Title: Love Her and Despair
Chapter 44: "Chrysalis"
Final Fantasy X/X-2
Characters:Auron/Lulu, Lucil, Nooj, Paine, Baralai, Wakka, Rikku
Word Count: 4200
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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.
The lounge of the Celsius was ruddy and warm with laughter, with drink, and with song. Old friends and new had gathered there for the flight back. There was mud on the deck and 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. "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.
Baralai and Juno stared as if he had sprouted fluffy yellow wings and pranced along the bar singing the latest show tunes from Luca.
"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 their drinks. Something like hailstones was pelting the other side of the cabin door. The ship's captain was also a target, to judge by the muffled screams. Lucil was the first off her barstool, seizing her cane. Baralai reached for his gun.
"It's not weapons fire," Nooj said, one arm slipping behind 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 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 frankness in his tone made Juno sit up straight.
"This Nooj," she said, "is going to take some getting used to."
The door lurched partway open, revealing four giggling children, Brother flat on his back moaning with theatrical pathos, and Cid standing stupefied at the far end of the corridor. A swarm of miniature rubber blitzballs were ricocheting off ceiling, walls and floor. Whooping, Vidina grabbed up a handful and pitched them as hard as he could at the nearest wall, setting off another pinball frenzy. Some hurtled into the room and caromed off mugs, barstools, and the back of Nooj's head. Baralai's robes took an arc of ale from a tumbling drink.
"Ahuikr!" Cid roared. The door hissed shut. The hubbub began to subside.
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 into the city when we shut down the evacuation camps. We may, however, need to postpone festivities until the High Summoner has recovered." She nodded towards the door at the opposite end of the lounge, 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," Baralai said. "Or an honorable discharge. I haven't decided yet."
"Baralai!" Juno glared. "You wouldn't."
"Actually, 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. "Juno 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 looked up at the lone figure on the mezzanine above them. His shock of white hair stood out like a torch, tinted by the sunset beyond the windows. He was still wearing his cuirass, and his sword-hilt jutted above his shoulder. He had not moved in over an hour. Already he seemed a relic, a statue for priests to dust and antiquarians to embalm in legends.
Oblivious to their scrutiny, Auron kept vigil. Outside, the last poppy gleams of 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 flecks of sapphire, emerald and topaz, the fringe of Macalania Forest.
He resisted the urge to look to his right. The room above Isaaru's cabin was off-limits for now. Through the door he could hear Wakka's grumbles, Rikku's banter. How many Trials had he spent like this, waiting on the wrong side of a portal? But they were friends, not fayth. (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. "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 a passing glower at the door walling him off from the lodestone of his thoughts, he descended the stairs, taking an unoccupied barstool.
"Is there any word?" Baralai said. "I'm not the healer that Isaaru is, but I am temple-trained. If you wish, I could—"
Juno's fingers tightened around her drink.
"Lulu needs rest and those she trusts," Auron said. "But thanks." Turtling behind his collar, he 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 said. "I'm sure the celebrations there will exceed Bevelle's."
"Still gunning for a date with the hot Commander," Nooj said, amused. "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 said. "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 burned. We had to rebuild the order. I don't suppose you would—"
"Your training helped you beat Sin. Three times. That's a legacy worth passing on."
"You don't need the past."
"Now who's on duty?" Baralai said. "I would think Sir Auron has earned a vacation before he considers new career options."
The door swished open, alleviating the need for further diplomacy. Through it they could see Rikku's family dispersing into cabins on either side of the hallway. Cid, carrying the youngest in his arms, was using his knees to herd a sleepy Etta. An argument in Al Bhed had broken out between Vidina and his uncle. Yuna seized her chance and darted into the lounge. A plush shoopuf bumped along the floor behind her, dragged along by its snout. She made a beeline for Auron.
He shook his head when she tugged at his pantsleg. "Not yet."
She tugged again. The adults at the bar began to fall silent, exchanging smiles.
"She's asleep," Auron said.
By this time, Brother had discovered his missing charge. He poked his head into the lounge. "Yuna wants to see," he said, laboring over the foreign tongue, "Yuna wants to see the Woman."
"I'll take her to her parents," Auron said, rising to his feet. "Excuse me." Ignoring Cid's grumbling from the hallway, he hoisted the girl onto his shoulder and carried her up the stairs.
His sword was in the way. Unclipping the sheath, he dropped the weapon with a clank and propped it against the wall by the door. Yuna scrambled down and placed her shoopuf doll beside it with solemn care. The door slid open.
" Wakka stood filling the entryway like a Ronso, arms folded. "Go away. She's not up yet." He faltered under Auron's unwavering gaze. "Look, Rikku hasn't done her face. You know how mad Lulu gets 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 dim room, illuminated only by twilight's last gleam through the windows. Lulu lay sleeping like a moth under a cocoon of blankets. Someone had washed away the grime of battle, cleaned and bandaged her wounds, and dressed her in loose white pajamas. Her hair was wet, dripping on the floor where it hung over the edge of the bunk. Auron's ripped and bloodied coat hung from a peg by the door.
Rikku waggled a hairbrush at the visitors as they filed in. "Heya. I wondered how long it would take you to get in here." She lifted Yuna into her lap, but her wink was directed at Auron. "Summoner all tucked in?"
"Yes." He halted just inside the door. There was another stool by the bed, certainly not meant for him.
Wakka collapsed onto it like a falling garuda. Yunie edged forward in her mother's lap, inspecting the sleeping woman as if peering into a pool. Her outstretched fingers fluttered over sallow bruises, the red stripe around Lulu's throat, the gauze bandages wrapping a shoulder. She cocked her head sideways to peer at Lulu's shadowed face. At last, she turned to her father, eyes shining.
