Kal found Auron brooding alone in the dark, resting his arm against a tree, staring up at the stars but seeing only his memories of Zanarkand's neon-lit night sky.
Ever since leaving Paine at the fireside, his thoughts had been dark, his emotions in turmoil. Auron had spent the last thirty-five years making sacrifices -- relinquishing his freedom to serve Yevon, setting aside ties of friends and family to journey with Braska and stop Sin, losing his life in his first bid to defeat Yunalesca, and now postponing his eternal rest to take her on a second time. To smash Yevon, and to free Jecht, and to bring the cycle of death that had a stranglehold on Spira to its final end: these were his goals, and he would do anything to bring them about. Anything. His own existence was as nothing in comparison.
But more and more, he was finding that he was not only sacrificing himself. Braska, Jecht, possibly Tidus -- he was still unclear on what would actually happen to the dream world and its inhabitants once Sin was defeated; at the very least he thought it certain that the boy would never be able to return home. The lives of everyone who had joined his crusade. Yuna's innocence, her faith, and that of her other guardians. And now Paine's childhood as well, lost because he had not been there to protect her.
Who was he, to make these kinds of decisions for others, to drag hundreds of people into his personal vendetta?
And yet. He was saving the world, wasn't he? When all this was over, Spira and all its people would be free. What did it matter what his motives were? Wasn't it worth the price, any price? Paid willingly or not? It did no one any good to wallow in regrets and second thoughts like this.
These were the thoughts spinning uselessly in his mind, coming full circle and going nowhere, when Kal came up behind him and lightly touched his shoulder. "Auron."
The guardian did not turn around. "Do not try to tell me that I am not at fault," he said quietly. "There is truth to that, but neither am I completely blameless."
"Okay, I won't say it." Kal crossed his arms and stepped back. "But really, what could you have done differently?"
"I could have come back," Auron replied. "After Braska's death. I could have returned for Paine, taken her away from Kilika, and found her a quiet life somewhere. Luca, maybe, or on Besaid with Yuna. I could have done that."
Kal tipped his head thoughtfully. "Could you have?"
The silence was profound and long, broken only by the soft chirping of night insects and a gently whistling breeze, while Auron looked deeply into what remained of his soul. Then he spoke.
"No." It was a whisper, deep, ragged, anguished.
Kal nodded. "Well then."
Auron dropped his hand from the tree's trunk and turned to look at his friend. "Do you know what the last thing Johar said to me was?" Kal shook his head, and Auron sighed. "Neither do I. I can't remember. He left on that patrol, and we all thought it was routine. No parting words, no final wishes. Just another morning in Kilika. So I never promised to take care of Paine. Not that day, or on any before it. It just never occurred to either of us that he might die first. I was the one leading men into battle, and he had a family to live for."
"Is that what kept you away?" Kal asked. "A promise?"
Kal waited, and Auron wrestled with his next words for what felt like a very long time.
"I can't tell you," he finally said. "If I could tell anyone, I-- but I can't. I'm sorry."
"I understand." Kal looked straight at him. "We all have our secrets, our oaths to keep, even if only with ourselves. If you need to keep yours, I can't fault you for it." He glanced over his shoulder, the last vestiges of the evening's campfires burning out in the distance. "C'mon, let's get back to camp while we can still find it."
Nothing of great moment happened in the next day or so save for a peculiar event as they wound their way through the dense forest behind Guadosalam.
Nooj was moving at the front of the army as was his custom. The main force was trailing behind further than usual because of the difficulty in getting the supply wagons over a stretch of marshland. His habitual companions, Aquelev and Paine, were also absent -- the one helping with unsticking a cart from a bog, the other having a quick word with her uncle. So the commander was alone, a state of affairs which was entirely agreeable to him. He had been occupied in thought of late; so many changes had taken place and so much of the bedrock of his life had been shaken. He was mulling over the adjustments he had been forced to make and how they had affected the remaining principles by which he lived when he became aware of movement and noise in the brush just ahead.
