It was the custom of the meyvn and his lady to spend the hour after dinner sitting by the campfire, receiving anyone who wished to speak to them. The meyvn had begun this practice shortly after taking leadership of the Youth League, and he continued it after she moved to headquarters to be with him, a few weeks after the Vegnagun incident. The pair would do this whether they were at Mushroom Rock or in the field. The nightly campfire at headquarters was set close enough to the boulder the meyvn favored as his resting place that he could lean against it and still feel the warmth of the fire. His companion would sit on the ground by his feet, standing whenever a conference demanded it, relaxing her back against the stone otherwise. The men and women of the League soon learned that this was the best time to bring requests or suggestions to their leader. They also learned that they ignored the other at their peril, for she was one of his most trusted advisors as well as his lover. She rarely spoke during these conversations, but when she did he always soberly considered what she had to say.
After some months had passed, close observers began to notice a shift in their behavior. The couple lingered later before the fire each night, as though reluctant to leave and return to their quarters, to the time and place where they would be alone together. The change was gradual and subtle, but those who knew them best noted the difference and wondered. And worried.
Nearly a year after Paine's arrival at Youth League headquarters, she found herself with Nooj and a group of soldiers on a mission to the Calm Lands. There had been reports of strong fiends harrying travelers passing through and frightening visitors away from the region's attractions, and an elite League force had come to investigate. This was the sort of task that Nooj would have left to his underlings six months ago, but he had been heading for the field more and more often lately, always on the missions that seemed the most risky, rarely taking Paine with him. The pattern worried her, and this time she had insisted on coming along. He had agreed readily enough; perhaps her concerns were groundless. But she had to be certain.
Evening had fallen, dinner was finished, and she and Nooj took their customary places by the fire. They neither spoke nor touched. Once such silences between them had been comfortable, but lately Paine found herself welcoming interruptions. Tonight was quiet on that front, though, and the empty evening stretched out before them.
After the customary hour had passed, Nooj stood. There were no boulders or downed trees in this part of the Calm Lands, so he had been sitting on the ground. Paine was careful not to watch as he used the cane to haul himself awkwardly to his feet. Easier if she could have assisted him, but he had been less inclined to accept her help of late. "I'm going to take a walk," he said.
Paine looked up at him. "In the Calm Lands, after dark?"
"Both moons are up, and I am well armed," he replied. "You can join me, if you wish."
She wasn't certain she wanted to, but she liked the idea of letting him go alone even less. "I'll get my sword." A pistol was already holstered at her hip, in case of emergency, but she preferred a blade for facing real danger.
After she had fetched her weapon, the two of them headed out onto the plains, still in silence although at least here there were other things to draw their attention, such as fiends, all easily dispatched with Nooj's rifle and Paine's sword. Despite everything, they still fought perfectly as a team, each instinctively taking the enemies they were best suited to fight, covering the other's weak side without discussion.
Perhaps half an hour had passed when white fur flashed ahead of them in the moonlight. It was a queen coeurl, prowling in the tall grass. The fiend scented the warriors in the same instant that they noticed it, and it faced them with its trademark snarl, whiskers trembling as it prepared to pounce. Instinctively, Paine drew her sword and prepared to leap forward, ready to take out the enemy with a single stroke.
"Wait!" The word was barely more than a whisper, but it carried as much force of command as any shout. Nooj dropped both gun and cane as he grasped her right arm with his left hand. In the moment, he forgot the power of the machina, and she sucked in a sharp breath as his metal fingers squeezed too tightly, the sword slipping out of her hands with the pain. As if in a trance, he began to walk toward the beast, her arm still in his grip as he pulled them both forward.
"What are you doing?" Paine asked, anger and fear plain in her voice as she flashed back to the last time she had seen him willingly approach a fiend without a weapon ready -- the sand-bear. Bikanel. The first time he'd attempted to end his own life before her eyes. "Bad enough that you're still trying to get yourself killed; do you have to take me with you?"
