Guardian, Chapter 17
Angel

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It doesn't mean much
it doesn't mean anything at all
The life I've left behind me
is a cold room

I've crossed the last line
from where I can't return
where every step I took in faith
betrayed me...

You take me in
no questions asked
You strip away the ugliness
that surrounds me

Are you an angel?
Am I already that gone?

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Sleep was elusive then, a quicksilver fish darting through my hands every time I almost caught it. Serra herself was hardly less wriggly; lying with her was not the quiet, serene bliss I'd permitted myself to imagine on rare occasion. She flailed about now and then in dreams, more than once nailing me with an elbow in a gut that wasn't as rock-hard as it had once been. Oh, I wasn't growing fat, not yet, but life with her was making me soft.

Did I mind? No.

I couldn't remember a time in my living days when I wasn't training for war. Was this, then, what a life spent in peaceful times was like? I would take this new quietude in my breast over the steel-corded muscle any day, constantly knotted as it had been with tension and the feeling that the next fight lay in wait at any moment, ready to spring and rend with razored claws.

Anyway, the only way to avoid the dangerous knees and elbows was to keep close within their range, nestled snugly against her, and I damn well didn't mind. She quieted when I gathered her to me, nuzzling into my neck. And then she muttered a barely intelligible word that froze my heart --

"Jecht."

I stopped breathing, killed by a name.

Until she exhaled again, sleepily, "Auron..."

I sucked in air again, barely registering the faint squeeze of her arms tightening around me. Her lips were butterfly wings against my throat.

"Love you," she said clearly, earnestly.

But to which of us did she speak? What was our relationship now? Not lovers, but more than mere friends. I wanted nothing more than to touch her, but was paralyzed with fear of crossing the line that would forever change everything.

Or had everything already changed tonight, in spite of me?

She stirred against me in a way that called instantly to mind what I had been trying to avoid thinking about this entire time. Her stomach pressed skin-to-skin against me where her shirt had ridden upward, the curves so mysterious to man burning suddenly hot under my traitorous hand as though limned in fire.

I had to get out of there, before I abandoned all good sense and took her then and there. I didn't want to take advantage--

Coward, I spat at myself. At least admit the truth in your own mind. You're the one who isn't ready. You're terrified.

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The feather-light touch of fingers gliding through my hair roused me, though by the time I came fully awake he had gone, leaving only the warmth of his body behind. No, not only that; some object lay nestled in the center of the now-empty pillow, but I was too lethargic yet to find out what it was.

Disappointment chilled me slightly, and I curled up under the sheets, tucking my knees to my chest and staring out the window at the first brave rays of sunlight venturing into the sky. Truthfully, I was also a little relieved. Tidus would surely arrive any moment now, jumping on the bed and tickling me until I agreed to get up. What lay between Auron and I was so ill-defined at the moment, I didn't want to have to try and explain things to my son.

I sat up finally and picked up the item he'd left, and the small note I'd not noticed before. It was a curious piece, a bright string of beads and feathers strung on a leather cord, in a pattern that seemed to have some unknown order.

The writing was elegant, more beautiful than mine, and yet definitely masculine. The note was penned in a bold, graceful hand, slightly foreign-looking and shaping some of the vowels oddly. It read:

This was something of significance once, but I am of that order no longer. In turn it has become merely a pretty bauble, a useless bagatelle of colored glass and string. But it is yet part of who I was, and I would like for you to have it.

The signature was nothing I could read, a tangle of sigils so entwined that I could not tell at first if they were foreign or merely twisted around each other. I tried to commit it to memory. His name.

It finally dawned on me where I had seen these beads before: strung from the shoulder guard of the jacket he always wore. I was touched by the gift of something that still must have held some importance to him, as one of the few objects carried with him from his sylvan homeland so far from here.

I wanted to keep the gift on me somehow, but it did not lend itself to be worn easily by someone with no coat to which it could be attached. I finally tucked it into my most private drawer, away from small curious hands, along with his note. After that, I padded sleepily toward the kitchen to brew coffee. From where I sat I could see Auron outside practicing his forms. It was an unusually early hour for him, and he put more vehemence into the moves than normal, slashing furiously at nothing.

