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And Under Sky, the Shelter

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The hill cups gently around a lee; pebbles gather in the shadow where the wind abandoned them, making for a stony bed, but it will serve well enough for their purposes. Ramza, at least, is tired enough to collapse where he stands. He watches Agrias survey the site and thinks dully about what to do if it does not meet her standards of defensibility. It is well that she nods in approval, as he had not managed to think of any alternatives. The weariness runs too deep in his bones, leeching at thought, at care. It frightens him, distantly. So many have ceased to care, it seems. He rouses himself with a shake that feels like trying to shift mountains.

Tired to numbness or no, camp must be made, the birds cared for. The birds and — his teeth tug at his lip as his glance lands on Rapha and Marach, hovering at the edges of the group — the people. The tasks have been long apportioned, but in their ever growing and shrinking company, they reassign the routine often enough. It is just that he is too tired tonight to think on it.

"Rapha," he calls. "Marach. Assist me with the birds?" Perhaps it is selfish of him, but he has witnessed the history of such greater selfishness today. He weighs this small trespass against the way the command chases away some of the unease from Marach's eyes, how the tense line of Rapha's shoulders softens, and hopes it is enough.

With three hands to the task, it goes quick, and they are finished before dinner is even half cooked. Ramza would lie down right there and sleep with his empty stomach like a stone inside him to match the stones beneath them, but he can ill afford it, should they need to wake in the night and flee or fight. Mustadio has the fire started; Agrias is peacably skinning a rabbit to join the bubbling soup and become stew. There are no tasks for his weary hands.

He climbs the hill, then. The red of the sunset bleeds around him. Behind him, where Riovanes sits in the distance, night spreads like a great bruise upon the sky. He stares instead towards where the sun lays dying, at the licks of orange and gold, and thinks of Delita and him on the wall. A hawk screams, and he closes his eyes.

The crush of grass is almost too faint to hear, but brings with it the scent of broken greenery. Ramza does not open his eyes: it is not loud enough to be Mustadio, not measured enough to be Agrias, and he imagines Marach's step would have a harder edge. Rapha moves very quietly, but the wind sighs from behind her, betraying her by scent.

"It's beautiful, isn't it?" He echoes Delita's words, and stops himself before he wonders aloud whether he watches the same sky. Ramza's eyes are still closed, and if Rapha thinks this odd, she does not say so.

"There are still beautiful things in the world," she says instead. He opens his eyes and looks at her; her smile is small and solemn. It seems more prayer than pronouncement.

Ramza turns to her. "Are you all right? Truly."

Her head tips to face him. "How can I mistake you for a better man? There are no better men." And this, Ramza cannot judge the tone of: quiet endearment or brittle bitterness, he could not say were the fate of the war to hang on his answer. But before the silence manages to stretch to discomfort, she returns to the question he asked. "My brother is alive, and believes me. We are free of the Grand Duke. We have leave to choose a nobler use for our mantras than his ends."

Ramza nods. But it seems a recitation more than anything else, and besides... "That is... good. But not what I ask after," he says softly.

Her eyes are gentle as she looks at him, silent in the sunset. She sits down, wordless.

The grass itches at Ramza's nape as he sinks beside her, a decent meter away, and lies down to stare at the sky. The silence could be uncomfortable but it stretches unbroken like a plain, rolling and quietly lovely. It reminds him of Alma and the way she could ease those around her, of Tietra's quiet strength. It makes him think he knows the answer to his question, or at least the shape of it: for all the horrors of her life, Rapha can still look at a sunset and see a beauty not to be tarnished with words.

He could lie here quietly a long time, for that knowledge. The tiredness seems to sink through him and into the ground, pooling peacefully like bleeding out, and he does not mind.

More footsteps ascend the slope, a messy scrabble this time. Ramza has yet to cease marvelling at the sheer size of Mustadio's motion. For someone who works with such tireless precision on his guns and gadgets, he seems utterly careless with his body outside that sphere: gestures wide, touches long and solid as he excitedly explains some working beyond Ramza's ken, voice loud as he banters with Agrias.

Mustadio's head thrusts slantwise into Ramza's vision, all jaw and nose from where he lies. "Nice," he pronounces of the view before turning summarily away from it and nudging Ramza with a foot. Ramza sighs around a smile, and rolls to his side. Mustadio flops down between them. "Look," he says, holding something out in his hand. It looks like half a gun festooned with a further tangle of mechanisms that Ramza cannot decipher. Mustadio's hands flick a trigger, and a flame appears with a strange hiss-snap. Ramza raises an impressed eyebrow.

Rapha makes a faint curious noise, and Mustadio turns to show her, grinning. Ramza watches as Mustadio animates her face with a backwash of his own enthusiasm, sweeping her up as he swept Ramza's company up, all cleverness and forward motion. He imagines Rapha would appreciate momentum of that sort, just now, and watches the way Mustadio's hands do not touch hers as he hands over the thing, the distance between their knees as he draws his legs under him to instruct her. Mustadio does not deal in silences, not like Ramza can, but he can deal in distance and precision, and there is nothing inversely proportional about the size of his motion and the breadth of his understanding. This is gentleness, in Mustadio's own way. Ramza smiles.

He lets himself drift on the murmur of their voices, Mustadio's long rambles and Rapha's intermittent soft queries; another set drifts up the hill on the fitful breeze, and he could be surprised to hear Agrias and Marach conversing in serious tones, but he floats somewhere beyond that, just now. Sleep is a fine haze across his vision like a dusting of stars. Or the stars are coming out in truth. He blinks.

Mustadio and Rapha have fallen quiet by his side. He sits up.

"Marach," Rapha calls softly. "Marach. Come watch the sky."

Ramza turns to see Marach looking up at them, something hard and uncertain and a little lost in his face. Behind him, Agrias meets Ramza's eyes, her face serious. He jerks his chin minutely before looking at Marach again and waving him up. Mustadio looks up at the motion, having gotten absorbed in his gadget again in the short silence, and follows suit, his wave broader and more energetic. Agrias touches Marach's shoulder. Ramza can almost see the gestures registering like faint blows, but Marach's eyes are only for his sister, quiet on the crest of the hill.

He sees Marach take a breath, and ascend towards them.

One sibling of the heavens, one of the nether; Ramza watches them meet in this last gasp of shadows on the cusp between night and day. They do not touch, but he stands close beside where she sits, and if it's not perfectly beautiful then few things in the world are, and it is still good.

When Agrias joins the four of them, the last sliver of sun is just sinking behind the distant hills. She says nothing, sentinel over them, watchful but not nervous. Night settles in comfortable silence. They might be few, they upon the hill, but they are together in this. And there are still beautiful things in the world.