A/N: Funny, I return to the same fandom I was working with three years ago, before I took a break from writing fanfic. I'm sure 90 of the people who have me on their favorites list have declared me legally dead. And I'm sure those of you who've been here for two years or less have no idea who I am! Well, go visit my profile and know me better, man (or woman)!

Thanks to KJ for pointing out a few errors with this on FicWad. I edited a few things as a result.

One more thing I didn't realize until now: I don't think Gippal was fully aware of what Nooj planned to do once he reached Vegnagun. If Nooj had told him, I think Gippal would've told the girls in turn, and we gamers would've known about Nooj's intention of blowing himself up before we even reached him. Plus, Nooj probably kept his friend in the dark to avoid getting harrassed by him about it on the way there. But maybe it's up to the players to decide.

I talk too much. Go read the story.

They were ignoring the CommSphere at this point.

Here, in the ethereal stillness of the Farplane Garden, the air laced with vestiges of an indescribable energy -- remnants of the Fayth or who knows what else -- Gippal wracked his brain for something, anything to throw Nooj off his chosen course. The man's as stubborn as hell, he fumed to himself. Get over yourself!

Something, anything, even something downright foolish... "What about Leblanc?"

The question prompted a long pause from Nooj. For a time Gippal thought he would never answer. The meyvn of the Youth League paced the ground awkwardly, his movements muffled by a thick carpet of pastel flora. Emotions ran rampant over his features; confusion was the most obvious one.

All right, maybe that was a stupid question. Or was it? Gippal didn't really know how Nooj was going to answer. I don't think he's into blondes, but...

Before Gippal could come up with something else, Nooj spoke. "Well, she --"

"-- got me this far. I can't say I'm not grateful." He gave Gippal his back and hobbled away.

Gippal narrowed his eye at his friend. The corner of his mouth twisted into a knowing leer. Huh. He's hiding something. Damn, you can never get anything out of this guy directly. Just then, an old memory touched his mind, and his face grew somber. Leblanc wasn't the first person in Spira who wanted Nooj, And if she gets him -- if she got him -- she won't be the first with that, either. Crossing his arms over his chest, his body tilting to the side in the classic pose of one who knows better, he dropped a snide remark as bait for his old friend. "So, you threw Paine over for an older woman."

Nooj turned around sharply, mouth taut, eyes flashing anger. He stumbled a bit, but caught himself quickly with his cane. "What are you talking about?" he snapped.

Aha! So he still has feelings for ol' Doctor P! It had been two years, hadn't it? But he is stubborn. Wonder if she feels the same way... Gippal hadn't bothered much with Nooj's personal affairs, both past and present. Meddling in matters of the heart wasn't his style. Sharp observations were, however. Time to go in for the kill. "I'm asking what's going on with you and Leblanc. I heard a lot of rumors, like you hanging around her place a while ago. I'm just curious." Gippal shrugged and frowned, feigning disinterest.

Nooj snorted. "I thought you were smarter than that, Gippal. Rumors are just rumors."

"Yeah, but some of them have a grain of truth to 'em."

"Not this one." Nooj gazed off into the distance. Though the garden was but a small spot in the whole of the Farplane, it seemed like a world unto itself. The sky above was dark, rich and velvety. "I did my research. Leblanc's syndicate is the most well-organized group of sphere hunters in Spira. I needed to know where Vegnagun was, and I figured there had to be a sphere out there that had the answer. She found it for me. So I'm grateful to her. But that's it."

Gippal raised an eyebrow. Seems honest enough. "That's it?"

"Yes, that's it." Nooj faced his friend again. "Leblanc...has the mind of a child. She was easy to exploit."

"Exploit? That's cold, man. Everyone in Spira knows she's got a thing for you." But you couldn't care less, I bet.

Nooj let out a short laugh. "The end justified the means, at the time." He let that sentence hang in the air awhile. Then he smiled -- a gentle grin that could've melted a chocolate bar at twenty paces. No wonder so many women joined the Youth League, Gippal thought. Me, I actually have to exert effort to get girls. I gotta turn on the charm. But this guy... Ah, what a waste.

Nooj came up to Gippal's side, laid a hand on his shoulder, leaned down, and said in a softly commanding tone, "Now go fetch, Leblanc, like a good girl."

Gippal grinned back, then responded in an uncharacteristically high-pitched voice, complete with exaggerated excitement, "Oh yes, Noojie-Poojie!"

Nooj made a face. "That was too close." A pause. "And anyway, I think it's 'Noojie-Woojie.'"

Gippal's eye widened. "Oh, so you were paying attention to it!"

