The morning brought no relief.
Paine rummaged in her knapsack. "I've got a little bread and some cheese left. Do you want to go over to camp and get a real breakfast there?"
"I'm not hungry. You go on," Nooj muttered half under his breath, not glancing her way. He was tired and aching, his natural limbs weighing him down as much as the machina ones.
"No. This's enough for me now. Here." She stretched out her arm, a chunk of bread in her hand.
He ignored the offering and finished adjusting his clothes before turning to face her. "Did you sleep well?"
If the question surprised her, she hid it well. "I've slept better. You were a little restless."
At once contrition flared in his dark eyes. "Ah, Paine, I'm sorry. I tried not to disturb you." For a moment his concern for her drove the bitter memory of Kal's words from his mind. He took her by her shoulders and looked searchingly into her face. "Are you all right? Maybe you should go back to the main camp to sleep for a while. I'm not fit for human companionship right now. You don't have to suffer my wretched temper, you know."
She hit him lightly on the chest. "Don't be silly. I won't sleep half as well away from you as I will with you even if you stomp around all night like a shoopuf. Now eat your bread and let's get going."
With an attempt at good grace, he choked down the food and helped her gather their belongings and strap them into tight bundles before setting their direction toward the shadows of the Macalania Woods.
He was edgy and saw no need to stay close to the rest of the army. This section was relatively safe -- so far inland -- and any fiends likely to appear would be easily dispatched by any Crusader who still had most of his limbs. He did not try again to discourage Paine from accompanying him. He recognized her attempts to mitigate the idiotic statement Kal had blurted out in front of Auron and fought against the uneasy resentment he felt at permitting her to defend him. They walked mostly in silence since there seemed little more to say on the subject.
In spite of his best efforts, the miasma of the word Kal had used continued to cast its shadow over his mind and spirit. No matter how often he reassured Paine he did not feel demeaned by the knowledge the two senior warrior monks looked upon him as a 'boy', no matter how often he told himself they were old men who thought everybody younger than they to be children, no matter how logical his understanding of the reasons behind the casual comment, he still squirmed whenever he remembered what had been said. He was nearing the beginning of the third decade of his life and had experienced more than most living inhabitants of the world in terms of battle and death. In his scant years on the planet, he had undergone eons of pain, had lost his family and his first love, had been torn into fragments and reassembled into a monster. What did those self-satisfied so-called holy men think went into the creation of a man? Would they see him as such when he finally lay dead, having sacrificed what was left of his life to preserve their way of living? If that was what it would take, he was willing to pay the price. There was little to tie him to breathing anyway. He would miss Paine and Aquelev and one or two others but no one would miss him. His removal would open a path for less troublesome leaders to emerge and would rid Auron of the necessity of keeping an eye on the 'boy'.
Nooj kicked at a clod in his way, nearly causing himself to stumble. Only his promise to Auron stood in the way of his setting off immediately to find the honorable death of his dreams. There must be another way to prove to the arrogant old lecher, Kal, that nineteen could be the age of a man instead of a boy. Determined to make the monk dine on his own ill-chosen words, Nooj began negotiating the awkwardly steep slope, his progress impeded by his insistence on offering help to Paine -- who did not need it.
It was just as they reached the bottom of the hill that he saw it. A chimera! He knew they were to be found in this vicinity but, since they were rare this far toward the border, he was surprised to see the monster lurking in the edge of the forest, stamping its cloven hooves and lashing its serpentine tail. He recognized the threat and knew they could avoid it if they backed slowly away without posing a challenge and, out of concern for Paine, briefly considered taking that course.
Then, it hit him! This was the perfect opportunity to display his courage and his manhood. Boys did not fight chimerae; men conquered them. With his decision made, Nooj pushed Paine further behind him, using enough force to land her on her backside, and with a roar, made for the fiend, drawing his knife and dropping his cane as he lurched forward.
Nooj scored the first hit, grabbing the tail just below the snake's head and twisting it off with his left hand while simultaneously digging his blade into the eye of the eagle head. He did not notice the horns of the other head pounding against his ribs. Then the claws of the creature caught his forearm and scored a long deep slash which just missed important arteries.
