Rikku had always stayed with Yuna and Lulu when the group stopped for rest, but, much to everyone's surprise, she insisted that she wanted to stay by herself when they finally stopped in the Thunder Plains. Everyone except Yuna and Lulu decided to blame the moodiness of her behavior on her fear of thunder. None of them were very happy with the building once they were inside and realized what kind of environment they would be spending the night in, but the tacit and mutual agreement among most of them was that it was better than crossing the plains without rest. It was not their most comfortable stay, but the Thunder Plains inn was a shelter, not a luxury. Night fell, and eventually they all got used to the unceasing rumble and crackle of lightning and thunder outside. Wakka and Tidus even decided to linger in the overhang of the roof of the inn and watch the display before bed.
Yuna, dressed in a long, white, cotton sleeping gown and leaning against the wall beside the window of her room, stared past her own reflection in the glass. She was aware that she had perhaps grown out of such childish sleepwear, but she had no immediate desire to switch to anything more flamboyant. Arms crossed, she smiled faintly at the blitzball players as she watched from her room. They were laughing and playing. Muffled traces of their cheerful conversation made it to her through the screen of glass between them. She looked over her shoulder at Lulu, smiling serenely before turning back to the window.
"It's good that Wakka has someone like him to play with," she laughed, then inclined her head as she watched.
Lulu pulled on a decorative robe over her long silky nightgown. It rattled with the
clatter of tiny black and jade beads that were woven into small, articulate rows to form the garment. "Yes," she agreed while raking patient nails through her hair, now free of decorations and braids. It was a relief on her scalp. She sighed as she shifted the roots slightly with her fingertips, enjoying the air that was now free to move between the strands. "I was afraid that this trip would break his spirit."
Yuna, shaking her head, smiled affectionately. "No, I don't think anything could do that…"
When the boys finally filed inside to go to bed, Yuna left the window and sat on the edge of her bed, propping the heels of her hands on either side of her. "He really likes Tidus— it must be like having Chappu back." As soon as she said it, Yuna wished she could have caught the words before they passed through the air to Lulu's ears and pinched them out of existence. Lulu, however, was not noticeably bothered. She was used to Yuna treating the subject of Chappu with extreme delicacy in her presence, but she hadn't quite found a way yet to tell her that she was finished grieving. It did not help that, morbidly, she had grown fond of the color black during mourning, and no one was quite sure whether she was still grieving or not; no one felt it appropriate enough to ask, of course, even Yuna. The girl's politeness sometimes exceeded her camaraderie.
"Not quite," Lulu disagreed coldly but sensibly. She lit a stem of incense surrounded in a black-glass container to burn during the night. It was magka, a soothing concoction she had developed herself over the years to bring insightful and pleasant dreams. "But he must find it relieving not to shoulder the responsibility of cheering everyone up all by himself."
Yuna smiled as she watched Lulu. The incense began to burn her nostrils pleasantly. She debated whether or not to pursue the subject of Chappu, and finally decided against it, pushing back her covers and then cocooning herself in them. "Yes, now he has both Tidus and Rikku for that," she said cheerily as she settled her head comfortably on the pillow.
Lulu nodded and pinched out the fire on the end of a small wooden stem she'd used to light the incense. "Mm— as soon as Rikku realizes what's more important on this trip," she said, her tone unsympathetic and, as usual, contradicting her actual feelings concerning the matter. She was aware that Yuna had, by now, learned to discern her indifferent tone from actual indifference.
The summoner sighed patiently, almost wistfully. "Well, Rikku is the youngest of us all, and she has a crush. I'm sure it's hard on her to be taken seriously as it is." Yuna smiled. "I don't think she'll let her own problems distract her from others' for long. She isn't like that at all."
Lulu's expression slackened softly in amusement, as if the ropes that held up her passive features were briefly loosened. She dabbed a cloth over her mouth to wipe off the lipstick (black, with a suggestion of blue). It was so fitting of Yuna's personality for her to sympathize with something she hadn't truly experienced that Lulu could have spoken the words with her in unison. "You might be right," she allowed. "I still don't think it's something she should pursue. More emotional drama is the last thing we need."
Yuna hoisted herself up, supporting her weight on one elbow from the mattress. "You realize who it is?" she asked. She didn't fear giving away the secret she had deduced herself; she expected that Lulu had figured it out even before she had.
Lulu nodded before she turned around and pushed her own covers back, settling against a cushioned wall of pillows. She gathered a book into her lap. "That is precisely why I think she shouldn't pursue it," she said. Her face, naked, was fresher and more alive than the dark colors of her make-up, contrasted against her skin like a pale veil, always suggested.
Yuna sank into her mattress once more, defeated and sorry for Rikku's sake. She folded her arms on her pillow and rested her head on them. "Yes…" Yuna had to agree, if weakly. "Auron is much too closed-off."
Lulu nodded, opening a book. "He would treat it rather tactlessly and crush her."
She said what Yuna had been too polite to say.
