Title: Memoirs Of An Unsent Guardian
by tuatha danaan

Summary: Auron's recollections of certain events during his pilgrimage with Yuna, and in the past.
Classification: FFX fic, AU, Auron/Rikku *something* with UST (unresolved sexual tension, and lots of it.)
Rating: R for description of tasteful nudity (yes she's hanging in a very respectable gallery) and reference to pornography, mild language.
Disclaimer: The characters in this story belong to Squaresoft, but the story
is mine.

Author's note: I wrote this and *I* don't even know what it is.
Ingredients: Angst.
Warning: May contain slight traces of humour. Also contains references to Auron and porn. (Is that a fanfic cliche, or something? :)
Oh yeah, charges of OOC-ness will be responded to with an insanity plea. ('It was either that or the twinkies, your Honor.' :)
Feedback is welcomed, feel free to tell me if you think this is weird or perverted or whatever, but please remember: 'Flames cause bushfires, and bushfires are bad, and we wouldn't want to cause any bushfires now, would we?
Memoirs Of An Unsent Guardian
Maechen began to lecture them on pyreflies and Yuna and Tidus listened attentively while the old man began to ramble on. Auron allowed his attention to drift away when it became clear that the ancient scholar's learned opinion was of little more account than a tale told to children.

The old man undoubtedly meant well, he'd studied the texts with care and attention to detail, but Yevon knew the facts had been dried out and dusted off till they bore little resemblance to the truth. They were still fascinating to anyone who had little experience of the workings of life and death on Spira, as Tidus and Yuna's rapt expressions attested, but Auron had more experience with such matters than anyone now alive on Spira.

It was even highly possible he knew more than anyone dead either, with the possible exception of Mika, his experience seeming unique considering how rarely the undead escaped the hell of transformation into fiendishness. He could probably write a book to rival any that Maechen had read, full of tips for the recently dead.

He knew of course that the first thing you learn when recently dead is that trying to remain on the physical plane is extremely difficult without a body. This was because pyreflies are the essence of awareness, existence, memory and anima. They are also highly volatile, each one made up of thousands of tiny lights that swirl and coalesce and connect to each other, weaving about the whole and creating the sense of unity that forms consciousness and awareness of self.

Without a body they are amorphous, able to move and change too freely, changing awareness, changing the very nature and structure of the recently dead. Without a body for long enough the knowledge of life that was stored in that mind would irreversibly alter to the point that the undead no longer knew anything of life or the concerns they once held dear. They drift away, losing more and more coherency until they reach the farplane, irrevocably severing their ties with this one.

Auron's lack of attention to Maechen's stories also did not imply that he despised book-learning. On the contrary he'd learned one of the most important lessons of his life and subsequent death from a book at an early age. It had taken dying for him to realise the practical applications of the lesson, but he recalled vividly being taught the sciences at the temple in Bevelle when he was little more than nine or ten years old, and being impressed by the statement that matter and energy were interchangeable and immutable. Matter could become energy and vice versa, but neither could be destroyed in the exchange.

It was a simple physical rule of the universe, as simple as gravity, and as hard to apply successfully as falling upwards into the sky. But somehow, somehow he had managed it.

Perhaps it had been because his wounds had been mortal yet not instantaneously fatal. He had struggled down Mt Gagazet with little more than determination and sheer willpower as his strength failed him, and perhaps the time spent in agony as he desperately willed his soul to remain within the ruined shell of his body had been better spent than he ever could have imagined at the time.

He thought it had allowed him to form a template to base his efforts on as he rebuilt that shell, piece by piece until he looked like a rough approximation of his old self. If you counted the eternity of anguish that he'd endured in the interim between life and death and undeath it was actually a very good approximation. It was close enough to fool almost everyone anyway, and that was all he'd needed. He knew better than to ask for more than that.

He'd seen the results of such desires too many times to count. Being without a body was dangerous enough, but to be dissatisfied with what you had left after piecing yourself back together was suicidal. To want to be stronger, faster, more beautiful than you ever had in life, and to have the power to change yourself to meet every whim was a seductive course that would lead to the ultimate destruction of everything that had ever made you human.

His book if he wrote it could very well be entitled 'How fiends are born' by 'Auron, the failed guardian and ex-communicated warrior monk of the time of High Summoner Yuna's Calm.' He thought perhaps it would be better to have a pseudonym, although the absolute likelihood that such a book would be burned with not even a copy kept by the Grand Maester himself for fear of it falling into the wrong hands, made that a moot point.

He was drawn back to the present by the youngest of his fellow guardians. Although she, like Tidus and Yuna had listened to Maechen at first with wide-eyed interest, her attention span was almost as short as Wakka's, and her energy and enthusiasm for life rarely allowed her to sit still long enough to impart to her any kind of wisdom longer than a homily.

She had come over to stand before him, one hand on her hip and the other raised with her elbow akimbo, an expressive pose as she bounced on her toes and smiled up at him winsomely.
"Whatcha thinking about?"

