This has been sitting on my hard drive since March last year. Figured it was time to post it.

Much thanks to Poisonberries for her stellar beta work. :)

Disclaimer: I don't own Final Fantasy.


Loyalty's Reward

In greyscale, it was difficult to pick out the entry point of the crystal dust. The weather seals around the window had decayed over five centuries of neglect, leaving multiple probable entrances for the motes - too many to be properly monitored. And as a change in the direction of the wind might affect whether or not these gaps were indeed viable places for the dust to enter, there was no option but to observe them all. Only careful calculations allowed for efficient coverage.

Dust - 62.3% ashensand, 37.3% crystal. Increase in crystal % since last log - 0.012%. Increase in % over five-year period - 3.4%.

From its place at the base of the kitchen counter, Bhakti tracked the movement of the motes, optic lenses shifting slowly to keep them in its sights, and added an observation to its datalog.

Increased crystal % makes observation easier due to increased light refraction.

Stored in the very oldest parts of its memory were recordings of Vanille sitting on her bunk in the early morning light, watching the floating dust motes. Elaborate gestures disturbed the air currents, making the dust swirl in new patterns.

"Isn't it pretty, Bhakti?"

'Pretty' was not a term that Bhakti understood; definitions conflicted according to culture and time period. It did however, understand that whatever 'pretty' was, it pleased the Mistress, and this was a positive outcome. So even though it had been ten years since the robot had seen her, it dutifully recorded what it saw. When Vanille returned, it would show her the recordings, and she would be happy again.

The light shifted, and the crystal dust became invisible. With a resigned beep, Bhakti stopped recording and trundled to the other side of the room. Wheeling itself to the door, the small floodlight mounted behind its optics switched on. With painstaking care, Bhakti directed the light over the door frame, carefully scanning every inch. Even if the seals had crumbled, the structure itself was still solid, displaying no cracks or imperfections. Bhakti moaned its disappointment. The Mistress and her companions had been meticulous in closing the door after each of their visits. It understood why - the Mistress had not wanted Bhakti to be damaged by the Cie'th that roamed the village - but the robot was certain that it could be of more use if it was able to leave this tiny room. It had not been able to refresh its datalogs since the Mistress's last visit, and the lack of fresh data left its processors idle.

Ashensand crunching underwheel, Bhakti rolled back from the door. It was about to resume its place beside the bunk beds when something pinged on the edge of its sensors. Antennae vibrating, Bhakti spun in the direction of the signal.

6.23 years ago, a spike in energy had disrupted Bhakti's sensors. The initial spike had decreased to almost nothing before Bhakti had been able to pinpoint its source, and while traces remained, the seemingly random intervals in distance and direction made forming a conclusion about the possible cause of the signal - or even an identification of what it had been - impossible.

Ever since then, there had been anomalies in Bhakti's ability to detect things. Biorhythms would appear suddenly, and disappear just as abruptly, without any plausible explanation. At first, Bhakti had tried to assimilate this new data with its mapping of Oerba's shifting monster population. Vanishing biorhythms could be the result of inter- or intra-species battles. Bhakti had data on record of Cie'th attacking living monsters, and - if no living target presented itself - turning on one another. It was also not impossible for the approach of a monster to be disguised by random combinations of factors, causing them to register as though out of nowhere.

But as the paradoxical data accumulated, Bhakti had been forced to discard this approach as untenable. The differences between the information it received pre- and post-spike had simply been too great. There was no way to explain the discrepancies without allowing for the possibility of input error - and although self-diagnostics returned no errors, Bhakti had concluded that its sensors were compromised. It continued to log the strange signals, though. The greater amount of data available about the error, the greater the chance that it could be repaired.

But this signal was unlike the others. It had not suddenly appeared well within the range of Bhakti's sensors, but registered weakly at the edges and was growing stronger as it approached. Though not yet close enough for the robot to distinguish individual biorhythms, the strength of the life readings made it probable that there were several entities. Other energy readings were consistent with that of an approaching vehicle.

Bhakti called up a map of the area, and carefully tracked the progress of the signal. The direct path that it took towards the village - passing over several topological features that would have been avoided by those on foot - and the speed with which it was traveling made it conclusive: this was an airborne vehicle of some kind. As it arrived at Oerba's outskirts, slowing as it did, Bhakti clicked to itself. Shut in this room, it was unable to analyze the craft's emissions, making an identification of its type impossible.

The energy readings suddenly lowered substantially, and the signal blipped off Bhakti's map. With a trill, the robot boosted its sensor strength and set strict parameters on its direction, dismissing internal warnings of potential overheating. When it found seven lifeforms clustered in a tight group in the same location that the signal had vanished, and residual energy readings, Bhakti's cooling fans slowed their frantic spin. The sudden disappearance of the signal now made sense; it was likely the result of the vehicle turning off its main engine.

