|Promises: Chapter Four
||[May. 3rd, 2007|06:47 am]
Two Authors, One Mind
New to the story? Headers are here. Or start at the beginning.
"Father? Are you finished already?" Jarl cast an anxious look at Nooj, who had taken a few bites of breakfast, then pushed his plate aside. The two of them had fallen into the habit of eating together in the courtyard each morning; afterwards, Jarl would head for the nursery, where he would help watch the twins and amuse himself until lunchtime, when Paine would join her children for the noon meal. Later in the afternoon, Jarl would fetch his father from the library, and the two of them would pay a visit to his mother, followed by a family dinner and then retiring for the night. It was comforting to have a routine, but Jarl would still rather have given it all up and gone home to Mushroom Rock Road.
Nooj gazed down at his son with a distracted air. "Yes, I'm fine. Did you get enough to eat?" Jarl nodded, and his father patted his hand. "Good. I'll see you a little bit later then." He rose from his seat and made his way through the courtyard and to the stairs that led toward the library. Jarl watched his father limp slowly down the staircase and wondered why he didn't use the lift. It would be so much easier for him. Hadn't he gotten enough exercise already?
There was a lot going on these days that Jarl did not understand, like why his parents weren't staying in the same room. Aunt Yuna had said his mother needed to have some time alone, but that didn't sound right. His mother had never wanted to be away from his father before. He remembered back to the final time at Mushroom Rock Road when his father had shut himself up in silence in the library and not talked to anybody. Father had said he was sick; could Mother have caught the same sickness?
Shaking his head, he cleared out of the courtyard and wandered down a different stairway, the one that would take him to his mother's rooms and the nursery. As he stepped on the landing, his attention was caught by a distant humming noise that sounded a lot like an airship. He hadn't seen one of those since Uncle Baralai had left, almost two weeks ago now. Was Uncle Lai coming back? He stood at the top of the stairs, scanning the skies until the ship came into view. With a gasp, he recognized the markings and immediately took off running down the stairs, through the hall, and then up another set of steps to his mother's tower room. The door was half open, and in his excitement he burst in without knocking. His mother was there, sitting by the window, Yuna in the other chair by the fire, and they both turned, startled by his sudden entrance.
"Mother! Mother, come quick!" Jarl raced up to her side and grabbed her by the hand. "It's Uncle Gippal! He's here!"
Paine started, staring first at Yuna, then Jarl. "He never told me he was coming. Are you sure?"
Jarl bobbed his head vigorously. "Yes, I recognized his airship. He'll be landing really soon; come on!" He tugged at her hand again, and Paine found herself rising from the chair.
She looked at Yuna. "Did you know about this?"
Yuna covered her mouth to hide an embarrassed smile. "I knew he'd be along eventually, but I didn't know exactly when. He asked me to keep it a surprise."
Paine shook her head with a soft laugh. "Gippal always did know how to make an entrance. All right, Jarl, I'm coming." This last was addressed to her bouncing offspring, who quivered with excitement and kept trying to pull her forward. Finally she gave in and let him drag her down the stairs and through the halls, Yuna's laughter and footsteps echoing behind them. Soon they were at the landing dock, standing side by side as the airship pulled in, hovering just above the water. A gangplank dropped down and a familiar blond figure appeared at its top.
"Uncle Gippal!" Jarl raced down the walkway to meet him, his face shining with happiness. He flung himself against the man's legs and embraced him around the waist. "You're here!"
Gippal dropped a hand into the boy's hair and ruffled it fondly. "Man! I think you're already taller than you were the last time I saw you." Jarl looked up with a big grin, which Gippal returned. "Any chance of letting me loose so I can go say hi to your mom?" Jarl ducked as he dropped his arms and backed away, and Paine walked up to greet him. "Hey, Dr. P. How you holding up?"
The old nickname was such a stark reminder of happier times that Paine found her vision blurring. All she could do was shake her head and step into his embrace. Gippal swept his hands over her back with long, reassuring strokes. "'S okay," he murmured. "Ihlma Gippal is here. Everything will be okay."
