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The first time Kaya had wanted to try rappelling down a cliff to collect herbs, Paulie had absolutely refused, and then it had taken the better part of half an hour of her stubbornly asking him to help, along with Kuina's unimpressed glower, and Ace's drawl sharpening with the words "or I can hold the ropes…" for him to agree to this...

...only then to have Kaya freeze in fear fifteen feet down a cliffside, clinging to the gently swinging rope, within arm's reach of the plants she wanted but overcome and unable to move. She, it turned out, was not terribly fond of heights.

That day, Kuina had cut off his agitated barking of orders with a look, and sharply shaken her head when he started to change his grip to simply pull Kaya up. Instead, Kuina had settled belly-down on the clifftop, head out over the edge and voice conversational.

Paulie hadn't even felt vindicated in his initial refusal as he stood there holding the rope, listening to Kuina's matter of fact tone and Kaya's shrill answers, he'd only felt as good as useless, and angry at himself for having not spent more time attempting to convince her she shouldn't.

It had not occurred to him that she couldn't...

Only, it had turned out that in fact she could.

Kuina's persistence brought Kaya out of the freeze, and then the woman's expectant stare back over her shoulder had Paulie repeating the instructions once again, getting Kaya to set her boots against the stone, reiterating how to lean back against the strength of his rope and his grip, how to best hold the rope for balance, how to look not down, but in front of her, and... she'd done it all--then completely ignored his aggravated demand for her to come up, and had gotten her plants.

Kuina response to his sputter had been to get up, and stride back towards the rock she'd been sitting lookout on, parking herself once more. Paulie had barely had time to notice, transfixed by Kaya's death-grip on the rope and overseeing her halting motions as she persisted in her task.

When she'd finally given the signal to bring her back up, it had been simple, steady hand over hand until Kuina came back to reach down and pull her the last bit of the way over the cliff edge. Kaya had scrambled up with a sudden desperate burst of energy, and, after a moment trembling on all fours, had stood to get free of the harness, still visibly shaking, eyes wide and colour high in her pale cheeks, her grip white-knuckled on her basket.

"You wouldn't have fallen," he'd blurted harshly, feeling the frown settle on his face and unable to quell it, his worry twisting back and returning defensive that she'd not trust him and thus feel safe.

The surprise on her face took him aback.

"Of course not!" she snapped, indignation rousing along with the rest of her, but that also seemed to burn away some of the aftereffects of her fear. "How else could I possibly have dared?" She pushed the rope he'd used to make her harness against his chest with more force than strictly necessary and he took it dumbly.

Kuina looked on, amused, until Kaya turned from him and then she gave Kaya a look of impressed approval. "You did it," she said.

Kaya's shoulders had visibly squared, pride radiating from her, and Paulie had grimaced to himself for not having offered similar words, but unable to overcome his ego to do so after it was over.

That had been many, many months ago.

Today, the air was muggy, the sky a bright haze and the air a damp, warm blanket against his skin, but the breezes off the sea kept it very tolerable here on the cliff. Paulie kept his grip easy on the rope, glancing sidelong behind him where he'd anchored it with a piton before leaning forward over the edge again to spot Kaya's progress.

Thirty feet below him, Kaya bounced gently along the face of the cliff, her short yellow dress catching the sea breezes, the harness looping round her waist and her leggings-clad thighs (it wasn't indecency that had him insisting she could never do this without leg coverings, it was simply safety against rope burn!), her boots touching lightly as she shifted herself to where the gently waving bunches of whatever-plant-it-was were clinging to the stones. The basket hung from a shoulder strap, positioned for her to easily stuff her acquisitions into. She was no expert in this cliffside gathering yet, they hadn't come across enough plant-bearing cliffs for that, and so her motions were still quite imprecise, but they were entirely unafraid.

Far below, utterly (or at least mostly) ignored by Kaya, were the foamy waves curling and breaking against the rocks. A bit beyond, the sea was rather quiet, riffled with small breezes and reflecting the dull blue of the humid, hazy sky.

There was no one nearby today; this island was mostly open hills with a scattering of trees too sparse to call forest, and animal residents no larger than wild sheep. Sunny had dropped anchor a mile down the coast, and the closest of their crew were the tiny shapes of Lucky and Bentham on the side of a low, distant hill, the former's white bulk of lapahn form likely nose-deep in clover, the latter's floral shirt just bright enough to make out against the gold-green meadow.

As Paulie continued to spot Kaya, idly counting the number of plants she had put away, the waves changed, the air dimmed, blue leaching away until the sea was grey and a slightly cooler gust of wind pulled at his hair and his shirt.

He looked up long enough to see the treetops behind him swaying and the low clouds visibly rolling across the sky.

"Kaya!" he bellowed, and saw her push hair away from her face as she too looked up.

