I usually don't post Author's Notes inside a story, but I thought it might be necessary in this case. Because I uploaded Chapter 7 before I updated the story notes for Unsent — and if I updated more often I'd know better — the Story Alert notices went out with the following note on the Summary line: "Chapter 6 is up! Only one more chapter to go!" That "one more chapter", though, is this chapter, Chapter 7. I'm sorry if this has caused some confusion.
It's especially frustrating for me since I spent a lot of time planning and tailoring this chapter just so, both so that it flows naturally into "Home" and also doesn't usurp any scenes that already appear in "Home". (By the way, remind me to never do a prequel again. It has been my definition of Hell — despite my love of Tikku!)
Anyway, I hope you all enjoy this chapter, and thanks for sticking with this story for so long between updates. I promise it won't be so bad for "Reunions". And I love all your reviews (hint, hint)! Now on to the chapter…
The occasionally static-smeared image broadcast to all of Spira via SphereNet couldn't hope to capture the rich green foliage or the deep blue of the waters. Though the Eternal Calm had brought new construction to nearly everywhere now that Sin could no longer wreak its destruction, Besaid Island was still the most untouched colony in Spira, being the most distant and least well known. As such, nature reigned in all its extravagant glory upon Besaid's verdant hills and lush valleys.
But nature didn't provide all the colors on the island. Besaid seemed as awash in the most vibrant fabrics as it did in leaves and flowers on this day, as more people moved over its sandy beaches and well-worn trails than had walked the island in perhaps a thousand years. Guado and Al Bhed, Ronso and Hypello, fishermen from Kilika and artists from Bevelle; everyone dressed in their finest clothes for this happiest of occasions since the Calm itself had begun: the wedding of Yuna, their beloved High Summoner, and Baralai, Chairman of the New Yevon Party.
He ran to keep up with a few other kids as they made their way across the crowded hillside and towards the village. He was not used to running, but better to stay with the kids than stroll along alone and be bothered by a helpful adult. Hand on his helmet, the Fayth adjusted it slightly to keep the sun out of his eyes, and hurried to keep pace.
But when they reached the statue near the overlook the Fayth paused, letting the children move on without him. Like the ancient ruins of earlier peoples scattered around Spira, monuments like this statue would stand long after their purpose was forgotten. Already, few in the throng even gave the remembrance a second glance as they headed down the hillside and into the village. The multitudes were leaving behind the religion most had followed the majority of their lives, and many of the precepts would fade until they were just superstitions.
The Fayth turned his head then to look back towards the hamlet below. That abandonment had started here. Here and in the dream of a city whose death had led to that religion's birth. He couldn't mourn that religion's demise any more than did those who turned their backs on this statue. Though it had fostered great good at times, too often it was a tool of abuse and corruption.
He turned from the statue to face full the village below. Down there was the burly blitzballer and his crimson-eyed bride. The muscular blue-furred Ronso elder. The sublimely beautiful High Summoner. The desert's pixie-princess. They had ended Yevon, and they were even now laying the foundations of what would succeed it. This day's event was just another rock upon which to build.
Of course it was, too, something else. It was an end, and a beginning, of the High Summoner's latest quest. That which began at the end of her last, when she closed a dark chapter in Spira's past, extinguished the shadow of a tragic love of another summoner and her blitzballer, a shadow that nearly darkened all of Spira. In lighting that darkness, she'd learned to move on from that so-familiar story weighing upon herself, and look to her future with hope, rather than her past with regret.
Now she was beginning a life anew in that hope with this man, taking a vow to make it, and him, a part of her life forever. And for that roster of heroes who'd released him from his millennial chains, whom he watched in the chamber of forever as they shared their lives with the loves sent before them, there was now truly only one whose dreams surpassed her waking hours.
She'd come, that one, the princess, so far since the Fayth had first committed to guiding her to her own happiness. Come to a place she'd barely thought of being in her youth, and if so, had dreaded. Even now, she couldn't see the great promise in her position, only the solitude and responsibility. But she was so much closer to her bliss than she knew.
"Syopa cusatyo!" she'd called. Maybe someday…
The tropical saris the bridesmaids wore were comfortable in the Besaid heat. Rikku giggled, as she'd done all morning, at Paine, who looked distinctly un-comfortable regardless. "I know you really want to strap on a scabbard and sword, Paine, but I assure you it will clash."
"Ha ha. If you could fit your daggers under that," the warrior indicated the colorful garment, "you would."
Rikku shook her head. "Nah, I know a good party when I see one and mean to enjoy."
"I hope so," Yuna said, "because you've spent far too much time working lately, both of you."
They stood in an antechamber of the Besaid temple: Rikku, Paine, Yuna, and a very pregnant Lulu, the last helping the bride with her hair. The air seemed lighter to Rikku than any other time she'd been within its walls, though that was certainly due, at least in part, to the great windows New Yevon had fitted into the structure in a remodeling last year.
"You know, we all promised no violence this time around," Rikku chastised.
"Besides," the Matron of Honor said, "magic is so much more handy and discreet at events like this." She slipped a tiny Cait Sith doll from inside her sari, and Paine laughed.
"Oh!" Yuna shook her head. "You two are horrible!"
