(New to the story? Start at the beginning.)
After cleaning up from the lunch break and striking out again, the combined force had spread out as it began the trek down the Mushroom Rock Road to the spot at which the commanders of Spira's army would be gathered, preparing to launch their assault on Sin.
Baralai was having a little trouble digesting his lunch. He was not accustomed to eating so heavily in the middle of the day since the Crimson Squad contingent generally lunched as they walked, reserving their main meal for the evening. Exercise was only complicating his distress. Surreptitiously, he slipped one of his own carefully compounded capsules into his mouth.
"Are you versed in the healing arts?" Lulu's melodious voice startled him.
"Uh, well, I've studied Alchemy and know a few of the simpler recipes," he stammered when he had regained his composure.
"Yuna is a fully trained healer – a white mage. You should talk to her. You can teach each other some skills." The dark woman turned her remarkably sweet smile on him.
"You're a black mage, aren't you? You do elemental magic?"
"Mostly, that and a few other odds and ends. I just try to make myself useful and defend Yuna."
Baralai nodded in understanding. "Nooj showed us how you fixed his spectacles. I didn't know elemental magic could do things like that." He paused before rushing on to say, "How can a guardian like you let your summoner throw her life away now you know the truth about the pilgrimage and the Final Summoning?"
Lulu did not meet his eyes. "I'm still thinking. The way I see it, my job is to protect Yuna. I'm not required to make the big decisions. Of course, I have opinions and beliefs, but my title is guardian not advisor."
"I did not mean to offend." Baralai flushed painfully. "I am a former acolyte of Yevon who failed as a priest and all of this is shocking to me. I was just wondering..."
She patted him on the sleeve. "I'm not offended. I'm just still puzzling and trying to make the pieces fit together. Sir Auron is the most honest and trustworthy man I have ever known and if he says something – then I must take it seriously. Still, it's a hard thing to give up a faith which has nourished one for so long."
"I know." He thought it wise to change the subject. "It was another surprise to learn that Sir Auron is Paine's uncle. Are you related to her too? Your eyes are much like hers."
"Not that I know of. If it were so, it is a long way back and I don't know the connection." Lulu laughed. "I would be proud to claim a kinship if I could."
They walked along in comfortable silence for awhile. Then Baralai thought of something. "Lulu, are some of the others in your group going to be too uncomfortable with machina? I heard that orange-haired -- Wakka, is it? -- complaining about our weapons. Can he accept them when it's necessary?"
"Don't worry about it. Wakka is a little old-fashioned about some things. Now, you tell me, are the artificial limbs your leader uses made by the Al Bhed?"
"There's nobody else on this planet who could make them." He spread his hands. "Nooj would be in storage in a nursing home somewhere without them. But, can you believe, he still hasn't fully accepted them?"
"He's proud; even a stranger can see that. Paine seems to think highly of him."
"Oh, she does! They ..." Baralai stopped himself, realizing he was on the verge of an indiscretion.
Lulu held her tongue. So her suspicions had been correct. She wondered if Auron knew about this. If not, she would not be the one to tell him. Persons who meddled in family affairs usually came to bad ends.
Gippal had run a few steps and caught up with Tidus. "Hey, man, did I hear you're a blitzer?"
"Yeah, I've played a few games." Tidus did not go into more details, wary of being seen as either a liar or a madman. "You play?"
"Nah. No depth perception but I make a pretty good wad betting on it. Who you play for?"
"Er ... I'm kinda between teams right now. They say you're Al Bhed."
Gippal bristled. "That bother you?"
"Nope." The blond shook his head. "Just asking."
"You can't tell from the eyes – eye?"
"Yeah, I guess. What do you think of all this? You think we can keep Yuna safe?" This was the single fact on Tidus' mind. Nothing else even approached that in importance.
Gippal looked at the other sympathetically. "Yeah. I'm pretty sure we can. Our team are better fighters than we look. A one-eyed guy, one who's half machina, an ex-priest and a woman – you wouldn't think it but we're pretty good at killing."
"I hear your leader used to be a big hero."
"He's still big, compared to you and me, right?" Gippal punched Tidus on the shoulder in a friendly manner. "And don't think missing a coupla limbs has softened him any. He can still take out his man in a fight."
"Are there many like him, I mean, with machina parts?"
"Nope." Gippal boasted. "He's one of a kind and a great man. Best leader you'll ever find."
"Except for Auron," Tidus teased.
"Including Sir Auron." Gippal proclaimed as the pair continued on their way, squabbling in an amiable manner.
