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It was just past midnight when Aza – muddy, wet and heavily bruised – limped his way into the Ala Mhigan Quarter’s stables. 

“Hanging in there, Rations?” he asked the dark blue Chocobo limping along beside him, smiling when he got a happy little wark in reply, “Yeah, yeah, you’re a trooper. Well, we’re almost at your stall now.” 

Indeed, at the very end – the best stall, the young stable boy had assured him when they claimed it – Rations’s stall was swept and ready with a fresh bed of straw. Aza flipped the lock up and pushed the stall door wide – only to pause, giving his bedraggled Chocobo a once over. 

Thick clumps of mud clung to her underside and all down her legs. He had hoped that the walk back would have dried it off enough for him at least brush the worst of the mud off, but it still had that slimy, chilly consistency from when Rations had first gotten stuck in that Gods forsaken swamp. 

“First things first though,” he muttered to himself, leading Rations into the stall and carefully easing the bridle off her beak, “Stay standing for me, lovely, I need to get all that crap off you.” 

Rations warbled and fluffed up – before dutifully holding very still as Aza methodically began stripping off her armour, clearly favouring one leg. Aza kept a close eye on it, hanging the filthy armour over the side of the stall to be dealt with at a later date. He was certain Rations hadn’t seriously damaged that leg and the potion had done well to seal up the nasty gash but… well, better safe than sorry.

“I’ll get someone to look at that tomorrow morning,” he said, shuffling to the corner of the stall to where a small grooming box was stored, “So don’t peck at it or anything.”

“Wark!”

“I mean it,” Aza said firmly, straightening up with a thick towel one hand and a brush in the other, “I know what you’re like. You peck at it and I’ll keep you stabled for a week.”

“Wark…” Rations openly sulked. 

“That look won’t work on me,” he said, unable to stop an amused smile as he walked back over, “Now hold still.” 

It took very little time, really, to rub Rations down and clear her feathers of any lingering, foul smelling mud. By the time he was done he could feel his own exhaustion tugging at his limbs, very aware of the weight of his armour and his own aches and pains left unattended. He could deal with that later though.

“Alr-r… right…” Aza said around a yawn, “Okay, you’re done, lovely.”

“Wrrrrk…” Rations gave herself a little shake, her feathers all ruffled and fluffed out from her vigorous rub down, and lightly headbutted Aza’s shoulder in open affection.

“Yeah, feels better now, doesn’t it?” Aza hummed, tossing the filthy towel over the equally dirty armour on the stall gate and deciding that that was future-Aza’s problem to deal with, “Ready to sleep?”

“Kweh.”

Aza tidied up what little mess he made as Rations carefully curled up in her soft bed of straw and paused by the stall’s gate. His greatblade was propped in the very corner, and Aza eyed it tiredly. The mere thought of hefting that weight onto his back and trudging his way to the inn just sapped his motivation to nothing. The baths wouldn’t be open either until the morning, and it was pretty cold outside of the stables, especially since his underclothes were very damp right now.

Plus the inn was all the way on the other side of the quarter and…

“Fuck it,” he muttered, pushing away from the gate and over to Rations. His Chocobo didn’t so much as stir when he flopped down on the straw and leaned against her muscular bulk. It was mildly chilly, but this wasn’t the first time he slept in the stables covered in muck and soaked to the bone. He was as robust as a Behemoth and hadn’t been ill since he was a child. He’d be fine.

And with that last bit of tempting fate, Aza let his eyes slide shut, immediately drifting into an exhausted sleep-

 


 

-and jerked awake from something jabbing him hard in the ribs.

“Hey, mister,” a young, high voice whispered to him, accompanied with another hard jab, “Are you dead?”

“Ugh…” Aza groaned, blindly grabbing at whatever was poking him right in his sore spot. It was solid and thin beneath his palm, and he felt the barest hint of resistance when the person at the end tugged it experimentally. With supreme effort, he opened his eyes to see a blurry orange-brown blob in front of him. Uh…?

“Oh, you’re not dead,” the young voice – the blob – said, sounding oddly disappointed, “Hey, can you let go of my broom?”

“You gonna poke me again?” Aza rasped, almost flinching at the needle-like burn flaring down his dry throat. Gods, he sounded awful, “Cuz m’not in mood for that.”

“I won’t poke you, mister,” the blob promised.

Aza let go, and he wasn’t prodded again. He blinked several times, his gaze slowly focusing to reveal that the blob was actually a very small Miqo’te child. A Seeker boy, with bright orange hair and equally bright eyes. He was staring a him in open fascination.

“Are you a bum?” the kid asked, “The stablemaster says I’ve gotta chase rogues and bums and vag- vagabonds away.”

