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[personal profile] renay
Written for [livejournal.com profile] owlmoose for [livejournal.com profile] ff_exchange. I seem to be developing a habit of writing rare pairings for people for this exchange as long as I can get around the logic myself. Last round: 17,000 words. This round...um. No one look at me funny. Everyone should look at [personal profile] justira funny, her story was like 38,000 words. She's much worse than me. >>

I am now going to revel in the fact that Dreamwidth is going to let me post this entire story to my journal without having to break it up. Fuck, I love you Dreamwidth. *big messy makeouts*

Thanks to [personal profile] justira and [livejournal.com profile] first_seventhe for beta and [personal profile] cumuluscastle for typo sniping after the fact, a skill I am jealous over and wish I could possess.


persistence of memory (23,926 words)
(FFX-2, Paine/Nooj, PG)
"Nooj probably kisses like a fish," Gippal said. "Or a shoopuf. His loss, you know."


so then love walked up to like
said i know that you don't like me much
let's go for a ride
this ocean is wrapped around that pineapple tree
and is your place in heaven
worth giving up these kisses
these, yes, these kisses

-- tori amos, cooling

Paine's apartment was quiet, the only sound the steady hiss of her torch and muted noise from the street. She turned the sphere carefully in the repair pedestal, dragged her torch along the crack in the casing and smoothed behind it with a small slab of wet paper. She was curious to know what was on this one, given to her yesterday afternoon by a popular blitzer with warnings to be as discreet as possible. It was an easy job, quick money, and Paine wasn't going to ask any questions. Cracks in the casing were easy fixes, a no-need-for-pyrefly-intervention trick that let her play with fire. She could have fresh fish for dinner tomorrow night with a job like this.

She switched her torch off and removed her goggles in time for her personal commsphere to ring, startling her in the quiet of her apartment. She laughed at herself and reached over to flip it on. "Paine," she said. "What's up?"

"Hello," Isaaru said, voice pleasant but still full of the I-want-something slime she had become accustomed to over the last few months. Paine eyed the comm, glad she made a habit of keeping the camera off. "It's Isaaru; how are you?"

"Fine," she said and went back to her touch-ups on the cooling sphere. "Did you have the wrong number and you're trying to bow out gracefully?"

Isaaru laughed. "No, no, you're who I meant to call. I—well, Baralai and I—have a proposition for you."

"This should be good, something I can't resist to tempt me to Bevelle." Paine paused for a moment and looked out her window at the clear blue sky and the facade of her neighbors' apartment. "Baralai has tried this trick four times."

"He does so with reason. You never visit us anymore." Isaaru's voice was full of teasing, barely hidden by the crackle and snap of the bad comm connection. "You haven't been to Bevelle in over two months."

Paine laughed, but didn't look up from the sphere she was working on. "Luca's a great place for sphere work; why would I leave? I'm pretty good at it."

"No need to tell us," Isaaru said. "You're one of only three people in Spira who can repair spheres." He paused. "Two, now. Tachi passed yesterday."

She sat her tools down. "Tachi? He died?" Paine had known Tachi through his books only, but he had been restoring spheres since before the fall of Yevon. "How did he die?"

"His family says in his sleep, and who in Spira can ask for better?" Papers rustled; Isaaru cleared his throat. "We had scheduled him to come to Bevelle to work on a project for us, a particularly delicate matter."

Paine leaned back in her chair and looked over at her bulletin board. It was covered in colored paper, order slips for sphere repairs that would last her into next year if she wanted—family collections, keepsakes; maintenance, too. It was a living, and she was good at it. "How much are we talking, Isaaru? Baralai's great, but he doesn't get freebies for being a friend."

"Of course not," Isaaru said. "We have discussed it and we're prepared to offer you room and board for the entirety of the project, plus three thousand for every repaired sphere. There are over twenty spheres."

If Paine hadn't been sitting down, she would have fallen down. "You better not be joking," she said.

She heard the smugness in his voice. "I never joke about finances," he said. "We should expect you in the next few days, I assume."

Paine was annoyed by his tone, but she could do math as well as anyone, and to turn a job like that down was asking for trouble. "Sure," she said. "I'll pack my bags." She hung up before he could say anything else, then leaned back and pumped her fists into the air.

----------


The Youth League had disbanded a month after the peace treaty was signed between the three major factions in Spira. The split wasn't surprising to Paine; members of the league had drifted away as Elma restarted the Chocobo Knights and there was no more drama to be had over hunting spheres, as new spheres with political implications from Spira's past became harder and harder to find, and many had migrated to the Machine Faction and cooled off as Gippal didn't run a hot-headed group.

New Yevon had clung to its roots, though, latched to the past through a council not ready to move on to new things. Baralai always looked worn down when Paine called him, eyes tired, rimmed with dark circles and Paine was always tempted to call Gippal and lecture him for not taking better care, but in the end she resisted. She didn't know enough about Bevelle's politics and didn't want to pressure Baralai to leave. Nooj had done too much of that in the weeks after the treaty, and Paine had watched their friendship tested, over and over again, until she was no longer privy to their time together.

She turned away from that memory and the window she had been staring out of as the door opened. She expected to see Baralai—an acolyte had dumped her in Baralai's office more than an hour ago, luggage and all, minus her sword, which apparently wasn't allowed in the temple these days. She didn't expect to see Nooj, staring as her expectantly, as if she had come here to meet him. She bit down on the urge to turn her back on him.

"Where's Baralai?"

Nooj walked in and closed the door, a soft snick of well-worn wood. "In with the council. Isaaru pointed me here for our meeting."

"Our meeting?" Paine crossed her arms.

"Yes. The sphere project." Nooj tilted his head. "Isaaru didn't tell you I signed on as well?"

"He left that part out." She was going to jam a sphere down his throat when she saw him next.

"Convenient." Nooj leaned on the edge of Baralai's desk with his good hip. "It's a large project; surely you didn't think you'd be handling it yourself."

"I wasn't told anything different," she said. Paine was torn. The money was good and the chance to work with what she assumed were historical spheres better, but she wasn't sure it was worth working with Nooj. They hadn't spoken in at least six months, the last time at Gippal's birthday celebration, and Paine had tempered that encounter with a good deal of wine. She couldn't very well work drunk. "Why do they need two people?"

Nooj shrugged. "I assume Baralai will tell us why the project is so large." His gaze was unnerving. "How are you?"

"Fine." Nooj, plus small talk, plus the prospect of weeks with Nooj on the same project. She was tempted to walk out now and screw Isaaru and his secrets.

"I was surprised when you left the Gullwings," he said. "Thought you three would stick together."

She lifted a shoulder. "Yuna had Tidus. I spent most of my time repairing the spheres Rikku brought back from hunts." She paused. "Hard to work on an airship."

"Ah yes, your talent with glass. Best in the business," he said. "Even better than me."

"If you say so." She finally gave in to her urge to turn around and look back out over the temple's inner courtyard, where a class of acolytes practiced in small groups. Pyreflies flowed around them—probably a healing course. She caught her reflection in the mirror—outright annoyance—and took a deep breath. A year, she reminded herself. She needed to put it behind her, her history—or lack thereof—with Nooj.

It just figured he would go into the same work as she had, though. Her luck with Nooj just kept improving.

"Paine," Nooj said, but he was interrupted by the door, and Paine turned, grateful for the distraction.

"I don't care how they do it," Baralai said down the hall. "You get them on the comm, you tell them New Yevon isn't made of money." He tugged at his coat, shrugged it off as he walked in. "Nooj, Paine, I'm sorry, the Kilika council is on my list of groups I really don't want to deal with this week."

"Last week it was the Machine Faction," Nooj said.

"Only because one of Gippal's workers knocked a hole in the wall." Baralai collapsed in his chair behind his desk. "Djose's temple is still a historical site! His interns shouldn't be tearing down the place."

Baralai looked tired, Paine noticed, but he and Nooj shared bright smiles. Pangs of loss were for wimps, so Paine cleared her throat.

Baralai and Nooj looked at her. "Right, you just got here, you're ready to settle in. I'll be quick." Baralai said. "Isaaru sneaked this into my schedule—I had no clue you would say yes." He laughed. "I was sure you wouldn't."

Nooj glanced at Paine, and she only renewed her plans to get Isaaru alone, possibly in a dark corner. "I don't think everyone was fully briefed on the specifics," he said. "I can leave the project if necessary."

"What? Why?" He looked between them. "Oh. Isaaru, he—" Baralai shook his head. "Listen, neither of you can do this project on your own. Tachi signed on by himself before we knew the extent of the job—he had requested help, in fact." He sighed. "You two are the only ones with the proper skills that I'd trust to get anywhere near what I'm about to share with you."

Paine didn't miss the look Baralai and Nooj shared and asked, "Why all the mystery?"

"I've been asking him the same thing for two days," Nooj said. "He hasn't told me a thing."

"Hey, Nooj." Baralai stood up. "Catch Isaaru in his office and let him know I need the keys to your apartments."

It was a weak, simple ploy, and Paine resented it even as she appreciated Baralai trying to fix what Isaaru had screwed up being insensitive. Paine wasn't surprised; Isaaru didn't know, probably didn't care about her wishes. New Yevon business first, people not in New Yevon second.

Nooj nodded and left, throwing Paine an unreadable glance. Nothing new, though, the light reflecting on his glasses to obscure his eyes before he closed the door behind him.

"I'm sorry," Baralai said immediately. "Nooj knew about the project already. He told Isaaru he wanted to be involved, so—

New Yevon conspiracies never ended and she was right in the middle of this one. "You know I don't want to work with him. Dammit, Baralai."

"Perhaps Isaaru forgot," Baralai said weakly.

"He didn't forget." New Yevon would weave her whatever way she wanted unless she put her foot down, and putting her foot down would be right in Baralai's business, which she was loathe to do—he and Gippal had honored her request to keep her as far away from Nooj as possible. A year, she reminded herself, should have helped her be over it, but she was still… whatever she was. Could she let it go? Nooj probably had.

She clenched her teeth. Nooj had probably let it go an hour after he played the metaphorical game of bleeding her out, instead of the literal one. Taking lessons from ghosts—seemed like the thing a death seeker would do. He didn't get to come out of this the good guy for letting the past lie and her the spurned lover. She wasn't playing that game, either.

"If you need me, I'll stay." She almost laughed as Baralai visibly relaxed. "But Isaaru owes me for his omission."

Baralai smiled. "I'll give you his private sphere address," he said. "Consider my chief of staff your chief of whatever you need, any time."

As gestures went, Paine would take it. She knew New Yevon, though, despite Baralai's best intentions. She held out her hand to shake on it, but couldn't make herself match Baralai's smile.

----------


"So I heard you're going to be sticking around awhile."

Paine looked up from unpacking in her quarters to find Gippal leaning against her door frame, which she had left open to let out the heat. "Gippal," she said, smiling. "I didn't know you were in Bevelle."

"Working on some pipes, some wires, lending my charisma to the locals." He was casual as he wandered into the room. "You know, how it goes."

"Kissing Baralai in dark corners," Paine murmured. Gippal only grinned. It had been a surprise, but yet not one at the same time, when Paine had paid a surprise visit to Gippal at Djose only to find Baralai, tousled and flushed, answering Paine's knock with a name on his lips that wasn't hers. His horrified look at being discovered had set Paine to laughing and laughing until finally Gippal arrived to see what all the fuss was about—and had joined her, with Baralai's disapproving stare boring holes in their backs as they held each other up.

She was happy for them and jealous, too, sometimes, at the ability to cross the streams of their pasts and be together.

"Heard about the surprise," he said. "I saw Isaaru looking shifty when he was leaving the temple. You got him on the run?"

"He couldn't have missed it; Shelinda practically made a sport of reporting—what did she call it? The failed romance?" Paine said. "Do you call it a breakup if you weren't actually dating? I could never decide."

"Nooj probably kisses like a fish," Gippal said. "Or a shoopuf. His loss, you know."

Paine smiled and unclipped her belt and holster to set aside. "Because I spent so much time kissing other people to know what makes someone bad."

"Hey, it's not like I wasn't prime for the taking. Now you're too late!" He flopped down on the couch resting on the wall, and dust rose around him, soft clouds in the late-afternoon sunlight coming through the window. "You know what all this is about? Baralai is being pretty close-mouthed about it, got me thinking he's up to no good."

"He hasn't told us anything," she said. "Dropped me here, took Nooj somewhere else, said to be ready in the morning."

"For someone who doesn't like secrets, he's sure good at keeping them in his pocket."

Paine could always read Gippal; he didn't hide things or cover them up—and maybe they had become good friends because Gippal was so practiced at seeing through the guard she had up to keep people at a distance. She had never managed to keep Gippal that far away—he was the very definition of a people person, friendly and so sneaky with it that he had gotten under her skin in less than a week. He settled back into the couch and gave her his look—the one she dreaded more than anything, but it meant he was going to make her talk and wouldn't be taking no for an answer.

"You," he said, holding up a hand to silence her refusal, "have been away too long." He cocked his head. "We should hang out together."

"Isn't that what we're doing? Hanging out?"

"All of us. Together. A table, some chairs, dinner? You and Nooj would survive."

Paine turned away. "Bad idea."

"You could resist punching him in the crotch for one night."

"If the table was long—very long—and we were at opposite ends."

Gippal laughed and propped his legs up. He sent up more dust into the air, floating through the late afternoon rays of light like millions of aimless pyreflies, and started filling her in on the local gossip; she half-listened as she kept unpacking.

