Disclaimer: Final Fantasy X is the property of Square Co., Ltd./Squaresoft, Inc., Square Electronic Arts, and Sony Computer Entertainment. Mass Effect is the property of Bioware, Microsoft Game Studios, and Electronic Arts. I am none of these, and as such make no money from this venture.
When Shepard regained consciousness, she found herself bobbing in the warm, shallow waters of a tropical atoll. She lay in her dead man's float for a while, gathering her wits and trusting her rebreather to continue supplying air. The splash of something hitting the water hard beside her, however, had her twisting in surprised panic. Intentionally sinking beneath the waves, she drew her borrowed knives and brandished them at... a beach ball?
Huffing to herself, she stowed her blades and was about to surface again when powerful legs pushed a body through the surf before her. When all the redheaded stranger did was grasp the ball and throw it back towards land, she stood, surging from the water like the fiend Aniki had accused her of being. Given her sudden and unusual appearance, she forgave the man one hit, his fist glancing off her kinetic barrier with no more than a crackle.
When he reared back for another though, she twisted, catching his arm as it passed and forcing him into an awkward hold. She saw others move over his shoulder, pushing towards them through the surf, and she leaned into her opponent. "Call them off. I am not here to fight."
He reared back in shock at her voice, wincing as the move wrenched an already sore shoulder, and she let him go. Keeping a wary eye on her armoured form, the man turned and waved the calvary away. "Nothin' to worry 'bout, ya? Get back to practice. I got dis."
When he turned back, he folded confident arms across his chest and pinned her with eyes narrowed in suspicion. Before he could grill her, however, she tugged off her helmet. His mouth dropped faintly and, brow furrowed, he asked, "Who are ya? And what ya think ya doin' bringin' machina here?"
"Do you mind if we move to land first? I'm a bit tired of being wet."
He looked as if he wanted to refuse but he gestured her forward and she waded onto the beach. Glancing at his companions, the stranger motioned off to the left where a ramshackle boathouse stood watch over a wooden quay. When they reached the end, out of sight of anyone else, he set his stance and repeated his first question.
She sighed, unlatching a gauntlet to wearily rub the scar across her brow. Opting to give as little information away as she could, she only replied, "Shepard."
Choosing to answer his second question as well, she muttered a faintly sarcastic rejoinder. "Would you believe me if I told you I don't know what machina is?"
The man gave her a weird look, leaning forward to peer at her. "You, ah... hit your head or somethin'? You wearin' it!"
"Or something," she grunted. Poking her still-bare finger into the odd shoulder guard he wore, she turned his accusation around with faux innocence. "Is this machina too, then?"
He jumped back, surprised. "You tellin' me all that is jus' fancy armour? What ya need so much for, eh?"
She barely refrained from sneering at him. "I find that I stay alive longer if I don't have holes in my defenses."
He scoffed, regaining his bluster. "What 'bout that blue thing, then? Ain't no armour like that in alla Spira!"
Shepard watched him coolly, staring him down as her mind raced furiously. A world that mistrusted all machines? But Rikku had handled them easily. Was that why outsiders didn't like Al Bhed? The Commander decided not to draw attention to the pistol on her hip. Finally, she offered the only explanation she was willing to give. "It's magic."
Though she'd meant it sarcastically, the man's face cleared. He grinned and opened his mouth, likely for more questions. Before he could say anything though, she cut across him. "You still haven't introduced yourself, you know. Who are you?"
"Oh! Ah," he laughed, rubbing the back of his neck in embarrassment. "Name's Wakka. Coach an' captain of da Besaid Aurochs."
At her noncommittal hum, he sighed. "Look, sorry, ya? It's jus'... even so long afta the war..."
Shepard still said nothing, shuttered gaze looking past him and seeing the lush island beyond for what seemed like the first time. She fought back the memories of another garden world with white sand beaches and sparkling blue waters. Refocusing on the rambling redhead, she realised she hadn't heard hardly anything he'd said.
"-you know?" He paused, taking in her pale face. "You alright, there? You jus' kinda spaced out..."
Wakka's eyes widened as the armoured woman flinched almost imperceptibly. He'd have missed it if he hadn't been watching so closely. He reached for her, stopping his advance just over halfway between them. "We should get goin', ya? Get you to the village an' present you to the summoner."
