The hour was skirting the line between day and darkness. Sunset still stained the clouds crimson, but nightfall was hot on its heels. Higher up the sky was blackening and stars were showing. In the silhouetted landscape below, campfires were springing up like pyreflies from the murky Moonflow.
The Youth League lived like soldiers on the road, Paine realized, sleeping in tents arranged in little rows before the biggest one at the far end, the meyvn's den, the makeshift quarters of the general of this ragtag army. A brief thought hit her as she picked her way through the carousing crowd, chasing the elusive quiet: how could anyone take these people seriously? They were almost like kids who had run away from their parents and were staying up late now to defy their old curfews. Most of them were barely older than she was; some of them were actually younger.
She was uncomfortable here. She was never one for human beings en masse to begin with, and Mushroom Rock had the air of a fraternity since the League fashioned it into a headquarters. Being here also put her within range of a pair of all-too-familiar blue eyes, and that was the one aspect she hated most.
In retrospect she bore some of the blame for getting the ball rolling. After all, it was she who had snatched the sphere in Kilika, the source of all the trouble. From that point everything had snowballed. Yuna had chosen the League over New Yevon as the recipient of the stolen sphere ("New Yevon, Old Yevon, same thing" had been the likely rationale). Then she buckled under the pressure of the elated Leaguers to stay awhile, to celebrate what was now considered to be an alliance. The whole situation was a curse, and Paine was busying herself with trying to escape it for as long as she possibly could.
She sought seclusion hungrily and at first it didn't seem to have any intention of betraying her. It led her some distance away from the sea of campfires, away from Yuna, Rikku and the other partiers, past the old cannons and munitions - stockpiles left over from the days of Operation Mi'ihen. Behind her the fraternizing faded to a murmur like the roar of the ocean, thousands of feet below the precipice.
Down there the shoreline was rife with memories: Yevon soldiers, unseen specters, sphere recordings. Shouted warnings and smoking guns. Paine shuddered, wrapped her arms around herself, and kept on walking.
Red sunlight strained to touch her surroundings. It clung like a ghost to every surface, pale and diminishing, but stubborn as the relics of yesteryear that had yet to be cleared out. Soon night would swoop in and snuff it out like any candle, but for now it refused to succumb, remaining caught between living and dying.
It was much like the place Paine was at now. Mushroom Rock had changed greatly, but just as much of it had stood the same. The meyvn must not be as eager to part from the Yevon roots as he would have his followers believe. He either respected them more than he let on, or was wise enough to know that there could be no present without a past.
She hadn't walked very far before she noticed another glow at her feet, much stronger than the fading sun's. With it was the faint, telltale warmth of a fire. She raised her head. A small campfire sat several paces away, lighting a corner where mountainside met reinforcement wall, a loner that shunned the others. It gleamed sharply off an obviously metallic surface. Paine shielded her eyes, looked away momentarily. A sinking feeling made itself at home in the pit of her stomach.
There was no need to look again to confirm Nooj's presence; she could already feel it. The machina reflecting the flames was one thing, but whenever Nooj was in thought the air around him grew heavy. It was the fog of reflection, something Paine had pierced often in the past.
When she recovered enough to look at him she found his head up, his eyes on her for the second time that day. He was seated on a portion of the rock wall that jutted out like a small plateau, flat-topped for a few feet before dropping off and blending into the ground. He was bent forward, his long legs spread apart, his elbows -- or what passed for an elbow on his left -- resting on his knees. Where his hands met his fingers were laced together in an odd meld of metal and flesh. The index fingers were steepled, pointed at the flames a short distance away from him.
The rock he was on looked wide enough for several people, three or four maybe. Had time turned back a few years Paine would have readily sat on it beside him. But she was no longer sixteen and head over heels -- she was eighteen, firmly grounded, and now, very ill at ease as well.
A self-conscious "I'm sorry" fell from her mouth. "I didn't know you were here." But she was sorry less for the intrusion itself than for whom she had intruded upon.
Superficially Nooj didn't seem bothered by her arrival. "We seem to be running into each other lately," he said. "I'm hoping it's fortuitous." He had a very distinct voice, the kind an orator would have, and it cut through the air like a knife. He offered her a smile, but his eyes were screaming I'm hurting and that rendered the gesture thin.
Paine smirked at his words. Fortuitous was not a term she would have chosen to describe their encounters. Nooj had said something similar a few hours ago, so she decided not to address the remark again. She folded her arms over her chest. "I thought you had a meeting."
He lowered his head. "I did. Now it's over." There was something defensive about the way he spoke.
"I didn't see you leave the tent," she countered carefully. She wasn't sure where she was headed with those words, but if memory served her well his response would be something vague, forlorn, and above all, curt.
