22: Dreaming

Rikku stepped out onto the sunlit deck of the airship and squinted at the silhouette sitting near the edge of the platform.

What's she doing out here alone?

Making her way over, she seated herself next to the other girl and smiled. "Hey Yunie, what's up?"

Yuna sighed. "Oh, hey Rikku. I was just... thinking." A smile flitted across her lips, but there was the also the touch of hesitation that had always plagued Yuna's features during the Pilgrimage. Rikku's stomach flipped – wasn't that supposed to be long gone? She pushed the feeling of wrongness away and returned Yuna's smile.

"Thinking of what?"

Yuna sighed and looked over the endless fields of wildflowers stretching out below their feet. "The Fayth," she told Rikku. "Their dreams."

Rikku's smile faded as Yuna spoke. "Dreams of the Fayth," she repeated. One of the missing pieces clicked into place, and she blinked. "Tidus."

Yuna nodded. "Maechen told me that the dreams of the Fayth reach through the spirit of the Summoner," she whispered. "By touching those dreams, I can make them real."

Rikku gripped the metal of the platform and stared at the beautiful, empty tableau stretching before her. Please stop talking, Yunie. Please. The flowers were wilting now, the warmth of the setting sun fading into twilight. A sense of wrongness permeated everything. Yuna's face was slowly masked in darkness, but when she looked at Rikku, both of her startlingly bright eyes were blue.

"The dream of the Fayth, the power of a Summoner. That which does not exist becomes real for all to see," Braska's voice intoned. Cool fingers rested against her neck, and Rikku started as another, deeper voice whispered into her ear.

"What is your dream?" Auron asked.

You, she wanted to say. You've always been my dream.

"Liar," Bahamut rumbled. He was there, floating before her as a child, but his voice was ancient. "Your own story – that is what you wanted. You have never dreamed for others. You have always dreamed for yourself."

Rikku wanted to protest, but she couldn't move, couldn't even blink. She forced her jaw to open, squeezing the words between her unwilling lips. "I didn't mean it to be... to be – !" ... so selfish, she couldn't bring herself to say out loud.

The pressure on her neck increased; his voice filled her ear, a soothing balm to her crackling nerves. "Your dream wasn't meant for the rest of the world. Do not be ashamed."

"You wanted to see him again. Not just your memories," Bahamut told her in his usual monotone, and she couldn't tell if he was scolding her or not. " 'Even if just to say goodbye.' "

"But I can't let go!" Rikku blurted out.

"Then why do you seek us? Why do you wish to end your dream?"

"Yunie's world..." Rikku managed to whisper, her brow furrowing.

"A world without Sin," Braska completed for her. "Such a world requires sacrifice to build. The Fayth sacrificed their dreams for us. What, then, is one small dream of our own?"

Rikku wanted to shake her head, Braska was wrong. It wasn't fair! But she couldn't move; the fingers touching her neck held her still.

"Your happiness," Auron whispered seductively.

"Spira's future," Braska chided.

"You shouldn't seek us out. You know you aren't ready," Bahamut told her.

The encroaching darkness stretched out its tendrils, obscuring everything; Rikku could no longer see Braska or Bahamut, nor feel the touch of Auron's fingers. It wrapped around her like chains, robbing her of breath as she gasped and struggled, searching for the last vestiges of light –

.x.x.x.

Rikku woke in a cold sweat. She sat up quickly in her bed, trying to slow her breathing down and covering her eyes with the heels of her palms. "Just a dream," she whispered to herself. "It was just a dream."

"Rikkma?"

She dropped her hands and almost let out a shriek as she saw two blue eyes staring at her from out of the darkness, eerily reminiscent of the vision she had just woken from.

"Is everything all right?" Braska asked her with a touch of concern.

Rikku nodded, and then realized Braska probably couldn't see her. "Yeah, I'm fine," she managed to say, keeping the tremble out of her voice. "Just a bad dream, that's all."

Braska smiled. She could tell from the faint white flash of his teeth. "I couldn't sleep either," he admitted, pitching his voice low so as not to wake the others. "I feel... restless." She heard the rustle of cloth as Braska shifted on his bed. "Perhaps being this close to the Farplane is causing it. Maybe it calls to the spirits within my soul."

Rikku blinked and fisted the sheet in her hand. They had arrived in Guadosalam the afternoon before, but the Guado city was hardly welcoming. Many of the residents seemed to recognize Braska; the attention he garnered ranged from curious to hostile. Though, in all honesty, the mixed reception was better than the send-off they'd received in the Thunder Plains. Besides, the Guado behavior was nothing new – they simply hated tourists, and Summoner's parties were no exception.

