Coming Home

 
 

Deep in the night, Paine was awake. She’d been sleeping fitfully, but at least she’d been asleep; now, frustratingly, she was staring blankly at the stars and high clouds passing by the Celsius’ cabin window above her head. She knew why, but that knowledge provided no comfort.

So she stared, wondering at the places she’d flown through these skies, and how long she’d get to see them like this herself.

Then her warrior’s ears caught soft footfalls on the stairs heading up to the loft. She knew Yuna was sleeping soundly in the bed next to hers, which left the feet belonging, from their weight, either to Shinra (doubtful) or to--

“Rikku?” Paine called softly.

The slight form stopped just as she crested the stairs. “You’re awake?”

“No, I’m talking in my sleep,” Paine replied. “Why are you up?”

“Shhh...” Rikku admonished, “you’ll wake Yunie.”

“Then come closer,” the older girl waved her over. Rikku cat-footed to her bedside and Paine lifted the covers. The tiny girl slipped into her bed, cuddling comfortably to her.

Paine wasn’t sure when she’d first allowed that to happen. It was probably some night they’d parked the Celsius out on the Thunder Plains; something about the structure of the ship seemed to magnify thunder into great, wall-rattling detonations, particularly in the cabin where the girls slept. She knew that Rikku had gotten over her fear of thunder, but sometimes on those nights the great rattling had unnerved even Paine. Why Rikku had approached Paine instead of her cousin, the crimson-eyed warrior didn’t know, though she suspected it was that Yuna had learned on her pilgrimage to sleep through anything and was dead to the world when the Al Bhed had approached the Summoner. (Which belied the idea that Paine’s talking would wake Yuna, but she chose not to dwell on that.)

The warrior was even less sure when she’d moved from merely allowing Rikku into her bed when troubled to actually inviting her, but since Paine had finally learned to open up to her friends about her own past, she found herself doing things that she’d never have dreamed possible. Sort of like traipsing around the Spira in an airship had once seemed.

“So why are you awake?” Paine asked again.

The little thief followed her gaze out to the indigo sky. “Well, nights like this, when we’re flying? I can’t help but listen to the engines, and if I hear anything weird, I can’t sleep until I check it out.”

Paine knew, without question, that this was not the reason, but she decided to play along. “Something weird?”

“Yeah. Back when Brother and Buddy first dug the Celsius out of the ice, I had to rebuild the whole engine for them.” Rikku idly raised an arm towards the window, as if she might just pluck a star from the sky to save under her pillow. “I used to sit and listen to it for hours just to get a feel for when it was running right and when something was wrong. So tonight I was laying in bed trying to get to sleep and I hear this ping--”

“Uhm, Rikku?” the warrior interrupted.

“Huh?”

“Did you say you built the Celsius’ engine?”

Rikku giggled. “Brother and Buddy may have excavated the ship, but they couldn’t get it running worth poopy until they got me to help.”

Paine turned her head to look at Rikku in the darkness. “So Shinra didn’t--”

“Ha! Shinra’s still a kid.”

“So are you,” Paine teased.

“Tell that to Pops,” Rikku sighed.

“What’s that?”

“Never mind. No, Shinra’s great with spheres and stuff, but he couldn’t build an engine to save his life. Some Al Bhed!” she giggled.

Paine poked the other girl in the ribs and raised a squeak. “Rikku, I have the feeling that there aren’t even many Al Bhed that could build an airship engine from scratch.”

Rikku looked at her in the dark. “It’s not like I was working from chewing gum and paper clips, you know. I actually did have an engine to start with.”

The warrior slipped an arm around her friend and pulled her closer. “As you told Yuna once, you can give yourself a pat on the back.”

“Not my style, I guess,” Rikku snuggled to her. “I’d rather just be having fun.”

Paine shook her head slightly. That was her Rikku alright, all fun no fuss. On the surface, that was -- down underneath, the little thief was the most caring person she knew. She also knew that if her own proclivities leaned that way even slightly, she could fall deeply for Rikku. But thankfully they didn’t: Paine had enough trouble with romantic feelings for someone else as it was.

She leaned her head against Rikku’s and felt her cheek dampen. “Your hair is wet,” she said inquisitively.

“I took another shower; I was all stinky from the engines.”

Paine let out a little breath. “You fixed the engine now? While it was running?”

“Oh, it was just a clog in one of the intake manifolds,” Rikku shrugged. “I had to clear it before we warped a piston or something. And I get to yell at Brother in the morning about keeping the filters clean.”

“Hey, can I do that for you?” Paine grinned slyly. “Just tell me what to say.”

“Yeah! And say it in Al Bhed, too, that would be hilarious.”

They couldn’t help but giggle until a mumble came from the next bed over. “What are you two laughing about in the middle of the night? I’m gonna get jealous.”

“Sorry Yunie,” Rikku was suddenly contrite.

The High Summoner rolled over away from them. “You’re not gonna miss me at all when I leave, I just know it.”

Paine threw a pillow at her in response. Yuna just tucked it under her head and nestled once more. And Rikku let out a sound like a tiny kitten into Paine’s shoulder and cuddled closer.

For that was the reason that neither Paine nor Rikku could sleep that night. Their Yuna was leaving tomorrow.

