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Vilg Oui, Live

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Shaara's arms still prickle from the stored energy in all her batteries. Her back and feet ache from the long walk between Djose Temple and their encampment in Mushroom Rock and the knowledge that, in a week, she's going to have to do this again. She's just tired enough that, when she sees the two Yevonites being attacked by two fiends, she's almost tempted to keep on walking.

Instead, she sighs, puts down her batteries, draws her machina, and waits for the right moment to snipe the Vouivre in the head. She gets a nice, clean shot. An instant later, the fiend dissolves on the ground.

She's not sure who was more surprised: the Vouivre or the swordsman in red who had clearly been about to charge it. The priest spots her first, raising an arm and giving her a silly little finger wave, the petal-like sleeves of his robes flapping in the wind. She waves back hesitantly.

The swordsman gently nudges the priest, who raises his arm a little higher into a casting pose and calls down a torrent of water, short-circuiting the Thunder Flan that had been menacing them. The swordsman cuts into its gelatinous body twice, slicing it like the dessert it was named for. Shaara waits for pyreflies to swarm before holstering her machina again.

She jogs over to the Yevonites. "You two okay?" she asks in Spiran, kneeling beside the dissolving corpses. They seem to dissipate just fine, but she runs her fingers through the remains to make sure the pyreflies properly separate. The more they're spread, the harder it will be for them to coalesce back into a fiend.

"We're fine. Thank you very much for your help," the priest says and, confusingly, bows to her. He cups his hands and tucks his toe and everything. Shaara doesn't think she's ever had something so fancy aimed at her before.

"You needn't have bothered," the swordsman says. "We had everything under control."

"Vilg oui," Shaara says, shrugging her shoulders philosophically. She's unearthed a few things in her rummaging. "Do you need a power sphere?" she asks, tossing it to the swordsman. He catches it automatically and tucks it into his pouch. "I'm going to keep the electromarble, if you don't mind. Can never get enough electromarbles."

"Go ahead," the swordsman says. He sheathes his sword; nothing like giving someone their fair share of the spoils to put them at ease.

"I'm sorry, what did you say before?" the priest asks, and Shaara freezes. Had he understood what she said? "Vil...ah, sorry, I can't pronounce it. Vill-ee?"

Shaara relaxes. He's a member of the Yevon clergy; of course he doesn't know Al Bhed. She could probably swear at him in it all day, and he would never suspect a thing so long as she said it politely.

"Vilg oui," she repeats for him slowly, so he can hear every syllable. "It's an Al Bhed saying that basically means 'I helped you for my own satisfaction,' in this case."

"Really?" The priest presses a finger to his lips, thinking it over. "Vilg oui," he says, testing it out, and the words have never sounded so sweet. "That's a lovely sentiment."

"Quite a lot packed into just two words," the swordsman remarks.

"Al Bhed is a very efficient language," Shaara says, her expression an absolute mask.

"I see," the priest says. "Are there other Al Bhed in the area?" he asks, and suddenly, Shaara is back on edge.

"I'm just running an errand," she says smoothly. "There are a few Al Bhed running a trade shop near Djose Temple. Did you mean them? The temple's about two hours' walk in that direction," she says, pointing the way.

"Yes, thank you. I think. Perhaps that's it?" The priest looks to the swordsman for confirmation, but neither seems sure.

She gets to her feet; the fiends are adequately dispersed now, and she's not going to reveal the location of the encampment to anyone who doesn't already know.

"Excuse me. I have a few more errands I have to run before sunset, so I need to get going." She starts to walk away down the wrong path, working on the off chance that they planned on following her. "If you see any Ipiria, those quick little lizard fiends? They don't like ice. It took us a while to figure that out."

"Thank you very much for all your help," the priest says, giving her another of the fancy bows. "Vilg oui, right?" His smile is warm, and Shaara feels the slightest bit guilty at sending him in the absolutely wrong direction.

Shaara bows back--not one of the fancy Yevonite bows, but she can manage to bend at the waist for the sake of being polite. "Vilg oui to you, too."

With the doubling back along the wrong path, it takes her an extra hour to get back to the encampment. By then, she's so exhausted, it's all she can do to drop the batteries off by the workshop before she crawls into bed and falls asleep, Yevonites already forgotten.

***

The next morning, Netti is knocking on the entrance to Shaara's tent long before the time she starts work. Shaara picks up one of the broken machina she keeps by her bedside for just this purpose and throws it at her assistant.

"Have mercy on the dead, Netti," she says in Al Bhed. "Do you know how much I walked yesterday?"

"Sorry, Master Shaara," Netti says, and for once, she really does sound sorry. "Elder Cid says he needs you in his office right away."

"What does my obnoxious brother need this early in the morning?" Shaara groans, easing her way out of bed. She curls her toes and hears every one of them crack. "It can't be too serious; if anything exploded last night, I managed to sleep through it."

"I'm not sure," Netti says in the way that Shaara knows Netti has her suspicions, but doesn't want to influence the results by speculating too early. Fair enough. They've worked together long enough for Shaara to trust Netti's instincts. "He did say to make sure you brush your hair and wear something that isn't dirty or torn."

Shaara rolls her eyes. "Fucking pain in my ass, what does he think I am? Fine. Tell him I'll be there in ten minutes."

"Yes, ma'am, I'll tell him you said that," Netti says, scooting her way out of the tent before Shaara can throw another broken machina at her insubordinate ass.

Shaara opens her trunk, pulling out one of her standard jumpsuits. "'Something that isn't dirty or torn,'" she repeats to herself, wrinkling her nose. "Like I go around looking like a slob every day."

She determines that it's in adequate condition and slips it on, securing the waist, arms, and ankles with safety belts. Loose clothing near machina is a recipe for disaster, even though she suspects this isn't a machina emergency.

A glance in the mirror shows her that her normally straight, chin-length hair is pointing in many directions and her eyes are bloodshot from lack of sleep. She picks up a pair of tinted welding goggles and snaps them on her head, adjusting the strap so it holds her hair down. There. Both problems solved.

Everything in place, Shaara marches out to her brother's office, pushes open the tent flaps, and comes face-to-face with the two Yevonites she had met the day before.

"Hello, Secdan Shaara," Cid says in Spiran, standing behind his desk. The two Yevonites rise to greet her.

"Hello, my Byeh eh dra Ycc Pnudran," she replies with a polite smile. He smiles back. It doesn't reach his eyes.

"It's very nice to see you again," the priest says. The swordsman nods at her, somewhat less warmly. He looks tired, and Shaara suddenly notices how young he is, much younger than herself or the priest. She mentally estimates the swordsman as 17-going-on-40.

"Sit down," Cid says, and they all do. Shaara takes the seat next to Cid. "I hear you bumped into these men yesterday?"

"I'm sorry, I must have sent you in the wrong direction yesterday," Shaara says. "I didn't realize you meant the encampment. There's really nothing here for anyone who isn't Al Bhed, so I assumed you were looking for the shop."

"It's quite all right," the priest says. The strained line of the swordsman's mouth gives Shaara the impression that, no, it really wasn't all right. Then again, he might just be trying to hide a yawn. "I should have been more clear. My name is Braska, and I am a priest from Bevelle. This is Auron, an acolyte and my trusted guardian." Auron nods at the mention of his name. "We've been sent by the council to spread the word of Yevon.”

"Hear that?" Cid says, slapping his knee. "The grand high council thinks our little collection of tents is important enough to send us a priest, all the way from Bevelle! Isn't that something?"

"That is dudym pimmcred," Shaara says. She clarifies, "Quite an honor."

"My thoughts exactly," Cid says.

"How long will you be staying with us?" Shaara asks politely.

"We're not certain," Braska says, giving an embarrassed smile. "The council didn't give us specific dates."

"Isn't that always the way?" Shaara says, tossing her hair and laughing in the upper-class way she read about in Spiran books. "My Byeh eh dra Ycc Pnudran here can never give us a definite deadline, and he's only one person. Imagine an entire council!" She laughs again. "Bureaucracy."

