Spoilers: Minor and vague, for their backstory
Notes: Totally frivolous. One of the central images from this story has been bouncing around in my head for a long time, but the complete story didn't decide to be written until recently.
Paine stared into the blackness of the forest trail. They had left their camp by the Moonflow early that morning; now it was noon, but the sun barely penetrated the dense canopy of trees ahead. "Are you sure you want to go in there?" It was impossible to see more than a few feet ahead, and the woods had fallen eerily quiet.
"Want has very little to do with it," Nooj replied. "There are reports of oddities throughout the forest, and they seem to be concentrated in this area. And it's my responsibility to take care of such things. If you are uncomfortable, you needn't join me."
Paine snorted. "You know what I say to that. Okay, onward." She led the way as she always did, doing her best to pick out a path free of sudden drops, loose stones, or other obstacles that would make Nooj's passage difficult. Together they walked through the ever-darkening forest, no sounds of animals or birds or even wind through the trees. Only Paine's quiet footfalls and Nooj's uneven, heavy steps broke the silence. After perhaps an hour of walking, they broke into a clearing, beams of sunshine piercing the canopy of leaves and catching the dust motes and pollen that floated in the light, along with streams of pyreflies that drifted in from the forest, more pyreflies than Paine had even seen outside of Zanarkand, or the Moonflow at dusk -- or the Den of Woe.
"Odd, to see so many pyreflies here," said Nooj, echoing Paine's thoughts. "We are some distance from both the river and the Farplane; I wonder where they came from?"
"Yes, I--" Paine turned and was robbed of breath as a cloud of the small lights enveloped Nooj. "What's happening?"
"I don't know, but-- Ah!" Nooj cried out and staggered, falling to one knee as more pyreflies joined their fellows in a thick glowing fog, hiding him from view. The sound of his cry broke Paine's paralysis, and she leapt into the cloud, grasped his hand, and yanked him forward, the two of them tumbling to the ground. The gathering of pyreflies dissipated as suddenly as it had appeared, and only a few remained to wend their way through the glade.
"Oh!" Paine jumped up, hands resting lamely at her sides, and once again she was rendered speechless.
Nooj, too, seemed beyond words as he held his left hand up to his face and clenched it into a fist, one finger at a time. Five living fingers, attached to an arm made of flesh and bone. Gingerly, he touched that hand with the other and let out a slow breath of amazement.
"Is it real?" Paine asked, her tone hushed, afraid that loud words might somehow break the spell.
He said nothing, only stood up with the help of his new left leg, also somehow made whole, and reached for her, cupping her cheek with the left hand. She leaned into his palm, as large and strong as the other, warm, slightly calloused from years of holding a sword. At that thought she pulled away, realizing that, as much as he might want to touch her, there was something else that he probably wanted even more.
Taking care to leave enough room, she took another two steps back and freed her sword from the scabbard tied to her back. Then she laid it flat across her arms and presented it to Nooj with a small bow. "Captain?"
She could see him swallow before taking the sword by its hilt, his hands trembling with solemn excitement. He took a few practice swings, and the sword became an extension of his arms as he transitioned into the standard drill, his movements clean and graceful, the natural talent remaining despite years without practice. It was like watching a dancer at one with his art, and Paine drank in the sight. When he had finished, he closed his eyes and raised his arms to point the blade at the sky, and then he turned to Paine.
"If only we had two," he murmured with a guarded smile. "So often I have dreamed of sparring with you."
She returned the smile tentatively. "It's not... evil, is it? Wrong?"
Nooj lowered the sword and set it aside, propping it against the nearest tree, and ran his right hand over his leg, left bare by the pants that had been cut to accommodate the machina. "I don't think so," he said. "See the scar below the knee? That happened when I was five -- I was running down the beach, tripped, tore my leg open on a rock. This is my leg, exactly as it was before Sin took it from me. And I can't feel the machina any more." He frowned slightly. "I don't know why this has happened, but it doesn't feel evil or wrong. Certainly not like the cave."
"Do you think it will last?" Paine asked.
"Who can say?" Nooj crossed the glade in a few long steps and rested his hands on Paine's elbows, the look of contentment and wonder returned to his face. "But I intend to make the most of it while I can. There is so much, I don't know where to start. I want to run as far and as fast as I can. I want to swim in the Moonflow, I want to climb every tree in this forest, I want to battle fiends until I'm too tired to move, I want to hold you in both arms and never let you go. Ah, Paine, how wonderful it feels to touch you." His restored hand caressed her face again, sliding into her hair, running down her back and cupping her buttocks, pulling her tightly to him. She felt the arm around her back and the firm, warm muscles of his left leg pressing against her right. He gripped her close and buried his face in her hair. "My love," he whispered.
Pulling back enough to see his face, Paine looked into eyes that glowed with joy. "Yes," she said. Then she took his mouth in a kiss as his left hand found her breast and the two of them sank to the soft mossy ground.
Some time later, the pair had redressed and lay peacefully together, luxuriating in the feel of intertwined limbs and watching the pyreflies float past, no longer threatening in the late afternoon sun. Paine nestled into Nooj's left side, and he clasped her close with the renewed arm. "This is terribly irresponsible of us," she said dreamily.
Nooj chuckled and tightened his grip. "True. But perhaps I've earned an afternoon of irresponsibility."
"You have." Paine burrowed more closely into Nooj's chest. "I never want to leave."
He ruffled her hair. "But we must, I'm afraid. And soon; we only have a bit more light, and we need a source of water if we're to make camp."
"I know." Paine stood and brushed the dust off her clothes, then turned to see Nooj looking up at her, his expression serene.
"Even if this change is temporary, even if it all goes away the minute we step outside this glade, I am content," he said.
Paine cocked her head and gave him a skeptical glance. "Really?"
"Really." He leapt up from the ground in a single smooth motion. Paine still couldn't take her eyes from him; watching the ease of his movements was an unexpected treat. "I had never even dared dream of this much. Just the memory of this time is a gift, and I will treasure it."
"I'm glad." Paine sheathed her sword and picked up her pack as Nooj did the same, his rifle already slung over his right shoulder. She glanced at the cane, which still rested where it had fallen to the ground when the pyreflies first swarmed him. He followed her gaze, then looked back at her with a decisive headshake.
"Leave it," he said. "I feel like tempting fate today."
Paine smiled up at him, then held out her right hand, and he clasped it with his left, locking their fingers together with a brief caress. They returned to the path and followed it to the edge of the glade. He paused there, and she stopped with him, squeezing his hand tightly. "Ready?" she asked.
Nooj took a deep breath, then let it out with a nod. And together, they stepped out of the clearing and back into the forest.