I'm not really a religious kind of person. I mean, being born Al Bhed kind of helps there, and before you go off believing the trash that Yevon is always talking about us you should know that we do have our own kind of spirituality. We just don't believe in predestination and sacrifice and some jerkoff higher power who has nothing better to do than sit around and watch as thousands of people -- kids, old ladies, babies, it doesn't matter -- are killed by Sin. We don't believe in a god who would punish us for dreaming too hard. That's bull crap, and I don't like the belts like Wakka does. If there is a god like that then I don't want to believe it. We should get a new one; trade him in at the god mart or something.

But no matter -what- I feel about Yevon, something happens to me inside when I hear the fayth sing. It's like a sprout popping out of its seed casing somewhere in your stomach or your intestines, and twining up like it belongs there, like it's making you you by being inside. Some people think the Hymn of the Fayth even predates Yevon. I wish I knew for sure. Maybe it would make me feel better about things, because the hymn tells you who you are, deep inside, like naming you in the most intimate way, like all the letters in your name have as much meaning as a whole language by themselves, and they spell who you are in Spiran or Al Bhed or Hypello or Ronso, it doesn't matter, it knows -- they know -- who you are and you know it because they're singing it and it's in every note of a song with only seven words: every single secret you ever wanted to hide, every single thing you never wanted anyone to know. It's all there for you to hear, and somehow that's comforting, because they forgive. The fayth forgive like Yevon never does. All they -do- is forgive and accept. You can hear it when they sing. The fayth love as much as Sin -- Yevon -- hates. They love unconditionally. They love you. They love us. Each alone, personally.

And somewhere down in the middle of it is this intense -longing-. Its hard to really explain, almost like you want cherry ice cream but know you'll never have it again because cherry trees are extinct or someone has uninvented ice cream or something, only you crave it with every little piece of yourself: your heart and stomach and kidneys, your whole body, -and- your mind, but it's almost like you've forgotten what cherry ice cream really is, you've been wanting it so long and so hard and if you ever got any you know you wouldn't be able to eat it, only sit by it weeping because there it is, what you needed for so long: cherry ice cream.

But what the fayth need, it's more than cherry ice cream. It's something else, something I don't think I can put into words. It's like if cherry ice cream were a feeling, like sun on your neck or an ice cube down your back or being kissed for the first time or dancing outside in the rain -- no thunder. The fayth want something that burns in the bottom of my belly whenever I hear them sing, and as I hung there slung under his arm like I was made of nothing, I began to sway softly in time to the music, like I was a charmed snake -- green mamba Rikku, that's me. But I was charmed. The fayth do that, and my eyes slipped half shut as I listened to the song climb out of the darkness below us, spinning up on air and light.

Renmiri Yojuyogo . . .

And it had never really occurred to me that someone might know what they wanted, not Maesters or Priests or High Summoners or any of them, because nobody ever talked about it, they never said anything, but it was climbing up my spine rung by rung, in my heart, more than it had ever been before and it was almost shaking tears out of my eyes, but not the same tears as before, not tears about me, but tears for something else, tears for something I didn't understand slickening my eyes like condensation on a glass.

Hasatekanae . . .

And I shook like a dog trying to clear its coat of water, and he set me slowly back on the ground. I almost wasn't ready for it. I thought I was, but the second my feet were back on stone, my knees gave out and I crumpled like paper. The fayth, they do that sometimes, just usually not to sticky little Al Bhed non-believers. He caught me around the waist, thumb gripping my belt and lifting me by the seat of my pants, like that was the easiest handle I had on me -- and it probably was, outside of my ponytail -- and he held me there while I got my feet under me again, weak and unsteady as a kitten en placenta.

His nihontou was still quivering where it was thrust into the stone, so I staggered over to that and leaned on it, folding my hands over the cross piece and laying my cheek against the hilt. It held my weight, so I didn't fall again like a kid all vertigo after his first speeder ride -- and this wasn't my first time at the hymn, what was wrong with me?

