"Cadet! That is enough!"
The youth gripped the hilt of the splintered practice-sword, sparks dancing off his knuckles. His comrades edged farther away from his glare, although it was not directed at any of them. There was a loud pop and a flash. The smoking machina lying in a crumpled heap at his feet quivered and went still.
The sergeant stormed over. "I said, no magic for this exercise! Do you think orders don't apply to you because of whose son you are?"
"Absolutely not, sir, but—" The dark-haired boy gestured angrily, slicing the air. "It's a stupid exercise, sir! Machina don't kill people; fiends do!"
"You'd prefer this exercise had casualties?" Gatta snapped.
The glare was leveled at the instructor for a split second before the boy faltered and looked down."No, sir." He drew himself up straight, staring ahead without expression: a temple statue would seem relaxed by comparison. "I'm sorry, sir. What task should I perform to atone?"
Sir Gatta pinched the bridge of his nose and exhaled. "You're dismissed. Report to the commander. Explain to him who destroyed our practice drone, and how."
Blood drained from the youth's face. "Yes, sir," he said, drawing his fist to his heart in salute. Chin high, posture stiff and erect, he marched past the awed and unnerved — and in some cases resentful — stares of his classmates as he marched away.
Wind, sky, and rocks made infinitely more agreeable companions, but the long walk back gave him plenty of time to stew. Past the winding road leading down into the canyon, past the gate-guards who returned his formal nod with wry grins, past the forge and equipment sheds and curious glances from off-duty soldiers, loomed a dusty and patched canvas tent that presently held more terror for him than the Cavern of the Stolen Fayth. His apprehension was not the least bit soothed by the knowing winks of the sentries. The youth saluted and passed between them, rehearsing words in his mind as he drew back the door-flap. Thoughts fled like stampeding chocobos at the sight that greeted him.
Draped sideways in the commander's chair, one booted heel propped against the desk, a formidable figure had a scroll open across her knee, making small, precise ticks down the margin with a stylus. She glanced up at the sound of footsteps on packed dirt. He halted on the rug in the middle of the room and drew himself sharply to attention. "Cadet Braska here to report to the commander, ma'am."
"If we're using titles, cadet, the correct term is 'milady.'" Setting the scroll and pen on the desk, she rose to her feet with a rustle of skirts. "Your father's not here. Squad C ran into a marlboro. He went to take care of it." A smile tugged at her mouth. "I would have, but he needs the exercise."
The cadet stared straight ahead, unsmiling.
"Speaking of exercises..." She stepped around the desk, coming forward to inspect his soot-spattered face and dusty hair, lifting a strap on his shoulder and frowning at the buckle's imprint branded into the leather armor beneath. "I don't recall authorizing fire for that drill. What's Gatta doing?"
He clenched his hands. "Nothing! Absolutely nothing! We've been practicing parries all morning against a machina! We weren't even allowed to fight back."
"'If you want to prove yourself, you must first—'"
"'—complete the tasks you are given.' I know."
She eyed him coolly. "Well, you probably don't know that your father first spoke those words to Sergeant Gatta. He wanted to abandon his post in order to be in the front lines at Operation Mi'hen. If he had, you would have a different instructor."
"Then I wish he—"
Her eyes flashed. "Braska."
The boy hung his head and slumped. "Sorry, Mother."
Relaxing, she slipped a finger under his chin and coaxed him to look at her. "You're trying too hard. Are you sure you don't want a transfer to another unit?"
He shook his head sharply. "It would be the same anywhere. Except they really might give me special treatment, whereas Gatta doesn't. I just wish he'd stop expecting me to act like you. No, like Father. He never lets me use magic."
"To make you focus on sword's art. But you know that." She gazed up at him: at sixteen, he was already a head taller than she, although he always seemed to lose inches in her presence. He was still gawky and gangly, but sooner or later his broad shoulders were going to fill out to match his father's. Unfortunate that he had inherited her mouth; Auron's scowl tended to come out as a pout on his son's face. "Sometimes I regret teaching you so early. Elder Kimahri's fur still hasn't grown back, you know. Which reminds me. Can you keep a secret from your squad?"
"Of course." He raised his chin with a trace of stung pride.
"Then hold this in your mind. Whichever squad receives the highest marks will be escorting the High Summoner from Bevelle to Gagazet. With standard-issue weapons, I assume."
"Oh!" The sullen expression eased, although he kept even his eagerness cloaked.
"So, then. You must set a good example for your teammates from now on." Lulu conjured a handful of water, wiping away the dirt from his forehead. "Not to live up to our expectations, but to satisfy your own. Stop comparing yourself to us, Braska. Discover who you are, and your classmates will do likewise."
He exhaled, glad the other boys were not there to see her fuss over him. "Yes, Mother."
She nodded. "Now. Your father will be back soon—" she smiled faintly at a distant boom that made the tent-poles rattle. "I'll leave you to compose your report, shall I? You might also consider a favor for Rikku. She'll be here tomorrow with the supply ship to do inspections. I gather that one of the drones needs maintenance?"
"Um." He slumped. "Yeah. Auntie Rikku's going to kill me, isn't she?"
"Well, I'd advise against using lightning in her presence." She stood on tiptoe to kiss his cheek. "Next time, try the 'off' switch."
Leaving Braska to await his official dressing-down, Lulu slipped out to intercept Auron. She caught up with him just outside the encampment. Changing course — it looked suspiciously like the commander was heading to the Cavern of the Stolen Fayth to procrastinate — he strode towards her with a frown. "Is there a problem?"
"Not really." Her eyes softened as he took her hand, bowing over it for a courtly kiss. In all these years, she had never felt like a camp follower, although the contrived title of Black Magic Specialist was an inadequate label for confidante, counsellor, supporter, and stubborn partner. "Feeling better?"
He grunted noncommittally, offering her his elbow. They still made a striking pair: the white-haired warrior in his old greatcoat and black armor, and the severe woman in black corset (laced to the collarbones to give soldiers fewer grounds for distraction) and dark red skirts to match his coat.
"Well, perhaps you'd like to know that all the provisions reports have been reviewed and filed, and the requisition list is ready for Master Rin."
"You didn't have to do that," he said."Thanks."
"Except for one item." Her eyes crinkled. "We may need to order a new training drone."
"What?" He halted and stared down at her. "Were any of the trainees hurt?"
"Only slightly singed." She nodded back towards camp. "The report's waiting for you. In related news, it sounds like Braska has mastered thundara."
Auron grimaced, muttering to himself, "I need another marlboro."
Lulu laughed. "I'm afraid I neglected to add that to requisitions, Commander. But in lieu of a marlboro..." She gave him a meaningful look. "My tent tonight?"
"Hmph." His eye gleamed. "That should do."