He admits it to himself after the Ice Cave, while Caz is still knocking snow out of her armor and Luna is already trying to take the floating stone apart to see how it works. The sun makes him squint, feeling stings it way back into his hands, the wound in his side has probably reopened, and all he can focus on is the frost sparkling in Imri's hair. This isn't just aesthetic appreciation or friendly fondness, and hasn't been for a while. So he stands there shivering, equal parts smitten and stricken, half-wishing they'd never stopped the rot so that the earth might swallow him up before he makes a fool of himself.
This isn't the first time Xue has found himself besotted with a comrade, but it's the first time he hasn't been able to forestall interpersonal disaster by walking away.
"You're bleeding," Caz says, shedding her armor. "Take care of that."
The blood's seeping right through the robe he bought to replace the one that didn't survive the volcano. Xue wonders sometimes why his fellow mages settled on white as a professional color; even the ones who don't traipse through volcanoes spend a lot of time in contact with bodily fluids.
"Here, let me." Imri approaches, all long limbs and easy grace, full lips still chapped from the cold, and the ground under Xue remains dismayingly solid. He peels off his damp gloves as he adds, "You're probably still tapped after saving us from those wolves."
At the time, pouring healing magic into unconscious bodies while Luna blasted waves of fire down the tunnel felt more desperate than heroic. "Um, well," Xue replies, just before Imri's bare hand curves over his ribs, "mostly, you know, I was doing?"
A jolt of white magic mercy-kills his attempt to salvage the sentence; for a few seconds, he can't focus on anything but the sensation of his flesh knitting itself back together. He exhales shakily as it finishes, then tenses up again when Imri gives him a friendly pat on the arm.
"Look at this!" Luna calls from behind him, followed by what is almost certainly the sound of her failing to stay balanced atop the stone.
Caz doesn't even glance up from removing her greaves. "Quit fucking around and set up the tent."
Xue immediately volunteers to take the first watch, alone.
The trouble with Imri is that there's no good reason to avoid his company. He's not prickly like Caz, or perpetually wrapped up in personal investigations like Luna, or ever anything but easygoing and personable. He's entirely too easy to talk to, or at least was when Xue could still talk to him without staring at his mouth. There's a small gap between his front teeth, a slight pout to his lips when he's lost in thought, a particular way his face folds around the slow spread of his smile.
It's also impossible to feign exhaustion or illness around someone who knows just enough white magic to be determined to help. When Xue sequestered himself on the flying ship under the pretense of motion sickness, Imri brewed him a nausea-easing potion. He still feels guilty about it.
So he's out on deck pretending to be lost in the magnificent view, while actually mostly lost in trying not to think about Imri's mouth. There are certain things one does not do on a quest of dire importance, and high on that list is anyone in one's party. Morale is too precious to risk. There'd be no reason to expect anything but an awkward rejection, anyway.
"It's incredible, isn't it?" says Imri, startling Xue's heart into his throat. His long fingers curl over the rail of the ship. "I still don't understand exactly what Bahamut did to us, but I feel deeper inside, somehow. I don't understand any of Luna's theories, either, but I have to listen to them if I want her to help me grasp more complex spells." He fixes Xue with a charmingly lopsided smile, dimpled on the left. "I think I could extend my white magic, too, if you have time to work with me. If you don't mind, I mean."
Xue could invent a reason and be assured of its acceptance, probably packaged with an apology for imposing. He's already working with Caz, which is a bit like sculpting stone with running water. He wouldn't even have to skirt around his inability to join hands with Imri without fantasizing the contact into a new context.
What he says is, "Of course. You'd be a nice change from Caz."
Imri laughs. "Glad to be of assistance. If you'd ever like to learn how to swing a sword, I'd be happy to return the favor."
There's no hope of keeping that one in context. Xue excuses himself and goes looking for a private place to let his imagination wear itself out.
