Coming Home

 
 

Rikku spent her mornings with some of the best machina researchers in the Machine Faction, going over plans and drawings, wiring diagrams and ventilation systems. Then she spent her afternoons with the foremen telling her why none of the plans she’d given them would ever work. It wasn’t long before each group found that the bubbly and sweet Al Bhed princess knew a lot more about construction than they suspected, and that talking down to her was

not a good approach. Rebuilding Home was essentially her project. It may have been Cid’s idea, and he certainly scared them enough when he wandered through the Bikanel construction site, but it became clear through all the planning that Rikku was the boss, and she was definitely her father’s daughter.

Sitting in her office in the small temporary home she shared with Brother and Shinra at the edge of the site, Rikku looked over the blueprints for the residence area for the ten thousandth time, wondering for about the same-numbered time whether they were building it big enough. It was designed to be almost infinitely expandable, but having seen the latest recruitment reports detailing Al Bhed who’d committed to coming back to Home, she had to marvel at — and be worried by — their success. She shook her head, then closed her eyes and turned her face to the fan on her desk. They’d not built air conditioning into the temporary housing, preferring to save the resources for the real build, so the fan was merely blowing the hot desert air around the room. But it was better than nothing.

She opened her eyes once more at a beeping from somewhere on the surface of her desk. Rikku frowned, and began shuffling the oversized diagrams around.

“Hang on!” she said aloud. “I’m looking for you!”

She started patting the papers and finally located a hard lump. Then she resumed digging, until she’d uncovered the source: her commsphere. She hit the button to connect, and saw Paine’s face fade into view.

“What took you so long?” her friend asked. “Was I buried in blueprints again?”

Rikku sighed. “Always.”

“Then let me offer you a break,” Paine replied. “Can you come to the Museum today? I’ve found something I think you should see.”

The little thief rested her elbow on the desk, then propped her chin atop her fist, eyes looking far off as she thought. “Well,” she said, “depends on where the airships are. If one is available I can try to reschedule my afternoon meetings and probably get to Luca by lunchtime.”

“That’d be great. I—”

“Wait,” Rikku suddenly held up a hand, “hang on.” She turned her head. “Shinra!!”

The small voice floated in from beyond her office door. “Yes?”

“Do you have those revisions done on the elevator plans? They’re gonna need those this afternoon.”

“Just about finished.”

“Can you take them to Rostuu yourself?” she called. “I’m gonna try to go to Luca today.”

There was a pause. “I’m just a kid.”

Rikku rolled her eyes. “Get over it!”

She could almost hear him sigh from here, two rooms over. “Okay, I’ll bring them to him.”

“Thanks!” She turned back to the commsphere. “Sorry, what were you saying?”

Paine raised an eyebrow. “Well, I was going to tell you a little about what I found, but I think I’ll save it ’til you get here.”

The Al Bhed frowned. “That’s not fair!”

“No, I think you have enough on your mind just getting untangled there to visit. I don’t want to make it worse.”

They locked eyes through the commsphere for a moment. “Poopeyhead,” Rikku said finally.

“Sticks and stones,” Paine replied. “The café near the monument?”

“Okay.”

“See you at lunch.”

“I’ll call if I can’t make it,” Rikku added.

“Don’t call, just make it.”

“This better be good.”

“You’ll see,” Paine answered, and clicked off.

The Al Bhed sat idly for a moment, the constantly spinning wheels of her mind clawing in all directions until she got them back on track.

“Shinra!!!” she called again.

This time she was sure she could hear the sigh from across the small house. “Yes, ma’am?” he answered again, and Rikku smiled.

*   *   *   *   *

Rikku lay on her old bunk in the cabin, staring up at the blue sky as clouds drifted through it and by the window above her. The engines were running hot, she could tell; she was gonna have to get on Brother again about it. She just didn’t have time to keep the Celsius in top shape with all the build work, and Brother had sworn to her that he could handle it. In fact, she thought he’d hired a couple of mechanics from the Machine Faction to work in the engine room, since the airship was getting so much work these days doing materials transport for the build. She made a mental note to talk to them before they reached Luca.

Unfamiliar voices from below reached her ears, indistinct and undecipherable. The airship had been in Bikanel when she’d checked this morning, and scheduled to head to Djose. She’d pulled rank to get a ride to Luca, but that had meant she’d be dropped off and would probably have to stay the night with Paine while the Celsius kept on to the former temple. It also meant that the counter in the cabin below her was lined with both treasure hunters returning from digs in Sanubia and construction workers going home to their families, as well as engineers heading back to the workshops at Machine Faction headquarters. It was a far cry from how empty the ship had seemed mere months ago, when Rikku was spending time back in the Via Infinito. But as noble as the reason for the crowd, she wasn’t sure which she liked less: an empty Celsius, or one filled with strangers.

She sat up and turned herself around on the bed so that she could look out the window. They were flying south of the direct line from Bikanel to Luca in order to avoid a storm. Rikku had a good view of the tall anvil shapes of the thunderheads from here, dark and low and lashing the sea into froth with wind and rain a ways to port. That meant Kilika Island was out in front of them, and to the starboard side of the Celsius would be… was that right?

Planting her feet on the floor, Rikku pulled open the drawer of the nightstand by her bed, and fished out the pair of binoculars she kept there. She stood and scurried down the stairway, past the curious glances of the partying passengers — with a lone wave from Darling behind the bar — and out the hallway to the elevator. The edge of the storm would make the deck too dangerous, so she punched the button for the bridge.

Half a dozen alien faces occupied the room as she entered it, most turning her way as the door parted before her. Rikku had almost gotten used to the recognition in their eyes. It was no longer one that meant “Cid’s daughter”, or “Yuna’s guardian”, nor even “Gullwing”, but fell somewhere in the neighborhood of “boss” and “Princess”. She still wasn’t sure she’d ever like that look, but at least it wasn’t “brat who diverted our airship”.

