What's up? :3 I know, I know, it's been awhile. But you got to understand, this chapter was so damn hard. XP I went through a rollercoaster ride— the blood, sweat, and tears, and laughter, too. But maybe that's why I love it so much. Especially since it has a kickass battle scene in it. X3

I gotta say, THANKS A BUNCH for your constant teamwork and support, Razer Athane. You're the bestest friend I can have on the internet. Lolz


Chapter 4

Confrontation


Guadosalam

The male grunt standing guard at the entrance of Chateau LeBlanc glanced at a trio of goons hastily approaching, obviously that of female concerning the orange-red uniforms. The three girls stopped in front of him, the tacky purple veils fortunately concealing their nervousness, and they poised as convincingly as they could, declaring, "Reporting for duty!"

Paine groaned inwardly, hating how ridiculous they must look in front of this doof.

"Th-thanks?" the grunt stuttered, baffled by their odd display of enthusiasm. Since when were the female goons eager to work for LeBlanc, let alone was happy with their job? Despite such suspicions, the grunt granted them entry, and the girls refrained from dashing inside like a pack of chocobos, instead casually strode passed the guard to enter LeBlanc's base.

Once the double doors were securely closed behind them, Rikku whooped for joy and happily said, "Another smashing success!"

"We're not done, yet. Where's the sphere?" Paine's lukewarm response to the Al Bhed's loud outburst helped Rikku to focus on why they were incognito in the first place. Faking and entering was the easy part, now came the hard part of searching the entire palace to find the sphere. Paine had to wonder why they were working so hard to steal back a broken sphere that didn't even work. The doors to the living room suddenly opened and Yuna stifled a surprised gasp. The three immediately retreated to the wall near the stairway, hoping to look as natural as possible.

Paine's jaw nearly dropped upon seeing the individuals who exited. 'Nooj? What's he doing here? With LeBlanc, of all people?'

Disregarding the present company in the foyer, Nooj paused in his limping to regard the blonde woman. "Thank you, LeBlanc."

She moseyed up to him, her brown eyes glazed with infatuation, sparkling brighter in pride - glad she could do something useful for the Mevyn. With a crooked smile, she replied, "Anything for you, love."

"Now I know the location of Vegnagun. Spira's in for a rough ride." None of his foreboding words registered in her head, too preoccupied with the sound of his deep, rugged, husky voice and his oh so Godly smile. "Take care."

"Yes, love..." she murmured, sighing deeply, extending a hand out wistfully after his retreating form until he had left the palace. "Ohh... How long must we be apart? These days without you are not easy on me, love." The warrior wanted to gag. Paine couldn't believe Nooj knew the woman, let alone tolerated her.

LeBlanc's shoulders slumped in dejection and she miserably trudged pass the Gullwings, and up the stairs to her private bedroom.


After having to go through a series of crazy events, giving LeBlanc a massage to quell her heartache, conning Ormi and Logos to reveal the secret switch, snooping around the goons' quarters only to get caught, nearly losing their lives in deactivating the security system (equipped with a moving needle wall), and discovering LeBlanc's room only to be forced into a three-on-three brawl - the Gullwings and LeBlanc finally agreed on a truce.

Now finished with viewing the no-longer broken sphere (LeBlanc had the other missing half), Yuna, Rikku, and Paine each had a hand to their chins, contemplating what they had just seen. The same thought seemed to echo inside each girl's mind. 'Is that what I think it is...?'

LeBlanc would soon confirm their doubts. "That is the colossus, Vegnagun. We finished our analysis of the sphere. It appears to have been recorded underneath Bevelle."

Yuna didn't want to believe it, that the machina she just witnessed was the same one shown in the 'awesome' sphere with him, or someone who looked like him. It's not like Yuna didn't suspect Yevon to be holding secrets, but she should've known better than to bother trusting the doctrine again. Baralai had convinced her there was nothing to be worried about, and she wondered why he didn't tell her about this weapon before. What were his motives of being Praetor? Did he really wish good for the welfare of Spira?

Paine scoffed, not entirely surprised by this piece of information. "I see Bevelle hasn't lost its old fondness for secrets."

"Exactly," LeBlanc shouted, pointing to Paine, glad someone here was on the same page with her. "Those Yevon scum have been concealing that weapon all along. If anyone uses that thing, Spira is done for."

