Coming Home

 
 

“How do I look?”

“How do you always look?” Paine mused. “Don’t worry, Yuna, he’ll be stunned.”

“Yeah, Paine,” Rikku countered, “but he’ll still act cool as a Guado.”

Standing before the other two on the upper deck of the Celsius’ cabin, Yuna looked down at herself, running her hands gently over the light fabric of the powder blue sundress she’d bought in Luca. “You really think so?”

“That he’ll be stunned, or that he’ll be formal?” the warrior woman asked.

The High Summoner cocked her head. “Either.”

Her two best friends met eyes. “Both,” they said in unison.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Yuna fidgeted with her hair. “The Praetor isn’t so much formal as he is gracious.”

The Al Bhed thief nudged the warrior with an elbow. “Sounds like someone’s got a crush!” She did a little half-dance step. “But since this is a date, you might want to call him Baralai.”

“It’s not a date!” Yuna flushed. “It’s a meeting.”

“With dinner?” Paine cocked an eyebrow.

Yuna shyly nodded.

“It’s a date,” Rikku concluded.

The brunette moved past them and down the stairs. “It’s a meeting on the future direction of New Yevon.”

As Rikku and Paine shrugged and started to follow, the intercom crackled to life, bearing Buddy’s voice. “We’ve arrived at Bevelle for your date with Praetor Baralai, Yuna.”

Behind her, the other girls laughed. Over the speaker came Brother’s bellow. “It’s a meeting!”

Shinra’s chair creaked. “I think it’s a date, but I’m just a kid.”

“I’m not hearing you!” Brother cried, before the line went dead.

*   *   *   *   *

The bay door slid open to the sparkling skyline of Bevelle. The ship had docked to an upper level of the great temple, and a scramble of priests worked to link a gangway from the ship’s berth to the Celsius as Yuna headed across the crimson-painted decking. Paine and Rikku were following over the High Summoner’s objections -- the warrior with a perfunctory grunt about protection; the Al Bhed with a shameless chirp about just going to tease her cousin mercilessly. But as the first two moved ahead, Rikku slowed when she saw her father already out on the deck, his shoulders slumped, his eyes on the horizon. The Celsius had been in Guadosalam to pick him up from a meeting with Tromell. Rikku had been surprised that Cid was even there, given the Al Bhed’s history with the Guado, and her father hadn’t spoken about the meeting since he came aboard. Rikku couldn’t imagine it had gone well.

Against her nature, the little thief said nothing as she sidled up to the strongly built Al Bhed leader. Instead she followed his absent gaze and simply bounced slightly on the balls of her feet, hands clasped behind her back in an unconscious imitation of her older cousin.

“Always did admire the architecture of Bevelle,” Cid said. At the upward dance of her eyebrows he glanced at her and added, in his usual gruff tone, “Hated the people, liked the buildings.”

Rikku giggled slightly in response, but still said nothing.

“That meeting was a waste of time,” he sighed.

When he didn’t say any more, Rikku couldn’t help herself.

“So... what exactly were you meeting about?”

He shook his head. “Trying to get the Guado’s help in rebuilding Home.”

Rikku almost gasped. She looked over to her other friends, who had reached the walkway and were heading down. Poopy, she thought, that was gonna be some quality teasing, too. She looked back at her father, where he still stared out at the city, and gave her own little sigh. This was gonna be a long one.

“Pops...” she started, and he looked over and down at her, “what in all of Spira would make you ask the Guado for help rebuilding Home? They destroyed it!”

“Which is exactly why I asked,” he growled. “They owe us!” He folded his arms across his chest. “I figured with all this lovey-dovey  talk of cooperation between the Youth League, New Yevon, and the Machine Faction, that maybe some might rub off on those lanky Guado. But all Tromell did was wring his big hands and whine.” Cid shook his head. “Guess I can’t blame the bastard, the way things turned out for them, what with the Ronso wanting to wipe them off Spira and all.”

Rikku nodded her head. “So, what did you think they could do for you?”

