Hey. So, the guys I like for the new team are still standing on House. I personally want the black Mormon, manipulative bitch, and the plastic surgeon. Not that I don't like the others, but I think they'd make the best new team. I will be sorry to see 13 leave, and the overly enthusiastic former foster child. And the old fraud. And the twins. Man, I'll miss the twins. Really, I've liked all the new episodes this season. I even went to the House section to see if anyone had written any fic for the new characters, but there isn't much yet (and no char category for them). It's still mainly Huddy, Hameron, and Wouse. (We thought we had weird names.)

So, if you're ever at an anime convention and you see a light switch and you're really curious what will happen if you switch it off, make sure there isn't a row of artists tables nearby that will be left in the semi-dark when their lights go off and refuse to come back on even after repairmen work on it.

Hey. Most of you guys probably guessed that that thing in the last chapter that came from another story was the Al Bhed burial customs that came from Guardian1's story "the naked dead and her". I really liked that idea, so I stooooo-used it here. I hope she doesn't mind. If she does, I guess I'll change it. (I've been reading some Yuffie-Vincent lately, I guess because people kept saying it was like Rikku-Auron. Anyway, I might mention that Guardian1 also wrote the best Yuffie-Vincent story, "sunshine in winter". It would make you guys cry. Not me, cause I'm a grownup man...but you guys.)

So, spoilers. FFX isn't mine. This is an aurikku. (It didn't start out that way.) This is about characters and the gradual growth of a relationship. In fact, it's so gradual that sometimes it goes backward. It's rated -T-.

I guess I'll dedicate this chapter to Viva La Kitty, cause I've owed her an e-mail for a long time. I don't know if she's reading the story, but if she is, I hope she enjoys the chapter, and I hope that her music studies are going well.


Soldier of Spira


Auron:

A modern day operations plan isn't what most people think. It isn't a list of orders and objectives and assignments and assessments. That's an op-order. Oplans generate op-orders, lots of them. But an oplan isn't an op-order. A modern day oplan is more a collection of lists and timetables than anything else. It's a blueprint for a flow of men and materials into an area. It's an allocation of resources. It says that on this day we need these formations in-country, and these engineer resources here, this much fuel there, this many chaplains, this many gravediggers.

Operation Mi'ihen needed more coffins. It's the mark of an amateur, not having enough.

I am not an amateur.

I am a military professional. I have been for thirty years. And we are winning. The Plan...my plan, that I drafted in Zanarkand...is within its schedule parameters. Events are happening as I predicted they would. There have been surprising developments along the way, but there always are. I allowed for such things.

And I ordered lots of coffins.


Djose Highroad


Auron:

Things have settled back into a kind of rhythm. We're past the Mushroom Rock region now, and approaching Djose on the coast road.

Rikku's Diary:

We've started seeing more people now that we're away from that weird rock area. I like it more. There are new fiends to catch, including this one that can turn you into stone, and I can steal something from them that lets me petrify things too! They can also let me stoneproof our armor if I can get enough, or put petrify on a weapon. Auron told me not to bather with stoneproof, cause they really aren't too tough, although they gave the guys a little trouble the first time they came through here. So I think I'll just save up till I have enough to put petrify on Wakka's capture weapon. That should make it a lot easier to catch fiends for the zoo.

There are other travelers on the road now too, and we always stop so Yuna can talk to them, and tell them about what we're doing and what's really going with the church and all that. It's like she's trying to get elected, the way they do in Luca! Really, she shakes hands and I've even seen her kissing a couple of babies! Not that there are many babies out here, but the ones we meet, Yuna kisses them!

I'm starting to get back to myself now. I'm not really bipolar, you know. It's just, the whole thing with Vox, and my dream, and I'm just getting over being sick, and I'm just glad we're out of the Mushroom Rock area. I mean, ordinarily, I love to see new places and new things. It keeps me young. I think maybe I'm at my best when I'm on the move. Really. Auron fell in love with me while we were on the way to Zanarkand. I suppose that could have still happened if we just met at a party, or something. But, maybe not. And I'd probably have still gotten a crush on him if we met at a party, or some get together on Besaid where Yuna had invited both of us.

But then he'd have gone his way after, and I'd have gone my way, and I'd never really have got to know him, and maybe that crush wouldn't have turned into something more if we hadn't been together day after day, you know? And I can't exactly see him chasing after a girl my age to try and spend time with me, so if it weren't for the pilgrimage, maybe we'd never have gotten to where we are. Well, probably not. I'd like to think it would have happened anyway, but I don't really think it would have.

So now we're back on the road and seeing new things (well, new to me) and we're seeing them together, and spending time together at night again just like we did before. And I was looking forward to that, and we were doing it, but then...a couple of things came up.

First...Vox.

I really, really didn't expect Vox.

Vox scared me.

I mean, he's perfectly nice. Well, I mean I guess he's perfectly nice. I've been trying not to get too close to him. (And staying upwind.) He's come up to me a couple of times, to ask a question, or say something like we needed to stop soon. Once he complimented me on my stealing.

