of Yuna's Cloister along the city's ramparts. His hand rested on the small of Lulu's back. His sword's weight rested comfortably against his spine. Before them, the mountain-city's dizzying heights tumbled away into its wrinkled reflection on the bay a thousand feet below. A constant barrage of fireworks lofted weightlessly to eye level with soft chuffs, hung suspended on their own potentialities, then exploded in fiery, noisy, exuberant death-throes as spectacular as they were fleeting. Now and then a spattering of warm soot dusted the watchers' cheeks. They stood close enough to scent the gunpowder. The smoke was slowly turning to fog in the moist air, shrouding the fireworks in a ruddy cocoon that flickered eerily like drunken glow-worms from within. Between booms of thunder, the sounds of revelry skirled up from the streets below: horns and songs and spirit bells, pots and pans and raucous voices. For tonight, at least, Bevelle was the city that never slept.
Lulu watched the celebration with the detached air of an ascetic monk at a wedding. Her lips curled in a faint appraising smile for the pyrotechnics.
Auron's other companions were noisy participants in the revels. The regular residents of Yuna's Cloister, nuns and monks and mobile invalids, were watching from the enclosed garden, but Rikku's family had ventured onto the outer ramparts in defiance of safety proclamations. The children shrieked with delight as a fan of fireworks splashed along the length of the ruined Highbridge like a dragon darting past in a sweeping scythe.
"Dad!" Vidina cried. "Throw another one!"
"Just a sec," said Rikku. "Etta, put your goggles back on, or you're going inside." Rummaging in her belt pouch, she passed a handful of pellets to Wakka. He grinned at her, reared back and lobbed a high pass. Pink starbursts and orange streamers crackled to life, minnow-darting in every direction. Lulu, smiling indulgently at the small girl tugging her sleeve, leaned out and added a cascade of sheet lightning to the mix.
"And that's the last," she said above the din.
"Awww," the girl said. "Do a purple one!"
"I'm sorry, dear. I'm a little tired."
Another volley of official fireworks detonated just over their heads, reverberating off all the cloister's stained-glass windows with a tremendous bang that shook the stones underfoot. The children covered their ears and howled gleefully at the top of their lungs.
"The Calm," Lulu observed, "is best celebrated with bedlam."
"Apparently," Auron said.
Her hand stroked his on the balustrade. "So, I wonder how long it will take them to forget Isaaru's speech?" She nodded towards the city below.
"As much as that? Auron, you're an incurable romantic."
"You wanted to believe him, too."
Despite the cacophony, this was the first peace they had enjoyed since their early morning respite with Father Zuke. Busy as he had been with a full house and dignitaries to entertain, he had made discreet arrangements: Lulu's first meal, a cozy room in an out-of-the-way passage at the back of the Cloister overlooking the harbor, a much-needed bath for Auron, and heavy nun's robes for Lulu that she had rejected in favor of the simple white gown of a novice. After refreshing themselves, they had rejoined Isaaru for a bumpy ride down to Northgate by chocobo-cart. There Maester Shelinda had met them with throngs of many thousands, all the evacuated citizenry of Bevelle waiting eagerly for a glimpse of Spira's deliverers. Summoner, guardians and important persons had been transferred to chocobo-drawn floats which would lead the procession, preventing a stampede and ensuring an orderly repopulation of the city level by level.
Lulu had ridden in the lead float on the tactful insistence of Isaaru. He had started his pilgrimage with three guardians, he said, and he would end with three, for Lulu had fought beside them. The summoner's float was a grotesque diorama representing Sin crashing into the Calm Lands— left over from some previous Calm Festival— on which Isaaru and his comrades were carried aloft on a twisted form of glittering bronze representing the Final Summoning. Behind them, the maesters followed on another float styled after the Court of Yevon. Rikku and Wakka and their family represented the Al Bhed on a third float hastily commissioned by Baralai. Juno and Nooj rode on a fourth battlemented float, Nooj suffering himself to be dressed in his old uniform at Lucil's invitation. His reputation among the Crusaders was such that many veterans still saluted him as the Undying (at which title Auron and Lulu had exchanged ironic glances). Juno's warrior monks and the Yocun Crusaders escorted the final float in a doubled column, and civilians flowed after.
