General Note: I'm only going to reformat my fics so much when this site is the one at fault. So If the formatting is weird (like, say, there aren't any scene breaks where there should be), please check out my profile for more info. Thank you.
A/N: FFX is hardly my usual fandom, but I've always had a weird fascination with this pairing. But I'm also incapable of writing romance, even with pairings I like. So you get this.
Obligatory (but ultimately pointless) CYA: I don't own it.
For all her elegant features, and alluring dress, and, well—breasts, he had to admit—Auron never paid much attention to Lulu. Never paid much attention to her as an attractive female, rather, because such a fact was trivial and coincidental. The important things were that she was Yuna's Guardian, a more-than-capable black mage, and had a smart, practical head on her shoulders.
In the present traveling company, he was perhaps most grateful for that last aspect.
Tidus's sword twisted out of his hand, and he stumbled yet again before regaining his footing. Auron grabbed his shoulder and shoved him back to the steady posture he was supposed to be keeping. Trying to drive a sense of technique into him was like trying to drive the racism out of Wakka.
"Speed and strength won't get you very far without balance. Again."
Tidus sighed the woeful sigh of adolescence and reluctantly turned around to retrieve his weapon. When he didn't turn back, Auron looked over, following his distracted gaze.
Yuna sat at a small table outside the Al Bhed inn, savoring both the late afternoon and the opportunity to eat a meal with fresh vegetables. Lulu stood on the other side, pouring over maps and plotting out day-to-day rations, and was leaning over the table in a way that gave a very nice view to wandering, hormonal eyes.
Auron promptly smacked the back of his head.
"This is no time for sightseeing."
With a rub at his skull, Tidus hefted his sword again and turned back to the older Guardian, poising himself for attack. "Oh, c'mon—you're old, but you're not that old. You telling me you can't even appreciate a figure like—?"
With a sudden, deft twist of an arm to exploit an overbalanced lunge, the teenager's back hit the ground with a painful thump.
Tidus groaned. "Point taken," he cringed out.
Auron looked down at the blonde and raised an eyebrow over his glasses. "Maybe you aren't a lost cause, after all."
"Jeez…for twenty-two, ya'd think she's two hundred."
He was surprised to find out her age, overhearing Wakka mutter it to Tidus after one of her stern-mouthed glares—the result of some joke about her being able to find the cloud in every silver lining. She didn't look that young. And twenty-two was young. Three years younger than his naïve Guardian self of a decade ago. Only a mere five years older than Yuna and Tidus, both half his age.
But appearances were deceiving, and ages perhaps even more so. He certainly didn't look or feel as young as thirty-five, no matter what the calendars and math said.
The weight of the past lay heavier than any stone or sword ever could have, and often heavier than even the press of the future, he knew. But where the past had torn into him, leaving harsh, jagged edges and broken remains, it had cut into her, cleaving sharp angles that cast razor-blade shadows.
Wakka stumbled into them like furniture in the dark. Tidus didn't seem to do much better, but somehow managed to come out with fewer scratches. Kimahri at least knew the layout of the room, and could glide through it unscathed when necessary. As for himself, he could see scars from the past even if he couldn't identify the exact cause of them, and some unspoken understanding had passed between them; they knew that you didn't have to be inside someone's house to interact with the residents.
It seemed only Yuna was able to dance through the mage's shadows and find a blanket—some comforting warmth in the darkness.
The older woman was almost more often a parent to her Summoner than simply a Guardian, and he idly wondered at exactly what age she had forsaken her childhood and taken up the mantle of motherhood. It was something much like her dress—something too big and too heavy and likely too complicated, but she wore it with grace, and without complaint.
Sometimes, journeying at the back of the party with her not very far in front of him, Auron thought he had never seen a pair of shoulders stronger than hers.
Outside the Djose Temple, the night was mild and clear. Auron might have been able to appreciate it, had he not known Yuna was inside, relentlessly healing the wounded and sending the fallen after a botched campaign against Sin.
His mind kept wandering to a now-pudgy Wen Kinoc. He had let his body go over the past ten years. Obviously his morals, too.
An attack that had been known to be futile from the start, that served to eliminate heretics and reaffirm the faith of the survivors in a corrupt religion. Even if that hadn't been the original point of Operation Mi'ihen, it was certainly a nice bonus.
The Crusaders and Al Bhed had simply been lambs for the slaughter. It was no different than lining up Summoner after Summoner to die—arguably worse. And Auron was no better, retracing with Yuna the same steps he had walked with her father.
He heard the temple door open and close with a careful creak. A slight jangle of metal and the clicking of beads. Lulu. He would have thought her asleep by now. Kimahri was already staying with Yuna, ready to physically hold her up if need be, and Wakka and Tidus had retired to the adjacent inn earlier, after having gone off to comfort Gatta over Luzzu's death.
