Characters: Paine, Nooj
Pairings: Paine/Nooj. Sort of.
Spoilers: Not for the games; see notes.
Notes: This is a metafic for heyheyrenay's (most excellent and highly-recommended) story "The Damages of Loss", which was up to section 20 at the time I wrote this. My fic contains spoilers for that story -- definite spoilers through section 14, and vague hints for later segments. It also makes something plain that's only been hinted at so far. So bear that in mind before you decide what to read first. My story is set between the 14th and 15th sections.
I have been writing very little lately. I was starting to wonder if I was in a soaking-up period, given how much I've been reading and playing games the last few weeks. Then the first line of this story came to me while we were on Saturday's nighttime photo excursion. I wrote it down today so that I wouldn't forget it, and then the rest of this story pretty much appeared after it -- the first draft took me only a couple of hours. I'm fully aware that this could be jossed (i.e., completely contradicted by canon) in a manner of minutes, but sometimes a story demands to be written regardless.
Moonlight casts the darkest shadows.
Even on the brightest of days, you can see into the shadows -- shapes, movement, sometimes even color are revealed. But the nighttime shadows keep their secrets until they're banished, either by lantern-light or the rising sun.
Which explained why the Kilika shore looked more sinister to me now than it had when we'd arrived earlier in the day. High in the sky, the moon cast its light on the rocks beneath, making their jagged edges even more abrupt and adding an otherworldly air to the waves as they crashed into silver foam. I breathed deeply of the night air and leaned against the railing of the balcony and wondered what it would be like to swim in that mysterious surf, assuming it didn't break you into pieces.
Midnight had passed long ago, and I had thought everyone was asleep, so I'd expected to be alone. Still, it wasn't really a surprise when another black shadow appeared at my side, its owner making his identity known by the clack of his cane and the creak of his step.
"Thinking about going for a dip?"
I did not turn; even after all this time, Nooj could still read my thoughts, but I had no intention of letting him know that. "Just looking at the moonlight on the water. It's been a long time since I've seen a night like this."
"So it has."
My heart lurched and I swiveled to face him, checking whether the sharp note in his voice was echoed his face, but it wasn't. He just stood in the doorway and looked at me, expression bland, the effect heightened by the moonlight that glinted off his spectacles and hid whatever might be in his eyes. Once upon a time, I would have pulled them off to keep him from hiding behind them: snatched the frames off his nose, folded them up in my hand, and hidden them behind my back, and he would have tried to retrieve them while distracting me with a kiss, and we would have laughed together. Not anymore. Those easy days were gone. Instead, I crossed my arms and leaned back against the rail.
"Luca's coastline is a lot calmer," I said.
"I have no doubt." He shook his head. "But I prefer the crashing of waves to the quiet lapping of water tamed by a docking bay. I would have thought the same to be true of you."
"Maybe I got tired of storms." I spoke softly, but I knew that he had heard. But I didn't wait to check his reaction, instead turning around to look back at the sea.
He said nothing to that, but neither did he leave; it took him only a few steps to cross the balcony and join me at the rail, physically closer than he'd been in months. The air between us crackled with energy, with words unsaid and promises broken, and my heart rattled in my chest. I heard him take a deep breath and realized that he was just as affected as me, and it took all my will not to look at him, or to step sideways and wrap my arm about his waist. I forced myself to focus on the warm night air and on the relentless pounding of the surf. The repetitive sounds lulled me into a meditative state, and soon I was in control of myself again. For now.
"So." I heard him turn toward me, and I decided to trust myself to face him again. "What do you think of this business with Baralai?"
I raised an eyebrow. "Meaning what?"
He looked straight back at me. "Meaning, what do you think about it? You're observant, you're insightful, and you know him as well as anyone. I'm curious what your thoughts are on any aspect of the matter."
I shrugged. "Well, if you're wondering whether I buy it, the answer is yes. Not even Baralai could fake a memory loss that convincing. He certainly couldn't have faked today's fainting spell. And I don't know what he'd expect to get out of it anyway. Given that, I guess Gippal's plan is as good as anything."
"Assuming that helping him to remember is the right thing to do." Nooj shifted his weight, cane scraping against the flagstone floor.
"Right." I glanced at him sidelong. "I know the two of you disagree on that point."
Nooj nodded. "And your opinion?"
I thought for a moment. I'd been asking myself that for days now and still hadn't come up with a satisfactory answer. "I don't know," I finally said. "I don't know that we can ever learn to trust him again, either way. I don't care if he had the best reasons in the world for every terrible thing he did; it was still terrible. So maybe it wouldn't make any difference."
"Perhaps not." For just a second, his mouth turned upward, and I cocked my head to the side, studying him.
"What are you planning?" I asked.
"Nothing." He met my eyes, his gaze so calm as to be almost smug; I knew he was lying, and he knew that I knew it. But we both also knew that he wouldn't give up whatever secrets were hiding in his shadows. I didn't know whether to be more relieved that I could still read him, or irritated that he wouldn't confide in me. Then the moment passed, and Nooj looked into the night again, taking on a more pensive air. "Gippal seems desperate for an excuse to forgive him."
"Yeah." I turned as well, then felt his eyes back on me. "What?"
My hands tightened on the railing again. "I-- I don't-- I miss him. I miss him a lot." It hurt to make the admission, my throat tightening in rebellion as I pushed the words out. "Making this journey has reminded me just how much. But Baralai, he... he didn't just betray Gippal. You know that. He didn't just take the airship from Gippal. He took it from all of us. Including himself -- I can't imagine that he gets to fly on it much, or direct where it goes. I don't understand why he did it, and I don't know if I want to. I don't know if it matters." Releasing these words freed up others, and they rushed out in a torrent as I launched into the speech I had been holding back since before the last time I had walked out of this house. "And I don't understand why you wouldn't condemn him, why you kept talking to him, why you weren't there with Gippal when he tried to take back what was ours, why you didn't stand up for him in front of the council, why you didn't--" I stopped and swallowed the rest of the sentence. Anything more, and I was likely to lose control and deck him. Or collapse into tears on his shoulder. Or both.
"So that's why you left." His reply was almost too soft to hear.
I dropped my head and responded in kind. "I thought you knew that."
He sighed, deep and shuddering, and he tapped the head of his cane with his metal fingers, the dull ringing sound clear over the waves. "It... does not surprise me."
Silence fell between us again as I thought of all the other things I couldn't say, either because I didn't have the words, or didn't dare share them with Nooj.
After what seemed like hours, Nooj cleared his throat; I turned to look at him, and my breath caught at the regret in his eyes. "It's late," he said. "Will you be heading for bed soon?" The invitation was plain, but I couldn't accept it, not tonight, even though part of me longed for his arms and the peace I thought I might find there. Too much said, too much still unsaid. Maybe it was just as well; better to wait, to reach out in the bright light of day, not while we were both covered in pale light and dark shadows.
"I think I'll stay out here a little while longer." Regret melted into a resigned sadness, but I saw no surprise as he nodded.
"All right. Enjoy the rest of evening." He turned and walked away, and I didn't dare watch him go.