For hours the parade had wended its way through garlanded streets. Adoring, jubilant faces blurred together in a living wall. Gifts of flowers sailed through the air to land on the float, piling up on Sin's form in drifts of petals and green. Young people shrieked or blew kisses to newly-minted legends. Elders bowed low in Yevon's prayer to the very ones who had slain their god. This is Spira, Isaaru told his guardians, amidst dry banter or longer silences which suited all of them but Pacce. These are those you saved. But Lulu's hand pressed against the brand on Auron's palm, and in his mind's eye he saw Sin's lost dream-garden, rows upon rows of stones etched with names, cenotaphs stretching to infinity under a somber canopy of living green. That seemed real; this a dream. Later, the children would recount gushing impressions of the day's festivities: jugglers and stilt-walkers, balloons and ribbons and people trying to climb on the floats and sphere cameras and funny hats and their father beaning somebody on a rooftop who appeared to be pointing a rifle at the procession. (Wakka had left his oversized gun with Brother, but had brought along a blitzball.)
The parade had terminated in Bevelle Stadium, where, as he must have done many times as Grand Maester, Isaaru moved to the podium to make a speech. Spheres set in the stands and streets outside the stadium amplified his soft voice.
"Friends," he began, "Sin is dead."
He stood smiling for over a minute as wild applause washed from one side of the amphitheater to the other. "With the Al Bhed's aid, Sin has been utterly destroyed. Its unwilling fayth has been freed from bondage. I swear to you now, Sin will never again return to trouble Spira. This Calm will be Eternal." The ovation that followed this announcement was deafening. The whole stadium trembled as if under assault. Nearly lost in the tumult was a bewildered buzz of conversation as neighbor turned to neighbor. Sin's fayth? What did he mean? Was Sin an aeon? Had the summoner used Al Bhed machina?
Isaaru spread his hands and waited again for the uproar to subside. "For a thousand years, the Church of Yevon has guided you with wise teachings which warned against strife, theft and greed. Sin comes, we said, from your sins. And so we taught you to be good out of fear. Now that fear is ended. But it was never true." The maesters behind Isaaru shifted uneasily, especially Shelinda, who covered her mouth with her hands. Lucil and Baralai merely exchanged glances of rueful resignation. These minor disturbances were nothing compared to the uneasy murmur that rippled through the spectators.
Isaaru went on, serene and unshakeable. "People of Spira, I tell you now, Sin arose from hate. Sin was never a punishment for our transgressions. It was Zanarkand's revenge: one final, awful aeon left behind to spite its destroyers. And now, without fear of Sin, I fear we may fall away from the teachings of Yevon, thinking that nothing can harm us.
"We may be tempted. We will be tempted. But I say to you, my friends: we are not children, cowed by nuns' tales into being good lest fiends carry us away in the night. Let us outgrow the temple nursery and be captains of our own words and deeds. Cast off guilt and atonement. Choose virtue not out of fear, but out of love.
"Remember the love of the High Summoners who sacrificed themselves for us. Remember the guardians who gave their lives for their summoners." He turned, indicating Auron, Pacce and Lulu with a sweep of his arm: those near the podium saw his brimming eyes when he smiled at his surviving brother. "Honor the unnumbered dead, Crusaders and warrior monks, Ronso and Al Bhed, even the Guado, all those who have fallen in battle against Sin." This time he gestured to his left, where Nooj now stood with the Al Bhed contingent, and where Wakka and Rikku held their two youngest while Vidina and Yuna fidgeted against their legs. "Remember Lady Yuna, blessed daughter of Yevon and Al Bhed, whose guidance and guardians gave me the true answer that eluded Yevon's church for a thousand years.
