Request(s): FFX-2 - Paine/Nooj, their first kiss. Funny and awkward, or thoughtful and angsty, or leaping on each other like crazed voles, or a little bit of all three: it's all good. (I think I managed to include all three! IT ONLY TOOK THIS MANY WORDS. Also apparently I really wanted to write a CS4 story, too. My family of choice kink, let me show you it. >>)
Fandom(s): Final Fantasy X-2
Characters/Pairings: Paine/Nooj, Baralai/Gippal
Rating/Warnings: G / worksafe / piles and piles of sphere/pyrefly meta
Spoilers: X and X-2
Word Count: 23,926
Summary: Paine and Nooj went their separate ways, but when a mutual friend and shared industry bring them back together, they must work side by side and face their respective truths of an unfriendly parting.
Notes: I talk to KJ at least once a day normally, and every X-2 story I've ever written has been bounced off her large brain of knowledge about the canon. ....also I am terrible at characterization and a terrible liar. :D I LIED SO MUCH, I am not kidding, because I had to make her think I was working on some epic Seifer/Zell that she wouldn't have to beta because she doesn't do VIII. Keeping this secret and NOT BEGGING FOR HELP by keymashing questions about motivations and makeouts was so hard guys.
So hard. ;_;
Thank the stars this cat is out of its bag. Be free, cat! Be free.
Thanks to Sev, and Ira for super duper speed beta with sparkles and Big Red Pens. Hearts!
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 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.
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 Issaru 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.
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-secre
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.
( Part Two )