Disclaimer: I DO own FFX-2…See? It's sitting on my shelf right there…but Squaresoft's got the license…Darn.

So here's where I get to put all of my thank yous to everyone who helped me out by giving me feedback, informing me about problems with the fic, and just letting me know what they thought about it. Writing is a pleasure in and of itself, but knowing that I helped create something that somebody enjoyed is truly a wonderful feeling. ^_^

            Boggart, Madj, Exhile87, Farli, Story, Psychotic Blondie, dragonmaster, Heather Cat, waterblossom, Baralai-ec-rud, FieryPhoenixGryphon, Jeni, Uri-chan and Hentai Neko…

                        THANK YOU ALL FOR YOUR SUPPORT! This chapter is dedicated to all of you.


Chapter Four: By Mutual Consensus, of Course

            The ship from Luca had a two hour layover in Kilika, so Baralai took the time to catch up on some much needed sleep…or at least he tried. He sat with his back propped against the outer wall of the cabin, enjoying the refreshing coolness of the shade. There was an underlying anxiety hidden by his relaxed demeanor, but it was far less prominent than the peace he felt at that moment.

            Passengers were milling about, occasionally casting a glance in his direction in curiosity before deciding that it was simply some young man who bore a remarkable resemblance to that Yevon official. The captain strolled onto the deck, announcing their departure for Besaid, and the young man actually realized what he was doing. The anxiety began to break the surface, and he bolted to his feet when he felt the ship move. An elderly woman near him chuckled behind one hand. "Is this your first chance finding your sea legs, child?"

            He smiled a bit in return. She was one of the merchants that had boarded in Kilika, a basket of hand painted pottery slung over one arm. "Actually, I've ridden this ship several times in the past." He rubbed at one of his forearms. "I'm really not quite sure why I would be nervous this time."

            The old woman set down her basket and stretched her back out. "Ooh, I can't hold that for quite as long as I used to." She cracked one shoulder and let out a contented sigh. "You know, my grandson was the same way not five months ago. Of course, back then he was goin' to meet with his fiancée." Baralai's eyes widened, and she grinned, revealing baby pink gums. "Ah, so perhaps it's not the boat ride that has you concerned."

            Am I really that transparent? "You're a very perceptive person."

            She stooped to grab her wares once more. "When you get to be as old as I am, the perception tends to go along with the eyesight." She started towards the door that led to the interior of the ship. "You just begin to recognize the things that have always gone on right in front of your eyes. Enjoy your trip, young man."

            He pulled the door open, propping it ajar with his back and taking her basket for her. She gave him another smile and pinched his cheek. "Why, thank you. Such a nice boy. Too bad I'm not about forty years younger!" She took her pottery from him and walked away laughing wholeheartedly, leaving Baralai standing there against the door…not sure whether to be flattered or disturbed.

            Dismissing the matter with a shrug, he went back outside. It was now several hours past noon, so the sweltering heat that had kept him sequestered to the shade had diminished significantly. He found a comfortable-looking spot near some of the ship's rigging and sat down, crossing his legs.

            Baralai propped his chin on his hands and his elbows on his knees and just stared out at the white ripples of wake that the ship was sending out on its starboard side. Nothing's even really happened between us yet, and she's already changing me. He had never been one to wear his heart on his sleeve in the past, always keeping his emotions closely guarded. He gave a wry smile to nobody in particular. From what little he'd seen of Paine over the last few months, she seemed to have gone in the opposite direction of his own transformation.

            She had, of course, had a mysterious nature back in the days with the squad—that was probably one of the qualities that had drawn him to her—but they could almost always tell what she was feeling at any given time. Now…he thought of her eyes, how they had been a swirl of a million emotions and still empty. Would there be any reason for this trip other than to clear his heart from these pent-up emotions?

            Maybe not…but he at least owed it to her, to someone whom he'd considered a close friend all of these years, to tell her what he'd been harboring for so long. If nothing else, he would know that he had tried.

            And there would be no more "what ifs." That was a comfort.

            The first sound to hit her ears was the musical chirping of some exotic bird. Yawning, Paine awoke to the soft fibers of a thickly woven blanket pressed against one cheek, with sunlight streaming in from the doorway to warm the other. She sat up, feeling fully rested for the first time since the whole ordeal had started several months before. She extended both arms out to her sides, enjoying the feeling of elongated muscles and stretching tendons.

            She walked to the entrance of the hut and pulled the reed tapestry over the opening before changing out of the plain cotton shift that Lulu had lent her to sleep in, saying she didn't want the sheets ruined by catching on any of Paine's buckles. She smiled at the thought. Considering the older woman's usual choice of attire, she supposed that she knew what she was talking about.

            Pulling on the two elbow-length gloves, she ventured out into the village square. From what she could tell of the sun's position, she had overslept for quite a while. When she saw how beautiful the day looked, she wanted to chastise herself for her disappointment in wasting valuable working time.

            "Hey there, sleepyhead!" Hmm…annoying voice, lack of respect…Yeah, she definitely knew who was standing there even before she turned around to face her.

