I'm supposed to be the sage one now, he thought grimly. Braska, or whatever is left of Braska, needs to spend all the time he can with Yuna, not me.
As he expected, the others were not very surprised with his decision, though they tried to talk him into coming. They had already accepted that he was a private man, and it seemed only natural that they wouldn't be allowed to see something as revealing about him as his memories projected. Auron had also expected Kimahri to stay behind as well, simply because he hadn't been able to bring himself to think of the Ronso as an actual thinking, feeling being yet. He was an even more introverted creature than Auron himself, if simply because the others did not look up to him for guidance. What Auron hadn't expected was, instead, the young, vivacious, candid Al Bhed girl's announcement that she would be staying behind. He was suddenly very uncomfortable knowing that he'd be spending the wait alone with her. Auron frowned behind his upturned coat collar and shifted his katana on his shoulder, watching the others file into the Farplane entrance. He was slightly envious of them, and he felt more alienated than ever.
He crouched slowly and sat on the steps. Rikku followed his example, but not before giving everyone leaving a good-bye wave. She sighed quietly to herself and sat wordlessly on the opposite side of the steps, aware that she should prepare for a long period void of conversation or anything very interesting. Auron wanted to tell her that she should go, to experience it while she still had a chance, but was silent. He glanced at her position, her elbows on her knees and her cheeks in her hands. He wondered why someone like her, bright and enthusiastic and ripe to experience new things, would turn down a trip to the temple. Surely she had family she'd want to see– grandparents or aunts or uncles or someone. She certainly seemed the type to become emotionally attached. He finally decided that visiting the Farplane was a fairly religious practice, and that Rikku hadn't wanted to go because the Al Bhed were an atheist ethnicity.
Auron was jerked out of his reverie and his body winced as he turned sharply to Rikku, as if she were a threat.
The girl shied slightly away, drawing her extended arm closer to herself. In her hand she was holding a plump red fruit out to him, and in her other hand she held the nibbled remains of her own.
"I saved some from inside…," she explained cautiously, half afraid of being scolded by him.
Auron shook his head and turned away from her again.
He listened to her mouth working on the fruit as they waited, and was surprised that he regretted that he hadn't taken advantage of the opportunity for conversation. While he had no trouble hiding the fact from the rest of the group, Auron himself was quite aware of his physical attraction to Rikku. He had no romantic illusions about it, however; he was aware of the fact that he was old enough to be her father, and reminded himself of it every time he caught himself watching her body, peeking secretly over his collar at the bronze slice of exposed belly under her shirt, her young and lithe foal legs, and fresh, feline figure. Auron allowed himself these small pleasures, but refused to entertain the idea that she'd be interested in him. Were he not fairly sure that there was a developing romance between Tidus and Yuna, he would have thought Rikku should be pursuing the blitzball player. Not only that, but his own lustful endeavors were hardly important considering why he was traveling with the band of fighters in the first place.
"Have you ever been in the Farplane?" Rikku asked, surprising him again, unable to bear the silence.
"No," Auron answered after a moment. His pause was not one of contemplation, but a polite beat of silence that would prevent his answer from being short and seemingly irate.
"Oh." Rikku tucked her legs closer in, so that her heels were against the step and her knees were together. Auron noticed that her green frilled shorts inched farther up her thighs in this position, so that he could see the vague line of muscle and more of the smooth, curving flesh. "I wonder if it's private, or if everyone can see…," she mused, mostly to herself so that she wouldn't be
imposing chatter on Auron.
"I wouldn't know," Auron muttered, keeping his speech as restrained as hers.
"It's probably sort of creepy in there…,"
So that's it, Auron thought. She's scared. That seems more characteristic.
"There's nothing to be afraid of," he answered, hiding his smugness about figuring her out.
"I'm not," Rikku said quickly. "I just think it'd be a little weird, you know?"
"If you're not accustomed to Yevon tradition, I suppose," Auron answered flatly, pacifying her.
"Well, I guess I'm not…," Rikku decided, satisfied that Auron didn't think it was because she was afraid. She was aware that she would have to work harder to prove herself a valuable guardian to the men of the group, and did not need one of them wrongly assuming that she was scared. She also developed a sudden desire to appear more mature to Auron.
