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Side Quest

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The Rising Stones smells like frying butter and garlic, and G’raha is pretty sure he’s never been hungrier.

Their little kitchen is significantly less well-equipped than Rowena’s, but the past few days have taught him that this won’t stop Tataru and Vilmar. He can hear them through the door, cheerful voices broken up by laughter and the clattering of utensils and pans. It’s such a warm atmosphere that G’raha wishes he was a better cook, just so he could join them in the kitchen. It feels alarmingly typical of him— he finally finds a place amongst the Scions and immediately starts itching to be part of even more of it.

“You know, Raha, staring at the door won’t make dinner cook any faster.”

G’raha jumps, startled by Krile’s voice. He hadn’t even noticed her come into the room.

“You snuck up on me,” he complains mildly, and gets a fond laugh for his trouble.

“You’ll probably be less hungry all the time now that we’re done sealing the tower.”

“I certainly hope so. I’d forgotten how much a spell of that size takes out of you,” G’raha says with a sigh. He’s had a headache for most of the past bell, the rest of his body joining his stomach in protesting.

Krile doesn’t miss the way his ears droop. “If you’re feeling faint, just poke your head in. Vilmar will feed you.”

“Tataru has been chasing onlookers out of the kitchen all evening,” G’raha says, skeptical.

“Exactly why I said Vilmar will feed you. Go on.”

There’s no shaking the feeling he’s being teased, but he is feeling a little dizzy, so it’s probably worth the risk. He abandons the book he’d been reading at the table and heads down the hallway towards the smell that’s been making his mouth water.

He knows, from watching Alphinaud stop by to ask a question, that they won’t hear him if he knocks, so he skips right to pushing the door open. Neither of the room’s inhabitants notice him immediately— Tataru is diligently cutting vegetables with her back to the door, and Vilmar is rummaging through the spice rack.

“—the pixies, I doubt the sylphs will present a problem!” Tataru says as G’raha steps in.

Vilmar hums thoughtfully as he plucks a bottle of brown powder from the shelf. “True, but celebratory drinks with Lyse is an adventure in and of— G’raha! Hello!”

Vilmar’s ears perk up with a happy flick and he grins, warm and uncomplicated. It twists something decidedly not hunger-related in G’raha’s stomach and he smiles back even as his face goes hot.

“Sorry to interrupt, I was just hoping…”

He trails off, but Vilmar picks up his meaning. “Oh! You finished that spell with Krile and then immediately ran off to back Alisaie up, didn’t you? That’s a lot of magic, you must be starving.”

G’raha nods, grateful not to have to explain himself. Vilmar sets the bottled spices down and reaches for the breadbox.

“You know, if you keep playing favorites, someone is going to complain eventually,” Tataru scolds. “Don’t think I didn’t see you smuggling Alphinaud a biscuit earlier.”

“Extenuating circumstances! Alphinaud is still growing, and G’raha just burned through enough aether to kill a dragon,” Vilmar argues, cutting a hefty slice of bread from the loaf. Tataru gives G’raha a thoughtful look.

“Oh, fine, he has a point. Stay in here to eat it, please? We’ll see no end of it if someone finds out we’ve fed you before dinner.”

“Yes ma’am,” G’raha agrees readily, earning himself an approving nod from Tataru.

Behind them, Vilmar takes the slice of bread and dips it into one of the saucepans on the stove. He holds a hand under it as he brings it over to G’raha, making sure it doesn’t drip onto the floor. G’raha adopts the same precaution as he accepts his prize.

“There you go! That should put a little color in your cheeks,” Vilmar says, grinning.

“Thank you,” G’raha smiles back, trying not to look as eager as he feels. “If this tastes half as good as it smells, I’m in for a treat.”

“Go on, then,” Vilmar says. “Try it!”

G’raha nods and takes a bite. The sauce is rich and creamy, with garlic and pepper. G’raha doesn’t even make it to his second bite before an involuntary purr rumbles through his chest. His face heats and, beside him, Vilmar chuckles.

“Taking that as a compliment,” Vilmar says, ears flicking happily. “Although Tataru made the bread, so it’s at least half a compliment to her.”

“Remind me to send the two of you off with some bread,” Tataru says cheerfully. “Vilmar’s a talented cook but everything he makes is so heavy.”

“I thought I wasn’t supposed to leave the kitchens with this?” G’raha asks.

