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Far Across the Sand and the Sea

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The study door creaked open, and Trema looked up from his scroll. "Yes?"

An acolyte slid into the room, head bowed. "Pardon the interruption, Father, but one of the summoners in training is here to see you. "

Trema set down his quill with a frown. "At this hour? It must be well past curfew."

"Yes sir, but he was quite insistent. His name is Braska, and he says it's urgent."

"Very well." Braska was one of Trema's best students, a priest who had come from Djose to begin training as a summoner some months back. He was a thoughtful young man, not given to dramatics. Trema rolled up the scroll and set it aside. "Send him in."

Without looking up, the acolyte scurried out of the room; in his place, Braska walked in, head held high. His eyes were blue, his long hair a light brown, tied back at his nape. He wore the yellow robes of a trainee, and, stopping in front of Trema's desk, he performed a deep prayer bow.

Trema returned the gesture perfunctorily, then waved his right hand. "You may rise."

Braska did so. "Thank you, Father Trema, for seeing me on such short notice."

"I was informed that it was urgent." Trema folded his hands on the desk. "What is so urgent that you come to me here, breaking protocol by visiting my quarters, rather than waiting for class tomorrow?"

Braska paused, as though he were considering his exact words, and then spoke in a rush. "I feel that I have a calling, sir. A calling that I must fulfill before I complete my summoner's training." He placed his hands behind his back. "I wish to minister to the Al Bhed."

"The Al Bhed?" Trema's brows shot up into his hat. "My son, what would compel you on an errand as foolish as that?"

Braska lowered his chin. "Is it foolish, Father? Or have we only fallen out of the habit of thinking of the Al Bhed as our brothers?" He looked up again. "I have been meditating on this for some time, studying and praying, teaching myself their language and learning what I can of their history. It's been centuries since we last made an attempt to reason with the Al Bhed and bring them back into the fold of Yevon, to show them the error of their ways. I believe that the time is ripe to try again, and I feel drawn to make the attempt. If the Guado can be brought to Yevon, surely the Al Bhed will not be far behind."

Trema saw the determination writ on Braska's brow. "There is merit to your argument," he acknowledged. "But that does not answer my question about urgency. Why here and now? Why not complete your training first? You have only just begun, my son. It would be a shame to give it up so quickly."

"Because I have the opportunity to travel to the Al Bhed homeland tomorrow morning," Braska replied. "There is an Al Bhed ship in port, and I managed to convince the captain to take me there. He has promised not only to take me to the Al Bhed, but to introduce me to their leader. How can I not take advantage of such a rare opportunity?" His eyes shone with excitement and purpose. "But I have to be at the docks at sunrise. Such a golden moment might not present itself again, Father. Please, give me your blessing, and promise that I might pick up my summoner's training when I return?"

"Hmm." Trema rose from his chair and paced to the darkened window to look out for a moment, thinking. Then he turned back to Braska. "All right," he said. "It's clear to me that you would undertake this voyage regardless. If you are determined to pursue this mad scheme, you might as well have Yevon's unofficial blessing. Not official, mind you. If any ill comes of this, I will deny that our conversation ever happened. Do you understand?"

Braska bowed, and when he rose, he was smiling. "Yes. Yes! Thank you, Father Trema."

Trema crossed the room and laid his hands on Braska's shoulders. "Yevon be with you, my son. And tell me of your adventures when you return."

Braska bowed one last time, then left. Trema watched him go, and wondered if he had just made the most brilliant move of his career -- or the most idiotic.

-x-

Braska slept poorly that night.

After his interview with Trema, he had done his best to contain his excitement, but walking back to his room, his feet barely touched the stone floor of the hallway. He had attempted to ground himself while packing his meager belongings -- doing so before receiving permission to leave had felt too much like tempting fate -- but once in bed, he found himself unable to rest. He couldn't even pull together enough presence of mind to meditate. Instead, he lay awake, tossing and turning on the rough sheets, pulled asunder by anticipation, excitement, and jangling nerves. When the sun finally peered over the horizon, it came as a relief; he threw off his too-heavy blanket and sat up, blinking in the dawn light. In a moment, he was dressed in the light traveling robes he had first earned as a priest, his bag hefted to his shoulder. After a bare glance around his quarters, he turned and left.

Bevelle is a slow temple to rise, and so Braska saw almost no one, his footsteps echoing in the silence as he walked down the hallway and through the courtyard. Only the warrior monk who guarded the gate to the docks acknowledged him with a brief bow as he passed through the gate leading outside the temple complex. The docks were livelier, the sailors hurrying to make theirs ships ready to catch the outgoing tide, shouting to each other and jangling the rigging. The captain, Lazard, stood at the rail of his ship, peering out to the horizon, and Braska bounded up the ramp two steps at a time.

"Captain Lazard?" The man turned, and Braska switched to Al Bhed. "Thank you, sir, for agreeing to bring me to your people."

Lazard grunted. "You may not feel that way once I get you there. I've learned to work with you Yevonites well enough, but our leader is not nearly so cooperative."

The ship lurched sideways as the engine started, and Braska caught the rail to keep his balance. The rumble of the deck beneath his feet was strange, and the ship was already moving faster than the chocobo-powered vessels he was used to. "If I may ask, then why did you offer me passage?"

"Because our people have to learn to work together." Lazard shrugged. "Better for everyone, especially for traveling merchants."

Braska bowed, careful to keep his hands at his sides. The prayer gesture was going to be a hard habit to break. "I agree. And again, I thank you."

"We'll talk more later." Lazard indicated a door behind him with his chin. "For now, there's a berth for you below decks. Just stay out of the way and you'll do fine."

-x-

By his second day at sea, Braska was starting to doubt his decision. The hard metal walls of the ship, the constant humming and grinding sounds coming from the engine, and especially the machina weapons the Al Bhed sailors carried made him nervous. Weren't they just asking for Sin to sweep them all away? The stark environment of his cabin had been too alienating for him to want to spend much time there, so he had staked out a quiet corner of the deck, where he could see the blue sky with its sweep of clouds and taste the freshness of the salt air. At night, he would go below decks and pray, asking Yevon for the strength to be near machina without becoming corrupted by it.

When the call for land blared through the loudspeaker in a burst of static early on the third morning, Braska almost fell out of bed in surprise. But he was also relieved by the news. He assumed that any Al Bhed settlement would be equally riddled with machina, but at least on land he should be able to escape into nature. With this thought, he made his way up to the deck.

A Yevonite ship would be bustling with activity this close to landfall -- sailors adjusting the rigging, watching the horizon, shouting commands and responses across the deck. This ship was eerily quiet in comparison, with only the changes in the engine noise indicating that land was near. Braska scrambled up to the forecastle deck so that he could better see the approaching Al Bhed homeland. There it was, growing larger on the horizon: a gleaming line of yellow dotted with patches of dull green. He stood at the edge of the deck, gripping the rail, watching as the land expanded to fill his field of vision.

The island, if it was an island, appeared to be almost entirely desert. But for a line of stubbly green brush covering the bluffs rising along the beaches, all Braska could see was sand, dunes rolling off as far as the eye could see, only broken by a few barren crags. As the ship nosed into the dock, Braska turned to the captain, who was walking up the stairs.

"Welcome to Bikanel," said Lazard. "Is it what you expected?"

"I'm not sure what I expected," Braska replied. "Where are the people?"

"There's a small settlement here at the port, behind that rise." Lazard pointed to his right. "But most of us live in a fortress a ways inland." Braska noticed a small trail of smoke, as if from a chimney, from behind the hill that Lazard had indicated, then saw a machina vehicle parked next to the dock. An Al Bhed wearing goggles and a yellow jumpsuit sat on a bench at the front, and she raised her hand in greeting to Lazard, who returned the wave. Then Lazard looked at Braska. "Whenever you're ready."

Braska hefted the bag to his shoulder. "Thank you, Lazard."

"Like I said before, don't thank me yet." Lazard shook his head. "Wait until we meet Cid; then we'll see how you feel about it. Let's go."

-x-

Bikanel was hot; there was no mistake to be made about that. Hot, and windy, and bright -- in spite of the stifling warmth, Braska pulled the hood of his robe over his head just to keep the blowing sand and glaring light out of his eyes. So far, his initial impression of Bikanel as a desert wasteland was unchanged; there was nothing but sand, rocks, and the occasional pile of rusted metal as far as the eye could see. He huddled in the back of the hover, where the sound of the engine was so loud as to deaden all thought. He had started the journey seated on the bench in front, but the speed of motion had been so terrifying that he'd asked to move to the back. Despite his proximity to the machina engine, he found the relative shelter made him feel more secure. He wondered if the trip was almost done.

Lazard leaned back from his seat. "Almost there," he shouted in Braska's ear, as if he had overheard Braska's thoughts. "When we're over the next dune, you should be able to see it."

Braska nodded; he didn't trust his dry throat to produce more than a croak in answer. Lazard had given him a canteen of water at the start of the journey, but he hadn't felt stable enough on the hover to pull it out and drink. Part of him wanted to close his eyes and will the journey to be finished, but his excitement was rising. How could it not, with his goal so near? So instead he leaned forward, trying to peer over the hill.

They topped the rise, and a valley spread out below them. The sand was less evident here, the terrain more like hardened clay. Braska noticed the changes, and then his attention was seized by the enormous metal structure rising out of the valley's center. It reminded him of a metallic rose; the petals clustered around a tower in the center, and hovers bustled around it like bees in search of nectar. Braska sat up straighter, unable to turn his eyes away.

The hover flew straight for the entrance, diving down the side of the valley wall. Braska's stomach leaped up into his throat, and he tugged Lazard's sleeve. "Wait, stop the hover!"

Lazard took one look at Braska's face, then said a sharp word to the driver, who slowed the machina before shutting off the engine. Braska jumped off the hover and raced around to the back, where he knelt to the ground and emptied the contents of his stomach onto the sand. Relief was immediate -- his gut settled back in place, and his head stopped spinning. Standing, he closed his eyes for a moment, then drank from the canteen to rinse out his mouth, spitting the first mouthful of water onto the ground, then taking a few careful sips. Opening his eyes, he looked back at Lazard, who watched him with a wry smile.

"Sorry about that," Lazard said. "I forget how motion sickness can take first-timers."

