KJ (owlmoose) wrote in painexnooj,

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Collaborative Fic Project: "The Pursuit of Happiness"

Title: The Pursuit of Happiness (or, Fifty Ways to Leave, Find, or Get Busy With Your Lover)
Fandom: FFX-2
Pairings: Paine/Nooj
Rating: varies, G to NC-17
Notes: This is a joint project by heyheyrenay and owlmoose in the style of 1sentence. However, instead of using any of the community theme sets, we each came up with 25 words and traded lists. Then we reassembled them, in randomized order, into the collection you see below. Fifty microfics (not all single sentences, although some of them are) on fifty themes, all about Paine and Nooj. This has been a long time in the making -- we first traded words back at the beginning of November! But we are finally finished, and we hope you enjoy.

She feels it every time he's near: the tiny prickles racing over her skin, like someone is using a lightning spell far away; it scares her, but she anticipates it, too, the thunder ringing in her breast whenever he touches her.

Paine stands far away from the cliff's edge and stares at the ground.

"Hey, we have to get back to the ship," Rikku says. "Time's a wasting!"

"I'm coming," Paine replies, and Rikku darts off to catch up with Yuna. The Highroad is bustling with people and chocobos, the travel agency is packed and the crowds are pressing too close for her to be comfortable, yet she stands for a few minutes more, staring at the familiar way the ground ahead sinks and then rises toward the ocean. She knows how well the curve of a shoulder fits in a depression that's just at the top of the rise and what the grass smells like mixed with blood.

Even in the bright afternoon sunlight, Paine shivers.

The bar is smoky and broiling when Nooj slips in and spots the crowd surrounding the biggest table. It's full of huge men, excepting one, and Nooj is somehow not surprised that Paine would find her way into the most important sphere break tournament in Kilika even after he had made it clear how dangerous it was.

Paine wears her sword on her back, straddled on her chair to allow it. Everyone looks sweaty and mean, except for her; the spark of her blade in the light says everything. When she sees him, she raises an eyebrow and curves her lips. Her collection of coins is the largest, piled high and tilting.

When she makes her last move, one of the players falls out of his chair and another starts crying. The cheers and hisses bounce off the walls and Paine reaches out to swipe a coin from a pile newly made hers, never taking her eyes off his, and winks.

It begins their second week in the desert, the day after she saves him, with a few quiet words exchanged at the campfire, then progressing to casual conversation, gazes held a little too long, accidental-but-not touches in passing; soon, Baralai and Gippal are exchanging knowing looks and finding excuses to leave them alone after dinner.

Nooj's image flickered over every news sphere in Spira when he survived the attack that took half his body, the world amazed by his determination. It wasn't that moment that locked him in Paine's mind, but the ceremony where he received a medal for his service and didn't return Kinoc's prayer.

The sphere was warm under his hands as he played it, the familiar music and voices feeling like a lifetime ago, instead of just a few months. The images on the sphere were grainy and distorted, made worse as the recording had been done at night. A sphere by another recorder, he guessed—it would have to be, and sneaky at that, to have caught the image of their team together. Happy.

"What's that?" Beclem asked, dusting sand off his jacket. "New find?" He peeked over Nooj's shoulder. "Looks like a party. Someone's having fun."

"Indeed," Nooj said, and smiled.

The spheres and papers all say one thing: hero. At the memorial, she stands beside Lucil, who walks tall, tears on her face, to give a short speech to the hundreds of people gathered. All the people, so sad and full of wonder that Nooj would be so selfless to save his second in a hopeless battle with too-strong fiends; to sacrifice himself so she could live.

Paine stares through the clouds of mourning and and awe and understands the difficulties of history and the facts she will never be able to change.

She'd forgotten how quickly he can move; he rolls her beneath him and slides his hands up her arms to pin them into place, then arches an eyebrow with a slow smile, satisfied that he can still catch her by surprise.

The wind blew up suddenly, the recruits tossing up their tents to create refuge; now the storm has died down, the sand beating against the taut canvas walls fallen to a gentle whisper, a sound that Paine normally finds reassuring, like rain on the roof, but tonight she strains to hear the sound of his breathing, just to be certain he's still there.