He looked down at her through the screen of his glasses and pondered possible answers that might appease her curiousity, without hinting too closely at the truth. He thought briefly about not answering, wondering if her attention would wander off to some other pursuit if he waited long enough. He saw a tiny frown line begin to appear between her brows and guessed not this time.

"About a book I once read."

Her eyes widened, she had obviously not expected such a pedestrian answer from the legendary guardian he was so popularly assumed to be.

"Oh." He waited her out once more, hoping she'd give up but she rallied with another question. "What kind of book?"

He paused once more, this time thinking his purpose would be better served by the truth, but her question continued, due to his thoughtful pause giving her time to add more specific conditions to her question.

"Adventure? Romance?" She batted her eyelids coquettishly at him. "Adventure AND romance? I think they're the best...I love stories where the hero is handsome but remote, and the beautiful princess falls in love with him but they are beset by trouble, and get lost in the wilderness together, then he rescues her and they fall in love...they're so romantic."

He was taken aback, not just by her words but the way she looked at him when she said them. As if she imagined him cast in the role of the hero of her story and she was the beautiful maiden. It was uncomfortable for a man who was not particularly impressed with himself to deal with the unfortunate misconceptions that others had about him. The casual praise from passing strangers who believed him to be a brave and noble guardian was bad enough. He felt like a heel to accept their good opinion as if it was due to him for his role in the debacle of Braska's pilgrimage.

But the deference paid to him by his fellow guardians became almost insupportable at times. Yuna especially, who seemed to revere him had no idea that every time she bowed or spoke gratefully of the honour of his accompanying her on her journey that her respect only made him feel sick inside, knowing that he deserved nothing more than curses and kicks for what he'd done, what he'd allowed to be done to her father.

The other guardian who was difficult for him to cope with was standing before him with one eyebrow arched prettily as she waited for an answer to her question. She was not waiting patiently, her tapping foot and the almost return of the frown line told him that.

"I'm afraid not. I was thinking of a science text I studied once when I was at Bevelle."

Her reaction was predictable, but nonetheless entertaining. Her nose wrinkled up, then her mouth turned down as she stared at him to try to see if he could possibly be serious. That his expression did not change decided her further reaction, and she laughed.

"Ecccchhhh! Auron, that's sooooo boring."

She looked over at the old Scholar who was now talking about the farplane, while Yuna seemed to droop in her seat as even her interest waned in the old man's dronings, then she leaned in closer, whispering theatrically if far too loudly, "Almost as boring as him."

Auron gave a sharp glance towards Maechen who seemed not to have heard Rikku's words. Whether the old man was hard of hearing or had just not been paying attention, Auron was glad that he had not heard and taken offence. Then he looked back toward Rikku.

"Almost? I was sure you'd find it more boring."

"Well, no. I'm sure you could make it sound interesting if you tried." She looked almost serious for a moment, far more than she usually did, a sign that warned him of potential danger in her next statement. "You have such a nice voice."

He perforce had to remain silent, since the last thing he wanted was to encourage her by letting her think he wanted to please her by speaking. If only he had some way of diverting her attention from himself, but there wasn't a science text that could save him from the wiles of a girl as charmingly innocent as the young Al Bhed who stood before him, and he knew it.

It was clear that the girl was impressionable. The first time he'd gazed into her eyes standing by the Moonflow had confirmed it, but that gaze had also had the unfortunate effect of fixing her attention and interest on him. If he wasn't damned by his own condition of unworthiness for any kind of positive attention he'd be flattered by her crush on him, but as things stood he knew that for her he gave the impression of a strong and protective presence, a false facade that would crumble to dust with even the gossamer weight of a young woman's romantic dreams. He was unfit for anything but one last attempt to right the wrong he'd perpetuated in life, anything else was unseemly and fraught with danger for himself and others.

The problem he had was his own desire to right the wrongs of his past. He owed a duty as a guardian to Yuna to protect her, as he'd offered his services to her and she'd accepted. That duty could not be undone, nor would he wish to abandon his resolve to protect her better than he had her father.

But part and parcel of a guardian's duty was to protect his fellow guardians as he would his summoner. If there was a choice to be made then his duty lay with Yuna of course, but in any other case he had to be willing to protect them as much as he would her. Since a guardian might himself fail, saving his fellow guardians was imperative, as in his absence they were there to protect her too. His last duty as a guardian was to protect himself, in order to be able to continue in his role as guardian.

Those three basic tenets of a guardian's existence prevented him from attempting to drive Rikku away. She had feelings, unlike him. She was young and impressionable and he had to deter her gently without destroying her faith in him, or in her other fellow guardians, or in humanity in general.

Everytime she looked at him with her emerald eyes swirling in a gently hypnotic dance he found himself fighting a losing battle. Anyone else would have given him points for trying, but Auron was not anyone else.

She sighed deeply. "Well, I think I'm going to go and talk to Kimahri. I'll see you later."

Despite her reluctance to leave the conversation she waved brightly as she tripped away to sit beside the Ronso and exercise her winning smile on him. It was Auron's turn to breath a sigh, this time one of relief, although he found it difficult to turn his eyes away from her earnest and sincere expression as she looked up at the fierce Ronso as she began to speak, her hand turning up and gesturing in time with her words.

