Isaaru and Maroda arrive at the home of Wakka and Rikku.
Auron stepped out into the late afternoon sun and squinted, ears still ringing from Wakka's marching orders. In the scant shade of the fruit trees, Isaaru and Maroda were waiting, the one meditating, the other pacing.
Maroda tensed at the scrape of the door. "Oh. It's you." The faint note of challenge had crept back into his voice, and he kept both hands on his spear as Auron trudged towards them. "What's going on?"
"Sir Auron." Isaaru bowed. "I'm relieved to see you unharmed. When we awoke in this Yevon-forsaken waste, we feared the worst. What is this place? We seem to have flustered the natives."
"Bikanel Island," Auron said. "Former Home of the Al Bhed."
"Ah! That would explain their alarm," said Isaaru. "Sir Auron, have you seen Pacce or the rest of our party?"
"Elma's inside. No sign of the others."
"The commander!" Maroda said. "I thought we'd lost her. That's something, at least."
Isaaru exchanged an apprehensive glance with his brother. "May we come inside? The man we met at the oasis seemed uneasy, but he invited us to follow. He told us to wait while he spoke to his wife of our arrival."
"Somehow, you don't look much like the wife," Maroda said with a tight grin. "Say, am I crazy, or wasn't that Sir Wakka? He shooed off the kids and bolted before we had a chance to talk."
"Correct," Auron said. "Isaaru, listen. Wakka renounced Yevon after our trial in Bevelle, when it became clear that the maesters were violating the teachings and using us as pawns. Wakka's wife Rikku is Yuna's cousin, an Al Bhed. They blame Yuna's death on Yevon...and on me."
"That is unfortunate," Isaaru said. "Yevon knows that Yevon has much to answer for. But I had hoped we might solicit the aid of the Al Bhed. Maester Baralai has been working towards an alliance for months, and our need is growing imperative. Without aeons, we can only defeat Sin with machina."
"First things first," Maroda said. "Are they going to let us in? I want to start searching for Pacce, but we need information—and supplies—before we tackle this desert."
"You may enter," Auron said, "as long as you promise not to mention summoners, guardians, or anything to do with pilgrimage in front of the children. After losing Lulu and Yuna, Wakka is determined not to let his children follow the path of guardian or summoner."
"Lulu?" said Maroda. "Isn't that the gal—"
"Another of Yuna's guardians," Auron said. "Wakka grew up with her and Yuna on Besaid. It would be best not to mention Lulu, either."
"So, basically, we should take a vow of silence," Maroda said wryly.
"Nay, we need merely follow Sir Auron's lead," Isaaru said, eyes twinkling. "Say little and offer more questions than answers. Maroda, please set aside your weapon. Perhaps our conduct will ease their fears."
With some reluctance, Maroda left his spear propped against the entryway and followed Auron inside. As they filed into the living room, there was a burst of giggling from behind several pieces of furniture. Etta was the only one visible, standing in front of the hallway with his back to the front door. His posture was oddly stiff, arms spread and bent at the elbow with one hand up, one down. He spun around as they entered. "Muug uid! E's y Cactuar!"
Two beanbag chairs and a pile of pillows tittered. Isaaru stepped forward, smiling. "Oh? Well, I'm very pleased to meet—"
"Zap-zap-zap-zap-zap!" Etta crowed, leaning towards them and pointing with outstretched fingers. "Oui suja, oui muca!"
"You move, you lose!" echoed a mound of pillows piled against an end table.
Isaaru was caught off-balance only for a moment. Then he clutched his chest and staggered sideways, gasping, "My brother, help! The needles, they burn!"
"What the—?" Maroda grabbed his elbow and steadied him before he crashed into a rack of goggles and sand-jackets hanging by the front door.
Shrieks of laughter erupted, and the other children popped out from their hiding places. Rikku stepped into the doorway behind Etta, setting her hands on his shoulders. "Great job, Etta! Welcome, guests! It's Isaaru, right? Sorry for the sticky reception."
Wakka, appearing behind her in the hallway, said nothing. He had exchanged his towel for baggy blue trousers. Old battle scars on his bare chest were a silent warning as he lurked in the shadows with arms folded.
"Lady Rikku. Sir Wakka." Isaaru bowed deeply, offering Yevon's sign. "It is an honor to meet you. My brother Maroda and I are grateful for your hospitality...and your tolerance. We will not speak of sad memories, but on behalf of the new maesters, please tell your people that Yevon apologizes and wishes to atone for the injuries we have done your people in the past."
"Oh, yeah?" Wakka said. "Kinda late to be sayin' dat now, eh?"
"Weeeeell, actually, they've said it a few times before," Rikku said. "And that Baralai guy's been kissing up to Pops for months." She shook her head and walked into the room, steering Etta towards his siblings. "Wakka and I aren't really into politics, but thanks for the thought."
"He's a Yevon?" Vidina demanded, crawling out from the nest of pillows.
"Yeah, but don't worry," Wakka said. "He's not the really bad kind. Otherwise I woulda zapped his butt when he first showed up."