The trouble was that she could be around Nooj just fine; Gippal wasn't wrong. She wasn't scared of violence on her part, she was scared of Nooj looking at her and being everything she still wanted: his charm, his humor, self-depricating and wry, the way he could glance at her and stop her heart. But he could still be like the man he had been a year ago, and and make her feel childish and silly and shallow—no one else could do that to her but him.

She never wanted to be that girl again.

----------


Paine remembered Bevelle's underground as dark and humid and this hallway proved to be no different. Her boots clicked across the aged marble as Baralai led the way, keys jingling in his hand, talking about security and locks and how to request supplies, but Paine barely paid attention to him. Nooj was behind her, silent except for his gait and the soft hisses of air from his prothesitcs, and she swore she felt his eyes all over her.

"Here we are!" Baralai said, and pushed the first door at the dead-end hallway. "We've been using this place for storage because it's so far out of the way, but we thought it would be perfect for this project."

"Which is still a mystery," Nooj pointed out.

"Today's the day," Baralai said, and started going around the room, activating lights. Paine noticed the distinct lack of candles that graced the parts of the temple the press had access to. All machina, all the time down here—regardless of New Yevon's official line. There were three work tables, all empty except the one closest to the door which held a huge case, and toward the back of the room—

"Wait," Paine said. "Is that…?"

Baralai grinned back at her. "I knew you'd be excited."

She didn't care that she was openly gawking as she walked toward the end of the room. "It—I thought Luca was the only place you could find one." She had watched the glass workers in Luca, jealous of their furnace and their ability to create such amazing things with it. Paine couldn't come close with her torch. She had rented lessons with one of their master craftsmen a few times over the past year, to get a feeling for how new spheres were made, but it was so expensive to rent those lessons—and here a furnace sat, just waiting to be used, for free. She picked up one of the pipes leaning against wall. It was smooth and new in her hands, grips just right. If she closed her eyes, she could imagine the heat on her face, like one hundred summer days. "This is amazing."

"It's all Rin's doing," Baralai said. "One of his dig teams found it, Shinra fixed it up and we bought it."

"You're going to let Paine play with molten materials," Nooj said. "Maybe I should leave."

Paine shot a look over her shoulder. "Don't worry, I won't toss you in the fire." She turned away. "Maybe."

"Touchy." Nooj joined her to look at the furnace. "Hope the ventilation is excellent."

Baralai gave Nooj a dirty look and didn't grace him with an answer. "Workers will bring in your supplies today, and get the furnace up and running. First I just wanted to introduce you to what you'll be doing, hours, proper protocol for the documents you'll be handling." He waved them over to the first work table, where the case still sat. "We suspected Trema of trouble long before he took our spheres and disappeared into the Via." Baralai unlocked the case. "He kept journals, and recorded all the meetings he took, which we knew from various acolytes that served him. We took this case from his personal quarters two nights before he vanished."

"What ego," Nooj said. "Recording everything."

Baralai lifted the lid to a disaster. Paine winced as she saw it—a great collection of spheres, sure, but for the fact that most of them were destroyed, cracked, and lifeless. She stepped forward and ran her hand over one of the spheres that had been taped up, as if tape was going to be enough to save the memory the sphere contained.

"What moron did this?" Nooj stepped closer; she took a deliberate step away. "This is horrific."

"They were stored somewhere in the temple, and then he vanished. Sometime in the aftermath, these spheres ended up in my possession and I wasn't quite sure what they were—I had forgotten we even ordered them stolen to figure out what Trema was up to. I wasn't as high-ranking then, so when the spheres were stolen, they weren't given to me. They were given to—"

"A moron," Nooj finished.

"By the time you got them, it was too late," Paine murmured.

"Some still work. We've watched them, and they were boring, and unhelpful—until I figured out what they were. I was just as discouraged when I saw the state of them and set them aside. But…" he sighed. "There could be helpful material on the spheres, even if it's not relevant."

"Oh no, Trema's personal sphere collection wasn't ever relevant." The was an undertone of anger in Nooj's voice; Baralai held up a hand.

"Remember—most of Spira doesn't know what Trema did, and to be honest, why would we have fought to reveal it?" Baralai sighed. "Betrayed again so soon by an organization, if not exactly the same, too similar."

"Why now?" Paine asked, lifting a cracked sphere from its velvet resting place with a finger. "What are you looking for?"

"History," Baralai said. "I'm curious, and the council pays me ridiculous amounts of money to be the public face of New Yevon, so why not give it to my friends so they'll indulge the historian in me?"

"The very small historian," Nooj said. "Unless you wanted to have an extended version of play pretend time."

They bickered back and forth as Paine looked over the spheres again. Some of the spheres were cracked into several pieces and the resin inside hard and stiff. Paine had worked with the liquid several times, but she preferred spheres that hadn't been broken to their core. The memory was harder to get back that way. The furnace made more sense now; Baralai expected them—her, really—to create completely new spheres and transfer old to new, which was something she'd only ever done a few times before—most people didn't have the money for that sort of thing and the people who did failed to care enough. Tachi had done it many, many times, but he didn't work for money and now he was dead, leaving her only his writings to work with.

"Paine."

She looked up to see Nooj smiling at her, corner of his mouth quirked just so—she blinked. "What?"

"You're thinking awfully hard," he said. "I'm intrigued enough to risk my remaining limbs and ask about what."

Paine looked down at the mess of spheres, then back at Baralai, and said, "I think you owe me more money."

----------


If there was one thing Paine knew, it was the value of her skills. Once she realized the amount of labor the project demanded, the salary Isaaru had shared with her became a thing of the past as she haggled it up and took Baralai's promise of using Isaaru's skills to her advantage.

Her first day of work was two whole days after Baralai had shown them their work area, their time caught up with paperwork and Paine realizing that she had a furnace, a real one, her very own—she spent hours making sure everything would be perfect when she started firing. She avoided Nooj, while setting up her work space and delivering requistion sheets to Isaaru personally with reminders that Baralai had pledged Isaaru's services for the duration of her stay in Bevelle.

"I didn't quite mean to make him your secretary," Baralai complained over lunch on the third day. Paine was rushing her meal, eager to get to the workroom and see the aquarium that had been delivered the previous evening. Nooj just smiled.

Nooj was more supportive, surprisingly, and less annoying and than Paine had anticipated—although he did steal the work counter closest to the door for himself mostly he stayed quiet and out of Paine's way.

"No, no," he said when she mentioned it on their second day of work as they opened the workroom for the day, "I wouldn't want to come between you and your furnace." His smile was unreadable, but Paine didn't let it bother her. Much.

The room was hot, even with the powerful fans Baralai had installed to pull heat away from the work area and into the vents, but she didn't mind—it didn't compare to a Luca summer, and the heat made her aquarium full of the sparkling goo from Macalania shiver and shake. She had spent a good hour marveling over it when it had been delivered and poured in—that much, all together, was so far beyond her ability to purchase she felt like she was in some kind of dream where all her hopes of actually becoming a master craftsman in sphere repair looked possible.

"Did you really need that much?" Baralai asked when he saw the price tag. "Really?" He sat heavily on one of her stools. "At this rate I'm going to be selling priceless relics to buy underwear."

"Just borrow Gippal's," Nooj said from the other side of the room. "He certainly leaves it everywhere often enough."

"You wanted these repaired—why do it halfway?" She labeled another sphere that had its core showing. Too many were like that, cracked straight through. Paine couldn't imagine the reasoning for treating a case of spheres this way.

"I don't even understand most of what you're doing here," Baralai said. "No, don't explain!" He stood quickly and Paine closed her mouth, grinning at him. "I'll just...let you both get to work. Dinner tonight, right?" She glanced at Nooj, who looked back at her; she couldn't see his eyes for the reflection of light in his glasses.

"Sure," she said, which Nooj echoed, looking at her. Even after Baralai had left, complaining of the heat, and Paine had gone back to labeling, he was still watching her as he sorted.

"Listen." She put down her pencil and took a deep breath; he wasn't doing anything but watching her and she wanted to jump him—this was the thing that had landed her with a broken heart the last time. "Are you going to work, or just sit there and…"

"Ogle you?" Nooj provided. "But the fire frames you so nicely."

Paine went to speak, but stopped when Nooj held up a glass jar. "Why did they deliver ten glass jars with pyreflies in them? Did you send the acolytes looking for fireflies and they were confused?"

"Oh!" Paine joined Nooj at his work counter where there was a crate of jars, glowing softly. "Same principle as fireflies. They have to have air. I asked for some to be collected from fiends."

"Ah. Complicated restoration technique."

"It works fine as long as they're strong fiend pyreflies—the memories are gone, and we have so many spheres where the core is exposed, anyway, it won't hurt to try." She took the jar from his hand to put it back in the crate—the pyrefly inside was getting upset and bouncing off the glass. "We melt the old core and take out the parts we need, let the pyrefly take on the properties of that energy and then—" She shrugged. "The pyrefly makes the sacrifice of its life as we stick it into burning hot Macalania goo."

"You've taken to this, haven't you?" His voice was quiet. "Different, but it looks good on you."

She leaned over the counter to check on the other jars. "I guess. It's something to do."

"You've always been good with spheres," he said. "Bikanel—how the sand would get in the recorder, remember?" He chuckled. "How many nights did you spend cursing over that old thing."

Paine remembered all too well—it had been such a crappy model. "We all have our skills."

"Skills are fine. I meant that you look happy doing this—like you did then," he said, and she started as he raised a hand and traced the pad of his thumb over her lips—the smile she didn't realize she was wearing. "Nice to see." It was so quick, a whisper of a touch, that she didn't even pull back when he took himself out of her personal space and stood. "I should answer that."

"What?" Paine blinked as Nooj headed toward the door and the knock she hadn't heard. She was hot, suddenly, and angry—at herself, at Nooj for touching her, like she was there for him to put his hands on whenever he liked. She pushed herself away from the counter and went back to her work area, hands trembling.

"Supplies from Kilika." Leather hit the countertop behind her. "Took long enough to get here."

Paine stared at the outline of the fire through the furnace door before spinning around. "You had no right," she said. "You just—" She fisted her hands, nails digging into her palms—she didn't have the words, just like she hadn't had them then. Now, like then, he stared at her as if he couldn't understand why she was upset—or maybe didn't even care. "You made this decision, you can't—stop assuming I'm okay with this, like—like we're friends." She swallowed, and sweat beaded on her neck, the familiar urge to strike out coming over her. "I mean it."

"Oh," he said, and he changed—so subtle Paine wouldn't have noticed if she hadn't spent years stupidly in love with him—he shifted, confidence gone, and his hand tightened on the grip of his cane. "Of course—I was just being sentimental. It won't happen again," he said, and left her standing in the heat of the workroom alone.

----------


It didn't take much to avoid Nooj over the next few days, and Paine indulged herself by sleeping late and coming to work when Nooj was out for lunch with Baralai. She also avoided Baralai, who had been giving her the eye whenever he caught sight of her going to work. She was thankful he was always caught up with some reporter, or tourist, and unable to catch her before she escaped through security check. She didn't feel like weighing in on personal history that was none of his business—there was a reason she hadn't told them what had gone down between her and Nooj last year and it had everything to do with how Baralai wanted to fix everything. He was worse than Gippal with a piece of barnacle-covered machina.

Even when Paine couldn't avoid Nooj, she buried herself in her work and he left her alone for the most part, unless he had a question. He didn't stop watching her, but Paine chalked it up to the process of making the glass for the spheres—it was interesting. He couldn't do it well, as he said the day she first started, dipping her pipe into the pool of molten glass stored in the furnace and bringing it out to blow and shape with wet newspaper, then back for material and more reshaping. Spheres were of a particular width, with an empty center and Paine had to start small and build up the thickness over a period of several hours. It was hot, long work, and she loved it, but she knew that Baralai was spoiling her, giving her the ability to play around with the glass—he could have easily purchased pre-made spheres from Luca, after all, but instead he wanted her to do it.

"Look," he had said the morning of her first sphere, opening a large drum that had been brought down in the night. The pieces of glass were easy to see through but colorful—too many colors to name. "I want your spheres to be this color."

Paine raised an eyebrow. "Rainbow?"

"He's being ironic, clearly," Nooj murmured from behind the goggles he was wearing, the torch in his hand hissing as he carved over one of the spheres he was working on. "The premiere sphere restorer in Spira, noted for her distaste of anything too perky save one Rikku, fires spheres made of rainbows."

Baralai didn't hide his disdain for Nooj's cynicism. "And what's wrong with that? Everyone buys spheres from Luca—it's a monopoly of the worst kind. Also, they're green glass so all the recordings look like everyone is vaguely ill."

"I didn't say it wasn't terrible business," Nooj replied, voice muffled, "I just find it hilarious you're attempting to brand her. You should tell her now why you're bothering before she rejects you on principle."

Baralai threw up his hands. "I can't have any surprises?" He gave a half-hearted smile. "I just thought—this type of glass is from Bikanel—Gippal found it for me—and Luca's never made a sphere that reached out to grab you just by…being there."

"I'm not moving Bevelle to create pretty glassworks just because you have a furnace, Baralai." She lifted her pipe and tugged down her goggles. "I'm not that easy."

He laughed. "You're missing the drift of the conversation," he said. "I mean to give you the furnace when you're done here."