"Yeah!" Rikku agreed, moving to stand beside the bride and wagging a finger at the two crimson-eyed women. "You guys are bad." Then she winked. "That means you two are in front if there's a fight."
Yuna's jaw dropped and she batted playfully at her cousin. "The only fight there will be here today, all of you, is for the bouquet. Got that?"
"I promise no fighting," Lulu answered, then tapped her belly, "not even for the bouquet."
The summoner glared at that other two when they still said nothing. Paine and Rikku looked at one another, and then back at Yuna.
"Fine," Paine shrugged. "No violence."
"Rikku?" Yuna pinned her cousin with her eyes.
"I'm saving my brawling for Paine's wedding," the little thief smiled. "I hear those Youth League shindigs can get quite out of hand." She giggled at Paine's narrowed eyes.
Lulu had resumed her tweaking of the bride's hair. Bobby-pin in her teeth, she addressed the others without looking. "Not to get ahead of ourselves, but who's next?"
"I'm sorry?" Rikku asked.
"To get her happy ending. Which of the two of you?"
"What?" Paine asked. "As if a man and a marriage is what you need to be happy?"
"Hardly," Lulu replied. "Looking at this group of women," she gestured around, chuckling, "who could think that?"
Yuna smiled, adding, "I think it's finding love in yourself — and of yourself — that is the beginning of happiness. I'd even say it's only when you can do that that you can accept the love of another. And it's not really a happy ending either, but a beginning."
"Spoken like a Maester," Rikku said. "And I mean that in a good way." She bounced over nearer the warrior, but still out of arm's length. "I'm picking Paine though. If I can only get her to admit it out loud."
"Paine?" Yuna asked. "Have you found love among the spheres?"
The warrior gave a quick glance to Rikku, who missed it at the distraction of butterflies in her stomach. "Not among the spheres, no," Paine answered.
Rikku's attention refocused. "Nope, at the other end of the Highroad, actually."
"Is that why you're on about the Youth League, Rikku?" Yuna asked. "Is it—"
"Nooj!" Rikku exclaimed with unrestrained delight.
"There's nothing definite between Nooj and myself," Paine said calmly. But her eyes would not meet the High Summoner's. "I'm not even sure where he stands with Leblanc."
"That's because you won't ask him," Rikku said. "I know you, Paine, you spend all this time with him, helping him with this and that and the other, and yet you won't actually bring up how you feel about him, or ask how he feels about you." Paine attempted to skewer the Al Bhed with a look, but Rikku ignored it. "It took almost a year for you to tell me about you and the Crimson Squad, and I'm your best friend!"
Yuna shrugged. "She has a point, Paine."
The warrior narrowed her eyes further, cheeks red, now only inches from Rikku.
The blonde stood her ground. "Sorry, but you can't be tough in taffeta."
Paine cracked a grin despite herself, and Yuna started giggling, and then they were all laughing until their sides hurt.
"I've missed you guys," Yuna said, and threw her arms around her cousin, who hugged back, and then Paine, who did her best not to look embarrassed.
"Alright, break it up," Lulu said, hand on the bride's shoulder, "you're going to mess up your gown, and don't start crying or I'll have to do your makeup all over again."
"Yes, Lulu," Yuna said, pretending to roll her eyes, and moving back to where the Matron of Honor had been helping her get ready for the ceremony.
The Al Bhed was checking her own readiness in a mirror when Paine spoke from beside her.
"I say it's Rikku."
"What's Rikku?" the little thief asked curiously.
"To get your happy ending."
Rikku's expression became wistful. "You sure we all get one of those?" Off Paine's expression she demurred. "Okay, it just feels like I'm never getting one sometimes."
"And with that attitude, are you surprised?" Paine replied.
"Riiiiight, Miss Sunshine and Roses," Rikku chuckled.
"Hey," Paine shrugged, "life usually changes when you least expect it to. You've just got to stay open to every possibility. Every—"
"—dream?" Rikku finished the thought, but so quietly Paine wasn't even certain her friend had spoken aloud, or that she'd merely heard the whisper of Rikku's heart.
Paine nodded her head, rather than voice a reply. She could see something in her friend's eyes, an admission the girl wasn't quite ready to make but could no longer hide. She felt she could speak his name, and Rikku would be helpless to deny it just then. Deny her love.
Yet too, Paine knew this wasn't the time or place to speak of such, right here in the room with Yuna, but she vowed that bring it up she would, and soon.
The priest was petrified. Standing within the temple's other antechamber, across the room from the groom and groomsmen, Wakka, Nooj, and Gippal, he went over his notes for the ceremony and blessing with a deepening sense of panic. He was about to perform the wedding of the greatest hero in modern Spiran history to the leader of his entire faith. In front of — well, of everyone in Spira, either in person or on the Sphere network. The closer the moment came, the more he felt that maybe panic was justified.
For their part, the groomsmen seemed almost entirely at ease.
"So you try to destroy the world with Vegnagun," Gippal said to the groom, "and now Yuna is marrying you. Maybe I should have let the evil unsent possess me."
Nooj smiled. "I don't think that's the reason she's marrying him, Gippal."
"Oh, look who's talking!" the Al Bhed teased back. "You got possessed too, and you're in good with a Gullwing yourself."
Wakka shook his head. "Trust me, these women aren't attracted to the bad things they've done," he gestured at Baralai and Nooj.
