After the defeat of Vegnagun Nooj and Paine have a heart to heart. But can he figure out what is wrong?
I've left out the part about Shuyin and Lenne because it has absolutely no relevance to this story. Assume that Vegnagun collapsed after the two disappear.
~ ~ ~
The Farplane. Heaven of Spira. Filled with flowers of pastel colours and divine scent. Their pollen floated over fields which seemed to stretch into infinity, joined by pyreflies, remnants of the dead. The infinite river of flowers was bordered by cliffs, silver in the glow of pyreflies.
On the top of one lonely cliff was a portal. A portal to the real Farplane. To Vegnagun. Here, instead of vast stretches of flowers and beautiful cliffs and waterfalls, there was merely a path. The occasional machina hovered over the menacing scene, surveying the area with bitter efficiency.
At the end of the road, at the foot of Vegnagun, a group of fighters watched as two figures disappeared in a cloud of pyreflies.
"Yunie, you did good," Rikku crept forward and placed a careful hand on her cousin's shoulder. Yuna nodded and smiled.
"Now they can finally rest," she whispered.
Above them, towering like the monstrosity it was, stood Vegnagun. Resembling an enormous wasp, demonic in appearance and state. Its silk wings, spun from the night sky, flowed behind it momentarily before folding into the body.
For a moment nothing happened. Then, with a sickening crunch, the weapon collapsed in on itself. Its spectators, momentarily stunned, stood to face the wreckage that flew at them from almost every direction.
Leblanc was the first to recover, throwing herself in front of Nooj in a desperate bid to protect him. But no wreckage threatened them, instead shooting towards a helpless Paine. Nooj pushed past Leblanc and towards his friend, catching her just as she fell. The machina of his left limbs reflected most of the wreckage, but she had already been wounded by the sharp wreckage.
"Paine! Are you alright?" he asked frantically, helping her to her feet. She tried unsuccessfully to hide the look of horror on her face and limped off towards the rest of the Gullwings.
Nooj cursed and followed her, ignoring Leblanc's adoring looks.
"That was close," hissed Gippal, accepting Rikku's hand and pulling himself up, "Anyone hurt?"
Paine remained silent and shot Nooj a glance, warning him not to say anything. He was reminded of how stubborn she could be. He kept his gaze locked on her as she limped a little way behind the others. They both lagged behind, Nooj because of his machina limbs. Leblanc was a little way ahead of him, but she was stationary and waiting. He groaned and approached her, cursing his luck at being stuck with a fully grown woman with a child's crush.
As he shuffled along beside the blonde he felt Paine's eyes on him. Looking up he saw her focus her attention on the distant horizon. A tear forming in her eye.
~ ~ ~
After being picked up by Brother and Buddy, the team lounged on the Bridge of the Celsius. Engaged in conversation no one noticed the absence of Paine, or Nooj.
He was searching the ship desperately for Paine's choice of refuge. He had tried the cabin to no avail; the engine room was far too noisy. That left the deck. It made sense, back in the Crimson Squad days he had often found her staring out to sea or up at the stars. She had told him that it was relaxing, watching something that would never change, at least not in her lifetime. He had often watched her from a doorway, silent and sad, engulfed in her own thoughts and hidden traumas.
The elevator doors parted and Nooj stepped outside. A few yards before him, in the centre of the platform, was the limp heap that was Paine. She was sobbing uncontrollably and begging some unseen person to take the pain away. She stared up at Nooj as he approached, terror and shame in her eyes. He understood, she had only ever cried in front of people she truly trusted, and he no longer qualified as one of these.
"It's alright," he whispered picking her up in his arms and cradling her. She felt like a child again, being carried indoors after falling from a tree.
Moments later Paine heard the cabin doors close and felt her bed beneath her. Nooj watched as her eyes closed and she breathed deeply. Pulling up a chair he sat beside her.