*   *   *   *   *

The sun was bright in Rikku’s eyes as the Celsius came in low across the water, giving her a twinge of nostalgia for her old Al Bhed goggles. It always seemed sunny in Bevelle. Standing near the front of the deck, the sun warmed her, the rushing air cooled her, and the roar of the engines and the wind shook her straight through. She felt none of it.

It hardly felt like six months since Yuna’s first ‘meeting’ with Baralai, and now she was going to be staying here, in her own suite within the Temple. She’d taken a ‘temporary’ office with New Yevon, but Rikku would put gil to Guado that some time in the not-so-distant future, star reporter Shelinda would be announcing a SphereNet exclusive interview with “High Summoner Yuna, newly appointed Praetor of New Yevon, taking the role vacated by Baralai, who has now become party Chairman”. Or something like that. 

She felt she should be happy for Yuna. She was happy for Yuna. But Rikku was feeling sorry enough for herself to completely offset anything resembling a cheery mood.  Why couldn’t their carefree journey just go on forever? Why, she wondered, only vaguely aware of the silliness of the question, did a journey have to get somewhere?

Rikku heard the deck’s automatic door slide open behind her, but like a posted sentry she couldn’t turn her eyes from the looming bulk of the city.

“It’s a hateful place,” she heard Brother say, “trying to take my Yuna away.”

“I hear you,” she returned. “It’s succeeding.”

He raised a fist over his head. “She will return!”

Rikku sighed. “Wishful thinking, I’m afraid.”

Brother’s gesture wilted and he ran the hand through his mohawk. “We are still the Gullwings though, yes?”

She looked over her shoulder at him. “I thought you were the leader of the Gullwings?”

“E ys!” he exclaimed. I am. “Yuna will come back! I believe it!”

Rikku’s eyes drifted back to Bevelle, the glint of the sun off the magnificent buildings. “If only believing something could make it happen,” she said, half to herself.

There was a burst of static from the gull on the front of the deck, and its eyes glowed red. Buddy had installed an intercom there as a joke, but Rikku always thought it was a bit creepy. A voice came through after the static cleared. “Hey Brother,” Buddy said, “you might want to get down here. Shinra’s threatening to take the ship off auto-pilot and land it himself.”

“It’s all a matter of vectors and mass,” the boy genius’ voice came from the background.

Brother looked panicked and hurried back towards the elevator. He passed Yuna and Paine who were just emerging onto the deck.

“What was that about?” Yuna asked Rikku as they joined her.

“He’s going to keep Shinra from killing us all,” Rikku answered, her voice distant and dull.

“I’m surprised that hasn’t happened already,” Paine offered.

No one responded. Yuna and Rikku were both staring off at the rapidly approaching city, each lost in her own thoughts.

Paine watched them for a moment sidelong. “I think I’ve been rubbing off on you two -- in a bad way.”

“What’cha mean?” Yuna asked, voice and attention far away.

The tall warrior walked to the very edge of the deck, between the others and their views. “I mean, it’s not like either of you two to go all broody. That’s my job.”

Yuna looked up at her, a grateful half-smile on her face. “I’m sorry. I guess I am a little wrapped up in my thoughts.”

“And what about her?” Paine indicated the little thief, who was either looking through the warrior, or straight at her navel, it wasn’t immediately apparent.

The Summoner elbowed Rikku, who looked over at her blankly. “Did you say something?” the thief asked.

“Brother and Barkeep are getting married,” Paine answered, in her nonchalant manner.

“Huh?”

“I said, you’re thinking too much,” the warrior rolled her eyes. “And not sharing.”

Yuna sighed. “I want to take this post at New Yevon.” She shook her head. “I think I can make a difference. And I think that it’s no longer a matter of ‘endorsing’ New Yevon over the Youth League.”

Paine shrugged. “I’m sure than Nooj understands that.”

“Wait,” Rikku said, “Brother and Barkeep?”

“And it’ll be nice to be on the inside of Yevon, sorting out what is real and important from what we were taught to believe.”

The warrior smiled. “You think you can make a difference.”

Yuna frowned sadly. “I said that already, didn’t I?”

“What about Darling?” Rikku pouted.

“And you want to be close to him,” Paine said.

“That’s it, isn’t it?” Yuna sighed.

“They’re not getting married,” the brunette had mercy on the confused Al Bhed.

“Darling and Barkeep aren’t getting married?” the little thief clasped her hands to her cheeks.

Paine shook her head at Yuna. “It’s no big deal, Yuna. There’s nothing wrong with that -- it’s a nice bonus. Don’t feel guilty.”

The Summoner touched Rikku’s shoulder. “Sure they are, sweetie.”

Rikku did a little half dance. “Darling and Barkeep are getting married?!”

“Eventually,” Yuna responded. “I think.”

Then Rikku’s face crumpled. “But what about Brother?”

Yuna looked at Paine seriously, finally expressing her doubts. “Do you think I’m betraying him?”

The Al Bhed raised an eyebrow at her. “Brother?”

“Rikku!” the warrior had finally had enough. “Catch up.”

The thief looked chagrinned, but screwed up her face as if she’d set about rearranging the conversation in her head. In truth, she’d followed all too well.

Paine laid a hand on High Summoner’s shoulder. “It’s been, what, almost four years now, Yuna, since the Eternal Calm began? And the truth is, I’ve never seen you as happy as you’ve been in these past six months. I can’t say what it was like for you back then, on your pilgrimage, but I know what you’re like now, and I think Baralai has been very good for you.”