Tataru gives him a confused look for a moment, then turns back to Vilmar. “You haven’t asked him yet?”

Vilmar ducks his head. “Err-- no, not yet.”

“Vilmar!” Tataru exclaims.

“I know, I know, I just haven’t figured out the plan, so…”

G’raha glances between them, frowning. “Asked me what?”

Tataru glares at Vilmar, who winces and turns to G’raha. “Okay, so, I wanted to figure out exactly where we’d be going in what order before I talked to you about this, but-- I’m heading out in a couple of days. I’m way behind on a bunch of things I said I’d help people with, and I owe some friends a visit. I was wondering if you wanted to come along?”

G’raha’s ears perk up and he squeezes his bread a little too hard, getting sauce all over his fingers. “You want me to travel with you?”

“I do! I really, really do,” Vilmar says, smiling eagerly. He’s definitely read the excitement in G’raha’s lashing tail and twitchy ears. “I know helping Lyse train new recruits and checking in on the Skysteel Manufactory isn’t really what you were thinking of when you wanted to come adventuring with me, but, well, I’d still like to have you there. If you want?”

“I want,” G’raha blurts out. Tataru giggles, but Vilmar beams at him. “I mean-- I want to. It doesn’t have to be a grand journey.”

Vilmar is visibly delighted, bouncing on his heels like a kid. G’raha feels dizzy again, in a good way this time.

“Alright, great, that’s great! Okay, we have to get you kitted out, and, oh, a chocobo, you’re going to need a chocobo, Taji can’t carry both of us long term.” Vilmar starts walking towards the door, gesturing excitedly. “I can write Pipin, he owes me a favor and the Flames always have birds. That’ll be our first priority--”

“Your first priority is finishing dinner!” Tataru says, grabbing Vilmar by the sleeve as he tries to walk past her.

“Right, right, cooking! Have to do that first,” Vilmar says, laughing and letting Tataru push him back towards his work. He gives G’raha an apologetic grin. “I’ll come find you after dinner, yeah?”

“Of course, whenever you have time,” G’raha says, nodding shakily. He’s smiling so hard it’s starting to hurt his face, and he can’t seem to stop, even as the first prickles of guilt start in his chest. “Are you-- are you actually going to get me a chocobo? That seems like a big favor to trade in on my behalf.”

“Every adventurer worth his salt has one!” Vilmar says as he retrieves his abandoned spices and returns to the stove. “Besides, Taji loves other birds. He’ll be delighted.”

“But--”

“Oh, honestly! After dinner, both of you,” Tataru pipes up, hopping down from her stool to shoo G’raha out of the kitchen. “Your plans won’t burn if made to wait, but the food certainly will!”

“Ah, my apologies--” G’raha says as he’s crowded out of the room. Vilmar laughs and calls out a farewell just before the door closes behind them, Vilmar manning the kitchen while the two of them step out into the hallway.

“Well, now that that matter is settled-- you come see me later, alright? I’ll make sure you have supplies for your trip,” Tataru says, her good cheer returning now that Vilmar is safely free of distractions.

“Oh-- yes, thank you!”

Tataru nods and gives G’raha a friendly pat on the wrist. “And don’t let anyone catch you with that bread!”

And then she’s heading back into the kitchen, leaving G’raha alone in the hallway. There’s a beat of quiet, and then the past 10 minutes really hit him.

A giddy laugh bubbles out of his chest, and he covers his mouth with his hand to keep the sound from echoing. Krile still overhears, but, hey, at least he tried.

* * *

Planning for the trip turns out to be a group affair.

“Okay, so, what else should we put on the list?”

Vilmar taps the quill against the paper, leaving little splatters of ink. Tataru, sitting to his right, reaches out to take it from him before he can make too much of a mess.

“You have a mage with you, it may be better to bring elixirs instead of potions,” Alphinaud says, leaning over the table.

Tataru nods, adding his suggestion in her neat handwriting, a far cry from the chicken scratch that makes up the rest of Vilmar’s list. She takes a moment to read over what’s already written. “Oh, paprika! You forgot paprika!”

“Are you certain we need quite so many spices?” G’raha asks from Vilmar’s left.

“That is the most Sharlayan thing you have ever said to me,” Vilmar says, shaking his head. “Good catch, Tataru.”

“Don’t forget to leave space for all those souvenirs you brought back. I’m surprised there was room for our vessels on the way back from the First,” Y’shtola adds from across the table. Most of the Scions have given up any pretense of only being at the table to finish dinner in favor of openly meddling, but she’s still finishing up her dessert.

