A/N: Giftfic for Kitt. Auron/Lulu with side helpings of Lulu/Chappu and Lulu+Wakka friendship. Hope you enjoy, hon!

~*~

   She didn't like to look at the boy who had a grin like Chappu's and a face like a dim echo of Chappu's, and she didn't like to look at Wakka, who had Chappu's chiseled jaw and red hair. Then there was Yuna, who was going to die like Chappu…

   She chose to look out at the sea, which Chappu had loved, her feet planted on the prow that pointed towards Luca, where Chappu had played blitzball. It was the least painful alternative.

   He was everywhere to her, and she was sick of it all, of hurting, of losing, of wanting. Time healed all wounds, but then perhaps that was the problem, because time had to be endured and lived through—for this pain, there was no quick fix, no spell to whisper and no potion to down. Even the miracles of modern magic and medicine had their fallacies, she supposed bitterly, knowing she was brooding and not caring.

   Her hands toyed absently with her moogle doll, and she gave herself over to blankness of thought, aware of only the smooth fur under her fingertips, the cool water heavy air against her face, the beads in her hair clinking as the wind made her braids sway and stir. For a long moment, everything was all right again and she could forget. She was dimly aware of Wakka coming up to stand beside her, and she could think of him as just Wakka—just Wakka, her friend her family, not Wakka-Chappu's-brother-who-lived—but then that moment was gone, and when he spoke, she was painfully aware that the timbre of his voice was just a bit lower than Chappu's, the color of his hair just a shade lighter.

   "Lu?"

   "Yes?" she asked, not able to keep the irritation from her voice even though it was hardly his fault he'd been born to the same mother as Chappu.

   He propped his chin on his hands, elbows on the railing, and stared out at the blue expanse in front of them. "Well, if you're going to be like that, never mind, ya?"

   "Hhm," she said. Flicking a stray braid back over her shoulder, she went to stand beside him. "What is it?"

   "We'll win the tournament for sure this year," he said, assurance swelling his voice. Immediately, she was aware he had intended to say something else, and she was left feeling a bit empty and cheated as if whatever he'd had to say could've at last bridged the chasm Chappu's death had left between them—even though it wouldn't, because he had said things that should've since.

   And they hadn't.

   "Don't be overconfident," she warned.

   He spread his hands. "Overconfident? Me? C'mon, Lu—"

   She made a sound of amusement, and pulled out an example from childhood to put a hole in his protest. Old patterns of conversation draped over the gap like a concealing shroud, and even Yuna would've been hard-pressed to see that something was missing.

~*~

   He was tired of dying, of living, of parodying life with every breath he drew into his pyrefly lungs and every tick of his pyrefly heart. He was not, however, tired of saving Jecht, because to tire of that would be to lose his driving purpose would be to be a fiend. He adjusted his seat on the hard stadium seat, watching the final match with only the barest attention—and only that because he knew one of the island blitzers was Yuna's guardian—and then shifted his sword on his shoulders, mildly amused by the wary glances he got from the other spectators. The giant blade meant he wasn't drowning in people, so he'd have decent maneuverability when the moment came.

   He was waiting. Jecht had a thing for blitzball, after all.

   Craning his neck, he picked out the girl in the opposite crowd, sitting in a special booth with the Ronso looming protectively over her. Yuna was a lifeline of sorts for him, or perhaps just another sacrificial lamb—only this summoner was his lamb and not just Yevon and Spira's—and he was guiding her to the slaughter. Maybe Tidus would make a difference, as he had not yet been worn down under a system that said hope could only stem from death, or quite possibly he would not; he wanted to be able to hope for the former but found he could not work up the energy required. Either way, he would end his story ten years after the time he'd planned for it to end; either way, Jecht would die.

   Yuna was just the means to an end, and so he did not think about the way she had looked as she waved good-bye to Braska, her eyes wet and yet glowing, mousy hair looped back in a braid that seemed too formal for a child, her chubby hand in the air. He had felt his shoulders straighten under the weight of his robes, his chest swell with a bleak sort of pride—this was what they were going on pilgrimage for; so children like Yuna could grow up in peacetime.

   He had been a fool, an idealistic thoughtless fool, because Yuna had grown up without a father and all the peacetimes in the world would never change that.

   And here he took his place in the cycle, lining up another summoner like the next domino in the chain, and he could not pretend that his motives made it acceptable. The only thing he had was the fact that this was necessary, that the spiral, which was not a true spiral because it always folded back on itself and looped back to the beginning, had to be broken, and even if it wasn't, Jecht had to be killed.

   A buzzer sounded, signaling an end to the match. He half-heard the announcement that the Aurochs had won; then he saw the cluster of fiends charge Tidus and the redheaded blitzer. Well, perhaps he'd miscalled it at that and Sin wasn't going to show; still, no point in wasting the adrenaline—or the illusion of adrenaline that hummed in his electrical impulse veins—he'd built up in anticipation. Standing, he strode forward and the thick mass of people parted as if their fiend and Sin honed instincts told them he was dangerous.

