49: Family Ties

The return to their designated cabin was just as silent and tense as their departure.

Braska, Jecht, and Auron filed in, but Keyakku grabbed Rikku's arm before she could follow. "Don't go back with them," he said in a quiet undertone. "Think of what you're risking."

Auron stepped back out of the room, expression flat. "Release her or I'll break your arm."

Keyakku frowned. "This is the company you're keeping?" he asked, voice heavy with disapproval. "What would Pops say?"

"That you're a backstabbing traitor," she replied, still smarting from his betrayal. She yanked her arm away. "You'd fit right in with Yevon's clergy. They always think they're doing the right thing too."

"Fine," Keyakku said, retreating with ill grace. "I can't stop you from making a mistake. But remember, it's our lives you're playing with too, not just your own." He glared at Auron. "If you know what's good for you, you'll stay away from my sister. She could end up destroying everything."

"Unlike you?" Auron replied. "Just look how well you've handled this situation so far. Will you attempt to convince Braska to Send me next?"

"That was – " Keyakku paused. "You know what? Never mind. Do what you want. I need to start repairs on the ship." His cheek rippled; she couldn't be sure if it was his nervous tic or just the sheer force of his grinding teeth. Reluctantly, he turned to face her, his expression warring between anger and embarrassment. "Rikku…" His cheek twitched again, then he let out an explosive sigh. "Look, if you're as good as you say, we could use your help when you're done here."

She rolled her eyes. "Please! I know this ship better than you. I'll help later." She gestured at the open doorway. "In case you missed it, I have to clean up this mess, first!"

"You really shouldn't – "

"Buh-bye," Rikku answered, grabbing Auron and stepping inside. She stuck out her tongue, then closed the door in Keyakku's face.

"This one's mine," Jecht said, hefting himself onto his bed, then cursing as his head hit the low ceiling. "Ain't they got somethin' better on this ship, Blondie? This place makes the Winno look like a luxury cruise."

"This is the luxury cabin," she told him, pointedly not looking at Braska or Auron. Jecht, ever-loyal, go-with-the-flow Jecht was the safest option for her attention right now. "The Love Boat is a deep-sea salvager. We use it for missions, not comfort. Most of the crew sleeps wherever they want to on bedrolls."

Jecht flipped through his primer while she spoke. He scratched his head. "So, The Love Boat? Why the dumb name?"

Braska seated himself on the lower bed across from Jecht, removing his helmet and placing it by his side. "This is Cid's boat," he said. "Cid was always a great admirer of the concept of love. So much so that he tattooed it across his head as a declaration of intent."

So he's finally talking again? She spared Braska a glance and decided to try for normalcy. You can do it, Rikku! He's just your uncle, that's all!

It didn't help.

Taking a deep breath, she pasted on a grin and put a hand on her hip. "Yeah, we all thought his name for this boat was stupid, too. Father doesn't always think things through when he gets excited."

Braska stared at her – maybe she shouldn't have entered into a fake face contest with the mask master – before dropping his head into his hands and groaning.

She winced. Okay, maybe he's not ready to work past that whole 'Uncle' thing just yet.

Auron remained standing; he'd made no move to reclaim his hand after she'd grabbed him. His reticence may have been prompted by shock – it hadn't been an easy afternoon for anyone, really – but his touch was still firm and reassuring.

"So, I guess I owe you guys an explanation…" she began.

"Nope," Jecht called out, turning a page in the primer. He shifted, then yelped as his knee banged against the ceiling. "Well, unless it's why this room was made for midgets. How can the ship be so damn big but this place so small? Are all Al Bhed tiny people or somethin'?"

"Maybe your head's just too big," she said flatly, mouth running on autopilot.

Auron spoke up. "Why aren't you more surprised, Jecht? Is it because you are also a time traveler?"

"Huh. So, ya finally believe me? Nice." Jecht snorted. "It's somethin' like that. 'Sides, I already knew."

Braska did look up at that. "What?"

"We talked a little 'bout it. Ya know, while you and the Stiff were off takin' bets on who had more of the crazy, way back at the start of this Pilgrimage."

Auron shifted beside her. "Your private conversation at the Mi'ihen Highroad?"

Jecht scratched his nose. "Even before that, man. You two slowpokes just can't keep up, can ya?" He glanced over the edge of his primer towards Braska. "But she didn't tell me you were her uncle, no. How ya takin' that one, B?"

Braska dropped his head back into his hands. "Not very well," he answered, voice muffled.

"Technically, we're not blood related," Rikku pointed out. Braska hunched further and groaned again. "Okay, not helping. Got it."

"Hnn," Auron said, releasing her to remove his sword. He leaned it against the wall and rolled his shoulders, relaxing. "For once, Jecht is right. All of this can wait. None of us are in any shape to deal with this news after battling Sin."

She wasn't the only one startled by Auron's declaration. "You're slacking off? Aren't you the one who's always going on about keeping our noses to the grindstone?" She narrowed her eyes in suspicion. "Wait. Who are you, and what did you do with Responsible Auron? You haven't snapped, have you?"

Auron's annoyed look answered her well enough.

She raised her hands in defense. "Just figured you, of all people, would want answers – "

He pulled her into a tight embrace; she squeaked. "All that matters right now is that you are not dead," he said, "although you seem determined to shorten my lifespan."

Something in his voice stopped her from making any more jokes. She relaxed in his grip, trying to reassure him with her presence. It was just as he'd predicted; she'd introduced him to the weaknesses of his heart. He was admitting it, now, holding her in his arms without a care for logic, reason, or even Jecht's pointed quips about public displays.