Well, there was one look that was more along the lines of “hot Al Bhed girl I’d like to do unmentionable things with”. That was from Gippal, sitting at Shinra’s old console.

“Hey, Cid’s girl,” the Faction leader said over his shoulder as she came down the stairs.

“What’s up, Gippal?” she replied. “I thought you’d be down with everyone in the cabin. Drinking or something.”

He feigned annoyance. “Is that all you think of me, Rikku?”

She shrugged. “Pretty much.”

“I’m hurt.”

“You’ll get over it.”

Gippal cocked his head, then nodded. “Yeah, I will. Hey,” he held up a hand, and she paused on her path to the flight bubble. “Got a minute?”

“Sure.”

The Faction leader turned the chair from his console and gestured at one of the other men on the bridge. “That’s Kalcheon, he’s one of our top engineers.”

Rikku held in a scowl. “We’ve met,” she said, then gave the tall goggled man a curt nod, which he returned. He was a smart engineer, but also one of the biggest pains in Rikku’s behind on the build.

Gippal flicked his eyes back and forth between the two, then punched a couple of keys on Shinra’s console, and a sphere image was projected of a portion of the construction diagrams of Home. “He’s a little worried about this new wing that Cid has planned here,” he pointed to one side of the image. “He’s pointed out some structural issues that I think could be of concern.”

The little thief took a deep breath. “As I’ve explained to Kalcheon before,” she said steadily, “this wing is balanced on the other side of Home by the agricultural areas.”

“It’s the metal strain he’s worried about—”

“Which is why the struts here,” Rikku pointed to the projection, “and here are attached to the granite bedrock. As to the distributed force, Kalcheon needs to spend some more time in the Bevelle Underground studying things bigger than this that have been working continuously for over a thousand years before he spouts off. Kalcheon is a smart guy, Gippal, but he needs to do his homework better.”

Gippal raised the brow over his one good eye at her, pondering.

“By the way,” she added. “This wing is essentially a tourist center and housing for non-Al Bhed; something you should be happy about, Mr. Machine Faction Leader. This,” she pointed to the image once more, “is Cid bending over backwards to include outsiders in Al Bhed affairs. The very people he rightfully protected us from for years. We are not losing this area.” She noticed his look then. “What?” she asked.

“I was just wondering if I should call you ‘Cid’s girl’ less, or more,” he grinned.

Rikku snorted. “Yeah, I’ve been getting that a lot.”

Gippal shrugged. “Could be worse.”

She cocked her head. “You know? I honestly don’t mind.” With a smile she turned and continued forward on the bridge.

As she proceeded down the short catwalk to the engineer’s chair, Rikku lifted the binoculars still in her hand and poised them over her nose, peering out towards starboard. Behind her, Brother turned his head. “What are you looking for?”

“I was just wondering something…” she said as she scanned the open water. “Isn’t this about where we found the Fahrenheit? I mean, out that way?”

Brother stretched up in his chair, looking around her. “I think so. Not too far from Baaj Temple. I think Father wants to send another salvage crew out there soon.”

Baaj Temple. A salvage ship. It was exactly what she’d been thinking about up in the cabin.

About him.

How long had it been now, she wondered? It was two years after the Eternal Calm began when Yunie had joined the Gullwings to look for him. Nearly a year later, they’d fought Vegnagun. And it wasn’t too long after that when the High Summoner had started dating the Praetor of New Yevon. Six months later she moved to the temple, and now they were getting married in just a couple of months. And so much else had happened, too! Paine had left the Gullwings for the Sphere Museum, where she was cataloging all the data they’d gathered in those months of the Bevelle Project. Now they were rebuilding Home…

As she added it all up, it came to nearly five years. Could it have really been that long since she’d seen him? Five years since he’d gone— unsent?

Was this her life now? Just as Pops had said it would be… rebuilding Home, running all the plans, getting all the respectful looks from the Al Bhed, being in charge of things… being Cid’s successor in waiting?

And just as she’d hoped it would never be and feared it would all the same, it was all so busy, this life… and oh so lonely.

She searched still the surface of the waters beyond the window, seeing nothing, and fighting through the blur that the tears brought.

*   *   *   *   *

The café was as crowded as she’d seen it, as Rikku waited for her eyes to adjust from the bright town square outside to the dimness within. The Ronso Fangs — this year’s Cinderella team — were blitzing against the hometown Luca Goers, and the café was full of those who couldn’t get tickets. The little thief pushed through the patrons until she finally saw Paine’s waving hand from a booth on the left near the back. Her usual cup of kirman coffee sat steaming in front of the warrior as Rikku slid onto the bench across from her.

“So,” Rikku said with a smile, “I bet you just love blitz season here, you people-person you.”

“Ha, ha,” Paine said dryly back. “I’ve gotten used to it, actually.”

“Really?”

“I’ve only killed three tourists this week.”

The little Al Bhed giggled. “That’s ’cause you keep yourself locked in the museum back room, I bet. Else it’d be more.”

Paine cocked her head with a frown. “Why are you here bothering me again?”

“You invited me!” Rikku smiled.

“Oh yeah.”

A waitress paused by the booth and placed a plate of Sweet Flan in front of Rikku, who looked puzzled by the action.

“I ordered for you,” Paine shrugged, and nodded at the waitress before she moved off. “It’s not as good as Barkeep’s, but it’s the best in Luca.”

“Aw, that was nice of you!” Rikku grinned at her friend. “I don’t get much of this at the site, that’s for sure.”

Paine smiled slightly. “Dig in,” she said.

The blonde tapped the plate, making the confection jiggle before she dipped her spoon in and took a bite. “Are you trying to butter me up?” she said around a mouthful.

“Get you on a sugar high for the dash across the city.”

“How is life at the Museum?” Rikku asked.

