May 25th, 2006, 6:03 AM
Chronicle 1 – Digging Up The Past, Forming and Breaking Ties
One Month Prior…
Crumbs of sand drifted in the blistering atmosphere, draining the women and beasts that were engaging each other in battle.
The winds wailed from the cut of air of the swift blade, its razor-sharp edge easily cutting through the fur, flesh and bone of its enemy’s powerful, apelike arm. Before the Hrimthur could groan complains with regard to the disjointed part of its limb - that had now fallen to the desert’s sand, its neck learned that it was the next pit stop on the blade’s berserk course.
A horizontal line of red, running along the circumference of its neck, was the only proof that anything had penetrated its thick, furry collar. Its head slid off its hinges, lubricated by dark, crimson blood, and finally touched sandy ground. Its dark eyes shut in defeat but its legs carried its body forward drunkenly, for one last attack to its enemy, unguided by the necessity of vision. But the fountains of red shooting from the northern opening of its torso had become too much, even for its determined vengeance. Inevitably, the Hrimthur dropped dead, ravaged neck pouring out blood before the black boots of its killer.
Paine stepped away from the downed enemy threatening to stain her boots. Not too long, its corpse drifted away with flares of Pyreflies.
“Paine, look out!”
She swung around at the warning, blood-dripping sword whipping around in her grasp. Her grey eyes caught the charging beak only inches away from her forehead. She gasped, realising her inability to move quick enough. Even if she could move that fast, the close proximity of the aerial fiend was against her lengthy sword.
A loud bang shook the air.
Before it knew it, a bullet had found its home in the Divebeak’s chest, driving the bird to the ground from its force. Scorching sand irritated the space between its colourful feathers. With one last flap of its wing, it gave out, letting the Pyreflies carry it away from the realm of the living.
That was close. Deciphering past the haze of floating sand, Paine looked right to find Yuna. She sent a half-smile of thanks to her saviour. Yuna smiled and winked, smoking guns in her hands still aiming Paine’s way.
Despite the intimacy Paine shared with the near death experience, that was all the thanks she was willing to give for the fortunate outcome. And all the thanks Yuna was willing to accept. The countless battles they endured had softened the reality of life to a certain extent.
The noisy one, Paine thought.
Rikku came flipping backwards gymnastically, dodging the barbaric fists of two Hrimthurs with each flip. After performing several flips, she landed crouched down in the space between Yuna and Paine, and pulled out two thief daggers from her waist. Using all the force she could, she stabbed the Hrimthurs just above their knees.
The steel dug deep into their lower thighs, forcing them to groan and drop down to their knees in pain. With the fiends now at eyelevel with Rikku, she performed another back flip - this time dislodging her daggers with her momentous feet, springing them incredibly high into the air.
“HA!” She enforced as she leaped into the air and performed a broad roundhouse kick, her boot connecting with the Hrimthurs’ cheeks as it swung by. The Hrimthurs were hurled metres away, and sure not to disturb her again. Slowly, she rose from her crouch to face Yuna and Paine. They looked at her worriedly for some reason. Why were they worrying? … OH!
Swishes of air poured from above, captivating Rikku’s ears in dire interest. She looked down and frowned, concentrating the hardest her friends had probably seen her. With each swish, she approximated their position and waited … there! She stretched out her arms to either side lighting quickly, catching her falling daggers by the hilts perfectly, as if they weren’t moving at all.
Yuna and Paine gasped together, relieved.
“Hey!” Rikku complained, putting her hands on her hips. “Don’t act like that! It was one time! One time I forgot!”
“Tell that to Brother’s poor foot,” Paine said with her arms crossed. “I doubt he’ll be asking you to entertain his guests ever again. Not with your juggling abilities anyway.”
Yuna giggled but then realised something. “Oh man, that means he’s going to be asking me to sing for them all the time!”
“C’mon Paine.” Rikku span her daggers around. “That was like long time ago! His foot’s all healed up now. Plus, I was an amateur back then,” she admitted, spinning the short blades behind her back now. “These days, I’m a master!”
Master of what exactly? Paine thought. But she simply shook her head, not wanting to air her doubt of Rikku’s importance. She reached into her pocket and got out a crimson handkerchief to clean the red off her silver blade.
“Oh,” Rikku said, seeing what Paine was doing. “So she does have a little girly side to her.”
“What?” Paine asked, as if she hadn’t heard a word Rikku said.
“You like things clean.” Rikku handed Paine her daggers. “Do these for me too while your at it.”
