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Desert Blues (1/2)

Title: Desert Blues (his version)
Words: 6,333
Rating: PG-ish for violence
Spoilers: Near word for word quote of Gippal’s Sphere
Note: A plot bunny bit with the idea of “if Gippal was around during the attack on Home, shouldn’t he have been on the airship after? And if he was, did he and Rikku talk?” I’m thinking of doing a he said/she said spin on this.

The hot sun beat down hard on Gippal’s back. He wiped his forehead with the back of his hand, wincing when the move pulled at still healing muscles in his chest. He unscrewed the cap to his canteen, dribbling the last bit of potion-laced water into his mouth. Note to self, he thought. Watering down potions to stretch them out is not a good idea. For one, the water diluted the potion’s potency and for another, it just tasted plain horrible. The faster he could get to one of the aid stations littered around the desert and his hands on some fully potent Al Bhed potions, the better.

Sweat trickled down his chest, making his shirt cling to his skin and the bandage Rin had supplied him with itch. He absently thought about changing it, but that was yet another thing that would have to wait until an aid station popped up on the horizon. He had only taken the bare minimum of items that Rin had offered at the Mi’ihen agency branch. As a fugitive from Yevon, Gippal hadn’t wanted to raise any suspicion that Rin had helped him out. He’d known the older entrepreneur for most of his life; he owed it to Rin to keep him out of harm’s way.

It’s bad enough that he’s probably going to get a lot of anti-Al Bhed backlash, what with this operation blowing up in everybody’s faces. He’d had a lot of time to think on his way back to Bikanel. In hindsight, the plot to rally everyone to destroy Sin had been nothing but a huge political maneuver. The people that died were the ones that abandoned the Teachings, the ones that lived had been saved by Yevon. It was no accident that the majority of the dead littered on the Djose shore were Al Bhed or Crusaders that were trying to learn to be more tolerant to different ways of thinking.

And you would have been there too, if you hadn’t wanted to join the elite club. He’d had a choice, once he heard about the Crusaders and the Al Bhed working together. He could have picked the easy route and stayed on the cliffs, at home with his fellow man instead of enduring the stares and whispers from other Crimson Squad candidates as the lone Al Bhed amidst the Yevonites.

The thing with Gippal was, he never did things the easy way. It was so much more important to him that he prove he was worthy of joining their ranks, no matter what his beliefs were. He needed to show them he was as good as or better than they thought he was. The camaraderie he had gained with Baralai, Paine and Nooj had bolstered his belief that it could be done.

Then Nooj turned around and shot us all. Gippal’s hand rubbed the spot on his chest that was padded with gauze. He’d better have a damn good reason whenever I see him next. Baralai and Paine had been lucky. The thick layers of clothing Baralai always wore – and Gippal had often teased about, seeing that the Bevelle native was always commenting about how hot it was – had saved his life. The bullet had been slowed down by the cloth and then stopped completely by the armor Baralai wore underneath. The worst he got was a horrendous bruise that had spread over his chest like an ugly stain.

The shot meant for Paine had hit the sphere recorder that had been perched at her shoulder instead, missing her completely. Survival instincts had kicked in and she had curled into a ball and played dead until Nooj had left. Gippal had a sneaking suspicion that Nooj hadn’t meant to shoot to kill when it came down to her.

Gippal, on the other hand, hadn’t been so lucky. His bullet had gone through his chest and out the other side. Then again, he had sort of been lucky. If the bullet hadn’t have hit the metal buckle where his armor – and a fat load of help that had been – attached and ricocheted, it would have gone straight through his heart, a clean kill shot. Rin’s healing skills had saved him from bleeding out right there on the Agency’s doorstep.

His friends had agreed to go into hiding until the situation died down somewhat, so he was headed home. Home. He’d only been gone for a few months, but it seemed like years. He’d missed all the familiar sights and sounds, but exploring the world outside the island had been more than enough to keep homesickness at bay. In fact, he hadn’t really thought of Bikanel much.

Rikku, on the other hand, had always been on his mind. He might not have said anything to anyone else besides vague hints about having a girl back home waiting for him, but every time he saw something new or something that tugged at his heart with the sheer beauty of it all, he had wished that she had been right there to see it beside him. When this blows over, I’m going to show everything to her, he vowed.

