(New to the story? Start at the beginning.)
The afternoon was growing late; the angle of the sun had changed so that the light was no longer white but becoming glazed with amber. Sounds were less sharp and a laziness had crept into motions and words. Gippal had been hunting for Baralai and finally saw him walking along the beach, looking about him as though he was memorizing everything which came to view.
"Hey, 'Lai," he called out. "Where've you been?"
Baralai's head snapped up and he smiled, that ineffably sweet smile which sometimes graced his lips. "Gippal, I was just coming to find you. Let's take a walk"
The pair fell into step together, their bodies moving easily in synchronization. When they were sufficiently far from the other persons lounging on the soft sand, Gippal spoke, "I had a talk with Nooj earlier."
Baralai broke in, "So did I. What did he want to talk to you about?"
"He asked me to go back to the desert and recruit my people. We need as many warm bodies as we can get and he seems to have been impressed by the ones who joined us here and wants to get as many more as possible. And he wants battle machina, too."
"Are you going?"
"Are you kidding? This is the chance we've needed for years. If the Al Bhed join the army and we win, we'll be accepted. We'll finally be real citizens and have a place in the world. We won't be lepers anymore. This is my chance to do something big for my race. I'd be a fool not to. You want to come with me? I'm sure Nooj would let you." Gippal grabbed his companion's shoulder in an almost painful grip and turned a glowing face in his direction.
"Ow! You're hurting." Baralai laughed and pried the fingers loose. "No. I can't go; I have a mission of my own."
Gippal raised his eyebrows. "Noojster want you to hang around in case he has to get on a ship again?"
"No. Not that -- but I must remember to leave my stock of medicines with Paine. No. He asked me to be a spy." He said it flatly, as though he were announcing his plans to forage for usable herbs.
"A spy? What the hell are you talking about?"
"I'm going to Bevelle and will see what I can do to undermine the solid support for the Maesters there. I'll persuade whoever I can and plant as much doubt in the others as possible. I think there's more softness in that underbelly than Maester Kinoc and his kind dream." Baralai spoke softly but with a strength of conviction which would have been foreign to him not so long ago.
"But it's dangerous. They'll kill you if they catch you." Gippal rounded on the other man and almost shouted in his face.
"It's all dangerous and we're all risking death. But it's worth it to be free, to be really free. Imagine not having all these lies suffocating us, being able to question and know the truth. It's worth it." There was a finality about the young Yevonite's words which told Gippal not to argue any more. He slumped in defeat.
"When do you leave? I'm sailing for Bikanel first thing in the morning."
"I'm going to slip out during the night. Now, Gippal, keep all this quiet. Only a few who need to know have been told what I'm doing. The rest will believe I've deserted and gone back to the arms of the church. So I have to just disappear tonight after dark, probably around two in the morning, about then."
"Are you going to Bevelle?" Gippal held his voice firm even though it wanted to shake.
"I'm not sure yet. Either there or Guadosalam. I'll think about it. Seymour suggested I would be welcome at his establishment. So I may go there." Baralai cast a sly look at his lover. "Don't worry. I feel no attraction to him. You're still The Man."
"I'd better be. Come on, let's talk about this some more." Gippal linked arms with Baralai as they continued down the path.
The sun was setting, and after a full day of mindless labor Paine was finally ready for dinner and a little companionship. Approaching the campfires on the beach, she saw Gippal and Baralai sitting around a fire that was otherwise unoccupied. She made her way over to them and, after grabbing a bowl of stew, took a seat by Baralai's side. "Hi guys."
Gippal glanced over to her with a half-smile. "Hey, Dr. P. I'm glad you found us."
"Why?" she asked, taking a spoonful of food.
"We'll both be gone in the morning," Baralai said, looking at the earth.
Paine froze for a second, the spoon halfway back to its dish. When she was able to swallow again, she did so and then repeated her earlier question: "Why?"
"I'm going back to Bikanel," said Gippal. "Most of the Al Bhed are, to gather up more troops and machina. Nooj wants me to be his ambassador or something, talk the others into joining us. We sail at dawn."