Their friend smiled in her humble, eyes-down way. “I have been happy,” Yuna said, “just guilty too.”

“Don’t feel guilty,” Paine responded. “You deserve joy in your life. Maybe more than anyone else on Spira, you deserve it, after bringing it to so many.”

Rikku was strangely silent, and hoped Yuna hadn’t noticed. Two years after defeating Sin, Yuna had still been in Besaid, besieged with requests for council from all over Spira, thinking nothing for herself or her own happiness or needs. That’s why Rikku had pestered her to join the Gullwings. And dragging her (and then practically chasing her) from place to place had been good for her cousin.

But part of that new life, that new adventure, had been to find Tidus. To bring Yuna back to her lost love, or find out for sure that he was gone. And they’d done neither.

Rikku knew that Paine was right, that Yuna’s new relationship with Baralai was good for her, but still, some part of her... she felt that something was unfinished. So she got the guilt part too. But was that something Yuna should feel, or Rikku?

She was hoping Yuna hadn’t noticed her silence. No such luck.

“Rikku, do you think I’m betraying him?” her cousin turned to her.

The little thief, as was her way, said the first thing that came to her mind. “If you could magically make him appear, would you?”

Yuna appeared startled, and something in her face clicked in Rikku then. Her own dream of the Fayth had been real.

“No...” Yuna answered, her eyes suddenly on the decking. Then she raised her head more confidently. “No, I don’t think I would.”

Paine smiled at the Summoner. “Then there’s your answer. I think you’re honoring him.”

Yuna looked back and forth between them then, her eyes suddenly liquid and bright. “I really love you guys, you know that?” And knowing who would take it more comfortably, Yuna grabbed Rikku for a long hug.

Rikku held her cousin tightly, as she knew Yuna wanted, and smiled at Paine over Yuna’s shoulder.

But something inside Rikku, stirring anew with the Summoner’s response to Rikku’s question, curiously felt that maybe Yuna should be hugging Paine, instead.

*   *   *   *   *

“Mish Reekoo, what can I do for yoo?” Barkeep said, cloth in one hand polishing the bar, as Rikku sat down on a stool next to Paine.

“We have any Sweet Flan left?” the Al Bhed asked.

“I think sho,” the hypello responded and shuffled off to the back.

Paine stirred her apparently cooling cup of kirman coffee with a finger. “Right for the hard stuff, huh?”

“Hey,” Rikku answered, “I held off for nearly a week.”

The warrior took a sip. “As restless as you’ve been, I wish you’d caved earlier,” she said from behind the mug.

“No sphere waves, tyssed!” the thief cussed. “How can there be no sphere waves in a week?!”

“After those weird Hypello dance spheres, I thought you’d be glad for a break.”

Rikku dropped her chin to her stacked fists on the bar. “I think Buddy’s detector is broken.”

Paine touched her shoulder. “I miss her too,” she said softly.

Rikku just stared straight ahead, not responding.

The warrior sat back and drained her cold coffee. “So should we visit Clasko?”

Rikku raised an eyebrow at that, and turned it on her friend.

“Something to do,” Paine shrugged. “How about Tobli? I’m sure he has some crisis he needs fixing.”

The little thief sat up, spun her stool around backwards, and leaned back with her elbows on the bar. “Always does.”

“Or we could, uhm, go see Elma and Lucil. See if the Youth League needs anything.”

Rikku looked at Paine warily. “You mean visit Nooj, don’t you?”

The warrior wouldn’t meet her eyes. “Since saying anything about Nooj would lead first to you teasing me and second to me killing you, I’m not saying a word.”

Rikku felt a sudden tenseness grip her stomach. Even two months past, it was too soon, too fast after Yunie’s leaving to even joke about Paine and Nooj. Instead she said nothing, grateful that Barkeep chose that moment to return with her Sweet Flan, and although she no longer had much of an appetite, she turned back to the bar and lifted a spoonful to her mouth for an excuse to not answer Paine.

“Ish there anything elsh?” the hypello asked her.

“No, thanks,” Rikku answered around her mouthful of flan.

“Then I’ll be in the back,” Barkeep said. “Darling wansht me to watch blitshball wish her.”

“’K,” Rikku said and he shuffled off. “Is it blitz season already?” she asked Paine.

Paine shrugged. “Just started. The Aurochs won the opening tournament again, can you believe it?”

Rikku gave her a look. “You’re a blitzball fan? How did I not know that? And how did I miss the opening tournament? I always watch that!”

The brunette returned the look. “You’ve been a little distracted lately, from what I can tell. You wanna talk about that?”

The Al Bhed put down her spoon. “No. Yes. No.”

“Very decisive,” Paine said, “Oh, and Brother has the tournament on sphere, if you want to watch it.”

“He always does,” she answered, her tone distant and a little sullen.

Paine stood. “Well, we need to do something to occupy ourselves. This doesn’t feel like the Gullwings I signed up with.”

The little thief leaned her temple on her hand, facing her friend. “I’m sorry.”

The brunette leaned around her and dabbed a finger in Rikku’s flan, bringing it to her lips. “When you wanna talk, let me know,” she said, and stuck the finger in her mouth, savoring the flavor for a moment. “I owe you some ear-time anyway, after considerably more bugging.” She winked at Rikku, then turned on her heel, looking back over her shoulder. “For now, I’m gonna go annoy Shinra,” she said, and headed out of the cabin.