"I wanted to be alone."
Funny how predictable people could be when you knew them inside and out.
The sun gave up on the scene then, and sank below the horizon. It dragged with it what remained of its dim glow, allowing sable and stars to completely claim the sky. A moonless night was now upon them.
The light from the campfire was made brighter by the onset of twilight. Its crackling was hushed and pleasant; its dance was mirrored in Nooj's eyeglasses.
Paine watched him sulk with soft eyes. Here was a sight she hadn't seen in years. Memories harkened back to her in bits and pieces, like a scrapbook of old faces and scenes. Many were happy ones that could have gotten a smile or two from her, but others made her skin crawl. Nooj was the point where the lines of past and present blurred; the resulting tangle was hard to describe. It was unreal to behold, unreal to think about.
She was curious about his distress, but with what right? His issues were no longer her concern. Yet interest was carving her up inside. Affection, distrust, and fear mixed together. She tried to separate them. "What's wrong with you?" she asked at last, giving the question a decidedly hard edge.
Nooj shifted in place, as if her words had stung him. "I'm confused," he confessed.
Oh, had she ever heard that catchphrase before, and so many times. Right then she was seized by the urge to lapse into an old role she used to play, and encourage him to make his case to her. But there was one particular memory that had her put the brakes on herself, and it was loud and had made her bleed.
Before she could do anything, Nooj turned the tables on her. He straightened up and patted the space to his left with his machina hand. The steely fingertips against the stone produced a strange sound that banished her reverie.
"Sit," he bade her gently, in a voice that would've made her melt, had she not been outfitted with a steel spine - or heard him use that tone before, and frequently: the "c'mere" voice, the bedroom voice. To be accompanied by bedroom eyes, blue-gold in the firelight, their gaze intimate and entreating. Be my listening ears, they begged her. Sit and hear me out, sit and give me your two gil.
But did Paine want to give him anything was the question? Worries jabbed at her; doubt gnawed away from within. Would he have another episode, she wondered. Would he suddenly reach behind himself, pull out a weapon of some kind? It was a fear she'd felt before back in Kilika -- the first time she'd seen him in two years -- and had been the subject of countless nightmares. She hesitated, turning over in her mind what few options she had. Face Nooj or flee? Give in to him, or turn tail and give in to fear?
She stood frozen in place until her indecision became unbearable. In the end she chose to spite her anxiety and concede to him. She crossed the gap between them. Along the way dread grasped her ankles, trying to halt her steps. She fought against it and won. When she reached the flat rock she sat down on it, keeping a respectable distance between herself and Nooj. She imitated his position on the short surface, hunched over with her knees raised, and sighed a little. Inside she was trembling; outside she was as statuesque as the mountain face behind her.
The position she was in submersed her deeper in the lake of recollections. At first the descent was warm. She threw an experimental glance Nooj's way, only to see her younger self scooting closer, leaning into him, listening to him wax philosophical while enjoying the sound of his voice. Nineteen and he had no idea who he was, nineteen and already an old man....
Then she heard the explosive bang of a gunshot, and saw eyes dark with bloodlust. The happy vision was blown away. Her blood turned to ice.
Nooj started speaking again, as if having a conversation was easier now that Paine was at his side rather than across from him. "You know, after a while, I thought maybe you'd come here one day. A lot sooner than today, at least. I guess it was a stupid thing to think, but...I couldn't help myself. Some things are hard to give up."
He spoke candidly, yet slowly. There was obvious effort in his every word, as if each one had been selected after careful deliberation of the response it could evoke. Behind the barrier of his measured speech, Paine could feel something bigger waiting to break through.
"...I was worried about you...."
The corner of her mouth twisted into a leer at that line.
"...You haven't changed much. You're still as pretty as you were two years ago...."
"Thanks," she muttered, but the word was dripping sarcasm.
"...I really missed you...."
She shook her head there. Now the familiarities were becoming painful. Although Nooj had the good sense to lock his problems away in public, he had no qualms about stripping off his disguises during a one-on-one, so long as he trusted the person he was with. More than anything, Paine wanted to see him as the man he had been, the man it seemed he was trying to be now, but it was torturous to try and cut out the one incident that had changed everything.
Torturous, maybe even impossible.
It seemed like Nooj had accepted it one way or another, or was simply choosing to pretend it had never happened. Every word out of his mouth was heartfelt; every "I missed you" was soaked in meaning of some kind. Another utterance and another part of his soul was bared. It was like seeing him naked all over again. Confused, disturbed, she squirmed in her place.
"It's been too long," she started, in an attempt to shut him down.