"And I..." Baralai looked up at the stars while Gippal stared at his lover, single eye burning with something indefinable. "I am to infiltrate Yevon. I will sow the seeds of rebellion there and search for potential allies."
"Fayth!" Paine nearly dropped her bowl on the sand. "Are you sure that's safe?"
Baralai looked at her with a grim smile. "I am certain that it's not. But Nooj asked me to take this on personally. He trusts me with this task, and I shall not fail him."
"How will he get by without you?" Paine demanded. "The painkiller... and what if we end up at sea again?"
"The success of our uprising is more important." Baralai shrugged. "Besides, he has his old healer back; he doesn't need me anymore."
"What are you talking about?"
"Noojster didn't introduce you to Aquelev?" Gippal raised an eyebrow.
Paine shook her head. "I haven't seen Nooj since-- all day. Been busy with other things."
"Huh." The others shared a glance, and Paine felt a flush of irritation along with the return of the hurt feelings that she had spent all afternoon trying to ignore. "Anyway," Gippal continued, "Aquelev is an Al Bhed healer who helped Nooj when they gave him the machina. They've known each other a long time, I guess."
"He's also one of the few Al Bhed staying with the army." Baralai sighed quietly. "So..."
"Don't be an idiot," said Paine without pause. "He needs you, Baralai."
After a moment of silence, Baralai smiled again, more genuinely now. "Perhaps. But he needs me as his hidden hand within Yevon more. Late tonight, I plan to steal a chocobo and make my escape. Gippal and Nooj will put forth the story that I have had a change of heart and am returning to the faith, although all the key people will know the truth."
"So you'll go to Bevelle?"
"Guadosalam, I think," Baralai replied. "When I spoke with Maester Seymour in the desert, he offered me an alliance of sorts. So now I plan to take him up on it. It's the best connection to power I have."
"So you're okay with this?" Paine looked back and forth between them. "Being split up?"
Another glance was exchanged, and it was Gippal's turn to shrug. "It's what's best for the cause. We knew it might have to happen."
Paine nodded, then held her hands out to the two men. They each took one, then without looking laced the fingers of their free hands together. "Take care of yourselves," she said softly as a lump rose in her throat. Then she forced a smile. "Now, what are you doing here? This may be your last night together for awhile -- go enjoy it."
Gippal grinned, and Baralai squeezed her fingers, eyes twinkling. "Since I am leaving in secret, I should not make too public a farewell," he said. "But before I go, I want you to have the rest of the pain medication. After Nooj asked me to leave the group, I spent some time making more. Come with me to our encampment, and I'll give you all the pills I have. There should be enough to last for at least a month, longer if you ration them carefully."
Paine bowed her head. "I've been meaning to ask you how to make them. But I guess we're out of time for that."
"I will show you," Baralai promised, "when next we meet."
"Yes." Paine tightened her hand around his.
They sat there for a moment longer. Then the three friends stood and walked off into the darkness, still close together, storing up their companionship against the time, coming too quickly, when it would be broken.
Darkness had settled over the encampment, quieting the bustle and accenting the light of the campfires, turning them into havens of warmth and protection. The day had been filled with preparations as the army made itself ready to begin its quixotic struggle against the established forces of the Maesters. Assignments had been made and those responsible for the various duties had been named. Warriors had cleaned their weapons and mages had rehearsed their spells, as had healers and alchemists. There was a palpable air of anticipation over the camp as the groups of friends gathered around the small campfires for food and idle talk.
Nooj saw Paine at the edge of the furthermost fire. She was perched on a rock, her knees drawn up to her chest and her head resting on the cushion formed by her folded arms. He watched her for a long time and noticed she did not seem inclined to join in any of the playful conversations around her.
He limped carefully around the perimeter of the gatherings, half hidden in the increasing darkness until he was within her reach.
“Paine, will you come with me?” He did not consciously realize he was repeating his words of the night before, but she recognized them and stiffened. Slowly she turned her head so that she was facing him. The reflection of the fire off his spectacles kept her from reading him with any precision. Still, there was a softness in his face which melted her suspicions and, without a word, she held out her hand and let him assist her from her position.
