Prequel to "Chasing My Past." Set during Chapter Two of FF X-2, shortly after the Gullwings meet Nooj in front of the Den of Woe.
Disclaimer - All characters, settings, and concepts copyright Square Enix.
"Perhaps this is fate?"
"I don't think so."
I'd noticed him. Of course I had. To do otherwise would have been impossible. He was a physically imposing specimen, for one thing, toweringly tall, chiseled body and piercing eyes, that improbably long, twisted hair, the huge sword he carried. In a way, he reminded me of my uncle; he possessed that same quiet charisma that meant anyone would follow him anywhere. Maybe that was why I couldn't stop thinking about him, watching him, despite my best efforts -- I had practically worshipped Uncle Auron, my young mind settling on him as the ideal man. But I hadn't seen him since I was five. Perhaps in Nooj I had found a replacement of sorts. I didn't make that connection until much later, though.
He never particularly seemed to notice me.
When I first came to Mushroom Rock, I'd been assigned to his company. He wasn't in charge, but he might as well have been. The captain was a mild-mannered sort, no match for Nooj's will, the strength of his opinions, the fierce loyalty of his companions. Always flanked by his buddies Beclam and Luzzu, there was no way for a green recruit like me to get anywhere close. Only one recent arrival had managed to break in to the inner circle, an islander named Chappu, and he knew Luzzu. Apparently, they came from the same village, and Luzzu had convinced his friend to quit a promising blitz career and enlist. Or so rumor would have it. I talked to Chappu maybe twice, and Luzzu wouldn't bother to give me the time of day. But it didn't really matter to me. I made my own friends easily enough, and I sensed an arrogant streak a mile wide in Nooj and company anyway. I was content to observe from a distance.
Before long, they split us up. My group went to the Luca chapter for guard duty, while the rest stayed to patrol the Djose shore. Stories of Nooj and his gang came to us on a regular basis. A rumor spread that they were dealing with the Al Bhed and flirting with using machina weapons. Scandalous, but not particularly surprising -- I'd gotten the feeling that crew didn't think much of rules and regs. Neither did I, but I didn't hold with machina, either. Give me a nice sharp blade any time.
A group of Crusaders, out on routine patrol, undersupplied because most recent reports had placed Sin far to the west, came under attack. The news came out in fragments at first, reports conflicting. Then we finally got the story from one of the few living witnesses: Luzzu, who was passing through Luca on his way home to recover from his injuries. Beclam was the only other true survivor, he told us. All the others were dead but for Nooj. And Nooj might not live much longer.
"He's the only reason I'm alive," he'd said bluntly. "We ran out of ammo. Everyone else was dead or down. He could have saved himself, but he held his ground, sword in one hand, using his gun like a club in the other, taking out Sinspawn as if they were nothing. He gave Beclam and me time to get away. Or, more accurately, time for Beclam to get me away -- he was strong enough to walk, and I wasn't. We took cover, and then all we could do was watch. They just kept coming and coming. But Nooj, he kept going, too. No matter how much punishment they inflicted on him, he refused to give up, refused to die."
Then Sin arrived, and it was all over in seconds. Beclam went back to look for survivors, not really expecting to find any. But somehow, one man lived.
"Beclam screamed for help. I don't know how I managed to even stand, much less run over to Beclam and help him carry Nooj back to Mushroom Rock, but I did. By Yevon, it was horrible. His entire left side mangled -- it's a goo d thing he was unconscious, otherwise he'd probably have died from shock when we moved him. He lives, as far as I know. Any other man, I'd say he'd be dead within a month. But if anyone can find a way to live through this, it's Nooj."
"Nooj the Undying," someone murmured. To my knowledge, that was the first time anyone ever used that epithet.
Luzzu left then, a haunted look in his eyes. Chappu had fallen in that same battle, with no Nooj-style miracle to save him.
So that was the story as I first heard it. Of course, the tale grew, but I never credited the embellishments. I did believe the story that, somehow, he'd acquired replacement limbs, machina ones, and relearned to walk, then shoot, within six months. Not only had he found a way to live, he'd found a way to fight again. Swordplay might always be beyond him, but he could still fire a gun. Rumor had it that Maester Kinoc was so eager to have him back in the field that he got special dispensation to use one.