"That's disappointing," Gippal said.
"Why?" Wakka raised his eyebrows.
Gippal put his hands to his hips, puffed out his chest, and winked his one eye. "Because bad boy is my best side."
The other three both scoffed and laughed. "You wish!" Nooj offered.
The Al Bhed rest a hand on Baralai's shoulder. "Well there's got to be some reason Yuna would marry you."
"Obviously intelligence has a lot to do with it," Baralai smiled.
"Yours or hers?" Gippal replied. "Because I'm not sure you have any, and I'm still questioning hers for being with you."
"Now now, Gip," Nooj said. "Clearly Baralai has enough to recognize when he has a good thing going."
"Amen to that," the Chairman said, and they all laughed again.
"Let me tell you," Wakka said, looking from one of them to the next, "even without the evil unsent, I'm not surprised you three tried to kill each other with how good you all are at picking on one another."
Nooj smiled, exchanging glances with his fellows. "It's just how we ease the tension."
"Yeah," Gippal chimed in, "I'm sure you do something like it with your Blitzball team before a big game, if they're nervous."
"Who's nervous?" Wakka asked.
After a moment, Baralai answered. "Weren't you, before you're wedding?"
"Oh ya," the big man replied. "I was shaking like a flan. So I guess you're entitled."
"Looks like I'm not the only one," Baralai said, and at Wakka's raised eyebrow he nodded towards the priest fidgeting apart from them, apparently lost in his own thoughts. The blitzballer smiled to himself and, with a touch on Baralai's elbow in answer, headed across the room.
"Calm down, ya?" Wakka said, clapping the minister on the shoulder. The priest started, but then looked at Wakka curiously. "Whatever you're nervous about," the big man said, "forget it. This day isn't about you, you know? It's about those two celebrating their love for each other, and letting me and you and all the folks here share in the party. That's the memory that's gonna last a hundred years, ya?" He gestured out towards the sanctuary and beyond. "No one's gonna remember what kind of flowers there were, just that they were pretty. Or what kind of cake we had, just that it tasted good and they had fun smooshing it in each others faces. Or what words your big overseer," he jabbed a thumb skyward, "had you say, really. You're just echoing what they already feel in their hearts, you know? So speak from yours!" Wakka thumped the priest on the chest.
The minister took a deep breath, and smiled at the big man. "Thank you. You're quite wise, you know that? Maybe you should be doing my job!"
Wakka laughed, and shrugged. "Nah," he said, thinking of a shock of dark hair and a pair of crimson eyes. "I just got a lotta love around me, ya? And sometimes it soaks in."
In the nave of Besaid Temple, thick drapes had been drawn across the tall windows, leaving it as muted as the days of Yevon. Long ropes of golden satin hung from them to the chamber floor. Banks of candles lit the chamber all around, sending shadows dancing across its great expanse. There was a pleasant coolness to the air despite the open flames, and the gentle murmur of the guests inside the Temple did not clash with the soft madrigal of the Macalania band. Hanging about all was the spicy hint of incense.
The priest stood atop the stairs to the temple's sanctuary, his demeanor considerably more calm than before. The seated guests within could hear the great throng of guests without — watching on SphereNet — but at a change in the music a hush fell across them all. From the left chamber came the groomsmen, from the right the bridesmaids, and each man passed a single flower to his partner as they crossed at the stairs' foot. At last Baralai came through the Temple door, his last time through them as only a man and not a husband, and the priest descended the steps to meet him at their bottom.
Then, the music changed once more, and as the guests all stood, Yuna appeared at the top of the sanctuary stairs as she had as a freshly minted summoner years before. By her side and arm linked with hers stood a stoic blue Kimahri, the Ronso elder who'd been more father to the High Summoner than any other since Braska had died. Together they slowly descended, and at the bottom Kimahri kissed Yuna gently on the cheek, and placed her hand into Baralai's, giving the Chairman an intimidating look that spoke of all the bad things that would befall the man if Baralai hurt his charge, before his lips turned up to a smile. As the Ronso moved to stand amongst the guests, the wedding party all turned forward to face the priest, and the ceremony began.
The priest spoke of love and sacrifice, of the sharing of burdens and joys. "Though the cloak of Yevon was shredded, together from its threads you weaved a blanket of faith to warm us," he said. "Here and now may the love of the family of Spira warm you in return."
He paused, then wiped a bit of nervous sweat from his brow. "I can feel the warmth now," he said, and tension-breaking laughter spread from the Temple's front to its doors and out across the island of guests. In its wake, Rikku's eyes drifted along the same path. She could feel the joy of the guests like a physical force, much like the priest expressed. After all the darkness she had seen in her young life, there was so much brightness to the world about her now, and despite the melancholy of her recent days and months, Rikku opened herself up just a bit to let that force in. She closed her eyes and let a smile widen upon her lips. Her head turned back to the front, and the couple before her, and she opened her eyes once more.
But it wasn't Baralai standing there anymore. It was Tidus, and he looked magnificent, blond hair shining warmly in the candlelight, sun-bronzed skin aglow, his smile… that brilliant smile… Rikku felt suddenly jealous of the bride he shared that smile with — but when she looked back, the bride was no longer Yuna, but herself.