Nooj had deliberately distanced himself from the others when the parties had finished their lunch, gathered their gear and set out for the Mushroom Rock Road and the effort to disrupt Operation Mi'ihen. He was still more than a little troubled by the deception practiced upon him by his teammates and dismayed by the dependence Paine placed on her putative uncle, the renowned Auron. He felt he, himself, had come off less than well in comparison with the legendary guardian. When he recalled how he had been totally incapable of saying a coherent word in the presence of the great man, he blushed with humiliation. It would almost certainly be better for him to sever himself from this combined party and set off on his own to defeat Sin and find the proper ending to his story. What use was he in this grouping, anyway? There were sufficient men and women able to bear weapons and far more physically agile than he. He could serve no purpose other than to slow the progress of the others and give them a cripple to defend. The full comprehension of his handicaps descended upon him like a suffocating poisonous fog. What did he think he was trying to prove? That he was as good as he had ever been? It was obvious to even the most casual observer that he was not.
If he faced the truth, he had to admit he had little chance against Sin. Unable to wield a sword with any facility and armed only with a machina gun, what could he do to even scratch the integument of the monster? There must be a way he could find to be effective in the eventual battle. With blades out of the question and firearms not nearly lethal enough, with no magic at his service ... explosives were almost always available on Spira. An idea began taking shape in his mind. Explosives – with the addition of the prosthetic limbs, his body was dense and heavy. If he packed the open spaces in the arm and leg with explosives and wired in a fuse which he could press when he would, then he might be able to both destroy Sin and himself in the same act. That would be a death worth dying! Yes, this must be further explored.
As he limped down the rocky path, Nooj let his eyes rest on those ahead of him. Tidus and Gippal were far in the van, expending their excess energy in short races and impromptu wrestling matches as they went. They were much of a height and looked to be equally strong. In a fight they could prove to be a formidable team. Baralai was chatting with Lulu. An occasional laugh floated back from their conversation. Nooj was irritated to feel a flash of jealousy make itself known. He had hoped for further intercourse with the black mage himself. Yuna walked steadily forward, shadowed by the blue figure of her towering Ronso guardian. Nooj felt an odd kinship with Kimahri; neither was overly inclined toward idle talk and both were Warriors, born and bred.
He could not see Auron, Wakka or Paine. They must be somewhere behind. Doubtless, given their greater speed, they would pass him soon. And he would trail at the end of the queue, as it must always be. At that point, he half resolved to himself, he would slip away and seek his own place in the battle, leaving the other nine to attempt the overthrow of Yevon. He would regret not saying goodbye to Paine, but she had other support now and would soon forget him.
Auron walked in his customary spot at the rear of the party, keeping his eye on the surroundings and watching the backs of his traveling companions. He noted that the two groups had begun mixing -- Tidus chatted and roughhoused with Gippal at the front, and Baralai and Lulu seemed to be deep in pleasant conversation. Paine, who had just been talking with him, sketching in her companions' backgrounds, strengths, and weaknesses, now fell into step with Nooj, who walked alone, choosing his footing carefully and using the cane for balance. It was hard to be certain, but Auron thought he saw irritation in the set of the young soldier's shoulders. Nooj turned his gaze on Paine as the girl lightly ran a hand down his back; they exchanged a few words, and he relaxed a bit. Then she left him with a pat on the arm, jogging up to Yuna, who held her accustomed place at the side of Kimahri.
Three times today, Nooj had been angry or upset, and three times Paine had reached out to him, calming him with a touch. The implications, Auron thought, were clear. Not that he cared, particularly. Even if he had, it would be none of his business. Paine was an adult, if a young one, and his interactions with her so far suggested that she was mature beyond her years. As long as it did not interfere with their mission, she could make her own decision regarding a choice of bedmate.
Still, Auron felt that he should take a moment to speak with Nooj, both to plan and to discover what stuff the boy was really made of. Paine had spoken in glowing terms of Nooj's planning and leadership abilities and of his reputation within the Crusaders. She was convinced that the members of that group would follow Nooj wherever he asked, even against Yevon. Truth, or rumor magnified by infatuation? He needed to see for himself.
With that thought, Auron quickened his pace just enough to catch up. Feeling the guardian's presence at his side, Nooj straightened to stiff attention. "Sir Auron," he said, with a head-tilt that implied a salute.
Auron chuckled under his breath. "At ease, and you may consider that a standing order. We are equals in this mission as far as I'm concerned."
"As you say, sir." Nooj's posture loosened, but only a little.
