Thunder crackled, lighting up the sky to strike down only feet away as a hesitant boom roared throughout the Thunder Plains. Paine didn't even flinch as the rock before her was struck and scarred with dark black. Her attention was focused elsewhere, on the object in her palms. The blue firestone pendant glinted from the light of the occasional flashes, alluring. The chain fell loosely behind it, the fine-crafted metal coils escaping in-between her fingers to dangle precariously near the ground. Paine's gaze was glued to the shimmering, deep blue pendant at the edge of the chain that rest calmly in her palm.
It was a sacred keepsake that her parents had given her, much like the sword she always carried, strapped to her side. Paine almost never removed the pendant, only at times of peace when she could be alone and stare into the blue stone, wondering about her past. She had never known her parents; she'd been given to guardians almost immediately after her birth, not that she would remember. Raised among the Ronso tribes, she was made into a Warrior, trained from birth to defend herself and give trust only sparingly. She was a fast learner and quickly became an excellent Warrior, at age seven she was given the sword of her father.
"You're soaked! It's freezing! You trying to catch your death or what?" Paine broke her gaze away from the stone and crumpled both stone and chain up tightly in her fist. Rikku promptly sat down next to her on the same stone, shoving her aside a little so there was room. "What'cha doing out here anyway?"
Paine didn't lift her gaze from her fist, absently tightening her grip on the stone. "Just thinking."
"Ooh, I want in into the psyche of Paine!" Paine's eyes lifted slightly to give Rikku a raised eyebrow. "Aww, come on! We're buddies now, right? Please?"
Over the course of their sphere hunting journey, Paine had bonded with both Rikku and Yuna. She let them in more than she had let anybody since the Crimson Squad days. It was nice, having friends she could rely on and not being alone anymore. Somehow, through all Rikku's girlish behavior and Yuna's thick, sticky past, they had found a way to break through Paine's defenses. She trusted them, considered them close. Despite the fact they sometimes annoyed her with the constant energy and positive vibrations, they had stuck with her. "I was thinking of home." Paine relented, "I'd like to go back and visit them."
"The Ronsos?" Rikku asked. She wasn't too familiar with Paine's past; Paine hadn't always been open to her and Yuna.
"Yeah." Paine sighed, thinking of her guardians. "I haven't stopped to visit for a while. I mean, I know we helped out Kimahri, but I didn't speak with the others."
"Were you…" Rikku fumbled with how to phrase it. "Were you actually raised by the Ronsos?" Paine nodded slightly and Rikku jumped with elation. "So that's why you're always so reserved and serious-like!"
The edges of Paine's mouth quirked upwards in amusement. "How long have you wondered?" She asked softly, her smile spanning out a little more.
"Ever since I picked you up! I just didn't know how to ask, you were never so open or anything. Yuna owes me a thousand gil!"
"You were making bets?" Paine was torn between the urge to laugh or slap Rikku.
Rikku reddened and kicked at the ground. "Yeah, well…it was Yuna's fault. She said you couldn't possibly be with the Ronso 'cause your not blue or furry and you don't have a tail, you know? But then I said…wait." Something occurred to Rikku as she stared down at Paine. "You're not blue or furry…"
"You just noticed?" Paine chuckled softly. It felt good to laugh, she rarely laughed. The Ronso were great guardians, but they never exactly felt the need for humor and since her Crimson Squad days, she hadn't had much to laugh about.
"But then…you're not Ronso, are you?" Paine shook her head, half-smiling.
Rikku deflated. "Damnit, I owe Yuna a thousand gil…" She kicked at the stone again. "Hey…what are you then?"
Paine's eyes lingered on her still-clenched fist before she shrugged. "Don't know. Never knew my parents." She tried to throw it off in a careless manner, but didn't quite manage to pull it off. Rikku saw her clenched fists and tightened jaw. She bit her lower lip.
"It's fine." Paine might be more open than she had been before, but some subjects were not to be discussed. "I'm going to stay here a little while longer, okay? You go ahead and pick up the gang. I'll be here."
Rikku began chewing on her bottom lip. "Okay…"
"I'll be fine, Rikku. I just need some time."
