A/N: It's taken me a while, but here it is. The final chapter.

It's been a great few months writing this fic. I enjoyed being able to write about the younger Rikku and Gippal and have it so the story was light and happy. I hope I've done a good job in trying to show my point of view of how the two met.

Thank you so much to everyone who has followed the story up until now. It means a lot to me!


Chapter 12: Strawberry Kisses

Two weeks passed before Gippal returned from his training for the Crusaders. He had entered the front door covered in dirt, his once-bright eye tired and dull. Dropping his bag on the floor, he yawned once and leaned against the doorframe as he waved lazily at her.

"Hey."

She had just come into the living room upon hearing him come in. "Um, hi..." her reply came out confused, looking him quickly up and down.

Gippal smirked and pushed himself from the wall. Turning, he closed the door behind him and stepped inside.

Rikku opened her mouth to speak but paused, something faint drifting by her nose. "Eww, Gippal. You smell...!" she exclaimed, realizing that the scent was coming from him. She shook her head and backed away from him.

He was laughing. "What? Rikku can't handle a little dirt?" Gippal moved towards her with his arms held out.

"S-Stay away! You smell icky!" she replied, twisting herself around and out of his extended arms as she headed out the front door. He was right behind her.

"C'mon, Rikku. Stop playing around," Gippal smiled, stepping down the stairs and off the porch.

"Come any closer and I'll really do it!" she threatened, holding a hose in her hand. Before she even saw the mischievous glint in his eye, Rikku pulled the trigger as water splashed in his face.

"H-Hey...!" Gippal replied through a mouthful of water.

She stuck a tongue out at him, momentarily moving the hose away to let him talk. He wiped the water away, his hair sparkling under the sunlight. "Alright, no more games. Aren't you even gonna ask me how it went?" he spoke in a sing-song manner, a smirk on his face.

Rikku lowered the hose and turned off the water, much to Gippal's satisfaction. She walked over and stopped in front of him, tilting her head to look up into his no-longer dirty face. "So...how'd it go?"

He reached up to brush his hair back. "Didn't get in."

"Wha—I mean um...wait," she paused and shook her head. He wasn't supposed to say that. He was supposed to say yes. He was supposed to say that he was going to leave. That way, it'd be easier to forget about him and—

"They said I wasn't eligible because of being an Al Bhed. I guess that's that then," Gippal explained. His gaze wandered before resting to look down at her again. She cleared her throat.

"...Oh, so um, you're not leaving then?" Rikku asked.

He scratched the back of his neck, turning away. "Actually, I still am."

She stopped at his words again. "...Oh."

Gippal began pacing in front of her, his boots making crunching sounds on the gravel. "I'm going out there to see what else I can do," he said thoughtfully. "I mean, with Sin and everything, there're people out there who want to help protect Spira. There's definitely something out there for me," he paused for a moment, looking at her. "...But staying here's not gonna do anything..." he trailed off.

"Something out there, huh..." Rikku echoed slowly. He turned around.

"What? You gonna miss me like crazy again?" he smiled.

She laughed and shook her head. "'Course not! I'd never miss you!" Gippal chuckled softly at that. She continued on. "You'll do alright, y'know. Get out there. Do what you do best."

He raised an eyebrow in confusion. "You're not...uh, I mean..." he stopped for a moment. Rikku rolled her eyes.

"What? Spit it out already," she laughed.

"...Well you know," he began again. "You're not mad at me or anything, are ya?"

Rikku shook her head. "No way! Why would I be mad. I mean, it's about time you left!" she exclaimed, much to his amusement. He could tell that she was only pretending for his sake.

"Listen, we said no sad faces, remember?" Gippal said, moving towards her.

"Yeah, I know. That's why I'm not sad! See?" Rikku replied as he pulled her gently to him in a soft hug. She paused, letting her words lose themselves.

It was Gippal who finally spoke again. "What'll you do if we happen to run into each other again? You know, like in a long time from now, or years later or something?" he asked playfully.

She hugged him tighter. "You know me. I'd still be the same ol' me," she grinned.

Gippal pulled away to look at her, amused.

"...And what about you? How would you act around me?" Rikku asked quietly. It took him a few moments to respond, but when he did, he just smiled.

"I'd still be the same too. We said we wouldn't be sad remember?" he said, ruffling her hair and laughing as he ran away with her behind him.

xxx

(3 months later--Home)

"Oh come on. It's not as if you like someone, right?"

