Word Count: 3859 (Which is the longest thing I've written in about three years. Hooboy.)
Characters: Tidus, Auron, Rikku (Vaguely Auron/Rikku)
Notes: Written for muggy_mountain via ff_exchange, and all thanks go to heyheyrenay for beta-ing, putting up with me whining, and convincing me that's it's not as bad as I thought. Please note: I am not an especial fan of Auron/Rikku, so all anyone gets from me is HINTS. HINTS, YOU HEAR ME? Spoilers for Auron's backstory.
"What're you doing?"
The Al Bhed girl smiled up at him, bright and kinda embarrassed, scrubbing at her face with a rag and completely missing the smudge of grease on her cheek. How she managed not to stand on any of her tools as she wriggled away from the airship's engine... "Well, sand isn't good for engines, and I thought that maybe I should clean them out before they get clogged and stuff, because I'll bet Brother forgot to and..."
Tidus let her talk, most of it washing over him in a babble of Rikkuness. It was kinda comforting, if he was honest, to have Rikku chattering at him. After Zanarkand, he needed that. It was... Almost normal, even with the soft metallic echo, and he'd never have thought he'd say that about anything in Spira. Especially after -
"Tidus, are you listening?"
The blond blinked, and found Rikku peering up into his face, hands on her hips and the grease still on her face.
"Sure I am! You were telling me about the engine and - er - and then you said... You said..." From the look on her face he'd missed something pretty big. Oops? "... What were we talking about again?"
Rikku huffed and threw the rag at his face. "I said, do we know where we're going yet?"
"Oh, yeah. We're going back to Macalania Woods - you remember that mirror we got when we won that Chocobo Race? Lulu and Auron were saying that we could do something to it there." He managed not to scowl as he said it, but there must've been something wrong with his face because now the blonde girl was frowning slightly, head tilted to one side.
"Don't you wanna go? I won't go chasing after the butterflies again, I promise!"
"It's not that." Tidus took a deep breath. He really needed to tell one of the others. It wouldn't surprise him if Lulu'd figured it all out already - that was the sort of thing she'd do, especially the part where she didn't tell anyone - but he couldn't imagine telling Wakka and Yuna. Not about this. "It's just... You noticed anything weird about Auron?"
"You mean apart from everything?" Rikku blinked and bounced away, crossing one arm across her skinny stomach and proceeding to stalk back towards him with what was probably supposed to be a fearsome glare on her face. "I'm Auron and I could stop Sin in its track by glaring at it!" She'd tried to lower her voice to Auron's growl, but it didn't work - her trying not to giggle probably wasn't helping. "And - and I wear my sunglasses all day and night - and -"
"And he's dead."
It just came out. He hadn't meant to say it like that - but then, he wasn't sure how he'd meant to say it at all. Or even whether he should've. He... He felt dizzy, as though actually saying the words aloud made them real. Made it real. Rikku was staring at him, mouth open and eyes wide.
"That's not funny."
She thought he was joking? About something like that? "I'm serious. He's dead. He's an unsent, like Seymour."
Rikku shook her head, then starting pacing up and down the room, picking her way through tools and rags and scraps of metal without even looking. "He can't be - "
"Remember what Seymour said when we were in Guadosalem - something about being ‘keen to the scent of the Farplane,' whatever that means - "
"You believe Seymour?!"
"I believe Auron."
Rikku stared at him, lost and confused. "But - but it's Auron. Who could've - "
So he told her. What Auron had said, and more importantly what he hadn't said. How he couldn't have told the others because he didn't trust them - well, he did, but after Wakka's reaction to finding out Rikku was an Al Bhed he didn't want to risk it - not to tell Yuna and try to get her to Send him, legendary guardian or not.
About half way through, Rikku folded her arms and turned away to look out the porthole, shoulders hunched. She didn't say anything, and that was the worst part. If Rikku didn't believe him - if she was gonna treat this like she'd treated his story about Zanarkand, with the sort of affectionate unreasonableness she'd shown back then -
"He should've told us before we killed her," she said finally, her voice was soft and wobbly, like she was gonna start crying. Tidus' definition of "the worst part" changed instantly. He hadn't thought - and there it was, that little voice that sounded like Auron. ‘How's that any different from usual?' - he hadn't thought that it might be as much of a shock to her as it was to him, not when everyone else seemed to know everything when he didn't. "So now what're we gonna do? Go to the Farplane and kick her butt?"