"Yes, well, until then, they're going to be under your charge," Cid says.

Shaara's smile freezes on her face. "What?"

Cid turns to the two Yevonites. "Along with being my sister, Shaara is the Master of Engineering here and her Spiran is darn near impeccable. I can't think of anyone more qualified to give you two exactly what you need."

"I..." Cid gives Shaara a meaningful look, and she smoothes over her uncertainty and anger with one pleasant smile. "It would be an honor," she says, looking at each man in turn. "A true, true honor."

"The honor is all ours," Braska says, equally smoothly. "Isn't it, Auron?"

"Yes," Auron says, trying and failing to hide a yawn with his hand.

"Look at me, talking away while you two are falling asleep in your seats," Cid says. "Shaara, why don't you show them to where they'll be staying? I had the boys set up the spare tent next to Meeya and Asha's."

"No problem. Follow me," Shaara says, escorting the two Yevonites out. "Is there anything you'll be needing while you're here?"

"Nothing unusual," Braska says, walking beside her. Auron walks a little behind them, his back bent under the weight of the packs. Shaara wonders if she should offer to help him, but she gets the impression that all she would succeed in is offending Auron.

"Food, water, a place to sleep," Braska lists. "You can charge Bevelle for whatever you provide; I hear they give acceptable rates." He brightens up as a thought occurs to him. "Oh, and a place to hold public morning prayers? I believe that is customary when one is a missionary.”

"You would know better than I," Shaara says with a laugh.

"Oh, I don't know about that," Braska says.

"Sir," Auron warns.

They stop by an empty tent. Shaara's eyebrows raise when she recognizes which one it is.

"Here we are, home sweet home," she says, gesturing at it. The insides are pretty bare, but someone did hang a lantern from the ceiling, and there are two collapsible beds on either side. Auron gratefully drops the packs by the entrance.

"You two rest, and I'll take care of everything else," Shaara says.

Braska dithers. "Shouldn't we--"

"Rest," Shaara says firmly. "You look like you're about to collapse, and I don't want you getting sick because I pushed you too hard."

Braska smiles, recognizing the concept. "Vilg oui again, correct?"

"Got it," Shaara says cheerfully and closes the door behind the two men.

Shaara lets out a long breath, feeling the smile drop away from her face. Her hands clench at her sides, fingernails digging into her palms hard enough to hurt. She breathes out again, tossing her head like a wild animal, and stomps her way back to Cid's office.

She pushes the flap aside, not stopping until she's leaning over Cid's desk. She tears off her welding goggles and slams them against the wood. "What the hell, Cid?" she yells in Al Bhed.

"What the hell what?" Cid yells back, getting to his feet.

"You just let two Yevonites into our camp! What were you thinking? Were you thinking?"

"Was I thinking? Are you thinking?" Cid flips one of the papers on his desk and smacks it with the back of his hand. "Look at that seal. This letter is signed by one of the Maesters of Bevelle, and as far as I can suss out, it's legit. Now, I don't know if you want to go to war with all of Bevelle because we turned away one priest and his bodyguard--"

"Do you really think they're going to stop at two, Cid?" Shaara sneers. "If you roll over on these two, what's going to stop them from thinking they can send another two, and another two, until all of our camps in all of Spira are flooded with Yevonites?"

"I guarantee you that if we had sent those two boys packing, we'd have a dozen with swords knocking at our door within a week." Cid throws his hands up in the air and falls back into his chair. "You know we don't have the power to hold them off if they’re serious. We've got to play the game, Shaara."

"But..." Shaara takes a deep breath. "But what about Home?" she says much more quietly. "If they find out what we've been working on, it could ruin all our plans before we even get Home finished."

"Why do you think I gave you the job?" Cid asks, tapping his forehead. "Not so you can be their danged servant. Your number one task right now is to keep them so distracted, they never even think about spying on us."

Shaara's eyes widen suddenly with realization. "Is that why you put them in that old tent? You know how the holes in it whistle whenever the wind blows. We never use it."

Cid shrugs. "Now, that would be poor hospitality on my part, wouldn't it? Why, it'd make it so they never got a good night's sleep. It's hard to concentrate without a good night's sleep. Can't hardly get anything done."

"And putting them next to Meeya and Asha..."

"Such a shame no other places in the camp were open," Cid says, shaking his head. "Nothing's noisier than a pair of about-to-be-weds, and those girls can be relentless when it comes to it."

Shaara sits neatly on Cid's desk, leaning back as she thinks of all the possibilities. "Wow, Cid. I've never had such respect for you before."

Cid laughs and swats at her to get her off his desk. "Get out of here, you. Go make those boys' lives hell."

Shaara scampers out of Cid's office, mind already racing with a dozen ways to persuade a couple of Yevonites that an Al Bhed camp really wasn't the place to be.

***

Two hours later, Shaara knocks lightly on the spare tent's main post, then kicks open the flap and walks in regardless. She suddenly understands Netti's glee at doing the same to her.

"Good morning, yhhuoehk Yevonites!" she chirps at an ear-piercing pitch.

Braska groans under his sheets. Auron actually grabs his pillow and pulls it tightly over his head, curling into a protective little ball. It's oddly endearing.

"Come on, come on, up-and-at-it!" She opens the flaps over the screens to let the bright sunshine in. "Get up or I'll gelg ouin ycc. This is for your own good. Sleep any later and you won't be able to sleep at night."

"We are awake, thank you," Braska says crisply. Shaara wonders if she's actually finally gotten under his skin. His head emerges from the sheets. Funny, she hadn't expected that under that elaborate blue headdress, his hair would be a rather plain brown.

"Let's go, then!" she says brightly. "Everyone wants to meet you."

Braska keeps the sheets firmly wrapped around himself. "Miss Shaara, I need to get dressed first."

Shaara waves her hand at his flower petal robe, still hanging on a hook. "I'm not stopping you."

This, at last, gets Auron out of bed. "Will you show some respect and give Lord Braska his privacy?" he snaps, a lovely, angry red flushing over his cheeks. He's bare to the waist, and judging by how his arms fold over his chest, has only just realized it.

"Auron..." Braska warns.

Shaara steps backwards and turns her back on the two. "My apologies. I forget that those who aren't Al Bhed tend to be cdibetmo ibdekrd--ah, there's not a good translation for that. I think 'particularly modest' comes close?"

She rocks on her heels and stares up at the ceiling's roof, listening to the sounds of rustling fabric behind her. "We tend to be a little more relaxed about clothing here. Loose clothing can get caught if you're working with machina, so anyone working tends to either strap it down or take it off. I'm surprised you haven't seen a topless engineer yet."

Shaara feels a hand on her shoulder. She turns around and sees Braska wearing a simple brown shift, and a flustered Auron behind him. "Miss Shaara," he says, "could you please give us a minute?"

"Of course," she says, slipping outside. She hums happily to herself, listening to the angry sounds of Auron complaining about the Al Bhed's heathen, immoral ways--or so she assumes. It's going to take her team a day or two to come up with a working miniature microphone and transmitted they can hide in the Yevonites' tent. Until then, she's just going to have to judge by tone of voice.

Judging by that, she gives the acolyte less than a week until he's gone.

Auron's angry voice is replaced by the low, soothing tones of Braska's. Shaara can hear the conversation turn. It takes a few more minutes, and then Auron slinks out of the tent. He looks submissively down at the ground, doing his best to radiate seriousness and maturity. It's all she can do to not laugh. He looks so sincere.

"I'm very sorry for my rudeness," he says. "I understand there are differences in our cultures, and I will do my best to respect them."

He bows to her--the full Yevonite bow, with the sweep of his arms and the cupped hands.

"Cunno. E cilg," Shaara says, bowing stiffly back. She does feel a little bad for tweaking the kid, even if she definitely plans to do it again in the next minute or two.