Braska shook his head at the unfamiliar term. "Motion sickness?"

"I'll tell you later." Lazard looked through his goggles at the city. "You want to ride the rest of the way, or just walk? We're almost there."

After a glance at the city, and then back at the hover, Braska shuddered. "Let's walk," he said. The ground felt wonderfully stable and solid beneath his feet; he thought he would never want to leave it again. He took a moment to collect himself, then took his pack from the outstretched hands of the hover pilot and hitched it over his shoulders before following Lazard toward a tiled courtyard in front of an enormous door. It took what felt like an age of walking across the hard ground, waves of heat assaulting Braska's face; he drew the edge of his cloak over his nose and mouth and moved slowly, stopping often to drink. It came as something of a shock when he realized that he was walking across man-made bricks rather than more packed earth, and he looked up, stopping dead in his tracks. He was surrounded by a dozen Al Bhed, dressed in the same yellow jumpsuits as the hover driver, each holding an intimidating machina weapon in their hands. They were arranged in two angled ranks, a bareheaded man standing at their apex. Unlike the others, he seemed to carry no weapon, crossing his arm over his chest instead.

Lazard glanced over his shoulder at Braska and raised his hand in a clear gesture: Wait. Then Lazard walked briskly to the man in the center -- a leader if Braska had ever seen one -- and then held out his hand in greeting. "Hello, Cid."

Cid did not return the gesture. "What is he doing here?"

"I brought him."

Cid laughed, a rasping sound with no mirth. "Of your own free will, or did those Yevonites finally turn your brain to mush with all that praying?"

Lazard shook his head. "He asked for transport and an introduction. That didn't seem so much to ask, so I brought him. And I know what you're going to say. But this one was determined enough that he would probably have found his way to Home eventually anyhow. Better to bring him than let him get killed on the crossing or in the desert. And maybe if I get the two of you talking, we might get some decent relations with the Yevonites for a change."

Cid's scowl deepened. "Yeah, right. For the sake of lining your pockets. You and your merchant's guild. I should have outlawed it when I had the chance." He dropped his chin to his chest with a sigh. "All right. Hey, you!" On these last two words, he switched to near-flawless Spiran, and Braska looked up in surprise. "You came this far to see me, might as well come a little closer."

Braska lowered his pack to the ground, then walked across the courtyard, his pace deliberate and his head held high. When he reached Cid, he lowered the hood of his cloak, then dipped into an elaborate bow, arms stiff at his sides. "Thank you for welcoming me into your home," he said, speaking his very best Al Bhed. "I will be worthy of your hospitality."

"Oh, get up." Cid waved a hand impatiently. Braska stood straight and met Cid's eyes, not flinching from his probing stare. "Hmmph. Well, at least your Al Bhed's not too bad, considering you must've learned it all from books. Guess there's no harm in letting you in for the night. But let's get one thing straight, kid. There's no more of that bowing business, and if you destroy a single machina while you're here, you're out on your ear with no ride back to a ship. Understand?"

"I understand." Braska inclined his head. "Thank you, again."

"Fine. Tessa!" This last word was barked to a guard standing at his left hand. Braska started when he realized that the guard was a woman. She set her weapon down against the wall, then inclined herself to face Cid. "Show the Yevonite to the empty rooms off Hub Seven." She nodded; after one last glower at Braska, Cid turned on his heel and marched in through the gates, muttering furiously at Lazard while three other guards followed.

The woman pulled off her goggles and let them dangle by their strap from her left hand. She had straight hair the color of honey; her eyes were green and swirled like all the others, and Braska found looking into them a bit unsettling. Then she smiled.

"Hi," she said, in Spiran almost as clear as Cid's. "Sorry about my brother -- he's not good with surprises and even worse with outsiders. But he'll get used to you, if you keep your word about the machina. What's your name?"

"Braska," he replied; he started to bring his hands into the prayer position, then checked himself, holding his right palm out in the traditional Al Bhed greeting instead.

She took his hand in a firm grip. "I'm Tessa." Her skin was warm and smooth to the touch, and Braska found his fingers closing around hers. He smiled back, and noticed that her eyes had a light sparkle very different from Cid's angry snap. She dropped his hand and stepped away. "Anyway, I'll get you a room. Here, let me take your bag." She grabbed the pack with one hand and turned for the gates, leaving Braska to walk a few bemused steps behind.

They walked in silence at first, Braska taking the time to examine everything around him -- the reddish metal walls gleaming with bits of machina, the buzzing sounds that seemed to be everywhere. They approached the entrance to the city, closed off with a small blue door; Tessa walked straight up to it without pausing, and just as it looked like she was about to run into it, it slid up and out of the way with a hiss and a thunk. Startled, Braska froze in place, and Tessa stopped, looking over her shoulder.

"It's okay," she called back, an amused lilt to her voice. "It won't fall or anything."

Taking a deep breath, Braska stepped through the door, nearly jumping when it slammed down behind him. Then he did jump as a blast of cool air hit him in the face. Shaking his head and squinting, he stepped back and looked up at the ceiling. The surface was a flat gray metal, but for a square of evenly-spaced slits directly over his head. He held his hand up to it, and felt the breeze blowing from between the gaps. Sniffing at the air, he thought he detected an odd quality to it, an almost metallic tang.

Tessa walked up next to him. "We call it 'air conditioning'. Keeps it cool during the day and warm at night. Handy in the desert. Ever seen anything like it?"

Braska shook his head and dropped his palm. "I expect I will see many wonders, here."

She chuckled, not unkindly. "And it's all just everyday stuff to us. But you'll get used to it. If you ever have questions, just ask. I promise not to make too much fun of you."

He smiled at her gentle jibe, once again noting the warmth in her eyes and her smile. "Thank you."

"Don't mention it." She jerked her head down the hallway. "This way."

Once again, Braska followed, still taking in his surroundings. The corridor appeared to be made entirely of metal: square gray tiles on the floors, walls of a brighter silver hue, heavy doors just like the one that led outside, but smaller. Braska shuddered, and not just from the chill of the artificial air. How did the Al Bhed live, surrounded by such hard, smooth surfaces, so cut off from the real world?

They passed through another door and into a large room with a high ceiling. Now Braska stood on a walkway, one of several radiating out from a large round platform at the room's center. He followed Tessa onto it and noticed the bright starburst pattern painted on the floor, nearly the same yellow as her one-piece suit. She looked over her shoulder to make sure he was still following, then made a sharp right turn onto the next spoke of the wheel. The door at the end opened, and she stepped aside to reveal a room only slightly larger than his cubicle in Bevelle.

"Here you go," she said, handing him his bag. "To get to the council room, take the elevator behind the third door to the right. There's a meeting there in a couple of hours that you'll probably want to attend. Dinner is right after. See you then!" She grinned at him one last time, then left. When she was gone, Braska went into his room, making an effort not to wince as the door closed. There was a window directly opposite and he went straight there, standing and staring at the expanse of brown desert, wondering what on earth he had just gotten himself into. He relaxed his hand, let his knapsack fall from his outstretched fingers, and began to pray.

-x-

The council room was small and dimly lit, several stories underground. The lack of windows and stark metal walls made Braska think of a siege bunker. As he took a seat at the round table that took up most of the space, he found himself surrounded by tanned faces and yellow hair. Once again, he felt very far from home.

Cid had already taken his seat in the only chair with arms, a subtle sign of leadership at the otherwise egalitarian gathering. The only other people Braska recognized were Lazard, who sat on Cid's right, and Tessa, who stood behind him and to the left, her face shadowed. She caught his eye with a smile, and he nodded in return. No one else acknowledged him in any way, not even Lazard. Three more people filed into the room; the last, a woman of about Cid's age with bright hair twisted up in a knot let the door close behind her, then pressed a few buttons to lock it. She took the last empty seat, on Cid's left, then turned to face Braska straight on.

"So, you're the Yevonite who thinks we ought to start talking again," she said.

Braska nodded. "That's right. We have been suspicious of one another and operating at odds for too long. It is my belief that we have much to learn from each other, and that Spira would be better served with open relations between us."

A short man about halfway around the table shook his head. "The separation has been good enough for Yevon for the last thousand years. Why change now?"

"Because change had already begun." Braska inclined his head in the direction he thought likely to be eastward. "Within the last ten years, the Guado have been welcomed into the fold of Yevon. And a Ronso has recently been elevated to Maester for the first time in history. Yevon's image of the world is expanding, and the Al Bhed can be a part of that."

In her corner, Tessa snorted. "Can become converts, you mean."

And here was the tricky part. Braska knew that he would have to tread carefully to gain their trust. Not lie; never that. But he would focus on only a part of the truth. So he shook his head. "I will not pretend that I would turn away anyone who might choose to adopt my faith. But that is not my primary reason for coming. My only true wish is to foster goodwill between our people."

"Hmph." Cid leaned back in his chair. "Maybe that's your goal. Not so sure I trust your Maesters to agree. Seem to remember that the Guado were considered ordinary heathens before they joined up with Yevon. Are you trying to tell me that Yevon will welcome us and our 'forbidden machina' with open arms?" Braska looked around the room to see skeptical expressions that seemed to echo Cid's disbelief.

"I was not sent by the Maesters. Officially, they don't even know I'm here. I came to you on my own initiative " Braska lowered his chin a touch and looked straight at Cid. "I understand why you might not believe me. I have read your people's history; I know you have good reasons to mistrust Yevon. Give me the chance to change your mind, to show you that even Yevon might be of some value to you. And then we can work together to change the minds of my people, so that we might work together."

Cid looked at Lazard, then the woman on his left. They both nodded at him, and he turned back to Braska with a grunt. "All right," he said. "I'll give you a chance. You'll stay in the quarters I gave you, and you can go about Home as you like. But my warning about the machina still stands. If I learn that you're really here on some secret mission to wreck the works, or call an invasion force down on our heads, you'll get to know the business end of some machina weapons real quick. Got it?"

Braska bowed his head. "Of course."

"Good." Cid laid his palms flat on the table and, for the first time, smiled. It transformed his face, and Braska realized that Cid was younger than he had first thought -- mid-thirties perhaps, certainly no older. He wondered how such a young man had earned the leadership of his people. "Okay, now that's over with. Let's eat! Tessa, let the cook know we're ready for dinner."