Nooj dared not draw back lest he leave room for the fatal goring which was so often the winning attack from a chimera. Instead he continued to press the battle, fastening his machina hand on the wounded right head of the fiend and repeatedly striking with the knife at the left side. A fireball exploded against the prosthetic limbs, the force pushing him away for the moment. But only for the moment. He snarled like an animal himself and, with a sudden flurry of attacks, dispatched his foe, leaving it broken at his feet.
Satisfied with his accomplishment, Nooj hung over the body of the chimera, panting and dripping blood from various injuries he had not even noticed during the fight. Lost in a Warrior's battle hypnosis, he was startled to feel something tugging at his sleeve.
"Come here and sit down, you fool. You're a mess." Paine pulled him over to a fallen tree trunk and pushed him into a seated position.
He looked up at her with surprise. He had done it for her, tackled a monstrous fiend single-handedly to protect her. She must understand that. Did she think he would have done this for any other reason? Well, he admitted to himself, he did relish a good fight. But this one was for her benefit, to keep her safe and prove he could do so without any help from so-called 'men'. He did not think he was a fool; he thought he had done something heroic.
Paine set aside the pistol she had drawn in case the fight started to go badly and rummaged through her pack for the medical kit. Finding it, she pulled out two of the pain pills and held them out. "Take them," she said, tone clipped and furious.
Nooj started to shake his head, but Paine just moved in closer, practically shoving the medication in his face. "Take. Them. It'll make it easier for me to patch you up. Besides, you promised, remember?"
He took the drugs out of her hand with a sullen sigh, tossed them in his mouth, and followed them with a slow, painful swallow of water.
"Now hold still," she ordered him as she examined his wounds. Burns on his left side -- good thing the fireball had gotten him there instead of on his right, otherwise he'd likely have badly scorched limbs instead of just a singed torso and carbon scoring on the machina. Various cuts and scrapes where the beast's horns had gotten to him, including a particularly deep one on his forearm. There would be bruising, too, from the punches, but there was little she could do about that. She settled on the burns to treat first and pulled a salve from her pack. Baralai had made it to treat sunburn, but she thought it would work for this just as well. Smearing it on her fingers, she set to daubing it on his injuries. As she reached a particularly tender spot, he hissed and pulled away.
"Careful!" he snapped.
Paine stood up and stepped back, dropping fists to her hips, and glared down at him, a part of her relishing the opportunity to loom over him for once. "You. Are telling me. To be careful?! You sure you want to go there?"
His mouth twitched, but he shook his head again.
"All right. Let's get this over with." She returned to her ministrations, rubbing in the salve with a light touch. "What possessed you, anyway? Going up against that thing by yourself, armed with only a knife, when we could have avoided it perfectly easily. No, wait, don't tell me. You were trying to prove your manhood to Auron and Kal. Brilliant strategy, Captain. Do something rash and stupid, that'll make them see what a man you are." She snorted with disgust, then turned to the wound on his arm, cleaning it with an antiseptic solution, another of Baralai's concoctions. As she worked, she continued muttering angrily under her breath. "Did you really think I'd go back to camp singing your praises? Fiend-damned idiot. I swear, Nooj, if I didn't love you so much I'd--"
And then she realized what she'd just said and stopped talking, a hand flying up to cover her mouth, but it was too late. The words were out, and she could never take them back.
"Huh?" Nooj looked up with a jerk, pulling his arm away from her grasp and reopening the wound. "What did you say?"
He tried to process the words he had half-heard. She was berating him for carelessness, having seen through his specious excuses for taking on the chimera without help. He should have known he couldn't fool her; she had a talent for seeing through his defenses. But that last thing she said. He played it back in his mind, "Fiend-damned idiot. I swear, Nooj, if I didn't love you so much I'd--"
She had sworn at him before, nothing new there but the rest. Had she actually said what he thought he had heard her say? He looked up at her with gape-jawed amazement. She loved him? Did she mean that? Could this brave, beautiful, accomplished woman love him - the freak, the grotesque half-man, half-machina monstrosity? They enjoyed one another, but love ...? Could she? With a strangled gasp, he wrapped both arms around her legs, pulling her nearer and smearing her with his blood. Unable to say a word, he held her tightly to him and pressed his head against her thigh. Even if she had not really meant it, he would have this moment at least and he intended to savor it.
The bottle of ointment slipped out of Paine's grasp as she raised her arms in slow motion and buried her hands in Nooj's long hair. She closed her eyes, to better remember the look of stunned joy that had crossed his features as he comprehended her words, to burn that image into her mind. She had confessed her feelings, and he hadn't run away, or laughed in her face.