Rikku watched her go, then turned back to her dessert. She scooped another spoonful, but just stared at its shimmery goodness for a while instead of eating it. She hadn’t wanted to talk to Paine about what was bothering her because she didn’t know what it was. Or it was so many things that she couldn’t put them into words.

She looked over her shoulder at the portrait of Cid on the wall. It had been made from Brother’s favorite sphere-shot of their father, with the “old” man in full-on cranky mode, yelling at someone whom Rikku couldn’t remember but felt sorry for nonetheless. The image reminded Brother of why he was up here, flying around Spira, instead of wherever Pops was, drumming up support for rebuilding Home. And that was one thing that was bothering Rikku: her guilt over not doing anything to support her father in that endeavor. She used to think it was just a fool’s errand, and that eventually he’d come to his senses. But then there was that day in Bevelle all those months ago now, when she and Cid had spent the day just hanging out together, taking in the sights. Rikku hated to admit it, but looking at all the buildings in the city of Yevon, listening to her father’s running commentary about architecture and form and function, had started her seeing things through his eyes. And more, she realized that in a way she’d always done that.

Surprisingly, she was her father’s daughter after all.

So what did that mean? Her parents had married before Pops had gone about gathering the scattered Al Bhed and building Home in the first place. Then, after Mom died, he’d been so busy running things that he never had the time to-- well, Rikku knew there was no one who could replace Mom in Pops’ heart, and she wouldn’t have been all that keen to get herself a stepmother and all, but having someone in his life would be good for Pops. But in running Home he was literally running, always busy with this or that. Even after the war, rebuilding was his single-minded purpose.

Was that her fate?

Maybe rebuilding Home was a good thing, and maybe her father was right in saying that Rikku was the best chance the Al Bhed had of coming back together. But is that how her life would go then? All business, and never a chance to find someone to love?

She could hear the sounds of the blitz game that Barkeep and Darling were watching in the back. Probably snuggled together on their little couch.

Yuna was, for all practical purposes, living with Baralai.

Paine had pushed through her self-imposed solitude, and was now looking forward to a bright future herself, maybe with a certain hunky faction leader of her own.

Rikku set down her spoon, pushed the plate of Sweet Flan to the other edge of the bar, and laid her head down on her arms, doing everything in her power not to cry.

*   *   *   *   *

Luca was bustling, as it always was during blitz season, and Paine, Rikku, Buddy and Shinra practically had to shove their way through the throngs as they headed towards the Sphere Theater end of town. Buddy and Rikku actually had to pull Paine back when someone knocked Shinra over accidentally, and Rikku was afraid the warrior was going to pull a weapon on the guy as he tried to draw the air to apologize through a throat constricted by Paine’s gripping palm.

“Come on, Paine,” Rikku tried to soothe, “no need for extreme violence.” As they moved on, the brunette’s hand protectively on Shinra’s shoulder, Rikku turned a glare on Buddy.

“Something funny?” she growled at the smile he was wearing.

“She’s like our personal army,” he returned.

“Hey!” Rikku cuffed him on the back of the head, “I’d killed more fiends than she has by the time I was sixteen!”

“Yeah, but you didn’t look as mean as she does doin’ it,” Buddy shrugged. “Must be the leather.”

“Oh for Yevon’s sake,” she rolled her eyes. “Always with the leather. We should have left you minding the ship with Brother.”

“The way he was sulking over the Psyches’ last loss, no way I was staying.”

Paine looked over her shoulder at him. “She didn’t say she’d have given you a choice. She can be mean if she wants to.”

Rikku raised her chin. “Thank you, Paine.”

The brunette’s eye got a twinkle. “But it’s a cute mean,” she added, then darted away from Rikku’s swing.

“So what do you think Leblanc wants?” Buddy asked his fellow Gullwings.

“Couldn’t be to steal our spheres, we don’t have any,” Shinra responded.

The navigator raised his hands. “Hey, I told you all, the sphere detector that Shinra built isn’t broken.” When no one responded, he just shrugged. “Fine, don’t believe me.”

“Probably just operator error,” Paine smirked.

At the angry furrow of his brow above his Al Bhed goggles, Rikku poked him in the arm with a finger. “The leather’s not so hot now, is it?”

He was saved from any further ribbing when they arrived at their destination, an expansive building, obviously newly constructed, sitting to the left of the Sphere Theater as they faced it. There was a large sign above the front door, but at the moment it was covered with a banner than merely read “Opening Soon”.

Paine pulled on the handle and Shinra slipped under her arm and inside. The others nearly tripped over him as they followed, finding him standing stock still just inside the door.

“Shinra, can you move out of the--” Rikku began, and then stopped, glancing at the expressions on her companions’ faces. Paine and Buddy too were just standing, their eyes wide, heads slowly swiveling to take in the room before them. At last she turned her own head to follow their gaze.

The room before them was a sphere hunter’s paradise. Display cases made of cut crystal were placed with spartan elegance about the room’s interior. The far wall was lined with projectors canvassing the screens above them with moving images of blitzball games, family picnics, news reports, even Yuna’s Thunder Plains concert. Still-frame blow-ups hung suspended from the ceiling, along with arrowed signs that read “Restrooms” and “Gift Shop”.