"All this sent, unsent, alive, dead business," she continued, "is sort of confusing, doncha think? I mean… you don't even know who's alive or not, you know?" She said all this before realizing she was chattering to a man she had mentally made note to avoid because of his silence, apparent disgruntled nature, and even his intimidating stature.
Auron's brow furrowed and his mouth turned down to his chin in a frown.
"If you can't tell if a person is alive or dead, I don't suppose it matters, does it?" he said, biting back his personal connection to the matter but still sounding more harsh than he'd intended.
"I guess you're right…," Rikku answered appeasingly, slowly and quietly, careful not to upset the man. It was the most he'd ever said to her, and, not being sure whether to feel privileged or like an annoyance, she was unsure how to treat the conversation.
Auron sensed her uncharacteristic skittishness, but couldn't soothe her. He didn't want her to be afraid of him, but he sat motionless except to shift his katana on his shoulder, letting the information gather and settle in him without commenting on it, the way he treated most of the things he perceived.
"I wonder how long they'll be…," Rikku mused, avoiding the act of asking Auron a question outright. She was annoyed by the unusual shyness that was growing with the amount of time she spent with the older man.
"Not long." Auron sighed and stood slowly, his coat swishing at his boots and the metal on his belt clinking. He dropped his sword farther down his shoulder so that only the hilt rested on him.
"They all know we're on an important journey and we need to be on the move."
"We have to get lots of rest, though," Rikku pointed out. Her voice fell as she lost confidence and she reminded herself with aggravation that she had no reason to fear Auron, nor any reason to worry that he might think she was being deliberately contradictory. "We can't burn ourselves out, you know? Even machina need rest and cooling off to work properly." She was hesitant to mention machina, in case Auron was as opposed to them as Wakka. He was definitely older than the blitzball player, but he was also more sensible. Perhaps he was one who also saw the value in them.
Auron was silent, watching the entrance to the Farplane with his broad back facing Rikku. He was reclusive and stony, but avoided being deliberately disagreeable. Rikku, as she watched the back of Auron's head without realizing she was staring, was discovering this about Auron's personality, and she secretly praised her insight. Auron was like her father in one way: both men were very different from the exteriors they presented to others. She smiled, proud and amused at her realization, as if she had just discovered an endearing weakness of a bear. She was still smiling as she fingered the strap on her thigh, wondering if she had time to treat herself to another fruit.
Rikku looked up abruptly and saw that Auron was looking at her sidelong with his head turned just enough that his good eye watched dully, just above the rim of his red collar, from over his armored shoulder. She also detected a change in his voice and attitude. It was a very awkward shift for him, but he'd softened his voice for her and had managed to convey interest in her answer.
"Oh. Nothing," Rikku said, trying to sound mature and take advantage of his attention. "I was just thinking that you're a little like my dad."
Auron turned his head back to the entrance, wondering if he should feel insulted or appraised.
Just as Rikku was starting to feel disappointed that he hadn't said more, he asked evenly, without turning to her, "Is that good or bad?"
"Oh. Er," Rikku said, taken aback by his delayed response. "Well, it's good. I guess. Yeah." She smiled.
"Mmm," Auron replied, a low and quiet sound he made absently from his throat. He looked at her again, without turning his head, from the corner of his eye, straining a little to do so. Her chin rested in one palm and her head was turned so that Auron caught the view of her profile– her small nose, round golden cheeks, and vivid eyes. He even noticed such small and perfect detail as the thin braids sprouting from her ponytail, tied in red ribbon. She stared off beyond the side of the marble steps in idle reverie. Auron thought she was beautiful, and he noticed for the first time not her waist, thighs, or slim little figure, but her clear and bright face.
He turned before she could realize he was watching her.
The Farplane had put all of its visitors in quiet, contemplative moods; Rikku endured the silence, Auron enjoyed it. His complaint would not have been that he found their chatter annoying, necessarily, but it was distracting to him and his mission while it was simple human interaction for his traveling companions. Tidus was the only of them that he had any sort of emotional bond with, and he'd quickly found that more friendship was more burden on his shoulders than he was willing to carry. He was glad to be moving once more. He did not like obstacles, however necessary, delaying his goals, nor did he like unexpected changes of atmospheres. He was a creature that adapted easily, but preferred his surroundings to be as simple and direct as possible. It was what made him a good fighter, and it was also what made him the tacit leader among them; his emotional detachment, however worthless to their differing personalities, was helpful when they needed impartial opinions. This was what Auron was good for and he realized it. He also saw it as his duty to the group— to provide level-headedness. Were one to ask him to evaluate the others' positions in their crew, he would have designated Tidus their enthusiasm, Wakka their dedication, Rikku their heart, Lulu their intuition, Kimahri their loyalty and Yuna the pivotal centerpiece to their mission, someone with whom they all had emotional ties to in some way.