"Well, it was repeated around me so many times." Suddenly, something strange flashed in his eyes. He reached into the long, wide sheath that concealed his right arm and produced a sphere. "Speak of the devil," he intoned, "and she'll probably appear." He summoned his most serious expression -- Which could turn someone into stone, Gippal thought -- and set the sphere to record. When he spoke, his voice was firm and clear. "Leblanc, this is Nooj. Things get dangerous from here on. Turn back now and wait for my return."

Upon finishing the message, Nooj turned off the sphere and tossed it deeper into the garden, where it bounced lightly on the sea of flowers before settling. "That should keep her out of our hair."

"You think so?" asked Gippal.

"I hope so. I can't have her interfering at this point. This is serious. There's no turning back now." Then, "Come on. We don't have much time." He made for the end of the Farplane garden, where in midair hovered a ghastly vortex, a blend of lightness and dark, swirling and threatening to pull anyone nearby into another, even more unfamiliar place.

The portal looked malicious, but Gippal knew that if he lingered for too long, he'd be left behind. If death's a possibility, Nooj doesn't ask -- he just jumps right in.

"Sometime this year, Gippal." Nooj was already inside; his head and right shoulder poked out from the portal. Without a second thought Gippal ran in after the former Crusader.

The sky above them -- if one could accurately call it "sky" -- was lighter now, the faded mauve and maroon of sunset, yet there was no sun to be seen. It was as if the world around them were dying. Gippal shuddered at the thought. We may end up doing the same damn thing, if Nooj has his way.

At his feet was a world of metal, brilliant and bluish-green, the shades of living things meets the luster of things unnatural. There were no words to describe the feeling such a mixture evoked. The energy-rich air of the Farplane Garden hit a crescendo here. The atmosphere was pulsing with it. Gippal felt as though he could scoop it up with his hands. "Hey, Nooj."

His friend was several feet ahead; he looked back over his shoulder. "Yes?"

"You feel all that energy? Like you could practically grab it?"

"It's Vegnagun," Nooj explained, sounding both knowledgeable and slightly condescending.

Gippal didn't fail to pick up on the latter tone. "You don't have to be so obnoxious! I was just askin'." He thought a bit there. "Hey, do you think if we breathe in too much of this stuff, we'll both eventually be poisoned by it and die slow, horrible deaths?"

"We don't have all day, Gippal." Nooj kept on walking.

Gippal scowled. Stick in the mud.

They hadn't walked along much farther before Gippal felt motivated to speak. His own hypothesis of dying a slow death had dredged up a less-than-savory memory, which previously he thought he had buried for good. "Speaking of death," he began, "or actually, near-death..."

Nooj stopped walking abruptly. His cane had made clanging echoes against the metal path that paved the way to their goal; its stillness allowed quiet to return. "I anticipated everything. I already told you --"

"I'm not talking about what's up ahead. I'm talkin' about the past." Gippal caught up with Nooj and stood by his side. He fixed him with a pointed stare. "You know what I mean." His voice held no trace of repressed bitterness the likes of Baralai, only curiosity. Truth be told, he sounded more curious than he actually was, but I'd better ask now. If anything happens, I wanna die knowing the truth.

"You don't seem bothered by it -- by what happened," Nooj observed.

"That's because I'm not," replied Gippal lightly.

Nooj turned around fully, surprise in his fair eyes. "You're not?"

"Nope. I just wanna know why, that's all."

Nooj's mouth opened, but no sounds came out. He was silent for a time, until finally he stammered, "I... Well..." He turned away from his friend, his head bowed.

Gippal placed a hand on his shoulder. "Go on."

"I... It wasn't..." Frustrated, Nooj stopped speaking and stood straight and tall. He sighed. "Your answer was back in the Bevelle Underground -- the pyreflies that left me and went for Baralai."

Gippal's eye grew distant with thought. I see. He continued walking, pausing only to let one of the path's barriers put up its momentary electrical barricade.

"But you're not upset about it?" Nooj called after him. His words oozed skepticism, but Gippal also caught a hint of relief as well. I just wanna reassure ya, Noojster. After what Baralai did to you...

He turned around, his expression mirthful. "Nah, I'm not upset. I just hate you for it," he quipped jovially. Nooj's face fell. "I hate you for a lot of things," Gippal continued, unfazed. "I hate you because you're better looking, I hate you because you're taller, I hate you because you're such a great fighter -- even with all those missing limbs! Damned if I could do that..." He began to rattle off a list, counting each item on a raised finger, still walking on ahead.

Behind him, he heard Nooj say, just as jokingly, "There's something wrong with you."

Gippal ignored him. "-- Because you're stronger, because you're famous...-er, because you've got such a cool title -- meyvn of the Youth League! --"

Do, re...damn. "I can't remember the rest of it." A bead of sweat rolled down Gippal's cheek.

"Do, re, mi. It's not that hard."