“Dusty,” Paine replied.

Rikku frowned. “Dusty like my life?”

“No, dusty as in I constantly have these crotchety old scholars from Bevelle traipsing through my office, messing with my collections. They all smell funny.”

The blonde giggled once more. “That’s better than tourists!”

Paine raised an eyebrow. “Define ‘better’.”

“More entertaining to me.”

“Well,” the warrior shrugged, “you may get to witness it. The parade seems constant.”

“You haven’t killed any of them, have you?” Rikku smiled.

“I have a feeling that half of them are unsent as it is.”

Rikku scooped another mouthful. Her eyes had drifted to the nearest sphere monitors. “I think it’s cool that the Fangs are back and doing so well, don’t you?”

Paine raised an eyebrow. “Really? Blitz talk?”

“What?” Rikku asked, spoon still in her mouth.

“It’s just… you’re showing remarkable restraint.”

The Al Bhed set down the utensil deliberately. “I just figure there’s no use trying to push you, is all.”

Paine smiled. “You’re learning.”

Rikku shrugged in response. “I’m learning lots of things these days.”

A hand reached to cover the little thief’s. “I suppose you are.”

“And I really do think it’s cool about the Fangs. I bet Kimahri is proud. Stoic, but proud.”

“True,” Paine answered.

“But next year is the Psyches’ year!” Rikku exclaimed proudly, and Paine couldn’t help but laugh.

*   *   *   *   *

“It looks ridiculous!” Leblanc fumed, hands gesturing at the banner draping from the ceiling between Logos and Ormi. Reflecting their disparate heights as they’d affixed it, the sign, proclaiming “The Bevelle Project — Grand Opening Soon”, was hopelessly crooked. “Don’t you have a stool to stand on, you numbskull?” she eyed the shorter, rounder minion.

“He broke it,” Logos volunteered, faint smile on his lips.

Ormi shot his partner a venomous look.

“Paine!” Leblanc bellowed. The nearest of the dozen or so closest Museum patrons turned startled looks on its proprietor.

“Nice sign,” Rikku said sweetly, and Leblanc and her helpers all swiveled their eyes to where she stood just inside the door, beside her gray-haired former teammate.

“Hello Rikku!” Leblanc flashed her slightly mocking smile. “I didn’t hear you come in. Oh, there you are, Paine. Can you help these idiots with the banner?”

“Uhm, why can’t you help, Leblanc? You’re pretty tall,” Rikku furrowed her brow at the blonde.

“Why then, who would be able to judge how it looks, dear?” Leblanc said, condescension only thinly coating her words. She spread her arms with the question, affording a generous view of her ample figure. Her outfit spoke volumes about its wearer: total self-confidence — or was it arrogance? — to the point of folly. How did she ever fight in that getup?

“Me?” Paine answered Leblanc’s question to Rikku sotto voce as she moved to replace Ormi in getting the banner straightened. The Al Bhed just grinned to herself.

“So how soon is ‘soon’?” Rikku asked, nodding to the sign.

“A week and a half,” Leblanc answered.

“Are all the spheres from Via Infinito ready?” the thief frowned. “I thought there were still a bunch of scholars coming and going, classifying things.”

“There are,” Leblanc said, eyes rolling. “But we don’t need to have everything ready to get started. Must get the publicity going, and get people in here. Wouldn’t want to run into the season’s other big event.”

Yuna’s wedding. It must kill Leblanc to think the Gullwings could still overshadow her, even after all this time, Rikku thought. “You have SphereNet lined up for the opening?”

“Of course, darling,” the blonde said, her face glowing at the thought. “It’s going to be a fantastic party!”

Ormi, who had waddled over to Rikku’s side as Paine had taken his place, nudged her then rubbed his fingers and thumb together. ‘Fortune’, he mouthed to her. She smiled.

“So what brings you here, Rikku?” Leblanc asked. “I thought you were spending all your days back in the desert.”

The Al Bhed sighed. “Mostly. But Paine had something to show me in the recovered spheres.”

“Oh,” Leblanc answered, starting to lose interest, “that’s fascinating. Lots of history we’re uncovering.” She returned her gaze to where Paine and Logos were readjusting the sign. “Much better!” she said. “A little lower, Logos, or we’ll have to get a Ronso to help you hang it.”

“Yes, ma’am,” the minion acknowledged.

The adjusting of the banner went on for quite a while. At Paine’s suggestion, Rikku headed into her office near the back of the museum. Ormi brought her some tea, and she grumbled about having come all the way to Luca just to be stood up.

“The boss will let her go in just a few minutes, I think,” the round man said to her, patting her hand where it had been drumming its fingers impatiently on Paine’s desk.

“She’s keeping her on purpose,” Rikku sighed, frustrated.

“Oh, definitely,” Ormi agreed, to the Al Bhed’s surprise. She hadn’t actually meant it, but had merely been venting frustration. “Trying to show you who’s in charge.”

Rikku puzzled at him. “But it’s not a competition anymore. We’ve all got different lives now.”

Ormi shrugged. “It’s always gonna be a competition with you Gullwings, Rikku, and Leblanc is taking her victories where she can find them. Don’t pay it any mind.”

After he left, the Al Bhed sipped her tea — a spicy blend from Guadosalam — and continued brooding. Before she’d made it halfway through her cup she was out of her famously short patience, and decided to head back to the museum floor and do some exploring while she waited.

The museum had been expanded several times since it first opened, and the main floor nearest the entrance was now vast, and accompanied by side chambers which held special displays whose content changed every few weeks. Two of the biggest side chambers, themselves connected by an interior door, were currently roped off as the Via Infinito collections were being prepared for their debut. Just recently opened was a showing of “The History of Sphere Creation”, and with a frown across the main hall towards a still-bobbing banner, Rikku ducked inside.