"Zap-zap-zap-zap!" said Mbela, launching herself at Etta with outstretched fingers as he hopped up on the sofa. A tickle war erupted on the spot. Squeals, thumps, and more giggles provided a surreal distraction for those lately come from the devastation of Djose.
"Are they Auron's friends?" Yuna asked, edging away from the free-for-all as Vidina flung himself onto the other two with a shout.
"Yes," Auron said.
"Hm." Wakka rubbed the back of his neck. "Well, uh, have a seat. Dining room's safer until the Cactuars run out o' juice. I'll get some drinks, ya? You gotta be dyin' in those robes."
"Thank you," Isaaru said.
Maroda cleared his throat. "Excuse me, but have you any way to scan the area? We had two more people with us before we got dragged here, and we haven't seen either of them. One's our baby brother."
"Aw, man." Wakka's face fell. "Rikku, can we break out the hover?"
"Hang on!" Rikku bounced towards the commsphere, rescuing it from flailing limbs. "We can't scan the whole desert, but I can check the video logs of the emergency shelters. This'll take a bit. In the meantime, shouldn't you be checking on Chocobo Lady? She's kinda stuck off at the end of the hallway, recuperating. I bet she's itchin' to say hello."
"Recuperating?" Isaaru said.
"Ya, you new maesters should take better care of your Crusaders," Wakka said. He waved towards the hall. "Through there. Last door on the right by the baby crib."
Yuna squeaked, dove under Auron's coat and wrapped herself around his legs as Etta and Mbela came tumbling off the sofa to try their luck on their sister, since Vidina had climbed into the windowsill and was keeping them at bay with his feet. "Safe zone!" Yuna said. "No noogies!"
"Awww," Etta and Mbela said in unison, staring up at the imposing figure.
Auron looked down and dropped a hand to the girl's hair, recalling another tousled blond head. "I'll wait here," he told Isaaru.
"You'll have to introduce us later," Isaaru said with a smile.
Sitting cross-legged on the floor with the sphere between her knees, Rikku cursed and fussed over static and dead channels while the tickle-war rolled around her and Sir Auron. About the time the "Cactuars" were reduced to limp, giggling heaps on the floor emitting an occasional "ow" or "meanie," Isaaru and Maroda returned to the main room with Elma. Wrapped in a bathrobe, the tall woman was moving tentatively but under her own power.
"Hey," Wakka said, setting a tray of tumblers and an iced tea pitcher on the dining table. "Guess magic's still better for some things, eh? You look pretty good."
"Her face is green," Etta said, peering at her upside-down from the floor. "Is she a Cactuar?"
Elma laughed. "Green is good, sir?" she said to Wakka. "I suppose it's better than being chopped steak. I should thank your wife for putting all my parts back in the right order."
"Ya, Rikku's good at fixin' things." He nodded at her. "Soon as she's finished checkin' spherecams, she can help ya out of those bandages and show you how to work the shower."
"Great!" She smiled at Sir Auron, who was carrying Yuna in his arms above the tickle-range of her siblings. The girl had wrapped herself around his neck and seemed to be falling asleep, face mashed against his collar. "Looks like you've found a friend, sir."
He grunted. "Yuna."
"Yuna?" Isaaru said, giving her father a speculative glance.
Rikku sat back with a sigh, switching off the sphere and setting it back on the charger. "Sorry. I got nothin'. Are you sure the rest of your gang came here?"
"When it comes to Sin, we can't be certain of anything," Isaaru said.
Rikku sighed, brow knotted. "Tellin' me." She gestured towards the dining room table. "Go on, folks, drink up. It's the desert, ya know."
"Is there a problem?" Auron said.
"Oh," Rikku said with forced cheer. "We've lost the signal from Home."
"What's that mean?" Maroda said.
"It means Sin's between us and them, or they've lost power, or..." She shrugged. "All we can do now is wait."
Wakka took Maroda out on the family hover to spend what daylight remained in searching for Pacce and Lucil. They returned after sunset, tired and empty-handed, just as Rikku was setting out a meal for twice the family's usual size. Wakka waved off Maroda's apologies for a fruitless afternoon, saying that family came first, and brothers were brothers.
The children were fretful over dinner, sensing their parents' unease. Etta and Mbela, the youngest, took turns sticking their fingers in the food platters being passed around. Vidina received a stern dressing-down from Wakka after talking back to his mother. Yuna, reduced to monosyllables, refused to eat more than a few bites. Elma finally charged to the rescue with a string of chocobo stories that set the children laughing until they squeaked. Her dramatic recital of Clasko the Hapless' quest for the Golden Chocobo helped end the evening on a merry note, although Wakka and Rikku would probably tire of the addition of "kweh" to the children's vocabulary before Mbela did.