"But it's a machina!" Rikku protested, shedding a hopeful light into the dire situation. The Al Bhed girl couldn't wrap her mind around it. Vegnagun, built a thousand years ago, constructed by human hands - piece by piece, screw for screw - to create the most formidable machina in this planet. But there existed a flaw, a fact every Al Bhed knew since their toddler days. Like humans, machina don't last forever. They rust, corrosive to air and time, and soon become obsolete. Individual parts make up the machina, and if you take one away, you'll mess up the entire thing. "All we have to do is shakey-shake our way up to it and take it apart."

"That's what Noojie's got in mind," LeBlanc said, grinning, pleased of how smoothly this conversation was going. "And of course, whatever he is planning is what I'm planning." There was no doubt in her mind. Whatever the Mevyn decided, LeBlanc would blindly follow him and his ideals to the very ends of the earth. Her devotion could not be swayed, regardless of what lay at the end of the journey. Now the question remained: "What about you?"

Startled that LeBlanc directly addressed her, Yuna squeaked, "Me?"

"The summoner who defeated Sin is to stand up to defend Spira again." Yuna nodded with grim acceptance, despite the turmoil brewing within. This was not what Yuna wanted - to be held responsible for the world's welfare, to have people rely on her, the invincible High Summoner. To be expected to rise from her little hole to save them, because they were too weak to do it themselves.

Why couldn't she live her new life like a normal person?

"So," LeBlanc's voice brought her back to the here and now, "I guess we're all on the same side. We'll be waiting for you."

LeBlanc and her two goons hadn't even reached the door when Paine suspiciously asked, "Waiting where?"

She turned around and scoffed, staring at her as if she was stupid. "Don't be silly, love. On your airship, of course. I've always wanted to take a spin on that thing."

LeBlanc's arrogance literally repulsed Rikku. 'How dare she think she can hitchhike on our Celsius without even bothering to ask for permission?' "Ever heard of asking?" the Al Bhed furiously remarked, dashing after the three who fled in time to escape the girl's wrath.

Paine looked to her other friend, concerned by Yuna's pensive silence, wondering how she was taking this. The warrior hadn't known her for very long, not as long as Rikku anyway, but she cared about Yuna, and couldn't even begin to imagine the depth of her conflicted feelings. Every side possessed strong reasons for doing what they chose to do, whatever the reasons might be.

Baralai, what was he thinking? It's not like him to meddle with international affairs. Why did he become Praetor? Nooj, too. Why was he the Mevyn of the Youth League? And what about Gippal? He's the only one choosing not to get involved.

'What is happening to all my friends?'


I didn't want to get too involved. Not like when I was a summoner... But! Baralai had every right to be involved, and...

Maybe, just maybe, if he'd let me... I'd like to help him.


When Baralai had received a message that Isaaru, a fellow New Yevon member, had returned to Head Quarters together with his baby brother and the Kinderguardians, he made time in his tight schedule to see them. Now gathered together in the Library of Records, Baralai faced the man whilst leaning on the desk, which was heavily strewn with a random assortment of informational documents, manuscripts, and books. The library maintenance would have to wait.

"It has been awhile, Praetor." Isaaru smiled a little humbly, and Baralai returned the sentiment.

"Yeah, long time no see, Praetor Baralai!" Pacce chirped, waving his hand wildly. In reaction to his loud informality, Isaaru scolded the boy tersely about manners and respect, which caused Baralai to laugh.

"What brings you two here? I thought you were working with Cid at Zanarkand, correct?"

"Yes. In the topic of business, Zanarkand as a tourist attraction was a complete success. Many people enjoyed the experience, as did I."

"I've heard it's beautiful there," Baralai said, recalling a nun mentioning her vacation trip at the ancient city. "I've been meaning to go and see it once I am able to squeeze in an off day."

"About that, Praetor…" Isaaru lowered his head in shame. "The reason I came back to Head Quarters is because we decided to close down the attraction a few days ago."

"Is that so?" Now this was news. Baralai folded his arms thoughtfully and inquisitively asked, "And why is that?"

"We had a sudden outbreak of monkeys," Isaaru answered with a knowing smile, in which Baralai raised an eyebrow in bemusement. 'I wonder how that happened...'

"Lady Yuna was sure upset!" Pacce exclaimed, spontaneous as he could be. Isaaru spoke to elaborate, his tone no longer light, but solemn.

