60: Machina Madness

"We're here," Rikku said, bringing the Marauder to a stop.

"Huh?" Jecht surveyed their surroundings. "Where's here?" He winced, rubbing his butt. "And couldn't ya have built some cushions in? This baby's gotta be the most uncomfortable thing I've ever been on."

"Seat cushions? Out of what, grass? Fiend fur? Get real," she scoffed, standing and stretching her sore arms. "I worked with what I had."

"Be thankful you didn't have to walk," Auron added, even as got to his feet and suppressed his own wince. He sighed as Jecht stretched and twisted instead of dismounting. "Move."

"In a minu-AAH!"

Auron booted him off the machina, and then jumped down himself.

Braska also stood, studying the cliffside she'd brought them to. "Jecht is correct. I don't see any hints of an ancient temple here. Should I be praying to Yevon that you've actually found our goal this time?"

"Ha ha, very funny," she groused, aiming a half-hearted kick at his shin. He wobbled and she relented, crossing her arms. "No, this is definitely the easiest way to get to where the temple is. I just… haven't quite figured out how we're gonna do it."

Eyebrow raised, Braska pursed his lips. Then he shrugged. "I have faith that you will think of something. However, nightfall is approaching and we could all use some rest." He nodded at her, then climbed down.

He has faith in me? Turning, Rikku squinted at the cliffside towering above them with a sinking feeling. Getting the team here had been one thing. Getting them in was an entirely different headache. "No pressure or anything," she mumbled.

"Rikku?"

Pasting a sunny smile on her face, she waved at Auron. "Coming!"

They made short work of setting up the campsite. Between the Marauder's huge metal frame and the steep wall of the cliff, it was easy enough to create a cozy shelter from the windswept plains.

"I wonder," Braska said once they'd all settled comfortably around the small fire, "what secret Lady Belgemineemnite is harboring in Remiem?" The Blossom Crown and Flower Scepter both rested in his lap. "Keys to the Temple imply that something was locked away." He looked up at Rikku. "It seems fair to assume that another aeon awaits."

She picked at her fingernails, avoiding Braska's gaze.

"You might have another battle with Belgemineemnite as well," Auron added. "Are you certain you're prepared?"

"I would feel more confident if I knew what I would be facing," Braska replied, continuing to stare at her.

She hunched under the searching weight of his attention but refused to look up. "This has to be your fight, Braska. No cheating."

He sighed audibly. "Well, it was worth an attempt."

"Cheer up, B!" Jecht clapped a hand on Braska's shoulder. "You got your own surprise for her up your sleeve, right? That big fella with the dog?"

"Yojimbo," Braska replied with a smile. "And yes. Although he is rather… temperamental."

Rikku rubbed the back of her neck, embarrassed; all things considered, she'd been responsible for the biggest insult to Yojimbo from her near-destruction of his Fayth stone.

"Come now," he told her with a note of amusement, noticing her sudden mortification. "That was not purely your doing. I am as much to blame for his ire, considering the manner in which I handled the negotiation."

"Now this, I gotta hear," Jecht said, leaning forward. "You actually managed to piss off an aeon, Blondie? What the heck did ya do to it anyhow?"

"Nothing Braska couldn't fix," she answered sullenly. "It was an accident, okay? I just tripped and-"

"There's no need to explain yourself." Braska waved her off. "Yojimbo is an unusual aeon, and he was acquired through an appropriately unusual process."

"But I wanna hear the full story!" As Jecht and Braska began to banter, Rikku glanced towards Auron, who'd remained silent throughout the entire exchange. His eyes were like chips of stone, glued to Braska's face.

"Hey," she whispered, nudging him with her elbow. "What's the matter?"

"You've grown closer to him again," Auron said, pitching his voice equally low. His lips tugged downward. "What happened?"

"Honestly? We fought like… well, an Al Bhed and a Yevonite half the time," she answered truthfully.

"And the other half?" he pressed.

"... We got along surprisingly well," she admitted, forcing herself not to shy from his sharp, probing look. No running, she repeated. She grabbed Auron's hand and laced her fingers through his. "Nothing happened. We just got… tired of fighting each other, I think. And we had to work together to make it to the shrine anyway, so we learned to cooperate. Like friends, this time."

"You two are more than friends," he said, his hand flexing against hers. "He trusts you implicitly now." He paused. "You were wearing his clothes."

"He was just trying to keep me from being spotted… and I already gave it back!"

"He let you wear it even after you defaced his robes. He allowed it because he trusts you."

She felt the weight and warmth of Auron's hand against her own. She looked up and saw Braska's eyes flicker to their joined hands briefly, then the summoner smiled broadly at Jecht and launched into another conversation.

Braska knows about the future. Her fingers tightened around Auron's. We understand each other's pain.

"It's because we have a connection," she said slowly. "It's like… he sucks me in whenever we're alone together, even when he's not trying to. I can't just cut him off. It's not even romantic anymore." She made sure to meet Auron's gaze unflinchingly. "It hasn't changed the way I feel about you, you know. Wanting to be with you, to start a family together…" She trailed off. "Are you mad?"

"I wouldn't have asked if I didn't want to know," Auron replied after a long pause.

"Yeah, but that doesn't answer my question."

"I'm…" He struggled. "I'm jealous. Yes. I'm angry. I feel like you aren't completely mine alone when I hear you speak of Braska like that." He huffed, self-loathing in the sound. "It makes me feel as if I am losing you."

