|Promises: Chapter Five
||[May. 10th, 2007|06:52 am]
Two Authors, One Mind
New to the story? Headers are here. Or start at the beginning.
The mid-afternoon sun poured through the windows of the Castle as Yuna poked her head into the library. She softly called the name of the room's only occupant, and he looked up with raised eyebrows.
"Come in," he said.
She approached with slow, careful steps. "I came to ask whether the problem you came to see me about earlier has cleared up. You seem to be walking better, but I wanted to make sure."
Nooj set his book aside with a nod. "Yes, I believe the shoulder and thigh have both healed completely. Thanks to your magic, the medications, and your advice."
"Good, good." She clasped her hands behind her back. "I'm glad, also because I'm here to say goodbye. I've been away from home for over a month, and I think Paine will be all right without me now. So I leave for Besaid in a couple of hours."
Grasping the arms of his chair, Nooj stood slowly, then took a halting step toward Yuna. "I thank you, Yuna, for everything you've done these past weeks. For me, for the children, and especially for Paine. You have gone far beyond what friendship requires."
She took his outstretched hand with a warm smile. "Anything you need," she said. "You only ever have to ask."
He did not release his grip as he gazed down at her with concerned eyes. "How is she?"
Yuna did not have to ask whom he meant. "Better. Still sad and tired, but stronger every day. She still grieves, but she's not as consumed by it. You don't need to worry for her."
His fingers tightened for a brief second as he exhaled softly, and then he dropped his hand. "Thank you. Again. You are always welcome here."
"Thank you, Nooj. I'll probably be back for a visit in a few weeks." She suppressed the urge to hug him and patted his arm instead. "See you soon. And take care of yourself." On his stiff nod, she backed away, then left to make her farewells to Paine.
It had been a busy few days. Rikku had come for a visit, bringing her brood along, and for a short time the entire Castle had rung with the shouts and laughter of happy children. Even Jarl had joined in, taking a break from his usual maturity to just be a kid, abandoning himself to rough-and-tumble play with the others. Paine had spent many hours with Rikku and Yuna, talking about inconsequential matters or simply soaking in their friendship -- it had been a long time since she'd had free time to spend with her old companions, and she appreciated the chance to escape.
But Rikku hadn't been able to stay long, and when she left, Yuna went with her, taking advantage of the airship for a quick ride to Besaid. She had taken her leave of Paine with a fierce hug.
"If you need me, call," she had said, looking into Paine's eyes with loving concern. "I'm just half a day away by boat, closer if there's an airship anywhere near. Promise me you will."
"I promise." Paine had managed a small smile. "Thank you. I owe you so much. I couldn't have made it this far without you."
Yuna had stepped back, still holding her friend's hands. "You're stronger than you know. But I'm glad I was able to be here for you. See you soon." And with a quick kiss on Paine's cheek, she was gone, walking up the gangplank at the side of a waving Rikku.
Dinner that night had been a subdued affair. Even Gippal was quieter than usual, occasionally glancing at the empty chair to his right. And Yuna's absence was felt by all, even though no one begrudged her wanting to go home to her family. Now Paine was alone in her rooms, a light blanket in her lap, looking out into the tropical evening and listening to the waves. She had enjoyed a few days of distraction, but now she found herself turning inward, her thoughts consumed by the loss that was never far from her mind.
A knock on the frame of the open door roused her, and she turned around to see Jarl there, still dressed for the day. "Mother? May I come in?"
"Of course," she replied, and smiled. "Did you enjoy visiting with your cousins?"
"Yeah. I wish they didn't have to go so soon." Jarl squeezed next to her in the chair, and Paine draped an arm around his shoulders. As she had done many times in these past weeks, she gave thanks for the perceptiveness of her eldest son, that he could let her mother him without complaint. They sat in silence for several minutes, until Jarl turned sideways and looked up with a question in his eyes.
"Mama, there's still one thing I don't understand," he said. "If it was Father who was sick, why did the baby die?"
Paine had been expecting a question along these lines eventually, and she gave him the answer she had spent hours preparing. "Your father wasn't sick, exactly; he was possessed by an evil spirit. But when Aunt Yuna forced the spirit out, it became angry. So it attacked the weakest person it could find, and that happened to be your sister."
Jarl narrowed his eyes and shook his head hard enough to muss his hair. "That isn't fair!"
"No, it isn't," Paine agreed. "But the world is often unfair."
"Well, it shouldn't be." Jarl fell silent for a moment, his small body tense next to Paine's; then he sighed. "But at least Father is all right now. I'm sad about the baby, but I'm glad that Father is okay." He glanced up at his mother. "Aren't you?"