Another, darker, tale surfaced as well: that he was taking more and more dangerous assignments, in the hope that he would die in battle. "Deathseeker," people would say, always in hushed tones. I believed that one, too.
After several months in Luca, I grew bored, restless. I'd joined the Crusaders to fight Sin, not to baby-sit a blitzball stadium. When word came that an elite squad was being formed to train officers, I tried out more or less for the hell of it. I wasn't really expecting to be chosen, so I was thrilled to be tapped as a recorder. I'd rather have fought, of course, but I was excited just to be part of it. I became less excited when I met the team I would be following: an obnoxious young Al Bhed, a priest type who seemed way out of his depth, and Nooj. His misadventure had not improved his temper -- he had gone from merely quiet to downright surly. He barely spoke to his teammates, and he ignored me completely.
Until the day I kept him from dying.
That changed everything. Suddenly, I was a person to him, not just a walking recording device. Once he got over his irritation at being foiled, he became cordial, even friendly at times. We had our first real conversation the next evening in camp. I was shocked to discover that he remembered me from those two months at Mushroom Rock -- "Of course I do. I'd never seen a woman with hair that color, or a sword that substantial." Somehow, it also broke the ice with Gippal and Baralai, and soon we were all more comfortable with each other.
I found myself drawn to him again, and I started to think the reverse was also true. Whichever of us sat down by the campfire first was soon joined by the other. We ate and we talked, the conversations becoming more personal over time. The only things we never discussed were the battle that had maimed him and the suicide attempt I had stopped. I was more open in those days, but I already had a healthy respect for the privacy of others. He shied away from those topics, so I followed his lead.
Normally, I sat on his machina side. I recognized my growing physical attraction, but I doubted that it would be a good idea to act on such feelings with a teammate, especially in a group this small. Baralai had already expressed an interest, shortly after we met, and I had gently rebuffed him on the grounds that it would complicate team dynamics. It would be no different with Nooj. Besides, Baralai had accepted my refusal graciously, and we'd become good friends instead. I wasn't sure how he would take it if I turned around and got involved with Nooj. By avoiding his natural self, I enforced a distance between us.
But one night, I sat down first and he took a place on my left. It was an exceptionally chilly evening, even for the desert, and we sat closer together than usual. Deep in conversation about something, I don't remember what, we stayed up later than everyone else. Only the candidates on watch were still awake, and they were far from us, on the other side of the campfire. Eventually, he shifted in such a way that his arm just brushed mine. Even the casual contact rocked me to my core, and I shivered.
"Cold?" he asked, turning to me.
I could have lied, I suppose. My life might be much simpler now if I had. But I didn't.
"No," I said.
"Neither am I," he replied. Then he kissed me.
I had been kissed before, but never quite like this. There was an intensity to it, as if he were searching for something. And he provoked a totally new response in me, a powerful need to be close to him, become one with him. I lifted my palms to his smooth cheeks. He raised his machina arm and laid the hand on my shoulder. The touch of cold metal on my bare skin shocked me back to my senses, and I broke from him suddenly, dropping my hands as if his face were on fire.
He looked at me, his face grave. "Sorry," he said. "I'd the impression that would be welcome."
"It was." I turned away. "But I'm not convinced it was a good idea."
"You're probably right." He placed his right hand on my cheek and turned me back to face him, desire and something else burning in his eyes. "But I'm not sure I care."
And I was lost.
We kissed again, wrapping our arms around one another. This time, I did not shrink from his artificial limb. It was a part of him, after all, and he was what I wanted.
Out of consideration for his infirmity, he was the only candidate with a private tent. He led me there, his hand tightly gripping mine, and once inside we fell on one another. By unspoken agreement, we laid down on his bedroll. He didn't have to tell me that this would all be much easier if he didn't have to stand. We kissed and stroked one another, his chest hard beneath my hands, my body totally responsive to his. He took his place between my thighs and, poised to enter, paused when he encountered resistance.
"Are you sure?" he asked, his voice husky with barely controlled need.
"Oh yes," I whispered, almost a moan. "Don't stop, please don't stop."
With a groan, he buried himself in me. I gasped, at first with pain but very soon with pleasure, and before long the pleasure carried us both away.
"So," he said afterwards. "Your first time, then."