"We need to set a plan in place for our upcoming confrontation with the Maesters," said Auron. "I have spoken with Paine, and she tells me you are captain of your band. She gave me an overview of everyone's capabilities, but I would also like to hear your opinions on the subject, and on how you think we should proceed when we arrive."
Nooj glanced down at Auron, a gleam of surprise entering his dark eyes. "My opinions, sir?"
"Yours," Auron repeated firmly. "Or have you been in the Crusaders so long that you have forgotten how to have them?"
An abrupt snort that was almost a laugh escaped Nooj before his face settled back into the blank sternness that Auron already recognized as his typical expression. "What has Paine told you, sir? I would not wish to waste your time with repetition."
"Just the basics," Auron replied. "That Gippal, unsurprisingly, is your best with the machina and has a talent for subterfuge. That Baralai is a credible shot, a healer of considerable skill, and the best of your group at unarmed combat. Also that he is your diplomat, but of course he already proved that to my satisfaction today. Paine says that she can shoot as well, and she claims to handle a sword with some facility."
"She does," said Nooj, and Auron detected a note of pride there. "Gippal taught her to use the gun well enough, but the blade is her natural weapon."
A sudden vision of a five-year-old girl twirling her first wooden sword appeared to Auron then -- she had demanded one, and he had supplied it. Many a free afternoon they had spent together, "drilling" with the toy blade. So many of his memories of Paine had been forgotten, set aside, and he felt yet another pang of guilt that he had left her to grow up alone.
Then he shook himself and pulled his mind back into the present. No use dwelling on that. "As for you. Paine reports that you are quite skilled with the machina weapon, you have great strength and stamina, and you were once a swordsman."
"Once." A bitter edge crept into Nooj's voice. "No longer, as I am sure you can see."
Auron nodded solemnly. The machina leg allowed Nooj to walk, but it couldn't supply the deft footwork needed to fight properly with a sword. "Forgive my bluntness, but I would be remiss in my duties if I did not ask. What are you capable of on the battlefield?"
Nooj drew himself up to his full height, and Auron wondered if he knew what an imposing figure he made. Almost certainly; any solider with such an obvious physical advantage learned how to use it early on. "I can shoot, sir, as Paine says. I am at my best picking off opponents from a short to moderate distance. But I can also effectively fight hand-to-hand if the enemy is slow enough -- the machina hand is stronger than the flesh one, and just as dexterous. However, I lack speed and agility, particularly on uneven terrain. If you feel that my limited mobility will keep me from being an asset to this group, I would appreciate being told so now, before this goes any further." He spoke with a stiff arrogance that Auron recognized from years of working with new recruits to the warrior monks. Such a demeanor almost always hid profound insecurity, the fear that a superior officer would see through a brave front and find the reality wanting. Genuine reassurance -- not flattery, but a truthful assessment -- would usually do the trick.
"If you say you can fight, I believe you," he said. "And Paine tells me that it is so, that she and the others are all impressed by your abilities. I am satisfied with that. But even if you couldn't, we would still need you. I understand that you have significant stature among the Crusaders. Paine believes, and I agree, that if you raise your voice against Yevon and invite the Crusaders to join you, many will answer your call."
Nooj paused, turning to look at his companion. "Surely, sir, you could command them just as well as I."
"Hmpf!" Auron's mouth twisted into a wry half-smile. "I am a legend, a figure from their distant past. You are someone they know and can connect with here, today. You must still have friends and allies within their ranks; you can draw on personal relationships in a way that I cannot. The warrior monks will almost certainly stand with Yevon, so we need the Crusaders on our side. You are the key to gaining their support."
The younger man looked back down the road and started to walk again, lost in thought. Auron followed, waiting in silence. After a few minutes, he spoke. "All right, sir. I will do my best to convince them."
"Thank you." Auron took a moment to let the decision settle, then asked another question. "How do you think we should proceed when we arrive at the Maesters' encampment?"
Nooj considered the question for a time. "Lady Yuna wishes to speak with the Maesters before we attack, correct?"
"Correct." Auron grunted. "She's hoping they can assuage our concerns, convince her that there is no need to fight them. It will change nothing, but she has asked for the opportunity, and I am bound to allow her to take it."
"It is the only honorable choice, sir." Nooj shook his head. "But you are right. I doubt they will succeed in changing anyone's mind."
"So. Do you see any difficulty with heading straight for the command center, where Seymour and any other dignitaries will be waiting?"
"If I may speak freely, sir?"
Auron nodded. "Now, and always. As I said, Nooj, I'm not your commanding officer. We are in this together. Not only are you permitted to speak freely, I require it of you."
