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FFX/2 spoilers, Baralai and Isaaru pairing, written by request of Jurhael.

Baralai was first introduced to the man through the mutual conduit of a writing desk.

At the onset of his assumption to the office, Baralai had taken great pains to study all aspects of his inheritance. A number of Maesters had used the study. Add to that one Founder and a Praetor before him, and Baralai was still digging out long-forgotten personal notes, finding slips of paper between books that expressed such things as Three Eggs before nightfall! V.Imp!!! in emphatic thrice-underlined script.

All votes down, it was the desk which had received the most scars over the years. Each priest had left their particular mark upon this piece of furniture. One man had delivered an array of wineglass-sweat stains, circling one another like a set of blitzball play diagrams. Another, a strangely shaped gouge in the wood. Baralai had fingered that depression more than once, absent-minded, the irregular ridge already worn smooth over the years from countless hands performing that exact act of rubbing.

Now Baralai studied the furniture with the same critical detachment as a medic investigating an opened wound to hunt for signs of gangrene.

An ink blotter. That was new.

He refused just yet to sit, choosing instead to hover around the scene of the offense. The bag of his clothes dragged behind him as he paced, still smelling of ocean salt. He hadn't had time to unpack fully from the trip home from Luca. Seeing any damages to his study was more important.

Trema had left a paperweight that Baralai was particularly fond of. It was shaped like an apple with a large bite removed; a metalwright had exercised free-will creativity to add in heavy block letters around the bottom, Where Is The Worm? When Baralai had first seen the paperweight, he realized the joke immediately. The worm either was hidden in the fruit, or it was already en route to your stomach.

Whether Trema had fancied the paperweight because of this quirk or despite it, Baralai never knew. He didn't ask, either, but only used the object to dominate the numerous stacked reports on the Youth League.

Corner of the desk was where he put it. Left side, always.

Except now it was on the right.

The Praetor moved his slim fingers over, nudged the metal weight in a sideways waddle back to its proper spot to keep the thing from tipping, rolling, and possibly falling off.

In the midst of his paperwork orchard's contemplation, Baralai almost missed the sound of the twinned doors opening behind him. Well-oiled on the hinges, the pair had a tendency to swing more quietly than their mass might lead one to believe; they closed with the same dull thunk, their restrained silence more telling of the arrival than any bevy of trumpets.

The visitor's voice, when he spoke, was as hushed as a mourner late for the Sending rites, and very nearly as apologetic.

"I'm sorry. I haven't taken everything out yet."

Baralai only stood there while he finished plunking the apple-weight back the last few millimeters, lifting the thing by its stem so that he could rest it upon its paper pedestal.

Internal bemusement on the Praetor's part occupied his first reaction, his hands shuffling the gravestone markers of those who had gone before him away and resting his fingers on evidence of the new. Did that make Baralai another ghost, haunting the chamber? Did this man handle his inkwell, his letter opener, and wonder at the history unsaid in such objects, tools become inherited mysteries now?

With this in mind, Baralai took his time turning around.

He could have expected his stand-in to arrive as soon as word had hit Bevelle that the Praetor had returned; that alone would have cued the man's name even if Baralai hadn't inquired after a description. Long robes in ocean's tones, heavy and waist-cinched; this individual's hair was preened up, kept out of the way in event of dancing. His face was well-schooled. Polite.

"So you are Isaaru." When the summoner began the sweeps of the ritual bow, Baralai only shook his head. "Don't worry about it, please. From what I've heard, I should be the one making such homage to you. You..." and the hesitation did not exist, for Baralai never had to search for the proper words, "took care of this place in my absence, did you not?"

Did you not. Those three words danced mockery in the study air, drawing a stern line of formality on the thick carpet between the two men.

"I am indeed." Isaaru sounded subdued; it was yet too early for Baralai to judge if such was the man's default mode of speech. "I welcome you back to Bevelle, Praetor."

Again the summoner began the parallel action of palms. Baralai fought the urge to glance at the ceiling in exasperation and instead shifted the hand holding his travel pack, the string of his satchel-bag rubbing against his palm while the bulk of it nudged his knee. "I've been told many good things about you, lord Isaaru." Remembering his manners, tacking on the title of a summoner to the brown-haired man's name. "At least, the priests all have been quite impressed by your capabilities."