Auron released her, his lips quirking into a faint smile. His face was still lined with tension and exhaustion, but he seemed more settled than earlier. "I can't assure you I won't snap and stab your brother later, but we should rest first."

"You guys do that," she said. "I've gotta help the others fix this hunk of junk. Who knows if Sin will come back for seconds or not? Besides, this was my ship, too. I can't let my baby suffer!" She patted the wall of the cabin.

"Wait a sec!" Jecht called out, sitting up. "You ain't goin' nowhere before – " Whatever he'd been about to say cut off as his head smacked into the ceiling. "Augh!" he yelled, collapsing backwards.

Gulping, Rikku turned to face him. Guess it was a little too easy, huh? "Before what?"

"Damn midget people," he muttered under his breath while fishing through his pockets. Finding what he was looking for, he tossed a small object towards her.

Catching it reflexively, Rikku looked at the sphere he'd thrown. It winked at her in the light, and a brief feeling of warmth suffused her palm. Lenne. She smiled.

"Before you take her back," Jecht grumbled irately, still nursing his bruised forehead. "I knew I wouldn't need that! Don't abandon us so easy next time, Blondie. We're buddies, right?"

She took more care than usual to slot the Songstress sphere back into her belt, fiddling with it until she was sure she'd blinked away the excess moisture gathering in her eyes. "Yeah," she said, looking up with a grateful smile.

Auron gripped her chin in one hand, gently turning her to face him. "Come back to us when you're finished. You're still a Guardian."

"I promise. I'm finishing this Pilgrimage with all of you. You're stuck with me whether you like it or not." She smiled, and Auron released her with a satisfied nod.

Braska cleared his throat as she made her way to the door, and she glanced over her shoulder. He was staring at her, frowning. After a moment, he seemed to come to a decision, and his expression cleared. "Despite everything that has happened…" He did seem to choke for a moment, but recovered gracefully enough, "Auron is right. Do not let Kei order your life here." He smiled weakly. "And – you will always be welcome among us, despite what he may say."

Some of Rikku's confidence returned. "Thanks."

" 'Sides. Team JAB is a crap name and you know it," Jecht added, returning to his reading. "Don't ruin the magic, Blondie. I worked hard to come up with that one."

She smirked. "Now who could resist an argument like that?" Her smile softened. "I'll be back as fast as I can, I promise." Pecking Auron's cheek, she waved and skipped out of the room.

Once the door was shut behind her, she stopped and took a deep breath. That… went better than I expected. I didn't think they'd let me off the hook just like that. They probably wouldn't, come to think of it, but she appreciated the space all three men were clearly giving her at the moment. It seemed Braska's Pilgrimage had changed everyone, after all. One door closed, another opened, they say. I guess I trust them more than my own brother. A sense of bittersweet satisfaction filled her. And somehow, they trust me now, too.

"Hey! You there!" One of the Al Bhed technicians called out; it was the woman who had manned the laser during the battle. "Keyakku said you'd be helping us with the repairs. You're the one they call Rikkma, right?"

"That's me," Rikku said with a wan smile, noting the return of her fake name. "Yeah, I can help out a little. You guys don't mind?"

The woman shrugged, her eyes hidden behind her thick goggles. "No idea why you're keeping company with a summoner. Especially that one. But, Keyakku said you're okay, and his word's good enough for me. All of us, really."

Rikku blinked, surprised, before sour realization set in. He only wants your help, the small, still-wounded part of her mind snarled. Just wait until my ship's fixed, I bet he'll try something again.

Not that it mattered; The Love Boat was just as much her own as it was his, and she was going to get it back in action no matter what her brother – or anyone else for that matter – thought of her. Wiping her expression clean, she smiled pleasantly at the other woman.

"Where do you need me the most?" she asked.

"Everywhere," the tech replied with a groan. "Name's Ashe, by the way. Nice meeting you. Now, if you've still got access to whatever miracle you pulled on our gun, we could use it outside. Both of the rudders are completely busted and what's left of the wave fins are falling apart, too."

Rikku grinned and pulled on her goggles, adjusting them. "Now you're speaking my language," she said. "Let's get to it!"

.x.x.x.

Repairs were not quite as quick or simple as Rikku wished.

Sin's attack had left The Love Boat adrift in the middle of the ocean, powerless and barely floating. By the end of the first day, they'd managed to patch up the most critical leaks on the catamaran, but were still dead in the water. Keyakku was hesitant to put his crew on rotating repair shifts since a good portion of his manpower was spent guarding their unexpected passengers – the remaining crusaders.

At the start of the second day, she convinced her brother to let Auron handle the crusaders, allowing the Al Bhed to devote their full attention to the ship's restoration.

By the end of the second day, Auron convinced the crusaders to pitch in and help with the repair job.

But, even with all hands literally being on deck, it was a slow and painstaking process; while the young, idealistic crusaders were more open-minded about machina than most of the faithful, they were still, ultimately, a military arm of Yevon's Church. Auron's own easy acceptance of their circumstances made as much of a distinct impression on the group as the open hostility he and Keyakku exchanged.

Jecht, on the other hand, was more a case of willing but not able. Being a capable swimmer, he tried to assist with repairs on the ship's hull, but once he attempted to fix one of the boat's wave power generators by punching it until it lit up, he was dishonorably discharged from his duties.

He'd looked so pleased to be helping, too.

Since then, he'd spent his time studying his primer and making halting conversation with the Al Bhed.