Rikku could have cared less, though; much more important was the fact that the city was still standing. Sin hadn't attacked, as she'd feared. The entrance to the Farplane was still completely safe and intact and – as she'd discovered with some surprise – just as tightly guarded as "normal."

She didn't think it was very normal at all – but it was a clear reminder that the Guado were at the height of their cultural power and influence, having rejected the Church of Yevon's missionary overtures. Yet for all of Guadosalam's glory and pride, she couldn't help but view everything with a touch of sadness. The Ronso had almost completely destroyed the Guado race, decimating their remaining numbers in a war of attrition that lasted a full year after the start of Yuna's supposed "Eternal Calm."

One day, all of it would disappear; the proud mansion that housed Lord Jyscal's clan would be reduced to nothing more than Leblanc's glorified massage parlor, and the oddly decorated houses lining the street would morph into cheap tourist shops and tacky arcades. Still, the most important feature of Guadosalam would never change.

The Farplane was here, filled with its great emptiness, disquieting peace and hidden sorrows. For now, though – before the destruction of the Guado; before the integration of Guadosalam into the Church of Yevon – the Farplane was still jealously hoarded by its Guado caretakers. Travellers were allowed one visit, and one visit only; as such, Braska decided that they rest beforehand in order to make the most of the rare opportunity.

Rest. As if! Rikku rubbed her hand over her face. Well, there sure wouldn't be any more rest tonight – if her own nightmares hadn't ensured it, then the dulcet tones of Jecht's snoring did. Sweeping the covers aside, she eased out of her bed and tiptoed towards the door.

"Where are you going?" Braska asked, hearing her movement.

"Can't sleep, so I'm gonna take a hike," Rikku whispered. She heard more sounds of rustling and bit back a yelp when she felt him touch her elbow.

"Then, let us go together. There's no rest for me here tonight, either," Braska said, and Rikku bit back a sigh of disappointment. What she really wanted was to be alone, to mull over the meaning of her dream and its possible consequences. Were the Fayth trying to communicate with her, or was she letting her own fears plague her even in sleep? She let out her breath; either way, she couldn't find it in herself to turn Braska down. Considering the potency of her own dream, maybe it actually was her fault that he couldn't sleep either.

They exited the room as quietly as possible, blinking to adjust to the soft lighting of the inn's tiny hallway.

"Oh! You forgot your robe," Braska observed with some concern.

Rikku stared and tried to remember to close her jaw. "You forgot yours, too," she replied, her eyes wide. It wasn't so much the lack of formal summoning robes that surprised her, rather that Braska forgot his braid. Not that she could blame him; while keeping her own hair up made it easier to care for on the road, it did get a little itchy after a while. Guadosalam was also the first "comfortable" pit stop they'd reached since the start of the Pilgrimage. She stared at Braska's hair, which hung straight down his back, longer than her own and the color of burnished copper.

Noticing her scrutiny, Braska touched his head. "So I did. Is it a problem?"

Rikku shook her head. Just looking at Braska was making her own scalp itch, though. Decision made, she pulled off her bandana and let her hair down. "No, this is perfect! We'll tour the city incognito! If we both let our braids out, nobody'll recognize us!"

"I'm not sure it will be quite that easy to mask our presence here," Braska murmured, trying to stifle a laugh.

Ignoring him, Rikku struggled with the tangles in her unruly hair. "You could be a little more optimistic you know," she puffed as she worked. "It's not like we're famous here, right?"

Braska's snicker was lost to Rikku's yelp of pain. She winced as her fingers caught on a particularly nasty snarl while pulling at a bead decorating one of her braids.

"Wait."

Rikku felt another pair of hands join her own. Braska gave her a warm smile and continued to untangle her hair even after she froze.

"It will be faster if I help."

"Yeah," Rikku said and tried to ignore his knuckles brushing across her scalp. Instead, she concentrated on unravelling the braid in her hand as quickly as possible. In a matter of moments, it was done. Her own mop of hair would never be as smooth and well-behaved as Braska's, but it was still a relief to have it fall loosely around her ears. "Wow, I keep forgetting how long it's gotten," she giggled as she fluffed it out a few times.

Braska stepped back to admire her and feeling a little self-conscious, Rikku finished finger-combing through her hair and tied her bandana around her neck. The beads she slipped into an empty pocket. When she was done, she tilted her head and gave Braska a sassy grin. "How do you like me now?"

Braska opened his mouth but stopped, as if checking his words, and smiled at her. "It suits you very well." The smile faltered as his eyes moved down over her distinct travelling outfit. "But what of your robe?"

