shanaqui: Gippal from Final Fantasy X-2. Text: I walk from my machine deaf dumb and dirty. ((Gippal) Deaf and Dumb)
Nikki ([personal profile] shanaqui) wrote in [community profile] hardmode2011-07-22 09:44 pm

Iron Sky (Final Fantasy X-2 cyberpunk AU)

Title: Iron Sky.
Author: [personal profile] shanaqui/[personal profile] edenbound (ficjournal).
Beta: [personal profile] feywood.
Media Creator: N/a. The position is still open if anyone gets inspired!
Media Link: N/a.
Word Count: 11,885.
Fandom: Final Fantasy X-2.
Characters/Pairing(s): Gippal, Baralai, Nooj, Paine. Briefly, Kinoc and Nhadala. Rikku in the background.
Rating: PG13, due to swearing, mostly on Gippal's part.
Contains: Cyberpunk AU, Gippal's ego, Gippal's rambling.
Summary: Baralai, Nooj and Paine have all been brought up as Yevonites, with a natural distrust for the Al Bhed, but to fight Sin they're prepared -- along with all the other Crimson Squad applicants -- to become human weapons with the help of Al Bhed implants. Gippal will be their expert on all things Al Bhed, particularly the implants they're going to get and have to learn to use. What on earth could possibly go wrong with that plan?
Extras: The only thing I have to offer is a .rtf file of the fic, which you can convert for an ereader or manipulate as desired for ease of reading. That's available on sendspace, here.


Kinoc, Gippal has decided, is a windbag. He's a man (if barely old enough to claim that status) prone to making snap judgements but, as it happens, he's had ample time to consider, and then reconsider, this particular judgement -- and then drag it out again for a third hearing. It's been, according to the readout somewhere in the left hand corner of his vision, twenty minutes already. It feels like twice that. The Yevonites seem used to this kind of thing, but the Al Bhed in the ranks have been restless for a while now. The Al Bhed way is much more efficient: broadcast something, digest it at speed, store it for when it's needed, quite without burdening the normal (and limited) human capacity for short-term memory with it.

Gippal's gonna have to get used to this kind of thing, of course. The rest of his team, whoever they are, won't be up to the Al Bhed way of doing things for years, if ever. That's what they need him for.

He's got his implants recording all this anyway, just in case, though he'll probably dump it from memory sooner rather than later. He's pretty sure it is just wind. He can ignore it, anyway, and take a look around, stretching his legs out in front of him to try and resist the urge to fidget. He's trying to figure out who they might pair him up with, or who he'd pair up with if they give him any kind of choice. There aren't enough Al Bhed, as far as he can see. They'll be stretched thin: one to a team. He doesn't mind that. He's good, good enough for two teams, if necessary.

(And not at all overconfident. He can almost hear Rikku scolding him about that, but it isn't true. He just knows his own abilities, okay?)

As he looks across the room, one of the Yevonites actually meets his eye. Which is pretty surprising, all in all: even some Al Bhed don't meet his eye, and most Yevonites have no urge to come into any kind of close contact with an Al Bhed. But these guys have gotta be different, he thinks. They're all gonna fight Sin together, they're all gonna be on the same team. The guy's probably been steeling himself for it all week, if not longer. Gippal flashes a grin at him and is surprised again by the small smile the guy offers in return. He's pretty striking: white hair, darkish skin, good cheekbones. Rikku'd probably kill for his facial structure.

The guy's eyes linger on his face, though, and Gippal looks away. He touches the cold metal on his own face, fingertips digging in a little where the metal meets skin. It's not like he isn't used to it. It's a part of him now. But people always have to stare, and he knows even some Al Bhed whisper that he's more machine than man. Kinda hurts a guy's feelings, after a while. He's more subtle about checking over the rest of the room. His implant buzzes away helpfully, trying to fit names to faces. It even successfully labels one of them, though Gippal doesn't recognise the name: Nooj. He's another one that looks more machine than man, but Gippal doesn't think he's an Al Bhed. Interesting story there, probably.

It's been thirty minutes, or so his implant tells him, obscenely cheerful. Gippal can't help but fidget now. The woman beside him gives him a pointed look, but he just grins back at her.

A hand touches his shoulder. Gippal spins faster than whoever it was expected, even though his reaction time isn't in combat mode, and the guy steps back quickly. It's the white-haired guy, who offers that same small polite smile. "I apologise for startling you."

"I think you were more startled than me," Gippal says, easily, getting up. The woman next to him is probably glad for it, he thinks, so he holds out a hand to the Yevonite. "My name's Gippal."

"Baralai," the man says, taking his hand and giving it a quick firm shake. Gippal's pretty impressed by his poise, especially if this is the first time he's really dealing with Al Bhed up close and personal. "I wanted to apologise if you thought I was staring."

"I'm used to it," Gippal says, but he can't help but smile, because the guy actually gives a shit. Who knew?

"That doesn't make it acceptable."

"Apology accepted, anyway." Gippal hesitates, and then plunges right on, blundering right into another of his snap decisions. "You wanna step outside for a minute and talk? This guy's a windbag." He almost swallows the last syllable when he thinks about maesters and Yevonites and all that respect they have for them. But Baralai doesn't seem to mind: that smile is still playing around his mouth, and his eyes are warm.

"I'd hoped you would offer," Baralai says. "I was getting bored."

Gippal leads the way out with more relief than is probably polite, but hey, Kinoc isn't his Grand High Windbag. Baralai follows him, and the door sweeps open and closes behind them almost soundlessly. Baralai seems to relax, glancing over at Gippal again.

"You were bored, too?"

"The Al Bhed don't tend to go in for long involved speeches. We just…" He shrugs, tapping the metal plating above his eye.

"We are... not so comfortable with the technology. In general, I mean."

"You must be okay with it. Since you're gonna get implanted with it, tomorrow, I mean."

Baralai shrugs a little. "I believe our aversion to your technology is unfounded. Sin still ravages us, no matter what we do or don't do. Why should we deny ourselves defences?"

"The Al Bhed defences don't help much," Gippal says, honestly. He gestures to his face again. "Why do you think half my head is made of metal?"

"Then what are we doing here?"

"There has to be something, right?"

Baralai doesn't respond for a moment, and when he does, the smile is gone. "Perhaps that's the point. To show us that there isn't anything we can do except trust in the temples."

"The old windbag will look bad if we fail, won't he?"

"That might also be the point."

Gippal shakes his head a little. "Politics."

Baralai does smile, then, a real smile, and Gippal thinks of the old texts, how that might describe that expression: like the sun coming out from the cloud. Gippal's never seen the sun, what with the protective roof over most of the planet, but he thinks this might be what they mean. He kind of hopes Baralai will be on his team -- a guy with a smile like that has got to know how to laugh. "Do the Al Bhed not have politics, either?"

"Nah," Gippal says. "We don't have a long enough attention span. Who're you again?"

---


Gippal's got a good feeling about this. Rikku would say he always has a good feeling, about everything, so this is no surprise, and he has to admit, she's probably right. But normally he's right, too: normally things do come out in the best possible way. Somehow Gippal knew, when he saw Baralai, that they'd end up on the same team, but it's still an awesome feeling when the door slides open and Baralai's the first one he sees. There's a woman there too, short-haired, kinda fierce looking, and the one his implants identified as Nooj, however they did that. He stands in the doorway for a minute, grinning at them, but he isn't really surprised when only Baralai softens. "Hey," he says.