Kimahri eyed her silently while he listened to the girl who could ramble on about nothing nearly as much as Maechen when the mood took her. Then Auron finally found the self-control to turn away, finding a more useful pursuit in examing the bookshelves of the store. He was half hoping to find a title there that might aid him in the gentle persuasion of the fairer sex to other more suitable objects for their affections, but found the library sadly lacking in the sort of information he needed.

He cast his eye over the shelves idly while he wondered why she'd gone to speak to Kimahri. Of all the possible choices in the room Kimahri was the least likely to indulge in conversation barring himself. Was she trying to tell him something? Was she chastising him for being harder to talk to than the silent and stern Ronso warrior? Or was she trying to tell him that faced with a choice of his voice or someone else's she'd prefer silence? He shook his head free of the delusions brought on by the latter, he couldn't afford to think like that about her.

Rin had emerged from a backroom and was standing in conversation with the barkeeper which gave him an idea. Auron was not entirely sure it was a good idea, but it was not the first time he'd allowed his impulses to rule his actions. He walked over and waited until Rin turned to him, allowing his subordinate to return to his work, before he asked the question that had occurred to him.

"I hope that you can help me, I was looking for a book."

"I'd be glad to be of service if I can. Was there something in particular?"

"Yes and no...but I don't see anything like it here."

"Please, come into my office, there may be something more to your liking there."

Auron realised the other man had jumped to a slightly incorrect conclusion. He shook his head, but the proprietor was already moving toward the back hallway so he followed. When they reached the office and Rin showed him the extensive collection of material there he again demurred, this time with more effect.

"I'm sorry, this isn't exactly what I meant."

Rin's eyes widened. "I beg your pardon! But I am a man of my word, if you tell me what it is you desire I shall do my best to obtain it for you."

If Auron had been as fluent in Al Bhed as the man he was speaking to he would undoubtedly have said 'Tysh Ed!' to himself. Now Rin had an even worse impression of him, one he had to set straight for his own peace of mind, and to prevent any potentially embarrassing consequences from his request.

"No, no, I was hoping for something educational. About women. To help...the inexperienced person learn more about relations between..." He was truly suffering in his attempts to conjure words that were less embarrassing than Rin's previous misunderstanding that he wanted some kind of perverted reading material, but fortunately the Al Bhed rescued him.

"Ah...I see. I do apologise for my earlier confusion. Please wait here, I'll see if I can find something...that is more suitable to your interests." With that Rin left him standing in his office to look at the shelves of books that would have caused an uproar if they'd been housed in one of the temples. There was one that had caught his eye earlier and he gazed furtively at the door as he lifted it from the shelf.

He was a cultured man, well versed in the fragility of the handbound books of Spira, so despite his interest and his desire for haste he opened the pages carefully, his hands trembling as he gazed at the frontispiece. His only sexual experience had been the fumbled kiss and half remembered grope of a young woman that had precipitated his excommunication by the temple guards, an experience that he remembered with more terror than fondness, but this picture roused in him a desire that transcended his own experience.

The naked woman reclined on an ornately decorated couch, her body draped in all the wrong places with a rich cloth that fell in attractive folds around her. His eyes roamed over her form, examining the curves of her body, the pleasing symmetry of her breasts despite her sideways pose and the effects of gravity, the tapering of her hips up toward a narrow waist, and finally the inner curve of her leg as it sloped upward toward a fragile and soft vee shape at the apex of her thighs. The woman in the picture had glorious auburn locks, and her face was too perfect, but his eye was fascinated by the soft paleness of her skin which had been clearly rendered by the artist. He could imagine touching those pale smooth curves and feeling the warm smooth flesh beneath his fingertips.

Completely entranced he looked up surprised as the door opened to admit Rin, looking slightly dusty as he brought an old looking tome to the desk, barely paying a glance to the book still held in Auron's hands.

"I think this might be of some use to you." Then the Al Bhed had the gall to smile at him. "Please feel free to read at your leisure here. I assure you the chair is comfortable. There's some sherry on the sideboard, please help yourself." He gestured with his hand to a tray with glasses and a decanter and turned to leave Auron to continue his perusal of Rin's collection in privacy.

Auron wondered why the man was being so accommodating, but did not dare to question it. He had a choice to make though, and was hoping Rin would grant a further request. "Thank you. This other book...if I may I'd like to borrow it. I promise to take care of it and return it to one of your shops, if that would be..."

Rin interrupted. "Of course! It would be an honour to me, and I know you will indeed take great care with it." He bowed and left Auron to ponder once more the injustice of being so highly regarded, when he could do nothing to remedy the situation and had perforce to take advantage of his fortunate reputation.

But it allowed him to put aside his quest for knowledge into the female psyche for a more pressing infatuation with the art of the human body. He opened page after page, familiarising himself with the variety and beauty of the female form displayed within, not even realising until it was too late that he was unconsciously correcting each as they were revealed to be too fat, too thin, slightly too tall, not blonde or green-eyed or with such slender shoulders and pretty breasts beneath her orange top. When he did realise he compounded his error by trying to imagine what she would look like in one of these pages, her hair unbound and pretty eyes swirling up at him while he was free to let his eye roam over her unadorned body.