The antechamber had a central aisle and was lined on two sides with displays, several to a side with a brass railing separating the exhibits from the viewing patrons, with panels before each that allowed museum visitors to push a button or pull a lever to activate an animation or video. At the moment Rikku was the room’s lone visitor. The displays were bright and vibrant, but not gaudy, and Rikku wondered anew at the dichotomy of Leblanc’s personal and professional tastes.

The little thief idly walked the perimeter of the room, reading and watching the informational tiles and videos, her small hand trailing along the brass rail in-between exhibits. Several displays on pyreflies were followed by an image that caught her attention more fully: the great tree overhanging the pool deep inside the Macalania woods. She cocked her head, then searched the elevated panel just beyond the rail for a button. She pressed it. A video came to life, narrated by what sounded like a very bored Logos.

“Here,” it said, “is a source of many of the spheres you will find here in the Sphere Museum. Water from this sacred pond, long hidden within the Macalania forest, becomes infused with pyreflies, and solidifies in a process still not completely understood, to a hard, transparent substance which can hold and redisplay moving images.” The video panned around the pool, its beauty breathtaking in the moonlight. “This, and other locations like it, are often called ‘the place where memories are made’. Though Luca’s famous Sphere Theater uses that phrase as its slogan, it more properly describes ancient places like this Macalania pool.”

Rikku felt a tickle in her head. The thread of something important she should remember, but just couldn’t quite grasp. She moved on through the exhibit, but was continually distracted by the idea that she was forgetting something significant. She shook herself, no longer able to focus, and decided to go retrieve Paine bodily. She was too busy at the site to stand around here just waiting on Leblanc to indulge her.

As Rikku left the room and started across towards the entrance to the hall, she furrowed her brow in frustration. What in all of Spira would Leblanc need to compete with Rikku for? The museum was very successful. For helping defeat Vegnagun, Leblanc was seen as a hero just as she and Paine were. (Okay, maybe not just like they were; the Gullwings had accomplished more than just defeating that great mechanized monster.)

The answer came in a flash of memory: Leblanc and Gippal laughing and joking in the antechamber atop the Bevelle underground. Leblanc had had her crush on Nooj, but nothing had really come of it. Now perhaps Leblanc had moved on to the Machine Faction leader, and it wouldn’t surprise Rikku if Gippal the Player hadn’t even noticed. Now Leblanc saw Rikku’s proximity to him in rebuilding Home, and their history as friends, as competition.

She stopped walking. If she protested now how she was wasting time away from Home, Leblanc would take it the wrong way. It would make things worse. Rikku took a deep breath and turned back around.

Walking towards Paine’s workroom once more, a mischievous bounce entered her step as she neared the closed entrance to the Via Infinito exhibit. How such a strong woman as Leblanc could let herself be blown hither and yon with such regularity by her affection for a man baffled the thief. With a sly glance over her shoulder, the Al Bhed lifted the heavy velvet rope and ducked underneath, then entered the chamber.

*   *   *   *   *

The band had just finished another number, and the floor was still full of dancers. Rikku wiped the sweat from her brow as Paine spoke to her over the bustling crowd.

“Are you glad you decided to come to the party now?”

Rikku blinked at her. “Uhm, what do you mean?”

The warrior cocked her head and raised an eyebrow. “I mean you didn’t want to come to the party, and yet you did. You probably stood in the closet on the Celsius for twenty minutes debating what you should wear and whether you should even come.”

“No I didn’t.”

“Rikku, after all this time, I can read you like a scroll. I know you’ve been unhappy.”

The thief shuffled on her feet. “I know, Paine,” she couldn’t look at her friend. “But I don’t want to talk about it right now.”

Paine squeezed her hand in response. Her own words were halting. “Whenever you… want to talk,” she said, “you… you know I’m here, right?”

Rikku gave her a sad little smile. “I know,” she said. She then screwed up her face in puzzlement, turning to the raised area at the room’s end where the band was performing. “Why aren’t they playing?” she asked, but could immediately see why. Yuna had moved to stand in front of the musicians.

“Good evening, everyone,” the Praetor said into the hush that fell over the crowd at her appearance. “I hope everyone is having a good time at our little party. Your party,” she corrected herself, “your party, to thank you for all the hard work everyone is doing for our project here in Bevelle. That work will bring about something historic, something that will enrich all of Spira.”

Yuna’s eyes drifted over the gathered participants. Later, each would swear she had looked right at them, shared a smile with them alone. She was mesmerizing with her simple, quiet way. It’s why so many had come here, had risked their lives in the dark chambers below. Why the factions battling in the aftermath of the Eternal Calm had abandoned their stubbornness and come together. They did it for their High Summoner. Their savior. Their Yuna.

“But now I’d like to speak to you about something else,” she continued. “A short time before the Eternal Calm, a great tragedy befell Spira. Because of the terrible evil of one man, and the deep corruption of an institution in which all of us had put our faith,” her eyes shone with a personal pain, “a wonderful people, the Al Bhed — with whom I share my blood — were nearly exterminated.”

Rikku felt a hand on her arm, and knew it was Paine’s without looking. She blinked back her tears.

“But through the actions of their leader — and my uncle — Cid, they survived. In the years since, the Al Bhed have spread throughout Spira, and live their lives among us. Many of them are happy this way, and many of us are happy to have them as our neighbors and friends.”

A little squeeze from the hand on her arm, and Rikku’s lips twitched on a smile.

“But unlike the rest of us,” Yuna continued, “the Al Bhed no longer have a true home. The Ronso have Mt. Gagazet, the Guado are back in Guadosalam… but despite his tireless efforts, Cid hasn’t had great success in getting the Al Bhed a new home like the one that was taken from them.” Her eyes now landed on Rikku, and the Praetor smiled. “Now a new guardian has taken up this quest. Everyone in this room knows my wonderful cousin, and fellow Gullwing, Rikku.”