There were spheres everywhere: within the cases, in little shelves on the walls, beneath crystal tiles laid into the floor.

Leblanc’s voice greeted them from a door at the side of the vast chamber. “Welcome, Gullwings, to Leblanc’s Sphere Museum!”

“Catchy name,” Paine replied, but she was so absorbed in taking in the surroundings her sarcasm sounded remarkably flat.

The sphere hunter approached them as Logos and Ormi waddled in from a side room manhandling yet another display case. “I picked it myself,” Leblanc answered.

As her fellows moved into the room to browse the displays, Rikku marveled at their former rival. “Wow, Leblanc,” she said, “I didn’t realize you had found so many spheres!”

“Well,” Leblanc raised her hands, “as much as I’d love to claim that honor, it isn’t true. I realized there was a better way to get these beauties than traipsing around Spira hanging off mountains for them.”

“The boss is a genius!” Ormi chimed in.

“Especially when it means less work for us,” Logos smiled.

The stouter henchman grunted. “Speak for yourself; I’m holding up most of the case here.”

“Complain, complain,” Logos rolled his eyes. “If you weren’t so short--”

“If you would bend down a little more!”

“Please, my back is already in a delicate way from putting all this together--”

Quiet!” their leader thundered. “We have guests.”

“Yes boss,” the two answered in unison, slouching their way back to work.

The buxom blonde huffed and shook her head, then turned back to Rikku.

“How did you get them?” the Al Bhed asked.

Leblanc smiled. “I bought them.”

“Well that’s... original,” Paine said, examining a sphere projector in the back.

“I have an agent in Guadosalam offering fair value for them.”

“Tromell?” Rikku puzzled.

Leblanc waved that off. “Yevon, no. The innkeeper.”

“You mean the guy who paid us 100,000 gil for his own information?” Shinra piped up.

“He’s not very smart,” the Syndicate leader shrugged, “but once he was trained in proper sphere appraisal he does very well.”

Buddy looked over from where he stood at a “Touch me!” display that allowed one to examine a genuine sphere up close. “So you buy other hunters’ spheres, and you’re gonna let the public see them all. That’s pretty magnanimous.”

Leblanc smiled. “For a -- uhm, nominal -- door fee.”

“We’re gonna be rich!” Ormi chimed in. “Wa-ha-ha-ha!”

“It’s not evil, you numbskull,” his boss chided. “It’s a legitimate business.” She smiled at Rikku sweetly. “And a service to the public.”

Paine shook her head. “You might get rich, as well as you’ve put this place together.”

“Why thank you, Paine,” Leblanc responded. “Actually we had help. Both the Youth League and the Machine Faction pitched in to help build it. And I’m close to a deal with your former compatriot over at New Yevon to display a number of their spheres.”

Rikku drew her wide-eyed gaze back to the other blonde. “This is really great, Leblanc. I’m glad you invited us to see it before you opened.”

“Actually,” she shrugged, “I called you because I need a favor from tall, gray and silent over there.”

The warrior swiveled a glance their way, raising a single eyebrow in response.

“I’m creating a wing to show the history of sphere recording,” Leblanc answered the gaze, “and since you were a professional recorder back before the Calm I was hoping you could help me design it.”

Rikku did a little half-dance step. “That’s a great idea!”

Paine looked at her. “It is?”

“Of course it is!” the blonde answered. “You’ve been looking for something to do.”

The warrior sighed. “I have.” This wasn’t what she had in mind.

“It should only take a week or two,” Leblanc said. “We don’t want to hold up the opening, of course. I’m just looking for simple and tasteful.”

“Like your clothes,” Paine said.

“Exactly,” the buxom blonde answered. “Shall I show you the space I have in mind?”

Paine swallowed. “Right now?”

“No time like the present!” Leblanc took her arm, and began to lead her away.

The brunette sent a pleading glance over her shoulder at Rikku, who simply smiled and gave her a thumbs up.

“Give them a tour, boys,” Leblanc called to her henchmen. “Will you?”

“Yes boss,” they intoned together.

As the two women walked away, Buddy moved back to Rikku and leaned in close. “So what do you think? Sizing up the competition on Noojie-Woojie?”

“Totally,” Rikku smiled.

*   *   *   *   *

It was mid-morning of the following day when Rikku, standing in the loft and watching clouds drift by like whispers of thought in her head, felt the ship suddenly bank beneath her. As she shifted her feet to maintain balance, the room’s speaker crackled to life.

“Rikku, come to the bridge!” came Brother’s tense voice. “It’s Father!”

She leapt from the balcony to the cabin floor, bypassing the stairs, and was through the door that lead to the elevator before the pneumatic winch had even gotten it completely open. She leapt again from the bridge’s balcony entrance to the main floor, scarf streaming behind her, boot soles skidding across the corrugated metal.

Buddy swiveled in his seat to face her. “We caught a distress call from the Fahrenheit. Seems she was finishing up a trip in Zanarkand and got caught in a monster storm over Mount Gagazet. The engines failed and she crashed, but the signal was so weak we couldn’t catch how badly she was damaged.”

Rikku darted to Shinra’s station and hovered there, feet shifting nervously. “Can you get a message to them, let them know we’re on our way?”

The boy’s gloved hands were dancing across his knobs and dials like a pianist’s. “I’m trying to cut through the interference, but it’s not easy.”