A shame, that one. Auron hadn't known him, save for the party's brief encounters along the highroad, but he could tell that he had been a good man. A good leader. Who had been sensible enough to know that lives, and trying to protect those lives, were more important than religious doctrines.
Lulu didn't notice him, leaning against one of the stout pillars that flanked the temple's entrance, and if not for her white shoulders, she herself would have blended into the night. She garbed herself in funerary colors, but with a defiantly fashionable style. Mourning, and yet not.
Like he was dead, and yet not.
She strayed to the other pillar, watched the night, put a hand to her eyes, sighed wearily. Idly, she ran her fingertips over the characters inscribed in the stone. Ancient Spiran. Praising Yevon, humbly repenting, praying for deliverance. Auron frowned dubiously.
At his words, she spun towards him. "Sir Auron," she said, already having checked her surprise.
"You're tired. You should sleep." It was only after he said the words that he realized how odd they felt, directed at her. Mostly they were reserved for Tidus. Sometimes Yuna. Lulu was responsible enough to not need basic advice like that.
"And what about you, Sir Auron?"
"Do I look like I'm tired?" he asked pointedly, because two could play the deflection game.
She looked at him. "Yes," she answered honestly.
Too personal. They regarded each other for an awkward moment. An apology hung in the air, but whether it radiated from her or himself or the both of them, Auron couldn't tell. He resettled against the stone and turned back to the night. Peripherally, he saw her do the same.
The doorway to the temple stretched between them like a comforting gulf. A brick wall between houses.
Well. If she didn't want to sleep, that was her business. She knew the consequences, and didn't need a lecture from him. Probably wouldn't appreciate one, anyway.
The dead echoed in the still night, and they echoed with them.
"Before you became Guardian to Lord Braska…" she began, quietly breaking the silence, "you were a warrior monk in Bevelle. Had you always wanted to join the monastery?"
Auron looked over at her. Her arms were across her chest—not crossed, but wrapped around her—and for all the expression on her face, she might as well have been carved out of pale stone. Reigned in and composed. She wore control like steel armor.
If it had been anyone else asking, he probably would have ignored them, but this was Lulu, and Lulu was not one for idle chatter or casual prying. His curiosity overrode his defense.
"Why do you care to know?"
She thought for a moment, as if she didn't know the reason, herself. "Luzzu…had always wanted to be a Crusader. Yuna has always wanted to be a Summoner…" She shook her head in annoyance at her own lack of clarity. "I am tired," she muttered, and turned to go toward the inn, his answer not worth making herself look like a fool.
"I suppose I had. Always wanted to be a monk," he admitted, and it brought her feet to a stop. "Fighting was something I was good at. Yevon was something I believed in. It made sense."
She took that in, not moving, not responding.
"I suppose you always wanted to be a mage," he said, because that, too, made sense.
"…Yes and no," she answered at length. After another pause, she shortly added, "White magic, originally. I wanted to study white magic. I wanted to be a healer."
That made him look at her, and she was dark hair and a dark dress and the dark personality of a realist tempered with cynicism. Sharp shadows, not comforting light.
"What made you change your mind?"
"My parents. They were killed by Sin."
He didn't offer condolences because they were pointless, and she didn't elaborate because it wasn't necessary. Just like sympathy couldn't change anything, white magic couldn't bring the dead back to life. Healing spells couldn't fight Sin, just like prayers wouldn't bring salvation.
Useless words and futile actions and life after life after life lost, and Auron wondered if, beneath the restraints of belts and laces and religious habits, Lulu was just as angry as he was.
It was only after their visit to Guadosalam, and consequently the Farplane, that she began watching him. Discreetly slowing her pace just enough to fall slightly behind him, clinical stares stolen in the aftermath of a battle, before adrenaline charges had worn off and everyone else relaxed enough to actively pay attention to each other. Once even a quick fiend managed to claw his arm, and he'd caught her pressing her lips together in academic scrutiny at the blood.
Auron had more than a sneaking suspicion as to why. Lulu was a far cry from stupid, and was arguably more perceptive than she had any right to be.
And at Rin's agency, where Rikku had convinced—in other words, annoyed—them to spend the night, there she was yet again, concentrating on him out of the corner of her eyes as she pretended to watch the storm outside, lower lip jutting ever so slightly forward in concentration, as if she thought she could physically see through him if she just tried hard enough.
And Auron was sick of it. His little conversation with Rin had probably just given her more food for thought.
"I'm still real enough," he finally snapped, quietly indignant and perhaps even defensive. "It isn't as if I turn transparent when no one's around."
She blinked in surprise, but a moment later lightly pursed her mouth. "My…apologies," she said carefully. "Perhaps I should have asked directly, but…how to go about asking a man if he's…"
"Hmph. So intent staring is a good alternative?"
