"But, Father Zuke-- it's not a catastrophe, ya? If we just keep goin' along these cliffs, we've got to find Lulu's bridge over the gorge sooner or later."
Wakka squirmed miserably on the sandstone outcrop as if the pale sun peeping through the haze had set it on fire. The older man followed his cringe back to its true source, the young woman standing apart from them with arms folded and crimson eyes boring into her fellow guardian.
"Sir Wakka," the Summoner said kindly, "if there is one thing you have taught me, it is that the game is worthwhile even if one fails to win it. We have truly done our best." The mage turned away from them with a contemptuous sniff, and Zuke smiled. "Unfortunately, in this game, the penalty for losing the last match is too high, and we're simply not equipped for it. I appreciate your zeal, but I will not throw away the lives of two talented young people so callously."
Wakka hung his head. "Thank you, Father." He darted a nervous glance towards the rigid white shoulders of the mage. "C'mon, Lu, we can try again next year."
"Indeed," she said coolly. "By next year, Yuna will be ready."
"Lulu." Zuke's voice sharpened. "Walk with me a moment?"
"Sir." She turned back to them, features steeled to impassivity, releasing Wakka from the pincers of her disapproving gaze. Gliding after the tall priest with self-contained dignity, she gave no hint of disappointment, anger, or dismay; poor Wakka served as her unlucky mirror. Behind them, Wakka dropped his chin into his hands with a rustle and stared dejectedly towards the yawning chasm that had barred their path for days.
When they were far enough away for the gusting wind to snatch their words out of Wakka's hearing, the Summoner raised his hand. Lulu halted with eyes lowered.
"You're a hard taskmaster, my friend," Zuke teased. "Sometimes I think that if we were to fall to mishap, you would not even notice, and keep marching ahead unsent. Lulu, the dead can't save the living."
She shook her head. "We were not guardians enough--"
"Not everyone needs to be a legendary hero. Or perfect. But I know you will accept nothing less. I would wonder why you accepted me as your summoner in the first place, except that I know the real reason."
She arched an eyebrow. "Sir, we have been making good progress, and by my calculations we cannot be more than a day off-course--"
He shook his head and sighed. "I know, Lulu. I was giving us a little more time before Gagazet. We're just not prepared for Zanarkand, and it is not because of Wakka, despite your doubts. There is one thing we lack."
"Love." He gazed down at the sullen young woman affectionately. "I had hoped I might earn yours -- do not mistake me, my dear! -- but your words betrayed you. Although we have become friends, your heart still lies back in Besaid with another summoner-to-be. You are guarding her, even when you are guarding me."
A scowl broke through Lulu's glassy façade, but the anger was directed at herself. "Father Zuke--"
"Lulu. It's all right. I understand. Believe me, I admire your resolve! But we're all here for the wrong reasons: I to redeem a rash boast I made as a boy, you to keep Yuna out of harm's way, and Wakka because otherwise he'd worry himself sick as he did when you were off with Ginnem." Zuke chuckled at her dubious expression. "Didn't you know? So. Here we are, a good deal stronger and more experienced than when we set out, but we still can't defeat Sin. The texts are vague, but one thing I have gathered: the Final Summoning depends upon a bond of trust and love between summoner and guardians that we don't quite have. I'm sorry, Lulu, but that is the very reason why Braska's daughter may succeed, whereas we cannot."
Some of the pride had bled away from her erect carriage, and her eyelids drooped. "I... I let you down. I am sorry."
"I, too, Lulu, but only for your sake and your friend's. Honestly, I feel a positive Calm at the thought of retiring to a quiet life in temple, leaving all this to more capable hands. I just wish those hands weren't those of a brave young lady I've never laid eyes on. There is still hope, of course, that another summoner may succeed first--"
She raised her chin, a certain set to her jaw that Zuke recognized at once. "But don't even think about signing up as someone else's guardian, Lulu; it would be the same problem all over again. Go back to Besaid, my dear. Go home. Allow yourself to relax until Braska's daughter is ready. Your fate lies with her."
Lulu nodded, very reluctantly.
Zuke set a fatherly arm around her thin shoulders. "I'll pray for you all. Especially Wakka."
She snorted softly. "Because he needs it most?"
The priest gave her a gentle shake and stepped away. "I'm praying you don't kill him."