It’s quiet, after. She’s grown used to the noise and the conversation, to Lulu’s derisive comments and Yuna’s soft laughter, to Wakka’s bravado and Kimahri’s rumbling chuckle. To Auron’s dry words of wisdom. To Tidus’ energy, his boundless enthusiasm and optimism, his insane bravery, the way he laughed and twirled his sword as if to say, I’m the best, try and stop me.
For awhile after, they stay together, but Yuna no longer laughs and Lulu barely speaks and while Wakka tries to fill the silence with false cheer, she knows everyone feels what is missing too keenly to be taken in by the pretense. Pretty soon, Kimahri wanders off to Gagazet and the remaining members of the group return to Besaid. Yuna stands on the shore and watches the ocean and doesn’t let anyone cheer her up, smiling in her gentle way and insisting she is fine.
There is no room for her in Yuna’s solitary world, so she attaches herself to Wakka, learns to blitz—poorly—and attempts to fill her days with something. When Lulu and Wakka get married, she realizes her mistake, that there is no place for her anywhere on this island, not with these people who once made up the center of her life. She smiles and laughs and spends every last gil she has on an extravagant wedding present, then boards a ship for Kilika, and from there to Luca. That is when she begins to learn the true meaning of silence.
She meets up with a group of Al Bhed in the entertainment capital, taking comfort in the familiar sounds of her native language. She briefly flirts with the idea of starting something with one of the young men in the group, who has bright blond hair and a laughing expression despite the eye patch obscuring part of his face. He kisses her and as a scientist she finds the experience interesting, but that’s as far as it goes. She thinks she knows how it is meant to feel; she’s been in the presence of great love and watched it bloom from nothing. This isn’t it.
She leaves for Mi’ihen, meets up with Rin, and takes a job building hover crafts to carry travelers safely to Mushroom Rock. She gets dirty and sunburned and injured once or twice when she becomes too ambitious. Rin sends her with a recommendation to Djose, where she builds guard machina—called “machines” now, as though the name makes any difference—then hires herself out as a mercenary guard to transport them to the Moonflow and beyond.
She rides the shoopuf across the quiet, glowing river in the twilight to the banks where so many things began for her. She doesn’t linger there, hastening to Guadosalam to deliver her merchandise. She collects her fee, then stands for a long time on the steps leading to the Farplane. She thinks about all the things that she has always believed, that memories are only memories, that nothing lost can be returned. She refuses to admit that it is fear that deters her from entering the Farplane and challenging herself to a test of faith.
Brother finds her in the inn and drags her, shrieking all the while, home to Bikanel. She gets thoroughly chastised by Cid and put to work restoring and rebuilding airships. The clamor of the machinery and the blowing sand should be noise enough, but this is not home any longer. Home is no more, and what they are building now holds no part of her heart. She meets the man who kissed her, once, and when he leaves for Djose, she manages to bribe him into detouring and dropping her in Zanarkand, thinking she’ll hide there until her father’s rage blows over. Instead of solitude and monsters, she finds droves of people—despite the monsters—and gets her money stolen by a clever and adorable monkey who wheedles his way into her lap. She descends Gagazet after that, taking shelter with Kimahri for awhile, but she can’t withstand the harsh climate. He gives her money, which she promises to return, and escorts her across the bridge into the wonderfully sunny Calm Lands.
She earns back what she owes him by working as a mechanic for the Open Air entrepreneurs, then blows every last gil playing the games, despite the fact that she knows very well some of them are rigged. Poor once more, she departs, swearing she will never gamble again. She skirts around Bevelle and enters the woods. In Macalania, she helps out at another branch of Rin’s, but business is sluggish at best and it isn’t much warmer than on Gagazet, not to mention it’s quiet again, so quiet she can hear her own heart beating in her chest if she stops to listen.
She wilts, little by little, fading into a gray existence until she is pretty sure she might scream any second. It has been a year since everything fell apart, and the silence is worse than ever. That is when she takes a tent and marches into the Thunder Plains, shivering and terrified and a little crazy. “I’M NOT SCARED!” she says, nearly screams, to the unwelcoming landscape, challenging it, challenging herself. I’m the best, she thinks, remembering Tidus, his grin, his spinning sword, his easy confidence. Try and stop me.
It’s horrible at first. She sets up her tent and it is struck by lightning half an hour later. She shrieks and cries and shakes and moves the tent under a lightning tower. She huddles under it with a thick blanket she brought from Macalania, her teeth chattering loudly in the charged silences between thunderclaps.
Terrified or not, at least it isn’t quiet here.