            "Really. Rikku, when did you wake up?"

            "Uh, well ya see…at least it was before you!"

            Paine chuckled at the younger girl's comeback, shaking her head as she walked towards another hut…and the smell of what would be a very late breakfast. She didn't see the Al Bhed standing there, mouth agape in astonishment.

            "I wonder why she's in such a good mood…I didn't even lose any respect points for that one!"

            Retreating to the clearing that she had been at the night before, Paine relaxed on the grass, enjoying the drowsy feeling of a full stomach. She felt oddly light, having said so much the night before during her conversation with Lulu. Things that nobody knew about. Not Yuna or Rikku. Not even the guys from the squad. But now she wasn't shouldering all of her past problems alone. It's when we lean on others and build up our lives from those we care about that we are truly able to overcome any obstacles…That was by far one of the most profound things anyone had ever said to her. She felt a certain apprehension at the thought of opening up to the people close to her. If I start this now, I'm going to have to tell them about all of my feelings…

            She let out a long sigh, and looked at the long shadow that the sun cast in front of her. Sunset would be soon, swiftly extinguished by nightfall. She would sleep, and another day would come…and it would be a good time to make a trip to Luca. The festivities would be continuing all week, and as honored guests her friends would remain for the full duration. Nooj. Gippal. Baralai…

            Her stomach suddenly felt much less settled. There were certain emotions that she had never even allowed herself to consiider, let alone talking about them with anyone else. But she couldn't with good conscience see him again without saying something. What it was…she wasn't exactly sure, but it was always resting in the back of her brain, surfacing to warm her or frighten her—or a mixture of the two.

            "I care about him…" She smiled at the sound of the words slipping past her lips. "I care about him a lot…" Should I continue where this is going? The thought of those three words made her feel giddy, silly, and completely unlike herself. But I don't know that yet. I haven't even seen him for so long…and back then it was more like having a brother and a friend…Sticking out her lower lip, she blew at a few dangling strands of hair in frustration. Still…all I can see are those eyes. And all I can hear is his voice, whispering quietly…

            Paine watched the scenery take on a hazy orange hue. The sun must have begun its descent below the horizon. She brushed her hand along the grass, watching as her shadow grew and stretched…Wait. The sun can't be moving that quickly…She heard a twig snap softly behind her, and someone cleared his throat.

            "They said down at the village that I could find you here…" She felt a rush of blood to her head at the sound of that voice, and her face froze.

            She paused to make sure that her voice remained level despite the pounding in her ears. Just like a little kid getting caught doing something they shouldn't…She shoved the thought aside and tried to compose her face as she looked around. The crimson light was quickly fading to the dark blur of dusk, hiding the mild flush that was heating her cheeks.

            "Baralai?" Yes, it was him standing there, wearing his old battered tunic in place of the newer one he donned for public functions. He gave her a small smile. She started to get up from the ground, brushing off a few pieces of grass and crossing her arms in her usual stance. "Aren't you supposed to be in Luca right now?"

            He glanced away. "Yeah, I probably should be…Ah, I think I was supposed to go with Nooj  to have an interview this afternoon." He chuckled. "Oh well, I think they can survive one day without me."

            She couldn't help but grin a bit at his attitude. "Since when did you become so irresponsible?" She snapped her fingers and pointed at him, poking him in the chest with one gloved finger. "You've been spending more time with Gippal lately, haven't you?"

            He raised his hands in defense and began to laugh. "You caught me." When her laughter died down, she returned her face to its usual neutral—though happier—appearance.

            "So what are you doing in Besaid?"

            "I…uh, you know, I had this whole long speech planned out for when I arrived, but now that I'm standing here, I can't remember a single word of it." He smiled nervously, his bright amber eyes dark in the dim light. "We haven't been on the best terms lately, and I've needed to talk with you."

            So that's what this was about…"Listen, Baralai. I want you to know that I'm sorr—"

            "I'm sorry."

            She stopped, confused, and crossed her arms again. "What are you talking about?" I'm the one that hurt you…

            He stepped around her to look out at the lagoon below. "I'm sorry for giving you reasons not to trust me." He wouldn't meet her gaze. "I'm sorry for forcing you to fight me."

            I suppose I'm not the only one that it's been bothering. She stepped up behind him to put one tentative hand on his shoulder. Why am I so scared to touch him? "There's no need for an apology. I'm just as much to blame for how that turned out." Because I think he'll push me away. For everything I've done…or haven't done…"I should've had a little more faith in you…I'm sorry for that."

            "Paine…" She felt him turn around beneath her hand. His eyes bore into hers, and with the slight glimmer that the moon cast on them, they looked so beautiful. "That wasn't all I had to say." Her breath caught in her chest when she felt him run one hand lightly over her cheek, and she would have taken a step backwards if her legs didn't feel as though they would buckle with any sort of movement. So she just stood still, and he quickly withdrew his hand. When did things change so much between us…

            He rubbed the bridge of his nose—he always used to do that when we teased him—and looked at his feet. "Yevon, why is this so hard?"