Tessa stepped to the side and through a door that Braska hadn't noticed until it pulled up into the ceiling. She shouted a few words back over her shoulder, then grabbed a chair from behind her, dragged it around the table, and dropped it next to Braska, who had to scoot sideways to make room. Sitting down, she flashed him another grin. "Told you he'd come around," she said in Spiran, only the slight lilt of her accent betraying her origins. "So, you ready to eat?"

Speechless with surprise and relief, Braska nodded.

"Good, because Cid had the cook pull out all the stops. Hope you're up for something with a little more heat than the temple slop I bet you're used to."

Braska raised an eyebrow. "And how would you know what kind of food we serve in the temples? For all you know, I could have been fed by a gourmet chef every night."

Tessa made a face. "I've had my share of mainland food. In Luca, mostly. Can't say that it ever impressed me much. It's a little better on the southern islands, but I promise you, this is better."

"I see. Well, I look forward to trying it." Braska sat back in his chair, taking a quick look around the room to make sure that no one minded him chatting with their chief's sister, but so far they hadn't seemed to notice, except for the woman on Cid's left, who watched them with an expression somewhere between concern and curiosity. He was considering whether to speak to her when a tug on his sleeve drew his attention back to the girl sitting next to him.

"Better not to stare at her," she said cheerfully, switching back to Al Bhed. "That's Mirri, Cid's wife. He's the jealous type; if you thought he'd have your head over machina, you really don't want to see him if you mess with his wife. Or his sister." She winked at him.

Braska could not hold back a chuckle. "I'll be careful."

"Good." Her head tipped to the side, and her smile softened. "I'd hate to see you get those fancy robes spoiled by streaks of gunpowder." She looked over his clothes and tapped her chin with her forefinger. "Although it might not be much of a loss, here. I'm not sure how practical those are going to be. Aren't you hot?"

"These are the lightest robes I have," Braska said. "And I found them quite effective at blocking the sun and the wind when I was riding the hover here." He looked down at his tunic and trousers. "And these are fairly plain by Bevelle standards. Not to mention in comparison to those bright yellow things you're all wearing."

Tessa laughed. "Maybe so. But they work equally well for desert and sea, and that's all we really need, right?" She was wearing the same jumpsuit that she'd had on earlier in the day, but she had taken off the long-sleeved jacket to reveal bare arms and shoulders. Her tanned skin was a burnished gold, much different from the pale faces and hands that Braska was used to seeing in the temples, and it contrasted nicely with her chin-length blond hair. She made a noise, and he looked up to meet her eyes, sparkling with amusement. "Looking for something?"

"I-- ah, no, I was just..." Braska snapped his mouth shut before he could embarrass himself further, too late to forestall the blush he felt rising to his cheeks.

She laughed again, her tone teasing but without malice. A bell clanged in the background, and she stood up with a wink. "You're saved; food's ready. I'll be right back." She headed for the kitchen, and Braska found that he couldn't keep from watching her smooth, graceful walk, looking away only when a throat cleared beside him. He turned to see a middle-aged man wearing goggles and a frown.

"Watch yourself, boy. That girl has broken more than one heart."

Braska responded with a polite nod. "I assure you, sir, I have no such intentions toward anyone in Home."

"Good." The man grunted. "Best keep it that way." His warning given, he turned his back on Braska and began speaking to the woman on his other side. Braska took that as a dismissal, and looked around the room instead. He noted the near-even distribution of men and women at the table and wondered if egalitarian rule was typical of the Al Bhed. His readings had said nothing of it, but then much of what he knew about their customs was speculation. He might already know more about the Al Bhed than any other outsider, a thought that sent a thrill down his spine.

"You okay?" Tessa slid back into her chair, a plate in each hand. She set them on the table and looked at him, eyebrow raised. "You look a little pale."

"Yes, I'm fine." Braska scooted his chair closer to the table and examined the mess of meat and vegetables in a thick brown sauce. "What do we have here? And why don't I have a spoon?"

"Stew with carrots and cactus fruits. Here, let me show you how to eat it." Tessa reached into the basket of bread that sat halfway to the center of the table and pulled out a triangle. "You use this to scoop it up, like so." She demonstrated, popping the point of the triangle in her mouth and taking a bite. "Mmm, good batch. Now you try."

Braska took a small piece of the bread and dipped the bread in his bowl, angling it beneath a large hunk of meat. He lifted it free, then stuffed it into his mouth before it could drip onto the table. The flavors were rich, and strong, and spicy -- he could feel the heat as he swallowed, and then he gasped as the afterburn set the entire inside of his mouth on fire. He blinked hard, willing the tears away from his eyes; he succeeded, but not by much.

Tessa pursed her lips together, but Braska could see the laughter in her eyes. "Eat some plain bread; that'll help. And drink this." She pushed her glass down the table.

Braska grabbed another slide of bread and ate it in a single bite, chewing slowly. When he was able to speak again, it was to gasp out a single word: "Water."

"No, this is better." Tessa shook her head. "Trust me."

How could such a friendly woman be related to a man as prickly as Cid? Braska lifted the metal tankard and took a sip. It was wine, light and sweet, and Tessa was exactly right -- the fruity flavor cut through the spicy oils that had settled on his tongue, and the coolness of the liquid cooled the worst of the pain. Another swallow, and it was all but gone. Setting the glass down, he looked at her, sheepish. "My thanks."

She smiled. "Sure. Ready for some more? I'd suggest smaller bites, though."

Braska laughed again. "You're a smart woman."

"You can say that again." Tessa rose from her seat. "Let me get us some more wine. Back in a flash."

As Braska took a more tentative bite of his stew, he wondered if his seatmate's warning might not have come too late.

-x-

The next morning, Braska woke cold and disoriented. The bed beneath him was hard, the room hollow, and what was the rush of air blowing over his face? Opening his eyes, he saw some familiar holes cut into the ceiling, and then he remembered. "Air conditioning," he mumbled, the unfamiliar Al Bhed syllables rolling around his mouth. He shivered and sat up, casting off the thin blanket that Mirri had provided. She had dropped by his rooms right after dinner to introduce herself, infant son balanced on her hip, and brought him some necessities as well as a hand-drawn map of the fortress.

"It's not too hard to get around," she'd said, "but you'll get lost at first. We tried to tell Cid that he didn't need to make every tiny corridor proof against invaders, but you'll find that he's a stubborn fellow." She pointed to a star marked on the map. "He asked me to tell you to meet him at the hover hangar tomorrow morning, so he can take you on a tour of the island. You'll be able to make it, I hope?"

Braska had accepted her invitation with gratitude, then spent the next several hours memorizing the map and trying not to touch the machina that dotted his room. There seemed to be control panels for everything, but without knowing what they did, he was afraid to start just poking at them. His first thought had been to ask Tessa for help; then he'd wondered why she'd been the first to his mind, rather than Lazard or Mirri or even Cid. He had gone to bed worrying at the question.

The answer still eluded him, even after a full night's sleep. Tessa was certainly beautiful. And friendly, and she seemed interested in learning more about him. But those attributes alone shouldn't have kept her in the forefront of his thoughts. You have far more pressing things to worry about now, he told himself firmly. Like earning Cid's trust, and considering how best to talk to these people about Yevon, and figuring out how to keep that damned air from blasting into his face all night. He put Tessa out of his mind and stood up to face the day, not to mention the various contraptions in the washroom.

Some minutes later -- scrubbed, dressed, and fed thanks to the breakfast tray that had been left outside his door -- he headed out the door, down the walkway and into the lift that would take him to the hangar. As he stepped out the door, he saw Cid and Tessa standing next to a small hover, engrossed in conversation. Tessa turned, saw him, and waved him over. He had not expected to see her here, and he was both pleased and a little concerned at how glad her presence made him.

Cid turned around and nodded at him. "Well, you want your grand tour now?"

"Indeed. I look forward to it." Trying not to show his trepidation, Braska climbed on the hover and sat on the bench next to Cid while Tessa took a seat in the back.

"Ready?" Cid barked, and Braska nodded. The engine roared to life and the hover lurched forward; Braska grabbed the bar and held on for dear life as they picked up speed. The hover pilot on his first trip had been going easy on him. Cid extended no such courtesy; he rocketed between the dunes, taking curves so steeply that Braska had to exert every effort not to fall off. Conversation was impossible over the roar of wind and engine, so they rode in silence for half an hour. Then Cid rounded a rocky bluff and cut the power, and the hover glided to a stop. "Take a look," he said.

Braska rose, standing on the running boards of the hover, and took in the view in the valley below: a series of ruins, one after the other, a few buildings much like the ones he knew from the Mi'ihen Highroad as well as rusting machina and piles of scrap metal.

"There are places like this all over the island," Cid explained. "And we keep finding new ones. And you know what it is? A thousand-year old junkyard."

"A junkyard?" Braska considered the wasteland before him. "Not a city?"

"Not this part of the island." Tessa leaned forward from the back and stuck her head between them; she rested her arms on the crossbar. "We've done some digging, and there's no underlying infrastructure that would suggest an ancient city -- no streets, no water lines, nothing. The machina and structures are all scattered around randomly. The western side is different -- that's more like a ruin. But this area is a pile of scrap, pretty much."

"To the ancient Spirans, it was trash. But to me, it's better than gold. Just think about the treasure out here in this desert!" Cid swept his arms wide. "If I had any idea how to put this stuff back together again, you know how useful it would be? There might even be airships!" He glared at Braska. "But you darn Yevonites and your rules against knowledge keep us from understanding how any of it works. Best we can do is tinker: use trial and error, then patch people up when things go kaboom. What do you think of that?"

Braska's mind wandered to the great library in Bevelle temple, and the sections that were kept locked away from all but the highest officials of Yevon. He suspected that the answers Cid sought might well be behind those doors. But he said nothing of it; instead he shrugged. "The age of machina brought rise to Sin. The knowledge is better off lost."

Cid snorted. "After a week or two living here with air conditioning and running water, you might be singing a different tune. But never mind. All right, let's get moving. I want to get to the oasis by lunchtime."