In all her life, Rikku had never had that little-girl daydream, of herself as a bride, picturing the dress, the flowers, the man. In the harshness of Home, it had always seemed too self-indulgent. She'd figured she would marry young and have lots of kids, but she'd never taken that step to picture the day in her mind.
Now it was all in front of her. From the strands of Kilikan pearls in her hair to the smell of Pysanna blooms to the brilliant sunshine cascading all around them like the satin flounce about her feet, Rikku had such a concrete picture of it all in her head it made her knees weak. She only realized she'd made a little gasp when Paine touched her elbow and caught her eye. The Al Bhed blinked several times, then focussed on the concerned face of her friend. Rikku took a deep breath and gave a little nod, and was reassured when she saw no one else in the wedding party had noticed them.
Rikku felt hot from head to toe. Why would she picture this all of a sudden? But she knew why… for the same reason she'd seen snatches of this vision during her sleeping hours for weeks. Since Paine had given her that sphere, the one she couldn't put down, the one from which she couldn't be apart. And if she was more honest still, she knew she'd felt it like a tickle in her head since a moment long ago when she'd been knocked out by a Marlboro.
She wanted to drag the Fayth out of wherever he was hiding and wring his little neck for putting these dreams in her head.
The Fayth! Rikku looked out amongst the crowd within the temple, eyes searching. Was he here? Had he given her this vision, as he'd done beneath Bevelle? Were these thoughts just creations of her heart, born of the decision he'd pressed her to make, or was he literally putting this vision in her head? She couldn't see that ever-present helmet of his, but that didn't mean he wasn't hidden by the temple's shadows.
The Al Bhed reluctantly climbed from beneath the avalanche of thoughts and returned her attention to the ceremony. Vidina tottered up the aisle, pillow between his chubby hands, to present the rings to bride and groom, who took them with smiles amid the coos of adoration at the little boy.
The Summoner and Chairman pledged their lives and love with the bands they placed on one another's finger, each voice trembling, and eyes watery. The priest placed a hand over theirs clasped.
"And to the witness of your friends, family, and treasured guests," he said, and his smile was a gift, "and those gathered from far and wide to celebrate your love, I now pronounce you husband and wife, companions forever in the eyes of the divine. Seal your promise with a kiss."
Yuna and Baralai turned their faces from the priest and to each other. Their gaze met, and their faces drew near. As their lips touched, acolytes drew down the satin cords, and brilliant sun spilled like dawn across the chamber. Eyes blinked against the light — all but bride and bridegroom, lids shuttered against the world beyond their embrace.
The cheer reached the far corners of Spira, and would last for many days.
As if mandated by heavenly powers, the weather cooperated for the reception. This allowed guests to move freely among the seven areas designated across the island for the celebration, essentially turning all of Besaid into one big party. The bride, groom, and other members of the wedding party had all agreed amongst themselves to make appearances at each location, in groups of two or three. For the girls, it almost felt like the Gullwings again, they ran into so many old familiar faces.
By late afternoon they were pretty much all back in the village proper, where they would soon kick off the wedding banquet. Only the bride and groom were still absent, though a simple glance at the omnipresent SphereNet monitors temporarily installed all over the island showed them heading back and currently near the waterfalls. At a buffet of finger foods for snacking before the banquet proper, Paine sipped at a glass of pitaya juice while nearby Nooj nibbled at a cracker topped with sweet crab.
"So, Baralai is the first to get the girl," Nooj said.
"I would have thought Gippal," Paine replied.
"Well, to get the girl, yeah, but not to keep her."
"Unless he got her in trouble," Paine chuckled.
Nooj laughed in agreement.
The warrior looked over at him after a moment. She tried to make her voice sound casual. "So, what about you and Leblanc?"
Nooj sighed, as if the question exhausted him. "There is no me and Leblanc."
Paine dropped her eyes. "Does she know that?"
The tall man put down his plate and looked over his glasses at the woman. "Paine — in all the time you spend with me at the Headquarters and her at the Sphere Museum, why don't you know that?"
She didn't look up. "Well, I don't like to get into your personal business."
Nooj laughed, and Paine raised her eyes, confusion on her face. Nooj shook his head. "Great ghost of Yevon, Paine, why not?"
"Captain, I—" Paine began, but he cut her off.
"Enough with the 'Captain' talk. You're not in the Youth League and we're not on our fabled airship." At the confused look on her face he cocked his head. "Wait, you don't even realize you say it, do you? 'Captain'. You do it all the time."
"Even when you don't." Nooj shook his head. "It's in the way you act around me, too. Like you're still a sphere recorder, and I'm still a Crimson Squad candidate, talking down to you."
Paine dropped her eyes once more.
Nooj closed the distance between them and touched her arm. "Yeah, I remember that. I was arrogant, I know that. I had no right to be. Leaders aren't leaders when they do that; they're bullies. I've learned since then, though I've never apologized."
Paine waved it off, but still didn't meet his eyes.
Nooj leaned down to see her face. "Unless…"
"Unless it's because you're afraid of me."
Now she really looked puzzled.
"Because I... because I shot you. Paine, about that—"
"Don't worry about it."
"Don't worry about it," she said more forcefully. She looked at him. "If Yuna can forgive Baralai for trying to destroy the world, I can forgive you for shooting me."
Nooj hung his head. "Well, I was under the influence of a crazy wandering unsent and all."