"Okay…" Rikku didn't sound convinced, but she hesitantly left anyway, casting a look over her shoulder at Paine's hunched form. Paine released the fist she had been holding and carefully drew away the pendant with her other hand. There was a small, red imprint of a sword in the middle of her palm. Had that always been there? Paine frowned and turned the stone over in her hand. There was no sword on the stone. Paine's gaze flicked between her palm and the blue firestone. She brought her hand close to her face to study the imprint, but other than the outline, Paine couldn't make out anything in the middle. It was too small to tell. She shook her head and put the necklace back on.
Paine stood and flinched at the chill of her hair against her head. It really was freezing; she had been too warped in her memories to tell. Fighting against the onslaught of rain and harsh-blowing wind, Paine began to make her way to the Al Bhed traveling center in the middle of the Thunder Plains.
She was halfway there before a familiar 'click-click' against stone warned her of something else. By the time she registered the 'click-click' noise, it was too late. Not five feet in front of her, a flash-bomb exploded and her eyes seared. White enveloped her vision before she blinked and everything around her went black. Instinctively, Paine fumbled at her waist to draw her sword, but her attackers got to her first. A hard blow to the shoulders knocked her back, making her heel catch against a stone behind her. She fell heavily and long fingered hands soon found their way onto her shoulders. Guado were attacking her!
Blinded, Paine lashed out desperately and her fist made contact with something fleshy. An 'oomf' was heard above her before someone else yelled. "You idiot!" Something hard, a boot? smashed into her stomach and pressed down hard. All the air rushed out of Paine's lungs and she choked for a moment. She tried to kick up at the attacker, but soon after a heavy weight fell on her legs too, rendering them useless.
"Check her palm!" More long-fingered hands grabbed her, taking her arm and bending it back. Paine didn't know what was going on, but would rebuke anything that happened. She closed her palm into a tight fist as the long, unmistakably Guado fingers tried to pry her fist apart.
Another blow struck her across the head and Paine's head swam. She struggled to hold onto consciousness, for fear of what would happen to her should she fail, but it was a loosing battle. She felt her hand relax and open at the prying Guado's fingers. A distant, small voice whispered. "It's her…" Paine could hold on no longer. Her head fell back against the rock and she fell into the merciless depths of unconsciousness.
He searched the tent desperately. She wasn't wearing it; it had to be somewhere in here. He had watched her enter the tent with it on and exit without it. If only he could find it, the whole thing would go to hell if he could just find it. With the two pieces forever separated, one with an unsent and one with her, they would never be able to choose a key. Paine would never be in danger of becoming that key. The Farplane would remain as it was and those who were deceased would remain dead. If only he could find the locket!
Searching frantically, he threw aside a box he'd just emptied before moving on to a second crate, one buried under random potions and stacks of clothes. Nearly ripping the lid off, he sighed in relief. The bluestone fire pendant shone at him brightly, glittering in the catches of sunlight.
A shadow fell over his back. Smiling grimly, the man turned—to behold a most frightening sight indeed. He only got a flash, a mere glimpse before a loud cry broke the air. "THIEF!" Sword already raised, the leather clad Warrior sliced down in a fluid, quick motion.
He only had half a second to think about it. Throwing himself back, the sword sliced straight across his right eye, from his forehead to his cheek. Pain exploded through his head as blood crawled into the now-useless eye. Blinded by the pain and frantic in his quest, he lashed out forcibly and his boot connected with something fleshy.
Paine grunted as she was kicked harshly in the stomach, thrown back against a side of the tent. The tent ripped and nearly threw her out into the fierce, icy winds of Mt. Gagazet.
The thief lunged for the tent flap and made it outside, clutching at his eye before Paine bowled him over. They wrestled in the snow until the thief claimed the upper hand and landed a sharp blow to Paine's jaw. Paine's head flipped back at the force of the blow and blood filled her mouth, nearly choking her.
For half a second, the thief stared, torn with a feeling of pity. That was his downfall. Spitting out a mouthful of blood, Paine reared her head back and slammed it against his own. That, combined with his already freely bleeding eye injury, caused the thief to jerk back and clutch at his eye once more. Paine quickly flipped him over so that she was on top of him and grabbed the necklace from his twitching fingers.