At the time she had been incredulous and sent away him away laughing at her disbelief. She thought Baralai was crazy—it was expensive, for one, and he had already started complaining about being a waif on the street, as if he couldn't crash on Gippal if it came to being poor. Plus, the council, but it turned out Baralai had bought the furnace himself, and that stopped her short, because she had never thought of Baralai as wealthy before, but clearly he was. But as she started making spheres, one or two a day the way she wanted to make them, smooth, just a little larger than normal spheres and crystal clear but for the hints of color in the right light, she begin to really think of it. A place big enough for her to have a workroom, with a small living area nearby—an impossible dream. But with a gift like this, plus the money from the project, she could do anything she wanted.

She could, as Nooj pointed out one evening, challenge Luca's hold on the sphere market—and become rich doing it.

"I'm not Rin," she said, surprised into conversation—Nooj hadn't attempted to speak to her in days. "I'm not out for world domination."

"Of course not, but you do have a gift for this—the ability to take it out of their hands, offer lessons, create a new generation of artists that can't afford Luca's fees or tutelage with master craftsmen." He looked over his glasses, annoyed. "Surely you realize you're talented and a threat with the right tools—they're holding art for ransom there. It's not just about the spheres."

It was a strange conversation to have with Nooj, anyway—to hear him advocate for her success, when he was in the same boat. They both did the same kind of work, with generally same quality because the bar was so high to enter Luca's sphere production area—on top of him living in Kilika most of the time. They didn't talk about it again, because the more Paine worried about accepting such lavish things from Baralai, the more surly Nooj got about it—as if he was the one offering and she was turning up her nose at it.

She decided she would never understand him.

Other than his grumbling and their careful conversations about beginning the recovery process for the spheres that couldn't be mended, they left each other alone and Paine spent as much time outside the workroom as she could spare to avoid the awkward silences that followed after they did manage to have any sort of discussion. The silence was almost worse, because it just reminded her of how it had been before—before the Gullwings had split up, when she had had hope for something new with him, and the silences were awkward for different reasons; the silence of hope.

She spent a lot of time wandering Bevelle, because as much as she teased Baralai about not wanting to live here, the city was flourishing. There was a market with fresh food every day, and a bazaar that traveled in once a week from the small settlements sprung up around Bevelle and Macalania. Paine took a basket one afternoon when an acolyte told her that the first harvest of the bright blue berries the Al Bhed grew off various warm coasts had come into Bevelle that morning and they always went fast—she didn't plan to miss out.

The market was bustling at lunch time, and Paine made her way slowly through the area, pausing at various tents to look over all the fruits and vegetables piled high on tables and watch money change hands. Bevelle's market was full of music and color and people from all over Spira—Paine even saw several Hypello and Guado shopping and selling. Luca's open market was nothing like this. It didn't come close, in diversity of people or products, which shocked her. She would have never expected it of Bevelle.

Paine paused over a collection of bright green apples, tempted, when a voice said, "Ah ha."

She looked, but she didn't recognize the man beside her at all. She stared and said nothing.

"Hey there. I'm Davit." He held out a hand, which Paine only looked at like he was offering her garbage instead. He pulled back, undeterred. "You're the sphere preservationist from Luca," he said. His hat kept his face in shadows, and Paine didn't like the look of his eyes. "Paine, former Gullwing, former girlfriend of Nooj the Undying. Bet that was a tough gig." He smirked. "Got dumped, though. Lucky for you."

She straightened her back, and when she did she finally noticed his companion, standing just a few feet away, sphere recorder rolling away. "Go away." She turned and walked off, but he just followed her down the path.

"Hit a nerve there, sorry." He jogged up beside her. "Heard you were holed up in the temple with him, people talk, rumors, you know how it is. Care to set the record straight?"

She kept her eyes forward. "I have nothing to say."

"Seems funny to be hanging around him again, right? Or is there something else going on?" Davit kept pace with her as they left the market area and Paine took deep breaths and kept walking; the steps leading to the temple were close, and then the guards would help her so she didn't cause a worldwide scene punching a reporter in the face on city property. She didn't expect him to cut her off at her turn, he and his recorder both, holding out his mic. "Does the Praetor have something up his sleeve? Information wants to be free, you know, and New Yevon doesn't want to make the same mistakes as its predecessor."

"I have no comment."

He inched closer; he was smaller than the man recording, but made her more uncomfortable. "You could give a hint; off the record. We don't even have to run the video. A highly placed source at the temple, perhaps? What's Baralai dragging the premiere sphere artist in Spira and Nooj to Bevelle for? You've been here a week at least."

"I said I have no comment for you." She had taken the route back she had come from, foolishly, of course—there were no people around but them, unless some acolytes or temple workers came around the corner to go into the temple the back way. Her sword was still back in her room, left there because she wasn't in the habit of carrying it, and of course she had none of the dressspheres she had brought with her. Also, Baralai would look at her in that way he had if she broke any reporters for cornering her. She knew better from dealing with Luca's press.

She didn't realize she had been backing up so much until her back brushed the stone of the alley wall—suddenly, even with all the space and the wide walkway, Paine considered a little violence, if just enough to break through to get to her path home and away from the situation. "I have no comment," she said, and stepped forward, expecting them to back up—but they didn't, and the guy—Davit, she repeated to herself, remembering that name—just grinned at her and inched closer, making her skin crawl. "No comment. I mean it."

"Now, we got off on the wrong foot, but you should give me a chance to change your mind." He moved his arm, and for one second Paine was certain he was going to touch her, and he was going to lose his damn arm—

"She said she had nothing to say. You people have a hard time listening."

Paine closed her eyes for a second and opened them again to find the recorder off her and the two reporters stunned into silence. Nooj stepped forward between her and the reporter and the mic she wished she could grab and stuff down his throat. Nooj linked their arms and guided her around the reporters.

"You should have told me you were going to market," he said. "I would've gone with you." He ignored the fact the recorder was still trained on them. "Vultures come out if you're not careful. Plus, oranges."

"The berries," she said; she sounded like a moron. She was shaking, except the arm Nooj held again his side, warm and secure.

"Oh, the blue ones. Yes, Baralai mourned missing those last year. Maybe we can bribe an acolyte to go out for us when we get back."

The reporters followed silently, recording their every word. It didn't matter what she or Nooj said, or if they did anything at all besides walk arm and arm back to the temple—it was a story either way. They did, Nooj talking about useless things, pointless small talk, until they passed through the gate opened for them by guards—the service entrance—and the reporter and his recorder were gone, barred from entry. She let out a breath she hadn't realized she was holding, took a deep breath of calm. She disliked reporters and hated not being free to spell out just how much she didn't care to be harassed on the street.

Once inside the foyer that led to the kitchen, the walls strung with aprons and crates stacked five feet high, Nooj stopped and turned her. She shuddered as he cupped her shoulders. Hot and cold defined his touch—a fitting one, she thought.

"Are you okay?"

She stood for a second, breathing. It hadn't been dangerous—they were just two pushy sphere reporters, she could have handled them herself, with her bare hands if it had been necessary, but suddenly she was absurdly grateful for his intervention so she hadn't had to do so and risk causing issues for Baralai. "Yes," she said, and laughed when she shivered again, although whether from the reporters or Nooj's hands on her she couldn't say. "No, not really. They—" She closed her eyes. "I thought I was going to have to hurt them. I forgot that the press can be jerks." She swallowed. "I'm used to Luca's reporters being…"

"Scared of you?" His lips twitched. "Yes, you have trained them well. Pushy isn't what I would call what they did to you. Intimidation sounds better."

"He wouldn't have hurt me. I would've been fine."

"Yes, after they had physically cowed you into a wall, you were just fine." She was surprised when his grip tightened, and she found herself tugged forward, his hand warm on her back, fingertips pressing into her skin. She was a fool, a damned fooled, but for one moment, she gave in and pressed her face to the curve of his neck and breathed him in. "Don't go out alone anymore," he said into her hair, a whisper, his lips grazing her ear. "They know we're here and they want to know what we're doing. The Bevelle press is tougher than any other; they won't go easy on you. They're not afraid to scare you into talking."

She pulled away to look at him, the frown marring his brow, mouth down-turned. "I'm fine."

"I know better than anyone you can take care of yourself, but…" He leaned down, and she couldn't get her breath. "You shouldn't go out alone again—neither of us should."

She didn't feel up to the argument, and would have just stayed put waiting: for him to close the distance, kiss her like she realized she wanted him to, like she had wanted him to for years, but the door to the kitchen swung open and Baralai poured forth like a storm cloud, eyes angry and body tense and Nooj let her go—pushed her away.

Baralai didn't even seem to notice their embrace, which Paine already regretted, her face warm. "I'm going to—" He clenched his teeth. "It's already being broadcast! I've heard from three acolytes already and I haven't even seen it! I am going to strip his press pass for starters, then I'm going to rip off his—"

"I'm fine," she said, and rubbed her face. Baralai opened his mouth to speak and she cut him off. "No, I am fine." Nooj was there and—" She didn't meet Nooj's gaze, training her eyes on Baralai. "They just surprised me. I wasn't prepared to run into the press. I'm sorry if I gave anything away."

"You're sorry?" Baralai gaped at her. "I would expect better behavior for my friends, but for the sake of oh-look-New-Yevon-might-be-keeping-secrets that's apparently too much to ask." He spun around and stomped away, and Paine watched as servers and workers literally threw themselves out of his path.

Nooj followed him without a word, leaving Paine alone and suddenly cold, being gawked at by a dozen people in the kitchen, skin tingling where Nooj had touched her and remembering the smell of his skin.

Instead of trailing after Baralai, she did the next best thing—fled to her room where she could imagine poking the reporter with her sword a few hundred times and pretend whatever had just happened between her and Nooj meant nothing to her at all.

----------


The calls poured in over the next week, from Yuna and Rikku and Gippal, who was still in Djose—and they were all annoyed. Yuna threatened to come to Bevelle, but Paine warned her off.

"What exactly are you going to do? Make them feel guilty with your doe-eyes?"

Yuna's voice was warm over the connection. "I know how to handle them. After all, Nooj can't be there at every moment to rescue you."

"Do you have to phrase it like that?" She looked at the window of her room so she didn't have to meet Yuna's gaze—she saw too much at the best of times. "He was just in the right place at the right time."

"You forget that we don't care about the past in this case," Yuna pointed out, "because we saw you being—" She huffed. "I know which press company is never getting interviews from me again." She paused for a moment, and looked away. "The press aren't like fiends—you can't beat them up, and there's a certain amount of charm you need to control them."

"Which you're saying I don't have." It was almost comical; Yuna looked apolegetic but firm trying to tell her things she already knew. "It's fine. I'll be more careful, and Baralai is debating escorts with Isaaru, of all things."

Yuna was absolutely for this idea even though Paine balked at the mere concept. She didn't need a babysitter, or hand-holding just to walk around the city and be guarded from people with recorders. This is why she had moved back to Luca—no one cared, she wasn't a blitzer and therefore not news. Here her disastrous first pass with the Bevelle's press and the five-minute walk to the temple after Nooj's intervention had made top story on every sphere network that worked out of the city.

In the midst of all the insanity she wanted no part of, work continued. She spent hours firing more spheres, even though they had enough now to replace the completely broken ones. It was calming, and kept her mind off Nooj, who had gone back to his previous behaviors—only speaking to her about work, doing most of his work early and leaving the workroom to her during the afternoon. They only saw each other in the evenings before they broke for dinner, a few short hours where they worked together.

"I've repaired all the spheres where the core wasn't damaged," Nooj said one evening. "There are sixteen and they work, but…"

"I don't want to risk trying to copy those yet; they have picture and sound, I'll take it." Paine made the notes, writing down in her master list the codes for the spheres Nooj had finished. "We should transcribe them as soon as possible. We can't keep putting off the spheres with their cores broken anymore, either."

Nooj gave the aquarium against the wall a dubious look. "I dislike meddling with this material." He caught Paine's look and said only, "Nightmares." Paine didn't argue; Macalania was a strange place, anyway, and the sphere material did so much they still didn't understand, had so many properties unknown—if he said he didn't like touching it for whatever reason, she believed him.

Nooj turned one of the new spheres in his hand. It was almost clear, although it would get a little darker when the liquid was poured inside—Paine had never seen a clear sphere before, only spheres in various colors. The light caught it as Nooj ran his fingers over it, the soft tapping of his prosthetic fingers against the glass reminded her of toasts to birthdays. She smiled, having to admit that Nooj was right—her spheres acted as prisms.

"Beautiful," he said, placing it back in its holder. "I've never seen spheres like these before. If you don't open your own business, it's going to be a loss for everyone."

Paine turned on one of the burners on the middle work counter that they barely used, her back to him. She didn't know what to say to that—or if she should say anything. She took the safer route and grabbed a measuring spoon she had borrowed from the kitchen. "I guess you don't want to do the honors?"

Nooj waved the chisel at her. "I'll be the demolition team, you go play with the slime."

She had only done this a few times—most people didn't have the funds to buy the supplies for a complete sphere overhaul, casing and contents and all. Paine had done it only for people who were rich, and in Luca there were plenty: blitzers and officials, shop owners and the more famous reporters who had made their name years and years before. She had only ever had one unrecovered sphere, and the owner had been expecting that the restoration would fail, anyway. Even then, she had never worked with spheres quite this fragile.

She truly expected to find that some of the hardened cores would have trapped their contents forever, and no amount of new material or any type of pyrefly would bring it back.

The crackle of glass breaking followed her as she measured out the liquid, which was runny and gelatinous at the same time because of the heat from the furnace. She took it back to the table and set it aside, watched her burner heat up.

