For Xedra, my very faithful reviewer, who has improved my self-esteem about my writing greatly. If I start getting cocky, you know who to blame! I hope this is what you wanted, Xedra!

Just so everyone knows, I don't have a specific location for this. It takes places at some kind of Travel Agency or inn.

"It's... Rikku, you do not understand."

"Yeah?" Rikku scowled, every bit of her stubborn and unyieling, from her stance - legs shoulder-width apart, planted firmly, arms crossed, chin high - to the set of her jaw and the tone of her voice. Auron was fairly sure he could feel a headache coming on. "What exactly don't I understand?"

Who exactly did she think she was scowling at? Auron had invented that look. "You seem to think that I return your... sentiments."

Rikku didn't waver. "My 'sentiments'."

"Yes. Your girlish crush." The words and their concomitant guilt left a bitter taste in Auron's mouth.

There was once a little boy who had no friends. He was a lonely boy, and though his mother and father tried very hard to get the other children to play with him, he was too different. None of the children would ever let him join in their games. One day the boy's father bought him a pony to be his friend. But the boy was frightened of the pony, which was so much bigger than him, and he could not ride it for long without falling off. So the pony was sold.

"My 'girlish crush'? You are so... ugh!" Rikku stamped her foot in frustration.

"If I am so intolerable, then why do you harbor such feelings for me in the first place?" It was a rhetorical question, and Rikku knew it, but she answered anyway.

"Because you can't choose who you love," she said. Her voice was so small that Auron forgot for a moment just how viciously she could fight, and was nearly overcwhelmed by the instinct to gather her up in his arms and keep her safe from everything.

Damn it, no. Auron gripped the bedpost next to him for strength.

The boy became sad and even more withdrawn, because even though the pony had not really been a friend, it had provided some sort of company. So the boy's mother tried to teach him how to sing, in the hopes that he could impress the other children with his musical talent. But the boy had no musical talent at all, and proved to be a terrible singer.

"It is a temporary thing," Auron said with as much confidance as he could muster.

"How would you know?!" Rikku burst out, throwing her arms up in frustration.

"Because you are so young. Only fifteen. You do not understand what love is or how to -"

"You are so smug. You think you know everything. You think you're so world-weary and wise - Auron, you said so yourself! You're barely thirty!" Rikku shook her head. "And how can you say I don't know what love is? Everybody knows what love is, Auron - it's just as instinctual as eating and drinking and sleeping and -" Rikku's mouth quirked despite her frustration, and her gaze turned sly. "And sex." She was rewarded by a startled blink from Auron - more of a reaction than she usually got from her teasing. "Babies love their mothers before they even know the word. Mothers love their children before they've even seen them. People die and live for love even when they can't name it for what it is. People give up everything for the people they love. Love isn't a choice, it's - it's an instinct."

Auron said nothing. Though he would never have admitted it, Rikku's speech had been unusually eloquent and... touching. She was one of the most complicated people he'd ever met - bubbly and outgoing but more perceptive and wise than anyone gave her credit for. She played the fool well, but he was not surprised that she could be so mature.

The other children teased the boy even more when they heard his singing, and so he ceased even to speak. His parents grew more and more worried about the boy, who was so silent he no longer even laughed. So the boy's father taught him how to fight, in the hopes that the other children would respect him for his strength and courage. The boy proved to be a good fighter - he was naturally quick and strong, and in no time he was a better fighter than any of the other boys in the village. But the children, instead of respecting him, grew afraid of him and would not come near him.

"Nevertheless," Auron said, in a voice that was perhaps more gruff than usual, "the fact remains that just because you feel this way for me, does not mean I feel the same for you."

Rikku blinked, but she did not look uncertain. "You kissed me back," she said. "I felt it."

"I did not," Auron informed her, his voice level. "You must have imagined it."

She was glaring at him again. "I didn't imagine it. You kissed me back, I know what it feels like to be kissed and you kissed me back."

She sounded rather hysterical. Auron's grip on the bedpost tightened at the quiver in her voice. "I think it's time to go to bed," he said, his eyes fixed on the slightly rumpled blue bedspread. "We have a lot of ground to cover tomorrow. You will need your rest."

