A/N: Yaaaay! I have returned from my Xmas/New Year vacation! Bearing gifts! Er... a chapter! This is the last of the angst, we shall be returning to our regularly scheduled programming after this chapter, fully equipped with harebrained, slightly deranged schemes of revenge! Seeing as all of you seem to hate Gippal now... -pats poor, unloved Gippal whilst cackling- I'm quite pleased to announce that he's going to get his comeuppance... and then some...
Rikku, on the other hand, is still firmly embedded in denial, constantly reassuring herself that her mild affections for the man were strictly hormonal, and she was only upset in the first place because her future-husband's infidelities were direct affronts to her abilities as a life-partner. I don't really believe her either...
Also, come the 5th of January, I will have uploaded my first post on under the pen name: Maridah... So, if anyone's interested in checking out my original writing, feel free to run on over, and REVIEW!
Happy slightly belated New Year, peoples!

-Rikku SWiRLS- Two reviews in a singlechapter! -gasps- If it wasn't so likely to scare you away for ever, I would be sorely tempted to hug you half to death, squeeing merrily all the while. Thank you so, so much! I give the internet MEANING! -cheers- And I know Gippal was an utter... er... toilet brush for hurting Rikku, so I've decided to give everyone what they want and punish the little blighter. (stay tuned for prolonged Gippal-suffering!) And as to the connection to Nhadala? They're definitely not related... -grins- Hope you like this one too!

-Jezzi- Eeeee! So glad you still like it! -puffs up proudly- In this chapter I'm hoping that Rikku's at least starting to get over the shock, the depression and the despondency, but she's probably not going to be properly bouncy and hyper like a ferret on sugar for quite some time; which would be Gippal's fault entirely... -shakes fist at Gippal- So, as has been aforementioned, the boy is in an awful lot of trouble with one petite, jilted blonde... and if Paine's vowed to offer her assistance, then he's definitely going to learn his lesson, lol. Enjoy!

-K-Jaye- Woooooo! Not only are you Queen of Angst, but also Queen of Phobia Trivia! Well, possibly Google is instead, but I doubt I could give it an award as it's not really a physical being... Moving swiftly on! As my competition winner, (and sole entrant, -coughs-) you are free to make a request of me! Yaaay! I can't remember what I was offering, and I'm too lazy to check back, so drop me an e-mail or a review with some specifications and I shall do my best to do you proud!
Hmmm... we really should pimp the fic, possibly just because I want an excuse to go out and buy a pimp-stick, lol... Maybe I should offer potential reviewers tin-foil? Everyone loves that! -eyes widen- You soooo have to teach me how to do the -POOF! Gone!- thing!In return I can offer you eye-lasers... -nods sagely-

DISCLAIMER: I do not own any of the characters, locations or original plot-lines of Final Fantasy X and X-2; Square-Enix does, and they are very, very lucky peoples... However, this story is mine, and maybe the original orphan someone shoved through a bush... probably not though... I also do not own the poems: The Walrus and the Carpenter, and The Mad Gardener's Song; Lewis Carroll does... go read them, they're awesome!

- Direct speech
-italics- Rikku thinking to herself

Chapter Fourteen: 'The time has come,' the Walrus said...

After the hysterics, about which I have sworn Paine to utter secrecy, I realised that I just didn't have the energy to keep crying and entertaining all that could have been; seeing as the entirety of my 'what-ifs' ostensibly hinged on Gippal not being a perfidious, skirt-chasing wanker. Said man of the moment, and Paine's interminable ire, had retreated so successfully into the bowels of the ship that no one had seen him since takeoff.

Personally, I was hoping that he'd tripped over a spanner and had tumbled head first into a parallel universe populated entirely by creatures from the abyss. A dimension where every second of our time was one year of theirs… Oh… and where he was being molested by a gaggle of Great Malboros, who had abducted him upon his mysterious appearance in their territory.

