Old longings nomadic leap,
Chafing at custom's chain;
Again from its brumal sleep
Wakens the ferine strain.

- John Myers O'Hara


Rikku kept telling herself it was stupid, it wasn't like she hadn't seen dead people before. Or even dead Al Bhed. Heck, the massacre at the Travel Agency hadn't been anywhere near the devastation at Home, two years ago. But the look on his face when he'd given them the sphere. . . well, it was dumb that was what. He'd known he was dying, that they'd been too late, but he'd thanked them anyway. It made her feel rotten.

She tried not to scrub at her eyes too obviously.

There was still blood on her shoes.

"Hey, why don't we take a look at that sphere we got?" Paine said, coming up behind her.

If Paine was trying to cheer her up, she must really be losing it. Rikku pasted a smile on her face, wincing at how bright her voice sounded. She'd been better at this two years ago. "Yeah! Some sphere hunters we are, if we get a sphere and don't even see what it is."

"It's definitely a dressphere," Shinra said.

YRP gathered behind his chair as he made some impressive keystrokes and brought up an enlarged image. Projected on the vidscreen was a huge, half-naked man, dressed in animal skins and wearing a crown of horns. His teeth were bared in animalistic ferocity, and he looked like he might leap for their throats any second.

Rikku was about to open her mouth to ask what it was when Paine said, "Berserker."

Man, Paine knew some really weird things. "Huh?"

"They lived in tribes on the Calm Lands a long time ago, before the fiends got too bad and they had to to the cities," Paine said. "They wore the skins of the fiends they killed, and supposedly they knew a technique that would give them more strength, but made them lose control over their actions. They would keep attacking until they either dropped from exhaustion or their opponent killed them first." Paine shook her head, bemused. "How one of them got ahold of this technology, I don't know."

"That's really creepy," Rikku muttered.

"You don't have to like it," Paine said, picking up the sphere. The image on the vidscreen flickered and disappeared.

"Hey," Shinra protested, "don't just unplug things like that. It's bad for the console."

Paine ignored him. "This should come in handy against fiends," she said, tossing the dressphere up in the air and catching it again. "I'll try it first."

"Are you sure?" Yuna bit her lip. "It sounds like it might be dangerous."

"No less dangerous than any of the other dresspheres," Paine pointed out. "Relax. It'll be fine." And she sauntered out, boots clicking.

Rikku tried to think of a logical reason why she agreed with Yuna, but she couldn't, so finally she dismissed it altogether and went to discuss something rational with Brother instead. She prided herself on her Al Bhed logic, after all. And so the Gullwings spent the rest of the day interring bodies in the snow and helping O'aka scrub blood from the tiles.

---

Rikku loved being a spherehunter for the fame and fortune and excitement, of course, but she also loved collecting dresspheres. Paine made fun of her for her susceptibility to "collect them all!" pitches, but it was kind of true (and it wasn't like Yuna wasn't susceptible to the same thing, so nyeh). But whereas Yuna tended to try all the spheres and then stuck to dedicated favorites like Gunner, Songstress, and the Mages, Rikku just switched blithely between all of them, depending on what she felt like at the time. Paine, of course, was methodical as always and explored all of a chosen sphere's capabilities before moving on to another. So they didn't get to see Berserker in action for a while, because Paine was working with the Dark Knight.

"It hurts you!" Yuna cried the first time Paine used Darkness. It'd killed the Barbutas in one sweeping dark wave of. . . something, but Paine had staggered afterwards.

"I'm fine," Paine said through gritted teeth. "Just give me a Potion."

Rikku dosed her with two, despite Paine's protests, and Yuna forbade her to use Darkness from then on. But the fiends pouring out of the temples were getting harder, and Paine maintained that Darkness was too useful not to, well, use as often as possible. Potions were cheap, after all, and it wasn't like Yuna didn't know how to heal.

Then they came up against something new in Zanarkand. When their bullets bounced off its armor and Paine's sword barely made a scratch, Rikku Scanned it and discovered nothing more useful than that it was called Ironside and had an incredibly high defense.

