Title: Love Her and Despair
Chapter 46: Points of Departure
Final Fantasy X/X-2
Characters:Auron/Lulu, Isaaru, Pacce, Zuke, Cid, and...about half of Spira, okay?
Word Count: 3900
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Map of Pilgrimage - Links to All Chapters
Our Story So Far: Yu Yevon has been defeated, and Sin's fayth is free at last. Summoner Isaaru, Sir Auron, friends and allies return in battered triumph to Bevelle aboard an Al Bhed airship.
Emerging into a whirligig of tumbling children, Auron was glad that Lulu remained in her cabin's sanctuary. The seating area on the mezzanine was crammed full of people. In the horseshoe of padded seats closest to her door, Cid, Baralai and Lucil had their heads together in a flurry of last-minute negotiations shouted over the rising whine of the engines. Rikku had claimed the opposite sofa, bent over some project laid across her knees — his sword, Auron realized, and felt a strange prickle of irritation and nostalgia at her tinkering. The children were everywhere, squealing with delight when a pocket of turbulence parted them from the floor for a few seconds.
One pillar of quiet kept watch over the chaos: Captain Juno, positioned in the aft corner of the lounge for a clear view of the maesters, the stairs, and Lulu's cabin door. "So who's guarding Sin?" she said as Auron stepped out in front of her.
"Sin's dead." He turned his back to her, heading for Isaaru's cabin on the floor below, but the top of the staircase was obstructed by a barrier of sofa cushions and stuffed animals.
"—Five years," Baralai was saying, earnest and intent, all but oblivious to the ship's motion or the children ricochetting around them. "We'll wave docking fees for five years. Agreed?"
"Agreed," Lucil said. Her crisp battlefield cadences had an odd squeak: apparently she was not enjoying the speed at which they were skimming over the harbor.
"Whoa!" Vidina said, climbing a denuded sofa and mashing his face against the glass. "Look at that bridge! The steel's totally melted. Way to go, Pop-pops!"
"Get down, boy," Cid said with an ominous rumble. "Now see here, Baralai—"
"Consider, Elder Cid," Baralai said, "that the lake is composed of frozen pyrefly slurry. You could refuel your ships right there."
"Provided that," Lucil said, "Macalania Temple is left undisturbed, and Lady Shelinda concurs."
"It was an accident," the younger children recited in a sing-song, apparently practicing a new word. They rebounded off the back of the empty sofa under the window. "Acci, acci, accident!"
"Kids," Rikku said mildly, "Settle down, okay? Pop-pops is working."
"Deal," Cid said, grimacing. "I'm down by one airship, mind, so don't expect a weekly ferry service. And Gippal may want compensation."
"Hey, Auron!" Rikku pushed up her goggles and set her tools aside, drumming the heavy blade across her knees in satisfaction. She beamed up at him. "You dropped something. What's rule number three, kids?"
"Don't leave toys out where Dad can trip over 'em!" Vidina crowed, surreptitiously jamming one of the mini-blitzballs from last night's romp behind the sofa. "Where's Yunie?"
"With Lulu," Auron said, coming forward to reclaim his weapon. He spun the hilt as he lifted it, letting sunlight play across the dark metal. All the nicks and scratches from the pilgrimage had vanished from the blade's edge. Rikku winked. "Thanks," he said, stepping to the edge of the balcony where he had room to sheathe it.
Cid grumbled something about too many damned passengers. At that point the engines' roar became too loud for speech. His Yevon colleagues fell silent, gripping their armrests against the careening deceleration. The outer ramparts of the first circle whipped past the window. Auron planted his feet and braced. Sputtering a few choice words about her brother's piloting skills, Rikku dropped to the floor to snag Etta and Mbela. The view outside became a dizzying blur. Air brakes shrieked. There was a final groaning vibration as the ship slowed and swung to a stop like a cart swaying in its traces. The maesters exchanged shaky smiles.
"Airships may not be blasphemy, but I shall stick to chocobos," Lucil said.
Nooj's voice filtered over the intercom. "Ladies and gentlemen, the Plaza of St. Bevelle. Our pilot cordially requests that all members of Yevon disembark. I'll see you below."
"We'd better," Juno muttered.
"Well, here we are!" Rikku said, hopping to her feet and catching the two youngest as they started towards the stairs. "Al Bhed, sit tight; Mum'll be right back. Vidina, keep 'em out of trouble. Yevon folks, follow me. You guys need to come up with a new name for yourselves, by the way. How about Ogie Fogeys?"