“How ’bout a little respect for starters? Tromell’s traipsing off to Gagazet to ask forgiveness from the Ronso, but he’s never showed up at my door, not that I have one. Well the Ronso still have their mountain, and the Guado still have their trees. And what do the Al Bhed have left?”

“Well, the rest of Spira doesn’t hate us anymore.”

“That’s a nice blanket I can pull over my feet at night.”

She shrugged her shoulders. “It’s something.”

“Sure,” Cid scoffed. “Everybody’s just accepting enough of the Al Bhed that they can scatter themselves around Spira.”

“But maybe that’s a good thing, Pops...” she said a bit tentatively, “maybe we don’t need to rebuild Home.”

He turned to her, hands on his hips. “Of course we need to rebuild Home! The Al Bhed need an identity. Some place to call their own.”

Rikku half-nodded, thinking.

“Besides,” he said, “how are you gonna lead the Al Bhed if they’re not all in one place? That’d be like tryin’ to herd a bunch of cats.”

The little thief’s jaw dropped open and she stared at her father. “W-what d’you say, Pops?”

“I said it’d be like herding--”

“No, I heard that part. I meant the ‘Rikku leading the Al Bhed’ part.”

He grinned to himself, looking into her wide-eyed face. “Well I’m not dead yet, so you’ve got a while, but they will need a leader after I’m too old to do it.”

“But--but-- uhm, me?”

Cid raised his hands. “Of course, you. Who else is gonna lead us?”

She put her hands to the sides of her face and shook her head. “Uhm, Rin? Nhadala? Maybe Brother?”

“Pfft!” he waved off the thought. “When I’m too old, Rin and Nhadala will be too old too. And I’m sorry, sweetheart, I love your brother, but... I’d sooner turn us all over to that one-eyed womanizer Gippal than your brother.”

“Hey, Gippal’s my friend!” she answered indignantly.

“And as long as you don’t let him near you, that’s fine with me.”

Rikku shook her head again and walked away a little. She looked to the front of the deck, the great silver gull mounted there. It seemed so free, but at the same time, it was trapped there with the ship.

“But Pops, I’m barely eighteen you know!”

“Eighteen, and you’ve saved the world twice. I think you qualify for the job.”

Yuna saved the world twice!”

“And Yuna’s probably gonna be the head of New Yevon, if you ask me.” Cid closed the distance between himself and his daughter. “But you, Rikku, are the only person who was there with Yuna both times, and don’t tell me you weren’t part of the heavy lifting. I know you better than that.”

“Pops--”

He put a hand on each of her shoulders and made her face him. “Rikku, listen to your old man for once. You’re the best thing to happen to the Al Bhed in a long time. And I ain’t asking you to start up tomorrow. I’ll be around for a while. But just think about what it would be like for the Al Bhed to have a Home again. We may all be part of Spira again since the Calm, but I think we’ve lost who we are a little bit.”

“Well, you’re kinda right, but I’m a little pooped out with thinking big thoughts about the world for now,” she sighed.

“Hey, I’m sorry kid. I didn’t mean to dump all this on you.” He looked out at the horizon again. “Say, you’ve been to Bevelle more than I have. What d’ya say you show your old man the sights, huh?” Cid crooked out his elbow and, smiling up at him, Rikku took his arm.

“Tour guide Rikku, at your service,” she said cheerfully, and they started off towards the gangway and down into the metropolis of Bevelle.

*   *   *   *   *

They found Paine in a café the Gullwings liked not far from the great temple. She waved them over as they entered.

“So where have you two been?” the warrior asked as Cid and Rikku pulled up chairs to Paine’s table near the back wall of the busy little shop.

“Been showin’ Pops all the tourist traps,” Rikku giggled. “And he’s been doing his best Maechen imitation, telling me how this was or that was ‘way back when’.”

“Come on now,” her father retorted, “you’re making me feel old.”

She frowned at him. “I didn’t say you were old, I said you were acting old.”

“Well that makes me feel much better,” he answered, picking up a menu from the table.

“So what are you doing here?” the little Al Bhed asked her friend.

Paine held up her cup of kirman coffee in response.

Rikku rolled her eyes. “Besides that. Where’s Yunie?”