A glint of metal caught his eye up ahead. About time. He all but collapsed in the shade of a canvas awning and kicked the chest seated under it open with his boot. “Ahh, that’s the stuff,” he sighed, licking his lips free of the familiar and slightly bitter tasting potion. Almost at once, the tight pain in his chest vanished. He knew he still had some ways to go before he was fully healed, but every little thing helped, especially in the pain-killing department.

“Okay, let’s see where we’re at.” He dug through the chest until he found the map he knew would be inside. It wasn’t so much a visual map as it was a list of directions, all written in his native language. He quickly got his bearings and realized that he was closer to Home than he first thought. If he made a quick detour to the oasis nearby to refill his canteen, he could be back inside the thick metal walls of Home before the sun went down. His stomach growled at the thought of food that would be waiting for him, which propelled him to his feet. The store of dried fruits and jerky Rin had insisted he have for his trip was sorely depleted. If he had been further away from Home, Gippal would have been tempted to use the last bits of it to bait deadfall traps in hopes of catching the small game that roamed the area. As unappetizing as sand rats sounded, once cleaned and cooked, they were protein. Protein meant strength, which meant that he’d have energy reserves to keep walking, which ultimately meant that he would have a better chance of returning to Home with his title of Badass Desert Survivalist intact.

Berrik had bestowed that title onto him last year after Gippal had come back from being deposited in an area furthest from Home with only a toolkit containing the barest of essentials, a single canteen of water, and a knife as part of the coming of age ritual every Al Bhed child went through once they hit fifteen. They were given a week alone to find their way back before someone, usually parents or older siblings, went after them. It honed survival skills and those that made their way back on their own were usually the ones that were chosen first for big responsibilities, be it in the workshops or out in the desert, later on in life.

It had only taken Gippal four and a half days to make it back. He’d snatched moments of sleep during the hottest portions of the day and traveled at night when the fiend activity was lowest. He hadn’t stopped much to rest, but he had known the limits his body could handle in the heat and hadn’t pushed himself to the point of exhaustion either. He’d had to hunt for his food, because not eating for a week had been even more unappealing than the idea of eating sand rats had been. Thankfully, he had come across some small animals that had been easy targets and had found a patch of tubers that grew under the dunes, so he hadn’t had to resort to eating vermin. The tubers were also hollow at the end and housed a great deal of water, so he had used one of his suspenders to tie a mess of them to his belt loops to supplement his canteen as he traveled.

Rikku would have gone through it this year, he thought. He wondered how she had done, if Cid had to let Keyakku and Brother go after her or not. Probably not. She’s a lot more resourceful than her brothers believe her to be. Knowing Rikku, she’d probably hijacked a couple of patrol droids, wired their circuits together, and programmed them to carry her all the way back on the very first day, spending the rest of her week looking for buried machina parts to bring back with her along the way. He knew that her sense of direction was a little off, but once she got her bearings, she usually made her way to wherever she was heading to okay.

In a way, he was sort of glad that he had been gone. He would have spent the majority of the week fighting the urge to go out on hover patrol to check up on her or he would have been worried sick that she had been attacked by fiends and had managed to get herself eaten.

Then again, he wished that he would have been there to see her triumphant smile when she made it back on her own, just like he imagined she would. She was one tough girl; she could look after herself. That thought did something funny to him. He was so used to being part of the Gippal and Rikku team that they had been ever since she was five and he was six. He was glad that she could look out for herself when he wasn’t there to watch her back, but at the same time, it felt like he was suddenly out of a job and that she had outgrown her need for a protector.

I still don’t know where we really stand either. The night before he had left Home, she had snuck into his room and ambushed him. He hadn’t gotten much sleep, the both of them staying up and talking in between kisses and whispered promises. He hoped that their history together as friends would help her believe that he meant everything he said that night, that his words hadn’t been products of the heat of the moment. Her words had comforted him on the treks and brutal training missions, had kept him warm during cold, sleepless nights during watch duty, and had given him something to look forward to on the long walk back home.

He was so caught up in thinking about what he was going to say to Rikku once he saw her again that he completely missed the presence behind him until he felt the warm metal barrel of a gun prod at the back of his neck.

“If I was more of a mercenary, I’d turn you in for the bounty,” the voice said in Al Bhed.

Gippal’s lips split into an ear to ear grin. “But we all know you’re a great big softie,” he replied, turning around. “Good to see you again, Keyakku.” He winced and inhaled sharply when Keyakku grabbed him around the shoulders and enveloped him in a brotherly hug, slapping him hard on the middle of his back with his palm.