Suddenly too tired to do anything other than nod in agreement, a weary Shepard followed him back down the quay. Before stepping onto the white sands, she relatched her gauntlet and tucked her helmet beneath her arm, propping it on her hip so as to conceal the weapon there. Schooling her expression into one of vague neutrality, she trailed Wakka across the beach his team still practiced along and up onto a path leading further into the island.
Winding through the dense jungle, she quietly made a game of guessing the native fauna by the calls she could hear echo through the undergrowth, all of which were backed by a dull rumble. After what couldn't have been more than a quarter mile of steady upwards climb in which the noise gradually became louder, the trees suddenly parted to reveal the source of the thunder.
The magnificent waterfall captivated her, tumbling over the cliff face above them to crash against rocks far below. Wakka halted on the far side of the split bridge, turning back to Shepard where she stood in the middle, basking in the sight and sound of the falls around her. Grinning, he called out, "'Ey! You gon' stand aroun' all day? Thought you was tired a' bein' wet?"
The Commander shook herself and silently followed when her redheaded guide continued down a path noticeably less overgrown. Catching up, she matched his pace easily and resumed her earlier diversion. After only a minute or two more however, Wakka folded his hands behind his head, elbows out in a practiced study of nonchalance. Shepard braced herself for the question she had expected since they first stepped away from the beach.
"Where you from, anyway?"
She shrugged, keeping her gaze on the road ahead. "I don't remember."
The frank admission caught him unawares and he stopped short, arms falling to his sides as he gaped comically. She continued for another few feet before turning back and raising her single unmarred brow. Wakka snapped his jaw shut and drew even with her in a few long strides. "Ya kiddin', right?"
She shook her head as they resumed walking. Smoothly, she built her story on half-truths and omissions. "I have no memory of how I came to this island. My life before that..." she trailed off, letting the redhead come to his own conclusions.
"What do ya remember?" Wakka pressed, curiosity colouring his voice.
Shepard picked her words with care. "A ship. The stars. The cold," she grimaced.
"Cold, hmm? Macalania, maybe?" he guessed.
She didn't reply, and they fell into a comfortable silence until they reached the outskirts of the small village. Stopping just before they crossed the treeline, Wakka considered her for a moment before sighing. "Let's head to my place, ya? Not good to walk around in all dat armour, an' nobody bother it if you leave it there."
He seemed to think of something, and she was surprised to see a faint blush on his tanned cheeks. "You got clothes under there, ya? I c'n get Lulu or one of the odda girls to find ya somethin' oddawise."
She smirked, but indicated she indeed had clothing and he didn't need to bother anyone on her behalf. Nodding in relief, he led them along what looked to be the main road before turning onto a side street. Though most of the structures were constructed of fabric and hide on wooden frames, they appeared to be sturdy and were generally larger than Shepard had expected.
The tent-house they stopped at was smaller than most, though she noted once they ducked inside that the main area could still seat four or five comfortably around a central brazier. Pulling aside one of the interior walls, Wakka indicated that she could change in what appeared to be his sleeping quarters.
When she emerged, she found him arranging a plate of what looked to be cut fruit and skewers of some type of game. Noticing her, he smiled and gestured for her to sit. When she'd made herself comfortable, he passed her the food and a waterskin.
"Still wearin' ya boots, huh?" he noted, sitting back to tend the fire. Neither mentioned that she'd also refused to leave the daggers behind.
Shepard savoured the sweet flavour of something vaguely mango-ish and shrugged. "It was that or barefoot, and I'm not too keen on that option."
"We find you some sandals or somethin' at Ikko's, or maybe they got a spare pair o' boots at da Crusader's Lodge."
Recalling Rikku's passing mention of them, she swallowed the last of her fruit before asking, "Crusaders?"
"Ah, man," Wakka groaned theatrically. "You really don't remember much, huh? I woulda bet you were a Crusader yourself, you know."
Sighing at her blank expression, he waved his hand between them. "Don' worry about it. Best you ask them about themselves though, ya? I'll introduce you to Luzzu when ya done eating."
She nodded her agreement and, when she had finished the last of the game and thanked him for the meal, they stepped out into the late afternoon sun. Wakka led them back out to the main road, turning towards the large stone building that dominated one side of the central square. Angling to the left of it, he led her towards the largest tent structure in the village. It was richly decorated in ivory and pale blues and its supports were carved with rough, stylised figures battling along their lengths. Before she could get a good look at them, however, Wakka had ushered her through the entrance.
