(New to the story? Start at the beginning.)
The beach was illuminated with various fires around which had gathered little clusters of men and women, celebrating their triumph and reliving their more heroic moments. Crusaders mixed with Al Bhed without regard to sectarian differences. They were all Warriors for the Good now, an army vowed to set Spira free of the suffocating dominance of the Maesters and their vicious regime. They sat and talked about great victories both physical and political, victories which would restore their world to its better self and offer a chance for each inhabitant to live in peace and prosperity, rid of the threat of slavery and sudden death. They were young and idealistic and Nooj observed them with cynical wonderment.
He stood irresolute for a moment until he spotted the Crusader Captains Squab and Ferata sprawled on the ground toward his right. They had found a place at a campfire and were tiredly but voraciously downing what food came to their hands. He limped in that direction, trying to avoid attracting too much attention while still paying the required respects to those warriors who recognized him. His energy had begun to return and the aching heaviness of his body had lessened. Someday, he would have to ask Baralai just what was in that medication. It was far more effective than anything he had been given at the Luca hospital. The image of a smiling Paine holding the pill on the flat of her palm flashed on his mental screen and he felt a sharp pang of desire. Perhaps she was a part of the treatment.
He had covered no more that half the distance when Ferata looked up, saw him coming and nudged Squab. The two men clambered to their feet and rushed to intercept him.
"Major, when we saw you standing up in front of us, we couldn't believe it was you! We heard about the battle at the Moonflow and thought you'd died." Squab saluted his former leader with solemnity.
"I took some damage, as you can see, but I lived. How are you two? Did any others of our group survive?" Nooj was beginning to become irritated at having to explain his condition to everyone who had known him in the past. He had never been willing to talk about his own private affairs and was now even less inclined to satisfy the inquisitiveness of others. However, he was forced to accept the fact that he was going to have to reference his survival if only briefly in order to get past the human moment of curiosity. He could read that in the face of Ferata, who had yet to utter a word.
"No, sir. Just Ferata and me," Squab answered sadly. "The ones who didn't die at the Moonflow, went in some of the battles after that one. There's just Ferata and me."
"Then we must make it our business to avenge the others. They were good men and women and Spira is diminished by their loss. Ferata, are you still developing your skills?" He would have bitten back the words the instant he said them. Now what if Ferata took his statement to mean that Nooj wanted him back as a healer?
Fortunately, Ferata did not seem to be thinking in that direction. "Not so much in the healing arts as in the martial ones, sir. Are you doing well? With the injuries and all?" Ferata had never excelled in tact, and the months which had intervened since the two men had last met had not instructed him in that grace.
"As you see. I'm mobile and able to fight to a limited degree. That's more than I had any right to expect after I met Sin."
Squab intervened. "Major, I saw you fighting during the day. You are as formidable as ever. I had no idea you would be able to use your bare hand so effectively. When I watched you casually pinch the heads off those flying fiends, I thought I was seeing things. And it looks like you've learned to use one of those machina rifles like a pro."
"Have you tried one yet? The last I heard, the Crusaders were integrating them into the force." Nooj chose to change the subject. It was an old trick of his; most people preferred to talk about themselves.
Squab shook his head. "Nah. They never got enough to pass them out to anybody except the commanders' favorites. Ferata and me, we're still using the blades. And that's another thing - when did you get so good with the dagger? I don't remember seeing you fight with one before."
Nooj replied somewhat grimly, "When you can't manage a sword anymore, you go with what you can. The guns are too slow and clumsy for hand to hand fighting so the dagger is an improvement."
"It doesn't matter what you use, Major, you're still the greatest Warrior I've ever known." This surprising statement came out of the mouth of Ferata who was not often heard to make such a comment. "There's just something in you that makes you a giant on the battlefield. I think part of it is that you're not scared of anything. -- No, I don't know. I just see you as the Warrior we all use as our model. You're what we want to be."
"You're talking rot, Ferata." Nooj placed a hand on the younger man's shoulder. "I am not what you say. But let that pass. Are the two of you going to stay with the army and help destroy the Maesters?"
Both men drew themselves up to attention and made the formal Crusader salute to their former commander. "Yes sir. If you will have us, sir."
Wakka crouched down by the fire, absently warming his hands against the flames. Night was approaching, and though it was still late summer, this windy coast seemed cold in comparison to his native tropics. He had kept himself busy this afternoon, aiding Yuna and the other healers as they tended the injured, then helping Kimahri and some of the Crusaders gather together the dead for a sending. But now all his tasks were done for the day, the sun was starting to set behind the bluffs, and he could avoid thinking no longer.