"Great," Paine muttered.

Ironside was slow enough that they probably could've made a run for it, but before Rikku could think to suggest it the fiend swung out with one giant fist and caught Yuna in the ribs with the sick, wet sound of breaking bone. Rikku was there, fumbling an X-Potion out of her stash, and just barely managed to dodge another swipe from Ironside that would've laid her out flat. But the X-Potion went skittering away and Rikku had to chase after it, turning her back on the enemy.

"I got it!" Paine called from somewhere out of Rikku's line of sight. Rikku's fingers just touched the X-Potion when the air exploded in a blaze of red and white light; there was a horrible sound like the shriek of twisted metal and the cry that Bahamut made when they killed him, and then the dome was unnaturally still.

Rikku turned and saw that Ironside lay on the broken road, already dissolving into pyreflies. Paine lay not far away. She wasn't moving.

Cursing in Al Bhed, Rikku jammed the flask of X-Potion between Yuna's teeth; Yuna was there enough to swallow and opened her eyes. "What--"

"Stay here," Rikku said urgently, and Yuna obeyed. Potions didn't work as fast as spells, and Yuna needed time for her bones to knit and the internal damage to heal. Rikku ran to the prone figure on the ground, Phoenix Down already in hand. Paine wasn't pyreflying, which was good, but she wasn't breathing, which was bad. Rikku dropped to her knees and turned her over--oof, that armor was heavy--and dusted the tiny bag of phoenix feathers over Paine's face.

She looked fine, not a scratch on her, but she was white and still, her eyes closed, and Rikku found herself frightened beyond all reason. Paine was strong, stronger than her and Yuna put together, and she wasn't supposed to--

Paine gasped, coughed, and sneezed. She sat up, shaking her head and brushing ineffectually at the tiny glowing feathers all over her. "What--what happened?" she asked, looking around. "Is--"

"What happened?!" Rikku cried, resisting the urge to grab Paine by the shoulders and shake. She'd been dead not so long ago, so that probably wasn't a very nice thing to do. "You died, that's what happened! Don't ever do that again!"

Paine looked startled. "Wha--"

Deep breaths, Rikku. Deep breaths! Be nice. Paine was just dead. Paine was just dead. "You died, Paine. I had to bring you back with a Phoenix Down. What did you do?"

Paine frowned. "It was something new. . . something told me I shouldn't try it unless it was an emergency--"

"No kidding, seeing as it killed you!"

"You guys were in trouble back there."

"It's not worth it," Rikku hissed. "You think Yunie wants you or me or anyone dying for her?" She put her hand on Paine's garment grid. "No more."

"Rikku--"

"No more," Rikku repeated. "What are you, a Deathseeker?" The word "Deathseeker" made Paine close up; she said nothing when Rikku closed her fingers around the Dark Knight dressphere and pulled it out. Paine closed her eyes and sighed as the armor dissolved, replaced by her usual Warrior garb.

"Hey guys," Yuna said from somewhere behind them.

"Yunie!" Rikku exclaimed, standing up. "Should you be moving yet?"

"Looks like we should be asking Paine that question," Yuna said. She was a little pale, but she was standing and walking. "I feel fine, just a little stiff. Are you okay, Paine?"

"I'll be all right," Paine said, standing up and dusting herself off. "Just give me a second."

"What're you doing with Paine's dressphere?" Yuna inquired, seeing Dark Knight in Rikku's hand.

"I just thought I'd try it for a while!" Rikku chirped, stuffing it in her bag.

Yuna raised one eyebrow and giggled. "Rikku, a Dark Knight? Well, this is a side of you I haven't seen before."

"Me neither," Paine said around her Hi-Potion.

Rikku only smiled, feeling strangely smug.

---

Rikku did try the Dark Knight dressphere, just so she wasn't lying to Yuna. It scared her.