She bristled a little. "I did apologize."
He sighed, forcing the anger out of his voice as he scanned the common area. The rest of the party had turned in, but the clerk still manned the front desk across the way. "When did you first suspect? When Yuna sent Jyscal?"
"Seymour's comment, first, actually," she admitted.
Seymour's damned comment. And then Tidus had sniffed him like a dumb bunny.
Despite himself, he had to give a grim little laugh at her answer. All that acuity, and she was still so rooted in Yevon. It was almost as pitiable as it was admirable.
Then again, he hadn't been any better ten years ago. In all honesty, he had probably been worse.
There was a pregnant pause. "Yuna doesn't need to know," he finally said, addressing the crux of the situation, because Yuna was at the crux of every situation.
"No," she agreed, a crease forming between her eyebrows as she looked distractedly out the window. "…nor any of the others, I don't think."
"There's enough to worry about already," she said, which translated into, They already have Yuna's death pressing on them; they don't need another. "And knowing Wakka, he might insist on a sending, for all the so-called 'blasphemy' of it," she added dourly, and it was partially in jest and partially not.
That made him look over at her, curled up on a small settee, and an eyebrow arched up in a conglomeration of amusement, disbelief, and admiration. "Religious skepticism, Lulu?" But at his words, her face fell in contrition. So perhaps not. But then she frowned moodily, seemingly irritated with herself. The sheer display of emotions she was letting him see was enough to lift his eyebrow again.
"I don't know how I feel about Yevon anymore," she levelly settled on, turning her head away from him.
Well, it was better than a "praise be."
"Hmn. And about discovering the 'Legendary Guardian' is an unsent?" He had to ask, because her expressions would never tell him.
She shrugged at him almost apologetically. "It doesn't change anything."
Which wasn't much of an answer, but it was Lulu through and through.
In the following silence, his mouth tugged down into a frown. "I'm sorry you noticed. You shouldn't have to bear my secret," he admitted grudgingly.
Her voice came, and it was cool, always so impenetrably cool. "I've bore plenty other secrets; what's one more?"
Cynicism twirled doubts in his head. Because as capable as Lulu was, and as sensible a head she had on her shoulders, everybody had a breaking point, even the most capable, sensible person. "The straw that broke the camel's back," he told her, perhaps more brusquely than he had intended.
She looked over then, and there was a glint in her expression, a knowing amusement twitching at her mouth that could never seem to reach her eyes. Sometimes she looked at him like she was a thousand years old, and it was rather unnerving, because he was the dead one, weighed down by duty and betrayal and promises and death that were heavy enough to age his unsent appearance far more than ten years of life could have.
"I've carried far heavier pieces of straw, Sir Auron."
A mirthless half-smirk came to his mouth, and a short laugh puffed out. "I don't doubt it."
After another moment, she stretched her legs and stood, and began walking toward the room she shared with the other two girls. She paused next to the chair he sat in, gently touching his arm. "Yuna won't find out," she reassured him. "She worries too much, as it is."
He looked down at her hand, laid against his forearm in a way he had commonly seen her do with their young Summoner—a soft, silent gesture of comfort and trust—and something inside him gave a slight tug and made his eyebrows draw together. The question came out quietly, more a murmur to himself than anything. "Were you ever a child, or have you always been a mother?"
She blinked down at him, and through the chill of surprise in her eyes, he could recognize the loss underneath. But then she dropped her gaze, and then her hand a moment later, and he felt the loss of that little warmth as acutely as the loss of his friends, the loss of his faith, the loss of his life.
A sweep of dark hair shielded one eye from him, and she turned away from him enough to shield the other. Her voice was cool—still waters running deep.
"Goodnight, Sir Auron."
It took the technological marvel of an airship and one enormous explosion for him to actively notice that Lulu was, in fact, a red-blooded woman, and that he was—well, not exactly red-blooded anymore—but still a man, as far as practical application of the word went.
The Al Bhed Home went up in a cacophony of fiends and fire and machina and mourning, but for all the ship's speed, it wasn't fast enough to out-run the resulting shockwave that barreled into them.
A well-timed stagger kept him on his feet, but many others weren't so firmly cemented. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the impact pitch her forward, uncharacteristic, muted panic flashing across her features, and he moved reflexively, catching her around the waist so that she fell into him instead of being hurled over the bridge's railing. Almost like a sphere, memories flickered and echoed in his head as he held her steady against the rocking of the airship.