He beamed through his exhaustion. "Yeah. It's really her. That's Lu."
Rikku held up the brush, nodding towards the waves of hair hanging in a damp curtain.
Yuna set to work, 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 Auron. "I'm not sure if Dad wants him underfoot, though."
"That won't be necessary," Auron said.
"Oh, come on, don't be such a grouch. You too, Wakka. The salvage teams could use backup against the sand worms when you've got the kids."
"Auron's a grouch," Yuna confided to Lulu. "And he came to find you. And we did too, only Dad 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 big 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 threw a blitzball 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 Buddy fell in the mud and everyone jumped on him, but I didn't because..." She 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..."
"Buddy fell off a chocobo," Rikku prompted.
"Right. And I didn't play because the flowers started making pyreflies, and I wanted to watch. The pyreflies were singing. Vidina said he couldn't hear them, but I could. They said you fell, and then they got really quiet. We heard the boom when you landed. The old man told me not to cry. Then the whole river glowed, and there were lots more pyreflies, and they started to sing again, and—” She was 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. I really did it! The water held me up."
Wakka exchanged glances with Rikku, half proud, half rueful. "Aw, 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."
"Let's hear it."
She began to chant in a sweet, shy singsong. Everything seemed to stop except the rise and fall of Lulu's blankets in time to the hymn. Rikku rubbed Yuna's back, head cocked to listen. Wakka drew his seat forward with a scrape, curled an arm around Rikku and Yuna, and joined in with clumsy, tone-deaf devotion.
Auron prayed. He did not realize it until he heard his own voice, a croaking parody of a young monk's pure, pious tones. Rikku hid a grin behind one hand. Lulu should have woken up just to tease him.
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). Slowly, her voice faded to drowsy mumbles. The brush slipped from her fingers. Wakka helped Rikku stand and with unspoken signals determined that she should carry the child to her room.
Auron stepped aside to let them out. Stirring as she passed him, Yuna reached out and bumped his chest with her toes. He started. 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 closed. Auron moved to Rikku's chair. Wakka's scowl dissolved into a 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...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. I'm afraid I'm gonna wake up and find it's just a dream. I've spent years trying to think what I'd say to her, if we ever got her back. But 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?"
Prickly silence fell, leaving only the sound of bristles sliding through wet hair, so different from the rasp of whetstone on steel. Eventually, Wakka let out an explosive breath. "'Scuze me." Rising, he pushed around Auron, tapped a light-strip on the wall to activate it, and disappeared into a closet-sized bathroom opposite the door. He returned shortly with a tumbler of water. Auron ignored the shoving as Wakka sat down again.
Indulging in the pleasantly tactile task, Auron brushed until every last snag had been smoothed away. He started to sweep up her hair and divide it for braiding, then checked himself. Such a demonstration of familiarity with Lulu's routine might penetrate even Wakka's ironclad skull. Instead, Auron set his hands on his knees. Firmly.
"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. But Rikku's told me some things. You've been trying to get Lulu out all this time, haven't you?"
"Yes. 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 Lulu.
"Aw, man." Wakka's face drained. "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, practically knocking Auron over. A hug was impossible while she was lying down, but he rested a hand against her face. "Hey, you." Misreading Auron's blank expression, he strove for eloquence. "You…you look beautiful."
"Thanks." She opened one eye. "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 water down her front. That roused her with a growl. "Enough! I do not require spoon-feeding or diaper changing." She batted his hand away.
"Nope," he said, grinning. "But you can't scare me anymore, Lu, so you're gonna have to put up with a little pampering. We got a dozen years or so to make up for, ya?"
"I...see." She finished with small sips, head bowed. "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. My eyes." She flexed her fingers before her face, peering at her nails. Then she reached for a 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'm sorry. I thought I still had enough control. I didn't want to miss the birth. Mbela, 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 gaze. The thread between them pulled taut like a harpoon line.
"Same old Lu." Wakka took the cup back. "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 faintly, watching his brows knit at fleeting 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. She wanted to see you real bad, Lu."
"Tomorrow," she assured him. "Give Rikku my love."
"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," Lulu said. "There's something I need to speak to Sir Auron about."
"Oh." Wakka's expression darkened. "Well, just...go easy on yourself, okay? No point in dwelling on what's done, like you always used to tell me." He took his time in getting up and moving to the door, soaking up the sight of her. "Goodnight, Lu. I...er, I mean, we...I mean, I love you, too, ya?" Red-faced, he shuffled out.
Lulu laughed softly after the door closed. "Oh, Wakka. I do hope Rikku understands you better than you do." A tantalizing silence followed. For a time, she seemed preoccupied by the simple act of breathing. Then she let her hands fall open upon 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. She held him, caressed him, touching everything: the callouses of his fingers, the knotted muscles of his arms, the new scars on his shoulders, his stubble, his cheekbones, the furrow drilling down his face. She even tugged his earlobes.
"Yes?" he said, breaking off kissing her with an amused rumble.
"Skin!" she said with such triumphant glee he suspected Rikku's medicines were making her giddy. "Ordinary, hairy, human skin. I'd forgotten what it was like."
He palmed her cheek. "How do you feel?"
"Small." Lulu looked down and frowned at wrinkles disappearing below her 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 centuries. Which, I suppose, it would have been." She let her face fall against his neck, lashes tickling. "You. Here. I can't believe you waited."
His arms tightened around her. "Lulu. You're free. What do you want?"
"Ssh." She raised her head, laying a finger against his frown. "I am myself again. But 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, 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