Anyways, seeing as that's filled up my self-enforced bitterness quota for this evening, all I really have left to do is change into some formless pyjamas; as there was no way I could don those boxers again without going into a kitsch-induced coma, and memories of failing to do that camisole justice would ultimately end up setting off the waterworks again.

After raiding the laundry basket for some clean, if slightly rumpled, flannel Cait Sith-print jammies, I covered my feet with my favourite pair of Moogle slippers, fondly watching the pompoms bob and jiggle as I sidled up to the bathroom mirror.

My hair was wet and matted to my skull, thanks to my not-so-gentle adventure in the mystical arts of towel-drying, but did nothing to distract the glaringly obvious tear-stains streaked about my bloodshot eyes. My nose was slightly puffy from all the sniffling, regardless of how all the steam from the shower had graciously cleared my sinuses, and there was an unflattering abrasion gracing my lower lip, probably also a result of an overenthusiastic, fang-bearing sob, another by-product of my nervous breakdown.

My expression was mercifully blank for the most part, giving my whole appearance the overall impression of a destitute, abandoned child, lost and alone in a world too cynical and callous to dredge up heart enough to pity her.

Discarding the thoughts with a firm shake of my head, shifting blonde tendrils to damply scratch against my sore, sensitised skin, I began to savagely run a brush through my stubborn hair.

Droplets of water clung to each pale wisp with a grim sort of determination, adding weight to my now poker-straight hair, causing it to appear as limp and lifeless as I felt. Appraising myself with a critical eye, I was not pleased to take note of the fact that I now looked more like a poltergeist than an orphan who had been pushed through a bush backwards. The only colour inhabiting my ashen face was in the intermittent, rosy splotches of skin rubbed raw by saline, and if my normally reasonable posture slumped forward any further I'd probably topple over and never get up again.

Scuffing at one of the purple wings jutting awkwardly from my cream slippers, smiling slightly at the scratchy feel of the plastic whiskers tickling an ankle, I decided to formulate my next plan of action.

For one, if I experienced another ounce of negative, stressful emotion today, I was probably going to have an embolism and pop my proverbial clogs -or ridiculously childish Moogle slippers- so the accusations and petty name-calling, which were bound to arise at some stage, would have to be postponed until the severity of my migraine died down some.

If I wasn't so very tempted to give in to the overwhelming, sadistic urge to physically emasculate the man, I may have braved the headache and gotten the stupid showdown over and done with, all prospects of potential ischemia, necrosis or… well, you know… death aside; but compounding the seething rage with the fireworks going off behind my eyes would probably result in the likelihood of more tears and hiccoughing spiels about spinsterhood, and resultantly, the onset of senile dementia.

Speaking of this aforementioned dementia, I actually found that I was going to miss our random altercations and silly bantering. I would never broach the topic of what he really did think of my shoe collection, vomit et al… nor would I beg him for a ride on his airship, which, in terms of sheer size, made the Celsius look rather like the S. S. Liki in the presence a whopping great tanker of an Al Bhed salvage ship. In style as well, there was hardly any point in making the two vessels compete against each other… I mean, it was like standing an old rust-bucket of a moped against a luxury cruise liner, and that was being generous…

I would never have the chance to surprise him with cutely inane wedding presents, which would be more like over embellished in-jokes than romantic tokens. He would never see those cheesy, ridiculously naff yet strangely amusing wax-sealing stamps with his face on, because I would never have had them made up for a cheap laugh.

I would never be entitled to the hard-earned, spousal right to ransack his correspondence and forge his signature on highly sensitive documents; or force-feed him my horrendous culinary concoctions, almost all featuring cabbage as a primary ingredient, just to piss him off cos he despised most verdant vegetation.

I would never be able to fulfil my plans for world domination, and Sanubia would not be awarded by a Queen to her incorrigible King, regardless of the fact that he was the one responsible for stealing Her Majesty's Royal sand-surfer, Sir Bernard.