“Still on her date, I suppose. I wasn’t actually going to go with them, you know.”

“I know,” Rikku shrugged. “Was she nervous? Did you tease her enough for the both of us?”

“I did my share,” Paine took a sip.

“Which means you hardly said anything,” the thief shook her head. “I’ll just have to make up for it later.”

Paine grinned wryly. “I’m sure you will,” she said. Turning to Cid, she pointed to a spot on his menu. “The Sweet Flan is good.”

He furrowed his brow. “How’re the Pahsana Cakes?”

“Usually too dry.”

“Figures.” He called over a waitress and turned to talk with her as Paine leaned in towards Rikku.

“I can’t believe you’re actually getting along with your father,” she whispered.

The blonde grinned. “Happens sometimes,” she whispered back. “Usually when he’s not being so bossy.”

Paine touched the thief’s hand. “I like it.”

“Don’t tell Brother, he’ll think I’m betraying him,” she giggled.

“What’s all this, girl talk?” Cid gruffed, interrupting the girls’ private summit.

Paine fixed him with her crimson eyes. “Nothing, Pops.”

The thief laughed out loud at the sudden stricken look on her father’s face.

“Ha, ha, ha...” the rugged leader cuffed his daughter lightly on the back of her head. “Talk about making me feel old.”

Paine raised an eyebrow. “Is that a comment on my age?” she countered, making Rikku laugh louder.

“Sorry, I was fooled by your gray hair,” Cid replied.

“And you’re ageless because you’re bald?” the warrior returned.

Her father turned to Rikku. “How do you travel with her?”

“I stay out of her way,” she answered, at last raising a smile from Paine.

The waitress returned to their booth with a small tray of goods. “One Sweet Flan,” she slipped a dish before Cid, then put a bowl in front of Rikku, “and a sliced pitaya with acacia honey.”

The little Al Bhed looked at the bowl, and when she raised her eyes back to her father they were shimmering with tears. “You remembered,” was all she could say.

Cid smiled. “You think I’m gonna forget my little girl’s favorite dessert? Of course not!” He turned to Paine. “Her mother used to make that when she was little. I’m surprised they had fresh pitaya here, but I guess you can get anything in the big city.”

They ate in silence for a while, Cid occasionally grunting his approval of the Sweet Flan and Paine peppering Rikku with concerned looks that the blonde didn’t return. Finally she turned to the Al Bhed leader.

“What do you think of Bevelle,” she asked. “From a tourist’s perspective,” she added hastily.

He snorted. “Well, I was mostly looking at it from an engineer’s perspective. There’s an awful lot of machina here for Yevon considering them forbidden and all.”

“Which do you mean?”

“Well, there’s a pretty good plumbing and sewer system here that aren’t being run by magic.”

Paine shrugged. “The Temples were good at ignoring their own rules.”

“That’s for sure,” Rikku said absently.

Paine frowned again, thinking. “Well, if he wants to see some machina, Rikku, we should show him the Gaol underneath Bevelle.”

Rikku sat up straighter. “Hey, that’s a good idea! You should see some of the stuff down beneath the Temple, Pops,” she told her father. Then she turned back to Paine. “Think they’ll still let us down there?”

“Of course they will; we saved the world, remember?” Paine smiled.

Then her grin faded as she saw her words didn’t have the reaction she expected; instead of her usual infectious beaming, Rikku instead bit her lip and looked worriedly at her father, who was starting to sport a smirk of his own.

*   *   *   *   *

Cid was not thrilled by either leaping down into the hole in the Fayth’s chamber or sliding down the great chain into the underground, but he did marvel at the naked mechanical power of the monstrous transport apparatus in the Gaol. The fact that it had been in operation for over a thousand years merely enhanced his fascination.

“Seems like overkill just to carry people to and from those cells up there, but great mother of machina it’s like a work of art!” he exclaimed.

Rikku cocked her head. “Yeah, when you think about it, just how many prisoners were they moving at once?”

“This was Bevelle before Yevon,” Paine answered, “they were out to conquer the world. I bet these cells were full all the time.”