The thing about dresspheres, is that there's always someone left in them. Someone made that sphere in the first place, put their knowledge and past and memories in it, and there's always a little bit of the person left, too. It wasn't a problem with the other dresspheres: the Songstress left a lingering sense of kindness and cheer, and the Black Mage had been sardonic but good-intentioned (kind of like Lulu; maybe it was a Black Mage thing).

But with the Dark Knight, it was different. Just being in the armor made everything dark and pointed, gave Rikku a sense of incredible power as well as duty, and the desire to hold onto both no matter what the cost. Even more frightening was how easily it seemed to come to her; no sooner had she learned Bio then she knew Doom. After learning Charon--the skill Paine had used to take out Ironside--she put it away. Just having the knowledge swimming in her head chilled her to the bone.

Meanwhile, Paine apparently decided to take the opportunity to play around with Full Throttle some more.

Rikku had to admit that she liked Paine in Full Throttle mode, even if she was unusually scary and pointy. Well, Paine was always scary and pointy, but that was besides the point. She was never more Paine than when she was in Full Throttle. Yuna swore that the first time Paine tried it she'd actually smiled, and Rikku didn't find it hard to agree. There was something that was just. . . elegant about Paine in Full Throttle, even if she was a living weapon.

But when they landed at the Calm Lands, Paine looked around and said, "Berserker."

"Huh?" Rikku said.

"I still have that Berserker dressphere," Paine said. And she turned and went back in the airship.

Yuna dropped onto the grass next to Rikku. "Where's Paine?"

"She forgot something." Rikku felt uneasy again and pushed it away, irritated. There was no reason to worry. The Berserker dressphere was a dressphere like any other.

Yeah right, and what about the Dark Knight dressphere?

Paine materialized on the grass next to them, the Berserker dressphere slotted neatly into place on her garment grid. "Well? Are we ready to go?"

"Sure," said Yuna. "Can we do the Reptile Run first?"

"Yeah!" said Rikku, jumping up and down. "I'm almost to Level Two, I can feel it!"

"If you can ever keep your lizard from being fried by a Bomb," Paine pointed out.

Rikku just stuck out her tongue at Paine while Yuna giggled.

Yuna didn't show it, but Rikku knew that she had to be feeling the effects of that battle with Valefor. Bahamut had been bad enough, but Valefor had been Yuna's first Aeon. It had stuck with her from the beginning and right up until the battle with Yu Yevon, and it had been the last to leave her. She'd said "I'm ready" when Rikku had asked, but it couldn't have been easy at all.

Okay, so maybe Rikku needed this break, too.

The problem was, there were still fiends.

"No time like the present," Paine muttered from somewhere behind them as they faced a pack of Wild Wolves.

By the time Rikku turned around to see what Paine was talking about, she'd already changed. She was clothed in fur, with a helmet of huge, curved horns, and what might have once been Coeurl paws covered her hands. And was that paint on her face?

"Um," said Yuna, but Paine hurtled straight into the nearest Wild Wolf and knocked it into the Farplane with one heavy blow.

"Did she just run on four legs?" Rikku gasped. "Like a--like a--"

"Yes," Yuna replied faintly.

Paine was already on top of the second Wild Wolf; it got a good scratch in her belly--furs and skin didn't make good armor, that was for sure--and then she broke its spine. The third Wild Wolf was already charging; Rikku had barely enough presence of mind to bring up her gun and shoot it, bringing it up short. Then Yuna followed her lead, and that was the end of the last member of the pack.

Rikku uncapped a Potion and handed it to Paine; no way she was going to be able to get the cap off herself with huge paws like that. At least they offered her enough mobility so that she could hold it herself.

"Thanks," Paine said, handing back the empty bottle.

"No prob," said Rikku. "So how does it feel?"

"Powerful," Paine replied, flexing her claws. "Fast. Low defense, though." She put one paw to her stomach, where only a smear of blood testified to the Wild Wolf's claws. "That wolf got me pretty good. Wouldn't have happened if I had armor."

Rikku wasn't sure if Paine was talking about something else. She was usually so straightforward.

