Chapter VIII - Per aspera ad astra

"Rikku."

It was bitterly dark. The shadows had consumed the light utterly, leaving a void of emptiness for her to writhe in. The pain had ceased long before, merging slowly into numbness. Perhaps, the gods had finally shown pity upon her battered soul. Or perhaps, the artic wind that mercilessly whipped about her lithe frame had taken her toward the brink. Whichever was true, she was thankful for the reprieve from the mindless agony.

Her weary mind was drifting aimlessly upon the dream fields. Visions of euphoria and destitution danced eccentrically throughout her psyche, clashing together with feral delight. Their vivid colors contradicted like night and day. Hallucinations of vibrant scarlets and melancholic blues, effervescent golds and insipid grays. It was a mesh of lunacy; mixing and blending like a cataclysmic blizzard.

"Rikku."

Her mind then dropped further to the pragmatic plain, poignant and bleakly present. Her companion's cries echoed endlessly, as little snippets of their faces passed by, like a slide show on fast forward. Gradually the speed began to slow, as one face became the dominant in her anarchic dream world. His rugged features and intense gaze battered her senses forcefully. She wanted to reach for him, to run her dainty fingers through his chaotic mane. She wanted to touch him, to feel his muscular arms wrap protectively about her nimble frame, pulling her staggeringly close to his overpowering body. Most of all, she wanted to live through him, to savor a fervent kiss with her stunning enigma. Her Auron.

"Rikku!" Bellowed a husky tenor, as two powerful hands shook her lithe frame violently. She was ripped reprehensibly from her luscious nirvana, destroying every balmy image that had graced her sluggish mind. Her eyelids fluttered dramatically and a smooth groan slipped from her lips. Damnit, She didn't want to awaken from her idyllic bliss, not yet.

Her eyes unfastened to meet a pair of intense cerulean oculars, framed with a similarly hued pelt. The worried look in Kimahri's eyes lightened almost instantly, upon the meeting of their eyes. The urge to smile rose up in Rikku's chest, yet the command failed upon reaching her overwrought brain. She simply did not have the strength to perform the menial task.

Kimahri released her gently from her grip, leading her back slowly into a reclining position. Rikku nodded gratefully to the engaging Ronso, which he took with a slight grin of accomplishment.

She exhaled shakily, drinking in her surroundings with somnolent verdant eyes. The sodden ground was covered generously with a dense miasma, which danced teasingly about her chilled feet. Giant protrusions of ancient edifices lanced through the opaque fog. Their faded colors stood out fiercely in the grayed world about here. They seemed to be trapped beneath the thick ice abutting the Macalania Temple; a bitterly cold natural dungeon.

Everything seemed to be slowly tumbling down a steep incline, doomed to never roll back up again. They now had all of Yevon hot on their trail, and frankly, Rikku didn't give a damn. Seymour deserved every moment of pain they had bestowed upon his cursed soul. He had killed his own, and for crimes such as that, there was no acquittal from retribution. Yet, at the moment, it seemed every toil and tribulation had been achieved in vain. If they ever got out of this wintry cavity, their sufferings would do anything but end.

"Things aren't looking good," A soft masculine voice ruminated, as the proprietor came trudging slowly around an antediluvian structure. A messy tuft of flaxen tresses shimmered starkly in the faint light, pouring from a few puncture holes in the unyielding ice. A kindhearted smile crossed Tidus's charming features upon sight of the quiescent Rikku.

"Hey, girlie, you okay?" The always-upbeat boy asked, concern lining his smooth voice. Rikku forced a weedy simper to her pursed lips and nodded weakly in assurance. Tidus placed his hands on his hips, unconvinced by her feeble reply. He lowered himself slowly, shifting into a sitting position beside her sprawled form.

"Yunie okay?" She managed to croak, her voice broken and faint. Tidus nodded gently, his apprehensive glance still tracing her frame. His concern was not superfluous, however. Rikku, unlike the others, looked like she had indeed braved a drop from the frozen surface. Her golden hair had fallen from its faultless style and lay sullenly upon her slender shoulders. Various cuts and bruises lined her exposed arms and legs, as well as a slight slash beneath her faded emerald eyes. Despite her injuries, she still appeared extraordinarily beautiful in the muted radiance.