“Shit, I’m sorry,” Keyakku said, noticing his friend’s discomfort. “Rin told us that you’d gotten hurt, but he didn’t say how badly.”

“Rin’s here?”

“Yeah. He’s around to get some more supplies, then he said something about heading out to restock the Macalania branch.”

“Did he look okay? No black eyes or anything?”

Keyakku frowned. “No. Should he have?”

Gippal let out a breath he hadn’t realized he had been holding. “No. I’m glad that he’s okay. I was worried about him getting into trouble for helping me out.”

Keyakku glanced at Gippal. Even though he was four years Gippal’s senior, he considered the younger teen one of his friends. Gippal had grown up alongside Rikku, which meant that he was often hanging around their living quarters more often than his own. Over the years, Keyakku had pretty much thought of Gippal as an honorary little brother; annoying at times, but otherwise one of the best people to have at your back. He smirked. He might become an actual part of the family in a few years, if Rikku had anything to say about it. He knew how his little sister felt about him and he also knew how Gippal felt about her.

“I’m surprised you haven’t asked how much your bounty is,” he drawled. He handed Gippal a bandanna, which he gladly took and wiped his face with.

“Millions of gil, I’m sure.” He swiped at his neck. “Trillions. Enough to remodel Home out of solid gold.”

“Gold’s too soft of a metal. The first sandstorm we’d get would scratch the facade all up and then we’d have to do it all over again.”

Gippal shrugged. “I’m more interested in how you know about the bounty in the first place.”

“Here. Should explain some stuff.” Keyakku easily tossed him a small handheld radio. “They’ve been playing that in a continuous loop for a while now.”

“Huh. Looks like I’m not the only one they’re looking for. Sounds like summoner Yuna got herself into some pretty hot water.” He shrugged and tossed the radio back to Keyakku, who hooked it back onto his belt. “I don’t care about the money. The fact that I’m a heathen would make any devout person feel like it was their duty to turn me in, no matter how much money they offered.”

“You’re right. I’m afraid you’re still a small fry, my friend. At least you’re safe.”

He snorted. “Yeah, until your dad gets a hold of me.”

Keyakku laughed. “Boy, what in tarnation were you thinking?” he hollered in his best impression of his father.

“I’ll tell you what you were thinking,” Gippal added, his Cid-voice almost as perfect. “Ya weren’t!”

“Yeah, then he’d go on and on about the same thing and hit you upside the head, muttering the whole time about kids your age wanting to do their own thing. Once he got on his soapbox though, you’d know you were forgiven.”

“Man, we’ve seen him in action so many times, it’s predictable.”

“Sure is. I just wish he would stop laying in on Brother. The whole ‘why can’t you be more like your brother’ act is getting old.”

“Maybe you should stop being the perfect son.”

Keyakku kicked at the sand in front of them as they walked. “I can’t help it. Dad wants me to lead everyone whenever he decides to step down –”

“Meaning when you pry his cold, dead fingers away from whatever machina he was working on when he keeled over.”

Keyakku rolled his eyes. “And as a leader in training, I can’t afford to screw around. People need to know that they can rely on me. It’s about trust, Gippal.”

“I know. You’re going to make one hell of a leader someday.” It was the truth. Even as kids, Keyakku had a certain charisma that made others look up to him. Gippal himself had often tried to emulate that during childhood.

“You’re not half bad yourself,” Keyakku noted, scanning the area with the binoculars that hung around his neck. “I’m surprised the Cid hasn’t started in on you for anything.”

“Why do you think I left?” Gippal asked. “Politics don’t interest me. They never have and they probably never will. I’d rather stay neutral and do my own thing.”

Keyakku snorted. “I thought you left to prove to Rikku that you were a big, strong man and could look out for her.” The teasing note in his voice had Gippal shaking his head. He knew that the majority of the people at Home hadn’t liked his decision to leave, in fact, only Rikku had accepted his reasons without question.

“How is she?” he asked instead.

“Rikku’s…” Keyakku froze in mid-scan, his hand going automatically to the gun at his side. “There’s someone there.”

Gippal crouched down and tried to see, but whoever was walking towards them was still too far to make out clearly. They waited until he got closer to them. “What are you doing?” Gippal asked, watching as Keyakku pulled out a sphere recorder from the bag slung over his shoulder.

