Pausing for breath, Baralai turned around and looked at her. "Join us," he said, smiling, holding out a hand to her.
Paine dropped her camera arm to one side, switching off the recording device, and took Baralai's hand, returning the smile. He bowed over it in his best courtly Yevonite manner, lightly kissing the back of her fingers. Gippal looked at them, casually resting his elbows on the railing behind him, and started to laugh again. "'Lai, what the hell are you doing?"
"Just giving our lady recorder the respect she's due," the other replied, a teasing twinkle in his warm brown eyes as he glanced over to his Al Bhed lover.
With a chuckle, Paine pulled her hand free and batted Baralai lightly on the back of his head. "All right, all right," she said. She set her camera back in its case and slammed the lid into place. "I am officially off duty."
The third man glanced over his shoulder, the ship's dim running lights glinting off his spectacles. "You were off duty before," Nooj reminded her. "You weren't ordered to record on this journey, were you?"
"No," she admitted as she joined him at the rail. He pulled her into his right side, slipping his arm about her waist. The left hand he kept on the railing for balance, the steel mechanism gleaming even in this near darkness. "I don’t know, I guess I just felt like taking some more casual shots. Like last night." Her mind drifted back to the conversation that had been captured on that sphere as they dreamed about flying an airship together. Naturally, this led her to thoughts of a later discussion, to the plan she had hatched with Gippal and Baralai to keep this team together, no matter what the Maesters might try to do with them. She glanced up at Nooj, who stared out to sea, his expression impassive. As she so often did at such moments, she wondered what he was thinking beneath that mask.
"So, Nooj," said Gippal, "this Operation Mi'ihen thing. You never did say if you think it'll work."
Nooj continued to look straight forward and, for a long moment, did not answer. Paine was about to give up on waiting and redirect the conversation when he shifted slightly and spoke. "No. I'm afraid I don't have your faith in machina, not when it comes to Sin. Have you ever fought Sin?" He looked over to Gippal, hiding his face from Paine's view, but the dark, bitter tone of his voice made her blood run cold as she realized that he must be thinking of the encounter that had cost him his left arm and leg. Gippal must have seen it, too, and he shrank back slightly.
Nooj continued. "It will take more than a mere machina to take it down." He shook his head. "No, the Maesters must have some other purpose. Just as this supposed training exercise must have had some purpose other than creating officers to lead the Crusaders." With an angry grunt, he turned his head to the stairs that led below deck, and Paine follow his gaze to where the bruised and battered remnants of the Crimson Squad slept. To a man, they were destroyed, wounded in body or spirit or both, likely useless as even foot soldiers, much less as an elite corps of officers. Two weeks in the desert had broken them, all except for the four on this deck. She could feel anger radiating from Nooj, and she felt a sudden surge of matching rage in herself.
Before she could really think about it, the words formed in her head and popped out. "We should stop them."
It was Gippal who spoke, leaning alarmingly far over the rail as he stared at her, but all three men turned in her direction, the same question in their eyes -- Nooj's head whipping around and down, Baralai coming to the railing on her other side.
She looked around at her comrades. "Listen. The Maesters are corrupt, everyone knows that. They talk about honor and purity and the evils of machina, and then they lie and cheat and send us off to kill each other with guns. We've discovered a few of their secrets, but who knows what else they're hiding from us? Sin is a threat, yes, but maybe it's not the real danger. Maybe the real danger is Yevon."
Silence fell for a moment as the others considered her words, the only sounds the rushing noise of water and wind. Then Baralai let out a deep sigh.
"It's difficult to admit it," he said, "but I think I agree with you."
Gippal's single eye widened hugely. "Really?"
The former priest nodded, turning from the rail and dropping his eyes to the deck. "Like so many others, I used to follow without question, turning a blind eye to all the corruption and inconsistencies. But now-- these horrors we have seen, and the callous attitude the Maesters and other priests have shown toward them, never mind that they inflicted the wounds in the first place... No. It's too much. I cannot ignore it any more." He looked up again, past Paine and Nooj and straight into his lover's face. "Yevon is the villain. Yevon must be stopped. And perhaps Paine is right, and we are the ones to do it."