Paine nudged him with her elbow, smiling. "Exactly." She grinned. "Which you can pretty much say about you and Leblanc."
Nooj laughed. He glanced up at the nearest SphereNet monitor. "Our happy couple is almost here. I'm going to go greet them, see if there's anything I can help with before the banquet starts. You wanna come with?"
The warrior shook her head. "I actually have to check with Shelinda. This whole day is the biggest thing SphereNet has covered since the Eternal Calm began, and Leblanc has me as the liaison between them and the Sphere Museum. So I'm recording a few segments for them myself."
"Well don't try to hide behind the camera again," he said. "I intend to get you out on the dance floor later, you hear?"
Paine raised her eyebrows at him. "Dancing? You?"
With great deliberateness, Nooj set down his plate of crab, then leaned his cane against the buffet table. He stretched to his full height, then did the tiniest of two-steps, his limp almost unnoticeable. "For this party? I've been practicing for weeks. I swear I won't embarrass you."
She had to blink several times, and swallow carefully before she spoke. "The thought never entered my mind."
"Then it's a date," he winked.
Paine nodded, a warmth spreading through her at his smile, a warmth that stayed with her a good long while.
The toasts had been made, the sit-down meal partaken, and the wedding cake cut. The dancing had begun and was sure to continue well into the night. The cake having not given Rikku nearly the sugar high she would need to sustain her for the duration, the Al Bhed was back at the dessert table searching for just the right confection. She was also trying to shake off a creeping melancholy, and knew that something sweet was always her best first line of defense. Still, knowing its source, she couldn't help but turn her eyes regularly back to Yuna and Baralai at the head table, hands held and heads together as if the only ones in the world.
Following her gaze, another Al Bhed took the opportunity to approach. "So, Rikku," Gippal said, sidling up to her, resting a hand on the small of her back, "you and I have been friends for a long time... longer than Yuna and Baralai—"
She cut him off with a look. "If you want it to be any longer, you'll end that sentence right there. And if you want to keep the one eye you still have, you'll get your hand away from my butt."
The Machine Faction leader raised his hands in surrender. "Whoa, Princess, it was just a friendly tease."
She cocked her head. "With more than friendly intentions." She raised an eyebrow, the hint of a grin on her lips. "I'm on to you, you know."
"Like there was any doubt. Can't blame a guy for trying, though," he gave her a crooked smile.
"I can blame you," she stared him down.
"Someday, Princess," he pointed at her as he backed off, "someday, you'll let someone into that heart of yours."
"And when I do, he'll be someone sincere," Rikku countered.
"I'm sincere!" Gippal protested. Then seemed to catch himself. "Sincerely getting out of here."
He slithered off. "So, Leblanc..." Rikku heard him say, and smiled to herself.
One last glance over the dessert table and she spotted, all by itself, a single plate of sliced pitaya with acacia honey. Her squeal turned more than a few heads, but she paid no mind, snatching it up and hustling over to plop in an empty chair at a table where Paine sat, scanning the party, a recorder at her eye.
"Done giving Gippal the heave-ho?" Paine asked.
"He wishes he'd ever gotten that close."
Paine smiled slyly behind the camera. "What guy in Spira doesn't?"
Rikku's spoon paused halfway to her mouth. "We back on that now? My love life?"
The warrior placed her elbow on the table, recorder now pointed at nothing. "Not if you don't want to be. But you're back into the sweets, so something must be bothering you. I figured I'd start there."
The spoonful of pitaya made its way into the Al Bhed's mouth, but didn't prevent her from speaking. "Man have I been a bad infruence on you," the sticky dessert slurred her words. "You're arr eager to tark about feerings and rerationships, and I'm the one with the avoid-iness."
"I wouldn't say I'm eager to talk."
"For you this is eager."
Paine didn't respond.
The blonde swallowed, looking around at the dancing, the laughing. "There is an awful lot of love in the air, even for a wedding. Too much for you probably."
Paine reached a fork over and stole a slice of pitaya from Rikku's dish. "No," she said, a secretive smile on her lips, "just about enough for me." She ate the pitaya with a little moan, having to lick her lips to get all the honey. "I see why you like this so much." She raised the recorder back to her eye.
Rikku raised another spoonful, but paused, staring at its contents without really seeing them. Her eyes returned to the head table and the bride and bridegroom.
"What is it, Rikku?"
"I know this is like the happiest day of Yunie's life, but..."
"I guess I'm wondering if this is how it's really supposed to end."
Paine peeked out an eye, brow furrowed, before putting it back behind the lens. "I don't understand."
Rikku sighed, putting down her spoon. "Did Yuna ever tell you she was giving up on her search?" Without waiting for an answer, she went on. "After Vegnagun, we stopped looking for— for, uhm, for spheres as much—"
"You mean for him?" Paine interrupted.
The little thief blushed, then took a breath. "Yeah, okay, we stopped looking for him, but did you just figure it out after awhile, or did she actually tell you?"
"Well it became obvious after she started dating Baralai, don't you think?"
Rikku sighed, a little exasperated. "Sure, by then, but did she actually say anything to you? About things changing? About giving up our search?"
Paine noted the use of 'our' instead of 'her', but didn't mention it. "Not specifically, no. But a lot of things changed after Vegnagun."
