Yuna stepped off the gangway of the Celsius and into the blast furnace of Bikanel Desert, the sand crunching beneath her feet. Shading her eyes against the high sun, she turned around and waved her other hand toward the cockpit. Through the glare, she thought she saw Buddy lift a hand in acknowledgement; the gangway rose, the engines spinning up with a roar, and then the ship was on its way, leaving Yuna truly by herself for the first time in longer than she could remember.
She waved at the ship again, even though she was sure no one was looking anymore. Once it was out of sight, she headed into the Machine Faction camp. The place was bustling -- hovers moving in and out, Al Bhed engineers picking through piles of machina parts, another group standing and talking outside the tent that Nhadala used as camp headquarters. One of them looked up and, catching her eye, broke from the group and jogged over towards her. It was a man, a boy really, that Yuna had seen around camp before, but she didn't know his name.
"High Summoner?" He pushed his goggles off his face. "Can I help you?"
Yuna shook her head at him and responded in her very best, if still halting, Al Bhed. "Just Yuna, please. I am looking for Nhadala?"
"Not here. You need help?" The boy switched to the common Spiran tongue; he had a strong accent, but Yuna had to admit that he had a better grasp of her language than she did of his.
"Actually, I wanted to see if you needed help," she replied with a smile.
"Ah." The boy glanced over his shoulder, toward the tent. "Digging. Okay, this way." He started jogging again, back in the direction he had came, and Yuna had to hurry to keep up. Once they had reached the tent, he pulled the flap aside and let Yuna go through.
"Thank you," she said, and then turned to see a the makeshift desk in the middle of the tent: a wide plank of wood set across two upended crates. To her surprise, Gippal sat there, leaning back in a chair, his attention focused on an oddly-shaped piece of scrap metal that he was holding up for scrutiny. She cleared her throat, and he looked up, arching an eyebrow.
"Lady Yuna." Setting the object down on the desk, he waved her over to him. "What brings you here? Something wrong on the mainland?"
Yuna sat down in the rickety metal chair that he had indicated. "Oh, no, everything's fine. But, well, everyone else is distracted by other things right now, and I didn't really feel like hanging around Besaid or Luca by myself. So I had Buddy drop me here to see if you needed any help."
"Huh." Gippal leaned forward, single eye narrowed. "Seems like you could have found a million more interesting things to do than digging up old screws and bolts in the middle of nowhere."
She looked back, calmly. "I like to feel useful."
For a long second, he kept staring at her. Then he leaned back with a snort of laughter. "Can't deny that, I guess. Well, all right. You're here, you might as well dig. It's good timing, actually -- we just came across a new site, and we were about to head out there." He frowned. "Wait, did you say you were alone?"
"That's right. Paine is helping Nooj with some new recruits, and Rikku is busy installing machina on Besaid."
"Can't send you out there by yourself." Gippal crossed his arms. "It's Nhadala's strictest rule: no one goes out in the desert without at least one digging partner." He tipped his head to the side, thoughtful. "Okay, it's settled. You're with me."
"With you?" Yuna tried to remember if she had ever spent any time with just Gippal before. Probably not -- Rikku had always been there, or Nooj and Baralai.
"Sure, why not?" Gippal cocked his head to the side. "Unless you'd rather just sit around camp until Buddy comes back to get you."
"All right, then." Yuna stood up and stuck out her hand. "Partners."
He stood up with a grin and shook it. "Partners. I have a few things to wrap up here before we head out; can you head over to the supply tent and stock us up? I'm not sure how many fiends are out in that region, but a new find always stirs them up, so we should be prepared. Meet me at the hovers in forty-five minutes."
"Okay. See you soon." Yuna exited the tent and headed for the supply area, wondering what she had just agreed to.
He was waiting for her at the appointed time, perched up on the rail of the nearest hover, kitted out in the same standard bright yellow jumpsuit as most of the other diggers, along with a pair of goggles modified to fit over his eye patch and a huge rifle slung over his back. Yuna tossed the bag she had wheedled out of the supply clerk into the back of his hover, then patted her own satchel to double check her bullet stash. Her garment grid was prepped and ready, too: gunner, gun mage, alchemist, and white mage -- just in case. Satisfied that she was well stocked, she grabbed a water bottle out of the bag and hopped onto the bench.
"You ready?" Gippal looked her up and down, and Yuna had to fight back a blush. "You sure you'll be okay in that? It can get awfully windy out there. Not to mention sunburn. Or do you need to borrow some goggles?"
Yuna thought for a moment, then glanced down at herself, and remembered some of the sand burns she had gotten on her legs the last time she'd been digging. "Maybe you're right." Pulling out her garment grid, she adjusted the spheres to activate alchemist mode. A flash of color and light, and she was wearing the brightly-colored suit that covered her from neck to toe. She snapped down the goggles and turned to Gippal, head tipped to the side, and smiled. "Better?"