Twisting their joined hands, Rikku pulled Auron close and settled against his side. Something about the way he'd said it bothered her, like losing to Braska was a little too familiar.

"I'm not going to leave you. But you know..."

Auron's older, silhouetted form superimposed over the younger image. Pyreflies flickered through his worn red coat and tufts of short, silvery hair.

This is your world now. She closed her eyes and continued. "...even if I wasn't by your side, life would go on. When you talk like that, I worry. Don't-" Be like Braska and I. "-break if something ever happens to me."

"I won't let you disappear."

No. Auron was better than both her and Braska. She couldn't lead him down their path. "Even if I did, I'd want you to keep on going without me," she stressed. "You know that, right? I used to think that being in love meant having one and only for your whole entire life. But it's not really about having anything, in the end." She stroked his cheek with her free hand, earnest. "It's about giving."

His face only got stormier the more she spoke. "You aren't going to die," he whispered fiercely. "Don't be so fatalistic."

She scoffed, wondering if he was being purposely obtuse. "I'm not being morbid! It's not like I'm asking you to forget about me if something happened! I just don't want you to forget about living your own life, too."

He flinched, then laughed shallowly, shoulders drooping. "You sound exactly like Braska." Before she could freeze up and somehow try to explain away that, his arms wrapped around her. "Fine. I promise to do my best to keep living no matter what happens to either of us. Although you're a fool if you believe I'm letting you go anywhere."

She snuggled close. "Don't worry, I'm right where I want to be."

"Alright, break it up," Jecht said loudly.

"Let them be," Braska protested. "After their separation, they've earned some time together. Don't stop them on my account." He smiled at Jecht. "Get some rest, my friend. I'll have the first watch tonight."

"You sure?" Jecht asked. "You don't normally take first."

"Rest." Braska stood, stretched, and collected his staff. "And for pity's sake, leave those two lovebirds alone."

Peeking out, she saw Auron watching Braska with an unreadable expression. "... Thank you," he said as the summoner passed them.

Braska paused. "You're a lucky man," he said to Auron before turning to her. "And you chose wisely." Before they could get a word in edgewise, he retreated to the far edge of the camp and settled against the Marauder.

"Huh," Jecht said. "He's changed a little, hasn't he?"

"Hnn," Auron agreed, his brow furrowed.

Rikku turned her head back into the warmth of Auron's embrace. Haven't we all.

.x.x.x.

Morning dawned too soon; Rikku was awake before the others, staring at the tall mountain before her and trying to figure out how to get inside. I can't believe I'm actually missing Clasko right now…

Auron eventually found her; after a brief hug and kiss, he joined her study of the unremarkable cliffside. "Are you sure it's here?"

"Pretty sure." She glared at the rock face, for all the good it did. "We need a way to scale this mountain."

"Rock climbin' first thing in the mornin', eh?" Jecht joined them, munching on a hard biscuit. "Didja wanna have breakfast first, at least?"

"I'll eat when I've figured out how we're gonna get up this thing," she said stubbornly. Without any chocobos in the Calm Lands, it made no difference whether they jumped down from the ledge leading towards Remiem's hidden valley or climbed up from below; both seemed equally impossible from her vantage point. She stomped her foot. "Why aren't there any handholds?"

"Couldn't ya make some?" Jecht pointed at her belt. "Y'know, fire up the ol' black magic and Pow! Pow! Pow!"

Braska arrived, straightening his robes. "Jecht. It is much too early to be speaking of explosive landscaping via black magic." He eyed the cliff. "I suppose I could have Bahamut lift us…"

Jecht rubbed his head. "What 'bout having Shiva build us another staircase?"

"Would that work here?" Braska rubbed his chin. "The Calm Lands are much warmer than the ocean surrounding Lake Macalania. I'm not certain it would be safe."

"Any other ideas?" Auron asked.

Silence fell.

Squeezing her eyes shut, Rikku let out a long breath and stepped away from the others. "I maybe kinda have an idea," she said, reluctantly.

"And that idea is?" Auron pressed.

"Like Jecht said, we make our own staircase this time." Rikku sighed.

"You truly wish me to summon an aeon to carve a path into the mountain?" Braska said doubtfully. "I suppose Ifrit might be able to manage it by cutting into the wall…" He didn't seem to like the idea very much, and with good reason - the disturbance would draw every fiend for miles around straight to them.

"Exactly, B! Go on an' do your thing!" Jecht said, crossing his arms, oblivious to the danger.

"No-no-no! I didn't mean that!" Rikku cut them both off. "I was thinking we should make something less like a staircase and more like… a ladder."

Auron's brow furrowed. "A ladder? With what raw resources?"

"The only one we have," she said, feeling glum. "It was nice having her while it lasted, I guess."

Braska blinked, then looked back at their camp - and the towering machina lying next to it. "You mean to use your machina?" He frowned. "The cliffside is at least three times its height. Even if you were to raise its arms, we would still fall short of the plateau above."

"Are ya plannin' on havin' that thing toss us up there?" Jecht shaded his eyes and glanced upward, as if trying to judge the distance. He grimaced. "Don't sound too comfortable."

"No. Besides, how'd we get back down then? What I meant was we could cannibalize the Marauder for parts and build a sort of ladder out of it."

"Oh," Jecht said, catching on. Then he frowned. "Well, that's a let-down."

That's not even the half of it, she thought with a pang as she approached her machina. Riding it had made her feel just a little less homesick; her own miniature Machina Maw, reclaimed in this world and reminding her of where she came from. She'd even bestowed a name on it Not that anyone seemed to get it.

