Spoilers: Not really.
Notes: Written for the prompt "Reunion" (although if you want to get technical, I secretly chose that prompt to give myself incentive to get this story finished) and as a follow up to "Where They Left Off". Possibly unbearably fluffy, especially as compared to my usual style, but whatcha gonna do? Sometimes they ask you to let them be happy for a little while.
"Your people need to understand that we can no longer take just anyone!" Nooj banged his fist on the table and glared at Elma, who stared coolly back. "The League is changing, and--"
He twisted to look over his shoulder and turned his glare on his aide, Tal, who stood just inside the door. "What are you doing here? I thought I made it clear that this meeting was not to be disturbed."
"You did, sir. But this concerns those standing orders you gave me." Tal raised an eyebrow at him, and he understood, his heart leaping into his throat at the implication of her presence.
He faced the group and placed his hands on the arms of his chair. "Pardon me, I must attend to a personal matter." Retrieving his cane from its hook on the left armrest, he stood, then made his way to the door as his lieutenants exchanged glances.
The tall woman who had greeted her returned to the landing. "He'll be right with you."
"Thanks." Paine straightened up from her slouch against the wall. There was no time to be nervous as Nooj appeared in the door behind the aide, who melted into the background and let him pass. He looked much as he had the last time she'd seen him, when she and the Gullwings had taken their leave from the guys in Luca six weeks ago, except better rested. "Hi," she said.
"Paine." He took a single step forward, then stopped. "You look well."
"Thanks. So do you."
He inclined his head in a polite bow. "Now. I only have a moment. Just answer one question before I go, and I'll be happy to wait for the rest." He looked straight at her, and only the slight creak of his metal knuckles as he gripped the cane betrayed any concern. "Why are you here?"
Paine swallowed, then crossed the distance to him in three steps, raising her fingertips to his chest and looking up into his face. "For you."
His expression remained solemn, but his eyes softened as he lifted a hand to cup her cheek. She leaned into his warm palm, the rightness of his touch radiating from her face and through her entire body. He touched his lips to her forehead, then backed away.
"Good," he murmured. "All right. I need to get back to this meeting, but we can talk as soon as it's over. Come."
He gestured toward the door with his cane, and as she stepped through it, she could feel his hand resting in the center of her back, steering her forward. The aide who had initially greeted her stepped away from the doorframe where she had waited, then motioned Paine to follow. Paine's eyes adjusted to the dim room, and she looked around the table as she walked past it, noting several familiar faces: Lucil smiled, Beclem gave her a small but cordial nod, Elma waved. "Hi Paine!"
"Hey." Paine nodded to them all, then turned back to Nooj, who was already settling into his chair.
His manner had returned to that of the Meyvn -- no-nonsense, in control. "Tal will show you to a place where you can wait."
Paine nodded, letting her eyes linger on him for a moment before following Tal out into the sunshine, blinking against the sudden brightness as she hustled to keep up with the aide's quick pace.
"Here you are, ma'am." Tal motioned to the benches that circled the observation deck. "Would you like a drink or something to eat while you wait?" Paine shook her head. "All right. If you change your mind, the guards downstairs will be able to reach me." She raised her arm in a sharp salute, then pivoted on her heel to go. After taking a few steps, she paused and turned back.
"It's good that you've come here," she said, her voice quiet and warm. "He's been hoping for this more than he'd ever admit."
Paine raised a single eyebrow. "You're not saying he told you..."
"Oh, no. He left standing orders with me that he was to be informed immediately if you ever came, that's all. But I've been his aide for a long time. Reading his mind is part of the job, sometimes."
Paine relaxed. "Thanks."
With a subtle shift in posture, Tal's professional briskness returned. "I'm sure he'll be with you as soon as he can. Enjoy the view."
Paine watched her go, then settled down on the wooden bench, rested her wrists on the rail, and stared over the ocean, thinking about nothing.
"I'm sorry that took so long."
Paine swung her legs around on the bench. "It's all right," she said as Nooj approached, lifting her hand to shade her eyes from the sun setting behind him. The rays of light were dazzling, catching the hairs around his head so that they glowed bronze, casting his face into shadow. She stood and waited for him to reach her with his slow, deliberate gait.
When he was close enough, she took the last few steps to him. He let go of his cane and propped it against the rail, then took her outstretched hands in his, the mechanism of the left closing with care, his right thumb caressing the underside of her wrist.