Rikku shrugged. "Do I really need it here? The Guado hate Yevonites just as much as they hate the Al Bhed. Besides, it won't matter once we cross the Moonflow." It was true; most people would be too busy eating, sleeping and dreaming about Blitzball to pay attention to anything but their favorite athletes. Even the Al Bhed team had earned its share of notoriety in Luca. Rikku guessed her appearance would be the least of their concerns; more likely than not it was Jecht's boundless enthusiasm that would prove their real problem. She smirked. More like Auron's problem.

Braska's uncertainty evaporated. "You're right," he agreed, his shoulders straightening. "We can be free, here, for tonight."

Rikku's grin spread and she hooked her elbow around his own, dragging him down the hall. "That's right! No Summoners and no Guardians. Just two people hanging out!" They spilled onto one of the sleepy town's thoroughfares, and she released Braska to run towards the edge of the road and drink in the sight. "I gotta hand it to the Guado: they sure do know how to decorate a place!"

Braska grinned as he joined her side. "I do not believe this is all the fruits of Guado architecture. Much of it seems to be the natural beauty of the cavern." His eyes drifted the source of most of the soft illumination in the city. "I could not imagine the gateway of the Farplane to be otherwise."

Rikku found her eyes drawn to the path as well, and the momentary exhilaration she'd felt at their escape faded away. That's the way home. If the Fayth won't take me back, then I've got to try here.

"Are you coming with us into the Farplane later?" Braska's question caught her by surprise and for a moment, she stared, convinced she'd been caught red-handed in her plan to bail out from his Pilgrimage. If flinging herself into the Farplane could be called much of a plan. Running away seemed more accurate.

"I... don't know, yet," Rikku answered, shifting her weight.

"I know the Al Bhed beliefs, Rikkma. It's quite all right if you wish to remain outside of the Farplane while we pay our respects."

Rikku glanced up at the path again, frowning. "We'll see when we get there, okay?" Memories of the dream tickled at her mind, and Rikku shrugged off the feeling of discomfort and foreboding that swept through her.

.x.x.x.

"Whoa, Blondie, ya let yer hair down!"

Rikku winced and gave a small wave towards Jecht, who was shambling down the path towards them. Auron followed him, his face devoid of expression as he watched her return from her stroll with Braska.

"Well, Braska did too, so it's okay, see?" Gathering her courage, she forced herself to meet Auron's gaze and was surprised when he broke contact first, turning his head away. Rikku did a double-take. Since when did she win stare-downs with Auron? The man didn't blink! It was like he wasn't even trying!

"It looks like you enjoyed yourselves," Auron told Braska.

A mental circuit fired in Rikku's head. She licked her lips in apprehension – she hadn't meant for it to look like she ditched the group to run off with Braska, even if that was what had happened. What she really wanted was a chance to think, to distance herself and gather the courage to do what she knew needed to be done at the Farplane. Braska's presence was more of an accident than a planned date. Why did Auron have to start getting sensitive now, of all times?

Rikku slapped herself mentally in the midst of trying to come up with a justification for her behavior that would ease the tension off his face. Why do I need to apologize to him? I'm going to be leaving anyhow. Maybe it's better like this. Still... The guilt gnawed at her with more persistence than a hungry Zanarkand monkey. An idea struck her, and Rikku directed a brilliant smile towards Auron.

"You should let your hair down too, you know!"

He looked at her in surprise before his face hardened into a more typical frown. "A warrior-monk never wears his hair loose."

"Oh, I think we can bend the rules a little, Auron," Braska interjected. "I don't believe the Guado will protest if you step out of uniform just for today."

Jecht joined the assault, always eager for opportunities to heckle Auron. "Just leave the Stiff alone. Auron knows he can't beat my good looks – we don't gotta rub it in."

Rolling his eyes upward, Auron let out a gusty sigh and reached behind his head. Rikku's breath caught as he pulled away the leather tie holding his hair back, sending dark waves spilling over his shoulders. It contrasted sharply against the paleness of his skin and the bright red of his coat. Jecht had it all wrong – with his hair down, Auron looked even more like a Blitzball star than ever before. It was too bad that he was crap at swimming.

"This is ridiculous," Auron grumbled, reaching to tie back his hair at the sound of Rikku's smothered laughter.

"No, don't do that! I like it! I was just thinking it's a good thing there aren't that many girls around." She smiled at Auron shyly.

"Yeah," Jecht laughed, "Otherwise Blondie here would have to spend all her free time beatin' down the competition, right?"

"Shut your mouth," Auron snapped at Jecht. He kept his hair down, though, and Rikku hid another smile behind a cough.

"So where are we going now?" she asked, stretching her arms over her head and popping her shoulders.

Braska studied their group, then shrugged. "We are together now... perhaps we should see the Farplane. It is still early enough to be free of most visitors."

"Farplane?" Jecht asked as they moved towards the winding pathway to their destination. "What's that?"