He drew her close to his side and stood for a moment looking into her eyes. What he saw there gave him courage and he wrapped his right arm over her shoulder and led her away toward their private sanctuary.
Paine was a mixture of emotions. She wanted him more than she had ever wanted a man in her life, and she was also furious with him for all he had made her endure that day. Last night, he had opened to her and she had received his honesty with tenderness and compassion. Today, it was as though he had never shared anything with her, not even his body. But she could not find the strength nor the will to reject him or to punish him for his actions. She hungered for his embrace as a starving woman lusts for food. So, instead of pushing him away, she lifted his hand and placed it so that he cupped her breast and they moved as one to their paradise.
Once secure in the hidden garden, Paine considered facing him and demanding an explanation for his actions. She had not relished a public scene any more than he would; she had no desire to appear jealous and insecure in front of others. But here she could confront him openly. Somehow, though, the feel of his hand lightly stroking her and the gentle, questioning look in his eyes drove that impulse away, and instead she found herself raising the other worry that preyed on her mind.
Catching Nooj's hand and stilling it, she murmured, "Do you think Baralai will be all right?" She could not forget his fierce embrace as he had bid her farewell earlier in the evening.
Taken aback by the unexpected response to his caresses, Nooj tilted his head slightly. "I would never have asked him to take on the task if I hadn't been confident in his ability to carry it out."
"Yes." She swallowed to clear her closing throat. "But still, if they find him out--"
"I know." He pulled her tightly into his arms, his very presence reassuring her, caressing lips and questing fingers soothing her fears -- all of them. Her thoughts turned once again to the scene she had witnessed that morning; she consoled herself with the truth that if she could have him in her arms during the night, the days could take care of themselves. It was she, not the black mage, whom he had sought out for his bed mate and that made all the difference. It was far easier to abandon herself to the delicious sensations which were beginning to sweep through her body.
Neither of them remembered later how they came to be lying naked on the soft moss. At one instant they were fully clothed, their lips just meeting in a tender kiss. The next they were lying in the light of the two moons, exploring the flesh bare and glowing against the black-green surface. Nooj lay on his left side so that he could use his warm living hand to shape her contours. His touch left trails of heat across her skin and she let the warmth permeate her to the bone, melting her as it described her. Closing her eyes the better to feel the delicacy of his touch, she found herself shaking in a long, vibrating climax which left her both spent and exhilarated. When she recovered, she began to coil her body in order to bestow upon her lover the caress he most enjoyed only to be stopped by his firm hand.
"Not yet; let me pleasure you a little longer." He resumed the leisurely exploration of her flesh, stroking a bit harder, arousing once more those desires which had only slumbered. She rubbed against his firmness, opening her legs and guiding him to the harbor which awaited him.
When they lay satiated and content with one another, Nooj let his mind rove over the day that had passed since he had last held her in his arms. He still shied away from remembering his weakness and the burden he had permitted that weakness to place upon the woman he had found he needed so much. He was at his core a just man, not one to blame others for his own sins and he recognized the unfairness of his treatment of her. Her face in the moonlight was like an ivory carving in its delicacy of shape and its elegance of features. He traced the line of her jaw lightly with his forefinger. Her bones never ceased to delight him, the grace of her form, the lightness of her movements giving clear evidence of the beauty of the armature which was her gift from a gracious heritage. He liked to feel the cleanliness of the structure under her skin and watch the elegant smoothness of the gliding of muscles, swelling and relaxing under the paleness. She was perfection, no flaw in her. He would never understand the miracle which made her choose to be with him.
He hovered over her, watching her sleep, marveling at the slow even action of her chest as she breathed, softly and sweetly. The peace of her expression touched him deeply and he renewed his resolve to shield her from worry, especially from his own self-doubts. She seemed so fragile; how could he have treated her so? He wrapped his body around her to keep her warm and let himself drift off into the most restful sleep he had known since they had met Auron and the pilgrimage party.