“Most of the souvenirs are food too,” Vilmar says with a shrug. “It’s just the children I got anything inedible for.”

“Not all the kids,” Alisaie adds.

“Well, Ga Bu wouldn’t really get much use out of toys right now, so the honeyed grubs will be a much better present. But I don’t get credit for that-- you picked those out for him, I just carried them back.”

“Our aetherial bodies traveled with dead bugs?” Alphinaud exclaims, going pale.

“Don’t be such a baby,” Alisaie says, rolling her eyes.

“Ga Bu-- that sounds like a Kobold name,” G’raha comments, turning his attention away from the bickering twins to address Vilmar. “Are the friends we’re visiting from the beast tribes?”

Vilmar grins. “Some of them are! I grew up near the Sylphs and my Idyllshire friends are mostly goblins. Oh, but there’s also Khloe! Sweetest little girl I’ve ever met. I bet you two will be fast friends, she shares your passion for heroic tales. Feo Ul helped me find a doll for her with a little wooden sword and shield, she’s going to love it.”

“Is that what they were doing in the Mean last month? They told me it was a secret between the two of you, and I’d regret it if I pressed,” G’raha says.

Vilmar laughs. “Feo Ul takes it very seriously when I ask them for help. And equally seriously when I don’t, actually...”

“`Tis good fortune indeed that the faerie king chooseth to help rather than hinder,” Urianger says. He’s sitting at the next table over with Thancred, having been bullied out of their usual spots by Alisaie and Krile.

“Good point, but it’s Feo Ul. They took the crown in the first place for my sake, I’ve never really worried over their loyalty.”

“Well said! Without that lovely little pixie visiting my dreams with updates, the worry alone would have killed me!” Tataru says. “The next time you’re visiting the first, get me their measurements, would you? I want to make them a thank you gift.”

“Already thinking ahead to the next trip?” Krile asks, returning to her seat with a fresh mug of herbal tea. “Have you finished your packing list?”

“About half of it. We’ve got…” Vilmar trails off, snatching the paper off the table. “A lot of food, a whetstone and dark matter for gear maintenance, water crystals for drinking water, an assortment of medicines, Taji’s blanket and brushes, couple of spellbooks G’raha needs, gifts for our hosts, tent, bedrolls, soap and fur treatments--”

“Gods, man, how is that only half?” Thancred asks, getting up from his table. He tries to take the paper out of Vilmar’s hand, but Vilmar holds it protectively to his chest.

“After Ishgard, I am never trusting that I’ll be able to find halfway decent soap when I arrive anywhere.”

“It isn’t the soap, it’s the number of things already on the list!”

“I know you once survived naked in the woods, but I don’t want to try it--”

“What?” G’raha interrupts, turning sharply in his chair to stare at Thancred.

They end up so distracted that the list doesn’t get finished until the following morning.

* * *

By the time they’re actually loading their belongings onto Vilmar’s chocobo, G’raha has almost accepted that this is really happening. He feels like a child before a festival, overcome with excitement to the point of making himself sick. He barely slept last night, which may be an issue-- they’re going to be walking the first leg of the trip, until they pick up G’raha’s chocobo. He knows he’s going to be feeling the exhaustion by midday, but he’s pushed through worse, so he tries not to think about it. The last thing he wants to do is give Vilmar the impression he can’t keep up on the first day of their trip.

They get up at the crack of dawn. While the Scions had said their goodbyes last night at dinner, Alisaie wakes up early to see them off, although she claims it’s for training. Neither Vilmar nor Tataru seems inclined to mention this, so G’raha keeps his mouth shut about it while they share a light breakfast.

“You look out for him, you hear me?” Alisaie says when it’s time for them to actually leave. G’raha is sure he’s the one being addressed, but Vilmar nods too, like her command was for both of them.

Vilmar gives her a goodbye hug, and the way she clings for a moment reminds G’raha of her frantic fury when he first summoned her. Old guilt bubbles uneasily in his chest at the thought of a traumatic parting caused by his hand. He wants to apologize, except he’s sure Alisaie would only punch him for his trouble.

“Take care!” Tataru hugs them both and takes her last chance to shove more bread into their hands. “Stay safe, have fun, and tell Lyse we miss her!”

Vilmar turns to G’raha when the goodbyes are through, smiling.

“Ready?”