~*~

   The first time she saw him, she had been twelve. Not really a woman yet, but hardly a girl; she'd watched a summoner dance away her parents and just months before had watched her first summoner die without anyone to dance for her. She had never been optimistic but the latest loss had turned her cynical, and so she just scoffed when Chappu grabbed her excitedly by one belled sleeve.

   "It's a summoner. And one of the guardians, he's got this awesome tattoo. And the other one has this sword—y'know, I'd give anything to have a sword like that, ya?" Chappu had said wistfully, because that was in the days before he fell in love with guns.

   She'd felt her mouth pout at him. "You are…being silly, Chappu," she said, softening the words with her expression, because he was the only person she could ever soften for. "He is just another summoner who is going to die, that's all."

   "There's something different about this one," he said. She just shrugged; he said that for every summoner.

   He had said that for Lady Ginnem.

   But since it was Chappu who had asked her, she went to see them at the temple before they disappeared into the Cloister. With indifference, most of her attention on the redhead at her side, she had watched their backs.

   Strange how that day that seemed so insignificant at the time circled back around.

   She didn't catch their names until later, when the news made it to Besaid a day behind the rest of Spira, and the names Braska, Auron, Jecht, dropped from mouths with the fervency of a prayer, and everyone talked about the time that the three came to their temple and prayed to their fayth, and maybe Valefor had had an important part in the battle against Sin, wouldn't that be great? they said with their islanders' pride.

   Braska's daughter found her way to Besaid six months after her father's death in the care of a broken-horned Ronso.

   Jecht's son washed up on Besaid's shore ten years after that.

   Today, Auron stood in front of her again, still wearing a red robe and carrying a massive blade across his shoulders and this time, she took notice of him instead of just vaguely registering him as a red blur with a sword, because when something happened twice you knew to pay attention the second time around.

   Of course, this time there was no Chappu to distract her.

   She pushed that thought aside. The years had changed him, she thought, because she did not think there had been so much silver in his hair or so many lines on his face. One of his eyes was ruined now, where there had once been two good ones. She wondered how much that handicapped him in a fight and if the legendary guardian might not quite as mighty anymore; she decided she'd want to watch him in a skirmish and gauge whether or not he could compensate for his blind side. It might be a good bet to put him in the middle of the three-person formation they used most often, with Wakka or Kimahri covering for him, until she had determined that.

   The corner of her mouth turned up; he did not seem like someone even she could 'put' somewhere.

   Evaluating and silent, she watched while he talked to Yuna and pushed the blond boy at her.

   Two new guardians, she thought with some distaste. She had already planned for efficient travel, with regular intervals of time reserved for on-route training, and the two new factors would throw it off. The boy was…decent in a fight thanks to natural athleticism, but would need practice before she felt comfortable climbing Gagazet with him at her back. He fought with a great deal of blind ability—obviously, he knew that he had to get the bad guy with the sharp end of the sword, and so he darted in and out, wielding his blade with a efficient, systematic sort of flailing that didn't allow a fiend a second worth of breathing room.

   But he had no technique; even Lulu, who was no warrior of any brand, could see that. She supposed that was where Sir Auron should cancel him out; with years of experience behind him, he would compensate for Tidus' shortcomings and hopefully be able to pound in some skill to go with the boy's ability, despite the difference in their sword styles.

   After exchanging a few last words with Yuna, he stepped toward her. "What's our itinerary? Where are we headed?"

   Inclining her head, she felt a vague interest because of the assured way he had picked her out from the rest, recognizing her as the unofficial leader. She wondered if he had been watching her as she watched him, so subtly she was unaware of it, and that intrigued her. "Djose is our next destination," she said. "I have charts, with day-to-day distances, meals, and morning-evening duties designated if you want."

   "Oh man, the charts. Helping you plan those out gave me a headache, ya?" Wakka grumbled, with an awe-filled glance for Auron.

   There was another thing she'd have to do—coax Wakka over his hero worship. She could see it skewing the dynamics in a way she didn't want, but then perhaps it would wear off if he discovered Sir Auron snored or skipped out when it was his turn to cook, or possessed some other quirk that would bump the older guardian down from 'legend' to 'human.'

   "Practical," Sir Auron said. "Yes, I'd like to see them."

~*~

   It was nice, she thought, to be able to rest in the cool of the late afternoon without having to unload cooking supplies, set up a shelter, and rotate a guard all at once. Far from feeling Wakka's anger and distaste for anything that reeked of Al Bhed, she thought they ought to be allowed to set up more of these inns.

   It would be expensive to stay at one every night, but after all; a summoner only walked the path between this and that once in their life. They deserved to die in as much luxury as possible.

   She sat down, arranging her full skirt around herself as she did so, and felt the tickle of grass against her legs. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Yuna; something in her hand caught a flash of sunlight, showing off the blue color to Lulu. She realized she's making a sphere.

   Putting together a good-bye. A hollow feeling settling in just below her ribcage, Lulu wished she hadn't seen. It was too early to think about farewells. Looking away, her eyes went to Wakka just as he sat down next to her. "Al Bhed inn, huh?" he said conversationally, propping his arms on his bent knees in a loose, comfortable pose. Perhaps only she could have caught the tension that underlined his at-ease tone and posture.

   "Indeed."

