Her in Him
By request of and for JI; also dedicated to them if they like the fic, for waiting patiently. Spoilers. Semi-epilogue to Red as Snow and Blind Spot.
He doesn't. Dream normally--ever since the overlong stay of the dead in his bones, Baralai has never made it through a night without beginning to hallucinate Zanarkand. Towers sprout from the ground and stretch to the sky, competition for the stars with generated power of their own. He sleeps surrounded by the bustle of the long-dead.
The stickiness of Shuyin's memories have been left behind like caramel, threading into Baralai's brain. Ghosts walk through him, talk to him, all while the crackled announcements of the stadium scores clatter in the background. Intimacy with the blitzball player's memories provides Baralai with rating odds and sports lingo. When he wakes, he is always disorientated, half-expecting to be surrounded by the distant clamor of fans just outside the locker room door.
Baralai can only imagine how intense Nooj's nights must be. Two years with Shuyin in his body and Nooj may never dream correctly again. That's what Baralai wonders, at times, and how many of the Deathseeker's desires have known nothing but the past.
Ironic, if their shared trauma can help bridge the gap between them.
Dreams are more important to Baralai than he would like to admit. He's spent so many hours weaving deft speeches for Bevelle, wanting people to listen, needing them to swallow small fabrications so that he would not have to come up with one greater. All the little white lies engineered; small pebbles meant to pitch against the vast stream of people's stubbornness, their persistency in self-destruction.
If only Spira's people would swallow their petty quarrels--but they don't. That's where Baralai's job comes in. It's why he's praetor.
I wish I could dream.
She looks back at him when he says this aloud one night. And if you could? Her voice is challenging. As always. What would it be about?
A future for Spira, he answers, closing his eyes and rolling away, feeling the secrets of his thoughts bury themselves back inside him. One that doesn't involve war.
Her soft snort of scorn is his only answer, and he pretends not to hear it.
- - - -
Baralai is aware that Paine has no interest in Bevelle. She has sat in on council meetings and he has watched her fidget. Subdued skirmishes of her fingers. Too in control of herself to rattle her knuckles in impatience, and much too proud to admit afterwards if she did. She touches the table, her notepad. She knows she is out of place.
The older priests question her presence. They disapprove of a stranger's participation, but blame Baralai's favoritism. Everyone knows where Paine stores her clothes and whom she takes breakfasts with; the gossip is pollen-thick in the air, politely implying that Paine's only talents lie between her legs and in the palms of her hands.
Such talk rankles her. It disturbs Baralai as well, and he has asked for such rumors to cease, even knowing that the denial will only drive them underground. Not silent. Every time the priests skirt their eyes over to her in council, Paine lifts her chin and glares back.
This is her in him, a swordwoman forced to attend New Yevon meeting halls, participating in Baralai's life.
This is Paine in an institution known as Bevelle, where happy endings are overcomplicated.
But they work together. They remain. Paine is stray, roaming for two years coming on three now. She has the freedom to continue traveling, if that's her desire; Baralai knows better than to force her to do anything, whether it's a decision on dinner, or on the rest of her life. For now, she stays. The carpets outside Baralai's study become packed down under her determined strides, and he looks up each time he hears her muffled approach, his heart lightening and twisting simultaneously.
In private times in his room, Paine forgets to wear clothes. Draped in a sheet, she prowls over to the great balcony window and looks out, down over the open courtyards of Bevelle and the numerous twisting walkways. From so far up, the Highbridge is a finger-width of pale color. The sentries are ants.
"Reminds me of flying," she says.
"You frighten me near heights," he replies.
Paine, when she is out of her heels, is actually shorter than he is. This makes it easy for Baralai to hold her without knocking his elbows against hers, or his chin against her shoulder.
"Maybe I'm afraid of seeing you lost." Coming up behind her, his arms go around her waist. Whatever she might have defended back is swallowed between their lips as she turns her head, and Baralai tastes the peach-flesh of her tongue, sweet.