Paine had sort of softened her tough spirit since the first day she met her, Yuna thought. She watched as Paine accepted Rikku’s weapons. They were behaving more like friends everyday.
Yuna looked at the reason behind Rikku’s complaint and found Paine wiping clean her daggers with her own green skirt. Oh well… At least they weren’t trying to kill each other.
Yuna wiped off a tear of sweat from her brow. She looked up, hand forming a bridge above her eyes for protection against the sun’s blazing smile. In the light-blue clear skies, a tiny, red, crab-like plane drifted along. Although, from her distance, it hardly looked like it was moving at all.
Brother and Buddy were up there waiting for them. It was probably time they got what they came to Bikanel Desert for in the first place. “Rikku,” Yuna called. “The map?”
“Yes, mam!” Rikku saluted her. She bent over and retrieved a rolled up scroll from her boot.
“Well, where is it?” Paine dropped the scarlet handkerchief and hung the sparkling, silver blade over her shoulder.
Rikku unrolled the map and investigated it, biting her lip as she did so. “I think … it’s … oh! You’re standing right on top of it, Yunie!”
“Really?” Yuna said, surprised. She dropped down and began digging in the sand.
“Wow, Rikku,” Paine said, sounding impressed. “When’d you learn to do that?”
“Do what?” The blonde girl scratched her head.
“Read,” Paine said bluntly.
Rikku crossed her arms. “I wouldn’t be so impressed if I were you,” she said in a low voice.
“Oh, of course.” Paine was unfazed by the little temper she could sense in Rikku. “You’re right, Rikku. It’s only a map after all. It’s not like it actually has any words on it.”
“Would you two quit it already,” Yuna said, still shuffling sand aside. “You’ve been acting so *****y towards each other today. What’s wrong with you?” But they didn’t answer her. “Whatever it is, just keep your panties on and help me out here.”
“Impossible,” Paine said.
Yuna looked up to her and Rikku was shocked too. Paine wasn’t always the buddy-buddy type but she always did her part to complete the mission.
Paine dropped her sword and was about to drop to her knees, but she could still feel the heaviness of their stares. “What?” They continued to look at her. “Fine.” She gasped, defeated. “I didn’t want to say it but you both pushed me. What I meant was that it would be impossible to keep her panties on because Rikku probably isn’t wearing any.”
Yuna rolled her eyes and continued digging.
“Oh yeah!?” Rikku protested. “What are these then?” She said to Paine, pulling on the thin yellow straps extending out the top of her skirt.
“Yes, those are real classy Rikku,” Paine said sarcastically, now helping Yuna search the ground. “I’m sure all your customers appreciate it”
Rikku grumbled curses beneath her breadth before dropping to the play in the sand too.
Yuna turned to look at her friend. “You know what I was impressed with, Rikku? That kick you gave those Hrimthurs. You sent them good and on their way. For a girl your size, that’s pretty impressive.”
“Yeah well, you know me,” Rikku said, feeling chuffed. “Anyone can do it really. You just gotta learn to channel your ki into your attacks. A real karate prof taught me back in Kilika. Maybe I’ll introduce you to him some day.”
After several minutes of playing in the hot soil, Rikku breaking a nail and Paine raking out sand Rikku accidentally threw in her eyes, Yuna’s finger finally hit something concrete. The gleam of success shone in her eyes. Feeling more determined than ever, she relentlessly tossed aside huge heaps of sand.
The three girls were dazzled by its brilliant blue as it lay there. Yuna picked it up, discovering that it was as flat as a coin but shaped precisely like a six-sided diamond. She blew aside the sand covering it and held it in an open palm so all the Gullwings could see it.
“The Azure Apula.”
“Whoopee! We did it!” Rikku celebrated by jumping up and down. “Gullwings are go!”
Humph, Paine grumbled. With the way Rikku was dressed she wouldn’t be surprised if people thought that sentence should’ve ended with ‘hoes’ instead. She didn’t know why she felt so angry towards Rikku at the moment but she just couldn’t help it.
“Well,” came Yuna’s voice. “Three more of these Apula thingies and the Fayth must fulfil their promise.”
Rikku put a hand on Yuna’s shoulder. “At the rate we’re going, Tidus will be back in no time!”
“Don’t get too confident.” The words of caution came from Paine. “This is just the first one. I doubt the Fayth would ask us, of all people, to gather the Apulai if they felt any Tom, Dick or Harry, or Rikku, could handle it. My bet is that it’s going to get a lot more dangerous from now on.”