"Hey," Baralai says back. "Somehow I knew we'd end up on the same team."

"That makes two of us." Gippal registers the wary looks of the other two, and nods to them, keeping that smile on his face. "I'm Gippal. An Al Bhed. I had my first implants before I was old enough to remember, and I've had them modified as often as I could for as long as I can remember, so you're safe with me."

"Paine," the woman says, and it takes him a minute to figure out that's her name.

"Paine," he says, glad his implants will remember all these names he's learning for him. "And you're Nooj."

"How do you know that?" Paine asks, instantly, her eyes narrowing.

"I'm not sure, actually." Gippal scratches the back of his head. "My implants recognised him. I'm guessing he's already full of our technology."

"No brain implants," Nooj says, almost reluctantly. "Prosthetic limbs."

"I know how that goes," Gippal says, tapping where his eye used to be. One of his arms is more or less artificial, too, but you can't tell when he's fully dressed, so he doesn't bother mentioning it. If they care enough, they can look it up later. They'll have access to the database, once they have implants of their own.

Baralai smiles at the other two. "I'm Baralai. Gippal and I already met."

Gippal's not surprised they don't respond so warmly. Geez. This is gonna be fun.

"So, which of you is the recorder we're supposed to have?"

"I am," Paine says. "I can't record anything until after the operation, of course."

"Shame," Gippal says. He tries the grin again. "This'd make a great home video." Not even a smile from Baralai on that one. Gippal sighs and shakes his head, dragging out a chair and straddling it, sitting down with the back against his chest. "Here's the deal. As soon as you say you're ready, we can do the operations. You won't be fighting fit for a good few days after that, though. A good few weeks, even. I'll be helping you get used to the new technology. I've grown up with it, so it's a part of me, just like my hands and feet. But I had the eye implant, and I'm old enough to remember that, so I remember what it's like. It's not gonna be easy, but I'll help you. We'll train together, and you'll learn to fight all over again."

"And then?" Nooj asks. He's smiling, though Gippal sure as hell can't see what's funny.

He shrugs. "And then... we're an elite fighting force. Ready to take on Sin."

"Really," Nooj says. Just that. It hangs in the air. Baralai shifts a little, somewhere off to the side.

"You don't believe we can fight Sin?"

"I believe we can fight Sin. I just don't believe we can live."

"He's a deathseeker," Paine says.

Gippal fights the urge to slam his forehead down on the desk. A deathseeker. In his group. This is gonna be a barrel of laughs -- it just keeps on getting better and better. He gets up again, instead, stretches his legs out, moves chairs, sits down again. Tries not to fidget. Takes deep breaths. All of that. "Why should we put expensive kit in your head if you're gonna go and get killed on us?"

"That's not your decision."

"Just don't jeopardise the rest of this team, you hear me?"

"Or what?"

"You'll see," Gippal says, grimly. Before they stick the hardware in Nooj's head, he's gotta get hold of it and make some modifications. He's a genius, of course, so the actual modification won't be hard. But getting hold of the gear...

"Gippal," Baralai says softly, and he looks up, startled.

"Yeah?"

"I'm ready, whenever the operation can be done. I'd... like to go first."

"I'll deal with it."

"I will go next," Paine says, before Nooj can even open his mouth. Which is just how Gippal wanted it, really. Plenty of time to get his hands on Nooj's hardware and do the necessary modifications.

"I'll go and see them now," he says, getting to his feet. Paine is unreadable, determined, her face seeming sharper and harder than he'd thought even at first, when she was sharp and hard enough. Baralai looks... determined, which doesn't surprise Gippal. Baralai's the type to see something through, right to the end.

Nooj looks... eager, which is just, well, disturbing. Gippal shakes his head, walks out as fast as he can.

He's good at people, but geez. Sometimes people are just crazy.

---


Gippal is freaking exhausted. He'd like to claim boundless energy and so on, but one can't be perfect, and he's pretty sure Rikku has got him beat when it comes to running around all day without stopping. He's never seen her tired in the middle of the day like this, even when she has stayed up all night working on something with him (and even when her father caught them and tanned Gippal's hide for leading her astray -- Gippal gulps just at the memory). He'd say he's getting old, but at sixteen that wouldn't bode well, at all, and he's always prided himself on his youthful outlook.

He can't sleep, anyway: Baralai's operation was just getting done, and he has to return the implants ready for Nooj's operation before the one on Paine began -- they'd notice, if they weren't there then. He's not so sure they won't have noticed already, but that's unavoidable. No risk, no gain.

Baralai's going to hate the world when he wakes up, Gippal thinks. He can't remember his first implantation -- he doesn't know anyone who can -- but he remembers all his more serious upgrades and how unbalanced he felt afterwards with his new senses, with his brain somehow bigger. It feels kinda like a hangover at first, Gippal reckons, without having had the fun of getting drunk. Not that he's ever had the fun of being drunk, and not that it looks like fun to him, but... it's just an expression. Sort of.

Gippal's stalling. Which is stupid: he's more likely to get caught if he's stalling, not less. He takes a couple of deep breaths and heads on in. Baralai's on the table, but they're already done sewing him back up. You can hardly see the marks from where Gippal's standing.

"Went okay, then?" he asks, in as close to his normal tone as he can. One of the surgeons looks up.

"Gippal," he says, in surprise. "How're your implants?"

"I'm keeping an eye on them," Gippal says, which is kinda lame -- he could do better, if he tried, but whatever, the guy laughs anyway.

"Yeah, I bet. Well, we're finished up with this guy."

"Baralai."

"Huh?"

"That's his name." A shrug. "He's on my team. You're doing my recorder next. Paine."

The surgeon's messing around with something, god knows what, and Gippal takes advantage of his distraction to wander over to where the implants are waiting. They look weird, pre-implantation, all delicate wires, like a net. He casually opens the drawers, making out like he's just looking.

"What're you putting in them? This doesn't look like standard kit." He holds Nooj's implants up as he speaks, making out he just grabbed them out of the drawer, and fuck, his heart's pounding away like a drum. He brings it back under control quickly, getting his implants to adjust it for him, and tries to ignore the sweat breaking out on his brow.

"It isn't."

"Isn't it a bit of a risk, putting the really good stuff into virgin brains? Adult virgin brains?"

"Yeah, apparently, but it's a risk we're going to take. This one -- Baralai, did you say? -- Baralai should be fine."

"Take care of my team," Gippal says, grinning at him, carefully putting the implants into the drawer. "You've got Paine and then Nooj. He's already got some work done."

"Yeah?"

"Prosthetic limbs and stuff like that, not work on the brain."

"Ah," the surgeon says, losing interest again. "You want to take Baralai now?"

"Let him sleep," Gippal says. He grins a little. "He's gonna hate me if I'm the one to wake him up."

"That's true," the surgeon says. "You need any upgrades?"

"I'll let you know. I'd better be on my way now, though."

"Yeah? Okay. I'll let you know how Paine and Nooj get on."