As the unparalleled aroma of gourmet coffee revived my fuzzy brain, I realized that Tidus had never come to waken me. Indeed, it had been a few days...or weeks, since he had? I was saddened to discover that he might have outgrown that morning ritual. Then he came in from the living room where he'd been sprawled on the floor playing vidgames, and hugged me good morning, asking about breakfast.

"Mom, leggo!" he squawked when I held on a little too tight, a little too long.

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The next week or so was like performing in a circus: walking a tightrope and juggling all at once. I so desperately wanted to touch him, to be with him, but I had to tread a fine line -- if I pressed too hard, asked too much, he would retreat, leaving only the Guardian in his place to deal with me.

I sensed the same desperation in him, the same yearning for a love that had long been absent from his life. The frustration was so intense that I wanted to scream, and when alone I did cry hot tears of helpless anger. I saw that he was paralyzed by his own guilt, fear of pressuring me, and feelings of inadequacy. I wouldn't give up on him, because something in his closed-off expression was begging me to liberate what he tried so hard to suppress, to drag it out into the light of day. I felt that we'd passed some kind of turning point, that our relationship was forever changed, but from the way he paced the halls like a caged animal, I knew that he was uneasy.

I was concerned at first, that Tidus would catch on too soon to the change in our relationship. I was not sure of his reaction. I need not have worried; Auron was not the type to show overt affection when an audience was present. Even as much as I knew he loved Tidus, he met every exuberant hug with a long-suffering expression on his face that plainly said, "Oh all right, if you must..." So I should not have been surprised that the only gesture he made toward me when we weren't alone were an occasional touch of his hand on mine. Mindful of Tidus's resentment for his father concerning me, and valuing the relationship that he now had with his friend's son, he was especially careful to give the boy no reason to think anything unusual was happening with us. I cannot say he was wrong; I wasn't sure what to tell my son either. Everything with Auron was so new, and uncertain -- I wanted to protect it, to nurture its fledgling steps, and selfishly I also wanted to keep it to ourselves, just at first. And so I let Auron maintain the distance he needed, though it killed me to be so close to him, and yet so far away.

I wanted him in every way; I was driven nearly insane with it, and the new closeness we shared was maddening. He slipped into my room every night to lie next to me, but a chaste, careful kiss was the only physical contact he would initiate. I was afraid that to try for more would chase him from the room completely, and so I contented myself with what was, after all, more than I'd dreamed of having from him just days ago.

If Tidus noticed the new tension between us, he gave no sign. He was the same ebullient child as ever, a ball of energy happily thriving on his blitzball team in a way he never had under his father's tutelage. I even dragged Auron to a match, once, though he spoke only in monosyllables for the rest of the day after I unconsciously tried to hold his hand in the public arena.

I spent countless hours entertaining fantasies of how to break through this barrier, some ludicrous, some serious. I was shocked out of my irritated brooding one afternoon when Tidus arrived home early from practice, sporting a black eye and a lump on his forehead, trailing his coach behind him. The man's name escaped me, but his face was familiar; He'd been a blitzer friend of Jecht's I had rather liked.

"Don't worry, Mom," the coach said placatingly, winking at me. "He's fine, he just ended up on the wrong end of a tackle. I wanted to walk him home, just to be safe. Do you have some ice?" he asked, walking over to the fridge unit without waiting for an answer.

Taylor? Troy? Ty. I think that was his name. He was ruggedly handsome, in the same raffish way Jecht had been, shaggy-haired and tattooed, though that was where the similarity ended. He'd been a teammate of Jecht's until right before my husband's disappearance, when he'd been sidelined by an injury that never quite healed completely. Ty seemed happy enough now, coaching in the youth leagues, and was great with the kids in a way my husband never had been. I wondered sadly if Jecht might have learned, given more time.