My eyes clouded slightly as I mentally replayed my last thoughts, striding purposefully from the bathroom when my straining ears failed to make the muted noise even vaguely intelligible. I shook my head wryly when phrases of 'The Walrus and The Carpenter' delivered in a patient, pleasant cadence registered in my overloaded mind.

Shinra was listening intently, cocooned in his blankets as Yunie curled up alongside him, smiling down at the entranced miniature genius as Paine read to them both from the confines of a dilapidated wicker chair. The moment was so perfect and spontaneous that I was determined to ignore how tight and uncomfortable it must have been to squeeze the pair onto the narrow mattress, and how stray shafts and splinters of wood would be slicing Paine's alabaster skin into veritable ribbons.

I felt that if I even dared to breathe too loudly, the spell would be broken, and all of the hope that had just been rekindled within the turbulence of my conflicting emotions and battered psyche, would take one final, flickering gasp, and vanish for good.

The poem came to its bizarre, bittersweet ending, and contented silence descended after Yuna made sure that we'd all understood the moral of that fateful tale.

"Have you done 'The Mad Gardener's Song' yet?" I asked quietly. The silence had been comforting in its closeness, but it was disconcerting to leech off of the warming glow that came from not needing words to convey positive feeling; thankfulness and acceptance. That light was not mine to take, as I was unwelcome as an unconscious outsider, gazing covetously at such indescribable warmth, unobtainable from the barren cold.

Paine smiled slightly when she recovered from her almost imperceptible flinch at being so suddenly startled and ushered me into my habitual spectator's seat, leaning against the foot of the bed, legs poking through the gaps in the banister, swinging languidly in mid-air as I closed my eyes and just allowed the sensation of white noise to wash over me.

The book was closed and returned to its place of honour amongst the other tomes perched upon the buckling shelves of Shinra's library shortly after, and I shifted so that my legs were tucked up against my chest, hoping the barricade would dampen the sounds of my growling stomach.

Fortunately, we were all suitably distracted as Shinra turned on me instantly to pose every question under the sun as to how a philistine such as myself was so well-versed in the medium of nonsense poetry. Question seemingly answered before I could get a word in edgewise, much to Paine's amusement, he rolled onto his side and bid us all a curt goodnight.

His brusqueness was somewhat spoilt when he turned a pleading, albeit slightly sulky face on the High Summoner, manipulating her under the pretence of begging for his threadbare Cactuar plushie, smiling beatifically as the poor girl traipsed all the way across the Cabin purely because the pintsize genius was too lazy, or ingenious -it's hard to tell with that boy- to use his own legs, especially when someone else's could do just as well.

Planting Islaya the cuddly stuffed sage into Shinra's grasping hands, I reminded myself to locate someone who could sew without bleeding to death on the damned thing, seeing as last time I'd attempted to replace a missing button eye, I'd almost ended up giving the toy a new paint-job, and if Needles was still tap-dancing his little heart out at the bottom of my wardrobe, then I had every right to a slight phobia of mixing blood and tiny cactus people.

Returning to the girls' part of the Cabin, Yunie was quickly snuggled up in her bed, while Paine leisurely returned to her own. The pair fell fast asleep relatively quickly, leaving me alone in the dark with unwanted thoughts as my only company. I heard Brother and Buddy bickering quietly as they entered their own half of the room a short while later, relieved that Buddy had the common sense to shut the door that acted as a partition between both camps to drown out the ensuing noise.

Whether it was due to emotional exhaustion, a mind running a mile a minute or simply my complaining, malnourished stomach; two hours later, I was still tossing and turning and there was no one conscious enough to distract or entertain me. Gippal had, for all intents and purposes, vanished off the face of the earth, although if I was desperate enough to actually seek out his company, which I certainly was not, I'd probably make an enlightened guess at his new sleeping quarters, starting my search in the Engine Room.

