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 Navigation: Previous Chapter | Next Chapter
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.
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. Even so, his spirits lifted. 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 inhaled frigid air, but it was an ache as familiar as the scar on his face. He trusted it more than Besaid's perfect blue skies.
Thrashing onto his side to free himself, he fetched up against a sword thrust into the snow. Heavy chains linked it to another sword standing nearby, and another, and another, all linked in a circle like the posts of a child's carousel. More chains formed spokes radiating from a central hub, which was...
Lulu. She stood like one more blade, 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, thighs, 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 stumble. 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 said 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 engulfed 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 anger 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 bent to her ear to whisper, "I'm ending this. Now." It was vital that she believe.
Even simple promises were difficult. 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 was almost back where he had started.
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 set a hand over hers, the only bare skin within reach. "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 hands too clumsy for the job, wincing at the blood welling up through crusted scabs. Then he was able to unwind the leather strap binding her arms together. To reach her legs, he had to dig down into the snow. She clung to his shoulders when he lifted her out and laid her on his coat. Then he prowled over her in a wordless ritual, peeling 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 straps 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 beautiful.
"Well done," he said.
"I had help."
There was a moment's hesitation: doubt or disbelief had her staring up at him, searching. She lifted a finger to stroke his forelock, 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."
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 monk than prince. But there was magic in a 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 chest tightened. 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, blanching at the ground 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 wavering 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 most of his 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 stretched under him, almost relaxed. "You've still got your sword handy, right?"
His eyes narrowed at the question. "Yes."
"Good. I woke up to find a marlboro on my head!" She tugged at the snarls of hair twining around her shoulders. "I must look frightful."
"Hmph." Glimmers of vanity were probably 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."
"What's a panoply?"
Lulu's 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 left arm, flipping catches she did not need to see.
Abruptly she tensed. There was no time to ask why 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. Expelled from Sin's carapace, he hurtled 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 shattered bones, but Sin's shield cushioned him. He was bruised, but not broken.
Auron lay on his back 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 tore the sky, 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 survey the 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. "We wounded it. That's all."
"That'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 makeshift 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 initiated an attack run. I've got to take helm now, or the autopilot's going to shut me out. Talk later."
"Dammit," Baralai said. "I should court-martial her when this is over."
"I'm sure she knows that." Nooj banked 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 pass." He smiled. "Here's your chance, Baralai. Make the most of it."
Next Chapter: Titanomachy