Stop pouting, Rikku. As if you could have kept it! I'm just getting too sentimental is all. Maybe it's for the best that I do this.

"It'll be fine. Machina were made to be used, right? With a little ingenuity, you can always find a way." She tried to sound cheerful about it. "You guys should pack up your stuff… I'm not sure how long this is gonna take me. I need to do some tweaking before we go."

"Are you sure?" Auron asked her, clearly catching onto her unusual lack of enthusiasm.

"Yeah. It's not like we could take her all the way up Mount Gagazet anyway, right? The Ronso would skin us alive." She did her best to hold back another disappointed sigh.

"True. But this machina was important to you." He caught her eye. "Thank you for being willing to sacrifice it for us."

Somehow, the look of understanding on Auron's face eased the sting a little. He might not have understood the significance of a named machina to an Al Bhed, but at least he could still read her sadness accurately. Her smile grew firmer, and she nodded at him. "Maybe you guys should catch something for lunch. There isn't much to hunt besides monkeys where we're going."

"Fine." Auron's gentle tone vanished, replaced with his business voice. "Jecht, you stay with Rikku and guard her while she works. Braska, you're with me."

"What?" Braska faltered, clearly surprised. "But I had that duty last night -"

Auron's tone was reaching new levels of no-nonsense. "You'll be facing Belgemineemnite soon. You're going to train up until that moment."

"Train?" Braska squawked. "With you, again?"

"Yes. With me. Again." She could almost hear the smile hidden beneath Auron's determination; she stifled a giggle as she got to work.

"I feel sorry for him," Jecht said as he settled next to her. "Auron's a tough nut."

"So's Belgemine," she told him distractedly, opening a panel on the Marauder to fiddle with the wires there. "This'll be good for him." She paused, then glanced up at Jecht as he settled in and made himself comfortable, resting his chin on one palm. "Uh… you know, this may take a while. You might get bored just waiting like that."

"Hah!" Jecht scoffed. "Just 'cause you don't think I have a big attention span don't mean I can't learn."

She smirked. "Stolen anything from a fiend lately?"

"Look. That's less about learnin' and more about losin' your damn mind, Blondie. Most fiends have teeth! An' claws! An'… pointy shit!"

"Sure, whatever you say," she hummed, amused. "Well then, go ahead and watch, if you insist." She turned her attention to the delicate wiring, plotting the best way to disconnect the intricate circuitry. These Yevonite machina really are something else.

Half an hour later, her amused smile began to drop.

Another half-hour later, despite having donned her Alchemist dressphere for an extra Al Bhed boost, her frustration was growing. She had to spend just as much time concentrating on ignoring Jecht - who was, as predicted, growing increasingly bored - as she was on rewiring the Marauder.

Another hour later, she was still tinkering with the same wires, muttering curses in Al Bhed and Spiran with every breath. Sweat beaded on her brow and a pounding headache was building behind her temples, throbbing in time with her heart as Auron and Braska returned.

"She's still at it?" she heard Auron ask Jecht, and she groaned.

"Yeah man. I can't even tell what she's tryin' to do," Jecht complained.

"Rikku." She heard the rustle of cloth as Auron drew near, but kept her eyes glued to the machina beneath her hands - it was a particularly finicky piece of circuitry she was trying to circumvent, and it was taking much longer that she'd thought it would.

Humiliating.

"Is everything all right?" he asked.

No. No it's not all right. I'm destroying the Marauder, and I can't even do that properly. Nothing is all right!

"I'm busy," she snapped instead, feeling a part of her close up inside, unwilling to share. Damn it. If only I had Gippal's stupid brain! She could almost hear him laughing at her, boasting about how he would've gotten the job done an hour ago.

When Auron next spoke, his voice had turned chilly. "I was merely asking if you needed any help."

Can you get me a brain transplant or a couple of books on Yevonites and their stupid ancient machina? "Nope. I'm good," she said, sullen.

Braska sighed and dropped to the ground, looking like he'd gone ten rounds with an ogre and lost every one. "Best not to disturb her. Believe me, this could take all day."

Thanks for the vote of confidence, Braska! She severed another wire. It crackled and popped, burning her fingertips, and she cursed richly in Al Bhed.

"That's something I never heard before," Braska said with a hint of amusement. "I didn't think one could actually fit that particular object into an orifice of that size."

"Quiet! Unless you want an active demonstration of that phrase!"

"Ooh," Braska replied, unruffled.

"Enough chatter," Auron cut in sourly. "I'd be the one carrying out those threats anyway," he added with menace.

"As I said, let's all do our best not to disturb her," Braska repeated, sounding perfectly innocent.

"As she wishes," Auron said bitingly before he stalked away.

Jecht whistled lowly. "Look, Blondie. Maybe you should take a break. I been watchin' you mess around the inside of that thing, and you don't seem to be gettin' nowhere." He crossed his arms and peered into the wiring over her shoulder, as if he'd be able to make sense of the electronic puzzle she'd been struggling with all morning. "What'cha tryin' to do anyhow?"

She bared her teeth at Jecht, trying to ignore her audience and Auron's pointed huffs and sighs as he stomped away from the campsite. "You're blocking my light! Buzz off! Bzzt! Shoo!"

Jecht moved, scowling. "You're the one who's takin' forever to do… whatever it is you're doin'. You could stop bitin' our heads off!"