Auron had come silently into the room with his deceptively lazy, catlike stride, going immediately over to Tidus. He lifted the boy's chin to peer into his eyes, tilting Tidus's head to each side and probing the lump with a gentle finger. I looked questioningly at him. He grunted in a way that seemed to indicate it was no big deal. "Doesn't look concussed," was all he said, moving out of the way when the ex-blitzer came back with the ice. His expression stayed rather dark, in spite of the reassuring words.

I knew better than anyone how seriously Auron regarded his duty to keep Tidus safe, so as he seemed unconcerned I tried to smother the motherly urge to hover embarrassingly over my son in front of his coach. I could see that he was trying valiantly to appear manly. He'd managed not to cry so far, and that was something new. Finally, I sent him to go wash up and change. "And keep the ice on that eye!" I called after him, indulging myself a little.

Ty sat at my kitchen table with the sprawled elegance of a professional athlete, long muscled limbs completely at ease but looking ready for action in a heartbeat. "Tidus has a lot of potential, you know," he told me seriously. "He could follow in his dad's footsteps, play professionally."

I'd known he was a good player, one of the better ones, but this was still a little unexpected. "You think so, Ty?" I asked, startled. Auron did not show any surprise. Ty did not correct me so I assumed that I'd gotten his name right.

I sat at the table, opposite him. My Guardian stayed leaning against the wall at my back with arms crossed, and from this angle I could no longer see his expression. Not that it gave away much, anyway.

"Definitely," Ty reaffirmed.

I wasn't sure how I felt about this. It wasn't an easy life, traveling so much, but it also seemed so fitting. Tidus really was supremely graceful in the water, more at home there than anywhere else. I wish that you could watch him play, Jecht.

"Have you told him this? Is that what he wants?"

"Nah." Ty shook his head, a familiar gesture that reminded me of another shaggy-haired player. "Let him be a kid a while longer, and not worry about something so far away. Right now it should only be for fun." He locked his fingers behind his head and stretched a bit. "I've seen too many kids lose the heart to play under the pressure of other people's ambition for their lives. It won't be any easier for him, as the son of a great player whose career ended too soon."

He closed his mouth abruptly and glanced at me worriedly, as though he feared he'd said something upsetting. It was the same kind of expression Jecht used to wear, a man who always spoke first and then worried about the effect of his words later.

I smiled in amusement, and remembrance. "Jecht would be proud of him. And you're right, he shouldn't be thinking about all of that just yet."

Ty visibly relaxed when I didn't dissolve into tears. He leaned forward, saying, "One more thing: Tidus is a little small for his age, blessed with immense talent and more than his fair share of attitude. I know he comes by it honestly," he laughed, "but all of this might have led to him being the target of an excessively forceful tackle today. I've already spoken to the other boy and his parents, but if Tidus does want to pursue a career in blitzball he'll have to be ready to deal with the trouble his mouth brings him."

I can't say that I was happy to hear this, but I couldn't protect him from everything and everyone his entire life. After all, Jecht had been in his share of blitz-related fights. I guess it was to be expected.

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Tidus came in wearing different clothes, though I wasn't sure he'd actually washed anything. Serra was visibly trying not to fixate on his poor injured face.

"Hey kid, nice eye," teased the man she'd named as Ty. "Should be a real pretty purple by morning."

Tidus grinned up at him, and then stuck his tongue out in response. I suppressed a more insulting gesture. I'd disliked him intensely as soon as he shone the tilted, indolent grin in my direction, visibly dismissing the scarred man as no true competition for Serra's affection. I hated the way he leaned into her, standing too close, and the unconscious way she responded, her slight blush, the genuine smile of pleasure in his company.

"I was just making a late lunch," she said amicably, as he stood to leave. "Would you like some?"

Oh, hell no. I was not going to sit down with this buffoon and suffer his unsubtle advances on Serra while she made eyes at him. He was all of the things I disliked about Jecht with none of the things that endeared him to me: arrogant confidence without the tempering touch of self-mocking humor, loud without at least having something of import to say on occasion, unwaveringly sure of his charismatic effect on people without the spark of true interest or concern for others that actually made it work, drawing them near. His whole aura radiated chaotic allure, and he was bedizened like a gypsy, bare-chested and tattooed, with earrings in each ear and shells and other unidentifiable objects braided into his mane of unkempt hair. Just looking at him made my skin crawl. I made myself scarce before she could turn and trap me with her innocent eyes.

