A/N: Hey everyone, my interest in this fic has sparked again. I know like none of you are left still reading it, but if you are, I'm sorry for such a long absantee period. This fic never really hit it off with me, I believe I wrote it too unrealisticly (with the timeline being so short and whatever), but you know, sometimes you just go back and miss writing for something. So here's the next update on this long installment. Again, sorry and I hope you like it.

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Kimahri held out a mop to her and Paine grudgingly took it, casting a look down the hall as she went. It was going to be a very dull afternoon. Paine began dragging the mop back and forth against the wooden plank floor, watching the bubbles form and pop. It reminded her of her life, a constant cycle of chaos…always when there was peace, some explosion came and popped her bubble.

Paine shook her head and continued mopping. She honestly hoped Baralia and Nooj wouldn't show up. It'd just make it that much harder to get away from them. They were so persistent, Paine didn't even know why. Why did they even bother? It's not like they knew her.

"You calm now?" Kimahri questioned her. Paine eyed the Ronso cautiously.

"I'm fine." She retorted shortly.

Kimarhi shook his head. "Kimarhi has place to question your motives." Paine sighed deeply. Kimarhi kept a steady gaze on her, unmoving in his position. He towered over her both in height and muscular build, staring down at her with those yellow eyes, arms crossed firmly in front of his chest. "Why you injure Rikku?"

"Because she pissed me off." Paine lied, not even wincing at her ease in dishonesty.

"Kimarhi has reason to believe otherwise."

"Believe whatever you want, Ronso." Paine answered rudely. She was tired of hearing the theories of her motives, especially the ones that were dangerously close to the truth. Why couldn't anyone just let it go? It was horrible what she did, so why couldn't they just be cold to her? Everyone was always making up excuses for her. Why the hell did anyone care?

"Rikku believes so."

"You would think that people would leave you alone after nearly killing one of the students. Why does anyone make excuses for me? Especially that girl! No one can take a fucking hint!"

Kimahri was apparently unaffected by her venom. His eyes stayed on her, but he said no more. Paine had been mopping under the careful watch of Kimahri for about an hour when she heard the voice.

"Paine, can I talk to you?" A small, feeble voice broke the silence and Paine stiffened in her clean up duty. She knew that voice.

"Rikku." Kimahri's voice broke the stillness that followed Rikku's question. Rikku glanced over at the teacher to see him shaking his head.

"Kimahri, please. She's not going to do anything. The gym wasn't her fault."

Paine closed her eyes and her hands started moving against the mop again. Faced away from Rikku, she gritted her teeth. "I don't want to talk to you, Rikku."

She couldn't see her, but Rikku's eyes darkened. Without looking to Kimahri for permission, Rikku marched up behind Paine and grabbed the older girl's shoulders. Paine winced as fire raced down her shoulder, but Rikku didn't appear to care. She spun Paine around so that they were face to face.

"Look, Paine." Rikku started, sounding angry. "Nooj and Baralia told me everything that happened, and I believe them."

"You shouldn't." Paine injected tiredly.

"Well that's too bad, 'cause I do. It all makes sense, so you can drop the charade now. I know you didn't mean to hurt me and I can't imagine how you're still sticking up for Seymour. Gratitude is one thing; you've gone far past that. The way you defend him, you would think he's heroic or something. But he's not. You need to live out your life, not his. You shouldn't let him control you."

Paine's jaw clenched uncomfortably. "Why won't you just leave me alone?"

"Because we're your new friends. I don't think you've ever had one before so you don't get it, but friends don't leave other friends behind to suffer."

"You met me the day before yesterday, Rikku. I'd hardly call us friends."

Rikku seemed to be getting angrier. "Why do you keep pushing us away?"

"Why do you keep insisting on talking to me?" Paine questioned back.

"Your life is passing you by, Paine! You're eighteen and you still put up with being beat by Seymour just because you want to please him! It'll never be good enough! And pretty soon, your life will be over! All the years you'll look back and wonder why you ever put up with it!" Rikku's voice steadily rose with each word.

"Maybe it's the life I want!" Paine's voice didn't need to be loud to convey the menace in her words.

"To be controlled like a chocobo? Some dream that is to aspire to!"

Paine growled, actually growled. "Don't you get it? The people in my life only get hurt! If you stick around, the same thing will happen to you again! And you might not be so lucky next time!"

Rikku gave a small smile. "Was that so hard to admit?"

"Yevon! Damnit, Rikku! Leave me alone!"

Rikku's arched an eyebrow. "Why should I? What're you gunna do? Beat me up?"

Paine's expression tightened at the sour joke. "Being my friend will cost you your life. It's something I don't want to be responsible for."

"It doesn't have to be that way." Rikku pressed.