The room’s eyes turned to the little Al Bhed, whose own eyes widened in her face. Rikku looked at Paine quizzically, but the warrior shook her head. “I didn’t say anything. I swear.”

The little thief shrugged. “She just Yunie, I guess. Somehow she just knows stuff.”

Yuna scanned her eyes back over the crowd, and then stopped in one particular direction. “In honor of her new mission, I’m making a donation to her Rebuilding Home fund, in the amount of five million gil.”

There was a collective gasp around the room. Rikku felt the squeeze on her arm again, and felt tears well up in her eyes. She turned to Paine, who was smiling and shrugging at the same time.

“How in the…” Brother asked, stepping over to the two. “Five million?”

Paine nudged Rikku then, and the Al Bhed turned her gaze in the direction indicated. Barkeep was standing by the edge of the stage, nodding at Yuna.

She felt Buddy step beside her. “Uhm, has anyone ever asked Barkeep just how much money we’ve earned hunting spheres? He never really says, just puts it all away…”

“I don’t know,” Paine answered, “but if five million gil is Yuna’s take, then the rest of us… great Yevon’s ghost…”

But Rikku was only half-hearing them. She saw the particular direction to which Yuna had been looking: into the SphereNet camera held by Shelinda’s sphere recorder. If she guessed right, Yuna had just announced her donation and implied plea live to all of Spira.

And with that, she’d done it again. Saved the world. It’s what she did.

*   *   *   *   *

Rikku looked about the wide, long room, the velvet rope swinging slightly between its brass poles behind her. For the opening still being a week and a half away, the exhibit already looked set to accept visitors. A cloth banner above her head reiterated the room’s theme: The Bevelle Project. Rikku idly wondered who had hung that sign.

A placard at the room’s front explained how many thousands of spheres had been recovered in the Underground, and that this exhibit was just a first sampling of those, with more to come in future displays. Looking about the room, and thinking of all the work she and Shinra and those who’d traveled into Via Infinito had done, and all the work Paine and the scholars were doing now to reconstruct these precious pieces of Spiran history, made Rikku happy anew that she’d gotten the chance to kick Trema’s sorry unsent ass. How could he have taken it upon himself to just erase Spiran history? How selfish to try and wipe out all these memories… when memories are all we have left of some—

She swallowed her feelings. What was with her today? Why was everything reminding her of… of him?

Rikku shook her head and moved forward to the other displays. The exhibits were organized by location: Bevelle, Luca, Mount Gagazet, Guadosalam, etc. Each contained spheres from various periods of time stretching back dozens to hundreds of years. The Al Bhed section seemed undersized, even though only a tiny fraction of all the spheres were yet displayed. Rikku promised herself that once the new Home was complete, she’d dedicate more resources to recovering any spheres lost in Sanubia from where the old Home had been. Trema may not have had many Al Bhed spheres to destroy, but she wouldn’t let Seymour and the Guado accomplish erasing their history either.

Listen to myself, Rikku thought. She’d dedicate more resources. She wouldn’t let the Guado erase their history.

She was sounding like Nooj, or Baralai, or Yuna, or… or Cid.

What happened to that Rikku who was all about having fun, not about dedicating resources? Or to when saving the world was all fly by the seat of your pants heroism? That’s the kind of life girls her age were supposed to have… at least it was now that Sin was gone, and you didn’t need to live each moment like it was your last.

Rikku no longer felt the need to marry the first person she fell in love with. But she sure did want to fall in love. Crazy, wild, fly by the seat of your pants love, like girls her age were supposed to have.

Her wandering through the exhibit brought her now to an extra large display, one as large and oversized as the Al Bhed one was small: Zanarkand. No surprise there: Trema’s original Sphere Hunters searched quite a bit in the destroyed city’s ruins; it was probably the first place they went. The display had a rough timeline to it, describing the summoner’s city before, and then during the Machina War, followed by the first appearances of Sin, including the city’s destruction. Rikku’s eyes drifted over the panel absently, until something dragged her attention back. Mentions of Dream Zanarkand. His Zanarkand.

Her hand tentative, she reached forward and touched the button on the elevated panel. This time it was Isaaru’s voice that emerged from the speakers, clear and strong.

“Knowing Zanarkand could not survive the war with Bevelle, part of Yu Yevon’s plan was to create a Zanarkand that their enemy simply could not destroy with guns and bombs. One created with the unique abilities in which the Summoners excelled.”

A sphere projector alit, showing a static-filled scene from a thousand years past: a gathering of men and women in the kinds of clothing Rikku remembered from that sphere Seymour had shown them. One man in particular spoke to the others… an older man, kindness in his eyes, back before the time when his own summoning would reduce him to a mindless husk: Yu Yevon himself.

“Zanarkand will be a memory,” he said, voice clear and strong and full of conviction, “so we will use memories to rebuild it. The summoning will conjure the landscape of our mind’s eye. A work of art, and a work of love.”

Issaru’s own voice returned, but Rikku had tuned it out. A work of love. Would the Fayth have dreamed Shuyin as Tidus, as Paine had suggested? Would they have smoothed over his rough edges, his bitterness, and fashioned him into the man she knew, out of love?

It wasn’t the first time she’d thought about it, that she’d considered the possibility. When Paine had brought it up down in the Gaol, Rikku had been angry with her because she’d thought that herself once. Thought it, and dismissed it, certain not that it was wrong, but that she wanted it to be wrong.

“But would it matter?” Rikku said to herself softly. “Would I love you less?”

The words had passed her lips without thinking. Her cheeks flushed, her heart clenched, and she opened her mouth again to recant, to say aloud to herself and that memory that hung about her always that it’s not what she really meant, when someone spoke from behind her.

“Enjoying the exhibit so far?”

The little thief gasped and spun about. Paine raised eyebrows at her. “Did I startle you?” she asked.

“Jeepers yes!”