"It is the place where our dead come to rest," Braska explained as they walked. "One of the most important summoner's duties is to gather the remnants of deceased spirits and send them to the Farplane before they can be warped by hatred and envy."

"Warped?" Jecht asked. "How can ya warp a soul? And how d'ya know you're sending them spirits to the right place? How d'ya even know dead people got souls?"

Auron laughed. "To think the Church let us travel on a Pilgrimage." Sobering, he continued in a quieter voice as they passed two stern-looking Guado sentries. "Don't say such things loudly. Yevon would persecute you as a heretic, and rightly so."

"It is true, Jecht," Braska explained. "Even if you disagree with the Church and its teachings, the presence of deceased souls in Spira is unmistakable. The body is a husk for the soul, and when freed from that constraint, the soul is released to wander the earth. When I perform a Sending, I can feel them. As an observer, you, too, can see them – they take on the form of pyreflies."

"Pyreflies. You're kiddin' me. Those are dead people?" Jecht looked disturbed. "Blondie, tell me the truth here!"

Rikku sighed. "Even if Yevon gets most things wrong, they can be right about stuff sometimes."

"Alright, so they're dead people!" Jecht frowned. "Holy shit. But, 'ey... aren't fiends, y'know, made of them pyrefly-thingies?"

"Exactly," Braska replied. "That is why it is a Summoner's duty to ensure the peace of the newly departed by Sending them. Otherwise, a malcontent soul will be transformed into a fiend."

Jecht was silent for a few moments, digesting the information. He scratched his head. "Yeah, but... uh, if you know all this already, why are there still so many fiends wanderin' around everywhere?" Uncomfortable silence blanketed the group, and Jecht scowled. "What'd I say?"

"Sin," Rikku replied, letting anger seep into her voice at the reminder of what she had to do. "The fiends are there because of Sin."

The discussion died out as the swirling portal of cool light came into view, and Jecht let out a low whistle. "Damn. And we're gonna go inside of that?"

Rikku tuned out the chatter as Jecht peppered the others with questions about the Farplane, pyreflies, and "seeing dead people." Thoughts of her dream and the future crowded her head, and she was glad that her friends were occupied. Her steps slowed as she trailed to the side of the path, caught up in her own thoughts. Of condemning Auron to his death and Jecht to many long years of torture and suffering. Braska's sacrifice, both in his life and through his death. But what about Yuna's sacrifice? Was it any less important? Or was it even more important? Hers had led to a world without Sin. A world without Auron.

Rikku studied the man in question – he was arguing with Jecht, of course. She smiled; yes, her wish had come true. This wasn't her Auron – he was gone, never to return; she understood that now. But he, too, was Auron, perhaps even more real than the man she'd thought she'd loved. He was a real person, not just a mishmash of pyreflies, hopes and failed dreams. As if he could feel her stare, he met her eyes, brows drawing together. Rikku ducked his gaze. I need to let him go.

"Auron! Stop spacin' out on me, I was in the middle of talkin' to ya!"

Jecht's rough voice broke the spell, and Rikku winced... she'd let herself get trapped into thinking about Auron again – selfishly, she guessed Bahamut would say. And that's why you have to leave, Rikku. You have to. Her feet refused to move.

"You have decided not to come inside with us then?" Braska asked her.

"I – " Rikku stalled, fidgeting. She looked at the swirling portal of light.

"No... please, Rikkma. You don't have to force yourself to make a decision right now. I can see that you are not ready," Braska told her, grasping her shoulders.

Rikku's eyes snapped to Braska as his voice echoed Bahamut's dream words. A look of confusion passed over his face and he released her. "Please wait for us here." It sounded more like an order than a request, and Rikku frowned. "Jecht, Auron."

"So you just step through?" Jecht peered at the wall of light, tapping it with a fingertip. Ripples spread through the air where he touched. At Braska's nod, Jecht repressed his shudder, and – mumbling something about ghosts under his breath – leapt through the portal in one giant bound. Braska made to follow him but paused when he noticed that Auron wasn't moving.

"Auron?"

"I'll wait," Auron said. "Too many memories."

Braska nodded. "Very well. Stay here with Rikkma." That, too, sounded like a command, and Rikku felt her frown deepening. Was Braska really ordering Auron to keep an eye on her? And more importantly, why? Before she could question him, he inhaled sharply and disappeared into the portal. Silence descended, and Rikku scuffed the toes of her boots on the rocky ground.

"Say, Auron," she called out after a few uncomfortable moments. "Why'd you stay? They're only gonna let us in once. This is your big chance!"

Auron shook his head. "My chance for what? To see the faces of the men I've killed in the name of Yevon?"