~ ~ ~
Nooj kissed her hand gently, trying to ignore her cries and soft screams. Paine's wounds were great, greater than Nooj had expected or first perceived. Also, something had irritated them, rust particles from the collapsing Vegnagun, perhaps, or even pollen from the farplane flowers. Whenever Nooj tried to put a potion or an ointment on them it was rejected, causing her more pain than before. At first he had thought her clothes were the problem but, after removing the majority of them, her cries grew louder.
It was more than a little worrying. Previously, Paine had gripped his hand for comfort, but sat a respectable distance from him, but now she huddled next to him as if for warmth. There were long forgotten feelings for the girl at his side which would have surfaced, but Nooj beat them down. This was not the time.
A whimper broke his concentration. Paine had sat up slightly and wiped her eyes. Nooj held her chin and studied her face; she was still the same as two years ago. Her features had matured, of course, she had grown from a girl to a young woman. Eighteen. The thought was strange. She had always acted older than most, back then she had seemed happy, or at least content. From what Nooj had seen of the Gullwings she still was, yet he now saw the sadness in her eyes, the emotions and memories of things which eighteen years shouldn't have to answer for. Nooj couldn't remember the last time she had cried, but now her face overflowed with tears.
"Hush," he whispered, drawing her closer, "I'm here."
"It all hurts so much, Nooj. Everything," she gasped, clutching her side.
It seemed a strange way to put things, and Nooj watched her carefully for a few moments. It wasn't just the pain of her wounds or the exhaustion from the battle that troubled her. Something else was gnawing away at her soul. And Nooj had no idea how to comfort her.
"What's hurting you?" he asked softly. If she had been anyone else Nooj would have expected her to scowl and add some snide remark about the gaping hole in her side. But Paine understood his meaning and merely looked at him with sad eyes. Comprehension surged in the air between them and Nooj knew, he realised what caused her so much heartache. His hand went to her chest, just below her shoulder.
"Have you told anyone?" he asked quietly, avoiding her gaze.
"Yuna and Rikku. They found out when we were all in Limbo. I told them I thought of it as an accident."
"And did you?"
Paine rubbed her face and shook her head sadly.
"I wanted it to be. I honestly did. But every time I came close to convincing myself, I'd remember what it was like to see you approach me with a gun. What the bullet felt like. What you sounded like... in the end I realised... I thought I realised that you truly wanted me dead..."
"Never! Paine! You know that's not true..."
"I do now..." she stopped abruptly as more pain seared through her. Nooj could barely look at her, the one person who had never been afraid to look at him, he couldn't bare to see her like this.
"This isn't fair," Nooj drew Paine as close as he could without causing her any more agony, "This is not fair!"
Paine had relaxed in his arms momentarily but his tone made her tense once more. Was he angry with her?
"You are the most caring, accepting... beautiful girl I have met. Yet you have seen tragedy upon tragedy, suffered so much heartache. This world doesn't deserve you. No one deserves you... especially not me."
Paine was silent as Nooj ran his fingers through her hair and kissed her forehead. He took a deep breath and rose, supporting himself with his cane
"No matter how much I love you," he began to walk away, desperately ignoring her muffled sobs.
"Nooj wait..." Paine's pale hand appeared on Nooj's shoulder, shaking slightly at every agonizing spasm that surged through her, "I'm sorry I ever doubted you."
Nooj turned and stared at her. Without her high-heeled boots she was a child again, looking up at him with utter trust and immense sadness. One arm shielding her stomach she reached up with her free hand and caressed his cheek.
"You're sorry?" Nooj whispered delicately, almost daring to put an arm around her. Paine nodded and pushed his hair from his eyes.
"It just shows what an exceptionally bad judge of character I am. How my concealment has stopped me from seeing everyone else properly," she murmured, winced and continued, "I pretended to know you, claimed I loved you, but I still believed that you wanted me dead. That you were evil. I now know that you would never hurt me, but I guess that shows how little I knew you back then..."
Nooj embraced her tightly, assuring her everything would be alright. Then she felt her go limp. Laying her on the bed he kissed her forehead and bade her goodnight.