When Jecht starts making sense, you know you've made a terrible mistake. Throwing down her tools, she slumped backwards from the smoking machina and deactivated her dressphere. Some of her mounting stress subsided and she pulled her goggles off, exhausted. "Sorry, guys. I didn't mean to take it out on you, it's just… ugh, so much harder than I thought it would be."

"That dressphere may have hindered more than helped in your efforts," Braska observed mildly.

Rikku flushed, shoving her aching fingers into her mouth.

Braska raised an eyebrow, pointedly not offering to heal her.

Jecht grunted. "An' the day started so well, too. Damn." With a gusty sigh, he squatted next to Rikku, poking at the Marauder's metal hull. "Seriously, what were ya doin'?"

"'M mus mryin' moo memarame meh mharm," she mumbled around a mouthful of fingers.

"Well maybe you should let someone else take a shot at it," Jecht replied. "Don't look like you're havin' too much fun goin' at it alone."

Pulling her fingers from her mouth, she scowled. "Of course it's no fun! Would poking a hole in your favorite blitzball be fun for you?"

Braska interrupted. "Wait, you understood what she said?"

"Course! Ya mean ya didn't?"

"No, Jecht. Enlighten me, please."

"She's tryin' to get that thing's arm off," Jecht said. "And all I'm sayin' is to catch a break for now," he added. "Chill and talk to your angry boyfriend before he takes it out on the rest of us."

"I can't stop," she protested. "No one else can manage this but me! It's my responsibility!"

"I been watchin' you for hours, Blondie. It ain't happenin' your way."

"Jecht's right. You're tired and not thinking clearly, which cannot be aiding your attempts." Braska tilted his head in the direction Auron had left. "Go find him. He has been distracted all morning and your interaction surely hasn't helped improve his mood."

"But -"

"Auron," Braska steamrolled over her protest, "no longer shares his burdens with me, so perhaps you should try to listen to them. It will be good for the both of you." His smile, coupled with his firm tone made it clear it wasn't a request.

"Roger that," she replied, giving him a quick salute before heading out. A niggle of worry smothered her frustration as she walked away from the machina. I really was too hard on him, wasn't I?

Slightly past the main camp, a flash of red caught her eye. Further out on the plains, he was sitting on a few jutting boulders, facing the sea of grass. His posture was stiff with tension, and the loose sleeve of his red coat whipped in the breeze.

As she waded towards him through the tall grass, her stomach fluttered in guilt. He'd only been trying to help, but she'd overreacted - even more than usual, thanks to that dressphere - and needlessly shut him out despite his concern.

Usually it was Auron who would approach her first, whether to scold or offer his shoulder when she fell into a funk. Maybe it's my turn to listen a little.

"Hey," she said softly as she settled beside him. His legs were folded into a meditative pose, hands resting on his knees. He tilted his head slightly in her direction, the only sign he'd noticed her clomping through the grass toward him. "I'm sorry," she said.

The fierce frown melted off of his face into something gentler, though he still kept his gaze away from her. "Hey yourself," he said. "Have you made any progress?"

"Mmm," she hummed noncommittally. "I'm taking a little break right now. Waiting for inspiration to strike."

"You'll work it out. You always do," Auron replied, closing his eyes and visibly straining to loosen his muscles as part of his partial meditation.

She watched him. Chewed on her lip. Stared out at the horizon. Finally gave into the silence. "You know, that's the most tense meditation style I've ever seen. I thought it was all about… I dunno, relaxing and stuff."

Auron's brow twitched, but he kept his eyes shut.

"I'm not sure how much inner peace you're gonna find when you're working that hard to cramp up your hands. Aren't you supposed to be letting go of all that stress?"

With an explosive sigh, Auron's eyes - and fists, she noted - flew open. "Could you keep your ongoing mental conversation with yourself private? It's unhelpful."

"I deserved that." She squirmed a little closer to him, undaunted. "Turnabout is fair play. Still, ignoring you didn't work for me... so maybe talking about whatever's bothering you might be more productive?" She curled her knees to her chest and rocked a bit as she examined Auron.

Auron snorted. "Braska sent you." It wasn't a question.

After a moment of fidgeting, she caved. "I mean, yes, okay, but I am worried, too! I know I was kind of a bitch back there."

"Don't call yourself that," he said immediately. Then he sighed. "You were under some stress as well. I didn't want to trouble you, but apparently my concern only made everything worse."

"Even if I snapped at you back there, I actually didn't really mind it. I like it when you pay attention to me. And if you're trying to say you don't like it when I 'trouble' you, I'm not buying."

"You are trouble." Auron smirked.

She bumped her shoulder against his. "Well, let's switch today. You spill the beans and I'll listen and nod wisely. Then you'll be the one who feels better after venting it all out!"

"Will I now?" Auron asked as some of the tension leaked back into his expression. He faced the vast expanse of grass stretching before them. "I feel… powerless," he eventually admitted. "I've never questioned my goals or my purpose in life until recently. And I've managed to hold on to my sense of duty, but.." He trailed off.

"Is this about me?" she asked in a tiny voice. "What did I do?"

"It's not always about you," he said curtly.

"Ouch." Still, there was a giddy rush of relief at his rebuke. Not my fault this time! "So, what is it about then? Care to share?"

Rikku wanted to kick herself even as the words popped out of her mouth. It was clear their little spat at the camp wasn't the real reason Auron was upset right now. Of course, she just had to try and tease it out of him with her usual fast talk, though. She wondered if he was going to snap closed again in response to her glibness. He'd had a whole lifetime of training doing just that, after all.