Rikku winced. "... I guess I hadn't thought about it like that." She scuffed her toe into the ground again. "You're not mad at me, are you? I mean, for taking a walk with Braska earlier?"

Sighing, Auron leaned against the wall and met her gaze. "I said you'd have nothing to worry about from me."

"Really?" She crept towards him. " 'Cause I could be wrong about this, but you kinda looked a little pissed off there."

Auron shrugged. "Do what you like."

Rikku smirked and inched closer to him. "Some girls might take that as an invitation, you know."

His reaction wasn't the one she'd hoped for; instead of laughing – or even better, reciprocating – he glared at her. "But don't toy with him." He paused. "Or me."

Rikku felt her already short temper – which wasn't being helped along by her lack of sleep – flaring in indignation. "Maybe I wouldn't toy with you if you'd throw me a bone here! In case you haven't noticed, I like you. And I don't mean it in that 'Oh, you're a great guy' kind of way. I like like you! But sometimes it feels like you don't even care!"

Auron frowned, tightening his grip on his arms. "I refuse to be a replacement for – "

Rikku stomped her foot. "That's a cheap excuse you told me to stop using already. Why don't you take your own advice? I'm talking to you right now, not him!" She clapped a hand over her mouth after she finished blurting out her protest. Mostly out of shock, but also to hide the grin that was spreading across her face.

There. She'd done it. Auron would probably burst a blood vessel, most likely one of hers, if he suspected she was laughing at him now, of all times, but she couldn't push down the feeling of elation blossoming in her chest. She'd said it to his face. Him. He was not the Auron she had foolishly crushed on, not the enigmatic man that no one, not even Tidus, could read. Not this Auron. For once, she was taking a chance, stretching out, and putting her heart on the line – and for a real person this time.

Rikku swallowed and dropped her hand away from her mouth as the enormity of her proposal hit her. This Auron was not a romanticized construct of her own mind. This Auron could, and probably would, shoot her down at any moment. If there was one thing young Auron had in common with his older, deader self, it was a complete lack of interest in the opposite sex.

Auron simply sighed in response and refused to meet her eye, muttering something under his breath.

"What was that?" Rikku asked, planting her hands on her hips. Whether Auron was cold-blooded or not, everyone knew the first rule in the battle of the sexes was to never admit defeat. "If you're not interested in me, you only have to say it, you know." She decided not to mention that she wouldn't necessarily be inclined to listen to him.

If there was one thing she was learning, it was that time with Auron was a luxury she didn't have. Even now, Rikku knew what they did have was stolen from the future. That was what her nightmare had been trying to tell her, wasn't it? That it was okay to have a selfish dream. As long as you knew it was a dream and that one day, you'd have to wake up. So what if she was making him uncomfortable? If all she had was borrowed time, she'd stalk him if necessary.

Besides, time travel doesn't count as stalking, she exculpated. Relatively speaking, he was the one who was inconveniencing her, right?

"... it's acceptable," Auron said, still not facing her.

"What?" Rikku pulled herself out of her thoughts and struggled to make a connection. "Wait, say that again!" she demanded.

Was Auron... flushing? Huh. I guess he's not a graceful blusher, either, Rikku noted with a gleeful smirk. That, or the stone-faced Guardian was coming down with a mild skin rash. She held her tongue, enjoying his growing look of discomfort.

"Your hair. It looks... acceptable." He paused at Rikku's obvious hesitation. "Right now," he added, finally meeting her stare.

Rikku glowed under the compliment. "You like my hair down?" she asked, patting it self-consciously. Then her glow faded into indignation. "Wait, just acceptable? Is that the best you can do?" Life just wasn't fair, Rikku decided. Braska and Auron could put the best of Luca's Blitzball celebrities to shame just by letting their hair down, and all she got was an "acceptable." She scowled and crossed her arms.

"It looks better this way than that crow's nest you usually wear," he added with a slight hint of humor, refusing to give in to her pout. The smirk faded, but Auron didn't look away. "I think it makes you look more mature." He paused again and let his eyes flicker over her face, as if searching for something. "And more difficult to ignore."

"That's not a bad thing," she said, taking a few steps towards him, but stopped when he turned away.

"Braska noticed, too."

She frowned. "But I want you to notice." Her statement hung in the air, unchallenged, and she took a stab at the invisible wall standing between them. "You know, this morning... that wasn't something we planned. It was just a coincidence! I woke up early and so did Braska, and... and we both kind of decided to go out." Auron stiffened and she winced at her choice of words.

"Not like a date! Just to look around the city! I mean, if I wanted a date, I would've asked him. He just sorta came along, you know?" Hmm… this honesty stuff wasn't going quite as far as she'd hoped, judging from the expression on Auron's face.