And then there was Braska, who worked tirelessly to heal the wounded and offer counsel – where he could – for the crusaders. Unfortunately, the infamous summoner who'd snatched away their leader's sister was something of an oddity among the Al Bhed; it was only thanks to Keyakku's order that the crew weren't actively heckling Braska. It was still clear, however, that not everyone shared Keyakku's willingness to forgive and forget.

After the third day of loaded glances and quiet whispers, Rikku decided she'd seen enough of Braska politely loitering while trying to ignore the uncomfortable scrutiny. It was simple to catch him alone; Keyakku took a special delight in assigning her duties wherever she was least likely to be able to spend any time near Auron.

"Hey," she called out to Braska as she passed him. "You're with me today."

Braska started and unclasped his hands. He turned away from the edge of the boat, where he'd been giving his best impression of turning into a statue. "Rikkma? Has someone been injured?"

"Nope," she said, unwinding her bandana as she led him back to their small cabin. Stopping by the door, she unlatched her garment grid and handed it to him, along with the strip of cloth. She glanced around the hallway, then lowered her voice. "Put that on inside and change into the Alchemist dressphere. We're going to the engine room today, and I don't want you catching on fire or losing any fingers. Plus, I don't think they'll recognize you without your helmet if you put some goggles on and hide your hair. And don't say anything to the crew," she added with another nervous look over her shoulder. "We'll be swarmed if anyone figures out that belt's a piece of machina and not my own special magic!"

Braska looked down at the belt in surprise. "Thank you for your consideration, but… what do you need me there for?"

"Oh, trust me," she smirked, pushing him into the room. "Now hurry up before someone sees you!"

A minute later, they were both walking purposefully down the hall. Braska kept his goggles up and his head down, and Rikku made sure to do all the talking as they wove between the technicians scrambling around the inside of the ship.

"Rikkma! You're finally here," Maqui greeted her when she approached the doors to the engine room. He paused to converse with another Al Bhed before nodding and turning back to her. "Sorry," he said. "I know Ashe's been keeping you busy outside, but we've been trying to get the power back online since yesterday without any luck. Maybe you could give it a shot?"

Rikku crossed her hands behind her back and swayed, surreptitiously directing Braska into the power room. She aimed a thousand-watt smile towards Maqui while Braska slipped inside. "No problem! Fixing things up is my specialty."

"No kidding," Maqui agreed. "I've never seen anyone build brand new machina out of the old salvaged stuff. Where'd you learn that anyway?"

"Oh, heh-heh." Rikku laughed. She somehow didn't think he'd believe her if she told him the truth: that she'd studied under Gippal, their resident six-year-old troublemaker in Bikanel. "Self-taught, I guess."

"By the way," Maqui began with a hopeful grin. "If you aren't doing anything for dinner tonight, would you want to join me in the mess hall – "

Rikku cringed and pointed to the engine room, smiling so hard it felt like her face would split. "Who knows? Keyakku has me running ragged here." She was willing to bet he'd put Maqui up to asking for the date, too. "Maybe next time, huh?"

"All right. No worries! Anyway, I cleared the room out for you like you asked, but just holler if you need some extra hands. Good luck in there." He passed over a toolbox. "Oh, and take these since you don't have one of your own." With a friendly nod, he returned to directing his own set of repairs.

Stepping into the engine room, she let the doors shut behind her. Dropping the toolbox, she removed her goggles and pinched the bridge of her nose.

"You're picking up Auron's habits," Braska observed with a note of amusement. "I take it you are as thrilled now as I was when I gained a new admirer in Besaid?"

With an inarticulate sound of frustration, she threw her arms up. "I don't even know if I have a new admirer! What I do know is that I have a stupid, interfering, mom of an older brother."

"Kei does not approve of Auron. They truly haven't been getting along very well, have they?"

She stomped over to the darkened power generator, analyzing it with a critical eye. "I wouldn't know. Keyakku makes sure the only time we get to see each other is right before I'm about to drop from exhaustion." She filed her disgruntlement away; as annoying as Keyakku was being, she couldn't afford to get distracted. My baby needs me! She reached out and placed a comforting hand on her ship. Don't worry, Mama's gonna rescue you, sweetie. Tapping her finger on her chin, she studied the machina engine. "Forget about that. I called you here for an actual reason."

"Oh?" Braska said, moving to her side. He looked at the engine, bemused. "If you wanted me for some heavy lifting, this isn't the proper outfit for the task." The smile he gave her was entirely too friendly. Apparently, the Alchemist dressphere was working its Al Bhed magic on Braska's normally-reserved personality.

Well, at least it's helping him get over this whole family thing, right?

Ignoring his grin, Rikku rolled her eyes. "If I wanted heavy lifting, I'd've called Jecht. What we need here is finesse, and you have more of that than I do." She pointed at the machina. "I've got to get in there and fix up the wiring. Once that's done, the whole thing's gonna need a jump. That's where you come in."

Braska looked intrigued. "A jump?" he asked. "You require my assistance to jump on that machina? While I admit I am unfamiliar with Al Bhed technology, it strikes me as an odd request." He eyed her. "I know you are only trying to ease my stay here, but wouldn't this still be Jecht's field of expertise?"

"As if I'd let Jecht near here after what he did to the outer generator! I meant I need you to fry it with a Thundaga spell, one aimed with precision and power. More power than I can produce, actually. You'll have to hit it in two places that I'll show you later, or we might blow the whole thing."

"I see," Braska said. "Then, thank you for allowing me to assist you. I was beginning to feel rather useless up there."