"Maybe we should make up for all the time we lost." He inched closer to her, slowly. Paine watched him blankly. There was something vaguely predatory about his movements. Soon he was only a few inches apart from her, a looming wall of scarlet clothing and leather belts. She lowered her eyes, overcome by timidity. She had remembered then how tiny she felt whenever she was near him.
The firelight played across his form, turning his shock of wavy hair from brown to orange, making the fur trim on his right shoulder into a swath of flame. Paine forced her gaze up to his face. He still looked okay as far as she could tell. There weren't any noticeable signs of harmful intent. Still, something seemed off....
He whispered something to her then. She didn't pick up what he said, but the way he said it was beguiling. Misgivings began to cloud her mind. She felt his right hand on her knee and it threw her off slightly, but she didn't look away. His eyes were burning into hers, she saw, but not with lust. She recognized the look.
She recoiled furiously. "Don't touch me," she hissed.
Nooj retracted his hand shamefully.
Paine continued to stare him down, livid, while he moved away from her a bit. He leaned forward and faced the campfire once more. "I'm sorry," he mumbled, head hung.
She spared him no mercy. "That was really pathetic of you."
He winced. "I know. I'm just.... I really didn't expect to see you again."
"You said that already." She recalled that from his babbling earlier. Fayth only knew how many times he had repeated himself.
Nooj removed his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. He closed his eyes. "I'm really confused." A pause. "Troubled," he amended. "I have a lot on my mind." He put his glasses back on.
"Well, that wouldn't have solved anything," said Paine knowledgeably. "Everything would've been waiting for you when you got up the next morning."
Nooj shook his head. "I wasn't trying to solve them. Just distract them. I want to make them go away for a while." He stared into the flames.
"You could find anyone willing to do that for you." Shortly after the words had left her mouth, Paine caught herself. That had been no exaggeration -- she herself had first noticed Nooj long ago because of his looks. She tacked on a rather peevish comment then. "No doubt you already did."
That got a quiet little laugh out of him. "Actually, that's not true."
"You heard me."
"So you're telling me you did absolutely nothing these past two years?"
A fraction of a pause came and went. "Yes," he said at length. He seemed a bit embarrassed to admit it directly, but it was hard to tell for certain.
Initially Paine had no reply for him. She suppressed the small part of herself that was pleased with what she had heard. Another part had its reservations. She rounded on him eventually with "I don't believe you. You're the meyvn of the Youth League; you must've gotten some offers --"
"Oh, I did." He fixed her with a knowing look there. "League members, prostitutes, desperate sphere hunters -- I got offers." Then he turned away, and Paine thought she caught him frowning, though it might have been just the flicker of the firelight on his features. "I just wasn't interested in any of them. Not in that sense, anyway." He faced her a second time, his eyes inquisitive. "What about you?"
Deep down, Paine hadn't forseen him tossing the question back her way, but she didn't let it show. She shrugged. "Same thing, basically. I didn't really find anyone I thought was worth it." She ended it there, in time to give him a glance-over for his reaction. He looked mildly amused. She made to burst his bubble. "Don't flatter yourself. It had nothing to do with you."
Nooj bowed his head and chuckled good-naturedly. "Am I that easy to read?"
Paine smiled, but only slightly. A little lift of the right corner of her mouth, an old habit she had picked up from him. "Yeah. Like an open book."
"I could say the same about you."
She opened her mouth to answer that, but promptly closed it. Of course he knew her well; she had unraveled all her mysteries to him long ago. It had been her admission price into his own heart, although it hadn't been an easy tradeoff in the beginning. It had been difficult for her to swap surreptitiousness for an open relationship, when comfort could already be found in the arms of concealment.
But after the exchange, Paine had discovered that the very same thing could be found just as easily in Nooj's arms. It was a strange thing to think about, now that she did so: there had never been a sacrifice in opening up to him. Instead of losing privacy, she had a new place to stash her secrets. And someone to complain to, even if complaining was a rare pastime for her.
There had been another bonus to it too, one that was never spoken. It could've been seen in the bounce in her step or the smile in her eyes; it had been hidden in all the dreams she'd confessed to having. It was the deliriously giddy feeling a girl got when she stumbled upon a certain overcomplicated little word. Paine had never worn this on her sleeve, but it had always been there, somewhere, and she had her ways of making it known. Sometimes it had been the kisses and caresses behind closed doors. Other times it had been a quick meeting of eyes, which somehow crammed a thousand words into the space of a second. It had been her deepest secret -- no, their secret, his and hers -- and even when Gippal and Baralai had picked up on it eventually, it had remained a thing untold, a vow of silence broken only when Nooj would reach out to ruffle her hair. Or when she would sidle up to him during one of his thoughtful moments, her eyes proffering admiration and understanding. It had been the best thing of all, the best trade for dropping her heart into his hands. Long, long ago, she had been a queen upon a throne, and her king had thought the world of her.