However, seeing as not even the opportunity to avert Armageddon itself would be able to convince me to partake of innocent chitchat with he who should be put in that old Moogle costume of Brother's, dipped in honey, then strapped to an anthill, all the while informing passers by that he was a: 'pretty pompom princess'; I decided to raid the fridge instead.

Unfortunately, the only substance within the fridge that I could regard as even vaguely appetising, despite my grumbling stomach -which was probably about halfway through the process of devouring itself by now- was a head of lettuce and some other non-descript vegetable matter. Further perusal, however, revealed that said leafy, flavourless rabbit-food looked about ready to deflate like a punctured, soggy beach ball, or at least near an evolutionary stage in which it would grow legs and make a desperate bid for freedom.

For some odd reason, one that I wasn't willing to question as I was nearing the end of my proverbial tether, the fridge seemed to have been well stocked with all manners of dairy produce, and recently, judging by the fact that the milk was still liquid. After a brief moment of analysis, I sauntered over to the cupboard that contained the entire ship's collection of food-related oddities, hoping against all hope that the stupid fridge wouldn't randomly start bleating, seeing as I'd selfishly left the door open, hence not allowing the little light inside to go out, which was unnecessarily wasting so much energy that the environment was going to die and it would be all my fault due solely to my eco-unfriendly ways.

As if to prove a point, the fridge began to whine, emitting that piercing, screeching sound that did things to my teeth that I thought only nails on a chalkboard were sadistic enough to evoke. Steeling myself against the sonic onslaught, whilst staving off the intensifying of my already painful migraine, I locked my jaw in a feeble attempt to elude the hideous sensation creepily reminiscent of having to sit and smile through root canal surgery without the wonders of novocaine.

Turns out that the cupboard wasn't as bare as it had been yesterday, much to my eternal gratitude and growing suspicions. Manoeuvring the items that I required onto the countertop, I shut the cupboard door with as loud a slam I could get away with at this time of night, before turning to add to my inventory from the confines of the fridge before its wailing drove me insane. Scanning my ingredients, grinning triumphantly as I realised I'd managed to magically obtain some genuine vanilla extract from outer space, I dusted off my battered old cookbook once it had been retrieved from the secret cubby-hole I had concealed it within since the day I'd purchased it.

I know it's not really sensible, or all that healthy of being paranoid and disturbingly vigilant over the security of baking texts, but it really wasn't worth explaining to the 'gang' that I could indeed cook worth a damn. Paine didn't trust me with the microwave, let alone a big, bad oven.

While her fears aren't totally unfounded, and I still maintain that I only set the kitchen alight once, it's still rather hurtful that people feel that I need to be supervised when keying in a few buttons. And, because of course your interest is piqued in regards to the whole: 'setting my prospective meal on fire, then an oven mitt, then the walls' scenario, I guess I'd better elucidate upon my actions.

It was a happy, sunshiny day, when… oh… wait… should I start with: 'once upon a time?' …Right… Anyways, I was trying to defrost something… a frozen something that may or may not have been made out of bread, a long, long time ago; and had decided that my cunning, initiative and innate ability to work electrical appliances obviously overrode any need for briefly skimming over the instruction manual that was probably lost somewhere amongst all of the bombsite debris that made up the general kitchen area.

Brother was harassing me as I arbitrarily poked at buttons, telling me that his implicit knowledge of the working of the microwave required that I put the power on high, because obviously that would melt the prospective meal faster, and he wanted his 'sammich' NOW; and put said carbohydrate based substance on the cheerfully spinning tray and only take it out when it was no longer frozen.

After the first stint in at a single minute, the bread didn't seem to have been perceptibly altered, so Brother told me to put it back in again, but this time for longer. When it came out again, this time after two minutes, the bottom of the loaf was black and burnt, and Brother cheered that we were making progress. Third time lucky, the bread combusted. Ramming my hand into an oven mitt, I managed to remove the flaming mass from the smoke-clogged interior of the evil microwave, eventually setting upon dunking the smouldering loaf into the sink. My humiliating fate was sealed when a charred bubble burst on the surface of the murky water, signifying the final death throes of the grievously injured foodstuff.