“Then call Kimahri, tell him to expect us,” she said. “Maybe they can get word to Pops.”

She marched up into the forward bubble, and turned to look at Brother. “How long?”

“Couple of hours,” he said, not sparing her a glance, droplets of sweat on his brow.

“Fly faster,” Rikku told him.

“I’m trying,” Brother answered.

She dropped into her own chair, where her meters monitored the engines and other mechanical ship functions. Brother was keeping the engines flirting with red line already. She tapped a couple of buttons, twiddled a knob or two, shutting down some less critical systems and leaving more power for speed. Brother met her eyes as he felt the change, and she nodded at him. He took a deep breath and accelerated further, the wind howling ferociously past the glass before and around them.

There was nothing to do now but wait.

*   *   *   *   *

Rikku was bundled in her warmest clothes. She kneeled down, digging under her bed to pull out a case there. Opening it, she sorted through her private collection of tools, the ones she didn’t share with Brother or Buddy. The mythril adjustable spanner. The adamantite socket set. The good stuff, she smiled to herself. Sitting back on her heels, she scoured her mind for anything she might need to help Pops or fix the Fahrenheit. That ship had served them well against Sin, but it had been found underwater, and was now regularly abused by Gippal and the Machine Faction traipsing all over the desert with it, getting sand in all its vitals.

Rikku blinked. Like the Celsius, she was the one who got that ship going too. She and Tidus. The first time they’d met.

Sound from below the loft brought her out of her reverie. She heard Barkeep talking with Brother in urgent tones. Standing, securing the tools in a large waist pouch, Rikku drifted down the stairs, eyeing with a frown the bar piled high with wrapped food and bottled drink, along with a healthy couple of stacks of blankets. Brother was filling a pair of large duffles as Barkeep arranged things for him.

“I can’t carry all that stuff,” Rikku said.

“I am going with you!” Brother answered, looking over at her.

“You don’t have to,” Rikku told him, “I’ve been over this mountain plenty of times.” But he held up a hand.

“I am a better pilot than whoever is working for Father now. It is no help for you to fix the Fahrenheit’s engines if some fool is just going to fly it into Mount Gagazet.”

The little thief sighed. As much as she didn’t want to have to look after him on the dangerous trek, she did have to admit to two things: one, the things he and Barkeep were packing could prove invaluable, and two, regardless of the differences and arguments between Brother and Cid, they were the same on one particular thing -- unfathomable stubbornness. Nothing short of violence would keep Brother from coming. And there just wasn’t time to administer a decent amount of violence to her brother and still make it to the Fahrenheit before her crew froze to death. So Rikku shook her head and headed for the cabin door, grabbing a duffle on the way. “Let’s go then,” she told him as she went by, leaving Brother madly stuffing the other sack and trying to drag it after her at the same time.

Buddy was already settling the Celsius as gently as he could (Rikku did have to admit that Brother was a good pilot, at least by comparison) at the base of Mt. Gagazet as the lift dropped into the bay at the ship’s belly. The two headed down the stairs past the engines and Rikku cinched up her collar with one hand as she worked the bay door controls with the other. A blast of frigid mountain air hit them both as the door descended. From the corner of her eye she could see Brother shiver and step back involuntarily, but she said nothing as she bent to grab the duffle then walked down the ramp and onto the snow-washed path that led up to the Ronso commons beyond the pillars. To his credit, Brother said nothing as he followed.

The comm-sphere at Rikku’s waist crackled. “Keep in touch,” Buddy said, as he lifted the ship back up, heading for a safe distance beyond the inclement weather.

“Stay available,” she answered.

“Will do,” the navigator replied, then clicked off.

Rikku found her mood as gray as the skies as they climbed the gentle slope, as far away from her cheerful nature as Gagazet was from Bikanel. The clearing was bustling as the two entered, but she spotted the familiar form of her old friend Kimahri instantly, even amongst the throng. He wasn’t an overpowering presence, like the former Ronso elder Maester Kelk (who had frankly scared Rikku a bit), but instead drew the eyes of others through a kind of silent grace. He saw the two Al Bhed arrive and turned his head slightly to issue a quiet command to the woman Rikku always saw by his side lately. Rikku realized, a little startled, that she didn’t even know the woman’s name. Kimahri had a companion and Rikku the Gossip didn’t know a thing about her. The woman left to do the elder’s bidding and he himself approached her across the snow, hard packed and slick beneath the fresh layer of flakes that fluttered down around them all.

“It good to see you Rikku,” he greeted her. “And also Brother.”

“Hey Kimahri,” she returned. “Sorry for the trouble.”

“No trouble,” he shook his head. “Rikku help Ronso, so Ronso help Al Bhed.”

“Is there any word?” she asked.

“Shinra’s comm-spheres not work so well in storm,” Kimahri answered.

She looked up towards the peak, shrouded in heavy clouds and dim from the thick blowing snow. “Or there’s no one that can call you.”

A large blue hand rested upon her shoulder. “Mountain is good to those who respect it. Rikku’s father one of those.”

“Thanks, Kimahri,” Rikku said, her voice small and fragile.

The Ronso woman approached the elder. “All is ready.”

Kimahri nodded. He gestured towards the path that led up the mountain and half a dozen Ronso laden with supplies fell in behind them.