“My bet is that Paine won’t be having any more teeth to talk **** with in a couple of seconds,” Rikku said coldly and extremely out of character. She threateningly punched her palm as she approached Paine.
“Please, Rikku.” Paine remained relaxed with her arms crossed. “What are you going do with those fists? This isn’t exactly the hard job your hands have been trained to deal with.”
“GUYS!” Yuna shouted out loud.
Rikku stopped in her tracks and turned around, only to see a blaze of white zip right in front of Yuna. Her worry quickly faded away though, as she realised her cousin was still standing in place, in the exact same position actually … with her hand still held out … and … ah! It was gone! “Where’d the Apula go, Yunie?”
“I-I…” Yuna was panicking, searching her pockets and looking all around her feet.
“Heads up,” Paine said, shrugging her head in the direction behind Yuna.
Yuna span around. Past the low gusts of sand and rock, a white form became apparent. As it rose to its feet, they quickly realised it was a seven-foot man. His white cloak covered his back entirely; from his hooded head down to his white boots. He turned around, face still hidden within the shadows of the hood. “Thank you. We shall take it from here,” an awfully deep and dead tone came from beneath the hood.
“No! We found it first!” Yuna drew her pistols and took aim.
The first thing she noticed about him was the tall sickle he held in his right arm. Paine lifted her sword from the sand and stood in alert. Rikku did the same with her thief daggers.
“You don’t know what you’re asking for. Save yourselves from making the last mistake you’ll ever make.”
His voice sent shivers down Rikku’s spine. Sweat from the fear surfaced on her forehead, joining the perspiration from the desert’s own heat. Maybe, just this once, they shouldn’t be looking for trouble.
Yuna’s eyes were locked on target just as her pistols were. She embraced the reason for all this too much to give up.
“Trouble?” A voice came from behind the cloaked man. Two men arrived to his side. One wore long, blue and green shorts and a matching open t-shirt. He held a curved bladed broadsword in one hand. “Huh?” He scratched the back of his head as soon as he saw the silver-haired girl standing at the back of the three. “Am I seeing things?”
Paine blinked, not trusting what her eyes were telling her. The man had the same spiky, orange hair ever since… And it seemed time hadn’t done his face wrong in the least.
“What are you looking at?” Rikku said to him, agitated by the stares of the three men.
“Whoa!” The redhead exclaimed as he took notice of Rikku. Her slender figure in that scanty outfit … he could only imagine all types of wicked things. But knowing his luck, this was all probably just one of the desert’s stupid mirages. As silly as it would sound if it weren’t the case, he decided to ask anyway. “Are you for real?”
“No, I’m a highly advanced CGI image created to entice the senses of all men who set eyes on me to the extent that they forget that I’m nothing more than a product of superior graphics technology,” Rikku said, sarcastically, perhaps. “OF COURSE I’M REAL!”
“Well, in that case…” The young man’s fingers played in his shorts’ pocket, reaching all around its shallow depths. He pulled out a blue note and a bunch of gold and silver coins. Having counted the amount with his finger, he scratched the back of his head, disappointed. “I’ve got a little more than a hundred gil. I really hope it’s enough. How much do you charge? For … let’s say an hour? Kind of a quickie for me but that’s all I can afford right now.”
They were all saved from silence by the whistling desert winds. Then, something else hit Yuna’s ears. Something that had become so rare that it was now a monumental event whenever it occurred. She looked to the corners of her eyes, trying to get a glimpse of it. Could it really be? No! Could it be … Paine was actually giggling?
Redness began to build up in Rikku’s face from the animalistic anger that threatened to escape in another means.
“Huh?” Yuna turned back to see the boy chuckling too. Wow, he actually managed to make Paine laugh. Yuna was sad it had to be at the expense of Rikku but felt a little happy for Paine at the same time.
“Enough!” The hooded man spoke, his voice ricocheting to the ends of the desert. His hood fell back, revealing a dark-skinned man. A scar ran diagonally just under his left, green eye. Everyone had fallen quiet at his command. “Runy, do you know any of these women?” he asked the redhead by his side.
“Well, one of them…” Runy said, his reddish brown eyes tried to remember Paine at a younger age. She still had the same sense of humour but apart from that, he probably didn’t know her in the least anymore. And this wasn’t the time anyway. “I used to know one of them. But that’s in the past, sir.”
Paine was strangely saddened by his words.