As he edged nearer, he could see the flailing tentacles of an Ochu, no -- three Ochu. He could not remember seeing more than one at a time before and was curious as to what had brought so many together. Then he spotted the remains of what seemed to be a crustacean on the ground, being picked at and consumed by the carnivorous plants. He was not sure of the identity of their prey but for three to be fighting over a single victim spoke to a level of hungry desperation which spelled danger for any passing through this area. His first instinct was to turn back and warn the army behind him and direct it to move to the east of this spot.
Before he could act, the whisper of his omnipresent desire sounded in his brain. He could walk into the melee and have it all done. He was not carrying his big gun -- Aquelev was serving as his armsbearer today -- and armed with only his dagger and his pistol, he would have no chance of surviving against three Ochu. They were plentifully supplied with both defensive and offensive abilities and he was alone. No one would see and if any of his body remained, it would be assumed he had been caught by surprise. He laughed sardonically. Of course, one arm and one leg would remain. Even Ochu did not eat machina. All he had to do was to stroll into the savage feast and become the new entree. He found himself several steps closer to that place.
He could die. It was all made so easy for him. He could find the quietus he longed for. All he had to do was take, at most, a half-dozen more steps. The passion began to absorb him, to take physical command of his body. Just a few more paces ...
Auron! The guardian was between him and his objective, as firm and solid as he had ever been. Nooj knew it could not be the actual figure of his mentor but it seemed so and the younger man was not willing to put it to the test by walking through the image. Once had been enough. The sight of the mythic hero hit him like an icy bath. He stopped and stood, paralyzed and aghast.
He had given his word and under no circumstances could he break it. His honor was forfeit if he did. He was still frozen in place when Paine moved to his side.
"Nooj," she murmured as softly as possible. "You mustn't go there."
He moved several steps back from the scene of carnage. "No. I must tell the army to avoid this route. Come."
They walked together until they encountered Aquelev and alerted him to the danger. He ran back to deliver the news and to set the troops in a fresh direction. Nothing more was said or needed to be said.
However, that night and after, Paine wondered at what she had seen before she approached him. Would he have continued to walk forward to greet Death? What was he thinking just before she spoke? She shivered in the darkness and, when she finally slept, she found herself on the Calm Lands once again, fighting for her life -- and his.
The growing army had emerged from the dense forest which surrounded Guadosalam several hundred bodies larger. As word of the rebellion spread, more individuals and small groups sought them out, some traveling great distances to cast their lot with those who would free them from the tyrannies of the Maesters. Nooj had not thought there would be so many disaffected people in an area so sparsely inhabited. He was reminded of the old adage: "One has only to see the good in order to embrace it."
The main problem was in providing training for the inexperienced while continuing to move the mass of people forward. He addressed this question by closely integrating the new members with the most disciplined and well taught of the Crusaders. The latter were instructed to help the recruits and bring them up to standards. So far it was working better than might have been expected.
Now another major challenge lay just ahead. The Thunder Plains was their next obstacle. The area must be crossed in order to reach the Macalania Woods and, eventually, Bevelle. Already they were in the twilight zone which lay between the Guadosalam lands and the eternally dark stormy world of the Plains. The subfusc clouds which blanketed the sky ahead could be clearly seen on the horizon. He looked forward and tried to ignore the seething ferment in his mind.
Was he losing his focus, the single-minded pursuit which had motivated him most of his life? Why had he hesitated to walk into the nest of Ochu? Had he suddenly become a coward? He shuddered in spite of the heat and felt his foundation grow unstable at the thought. Nooj looked back with longing to a time when things were simpler, when he had been certain of his faith -- or lack of it. Perhaps he had been a naif, unwilling to explore his bed-rock beliefs. However, it had been familiar, that recent past.
He had walked an unvarying path toward Death, diverted only by the damnable interference of the Al Bhed surgeons. And now he was being buffeted from all directions and was no longer able to see his destination clearly. He felt increasingly lost and uncertain. All of a sudden, he longed irresistibly for Paine, her comforting presence and soothing touch.