I guess it is kinda funny to watch how the others respond to him. I mean, it's not nice when it's Auron thinking I'm funny, but Yuna and Lulu are always trying to be the one to bring him his food, or ask if he needs something to eat, and it's like they can't take their eyes off of him, and of course the guys are just watching them watching him and fuming. Heh. I know I heard Tidus telling Kimahri that he thought there was something about the guy and maybe they should keep him away from Yuna, but Kimahri wouldn't answer him.

Anyway, he's come up and talked to me a couple of times. I don't know why...maybe because Auron is really the only one he actually talks with and he knows Auron and I are together and it sort of rubs off on me? And Vox has a great voice, strong and smooth, but nothing like Auron. Believe me, the sound of their voice is one place where Auron definitely has it all over Vox. (Uh, I mean, there are lots of ways Auron beats Vox! I mean...I didn't mean...oh shut up! You know what I mean!) Anyway, well, it's just funny to see Yuna and Lulu shooting me dirty looks whenever he says anything to me. At least Lulu is so busy flirting with Vox that's she doesn't have time to flirt with Auron!

Honestly, the two of them are like teenaged girls! Well, Yuna is a teenaged girl. Um, they're like a couple of preteens! Yeah, preteens. In their tent one night, we played the game where you have to choose someone to be stuck on a desert island with, and Yuna couldn't choose Tidus, and I couldn't choose Auron. And Yuna and Lulu both chose Vox, and giggled! Well, Lulu came as close to giggling as she comes. I guess it really wasn't very close.

And then they looked at me, and...I dunno. I chose Vox, because there wasn't really anyone else. One of the Psyches, maybe? But it was different now that I knew why I was reacting to Vox. I mean, I don't want to be on a desert island with anyone except Auron, and I know that we're really just rating how hot guys are, it's just...now that I know about the phermones...phermons? Whatever, now that I know about them, is Vox really all that hot?

I mean, I know he's hot. He's got the lean, hard body, the think mane of hair, and when you look into his eyes (which I try not to do) you can see some quiet tragedy in his past. Plus, pretty much all he wears is a loincloth. So yeah, hot. But now I'm wondering how much of it is his being really hot and how much is the chemicals talking. I've thought about telling Yuna and Lulu what Auron told me, but...

Nah.

So, I can handle Vox now, and my own insecurities. I still wish he didn't make me feel the way he does, sometimes, and maybe when we get to Djose I can do something about it, if the airship is there. Still, the whole Vox thing didn't make my memories of the Mushroom Rock area fond ones. So that was one thing about the whole area.

The other...

Besides Vox...there was the whole battleground thing. I know that I'm, well, still feeling some guilt about Operation Mi'ihen, that I pushed for it so hard, and helped convince my dad to try it...and then what happened. So besides just feeling bad about it, because I lost so many people there that I cared about, besides that I was also feeling like it was all my fault.

I talked to Yuna about that once, and also to Brother, and to Linna once. Yuna's had healer training, you know, and part of that is, uh, spiritual healing. Healing the soul, when it hurts. And my soul hurt real bad when I heard what happened at Operation Mi'ihen. And then I read the letter that Auron posted on the sphere net, about the people that died, and what they had died for, and it helped a little, and my soul started to get better. You know?

But I still felt a little guilty, and like I had killed all those people. Yuna told me it wasn't my fault, and so did Brother and so did Linna. But Auron didn't say that. I remember when we first started to talk...really talk. That was back when I guess we were still getting to know each other, and I thought I was just getting a crush on a nice, older guy who wasn't as scary as I thought at first, and he thought I was just some flaky girl that he was starting to care about, but not that way. It was after Home was destroyed, and we had gotten away from Bevelle, that I started going out and keeping him company when he stood watch in the middle of the night, and we would just talk. And one night we were talking about Operation Mi'ihen, and I told him how much his letter had meant to me, and I told him about how I still felt guilty, like it was all my fault, and how I knew that was silly.

But he didn't think it was silly. He explained, really gently, that if I had supported it, then I did carry some of the guilt. He said that I was right to feel that way, but I was wrong to try to carry it all. He said that many others shared the responsibility. I remember sitting in the dim starlight, looking out over the Calm Lands, listening to his rough, smooth, smoky voice telling me that it's the act of a child to try and deny all responsibility, and pretend that nothing is their fault, and it's the act of a child to try to take all the blame, and cry that everything is their fault. An adult accepts their share of blame, but doesn't try and take more.

And I remember that when he told me that, it was like there was a weight on my heart, and most of it got lifted off right in that moment there in the Calm Lands. Not all of it. There was a little guilt still there, and I accepted that and knew that I would carry that much guilt with me for the rest of my life. But I felt...at peace with myself. Because I knew that it was only my true share of guilt that I carried now, only as much as I deserved and no more. And I knew I was strong enough for that.

That's what Auron did for me, instead of just telling me it wasn't my fault.

Sometimes I still forget...Auron isn't like other people.