"I've never seen this done." Nooj sat one of the cores next to her on her work tray. It was opaque and cloudy, hard as rock—one of the worst pieces.

"You want me to start out with a bang, don't you?" Paine picked it up and pulled out a beaker. "It's pretty boring, though."

"Not going to pass up a chance to learn from the master. I'll be quiet."

He stayed true to his word, only pulling up a stool next to her to watch. Even though it had been at least three months since Paine had done this, it was easy to fall back into the science of it: start melting the old core on one burner and the new core material on another. The pyrefly that Baralai and Gippal had acquired for her from the Via rested in its jar just an arm-length away. The new sphere sparkled on her work tray, already outfitted with the funnel, the torch lying by so she could quickly seal after pouring.

There were so many steps, and they had to be done perfectly.

The old core went into the beaker and over the flame of one burner and the new material went on the other. She watched as the old core melted, leaked apart, like it was sweating. Paine learned forward.

"What are we looking for?" Nooj asked.

"The sparkle," she said. "I never found another good name for it. If the sparkle never comes, it means this memory is lost."

"What irony," Nooj murmured. "He destroys our memories and we work to restore his."

Paine used tongs to rotate the beaker. "We faced him in the Via," she said. "That's how we found out what he did." Beside her, Nooj took the news silently, his shoulder tensed against hers. "I can see why you liked him. Cheery guy."

"You should have seen him at parties," Nooj said. "Always the star."

He always made her laugh with his easy deadpan humor, and it was no different now. She shoved away the thought of the past—it was no time to fight about him teasing her, or touching her, even though he was warm and solid at her side. She could berate herself later for letting him slip under her guard just by sitting next to her, but for now—

"Sparkles," she said, smiling, watching the melted liquid swirl and pull and move itself, shimmering in the light of the flame under it. "Watch it now."

They did, heads bent close together, as the liquid cleared, looking like pure water but for the hints of color that flashed to the wavering of the flame.

"It's—"

"Moving," she said, "it's going to lift up—" and it did as she said, almost invisible now over still liquid that no longer moved, but for the shimmer of it. "Memories." She checked the other beaker with the new liquid to make sure it was at the same temperature, and then reached for the jar with the pyrefly and unscrewed the lid. "If you ever wondered what they look like without all the energy of the pyrefly around them—here you go."

"Fascinating," he said, shifting closer. His leg pressed against hers, but she didn't move away. "How is this even possible?"

"The temperature," Paine said. "The gas I'm using, too—it's not cheap, and it's hard to control most of the time."

"Yet here you are making it look effortless."

"I'm only as good as my tools, and Isaaru made sure they're excellent."

"Why does the same thing not happen to the other liquid at this temperature?" Nooj gestured to the new core material, that was still swirling in its beaker.

"It's not… damaged." She had learned most of what she knew through Tachi's literature, trial and error, and Shinra's own studies in the Farplane, but yet so much of her work was still a mystery. "If it's damaged the energy just sits there dormant or is just ruined. If the temperature is right it escapes and…it can find a new host, a pyrefly to dive into, and then it's just a matter of which memory is stronger. Because that material hasn't been hurt—I know, I know, shut up—it doesn't feel the need. You can coax it out with higher temperatures, but the fail rate is higher—it's why repair is always better than copying." She tipped her pyrefly jar upside down, her hand covering the lid. The pyrefly bounced off her palm, warm and feathery, before she slipped it carefully on top of the beaker, leaving just enough space so the beaker didn't grow any warmer. "It wants a safe home, you see." The pyrefly surprised her by how fast it dropped into the beaker, almost vanishing as the heat changed its composition, and the pyrefly and the sparkle danced around each other before mixing together, the pyrefly glowing brightly.

"That—" Nooj stopped. "I honestly have no words for that. You just moved a memory."

"Maybe," Paine said. "We used the stronger pyrefly because we need to override whatever latent memories are in the new core material and the stronger the pyrefly, the stronger the memory becomes—the better the recording will be. Now it's just patience."

She didn't have to wait long; the newly homed memory was active, bouncing off the sides of the beaker and finally back into the jar, where Paine neatly closed it off with the lid and set it aside. "Now," she said, shifting down the the other beaker. "We…well, I guess we say goodbye to this pyrefly."

"Murder," Nooj mused.

"Sort of." She checked her temperatures again, making sure the new beaker was at the same temperature the old one had been at separation. "Pyreflies can't survive in this liquid in the form we're used to seeing them, although water is fine. It's better to say that—they are this material, this material is their home just like our bodies are their home; it's our atmosphere that gives them the look we're used to." She repeated the process, opened the jar over the new beaker, and waited.

"It's just bouncing around," Nooj said. "Tedious."

"Actually, getting it to come out of the other beaker is normally the longest part." She smiled at him. "Hum," she said, and Nooj only stared at her. "I'm serious. Hum." She watched Nooj struggle with the idea of producing any sort of music at all before bending down to the beaker and doing it herself, steady and long. In the jar, the pyrefly brightened, then dimmed and drifted down as she lowered her tone. Under it, the liquid shifted and bubbled.

"What in the world—" Nooj actually took a step back. "You're singing to it."

"I'm revealing my top secret weapon to you." She hummed again, and the pyrefly drifted lower. "I read some of Tachi's studies, and in one of them he talked about the effect of sound on pyreflies. I tested it with some music at the Moonflow once. Depending on the tone, it's almost like a drug." The pyrefly inched lower as she hummed one last time, and finally it was in the beaker, and Paine used the tongs to cover the opening with a glass slide so it couldn't escape. "I practiced a lot, because upbeat tones just making them cranky, or excited—it's hard to tell."

Nooj came closer. "I always wondered why they could pass through everything but glass."

"Something about the type of solid, maybe. There's so much we have to learn about them."

They bent together to watch the final step, and Paine never really enjoyed this part, even though seeing it meant that she could have a successful sphere recreation. She checked her heat, turned it down a little and then placed the glass slide completely over the top of the opening.

"Thought that was a bad idea." He didn't sound skeptical, just curious—he had leaned forward, bent over the table, and she could smell him.

She kept her attention on the beaker. "The temperature has to be really close to the same during reintegration as it was when the memory was removed. I put the glass over, which means more heat will get trapped inside, but I'm turning it down to make sure it stays level." She pointed toward her gauges. "The humidity is going up inside—it doesn't take much to force them together."

"So we have a glob of slime and a pyrefly—what do we do now?"

Paine hummed again to answer his question, and the pyrefly dropped lower, and and by the time she finished her note it was the beginning of the end. Nooj made a noise as the liquid bubbled up, barely grazing the soft blue-green light of the pyrefly, but it dimmed more and more, until suddenly the light was gone. The sparkle was back, weak and barely there, until it flared, bright and blue, and the liquid inside sloshed and bubbled a little before calming. Paine moved quickly, removing the slide and the beaker from the heat with tongs.

"Brace the sphere for me," she said, "and use the holder I showed you earlier."

It was just a big wire, welded together to form a ring, and Paine had made it herself and trusted it more than any of the other tools. Nooj held it, funnel up, and Paine tipped the beaker over. The liquid went willingly, poured fast and hot, and the sphere fogged up. She reached for Nooj's arm and pulled him over the table so she could grab the slight bit of core she had drilled out of the sphere earlier. She melted the end of the glass tube so it would stick as it slid back in, removed the funnel, and tapped it in gently with her finger, following it with her torch.

She only looked back at Nooj when she was done, and blinked at the expression on his face. "What?"

"That…was amazing." He still held the sphere. "Or perhaps I should say, watching you work is amazing. What do we do with this?"

"Just hold it there and let it cool." She bent her neck to watch the liquid inside the sphere, pulsing and glowing just a tiny bit—which was a good sign. "We'll have to put it in the cooling rack overnight and test it tomorrow."

"That's a long time to wait to know if all this worked." He stood still, his artificial arm holding the wire steady. "You're going to do this with how many spheres again?"

"There are twenty we have to do this with."

Nooj wiped the sweat from face with his free hand. "We're going to be here for years."

Paine finally took the handle of the wire away from him and walked it to her cooling rack, soft cotton batting pinned over metal shelves. She looked at it; it was still glowing softly, and she wished she could reach out and touch it, bring it to life, see if she had done a good job, but this work wasn't like that—it was heat and patience and more patience—trying to draw the memory out too soon could ruin it.

"Not years," she said. "After the first few you get more confident. A few more weeks."

Paine returned to shut off her burners. The old core material was boiling—nothing but water and minerals now, all the memories gone from it. She poured it down the sink at the end of the table. She felt different, somehow, now—but moving memories was like that for her. It made her feel powerful but at the same time so much more insignificant for all the things she didn't and couldn't yet understand about the magic and the materials she worked with.

Nooj startled her by reaching out to cup her elbow. "Paine."

She stood still and didn't say a word. There was something on his mind—she could see it, in the lines on his forehead, and foolishly wanted to know what it was. Was it her? Had he changed his mind—was seeing her competent at something changing his perception? Did it matter if it had? Should she care? She couldn't decide and she didn't want to have to face her answers. The room was hot and the air heavy with it, and Nooj kept his hand on her, loose and sweaty.

The silence stretched on, and above them she could hear dinner bells ringing. Nooj shifted closer. "We're—" He stopped again, and she felt him pull away before he had stepped back—it was all in his eyes—the blank look worse than a punch. "Thank you for teaching me," he said.

"You're welcome." It was automatic as he let go and backed away.

"We should go to dinner. Baralai will come looking for us."

Not for the first time, he left her there without another word, but this time it was all different—she wanted him to come back.

----------


The change was obvious even to her over the next few days: how she would watch Nooj work, instead of the other way around, how she came to work earlier, hoping he would say something. She didn't care for her behavior, but didn't bother stopping herself. He helped with sphere creation, offered her an extra set of hands she appreciated, but there was no more conversation—as if he had changed his mind again. He was full of mixed signals. Focusing on work helped her shut him out, until life forced her out of her comfort zone again.

Isaaru showed up to their workroom in the late afternoon. He looked like he would be rather be anywhere else in the world.

"A what?" Paine asked when Isaaru explained his visit.

"It's New Yevon's anniversary banquet," he said, as if he was explaining it to a moron. "Food, dancing, mingling. You've heard of it, I'm sure."

"Yeah, but I don't know why you're telling me—I'm not going."

Nooj snorted from his place across the room and for the first time Paine watched Isaaru get irate, which was as close she had ever seen him to mad. "You most certainly will, if I have to drag you myself. This is an open press event—if you're not seen, they'll surely fan the flames of New Yevon hiding something yet again, instead of you just being here to visit an old friend, which we've finally gotten them to buy."

She wasn't impressed that they were lying in the first place—Baralai's orders. She didn't particularly understand why they were keeping their work a secret, but Baralai and Isaaru had insisted they do so until it was complete. She wasn't arguing with the people giving her the gil, even if the politics of the entire situation seemed to be pointless-grandstanding by old men. She also felt like reminding Baralai that the rumors of a secret project had mostly been quelled by the are-they-aren't-they reports and long articles speculating about her and Nooj having sex on Baralai's desk, which she had caught Gippal reading in Baralai's office the night before. He had brought it back from the Highroad, and asked her to sign it. She had wadded it up and stuffed it in the fire instead to the chorus of Gippal's laugher—but she wasn't amused; Isaaru's nagging wasn't helping. "I'm—"

"Baralai said he assumed you and Nooj would be attending together. The banquet is for council and select members of Bevelle society, but the ball and buffet afterward is open to everyone." He wrote on his clipboard and then peeled the paper off for her. "That's a dress shop in mid-city; they're open all week, an hour before dinner bell."

"I—"

He cut her off again. "We'll be doubling the security on your hallway; two at your door here and two at the top of the stairs coming down, plus temple security, but they know you, so it shouldn't be a problem. We don't believe there will be an issue, but the press will have additional access with escorts throughout the week as we do tours and prepare. The party planners arrive tomorrow, as well, so be wary of them—they'll force you into their ranks of unpaid laborers and make you put up decorations."

"Together?" She spat it out. Nooj said nothing—she couldn't even read his expression. In on it with Baralai, no doubt—she glared at him and Isaaru in turn. "I have no intention of—" she paused at Isaaru's look. "I'll be going alone."

"That's quite all right; sorry the for misunderstanding. Do visit the dress shop—it's covered for you." He bowed slightly and was gone, as if he had just shown up to fluster her. Paine gaped after him for a full minute before she stormed out of the room, past Isaaru and up the stairs.

Baralai wasn't in his office, but it was past working hours for him and since Gippal was back in town there was only one place he would be. She found him and Gippal in his sitting room, dressed but tousled. Their smiles faltered a little when she walked in. "Paine," Baralai said.

"Shut up, you meddling—" She wanted to punch a wall, or maybe punch Baralai in a kidney, but Gippal the peacekeeper was here—it would be pointless to try.

To Baralai's credit, he said nothing else, and leaned back heavily in his chair. Gippal stood. "There's no reason to get nasty."

"My love life is none of your business. Don't—don't assume I'm going to cling to Nooj at some stupid party just because I see him everyday. I am still so angry at him, Baralai. I don't need a matchmaker."

Baralai lifted an eyebrow. "So I'm just imagining the fact that both of you make eyes at the other when they think no one is watching? I'm no fool, Paine."