Regrettably, I wasn't aware of the fact that the oven mitt itself had also caught ablaze. Brother considerately informed me of this fact, and watched my consequent mad dash through the ship in a sort of muted bemusement. At least until he noticed that in my clumsiness I had lost all sense of spatial awareness and had fled from the room whilst awkwardly scraping along one of the walls. Said wall was remarkably flammable, and so Brother had his hands full with the extinguisher for a good, long while.

I may think the kid-gloves are veering towards overkill, but I can sort of understand why Paine feels considerably safer when someone's playing culinary overseer, even if I was given a crash course in operating the defrost button.

Anyways, I wasn't going to use the microwave of doom tonight if I could help it, and I'd also be avoiding the possessed toaster as if my life depended on it, seeing as it growled at me even when it wasn't plugged in. I had had many nightmares along the lines of being slaughtered while I slept by that demonic toaster, whipping its little pitchfork plug tail as it cackled maniacally.

However, this particular evening was going to be wiled away by applying my own creative aptitude, the concluding result taking the form of stress-induced baking.

Tossing an apron somewhat haphazardly over my head, the whole process taking about half as long as it did to remove each trapped strand of hair from beneath the halter-neck once it was suitably tied; I glared down derisively at the ridiculously hackneyed: Who are these people and why do they expect me to feed them? emblazoned upon the chest in a delightfully banal form of cursive. The upside, one that I was effusively grateful for, came in the form of the merciful lack of the usage of the letter 'I', in which its presence in the phrase, without exception, would have been dotted with hearts or flowers, just to add to the never ending triteness of the stupid polyester contraption.

Then again, judging by the second of the pair of aprons Brother had recently gone out to purchase, just for the hell of it -I know, I know, I'm still dubious as to why we made him treasurer of the royal coffers as well, what with the fact that he's a puerile, irresponsible moron- unoriginality was all well and good with me, because all the money in the world could not force me into a glossy, nylon-based pinafore, proudly displaying the super-imposed image of a proportionately unfeasible, scantily clad hourglass figure, modelling some rather racy lingerie that I only wished I could afford.

Were it not for the fact that the crew were already unnecessarily nervous whenever I came within a five mile radius of matches,

-I couldn't be sure yet, but I could have sworn that people were hiding all of the flammable items and oxidising agents from me; and I had my growing suspicions that Buddy was the one replacing every sharp object in reach with safety scissors. Not to mention the fact that somehow even the bleach had been placed atop a cupboard so high I had no chance of retrieving it, and the only potentially lethal bottles left in my obtainable height range were all cursed with those darned childproof caps... Of course, not being one for accepting my fate without a fight, during one fateful incident, I'd managed to hack the top off of the aspirin with the bread knife; sadly, Buddy got wise to my antics quickly, and the knife was stolen in the night, never to be heard from again... Most of the other cutlery was simply replaced with plastic counterparts, an action of subterfuge that I thought was just plain mean-

and because all of the hydrocarbon based components in the damned thing would probably kill me with the toxic fumes, I would have merrily obliged my inside-voice and burnt the abomination to ashes.

However, spinning out long threads of tangential asides was hardly going to facilitate the process of making Shinra that Chocobo cookie, and I wasn't nearly depressed or brain-damaged enough to invoke the vengeful wrath of a little boy with an intellect I could never hope to match, short of a head transplant…

Contrary to popular belief, as is always the way, I can… sort of draw… at least slightly better than my lead pipe wielding stick figures of legend at any rate. Seeing as we were far too poor, and when I say 'poor' I mean 'tight-fisted', to afford some pathetically feeble plastic templates, I was left sketching the basic outline on a makeshift guide, said stencil taking the shape and consistency of rice paper. If the entire process wasn't quite so mind-bogglingly dangerous, I'd wonder what was going through Brother's head when he thought that purchasing rice paper over cookie-cutters was one of his more enlightened decisions. Then again, knowing Brother as unfortunately and implicitly as I do, the rice paper's merits came in the form of its versatility: it was malleable, able to be used as impromptu stationery, and possibly edible, but only if you were desperate enough to forage for nutrients hiding deep within the sheer blandness of it all.