Wringing water out of his robe gives him something to focus on that is not Imri, who has waded naked into the ocean with Luna. Imri's hair is piled loosely on top of his head, damp curls coiling back up as they dry. For reasons Xue has no desire to discern, he and Luna are trying to catch fish with their bare hands.
The rest of the clothing has been hung up to dry. Xue dithers a moment before wrapping his thoroughly wrung robe around his waist. They should have left dry clothes behind on land before boarding that rickety barrel contraption, but he seems to be the only one bothered by the prospect of a few hours' communal nudity. He and his companions seldom seem to be bothered by the same things.
Caz waves him over. She's stretched out on her back in the sand, untroubled by the feel of it against her bare skin, idly catching the sunlight against her new opal helmet. There's still a piece of kelp stuck to her ankle.
When he's in earshot, she says, "Would you just fuck him already?"
"Fuh-huh-ha?" Xue tries again, body humming with low-level panic: "I have no idea what you're talking about."
Caz gives him a withering look before lobbing her helmet into his shoulder. With an indignant yelp, he claps his hand to what is probably already a bruise. She doesn't sound at all apologetic as she adds, "You're on my last goddamn nerve with your pining."
Xue huffs, trying to will away the blush he can feel creeping into his cheeks. "I'm not pining."
With a sharp bark of a laugh, she rolls over on her stomach. She appears to be out of both projectiles and commentary, but Xue still moves away before rubbing a quick healing spell into his shoulder.
A triumphant shout draws his attention to the ocean. Luna has finally caught a fish, which thrashes in her grip as she rushes ashore. Imri follows. Xue stares resolutely at the fish as Luna smears its gills with leftover oxyale.
Caz raises her head just long enough to squint at the ruckus and say, "Don't tell me what you're doing."
"Science!" Imri replies with cheerful disregard. Caz does not respond.
After making sure his robe is securely in place, Xue draws closer. Luna's fish gasps and flops on the sand, scales sticky and shimmering. The three of them stand around it in a circle and watch until it twitches into stillness.
After a long pause, Luna says, "So it only works the one way."
Caz still doesn't have the hang of enchanted weapons; she swings her glowing ax into the undead, spraying blue fire, when she could be standing a safe distance away and flinging magic from the blade. Of course, safe distances have never held much appeal for her.
Imri is on better terms with them, particularly since he picked up that gauntlet. He blasts lightning from it and fire from his free hand, apparently just because he can. Against a shambling horde of mummies, this is shameless overkill. Xue hangs back, half to conserve his magic for tougher fights, half to watch Imri gracefully reduce desiccated corpses to ash.
Between the show, the darkness, and the steady roar of the waterfall, it takes him a while to realize that Luna isn't nearby.
If she's not up to her elbows in dead dragon again, she's probably trying to construct her own golem. Either way, she needs fetching. "I'll be right back," Xue shouts over the groaning of the mummies. "I think you've got this under control."
Imri glances his way and nods. "Mind the birds! Bastards are everywhere."
It's hard to tell which of the rustling noises overhead echo the falling water and which portend feathered disaster. The best defense is not to focus on anything that gleams like an eye; one good stare is all it takes for flesh to harden to stone or a heart to seize still. Xue holds a small lamp spell in his hand and backtracks carefully, pausing every few steps to call Luna's name.
Eventually he is rewarded with, "I'm here, I'm here! I'm just trying to—" The cave flashes white for an instant, and the stink of burnt meat fills the air. "Never mind."
Xue avoids looking closely at what are at least partially the dragon's remains as he waits for Luna to get up. "I had an idea about golems," she says, rubbing her hands against her already gore-caked robe. If she doesn't wash that thing soon, Xue intends to buy her a new one. "Specifically, what if they had teeth and breathed fire? But it turns out that animating them is the tricky—"
She yelps as Xue swings his hammer over her head and into the beak of a diving bird. A few more strikes ensure it won't be making eye contact with anything; Luna sets it on fire for good measure.
"You know," he begins, trying not to inhale any of the nearby smells, "there's a time and a place for this kind of thing."
