A/N: Unequivocably for Gabi. "Cidolphus" is all hers, and I bow to the master. XD
The Naked Dead, And Her
There's not much you can do about flowers in the desert but that was all right because flowers in the desert were synonymous with oh whoops there it goes wilted in five seconds wowee, unless they were cactus-flowers, and cactus-flowers didn't count because they were sort of like pretty hats on very ugly women. And who needed flowers when you didn't have graveyards, anyway; well, not the real ones, all big-eyed stone angels who looked like Yuna after a crying jag and boy oh boy Rikku knows what Yuna after a crying jag looks like nowadays but that's a different thing entirely.

Everyone else on Spira accuses the Al Bhed of disrespecting the dead but that's a horrible thing to be accused of, especially when everybody knows that up until a hundred years ago the Guado dried out their dead on gallows and ate them afterwards like popcorn at a fun fair; heretics, each and every one of 'em, up until Jyscal came in and they all said we're real sorry Yevon and became the worst born-again chimps since Shelinda got conceived. Joke's on them because Yevon turned out to be a big bloated death tick, but it's not nice to say I told you so.

Nobody respects the dead more than the Al Bhed. Nobody. They preserve their bodies in the salt-sand of Bikanel, baby, womb to the tomb, dried out desert-things and memories are just memories but memories are precious. It's not good to ass around trying to pretend that the memories on the walls of the Farplane are more than they are - pyreflies playing gags in your head - but it's okay to remember and to remember hard, until your teeth hurt. Disrespecting your ancestors means the dead are watchin' holes in your backs, which petrified Rikku into bits when she was small - until she figured out with her small wicked weasel-brain that Gram and Grandpop and Aunt Dari were probably watching her pilfer out the biscuit tin with a certain degree of fondness and probably advice. So that was all right.

So the field of ancestors at Home is a complete mess of lights and cloth and pinwheels, masses and masses of them, gaudy-bright and lovely and exquisitely transient if not constantly kept nice. Al Bhed don't dump their loved ones underneath lumps of rock and forget about them. How lonely is that?

It was far enough from the invasion that it's still intact - though the invasion widened it out - but not even Rin's money could keep it nice; that's a slow and painstaking job, repinning things, replacing things, dusting things off. All that money has to go for the living. But it still has splendor; it's a party-place, alive with the constant whirr of the wind through all the pinwheels spinning like crazy-clocks. Rikku loves pinwheels so her arms are full of the damn things, poking painfully into her flesh right next to the sticks and paint and rags. It takes her a while to get to the little end of the field where Momma and Gram and Grandpop and everyone is, the little bit of the Cidolphus tribe gone on, and she kneels down in the cooling sand of sunset and kisses her mother and dusts her off and feels better about it.

Rikku dumps the pinwheel down in a glittery heap at her feet and wonders if Tidus counts for being dead. You can't die when you weren't born; Tidus is the world's biggest and loudest Imaginary Friend, and now he's gone, and if he didn't die then she shouldn't feel like crying but she does so that's a bust.

"Y'know," she tells him, digging in the sand with her hair sticking to her face and feeling like the world's biggest loser, "only Al Bhed live here, but you were Yunie's and she was half'n'half, so I figure nobody's angry. Right, Momma? Gram-gram?"

She sticks in a pinwheel in Aunt Dari's, for Uncle Braska, and blows it a kiss. That feels right.

"I mean," she continues, "dying's got to spread, you know, it's a big thing. You don't have to go aargh and have all your blood fall out to be dead. I mean, it sure helps a whole bunch, but Tidus is gone for ever and that's pretty darn dead if you ask me. Right? Right."

His pinwheels are glinty-green for the water, deep blue, and a couple of yellow mixed in because who doesn't like yellow. Brother gave her one of his old blitzballs after wheedling, cajoling, and ten rounds of punching him in the face, and after a lot of very bad cursing it punctures with a sad deflated wheee on one of the sharpened sticks that she plants into the sand like the world's weirdest tree. She packs it up with pebbles and christens it with a glop of green paint, and then some blue, and then gives it a yellow smiley face because that is the awesomest thing in the world. She drives more sticks in and drapes it all over with a piece of lemon-yellow linen that nobody wanted so that the blitzball won't get sunburned and sits back on her butt to eye her handiwork.