Brother had learned the hard way that you can't really eat plastic on a daily basis and… live… so his motives were quite clear; his individual, immediate needs came above the need to eat his adorable little sister's utterly awesome sugary confections, and the rice paper probably wouldn't put her off making said awesome sugary confections if she was stressed enough to start compulsively baking; so technically, everyone won, apart from the rice paper, which was devoured heartlessly.

After munching my way through four failed attempts, because, let's face it, water does NOT count as a valid foodstuff; I was finally relatively satisfied with the finished product… which had apparently taken me over twenty minutes to doodle. Sometimes I wished I was able to condemn my leanings towards perfectionism, maybe ask one of the miniature scientists in my head to tie the non-corporeal entity to an equally insubstantial chair…

Anyways, one template was done, so I decided to quickly sketch a disembodied, floating, severed Moogle head to accompany the slightly wonky looking Chocobo. I know Moogles are comparatively far more easy to draw than Chocobos; seeing as a Moogle is pretty much just a lot of circles with whiskers and a Chocobo seems to defy every law of physics, but I liked to think the practice was doing me good, as I met with partial success in less than half the time it had taken to draw Mister Mog's predecessor.

The cutesy figures that resembled stuffed-toys more than real live critters; the cuddly plushies seemingly better suited to sightings at some little girl's tea party than frequenting forested areas were joined and rounded off by an appalling rendition of a cactuar, which appeared to be sporting some sort of malevolent growth that had sprouted from one of its boomerang arms.

Coming to the swift conclusion that this probably was the best I was going to get at such short notice, I quickly commenced the makings of my mixtures.

I was quite sure that the hot chocolate powder hadn't quite passed its sell-by-date, but it was awfully dark in the kitchen and that seven could have easily been a one… Deciding to live dangerously, I poured the powder into one of the few ceramic bowls the Celsius possessed, sneezing violently as a mushroom cloud of granulated chocolate lodged in my sinuses. The book then called for cake flour and baking soda, so I willingly obliged, making quite sure that this time I hadn't grabbed the corn flour by mistake… -Gloopy, lumpy cookies that taste of talcum powder are one of the greatest evils known to man…- Adding a delicate pinch of salt, the beginnings of one mixture was completed, so I moved onto the next.

Unfortunately, if I used another bowl, I wouldn't have a spare for my wet mixture, so I made a makeshift container out of a plastic measuring jug. This time, the flour exploded, and I took a wild guess that at least I'd probably gotten some of my colour back, because added to the hot chocolate I'd be a nice, sunny shade of beige.

Flicking a switch had the oven roaring to life, and I chose my desired setting in advance, because the damned thing took forever to preheat. Humming quietly to myself, mocking, rueful smile curling my lips into a travesty of a smile, I shrieked as illumination suddenly flooded the small kitchen. The egg I had been delicately cracking into the new mixture had imploded under the force of my clenching hands, so now I was sticky, powdered and my cookie dough had fragments of eggshell floating on the surface.

It was quite easy to address and define the emotions in my eyes as impatience and irritation, but the words died on my tongue as I spun around far too quickly for my inner ear to attune to the shift in balance.

Stumbling, I sprawled across a hard, over-familiar chest, belonging to someone I would rather have never encountered again. Seeing as the fates obviously despise me, not only was I clutching at him like a small, frightened child after allowing him to witness the full majesty of one of my klutz-attacks, I'd also pressed a tacky, stained handprint to his heart whilst wearing my most humiliating pyjamas, inundated beneath a tsunami of flour and hot chocolate.