There was a comeback here, she was sure of it. She just didn't have the words anymore for how frustrated she was: with Nooj, with the fact her privacy had been rocked and knocked over and rifled through, with the reality that her fears about being around Nooj again had made her weak. If Baralai could see straight through her mask of not wanting him, then what hope did she have of Nooj not noticing? She put her face in her hands and said nothing.

"You know, Nooj visits twice a month, and every single time—every one—he asks about you."

"I don't care," she said, but she did care. She didn't even fight Gippal when came to stand by her, wrapped an arm around her shoulder. "It's none of your business."

"You've been saying that," Gippal murmured, rubbing her arm. "But none of of our business is confusing when we have no idea what really happened."

Paine lifted her face. Gippal was so close, eyes concerned. "It was in the papers."

"That he abandoned you in public, but it was all speculation—weeks of it, with dead-ends," Baralai reminded her.

"He would've told you."

"Like you did?" Gippal squeezed her closer. "No, don't look at me like that. You're both private people, I get it."

Baralai stared into his fireplace. "A disagreement—irreconcilable differences about his past—he was never specific. All we know is that it was him—and he told us that much, but it would have been obvious, anyway, from the way you walked around like a human bruise for weeks. What did happen?"

Paine turned away from Gippal to lock the door behind her, the metal cool under her fingertips when she turned the latch. "A crush," she said into the door, hating the words. "He—it's not a game, he said, where I was a cute recorder infatuated with his fame, starstruck over a legend—a groupie. It was real life, and he needed real feelings."

When she turned back around Baralai and Gippal were gaping. They said nothing.

"A groupie," she said. "We spent time together for those few weeks after Vegnagun, and he was distant, but I thought—it made sense, it had been two years, but in the end he took me out to dinner and dumped me over clams." Bitterness, that's all she had; bitter laughs over the entire situation. "He knows I don't like clams."

"That's all he said?" Baralai was curious as a rule, but Paine didn't want to poke at this particular wound more than she had to.

"He sat there and told me all my feelings were shallow. He told me that my feelings were shallow—when he had been the one keeping me at arm's length. Did he really need to say anything else?" She had spent hours agonizing over everything he stated to her matter-of-factly, as if he were inside her head, as if she hadn't spent years searching for the truth of him, of them. "He left me sitting there, walked out and didn't speak to me again for two months."

"Bonus reporter, too," Gippal murmured. "Wonder if he knew one was sitting right by you ready to pounce."

"Yeah, so much for saving the world. It's much more interesting being the reject fling for the most confusing man in Spira." She finally sat down on one of Baralai's couches. "I'm—" She closed her eyes; wondered if she was being stupid admitting it out loud, then decided she didn't care. "Of course I still want him. When he shot me and walked away, even before I knew it wasn't him, I wanted him and that was plenty confusing, so what's a few harsh words?" She looked at Baralai. "I did the project because you asked me to—but I don't want to be around him while at the same time I wish I could be around him all the time. He's—I don't understand how he looks at me one way here but treats me like he'd rather be eaten by a flan there. I don't want to be tempted by him when he's all I want and I know I'm—I'm not what he wants, except when I am, and I don't know how to be the girl who can turn on the parts he likes on request."

"I don't think that's it," Baralai said. "Of course, I can't…" She didn't miss the look he aimed at Gippal, eyes soft and so intimate she felt like she was seeing something private. "Have you asked him about Shuyin?"

Paine couldn't have predicted that question. "No. I thought he might tell me when we were closer, but closer never happened." Not even in the few short weeks when Paine would take time from the Gullwings to visit Nooj—and she had realized later, it had always been her searching him out. That should have been a clue, but she had been so happy to know the truth, and to have him back… She had often wondered if the pleasure she got out of seeing him, her care not to come on too strong had somehow backfired, leaving him convinced that it would never work.

But he shouldn't have hurt her like he had. She deserved better.

"You should ask him; ask him about Shuyin." Baralai stood.

"What does Shuyin have to do with anything?" Paine asked.

"Just ask him." He looked worn down suddenly, and Gippal moved from his place behind her couch. She turned her face away, toward the crackling fire—the shame of crashing into their home just because she was angry was catching up with her, and she made quick excuses and headed for the door, even as Baralai and Gippal both called her back.

It was easier to walk away from them, back to her room where she could lock the door and be by herself. The afternoon was cool as she stepped onto the guest balcony, glad to be away.

She didn't expect to find Nooj outside her door, looking out over the courtyard below. She stopped.

"You rushed out." An understatement, since he knew exactly where she had gone. He leaned against the wall like he belonged there. "We had plans to transcribe before dinner to meet Baralai's first deadline."

She should send him away. It was logical. She wanted to be alone. She didn't want to deal with him. She hadn't invited him—she had meant in the workroom, anyway.

He held up a case—the new spheres, shiny and playable even though they weren't supposed to leave the workroom.

She felt like a stupid teenager. She loved him; he didn't love her back. It wasn't the end of the world. It would never be; but they could work together. They could be colleagues. They could be friends, maybe—they had proved it over the last few weeks. There was nothing stopping her except her dead-end desire to be someone he wanted.

She could put that aside.

"Sure." She reached for her key and unlocked the door. "Come in."

"You're sure."

"It's big enough, I have a huge table. We could order dinner, get a lot done."

"Ready to be finished, take your skill out into the world?" He stepped in behind her.

"Maybe." She made herself relax, and he hadn't been wrong—finish the project. Finish the project and go home.

Finish the project and escape.

----------


They transcribed hours and hours of Trema's long—and crazy—commentary to himself, meetings with person after person, both still alive and long dead. It was boring and tedious, but Nooj was excellent at catching most of the conversations the first time through—if she had been doing it alone she would have had to listen over and over. None of the contents were earth-shattering, unless she counted Trema's habit of racist rhetoric aimed at whoever was convenient at the time—Paine hadn't realized that about him, but Nooj didn't seem bothered. Several times she caught him laughing or swearing, as Trema muttered to himself—but she couldn't bring herself to ask him why, and couldn't figure it out herself—to her, and maybe to the rest of Spira, these spheres wouldn't be worth much. Everyone deserved to see and hear them, but she still didn't understand Baralai and Isaaru's theatrics.

After five or six spheres, Nooj apologized for keeping her awake, and slipped out of the room as the bells chimed midnight. It had gone fine—she wasn't a wreck. She reminded herself she wasn't weak and being emotional didn't make her weak.

She had a right to be emotional over Nooj as long as she stopped doing it in front of people…especially him.

She returned to the workroom two days before the anniversary ball after taking a day off to sleep away her exhaustion and stress. Security was tighter; outside the door to the basement the guards checked her pass, and the guards outside the workroom door did the same, even though they had seen her for weeks. It was odd and the case in her hand felt like six pounds of guilt.

She expected to find Nooj—but she found Gippal instead, sitting at her table browsing through her transcription notes.

"Anything interesting?"

He made a noise and kept reading.

She put the case of spheres on the table and that made him look up. "Baralai would have a fit if he knew you guys took them out of here," he said.

"He'll have to take it up with Nooj." The room was much cooler since she had turned the furnace off—they didn't need it anymore. She was done making spheres, but suddenly she wished it was on and white-hot, ready to go. She wanted to sink into the process—make something different, hide in the heat, from Nooj, from Baralai, from the memory of the looks she had received from the reporters sprinkled throughout the temple. Baralai hadn't spoken to her since her outburst in his room, but then again she hadn't made it easy for him to find her. Admitting her feelings to Gippal was one thing, but doing so with Baralai somehow felt like a bigger risk, as if she had more to lose by letting him in—which was ridiculous.

"You guys are almost done," Gippal said. "Nooj said you only had one sphere left."

Paine didn't see the sphere in question, but it was probably put away somewhere—Nooj had been attempting a temperature control to see if it played better when it was hot or cold. The core wasn't exposed, and there was one small fracture, but yet it had no picture and the sound faded in and out, like the memory couldn't decide if it existed or not. It was Trema's voice as well as one other person, but it was impossible for her to tell. "I'm torn," she said, twirling a pencil across the counter. "There's sound at least, even though I can't really make it out. We could risk trying to copy it, but then we might lose the whole thing. I've only replaced the ones that can't play at all." She cradled her chin in her hand. "Nooj has been working on it, but…I'll have to ask Baralai if he's okay with the risk."

"Haven't seen you at dinner the last two nights. Avoiding us?" His eyes didn't stray from the notes; like it was all her answers there, instead of ramblings of an insane man.

"Just tired."

"Baralai is worried you're mad at him." There was a good joke, except Gippal wasn't laughing.

"Why would I be angry at him? I'm the one who stormed into his private space and yelled at him."

"He says he was hard on you. He just…misses the group. You know, the way we were before you and Nooj…"

It came back to this, like it had all the other times Baralai had suggested getting together to—reminisce, drink, play dumb games, act like everything was fine, but never talk about what had happened between them before or after. Or maybe the three of them had, and she was just left out because she kept refusing the invitations she could except for birthdays and spent most of that time nursing drinks in corners. "Just because you and Baralai are—whatever you are—doesn't mean it's only happy ever after if Nooj and I are, too."

He made a face. "Please. You and Nooj spent most of your time having eye sex before Baralai and I trusted one another not to stab each other in the back. It's not us that makes sense—it's you guys, so we're living in backwards land."

"It's like I said. It was never me. I would've…I would've changed whatever upset him to make him happy, but he never gave me the chance."

Gippal snorted. "Then we would've tied him down and coated him with ochu oil for it and you would've still been out a boyfriend. Are you kidding?"

"Well, he's made it clear how he feels. Except when he's sending mixed messages."

"Maybe he's sending you the remix version, but to everyone else he might as well be flashing 'Paine, please make out with me'."

"If you say so." That wasn't an avenue she wanted to go down again right now. She looked at the table. "He's hasn't been here today." None of his things were out, which was weird—he would usually be working this time of day.

"No, he left."

"Left?"

"For a few days. He asked me and I called in a favor—Brother picked him up this morning to take him to Djose. He didn't say why, said he'd let me know when he got back."

"Pretty weird." It was beyond weird—she couldn't imagine why he would leave in the middle of the project, with a deadline two days away. Just for this, she was going to make him transcribe three or four spheres by himself as revenge. There was a reason two of them did it together and it wasn't just because it was good to have two pairs of ears—Trema was boring. Plus, if she was honest with herself she was mad he hadn't told her personally he was leaving, even if it was for a short amount of time.

Classic Nooj where she was concerned.

"Gone shopping yet?" Gippal grinned; pure malice, Paine thought. "Isaaru said he gave you directions."

"What's wrong with what I'm wearing?" Gippal never got tired of this, and she was convinced he hadn't spent enough time playing with dolls as a child.

"You're right, that's pretty hot, the leather and all, but it's normal."

"Okay, I'll go in a sack, then."

"Paine."

"Gippal. Why do you care, anyway? I'm going to be there for exactly ten minutes and then I'm going to escape back to my room."

"You're the only person I know who would turn down free clothes in Bevelle shops on New Yevon's dime." He flopped out on the table tragically. "A sack! You're hopeless."

She should have learned her lesson from the last time she let herself get dragged into a shopping trip with Gippal for Yuna's wedding, who spent most of his time admiring hats and tacky earrings and the wildest accessories he could find while nagging her into clothes. He bullied her out of the temple and into the shopping district, already bustling with shoppers.

Paine's first reaction on seeing where Isaaru wanted her to go was to turn around and walk the other direction—Gippal had to drag her back.

"There are frills," she said as Gippal tugged her forward. "I saw tulle and maybe lace. I am not going in there."

"I've been here with Rikku, it's not that bad!"

"That's doesn't make me feel any better!"

"I promise," he said.

"I do not need a personal shopper, I do not need a dress, I am not going to be there that long." It was hopeless, and she went through the door with her arm tangled with Gippal's, wondering why he was determined to put her into satin or something else ridiculously clingy. He completely ignored the shopkeeper, dragged her to the back of the store and pulled something off one of the racks.

"You've already scoped the place out," she said, horrified, and before she knew it she was shoved into a dressing room, arms full of bright red leather.

She was doomed.

----------


"See? It wasn't so bad." Gippal threw his arm around her shoulder as they left the store, her dress bag draped over his other arm. "In, out, and now even if you look surly on the news, they won't care."

"Because they won't be looking at my face," she pointed out.

"That's kind of the point." He grinned at her. "Want to avoid press speculation? Look hot."

Paine sighed. The truth was, she liked the dress, it was fine, she would blend, even though she would spend longer putting it on and peeling it off than she would at the party itself. Gippal had good taste for everyone but himself, for some reason, but bringing that up was a good way to get silent treatment for a month. Gippal really loved his pants and wouldn't let a thing be said against them. She smiled as they walked.

"Ooh, food," Gippal said as they passed a vendor. He darted away, handing Paine her bag. "I'll get some for both of us!" He was always so optimistic and so easy to be around, pushy or not. As she watched him hovering over the vendor, she smiled. He was crazy. She loved him.

"Paine, what a surprise!"

It was so sudden Paine realized she and Gippal must have been under scrutiny for awhile. She didn't even have to turn around. "Shelinda."

"Enjoying Bevelle?" The perky voice was misleading. Shelinda had become one of the toughest reporters around, but normally she covered Luca, chasing down officials, exposing shady business in the blitz sector. That she was here meant one thing—she thought there was a story.

"It's nice," Paine said.

"Shopping for the ball, I see. Have a date yet?"