"What does that mean?" Braska asks, coming out of the tent.

"It's the most sincere form of Al Bhed apology," Shaara says with a straight face.

"Cunno..." Braska repeats with a frown.

"E cilg," Shaara finishes for him. "It doesn't mean as much without the second part."

"Thank you," Braska says. "Cunno, E cilg." He beams at her. "That's a good one to know."

"I can think of some people who could afford to say it more often," Shaara says lightly. "Come on now, everyone wants to meet you." With a smile and a flip of her hair, she turns to lead them around the encampment.

***

Shaara leads them around the encampment twice, introducing the two Yevonites to all the Al Bhed living there, and giving them a tour of some of the major buildings and meeting areas as well. This gives her crew enough time to change their clothes, slip on goggles or funny hats, and get reintroduced to Braska and Auron under brand new names. Yevonites are notoriously bad at telling Al Bhed apart.

By the time they make it to the dining area, Shaara has increased the population of the camp by at least fifty, implied a hundred more who happen to be off site, and has run through her list of Al Bhed names. Hopefully, that's enough to skew any report the Yevonites make about their population.

"Hungry?" Shaara asks, taking a seat at the table. She runs her hands over the warm wood of the table. It's a rare treat, solid wood furniture. It's not collapsible, like most of the things around the camp. She's going to miss this table when they move.

"Yes, thank you," Braska says, sitting across from her. Auron hastily takes the next seat with the enthusiasm of a growing boy anticipating a meal.

"Netti!" Shaara calls, beckoning her assistant over. "I don't think you've met," Shaara says in Spiran. "This is Netti, my assistant. If you can't find me, you can ask her for what you need."

"Nice to meet," Netti says in Spiran, nodding and giving a friendly smile. Her smile turns a little predatory as she takes a good look at Auron. "Look at arms!" she says, giving one of Auron's biceps an appreciative squeeze. His face immediately flushes red at her touch. "I bring you two bowls," she says with a wink, and runs off to the back of the kitchen.

"I think you made a friend," Braska says to Auron, who looks like he would like to quietly slip under the table..

"Netti is...very friendly," Shaara says with a knowing smile. "I'm sure she'd appreciate it if you visited her in the workshop."

'Where the rooms are filled with machina and the women walk around topless' Shaara leaves implied.

"I would love that," Braska says, genuinely enthused.

Shaara blinks twice. "You would? You know it's filled with machina and..." she waves her hands around, "...forbidden...things?"

Braska smiles kindly. "For the sake of getting to know your people better, I think my soul can risk it."

"Here go," Netti chirps in Spiran, coming back with her arms full of four carefully-balanced bowls of food. She places one in front of Shaara and Braska, and the other two in front of Auron. "I'm going back to the workshop now, Master Shaara," she continues in Al Bhed. "I think we're close to fixing that compressor issue." She winks at Auron again, saying, "See you!" before running off.

"This is called kniam," Shaara says. "It's a little boring, but it's very good for you. Lots of vitamins."

"What was that she called you? Secdan Shaara?" Braska asks. "Is that your title?"

"Hm?" Shaara asks, her mouth full of kniam. She swallows quickly. "I suppose. I'm the Master of Engineering here."

"Would you prefer it if I called you that?" Braska asks.

Shaara laughs. "Not unless I'm the one paying your salary and telling you what to do."

"I see."

Auron chokes on his first bite of kniam. Ah, good, Netti decided to serve the Yevonites the 'special' spiced kniam. Nice to see she can follow orders, even when she wants to attract a handsome young man.

"Is everything okay?" Shaara asks innocently.

Auron coughs, hitting his chest until his breathing clears. "I'm fine," he wheezes out.

"Let me see," Shaara says, impudently reaching over and stealing a spoonful of his food. She tastes it, and my, Netti is mean. There must be a full tablespoon of hot flakes in this. She makes a sympathetic face. "You're right, it is a little bland. Here you go," she says, passing Auron the hot sauce.

Auron looks balefully at the hot sauce, and Shaara wonders if he is about to cry. Instead, he steels his will, adds a splash of the hot sauce to his bowl, and gamely takes a bite. Shaara feels a strange sort of admiration for the little idiot.

Shaara pushes the pitcher towards Auron. "Here, you look like you need this." He takes it thankfully and pours himself a tall glass of bubbling liquid.

"And what was it you called your brother?" Braska asks, leaning forward. "You had some sort of special title for him."

Shaara has to take a moment to remember what insult she called her brother. "Byeh eh dra Ycc Pnudran," she recalls. "It's a personal measure of respect, but you shouldn't use it. Pnudran means 'Brother.' You should say 'Byeh eh dra Ycc Amtan.' 'Amtan' means Elder," she explains.

"I see..." Braska says, closing his eyes and repeating the words a few times until he has them memorized. He opens them again, bright eyes blinking mischievously at her. "It's quite a mouthful."

"Lord Braska, this is alcohol!" Auron protests. Shaara eyes his glass--more than half empty, now. The hot sauce must have done a number on his taste buds if he hadn't noticed until now.

"Of course it is," Shaara says, blinking innocently. "What else would we drink?"

Auron sputters a little. "Water?" he suggests at last.

She gives him an exasperated look. "We are nomads camping on the most worthless scrap of earth the Yevonites allow us--" and that's getting a little too honest, need to pull back a little "--and we unfortunately don't have a steady supply of clean water. Most of what we do have goes towards our research and maintaining the hydrolifts at the entrance of camp. Beer is naturally bacteria-free, so..." She waves her hands at the jug of beer in a 'tah-dah' motion.

Auron looks at the glass of beer with a little more respect. "I hadn't thought about that."

Shaara shrugs. "Just one of the drawbacks of living here." Of course, usually the drinks aren't quite so strong, but there's nothing wrong with making the Yevonites a little tipsy to keep them off their game.

Braska leans forward over the table. "What would be the proper form of address for an older woman?"

"Caqo," Shara says without batting an eye. Across from her, Auron downs the rest of his glass and pours himself another, hands somewhat unsteady.

Shaara takes it back. These Yevonites are going to be fun.

***

They give Braska use of the main canopy for his morning services. He has dutifully hung a banner of Yevon behind him, though it looks sad and out of place with all the stray machina lying around the floor and posters with Al Bhed writing on the walls.

"We open our arms to the world," Braska says, holding his arms out to his side.

"We open our arms to the world," the worshippers repeat--at least, Shaara assumes it's the worshippers' line. The only one who has shown up is Auron, who is sitting very seriously in the front row.

Braska sees Shaara pass and smiles invitingly at her. She gives him a little finger wave and continues walking. She feels a little sorry for him, but nobody's going to come to his sermons. They take too much bullshit from Yevon to invite more of it into their lives, and nobody wants to encourage them to stay.

"We hold those of Spira close to our hearts," Braska says, cupping his palms to his chest.

"We hold those of Spira close to our hearts," Auron repeats, and then Shaara is out of earshot.

***

Two days later, Derkon and Asha are snickering when Shaara arrives at the workshop.

That's never a good sign.

"What are you two up to?" Shaara asks.

"Nothing," Derkon says quickly, folding his hands behind his back.

"We planted the bug during his morning service, just as you ordered, Master Shaara," Asha says. She's never this polite. Nobody who works for her is ever this polite unless they're up to something. It makes Shaara even more suspicious.

"You've got ten seconds to tell me what you did or I'm putting you both on battery duty for the next week," Shaara says, putting her hands on her hips. Every now and then, her staff needs a reminder that she's the sister of the Elder with a temper to match.

Both of them stop snickering.

"When we planted the bug, we also hid an old piece of mushroom cheese in their room," Asha says, breaking first. Shaara suspected she would.

"In a few days, their tent is going to smell so bad!" Derkon says gleefully, rubbing his hands together.

"Oh, did you?" Shaara says, raising her eyebrows.

Slowly, the grins fade from their faces.