He froze, then turned around. For a moment, he looked almost as if he had been slapped.
"I'm sorry," she said quickly. "I didn't mean..."
Nooj just barely dropped his eyes. "Yes you did. And I deserved it. But this isn't what you think. I will explain later, but for the moment you have to trust me. Please, Paine." His tone was unusually contrite, and despite her misgivings, she nodded.
He set her arm free, returned his gaze to the coeurl, and continued to walk forward, slowly, cautiously, holding out his right hand curled into a fist, making soft clucking noises. The creature did not spring but only stretched toward him. When Nooj was in range, the cat leaned out just enough to sniff his outstretched fingers. Paine could only watch, flabbergasted, as the coeurl let out a friendly-sounding growl and butted its head against Nooj's hand. A beautiful smile spread across Nooj's face as he knelt down and began to scratch the coeurl behind its ears. "Hello," he said softly.
Nooj looked away from the beast and toward Paine, his eyes shining. "Come closer; it's safe."
Caught between fear and amazement, Paine sidled up to the coeurl, mimicking Nooj's gesture by making a loose fist of her hand, palm-side down, and stretching it in front of her.
"It's all right," Nooj said, his voice low and soothing. Whether he intended to soothe the woman or the cat, Paine couldn't be certain, but she calmed just a little as she came almost close enough to touch the creature. It turned to her and sniffed, its nostrils twitching and flaring. Then it licked her fingers, the tongue rough and almost dry. She gasped with surprise and almost snatched her hand away. But Nooj placed a calming hand on her back, steadying her, and she gingerly reached out to pet the coeurl instead, lightly patting it on the back of the head. Its fur was softer than she had known fur could be; her hand sunk into it, surrounded by the fine strands. The beast was purring. It butted its head into Nooj a second time, connecting with his chest, and he laughed with delight, rubbing it on the cheeks and around its neck.
Paine looked at Nooj again. "How..."
He returned her gaze, still stroking the animal. "I orphaned a coeurl kitten in my early training days with the Crusaders. Something inspired me to bring it back to camp and tame it. I suppose I felt responsible for its welfare. When I finished my training, I had to release it back into the Calm Lands; there was no way to take proper care of it in the field. I always wondered what happened to it. And now here it is."
"Amazing." She knelt down next to Nooj and began to pet the cat, still tentative. The coeurl seemed to enjoy the attention, and it looked at her and blinked slowly, eyes narrowing with contentment as it rested on its haunches. Paine felt her own tension dissipate, settling down on her heels and burying her hand in the beast's warm fur. "What's its name?"
"Why should I have named it? I always knew I would have to let it go eventually." Nooj shrugged. Then his voice dropped as he answered the question. "His name is Nepetu."
Paine smiled at Nooj, feeling a surge of fondness as she pictured him as a youth, struggling to keep himself from caring for this companion animal, and failing. "You really love him, don't you?"
She regretted the question the instant it popped out. Too intimate, too presumptuous, seeking an answer he would never give in the affirmative even if it were the truth. Nooj's head dropped as he looked down at his former pet, a curtain of hair falling over his face, and he absently stroked the coeurl. When he finally spoke, it was in a voice so quiet as to be almost inaudible.
"I love you," he said.
Paine stopped breathing for a moment. These were not words she heard often; three or four times, perhaps, in the year they had been together, and not for months. And she knew how much it cost him to say them, every time.
Then he looked up, his shield falling away, and she saw a riot of emotions battling for control of his features: pain, tenderness, loss, anger, love, fear, guilt. Guilt most of all, and it shocked her to see it there, overwhelming and still so raw.
"Why are you here?" he asked suddenly. "Why did you return to me? How can you possibly have forgiven everything I did to you?"
She meant to say something reassuring about understanding that he had not been in control of his actions during those two years, but something very different came out of her mouth when she opened it.
"I don't know that I have." And again she wanted to take back her words, but she couldn't. Because she realized that they were true.
