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Is that--? Is he--? He is. I’ve never seen one in person before. He’s tall, with a riot of blond hair and an eyepatch dominating his slightly sunburned face. He ambles toward base camp like an Ochu, random limbs and large mouth. He’s obviously in no hurry, despite Maester Kinoc’s warning that we’ll be starting a live fire exercise in ten minutes. “I’m Gippal.” He holds his hand out before he even gets within arm’s reach.

“You’re--” I stand, and find my first impulse to bow hard to quell, so I lurch forward to grasp his hand. You’re Al Bhed. You’re not the monster the temple elders told me to look out for. You’re on my team. You’re gorgeous.

“No. You're--” Gippal gives a dramatic pause, and after a moment I realize he’s waiting for me.

“Baralai. I’m Baralai.” I’m still holding his hand.

“You just get here?” I must look as confused as I feel, because he motions to my relatively clean robes. Gippal’s clothes are caked in dust, and I can’t help but think that gives him some kind of advantage.

“Yes. I was on the last ship in from Bevelle.” I look toward the staging area, watching as teams and their recorders stream out to their respective base camps. Gippal follows my gaze.

“Looks like we’re short a team member and a recorder,” he says. “Maybe it’s just me and you and the Zus.”

I laugh, and my throat feels like it’s throbbing. He speaks our language. He’s polite. His clothes are modest. He’s nothing like they said his kind were.

Our recorder joins us next, with not much more than a mumbled, “Hi.” That’s all she wants to share, despite Gippal asking her name, if she’d come over on the last ferry too, if she was married and if those were her real eyes. I laugh again, but it’s more forced this time. She’s got a sword on her back; the Maesters didn’t requisition weapons for the recorders. I wonder if she can actually swing that thing.

“I’m not even sure what exactly they think you’re supposed to record,” Gippal says, crouching to root through the supply cache that had been my seat. “Do they really have someone who’s going to watch hours of three guys slogging through sand dunes? After a while, they all kind of look the same.”

He’s answered by a loud explosion concussing the dune and ruins around us, sending sand and pebbles raining down. “Strike that, two guys. Looks like we’ve been stood up, B.” He snatches up his weapon and primes it with one hand. “Ready to do this, team Bold, Bevelle and Beautiful?” He grins into Paine’s spherecorder. I think she rolls her eyes.

“We’re Team One, unless you’re in the wrong base camp.” Gunfire answers the explosion all around us, and who I assume to be our third teammate appears from a cloud of sand. He doesn’t flinch from the noise or shockwaves. He doesn’t even duck.

“Better late than never?” Gippal’s voice has an edge of irritation. I can see why he took his time getting here; he walks with a pronounced limp, and when he finally makes it to where we’re standing it becomes obvious his leg is machina. How is he supposed to keep up with us?

The new man gives the recorder a once-over, which she returns. Neither say a word. I glance sideways at Gippal. Maybe it’s all part of the test.

---

It was fun while it lasted. Six weeks in the Bikanel Desert with a virgin Yevonite priest-in-training who’s never stepped out of Bevelle in his life and a woman who could whip my ass? I thought this was supposed to be a challenge. Guess the challenge is this storm cloud that just hobbled over the horizon ready to rain on a perfectly nice afternoon in Sanubia.

Baralai keeps glancing at me out of the corner of his eye, chewing on his lip in a way that screams he wants to say something. I make a guessing game out of what it might be. “Do you like boys?” never makes the top three, but I think the odds are good it went through his head at some point. The guy’s transparent as a blank sphere. He’s going to have to learn a game face if he’s going to make it out here. From what I’ve heard, you don’t make it too far behind those city walls without one, either. He’ll be project number one. He’s the first Yevonite I’ve ever met that’s looked me in the eye without his lip curling in contempt. He’s too nice to be chewed up and spit out by this gig.

My other game involves trying to get the recorder’s name. She guards it like a mama Mushussu guards her nest. It’s obviously a principle thing. With a sword that big, a body that tight, clothes that revealing and eyes that fierce, she’s not hiding from anyone. I’ve got time to work on her, though. Project number two.

Our new comrade isn’t here to make friends. He’s obviously decided he’s in charge of Team One, without the courtesy of a vote. “Our objective is to claim the sphere located in the ruins indicated on the map sphere provided in our provisions. You have looked at the map, right?” he looks between Baralai and me.