"I didn't," Rikku responded, her voice very small. "I still wanted—" She broke off. "I thought things were gonna to keep going, you know? Get back to normal. Get back to… I thought we'd find him."
Paine didn't speak, didn't move. Was it time? Was she finally ready to admit it? After a long moment, almost holding her breath, Paine asked, "Did you want to keep looking?"
The little thief took a long time herself to answer. "Yes. I shouldn't have, I know. I shouldn't have wanted to, but I did."
"I just don't understand," she continued. "I mean, Yunie's moved on, you know? Tidus helped her change, and though I know she still loves him, Baralai makes her happy. So why can't I get past it?"
Paine didn't lower the recorder. "Maybe you're in love with him," she said simply.
Rikku was so startled she slipped off the chair, landing loudly on the floor as the chair skidded backwards and onto the grass.
A few nearby partiers looked their way, but seemed to brush it off as too much enthusiasm. The lens of the sphere recorder dipped, one perfectly sculpted eyebrow raised. "Did I strike a nerve?"
Rikku didn't move. "Oh my gosh! Maybe I am in love with him." She scrunched up her pretty face. "This is horrible!"
Paine's other eyebrow lifted as well. "I'm sorry?"
The Al Bhed clutched her hands to the sides of her face, shaking it back and forth. "I can't be in love with Tidus! What would I tell Yunie?"
"Why tell her anything? Tidus is dead."
Rikku sprang to her feet. "No he's not! I can't see him on the Farplane... which means he's not dead!"
The recorder lifted back up, scanning the dancers some more. A group of Hypello had taken over a space near the head table and were performing some strange native routine for the bride and groom. Brother was dangling Shinra over a table by his ankles while the young man attempted to eat a plate of sweet flan without using his hands. "So you find him, tell him you love him, and live happily ever after."
"It's not that simple," the younger woman protested.
Paine set the camera back on the table. She looked at her friend steadily.
"Love is rarely simple, Rikku. But it's also rarely 'horrible'."
The Al Bhed retrieved her chair and, drawing it back to the table, sat once more. Her face was a mask of confusion. "How did this happen? Just all of a sudden?"
Paine almost laughed out loud. "It's not all of a sudden, Rikku, trust me. These things just sneak up on you sometimes. Whether you know it or not, whether you admit it or not, it happens just the same."
The little thief stood back up again, unable to sit still. Was Paine right? Had she been in love with Tidus all this time?
She heard laughing from another part of her brain: of course she'd been in love with Tidus. She'd known it right along. She had simply never let herself examine her feelings lest she be forced to admit it.
Then another thought struck her. "The Fayth! That's why he keeps asking me..."
"The wish of my heart. To repay me."
Paine smiled slyly. "For?"
Rikku shuffled on her feet, embarrassed. "For saving the world."
"He knew. He knew what I wanted."
"Better than you," Paine said. "Smart little bugger, that Fayth." She put a finger to her lips. "So the question is, then, now that you know you want to search again, how do you find him? We never found evidence of him before, but now we have. Do the Gullwings saddle up again?"
But Rikku had stopped her shuffling, and stood unmoving by the table, eyes unfocused, mind distant. He knew… the Fayth knew all along what she had wanted, what was in her heart. He wanted her to ask for it, but she hadn't been able back then, because she couldn't see what he saw. Her eyes flicked towards the table. What Paine saw too, she thought to herself, recalling a conversation on a balcony in Bevelle.
So what else had the Fayth said to her? She scrunched up her face in thought. And then it came to her, not from something the Fayth had said, but someone else…
"What's wrong with dreams? I'm kinda fond of them myself."
Rikku's heart skipped a beat. There, all this time.
The warrior nudged again. "Do we?"
"No," the little thief said quietly, a grin forming on her lips.
Paine puzzled. "Then how—"
"He just needs someone to start dreaming of him again!" Rikku exclaimed, bouncing on her toes.
Paine opened her mouth to speak but couldn't, and closed it again.
"What?" Rikku asked.
"I was going to say that to you, but I guess you knew it already."
The Al Bhed nodded, then, with a look at the head table that held a mixture of longing, sadness, and hope, gathered the fabric of her sari in one hand to lift the hem off the ground. "I have to go," she said to Paine, and then started across the dance floor and towards the village exit.
"Rikku!" Paine called.
She suddenly turned and dashed back to the table, then grabbed her spoon and scooped up the last slice of honey-covered pitaya to her mouth. She turned to leave once again.
This time Paine stood and, with her warrior's reflexes, reached out to grab the smaller girl's arm. "Where are you going?"
Rikku looked in Paine's eyes, and her own eyes said it all.
"Oh!" Paine said. "Now?"
Rikku nodded. "I can't wait any longer. I've waited so long, without even knowing I was."
Her friend smiled in understanding. "But where?"
"I have an idea."
"How will you—?"
Rikku smiled again, softly. She put a hand over her heart. "Faith."
And she was gone.
Besaid had grown smaller and smaller below, until it was finally just a bright jewel on the darkening sea. The sun dipped below the horizon and the water was ink, the Celsius empty and silent but for the rush of wind beyond its walls and windows and the thrum of the engines, straining as hard as they'd ever done. Rikku had fielded a single call on the commsphere as the craft maneuvered a bay full of ships from all over Spira out to open water and a safe launch.