"Hey, I'd go." Tidus stepped forwards, and tentatively put his hands on her shoulders, like she'd hit him if he startled her. She was shaking, but she didn't hit him. "It's -" Okay, he was going to say. It's okay. But it wasn't - Auron was dead, had been dead the whole time he knew them, and nothing could make that okay, not even Auron being so matter-of-fact about it.
He couldn't say it. It'd come out like Wakka's stupid "festival fireworks."
"It's not right," Rikku finished for him, and her faint reflection in the porthole glass was frowning. "It's - it's not fair."
Then the blonde was gone, the door hissing shut behind her, and Tidus was left reaching out to air. He looked at his outstretched hand, then scratched at the back of his head sheepishly.
It probably wasn't fair of him to spring that one on her either, but nothing in Spira was fair.
The deck wasn't the safest place to be, not when Brother was driving anyway, but right now Rikku wanted to be out in the open air where she could get the wind to blow stupid Tidus' stupid Auron's dead rubbish out of her head and far away.
Auron couldn't be dead. He was a legendary guardian - the legendary guardian, and hello? You couldn't kill a legend!
Besides, apart from the legend-ness and the sunglasses and walking around with one arm out of his sleeve and the grumpiness and the not letting Rikku practice her stealing on him, Auron was normal.
Okay, so that was a bad word to describe Auron, but.
He - he bled all over when really lucky and sneaky fiends hit him! Okay, so when he got knocked out the blood flow was really slow to about non-existent, and it sent Yuna and Lulu into fits because they always thought that him not bleeding right meant the fiends had killed him, but once he was up and about again he was okay!
("Why are you still here sir?")
And he was warm. When they'd been through Macalania and Gagazet, she'd nearly frozen to death - her shorts were fine for beneath her diving suit, which was why she wore them, but as soon as she realised that she couldn't feel her legs she'd thought I KNEW I should've brought that suit along - and Auron had waited until no one was looking and wrapped his coat around her.
Well, that made it sound nice. He'd actually tossed it over her shoulders and told her to stop lagging behind, but it was close enough, right? Anyways, the coat had been warm from his own body heat, and... Dead people weren't warm. Dead people didn't share things and scold you and tell you stories about things you'll never see and tell you to get out of their pockets and make you keep going - keep walking - keep steering you the way you didn't want to go. Dead people might be able to make your heart turn over like it was doing a weird, twisty cartwheel, but it probably wasn't the same way Rikku's did.
(Dead people don't get married and kiss summoners who're trying to Send them either, you thought of that one?)
Auron couldn't be dead because Rikku didn't want him to be dead. Right? Right.
The Al Bhed plunked herself down onto the sunwarm metal and stared at the clouds scooting past until her eyes started hurting. Thinking-but-not-thinking. She hadn't been up here since that time they were going to save Yunie from stupid Seymour
("He's an unsent, just like Seymour.")
and they got to slide down the anchor lines. That was something they should all do again. Mainly because her and Tidus were too busy doing flips from chain to chain and not getting shot to actually pay attention to Auron and Lulu grinding down with them, and that was something she would've paid to see. Okay, with someone else's money, but she'd pay.
The ramp's door whooshed open, and Rikku grinned. It'd be Rin, she figured even without turning round - if you thought about gil too loudly when you were in the same building or city and probably if you were on the same island, he'd show up and try to charm it out of you.
Maybe they could do a swap, like they used to when Rin would still bring back candies and she wasn't caught up in trying to save summoners. She could customise some of his merchandise maybe, and then he could help her find something ticky and nasty to go in Tidus' and Wakka's cabin.
Or maybe he'd do her a deal on weapons, but then she'd end up looking at the katanas again and thinking about how strong Auron must be to swing them around like they didn't weigh anything and Rin would give her that smile and ask if she wanted to buy it for someone. Rin was always too good at dismantling thinking-not-thinking things, doing it almost as fast and well as Rikku herself taking apart a machina. Still, it'd pass the time until they got to Macalania, and if she was concentrating on the customisations she wouldn't be thinking that about things being not right and not fair and not true.
(You know what's weird? Auron probably wanted Yuna to get the Final Aeon about as much as you did.)
The only response she got was that he lifted his head slightly to look at her. As always, it was enough for her, even when she was tugging at her gloves and looking as though she would dearly love to duck into his blind side so she didn't have to try to meet his gaze.
(Tidus used to use his blind side as a way to hide his tears - a habit he grew out of when he realised it didn't work. Rikku used - uses - it as a way to practice her pickpocketing, despite the fact that she never manages to get anything. Either way, he doesn't trust either of them when they start edging to his right.)
