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Small Steps

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"Thanks, Brother!" Paine called as she jumped from the deck of the Celsius onto one of the docks at Luca.

"No problem!" his voice screeched over the ship's loudspeaker, as the airship backed out and lifted off into the sky again, spraying the dock with water. Paine groaned and ducked behind a stack of crates, managing to avoid the worst of it. The dock workers weren't so lucky.

The weather in Luca was warm and sunny, so Paine was mostly dry by the time she reached the cafe off the main square. She stopped for a calming breath, then pushed her way inside. The cafe was crowded and dimly lit, with people tightly packed around the bar watching a blitzball game on the sphere screen behind it. Paine weaved her way through to the back corner, where three men crowded around a small table.

"Got room for one more?"

Gippal looked up from the intense discussion he, Baralai and Nooj were engaged in, and his face lit up. "Doctor P! I thought you took off for parts unknown with the other Gullwings!" He turned and grabbed a chair from another table as its occupant got up to go get another drink and pulled it around to their table for her.

"Yeah, well, I came back," Paine said as she sat down with a smile to Baralai and Nooj. "Hey, guys. What's up?"

"Nothing interesting," Gippal answered for them, as Baralai waved and Nooj nodded to Paine. "Politics."

"Just laying out the mutual interests of our respective groups, and discussing how we're going to move forward from today," Nooj said.

"Sounds fascinating." Paine glanced at Gippal out of the corner of her eye.

"It's got to be done," Baralai said with a tight smile.

Gippal sighed, rubbing his hands over his face. "Okay, here's where we are. We don't want things to get like they were before. We're not going to be best friends again overnight. But fighting together for the same cause made us that way before, right? So we can do that again. Let's just take small steps in the right direction. Can we agree on that?"

"Yes, with some practical considerations," Nooj said. "I'm not going to believe that Yevon is going to put the interests of the people of Spira before its own."

"New Yevon is committed to serving the interests of the people of Spira first!" Baralai said heatedly, jumping to his feet. "Are we back to that again? I don't know about you, but when we committed to change before the people of Spira, I meant what I said."

Gippal gripped two handfuls of his hair, growling in obvious frustration. He then stood as well. "Well. If we're starting over from the beginning, I've got better things to do with my time than play mediator. I've got projects to work on. Doctor P, you want a lift to Djose so we can get started?"

"Wait, work on what? Paine?" Nooj frowned, casting Paine an accusatory glare.

Gippal shrugged. "We found ourselves the proud owners of an airship, rescued from a dune in Bikanel, and lovingly restored by my people. Now, all it's missing is a pilot." He raised his beer mug to Paine.

"And he asked me. I get to be a pilot! Isn't that great?" Paine looked anxiously between Nooj and Baralai. "Guys?"

"You're working for the Machine Faction?" Nooj asked, his fingers curling on the tabletop. "I thought you wouldn't choose sides."

"I'm not choosing sides!" Paine protested. "This isn't about sides. What do you expect me to do, Nooj, watch the three of you for the rest of my life? What about my dreams?"

"This isn't about your dreams," Nooj said. "This is about Gippal making deals behind both of our backs. I thought we had an understanding, Gippal! I thought I could trust you."

"Wait, who are you to be talking about trust?" Baralai shot at Nooj, standing as well. "At least Gippal never shot anyone in the back!"

Nooj narrowed his eyes at Baralai. "Oh, come on. That again?" His jaw clenched, and he grabbed his cane from the edge of the table. "I see I've just wasted my entire afternoon." He pushed himself to his feet, grabbed his cane, and plowed his way through the crowd toward the door.

"Nooj! Wait!" Paine tried to yell through the din of drunk, cheering blitz fans. Nooj didn't stop, and he soon disappeared. Paine sighed and sank back down into her chair, as did the other two.

"Look, I'm sorry," Baralai said, reaching over and taking Paine's hand. "I just can't stand it when he gets like that. Like he's the only one on Spira who has good intentions. He's the one who shot us! He's the one that always acts like he's above reproach. Never admits he's wrong." Baralai released Paine's hand with a heavy sigh, scrubbing his hands over his face. "I trusted him with my life. I was just a naive kid when I joined the Crimson Squad. I might have had some combat skill, but I didn't think like a soldier, like someone who wanted so succeed. He taught me that. He taught us all that, and then went against everything he'd taught us. He was such a damn hypocrite!" Baralai's voice cracked with emotion. "Lead us into victory one minute, then trying to stumble to his own death the next. He's never been able to live up to his big talk. I'm tired of it! I'm tired of listening to him. I just can't believe anything he says again. I just can't believe in him again."

