The winter storms rolled across the island in waves, clusters of squalls like great paws slowly stalking across the sea. During one of the lulls, Lulu had stepped out of her small hut set back in the trees to feel the light mist of the sky breathing on her skin.
The sky grumbled from rim to rim, rocking the earth underfoot. The trees creaked and shuddered restlessly, branches thrashing in an unsteady wind that gusted hard, then dropped, then picked up again, buffeting her from side to side. In the middle of the square, the remains of the night's campfire and a few carelessly-discarded bottles lay scattered around it. Clicking her tongue, she went forward to gather them up before Wakka caught sight of the mess; he was still a little dubious about Yuna's Al Bhed visitors. Stacking them under the outer awning of her hut, she returned to the open air and tilted her face towards the hidden roof of low-hanging clouds, closing her eyes as the rain began to spit again, pricking against her cheeks.
Some inner instinct drew her straight and tall, senses tingling, and she opened her eyes an instant before a liquid white flash bathed every hut and trunk and strut of the temple in lightning's sharp-shadowed clarity. There was a splintering, deafening crack that rattled right up through her spine, and somewhere in the jungle behind the temple a tree bade farewell to its crown, severed and shattered into a hundred pieces raining down on the soaked forest floor below. She felt the delayed thump as the remains of the upper trunk came crashing to the ground. The mage gave a respectful nod for showmanship.
However, in the midst of the tumult there had been a very different sound, a faint whimpering cry all but drowned by the thunder. It sounded oddly familiar. Lulu turned slowly, allowing her eyes to adjust to the damp and the dark and foggy rain, and spotted a small wretched figure huddled against a pillar of the temple walkway.
The sorceress headed towards her, recognizing the crest of hair dripping down behind skinny shoulders at once. "Rikku?" she called with a trace of sternness. "What are you doing out here?"
"I'm allowed to be in the temple if I want!" the girl huffed, hands pressed against the stone and forehead pressed against her hands. "Just... leave me alone, okay?"
"Rikku, it's me," Lulu said patiently. "And you're not in the temple. Why are you out in the rain?"
The Al Bhed gave a faint moan as another peal of thunder rippled and crackled its way across the sky. "I... um... why are you out here, Lulu?"
"Because I enjoy the storm." The taller woman set her hands on Rikku's shoulders gently, and discovered that she was nearly as rigid as the stone support she was huddled under. "As I recall, you don't. Come inside. You're getting chilled. And the rain's going to pick up again in a moment."
She'd said the magic words, apparently. With as much dignity as she could muster while dripping, Rikku raised her head and gave a casual shrug. "Well, okay. Like, I was going into the temple in a minute anyway."
"My place," Lulu corrected. "I'll fix you something warm. All right?"
"Really? Oh, cool. I haven't gotten to see your house yet." She perked up and tagged after the taller woman leading her back into the trees, but somehow managed to arrive at the door several strides ahead of her as the rain started to sheet down in earnest.
"Oh, man," Rikku said, shaking herself off vigorously outside the door and then ducking inside. "Can't you make it stop or something, Lulu? This was just totally the wrong time to visit you guys." There was still an odd quaver in her voice. She wrapped her arms around herself and fidgeted from foot to foot in the darkness while Lulu slipped past her, snapping her fingers over a few hanging lamps that flickered to life with a refreshingly golden glow nothing like the cold, baleful glare of the lightning. The mage leaned over a potbellied ceramic stove set near the back wall and coaxed the coals to life. A promising red glow crinkled behind the grill. Then she drew out two oversized towels from a chest at the foot of the bed, bringing one over to drape around the dripping girl's shoulders. It was soft and fluffy like chocobo feathers, but it was still black. Rikku snuggled into it with a faint smirk. "Thanks, Lulu."
The older woman hung her own towel on a coat-peg and reached for the ties of her sleeveless gown, which was clinging to her like snakeskin. "I suggest you hang up your wet things to dry. You can stay the night, if you wish. The storm's not likely to let up any time soon." In fact, she had to raise her voice slightly; the rain was drumming hard on the wood-and-canvas roof. Rikku though it sounded a little like the engines of the airship, which made it less intimidating.
She hesitated, hovering on the doormat with the towel wrapped around her shoulders. "So..." she said, shyly watching Lulu peel herself out of her clothes like she was some kind of jungle fruit. The woman swapped her gown for the towel hanging on the hook, draped it neatly around herself, and rolled the edges over. Noticing Rikku's scrutiny, she lifted an eyebrow, then glanced towards the door. "Don't worry. Even if it weren't raining, I don't get surprise visitors."
"Heh. Guess not," Rikku said a little enviously. She waited for Lulu to turn away before slipping out of her shorts and unbuckling her orange top. At least it was getting too tight now across the chest, but Lulu's inadvertent reminder had vividly underscored Rey's drunken words earlier this evening. Meanie. She was going to be a "real" woman like Lulu too, in just a few more years. She tied the towel around herself, trying to imitate the way the older woman had tucked the edges under, and retrieved her wet scarf to cover her neck and shoulders. "Yuck," she muttered under her breath, spreading it over tender spots she would rather not have to explain by the worldly-wise Lulu, who had probably graduated from hickeys to something way cooler before Rikku got her first set of safety screwdrivers.