But, so anyway, so I still had these feelings, strong feelings about Operation Mi'ihen. And that was just something that I lived with, mostly. But now, here we were, almost where it happened, and I knew we were getting closer and closer to the place where the battle had taken place and I just got this growing feeling of dread, you know? And it started out as just a little baby feeling of dread, you know, and then it grew and grew until it was like a big, giant, shoopuff feeling of dread! And I started worrying about what if I got there and there were all the dead bodies still there, even though I knew that they must have buried them all but what if they didn't and they were still there and what if I recognized some of them and...and...

I kinda talked to Auron about it. And he didn't tell me I was being silly. He just held me close that night and said that I wouldn't be alone. He'd be there with me, and the others would be there too. And I felt better, but I was still, uh, I dunno. And then we got there, and we climbed over the wreckage and I didn't want to see what was there, and then I saw.

It was...it was full of color, the way the Al Bhed honor their, um, our dead.


Auron:

We stopped to battle some fiends. We left the actual fighting to Wakka, Tidus, and Rikku. Between them they can easily dispatch the fiends, steal whatever items the fiends have, and Tidus is getting the experience with his special attacks that I want him to. Yuna was watching the fight closely in case anyone needed healing, and Kimahri was staying close to her. I was standing a bit apart and Lulu was hovering nearby because Vox had taken the opportunity to have a word with me.

Vox was telling me about a flyer that was relatively rare in the area. I saw his eyes flick momentarily toward the battle. Rikku ran in fast at steal something from the fiend, and I saw Vox nod.

"She's very good. Very fast."

"Yes," I said, irritated for some reason.

His eyes flicked momentarily toward Kimahri. I know something of the history there, but of course I couldn't bring it up with him. If anyone, I should speak to Kimahri. But I didn't want to do that. Even as I had that thought, anther part of my mind was wondering if I could use the situation for my own purposes, to help convince Kimahri to accept his role as leader among the Ronso, to convince Vox to accompany us willingly if we must go into the Guado Forest.

This is a part of me that I don't suppose I like. A part that manipulates friends and enemies as naturally and unthinkingly as breathing. This is the part of me that showed that sphere to Rikku, not only because she had to see it, but, I realized later, also because I hoped that if she saw it then she would stop...trying so hard to make out relationship a physical one. I wanted her to stop tempting me. So I showed her a sphere, and talked about consequences. And I never even realized what I was doing.

That is a part of me that I don't like.

But before...this...with Rikku...

...it never would have occurred to me that like or dislike might be an issue.

I looked back at the battle. It was almost over. Once again, Rikku rushed in to steal from a fiend, and Vox nodded approval.

Punk.

Rikku's Diary:

Something weird happened. We had just fought some fiends (and I stole some semi-cool stuff) but we didn't get going right away because there were some people there and Yuna was giving them her Talk #3—I'm Only One Person, All Of Us Have To Change Spira Together, and Tidus and Kimahri were hanging around her, and Auron was talking with Vox, and Lulu and Wakka were hanging around them, and I was just kinda hanging around with myself cause I didn't really want to be near Vox right then even if Auron was there, and I had already heard Yuna's Talk #3 lot's of times.

"Well, I haven't been a summoner for very long myself, you see! Still, I can't put myself down every time I fail! People are depending on me! They're depending on all of us! Everyone doubts themselves sometimes! I'm only a young girl, but I have to believe that I can succeed, and so can you if we all work together!"

Pause for cheers. Okay, so I was sort of standing on my own, looking out at the ocean and wondering if there were any Al Bhed ships out there and who might be on them, and if they would stop at the battle site, when a man came up to me, and said, "Lady Rikku?"

He wasn't young or old, tall or short, or anything at all really. He was just average. I think he was with the party that Yuna was talking to.

"Uh, yeah."

He smiled a little and held out a piece of paper to me. Maybe he wanted an autograph! I took it, and he nodded, and turned and walked off.

I told you it was weird.

So I open the paper (it was folded over) and there was something written there. It said:

Who killed Paul?

That's all. That was the entire thing. I looked around for the guy, but I didn't see him anywhere.

Paul? Who's Paul?

Am I supposed to answer this? Am I suppose to find out who killed Paul? Am I supposed to ask someone? Ask who?

Well, that one's probably obvious. It's probably Auron I'm supposed to ask, if I'm supposed to ask anyone. I glanced over at him still talking with Vox. If it wasn't him, then...Vox? Ask Vox? Or the crest, or Pops, or someone else.

Huh. I shook my head. I didn't need this right now. It was probably something to do with the Church, with Seymour or Mika or Benefice or Ophelia. It's probably some sort of attack on Auron, through me.

Well, I won't ask Auron anything, but I'll tell Auron about this when I get a chance.


Auron:

I know Rikku has been distracted recently. Part of it is Vox. I underestimated the effect that he would have on her. Or rather, I underestimated how upset she would be about the effect he had on her. I suppose it all comes from the fact that this is her first serious relationship. Actually, her first relationship of any kind. And she's insecure.