The boy was so unhappy that one day he decided to run away. He packed food and flint and took his bow and arrow. He was still much too young to survive on his own, but he hoped he might come across a different village where people might accept him more. He had barely gone half a day into the forest when he found a fox, its leg stuck in a trap. Its cries of pain drew the boy to it, and though he knew it was unwise, he freed the fox from the trap, even though he was sure that it would bite him.

It did not.

"Fine!" she cried. "Go to bed!"

Neither of them moved.

"You're in my room," Auron said at last.

The boy nursed the fox back to health with the food and water he had brought. He knew he would not survive feeding them both with such limited supplies, so he returned to the village. He carried the fox, who was still sick and could not walk properly, in his arms.

The boy's parents were so glad to have him back, and that he had found a friend, that they did not protest to the taming of such a wild animal.

But the boy was wiser than they, and he knew that the fox is not a creature meant to be a pet. He knew that if he continued to let the fox depend upon him, it would never again be able to survive on its own. So he took it to the edge of the forest and told it to leave.

"I know," she said. "I'm supposed to share with Lulu tonight."

"And?" Auron pressed, knowing that was not all she had to say.

"And I don't want to. Lulu hogs the covers."

Auron closed his eyes, praying to anything that might actually be up there for strength. "Rikku. It is not proper."

He could hear the grin in her voice. "Neither is an Al Bhed entering the temples but I've done my share of that, haven't I?"


But the fox would not go. The boy shouted and pointed into the trees, but the fox stayed close to the boy's legs, blinking up at him with too much trust in its eyes.

So the boy picked up a stone.

"Get out, Rikku." Auron's voice lost any gentleness it had held before - any attempt to soften his rejection was gone. "Go to your room and sleep in your bed. Go."

The noise the fox made when the boy's stone struck it nearly broke the boy's heart. It was the same sound that had first drawn him in. But the boy did not stop, because he knew it was for the good of the fox. By the third stone, the fox had run off into the forest faster than the boy had ever seen it move.

Rikku crossed the room with all the speed she was famous for as a thief, and kissed him for the second time that day. She wasn't totally sure what she was doing, and it showed, but her lips were soft and warm and held the sugary-sweet taste of the elixir she had taken in battle that afternoon. Her arms were flung around his shoulders, his fingers twisting in his hair and occasionally brushing over the back of his neck with touches so light they sent shivers down his spine.

Auron was mortified to hear himself groan, deep and low and needy, and god but he couldn't stop himself from leaning in, kissing her back with everything he had, wrapping his arms around her waist and pulling her close to him until they were pressed together from neck to knee.

Rikku didn't pull away to gloat at her victory, though he was half-expecting she would. Instead she tugged him over to his bed, one hand sliding down to grip his arm so as to steer him better. She pushed him down, falling on top of him to straddle his hips, never breaking the kiss. Her hands cupped his face, and he was suddenly very aware that he had not shaved at all that day, and that his cheeks scratch hard enough to sting, though she made no complaint.

Auron had looked better. Ten years ago, he had been handsome enough. Now, though - his life had taken its toll on him. His mouth and eyes were lined and there was gray weaving through his hair - had been since Braska and Jecht's deaths. Now, his eyes were filled with sorrow and weariness, and he wore his glasses to hide it. But Rikku was sliding them off, tossing them to the floor somewhere behind her. She smiled down at him, and didn't seem to care on bit that he looked twenty years older than he was - that he'd seen and done things that would make most women cringe - that his cheeks were scratchy and he always smelt like alcohol.

"We can't," he groaned, grabbing her arms when she began to peel away his overcoat.

"Why not? Tonight might be all we have." Her eyes pleaded with him. "There're no guaranties in our world - especially not for us. Tonight might be all we have, Auron."

The boy never saw the fox again.

He tried to say no - tried to push the word from his throat - just one syllable, it couldn't be that hard - but instead his muscles seemed to collapse, and she was tearing off his coat before he even had a chance to blink.

God help but but I can't cast any more stones. I can't. Auron closed his eyes and kissed her, willing himself to forget for one night all that was wrong with his surrender.

It would have been for her own good, even if she might not have understood it then. But now... now he'd given in, and when he was gone, it would hurt her more than he ever could with a simple 'no'.