“Dad wanted us to start doing visual surveillance while out on patrol, so we could track who was hanging around better.” He pressed a button on the side of the recorder, the lens making a familiar hissing noise as it zoomed in on its subject.

The man came into range. The first thing Gippal thought was how odd it was to wear such a heavy coat out in the middle of the desert. The second thing was that he recalled one of the now-wanted guardians wearing just the same red coat. “I think he’s safe,” Gippal said, standing up.

“What are you doing?”

“Gonna go talk.” He waved his arm to flag the man down. Gippal noted that the man - what was his name? Auron? - tensed and had his hand on the hilt of his sword, but then seemed to deem Gippal as a non-threat within the time it took Gippal to walk to him.

“Just got a transmission. Apparently the Guado are conducting a manhunt nearby. Orders are to locate the summoner Yuna and kill her guardians. Maybe you oughta lay low for a bit?”

Auron raised one of his eyebrows. “That advice?”

Gippal shrugged. “No. I just don't want you stirrin' them up. The temples are after me too.”

The older man looked at him strangely. It wasn’t pity, but it was something that Gippal couldn’t put a finger on. “Then I apologize in advance.”

Well hell. “You're fighting?” He didn’t get a reply. “I see... I'm tired of running from Yevon myself. And I have thought about fighting.” Running and hiding hadn’t been his idea, but he had agreed to it if it meant that Baralai and Paine wouldn’t worry about him. He sighed and shook his head. “Heh. I'd probably look like a jackass if I even suggested it.”

Auron smirked and crossed his arms over his chest. “Only a jackass can change the world.” With that, he walked past Gippal, signaling that the conversation was over.

“Huh. Good call.”

Keyakku came up to him, the sphere recorder still running. “What was that all about?” he asked, switching back to their native tongue as he watched Auron leave.

“I'm gonna go pick a fight with Yevon,” he replied in the same language. “Coming?”

“Sounds like fun.” Even as the words came out of his mouth, Keyakku knew they were going to be getting themselves into trouble, not only with Yevon, but with Cid. Then again, maybe this was what the Al Bhed needed. For years they lived like outcasts. Perhaps it was time that his people started standing up for themselves.

Gippal smirked at him. “Jackass.” Both of them jumped when the radio at Keyakku’s hip started buzzing with static and half-garbled up commands. “Who is it?”

Keyakku held it to his ear and tried to decipher what was being said. “Oh no!” he said, his eyes wide. “The Guado! They’re attacking Home!” The sphere recorder hit the sand with a muted thud and Keyakku went running.

“Wait! How can we get there in time?”

“Hover, just a few clicks away!”

“Why are they attacking?” Gippal asked, jumping into the waiting hover. He shoved open the lid of the box near the center of the vehicle and grabbed the rifle inside.

Keyakku threw the machine into gear. Sand flew in all directions as they started off. “We have several summoners in protective custody. We just picked up our cousin.”

“Cousin?” The ammunition clip was full, the firing mechanisms well oiled.

“Braska married my father’s sister. We picked Yuna up a few hours ago; she said something about Sin transporting her and her guardians from Macalania.”

Auron. At least that explained why he was out wandering the desert alone. “Who else are the Guado looking for?” The pistol stored under the rifle was also loaded. Gippal hung onto the hover with one hand while shoving the gun into the waistband of his pants with the other. Half the spare ammunition went into his pockets, the other half into Keyakku’s. Seeing that Keyakku already had a rifle from patrol duty, Gippal took the spare one for himself.

They came to a skidding stop outside Home. The wind had whipped the sand up into a fury, making visibility low. Smoke was billowing out from several towers and Gippal could see the outlines of fiends running rampant.

“Elders protect us,” Keyakku breathed, jumping out with his weapon drawn.

Gippal aimed and killed a fiend that was heading towards them. “I don’t think they’re listening,” he said grimly. His breath caught in his throat and he froze, all military training forgotten. “Rikku.”

“Gippal!” Keyakku yelled, trying to catch up with the young man as he ran towards the main gate, providing covering fire as he went.

“Where’s Rikku?” Gippal demanded, grabbing onto Cid’s collar. Their leader was outside, helping defend the main gate from being more compromised than it already was.

“Not here,” he replied tersely, jerking out of Gippal’s grip to reload his weapon. Gippal stood in front of him, shooting as many enemies as he could. “Somewhere out in the desert.”