"Yeah, well, it is that way, so piss off." Paine turned coldly and continued her mopping duties.

Rikku shook her head. "You are the most stubborn, thick-head-est person I've ever met." Paine didn't respond. "Where exactly do you plan on going after this?" She gestured to Paine's mop. "You weren't thinking of going home, were you?" Again, she received no answer. Her silence was confirmation enough for Rikku. "You can't go home!"

"What are you, my keeper? I'll go wherever I want to."

"And get beat by Seymour again?" Rikku's voice was thickly laden with sarcasm. "Sounds like a plan. Is this a daily event?"

"Seymour does NOT beat me!" Anger returned to Paine's voice. She abandoned the mop and turned to glare daggers at Rikku.

"Of course." Rikku consented. "Those scars and bruises randomly show up on their own. How silly of me."

"Kimahri! I'm about to beat the shit out of this girl again…" She turned, but Kimahri wasn't there. "What the hell? Where'd he go?"

"Maybe he trusts that you won't hurt me. I talked to him, you know, and he knows everything now too." Rikku suggested smilingly.

"Yeah, well, he shouldn't." Paine replied darkly.

"Why? You going to hit me?" Rikku held out her arms wide. "Go on, free punch. As a matter of fact, I won't even fight back. Go ahead. Hit me."

Paine gritted her teeth. "Don't tempt me."

"You can't do it." Rikku proclaimed victoriously. She took a step closer to Paine. "You won't do it."

Paine's steely gaze locked onto Rikku's smiling face. Jaw clenched, eyes narrowed, fists tightened, it was a miracle she hadn't hit Rikku already.

Rikku casually leaned back against the wall. "Baralia tells me you're not very skilled with magic. Too bad, you might have been able to make me leave." Rikku shook her head. "In any case, I'm not leaving until you admit it."

"Admit what?" Paine turned away from Rikku and started limping away to put the mop back. As expected, Rikku followed her.

"Admit that you never meant to hurt me or Yuna." It was a simple request, one that would confirm everything.

"If you're so convinced of my innocence, why would you want to hear me say it?"

"Just cause I want to hear you admit it. Go on."

Paine breathed in deeply. This girl would not leave her alone. What was wrong with everybody? At least Tidus and Gippal had the right mindset. Gippal would—Paine's eyes brightened. "Does Gippal know you're here?" Rikku hesitated a moment too long before responding. Paine jumped on her new idea. "How angry would he be if he knew?"

"He…he would understand." Rikku replied weakly.

Paine smiled cruelly. "Is that so? Because I beg to differ. So here's the deal. Tell your friends to leave me alone from now on out and I won't tell him you came to see me."

"Nice try." Rikku shook her head. "But trying to help you is more important than Gippal being a little upset with me."
"Why do you feel the need to help me? I'm perfectly fine alone. I don't need other people's help."

"Is that the mantra Seymour's been pounding into you?" Rikku questioned.

Paine's tone was icy. "Stop talking about Seymour. You don't know anything about my father."

"'Foster'" Rikku imitated Paine from the first day they met.

"Shut up." Paine snapped, throwing the mop into the closet and turning back to Rikku with pure rage shining in her eyes. "You don't know what's going on, okay? You guessed a lot of crap, alright, I admit it. I never meant to hurt you. But you don't know anything about Seymour so stop trying to pick apart my life. I don't want to be your friend, or Baralia's, or Nooj's, so leave me alone!"

There was a moment of silence. "Okay." Rikku finally agreed. "That's all I wanted to hear." Rikku turned around and started walking away. Paine's eyes narrowed at her back. That had been too easy. After all Rikku had put up with, it didn't make sense that she'd give up so easily. Paine scanned her retreating form and her eyes found the source.

Barely visible, just peeking out of the corner of Rikku's bag was a communication sphere. Rikku had been taping the whole conversation! "No!" Paine sprinted, ignoring the jolts of pain that ran up her injured leg. She reached Rikku quickly and tackled the girl to the ground. She reached for the sphere and Rikku's eyes widened in surprise.

"Oh no you don't." She swatted Paine's hand away and slipped out from under her. Paine lunged forward and grabbed her ankle, preventing her from escaping. Rikku tripped and fell forward again. The sphere rolled out of her backpack to a few feet in front of her.

"I told you to leave me alone!" Paine roared, she pulled Rikku's ankle so that the girl was tugged towards her. Rikku had fear in her eyes as she brought two fingers to her lips and blew out a whistling noise. Paine didn't pay attention to the action, she had already gotten up and made a mad dash for the sphere. Her fingers clasped over its smooth surface and she raised her fist to smash the evidence when metal fingers gripped her wrist. They squeezed her wrist and Paine cried out. Her fingers released the sphere and it fell into a soft, fleshy hand.