When the priest's daughter had half-purposely tripped into his arms, he hadn't known what to do other than to catch her, steady her, and ask if she was all right. She had blushed and coyly met his eyes, and a couple days later he had overheard her with her friends in town, stealing glances and giggling. A few more accidentally-on-purpose run-ins on her behalf coupled with the kind politeness his honor forced him to display led to rumors. An untimely fiend attack on the temple led to a grateful priest, which led to an offer of marriage based on incorrect assumptions, which led to a shocked decline and a fumbled explanation, which led to an insulted priest, doubly insulted for a hurt, rejected daughter, and after that—well, it was made clear that if he couldn't kiss the Father's daughter, then he could kiss goodbye to any promotions. The initial situation had catalyzed such disaster, it was practically the stuff comedies were made of.
And now he was again uncomfortably caught with another pretty female in his arms, and he was both surprised and irritated with how young it made him feel.
But—and it was a big but—Lulu was anything but a silly, giggling girl. So there was that comfort, at least.
She regained her balance quickly once they cleared the turbulence, and for a split second, his own expression was reflected back in her crimson eyes—the catch of breath and flash of attraction—and he remembered something about her and a past love named Chappu. Wakka's younger brother, who had looked like Tidus, who had died like the Crusader, Luzzu. Nothing like him at all, in any way—not even the dead part, really, because he still walked among the living—and he wondered if it was perhaps loneliness that brought that unsure flicker to her eyes. Something about a marriage proposal, so it had been more than simply a young infatuation, and just how long ago had he passed? How long had she been alone?
But then the split second passed, and the only thing left on the mage's features was veiled surprise at the contraption they were riding on. "Thank you, Sir Auron," she said with an incline of her head, talking over the swirl of Al Bhed. She gently dislodged herself, and where he was hard granite, she was polished marble. The hands which had been against him smoothed her skirt as she assessed the state of the bridge, and where others might have been awkward in the aftermath of such a moment, she was graceful, always graceful.
His mouth tugged down at the corners into its usual expression, and he pushed his glasses up on his nose, turning back to the bow of the airship as Rikku's father belted out commands. "Watch your balance," he grunted with a sideways glance, and things fell back into place as easily as the desert sands drank up water.
The woods outside of Bevelle were ideal to hide in, dark and thick and—after doing a perimeter scan around the small clearing they had stopped in—deemed safe enough by his standards. It would have been just their luck to escape from Yevon clergy just to run into fiends and ravenous beasts.
Not that they were very different in his mind.
When a cursory glance failed to put a light brown head of hair and a purple skirt in his vision, he moved next to Lulu, who stood a ways off to the side, watching the woods, herself.
"Yuna isn't back?"
"Not yet." He stiffened a little in concern, and her expression turned dry with fondness. "She can manage herself in a mere forest glade. And Kimahri's off, keeping an eye out for her," she reassured him, and wondered if she was trying to reassure herself, as well.
With a breath, his shoulders relaxed slightly, and he took another look at the clearing. Rikku's gaze was in her lap and Wakka was talking too quietly to be heard, but his face looked contrite. Maybe he was trying to patch their tenuous friendship up. If so, good for him. But that still didn't account for the last of their party.
"And Tidus?" he asked, turning back around, and though Yuna had never been the handful that teenage boys were, Lulu could recognize the edge of the long-suffering parent in his voice.
"I thought it would be best if he went to talk to Yuna about…what's happened." And her fingers fidgeted with each other under the sleeves of her dress, because she had seen the way he sometimes looked at her surrogate sister-daughter, and for all his naïve bravado, he really was a nice boy, and Yuna…
He looked at her curiously. "Not you?"
"Tidus is…better at cheering people up."
"He has more blind optimism, you mean," he said darkly.
"Blind or not, sometimes you need optimism."
"Hm," he grunted, and that was about as close as he would get to admitting that she had a point. Despite that, he still bristled impatiently. "Even so, Tidus is not known for being prompt or often on task, and we don't have time for games."
A soft, distant hum came from the back of Lulu's throat. "Games don't have casualties," she corrected, and he quirked an eyebrow, trying to decipher what she had meant by that. After a moment, silence settled between them, and he resumed his watch of the forest.
"Have you ever been in love, Sir Auron?"
Blood—or the very realistic pyrefly imitation of it—ran to his face at the unexpected question, and he coughed out, "Uhm," before he realized it was best to not say anything at all.
She smirked slowly, and it could have been a smile in another lifetime. "I didn't think so."
He roughly cleared his throat, set his shoulders, and regained his composure. "I don't see what the point of that question was," he said snappishly, trying to again concentrate wholly on the night and, much to his annoyance, not doing a very good job of it.
"Not much of a point, I suppose."
For what wasn't the first time, he wished she was a little easier to read. But then again, she might have thought the same thing about him.
The usual silence again fell into place between them, and he stole a sideways glance at her, as if it could help him figure her out. Regal and elegant, strung seeds and painted wooden beads around her neck, and her jewelry was perhaps the only thing about her that betrayed her tiny island heritage. Wakka came to mind, and then his brother, and behind his cowl, he frowned thoughtfully at the night.