"You were pretty cool," Yuna said, grinning. "Gonna keep it?"

"Heck yeah." Paine didn't bother to change back, which was just as well because it wasn't much longer until they encountered a swarm of Vespas.

It was then that they made their second discovery: the Berserker costume was apparently itchproof.

"That's not fair!" Rikku wailed, shoving her hands furiously inside her Alchemist costume and scratching.

"Stop that," Yuna scolded. "You'll just make it worse. Here, have a Remedy."

Rikku couldn't eat it fast enough. Paine just smirked.

Paine went Berserk on the batch of Skinks they encountered next. Like, really Berserk. Capital B and everything. Rikku didn't even get a chance to fire her gun, and neither did Yuna. But after the Skinks were all dead, Paine was still going, crouched on all fours, panting and looking for something else to kill.

"Stop!" Rikku hissed, grabbing Paine under the arms to hold her back. "They're all dead, Paine! You killed them all!"

Paine's breathing was ragged, but after a while her eyes stopped looking so wild. "All dead?" she asked, and her voice was all wrong, like someone rediscovering speech after fifteen years of silence.

Yuna hovered anxiously nearby, a packet of Remedy clutched in her hand. "Is she--"

"I'm fine," Paine said hoarsely, pushing away. She looked as if she wanted to push her sweaty hair out of her face, but that gigantic paw got in the way. Without saying anything more, she changed back into her Warrior outfit and used a sword to kill the rest of the fiends on the way to the Reptile Run.

Whether it was because of stubbornness or something else, though, Paine went ahead and tried the Berserker dressphere again on the way to Sky Slots. She launched herself at a Rhyos without regard for life or limb, giving it a left-right-left and then a final clawed punch that broke its neck. Rikku took a step towards Paine uncertainly, and when Paine did a few backflips and smiled victoriously at them she was relieved. But there was something fierce and joyful in those red eyes, and Rikku wasn't sure she liked it.

---

Paine wore Berserker when they fought Ifrit--against which, Rikku had to admit, it proved invaluable, because Ifrit was fast, but no faster than Paine when she was Berserk. Rikku took the Warrior dressphere, since Paine wasn't using it, and between Yuna's Blizzaga, Rikku's Ice Blade, and Paine's powerful, gunfire-quick attacks their once-aeon didn't stand a chance.

There was another hole. Rikku could tell that Yuna didn't want to think about it, didn't want the weight of the world on her shoulders again, but knew equally well that that was why Yuna thought she had to think about it. Yuna didn't know how not to save the world; she'd spent the first eighteen years of her life learning how.

She hated it. She wished Yuna didn't have all this responsibility. Wasn't that why she'd encouraged Yuna to join the Gullwings in the first place? To get away from the responsibility of being High Summoner Yuna, Bringer of the Eternal Calm all the time?

Then there was Paine. Paine was, to be honest, starting to freak Rikku out, just a little. She hadn't taken off the Berserker outfit in almost three days. Okay, so that wasn't really the issue. Yuna had been known to walk around in the Songstress costume for days on end, and Rikku'd been spending a lot of time as an Alchemist lately, but neither of these outfits really changed the way they thought or acted, at least not overtly. Paine, though. . . she was different when she was the Berserker, and not in the same way she'd been different when she was the Dark Knight. The Dark Knight, after all, was a human being no different from Rikku or Yuna, albeit a little scary, whereas the Berserker had clearly been some kind of caveman. Calm Lands-man. Whatever. Something not entirely capable of higher thought processes. They had a fighting tradition where they attacked over and over until they either dropped from exhaustion or died; wasn't that a clue that it was maybe, you know, a little unstable?

Yuna was too caught up in her own problems--and Rikku didn't blame her--so she decided to take care of it herself. After all, the Gullwings had been her and Paine for a while. Well, her, Paine, and the crew of the Celsius, but she and Paine had done all the heavy lifting by themselves until Yuna had come along.