"I love you," she murmured. "I do." Then her throat tightened with bitter memory, and she stepped out of his embrace. "For all the good it does me, when I'm just going to lose you anyway."
Nooj stared up at her, shocked anew. Paine realized that he was about to issue a denial, and suddenly she couldn't stand it. The thought of him backing away from the truth yet again was simply intolerable, and she burst out before he could respond. "Of course I am! You know it as well as I do. It already almost happened in the desert. If I hadn't shot the sand-bear, you would've... you'd already be..." To her horror, she felt the tears she hadn't shed that day pricking at the back of her eyes, and she turned away, unable to even look at him.
Painfully, he managed to stand and limp to her. He put his hands on her shoulders and pulled her back against his chest, resting his cheek on the top of her head. "Dear Paine, what courage you have. Don't think about what will happen in the future; I've sworn to Auron that I will set aside my ... my search until the task we have before us is done. We have time together. All the time most people can ever hope for. If you are brave enough to love something like me, you are brave enough to know that. Let us take the joy life is offering us and not look for worms in the fruit."
He gently turned her and tilted her face up until she met his eyes. "None of us knows how long we have to exist, particularly not on a world in which Sin still lives. Love me and let me love you for as long as we have." He looked ruefully at his still bleeding arm. "We're both a mess and I dropped my cane somewhere." Wrapping her in an achingly tight embrace, he cried out, "Oh Paine, can you really love me?"
"I can," she said softly, leaning her head against his breastbone and tightening her arms around his back. "I can, and I do, and I always have." She breathed in his scent and nuzzled against him for a long moment, finally allowing herself to relish his presence as his words rang in her ears. "...let me love you..." He had really said that. Whatever happened next, nothing could take that away. She would let it be enough.
With a smile, she gazed at his strong face, softened by tender emotion, and trailed her fingertips along his cheek. "You're right. I'll stop worrying so much about what tomorrow holds. We have today, and that's all we really need."
The touch of her body was arousing, the scent of her hair and skin took him back to the many times they had lain together and Nooj felt his body responding. He moved back just far enough to gain access to the straps and buckles holding her leathers around her. His fingers were clumsy with excitement and the effects of the pills she had forced down him, and he was not surprised to feel her hands on top of his.
It was only with great effort that Paine stilled Nooj's hands. She yearned to feel him close to her, but practical considerations intervened. "Wait, love," she said with a light, almost giddy laugh, "let me bind that gash first. It'll only take a minute." She squeezed his fingers as he nodded. After gathering up her medical supplies, she finished cleaning out the wound, then bandaged the arm. "There. I don't think your other injuries are quite as serious, but I'd like to take a look." With his assistance, she pulled him out of his now-torn and burned tunic. Forcing her mind to stay on the task at hand, she ran her eyes and fingers over his bare torso, examining each scrape and cut, but found nothing more that needed immediate care. "Okay. Not much else I can do right now. We'll get you a bath and a healer tonight, but for now I proclaim you fit for duty." She laid a palm on one of the uninjured areas of his chest and looked into his eyes. "How do you feel?" she asked.
"Like reporting for the duty we're both ready for," he answered without delay. "Help me with these damned buckles. Why do you insist on wearing these things, anyway?" He stopped her laughter with a kiss, which was broken only when they realized it was postponing more desirable activities.
Thinking about it later, Paine suspected she had set a record getting out of her garments and Nooj had demonstrated more flexibility than she had dreamed he could summon up in his own disrobing. When they lay on the grass clothed only in dried bloodstains, Nooj bent over his lover and with infinite delicacy took her right nipple between his lips. He flicked it with his tongue and bit gently on the tip as it erected between his teeth. Drawing back, he traced a line to her other breast with his kisses, urging forth her passions until neither could hold back.
He parted her thighs and surged into her like a conquering army, filling her with his power and driving her ever closer to the pinnacle of her pleasure. She cried out as she felt him within, daring for the first time to babble words of love while he was alert and in her arms. In response, he threw back his head and plowed ever more deeply, delighting in their oneness, the absence of restraint between them. When he finally collapsed, spent upon her breast, he said that which, even now, she had not truly expected to hear: "Woman, I love you."