"From my understanding, Cid disclosed to me how his niece was uncomfortable with the idea of sharing her memories prior to defeating Sin with other people. Looking back on it now, I'm guilty for believing we could use sacred grounds for an attraction. It is disrespectful to those who had lost their lives during the years of tyranny under Sin."

"True," Baralai murmured, inwardly relieved of this change of events. In the beginning, he was opposed to the frivolous idea, despite the ingenuity of it, for it was simply stupid. But Baralai had not been Praetor at the time, and the previous one expressed immediate delight for the proposition. The commercial success drawn so many people, along with the sphere hunter craze instigated by Trema – it spread like an epidemic, swarming throughout Spira. All factors Baralai had no control over then, but now possessed the authority to speak his opinion.

"Here." Gingerly placing a heavy stack of books into Isaaru's arms, Baralai gave a charming, reserved smile. "Please, do owe me the pleasure of carrying this for me." 'I think some revenge is in order here. Work Isaaru to the bone with menial tasks. I shall be looking forward to the next several months.'

"O-of course, Praetor…" Not one to disobey the Praetor, he complied with the request. "Where to?" Baralai took a pile of books also and turned to his subordinate.

"These go into my office." Isaaru followed Baralai who led the way out of the library, and both thanked a priest who politely opened the door for them.

"Oh, let me help!" Stealing a whole wad of manuscripts into his little arms, Pacce hurriedly jogged to catch up to the two men.

"Why, thank you, Pacce," Baralai replied with a smile, "That is awfully nice of you, but you don't have to do that."

"Lady Yuna always helps people. And I want to follow her example!" the young sphere hunter said, full of excitement and zeal, "Since she's doing all she can for New Yevon, I better do my part too."

At this curious piece of information, Baralai frowned, halting in his steps. "Who told you that?"

Pacce abruptly halted, feeling ashamed for no one reason under Baralai's stern look. "Told me what?"

The elder brother stopped to look between the two. "You mean Lady Yuna being a member of our party?" Isaaru said, a little bemused, "She gave us the secret sphere, so the priests and I assumed she joined our cause. Am I not right?"

"You are absolutely wrong. Yuna and her friends explicitly stated they held no interest in taking part of our affairs." If it weren't for the heavy stack of books in his arms, Baralai would've been free to rub his temples in distress. 'What are the priests thinking?'

"Praetor!" This didn't sound like good news…

A nun frantically sprinted down the hall to reach them, and she bent down with her hands clasped over her chest to moderate her harsh panting. Once she regained her breath, she lifted her head and looked at Baralai, speaking loud and clear, "Praetor. Someone has infiltrated our base and… and…" She paused to catch her escaped breath once again. "The sector that has been keeping Vegnagun - the intruder has breached our security!"

Rapidly digesting this dire news, Baralai's eyes widened. One single name flitted through his intense scramble of thoughts. It invaded every corner of his mind, and his heart turned bitter with frustration. 'Nooj!'

"Excuse me," Baralai hissed hastily, dropping the books without warning into the nun's arms, running to his resting quarters - ignoring all who walked passed him or called his name.

'It has to be him. It has to be! Who else, besides the four of us, knows? Who else has the death wish to control Vegnagun? And out of the four of us, he has the most cause, for it is tainted by anger and vengeance.'

He turned the contents of his office upside down to gather what he needed for the fiend-infested undergrounds. Reloading the bullets in his pistol and restocking his supply on potions and ethers, he snatched his double-edged staff and stormed out the room.


Tip… tip… tip…

A red jumpsuit clad man limped his way through the maze-like corridors of Bevelle's underground passageways. The long, metal cane clutched firmly in his hand helped push the left side of his body of prosthetics to move forward. He ignored all his pain, and focused solely on his goal. It was the only way he had managed to get through so far - focus on one thing only.


Yuna aimed her twin Tiny Bee guns at the fiend, her grip strong and steady, and pulled the triggers in rapid succession. The fiend was mercilessly bombarded by a barrage of bullets. By the time Yuna ran out of ammo, the monster collapsed with a despairing howl and dispersed into a frenzy of glittering pyre flies.

Rikku and Paine had already finished eliminating the fiends at their ends, and all three wasted no time to press forward. It was so silent, so desolate that their footsteps echoed loudly within the iron-wrought, intersecting hallways, the sound bouncing back to greet their ears. Granted, the girls didn't exactly have a clue where to go, and with Rikku's impeccable sense of directions, they easily got themselves lost.