Willa was younger than Rikku when I first met her, but older than Rikku when we...became involved. But her circumstances were different. Willa was much, much more experienced than Rikku. She had come from a broken home, spent much of her time on the streets, had been a prostitute, and had been in a couple of abusive relationships all before she was the age Rikku is now. Of course, Rikku has also known tragedy in her young life, but different kinds of tragedy. But still...

How much experience had Willa ever had with a normal relationship?

She always told me that the reason she left was that it hurt too much that I didn't love her back. And I know that's true, but looking back now I can remember moments...fleeting incidents...times she seemed nervous, or even frightened. But she wouldn't talk about it. She always said she was all right. Someone told me once that she thought Willa worried a lot about messing up our relationship. I didn't think much about it at the time, but maybe Willa was worried just the way Rikku is. Maybe she was trying too hard to be the perfect, hm, companion.

Maybe that's why she couldn't stop her self-destructive behavior.

This is pointless, now. Except that, it's a lesson to me to take Rikku's feelings about this more seriously. And a reminder to me that Rikku can't do this. She doesn't have past relationships to learn from, to say, That was a mistake, I'm not going to do that this time.

So Vox was one thing bothering her. The other was the battle site. I know she wasn't looking forward to being there. She was afraid of her own reactions, afraid that she'd break down or something. When we climbed to the top of the rubble and she saw the Al Bhed style ribbons, streamers and the rest, I felt her trembling. But she was also smiling. We spent a couple of hours there, and I watched as she wandered among the memorials, looking for the names she knew, sometimes standing silently, other times talking as if to an old friend, hanging her own colored ribbons here and there.

"I wanna come back one day," she said, looking back a last time just before we left. "After I've had a chance to think, and time to get ready. There's a little bear I want to leave next to Xik's grave, and I wanna think of something for Senni. And I need more ribbons. And some colored feathers."

And she seemed better after that. Calmer. She started teasing Yuna and Lulu about having a crush on Vox, and teasing Tidus and Wakka as well. Once, we passed a chest down in a sort of ravine. Rikku was wild because there wasn't any way to get down to it.

"Rikku, we are NOT going to tie our belts together and lower you down. And it's too narrow for Valefor to fit. Maybe we can come back for it later."

"But AURON! What if someone ELSE gets to it FIRST!"

It took a while to drag her away, but I was glad to see her acting more like her old self. All in all, she left the Mushroom Rock area happier than she was when we entered. But I think she is still glad that we're traveling through more normal country now, closer to Djose.

Considering the battles we're fighting, the training we're doing, and Yuna's campaigning, we're making fairly good time. Vox has started joining our training sessions. He's very good, one-on-one, but has little experience fighting as part of a group. And he isn't very interested in learning. Instead, he spars with Tidus or Wakka or me, or sometimes with Kimahri. Watching Kimahri and Vox spar is like watching a mirror dance. The two styles are almost identical. Tidus and Wakka seem very...enthusiastic when they're sparring with Vox, especially if Yuna or Lulu are watching, which they usually are.

Of the ladies, Rikku was the only one who might have sparred with Vox, but she never wanted to. I've been watching at noon as she continues to train hard with Tidus. She's getting faster, and better. I think she would be able to hold her own against Vox, unless she allowed herself to become distracted by him. I know she's still avoiding him whenever she can, and I suppose I have mixed feelings about that. She's spending most of her time with me, and I enjoy that. But I don't like the idea that, in effect, someone has so much control over her.

I was speaking with Tidus one day after they finished their midday session. Rikku was nearby, cleaning herself up a little when Vox came up to her and quietly complimented her on her speed and skill. His words were simple and sincere, and I found myself frowning as she blushed a deep red.

Rikku's Diary:

"You are very skilled for one so young," Vox said, standing a little too close. I hadn't even noticed him coming over to me until he spoke up.

"Oh, uh, thanks," I said, looking around, looking everywhere but at him. I didn't want to meet his eyes. I could smell him. He smelled really, really good. Kind of like warm, exotic spices. "Uh...yeah, thanks."

Everyone was looking at us, and I just knew I was blushing. Yuna and Lulu were glaring, and that was kinda funny, but Auron...Auron was frowning, just a little, and I suddenly felt guilty.

"We should spar together," Vox said suddenly, and I turned back to him and then I was looking into his eyes.

Vox has beautiful eyes.


Someone was pounding on her head. Just come in already, she thought. And her mouth tasted like...kissing a shoe?

She slowly realized that she had a hangover. She didn't drink that much that often, but it did happen sometimes. So that's why the pounding. (Is that why they call it getting hammered?)

Where the hell am I?

Blearily the young blond pried open her eyes tried to raise her head.

Ouch. Okay, I'm in bed, lying on my stomach. Don't recognize the room...motel generic.

Someone else shifted in the bed beside her, behind her, and she froze, realizing that she wasn't alone. The young woman felt a little chill run through her blood.

Oh man, oh man, oh man! Who was that? She couldn't remember! Oh no no no no no, she didn't do anything that stupid! Why am I naked?

Naked?

Oh yeah, naked.

And why does it feel...?