-x-

Several hours later, the hover finally pulled back into Home, gliding into the large underground room where the vehicles were kept. Braska sat on the bench for a moment, welcoming the relative peace and quiet of the large darkened hangar, the lack of tearing winds and stinging sand, the seat no longer vibrating beneath him. His mind whirled with all the sights of the island that Cid and Tessa had shown him: the ruined city of the West, destroyed by Sin nearly a thousand years ago and sending the Al Bhed into a nomadic existence; beautiful rock formations twisted into spirals by generations of erosion; a valley filled with grand cactus trees that towered over them; the peaceful pond of an oasis ringed by palms. He was no longer inclined to think of the desert as an awful place -- even its starker sections featured an austere beauty that a man raised to the priesthood could not help but appreciate.

"Well?" Cid turned in the driver's seat, resting his arm on the back of the bench. "What did you think?"

"This island is truly remarkable," Braska replied. "Thank you for taking the time to show it to me."

"You're welcome." Cid stretched as he dismounted from the hover. "See you at dinner." He walked out of the hanger without another word. Braska began to stand, when he was stopped by a hand to his shoulder. He turned around to look at Tessa.

"Can you stand just one more trip?" she asked. "Cid showed you all his favorite places on Bikanel, but I think the best part is still coming."

Braska sighed and stretched his shoulders. He had been looking forward to getting away from the vehicle, but he was curious. "All right," he said, settling back into place.

Tessa jumped down from the back and climbed up into the driver's seat. The engine hummed back to life with the punch of a button; she dropped her goggles back into place and backed the hover out of its spot, then turned it back toward the exit. Picking up speed, they shot out of the fortress and back into the sands, which glowed golden in the late afternoon light. Looking up, Braska noticed that clouds were massing in the west, and he tapped Tessa on the arm. She glanced at him, and he leaned close enough to shout in her ear. "Is it safe?" He pointed up to the sky.

"Yeah, no problem. The storm shouldn't hit for a few hours." She turned the hover in the direction of the clouds and the setting sun, and they drove until she topped a rise. Then she stopped the hover, turning it sidelong to the sunset. Braska blinked a few times before realizing that the shimmer in the distance wasn't more sand, but the sea.

"This is the highest spot on the island that isn't a mountain," Tessa said. She gestured toward the ocean, glittering silver and gold as the sun touched the horizon, and then up at the clouds, which were starting to turn a luminous pink. "And I'd wager that it's the best place in all of Spira to watch a sunset."

"It is breathtaking." Braska buried his hands in his pockets and bowed his head against the wind. "I've rarely seen colors to match it. But I would wager the Moonflow against this."

Tessa cocked her head to look at him. "You'll have to show me sometime."

He smiled at her. "Perhaps I will." Then he faced the ocean again, and the two of them stood watch in comfortable silence as the sun completed its arc through the sky, the light on the ocean settling into a solid golden streak, the clouds passing from pink to brilliant red to deep purple. Soon the sun had disappeared, and the first stars were already starting to appear. By the time full dark had fallen, Braska was leaning back, mouth gaping at the diamonds that glittered in the sky above him, huge and close enough to touch.

"So." Tessa finally broke the silence, her voice hushed. "What did you think?"

"Breathtaking. Although perhaps not quite as breathtaking as the Moonflow." Braska straightened his chin, neck protesting at the sudden change of position, and he rolled his head on his shoulders to stretch out the kinks before looking at Tessa. "But you'll get no argument from me about these stars."

Her smile was somehow both wistful and smug. "Told you. C'mon, let's get back before Cid sends out the hounds."

-x-

Braska took off his cloak with a sigh, then tossed it into the corner of the room. It had been a long day, mostly spent in an intense argument about machina with several young people, and he was uncertain that he had made any progress. He had been nearly a month in Home now, and although he no longer felt hostility from most of its residents, neither did he believe that any of the Al Bhed were any closer to Yevon.

After an hour of prodding at the controls, Braska had finally discovered the off switch for the air conditioning in his room. He preferred to take advantage of the natural temperature variations of the desert, closing his small window during the heat of day and leaving it open at night. As a result, his room was usually warmer than the rest of the complex, but the connection to nature helped keep him sane in this fortress of metal and machina. He walked over to the window now --- it was a little early, but the sun was sinking in the sky, and he was desperate for a few breaths of fresh air. He cranked the handle furiously, opening the window as far as it would go, closed his eyes, and took a deep breath. He let it out slowly, focusing on the clean, dry scent of sand and the slightly bitter whiff of cactus. As he did so, his thoughts turned to the upcoming evening meal, where he would see Tessa.

Tessa. The time they spent talking at dinner each night had become the highlight of his days, and he had glimmers of hope that she felt the same way. Yet the thought also made him uneasy. Was it right for him to be having these thoughts about a woman whom he felt to be under his spiritual charge? An Al Bhed? The sister of a rival leader? He tried not to think about the implications and to allow himself simple enjoyment of the warm feelings Tessa inspired. But whenever she smiled at him, touched his hand or his shoulder, tossed her hair flirtatiously, he was consumed with dreams of a future that could never be.

"Braska?"

He started, turned from the window to see him entering the room. Had his thought caused her to appear? Was such a thing even possible? "Hello. What brings you here? It's not quite time for dinner yet."

"I know. But I wanted to warn you that Cid has some big state thing planned. Inviting the head of the militia, some people from the merchant's guild, that kind of thing. I didn't think you should get caught by surprise."

Braska bowed. "My thanks. I'll make sure to come prepared." She nodded, but did not leave the doorway, and he frowned. "Was that all?"

"No." Tessa took another step, then stopped. "It's just-- well. With all those people around, we won't really have the chance to talk. And I realized that I'd miss talking to you, even though I talk to you every night. It got me to thinking."

"Oh?" Braska had to will his heart to keep beating as she started walking toward him again. "About-- what?"

"About you, and about me." Tessa was close enough to touch him now. "About how much I like talking to you, and spending time with you, and how good it feels when you're near me. Like this." She reached out and brushed her fingers against his, light as a feather and warm as down. Braska tightened his hand into a reflexive fist; she looked into his eyes. "I'm not imagining it, am I?"

Braska had to swallow before he could speak. "No. You're not." He opened his hand and found Tessa's, lacing their fingers together as he had longed to do, and the shock of her warm skin reverberated through his whole body. "But-- we can't."

"Why not?" Her eyes were huge, and Braska could not look away. The spiral of her iris was hypnotic, pulling him in. He was drowning in a pool of green. "Give me one good reason, besides the fact that you're a Yevonite. Didn't you come here to prove that wasn't a good enough reason to keep our people apart?"

"True, but--" He was sure that his next words would have been a well-reasoned argument that would convince her of its truth, but he never learned what they were; before he could formulate them, she had closed the gap and was kissing him, her sweet warm mouth against his, and he kissed her back, his arm wrapping around her shoulder and pulling her close, molding her lithe body to his.

It took greater reserves of will than Braska thought he possessed to stop the kiss and let her go, but he did, tearing himself from her embrace, forcing his arms to fall to his sides. He took several gulping breaths and closed his eyes, running every mantra he knew through his mind, hoping to clear it. It took him a full minute to regain control. When he finally trusted himself to open his eyes, only an open doorway and an empty room greeted him. Tessa was gone.

He sighed with relief at her absence. Much safer for them both to let it go and pretend that it never happened. Wasn't it?

Braska lowered himself into the straight-backed chair, and turned inward, letting his thoughts go blank, and slipped into a meditative state deep enough to block out any little whispering voice that might argue with this conclusion.

-x-

Tessa did not attend dinner. Braska, himself a few minutes late, noticed her absence immediately upon entering the room; though he had to tamp down a wave of disappointment, the feeling was tempered with relief at being spared an awkward moment. He let nothing show as he took his usual seat, on Cid's left, forcing himself not to look at the empty space at his own left hand.

Cid looked up from his food and focused a glare on Braska. "Decided to join us?" he asked, gruff as always.

"My apologies, sir." Braska inclined his head. "What have I missed?"

"Just Rin being a damned fool, as usual." Cid waved his hand toward Lazard's second in the Merchant's Guild, who sat on his right. Across the table, Lazard raised an eyebrow at Braska, while Rin smiled and sketched a seated bow in his direction. The rest of the table was taken up by high ranking militia officers, who favored him with nods of greeting. Cid ignored it all and turned his attention to Rin. "I could forbid it, y'know. Take your goods, revoke your business license."

"But you would not," Rin countered, still smiling. "I'm too valuable to you, and you know it."

Cid sighed with exasperation. "You don't even speak their language! How're you gonna sell stuff to them if you can't speak the language?"

Rin bowed again. "I can learn. Perhaps our friend Braska would teach me. Or Tessa, who has proven herself a patient teacher in the past. Where is your good sister, anyway?"

Cid glanced toward the door, then the empty seat, then back at the door again. "Who knows?" he said, tone light, though Braska thought he detected a note of falseness to his cheer. "I've never been able to keep track."

"Sorry, Cid." The voice came from the other side of the room, through the door to the kitchen. "The cook got behind, so I was helping out."

Braska turned. Tessa stood there, a large tray of food balanced in her hands. She did not look at Braska as she set the meat and stewed cactus fruit on the table, then backed away. "There's still a lot to do, so I'll be off now." Before Cid could argue, she turned and walked to the door; it slid open and then dropped shut behind her. She was gone, but Braska could still see her there, the image of her framed by the doorway as she glanced over her shoulder, one eye burning as it locked with his for just an instant. She was gone, but Braska could not look away, and he realized that he was trembling.

He wanted her. Dear Yevon, how he wanted her.

Not getting up and running after her was the hardest thing he had ever done: harder than hours of meditating on the cold stone floor of Bevelle temple, harder than casting a Life spell for the first time, harder than picking the voice of a single pyrefly out of the chorus of a fiend, harder than letting her go the first time had been. He saw her, clear as day in his mind's eye, and he could feel his thighs tensing to rise from the chair.

"Father Braska?"

He forced himself to face forward and breathe normally. "Yes?"

"What do you think of Rin's plans?" Lazard leaned forward. "Do you think the Yevonites would ever knowingly buy goods from an Al Bhed?"

Braska nodded. "Possibly, depending on exactly what, and especially if they had no choice. Rin, can you tell me more details of what you might sell and where?"

"It is a modest plan to build shops along the pilgrimage road..." Rin launched into his spiel, and Braska let himself concentrate on it, sweeping the forbidden thoughts from his mind once again.