Luna rolls her eyes up into the shadow of her hat. "Don't you start. You wouldn't seize a moment if it started humping your leg."
"What the hell is that supposed to mean?"
"You heard me."
Xue has no wish to continue this conversation. In alert silence, they pick their way back to the site of Caz and Imri's mummy massacre. Everything in the cave seems to be dead at this point, with the possible exceptions of lurking birds.
"Look what we found," Imri says by way of greeting, waving at an incongruous door set in the rock. Doors in caverns have long since stopped bothering Xue, but this one is especially strange: a sheet of some smooth metal he doesn't recognize, and nothing in the design suggests it could be traced to dwarves. The surface splits inexplicably lengthwise when Caz reaches for it, then retracts just as inexplicably into the rock.
Stale air stirs in the space beyond. Xue's light falls on a brass statue roughly in the shape of a man, which suddenly jerks upright and scrapes across the ground toward them.
"Take this cube," it says in a scratchy, hollow monotone, apparently without the aid of a mouth, and extends an arm like a jointed pipe. Three smaller pipes at the end bend away from an artifact that Xue glimpses only briefly before Luna launches herself, squealing, at the creature. Unperturbed, it continues, "With it, you can transfer to the Floating Castle."
Luna already has her fingers hooked into its head. "It's made of metal and it's talking!"
Caz reaches around her to take the cube. "You've got as long as it takes us to loot the chests. You're not bringing that damn thing with us."
"You have no sense of wonder at all," Imri tells her on his way to the treasure. Caz offers no objection.
Sparks jump from the metal creature to Luna's fingers, drawing a hissed curse. "Please," it drones, over and over, regular as waves breaking on the shore. "Please. Please."
Xue finds a distraction in the nearest chest, which is made of the same strange substance as the door. When the metal retracts, a sword gleams green in the dark, the air around it blurred with magic. He has no trouble picking it up but can't imagine swinging it effectively at anything determined to kill him.
"Imri," he calls, "I've got something you might like." Immediately he thinks of four better ways to have phrased that.
Something tugs lightly at his hair. The impulse to take his hammer to whatever is responsible vanishes when he recognizes Imri's gloves in his peripheral vision. "What are you doing?"
"You have the best hair for it," Imri replies. He gathers and weaves and ties, and when he's finished, Xue manages to pull the section of his hair far enough around to glimpse iridescent fabric binding a braid. The enchantment is so thick he can smell it. "And it's obviously protective, and it makes the most sense to keep you protected, doesn't it?"
Xue's blood rushes unhelpfully away from his brain. "I got you a sword," he blurts, thrusting the hilt sideways.
"Ple-ease. Ple-e-e-ease." The robot stutters now; either Luna has found a way to break it, or it has found a way to express annoyance. "Ple-e-e-e-e-e—"
"Someday," Caz grumbles, loudly enough to carry over the waterfall and the robot and the clatter of the coins she's shoveling into her pouch, "I'm going to ditch your asses and never look back."
The world floats shining and blue in the darkness, adrift in a sea of stars. Through the tissue-thin swirls of clouds, four strands of light rise from the sites of the altars and knot together in a pulsing rainbow display. So beautiful, so distant; so much more beautiful for its distance. Xue kneels to touch the strange glass of the window with a wistful reverence.
"And I'd thought the view from the airship was breath-taking," Imri says, cape fluttering briefly against Xue's arm as he bends down. Xue's pulse flaps in his throat like a wild bird. Their hands rest on the glass together, inches apart, impossibly far from home.
"Right," Caz says over their shoulders, "'x' marks the spot. Let's go." Her patience seems even more frayed than usual lately, which Xue supposes has something to do with hers being the only Orb still dark. Her new dragons' scale armor clatters as she taps her foot.
While he and Imri get up, Caz heads around the corner of the viewing station, likely in search of Luna. "I think she's still with the metal man," Xue calls after her.
"Robot," says Imri, before coughing into his glove.