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Lunch was pleasant enough, but Auron's absence nagged at me. I was irritated with him for disappearing. It was for him that I'd made the meal in the first place, why had he left?

She was waiting for me when I returned, silently sitting in the darkened living room, nestled in the center of the couch. From the look on her face, she was Not Happy.

"Where have you been?" Her voice was not quite neutral as she stood. She was upset. Why?

I shrugged. "Out," was all I said. I started to move past her, calmly.

"Wait," she demanded. Amethystine steel pinned me to the spot. "Just what is your problem?"

I crossed over from irritated to angry as he coolly brushed me off and moved to leave, when I'd been waiting for him all night. Tidus was long asleep, and Auron, for all his solitude, had never been out this late before. Not counting when he was on the roof.

He seemed to take issue with my tone, and finally showed a bit of his own anger. "I don't have a problem!" Immediately restoring his voice to its usual implacid tone, he continued, "I thought you would have enjoyed the chance to catch up with your friend."

I read easily between the lines. I wasn't stupid, but I could have kicked myself for not figuring this out sooner. Ty was very much like Jecht, not to mention unscarred and alive. It wasn't surprising, Auron's reaction. My anger evaporated.

Sighing, I asked earnestly, "What do I have to do to convince you that it's only you that I want?" And then I realized the answer to my own question. I planted my hands into his chest and shoved, until he fell into a sitting position on the couch. Climbing astride him, I started unbuttoning his shirt.

He looked scandalized, and tried to grab my hands. I avoided him. "Serra--"

"No. You're not allowed to speak, unless it's to say, 'Okay, I believe you, Serra.'" A strange glint came into his eye, and he fell silent as I finished with the buttons and ran fingertips over the exposed skin.

I began next to unbraid the warrior's tail, as I'd been dying to run my fingers through the curtain of heavy silk when it wasn't soaking wet, like the last time. He closed his eye, tipping his head back as I gently massaged his scalp, and then the tense muscles of his neck. Pushing the dark strands back from his forehead, I planted a line of kisses lightly down the length of the scar that ran from hairline to jaw, and he shuddered, muscles tightening as though to resist. His hands came up to my shoulders, pushing me away, but I would not be moved.

"Ssh. It's okay," I whispered. This wasn't foreplay; it was my attempt to tell him everything I felt without words, which were so easy for him to disbelieve. He could not doubt the truth of what I did not say aloud. I moved to his neck, feeling the pulse hammer beneath my lips. My arms snaked around his back to work out the knots of tension there.

Drawing back after a long moment, I cupped his cheeks in my hands, and he opened his eye guardedly. Almost as of their own volition, his hands slid with firm slowness down my thighs to grasp my waist.

"Do you believe me yet?" I asked. "Or do I need to break out the big guns?"

"That remains to be seen, Madam," he said with total seriousness. "But perhaps that is a thing best not done here," he added solemnly, though the upturned corner of his otherwise somber mouth ruined the effect.

I stifled a gasp as he sprung suddenly from the couch, sweeping me into the air, and I held on for dear life as he crossed the room in a few long strides, stopping in front of my bedroom door.

His face was utterly serious now, poised at the threshold, but his voice was a low blend of desire and apprehension. "You are sure about this?"

"If you don't open that door right now and ravage me senseless, I'm going to hit you," I said. Did I really just use the word 'ravage'?

The muscle in his arms shifted and bunched as he tossed me into the center of the bed with a low growling laugh, ignoring my put-upon expression at being hefted around like a sack of potatoes. He pounced on me and I felt a little thrill of fear, being the object of such determined pursuit, never having seen him show this kind of aggression. Of course I should have expected it; he was a long-seasoned warrior in his own land, it was only here that the lack of a place in our society reduced him to a part-time babysitter with scholarly pursuits. The predatory gleam in his eye was just so unexpected. It obviously belonged there, meshing easily with the familiar nuances of his face, but I'd never seen it.