Eventually, by a stroke of luck, the identical pathways began to thin until there was only one left in front of them. Leaping over the platforms, they reached the other side and abruptly were stopped by Paine's outstretched arm.

"Paine?" Yuna inquired, but the warrior shushed her with a single glare. They heard an extra pair of footsteps bound closer. 'Who could possibly be here besides us?' Appearing from the left curve of the hallway, a familiar man clad in green clothing tilted his head curiously to the company, his sepia eyes wide from unpleasant surprise.

"The Gullwings?" Yuna gulped inaudibly, dread and anxiety invading every nerve and fiber of her body.

'Why him? Why did it have to be Baralai who found us…?'

"I was wondering who was here." He gave a casual smile which disarmed Yuna's silent front to adopt a guilty one instead. At this, Baralai's grin deepened to a frown of disappointment at the High Summoner. "You don't have to tell me," he replied condescendingly, ambling towards the group, his arms leisurely swinging at his sides, "I know why you've come. You're here to destroy the weapon that threatens all Spira: Vegnagun. Am I right?" He halted in front of them, pausing for a moment to study their speechless looks before continuing. "If it could be destroyed we could have done so long ago. But Vegnagun must not be touched," he warned, emphasizing the last four words. "Neither you nor Nooj seem to understand that."

Mildly surprised to hear of her former friend's name, Paine inquired sceptically, "You spoke to Nooj?"

Baralai hesitated to answer, because in truth he ventured deep underground to find Nooj, killing hordes of fiends if only to defend himself, but he had yet to cross him. However, who else had the sheer guts to infiltrate Bevelle and neared the atrocious weapon to prompt it to flee? Baralai allowed past betrayals to blind his judgment. "He… cannot be trusted."

"And you can be?" Rikku retorted, making a sharp wave of her hand.

"Touché." The Al Bhed girl had spunk; he had to credit her for that. "Yes, I suppose," he started, turning his back on the three, taking several steps forward, "Yevon has brought that distrust upon itself." 'And I am left to deal with the consequences. If Yevon is unable to redeem itself in the end, I'll do everything in my power to set it right again.' His chivalrous, selfless words had to be countered by a tiny voice, one belonging to mistrust. '...like it was ever right in the first place.' Breaking off from his train of thoughts, he swerved back around to face them, his voice serious with stubborn reassurance. "At any rate, you need not interfere. Leave Vegnagun to me."

He's using it again. That charm of his, which coaxed Yuna to believe that everything will be alright, that everything will be okay, that Spira is safe - but she knew deep down that that was not the case. As much as she wanted to step down and let someone else take the reigns to save the world, Yuna was tired of doing nothing while a threat as tremendously dangerous as Sin continued to exist.

"What are you planning to do?" Yuna inquired, stepping forward indignantly.

"The only thing I can do…" Silence held them all for a moment, and during that time, Baralai had no choice but to withdraw his double-edged razor rod equipped to his backside. He clasped it tightly in front of him with one hand and furrowed his eyebrows, speaking firmly, "Keep those who would seek to harm Vegnagun away. Please, leave."

If only they knew how much it pained him to confront them, but alas to avoid a fight would grant the trio passage to the abomination known as Vegnagun, and consequently, be annihilated. Just because they were led by the High Summoner who defeated Sin and brought about the Eternal Calm did not mean that they could overcome the mechanical monstrosity themselves.

Dismissing his polite order, Paine walked forward, pausing for a moment to hold her sword before her, and glared fiercely at Baralai. Deep down, she didn't want to do this… after all, Baralai had been a friend, long ago. But still, she had to swallow her pride and do it. If not for her friends, new or old, then for Spira. And if not for Spira, then for herself. "Yuna, Rikku, I'm going."

Baralai, surprised and disheartened at this, called her name. "Paine!" She ignored him, and dashed forward, for if she didn't move now, she never would. Old feelings, new feelings— both were unnecessary in the midst of battle. Baralai and Paine knew this, and that's why they were the ones to make the first move, sword and staff clashing swing for thrust. And Rikku, she didn't need to think twice. She'd faithfully support Paine's back.