Paine reached into the reserves she'd finally learned how to tap, thanks to Shinra and his dresspheres. Murmuring the incantation, she felt the spark travel out her core and along her arm; when she opened her eyes, the small ball of flame hovered just above her palm. She looked at Nooj, who stared into it, mesmerized. She let the fire dance in place for a few moments, until she could feel the edges of her control burning away. She closed her palm, and the flames vanished.

Awe glinted in Nooj's eyes. "I never did have the knack for that."

She opened her mouth to tell him that it wasn't her, just a small measure of power that she retained from the Black Mage sphere, but thinking better of it, she closed her lips into a mysterious smile. It wasn't often that she had the chance to outshine Nooj.

He hears Paine walk up beside him, smooth soles on rough stone. His gaze is locked to the wavering wall before him, staring into the eyes of a cadet he used to know—one he had trained.

"Fifteen years old," Nooj says.

"He liked you."

"He was terrified of me." Nooj gives her a sidelong look.

"Just the hair, really," Paine says, with a hint of a smile. It falls away and she steps between him and the boy-who-was. "You can't keep coming here. Four days in row. I heard from Lucil."

Nooj is not surprised; Lucil tattles on him consistently.

Paine tilts her head. "Hasn't anyone taken the time to tell you it wasn't your fault?"

Nooj doesn't reply, and when Paine reaches out and wraps her arms around his shoulders, he takes one last look at the fading image of a young boy he couldn't have saved, and closes his eyes.

Ten red spheres glint in the late afternoon sun that pours through the window of the cabin: so beautiful, so fraught. They sit in careful rows arrayed on the table before her, a reminder that tomorrow the Gullwings will travel back to the cave where it all began—and where it all came to a crashing halt. She touches each in turn, running her finger over the smooth surfaces as memories crowd her mind: some happy, some terrifying, each tinged with pain in its own way. Overwhelmed, she pulls away, then turns away, shaking her head to banish the image of him.

For Rikku and Yuna, these spheres are pieces of an incomplete puzzle; Paine already knows what the picture looks like, but she still hasn't a clue what it means. She pictures his face again, wearing a cold expression that she will never forget, and wonders if she really wants to know.

He slams her against the wall of her tiny hut with enough force to rock her shelves; the books and spheres fall to the floor around them. Buckles dangle from both of them—music for their dance. Nooj locks her wrists between cool metal fingers and even she can't break that grip—not when he's angry.

"Why?" he asks, eyes flashing. His glasses are long gone, somewhere back by the door. "You want me; why do you keep leaving?"

"Who says I do? Your fans?" She hopes she's put enough malice in her words. Her arms throb and her right side hurts.

"You do," Nooj says, and she'll never understand how he undoes her so fast, emotions and clothes and all. He yanks her hips up with his free hand; his fingers sting as they dig into her muscle. "You do," he says again, and she cries out when he thrusts into her.

"See you later," he said, and now, as he stands on the gangplank of the Celsius and waits for her invitation, meeting her eyes without looking away, she finally understands that he meant it.

She sees him across the square, his head poking up above the stalls, and she ducks into a dark alleyway, heart racing. After a moment, she finally dares to look out again, but it's already to late: He's gone.

Her head drops back against the cool brick wall, and she closes her eyes, not sure whether to be relieved or disappointed that he didn't notice her.

The shopkeeper haggles over the price of the spheres in his collection for too long, so Nooj leaves him to Beclem, who has less patience but more finesse with money matters. Nooj stares across the market circle as Beclem haggles behind him.

He sees her flash between a clutch of balloons and someone in a giant moogle costume. He moves away from the shop front to get a better view as she swings a bag with ripe bananas peeking out of the top. She looks well enough; he can't make out anything from this distance, and before he knows it, she's gone around a corner.

"Nooj?" He turns back to Beclem, who holds out the spheres they wanted. "You look like you've seen a ghost," he says, as Nooj takes the two spheres to wrap and pack away with the others they've collected. He stares at the corner across the circle.