   "I'm not going to be able to sleep tonight, ya?" he said, a little of his unease creeping in his voice.

   So much for not having someone stand guard, she thought dryly. "I will," she said. "You have to admit that Al Bhed have, at least, good business sense. They would not slit their customers' throats."

   "I know that." He paused. "It's just—instinct, y'know? I'm all on edge."

   "I see," she replied fondly. She didn't, but then, perhaps that was why it was endearing. For a moment, it was almost like old times again; a companionable silence sat comfortably between them.

   Then he said, under his breath, "I don't want to end up like—" A stricken expression on his face, he quickly covered up the slip with, "Dead, you know?"

   She frowned at him. "You might as well say it," she said harshly. "There's no point in leaving the name unsaid; the dead have never been a taboo subject."

   Would he someday stumble over Yuna's name?

   "Nah, I know that Lu," he apologized. "It's just—you were all not-bitter for a minute, and then I went and screwed it all up."

   She shrugged. "It doesn't matter." Standing, she brushed the dirt from her skirts. He patted the ground where she'd just been settled invitingly.

   "Aww, c'mon. I didn't mean to say it, you know?" He raked one of his broad hands through his red hair; the mannerism echoed one of Chappu's to her and it hurt.

   She wondered just how much further Yuna's death would drive them apart, and if she would be left alone in the aftermath. If a year from now, Wakka and she would talk to each other, visit Yuna's statue in the temple—and pray to a God Lulu could manage only a bittersweet belief in anymore, but that Wakka would cling to with the desperation of a man who has lost most other important things and isn't about to let go of the last one—and travel down to the beach to swim; both of them playing out the old motions of friendship with none of the closeness there had once been.

   She dismissed the images and feelings, telling herself there were some things in life you couldn't change; worry was a waste of energy and Lu was nothing if not practical.

   "I know you didn't," she responded, realizing a long moment had lapsed since he had spoken. "But you still said it."

   Or didn't say it, actually.

-

   She didn't feel like sleeping this early and Yuna was talking to Tidus just over a little crest of land to the right; she gave a brief thought to walking over there and assuring herself that nothing beyond the vague affection natural to guardian and guarded was growing between them, but decided Yuna was mature enough to survive a conversation unscathed without her overseeing it. So she walked in the opposite direction, stopping momentarily to buy a shish kebob from Rin's shop. There was meat, fruit, and vegetables all lined up on a wooden skewer, and she selected it from the limited set of options because it had been a few weeks since she'd had fruit, as there was no good way to preserve it for a journey.

   The sun was setting, and as she rounded the corner of the inn it was just a handbreadth from disappearing below a distant hill. Sir Auron was standing a short distance away, and in that moment, she saw only bloodred outlined by an orange the color of a dying fire. It caught her attention, and since she liked the dramatic play of the light and the solid figure of the man wrapped in it, she paused to look at him while she savored a piece of pineapple.

    Under his robe, his shoulders were broad and the line of his back was strong and trim; as he turned to face her, she decided that perhaps once he had been handsome, but there was still a spark of character in his worn face that she liked.

   "Hello," she said as he approached her, aware of him in a way she hadn't been before. She wondered if it would risk her concentration on the pilgrimage if she took a lover; for now, she decided she'd need to think about it more and not just base it on a flash of attraction.

   "Yes?" he asked brusquely.

   "Nothing in particular. I was just saying hello," she said. He was obviously a man of few words, but then, did conversation matter? She had enjoyed talking to Chappu; he had brought out a chattering side she'd never have guessed she had, but since he'd died, she hadn't felt the need for empty back-and-forth just for the pleasure of hearing her companion speak.

   "Ah." He fell into step beside her. "I'm going inside now. You should take advantage of a full night's rest as well; this is the last stop before Djose."

   "I intend to." She nibbled on a slice of apple and thought about his mouth. There were heavy lines etched around it that made it look as if he had not smiled in a decade or more. Maybe he hadn't; she doubted she'd smile after Yuna was gone.

   As they came around to the front of Rin's Agency, he halted. She stopped as well and quirked an eyebrow at him. "Yuna should come in," he explained, indicating the girl, still talking with Tidus, with a motion of his jaw.

   Interesting, she mused. In him, she thought she caught a glimpse of her self, both present and future, and it both drew and repelled her.

~*~

   Unable to shake her internal schedule, she was awake well before dawn to the automatic thought of we need to pack up for the day. Deciding to take advantage of the extra time, she paid for the privilege of using of the inn's small bath, reveling in the sensation of hot water against her skin, layers of dirt from the road slipping away underneath her washrag, unraveling her hair from its braids.

   Dressed in her customary garment but still toweling her hair, she emerged from the chamber. In the hall, Wakka leaned against one wall in his pajama shorts, arms crossed over his bare chest. "You sure take your sweet time, ya?" he said.

   Her mouth quirked. "No, Wakka; it's barely been a quarter-hour."

   "Trust heathen Al Bheds to not have separate baths for men and women," he said, with an early morning sort of tired venom.

   "I'm sure it's economical rather than personal," she said, opening the little toiletries bag and passing him their current bottle of shampoo.