"Thanks," Gippal says, and he's out of there, and phew. None too soon. It's cooler out in the passageway. It's not like he didn't do it for the good of his team, but it's not nice to think that he's already sneaking around and breaking their trust. Call him idealistic, but he didn't mean to do it like this.

Still, he thinks, with a bit of a grin -- he's almost looking forward to their awakenings, to watching them try to deal with the new information and inputs, everything they've just been given. It's gonna be kind of funny. It always is, as long as it isn't you that's getting the new hardware.

---


"Oh, Yevon," Baralai says, in a heartfelt groan. Gippal grins, getting to his feet and hitting the lights. It doesn't take long for his implants to adjust to the dark, since they're all in working order, and he can imagine how much of a relief it is to Baralai.

"Good morning," he says, in an entirely too cheerful voice (from Baralai's perspective, anyway). "How're you feeling?"

"What did you do to me?"

"Well, it wasn't me, but assuming you mean the world in general, you had your operation. Unfortunately, your implants still need time to adjust and start working properly with your brain. They change all your perceptions, so you're gonna be pretty blind and deaf for a while, or the exact opposite. And really, really ticklish, or not able to feel at all."

Baralai looks up at him like he's some kind of evil overlord, which is an idea Gippal kind of likes. "How long?"

"A couple of hours," he says, lowering his voice a bit more. Baralai looks incredibly relieved at that -- whether the short time frame, or the lowered voice, he couldn't say. "It'll be days, weeks, before you're properly acclimatised to it, but it shouldn't be too much of a problem once you've got past the first stage."

"Anything I can do to speed it up?"

"Do as I tell you?"

"Good thing I'm not bad at taking orders, then," Baralai says, with a wry smile. He reaches up to feel his own face. "I can't really feel the scars."

"We've got good surgeons. That part shouldn't give you any trouble."

"Was it like this for you?"

"Definitely," Gippal says, making a bit of a face.

"So what do I have to do?"

Gippal sits down, stretching his legs out. "Wait for things to settle down a bit first. Then I'm going to turn up the light a bit and put some music on in the background. It'll hurt at first, but you'll get there."

"Are you sure you're not just trying to see how I deal with torture?"

"That's a part of it, of course," Gippal says, with another grin. "I see you've tumbled to my nefarious plans."

Baralai laughs a little and then stops with another wince. "Oh, god."
"It gets better soon, I swear."

"Soon is relative."

Gippal holds back a laugh, just for the sake of Baralai's headache, which shows just how awesome he is. Honestly, he's seen kids handle this better, but it is Baralai's first time. Gippal rather thinks he's to be admired for his restraint and sympathy, though.

---


"What have you done to me?"

Gippal blinks. He's seen a fair few odd reactions to waking up right after implantation, but this is a first on him. Paine is holding a knife and while she isn't touching it to his throat yet, he's not at all sure it's going to stay that way. Her face is pained (haha) but determined. "Exactly what you signed up for," he says, carefully. He realises that he's not entirely sure he wants to know where she kept that knife, because she'd have been searched for weapons as a matter of course. Weapons are only for when they're training, to prevent any fights -- or, he supposes, incidents like this - when the inevitable tensions spring up between Al Bhed and Yevonite.

He wishes fervently that the searchers had done their jobs better on her or a bit worse on him. Just in case. He'd thought it was ridiculous, before, but now he totally gets it. Even he can be wrong sometimes.

"I -- "

"You'll be disorientated, of course," he says, in the most soothing tone he can manage. "Everyone is. And you'll be in pain while your implants adjust, but I assure you there's nothing wrong." Fuck, he sounds like a doctor. "Seriously, this is how it works. The fact that you can pull a knife from me just a couple of hours post op is a really good sign."

Paine looks at the knife in her hand and then slowly puts it away. He wonders if he catches the faintest sign of a grin on her face when she looks up again. "Not a good sign for the team."

"Probably not," he says, and offers her a grin. "Could be worse, though."

"Could it?"

"Yeah. You could've killed me."

"I thought your implants would allow you the reaction time to evade me?"

"They would, if I was prepared for combat, but I expected you to lie there pathetically for a good few hours yet. Baralai is still in recovery. But you're no fragile flower, clearly."

"I feel fragile," she says, after a moment's hesitation. He nods and dims the lights.

"It'll get better soon. You might be better lying down and just waiting to adjust, since there's no reason to rush."

"Alright," she says, slowly lying down again. She's good, he thinks. It isn't good that she pulled a knife on him -- obviously they're going to have some issues with trust -- but she's good, she's adapting quickly and he can guess there's more power and speed in that lithe body than he'd thought. She glances up at him and narrows his eyes. "You can stop staring."

"Sorry," he says, a little flustered, which is odd, because he's not normally so easily unbalanced. "Uh -- so you know, Nooj is in surgery right now. I'm gonna go check on Baralai and try getting him to walk about. I could bring him in here, if you like. We should start getting to know each other if we're going to be a team, after all."

"Not now," she says, with a wince. Gippal does sympathise. He didn't want to see anyone for days after his first major implantation.

"Okay. You stay put, then."

"For now," she agrees. She closes her eyes. "Then I might decide I still want to kick your ass."

"Perhaps you could try," he says, grinning, and then heads out.

---


This is beginning to feel familiar.

Nooj glares up at him. "What did you do to me?"

For a guilty minute Gippal thinks about the modifications to Nooj's implants, but that doesn't have any bearing on what Nooj is feeling now. Gippal's not a clumsy idiot who hacks around with things he doesn't understand (and there's not, in any case, much about their implants that he doesn't understand). No: this is just standard recovery.

At least it isn't so baffling where Nooj got his knife from. He probably hid it in the casing of his prosthetic limbs.

"The surgeon did exactly as promised," Gippal says, as cheerfully as he can. "I played my part as promised, too -- kept well away from the operations to let the professionals work."

"Hm."

There's something disconcerting about a man who just says "hm" while looking at you like he knows exactly how to dismantle you and exactly how many pieces he's going to have left at the end. Gippal adjusts the lighting, as he did for the other two, and takes a deep breath. "I don't know how much you had to deal with the first time you had prostheses fitted by our surgeons -- I don't know exactly how they're made or how they work -- but you might be familiar with this stage. Just sit tight and let yourself get used to it."

"I prefer to learn by doing."

Gippal shrugs. "Whatever you want. The other two came out of their operations fine. Baralai is up and about already, and I wouldn't be surprised if Paine were too. You might want to seek them out."

Nooj doesn't reply, so Gippal takes the hint and sees himself out.

---


"The readout should ask you if you want to accept a connection," Gippal says, as patiently as he can. This is the third or fourth time by now, and he's getting a little bored of it. "All you have to do is accept it. All you need to do is think that you want to accept it, and it'll be done. If that doesn't work, there are a couple of other things I can try, but this is the easiest and this is the way we'll do it in future."

"What will that do?"

"I'm trying to build a network between the four of us that will allow us to keep in contact even when we're out of earshot."

Baralai's tone is diffident, but there's something about his eyes that tells Gippal this matters. "It won't allow you to... hear our thoughts, or anything like that?"

"We'll be communicating by sending our thoughts to each other, but you can control what you do and don't send."

"What if we make a mistake?"