"Rikku... you're not afraid of facing your feelings, are you?" Auron looked at her; the motion caused his hair to spill over his face, obscuring one eye.

She swallowed. "No."

He tilted his head towards the Farplane. "Then join Braska."

Rikku balled her hands into fists. "I think staying right here is acceptable, thank you very much." She took another few steps towards Auron and then hefted herself onto the ledge right next to him, grinning when he didn't shift away. "Besides... I'm not afraid of how I feel. That's why I'd rather be with you right now."

Auron said nothing, but she managed to invade his personal space without resistance. He still faced away from her, arms crossed, but some of the tension faded from his posture as she leaned first a shoulder, and then a cheek against his exposed back.

"You're a foolish girl," Auron told her gruffly, but allowed her to remain seated against him as he stared into the soft, liquid glow of the Farplane.

Rikku closed her eyes and ignored his words, choosing instead to soak in the warmth radiating from his body. This Auron was flesh and blood, no matter how cold he sounded. Contentment flooded her as she pressed an ear against his coat, trying to find the beat of his heart. She let herself be lulled by the gentle sound of his steady breathing and the soft, distant hum of the Farplane.

Nothing's stopping you from going back right now.

Rikku squeezed her eyes together and moved her head just enough to brush the fabric of Auron's coat with her lips. She inhaled deeply, relishing the musky scent of the sweat-stained garment. Traces of ozone and the faintest whiff of Macalania's forests mixed in with the smell that was uniquely Auron, and Rikku had to stop herself from reaching out to grip it and clutch it to her chest – particularly since Auron was still wearing the garment.

Maybe it's selfish, but this is my dream.

She didn't know how much time passed as she half-dozed, free of her worries and content to just be in that moment. Auron remained silent but she could tell from the soft, steady pull of his breath that he wasn't sleeping. Did he feel the satisfaction she did? Did being so near bring him the same comfort? Rikku didn't want to ask.

Instead, she kept her eyes closed and allowed herself to picture Auron's face, smoothing away the worry lines that usually marked his face. Reaching up, she grabbed a strand of his hair and cracked an eye open.

"Can I have this?" she asked.

Auron grunted in response, not bothering to turn around, and Rikku took that as a sign of acceptance. With a sharp jerk, she pulled the hair free of his head.

Auron twitched in pain and sat up, causing Rikku to lose her balance. He turned around and glared, and Rikku giggled as she twined the hair around her finger. "Something to remember you by," she murmured, tucking it safely away in one of her pockets.

Opening his mouth, Auron seemed like he was about to say something. He changed his mind, however, after looking at her closely. "I'm still here," he replied, searching her face.

As long as you remember you have to wake up someday.

Rikku couldn't bring herself to reassure him with a smile, and instead looked at the Farplane. "I – " she started, and then stopped, squinting at the portal as two nebulous shadows formed behind the barrier. "I think they're back," she finished, pointing.

Jecht's voice bounced over the steps, too loud in Rikku's ears as he exited the Farplane. "... besides my old man! It's cool and all, but I didn't see anyone I knew!"

Braska was right behind him, his modulated voice more muted than usual. "You should be thankful that you have known so little loss in your Zanarkand." He paused on the steps, catching sight of Rikku and Auron sitting together, and stared for a moment before continuing his descent.

Rikku bit her lip and glanced at Auron, whose brow had creased. She hopped off of the ledge and watched Braska approach. He looked even more tired than he had during their trek through the snowfields. Even Jecht caught on to the mood and fell silent.

"He saw Raenn," Auron supplied under his breath, and Rikku nodded her head in acknowledgement.

She tensed when Braska stopped before her to study her face. He said nothing, and she fidgeted under his piercing gaze. "Umm, Braska?" Why was he just standing there? It was the same as in the agency before – almost as if he was looking through her.

Without warning, Braska reached out and caught a lock of her hair. He smiled faintly before releasing it, although his eyes remained cool and icy.

"Put your hair back up, Rikkma." Once again, it sounded like an order, not a request.

Rikku bit back the feeling of hurt that sprung up in her chest as Braska started his return towards Guadosalam without even acknowledging her. He'd withdrawn from them, though it didn't take a genius to figure out why. Heck, even Jecht could understand what was bothering Braska right now.

"So, do these Guado have any good pubs we could hit before we go?" Jecht asked, breaking the silence.

Or maybe not, Rikku amended as she spun away from them to separate a few long strands of her hair. She ignored Auron as he brushed by, choosing instead to stay behind and re-do her hairstyle. The Farplane was bringing out the best in everybody, and all she really wanted at the moment was the same thing she had that morning – to be left alone.

.x.x.x.