"Oh, Rikku!" Buddy'd said from the crystal, his voice slightly slurred. "I thought Brother was trying to impress some girl."
"No, just me, Buddy," she'd replied. "I… I have to do something."
"No problem, boss," he'd said. "But if you're flying solo, be careful."
"Hey, it's me," she'd smiled.
"That it is."
The smile had reached to the soles of her feet, but the anxiety too. What was she doing? Rushing out of maybe the best party in Spiran history on a journey that would last well into the night on what? A hunch?
She'd gotten tired of the blackness of the sky and the blackness of the sea and had perched a SphereNet viewer on the console in front of her while she babysat the Celsius' controls. Once the official broadcast had ended, she'd jimmied the settings on the viewer to pick up the raw video feed. As Rikku suspected, the celebration had continued strong deep into the night. Below had passed the lights of Luca, then the sparkles of the Machine Faction Headquarters in Djose, then the glow of the Moonflow. Behind had passed the Father of the Bride dance (Kimahri cut a fine rug), the throwing of the bouquet (Paine's warrior skills had bested Leblanc's exuberance), and the First Goodnight — a mini-roast of the bride and groom as they headed off for their wedding night where their friends and guests tried to one up each other with double-entendres at the couple's expense. A fine Spiran wedding tradition, Rikku thought. And she'd been thinking up some good ones in the last few days too, she sighed. As usual, Gippal had turned the couple crimson, and had the remaining crowd rolling — he was always the champion of the First Goodnight at the weddings she'd attended, and this proved to be no exception.
Rikku felt more than just anxious about leaving the wedding on what may be a fool's errand: she also felt guilty. Guilty for skipping out on maybe the most important day of Yunie's life; guilty for being in love with Tidus. But should she be? Why should she feel guilty for loving the man Yunie moved on from?
"Wouldn't that spook the chocobos?"
"Please, Paine, just leave it alone."
"… I don't want to do nothing. I want to do everything! …I want to bring him back and— and—"
"What is the wish of your heart?"
How long? she pondered. How long had she felt this way, had she loved him? Had it been since Guadosalam, when he'd said he'd rather have her than Yuna? (Had he really meant that? She didn't even know.) Perhaps from his gape as she stripped off her wetsuit on the shore of the Moonflow. Maybe it had been earlier still, when she lost him overboard to Sin. The way her heart had fallen nearly out of her chest as he vanished... she could still remember that so vividly. Maybe it had even been when she saw him, shivering and alone, huddled in that frigid damp chamber in Baaj.
Yet every time she felt that twinge after they'd reunited, she'd pushed it away. Dismissed it. She'd seen how he looked at Yuna, of course at Yuna. Sin had snatched him from Rikku, and by the time she saw him again, she'd lost her chance. How Yuna had looked at him… how could she compete with that?
Her heart clenched again. What if she did find him? Yuna had moved on, but could he? Would she find him, just for it to shatter her? I'd rather have you, Rikku. Dare she believe that?
Dare she not?
The sari neatly hung in her Celsius' closet, the ship nestled among the brambles and bushes at the edge of the empty forest, Rikku walked down the sloping bay door and into the sounds of a Macalanian night. For a moment she watched the lightning flicker endlessly across the Thunder Plains. How it had frightened her a lifetime ago. Jagged afterimages burned in her vision for long moments after she turned her back upon them.
The whirring and chirping of insects greeted her as the thunder faded behind. The soft scent of moss and slightly cloying perfume of flowers drifted past her on the gentlest of breezes, which rustled the canopy of green and danced across her skin. She tried to lose herself in the sensations, let them calm the rush of blood in her veins. Rikku had tread these paths many times, but never with her heart pounding so. She kept finding herself almost jogging, and each time forced her feet to stop and her breath to still before moving forward once more.
She took the Sky Trail, feet pounding up the branches as they'd climb Gagazet; the sounds changed from tiny creatures rustling through the brush to sharp-eyed hunters gliding through the leaves, and she felt them like kindred. Then Rikku stilled, high in the forest's crown. Here beyond the Thunder Plains edge, the clouds gave way to moonlit sky, and pale flickers danced all about her. The air had chilled enough from the day that a fine dew was starting to form on all the greenery, and the breeze shook it down upon her like a kiss of rain. She held out her arms, palms to the sky, and closed her eyes. She tilted back her head and welcomed the mist to cool her cheeks.
For five years she'd hunted, knowing she'd been or not. Five years since the Eternal Calm, and everyone else's joy and prosperity had eluded her. Or so she'd told herself. She'd envied it all, while keeping it at bay. Even now, the hours of flight had twisted her stomach to knots, her breath to rags, her blood to fire. She'd questioned every minute, every mile… would it happen? Could it happen? But really, it was all in the smallest whisper within: did she deserve it?
She let her heartbeat slow, let her breathing ease.
The path descended to the forest floor once again, and Rikku gingerly stepped from the rough bark to the soft grass and scattered leaves. Nothing in her was surprised as she passed among the clinging wet branches and saw the diminutive figure waiting patiently before the break in the foliage that still bore the years-old mark of Auron's blade.
"You came," he said.
Rikku smiled with only her lips. "Been waiting long?"
He pushed back the helmet so that his eyes met hers. "Long enough," he said. "It's been long enough."