“M’not a bum,” Aza said, reluctantly sitting up from his comfortable slouch against Rations’s bulk, grunting when a few aches from last night flared back to life with vengeance. His Chocobo was still flat out, the lucky thing. “Just takin’ a nap with my Chocobo.”

“Hmmm, sounds like something a bum’d say,” the kid said blithely, “You’re all smelly and dirty and sound weird.”

Well, Aza couldn’t argue those points. He looked down at himself, seeing that the swamp from last night had dried into thick, blackish clumps and smears over his armour, and the unsavoury mix of sweat, oil and brackish water made him stink worse than the backend of a Work-Chocobo.

“I was, uh, killing monsters last night,” Aza said scratchily, lifting a hand to see if his braid had held out during the night and tutting when he found it half-undone, “Helping patrols out.”

“Killin’ monsters?” The kid’s eyes widened in awe, “Oh, are you an adventurer? I heard they go into haunted ruins and find lots of treasure and stuff.”

“Something like that,” Aza answered, tugging his braid loose and fluffing his hair out, “Some people compare us to sellswords or mercenaries, though. Doing jobs no one else wants to do.”

The kid stared at him thoughtfully, not saying anymore as Aza tiredly redid his braid. It was sloppy work, but it would keep his hair out of the way until he crawled his way to the baths. Judging by the muted noise of crowds drifting from the stables’ open windows, and the bright, cheerful sunlight streaming through, it was late in the morning. Great, he overslept. He promised to meet the Flame Captain by dawn to tell him his job was done. Best do that before washing up.

“If adventurers find treasures and stuff,” the kid finally said, “Why do you look like a bum?”

“The baths were shut when I got in,” Aza patiently replied, slowly getting to his feet. His knees audibly clicked, his back and neck pulling uncomfortably – ugh, he was getting old. Ten years ago he could’ve leapt to his feet and be ready to run a marathon after a rough night in the stables, “Also, I’m lazy.”

“Kinda dumb too,” the kid said with a cheeky grin, “It was pretty cold last night, mister.”

“Tell me about it,” Aza muttered, rubbing the back of his neck, glancing down at the kid. Despite being told by the stablemaster to chase off unsavoury types, the kid didn’t seem all that eager to send him on his way, “What’s your name?”

“M’rha,” the kid chirped, puffing his chest out in obvious pride, “My sister’s part of the Resistance!”

“Oh…?” There weren’t many Miqo’te in the Resistance, from what he’d seen. M’naago’s tribe seemed more content to be a separate entity from them whilst still assisting them. Not that Aza really cared about the politics of Ala Mhigo right now. It gave him a headache to think about, “Is this your way of helping out?”

“Mmhm!” M’rha said, “I love Chocobos, so my sis told me to help the stablemaster out! I’m learning lots!”

“That’s amazing,” Aza said sincerely, “Are you doing your rounds this morning, then?”

“Yup! You get some people who sneak in here,” M’rha brandished his broom about, “Which is why I have this! I make sure bums don’t roll around in the stables and upset the birds!”

Which, technically speaking, Aza sort of was at the moment, though the kid didn’t look like he was going to start whacking at his shins any time soon. Hopefully…

“I better get out of your way then,” Aza said, casting a quick eye over the stall to see what he needed to grab. His Greatsword, and… ah, the saddlebags can stay with Rations. She’d defend the contents with her life, “By the way, Rations here has an injury on her leg. Could you ask the Veterinarian to take a look at her when they’re able?”

“Sure thing, mister!” M’rha said eagerly, giving him a very sloppy Flame salute. It was enough to make Aza blink, “What’s your name, though? The Vet don’t do treatment for free.”

“Oh, uh, just say Aza. He’ll know who I am,” Aza said quickly, hoping the kid wouldn’t recognise it, “Anyway, best be off. Have a good day, M’rha.”

“You too, mister!” M’rha said cheerily, before scampering off. No doubt to see if any other stalls were hiding other bedraggled, filthy adventurers.

Aza heaved a relieved sigh – only to jump when something pecked him in the calf. He twisted round, making a face at Rations giving him a deeply judgemental look from her curled up position on the floor.

“Don’t look at me like that,” Aza grumbled, “The inn was too far.”

“Kweh.”

“I’m fine. Just… got a dry throat, is all,” he huffed, pausing to clear it with a sharp cough. It… actually hurt, ow.

“I’ll grab something to drink in a bit,” he added reluctantly, moving away to grab his Greatsword. His muscles screamed in protest as he hefted its weight onehanded, a sharp pain throbbing just to the left of his breastbone as he slotted the weapon neatly into the magnetic locks on his back. Eh, he’ll worry about that later, “Now rest up. The Vet’s going to take a look at you in a bit, so behave for him.”