Paine paused before answering. There was only one way she could possibly answer this question, given who had posed it. But still, she hesitated. "Yes," she said. "I am."
Jarl burrowed into her side. "And I'm glad the evil spirit didn't hurt you, Mama."
She kissed the top of his tousled head, burying her face in his hair so as not to betray the tears that had sprung to her eyes. If only that were true.
Later that night, Paine lay in her bed, eyes focused on the ceiling, unable to sleep. She hadn't slept well since Polarok's birth and death, and especially not since the night she had heard Nooj standing at the door. She would lie awake for hours, listening for his footsteps, not sure whether she hoped for the sound, or dreaded it. But tonight was even worse, with Jarl's words to her still preying on her mind. "I'm glad that Father is okay... aren't you?" Her answer hadn't been a lie; she would have been devastated if he'd died, or suffered permanent harm. And yet...
If she had known. If she had known that it would be a choice between Nooj and Polarok, what would she have done? Her youngest daughter or her soulmate? An innocent babe or the father of her children? There might be other children; there would only ever be one Nooj. But she didn't want other children. Her heart longed for this one, for the daughter who had been a part of her for so long. Polarok's life had ended in pain and terror before it had truly began, and Paine's every instinct cried out against the unfairness of it. Perhaps, as she had told Jarl, life was unfair; as he had responded, that didn't make it right.
But then there was Nooj. Her partner, the man she had chosen to share her life. How could she even entertain the idea that she might be better off if he had died? Might she have chosen his life over the child's, if the decision had been hers to make? And what kind of mother did that make her?
She had been tossing and turning for what felt like an age, unable to let go of her guilt and fear. Once more she rolled over, flopping on her side, clutching her pillow and burying her face in it. She knew what she needed, and she hated herself for it. But she saw no other choice. It was take her ease in Nooj's arms or go mad, and she'd had quite enough of madness for awhile. She threw off the covers with an angry sigh and got out of bed. Pulling on her robe, she slipped out the door of her rooms and into the hallway.
Nooj pulled open the door and was stunned to see Paine, wrapped in her robe, her face bathed in moonlight.
"May I come in?" she asked softly. He responded by opening the door all the way and stepping back to let her walk through, giving her plenty of space, standing away as though afraid to touch her.
Paine took deliberate steps across the room, shortening the distance between them as she spoke. "I still don't know what I want," she told him. "I'm not ready to make any decisions about the future or have serious discussions or do any of the other things I need to do. I don't know what will happen tomorrow. I'm not here to talk, I'm not even here to think. I just-- for a little while, I need to just be." She stopped just short of his embrace and looked into his face, her crimson eyes wide and clear. And then she closed the gap, and she kissed him.
His first reaction was to recoil in shock, and then the reality hit him. This was Paine, in his arms, her lips on his. He moaned deep in his throat and, dropping his cane to the floor, wrapped his arms around the body he knew so well, tenderly pulling her against him, almost afraid to believe that she was there.
The flicker of her tongue into his mouth ignited his long-banked fires and he grew hard and urgent, pressing himself tightly to her softness until he remembered her condition and drew back. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean ... I don't want ... Paine, I love you so much." The last words were muffled as he buried his face in the bend of her neck and breathed the familiar fragrance of her skin.
She almost made the accustomed reply without thinking, the words traveling directly from her heart to her lips, but she stopped herself; she didn't dare give him that kind of hold over her. Instead, she leaned her cheek against the side of his head and curled a hand around his neck, lightly stroking his hair. "I do want," she whispered. "It might be a little soon, but I don't care. I want you, now, tonight. I... need you." Her pulse skipped a beat at admitting even that much, or maybe it was the intoxicating effects of being so close to him. She turned her head and kissed him again, her other hand sliding down his spine to find the small of his back, and she pressed her hips into his with a soft sigh.
Nooj buried his fingers in her short hair and held her even more tightly. He plundered her mouth, his tongue twisting with hers in the eternal dance of lovers. After a few moments, he lifted his head. "I don't want to hurt you any more. I've done enough damage already. There're other ways which are easier for you." He folded her against his chest and she could both feel and hear the rapid pounding of his heart against her ear. "I can wait but I can't hurt you any more. ... Oh Paine, I've missed you more than you can ever know. Don't leave me alone in the dark and the cold." His voice broke under the weight of emotion. "Let me give you pleasure and not..."
Paine thought about arguing. Her entire body burned with desire, and she didn't know whether what he was proposing was enough to satiate it. But she also feared too much talking. Her resolve to keep distant was already weakening, and she wasn't sure how much more of his grief and regret she could take. She closed her eyes and breathed in his scent and knew just how much she had missed him. Coming here had probably been a mistake, but it was too late to back out now. The idea of leaving without release was unthinkable. So she placed her hands on his shoulders and captured his mouth once more.