"Hi, Tidus," she says. "Welcome home. Famlusa rusa. We all miss you. Yunie cries so much that she looks all red and puffy and retarded all the time. It ain't pretty, let me tell you that. You're a big jerk for making her cry, you big jerk. I'd kill you if you weren't not real and all."

She brushes herself off and kisses the blitzball very chastely on either side of the smiley face, very gently and sisterly and it would've been nice to have a brother who wasn't Brother and didn't zonk her out with Thunder or drop her on her head, but then again Tidus was Tidus and would've gotten his head stuck in pots and stuff. (She still comes off with blue and green paint on her chin and cheeks and nose.)

"Night night, Tidus," she tells him. "Kuuthekrd. I love you. In a way where you keep your pants on, ew, don't get the wrong idea. Swim good for me."

There are still pinwheels and for some reason she feels naked for what she's about to do, twelve years old with all her clothes off and about to come out on the stage of the world to an embarrassing trumpet fanfare and chorus of Rikku has no clothes on! She twists around so that Momma and the others can't see what she's doing and plants in the pinwheels and these are as red as you could ever want, too red for him to ever appreciate because his coat was the colour of a dying sun and not of Al Bhed laquer but what would he know anyway.

"I don't know why you're here at all," she tells the first pinwheel, severely, shaking her finger at it in a very remonstrating way. "Except that you've got nowhere else to go and nobody else to do it for you and if nobody else is there, I've got to do it, right?"

If it was funny making a marker for someone who was never there, it's even worse making one for someone who was never alive. Rikku's hands feel strange as she buries her never-blooming flowers, her windlilies, her paper-brights; like her hands have been petrified, fingers wet in this dry dry land and nothing doing even when she spits on them. She sticks jagged straws of metal in the ground, to catch the last of the dying evening-light, and dips her finger in the yellow paint to draw a smiley face on the biggest and least likely to give her lockjaw if she cuts herself on it. It attempts to be smiley, but globs at the last minute and goes all frowny-stupid and if that don't beat all.

Even his pinwheels are stuck. Tidus' are testing the wind, tasting it, but his only sway lightly and unwillingly in the breeze. "Fine," she addresses them, "be that way."

Rikku moves back on her knees and looks at Auron's gravemarker. She fancies that it glowers back, just a little. Yunie sent him and she buried him, in the metaphorical didn't-touch-his-grody-dead-body sense, and if she expected a solemn trumpet fanfare to say anything other than Rikku has no clothes on! she's cred uid uv milg, no good.

Here is the sand and the party-ribbons and here are her memories and these are all she has, it's meant to be that way, but far off she hears one of the antlions call in the gloaming and she is inutterably lonely.

"It's okay for Tidus to be imaginary, but you're dead," she tells him, angrily. "Besides, he didn't know it, but you were sitting there all 'I'm dead and I need more fiber in my diet and I wear the mysterious grumpy hat' and how did I miss that? How could you be dead?"

The pinwheels are silent. There are no answers for her here.

"Why didn't you drop a hint? Why didn't you say 'Wow, guys, I sure am sorry to say this, but I am expired, I hope you don't think less of me'? No, you were all dot-dot-dot and mirthless-chuckle and 'Rikku, don't do that,' and 'Rikku, don't touch that,' and sometimes when you were feeling really cheery 'They say that electrocution stunts brain growth Rikku' and if I'd known it would've been different. I would've been understanding, I would've, I would've, I would've said 'Hey Auron how about you talk to me about being dead I bet it sure is a pain' and 'Hey Auron do you want your pudding 'cause I bet you don't need it, being unsent and stuff,' and we could've gotten to the head of queues and oh God, oh, God, it's not about being dead, it's about being gone and I hate you!"

The last is a wild fiend-screech up to the quiet navy of the night, muffled amongst tons of sand and stars, helpless and impotent with her hands clenched until the knuckles are white. She pounds on the sand until fragments of it decorate the heels of her palms like sugar on cakes only nowhere near as nice. Her heart is an overheated engine and her gears are wearing down.