She runs out of food in a couple of days and ventures out with the thought of hiking to Rin’s and buying supplies. She still has credit with him for the work she did in Macalania, and anyway, nothing remotely edible grows or roams in this place. She is halfway there, whimpering only slightly whenever a thunderclap explodes over her head, when she is momentarily distracted by the sound of fighting in the distance. It only takes a brief diversion to undo all her hard work—she is struck by an angry bolt of lightning she did not see coming and the world goes immediately black.
When she wakes again, the world is swaying and spinning. I’m on a ship, she thinks at first, then, there was a storm. Her mind clears a little and she realizes that the swaying is too jolty to be water. She is being carried. Brother, her mind supplies. He’s going to kill me. Maybe I should pretend I’m already dead. She opens her eyes groggily and lightning helpfully flashes to illuminate her rescuer. The words pop out of her mouth as they tend to; she has never been any good at holding her tongue. “What? You’re not Brother.”
The woman looks at her with ruby eyes that remind her of Lulu’s, not just by their color but their slightly scornful expression. She doesn’t say a word, but Rikku can imagine just what she’s thinking: I think it’s pretty obvious I’m not your brother. Lightning strikes so close Rikku can feel the electric heat of it on her back, but her rescuer sidesteps the bolt easily. There is a haze over her mind, but she understands with sudden clarity that she is safe; this person will not allow harm to come to her as long as she’s in her arms. The thunder and lighting continue around them, but she knows nothing can hurt her. She closes her eyes and rests her aching head on the stranger’s shoulder, letting all the fear drain out of her, and that is her last coherent thought until the woman carries her into Rin’s and dumps her on the counter as though she were some inanimate object.
Rikku squeaks, and the man at the front desk looks taken aback. “I think she hit her head,” the woman says. Her voice is low and smooth; Rikku finds it oddly soothing despite the brusque tone. “That, or her brother tried to kill her. Or both, it doesn’t matter.” She seems to expect the agent to do something, take this burden off her hands, maybe. Rikku realizes she is blushing furiously.
“No one tried to kill me! I’m fine!” she protests and tries to stand, falling gracelessly off the counter. “Owie!”
The woman fixes her with a stare. Rikku thinks that if she stares at fiends that way, they probably freeze in terror. “I see that.” She turns back to the man at the desk, who is now gaping like a fish out of water. “Well?”
Rikku finally manages to stand, holding on to the counter for support. Her head is about to explode, she’s sure of it, but she refuses to be treated like she’s stupid, and somehow she thinks standing might help. “I’m fine! And you could talk to me, you know! I’m a person, not a saddlebag!”
She gets another derisive stare for that. “You barely look it,” the woman says, and while Rikku is gasping in outrage she adds, “Get her a bath and whatever it is you do. Rin can charge me later; he knows where to find me. If no one left her out there, I guess she might be trying to kill herself, so make sure she doesn’t bleed on the carpet.”
She is gone before Rikku can find the breath to shout, “MEANIE!” In the silence following her departure, Rikku winces and puts a hand on her forehead. “You try camping out for a few days in the pouring rain and see if your hair looks any better,” she grumbles under her breath, and waves away the man who has suddenly remembered he’s supposed to be doing something other than standing and staring like a statue. “Just get me the bath. I can walk. And I can pay for myself,” she adds, thinking she’d rather not accept charity from rude people who are insane enough to go wandering around in thunderstorms. Never mind that I was insane enough to be wandering around in it, too.
It takes a few days before she feels up to going out and collecting her tent. She can’t stay mad for long, but she takes extra time to brush and pull back her hair before she leaves Rin’s. Just in case.
She is packing up what’s left of her tent and supplies—the fiends apparently took offense to them—when lightning strikes nearby, just missing her foot, electricity jolting into the ground and making it shake. She blinks back the white imprint on her vision and realizes only then that she is not shivering, crying, or panicking. She is not scared.
She grins and the spring is back in her step when she heads out of the Thunder Plains and back into civilization.
Life is better after that, or perhaps it is she who is better after that. Little by little, she sees Spira healing from its multitude of scars. People are learning to smile again, children are staying out after dark, cities are expanding, free of fear. This is a new world she lives in, and she is happy to learn it from the beginning, as though she has never seen it before. Change does not scare her, especially when the change is for the better.
It takes some sniffling and acting to get back into her father’s good graces, but she manages it eventually. As for Brother… well, Brother isn’t terribly bright, and promising to be a good, obedient subordinate is enough to get her a spot on the crew of his new airship. Never mind that she doesn’t intend to be good, and certainly doesn’t intend to follow his orders. The Celsius is where she wants to be; she feels less alone in the open sky, roaming from place to place, and she is content to belong nowhere in particular. She likes to stand on the deck when they fly over endless expanses of ocean and spread her arms, feeling like a seagull over the waves.