He slammed the book shut as carefully as he could while still demonstrating his determination to thrust the treacherous thought from his mind, returning it to the shelf. When he picked up the book Rin had brought him he was greatly relieved to find that it contained no colour renderings at all, although there were hand drawn illustrations that looked highly instructive on several of the pages. The book was titled 'A Guide to the Newly Married on All Matters of a Successful Union and Conception.' While not exactly what he required he hoped that it would by default tell him what not to do if he wanted to avoid further entanglement with Rikku as a result of his own misbegotten impulses. At the very least he hoped that reading it would at least distract him from attempting to pursue those impulses.

He read the introduction, finding the author to be almost as dry and dusty as Maechen which was a relief, and an antidote to his unwanted reaction to the book he'd been looking at earlier. Several chapters later he was a lot more educated about what might have happened with a maester's daughter many years before, if a bunch of temple guards had not chosen that particular moment to burst into his cell.

What he read wasn't exactly what he'd imagined from the clinical description in the book. He'd expected something more mystical and mysterious than the simple cause and effect documented by the author. The first thing that surprised him was the assumption that the male had the greater burden of instructing his new wife in the art of sex.

His one experience had been that Tymarru had come into his room wild eyed and panting, grabbed him by the neck and tried to kiss the breath from his body and the strength from his limbs. She'd then collapsed on top of him, only being deterred by the presence of six armed guards, who'd proceeded to pull him out from beneath her and throw him across the room for his presumptive assault upon her innocence.

It had been a hard lesson in the injustice of Yevon, but one he'd thought he'd put behind him many years before. To find that he was not as inured to the memory as he'd thought was slightly unpleasant.

The second surprise was to read that success depended greatly on his self-control. He'd read that a young virgin was just as likely to be frightened by his physical attentions as she was to welcome them, yet another fact that did not fit well with his experience. He thought about Rikku, the way she smiled up at him with her hip thrust forward, and couldn't decide in his own mind if she would be like Tymarru or more like the mythical woman who was learning about married life in the book he was reading.

That his thoughts had once more drifted to very girl he was trying to avoid thinking about disgusted him. He shut the book on the third chapter, not prepared to face any more revelations at the moment. Perhaps he would be better to leave the book behind in the morning when they left, but he was quite sure that he knew himself well enough to know that he wouldn't. Despite his disgust with himself and what he was sure was a serious inaccuracy in detail in the book itself he was far too fascinated now by the subject to give it up.

He wondered if going back into the main room and drinking some of the draught there would be a mistake or not. He decided to go for broke. If he drank enough he would put himself to sleep and not be plagued with these ridiculous notions, at least not until he woke again.

He tucked the book safely beneath his wide belt before going back to the main room. Kimahri was standing at the bar, a mug resting before him. That was just as well, since Auron would have company while he drank himself hopefully into oblivion.

It wasn't until he woke the next morning with the ghost of a hangover and his own remorse over his uncontrolled thoughts the night before that he realised what a big mistake it had been.

His first inkling was when he opened his eye to find his vision fuzzy and uncoordinated. He reached up and felt around until he'd cleared the gunk from his eyelash, allowing him to see enough to rise and stagger to the washroom at the back. His reflection should have been penance enough, especially when he scowled at himself in remonstrance at his terrible behaviour.

He washed himself in the cold water, denying himself the benefit of the warm in further penance, and struggled to shave due to his hand shaking from the cold, or the effects of the drink he'd consumed the night before, he wasn't sure which. Finally feeling as though he looked halfway presentable, even if it would take him at least a week to feel it, he emerged only to be confronted by six people talking all at once, and doing so far too loudly. He winced in response and exited the room as quickly as he dared before he made inadvertent eye contact with Rikku.

The others eventually followed, all of them showing great foresight in taking one look at his stone like glare into the distance and deciding against approaching him. All except Rikku, who hop skipped and jumped out of the doorway, held her hand above her eyes to counteract the glare of the sun and then proclaimed brightly, "Everyone ready to go?"

Auron winced in response but Tidus predictably enough gave her his own less than military standard salute. "Right on!"

Auron was sure he deserved a worse hell than this so he said nothing, leading the way and doing his best to avoid the two noisiest teenagers of the party. After they'd walked through most of the morning he began to tire and eventually dropped back to the rear of the party, finally lagging behind quite badly as the others failed to notice his less than stellar performance as a guardian.

It was unfortunate that Rikku looked back at that moment, her eyes narrowing as she gazed at him before she slowed to allow him to catch up to her. It was unavoidable. Perhaps she would see what a mess he was and her innocent infatuation would wane. It was a faint hope.

But instead she leaned forward to peer at his eye, her own softening with sympathy. "Are you feeling okay?"

He stared at her impassively as always, but her instincts were not pacified by his display of unconcern. "You're not, are you?"