The compliment brought about a fractional parting of Isaaru's jaw. Corners of his mouth pulled up; the laugh was soft, but the commoner's eyes remained upon the Praetor. "They said I did well while I replaced you."

Baralai's ears heard the sounds, but it was his fingers that replied, dropping his satchel at last on the floor with a solid thud.

When his voice caught up, it delivered a sparse, "I see."

"Of course, now that you are alive, there will be no need of such things."

Isaaru's voice was rosewood and wine, smug to Baralai's ears. The Praetor knew that manner of tone well. He'd spent years keeping such a note trained in his own mouth, letting it free to walk about under the scrutiny of the priests as a master-taught hawk might be allowed to pluck its way down a roost. Isaaru's voice was a well-fed animal that had fur as soft as a newling's, and Baralai suddenly found himself disliking every single nuance.

A replacement. Even Nooj hadn't done that.

In the silence of so much dumbfounded shock, Isaaru spread his hands in a peacemaker's graceful appeal. "I have attempted to do my best here. I am," he added, delicate in his formal words, cookie-cutter repetitions, "glad that you have returned."

Did all Bevelle's officials speak the same way? Baralai inwardly called up his own tenor, compared and contrasted the sound to that of Isaaru. Sensitivity honed granted nothing; the scrutiny provided no insight save a wretched self-doubt.

"Thank you," he managed at last, a dry acceptance of precisely nothing.

. . .

Summer brought open doors and empty archways to Bevelle. In comparison to port towns further south, the region's heat was less than formidable; the formal robes were less grating to bear, though sweat still wore the fibers harsh on sticky skin. The one advantage to Bevelle's location was that the heights brought wind, and the breezes whistled through the stonework halls.

Unanimous decision upon the part of the healers kept Baralai from duty. He had been into the depths of what was debatably the Farplane, possessed by pyrefly-spirit; though the details were loathe to be shared by all who had undergone them, Baralai swallowed his innate reluctance enough to meet with the recorders.

For one, Nooj would surely speak all the more frankly if he thought New Yevon was sliding into a cover-up. Though the Deathseeker had even less reason to describe his experiences, the platform of the Youth League was ever that they were more open-mouthed than New Yevon, and in that Baralai could not let Bevelle fall behind.

So politics ruled the manner of recovery. Baralai spent a number of afternoons with his chin upon his hand, staring out the window of his chambers, noting the guard patrols exchange themselves along the walkways. They operated, as ever, on clockwork. Identical uniforms. Standard-regulation machina rifles slung on their backs, ammunition rationed by the week.

Completely interchangeable.

Judgment of the council was that he rest up from his ordeal. Reasonable enough, and yet Baralai found himself strangely restless.

Isaaru remained in Bevelle while Baralai was on sick leave. Isaaru kept his hair pulled back from his neck to avoid the summer heat, and had a habit of leaving his littlest finger crooked when he tied the strands up. Isaaru showed up for the breakfast meal one day with a line down his cheek that he explained away as falling asleep on a book, and Baralai watched the slight depression vanish by the time the plates were done.

Lacking business to conduct, the Praetor haunted his own halls, wandering up and down the walkways while the heart of New Yevon went on beating without him. Acolytes appeared at intervals. All of them bustled past after delivering respectful half-bows, arms laden with paperwork that Baralai was no longer a key part of.

There was much to catch up on. Though Nooj was acting a great deal more reasonable since Shuyin's exorcism from the world, he yet remained stubborn in nature, refusing to rope in the more aggressive of the Youth League who bore bitter fight with Yevon. Baralai discovered early on that correspondence with Nooj's second provided faster results. It had been her idea--this woman named Lucil, former Crusader--that had presented fighting tourneys to take the place of open war, much as blitzball helped curb the worst of aggressions when it was in season. It was also her idea to continue organizing the Youth League's worst impulses into athletic events, which so far had proved to tame them.

All told, Baralai could not find it in himself to hurry. They all had business they'd become invested in since their parting on the Highroad. There were wounds yet that distance had to heal. The once-pilot of their Crimson Squad was off settling her mind between past and present anyway, trying to determine just what kind of person she had become over the years and how much of it she wanted to keep. Paine had found a new team with the Gullwings, and though that team had become shaken and battered with the introduction of unexpected elements, she retained a fondness. Not yet ready to choose her future; a transient with time on her hands, and Paine deciding at last to be thorough with it.