Gippal frowned a little, toying with his beer mug, but said nothing. Paine reached over to take Baralai's hand again. "He's never had an easy time reconciling his reality with his ideas," she said with a sigh. "I think he's got this image of what he thinks he should be: this amazing, inspirational leader, tireless soldier, crusader for right in Spira. I don't think he can admit to himself that he's just as human as the rest of us, and he makes mistakes."

"Yeah, he makes mistakes. He still won't admit he did anything wrong," Baralai said resentfully.

"Well, in some ways, he didn't." Paine tightened her grip on Baralai's hand when he tried to yank it away. "Hey, listen," she chided. "Was it you or Shuyin up there pushing Vegnagun's buttons?"

"I guess technically me," Baralai said, discomfort obvious.

"But you didn't know how to work Vegnagun. You couldn't have done it without Shuyin, could you?"

Baralai shook his head.

"So maybe Nooj couldn't have pulled that trigger without Shuyin either," Paine offered.

Baralai let out a heavy breath and worked his jaw, while staring at the table.

"You know, B, Nooj is an arrogant asshole, but he's always prided himself on his honor. He wouldn't have done something like that on purpose. It probably still eats at him," Gippal said, his voice uncharacteristically soft. "For someone who believes he has to be above reproach at all times, it must really suck to have that on your conscience."

"Yeah," Baralai finally agreed. He thumped his fist on the table several times. "I'm not going to apologize to him, though."

"Maybe the time for apologies is done. You're all proud," Paine said. "Why not just let it go? Let it be in the past."

Baralai looked at Paine for a long moment. "Have you let it go?" he asked. "Nooj shot you right in the chest. He looked you in the eye and shot you, Paine. Can you really let that go?"

Paine's throat tightened, and she looked away for a moment. That moment was burned into her memory as clear as a sphere recording. "I knew it wasn't right, what happened, even at the time. I think that's why I couldn't just accept it at face value. I--" she fought to organize her thoughts, then looked back into Baralai's eyes, determined to be honest. "I'm working on it."

Baralai held her gaze for a long moment. "Fair enough," he whispered.

"Well, that's two of us straight," Gippal said, heaving a deep breath. "Now we just have to get that stubborn bastard back here to talk."

"I hate to cut this short, but I've got things piling up for me in Bevelle as we speak," Baralai said with a small laugh. He stood and came around the table to pull Paine into a hug. "Congratulations on becoming a pilot," he said into her ear. "I know it's been your dream."

"Hey, I can always use a navigator," Paine said, giving Baralai a tight squeeze.

"I've got my own ship to navigate," Baralai said, pulling back. "I think it needs all of my attention right now." He then turned to Gippal. There was an awkward moment of hesitation before Gippal reached out and yanked Baralai into a hug.

"Don't be a stranger, Praetor," he said. "Your people may not have always liked mine, but we're in this together now."

"My people may not have always liked yours, but I've always liked you," Baralai said as he hugged Gippal, a relieved-looking smile on his face. "Don't forget that."

Gippal grinned at Baralai as they drew back from each other, still holding each other's arms. "We'll work on them."

Baralai nodded, then looked over to Paine. "Bring Nooj back to the table, and I'll talk to him. I'm not going to him." He squeezed Gippal's arms one last time before turning to wind his way through the crowd.

"He's always just wanted everyone to get along," Paine said as she watched Baralai leave. "He gets disappointed easily."

"At least he's still got hope," Gippal said, scooting around the table to sit next to Paine. "I still haven't figured that out about Noojster."

"What, if he's got hope?" Paine asked. She thought about it as Gippal ordered them a round of drinks. "I don't think he'd still be in this if he didn't have hope. He'd have given up a long time ago."

"Last I heard, every time he tried to give it up, someone was there to persuade him to... reconsider," Gippal said, glancing at Paine out of the corner of his eye.

A waitress brought them each a mug of beer. "How long are you playing to stay here in Luca?" she asked.

Gippal narrowed his eyes. "A couple days. Change of topic?"