   "Do you know how much I hate the fact that you and Yuna got to choose our hygienic stuff?" he said, uncapping it and sniffing it with a miserable expression on his face. They had bought the toiletries, like most of their supplies, in mass quantities to save money, and since Kimahri had said he didn't care, Lulu and Yuna had had Wakka outvoted. "Lavender," he pointed out mournfully.

   "It is…a lovely scent, isn't it?" she asked wryly.

   "Maybe on you and Yuna."

   Making a light sound of amusement, she left him by the bath. She deposited her borrowed towel—being bulky and fluffy, a towel took up too much precious space in a pack to bring her own—at the counter and continued on her way outside. The sky was the cold blue-gray of predawn, no warm light from the sun yet worming its way across it, and she shivered a little as she sorted out her long hair with a comb.

   "Up already?" his voice came from behind her, deep and worn as his face.

   "Hardly already," she replied, wondering what it was with men and their time exaggerations.

   He crossed to the front of her to lean back against a tree with long dead claws for branches and acknowledged that with a nod. "Tidus is still asleep."

   "He's…not used to this, yet," she said, thinking that was odd since he had after all been traveling with them since the beginning.

   "He was always a late sleeper."

   She took that in. So Sir Auron had known him for a long time; her curiosity about the boy with Chappu's eyes was reignited. "Where did he grow up?" she asked softly, wondering what she would think if he said 'Zanarkand.' If he confirmed Tidus' story and she chose to believe him, then could she dare believe Wakka's wild hope about Chappu? Or would it mean Sir Auron's mind was as addled as Tidus', only by time and life instead of Sin-secreted toxin?

   Or perhaps he would just say Macalania or Bevelle.

   "Why do you want to know?" he said instead of an answer. His eyes bored into her, and she imagined for a moment that he could read her thoughts and see her foolish desire for a glint of false hope.

   "It is not so strange to want to know a little about your companions," she said.

   "No, it isn't," he agreed. "But is that why you asked?"

   Scooping her hands back along her skull, she carefully drew her hair back into a tail, thick strands escaping as usual and falling into her eyes. "Not entirely," she admitted, keeping her eyes steady on his no matter how much she wanted to look away. Securing the mane of hair with a length of leather, she then tugged her fingers through to the ends, checking for missed snarls, and began braiding.

   "Then why?"

   A sudden, earth-shaking rumble saved her from answering or abstaining; a woman's high, breathy scream followed it. Auron dashed to the inn's entry, threw open the door and said, "That's our cue!" to Tidus.

~*~

   The light here was blue and electric, emanating from the temple's fayth and lending a harsh brilliance to everything, even the dead and dying. Yuna moved along the rows of pallets in the hastily setup hospital at Djose Tample, evaluating the men and women with a clinical eye that had be breaking her heart; she had to choose who to heal immediately, who to skip on, who to spend her mana stocks on before she had to refuel them. Her eyes were red from the hour and the exhaustion of receiving a new aeon, and all Lulu could do was look on and wish she had spared some of her time to train in elementary white magic, so she could help.

   Wakka had left in the early hours of the evening, shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot beside her, clearing his throat, muttering something that might've been "I'm going to sleep now," and then slipping away into the night. He hated to be useless the same way she did; the difference was that she couldn't look away from her futility, had to feel as if by watching Yuna and seeing her weariness and pain she was somehow making up for it.

   Most of the wounded from the failed battle with Sin had been brought here, along with the dead—hastily thrown into a cart to drag their earthly husks to a summoner and save them from becoming fiends.

   Sometimes it worked; often it didn't. A soul follows its body with the dogged determination of a man who believes he can live again if he just tries hard enough, but most souls are slow and sluggish from the shock of being thrown out into death and they do not have the speed necessary to track their body successfully.

   Represented among the dead was Luzzu, and as she paced the rows she couldn't help but come back to him. There was no anger for him left in her, just an emptiness beneath her breastbone. She said a soft prayer for him, asking that he be one of the ones that managed to follow their body to its resting place, even though it was really too late anyway; either the soul was hovering nearby, waiting to be sent, or he was already a fiend along the shores of Djose Highroad.

   She was sick of it all, not the sick that turns your stomach and sends you to your knees, heaving, but the ill that saps energy and leaves only a dull indifference to life. Her parents, Wakka's, Yuna's, Kimahri's, likely Auron's and perhaps Tidus' as well, Chappu, Luzzu, might as well count Yuna, a hundred thousand others…

   Too many, she mouthed with a sudden fervency that went as quickly as it had come, leaving only the bonedeep weariness. Her fingers reached out, curled in hesitation, and then trailed his jaw, skimmed his eyelids, and she was fascinated by the moon pale of her skin on the dead pale of his. Unable to look away, she gently lifted the makeshift half-shroud (it had been the bottom part of a bed sheet for Djose inn in its last life) from his torso and then quickly let it drop again. She wondered if Chappu's wounds had approximated these; if so, Luzzu's death had a bleak sort of justice to it but she could find no bitter pleasure in it.

   Seeing him again, listening to him tell Wakka the same thing about Chappu that he'd said to her in Besaid before she left—same words, too, "this might be my last chance to say this," only the implied death had been hers—had brought back the emotions like a tide rushing over her. Chappu.