NO! No, that's just from the hangover! That's why it's sore! It, uh, gets sore when you, uh, drink too much. Your whole body is sore. It does mean anything, doesn't prove anything, right?

She could...NO! Do NOT reach down there. There's no reason to, uh, to...check, cause nothing happened last night!

Oh hell.

What happened last night?

She didn't move. Didn't breathe, not wanting to wake him before she figured this out. Him? She hoped Him! (Didn't she? Which would be worse, Him or Her? Please lord, not Them. She couldn't have been that drunk.) Her? She didn't go that way, but who knows when you're that drunk. Maybe a Her would be better. What would Auron think?

AURON!

Oh man

What happened last night?

Okay, need to breathe now.

GASP!

Did that wake Him?

Her?

Whatever. No, it didn't. Good.

Rikku lay very still under the clovers, not moving, breathing shallowly, trying to not think about consequences or the future, trying very hard not to think about a strange man laying next to her in bed, and what would Auron say when he found out, and did he really have to find out? Rikku lay very still, just trying to remember what had happened last night. She remembered...

She sat at the bar, nursing a drink and a grudge. They had had a fight. They'd had a lot of those recently.

Secrets. They fought about all his secrets, all the things he couldn't tell her. She had tried for so long to accept that he had secrets, she had tried so hard not to ask, not to wonder, to be a good girl. But she just got so tired of it and then it all blew up from a little argument over nothing—over dishes or something—and then she was screaming, accusing him of cheating on her on those trips he took, and he was all tight-lipped and biting off his words and calling her a child and a brat, and then it wasn't just a fight, it was a bad fight and she was screaming that he didn't love her he'd never loved her and she'd show him and two could play that game!

And she knew he was about to turn and storm out so she stormed out first, stormed out of their little apartment and out into the street where she walked around for a while trying to cool off, but just getting madder and madder until she ducked into a bar and ordered a drink.

She bought the first drink, but someone else bought her the next, and the one after that. Men came up to her and flirted and bought her drinks with cute names and cute little umbrellas and pieces of fruit, and she let them. Why did she let them, Rikku wondered to herself, lying under the covers next to who-knows-who in some motel. What made that seem like a good idea? Was it because it boosted her ego, and she'd always had these self-image problems? It made her feel better knowing these men wanted her? Or was it because she knew Auron would hate it if he knew, he'd hate the idea of her sitting in a bar letting strange men get her drunk. Oh yeah, he'd hate that.

She sure showed him.

Next to her in the bed, someone shifted, and Rikku went stone still. And a little break appeared in Rikku's wall of denial. Up to now, she hadn't let herself think what this might mean. She hadn't dared to. She was married to Auron. She didn't want to hurt him, not really. Hell, she wasn't even mad at him any more. It was just a fight! She never wanted to cheat on him, but...she was drunk! And mad. And horny from the fight! And...and...

He'd never forgive her.

Would he?

What if he didn't?

She felt tears starting to pull at the corners of her eyes. So now she was hungover and crying, lying naked in bed next...next to...

Was her marriage over? Was this how it ended? After everything they had been through?

Maybe he would forgive her.

Would she have forgiven him?

Dammit dammit dammit, why'd she have to be that stupid! Why'd she let those guys buy her all those drinks?

She remembered leaving the bar, two of the men helping her because she was a little unsteady. Where was she trying to go? Home maybe, or maybe nowhere. The cool air outside cleared her head a little. The two—three?—men were leading her down the street, and she was going with them. They were holding her, their hands all over her. What the hell? She shook her head and pulled away.

"Hey, hey, it's all right. Our place is just over here, and you can rest there."

"Yeah, and maybe we'll have some fun...you know, music, some more booze."

"Shut up, Pav. Come on, it isn't far. You can rest, slip out of those shoes."

He tugged at her arm, and she lost her balance, falling against him. He grabbed her, slipping an arm around her and holding her up.

"Whoa, okay, you're fine."

His arm slipped down while he spoke, rubbing her back, and then his hand was cupping her rear. It felt kind of...

"Hey!" she said, shoving him away hard, falling against the wall of the alley.

Alley?

They were all around her now, saying things, calling her things. Hands pulled her blouse up over her chest, grabbing at her breasts, pulling at the straps of her bra. She tried to push their hands away, but she was pinned against the wall, their bodies pressing against hers, and their hands were pulling at her belt, trying to shove her shorts down over her hips...

Suddenly something shoved her hard, and then again, and then the bodies against her were gone and she was sliding down the wall, sliding down to the dirty pavement when strong hands gripped her gently and pulled her up.

"A-Auron?"

Then she caught the spicy scent of him.

"Lady Rikku?"

Vox.

"Lady Rikku, are you all right?" he asked, holding her up easily. A little thrill ran through her as she felt his strong hands and looked up into his eyes. She remembered him from their journey, years ago. He had always been kind, and polite. She trusted him.

"I...I'm fine. I...I have to...go..."

"Lady Rikku, you are not fine. Are you hurt? Is there somewhere I can take you?"