She picked up her bag and began heading out the door.

"Riiiiikkkkuu. Oh, wait up already!" the Al Bhed exclaimed, chasing quickly after her.

"No. I already told you no a billion times! I won't date you!"

"But why?"

She spun around on her heel angrily, green eyes glowing. "Just because!"

"Hey, that's not a real answer," the boy chuckled, seeing Rikku's frustration. "Alright, alright. How about a

deal then?"

His words caused her to stop in her steps. She turned around to face him slowly. "What'd you say?"

He smiled. "A deal. I'll do anything you want. A personal slave, if you wanna call it that."

Her eyebrows knit together in anger and she threw her bag at him. "Eeww, no!"

"Rikku!"

They both stopped at the familiar voice.

"Rikku. You're being called to the house. Something about a mission," her brother informed her. His thick

accent was difficult to understand, but she had a trained ear for it.

"I'm on it!" she exclaimed immediately, grabbing her bag from the ground and sprinting in the direction of her house. She was glad to get away from there.

Brother raised an eyebrow at his sister's retreating form in the distance. Still puzzled, his gaze drifted over to the Al Bhed boy who was standing a few feet away from him.

"Who are you?"

"Oh, I'm Vahn. I uh..."

"What were you doing with my sister just now?" Brother demanded, taking a step closer to the boy.

Vahn visibly stepped back. "N-Nothing! I wasn't doing anything!" he chuckled nervously.

"Mm-hm...is that right?" Brother crossed his arms.

"W-Well, I uh...have to get going now. Seeya!" Vahn exclaimed, walking in the direction of town.

Brother mumbled under his breath and headed towards town.

xxx

"Yo, Pops! I'm here!"

"Huh? Rikku? That you?" Cid's voice called out from the kitchen as he heard the door slam.

"Yeah, what's up?" she asked her father, walking over to the table where he sat.

Cid sighed. "Sit down, Rikku."

Uh-oh. I wonder what's wrong...

She sat down across from him, worried but hopeful at the same time. Her father was frowning, a visible

wrinkle in his brow.

"From now on, you won't be staying here," Cid began, looking at his daughter.

"What do you...mean, Pops?" Rikku asked in confusion. What her father said had really caught her off guard. And there she thought that he had something exciting or new to tell her.

He sighed. "We're a bit short-handed on crew these days, so you'll need to start helping out more than ever now..."

Rikku thought for a moment, realizing that this day would have eventually came anyway. After all, she was fifteen, almost going onto sixteen years old.

"Alright Pops. What's my job?" she spoke up, her voice much happier than Cid had thought it would be.

"Oh, uh...right." He reached into his back pocket and pulled out a stack of folded papers. Laying them out, Rikku watched as Cid sorted through them before finally seeing the paper he wanted. "Here we go." He began to read the mission. "I want you to be in charge of underwater dives for a while. You will be excavating old machina."

She nodded slowly, carefully listening to the mission details as Cid continued to explain it. When he was finished, he put the paper down and crossed his arms.

"Well?"

Rikku nodded again, standing up. "Sounds good to me! Um, when do I leave?" she asked.

Her father stood up as well. "Actually, you leave today."

"What? A-Already! But I haven't even...I mean, it's too soon!" she exclaimed in a rush, following after Cid as he made his way to the front door.

"Get packing. The sooner this mission is over, the better," he simply said, already stepping out into the porch.

"I guess I don't have much of a choice," she sighed. "Oh yeah. Hey Pops, when do I get back?"

"Get back? You mean back here to Home?" Cid asked.

She nodded slowly.

"Well that's a tough one. From the looks of things, it's gonna be a long time. Maybe a couple of months even," he informed her.

It took a moment for her father's words to sink in. Months? Who knew when she would be able to return home again...

"Hurry and get ready. The airship leaves in an hour," Cid said again. She quickly headed up into her room and from his position downstairs, Cid could hear her moving around quickly as his daughter gathered up her bags.

He sighed and looked down. "Sorry, kid..."

xxx

Rikku looked down through the wispy clouds at the ground below, Home growing smaller and smaller in the distance. The gentle hum of the airship filled her ears, and she could feel herself drifting off to sleep.

This new life away from Home was probably the best. Thoughts of her Home ultimately led to thoughts of him. She squeezed her eyes shut even more, frustrated at how long it had been since she last saw Gippal. His face flashed momentarily in her eyes, his image staying behind her eyelids.