"I like the look; very cute… especially the slippers." He chuckled, smile broadening as I blushed to the roots of my lifeless, powder-streaked hair. Desperately attempting to fluff some life into my hideously flat tresses, I realised too late that I had brutally shoved my yoke-dripping hand into the cake flour, effectively creating a shampoo of molasses.

History dictates that this really shouldn't happen to a person that has even a fragment of a redeeming quality. If turnabout was fair play, Gippal would only have skulked back onto the scene when my heart had fully healed, and I'd magically grown into a C-cup whilst clad in an outfit that would make the gods themselves want me.

"I'm a little busy at the moment, Gippal… so if you'd like to take a number and come again in the morning…" -Or, you know… NEVER- I trailed off, pulling away in a feeble attempt to look rushed off my feet, as opposed to cowed and jittery.

"Need any help?" He asked amicably, drawing back at the stricken expression I adopted. If there was anything I needed, I needed him to be gone from my life; I needed to have never even met the man…

"That would be nice, thank you…" I murmured, before flinching viscerally. Sometimes, I really, really wished that my brain and mouth were in cahoots; it would mean that scenes like this could be avoided. He edged closer again, a frown playing about his face, as if debating whether to ask the dreaded question. "I'm fine… honestly…" I interrupted vehemently as his lips twitched.

However, my words had the adverse reaction to that I had hoped for. If anything, my denial had spurred him on, the look in his eye was now determined to get an answer from me. Scanning over my cookbook, he pinched one of the peanut-butter chips as I continued to fix all of my focus on process the wet mixture as violently as I could with a simple egg beater.

"What's wrong, Rikku? I haven't seen you since this morning… You missed every meal we had… I'm beginning to think I've conversed more with Brother than you during the course of the day…" He fumbled for the words, needing to indirectly demand if this was his doing.

My face fell as I closed my eyes, lids shielding and concealing my emotions. He could never know how much he had hurt me… He had to leave me of his own free will, if not, he would always be able to sway me with yet another promise of change; and I saw no alternative but to almost physically push him from my embrace. I would send him running to the other women; he would flee from this relationship as if a Basilisk was hot on his heels.

"I just didn't feel up to company; messing with the sands of time can take a lot out of a girl, you know?" I joked, knowing Yuna probably would have talked the crew's ears off at mealtimes about our daring feats. Gippal didn't buy it, and the dubious quirk of an eyebrow informed me of the fact, but he decided to let the matter drop for the moment.

"The sphere you found is quite the piece of work. I've never seen anything like it, and my knowledge of machina goes back a damned long way." He changed the subject, something I was eternally grateful for. "Shinra and I finally agreed that it looks pretty much like a war-mech; but it's beyond antiquated and fast-approaching ancient relic status." He described excitedly, looking like a passionate little boy again. "Militarily, it would be a piece of outdated junk, but get this; it has rocket launchers…" He added almost reverentially, reminding me again of his love of all things destructive and mechanical.

By this time, I was spooning each respective mixture onto their makeshift templates, using an improvised cone of rice paper in order to ice the darker mixture onto the vaguely structured blobs and add some semblance of detail to the cookies. The Chocobo was proving difficult, as the lines were almost too intricate to follow with a stream of dough, but I just about managed it, although I'm sure I sacrificed more than a few brain cells in exchange for such intense levels of concentration.

"Thanks for the help…" I muttered, turning from the sudden worry in his eye with the excuse of putting the cookies in to bake.

"Nice to know you're still as transparent as ever, kiddo; cos, unless my memory's going, all I ended up helping with was munching on your ingredients." He replied smugly, oblivious to the way my face contorted as the wound in my heart expanded at being called 'kiddo'.

"I guess you caught me…" I exclaimed feebly, pulling out a chair and collapsing onto it, feeling like my feet were encased in concrete as the lead weight in my chest sapped the energy from my limbs.

We sat in a silence that was lacking the companionable air from before, Gippal's eye fixed on the back of my head as I refused to make the visual contact.