Rikku confronted Paine in her quarters, knocking first and then letting herself in without waiting for a response. Paine was sitting on the bed, still in Berserker garb, and she shot Rikku a quick, annoyed glance.

"Didn't I tell you not to come into my room?" Paine said.

"Oh, I'm sorry, did I interrupt you while you were changing?" Rikku retorted. "Wait, that couldn't be, because you haven't changed in three days."

"What are you--"

"I don't know how you keep that thing clean, with all the fighting you do," Rikku went on. "You've gone overboard, Paine. It's not healthy! That thing's taking over your brain--"

Then Rikku's own brain abruptly shut off because Paine--faster than ever--slammed Rikku against the door and kissed her.

A little tiny part of Rikku's brain noted that Paine was a pretty good kisser. A pretty good, rough kisser; there was enough force behind the kiss to bruise, and then she bit down hard on Rikku's bottom lip. Not hard enough to draw blood, but hard enough that Rikku gasped, and then Paine's tongue was there and Rikku thought she should be freaking out or something, except this was Paine and she was beautiful, even when covered in fur and skin and she was a very. good. kisser.

It was Paine who broke the kiss, and they stared at each other for a long moment before Paine smirked and said, "That shut you up."

"I--what--eh?" Rikku said eloquently.

"It's still me," Paine said, looking into Rikku's face. Rikku had never seen Paine that close up before, and it was kind of. . . intense. "I'm still here. It's just," she bent to kiss Rikku's throat, and Rikku squeaked as she almost had an eye put out by a horn, "I think less. I just want to fight," she bit at Rikku's neck, ow that was gonna leave a mark for sure and everyone would see and what were they going to say, "and I want to kiss you." She tongued the mark and Rikku whimpered and squirmed.

That was when she realized that she couldn't move. Paine had her by the shoulders and she was strong in Berserker mode; she'd seen this demonstrated many times on fiends, but never on herself. She should've been scared: Paine had her trapped, Yuna was up on the bridge with the others, and nobody would think to look for her here. But she wasn't, because this was Paine and she would never hurt her, and she was beautiful. Rikku had been thinking that for ages now. But she'd gotten used to the idea that non-Al Bhed had certain ways of looking at sex--especially sex between people of the same gender--in certain ways and oh wow now Paine was sucking on her neck and palming her breasts--as much as she could with the giant, clumsy paws and the Alchemist armor in the way--and she felt it rush through her, making her entire body tingle, pooling in sudden, aching warmth between her legs. Maybe Paine wasn't entirely herself right now, but damn if Rikku wasn't going to take this chance.

Rikku winced as the claws caught on the fabric and the armor straps. If they left those on someone was gonna get hurt for sure, and Rikku had the feeling it was gonna be her. "Paine," she said, and her voice came out weird, so she tried again, "Paine."

Paine actually seemed to hear her this time, or at least she stopped sucking a bruise into Rikku's neck.

"Do these come off?" Rikku put her hands on the paws. "It's just--you know, these claws are dangerous." Paine looked like she was going to be recalcitrant and Rikku tried not to sigh. "Just for a little bit." She leaned forward as much as she could--which wasn't very far, with Paine's claws holding her--and said, pitching her voice low and sultry like Lulu, "I want your hands."

Paine actually grinned (and, oh, she needed to do that more often, because she looked completely different when she smiled, and Rikku really wished she had one of Shinra's spheres so that she could preserve this moment for posterity) and shucked the paws off. The hands underneath were bare and callused for a sword--proof that Paine had always been a fighter, even before they met--and then Paine seized Rikku by the wrists and shoved her onto the bed.

"Erf," Rikku said. As the smaller one she should probably be on top, but she didn't really mind as Paine settled in on top of her, licking and sucking whatever skin was handy. Rikku had the dazed thought that this would go much better if at least one of them was naked but it was really hard to concentrate on that when Paine seemed to have every intention of eating her up just as she was.

Nnngh. Oh man, it'd been a really long time.