She picked up the toolbox and set it down near the engine. "Well, you're gonna have to spend the next hour or so feeling pretty useless down here instead," she said, tying her hair back. "It'll take me a while to fix this thing. But I'll bet I'm still better company than the touchy guys on deck. Now…" She paused and surveyed the room. "Where is it?"

"Where is what?" Braska shuffled around the small room, looking completely out of his element, despite his costume.

Ignoring him, she continued scouring under the pipes, searching for her prize. "Ah-ha!" She straightened from where she'd bent over, pulling out the wheeled board. "My creeper!"

Braska made a choking sound; when she turned around, his eyes whipped upwards to study the ceiling a little too intently.

"Are you okay? I know it's a little steamy, but I really thought you'd feel better down here." She sighed in disappointment and wiped some sweat from her brow. "I guess you can go back upstairs if you can't take the heat, though."

Braska closed his eyes and muttered something under his breath. Then he smiled. "No, no. I will be fine, thank you."

She side-eyed him, then shrugged. "Alright, but let me know if you're feeling funny before you collapse. Auron'll tan my hide if I don't take good care of you."

Braska gave her a hard stare. "Rikku. I will be fine as long as you work quietly and efficiently," he emphasized. "Now please, for the love of Yevon, do not regale me with tales of Auron spanking you right now."

Her face flamed. "That wasn't – I didn't – !" She sputtered, then gave up. "Urg! Maybe you should take that dressphere off after all," she mumbled. "You're acting kinda gross."

"Gladly," Braska agreed with some relief as he deactivated the sphere. And collapsed. "Good grief, it's stifling in here," he gasped, pulling at the neck of his robes. "You weren't joking, were you?"

"We don't only dress like this because it's fun," she said. "Fixing up machina is hot, messy work. We can't wear all that Yevonite stuff – we'd suffocate, not to mention getting all that loose cloth caught up in our machina." She pointed to an engine he was leaning against. "Speaking of, don't sit too close to that while you're wearing those robes."

Braska rested his chin in his palm and reactivated the dressphere.

She watched him transform, jaw hanging. "I thought we agreed you'd put that thing away!"

He shrugged. "It's a risk I'm willing to take. Just because Jecht believes I can heal any bodily injury does not mean I wish to test the theory on myself." His expression turned coy. "Besides, I see no need to fight a losing battle with my sense of virtue in this heat."

"Right," she drawled, unconvinced by his sudden smirk. "Well, whatever. Just stay out of my way and make yourself comfy. I'll let you know when I need you. Uh. Need your help," she corrected. "With electrocuting things. Like the machina!" she added as Braska's grin continued to widen. "Fine, if you're gonna be like that, you can just ignore me and entertain yourself – wait!" Rikku slapped her forehead. "You know what, just forget I said… like, all of that."

"Fix your machina before you add any more steam to this room," Braska commanded, leaning back and crossing his arms behind his head. "Do not worry about me, I will be fine here."

Huh. I know that expression. He's planning something. Maybe I shouldn't have given him the Alchemist dressphere. Kicking the creeper into place, she gave Braska one last suspicious look and refocused on the more important task at hand – repairing the engine. Laying back, she rolled herself under the machina and studied the damage, chewing her lip. Well, poopie. This might be a little harder than I thought.

The next thirty minutes passed with her tinkering and sweating enough that she was pretty sure she was leaving a Rikku-shaped watermark on the creeper. Wait, something's missing here. Shoot, it's all the way in the bottom of the toolbox. Too far. Ugh, do I really have to move that much? It's so hot… "Braska," she called. "Can you hand me the bundle of green wires and the pneumatic grinder with the two millimeter drill bit?"

"Hmm?" he mumbled. "The what?"

She rolled her eyes and held her hand out, waving in the general direction of her toolbox. "The green wires in the toolbox, even you should be able to get that one. And the…hmm. The thing with the blue handle that turns really fast and buzzes when you click it," she elaborated. "It's near the bottom."

"Oh! Wires. Of course, just a moment."

Rikku heard him rummaging around inside the toolbox. Something landed in her hand and she grunted in thanks. Then she held up the wires and frowned, before tossing them back in Braska's general direction. "Hey! I said the green wires! Green! These are black. Are you colorblind or something?"

"Ah. Right, green," he sighed.

Another bundle of wires landed in her hands, this time, they were the right color. "Great. Now, the drill?"

"Yes. The drill," he answered, sounding distracted.

Her brow ticked, and she slid a little further out, chancing a look at Braska. His chin was in his palm again, and he was staring at her thighs with a lewd smile on his face. That's how he's entertaining himself? She fumed. Right. This means war. "Hey!" Braska's eyes snapped up. "Stop staring at my legs and get me that tool!"

"Sorry," he said, though he didn't sound very repentant. "This one, correct?" He held up an orange screwdriver and Rikku narrowed her eyes at him. The process repeated itself for a wrench, a nut driver, and a pair of wire clippers before he landed on the drill she needed.

"Glad to know you're listening," she muttered, pulling herself back under the engine.

"Anytime," he said serenely, and she could almost feel his gaze resettle on the exposed lower half of her body.

"I'm gonna try something," she called out, just to be fair. The absent-minded noise he made in response sealed his fate. Concentrating, Rikku whispered to herself and triangulated the angles of the room in her mind. It was full of delicate equipment, after all…

Braska yelled as the Thunder spell hit him. Moments later, the door slid open and a worried Maqui stuck his head in. "Is everything all right in here?"

"It's fine," she called out in a sing-song voice. "Just a little accident. Don't worry, I've got a potion. He'll be okay!"