The little thief raised an eyebrow at him. He touched a hand to his broad chest. “If Rikku climb sacred mountain, Kimahri climb with her.”

She could almost feel Brother smile at her, but ignored it. She knew better than to argue with this offer.

*   *   *   *   *

The benefit of the company was that it discouraged fiends from attacking. That the Ronso were so familiar with the terrain also helped them make steady progress despite the weather, which worsened with altitude. It would have been much harder, and certainly much slower, had it only been herself and Brother. Also Kimahri, clearly sensing Rikku’s almost desperate case of nerves, had foregone his usual taciturn nature to keep her engaged in pleasantly distracting conversation.

“Lian and Ayde spend summer with Youth League in Kilika. Help build new road from town to temple.”

Rikku nodded. “It certainly needed one. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten lost in those woods. They’re like a maze!”

“Kimahri remember too, from Pilgrimage,” the Ronso responded.

She looked away, thoughtful. “I know I didn’t join you guys until the Moonflow, but I still remember every step like it was yesterday.”

“That because Rikku short, take many more steps,” the Elder said.

Rikku blinked at him, then a broad grin spread across her face. “Kimahri, was that a joke? ‘Cause it was a good one!” She rolled her eyes, feigning hurt. “Even if it did come at my expense.”

“Rikku tough,” his eyes shifted to her and away, slyly, “can take it.”

She sighed heavily. “Kimahri joking, what’s Spira coming to?”

He looked at her. “Kimahri joke before.”

“Not much,” she pursed her lips at him.

He lifted his head. “More than Auron, less than Wakka. Just enough.”

She smiled again. “I like it. When did you start this whole joking thing? Certainly not as ‘Master of the Sacred Mountain’,” she teased.

“Learn from Tidus,” he nodded. “Good teacher.”

The Ronso Elder was a good observer of humans. Living among them, caring for Yuna all those years, had made him quite attuned to their moods, their fears and needs, and, amongst all their boasting and yelling and jabbering, to the things they didn’t say. So he was instantly aware of Rikku’s tiny flinch and sudden closing, the slight flush to her cheeks visible even through the redness the chill air brought to her skin, at the mention of Tidus’ name.

The little Al Bhed cinched her collar again as the knifing wind hit her with a cascade of flakes, icy needles on her skin where they touched her face and snuck through her clothes. Kimahri adjusted his stride, allowing his broad shoulders to shield her. “Now Yuna begins new Pilgrimage in Bevelle.”

Rikku looked at him sidelong.

He shrugged. “Ronso not hide on Gagazet. Kimahri hears from all of Spira.”

“Especially about Yuna.”

“Yes.”

She smiled. “Once a Guardian, always a Guardian.”

“Yes.” He didn’t smile, but there was a sparkle to his eyes.

After a few more trudging steps through the now drifting snow, Rikku sighed. “I miss her, Kimahri.”

The big Ronso laid a heavy paw on her shoulder. “Kimahri left guarding Yuna to Rikku. Now Rikku leaves to someone else: Praetor of New Yevon.”

“I know she’ll be okay,” she watched her booted feet.

He stopped, which forced her to do the same and look at him. “Kimahri know too. But Kimahri guards Ronso and sacred mountain. Now Rikku needs someone new to guard.”

She averted her gaze once more. “I wish I had someone.”

“Rikku will find,” his voice was serene, solid. “Rikku searching now.”

“I may be good at guarding, but I stink at searching. We never found Tidus for Yuna.” Again, an almost inaudible break in her voice at the blitzballer’s name.

A tiny shrug. “Maybe Yuna not looking for Tidus. Maybe Yuna looking for Praetor Baralai and not know it.”

She cocked her head at him, considering. Then her face brightened. “Hey, maybe you’re right. I never thought of it that way.”

They resumed their ascent, and Kimahri noted her steps, despite the heavy snow, seemed lighter now.

To himself, he added, a small grin on his lips. “Maybe Rikku looking for Tidus.”

The storm blew on.

*   *   *   *   *

As the party moved through the caves high up the mountain, Rikku found herself shivering at the eerie wailing that the wind made through the vast hollow chambers of rock. Near the far exit, their comm-spheres, no longer blocked by the dense rock of Gagazet, picked up the signals from the Fahrenheit. Their conditions were bad, but not desperate. Rikku decided they could wait an hour or two, hoping for the storm to die down a bit, rather than risk the worst of it crossing the peak.

It was not an easy decision, and Brother and Kimahri found her impossible to talk to; she couldn’t help herself but stand at the cave’s exit, and watch the accumulating snow. Finally Kimahri eased Brother back to the small gathering of other Ronso farther in, assuring the Al Bhed that his sister simply needed to be alone for a while, and was not likely to leave without them.

The snow blew in sideways curtains, swirling in the space just outside the exit in an almost hypnotic pattern from which Rikku couldn’t turn away. Her thoughts swirled too, in a mimicry of the view before her eyes. Somehow she didn’t start when she heard the light and gentle voice beside her.

“It’s beautiful in a way,” he said, his eyes shadowed from her, as before, by the brim of his hat.

“Like a sandstorm outside your tent,” she answered. “Only colder.”

“But just as frustrating,” he observed, glancing up at her.

“Tell me about it.” Rikku looked around. “Anyone else coming?” she asked.

