The only difference between then and now, Rikku thinks, is that this time the cryptic advice isn't coming from a dead man.
A ten-minute take on an overused idea, and a complete and utter oneshot to boot. Enjoy? D:
Rikku can't quite bring herself to hate Zanarkand, although she's tried for years and years. If she can't stand to look at the place, the reasoning goes, maybe she won't come back.
But she's here again, her goggles pushed up and away from her eyes and her daggers hidden in her sleeves, her face sun-browned with lines at the edges of her mouth and the first traces of silver in her hair - and the city is spread about before her, all dancing pyreflies and tumbledown buildings. If Gagazet is almost the same, Zanarkand is completely and utterly unchanged, as if the past thirty years have meant absolutely nothing.
If she were a depressing sort of person, she would say that's because they haven't.
Her summoner squares his shoulders and carefully pads to the very edge of the path. He is a kind boy, a good-natured son of Bevelle, and in Besaid he spent long minutes in front of the statues, praying to Lady Yuna for guidance. "We should rest while we can," he says. "I don't want to waste any time once we're down there."
"Zaon..." His big sister reaches out to him, helmet tucked under one arm, and then lets her hand drop. When the time comes, she will volunteer without a second thought.
Rikku folds her arms and approaches them, half-conscious of the other guardians making way - the Guadosalam scholar, the washed-up blitzball player, the chocobo racer with feathers in her hair, the too-young Crusader. Zaon is not picky about who travels with him, just so long as they share his goals.
He smiles as she approaches and nods his head respectfully - this is her second pilgrimage, after all - and with his formal robes and long brown ponytail he looks like her uncle Braska, just for a moment. "Is there a campsite near here, Lady Rikku?"
"Near the city, if nothing's changed."
"Thank you." Zaon folds his hands inside his robes and starts down the path, and if he notices that Rikku doesn't move - that she stands with her hands clasped behind her and waits until they've all filed past her - he makes no comment.
Of all the summoners who have sought her ought, he is the only one who has ever come solely for advice - because he would not dream of asking her to make such a sacrifice again, not when her people have no home and the priests refuse to recognize her as a true guardian.
That is why she joined him the next day.
She wonders if his aeon will rise from the waves like Yuna's did, or if it will hover as protectively as his sister does now, sword and shield in hand.
The camp is still there - and nothing has changed - and the little chocobo racer is up on the bluff, staring at the city with a wild light in her eyes. She has said this is wrong, this is stupid, there's something horrible about this that she can't put a name to. Maybe every pilgrimage must have one such witness, and she is certainly fast and tenacious enough to survive.
Or perhaps she will volunteer instead, because she loves Zaon with all her heart, and the aeon will dive from the sky like a bird.
When Rikku sees her watching the city, she looks away before she hears the roar of monsters and the sea.
Zaon sits on a log while his sister paces behind him and he tells her that he's not tired, Marla, truly. He tilts his head as Rikku catches up to the others, while the Crusader-boy and the blitzball player stand watch and the Guado girl spreads her hands and brings a fire to life. There are no other sounds at all, no living things for miles around.
"Lady Rikku?" Marla's fingers twist together as she sits beside her brother, and Rikku remembers something Zaon told her once, that their mother wove trinkets for a living. "How much further?"
She does not even enter the circle by the fire. "Not very."
"There's no other way, is there." The chocobo racer doesn't look away from Zanarkand - and not at Zaon, not once.
Rikku doesn't look at him either, or at any of them. She drops her arms to her sides and walks toward the city, until she thinks she is close enough to reach out and touch the pyreflies - and she wonders what she would see if she did, what she would say to the others who ought to be in her place, and if maybe Yuna will ever forgive her for never believing in these kinds of sacrifices, not then and certainly not now.
"We're stopping for the rest of the night," she says, and holds up her hand so Zaon won't protest. "No arguing. There's worse things than fiends in there." And she turns on her heel and steps into the firelight, where everyone can see her. "In the meantime, I've got something to tell you."
Marla looks at her as if she's gone mad and the Crusader-boy shifts restlessly. "We don't have time for - "
"About Zanarkand," she says, and that shuts them up fast. "About what we're up against before we get anywhere near Sin."
She can see them all watching her now, because they are small and frightened and far from home. But she would not have followed Zaon if she hadn't seen Yuna in him - sometimes bright and painfully clear, like she can reach across time and space and snatch her cousin back and be the guardian she should have been years before.
This time, she thinks, she'll get it right. She'll make something change.
"Just listen," she says, and she closes her eyes and begins the story.