Paine gestured around the room. “Guess we’ve made it pretty absorbing then,” she smiled.

Rikku knew she was kidding, but played along so as not to have to admit her distraction. “It’s really cool. It seems like it’s already finished… why haven’t you opened it yet?”

The warrior shrugged. “Oh, there’s still a few final touches to complete. A couple of things on the Kilika display,” she pointed off to her left. “Also the scholars are finishing restoration on a couple of spheres of the Calm Lands, and,” she nodded towards the room’s far end, “Cid is supposed to deliver a couple items as well.”

Rikku frowned. “What’s Pops bringing to—” she began, and then stopped, her eyes locked on the display Paine had last indicated. “Wha— what is that?” she asked, her voice small.

Paine smiled. “Go see,” she said.

The Al Bhed walked gingerly towards the room’s far end. The text at the top of the display read “About The Bevelle Project”. There were images about its edges from the various chambers of Via Infinito. Along one side was a cross-sectional map showing the descent of the rooms deep into the Bevelle underground. Here was an image of a Elder Drake; there one of a Black Elemental. But across the bulk of the display’s surface were images of herself.

Rikku and Shinra, huddled by the wall examining their equipment. Rikku with both daggers planted in a Mega Tonberry. Rikku standing, head down, atop the teleport in the upper antechamber, still changed from the Berserker dressphere, great beastly hands hung limply by her sides as the blood of some beast dried across her skin.

It was a tribute to her… her and Shinra. Rikku stood transfixed before it.

“What do you think?” Paine asked from beside her elbow.

“It’s…” her voice was thick. “It’s too much.”

Paine snorted. “Rikku, without your genius,” she gestured around the long chamber, “none of this would have been possible. You think we’re going to just ignore that?”

“Paine, I…” She swallowed, then changed tack. “Leblanc actually let you put this up?” she said, a smile on her lips.

The warrior chuckled. “I think she was afraid to say no when she saw my face. And Logos’. And Ormi’s.”

Rikku shook her head. “Thank you,” she said simply.

Paine put her hand on Rikku’s arm. “C’mon. The sphere I wanted you to see is in my office.” The warrior led her out of the antechamber, the little Al Bhed taking one last wistful glance at the room before departing, the heavy velvet rope swinging softly to and fro in their wake.

*   *   *   *   *

Paine’s office was just off the main museum workshop, and at first glance could be mistaken as one and the same with it. Like Rikku’s office back on Bikanel, Paine’s was very much a working space, piled high in nearly every corner with papers and wooden cases full of spheres, but for her own commsphere, which was easily accessible. Her office was smaller than the workroom to which it was attached, and the only available floor space within was around the chair behind Paine’s desk, around the chair before it, and enough in the doorway to ensure the warrior could close said door between herself and whatever scholar was currently annoying her. Rikku sat down in the guest chair as before, while Paine reached into a drawer to retrieve a small pillow and, setting aside Rikku’s half-empty tea cup, placed it in the center of her desk.

“Is that for nap-time?” Rikku teased.

Paine ignored her, sliding a small box from behind a stack of papers to over in front of herself. She lifted the lid and removed a sphere, which she gently placed in the center of the small pillow.

Rikku looked at it askance, then up at Paine. “What’s on it?” she asked.

“Take a look,” the warrior urged.

“Not even a clue?”

Paine sighed. “You practically begged me to tell you from your office in Bikanel. Now that it’s right in front of you you’re going to ask me instead of just picking it up and looking?”

“It’s all the anticipation,” Rikku said, “it’s making me nervous.”

Paine leaned forward slightly. Her voice took on the barest edge. “Pick. It. Up.”

Lower lip jutting forward just slightly, the little blonde reached a hand forward and, with a last little hesitation, slid the pillow over to her side of the desk. Then she slipped her fingers around the sphere and lifted it.

As with all the recreated spheres, it had the appearance of great age. Perhaps it was that the original had been old and so this mimicked that, or maybe it was that the pyreflies — and thus the memories within — were themselves quite aged; no one knew for certain. In any case, Rikku felt the urge to treat it as especially fragile. Cupping her palms beneath it, she raised the crystal vessel before her face.

Paine watched her friend closely as Rikku stared into the sphere. Back in the chamber above Via Infinito, Paine used to observe the little thief when she and Shinra would review the spheres they’d reconstructed. There was always a tension in Rikku’s face, an anticipation, and it was always followed by a hint of disappointment. As time had gone by, and more and more spheres had passed before her eyes, that anticipation had given way to the disappointment earlier and earlier in the playback, until finally all Paine ever saw when Rikku looked into those spheres was resignation.

But this… this time was different. As Paine knew it would be.

The sphere’s interior filled with the customary static, followed by a blue background, onto which words appeared as tinny music began to play. The words said “Zanarkand News Service”, and the graphic faded to show two brightly smiling news anchors.

“The blitzball playoffs are well underway,” said the man, “and anticipation couldn’t be higher.” He looked to his female counterpart.

“That’s right, Janek,” she said in cheerful reply, “and no matter who you are cheering for, fans around the league are watching the play of one new star in particular. ZNS correspondent Camdor spent a few minutes with him outside the practice facility of the Abes of A-East. Camdor?”

“Thanks Yanelle. There is no bigger time of the year for blitzball fans, and right now there is no bigger focus, for both fans and opponents, than Tidus, rookie phenom of the Zanarkand Abes, and son of the late blitzball superstar Jecht. I got to spend a few minutes with the star after practice this afternoon, his last time in the sphere before tonight’s semi-final game.”

Then there he was, and he was beautiful. Even through the static, there was no mistaking that face for which she knew every line, every curve. He was speaking, but for a moment all Rikku could hear were the sounds of his voice, the timbre and tone, like a wordless music washing over her. Her heart clenched and unclenched, her palms prickled with sweat.