Rikku pulled out her Garment Grid and touched a glowing sphere, suddenly being enveloped in blinding, colorful light from head to toe. The Al Bhed girl had changed into a heavily armored outfit with a mean-looking gun gripped in both hands; an Alchemist. A force to be reckoned with. She brandished two grenades and pulled off the metal rings with her teeth to activate them, next thrusting the explosives high into the air in Baralai's direction, hollering, "Fire in the hole!"

He panicked when spotting them. Adrenaline pumped in his body, driving him to leap forward and swing his staff like a baseball bat, succeeding in sending one back to the pitcher.

With a startled shriek, Rikku raised her arms to defend herself and Baralai instinctively ducked to cover his head. It hadn't even touched the ground when both immediately detonated, the explosions four feet in diameter, the heat waves nine feet long. Powerful enough to scorch their clothing, singe their skin, and muddle their senses. Every individual in the area was distraught and confused.

Everything was happening too fast. Baralai and Paine fiercely exchanging blows, and Rikku adding more to the violence without considering to break the fight— Yuna knew what she needed to do.

Without warning, a cloud of darkness blanketed his eyes, blinding him, and Baralai immediately stood stock-still to restrain his anxious nerves. 'I may be blind, but I still have my ears to direct me.' The distant, rhythmic tapping of boots, like… someone was dancing - at 2 o'clock.

And another set of footsteps; the loud, sharp clicking of high-heeled boots. It approached him slowly from nearby, at 11 o'clock. Closer and closer - until the air got sliced by a heavy weapon, producing a faint burst of wind to his left. Hastily he ducked, and felt the attack nick some strands of his hair off. Imagine what it would've been like for his face, if he hadn't waited for another second to dodge. Hearing the heavy blade veer diagonally, he lifted his staff with both hands to stave off Paine's attack.

A bullet suddenly pierced his skin and lodged itself into his left shoulder. He bit his tongue to suppress his cry of pain. Baralai immediately stepped back and gripped his shoulder, feeling the wet, thick blood soak his heavy coat. The next bullet missed and ricocheted off the wall. The third whizzed past his head. His opponent gasped, her teeth grinding from anger. "Rikku! Watch where you're aiming!"

"It's not my fault!" Rikku retorted, "He won't stop moving!" More rounds were shot.

A gun being reloaded at 7 o'clock, and then a bullet grazed his right calf, but fortunately did not burden his movements. The flow of battle was not going in his favor; three against one, this was a battle Baralai was doomed to lose, yet that outcome didn't daunt nor deter him. Forfeiting his plan at the moment to attack them one-by-one, Baralai decided to hit three birds with one stone.

Unleashing a strained battle cry, he raised his arms up high and with both hands deftly twirled the rod with exceptional grace. By the force of kinesthesia, the rings at both ends had unfurled to expose the razor sharp edge, keenly slicing at them all. The three girls were barely able to dodge, because of the unexpected elasticity of his rod. If the entire doctrine of Yevon had been an illusion, then surely anyone who supported Yu Yevon had such trickery up their sleeves, too.

Without warning, the incessant tapping of boots stopped and the cloud of darkness disappeared. Now relieved of the blindness, Baralai blinked rapidly, taking in the dark clash of colors before shifting his eyes to Yuna who had stopped dancing to tend to the gash across her chest, her hands glowing with sparkling white light. The wound she received from his attack was already in the progress of healing. Now he discovered the source of his ailment. Despite the urgency in his mind to deal with Yuna ASAP, Baralai retracted his weapon and sprinted to Paine, extending his weapon out to swipe at her. He quickly leapt back to dodge her parrying strike.

He shrewdly shifted target and attacked Rikku, catching her off guard. With a swift, horizontal strike, a bloody gash appeared at her side, causing the young Al Bhed girl to hiss in pain; and once again he leapt back and calmly glared at the three, patiently waiting for the signs of another attack.

'I have to get rid of the weakest link,' he thought grimly, 'I can't afford to stall any longer.' The weakest link happened to be the one who supported her allies the most. Yuna.

She had donned the songstress outfit, with only a microphone to defend herself. From the beginning, Yuna had planned to be the supportive ally, simply because she didn't want to hurt him. Paine wanted to pursue onward, and Rikku simply had the 'you gotta do what you gotta do' motto within her. She herself, though, refused to harm an ally when it could be avoided.

Her compassion would be her undoing.