The Al Bhed leader snorted. “Probably even more packed after they created the Yevon religion. Damned zealots.”

“Or hypocrites,” Paine shrugged.

“Either or both. Same result.”

Rikku walked to the edge of the platform, trying to shake off the mood. She could see her father’s point, and Paine’s, but the cynicism weighed on her. As Yunie would say, it was such a sad way to look at things. Rikku couldn’t think that way. She longed for cheeriness, for the positive... it was her own way of dealing with the sadness she’d been dealt in life. She loved her father, and Paine, but she needed someone like Yunie around to keep her from going crazy sometimes. She needed...

For a moment, she was almost overwhelmed with a longing for--

“I wonder which cell Shuyin was in,” Paine spoke from beside her, looking up at the rows of empty chambers.

Rikku frowned at her. “Do we have to bring him up?”

“Still gives you the chills?” the warrior met her eyes with sympathy.

“Gives me nightmares,” she replied, looking away again, trying to stare at nothing. She could hear her father behind, mumbling about gears and lubrication and winch mechanisms. She idly wondered if he was taking notes.

From the corner of her eye, she could see Paine shake her head. “Hard to believe this Tidus that you and Yuna talk about might have been based on him.”

Rikku’s heart clenched. She took a breath, trying to keep her voice steady. “I-- I don’t think he is.”

“But Maechen said--”

“I know what Maechen said,” Rikku cut her off, a little too harshly. “I mean, I don’t know how the Dream Zanarkand or whatever it was worked, but I can’t believe Tidus and Shuyin were the same. Tidus would never have done what Shuyin did.”

Paine cocked her head. “Even if the woman he loved was killed in front of him? If someone you loved died in front of you, how would it affect you?”

Rikku couldn’t speak. She opened her mouth, but no words would come.

“Is there more of this stuff down here?” her father unknowingly came to her rescue, walking up to join the pair.

The little thief took a breath and turned. “Yeah, there’s more of those floating cart thingies around the corner here, and then the chamber where Vegnagun was.”

“Well let’s see it!” Cid gestured them forwards. Rikku led the way and he followed.

Paine brought up the rear, the beginnings of a knowing smile creeping onto her lips.

*   *   *   *   *

The glow of a myriad pyreflies greeted the trio as they walked the narrow platform into Vegnagun’s enormous former home.

“Great Yevon’s ghost!” the Al Bhed leader exclaimed, head arching back to take in the view. “How did they construct something this big underground?”

“You should have seen what was in it, Pops,” Rikku answered. “Except for it being this huge evil thing and all, it was almost a shame to dismantle it.”

Paine chuckled. “Spoken like an Al Bhed.”

The other two turned blank stares on her. “Huh?” they answered in unison, and Paine shook her head.

Cid moved forward towards the edge of the platform. “So what’s with all the pyreflies?”

His daughter came up behind him, peering over into the depths. “This hole connects to the Farplane.”

“How do you know?” he asked.

Paine moved up beside them. “We jumped in.”

The Al Bhed leader pulled back. “Down there? Are you crazy?”

Rikku turned to him. “All goes along with the heavy lifting.”

He frowned at her. “Har, har.”

“You asked.”

He started back towards the chamber’s entrance. “And I’d rather not have known.”

Rikku suddenly had the sensation of being watched. By a lot of eyes. It took her a second to place the feeling, and then she dove to knock her father out of the way as a marlboro dropped from the shadowed ceiling of the dome. She yanked her blades from each side of her belt and pivoted to face the beast, Paine at her side.

“What is it about this place and these ugly critters?” she asked to her companion. “How the heck do they hide?”

“What is it about you knocking your old man around?” Cid asked from behind her. “I’m not feeble yet, you know.”

“Sorry, Pop, but these things can get bad if you don’t have--” she started, then shock hit her. “Oh, crap, I forgot my ribbon!”

And the marlboro hit them all with the fetid stench of its bad breath.

Rikku felt immediate nausea and dizziness, and her knees buckled beneath her. Her backside smacked the platform and shook her right to her teeth. Her eyes closed with fatigue, and a pain spread through her skull as if it had been hit from behind. The cries of the great beast became muffled and distant. She thought she heard someone call her name. Moving like molasses, she made her way back upright, aching head hanging from her bent shoulders.