"Greetings, Commander." A seductive voice interrupted his thoughts. "I've brought something you may find helpful."
"Lulu, I didn't see you coming. Is all well with you?" He owed the black mage for her help and advice is preparing his peculiarly vulnerable body for the dangers of the transit just before them. "Yuna kindly told me she is ready to cast the anti-thunder spells when we enter the Plains."
Lulu moved closer and patted his arm. "Yes, I reminded her. But I've put together an amulet to give you some added protection here ..." She placed her palm on his left hip and ran her touch down the sheath which helped support the prosthetic leg. "Just let me put this in place and you should be in good shape for tomorrow."
Nooj could feel her fingers on the living part of his thigh as she secured a flat badge under the metal and against the remaining muscle. Against his will, his body began to respond and he had to struggle to control it.
"Here!" Lulu murmured with a little caress to the inner part of his leg. "That should do it. It will hold against the metal."
He gritted his teeth and swallowed hard before he could speak. "Thank you. You have done so much."
"No more than I wanted to do." She gave him a meaningful glance. "Is there anything else we need to take care of? Any other amulets that need adjusting?"
Unable to think of anything else to do, Nooj took her hand and kissed the palm. "Everything seems to be fine. I trust you will protect yourself. Your loss would be devastating."
Lulu beamed with delight and cupped her hand around his chin, drawing his face to her and bestowing a kiss on the corner of his mouth. "You are too kind." She walked away, casting a final lingering look over her bare shoulder.
Nooj took a very deep breath and, manfully, mastered his thoughts.
"She kissed him!" Paine could not decide whether to be furious or heart-broken and the confusion was reflected in the crack in her voice. "She kissed him and he let her!"
Aquelev put a consoling hand on hers. "It wasn't a real kiss, more like what a mother might ..."
"Oh, please! It was a real kiss and she couldn't keep her hands off him. And what did he mean kissing her hand like that?" Anger was beginning to win the contest.
"Shhh. He'll hear you. I think he was just being courteous. Remember, he told you she had given him some amulets to protect him from the lightning. She's trying to help him."
Paine lowered her volume. "Well, she can just help him in front of me. She doesn't have to sneak around to catch him alone to help him. And did you see what a fool he made of himself?"
"N-no." The Al Bhed was not sure what the woman was referring to. Any man would have been aroused by the proximity of someone like Lulu. She was a tempting bit of flesh.
"He just can't control himself. He's a ... he's a ...." She couldn't bring herself to say what was on her tongue and, instead, dug her nails into her palms and shook with outrage. "He and I are going to have to have a talk. Or maybe it should be the black mage I talk to."
Aquelev could almost see scarlet sparks emanating from her eyes and thought it might be time to change the subject. "Come on, Paine. Let's get away from here and check out the supply train. That's where we were going. We can keep an eye on Lulu on our way."
Without a word, she spun on her heel and set out after the mage, leaving Aquelev to scurry after her to head off what would be a disastrous encounter.
"Hold it," he said as he caught up to her. Paine only shot a glare at him and did not pause, but he could tell she was listening. "You don't want to start something right now. We're on a mission. Remember. You can't let Sir Auron down. You know how Nooj is. He's an idiot where people are concerned, never thinks how things will look. Now, I grant you he is the smartest man I know when you talk about strategy, and he could inspire an army to march into the Farplane, but people?" He spread his hands in a gesture of dismissal. "He spends too much time on really deep thoughts to pay much attention to the human things." He pushed hurriedly on, ignoring Paine's exaggerated roll of the eyes. "He probably doesn't even realize Lulu is chasing him and, well, you know... I'll drop a hint in his ear as soon as I can get him by himself and put him on the alert about that woman's intentions. Just don't rock the boat."
Paine stopped dead in her tracks. "You honestly think he doesn't know?"
Aquelev nodded, holding his breath as he hoped that Paine would buy this line of reasoning.