"Good. I can see you're starting to get the impression that you've made a mistake, which is an excellent impression because you have made a gigantic fucking mistake," Shaara says. Now she's the one grinning, and her teeth are mighty sharp. "Can anyone tell me what the mistake is?"

"They won't figure out it was us, Master Shaara! We hid it really well!" Derkon insists.

Shaara closes her eyes and takes a deep breath. "Can anyone tell me what else we hid really well?"

Meeya, working quietly in the corner, suddenly goes pale. "Meeya?" Shaara prompts.

"We also hid the bug?" she offers.

Shaara throws her arms up in the air. "Yes! We also hid the bug! Which we don't want them to find while searching for the source of a bad smell! Meeya, this is why you are my favorite."

"I thought I was your favorite, Master Shaara?" Netti asks.

"Have you finished drawing up those fake Top Secret blueprints I asked you to make?" Shaara asks. Netti proudly hands them over. "Sorry, Meeya, you are now second in my heart."

"I'll survive, Master Shaara," Meeya says.

"Okay!" Shaara claps her hands together, making sure she has her team's attention. "Meeya, Netti, clean up any evidence of Home and our current projects. Make sure you leave the Top Secret documents lying around--but make it subtle, okay? Derkon, Asha, once I get the Yevonites out of their tent, I need you to remove the mushroom cheese from wherever you put it and make sure everything smells as clean as a Maester's toilet. You all have ten minutes until I bring them here. Understood?"

"Yes!"

They break into their teams, and Shaara goes grumbling off after the Yevonites.

***

"This is amazing!" Braska says. He holds up the machina, examining its rivets, its welding, its gears and cranks. "Did you make this yourself?"

Whatever Shaara expected a priest's response to an Al Bhed workshop would be, it was certainly not this.

"Do you know what that is?" Shaara asks.

"Not at all!" Braska turns the crank and watches the gears inside spin. "It is fascinating, though. Look at how everything works together! Auron, look!"

"Yes, fascinating," Auron agrees in distraction, his eyes nervously darting back and forth. Auron's reaction is a little more typical, Shaara thinks. He looks like he believes touching anything in the shop will cause irreparable harm to his soul.

"Not interested in toys?" Netti asks him in Spiran. "We have bigger machine in back. Come look." She grabs Auron's arm and steers him towards the back. "Hm," she says, plucking at the loose fabric. "Very dangerous. Will have to remove shirt."

"Enjoy the tour!" Braska calls after Auron as the teen disappears around the corner.

"Come look at this," Shaara says, leading Braska to one of the work tables--and, conveniently, past the pile of blueprints, one of which has a little TOP SECRET tag poking out. "It's an art piece Asha was working on. She calls it 'The Useless Machina.'"

She puts the box in front of Braska. It is plain, sleek, and white with a green spiral button in the middle. Braska reaches out gingerly, eagerly, and pushes the button forward. A hatch in the back opens up and a miniature prayer staff folds out, pushes the button back into its original position, folds back up, and tucks away.

Braska laughs, pushing the button again. The tiny Yevon staff comes out again and puts the button back in its place.

"Wonderful!" He looks her in the eyes, smiling genuinely, and says, "You have a very talented staff." Shaara feels herself flushing, and she's not sure if it's from the compliment to her staff or that she's never actually had a non-Al Bhed look her in the eyes before.

She cocks her head, pretending to hear something. "Excuse me, I should go check on those two. Please stay. I'll only be a moment."

She leaves the room, going just far enough to grab her curved spyglass, settle down on her stomach, and watch what the Yevonite will do when he's left alone in a room.

What he does is, apparently, push the button again. And again. And again.

"Very clever," he murmurs, pressing the button again. And again. "Is this truly how they see us?"

After three minutes where Braska shows absolutely no interest in the top secret documents, Shaara comes back in.

"Is everything all right?" Braska asks.

"Oh, fine. Just a pile of spanners that fell over," Shaara lies.

"I never thought about the use of machina as art," Braska says. "It's a very intriguing concept."

Shaara walks past him and sits by the pile of blueprints. "You're not going to lecture us about the teachings of Yevon? Or decide which of these designs are acceptable, and which are blasphemous?" She runs her hand down the files, making sure the bright orange tab is clearly in sight.

Braska folds his hands primly. "I think banning all use of machina is a little advanced for my second week in an Al Bhed camp. Perhaps if I were to stay for two decades, I might be able to make a small push in that direction. Or at least have someone show up at my prayers."

"You could try making it more relatable," Shaara suggests. Her fingers bob up and down right in front of the top secret blueprint, supposedly in thought. Notice it. Notice it. "The teachings of Yevon are very strange to us." She sits upright, as if she heard something. "Oh, excuse me. I need to check that."

She exits the room, giving him another chance at the documents.

Braska goes back to pushing the button again. And again. "We push back every time," he says quietly and pushes the button again.

Shaara comes back into the room. "Sorry, everything's fine. I was just--tehr!" She bumps into the pile of blueprints. They spread all over the floor, the top secret one falling conveniently at Braska's feet. She turns her back on him, bending over to pick up the loose papers.

"Shaara?"

She turns back around. He's holding out the top secret blueprint, his eyes studiously trained on her, away from its contents. "Do you know who Summoner Pazaeon is?" He continues before she can answer. "No, probably not. He's Maester Freid's son. He has started his Pilgrimage to Zanarkand, and I was getting a little too much attention of my own. They sent my guardians back to Bevelle, left me with Auron--who is worth ten guardians--and told me to stay here until Lord Pazaeon brings the Calm."

He leans forward, placing the blueprint in her hands.

"Shaara," he says sincerely, “I would make a terrible spy.”

Strangely enough, Shaara believes him.

***

The next day, when Shaara walks past Braska's morning prayers, there's a new face in the crowd. Auron is still front and center, but in the back, grinning like an idiot, is Derkon. The next day, he's invited two of his friends. By day three, half the seats are filled, and Braska is going through the morning prayers with great enthusiasm.

"I have to ask," Shaara asks Derkon afterwards. "Why is everyone going?"

"You have to see yourself," Derkon says.

And so, the next day, Shaara is there, too, sneaking into a seat in the back. Braska spots her right away. "Kunkauic Shaara, so nice to see you!" he greets, and Shaara feels herself flushing right away.

"What did you call me?" she asks, then realizes that perhaps she has not been the only one teaching Braska Al Bhed. That particular title has Netti's fingerprints all over it.

"I'm sorry, did I mispronounce it?" Braska asks.

"No, no, it was fine, but just 'Shaara' will do," Shaara says.

"Thank you. I've been incorporating Al Bhed into my prayers. I think it's really helped to make a connection!" He walks briskly to the front of the room. "Good morning, everyone, ku vilg ouincamjac," he greets everyone. "Good morning."

"Did he just..." Shaara whispers to Derkon in Al Bhed.

"Yes he did," Derkon confirms.

"We gather today to repent our sins. For each unkindness we have done to anyone we say: Cunno. E cilg."

"Cunno. E cilg," everyone repeats happily.

Shaara sinks deeper into her seat. At least everyone is enjoying themselves.

***

Shaara lifts her goggles and wipes the sweat away from her eyes. Netti is grinning at her. Asha and Meeya are grinning too, hand-in-hand as they go through the blueprints one last time. Derkon is knocking his knuckles on different parts of the plating, testing the strength of the welds. It looks good.

"Did we just finish Home's cooling system?" Netti asks.

"I think we did," Derkon says in amazement. Meeya squeals and rubs her nose against Asha's. Shaara rolls her eyes at the lovebirds, but she can't stop grinning, too.

"We still have to do some tests," Shaara warns them, "but, yes. I think we just did it."

Netti lets out a whoop of joy and slings her arm around Derkon, knocking him into Meeya and Asha, and all of them go crashing into a lump on the floor.

"Children..." Shaara says disapprovingly.

"Sorry, Master Shaara," Netti says. She offers her hand, palm up, to Shaara. Shaara takes it and tries to help Netti to her feet.