"No more words," she murmured between increasingly frantic kisses. "Just... take me. It doesn't matter how."
He stepped away from her and slowly untied the sash of her robe. Beneath it she was bare, shimmering in the moonlight. He drew in his breath shakily and led her to his bed. There he positioned her, legs bent over the edge, and slipped a pillow beneath her hips. Stooping over her recumbent form, he trailed kisses down her body from the hollow of her throat to her inner thigh. Paine realized what he was about to do and shivered in anticipation, her head dropping back, her body rising into each touch. He removed his own robe and, wearing only the shirt he slept in, knelt between her thighs.
She tasted of honey and lemon, the sweetness of her juices and the tartness of her flesh combining into an intoxicating draught which befuddled his senses. A hand slipped into his hair as, with growing intensity, he nibbled and sucked, feeling her quivering under his touch. When she gasped with her release, he was reluctant to stop, wanting only to continue serving her until he had expiated his guilt and brought her peace.
The sensation came in waves, suffusing her entire being, nothing left in the world but the sweetness of his mouth. As he continued his ministrations, the tide ebbed, then surged bringing her another peak. The climax took her completely, her body shuddering, one hand gripping his braids while the other convulsed against the sheets. "Nooj!" she cried out, her hips arching, frozen in an endless moment of pleasure. "Nooj!!" Then she collapsed, panting. Her hands found his shoulders and she hauled him up onto the mattress, needing to hold him and to be held more than anything else in the world. She kissed him fiercely, tasted herself on his lips, and reveled in it. Acting on sudden impulse, she slipped one hand beneath his nightshirt and then down.
As her mouth released his, Nooj felt that hand close around his engorged penis. He almost exploded at the touch, but he resisted and instead gently tried to push her away. "No," he murmured, "no, you don't have to-- You don't--"
She did not answer him in words but by pressing the fingers of her other hand across his lips in the sign for silence. He moaned in combined torment and desire and tried to pull free, but she just shook her head and continued, caressing him with firm tenderness. Such a simple action to take, and yet it put her in control of the situation, and of him; she was not about to relinquish her position. He had not the strength to protest further and lay back gratefully as she continued, propping herself up on an elbow, her eyes never leaving his face as she watched him, helpless to resist her caress. Already near the brink, only a few moments passed before he convulsed, climaxing in her hand, and the sensation of relief was so great he almost fainted.
A small smile of satisfaction on her lips, she melted back into the bed. Instead of speaking the words of love and gratitude he longed to share, he raised a gentle hand to her cheek to trace the shape of her face and then the lines of her body. She turned to pillow her cheek on his broad chest, pushing aside the fabric of his shirt, and her hand released his member and snaked up his torso, finally coming to rest in its accustomed spot, in just the right place to feel the beat of his living heart.
Silently he gathered her to him, watching the lids of her eyes flutter and still like butterflies at evening, the long lashes finding shadowy rest. For a long time he just held her and watched her sleep, fervently hoping this meant her anger had softened and that she might be ready to accept him back into her life. But he felt the weight of her palm on his chest and understood the bitter truth: what he had always thought a sign of affection was, in fact, an indicator that she had known from the beginning that he was not to be relied on, that he might choose Death at any time, even when lying in her arms.
Finally, he buried his face into the crown of her head and slept, the scent of her hair and the warmth of her body pushing darker thoughts away and lulling him into rest. He dreamt of hope and happiness.
In the stillness before dawn, Paine awoke, relaxed but disoriented. Seeking familiarity, she snuggled more closely into the smooth, warm chest beneath her without opening her eyes, and she sighed with renewed contentment.
He had been dreaming of lying in her embrace by the little stream near the Travel Agency on the Mi'ihen Highroad. As the dream expanded to encompass reality, he ran his lips along her forehead and his hand down the long curving line of her spine, cupping her buttocks and pulling her closer to him. Sometime during the night, his shirt had become unbuttoned, and he could feel her bare skin burning against his. It being morning, the usual reaction ensued and he stirred against her loins. He kissed her eyelids and mumbled nonsensical endearments into her ear while flexing his fingers into her soft flesh.
Paine sighed again, listened to his rich voice, felt his soft lips travel over her face and hair, and sank into the feeling of rightness. She always felt right when she was with Nooj.
And then it all came crashing back in a torrent of pain and grief and anger. Her baby. Her lover. Death, surrounding her at every turn. Her eyes snapped open, and she pushed herself away from him, slipping out of his embrace and standing up. This was a mistake. What was she doing here?