Paine couldn't see a mic, nor anyone with a recorder nearby. That didn't mean they weren't being recorded. Instead of a nasty comment about how it was none of Shelinda's business, she shook her head. "That would ruin the surprise."

"True. New Yevon is full of surprises recently. Praetor Baralai having extended guests, those guests being so specific…." She stood beside Paine like they were old friends—she didn't even look at her, but instead gazed over the people walking through the street.

"Baralai is busy. It makes sense for us to come here to visit." She looked for Gippal, but a crowd of people had moved between them.

"He is busy…and crafty. Has he talked to you about the Youth League selling all their spheres to New Yevon?" She was all innocence, eyes wide and smile subtle, and that was the last question Paine had expected.

"Excuse me?"

"That deal was finalized…right as you and Nooj were invited to Bevelle." Shelinda's smile was full of lies. She was trying to trip her up.

"I have no comment about relations between New Yevon and the former Youth League." It was rote, exactly what Isaaru had told her to say when faced with questions that were traps.

"Well, that's fine…I was just curious if you knew what Baralai might be doing with those spheres, seeing as how you're the best preservationist in Spira." Shelinda watched her carefully, but Paine kept her face blank. Suddenly, she wished she hadn't turned down Baralai's offer of escorts.

"They had roasted nuts," Gippal said, appearing on her other side, practically moaning. He handed her a bag and sniffed his. "I want Baralai to buy me one of those carts, but he refuses." He stared. "Aren't you going to—oh. Hey, Shelinda."

"Gippal."

Paine saw her eyeing the dress bag and Gippal both—perfect. "Well, I don't want to interrupt. Have a good afternoon."

Paine was relieved when Gippal said goodbye and they walked away. She somehow expected Shelinda to follow, but no one was on their heels. "What was that about?" he asked. "She badgering you?"

"I think she was fishing for something with some bogus information." Paine shook her head. "No idea."

"Paine!" Shelinda's voice rang out over the crowd, and Paine stopped short and looked back; finally Shelinda's recorder was visible next to her, a small kid—paid off, probably. Paine couldn't keep the nasty look off her face, but it didn't faze Shelinda a bit. "I just remembered what else I wanted to ask."

People were staring openly as they walked by, and the crowd wasn't small—but it didn't matter, it would be all over the news, anyway. "What?"

Shelinda smirked, and Paine's throat closed up, because she knew, knew what was coming.

"I was just wondering if you and Nooj were having an affair?" She cocked her head. "There were some reports of him leaving your quarters a few nights ago after midnight. Are you finally giving Spira the romance they hoped for last year?"

Paine could only stare. In the crowd, people giggled, while next to her Gippal tensed, but didn't speak. He wouldn't do what Nooj did last time. Nooj was the only one to ever step between her and confrontation and he was gone—but still a pain in the ass.

"No comment," she said, and turned away. Shelinda didn't call out again, but the murmur from the crowd was enough to make her want to run away as fast as she could, so she purposefully kept her strides normal, walked in step with Gippal. It wasn't fast enough—it would never be fast enough to get away from those people.

"Did she just—" Gippal kept glancing behind them. "And you—"

"I know, I know." Shelinda had gotten exactly what she wanted. Dammit.

Baralai was never going to let her leave the temple alone again.

----------


True to her prediction, Baralai was livid. The news didn't break for hours after her return, but she had Gippal tell Baralai her side, at any rate—she didn't want him to see it on the sphere reports. Isaaru barely talked him out of banning Shelinda's coverage of the anniversary ball, but nothing could save her regular press access from being suspended. Isaaru walked around deflated, like he had already given up.

"He's abusing the press," Isaaru told her that evening, after the report was out and she was once again plastered all over every sphere in Spira. "If he keeps ripping access away from reporters for being reporters…well, it won't be good for New Yevon. He has to learn that reporters are…"

"Assholes?" Paine suggested.

"I wouldn't put it quite like that."

"He'll get over it."

Isaaru rolled his eyes. "I suggested giving Davit's press pass back earlier than the three week suspension and he kicked me out of his office."

"Was Gippal there?" Paine asked, because even if her life was some great gossip rag joke, poking fun at Isaaru made it worthwhile. "Maybe it's not why you think."

Isaaru gave her a wounded look. "As if I don't suffer enough, Paine. Go play with your spheres."

Yuna called, Rikku called, Gippal and Baralai carefully didn't talk about it, Rikku called a few more times, and Yuna finally called Gippal and threatened to come up there unless Paine called her back.

She didn't. She was over it—done, and she didn't want to cry on Yuna's shoulder long-distance. The press wanted drama in a world with very little. It was easier to hide in her workroom and listen to spheres, write down the words, trace over the history Trema had left behind, as mind-numbing as it was.

Nooj came back three days after her run-in with Shelinda, walking into the workroom in the late afternoon, fresh from travel. He didn't even bother saying hello. "So you gained us required escorts while I was away," he said. He was darker than when he had left, skin golden, eyes bright against it. She could smell the oil on him from the airship. "Also, the news has been fascinating the last few days. I never believed I would see two grown men discuss my sex life."

Paine threw down her pencil. "What do you want me to say?" she asked. "Isaaru coached me, but never about what to say if they asked if I was sleeping with you and keeping it from the world, as if they have a right to know anyway."

"You gave her what she wanted," Nooj said. He was angry. It was all over him as he leaned over her work counter. "'No comment', of all things. That was too many words, Paine. 'No' would have sufficed. Instead, 'no comment'. You might as well have said—why yes, I'm having a wild affair."

She stood up to meet his gaze, held on to the edge of the counter, squeezed hard. "Did you come here to start a fight over this?"

"I was mobbed by reporters when I returned to Djose and I had no clue why. Imagine my surprise when they asked me. Imagine what I said. So simple. One word."

"Well, thanks, I figured that out for myself three seconds after it happened, but I'm glad I've got you to point out every time I screw up so I don't miss them." She wanted to throw something at him, but little here belonged to her. All she had was words. "Maybe I should have told her the truth."

"Oh, and what truth might that be?"

She faltered, because she had never, ever planned to share her feelings with him. He didn't care, he had made it clear, except for when he did care and confused her. She wasn't going to reward him with her private thoughts. "Forget it," she said, shutting her notebook, pulling her things toward her. "You—I don't even want to be around you like this."

"Oh, far be it from me to disturb you." Sharp words. She could almost reach out and cut herself on them. He opened his satchel, pulled out a box—and one of her spheres. "The project is completed—the last sphere done. I'll leave you to take the credit." He sat the sphere on the table, sparkling, memory swirling from his touch. "Try to stay away from the press."

He left as suddenly as he had come, slamming the door as he went. Last words weren't good enough, and he had played dirty. She reached out and picked the sphere up, cupped it in her hands, anger melting away to make way for curiosity. The sphere he had been working on—he must have fixed it, but why?

Her spheres were warmer than older types; like something alive in her hand. They were more sensitive, too, the memory swirling up to meet her as she cupped it to watch.

It wasn't the clarity of the scene that startled her, the colors no longer tinged with green when the memory took shape; it was the fact Trema and Rin graced the scene—obviously relaxed, comfortable. Paine hadn't realized they knew each other at all.

"You've done good work for Spira," Rin said. "Your Seekers have found over one hundred spheres from the past."

"Yes, yes." Trema paced in front of his fireplace; quarters Paine recognized, because she had sat on the couch Rin occupied just a few days ago. "Much good it does them, looking backward through time instead of toward their own future. At times I believe I've made a mistake with this lark of seeking—that I should restrict their access, encourage them to find other hobbies."

Rin made a noncommittal noise. "Or you could take me up on my offer. I'm prepared to add more to the previous amount, if need be."

"Ha!" Trema spun around. "Your library of spheres. A clever way to set yourself up as the controller of every sphere that is discovered from now until you succumb to the spiral."

"Of course not. Spheres belong to us all, which is why it troubles me that people outside this New Yevon cannot see them. It troubles me that every Al Bhed that doesn't belong to this group has been refused when seeking to watch the spheres." Rin cocked his head. "The ones that have been permitted to watch have done so through what seems to be illegal means."

"Oh, Nooj." Trema waved a hand. "So bothersome, so fixated on some event in this past that will make his life mean something; good deeds to atone for whatever it is that haunts him. Yes, I'm aware he has been allowing several people to view the spheres, letting them into the temple against my orders."

"You don't seem concerned."

"It's of no consequence to me. I will do what I must to ensure we don't lose ourselves in times gone by. No, Rin, I cannot sell my spheres to you—it would only make the affliction my Seekers have acquired spread to everyone else."

Rin stood. "It is a mistake hoarding them. It will backfire for you and this way of life you seek to maintain."

"You think so." Smug, just like Paine remembered him from the Via. Smug and superior.

"Your New Yevon will pay the price for your fear of the past. You do not give your people enough credit to look both forward and back in time. It is quite possible. The Al Bhed have done it for centuries."

"Yes, and look how well that's worked out for you."

Rin said nothing.

"Don't glare at me so. I only wish to do what's best for my seekers and Spira as a whole during these times."

"You have a very strange idea what 'best' means," Rin said. "As always, if you change your mind, I am always available."

He left the visible area, and Paine heard a door open and close. Trema remained by the fire for a few moments before walking toward the sphere.

"That man will be problematic," he murmured. "Five times now, he's asked." His shadow blocked the light, and the sphere went dark, except for his voice, under-the-breath mutterings Paine couldn't make out, until—"It is time. The spheres must go."

The sphere lightened again as that memory ended, the blank patch of time between this memory and whatever might have been recorded next. Paine's stared at the cloudy, swirling liquid and carefully set the sphere onto the table. Suddenly, all Baralai's security and care made more sense—and the secrecy, as well. She couldn't imagine any official in New Yevon wanted the world to know that their founder had destroyed Spira's best historical resource for no reason other than he didn't approve of how people interacted with it, or how it changed their lives. Paine had considered Trema's words in the Via damning, but buried forever—with this sphere, everyone could know.

She stared at it, sparkling under the light. It was beautiful and damning—Nooj had recreated the one thing that might topple New Yevon for good.

"So that's what he meant," Baralai said. "He said there's more a few scenes later that are even more damning."

Paine looked up—she hadn't even heard him come in. "How long have you been there?"

"Long enough. He told me and then stomped away. Gippal's gone after him, but nothing riles him up like that but...you."

"We had a fight."

"Clearly."

Paine wasn't interested in giving Baralai the highlights this time. "He must have done this himself. I didn't repair this sphere." She shook her head. "So much for all those times he wouldn't even attempt the copy."

"You're the best preservationist in Spira." Baralai pulled a stool over to sit beside her. "He wanted to learn from you; he wanted to see you."

"Are you about to admit to meddling?"

Baralai flushed. "Trema was his mentor…and then there was you. He almost begged for us to attach him when he found out we were asking you. I was so sure you'd say no, but then Isaaru…" He shook his head.

Paine stared at the table, picked at some chipped paint. "He asked to join the project and you're saying it was because of me."

"He didn't ask because of the free food or to spend quality time with me."

She was so tired she couldn't even dredge up the energy to be angry about any of it. Here she was, thinking Nooj knew just as much as she did. Here she was, thinking he was here to help his friend, and the truth was that he was here for her? It was the ultimate mixed message after his words before. "What am I supposed to do with information? Why are you telling me now?"

Baralai could make himself unreadable just like Nooj could. He couldn't be the Praetor and wear everything out on his face like Gippal did, and too many times Paine had been told by friends it was no use—they knew her too well for it work anymore. He was doing it now, like maybe he had something else to hide. Maybe he knew whether or not Nooj wanted to hang around her for the knowledge or because he was secretly in love with her, but he clearly wasn't going to share it.

Given their fight, Paine was doubtful of the possibility of the latter.

"Did you ever ask him about Shuyin?"

"Yes, during our last sleep-over after we changed into our feetie pajamas," Paine said. "No, why would I? Nooj's personal history isn't my business anymore."

"When he left me—Shuyin, that is—you can't imagine how I felt for weeks after. It's not possible to imagine. I still can't begin to explain how crippling it was to be pleased, maybe even happy, and then suddenly be slapped down as hard as possible by my own mind. I had to lie to the entire world for weeks, because I was so depressed, fearing the next attack. Shuyin's parting gift screwed up my mind. Every bad thing I had ever done, or said, right there at the surface. Negative energy, negative feelings, hopelessness, not all the time, but—"

"Triggers," Paine said. She understood those—all too well. She had suffered them enough after…well, after.

"It was different for me. I wasn't in love with Nooj and you were; and he was the same for you. Everyone saw it, but…I never expected him to shut you out, or buy into the feelings Shuyin left behind. If mine were bad, I can't imagine his, living with the ghost for years. I would like to say I can't imagine what he saw, but… I can." He held her gaze. "I can imagine all too well exactly the memory that would allow him to rationalize shutting you out, lying to you, and driving you way. Once you told me what he had said…it was all too obvious."

"He never said anything." She hadn't even seen anything like Baralai was describing. Distance, but unhappiness? How did one pick out an unhappy Nooj from a pleased Nooj, anyway. She thought she had known. "It doesn't make it okay, though. He hurt me."

"He was hurting, too. Enough to insult you and your feelings, your past… be the least respectful possible of your time and attention to make sure you stayed away, no matter how you felt, and your relationship was already so tenuous." Baralai sighed. "He's so strange. He did it all alone. I had Gippal the entire time, right by my side. Sometimes, Nooj is a fool."