“Very well.” The leader of the men looked hard at each of the Gullwings. Perhaps they deserved an explanation. They had found one of the Apula after all. They couldn’t be utterly useless. “Ladies, I am Amu. Leader of the Dragonites. An elite team of sphere and treasure hunters. To my right, meet Runy.”
Runy bowed forward.
“He’s a specialist in swordsmanship and possesses remarkable potential to be great in future. To my left is Klamour.”
A man with silky, mauve strands of hair covering his face stepped forth. His red business suit seemed inappropriate for the location but somehow the Gullwings didn’t think he worried about things like that. He brought forward a hand he was hiding behind his back and now the girls knew why.
The slimy, green lizard hand held his belly as he gave a bow. Blisters and yellow boils were scattered across its surface and four long claws extended from each of its nails. The Gullwings could see purple lips but his long hair hid the other features of his extremely pale skin. Without a word, he stepped back to Amu’s left side.
“Klamour isn’t exactly the talkative type but when it comes down to business, his claws provide all the conversation necessary.” Amu’s lips twisted into a sinister half-smile.
“Ha! We’ve got one of those!” Rikku said, undoubtedly referring to Paine. “Minus the creepy hand though…” She shivered.
“We don’t care about that!” Yuna exclaimed. The heat was really getting her now. She wanted to leave as soon as possible. With the Apula! “Surely, Amu, you’re not telling us you achieved your elite rank by stealing others’ treasures!”
“How dare you even suggest –” Runy started, but was cut short by a wave of his leader’s arm.
Amu’s grin faded away. He held the Apula in his open palm. “Yuna, the almighty High Summoner herself.” He chuckled. “I’m sure you didn’t reach your status by living of pure ignorance. But there are some things even the likes of you wouldn’t understand. Take this for example,” he held the Apula between a finger and a thumb. “Do you even know what it is you are hunting?”
Yuna couldn’t honestly answer ‘yes’ to that question. “I believe in the reason and that’s all that matters.”
“What’s reason without purpose?” He said angrily. “You are unaware of why the Fayth has asked you of this task, yet you continue to behave like their good little errand girls.”
Somehow, Yuna managed to shiver from a jolt of coldness against the blazing heat. Her trembling fists lowered the pistols.
“That’s right. I know it is the Fayth that has sent you on this mission,” Amu revealed. “And unlike you, I can say what it is they plan on doing with the four Apulai. For that mere reason, I should be the one to handle them. Your unawareness of the matter could have disastrous effects you wouldn’t even be able to predict without my knowledge. For the sake of Spira, and your own lives, dismiss yourselves from this mission. I give you the comfort of my word that the Dragonites will effectively handle the situation.”
How did he know about the Fayth giving them the mission? To her knowledge she was the only one that knew the details. It left Yuna wondering just what else Amu knew about her. And what else he knew that he wasn’t telling her.
“Now.” Amu hooded his bold scalp once again. “We shall take our leave. Should you feel the need to interfere, we will gladly have you buried in the very sands you dug this Apula from.”
And so they turned around. Rikku and Paine came rushing over to Yuna, who was helplessly sitting in sand.
“What do we do, Yuna?” Rikku asked. “They sound pretty dangerous. I’m not a hundred percent sure we can win even if we did try.”
Paine looked down at Yuna, grey eyes back to their serious selves. “You’re the leader, Yuna. We’re behind you whatever you say.”
The Dragonites began walking away. Yuna was panicking in the inside and thankful that none of the girls could see it in her outward façade. Tidus. This was all for him. They could die challenging Amu. But living without Tidus was not much of a life anyway. She had to do it, feeling terrible about dragging her two closest friends in this. But perhaps that’s what they wanted. That’s what they always told her anyway.
She stood up immediately and took aim to the back of Amu’s head. Both Rikku and Paine nodded together, and then drew their own weapons. The Gullwings took two steps forward before a blaze of blue zipped in front of Amu and came flipping right before them. What now?
A figure was crouched in the sand. It stood up, revealing an oppressively feminine shape in tight-fitting, navy swimsuit armour. Her tanned skin almost camouflaged perfectly in the golden-brown desert sand. Intensely dark, brown hair fluttered in the wind as she took steps towards the Gullwings, black cape billowing behind her. Without a word, she opened a gloved hand, presenting the Azure Apula resting on her palm.
Yuna looked at it amazed. She was so shocked that she couldn’t find the courage to take it without the mystery woman shrugging to encourage her acceptance. “Thanks-thanks.” She immediately deposited the Apula in a sachet tied to her belt. She looked up to the woman, defiant brown eyes on a friendly face.
