They all agree that Lulu would be the easiest, Wakka with a slight twist of his mouth. Lulu's cold front could, if you weren't careful, lead you to think that she was ice through and through. Then all at once her voice would take on a heavy teasing quality, and you'd remember that, for all her aloofness, she was a woman. A woman who had been someone's lover once, so dear to him that he'd gone off and died for her, his sword washed up on the Besaid beach.
Tidus blushes when they bring up Yuna, trying to keep his voice steady in the silence of the Travel Agency. Yuna is too pure. Everyone in the world is Yuna's admirer, worthy of smiles and words of encouragement, but not kisses. Trying to imagine Yuna kissing someone isn't hard. She'd stand perfectly still, her hands unsure of where to hover, fingers trembling. Her eyes would be squeezed shut, her eyebrows a perfect arc of surprise. It would be easy to ambush Yuna, but whether or not she would kiss back was unknown.
And then there is Rikku.
"Rikku is like sister," Kimahri says. "Kiss mean nothing."
"She's too young, ya," Wakka says. "Can't toy with a heart that young."
"It could be done without hurting her," Auron quietly protests, and they turn to him, three sets of surprised eyes falling on him, and despite himself he feels a little satisfaction at their shock.
It has to be a real kiss, not a surprise attack. This is the first rule. The deadline, for so many obvious reasons, is Zanarkand, and it is on the Thunder Plains that the chase begins.
It's going to be more difficult than he thought, that much is certain, especially after her childish display about the weather. Still, when she sits down to sort through the things she has stolen, he sits with her as usual, helping her clean the blood and grime off the spheres and out of the crevices of the screws and weights, clock parts and old broken weapons. He doesn't pull away when she unconsciously presses her body against his in an effort to get closer, spilling screws and spheres into his lap. There is a companionable, working silence between them until they come to the hourglass. As they begin to argue about its use, Auron is surprised to find he enjoys being wrapped up in the nettled tangle of her logic, the convoluted arguments and the dangerous assumptions of youth.
"Is it strange, seeing all these things again?" she asks when the two of them are on point through Macalania. The rest of the party has fallen behind to chase butterflies, and they are monitoring the path for any approaching fiends.
"Memories are nice, but that's all they are," he says. "You'd be surprised at how untrue that actually is."
She settles back against the grey trunk of the tree she is propped against and stares at him measuringly, expectantly, obviously waiting for him to speak again. Auron finds he is distracted by her position, the easy fall of her ribbons, the languorous ease of her open, relaxed hands bound in metal and spotted with fiendblood.
He has been here before, and seen someone else a predator at ease in the woods.
"Jecht stood against that tree," he grumbles. "You don't look much like him, though."
"If only it had been Uncle Braska," she says half-teasingly, but her eyes are a little removed, as if she is pondering his statement. He is surprised to find that he is unsure he will be able to go through with it at the pivotal moment, if he will be able to press his cold mouth to her warm one, Rikku who is full of life to the tip top. She's practically made of energy, every cell of her skin luminous, a rebellion against the cycle of death that Spira is trapped in. He thinks that he will be her first kiss.
He wonders if he can bear such an evil, guilty burden.
She is not as young as he has thought. Not really. He realizes this fully as her Home is crumbling around her. Any other fifteen year old would have buckled, but Rikku stands tall, shouting orders in Al Bhed to everyone else and in Spiran to the summoner party. With Yuna absent, the rest of the Guardians seem aimless, and it is Rikku who steps up to direct them. Auron was not expecting this, the core of steel, the ability to see what needs to be done and who is best to do it. As he carries wounded onto the ship, he thinks that he should have paid less attention to the cheerful cousin turned guardian, and more to the machina princess.
The frantic rush onto the airship ends with he and Rikku dragging a huge box of potions up the gangplank by one rope handle. When they are in, she collapses to the floor, her back against the crate. Her eyes are unfocused and glassy, her hair full of ash.
"You have done well by your people, Rikku Cidolphus," he says softly, dabbing potions onto the shrapnel wounds on her legs. She begins to cry for the first time at that, loud ungraceful sobs that echo off the close metal walls with hyper accuracy. Every wet sniff and gasp for air is magnified. He sees from the way she covers her face that she fears he will think her weak.
"Oh, Auron," he thinks as she sniffles, "you've made an awful mistake, taking this bet."
"I'm gonna find my Pops," she says, her runny eyes meeting his, loading her belt with potions to hand out along the way. He does the same and escorts her, not wanting to presume he may walk beside her.
"This was a mistake," Auron says to Wakka and Kimahri. "I will end up hurting her."
"Hey, if you want out, you gotta pay up!" Wakka exclaims quietly. Across the waving grass of the Calm Lands, the women of the party are talking with the old man and his bachelor son. Tidus is with them, and without another word Wakka storms off to whisper in his ear, offended.
"Kimahri will let you out of bet with no pay," Kimarhi says kindly. "Is not easy to get attached to girl when you no want to. Kimarhi understand."
Auron wants to protest, but there is no dignified manner in which he can do so. Kimarhi gives a small smirk, and when Tidus and Wakka come over to argue about the terms of the bet, Kimarhi announces he refuses to pay or be paid, even though the bet continues as before between the other three men. Tidus and Wakka think him a fool; Kimarhi only says he will not profit from Auron's hurt. This confuses Tidus and amuses Wakka; Auron finds he wants to scream.
It happens with Zanarkand on the horizon, with fayth twisted at their backs, with his secret revealed to the party. He knows they could call off the bet now—no one wants Rikku to kiss an Unsent. He removes himself from the party to give the air time to clear, give everyone time to think, himself included.
He is startled to feel a small, strong hand on his shoulder. He turns to see Rikku, the set of her jaw determined under her still-chubby child's cheeks, and her eyes flash at him in the setting sun.
"You're still here, with us," she says, and goes up on tiptoe. Her body is unbearably warm even through both their clothes and across the half inch of space between them. One of his gloved hands moves hesitantly to the small of her back, a polite request that she not move or cease what she is doing.
The small conversation the party was carrying on stills. Wakka gives a low whistle.
"For now," he says when she has pulled away. He hopes against hope that she will see he is reminding them both, and not just her.
The four males fall forward, leaving the women to escort Yuna down into Zanarkand; Lulu with guidance, Rikku with laughter, which is all Yuna has wanted from each of them.
"She seems to be pretty happy," Tidus says grudgingly.
"Ya, she keeps looking up here at us," Wakka adds. "Guess we better pay you, ya?"
Auron feels Kimarhi's eyes on him. He slowly extends his palm. The clatter of the coins into it sings a gentle reminder; you are dead, and she is not for you. It is heaver to carry than the coins he slips into his pocket, but also, he suspects, more valuable to him.