During today's first battle, he had taken up a defensive position by Yuna and stayed there. And when Maester Kinoc had escaped, Wakka had made no move to stop him, although he'd still been in throwing range and could probably have been halted by a sleep spell or a hard enough blow to the head. Lulu and Kimahri had withdrawn as well, and in the end none of the three of them had needed to fight -- the Crusaders had kept the warrior monks busy enough that none got anywhere near Yuna. And then they had all thrown themselves wholeheartedly into the Sinspawn battle; in a way, Wakka had been relieved to go up against such an uncomplicated enemy.
The blitzer didn't think anyone had noticed their hanging back. But that couldn't last forever. If this campaign continued, eventually he would have to make a choice. He would have to fight, or he would have to quit. Yesterday, he'd told Yuna that he would stick by her no matter what she decided, but deep down he hadn't really believed that she would choose to go up against the Maesters. Now that she had, he wasn't quite sure what to do.
His mind buzzed, turning over everything that had happened in the last two days, so busy that he almost didn't notice Lulu sitting down next to him. "How are you?" she asked, neatly arranging her skirts over her legs.
Wakka sighed. "Geez, Lu. I dunno. Everything that Maester Kinoc said and did... it's true, isn't it. What they said about Yevon."
"It seems likely." Lulu turned her gaze into the fire. "Yuna certainly thinks so."
Lulu shook her head. "I-- I am not certain. I know I sounded so, up on the bluffs. But Maester Kinoc made me so angry, and all I could think of was Chappu. We still don't know exactly how he died. What if it wasn't an honest battle against Sin, but some mad scheme of the Maesters? His life, so many lives, wasted..." With a puff of breath, she tipped her head back, looking at the sky. "Sin takes enough from us. We don't need Yevon taking even more."
"Yeah, I guess." Wakka leaned back on his hands, stretching out his back. "Just wish I knew who to believe."
Silence fell between the two as they sat by the fire, lost in their own separate thoughts as each wondered what the next day would bring.
Gippal took a seat by an empty campfire, pulling out his pistol with the intent to clean it. It had been a busy day, full of talking, then fighting, and then fixing things, and he was glad for a moment to just sit and relax. But the moment came to an end almost before it started when he felt a presence looming over him.
"What's up?" he asked, turning, and almost jumped out of his skin when he saw Auron standing at his back. "Sir? What can I do for you?" He scrambled to his feet.
The legendary warrior smiled slightly behind his collar. "Sorry to startle you. I have a favor to ask."
"Of you," Auron confirmed. "Sometime tomorrow, I would like you to show me how to use a machina weapon. I have no intention of giving up my sword, of course, but there may be a time when fighting with firearms becomes necessary. I wish to be prepared."
"Yeah, I can do that," Gippal replied. "But why me?"
Auron considered him seriously. "Because Nooj and Paine both tell me you are an excellent shot and a fine teacher, and I trust their judgment. And also because you may understand certain challenges I might face in learning to use one."
Gippal found a hand drifting up to touch his eye patch, then quickly stopped it, clasping both hands behind his back instead. "No problem," he said. "Just come find me when you have some time. I can probably teach you the basics in an hour or so, as long as you aren't afraid of machina."
"That won't be as issue," Auron assured him. "Thank you, Gippal."
"Sure." Gippal nodded at the guardian as he turned and walked away. He was still standing there when Paine and Baralai came up to him.
"Hey," said Paine. "You eaten yet?"
"Hmm? Oh, no. Thanks." He took the bowl that she offered and then ripped off a piece of the bread that Baralai held in his hand. The three comrades sat down and ate quietly for a little while, enjoying the easy familiarity of each other's company.
Once finished eating, Paine took a swig of water out of her flask and passed it to Baralai. "Guys, I've been meaning to apologize for the way everything started, how I dragged you into all this so suddenly. But there was just no time to explain, and I didn't want my uncle to get away."
Gippal shrugged. "'S okay."
"We understand," Baralai agreed. "Although it is a bit to get used to, the idea that Sir Auron is of your family."
"Yeah." Paine rested an arm on her raised knee, stretching out the leg she had splayed on the ground. "Sorry I sprang that on you, too. Maybe I should have said something before, but, well, it didn't seem to matter, really, and... I don't much like talking about my past."
Baralai rubbed her back lightly and smiled at her. "We understand that, too."
"Mm." Paine smiled back, then leaned over to look at Gippal. "So, how do you think everything went today?"