But then it had been shot. Paine had learned that day that love was a glass house. It did not wither and die; it shattered and the shards had sliced open her hands.
From out of nowhere it occurred to her: she wanted to have it back. And she wanted everything that had happened to destroy it unmake itself.
Cautiously her eyes slid over to the man at her right. The killer of the dream, she thought, and nearly her killer as well. Yet she couldn't resist marveling at the contrary picture he was making now, sitting there steeped in quiescence. For all the strength he possessed he was awfully fragile, and behind his boldness lurked a boyish sort of shyness. Here was a creature who would never in his own mind pull a gun on those he cared about. But then, what was the explanation for his past behavior? What was the reason?
An ache in her back forced her to change position where she sat. She leaned back on splayed hands and stretched her legs out as far as they would go. She tilted her head up so that all the stars in the sky were at her perusal. It was tempting to wish on one for better times or easy answers. "You know what I really want?" she said out of the blue, putting an end to the stillness.
"A giant eraser."
Nooj said nothing. Paine lowered her head and shot him a look. She found him staring at her quizzically, an eyebrow raised. His expression struck her as funny; she started laughing. As she laughed, she couldn't believe she was hearing her own voice. She couldn't recall the last time she'd done that.
When she regained a straight face she refocused her attention on the night sky. "I want to erase everything, and just start over," she explained.
Out of the corner of her eye she saw Nooj stir where he sat. He still didn't speak. Curious, Paine brought her gaze back down again and looked him full in the face. In his eyes she found all the sorrow in Spira, and it touched her deeply. He must have understood what she meant, maybe even more than she could ever imagine.
Something inside her clicked then. She was fearful no longer. She rose from her spot and walked over to him. Nooj's eyes remained locked on hers. Coming between him and the campfire, Paine embraced him around the neck, drew him close so that his head was resting against her stomach. A sneaky little voice in her brain told her to check if he was armed, but instead of venomously beating down the suspicion, she turned it into courage to pop a very sensitive question.
Nooj's forehead was pressed against the skin of her middle; every breath he took caressed her flesh. She wrapped her fingers around one of his coiled loops of hair and stroked it to distract herself. She inhaled and began. "You wouldn't --"
The rest of the sentence caught in her throat. Her eyes felt swollen. Unwilling to give in to tears, she bit down on her tongue until the pain drove away the urge to weep. Then she started over. "You'd never hurt me, would you?"
The response was immediate. "No," he said. His voice was feather-light.
It was all Paine needed to hear.
She sighed then, deeply. A broken sob worked its way into that sigh, but it was a rogue effort. She had no need to cry. She was relieved and satisfied...for now.
There were still other questions, however, and Paine was tempted to ask them. But the moment had become tenuous and she was loath to spoil it. "You're the same guy I knew all those years ago," she told Nooj. There was a great deal of feeling in her voice then, and not too long after she'd spoken she regretted her tone. So she added afterwards, both affectionately and disapprovingly, "And you still haven't done anything about your hair."
He laughed a little against her. Odd, but she hadn't thought about it until then, just how much she liked to hear that sound, and just how rare it really was.
Thereafter silence returned and reclaimed them. Paine remained standing, still as stone, still holding Nooj. She let her mind wander while her fingers played with his hair. Who were you, who were you then, she asked him in her mind. If not himself, then who else had he been? Or what else? All the thinking in the world wouldn't yield any logical answers, so maybe the only thing left to do was to keep searching. The missing piece couldn't hide itself forever, whatever it was, and after speaking with Nooj Paine felt particularly confident that she was close to it. She would know why soon enough, and once she did, then she could truly start moving forward.
Suddenly she realized that the noise level far behind her had dropped. She looked over her shoulder, in the direction of the meyvn's tent, and found that many of the campfires that had once dotted the darkness had been extinguished. Only a few remained alight. If the socializing had ended, then Yuna and Rikku were certainly looking for her. She had to leave.
"I have to go," she told Nooj, "so Yuna and Rikku can call off the search dogs."
He stirred against her, but said nothing. Paine released him, and watched as his eyes met with hers. She couldn't determine the nature of his expression, but by the looks of it he wasn't upset anymore. She gave him an acknowledging half-smile before turning and walking away. When she reached the edge of the campfire's circle of light, she stopped and looked back.
He was staring back at her, returning her cross between a leer and a grin. The gesture revealed a little dimple on the right side of his face, near the edge of his mouth. He didn't say anything to her, but all his goodbyes were presented quite clearly through his eyes.
It was an open book Paine was leaving behind, but she wouldn't shut it. One day she would come back to finish it.
"Take care of yourself," she told him gently.