Against Strawberry Fields
By Gabi-hime (gabihime at gmail dot com)
Their story does not start where he thinks it starts: across the Moonflow and over that sunken city of machina, built on hope and dreams and a push towards the future, all sandpaper-rough when he cupped her chin, her eyes squinched shut like she was in a dentist's chair expecting a drill, but he ordered them open and they did, a spiral of green bending in on itself; tell-tale eyes a dead give away of what she was. She had thrown her lot in with them then, in with Yuna, to protect Yuna, heedless, thoughtless, but at the same time full of too many thoughts for her head. In doing so, she had also thrown her lot in with him, for better or for worse, richer or for poorer. For poorer very often, when she got her hands into his pockets, looting him happily blind. But this was the start of all their roads, and why he considered it the beginning.
Their story does not start where she thinks it starts either: on the stone before a sea that shouldn't have been there, face curled against the warmth of his back, smelling smoke and must and tea and and cobwebs and loving them, velvet of his coat ready to fall to pieces under her fingers because he's been wearing it so long, past years and death and everything and she was singing a lullaby that she only half remembered -- about resting well and setting watch and that she'd be there in the morning, always, and it didn't matter that she only knew half of the words and made up half of the rest because neither of them were thinking about the song. This was when she knew that her heart was given away forever and hadn't she been retarded about getting mugged for it and this was probably a really stupid idea but she didn't care anyway and they were going to mash all the happiness out of the world that they could get, like dancing on an overripe peach until they world fell down around them or they brought it crashing down, and this is why she considered it the beginning.
But both of them are of flawed thinking because their story starts truly some ten years before his reckoning and an equally distant stretch before her reckoning, in the wide, empty fields where the spiral dips down forever, turning back to bite its tail and take another summoner with it to oblivion. Their story truly begins in the Calm Lands, before he is properly dead and she is properly capable of tying her shoes, after he has tried and failed to change the world and she has not yet thought to try.
He is still Auron and she is still Rikku, although sometimes she demands instead to be called Princess Aurora.
This is their story of ten years before, as the seasons turned.
Every step was a nest of wasps burrowing into his skin to lay their eggs. When they hatched they'd burrow flesh tunnels through him, eating him up from the inside out until there was nothing left but paper skin to rattle to the ground like rubbish -- but he wouldn't. Even if there was nothing left inside of him but a squirm of maggoty, stinging larva he would not lie down and let death take him. He owed it to Braska. He owed it to Jecht. There was too much to settle in their names. There was too much left to demand settling. It was hungry inside him like flesh scoured to raw meat by the grace of history, their history, Spira's history: dead spiral turning.
He had sworn it so long to himself in this endless walk from that bloody hollow where Braska had taken Sin and then Jecht had taken Braska and then Sin had taken Jecht that it was burned into his brain, the mantra that kept his feet going one after the other despite the hurt that wrung salty water from his eyes, despite the infinite bloody footprints he left behind himself. He would not stop until all the accounts were settled.
That meant one foot, then one foot, then one foot until his feet no longer mattered and he didn't feel them, his eyes swimming wide and hollow, and he kept walking, almost like a corpse risen from the dead and called by some greater power. So focused had he become on simply walking that he might have gone on with it forever, one step, one step, losing sight of his purpose until it just became a mushy sediment at the back of his brain as life left him and his pyreflies spun together and built him into something like a drake-dragon, all teeth and razors and batwings and fire and no accounts to be settled. No reckoning.
He might have walked forever, trackless, thoughtless, automaton, had not long-fingered hands seized him by the shoulders and shaken him, shouting first so that the words made no sense to his brain, all smeared together with too many consonants in all the wrong places.
"Ed'c oui! Ed'c oui! Sycdan Auron, oui yna ymeja," and it ran together like soup, until faintly he realized that although the mess of words made no sense to him, the idea behind them did, and he stopped trying to bull past the hands on his shoulders and waited patiently for the situation to resolve itself in his mind.
"Master Auron," repeated the voice, softly accented, burnt like cinnamon under your tongue, "You are gravely injured. How long have you been walking? Have you had no rest since Sin passed? We are two days now in Lord Braska's Calm."
Two days. Two days he had been walking. It seemed like ages longer than that.
"I have been . . . . walking," he explained carefully, attempting to bring his thoughts into a focus that did not involve the bubbling pain boiling behind his eyes.