"You won't make a mistake. Your implants know which thoughts are private as well as I do. Say Paine finds herself idly thinking that I'm a handsome devil," he stops to grin at her, "and I couldn't blame her if she did -- "

"I'd blame myself," Paine says, dry as dust, but kinda smiling.

" -- then the thought would stay in the privacy of her own mind, even if she was paying no attention at all to what she was doing. If she wanted to tell me I'm a handsome devil, she'd have to consciously do that."

Baralai is kind of smiling, but Nooj is completely unamused. "How much control does this allow you over us?"

"None," Gippal says, with a (thankfully totally private) guilty thought about the modifications to Nooj's implants. "Just my voice in your heads. Come on, how about one of you goes first, to show the others it's okay?"

There's a pause, and then Nooj nods. "I will."

That's a relief. Gippal always kinda expected more trouble than this, really, with getting Yevonites to accept the new technology implanted in their heads. It's one thing to agree to it in theory and then quite another to live with what you've done, to use the forbidden technology, even in a cause as worthy as this. And it is a worthy cause, Gippal thinks, thinking of the Summoners who empty themselves out in sacrifice, becoming shells of themselves, killing what they hold most dear and then giving up their own lives to fight Sin. It isn't right that they and only they should bear the cost of fighting Sin.

"Okay," Gippal says, taking a deep breath to dispel the pointless thoughts. Time enough to worry about that when they're ready to go up against Sin. "I'm initiating the connection now."

There's a long pause, and then a blinking light in the lower right of his vision tells him that Nooj has accepted the connection. 'Hey, Noojster,' Gippal thinks at him, and watches him startle.

"Did it work?" Baralai asks.

"Yes," Nooj says, and that's all. He gives Gippal another of those shrewd looks that always make him nervous, but he's already too busy trying to link in Paine and Baralai to think too much about it. They both get into the network with no trouble, which is great, and he spares a thought for whoever who designed this equipment. Even he's had trouble before, with new implants, even with the stuff he designed himself. Whoever he or she is deserves a pat on the back.

"Okay. Now we need to start training."

"This isn't training?" Paine asks.

"This is the basics. Okay, Paine, you should start recording. Do you know how?"

"Yes," she says, and there's a brief pause before she nods. "Recording now."

"What is the purpose of all this recording?" Nooj asks.

Gippal shrugs slightly. "Red tape, probably. Or assessing the success of the endeavour. Whichever explanation you prefer. Okay, I'm going to transmit you some configurations, I need you to get your implants to change accordingly. It's the same thing as before. Just think you're going to accept them, and it'll happen."

"We're supposed to trust your decisions?" Nooj asks. Gippal really doesn't care for his tone. He folds his arms across his chest and raises an eyebrow.

"Yes. I'm the expert here, and, though I say so myself, pretty good at this stuff."

He's kinda expecting a fight, and he's relieved when Nooj just nods.

"Okay, transmitting now," he says, and does so.

---


"I don't like it," Baralai says. His eyes have narrowed. "No."

"It's just a training exercise," Gippal says, but without much hope. So far he's found Baralai to be the more reasonable of the three. Paine can be mulish, and Nooj aloof, but Baralai's pretty easy to talk to and Gippal really doesn't want to fight over this with him. But right now, Baralai looks determined -- determined not to go along with this. "It's nothing harmful, and I'm not really going to get inside your minds. It just gives you an experience of fighting through your implants, a scenario all of us will share, without any actual danger. Which is important before we go into the desert to train for real, believe you me."

"No," Baralai says again, flatly. Paine and Nooj don't nod or anything, but Gippal senses their agreement.

"Then it's stalemate, because I'm not taking you into the desert without any preparation." He crosses his arms over his chest. "Mission failed, you'd better see the surgeon about having your implants ripped out. If you survive that, you can go home."

"You'd do that to us?" Paine asks, incredulity seeping into her normally relatively controlled voice.

"I wouldn't."

"The Al Bhed?" Nooj asks, but he doesn't sound like he believes that. Gippal figured him for the kind of guy who'd read his contract fully before committing, so to speak.

"No," he says, "the Crusaders. This is their operation more than ours."

Baralai frowns. "Surely they wouldn't -- "

"They would," Nooj says, with enough conviction in his voice that anyone would believe him, no matter how sceptical. Man, he'd make a great leader -- if not for that deathwish of his.

"It's what you want, isn't it? Death? You could do it," Gippal says. Nooj doesn't dignify that with an answer. Gippal feels awkward, just standing there, with Paine and Baralai giving him looks that are unbelieving and calculating, respectively. He hadn't figured Baralai for calculating, but the look is unmistakeable, and it's not like he's surprised that Baralai is intelligent. He takes a deep breath. "We can figure something out, I guess. I'll show you how the simulation is put together, if I can. Then you can decide for yourselves if you want to do it."

The three of them look at him, all of them unreadable, and then Gippal notices that Nooj is kind of smiling, and then Baralai is too, and finally Paine.

"Being the leader doesn't really suit you, does it?" Nooj asks, and Gippal shrugs.

"Never liked being responsible for other people's fuck-ups."

"Democracy it is, then," Baralai says, in the soft tone of his that has laughter in it.

---


"Baralai!"

"I've got it."

'Do that over the network, guys,' Gippal sends, warningly. 'Not aloud. You'll attract attention, in the desert.'

'Not a good simulation if it doesn't account for everything,' Nooj comments.

'It's for beginners,' Gippal says. He doesn't point out that children run through this simulation without making the same rookie mistakes, because those are Al Bhed children and they're raised for this -- both for the desert and for the implants.

'Sorry,' Baralai says, over the network this time, and Gippal sends him a brief wordless message of approval. He's quick to pick it up, actually -- that was the first time Baralai has slipped -- so he doesn't want to discourage him. He's doing almost everything right.

'This is difficult to get used to,' Paine sends, and Gippal nods.

'We're going to spread out more now, so that the only way we can contact each other is over the network. Baralai, to the left. Nooj, take the centre. Paine...'

'What are you going to do?' Nooj is already moving off in the right direction, though, so it isn't exactly a challenge.

'I'm just going to watch you and see how you do.'

'Lazy,' Baralai sends, and Gippal's surprised by how much affection that carries already. He's grinning, he realises, which while it isn't exactly rare for him -- he's a good natured sort of guy, no matter what -- is down to Baralai this time, and to the other two. They're a stupidly impossible group -- Nooj, the deathseeker, Baralai the quick and lithe little schemer, Paine the strong and silent one, and himself, the supposed expert who has no idea what he's doing with a group like this -- but he has a feeling they're going to figure this out, they're going to do it right, they're going to be a part of the Crimson Squad, a big part.

They're going to fight Sin, and actually do some good.

'He's daydreaming again,' Paine says, with more amusement and warmth than he'd expected from her at this stage, too. He can't help but grin more at that.

'Hey, I'm pulling my weight.'

'It'll be a lot of weight if you keep us running about and don't get any exercise yourself,' Baralai teases.