Auron remained silent, and the vain hope that her presence alone would be enough to make him open up started to crumble.

"It's about Braska. And Jecht, I suppose." He ground those few words out with difficulty, surprising her. "It is… not easy for me to talk about this," he continued haltingly, his frown deepening. "Perhaps that is the problem, though. The others… they've come so far on this Pilgrimage. Changed."

"People can grow and evolve, though, right? We're all different now."

"Have I changed, though?" Auron looked at her, worry in his eyes. "I am floundering. I have always been a warrior. A soldier, following commands. But now, Braska is no longer…"

"Your master?" she prompted.

Auron ducked his head in agreement.

"Look," she continued. "He's always wanted to be your friend first, you know. He even admitted to being kind of stupidly happy that you were able to get so mad at him after Baaj."

"Don't remind me," Auron grunted. "But that's not-" He sighed. Gritted his teeth. "Honesty, right," he muttered, then scrubbed a hand down his face. "Yes. Yes it is. Part of me wants to wipe his relationship with you away from his memory. Every time he makes a lewd joke, I really just want to punch -"

She pressed her lips together, trying to make herself invisible while devising a strategy to deal with Auron as he erupted into expletives and aired old grievances about the Baaj Incident. Do your best to look cute! And thanks for taking the fall this time, Braska!

"- and the constant innuendos!" He glanced down at her and stopped his tirade abruptly. "... But you already know this. And it isn't the primary issue bothering me," he finished. "So relax. And wipe that expression off your face. You're a terrible actress."

Indignant, she forgot about maintaining her maximum cuteness pose. "I totally am not! Besides, I didn't egg him on! I'm innocent!"

"You? Claiming innocence, after that thing you did with your tongue last time?" Auron's tone had changed from censure to amusement, at least.

She blushed, then preened. "Yeah, that was pretty good, wasn't it?"

"Stop distracting me. I'd ask you to do the same to Braska, but that man is incorrigible. Who wouldn't be, I suppose, considering the subject of his attention." Now he sounded smug.

"Flattery will get you everywhere, you know." Rikku scooted even closer to Auron, inwardly relieved. Her silly ploy to distract him had worked… letting out at least part of his anger seemed to have cleared his head, and his expression smoothed out.

"Braska has become more… fallible to me as of late. I'd always thought I understood him, but now I wonder if I ever did? Maybe he was right all along. Were we ever friends? Or was I just worshiping a false image of a Summoner? Why was I never able to see beyond the surface?"

He drew a long breath.

"I think… that wasn't merely Braska hiding himself. It was also my failure. My desire to follow orders. To be a good soldier, but never a true leader. Wen was right about me all along."

Rikku bit her lip. The jokes and play were fading away, and what she was seeing was a rare thing: Auron's vulnerability. It made her heart ache to see someone as capable as him assessing his own worth… and coming up lacking.

You can analyze a battle better than anyone I know, but when it comes to yourself… why are you so blind?

"I think you're underestimating yourself. You two are definitely friends - in fact, you're kinda all he had, before Jecht and I came along."

"I was loyal even after his split from Yevon, yes. But friendship?" Auron sighed. "I strove to uphold and push for goals I thought we shared. I believed he was a man so pure and holy that through him, Sin could be defeated once and for all."

She grew quiet. Self-doubt was the most insidious sort of fiend to battle… it attacked from within, and there was little anyone watching could do to stop it. As much as she wanted to wrap her arms around Auron and reassure him that he was mistaken, she knew this wasn't a battle she could fight for him no matter how she felt. Auron must've known it too, considering how reluctant he was to share his struggle at all.

He barked out a bitter laugh. "Such a myth. It was machina we saw, machina, just like your Marauder, in Yevon's most holy temple."

"You're thinking of that now?"

"Had Jecht already realized it in Bevelle, too?"

She winced, and with the sudden tension in Auron's shoulders, that was answer enough for him. "But," she hurried to say, "you and Braska weren't ready for the truth back then!"

"Perhaps, considering I'm not sure I'm ready now." Weighty silence settled between them as Auron presumably gathered his thoughts. The susurration of wind blowing across the plains almost swallowed his words when he finally spoke again. "But what bothers me more is that I'm not sure if Braska was ready then, either." Hints of the worry lines that would define his future features were forming between his brows. "He was ready enough to marry an Al Bhed, even with the teachings. And I thought, after her death, that his mourning was a temporary distraction from his greater mission. That he'd still want to save the Al Bhed from their sinful ways."

"... And then you met me?"

"And then I met you." He sighed. "I no longer want or need the Church's redemption and forgiveness. Did Braska ever? Was I the only one all along, blindly pushing that man towards his death for my faith?" His fists clenched, then unclenched. "I thought I was his loyal servant, but I've only been serving myself."

"That's not true-"

"I know that Braska can make his own decisions and I'm likely crediting myself with too much influence over them. Still -"

This is it. She stilled. This is the heart of the matter, isn't it. It had nothing to do with the Marauder, or Remiem, or even Braska's infatuation with her. It was the Pilgrimage itself. She was witnessing the slow emergence of the Auron she'd first met when she was just fifteen, and it struck a cold lance of fear through her heart. How didn't I see this coming?

Auron continued, unaware of her internal distress. "I no longer need Yevon. Braska… Braska never has. Not in a spiritual sense," he added. "So then why… Why does he continue? There's no holy ordained destiny guiding him or protecting his life anymore. He's no longer driven by mindless grief to commit suicide. So why?" His eyes slid shut, his near-shout dying down to a murmur. "Why can't I stop him?"

