A/N: What was Paine up to between the events of the Crimson Spheres and the game? One possible interpretation. Paine/Berrik. This is a sequel to "One More Confessional" but is also meant to stand alone. No outright spoilers for FFX-2, but lots of hints at them.
Note that, when Al Bhed characters are speaking to one another, they speak their own language. I thought about entering the dialog in Al Bhed and then providing translations, but I felt that interrupted the flow of the story too much. You should be able to pick up on which language is being used from context.
Disclaimer: Characters, concepts, and settings from Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy X-2 are copyright Square-Enix.
"Well, that's it for me," said Eigaar. He stood up from the table where Nimrook and Berrik still sat. The Al Bhed Psyches had come to this pub following a hard-fought loss to the Kilika Beasts. The win had all but assured the Beasts of a top finish this season -- they had been neck and neck with the Besaid Aurochs for the first couple of months, but then the Aurochs had suffered a collapse after the defeat of Sin, which had cost them their star player. Now the Luca Goers were rising, but they seemed unlikely to catch Kilika. The Beasts had bought the Psyches a round of drinks after today's game, but that had been hours ago, and the islanders and their hangers-on had all left by now. All save one.
"Hey." Nimrook nudged Berrik and gestured into a dark corner of the pub. "She's still here."
"So she is," Berrik replied, his tone deliberately neutral. There had been no need for Nimrook to point out the Beasts' recorder, who sat alone, nursing a drink at a small, half-hidden table. He had noticed Paine as soon as she walked in. Actually, he noticed his former lover at every game, and he also noticed her walking the streets of Luca, following the Kilika team as was her duty. But he hadn't spoken to her, not once, since her sudden reappearance well into the blitz season. And he'd tried not to think about her. But tonight that was proving to be impossible -- he kept glancing over to her table, making certain she was still there. She'd speak to the other recorders and the members of the Beasts that dropped by, but she didn't seek out company, and no one stayed for long. She seemed drawn within herself, her eyes rarely leaving the table, her hands curled around the glass.
"So? You guys coming or not?" Eigaar asked, crossing his arms.
"Yeah, sure," said Nimrook as he stood. "Berrik?"
Berrik looked up at his teammates. "You go ahead. I'll see you later."
Nimrook and Eigaar exchanged knowing looks. "Okay," Eigaar said. "See you at practice tomorrow." And with that, they left.
It took Berrik a few moments to gather his courage to walk up to the bar.
"What'll it be?" The bartender, who had been wiping down the counter, threw the cloth over his shoulder.
Berrik indicated Paine's table. "Two of whatever she's having," he answered in proficient but heavily accented Spiran. "One for me, and send the other over to her."
The bartender nodded. "Two brandies, coming up." He poured the drinks, then handed one glass to Berrik. He sat on the barstool, his body facing forward, head turned to the side so that he could observe as the bartender walked over to Paine's table and handed her the drink. Paine followed the bartender's arm as it pointed in his direction. His pulse picked up, and he felt a flush creeping up the back of his neck as she looked at him. He was glad for his ever-present goggles -- they would hide his expression, keep her from seeing how nervous he was.
He heard her thank the bartender. Then she drank, and he silently relaxed in relief -- the gesture, at least, had been accepted. He turned back to his own glass and sipped at it. This beverage was new to him, but he liked it. Strong, yet somehow soothing. He took another drink and settled in to wait, thinking.
When the blitzball season had started, there had been a great deal of gossip about the absence of seven recorders. Speculation had only intensified when Paine alone had returned, over a month late and utterly unwilling to talk about where she had been. "On special assignment" was all she would say when asked, and she refused to give even a hint about the fate of the other six recorders. It was a mystery, and it seemed likely to remain so.
As Berrik considered what little information he had, he occasionally glanced over to Paine's table, looking for a sign that his presence would be welcome. It took awhile, but eventually one of these glances was met as Paine nodded and waved him over. Slowly, carefully, unwilling to betray any eagerness, Berrik walked over to the table and sat down in the seat across from hers, empty glass in hand. "Hi," he said.
"Hi," she replied. "Thanks for the drink."
"You're welcome. Want another?"
She shrugged. "Sure."
Berrik waved down a waitress. "Bring the whole bottle," he said, pressing several coins into her hand. She returned shortly with the brandy, and Berrik refreshed Paine's glass before pouring more for himself.
Paine took a long draught from the glass, then set it down and looked straight at him. "I'm sorry I disappeared on you before."
He shrugged. "We never said we'd wait for each other."
"Still." She dropped her eyes. "I'm sorry. If I made you worry."
"Paine, that's not why I'm here."
She looked up again. "Why are you here then?"
Berrik pushed the goggles off his face, letting them hang around his neck, then smiled at his ex-girlfriend. "Thought you might need a friend. That's all." He sat back in his chair. "You don't have to apologize for anything. We don't even need to talk if you don't want to."
A small smile finally appeared on her face. "Thanks. Again." She refilled both glasses, and the pair settled into companionable silence.