Paine wanted to lay her head down to cry. It was so ridiculous—the whole situation.

"Listen," Baralai said. "Ignore the sphere for a day and whatever other surprises are there. Come to the ball, have some fun, and we'll worry about what all of this means—and Nooj—later."

"I don't—"

"Go with me tonight." He put his hand on hers. "Please."

"Wouldn't you rather go with Gippal and make out in dark corners?"

"I can kiss Gippal whenever I want. It's not often you'll come to an event and spend the whole time with me. Gippal wishes he were so lucky." He surprised her when leaned over and kissed her cheek. "Paine. We just want you to be happy, whether or not we can put our broken family back together again." He squeezed her hand. "I'll see you in a few hours."

----------


She had never cared for parties and going to one celebrating the anniversary of New Yevon when her date was the face of the organization was a headache and a half, and she spent the first hour cursing Baralai for tricking her into it with pretty words. The ballroom was crowded with more important people than Paine realized Spira had, all milling under streamers and string lights. It was nice, although she thought the seven foot tall ice sculpture of a swan was a bit much.

It was tiring and her feet hurt and she was sweating from a dress that didn't breathe very well. It got easier after Baralai had shaken five hundred hands and she had been ogled by enough people to last her a lifetime because then she could make excuses and escape. Gippal had been right about that, at least—the dress did enough for her boobs and hips to render her invisible, which she couldn't decide whether she truly appreciated or not. Baralai kept a warm hand on her back the whole time, like she might dart and run for her room to peel the dress off—probably why he had invited her, to keep an eye out for any potential escape attempts.

"Hot," Gippal said when he saw her getting a drink of punch at the buffet table, or more aptly, guzzling to help her parched throat. He popped a cracker covered in pink goo in his mouth and talked around it. "In more ways than one, but still." He wiggled his eyebrows at her. "You think if you asked that last guy Baralai talked to your name, he would know?"

"No, but he would be able to recite my cup size."

"You've stopped traffic a couple times. It's almost worth it?"

Paine shrugged. "If I have to wear it longer than three hours, I'm coming for you and you're going to wear it." She drank more punch. "Baralai is too patient. I started counting the people who were already drunk to pass the time."

"Can't believe you stole my date, anyway." Gippal ate another cracker and wiped his fingers on his suit. "Now I'm all alone, pining away."

Paine laughed. "Because you really want to walk around while Baralai talks shop with people wearing too much cologne. Try another one, you're really funny. I might even leave a tip."

"Gippal. Paine."

Paine froze with her glass at her lips, and Gippal shifted as Nooj walked up to them from somewhere behind her. Reasonable, too—if she had seen him coming she would have gone willingly back into Baralai's no doubt scintillating conversation about fishing rights off the coast of Luca.

"You came, great," Gippal said, and what traitors he and Baralai were—before the party they had claimed to not know where Nooj was, and maybe he wasn't even in Bevelle anymore, he was pretty mad—she was a sucker. "As you can see, it's wild and crazy."

"I feel as if I might keel over from the excitement in the air, true." Nooj turned to her. "Can I see you a moment?"

Paine stared into her glass. She shouldn't—he had said plenty before and she couldn't imagine using the ammunition Baralai had given her, regardless of whether it was true or not. "Why'd he get to wear normal clothes and I had to wear a dress?" she asked, handing Gippal her glass.

He grinned. "Double standards."

"My cross to bear. I guess you mean privately," she said to Nooj, who nodded and turned away. She followed, looking back at Gippal. He was no help; he did nothing but give her a thumbs up sign. Useless.

Nooj led her to the patio outside the ballroom. It overlooked part of the city and the ocean beyond, which sparkled under the half moon. It was too chilly to be out, which was why everyone was in and she was following a crazy man away from the door.

"Need to yell at me a little more?" Paine asked. Nooj didn't answer her question, but tossed out one of his own.

"Did you watch the sphere?"

"Some of it. Baralai told me you said there was more after that, but asked me to put it away for today."

"He would." Nooj taps the end of his cane on the stones underfoot. "Trema makes it clear on the sphere what he was going to do, in that scene and others."

"You fixed it yourself." She watched him and hoped for a hint of what he was thinking. "Decided it was worth the risk?"

"I recognized Rin's voice. The day before Trema destroyed the spheres, Rin visited…and left, enraged. I was suspicious." He looked out over the city. "It was a decision made in haste, late at night when I couldn't sleep and came back to work. I had no intention of stealing your thunder."

"Gippal lectured me when I brought spheres back to the room that you took out. Wonder how he and Baralai would feel knowing you took one to…wherever."

"Many people deserved to know this truth. I kept the sphere safe." His tone was light. "I don't think you care much, though. Something else is on your mind."

He couldn't have given her a better opening. She could call him on whatever she wanted; demand answers, ask him why he had lied and broken her heart and left himself all alone without support. That made her angrier than anything else—he had promised her no more death theatrics, but she knew no one needed a fiend or a weapon to look for death. She had never trusted the framing of Nooj as a warrior only looking for honor in dying. She had seen too many strange things in his eyes—too much sadness and confusion—before Shuyin had taken away her chance to understand. Nooj, alone, depressed. She couldn't think of it—she felt thankful he was even in front of her now.

"I'm just tired. This job has taken longer than I expected."

"It's almost over. I assume Baralai told you about the meeting tomorrow to discuss the spheres."

"I don't get what we need to discuss," she said. "Give it to the press. Let them distract themselves from frivolity for a few weeks."

Nooj shook his head. "You know New Yevon better than that."

There was a story here she didn't know. Probably another surprise from Baralai and she wouldn't like it much, him and his damned council of tired old men who couldn't let go of old ways people didn't want anymore. Guidance, control—she wondered when they would learn that people wanted to walk their own path their own way. Probably never; they'd die convinced everyone needed handholding.

"I owe you an apology for…" His voice caught; he cleared his throat. "Whatever the press have done, they've done it because I gave them the chance. I made this mess; I shouldn't make you lie it in." He held out his hand. "A truce, perhaps? Seems fitting to end the project on a good note."

Paine stared at his hand, stretched out to her. As apologies went, it was fine, but it was the first time he had referenced their… Paine still didn't know what to call it. They hadn't been officially together, it was just friendship with the chance for something more, but he was taking responsibility. That was something. She reached out and took his hand, dry and warm and even familiar after all this time.

"The next time they ask me about us, I'm going to tell them all about your dirty secrets," she said, searching for even ground. "Hypello porn. Massive amounts. You couldn't handle me knowing."

She was rewarded with a laugh that bounced around in the air, echoing off the side of the building. Her mistake, then—Nooj happy enough to laugh was so rare, and it was like a drug. His laughter surrounded them and it was like the unfolding of the rest of her life, this ache. It wouldn't be easy, but… she could do this. Friends—could have been more, but it wasn't meant to be. Friends meant trust and teasing and companionship. She held on to his hand and bit her cheek, the lump in the throat so thick she might choke on it. Friends was everything she didn't want, the reason she had shut him out so thoroughly.

He had been everything for so long. She thought she had been the same. She didn't know how to move on from this.

"Paine?" He stepped closer and tugged her forward. She went, like a fool. "I didn't mean to—"

"Don't say anything," she said. She reached up and touched his cheek; his eyes widened. "Just—once," she said.

"Paine, please—"

She kissed him between words, with her eyes closed, because she couldn't face whatever look he wore. He was solid and warm, and she expected him to push her away, lecture her, walk away and leave her again. She didn't expect him to yield at all—Nooj didn't know the meaning of the word.

Then he did—fast. He wrapped an arm around her, the hard edges of the prosthetic digging into her back through her dress he gripped so hard. He pressed her up against the railing and his mouth moved over hers like she might vanish. He gripped her neck with his other hand and she shuddered when he slowed down, frantic need put aside and kissed her like they had all the time in the world, like he was savoring her. She could barely think past his mouth on hers, his hips keeping hers pinned and still, his fingers scraping softly down through the hair on the back of her neck.

When she slid her arms around him, he groaned and buried his face in her hair, kissed her neck, arched into her. She shivered at the chill of his glasses on her skin, such a contrast between the heat of his mouth. She had waited so long for this, agonizing nights in tents and under stars for one stupid kiss, and one stupid kiss had made her realize one would never be enough.

She breathed him in once more, and then pushed him away. He went willingly, his expression muddled and face flushed—Paine didn't imagine she looked much better. Her mouth was sore; her cheeks rough and burning.

"Paine…"

She reached up and covered his mouth with her hand. "Unless you're going to tell me we can do that again, and again, and again, don't say anything." She smiled at him when she took her hand away, but it was so half-hearted and probably easy for him to see right through. His silence was horrible. "I just wanted… well, you know how crushes can be." He flinched when she said it; she got a perverse pleasure out using his own words against him.

She stepped around him and left him standing on the patio in the dark. As she walked away, she tried not to think about how much it hurt that he didn't try to stop her.

----------


"Wake up!"

Paine opened an eye to darkness as someone sat down heavily on the bottom of her bed. She was bounced a little and rolled over, disturbing the pillow over her head, and squinted down in the dark at Gippal.

"What are you doing? It's the middle of the night."

Gippal grinned at her. "Breaking in to wake you up," he said. "Our meeting has been moved up to… now. Because sane people have meetings before dawn, right?"

Paine tugged the pillow back over her face. "Tell Baralai to stop assuming I'm at his beck and call."

"But you are."

"He used up all his freebies," she said.

"Even I know not to refuse Praetor-summons." Gippal reached up and pulled the pillow off and away. "Also, we're dying to know what you did to Nooj at the party. I heard after you talked to him, he was an asshole to everyone. I am pretty sure he made one of the temple reporters cry."

Paine had been doing her level best not to think about Nooj in any way, because it left her angry at him or talking herself down from going to his room, knocking down his door and finishing what she had started. Only the worry that he would slam the door in her face kept her from doing it. If she had gone momentarily crazy, at least her pride, if not her self-respect was intact. She rubbed her face with her palms. How many times had she imagined kissing him? Too many to count now. She had done it, hadn't second-guessed herself, hadn't even planned on it. It had been amazing. She wanted to do it again.

"You totally said something to him, didn't you?" Gippal hopped up. "You have to share."

"I do not."

"You admit it! What did you say?"

Paine glared. "Gippal. Drop it."

He was harder to shake than Rikku, and he nagged her through her door as she got dressed, into the temple, down the hall, and didn't stop until they saw Nooj walking into Baralai's office. They both stopped short. Even Paine had to admit he looked like he could snap at any moment.

"He's been like that," Gippal whispered. "What did you do?"

Paine shook her head. "Nothing I regret." She surprised herself saying it, but the more she examined it, she realized it was true. She didn't regret it—not any of it. Baralai's words had been right and true, and as she caught sight of Nooj as she walked into Baralai's office, it was like a revelation—all the anger and confusion a convenient tool Nooj had used to shut her out—gone.

She wasn't wearing the blinders Nooj had given her anymore and she wasn't stupidly in love with anyone. She was just… in love. Nooj was fulfilling the stupid part all on his own. It made her angry, but more, it made her sad—that he had shut her out to walk the road they should have gone down together alone.

Baralai leaned heavily on his desk. His eyes were tired and the candles didn't help much in the dark room. "Sorry for the hour. The council called a meeting at first bell and I wanted you to be prepared." He sat back in his chair and Paine took one of the seats in front of the desk. Gippal never sat; he just drifted, although Paine noticed he didn't go anywhere near Nooj, who was creating gloom on his side of the room with his body language alone.

It served him right, she thought.

"About the sphere, no doubt," Nooj said.

"Correct." Baralai tapped his fingers on the desk.

"You're going to release them." Paine watched Baralai's expression darken as he considered Nooj's words. "You can't seriously consider withholding them."

"The council is... hesitant."

"They can choke on their hesitation," Nooj said. He stood. "Did you wake us to say we did all this work so only the superiors of New Yevon could enjoy it—or worse, seek to have it destroyed?"

"No one is talking about destroying anything!" Baralai shot out of his chair. "Like it or not, Nooj, I have employees with families and they have to be fed and cared for. Something like this could damage our reputation worldwide—sending us reeling into a financial collapse."

"So you're being a coward, pandering to this council." Nooj stepped up to the edge of Baralai's desk. "Again and again and again. Are you the man who keeps this organization running or are you a puppet?"

"Hey! That's enough." Gippal cut in, arm out-stretched. "Both of you," he said to Baralai. "No one in this room disagrees that Spira—and especially people in New Yevon—should know this stuff. Why the hell are you two fighting?"

"You!" Nooj pointed at her; her breath caught in her throat. She was pathetic. "They're yours—are you going to let New Yevon lock them down?"

"They're not mine," she said. "I just fixed them for money." Baralai's mouth twitched. "I trust Baralai to do what's right for his people and Spira. He hasn't screwed up in at least two months." She looked back and forth between Baralai and Nooj, although Nooj wouldn't meet her gaze. "But I didn't repair them so they could be kept a secret."

Baralai let the desperation into his voice. "I don't plan on it, but someone here has to see reason—I'm in a precarious position."

Nooj snorted. "You mean if you approve it for release, you could lose your job." His voice is ripe with derision. "So the position, the facade becomes more important than the facts."

"For crying out loud—" Baralai threw up his hands. "Sit down and shut up if you're only going to fling accusations about my motivations at me."

"Someone has to point them out!" Nooj said. "Our work deserves to be seen, not hidden away in the closet of some councilor who's too afraid of the past, because of a Praetor too concerned for a job."