He's more sensitive to loss now. Everywhere he looks, he can see death--slow terminations, dissolutions of alliances and loyalties. Betrayals. Accidents. He doesn't know how much of that stems from experience, and how much is theoretical pyrefly-toxin, but Baralai is daily growing more sympathetic to Nooj's cynicism. When he wakes each morning, stumbling out of transported sleep, Baralai can feel time rubber-banding back into place with a callousness that implies that the state of Zanarkand one-thousand years dead is just as good as Bevelle's current prosperity. Both can fade away overnight.
Baralai serves up dreams for New Yevon to believe in every day. He simply can't find any of his own.
He is reminded of this during nights when his fingers are grasping her helplessly, and he is whispering Paine's name like a prayer. In the grey locks of her hair spread across his pillow, Baralai tries to read a doctrine for the future. He worships when she gasps.
Baralai keeps searching for reminders of his missing hope in the private moments spent between them both. He treasures the things they don't have to say, while wondering if what he sees as acceptable silence is only hiding denial. Paine is inside his brain. He thinks about her endlessly, swinging between relief and dread each time he wonders if he has misinterpreted.
In the silent spaces, Paine often steals Baralai's shirt, turning the folds of familiar cloth into a landscape strange by her contours. She urges Baralai's hands to run themselves over her stomach and examine the strangeness of her in him. She invites being touched.
They don't know if things will work out. For one thing, there's always Gippal and Nooj. Baralai has his priests, Isaaru knocking on the door twice a week wondering where the reports are, and Paine? She has the Gullwings, who are themselves broken up now. Bevelle's younger priests, led by the acolytes who graduated from the rank of Lustrum, give her the least problems of all, but even they wonder what she is doing here.
Dopha asks repeatedly after her capacities, suggesting that she either train the recruits at staff-practice or oversee the guard patrols which handle the occasional fiends. Once he wondered if she could be assigned to work on diplomatic ties with the Youth League. After a short-browed stare from Baralai, Dopha did not repeat the idea again.
Somasil--his hair grown long and dyed, name changed to fool the record books--says nothing. He has already given up his life for the one he loves, and risks it every day that he takes an assumed identity in Bevelle. Somasil has no advice for Baralai and he does not volunteer what they both already know. Love can be dangerous. Sometimes, disaster strikes, and cannot be undone.
The truth is that Baralai cannot leave Bevelle any more than Nooj can abandon the Youth League. Neither political party is willing to dissolve peacefully. Gippal hangs in the middle, alienated by necessity from New Yevon due to ongoing conflicts over the definitions of machines. The Youth League retain former Crusaders; New Yevon has its own trained militia, and to leave a mass of armed soldiers without direction only invites ruin.
For the time being, Spira watches as the third-party lynchpin of the Machine Faction keeps the other two groups in check, wielding its neutrality with the cocky aggression of its figurehead. Neither the Youth League or New Yevon can advance without risking the middle member of their triad joining against them.
Gippal knows this. Nooj does as well. While the Deathseeker and the praetor have been able to speak without further attempts to kill each other, Nooj persists in his belief that he remains the sole leader in their Crimson Squad team. Because of this, he declares that both the Machine Faction and New Yevon should follow the League's ideals. It's natural, he insists. He's their captain.
Negotiations are at a standstill.
Peace will not last forever. Already there are quarrels returning. An outburst at Kilika over shipping routes to Bevelle left two Youth League members with bloody noses; a sphere found on the Mi'ihen Highroad was claimed simultaneously by Yevon and the League, and its custody is still under debate. Funds for the restoration of Macalania's temple are being criticized loudly. A shoopuf went wild near the Moonflow when a Yevon priest refused to make room for League supplies in transit.
Baralai groans as he reads the reports one evening, placing his head in his hands, feeling his brain about to crack under invisible weights. He could shatter into pyreflies that sing of blitzball.
The Youth League defined itself through fighting against Bevelle. Even New Yevon found its identity in decrying the old ways. It's true. People need an adversary to hunt, especially after a thousand years of Sin. Otherwise, they will fight each other, just like the war between Bevelle and Zanarkand that left the Calm Lands blasted bare.
Baralai rubs his temples until pain lances into his skull, and does not tell Paine about how he wonders if Yu Yevon might have been right so many years ago in creating a monster.