I wonder where he could be right now...

He was probably busy chasing his own dreams and doing big things. Probably things that were much bigger than what she would be doing. Wherever he was, she knew she'd be happy for him.

"Miss Rikku? We'll be arriving shortly. So you can just relax until then," the pilot called out from the front of the airship.

"Ok, thanks again," she responded flatly, her thoughts elsewhere. A few moments of silence passed before Rikku finally stood up from the seat next to the window and headed in the direction of the sleeping quarters.

She nodded politely and smiled at the crew who were standing about in the hallway as she walked by them. These were the Al Bhed whom she would be working with for a while, and they all seemed nice. Her father had gathered the best men and women to go with her, and they were all equally good underwater.

"It's a pleasure to be working with you, Rikku," a young woman said, walking up to her.

Turning, Rikku looked into her soft green eyes and pleasant face. The Al Bhed woman seemed to be only a few years older than Rikku herself. Maybe not more than 18 years old.

"I look forward to working with everyone too," Rikku responded kindly, tipping her head down a bit. "It's going to be a long journey, but we'll do fine," she continued.

"I know we will. Your father has said some great things about you, so the rest of the crew and I aren't too worried," the woman laughed, her sweet voice ringing like tiny bells.

Rikku's eyes widened, surprised. "M-My old man? He's said some good things about me?" she asked, incredulous.

The woman nodded. "Oh, yes. Said that he's been saving this mission for you for a very long time." She smiled at Rikku's shocked expression. "We don't doubt your abilities, Miss."

Rikku returned the woman's smile, nodding again. "Thank you...um..."

"Oh! How thoughtless of me! I'm Elra!" she quickly said, extending a hand finally.

Rikku laughed softly, shaking hands with her. "Nice to meet you, Elra."

xxx

"Hey uh...were you the one who's been calling me?"

The man's robes brushed the dirt as he finally stepped out in full view. His face was visibly wrinkled, but there was an air of importance in his expression, despite the man's round and short build.

"W-wait, you're a Maester!"

"Indeed I am, young man," the Maester responded coolly, taking a quick look at the boy before him. "I am Maester Kinoc. I have come to give you an offer."

"An offer...?"

"Yes. Might I ask your name, young man?" the Maester asked slowly, crossing his arms.

"Oh...uh, I'm Gippal."

"Gippal. I see..." Kinoc responded, repeating Gippal's name. "May I ask why you are walking down here alone?" he asked Gippal, looking down the long stretch of the dirt road leading up into Djose Temple.

He leaned back on one leg. "I'm looking for something. Anything. I want to help protect the world from Sin," Gippal responded thoughtfully.

"So it seems I was correct about you, young man. You will do," Kinoc smiled.

"Uh, excuse me?"

Kinoc began pacing in front of Gippal. "I am putting together an elite fighting force of young men such as yourself. Although you are perhaps the first Al Bhed I have run into... but I sense your strength and will," the Maester explained slowly, stopping to face Gippal.

"A fighting force...heh, I tried something like that already," Gippal said with a short laugh. "I tried out for the Crusaders, but got turned down because I'm an Al Bhed."

The Maester smiled at this. "Ah, but that is where my elite fighting force differs, my friend. I am not only willing to open it to women, but to all races as well. ...Including the Al Bhed."

Gippal blinked, suddenly interested.

"Think it over, Gippal. I will be staying at the Djose Temple up ahead for a while, so you may enlist if you wish," Maester Kinoc replied, beginning to head back up the steps.

"W-Wait a sec...!" Gippal called out. Everything just seemed to be happening so quickly.

Kinoc turned around. "Yes?"

"Uh, what's the name of this fighting squad you're building?" Gippal asked, a hand on his hip.

The Maester smiled. "The Crimson Squad."

xxx

The suit clung securely to her body as Rikku pulled the goggles over her head. Her team had undergone five successful missions along the coast of Besaid Island since they had arrived a month ago, and it was fast-approaching the day when she would be able to take a short one-week vacation.

"That's the last of the machina, Rikku. Where should we put 'em?"

Rikku turned and inspected the pieces quickly. "Um, I think the storeroom for now. We've pretty much covered everything here anyway," she smiled.

The Al Bhed nodded and walked away, the machina clanging as he continued on.