There was no rumble, no thunder or flash of dangerous lightning, but warm wind smelling all of a sudden so much wetter, and then the clouds opened out at sea first, the dark smudge of rainfall rapidly approaching,

The drops textured the waves as the storm swept towards and then over them, sheeting down, wind buffeting like a fist. Paulie dashed the water off his face, blinked past the rivulets of water running down from his hair--as it was through shirt, pants, into his boots--and looked for Kaya, shoving aside the brief panic at the abrupt deluge of the storm with the reassurance that he still felt her weight in the pull of the rope in his grip.

Below, blurred by the rain, she was holding tight, legs still braced to stop her being buffeted into a spin. It seemed as though she tried to look up, but the rain dissuaded that, and next came her jerk on the secondary line, the signal for her to come back up. Had she seemed in any difficulty he'd have done so without her telling him. But she'd kept control and so she did now, maintaining her position to best help him haul her up.

Hand over hand, and while wet rope was hardly unfamiliar to him, he did not like it, the friction and altered weight making it that much harder to bring her smoothly up, even if perfect comfort was not really a consideration just now.

Another wallop of wind made him stagger under what felt like a barrel's worth of water from above, the volume of which swallowed his sputtered cursing as well. He dug his feet against the ground and hauled, and then she was up over the edge, wide eyed, hair plastered to her skull and dress to her body.

"It's raining!" he shouted unnecessarily, and saw more than heard her incredulous laugh at his statement. Her face was a flash of mirth.

"Yes, it is!" she agreed, and he caught the faint sound of her voice, drowned in the rushing white-noise din of raindrops falling on everything. The smile still quirked the corners of her eyes while she shoved clinging strands of hair back from her face with one arm, then they got on with untangling her from the harness.

Kaya held tight to her basket, not bothering to even try to shield it from the rain--surely the plants wouldn't care, anyway--and Paulie scrambled a bit belatedly for the pack with their lunches and first aid supplies.

"Over there?" Kaya's raised voice reached him through the din, and he saw where she pointed at the little stand of trees, one large half-fallen one offering some semblance of a shelter underneath the wind-whipped branches.

When he held his hand out, unthinking and then too slow in his surprise at himself to withdraw it, she grabbed it, her smaller hand gripping tight as he could want, and they ran.

The ground splashed under their feet, they dashed over puddles and mud and slippery stone that gave way to sodden meadow grass, and Paulie heard faint laughter behind him. He looked back. She slowed, so he did the same. Kaya turned her face upward a moment, eyes closed, grinning and beautiful under the downpour.

Well. They were certainly drenched already. No amount of rushing to shelter would change that.

Kaya looked back down again, shrugged happily at him and they moved on, only walking now.

It was some moments before he realized they were still holding hands, and though he grew more conscious of it with each step, she did not release her hold, so neither did he.

They made their more measured way towards the great leaning tree. It was some couple of hundred yards back from the cliff edge, an old, twisting trunk, askew but still alive even at a severe angle, propped against a few less fortunate but quite sturdy trunks. It was high and broad enough to stand beneath, even maintaining a nearly dry strip of pebbly earth, around which were the clumpy, sparse shrubs and only just enough trees to make it difficult to see past them.

Arriving under the slight shelter, the din of the rain was abruptly at a bit of a remove, the huge rush of it all changing part of its tune to the lower sound of the raindrops drumming against the tree's broad trunk.

It was rather dim now, beyond the shadow of the the low heavy clouds. Kaya set down her basket and he likewise let their food pack fall beside it. She was breathing a little hard from the effort of moving over uneven wet ground, chest rising and falling. Even in the lower light he could see--he could make out--

He was staring.

He was holding her hand and staring at the shape of her body outlined in wet fabric, how it clung in a way that seemed somehow even more revealing than the bathing suits she sometimes wore.

He felt heat from within roll up into his cheeks and he dragged his gaze up to hers, an old, reflexive sputter of defensive disapproval at her revealing state doused by his slightly improved self-awareness, not to mention the circumstances.

She was standing there, still holding his hand, looking at him. Her fingers had shifted to a gentle grip, curling around his hand as lightly, he imagined, as how the dress clung to her body.

There had been...moments--nothing like this!--here and there, since that frighteningly revelatory night on Sunny some weeks back, after his sunburn. She watched or spoke, sometimes, in ways that he sensed his response to something was more important than usual. To her, if not to anyone else.

He didn't always know it, he would realize that much after the fact, when something he said made her gaze go sidelong with a little look of something that was not disappointment, but an… unsurprise that made him wish he had, in whatever way she might have been hoping, caused surprise instead.

And he knew--he really did, now--that on this crew, with these people, his upbringing couldn't keep as tight a hold as it had.

He'd been so staunchly maintaining, all his life, that women should be modest; In their dress, In their manner, In desires and dreams... Women should not distract…

Ace's expression when he'd first voiced that opinion on board had been incredulity and a muffled stutter of laughter as he exchanged glances with Kuina.

"That's on you, not us," she'd told Paulie with an indifferent shrug.

It had been something of a challenge.