Rikku had never spent much time by herself. Her Al Bhed upbringing had included two overprotective men. When she was had not been fending off unapologetic horse-play, she had been tending to the wounds they had gained in their shared reckless nature. Combined, they competed to out-do each other, and as a result, their antics were under the influence of a concoction of ego, bravado, and the inevitable subtraction of logic. It was Rikku's job to worry and to be the vessel for their abandoned reasoning when they went too far. She was used to being needed as a nurturer. Cid had refused to make her position in their household any less important than a boy. He only denied her any duty when absolutely unavoidable.
After her mother died in the machina attack shortly after giving birth to her, Cid had placed on her the responsibility of being the only female in the house with high expectations. Growing up with no motherly influence had worn off any ladylike layer she'd ever had. It had repelled the boys who weren't already wary to date her because of the status of her father. Cid dismissed them as idiots when she came to him with these problems and never allowed her to let it upset her for long. She had always believed him and had not once let her brothers' teasing turn her into a brittle, meek girl. Reflecting on all of this, she couldn't imagine why she was so bothered by her crush on Auron— she realized that it was childish and that it was a waste of time. She wasn't accustomed to being plagued by problems after she'd logically evaluated them. Cid had always taught her that all equations had solutions, as long as she didn't let the weight of problems intimidate her.
She sighed heavily with discouragement as she stood with her weight on one hip in the small bathroom of her inn room, mixing potions and powders on the gray porcelain vanity. "But this isn't a normal problem," she muttered dismally, pursing the plump lips of her petite mouth together, then standing back to brush fruit extract from her hands onto the front of her melon-pink nightie. A guttural sigh escaped her throat like the rumble of a machina motor. "Boys don't have to worry so much."
The physical task of mixing the potion distracted her from the mental task of deciphering her fondness for Auron. It was also less exhausting.
Auron thinned out his presence among the group so that they weren't aware that he was monitoring them. He achieved a nearly omnipresent existence until they were all in their rooms and settled. He'd nearly crossed the line to eavesdropping when he'd checked on Yuna and Lulu, but had walked past their closed door before hearing anything he shouldn't have. Tidus and Wakka were quietly chuckling and joking behind their own door (Kimahri, after having had it explained gently to him why it was inappropriate for him to stay in Yuna's room, had accepted the fact gracefully and taken up with them as well), and when Auron had passed Rikku's room, he had heard nothing. After he was satisfied that everyone was participating in the idle, lazy activities of pre-sleep, he made the trip to his own room.
The process of undressing, removing the thick layers of his heavy clothes, made him look almost vulnerable due to how much they added to his stature when he had them on. Therefore, his first reaction to seeing Rikku in his bathroom was to reverse the process of taking off his coat. He waited for Rikku to acknowledge the situation, but she had become so immersed in whatever she was doing and was so inappropriately dressed that she must not have realized the mistake of being in his room. He pushed the door shut to get her attention.
Rikku's own reactions were more jerky and dramatic, like the reactions of a chocobo to jabs from its rider. First, she jumped and spun to face the sound, then the petite features of her face expanded— eyes widening, mouth gaping. The reaction of anger was not natural in her, but was activated consciously almost as quickly.
"What are you doing in my room!"
Auron hadn't expected her to claim it as her own, and for a moment he forgot how to react to defiance.
"This is my room," Rikku said, a little less passionately, with less intent to object than intent to remind him of the subject in his state of idleness. Her defiance and surprise gave way to the embarrassment of being seen nothing but her nightie and the claw she'd not yet unstrapped from her wrist. Although his reaction was purely oblivious so far, she unknowingly drew his attention further to the subject by sidling behind the corner of the vanity.
"What are you talking about? It's my room." His tone was harsh, but it was not cruelty that made him react this way so much as it was seeing her immodestly clad and in his room. She looked smaller with all the gadgets in her outfit off her, but also older, with her hair down. His method of dealing with the kind of feeling she suddenly inspired in him had been, for a long time, to smother it. He could think only of getting her out and tried to do so under a guise of no-nonsense.
"It's mine, Auron!"
"Stop acting like a child. Get out." He crossed the room and reached for her, meaning to push her in the direction of the door, but she reacted suddenly, swinging her armed fist at his head. She knocked him into stumbling and away from her.
"Don't you try to hit me! You may think you can boss everyone in Spira around just because–!" She stopped when she realized he wasn't advancing further, and was in fact groaning under his hand.
"Stupid girl," he grunted.
She scoffed, cocking one hip out, half in triumph and half in defiance.
"Don't be a baby," she mocked him.
"You nearly got my good eye."
Rikku winced as she watched him and he finally addressed her silence with irritation.
"What is it?"
"That... was my poison claw," she said carefully, then hurriedly added, "but I have plenty of antidote! Just a second. Oh– you should wash it out."
As he did, Rikku went into the bedroom and returned with two vials of green liquid.
"I can't see well enough to put it on, of course," he growled.
"Oh. No problem!"
The cheerful, buoyancy of her voice, not discouraged by his own tone, made him feel a little guilty. His eye was surrounded by swollen pink skin, mapped by red veins, and dripping with tears and the water he'd used to wash it out when she reached a hand to it. For as birdish, nimble and quick her touch was, it was also surprisingly motherly. She stepped back to survey him once she'd applied the potion.