"So well." Gippal ran a hand through his hair with a satisfied grin. "I can't believe how easily the Crusaders are getting along with us."
Baralai nodded. "Perhaps it's because they were already planning this joint operation, so the groundwork for working with the Al Bhed had already been laid. I do have to wonder, though, whether Crusaders who did not participate today will be as easily turned." And so the three fell into easy conversation, just as they had every night since learning to care for and trust one another.
When he had finished making the rounds, comforting the wounded and congratulating the whole, Nooj became increasingly aware of an edginess in his body, an inability to think as clearly and directly as usual. He felt driven and uncomfortable, unable to settle anywhere.
Aimlessly, he limped about the camp, snatching an offered bite of food at the various bonfires. The Crusaders and the Al Bhed mingled freely, continuing to cement their newly-forged bonds of respect with shared rations and tall tales of prowess. An air of easy camaraderie prevailed over all.
He was not quite sure when it came to him that he was searching for Paine, but the sight of her talking to Gippal and Baralai made him tremble slightly like an animal which has scented home. He made his way through the scattered clumps of people until he was at her side.
"Will you come with me, Paine?" He whispered into her ear, gripping her forearm with his right hand hard enough to feel the shape of the bone under the firm skin. "Now?"
Without a word, she turned away from the others and permitted him to lead her away from the fires and the hum of conversation into the dimness of the road. It was immediately apparent to her where they were heading – the hidden refuge Nooj had discovered and revealed to his team when they had first camped in this area, in the time when the Crimson Squad was forming.
Silently, they made their way toward the opening in the rocky wall, through the narrow passage and into the wider area behind the leaning stones. Paine felt her arm growing numb from the pressure of the fingers wrapped around it but did not want to say or do anything to disturb what she perceived as an overpowering impulse in the man at her side. It was only when they had come to the little oasis with the pool and mossy grass beyond that he released her and they faced one another.
Nooj was having difficulty sorting through the churning emotions which were inhabiting him, whip-sawing him with confusing drives. At one moment, he wanted to cling to Paine as if to a mother, resting his head in her lap and letting her assure him that he was all right, that he could still hold his own in battle with his peers. At another, he wanted to leap upon her like a conqueror, forcing her to submit to his will, to service him and bring him to exhausted completion. And still again, he longed to lie alongside her, stroking her ivory flesh and gently joining with her in the endless games of passion. Whatever he wanted, he knew without question it was with and from her. There was no other human in his mind, no other partner he desired. She was his culmination, his need.
"Paine." His voice was rough and unsteady. "Paine, I ... I need you." There, he had said it and it could not be unsaid. He had confessed to her that she was of importance to his life. He had given her a part of himself which he had always kept in reserve. "I need you." The words of a weakling? Or of a man secure in his own strength? He did not know. Only that he had said them and she had heard.
Paine felt a response welling up in her throat, the words that she had been holding back for so long and that a part of her so desperately wanted to say. She'd thought she had them under control, but now, in the face of this raw admission, they threatened to burst forth in a torrent. Somehow, though, she beat them back with a hard swallow, pushing the words down, wrestling them into the corner of her self where she kept them safely hidden. She would not, could not allow him to know. Not as long as he still wanted Death more than her.
Instead, she stepped into his arms and looked into his eyes, taking in the storm that raged there. And she gathered together all the love in her heart and shared it with him the only way she could, pressing her mouth against his in a passionate kiss, holding nothing back.
He felt her body mold against his and wrapped her in his embrace, unwilling to permit even the slightest gap between them. For a very long time, they stood thus, his tongue plundering her, feeding on the honey of her mouth. Then he began the unbuckling of her harness, using his right hand so that he could rely on touch to bare her for his pleasure.
When his urgency grew so great that he had to shift back from her to open the last of the belts, he found he was panting and his vision slightly blurred. And when she stood naked before him, he almost stumbled and fell at her feet. Only the support of her arms as she pulled at his clothing kept him upright. With the slowness of a dream, they fell together to the green bed which had cradled them so often in the past. The sweet pungency of the moss befuddled their senses as they clung to one another like two lost angels tumbling through clouds and rainbows. He pulled her leg over his hip and entered her without delay, unable to wait any longer before encasing himself in her like a sword thrust into its sheath.
He plunged into her again and again with increasing speed and power until at last he filled her with his seed, arching his back so that he reached as deeply into her warmth as was possible. Crying out sharply as he achieved his climax, he held his position for an endless moment, frozen like the eidolon of passion itself. Paine pressed herself to him, holding him within until she felt him begin to soften. Even then, he did not ease his embrace but only shifted so that he could hold her head tightly to his chest. She lay content in his arms, hearing the frantic pounding of his heart gradually slow against her ear. His lips were pressed into her hair and she thought he was murmuring her name but the words were lost in the intoxication of the moment. They remained so for aeons until she felt him stir again.