"I need to borrow you - just for a little while!" He took it as a sign that he was getting predictable that she didn't even give him time to raise an eyebrow before she countered any possible objections, hands flailing in the air before her: "And yes it's important and no I can't get one of the others to do it and it's really close by and it won't take long I promise so - um - please?" She tilted her head to one side, scratching at her temple. "I think that's everything you could say no for. Is it?"
"I could always say I don't want to." If it was anyone else, they would have explained what they wanted him for, perhaps. Or, more likely, they wouldn't have bothered him.
(Being dead might have its advantages, but being a legend had more.)
"But you do!" was Rikku's reply. "Because I made it and if I don't show you and get you to say yes right now Rin's gonna take it off me!"
There was a long pause. As a rule, most of what Rikku made was useful - barring a few machina that found their way into Wakka's bedroll after Macalania and the trinkets she entertained them with. And if Rin was likely to take it...
"What do you want to show me?"
Rikku grinned brilliantly, as though he had already agreed. "It's a secret. Come on!"
(The first time he saw her, he thought of Braska. Braska and his wife. The same eagerness and determination, the same urge to tease at every possible opportunity - although he could not quell Braska's wife with a look and wouldn't have dared try. The same loathing of the summoning and love of the summoner. The same quick fingers when it came to machina and fixing things - although Rikku's were always faster when it came to taking things that weren't hers.
Later, he realised that neither of them could use the brakes when it came to hovers, but it was too late by then.)
For all Rikku's insistence that he didn't understand her at all, he understood her enough to know that if she walked beside him quietly - taking two hop-steps to one of his strides, and on his left so he could see her - something was wrong. The last time he had seen her this way was walking through Zanarkand; before that, Home.
The former had lasted two hours, until she finally lunged for him, beating her fists against his chest and cursing him as though he was to blame for Yuna's pilgrimage. He had let her, as he had let Tidus, for the simple reason that it was easier to let her vent her emotions on him before they arrived and spare themselves her fury later. The latter had lasted until he took his spot in the passage to the control room and she a spot next to him, on his right so he wouldn't see her shake. In that case, Rikku couldn't beat anything into working or taking the blame, which in her mind seemed to mean that Auron was the best person to turn to - if only because he would let her be, and wouldn't ask questions.
("There was nothing you could have done," he said eventually. Not because she needed to hear it - despite all appearances, there was a mind working inside her head as quickly and ably as her fingers, and she would know what she could and couldn't have done. He said it because it was the truth.
His fondness for the truth had grown more and more as he distanced himself from it. If nothing else, truth was the anathema of everything Sin and Yevon represented and all the more precious for its scarcity.
Beside him, Rikku stiffened, and he didn't look at her. Finally, she leaned against his side, forehead against his shoulder.
"E ghuf," she croaked. "I know.")
In this case, however, he couldn't predict what the explosion would be about and when. All he could do was employ standard tactics; wait and see what came out.
What came out was a rather awkward "Auron? You're okay, aren't you?"
Auron stopped, half turning to find that Rikku was several steps behind him, biting her lip. He didn't know what had brought that on, but for some reason he found himself thinking of Tidus. The hurt on his face when Auron told him -
If Auron had said that he didn't expect Tidus to tell any of the others, he would have been lying. He had hoped otherwise, certainly, but he'd expected it. But Rikku?
‘Perhaps he's learnt something then.'
"I'm fine. Let's go."
Rikku huffed behind him and bounced up to his side with a scowl on her face. "It's always ‘let's go' with you. Let's go and get it over with, let's hurry up and get Yunie killed -"
"Would you have preferred that we draw it out?"
"Well, yeah - I mean, you could've given us a little more time to plan how we were gonna stop..." The blonde trailed off, and he could always hear the wheels turning inside her head. "You didn't want us to stop Yunie's pilgrimage, or any of the other summoners' pilgrimages, we knew that. You wanted us to go to Zanarkand, even though it was that big evil Yu - her, even though she - even though you knew what was there."
(The echo of Bevelle's bells ringing the alarm somewhere inside his mind, and Tidus saying "No one would believe me anyway," even though they would - at least about this.)
"Did you even want Yunie to get the Final Aeon?"
"I wanted her to see the truth of the sacrifice - the truth behind Sin. After that it was her choice."
Rikku made a vague, sceptical "Hm" sound and bounded ahead of him to jab at the button pad of the door at the end of the corridor. She didn't look at him when she said "It wasn't her choice to be a summoner. It was never her choice. You think the daughter of Lord Braska would've been anything else?"