"How long are they in for?" He almost whined, forcing an unbidden smile to spring to my lips. Gippal had never been a patient man; even eight minutes were seven too long. I ignored the question, much like I did when he turned on the puerile refrain of: are we there yet?

"I'm not going to be a child forever, you know…" I announced bitterly, clamping my hands over my stupid, stupid mouth seconds too late. Gippal's eyebrows disappeared almost into his hairline. I decided to plunge on, since I was already doomed to mortification. "I just want to enjoy my freedom, while I'm still entitled to it… I have been under my father's thumb my entire life, and over the last two years, my responsibilities have finally shifted elsewhere. Now, while I am already validated as a person, and as a hero, I am only just starting to live for myself. Now, I am not morally able to do so, because I will always have other commitments to other people; I can not bring myself to take a back seat while others suffer. Even if I have not yet spent a year as my own number one priority; and now, now I am going to inherit the throne my father established. Until the day my fate is sealed, I do not need you to sanction my request to catch up on a childhood that was stripped from me the day my mother died." I growled; blinking back tears as Gippal was stunned into retrospective silence. "Now, would you like a cookie? I've named this one Quasimodo…" I moved the flagging conversation along rather forcefully; cracking the weak joke as I gently lifted the abnormally lumpy cactuar with melted chocolate chip eyes and gaping mouth from the tray in order to present it to its potential consumer. He briefly marvelled at how I had got the three dark strips of dough to stick to the top of its head before accepting the sugary treat with little ceremony.

Covering the cooling cookies with a small tea-towel, I left them in full view of the groggy souls stumbling into the kitchen for breakfast in a few hours. Nibbling at the highly unstable pompom of one of the Moogle cookies, my stomach rejoiced at the prospect of my first small meal in almost eighteen hours.

"Thanks," Gippal stated suddenly, gesturing to a now decapitated Quasimodo. "These are actually pretty damned good…" He offered as graciously as a person like Gippal could manage. He quickly stuffed a warped arm into his mouth to confirm the statement, eyelids flickering as an emerald iris rolled back in delight.

Turning from the entirely too provocative sight with a strangled cough, I began to make my practiced apologies.

"Before we return you to your no-doubt panicking employees, Shinra wanted to make a quick stop-off at Luca… something about circle bashing, I'd sort of tuned out by that stage…" I grinned sheepishly, knowing full well what Sphere Break was, though not wanting to admit that I'd been the one to introduce Shinra to the game as my young protégé. In fact, Shinra had no idea about the tournament, but I was pretty sure he'd commandeer the entire airship if anyone even suggested thwarting his presence at the event.

We needed to be at Luca for my own personal reasons; involving the newscaster Shelinda, and the massive favour she owed me.

"Sounds like fun… I'm sure there's nothing like beating the crap out of geometric shapes…" Gippal drawled sardonically, and I forced back the smile threatening to reach all the way up to my eyes.

"I'm sure it'll be something for the record-books, the Gullwings seem to be pretty epic on the whole…" I joked, recalling all of the unwanted attention we always somehow managed to garner. "Anyways, at this point in time, I'm feeling rather knackered, so, I bid you adieu with this threat: Eat another of those cookies before dawn and I shall hunt you down." I grinned, relieved that I was able to force the lightness back into my tone. I felt naked without the humour and the smiles to fall back on; there was nothing but raw anguish and seething hatred buried beneath layers of despair.

Gippal didn't look entirely convinced, but was willing to settle, as anything must have seemed preferable to my melancholic state and casual avoidance.

"Will do, Cap'n…" He smirked, gracing me with a mock-salute that I couldn't help but beam at. "Goodnight, Rikku…" He concluded affectionately, resting a gloved hand on one of my flannel-clad shoulders. I quelled the betrayed tremor that threatened to run down the length of my body and brought up the corners of my lips to form a soft grin I didn't feel.

"Good morning, Gippal…" I laughed, fleeing the room with a jaunty, unaffected wave, refusing to acknowledge the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.