“Don’t you remember me?”
Yuna gulped, afraid she had forgotten who could be the most important person in her life having retrieved the Apula for her. Familiarity hung in her fair cheeks and slightly pointy nose but Yuna couldn’t put together all the clues to form an identifiable face.
“MILANO!” Terror pervaded the air within Amu’s voice. Angry stomps pushed the heavy sand down, getting ever so closer to their target.
“One moment.” Milano smiled promisingly to Yuna. She twirled around just quick enough to swoop below the sharp beak of his sickle, tips of her hair being cut off. She evaded two more swings that would have cut her into two clean peaces before equipping herself with a cobalt staff strapped to her back.
Their weapons clashed as she parried his relentless attempts to behead her. Milano caught his sickle with a horizontally placed staff. Each struggled to push back the other, then, she realised, there was no better time than now. “Amu, this is it. Time for you to pay up what you owe me.”
“Now!?!” He gritted his teeth. Fighting all the urges in his body to push her back and eliminate her, he groaned loudly and broke the grapple, hurling his sickle’s blade into the sand. He bowed his forehead against the bar of his weapon, flaming gasps of air exiting his mouth - not out of fatigue but out of frustration. “Fine.” The glow in his green eyes died out. “I’m a man of my word. It’s yours for now. Consider all ties between us vanquished.”
“Of course,” Milano said, putting her staff back in the sheath resting on her back. “I understand. This is how I choose to use my favour.”
“Next time we meet there will be nothing holding me back from my destiny.” With that, Amu turned and walked back to his men. As a trio, they disappeared into the distance.
Now she remembered. Yuna and Milano fell into each others’ arms. Paine lowered her sword, resting its tip into the ground. Rikku wiggled left and right in that eccentric dance she usually did when excited about something. She wondered what connection her cousin shared with Milano. Maybe she’d turn out to be one of her cousins too.
After what seemed like hours, the two finally broke the embrace. Rikku just caught a glimpse of Milano’s half-smile, her brown eyes tinged with something she couldn’t quite identify. Yuna hadn’t seen it.
“Oh, how silly of me,” Yuna said, wiping clear a tear of joy. “Rikku and Paine, this is Milano. A childhood friend of mine.”
“Hiya! I’m Rikku, Yuna’s favourite cousin!”
“I’m Paine,” she said, offering her hand. “Any friend of Yuna’s is a friend of ours.”
Milano shook the welcoming hand. “Nice to meet you all.” She smiled at Yuna’s emotional face. “It’s been long time since I’ve seen your friend here. She and I were inseparable back when we were toddlers. Much before Yuna was encouraged to fulfil her destiny by being a Summoner. Once she left for Besaid I never saw her again. Until today.”
Paine felt her forehead. It was burning up from all the sun’s attention. “I don’t mean to cut this reunion short but you think we could postpone it to some other time or some other place at least. I feel like a gingerbread man in an oven.”
“Oh,” Yuna just remembered how hot it really was. “Why don’t you come aboard our ship for dinner tonight? I’m dying to do catch up!”
“Well, I’d love to,” Milano replied. “But I’m not alone. I travel by sea and I left my companion back at the Oasis. Have you got room for one more?”
“Of course, we do!” Yuna would have answered the same regardless.
“In that case … I can’t wait!”
The misty aroma climbed the air from bustling pots, tantalising the taste buds of the brewers with meaty pleasure. Their own melodic whistles distracted the Gullwings from the dreary thuds of knives against cutting boards and from the bubbling of cookery vessels.
Rikku fought her impatient stomach’s groans as she chopped up onions and tomatoes. Unfortunately, fighting her tears from the onions’ glares wasn’t as straightforward. She often found herself damping her white apron with her eyes’ leakages. But she pushed on, her being telling her it was all for a good cause, and her tummy telling her the results would cause much good.
Yuna rubbed the suds against dirtied plates, ensuring nothing but pearly white was left to shine before wiping them dry and placing them aside. She smiled at the simplicity of the job and enjoyed the warm, pouring tap water all over her hands. This was the least appreciated chore, mostly because the idea of dirty pots daunted the other girls. But they didn’t realise that they were actually the easiest to get clean – provided Brother hadn’t attempted to actually ‘cook’ something in them of course.