"…But you've been in love," he said.
There was a short pause before she spoke. "I was young."
You still are, he wanted to say, but it might have been a lie.
She shifted slightly, and he was aware that she had inched closer. "I was interested in midnight meetings and intimate whispers and passionate kisses…"
Auron swallowed, and worried about where she was going with this. Somehow she had gone from Lulu: Guardian to Lulu: woman—and he would have had to have been blind in his other eye and possibly even deaf to not realize that Lulu was one hell of a woman. But he was only there to fulfill a promise, wasn't playing at life for any other reason, and they couldn't afford such distractions besides…
She finally spoke again, which was just as well, because words had been failing him for more than a few uncomfortable moments.
"But I got older…" she said with wistful calm, and her hand carefully found his. When he didn't immediately pull away, her slim fingers laced through his, and a surreal peace settled on them. "…and some things are more important than kisses."
He was never sure if she referred to the pilgrimage or to the firm return pressure of his own fingers.
He hadn't been entirely surprised when she volunteered for the watch that night on the border of the Calm Lands, only mere hours after Yuna had finally danced Lady Ginnem to a belated rest. Wakka had worriedly tried to argue, well-meaning soul that he was, insisting that she would need a lot of rest after such a thing, but she had simply insisted otherwise. And despite how she was actually a little younger, it was clear that she had always been the older sister in practice, and when there was a contest of authority between them, she always won.
At that, Wakka had thrown him a pleading look, because the eldest Guardian was somehow the only one of them who could question her judgment and not get struck down with a verbal ultima spell.
Auron had twitched his shoulders in an uncommitted shrug.
He understood the desire to avoid sleep. With sleep might come dreams. Or nightmares. And though he'd never ask her for the specifics, he couldn't imagine Ginnem had died a neat, pretty death.
Despite himself, the day's events brought hypothetical situations that chilled deeper than the impending trek up Gagazet ever could have. For what seemed to be the hundredth time, he thanked Braska for his dedication and acceptance of what he'd seen as his fate. He didn't want to think about how he would have reacted to a fiend wearing his late friend's face, having to kill his Summoner, even if it was only his Summoner in appearance, when before he had fought so hard to protect him.
Well, not like knowing he'd have to kill Jecht felt any better, no matter what the rowdy blitzer looked like nowadays.
Though they had yet to reach the snowy heights of the mountain, the altitude was increasing and the air was getting colder. They sat almost hip to hip for warmth, her arms wrapped around her knees, his right hand in his lap while the other was buried inside his coat. The silence between them wasn't uncomfortable—it never was—but he still found himself needing to speak.
"You fought formidably today." And his voice was like fine sandpaper—the closest it would ever get to soft.
A harsh breath pushed out of her, but then her shoulders dropped slightly, and she looked out at the expanse mournfully—pale shadows on pale shadows. "But not formidably enough for Lady Ginnem."
"Don't do that, Lulu." The grit increased, but the paper was ragged and tattered, because he knew what it was like to get caught up in what-ifs and if-onlys.
"I know," she snapped in defense. She took a breath. "I know," she repeated, and it was softer, if moodier, "…but at least Lord Braska succeeded in defeating Sin. His death wasn't completely in vain."
"That doesn't make it any better, and you know it."
At least when a Summoner died before reaching Sin, the world mourned with the remaining Guardians. Or at the very least, people were respectfully somber. If not for a broken-horned, displaced Ronso pup, he probably would have died unnoticed for all the rejoicing that followed Braska's death. Even the tribes on Gagazet hadn't picked up the scent of blood and death as he had stumbled down the mountain, they had been so caught up in celebrations.
Who knew the Ronso were such partiers? All drums, and bass-low roars of songs, and alcohol that was probably strong enough to burn right through a human's pipes. Jecht would have loved it, and that thought shot a barb through the clump of pyreflies that used to be his heart.
He sighed irritably with a straightening of his back, and maybe in an attempt to offer comfort, or maybe just to get his mind off of memories steeped in unpleasantly useless regret, he glanced down and impulsively reached for her hand. It was cold, even through his glove, but her fingers were strong around his, and that was the important part.
He heard her take a deep breath, and some tension eased out of both of them. Her head tilted toward him, almost as if she was going to rest it on his shoulder, but she never did. In the glow of the small fire that crackled in front of them, they looked over the rest of the sleeping party. Their eyes settled on Yuna, who was tucked right in between Rikku and Wakka, and they prayed to something that this young, little Summoner of theirs wouldn't die prematurely, wouldn't die at all.
Grim parents watching their children leap off of cliffs just to throw someone else to safety, and if he was the surrogate father of this dysfunctional, motley family, then he supposed that made Lulu his wife.