"Okay," she says, raggedly, "okay. Here's your secret. You were my favourite because you always gave me your pudding anyway and because you knew me better than just about any of the others, without having to ask, just by looking - even Yunie - and you should've been here. It's not the same without him and it's even less of the same without you, if you know what I mean and you do because you always do but now it's did and this is all I got."

Rikku takes a couple of breaths. Her circulation system needs more to deal with the anger and the strange, potent shame. Rikku has no clothes on! Her cheeks are redder than strawberries and his pinwheels and tomatoes and the night has fallen but that doesn't hide them, the heat on her cheeks is a mile-wide flare that exposes her down to the knobbly bits of her spine.

"You're gone but you're not gone. That's what I'm trying to say. You're gone but it's not like 'Oh, that's Auron gone, boy I sure will miss doing the thiefly shimmy and having him look at me like I was made of buggers,' it's like you're in my clothes and my hair and my mouth and I can't make you go away. You made me feel safe - stop laughing, you big creep - and, but, here's the thing, it wasn't like you were this big Second Dad for me. I already have a Dad and I don't find him hot and oh shit I really said that."

The entire field is tinkly-quiet, broken only by the soft clink of windchimes and the grate of pinwheels in the night wind and someone's tarp flapping way over yonder in the rising wind. She turns her back on him and makes sure the Smiley Blitzball is in just right, packed up with sand and pebbles. When she turns back, finally, she collapses down with a tiny thud and a tinier wail to lie with the pinwheels to her belly in the weirdest sort of comforting intimacy.

"Okay," she says. "I had a crush. Don't be such a smug shoopuf about it."


"A teeny-weeny little crush."


"All right, meanie, a big whopping crush."


"... A big huge freakin' crush with bells and bunting and a parade and chocolate sprinkles, o-kay? It was my first! You were sexy in that old and irritable sort of way! Only, great, you turned out to be dead so don't I feel like Little Miss Zombie Fetish and I bet you tasted like pyrefly surprise and lichen and, and mould. I bet it was illegal. I bet it was statutory necrophilia, misuse of corpses, molestation of well-preserved dead guys with a really gorgeous one eye and so here you aren't and here I am and it's not not not not fair."

If she squints the stars are snowflakes, and then she unsquints but the stars are snowflakes anyway because the sand has blown into her unprotected eyes and made them all gritty and she's crying fit to bust. It's the tired sobs of a toddler past her bedtime, of a woman at the end of her tether, of old wounds and something selfpiteous and she knows she sounds like a kitten being stepped on. Bring on the trumpets, all ye merry gentlemen; Rikku has no clothes on!

"I think I know why I have you like a gross flaky skin rash," she says to the sky. "I never got to have you and I was never going to have you and I don't think I even let myself want to have you forevers with a pinky-promise but before you said 'Rikku you are the dumbest song played on the lamest guitar,' I was gonna give you a big messy kiss on your cold dead mouth. I bet I'd need an antidote afterwards but I was going to kiss you, you hear that, you dirty old man."

So she couldn't have that and she swallowed him whole, cupping him in her hands like spring's first butterfly, pregnant with the gaping lack of him and giving birth to dark twitchety little secrets. And that, as they say, is that, sphere screen turnoff, nothing doing.

"I hate you," she tells the still and sullen pinwheels, the gone sun, the drifts of sand whipping at her skin. "I hate you and I never do things by halves so I pretty much love you hard as I can all at once."

Rikku loves everyone hard as she can. But now she's loved him as hard as she could, like Tidus, like everyone, like Momma, and she can and she could and she sits up and knows nobody can take that away from her.

"So you were my First Love, huh. I knew I should've gone for Kimahri. He had a growly voice and sexy cat-muscles. Also he wasn't dead, which is about a jibillion points in his favour, Mr. Cranky."

The stars wheel overhead. Her heart beats, one-two-three, and she sighs very heavily just like he used to - sort of put-upon, and irritable, on Permanent Fray - and kisses one of the pinwheels with all the gravity and solemnity and raspberry lip-gloss she would have placed on him. It unjams the cups and whirls in the wind, almost slicing her nose before she pulls it back, and joins in the holy chorus of the rest of the field in the slow and unerring whirr.