-x-

Braska did not see Tessa the next day, or the day after that. Each night at dinner, he kept one ear in the conversation and another toward the door; every night in his quarters, he waited, half-hoping, half-fearing that she would appear just as suddenly as she had before.

The third day, after dinner, he succumbed to curiosity and knocked on her door.

"Yes?" she called through the metal.

"It's me," he replied. "Can I talk to you?" He spoke her language, careful and formal, but inside he found that he was praying. Not to Yevon -- that was more blasphemy than he could bear. But he prayed to someone that she would open the door. Perhaps to the fayth, perhaps to the pyreflies, perhaps to the universe itself.

Whoever it was, they must have heard. After a long minute, the door slid open, and Tessa was there, leaning against the door frame. She did not smile, but her eyes were warm. "Come in."

Almost stumbling with relief, Braska walked through the door and into Tessa's quarters. They were almost as sparse as his own -- a bed, two chairs, a small table. She even had an operable window. The only difference was the workbench in the corner, covered with bits and pieces of machina, and Braska forced himself not to look at them. Which left only Tessa and the window as alternatives; he didn't trust himself to look at her, so he stared at the view instead. Tessa's window faced east instead of north. Night had not yet finished falling, but the moon was already well over the horizon, its cool glow in contrast to a sky still streaked with gold and red. "Beautiful," he murmured.

"It really is, isn't it?" Braska could hear the fondness for Bikanel in her voice. "I'm glad you've learned to appreciate it." A few soft footsteps behind him, and then she spoke again, closer. "Braska? You said you wanted to talk?"

"Yes." Reluctantly, he turned around, focusing on her forehead instead of her eyes, trying not to notice how gracefully her hair fell across her brow. "I came because I miss your friendship."

"Friendship?" Tessa raised an eyebrow. "Is that what I am to you? Your friend?"

Braska nodded. "Yes. My friend."

"Well. You're my friend, too. One of the best I've ever had." She shook her head. "But that's not all you are. And if you'd stop being so stubborn, you'd see that, too. Braska." She lifted a hand to the back of his neck and forced him to look in her eyes; once he met them, he couldn't look away. "Tell me. Why are you so afraid?"

"Tell me why you aren't!" His palms came up to frame her face, one along each cheek. They fit perfectly there, like they had been made to hold her, just so. "If your brother knew, if Yevon knew... our whole lives, Tessa. If this happens, it changes our lives forever. Are you ready for that?"

"Yes," she answered without hesitation. Her fingers tightened in his hair. "Yes," she whispered again, in his language this time, and the bottom fell out from Braska's heart. It was over: he was lost.

"Tess." Suddenly the idea of not kissing her was intolerable, and so he did, pressing his mouth to hers, sliding his hands down the sides of her neck. Her hair was smooth, her skin was soft, her scent intoxicating. Her fingers tugged at the tie binding his hair, and it came free, spilling across his shoulders as she buried her hands in it. Braska felt the blood coursing through his veins, heard his heart beating, was aware of every inch of his body in a way he had never experienced before. A thought occurred to him, fighting its way to the surface of his consciousness, and he murmured her name again, against her lips.

"Yes?" She kissed him again, and again.

"You should know... I want to tell you..." He broke away, looked into her face. "This is... new to me. I've not done this before."

Tessa raised an eyebrow, her smile teasing. "Twenty-three years old and never been kissed?"

"Well, ah." Braska found he was fighting a blush. "Kissed, yes. But-- very little more."

"Oh." Tessa's eyebrows stayed up, with surprise now.

"I've been a priest, or in training to be one, all my life." Braska shrugged. "No opportunity ever presented itself, and I never choose to seek one out. So." He ran his hand from the top of her head down her back. "Does this change anything?"

She shook her head. "No. I'm just surprised. And honored." She lifted her face to his, brought their mouths together, touched the tip of his tongue with her own. Braska gasped at the shock of pleasure that raced down his spine and into his toes. "Let me show you how it's done."

Closing his eyes, Braska sank to his knees, clinging to Tessa as they tumbled to the bed together.

-x-

The night had progressed nearly to dawn, and Braska was still awake. He lay, instead, in a sort of pleasant stupor, his entire body heavy with satisfaction, the warm weight of Tessa nestled against his chest. She had fallen asleep almost immediately, and she slept still, her chest rising and falling in a slow, smooth motion. Braska kept his arms wrapped around her and watched her breathe, then kissed the crown of her head. There was a part of him that still could not quite believe what they had just done.

For the first time since throwing caution to the wind, Braska let himself think about the implications of it all. He loved Tessa. Had done so from almost the moment they met, but only now would he let himself realize the truth. And the questions this truth raised were almost without measure. If they were to be together, where would they live? Either he would give up Yevon, or she would give up her people. Would Cid even let him stay here? Would she ever find any kind of acceptance in Djose or Bevelle?

Every option was too awful to contemplate. The only worse possibility to imagine was giving her up.

Braska ran a hand over her hair, smoothing the stray tendrils that floated into his face, and she made a soft sighing sound. He kissed her head again, closed his eyes, and finally drifted into an uneasy sleep.

-x-

"Hey."

The gentle voice pulled him out of a dream. He was walking through an endless field of flowers, a waterfall rushing by, Tessa at his side. It was a perfect place, filled with beauty and peace, and he was reluctant to let it go. Finally, he opened his eyes. Tessa was sitting up in bed, still naked, her back against the wall and his head in her lap. He met her eyes, and smiled. Perhaps this was perfection, instead.

"Good morning," he said.

Tessa stroked his nose with a fingertip. "Sleep well?"

"Eventually." Braska sat up and kissed her. It felt so natural, as though he had been kissing her every morning for his whole life. "You?"

She nodded. Then she took his hands in hers. "I know I was pretty, um, insistent last night. So before anything else happens, I want you to know that if you need to walk away and pretend this never happened, you can. No hard feelings. I know what a mess this makes of your life. If you can't deal with that, I'd understand."

Braska's jaw dropped slightly. "You-- you're not--"

Her fingers tightened to an iron grip. "No. No, I'm not trying to get rid of you. I... I just want you to be happy. And if being with me keep you from happiness, then--."

"Tess." Braska felt his heart swell with more love than he thought it possible to feel for one person. "I can't imagine being happy without you, ever again." He leaned in to kiss her once more. "We'll find a way. If that means my staying here and giving up Yevon, that's what it means." He was surprised to find a lump in his throat, but he swallowed past it. "Because I love you."

"You..." Tessa's eyes widened and her hands went limp, sliding out of Braska's and into her lap. "You... I don't know what to say."

Say that you love me. Braska withdrew his own hands to his sides, and he felt his mouth stretch into a painful, stiff smile. "My apologies. I've been too forward." How had he guessed so terribly wrong?

"Oh." Tessa shook her head. "Oh, no." She lifted a hand to his chest, covering his heart, curling her fingers against his skin. When she spoke again, it was in his language. "Never be afraid to tell me what's in your heart. Promise me that you'll always be honest with me, and I promise to give you honesty in return. Can you swear to that?"

With a nod, Braska raised his right hand and covered hers. "Always."

"Good." She switched back to Al Bhed. "I'm sorry. I was just surprised. I didn't mean to make you think that I don't--" She turned her head to the side. "Because... I do." He saw her shoulder rise with a deep breath, and when she lifted her chin to meet his gaze, her eyes shone. "I love you, too."

Braska took her face in his hands and kissed her, twice in quick succession. Then he enfolded her in his arms and resolved never to let her go.

-x-

The next two weeks were some of the sweetest Braska had ever known. He spent his mornings in meditation, followed by an afternoon in conversation with whichever Al Bhed was willing to join him. Every evening he sat between Cid and Tessa at dinner, and every night Tessa would slip into his rooms after everyone else had gone to bed. They would talk, and touch, and make love, and then fall asleep together. They talked about everything under the sun: their pasts, their dreams, their feelings. Only two subjects were off limits: Cid, and the future. The present was so perfect that Braska feared marring their joy with worries about what was to come.

Then, one night, as their conversation had started its nightly segue into a series of kisses, there was a knock at the door and Braska rose to open it, hastily tossing on his robe as he went. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Tessa raising the blanket to her chin, ready to bolt into the closet if need be. Braska repressed a sigh. Someday soon, he promised himself, they would stop hiding their relationship. Just as soon as he figured out what to do about it.

He padded across the floor to the door, then pressed his ear to the panel. "Who's there?"

"It's Mirri." The soft tones of Cid's wife passed into the room. Braska shot Tessa a look, who nodded and sat up.

Braska flipped the deadbolt. "Come in," he called back, then stepped away from the door, which slid open. Mirri hustled through and bolted the door behind her as soon as it closed. Then she shut the window and stood in front of the bed, between Braska and Tessa. "Cid knows."

"What!" Tessa sat bolt upright, letting the covers fall out of her hands, and Braska thanked the fates that she hadn't completely undressed yet. "How--"

"Because he's not nearly as stupid as you seem to think he is," Mirri snapped back, hands on her hips. "The way you've been carrying on, it's a wonder he didn't figure it out a month ago."

Tessa threw off the blankets and stood up, toe-to-toe with Mirri. "It hasn't even been a month."

Mirri shrugged. "Maybe not technically. But you've been chasing after him since the moment he walked through the door, and don't even try to deny it." Tessa took a deep breath, and Mirri cut her off with a sharp hand gesture. "Look, I'm not here to argue about this." She looked straight at Braska. "Regardless, he knows now, and in about fifteen minutes he'll probably be here, guns blazing, ready to throw you naked into the desert with no food or water unless you figure out a damn good way to calm him down."

Braska sank down into the chair and muttered a curse as he buried his head in his hands. He was the one who had been stupid. "Thank you, Mirri. You should go."

"Good luck," she replied. Taking Tessa's hand, she murmured something in her ear, then hugged her fiercely. They exchanged a few soft words in Al Bhed, too quick and quiet for Braska to make out through the pounding in his ears. The door opened, then closed, and she was gone. Tessa threw the deadbolt once again before crossing the room to kneel at Braska's feet. She pulled the hands away from his face and forced him to meet her eyes.

"Let's go."