“Wrrrrk,” Rations exhaled noisily, turning her head to tuck it under her wing.

“Love you too,” Aza muttered, rolling his eyes at his Chocobo’s attitude. He exited the stall and eyed the mud splattered barding and saddle tossed over the edge of it. Eh… he’ll deal with that later today. Flame Captain first, then bath, then a late breakfast. Mm, sounded good.

Spirits lifting at the prospect of food, Aza walked out of the stables. He squinted against the bright morning sun, his ears flicking back as he eased into the steady flow of foot traffic in the wide, Ala Mhigan street. He let the sounds of civilisation wash over him, his feet mindlessly taking him to where the Eorzean Alliance had set up their temporary headquarters within the Ala Mhigan Quarter.

It was quite close to the front gates, set up in some old warehouses that used to hold a Garlean armoury and barracks. All the weapons and ammunition had been confiscated and hauled off after being divvied up between the City States, and now the buildings acted as both the barracks, the headquarters and the logistical centre of the Eorzean Alliance. From what Aza understood, they didn’t want to tread on too many Ala Mhigan toes by having their forces take up more room than necessary – while they were indeed grateful for being liberated, there were some radical elements who viewed the Grand Companies’ presence as another occupying force. So, it was best to have them sequestered in their own little corner whilst they handled keeping security and order in the wake of Ala Mhigo’s liberation.

There was an inn next to the warehouse though that was practically rolling in business. Its rooms upstairs were mostly used by the higher ranks of the Alliance, including Aymeric, and the tavern on its lowest floor had a constant flow of soldiers throwing their coin into drinks. Aza was fairly certain that the grizzled old man in charge of that tavern was laughing his way into wealth.

By the time he reached this bustling hive of Alliance activity, it was edging close to what he suspected as noon. He weaved his way through the throng of uniformed men and women, seeing a few Ala Mhigan Resistance soldiers mingling amongst them, making a beeline for the rudimentary Levequest booth. It was essentially where all the shit jobs none of the soldiers had time or motivation for were put up for adventurers to snag up – and in the wake of Ala Mhigo’s liberation, there was a massive influx of them. Ala Mhigo and Doma were now open for exploring, with the expulsion of Garlean forces, after all.

“Lieutenant Lynel!” The Flame Captain hailed as he approached, “I was wondering what happened to you! Got trapped in a swamp, eh?”

Aza huffed, drawing to a halt in front of the booth – really just a sturdy plank of wood thrown over two large crates – and levelled an unimpressed look at the captain before him. The Flame Captain was a tall, swarthy Roe with a dark grey complexion and a face that was naturally inclined to grin. He was a friendly chap, but his enthusiasm this morning was almost offensive to Aza’s fatigued state. 

“Yeah,” Aza grunted, “I’ll be digging mud out of places I didn’t know existed for days.”

The Flame Captain laughed heartily, “And your fur! I’ve known enough Miqo’te to know that that is always a fun tasking.” 

Aza made a face. He had been deliberately trying not to think about that. He flicked his tail, looking over his shoulder to see that the sandy brown fur was matted and clumped with that foul swamp mud. The one time he wished he didn’t inherit his mother’s long, thick fur…

“I might have to… shave the fur down,” Aza admitted, “Ugh." 

“Tell you what,” The Flame Captain said, “I’ll slip in a bit extra for that. Maybe 10%- ah, pardon me. Which job was it you did again?” 

“Oh,” Aza turned his attention away from the poor state of his tail, “It was…” 

He spent the next ten minutes hashing out the details of his jobs – it was a simple monster extermination, so the wrangling of pay was actually quite straight forward. He even secured a few more jobs to be officially picked up later in the afternoon. ‘Some from Ishgard,’ the Flame Captain had said with a very knowing look.

“Well, it’s always a pleasure, Lieutenant Lynel,” The Flame Captain said once Aza had been paid and spoken himself slightly hoarse, “Enjoy your bath and meal. I’ll see you later today.”

“Yeah, see you,” Aza said, wandering away from the booth. His stomach gave a quiet gurgle and he was tempted to just grab food first. He wouldn’t be allowed in the tavern due to how filthy he was, but this area was brimming with street stalls selling food to hungry or on duty soldiers, and they definitely weren’t picky about the state of your clothes so long as you paid.

“Decisions…” Aza rasped to himself, wrinkling his nose and rubbing his throat.

“By the Twelve,” a familiar voice drawled, “What happened to you?”

Aza’s ear flicked towards the voice before he turned, his frown instantly brightening into a smile as he recognised Thancred morphing out of the flow of Alliance soldiers. “Thancred? What’re you doing here?”

“Paying a brief visit,” he said easily, looking Aza up and down very carefully, “Are you alright? You sound very… rough.”