Wordlessly, Nooj struggled to his feet and led her to the pool where they submerged themselves in the cool waters and lazily bathed one another, pausing from time to time to explore with kisses those parts newly aroused. Still silently, they moved to the bank again and lay back on the mossy grass. Paine knelt at his waist, bending forward to take him into her mouth. His right hand sought and found the small organ which he knew was the font of her pleasure.
Paine felt his fingers slip inside her, gently massaging and manipulating even as she fondled his most sensitive parts with her lips and tongue. She began to sense her body quivering on the brink of that great cascade of pleasure as her attentions to him brought him deeper into her throat. Thus doubly penetrated, she felt the onset of his tremor as her own climax neared. Only the little moans of delight which could not be suppressed broke the crystalline spell which lay over the hidden glade. When they had felt the shaking of the universe together, they stretched side by side once more, his tongue deep inside her mouth, her palms on either side of his head, holding him to her as though she would perish if they parted.
Later, when they at last lay spent for a time, Nooj pulled Paine against his body, holding her head in its familiar place against the wide arch of his chest and stroking her hair with a gentle hand. She nuzzled him happily, arranging her own limbs so that they fitted comfortably together.
"Paine," he said softly, his face turned away so that he was speaking into the distance. "Listen to me." He was almost inaudible. "I'm never going to be what I was. I thought I could get it back, the skills and the ability. But it won't happen. I'm not ever going to be a swordsman again and I can't fight as well other ways. I don't know what to do. I don't know any other way and there are reasons ..." He fell silent. In his depths, he did not know why he was burdening her with such knowledge; it was unlike him but he did not seem to be able to stop. "I'm not a Warrior any more, just a soldier. I don't know which way to go." His throat closed and he pressed her to him more firmly so that she could not look directly in his face.
She did not move, barely even dared to breathe, afraid that she might break whatever spell had caused Nooj to make such a confession. First to tell her that he needed her, and now to admit his feelings about everything he thought he had lost -- it was far more than she had ever expected. She waited, giving him space in case he had more to say, but as the silence stretched out it became apparent that he was done talking and now waited for her response.
Lifting her hand from where it rested on the remains of his left shoulder, she stroked his face with great tenderness. When she felt him start to relax, she slipped her head from his grip and propped herself up on an elbow, laying her hand on his cheek and turning his face toward hers. "Captain," she said softly.
His eyes flicked downward and he began to look away again. "I'm not worthy--"
"Yes, you are." Paine exerted gentle pressure with her palm, forcing him to meet her gaze. He did so, reluctantly, and she nearly gasped at the depths of despair she found in his eyes. She thought again about his quest to die, and for just a moment, she wondered if it might not be best to let him go, to free him from the life he saw as such a burden. The thought was fleeting, though, replaced by panic at the idea of going on without him. No, she could not release him. She needed Nooj just as much as he needed her.
She traced the shape of his face with her fingers, then ran her hand over his hair from his forehead to the crown where the braids began. "You are worthy," she continued, still gazing into his eyes. "The Crusaders have seen you fight and proclaimed you their leader. They look at you, and they see a Warrior. Do you know how many people I heard talking after the battles today, marveling at your skill with the gun and the power of your machina hand? They're in awe of you. You've become their captain, as you are mine."
Nooj let out a shuddering breath that might have been a sigh. Paine shifted yet again, sitting up, pulling his head against her torso, still stroking his hair. He leaned his cheek against her stomach. "Nooj, please hear me." Her voice was still soft and gentle but also firm. "No, you aren't the man you were before. That is true; I don't deny it. But I don't care about that man. I never even knew him. Neither did Gippal, or Baralai, or my uncle. All we know, all that matters, is the man you are now. This man is the one who Auron chose to be at his side to fight Yevon, the one we follow as our captain, the one I-- have chosen to share my bed and body." As she changed her words mid-sentence, she realized how close she had come yet again to an admission she didn't think he was ready to hear. She bent down to drop a tender kiss on the top of his head. He looked at her, and she saw with a rush of relief that his anguish had turned to doubt mingled with hope, that he wanted desperately to believe everything she had just said, but couldn't quite bring himself to accept it.