“Father!” Keyakku shouted, dodging a claw attack. “Your orders?”

“Son, I need you to help secure the entrance. We need to get everyone out of here.”

“How the hell are we going to do that?” Gippal asked, firing at a fiend. The beast skidded to a stop in a pile of flesh several feet away.

“Airship. Gippal, get as many people to the hangar.” Keyakku said, firing his gun at a Guado. “It’s the old cold storage building.”

“Gotcha.” Gippal started to run into the interior of Home, but Keyakku stopped him.

“Get as many people on that ship, but make sure you get out of there in one piece too. Rikku would kill me if her boyfriend didn’t make it.” Keyakku smirked as he said it.

“Same goes for you. I’ll be expecting you, pronto.”

“Don’t worry about me. Just get moving!” Keyakku watched as Gippal vanished inside. He shuddered, having a horrible premonition that he had just seen his friend for the last time.

“Take care of her,” he whispered, turning back to the action.

***

Gippal hauled yet another injured Al Bhed to their feet, barking out directions to safety. So many dead. After knowing that Rikku was safe out in the desert, training had kicked in and he had started doing things automatically. He paused at another dead guard, picking up any spare ammunition that he could find. His borrowed pistol had already run out, but he kept it with him to use to bludgeon fiends in close quarters. He wiped impatiently at the side of his head, trying to keep blood from running into his eye and hampering his vision. A Guado guardian had gotten in a lucky swipe before falling under, a rifle blast to the chest. Gippal didn’t even want to assess the damage until he was certain he had gotten everyone to safety; he just knew that it hurt like hell. To make things fun, the potion from earlier had decided to wear off, turning his chest into one huge ache that was only intensified when he was thrown against a wall by a dual horn. He could hear it turning back to him, its horns in position to spear him.

This is it, he thought, squeezing off the trigger to his Crusader-issue pistol. At least I’m not going down without a fight.

“No!” He heard the declaration before he saw the person who had screamed it, but there was no way he could ever misplace that voice. No, she’s supposed to be safe. He tried to roll out of the way, but the dual horn came crashing into him, momentum carrying the dead beast forward.

Hands pulled the monster off of him and a blur of yellow and orange swam in front of his vision. “You aren’t supposed to be here,” Rikku hissed, her small hands searching his body for injuries. The claw she had strapped to her right arm was clogged with gore.

“Funny, I could say the same thing to you,” he replied, rolling to his feet. He grabbed her arm with one hand, shoving her violently behind him as he fired a burst of bullets at the chimera that had come down the corridor Rikku had come out of. “What are you doing here alone, Cid’s girl?”

“I’m not,” she replied, moving out from behind his protection to stand at his side, claw ready. “My friends are here too.”

“You need to get out of here,” he growled, pushing her back. “Cid has an airship down in the old storage area.” He patted his pockets to reload while they had a quiet moment.

“I know! I have to find Yuna first!”

Gippal saw Auron and several other people come charging down the corridor. “Friends of yours?” he asked, sliding the bolt of his rifle back. Rikku nodded at his side. “Go, I’ll cover you.”

Rikku’s eyes widened. “You can’t be serious!”

“Do I look like I’m joking? Grab Yuna and then get your butt on that ship.” He spotted another Guado coming down towards their group. “Go!” He fired, giving the others plenty of time to run ahead.

“I’m not leaving without you!”

“Damn it, this is not the time to play stubborn!” He reached out and grabbed a handful of Rikku’s belt, pulling her to him. He kissed her mouth hard and then while she was still dazed, shoved her towards the Ronso bringing up the rear. “Get her out of here, now!” He turned his back on her, but he heard her boots scraping the metal floor and her screams echoing down the hallway.

***

Gippal ran through familiar corridors, searching for any other survivors. He found a handful, but nearly every other room was full of the dead. His chest tightened at the sight of so many faces that he’d known since childhood lying there in their own blood, forever still. He swiped at his grimy, bloody face, knowing that the tears would have to wait until later. At the present, he had to get himself on the ship. He ran down the metal stairs, coming across dead fiends. He noted all the ones that had puncture wounds, courtesy of Rikku’s claw. He remembered the first time she had trained with the weapon. She had been so squeamish to cut into the dead lupine her brothers had brought her to practice on, closing her eyes and screaming the entire time. She had gotten better, especially when Gippal had suggested she try practicing on burlap bags full of sand instead. Naturally light on her feet, they had spent countless hours darting around in the heat to develop her quick attack techniques.