"Sir Auron," Lucil said, rising to her feet stiffly. "Does Lord Isaaru require assistance?"
"Probably not," said Auron. Wading through the barricade of soft toys, he started down the steps, making for the cabin directly under Lulu's.
"Do send word, if he should need a healer," Lucil called down to him, taking Cid's proffered arm with a gracious nod.
"Make sure you take Lady Whoosit when you leave," Cid added in a loud voice. "Yevon made her. Let them deal with her. I reckon Maester Baralai here's not too namby-pamby to see justice done for mass murder, eh?"
"Pops!" Rikku said.
"There will surely be an inquiry–"
The cabin door closed on Baralai's reply. Halting inside, Auron counted to ten, gritting his teeth as the pyreflies in his veins jangled to life with a dismal whine. Yevon eats his own, picks Zanarkand's bones, and Bevelle's vultures stoop for the kill. (Shut up.) Not that he had expected a hero's welcome for Lulu anywhere in Spira. Sin's sins were hers, now, and her face was too well-known. But Cid had been Shuyin's victim. He should know what it meant to have one's will violated.
"Sir?" Pacce, half-dressed, scrambled up from the floor with one greave flapping. He straightened into a salute. "Good morning, sir!"
Auron grunted and turned, examining the gray-faced man seated on the edge of his bunk, clinging to it as if the ship were still in motion. "Isaaru?"
"Here," the summoner croaked. He looked like cura stretched over a ruptured aorta, but his bland smile had returned, animated now by astonished compassion. "Sir Auron? I was not certain we would see you again."
"We've reached Bevelle," Auron said. "Can you walk?"
"I—I am unsure. Flying seems to have robbed me of both legs and stomach." Isaaru gave a weak chuckle. "I beg your pardon, Sir Auron. The loss of my aeons... but no matter. What of the Lady?"
"Erinyes, too?" Auron pressed. "Seymour's mother?"
Isaaru close his eyes, contemplating. "Gone," he said finally. "Torn from me, but for a few bloody dregs. I ought to journey to Baaj and send her."
"Later." Auron said. "See Zuke when we land." He turned to Pacce. "Break camp."
"Sir!" The boy clanked down onto the floor to finish suiting up and collecting their few belongings.
"Come, friend," Isaaru said, lowering his voice as Pacce clattered about. "We shared a pilgrimage, you and I, although our ends differed. What of yours? Have you found what you sought?" His eyes flicked to the bone token bound to Auron's sword-hilt.
"Lulu is free," Auron said. "I should thank you."
"For my part, I am glad....or rather, grateful." Isaaru sighed. "A bittersweet victory for both of us, no? Ladu Yuna is gone, and Maroda is gone, and my heart is a hollow vessel where the Hymn of the Fayth echoes like surf in an abandoned shell. Yet I would thank your friend, were it not too painful a reminder: without her sacrifice, my brother would be worse than dead, with Pacce tasked to free him. I shall not forget, Sir Auron."
"Don't forget you're alive," Auron said. He held out an arm. "Up."
Auron himself girded Isaaru in his summoner's robes for the first and last time, feeling time slip as he tugged the stole straight. Jarringly clear, a scrap of memory came to him: Braska's soothing tones barely penetrating the proud dread of a young warrior monk preparing his summoner for departure. He could recall the very scent of the fresh-dyed fabric, its rustling layers, Braska's amused laugh when he looked in a mirror and declared himself some distant cousin of an ochu, petals and all. Auron remembered stepping out into a foggy chill morning in Bevelle during dawn services, listening to the Hymn drifting down from the heights of the tower. Bevelle. How many years ago had he quit its gates with Jecht grousing over the lack of a parade? Auron's guardian duties would begin and end there.
"Sir Auron? Maroda... Maroda was right about you, wasn't he?" Pacce said, cradling his brother's name. "You've been looking for her this whole time. Why the big secret?"
"A summoner's duty is to destroy Sin, not save it."
"Maroda would have obstructed Sir Auron's quest," Isaaru said, grave and sad. "Yet I wish you could have trusted me sooner, my friend. I learned from Lord Braska and Lady Yuna that a true summoner must follow heart's guidance, even when it leads beyond Yevon's grace. Still... forgive me, Sir Auron, but I perceive that your own journey is not yet over. May I...?"
"No," Auron said, emphatic. Noting Isaaru's concerned look, he added, "Not yet."
"Huh?" Pacce said. "What else is there?"