Of their engineer, Gippal had his hands full in attempts to clean up Djose and stabilize the machina rumors that were spreading. There had been talk, Baralai heard, of a partnership further down Mushroom Rock into Mi'ihen, but Gippal and business rarely mixed. Relations between New Yevon and the Machine Faction had to progress slowly in official records, lest the occasional panic over machina create another schism.

This left their navigator wandering the temple he'd become a part of during his quest for Vegnagun. Spira was not precisely an airship, but his role was unchanged; Baralai's temperament lent itself well to study of the land and its conditions, and this included the social climes. Vegnagun's termination did not magically erase Baralai's responsibilities to his faction, to the political party he had helped guide.

New Yevon was his. He belonged there. They expected his return home, wanted it. It was his place.

Or at least, that was what he told himself, right until he'd opened up his office and discovered a rogue blotter lurking innocently on the desk.

Stripped from his active duties with strict orders of bedrest, Baralai found his mind turning to study of this creature that New Yevon had adopted with such rapidity. He was keenly fascinated by Isaaru, hunting comparisons of the summoner to himself. Isaaru's patience--was it better than Baralai's? Worse? Isaaru's tilt of his chin when he listened to delegates, did it present an image that Baralai had failed to master?

What was it about Isaaru that coaxed New Yevon so easily?

The priests were fickle. He knew that, had used it to help elevate his own personage into leadership, and yet Baralai was disconcerted by just how easily they had found his replacement. Reasonably enough; if politic favor were to sway between himself and the summoner, it might be that more individuals would vote for Isaaru's stance. Leadership could fall into question. The Praetor would find himself enmeshed in a very unpleasant set of party arguments if he was not circumspect ahead of time, and yet for all Baralai's observation, his hunt for charisma's spark, he found Isaaru to be perfectly normal.

Maddeningly so. The summoner's voice was well-modulated, true, but Baralai's was much the same. They both understood the value of patient speech. Isaaru was a touch more formal, yes, but Baralai behaved the same when necessary. Isaaru liked his coffee with sugar and cream to counterbalance the local bitterness of Bevelle's brew and enjoyed walking the ramparts in the early mornings when everyone else was still half-asleep. Isaaru broke off his laughter halfway into a sigh when he was tired and the council discussions had run too long into evening, and Baralai found himself absolutely baffled in finding the key difference between himself and the other man.

When he asked his questions of it, Trema's paperweight only glimmered back in that particular mockery of the inanimate. Where is the worm?, it sniggered. Where is the worm?

Eventually Baralai stuck out his fingers, and tipped the apple over.

Many priests had adapted fast to the habit of delivering mail to Isaaru; the shift in the summoner's location meant that Baralai received numerous visitations by one courier or another, only to have them bob their heads in embarrassment when they found the Praetor back in his office rather than Isaaru. Correspondence was delivered with Isaaru's name stamped on the front. Visitors to the temple seemed surprised to be received by the Praetor in person; a few stammered out that they'd thought to speak with his secondary, his aide.

The only pleasure Baralai could find of the whole situation was hope that Nooj was having the same problem with Lucil.

He accepted it with grace the first week. The second, with tolerance. When the third rolled around and the knocks on his door came just as often for the summoner, Baralai left his study empty and went searching for the man in person.

He found Isaaru in a smaller office on the higher floors, some hasty fabrication that the priests had cobbled together under the initial requirement of a place to store the man. There hadn't been a complete decision yet about what to do with the summoner. No one could deny that Isaaru had a knack for Bevelle's affairs, handling numerous complaints with a fair-born ease. Rooms included.

Arbitrary scrape of Baralai's knuckles upon the door was his length of announcement before he caught the latch and let himself in. Rank gave the Praetor some luxuries; he might as well enjoy them while he could.

Isaaru was in the middle of scribbling a notice when he entered. The report stacks were huge here, towering high in precarious array. Higher than Baralai's own paperwork; this, the Praetor noted with a mix of amusement and discomfort. Green covered Isaaru's desk like a meadowfield in miniature. The ink blotter had been relocated to its proper owner some time ago, and the summoner looked to be making good use of it.