Nooj nodded slowly. "And why should you? I shot you and left you for dead. I ignored your existence for two years. I harbored a criminal and abetted his plans to destroy Spira. These things are unforgivable."
Paine shook her head. "But it's not fair of me, or of anyone, to hold you responsible for them. None of them were your fault."
"Of course not. Shuyin--"
"I should never have been so weak as to allow him to take possession in the first place!" Nooj leaned forward and his face disappeared from view, hands still deep in the pelt of the coeurl. "I made the perfect target, weighed down with regret and self-loathing and despair; I invited him in. If I'd had more control over myself, over my feelings--"
Paine interrupted. "Is that what Shuyin was telling you, all that time? That he chose you to possess? It's not true, Nooj. Random chance, bad luck -- Shuyin didn't target you. You were just in the wrong place at the wrong time."
He peered at her, eyes partially obscured by the fall of bangs. She saw longing there, a desire to believe, an unwillingness to do so. "But in the cave... he came straight for me..."
"No." She shook her head again, more firmly this time. "He came straight for the person closest to him, who happened to be Gippal. Gippal ducked. You were right behind. Didn't you realize that?"
"I--" Nooj's voice broke, and he looked away, toward the distant mountains, far to the north. "No," he said quietly. "And I don't know that I believe you. How can you be sure of this?"
Paine's mouth quirked into a small smile. "Do you know how many times I watched that sphere on the Celsius before using it to reopen the cave? I'm sure. I'm positive."
He looked to her again. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"I did. We all did, when we were reconciling our accounts afterwards. So I don't see why..." her voice trailed off as understanding dawned. "Shuyin. He was already in control, even then. He altered your perceptions, made you hear what he wanted you to hear. It suited him for you to believe that you had been his target."
She saw the struggle on his face, his need to believe that he had been ultimately in control of himself, that he bore full responsibility for his every action, at war with the slowly dawning truth. "But... that means..."
"That you don't have to blame yourself." Paine dared to reach out and lightly touch his right shoulder. "And that I don't have to blame you." A weight that she hadn't even known she was carrying lifted, ever so slightly.
Silence fell and held for a few moments, the evening breeze whispering through the grass and Nepetu's purring the only sounds to be heard. When Nooj finally spoke again, Paine found it something of a shock. "So you watched those spheres? All of them?"
"Over and over," she admitted. "It was practically an obsession. All but one -- there was one I could only bear to see once, when we first found it and all watched it together."
He nodded solemnly. "The Highroad."
"No." The words came out as a choked whisper. "The sand-bear."
"Ah." He reached over the beast that lay on the ground between them and cupped her face with his hands, the cold metal and warm skin sending mixed messages to the nerves in her cheeks. "Ah, Paine. I have brought you so much grief over the years. Why do you put up with me?"
She met his dark gaze and swallowed to clear her throat. "Because I love you. You know that."
"I do know. I don't always understand it, but I know." He leaned forward, bending down for a kiss.
Paine found herself backing away. "Nooj. I need to know. Are you... have you become Deathseeker again?" She looked him straight in the eye, unflinching, despite her fear of his answer.
He stopped. Moved his hands to her shoulders. She saw him thinking, and her heart dropped like a stone.
Then he shook his head. "Not consciously. I-- I still want to live, to be with you. That has not changed. But perhaps... There is a part of me that knows I do not deserve you. Perhaps that part is punishing me for my misdeeds by hunting death."
"Is that why you've been keeping me at arms' length?"
"Have I?" He searched her face, still thoughtful. "I suppose that I have. I suppose I'm concerned that I might lose control and hurt you again."
"I understand," she said quietly. "But it's not working. You must be able to see that as well as I. This distance between us... it's real, and growing. And that hurts me more than anything you could do by keeping me close." Tentatively, she removed her hand from his shoulder and laid it on his chest, in just the right place to feel his beating heart. "You were able to let me in here once, to allow me to help you, to take care of you. And I need that from you again. Is that something you can give me?"