Auron scowled as he left Rikku behind, catching up to Jecht. "Searching for a pub here would be inappropriate behavior, even for someone like you."

" 'ey! Whaddaya mean, 'someone like me?' I'm just a simple guy lookin' for a good time!" Jecht shrugged. "You need to lighten up, man."

Auron sucked in his breath to reply, but Braska stopped him. "Let him go," he said. "You have my permission to leave, Jecht. Do what you like, so long as you rejoin us by this evening."

"Hah! Looks like you lost this match, pal!" Jecht waved triumphantly as he jogged back towards the city – a disgruntled Auron and an unnaturally calm Braska left behind.

"My lord!" Auron sputtered, turning to Braska with a look of complete disbelief. "Why did you give that fool permission to drink himself into a stupor? He'll only embarrass – "

Braska waved his hand, silencing Auron's protest with a shake of his head. "You do not understand. Jecht needs this."

"Of course he needs this!" Auron exploded. "He's a drunkard! He'll always need to drink!" Taking a deep breath, Auron pinched the bridge of his nose and forced himself to calm down. "I understand if you're upset with us, but that's no reason to allow Jecht to run wild."

Braska's expression flickered; his voice was weary, but with an air of long-suffering patience, he strove to answer Auron. "As much as he likes to hide it, Jecht is also only human. He misses his family."

Auron grimaced. "What family? I and half of Guadosalam heard Jecht's claim that he didn't see anyone he recognized in there." He crossed his arms.

Braska offered him a small, humorless smile. "All the more reason to miss his family, would you not say?" Though his tone was mild, Braska's words were blunt, his posture stiff. Auron remained silent, and Braska sighed with exasperation. "Let him go. It would be better for Jecht to attempt to overcome his sorrow in a place less steeped in them."

"... and what if he doesn't?" Auron said it as more than mere possibility. "Are we to allow him to drink his way through the rest of this Pilgrimage?"

"Jecht is stronger than you think," Braska snapped. "He will overcome this in time."

"Perhaps," Auron said, and Braska fell silent at the unvoiced accusation of hypocrisy. Just like you recovered from Raenn's death? A tense moment stretched between the two; they both kept their gaze away from Rikku, who hadn't followed them.

Auron capitulated first. He sighed and rubbed an uneasy hand through his hair, scooping it back up into its usual ponytail. "This is ridiculous." Looking at Braska, his deep frown eased along with his tone, losing much of its anger. "All of Spira is steeped in sorrow. Leaving the walls of Guadosalam won't allow Jecht to escape it any more than finding solace in a bottle would."

Some of the stiffness faded from Braska's posture; the corners of his mouth were pulling into a wry grin. "It is strange, but I had always thought I would be happier to hear you standing up to me." He looked over his shoulder at Rikku, who was bent away from them. She was struggling with her wild hair, and the faint hint of amusement left his expression. "Sometimes we need to forget, no matter what the price may be."

Auron allowed himself to follow Braska's example, watching Rikku. The illumination of the Farplane cast a bluish halo around her while at the same time encasing her body in shadows. He was reminded of the Espada, of the contrast of harsh sun glinting off bright snow against the strange creature's light-absorbing form.

Watching her, Auron understood they were arguing over more than Jecht's drinking habits; he'd let himself be goaded into making a choice regarding the girl. A choice that didn't suit Braska, even if the other man had been doing much of the goading.

A stab of uncertainty plagued him, and Auron grimaced in displeasure at the unfamiliar feeling. His life had always been lived on the principles of certainty – he knew who he was, what he believed in and where he was going. Those things were crumbling now, like sandcastles washed away in high tide. They had been since his fall from Yevon's grace, but meeting Rikku transformed slow erosion into a cascading avalanche.

Maybe it was no coincidence that she looked so like the fiend that had nearly destroyed them in the snowfields of Macalania. She might succeed where the Espada had failed. He looked away and focused on Braska.

"I am not angry at either of you," Braska said. "Rikkma cares deeply for you." A long, pained silence hung in the air, and Auron hid his wince. Braska's sandcastles were also crumbling into dust, creating a strange dichotomy in his usually placid demeanor. "You do not have to be ashamed of your own feelings for her," he said so softly that Auron almost missed the words. "People cannot control whom they choose to love."

Love? Auron flinched at the word and Braska's head jerked up; with a start, he realized Braska had been talking to himself. The other man gathered his composure and smoothed his face into its usual smile, as though they had not been arguing just moments before. "It is not something you should fear, and it is your choice this time. You have nothing to lose if you will admit you can have feelings. In fact, you have everything to gain."

And there it was; perhaps the one force that could stop the turmoil Rikku had released from destroying their small party. But it was only Braska, their Summoner, who was strong enough to harness it – the one thing he clung to more tightly than his own grief.