By the time Isaaru glanced up in surprise, Baralai had already crossed the room, sitting down on the edge of the summoner's desk with one arm lax on his lap and the other braced on the furniture for support. It was a maneuver Nooj would have approved of. The space was defined and claimed in an instant; the desk was Baralai's by right of confidence alone.

Now if only everything else could be so easy.

"Praetor Baralai," the other began, quill-tip wavering in his hand like a white warning flag. "To what do I owe the honor?"

Baralai watched the tip of the instrument flick back and forth.

"I'm sorry to interrupt you," he lied. "There's been a question on my mind for a while now. I had wondered if I might ask it of you."

Predictably enough, Isaaru nodded. Baralai had expected as much; it was what he would have responded with, himself.

"Go on."

"You worked for Bevelle before the Eternal Calm, correct?" Memories of words danced at that, loops of did you not folding upon themselves in practiced formality. Baralai ignored them. "First as a Summoner, and then in choosing to undergo your Pilgrimage. Even after you rescinded that decision, you obeyed them afterwards when they called for you to help guard the temple. Am I wrong?"

This line of inquiry was clearly not what Isaaru expected. He tilted the pen down, finally setting it upon the blotter with careful fingers. "You are correct, Praetor Baralai."

Baralai eased his weight to the side, plucking at a fold of his pants. The body language was an ill choice, poorly concealing the evidence of further questions yet to come. "What made you doubt?" he asked, idly envisioning the hot tang of bullets, of Mi'ihen's dust clogging open wounds. Betrayal in the evening sunset.

Isaaru's eyes remained steady, the summoner's face unchanging as he stared the Praetor down. His words were simple. "I faced the High Summoner Yuna."

Yuna.

Spira's champion twice over, even when everyone was telling her strongly not to be. Who could wear Yuna, the summoner who had done the impossible, pulled off a feat that others could only dream of.

Anyone who could convince Nooj not to pitch himself deeper into the Farplane when no one was looking truly deserved respect.

"So she changed you as well," Baralai observed. And then, in understatement of the century, "She has a propensity for extraordinary things."

Savoring the overblown syllables gave him time to think. He was having little enough of that these days; some part of him had grown weary after Spira's delivery from Vegnagun, wanting at last to lay down the merciless crusade he had thrown himself upon.

The words continued to run out of him on autopilot, habitually querying and testing the waters of politics. "What made you decide to rejoin Bevelle after that?"

"That would again be the Lady Yuna. She found me in Zanarkand and told me of the troubles." Isaaru did not spare more than an hourglass pause before he enforced aloud, so mildly that it was a fine-honed dagger between the ribs, "The chaos that occurred when you disappeared."

If Baralai heard the faintest hint of reproach, of blame, then he was not certain if it was illusion or no.

"So you returned."

"I came back because you were gone, and because I am a Summoner of Yevon. I may have lost the Aeons, but I believe I am still of some small use. Even though it may be filing papers." Turning his hand too fast then as he started to reach for fresh stack of reports, Isaaru bumped the inkwell. He cupped his fingers automatically, catching at it as he might a falling egg from its nest.

The attempted save came too late. Black liquid coughed out of the glass jar and splashed the summoner's hand; the whole inkwell tipped and rolled off the desk with a hollow clatter, descending to a silent grave where it impacted the thick carpet of the floor. Darkness spread across Isaaru's skin like a poison blooming, infecting the lifelines of the man with wet bruises.

Baralai reached out automatically. The ink stain trapped his thoughts as easily as if the mark on Isaaru was, in actuality, one upon himself. Both unthinkable. He caught the man's hand by the knuckles, drawing it over. The blot coated the summoner's palm and had trickled down the inside of his wrist, matching the veins in an artist's palette of black and blue.

Isaaru made a muted noise of protest, but surrendered.

The stain captured both sets of their eyes. Baralai took up the first piece of cloth that came to grasp of his free hand, discovering that it was a corner of his jacket when he began to use it to soak up the accident. He worked methodically, daubing at the summoner's palm; running his fingers in exploration across Isaaru's hand, Baralai bent to his task with the same mottled intensity as he had stewed in thought for weeks.