Auron didn't argue - she was right - and Rikku didn't give him time to, stomping through the door and fumbling against the wall to turn on the lights. When they blinked into life, they revealed a room that was filled by what appeared to be half-dismantled machina and shelves supporting a riot of spheres, bottles and metal. One side of the room was lined with workbenches, most littered with the same scraps as were on the shelves - the one that wasn't was the one that Rikku went to, and Auron waited in the doorway, eyes following her figure as she slipped through the room until he realised what she was getting.
Rikku, when she made something, would not rest unless it was made well - or, failing that, unless it would fall apart in an entertaining manner. The katana she tried to lift showed signs of belonging to the former category. It was stained a colour between that of rust and old scars, the blade easily sharper than the one he used now - but of course, he hadn't been using it to rip through fiends, had he?
"I um, thought you might need a new sword?" Rikku offered, lowering the blade back to the workbench. "And I figured that it'd be easier to just customise one for you here instead of buying you one because I kinda haven't got any gil and you're mean and won't let me steal some and Rin'll let me have stuff for free so long as I customise some of his other merchandise and..." Rikku flailed her arms again. "What do you think?"
For an answer, Auron hefted the blade, feeling the weight and the balance of it - Rikku frowned as he did, as though searching for any problems that she might have missed while she was working on it. It felt right, in a way that he'd missed since he lost the blade that had been made for him in his time as a warrior monk. Swords from a rack in an armourers did the purpose they had been made for well enough, but having a blade that had been made for him -
Auron frowned slightly at the thought, and shifted the blade to what might become its usual position; slung over one shoulder. "You made this for me?"
Rikku nodded absently, eyes still on the katana. "Yep. I told you - I thought you might need a new sword. And I wanted to do something nice for someone because Rin said that if I blew anything up on the airship he'd tell Pop it was me and then Pop'd throw me overboard. And if I wasted anything from Rin's stock on blowing Tidus up then he'd throw me off."
"I would've thought Wakka would be your preferred target."
"Nope! I wouldn't blow Wakka up. I'm gonna punch holes in his blitzball next time the season starts, so that'll be enough, right?" Rikku hesitated, then swung herself up onto a high stool, legs kicking. "Auron? Can I ask you something?"
"You just did."
Rikku pulled a face at him, tongue out. "I'm being serious. Something else."
"If you must."
She hesitated for long minutes, heels thunking into the stool's crossbar. "Promise you won't kill me? Or Tidus?"
Auron looked at her over the top of his sunglasses.
"You could pretend. Have you never heard of trying to be reassuring?"
The look didn't change.
"No, I guess you haven't." Rikku took a deep breath, tugging at her gloves, then told the floor "Tidussaidyouwereanunsent."
It took him a few moments to translate that into separate words, and when he did he found that Tidus hadn't disappointed him. He could remember a time when he could say that would surprise him.
Rikku nodded, not looking at him. "But you're not, right?"
The silence seemed like a perfectly adequate answer to him, but Rikku looked up at him with wide, pleading eyes. "Right?"
Auron shook his head.
Rikku stared at him, eyes wide and the spirals stretched thin - then moved, not past him as he'd expected, but to him. She leaned her head against his chest, hands fisting in his coat. When she spoke, her voice was muffled.
"I don't believe you."
"You don't have to."
He closed his eye and concentrated for a few seconds - not on her, but on himself - and was rewarded by something tight and crushed uncurling inside him. Judging by Rikku's gasp, she'd seen the handful of pyreflies he was releasing.
"Doesn't that hurt?"
Auron laughed, a harsh thunderclap, and Rikku ducked her head a little closer to his chest. Of all the questions - but that was what he expected from them. From her and Tidus both.
"It's not funny," Rikku huffed, poking his chest. "It's - I don't know!" The poke turned into a thump, her fist thudding on his armour. "You can't be dead. I mean - it's you! You can't -" She stopped, then thunked her head against him. "I don't want you to be dead."
Auron stepped back enough that he could free his left hand from his coat and tilt Rikku's face up with it. Her lower lip trembled a little, but there were no tears.
(Jecht had always wanted to know where the crying women were, until he saw Sin destroy a village for the first time. Spira didn't have time to mourn the dead, and even less to mourn the living.)
There was just a spark of determination - the determination she showed when it came to the Al Bhed, to Yuna, to a problem that she couldn't solve but would if it took her the rest of her life.
Auron wouldn't have it any other way.