'We'll see how long you keep yapping when we're really in the desert,' Gippal says. He ignores the pang of homesickness that comes with that. It's not like he even really likes the desert -- who would? -- but it's his home, he's always been there, and his parents were lost to its sands long ago. He's sixteen years old and he's never been so far from his own people. There are other Al Bhed here but that isn't the same. He knows the other Al Bhed, the Al Bhed who've remained in Home, think this is an idiotic venture. They won't excommunicate him or whatever it is the Yevonites are in the process of doing to their own people, but they will be thinking he's a prize idiot, and they won't exactly be surprised if he comes to a bad end. They're probably not thinking of him right now, except maybe Rikku.

They're all so far away, not only in distance but in mind, and Gippal... Gippal wants to be back there, in the real heat of the desert that no simulation can match, walking through the real dunes that a lifetime has taught him to navigate. Unearthing ancient machinery from the hot weight of sand, holding history in his hands. They say that in places, over the desert, the protective roof is thin, even worn away, and that's why it's so hot there.

This simulation is nothing, just makes him long for more. In the simulation you know you won't ever find the fabled gaps.

'Gippal,' Baralai sends, and he looks up again.

'Right. Sorry. Back to work. Okay. I'm going to introduce some monsters into the simulation. For now, we're not going to be able to fight them. I just want you to report on them to the rest of the team, as soon as you see them, and then evade them yourselves. If anyone gets caught, we're back to square one.'

'This could be frustrating,' Paine says.

'Then let's get it right first time,' Nooj replies. There isn't much camaraderie in his voice -- yet -- but Gippal thinks they're getting there. He really really thinks they are.

'Right. Introducing the new element... now. Sit tight for the count of ten, and then get moving. Remember to report promptly and completely.'

He keeps tabs on the three of them as they start to move. The environment is pretty limited, the same old dunes repeated on a loop, but he doesn't expect them to know that. They're moving pretty well, and he can hear the chatter on the network, the back and forth of information.

They're going to do well. Gippal's sure of it.

---


Gippal feels a little -- just a little -- seasick. It's not as though the water is rough at all, but he's not a fish and he doesn't see what he should have to do with water, even travelling on it rather than through it. Baralai keeps eyeing him with sympathy, but Paine seems to be finding something awfully funny.

Still, they're going... well, not home, not even for him, but nearer to it. They're going to the desert, for training, and Gippal can't wait. There won't be much time for messing around in the sand, but it doesn't matter. Everything back in the training centre that'd been built for the purpose was a bit too cold, a bit too damp, and it made everything so much more difficult.

"Homesick?" Baralai asks, coming to sit beside him.

"Reading my mind?"

"Reading your face. You make your moods very apparent." Baralai gives him a smile. "So I'm right?"

"Yeah. We'll be nearer my home than yours, though. We're going back to the desert."

Paine moves over toward them. One of her eyes is dilated, and not the other: Gippal reckons that means she's recording, since he doesn't see any reason for it. Not that he minds. She sits down beside them, hugging her knee to her chest. "I never understood why the Al Bhed stick to such a hostile environment."

"Don't be naive," Nooj says, not exactly gently, but betraying that he's listening and cares. Gippal has to hide a grin. "The environment of the cities isn't any more wholesome for them. Less. To be looked on with hatred and disgust..." A shrug. Gippal glances at Nooj's leg, and thinks he knows what the matter is.

"In Bevelle, they would run the Al Bhed out of the city at a moment's notice, for very little provocation," Baralai volunteers.

"How do you think I lost my eye? Got run out of Kilika and straight into the welcoming arms of Sin."

"I'm sorry," Paine murmurs, but Gippal shrugs.

"Long time ago."

"What can we expect, in the desert?" Baralai asks, after an uncomfortable pause that could have been a lot more uncomfortable. Gippal can almost sense the network building between them -- not the artificial one, but the one of human bonds, sympathy, friendship, whatever you want to call it. He knows that other group experts -- usually group leaders, too, but he's still not into that and he's not planning on getting all dictatorial -- have been discouraging friendships even within the group. If one should happen to fall, there's no reason why the rest should get caught up in it, they reason. Gippal thinks his group will work all the easier if they know and like each other, though. They'll have each other's backs, so they won't lose anyone in the first place.

"You've been training for it, haven't you? Weren't you paying attention?"

"I have, but I guess that a simulation is never going to be as good as reality," Baralai says, shrugging.

"Everything will be ten times harder than you expect, for the first week or two. Then you'll get used to it. We'll be fending for ourselves a lot of the time, so it's a good thing for you that you've got me."

"You and your ego will be excellent company," Nooj says, gravely, but there's a teasing look in his eyes.

"Me and my ego have spent a lot of alone time in the desert," Gippal says, and grins. "Well, I've got one warning for you."

Paine raises an eyebrow.

"It's going to be hot," he says, "much hotter than you expect."

Baralai laughs a little. "We could have guessed that, from the word 'desert'."

"But you've never experienced it first hand." Gippal shrugs. "It's a hard, dry heat. Your implants will conserve water for you, but they can't work miracles. You'll feel thirsty all the time, and the sand will get everywhere, even places it has no right to be."

Nooj appears to follow Gippal's train of thought and winces. "Ah."

"You'll be far too hot in all that leather," Gippal says, to Paine. "Skimpy as it is in places."

"I'll be fine," she says, unperturbed.

"And we'll all have to be careful about getting burned. Baralai will be the best off, I think. And his robes aren't too bad. Too many layers, maybe."

"What about your outfit?" Nooj asks, eyeing it. To them, he realises, it must seem pretty outlandish.

"It's good for desert work," he says, with a shrug.

"Are you looking forward to being back home?" Paine asks, after another moment.

"Yeah," Gippal says, standing up and looking out over the side of the boat. He can't see land yet, but he can feel it. Soon. Soon he'll be back.

---


It's all been going pretty well so far, since they got here. That's why it can't continue, Gippal's sure. Nothing can keep going right for all that long, and here's the proof of it. Baralai's at his back, which is good. Paine is off on her own, though, and Nooj isn't reporting at all. Gippal can still feel him there, so he hasn't been eaten by something, but --

'Don't do anything stupid,' Baralai sends, mostly to Nooj, and Gippal feels a little relieved that someone else's brain is working on the same lines as his -- he's not being an idiot, then.

'Guys, Nooj is -- '

'I'm fine,' Nooj sends, cutting Paine off.

'Where are you? Baralai and I could use some help,' Gippal sends in return. There's a pause.

'I'm a little tied up.'

'Paine, can you see him?'

'No,' she sends, and then a moment later, 'yes, but -- '

'I'm fine,' Nooj sends, insistently. Gippal lunges forward at that moment, all implant-regulated to deliver a perfect strike in the one weak spot of a desert creature he's never seen before. He can spare a second to consider that, at his heightened reaction speed, to think about how amazing it is that his implants can consider all this information, do all this calculation, release the right levels of adrenaline and whatever else to have him reacting like this, smooth and perfect, with barely any thought. He's had years with his implants to get used to it, but it's still amazing. Baralai, at his back, lunges a moment later, using Gippal's attack as a distraction. They work perfectly together, the two of them, perfectly in step.

Nooj is the only bad note in the team, really, because Paine falls in well enough in situations like this. But Nooj is reckless, Nooj is --

'Need you here,' Paine says, tersely. 'Joining Nooj. He's surrounded.'

'No!' Nooj sends. 'I'm fine.'