Fortunately, Paine seemed also to have the idea that nakedness would go a long way towards making this much, much better and she was currently making frustrated attempts at getting Rikku's armor off. It appeared to be far too complicated for her Berserker-muddled mind and Rikku had to push her away and undo the straps herself, with Paine hovering anxiously over her. Rikku didn't even have a chance to get the bodysuit all the way off before Paine pushed her down again to lick the exposed valley of her breasts, flicking one nipple with her thumb until it beaded.

Those damn horns were practically in her face and made Rikku fear for her well-being. She pulled at them, and Paine shook her head and made an annoyed sound. "Off," Rikku said, in no uncertain terms, and Paine held still long enough for Rikku to get the helmet off. Finally she could bury her hands in Paine's hair without being afraid of losing a hand, and she took advantage of this immediately to pull Paine's face up to her for another kiss, a proper one with lots of technique. She managed to shimmy out of the rest of her bodysuit while Paine was distracted, somehow got her boots off too, and arched up with a slow roll of the hips. Paine made a satisfied-sounding growl, and Rikku did it again; Paine's costume was softer than it looked and felt really, really good against her bare skin. It made her want to purr.

So Rikku was understandably distracted enough not to notice that Paine had somehow sneaked one hand between them, and that hand was currently occupied with pulling at Rikku's panties. Rikku was about to help when Paine gave a frustrated growl and a rough jerk, and the panties came apart at the seams. Oh. That was. . . incredibly hot. And it was even better when Paine slipped two fingers in where she was wettest and curled them.

Rikku arched her back and mewled, her legs falling open. She couldn't help it; Paine knew what she was doing and it was punching giant holes in her rational thought. Not that she'd ever been very good at that, if Paine's snarky comments were anything to go by. But Paine was working her fingers in and out, curling them at just the right place, and Rikku bit her lip and had no idea where her limbs were even as her hands wandered, grabbing and pulling and wanting more. Paine grabbed her ungently by the hair and pulled her head back so that she could suck on her throat and Rikku suddenly found her hands and regained control of them enough to wrap them around Paine's back.

Paine looked up, breathing hard and glassy-eyed with arousal, and Rikku couldn't help but stare back as Paine's fingers drew back and back and out. Rikku made some kind of protesting sound entirely against her will, but then it was okay because Paine was stroking her thumb over Rikku's clit. Rikku groaned and bit Paine's shoulder, eliciting a hiss, and the thumb made tiny little circles that made Rikku's toes curl. She was going to go crazy, and it was really unfair because she wanted to make Paine go crazy too. Then the thumb stopped, and Rikku whimpered. She was close, really really close. The thumb didn't go away, just stayed, a light, maddening pressure, and then Paine nipped Rikku's ear and thrust her fingers back in, curling them and stroking in and out and in until Rikku arched her back and came.

---

Afterwards, when they were both naked and the sweat was drying on their bodies, Rikku said, "So you've wanted to kiss me for a while, huh?"

Paine groaned and pulled a pillow over her head. "Can't you just--fall asleep, or something?"

"I'm not a guy, you know." Rikku wiggled her way over to Paine's side of the bed, propping herself up on her elbows and looking at the pillow where Paine's face was supposed to be. "I've wanted to kiss you, too."

Paine's "mmph" was probably supposed to sound noncommittal, but Rikku thought it sounded doubtful.

"Really!" Rikku said. "I mean, you're beautiful, and you're really strong, and I've wanted to kiss you for a while but I wasn't sure you were into it. Generally non-Al Bhed aren't."

"I speak Al Bhed for a reason," Paine pointed out, coming out from under the pillow.

Huh. That was true. "So are we gonna do that again?" Rikku asked, placing a hand on Paine's stomach. The muscles under her hand shivered, which was a good sign.

". . . sure," Paine said.

"Yay!" Rikku pillowed her head on Paine's stomach. "And I'm just gonna take a nap now, 'kay? You kinda wiped me out."

Paine groaned. "Damn Berserker. Should've known this was a mistake."



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