"Keep well their gifts. Tell their stories. Make Spira a good place not out of fear, but out of love. For if you do not, and if you forget this love that drove heroes to sacrifice themselves for our sakes, Spira will fall back into its petty ways, and there will be war again. Such war will breed new Sins. Nevertheless, I do not counsel fear, only hope. Unite with all the people of Spira, for together we are stronger than any Sin. Build the Spira that countless Spirans died to save."
A stunned silence followed, broken by a few crying babies, then a few claps, then more, and then scattered cheers escalated into a frenzied crescendo that must have been audible all the way to the Calm Lands. Auron felt Lulu's nails biting his skin. "Oh, Auron," she said. "He's a good man. A poor summoner, but a good man."
"You delivered a message," Auron said. "He heard it."
And so that glorious day had passed in celebration of a victory which had once meant more to Auron than rank, honor or life. When alive, this triumph would have mattered to him. Now? Could anything still matter, after so many failures and broken oaths?
The answer lay in the pyrefly-shriven flesh beneath his hand and in the flesh and blood behind him.
"Speaking of incurably romantic," Lulu said in his ear, then straightened. "Wakka? Rikku?" she called, raising her voice. "I'm turning in. I'll see you at the morning meal, yes?"
Wakka looked up from ministering to Vidina, who had gotten a whiff of funguar pollen from Rikku's last mix. "Sure thing, Lu. Need company back to your room?"
"Absolutely not." She stepped away from Auron, who had removed his hand from under her veil of braids when she drew attention to herself. "Goodnight, Wakka."
Auron did not watch her go, but he heard her fond "sweet dreams" to Yuna when she stooped to kiss the girl goodnight. Time blurred as he stayed to watch the fireworks finale, an obscure gift of memory for Jecht that he doubted he would be able to deliver. While the final embers were still falling, he stepped away from the wall and turned to make his way back into the building. Rikku winked at him as he passed and gave him a covert thumb's up. Hmph was the only fitting reply.
Each step came faster than the one before, as if Sin's gravitational pull were still drawing him forward. Father Zuke had given them a long, narrow, out-of-the-way room, too large for a solitary patient and too narrow to turn beds sideways and partition the room for two. It had been serving as a storage closet. Crates, benches and bookshelves stood stacked along the corridor outside, discouraging passage. Sidling around these, Auron found the door left partway open, a rectangle of dim yellow light serving as a beacon. He stepped inside. His fingers fumbled for the bolt behind him and drew it to with a clack that made her flinch.
Seated on a stool before a slit-window, the mage was brushing out her hair by candlelight. He paused, absorbing the comfortably ordinary sight. The plain linen gown of a novitiate fell loosely from her shoulders, obscuring womanly curves. Her black hair was too stark against undyed fabric, accentuating her pallor. Deprived of beads, earrings, cosmetics, she reminded him of an unfinished summoner's statue, unvarnished and stripped of ornamentation. But the flicker of gold lapping her pale skin was an image whose memory had warmed him often during Gagazet's long, frigid nights.
Her hands kept stroking, hypnotic, as if taking refuge in routine. There was a puzzling shimmer at the edge of his vision, and for a moment he had the disconcerting impression that she was combing away stray pyreflies. But no, it was only static electricity. Ignoring the cackling whispers of his own pyrefly chorus urging him to abandon patience for lust, he executed his customary routine with no more haste than usual. Off went the sword and back-sheath, propped in a corner within easy reach of the cot nearest the window. Off went his boots and high collar, glove and vambrace, belt and jug, piled on a small table where his coat lay folded neatly. He started to shed his hauberk, then paused, smiled inwardly at a thought, and approached with panoply in place. Stooping, he gathered her left hand from the windowsill and raised it to his lips.