'Are you trying to get yourself killed?' Gippal asks, and then hisses in annoyance -- aloud, of course, not over the link -- because of course he is. 'Look, this isn't the time to go charging in and getting yourself killed. We need you. You can have a glorious death when we're fighting Sin, if you like, but not now!'

He and Baralai are already moving, of course. He spares a moment to knife the last creature almost in passing, and if he thought he was moving fast a moment ago, it's nothing to now. He tops the rise of the dune a second before Baralai and sees Nooj down there and --

'Paine, run! Just get away!'

'We've got to help Nooj!'

'What are you doing, Gippal?' Baralai asks, at exactly the same moment as Paine's protest, but he has no time for this, no time at all. He doesn't move, grabs Baralai's arm in an iron grip to stop him racing down there.

'We don't have the manpower for this. We simply don't. It can't be done. Nooj, you have to retreat. They're powerful but slow. We can outrun them.'

'I've got this,' he says, not even sounding stubborn, just calm. 'You go.'

'Gippal, we've got to -- '

'No time, Lai,' he sends, and throws up a temporary blockage, throwing Paine and Baralai off the network for a moment. He doesn't care what they think. 'Look, Nooj. I can make you run, but you wouldn't like that and I don't wanna do it either. But I'm not going to let you get yourself killed. Either you run, or I take control of your implants and make you run.'

'You can't do that.'

'I can. I'd save your ass. You've got five seconds to decide, Nooj. Run on your own steam and don't be an idiot. You'll hate me if I do this.'

'You have no right.'

'I'm serious, Nooj. Run now, or I'll make you run.'

'Gippal, the network -- ' Paine's voice breaks through, and a moment later Baralai's, and he has no more time.

'Must've been a glitch. I'll have to change the settings. Come on, we've gotta get outta here. Nooj is coming.'

He turns, and starts to run, and as he does so he's relieved to feel Nooj's acquiescence, to sense his movement as he comes toward them, slower than them even with his implants because of the prosthetic limbs, and behind them by a good way, but gaining on them when they finally slow down. Gippal's heart is hammering.

"You're an interfering busybody," Nooj says, aloud.

"It was the safest thing to do," Baralai says. "Nooj -- "

"I didn't say I was ungrateful." Nooj shakes his head and starts to walk again. "We need to get to some kind of water source within the next few hours."

"Yeah," Gippal says, grateful for that concern, for that goal they can concentrate on now. "Come on. South-east, I think."

---


"Do you think we're going to be able to do it?"

Gippal looks up. Baralai is staring into the centre of their fire, his expression thoughtful. Paine and Nooj have looked up too, at the question -- they've been quiet most of the evening, the day's training taking way too much out of them for small talk. But then, Gippal thinks, this isn't exactly small talk, is it? "I don't know," he says, slowly. "The Al Bhed have always used our technology to protect ourselves from Sin, and to try and fight it, but we've never had much success. If even our ancestors, with all their technology, couldn't do it... We've lost so much. There's no way we're better than them."

"So what's the point of doing this? Why are we here?"

"We've got to try, right?" Gippal shrugs. "And with all the training..."

"Maybe we're supposed to fail," Nooj says, quiet but clear. Baralai looks up, his eyes meeting Nooj's, and nods reluctantly.

"Yes... I can't help but think maybe the Maesters want to see us fail, want Spira to see us fail..."

"Wait," Gippal says. "Paine, are you recording?"

She blinks for a moment, surprised, and then shakes her head. "No, not right now."

"You don't think that they'd monitor us for...?"

Gippal shrugs. "They want recordings of us for a reason. They might want to know what we think of all this."

"And it wouldn't be good if we were known to have doubts," Baralai says, wonderingly. "If this is a plot to discredit Al Bhed technology..."

"People have been talking about the Al Bhed getting out of hand," Paine says. She hugs a knee to her chest, glancing at Gippal. "No offence intended."

"None taken. I'm used to it. I guess the Al Bhed are on better terms with Yevonites than we have been in quite a long time. We're not exactly welcome in the cities, but we're called to repair the technology Yevon still allows, and to trade between cities..."

"People do talk about Sin being angered by it," Baralai says. "They're quick to blame the presence of Al Bhed, when there's an attack."

Nooj nods. "People like to have scapegoats."

"If we're supposed to fail, why don't we just leave?" Paine asks. "We're doing no good here."

Gippal shakes his head. "That's one way to look at it, but it's a chance that needs to be taken anyway. If nobody ever takes it, we won't know. We've got to try. And I want to be there to see it, to know for sure that it wasn't some kind of sabotage."

Baralai frowns. "Surely the Maesters want to get rid of Sin?" But before anyone can reply, he shakes his head. "I suppose power is as attractive to them as it is to anyone else -- the fear of Spira's people makes us easy to control. If Sin was gone..."

"If we defeated Sin, permanently, they'd have to acknowledge all the wrong that's been done to the Al Bhed." Gippal grimaces. "Not that I believe that'd be a quick process. We've been good little scapegoats, for the most part. We stay out of Yevon's way... We'd probably continue to, even if everything changed tomorrow."

"I'll see this through," Baralai says, after another pause. "I want to see it for myself, too. And I wouldn't want to be seen as a deserter. I... know people, who are thinking of trying to become Summoners. Who would die. I have to know that we're not sending them to a futile death."

"I'm in," Paine says, softly. "We have to try."

Nooj stays silent for a moment, and then notices the others' eyes on him and laughs a little. "Even if it's futile, why would I back out? It would be an excellent death."

"We are not going to die," Gippal says, firmly. He gives them a mocking grin, then. "Not going to let you waste all my hard work training you."

Baralai laughs. "If we're not going to die, what will we do afterwards? Spira will be at peace, then."

"I'll go home," Gippal says, quietly.

"Where is home?"

"The Al Bhed have a place. A hidden place. We're still building, but... I can help with the work. We'll have a place to go, a place of our own, like everyone else. We'll be safe there."

"You'll be safe wherever you want, if we defeat Sin."

"Maybe." Gippal smiles a little, almost shyly. "I might travel. Go to see all the cities, even the little villages. All the places I haven't really been able to see for myself."

"I don't know what I would do," Baralai says, and Paine shakes her head.

"Me neither. I have no home to go to."

Nooj doesn't answer: they all know he has no answer, anyway. For a while they all sit quietly, staring into the flames, and then Gippal gets up, stretching. "We should get some sleep. I'll take first watch and wake Paine in a few hours."

---


Gippal is late. That isn't exactly breaking news. He said he'd fix the damn equipment, and he has, but it took far too long. Too much genius, that's the problem: he'd gone looking for some huge technical problem and it was only a loose contact. He didn't get lost, either -- not exactly -- he just took an injudicious short-cut, which wasn't short at all, and --

'Gippal!' Baralai sends, surprisingly urgent and clear even given the distance. 'We think we're about to be given an assignment. Are you going to make it?'

'I'll be there,' Gippal sends back. It doesn't take a minute to readjust himself, pump himself up so he moves faster, better, dodging people and things left in the road, following the map in his head by instinct rather than conscious thought. He's pretty sure Baralai and Nooj will cover for him, but Paine's recordings won't lie, and he wants to hear this for himself anyway.

An assignment. The first official thing, other than training, and he's going to mess it up.