"Come here, now," ordered this man that he thought he recognized, but his vision was blurry with the salt-water in his eyes and the wasps burrowing into his skin. He allowed himself to be half dragged off and shoved into something that sounded like rocks in a can being shaken by an unsteady toddler, it belched steam and fire and there was something in the teachings about that, but what teachings he could not remember, and for some reason, even thinking that much made him want to spit and spit until he had nothing left to spit
He let himself be bundled into a seat and strapped in, criss-cross, the other man muttering to himself the entire time, "I must get you back to the agency xielgmo or I am afraid you will not be long with us, Master Auron. You are burning up from a fever and the blood -- "
"I was walking," he insisted, shaking his head slowly so as not to anger the wasps, but there they were again, regardless, down his spine and the backs of his calves until he couldn't think, "I had to keep walking."
"Tysh dra yhlacdunc," said the other man in a way that he knew was oath swearing of some kind, fiddling with levers and gages and they were already going but apparently not fast enough for the other man's taste, so he kicked the steering shift hard, shouting, "Ku! Go, you wothless piece of trash!"
And they went like fire, like a bullet from a gun, or like lightning from the sky and Auron was glad of the criss-cross straps because he could not close his hands over anything tightly enough to hold on, even though the wind against his face and roaring in his ears cooled his head enough for his thoughts to gather a little. This was Rin, Al Bhed Entrepreneur and Privateer. For a little while, he did not have to walk.
The ride was short. They'd skimmed so fast over the grass that it'd bent backwards, leaving a wake trail of flattened vegetation that ran for miles across the fields. Something in the teachings about that -- but Rin was unstrapping him already, pulling him out of the skiff and onto the ground, bearing a surprising amount of dead weight on that whipcord frame of his.
"Sword . . . " Auron started, leaning his head far back to see his nihontou where it lay forgotten against the floorboard of the speeder. He hadn't been able to maintain a grip on it.
"I will fetch it as soon as I have settled you, Master Auron," Rin assured him patiently, although there was a frantic edge to his tone that he was ill-concealing.
"I am badly off," Auron answered flatly, one step, one step, one step, as he was led through the yard like a lamb.
"You are burning up with poison, I think," Rin answered as pleasantly as possible, "But you should not worry, because we are here now and we will see to that. No charge," he craned his head in an attempt to look over his shoulder and kicked backwards, both of his hands caught up it keeping Auron on his feet. His foot hit the brushed aluminum of the back door and he bellowed, "Vycd yc y nypped, Rikku, open the door!"
There was a clatter inside like a minor catastrophe was happening, and Auron wondered exactly what Rin had called down upon them until he heard a high pitched and childish answer from inside.
The latch was undone and the door was thrown wide, and holding, it, her eyes as wide as tea-plates, was a little fluff of blonde.
"Rin-pucc! It's a dead man! Where did you find it? Is it heavy?"
"He's not dead yet, Cbnulgad," he panted as Auron was dragged through the door and deposited on some sort of low settee, "Get me the strongest antidote we have, child. Green bottle, in the back of the cabinet."
She was gone from the door before it closed properly, letting it slam-clatter like so many dishes hitting the floor, but then she was back with a heavy green bottle that it took her both hands to carry. She handed it over and he wrenched the glass top off and tossed it aside, and Auron felt his head being tilted back and thick syrupy chill rushing down his throat and into his belly where it slowly spread like blood pinkening water until he could no longer feel the wasps in his skin and behind his brain.
While he was still muzzy and the wasps were still buzzing, he heard Rin strictly order the girl to watch him and bring him anything he wanted, then the desert lean man had turned back to him, where he lay half conscious, and bowed.
"I am sorry I cannot attend to you personally, Master Auron, but you need a healer and you need one badly. I ride to fetch one. The girl will see to you. Ask her for anything you wish."
He managed to nod blearily, and then Rin was gone like he'd never been there, the door clattering like dropped dishes again to mark his passing. Faintly Auron heard the scream of a spurred chocobo, and he sighed as he let his eyes settle closed.
But then there was a sharp tugging on his hand.
"Can't go to sleep!" the blonde midget insisted, "Might die. Poof dead. Can't go to sleep or you'll go to sleep forever."