Gippal skidded to a halt in the hangar. “Oh, no. No, no, no,” he muttered, dashing for the ship that was slowly making its way up off the ground. He reached the top of the landing platform and jumped for it, his hands scrabbling for purchase on the slick metal. He grunted as he pulled himself over the deck, diving for the airlock entrance as the ship lurched into motion. He leaned against the interior wall, tired, grimy, and bloody. Closing his eyes for a moment, he paused to catch his breath and then pushed off the wall, intent on finding Rikku.

People were huddled in every nook and cranny of the ship, tending to the injured, taking stock of the survivors. The ship lurched to its side and everyone nearby panicked, throwing Gippal against one of the windows on the observation deck as they jostled for handholds to steady themselves. He gasped at the sight of Home being engulfed in a flurry of missiles and at the rapidly approaching flames produced by the explosion. He jumped away from the window, a hand raised to instinctively shield his face. He looked up in time to see the sands reach up to grab the crumbling towers, dragging them down to the ground to be buried, joining the rest of the hidden machina that littered the desert.

His hands tightened into fists, his mouth set in a grim line. Turning on his heel, he left the observation deck to look for Rikku.

***

Fifteen minutes later, he had combed every single inch of the ship save the bridge. “Where is she?” he demanded, barging in, not caring if he interrupted conversation.

Cid turned on his heel and glowered at him. “Looking for you, ya fool. Where the hell have you been?”

“Looking for her.” He ran a hand through his hair, grimacing at the stiff feel of dried blood. “Damn.” Knowing Rikku, she was probably running all over the ship, panicking because he wasn’t anywhere to be found.

“Just stay in one place, she’ll come here soon enough,” Brother muttered from the pilot’s seat. Grime and soot marred his face, clean skin trying to peek through tracks tears had made on his cheeks. He looked vulnerable, younger than Gippal could ever remember him looking. Brother was always trying to act like Keyakku, trying to be more of a leader that it was hard to remember that he was actually sixteen, just like Gippal was. In fact, Brother was actually older than he by a few months. There was a slump to his shoulders, a fine trembling in his hands that was very much out of character for the normally boisterous personality.

“He’s right,” Cid said. Gippal turned and stared at the older man, seeing the bleak look in his eyes for the first time. It went deeper than just losing Home. A cold lead weight settled in his stomach.

“Keyakku?” he asked, dreading the answer. Brother’s shoulders stiffened and his hands tightened on the controls until his knuckles were white. Cid’s features closed off and he turned his back on Gippal. No. Oh hell. Without another word, he left the bridge, intent on retracing his steps.

Another fifteen minutes passed, still no Rikku. The last place he hadn’t searched was the outside deck. The airlock door hissed as it opened and cold wind kissed his face as he stepped outside. Rikku was sitting against the wall, her face in her hands, sobbing her heart out.

“Hey there, Cid’s girl,” he whispered, crouching in front of her, gently peeling her hands away from her eyes. “People are going to think fiends are attacking the ship with all the howling you’re doing.” He tried to keep his voice gentle, but with a teasing undertone that he hoped would trigger a reaction. Instead, she just stared up at him, her eyes brimming with fresh tears.

“Rikku?” His hands reached out and cupped her shoulders. “Say something.” He grunted and fell on his backside when she launched herself into his arms, pressing kisses on every inch of his face and neck.

“You’re hurt,” she sniffled, her arms tightening on his shoulders.

“Can’t feel a thing,” he lied, burying his nose in her hair. She was in his arms; that fact alone dulled the pulsing pain at his temple and chest. Under the layers of grime and dirt, he could still smell her; bright and vibrant, his own personal ray of sunshine. He pushed her to arm’s length, his eye scanning her over for injuries. “Are you hurt?”

She shook her head, tugging him up so they were standing. He wrapped his arms around her and walked towards the airlock, wanting to get them out of the open air. Relief surged through him. She was fine. She was safe. “I’m so sorry,” he whispered, his hands running over her back.

She clung to him like a lifeline, the front of his shirt damp from her tears. “It doesn’t seem real,” she told him. “When I couldn’t find you, I was so scared that you’d…” she trailed off, suddenly letting him go.