Two hours later, the pub had closed, and Berrik walked Paine home. They traced the well-remembered path to her apartment, neither touching nor speaking, the space around them comfortable and familiar. As she entered her rooms, Paine left the door open, and he took that as an invitation to come inside, following her into the small kitchen where she set down her camera on the counter. He had easily drunk half the bottle of brandy, but his mind was perfectly clear, and he knew beyond all doubt what he wanted. She stood before him, her stance slightly unsteady, her expression unreadable. He decided to take a chance, and he stepped close, wrapping his arms around her.
He had anticipated a number of possible reactions, but he could never have predicted the one he got: she burst into tears. Sudden, hot tears, pouring down her face, accompanied by thick, choking sobs, so loud that he thought the neighbors might even be able to hear.
Without any words, almost without thought, Berrik gathered her up and pulled her off her feet, against his chest. Surprising, how lightweight she felt -- Paine had always been thin, but her wiry frame had once supported sleek, steely muscle. Now she seemed to have wasted away, as if she had stopped training, and perhaps eating at well. But this was not the time for wondering why. Instead, he gently laid her in her bed, removing her boots, and then joined her after kicking off his own shoes and pulling his goggles off. She had curled into a tiny ball, sobbing and moaning, so he nestled against her back, holding her in his arms, pressing his face into her hair, stiff and fragrant with gel. The same gel he had introduced her to, back when they'd first met, nearly a year and a half ago.
For a long time they lay there, Paine crying her heart out, Berrik just holding her. He said nothing -- what was there to say? This was true grief, bone-deep and wrenching. Paine had lost something important to her, and whatever it was could never be replaced. He knew, because he recognized in her helpless weeping his feelings about the destruction of Home and the deaths of so many of his people. There were no words that would console her, and she had never been impressed by meaningless endearments. Silence was best. After a time, she rolled over, burying her face in his chest, her tears beading up on his waterproof blitz uniform. He continued to hold her, now stroking her hair and back with calm, strong movements. Eventually, her cries subsided, and they just lay together, silent and still.
After what seemed like a long time, Berrik felt Paine shift against him. The movement was slight, subtle, but suddenly he noticed her breasts brushing against his chest and her hips pressing into his. Up to that moment, there had been nothing sexual or suggestive about sharing a bed with her; he had simply been one human being comforting another. But now a frisson of desire passed through him, and his breath quickened. One hand slipped lower down his back and the other found its way into his hair. And she pulled her head back and looked into his eyes, and he saw the same desire in her own.
"Please," she said softly, the first coherent word she had spoken since leaving the pub.
By instinct and memory, his hands found the snaps and laces that held her leathers in place while his mouth dropped down to hers. Her fingers worked at the zippers of his uniform, and before long they were naked in one another's arms, kissing fiercely. Paine rolled them over, pulling Berrik down on top of her and wrapping her legs around his back.
"Are you…" he started to murmur against her mouth.
"Please," she whispered again.
He slipped into her, the feeling of her instantly familiar, as if he had never left. And they began to move together, fast and hard. At the same time, his hand found her face and, with the backs of his fingers, he traced her brow and her cheeks and her lips, gently, tenderly. Her eyes closed, and she sighed, her hands gripping his back so tightly, as if she were drowning and using him as the anchor to pull herself back to dry land. His fingers drifted lower, and soon they found release together. He collapsed on top of her with a soft groan, and she buried her fingertips in his hair, where they lightly caressed his scalp. They lay like that, still joined, for a long time, as Berrik drifted into a pleasant stupor.
Eventually, she gently pushed him off, then curled against his side. "Thank you," she murmured into his ear.
"Anytime," he just managed to say before sleep finally claimed him.
Berrik woke with a start the next morning, both disoriented and feeling that he was in totally familiar surroundings. This was explained when he rolled over and saw Paine, sleeping next to him, her face peaceful, and the events of the previous night returned to him. He ran a gentle hand over her brow, pushing disheveled hair out of her eyes, and she opened them with a smile.
"Hello," she said.
"I have to get to practice," he said. "I'm late."
She stretched her arms over her head. "You're still team captain, aren't you? Practice starts when you say it does."
He chuckled. "Can't set a bad example." He paused, then took a deep breath. "This was nice."
"It was," she replied, touching his face lightly.
He asked the question before he could think too much about what he was saying. "Can I see you again?"
She looked at him for a moment, considering. Then she nodded. "I'd like that."
He let out a breath he hadn't realized he was holding. "I'll find you this evening?" She responded by sitting up and kissing him. Reluctantly breaking away, he dressed, then left.