"I'm sorry," she sighed in response to seeing the full effect of what she'd done. "Just, I didn't know what to do and it was just an impulse sort a thing. This stupid thunder has me all jumpy, you know! Do you think lightning'll strike the inn?" She averted his attention to a different subject.
"If we'd kept moving, we wouldn't have to worry about it," he grunted, then dabbed his eye with his sleeve.
She scowled at him, but slumped, defeated, against the vanity and looked at the pair of them in the mirror.
"You didn't have to be so grumpy about that," she scolded his reflection. "We'd've just burned out if we'd kept going, anyway."
"We won't have time to coddle you like this again."
"I didn't want to be coddled!" she snapped at him, the sudden viciousness in her voice surprising them both. It caused Auron's spine to stiffen a little, half in amusement, half in expectation. Rikku took advantage of what seemed to be an attentive pose. "You don't even know me and already you think the worst," she said. "Well, I can do a lot. I won't slow anyone down except you, if you just keep having a bad attitude about me. So get over it."
Auron was not surprised by her emotion, but by her feelings about the particular matter. It had been a long time since his disposition had caused anyone so much frustration.
"I apologize," he said gruffly. He lowered his sleeve and peeling his eye open carefully. It revealed her reaction in degrees– first doubtful, then thoughtful, then sheepish.
"No. Just– like I said, the lightning making me jumpy...," she finished with a sigh, watching him, trying to gauge any change in his expression. Her fixation fixated him in turn and he stood, curious by the expecting look. The silence had almost stretched into an uncomfortable moment when lighting flashed through the window, framing Auron in ghostly colors. The subsequent crack of thunder made Rikku scream and draw her arms up to her chest.
"Ugh...," she hissed at herself. She held her elbows in her hands and waited for a recovery that did not come. Her body stayed clenched and anxious.
"Hn." Auron moved past her and she thought he meant to leave, but she felt the drop of something warm and heavy on her shoulders. His red coat felt as big as a blanket swallowing her. As she pulled it shut around her, Auron stooped to pick up the black sunglasses she'd knocked off of his face and onto the floor.
"You shouldn't wear those so much," she advised. "I know when I wear my goggles too much, it makes my nose and the place behind my ears sore. It isn't good for your vision, either, especially when you're fighting. And anyway, you look better without them.
Auron gave her an amused look before he unfolded them and lifted them to his face. Before he could apply them, though, she withdrew them quickly from his fingers and put them on her own face. She did so with delicacy and respect, as if they were a tiara. Auron was amused because he realized how strange it was to do so– they were cheap and expendable, which was why he had always treated them haphazardly.
Rikku watched him, unsure whether to be encouraged or discouraged by his lack of reaction. He seemed thoughtful, so she was quiet.
Auron suddenly understood. It was in the subliminal prey-predator game she had tried to begin and in her concentration on their interaction. He held her shoulder firmly in place. The oversized fit of the glasses made her look like an ignorant animal as she looked up at him.
No, not ignorant, he thought. Naive, hopeful, young... She looks young. In my sunglasses, of all things.
"What?" she breathed. Her voice squeaked out of a body so full of emotion that her rib-cage felt tight.
"This would be a mistake for you. Don't pursue it. Think of our mission."
Rikku frowned and dug her nails into her palms. She was not surprised that he knew, only that he had actually addressed the issue out loud.
"Why are you like that? Why can't you just...?"
"Just what? There are so many things you can't pick on out, can you?"
"Don't feel sorry for yourself! Don't," she added quickly, "because I can, if you'll just let me, you know? Okay?"
He sighed. "I shouldn't have mentioned it. I should have known you would be persistant."
"That's me," she sang, framing her face with both hands by touching her thumbs together and placing them under her chin.
It had been a long time since he had responded to cutesy, feminine behavior like hers. Perhaps he never had. He couldn't remember knowing many girls like Rikku, and if he had, he was sure he wouldn't have wasted much interaction on them back them.
It's too bad there are only so many things I can try to make up for on this journey.
"While I'm here," he said, tugging at the handle of his sword so that the pressure swung it forward, off of his shoulder, "you can customize my sword. We'll be encountering many more lightning fiends before we're out of the Thunder Plains and it'll do me good to have some kind of water-strike added to it."
"Consider it done."
"Fine." He held the handle of the sword out to her. She looked doubtfully at it, then her expression was flushed with sudden determination. She wrapped both hands around the handle and hefted it toward the vanity.
"Be careful!" he barked. The blade swung toward the glass mirror. He caught her arms and halted its momentum before anything was broken.
"Jeez. How do you lug this thing around all the time?"
"Just be careful with it; have it ready by morning."
"Fine, fine. I can't sleep alone in this lightning anyway."
"What, need a babysitter?"
"No," she said, and stuck her tongue out at him. He pinched it between his first two fingers.
"I'll stay here with you and sleep in the floor, in return for the adjustments on my sword. Deal?" He released her tongue to let her speak.
"Ow. Yeah. Okay– deal."
He nodded in return, then exited into the bedroom.