Desperate now, Paine reeled back her other fist. Before she could do anything further, a drowsiness settled over her. Paine fought against it, but it was from an unnatural source, instantly sapping away all of her strength. Her eyes shut from lack of energy to keep them open and Paine fell limply to the ground, her arm still held in those metal fingers.

-----

It was all quiet. Where was she? She had been knocked out at the school; the surface she was on was soft…so where had she been taken? Paine kept her eyes shut, trying to listen. She could hear someone else breathing, but nothing above that. Someone was in the room with her. What had happened after she'd been knocked out?

"You can stop pretending now." Paine's eyes shot open and fell upon Baralai. He was sitting on the edge of the bed, lazily tossing a sphere up and down in his hand. Paine recognized that sphere. She tried to sit up and snatch it from him, but to her horror, she couldn't move. "Don't worry about it." Baralai explained. "I found out how to isolate the paralysis curse, so I cast it over your body while you were asleep. But please, feel free to speak. I only cast it on your body."

"What do you want?" Paine strained against the curse, but she couldn't even feel her body, let alone control it. "Where am I? Why did you kidnap me? Give me that sphere and let me go."

Baralai smiled. "Demanding, aren't you? You're at my house. We brought you here because we think its best that you don't return home, for now. We wouldn't want to see you any more hurt."

"We?"

"Well, yes; Nooj, Rikku, and I."

Paine let her head fall back against the pillow and drew in a sharp breath, closing her eyes. "When do you intend to let me go?"

Baralai chuckled. "Before school on Monday, that's for sure."

"You're going to keep me here in a paralyzed catatonic state all weekend?"

"Well we were hoping you'd loosen up after a bit so that we could release you from your paralysis." Baralai smiled warmly at her. "You sleep cute."

Paine's eyes opened and narrowed at him. "Excuse me?"

"You're a very peaceful sleeper. It was cute; when I put the blanket on you, you snuggled right into it."

Paine visibly reddened. She opened her mouth to say something snappy back, but the door burst open at that moment and Nooj and Rikku came in. The bed jounced as they seated themselves on the end of it. "Good, you're awake."

"You gave Rikku quite a scare when you jumped on her like that." Nooj commented. "Almost had her thinking you'd been berserked again."

"I've never been berserked." Paine objected, glaring at them all.

Rikku waved her off with a flippant hand motion. "Please. We're over this fact. You already admitted it, remember?" She grabbed the sphere out of the air on one of Baralai's tosses. "And now, we've got proof."

"You tricked me." Paine's eyes followed the sphere; she didn't look at any of them. "What are you planning to do with that?"

"Turn it in to the authorities so you stop being abused." Rikku replied simply, continuing to toss the sphere up and down.

"I am not abused!" Paine protested.

Rikku arched an eyebrow, studying her face. "Riiiight."

"Damnit Rikku, I'm not abused! It's great that you all mean well and everything, but you don't understand a damn thing of my life!"

"Why don't you explain it to us?" Rikku pestered, still playing catch with the sphere.

"I tell him to do it, alright!" Rikku froze and the sphere dropped to the ground, rolling under the bed. "He doesn't do anything unless I tell him to! I told him to summon Anima and I tell him to do everything else too!"

Nooj stared at her long and hard. "You tell him to abuse you?"

"It's not fucking abuse! It's training! I'm going to be a True Warrior someday and he helps me prepare for that! For Yevon's sakes, do you understand now?" Rikku gazed at her with a shocked, numbed expression. Nooj seemed to be considering her words more and Baralai just looked scared. Paine glared at them all. "Now let me go already. There's no reason to keep me here."

Rikku's jaw opened and shut several times, but she couldn't find the words. Nooj was the first one to break the silence after her statement. "A True Warrior…" He mused quietly, his gaze never wavering from her. "In that case, I think it's best if you stay here."

"What the fuc-"

Baralai was silently nodding behind him. "Don't object. It won't change anything."

Rikku, however, still looked like a gaping fish. She turned to Nooj with a questioning, confused expression. "Why?"

"That's what I'd like to know." Paine spat angrily, glaring daggers at Nooj and Baralai.

"To protect you." Baralai said as if it were the most obvious thing.

"From yourself." Nooj added.

Paine closed her eyes and breathed in a deep breath before exhaling slowly, trying to calm herself. She tried her best to keep her voice steady when she spoke and was happy that her tone was flat and emotionless, not exasperated as she feared it would be. "I've lived eighteen years perfectly fine without any protectors and I don't need any now." She shook her head and opened her eyes, her gaze specifically locking on Rikku. "If you continue this 'we're friends' crap, you're going to get hurt. And I don't want to be behind it when it happens. Please," she stressed the word, eyes sidelonging to Nooj and Baralai. "Let me go before it happens again."