She studied his face and saw two years' worth of questions in his eyes. "I'm sorry, too. For taking so long. But I needed the time. I traveled around Spira alone for awhile, got away from all the distractions and did a lot of thinking, trying to decide where my place in the world is and what I want out of life."
"And what do you want?" He continued to sweep his thumb across her skin with slow, luxurious strokes.
She allowed herself a wry grin. "Honestly? I'm still not sure. But I do know one thing. Whatever it is, I want you to be part of it."
Nooj let out a long breath and his shoulders straightened, and Paine knew that he had been worried, despite her earlier reassurances on the landing. Then he smiled, the true, sweet smile that always made her heart fly and her breath come more quickly.
Still, she had to say it. "This isn't going to be easy, you know."
His smile faded. "Yes. I know." He shifted his grip to lace their fingers together. "If you need to take this slowly, I understand."
"We do have a lot to talk about." She squeezed his hands, then let them go to link her fingers behind his neck. "But just for now, can we pretend that we've already had all the hard conversations? There'll be time enough for that tomorrow, and the next day. Today, I want to keep things simple. Like this." And she raised herself up on her toes and kissed him.
He accepted her invitation, returning the kiss as he wrapped his arms around her waist and pulled her in tight. His mouth was soft and welcoming, and she found herself sinking into him, forgetting everything but his touch until an appreciative whistle from below reminded her of the public setting. She backed away and twisted her head around to glare down at the guard standing by the door; he tossed her a fleeting grin, then composed his face and turned to face the parade ground.
She looked up at Nooj. "Sorry, I didn't think about--"
He shook his head. "I don't care who sees." To underscore the point, he kissed her again, more intensely this time, his hands pressing into her back, and she started to melt against his chest.
Then she stopped herself with a breathless laugh and pulled away. "Well, I do."
He chucked in return. "Very well. Come, then, we'll find a quiet place to... not talk."
She started to laugh again, but the sound caught in her throat when she saw the look in his eyes. A wave of desire swept through her, leaving every nerve tingling in its wake, and she stepped into his side, unable to be apart from him any longer; he draped his right arm around her shoulders and pulled her against his warm body as they walked together.
The cool darkness of the room came as a shock after so long in the warm sun, and Paine had to blink a few times before she could see again. The conference table was now empty; the only person in the room was Tal, sitting at the desk in the corner and sorting through paperwork. She looked up as they entered, then rose to her feet.
"Thank you Tal, that will be all for today." Nooj nodded to the door. "Please inform the sentry that I am not to be disturbed."
"Yes sir. Will you want dinner brought up?"
Nooj glanced down at Paine and raised an eyebrow. She hadn't eaten since breakfast, but she was too distracted to be hungry and so shrugged her indifference. He looked back to Tal. "Perhaps later. Just have someone leave a tray at the door."
Tal saluted. "Sir. Ma'am." As she left the room, she paused in the entry to the hallway and turned back to smile at them both. "Have a good evening." Then she was gone, and they were alone.
"So." Nooj dropped his arm from Paine's shoulder and slid his hand into hers. "Shall we? My quarters are next door."
Paine could only nod -- words had somehow become unimportant compared to the fact of Nooj standing by her side, the knowledge that they were alone together, the reality that he was about to take her to his bed. Her peripheral vision blurred, her entire being focused on the warm hand that tugged her forward through air that had become heavy and thick. He led her through the room and onto the landing and past another open doorway; the door fell shut behind her and closed with a soft click.
Nooj let go of her hand and stepped away, and Paine took a moment to clear her head and check out his quarters. They consisted of a single sparsely-furnished room -- a desk beneath the only window, which faced south and had a view of the ocean, a bed, a wardrobe, a half-empty bookshelf. The only concession to comfort was an easy chair with a built-in footrest. A red sphere weighted down a stack of papers on the corner of the desk; it bore the distinctive color of the spheres Paine had used in the desert two years ago, and she picked it up. The sphere was smooth and heavy, and the feel of it in her hand triggered a flood of memories, both good and bad.
"What's on here?" she asked
Nooj joined her, his cane thumping against the plain wooden floor. "It's a recording of a different team, although both you and Gippal are visible in the background. Just a sharp-shooting exercise, late in the training I believe. A League hunter brought it in a few days ago. You can watch it if you like, although I didn't find it particularly interesting."
Paine tossed it up in the air, caught it, and set it back on the stack. "Maybe later." She stepped back from him. " I like your view. Nice space, too. A little empty, maybe."
"It's all I ever needed." He looked at her, and her knees weakened at the intensity of his gaze. "Until now."
