Ikonopeiston (kunstarniki) wrote in painexnooj,
Ikonopeiston
kunstarniki
painexnooj

One Step at a Time

One Step at a Time
FFX2
Nooj/Paine
G

This is not really responsive to the current prompt, although it might - at a stretch - be read that way. The story is a part of the Pentateuch series but can stand alone for those who have not read the other chapters. It takes place immediately after the shooting near the Travel Agency and is the result of a sudden insight which owlmoose kindly shared with me. It is 2,616 words long.

Please understand, this is AU like most of my stuff; I am not much of a canonical writer.









ONE STEP AT A TIME


Nooj felt a strange sensation pass through his body, like a shock which entered at his head and bled away at his feet. His vision was dimmed and he looked around him searching for the tall towers which normally grounded the electrical storms which raged on the Thunder Plains. They must be down again, he thought hazily as he stared into the threatening clouds which seemed just out of his reach. He had been warned against venturing onto the Plains if the towers were not working. His metallic limbs made him a target for the charges which permeated the atmosphere here and dying this way was no part of his plans. How had he gotten here? The last thing he could remember was camping with his three companions near the Travel Agency half way down the Mi’ihen Highroad. Had he lost track of time and distance again? That seemed to have been happening more often of late. His right shoulder ached for some reason and there was something heavy in his hand. He looked down and saw, as if through a fog, the shape of a large gun. Opening his fingers, he let it fall to the ground. It fell slowly and created a cloud of dust when it landed. This could not be the Thunder Plains; that area was never dusty. The constantly high humidity and frequent storms prevented that. So where was he and what had happened?

It was becoming lighter, as if the sun was emerging from behind a bank of clouds. He could see more clearly and gradually recognized his surroundings. There was a small flat overlook near the Travel Agency and he knew the terrain, having been there many times before. He staggered and leaned more heavily on the cane he gripped in his black-gloved left hand
An object lay near him, almost touching his feet. It took him an impossibly long time to make his mind accept what his eyes saw. The object before him was a body, bleeding into the dust. It lay half on its side, limbs splayed like a discarded puppet, with its face turned toward the ground, eyes closed and features lax.

“Paine? Paine!” Nooj stooped to touch her but drew his hand back before it could make contact. This was not real. It was, had to be, a bad dream. He had had such dreams before and had wakened himself when they became too intense. “Paine!”

There was no awakening. Clumsily, he dropped to his knees beside the crumpled figure of the woman who shared so much of his life. With exquisite care, he turned her head so that he could see her full face. She was unconscious and at first he thought she was dead. Then he saw the slow movement of her chest and heard the soft rasp of the air passing through her half-parted lips. Frantically, he dug into the pouch swinging against his hip, thrusting his hand past the coins there to find a single potion nestling in the very bottom. Taking pains not to spill even a drop, he uncorked the small bottle and pressed it against the mouth of his lover. Slowly, the healing fluid trickled past her tongue and he could see the painful motion of her throat as she swallowed the liquid. He thought he could detect an improvement in her colour but it was transitory and the blood continued to seep from the small wound beneath her left breast. He caught up his loose sleeve and, ripping a section of the fabric away, tried to staunch the flow but the improvised bandage quickly became sodden and the oozing did not stop. He looked at his hand dumbly. It was stained and sticky with her blood.

Paine could not be dying. A cloud of unreality covered him and he saw his own motions as though they were the actions of another, alien, being. How had this happened? He could not deny the evidence of his own eyes. He had been holding a gun when he returned to awareness of himself and here Paine lay on the ground, her life draining from a wound which could have only been made by a bullet. It was inescapable; he had shot her. He, who valued her as the most precious thing he had ever known - he, who had no care for his own life but would protect hers against all perils - he had done this thing. She was the reason he had not surrendered to his enemies and met his fate already. Why had he tried to kill her? It had to be an error but the proof was there and he could not fault it.

Across the clearing, half hidden in the tall, rank grass, two more bodies lay, bullet wounds in their backs, unnoticed by the distraught Nooj who had eyes only for the woman whose existence defined his. He could not conceive of a world without her presence. The two of them were alone together in the confines of his consciousness.
Then from his memory there surfaced the clear image of a place of healing, a large establishment near Luca where no one was turned away and few were lost to death. She had to be taken there. They would mend her and she would be again the vibrant, loving woman who was his lodestar. She had to live. Beauty and courage could not be permitted to vanish without a fight. He would save her. He could save her.

Still kneeling, he attached his cane to his belt with a bit of webbing and, gathering Paine in his arms, painfully levered himself to a standing position more by will-power than by physical strength. He was focused on one thing: that Healing House on the outskirts of Luca had become his Grail. He must get her there as quickly as possible, no matter what it took. He held her more closely, cradling her against his chest. She seemed as insubstantial as a dream as though her spirit had already fled, leaving behind only an empty shell. She was as pale as death itself and he was frightened when he looked at her.

Without even glancing toward the Travel Agency, he set out around the gentle curve which led to Luca. The Mi’ihen Highway was long and regularly traveled so the sight of a tall limping man carrying a bleeding woman in his arms was certain to be noticed by others along the way. However, Nooj could think of nothing save the necessity of reaching the place where Paine could be helped. The distance to Luca and the possibility of being recognized were equally absent from his mind. For once in his life, logic had no place in his calculations. As he walked, the burden which had seemed so light at the beginning became increasingly heavy as his strength, already sapped by the parasite he did not know he harboured, waned.