Eventually, these contrasting personalities began to resurface again from underneath the consensus of reverie that they all shared after the trip. They'd split up by gender, like children, during the course of the trip. Rikku, Lulu and Yuna traveled together, the Ronso always following closely behind for Yuna's sake, and Wakka and Tidus had become the kind of fast, mutual and casual friends that would last forever. Auron lingered with them, if simply because Tidus tended to drag him into their conversations while they walked. His father was a vulnerable spot in his otherwise resilient skin, but Tidus always recovered rather quickly, and it wasn't long before he dragged everyone with him in putting the past where it belonged once more.
"I just realized," Tidus said, pausing to get his and Wakka's attention, speaking out of earshot of Kimahri and the girls behind them, "that you were alone with Rikku the whole time we were at the Farplane!" Tidus laced his fingers behind his head as he walked, elbows jutting outward to give him a nice foot-wide radius on either side to walk in. He grinned at Auron, waiting for a response out of habit before speaking again. "What was that like?"
Auron scowled, unprepared to deal with such. Tidus and Wakka had been kidding each other in matters that concerned the opposite sex for the duration of their journey, but he'd given them no reason to include him in this and he hadn't expected them to find one where there was none.
"How do you mean?" he grunted.
"That a little far-fetched, ya?" Wakka chimed in. "Rikku and Auron." He chuckled. He seemed to be disagreeing out of respect for Auron, but Tidus was far less considerate, or perhaps he just knew that he had no reason to fear teasing the older man.
"Oh, I dunno," he said in a tauntingly thoughtful tone. "Maybe he needs someone to lighten him up."
Wakka, though amused, was perpetually conservative. "She's only, what, thirteen?"
"Fifteen," Tidus chirped optimistically. "In Zanarkand, age differences aren't really that big a deal."
Auron allowed them to continue, aware that they would become bored with the subject sooner or later. They were young but they were fighters, and their mission would not escape them for long.
"Well, anyway," Tidus continued. "We've got to fix him up with someone. He can't have Lulu because she obviously has a thing for you," he said, shifting the teasing in Wakka's direction now.
"Hey!" Wakka objected blushingly, though not backing down. "Well, he can't have Yuna either, 'cause of you, ya!"
Tidus laughed, but didn't deny this. In fact, he began to sport a rather smug expression. "Yeah, exactly!" he said unabashedly. Were Tidus anyone else, Auron would have been prepared to defend a lady's honor, but he knew that Tidus respected Yuna. "So if we get Auron and Rikku together, all that's left is Kimahri," he piped.
"Ah, shut up," Wakka scoffed, dismissing the conversation.
"Yunie…," Rikku began thoughtfully. She had been walking, rather uncharacteristically, with her hands locked behind her back and her head bowed slightly in thought, and Yuna had been on the verge of asking her if anything was wrong when the blonde spoke up.
Yuna switched her staff to the opposite hand and turned her attention to her cousin, a slight frown turning her small mouth downward before she spoke. "Yes, Rikku?"
"You've had experience with guys, right?"
Yuna blushed, her mismatched eyes rounding slightly before she realized that Rikku would never ask her anything that could be potentially embarrassing. Regaining her regal composure, the Summoner straightened her back a little and smiled patiently. "How do you mean?"
"You know," Rikku said, lifting her head from the contemplative bow and inclining her head to Yuna. "Boyfriends. Guys. There must have been lots of them after you in Besaid." Her tone was still not unflattering; in fact, she considered Yuna an epitome of beauty and ladylike persona, and spoke of Yuna's admirers as if it were only natural for them to harbor affections for someone like her. She was not wrong, either, but Yuna was modest enough to have honestly not noticed.
Lulu began to listen as well, interested and amused. Yuna had never had the opportunity for much conversation like this in Besaid. Most girls her own age had either been too jealous of her or too intimidated by her to befriend her, and this was how Wakka, Kimahri and Lulu herself had managed to develop such a strong bond with her.