“Ooh, boy,” Rikku swayed on her feet. “That’s some powerful stuff.”

“Quite noxious, isn’t it?” came an unfamiliar voice.

Rikku’s head snapped up abruptly, and she turned. There was a small boy standing in front of her, at the end of the platform before the great hole. He wore a funny looking helmet that shadowed his eyes. “Who are you?” she yelped.

“I’m a Fayth,” was his response.

Rikku blinked. She realized that other than his voice and the soft swishing of the pyreflies, there was silence in the vast chamber. She whirled back toward the door. Cid and Paine were gone, as was the marlboro. She felt suddenly weak, her hands clammy. She turned her head to look over her shoulder at the boy. “Am I dead?”

He smiled. “No. Just dreaming.”

“So this isn’t real.”

“I think you already know -- dreams can be very real.”

The Al Bhed girl turned back to face him. “Yeah, but is this a real dream or just a ‘knocked out by a marlboro’ dream?”

His lips twitched. “You’ll have to decide that for yourself.”

She rolled her eyes. “Great.” She waved her arms at him. “Why would I think a Fayth in my dream could be real?”

In answer he simply gestured with his head to the great pit behind him.

“Oh,” Rikku said. “Right.” She walked to the platform’s edge herself and peered down. “Is life okay over on that side? When we beat Sin, we sent you to the Farplane, right? And it was pretty spooky when I was there... I don’t think I’d want to go back anytime soon.”

The Fayth watched her with his shadowed eyes. Always concerned for others, she was. “You found it unpleasant because you weren’t meant to be there. And Shuyin and Vegnagun had invaded its peace with apocalyptic intent, imposing their pain on the substance of the netherworld. Now, free of that influence, it is, as before, a place of eternal serenity for the departed.”

“The departed...” she repeated.

“The sent.”

Rikku bit her lip. The Fayth half-smiled, but it was gone by the time she turned back to face him.

“So if I’m not dead, why are you here, talking with me?” she cocked her head.

He bowed from the waist slightly. “Like Lady Yuna, you have also saved us twice. The Fayth owe you as well.”

“Back to the ‘saving the world’ thing,” Rikku sighed. “Maybe this is just a dream.”

It was his turn to cock his head. “Lady Yuna didn’t have this much trouble with me.”

“Was she asleep when you came to her?”

“No.”

“You see my problem.”

“Indeed.”

Rikku stepped forward to his side, facing the chamber door. “Is my friend okay? Is Pops?”

For a moment she could see a shadowy group of figures nearer the chamber entrance: the forms of Paine and Cid, and facing them the ugly writhing form of the marlboro. They faded as quickly as they appeared.

The Fayth looked up at her. “Perhaps you should think about yourself for once.”

The Al Bhed sighed. “Uhm, what did Yunie ask for?”

“She asked for nothing. We made an offer to her.”

Rikku turned now to look down at him. “...and what did you offer?”

“The chance to see him again.”

Rikku’s eyes grew very wide. “Did it work? Did she get to see him?”

The Fayth shook his head. “Lady Yuna chose not to. She thought it would be better that way.”

Rikku’s heart began to pound. She suddenly found it difficult to breathe. She couldn’t believe it... would Yunie really do that? After all their searching, would she turn down the chance to be with Tidus?

If she hadn’t, would she be on a date with Baralai? But she didn’t call it a date!

Still, Yunie had changed since they defeated Vegnagun. She really did seem to be looking more to the future and not the past.

Yet... arghhhhhh! She couldn’t think straight! Marlboro toxin, that’s what this was. There wasn’t a Fayth here, she was just delusional.

She looked at him. Then she poked him with a finger. He raised an eyebrow at her.

“Did that prove something?”

“Hush!” she chided. “I’m thinking! You want me to ask for something, right?”

He raised his hands. “The Fayth would like you to be happy.”

She waved her own hands at the space where she’d seen the shadows. “My Pop not bugging me would make me happy.”