When the worst of it was absorbed into Baralai's clothes, there were still shadows deep in Isaaru's skin. It would require water to clean the man completely. There was a pitcher in Baralai's office; he knew the habit of needing washed hands, could bring Isaaru up to his chambers and rinse the summoner's skin there.

No.

Rather than give in to this strange impulse of forgetting where he ended and the other man began, Baralai only continued to trap the summoner's hand, refusing to relinquish it back. His eyes traced and retraced Isaaru's palm. His mind kept returning to the same conclusion. Water was needed. The cloth had done all it could for now. Water was needed. The hand was still dirty.

Isaaru was as quiet as he was. Watching.

"I've heard," Baralai said after a time, the pad of his index finger on the beat of Isaaru's pulse, "that you had a brother in the Youth League."

"I do."

"He worked for Nooj."

"He does."

"I've heard," Baralai said--after a time--perfectly implacable against all of Isaaru's tense corrections, finger feeling the jump of the other's skin, "that your youngest brother wanted to become a sphere hunter like the Lady Yuna."

"He is."

"Why do you go against them?"

There was silence then, heavy as a shelf of encyclopedias, spanning out all the possible worlds the Praetor's words could entail.

"What exactly," and Isaaru's reply was a performance in deliberation, "are you intending by all of this, Praetor?"

Bluntness was an ugly weapon. Baralai chose it for exactly that reason. "Despite your explanation, I'm afraid I don't understand entirely why you have returned," he began, and won his reward in how Isaaru blinked. "Of your abilities, I have no reason to question. You must remember, lord Isaaru, I have returned to a place which is customary for letting you know when a secret is afoot by surprising you all too late. I don't think I want to be caught again quite so readily."

Misstep, that last statement. When he looked up, Baralai saw Isaaru's eyes shelled over, hard lines high in his cheeks that masked the color of the irises with cold. "Please," he said then. Quiet. "Allow me my benefit of the doubt. I have traveled a long way. I wonder if I am able to go any farther."

"What is there to understand?" The summoner's expression was strained, though his voice was matter-of-fact. "I am the eldest, who grew up preparing to die. I cannot change as easily as them. Pacce and Maroda were once my Guardians. Now that the Aeons have... departed us, they are able to also leave Yevon behind, just that simply." Shoulders shrugged, rounded under the weight of his robes. "I cannot. I tried, for a time. All I found was work fit for a carnival."

The summoner turned his wrist then, pulled it free along with his gaze; dropping both, Isaaru continued.

"No one was entirely happy by that. Not Maroda, not Lady Yuna--and hardly myself. So I have returned to what I know. It is the manner of creature that I am. I served well enough when you were gone, Praetor. Are you here to tell me that I am worthless with your return?"

The lines of Isaaru's mouth had gone very soft. Baralai, having little else to do with his hand now that the summoner had removed his grip, placed his fingers on the other man's lower lip. It served the purpose of turning Isaaru's face back towards him, which was good; Baralai wanted to see the man's expression, search it for tell-tale signs of guilt.

Isaaru seemed to realize the scrutiny; he swallowed hard, touched his tongue to his lips in an automatic gesture to wet them that only ended with an accidental flicker of damp warmth against Baralai's thumb. "What is the matter?"

Baralai's other hand reached out, slow as a dream-play. The palm contacted Isaaru's chest and flattened itself; he could feel the beat of the other man's heart, thudding deep beneath the weave of fabrics. So near--almost as dear as his own blood, running in his veins, and yet no closer for all that Baralai could not read the answer to the questions that had been plaguing him since his return.

Instead, wondering, Baralai's palm slid down the front of the summoner's robes. Fingertips found the place where they parted, just above the wide-belted sash, grazing the looped knotwork along the way. They quested further. Dipped in.

"I'm looking for your scars, Isaaru."

Instead Baralai found the ridge of a nipple, circling it absently with the edge of his nail as he might trace the writing-desk gouge while deep in thought.

The summoner drew in a quick breath, exhaling it through the start of his reply. "I don't have any. Maroda was too good of a Guardian. He did not let any fiend come close enough."