   She had loved him with her all, passionately, enthusiastically, loved his everything; his eyes, his untidy hair, his lazy self-assured smile, his confidence, his bravery, his humor, his foolhardiness. Her thoughts had turned poetic whenever he was in them, and she had loved to think pretty, clichéd things about him. At times, she had been drunk on him, reveling in him; at others, she had been comfortable, content and utterly satisfied in his presence. There had been the occasional fight, but each of their battles was waged with the utmost confidence that this could hardly drive them apart.

   She touched her first two fingers to her pulse, and remembered Chappu's mouth there, light and warm, and remembered too that his pulse had run out on some lonely battlefield with only Al Bhed around him, and she suddenly understood how Wakka could hate them, because they had seen him and been with him all the hundred thousand little moments leading up to his death—precious moments she wanted desperately to have shared.

   "Chappu also said to me...That being with your girl is good...But keeping Sin far away from her is better."

   His mouth, now frozen from post-death rigor into an agonized contortion, had said that hardly a day before. "Why?" she whispered, asking a dead man for a message from another dead man.

   I am strong, Chappu, she wanted to say aloud but did not for fear Yuna would hear and worry. Perhaps even a little stronger than you were; you didn't have to protect me. And if Sin had gotten us, we would have gone together.

   And she would not be left here to plead with the dead for answers they could not give.

~*~

   She twisted one of her braids around her finger, trying to hold onto his image and keep it clutched inside her. Say good-bye… could she? At the Farplane, she had believed she could, had been so sure, so ready to let the wound heal over instead of tearing it open again and again by dwelling on her memories.

   Rain beat against the roof in a never-ending storm; through the curtains on the sole window of the inn, she could see the dark endless stretch of thunderclouds, lit up by the frequent crack of lightning. White brilliance on black, like Chappu to her, the bright glow of his strength and eager courage—brightest candles burn out first, wasn't that a folk saying?—against her reserved sensibility and brutal realism; he was gone in a flash while she endured.

   Simultaneously, she both wanted to forget Chappu and hated the fact that she wanted to. It wasn't really disrespectful, after all; she'd forgotten Lady Ginnem and her parents in the same way—they weren't completely gone from her mind, just buried at the back, and perhaps that was where Chappu should go. But something in her still rebelled violently at the thought.

    She curled her legs up on the lobby's settee and watched the storm and thought about moving on like Tidus had suggested. Oh, not to Wakka, like he'd gone on to mention—could her friend have a crush he'd mumbled about in the locker room?—but she did not have to love again to move past the festering bitterness. And even if she did allow herself to be in love…well, Wakka. If she chose him, she might as well have chosen Tidus; their faces and bodies and dreams and hopes and their everythings would be Chappu to her. She would risk letting herself pretend, risk looking at him in the dark, the forgiving night drawn about them like a veil, and seeing Chappu, feeling Chappu's mouth on hers and his strong calloused hands against her skin.

   She blinked back the sting of tears, realizing she had never cried for Chappu, taking refuge instead in stoicism. But she had an excuse; between the Al Bhed attack, Rikku, the Farplane, and Seymour's proposal, it had been a long day. She rocked her doll in her arms absently, wishing she could escape into the sleep it seemed to have found. Even though she had been a little annoyed initially, she was grateful to Rikku now for the rest stop.

   Rikku. Ah, there was a new development, one that would mean yet another adjustment to her itinerary. But more than that, she was intrigued by the way Wakka had seemed almost drawn to her, accepting her eagerly into their group and talking with her between the Moonflow and Guadosalam. It was nothing more than the fact that Rikku broke the monotony of the same old six faces and minds, and did it attractively and charmingly to boot, but she was amazed that he had not recognized the Al Bhed green spiral of her eyes. He must've looked into them a dozen or more times on the road.

   Really, Wakka, she shook her head with fond exasperation.

   Moving on would mean that she would need to close the chasm between them, and that would mean a change she didn't know how to make. Automatically, she shied back from the idea; change was awkward and often painful, and she was…content with the way things were, really she was—

   She snorted, frustrated with herself. When Yuna was gone—well, would she make herself—make him—face that alone because she was a coward? Oh, there would be Kimahri, who she cared for, but she had never as close to him as she was to Wakka, and where she wore a granite exterior, his was pure gleaming diamond. He would bury the sorrow deep, draw into himself, and say nothing.

   Yuna. We won't know what to do without you.

   She took tired eyes away from the storm-ravaged landscape, letting the curtain fall shut, and turned her attention to Sir Auron. He sat opposite her in a padded chair, hands still on the arms and his face relaxed—his mouth relaxed into a frown, she noted—and like her, had been out in the lobby all night. With one bare toe, she traced a pattern on the cold flagstone and wondered if she should move on to him. It would be a safe move, because he would look nothing like Chappu even in the dark, because she could not imagine loving him; with him, she would not play for such high stakes as the last time. The last time she'd gambled her heart and her future and her everything, and no one had thought to warn her that should the game suddenly end, everything wagered was automatically forfeit.