It was all she could do not to stumble as she went to him, propping herself up by laying her hands flat on his chest. Then she kissed him, her mouth opening to his as he moaned and engulfed her in his arms. She registered the distant rattle of his cane falling to the floor; after that, the only sound she could hear was the rush of blood in her ears, the wild pounding of her heart.
"Paine," he groaned, lips still against hers. "How I've missed you."
"I missed you, too," she whispered. "You will never know how much."
He kissed her again, then rested his forehead against hers. She closed her eyes and leaned closer, brushing their noses together. Every breath filled her with his scent, the combination of soap and sweat and grease that both comforted her and made her yearn for more.
Paine opened her eyes and leaned back just enough to see his face. "I said I didn't want to talk tonight, but there is one thing I need to say before this goes any further. Nooj. I love you." His eyes widened with surprise as she continued. "I've always loved you, even after I thought you'd tried to kill me. I thought I could escape my feelings then, but I was wrong. I loved you then, and I still do."
Nooj took a deep breath as he lifted his right hand to her face, tracing her jaw and then pressing his finger beneath her chin to tip it upwards and move in for another kiss, brimming with tenderness, caressing her lips with his own. Then he pulled her tight and buried his face in the hollow between her shoulder and her neck.
"You are a far better woman than I could ever deserve," he murmured. "And I love you."
Paine swallowed hard against the lump of happiness in her throat and leaned her cheek against his soft, thick hair, pressing as close to him as she could. She closed her eyes again and clung to him, holding him up as she steadied herself against him, luxuriating in the moment of clarity, basking in the glow of their shared confessions.
When she trusted herself to speak again, she loosened her embrace and took half a step backwards. "So." She brushed the bangs out of his eyes and tucked them behind his ear. "Are we going to just stand here all night, or are you going to take me to bed?"
"Bed." Nooj tipped his head sideways, and his hair fell into his face again. "Have we ever been together in a bed?"
"Now that you mention it, I don't think we have," Paine replied, smothering a laugh. "But if you'd be more comfortable on a nice patch of sand, or on the deck of a boat, I imagine that could be arranged."
Nooj's eyes glinted with amusement. "Perhaps another time. But for now..." His hands slid upward again, finding the hooks and lacings that held her leathers in place. "Let's see if I remember how these work."
Paine opened her eyes and craned her head to look out the window. Twilight had fallen, and a few stars were visible in the sky; if her sense of time was right, she had been dozing for over an hour. She eased herself back to the mattress to look at Nooj, and she smiled. At some point, he'd taken off his spectacles, and he looked younger and softer without them. He was asleep, which added to the effect, the strong lines of his face as relaxed as she'd ever seen them. Even in sleep, his arms were still wrapped around her, tucking her into his side, the machina hand resting on her right shoulder. She sighed with contentment and laid her head back down on his wide, warm chest, watching its slow rise and fall, resting her hand in just the right place to feel the steady, strong beat of his heart.
"Hmm?" Nooj's metal hand moved from Paine's shoulder to cover the hand on his chest. "Everything all right?"
"Sorry, I didn't mean to wake you." Paine burrowed even closer, relishing the feel of skin on skin. "Just getting comfortable."
His eyes did not open, but he smiled. "Good. Now get some sleep. You'll want to build up your strength for later."
"Later?" Paine slid her hand out from under his and skimmed it down his chest, past his waist, and found what she was seeking.
His eyelids flickered open, and he turned his head to meet her eyes, smile widening. "You're sure you know what you're asking for?"
Paine licked her lips and tightened her grip, and he groaned. "Oh, I think I do."
Nooj closed his eyes again and then, with the speed that Paine always forgot to expect from him, flipped himself on top of her, pinning her to the mattress. He grasped her hands and pulled her arms out to the side to hold her in place. Now his eyes were wide open and bright with desire, no traces of sleepiness remaining. "Then I should give you exactly what you want."
Paine's laugh was cut off by his mouth pressing into hers, and then the world went away for a long time.
The next time Paine awoke, it was full dark and her stomach was rumbling; Nooj was sitting up, propped up against a pillow.
"Are you hungry?" he asked, and she nodded. "You have good timing, then -- the sentry dropping off our dinner just woke me."
"I'll get the tray." Paine unfolded herself from beneath the sheets, then stood and stretched. She heard a soft noise from behind, and she turned around to see Nooj watching her. For a moment he said nothing, just held her eyes, and then he smiled, a lazy, lascivious smile. "Enjoying yourself?" She raised a single, suggestive eyebrow.