Was there? Her mind was still foggy, from the alcohol, from the...almost rape?...and from the scent of him. She shook her head, trying to clear her thoughts. And he was...carrying her? How did that happen? But it was nice. And then...

Oh god...Rikku shivered under her covers, remembering.

Then they were in his room, in a motel nearby. She sat on the edge of his bed, blouse off, while he knelt in front of her, bandaged all her cuts and scrapes. Her eyes closed as his strong, gentle hands moved over her skin. Then she felt him trail razor-sharp fingertips lightly up her bare stomach, tracing a line just under her breasts. She opened her eyes, and his face was close to hers. She shook her head, thinking this wasn't right.

He was so close, she couldn't think straight. The room smelled like him. The bed smelled like him. He was tugging at her bra, pulling her close while he leaned down, and...

The bed shifted under her. He was waking up! Oh god oh god she didn't want to face the reality. She squeezed her eyes shut and curled away from him. She wasn't ready! Please, please be a dream, please, please, please...

"Rikku...?"

Her eyes snapped open, and her breath caught in her throat. Then she rolled over so fast that her head bumped against his shoulder. OW!

Was it...?

"A-Auron?"

"Rikku, are you alright?" he asked, reaching out to her.

It was. She threw herself against him, slamming her still sore body against his hard ridged bare chest, clinging to him like a lost child.

Thankyouthankyouthankyou she whispered over and over to herself, while he put his arms around her.

"Rikku, what's wrong?"

"Auron...what happened?"

"Hm, what do you remember?"

"We...we had a fight," she said, face against his chest. Then she put out her tongue and softly licked one of his nipples.

"Yes," he said, smiling. "You ran out. I should have gone after you, but I was too angry. I was starting to worry, hours later, when you called. You said you had had a fight, sort of with Vox. You asked me to come get you."

"A fight...?"

"From what you said when I got here, it sounded like he tried to...make an advance. And he didn't want to take no for an answer."

"I...I think I remember. I told him that if he hurt me, you'd literally tear him apart," she said, sucking on his nipple now, gently biting it. "And he believed me. He said he was sorry, I think."

"He, ah!, he was gone when I got here. I might have, ah!, gone after him once I made sure you were all right—I might still go after him—but you said something about him saving you earlier."

"He did, I think," she said, one of her hands slipping down to his lap, down under the covers. One of his strong hands was rubbing circles on her back, and the other was working its way between her legs. "So, I guess...I guess we made up."

"Not really," he said, leaning over to kiss her neck, "But we stayed. And we both said we were sorry. So I suppose the fight is over."

"I am sorry, Auron," she said, looking up at him. "I'm sorry for the fight, and I'm sorry for...I mean, cause...I'm, I'm sorry if something almost, kinda, maybe might have happened. I don't want that. I never want to hurt you. Never."

Auron lifted his head from her neck and looked back at her.

"I trust you, Rikku."

She smiled.

Yeah.


I guess...I guess it is okay t be attracted to other men. I don't really want to be, but I guess it doesn't make me a, uh, a slut, or anything. It doesn't msn something will happen. And I guess it's even okay for Auron to be attracted to other women. I guess it doesn't really mean anything, as long as we trust each other.

"Lady Rikku?"

"Huh?"

"We should spar together one day."

"Oh, uh," I looked over at Auron real quick. He was still watching us. Hee hee! "Well I'll think about it. Cause I wouldn't want to hurt ya."

Auron:

I saw Rikku look at me, then back at Vox, and then back at me again with a small smile. Then she said something to him and they both laughed a little.

Now what does that mean?

"Jealous?" Tidus snickered next to me.

Of course not.

Punk.

Rikku's Diary:

We're getting closer to Djose now. Auron's been in kind of a grumpy mood. I know, I know. How can you tell? But I can tell. I think...I think...heeeee's jealous! Not a lot. Just a little.

I wonder how jealous he might be if I started talking to Vox more? Hee hee! It's a kind of an ego boost, you know? Oh, well, it might be better if I didn't try anything like that. I know Auron wouldn't like it if I played games like that, and I know he wouldn't play games like that on me. He wouldn't try to make himself feel better by making me feel bad. So I'm not going to do that to him.

But I SO could!

Oh well. It's nice to think about, anyway.

"Rikku?"

"EH! NOTHING!"

Auron:

What?

Rikku's Diary:

"Hm, I was wondering if everything was all right. You've been very quiet."

"Oh, yeah, sure. Totally."

Stupid face...blushing again. I wasn't gonna do it.

Oh yeah.

"Uh, well, actually, Auron, there is something."

"Yes?"

"Uh, this morning, while the rest of you were busy, a guy came up to me, and he gave me this. I don't know what it's all about."

Where did I put that note?

"Gave you what, Rikku?"

"Just a sec, just a sec. Here it is!"

I handed him the paper, and he took it and unfolded it and read it.

Who killed Paul?

I watched him read it, and it was like his face turned to stone. There suddenly wasn't any emotion in it at all.

"Auron?"

He didn't hear me, or didn't answer.

"Auron?" I repeated. We had both stopped now.

"Who gave you this, Rikku?" he asked.