"Sure," Maqui said dubiously, although he left after another few seconds of silence.

As the door closed, Braska pushed himself up slowly, then healed himself. "I believe that was uncalled for."

She hummed and resumed working on the engine. "I was just helping you focus all that wandering attention."

He kept his silence, and she smirked in satisfaction. Then she lost herself in the work again, putting Braska's proclivities out of her mind. This is going pretty well! I just need to solder these two bits together, and then if I run the wire down here, I can...

"Rikku," Braska called out, derailing her train of thought.

"What?" she asked, annoyed.

"I'm very disappointed in you."

Her hands stilled and she frowned. What is he up to now?

"You were a very naughty girl just now," he told her, his voice heavy with innuendo. "Uncle Braska may just have to punish you for that. You said you were partial to spankings, yes?"

"What?" Rikku screeched, sitting up so quickly she smashed her forehead into the engine with a loud bang. Stars flashed before her eyes when she dropped back down, whining. "Owwie…"

Braska's loud laughter didn't help any with the pain, either.

The door slid open again. "Rikkma?" Maqui's worried voice reached her. "It sounded like there was more trouble in here…"

"Oh, we're fine, thank you," she heard Braska say. "Rikkma just had a small mishap. Do not worry, I also have a potion at hand."

"I, uh… I see. Rikkma?"

"Yeah?" Rikku answered, blinking away tears of pain.

"You know, never mind about dinner," Maqui said. "I just realized I'm, uh, gonna be busy tonight. Tomorrow, too, actually."

"Not a problem. Thanks, Maqui." Rikku jiggled a foot at the door and heard it slide closed. "Well, at least something good came out of that," she grumbled. She winced and touched her forehead; there was going to be a goose egg sticking out like a third eye tomorrow. "And here I thought you were all hung up on being related to me."

"I was only jesting," Braska replied, smug.

"So you say now. But you're a sticky, tricky chameleon!" She rolled herself out from under the engine and sat up, indignant. "Get outta that dressphere before I make you, pervert!"

"While you are providing me with some very compelling reasons to object, I suppose I am making you rather uncomfortable, am I not?" His grin died. "Is that the reason that you said you couldn't, while we were together in Baaj? Because we are related?" He paused, disabling the dressphere and sighing as his summoner's robes settled around him. "You responded to my advances, despite knowing whom I was then." He grimaced, some of his previous reserve returning, although to his credit, he at least seemed willing to talk about it now. Looking at her, his expression was a mix of frustration, bitterness, and regret. "Why?"

Some of Rikku's righteous anger fled at his honest assessment. She deflated. "I… I was just trying to get you to stop then, y'know? You weren't thinking straight. You still aren't." She looked down at her hands, scrubbing her fingers together in a futile attempt to dislodge some grease. "I made a mistake. We both made mistakes. I thought we moved past that, though. You don't have to repeat them again."

Braska was silent for a long moment. When he spoke, his voice was low. "I don't know my niece, Rikku. I didn't even know of her until a few days ago. I left Bikanel before she was born. All I do know is that I fell in love with a vivacious young woman who reminded me of what it meant to be alive. You changed me, and I can't discard those feelings simply because it would make things more convenient for all of us."

"But aren't you thinking about how weird it is right now, to like me like that? I'm your niece. That little girl you never met and me? We're the same person. She's just a lot younger." She winced and rubbed her throbbing forehead; this heart-to-heart with Braska wasn't doing her headache any favors.

"Shall I heal that for you?" he asked.

"Huh? No, wait a minute – !" She shrank back as Braska's hand extended towards her, but he simply placed the tips of his thumb and forefingers against her skin, murmuring. The spell was soothing, easing away the throbbing headache and reducing the pain to a whisper of memory. She let out an involuntary sigh of relief, then stilled as the spell continued to envelop her.

His eyes were closed, fingers still touching her forehead. His power continued to ebb and flow from him in waves. It wasn't the crackling, desperate surges he'd surprised her with in Baaj, but it was still an intimate touch, a gentle caress of magic.

"It's all better now," she said, swallowing.

He sighed, ending the spell. "I know nothing of the little girl you once were," Braska told her. "Right now, I see only what has always been before me: a grown woman who has captured my regard. That has not changed. Or shall you ask me to tell Auron next that he has traded his engagement to my young daughter for one with my even younger niece?"

"That's not – " She fumbled for the right words. "It's not the same," she protested. "You and I… we're family!"

"Not by blood," he reminded her. "And apparently not by association, either. You don't protest because of our family relation. No, you protest because you can't bear to accept more than one lover into your heart."

Rikku thought about it. Braska deserved that much consideration from her, at least. "That's not entirely true," she eventually said. "I mean, not hurting Auron is a huge part of it. But…"

She thought of Yuna, and all the time they'd spent together. The other girl wasn't just her cousin, but also her best friend. They'd almost died for each other a dozen times over, and if she ever got back, they would probably do it all over again until they were old and grey. "You're Yunie's dad," she said. "Even if I love you, I love Yuna more."

Braska sucked in a breath, surprised. "You know my daughter. You know her." Then he closed his eyes. "Of course… you and I are very similar, I suppose. But your heart is strong enough to make the proper choice." He sat back, his eyes growing distant. "I am relieved that you two found each other and healed this rift which I created." His voice was tinged with a note of resignation. "At least she will have the chance to grow into a fine young woman with you by her side."

"Then why do you sound so sad about it?" she asked.