Braska shook his head. "No. We should stay, talk this out. It doesn't feel right, sneaking out of here in the middle of the night. After all the work I've done to build a relationship with Cid--"

"Doesn't matter," Tessa interrupted. "Listen to me. When Cid gets in these moods, talk won't calm him down. Mirri wasn't exaggerating: if he sees you now, he will try to kill you. He might even succeed. I'm not taking that chance."

"But..."

"No." Tessa shook her head. "I knew this day might come. It's okay. I'm ready to go."

Braska took a deep breath, then leaned forward to kiss her. "You're brave, my love. I can only hope to face this trial with as much grace." He stood, pulling Tessa up to stand with him. "Do you need to get anything from your quarters?"

"Nope." Tessa reached behind Braska's desk and pulled out a knapsack. "I thought something like this might happen, so I packed this and left it here just in case."

"Brave and brilliant." Braska spared a precious second to kiss her again, then started getting dressed. "It will have to be Lazard. Yesterday, he told me that he's leaving for the mainland tomorrow morning. If we can get to the docks before he sails, I'm sure he'll give us safe passage."

"Okay." Tessa had already zipped her jumpsuit back up, and she tossed Braska's few things into his pack before taking his spare cloak from the closet. "I should be able to get us a hover. Are you ready?"

Braska took his packed bag from her outstretched hands, then stopped her with a palm to her shoulder. "Tess. You are certain? I could still-- I could give up Yevon. To be with you. I could."

"No, you couldn't." Tessa laid a hand on his cheek. "Yevon is your calling. I may not understand Yevon, but I understand what it means to you. If you gave it up, you wouldn't be the man you are."

"I'm not sure I agree." Braska turned his head to kiss her palm, then stepped away. "But-- well. All right, we'll take our chances with my people. At least on the mainland we'll have more options."

Tessa pulled the hood of the cloak over her head, Braska followed suit, and then unbolted the door. After looking both ways and finding the coast clear, he stepped out into the hallway, and they ran together.

-x-

The only hovers not out on patrol were locked up for the night, and Tessa worried about setting off an alarm if they broke into the hanger, so they grabbed canteens and a few other supplies, then set off to cross the desert on foot. The night had been young when Mirri had come with her warning, and Tessa judged that they would be able to make the trip before sunrise. So they set off through the dunes, Tessa taking the lead and steadying Braska whenever he slipped on a steep edge. Once, they stopped to eat and drink, and Braska took a moment to slip off the goggles that Tessa had stolen for him and consider the stars gleaming in the black canopy overhead. Odd that they seemed brighter tonight than they had on previous midnight strolls.

Tessa slipped her arm around his waist and rested her head against his breast. "No moon," she said, as though reading the question in his mind. "And we're further from Home, so there's no ambient light. I don't know of a prettier place to stargaze than the Bikanel Desert."

Braska kissed the top of her head. "I'll show you the stars in Macalania, when we get there."

"Mmm." Tessa leaned closer to him. "You know, I've really only ever spent time in Luca and Kilika Port? It'll be exciting to see more of Spira."

Privately, Braska had his doubts about how welcome she would be elsewhere; he committed himself to showing her as much as he could, to breaking every barrier they came across. If a priest could come to love an engineer, certainly others could learn to love her as well. "I'll show you the world."

Then they started off again, eyes focused only on the step just ahead of them.

-x-

The trip that had taken an hour and a half via hover took nearly six hours on foot, and when Braska and Tessa stumbled into the port camp, the sky was already turning pink. Braska anxiously scanned the waterline, then breathed a sigh of relief -- Lazard's ship was still there, being loaded with metal scrap. The porters looked at them oddly, but they said nothing; Lazard turned around and scowled.

"What do you think you're doing? Cid came by two hours ago, asking if we'd seen you."

Braska stopped dead in his tracks, pulling off the goggles and letting them fall to the sand. "What did you say?"

"That you'd mentioned something about a camping trip to the oasis. He believed me, enough to check it out anyway, but that didn't buy you much time. I don't think anyone imagined you'd walk all the way here. Now answer my question."

Tessa took Braska's hand, and Lazard looked back and forth between them, eyebrow raised. "Take us to the mainland."

Lazard fixed on their joined hands. "It's like that, is it?"

Braska responded with a firm nod. "It is."

"Well." Lazard sighed, looked up at the sky. "Cid will have my head for this -- for bringing you here in the first place, for covering for you, for letting you escape. Didn't think of that, did you?"

Braska bowed deeply to Lazard. "I did. And if you say no, I will understand, and we will find another way. But I hope you say yes, to this and to one other thing." He straightened, then exchanged a glance with Tessa, who nodded. "Marry us."

Lazard's mouth opened, closed, then opened again, like a fish gaping for water.

"Please." Tessa took Lazard's hand in her free one. "It's not like it'll make Cid any angrier at you than just letting us escape will."

That startled him into a laugh. "Guess I can't argue with that. Okay. I'll do it. Just wait until we're underway? I want to get you both out of here as fast as possible." He jerked his thumb over his shoulder. "Wait for me on the forecastle deck."

Still hand in hand, Braska and Tessa made their way up the gangway and onto the ship. After so many hours of walking across shifting sand, the hard metal of the deck felt odd beneath his feet, and his legs had turned nearly to rubber. Bracing himself against Tessa, he made his way to the stairs leading to the forecastle deck. Then he clung to the guardrails with both hands and used his arms to haul himself up. After reaching the top, he somehow took the last few paces to a large metal box that sat on the deck. He gave himself permission to collapse on top of it, closing his eyes and resting his head backwards against the railing.

Now that the danger was past, he felt the ache in his feet, the stinging burns on his cheek from sand and wind, the soreness in his back. He had thought that he was in reasonably good shape for a priest, but this trek across the desert proved him wrong, even more so when he tipped his head to look at Tessa, who was still on her feet, leaning against the guardrail and staring at the desert through her goggles. A stab of guilt found his heart as he saw her eyes scan her homeland for what might be the last time, and he found just enough energy to lift his hand and touch her arm.

"I'm sorry you have to leave it," he murmured.

Tessa glanced down at him, brow furrowed. "What? Oh." Her expression relaxed into a smile for just a second. "It's not that. I'm just watching for Cid." She looked at the island and twiddled a setting on the goggles. "Dammit! Yeah, he's coming." Turning toward him, she settled her hands on his shoulders. "Okay. Let me deal with this. If he sees you, he might shoot first and ask questions later. At least he's not likely to fire at me on sight." Unable to argue with her logic, and too tired to fight in any case, Braska could only nod. She took a quick pull from her canteen, then tossed it into his lap. "I won't leave the ship, though, just in case. Lazard!" This last was shouted down the stairs as she started running down them.

"Yeah, I saw him." Lazard strode down the main deck toward her. "We got the last of the cargo aboard, but the engine just fired up. We won't be underway before he gets here."

"I know." Tessa put her hands behind her back and stared in the direction of the cloud of sand that Braska could now see with his bare eyes. "It's okay; I should talk to him. Just don't let him on board."

"You got it." Lazard shouted some commands to his sailors, the last of whom scurried onto the ship, then pulled up the gangway behind them. The engine sputtered to life as Tess moved up to the rail and stood there, facing straight on, not flinching as the roar of the hover grew nearer. Braska took a deep draught from the canteen, his eyes fixed on Tessa, her back straight, her hair blowing in the wind.

At last, the hover crested the hill, and it hadn't even pulled to a stop before Cid jumped off, running toward the ship while brandishing a rifle in the air. "Tessa!" he bellowed. "Where is he? Where is that damned Yevonite?"

"He's safe, and he's with me." Tessa glared down at him. "And we're leaving."

"The hell you are." Cid whirled to the side, and pointed his weapon at Lazard; Braska sucked in a breath and tensed, ready to flee or to come to Lazard's aid, even though he knew the impulse was futile. "Stop the ship, Lazard, Now. Or you'll pay the price."

Lazard shook his head. "Don't be a fool. If you kill me, you lose the support of the merchant's guild, and then how long do you think you'll stay in charge? If you want to talk, we can. Put down the gun and I'll drop the gangway, and you and your sister can work this out."

Cid shook his head, his hands gripping the weapon even tighter. "He did something to you." His glare turned back to Tessa. "Both of you. I knew letting a Yevonite into Home was bad news. He used his magic to trick you into leading Yevon back here to take us over."

"That's ridiculous!" Tessa's hands had balled into fists. "You know I'd never do that. Don't you trust me?"

"You? Maybe. Him? Never." Cid primed the rifle and pointed it at Tessa. "Come out, you cowardly dog of Yevon! Face me like a man, if you even are one!"

The blood was pounding in Braska's temples, the insult to himself and especially to Tessa more than he could bear. Against all of Tessa's instructions and his own common sense, he stood up and turned around to face his accuser. "Over here."

"Braska, no!" Tessa's wild shout was nearly drowned out by Cid's roar of anger as he swung around to point the gun straight at Braska's face. He took a few steps closer to the ship, and Braska stared straight down the barrel of the gun, not much more than a black dot at this distance, but no less threatening for that. Beneath the cloak, he sketched a the sigil for protection from harm with his hands and held the words under his breath.

"You!" Cid lifted the rifle, which shook in his hands. "Give me one reason not to kill you right now."

"I know it seems as though I've violated your hospitality," Braska said, keeping his voice as calm and even as he could. "But Tessa's mind is her own. I swear to you, this is not what I intended. I give you my word."

Cid snorted. "The word of a Yevonite? Less than worthless. Especially yours. Let her go, or else."

The next few moments all happened at once: the determination in Cid's eyes, the words of the spell in Braska's mouth, the crack of the firing gun, Tessa's footsteps pounding up the stairs, the searing pain in his left shoulder as the bullet found its mark and knocked him back to the deck, Tessa's incoherent cry as she dropped to his side, looking down at him with horror.

"It's... okay." Braska forced the words through gritted teeth and a haze of pain. "Not too... bad... Potion... in my satchel."

Tessa grabbed the bag and tossed it to another Al Bhed; then she took a shirt she had pulled from the satchel and pressed it against his shoulder. Braska closed his eyes and tried to focus on his magic, sending a trickle of healing into the wound. It wasn't much, but he still felt the worst of the pain recede.