The quiet sorceress has been bustling around the cozy hut while Rikku undressed. A kettle was sitting on the stove-top now, and a few cushions were drawn up on either side of a low table, where Lulu had set out two earthenware mugs. A stack of folded blankets had been placed beside the table. Standing by the stove, she reached up and plucked one of several dried bundles of herbs hanging overhead, drawing out a few dried clusters of leaves and dropping them into a strainer. "Now then," she said, noticing that Rikku was still hovering on the doormat. "Please, make yourself at home." She spoke soothingly over another more distant rumble of thunder.
Feeling a little less sodden, Rikku began to circle the hut, prowling and picking things up and snooping. There was a a tall narrow rack filled with scrollcases stacked on their sides, but books weren't really her thing. Instead, she entertained herself for a while poking through a cabinet holding neat vials of odd-colored liquids and powders, teeth, scales, crystals, bits of hair, bones, and other souvenirs she recognized from their pilgrimage, which were probably part of the reason the witch's hut received so few visitors. It was nice, really. There were lots of herbs hanging from the ceiling, and only a few lizard skins. Rikku remembered that the red ones made good seasoning in a pinch. There were beads and necklaces up there too -- Lulu had some great jewelry -- and of course a mirror large enough to encompass the mage's elaborate do. An oval-shaped bed against the wall was ample enough for two, but had just one pillow. Near the bed, a hanging green curtain concealed a line strung across the wall, from which hung a collection of gowns and dresses and corsets. There was also really spiffy pair of high boots flopped over below. Rikku would have to find some boots like that, only not black, of course.
She realized belatedly that Lulu was sitting all prim and proper watching her explorations with a faint smile. Grinning and pointing at the boots with a thumbs up, Rikku pattered over and sat down on the cushion closest to the fire, wrapping a blanket over her legs. "So how's Wakka? I didn't see him tonight."
Lulu gave an eloquent head-shake. "He's not exactly... fond... of your friends." She gazed at the wall. "I haven't spoken to him in a week."
"Oh boy." Rikku looked up anxiously. "He... um... bothering you again?"
Lulu folded her hands in her lap and sighed. "He needs to make up his mind once and for all whether he's playing this year. And if not, he needs to find something else to do with himself. Quickly," she added irritably.
Rikku winced. "Well, good luck," she said wistfully. Lulu arched an eyebrow at the odd note in her voice, so she added hastily, "I mean... sometimes he just takes a while to make up his mind. He really likes you, though, y'know?"
Lulu chuckled at the oblique remark. "I had noticed." She reached out and adjusted one cup minutely on the table. "No, he hasn't proposed. He hasn't even tried to bring up the subject. Not a single stammer."
Rikku put a hand to her forehead and shook it in an unconscious imitation of the mage. "Oh, man. Why don't you ask him? I mean... if you... that is..."
Lulu smiled. "We'll see." She gazed down at the table. "I can't always be telling Wakka what to do. He needs to learn a lesson from you and Yuna and find his own path."
Rikku perked up slightly, then started as the kettle began to squeal. Lulu poured her a spiced herb drink that smelled a little like one of Rin's specials. Rikku leaned forward and wrapped her hands around her warm cup gratefully. She heard a faint gasp and looked up.
Lulu was staring at her curiously, and Rikku suddenly realized the scarf she was wearing had slipped down. She dropped the mug with a slosh and scrambled to cover up the red and purple bite-marks, blushing.
Lulu smiled over the rim of her mug and sat back so calmly that Rikku exhaled in relief. "Yeah," she said with a crooked smile. "Got myself a boyfriend!"
"So I see." She took another quiet sip. "Looks like fun."
Rikku found her smile and polished it nicely and showed her teeth, although she didn't answer. The mage was also smart, that was the trouble.
"So, why were you out in the rain tonight?" the older woman asked gently. "I assumed you'd gone back to the ship with your friends." There was the softest lilt on the word "friends", but it wasn't teasing, it was just knowingness from one girl to another, and really that ought to be okay.
It wasn't, though. Rikku tipped her mug back, finishing off the cup and setting it down before she said, "Well, you know, I can hang out with them any time. I thought I'd stop by Yunie's, only then the rain caught me and--"
"Rikku." Lulu laid a hand across her wrist and the words just stopped and the Al Bhed girl squinched her face up tight.
"It's nothing, it's just, we fight sometimes, okay? Like you and Wakka. He was kinda drunk and--"
The fingers across her wrist tightened infinitesimally, and the sudden sharp glower in Lulu's eyes was directed past her shoulder. "I see." The woman frowned. "This wouldn't be that young man who--"
"The one I stopped you from turning into a cinder. Yeah. Rey. That jerk." She blinked rapidly, and squeezed out another smile. "I should be really mad at you, y'know? The boys all think you're so pretty, even the ones who don't say it."
"Ah." Lulu's thumb stroked her hand lightly. "Well, I cannot apologize for being what I am. But you're a lovely person, Rikku, and any man should be happy enough in your company. I envy that bright spark in you that lifts the spirits of everyone around you."