Nooj glanced at him again, another look of surprise passing across his features. Auron held back another chuckle. This young man was military through and through, completely conditioned to respect the hierarchy. Tearing down that training to make him a true partner in this mission was going to be a challenge, but Auron thought it would be worth the effort. No matter if the youth kept calling Auron "sir" -- he himself had never called Braska anything other than "Lord", even when their relationship, so distant and formal at first, had deepened into true friendship. His use of the title had been a reflex, a habit too deeply ingrained to break, and he thought the same might hold true for Nooj. The quality of their interactions was the important thing.
"All right," Nooj said, interrupting Auron's train of thought. "I am concerned, sir, that if the four of us just walk into the Maesters' camp that we will be treated as deserters. Which, I must admit, technically we are. The other three might be able to sneak by, but I am instantly recognizable."
"Hm." Auron pondered the problem for a moment. "Yuna will place you under her protection, of course, but that doesn't help if they attack first and ask questions later. This Crimson Squad. Is it a branch of the Crusaders? I've never heard of it before."
"You wouldn't have, sir." Baralai's voice broke in from just ahead, and Auron realized that he and Nooj had caught up to Lulu and the Yevonite, who had slowed their pace while the two warriors had sped up. Baralai paused in his walking and bowed to Auron. "Pardon, I did not mean to interrupt."
Auron waved off the apology. "Please share any information that you have."
"Thank you, sir." Baralai bowed again, then continued. "The Crimson Squad is a secret unit, and formed very recently. The Crusaders have suffered severe losses in the last year, and so the Maester has taken them directly under his command."
"Has he." Auron raised an eyebrow. "In my day, the Crusaders were only technically an arm of Yevon -- the Maester let the generals run things, content to depend on the warrior monks as the temples' military force."
Baralai nodded. "Some months ago, Bevelle wrested back control of the Crusaders as well. We were told that the Crimson Squad was a sort of officer training program, meant to bring new recruits quickly up to speed so that they could take command positions. The true purpose of the squad is anyone's guess, but I do know that it's a pet project of Maester Kinoc's."
The name hit Auron with the force of a falling boulder. "Maester Kinoc?" he repeated, dumbfounded. "Kinoc is a Maester?!"
"Yes," Lulu said. "He commands the warrior monks and the Crusaders." She cocked her head quizzically. "Why? Do you know him?"
Auron's mind buzzed with this unexpected tidbit. Kinoc. His old friend and rival, now risen to the highest position any warrior monk could aspire to hold. Just another surprise in a day full of them, he supposed. But he should have known. If Operation Mi'ihen's true purpose was as he suspected, it had Kinoc's fingerprints all over it.
Before long he realized that the eyes of the others were upon him, and he pulled himself out of memory and back to the discussion at hand. "We once served together," he said. "It is of no consequence."
"What do you think, Baralai?" Auron noted that Nooj's tone grew more confident as he asked his teammate for advice. "You know how the Maesters' minds work better than I. Have we any hope of approaching under truce without being shot on sight?"
Baralai sighed. "I don't think so. Paine and I might be able to get away with it, but you and Gippal are both too distinctive. You for obvious reasons, and Gippal because there were so few other Al Bhed in the Crimson Squad. No. Best not to risk it."
Nooj thoughtfully tapped the handle of his cane with a metal finger. "Sir Auron, do we know where the command center is located?"
Lulu gave the answer. "Atop the bluffs that overlook the Mushroom Rock shore. Maester Seymour directed us there."
"Thank you." Nooj inclined his head politely to the black mage, who nodded back. "I have an idea, sir. Perhaps it would be best if we all approached the command center together, until we meet up with the Crusaders who I expect to guard the outer perimeter. With luck, someone I know will be within their number and we can forestall any recapture attempt. At that point, my squad and I will stay behind and make our case to them. You can then lead Yuna's party on to the Maesters, where you will buy us enough time to gather the Crusaders together. Then, if all goes well, we can lead the team we have assembled on the command center. Is this an acceptable plan?"
Auron turned the suggestion over in his mind, searching it for holes and flaws. "It is a good plan," he decided. "But what will you do if you don't see anyone you know?"
"That's unlikely, sir," Baralai interjected. "If there are Crusaders there, they will know Nooj, by reputation at least."
"It is a fair concern, however," said Nooj, frowning. "I suppose, in that case, we will just have to range further afield to find our converts."
"All right." Auron nodded. "It is a start. Walk with me, and we can discuss the details."