Xue tries not to blush, which the temperature of his face suggests isn't working. "Sorry, I don't know why I keep forgetting what they're called. Too many new words lately, I guess."
"No, I didn't mean to—I shouldn't have corrected you." Imri scratches the back of his neck, nudging his hat askew. "You're the one who can keep all those Lefeinish words in your head."
Xue scuffs his boot against the floor. "It's not that many words. It's mostly just the same sounds with different tones and—"
Caz's voice carries around the corner: "Get your goddamn hands out of its brain!"
Peering around the corner confirms that Luna is indeed harassing another robot. It looks about as put-upon as anything without a face can.
"I just want to know how it works," she says, which elicits a noise remarkably like a sigh from the robot. Her fancy new robe is already speckled with dust, oil, and unidentified machine parts.
Caz doesn't say anything, just gives her a long, cold look before grabbing her by the arm and yanking her away from her test subject. The robot stares after her for a moment before screwing one of its scattered pieces back into its head.
Luna's moody silence persists through four fights with roving abominations, all of which prove susceptible to Xue's new lightning-blasting hammer, and on into a series of endless corridors.
"This is some kind of maze," Imri points out at the fifth iteration of the same intersection.
"You think?" Caz casually lops the head off a passing naga, then sets her sights on a pack of furry green beasts gathering up ahead. "You wizards work it out."
Xue taps his fingers against the handle of his hammer. "Well, going in a straight line hasn't worked, and neither has circling around, and... I'd better stop that bleeding."
As he hurries over to apply white magic and potentially lightning to the situation, Imri yells after him, "We haven't tried zigzags yet!" Once the wounds are closed and the beasts are dead, this proves inexplicably effective.
It's the long, narrow bridge afterward where things go wrong again. It's nothing but panels of metal grating laid end to end across a vast star field, with room for two to walk abreast. Even that proves a tight fit; a clear barrier keeps the void out and presses in on either side. Looking down is dizzying. Everything that blocks the path, golems and nagas and living puddles of slime, has to be dispatched and shoved out of the way. The transparent ceiling is unsettlingly low, as well, as Xue discovers when his lightning bounces off of it.
The bridge finally broadens at the end, which would be much more of a relief if a massive mechanical monstrosity weren't standing there.
Luna eyes it and says, "Distract it for me."
"Like hell," is as far as Caz gets before a light in the front of the machine glows red and erupts like a volcano. The bridge cracks; Xue's leg cracks, too, in a white-hot shock. He falls face-first into the wreckage.
"Shit!" Somewhere in the dust, Imri is still alive. Xue reaches for the sound and feels Caz's armored hand grab his robe and drag him painfully forward. When he tries to speak, he only coughs.
"Shut the hell up," Caz whispers.
The air clears enough that he can see he's under the bridge, tucked between the metal grating and the curved floor of the barrier. Only a layer of dust and something apparently stronger than glass separate him from the void. Caz is on her belly, crawling forward as quietly as her armor allows. There's no sign of Imri.
The machine's legs are visible through the grating above. Its steps vibrate through Xue's teeth. Another explosion leaves his ears ringing.
Caz braces herself and kicks upward, popping a section of grating up into the ceiling. She pops out after it and leaps on the machine's back.
When Xue tries to follow, the particular agony of his failure indicates that at least one of his legs is broken. There's not enough space for him to even try healing the damage. He drags himself to the hole in the grating, fighting whimpers, as the machine stomps wild patterns above him. It's a wonder the bridge hasn't collapsed entirely under its weight.
He angles his hammer upward and shoots lightning in the machine's rapidly changing direction. It stomps away from him, back toward the section of the bridge that fell prey to the first explosion. Caz's shouting is encouraging; it means she isn't dead yet.
Through the grating, Xue watches flickers of red and black stumble toward him. A moment later Imri tumbles through the hole. His armor is warped around his right shoulder, half the skin of his face and neck is burnt, and what's left of his hair is charred, but he's alive. He curls up close to Xue, breathing hard and shallow. Blood seeps through the blackened leather on his right arm.