Dawn was just beginning to light the eastern sky as Paine gradually floated out of her slumber. As awareness returned, she realized that she was still enfolded in the sleeping Nooj's arms, and a sense of relief immediately flooded her. He would not leave her every night; she could set aside the morning before as an aberration. With a happy sigh, she stretched against him. He twitched and made a snuffling noise, then turned his head toward hers, opening his eyes with a smile.
"Good morning." She brushed the bangs back from his face and touched her mouth to his. He returned her soft kiss, burying his fingers in her thick, short hair. After a long, luxurious moment, she backed away, then leaned her cheek on his shoulder.
"Better?" he asked, still stroking the back of her head.
She nodded against him. The fears and worries of the night before had faded with time, sleep, and Nooj's soothing touch. She still felt concern for Baralai, and sadness at parting from her teammates, but her emotions were no longer so overwhelming.
"So you know, then, what I have asked the others to do, and why."
"They told me at dinner last night." She tightened the hand that rested on Nooj's waist. "Baralai is already gone, I suppose."
"He should be, yes." Nooj checked the sky. "And the Al Bhed will set sail soon. I ought to be on the docks when they leave. Are you ready for the day, or would you like to sleep a little longer?"
"I'll come; I promised Gippal I'd wish him luck." Paine sat up, steadying herself with a hand on the ground as the blood rushed from her head.
"Of course." Nooj sat up as well. "A quick wash, I think, and then we should go." The lovers made their way to the pond where they had so often bathed together and stepped in.
"I should tell you the rest of our plans," said Nooj as he immersed himself in the water. "Your uncle and I met yesterday and mapped out our path to Bevelle, which is our ultimate goal." He began to bathe while still talking, both to save time and to distract himself from his urge to take Paine's wet, shimmering body into his arms and ease her down by the water's edge. "First we must capture Djose Temple. Then we will turn to the east, following the shore until we can find a place to ford the Moonflow."
"We're not going to follow the pilgrimage road?" Paine asked.
Nooj shook his head. "Normally, travelers ride shoopufs some distance along the river. An army does not have that option. Either we build boats and sail downriver or we go around. The latter path uses fewer resources and should take only a little longer, so this is the route we have chosen. Also, taking that direction allows us to avoid Guadosalam, which is a bad place for a full-scale battle. But there is no way around the Thunder Plains. We will have to pass through them on our way to Macalania and then Bevelle."
Paine dunked herself under the surface to rinse, then emerged, dripping. "So we're going to fight at each of the temples?" She fixed him with a questioning look. "Seems like extra time and effort."
"True, but also necessary. We need the temples to hold Yevon, and Sir Auron is convinced that Yuna must continue her pilgrimage to receive all the aeons if Sin is to be defeated. Kinoc will certainly have spread the word that she is now an enemy of Yevon. If she wants to enter the temples, it will have to be by trickery or force."
Paine stepped out of the pool and Nooj followed. They dried themselves, dressed, and broke camp. As they turned to go, she paused, taking a last look around this place, the quiet sanctuary that had seen their first coupling and so many of the encounters that followed. She glanced up at her partner, the man she had grown to love, and found his expression unreadable.
After a moment, he met her gaze, then nodded and turned her around, warm hand resting lightly on her back. And the two of them set off together, walking down the path to the docks of the beach. "So, do you approve of our plan?" he asked her.
Paine raised an eyebrow. "You're asking me?" On his nod, she shrugged. "I do. It's all sensible, and I trust you and my uncle both to decide what's best. I can't help worrying about Baralai, though, behind enemy lines."
"About that." Nooj paused in his walking for a moment, stepping in front of Paine and stopping her with a firm hand on her shoulder. "A word of warning. Baralai has gone as my agent secretly into the ranks of the Maesters’ forces. He told you that. Now, let me tell you why we have chosen this way. If he is to be safe at all, everyone must think he has returned to his old faith because he could not accept becoming a part of the rebellion."
Paine nodded. "He explained that, too."
"The Crusaders who believe the cover story are likely to be angry with him, or think him a weakling and a traitor, or both. They will talk about him with mockery and the gossip may be hard for you to listen to. If I could protect you from it, I would. But you must be strong and defend him by not defending him. Hold your emotions in check. It’s all right to show sorrow and to grieve in public but you must not be provoked into telling the truth. Do you understand?"