"Oh," she whispered. "Oh Nooj, I-- oh." She was too overcome to speak further; even repeating the words back to him seemed inadequate to convey the emotions that filled her heart near to bursting. Blindly, she groped for his living hand, twisting her fingers with his, and drew him in for a searing, searching kiss. Then she buried her face in his neck and pressed herself tightly to him. Feeling his strong heart beating against her chest, she prayed to some unspecified god that this perfect moment might last forever.
But it ended, of course, as all idylls must, and the pair reluctantly broke apart, once again gazing into each other's eyes as they sat up. "We should go." Paine lightly stroked Nooj's temple. "If we don't catch up soon, they're going to wonder whether we were eaten by fiends."
He grinned and tweaked her nipple. "I'd rather stay here. To hell with duty and what they wonder."
Paine gazed at him with adoration. How she loved that little gap between his teeth; how she loved everything about him, everything. Even the smears of dried blood on his torso and arm. "It's not just duty. I'm hungry!" She realized with a jolt that it was true. She was hungry. For food.
When they began collecting their scattered garments, they quickly discovered they could not just slip back into the mass of the marchers. Nooj's shirt was a total loss. Where it had not been clawed, it had been drenched in various vital fluids from both the Crusader and the chimera. His breeches were in little better shape but at least they were intact enough to preserve his modesty. Paine's leathers were smeared and stiff with blood but wearable; she decided to explain that they got that way when she was patching Nooj back together.
Once covered as best they could manage, they looked at one another in dismay. "We're a scruffy pair. Might as well take them back off and ..."
Paine slapped lightly at his arm. "Don't start; I might not be able to resist. Here's your cane. I found it under the tree over there."
"Thanks. I guess we'd better get back to a healer while I can still walk. I think these bruises are going to be a bother."
"Want another pain pill?" She reached toward her pouch.
"No. I'll let you know if I need one." He pulled her to him again and kissed her with decision. "Ixion! I love you, you flawless woman."
She smiled so hugely that she thought her face might break. "And I love you, you perfectly splendid man." She kissed him in return, then slipped around to his side. "C'mon Captain, let's go."
Auron was getting worried. The last of the Crusader squadrons who had been chosen to join the attack on Macalania Temple had arrived at the lake's edge nearly an hour ago, and there was still no sign of Nooj. Beclem and Squab had taken charge for the time being but a sense of concerned restlessness still pervaded the camp. He had made the rounds twice now, but no one had seen the commander -- or Paine, for that matter -- since entering the forest that morning.
There were a hundred things that could have gone wrong, but Auron focused on the most bothersome possibility: that the youth, still smarting over Kal's thoughtless comment, had wandered off alone to find solace in death. Much as he tried, Auron could not shake the image of Nooj lying dead in the forest, Paine helpless with grief by his side. He wandered to the edge of camp closest to the forest and found Aquelev there, anxiously watching the path. "Anything?" he asked.
The Al Bhed shook his head. "No. And it's getting dark. Too late to send out search parties, even if--" He caught himself, and fell silent.
This man was Nooj's closest confidante among the army's ranks; perhaps he would know something. "Do you understand why I am so concerned that Nooj has turned up missing?"
Aquelev glanced at the guardian. "So you know."
"I do. Is it possible, then? Do we wait for him in vain?"
Aquelev shook his head. "Unlikely, I'd say. If he were the only one missing, it might be a different story, but I can't believe that he would risk Paine." His voice still carried a note of doubt, but Auron let it pass. "I'm more worried about an accident. If Nooj slipped and fell and damaged the machina, they'd be in trouble. Paine's strong, but there's no way she could carry Nooj any real distance by herself; the machina limbs are very heavy."
"Hm. Well, I suppose we--"
"Someone's coming!" The shout came from the Crusader posted on watch a bit further down the pathway. She peered forward, then called back to Auron and Aquelev over her shoulder. "It's the Commander! And Paine is with him. Looks like they need some help."
Auron took off running down the trail, Aquelev at his heels. He rounded the corner and took a second to digest the sight in front of him -- Nooj and Paine, the Crusader leaning heavily on the girl as they slowly walked together. Nooj was all over cuts and bruises and Paine's clothes were spattered with blood. Immediately, Auron was by Nooj's left side, taking the cane from the other man's hand and lifting the machina arm over his shoulder. Aquelev cast a quick cure spell before relieving Paine on the right, and the two men half-supported, half-carried Nooj as they made their way along the trail.