   She had only played this game once before, but she was a quick learner and a master already. So it was no coincidence that her dress slipped off one shoulder as she leaned forward, or that several braids came undone and her hair spilled loose and wild over her breasts.

   "Aren't you going to sleep?" she asked, liking the husky sound of her voice. Chappu had always loved that best, of all her features.

   "I could ask the same thing. We'll travel for a full day after this, yes, through the night; you should rest while you can." He shrugged. "I don't need sleep the way the rest of you do."

   She frowned thoughtfully. "Why not, Sir Auron?"

   "That is my story," he said. Mouth pursing, she was about to reply when he went on, "And yours is the way you looked at that dead Crusader in Djose."

   Her hands tightened on her doll. "I…see. You were watching?"

   He nodded. "You caught my attention."

   Her barely begun seduction was forgotten, as the myriad emotions she'd felt that night echoed back to her. "He was a good…friend of Wakka's brother," she confided slowly, not sure why she did so but wanting to somehow connect with someone the way she hadn't since Chappu. It wasn't a sexual or romantic connection she craved; it was just the honesty of seeing yourself in another, of understanding and being understood in turn. Wakka would've done as well, but actually he wouldn't have, because they had flailed at one another for that connection for months and hadn't managed it. Chappu's death had hurt them both, in a way too similar and bonedeep for them to grab hold of each other.

   "Of Wakka as well," she went on. "He…encouraged Wakka's brother—" It hurt less to distance him from her a step, to identify him by his tie to Wakka instead of via the one to her or even by his name, as if that would somehow reveal things too completely. "—to enlist. It was…well, he died in a fight with Sin he wouldn't have fought had he not been a Crusader."

   "I see. Do you blame him?"

   A pause, where she tried to decide whether he meant Luzzu or Chappu. "No, not anymore. It is hard to blame the dead."

   His mouth twitched at the corners. "I don't know; I've found it very easy sometimes."

   She looked up sharply. "Who?" She wondered if he blamed Braska and if it would be easy to blame Yuna.

   "Not Braska," he said like he could hear her thoughts. His mouth twisted back into its customary frown, but now it seemed like more than habit tugging the edges down. "Never Braska. Nearly everyone else, though—even Jecht, sometimes."

   "What? Jecht isn't dead," she said doubtfully. "Tidus didn't see him at the Farplane."

   "That's right. He isn't dead."

   "Then why?"

   "That's—"

   "Your story," she interrupted, with a sardonic lift of one eyebrow.

   "If you say so," he said, shrugging and giving her a faint smirk.

   "Ahh," she said, tipping her jaw up and acknowledging the point. "I told you mine."

   "This isn't show-and-tell," he said harshly. "We aren't trading war stories and it isn't a game of show-me-your-scars-and-I'll-show-you-mine."

   That stung a little, but she didn't show it. Instead, her mouth pursed into an O and she coolly flicked her hair out of her eyes. "You…react quite strongly," she observed, her voice cold and clinical in the way that had never failed to infuriate Chappu.

   "Maybe."

   He had not recoiled, showing a brief flash of the bright anger that would let her know she'd hit the nerve she was aiming for, and that rankled a bit. She could not gauge him effortlessly like she could do with anyone else save Kimahri; it was perhaps humbling but also…interesting.

   That seemed to be her word for him. "You are interesting," she said, putting voice to it.

   He bit out a short bark of surprised laughter. "Am I?"

   "Someday, I will understand you," she warned him with laughter of her own. "Even if it takes me years. Someday, I will be old and gray, and I will toddle with my cane to Bevelle and I'll explain to you your entire story."

   His mouth pulled up in a bitter I-know-something-you-don't smile. "Will you now?"

   "Complete with footnotes," she promised.

   On that exit line, she stood up with a swish of her skirts and a jingle of the belts that crisscrossed the front, and tucked her cactaur doll into the crook of her arm; she meant to leave for the set of bedrooms but he stood as well and blocked her way. He reached one hand out for her shoulder; she was abruptly aware that in one way he was like Chappu, in the rough calluses on his palms and fingertips—but then, any man who wasn't a mage and wanted to survive had those. She shivered and met his eyes, searching for a reflected…something. He thumbed the curve of her shoulder with one hand, traced the line of her collarbone—which was fine and elegant, and she knew it and felt a dim sort of pride over her appearance—with the knuckles of the other.

   "Well," he said. "This probably isn't the wisest thing ever."

   She felt her mouth smirk at him. "Why not?"

   "That's—"

   "If you say that again, I will introduce you to my doll," she said, patting the little cactaur's head. Rikku had just fitted it with a Poison modification before she went off to bed, saying she needed something to distract her from the storm.

   "—because we have a responsibility to Yuna," he continued hastily.

   She smiled. "Wise man." Her hands snared his, fingers resting lightly on her shoulders. "But this isn't about Yuna," she said, and it might have been a lie because almost everything was about Yuna, about her beloved surrogate sister-daughter who was going to die, and everything that wasn't could be traced back to Chappu in some way. But this was separate enough that she could pretend, and maybe make-believe was a viable step toward healing; she'd tried so much else, after all.