Leaning there, I could finally catch the breath that had been rattling in my chest. I could finally ground myself against the steel. I closed my eyes and almost didn't want to speak, but then when I did, my question hung in the air the same way that the chant did, beating out the seconds in my heart.

"What is it?" I nearly whimpered, my voice whispery and soft where I'd meant it to be steady, "What is it that the fayth want?"

He didn't move a step, only turned his head slowly until I was under his one heavy eye, dark as a lodestone. He tucked his arm back into the folds of his gi and looked as if he were surprised that I'd spoken. He stared at me as if I were a foreign thing, something wrong with this picture, like a piece of spaghetti draped over his nihontou and then forgotten there, then slowly, his eye narrowed and became impossible to read with the glare of the torch spheres against his glasses. When he spoke it was as soft as cat feet, distracted, like he wasn't talking to me at all.

"Life," he said quietly, his eye roving as he turned his back on me and faced the abyss, "They want to live."

Living. No wonder I'd thought of cherry ice cream.

The Shape of His Heart

By Gabi-hime )

Chapter Two: Under the Blue Chip

It took a while for me to collect myself. Heck, who am I kidding? It took us -both- a while to collect ourselves against the chant that made the air pregnant with need and unconditional love. He was a rock -- he was an island -- or so it seemed most of the time. Here, at the top of this spiral staircase picked out like bone descending into the belly of a cadaver, turned away from me and facing the darkness, I could watch his robe shift very slightly from time to time and wonder at the muscles twitching in his back. The fayth touched him some place too. They had to. They touched everyone.

I sat down on the lip of the stairs and tucked my knees to my chest, my earlier elation turned first to euphoria then to drunken opiate that was finally coming under control. His sword was still thrust into the ground behind me, unattended. I took a deep breath, and then I finally spoke, stuttering on the first words to break the silence that had hung between us, on the melody, for some minutes since our last brief exchange on need.

"In Macalania," I started, hunching over to fiddle with my shoes, "In Macalania, the fayth that sings is a woman, right? Shiva is a woman."

His heavy eye rolled toward me again, and it suddenly occurred to me that he only ever gave me one eye at a time, like a shark. I think he would've done that even if he'd had two good eyes, and not just an ugly scar seaming his face and fusing his right eye up.

"Nnmg," he grunted, then he turned and wrenched his sword from the ground with one sharp tug, "Macalania's Shiva is a woman, yes." Unstated in his voice was the hanging and?

"The fayth singing here," I explained rapidly, still fidgeting with my shoe, "It's a man and a woman. Two of the fayth. That means we can't be hearing some kind of weird echo from Macalania Temple." He must know what I was getting at. Auron's not a dumb guy. Not by a long shot. Sometimes I wish he was. Dummies aren't so good at poker.

"We're too far away from Macalania to hear the fayth singing," he stated, shouldering his sword and tapping it idly over his shoulder, "No matter what the tricks of the acoustics." Again, hanging in the air was his provoking Your point?

"The fayth here, they must be different," I explained frustratedly, nearing the edge of my tether and wanting to get up and hop from foot-to-foot doing what Pops always called my 'itchy dance,' "Not Valefor or Ifrit or Ixion or Shiva or Bahamut or," I stopped and a shudder rolled down my spine like ice water, "Or Anima."

There it was still, calm and quiet, one eye fixed. Is this going somewhere?

I almost wanted to punch him.

"We haven't met this fayth. We haven't at all. This must be a lost fayth, or a forbidden one, or a forgotten one, or something!" I strained to keep my voice from jumping like a rabbit. I was all fizzed up like a bottle of juice that had been shaken for too long, but I was trying hard to keep it level and steady.

"Nngn," was all he said, then simply, "Yes."

I really did want to punch him. My fist his solar plexus very satisfying, even if I figured I'd hurt myself more than anything and that he wouldn't take a dent. He's got more stamina than a log -- maybe a petrified log. I think he's really carved out of granite and just made to move around. Maybe he's a really lifelike A.I. machina experiment from the past! Yeah, like I was so lucky. This was just regular and charming old Auron: legendary guardian and legendary pain in the butt.