He brings a folder with him to dinner, ordering food into his quarters so that he can eat with a fork in one hand and a pen in the other. Paine hovers over her plate, red eyes flickering repeatedly to his work. She monitors the way that he sighs half-through, his food grown cold without a single bite.
Her own fork scrapes against her plate. Empty.
"Don't tell me you're giving up hope on Spira's future already, Baralai."
They sit on the couch together after dinner, legs interknitting. Baralai says nothing. His left knee goes over her right thigh; his head rests against her cheek, absorbing the impossible softness of her swordfighter's skin.
This is them together. They lie back and watch the hours tick by, and Baralai thinks about Dopha's words and any possible merit in the Lustrum's suggestion. Paine has made covert signs of restlessness throughout the meal, unable to ask what he was reading, the documents all stamped in heavy red letters of Classified.
If she is left without a role of her own, Baralai knows she will become further dissatisfied. Paine has never handled futility well. She will withdraw, expression turning to stone, and he may lose this second chance forever.
He blurts the question before he can let himself doubt.
"You could be the official ambassador to the Youth League."
The suggestion poses awkward in the air.
"Could I?" she mocks, and then rolls over and finds his mouth with hers.
- - - -
Sometime later she stands in his room, and her face is not smiling.
"I'm going to visit Yuna."
He is surprised only behind his eyes. "When will you be back?"
"I don't know."
This is her in him as well, the growing ability to lie.
Paine has always preferred saying nothing to saying eloquence. Or platitudes. Time in Bevelle has exposed her to all manner of daily concealments. She makes her excuse in brief and is gone before the day is out, her bag already packed, and light at that.
Baralai spends dinner alone in his office, listening to the evening crawl. The noodles and cubed meat are bland. Tasteless. Green spice-flakes coat the meal, but Baralai cannot determine the flavor.
"You're not very good at hiding things," he says to the walls, and he realizes they have not grown so much like each other at all.
But she is good enough that he does not know what to say, how to handle the mounting aggression in her. Paine has changed slowly over the course of years--they all have. Baralai knows she is not the only one who differs from the time served in the Crimson Squad. After two years, it is a surprise to discover that their navigator has unexpectedly grown a backbone. Their engineer, a stubborn streak of aloofness all his own, willing to spend time enthusiastically with his friends, but equally capable of stepping away from them both when the League and New Yevon begin to quarrel.
Their captain is still coming to terms with life, and Lucil hovers at his elbow with one eye sharp when he slips back into self-destruction.
Their pilot does not talk about where to fly to next.
He thinks about her while she is gone. Bevelle training keeps the gears of his mind smooth, well-oiled. Analysis of what help Yuna might be, on what reason for this counsel. Briefly, he entertains the notion that Paine is informing the High Summoner of the current state of New Yevon, and he finds himself cynical when he wonders if Paine would speak of the Youth League in a more favorable light.
Pessimism motors his steps to ring hard upon the flagstones. Each strike of his boots is an imagined crunch, hammering down on faceless threats while he walks. If he could exterminate the myriad difficulties with New Yevon now, he would, just like that. Crunch.
He stops one day on the way down from his quarters, finding himself gripping the railing of the balcony with clenched fingers. This anger is not like him. This is like Paine, and Baralai's breath is in the roof of his mouth and burrowing out his nose while he tries to decide how much he misses her right now.
It's enough that he's distracted for days during meetings. Time slips by both slow and fast, agonizing with its uncertainties. Baralai forgets to listen to what the other council members are saying. His notes are filled with short, nonsensical doodles that take the shape of swords and stiffened hair-locks.
He is in the middle of decorating the fifteenth page in a row one afternoon when he is caught off-guard, addressed by a question that he hasn't fully heard. Rising to his feet, Baralai starts to launch into an explanation on the trade needs of Kilika before the dumbfounded faces of the council alert him to his mistake. Gradually, he fumbles for his wits.
The meeting is centered upon Guadosalam. He hasn't heard half of it. He has no idea what the particulars are even about to begin with.