The lifeforms were separating from their cluster. Three were progressing into the village; four remained in their places. Bhakti reduced sensor strength to normal, turning the extra power to considerations of purpose. It was aware that Oerba was now uninhabited, and there were few potential reasons for human visitors. A Focus, perhaps - that had resulted in several human visitors in the past. The gathering of information regarding monsters - or history? It had been several centuries since Oerba had been emptied - perhaps other humans wished to discover the reason, and record it for their annals. Or...

Could the Mistress have returned? Bhakti's antennae quivered at the thought. She had travelled in a group before.

Storing its conclusions, Bhakti waited. The biorhythms were certainly consistent with adult humans, and their route through the village - following the road with a directness atypical of Cie'th or wild monsters - argued for human bioforms as well. As they rounded the corners that would lead them to the village square, Bhakti's cooling fans increased their pace again. The (probable) humans crossed the square, and began walking up the stairs that would lead to this room. Bhakti could detect the sound of footsteps on metal.

Trilling with excitement, Bhakti hurried to hide behind the curtain that separated the sleeping area from the rest of the room. It would surprise the Mistress. She had always liked surprises - when they were pleasant.

Outside the door, Bhakti heard a voice; male, unfamiliar.

"Could you just wait out here?" he asked. "This won't take long."

Bhakti ran the voice through its memory, and found no match. This was not the one who had fixed him; or the giant who had to stoop to fit through the doorway. Apprehension made the little robot sink a little lower on its wheels. Then it raised itself again. Perhaps the Mistress had found new friends. She liked making new friends.

The door swung open, squeaking over the ashensand and spreading the drift it in a shining carpet, then thudded shut again. Only one set of footsteps crunched over the floor. Bhakti edged its way forward to get a better look, and interrupted memory concerned with planning how best to announce its presence. Whirring parts halted abruptly, and cooling fans kicked in with disappointed sighs. The man was a stranger, dressed in grey and cream and yellow, drifting around the room. He paused at the table holding the photograph, and brushed a thumb over it.

"I miss you," he said quietly. "I hope you're sleeping well."

Bhakti rocked on its wheels as the man turned away from the photograph and crouched. There was a bulging pack on his back; a heavy one, to judge by the way that the man nearly toppled over before he compensated for the weight on his shoulders. Carefully, he shrugged off his burden and set it on the floor with a muffled clunk.

Bhakti's antennae vibrated. What had this stranger brought here, and for what purpose? There was nothing in Oerba but monsters and Bhakti itself. Before it could stop itself, the little robot beeped its curiosity.

The man's head turned in its direction, and Bhakti immediately rolled backwards, hiding itself behind the curtain again.

"Bhakti?" he said. "It's Hope. Do you remember me?"

Hope. The name pinged on the inside of Bhakti's CPU, brought up matches. Hope had been one of Vanille's friends. Bhakti reviewed its recent memory bank, trying to match up the boy it had seen with the man in the room now.

"I came here with Vanille and Fang and the others," continued potential-Hope. "About ten years ago. We fixed you up, remember?"

Bhakti did not have the algorithms to match bone structure or forecast a theoretical aged form. This man's identity could not be confirmed at 100% probability. But it could note the similarities: coloring of hair, eyes and skin to within acceptable parameters of change; similar vocal patterns; knowledge of the correct events. The chances of this being some kind of trick or trap were limited.

With a thoughtful beep, Bhakti rolled out from behind the curtain and approached Hope. Only the flicking, back-and-forth movement of its antennae hinted at the robot's continuing uncertainty. It had learned - by the return of its mistress after five centuries, a span of time that no human had ever lived to - that unlikely was not the same as impossible.

But this did seem to be Vanille's friend, grown past adolescence into adulthood, and he was extending a hand to Bhakti as Vanille had, many years ago. After a moment's hesitation, Bhakti wheeled itself under the offered fingers, which trailed over its outer casing.

"Hey," said Hope. "It's been a while."

Bhakti beeped its agreement. Hope's fingers were heavier than Vanille's, the caresses clumsy and unsure. The robot appreciated the effort, but it had more pressing concerns. Backtracking, it directed itself in a slow circle, as thought it was scanning the area. Would Hope understand the question that it was implying?

The skin around the man's eyes tightened, and his lips pulled downwards. "No, she's not here," he said, sadly. "She's in crystal stasis again. Fang, too."

Crystal stasis. Bhakti knew about the fate of l'Cie who completed their Focus from stories told to Vanille: eternal sleep. Even the possibility hinted at by Hope's use of 'again' did little to inhibit the conclusion forming in Bhakti's processor: the Mistress would not be returning - at least, not soon. The little robot buzzed mournfully, and sank lower on its wheels.