And then suddenly he stopped, looking down with a slight frown of consternation, and I had no idea why...

She'd looked so lovely, sprawled expectantly on a sea of pale green silk, her hair pooling around her head, a few wavy strands branching into caramel rivulets that ran over breast and shoulder before flowing back into the rest. Eyes darkened into violet, she was almost trembling with anticipation, and so was I --

Until I looked down and caught the two dark smears of dirt left by my hands, marring the sheets, and remembered the mud caked on my boots and likely my pant legs. I'd spent the afternoon in an empty lot, working my frustration out through the old sword forms. I'd completely forgotten how disheveled I'd been as soon as I'd crossed the threshold into the brunt of her anger. Belatedly I hoped the couch hadn't fared too badly.

"Serra, I'm filthy. Your sheets--"

My sheets? "Do you really think I care about that now?" I practically howled. But I could tell from the look on his face that it really bothered him, and as tidy as he was, perhaps it wasn't only the dirt on the sheets that made him uncomfortable. He was frowning now at the dirt under his nails.

Well, I was a resourceful girl. I wasn't going to let him weasel out of this by showering and cooling off and deciding that the time still wasn't right...

"All right then, I have another idea...c'mon."

I dragged him into the huge bathroom that used to feel so lonely when Jecht was away. Now, it was just mine, as comfortable as an old sock. The tub was my favorite, a huge marble pool we'd both loved, since I didn't know any blitzer who didn't get claustrophobic in a tub where he couldn't move around. I started running the water and turned to divest Auron of his clothing.

Somehow, whereas I'd been quite prepared to take off everything and make unabashed love to her a scant few moments ago, being stripped and put into the bath like a child was completely different. It was a different kind of nakedness, a more vulnerable exposure. My expression was not lost on her.

"Stop being stupid, Auron," she mock-reprimanded. "You can't get in like that. Just get naked already." She whipped her shirt over her head, and I was suddenly mesmerized. "See? You won't be going in alone--" A gasp cut her off when I reached to touch what she offered.

His palms brushed me with a touch that was feather-light. He no longer hesitated when I went after the buckles and buttons. I tried not to lose any but at least one was liberated in my haste.

He stepped down into the water, sinking up to mid-chest, and offered me a hand. "My lady?"

The water was warmer than blood, infusing bone-deep heat into every inch of my skin, but it had nothing on the fire in his gaze that belied the casually cordial voice.

She drifted lazily toward me, coming to rest between my knees, her hair waving gracefully down into the water, the submerged strands flowing like a silken cloak behind her, rippling with the slightest motion.

She reached for the soap, an oval bar that worked into a lather smelling of sandalwood and cinnamon, and I closed my eyes when she began to work it into my shoulders and neck, relaxing as she worked out kinks I had not been aware of until that very moment. I sank deeper and let my arms go completely slack as she started next on those...then legs, feet...

I loved touching the planes and valleys of his chest and stomach, the slick feel of wet skin under soapy fingers, and the way he wriggled a bit when I caressed a ticklish spot just below his ribs, or the slight gasp when my fingers circled just a bit lower. Perhaps this had not been such a bad idea after all. The bed could wait. The sound he made when I brushed him made me wonder how much longer he could.

His eye flew open when I shifted to settle over him, and I had to laugh at his startled expression. He pressed against my stomach, and suddenly I could not wait any longer, either.

"Don't they make love underwater in Spira?" she teased, while I tried not to think about any previous times she'd done this.

Then her arms closed around me, drawing us together, and protesting was the furthest thing from my mind.

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We did eventually move to the bed.