"Um." Gippal steadied himself against the hover's handrail, and Yuna couldn't keep her grin from widening. Rikku and Paine had both warned her about Gippal -- "He'll flirt with anything that moves," Rikku had said over dinner one night; "And some things that don't," was Paine's dry addition -- but somehow, Yuna found that she didn't mind being the focus of his admiring look. "Yeah. That works." He swung himself up onto the hover and sat down on the bench next to Yuna, behind the control. "Hang on, we're getting out of here!" With the punch of a button, the hover hummed to life and lurched forward, shooting out of camp and onto the open sands.
Even a year ago, Yuna thought, she would have found this trip frightening -- hurtling over the desert in a machina contraption, the rattle of the metal, the noise of the engine. But months of traveling on the Celsius had gotten her more used to the idea, to the point where she could enjoy the freedom of it, and the feel of wind in her hair. She half-rose out of her seat and tipped her head back, letting the breeze flow across her cheeks.
Next to her, Gippal turned his head to cast her a quick glance. "You must really be half Al Bhed after all," he called out, just audible over the roar. "Most Spirans don't take to this so easily."
Yuna sat back down, hands wrapping more tightly over the front rail. "I suppose," she said. "I never really thought about it that way."
Gippal faced forward again. "Well, I gotta say, whether it's in your genes or something else, you're a natural. Both at riding, and the way I've seen you handle those weapons."
"Thanks." Yuna looked at him, wondering if she should say more, but her brain was tied in knots. She never talked about her Al Bhed heritage, with anyone. Not even Rikku. How could she share intimate details of her history, details she wasn't even sure how she felt about herself, with a near-stranger?
At that moment, another hover pulled up alongside them, doubling the noise and wind interference, and Yuna took that as her reprieve, sitting back against the seat and hauling her weapon into her lap. They did not speak again until the hover reached the digging site, pulling up next to a large clay ruin, a shell of a building eaten away by a thousand years of blowing sand. The wind was calmer here, and Yuna took the opportunity to shift back into the gunner dressphere -- its smaller pistols were much more conducive to running around on foot.
"Okay!" Gippal hopped up on a piece of the building that had tumbled to the ground, providing him with a handy dais. At his shout, the other Al Bhed gathered up to listen. "Break up into your teams. Team leaders, you have your assignments. Meet back here in one hour. Nhadala couldn't tell me what kinds of fiends might be out here, so keep your guard up for pretty much anything. Everyone got it? Good. Let's roll!" Once the rest of the party had broken up into their teams, he jumped off the stone and landed right in front of Yuna. "Changed again, I see. Someday you're going to have to let me take apart one of those garment grid things. I'm dying to know how they work."
"Ask Shinra," Yuna said with a shrug. "He's the one who made them. Myself, I have no idea. But it works, and that's the important thing."
"Now you sound like Paine." Gippal smiled. "Practical to the end. Where's your Al Bhed curiosity? I'll be Rikku took one to pieces on the first day."
Yuna had to smile back. "No, but only because Shinra would have murdered her."
Gippal laughed. "Now there's a fight I would pay to see." He reached into his back pocket and pulled out a rumpled map. "All right. Let's get started. We've staked out this quadrant. You hold onto the shovel and the finding sphere, and I'll keep watch for fiends. This way." He pulled the gun off his back and tipped it over his shoulder, and Yuna followed him as he strode across the sand, one eye on him, the other on the contraption that would indicate the location of the rubble buried beneath the shifting dunes.
It wasn't long before a hit struck, the sphere beeping and vibrating. "Here," she called, holding up a hand. Gippal turned and watched as she paced in the slow circle that would pinpoint the spot to dig. The finder's beeping sped up, faster and faster until it sounded like a single, unbroken tone, and Yuna planted herself on the spot. Placing the finder in her pouch, she pulled out the shovel and started to dig.
It was hard work, but not too hard; certainly no more difficult than carting water up from Besaid beach, or helping Rikku wire a building, or spending an hour drilling at spells. And then, the payoff: her shovel hit something hard, a shock frissioning up her arms. "Got it!" She laid down the shovel and knelt down, brushing the sand away from the large chunk of metal she had found. Once it was free, she lifted it up in both arms and turned toward Gippal, who whistled.
"Nice. Looks like some kind of turbine." He patted it on the side. "Too heavy to carry around, though. Just leave it here, for now -- we'll pick it up on the way back to the hover."
"All right." Yuna staggered under its weight as she lowered it back onto the sand. "Shall we keep digging? The finding sphere seemed to like this spot."
"Sure, let's see what it's got." Gippal flipped his rifle over and held it out to Yuna, butt end first. "My turn to dig, if you're up for keeping watch."
"Of course." Yuna took the rifle as Gippal he picked up the shovel, then started scanning the horizon. It was a lot larger and heavier than she was used to, even in comparison to the alchemist's gun, and so instead of lifting it to the ready, she set it aside and drew her twin pistols, checked her ammo, and put them back, leaving them loose in their holsters.