"Yes. I'm sorry, I should have told you. But I was afraid you'd say no if you knew."
"I might have," he admitted. "So I'm glad you didn't say anything. Did it go well for you?"
"It did," I assured him. "You seemed to know what you were doing." I smiled in the darkness. "I suppose that means I'm not your first."
"No." He rolled onto his back and stared at the roof of the tent. "But also yes, in a way."
"You mean, since..." I trailed off, not wanting to be first to say it.
"Right." Pulling me against his chest, he wrapped his right arm around me. "I did pay a few visits to houses of ill repute, just to check that everything was in working order, so to speak. But that was the first time with someone I actually care about."
Another girl probably would have melted at that, but I simply took it as a statement of fact. Neither of us were romantics. Maybe that's why I fell for him.
Things changed between us again, of course. We tried to be subtle about it, never displaying affection in front of the others, never spending a whole night together. But even though they never said anything to me, I could tell that Baralai and Gippal knew. Baralai withdrew for a few days, then put on a falsely cheerful face. Eventually, though, we relaxed back into the friendship we'd always shared. Gippal never changed, by turns acting like an annoying kid brother and flirting with me, but that was how he related to pretty much everyone. Once past that first awkward ness with Baralai, our team settled back to normal, which was a great relief to me.
To say that Nooj and I were happy would be an overstatement. He was still moody, easily irritated, prone to snap at all of us. We were as apt to argue as to chat pleasantly. And of course, he was still a Deathseeker. We never discussed it, but it hung there, an unavoidable fact coming between us at every encounter. I always knew that, if he had the opportunity, he would gladly give up his life, and me, forever, and that knowledge cast a long shadow.
Still, it didn't take long for me to realize that I was in love with him. Whether he loved me in return, I never knew. I could certainly tell that he cared about me, but neither of us ever spoke of love. It didn't bother me -- at least, not much.
"Do you believe in fate?" he asked me one night as we lay curled together in the dark.
I considered the question. "Maybe sometimes," I finally answered. "Why?"
"Just thinking," was his response. "About how I noticed you before and never did anything about it. Maybe fate brought us both to the Crimson Squad to give me another chance with you."
I laughed softly. "Somehow, I think that the forces of destiny are concerned with less trivial matters."
He tightened his arm around my waist. "It's not trivial to me."
Looking back, I think that may have been the closest he ever came to saying that he loved me.
Finally, we finished the training and left Bikanel. We piled onto boats and headed to Mushroom Rock. At first, we all assumed that they were sending us to Operation Mi'ihen, about which rumors had been buzzing for weeks. But we soon learned the truth -- the candidates would soon undertake the final test for the Crimson Squad, one last task before they would be named the Crusader elite.
The cave. Confusion, terror, death, followed by betrayal and escape. Then, finally, the Highroad. Where he shot me.
I woke a few hours later in the travel agency, in as much psychic agony as physical. Why? my heart screamed. How could he have gunned down Baralai and Gippal in cold blood, then turned his weapon on me? Either something had happened to him in that cave, or I had never really known him at all. And if it was the cave, I could no longer trust Gippal or Baralai, either. So I fled.
With nowhere else to go, I made my way to the deserted ruins of the village where I had grown up. Sin had destroyed it over a year earlier, killing my father -- the only family I had left -- in the processes. Once there, I wept over the rubble that marked my childhood home, mourning my family, my friends, my love, my innocence.
All my life, I'd been a something of a solitary person. But that was the first time I ever felt truly alone.
Weeks later, I found myself in Luca, watching Sin battle an airship -- an airship! It was real, just as Gippal had said -- singing the Hymn for all I was worth. It made me feel a part of something again, and it was comforting. Right there, I resolved to find out what went wrong, why my fellowship had fallen apart, what had turned my love against me. It took almost two years and a chance meeting with Rikku to set me on the path to the truth, but I've finally made a start.
But at this moment, as I walk onto the bridge of the Celsius, a piece of the puzzle cradled in my hands, I feel lost and vulnerable all over again. Nooj casually asking me about fate like that -- it hurt, like the old gunshot wound reopening. He still has a hold on me that two years and a bone-deep betrayal were unable to break, and I hate him for it, hate that he's still able to make me feel.
Whatever I learn from this sphere had better be worth it.