"Aye sir." The group of four began to move down Mushroom Rock Road once again, plotting and planning and forging the connections they would need if they were to fight together.
The afternoon had seemed unusually long even with all the new information to absorb and the new people to accept. There was an unfamiliar formality between the two lovers -- Nooj and Paine. Where an easy camaraderie had marked their interactions, now there was an exaggerated deference one to the other, a delicate dance of courtesy which had nothing to do with manners and everything to do with distrust. Nooj had told the other three of his squad that he would continue to have confidence in them but Paine, with her almost preternatural sensitivity to his thoughts, detected a wariness in the man. He did not forgive readily and forgot not at all and she knew he had been badly shaken by the behavior of which she had been a part.
She had not actually given Gippal the go-ahead to put the pain medication in their captain's food, but she had let him take the pill and had not warned him against such a stunt. She could tell herself as often as she wished that she had thought he would only try to persuade Nooj to take the anodyne; she could not convince herself that was true. What she did know was that sleep would elude her until she had settled the question of her guilt once and for all.
When the night had prevented their moving further down the Mushroom Rock Road, the extended party had spread out to find sleeping arrangements where they could. Paine had luckily located a niche against the stone wall, one which was just large enough for two and was conveniently screened by a sort of gate stone so that no casual passer-by was likely to spy it. It was here she led Nooj.
"Does your uncle know about us?" he asked as he began to unbuckle her garments. "Should we sleep apart?"
"No and no," she answered, helping him with the fastenings. "I didn't have the opportunity to tell him because it just didn't come up. He'll figure it out soon enough."
Once she was out of her clothing, both turned their attention to his. "Will he have any objections? After all, you could have an intact man without even trying." Nooj removed his sidearm and laid it on the ground.
"Don't be an idiot. You're intact as far as I care." She gave him an explicit caress to prove her point. "Auron's a Warrior; he knows how things go in battles."
Nooj carefully lowered himself beside her. Even in the half shadow of the little alcove, her skin glowed like lilies. Resolutely, he resisted the temptation to fling himself on her. "Paine, were you a part of that travesty today?" He had not meant to bring it up so abruptly but he had to know.
"Part of it." She propped herself up on one elbow and faced him, her other hand stroking the scarred skin on his side. "I let Gippal take the pill. I didn't ask why."
"You didn't tell him to put it in my food? To deceive me?" Nooj wanted so much to hear her deny her complicity.
"No, but I probably should have figured he would do something like that. That's the way his mind works." She continued her movements and watched his tensions began to fade. "I should have been more careful. It was the wrong thing to do and won't happen again. I swear it on your body and mine. The last thing on this earth I want to do is hurt you." She dropped a kiss on his nipple, then straightened up and looked deeply into the dark mirrors of his eyes. "There is just one thing, Nooj. I would never hurt you, but I also can't bear to see you hurting. Will you trust me to give you the pain medicine when I see you need it?"
"Are you asking that I accept your judgment over my own?" He was reluctant to admit it, even to himself, but he was pleased at this demonstration of her concern for him. It fed into the firmly suppressed but swelling conviction that she genuinely valued what they had together. He had not thought to have such a relationship again after his frightful mutilations and was hesitant to believe in Paine's apparent devotion. This indication that he had not been replaced in her life by the rediscovery of her celebrated uncle was both surprising and reassuring. He almost said as much to her until his pride intervened.
"No. It's just that you get busy and -- to tell the truth -- you don't think about taking the pills." She laughed somewhat shakily. "Sometimes, I think you forget they're there. I won't make a public deal about it, just trust me to remind you. I can tell when you're hurting."
"You're right. I do forget that they're available. All right, remind me if you think I'm being stupid. Just don't do it so openly."
Impatiently, he pulled her down to hold her head against his chest and she could both hear and feel the steady beat of his heart accelerating against her ear. The coolness of the machina hand touched between her legs and she quivered with excitement.
"Not yet," she whispered. "Let me." Curving her body voluptuously, she slid down until her lips could reach their goal. Nooj lay back, cupping her head tenderly, and accepted her ministrations with a deep soft groan of pleasure.
Their coupling was not the less intense and satisfying for being conducted in silence. Paine sensed the emotional barrier between them dissolving as they rediscovered their mutual need for one another. She was almost choked by the fervor of her love for this strangely sensitive man, a love she was afraid to express lest she drive him away, and returned his passion with molten fire of her own. They were one again.
Later, they lay coiled together, cocooned in contentment, until sleep claimed them. When the first light of the morning prodded their lids to open, they looked at one another and smiled.