“Of course,” the Fayth smirked, “our powers are not unlimited.”

Her voice was tinged with exasperation. “Then why are you asking me? Why don’t you just offer me something?”

His own tone was soothing. “It was simple with Lady Yuna. We knew what she had been searching for. Her heart was clear, if undecided.”

“But not me, huh?”

Again he cocked his head. “Do you know for what you are searching?”

Rikku clutched her hands to her temples. “’What am I searching for?’ ‘Will I lead the Al Bhed?’ Geez, what is it with all the big questions?!!”

“Do you know the answers?” the Fayth shrugged.

“I was helping Yuna search!” she insisted. “I wasn’t searching for anything!”

“Weren’t you?”

Rikku sighed, and sat down on the platform, dangling her legs over the edge. “Couldn’t I have just been having fun?”

“If only you could see your heart,” he touched her shoulder. She hung her head.

Then, close to the chamber door, there was a sound like a rush of wind. They both turned their heads as the air was suddenly overflowing with pyreflies. “One less marlboro,” Rikku said, turning back to eye the abyss.

The Fayth continued to watch the pyreflies, twisting randomly in the air. He stepped towards them, closing his eyes. The pyreflies started to twist and shift.

“Well this has been quite a day,” Rikku said, gazing down towards the Farplane out of sight below. “Yunie’s on her first date in... well, since we destroyed Sin, I find out that not only does my father not think I’m just a brat but that he wants me to lead the Al Bhed, and here I am, unconscious, having a first hand conversation with the Fayth.” She felt hands touch her shoulders again, this time one on each. “That’s just about all the excitement I can handle.”

“That does sound like a lot,” came a familiar voice from just behind her. “Guess this is just bad timing for me, then.”

Rikku nearly jumped out of her skin as her brain processed what her ears were hearing. “Tidus!” she yelped, and bounded to her feet so fast that as she spun to face him she lost her balance. Just before she would have plunged over the edge of the platform his hands reached out to grab hold of hers, and he pulled her back. She ended up against his chest, within the soft embrace of his arms.

“Now that’s a better greeting,” he said.

For a long moment Rikku didn’t answer, just enjoyed the feeling of him, eyes closed, cheek against his skin. “How did you get here?” she murmured at last.

“It’s your dream,” Tidus answered.

Rikku opened her eyes, remembering. Her heart sunk to her feet. “That’s right, this is just a dream,” she said. She pulled away from Tidus and turned her back on him. She eyed the Fayth sidelong. “And this is cruel.”

“What’s wrong with dreams?” Tidus said. “I’m kinda fond of them myself.”

Rikku was instantly contrite. “I didn’t mean--” she turned back towards his puzzled face, “I’m glad to see you!”

He grinned. “I got that from the hug.”

“It’s just... when I wake up...”

“Yeah,” he shrugged. “I got the same deal from him,” he crooked a thumb at the Fayth.

The little thief smiled sadly. “Oh, Tidus, I have so much to tell you!”

He touched her hand. “I’d love to hear it.”

“But there’s no time! I have so much going on all of a sudden, and it was so easy to talk to you about stuff...”

“So tell me.”

Rikku stomped her feet and turned to the Fayth. “Why did you bring him here?”

“It’s your dream,” Tidus said again. Something niggled the back of Rikku’s mind, but she couldn’t quite capture it.

“Princess of the Al Bhed,” the Fayth said, “what would you ask of us?”

Rikku’s hands clutched her head and she closed her eyes.

Tidus poked her playfully. “Wanna scream?”

She peeked at him with one eye. “Yeah. A lot.”

He took hold of one end of her long scarf, running his thumb over the material. “At least tell me one thing that’s on your mind.”

She blurted out the first one that came to her. “I had pitaya with acacia honey today for the first time in forever!”

Tidus blinked at her. Then they both burst out laughing. “Well that does seem pretty monumental,” he captured her hands in his.

“Hey,” she pouted at him, “it was pretty special to me.”

“Then I’ll have to remember it,” he responded solemnly, but with a twinkle in his eye.

The Fayth looked up at her from beside the pair. “Perhaps you need to reexamine your memories before you answer us.”

