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Down Into Paradise

Chapter Text

Thancred grunted as he eased himself out of the driver’s seat. He hated to admit it, but he honestly preferred the Garlean vehicles over this ancient hoverskipper (tentatively named ‘Epoch’ by the team that cleaned her up). While it was certainly faster and fuel efficient, it wasn’t the comfiest of rides - especially over long distances on what was functionally a desert. He could already feel his cheeks starting to sting from a hellish combination of sunburn and windburn. 

“Alright,” he sighed, shoving open the creaky door and half-falling out. White dust swirled about his feet as a misty cloud, too fine to be called sand, “Break time!”

Ryne made some unholy groaning noise at that, lifting her head from where she’d been resting it against her side of the hovercraft. Her hair was a windswept mess, and she squinted over at him in groggy confusion. That was the reason he stopped - he could hardly continue to drive if his navigator kept dozing off. 

“Up and at ‘em, Ryne,” he teased, smacking the flat of his palm against the side of Epoch. Ryne grunted at him irritably. It made him smile before he moved to his next problem child. 

“I see you’re trapped, Urianger,” Thancred observed, unable to fully smother his amusement as he took in the state of the backseat. 

Urianger, bless him, was sitting perfectly still, yet looked utterly unruffled despite having Aza using his lap as a pillow, quietly snoring away into his thigh. Gods, the bloodflow must’ve cut off completely to his legs at this point. 

“I am loathed to disturb him,” Urianger admitted, “He needst the rest.”

“Yes, he hasn't been sleeping well lately,” Thancred said, sobering as he looked down at their snoozing Warrior of Light. 

Aza hadn’t been the same since the whole Lightwarden and Emet-Selch business. Not in a negative way, exactly - he was a lot more open and honest with them regarding his limitations, and warmer in general, but… still, there was something… well, Thancred couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but he supposed it was what was causing Aza to look so tired recently. According to the Crystarium guards, Aza was up at odd hours, roaming about restlessly, sometimes talking to himself, but was friendly enough when approached, so it wasn’t as if he was having some anxious episode like he used to have back on the Source. Yet...

It could be just Aza working through his feelings of almost becoming a Sin Eater - an unnerving experience no matter how fearless you were, Thancred was certain - but at the same time, he didn’t want to just brush it off when it could be an indicator of a deeper problem. Aza always got evasive when directly confronted about his mental or emotional state, though, so Thancred was resigned to waiting and watching, just in case. 

“But, he’d whine if he missed out on lunch,” he continued, banging Epoch's side again, “Aza! Release Urianger so the poor man can relieve himself, for Twelves’ sake.”

Aza jolted awake with a very ungraceful snort, lifting his head with eyes squinted half-shut, “Hrrnwha?

“Good afternoon,” Urianger greeted, completely straight face, as Aza stared up at him from his lap. 

Thancred waited. 

There was a very long pause, where the cogs slowly turned in Aza’s brain - until with a shocked yelp he bolted upright and backwards, almost falling off the seats entirely and landing in the footwell. He managed to catch himself at the last second though, his face flushing an embarrassed red.

“U-Urianger!” Aza squeaked, though he would no doubt viciously denied he did such a thing later, “Sorry! I didn’t mean to fall asleep on you!” 

“‘Tis fine,” Urianger said, slowly stretching his legs out with a wince, “I expected no less when I began mine lecture on the basics of aetherology.” 

Thancred turned away with a cough, smothering a grin. The aetherology lecture never failed to put even the most dedicated of listeners to sleep. Urianger had an incredibly soporific voice, especially when pitched at a relaxing, droning tone. Too bad that was the tone was what he delivered most of his lectures in… 

Eh ? You mean you were trying to put me to sleep with that tortuously boring ramble?! I thought I was gonna die!” 

“...”

“Ah. I mean, um…” 

Thancred left Aza to dig himself into a deeper grave. Ryne, at this point, had extracted herself from Epoch and was slowly stretching her legs out with a grimace. 

“Sore?” he asked. 

“Stiff,” she mumbled, pausing her stretching to rub the sleep from her eyes, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to doze off.” 

“We’ve been at it for half a day,” Thancred said, “I’d be surprised if you weren’t feeling dozy at this point.” 

He was feeling pretty groggy himself, though he could push through it for another few hours. Not that he was going to, because there was no need. Asking Ryne to function at his pace was deeply unfair, and it wasn’t as if that Light signature she could sense was going anywhere anytime soon. They could afford to take their time - well, as much as they could in a place like the Empty. 

“We’ll break out some food,” he continued, “Shake our legs out a bit before heading off again. It’s not much further, is it?”

Ryne tilted her head, then tilted it the other way, her eyes squinting in concentration, “Um, yes? No…? It feels bigger, at least.”

Bigger. Well, that could mean it was closer or was growing in strength. Thancred sighed, squelching the petty niggle of annoyance at the vagueness of these directions. It wasn’t Ryne’s fault - it was lucky she could even sense Light in the first place. 

“But same direction?” he confirmed, relaxing when she nodded certainly at that, “Good enough for me.”

Thancred went to rescue Aza from Urianger’s clutches at that point, and about ten minutes later, were portioning out the rations supplied to them by the expedition team. Thancred had given their gear a once over, of course, before they left, and had noted a rather interesting addition to their ration stores just before they left Amh Araeng. He waited until now to mention it, though. 

“We mere peons get jerky and bread,” Thancred said, handing out said rations to Ryne and Urianger, and turned to Aza with a smile, “While our Warrior of Light gets something special.”

“Oh no,” said Aza. 

“Oh yes,” Thancred said, lifting his prize from the supply bag. It was an innocent looking thing - a high quality wooden lunch box tied shut with strong twine, and scrawled on the flower patterned lid: ‘Aza’. The handwriting was unmistakable, and there were only a few of Aza’s fans that would dare call him by his first name. 

Aza made a small, indescribable noise in the back of his throat. 

“A homemade meal from our dear Exarch,” Thancred teased, handing the lunch box over with a grin, “I’m deeply curious to see what he made for you.”

“Probably sandwiches,” Aza mumbled bashfully, his cheeks flushed as he accepted the lunch box. Tugging the twine undone, he lifted the lid - all of them leaned in curiously - and inside were indeed sandwiches. Not just any sandwiches though, these were high quality, fresh ingredients, top of the line sandwiches, made with love and care and the crusts cut off. Aw, the Exarch even remembered that Aza hated crusts. 

“I’m jealous of his crush on you,” Thancred sighed wistfully, “I can’t even remember the last time someone made me such lovingly crafting sandwiches.”

“I’ll make you a sandwich if you don’t shut up,” Aza grumbled, holding the lunch box protectively against his chest, like he thought Thancred was going to dive for them at any second.

“Oh? What kind?”

“A knuckle one.”

Urianger cleared his throat pointedly, and Thancred eased off on his teasing. Gods, he had forgotten how fun it was to ruffle Aza’s fur sometimes, and he didn’t bother hiding his smile when Aza discreetly flipped him the bird while Ryne wasn’t looking. What a brat. 

After their quick meal and a toilet break behind one of the very few outcrops dotting the immediate landscape, they were off again. Ryne was a lot more bright-eyed, and Aza once again dozed off, albeit a lot more fitfully than last time. 

All in all, not a very exciting road trip to start this adventure, but there was something pleasant about having a journey that didn’t involve a homicidal army dogging their every step. Now, if only their end destination could be as peaceful...