Baralai's inner soldier kicked in, and he reached into the orange sash wrapped around his waist for his concealed pistol. He swiftly touched the rune engraved on the gun, next twirling the gun in his left hand to aim at Yuna, reluctantly keeping his finger on the trigger, and whispered loud enough for her to hear, "…Don't make me do this."

The grim tone of voice rooted Yuna in her tracks. A ghastly, age-old memory resurfaced from a foreign unknown source.

Their stony eyes, shielded by the maroon helmets they wore, granted no sympathy for what they were about to do. The daggers geared on the ends of their rifles glistened grotesquely from the dim light of the magical runes embroidering the pewter titanium walls. Fearing that this would be her last moment on earth, the young woman shifted her eyes to gaze into electric blue orbs. Her face found some life, and inside those illustrious jewels, she found comfort and had no regrets.

Baralai, he wouldn't… could he… raise his gun at a friend? When their eyes met, glaring, refusing to back down from each other - he shouldn't hesitate, but he did. Only when Rikku dashed with ferocious, desperate speed to stop him did he summon the inner courage to fire. The magic-imbued bullets immediately exploded upon contact, searing her skin and draining most of her strength; dealing severe damage where Yuna collapsed on her back, gasping and sweating on the brink of death.

'Why couldn't I… dodge that…?' Because Yuna wholeheartedly believed he wouldn't go through with such a cold-hearted move. Recalling back on the prolonged eye contact, his brown eyes exposed the unwavering apology he honestly felt, which completely contradicted his actions. Of course, Baralai still cared, but forced himself to fight because his position demanded him to. 'Just like when I had to defeat my Aeons, to vanquish Sin, for the sake of Spira…'

Tears of fury and indescribable anguish clouded the Al Bhed girl's eyes, but it didn't hinder her sight from throwing a brutal punch at the Praetor, which successfully connected to his face. The sheer force of the hit propelled him off his feet to crash to the ground. The next moment he looked up, rubbing his sore cheek, Baralai saw Rikku rush to Yuna's side. No longer did she wear her heavily armored attire, but long white robes which covered every inch of her skin - using her new skills of a white mage to heal her cousin before death could claim her body. With her staff held in her shaking hands, Rikku went about her duties.

He steadily rose back to his feet, rearing his razor rod at front again. The next thing he knew, Paine charged at him, and he dashed forward to meet her headlong, swiftly blocking her fierce sword strike with his staff. Once he parried another attack of hers with a violent, spinning thrust of his staff, Baralai immediately focused magic into his left fist, whispering the spell which made his hand glow an eerie blue. He plummeted his left hand hard into her stomach, hissing, "Suffer!"

She harshly retched, the air having been knocked out of her lungs and the actual impact of the strike shook her to the very core. And the spell worked its magic, pouring out from his hand to weave into every muscle and nerve of her body, stopping her limbs from moving - almost total paralysis. Once he had absorbed every ounce of her magic reserves, replenishing a small fraction of his own, Baralai backed off, sighing, though grimly satisfied it worked. For several minutes, he wouldn't need to worry about Paine. She became a stationary and harmless object in his Looming Glacier technique.

"Oh, no. Yunie! I don't know the spell to get rid of her ailment and we have no remedies!" Rikku bellowed tearfully, gripping her healing staff in her hands tightly. She bit her lip in frustration, wanting nothing more than to grab one of the strong Dresspheres so she could totally kick that no-good Praetor's butt.

Although having barely regained consciousness from that fatal attack, Yuna wobbled onto her feet and smiled shakily at her cousin. Someone had to be the pillar of strength and support here. "Don't worry," she said meekly, "I'll deal with the healing magic, and you and Paine will deal with the fighting."

Rikku sniffed and wiped at her eyes and runny nose. "A-are you sure?"

Some unseen force suddenly dropped a two thousand pound weight on the girls, stealing their oxygen, paralyzing their limbs, rendering them powerless. No voice could escape her mouth, no thought could appear in mind, and the seconds stretched on by hours. It felt like her very vitality drained out from underneath her, into a bottomless pit. It continued on and on and on, until it immediately disappeared and Yuna and Rikku swayed to their knees. They panted heavily, taking in as much air as possible, their limbs weak like putty.