I squirmed against the stone under me and tried to stay logical, "This isn't a fayth from the pilgrimage. This isn't a fayth that summoners get on the pilgrimage. That means they don't use it to fight Sin. Yunalesca," my brow knit, remembering the rush of purple soulfire and snakes. I -hated- snakes, maybe more than thunder, "That crazy old bag said that the Final Aeon was the only hope of defeating Sin, but how can they know that if summoners don't fight with -all- the Aeons?"

His absent sword tapping stilled and then stopped and then the barest smile crept in around his mouth where I could see it behind his collar, all belts and buckles, like I'd finally discovered a Yule present that he'd hidden under the tree for me and he was satisfied, "They don't."

I was thinking out loud, building a picture in the air, miming it, as if he needed a visual aid. Maybe -I- did, "It was so easy, you know? Deciding that no one was going to die when we fought Sin, but deciding something is true and making it true are different things, and I've been so worried about everything. Like what if we get there and we can't do it? Everyone has tried before -- "

"No one has tried before," he cut me off, lowering his sword to rest point against the ground again, "No one has tried without the Final Aeon."

I shook my head. He knew what I meant, no matter how important that part of it was to him, "And I keep thinking 'What if we can't do it? What if we can't defeat Sin?' Not because people aren't strong enough to do it -- I think people are strong enough, smart enough to do anything, no gods necessary, but what if we're not ready? Wouldn't that be the biggest waste? Throwing Spira's chance away on nothing, or even dying doing it. Spira is always about death. Death, death, death. Dead maesters, dead aeons, dead gods, dead summoners, dead fiends, pyreflies, and old souls. I want it to be about," I stumbled, thinking over what he'd said before about what the fayth wanted, "I want it to be about life."

He said nothing, so I continued, pell mell and spinning out my ideas like thread from cotton, picking out the seeds as I went, "And I don't want anyone to die. Too many people have died already. So when we fight Sin, I want to fight to win, but I also want to fight so that no one has to die. That's why," I stopped and took a deep breath, "That's why I'm so happy that we found this place, that we found the fayth, because it's one more thing that might keep someone from dying. I want to get them. I want to find them. I want to see them. Let's go," I said, jumping up impulsively, "Let's go and see the fayth."

It was with one fluid movement that he shifted the nihontou from one hand to the other and his gloved hand was in front of my face, leather and sweat and arrogance, always.

"We must get Yuna. It is her place to see the fayth."

The itchy dance was getting into me and there was nothing I could do to stop it. My feet twitched, "It's Yunie's place to do everything. I want to see the fayth, Auron," I realized I was begging like a little kid after cotton candy or something, so I tried again, "And I don't want Yunie to get her hopes up if there's nothing here. What if it's like Yunalesca and Zanarkand? What if there's no summon here? Do you want to see the look on her face if we drag her all the way out here and then there's nothing but an old stone statue?"

"The fayth are singing," he said shortly, as if that proved everything, but I could see he was thinking about it. The nihontou was up over his shoulder again, tapping lightly, counting out cadence.

"But it might not be the fayth," I shook my head and started bouncing from one foot to the other, "It could be the dead, like Yunalesca, or potbelly Seymour, or groady old Maester Mika. The dead can sing too. I want to see it. I want to be able to tell Yunie that it's really here, that the fayth singing here are for true."

"Even if you see the fayth," he said slowly, stopping to push his glasses up his nose just a fraction, as if he needed to try harder to shade that eye that I almost never saw, "You will not be able to take it back to Yuna. Only a summoner can take the aeon. We should go back for Yuna."

"But that'll take days," I said, twisting up the ruffled hem of my shorts as I bounced, "We're already here. I know I can't take the fayth back to Yuna, but we can go and see it, and we're so close Auron that it won't take long and then we'll have done all the hard parts and Yuna can come get the aeon like it's a cakewalk. I can't take the fayth back to Yunie, but I can take hope. Real hope. I think that's something that we've almost forgotten."