"Not quite," he says. "Not quite."

Secure in his arms, she listens to his heartbeat and traces the network of scars on his body: finding the roads he has walked alone, searching for the paths they might travel together.

Every time she comes, she brings lotion and oil and spare gil, parts of her life she carries with her—the balm for her lips that make her kisses taste like berries and the smelly oil she uses for her blade and the gil she uses sparingly. Nooj always wakes alone except for the coins. Sometimes new and shiny and sometimes dull, they catch the sunlight from the casual places they fell during the night, and he wonders why the gil is the only thing she ever leaves behind.

"Is that a letter?"

Rikku tried to snatch the sheet of paper out of Paine's hands; Paine stepped away, folding the page and sliding it behind her back in a single motion, no flicker of expression betraying her thoughts. "So what if it is?"

Rikku stood on tiptoe, craning her neck to look over Paine's shoulder, hoping to glimpse a signature, an address, some clue.... "Because if that's Nooj asking for another chance, I need to know whether to throw a party or stay out of your way."

The color creeping onto Paine's cheeks told Rikku all she needed to know.

Paine always looks as if she owns the place she stands and tonight is no exception. The fabric of her dress is blood-red and cut high along a smooth, pale thigh. She looks shocking on Baralai's arm, curves and muscles and sharp eyes, as Nooj watches them mingle in the tightly packed crowd, their heads bent close and twin smiles on their faces.

Baralai's hand drifts down to rest on the bare skin of her back. Nooj squeezes the stem of his wine glass and waits.

Outside Paine's window, the ocean around Luca sparkled in the distance. "You're so popular." She smirked at his image in the sphere.

"Oh, good grief, don't tell me you're buying into these ravings, too." Nooj palmed his forehead.

Paine held up a paper and waved it at him, his latest exploit of taking down four bandits single-handedly and saving group of small children splashed across Luca's daily paper. "I collect them all," she said, and laughed at his horrified expression.

Gazing out the window of their airship, endless sky above and boundless sea below, Paine listens to the cheerful bickering behind her, senses Nooj solid and real in the captain's chair at her side, and knows where she belongs.

Alone in the darkness, she tries to keep her mind clear, but his face swims at the edge of her vision and she can feel the heat and cold of his hands, the softness of his breath on her face, the catch in her throat as she strokes ever faster and then lets herself go.

Nooj sat propped against the trunk of the tree in the warmth of the sun as Paine slept beside him. He smoothed his hand over the curve of her hip, let his palm linger and closed his eyes.

From the time she stepped onto the Celsius, Paine held herself a little apart from the rest of the group—listening more than talking, rising early and staying up late, taking most of her meals alone. Sometimes, watching Buddy trade insults with Brother, or Yuna and Rikku sharing memories or giggling over some absurdity, she misses the easy companionship she had with her old teammates, but she always recoils from the fear of all the old wounds that might reopen if she let the walls of her heart be breached again.

"I hate these things," Nooj said, watching the ballroom fill. The murmuring of the crowd had been growing steadily for the last hour and Nooj cursed Baralai for making him come early in the first place. "Bunch of political nonsense."

"Oh, they serve a purpose." Lucil smoothed down her dress. "After all, how else will Shelinda find out who's the best dressed in Spira's high society?"

"The food is good, too," Elma offered Nooj something pink and shiny, which he quickly refused. "New Yevon can sure lay out a good spread."

"It's boring." Nooj had one hundred better things to do with his time, the first of which included letting an ochu sodomize him, followed by letting Rikku braid his hair.

"I can think of something that would make it not so boring," Lucil said, and put her hand on Nooj's shoulder and turned him. "Thought she said she wasn't coming."

Elma whistled under her breath. "Nice dress, Paine." At Nooj's look, she grinned. "Well, what there is of it."

Lucil stole one of Elma pink snacks and raised an eyebrow at him; he couldn't reply because he wasn't sure he was still breathing as Paine glided through the crowd. "Still bored?" she asked, and laughed when he abandoned them.