Yet he struggled on, lurching more grotesquely as his step faltered. His mind clearing, his usual rationality began to assert itself. As he walked, he repeatedly analyzed how he could have done such a thing. He knew he had been losing periods of time in which he could not remember where he had been and what he had done. This must have been one of those interludes. What had happened during the gap to make him harm Paine in such a way? If he could do something like this, what else was he capable of? It would be better if he chose to terminate his life at once to atone for his crime. But he had the burden in his arms to consider. What amends he could make had to be made to her. He loved her and must save her if he was not to go mad from grief. The admission of his love for this woman seemed so natural he wondered why he had fought against the acceptance of that truth for such a long time. A sort of trance settled upon him and he trudged on, one awkward step after another, moving like an automaton, Paine clutched to his chest.

He had to pause to rest at ever shortening intervals. Afraid that if he sat down or even crouched he would be unable to stand again, he was forced to lean against the posts of the fence which separated the road from the wild land on either side. Each time he started walking again it was slower and with more pain. He was about to consider turning back to the Agency to seek help even though he had gone nearly half the distance to his destination when he saw ahead of him in a clearing the unmistakable shapes of a pair of hover-craft. It was common practice for itinerate merchants and the like to set up temporary services along the road and extort huge fees from desperate travelers. If this was what it looked like, it was the oasis he needed so much. Money did not concern him; he had more gil than stamina remaining.

The Al Bhed who had been getting ready to pack up his wares was happy to see what he thought was a road-weary customer approaching. It was not until the figure turned into the open-air trading post that he saw the woman the man was carrying. With a cry of surprise, the merchant ran to help but Nooj would not relinquish Paine to the man’s outstretched arms.

“Is that hover for rent?”

“Yes, where do you need to go?”

“Luca. Quickly.”

“My son will drive you. Naadal! Get the new hover ready!” The merchant looked more carefully at his customer and saw what he had thought to be a sword swinging at the man’s side was in fact a cane. A memory clicked in his mind when he spotted the prostheses which were obviously of Al Bhed design. He knew only one man in the world had the use of that type so far. And that man was a wanted fugitive. The bulletin had come down just before he left the city to try his luck on the highway.

“I think you might need a robe to keep yourself and the lady warm when the hover accelerates.” The merchant’s words were reasonable but the look he gave Nooj told the exhausted man that he had been recognized. Furthermore, it told him the Al Bhed was offering as much help as he could. A disguise would be necessary if he and Paine were to escape capture and death. He silently cursed himself for not thinking of that before.

“Thank you, do you have one my size?”

The merchant burrowed into a pile of garments heaped on a table. “Here. This should fit well enough.” He held out a voluminous grey cloak with a hood and caped sleeves. “Let me help you on with it.” He carefully slipped it over the shoulders of the taller man and even more carefully worked the sleeves into place without disturbing Nooj’s grip on Paine. “There. That should do.”

“Reach into the pouch on my belt and take what you need for your costs.”

The man put his hand into the leather bag and took out a small number of gil. “This is enough. I’ll throw in a potion if you want. It looks like the lady can use it.” He held out the small vial and, at Nooj’s nod, uncorked it and placed it to Paine’s lips. Much ran out the sides of her mouth but at least some tricked down her throat and the two men could see her weakly swallow.

With some effort, Nooj managed to mount the waiting hover and settle into the seat with an audible sigh of relief. “Thank you, sir. Your kindness will not be forgotten. I hope someday to repay you properly.”

“Don’t think about it. Just stay free and keep fighting the Maesters,” the merchant spoke softly. “You and the ones like you are the hope of my race.”

Once the machine was on the road, speeding toward Luca, Nooj wrapped Paine closely in the folds of the robe and adjusted her more comfortably in his embrace. “My love, my love, stay alive for a little longer. Help is getting closer. You can do it. You’re the strong one, the one who won’t give up. You never have.” He brushed her hair with his lips and placed his right hand against her breast so that he could feel the rise and fall as her breathing continued. That gave him hope and he noted he had synchronized his own respirations with hers as though by living himself he could keep her alive.

When the towers of Luca began to take shape on the horizon, he started looking for the Place of Healing. It stood by itself, a sprawling white structure in a walled parkland just outside the city proper.

“This is the place.” Nooj called to Naadal. “Thank you; you made excellent time.”

The young man brought the vehicle to a halt and hurried around to help his client from the seat. Then he ran ahead to pull the bell rope at the gate of the building. A white garbed attendant appeared almost at once. “Are you in need of help?”

Nooj nodded and silently held out the unconscious woman. As if by magic, a wheeled stretcher arrived with orderlies at either end. They attempted to take Paine in order to place her on the conveyance but Nooj limped over and, with his own hands, laid her on the bed and straightened her body so that she was properly positioned, her arms at her sides, her dignity intact. Only then did he permit them to draw a sheet up to her chin and begin to roll her inside the hospital.

The gate attendant pulled lightly at his sleeve as he watched his beloved disappear from his sight. “Would you like to tell me how the lady came to be injured? And where you will be staying? And your name? And her name?”

With a visible effort, he forced himself back to the moment. “Oh.” He recovered himself and recognized that he must take steps to shield them both from the tentacles of the Maesters. “I don’t know how she was hurt. I found her lying alongside the road and at first thought she was dead. Here, will this be enough to pay for her care?” He drew out an overflowing handful of gold coins and spilled them into the palms of the other. “If you need more, I have it. She must live.”

“No, this is more than sufficient. We’ll do our best for her. There’s no need to worry. You’re a good man to care this much about a stranger. Your name is ...?”

Turning away, Nooj blurted out the first name to enter his mind. “I am called Aquelev the Merchant.” Loosing his cane from his belt, he pulled up the hood of the cloak and limped off toward the city. He would find a place to hide and plan ... and to be near her - just in case.

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