Instead, Netti, the traitorous nit, gives a sudden tug and Shaara falls into the cuddle pile. She gives in, giving Derkon a quick squeeze and tousling Netti's hair.

"Hm," Shaara says, her mouth giving an unhappy little twist.

"What's the matter, Master Shaara?" Meeya asks.

"The tests are going to be big and noisy, and we're going to have to put a lot of our equipment outside. Even if the Yevonites aren't spies, they would probably still have to report it if they saw something big. How do we hide it from them?" Shaara muses to herself.

"You could always take them on a day trip?" Asha suggests, and the wheels in Shaara's head begin to turn.

***

"Fiend hunting?" Auron asks, and Shaara can see his fingers twitch for the love of swinging his blade at something again.

"Sorry, your number's come up," Shaara lies smoothly. "Everyone of age has got to take their turn thinning the numbers of fiends around camp. It makes it safer for everyone here."

"I've never heard of this before," Auron grumbles, more for the show of it than any real unhappiness.

Shaara opens her arms expansively. "I figured you'd appreciate this duty more. The only other opening was on the battery collection duty, and I figured that was a little too much contact with machina than you'd like."

"We do need to do our part, Auron," Braska says gently. "Though I'm not much of a fighter..." he demures.

"We must do our part," Auron repeats back, totally deadpan. Shaara's beginning to like the kid.

"I've seen your magic in action," Shaara reminds Braska. "Though if you need, you could always borrow one of my machina guns," she says, hefting hers into the air.

"I'm certain that won't be necessary," Braska says quickly.

"Great! Then let's get going!" Shaara says cheerfully, marching to the hydrolift by the front of camp and hitting the button, forcing them to follow now or miss the lift entirely.

She catches Auron looking at the mechanism distrustfully. "Don't worry, it's hydro-powered. It's more water balloon than machina," she says. He seems a little comforted by the thought.

The surrounding areas have enough fiends to keep them busy. Auron has a grand time slicing into everything within reach and swinging at a few things out of it. After an hour, he's shirtless and glistening with sweat, and Shaara has to admit that if she were ten years younger, she might be having a friendly rivalry with Netti.

Shaara, for her part, mostly just stays back and snipes any passing Gandarewa that stick their tongue out at her -- which is all of them. She lends support to Auron the best she can, tossing out the occasional grenade or shooting an enemy blind so he can land a good hit. They make a nice team.

Braska is utterly useless, deciding to spend his time cheering Auron and Shaara on and casting the occasional spell when he has to.

They finish taking on a gang of three Dual Horns. Auron is sitting on the ground, breathing hard, radiating exhaustion and contentment. He has a gash on one of his arms from where he didn't quite dodge a horn.

"Let me see that," Braska says, cupping Auron's arm in his hand. Shaara checks the Dual Horns' corpses, picking through the remains and encouraging the pyreflies to disperse. Braska's hands glow as he casts Cure over Auron.

"I always wondered what that felt like," Shaara muses. "We don't have a lot of magic users, so I've pretty much always used potions."

"It's sort of tingly," Braska says. "Potions feel more...bubbly, I suppose."

"You could always join me on the front lines if you want to find out," Auron teases.

"Not that curious, thank you," Shaara says, primly rooting around in the Dual Horns' remains, and Braska laughs. It's been half a day now, she thinks. Her team has probably finished their testing and is packed up, and Auron is probably in need of a meal. When they're done healing, she thinks she'll suggest heading back to the camp.

She feels the shadow before she sees it, cool on her back. The ground around her is dark, and when she looks up, both Braska and Auron look deathly scared.

The Garuda attacks her before she has time to turn around. Its sharp teeth sink into her arm, lift her off the ground, and with a snap of its neck she is tossed against the rocks. Her head hits something hard, and for a moment, her vision blacks out.

Auron is far out of sword's reach, and Braska's limited magic use probably won't deter it from its target. Her gun's out of reach. Her right arm is numb. She fumbles with her left hand to try to get a concussion grenade out of her bag, but she's dizzy and it's hard to get her hand to move right. The Garuda rears up into the sky again. Shaara closes her eyes, preparing for the attack.

Something huge dives out of the sky, crashing into the Garuda. Shaara opens her eyes.

A dragon is fighting the Garuda.

Shaara can't believe it, but there's really no other way to describe it. A black, scaled dragon with fiery wings is using its claws to rip the Garuda apart. She looks to Auron and Braska, hoping they're okay, hoping they can use this distraction to get her and themselves out of danger before the dragon finishes the Garuda and goes for them, and...

Braska is standing tall and unafraid, his arm stretched forward towards the dragon. Auron is looking at Braska, pride and worship clear on his face.

The dragon claws one last time at the Garuda, tearing its throat, and the Garuda falls still, pyreflies leaking out of its corpse. The dragon turns and walks to Braska slowly, leaning its head forward as it gets close. Braska reaches out and affectionately rubs the side of its neck. "Thank you, Bahamut," he says. The dragon makes a low, pleased rumbling sound, then disperses in a flash of light.

"That was..." Shaara says, frowning.

Braska holds a finger up to his lips. "Let's get you looked at," he says, kneeling at her side. He casts Cure over her, and it tingles, strangely intimate, all the way down to her bones. "If you wanted to know what Cure feels like, there are easier ways."

"That..." Shaara finally accepts what her eyes told her. "You're a Summoner," she says.

Braska takes a deep breath, lets it out, and nods his head. Shaara glances over at Auron, who is studiously looking away, giving them their privacy.

"Fro ec y Summoner..." Shaara trails off. Her head still hurts, and thinking about this isn't helping any.

"We should get you back to the camp," Braska says, helping her to her feet. "I healed you the best I can, but you hit your head pretty hard. You need to rest to heal the rest of the way."

She leans against Braska, wobbly on her feet. His hand is warm and steady on the small of her back, keeping her walking straight. Auron walks a step behind them. Shaara can feel his eyes on her, ready to catch her if she stumbles.

They usher her back to the camp, never letting her out of arm's reach until she's settled in her bed, and as she drifts off to sleep, she can only think one thing:

That's why Bevelle wanted him out of the way.

 

***

When Shaara wakes up and fumbles on the light, it's already dark, her head no longer hurts, and there's a note next to a cup of water by her bed.

She downs the water first and nearly moans at the taste. She had forgotten how good clean, cold water could taste. She doesn't think it's just because she's so thirsty.

When the cup is empty, she reads the note. It just says "Can you please see me when you wake up? Thank you. -Braska" in Spiran. Braska's handwriting is beautifully looped and flowing, it makes her a little jealous when she thinks of her own spiky chicken scratch.

She pulls on a jumpsuit and doesn't bother belting it. It's late, and she's not planning on being out for long.

Shaara can see a hint of light peeking out of the holes in the Yevonites' tent, so Shaara just knocks lightly on the front door flap and lets herself in. "Braska?" she asks, peeking her head around the corner.

He's there, sitting sideways on his bed, reading through a book. He's dressed only in a simple dark brown underrobe, his headdress resting on a chair. He looks smaller this way, more human. He looks up at her and presses a finger to his lips, nodding at the other bed. Shaara sees Auron sleeping, curled up under the covers. She nods and sits next to Braska on the bed, close enough that they can talk without being too loud.

"Are you feeling better?" he asks quietly.

"I'm fine," she says.

"Good."

They sit in silence. Braska's fingers tap nervously on his knees.

"So. Shoopuf in the room," Braska says.

"You're a Summoner," Shaara says.

"Yes," Braska says simply.

'Why didn't you tell me?' she thinks.

"Are you one of the ones who die?" she asks instead.

Braska couldn't look more shocked, more hurt, if she had slapped him. "What?"

"Are you going to kill yourself?" she asks. Her voice is low, she doesn't want to wake Auron. She doesn't want to have this conversation.

She should go.

She doesn't.