“Been better,” Aza admitted, “Got stuck in a swamp last night doing monster hunting.”

“And apparently drank the swamp too, with that horrible voice,” Thancred said, his smile not quite covering up the concern in his visible eye. “Come on, off to the baths with you. If we peel off that inch-thick layer of mud, we might be able to see if you’re still a Miqo’te underneath.”

“Hah,” Aza said flatly, giving in to Thancred’s not so subtle urging. Looked like he was bathing before eating, sorry stomach. “I’m not that bad.” 

Thancred just looked at him, slowly reaching out and flicking off an inch-thick clump of mud off his cheek. He didn’t break eye contact. “Really?” 

“…shut up.”

 


 

Alisaie grimaced as she rolled her shoulder, feeling the tight pull of recently healed muscle and skin. The injury inflicted wasn’t fatal, but Fordola’s blade had cut deep enough in such an awkwardly delicate joint that even now, a few weeks after the injury, it was still giving her trouble. ‘Light exercise’ the chirugeon said sternly, and it chafed at her. She was sick and tired of being the one who got injured and needed to be protected. How was she supposed to stand equal to Aza if she kept getting knocked flat on her back each time?

“Oh dear, now that’s a seriously grumpy face.”

Alisaie startled, looking up from where she’d been scowling at the bathhouse sign to see – Thancred and… ah, speak of the Devil.

“Thancred, Aza,” Alisaie greeted, stuffing her frustrations down as she took in Aza’s curiously filthy state. He looked like he’d just finished crawling out of his own grave, and his exhausted, dead-eyed stare only emphasised his sorry state, “What happened to you?”

“S-Swaaaa… amp,” Aza said around a sudden yawn, hiding his mouth behind his hand, “Urgh… poor life choices. Things like that.”

“Aza was telling me how he fell asleep in the stables while soaked to the bone,” Thancred said mildly, “Because he’s an idiot.”

“Why are you so mean to me, Thancred.”

“You are an idiot,” Alisaie said, unable to suppress a smile when Aza turned his pouty look onto her, “It was cold last night, you’re lucky you didn’t get hypothermia.”

“I,” Aza said in a very raspy voice, “am as healthy as a Behemoth. I haven’t been ill in decades.”

Alisaie and Thancred both simply looked at him, not saying a word.

“Okay, maybe not decades,” Aza admitted after an awkward pause, “But still, my immune system is rock solid.”

Thancred lifted his hands up in an exasperated sigh, shaking his head as if Aza was a particularly troublesome child, “That merely means you’re long overdue. You have been pushing yourself quite hard, recently. Exhaustion is just as likely to make you ill as is frolicking in filthy swamps.”

“Okay, one, I didn’t frolic,” Aza huffed, pointing rudely at his face, “And secondly, it doesn’t work like that.”

“No?” Thancred said innocently.

“No,” Aza scowled, “Not for me, at least. I’m indomitable, even to viruses and bacteria.” 

Thancred glanced at Alisaie with an expression of deep exasperation. She rolled her eyes back, amused despite Aza’s comical stubbornness. She greatly admired him for his tenacity and compassion, but she could admit he was so ridiculous about the oddest of things.

“It doesn’t work like that,” Alisaie repeated, settling a hand on her hip, “If a virus or bacteria wants to infect you, it will.”

“With an attitude like that, it will,” Aza muttered sotto voce.

“I don’t think ‘mind over matter’, er, matters here,” Thancred added.

“Hmmm…” Aza slid a heavy-lidded stare at him, like he was sizing him up for a coffin, “Sounds fake, but okay.”

Alisaie just sighed, backing off from this obviously futile battle, “Were you going to the baths?” she prompted, slowly becoming aware of the… smell, wafting from him. It caught unpleasantly in the back of her throat.

“Yeah,” Aza rasped, “Going to drown myself in it.”

“I can help hold your head down, if you want,” Thancred offered dryly.

“Going to drown Thancred in it,” Aza instantly corrected.

“Hey.”

“I’ll leave you two to it,” Alisaie said, washing her hands clean of this particular disaster in the making. She heard how Aza got banned from the Kugane bath house, after all, “For whoever survives, the other Scions are having a late lunch at the Stalwart Griffin in two hours.”

“Oh,” Aza visibly perked at the mention of food, “I’ll definitely be there!”

Hey,” Thancred repeated, looking worried about his potentially shrinking lifespan. 

Alisaie looked at him, “I’ll get nice flowers for your funeral.” 

“Hey!” 

“Now, now…” Aza purred dangerously, slinging a friendly yet threatening arm around Thancred’s shoulders, “It’s best to just accept your fate, sometimes.” 