"He is pretty innocent about that sort of thing," she said slowly. "I think he assumes no woman can want him because of- of the machina." Her hands, which had been balled into tight fists, went slack as the angry fire in her eyes dampened. "Okay. I'll hold off until I see him do something stupid. But if he does..."
The healer breathed a silent sigh of relief and shook the hand she held out to him. "He won't. I promise."
The army had made good progress on its way after a restful night spent in the camp in the twilight zone. Those recruits who had never served in an organized force were beginning to find their positions in the ranks and, by copying the actions of those who had been formally trained, were learning how to march without excessive fatigue.
So far the frequent lightning bolts had been harmlessly deflected by the towers which loomed over the rolling landscape. The constant echoing sound of the incessant storms was nerve-racking but not dangerous. Its principal disadvantage was that it masked ordinary sounds and so Nooj did not hear Aquelev moving toward him and only noticed his presence when the man touched his arm.
"You doing all right?" the healer asked courteously. "Anything I can do to help?"
"No." Nooj could not suppress a quick grin. The Al Bhed always started conversations with an offer of help. He had the true tribesman's instinct of buying acceptance. "Are you finding interesting companions and being happy here -- even as a minority?"
"Oh, I'm doing fine. Getting along better with the women than the man but that's the way it usually is." He preened a little. "From my observation, you're doing all right with the women, too." Aquelev peered slyly at his friend from the corner of his eye.
"What do you mean by that?" The Commander was suddenly stiff, the easy camaraderie vanishing as completely as ice in a campfire.
"Oh, nothing. C'mon, Nooj. I've known you a long time and I can tell when you're involved in things. Remember, we go back to the days you were cleaning out the Highroad and I've seen the way the women in your team and in the Travel Agencies look at you -- and the way you look at them."
"That was before. Now is now."
"Have it your way. If you think it's changed, you're blinder than I thought. Those spectacles aren't doing a thing for your real vision. It's pretty clear where Paine is spending her nights and where the black mage would like to spend hers. Believe it or not, anybody who bothers to notice can spot both those facts." Aquelev could be stuffy himself. And knew just how far he could push the taller man.
Nooj walked a little further in silence. Had he and Paine been overly indiscreet? Would her uncle be forced to take official notice? What the hell difference did it make? It was none of Auron's business. He had said as much -- while counseling discretion. Deep in his sub-conscious, Nooj still felt uncomfortable with the senior guardian's awareness of the relationship between the two of them. Then, it dawned on him what Aquelev had said about Lulu.
"The black mage -- Lulu? You think she's interested in me?"
"It's pretty obvious. That lady is still full of juices and she's ready to serve a pitcher-full to some lucky man. I would say you're her choice."
Nooj stuttered, "Preposterous! I've barely spoken to her."
"Speech is not what she has in mind, if my suspicious are correct." Aquelev raised an eyebrow. "And, you ought to take notice of this. I'm not the only one who has spotted the way she looks at you. Paine has too and she is not happy with the situation. My old friend, you are headed for a major problem if you don't take steps and settle this."
To his surprise, Nooj found himself oddly warmed inside at the thought Paine might be jealous of him. He had thought from time to time that she might have real feelings for him but had dismissed that as unsupported dreaming. Could she really care enough to resent another woman being around? Might that mean that her sharing his bed was more than just a convenience on her side and that she actually found him desirable as a man not just as a step up in her military career? True, he had no reason to think she was using their relationship for her advantage; she worried about him and lavished him with caresses. There had been moments, many of them, when he had been almost happy in her arms and had seen contented satisfaction reflected in her eyes. Could she ... love him? No. No woman with the perfection and advantages of Paine would devote herself to a grotesque freak like him. But, suppose she did?
Aquelev nudged him sharply. "Did you hear what I said? You need to get a handle on this before it gets too serious."
"Huh? Yes, I heard you and I'll handle it." The young commander tried to wrench his thoughts away from the renewed idea that Paine might really care and failed in the effort.