One, two, three, four -- he was still counting, "Hope," his voice was quiet, and I wondered just what that word meant to him. I'd seen him in the Zanarkand Dome, seen him just like everyone else had, young and burning like a star. He hadn't wanted Braska to die, even when Braska had been ready for it. Maybe really he didn't give a rat's patout about duty, not when it cost lives, not when the price you paid was the people you cared about, the people who depended on you. Yunie had been happy to give herself away for the world, but she wouldn't give herself away for nothing, and she sure as heck wouldn't give away one of the people she loved. There's an old Al Bhed saying -- Ask me for my own, and I will give. Ask me for my brother and I cannot. Maybe the Al Bhed in Yunie is what makes her different. Maybe just a little bit of heretic is what makes a savior. Maybe that's why we had a chance when we weren't supposed to in the first place. Maybe, maybe, maybe. That's what we were building our ladder from, maybes. It would have to do. We didn't have anything else.

"Let's go, Auron, please. It won't take long. I promise," I wanted to go so badly down those dark, winding stairs and into the middle of the echo of the hymn, to find the fayth, to see them, to understand, really understand, what it is that they were singing for.

"You promise," he repeated, one half of his mouth quirking as if I'd said something he thought was funny, and I didn't so much want to punch him any more. I watched his eye drift, almost as if it wanted to roll around in his head and stare down the shaft behind him, despite the fact that he was still facing me.

"You want to see them too," I said slowly, my feet both on the ground for once. He didn't say anything, didn't shrug or nod, but I knew it was true down in my bones. He wanted to see the fayth. For a second, I felt like I understood him, all bluff and meanness and bitterness and helplessness but wanting all the same, wanting things to be different. Wanting like the fayth wanted, wanting like I wanted, wanting like everyone wanted. I didn't want to punch him much then at all.

"Let's go," I asked again gently, all pretenses dropped. I was asking for cotton candy.

"Very well," he said, and it was mine to have.

And we went.

It occurred to me as we went that I'd never gone anywhere with Auron before. I mean, sure, we'd all gone together, all over Spira even. We'd been from the bottom of the Caverns of Darkness to the top of Mount Gagazet and it seemed just about everywhere else besides, but we'd gone all of those places together. Tidus trailing after Yunie, Lulu, stately as a ghost, Wakka like a firecracker in a box, Kimahri always a sentinel, and then Auron -- our task master. Whenever anyone except Yuna wanted to stop for even a minute, there he was again, driving us like he had a bullwhip and twelve sheepdogs besides. We were always on a timetable with him, and before I had always thought it was because he was set on getting Sin out of the picture no matter what it cost, no matter if it cost us Yunie. I had thought that he was the hugest and most immovable cog in the big machine of Yevon that kept rolling her cheerfully onto her doom. I thought he was kind of horrible and soulless, living totally in the past and thinking of Uncle Braska and Jecht all the time, like he could catch all of them up in the memory he was building by walking the pilgrimage again. Rikku, my girl, I had said to myself in the kindest possible way, Auron sucks. And I had believed it and it had been true.

Until we got to Zanarkand. When we'd met that crazy old fruitcake Yunalesca and we'd fought her, it had suddenly occurred to me that Auron hadn't been driving us to face Sin, he'd been driving us here, so he could show us what he couldn't tell us. So we'd know the truth about stupid old Yevon and their stupid old tradition of sacrificing summoners for no good reason. For him, maybe it was something too hard to say, the same reason I hadn't been able to tell Tidus what was waiting for Yunie at the end of her pilgrimage. And I'd seen him, stiff as a poker and still begging Braska to stop, to go back, because it wasn't fair -- and I'd almost been proud of him. For a minute there, you might've even thought he was Al Bhed. Braska hadn't listened, but Auron had wanted it to stop, even if it meant running from duty and responsibility and I could really respect that. Duty and responsibility are only so good so far as they don't hurt everyone around you. The second you start sacrificing people for ideals, you're not a human any more -- you're a zealot -- and to me that's the worst kind of fiend that there is.