"I know," said Hope. "I miss her, too. I'm trying to find a way to get her and Fang out of stasis again, but it's taking a while. But we'll find it. I promise." There was a pause. Bhakti rose up on its wheels, intrigued by the disappointment in Hope's tone. The man did not seem to doubt that he would find some way of reversing a process that had always been viewed as permanent. His only expression was of sadness - that it was taking so long? Pale eyes stared off at something that Bhakti could neither see nor detect. And in any case, it knew that it was impossible for humans to see through walls.

Hope shook himself, and his eyes refocused on Bhakti. "I bet you're wondering why I came here, huh?"

Bhakti rolled forward and beeped inquisitively.

"I kind of know how you feel, now," said Hope. "Fang and Vanille are gone. The others are, too. Sazh and Dajh and Snow have vanished. Lightning's alive, but we don't know where she is, either. Even Serah..." Bhakti did not recognize all of the names, but he recognized Hope's sadness. It voiced a low moan, the way that it used to when the Mistress was sad and it tried to make her feel better. It edged forward, in case Hope would do what the Mistress did - stroke Bhakti in order to comfort herself.

"Thanks, Bhakti. I feel a little better now."

Instead, Hope blinked and looked down at the little robot, apparently jolted out of his thoughts. Bhakti backtracked immediately, and made note of the reaction. But perhaps interrupting Hope's thoughts was a positive thing. The man no longer appeared so sad.

"You know, it's strange to think of how few people miss them," said Hope slowly, and now he did reach out. Bhakti trundled forward so that Hope could reach it without straining his arm. "They all did so much for us, but that gets lost in day-to-day living." His fingers drew patterns on Bhakti's casing. "Vanille and Fang - they saved us all, you know. If Cocoon had fallen, none of us would be here."

Bhakti beeped as it recorded this new information in its datalog. There was a sense of satisfaction in doing so. The Mistress had strongly disliked hurting others. To be responsible for saving lives would be a very positive outcome for her.

"Sazh and his boy are just civilians, so it actually took a while for the authorities to notice that they were missing." Hope paused in his stroking. "Those stupid... Everyone is important. Everyone matters to someone. The way that they just dismissed the case because they weren't military or politically important..."

"But Fang, that's not fair!"

"Does it really matter? They live on the other side of the continent, Vanille! There's nothing that you can do about it!"

"And as for Lighting and Snow and Serah... Well, at least they have got people missing them besides me. There's this group called NORA - they knew them all. Lebreau helped me - well, they all did, really -" Hope stopped, abruptly. Bhakti rolled out from under his fingers and voiced an enquiring beep. Hope half-turned and looked at the backpack lying beside him, then back at Bhakti. He reached out again.

"Well, they helped me with a few things. Mostly, they helped me realize that I wasn't as alone as I thought I was. I wasn't the only one waiting for friends to come home."

"Don't worry, Vanille, she'll be back. Why don't you come wait with the rest of us? You can bring your robot pet, if you like - we're just going down to the square."

"And they helped me realize that I can't put my own life on hold. Otherwise, who knows when it might start again? It got me thinking..."

This did not make any sense to Bhakti, and the robot made a questioning noise. Hope grinned and shook his head. "Right. That was probably a little obtuse. But what I was getting at is, I remembered you. You waited five hundred years for Vanille, all by yourself."

Bhakti beeped its confirmation, still a little mournful at the thought of another long wait.

"Right now," said Hope, finally getting the contents of the bag to clear the opening, "I can't bring Vanille back. But I can give you another friend to keep you company until she returns."

What Hope set on the floor looked, to Bhakti, like a reflection of itself. Beeping rapidly and antennae vibrating, Bhakti began to circle the duplicate. Its sensors told it that this was not just a model; the still-inert robot contained functioning parts.

"I built it myself," Hope said. "With a little help from Maqui. It wasn't easy to find parts that would match yours, but I think it was worth the effort." Reaching out, he touched the small switch that would power up the other robot - Bhakti's new companion. "Its name is Jnana."

Jnana powered up with a slow whir. Bhakti, unable to restrain itself, beeped excitedly. Jnana's antennae flicked as it came online, and its optical lenses shifted in their sockets as they calibrated themselves. Bhakti sent a ping to the other robot. Since Hope had gone to the trouble of finding or building cosmetically similar parts for the other robot, Bhakti it was likely that he had also made sure that Jnana would have a compatible system.

Its suspicion was confirmed as Jnana sent a return ping. Twittering with excitement, Bhakti began to circle the other robot, trying to examine it as fully as possible. Jnana sent a location enquiry, which Bhakti answered eagerly. This appeared to satisfy the other robot's information requirements, as Jnana began to try circling Bhakti as well. It was inefficient and clumsy, but Bhakti dismissed such concerns. It had never wanted for company while Vanille had been present, but when she was gone, it had felt lonely. Bereft. Humans could not always be present; they had affairs of their own to deal with. But a robotic companion would not have those same concerns.