Camped outside the ruins of the great city, he understood, to a certain extent, what Tidus might have been feeling. Zanarkand, Auron belatedly realized, had grown to be something of a home for him—never mind that it had been some strange dream-illusion that he had flitted to on the back of a drunkard-turned-friend-turned-Sin. After he had died, after the Calm had come and people cheered in praise of Braska and Yevon and Yevon, Spira had felt like some nightmare where you come home to your house and it somehow isn't your house anymore, and even though everything's right, everything just feels wrong.
There had been no Yevon in Zanarkand, and after Braska's pilgrimage, that was all he had needed. Culture shock had been the merest of inconveniences when put in that light. And despite the city's hang-up on blitzball, he'd grown used to it. Fond of it, even.
He admitted that seeing the real, dead ruins of the alive, dream city produced something of an ache in him.
And then there was the fact that it marked the end of the pilgrimage, and he would again see Lady Yunalesca, and Jecht would be freed, and someone else would be chained, and Yuna would die. And maybe a few others in the party along with her.
It didn't feel any better the second time around, and there he was again, regretting how he had pushed the journey forward with such fervor. But regret didn't matter now, and even if it did, Jecht had to die, and Yuna, he reminded himself, for all her wanting to follow in her father's footsteps, was not her father. She was half-heretic to Yevon by birth, and she had Rikku, a full-heretic cousin alongside her, and Kimahri, a solid rock of blue fur and support, and Lulu, an anti-idealist who had a healthy dose of skepticism about her, and Tidus, who asked the obvious questions that no one else thought to. Even Wakka had managed to extricate his head from Yevon's rear enough to give him a better perspective of things, and if that was possible, just about anything was, Auron thought with some dark, indirect hope.
Speaking of Wakka…
"Sir Auron?" the red-headed blitzer again called to him around the fire, barely above a whisper. Auron looked up to see concern on his face. "Could you maybe…go an' check on Lu? She's been gone an awful long time, ya? I would go myself, but, well…" And he gestured down at his leg, where Rikku was curled up against it, asleep. Sleep had been eluding them all as of late, and so when it happened upon one of them, no matter how, they were hardly about to interrupt it.
Auron grunted affirmatively and carefully stood.
The mage had forced a dinner down—meticulously swallowing each bite, not because she wanted to, he had noticed, but because she needed to—and then had spent some time with Yuna, letting the girl rest against her shoulder as she ran a pale hand over her hair, her eyes distant but her features graceful and calm. Yuna had fallen asleep not long after that, and Auron wondered if that had more to do with Lulu than just her fingers running through hair.
After gently resting the girl's head against one of their packs, she had excused herself and gone off alone. And now, the sky was rapidly darkening and there was little of the sunset left—a sunset that had been insolently brilliant over the ruins.
He thought that perhaps Lulu had gone off alone to cry, and that made him uncomfortable. Even more uncomfortable was the idea that he might interrupt her.
He found her over the crest of a hill, facing where they would travel the next morning, arms wrapped around her, holding her onion knight close to her chest. An endearing sort of discrepancy, that a grown woman, especially one of her disposition, would have such an attachment to dolls—even if she did manage to make them attack. Looking at her, black against the dusty indigo of the sky, her pale shoulders practically glowing in the evening, it occurred to him that, despite dying far too prematurely, Wakka's brother had been a terribly lucky young man.
That thought hit him, and was immediately followed by another that hit him even harder.
He shook his head sharply and continued closer. She must have heard him, for her posture visibly straightened. "Yes?" she asked over her shoulder, her voice curt.
Hardly in tears, but upset all the same, that much was apparent. And too sensible to waste her magic by calling a lightning bolt down upon already-destroyed structures just to ease some tension.
"You've been gone for a long time," he simply said.
"I wanted to be alone."
"Wakka was worried about you."
"I'm fine," she snapped. He knew the sound—frustration at the situation and being helpless to change it.
He watched her for a moment, her back straight and her frame tense. "My apologies for the interruption, then." And he turned around to leave.
She sighed wearily, looking down at her doll for a brief moment. "I'm sorry," she offered, looking back to him.
He stopped and arched his eyebrow at her in curiosity. "An apology from you? Did you happen to catch a fever from Gagazet?"
She smiled tightly, the expression almost a grimace, and she drifted closer as if to maybe walk back with him. "It wouldn't do to go ruining friendships at a time like this. I might not have the chance to make new ones."
"Friendship," he repeated questionably, tasting the idea for what was oddly the first time. He supposed it fit, but he had never really given thought to his relationships in the party beyond fellow Guardians and Summoner. Sometimes Jecht's son or Braska's daughter was thrown in, but those were generally the only variants.
She managed to smirk at him a little. It might have tried to be playful, but it was overshadowed by the looming future. "I'd like to think we're at least friends," she said honestly, tucking her onion knight into the crook of her arm, and in an uncommonly frank gesture, she extended her hand to him.