"I must rest," he insisted, his eyes burnt shut from the salt, "I have too much to do. I must rest a while -- "
"You must not!" she cried, stamping her foot, and then he felt the liquid warmth of what had to be a potion running down his chest. He opened his eyes again to find her perched beside him, a bottle in each hand and dumping at him like a poor man's Regen. Her face was screwed up serious and she was concentrating hard, When one bottle was empty, she tossed it to the floor, wrenched another cork out one-handed, and kept the uninterrupted flow going. His skin was already starting to take the potion, osmosed through the skin to knit up bones and flesh and thicken blood to clotting, and he felt the overwhelming need to close his eyes fading.
"You still might die!" she chirped cheerfully, "If you do, can I have your stuff?"
"I'm not going to die," he answered flatly, running the back of his hand over his forehead so that it came away clammy-sweaty. His body was still trying to sweat out the poison that the antidote had already neutralized.
"You might," she insisted, nodding so that her tiny blonde palm-tree pigtails wobbled in the air, "If you do, I call dibs."
She paused thoughtfully, then sat down her bottles to pull one of his monstrous hands into her lap where she spent some time folding his fingers around the neck of a bottle. When he realized what she was at, he marshaled all of his will together and forced his fingers firm around it. She propped his hand against a pillow so that the potion was still slowly oozing over him and then she scrambled off the couch, rear forward, until her dangling feet hit the ground.
He trackled her with his eyes as she crawled under the gate and behind the counter and again he heard rattling that would have suited a herd of aurochs more than one little girl. There was a squeak of what was probably triumph, then she was marching back like a trooper, bottle held cradled in her arms like it was a baby. His eyes bugged slightly when he saw what she carried, all gold lace over a sliver smooth bottle that spun up in a minaret.
"Lixir," she explained, as if he were the child and had never seen one before, and she first put it delicately on the couch and then mashed herself up onto it again, where she proceeded to have at the lacework over the top of the bottle with a tiny knife.
"Where did you get that?" he had the presence of mind of ask. Braska's last elixir had gone to Jecht somewhere in Zanarkand. Jecht in Zanarkand. His head swam again.
"Behind the counter," she said, only half paying attention as she worried the top from the bottle with a satisfying pop. Ginger-sweetness filled the air as the sparkle of the elixir began to waft out.
"Rin just has those lying around?" Now he was only half paying attention, his mind a circus of curved spiral-black horns -- aeon Jecht, Braska run through and drowning on his own blood as the whole valley turned into a sea of red and lies and regret and death and wrong. Yevon and the never-ending circle of death that had left him burning fever and poison and without even the strength to bury his dead.
"No," she said, leaning over him, all small dimply elbows as she pressed the bottle to his lips. Elixir was too precious to just pour over a wound, "Picked the lock. Gonna get in trouble. Don't care. Din't want you to die."
She titled the bottle up and he drank like a bottle-fed baby, the delicate elixir sweet like honey-wine that was everywhere at once, like a song in his head that stilled his fears, and he began to take slow, even breaths. When the bottle was empty, her elbows came away blood red and she waggled her arms in distress and then forced him back further on the couch. He had been so mellowed by the elixir that he did not do too much to protest, even when her small hands felt all over his chest, under his shirt until they found the long gash that cut him shoulder to hip bone.
She didn't say a word, just took a deep breath and hopped squarely onto his chest and sat her butt down right on top of the wound.
A little gasp escaped despite himself and he asked, "Young lady, what do you think you're doing?"
"Stopping the bleeding," she rolled her eyes, and the spirals in them bent back on themselves, "Din't you ever have first aid? Pressure makes the bleeding stop. You're too big for my hands, so I have to sit."
He took a deep, slow breath, and found that his chest could still rise and fall with a little effort even with her sitting smack in the middle of it, "How old are you?" he asked skeptically, "You can't have had first aid yet. You'd still be in nursery school. You have to be younger than Yuna."
"Am five!" She balled her little fists in the air and waved them irately, "Am all grown up and've done first aid. Can shoot a gun an' Rin-pucc says he's gonna marry me when I'm all old. Made him promise! And I can count to twenty!"
"Is that so?" he asked sardonically, blinking slowly. Perhaps even as little as a month ago he would've never had such an extended conversation with a little infidel, someone who by birth and nature rejected the providence of the temples, but oh how things had changed, so that his picture was a portrait painted in Jecht and Braska's blood and there was nothing left to him but spite and malice.