"Yeah? Well you try remembering that crap after nearly getting your ass kicked! You're the one who set that thing off, anyway!"

"And you're the one who insisted on fighting it! Besides, I had to set it off. I thought it might be guarded; I just wanted to be certain."

"Yeah, well I could've told you that myself." Gippal wiped his brow, then set his fingers on the keys of the bizarre instrument before him. It was an odd-looking device. Like everything else in the heart of the Farplane, it hummed with unseen energy. It must have been powered from within, yet there were no no visible conduits at all. The sounds Gippal heard when he pressed the keys didn't seem to emanate from the keyboard, but instead vibrated in the air around him. This is like something out of a really bad dream. "Something tells me this isn't the last one we'll be playing." He turned to Nooj, still panting from the earlier battle. "You get the next one."

"If you want."

Gippal hopped down off the scalloped platform that elevated the keyboard from the rest of the path. Its surface bore various designs etched deep into the metal, all in circular patterns and perfectly symmetrical -- hallmarks of the handiwork of machinery. Together he and Nooj watched as small bolts of energy snaked up and around a looming, arched gateway further ahead. There was a great burst of light in the center, then a sense of calm, as if the energy it contained had been dispersed. The road to Vegnagun had just been made shorter.

Gippal turned to Nooj. "You go first. I can't handle that thing a second time."

So Nooj did, and nothing happened. For a while, he and Gippal trudged on in silence.

Gippal was still fuming over the beast attack before the gate's deactivation. He sets that damned thing off, like he doesn't care what happens... Could've gotten us both killed. Oh, but wait, he wants that, doesn't he? "You know what," he breathed, wishing he had a moment to sit, but knowing he was too angry to remain still, "I don't think you even care if you reach Vegnagun. I mean, if you die along the way... As long as you get your friggin' so-called 'wish'..."

The accusation perturbed Nooj. "That's not entirely true," he countered, his tone somewhat hurt. "It's just that if it happens, I already accept it."

The answer only exasperated his friend. Gippal jumped in front of Nooj, holding out his hands, his one eye livid. "That's your damn problem!" he shouted. "You don't care! You don't care what other people think! You know why I asked you about Leblanc earlier? I couldn't give a chocobo's ass if you liked her or not! I was just trying to change the subject. I was just trying to get you to stop talking about death all the time! You know how tiring that gets?!"

Nooj's eyes softened greatly. "I know," he replied. But Gippal wasn't finished.

"Well just cut it out, would ya? Just stop it already! Think about everything you've got to lose! And trust me man, you've got a LOT to lose. Don't go whining to me that you've got nothing. You've got a lot to lose."

Nooj turned his head away again, averting Gippal's hard stare. "You look tired. Let's rest for a minute."

"Ah, hell." Gippal abandoned his rage and eased himself into a sitting position on the pathway. "Damn, this is uncomfortable." He shifted in place, trying to get used to the feel of unyielding metal against his body.

To his surprise, he saw Nooj settle down beside him. He didn't appear to be the least discomfited by his steely sitting surface, But that's Nooj for ya. You never really know how he feels. He spoke, "It isn't about what I have or haven't got to lose. It's about accepting what may be inevitable. We have to do this, and we may die trying. Have you actually thought about it? That you may not come back from this?"

"The thought's occurred to me," said a sarcastic Gippal.

"Well then, you shouldn't begrudge me the way I think. This is how I deal with things."

Gippal shot Nooj a look. "Yeah, and that's why you're as screwed up as you are. 'Death is the answer to everything.' It isn't! If you were already dead, we wouldn't be here doing this. No one would. You're the one who came up with the plan! It was your idea! You being alive may end up saving Spira. Ever think about that? Huh?"

It was hard to tell if Gippal's words reached Nooj's heart. All he said was, "And if I don't succeed, death will be my apology."

"You said that before!"

"I know."

Gippal turned away; his forehead met his palm with a loud slap. I can't get him to change his mind. He's hopeless. "All right, fine. I give up. But let me tell you something. It won't be the last time you hear that. Someone else is gonna let you have it, too."

Nooj still wasn't at a loss for an answer. "If they do," he began, slowly rising to his feet with the help of his cane, "then I promise I'll consider their words."

Two more keyboards and two more gates later, Gippal and Nooj stood at the end of the long metal pathway, which broke off into a dangerous precipice that dropped sharply into the depths below. It was framed by the usual engraved scallops that gave the Farplane heart its strange, mechanical appearance. In the air ahead was a daunting phalanx of floating pillars.

Gippal toyed with a hovering mechanism off to the side. "Hmm. According to this Watcher's data, those pillars over there can be moved. But you have to climb them in a certain order to activate 'em..." He trailed off there, scanning the small circular screen that formed the eye of the device. "They follow the same order the scales did, the ones we had to play on those keyboards." He released the Watcher and made his way towards Nooj, who was surveying the broken road before him.