"It is truth," she assured him. "I will never say anything to you that is not. I swear this by everything I hold dear." She lay back down, still holding his head to her body. He nestled between her breasts and wrapped his arms around her, clinging to her as if she were the only thing anchoring him to the world. Paine only needed to twist her neck slightly to rest her head against his, breathing him in and letting him draw the strength and comfort he needed.
Eventually Paine began to soothe him with her touch, pressing her lips lightly against his hair, his forehead, his temple. Nooj raised his face to hers, and they shared a kiss of nearly infinite tenderness. Their bodies pulled together even more tightly, and Paine felt a stirring in her core that was echoed by her lover's growing arousal. Without a word, she rolled him onto his back, placed a hand on either side of his face, and lowered herself onto him. A hiss of pleasure escaped him as he slipped inside her; he lifted his hands to the small of her back and pulled her so close, and she let out a soft moan. As one, they began to move, slowly and carefully at first, increasing in speed and urgency as their eyes locked, leaving nothing in the world but their passion for one another. She rode him until he found his release, throwing his head back with a deep groan, and then she followed him over the peak, shaking and shuddering uncontrollably, waves of ecstasy carrying her away as she cried out his name.
They collapsed there together, still joined and completely satiated. Paine buried her face in Nooj's chest, and he twisted his fingers into her hair. She wanted to lie there forever, feeling his warm muscles beneath her cheek and lightly tracing the scars that mapped his body with her fingertips, but exhaustion soon came to claim them both. She slid to his side and curled into him, where they fell almost instantly into a deep, peaceful slumber.
Paine is on the Calm Lands. It is a beautiful spring day, the sun warm but not too bright, a light breeze rustling the grass and ruffling her hair. She is dueling, her opponent a girl of about her age. This girl is taller than Paine and quite beautiful, with even features, long brown hair coiled at the back of her head, and hazel eyes crackling with intelligence. They are fighting with swords. It is a serious fight in that both women want to win, but they are also smiling, laughing, trading good-natured insults. At its heart, this is a friendly sparring match.
Nooj is there, observing; Paine can see him out of the corner of her eye. She has no attention to spare, but with her uncanny ability to sense him, she can feel him watching the fight with keen interest. She knows that he is enjoying this display and that when she wins -- and she will win; the two warriors are closely matched, but the other girl is starting to fade and Paine herself is just catching her second wind -- he will reward her with pleasures of the flesh, and her chest tightens in eager anticipation at the thought.
The fight goes on for what seems like hours before Paine sees an opening and takes it, lunging forward and disarming her opponent. The loose sword tumbles through the air, flashing silver in the sunlight. The force of Paine's blow causes the other girl to whirl around. She starts to yield with a laugh, but the laugh turns into a sudden cry of agony as a thunderbolt appears from the clear blue sky and strikes her breast, tearing it open. Paine can only watch in horror as her sparring partner jerks violently and then crumples to the ground, dead.
A long moment passes in which Paine is frozen to the spot, unable to move or to speak. And then the young woman rises to her feet, spinning around again, her wounds healed, and is changed. She grows taller, harder, her hair turning dark as night and her eyes now black and flashing. Somehow she has acquired another sword; she leaps at Paine, and the duel begins anew. But the tone of the fight has shifted, and Paine suddenly realizes that she is battling for her life.
This is no girl that Paine is fighting now; this creature is much older. Older than Paine, older than Sin, older than Spira itself. She fights with a heavy broadsword, and somehow Paine knows that this is Nooj's sword, the blade he used when he was still whole. She can no longer see Nooj. His presence is receding, moving further from her with every crash of steel on steel. And then she understands that she fights for Nooj's life as well as her own, that his fate depends on her victory. She redoubles her efforts, but the other woman is too strong, easily parrying every thrust and slash. Paine is tiring. Soon she will slip, or be unable to answer an attack, and all will be lost.
The wind has risen and now Paine is being whipped by a ferocious gale. A shadow falls over the battlefield, and she looks up to see Sin floating in the sky, blotting out the sun like a roiling thunderhead. She screams, and the world spirals into nothingness.
Paine woke with a start. It was the same dream again, exactly as before. She didn't have it every night but it came often enough, ever since she had stopped Nooj from giving himself to the sand-bear on Bikanel. Sitting up, she examined Nooj to reassure herself that he lived, placing a hand on his chest to feel its steady rise and fall. His strong heart beat beneath her palm, and she let out a sigh of relief.
"Next time, my love," she whispered, using the word she only dares to speak when she knows he cannot hear. "Next time, I will win, and I will save you. I swear it." Her oath made, she lay back down by his side and fell into a sleep without dreams.