"She still unconscious, but her breathing is steady. She'll wake up soon." Tidus added, to further stabilize Rikku's confidence. Yet, Rikku was no longer paying attention to the worried Tidus. Her virescent eyes had caught a glimpse of scarlet cloth, and now her eyes were trailing the every move of their master. It was soothing to know the guardian had escaped the fall fundamentally unscathed, as he appeared to be moving with the same vigilant dignity. She could feel a slight blush building upon her cheeks, as her thoughts drifted to her heavenly fantasy.

He turned toward the two seated teens, surveying them with an incisive gaze. Rikku bowed her head, in a feeble attempt to hide her erubescent cheeks. Unfortunately, the imperceptive Tidus once more failed to notice Rikku's quandary.

"Hey, Auron, what's going on.what do we do now?" Auron's gaze remained transfixed upon Rikku, as if assessing her damage quotient. All the while, Rikku was highly aware of his piercing gaze, her cheeks only reddening with time. After a few more moments of inspection, or deciding her cheeks were an appropriate color red, his gaze shifted smoothly to Tidus.

"Well, climbing is not an option," He mused, turning his head toward the thick ice cover above them, signifying the impossibility. Tidus heaved a weighty sigh, as he boosted himself from his seat. He offered Rikku one last assuring glance before traipsing past Auron. His destination was obvious; his pursuit was headed toward Yuna's resting point.

Rikku grumbled audibly and shifted her arrangement, wincing vaguely from a stab of pain that shot through her body. It was a blessing that they would not have to climb the slick walls of the crater. It would lead only to new bruises for the Al Bhed, and at the moment, she was quite set in the pain department.

"You took quite a beating," perceived a sonorous voice. Rikku looked up quickly, having forgotten the presence of the guardian completely. She nodded demurely, once more at a loss for words. How could a man have such a grievous effect upon her?

Auron cocked a sable eyebrow at her aberrant silence, his russet still trained upon the battered Al Bhed. Rikku swallowed hard in conjunction with his relentless gaze. Did he think her weak? She would be pained if thus was so. She had tried so hard to appear strong; to, perhaps, live up to the lofty expectations of the impeccable sentinel. Yet, despite all her endeavors, she seemed to always fall short. Damn his tenacity!

All she could do was strive to be better; she would exceed Auron's exorbitant expectations. Perhaps, then he would see her more for what she truly was, instead of just "the weak guardian."

Rikku's resolve was set, as she attempted to raise her damaged frame, a final pact upon her heightened confidence. She had reached a half standing position, until her weakened legs began to wobble uncontrollably. She cursed faintly under her breath, and tried to straighten her unstable arrangement. Yet, her enfeebled body would simply not accede to her wishes, and her body quickly began its decent toward the soggy ground.

A feeble cry flowed defiantly from her lips, as her arms flared out in an attempt to save herself from her fall. Choreographed like a stately dance, a potent arm wrapped around her svelte waist buoying her landing. Her tiny hands grasped tightly onto scarlet cloth, assuring her further that her fall had truly been evaded. Reticent eyes, trailed languorously toward her saviors face, taking in every breathtaking detail along the way. The golden etchings across his broad chest shimmered beguilingly before her eyes, sending her off toward absolute bliss.

She could feel her heart pounding, almost erupting, against her chest. She was so close to the captivating guardian, she could feel his warm breath beating mercilessly upon her forehead. His intoxicating scent, once more filled her lungs, knocking her further from cruel reality. Her pain seemed a mere stain of breath upon a mirror, fading with the passing seconds. Now, all she could feel was the overwhelming sensation that was rippling like nectar through her essence. Finally, her verdant eyes completed their journey, and connected in heavenly elation with his russet ocular.

They remained, as if frozen in time, for a few more inexhaustible moments; Rikku savoring every second as if in seventh heaven. Eventually, Auron straightened, breaking the eye contact indefinitely. His arm glided from around her, and his hand informally grasped her elbow. Swiftly, he pulled her to a balanced standing posture and severed all contact completely.

Auron turned swiftly from the girl, and headed from the area, following the trail Tidus had taken minutes before. Rikku exhaled greatly, releasing only a bit of the pent up sensations undulating through her. She had been a mere fraction away from the man her heart secretly yearned for. She had felt his breath upon her smooth skin and savored his gentle touch with impassioned zeal.

She shook her head faintly, pushing the thoughts from her mind. She couldn't let a simple interaction twist her mind. She needed to remain strong to protect Yunie; besides, she could ponder over the previous happenings later. With this in mind, Rikku began her trek through the muck toward her companions, a small grin forming progressively upon her face.