Alisaie made her swift exit then, shaking her head with a small smile when the beginnings of a playful squabble sounded behind her. Seeing Aza capable of getting so ruffled and messy made her feel a little better. It seemed he wasn’t so impossible to catch up to, after all.

 


 

There was no greater feeling than a hot, warm shower after a long day. 

Well, ‘long day’ in that last night and this morning was blurring into one horribly long, exhausting ordeal. Aza was still starving, but standing under the hot spray of water, scrubbing the itchy filth from his skin, more than made up for it. He was discovering a lot of ‘mud patches’ were actually bruises though, which was worrying. 

He gingerly prodded a particularly ugly purple bruise spanning over his left side, wincing at the needle-sharp pain that flared from the pressure. Those ribs were… potentially cracked, just a little. 

Shelving that as a problem to deal with later, maybe, Aza finished up scrubbing his hands through his wet hair, making sure it was free of any lingering mud or dried blood, before turning the shower off. It was at this point where he usually moved onwards to the communal baths – it was a good place to socialise, since it was the communal baths that catered mostly to Eorzean soldiers and visiting adventurers alike, but Aza was 90% certain that the moment he sank into that warm water he’d conk out and go into a coma or something.

Nope, sleep would have to wait for now. He needed to do some things before lunch with the Scions and… maybe squeeze in a thirty-minute powernap, grab an X-Potion to dull those aches and pains twinging to the surface and see the Flame Captain about those jobs he promised to take up. No rest for the righteous, ha. 

“Are you still dawdling in there?” Thancred’s voice called from beyond the shower door. They were all separated into stalls for privacy’s sake, but the showers were still linked by one large dressing room. Aza had hoped Thancred had moved onto the baths already so he could slip out.  

“Finished,” he half-yawned, struggling to keep his eyes open as he grabbed his towel and wrapped it around his hips, shoving the door open blindly, “M’too tired t-t-toooo…” Yaaaaaawn, “Mmn, bathe.”

Thancred was still dressed and was looking at him with a very keen, scrutinising stare. Aza fought the impulsive urge to cover his chest.

“Did you see a Chirugeon at all when you came back?” Thancred finally asked, when the silence began to get a little awkward.

“No,” Aza admitted, suddenly very aware and guilty of the splotchy mess of black and blue all over his body, “It’s fine. I’ll grab a potion before lunch and sleep it off after.”

“Hmm,” Thancred said, his expression worryingly unreadable, “Well, in any case, I grabbed some spare, clean clothes for you whilst you were showering.”

He gestured to one of the stone hewn benches running along the far wall of the dressing room, where Thancred had thoughtfully nabbed one of Aza’s lighter sets of armour. It was the Ala Mhigan style cured leather armour – and left last in ‘his’ room that was mostly occupied by his adventurer friends. Aza hadn’t slept in there since he was first given the damn thing.

“Oh, right,” Aza said blankly, “I forgot about clean clothes.”

Thancred made a low, tutting noise, giving him another once over, but kept whatever opinion he was forming to himself, “Would have been pointless to clean up only to crawl back into… those.”

Both of them glanced at the messy pile of muddy armour dumped on the floor next to the shower stall. Yeah, now that Aza had washed up, he was painfully aware of the stink. Cleaning that armour was going to be a pain, ugh.

“Mmn, yeah. Thanks, Th-Tha-aaaan…cred…” Aza failed to muffle another yawn, blinking rapidly as the itchiness of sleep started to creep in. Okay, maybe he should take his thirty-minute power nap now. The stone bench was looking mighty comfy…  

“You’re right, you’re too tired to bathe,” Thancred said, a hint of a smile creeping on his face, “The Kojin’s Blessing would mean you wouldn’t drown but… well, no point in causing a panic from some poor soul discovering you snoozing at the bottom of the bath.”

The thought was amusing, but Aza agreed. No point causing that type of trouble. “Mmhmm.”

“Come on,” Thancred coaxed, “Let’s get you dressed and into bed.”

Aza mumbled something agreeable to that, and went to do just that. It took longer than usual – on the heels of fatigue came clumsiness, and really, was this armour really that complicated to put on? The straps seemed more unyielding and the buckles more fidgety – but eventually, Aza managed to dress himself without falling asleep halfway through (though, the accidentally jabbing of his bruises and potentially cracked ribs jolted him out of any drowsiness he may’ve drifted into).

Tiredly tying his hair back into its braid, Aza cast an eye for his blade – and frowned when he saw Thancred had already hefted it over his shoulder. It was an awkward hold, one that Thancred was obviously uncomfortable in bearing, but his firm expression said he wasn’t going to give it up.

“Let’s give those bruised ribs of yours a rest, mm?” Thancred said, tilted his head towards the exit, “I can carry it to next door fine.”