"Did I really let you in?" His eyes warmed ever so slightly. "Or did you slip by when I wasn't paying attention?"
Paine caught herself on the verge of a chuckle. "I'm serious about this, Nooj."
The prelude to a smile faded. "I understand that you are. So am I. And I don't know. I wish I could know."
She stood up, backing away from Nooj and the coeurl. "Why does this have to be so difficult?" she muttered, casting her eyes to the ground, bitterness creeping into her voice despite her efforts to hold it back.
Nooj picked up his cane and pushed himself to his feet. He closed the short distance to Paine and, finger under her chin, tipped her face back up to his. Then he pulled her close and she burrowed into him, nestling her head into the space beneath his chin, where she had always fit perfectly if they both stood straight. She closed her eyes and wrapped her arms around his waist, breathing in his clean scent, the smell of meticulously-washed man with an undercurrent of the lubricant he used on the machina limbs.
"I want to let you in," he said as he stroked her hair. "I want to need you, to give myself to you completely. But I-- I am--" Paine heard him swallow, felt his throat constrict against her forehead as he considered his next words. His entire body tensed beneath her arms. The pause stretched out, and when he resumed speaking, she could barely hear him. "I'm afraid."
She said nothing, only tightened her grip on him and kissed the notch at the base of his neck, once, gently. Of every admission he had ever made to her, she knew this was likely the most difficult. By far.
"Paine." His voice grew stronger as he continued. "I let myself love you fully once, gave you my heart, my soul. Then I lost you, and it destroyed me utterly. I don't know whether I could take that again."
Paine was at a loss for words. She knew that fear because she shared it. How could she reassure him that the joys of love would be worth the risk of its loss when she wasn't entirely sure it was true?
A sudden tickle against her calf distracted her, and she looked down. It was the coeurl. He had gotten up from his bed in the grass and was now winding around their legs, rubbing his face against them, purring loudly. Nooj dropped his hand from Paine's hair and rested his fingertips on the top of his old friend's head with a sigh.
"Maybe..." Paine slowly gave voice to the thoughts that were forming. "Maybe he has it right."
"How do you mean?"
"From his point of view, you abandoned him, years ago, with no explanation, no promise to return. But now he has you back, and all I see in him is happiness. No anger that you left him, no fear that you will desert him again. He's living in the moment, enjoying you while he can." She looked up into his face. "Perhaps we need to learn to do the same."
His eyes crackled with barely-disguised hope behind his spectacles. "Perhaps we do."
Paine brought a hand up behind Nooj's neck and began to tug him downward. Their eyes never parted as he touched his lips to hers and initiated a kiss, a soft, tender kiss that she returned in kind. Then both sets of arms tightened and both pairs of eyes closed reflexively as the kiss deepened, mouths opening, tongues probing, each searching for truth in the other and finding it, almost too much truth to bear. Nooj groaned, the sound wrenched from his throat, and Paine heard her name in it. She whispered his in return, and suddenly they were undressing one another, sinking to the ground as they shed clothing and armor in their need to share skin, to become one person as they had been so many years ago.
He laid his naked body down, and Paine had just a moment to admire him: the metal arm and leg gleaming in the moonlight, the golden muscularity of his right limbs sleek perfection, the twisted and scarred torso bridging the gap between. Then he pulled her down to him, and they began exploring anew. There were no games this night, no barriers as they relearned one another's bodies and pleasures, and in the end they merged beneath the twin moons, giving of themselves more fully than ever before. They lost themselves and found each other in the tall grass, the world exploding with the power of shared passion and love.
Slowly, Paine returned to herself, her cheek resting on Nooj's broad chest, which rose and fell with each breath. Her fingers tangled in his disheveled braids; his hands rested gently across her back. The sensation was new and familiar all at once, the aspect of strangeness compounded by what felt like fur all along her left side. She twisted her head in that direction and chuckled at what she saw. She pulled herself up along Nooj's body to bring herself closer to his face, then murmured in his ear. "Look."