"A gravity spell…" Yuna whispered breathlessly. To know that Baralai could cast such a powerful dark spell… Undoubtedly, the man was a force to be reckoned with. It had even taken Lulu a fair while to learn the spell itself, and she was the most powerful black mage Yuna had ever known anywhere in Spira.

Withdrawing the Garment Grid from her satchel, Yuna selected the White Mage, abandoning her flashy and stylish songstress outfit to be fitted in thick white robes, her trusty staff in hand. To be able to cast an Esuna spell potent enough to completely heal Paine from such a complex spell, Yuna would need some time. She concentrated, furrowing her eyebrows and closing her eyes as she did so. 'Hold on, Rikku.'

Rikku withdrew the crimson, curved knives from their sheathes and deftly twirled them in her fingers, before lashing out at her opponent. He spun his rod to decrease the impact, and from then on strived to defend himself against a flurry of random, rapid strikes. Her double weapons were tearing at his clothes, despite his dexterity to dodge and block more than half. "Why are you fighting us?" Rikku inquired with frustration, "We don't want to be your enemy!"

"It's nothing personal," Baralai said with an edge of sympathy in his voice, parrying her strikes and disarming her of her weapons. Not deterred by this, Rikku ducked to throw an uppercut with her tiny fist, and Baralai staggered when he wasn't able to avoid it, his staff colliding to the ground. Black dots entered his vision, dizzying him, because she had struck him at his chin, a vulnerable point.

This time, Baralai grappled her, and Rikku clawed at his arms with her long nails, but she couldn't break free until he slammed her against the wall. Pain paralyzed her for a few moments, and she slumped to the ground, her breaths already becoming shallow. The world continued to spin around her, while he stooped to pick up his weapon.

Baralai cautiously stepped forward like a predator, and Rikku fearfully backed up against the wall as much as she desperately could, like a cornered animal. This man scared her. How could he be so nice, so generously thoughtful and yet act like a heartless killer? He almost murdered Yuna! Rikku couldn't believe she once trusted such a two-faced person. 'Why do all handsome men have to have something wrong with them? Seymour went psycho for power, he had to disappear in the end, and Gippal is such an annoying git!'

Furious, Rikku lunged forward to tackle Baralai, but he predicted such a desperate move and shoved her against the wall, pinning her underneath his rod. He concentrated, reaching out to sense the energy coarsing in her body which kept her alive and breathing. Seizing grasp a portion of it, he forcibly extracted it to replenish his own, like the thief Rikku claimed to be with various, shiny objects. Guilt crawled in his mind when he could feel the life coarse in his veins, however the positive side effects of his power returning and his wounds mending helped to ease his shame.

Apparently, Baralai had stolen too much without even realizing it. Rikku collapsed to the ground, unconscious, every inch of her health having been depleted.

Exhausted of the mental strain, Baralai stood straight and pulled off his blue bandana, which was awkwardly askew on his forehead and had rumpled his hair. Wiping his forehead on the back of his fist, he sighed and tossed the cloth aside, turning around to witness Yuna finish her spell and revive Paine from the Stop magic that grounded her in place. Paine stiffly moved her limbs and blinked groggily, placing a gloved hand on her head.

"Wha…" she groaned, and shook her head, darting her eyes swiftly to assess the situation. Her eyes widened after spotting Rikku, but then narrowed dangerously to Baralai whom calmly glared back. "Yuna. I'll hold off Baralai. In the meantime, take care of Rikku."

Yuna nodded, determined. "Right." Nonetheless, Paine wasted no time to re-join the fray while Yuna hurried to reach Rikku's side and tend to her.

Paine went for a low swing, and he tilted the rod downwards to parry, pushing her blade away. Quickly recollecting herself, she heaved her sword down with all the might she could muster. Baralai lifted his weapon horizontally to block, and then slammed his staff brutally against her leg, forcing her to drop on her knees. Before Paine could get back up and thrust her sword upwards, Baralai swerved around in time to evade the swing and flung his staff to connect with her unharmed leg. Paine once again staggered, and it took her longer to stand back on her feet. The entire time they had exchanged heavy blows, Baralai deliberately missed her vital points, because it was not in his desire to kill her. Only knock her out, that's all. But he had his limits.