Nooj saw the beckoning light of the travel agency with relief. Half the Thunder Plains crossed! The towers had proved to be more effective than expected at attracting and grounding the fierce charges of electrical energy which plagued these flatlands. He had several times felt the tickle of the dancing power on his skin but on each occasion the amulets and the protective spell cast by Yuna had dampened it before it could come to fruition.
None of the others had been hurt either, not a single member of the army. They had all come safely to this refuge here near the mid-point of the stormy expanse.
The Travel Agency had been built on a spot chosen for its advantages by a team of Al Bhed engineers. The terrain was lower than most of its surroundings which provided natural protection and offered the chance to install permanent anti-lightning spells. The cost for those latter was immense but could be easily amortized by charging more for the privilege of staying at the Agency or camping on its grounds. Without this security no army would have attempted to cross the Thunder Plains, which always took at least two days.
So, Nooj congratulated himself, he had brought his troops this far and now they could rest and gird themselves for the final push on the morrow. The Macalania Woods would be an oasis of comfort after this.
"Looking forward to a night inside?" Auron, who had been walking alongside the commander, jutting his chin toward their destination.
Nooj flicked his eyes down toward the guardian. "Outside with the men is good enough for me, sir."
Auron raised an eyebrow. "Ought you to take that risk? I know Yuna has been casting protective spells on you, but she won't be able to spend all night renewing them." The younger man's face began to drift into a scowl, clearly unhappy to be reminded of his differences from most other soldiers, and so Auron hastened to add more neutral reasoning. "Besides, the commander needs to take every opportunity to refresh himself. A night's sleep in a real bed will do wonders for clearing your mind and keeping yourself sharp. I know I'll be happy to take advantage of it."
After a time of thought, during which Auron could see the machina fingers tighten around the cane, Nooj nodded. "You are correct, sir. I will stay inside with you and the pilgrims. The other senior officers should sleep indoors as well, if places can be found for them."
The men walked in silence for a bit longer. Then Auron glanced up at Nooj one more time and noticed that the other wore a peculiar expression, as though he were fighting a losing battle with curiosity. Auron allowed himself a quick smile before answering the unspoken question. "Yes. I don't require as much rest as I did in life, but I do still sleep."
Nooj's face relaxed immediately. "Thank you, sir. And my apologies. I meant no disrespect."
"I know you didn't. And I understand how... odd it must all seem, and how many questions you probably have. I do appreciate that you have not asked them."
"And I will continue not to ask." Nooj faced resolutely forward. "In truth, I think I would prefer not to know."
"Hmph!" Burying another smile in his collar, Auron once again fell quiet as the march continued.
Nooj had completed his nightly rounds of his company and was making his way to his own small room when he felt a light tug at his sleeve. Expecting to see Paine smiling archly at him, he was astonished to realize it was Lulu who had so quickly materialized at his side, almost like a summoned aeon.
"I wanted to know -- did you have any difficulties today? From the lightning, I mean?" She placed a light hand on his hip, checking the placement of the amulet she had given him. "I can tell you didn't take a hit but were there any near misses?"
"Huh? No. Just a tickle now and then, nothing to talk about. I am grateful for your concern." In the dim light of the passageway, the globes of her bosom glowed with what seemed internal light. He was transfixed by the sight, which drove other thoughts from his mind.
"Good." She looked up at him with her scarlet gaze, a little smile gracing her lilac lips. "I was worried about you." She raised herself on the balls of her feet, bringing her face nearer his and caressing the back of his neck with her other hand. "You are a very important man, you know."
"No, not really." He had no idea what he was saying. Words fell from his tongue but they made no sense. He was encapsuled in her perfume, in her touch, in her eyes.
"Why don't you come to my room and let me make sure everything is all right?" Lulu took him by the hand and began to lead him toward the chamber she had been assigned. He could think of no reason to refuse.