"Of course we knew!" Pushing herself back from the table, Rikku threw up her hands and tossed a grin at Yuna, who at least had the grace to blush as she nodded. "You only had it written all over your face every time you looked at him."

Sometimes Nooj feels like his life has been nothing but one battlefield after another, the air he breathes always thick with the scent of blood: fiends, Sinspawn, comrades, his own. But it all pales in comparison to this moment, standing over Paine with a gun in his hand, the sound of shots ringing in his ears, the blood he smells hers; it soaks into the dust, and he has to fight the scream tearing at his throat.

Paine still sometimes notices small oddities in Nooj's behavior—a turn of phrase, a quick movement, a strange tilt to his head—and she wonders if that's all that remains of the one who once shared his skin.

He can always pay well with the money that no record shows he ever carried for the spheres he requests. He spirits them home to watch in the privacy of a dark room, light flickering in his glasses from the shaky, clandestine recording of a face he can't let go.

She hears him rise, startling her out of sleep. She's sore all over, aching in muscles she hadn't used in far too long. Rain falls lightly outside as she listens to him dress, the squeak of his prosthetics like knives along a metal edge, raising hairs on her neck. He leans over her, his hand brushing over the tips of her hair.

She doesn't move and squeezes her eyes shut and he leaves without touching her.

They come to rest on the rug at the foot of Nooj's desk, panting and soaked in sweat, still tangled together. Nooj's commsphere rings and rings and rings and stops. It rings again and stops. Finally, Paine lifts her head from Nooj' shoulder.

"Ow," she says, and shifts her hips.

The sphere rings again and Nooj opens his eyes, arches up, makes her gasp. "Again," he says, and rolls.

Neither of them ever answer the sphere.

Paine glared at the jangling commsphere and resisted the urge to smash the thing with her boot. "That's the third time in less than an hour. Isn't there anywhere to escape anymore?"

Nooj shook his head with a rueful chuckle. "Not with the communications network expanding like this. Before long they'll be almost everywhere."

The sphere rang again, and Paine snatched it off Nooj's desk and threw it out the open window. Then she turned back to him, and he shook his head, his eyes caught somewhere between shock and laughter. "Sometimes I wonder if Yevon was right about machina after all."

Lucil's voice is whip sharp in the early morning light as she calls out orders. Piles of canvas mark the locations for supply tents and temporary barracks, but Nooj ignores the bustle around him to watch the construction on the main headquarters. It towers above the camp, bold in its colors and meaning and purchased with betrayal and broken trust—he can't love it like the others do.

The height of the tower speaks to everyone else of hope for the future, but he can only see in it heights of failure he's scaled by trusting too much, losing everything—again.

He is only thankful that this time his hands are free from stains.

The fiend had barely faded before Paine dropped to her knees on the ground. She gripped Nooj's hand and squeezed her eyes shut when it was returned weak and half-hearted. He blinked up at her from the ground, eyes bleary with the poison.

"Don't worry." His was voice tired and soft like old leaves and she she lost her breath as he said, "I won't let you go."

Afterwards, as she lays in a cot at the travel agency and stares at the slats in the ceiling, she wonders whether Nooj was secretly an agent of Yevon, sent to kill Gippal or Baralai or both, then eliminate any witnesses—not that she really believes it, but she needs something to distract herself from the fire in her gut and the knife in her heart.

Yuna and Rikku teased her all the way back to the Celsius, happy and curious and clueless; Paine cursed herself and wondered if she let him see, gave him a sign, let him know all the things she wanted to do and say that she had almost given up too soon for the sake of a tiny, arrogant half-smile.

They see one another through the crowd of shoppers on one side of the crowded travel agency. Rikku and Yuna laugh over something for sale, while Paine watches Nooj watch her. The look in his eyes is warm, interested, like it is whenever they run into each other in public, or at an event, while LeBlanc hangs off Nooj's arm and Paine has to resist punching her in her nose.

Nooj takes a tentative step forward and Paine has to remind herself she asked for this; demanded it, threatened for the peace of it that has ended up being anything but. When he takes another, she blanks her face and turns her back.