“My ribs aren’t going to snap under the pressure of carrying that to the inn,” Aza grumbled, but gave in. He lacked the energy to properly contest it – and it wasn’t as if he was unarmed. He always made sure his armour had several knives hidden away in them somewhere, just in case. “But fine, do as you will.”

Looking back, Aza didn’t really remember the walk to the inn. Thancred began talking about what Hilda had been up to back in Ishgard, and Aza let the words of his friend wash over him like a comforting wave, his eyes halfway shut and relying on the minute shifts of aether to tell him when he was about to bump into someone or something. In what felt like no time at all, Thancred had walked him to his inn room and…

Hmm… honestly, he must’ve fallen asleep on his feet, because he didn’t remember anything after that.

 


 

Aza stirred awake at the noise of low murmurs.

“Well I say Garuda would win, just because her batshit insanity gives her extra vicious points.”

“Rock and fire trumps wind, though. I say Titan. He has the elemental advantage against both Ifrit and Garuda.”

“I can’t believe you’re really arguing about this… obviously Ifrit would be the winner.”

Ifrit? That glorified salamander?”

“Do you remember the last time we fought him? Searing Heat, anyone?”

"Uuuuugh, Gods, no, I blocked that from memory…”

Aza basked in the voices that he slowly recognised as those of his party, feeling his body wake up as the twinges and aches began to make themselves known once more with vengeance. His muscles were tense and sore, and each inhale made something sharp stab just level with his diaphragm. Painful, but tolerable. Aza shifted to his good side, grunting when the movement made everything flare up with pain.

The voices instantly quietened.

“…Aza?” Crisp’s voice suddenly asked, and he then felt a warm hand press against his forehead. He opened his eyes blearily, everything blurry and out of focus.

“Mngh?” he asked unintelligibly, closing his eyes again when the light from the room somehow physical stabbed into his brain. Gods… worse than any hangover right now…

“Huh, guess he’s alive,” she said idly, removing her hand and brushing her fingers over his hair. A cooling tingle of White Magic tinged the aether, taking the edge off the pain, “If you’re feeling up for food, we’ve got some stuff here.”

“We ate most of it ourselves,” Bluebird’s voice piped up, not sounding apologetic in the slightest, “It looked really nice and you were just snoozing away, sooo~”

“I don’t think he should eat anything solid right now,” Papaya’s voice cut in, “Has his fever gone down yet?”

“Not yet,” Crisp said, while Aza tried to muddle through what was just said. Fever? Huh? “Hey, Bluebird, make yourself useful and get food from downstairs. Something hearty, I don’t care what.”

“Sh’ln’t I’ick f’d…?” Aza rasped, almost coughing from the sandpaper quality his throat had become.

“I have no idea what you just said,” Crisp said cheerfully, “But I’m going to say no to whatever it was.”

There was the sound of footsteps and a door opening. The muffled noise of chatter and laughing filtered through before abruptly cutting off. Aza forced himself to open his eyes again, this time into slits, and saw the blurry figure of Crisp perched on the edge of his bed, book in one hand. She was dressed in her ‘lounge clothes’, as she called them, which was just a shirt and shorts. 

“Gods,” Crisp said, looking down at him with smile, “You look like absolute shit.”

“F’ck off,” Aza coughed, tucking his head against his blanket to muffle the noise. The more he was shifting to wakefulness, the more shit he felt. Oh, Gods, no, it couldn’t be. He couldn’t be… ill.

"Hmm,” Papaya sounded amused, “Well, he’s more coherent this time, at least.”

“Huh?” Aza lifted his head, trying to spot Papaya. But the damn Lalafell was somewhere out of sight in the low-lit room, and Aza quickly gave up. “C’hrent?”

“Mmhm,” Crisp’s attention had returned mostly to her book, though she kept one hand on Aza’s hair, occasionally sending a gentle brush of White Magic over him, “You’ve been out of it for, oh… half a day? It’s past midnight now.”

Aza processed this.

“…how.”

“Well, when Thancred dumped your exhausted body in this bed,” Crisp said with mocking patience, “It just gave up. A few hours in and a fever developed, and then we had to deal with you having messed up fever dreams.”

“You have very disturbing dreams,” Papaya’s voice confirmed, “Like, ‘you need help’ level of disturbing.”

Aza had no recollection of this whatsoever, “Wha… but… really?”

“Really,” Crisp confirmed, “You started crying about something at one point. Don’t worry though, I won’t tell anyone. I’m not that cruel.”

“Bluebird on the other hand…” Papaya said pointedly.

“Oh, no, she knows the boundaries,” Crisp said firmly, “She won’t talk.”