Once the door had closed behind them, Nooj could not later remember exactly what happened. He was aware of the woman's closeness and that she made no attempt to move away from him. That the bed was wide and inviting. That they were both somehow on that bed, joined in a kiss of incendiary passion, tongues twisting together as their hands frantically pushed aside clothing. Her breasts were liberated from their lacing and her nipples erect to his searching lips. Her fingers plunged into his hair and held his head where they both wanted it to be.
Then he was lying beside her and she was working at the fastenings of his breeches, her own garments mostly cast aside and the dark strands of her hair swirling about her head like agitated serpents. Nooj poised his left hand to tear away the remnants of her costume ... He felt leather under his unfeeling fingers, the straps and buckles of a warrior's harness. The black hair was pewter, only the red eyes remained the same. However the expression he saw in those eyes was not lustful but sad, questioning and hurt.
With a gasp he pulled back from the mage. "No. Stop! We can't do this."
"Why not? We want one another and we're both free. Nobody needs to know if we have this one ..." She tried to draw him to her again but he resisted and gently put her aside.
"I can't do this. There's someone else. Honor ..." He began ordering his clothes, keeping his eyes averted from her disheveled state.
"Paine!" Lulu spat. "I thought you were just amusing yourself. Does she have her claws in you?"
He shook his head numbly, "It's not that. She ... she ... we have been together a long time now and ..." He thought but was sensible enough not to speak aloud how relieved he was that Paine had witnessed none of this episode.
"Oh, never mind!" The black mage swept her tangled hair into a knot and secured it on the top of her head before tucking her breasts back inside her bodice. "I thought we might have a chance at a little togetherness. It must not have been meant to be. I'm sorry." Resignation colored her words.
"So am I, Lulu, but I can't do this." To his absolute astonishment, he realized he had said nothing more than the truth. He could not respond to her advances, not only because to do so would be to betray what he had with Paine but also because he literally could not respond. His body had made the decision for him. He hastily turned away from the woman on the bed, his face flaming as though he had been caught in the blow-back from a Fire spell, his right hand automatically shielding his groin.
Lulu noticed but had regained her composure and enough compassion not to remark upon his condition. "You'd better go now. We won't mention this again."
"N-no." He stumbled from the room, grateful for the dark emptiness of the corridor as he made his way, more awkwardly than usual to the outer door. He thought the rain and cold wind would be welcome on his face and he knew he would not be able to sleep for a while yet.
It was more than an hour before Nooj felt ready for bed. His mind had been in a tumult as he tried to sort out just what had happened in Lulu's room. He had been more than ready to couple with her as he had with so many other women since he passed puberty. Then that strange phantasm of Paine had interposed itself between him and his objective, and that was the end of that. He wondered, frantically, if there was some sort of spell women alone learned which let them tie a man to them without his knowledge. No, he could not believe that. But so many of his firm convictions had been shaken lately, he was unwilling to be too sure. Had Paine been watching the scenario play itself out? He was almost certain she had not been around. Although Aquelev had said she knew about Lulu's actions and she might have been spying from a corner. No! She was not that sort of woman; he would not believe that of her. Suddenly, he was shocked to realize that Paine had been the only woman to share his bed since- since the first time they had lain together at the beginning of the Crimson Squad episode. She had been all he had wanted or ...
He had to get some sleep. Tomorrow would be another long and taxing day. Shaking the light rain off himself like a dog emerging from a pond, he opened the door to the Travel Agency and slipped inside as quietly as he could. He had no desire to attract any more attention.
His room was dark and cool with the only illumination coming from the frequent flashes of distant lightning. He felt his way to where he remembered the bed to be and, balancing against the mattress, pulled off his clothes. Raising the coverlet, he slid his body onto the waiting couch. Oddly enough, he was not surprised as slender arms welcomed him. Paine's presence in his bed was so much a part of his life now, he had been more than expecting to find her just where she was. It was with a great sense of relief and comfort that he drew her to him and relished her bare skin touching his. Nothing had changed.
Sleep was postponed for a little while longer.