Two men sat at the rough-hewn table that dominated the front half of the Crusader's Lodge. They looked up and the elder - also a redhead, she noted - smiled, waving them forward and greeting her guide as a friend. The younger one, barely more than a boy with a small black topknot, stared at her with wide eyes. Shepard supposed that, beyond her being a stranger, against the bright clothing of the islanders her blue and black fatigues were even more of an oddity. On edge, she fell back on old habits and dropped into parade rest, clutching Rikku's daggers behind her.
Hiding a small smile, she raised her scarred eyebrow in silent inquiry. Their staring contest was interrupted by the older man clapping a hand on the younger's shoulder. He thrust a hand between them and, with a quick glance at Wakka, she grasped it and shook it solidly.
He introduced himself as Luzzu, and the boy as Gatta. She nodded, murmuring her name as she returned her hand to the small of her back. Wakka took over the conversation, briefly detailing how she'd just appeared on the beach with no memory of where she was from or how she'd gotten here. He didn't mention her strange armour and she felt no need to enlighten them.
"Must've gotten too close to Sin, hm?" Luzzu was contemplative as he swept his eyes over her again.
She only shrugged, meeting his gaze and daring him to challenge her. Before the Crusader could ask anything else, Wakka broached the subject of footwear and their attention shifted. When they produced sandals similar to those her companion wore, she thanked them anyway. "They'll certainly be more comfortable than bare feet," she began.
Luzzu caught her hesitation. "But?"
Feigning embarrassment, she looked away, watching the people outside prepare for the coming night. "I am used to... sturdier boots."
Wakka's confused expression cleared and he smacked the heel of his hand to his forehead. "The cold! I can't believe I forgot, ya?"
She nodded, allowing them to believe what they would and, after a bit of scrounging, Gatta produced a pair of soft black leather boots with hard soles. Shepard accepted them gratefully, sparing a brief smile for the silent boy. "Is there something I might be able to do in exchange? I don't have any money with which to pay you."
The older Crusader hummed for a moment, then nodded to himself. "How good are you at hunting?"
"Hunting?" She glanced at Wakka from the corner of her eye.
He shrugged, "The village always needs food, ya? Not much farmland 'round here an' eatin' only fish gets old after awhile." Looking to Luzzu, he continued. "I'll take 'er out tomorrow. We gotta stop by the temple before it gets too late."
The Crusaders nodded and bid them farewell as Wakka led Shepard out of the lodge and into the evening air. Ignoring the questioning gazes of curious villagers, the redhead began to climb the small flight of stairs before the stone building. She adopted what she hoped was an appropriately reverent air as they entered the dimly lit central chamber. Stepping closer to her guide, she murmured, "Should I be bringing weapons in here?"
"You wouldn't be the first, you know?" He laughed softly and clapped her on the shoulder. "Don't worry about it. We're only here to see the summoner right now."
"I'm still only an apprentice, Wakka," a gentle, feminine voice put in from behind them.
He rubbed the back of his neck in embarrassment as they both turned and Shepard caught sight of who had snuck up on them. A girl wearing a white wrap top and purple pleated skirt was flanked by an older woman in a low-cut black dress and what appeared to be a large, blue, bipedal lion with a broken horn coming from his forehead. The lion-man snarled silently at her but she only gazed passively back. She had seen far more frightening sights than a few sharp teeth.
The girl recalled her attention and she smiled inwardly to note that her dismissal had irritated the beastman more than her defiance. "Hi, I'm Yuna!" The apprentice summoner smiled up at Shepard, gesturing to her companions, "This is Lulu and Kimahri, they'll be my guardians when I become a full summoner."
"Shepard," she murmured, letting Wakka handle the rest of the explanations while she observed the dynamic between the four islanders.
She had moved on to idly inspecting some of the impressive statuary, her energy from the meal earlier wearing off, when Yuna reached out to touch her arm. Twisting away subconsciously, Shepard dropped her new boots and brought the hand up to guard. Taking in the stunned expressions before her, she fought down a blush and straightened. Ducking to retrieve her footwear, she edged out of reach and explained. "I'm sorry. I'm not used to being touched unexpectedly and I'm really rather tired."
"Still think you some kinda Crusader," Wakka half-joked, brushing off her apology.
Yuna turned to Lulu with a concerned look on her face. "Are any of the vacation homes open? She'd be able to sleep there and no one would disturb her."
The older woman tipped her head, long black braids slipping over her shoulder as she considered the Commander carefully. Finally she nodded. "There is one not far from the village center. Come."
Gesturing with one hand she turned and left the temple. It was a relief to know she wouldn't be commandeering anyone else's bed but, turning to Wakka she murmured, "My effects..?"