Her foamy hand caught grip of a wineglass, and she used her other to plunge a sponge into its open summit, smudging creamy bubbles against its clear inner walls. Carelessness, or overconfidence perhaps, had her swiftly extract her hand, leaving nothing but a slippery grip on the glass. The firm-less grip led to disaster.
The fragile cup slide between her fingers, shattering as it met the tiled floor. Concerned eyes quickly found her uneasy smile.
“You okay, Yunie?” Rikku asked through red, teary eyes.
“Yeah … are you?” She said, taking notice of her cousin’s troubled eyes. But once Rikku pointed to the small slices of onion, Yuna lost her worry. Not for long however, as she spotted the scattered glass at her feet. “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of this mess.”
Paine nodded in agreement. “Careful,” she cautioned before turning back to face her own task. Her hand was moistened from the rising steam as she stirred the beefy soup with a long spoon. Bits of brown bisque dripped back into the boiling puddle, escaping the pond trapped aboard the rising spoon. She whispered the sample cool then brought it to meet her lips for a humble slurp.
Perfect. Only the finishing touches remained. She gripped a tin of pre-shaped vegetables she had opened earlier and held its mouth above the pot. Using a teaspoon, she began to deposit each carrot, pea, and such, one by one into her masterpiece.
Then, unexpectedly, a loud ringing shook her pocket, pushing her into dropping the remainder of the tinned vegetables all at once. A huge splash erupted from the sudden plummet, little specs of soup shooting at her cheeks. She quickly cleared the irritation of the minor burning with a thumb. She used her apron to whip her hands clean before digging into her pocket for her ringing cell phone.
Unknown Number. The caller ID function was useless in determining the caller. She had better take it elsewhere. “Yuna,” she said to the lady crouched down sweeping up fragments of glass. “Please watch this for me while I’m out. I’ve got to take this call.”
Paine left the kitchen with curious eyes fixed on the phone’s screen. She found a dark, secluded corner and pressed the answer button. “Who is this?”
“‘Who is this?’ What a way to greet an old friend.”
The voice had deepened from what her ears were use to, but the arrogance still lived well in his words. “Runy.”
“So you do remember my name. Heh, had me worried for a second there.”
The memories all came flooding back. She had to smile. “Of course I do. It’s a pity I can’t the same for you.”
“Huh?” He left Paine with radio air for entertainment as he tried to make sense of her accusation. How could he have forgotten her if he was the one calling her? Long seconds passed before he understood. “Bikanel Desert. I should have known you’d give me grief about that.”
“Yeah, that!” Paine said, airing her angered disappointment. “What are you doing hanging out with that huge, green-eyed, freaky thief anyway? And that repulsive lizard hand…”
“What! Master Amu is NOT a thief! And that hand is by no means … oh hell. Even I gotta admit it is kinda disgusting. Try sitting at a dinner table with that thing, it’s guaranteed to kill your appetite. That’s why I always eat my dinner up on deck.”
“But Paine, one thing you must know is that Amu isn’t a bad guy in the least. He’s just a little … serious at times.”
“You know what I mean! He doesn’t like it when non-mission events infringe our well-thought-out plans. The whole me knowing you thing… Our relationship…”
Dying hope heated up Paine’s heart at the thought. But its brief resurrection was frozen back to gentle coldness. She realised its time had come and gone.
“Not quite the word…” He thought. “Our association, I should say, is considered non-mission. That’s why I didn’t want to dwell on those memories in the master’s presence. But for the record, I still do feel like I know you. Do you think that’s possible? At all? …Sharlome?”
“No...” she immediately blurted out a sigh. “I’ve changed too much. I’m not the same little girl you befriended.” It took real bravery to say those words.
“And please, call me Paine.”
He fell silent for a second. “Understood.” It was all about business now. “Well, Paine. I’m sure you are wondering why I called you and where I got this number for that matter. But that’s of no concern. And I’m pretty confident you know why I’m talking to you right now.”
There was no doubt in her mind. “I know what I owe you and I’m willing to fulfil my promise at your command. But don’t expect me to tell you why I left back then. I’m not going to apologise for happenings out of my control.”
“I understand … Paine. All I ask is of what is due to me.”
“In that case what is it that you want?”
“Listen. This is what I need from you…”
And so she listened to his every word, nodding her head in agreement at the tasks she was given.
Unknown to Paine however, a pair of stray ears continued to capture her conversation in a stealthy manner.
Brother slouched back, legs spread out lazily aside the chair as he picked between his teeth with a toothpick. Relatively empty plates, glasses and bowls were scattered across the lengthy table before him. He loved having visitors over for meals. It meant the girls were going to be cooking!