Somehow she’d known it would be him on the sphere. All the little moments, the clues and memories that brought him to her thoughts today, had fed her anticipation of what she’d see when she gazed beyond its crystal surface. But now that he was there, before her eyes, she had no idea what to do with this information. Why now, just weeks before Yuna’s wedding, would they get their first clue, their first glimpse of him, like some random event, when more than a year’s search had brought nothing? What did it mean? What should they do about this?

“Yeah, well, we’ve just got to take it one game at a time,” Tidus was telling the reporter. “We can’t look past D-North to the finals. We’ve got to go out there this week and give it one hundred and ten percent, and make a total team effort to win.”

Paine saw the trembling lower lip, and the blinking liquid eyes. She watched patiently until she knew the sphere was finished, the reporter thanking the blitzball player, the anchors thanking the reporter. She kept watching as Rikku steadied herself with a few deep breaths. As she blinked back the heaviest of her emotions. Paine gave the tiniest of comforting smiles when Rikku turned eyes to her at last; too much wouldn’t do when the little princess still couldn’t admit to herself how she felt, much less to the stern warrior.

“I knew he wasn’t Shuyin,” Rikku said, her voice very small.

Paine almost laughed, but checked herself. “I stand corrected,” she replied, “you were right about that.”

“Darn tootin’,” Rikku said, the smile only in her eyes before she looked away.

Paine waited through a few more silent moments before she asked, “Rikku… what do you want to do?”

The Al Bhed turned back towards her friend, face aswirl in passing emotions. For a moment she still said nothing. Then she deliberately set the sphere back on the pillow, and shrugged. “Nothing. Back then, I thought whatever clue we uncovered would somehow tell us how to get him back. This gives us nothing. And it doesn’t matter now… Yunie’s moved on. She’s happy.”

The brunette warrior just stared, her mouth half-open. She did this for so long that Rikku’s brow creased in confusion.

“What?” the blonde asked.

Paine closed her mouth. Was it possible that Rikku was so oblivious of own her heart’s desires that she thought Paine had found this for Yuna?

“Really, Rikku,” she asked finally, “you want to do nothing?”

The little thief closed her eyes, placed her hands to her temples and gave an exasperated sigh. “No, I don’t want to do nothing. I want to do everything! I want to drop the whole Home project in Cid’s lap and jump back on the Celsius and search everywhere there is to search, and if I don’t find anything, search it all again! I want to fight my way back to the bottom of Via Infinito again, by myself if I have to, and see what other spheres we can find of him! I want to bring him back and— and—”

She seemed to realize what she had just been saying, and looked mortified by it. “You know what? I’m just tired, Paine. I guess all the construction planning and oversight is just getting to me. Forget all that stuff I just said.”

And with that, Paine knew, Rikku was shut down once more about the whole thing. The warrior had a great deal of patience — she had let her own conflict with Nooj go for years without addressing it — but it was not infinite. She wanted to throttle her friend, make Rikku admit to herself her feelings for the unsent blitzballer. She also wanted to throttle a certain helmeted Fayth, although his suggestion of recreating spheres had led to such an embarrassment of riches it somewhat mitigated her irritation towards him. Still, Paine felt beyond frustrated that, after all this time and effort recreating the spheres and searching among them for some hint of Tidus, then getting Rikku to fly all the way here from Bikanel, the Al Bhed was still giving the same stand-offish denials and avoidances she always gave.

But then, she told herself, Rikku had no idea that the entire Bevelle Project had been just to get them to this moment. Was just to recover this sphere. How could Paine expect Rikku to know what Paine’s expectations had been, and how could Paine be disappointed that Rikku had failed to meet them?

Paine grit her teeth, and looked around the room. She decided to play along for just a bit longer. “So you’re sure we shouldn’t show this to Yuna?”

“With her wedding coming up?” Rikku replied, eyebrows so high they nearly disappeared into her hair. “No, that’s absolutely what we should not do. She’d think it was a sign, and it would freak her out.”

“What if it is a sign?” Paine cocked her head.

“It isn’t a sign for Yunie,” the little thief said with vigor.

Paine half-grinned to herself, wondering if Rikku even heard the implication in her own voice that the sphere could be a sign for someone else. She placed her palms on the desk. “Well,” she said, “that settles that then.” She looked at the clock on her office wall. “Hey, since you are in Luca, you want to catch a blitzball match?”

Rikku grinned. “Paine, taking off work early for blitzball? What is Spira coming to?”

The warrior narrowed her eyes in mock annoyance.

“Yes,” Rikku answered, “I’d love to catch a game.”

They both stood, Rikku smoothing her tiny skirt and adjusting the bows on her sleeves while Paine came around the desk. Rikku startled when she saw her friend’s hand appear beneath her nose.

“Take it,” Paine said, holding out the sphere.

Rikku blinked, and backed away as if she’d been offered a snake. “No,” she said, “I couldn’t.”

“Sure you can.”

“But… but it’s for the collection,” she said, the conviction not very strong in her voice.

Paine rolled her eyes. “The collection has ten thousand spheres and growing. It won’t be missed.”

With even more hesitation than she’d shown before, Rikku lifted the crystal orb from Paine’s palm, looking at it with her face held carefully blank for a moment before slipping it gingerly into a pouch. She cinched the drawstring and patted the leather twice before looking back up at Paine.

“Shall we go?” Rikku asked.

“After you,” Paine gestured.

“Who’s playing?”

The brunette cocked an eyebrow. “Do you care?”

Rikku smiled. “Nah. It’s blitzball!” she answered, the carefree cheerfulness in her voice almost convincing.