“Nope.” I burrow deeper into the pile of rations, tents and ammo. The map sphere eventually surfaces, and I toss it over to him. "But you can." Nooj doesn't even attempt to catch it, and it thuds into the soft sand. He glares at me. “Whoops, sorry about that.” I really am, too, and crawl over to pick it up. The recorder beats me to it, however, and hands it to Nooj.

“Thanks,” he says. They hold gazes for a moment.

Oh, is that how it’s going to be? Fine, leader-man. You want in on this game? You’re in.

--

The guys are dusting themselves off after being thrown to the sand by a mortar round that came a bit too close. I’ve never been more thankful to have my ears ringing from concussive shock. Gippal is the kind of guy who can’t take a hint; he'll try to convince you that what you really want to do is what he wants. Baralai, he’s harder to read, which means he's the dangerous one. The ones who look the most innocent are the ones you have to watch out for the most. I wonder if Gippal sees that in him as well.

I knew it wouldn’t be a walk on the beach; a woman embedded with three men can expect to see a fair share of hazing. Nothing surprises me. I’ve heard catcalls, been accused of sleeping my way to my post, endured relentless bullying and learned a hundred and one different words for both 'slut' and 'useless.' I’ve watched boys and men beat up on each other for reasons I can’t comprehend. Usually I sit back and let them have at it; if it keeps them out of my face, all the better.

But disrespect an injured man? And what’s more, this particular injured man? Don’t they know who he is? He's a living legend, and those are rare on Spira. Legends on Spira die.

I’d sailed from Luca on the same ship as Nooj. It was impossible to walk the decks of the ship without hearing whispers about Nooj the Undying being on board. I saw him several times on deck giving a curt acknowledgment to some young Crimson Squad recruit before returning his gaze to the horizon. I wondered if when he looked out there he saw strange shadows fighting to take shape in the distance, like I do. Maybe he sees a terrifying, endless nothingness. Sometimes I see that, too.

Nooj was the last person I expected to walk into our camp. My heart slams into my throat when I glance at him as he examines the map sphere. I have six weeks now to talk to him, to at least introduce myself to him. I tried while Gippal was hunting up the map sphere, but the words wouldn’t come out. Three words. How hard could it be? My name’s Paine.

--

I’ve been gifted with a team consisting of a chatty Al Bhed and temple acolyte. It’s the strangest combination imaginable, and likely the most unbearable for me. The Al Bhed is busy flirting with the team recorder, and the Yevonite obviously has no leadership initiative in him. One chatters, the other watches and laughs awkwardly. Splendid.

The only member of the team who does her job is the recorder. She stands there quietly and stays out of the way, save for the courtesy of handing me the sphere carelessly lobbed by the Al Bhed. I can feel her eyes on me, and I can tell they work as keenly as the spherecorder in her hands. Her fingers twitch at the explosions that rattle around us. It’s taking a great effort to focus her recording duties and not grab her sword to fight. Admirable. If I had my way, I'd give the spherecorder to the Al Bhed and try our chances with her instead.

"All right. Listen up, you two." Someone needs to take charge, or we’ll be out of contention before the first day is through. “We make our way across to the ruins here, then over the dune to the goal. If Two and Three have each other pinned down across from their forward positions, we should have a clear shot at the sphere. We’ll decide who goes in for the sphere when we reach our forward position.”

As we move out, they’re still socializing. Maybe the Al Bhed are skilled at shooting and gossiping at the same time, but it grates on my nerves and obviously distracts the inexperienced Yevonite. There will be time to exchange pleasantries later, but attaining the objective at hand doesn’t require us to be on a first-name basis. If that makes me sound racist because I don't want to talk to the Al Bhed, then let them jump to conclusions. I'll accept their apologies after they thank me for leading us to victory.

They don't seem to understand that I have as much use for Al Bhed as I do for Yevonites, Crusaders and silent recorders. They’re all the same to me as long as they do their jobs. If I thought for a minute that telling them my name would get them to stop worrying about petty details and just perform the duty we came here to perform, I'd do it. At least the recorder has her priorities straight. I’ll have to get her name later.