Maybe spending so much time training with Trema hadn't been the best idea after all. She thought back on Jecht and his explosive growth in talent, particularly after gaining possession of the Fang. He was a lot like Tidus in that way; maybe it really was because they were both aeons. Still, Jecht was doing the impossible: catching up to Auron's lifetime of rigorous training in just a few months.

Or maybe it was observing her and Braska return with their strange new truce. She was, after all, the newcomer that had split the two men's bonds right down the center - and again, only in the space of those same short months. Even if it wasn't so much that Braska was changing as showing his true colors, it was still a hard blow for Auron.

Rikku swallowed. Even if she was only guessing, she knew she was responsible for this, in some way - this slow erosion of everything Auron had ever held to be true, of his core beliefs, values, and confidence in himself. Was it the cost he paid for accepting her love of him?

She knew she owed him answers. Explanations about the Pilgrimage. About why it had to happen. About Jecht, and his son. About his own possible death. She caught herself opening her mouth, struggling to let out her own insecurities, to unleash the dam of denial she carefully kept to hold back her own anguish.

How was she supposed to tell him that this was the bond between she and Braska? That what she shared with the other man wasn't love, it was misery. Someone was going to have to die, and she had inexplicably put herself into the position of being able to influence who would make that sacrifice. Rikku wasn't sure anymore if it was a desire to actually protect Auron, or just her own sheer selfishness that kept her mouth shut.

Stopping the Pilgrimage was never possible… but those answers aren't mine to tell, she rationalized. Then she thought of Jecht and all the secrets they'd kept from him; a horrible, muddled feeling settled in the pit of her stomach.

A fundamental rift was growing inside of herself. Was she betraying Auron right now? Again, but this time with her silence?

No! Who would be thankful for being told they were gonna die? Or that nothing he could do would stop his best friend from killing himself? How could I do that to Auron, when he's already questioning himself?

Nothing could trump Braska's desire to protect the future of Spira, his own daughter, and perhaps even Auron's life. And her own thin hope for Auron's future was riding on Braska's commitment.

A terrible, haunted look stole over Auron's face as the silence stretched between them. He was someone who needed orders, a definite purpose and a clear goal in life. I pulled the rug out from under his feet, and he's looking for direction from the one place he's always found it… but Braska's leaving him behind. Putting another mask on and trying to cut him off, so they won't die together. And I don't want to stop it. Unable to stay silent any longer, she blurted out the first thing she could that seemed safe. "None of this is your fault!"

"It is. I've misjudged Braska from the start. I've idolized him, and I've demonized him, but I've never understood him. And that is why I can't stop him."

Ever the strategist, even while questioning himself; she wondered how accurate Auron's assessment really was. "If you try to understand him," she said weakly, "it might break you."

"Maybe I've misjudged myself, too, then." He laughed wryly. "I see now why Braska appreciated Jecht enough to keep him in the dark about the truth of the Pilgrimages. But in the end, Jecht didn't need his protection. Jecht is really the strongest one of us all."

"Jecht?" She blinked, thrown by the abrupt shift. "Are you serious?" Sure, anyone could see that Jecht was growing stronger, but she was certain that without his Celestial Weapon he'd still be toast against Auron. "You're the one that taught him everything he knows about a sword!"

"I taught him how to handle a sword, but I didn't teach him that innocence," Auron replied. "I thought he was merely naive."

"Jecht's got his own demons too, you know," she replied, thinking of her conversation with the Blitzer in Luca. His home world had thought he wanted to kill himself, or so he'd said. I guess being a superstar in Zanarkand wasn't that easy.

"But his demons do not cripple him," Auron replied. "He learns a hard truth, then carries on as usual, never losing his joy for life despite it all. If anything, Braska is the one learning from him."

"...You know," she began slowly, "I'd never thought about why Braska started hanging out with Jecht so much lately. I thought he was just running from… you know. Us."

"He should be," Auron said reflexively, his scowl returning. It faded just as quickly. "Still… am I the only one who's remained static? If even Braska can -"

"Stop right there!" She held up a hand. "You haven't stopped growing, even if you don't see it yourself. All you're doing is questioning your purpose. It's the proof that you're changing, just as much as everyone else has. That's called being human, duh. Welcome back to the human race, iron man."

Auron's eyes flickered; he opened his mouth to reply but was cut off as Braska called their names from a distance.

He was racing through the grass towards them, waving his hands wildly. "Rikku! Come quickly! It's Jecht, he -"

She and Auron sprung to their feet and faced Braska as he finally reached them, almost completely out of breath.

"He's what? Did he hurt himself?" Worry made her voice shrill.

"... He's trying... to help you!" Braska gasped out, leaning on his knees.

"Help? Help me with wha-" Over Braska's shoulder, a glint of afternoon sunlight reflecting off of metal momentarily blinded her.

"What is he doing with the Fang?" Auron asked, confused.

Rikku let out a cry of dismay. "Wait!" She raced for camp, trying to save her Marauder from Jecht's misguided, heavy-handed techniques. "Stop! You can't-"

Jecht's blade swung down as if in slow motion, and the sharp sound of splitting metal filled the air as the Celestial Weapon cleaved through the machina with envious ease.

"Done!" Jecht leaned back, a triumphant smile on his face. "These weapons can do anything!"