Sometimes, just sometimes, I wondered if he didn't hate Yevon more than I did, and that's an awful, awful lot.

It was kind of strange, traveling with him down that lonely spiral. It wasn't lighted, so we'd pried a glow sphere from the wall and taken it with us. I pushed my goggles to the top of my head and wore the sphere there like I was a miner and it cast dancing patterns over both of us, kaleidescoped light and dark, the way spherelight always is. One step at a time, that was all it was, deeper and deeper down into that hole. It was no use peering over the edge, because you couldn't see the bottom, and he'd had to yank me back by my ribbons when I'd gone all vertigo staring into it.

"When you stare into the abyss, the abyss also stares into you," he'd said shortly, "From now on, you walk on the inside."

And that had been the end of that.

So I walked on the inside, skipping down steps so that my hand trailed along the wall, fingertips reading the pebbly tread. We didn't speak, but I like to think it wasn't because we didn't have anything to talk about. It was more that we were on a mission, and we had plenty to think about, what with the fayth providing a constant backdrop of harmony. Besides, I liked proving that I could be quiet sometimes. Maybe I was teaching him that just because I had a lot to say didn't mean I couldn't be still, just like I was learning that just because he was quiet didn't mean he wasn't thinking constantly. Maybe too much. It wouldn't surprise me. He's kind of a study in extremes.

When fiends came, they didn't come skittering up the staircase, they rose out of the darkness below us, suddenly just there in the sphere light. Wraiths and floating deaths and spirits and varunas and all kinds of other things with pale flesh that crept in places where muscles shouldn't have been, with too many whispery spiderweb wings and too few eyes, spitting and hissing and hating. At first, we didn't know quite how to handle them, since often they stayed over the nothing, wings beating the air against the song, and neither he nor I were built for hitting things more than an arm's length away. It made me wish for Lulu and a good old ozone burning flare, or even Wakka to pound them with his blitz ball until there was nothing but dust. I only had so many grenades on me, and it seemed wiser to save them for later. We didn't know what we were going to meet in this cave's belly, and I couldn't be guaranteed a ready supply of them until we got back to the surface.

At first we'd swung impotently at them, taunting and cursing and me dancing and doing anything to try and get them to come closer. I came up with more inventive things to call a wraith's mother than I'd ever even dreamed of before. I ought to write them all down one day. Hey, somebody might need them. It was maybe silly, and most of the time it felt totally ridiculous, but when they did come close he sliced them in two efficiently, snickety-snack and they were exploding into gas and pyreflies, and I got up close to them, feeling over and through them and inside them, but never touching, you know? Feeling out their souls to catch what they had left inside. Stealing from fiends isn't like stealing from people. People have pockets to pick and watches to grab and if you're fast like grease, then you can even get their armor off of them while they're wearing it. But fiends don't wear armor, or if they do, it's a part of them and no matter how fast you are, you aren't prying it off of them before they burst into colors and smoke.

So you have to feel them, and feel in them, smart, fast little fingers prying into who they were and what they wanted, who they had been, why they had been, and when you slipped you fingers slick and sure over the air around them, then they'd catch somewhere, like your favorite skirt getting caught on a nail and unraveling, so all you had to do was dig your fingers in and pull and it'd always come away in your hands.