She unzipped the front of her suit, feeling a bit better as the air came in through her lungs normally again. After every successful mission when all her teammates had left the main site, Rikku would be alone and she took these opportunities to sit back and reflect on her day. Sometimes she would just wander, letting herself become absorbed with the atmosphere as she let her mind relax.

Lately, she realized that she was enjoying herself more doing missions than she was at Home. Even if they had to undergo difficult tasks at times, the sense of accomplishment she felt after every success was a great feeling.

Rikku looked up at the sunset before her, removing her gloves for the first time that day. She simply sat there for a few minutes, the silence providing a calming effect on her.

A scrape of the dirt behind her caused her to turn.

"I hope I'm not intruding or anything."

She smiled at the familiar face. It was Elra, whom she had met in the hallway all those weeks ago when Rikku had first met her crew.

"Oh no, you weren't!" Rikku responded as she shook her head. "What are you doing out here, Elra?"

"Well we were just about to start dinner and we realized that you weren't there!" Elra laughed lightheartedly, lowering herself down on the ground to sit beside her.

Rikku laughed nervously. "Ahaha, sorry 'bout that. I was just about to head in anyway."

Elra studied her leader carefully, the younger girl suddenly looking a few years older than she really was as she looked out into the horizon. "There isn't anything...bothering you, is there? I mean, I'll be glad to help if I can, Rikku," Elra said, concern in her clear eyes.

The younger Al Bhed laughed again. "Nah, don't worry 'bout me. I just take these moments to relax. Nothing's botherin' me," Rikku assured Elra, smiling as the other woman frowned some more. "Really! I'm fine."

"Well if you say so..." Elra said, still doubtful. She stood up, but paused. "...But if I'm not mistaken, and from what I've learned from my years, it seems you might be bothered because of a boy."

Rikku's head shot up as she looked at her. "H-Huh!"

Elra laughed softly, the orange sun splashing her face with soft hues. "Oh, so I'm right then?"

Rikku stared at Elra for a few more seconds before lowering her head. She sighed, leaning back on her hands. "You know, Elra. About a month ago I would have probably said that you were right."

Elra lowered herself down next to Rikku again, sitting cross-legged.

"...But I've sorta come to accept things the way they are now, y'know?" Rikku said, turning to smile at Elra. "I mean, I know he's off chasing his dreams and all. And I'm here starting my life too."

"Rikku...," Elra began slowly. She didn't know who her leader was speaking about, but was surprised that Rikku was opening up for the first time ever. "That's quite a mature thing you've decided on. Not many girls I know your age would think of it that way. No less accept it."

"Yeah, but it's something he and I talked about and agreed on too," Rikku said quietly, looking up. She swung her legs back and forth. "Of course I'm sad that we're off doing things of our own y'know, but sometimes things just happen and you've gotta make some sacrifices to do what's best..."

It was the first time Rikku had said it aloud. She had known it for a long time, but finally voicing it out in the open made her feel lighter somehow. It didn't hurt as much whenever she thought of the time Gippal was with her.

"With Sin's threat approaching, I suppose lots of us are out there trying to save Spira," Elra said thoughtfully, looking out into the distance. She turned to Rikku after a while. "Do you ever stop to think about how you'll act when you two see each other again?"

Rikku laughed quietly. "Yeah, I have this big thing planned out where I'd sneak up behind him wearing this huge ugly mask. He'd turn around scared and right when he's about to run away, I'd pull the mask off and laugh at how dumb he looked."

Elra smiled. "That really would be something!"

The two giggled at the plan, and Rikku was glad for the change of mood. She missed Gippal, but they were still friends after all, and Rikku would always have a little spot for him deep down.

"Well then, shall we head on in now?" Elra suggested, sensing Rikku's uplifted spirits. She stood up and offered a hand to the younger girl.

"Yeah, I'm starved!" Rikku exclaimed.

xxx

"Uh, let's see here. It seems like we've got orders to head to Djose Temple," one of her crewmen spoke up.

The team was sitting around a table a few weeks later. They had just received a message from Cid telling them that they needed to investigate the banks of the road leading up the temple. Apparently there was some machina that hadn't been covered yet.

"Ok, when do we head out?" Rikku asked as she restocked her item belt from across the table.

The crewman flipped through the pages. "Huh! It says we leave today!" he exclaimed in surprise.