"Your legs," he begins, but cuts off with a low hiss as Xue pours white magic over his obvious injuries. It's not perfect, but it's enough to stabilize him.
When Xue tries to raise his hammer again, he can't find the strength or the leverage; every movement stabs into his leg. Imri can't quite reach the damage there, either, and his magic isn't strong enough to set a bone, but he tries. At least the pain dulls to a low throb.
Panting from the effort, Imri says, "We're going to die, aren't we?"
Xue strains for optimism. "Not necessarily."
The machine erupts again, taking out a distant section of the bridge. He can't hear Caz anymore.
"Fuck it," Imri mutters, before grabbing Xue's face and kissing him.
The angle is awkward and everything hurts and any second now they're going to be blown apart, and all Xue cares about is holding on, as tight as he can, to the parts of Imri that aren't too tender to touch. He kisses like a frantic idiot, gets the same in return, and doesn't care. Imri clings, groans, smears blood and dust over Xue's lips. If they're going to die, Xue can at least go out with his tongue in Imri's mouth.
The next explosion comes directly above him. The universe must be punishing him for something; he's just not sure what anymore. His pulse buzzes so fast that he feels like he's already half out of his body, anchored only where his skin touches Imri's, unraveling from time and thought and pain. He has no idea why he isn't on fire yet.
Footsteps rattle the bridge, but slower now, with exaggerated deliberateness; the machine sounds drunk. Imri pulls back, breathing heavily on Xue's cheek. When Xue turns his face and cracks open an eye, he watches the machine stagger up to the gap in the grating, clumsy as a calf, with Luna elbow-deep in its brain.
"That last one was me!" she says, much too brightly. "Sorry, still getting the hang of this. Is everyone all right?"
Imri bursts into laughter, fisting the collar of Xue's robe and oozing some combination of fluids onto Xue's shoulder. All the tension melts out of Xue, leaving him dizzy, shaking, and acutely aware that he needs to do something about his legs. "Sort of," he replies, which makes Imri laugh harder.
Caz limps to the edge of the gap, a raw mess in scorched armor. The residue of a uselessly basic healing spell drips from her gauntlet. "Keep that thing under control," she barks at Luna, then pauses to spit out a mouthful of blood. "We're gonna need a minute before we hit the Fiend."
"At first I thought you weren't interested," Imri says, resting the uninjured side of his face on Xue's chest. "Then I started wondering if you might just be dense."
"Hey, now." It's hard to sound properly indignant with Imri sprawled over him, especially when they're both still blissfully boneless. "I was being cautious."
Imri's hum vibrates through Xue's torso. "And also a little dense."
A chill is settling over the desert now that the sun is down. They could have made it to the airship by nightfall if not for the severity of their wounds; white magic goes only so far without time to magnify it. At this point, they're lucky they can all walk. "We should head back soon," Xue says, without conviction. "It's getting cold."
Imri shifts and squirms, mindful of Xue's bad leg, until they're both a little deeper in the sleeping bag. "Better?"
His leg aches, he's sore all over, and the sweat on his face makes him shiver, but Imri is warm and solid; if Xue could stretch this moment over a day, he would. The stars are where they should be, overhead and far away. Curling his fingers in what's left of Imri's hair, he breathes a contented sigh.
They're quiet for a few moments, until Xue says, "Promise me this won't end badly?"
"Only if you promise to stop worrying it will." Imri tilts his head until his chin pokes into Xue's chest and eye contact is achieved. "Are you ever going to tell me what makes you so nervous?"
There's not even much of a story, just bad assumptions, stifling awkwardness, and other people's cautionary tales. "Maybe when I know you better."
A languid smile spreads over Imri's lips. "I'll get right on that," he drawls, sliding his hand along Xue's hip. "Let me introduce you to—"
On the other side of the dune, Caz's sword clangs against one of the tent poles. "Get your asses in here or you're sleeping outside!"
Xue groans. "We need to buy a second tent."