"Your brother was very strong. My companions and I fought." Baralai's admission was bare-boned, exposed without concern as he concentrated on the invisible world of Isaaru's chest where it hid beneath its clothes. He felt his way along it like a blind man, voice as echolocation. "Both directly when we struck one another down, and indirectly through our factions. At the time, all of us thought we were justified in using whatever means we chose. But you..." Fingers shifted, running themselves up to Isaaru's collarbone to the accompaniment of his stifled sharp breath, "you and your brothers protected one another. You didn't try to kill them. Even so, you have left them behind to return to a thing one hates, and the other avoids."

"Maroda has come back to Bevelle," Isaaru countered. "For me."

"And is he content with you for it?"

The summoner's heartbeat had gone jagged, speeding up despite how Isaaru tried to steady himself. Baralai's palm absorbed the change in pulse as readily as his jacket had ink.

"I'll ask you again. Where are your scars, Isaaru? What wound is so great that you think you should punish yourself for it by being here?"

The summoner reacted with dignity; he accepted the challenge, absorbed it by focusing on the current query rather than the distraction. "Bevelle is not as ill a place as Maroda believes it to be." The summoner kept his body still, motionless, as if the detachment alone could negate what was happening through Baralai's hand. "It is true that moving too fast will only make many people confused--and in the end, we will all be as uncertain as when the knowledge was deliberately kept from us. For all that Yevon may have been involved a great deception, it... it is participated in by average people, people who... people who--" he broke off as the huskiness in his voice reached a level kin to a groan.

Hearing this, Baralai graciously aborted the pressure of his fingertips.

Freed from the worst of the caress, Isaaru pulled in a long breath through his mouth. His shoulders shuddered like a bird forced to winter. "I have as much reason to be hostile towards the temples as any other summoner, Praetor. But I know the acts of a few are not just cause to blame the whole."

"And this is what removes you from your brothers?"

Baralai's fingers dipped down to wedge themselves in the crevice of the summoner's skin against the band of Isaaru's belt, feeling the compressed heat hiding inside all that restriction. It was like searching for a page in a series of reports; Baralai, with half his mind on the backlog of work and the rest on how he sounded exactly like a paranoid priest himself, only noted the slight flush on Isaaru's skin as an addendum.

His thumbs folded back the top layer of robes and pulled them down the other man's shoulders. Neither of them were looking at each other. Baralai's attention revolved around the abstract colors of green and blue, pale planes contrasting against dark flesh. Rough cloth, smooth skin.

Isaaru's voice, narrating a story between the two of them from a book of sighs.

Abstractions.

"To do so is to repeat tragedy, little more. And yet those of us who wish... to help Spira are frowned upon if we do no great act of dramatic shedding. We are not all like the Lady Yuna. My brother Maroda would like me to be, but I..." And Isaaru was forced to pause longer, one of his hands unconsciously tightening on Baralai's jacket where it had fallen, fisting itself in green fabric turned black with ink, "I am only myself. Where else should I go... but here? That is what we have been reduced to, we who cannot change."

Baralai found himself wondering why Isaaru hadn't done something to stop him yet, halt the way his fingers were undoing the lower linens of the summoner's robes now and urging them to part. Both of them absolutely dispassionate about it as two acolytes waiting for their punishment.

It was, Baralai decided, their nature.

Yet clothing wasn't what Baralai wanted to undress the summoner of. The man's demeanor is what he sought to undo, to strip him bare of the questions too similar to the Praetor's own. That had been the problem from the start. New Yevon had adopted Isaaru so swiftly that Baralai simply didn't know what to do about it, how to handle this man who spoke as if his mouth was full of cinnamon and his smile like the sky.

Baralai chose to break his silence at the same time that his thumb found a button, one of the many invisible fastenings that kept Bevelle robes in place. "I don't think that all changes have to be on the surface to be found, Isaaru." An ounce of pressure, and the loop freed the hard nub. "Those who are dramatic about it might never believe that anything less could be as strong."

Lower his hand moved, finding another button, another deft undoing. "They don't trust the convictions of what works more quietly than they do. So the Youth League argues with New Yevon, forgetting that there is a place for people who walk at a pace that is one step at a time." A shape that must be the lowest button now. "And we feel guilty for it."

We.

Baralai's fingers circled the last nub, then slowed. Stopped. His own words filtered back to his ears through the vehicle of Isaaru's heart. The echolocation had bounced back deeper than he would have guessed. Suddenly, his mouth tasted sour as a fruit gone overdue.