"I never had much time for romance," Yuna said, not ruefully. "Why do you ask?"
Rikku beamed with excitement, looking briefly to Lulu to include her in the news. "Well… I think I like someone. I thought I'd get advice from an older woman," she explained reasonably, her arms starting to swing once again in a more typical gait.
"I think it depends on the boy and how much you like him," Lulu offered, not treating Rikku's situation as if it were unimportant. She could clearly remember feeling the same things. The intensity of the spectrum of emotions that could be associated with the opposite sex was a part of a girl's shift into a woman. However ridiculous it would seem later, at the moment it was felt it was pivotal and crucial. Lulu understood this and didn't want to Rikku to lose her passion. She was aware that people thought the loss of Chappu was what had turned her cold. She was also aware of the possibility that they were right. A woman with no passion was quickly marked as icy and unapproachable, and this label had been put on Lulu before she could finish grieving and become vibrant again.
Rikku thought she sounded wise, but was inwardly amused at her unknowingly incorrect referral to Auron as a boy. "Well," she said, kicking a pebble out of her path with the toe of one boot, "what if he's the quiet type? Am I too talkative to be with someone like that?"
"No," Lulu said, shaking her head with a light rattle of the decorations in her long black braids.
"No, I don't think so. It's always best to talk with someone and learn how much you have in common besides your personalities. Opposites often attract in nature, and different people can learn from each other. If they're too much alike, they get bored with each other."
"Yes," Yuna added in agreement. She decided that she liked this conversation, as frivolous as she used to think these kinds of topics were. She had no personal experience with the other gender to offer, but the chemistry of opposing elements in magic was something she was very familiar with.
Rikku looked hopeful for a moment, but then her expression darkened again in doubt, shaking her head. "Maybe…," she said. Normally she was quite optimistic, but she knew when a situation was so hopeless that she might as well think about something else. Dwelling on things that she couldn't improve was a fruitless process, she had been taught. It was never productive.
"He'd be lucky to have you, whoever he is," Yuna smiled. "Just be yourself. And if things don't work out, then you're destined to be with someone better."
Lulu nodded absently in agreement, wordlessly dissecting the situation in her mind. Rikku's condition was recent— she hadn't brought up this topic before— and the only men she'd had contact with were the same ones they were all traveling with. Wakka and Tidus, though they were the most likely candidates for Rikku's affection, could certainly not be considered "quiet types", which left Auron and Kimahri. The Al Bhed were very liberal people, meaning that the Ronso was not out of the question, but Kimahri restricted his speech to those who spoke to him. Rikku couldn't possibly have had the opportunity to develop romantic affection for him. From the process of elimination that she was sure Yuna was also taking into account, Lulu came to the conclusion that Rikku was speaking of Auron. She did not vocalize her discovery, however, because that would surely embarrass the girl, or else she wouldn't have kept his identity anonymous.
Meanwhile, Rikku made a disgusted and frustrated guttural sound, tossing her hands up. "I've never wanted to be different before and now I keep thinking about how I wish I were!" Rikku kept the tone of this cry hushed, for Wakka, Tidus and Auron were not far ahead (Kimahri stayed respectfully far enough away from them that he couldn't overhear their conversations).
"Because of him?" Lulu asked, and though her tone was perpetually unreadable, she was sympathetic. When she had first discovered her feelings for Chappu she had longed to be more bubbly and outgoing, like the other girls who had been equally charmed by him. He had been drawn to her mystique and powerful mind, however, first out of platonic respect, which had turned into admiration, which had turned into love. Lulu would always believe that it was the best equation with which love could be eventually reached.
Rikku nodded helplessly, sighing heavily through her nostrils.
"Rikku," Lulu started, "everyone in the world is the person they are for a reason. You're cheerful. Yuna is quiet. Tidus is over-confident and cheeky," she said, adding the last part with dry humor. "We're all part of a very efficient and well-planned structure, and changing who you are will only bring harm to that balance. Be who you are. You are that way because there is someone else in the world that is perfect for you."
Rikku smiled politely. "I guess you're right," she said, nodding, choosing not to tell Lulu that the Al Bhed did not believe in predestination. Instead, she pretended to be placated, watching the red flag of Auron's jacket moving over his shoulders ahead of them as a guide.