"To see a summoner to the end of his pilgrimage. Come." Auron's gruff tone was almost fond. "I expect you'll be wanting to make a speech."
They emerged to find Lulu navigating the stairs with Yuna leading, Wakka shadowing as if he had never renounced guardian duty. The mage descended with slow, precise steps, tethered to the girl's hand. Only Lulu could have translated gauze bandages, plain Al Bhed pajamas and Auron's battle-stained coat into formal attire, but she carried herself with her customary regal poise. Pacce gaped and drew himself up in a jerky salute.
Isaaru offered a deep bow and Yevon's prayer, without a trace of mockery. "Lady Guardian."
"High Summoner." Her lips tightened in an odd smile. "Congratulations."
Isaaru started: at the title, perhaps, or at the palpable irony that Sin should be first to call him such. "Thank you, lady, but you know as well as I that summoning had little to do with it."
Yuna listened inobtrusively, eyes wide and solemn, shoopuf doll clutched over her heart. Her father cleared his throat and sank to one knee, drawing her aside with a conspiratorial whisper. "Hey, Yunie. Get your things, but don't tell the others. I've got to talk to Mum."
"Oh!" The girl roused herself with a giggle, scampered around him and Lulu twice and darted off, ignoring her siblings hooting to her from a castle of sofa cushions going up around the barstools.
Lulu watched the girl go with a love too raw lighting up her face. It was the first sign of change in her Auron recognized, although it was more a matter of atrophy: her reserved self-control had been compromised for over a decade. To Isaaru, she said, "You played your part well enough to deceive my jailor. Nor do I think Sir Auron arranged my welcoming committee. An alliance of forces: that was your doing."
Isaaru bowed his head. "Your conveyance to Bikanel was timely."
"And... that machina... where in Spira did you find it?"
"Bevelle, I'm afraid," Isaaru said. "Another weapon from the Machina War, hidden beneath our feet all this time."
"All this time?" Her smile withered, and Auron saw pain where he thought she had become inured to all regrets. Her hand made an abortive, angry movement towards him, grasped emptiness, and compressed tightly into a fist. He half expected to see sparks ripple down her braids.
Wakka paused in the act of getting to his feet. "Uh...Lu?"
There was a heavy pause. Then she waved bitterness away, derisive. "Of course. Sin was too convenient to destroy." Her features smoothed over so quickly that Isaaru and Wakka stood blinking at one another as if uncertain what had just happened. She shifted her attention to the youth standing nervously at Isaaru's elbow. "It's Sir Pacce, isn't it?"
"Ma'am!" His skin glowed pink wherever the helm did not cover it. "Pleased to meet you!"
"We've met several times now," she said gently, "and no, that was no dream. You have ridden Sin's wings from Djose Shore to Western Isle. This also was no dream: once upon a time, I caught a dying man who was very proud of you. That love sang clear in the pyreflies, through his sorrow."
"Maroda?" The color drained from Pacce's face. "You...you caught him?"
Isaaru's hand crumpled over his heart. "Lenne," he murmured, dismayed. "She came with the pyreflies, summoning Shuyin to her as I was sending him. Was that you, then? Was she there at all?"
Lulu gave him a stern look. "Both. But that is her story." To Pacce, she said, "As Djose's aeon was of lightning, so Sin was of death. It was my unhappy duty to bridge the long road between Spira and the Farplane. It is little comfort, but I can assure you that your brother made the journey in peace. With one final wish: that you live well." Her eyes shifted to Isaaru. "Both of you." She ignored the unease radiating from Wakka as he listened, brow knitted.
"Oh." Pacce swallowed.
"I see you two are still conspiring," Isaaru said with a rueful glance over his shoulder. "Sir Auron said something of the sort. But we will try. Perhaps the Lady can teach us how to find life after death..."
"...or after Yevon?" she countered.
The main cabin doors swished open. Cid stumped in, trailed by Rikku. He halted and glowered at the gathering. "Well? What're you lot still doing here?"
Wakka hurried over to Rikku and drew her aside, whispering urgently in her ear while keeping an eye on the proceedings.
"This is goodbye," Isaaru said, smiling. "Elder Cid, thank you for all your help. Will you not stay for the festival? This victory is yours as much as ours."
"Sorry, got to get to Baaj and supervise repairs, or Rin's liable to turn Home into a theme park. But I owe you, for Shuyin. And, uh..." he thrust out a hand, shooting an oblique scowl at Lulu. "I guess that summoner gig wasn't a total waste of time, eh? Gotta hand it to you for takin' care of Sin."
