The Gumbo Challenge
They were a day's hike from Home when night fell. Rikku jimmied and smiled and laughed, her feathers twisting and twining and tangling.
"We're nearly there!" she said a third time, shaking Tidus.
"Whoa whoa whoa! Stop it!" he said and tried to pry her hands off his shoulders. "We know. You said."
She rolled her eyes. "Like you aren't excited to see Yunie again too!"
Wakka scoffed. "We wouldn't have had to come all this way if you hadn't kidnapped her, ya."
Rikku stuck out her tongue and started to untangle the feathers. She spotted Auron sitting at the edge of the fire light, reading and pranced over, ribbons bouncing.
"Hiya!" she said, flopping down next to him. He glanced at her briefly, then turned back to his book.
"Nothing you'd be interested in."
She scowled. "How d'you know that, huh?"
He sighed and put the book on his knee, holding his place with a thick finger. "It isn't about machina, theft or the horrors of Yevon. I assumed it was outside of your interests."
Her eyes narrowed and she snatched at it, ducking under his arm to get access. Sprawled across his lap she started to flip through the pages. "This is an observation journal!" she crowed, examining a drawing of a crystalline tree.
Auron huffed and tried to take the book back. She held it out of his reach and on his blind side and he leveled his patented glare at her.
Rikku giggled and handed it back. "Okay, okay! How'd you get it?"
He hesitated, then massaged the bridge of his nose, settling in to deal with the exasperating girl. "It's from my first pilgrimage. Braska made it. I'm reviewing it to keep us in good shape as we travel. I was adding entries for Bikanel."
"Really? What is there to add? I mean, all we have is a ton of sand, y'know? Not too much flora around here."
"No, but the creatures are different from every where else."
She smiled up into his face, her eyes crinkling. "I blame my brother's cooking for that, you know."
He bit back a chuckle. "Rikku, are you going to get off of me anytime soon?"
"Nope, I'm comfy." She smiled into his glare before scooping up a handful of sand. She let it trickle between her fingers before she spoke again. Her voice was low and solemn, almost reverent. "Sometimes I forget the reasons I got scared, but I'm still scared. Isn't that funny? Why should I be scared of Yevon, of stinky old men like Mika? But I am. And then . . ." she trailed off before smiling again, forced this time. "I bet Yunie'll like it at Home and never ever want to leave."
"You know she won't stop her pilgrimage." His voice was almost soft, and insistent.
Rikku blinked hard, hiding the shininess of her eyes. "Yeah. I know."
She wiggled worm-like out of his lap, ignoring his grunt when she elbowed him in the ribs. She stood next to him, looking out into the distance for a moment, before pulling a feather from her hair and handing it to him. "For your creature collection," she said with a smile. "Use it as a book mark or something."
The next time Rikku saw the little book was when it fell to the deck of the airship when Auron was twice dead. Dead and sent. She fought the laugh bubbling up through her teeth because wasn't it funny that Auron, the angry grump (she had known he was dead for a while, but she never asked, never wanted to make it real), who she had thought would never go because he was all spit and bile and would never give up, was gone gone gone? No, it wasn't. It wasn't even close, but the laugh came anyway, to push back the tears (big girls don't cry big girls don't cry BIG GIRLS DON'T CRY).
She picked up the book and it opened to a page towards the end. There was her feather, carefully glued in. Written in Auron's tiny, neat handwriting next to it was, "The plumage of the wild Al Bhed. Habits: Theft, stupid dances. Warnings: Always check pockets after being near her. Don't ever let on to feelings; she'll be insufferable for a week."
Tears splashed down onto the page, hot and heavy. She hugged it to her chest before she could damage it. "Stupid, stupid man," she whispered. "I was only smug for a few days. Didn't mean you could never say it again."