   She continued, "This isn't about anything, but this—" She covered his mouth lightly with hers in a careful planned kiss so different from the awkward, hungry ones she'd shared with Chappu. "And this." Her hands slipped under his robe, curving at the back of his shoulders, feeling the flex of his back muscles underneath. "See? Yuna is still sleeping peacefully, and we have not failed her yet."

   "Point," he admitted.

   "Keep that in mind," she whispered with her husky voice nearly a purr. "Now, I'm going to take your advice and sleep."

   Exiting the room, she was conscious that he was watching her. There was a little thrill at the apex of her thighs, and warring with the heady exhilaration of a potential lover was the awareness that maybe she had let him in a little too much, reached out a little too desperately for that human connection. She might regret that later, but for now—she went to sleep with a smile on her mouth.

~*~

   Yuna was by the Lake, with Kimahri nearby in case fiends attacked…Tidus had slipped after them an hour ago, and that made her nervous. Strange that she could feel not a flutter of worry as they faced down a traitorous undead Maester, but a handsome boy going near her charge put her on edge.

   "Stop fretting, ya?" Wakka said from next to her. They were all ringed around an empty firepit—couldn't let Bevelle know where they were, in case they'd sent men after them—shadows thick between them. The three older guardians had sat in silence until Wakka broke it; Rikku on the other hand chattered at Lulu and Auron sporadically, not seeming to care that Lulu gave mere sentences in reply and Auron only syllables. Wakka might've replied but she was wary of him and he was still nursing his old grudges and likely fresh wounds.

   You could bond with Rikku over cold tea and complaints about the maesters' misuse of power, she thought but didn't say.

   "I'm not fretting."

   "Yes you are. There's that look on your face and you keep turning your head toward the Lake, you know?"

   "Are you unconcerned then?" she asked pointedly.

   "Of course I am. I'm going to tackle Tidus as soon as he gets back and ask questions later, but hey, for now, might as well sit here and enjoy the night. Beautiful sky tonight, ya?" She sensed more than saw him cross his arms behind his head; moments later, he started whistling the Hymn off-key—to show off, she guessed, just how nonchalant he really was about the whole thing.

   She laughed. Across from her, Rikku twitched and winced through a few long minutes' worth of toleration, and then hissed, "You know, I'm not religious or anything and I'm offended by your butchering a perfectly good Hymn. Sheesh."

   Wakka grunted with surprise. "Why, you little brat—" There didn't seem to be any genuine vitriol in the words, but she checked him with a hand anyway.

   "Hush." The four of them fell into completely silence for the first time that night. Rikku seemed to listen to her where she ignored everyone else; while she wasn't sure why, she was grateful for it. She needed time to think; ever since the Thunder Plains, events had come lightning-quick, one on top of the other, giving her no chance to think about anything.

   Now she had Yevon to consider in addition to Chappu and Sir Auron and Wakka; she kept her own betrayal hidden beneath a calm surface but the revelation had shaken her just as strongly as it had Wakka or Yuna. She wondered if Sir Auron had known, from his first pilgrimage, and as for Kimahri…well, no one ever knew how he felt. He was like her in that respect; she could only hope she was as undecipherable to him as he to her, for no reason aside from setting her own internal sense of justice at ease.

   She was often angry at a God who loosed Sin on them and by extension killed Chappu; alternately, she was full of shame and contrition for that—it was Yevon's right to take life away, and really, she was undermining their pilgrimage by giving out a soured repentance for the human frailty that had gotten them Sin in the first place.

   Now, she wondered if the maesters were the ones responsible for Sin's continued return. She even dared to wonder—hope—that perhaps there was no Yevon; that there was nothing but Sin and man and maesters and myth.

  It was hard to juggle two trains of thought at once, but she decided that Wakka had something to do with her healing. Not the replacement for Chappu that Tidus had implied, but as a friend she owed both apology and forgiveness to; they had both been hurt but he had born the brunt of it, since like a wounded animal she struck at those nearest her while he went for complete strangers, and he had asked in an awkward, unspoken way for absolution many times. "Wakka," she said.

   "Eh?" he said sleepily.

   "It has been…too long since things were…right between us," she hesitated with the words.

   "Uhn," he said, a vague sound of exhaustion that might've been agreement. "Yeah…yeah, well that's okay, y'know? People are weird sometimes."

   She took that as proof that everything that needed to be had been said, if not explicitly. "You would know," she teased gently.

   "Uumff, not fair Lu, I'm too tired for a comeback," he grumbled against her hair.

~*~

   With each step closer to Zanarkand, she became more aware that there was something off about Sir Auron. It made her wary on an instinctual level, never mind that she had considered it from every angle and decided that he posed no physical threat to herself or more importantly, Yuna. It was maddening and intriguing at the same time—like most other aspects of him.

   The moon was high and full in the sky, against a backdrop of dark blue and pinprick stars. Gagazet's ice reflected and magnified the pallid light, providing a crisp illumination despite the late hour.

   Sir Auron stood out in the snow, a bloodred silhouette against the mountain's whites and grays, and she was reminded of the first time she had really taken note of him. He was within a dozen feet of their camp, close enough to share the safety afforded by numbers but too far for the other advantage that went with numbers, especially in a place where freezing to death was a very real risk—body heat.