"Well, you know where I stand," said Gippal. "After what those bastards did to us? They deserve whatever we can give 'em."
"This is madness," Nooj said, firmly. "All right, I admit it. I thought about punishing the Maesters for their crimes, too, back in the desert. But taking on all of Yevon? Just the four of us? The very idea is ludicrous -- it would take an army."
"Not just the four of us," Paine countered. "There's the recruits in the hold. Some of them can still fight, maybe. And--" She paused for breath, and to consider the best way to explain what she had heard. "Earlier, when Baralai and I were making the rounds for healing and such, I heard some talk. They want you to continue as their leader once we land. Some of them even said they'd follow you rather than the Maesters, given a choice."
"It's true," said Baralai, nodding. "I heard that, too."
"Me?" Nooj shook his head, incredulous. "I can't-- that's preposterous!"
Paine raised an eyebrow. "How can you say that?" she said, equally flabbergasted by this denial. "You're the only real leader here, including the Maesters; of course they're looking to you for direction. So there's your army, or at least the start of one. Then all you'd need to do is gather together the Crusaders. If even half the stories I've heard about your years with them are true, they would follow you into hell if you asked." She brushed away the lock of hair that fell into his eyes, running her fingers along his temple. "And so would I."
"As would I," said Baralai from behind her, softly.
Gippal nodded. "Me too."
Nooj's mouth had fallen open slightly. He turned sideways to the rail, dropping his arm from Paine as he looked around at the others, disbelief in his face. "What... what are you saying?"
Gippal walked around from behind Nooj to stand at Paine's elbow and nudged her. "Tell him," he said.
Paine looked at Baralai, who signaled agreement with a nod. Then she looked back to Nooj. "This evening, before you joined us, we swore an oath to stick by you. We agreed to refuse assignment to any company other than yours."
His mouth closed, then opened again, apparently at a loss for words. "I-- but you can't-- it'd never-- I'm flattered, but you all know better than that. The military doesn't work that way. You receive orders, and--"
"To hell with orders!" Paine crossed her arms across her chest. "You're our captain, Nooj, and that's all there is to it."
He raised his gaze to the men. "And you all feel this way?"
"You bet," said Gippal.
"There is no question in my mind," Baralai agreed.
Nooj looked at Paine again, ruffling her hair, then resting his hand on the back of her neck. "Huh. Well, all right. I'll think about it."
"Do that," said Gippal. "And if you're in, the Al Bhed are, too."
"You may also have more potential allies in Bevelle than one might think," Baralai added. "If I could be turned away from Yevon by the truth, I'm sure there are many others that would follow."
Nooj nodded, although Paine wasn't certain he had truly registered the words. He seemed rather stunned, as though he were still processing something.
Gippal stretched and yawned. "Anyway. I'm heading for bed. 'Lai?"
"In a minute," said Baralai. "I want to check on some of the more critically wounded men one last time."
"'Kay. 'Night Nooj, Dr. P." Gippal squeezed Paine's shoulder and lightly punched Nooj on the upper arm, then ambled off to the stern, where he had set up a sleeping place. Baralai also made his farewells and disappeared below deck, and then Nooj and Paine headed for their own bed, a secluded nook up by the bow. They settled in, Nooj leaning up against a bulkhead as Paine snuggled into him, resting her cheek against his smooth, broad chest. They said nothing for a long while as they held each other, lost in thought.
"You three have an awful lot of faith in me," Nooj said, finally. "I hope it's not misplaced."
She kissed his collarbone. "It's not."
"But how can you be sure?" he asked.
Because I love you. The words blazed with perfect clarity in her mind, but she couldn't force them out, not to a man who hunted his own death. Part of her ached to admit the truth, to share her feelings and fears with him, but she just couldn't. He was still Deathseeker, and nothing she could tell him would turn him from that goal.
Instead, she shook her head and turned away. "I just am."
He let out a soft noise that might have been a sigh. "Well. As I said, I'll think about it. But I think we've had enough talking for one night." He laid a metal hand on her cheek and drew her close, kissing her deeply. And she lost herself in him, putting all thoughts of life and death and Yevon aside as they sank down to the bedroll together.