Spira's blitz season runs from mid-summer to early spring. Many professional blitzers spend the off months at home -- relaxing, reconnecting with family, taking the occasional practice. But for the Al Bhed Psyches, the off-season means only one thing: assignment to a salvage ship. Berrik had secured places for himself and all five of his starting line aboard the Leviathan, the largest and most prestigious ship in the Al Bhed fleet. The players would spend their days diving for ancient wreckage, exploring uncharted islands, and scouring Spira for anything the Al Bhed can use for construction or research. This year, finding scrap metal and other building materials would be particularly important, because Cid's determination to rebuild Home meant he needed everything his people could get their hands on. At the same time, Berrik planned to take advantage of the easy access to water and continue drilling his players in blitz -- regular practices, even during the off-season, had been part of the Psyches regimen ever since he became team captain. His predecessor in the role, Brother, had been an excellent player but lacked discipline entirely, so team cohesion had been non-existent. He believed that a return to teamwork was all his players needed to become the best in Spira. The team had ultimately finished fourth, behind the Aurochs by a single game, and he was certain they could do much better next season.
The last game had been played, and the team would be leaving in two days. Berrik stood on the dock and watched the ship steam into Luca, Paine by his side. The two of them had slipped back into something very much like a relationship with ease. It was almost as though the last year had never passed, the only changes being Paine's refusal to discuss the missing time and a tendency for her to withdraw unexpectedly. But then she had never been particularly gregarious, so the difference was subtle. And Berrik had always appreciated her reserved, thoughtful demeanor anyway -- he found it a welcome change from the outgoing, sometimes obnoxious Al Bhed girls he had known.
"Looking forward to the trip?" Paine asked.
He shrugged. "Anything for the rebuilding effort. It's going to take all of us to get Home back on her feet."
"It sounds like fun," she said, her tone a touch wistful. "Months on a boat, roaming the ocean, getting away from the city and other people."
Berrik had been hoping this opportunity might present itself, and he seized it. "Want to come?"
Paine looked at him, surprised. "Could I?" she asked. "But what would I do? I'm no blitzer -- I can't hold my breath nearly long enough to dive for wreckage. And then I'd have no idea what do with it when I got there."
"There's breathing machina," he said. "And we need guards, people to keep an eye out for fiends, although with Sin gone I guess there's less danger than there used to be. But we can still always use extra hands."
"Hmm." Paine stared out to sea, thoughtful. "I'm pretty out of shape, and I've never really fought underwater. Not sure how much use I would be."
"You'll have plenty of time to train on the ship. Look at it as an opportunity to get back into fighting form." He turned to face her, taking both of her hands in his. "Will you come?"
A slow smile spread across her face. "Well, it sure beats just hanging around Luca for months. All right. Get me a place on the ship, and I'll be happy to join you."
The Leviathan had finished docking, and the gangway settled into place. Berrik leaned in for a quick kiss. "Let's go talk to the captain now."
Later that night, Berrik found himself in Paine's apartment, watching her pack for the trip. He had convinced the captain to take Paine on as a guard, although getting the woman to accept a non-Al Bhed as crew had taken some doing. "All right, fine," she had said in the end, "but we're not coddling her. She'll use machina like the rest of us. And don't expect me to speak that stupid language of hers. I don't know more than a few words anyway."
To Berrik's surprise, Paine had replied in Al Bhed before he could soften the words in translation. "It's not a stupid language, but fine. And as for the machina, no problem there. I'd bet I can shoot almost as well as any of you."
The captain had laughed and slapped Paine on the back. "Welcome aboard."
Now Berrik looked at Paine. "Your Al Bhed got a lot better," he commented.
"Yes, it did." She responded in the flat tone that he had already learned meant there would be no more discussion of a particular topic. He took the hint and went back to observing in silence. The bag Paine had chosen was small, and it already contained the necessities: a few changes of clothes, a selection of weapons -- Berrik recognized her pistol as the one he had given her as a gift for her sixteenth birthday last year -- and a collection of various potions and remedies.
"Are you prepared for long days in full sun?" he asked. "We'll be on the water or in the desert most of the time, and-- "
"Skin protection, I know," she interrupted. "I'm so fair, I have to be really careful about that. I have some sunscreen and burn salve, although it's getting old. I'll drop by the shops tomorrow before we go, pick up some more just in case."
Berrik held his tongue, but naturally this statement made him even more curious. Improved shooting abilities, near-fluency in Al Bhed, experience with boat and desert travel, a stock of sunscreen… had Paine spent the missing time on Bikanel? What could have possibly taken her there?
Paine zipped up her bag and turned to him, her expression becoming serious as she saw the questions in his eyes. "Hey. I know you must be curious about what happened. And I really appreciate that you haven't asked me. The fact is that I'm not ready to talk about it, and I may never be ready. So I need to know if you can handle that. Because if not, this is going to be a long trip."
Shaking his head, Berrik sat on the bed next to her duffel. "I understand," he said. "You know your secrets are safe with me if you want to share them. But they aren't any of my business, either. I can restrain my curiosity, I promise."
Paine sat down next to him. "Thanks," she said, resting her head on his shoulder. "I'm glad you're here."
He dropped a small kiss on her forehead. "Me too."
She looked up at him, her expression shifting into a teasing smile. "Shall we take advantage of our last night on solid ground?"
In answer, he swept the duffel off the bed and onto the floor, then proceeded to not restrain himself in any way.