Then she reached out and placed her hand gently on his shoulder, letting her hand run softly downward over his bicep. Through the fabric of his coat he could feel every nuance of the pressure she exerted on him. The soft pads of her fingertips and her palm caressed his flesh, clinging and sliding over him like a shock of pure silk. He was grateful for the collar and glasses that hid most of his expression from her, but her words did almost as much to undo his resolve as her touch had.

"Poor Auron...you look like you badly need to rest."

She even had the insight to skip several steps ahead before she called out to the others, a sensitivity he'd never expected from her. "Hey, guys! Wait up!"

Then she waited while Auron mustered a halfway decent expression and continued toward the rest of the party, who were now waiting just ahead. She fell into step beside him, and he hoped she would not say anything too embarrassing about his condition to the others. When they reached the little group she stopped. "Think we could break for lunch soon? I'm starved."

Yuna nodded and the others found places to sit near each other while they ate and talked. Their sociability was not unpleasant to him, he could admit that to himself, but his own choice was to try to remain apart from them. He was trying to protect them from himself, since none of them deserved to have their innocence shattered by learning the things he knew. He would continue to keep it from them for as long as he could. And so he took some of the food they'd set out and walked away, finally ensconsing himself on a fallen log just out of sight of the others. He would hear them clearly enough to know when they began to pack up and re-emerge then to join them.

However he hadn't counted on Rikku's persistence. She came into the clearing with a sandwich in one hand and far too much energy in her steps to be anything but compelling as she moved, then her eyes lit up when she saw him.

"There you are."

Her smile was like sunshine, warming, life-affirming, reminding him of pleasurable sensations from back when he could still feel. Lying on a sandy beach after bathing in the sea, a garden he'd visited near his barracks at Bevelle temple, cool and fragrant one late spring afternoon, the sound of the hymn rising from the throats of boys whose normal speaking voices were anything but musical.

She looked like sunshine and fresh air and all the musical notes of the hymn together. If he could only keep her as far away as the orb that travelled through the sky she would be safe from him, and he could bask freely in her gift. His own eyes lightened when his gaze met hers and he had to tamp the feelings back down inside as she approached. She sat next to him and he was aware of her closeness, the way she seemed to lean into him.

He was no stranger to the vagaries of fate, having experienced the cruelty of the random accidents that irrevocably destroyed a man's assumptions about his course in life. Fate had been especially cruel to him in the past. But to throw this trusting and beautiful creature into his path when his patience and virtue was at its shortest leash was nothing less than a malicious act of unparalleled evil.

It reminded him that Yevon did not have a complete strangehold on all religious and philosophical thought. He himself had handled texts that contained questionable, if not outright heretical theories about life, death and the farplane. Most of them were at least two or three hundred years old, and one of these views in particular was that after departing to the farplane, pyreflies reform into new spirits that enter the womb at conception and are reborn with a new consciousness and identity.

The theory went on to suggest that mistakes made by that person could occasionally be remedied, while good deeds would be rewarded. Punishments could also be meted out if that spirit had committed a particularly atrocious act in a past life. If such a view was true, Auron thought he must have once been the worst tyrant who ever lived, based on his life and death in this one.

Rikku sat quietly beside him while she ate her sandwich, which gave him time to remind himself of his oath. 'She is a guardian. I am a guardian. I must protect her with my life if need be.' The weight of the book nestled against his side reminded him of his perfidy and he looked away from her, unsure if the heat that blazed across his cheeks was visible.

"So how are you feeling now? Any better?"

"I'm fine." he responded, shortly. Something in his tone made her waver, and he cursed himself for his rough uncaring tone, even while his instincts screamed at him the necessity for it. When her hand rose once more to his shoulder he startled himself with the speed with which his own hand came up to push hers away.

Aghast he rose to leave, his instinct being to run before he made things worse. It only took two steps to realise his folly. She was silent, not moving and he turned to look at her. It was worse than he'd feared. She had transformed from the happy and vivacious young woman who'd entered the clearing, now gazing up at him with wounded eyes and a devastated expression.

He'd thought the worst thing he'd ever have to endure seeing had been the expression in Braska's eyes as he and Jecht turned away to enter the chamber of the fayth at Zanarkand. He'd been wrong. Although this situation was completely different, and no life would be lost today if he turned away, he still felt its gravity almost as keenly.

Her lower lip trembled. "Go ahead, say it!"

"Say what?" He asked her, hoping that somehow talking would cure things, when avoidance had failed.

She turned away bowing her head to gaze at the ground while her hands curled at her breast as though cradling her heart. "You hate me, don't you."

He gazed at her, at a loss for words until she turned accusing eyes upon his silence. "I thought you were different. When Wakka was...when he...hated me, you really seemed to care. You didn't treat me like an Al Bhed...I actually thought you liked me." The last sentence was accompanied by tears. She tried to pull herself together, visibly failing until she turned away once more.

"You can't even bear it when I touch you. I know you wish I wasn't even here. So I just want you to tell me what I did wrong, to make you hate me so much!"

Her words were true, he wished her far away, but not for any reason she could possibly imagine. That she thought she was somehow to blame for his aversion broke his heart. He knew he should walk away and hope that she would recover eventually. But he'd never been that cruel or hard-hearted and he couldn't bring himself to start now. But he wasn't sure how to avert disaster and still salvage her feelings.