   She deliberated a moment, before standing. Beside her, Wakka shifted a little in his sleep, probably because of the sudden cold where her body had just been, but did not wake. Across the dying fire, Rikku glanced at her, before returning to a quietly fervent conversation with Tidus.

   Crossing to him, "Cold, isn't it?" she asked.

   "No."

   Her brows arched. "I…see."

   A chuckle. "Do you?"

   A little surprised by the response, she scanned his face. It went carefully blank. Again, she felt that primitive thrill down her spine, warning her of…something, accompanied by another thrill just as primal. "No."

   "Hhhmm."

   She felt suddenly like she'd disappointed him somehow. "I…have my suspicions. But I will not speak them until I am sure."

   He shrugged. "As you wish."

   "Indeed."

   She moved to stand beside him. There was another long pause, one that someone else might find uncomfortable. Lulu used it to make a quick survey of their surroundings, and to consider him. But the something's name eluded her mental grasp like water slipping from cupped hands.

   "How many days until Zanarkand?" she broke the quiet at last.

   "Two, at the soonest. It depends on the fiends. Perhaps four." She could hear the impatience in his voice.

   "Two or four… Too long a time for you, and too short a time for me," she mused sadly.

   "If you want to delay it, you're being foolish. A few extra days won't matter in the long run," he said harshly.

   Blunt as always.

   "Perhaps not. That does not mean I…anticipate the end of our pilgrimage."

   Lulu looked at her hands. Maybe Tidus and Rikku…

   "You've walked this way before, Sir Auron," she said, thinking aloud. "A hundred and more summoners and their guardians have walked this trail on pilgrimage. I am sure some of them hoped for another way. That…that we walk in their footsteps is proof there is none."

   She glanced up from her feet to his face. He was scowling; not at her, she suspected, but at some thought of his own.

   "There could be another way." His expression said he didn't fully believe it himself. "It doesn't matter what path we take to get there, so long as we destroy Sin at the end of it."

   "Sin's destruction is all that matters for you." It was nothing more than an observation, not the accusation it might have been.

   "Sin's destruction is all that can matter." He hesitated. "It isn't that I am…unfeeling toward Yuna. But she chose her story. It's her business."

   "And your business is?" Lulu studied his face again.

   "Sin."

   "…Because?"

   "Because I made a promise to a friend."

   She cocked her head. "I—"

   "You see?"

   She pursed her lips. "No, perhaps not. But I will."

~*~

   And she did, sometime after Zanarkand, Cid's airship humming around her like a living entity, the living entity that he wasn't.

   He was dead. The realization hit her in the middle of the night like a hammer to the ribcage, and she froze, fingers twisted around the sheets and terror clutching at her insides.

   No, that wasn't possible.

   It wasn't possible for someone to touch her, intrigue her make her—

   Care. Hurt. (The things she had thought she wouldn't feel for him, and that were really the same thing after all.)

   And then have to gall to be dead. Not just doomed, living but branded with a countdown rune, as she had sometimes in retrospect imagined Chappu to be, but dead. He wasn't going to die on her because he was already gone. Only a memory, a ghost, a lie.

   She fairly jumped up from her cot, disturbing Rikku on the next pallet over—they were laid so close together one could hardly twitch without rolling into another guardian—and, metal floor frigid against her bare feet, padded out into the hallway in her loose pajama pants and shirt, and then with a frantic efficiency, searched for him.

   She found him sitting on the airship's nose; chill midnight winds whipped her loosed hair into a wild tangle on either side of her face and brought goosebumps almost painfully to attention. "I know your story," she called out to him. "I understand."

   He twisted his head around to look at her. "Do you?"

   "I…am sick of your question-replies. They are cheating and illegal in any further conversation, understand?"

   "Should I?" he said, and laughed.

   Frustrated, she whispered heatedly, "Sir Auron…you are dead." Her hands clutched in his robe, pulling him around to face her fully, the wind streaming her hair forward in a curtain that secluded them, providing an intimate intensity. "You should have told me," she said angrily. "You should not have dared to be dead—" No, that was ridiculous; she groped around for a different phrasing and settled for repeating, "You should have told me."

   "Would it have made any difference?"

   "No questions," she said. "Answers."

   "It didn't endanger Yuna," he pointed out, as if that could be the only reason why she was furious.

   "I…" she paused to steady her emotions; filling her lungs to the brim with air, she breathed his exhalation. "The dead should not have breath; they should not have a taste," she said, voice cool and cutting as she could manage.

   "I didn't make the rules," he hissed, eyes fixed on some point in her hair.

   "Damn it," she said. "This…is not fair."

   "Nothing ever is."

   "Platitudes are also off-limits," she informed him.

   "Then I am sorry."

   In the future, on the day when she would bid him farewell with a nod and one look that said a hundred thousand things she could not bring herself to say, on the day that Yuna danced him away, and all the days to come after that, she would not able to say who began it, whose was the mouth that slammed down on the other's with the desperate fervency of a prayer or perhaps a curse, but all she knew was that she wanted the hundred thousand precious moments before the end, the set Chappu had cheated her of when he tried to protect her.