Barkeep had his moments, but nothing won his stomach’s heart more than the touch of feminine hands. Yuna’s hands, he liked to believe. He felt his belly overflowed with the amazing food but his heart could never be overflowed with anything Yuna. People would give him grief about his uncontrollable feelings, but to him, she wasn’t really blood-related and that made it okay.
Oh how Rikku would be scolding him right now if she could read his mind.
“She is isn’t she?” The private thought slipped out a result of his half-dazed state. Just remembering the presence across the table, he quickly snapped up, back upright against the chair and toothpick dropping to the ground. He wiped clean the drowsiness on his face before looking at his company. “What did you say?”
“The meal … it was great.” The young woman said, settling her fork and knife on the plate.
“Oh, the meal, of course, great!” Brother caught the slightest light of confusion in her brown eyes, but thankfully it was quickly replaced with easiness. He noticed how her brunette locks fell just above her eyebrows, leaving only a small ‘V’ of forehead visible. She wasn’t actually bad looking at all - even when he compared her with Yuna. Maybe he should try to learn more about the girl Milano brought aboard with her.
“So, Tiara,” he started, tapping the table as he thought of something to talk about. “You say you’re a Sphere Hunter too?”
“Yeah, ever since Milano introduced to me to Sphere Hunting I just loved it! I was fifteen when I started and four years later … I mean look at me now! I’ve seen so many things all over Spira and met so many people. Travelling is just really a great experience, you get to…”
Brother was easily lost in her rapid and seemingly never-ending streams of sentences. Making conversation was much easier than he anticipated. All he had to do now was wait for her motor to stop running so he could ask her another question.
“ …but that’s just how I feel. What about you? You enjoy Sphere Hunting?”
“Yeah.” He felt his sufficient response wouldn’t do her mouth much justice. “So, Tiara, what kind of Dresspheres are you familiar with?”
“Oh, I am so glad you asked! Most guys only worry about what’s underneath them and don’t appreciate how much time and effort it takes to get myself this beautiful. Well, my first Dresshpere – which is also my favourite – is the Archer. I was always a good shot as a kid and…”
It wasn’t hard for Brother to see why guys took a liking to her. It wasn’t just her opinion … she really was beautiful. And the way the words kept rolling off her tongue. This time it was her mouth that stole his attention - not because of what was coming out of it of course! It was her luscious, cherry lips, bouncing vibrantly that peaked his admiration.
“ …get on my bad side and I might just have to switch to Gunmage! But don’t worry, I can control my anger pretty well. Gullwings have any favourite Dresspheres?”
**** it! Her tank just ran out. He had to think of something quick. “Well, you’ll have to ask them. Erm,” he stalled as he thought of something else. “Erm – er – you’re really pretty.”
“Awwwwwwwl, thank you!”
He waited. But nothing else came. What! That’s it! That was all she was going to say about his complement! How dare her, after all that mind searching. She just sat there with an innocent smile.
“You guys done?” Buddy walked to the table and began depositing the dirty dishes onto a tray. “Why are you still sitting at the table? Everyone else’s up on deck, I think.”
“I don’t know actually?” Brother admitted. On his account, he was half asleep thinking of the food Yuna cooked. He didn’t even realise everyone had left until Tiara spoke up. “You know what, Buddy. I’m feeling kind of tired. I just wanna hit the sack. Need help with the dishes?” He offered, before deciding to go to bed.
“That’s alright.” Buddy said, holding a tray full of dishes due to the sink.
“I think I’m going to go up deck,” Tiara told them. “The night’s still young. But could you boys do me a favour before I go?”
“What?” They asked together.
Tiara stood up, letting her ruby, sleeveless skirt fall to her mid thighs. She reached to the ground besides her seat and picked up a brown, fur sachet occupying several arrows and a long bow. She put them on the table then, strangely, stepped on the chair with a long, brown boot.
All too sudden for Brother and Buddy, she peeled up her skirt extremely high, revealing a slim and slightly built thigh. She unwrapped a dagger-holding, brown band strapped around the thigh and put it with the other weapons on the table. Having unequipped herself, she grounded her legs, letting her skirt fall back to its normal place.
“Brother,” she said. “Mind putting these somewhere for me? They can get a little uncomfortable sometimes.” She dumped her arsenal on Brother’s stretched out arms before whipping around, brown hair gliding with her before falling to her lower back.