"Um, it was just a guy. I didn't know him."

"What did he look like?"

"Well, he didn't really look like anything. He wasn't Al Bhed. He wasn't tall or short, or fat or skinny. He was just a guy...really ordinary. I don't even know if I would recognize him again."

He was still looking at me, but not really. He was looking through me, seeing something that wasn't here.

"Auron?"

"I killed Paul," he said, and started walking. Huh? I followed, but he sped up, and we caught up to the others and went right through them. Lulu and Yuna and Tidus and Wakka threw questioning looks at me, but all I could do was shrug at them. Auron went right up to Vox, who was in the lead. Vox stopped and turned to Auron, and I hung back a little, but still close enough to hear.

Auron turned to us and snapped, "Stay here," and led Vox off a little way. They talked, but I couldn't make out what they were saying. Vox turned and looked at me once, and I think Auron said something sharp to him. After a while Vox nodded and jogged off down the road.

"Auron?" I said, as we walked up to join him.

"Sir Auron?" Yuna said, "Where is Vox going?"

"I sent him ahead. I had some messages that I needed him to deliver. He might rejoin us before we get to Djose."

"Hey, old man, is there some problem? Are we in danger? More than normal, I mean?"

"Is it the dark summoner?" Lulu asked while I clipped Tidus for calling Auron Old Man. I saw Yuna's eyes go wide.

"No," Auron said, "And I don't think we're in real danger, but keep an eye out while we travel."

"Do we need to, uh, hurry, Sir Auron?" Wakka asked, looking around him like he thought we'd be attacked any second.

"We don't dawdle, but I don't think we need to push too hard, Auron answered, "Just be careful."

"Do we—" Tidus started, but Auron didn't let him finish.

"No time to waste," he said, turning away, "Let's go."

And so we all followed.

Tidus took the lead and Kimahri, Wakka and Lulu closed up around Yuna. We were all a little more subdued than we had been. We talked less, and I saw the other's eyes darting around, making sure there was no unexpected danger. I guess all of us had been feeling kinda safe, you know, being in the south where people like Yuna, and the fiends are pretty weak. But now it was like back in the early days of the pilgrimage last year. I remember a while back thinking that I missed those days when we were all so close and had a simple sense of purpose, before things got so complicated.

I guess I forgot how scared I was sometimes back then.

"Fiends!"

"Hey! We need that one, ya!"

Well, after a few easy battles with fiends, we all started to loosen up again. It wasn't like before...we were still being careful, but we made a few jokes, and smiled a little. It was more like it was before, you know? Maybe part of it was that Vox wasn't here. It was just us again. Tidus said something back to us, and Yuna smiled at him. Wakka said something and Lulu pinched him! Ha!

But Auron slouched along at the back, not talking to anyone. Even me.


Auron:

"Auron?" she said later that night, as she lay on the ground next to me. "Do you want to talk about it now?"

Not really.

"Auron?"

It looked a little like rain. Clouds drifted across the stars, and there was a smell of it in the air.

"Sorry, Rikku. It isn't...I killed Paul. A man named Paul, in Zanarkand. Tidus's Zanarakand."

He collected rainbows.

"Rainbows?"

Did I say that out loud?

"Yes, Rikku. Rainbows."

"Why did you kill him?"

Maybe it'll rain tomorrow. No one likes marching through the rain, but, sometimes I enjoy it for a little while.

"I needed the rainbows."

She didn't say anything for a long time after that. I remember times I've stood, or walked, letting the rain slowly clean all the mud and dirt off me.

"Auron?"

"Yes, Rikku."

"I know you, some. And I know that if you tried to save someone and failed, you'd probably say you killed them. So...Paul..."

"I stabbed him in the chest with my sword, and dragged it down and out through his gut."

She didn't say anything...

...(when will it start raining?)...

...but she held onto my hand.

Eventually, it was time for me to take over the watch from Tidus. I got up, pulling my hand out of hers.

"Auron...was there anything else you could have done?"

Was there?

"No," I said, and walked away.


Rikku's Diary:

I know that Auron opens up more to me than anyone else. More than Tidus, or Jecht, or that Willa chick. I know he does. But I still wish he'd open up more. I just want to help him more.

Who killed Paul?

Well, now I know it was an attack on Auron. An attack through me? Why give the note to me?

I asked Auron...I was careful what to ask him. I didn't ask if it was right, or if he deserved to die, or if it was an accident, or even why. I asked if he had any choice.

No, he said, and walked away.

I thought about that for a long time, and then I followed him out to keep him company, the way I always do. We didn't talk. He didn't and I didn't. But I sat next to him, and neither one of us was alone.


Rikku's Diary:

Auron was still being all quiet the next day. Well, it was a quiet day. The Djose Highroad is really bleaker than the Mushroom Rock area, at least this part of it is. At least the Mushroom Rock area had, uh, mushroom rocks. They were interesting to look at, even if I was distracted a lot of the time. Of course I couldn't stand the clop clop clop of our shoes on the ground there after a while.

