Paine dipped her toes in to the warm sea and craned her face up toward the heat of the sun. Five weeks on Besaid had done nothing to lessen the pleasure she felt at relaxing at the edge of the water, of feeling soft sand beneath her fingertips as she arched her back and stretched her arms out further behind her. The island was bustling with news of the defeat of Vegnagun, awash with celebration about how Yuna and her companions and her companions had once again saved the world. They had received word from Lucil that news on the mainland was out of control; reporters swamped the cities interviewing anyone available about their averted doom. Lucil suspected that it was the absence of the Gullwings that had driven gossip in to overdrive; without access to Yuna herself the media had had no choice but to seek drama from the everyman.
They had wanted none of it. Yuna had complained at length about the attention she received after defeating Sin, the added intrusions would have been unbearable and Paine was inclined to agree. The three days they had spent in Luca re cooperating after returning from the Farplane had been enough. She’d spotted a group watching a gossip sphere before they left, a familiar figure in red emblazoned on the surface, but when she’d peered closer the channel was speculating about him and someone else. Someone who wore purple and whose feelings were bold and uncomplicated. She’d jumped at the chance to come to Besaid to clear her head along with the friends she’d grown to depend on over the past few months.
And here she’d remained for over a month. Five weeks of warm water lapping against her legs, five weeks since she, Yuna and Rikku had left the cheering crowds in Luca and settled into their New Calm.
Five weeks since she had nodded goodbye to a man that no amount of relaxation could get out of her head.
The quiet had allowed her imagination to run wild. Images of limbs tangled together, of lips pleasuring, of words of love whispered by partners staring in to one another’s eyes. Only in her mind pale skin was coloured to tan, red eyes turned blue. Her mind had betrayed her, wiped herself clean from her own memories and replaced her with Leblanc. When she laid down on the beach and felt the warm sand on her back, or when she listened to the lapping of waves against the hulls of ships anchored by the cliffs, those precious memories became tainted by that faythdamned sphere.
Still, she hoped time would allow her to think of strong hands, one warm and dexterous, one cold and unyielding, against her own skin once more. Or that the memories would vanish entirely and she could emerge anew from the cocoon of the past.
Beside her, the comm sphere burst to life and she signed, laying flat on her back and tapping the sphere to answer.
‘Paine! Where are you?’ Rikku’s voice was oddly strained, but when Paine raised the sphere above her face to look her face was split in to a wide grin.
‘At the beach,’ she answered, suddenly suspicious, ‘What’s going on?’
The picture jolted as Rikku bounced up and down with her usual excitement, ‘We just got a call from Brother! He’s on his way here on the Celsius!’
Paine raised an eyebrow and rolled on to her front, ‘Why is that such big news? You and Brother suddenly miss one another?’
‘As if,’ Rikku rolled her eyes, ‘It’s not him I’m excited to see. It’s who he’s bringing along for the ride. And trust me you should be excited too.’
Paine opened her mouth to respond, but the whirl of machina behind her interrupted the question on her lips.
‘Here he is…’ Rikku’s voice faded as Paine turned off the comm sphere and pushed herself to her feet. She felt suddenly light headed, painfully aware of her bare feet and the straps of her beach ensemble slipping off her shoulder. Too much skin exposed, too many reminders of lips settling on the crook of her neck, tasting the salt on her skin. As the Celsius sped towards the shore she wondered if she could just turn and run, or if her instincts were simply wrong and she would be crushed with disappointment when those doors opened and no one stepped out to greet her.
The force of the engine blew sand towards her and she shielded her eyes with her arm, one eye squinting towards the hatchet. It was already lowering by the time the Celsius halted gracefully above the water’s edge and she craned forward to see.
‘Paine!’ a high pitched voice shouted from behind and she turned to see Rikku, Yuna and Tidus racing towards the shore, panting as they reached Paine’s side, ‘We couldn’t miss this.’
Then, the unmistakeable sound of a cane tapping on metal. Of an uneven gait. Nooj was a sight for sore eyes as he made his way carefully down the gangplank, hand clutching his cane firmly for support. His hair and the machina gleamed in the mid-afternoon sun, and Paine shaded her eye to better see his broad chest, that tapered waist, the red fabric of his uniform clinging tight to his thighs. He was as breathtaking as ever and she shivered at the sight of him as he approached.