He smiled, trying to get her to mirror his expression. “Hey, I’m not going anywhere.” He cupped her chin in his hand and tilted her face up to look at him. “You’re stuck with me.”

She gave him a faint smile, her lips trembling slightly. “That’s good, because you’re stuck with me too.”

“I wouldn’t have it any other way.” He bent his head and touched his lips to hers; grateful to know that after all the violence both of them had seen in the past few hours, there was still room for tenderness.

Both of them jumped as Cid’s voice came over the loudspeakers. “When did he put speakers in here?” Rikku asked, her hand at Gippal’s jaw.

He turned his face to kiss her palm. “Do you think he can hear us?” he wondered.

“You bet your hide I can, Sonny,” Cid barked. “Rikku, your friends need you up here on the bridge. You can bring him with you.” Rikku rolled her eyes.

“Go on,” Gippal said, letting go of her hand. “I think I’m gonna catch a nap.”

“Chicken.”

“I prefer the term ‘tactical retreat’ instead. I’m not in the mood for the men in your family to rake me over hot coals.”

She huffed, looking a lot more like the girl he had left months ago. “Fine, take your nap. See what I care.” She flounced out of the loading area, taking the elevator back down to the observation deck.

Gippal sighed and leaned against the cool metal wall. Adrenaline rush depleted, he was suddenly exhausted. His chest stretched painfully as he moved, reminding him that he needed to patch himself up. Getting on the service elevator, he wound his way through the corridors until he found Rin.

Rin was in the middle of giving him the riot act for neglecting his injuries for so long when Rikku and her fellow guardians – he came to that conclusion earlier – went down the hallway.

“What’s going on?” he asked, wincing when Rikku’s eyes lingered on his chest, the white bandage standing out against his tanned skin.

“Evrae’s outside wanting a fight,” she said, stopping in her tracks. “You didn’t tell me you were that hurt.”

He looked sheepish. “It happened earlier. I’ll fill you in later.”

“Rikku!” the bleached blond young man called from up ahead, “You coming?”

Rikku jumped, her hand in the air. “Be right there!” Her voice was too bright, too cheerful to be genuine. She looked at Gippal, then at her friends, her bottom lip caught between her teeth.

“So,” she said.

“So,” he echoed. There was a tense silence between them that was suddenly broken when Rin stretched out his hands and held out a targe for Rikku.

“It makes the wearer immune to poison and petrification,” he said. “I hear that is the beast’s main form of attack.”

“Thanks Rin,” Rikku said, gratitude in her voice. “How much do I owe you?”

Rin shook his head. “For you, free of charge. Your friends to stock up on softs though.” He gave her a smile that he used when he dealt with business. “It would help if you could influence them in any way.”

Rikku stood on tiptoes and kissed the older man’s cheek. “Anything.” She gave Gippal a lingering glance before running off to catch up with her friends, buckling her new shield to her left wrist as she went.

“Hey, Rikku!” Gippal yelled. She stopped and turned towards him. “Don’t go getting yourself killed out there!”

“Don’t worry,” she answered. “I’ve got it covered!”

***

Freshly bandaged, Gippal watched the battle from the bridge’s vid-screen. Worry about Rikku’s welfare took precedence over his desire to avoid her father.

“She’s going to be fine,” Cid said gruffly, folding his arms in front of him.

“She’s a lot tougher than she looks,” Gippal agreed. Rikku was taking on more of a support role in the battle, jumping in to toss potions left and right, healing anyone that needed it.

“Got that right. She beat your record.” Evrae went down for the count, flailing about in a tangle of wings and tail midair before plunging down to the sea below. “My girl was back by the end of the third day.”

Gippal couldn’t have stopped the rush of pride even if he had wanted to. “Somehow, I knew she would,” he said, watching as she took off down the anchor chains, the blue ribbons attached to the back of her shirt fluttering in the wind.

“You’re not going to stick around.” Cid didn’t ask him, he simply told him.

“I have things that need to be done.”

“What do you want me to tell her when she asks?”

Gippal stared at Auron until the man left his line of sight. “Tell her I’m off being a jackass.” He grinned at Cid. “And tell her I’ll explain that to her when I see her later.”

Cid didn’t return the grin. “There had better be a later, boy,” he warned.

“Trust me,” Gippal promised. “I don’t know when, but there will always be a later.” Because like I said earlier; she’s stuck with me, whether she likes it or not.

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