The mage turned then, raising haggard eyes that softened for him, a transformation that never failed to startle him. His mellow mood evaporated at the sight of her too-brave smile. The sheen on her cheekbones was more than that of candlelight. He stepped closer. Wordlessly, Lulu placed the brush on the sill and her arms around his waist, resting her cheek against the armor over his stomach. That vulnerable gesture was almost more disturbing than her tears. Had something happened since she left his side? A ghost-memory came to him, that formula she had sometimes used to deflect Tidus, expressing a fundamental truth of her being: I'm sorry. I need to be alone for a while. I need to think. She had not been alone with her own thoughts in thirteen years.
"Lulu." He reached down to thumb the wet from her cheeks. "It's all right." It was most certainly not all right, but he trusted her to decipher inadequate words.
"But you never—"
"You're not me." He shrugged. "And for what it's worth, I did. On Yunalesca's doorstep, waiting for Braska and Jecht."
He felt the faint slump in her shoulders when pride yielded. She wept for a long time, silent and barely moving, face averted and hidden by the spill of dark hair that slanted across one eye. He let the rains fall, profoundly wrenched, wooden where a lover would have... what? He did not know. Monk's vows and death's door and all the long and weary steps afterwards had not taught him how to comfort another soul, except for one peevish boy. He did not think dangling Lulu upside-down by her ankles and waiting for the squall to pass was in any way appropriate. So he stood still. Only his hand kept moving, wiping away the tears as they came.
When at last they ceased, her voice was only a little unsteady. "We've traveled a long way, haven't we?"
"Everywhere but one," he said, the slow brush of his fingers against her skin answering as speech could not. "And three pilgrimages apiece."
"I suppose that's some kind of record." She drew a breath, muttering with surprising venom, "Damn it."
"Lulu. Tell me."
"Yevon's welcoming committee."
Nonplussed, he cast his mind back over the day's bustle. There had been that warrior monk trying to scale the edge of the float, eager to proffer his undying devotion, to which Lulu had cryptically replied that undying things were the one thing she abhorred. There had been Juno escorting them into the stadium with another sour look at the mage in Maroda's place. There had also been the unpleasant business this morning with the guilt-ridden priest, which clearly troubled Lulu more than she would admit. But her tone suggested some other target of bile. "The maesters?"
"And that overgrown machina, Vegnagun. A thousand years old, wasn't it? No one would have been killed, Auron, if they'd used it sooner." Her arms tightened around him in a fierce squeeze. "No one."
"No one knew it was there, Lulu."
"Didn't they? Someone's kept it in working order. To stifle the Al Bhed, maybe, if the heathens ever became too troublesome. Or maybe Bevelle's already used it. Have you seen what's left of the original Al Bhed Home?" Her breath hissed, like the ocean rolling back before a deadly wave. "I swear, if I still had my powers, I'd raze this city right down to sea level."
"If the maesters had discovered it sooner, Seymour would've used it to seize power. Or Kinoc would have. Let it go, Lulu. You know better than this." His voice sharpened. "And you sound like Sin."
Her arms dropped to her sides. There was a moment of dead silence, during which the air seemed to grow inexplicably warmer. Then it faded. She kissed his fingertips. "I'm sorry, Auron. Really, I'm fine. I'm just tired."
"Then let's get you to bed."
He pressed a hand against her shoulder, willing her to wait while he rearranged the furniture. The two cots had been set chastely against opposite sides of the room according to some priest's notion of propriety. This was easily remedied. Shoving them together and spreading the coverlets, he found himself wondering when he and Lulu had last enjoyed the luxury of a real bed. Airship bunks were too narrow.
A hand glided against his back. He turned, settled onto the edge of the bed, circled her waist reverently and guided her to sit crossways over his legs. Tired or no, she responded with silent fervor, draping her arms around his shoulders. For a time they lost themselves to slow, sensual kisses. Lulu's fingers wandered, sketching frost-trails and heat on his scarred arms until her hands found the catches of his hauberk and flipped them open one by one. His shell landed on the floor with a clank. Laying back, he pulled her over him onto the bed, murmuring in her ear.