At least friends.
Might not have the chance…
With a breath he was painfully aware he didn't even need, he brought his hand up, but instead of clasping hers, he caught her fingers, bowing over them, and he didn't even need to look up to see the puzzled surprise on her face.
Bad idea, he realized too late. This was stupid. And probably selfish. They'd go to Zanarkand tomorrow, and they'd all hear the truth of the lies he already knew, and this wasn't the place for this, and they didn't have time for this, and what was he thinking, doing this? But he supposed he'd done his fair share of both stupid and selfish things in the past—the prime example being his attack on Yunalesca after he'd promised to watch after his friends' children, conveniently forgetting that confronting a powerful unsent alone was borderline suicidal at best.
"You act first and think later, don't you?"
A lecture from a seventeen-year-old. What was even worse was that Tidus had been right.
"Ah…Auron…?" Lulu's voice came, lilting and low and uncertain.
Somewhere along the pilgrimage, his title had ceased to be her normal way of addressing him and had instead become a point of jest. And though he knew it had been a long time since he had last heard her say Sir Auron, he struggled to recall the last time she had used his bare name, and at the unexpected intimacy it invoked, he wondered if she had, in fact, ever used it.
Time awkwardly ticked forward. Seconds gone, never to return. Jecht would have laughed at him. Even Braska would have smirked in fond amusement. Best just to get it over with, at this point.
"You…you once asked if I had ever—been in love," he got out roughly, concentrating on the lace hem of her sleeve. "If things had been different, I…I think I could have…"
But then she stepped closer, and he felt the fingertips of her other hand brush his temple, and then across the scar on his cheek as he straightened. Gently, she pushed his glasses down on his nose to reveal his eyes, both ruined and not, and the sorrowful understanding in her expression summed up all the clumsy words he could never wield as skillfully as a blade.
"If things had been different," she calmly pointed out, "I'd still be going after lanky blitzball players."
And he remembered that it was pointless to dwell on past regrets in the present.
Yunalesca was dead. And not just dead, but sent. Ten years too late, Braska and Jecht were finally avenged to some extent.
Although that still didn't solve the real problem, and if Auron was truthful, they might very well be in a worse position than they would have been had Yuna decided to receive the Final Aeon. But tradition had been broken, and if they hadn't broken the spiral along with it, they had at least given it one hell of a kink. It was a step closer, he kept telling himself. That counted for something.
The late hour—or maybe it qualified as early now—afforded peace and quiet to think, but as he wandered the subdued airship, his mind just kept going in circles: Sin and Jecht and Tidus and Yuna and Tidus and Jecht and Yu Yevon and Sin and Jecht.
Auron sighed, staring out a window into the night. Planning would be easier if they had more information to plan with.
There was a short puff of a laugh that came from off to his side. "Do you never sleep?"
Lulu stood at the corner of the observation deck, leaning her shoulder up against one of the supports. Even from a distance, he could tell she looked exhausted.
"It's…apparently optional," he admitted a bit awkwardly as he came to stand next to her, realizing that he had never actually discussed his unsent status with anyone. The closest he had come was simply telling Tidus about the fact. "And you?"
"Still required, but out of reach lately."
"Hm. Nothing for it?"
"You could knock me out with the hilt of your sword," she suggested.
The dark humor wasn't lost on him, but he couldn't manage a laugh. "I'd never forgive myself," he said honestly.
"You seem to be good at that."
Auron blinked and took a breath. The sky flitted by in front of them, the occasional cloud blocking out stars.
"It's just…" she began with a little shake of her head. "All this time, I've been preparing myself for Yuna's death. And now that…now that there might be another way, now that she might not have to die…somehow that worries me even more." The words came out haltingly, with a strange brittleness, so very different from Rikku's optimism and Tidus's honest and sure vows.
"Hope can be a dangerous thing."
She tried to smirk at his loaded words, but even that couldn't come out correctly. It was painful to watch; Auron found he had to look away, and he wondered what else would get broken before Sin was defeated.
"You knew about Yevon," she said after a long moment, and it was almost an accusation. They had all seen the flickers of the past, had seen a younger ghost of him throw himself at Yunalesca in an attack that echoed more of Tidus's youthful passion than the older Guardian's reserve. "Why didn't you tell us?"
Auron shifted, vaguely uncomfortable. "Yuna might have turned back. Or worse yet, gone on alone. Besides," he added, giving her a sidelong look, "would you really have believed me?"
She turned back to the window. "I don't know."
"Maybe you would have," he admitted darkly. "You seemed to take the maesters' betrayal in stride."
Lulu sniffed. "Maesters are men. Fallible. Systems go corrupt. There's no shock in that." Her voice had reverted to its usual cool inflection, and for that, Auron was glad. However…
"There were times you struck me as one who was angry at gods, not men," he pointed out.