"Don't heal it all the way." Tessa looked down at him, eyes bright with fear, though her voice was calm. "We still need to get the bullet out." She took the potion offered by the sailor who stood above them, and exchanged some rapid-fire words with him in Al Bhed that Braska didn't quite follow. The man disappeared to be replaced by another holding a clean cloth; by some unspoken agreement, he took Tessa's place in applying pressure to the wound. She stood and turned around, and only then did Braska realize that the shouting in the distance was Cid arguing with Lazard. As Tessa stood, the voices stopped, replaced with an awful silence. Braska struggled to sit up enough to see, batting the sailor's hand off his arm.

A hush had fallen over the beach. No one spoke, no one moved; only the thrumming engine and splashing waves dared to make a sound as brother and sister stared each other down. Even Lazard stood to the side, silent. Braska could not see Tessa's face, only the tension in her shoulders as she gripped the railing, but Cid's eyes boiled with rage. Finally, Cid moved, taking a step closer to the ship, but it was Tessa who spoke first, two words that shattered the air.

"We're done."

Only two words, but spoken with such cold fury that Braska shivered. Cid fell a step back, opened his mouth as if to respond, but Tessa stilled him with another look. Then she met Lazard's eyes; he nodded, and strode over to the control room. She turned her back on Cid, and knelt down at Braska's side again. Braska had only a moment to glance over the railing at Cid, whose shoulders had slumped, the gun falling from his hands, a look of total defeat on his face. Then the ship lurched and the deck began to shudder, and Tessa was easing him back to lie down on the deck. Her eyes were sad, and Braska lifted his right hand to stroke her cheek; she caught his fingers and squeezed lightly.

"Tess, I--"

"Not now, okay?" She closed her eyes for just a second, then quickly shook her head; there was the barest catch to her voice. "Not... now. The medic is on her way. You'll be all right. You'll be all right." The words seemed designed to convince herself of their truth as much as him. She brushed a tendril of hair out of his face, and her fingers trembled against his forehead. Then the potion bottle was at his lips. He swallowed the cool, slightly bitter liquid, and the pain lessened just a little more. Tessa lifted the bandage just enough to peek at the wound, and she let out a breath. "Bleeding's almost stopped. Good." She was speaking Al Bhed again, and looking up at someone behind Braska who he couldn't see. Then she looked back at Braska with half a smile. "Terru will take good care of you. I'll see you soon." A hand fell on Braska's forehead; he thought he heard the first few words of a sleep spell, but then it seemed easiest to stop listening and let his eyes fall shut, just for a second, to let the regular thrum of the engine lull him into unconsciousness. The last thing he knew was the weight of Tessa's hand closing around his, and then he was gone.

-x-

Braska drifted out of the darkness, out of the warm fog that enveloped him. Soft pillows buttressed his head, and he was rocking, rocking on an endless black sea. Somewhere, someone was speaking, distant words that he could not quite understand. Coming fully conscious to see who it might be seemed like a great deal of trouble, but something about one of the voices compelled him to try, and so, with some reluctance, he opened his eyes. He was in a darkened room, and the sight of the metal ceiling, walls, and ductwork told him all he needed to know: Al Bhed. He was on Lazard's ship, and he was escaping Home, heading for the mainland with Tessa.

Tessa. Hers was the voice that had awakened him, and hers was the face that leaned over him now, peering anxiously into his face. "Braska?"

"Tess." He reached for her, found that he couldn't move. "My arm..."

"You're okay." Tessa laid a hand against his cheek. "It'll be fine. The bullet didn't go very deep. Did you cast a protection spell?"

Braska nodded. "Not a strong enough one, apparently." He tried to sit up, then dropped back down to the bed as a lance of pain shot through his shoulder. And it wasn't just his shoulder -- his back ached, and his feet, and most every other muscle in his body.

Tessa shook her head at him. "Don't move. You need to rest. You'll be all right if you just rest." She frowned, the edges of her cheeks wobbling with the effort. "Either my stupid brother didn't know, or he's a lot more hateful than I could have imagined, but that bullet was poisoned. We have potions to counteract the worst of it, but you're going to be weak for another day or so." She turned her face away, but not before Braska noticed tears glinting in her eyes. "Good thing you got that spell off. You'd probably be dead otherwise."

"Tess," he murmured, lifting his right arm clear of the sheets and letting it rest on her arm. "It's all right. We're safe now."

She nodded. "I know," she whispered, choking the words out. "I know." She put a hand to her mouth as the tears started to flow. Heedless of the pain, Braska hauled himself into a sitting position and wrapped his right arm around her, pulling her tight against his chest, and she leaned against him, shoulders shaking as she wept. He pressed his face into her hair and let a few tears of his own fall. This was not how he had wanted this leave-taking to go.

After a few moments, Tessa sat up and wiped her hand across her face. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't-- I promised myself-- but I'm just so relieved that you made it, and I hate that I left it that way with Cid."

"Someday." Braska brushed her hair back, then cupped the back of her head in his palm. "Someday, we will come back and make it up with him. But for now, I must admit that you were right: he's not ready to accept our relationship." He planted a soft kiss on her forehead. "I'm sorry I didn't listen."

She nuzzled against his cheek. "I love you." Then she sat up, pulled away with a mock-stern look. "You really do need to rest, now."

Braska leaned back into the bed, which was more of a relief than otherwise. "I could use some more sleep," he admitted. "Are these muscle aches from the poison?"

"The worst of them, yes," she said, looking him up and down. "You should be feeling better by the end of the night. And then we can decide what to do next."

Braska held out his right hand, and she took it. "You know what we're doing next." He caught her eye and raised an eyebrow. "Unless you've changed your mind?"

She shook her head, a soft smile of anticipation playing on her lips. "Never. All right. You sleep; I'll find Lazard and make the arrangements."

He watched her leave the room, then let his grip on reality falter, slipping back into blessed unconsciousness.

-x-

When Braska next woke, he felt much improved. The room was still dark, but apparently now because night had fallen, not because it was being kept as a sick room -- he had slept through the entire day. This time, he was able to sit up with relative ease, although his shoulder was still stiff. It was covered with a large rectangle of white cloth, and he could smell the sharp tang of salve. Looking up, he saw Tessa in a chair at the foot of the bed, her eyes closed, her chin resting against her chest. At the sight of her, his heart swelled, and he spoke her name in a whisper.

Her head jerked up, she opened her eyes, and she smiled. "How are you feeling?"

"Much better." Braska tried to roll his shoulder, but the bandages held it fast. "My complements to the medic."

"Only the best people work for Lazard." Tessa stretched, then stood. "Speaking of... he said he'd be waiting. If you're ready?"

Braska smiled. "I'd prefer to get dressed first. Assuming I have a shirt to wear," he added, suddenly remembering that the one he'd been wearing was certainly ruined, and another had been pressed into emergency service.

Tessa covered a smile. "I'm pretty sure I tossed more than one into your bag. If not, you can borrow one from someone." She hefted Braska's pack from the floor, set it on the bed, and began to rummage through. "Ha!" She pulled out his light blue tunic and snapped out the wrinkles. "Here, let me help you put it on."

Slowly, Braska swung his legs over the side of the bed, then rose with care, taking a moment to steady himself with a hand to the wall. Yes, he decided, that was good enough, and he took a step forward away from the bed. Then he looked down and realized that he still wore the same pants he'd worn for the desert escape; they were dusty and stiff with sweat, and blood had dripped onto the waistband. "Hm."

Tessa came around the bed and examined him with a wry grin. "I guess it's not how you pictured your wedding day, is it?" She took his hand. "We could wait, if you'd rather."

Braska shook his head. "I would have you be my wife before we reach the mainland. Yevon will have to take us seriously, then." And neither of us will be tempted to give up if they don't.

She shook her head with a snort. "Like Yevon will recognize a marriage performed by an Al Bhed's ship's captain anyway. It might be the tradition among my people, but yours..."

"It won't matter." Braska squeezed her hand. "I'm still a priest, after all, and I can consecrate my own marriage. It will be valid; no one can argue against it." Or so he hoped. Letting go of her fingers, he awkwardly removed his pants, then took the spare pair that Tessa had already pulled out of his pack. He sat down on the edge of the bed, and Tessa helped him into his pants and shirt, then found the shoes that had tumbled underneath the bed. As he slid his feet into them, he took a moment to look Tessa over -- she, too, was disheveled from their flight, and although her jumpsuit had fared rather better than his impractical cloth outfit, there was a clear smear of blood down one side. "What about you?"

"Oh." She glanced down at herself. "Yeah, I guess I should change too, huh? Hold on a sec; I'll be right back." She ducked through a side door, and Braska took the opportunity to meditate on his situation. Events had moved so fast, from the moment that Mirri had appeared at his door last night -- a day ago, or an age? Was he swept up in fear and emotion? Was this impulsive marriage truly the right decision for them both? He clenched his hands together in his lap, then let them go. He let his gaze focus on the light beside the door to the side room. Breathing in, then out, Braska willed himself into a moment of peace and clarity.

Then clarity presented itself in the form of Tessa, an apparition in the doorway. She had brushed out her hair, and it hung around her face like a cloud of light. Instead of her jumpsuit, she now wore a simple skirt and a white top that left her golden shoulders bare, while her lower arms were covered by the separate sleeves currently in fashion among the Al Bhed women. His breath caught in his throat as he gazed at her beauty, and she favored him with a smile, oddly shy.

He came to his feet and held his hand out to her; she took a few steps forward to clasp it, and he pulled her tight for a lingering kiss.

She met his eyes and smiled. "Let's go get married."

Without another word, he let her lead him through the door, fingers still intertwined, knowing his decision was absolute and final. She was his light, his life; he would have it no other way. Whatever might come of it.

-x-

Tessa had been right: this was not how he had envisioned his wedding. Not that he'd devoted much time to thinking about it; he had, as long as he could remember, been planning his life as a servant of Yevon, many of whom never married. When he had considered the concept at all, he had imagined a sweet girl from Bevelle joining with him in the temple for a quiet life in the gardens of Djose. Nothing in his plans had provided for a marriage of dubious legitimacy on an Al Bhed salvage ship, to a spirited bride he'd known for only a month, surrounded by a crowd of heathens (almost none of whom spoke his language), recovering from a gunshot wound inflicted by his future brother-in-law.