Overexerted by his efforts to fight three seasoned fighters all at once, Baralai sunk to his knees, tightly gripping his staff, his limbs aching with soreness. 'I can't let them pass. Not here, not now...' A slash at his shoulder and Baralai gritted his teeth to tolerate the sharp pain, before forcing himself to stand. 'I can't let them be killed by Vegnagun.' He wondered for a brief moment if he should voice that thought, so that his opponents knew that this battle was to protect them, not damn them. He dizzily turned to face the warrior, panting raggedly, his moves becoming conspicuously sloppier. 'It's my responsibility to prevent intruders from passing... no matter if we are on the same side.'

Resolve steeled his heart for the worst. Despite such unfortunate odds stacked up against him, Baralai wouldn't give up. He swiftly drew his gun and snarled, "It's not over!" before taking aim. Paine gasped, fear and an unwanted memory freezing her in place.

Nooj, someone she had undoubtedly trusted, hurt her with nothing more than a gun and a twisted choice of words - exactly what Baralai was about to do now. The parallel between that situation and the current one made her stomach twist and turn uncomfortably. 'Why… Why did things have to turn out this way… before I could even find the answers?'

The bullets that'd been launched did not come from Baralai, like she had ultimately feared, but instead lodged itself painfully into his back. He gasped, shocked, both his weapons slipping from his grasp. How frightening that his old wound nearly re-opened— but not quite. The stress overwhelmed his body to the point Baralai collapsed headfirst onto the ground. Knelt down on the floor, a Tiny Bee gun gripped in hand, Yuna had forced herself to make the shot. Or else risk endangering her friends' lives because of the measly compassion she held in her heart.

"Please, forgive me…" Yuna murmured, the urge to express her remorse too great. She didn't want him to misunderstand. Believing the coast to be clear, Rikku stood from her sitting position against the wall and walked over to her cousin. The smile of gratitude Rikku gave did little to lessen the guilt.

"Sorry, I'm going ahead," Paine said with a shrug, breaking the heavy silence.

"You have your reasons," Yuna remarked, respecting her wishes.

"Fill us in later, 'kay?" Rikku said, concerned for her stern friend, though wanting Paine to confide in her, to share to them her shady, mysterious past. Mischievous curiosity ate at her insides.

Paine stalked off, but not before the two saw the amusement crease her face in a form of a smirk. "Much later."

Rikku, being the comic relief she was, chased after her. "Wait up!"

Watching her friends leave, Yuna tentatively turned around to see Baralai unconscious on the ground. The huge bloody stain on the back of his coat stabbed at her conscience. 'I did what I had to do,' Yuna kept repeating to herself. 'So many bad things could have happened if I hadn't pulled the trigger. The logical thing to do is keep going, but…' She frowned, her heart throbbing with mixed feelings. 'I can't just leave him there.' Even though he had opposed them, and nearly stole their lives, Baralai was still an ally.

This fact alone drove her to kneel beside him and place her hands on his back, pouring all the magic she had left on the wound to heal. Once the deed was done, Yuna exhaled deeply, exhausted of the effort, and slowly stood on her feet. Giving him one last look, Yuna dashed down the corridor to catch up with her friends, unaware of what danger awaited at the end.

'I'll come back for you. Wait a little, okay?'


Levitating in midair with wings so huge and mighty, the dark blue scales reflecting the light of the magic runes, and the eyes glowing white-hot— It couldn't be, it shouldn't be—

"No way..." Rikku whispered, horrified and in disbelief.

The warrior took an involuntary step back, gazing at the dragon in terrified awe, and asked warily, "What is it?"

The Al Bhed trembled in fright, unwilling to believe they had to fight him again. It looked exactly like it did way back when; Yu Yevon in his incorporeal form, possessing the Children of Prayer to fight and kill and destroy.

Yuna, mesmerized by the creature, began to slowly walk toward it. "An Aeon..." The companion who aided her in her pilgrimage, who helped her vanquish Sin, who she painfully had to part with in the end— Bahamut was intent to induce harm. She had to stop him. Halting before the mythical beast, Yuna stretched her arms out wide and pleaded, "You must stop!"

Bahamut relinquished a deafening, defiant roar.

Dumbfounded by her rash move, Paine dashed forward and pulled the ex-summoner away from Bahamut, snapping Yuna back to her senses. "You wanna get killed? We have no choice!"

With so many things woven together... what could be waiting where the threads meet?

Rikku, Paine, Gippal, Nooj... Baralai, and the mystery man... you and me... Where did we all tie in this?