"Don't want to talk about Nooj anymore all of a sudden?" Gippal asked as he took a drink of his beer. He leaned in closer to Paine to talk under the din of the cafe patrons. "You know, you've saved all our asses on more than one occasion. Kept us from blasting each other's brains out, helped Nooj and me find Baralai and put Vegnagun out of commission, and stopped ol' Deathseeker from offing himself more times than I probably know about. Yuna gets all the credit for saving Spira from Sin, and she got most of the credit for taking care of the Veganagun mess. That's fine, I mean, she deserves it. But you deserve some thanks too, Paine." Gippal shrugged. "When we found that airship, you were the first person I thought of to fly it. I thought maybe helping your dream come true might be thanks enough," he said. "I'm not an idiot. I know what you did for me, and I'm grateful."

"You didn't have to do that," Paine began to protest, but Gippal held up his hand.

"I did have to do it. Because I could do it, and it was the right thing to do. It makes me happy, and seeing you fly that plane is going to do wonders for my feel-good quotient." Gippal waved his hand. "I'm not too proud to say that if it weren't for you, I wouldn't have what I have right now. We wouldn't have made it out of the Den of Woe, if it weren't for you. Hell, Nooj wouldn't have made it to the Den of Woe."

"It wasn't anything special," Paine protested, growing distinctly uncomfortable. Her face was hot, and she felt exposed.

Gippal snorted. "Hey, you believe that if you really want to. You and Nooj really are two of a kind. He can't deal with screwing up, and you can't deal with having feelings for someone. So you both pretend it didn't happen."

"Wait-- what?" Paine did a double-take. "What did you say?"

"So it is true," Gippal said, a satisfied smile curving his lips. "B and I had our suspicions, but we never--"

"What is true?" Paine enunciated each word. "What are you getting at?"

"There's a thing. You and Nooj," Gippal said.

"No. There's no 'thing.' There's nothing," Paine choked out. "I'm not talking about this any more."

"What are you scared of, Paine? You survived the Den of Woe, twice! You lived after Yevon tried to take out the entire Crimson Squad! You helped take out Vegnagun! What could Nooj possibly do that's worse than that?"

Paine looked over at Gippal and made a face.

"Okay. Look. You wanted your answers, and you got them, right? So it's time to start asking new questions. Put yourself out there. Take what you want. Don't be like Nooj, cursing yourself for not winning when you didn't even play the game to begin with. If there was ever a time to take a leap of faith, this is it, Paine," Gippal was earnest, grabbing her wrist to make his point.

"Giant leaps were never my thing," Paine said, looking away.

"Then just take a small step," Gippal said. "It's a start." He took a long drink. "You know, the ship for Kilika probably hasn't left yet."

Paine looked down at her beer, then picked it up and drank the whole thing, in one breath. "Small step, giant leap--whatever it is, here goes." she muttered, taking a fortifying breath. "I'll get him back to the table with you guys."

"Hey, don't just do this for our sake," Gippal said, standing up with Paine. "Do it for you." He gave her a tight hug. "Go get him, Doctor P."

Paine put her head down and pushed through the crowd, then dashed through Luca toward the docks, where Brother had originally dropped her off. She followed the signs to find the ferry to Kilika, then ran onboard. A crewman stopped her. "It's two thousand gil to the island," he said.

"Look, I'm not going to the island. I just need to talk to someone who is," Paine said.

"Yeah, they all say that. Two thousand gil, or you don't get on," the man said, blocking her path.

"Come on! It'll just take a minute!" Paine protested. Finally, she growled and relented. "Here. Take it. But I'm taking it back when I get off." She shoved the gil at him and ran around to the bow. Nooj was standing there, looking over the water.

"What are you doing here?" Nooj asked, not turning around. "Don't you have an airship to fly?"

"I'll get there," Paine said. "What happened back there?"

"Did they send you after me?"

"I came because I wanted to, Nooj. I thought after everything we've all been through you wouldn't give up so easily." Paine leaned against the railing and tried to look into Nooj's face. He looked away.

"Did you really think things would change so easily?" he asked. "Defeating Vegnagun together doesn't negate everything that's happened for the past two years. I can't believe them now any more than I could believe them before."

Paine rolled her eyes and tried to compose herself. "Do you know what the real issue is, Nooj? It's not that you don't believe in Gippal or Baralai. It's that you don't believe in yourself. You don't think you can work together with them and still stay true to those lofty values of yours."

Nooj's shoulders braced, and Paine took a deep breath. Guess it's time to jump.