Foggily, Aza was mildly worried as to what the hell he had been crying about to make Crisp put her foot down. Normally she blurted anything embarrassing Aza had done to any willing listener in a demented attempt to keep him humble – but they had been friends for a long while now, and he knew that beneath her lackadaisical attitude she really did care about him in her own weird way. His whole party did, even if they drove him insane.

“Anyways,” Crisp continued, poking him in the forehead, “Think you can sit up? Unless you want to drown in your soup lying down like that.”

“Urgh,” Aza groaned at the prospect of moving, but… his stomach gave a painful, near nauseating clench at the thought of food. If what Crisp said was true, he hadn’t eaten in well over a day. He needed to eat, even if the mere thought of moving made him want to crawl out of his own skin.

“There, there,” Crisp cooed unsympathetically, making no move to help him as he slowly and laboriously sat up, “It’ll be worth it once you get a bellyful of food and some water in you.”

Pointedly, she reached out and nudged a flask of water sitting on his bedside table. He eyed it warily.

“I’ve tested it, it’s safe,” Crisp said, “Papaya drank some.”

“Completely fine,” Papaya said, now visible from Aza’s new vantage point. He was sprawled on the floor on his stomach, building a pyramid out of their Triple Triad cards. He looked like he had just rolled out of bed, night clothes and all, “Just normal water.”

Aza took the water.

It was slightly warm, but still refreshing as it soothed his raw throat and helped to ease the pounding behind his eyes somewhat. Before he knew it, he had chugged almost half the flask in one go, stopping only when his stomach churned in protest. Gods, he didn’t realise how thirsty he was either.

“Dehydrated, hungry, ill and recovering from fractured bones…” Crisp said idly, “You really don’t do things by halves, do you?”

“Go big or go home,” Aza rasped, feeling a little more alert now.

“Heh,” Crisp chortled to herself, looking back down at the book in her lap, “True enough.”

Aza leant back against the pillows propping him up against the headboard, closing his eyes and trying not to completely drift off. Despite the aches and pains, he felt comfortable in his friends’ presence, and he made a mental note to get them something nice later. It had been a while since he arranged a nice, exciting adventure for them all… maybe they could…

“I’m baaack~” Bluebird called after kicking the door open and nearly startling Aza out of his skin. She marched in with a tray laden with food, and she was the only one out of all four of them dressed in armour with her daggers hanging at her belt, “Choo, choo, here comes the Bluebird Express with a food delivery for our sickly Warrior of Light!”

Crisp snapped her book shut and rose to her feet, freeing up space on the bed, “That’s way too much food.”

“Well, I was still hungry,” Bluebird sniffed, “So I got extra. Here you go, Aza.”

The Au Ra lowered the tray carefully on his lap. There was a bowl of hearty stew with a plate of buttered bread, as well as a few small plates with cold meats and cheese. Bluebird instantly snatched up those small plates, “These ones are mine… and the stew and bread are yours. If you can’t finish it, I’ll eat it.”

“Please finish it,” Crisp said dryly, “You need the energy.”

Aza ducked his head and hid a smile as Bluebird complained loudly but insincerely as she sat down on the bed next to him. Crisp, after putting down her book, sat on his other side, reaching over his tray to snag a piece of cheese from Bluebird’s plate.

“Oi, Papaya,” Bluebird catcalled, tossing a bread crumb at the Lalafell, “Get your popoto butt up here with them cards. We’re gonna play!”

Papaya sighed as if put upon, but duly gathered up his cards and padded over to the bed. He sat near Aza’s knees and started shuffling the deck between his hands with a card shark’s experience, “With what rules?”

“You got duplicates in there?”

“Lots,” Papaya scoffed, “Since someone-” he stared at Crisp who merely looked innocent, “-keeps picking up the common one-star cards.”

“Hey, they go to waste otherwise,” Crisp sniff, “And it means we can play Triad Snap.”

Aza groaned, “Ugh, not Triad Snap.”

“Awww, is the wittle kitty scared of looooosing~?” Bluebird cooed mockingly, “Okay, we’ll play dull old vanilla Triple Triad for the invalid here.”

Aza slanted a glare at her, “I’ll fucking destroy you.”

“Here we go…” Papaya muttered under his breath.

“Children,” Crisp drawled, “Settle down. Aza, eat your damn stew. Bluebird, stop talking.”

Aza glared for a few seconds longer at Bluebird’s smug face before sullenly returning to his meal. Papaya started dealing out the cards for Triad Snap.

“Alright then,” Crisp hummed, “Let’s see how long it takes for this to devolve into bloodshed.”

 


 

The game actually ended up remaining civil up until Thancred came knocking.

“Excuse me- oh, sorry, am I interrupting?”

Aza opened his eyes, realising he had dozed off mid-game at some point. He blinked a few times at Thancred’s fuzzy silhouette in the doorway, and glanced around to see that at some point his lap had been turned into a table for his party’s game of Triple Triad while Papaya used his shin as a pillow, openly snoozing away.