For the first time since its Mistress's reappearance, Bhakti felt happy.

Bhakti halted abruptly. Jnana whistled in what might have been approval, but for the moment, Bhakti put consideration of its new companion out of its processor. Instead, it directed optical lenses toward Hope, who was balancing easily in his crouch. There was a smile on his face, but though the light from the window was limited, Bhakti could see that his eyes were a little too bright. Since a quick check of Hope's heat signature confirmed that he was still at a normal temperature for an adult human, and thus eliminating the possibility of illness, Bhakti concluded that Hope was feeling sad again.

Perhaps he was missing his other human companions.

Bhakti warbled. It wished that there was something that it could do for him. Hope had remembered Bhakti - even though he was lonely. What could Bhakti do in return?

Before Bhakti could come to a conclusion, Hope stood up, and Jnana stopped its whirling to turn in his direction. It beeped in enquiry, trundling towards the man. Bhakti felt its excitement dampened slightly. Jnana did not yet know that humans had to come and go according to their own schedules. Bhakti weighed the option of sending this information to the other robot, and opted against it.

"I have to go," said Hope. He was smiling, but Bhakti suspected that it was a sad smile. "I have a lot of work to do. I'm going to keep looking for a way to bring Vanille and Fang out of crystal stasis."

Bhakti waved its antennae, trying to convey its approval and hopes for his success. Jnana was making low, rapid-fire beeps, rocking back and forth on its wheels. Bhakti sent a concerned enquiry. Jnana responded with confusion - it had been programmed to greet and farewell humans, as Bhakti had, but was not sure how to express appropriate affection. Bhakti sent its memories of Vanille's petting and Hope's own greeting. This, it was sure, was the acceptable way to indicate affection to humans. And perhaps this would be an acceptable way to indicate to Hope that Bhakti appreciated what he had done.

Hope was looking at Jnana with concern, his eyebrows drawing together and his brow furrowing. Bhakti sent the other robot an encouraging ping. Making its decision, Jnana voiced one piercing whistle and rolled up to Hope's feet. Gently, it nudged at his leg - something that Bhakti used to do to Vanille when it wanted its mistress to kneel.

Slowly, Hope crouched again and rubbed a hand over the the robot's casing. It rolled back and forth a little. Bhakti trilled in approval.

After a few moments, Hope cleared his throat, blinking rapidly. He stood up and stepped over Jnana. "Take good care of each other," he said, making his way to the door. "I'll see you later."

Jnana moaned its disappointment, and Bhakti sank a little lower on its wheels. It did not want Hope to leave - not yet. But - this was what humans did. Trundling forward, it voiced a series of rapid beeps in farewell. Jnana taking its cue from Bhakti, did the same. Hope hesitated at the door, and turned back for a moment.

"I'll come back," he said. "If I can." Opening the door, he stepped through. As a woman outside said, "Did it go well, Director?", the door swung back towards its place and bounced off the latch. Bhakti murmured in surprise.

"Yes, it went fine," replied Hope. "Let's go. I'd better get back to Academia and find out what kind of havoc Alyssa's created in my absence." Fading footsteps rang metallic on the stairs, then faded into faint thumps.

As Bhakti rolled carefully towards the door, the last thing he heard from Hope and the other humans was laughter. This was positive. Hope would not be lonely. He had his other human companions, as Bhakti now had Jnana. But now that Hope was leaving, it had another concern.

Jnana followed, trilling an enquiry. Although Bhakti's sensors told it that the humans were making their way back to the edge of the village, where their transport presumably awaited them, it was hesitant as it approached the gap between the door and the frame.

Jnana trilled again. Bhakti sent a request for sensory readings, which - after a brief pause - Jnana relayed. The other robot's sensors confirmed what Bhakti's were telling it. There were no other lifeforms nearby.

Bhakti wedged itself into the opening. There was just enough room for it, so there would be for Jnana as well, but Bhakti made certain of their passage by shifting back and forth until the door swung further open. Bright sunlight poured down over them both. Jnana rolled up beside Bhakti, and they looked out over the empty village.

Bhakti bumped its way over the threshold and onto the stairs. Jnana followed, slightly more circumspectly. Together, they made their halting way to the bottom of the steps. The wide expanse of the courtyard that had once been Oerba's center stretched out before them.

Somewhere to the south, Bhakti detected the noise of an airship taking off, and swiveled so that it could watch it recede into the distance. Only when it faded entirely did Bhakti allow itself to accept the conclusion that it had reached: they had been allowed to leave!

For a moment, Bhakti checked itself. Just because there were no monsters or Cie'th present at that moment did not mean that they would not appear. It was not safe out here. Still, it felt no compulsion to return to the room.

Warbling in delight, and with Jnana in tow, Bhakti set off to explore.