Paine blinked her eyes clear. "Did your family come with you, or are you alone?"
"I'm alone," he replied. "Rikku's home with the kids, and watching over some delicate engineering operations."
"Too bad," she said. "I could use some of her brand of cheer right now."
"Couldn't we all." He grinned at her. "Sorry, you're stuck with just me."
Paine found herself smiling back and raised an eyebrow. "You'll do," she said.
He laughed, then dropped an arm around her shoulders and steered her up the walk to the Castle, Jarl trotting at their heels. "Good, 'cause I cleared my schedule. I'm here for as long as you need me. So, what do you people eat for lunch around here?"
"Nothing yet, it's too early." Paine glanced at the sky. "It'll be a couple of hours. I usually eat in the nursery with the children, and you're welcome to join us. Should we find you a room in the meantime?"
"Sounds good. Hey, Yuna!"
"Hi." Yuna stood in the doorway, and when Gippal and Paine approached she pulled them both into a quick hug. "I've made arrangements with the housekeeper already, and she's found you a place to stay for now. Paine, I hope that's all right?"
"Of course." Paine's throat thickened a little as she considered her two friends. It was good to feel taken care of. "Can you show him to the rooms?"
"Me, me, I'll do it!" Jarl could barely contain his glee as he bounded to Gippal's side and took him by the hand.
"You don't even know where they are," Yuna pointed out with a smile.
"Oh, right." Jarl deflated a little, then perked up again. "But I can take you to the housekeeper, and then she can tell us."
Gippal laughed. "Works for me. Okay, kid, show me the way." He cast a fond look at Paine and a nod at Yuna, then followed the boy down the hallway.
Yuna laid a hand on Paine's shoulder. "It's nice to see Jarl so happy."
Paine nodded, not taking her eyes off her retreating son, her heart warming at the sight of his obvious joy. "Maybe Gippal can take his mind off things for awhile."
Jarl trailed Gippal up to the room toward which the housekeeper had directed them. The boy was delighted to see that it was on the same floor and corridor where he had his quarters. Maybe he could sneak over here some night when he felt lonely and snuggle up to his honorary uncle. Uncle Gippal always seemed glad to see him.
"Well, kiddo, how've you been doing?" Gippal moved a stack of shirts from his bag to a dresser drawer.
"Things aren't so great, Uncle Gippal," Jarl looked earnestly into the man's eyes. "Mama and Father are so sad and I think they're both sick."
Gippal paused in his packing to consider Jarl's words. "Do you? What makes you think that?"
"They don't look at each other, and I never see them touch either. Mama cries all the time and I don't think Father sleeps much, maybe not even at all. And he won't eat either."
"It's because of your little sister, you know. They're still sad, and it'll take them some time to get over it."
"Wouldn't they get over it faster if they hugged each other?" Jarl turned his attention to the floor, twisting his toe into an invisible crack. "They hugged me and it made it hurt less."
Gippal dropped to a crouch and held the boy by his shoulders. "You're one smart kid. You're right, they would. And you and I both know that, but they're not as smart as we are. So they'll have to figure that one out by themselves. Okay?" Jarl nodded. "Now, one of the reasons I came here was to see if you were doing okay. If you want to, I'll take you back to Djose and let my kids knock you around and maybe learn some sense from you. You wanna do that?"
Jarl leaned against Gippal's chest. "That sounds fun, but I think I'd better stay around here. There might be something I can do to help Mama and Father. Do you think I'm in their way?"
"Abso-damn-lutely not!" Gippal pulled Jarl into a quick hug, then set him back a pace. "Your dad needs you around to remind him of some things. And your mother is so proud of you ... you will never believe how proud. Just remember, taking a short holiday isn't like deserting, and if you ever need a break, let me know and I'll drag you back to Djose for a few days -- any old time. Promise?"
"Yes, I promise. Thank you, Uncle Gippal. I may take you up on that. Can I help you unpack?"