‘Hello Gullwings,’ Nooj’s voice was clipped, formal, and he bowed his head in greeting, ‘I trust my visit doesn’t interrupt anything.’
Paine’s heart beat faster. Of course he was here to see the three of them. Possibly some opportunity had arisen in the negotiations between the factions that he thought would spark the spherehunters’ interest, they hadn’t formally decided to abandon that goal after all.
‘Paine,’ he whispered, his voice taking on the familiar tone of longing that she’d missed so much, forced her to meet his gaze, ‘I came because I need to speak with you. Do you have time for me?’
Instinctively, she followed his gaze down to her bare feet caked in wet sand, when she met his eyes again he was smiling kindly at her, but still waiting for a response. She nodded, not trusting herself to speak in front of their group.
‘Thank you,’ he turned to her friends behind her, ‘Do you know of anywhere where we may speak in private?’
Rikku did nothing to hide the disappointment in her face, ‘You can talk here! We don’t mind!’
‘Rikku!’ Yuna admonished, before lowering her head in her summoner’s bow, ‘Nooj, there is a wonderful waterfall spot at the end of the pathway, with a bench that you both may find comfortable.’
Paine envied Yuna’s charm. Her ability to speak so freely and without hesitation. Her own tongue felt thick in her mouth, her palms damp, and she hastily wiped them on her bathing shorts before taking Nooj’s offered arm. As they made their way slowly towards the beach path she heard Rikku’s complaints and Tidus’ laugh.
‘Such a gossip,’ she snapped quietly and felt Nooj’s arm squeeze hers as he smiled down on her.
‘There doesn’t seem to be a lot going on here,’ he whispered, ‘And Gippal prewarned me about Rikku’s penchant for scandal.’
‘You told him you were coming?’ she looked up at him with a raised eyebrow as he exhaled heavily through his nose.
‘We’ve had time to reconnect in recent weeks. I’m learning to value the opinions of others,’ he met her sceptical look with a wry smile, ‘It’s certainly a work in progress in any case.’
They reached the top of the path without incident, although Paine felt the tension on Nooj’s body, and walked the rest of the way across the cliff edge in companionable silence. She was conscious of the heat of his body against her bare skin, at once familiar and a thing almost forgotten. At the top of the waterfall Paine sat down on the old bench and scooted along to allow a comfortable distance between them. Nooj lowered himself down beside her, the grimace of pain that flashed across his face not escaping Paine’s notice. The silence wore on, interrupted only by the gentle splashing of water on the rocks below and Nooj’s measured breathing.
‘Apologies,’ he said after a few moments, pulling off his glasses to rub his face, ‘I’d forgotten how troublesome sand could be with my cane.’
She said nothing, just lowered her gaze as he pinched her bridge of his nose and composed himself. She knew from experience that speaking now would only embarrass him further. Only when he straightened beside her and returned his spectacles on his face did she permit herself to speak.
‘Why are you here, Nooj?’ she spoke quietly, unsure whether she even wanted an answer.
‘You never were one for small talk, Paine,’ he laughed sombrely, ‘I’m glad there are some things that don’t change.’ Silence again. The water roared in Paine’s ears, unbearable against the hard press of his lips, his calculated way of speaking. The urge to hit him rose up inside her, an overwhelming desire to pummel her fists in to his chest and scream, demand answers to questions that had haunted her for over two years, to behave wildly in the face of his stoicism.
But instead she followed his example and stared out over the ocean.
‘Have you seen any of the recent reports coming out of Luca?’ he said finally, turning his entire body to better look at her. She shook her head and thought she noticed him relax slightly.
‘We’ve had some updates from the guys on the Celsius, and Lucil has kept in touch, but really only what I caught while we were there after Vegnagun.’ He tensed again.
‘It’s been… difficult,’ he spoke softly, ‘Trying to figure out everything that happened with Shuyin alongside Baralai, all the while the press is determined to get any ounce of gossip out of the situation. I was concerned that you might have seen something that was not entirely reflective of the truth.’
Paine clenched her fists, dread rising in her throat.