"'Do you suppose that one of us could make the other feel like one of the living?'" Those words, spoken thirteen years ago, had set in motion all that had passed between them since.
Yet she stiffened. "Auron—" Her breath caught at a kiss pressed against her throat. "Oh, Auron, how could I have been so callous? I didn't understand what I was asking of you."
"I have no regrets. I hope you don't."
"No, except...except..." She tripped over her words, distracted by his tongue, "Surely it's blasphemy. What was I thinking?"
That elicited a startled bark of laughter. "Lulu, we've conspired with the Al Bhed, used forbidden machina, killed a maester, destroyed Yevon's god, and devastated most of the temples in Spira, and now you're worried about blasphemy?"
"Oh." She almost laughed, then. "Well, there is that."
"You think too much." He traced her hip from waist to thigh, feeling her body curl against his touch. "This. Flesh. We're here. Never mind how. It makes no more sense than life, Lulu, and it will pass the same way. And there is no book, no teachings, no scripture, no map that applies to us." As if of their own volition, her hands began to map the scars of his chest.
"'Don't think," she said, mimicking his gruff tones. "'Feel.'"
"Do you remember my reply to your original question?" he pressed.
She tilted her head. "I..." and then he heard the small, tired chuckle as his words came back to her. "'I doubt it, but I shouldn't mind being proved wrong.'"
"You've been proving me wrong for thirteen years, Lulu. Otherwise I should have become a fiend by now."
"Auron." That name, a whispered talisman. The brand on his palm tingled in a sympathetic pulse. She relaxed, as if the word made burdens easier to bear. "Then... please remind me what it is to be human."
Thirteen years they had waited, and now, at last, they had time. She was no longer Spira's Lady; she was his: this warmth, these curves, this refined elegance mixed with dangerous seduction, these fierce kisses, this secretly passionate woman who constrained herself with chilly reserve, with bindings and belts and braids before the public eye. For him, she was abundant.
And Mars put off his shield and panoply, and for one night only war was in abeyance.
The pyreflies sang between them until both life and death ceased to have any meaning.
Hours later, they lay face to face, as close to sated as unquiet souls ever dared to be. Auron leaned in to press a light kiss against her brow and stated, "You have something of mine."
"Your coat is lying folded on that sideboard," she returned, drowsily affable, "Nor is it my fault that someone stuck a sword through it."
"Not what I meant." He captured the hand fondling his stubble and drew it slowly and deliberately down against his chest.
Lulu made a soft, desolate sound in the back of her throat, and he chastised himself for being another cause of tears. But her eyes remained dry as she sought his gaze and moved their interlaced fingers to the hollow between her breasts. "Well, you have something of mine. I suppose it's too late to return it."
He embraced her, sealing clasped hands between them. "But too early to let go."
Next Chapter: The Houses of Healing
O Love and Time and Sin,
Three singing mouths that mourn now underbreath,
O Love, thou knowest if she were good to see.
O Time, thou shalt not find in any land
Till, cast out of thine hand,
The sunlight and the moonlight fail from thee,
Another woman fashioned like as this.
O Sin, thou knowest that all thy shame in her
Was made a goodly thing;
Yea, she caught Shame and shamed him with her kiss,
With her fair kiss, and lips much lovelier
Than lips of amorous roses in late spring.
By night there stood over against my bed
Queen Venus with a hood striped gold and black,
Both sides drawn fully back
From brows wherein the sad blood failed of red,
And temples drained of purple and full of death.
Her curled hair had the wave of sea-water...
Even she to whom all praise
Was as one flower in a great multitude,
One glorious flower of many and glorious,
One day found gracious among many days.
-- from "The Ballad of Death" by Algernon Swinburne
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