He shook his head. "If you were once a Guardian, that means that my own Pilgrimage failed. Sin still exists, and I won't be there to witness my daughter becoming the person you know." He looked at her. "So, that is your hidden sorrow and the reason you can humor me. You've never truly known me as your uncle, either. I'm destined to die a meaningless death."

A mix of rage and shame welled up in her throat. "I'm not humoring you! This is hurting me, too!" She looked away, trying to beat back the helplessness that was threatening to engulf her.

I won't be like Braska. I won't let his fatalism swallow up my life here. Why can't he see that it doesn't have to be like this? We can still change his future!

Do I really believe that, though? She shuddered, uncertain. No. I'm Braska's Guardian. What I believe doesn't matter, I have to help him!

"Your life isn't meaningless! It's just... about more than you." It was the one lesson her own presence in the past continually taught her, despite her best efforts to find her own future.

It was something Yuna had known all along, right from the beginning.

Oh, Yunie.

The wave of homesickness that overtook her was as unexpected as it was sudden. She grimaced and curled her body inwards, feeling a coldness descend over her that even the room's stifling heat couldn't keep at bay. "Saving you means destroying Yunie's happiness. I can't choose!"

Braska frowned at her. "What do you mean?"

She fell silent, chewing her lip. Should I tell him the truth?

"Rikku?"

"You know, the last time I confided in somebody on this ship, he told you I was undead and tried to get me Sent."

"Ah," he said. "I'm sorry about Kei. It must be a very precious future he wishes to protect."

"You're the reason we have a future at all," she said in a small voice. "You, Auron, and Jecht. The three of you carved out that future for the rest of us with your own sacrifices. Yunie can be happy because what you did mattered. You gave us all hope."

"I thought your summoner – no." Braska looked at her again, surprised. "You've done this before. All of it. Your Pilgrimage didn't fail, did it?"

Something tickled her cheek. Rikku put a hand up and realized she was crying again, silent tears this time, ones that took her by surprise. "We broke the spiral of death. But, the price was so, so high. Everyone was so happy when the Eternal Calm came."

"The Eternal – ?"

"There wasn't any time to be sad," she continued. Now that it was spilling out, she couldn't stop her words. Holding it all in for so long had taken its toll, and she was tired. It was his fault for asking. "We were all too busy rushing forward to grab our shiny new future. Nobody stopped and noticed how many bits and pieces of us had died with Sin."

"Sometimes we are required to make sacrifices for the greater good," he said quietly.

She snorted and scrubbed her face. "Oh, stuff it. I don't subscribe to Yevon's mumbo-jumbo. Spira's been sacrificing summoners to the greater good for a thousand years! It never changed anything."

"But it will," Braska said, growing more certain. "Sometimes, there is no other choice. If my sacrifice is to pave the way for your future, then I gladly accept my fate. I will be strong for the sake of your summoner, and all of Spira." He smiled. "It is a fair trade; you were the strength I once lacked." Gathering a fold of cloth from his sleeve, he tsked and wiped her face; it came away covered in grease. "You have made a mess trying to bury your tears," he noted. "But do not worry. I will do my best to set things to rights."

"Do you know what you're saying?" she said, pushing his hand away.

"Of course."

Rikku grabbed Braska and pulled him into a hug. It ran in the family, she supposed. Yuna had always been her anchor in the turbulent years after Sin's defeat. And now, Braska offered to be hers in the years before. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "I'm sorry I can't save you."

Braska held her close. "You already have," he replied. Then he pushed her away and nodded at the engine. "You should finish that. We have a Pilgrimage to continue, after all."

.x.x.x.

"Rikku! Where have you been?" Keyakku's voice was filled with frustration and worry as he hurried down the corridor to meet her. "You were supposed to be outside finalizing the repairs on the outer hull!"

Stopping, Rikku eyed her brother. "For your information, I just finished fixing my ship's engines," she grumbled, not in any mood to banter. "You're welcome, by the way." Besides, she guessed Keyakku didn't care one bit what she was repairing on the ship – just as long as she wasn't doing it anywhere near Auron.

"It's not your ship – !" He stopped as he noticed Braska standing behind her. "Oh! Uncle Braska. Sorry, I didn't realize you were with her."

Braska glanced at Rikku, then pasted a wide – and most likely fake – smile across his face. "Ah, little Kei! How good it is to see my favorite nephew once again!" He stepped past her, his arms outstretched, using his lengthy robes for maximum effect in the ship's cramped hallway. "You mentioned before that I've another nephew as well, have you not? I am simply bursting with curiosity to hear all about him." His arms closed, and the robes descended around Keyakku like the jaws of a snapping trap.

"Sure Uncle, but now isn't the best time – " Keyakku struggled in Braska's embrace.

"Oh, yes. Time. Something we summoners have so much of," Braska mused. "Well. Perhaps it is not so terrible, to march forward towards my fate knowing nothing of my own family. Knowledge can breed regret and hesitation," he added with a note of pained acceptance.

"What? No, it's fine," Keyakku amended hastily. He looked behind Braska. "Rikku and I would be happy to tell you all about Brother, wouldn't we?"

"You wanted me out on the outer hull yesterday, didn't you?" she countered, crossing her hands behind her head. "Guess I better get to work on that. See you around! And thanks for your help, Uncle Braska!"

"Anything for my favorite niece," Braska replied, tightening his grip around Keyakku's shoulders. "One should always value one's family, don't you think, Kei?"

She skipped down the hall, happy to be freed from Keyakku's scheming for the day.

Thanks, Braska.