Rikku swallowed a scream and raced towards her baby. Once there, she shoved Jecht aside to leap for the Marauder's controls, then forced it to rise unsteadily upright. "Stand clear!"

" 'ey! What's the problem?" Jecht asked. "You said you wanted that arm off, now it's off!" He squawked, scrambling out of the way as she swung the Marauder's remaining arm down to scoop up the severed limb.

"You chopped it off, you idiot!" she yelled, struggling to direct the lumbering machina towards the cliffside. It was already starting to list dangerously, becoming sluggish to her commands. Grease and hydraulic fluid spewed everywhere from Jecht's crude amputation as the machina slowly collapsed.

Giving up on the manual controls, she leapt off of the machina before she could be thrown and hit the ground with a painful thump. Ignoring the stinging of her legs, she fumbled for her dressphere.

She activated the Songstress sphere, stepping into the familiar dance-the same spell that had powered both the Al Bhed laser cannon and the damaged Love Boat-even before the light had faded. As expected, her steps were clumsy and heavy, lacking the grace indicative of a successful cast; the Marauder was already damaged beyond repair. "If you won't move, I'll make you!" she swore, forcibly weaving the spell through the faltering machina.

Shuddering, the Marauder righted herself. Rikku struck out her foot; the Marauder copied the move. Another step followed, and then another; it was like trekking through waist-high mud, with every movement fighting against her hold. Slowly, the Marauder moved until it was standing flush to the cliffside, dragging the severed arm behind it. She lifted her arm, twirling it, and the Marauder also raised its broken limb, gripping it by the shoulder joint in its gigantic fist.

"Come on," she moaned, sweat beading down her forehead. Her arm shook from the effort of holding it up against an invisible weight; she shuffled her feet, sparking the magic through the Marauder and forcing her to again move beyond her capacities.

Metal screeching, the machina leaned back, then threw the arm forward, smashing it into the mountain. Chunks of broken rock sprayed from the impact.

Rikku crooked her fingers, and the severed arm drove its finger joints even deeper into the cliffside. When the dust cleared, the limb was securely embedded into the smooth stone.

She released the spell with a relieved groan, deactivating the dressphere and clutching her burning arm, which dangled limp at her side. As she tried to move it, her muscles screamed in protest, the after-effects of the dressphere still reverberating through her bones. Her legs had given up any sense of stability, trembling violently before tossing her on her butt. "Ouchie…"

The soreness in her limbs was nothing compared to the one in her heart as the Marauder let out a shuddering whine and powered down completely. The machina dangled from her own severed arm as her posture sunk into the limp state of abandonment. Sparks of magic dissipated from the frame until she was nothing more than a lifeless husk of metal.

"Oh!" Jecht stopped next to her and squinted at the cliffside. "So that's what ya meant by makin' a ladder, huh?"

"Heh," she murmured, bangs shadowing her eyes.

"Rikku?" Auron asked after brusquely elbowing Jecht out of his way.

"Heh heh..." She giggled, the sound a shade away from despair.

"Heh heh what?" Jecht mimicked, elbowing Auron right back. "You're creepin' me out, Blondie!"

"Good!" She whirled on him. "Chopping off her arm? I'd have asked for your help if it was that simple, you bonehead!"

"Hey," Jecht protested, although he had the good sense to look cowed. "I got the arm off, right?"

"That's not-" she railed.

Understanding washed over Auron's face, and he stopped her before she could continue, rubbing his hands over her arms in slow, soothing strokes. "Calm down. He didn't realize. … I didn't, either. I'm sorry."

"Realize what?" Jecht asked. "What's the big deal? So I broke it. She can fix it, right?"

Braska, who'd also joined them-doing an enviable job of modulating his panting-cleared his throat carefully. "The Al Bhed cultivate special relationships with the machina they recover. By bestowing a name upon it, you could say Rikku had… inducted it into her clan, I suppose."

"Inducta-wha? It's just a damn machine," Jecht insisted, though he shrunk back when she hissed at him.

"Think of it as a pet, perhaps," Braska tried again, visibly uncomfortable.

Auron's suddenly firm grip prevented her from throwing herself at Jecht to make him realize what he'd done. "You killed her! You big stupid oaf! You drained her dry!" She stopped struggling against Auron's arms and deflated, looking instead at her machina. "She's dead now."

"Ya mean you can't fix it?" Jecht said, sounding more uncertain. "But you're Rikku! You can fix anythin', right?"

"She wasn't a Shoopuf," she replied. "You can't just cast a spell and heal a broken machina! You need parts, and tools, and-and, knowledge…" Maybe if I was Gippal, or Shinra, I could come up with something. But…

A sudden sense of loss and homesickness welled up in her as she looked at her broken Marauder, leaning against the cliffside.

But I can't fix everything. These are my limits.

"The Church tried to reverse-engineer those machina for years," Braska said gently, as if sensing her thoughts. "You couldn't have expected to single-handedly trump all their research in a day, even with the help of your dressphere. You were pushing yourself too much."

"But I could have tried harder!" she protested. "She'd still have been usable afterwards, maybe."

Auron gave her arms a light squeeze. "We wouldn't have been able to bring her into Gagazet," he reminded her. "The time for parting would have come eventually. Jecht just made it easier for you. Don't be so angry at him."

"Naw," Jecht cut in, subdued. "Don't sugar-coat it, Auron." He faced Rikku, squaring his shoulders and setting his mouth in a determined line.

And oh, so that's where Tidus got it from, she thought absently as he opened his mouth.