Rolling off him, Paine stumbled to her feet, but quickly fell down again against the beating she had taken. Crawling on her knees, she scurried away and left the man there. Not fourty feet away, she choked on another mouthful of blood and fell limply to the ground, shivering against the fierce wind. Her eyes shut tightly as her fist grasped the necklace in a deathhold, she gingerly closed her eyes and felt no more.
A dull throbbing at the back of her head was the first thing Paine noticed as she came into consciousness. The more Paine came into consciousness, the more the throbbing grew into a tiresome ache that screamed throughout her mind, making her wish she could simply go back to sleep.
Slowly, the events before her falling unconscious gradually became clearer in her mind. Paine groaned ungracefully and blinked furiously, her cloudy thoughts and memories becoming vivid and painfully clear. She had been in the Thunder Plains with Rikku…no, Rikku had left and she was going to the Al Bhed travel station when…Paine jerked in bed and opened her eyes wide-to no avail, only seeing a familiar darkness enshrouding her vision. Something was covering her eyes. She sat up stiffly and instinctively reached for her blade. "Don't worry. You're safe now." The voice sounded unnaturally loud and hurt Paine's ears, she barely registered the words. Paine flinched and two hands pressed upon her shoulders. Remembering the day before, Paine fought against her unseen assailant, flailing this way and that.
"Calm down!" The stern, loud voice shouted in a much darker tone. "You're safe now!" Paine didn't believe them. She struggled all the more against her assailant before a familiar voice broke the other woman's.
"Paine! Stop! You're hurting her!" Paine recognized the voice, it was Rikku. She let go of the woman in front of her as the lightweight sat down, tilting the bed slightly. "Lay down." Rikku commanded. When Paine didn't immediately comply, Rikku gave her a little push. "Come on, you're not going to heal by attacking your savior. Relax, you're okay now."
Paine laid back slowly and closed her unseeing eyes. "What happened?"
"You were attacked by Guado outside the Thunder Plains. Lulu was coming back from a visit to Rin and she saw the Guado attacking you. She fought them off and called us back to bring you to Besaid so that you could get proper medical treatment."
Paine blinked. "Lulu?" She had heard that name somewhere before… "Yuna's friend?"
"The one you just nearly strangled, yes, that's the one." Rikku assured her.
Paine had the decency to look sheepish, despite her eyes being covered. "Sorry."
"It's alright." Paine couldn't see the owner of the voice, but she suspected it was Lulu. A distant memory of the black mage formed in her mind. Paine reached up and began fidgeting with the eye-covering.
Rikku slapped her hand away. "Don't touch that. Do you want to stay blind? Just leave it be for now."
Paine withdrew her hand and tried to turn her head towards Rikku. "How long have I been out?"
"Just a few hours. It'll take your eyes about an hour more to heal, but you should stay in bed and rest. You took quite a beating." Something cold was pressed upon Paine's stomach and Paine inhaled deeply in surprise. "It'll make the bruising go away." Rikku explained simply. "I'm glad you're okay Paine, we were worried for awhile there…"
Clunk, clunk, clunk. The sound of material moving was distant as heavy footfalls came nearer. "Is she…" Nooj asked cautiously.
"She'll be okay." Rikku assured him.
"She took a bad beating, she needs to rest." Lulu explained.
"Can we stop talking about me like I'm not awake?" Paine grumbled irritably.
"Paine!" Nooj stepped forward, making another loud clank as his machina leg stepped down. "Are you alright?" Something warm and fleshy gripped her hand.
"I'm fine." Paine answered distractedly, her tone sharpening. "Nooj, look at my hand."
Nooj let go of her hand. "Sorry," He apologized, misinterpreting her, "Was just concerned an-"
"No, you idiot." Paine rolled her unseeing eyes, glad that she was blindfolded. "Look at my hand, my palm. Is there something there?"
Paine held up her hand for him in his general direction and Nooj's metallic fingers curved around her hand, guiding them to the light where he could see. Nooj frowned, squinting at her hand. "Yeah, there is…" He trailed off as lighter footfalls could be heard behind him.