It was nice that he felt comfortable enough around her to have her back again, despite everything that'd happened. That thought, however, caused her to stumble and slow to a walk. Braska's gonna ride that uncle joke for as long as he can milk it. But that's a whole other problem, isn't it? He still doesn't see me as his family.

Damn it.

Turning the corner, she almost ran head-first into Jecht, whose nose was buried in his Al Bhed primer.

"Oh! Kuoonnoh," Jecht sounded out, stepping back. Then he looked up and grinned. " 'ey, Blondie! Still workin'?"

"Yep. So the first words you've got down pat are an apology? What a surprise," she drawled.

Jecht scowled. " 'ey! This stuff is hard! I just tried to ask a few guys if they had any blitzballs 'round here and we nearly got into a fight!"

Rikku frowned. "What'd you say?"

He flipped through the primer. "Here we go. Ryja oui caah so pmedwpymmc? Drao yna uv aqlabdeuhym cewa yht E ghuf ruf du bmyo fedr dras. E lyh cruf oui so Jecht Shot!"

Blinking, she pieced together the poorly-enunciated words. "You didn't," she said.

"I got it wrong?" Jecht scratched his head. "Maybe that's why they were so mad. What'd I say?"

I am picking up Auron's habits. She rubbed her forehead, feeling her headache return. "You asked if anyone wanted to look at your balls. You then claimed they were huge and offered to show them your Jecht Shot."

He paused, then grinned. "Well, they are. Ain't my fault all you Al Bhed are tiny."

"Eurgh," she gagged. "Just… keep reading and try not to talk so much," she managed. "At least 'til we're closer to the shore." Shaking her head, she brushed past Jecht to continue towards the deck.

" 'Ey, wait! You're goin' the wrong direction," he told her. "Someone was askin' for ya down that way," he added, pointing down another hallway.

Rikku frowned. "I know there's nothing to fix there. Did Keyakku put you up to this?"

"Your bro? Hah." Jecht smirked. "He ain't got the guts to meet my other fist yet. Naw, this was someone else." He scratched his chin. "I'm guessin' it won't take too long."

"Alright," she groaned, sighing. What now? I was really hoping to see sunlight… and maybe just a little bit of Auron for once. She stomped into the dead end, looking around. No one was there. "Ha, ha, Jecht," she growled, pulling open the supply door.

Auron yanked her into the closet and shut the door behind them.

A moment of silent surprise passed before her brain got with the program. "So, hey there," she said, trying to untangle herself from his arms. Her face was smashed against his chestplate and there was a shelf poking into her back.

Auron grunted, adjusting his position until they had a little more room to breathe. "This is ridiculous," he growled after a moment, panting. "Being forced to hide in a janitorial closet like delinquent schoolchildren. Is your entire family like this?"

"Well… yeah," she giggled. "If you'd just stop trying to draw and quarter Keyakku with your eyeballs every time you met, he… would still hate you, actually. Kei knows you were sent to kill my father."

Auron sighed. "He was a smart kid." He shifted his arms. "Pity it didn't last."

"I haven't seen you in two days and we're trapped in a dark closet together. Do you really want to talk about my brother right now?" She poked him in the side.

He twitched. "He said being with you could destroy everything." Auron pushed her leg away from where she was rubbing it against his thigh. "What is going on?"

"We're not necking, that's what's going on," she answered, though her mind raced. She tried to separate Keyakku's warning from the red haze of anger that mashed his words into a jumble in her mind. Destroy everything?

Her brother really was the smarter one. She was better with her hands, but his skills lay in leadership. He could analyze events, predicting consequences and reactions to them. Combined with his level head, it made him a fiercely competent politician. Or it would have one day, had he survived the attack on Home.

Sure, he was worried about Sin, but he didn't know her future was certain. He only had her word for it, and her brother had already demonstrated that he didn't really trust her.

"Be serious," Auron scolded. "What did Keyakku mean?"

"I'm thinking," Rikku said, uncomfortably. If he's not worried about a future he doesn't even know is real being destroyed, then – "...I think he meant me." Auron waited, and she frowned. "He told me every little thing I did here had the potential to change the future. So, if I do something really big, the future will change. My future will change."

He tensed. "Braska once told me, even if given the chance, he would not change his past. That he would not be the man he is today without it."

Of course. She winced. Auron didn't get along well with Keyakku because they were similar in that manner; he'd been trained to grasp the larger picture as well. "I think he meant if I change the past, my future will cease to exist. I'm a part of that future. I'll be what gets destroyed." She paused as Auron's arms tightened around her. "But, it's just a theory. Kei always was a fan of two-gil pulp fiction. He might be wrong."

Auron exhaled. "And if he is not?"

She rested her forehead against his chest. "It's still my life. Death is the one guarantee we all have. It's only a question of how and when."

His frustration was palpable. "Death is not the same as ceasing to exist!"

"Isn't it though? We Al Bhed think so. That's why we try so hard to do everything now, in the present. You only get one shot at life, so you might as well make the most of it." She thought of Braska's resolve and took a deep breath. "Dying for love isn't the worst way to go, you know. At least I'm getting something out of the deal."

"Why are you always so selfish?" Auron's voice was pained. "You wormed your way inside of me and now you threaten to slip out again?"

"Love isn't for the weak," she agreed. "Lucky for me you're the toughest guy I know." He said nothing, and she bit her lip. "Are you… still okay with me? Knowing what I am now?"

"What you are?" He snorted. "Braska already proved that what you are is human. Whether it's a relief or disappointment, you haven't changed." Leaning down, he sought out her lips; she could feel some of his frustration from the past few days bleeding into the action.