Before he could reply, she continued. "I remember the first time I saw the Deathseeker in action, heading toward that fiend. I couldn't believe my eyes - not because you were walking toward death, but because I didn't see resolve in your body. I saw resignation. You were afraid. You were running, and I couldn't let you die like that. That wasn't the man I knew. That wasn't the man all the Crusaders talked about."

"That man is a legend," Nooj scoffed. "Fiction."

"He's real, Nooj," Paine said. "I'm looking at him. I swore that the fiends haunting you inside weren't going to be what took you out. I didn't care if you hated me for it. That's why I was there, Nooj. That's why I was always there. In the desert, in the jungle here in Kilika, out on the Thunder Plains. I could see you'd get-- you'd get so mad at me." She laughed, a little hysterically, and she realized her eyes were growing watery. She quickly rubbed them with the heels of her hands.

"I wasn't used to being outmaneuvered by a recorder," Nooj said, ruefully. "I couldn't figure you out. You were so tenacious, so determined. I--" he looked away. "I admired that."

Paine gave a shaky smile. "You were commanding, thoughtful, witty. I never knew what you'd say next." She shrugged. "I couldn't be left hanging for all time thanks to an angry fiend."

"Such a selfish move," Nooj said with a smirk.

Paine's stomach fluttered a little. There was something about Nooj's brand of sarcasm. "Even when everything happened-- afterward-- I couldn't just leave it at that. I needed answers. I needed to know why it happened."

Nooj turned away again. "We know why that happened. I have nothing more to say about that."

"Me neither, Nooj." Paine reached out and gripped his shoulder, gently turning him back. "I got my answers. It happened, and it's done. I'm ready to move past that, past all these petty differences and old conflicts. I'm no longer that recorder. I'm done just observing life. I'm living it now. Living my dream."

"I'm glad," Nooj said softly. He looked at Paine's hand on his shoulder, and after a moment reached out his flesh hand to touch her shoulder as well. "You deserve that happiness, above all of us."

"We all deserve it, no one more than the other," Paine said. She drew her hand back and placed it over Nooj's. It was trembling. She looked up into his eyes, and bit her lip. "And we can all have it. Just believe. Believe in Nooj, as much as we all did. As much as I do."

"Paine, I don't know what you're asking." A lock of Nooj's hair fell into his face, and Paine pushed it back behind his ear.

"You've punished yourself enough. Stop fighting, and start living." She brushed her fingertips along Nooj's jaw. "Join us. For real."

"That's a lot-- where do you want me to begin?" Nooj closed his eyes when Paine's fingers brushed his jaw. Her breath caught in her throat.

"Where do you want to begin?" she asked softly. "This is your story, Nooj."

Paine heard Nooj's cane fall against the deck, and she felt the weight of his machina hand against her hip, drawing her close to him. "Here," he murmured, then his mouth pressed to hers. Paine sighed into the kiss and wrapped her arms around Nooj's neck.

They kissed for a long moment, Paine's fingers toying with the short hair at the nape of his neck while Nooj's fingertips caressed her lower back. Eventually, Nooj drew back, his hands on her hips, and looked her squarely in the face. "If you're trying to seduce me back to bargaining with those two--" he began. Paine gasped and began to protest, but then she saw that smirk again.

"Will you stop that?" She shoved at Nooj's shoulder and shook her head with a laugh. "I'm serious."

"When am I not?" Nooj asked. He sighed and shook his head. "Look, I can't make any guarantees. When you've carried the past around as long as I have, letting go of that feels like letting go of part of yourself."

"If you don't let something go, how will you ever have room for anything new?" Her hands slid down Nooj's chest, and she patted over his heartbeat. "And I don't just mean politically." Nooj smiled a little and clasped his hand over hers.

"All right. I'll talk to them again," he said. "I'm not going to go down in history as the one that held back progress in Spira."

"That's what I'd hoped you'd say--" Paine began, but was cut off mid-sentence as the ship lurched, pushing away from the dock. "Hey!" she yelled at the crew, looking around frantically. "I'm not going to Kilika!"

The crewman collecting fares walked past, counting money. "Looks like you are now."

Paine sighed, watching helplessly as Luca pulled farther away. "Might as well make the most of the trip," she said, turning back to Nooj. "We can talk about your plan for apologizing to Baralai and Gippal."

"What?" Nooj sputtered.

Paine smirked. "Unless you've got a better suggestion," she said, wrapping her arms around his neck.

Nooj's arms moved back around Paine's waist. This time, his smile was genuine. "I'll think of something," he whispered against her mouth.