"That's what you Summoners do, right? Kill yourselves?"

"It's not that simple," Braska says, sitting up straighter. Shaara can see him mentally pulling his priest's robes around himself, distancing himself. "According to the teachings of Yevon--"

"Pimmcred," Shaara says.

Braska is calm and patient, speaking in even tones. "Even if Sin should return, the Calm is still worthwhile. What's the value of one person's life compared to--"

"So you are going to kill yourself. Who for?"

"For the good of everyone in the world," Braska says, without pause, like he’s reading from a book. His face is beautiful, peaceful. Shaara hates it. "For--"

"Pimmcred," Shaara says vehemently, hissing through her teeth, trying to stay quiet. "You can't do it for the world, you don't know the world. You just float above it. You're not doing this for anyone, you're just doing it because you've been told to. Who do you want to protect?"

Braska flounders, just for a moment. "Auron," he says, defiantly sticking his jaw out. Nobody could deny that he cares for Auron.

"Pimmcred." She points at Auron, sleeping peacefully on his bed. "Do you think that boy's going to care about Sin after watching you die? Do you think he'll be happy that you're dead?"

"My friends in Bevelle! My guardians! Everyone here! You!" Braska says, his composure cracking. He's forgetting to keep his voice down. "I want all of you to be safe, I want--"

"Vilg oui!" Shaara stands up, needing to get some distance between herself and Braska. "Vilg oui! I don't want it! Don't make me responsible for your death! Don't put that on me! Vilg oui, you want to do something for me, how about you don't die! You kill yourself for me, you make me a murderer, I will hate you! E femm ryda oui vunajan! E femm hajan vunkeja oui! Oui camvecr cuh uv y pedlr! Vilg oui, live!"

Auron stirs in his bed. "Shaara?" he says sleepily.

Shaara rushes out of the tent, throws herself on her bed, and determinedly doesn't cry.

***

Shaara hasn't been ignoring Braska, exactly. Mostly, she's just been working late, eating with friends, visiting her brother. Taking the long way around so she avoids walking past their tent. The usual.

Braska's there, though. He's kneeling next to Vizzy's kid, nodding very seriously at what the four-year-old has to say. Shaara's heart twists in her chest.

"Hu hu hu!" the child says, pointing to something. "Rana."

"Rana?" Braska asks, reaching out to touch something the child is holding. His pronunciation is getting much better.

"Oac! Dryhg oui!" the child says, and scampers off happily.

"Dryhg oui," Braska repeats, waving after the kid. He gets off the ground, brushing the deep brown dirt from his robes. He freezes as he sees Shaara. He looks shaky, like there are cracks in the formerly perfect Yevonite shell.

"Busy indoctrinating the youth?" Shaara asks. She tries giving him a smile, but she can feel how forced it must look, so she ducks her head and scuffs at the ground.

"Actually, he was showing me how his toy works. A machina toy," Braska said.

"How scandalous," Shaara says. She sighs. She can't keep beating around the bush; nothing grows here, anyway. She looks him dead in the eyes. "I'm sorry."

"It's okay," Braska says, and it sounds genuine. "I've never had anyone call me those things before." He scratches his head. "Actually, I didn't understand half of what you said."

"'Selfish son of a bitch' was probably the worst one," Shaara translates. If she's going to be honest, she might as well go all the way. "Sorry."

Braska actually laughs. "Yes, that's definitely a new one."

"I'm sorry for this, too." She walks up to him and grabs his hand, squeezing it between her own. "Don't kill yourself. Please."

She can see the cracks forming. She can see him trying to smile, to cover it over. He can't.

"Is that a new one, too?" she asks quietly.

He tries to say something, but no sound comes out. He looks like he's drowning in his robes. He tries to back away, but she holds on tight to his hand--no, he's holding onto her, so tight it hurts, and he's looking at her like he....

She wonders if she should hug him.

She wonders if she could kiss him.

She wonders if that would break him.

Someone screams.

"Help us! We need a doctor!" It's in Al Bhed. She doesn't recognize the voice, but it's coming from the front of camp.

Shaara and Braska look at each other in shock, then turn and run to where the shouting is coming from. There are already a few people there, crowded around the top platform of the hydrolift. They look over the edge.

It's worse than Shaara thought. There are six Al Bhed down there, trying to wheel a cart onto the hydrolift's platform, but it's too big for the platform and the wheels keep slipping off. The cart is covered with a thin cloth, but Shaara can see the outline of several bodies under it.

"Stay there! Clear the platform! We'll come down to you!" Shaara calls to them in Al Bhed. She turns to some of the people nearby, pointing to them in turn. "Get Cid, tell him what's going on, tell him to get here right away," she says to one. "Go to the medical tent, tell them to get prepared for at least three people, maybe as many as eight. We're going to need stretchers and people to hold them, too," to the next. "Go with her, bring back the emergency kit of potions, fast as you can," to a third.

The now empty platform has made its way to the top. Shaara grabs Braska and pulls him with her onto the platform, slamming the button before he even has his footing. "What happened?" she shouts down to the Al Bhed as the platform lowers.

"Sin attacked our ship!" one of them shouts back in Al Bhed. "We barely made it to Luca's port, and then those bastard Yevonites wouldn't let us into their hospital. Wouldn't even sell us a damned potion!"

Shaara feels her temper boil--but, no, this isn't the time for that. Later, she can scream and kick and cry until she goes numb. Now, there are things to do.

The lift hits bottom. Shaara races to the cart, Braska close behind her.

"What's he doing here?" the Al Bhed guarding the cart sneers at Braska. Shaara assumes he's supposed to look intimidating, but he looks the same as everyone here: scared. That's just as dangerous, and she doesn't want to set off another fight.

"He's our pet Yevonite," Shaara says in Al Bhed. "He's harmless. He knows how to heal."

The Al Bhed doesn't move until another puts a hand on his shoulder, pulling him away from the cart.

Shaara pulls the sheet off the cart and is immediately repulsed by the smell, the stench of infection and toxin. Some of the people are groaning, writhing in pain. That's good. That means they're still alive, still strong. Some of the people aren't moving at all. That's worse.

"Heal them," Shaara orders Braska in Spiran. He nods, holding his hands over the nearest injured Al Bhed and praying until the glow of Cure shines through him. Shaara motions to the nearby uninjured crewmates, talking to them in Al Bhed. "Carry the ones he heals to the lift. There will be people waiting for them at the top."

Braska moves on to the next injured Al Bhed, healing her the best he can, then moves on to the next. Shaara doesn't do spells, but it looks tiring. Braska doesn't complain.

"Master Shaara! Catch!" one of her engineers calls from above. Shaara holds out her hands and catches the emergency kit of potions and remedies. She hands it off to another of the Al Bhed, instructing him to hand them out to everyone who needs them. She trusts him to know his crew's injuries better than she can tell.

Braska is still, his hands raised above one of the injured. "What's the matter? Why have you stopped?" Shaara asks him in Spiran.

"He's dead," Braska says quietly.

"Move on to the next one," Shaara orders sharply.

"I don't understand. He's empty."

"Braska!" Shaara snaps her fingers, getting his attention. "They need you here right now. Heal the ones you can help."

Braska takes a breath, visibly pulling himself together. He moves on to the next.

After ten minutes, most of the injured Al Bhed have been treated by Braska and transported up to the camp. "I've done everything I can do," Braska says. He looks incredibly drained. Shaara mentally forgives him for being lazy with his spells the other day. "Spells really only work on immediate damage. Most of this is too old, I don't..."

Shaara grabs Braska's hand, rubbing it gently. "You did your best. You gave them a fighting chance. Come on, let's see if anyone needs a hand in camp."

They ride up with the last of the ship’s crew.

The injured are laid out on cots around the medical tents. There are just too many to fit inside, and the doctors are spread thin, racing from cot to cot. They help who they can, but some are too far gone to save.