The Fayth grinned. “Things are a little more difficult when you’re awake.”

The little thief felt her stomach twist. “He wasn’t real, was he?”

“He was real to you,” the diminutive form shrugged.

She lowered her head. “But it wasn’t really him. It was just... my thinking of him. My image.”

He paused before answering. “He wouldn’t remember the conversation, no,” he admitted finally.

Rikku’s voice was very small. “I miss him.”

“Is that the wish of your heart?”

Her eyes went very wide. “Oh, gosh! Wouldn’t that spook the chocobos!”

The Fayth raised an eyebrow at her. “Would it?”

She waved her arms. “And I explain that to Yuna how? ‘Oh, hey Yuna, yeah, I know that we looked for Tidus for a year all around Spira and then you decided to move on with your life even though he was your great love but I asked the Fayth to bring him back for me because he was a really good friend of mine and I missed him and I know that might mess up your relationship with Baralai but hey this is about me not how you feel and how he feels and I really just needed someone to talk to so I thought what the heck and made a wish.’” She leaned down to look in his eyes. “Think that would go over well?”

“Not if you put it like that,” he answered flatly. “But are you sure that’s how it goes?”

The Al Bhed looked back out at the swirling snow. “How else could it go?”

“Many ways,” he shrugged.

“None good.”

He paused a moment before he spoke again. “Have you examined your heart?”

“Arghhhhhh!” she practically yelled, fists to her temples. “Why does everyone keep pressuring me?!!”

The youth stepped between Rikku and the cave entrance. Though his height should have made it impossible, to Rikku it seemed he blocked the entire view. “It would seem to me that the pressure you speak of is applied by you. Have you not traveled about Spira, lending your aid?”

She was tentative. “Yes...”

“And whose choice was this?”

“I was asked--”

“Indeed,” he cut her off. “Asked for help. You choose when to provide it, and when not.”

Rikku shook her head. “But if I don’t help people, maybe they don’t get help!”

“So you follow your heart.”

“Yeah! Of course I do.”

“Your father said he would have you consider following in his footsteps someday.”

She hung her head. “Be the leader of the Al Bhed.”

The Fayth cocked his head. “Are you not already a leader of the Al Bhed?”

Rikku held her arms akimbo. “A leader, not the leader.”

“Is it such a difference, through the lens of many years?” he shrugged.

“I don’t know...” she sighed.

“What does your heart tell you?”

“Maybe,” she answered, her voice small. “It tells me maybe, maybe Pops is right, maybe I should be the one to do it.”

His lips twitched to a grin. “So you listen to your heart then?”

She narrowed her eyes at him and growled.

“There are many possibilities, Princess of the Al Bhed,” the Fayth said to her. “Many futures, many feelings to consider, many risks to take in this life.”

He backed away from her, through the cave entrance and into the swirling winds and snow. His voice was fading amidst the gale, and Rikku had to pursue him to hear his words.

“You are a risk taker,” he said. “It has been your course through Spira. You once told him,” and she knew of what ‘him’ the Fayth spoke, “in so many words, that life is short. That you must seize what it offers you.”

She stepped out of the cave and the storm was subsiding, the snow lessening, the breeze falling away. As she remembered him doing before, the Fayth himself was vanishing as well.

“There are many paths, Rikku,” the Fayth said. “But inside you, only one heart. Only one choice.”

He faded out of view. The blizzard, suddenly broken, drifted away on heavy clouds to free the sun into a blue sky.

She found herself looking at Zanarkand.

*   *   *   *   *

“It’s g-good to see my li-little girl,” Cid had stammered through his shivers as Kimahri and another Ronso forced open a door to the Fahrenheit. The lack of power from the failed engines had trapped it closed against the cold-weakened passengers.

Rikku had thrown a blanket about her father’s shoulders and wrapped it and herself around him. “You need a proper engineer on this bucket of bolts.”

“Yeah, well my best one is fl-flying around Spira on some long joy ride,” he had answered, before shooing her off to the engine room and grabbing some of the supplies the party had brought and helping attend to the rest of the crew.

It only took about twenty minutes for her to get the power plant running again and soon heat was pumping through the corridors once more. She assured the ship’s engineer that given the sudden storm he had done his best and wasn’t to blame. Brother was considerably less tactful with the pilot as he lifted the vessel, much larger than their own Celsius, off the mountain and down towards the ruined city, where they’d be out of the elements and have an easier time making repairs.

Other than monkeys repeatedly stealing their tools, of course.

As night fell they set a bonfire in a familiar spot across from the ruins, and Cid regaled them with the harrowing story of the storm’s sudden appearance, the dangerous descent, and his own brave leadership that kept everyone alive. For once, Brother didn’t even interrupt to bring the old man down to earth. Rikku ate the fine Ronso cuisine in silence and then leaned sleepily against Kimahri’s soft blue bulk while she listened.

After a while her eyes, half-closed, fixed on the quietly dancing pyreflies over the water. They soared and swam in the air, and watching them, Rikku felt herself stand and drift around the fire, her eyes only leaving the sight to find purchase for her feet as she climbed the low hill. As she reached the top, dozens of the luminescent spirits swept around her tiny form, and she could swear she felt a feathery touch, like two arms wrapping about her. She shut her eyes and locked the sensation inside herself like a memory.

It was the only thing that kept her heart from breaking.

Unsent: Chapter 3