"I messed up. I get it. I'm sorry. Didn't know how much that thing meant to ya." He rubbed the back of his head, unable to meet her gaze. "I shoulda, though. You're a traveler. Like me, right? And that machina was your lil' piece of home." He shifted his weight from foot to foot. "I fucked it up."

"But you acquitted yourself admirably once you realized your mistake," Braska interjected, placing his hand on the blitzer's shoulder. "I think Rikku understands that." His blue eyes landed on her, firm and expectant.

She knew what Braska wanted, but he could've at least given her some time to sulk about it and lick her wounded pride.

She buried her head into the familiar comfort of Auron's chest plate, inhaling deeply. "Sometimes I really hate being an adult," she muttered. Still, Braska had made his decision to shield Jecht from her anger; even Auron was trying to help him, too.

Maybe they aren't wrong, she told the part of her that wanted to give Jecht a piece of both her mind and the Godhand. Taking a deep breath, she freed herself from the security of Auron's embrace.

"Yeah, it's fine, I guess. Like Auron said, I would've had to give her up sooner or later." Unable to quench the flare of spite despite Braska's order, she added, "It would've been nice to have had the choice, though."

"She died for a good reason," Auron told her.

Rikku lowered her head, unable to meet their eyes, afraid of what might pop out of her mouth unbidden. "I'd… like to have a little time alone here. Do you mind?"

The others quietly began to move off, but she caught onto Auron's coat and tugged him back. "Not you."

He faced her silently, never a man of unnecessary words, though his expression was open and waiting. She wondered what he was expecting her to say. Wondering if he was gearing up to handle her slew of complaints.

He probably thinks I'm going to cry a little or maybe yell about Jecht being stupid. And he's not wrong, but… it's not always about me, right? This… is more important than the Marauder.

"You have changed," she said quietly, reaching for his hand to weave their fingers together, struggling to pick up the thread of conversation that they'd dropped at Jecht's untimely interruption. "It's a good change. Have you listened to yourself recently? You've grown more than you think."

He frowned, clearly confused. His gaze sought out her own, as if he thought he could make sense of her words if he peered deep enough. "...If you need some time to vent, you don't have to hold back your frustration on my account."

Grow up a little, Rikku. "Fine. Jecht's a butthead. Where's the news? There, I'm done."

Auron sighed and then bent to rest his forehead against hers. "It's very magnanimous of you to forgive Jecht; I probably wouldn't, if I was in your place. Once again, you are all showing me how little I've changed."

Annoyed at how her attempt to comfort Auron backfired, she grit her teeth. "You're as big of an idiot as Jecht sometimes, you know that? You were the one who defended him first. You human shield… you'll defend everyone but yourself, huh? I should really be yelling at you, not Jecht, you know?"

As she batted at his chest half-heartedly with her fist, he caught her hand and shushed her before she could speak again. "We judge ourselves more harshly than anyone… and I've always been a harsh judge. But I suppose, whether I chose to believe you or not…" He lifted her chin and looked at her, his face grave. "Maybe it's time for me to move forward."

She smiled, but the unease in her heart wasn't wiped away by the look in his eyes, or the proximity of his body next to hers. His presence still made her heart race, but after spending so much time with Auron, she was beginning to be able to see beyond her own feelings… and read his. And worryingly, his tone lacked its usual determination.

Auron may have had the ability to inspire confidence in others, but it seemed he couldn't use that same arresting magnetism on himself. What had happened to the confident man who, at the start of the Pilgrimage, couldn't push them towards Zanarkand fast enough?

His arms circled around her, in his usual attempt to comfort her, and to assure her that he would be there to protect her - to protect them all, no matter what demons he was facing down.

"You don't always have to do things by yourself, you know," she muttered, clapping her hands around his face and pulling him in for a kiss. She drew back, but didn't release him. "We're a team now. All of us. And wherever we're going, we're getting there together. So even if you don't think you can believe in yourself anymore, believe in us. In me. You're just as strong and capable as you always were, and you don't need the Church, or Yevon, or Braska, or even me to be that amazing person. It's inside of you," she swore. "It always has been. No matter what happens, you keep pushing yourself forward, and bringing the rest of us along with you. That's what makes you who you are. It's why I fell in love with you the first time, too."

"Hnn," Auron said, though his arms tightened around her.

She didn't bother trying to smile at him to cheer him up; they were beyond that now, and there was only so far she could go with the Marauder still smoking right next to them. But she hoped it was enough to stop Auron from second-guessing himself. She leaned into the hug and turned her head to observe the now-silent machina.

I won't let that happen to you. I'm not going to let you get destroyed… not by Yunalesca, and not by your own doubts. I'm your Guardian, too, now.


AN: Oh so hey, it's been three years, and what a three years it has been. I'm sorry, especially because I favored publishing this over proofreading it carefully. That notwithstanding, my excellent beta Ciesste has done her utmost to keep this chapter from becoming a total trainwreck.

There really is someone else I have to thank for finally getting the motivation to post this chapter, and it's you. Yes, you, the person who read this, or any other chapter, and left a thoughtful comment on it. Whether it was thanking me, asking me if I was okay, and requesting that I finish this story, or critiquing it, or even just reflecting on how pleased they were that I shared what I had even if I never published anything else again. You never stopped to consider this might have been an abandoned story and that your words might be wasted, and kept on leaving those reviews over all these years anyway. I didn't get to see them until very recently, and each one of them made my heart hurt in the good way. Thank you so much for being there for this story, and for the author too.