It was a quiet day so far, she thought, looking around at the basin where they dug. Not too many nooks and crannies for fiends to hide in these ruins, the only sounds the loud shouts of the other Al Bhed as they exclaimed over their finds. She shifted to her other foot and pulled out her right hand gun again, taking care to thumb on the safety switch before resting it against her thigh.
"Ah ha!" Gippal crowed behind her, and Yuna turned around to look. "Damn, this sucker is big. Can you help me dig it out?"
"Sure." Yuna put the gun away, then got back down on her hands and knees. It was big, all right, the metal spreading out several feet in each direction as she pushed the sand aside, digging it out of cracks with her fingertips, scrabbling for an edge but always finding more surface. So intent was she on her work that she didn't realize how close she had come to Gippal until they almost bumped heads -- she pulled up short just in time, and he looked up, catching her eye with a slow smile.
"Looking for something?" he asked, not backing away.
"Um." Yuna looked back down at the sheet of metal under her hands. It had been painted, she thought; there were flecks of green and gold still clinging to the surface. "Well, we seem to have found it. Whatever it is."
"Yeah." The teasing note dropped out of his voice, and he sat back on his heels. "It's big, and it's hollow -- I heard the ringing when the shovel struck the metal. A large drum, maybe? Or part of a-- Look out!"
Yuna's head snapped up just in time to see the Zu descending, barreling down out of the sky and straight for them. She reached back blindly with her hand, grasping for Gippal's rifle; her hand closed around the cylindrical barrel, and she tossed it to him and stood up in one motion, guns already out and firing at the target. The Zu screamed in pain and shuddered under the hail of bullets, but its forward motion did not slow as it continued its approach, mighty wings beating, stirring up sand and dust. Yuna blinked against the stinging in her eyes and started to contemplate her options -- another bullet blast? Was there anything in her gun mage arsenal that would be effective against a Zu? Or should she just start tossing bombs?
The fiend screamed again and whirled in mid-air, drawing back its beak as if to strike Gippal, who had gotten to his feet and was waving his arms in the air. "Hey, featherhead! Over here!" The Zu followed, and Yuna took the opportunity to reload her gun, then fired another volley. A lucky blast hit the Zu in the back of its neck, and it collapsed to the ground before melting into a host of pyreflies.
Gippal brushed off his hands and walked over to her. "Nice shooting," he said.
"Thanks." Yuna blew away a tendril of smoke as it wafted away from the barrel of her left gun before holstering them both. Then she noticed Gippal's empty hands. "But why didn't you shoot?"
The right side of his mouth quirked up in a sardonic smile. "Because it's hard to shoot down a Zu with a shovel, which is what you gave me."
The color instantly rose to Yuna's cheeks. "Oh." She bit her lip: she would not laugh... she would not laugh... "Sorry. I, uh, I thought it felt kind of small."
Gippal's lips twitched, and then he burst into a whoop of laughter, slapping his hands against his thighs. "Thanks," he said as he straightened, still grinning. "Well, anyway. Good thing you're almost as good a shot as I am. Now let's get back to clearing this thing out. What do you think it is?"
"Your guess would be better than mine." Yuna crouched down yet again, running her hand over the metal. "Although it feels kind of familiar, in a way. Kind of like...." A thought occurred to her as she rapped her knuckles against the surface, listened to the ring of solid steel surrounding an empty core. She gasped, and jumped to her feet. Could it be?
"What?" Gippal looked at her as though she'd gone mad. "What?!"
"Follow me!" Yuna flung herself back on the sand and began digging harder than ever, following the trail of one of the deeper cracks, clearing the path. Without another word, Gippal was right next to her, his hands a blur. Ten minutes later, Yuna buried her hand in the sand and hit the new surface she had been hoping to find: cooler than the metal, smoother, with a duller ring as she knocked her fingers against it. Glass. A window. "Look!"
Gippal's mouth had dropped open. "A window? A windshield? No way, Yuna! Is this... an airship?!"
"Yes!" Yuna ran her hand over the window. "The metal reminded me of the skin of the Celsius -- that's how I guessed."
"I wonder if it's intact." Gippal's voice fell into a hush as he stood, taking on a tone of reverence that Yuna would never have expected to hear from him. "An airship. We have another airship!" Louder now, he turned to Yuna and threw his arms around her in a triumphant hug. She barely had time to process that thought before he kissed her, a swift, hard peck on the mouth.
Just as quickly, he let her go and stepped back. "Ah. Yeah. Sorry. Forgot myself there."
Yuna thought for a moment, then came to a snap decision. "I think I don't mind. Maybe." She stepped back close to him and kissed him in return, softly on the cheek. "Now let's see about getting this ship out of the dirt."
"Heck yeah." Gippal nodded fiercely. "Let's get back to the hover -- I have to let Nhad know about this right away. And then maybe make a couple more calls to gloat." He grinned down at her, and Yuna smiled back. "You want to help me with the excavation?"
"I wouldn't miss it," she assured him. And, hand in hand, they returned to the hover, visions of floating through the clouds already springing up in Yuna's eyes.