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Where They Left Off

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The door to the engine room opened, and Paine froze. She had come here to be alone, on the assumption that the guys had all gone up on deck together to plan the assembly in Luca, but there he was, pacing back and forth across the narrow aisle, cane clanging against the floor, muttering under his breath; probably practicing his speech. After making sure he hadn't seen her, she turned in place and returned to the door. It opened with a bare whisper, the quiet sound drowned out by the chugging of the engines.

"Paine?"

Or maybe not. She turned back, slowly, and rested her hand on the railing. He stopped walking and looked up at her, his expression unreadable. "Why are you here?" she asked.

"The same reason you are, I assume," he answered, lifting an eyebrow. "I needed some solitude, and this seemed the most likely place to find it."

She nodded. "Sorry. I didn't mean to interrupt. I'll just--"

"Wait." Nooj lurched forward, his good hand shooting out to brace himself against the ship's motion. "It's all right. Please, stay."

Paine clenched the rail and weighed her options. They needed to talk, she knew that. She wouldn't be able to avoid him forever. But she wasn't ready. He was one of the things she'd come here to think about. Could she really risk having this two-year overdue conversation with him when she didn't yet know what she wanted?

Without having decided to do so, she started walking down the stairs, each step deliberate and slow as she attempted to postpone the inevitable. She was unable to look away as he watched her approach: his face solemn, his eyes hidden by the glare of the artificial light on his spectacles. On the second to last step she paused, torn, every instinct pulling her in a different direction. Not too late to turn back, one voice in her head whispered.

You know better than that, another replied. It was too late two years ago.

Still watching her face, he gestured her forward with a subtle sweep of his right hand, and that decided it: she took the last two steps, then stopped again, unwilling to come any closer to him. Instead, she crossed her arms and met his gaze with a cool stare. "Ready for your big moment?"

He lifted his right shoulder in a shrug. "As I can be. Will you be there?"

She shook her head. "Yuna wants to get back to Besaid right away. We'll just be dropping you guys off and then heading on our way."

"Ah." Nooj took a slow step closer to her; Paine stepped backwards involuntarily. "So. If we're going to talk, it needs to be now."

"I don't think so." Paine took another step back and then had nowhere else to go: the backs of her legs were pressed against the ductwork that ran around the base of the walls.

Nooj kept advancing, and she leaned backwards, bracing her hands against the wall. He stopped just a hands-breadth short of her, not quite touching but close enough that she could smell the sweat of battle and the oddly sweet scent of machina oil; the aromas mingled and transported her back to long nights in the desert. The roar of the machina engines filled her ears, or maybe the sound was just her racing heart.

"I do," he replied, barely audible over the noise. Then, before she could slip away, he slammed his hands against the wall, one on either side of her head, to cage her with his arms and body. She sucked in her breath in surprise; she'd forgotten that he could move that fast. His cane fell to the floor with a ringing clatter, and he leaned in, his breath hot against her forehead. "I lost you once before. I'm not going to risk letting you get away this time."

"What if I want to get away?" Her hands pressed even harder against the metal wall, cool and smooth except for the bolt that bit into the skin of her left palm.

He stared down at her, and then his mouth quirked into an infuriating smile. "Can you honestly say that you do?"

Seized by sudden fury at his presumption, she brought her hands up and into his chest to push him away. But he caught her right hand with his left, encircling her fingers in its cool, powerful grasp. And then his head dipped down and he was kissing her, his mouth hot and demanding on hers.

She had no option but to close her eyes and kiss him back. Her hand slid free of his grip and up his chest, skimming leather and metal as she slipped it across the machina shoulder and then around his neck. His hand caressed her arm on its way down and then landed in place, its skeletal fingers curving around her hip. The living arm came around her and his right hand spanned the bare patch of her lower back; she could feel every callus on his fingers and palm, familiar as they had ever been. His rough fingertips slid beneath the waistband of her pants. He tightened his arms and pulled her close, and she moaned his name. Her fingers buried themselves in the thick bristles of his hair as he groaned in return, his right hand sliding even further down.

Nothing existed in the whole world but Nooj. With her right hand, she gripped the soft fur of his shoulder guard as her mouth opened further under the pressure of his kiss. His tongue slid between her lips and she answered it with her own, twisting her hand into the braid. He crushed her against his chest, and she felt his heart pounding next to her own. His right hand was on the move again, sliding up her torso to find her breast, fitting itself to its curve as his thumb stroked the nipple. Waves of desire rippled through her, as strong as she had ever known them to be, and in a moment of terrible clarity she knew that she needed him, that if he pushed her down to the floor and took her, right here in the engine room, she would welcome it, and not care who might see. That same clarity shocked her back to an awareness of her surroundings, and with every once of willpower she tore herself away from him, stepping sideways and twisting out of his grip.

For a moment she just stood there, catching her breath. Finally she regained enough control to look up; he was stock still, his hands fallen lamely to his sides. "Damn you, Nooj. Do you really think we can just pick up where we left off two years ago?"

All the blood drained from his cheeks as he turned away. "No." He closed his eyes and looked up to the ceiling, his hands balled into fists, deflated, shoulders slumped in a posture of defeat.

Paine's heart filled with a longing even greater than the need she had felt only moments ago. She stepped back to him and reached for his left hand. He turned and looked back down at her, his hair falling over his face.

"Nooj." She laid the back of her hand on his cheek, then pushed his bangs out of his eyes. A riot of emotions passed through them as he looked down at her: sadness, affection, worry, guilt. "I just�" I need some time. To think about who I am now, and what I want my life to be. I've changed a lot in the last two years, and not all of that is to do with you." She stood on tiptoe and dropped a quick kiss on his lips. "I need to find a way to come back on my own terms, not just because we lived through the end of the world together."

"I understand." He closed the machina hand over hers, and its weight reassured her. "Paine. I'm sorry. For everything I put you through. All I can do is hope you'll forgive me."

She stepped close again, and he enclosed her in his arms, his embrace tender now, as though he held a kitten or a fragile bit of glassware. For long moments they stood together, and Paine breathed him in, no longer desperate with lust but content just to feel him there, real and solid under her hands. I missed you. Every minute of every day. She thought the words, felt them in every bone and muscle, but could not yet bring herself to say them, not even when he buried his face in her hair and kissed the crown of her head.

When she was ready, she stepped free, still too overwhelmed to say all the things in her heart and mind. Instead, she found herself smiling at him.

"Good luck," she said.

He nodded. "Same to you."

She took a deep breath and then turned away, walking up the steps. She felt his eyes on her back, and when she reached the door, she paused, then turned around. He was still watching, expression blank but calm, and she smiled again.

"See you later."

This time Nooj smiled back, one of his rare true smiles that lit up his entire face. They shared another nod, and then Paine left the room, finally able to look forward to their next encounter.