A week after his joining, Kuina had been fed up enough that she had threatened to go the subsequent week without wearing a shirt. Her blunt glare and crossed arms had promised she'd go through with it, but then his reaction--which, he could still recall acutely, wasn't anger or disapproval at all but more akin to panic at the prospect--had caused her to relent.

"Rough edges," Ace had called all these places where his chosen crew didn't quite match smoothly. "Takes time. Keep trying," was all he cared to advise on any of it. "You'll figure it out." There hadn't been a threat in that, no "or else," in the tone, it had been said like it would just happen.

And Paulie had even managed, a bit. And for them, it was enough. Now they understood him, knew him. Teased him mercilessly, both put up with and did not put up with his ingrained responses as necessary. And so he'd managed to change, some.

Not entirely enough yet; when he left the ship he was unpleasantly reminded that for all his adjustment in regard for Kaya, to Kuina, to Nojiko and even Perona, the female residents in the crowd of a new town could still prompt his unearned disapproval as if little had changed at all.

At least now he knew it was happening, knew that it was not enough to 'allow' his crewmates some kind of permission in his eyes. They were not exceptions to some nonexistent rule (though, in so very many ways, they most certainly were exceptional).

So, he did his best, and it wasn't always right, but sometimes it was. The rough edges had worn away so that they all fit better. And some more snugly than others.

Kaya wasn't watching him now with that deflating unsurprise, despite surely having seen him stare at her figure. Her hand stayed softly squeezing in his, warmer than the rain-cooled air, and with each second that passed the feel of it was more distinct.

That, and… everything else was too. The attenuated gusting of the rain's wind that made it into this sheltered spot. The water drops sliding along his arms, down his neck.

And down hers. He could see them, glints of motion in the dim light. From her hair, tracing her face and then her throat, to disappear into her sodden dress.

Under a starry sky, comfortable and clean, she was beautiful.

And now here in this dim, rain-soaked noisy place under a tilted old tree, clothes and hair plastered to her, she was beautiful.

That moment of stark fear when the rain and the wind had hidden her down the cliffside had not altogether faded, he could feel his heart racing with it even now. But she was here and safe, had been the whole time anyway, in his hands, at the other end of ropes he had readied, and now holding onto his fingers as carefully as if she was afraid he'd spook.

He stayed still, caught by her watching him. He could run a mile or ten like this, he felt alight, but wouldn't move for anything.

Then her other hand reached out, and she waited.

He reached back, and her fingers slid between his. She was watching him, patiently.

He tried to find his voice. "I--" he...what?

"Hm?" she prompted gently, and for all the water sliding down the back of his shirt, his mouth had gone altogether dry. She drew a little closer to him.

He wasn't entirely ignorant, he could feel the pressure of the situation, and dared to guess what she was waiting for, but the immobility had seized him--better than fleeing…?--And he would so very much like to--except he couldn't do anything but stand there like a fool.

Kaya lifted a hand and touched his cheek, one of the spots she'd applied the ointment on for that horrendous sunburn. He leaned into it reflexively, and she broke into a sunny little smile before she went up on her toes to kiss him.

Lips light on his made the well of attraction in him surge and flail clumsily, the very response he'd only thought to beware of for years.

Kaya had not a trace of wariness in her, only a patient anticipation. And, he discovered, he could manage his reaction after all. He bent, carefully, to kiss her back, returning the delicate pressure, and then she opened her mouth a little and his eyes widened. He drew in a breath and followed suit, her lips soft and the scent of rain-soaked everything turned vivid from earth to wood to clothes to her hair, all bright in his awareness for one bare moment before the warmth of her tongue's caress over his overwhelmed it all, and heat stirred with a deep, awed thrill.

She let go of his hands and he clutched at her waist. He felt her arms come up around his neck to hold on and he broke the kiss a moment to look at her. She smiled again, and her smile was so fond he found himself unable to do anything except kiss her again. She made a happy noise that sent a giddy joy breezing through him.

Then the weather asserted itself with a long, gust of wet air under the tree's overhang that made her squeak and he grunted indignantly, the two of them clinging to each other in a shudder against the cold feel of the wind against their wet clothing.

"Not enough cover to build a fire," he muttered, looking around. Even if there was, there was certainly no dry wood to be had in the area, nor Ace on hand to make any.

"It came on so fast, I'm sure it'll blow over soon," Kaya replied. Paulie made a noise of acknowledgement, irked because he couldn't even offer his jacket. Wet clothing was worse than none.

But Kaya was right. The noise of the rain was already lessening, and the sky brightening again. She shifted against him, pushing just enough that he let go. A flash of apprehension that he'd done something--but no, she held firm to his hand, and stood beside him instead, her shoulder pressing snug against his, her head craning a little forward as she watched the rain lighten.

They weren't assaulted by any more big wayward gusts, and only waited together until Kaya, after a small step and a last glance upward, pulled Paulie out from their shelter. He followed her, boots splashing through a puddle and then past it, into wet, raindrop-beaded sunshine and widening blue sky between the clouds.