Brother and Buddy watched in disbelief as her slender body was carried to the elevator in the figure-hugging red dress. She waved them goodbye before the lift’s doors shut their visual paradise away.
The two looked at each other, mouths still open. “On second thought, Brother. I’m going to take you up on that offer. You can do all the dishes! If you need me, I’ll be up on deck.”
“What!?” Brother complained. “I was just saying that because I didn’t want to be rude. Take these with you on your way to the kitchen!” he said, dumping her things on the table. With that, he made a break for the elevator, believing he had found a cure for Yuna.
Little did he know, Buddy was but two steps behind him and gaining!
“Nowadays, my heart’s with the seas.”
Silver moonlight fell over Milano’s body, preventing the night’s pitch darkness from swallowing their bodies. Yuna was sitting beside her.
The full moon ruled the dark heavens, millions of tiny, bright specs populating its kingdom as loyal subjects of its reign. Misty layers of clouds were dispersed throughout, too thin to obstruct the blinking stars however.
“I prefer flying.” Yuna turned to her old friend. Icy chills gently blew against her face, and past her ears, providing the melody to which her strands of hair gracefully danced to. “I love the air up here. The wind, the coolness, everything’s just perfect.”
Milano escaped from the addictive gaze she held to the skies and looked at Yuna. “To all, her own.”
For every star in the sky there was a question Yuna wanted to ask. But given the fulfilling – for now – discussions they had already, she felt her tongue was going to fall off from fatigue. She relaxed, allowing the propellers to cut the cold night air in peace.
“Being a Sphere Hunting is getting boring.”
Milano’s statement came from nowhere.
“Why do you say that?” Yuna disagreed.
“There’s just no more competition,” Milano responded. “Except for Amu and his boys that is. But they’re rarely active. They haven’t been in action for months until they learnt of the four Apulai.”
Yuna pulled out the Azure Apula from her packet, and hugged the small, flat diamond against her chest. “Competition? I’d rather not have competition for this mission. Success too important for me.” She pocketed the Apula again. “The only Sphere Hunting competition I can remember is Leblanc and her two goons.”
“Yeah, this really annoying Sphere Hunter,” Yuna explained. “One time she stole this sphere that made her look exactly like me and went on to perform at my own concert! Thank goodness I got it back though.” She sighed, relieved.
“Well, that’s interesting. Tell me more!”
And the two went on back and forth, exchanging moments and stories.
Paine yawned, stretching her arms as she did so. It really was about time she went to bed. Strangely, she felt the most incredible urge to take a walk atop the Celsius. She spent the most of her day inside the Celsius, making the notion of fresh air appear as fresh as it claimed.
She pressed the button on the lift that would take her to the top and waited patiently as it did. She yawned again the moment she stepped out. Laughs could be heard coming down the final stairs. Yuna was up there, and a voice she wasn’t too familiar with but nevertheless knew it as Milano’s.
They deserved to have their little peace together, probably just talking about girly things and embarrassing events that occurred in their pasts. Paine was about to make her way back to the lift when she spotted a shadow of a figure hidden deliberately behind an arc on the deck.
Her first instincts screamed intruder but upon closer inspection, she realised it was just a silly, nosy girl. She walked up the steps and crept up behind her. “Having fun, Rikku?”
Rikku jumped up from the shock. “Sssh! Don’t scare me like that!” She turned back to peep over the corner.
Paine did the same and discovered the victims of her espionage were Yuna and Milano. It must have been real heart-breaking for Rikku to feel tossed aside by Yuna when some old friend decided to rock up on board. “I’m not even going to ask what you’re up to. But I am glad I ran into you.”
“You are?” Rikku said, surprised.
“I want to apologize for my behaviour today. I realise I was totally out of line when I criticised you about how you dress. If that’s what you’re most comfortable in then by all means go ahead.”
“Ah, don’t worry about it.” Rikku pondered what could have driven such an apology. “Paine, apologizing? To me? That guy we saw in the desert must have really done a number you.”
“It’s not about that.” She turned away.
“Sure it aint.” Rikku winked.
It was kind of obvious Rikku had a little mistrust towards Milano, Paine believed. She descended the staircase, leaving Rikku to continue her little espionage game with arguably the wisest words she ever offered her. “Don’t let the jealousy consume you. It could very well be your undoing if you persist.”
Rikku shrugged off the advice as a non threat. She continued to do whatever it was she was doing out of Yuna’s view.
0-0-0 End 0-0-0
Well, there it is, after one hell of a prolong. Still accepting reviews!