"What! Again! Pops is really gonna hear it from me this time!" Rikku raved, stuffing the rest of the items into the belt quickly. She stood from the chair and turned to her team. "You heard the orders, everyone. I guess we have no choice."

"How much water is Cid planning on making us dive?" one of the men joked as they headed up to the rooms.

Elra shook her head as she chuckled. "Apparently about the only place he hasn't made us investigate are the hotsprings!"

The crewmen laughed at that, and Rikku giggled as well.

xxx

As soon as everyone had suited up, they made the short flight to Djose and had started up the long path towards the temple.

"Jeez, at least they could have dropped us off in front of the temple or something!" Rikku exclaimed, looking out at the far stretch of road they had to walk. "Ugh, this stinks."

Elra secured her goggles at the top of her head. "At least it's still early so we won't have too much trouble with the fiends," she replied thoughtfully.

The men began leading the way and Rikku walked next to Elra. They fell easily into step with one another, sharing jokes and whispering about which crewmen Elra liked best. Rikku had soon learned that Elra had an eye for the head assemblyman, and apparently he was showing signs that he was interested as well.

"Oooh, why don't you talk to him later? We do get to rest once we reach the bridges you know," Rikku whispered in a giggle.

"I think I will," Elra agreed, feeling a blush creep on her cheeks.

After about thirty minutes of walking and fighting off fiends, they could now see the looming temple in the distance, the bridges clearly visible.

"Ow, my feet are killing me," Rikku cringed as the group stopped for a break. The men began heading off in different directions to survey and explore the area.

"Are you alright, Rikku?" Elra asked with amusement, seeing the other girl sit down right where she was.

"Yeah, I just need to take a break right here. I'll be fine."

Elra laughed. "Ok then. I'll be over doing my own mission," she winked.

And with that, Elra walked away in the direction of the banks. Rikku grinned. She was most likely off trying to find the assemblyman she liked.

Standing up from the ground finally, Rikku made her way over to the bridge area. She peered over and down into the clear water below, seeing her reflection. Behind her, people bustled back and forth and she would look over her shoulder from time to time just in case someone recognized her. Rikku was an Al Bhed after all, and being so close to the Djose Temple was probably not the best idea.

Still, the cool breeze was refreshing as she leaned forward against the bridge's side wall, trying to cool down. She tucked a few loose strands of hair back into her head, wishing she didn't look too bad that day.

"Still trying to keep yourself cute, eh?"

Rikku didn't turn around. It was probably someone who was just passing by.

"Um, hi?"

She began humming a light tune, moving her head back and forth.

I'm not about to get caught. No siree.

"You mean you're not Rikku?"

It was then that she froze, the sound of her name from that voice all too familiar. She spun around.

"Well it's about time!"

"G-Gippal...!"

He grinned. "How you been?"

"But, what...I mean um, you're not supposed to be here!" she exclaimed at last, her mouth open in shock.

He raised an eyebrow. "Why not?"

Rikku bit her bottom lip, realizing that she was both speechless and in disbelief. "I mean um, it's just that..." She suddenly realized that she was a mess. She must have looked frightening to him. "...just because!"

Gippal tilted his head back and laughed loudly. "I could spot you from all the way at the temple. Now that I get a good look at you..." he leaned in towards her and she batted him away. "...you DO look kinda weird!" He laughed again as she hit him.

"Meanie!"

"Whaaaat! I was only telling the truth!" Gippal replied.

Rikku stepped away from him for a moment. "...Wow, you look...different now..." she said quietly. He stared openly at her as well, his eyes trailing up and down her for a long time. "And you look exactly the way I remember you. Only not as cute as before..."

He laughed again as she ran up and hit him none-too-gently on the arm. A playful glimmer in his eye, he let her hit him for a while before trying to move away.

"Ok, ok...! I'm wrong! You're cuter now!" Gippal exclaimed, chuckling because her hits tickled instead of hurt him.

And as hard as Rikku tried, her fake pout ended up breaking into a smile.


The End.

A/N: I'm going to really miss writing this story. (sob)

I just hope you all enjoyed reading this as much as I did writing it. Before anyone asks though, this is the way the story is actually supposed to end. There is no more epilogue and no more chapters. (sorry again!) This is exactly the way I planned on having Strawberry Kisses end, and I leave it up to you readers to bridge the gaps from what happened here, FINAL FANTASY X, and FINAL FANTASY X-2.

Once again, a thousand Thank You's and more for all the support you've given me. You guys are awesome!