After dishes and evening chores, the children were tucked in with bedtime stories featuring their new friend, the chocobo. Commander Elma also turned in early, before, as she put it, she got to "gnawing her own foot worrying about what's around the next bend or the last." Isaaru and Maroda stayed up somewhat later, trading news with their hosts around the dinner table. Auron listened unobtrusively from the sofa. Half-turned towards the window, he kept the sporadic flickers of lightning he saw on the horizon to himself.
Wakka, despite his exasperation with Yevon, was hungry for news of old haunts. When talk turned from Luca to the southern islands, Isaaru did his best to break the story of Besaid's destruction gently, not that Sin offered much scope for gentleness.
Wakka took refuge in disbelief. "Besaid Island? No way. Must've been Kilika."
"No, we were there, man," Maroda said, shaking his head. "I'm sorry."
"We did not witness the attack," Isaaru said. "But we saw the signs. Sin must have struck swiftly: too swiftly, perhaps, for fear. There...was nothing left of village or harbor. I sent the dead when we arrived a few days later."
"Damn." Wakka sagged, cupping his face in his hands. "I can't believe it. Besaid Village. Our home. Dat's where our pilgrimage started."
"Exactly," Auron said from the shadows.
"You shut up," Wakka snarled through his fingers, drawing a raised eyebrow from Isaaru.
Rikku scooted her chair closer to Wakka's, reaching out to rub his shoulders in soothing circles.
"We found Sir Auron on the dock," Maroda said. "He was waiting for us. I still want to know how he got there."
"A merchant dropped me off," Auron said. "Gippal."
Rikku swiveled around and stared. "You're kidding! What was he doing there?"
"Returning a favor."
"Must've been some favor," Wakka said darkly.
"Wait...Gippal? Weapons dealer, eyepatch?" Maroda said.
"Dat's him," Wakka said, raising his head. "He'll sell to anybody, even the Guado. You know him?"
"Sure. My Lodge buys supplies from him a couple times a year. He's got a trading post on the north side of the Calm Lands." Maroda gave a lopsided grin. "Don't tell Commander Elma; she doesn't approve of grenade launchers."
"Gippal's a pain in the ass," Rikku said, "and his prices are steep, but he'll never sell you anything shoddy. He does custom work, too. Wakka's gun was a special order, made for blockheads who can't operate anything more complicated than a blitzball."
"Hey, hey!" Wakka ruffled her braids.
"We should definitely get in touch with him, then," Isaaru said. "Without my aeons, I cannot hope to defeat Sin. But with powerful machina—"
"Whoa." Wakka jabbed a thumb against the tabletop. "The only thing Yevon's teachings were ever good for is to keep people from messin' with things too big for 'em to handle. No offense, but machina in Yevon's hands are a bad idea. All you'll do is stir up Sin worse than you done already, until some Seymour comes along and turns the weapons against us instead."
"Sir Wakka, I respect your concerns, truly," Isaaru said. "Lord Seymour duped me as well, and taught me how far maesters may fall in the pursuit of grand designs. Yet how can I stand idle, when other places will suffer the fate of Besaid?"
There was a faint sniffle from the hallway. Rikku made frantic shushing motions with her hands, tapped Wakka on the shoulder and pointed.
"Huh?" He followed her gaze towards the unlit doorway and stiffened. "Uh-oh." Rising to his feet, Wakka paced across the room as if trying not to startle a chocobo, one cautious step at a time. Finally he knelt and spread his arms. A small figure in pajamas darted out and burrowed against his chest, shaking with mute sobs.
"Aw, Yunie." He wrapped his arms around her, rocking her tenderly. "Another bad dream, eh? Sssh, it's okay. I've got ya, honey. You're safe. Sin's not gonna bother us here, and Pops' machina keep the fiends away, ya?"
"But the Lady's upset!" she cried. Maroda and Isaaru exchanged startled glances across the dinner table. "She's upset and she's blowing up Home! She doesn't want to. But the dark mother's there, and the Lady has to make her go away."
"Another fay—" Maroda said, but Isaaru cut him off with a sharp look.
"Yunie, it's gonna be okay," Rikku said, following Wakka and dropping to one knee beside them. She leaned close to kiss Yuna's temple. "Pops evacuated everybody. No one's gonna get hurt. Once the Lady's gone, we'll just have to clean up the mess and rebuild."
"B-b-but I don't want her gone!" Yuna said, tears redoubling. "I know she's been bad, but she makes the garden! What'll we eat?"
"Oops," Rikku muttered. She combed her fingers through the girl's mop of reddish-blond hair. "Yunie, hon, I didn't mean she's going to disappear. I just meant we'll fix Home after she goes back to the ocean, okay?"
"Nobody can make her go away, Yunie," Wakka said, glaring defiantly towards Auron. "She's too strong."
"But..." Yuna sniffed, her weeping starting to subside. She buried her face on her father's shoulder.
"That's better. See? Ya just gotta...h-hey!" As soon as Wakka relaxed, she squirmed free and squirted out of his embrace, darting across the floor towards the silent figure on the sofa.
"S-Sir Auron?" Yuna clambered onto his knees, clutching at his belt. "Are you going to make the Lady go away?"