The nearest cot is one of the hopeless ones, Shaara can tell. The man lying in it is barely moving, only breathing weakly, and the man standing next to him is just holding his hand, comforting him through every hesitant breath. Soon enough, he stops breathing.

Braska takes a step forward, reaching for his rod, but Shaara snags his sleeve and holds him back.

"Come on, Daara. Don't be shy," the man croons in Al Bhed, still holding his hand. "I've never known you to be shy." The dead man's chest glows, a dim light that grows brighter, and then a brilliant pyrefly comes out of his chest, peacefully floating in front of the man's face. "There you are, Daara," he says, tears in his eyes. "Now what are you doing hanging around here for? Go Home." The pyrefly circles him once, then streaks off into the sky.

Shaara looks at Braska, who is staring with his mouth half-open at the pyrefly's trail in the sky. He looks so amazed, so foolish, so wonderful. Her heart catches in her throat. She can't let this man die. She can't.

"You've never done a Sending?" Shaara asks quietly.

"I've never seen a pyrefly leave," Braska says. "Not without help."

Shaara smiles sadly. "Just imagine what else you might see, if you stay alive." She grabs onto the edge of his sleeve and pulls him away. "Come on, let's get you some food and rest. Not everyone here may die without regret. You may be needed later."

***

Two weeks later, Asha and Meeya are married on a hot summer night. The musicians are playing loudly, the bonfire is high, and by this time, everyone is either drunk or asleep.

Exactly one person is looking down-in-the-dumps, and Shaara circles in on Auron like a mope-seeking missile. He's sitting on a bench, wedged between two couples that Shaara knows for a fact don't speak a single word of Spiran, slowly but steadily working his way through a cup of beer. Judging by the flush on his cheeks, it's definitely not his first cup.

She'd be surprised if it were only his fifth.

Shaara bumps the nearest guy on the bench with her hip, getting his attention. "What are you doing here?" she asks in Al Bhed. "Go take your girlfriend dancing." She points at a girl sitting on the other side of Auron. This one's one of her engineers. Good. She can pull rank. "You too. Dance. Master's orders."

They get up, grumbling good-naturedly, leaving Shaara alone with Auron. She sits next to him, spreading out, making sure everyone realizes that this bench is fully occupied.

"Enjoying the wedding?" she asks in Spiran. Auron raises an eyebrow. "I suppose that was a silly question," she concedes. "You know, if you're bored, I bet Netti would love to take you for a spin on the dance floor. I think she's been angling for you all night."

"She's been angling for more than that," Auron gripes, and he surprises a laugh out of Shaara.

"She didn't think you'd noticed," Shaara says.

"Oh, I noticed," Auron says, and the hint of trauma in his voice makes Shaara laugh again.

"Well, if you don't want to dance with her, you could always dance with me." Auron gives her a surprised look. "What? Am I too old for you? If you don't practice now, you'll never be able to dance at your own wedding."

Auron's face turns dark again as he goes back to staring into his cup. Shaara curses at herself for losing all that progress.

"Come on, Auron, you're not so pidd-ikmo you won't find someone with low enough standards that'll take you," Shaara says, hitting him lightly in the shoulder, hoping he'll cheer up enough to hit her back.

"I'm already engaged," Auron sighs.

"Hu cred!" Shaara yells, drawing the looks of a few people around her. "Sorry. I...I'm sensing you're not happy about it?"

Auron shrugs. "It's a good match. She's the daughter of a high priest. He likes me, and it'd be good for my career." Auron bobs his head back and forth, making a face at his drink. "She's nice."

"Sound more thrilled about it."

They're distracted by the bright sound of laughter. Across the way, on the other side of the fire, one of the Al Bhed from the ship has taken Braska's headdress and put it on his own head. Braska laughs with the Al Bhed, his freed hair pointing every way but down. She can tell they're both really, really drunk. Braska picks up the old Al Bhed's goggles and puts them on his head.

"Drec kio!" the Al Bhed says, pointing at Braska.

Braska points back. "Drec kyo!" he tries to repeat. Braska tosses back his head and laughs, throwing an arm over the man's shoulder, and Shaara feels her heart twist in a strange, wonderful way.

She turns to say something to Auron, but stops when she sees the expression on his face, the light in his eyes as he watches Braska. 'Oh,' she thinks.

"Is your issue that you didn't choose this priest's daughter, or that she isn't a particular summoner?" Shaara asks, taking a shot in the dark.

The look of sheer panic in Auron's eyes tells her she's struck home. "Don't worry," she says quickly, taking his hand before he can run away, "I know how you feel."

Auron's eyes widen even more. He looks between her and Braska, then back again. "You?"

"Me," she confirms sheepishly.

"Oh," he says and relaxes back into the seat. He smiles a little. Shaara thinks that this might be the first genuine smile of Auron's she's ever seen.

"Embarrassing, isn't it?" Shaara says.

Auron buries his face in his hands. "It really is," he groans, but she can hear the smile beneath it.

"Come here," she says, and wraps him in a big bear hug. She feels him stiffen against her, and she wonders if she's made another mistake, but then he relaxes into it, resting his forehead on her shoulder. "How long?" she asks quietly.

"He Sent my mother when I was sixteen," Auron says, his words muffled against Shaara's shirt. "She died late at night. I didn't think anyone would come, but he did, and after she was gone, he stayed with me until morning, just talking."

"See, that's the kind of pimmcred I'm talking about. Who isn't going to fall in love with him, after he does things like that? That man does not play fair," Shaara complains, gently scratching her fingers through Auron's hair.

She feels Auron shudder against her, his shoulders start to shake, and she wonders if she's made the poor kid cry--but, no, he's laughing. It's a little hysterical, but he's definitely laughing.

"You could ask him to not go on his pilgrimage," Shaara says softly. "He'd listen, if you said it." She makes a face. "He didn't listen to me."

Auron pulls back, looking at her in shock. "You asked a Summoner to stop his pilgrimage?" Shaara shakily nods her head. "How...how could you even..."

"It's an Al Bhed thing," Shaara says. "We don't have Summoners to Send us, so we've got to make sure we live without regrets or we'd all turn into fiends."

"Oh." Auron clutches at his hair, rubs his face, gives a determined frown, starts to get up, freezes, and sits back down. He turns back to Shaara. "I guess it's good that I'm traveling with a Summoner, then," he says with a weak smile.

He starts to laugh. Shaara joins in. "So that's why Bevelle is full of Summoners," she says, and Auron laughs harder. There's a little hysterical note in his laugh, but that's good, Shaara thinks, a way to push through the awfulness of their situation. Besides, it matches her own.

"Just..." Auron says, waving a hand. "Just, fiends everywhere..." and he laughs so hard he falls off the bench. Shaara follows him, sitting on the ground and laughing her head off.

She notices Braska staring at them like they're crazy. She gives Braska a little wave, and he hesitantly waves back. Auron rolls onto his back, laughing at them and the stars, and Shaara wishes deeply that they would never stop laughing.

***

It's Shaara's turn to pick up the filled battery packs from Djose, and by the time she gets back, the sun is setting, her feet ache from the hard dirt roads and her back is sore from the heavy packs, and all she wants to do is slip into bed and sleep forever. Instead, she stops by the Yevonites' tent because she's a masochist, and also because she wants to be sure that Auron is okay.

Their tent is empty.

With a sinking feeling in her stomach, she runs to Cid's office. Cid smiles at her as she barges in. "Shaara! Good news! The--"

"Where are they?" Shaara demands.

"Who, the Yevonites?" Cid asks. "They flew the coop hours ago. Got some kind of official letter from Bevelle, and off they ran. Hardly even paused to say goodbye. Mighty rude of them, but what can you expect?"

"Did you read the letter?" Shaara asks.

"Why, that would be rude and a total--" Shaara levels him with a look. "What am I saying, of course I did. It said that Summoner Whatshisface, son of Maester Whogivesacrud, died during his journey through the Calm Lands, and that Braska should go back to what he was doing before."