We ran into a party of miners headed for the Mushroom Rock to search for gilstone, and Yuna buttonholed them and started talking and the rest of us sort of tuned out. I recognized the start of Talk #1, The Church Has Lied. I had support duty, so I was trying to nod and smile without actually listening.

"I have cast aside Yevon! I follow the temple no more! Yevon has warped the teachings and betrayed us all! No, we will not flee. We will fight, and continue on!"

Maybe tone it down a little, Yunie? I smile and nod. After we got moving again, Yuna was sort of off in a world of her own. She gets like that after she's been addressing the public, sort of smiling and zoning out for a little while. We sort of led her by the arm.

"Oh, Rikku," she said, snapping out of it, "One of the miners gave this to me while I was signing autographs. It has your name on it."

She held out a neatly folded piece of paper.

I took it, my steps slowing. It had my name written on the outside. I wasn't sure I should, but I opened it.

Why did they fall?

It was another one. I glanced back at Auron. He was looking down. I quickly stuffed the note into my pocket and hurried to catch up with Yuna. Man, I've spent the last couple of weeks avoiding Vox, now he's gone and here I am avoiding Auron. Why? Because I don't know what to do!

Why did they fall?

I guess he pushed them, or did something else to them, that's why. This note, it's an attack on him. Auron. I know it! Just like the last one was. So, do I give it to him? Why would I do that? That's what they want me to do. Right? And they're trying to hurt him, whoever they are, right? So why would I do that? Okay, but what else can I do? Ignore it? Burn it?

I'm getting a headache.

It took me twenty minutes to figure it out. The headache, I mean. Then I slipped my hand into a secret little pocket, and fumbled the crest out of its wrapping.

"Shh!" I whispered when I was in contact with it, "Wait til we take a break!"

A half-hour later, Yuna was giving Talk #6 to some Crusaders, and Auron was talking to their officer, and I slipped away next to the water and pulled out the crest.

Tell him.

"Well, hello to you too!"

Rikku, he needs to know.

"Know what? Tell me what's going on. And where have you been? Hiding from the blade all this time?"

Yes. Now call Auron over here!

"I will, but first I want some answers!"

(Sigh.) Rikku...Rikku, do you have brothers?

"B-brothers?"

"She has one brother."

"Auron!"

"She has one brother, and you know it," he said, looking back and forth between me and the crest in my hand. I looked around and saw the others were all busy.

"We're stopping here for lunch," Auron said, coolly, "It's a little early, but when I saw you chatting with the crest..."

Slowly, reluctantly, I reached my other hand into my pouch and found the note.

"Another one," Auron said, tonelessly. He looked back up at me, "Where did it come from, Rikku?"

"One of the miners gave it to Yuna, but it had my name on it, so she gave it to me." He took it. "Auron, don't open it! It's someone trying to hurt you! Why play their game?"

He opened it and read it.

Why did they fall?

Auron:

Why did they fall?

I pushed them.

Auron, you know who is doing this.

"What! Who?" Rikku asked.

Yes. I know now.

The blade.


Auron:

I told Rikku I needed to speak with the crest alone, and asked her to give us a few minutes. She wasn't happy. She glared a little, but she agreed, leaving me with the crest in my hand.

It's the blade.

Paul, Red one...these are memories that it managed to pull out of my dreams. Memories of Zanarkand.

Obviously. That isn't the question.

True.

Why is it going through Rikku?

Auron, what does the blade want?

To be whole. It wants me to put the sword back together.

Are you planning to do that?

No. Obviously.

So the blade will try to force you to.

How? By threatening Rikku?

I don't think so. It isn't really threatening her. Those men are obviously agents.

Obviously. The Mushroom Rock region is the heart of the sword cult. It's a lonely, uninhabited place. The blade is hidden there, and it is the most powerful piece.

Much more powerful than I.

Obviously.

So if the crest can operate through and even control four, five, even six men...the blade can control...

Hundreds...

The blade has put small pieces of itself inside hundreds of men and women and spread them through the region. Anyone you meet could be his agent. He could be speaking through any person you've talked to. In a very real way, Auron, the Mushroom Rock belongs to the blade.

Why didn't you tell me? Why didn't Rin?

Rin didn't know.

And you?

I had my own reasons. And I didn't think not knowing put you or Rikku in any danger, so I wasn't breaking my oath.

Convince me. Why isn't Rikku in danger?

What motive does the blade have to hurt her? How does that help it? The blade wants only one thing, for the sword to be reunited. How does hurting Rikku further that?

Is it threatening Rikku?

That might make more sense, the only problem is that it's not. None of this has threatened Rikku. This is more subtle. I think...I think it's threatening you.

The blade never struck me as particularly thoughtful.

I grant you that brute force is its more usual style.

What is Rikku's part in this? If it's threatening me, why not do it directly?

Auron...what do you fear?

Many, many things.

Auron...the blade is revealing bits and pieces of your life to Rikku. That's the threat.

Yes...

Yes, I understand now.

That's the threat.

If I don't do what it wants...

The blade will tell Rikku that I am unsent.

Next: Divergence