She stiffened at the insight, and he heard her take a careful breath. "…I was," she quietly admitted, and he just knew that she had never dared to speak such things to anyone else. "I sometimes wondered why good people should be punished for others' crimes. It didn't seem fair. And the teachings can only offer so much comfort and so many reasons… Sometimes I felt that Yevon had struck me…and sometimes I felt that being angry at him was my way of striking back. But now…"
"Yes," he said when her voice rippled, and she broke her words off. "I know."
It was one thing to try to hurt a god with betrayal; quite another when that god betrayed you back. As if that had been the game all along, and they had simply played into it, unable to win, unable to fold. Anger, grief, and shame, and where he had charged Yunalesca, she now lifted her chin, defiantly set her shoulders, straightened her corseted back even more. Belts and buckles and braids and bindings—control coiled as tightly as a spring.
Perhaps too many secrets had been shared, too many walls breached between them, and it was easier to walk away than to rebuild. For whatever the reason was, she turned to go, and he couldn't say what it was that made him catch her wrist, didn't think about why he couldn't watch her walk away, ready to break under all her restraints because she refused to bend under anything else. "Lulu…"
"Don't," she suddenly said, sharp as any sword, one edge a plea and the other a demand.
In battle, one fought with their side presented, not facing flush to the front, and he could see now why they often talked to each other the same way. Personal or not, words were just words, but being face to face was too vulnerable, too open, and there were already too many goodbyes, too many losses. Guardians and Summoners, friends and lovers, youth, and faith, and dreams, and futures, and peaceful lives, even peaceful deaths—gone. Slipping through fingers like sunlight and smoke, intangible things they'd foolishly tried to grasp before realizing they were all illusions that would leave them empty-handed and empty-hearted. And it wasn't fair, and it wasn't right, and what if—if only—if—if—if—and Auron was suddenly angrier at Yevon than he'd been since Braska's death and Jecht's transformation into Sin, because he knew he could have—
"I thought we didn't have time for games," she hissed coolly, throwing his words back at him.
"Then another casualty?" he demanded in turn, and he knew now that it was a war, not a game, and it left just as many scars as any battle.
But scars meant you had lived. Pain was as life-affirming as pleasure, and life was what this pilgrimage was about, was what Yuna was trying so desperately to breathe into Spira while the rest of them acted as her feet and legs and arms and spine—steel bones to keep her from collapsing under the weight. And maybe his existence was a lie in that respect, but he'd been lying for ten years; what was one more night?
Maybe, a part of him whispered, maybe he could lie hard enough so that it pushed over into truth, just for a moment.
"Wounds are easy for you to sustain—you're dead," she shot back, and maybe that had been the issue all along.
"And you could very easily die, as well, before this is all over." The words were cruelly blunt, incensed by her icy tones, as if it was entirely his fault he was unsent. Or perhaps she was lashing out at him because there were no more maesters, no more Yunalesca, because Sin and Yu Yevon had to wait.
He felt her stiffen, even through her wrist, but she still made no move to pull away. He should have let go of her, he knew, but he couldn't make his fingers loosen their grip. Harsh, jagged edges and razor-sharp angles, and they weren't looking for a blanket to wrap around them so much as a fire to stick their hands in.
But it was still warmth.
Somehow it happened. All clawing lips and shaking hands, because they were tired, tired of living like they were dead and dying like they were alive, and Auron was tempted to blame Yevon for whatever it was that caused them both to break down and reach out, because Yevon was to blame for everything, not humanity, not wishing, not regretting, not feeling, not this.
Later, listening to the quiet hum of the airship in the night, she traced the lines and calluses of his palm and laced their fingers together.
"Don't cling to death forever," he told her, and he wasn't sure if his words were a warning or an entreaty.
"Like the way you've been clinging to life?" In another lifetime, he might have smiled at her retort.
"You know that will end."
"Then something else will start."
It was the closest they ever came to promises and declarations.
On the day Sin was finally and forever dead, when Yuna paused in her dancing and he made his goodbyes, there were no words between them. Just a nod and a look that said all the things that words were too clumsy and inadequate to convey.
Her lips curved up, so gently most would have missed it, but he thought she finally looked twenty-two, maybe twenty-three by now, and that fond, soft smile was enough to sustain them both as he went up in a flurry of pyreflies.
A/N: Yup. My sorry excuse for romance. It seems whenever I try, it ends up being either really mild and vague, or chock-full o' angsty complications that pretty much kill any sexy-sexy kissy-poo aspects. I guess this falls somewhere in the middle.
PS: If you want to see sex in that second-to-last section, you can see sex. I can't say either way. Because I honestly don't know, myself. When I go ambiguous, I go all out.
Hope you enjoyed it, and reviews are always appreciated!