"Paine." Nooj sat up, shaking the sleep from his eyes. "Where are you going?" She did not answer, only stooped down to pick up her robe and throw it over her shoulders. "Paine, love, wait, please." He reached out a long arm and caught her hand in his. "Please don't leave me, please. Let me--"
She closed her eyes and bit her lip, her fingers tangling with his of their own volition. Her heart pulled her in too many different directions; if she stayed here, she might fly into pieces. "I can't," she whispered to the floor, her throat almost impossibly tight. "I can't!" She pulled her hand free and fled without turning around, not trusting herself to look at him, not wanting him to see the tears that blurred her vision as she pushed her way through the door and let it fall shut.
Stunned, he watched the door close behind her, only hearing the soft click of the latch much later. It was as if time had come unfocused and reason had gone. Had she really been here in his arms all night, or had he dreamed too vividly? He bent to sniff at the still-warm linens. He thought he could smell her beloved scent on the sheets but was unable to trust his senses. If he could imagine the imprint of her body still seared into his own, the perfume of her presence was not beyond his powers to evoke. The stain between his legs might be ordinary night emissions; what proof did he have that she had been with him?
He turned awkwardly on his belly and buried his head in the pillow, clutching it to his face almost to the point of suffocation so that he would not bellow aloud in his loneliness and bereavement.
Humility was an unfamiliar emotion for Nooj. He had lived his life with a proud demeanor and had never bent to anyone. The memory of his pathetic bleating that morning made him flush in shame and squirm wretchedly in his chair. Yes, he had wronged Paine in not completely turning away from his nature and, yes, his flaw had led to the death of their child. But he had done what he could to atone and, before that, for more than a decade, he had behaved with devotion and honor toward his lady and the family they had created together.
"She really showed you how much she respects you, didn't she?" The mocking voice of his other self broke into his thoughts. "After you knelt between her legs and served her like the he-whore you are. Proud of yourself?"
"Shut up!" He raised his cane as if to strike the other. "You don't know anything about it."
"I know enough to see that she doesn't want you anymore the way you are and she doesn't want you like you were last night. She demonstrated that as clearly as she could. You'll do to relieve her physical pressures until she can find somebody better. But, my boy, that's it. You've lost her, and all the abasement in the world won't make it any different."
"No more! I'm done with this! If she can't accept me then -- she can't. I cannot be that whimpering ass anymore. I'm Nooj, the Undying ..." What might have been a sob escaped his lips. "I'm a Warrior; I can't be a weakling. Who will protect them if I'm weak? I've offered her all I have and it isn't enough. Doesn't she think I grieve for my daughter as much as she does?"
The other answered, "She doesn't think right now. She feels, and she feels you are the one to blame for the death. She's right and she's wrong. But that's her skein to untangle. You have your own. What are you? I see a pitiful shell, a hollow man without the strength to take matters as they are and fix them. I see a figure limping through this place like an invalid. You were more of a man when you were first learning to walk again. You disgust me!"
Nooj struggled from the chair and began pacing around the room. "I disgust me. I don't recognize what I am anymore. I'm afraid to look over my own balcony and afraid to face how feeble I've become. No more! I am what life has made me and what I have had to become. She chose me to father her children and live with her. If she can't take it anymore... can I live without her? Does it matter? I am Taydrcaagan and cannot change. Can a coeurl change its plumes?"
"Oh yes, now we're back to the essential nature question. Little boy, look at this. You lied to the lady. You dishonored your own word. If you couldn't tell her the truth, you should never have made the promise. Any humiliation you feel, you piled on your own shoulders. Sure, you sounded like a baby this morning, and you knelt before her last night. She's knelt to you often enough, and you like it. She doesn't feel humiliated when she gives you the caress you enjoy most."
"Whose side are you on? You're arguing both ways, and it makes no sense no matter what you say." Nooj flung himself down in the chair again, tapping his machina foot with his cane until the clicking sound irritated him beyond enduring. With a twist of his wrist, he sent the cane skittering across the room, then immediately cursed himself for it; now he would have to try to pick it up. "Maybe if we had taken formal vows?"
The shadowy figure chuckled. "You can't do anything right, can you? You think adding another layer of promises to the ones you've already broken would have made things work? There was a reason she's declined all your offers of marriage." He stepped closer, and his voice turned more serious. "As to your other question: it's my job to help you see all sides of the situation. Now, Milord Master of Masculinity, Mighty Warrior against Personal Weakness, what are you going to do?"
Nooj collapsed back against the upholstery. "I don't know. I cannot even imagine living without Paine." He laughed without humor at his inadvertent pun. "I have to find a way of keeping her or..."