Duty.

Auron's uncertainty faded into a sharp spike of anger. He held onto it for as long as he could, because it was marginally better than the shame.

"My feelings?" Auron closed his expression. "My feelings don't matter, and neither do hers. What matters is the Pilgrimage – "

"No," Braska said vehemently. "Love is what matters. It is the one thing that gives Spira strength. Not the Pilgrimages, nor the Summoners..." He paused to catch his breath. "Love is what allows people to continue living in this world of Sin – what gives people their true hope. Love of life, of this world, even of self – but most of all love for others. My love for Raenn is what makes this Pilgrimage possible."

Auron looked at Braska, his expression hard. "And love for Rikkma could end it," he answered. "Yours or mine... it doesn't really matter, does it?"

Braska's lips twitched into a bitter smile. "Always blunt, aren't you? I'm not ashamed of my own feelings, either. But I know what I need to do. Nothing will deter me from that path. You, on the other hand..." His face softened. "Auron, you will have your whole life ahead of you when we have completed our journey. Do you really want to spend the rest of that life alone?"

"Do you think me blind? I'm your Guardian before I'm your friend," Auron countered. "My job is to protect you from harm, not to be the cause of it."

Braska pursed his lips together and resumed his slow pace down the rocky corridor. "That is exactly your problem. You still have not fully understood which of your two roles is more important." He spoke carefully, as though forming the words were difficult. "I am asking you to follow your heart as a friend."

"And as your Guardian, I'm refusing," Auron replied.

"One day you might realize that you do not have the power to make that choice," Braska chided him.

.x.x.x.

There was a definite difference between wanting a little alone time and being left in the dust, Rikku thought with a touch of annoyance. She sprinted down the pathway, still struggling to scoop her unruly hair into its trademark ponytail. "Hey, wait you guys!" she called out, tripping over her feet as a chunk of hair fell into her eyes.

Auron and Braska faced her; it looked like she was interrupting some sort of discussion. Jecht, of course, was nowhere to be seen; apparently, the speed of his gait was directly proportional to the amount of bars in the vicinity.

Braska bestowed a mild smile upon Rikku when she came to a stop beside them. "Rikkma. I must apologize for my rudeness just now. My request was very selfish."

Rikku blinked at Braska's phrasing and glanced at Auron, who ignored her and looked in the opposite direction. Just as well, Rikku thought; being able to look this Auron in the face wouldn't make her decision any easier. She took a deep breath, oblivious to the tension between the two men as she waded through her own jumbled thoughts.

It's now or never.

Steeling herself, Rikku looked Braska squarely in the eye.

"Braska... I want to stay here a little longer. Will it be alright if I meet you back at the inn later? There's something I need to do."

Braska looked surprised at her request. "Something you need to do? Did you change your mind about the Farplane?"

Rikku nodded. "I have to see if I can face my own memories," she supplied, almost managing to keep her voice from quavering. Not enough, however, as Auron gave her a perturbed look over his shoulder.

Braska's expression softened. "So you'll be leaving us, then?" he asked, and Rikku couldn't help but shiver at his choice of words.

"I..." She swallowed, feeling Auron's eyes boring into her. "I just want to see," she mumbled.

"Ah," Braska said. Then he gave her a genuine, heartbreaking smile. "We will be at the inn until tomorrow morning. Take as long as you need." With a short bow, he continued down the passage. Auron held back, still staring at Rikku.

"How long will you need?" he asked, searching her face. She could tell what he was really asking: are you leaving us?

Rikku hesitated. Even if it was time for her dream to end, she couldn't just go without saying some sort of goodbye. Not now, when she'd finally managed to steal a little piece of happiness for herself.

"I don't know," she admitted. "But if I'm not back by tomorrow morning, don't wait up for me."

For once, Auron didn't grow angry, as she expected him to. Instead, he looked grim. "Braska already knows you're planning to leave us, doesn't he?"

Rikku shook her head in denial. "I don't know. I mean I don't want to, but I – "

Auron cut her off. "No. Don't tell me. Do what you need to do."

Rikku gaped. "What, no arguments? Since when did you get so understanding, huh? What exactly did Braska say to you anyway?"

Auron sighed and passed a hand over his eyes. After a moment's pause, he answered her. "Sometimes... we need to put friendship over duty." He dropped his palm and gave her a hard look. "Go, then. Do whatever it is that you need to."

Rikku stared at him. "I'm sorry."

Auron studied her for a moment longer. "I need to be with Braska now," he answered. "But I'll wait for you, Rikku."

She watched him walk away. "I'll wait for you," he had said. Not "we'll wait for you." Just I. Auron.


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