Isaaru tilted his head, briefly puzzled, then clasped the man's fist in a light grip. "As was my duty."
"Hmph." Cid shook his head. "Look, I'll have my hands full for a while putting Home back together, but I'll send what techs I can spare to help with Bevelle's rebuild. And Gippal's going to be adding Bevelle to his regular circuit. If you need a ride, ask Baralai to arrange a pickup."
"Thank you. I will."
Rikku stirred as Wakka finished his mumbled petition. "Happy Festival Fireworks, you mean?" she said out loud, eyes twinkling. "After Home just got blown up? Now where have I heard that before?"
"Uhhh." Wakka blushed. "Well, I mean, if you'd rather—"
"Dope." She pecked his cheek and raised her voice. "Hey, kids, how'd you like to stay in Bevelle for a holiday? There's gonna be music and dancing and a really big party, and maybe we can catch some blitzball!"
Two of the cushions fell outwards as Vidina jumped up. "Blitzball? Awesome! Will Dad play?"
"Femm drana pa ice cream?"
"Are there chocobos in Bebel?"
Cid's strained courtesy crumbled. "You are not taking my grandchildren on vacation in Saint Bloody Yevonville!" He jabbed a finger at Lulu. "And she is not allowed in Al Bhed territory, you hear me?"
Wakka's hands balled into fists. "Excuse me?"
"Get your things, kids!" Rikku said, stepping between husband and father. "Clothes, shoes, and you can have one toy each. Wakka, help them." She waved airily to Isaaru as her father screwed up his face for an explosion. "Whatcha gonna do, Pops, banish me like Auntie Anna if I don't fall in line?"
Cid's teeth clamped shut on what he was going to say, but he puffed like a bellows, reddening.
"Rikku, there's no need," Lulu said.
"Oh, but it's fun." She winked. "Catch you guys later."
They crept out as the argument escalated into an Al Bhed shouting match, enlivened by Etta and Mbela imitating Cid's mannerisms in exaggerated, hand-waving mime.
"Lady," Isaaru said, halting before the elevator until Pacce discreetly herded him inside, "If you need lodgings—"
"Temporarily." Lulu slotted into her customary place at Auron's side like an anchor falling into the sea. "Thank you."
"The abbot of Yuna's Cloister will be pleased to quarter Lady Yuna's guardians. He was a summoner once himself, after all."
Lulu's expression sharpened at the name, but she merely nodded.
Proceeding down and through the guts of Brother's airship, they emerged in the sunlit plaza before the ruined palace of St. Bevelle. There they found an armed company of warrior monks waiting at parade attention. Juno must have dispatched them as an escort. The leader, a leathery-faced old sergeant, struggled to hold his composure. "Lord Isaaru?" There were tears dribbling under his cheek-guards. "High Summoner Isaaru?"
Stepping down onto the pavement, Isaaru blessed them with Yevon's prayer. "Sergeant Wedge." He smiled into that expectant hush. "Victory."
Utter pandemonium erupted. The squad broke ranks, surging forward to scoop Isaaru onto Wedge's shoulders with cheers and shouts. The commotion drew half-dressed workmen tumbling out of the ruins, wary of the airship but eager to join in the celebration. Summoner and guardians were swept into an impromptu parade. Scattered work-crews and soldiers emptied from damaged buildings and fell in behind them as they set out. There were clergy as well, wizened scholars and elderly nuns abandoning themselves in undignified whoops of glee, some still carrying scrolls and books plucked from St. Bevelle's archives. But no children, Auron thought. The upper reaches of the city were windy, deserted, waiting like Besaid village for its people to return.
No one questioned the ill-dressed woman gliding a step behind Auron's shoulder. Those who did notice her seemed disinclined to approach, although there were a few furtive glances and whispers. Ignoring them, Lulu walked with chin raised, lids lowered and back straight, jostling against him: sun-blinded, he guessed, or perhaps still reacquainting herself with human senses and limbs. Her bare feet troubled him.
"Stop scowling," she murmured, amused. "I can see you tallying every cobblestone against Cid's account."