Rikku rolled her eyes at Tidus. “Great. ‘Cause I love spending time in personal reflection.”

The blitzballer shrugged at the Fayth. “She is more of an ‘action girl’.”

He nodded his head, then focused his shadowed eyes on Rikku again. “You should visit the place of memories.”

She sighed and looked at her feet. “So I’ll be seeing you again, then, huh? Will I have to get knocked out again first?”

The Fayth simply looked at her.

“So how soon will I see you?” she asked then.

“That is up to you,” he answered, backing up, and Rikku realized he now appeared transparent, as if he were fading away.

She found herself very tired, suddenly. Her legs grew weak, and she swayed on her feet. Tidus put his arms around her instantly, and as she couldn’t stand he helped her to the floor gently.

“Don’t forget,” the Fayth said, moving farther away and fading further. “The place where memories are made...”

“Shh...” Tidus said, “it’s okay,” he cradled her head. “Rikku?” he asked, “are you okay? Can you hear me?”

“Tidus...” she whispered, and closed her eyes.

“Rikku, can you hear me?” came a gentle voice.

“I’m okay, Tidus,” she said, and opened her eyes.

“Thank goodness,” Baralai said, cradling her on the floor. “You gave us quite the scare.”

Rikku shook her head gently and looked around her. Paine and Cid were there again, a few steps away, along with Yunie. A half dozen New Yevon guards milled in the distance, at the edge of the great chamber.

“Baralai?” Rikku blinked up at him.

“Hey there,” he smiled. “If I’d known you guys were coming down here, I’d have sent an escort.”

“Well,” she frowned, “we can handle ourselves, you know! I just got caught off guard, is all.”

His lips twitched. “That I can see.”

She sat up, and returned a quick smile from Yuna before the Summoner turned back to talk with Rikku’s father. “Sorry about messing up your dat-- er, meeting.”

Baralai blushed visibly. “Was it that obvious?” he kept his voice low.

Rikku looked him over. He was dressed in tailored clothes that couldn’t quite be considered casual, but were about as close as she’d seen him wearing. “Only to someone with eyes,” she giggled. She leaned in conspiratorially and directed his gaze to Yuna and her own attire. “But don’t worry, she likes you too.”

He dropped his eyes. “Hope so.” Then he glanced at her up through his eyebrows. “Who’s Tidus?”

It was Rikku’s turn to blush. “Someone that you shouldn’t mention I mentioned.”

A look of recognition crept over him, and he seemed a bit troubled, but then he visibly changed gears and spoke to her sotto voce. “Then it’s our secret,” he winked.

Rikku was amazed, seeing his face transform as it had. Not for the first time she realized how deep the Praetor’s thoughts ran. Not at all like herself... the thief knew she was always right there on the surface with her feelings and actions; it was the very thing that irritated Paine the most about her. But Baralai... well, he was just like Yunie in that respect. She was more sure than ever he and her cousin should be together, that they would be good for each other. She smiled to herself, then proffered a hand to him.

“I never said it, and you never heard it,” she told him. “Now if you’ll give me a hand up, we’ll get out of your hair, and I don’t expect to see Yunie until well after curfew, mister!”

He laughed and helped her up. Glad to see her on her feet, her fellow Gullwings approached.

“Are you okay?” Yunie asked.

“She was just trying to get out of the fight,” Paine winked at the High Summoner. “Worked, too.”

Rikku stomped her foot and put her hands on her hips. “Hey, that’s not fair! That ‘Bad Breath’ attack is no fun at all!”

Paine smirked. “I know that... it’s almost as bad as Brother’s first thing in the morning.”

Yunie laughed, but Rikku merely raised an eyebrow. “And why have you been smelling Brother’s breath ‘first thing in the morning’?”

Then she ducked and ran as Paine started chasing her.

*   *   *   *   *

The Fayth watched her as the group settled together and headed out. Rikku cast a last glance back before moving on. She wasn’t ready. She didn’t even know how she felt about him. Or at least, she wouldn’t admit it.

This might be harder than he thought.

Unsent: Chapter 2