Lazily, he opened his eyes and lifted his head. The coeurl had joined them, his back nestled against Nooj's right side, the soft silver-white body vibrating with his seemingly-endless purr. Nooj laughed and moved a hand from his lady to his pet, scratching the animal's cheek with obvious affection. "I wonder how long he's been there?"
Paine smiled into her lover's eyes. "Could have been awhile. I certainly wouldn't have noticed."
"Nor I." He smiled back as she dropped her head to his shoulder. They held each other without speaking, the silence finally comfortable again as it covered them like a familiar old blanket, the presence of the coeurl completely natural, as if he had always been a part of their relationship. The cat was warm, and so was Nooj, but eventually Paine could no longer ignore the chilly night air and stirred, reluctantly, intending to get up and dress.
"Wait," said Nooj quietly. "There is something I must say first."
Paine relaxed and curled against his side, resting her hand on his breastbone. She felt his lungs fill with air and then let out the breath, slowly.
"What you ask of me -- to let you into my heart again, to keep you close. I will try. I wish I could promise, but I cannot. You know who and what I am. All I can do is my best. But one thing I will promise." He sat up suddenly; Paine followed his lead as he took both her hands in his. "As long as you live, I will not hunt my own death. Upon my honor I swear it. I am not now and will never again be Deathseeker." He lifted her hands to his lips and brushed each one gently as she met his eyes and saw the truth of his oath.
Paine's fingers tightened against his. She could feel tears prickling at the back of her eyes, but she swallowed them back and smiled at him instead. "Thank you," she said, her voice thick. "I hope you know just how much that means to me."
He pulled her into his lap and kissed her thoroughly. "I think I do," he murmured, lips against her neck. They sat like that, intertwined, for a long time.
Eventually Paine roused herself with a sigh. "We'd better get back," she said. "The others are probably getting worried."
"To hell with them," said Nooj. "The League, politics, fighting fiends and brigands for 'the good of Spira'... it's all so tiresome. I'd rather stay out here forever, the three of us, hunting and exploring as we please." He tightened his arms around her.
"We don't have any supplies." Paine made an attempt to stay serious, but she could not keep the amusement from her voice. "I didn't bring any gil, either."
"The travel agency isn't far. And there is no need for money. I am Nooj the Undying, Meyvn of the Youth League, protector of Spira -- they should fall over themselves to provide me with food and potions."
This time she couldn't hold back her laugh. "Rin's people? I wouldn't count on it." She glanced at his face and saw the beginnings of a smile there. "My love, you'd be bored in a week."
The smile broke through. "You know me too well." He let out a soft breath and hugged her even more tightly. "But what a week it would be!"
"Mm. A vacation, then. Once this task is done." Paine kissed his collarbone as he nodded agreement, then reached for her clothes. When they had dressed, she stood next to him, and he pulled himself upright with one hand on her for support, the other on his cane. After collecting their weapons, she stood next to him and threaded her fingers through his. And the party headed back to camp, Nepetu padding through the grass by Nooj's side.
Every night, during the hour after dinner, the meyvn and his lady held court by the campfire, receiving anyone who wished to speak to them. Some were hesitant at first, but it soon became common knowledge that the meyvn's pet coeurl was well-trained and therefore posed no threat to anyone who approached in friendship. The three companions made a striking picture by the fire -- the leader resting on his boulder, the woman sitting by his side, the beast curled up at their feet, all of them radiating the affection they felt for the others.
Keen observers noticed another change after the arrival of the coeurl. The pair would linger by the fire if drawn into conversation with a friend, or if a problem too thorny to resolve in an hour presented itself, but otherwise they would always retire once the hour was up -- sometimes taking an evening walk, other nights simply disappearing into their quarters to be alone together. Those who knew them best saw the difference and again wondered. But rather than worrying, they quietly rejoiced in the evidence of contentment and love and, at long last, happiness.