No one spoke until they arrived at the edge of camp. "Someone find Yuna," Auron ordered the first group of soldiers they saw; they saluted, then scattered to search the camp for the white mage. Shortly thereafter, Aquelev led the foursome into the nearest tent, where Kal, Lulu, and Wakka were eating. The three of them quickly got out of the way, exclamations of concern filling the air as Auron deposited Nooj on a cot. Aquelev wasted no time beginning to examine his injuries. Paine sat down next to Nooj, drooping with exhaustion.
"What happened?" Auron asked as Yuna and Kimahri rushed into the tent.
Nooj opened his mouth to speak but Paine stilled him with a gentle hand on his thigh. He glanced down at her with a curiously tender smile; she held his gaze for just a second, then turned to Auron. "We ran into a chimera," she said. "At least I think it was a chimera. Three heads, fire spells, a nasty punch?" Auron confirmed her guess with a nod. Given the pattern of injuries -- bruises, cuts, and burns -- he should have realized. "Anyway, we tried to get away, but I slipped, so Nooj had to defend us both." She looked around at the group, a note of pride finding its way into her voice. "He took it out by himself."
This time the murmur that ran through the tent was impressed.
"Hero or not, you need serious help right now," Aquelev bluntly told his friend, then turned to Yuna. "My lady, if you could lend me your skills with healing magic..."
"Of course," the summoner replied. She set her staff in a corner and approached the cot, laying her hands lightly on Nooj's head, the blue light of a restorative spell shining from between her fingers, and the wounded man let out a soft sigh of relief. Paine shifted out of the way but did not stand as the two healers helped Nooj lie down.
"All right, everybody else out." Aquelev took on the brisk, professional tone of the experienced healer. The others all began heading toward the exit, but Paine sat still as a stature, staring intently at Nooj's face. Aquelev patted her shoulder lightly. "That means you too, Paine; we can work on him much more efficiently without you here."
Paine looked up at the Al Bhed. "But--"
"It's all right." Nooj spoke for the first time since his reappearance. He raised his right hand, and Paine took it in both of hers. "It's all right," he repeated softly. "The healers will take good care of me. Go. I'll find you as soon as I can."
She nodded. The pair held hands for a moment longer, until Paine dropped his fingers with a light caress as she stood. "Okay. I'll see you soon." She backed away from the cot, neither of them willing to break eye contact until she reached the doorway. She smiled gently, then turned around, lifted the tent flap, and was gone.
Aquelev watched his old friend relax and close his eyes as the two healers and Auron bent over him, meekly submitting to the guardian clumsily cutting away the shredded trousers and sponging the bared skin so that the most critical injuries could be clearly seen. With a feeling of surprise, the Al Bhed noted this normally most recalcitrant of patients was permitting the services with not even a word of protest. An alarm bell rang in his mind, even as he continued the invocation of supportive spells to augment the more powerful efforts of the summoner. Hastily, he consulted his mental guidebook to fiendish properties. Did chimerae carry some sort of slow toxin which robbed a victim of his strength? Was Nooj succumbing to a neuro-poison which prevented his asserting his will? So far as he could recall, the beast the commander had killed was a straightforward brute with only a couple of elemental spells in its arsenal. So why was Nooj not snarling and trying to send them away? Was he dying?
Aquelev was almost frightened to look closely. After all this time, he was reluctant to be present at the last moments of the man he had grown so fond of. Then a cry of pain, caused by Auron's overly energetic application of the sponge, followed by a stream of invective directed at the older man, shattered the soft murmurs of healing spells and reassured him. A man who could invent a curse like that had to be alive. But why so complaisant?
Something had happened out there in the forest, something which had so impressed the injured man that he was changed - at least for the time being. Now, what could have been so important, so earth-shaking as to turn Taydrcaagan into the simulacrum of a normal patient? With a baffled sigh, Aquelev turned his full attention back to his professional duties. He would ask his questions once the danger had completely passed. Or maybe Paine would know the answer. Paine! ... A slow smile of comprehension spread over the Al Bhed's lips as he remembered the look the pair had exchanged before the woman left the tent. Paine. Yes. He chuckled as he checked the pulse in the right wrist of the man on the bed.