The throng continued to swell until they reached Yuna's Cloister. There, another squad deflected most of the escort, allowing Isaaru and his guardians to pass in. They marched through the arched entryway into the well-manicured garden. Its quiet tranquility was once again thrown into chaos. Priests and nuns converged on Isaaru in a joyous tide, eager to be blessed by the summoner fresh back from his journey. Many accosted Auron as well, begging to shake his hand, gushing about how honored they were, how grateful, and how happy. Some dared to speculate on Lord Braska's or Lady Yuna's pride in his latest exploits. He fielded the adulation with grim patience. Meanwhile, Lulu had migrated into the shadow of the fountain. Keeping aloof from the hubbub, she stood gazing up at the glass and metal statue of Yuna slowly turning on toe-tip above the central jet. Noting Auron's look, she gave a minute, approving nod.
Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted a young man in an acolyte's habit stumbling towards Lulu. The priest's brown complexion, tattooed cheeks and red hair marked him as an islander. "You!" He made Yevon's sign in a warding gesture. "But...you're not real... I've atoned for my sins, I— I— Lady, let me go! I renounce you! I—"
"Your sins are your own, Treno, as is your will," Lulu said. "But there is no shame in dreams."
"No shame? I followed you. I loved you. I thought you were merciful. But you killed my son, my wife!"
Heads were beginning to turn. Isaaru looked up, alerted by Pacce, and mouthed, Go. Auron broke away from the scrum and moved to intercept. Before he could reach Lulu's accoster, a second figure bearing a senior priest's gold stripe stepped in. Auron nearly collided with the man, intending to hamper him long enough for Lulu to melt into the crowd. He stopped short at the sight of a bald head rising from Bevelle's high collar like an egg. It was Zuke.
"Now, what's the trouble, my son? Why— well, well, there's a face I haven't seen in a while! The Lady? Gracious, no, this lady is one of my oldest students, a former guardian of mine, as a matter of fact. Nothing more extraordinary than a black mage with a quick temper, so I'd advise you to leave her alone. If you'll excuse us."
Zuke curled a solicitous arm behind Lulu and steered her towards a side-door under the main archway. Auron shoved the conflicted young priest aside to follow them. Just inside, Zuke turned into an office and nearly closed the door on Auron's nose. He paused, jovial smile evaporating. "Sir Auron?" He waved him in. "Come, come. I suppose I should not be surprised to see you here, since I've apparently gone mad. Or perhaps young Treno is right, and this is all a dream sent by Sin to test a priest's convictions." Eyes brimming, he turned back to Lulu, drawing out his chair and gesturing for her to sit. "Either way, I'm delighted to see you, my dear."
She sat like a sleepwalker. Seeing her stony expression, Auron moved to the desk and lifted a pitcher, pouring a drink and pushing it towards her.
"Father." She took a sip, then released the breath she had been holding. "It's not Sin's toxin, I promise you."
"Then what?" Zuke's query held no hint of challenge, only concerned bewilderment. "I don't believe half the stories I hear, but these dreams, now, they aren't something Bevelle's crafted to keep the people calm. Even I have dreamed of you, although thankfully as yourself and not as... some pagan goddess, shall we say."
"I'm sorry. It's a long story." She sighed and exchanged glances with Auron.
"And I'm rather short on time, seeing as Isaaru's going to stand there until he gets sunstroke. I must deliver him to the maesters, who await him in the refectory. Well." Zuke puffed out his cheeks. "Whatever you've been up to, please allow me to undo some of the wear and tear?"
Lulu bowed her head. "Please." Her hands still gripped the coat over the spot where Auron's sword had gone in, although phoenix down, Al Bhed potions and Isaaru's last shreds of magic had knitted flesh and bone in the haste of battle. Zuke bent, splaying fingers over the red line ringing her throat and the scars on her crossed wrists. Auron felt the edge of the spell: a slow, uplifting rush of cura flooding the body with tingling warmth, easing aches and pains. Lulu slowly melted into the chair. "Thank you, Father," she said, voice husky. "Would you teach me that, sometime?"
Zuke's eyebrows climbed. "You've changed."
"Perhaps I've finally had my fill of destroying things."
The old man stiffened, gazing down at her. He glanced briefly at Auron for answers, but the guardian might as well be stone. Finally, Zuke patted her shoulder. "Is there anything else I can do for you?"
"Clothes and lodgings," she said. "A room for two, if possible." Noting his uncertain glance at Auron, she added, "He seems to think I need a guardian."
"A meal," Auron said. "In private."
"Hm. Yes, it might be best for you to avoid the feast." Zuke collected himself. "Very well. I'll have something brought to you while we prepare quarters. In the meantime, rest here, enjoy the garden, and pray, if you still can. And later, I trust, we can have a long talk."
Next Chapter: War in Abeyance