She sighed. "It has."
"Now, Princess," the Fayth said, "now you see your heart."
"You knew all along."
"But you didn't. And I couldn't tell you. Only guide you."
Her eyes dropped. "Like herding cats, huh?"
"You are strangely stubborn," he grinned.
"It's Pops' influence."
"Of that there is no doubt."
She looked beyond him, at the path of dappled light that lay ahead. "But I'm here at last."
"You remembered what I said."
"Is… is he—?"
He watched her face, an expression there which held both resignation and hope. "I cannot answer that," he said. "I have done all I can. Now it is for you to decide."
Rikku's voice became distant as she squinted, willing some answer from the darkness beyond the bushes and trees. "For me to? Haven't I decided enough things in my life?" Her feet carried her forwards, brushing past the Fayth as if he were forgotten. "Why does everyone keep putting me in charge?"
With the tiniest of grins, he addressed her slowly retreating back, unsure if she even heard him anymore. "Maybe so. Maybe it's time someone shared your burden, Princess."
The path narrowed around Rikku as she left him behind, moist leaves and sharp branches clawing in at her with each step. The foliage was so thick here that no moonlight reached; her path instead was guided by the glow of pyreflies. They seemed to beckon her forward, through the clinging green, towards a place she knew very well. Her breath catching in her throat, Rikku steeled herself and moved forward, out from the darkness and into the suddenly bright night of a wide and shallow pool. Water spread forward from the thicker trees at the back of the clearing, swirling gently about a single tree at its center. The little thief had last seen this place in the Sphere Museum in Luca, and first on the heels of her fellow Guardians, on Yunie's pilgrimage.
It was the place where memories are made.
From the pouch on her belt, she withdrew the sphere once more, perhaps looking as weathered now from the frequency of her touch as the age of its contents, and her own memories welled up within Rikku unbidden. So many; too many.
The wet chill of an abandoned temple; the wet chill of his cheek as she pressed her lips to his ear to whisper, "Cunno."
She lifted the sphere in one hand, gently running her fingers of the other over its surface. She glanced about, at nothing, and everything. "I don't know if you can hear me," she said. "Maybe no more or less than you can at the Farplane. But the Fayth said to come here."
The warmth of his broad, muscled back as she pressed her own cheek there, racing across the ice and through the whipping snow, hiding her face from his naïveté.
Rikku walked slowly forward, water lapping at her shoes as she stepped across the lattice of branches that made up the clearing's floor. "He said that the last time I saw you. Or thought I saw you. In my dream, beneath Bevelle. When you saved me from falling into that big hole. Which I almost fell into because you scared me. Am I babbling? I feel like I'm babbling."
His look of shock, and grief, and horror, as she'd explained what a summoner's sacrifice really was.
She stood in the water, moonlight upon her face, light sparkling from every surface, even the air itself. "You do that do me, Tidus. You always have. I've pushed it away, this feeling, pretended I never had it. Pretended so well that no one knew how I felt, not even me." She felt a wetness on her cheeks. "But I do now, after all this time."
The flush of her cheeks, the butterflies in her belly, the unreadable look on his face back up amongst the branches of Guadosalam. "Syopa cusatyo!"
"Tidus," her voice trembled, "without you I've felt… unsent."
Rikku felt a tingle in her hand, and almost dropped the sphere in surprise. It was starting to vibrate… no, not vibrate: hum. Like a little song, whose tune she couldn't place. Suddenly the air about her was swarming with pyreflies. She smiled as they danced about her hand, and then her head, and then… they moved away, not at random, but straight ahead. Past the tree and forward. A few slowed and circled in the air, as if waiting.
Rikku frowned, and then pointed a finger at herself. "Me?" she asked the wisps of light. They suddenly swirled about. The little thief shrugged and moved forward, pausing a moment before the great tree. Then she pulled off her boots, hanging them from her belt by the laces, and waded into the water, toes moving gingerly among the submerged branches and stones, ankles sloshing through the warm gush where it poured over the roots in a tiny cascade.
Again the green closed upon her, dancing around her as she followed the floating glow. She soon stopped trying to keep her bearings, splashing one way and then another too many times as the pyreflies led her on. The leaves, the moon, the shadows, she rushed past them all in her mad dash. She whispered hopeful prayers that should wouldn't trip and sail headlong into some fearsome bramble, or get dragged down into some swampy depth by a fiend.
Then the forest opened once more, and the pyreflies swooped low and spread away across the broad surface of a pool, like skimming stars whose twinkles mingled with those reflected from far above.
Rikku hesitated at the spring's edge, breath caught by the beauty everywhere around her. She cast down her eyes against it, too much, too much… and as the ripples of her arrival settled, she saw herself. Not the fifteen-year-old who'd blushed at his tease, and run off. Who'd tried to snatch up the summoners and hide them away.
Instead she saw a Guardian, who'd help defeat Sin for good. A champion who protected the High Summoner and brought the Eternal Calm. The woman who was rebuilding Home.
Rikku, Princess of the Al Bhed. Who'd saved the world. Twice.
Dare she believe? Yes.
Maybe someday. With all her heart, Rikku knew, at that moment, that someday was today.
And then she waded forward, ankle-deep, knee-deep, waist-deep, into the water, to find her love.