Somasil catches him afterwards, soundless fingers in his sleeve. The pole-fighter pulls him aside in the corridor. Baralai is too busy rubbing his own face to refuse, trying to regain full alertness again and again as his thumbs work his cheeks like bread dough.
It isn't like the praetor to be sloppy. They both know it, so Somasil does not waste time pointing out the obvious.
"Baralai," he says. "Is this everything you hoped for?"
In one sickening moment, Baralai cannot tell if the former Lustrum means New Yevon or Paine. He answers for both.
"I'm afraid of losing it, now that it's here."
Somasil deliberates that answer. Baralai's confession is a stark, rabbit-faced thing, born of the inability to confide numerous worries that have built over the months. "Do you think she'll leave?"
The question is painfully accurate. Bevelle is not an adequate setting for Paine. What else could Baralai have expected? These are not Bikanel's deserts; the Squad is older now, and they have changed. Separation has marked all four.
Baralai wonders if the knowledge of the woman that he keeps inside him is only a ghost as well.
Sleepless that night, Baralai watches the ceiling of his room. The air is sticky with summer. Small eddies stir the curtains leading to the balcony, and Baralai does not get up to close the windowed doors.
- - - -
Three weeks go by before the gate-guards call up word that Paine has been seen approaching. By then, Baralai has lost enough sleep that it feels more like six.
Paine's face is velvet under dusk. Baralai watches her from across the room, as shadows gather themselves in from the gardens, bringing the perfume of moss-rose musk. She launches into her explanation without being asked, after the broken greetings have been given, and they are both wondering what to do next.
"I wanted to talk to her about Tidus."
The name rings a bell, bringing to mind a blitzball once-Guardian once-something Baralai's never been able to figure out. Baralai doesn't understand the significance of her reference at first. Instead, he thinks of turmoil.
"Is he having difficulties?"
Tidus. The Shuyin lookalike. Baralai knows first and foremost that Tidus is important to Yuna, and that Yuna was once a teammate to Paine. Paine herself had never elaborated whenever he had asked; her expression always closed, gone hard in that manner of hers when she does not know her own opinion on a subject, but is willing to snarl if pressed.
Now she looks much the same.
In her silence, Baralai hesitates, and then wades ahead. "Does he need any help?" Already dreading the answer, if he will have to become familiar with the Shuyin-twin. Or Paine to embark on another great quest.
She looks at him as he waits, attentive."Baralai." Paine's voice is heavy with disgust. "You're an intelligent man, but sometimes you can be a real moron."
Her heels click as she walks away.
- - - -
Later on, when they are lying back on the couch and the smell of fried shore-clams from dinner is mixing with documentation books, Paine speaks again.
"Yuna spent two years looking for him."
That's incorrect. Baralai remembers contrary details--Paine's sprinkles of crumb-information, mention of Yuna only beginning her search a year after finding a sphere--but he holds back his correctional commentary. His finger rubs along her arm, feeling the small hairs. She is lying directly on his stomach and it feels as if his dinner is being forced back up, but he considers it a working sacrifice in exchange for the weight of her in his arms.
"Two years, Baralai." She adjusts her knee to become comfortable, and he stifles a wince when her hip grinds into his. "What were we doing during all that time?"
"Looking." His words sink directly into her hair. "We were looking for an answer." He is tempted to end it there, but knows there is more. "About... what broke us all apart. We were searching for Vegnagun."
"And it almost destroyed Spira."
In her voice, he hears potential condemnation. "I tried to lead Bevelle, Paine. It was hard enough keeping the remains of Yevon together." The defense is reversed, implied. She was not leading a political party. She was free to roam. "We all did what we could at the time. Isn't it enough that everyone's alive now?"
Even as he formulates that parry, Baralai knows how easily the truth could be different. It is a small miracle that everyone who entered the Farplane made it out again. Cities had not been destroyed. Vegnagun had not gone wild and leveled port-towns in a mimicry of Sin.
Paine must be equally aware. She clears her throat. Once, twice. Her words are swallowed after the second and she struggles with them, uncomfortable with having to expose herself through open discussion.
"I think I'm... concerned that another fight will start between us all."