"Whoa, Paine! When'd she get a tattoo?" Gippal's voice was clearly distinguishable as he moved aside the flap and entered the already-crowded tent.
"It's not a tattoo." Paine bit out aggressively.
"Paine! You're awake!" The next thing Paine knew, arms encircled her and pulled her up from her comfortable position to one that was less so. Her stomach screamed in protest to the torture of the jerky movement and encompassing hug while something heavy sprawled across her legs.
"Hey!" Rikku's protest was somewhat muffled, "Get offa her, you're gunna crush her!" Seconds later the extra weight was removed and Paine huffed in heavily, drawing in a great breath of air.
"Baralia-" she somewhat choked to get the words out, "I'm going to kill you." She gritted her teeth. "You're on my legs, Gippal."
She could practically see Gippal's 'innocent' smile. "Oh, was I? My bad." He moved off her legs, but sat on the edge of the cot, moving aside her feet to make room for himself.
Paine breathed in again and two hands pressed back against her shoulders, making her lie down. Paine grunted as her stomach roared in protest to the movement. Rikku's voice was reprimanding. "It's not like she's got several broken ribs or anything! Just jump on her, why don't ya!"
"Sorry." Baralia sounded sheepish.
"Paine." Nooj's metallic fingers were cold against her hand. "What is this?" he asked, she assumed he meant her palm.
"I don't know."
"What do ya mean, you don't know? It's a sweet ass tattoo that you must have got when you were drunk sometime!" Gippal answered simply, giving the symbol merely a passing glance.
"I don't drink." Paine snapped back.
Gippal chuckled. "What about that one time in the Squad when Baralia and me-"
Paine's jaw tightened as Baralia flushed darkly and protested immediately. "You made me!"
"What happened?" Rikku asked anxiously, dropping the nice role of caretaker and instead reaching for gooey details.
"Nothing." Paine spoke before anyone else could, cutting off the subject. Nooj and Baralia looked hugely relieved and Gippal just smiled openly.
"Touchy, aren't you?"
"'I don't drink.'" Gippal mocked.
"What happened?!" Rikku bounced excitedly.
"I'll tell you later." Gippal assured her.
"No you won't." Paine would have glared at him, if it had not been for her blindfold.
"Who's going to stop me?" Gippal chuckled. "Not you, miss stuck-in-bed." He playfully poked her stomach, just for emphasis and Paine groaned.
"Hey!" Rikku protested, going back to caretaker form now that she knew she'd be getting the details. "Don't do that! She's healing!"
"As fun as it's been for all of you to torture Paine…" Lulu gave each of them a sharp look. "She needs her rest. You can talk with her later when she's all better." With that, one by one, everybody, including Rikku, was shooed out of the hut so that Paine could 'get her rest'. Paine sighed dejectedly and fell limp against the cot.
Lulu shuffled around the cottage softly as Paine began to fall asleep. After awhile of small chores, Paine's breathing began coming in a regular pattern and Lulu took it that Paine had fallen asleep. Sitting on an old crate, Lulu watched the blindfolded girl's chest rise and fall steadily. She was truly glad she had been there in the Thunder Planes to help the Warrior. If she hadn't have been…Lulu shook her head.
Her eyes followed up Paine's resting form to her face and a small smile graced her lips. Paine was gorgeous. Her chin jutted out just right, not too prominent, but not too short, leading up to high, almost shallow cheekbones that framed a small, rarely smiling mouth. Above that, covered by the blindfold and closed eyes, usually glaring crimson eyes sparkled beautifully against her pale face. Unusual for one so young, her silver hair glistened in its short, upheld way.
Lulu smiled sadly and came closer to Paine, kneeling at the side of the cot. Gently, ever so softly, she touched Paine's hand. Paine shivered slightly, but didn't appear to wake up. Slowly, she turned Paine's hand over lightly and traced over the mark on her palm. "I'm sorry…" Her fingers danced over Paine's palm where the symbol was. Her voice was soft, a low whisper that wouldn't carry past the tent's entrance. "Forgive me, Paine."
The warmth of her hand left Paine's palm as Paine's eyes shot open, still obscured by the blindfold. "What?"
No answer came back to her, Lulu was gone.