"A machine's riddles," he muttered. "Machina-made traps. Not something people would come up with."

"Not something people could make," Gippal added. Then he quickly amended, "Well, at least not this fast. I mean, Vegnagun hasn't even been in the Farplane for three days yet, has it?" Give the Machine Faction a month and we could outdo this.

Nooj eyed his friend. "Are you feeling better now?"

Gippal stretched a bit, winced, and then shook his head. "I've been better. I could probably use another break."

"Take one, then. We're not leaving right away." Nooj turned and walked off. For the second time, he reached into his sleeve and removed a sphere. Gippal watched him with amazement.

"Hey, I didn't know you had two! Who's this one for?"

"For the other woman following us." Nooj reclined against a towering metallic formation that jutted from the surface of the pathway. He didn't record anything on the sphere; he simply played it, absorbing the sounds and images in its translucent core.

Gippal heard familiar voices. One sounded like Paine's; the other... Hey! That's my voice! He approached Nooj, curiosity piqued. That's when he spotted a familiar logo in the sphere. "Hey, that was from our squad days! Where'd you get this sphere?"

"From Paine's recorder, two years ago." Nooj's eyes never left the sphere. "Right after...that incident."

Gippal sat down next to him and watched the sphere. One scene touched a very deep chord inside him. He saw a sixteen-year-old Paine approach Nooj ever so shyly, eyes at her feet, hands clasped behind her back. The beginnings of a smile were on her lips. She stood beside him and said one word, clear as a bell: "Captain."

"I remember that," Gippal remarked softly. "We were on a ship to Luca. I asked Paine what she wanted to do when it was all over, and she said --"

"I didn't 'throw Paine over' for anybody."

Nooj's words made Gippal pause. "What?"

"You insulted me earlier." Nooj's eyes burned into his friend's, grave as ever, maybe even more so. "I never took what happened back then that lightly. Actually, I couldn't stop thinking about it these past two years."

Gippal didn't know what to say. That's what I figured. He's still in love with Paine. But does he know how she feels? I doubt it if she took the shooting the way I did. I just thought Nooj was being an asshole, doing a job he thought he needed to do, but she... She probably had her heart broken that day. He felt terrible just then. Poor Paine...

"She was on my mind since I first laid eyes on her again, a couple of weeks ago," Nooj resumed. His eyes had the faraway look of a one who was peering into the past. "She hardly changed...except the look in her eye. So harsh... She grew up, I could tell. In that sense, she's like a stranger to me."

Gippal studied Nooj for a moment. You didn't change much, either, you know. He searched his thoughts for something comforting. "I remember, when we were in Bevelle, in the underground, she stopped Baralai before he could shoot. The way I see it, she must still give a damn about you."

Nooj looked thoughtful. "Well, I suppose..." He paused there, then chuckled a bit. "You know, I didn't expect her to show up down there. We seem to keep running into each other."

"Maybe it's fate," Gippal offered.

At that Nooj turned, giving his old comrade-in-arms the strangest of looks.

Oh come on, what did I say wrong now? "What?"

"Nothing." Nooj turned away, but his demeanor had changed. He seemed happier. "I kept trying to jog her memory. That's why I told Yuna to give her that sphere. And I gave her another before that. I thought she needed to be reminded. Maybe she forgot..." He swallowed. "Two years can feel like eternity."

Gippal shifted in place, hoping to temporarily relieve his aching muscles. "An eternity? Nah. It's nothin', really. I get a feeling that...well, that she didn't forget anything. That's not like Doctor P. She wouldn't forget something like that."

"I hope you're right." Nooj got to his feet, still clutching the sphere. "Well, we better figure out how to move those things," he said, gesturing to the group of pillars.

"Already? I'm still wiped out," Gippal griped.

Nooj said nothing for a moment, just studied his friend. "Do me a favor, then." He handed the sphere to Gippal. "Give this to Paine when she gets here. Tell her it's a gift from me."

"Another reminder?" Gippal asked. He turned the sphere round and round in his hands, giving Nooj a small, sly smile.

"Of course." The meyvn turned and hobbled away.

"Wait!" said Gippal, struggling to sit upright. He's not gonna make it on those things, not without me. "Wait a minute! You sure you don't want any --"

But Nooj was already scaling the first pillar. Eventually he made it to the top, and the air quivered with an otherworldly sound. Do, re, mi. The pillar's flat surface glowed bright with each note.

"...Help," Gippal finished. Figures. Danger's only a few steps away. He can't resist. He leaned back, relaxed his muscles, and turned on the sphere.

The first thing he heard was his own voice. "Got any ideas for fun?"