"Or?" his tormentor pressed.
"There is always the balcony and the Lady below."
The sun had risen some hours ago but Paine still lay in bed, an arm thrown across her face to block out the light. After leaving Nooj's rooms, she had wandered the halls of the Castle for at least an hour; eventually she'd found her way here and fallen into a fitful sleep. Now she lay awake, too emotionally exhausted to face the day. She had gone to him seeking peace. For a short time she'd found it, but now she felt more in turmoil than ever.
She was still in love with him. She had known that, but she'd done her best not to think about it. Staying away from him had made it easier to ignore. Now, lying alone in a bed that suddenly felt too large for one person, the memory of his strong hands and warm mouth all too fresh, she could no longer deny her need of him. Nor his need of her; every time she pictured him, she saw the love and desperation burning in his eyes. It would be so easy to go to him right now, and tell him that everything was forgiven. Just a few words, and she could wipe it all clean, go back to how it was.
But she could never go back to how it was. Because that had been a lie, their life together built on an illusion. For so many years she had been able to believe that his obsession with Death was done, that he lived for her with no regrets. She'd trusted him -- with her life, with the children's, with his own. Even thinking about him could be a reminder of his betrayal. Once again cold rage rose inside her, wiping out the tenderness that had overwhelmed her just moments before.
She turned over and grasped her pillow, controlling her breathing so as not to scream out her pain and confusion. The solid weight of the pillow beneath of her cheek made her think of the broad expanse of Nooj's chest, and her anger was replaced by a sudden longing to be wrapped in his arms, to feel flesh and metal and leather pressing against her back. And so the cycle began once again.
For the third time, Nooj set aside the commsphere. What would he say if he did manage to reach Baralai? Just why was he even thinking about calling? All he was sure of was that the impulse to talk with his friend had been growing on him since Paine had left before dawn. He had fought it back but it had not disappeared, only becoming stronger as the hours passed.
With a gesture of disgust, he pressed the buttons and heard the sweet chiming of the sphere at the other end. After the second repetition of the sound, the voice of Baralai came clearly from the device in his hand and he could see the worried face of the other man.
"Hello, Nooj. Is everything all right?"
"Yes. Are you busy?"
Baralai smiled with relief. "Never too busy for my friends. Everything going ok?"
"About the same. Oh, I don't have any real reason to call, just wanted to hear you got home safely." Nooj was aware he was sounding like a fool.
"Yeah. No problems. Is Yuna still there?"
"No, she left yesterday. Gippal's here doing the baby-sitting chores. He's keeping Jarl entertained and ..." Nooj spread his hands and shrugged. "You know how it is."
"It's good he's there. Did Rikku come with him?"
"Not at first; she had duties back at Djose. She came later with the kids, and they all stayed for a couple of days. She took Yuna home." There was an awkward pause.
"Are you well, old friend?" Baralai leaned closer to the sphere with an anxious look. "When I left, you were still pretty dragged out."
Nooj nodded. "I should apologize. I had some infection at the machina implantation sites and should have asked you for healing, but I let my pride get in the way. Yuna took care of it, but I could have asked you and I'm not sure why I didn't."
Baralai was astonished. Nooj had never said anything like this before, never admitted to being wrong about something involving his behavior. "Well, so long as you had it seen to, that's all right. Do you need me to return?"
"No, no. I just want to be sure you got home safely and let you know we're all right. I'll go now." Nooj was almost stuttering and seemed at a loss for words.
"Wait. Don't go yet. How's Paine doing?"
From the shadow that crossed Nooj's face, Baralai could tell he had reached the heart of the matter. "She's... she's still grieving, and I can't reach her. I'll think she's getting better then she turns again and nothing changes. Do you think she'll ever forgive me?" There was a plaintive note in his voice which ill fit the Nooj that he knew so well.
"I can't give you a true answer, my friend," Baralai answered. "It all depends on whether you can change, and prove to her you've actually done it."
"I've tried." Nooj looked back at the sphere intently. "I know where Death is to be found and I've stayed away. What else am I supposed to do?"
Baralai sighed with the weight of the repeated conversation. "You just don't seem to get the point. It's not a matter of simply staying alive. It's a matter of wanting to be alive. You have to make that definite choice, that real one; you have to put the Deathseeker thing behind you. For good. For real. You have to choose Paine and life with nothing held back. Can you do that?"
Nooj turned his face away and was silent for a long time before he whispered into the sphere, "She came to me last night." Then he broke the connection so suddenly that Baralai had no time to respond, or to ask whether it had been Paine or Death who had paid the nighttime visit.