She enjoys the thought of the infamy becoming a sphere hunter will add to her name, and besides, she’s been craving something to do, outside of being an itinerant mechanic. The crew of the Celsius is receptive to a life of semi-legal piracy when she suggests it; most of them have worked on salvage ships before, and this isn’t so different, really. She drops into the major cities and puts out the word that they’re recruiting, because she could use some company and until she finds it, Brother will continue to be a mother hen and tag along everywhere, despite the fact that he is utterly useless in a fight.
They turn away a few applicants: one woman because she is as useless as Brother with a weapon and about six men because Brother is convinced they are all looking at Rikku in a way that is completely inappropriate. She explodes eventually that of course they’re going to look, she’s not a little girl anymore, and he turns it into an argument about the indecency of her clothing, which is the last thing she needs when she’s supposed to be hunting spheres and keeping him out of trouble. Exasperated, she narrows the search criteria to female candidates only, hoping her idiotic sibling will relax and let her do her job while he does whatever it is he believes a leader should be doing, which currently feels like not much, aside from driving her crazy.
She comes aboard at Mi’ihen with a recommendation from Rin and an enormous sword; Rikku is still trying to puzzle out why she feels so odd and how to play this reunion when Brother takes one look at her leather-clad hips and informs her she’s hired. Rikku calls him a pig in angry Al Bhed and does her best to sound composed and in control as she clarifies, “That is, if you can fight.”
She can, of course. She doesn’t quite freeze fiends in their tracks with her eyes, but she’s quick and efficient and extremely powerful, swinging her enormous sword with deceptive ease. She is hardly out of breath after their first practice run together; she leans on her sword and regards Rikku with mild surprise. “What?” Rikku eventually has to ask, because the color is rising in her cheeks and the silence isn’t helping. She smoothes her hands over her hair nervously, absurdly glad she is not wet and bedraggled this time.
“Apparently, you can take care of yourself,” the newest member of the team tells her, and her expression makes it perfectly clear that she remembers carrying a helpless Rikku through a thunderstorm nearly a year ago. “You could have fooled me. Although if that’s the Brother you were comparing me to, I think I’m insulted.”
Before Rikku can think of something witty to say—she desperately wants to, and she doesn’t even know why—her new partner is already boarding the airship, and she has to run to keep up, lest Brother be so distracted by the black leather that he takes off without her.
Getting to know Paine is a slow and occasionally arduous process; she has surrounded herself with walls and defenses that need to be peeled back layer by layer. She is terse and unresponsive and utterly maddening, but Rikku persists, certain that somewhere beneath the sarcasm and secrets is the person who broke her of her childhood fear.
Paine is a fierce warrior and a quiet companion, but Rikku has never known anyone she would rather have watching her back. She is cynical and occasionally bitter but Rikku knows she is capable of kindness. She smiles rarely and never laughs, but she is not unhappy so much as closed off, Rikku thinks. She is probably ticklish, though the experiment to find out for sure is cut very short with Paine’s dagger at her neck and a quiet demand to get off her bed unless she wants to face the consequences. She has keen powers of observation but isn’t inclined to share her thoughts. She is a mercenary in the truest sense of the word. She has few, if any, selfless and altruistic instincts.
Realizing this, it takes Rikku all of three seconds to ask why, then, did she bother carrying an unconscious stranger halfway across the Thunder Plains? “And you offered to let Rin charge you! Where’s the payoff?”
In response she gets one of Paine’s rare ghost smiles and, “Maybe I thought there might be one.”
She won’t clarify, but the thought of the expression on her face and those simple words have Rikku fighting off blushes for several days, usually at inopportune moments. Yuna, who has also found her way to them, catches her at it a few times and smiles in a very knowing way, which generally solidifies her suspicions that she is not making something out of nothing at all.
When Paine finally kisses her, Rikku is already breathless with the exhilaration of a battle well-fought; she is laughing and spinning in place without a care in the world when suddenly she is being kissed, and she isn’t sure whether it’s the spinning that’s making her dizzy, but she grips Paine’s shoulders and holds on for dear life, ignoring Yuna’s nervous giggle, Brother’s outraged squawk through the communicator, Buddy’s appreciative wolf-whistle. She doesn’t need noise to fill in her emptiness anymore. She is not afraid of change and she has been waiting for months, or maybe longer, maybe ever since a dark night in the Thunder Plains. Out of the darkness and silence she has made it here, into a moment drenched in sunlight and color and laughter and dizzying happiness. This, she knows, is exactly where she is meant to be.