That was a mistake. Just as frustrated, she leaned eagerly into the kiss. It escalated quickly; what was meant to be a simple reassurance turned into a messy tangle of limbs and desire. He pushed against her, hungry, and she pressed back, trying to find the space to fit herself against him.

She broke off suddenly, gasping. "I was going to ask if you were that happy to see me," she wheezed, "but I'm pretty sure that you're not that flexible." Wincing, she reached down and plucked what felt like a broom handle out of her side, shoving it out of the way. Auron's answering hiss of pain told her she'd only succeeded in sharing her discovery with him.

"I'm going to hurt your brother," he muttered as he struggled to right both himself and the cleaning supplies they'd knocked askew in their unexpected tussle.

"Good," she grumbled. "Waste him for me, too." I wonder how long we'd have if I just opened the closet door and dumped all this junk into the hallway…

"Rikku," Auron said, clearly trying to regain some control. It was a poor effort, considering how husky his voice was. "I need to know. Are you trying to return to your own time?"

"I think I preferred it when your hands were asking my shorts the questions," she joked, and then squeaked as he shook her.

"You are driving me mad. Don't play this off!" he demanded.

"I'm not, okay?" she blurted. "I want to finish this stupid Pilgrimage, retire in Besaid, and make a dozen little green-eyed babies with you. Or maybe just make a dozen attempts to have one." She fell silent, embarrassed at her own admission.

Auron's huff of laughter eased some of her mortification. "Only a dozen attempts? I'll have to work harder to raise your expectations." He sobered, his hands roving across her arms. "You're serious."

She nodded, knowing he could feel the motion. "I was trying to get back before. That's why I joined the Pilgrimage at first, you know. I thought the Fayth could help me out."

"And now?" he asked.

"And now, I'm not trying anymore," she said truthfully. "I guess I stopped wanting to go back. That's kinda your fault."

"Hnn," he grunted in satisfaction. "Did you find a way back to your time?"

"Maybe… but it's not the way I wanna go, because I think it involves dying." She shivered. Not yet, not yet, her memory teased. Not ever, she told herself. "It'd be a one-way trip whether it worked or not."

"Stay, then. And don't tell your brother of your discovery."

"Keyakku? Please! He wouldn't kill me," she said confidently. "He might be a jerk now, but he's not that far gone. Besides, he knows I might be able to turn into an Unsent and come back to haunt him if he tries. Poetic justice, right?"

"That's nothing to joke about," Auron said, his voice sharp and disapproving. "Why are you so trusting, after what he did… to all of us?"

"Because…" She hesitated. "Keyakku was my favorite brother." She could tell by the way Auron tensed that he noted her phrasing. "When he died, it hurt me. It splintered my family, too. Brother, my other brother – yes, that's really his name – was always just that to Cid: Kei's little brother. After Kei died, he and Father fought so much that I ran away for a whole year. On this ship," she added with a small laugh.

"I'm sorry that you lost your siblings," he said. "Both of them, since you've decided to stay."

"It feels a little like I got one back," she admitted. "Except he doesn't match with the picture I had in my head. I'm kinda disappointed." That was the understatement of the year, and by the way Auron stroked her back, he understood. "I'm just like Cid, really." She snuggled more deeply into Auron's grasp. "I guess I compared Brother to Keyakku too. I always teased him about rushing into things before his brain could catch up. But now that I'm here with Kei again, I miss Brother, that idiot. He never would have told Braska to Send me. He'd just have yelled a lot more… and then promised to help me out anyway."

"Perhaps Keyakku is trying to help, too," Auron said. "Although you aren't listening. Didn't he instruct you not to divulge this sort of information so freely?"

Rikku shrugged. "So what? It's Keyakku's theory, not mine. He also told me to stay away from you, but here we are in a broom closet. Not making out," she emphasized, teasing her fingers down Auron's sides.

"Don't remind me," he groaned, bending down to brush a few kisses along her neck.

"I think I'll decide for myself," she murmured, relaxing against him even as the sweet tension of anticipation rose in her belly. I'll never give this up, she thought with an audible sigh. The attention he was lavishing on her slowed down, and Rikku frowned. "Stop now and you're gonna regret it," she warned.

"I will not be interrupted by another Yevon-forsaken broom," Auron growled.

The door flew open, flooding the tiny room with light.

" – and then he even asked us if we wanted to see them, can you believe it!" Ashe complained to Keyakku, who was standing next to her. Her eyes widened as a few bottles clattered to the floor and rolled away at her feet. It was a more graceful reaction than her companion had.

Rikku managed to lift her hand into a half-wave from where it was trapped behind Auron's head. Probably the better choice than drawing attention to the one on his butt. "Hi!" she greeted her brother. "So, you already told Uncle Braska all about the family, huh?"

Keyakku was frozen, doing his best impression of a suffocating fish.

Auron didn't give him the time to formulate anything more coherent than a loud squawk. He grabbed the offending broom still wedged behind him and thrust it ungently into Keyakku's abdomen, shoving him out of the way. "Thanks," he told the two surprised Al Bhed, before reaching for the door and slamming it shut once more.


A (mechanic's) creeper is the panel on four wheels that you lay across and use to roll yourself under objects such as your car when you fix them. The other kind of creeper applies to Braska and is something you can look up on Urban Dictionary.

Al Bhed translations:

"Kuoonnoh" (phonetic) = "Cunno" = "Sorry"

The huge phrase Jecht said = "Have you seen my blitzballs? They are of exceptional size and I know how to play with them. I can show you my Jecht Shot!"