The words of the book he'd read last night came to him in a blinding flash of inspiration. He prayed it would work. He stepped towards her and cleared his throat.

"I...apologize. I don't want to hurt you, or frighten you."

She gazed back, her caution evident, not trusting his words, and he looked down at the ground to avoid revealing too much. He stopped then, at a loss for how to continue with his minor success. Another flash of inspiration struck, like the first it concealed the entire truth but was nonetheless true in itself.

"If it were possible I would wish that none of us had to continue this journey." He looked into her eyes, confident that his next statement would be greeted as the earnest truth it was. "You're so young. I would rather you were safely anywhere else than on this pilgrimage."

"But...I'm Yuna's guardian! You said that yourself!"

He hadn't expected her reaction. It was clear that his confidence had cost him valuable points in the war against his own heart. "I wish then that I'd said no."

"It's true then!" She exclaimed. "You can't bear to have me around."

He couldn't win, he was certain now that no matter what he did or said it would turn out wrong. In such circumstances he knew there was only one course of action left. Whether he did so gracefully or not he was required to give in. He'd never been particularly graceful in life either, so he wasn't about to start now.

"Yes. It's true!" He spat out with a 'are you satisfied now?' tone that was impossible to mistake.

Her eyes filled with tears. "Why? What did I do?"

"You drive me crazy."

She blinked up at him. "Is it...because I always ask questions?"

"Not exactly." He turned away, finding himself strangely reluctant to follow through with his earlier capitulation to fate. He wondered if she'd ever guess the truth, but figured he was on such a negative roll he'd undoubtedly have to seal his own fate eventually, confession being the only way to end the torture for them both.

She crept a step closer. "Because I'm an Al Bhed?"

"No! Of course not."

"Well, what then?" When he was silent again she burst out "For pity's sake, tell me!"

"It's because you're always there! Right there, whenever I turn around!" He turned to find her as expected right by his shoulder. Her pretty face filled with remorse.

"I can't help it! Am I...really that repulsive to you?"

He gaped at her in confusion. She turned away and buried her face in both hands as her shoulders shook, then she collapsed in on herself until she was crouched in a ball at his feet, making herself as small a target as she could for what she perceived to be his ultimate cruelty.

His own eye began to weep. Avoidance hadn't helped, and neither had talking. Now she was convinced of some fatal defect in herself instead of correctly surmising that flaw was his alone. The only honourable way of dealing with this would be to kill himself with his own sword, a ludicrous irony considering his current state of undeath.

He couldn't leave her like this, having destroyed her confidence in herself, he had to at least try to make some reparation for the damage. To tell her the truth was all he could do. If she hated him but felt better about herself he might salvage if not some dignity then at least the tattered remaining shreds of his honour.

He knelt behind her and wrapped his arms around her frame, not sure if she'd later think back on this embrace with disgust. "No, that's not true."

"Meyn!" Was her muffled reply from beneath her hands, and he puzzled at her meaning until he translated it slowly, letter by letter in his head, 'Liar'. Well, that had been true up until the last thing he'd said. It seemed strangely fitting, all things considered, that she'd called him on it the minute he'd started being truthful.

He raised his hand and stroked her hair, then her neck and shoulder, hoping his touch would be more convincing than his words, which had let him down dismally so far. Another inspiration from that blasted book made him consider giving them one more try. If it didn't work he would probably swear an oath of silence for the remainder of his time on this plane of existence.

"Your skin is so soft...touching you is the sweetest thing I've ever felt. You're beautiful, Rikku."

She let out another loud sniffle then lifted her head slightly from her hands to peek back at him. "No'm not."

He looked at her tear-wracked face and still couldn't lose his enthusiasm for her. "Yes, you are. Even if your nose is red and you're all snotty from crying."

If he was trying to prove his devotion he could have phrased it more diplomatically. She snorted a half laugh, half sob and pushed at his chest. He landed ungracefully on his rump.

"Meanie!" She muttered and began to wipe her face free of tears and mucus, then wiped her hands on the grass. Her voice was low and even more appealing when she spoke. "I don't think I believe you, you know. You could have said that just so I wouldn't throw myself off a cliff next chance I get."

"You don't really think I'm that much of a bastard, do you?" He asked her, feeling less than pleased with her lowered opinion of him, although he'd lamented her earlier higher one. He found too late that he liked being high in her estimation, even if he still couldn't care less about the opinions of most other Spirans. "I do care about you, although you probably no longer believe that."

He was interrupted by the sight of Tidus heading toward them through the trees. And he still hadn't confessed, a task he had to complete now to appease his conscience, after causing her so much distress. "Wait here."

He rose to head Tidus off, and prevent him from seeing that Rikku's face still bore the ravages of her earlier tidal outburst. Tidus looked at him uncertainly, trying to gauge his mood and failing. "The others are about ready to get going..."

"You should all go on ahead. Rikku and I have some things to discuss that can't wait." He told him.

Tidus looked from him to where Rikku was still crouched on the ground, her face fortunately hidden to the younger man's curious gaze. "Things?" He asked, his curiousity little more than casual judging by his tone. Auron wanted to keep it that way.