Withdrawing his hands from the other's clothes, Baralai straightened, smoothing his fingers over the thick layers of cloth with a sigh that wavered between apologetic and resigned. The lacings dripped undone over the backs of his knuckles, violated from their careful four-looped knot. Suddenly the knowledge was no longer worth pushing Isaaru for; in the back of his mind, Baralai wondered why he had even felt the need to resort to such things in the first place. It was uncustomary. And it had been an act that was as much against himself as it had served to search the summoner.

"I don't want to fight people any longer, Isaaru." This statement drained out of him, and Baralai did not know if it was an apology to one of them, or both. "Certainly not people I should be working with. And not... people like you."

The summoner stirred when Baralai halted his motions, minor shiftings like a sleeper being asked to wake from a peaceful rest. Baralai touched his palms to Isaaru's chest again, that smooth and unscarred expanse of skin. There had been no wound there so great it called out for vengeance. Only questions that mirrored the Praetor's own.

"If you want to stay in Bevelle, Isaaru, then do so. Just don't make me wonder why."

He slid off the desk like a bedsheet at midnight, back turned and already bidding himself forgotten before his feet hit the ground.

"Baralai," Isaaru started behind him, the name raw of any title. "I--"

That was enough to cause Baralai's departure to slow, but only just. "Take your time and think about it," he said, speaking to the carpet, to the door and the walls surrounding them both. Abstractions. "Remember. One step at a time."

. . .

The next week, Baralai started taking his coffee in his office. Work had finally broken the priest-imposed dam and was flooding in, files routed to the proper channels now that New Yevon was assured that their Praetor would not simply dissipate into a cloud of pyreflies himself.

It was a relief to be actively working. Baralai received the tasks with gratitude, appreciating the change in pace from mere resting. One natural disadvantage was that the sheer volume of work kept him up late at night and forced him to a rising even earlier than his usual; having no time free to bend to a temple schedule, Baralai instead began to keep his own hours in his study.

Breakfast was not a luxury despite how it was brought to him. Being Praetor was even more hectic than before the disappearance of Vegnagun, and required him to eat even while he was going through paperwork; Baralai normally got only halfway through his toast before it became cold, a third of the way down his coffee before it turned tepid.

So when Baralai was surprised by an addition to his breakfast, he found himself blinking wordlessly at the subject while the maid was urging a mug towards his hand. On the tray was a sprig of something floral, blue-petaled that Baralai nudged with his knuckle and wondered at. The buds grew five to a clump, lining up in a spiral around the pillar of the stem.

"Lord Isaaru said you might appreciate a bit of color," the maid informed him upon noting his scrutiny, bobbing her hip neatly as she moved the thin vase to the desk without jostling any of the breakfast. "They're from the gardens on the north side."

Baralai's fingers unfolded the paper twist that had been tied around the stems, concealing itself like so much harmless decoration. Fresh air might be good for you, Praetor, it read. I recommend it on behalf of your health.

Baralai spent exactly three minutes wondering if the pollen he had just deeply inhaled was poisonous.

Then he spent a great deal more outside.

None of the interchangeable guards had cause to remark on the Praetor's long conversation with his aide that day; they both kept their voices low, laughing occasionally to one another over what must have been the state of affairs in Luca. Blitzball season had opened even more explosively than normal; betting was high, and accounts of team mischief were at an all-time high.

The Praetor and his aide parted separately, but took dinner in the latter's study while going over business.

Bevelle continued on. All its moving parts working in fluid unison.

Two months later, Baralai finally made the time to clean up his office. It had become disheveled in degrees over the weeks without his realization. That was sloppy of him. True, he'd had enough on his mind to marshal a small army, but preoccupation was no excuse.

The paperweight gone missing was found, after he remembered to fumble underneath furniture to see just where it'd rolled. Searching for the object took Baralai underneath two chairs and the sitting couch before he managed to recover the cool metal. It had escaped all the way to one of the bookshelves. Who knew a stray hand could send it so far?

Where Is the Worm?, it quizzed him as he scooped it up. Waiting for you to find it? Or already eaten?

Back on the desk it went. Baralai angled it so that the bite mark was facing away from him.

Right side. On top of the Machine Faction reports.