Rikku watches it, round and round until she's dizzy, and she thinks about life and death and grief and all that kind of good stuff. You take what you have with you when you visit the Farplane, and what it is is fairy-floss soul, and your soul's made up of people who touch you as well as a good long dollop of yourself. It is sacrosanct and precious. Carrying Auron does not have to be her dark and cobwebby poison-millstone; it can be a pebble she has in her pocket, light and sweet and all hers for ever, and suddenly she owns him and she's won.

"I loved you bad," she says, without tears, empty like the sky but filled with masses of tiny twinkling lights. "I loved you awful, Auron. So there. Ha! Stick that in your pipe and smoke it. I win."

The hair brushes out her eyes and she stands up and brushes the sand off, watching the pinwheel go, and winning feels good and clean and a fair bit like being heartbroken but that she can handle. He knows and she knows and the desert has unending flowers that pick themselves. She doesn't feel altogether wonderful but she feels healthy, and that's pretty wonderful in and of itself.

She'll like having him here to talk to, she decides, she'll talk to him often as she can. And Yuna can come to visit Tidus, when her own dark bleeding things have gone away. Grief is in the little things, the leeches you put on your body to let them out; she told Yuna of the Al Bhed custom of growing your hair long in mourning (cutting it off and finding someone else to be in your kitchen and make you a pie when you were all better, ostensibly) and has already seen the furtive lock of nut-brown growing down Yunie's neck.

Rikku does a little victory shimmy in front of Auron's makeshift grave. Some things die hard.

(Like him, really.)

"Well," she says when she's done, candle-bright, "it sure is getting cold out here. Time to finish things off."

The first flask she pours over Tidus, in front of the happy blitzball, nothing sweeter than fresh water in the desert and all drunk up by his hungry sand. For Auron, it's the second flask, and that's a dram of Rin's most eyewatering whiskey and the smug smile of I-done-right on her face. He would have approved of that one. The sand drinks it up and they're both blessed.

"I guess I'll see you around." Rikku tries for suave woman-of-the-world and fails miserably. "You be good now, if it's possible to be bad. Bye, Momma. Bye, Tidus. Bye, Gram. Bye, Grandpa - " and all down the line, her great-grandmother, her great-grandfather, Brother's dead pet hamster and aunts and uncles and - "I'll try to come back often as I can, but there's a lot of busy stuff in Spira for cute Al Bhed girls to do right now."

Rikku runs off, into the night, and manages to get quite a while away before she skids to a stop in a shower of sand. Then she runs back, panicking through her pockets, and buries a spoon below the alcohol fumes and red pinwheels. She stops again, in front of her mother, and pulls her short blonde hair as far as she can away from her head in some plaintive semblance of unmanageable tumbling gold tresses.

"What d'you think, Mom? You bet it's gonna be down to my butt."

She and Yunie are going to need way more shampoo. Rikku salutes them all and holds herself and runs back to the skeleton-rebuilding of Home, to warmth, to her dad and her dorky brother, to what she has now and what she's going to keep and her cousin'll be wanting her in Bevelle very badly. Life is sweet like stolen pudding and the sky has her name on it in big blinking machina lights.

"You're going to give me some because I'm cute."

Considering. "No."

"You're going to give me some because you're old and pudding will give you cholesterol and you'll die right here and Yunie will cry and I'll wear a red dress to your funeral. And your coat. I get your coat, right?"

"It is definitively not my problem if you eat without chewing or savouring."

"Auron! I'm a growing girl!"

"Sideways, at this rate."

"AURON. You're going to give me some because I'm going to do my Please dance. PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE. PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE."

He raises his spoon to his mouth. She watches it like an orphan with consumption and he savours the sweetness on tastebuds that no longer quite work for a few long cruel moments, and then he sets it down and gives it to her. She does not quite believe his gift; and then she eats half and stickily offers the rest to him in a show of misplaced but cute generosity. He declines.

"You gave it to me 'cause I'm cute," she says thickly.

"I gave it to you to shut you up."

"You know," she says, happy, "in the end it doesn't matter so much, either way."