Rikku blinked. "Really?" She smirked. "Well, yeah, because I'm Rikku! That's what I do."
"That's right." She poured the girl another cup of tea, expression troubled. "So enjoy yourself. Just be sure you're being true to yourself, Rikku-- you're not me, and you have your own very special magic. Remember why you were so angry at Yuna for being a Summoner: because she was sacrificing herself for others. There are more subtle ways of doing that."
"Uh, right." Rikku fiddled with the edge of the wet scarf, finally gave up and shucked it off with a shrug. There had to be some snappy comeback in here somewhere, a way to show that happy ol' Rikku was a-ok, everything under control, nothing to worry about. "I guess you're right. Sometimes you can be such a wet blanket, Lulu!" she teased.
"Hmm," the mage said, glancing down. "Perhaps. But right now, you are getting my blankets wet." She capped her mouth with a hand, yawning discreetly. "Speaking of which, let me fetch another pillow. Will you be all right sharing?"
It was an odd question to ask, considering how often the cousins had bunked together to save money on the pilgrimage. Then again, that had been just Yunie; Lulu usually got a room to herself. Rikku nodded a little shyly, finishing her second cup as Lulu moved past her to arrange the bed, adding a few extra fluffy blankets. Yes, fluffy. They were thick and soft and looked more stuffed than Wakka's tummy. Rikku supposed black leather sheets would be uncomfortable even for Lulu.
"Hey, no problem!" Rikku gathered up the cups and got her arms wet again sticking the dishes outside the door for an easy rinse, then came back to find Lulu had set out for her a sort of green shimmery thing that was probably a slip and was definitely not something a girl would wear. "Oh, cool."
"Sorry about the bows." Lulu looked faintly embarrassed. "Chappu got it for me."
Rikku grinned, slipping it over her head and letting the towel drop. There were, indeed, bows. Right over both tits. With dangly ribbons. "Oh boy. You probably looked really cute in it."
"It didn't fit." Lulu chuckled, slipping into something a little more sober. "Thank goodness." She circled around, putting out the lights.
The rain drummed relentlessly on the roof, and the thunder wouldn't stop; every time a cell moved off another rolled in, growling and shaking up the island. Rikku was a little more resigned to it than she used to be, but she had other reasons for being restless tonight. She tried not to disturb Lulu, who lay dozing lightly like a sphere full of secrets, an enigma on the opposite pillow. Rikku liked the way her braids and the straps of her nightgown made black stripes over her neck and shoulders, visible even in the dark. The Al Bhed had never really been afraid of her, although Tidus had warned her long ago that the mage was Scary, but she was still a little intimidating.
Rikku decided she needed to do something more creative with her own braids. She sighed and turned for the hundredth time, trying to get comfortable. Maybe the bed was just too soft.
"Rikku?" She felt a hand brush lightly over her head, stroking her the way Lulu used to fuss with Yunie's hair on their road together. "Come here."
"I'm sorry," the Al Bhed said muzzily. "I don't want to keep you awake."
"It's all right. I like the company. It's been a while."
It sounded weirdly like a proposition, but that didn't seem likely. Rikku rolled over sleepily and snuggled up to the woman the way she used to cling to Yunie, making sure her cousin wouldn't sneak off to fight Sin in the middle of the night and get killed without her. It wasn't quite the same, though, because Lulu was a lot bigger in front. And squishy. The mage settled an arm around her.
"Lulu?" Rikku whispered, shifting her hips restlessly. "Why does it hurt so much? I mean it's fun and...really fun... and all... but still... isn't it supposed to be all swish-and-yum tingly?"
"Mmm." The older woman sounded faintly amused by her description, but responded frankly. "It shouldn't hurt after the first few times. Unless you want it to hurt." She paused, pondered, and added gently, "Your hips are a little narrow. Is he...big?"
Rikku giggled. "He says he is. But I don't think so. I mean, I haven't gotten too many chances to compare so far."
"Men always boast. I'm not sure what they're trying to prove, other than the fact that they would be useful for plugging leaks in a sinking boat." That drew another faint giggle. "It sounds to me like he's playing a little rough."
Rikku tensed. "Yeah, maybe. But it's just for fun, y'know?"
"His fun?" The frown was audible. "So if I'd made you stand outside with me all night, that would be all right, because I like lightning?"
"Ummmm..." Rikku shook her head. "I guess not. 'Cause you're not that cruel." Except maybe to Wakka she added silently. A huge yawn suddenly overtook her. Maybe she was finally getting sleepy despite the storm.
"Exactly." Lulu sighed irritably. "I've half a mind to show you what it should feel like, so you can teach him. Or make different choices."
Speaking of tingly. Rikku gaped at the woman, but it probably didn't show in the dark. "You're not serious. Aw, man, I bet he'd be jealous!"
"Probably." Lulu sounded as collected as ever. "An idle thought. I might be able to show you a few pointers sometime, if you like. Now go to sleep. Try. Or I'm going to have to use something stronger on you."
"Lulu!" the Al Bhed grumbled. "I thought that stuff smelled a little funny." She yawned again. "Cheater." She snuggled a little closer.