"I got it," he assured, waving her on. "I know where she's takin' ya."
Hesitating a moment longer, Shepard nodded and followed Lulu. Hopefully Wakka would overlook the pistol laid out neatly beside her armour, but she doubted it. Whatever the fallout, she prayed she'd be able to put it off until morning.
The house she was led to was roughly the same size as Wakka's, though the front area could only accommodate three without issue. As she looked around inside, Lulu gave her curt directions to the village's communal baths before leaving her to wait for the young man. Silently, she consolidated the trinkets no doubt left out to give the place a more homey feel to visitors. She'd just slipped the last of them into the drawer of a side table when the redhead finally stumbled in under the weight of her hardsuit.
Shepard stifled a chuckle and went to relieve him of the burden, laying the pieces out neatly across dressers meant to hold vacationers' clothing. She'd have to clean it thoroughly before she even thought of wearing it again. It had been a long time, but the Alliance gave all new recruits a class in basic care and field maintenance.
"Shepard," he muttered as she finished straightening the last of it.
"I found this too. It's yours, ya?"
She turned to see him holding her borrowed gun awkwardly, as if touching it was physically uncomfortable. Sighing internally, she met his eyes and gave a short nod. "In a way, yes."
"'In a way!'" He sounded incredulous, though thankfully he tried to keep his voice down. "You said you didn't have any machina, but you got some right here!"
Suddenly angry, she stepped close, tugging the weapon from his inexpert grasp with one hand and poking the forefinger of her other into his sternum. "I said I didn't know what machina was," she hissed back. "This is mine until I can return it to its rightful owners."
He opened his mouth to retort but her hand came up, silencing him. "Don't even begin to speak against someone who saved my life, Wakka. I am grateful for the hospitality you've shown me, but this," she lifted the pistol into view, "is a matter of honour."
She was exaggerating somewhat, but racism - the subject she was sure he was about to bring up against the Al Bhed who'd lent her the weapon - was something she couldn't handle right now without a good night's sleep. For now she just needed him to retreat.
Sighing, out loud this time, she backed away. Absently, she unchambered the current round and pulled the clip. Looking back up, she took in his stubborn expression and showed him the separate pieces.
"Will it make you feel better if I don't use it?"
"I..." Wakka looked stunned at her concession.
"Sleep on it." Her tone was final.
Shepard didn't wait for him to leave before ducking back into the sleeping area. Carefully, she packed the pistol and bullets away in the locking chest the village provided for valuables. Slumping onto the bed, she allowed herself only a moment to think of her crew while she tinkered with her omnitool. It refused to even pretend there might be an extranet, set a proximity alarm, or tell her anything close to Zulu time. However, she did manage to get it to reveal local time and set an alarm for just before sunrise. Rerouting the notification sounds to her comlink receiver, she finally drifted off into an uneasy sleep.
This time, she found herself standing on a beach. Whether it was Virmire or Besaid or even Earth, she couldn't be sure. She turned away from the bright sunset glinting off the waters, eyes tracking the dark undergrowth for the path she knew should be there.
"How could you let me die?"
She froze, shoulders hunching slightly at the accusing tone in that painfully familiar voice. There was no way she could see that face now without breaking down.
"Why do you get to survive?"
She sucked in a startled, horrified gasp as that one voice was suddenly backed by a chorus she knew all too well. Every squadmate she'd ever lost, every civilian she couldn't save; their voices rose up behind her, demanding answers she didn't have. Whirling, their faces blurred as she backed away, retreating to the treeline as the dead surged forth on the tide. Behind them, standing waist-deep in the serene blue water with that damn smirk on his face, was a man she'd tried so hard to forget.
As icy fingers grasped her clothes and dug into her flesh, she focussed on him, letting her rage overpower the grief threatening to drown her. "You bastard!" she screamed. "Why can't you just stay dead!"
And then her ghosts were gone and she staggered with their sudden absence, leaving her alone on the sand. He watched her blankly from the surf, his quiet voice only barely crossing the distance. "What did you say?"
Shepard straightened, chin rising as she refused to back down from him. "You heard me."
For a moment neither moved. Then, between one moment and the next, he broke. The setting sun poured light through cracks that opened in him as though her defiance had shattered his very being. She had to shield her eyes as his form dissolved into nothing. The wind swept over her, bringing words so faint that when she woke, she wasn't sure she'd heard them at all.
"I wish I could..."