"Nooj, I swear I will throw you out if you keep this up." Baralai squeezed the edge of his desk so hard Paine could hear the wood creak. "What is wrong with you?"

"Very simply, this thrice-damned organization you insist on clinging to like a life raft," Nooj said. "Let go or let it drown you—but it's obvious which you prefer."

Gippal made a noise when Baralai jerked upright. Paine was startled at the vitriol between them. The rest of the meeting didn't fare much better, even when Baralai ended the discussion by asking them to stay in the city for a few more days while he made a decision. Finally, he sent Gippal and Paine away, and shut himself in the office with Nooj. The door barely shut before Nooj's voice raised and Gippal gaped at the barrier.

"What did you do to him? Really."

Paine thought back to Nooj's trip, taking the sphere across Spira to other people—people who had been Seekers alongside him, then thought about Baralai's story—Shuyin and his negative emotions—and wondered why he could so easily tell the story but not see the parallels. "I can't take credit for that," she said. "That's all on Trema. To Nooj, it must seem like Baralai and the council are trying to do the same thing, superficially. He probably knows better, but…"

"You riled him up and he got no sleep stewing about it?" He avoided her lazy punch. "This means I got up early just to get kicked out," Gippal complained, but then proceeded to hover at the door, listening closely at the loud conversation. Paine refused to sink to eavesdropping.

Instead, she went back to bed.

----------


When she opened her eyes the second time, the light in her window was a gentle blue, close to dawn. She stretched under her covers, unsure of why she had woken up, until the knock on her door finally registered. Twice more, and then—

"Paine."

She was tangled in the covers for a few seconds as she scrambled out of bed, then stopped herself before she flung open the door to wake up completely and make sure she didn't… ruin everything, or look desperate—whatever. He had officially driven her crazy. She leaned her forehead against the wall and took a deep breath, then opened the door a few inches.

Nooj looked—resigned. He stared at her through the few inches of space. No more gloom, no more challenge, it seemed like. "What is it? Does Baralai need us again?"

Nooj put his hand on the door. "Can I come in?"

She waited, even though there was no chance she would refuse him. The last few weeks had been a confusing enough mix of feelings and behaviors between them, but she had laid all hers on the table just a few hours ago—and so had he, although he still hadn't given in. She didn't quite expect him to, even now, even though he was at her door. She stepped back and let the door swing open, the air outside cool on the bare skin of her legs.

"Are you and Baralai done fighting?" she asked, as he stepped inside and closed the door. "I hope you know you were a jerk to him."

"I was."

"No reason for it. He's doing his best."

"It's not good enough." He waved her reply away and sat on the end of her bed. "You're not to leave the temple under any circumstances today."

She watched him fidget. Nooj didn't fidget—except here he was, sitting in her room, doing so. "What have you done?"

"Paine…"

"Tell me." She was firm; why had Baralai had him stay behind and not her? This was her project—her work. Nooj had helped, but Baralai and he had both admitted he was more of a student. "What did you and Baralai talk about?"

"I leaked the sphere to the press," Nooj said, drew it out like he was testing the words. "Baralai doesn't get hurt, you don't get hurt, everyone knows the truth. It should be out in the morning broadcast. Everyone will know by the end of the day."

"Do they know why you leaked it?"

"I said I worried the council was going to...overthink things, yes."

The problem wasn't believing Nooj would do it—he had flouted rules and protocol his entire life—the problem was believing Baralai was going to let him get away with taking the fall. "Baralai doesn't know."

"No."

She took a deep breath. "He is going to be pissed. He's going to have to—he's going to have to stand up there and denounce you! What are you doing?"

"How long should we have waited?" Nooj stood, gripped his cane hard. "Baralai said—three days. Three days with his council in the mix becomes a week, becomes two, becomes a month. People have to eat, Baralai says, and it becomes two months."

"So you're mad because Baralai is thinking about his people?" She grimaced. "Memories are not more important than people." She cut him off when he opened his mouth. "Baralai isn't Trema! The council may be the same, but this is Baralai."

"You've seen how they bully him; how exhausted he is from battling them—and that's over easy decisions. He's caught up in this job—"

"Funny, it seems like you're more caught up in revenge." She turned away. "What Trema did was horrible. He hurt Spira, took away something we'll never get back, but… people shouldn't have to pay for it like this." Nooj leaned heavily on the sill of her window when she turned back. "New Yevon takes a hit, people stop supporting their work—and they do good work most of the time. How do the acolytes we use or the guards that protect us get paid?"

"Baralai said quite the same thing."

"You can't get revenge on Trema by striking at the stupid council," Paine said. "All you can do is… come to terms. Let it go." She wished he could see through her words; see what was behind them and what she was saying without really saying it.

"At least Baralai will no longer be torn over the decision. He can send me up, save face—he and the council both."

"Maybe." Paine wasn't so sure. She knew better than anyone how the press loved to spin stories just to see them twirl. "He's going to hate saying a word against you and you know it."

"He should enjoy the chance to take me down a peg; it likely won't happen again."

"So now I'm trapped here, too."

The expression Nooj wore when he looked over his shoulder was alarming. "If you try to leave—"

"You'll let me because you can't keep me here." This had never been a habit before—overprotection, implied threats. She didn't care for it much. "I'm not scared of the press."

He straightened. For a moment Paine thought he was going to laugh again and not in a complimentary way—probably because he saw right through her—she would rather suffer a wild chocobo attack than deal with the press again. She had told Baralai that over dinner once. Of course he saw right through her.

"You have no sense of self-preservation."

"Why do I need one? Where's yours?"

Nooj laughed. "Lost somewhere. Taken by Sin or Shuyin or just withered from disinterest. Life is—"

"Yeah, I'm finding the death talk is still boring and selfish," she said. "Got any new ones?"

His silence stretched on and on. He struggled for words to respond—and to her credit, she had never quite shut him down so fast before. He hadn't had any time to build up the steam for a long rambling missive on why death awaited with open arms. Points for her.

"One," he said finally. "It might surprise you."

"Probably not, but you can try."

She stepped back when he loomed over her. "Oh, I think it will. You want to face my demons, Paine? You want to challenge them?"

She held up her chin even as her back hit the wall. "Same old, same old. Not impressed."

He quivered and glared at her, so full of violence she stepped forward, shoulders squared—if he wanted to get violent then he could just try it—and cried out when he cupped her face with his hands, hot and cold making her tremble. "You're not to leave this building," he said. "There could be riots—there probably will be riots—and you're not to be caught up in them."

"Orders? New, but unoriginal."

His hand slid down, circled her throat, warm fingers over her pulse. "There is no joke here." He laughed, bitter. "In the end, I am unafraid of death, or injury seeking it—but only of my own. Facing yours—I won't do it again."

She reached up and wrapped her hand around his wrist and finally, finally spoke the truth. "This isn't the Highroad. He's not out there. It's just innocent, soon to be angry people."

His hand went slack as he stared at her.

"I know," she said. "Baralai told me. He told me—enough for me to figure it out."

"And here you stand condemning my betrayal."

He backed away, took his hands off her, but she wouldn't let go of his wrist—he pulled her along with him. "Tell me," she said. "Tell me the truth. If you can kiss me, you can tell me the truth." He looked at the door; he said nothing so she continued, "If you don't want to deal with what I mean to you—if you can't deal with—if I hurt you too much for you to even consider…" She stopped and caught her breath. "I don't deserve lies just because you're scared of the press or whatever else might hurt me now after all this time, which is ridiculous—"

"Now?" Nooj said. "Now?!" He yanked her toward him, rattling her and hurting her shoulders. "It's never been now! It's been always!" She gasped as he walked her back into the wall and hauled her up by the arms and kept her there with his body. Her bare feet dangled. "From the first time you looked at me," he said, "I was lost, completely lost." He cupped her face again and ran a thumb across her cheek.

"Funny way of showing it," she managed.

"I was a coward and couldn't face your mortality every time I looked at you, no matter how badly I wanted you."

"So both of us miserable is better?" she whispered. "This whole past year? That was better? Shutting me out so you didn't have to—"

"Imagine killing you? Replay the scene over and over in my head?" He shook, swallowed, tangled his hands in her hair. "Blood on my hands, your face, so white—it was my pain. Mine to deal with."

"That's stupid," she said, and she wiped at her face with a free hand. "It was ours, both of ours, to share and you were—you shut me out and hurt me for no other reason than—I don't want your protection. I wanted you and you told me that my feelings meant nothing." She wanted to reach out and hit him for being so stubborn. She was so tired of the past haunting her—haunting him. So tired.

"I was wrong," he said, and pressed his forehead to hers. "I know it now."

"I'm so mad at you," she said. "I'm so angry."

"I deserve it, all of it and more. I shouldn't even be here, asking you to—" He kissed the corner of her mouth, rubbed his rough cheek against hers. "Not this time." He murmured, letting her slide down the wall—and him—and pulled her close, one hand on the small of her back. "I'll stay. I'll stay if you'll have me."

"You have to mean it, Nooj, you can't—" She didn't get to finish her thought, didn't get to make him swear he wouldn't walk away again, because he tipped her head back and kissed her, licked into her mouth and took her breath away.

----------


It was still early, bright sunlight coloring everything shades of gentle orange when Paine found Baralai on his balcony, sitting in the corner next to the side-rail. He looked up when she came out.

"You've discovered my hiding place."

"Not a very good one if you leave your doors open. Makes it obvious." She sat down beside him. "Plus, Isaaru ratted you out. How are you?"

"Pathetically glad you made Nooj return to Djose," Baralai murmured. He reached out and took her hand. "I would hate to think you two reconnecting would be ruined by cold-blooded murder."

"The door you kicked open was an innocent bystander."

"Isaaru's making me pay for the damage, but the real trouble is—" He shook his head and Paine was reminded of how quickly Baralai had gone from pissed to mortified. "No, no, I'm going to pretend I saw nothing. It's better for everyone."

Paine laughed and let him link their hands. They sat in silence for a few moments, listening to the cries of voices outside the temple, drifting on the wind. Paine was tired—little sleep after a long party, getting woken up for so many stressful things. She wanted a nap, but with Gippal gone to Djose with Nooj, she was the only one left for Baralai to lean on. She had promised both of them before they left.

"The press conference was a disaster," Baralai murmured. "I thought for sure they were going to riot in the middle of the temple. I can't believe he did this without me." He swore. "I would've—hell, I would've leaked it with him, the way the council has been acting lately."

"Risk your job, all the good you do. Like he would ask." Paine bumped his shoulder. "You were fine, anyway. He knew it was coming—he expected you to do it. Your job is safe, New Yevon can claim—what was it you said?"

"The people who were beytrayed by Trema personally were the first to know and they were in the process of being told," he says. "Even then, people feel cheated and annoyed we lied to them about your presence."

"Your solution was excellent."

"Isaaru's solution was excellent. All I did was parrot words and look pretty."

Paine thought back to the conference she had watched from the sidelines with Isaaru. Even if Baralai was critical of himself, she thought the announcement to donate all the spheres to Rin's proposed sphere library—provided he still wanted it—was a good one. It had pacified the reporters enough where their questions had a little less bite. Even if he was mean to them, Baralai was easy to like—and most of the reporters Paine had seen that morning did. "You've not broken their trust in a long time," she said. "As far as anyone will ever know, it was a lie of protection—and one with a time limit."

"Nooj shouldn't have to take the fall for a bunch of antiquated old men."

"Are you kidding?" Paine snorted. "He's the best martyr around. He was too close to this work, though." she said. "Anything with Trema—you should have known it would backfire."

"I'm blind to so many of his weaknesses—he's been so closed off." He tilted his head back. "Did you know I've seen him get more emotional in the past month than in an entire year? You crazy kids. I hope it was worth it."

"Maybe," Paine said. "One step at a time."

"I might bronze that entire room."

"Grow up," she muttered, but she was happy he was joking, even if he did look ragged around the edges.

The cries in the air grew louder, more frenzied. Paine had only ever heard a crowd this loud once before, on the Thunder Plains. This time there was no defusing the situation with a magical Yuna-song—but maybe that was better. Maybe anger would make the council rethink their position on future secrets—but she wouldn't hold her breath.

"I don't know how this ends," Baralai said. "Will we still be here in a year, able to influence the world?"

"Who knows?" Paine asked. "Let's stick around and find out."

"Only if you promise to wear pants when I allow Nooj to come back within throttling distance. Both of you."

"Oh, shut up," she said, but she met Baralai's smile with one of her own.

Date: Monday, 31 August 2009 01:03 am (UTC)
shahrizai: (Default)
From: [personal profile] shahrizai
I'm terrible at the whole concrit thing, but I still wanted to comment and say I enjoyed it. :)

Date: Monday, 31 August 2009 02:27 am (UTC)
shahrizai: (tb - all fun and games until...)
From: [personal profile] shahrizai
Hee, Nooj/Paine has enough angst to satisfy my drama-meter. Yuna/Tidus and Rikku/Gippal are too full of sunshine and happies!

Seeing as you've given me a free opportunity to blather about my pairings, I will reveal one of my most embarrassing and darkest secrets: I was a rabid Seifer/Rinoa shipper whose second fanfic ever was a horrible piece of trash in which Squall raping Rinoa was the plot mechanism to get Seifer and Rinoa together. I even had a secondary villain in it, who I promptly forgot about, and when I got to the end of the story I realized I need to make up some BS to wrap up that plot thread.

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