"Things." He responded definitively. "About being a guardian 'things'."

"Oh, okay." He hesitated. "I'll tell the others, and we'll meet you back at Guadosalam..."

"Don't tell the others why." He cautioned the boy.

Tidus shrugged. "How could I, when I don't even know?"

Auron nodded but the young man made one last try, this time on behalf of his younger companion. "Is she...okay? She's not hurt or anything, is she?"

Auron was glad his glasses provided a solid reflection to hide his eyes. Tidus was good at sensing guilt in others, a gift no doubt honed from experience with his father.

"I will take care of her." He replied, hoping it would satisfy Tidus's sense of responsibility. The boy finally nodded and turned back, leaving Auron with the no less onerous task of confessing to Rikku without making an utter fool of himself in the process. Or if that was impossible of not having her completely hate him for it.

When he returned she turned to look up at him. "The others have gone on. We should return to the inn."

She gaped at him in confusion. "But we're all supposed to go together."

"I know."

"Is this because you don't trust me? I wasn't going to make a scene like last time, you know...I'm over that."

"This has nothing to do with the Thunder Plain."

"I'm not weak!" She continued to protest.

"I know that! I'm the one who is..." he broke off, realising what he'd just said. "We are going back for my benefit. If you want to berate me for my weakness, feel free."

"Oh." She rose unsteadily to her feet and they retraced their steps from the morning, if not companionably, at least with different questions in both their minds than they had earlier in the day.

Auron for his part was trying to think of a way to commence his confession that would not lead to an inadvertent exposure of his activities the previous evening. He felt that if he could keep that a secret it would save him considerable embarrassment. He had no way of really knowing what was going through Rikku's mind as she trudged along the path beside him, although if he'd wished she was feeling hopeful he wouldn't have been able to reconcile it with the somber expression she wore.

His readings had taught him enough to try to see below the surface in order to ascertain her actual feelings, but he could hardly be said to have much experience in such matters. It was almost certainly true that he was at least trying. It occurred to him it would be easier to begin to explain as they walked. He wouldn't have to look at her as he recounted his more embarrassing lapses.

"I had hoped to avoid this, by avoiding you. I wish you hadn't misunderstood the reasons for my reluctance to be...near you."

He was aware of her gaze turning sharply towards him, but he gazed up at the trees and continued. "If I'd known it would come to this, and cause you such distress earlier, I would have chosen to act differently. I apologise."


He interrupted her before she could say something he'd regret.

"Rikku, you've done nothing wrong. Nothing at all. I am at fault, entirely. I have failed you, as a guardian and as a friend."

"Please stop!" She demanded, and reached out and turned him to face her. "You sound like you're at a funeral. I can't bear it."

He had tried his best to avoid her eyes, but it was impossible to continue. When he finally looked at her she threw herself into his arms, pressing her head against his chest. "I know you're going to say something terrible...and I don't want to hear it."

"It's only terrible about myself." He protested, only to feel her shake her head in reply.

"Don't send me away. Please!"

He took her by the shoulders and pulled her back so he could see her. "What are you talking about?"

"You want to make me leave the pilgrimage. That's why you sent the others on...so you could get rid of me...isn't it?"

"No! It never crossed my mind."



"I...want to believe you."

She turned away...and he hoped she recognised that he would sooner stay silent than utter a complete untruth. They continued on for a while further until he stopped suddenly, wondering if he'd misunderstood a lot more than he'd realised.

"Do you really think I'd do such a thing?"

"I'm not sure what to believe."

While she replied he noticed movement behind her, and his hand went automatically to the hilt of his sword, his usual reaction to the potential presence of a fiend. His other hand came up in a gesture meant to quiet her, but he was surprised to realise she was backing away from him, her eyes careful not to leave his sword hand.

"Rikku, stop."

His eyes raised once more to the bushes that she was oblivious to. She shook her head and raised her hands palm up towards him. "It's okay..."

"Stop. Now. Rikku!" He almost growled he was so serious about it. Her eyes widened in response, then a bush rat ran out from near her feet, and barrelled across the path to vanish on the opposite side of the trail.

His hand fell, she stopped moving and a deathly quiet descended on them. He closed his eyes in resignation and defeat. All he'd managed to do was frighten her so badly she'd thought he'd murder her in cold blood where she stood on the path. His concerns about embarrassment and disgrace seemed petty by comparison. He had no choice but to walk on, recognising yet another failure that he couldn't have lived with. In yet another ironic twist of fate it was again a good thing he was already dead, under the circumstances.

"Let's go, it's getting late." He told her, and he hoped that she would follow him despite whatever she now believed of him. He didn't want to think of her running around alone out here if he was unable to go to her aid.

When they reached the inn Rikku seemed at a loss for what to do, she waited until he opened the door, then followed him without speaking into the main room. Rin must have guessed at least part of the situation from Auron's enquiries the night before, but the air of doom that surrounded them both on their return was enough that he showed no surprise when Auron asked him for two rooms for the night, only enquiring after their companions. Auron replied that they would return in a day or two, foregoing any further convenient fictions, and Rin nodded amiably enough. When Rikku turned to go to the bathroom and her room he offered Auron the convenience of his study 'should he require it that evening' and left him to his own devices.