There was a short moment of silence. Nooj and Baralai were both looking at Rikku who was chewing her bottom lip nervously. "I understand where you're coming from Paine…but we can't let you go." Paine dropped her head back against the pillow and closed her eyes again. "I know you feel guilty about beating me up…" Rikku continued. "but I know it wasn't your fault. Because of that, we won't let you go. Are you going to continue to be Seymour's puppet your whole life, Paine? You may want to be a Warrior, but I know you see what he's doing. You're not stupid. You're being isolated—and worse yet, you think it's necessary. You've convinced yourself that you have to be alone to accomplish your goals and you've done that because of him."

"I want to be alone." Rikku opened her mouth to object before Paine unconvincingly added. "For now. Leave me…please."

Paine felt the bed shift as Nooj and Baralai stood. The clanking of Nooj's metal leg was unmistakeable as he went to the door. Before the door shut, Rikku turned to Paine and swallowed thickly. "You have friends Paine. You don't have to be alone." With that, she shut the door behind her, closing off Paine from the others.

Alone. It was how she belonged, no matter what Rikku said. All her life, she had been taught to accomplish her goals alone, without help, without leaning on anyone for support. People only failed you. Alone…it was the way she had to be.

-----

Rikku entered several hours later carrying a tray of steaming food. Her blond hair fell over her shoulders in braids as her innocent blue eyes roamed over Paine curiously with hesitation. Paine arched an eyebrow at the jittery girl. She could see Rikku's hands shaking slightly as the water in the drinking cup rippled outward. "I hope you don't expect to feed me yourself." Paine commented wryly. Rikku's trembling abated slightly at Paine's words. Perhaps she expected more hostilities? Paine couldn't be sure, but Rikku seemed…afraid.

Rikku gave her a small, weak smile. "No, don't worry." If Paine hadn't seen it in her face, she would have heard it in Rikku's voice. Despite her words and bravado, the girl was scared. She continued. "Baralai has sealed the room and the adjoining bathroom. I'm going to release you from the paralysis now. You can eat and shower or whatever—but I wouldn't recommend trying to escape. Baralai's very thorough when he does a job, it won't get you anywhere." Rikku set the food tray down beside Paine's bed and sat down on the mattress lightly.

Paine's slightly arched eyebrow lifted higher. "And what exactly are you intending to do with me?"

Rikku shrugged. "Nothing really, just protect you." She ignored Paine's eyeroll. "Hold still, I'm going to remove the paralysis." Paine watched as Rikku gently grabbed her arm and started murmuring under her breath. Gradually, Paine began to feel a tingling in her body, as if her entire body had fallen asleep. The tingle raced up her stomach, causing an unpleasant sensation crawling through her midsection. The tingle sharpened suddenly and pain laced through her body, causing her to groan. Rikku winced, but the new burning in her limbs didn't stop; rather, it intensified to a dull throbbing and Paine tightly clenched her teeth together. Rikku let go of her arm and Paine sagged against the pillow, sinking further into the bed.

Rikku bit her bottom lip nervously. "You're still pretty injured from…" she trailed off, biting down harder on her lip. There was a breath of silence before she spoke again. "I'm sorry for what Gippal and Tidus did."

"Don't be. You have nothing to apologize for." Paine rebuked sternly. This girl simply amazed her. She was apologizing? After Paine had nearly killed her the same way. It didn't matter what the Al Bhed believed about her, she should never be apologizing to her. "I deserved it."

Rikku sucked in a strained breath. "You didn't—"

"Save it." Paine snapped.

Rikku quieted, but her eyes showed that it was an effort to keep silent. "Paine, I just…" Rikku trailed off again, staring at her hands regretfully. Paine started inching towards the edge of the bed. Rikku hopped up off her edge and rushed over to Paine's side. "Do you need help?" Without waiting for an answer, she slung Paine's arm across her shoulders and helped the girl into a standing position.

"I don't need your help." Paine yanked her arm away and wavered for a moment, unsteady of her feet. Rikku reached out to steady her.

"It's okay to need help sometimes…" Rikku offered.

Paine swatted away her hands. "I'm fine. Leave me be."

Rikku stepped back, looking hurt and disappointed. She hesitated before turning to the door. "If you need anything…"

Paine gritted her teeth and shut her eyes, turning away from Rikku. "Rikku." Rikku turned at the door, but was only privy to her back.

"Yeah?" she asked tentatively.

"I'm sorry."

Rikku let out a sigh and a small, genuine smile graced her features. "Thanks, Paine." Paine said nothing else and she heard the click of the door as it shut behind Rikku.