Or not, if he gets there on time. The human body can only go so fast, even augmented by implants, and he's very conscious of the processes going on in said implants, the minute adjustments moment by moment. There's a faint burn in his muscles for a moment, before something neutralises the acid or blocks the pain, he's not sure which; there's a pain in his side rather like a stitch, and a tightness in his chest, but both of those ease up on another command from the implants, and --

There. He spots Kinoc making his way up through the crowd, onto a platform so he can be seen by everyone. He tries to heighten his reaction time even more, dodging through people, homing in on the green of Baralai's robe, dodging round a knot of people who have already noticed Kinoc and are thus, by some perversity of human brains, absolutely incapable of noticing anything else, and --

Brings himself to a stop instantly, just between Nooj and Baralai.

"Quite an entrance," Nooj says, sounding amused. Gippal makes a face.

"Took longer than I thought it would."

"Above your capability?" Baralai says -- sympathetic, but amused too: he's chastised Gippal about his ego before. It's not ego, though, just a refusal to take up false modesty. He doesn't care, anyway. He shrugs.

"It was much more simple than I thought it was. I've sorted it out now."

"Good, because it seems as though we're going to need this equipment."

"Ssshhh," someone hisses, from off to the side. Gippal rolls his eye, but they are right -- the Maester is about to speak. He catches Paine's eye and tries to make her smile, or even giggle, but she's having none of that. She's no Rikku, that's for sure.

(And there's no pang of homesickness at that thought, no sir. Not at all. Rikku's bright and cheerful and fun to run around with, and even more fun to tease, but Gippal doesn't miss her that much. He has Nooj, and Baralai, and Paine, and -- well, that seems like an odd thing, really, that they should be enough, but it's happened in any case, and they are, they're enough, they're his brothers -- and sister -- and friends, and this is... Well, enough of that.)

"An assignment," he says, under his breath, and Baralai nods, giving him a little smile.

"Finally getting somewhere," he says, softly. Even he's too much of a well bred Yevonite -- in fact, apart from the whole business with the acceptance of Al Bhed technology, he's always been a good well bred Yevonite -- to ignore the Maester when he wants to speak, so he too gives Gippal a look that suggests he'd better hush his mouth.

It's all silly, in Gippal's opinion. The Maester could easily have done a conference call, rather than calling everyone together like this. He doesn't have the technology implanted in him to do it, of course, but he must be working with Al Bhed leaders who do. He could have done this all so much more conveniently, but the Yevonites just don't think like that. They're not used to doing anything with technology but destroying it.

And, Gippal thinks, he wouldn't want to give that kind of power to an Al Bhed leader, even with all his words about equality in the squads. He wouldn't want to run the risk of something going awry without him being able to do something about it, either. He wouldn't like relying on a technology he didn't understand -- he wouldn't like being at the mercy of Al Bhed technicians. Gippal wants to be angry about that thought, but he can't blame him, somehow. They're all stuck in a rut. No doubt even Baralai and Paine, who should know better, think this is all quite appropriate and even necessary. Nooj, now, he's not so sure -- Nooj is an unknown quantity, in some ways.

" -- investigate this cave, which may have been a storehouse for weapons built by our ancestors -- "

Gippal realises with a start he's tuned out most of the conversation. His implants have dutifully been recording it, though, and offer up a little precis in the bottom left of his vision. He's so glad he designed that little program -- he should see about handing it round to all the Al Bhed at least, who will chafe at such long speeches just as surely as he does.

Baralai shifts slightly, speaking up all of a sudden. "Are we to destroy it, then?"

"No. Just investigate," the Maester says, with a slight look of annoyance at being told, in a sense, to come to the point. Gippal grins.

So they've got to investigate this cave. Some vestiges of old technology, and some kind of old bogeyman hiding away in there. An invention, no doubt, by superstitious Yevonites.

And they have to snatch their own weapons from the pile, which doesn't have enough for everyone? Unfair, but Gippal's got this. He grins at Baralai and Nooj. "Leave this bit to me."

---


Afterwards, Gippal will never remember exactly what happened. He can remember snatches of it, but when he tries to review the impressions his implants got of it, they're garbled and flickering, prone to cutting out for minutes at a time. Paine has the clearest memories of it, but even she wouldn't like to say what happened in there. He remembers the voice in his ears (or in his head, a point he's never quite got clear): at the time he listened, but afterwards he can't understand why, because the memories, blurred as they are, expose the awfulness of that voice. It sets Gippal's teeth on edge for years afterwards, thinking about it.

The first thing he remembers with any clarity is being outside of the cave again. For a moment all is confused, the brightness burning away all shadows, burning into his one eye. The implants adjust faster than he does, but after a reeling moment he gathers himself enough to add his voice to Baralai's report. There's shame, somewhere in the back of his mind, shame that this must have been a failure, but mostly there's relief, to be out in the light again. Out in safety, with the roof where it should be, miles above the surface of the planet, not right over his head.

He isn't really back to normal again until he hears the awful warning in Paine's voice, of the attack to come. He knows enough to run immediately, and Nooj and Baralai run too, at his side -- his brothers, he thinks, and incongruously thinks of weapons held to their heads -- but it takes him a moment to think of a firewall, of some kind of defence for their minds. He throws something together, even as he runs, transfers it to both of them -- and this running puts the way he ran before to shame, because he is no longer conscious of anything but the running. There's no stitch, no tightness of breath, just the running.

"Paine," Nooj gasps out. "Will she -- "

"She got away too," Baralai says, sounding even more breathless.

'Like this,' Gippal sends, 'talk like this, we don't need breath for this. We've got to get hold of Paine.'

'I'm here,' she sends, and the image of a map flashes into Gippal's mind.

'My best student,' he says (and he's still running, but no longer conscious even of that: he might as well be flying).

'I thought I was your best student,' Nooj sends, dry humour translating easily even over the network.

'You're all my best students.'

'Meet here?' Baralai suggests, transmitting the map to them all again, with a bright red square on it to show where he means. 'We could split up. Make ourselves harder to catch. And meet again there.'

'A good idea,' Nooj sends, and then, reluctantly, 'I'm having some trouble.'

'Lai and I will draw them off,' Gippal says, slowing. 'Keep going, and turn off as soon as you can. Keep us updated, so we don't draw them to you.'

'We could set a trap,' Baralai says, then. 'Draw them to him on purpose.'

'Do more people have to die?' Paine asks, and Gippal flashes back to the cave again, to -- he wrenches his mind away.

'No more death. Let's run,' he sends, and feels the agreement of the other three, no words necessary.

So they run. The images flash through Gippal's mind when there's nobody talking to distract him from them: the strange shrieking laughter he heard and the harsh noise of despair, all wound together -- a name on the tip of his tongue, shaping his mouth, a name he's never heard before but he knows that it goes with that cave, with that maddened despair --

'Shuyin,' Baralai sends, and Gippal remembers that horrible urge for destruction that nearly drove them, that would have driven them -- if Paine hadn't, if she hadn't --

'Don't think,' he sends, grimly, 'just run.'

They could outdistance the pursuit easily, if it weren't for Nooj. Kinoc is, like most Yevonites, unsure of the exact benefits of the implants -- cocky about humanity's own abilities, and he's send unaugmented men after them. But they might find a hover, or something like that -- they might know of some other secret shortcut. Gippal hadn't known about the cave, after all: that was a new discovery.