Despite all that, perhaps even in part because of it, Braska could not imagine a more perfect, more beautiful spot for this ceremony than the middle of Spira's widest ocean: the ship gently rocking at anchor, a black sky scattered with thousands of glistening stars, and Tessa. Tessa, standing before him, eyes shining brighter than any star ever could. He could hardly look away from her as Lazard spoke the words of a traditional Al Bhed marriage ceremony. They were more poetic than he would have expected from a language that tended to be somewhat utilitarian, and he found himself moved by the sentiment. When it came time to speak his vows, he did so in Tessa's language, repeating them back exactly as Lazard spoke them. "I will wander with you. Together we will walk the paths that life shows us; I will tread them before, beside, and behind you, as long as the water of life sustains us."

After Tessa had echoed the vows, Lazard held his hands over their heads. "Now you begin your long journey together. Join hands as husband and wife for the first time."

Braska took both of Tessa's hands in his and felt her fingers trembling. Then he let them slip free, and he raised his palm to cup her cheek, and leaned close enough to taste her breath; he breathed deeply, then began to intone the marriage blessing that he had spoken for many couples before, but never dreamed he would speak for himself.

"I consecrate the bond of love between us, a bond that none may break, a bond that none may challenge: not life, not death, not the Farplane itself. Hear me now in the name of Yevon, that these souls are joined for eternity."

Tessa's eyes widened, and then closed as he sealed the vow with a swift kiss. He started to sing the Hymn of the Fayth; to his shock, voices all around him joined in the song, including Lazard's and then Tessa's, her soft alto slipping perfectly beneath his own baritone. When the verse finished, a hush fell.

Braska's hand pressed against Tessa's cheek, then fell to her shoulder. "You know the Hymn?"

She nodded. "But for us it's a song of mourning, not celebration. A strange choice for a wedding."

Braska smiled crookedly. "It is the way of Yevon: a bit of death in a moment that affirms life. But we also celebrate life in the rituals relating to death. You'll see for yourself, someday, if you ever attending a Sending. It's all part of the cycle."

"I see." Tessa leaned forward and kissed him. "You Yevonites are so strange. But I'll suppose I'll get used to it."

Braska kissed her in return, lingering against her mouth, bringing his arm around her to pull her close. When he finally let her go, he noticed that the others had all gone, leaving the two of them alone on the deck beneath the night sky. "What happens next?" he asked.

Tessa tipped her head sideways. "We eat! I don't know about you, but I'm starving. But that's the tradition, too. There's a meal waiting for us, in our room; we eat together, alone, and, well, anything else we might want to do."

"Very practical." Braska smiled and tapped her nose, and she winked at him. "Much more so, perhaps, than the all-day feasting that would follow a ceremony among my people. Lead the way."

Taking his hand, Tessa turned and tugged him in the direction of their rooms. The door opened, then closed behind him, and Braska suddenly realized that he hadn't flinched at all. It might have taken a while, but he'd finally gotten the hang of these doors that moved on their own. Just in time for him to return to the world where he would have to start opening them himself. He watched Tessa as she played with the controls by the bed that would change the brightness of the lights, and wondered if she would ever get used to the lack of the machina tools that made their life so much easier. But he had to admit that the thought of not being surrounded by them appealed to him. The thought of opening a door was almost a relief.

Tessa cleared her throat, and Braska realized that he'd been staring into space. He looked into her eyes. "I was only thinking," he said. "About how much your life will change, once we reach land."

She crossed the room and took his hand again, caressing his fingers with her thumb. "My life changed the moment you stepped across the threshold into Home. This just makes it official." He swallowed at the absolute clarity in her smile. "So please, stop worrying about me. I've always known what loving you would mean, and I have no regrets. Promise."

Braska closed his eyes, willed the tears back, then opened them again. "I am the luckiest man alive, to have you as my wife." The word fell so naturally off his tongue that he shivered, and her eyes brightened with happiness at hearing it. He kissed her, swiftly, and she kissed him back, her hands around his neck and her whole body tight up against his.

"Dinner?" she murmured, between planting kisses against his cheeks and mouth.

He groaned, lifted her onto the bed with his good arm, and pressed her down into the blankets. "It can wait."

She laughed and put out the light.

-x-

The sun had risen and the ship was moving again. These were the first two things that Braska noticed upon waking; the third was his wife as she slept in his arms.

His wife. The reality of it rushed in again, his heart filling with love and contentment. It was real. He and Tessa were married, and no one -- not Cid, not Yevon -- could ever take that away. They would be together for the rest of their lives.

Tessa stirred and made a soft noise; then she opened her eyes. "Hi."

He placed a soft kiss on her nose. "Good morning."

"How's your shoulder?"

Braska lifted it toward his ear, as far as his dressing would allow. There was no pain, and only the slightest stiffness. "Much better. Can you remove the dressing for me?"

She sat up and twisted to face him. Putting her hand on one of the four white strips that held the bandage in place, she gave him an apologetic look. "Hold on; this might sting a bit." She tugged on the end and yanked it off, and Braska gasped at the tearing sensation against his skin. "Sorry, sorry," Tessa murmured. "Just a couple more. Better to get it over with quick." Soon it was over, and Braska dropped his head back against the pillows.

"What on earth..."

"It's called tape." Tessa blew lightly on the affected area, and the stinging pain lessened, then dissipated. "It holds the bandage in place while you're moving around. It's worth a few seconds of hurt to not have your whole arm bound down, wouldn't you say?"

Braska thought back to the night before, and how much more difficult it would have been if his arm had been completely bound, then nodded. "It is practical, as are many other of your innovations. I still feel queasy taking advantage of them, though. You certainly won't find them in Bevelle."

Tessa winked at him, "Maybe they'll pick up a few things from me." She cast a critical eye on the site of his wound. "Okay, it's clean. You can finish the job."

Closing his eyes, Braska drew on his healing magic, using it to probe the spot of injury. It was nearly whole -- the Al Bhed medic had done a good job, probably augmented with magic -- but it would take one last curative blast to make it good as new. He spoke the word of healing, and the energy released into his shoulder, knitting the tissue and bone back into place. The last of the stiffness melted away; Braska opened his eyes, then rolled his shoulder to test the motion. "There."

"Looks good." Tessa sighed. "But I'm sorry it happened in the first place."

Braska shook his head. "You told me to keep away from Cid, and you were right. Besides..." He stopped, realizing that a discussion of mistakes and atonement would probably not sit well with Tessa.

But the thought came too late, and she bounced up, fixing a glare down at him. "Don't you even start with thinking you deserved this. You are not to feel guilty about my decision. Not now, not ever. How many times do I have to tell you that I knew what I was getting into? Remember, I spent all of my childhood out on a salvage ship. I know how your people feel abut the Al Bhed." She lowered her eyes. "You know better. That's all that matters."

"I do know better." Braska reached forward, brushed the hair out of her face. "And after meeting you, so will everyone else."

She caught his hand, kissed it. "And someday, once things settle down at little, maybe your visit to Home will pave the way for my people to be less suspicious of yours."

"If that is so, I can be content that I have achieved my purpose." Braska gave her a kiss, then stood, walking to the window. Tessa followed, her hand still in his. He looked out across the sea, where he could see the tower of St. Bevelle rising just over the edge of the horizon. It gleamed there, glass and gilt catching the rays of the morning sun, a beacon of his past and, with the luck, their future. "Let's go home."

He looked at Tessa, took in her warm eyes and eager smile, and he thought that home might already be right here.

-x-

"Braska here to see you, sir."

Trema raised his eyebrows. "How did he get into the temple complex?" The acolyte opened his mouth to explain, and Trema waved him off. "Never mind, I want to talk to him. Send him in."

The acolyte started toward the door, paused, looked back as if to say something, then froze.

"What?" Trema asked with a sigh.

"It's.... she-- the Al Bhed woman is with him."

Trema started. That was a bold move. Now he was even more curious. "Well in that case, send them both in," he snapped, using impatience to cover his untoward eagerness.

"Sir." The acolyte nodded, then opened the door, stepping back to leave a good distance between himself and the couple who entered the room, as though heresy might be contagious. As quickly he could, he disappeared through the doorway, shutting it with a bang.

"So." Trema looked Braska up and down. He was dressed in priest's garb, but not, Trema noted, the robes of a summoner-in-training. "You wanted to bring the Al Bhed to Yevon."

"And I have done so," Braska replied, with a quick glance at the woman standing at his right hand, her expression serene. "One of them, at least."

"Have you?" Trema addressed his next words to the Al Bhed. "So you accept the teachings of Yevon?"

The woman bowed, although she did not make the gesture of prayer, then replied in clear Spiran with only a trace of an accent. "I have developed a new understanding and respect for them, sir."

Trema snorted. "A diplomatic answer. I wonder how far it will get you." He cast a critical eye on the woman, noting her outfit, which was not that different from the clothes worn on the street in Bevelle. Nor did she seem to have any machina on her. Only her naturally blond hair marked her as different from most any other resident of the city, along with her eyes, although most people wouldn't be looking at those too closely. But it didn't matter; that hair would be enough.

"My brother is the leader of my people, Father Trema." The woman smiled. "I have some practice with diplomacy. Especially as he's not very good at it himself."

"Good." Trema looked straight at her, and she looked back without flinching. "You're going to need it."

She nodded; satisfied, Trema turned back to Braska. "And what will you do now?"

"Tessa has secured us a small house near the docks, where she won't stand out quite so much." Braska favored the woman with a quick smile, which she returned. "And I will speak with Djose about maintaining some level of service there, if not a full priest's position."

Trema shook his head. "Ah, Braska. This is not the conversation I expected to be having with you upon your return."

Braska's answering laugh was a touch hollow. "I could say the same, Father." He shook his head, looking at his feet, then met his wife's eyes with a swift glance. His smile, when he met Trema's eyes again, was true. "You may not believe this now, but what I found instead is something far greater. It will change Spira for the better, in the long run. I can feel it."

"Hmph." Trema stood. "I can't speak to the long run, but in the short run you had best go. If you're found in here, nothing I can do will save you from the Via Purifico. I might even be headed there myself."

Braska nodded. "I understand, Father. Thank you for seeing me regardless." He brought his hands before his chest and bowed deeply; his wife contented herself with a polite nod, and then they left, hand-in-hand. Trema watched them go, and then returned to his paperwork, putting the fallen priest as far out of his mind as he could manage. Such a disappointment was not worth brooding over.