Auron paused by the fire in contemplation. If it was clear to Rin that there was a serious problem between himself and Rikku, then there would be no way to hide it from Yuna and the others on their return. He had less than two days to set things right, or face the consequences. He went to his room, unbuckled his belt, and laid his sword on the bed. He dropped the book there as well, and wondered if it was absolute folly to keep it. He couldn't decide if it had helped or just been a curse on his good intentions. Undecided he left it there, then his bracer followed. Thus disarmed he went to her room and knocked quietly on the door.

Her voice was the faintest whisper of sound. "Yes."

He reached down and pushed gently on the door and it moved forward, widening the gap. He continued bravely until he could see her standing near the foot of her bed gazing apprehensively at him.

He raised his hands a little to give her a clear view of himself. "I must speak with you."

She looked down. "Come in."

When he entered he let the door fall shut behind him. "I'm unarmed, as you see."

Her eyes squeezed shut and she whispered brokenly "I'm sorry."

She turned away and raised her arm to her face. A phrase from the book floated through his mind... 'trust in marriage is a precious commodity, one that cannot easily be gained once lost.'

He approached her slowly and let his hands find her shoulders once more. "I have *never* meant you harm. I've failed you in that if you could believe I would."

She did not reply but she turned slightly, a little closer to him. He let his arm move around her shoulders, a gentle pressure that let her know closer was okay. Sin take him, but he'd have to deal with the consequences of that later.

"I try, and try, but failure seems to be the only thing I'm good at."

She did not reply, but her arm slid downwards slowly as she leaned against him by degrees. His lips brushed against her hair for the first time. He realised that her compliance might be caused more by exhaustion than any reconciliation between them. The thought gave him pause. "You should rest. Anything else can wait till you feel better."

He was actually relieved when he felt her nod, although she did not move other than that. Eventually he felt himself daring enough to try to lift her, leaning down to take her up by the knees while his other arm remained around her shoulders. One palm rested against his chest as he moved toward the bed, a gesture that disarmed him more than removing his sword and armour had earlier. When he laid her down she shifted onto her side and he retreated to the door. She cried out softly and wordlessly. Then she lifted her head, her eyes dark in the unlit room. He pushed the door to and turned the lock, then he slowly, cautiously, approached the bed, and slid carefully down to lie beside her, hardly daring to breath.

Her face was close, her breath against his arm stirring a mixture of excitement and apprehension. He leaned closer until his nose was against her hair and his lips brushed against her temple. His hand reached gently through the flaxen strands beneath his fingers, finding a clasp and puzzling over it until its secret was unlocked. He drew it away and set it near the pillow, then he found another, and a third until her hair fell loosely about her head. He raised his head.

"Are you awake?" He asked her, and her eyelids fluttered open. He felt his heart turn over inside his chest at the look in her eyes, and his head grew heavier. It wasn't until his lips pressed against her cheek that he realised she'd drawn him closer with just a look. With his cheek against hers he realised he had to speak now before he lost his power of speech altogether.

"I never told you, what I meant, about you being there." She shuddered but his hand moved over her arm, his lips pressed again, this time a little lower on her jaw and she stilled.

"When you said you thought I liked you, that was true. So much. But it would be better for you if you didn't like me at all." He shifted to kiss her eyelids, one then the other as she breathed on his chin, lighting a fire that he thought would never go out, never be extinguished, not if he died for a thousand lifetimes.

"No matter how much I like you...love you..." His hand moved down her forearm to tangle with her fingers and his lips found the bridge of her nose, trailing down her other cheek to recross the peak of her chin. "I have to protect you. I can't. keep...kissing you like this."

He pulled himself away with an effort of will, like a stone defying gravity and rising into the air. He gazed down at her as her lips stirred. Her hand shifted beneath his, turning up so their two hands rested palm to palm. Then her other hand drifted upwards to stroke his rough cheek before travelling around to his nape. She drew herself upwards slowly, closer to him.

Nothing he'd read could prepare him for the sweetness with which her lips parted his, closing gently and pressing deeply against them. When her tongue brushed against him he cried out against her lips, his own then parting hers. His fingers clasped hers tighter as his entire body shook with emotion. Breathing in unison they held together like that, and he thought that her lips were like the softest pillows against his, he could rest against them forever. But he dragged himself away with the realisation that he couldn't afford to stop and rest, not now, not ever.

He couldn't bring himself to tell her why, or to try again to push her away. Her head had shifted back against the pillow and her eyes were closed.

"Sleep now. You'll be safe." He whispered, resting his head beside hers and praying he'd have the strength to leave her soon. Her breathing evened out and he eventually tumbled to the floor in his efforts to free himself of the spell he'd set himself under by being so close to her.

He didn't dare look back as he closed the door and entered his room. He shivered, finding it cold and miserable in contrast, and he huddled beneath the blanket for a long time before he closed his one unscarred eye and finally found some kind of rest.


End of this story, for now...