Nooj dreams about her every night, whether he wants to or not. Sometimes they are in the desert, his hands following the shape of her curves beneath the stars; other nights they are in the cave, running from horrors they dare not turn around to face; some nights she has long hair and a sweet voice, but he never thinks to question why. And yet somehow those dreams are the worst, worse than even the nightmares, and always he wakes with a jolt, jangling with loss and fear and pain.

They emerged from the temple one at a time, an unlikely band of heroes, blinking into the setting sun. Halfway to the Celsius, Nooj paused, and Paine stopped beside him, close enough to touch but not daring to reach out. For a moment they stood there, watching the sun dip down below the horizon.

"So." Nooj glanced down at her, then at the sky once more. "There's going to be a tomorrow."

"So there is." Paine looked at his face and wondered if he meant that as a hopeful statement. Then he slid his fingers through hers; she squeezed, and let herself believe.

...he holds her on the edge for a very long time, her whole body quivering with anticipation, and then somehow he knows it's time, shifting his touch just so, pushing her off the cliff that has no bottom, and she tumbles through the air, all her boundaries shattering... and then he catches her, his embrace bringing her back to herself, his heartbeat in her ears, her name on his lips, and she is whole again.

The hall is the deep dark of sunset long gone, and Bevelle is quiet except for the nervous movements of acolytes back and forth to Baralai's guest rooms. Gippal is asleep in a chair by Paine's bed, his arm stretched out to touch her pale fingers with his own.

"He said he waited too long," Baralai murmured. "He should have made her come in when the rain started."

"Fools," Nooj said, leaning heavily on the door frame.

"Paine won't…" Baralai paused. "Not that I agree with her, but Paine won't be happy you're here, you know. You guys agreed…"

"I love her," Nooj said, "whether she desires it or not."

Baralai chose not to reply.

"You should give up," she says, and wipes her mouth. He swings his practice blade in his good hand and and grins through the stings and aches left by her wooden practice sword.

"That ego won't pay off in battle." He beckons her forward. "We stop when you disarm me."

"I'm going to hurt you." Paine darts forward and smacks her sword on his arm. It bounces off and his grip on the hilt of his sword doesn't waver.

"Is that why you're so slow?" he asks. "We could take a break if you're feeling soft." He watches her eyes narrow and tightens his grip; this time when she lunges, Nooj knows he's done for.

She should learn to trust him, she realizes—he has turned away from his quest for death, he has reassured her of this a thousand times, and Gippal says he believes it—but she's seen him staring at the rocks at the bottom of the cliff too many times to truly feel safe when he stands anywhere near the edge.

Her mouth closes around him, and Nooj's eyes fall shut, all thoughts banished as he loses himself in her.

There's not much to like about this desert hell, but Nooj finds that he appreciates being cut off from the rest of the world; it makes it easier to forget what he was before, and to take pleasure in what he has now—friends, companionship, the velvet texture of sand against Paine's skin and the way the grains in her hair sparkle when they catch moonlight—for however long it may last.

Paine wiped the cut and whispered the spell, magic warm under her hand. Her touch was soft but her the line of her mouth was flat.

"You're quite violent today," Nooj said. He winced through the sting of the healing. "It was just a suggestion; you didn't have to throw things at me."

He wakes from the same nightmare, twisted in the sheets, rain pouring off the roof like the rush of a waterfall over slick rocks, convinced that when he turns what he'll find isn't Paine curled up in his bed, flushed with warmth from the blankets and bodies, but spread across the bed in pools of blood brought by his own hand.

He is never able to go back to sleep.

She can still sense his presence, and she hates it. She hates that her heart beats a touch faster and her breaths come shallow every time she sees him, and it makes her angry that she can't help but watch his every move.

And then she notices that he seems equally unable to tear his eyes from her, which should make it a little more bearable, but somehow it only makes it worse.

Her dress, blue and white and flowing in the breeze off the ocean, swirled around him as she laughed and and pulled him away from the small cheering crowd behind them. "Where are we rushing to now?" he asked, smiling at her as she grinned back at him.

"Forever," she said.

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