"He's a Summoner. He's going on his Pilgrimage," Shaara says.

"That's what I figured from the note. Still, gets them out of our hair while we--"

"He's going to kill himself!" Shaara shouts. She wants to kick over the desk. She wants to tear her hair out. She wants to punch Cid in his stupid, smiling face.

"That's not our problem!" Cid shouts back. "Dangit, Shaara, I liked Braska as much as anybody here, but the man's made his choice. This gives us a chance to pull out all the stops while nobody's looking. Let's not waste it."

"Which way did he go?" Shaara asks.

"Shaara..."

"Is he going to Luca?" Shaara asks. "Is he back-tracking to Djose?"

Her mind races. If he's gone to Luca, there's a chance she could catch him before the ship leaves. She could--she doesn't know--she could sit on him until he misses his ship. That's awful. She doesn't care. She'll think of something on the way.

"Shaara, no," Cid says firmly. "You are not going after him."

Shaara sticks her chin out and stares defiantly at Cid. "Where did he go?"

"This is an order as your gol-darned Elder! You are going to leave that boy well-enough alone, you hear?"

"Where did he go?" she repeats.

His voice softens. "Shaara. You get mixed up in this, you're going to bring all of Bevelle down on our heads. We only have a few weeks' of work left, and then we can install the cooling system and Home will be liveable. We won't have to wander around, setting up camps and avoiding Yevonites. We'll have a real home. Don't you want that?"

Shaara smiles sadly, nods her head. "I really do."

She punches Cid in the jaw, hard enough to make his head snap back.

His eyes roll back, and he collapses in a heap on his chair. He's only going to be out for a few minutes, and he's going to be a little bruised and very angry when he wakes up, but it gives Shaara enough time to get out of his office before he raises the alarm.

Shaara looks around wildly, trying to get a plan in mind. She doesn't have time to get to her tent and grab her things. She has a little money on her, a half-filled bag of recycled water, enough food and potions to last her a few days. Her winning personality. She can do this.

She can do this.

She walks casually to the edge of the camp, nodding pleasantly to those she passes by. She just has to get out of sight and then she can run, get some distance between herself and whatever guards Cid sends after her, try to close the distance between herself and Braska, and fucking Yevon she doesn't even know which way he went.

"Master Shaara?"

It's Netti. Shaara freezes. She doesn't have time for this.

"Auron said to give you this," Netti says, handing her a folded piece of paper. On it, scribbled in Spiran, is just the word 'Djose.' Shaara recognizes Auron's handwriting.

"Thank you!" Shaara says. There are tears in Netti's eyes. Shaara reaches out and hugs her, painfully tight, and Netti returns it even harder. "I'm sorry. I have to go."

"I know. Don't worry. I'll show the guards this one," Netti says, and shows her another folded piece of paper. This one says 'Luca' in Spiran, also written in Auron's handwriting. "That should give you a little more time."

Shaara looks at Netti in admiration. "Clever trick. So you finally corrupted him."

Netti shrugs proudly. "It's a talent." She flicks her fingers at Shaara. "Go."

Shaara obeys. She ducks behind the last tent, out of the light. Once there, she starts to run. Her feet slap against the hardened mud and rock, each step sending a jolt of pain rattling up from her sore feet to the back of her teeth. It's faster going without the battery packs, but she's tired and it's dark and there are fiends.

She pauses only long enough to open a valve in the hydrolift and let the water spill out. It's not hard to fix, but they're going to need a few buckets of water and someone on the ground to do it, and that should buy her some more time.

She reaches the edge of the proper Mushroom Rock Road. If she looks back now, she knows she could just see the glow of the encampment. She runs without looking back, taking the left turn that would bring her towards Djose.

It's a three hour walk from here. Running, she can probably make it in two. Braska and Auron left hours ago, but they're not as used to the roads, so it might take them longer.

She suddenly realizes--she didn't see them coming back from her trip to Djose. They should have crossed paths somewhere along the way. Were they really headed to Djose? Did they get caught by a fiend? Were they--Shaara's hands clench into fists--were they deliberately avoiding her?

If so, then Shaara's already figured out step one of what she's going to do: give them both a piece of her fucking mind.

She can improvise the rest of the steps.

She's good at improvising.

By the time she sees the crackling glow of Djose Temple, her feet are numb and she's run through all the scenarios twenty times in her head.

Are they in the inn? She can pay for a room and search the others. Are they in the temple? The back gate near the electricity collection point is usually unlocked. Is he in the Cloister already? She can probably break through. Nobody needs to know she's practically out of ammo, right? Is he...

Braska is just sitting on the ground near the entrance of the temple, leaning against one of the stone pillars, staring up at the stars. His elaborate headdress rests on his lap, and he absentmindedly strokes one of its tassels like it's a cat.

"Braska?" Shaara says quietly. She can't believe finding him was so easy.

His gaze drifts from the stars, slowly focusing on her face. "Shaara?"

"Did you...have you..." she motions at the temple, lost for words.

He shakes his head. "No, I haven't." He pats at the ground next to him. She sits there, her bare arm brushing against his bulky robes. The summer night is cool, she's exhausted from her long journey, and she can feel the heat from his body. She leans her head against his shoulder.

"Are you going to try tomorrow?" she asks.

"No, I don't think so," Braska says. He smiles up at the stars. "When we got here, we went straight to the temple, and I walked up to the Cloister of Trials, and I couldn't. I just...I couldn't." He laughs at himself. "I stood in front of that door for over two hours, and I couldn't make myself go inside."

"What happened?"

"Eventually, Auron took me by the hand and lead me back out." He shakes his head. "You should have seen the way he glared at the priests, like he was daring them to say something. And then we just sat out here and watched the sunset. After a while, he went inside to rest, and I stayed out here. Then you came along. It's not much of a story." He sighs. "Poor Auron. He must be so disappointed in me."

"You know that's not true," Shaara says.

"I'm probably going to be excommunicated," Braska says. He doesn't seem that upset about it. "And Auron..."

"Auron will be fine," Shaara says firmly. "He's smart, he knows how to play the game, although he's much too honorable for Bevelle. I'm sure he'll get excommunicated on his own merits in a few years."

Braska laughs at that.

"If it makes you feel better, I'm pretty sure I'm going to be arrested on sight if I go back to any Al Bhed encampment," Shaara says lightly.

"Oh, Shaara..." Braska says, reaching out and squeezing her hand. She rolls her eyes. Of course he would be more upset about her than himself. His hand is nice, though. It can stay there.

"I made my choice. No regrets." She gives him a crooked smile. "It's not like I don't deserve it. I did knock my brother out and sabotage our lifts, after all."

"You..." Braska looks at her wide-eyed. He can keep looking at her like that, too. She likes that. "You are amazing."

"Vilg oui," Shaara says with a laugh.

"Thank you, anyway," Braska says, and it takes Shaara a moment to parse what he's saying.

"That isn't what that phrase means," she confesses. "Vilg oui just means 'fuck you.'" She leans her head back against his shoulder. "I'm sorry. I'm terrible."

"Oh, I knew that," Braska says, and Shaara feels her heart drop into her feet. "I figured out you were mistranslating things as soon as people started laughing when I said things in Al Bhed."

"Why did you..."

"People started coming to my sermons," Braska says, smiling up at the stars. "And I think I preferred your translations. And also..." he looks Shaara directly in the eyes "...it was very funny."

This man.

This stupid fucking infuriatingly perfect man.

Shaara reaches out, brushes a strand of pale brown hair from his face. "I'm going to kiss you now, okay?"

She waits for him to process it, sees it slowly filter in, that he can do this, he's not going to leave, he's not going to die, he can live a long life together with her and have children and grandchildren and grow fat and bent-backed and shake his old man cane at the youngsters while she laughs at him in her rocking chair. He can live.

Just as she sees that thought light up his eyes, Shaara leans in and kisses him, and his smile is the sweetest thing she has ever tasted.