Sometimes it was just old junk, stuff that had been important to them: an old sphere, a deck of playing cards, a broken necklace -- but then sometimes lady luck smiled and you came away with mixed bottles to sort later: potion all fat and blue frosted glass, remedy green and clear as ocean water, tall and thin, with a glass stopper, soft all red and smoky black in a bottle you had to smash to open; and some of the things you pulled away made your body jump and sing -- like thunder caught in glass that glittered like sugar candy or a winning lottery ticket still so hot that the numbers burned into your hand or a cut stone so beautiful that it caught your breath every time that you looked at it -- once you started pulling these things from the air, how could you ever stop? I couldn't, even when I pulled things that I didn't want so much, like souls caught in smoky glass and glimmering like fireflies burning out the last of their lives or grains of sand that weighed so much that I staggered under them or razor sharp counter-weights for clocks that were so fine you'd cut yourself on them like you were cutting your lifeline – snicker-snack.

And when the fiends came close, I pulled all of these things from them like I was knitting up a sweater for myself out of their innards, and every time I pulled something away, I tucked it into one of my pockets and then struck them on the backswing, cutting deep with my claw like a cat marking claimed territory. Rikku was here and she took your stuff, buddy. Sometimes they exploded into smoke and glitter and nothing then, but more often his steel would whip through the air the way Pop's old metal pointer used to, pointing out my mistakes and gutting out the lives and deaths that had been left burning after my marks.

But sometimes the fiends were smarter than that, and no matter what I shouted about their genealogy, they weren't coming anywhere near us and Auron's more than efficient cutlery. So we'd just stood there stupidly while spells rained down on us and I kept throwing out bottles left and right trying to keep up with them, but it didn't matter if they wouldn't come close, and I was beginning to wonder if they weren't just going to stay out there until we were cold and mouldery. But then he'd pointed his sword from his shoulder, arm as straight as a level, as if he was challenging, and suddenly I knew and climbed up his back like a squirrel and danced out on the blade that stayed still and steady as stone, a ribbon-river of metal that was my bridge over death that groped up at me with cold, stiff fingers, and I didn't look down into that abyss, but not for fear of what might be staring back. Once, twice, and again and it was done as I pirouetted on the far edge of the blade, then a hop, skip back and I was on his shoulders and springing down light as rain.

"Next time," he had said, "Do it in two."

That was Auron: my puddle of sunshine and light and battery acid. At least he hadn't brought up my leg yet. Maybe he'd forgotten. Maybe. There I was, building my ladder again.

The staircase went on forever, turning back on itself: Oroboros, the serpent that eats its own tail. I hate snakes. Maybe I mentioned that before. It was hard to judge time on the staircase since we didn't have the sun, or the moon, or stars, or anything at all but watery, shifting spherelight. I thought ol' Impolite Society might keep us marching down those steps until doomsday without a moon to remind him that maybe somebody might need to rest once in a while, but he surprised me and called us to a halt before I'd even asked. There was a sphere in the wall, set into an alcove like it'd been left there for us to find. That really didn't surprise me. Temples were always filled with random spheres you had to yank out here and cram back in there, lighting up fairy lights and neon lines and making icicles out of nothing but air and anything else that those sick Yevon bastards could think of that didn't make any sense at all. That's why Lulu said I was good at figuring out the sphere puzzles -- because they didn't make sense to a sane person. I promise I'm not going to steal your Yule present out of the butt of a behemoth this year, I swear.

So the fact that the sphere was there didn't surprise me, but it was comforting, since it was the only landmark we'd seen since we'd started down this staircase and the patch of slightly lighter gloom that marked the rim of the hole had dwindled down to the size of a one gil piece. It was nice to know we were actually going somewhere. I had almost started having doubts.

I guess Auron thought it was kind of comforting too, since he'd called a halt there even though the staircase didn't widen or level at all, meaning we'd be sleeping on a uniformly bumpy incline. I didn't care. Heck, we were sleeping and I wasn't huddled up next to a chocobo's behind (just a horse's rear, hardy-har). That was more than dandy with me. It was near paradise.

I threw down my gear without much ceremony and began rifling through my pack for the rations I'd brought. Hey, dried meat isn't great, but it'll fill you up if you chew long enough. We didn't have any brush or tinder -- dry wood is kind of scare on a staircase -- but I had thought ahead enough to bring a heating sphere, and that with the light sphere made it almost like we had a fire, the two of them like peas in a pod cuddled in the top of my bag. He settled wordlessly next to me and laid his sword down between us. Hunched over on his knees, he finally spoke.