‘Leblanc… she conducted several interviews about our relationship after our return…’
Machina fingers ripping purple fabric. The image appeared, unbidden, and she swallowed. Sharp, manicured fingernails tracing the scars on his chest. Lipstick marks on his neck, his thighs. It was impossible to dismiss them.
‘I did see,’ she muttered, bitterness bleeding in to her voice, ‘I suppose a relationship between two leaders will always draw attention.
‘There is no relationship,’ he snapped, before clearing his throat, ‘At least not between myself and Leblanc. Shuyin, maybe, had some use for her on a practical level, enough to want her to believe a relationship was inevitable… frankly the entire situation has been embarrassing.’
‘So you came here to quell some gossip?’ she shook her head, ‘A comm message would have sufficed.’
‘No,’ he reached out and touched her arm gently, sending a pleasurable shock straight through her, ‘No. But the situation has caused some me to think some things through. Mainly, that I need to accept the actions that were out of my control whilst reconciling how my own actions have hurt those I care about. Not an easy task when I can’t even be sure which is which at this point.’
His tone was almost wistful and Paine wondered which memories she was losing him to in the moment. When she took his right hand he gripped her tightly, bringing up his left to cover their entwined fingers.
‘There’s one thing that I cannot reconcile. Not yet. The Highroad, abandoning you all… those may have been the actions of Shuyin but it was my despair that allowed him to take over. My hatred of life that nearly-’ his breath caught and Paine stared, awe struck, as he composed himself, ‘Nearly cost you your life. That’s not something that I can forgive myself lightly. Even if you, Baralai and Gippal have.’
As she opened her mouth to protest he raised his machina hand to silence her.
‘Please, Paine, I need to finish what I have to say,’ he said, not unkindly, and squeezed her hand, ‘Baralai suggested we start a small group. I’m struggling with the idea but I cannot deny that it is a good one. A group for those whose pasts still haunt them. He believes that I cannot be the only former Crusader for whom the permanence of death calls over the endless, unknowable Calm. He thinks that we might help to heal one another and I am inclined to agree.’
Paine blinked at him, her heart racing at the implications of what he was saying. Her own voice was lost to her, her tongue heavy in her mouth and her head light.
‘That’s why I needed to come here, Paine. To see you and speak to you face to face. I want to live, Paine. For you, for Baralai, for Gippal. I want so badly to desire life, but it is not something that comes easy to me. There may always be a part of me that contemplates death. But I no longer actively seek it. I will live. And I will learn to embrace life, but this is a battle that I fear will bring you all more pain. Which is why I am agreeing to Baralai’s plan. I am hopeful, for myself and for others lost in the Calm.’
He paused for breath and leant back against the bench, head turned upwards in mimic of her position on the beach. His hand remained firmly clasped around hers and she watched him in silence. His brow, usually furrowed in contemplation, was relaxed, his lips parted. He was beautiful to her. And he was going to live.
'Nooj…’ at his name he opened his eyes, looking at her with an expression that made her want to cry. Without hesitation she leant forward and kissed him, found his mouth open and willing for her. His lips were exactly how she remembered them and as he brought his hand up the back of her neck to hold her steady against him she was transported back to a simpler time. A time when they had been two people in love, surviving together, before the spectre of betrayal tore them apart.
‘Damn!’ Paine pulled away, flushed, and fished the comm sphere from the pocket of her shorts. The beaming faces of Yuna and Rikku appeared on the screen, still on the beach where they’d left them.
‘You two are so cute together!’ the view panned up and around, revealing the sight of the bench on which they sat, then back to Yuna’s guilty face, ‘We called ahead, Lulu is having a guest tent set up for you, Nooj’
‘Unless Paine doesn’t mind sharing!’ came Rikku’s voice, so loud she didn’t need the comm sphere to hear. Beside her Nooj laughed and she resolved to put her embarrassment aside if it meant hearing that sound more often.
‘I suppose this means we can speak further tomorrow,’ he said pleasantly, ‘There is so much more to say and not enough hours left in the day.’
It was true that the sun was hanging low in the sky and Paine’s limbs felt heavy. Sleep was calling, but Nooj’s hand in hers felt like a gift she was unwilling to part with. As they made their way back to the village Paine permitted herself thoughts that warmed her core and her heart race.