"Hmph!" He shook his head. "Impudent woman. I was about to suggest that you borrow my robe. It should be in the wardrobe."
Paine opened the wardrobe door and saw the black robe hanging on a hook on the back. She shrugged it on and wrapped it around herself, tying the cord around her waist, then looked down with a chuckle. "It's a little big."
"Perhaps. At least the floors are clean."
Shaking her head with another smile, she walked across the room, hitching up her shoulders to keep the hem from dragging, and opened the door. A tray sat on a small table, set with a large plate of meat, cheese, and fruit, a small loaf of bread, and two large goblets of ale as well as a carafe filled with water. After taking a quick look to ensure that the hallway was deserted, she picked up the tray and carried it into the room, kicking the door shut behind her. The bread was fresh, and Paine's mouth watered at the aroma drifting up from it. "Where shall we eat?"
Nooj sat up straight. "I typically eat at my desk, but that won't work so well for two. Just bring the tray here."
Paine set one of the goblets and the carafe on Nooj's bedside table before sitting down on the edge of the bed. She tore off a piece of bread and piled it with meat, then took a bite. The bread tasted even better than it smelled, and she made short work of the rest, following it with a long drink of ale and a sigh of contentment. She was halfway through her third slice when she glanced up and noticed Nooj watching her, a gleam of humor in his eye. "What?"
"Just thinking that I like a woman with a hearty appetite."
She snorted. "I haven't eaten all day; given what we've been up to since, what did you expect?"
"As I said, it wasn't a complaint." He selected an apple from the tray and bit into it with a loud crunch.
They ate in comfortable silence, Paine finishing her last sandwich and picking through the pile of fruit, nibbling on grapes and berries and bits of cheese. "Is there another glass I can use for water?" she asked.
Nooj swallowed the last bit of apple and laid the core on the nightstand. "Not going to finish the ale?"
"I don't much care for it," Paine admitted. "I'm not much of a drinker. Just a glass of wine every so often."
"Ah." Nooj drank from his own goblet, tipping his head back to empty it, then held it out to her. "Trade with me, then; I could use a little more, myself." Paine made the swap, then stood up to pour herself some water. She could see Nooj watching her, his brow furrowed, and as she placed the carafe back on the nightstand, she caught his eye.
He frowned. "It occurs to me that we have a great deal to learn about each other. There are many conversations we did not have, back in the day, and much has happened since. How well do you know me, truly? What if you--"
She set her goblet down and laid her index finger across his mouth, stopping his sudden flow of words, then sat back down, taking care not to disturb the tray. "We had a deal, remember? No serious talk until tomorrow." she murmured; he dropped his eyes, then nodded in acknowledgement. "I know it's a risk, but I'm willing to take it. I hope you are, too."
Nooj lifted his eyes, and they were dark with emotion. "For you, I would risk anything."
Paine traced his firm, full lips with her fingertip, and he kissed it, lightly at first; and then he pulled her finger into his mouth, stroking it with his tongue, delicately raking it with his teeth. She shivered and fell into him, her mouth finding his for another kiss, and another and another until she was lying on top of him, dinner forgotten as she lost herself in his arms yet again.
A sunbeam woke her, warming her face and dazzling her eyes as she opened them. She reached out for Nooj but found only an empty pillow; with a small noise of surprise, she sat up and looked around, blinking. A brief stab of worry was replaced by a surge of affection as she saw him in his easy chair, already dressed and contemplating the red sphere. A fresh tray sat on the desk, filled with more bread and fruit, along with a bottle of pale pink juice. Paine took a quick swig from her water glass, then stood. The floorboards creaked under her feet, and Nooj looked up, his smile warm, but also serious. "Sleep well?"
She nodded. "You?"
"Very much so." He indicated the tray with a twitch of his head. "Tal had breakfast sent if you're hungry."
Paine retrieved the robe from where it had fallen to the floor and pulled it over her shoulders. She crossed the room and sat down in the desk chair, in reach of both Nooj and the food.
Nooj glanced out the window, at the tray, back at Paine, and he set the sphere down. "So. It appears that tomorrow has come."
"Yes." She reached out her left hand and he took it in his right; she took a deep breath and braced herself, ready for all the troubles of the world to come crashing back, freed from the corner where she had banished them for the night. But the floodgates never opened, and as she looked into Nooj's eyes, she realized that she wasn't afraid, or even worried. They would work everything out; they had to. She smiled and twined her fingers with his, and knew that everything was going to be fine.