She nodded stiffly. "Of course. I’m not an idiot. I can keep secrets better than you know." She would have turned around had he not had a firm grip on her shoulder. As it was, she dropped her head and gazed at the ground.
Nooj tipped her head up with a forefinger and kissed her lightly on the lips. "I have never thought you to be stupid. But I know your loyalty and thought a word of reminder would not come amiss."
A small, unbidden smile graced her face. "You know me too well. All right, I'll be careful."
He kissed her again, then faced forward and resumed walking, his hand again resting on her shoulder. "Come, we need to hurry if we're to make the docks before sun-up."
The sounds of running, hauling, and shouting Al Bhed filled the air as Gippal stood on the docks, watching his people load their boats for departure, his mind half on the preparations and half on Baralai, who ought to be halfway to Guadosalam by now. He was flanked by Tidus and Auron, the other two men also observing in silence until Tidus broke the moment with a question.
"Looking forward to going home?" he asked.
Gippal glanced at the blitzer, surprised at the melancholy note in his voice. "I guess," he said. "But I'm looking forward more to coming back and blasting through the gates of Bevelle."
Auron chuckled. "That's the spirit," he said quietly. With a look over his shoulder, he turned to Gippal, hand outstretched. "I hope your journey goes well."
"Thanks, sir," Gippal replied, taking the hand and shaking it. "Same to you."
Tidus slapped the Al Bhed on the back, then left the hand lightly on his shoulder. "See ya later."
Gippal shot a genuine grin at his new friend. "You bet. Take care of yourself, yeah?"
With a quick squeeze of his fingers, Tidus returned the smile and nodded. "You too." Then the guardians departed, only to be replaced by the two people Gippal had wanted most to see, even though part of him had also dreaded this moment.
Nooj and Paine exchanged pleasantries with Tidus and Auron as they passed, then joined Gippal on the dock. "Hey," he said.
"Gippal." Nooj nodded to his teammate, then glanced around at the boats, and the Al Bhed walking on to them. "Is everything prepared?"
"Yep. Just like we talked about. The group that's staying here has already fortified the position; everything else comes back with us so we can fight with you at Bevelle."
"Two weeks, I think," said Nooj. "That should be about as long as it will take us to get there. Unless I communicate otherwise to you, be in the waters off Bevelle in as close to two weeks as you can."
"Aye aye, Captain." Gippal saluted with a wink, then looked over at Paine.
Without hesitation, she threw her arms around him. "I'm going to miss you," she said.
He hugged her back. "Me too," he admitted.
Paine pulled away slightly, voice dropping to a near-whisper. "Did Baralai get out all right?"
Gippal nodded brusquely, then looked left and right to check that no one was in earshot. "Yeah, just fine," he murmured after deciding it was safe to speak. "Three or four hours ago." He looked away from Paine, staring out to the ocean, fighting the fear that threatened to paralyze him.
"Hey." Paine laid a hand on Gippal's face and turned him back to her. "He'll be okay." She kept her voice firm, projecting the confidence she knew he needed to hear.
He smiled tightly and forced himself to believe. "Right." Pulling her in tight for just a moment longer, he tousled her hair as she kissed his cheek. "Take care of the Noojster, eh?" he whispered in her ear. She nodded, then stepped back as Nooj came forward, holding his hand out much as Auron had. Gippal took the outstretched palm, but rather than shaking it politely as he had the guardian's, he grasped it, locking thumbs and curling his fingers around the back of Nooj's hand. His captain and friend returned the grip just as tightly.
"Thank you." Nooj looked Gippal directly in the eye. "And good luck."
"The same to you, man," Gippal replied. A moment passed, and then the two men dropped hands. "See you soon." He nodded to his friends, not trusting himself to speak again. Turning around, he jogged down the pier and boarded the boat, losing himself in the crowd of his people, searching for his place as the ship pushed away from the dock, starting its two-day journey to the sands of Bikanel, where his task awaited him.