*   *   *   *   *

Paine lived as far from the stadium as you could possibly be while still technically residing in Luca. Rikku thought she’d live on the Highroad if it was practical. The warrior claimed it was due to the noise from late night blitzball games, but the blonde had a suspicion the reason was partly that it meant only a quick hover ride separated her home and Youth League Headquarters. This was reenforced by the fact that Paine’s home was a two story townhouse with two balconied bedrooms on the second floor: one balcony facing the city, the other the Highroad. And Paine had chosen the bedroom that faced Luca. During the blitz game Rikku had tried dropping as many Nooj teases as she thought she could dare without Paine becoming violent. Paine’s only reaction though was to comment that Rikku was compensating for… well, something she wouldn’t specify.

The night was dark as the Al Bhed stepped out onto the quiet balcony off the guest room. She’d turned off the bedside lamp before exiting, but it still took a few moments for her eyes to adjust in the dimness, and Rikku found her gaze drawn to the only movement she could initially discern — the slow random drift of a few isolated pyreflies over the clearing at the top of the stairs leading up from the city. She could hear little but the chirping of crickets and the jingle of the harness on a lone chocobo in its pen.

It was a different quiet than Bikanel, which itself had a different character than when Rikku had been growing up. The desert back then had been all the whisper of wind over sand and the occasional far-off screech of a zuu or roar of a sandworm. The hum of people had all been sealed up within Home’s great metal walls. These days it was strewn across the sand in the tents and around the campfires of the workers, gentle enough to pass for silence, but loud enough to drown out the desert in all but the deepest hours of night.

It was only after a few moments of enjoying the stillness, standing by the balcony’s railing, gazing out into the night, that Rikku realized her fingers had returned to the leather pouch at her waist — as they’d done over and over all evening. With a glance over her shoulder back into the room and a cock of her ear for any sound of Paine — even knowing the warrior had already turned in — Rikku allowed herself to begin working open the cinch. Her heart thudding, her fingertips touched the smooth crystal surface of the sphere within. It felt warm, though perhaps that was just her imagination.

Rikku closed her eyes, and pulled the sphere from the pouch. She lifted it before her face, and felt it come to life. She listened again to the tinny music, and the overly cheerful voices of the newscasters. She waited until that moment she’d been thinking about since she’d left Paine’s office that afternoon: until his voice, his wonderfully warm, cheerful, carefree voice, was in her ears.

Rikku opened her eyes; they were glistening and her vision blurry. His smile was so bright, crinkling the corners of his eyes, that it caused her own to split her face from ear to ear, tears squeezed out and sliding down her face ’til they reformed and her vision went liquid once more. Here alone on the veranda she could show just what she’d carefully contained when Paine was watching, but the act of letting those feelings out gave them purchase and she nearly sank to her knees in a mixture of affection and grief.

Yet it was with no great surprise that, as the glow of the sphere faded back into the dim of night, Rikku saw the small Fayth standing beside her on the balcony. Rikku immediately forced back the emotions that had threatened to overwhelm her, one hand sneaking up to brush away her tears. The Fayth was not facing her, but instead the object in her other hand.

“You have recovered a memory,” he said.

“One of many,” Rikku shrugged, feigning nonchalance, “from under Bevelle.”

“But the first of great importance to you.”

“Great importance?” she asked, having a hard time keeping her voice steady.

His head swiveled towards her. “The first you’ve found… with him.”

She broke. It was all too much, with the day’s events and revelations, to maintain the impossibly calm façade. Her pixie face dissolved under the downpour of more tears.

“Oh, please, please can’t I see him?” Rikku begged.

The Fayth tilted back his head so that his eyes emerged from beneath the brim of his helmet. Those eyes, Rikku thought, were as filled with wisdom — and with pain — as any she’d seen in her entire life. When he responded to her question it was with one of his own. “Why?”

She was taken completely aback for a moment. What did he mean, ‘why’? Didn’t he know by now?

“Be—because—” she sputtered, “because he was my friend!”

He simply looked at her.

“My— my best friend,” she tried again. “My first friend, really, outside my family, that is. More that Yunie, even… maybe not as much as Paine, but I’ve known her longer now, but only because he— because he left,” she said, unable to say the word ‘died’.

Still, he continued to just look at her.

“Can’t you bring him back for me?”

The Fayth blinked at how ‘let me see him’ had become ‘bring him back’. Like Paine before, he wondered if she realized it. He did not answer.

The tone in Rikku’s voice became tinged with agony. “You would have brought him back for her!”

“She loved him.”

Rikku’s mouth opened, but she couldn’t speak. Part of her brain was screaming at her, but she couldn’t hear what it was saying.

The Fayth looked deeper into her eyes. “What is the wish of your heart?”

Unable — or unwilling — to connect the dots, Rikku was thrown. “I don’t know. Why do you keep asking me?”

“You must make your decision, Princess,” he shrugged, the motion bringing the helmet back down over his eyes. “You must see into your heart, or we can never repay you for the gift you have given us.”

“Repay me,” she snorted, wiping her eyes again. “Repay me. But all you do is torture me to make a decision.”

She touched the sphere again. “Maybe he could help me decide.” She turned puppy-dog eyes on the Fayth, but when he didn’t respond, she hung her head. “He wouldn’t remember anyway,” she sighed. “Wouldn’t remember what we talked about, wouldn’t remember how much I miss him, wouldn’t remember to come back to me.”

At that, the Fayth reached out to lightly grasp her hand. This small act of comfort warmed her, and stemmed her crying. She suddenly felt exhausted.

“I’ve had a long day,” Rikku said to him. “If you don’t mind…” she nodded back towards the bedroom, and he bowed graciously, letting her fingers slip from his. With a last look back up into the starry sky, and perhaps at the pyreflies drifting beneath it, she disappeared through the black outline of the glass door, and slid it shut behind her.

The Fayth stood on the balcony for a moment longer. She was close, he thought, just the barest breath away from the answer. He knew it.

“Remember he is a dream, Princess, and dream of him. Then, he will remember,” the Fayth said to himself, and he faded into the night.

Unsent: Chapter 6