            Now the pounding of the blood rushing through her ears was almost deafening. What's so hard…what is he talking about? He reached out and grabbed both of her hands, and this time she did take a slight step back. "I don't know if you'll hate me for this, but I can't keep quiet about it anymore." He was leaning close enough to her face so that she could feel his warm breath stirring her bangs. "I've wanted to say this for a long time now…"

            "I love you." Before he shut his own, Baralai saw her already shocked eyes widen even further as he reached forward to press his lips softly against hers. Even if she hates me…even if I never talk with her again…it was all worth it just for this moment. I can at least know what it could've been like…He pulled back slowly and saw the expression on her face. Surprise…confusion…and something else…Oh no, what have I done? He released her hands and stepped back, feeling his gut wrenching with sudden dread. "I shouldn't have…" He could feel the beginnings of tears sting his eyes, but he blinked them away. "I'm sorry…" He started to hurry past her, and then gave her a perplexed look when she blocked his path, her eyes burning with anger.

            "What the hell are you doing?"

            She does hate me…"I-I made a mistake by thinking that you might've…" felt the same way…He couldn't find the courage to voice the words, and her grip on his sleeve lessened slightly, as did her gaze.

            "So are you just going to walk away from me?"

            Her voice sounded thick, and he could see her trying to hide her face. She was crying. I've hurt her… "I'll just leave you alone. I don't want to make you upset anymore."

            "Then don't leave!" He saw her tear-streaked face for a moment as she looked torn between actions. Suddenly, her lips were on his, and there was no more confusion or hurting or conflict. There was only him and her and the liquid warmth of her tears as they ran down his skin as well.

            Baralai slowly let his arms make their way around her in an embrace, completely unaware that her own were clasped about his neck. He could feel the pounding of her heart against his own, contrasting syncopated rhythms through the layers of their garments. His mind was a blur as they pulled away, and all that he could see was the smile dancing across her lips.

            "I love you." Paine could feel her eyes stretching open to their limit as he bent his head down to kiss her softly, tenderly. She couldn't think straight, her mind overwhelmed by all of the feelings she had revisited in the past few days. All too quickly, she felt him pull away to look searchingly into her face. Say something…why can't I say anything? She watched as his face fell, and he let go of her hands.

            "I-I shouldn't have…" His eyes were bright now…she'd never seen him cry before. "I'm sorry." She panicked as he started to go and stopped him, frustrated at his misunderstanding and furious at her own loss for words.

            "What the hell are you doing?" She winced inwardly at what she said.

            "I made a mistake by thinking that…" But…Her heart sank, and she loosened the grasp she had on his sleeve before hanging her head down. I…Why wouldn't the words come out? Why now? She bit her lip hard to keep from sobbing, but the tears came just the same.

            "So are you just going to walk away from me?" She tried to cover the fact that she was crying, though she began to care less and less if he saw. Please…stay with me…

            "I'll just leave you alone." Her heart skipped a beat. "I don't want to make you upset anymore."

            Didn't he understand? "Then don't leave!" Pushing her fear aside, she stared into his eyes, now with an astonishment of their own. Before she could start to doubt her resolve and lose her nerve, she threw her arms around his neck and pressed her lips against his so tightly that it was almost painful. Please understand now…She continued to cry, but the sadness slowly seeped from her, leaving her with a gentle warmth. She felt his arms embrace her, and she pushed closer against him. With a sense of wonder, she realized that she could feel his heart beating next to her own. She almost didn't want to pull away, even though the lack of air was making her dizzy. It's like I'm drowning…but I don't mind one bit. When it felt like she would collapse form asphyxiation, she reluctantly pulled back, but she couldn't stop the smile from turning up the corners of her slightly swollen lips.

            She felt him lean his forehead down to rest against hers, and she closed her eyes. "So what now?"

            She leaned into the curve beneath his chin, nestling herself against his chest. I can still hear it beating…"I don't know." She let out a contented sigh. "But we'll just lean on each other, and it'll be fine."

            We'll make each other stronger. Together.

When the night

Has been too lonely

And the road

Has been too long

And you think that love is only

For the lucky and the strong

Just remember in the winter

Far beneath the bitter snow

Lies the seed

That with the sun's love

In the spring

Becomes the rose

                        ~Janis Joplin, The Rose

Author's note: And that's a wrap! Sorry for the several-day delay…I was a bit busy. Hehe, this chapter started getting into the fluff—but I chose this penname for a reason! (other than the fact that fluffernutter sandwiches are one of the best things on the face of the earth ^_^)

Okay, I have a FFX-2 question for you folks out there…Is the Celsius currently the only airship in Spira? Whatever happened to Cid's baby? Aren't there others by now? Just wondering!

I would also like to apologize for any bugginess/errors/bad posting with the fic…sometimes I get a bit confused by FFN's system (and by not seeing the changes right away), so I'll occasionally make mistakes. They should be okay now, though.

Alright, it may be a week or so before any sequels come out…gotta put at least some effort into school, y'know? But I'll be brainstormin' to my little heart's content.

Hehe, see you next time, kiddos! ^_~