"It's just not the same, is it?" he said slowly, and I was left to wonder what he'd meant by that. What wasn't the same? Spira without a final summoning? Dinner without Yuna's cooking? Me without my beloved Deus Ex Machina? Or did he mean something else entirely? It's just not the same since Rikku started wondering exactly how old -was- too old and --

"It's not the same to camp without a fire," he finished abruptly, prodding the two spheres in my bag with his booted foot.

I nodded dazedly. Boy, I was getting carried away with myself. No thanks, old man. I liked men who were rugged and sexy and not a day over twenty three. I crossed my eyes in an attempt to clear my brain but only succeeded in making Auron look at me funny. I waved him off and then bounced to my feet. The sphere was still in its socket in the wall, so I wrenched it out, if only to give myself something constructive to do that did not involve funny thoughts about Mister Congeniality. He didn't say a word while I went about my business poking and prodding at it, simply watched me with that one heavy eye the color of welding sparks burnt behind your eyelids because you haven't worn a mask like you were supposed to.

It took a while to figure out how to activate. It was an old model sphere, maybe ten years or so, and had a bass-ackwards start protocol on it. When it finally whirred and stuttered into life, lighting up the wall behind me, I was worried that it might die, so I gave it a good, hard whack and then settled back to watch.

At first I wasn't sure, because I'd really only seen Auron, Uncle Braska, and Jecht at the Zanarkand Dome for a few minutes in between fighting creepy weird crap that Yunalesca gave us for our final exam, and I hadn't even been allowed to see the sphere they'd found in Macalania, like it was top secret or something -- I had told Kimahri that I thought it had to have Auron prancing around in pink lace or something and he'd laughed. At least I think he'd laughed. Maybe his mind had been shut down by the very concept and all I'd seen were the last spasmodic twitches of a dying man. Probably the former, since I'd totally seen Kimahri later and alive and not looking like he had a one way ticket to the farplane, but then who can really say?

So I wasn't really sure at first that it was them and that they were here, on this staircase in the dark with a light sphere kaleidescoping over them and painting them spattered grays, but then Jecht laughed and slapped Auron so hard on the back that his pony tail flew over his shoulder and Auron made this face that could sour milk and I knew it was them and I laughed because he had such a stick up his butt, like a staff had been stuck up there for medicinal purposes like to fix scurvy or rickets or a hunchback or something. Watching the three of them together was comedy gold, especially when Braska had to keep getting between Auron and Jecht to keep them from injuring each other. From what I was seeing, Uncle Braska would've made a great diplomat. He could've maybe charmed the guado into bed with the ronso he was so good at diffusing situations. While he was calming the two of them down, Jecht backed into the spherecorder and the screen blotted out first with his rangy hind end, and then with the sweeping black that signaled the end of a recording.

I clapped my hands delightedly and then rolled the shoulders in my back before flopping down on my elbows, "So why didn't you fess up? If you wanted to come down here even though you knew for sure there were fayth, I would've understood. I won't tattle on you, I promise," I giggled conspiratorially. This new risky business Auron I could maybe even get to like, even when he was being his own terrible self.

But when I looked at him, my smile died because he wasn't laughing, he wasn't sheepish, he was just staring blankly at the spot on the wall where the sphere had been cast, saying nothing, doing nothing, still as the dead.

I didn't know what I'd done, what I'd said that had made him go catatonic and just seeing him stare like a piece of half-worked marble -- eyes there but sightless -- made me flutter desperately trying to set things right, like a kid who knows she's been caught taking apart something she shouldn't be, but before I could do anything, before I could say anything, he answered all of my questions in twelve and a half words that left me hanging onto nothing but air as the bottom fell out from under my knees.

"That cannot be me. I've never been here before in my life."



Comments appreciated, as always. Bet you wish you knew what was going on, don't you?