Concerned. Not afraid. He knows how hard it is for her to admit that kind of sentiment, so he does not focus upon it. He lets it pass.
"Why do you think it might?"
"Nooj asks me sometimes... when I visit the Youth League." Mention of the Deathseeker causes Baralai to tense, but Paine does not seem to notice. "About what I'm going to do with myself. Where I'll be. If I'll stay in Bevelle. Gippal does too, but I don't think he minds. All three of you are major political figures. Spira is so poorly balanced already. Can we afford another conflict?"
He is very still. What Paine says does not add up. It is uncustomary for her to debate in such a fashion. Grasping at straws, a question forms, hesitantly incredulous. "You're afraid that we'll be upset if you spend more time with one of us than another?"
Paine's answer, when it comes, is so brief that he almost misses it.
He does not know if he should frown or laugh. The concern is miniscule. You don't honestly think we'd fight over you ever at the cost of Spira, he thinks, but does not say. That isn't what she wants to hear. It probably wasn't what she meant. "You are not going to single-handedly destroy the world, Paine." After he speaks, he realizes how belittling that might sound, finishing it up with haste. "What is it that's really bothering you?"
At first it seems as if she will refuse to speak. Paine hates being pressed; forcing her to talk is an act of futility. Then her nose wrinkles, and she fights against her own stubbornness, her words marching out in an impassive rush. "I'm not sure what to do. Yuna made her second chance. Even down to the end, it would have meant the death of you guys just to try and stop Vegnagun. I didn't have any ideas. If it hadn't been for Yuna, Nooj would have gone off to his death again after shooting you, and who knows if even that would have worked."
Nooj had planned on shooting him?
Bullet-dreams whisper in his body. Baralai goes quiet again, as he does often these days, the self-defense of a predator that has learned there are creatures it is but a snack for. "I... didn't know that." On his back, a knot of old scar tissue burns. "Then... we owe the Lady Yuna even more for reminding us that there are other ways than violent desperation."
He says the words. He doesn't feel them.
Instead, Baralai thinks of reports on his desk. He remembers wondering if Yu Yevon spent just as many nights sitting up late, watching the stars wax and die and no solutions found by the time morning came.
Did Yuna have these same problems? In those long two years, did she ever once despair, find the futility in her quest? Baralai does not know if she fought, wept, raged, but the truth is that Tidus has returned even past the impossibility of death. Vegnagun, hidden for centuries, has been destroyed.
Sin is gone.
His finger taps Paine upon the forehead. She looks, at first, as if she will snap it off, but then the tension unmakes her anger.
"What did the Lady Yuna suggest, Paine?"
"To follow... "Flushing, clearly vexed, Paine frowns. Her lips twist as she grits out the sentimental phase so alien to her own nature. "To... follow my heart."
They are both silent.
Baralai mulls the slice of idealism. He should not be surprised by the things the High Summoner believes in--so simple, it's almost clumsy, but she is too experienced to be truly naive. Frequently, Baralai wonders how Yuna has managed to survive for this long.
"What does your heart say?"
Paine relents in the face of her least favorite enemy. Emotions are not her forte. They irritate her. "It says to keep looking for a way to make it all work out."
Her hand moves into his. Against the coffee of Baralai's skin, Paine's fingers are curls of cream. Her knuckles fit exactly against the curve of his palm.
Baralai thinks about Yuna's advice, and then about the alternatives. The ghost of Yu Yevon flickers in his mind, alongside the specter of Zanarkand's stadium. Could there be a way to keep peace in Spira? The idea is impossible. But it would not be the first.
Pyrefly nights laugh at him, but Baralai pushes them aside. He focuses on the woman in his arms. She is alive. And so is he. So are Gippal and Nooj, the priests of New Yevon, the Youth League's former Crusaders. Sphere hunters and news reporters alike remain on Spira. The Guado have returned to their city.
"We owe the Lady Yuna," he repeats, this time to himself in reminder. The thought does not banish his fears, but it might someday. "We owe her for hope."
Paine stirs against him, turning her head up as she tries to decipher if what she heard was correct. "What was that, Baralai?"
He smiles at her, and at last, his mind begins to ease.
"Just that I love you."