“Nah,” Bluebird said, not looking away from Aza’s lap, chewing her bottom lip in thought, “Just wasting time while Aza snoozes like an old man.”

“Mm…” Aza let the insult slide, refocusing back on Thancred, “What’s up?”

“Just thought I’d see if you still lived,” Thancred said carelessly, leaning against the doorway, “Also Ser Aymeric has returned from Ishgard and expressed intense concern when I told him you were bedridden with illness.”

Of course.

“Thancred,” Aza groaned, “Why’re you stirring drama like that?”

“I merely spoke the truth,” Thancred said lightly, “You were in a very bad way not so long ago. It’s good to see you recovered.”

“Not recovered,” Crisp cut in, slapping a card down on Aza’s lap, “Just lucid this time.”

“I feel loads better,” Aza instantly protested. Yes, his voice was still croaky and rough, but he didn’t feel like he’d just been trampled by a Behemoth and left for dead in a ditch. Just… mildly beaten up, like a post-Zenos thrashing.

“You don’t look it,” Thancred said, “Even from the doorway you look as if you have one foot in the grave.”

“I’ll put you in a grave,” Aza huffed – and immediately went into a coughing fit.

“Ooooh~ tremble in fear!” Bluebird said mockingly, “That was so lame.”

“So,” Thancred said casually, entirely unmoved by Aza’s dramatically loud death throes, “I suppose I should tell Ser Aymeric that you are unfit for visi-”

N-NooOOoOooOOo!” Aza screeched past his coughing fit, sounding like some demented voidsent from Hell in the process, “I-I’m –cough!– f-f-finnn -coughcough!- fine! Fine! I’m -cough!- fine!”

“Oh Gods,” Papaya groaned groggily from the vicinity of his feet, “That noise is going to haunt my dreams.”

“Mister Waters, I’ll have to ask you to stop overexciting my patient,” Crisp said blandly, “Aza has a very delicate constitution, you know.”

“F-Fu- hrrk…” Aza’s insult was cut off by an incoherent wheeze, and with a sigh Bluebird stopped staring at her cards long enough to thump him on the back. It… just made the situation worse, really.

“Also, he has the plague,” Crisp continued blithely, “Will probably be dead by sunrise.”

“I w-wish…” Aza groaned, weakly shoving Bluebird’s thumping arm away, “Gods, Thancred, please, save me.”

Thancred smiled and pushed off the door frame, “I’ll tell Ser Aymeric to leave you to your rest. Sleep well with your friends, Aza.”

“No,” Aza begged, staring in open dismay as his traitorous friend grabbed the door handle, preparing to depart, “No, don’t you dare, Thancred!”

“Good night,” The fucking asshole said cheerily, and promptly left, closing the door behind him.

“Heh,” Bluebird sniggered next to him, “That was cooooold. Guess you’ll be missing your boytoy for a lil’ longer, huh?”

“I told you to stop calling him that,” Aza snapped, sulkily leaning back against the pillows and slouching, in a full-blown pout, “I’m going to kick him in the shins.”

“Who? Boytoy?”

“No, you- ugh. Papaya,” Aza groaned, “Smother me.”

“Too lazy,” Papaya yawned, still using Aza’s shins as a pillow, “Smother yourself.”

“Ugh.”

“I think it’s time we all sleep,” Crisp said pointedly, leaning over Aza to thump her book over Bluebird’s head. The Au Ra yelped in pain, “C’mon, put those cards away.”

“Fiiiine…” Bluebird picked up the cards off Aza’s lap, shuffling them into a deck and settling them onto the bedside table, “Oi, shove over.”

“I’m ill,” Aza grumbled, “Go find your own bed.”

“This is my bed, and you’re in it. So, shove over.”

“Don’t you have an FC to defend from the Chocobros? Go do that.”

Crisp bonked him on the head too, drawing out a low whine of pain, “Children, shut up.”

Grumpily, the pair of them gave in. Aza slouched further down in the bed, and Bluebird flopped next to him – deliberately throwing an arm over his face and catching him on the nose. Well then, if she was going to play that game with him.

“Oops~” Bluebird sneered, “Didn’t mean to-” CHOMP! “-OW! YOU MOTHERFUCKER!” 

“Ah,” he faintly heard Crisp sigh over the noise of Bluebird’s shrieking, “There’s the bloodshed.”

 


 

The fight ended with Bluebird as the victor, who held no hesitation in punching someone right in their cracked ribs like the filthy cheater that she was. She was kicked out of the room for her crimes but Crisp was laughing at him all the while he wheezed pathetically in pain.

He really needed to get new friends.