"One-two-free-fouw-five-six-seven-eight-nine-ten-leven-twelve-thirteen-fouwteen-fifteen-fifteen-fifteen-twenty," she exploded all in one rush, then she was forced to pant a little bit as grinned, self-impressed, "I showed you."
"Oh you certainly did," he chuckled dryly. The pain in his chest was slowly lessening even as the blood soaked through her shorts, red on green like holly berries, and she sat there, bare feet balanced over his shoulders, wriggling her toes.
"You know," she said seriously, twitchy hands folded in her lap like she was trying very hard not to do something like go through his pockets while he was prone, "I'm glad you didn't die. You have pretty eyes."
"Is that so?" he repeated, and was vaguely amused, despite everything. No one had ever complimented his eyes before. His rigor, yes, his dependability, yes, his prowess, definitely yes; but never his eyes. Most people neglected to meet them.
"They remind me of potatoes," she continued cheerfully.
"Of potatoes?" he asked incredulously. Potatoes.
"I like potatoes!" she nodded enthusiastically, "Never get potatoes at home. Just jerky and cactus trifle and sand surprise. Know what?"
"S'never a surprise. S'always icky. Bet nobody makes you eat sand surprise. Or you could whack 'em in the head and make 'em not any more. I think you might even be stronger than my Dad. How did you get so ouchied? Pick a fight with somefing too too big?"
He closed his eyes again against the ebony spiral of that horn and the red rage fused up in those eyes, "I did."
"What was it?" she asked, spreading her arms as far as they would go, "Was it this big? Was it a pottamouse? Did you kill it good? It almost killed you good, din't it? Once I saw a sandworm bigger than a house."
Theirs was the spiral of death, a waltz of unending strife and shame and carnage that started womb-early and lasted maggot-late. There was no place in the world even a child could be safe from it, "I fought Sin with Lord Braska."
"Wowee, really? I have an Uncle Braskie, and he's real real nice everyone says so except I never met him because daddy never wanted me to, I dunno why, said there wasn't any point, but then a couple of days ago everyone told me that I was lucky because my Uncle Braskie had died but I don't want any stupid old Calm. I want my Uncle Braskie. He never even came to one of my birthday parties. He wouldn't've had to bring me a present or anyfing, just come and have some cake and I would have eaten all of my horrible mandragora mash for weeks," she had started sniffling alarmingly and she rubbed her little balled fists in her eyes, "I hate the Calm and I hate everything and I hate Yevon!"
She was near howling now, and he didn't know what to say to her to make her be still, what he could tell her that wasn't a baldfaced lie. I hate the Calm and I hate everything and I hate Yevon. That was perhaps not a bad standpoint to have.
"It's bad," she sobbed, "It killed my Uncle Braskie. Daddy said they scar-faced him. I hope they didn't scar-face him too bad. I bet that would hurt so bad. I hate Yevon. I hate it," she hiccuped, "I hate it more than snakes. I hate it more than funder. I wish it would all just stop. No how, no good, just stopped."
He raised a hand and let it sit awkwardly on top of her head as she quivered and trembled with the kind of crying that can wrack a five-year-old.
"Make it stop," she wailed, still shaking, and he curled his arm around her back.
He closed his eyes briefly. He had accounts to settle, debts to pay. He owed so much, and so much was owed to them. He was unused to dealing with children, but the sight of his one so upset rubbed something up backwards inside of him and he pulled her down against his chest. She balled up her fists in his blood-soaked gi, dyed red in his own blood, and she shuddered against him, eyes shut tight.
"Make it stop," she whimpered again and he slowly began to rub her back to still her as he thought of lavender-death, an empty statue, and Yunalesca.
When Rin finally made it back to the agency, chocobo frothing with sweat, healer all out of breath, he found Rikku asleep amidst a mountain of empty bottles, curled up and bloodstained, barefoot, tearlines dried on her face. Beside her, on the couch, in a neat little pile were trinkets and small change gil, lint, keepsakes, treasures.
She had called dibs and he had turned out his pockets for her, and somewhere in that lint and miscellanea their story truly began.
Wow, this has been rattling around in my head for a while now.
I'm glad to finally get it on paper.
For Guardian more than anyone else in the entire world.
Review and I'll love you even more than I do usually.