But they have to think about Nooj in any case. Gippal knows that he should be feeling tired, and he's not too enthusiastic about the inevitable recovery period they're going to have to go through, paying the toll their bodies are racking up. But they've got to do this. He snatches some extra deep breaths, waiting, waiting, for the men to catch up, for the chase to begin again.

---


When he wakes up in a tent, Gippal has, for a moment at least, no idea where he is. He can feel something gritty -- sand -- under his tongue, which only ever happens in the desert, where it happens all the damn time. He rolls over and tries to spit it out, trying to ignore the waves of pain going through his torso. Some wondrous person left a drink beside the bed, so he grabs that and downs it in one. He can feel his implants working, patiently knitting him back together, and he tries not to think about the bullet lodged inside him that is no doubt patiently, patiently being worked out of him. He's only ever had that once before, and it was okay until you thought about it, until it was nearly out and then it was freakish, coming through your skin like that. No amount of implants could make Gippal feel any better about seeing a bullet being expelled from his body through his skin.

He's thinking so hard about that bullet that he's not really thinking about who shot him, but the pain in his chest isn't all the wound. Still, a part of his mind is assembling everything again, dredging it out of the pain-shattered blur and putting it together, for when he wants it.

He really, really doesn't want it.

"You're lucky to be in one piece," someone says, from the doorway -- speaking in Al Bhed, and fuck, Gippal didn't know how much he'd missed it. He'd taught the others some Al Bhed, but that wasn't the same, that was mostly implants, not... He shakes away the thought of them.

"Something went wrong," he says, weakly, and Nhadala laughs. He doesn't know her very well, actually, so the feeling of relief and homecoming on seeing her is a bit disproportionate -- he wonders where Rikku is, but of course, she'd still be in the Al Bhed Home, or maybe on a ship... Not out here in the desert, not as close to Yevonite homes as this.

"You're telling me," Nhadala says, and he has to try hard to be able to focus on her voice. She comes over to him and replaces the drink at his side with a new one -- when he picks that up, it's blessedly cool in his hand, and in his mouth when he starts to drink. She watches him for a moment. "What happened?"

"I was betrayed," he says, feeling sick. Not the kind of sickness his implants can alleviate, either.

"How did you make it this far?"

"I had to," he says, squeezing his one eye shut. "There's... the Yevonites have found something... evil."

"That doesn't surprise me."

"I'm gonna have to do something about that."

"Don't go getting a hero complex now," she says, and he's surprised to hear sympathy and understanding in her voice, because he's always heard she's kind of a bitch. "You're gonna have to rest, for now."

"I'll be okay in no time."

"You'd better be. There's a sandstorm brewing out there. We might need to move the camp pretty quickly."

"I'll be ready to move by morning."

She nods. "I'll see someone wakes you and lets you know what needs doing."

She gets up then and goes out. Gippal doesn't watch her go, just closes his eye and tries to fall back into the dark stillness of unconsciousness. He can't do it, though, not so easily: he doesn't know if it's just himself doing it, or his implants malfunctioning somehow -- how easy it'd be if it were the latter -- but there are pictures playing in his mind's eye, in technicolour.

He remembers the blood, and the pain, the spreading ache, the fire of it. He remembers Baralai, bearing it better than him -- Baralai is the kind of guy who always has a few surprises left for you -- and urging him up, urging him on, urging him to safety. He remembers his clothes sticking to his skin with it, with the blood and sweat.

He remembers that Nooj wasn't there. And he realises that he doesn't know what happened to Paine.

He wonders if they're alive.

Baralai will be, he thinks. Baralai was in better shape than him, and he said he didn't have as far to go. And he's a quick talker, he'd have been able to get himself out of any trouble. Nooj must be alright, nobody could've attacked him, once they got clear, but --

Gippal really doesn't want to think about it. He squeezes his eye shut tighter, and commands his implants to send him off to sleep -- never as natural, but --

---


When he woke up that day, he'd figured it out. He's a genius, after all, he thinks: he'd have got it someday. They never did get to fight Sin, but he remembers the despair and anger of Shuyin, and the assault on his mind... They never got to fight Sin, but they have to fight Shuyin. When he closes his eyes, sometimes he can still see that day, and sometimes he can see memories that don't belong to him, of a woman running, a woman shot, a woman lying dead. Of years and years of maddening loneliness, unable to move on, trapped, a ghost in the machine --

A cliche, a ghost story, but most stories have some edge of truth, Gippal thinks. Like rumours that he's going to marry Rikku: they probably come from the liking they have for each other, from how they ran around together as kids, from Cid's grudging acknowledgement of Gippal's cleverness and leadership abilities. There's truth in the story, if only a grain of it, and he thinks that's how this is. Maybe people used to know about Shuyin, maybe that's where the myth of survival past death, trapped in implants, came from. Those stories were always around, as long as Gippal can remember. That's why the implants are carefully removed from the body after death and hastily destroyed, instead of being repaired and reused.

Gippal has been able to think of little else since then, if he's honest. He's been ready to lead -- or, rather, has been ready to share his enthusiasm, his will to get things done, his understanding of the fact that Al Bhed and Yevonite can unite, and his own faction formed around that, using his knowledge of that possibility as their foundation. He's been ready to lead them, ready to give his mind to technology, ready to start taking back the defunct monuments of the Yevonite religion, but this has always been at the back of his mind.

He knows what Shuyin is, and he knows they've got to beat him. He doesn't know how, but he knows it can be done -- that it's got to be done.

So he sends out the message. To Paine, even though when she turned up with the Lady Yuna and Rikku (and wow, she's grown) she didn't seem to want to know him. To Baralai, knowing him, knowing he'll want to do the right thing. And to Nooj, even though...

Shuyin is an infection they have to stamp out.

Gippal just has to hope that the other two are as ready as he is to do this, that whatever infection lies within them is dormant. He knows he's rooted it out of himself, chasing it down and destroying it, though his guards will remain up against it -- against Shuyin getting in or getting out. He's designed a firewall that should keep anything out, or in, as required.

He chose Bevelle for it, thinking that would bring out Shuyin if nothing else. He remembers the shadowy presence of the huge machine, in the few memories that remain from Shuyin; he realises where it must now lie.

Gippal's clever, and he knows it, some might say knows it too well. But this isn't cleverness, this is a throw of the dice -- some cleverness, but mostly chance.

He hopes he's as clever, and as lucky, as he thinks he is.
lassarina: (Paine)

[personal profile] lassarina 2011-07-23 07:09 pm (UTC)(link)
I love this, the way you've shifted the setting and made them all still themselves. I love their reactions, and Gippal's little modifications to Nooj's implants. Well done.
kunenk: Two Pikachu and a Pichu watching a seedling (>plant seed)

[personal profile] kunenk 2011-07-31 05:29 am (UTC)(link)
"Do the Al Bhed not have politics, either?"

"Nah," Gippal says. "We don't have a long enough attention span. Who're you again?"


Heeeeeee

Ghosts in the machine! Fabulous idea, really well executed, it works really well. Everything feels naturally grown out of the situation.

I'm curious about what the nature of this Sin is in turn!