That first night...I have never felt so beautiful, or adored. Putting words to it seems somehow to cheapen it, so I will say only that it was as though he worshipped my body with his own, each touch so reverent, as though I offered some precious gift to be treasured. If Jecht had been a blazing wildfire, energetic and passionate, Auron was the molten core of the earth, buried under miles of rock, hot enough to melt stone. The intensity of it was almost painful. Comparing them was not something I did. They were vastly different men; of course their lovemaking was not the same. Jecht was my past, Auron was my present, and I had love enough in my heart for both. It makes no sense, but the more I loved one, the more in turn I loved the other.

She was so beautiful, delicate. She looked to me for protection and strength, and the Guardian in me would never die; I wanted most in this world to protect, to be needed. Yet she gave me so much more than that; this was no pampered priest's daughter who asked her father for a pretty toy she might play with, and I was no longer quite so pretty. Serra loved a man broken and put together again, no longer quite whole; she loved me knowing the full truth of what I was. I think I had begun to love her the instant I saw her, and that every breath taken since then had strengthened the devotion. This felt like my last chance at a happiness denied me by a life dedicated to destroying Sin, an opportunity at something I'd never thought to know. The question of reality seemed unimportant and trivial. I loved her, and she loved me, wasn't that real enough?

Why shouldn't I take this chance? Why shouldn't I let myself love her? I can't forget Jecht, but neither can I do anything for him until Tidus is grown. For the first time in years, ever since dedicating myself to Braska's safeguarding, my life is my own.

I lay awake a long time afterward, content to hold her, loath to sleep. Her slow, even breaths brushed my cheek, roseate lips and pale cheek catching the bright blue-white light of the moon. The rest of her slept hidden in the shadow of my broader form, as I lay curled protectively around her.

I drew a finger gently across the unearthly softness of the fuller, lower lip, desperate to touch her but loath to rouse her from whatever pleasant dream curved the delicate mouth into a small, contented smile.

It caught at my heart suddenly, that smile, and I wondered uneasily of which of us she dreamed: myself, or Jecht.

She stirred, and I held my breath, caught immobile by the sudden fear of what I might see in her eyes when she awoke: guilt or regret at our actions, or worse, sorrow that it wasn't within the circle of his arms that she'd awoken.

Then lilac-pale orbs opened, flooding me with a shocked warmth at what lay in their depths, such a deep, boundless, unconditional love. She smiled, a true, beautiful smile that was meant only for me.

Me.

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When they became lovers in truth, I knew.

My recollection of being Sin begins with the blood of Braska and ends on the point of my own sword, with a black sea of pain in between. Oh. Forgive me for jumping ahead -- my memory, for all that it is unforgivingly lucid, is not very...linear.

How I knew, I cannot say. Our hearts were bound through blood, dream and time, so perhaps it is not that remarkable. But there I was, shut up in the prison of my own body with a maniac, a monster, and the fragmented facets of my own personality, and I knew.

The knowing drove me insane. Well, more insane.

It isn't fair! How long have I been trapped here? How much longer will I be? And there he is, only a little bit undead, and fucking my wife.

You practically gave him permission, idiot.

What else could I do? He was there at my request. I couldn't stand to see him suffer more. Falling in love with her was probably the worst thing that could have happened for him.

Who is suffering? How bad is it really, for him? Compared to this?

Shut up! All of you!

To my surprise, they all did. Even Yu Yevon stopped the mocking, insane laughter. Briefly.

But peace never lasted long.

In my desperation, I visited her in sleep, though I never meant to do so, finding myself there unawares. Then I meant only to hold her, nothing more, but she sensed me, and spoke.

A better man than me might have left, and spared her. But I was never a better man, and by then there was little "man" left in me. I tried to shield her from the worst, but I'm afraid she sensed the wrongness, and my sins were compounded.

It set her on the path to ruin.

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End Chapter 17

Wow, I suck, I know. It's been what, over a year since I updated? I can't believe it has been that long. RL sucks right now, but I'm trying to get my writing done.

If you missed it, don't forget to check out the picture of Auron on the roof by Mimi, you can find it on my profile page. Now in color. There is also a link to another Auron-in-Zanarkand sketch. It's awesome.

Song lyrics by Sarah McLachlan