"Sure. Put these shoes in the closet and help me sort out this underwear. Your Aunt Rikku sent too much stuff, or maybe she thinks nobody here knows how to do laundry. ... You do have a laundry room, don't you?"
"I'm sure we do." Jarl giggled and pointed to the corner. "Just dump your dirty clothes through that hole over there and they come back all clean and nice."
"Aha! You have laundry fiends!"
"Silly Unca Gippal; we have laundry hypello!"
Gippal picked up a pillow and threw it at his nephew, who defended himself with a towel; before long a laughing battle was in full force.
"How you doing, Noojster?"
Nooj spun around to see Gippal standing in the open door of the library. "Gippal! What are you doing here?"
"Good to see you, too." Gippal sauntered into the room. "I came to see if Jarl wanted to go back to Djose with me and hang around with my little monsters."
"Have you seen him yet?" Nooj sank into the chair by the unlighted fireplace.
Gippal grinned widely. "Yes, he showed me where my room is and helped me unpack."
"Which explains the feathers in your hair. Roughhousing again? So, does he want to go? If so, he has my permission. It can't be much fun for him here with no one his age and not much happiness in the house."
"We let off some steam." He ran his fingers through his yellow thatch, throwing dust and pillow down into the air. "And I asked him. But he said he thinks he should stay here for a while. He's a serious kid, you know."
Torn between pride and exasperation, Nooj responded, "I know only too well. He's too worried about us. Make sure he knows I approve if he changes his mind." He leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes tiredly.
"What about the twins? We'd be glad to have them, too. You know Rikku and I have 'em in about every age bracket at home."
"They have each other and we found a couple of young maids who keep them occupied. No. They're all right. But Jarl ... it might be the best thing for him."
Gippal picked up a book from a desk and pretended great interest in its contents. "You and Paine still having problems?"
"She still blames me for the loss of our little girl. Gippal, I've tried! I've apologized and offered to do anything she says to make up but she won't listen. She won't let me near her except when we're with the children. I don't know what she wants me to do." His voice was bleak and empty.
"Have you tried telling her you'll change your ways? From what I hear, she seems to think you invited that Shadow thing by being so ... you know, so Noojie."
"For Ixion's sake, don't use that word," Nooj snapped, sitting up straighter. "You know I hate it! What am I supposed to do, become Baralai? I'm me and she knew it when we came together; I never pretended to be anything else."
Gippal did not look up from the book. "Well, still judging from what I hear, she got the idea you'd stop mooning around after Death and start loving to live."
"I've lived. I haven't done anything dangerous since we started the family and I do everything I can for the sake of her and the children. Does she want to take over my thoughts as well as the rest of my life?" Nooj spoke the last words through clenched teeth, flushed with a rush of anger.
Gippal turned a page in the book, still not meeting his friend's eyes. "Maybe she wants you to really stop hankering after your own demise. It can't be easy living with somebody who would actually rather be dead. One thing about Rikku, she's into life with her whole self -- body, soul, pig-tails and dreams. You, my friend, are clearly not of that persuasion."
"So I'm not a cheerleader. I'm a thinker, a strategist, a historian. I do my duty and am good at it. Damn it, I love my family! I don't intend to desert it for Death or anything else."
At last Gippal looked up from the book, fixing a glare on his friend. "Oh, you'll do your duty, all right, grudgingly, letting your family have the stuff left over after your red-hot romance with Death." Nooj's mouth dropped open slightly in surprise; Gippal rolled his single eye. "Oh, c'mon. You think it's not obvious? If Paine hadn't been blinded by love of you, she'd have known from the start that you hadn't changed, not really. You've never given her all she deserves from you. I've seen it and so has Baralai. Nooj, you've lied to her in the most basic way. She ought to leave you and find a man who will love her like she ought to be loved."
"You, too?" Nooj shoved himself out of his chair, pounding his cane against the floor as he shouted. "Perfidious Al Bhed! I've put her in the front of my heart and have worshipped her since the day I came to know her. She's my core and she's fully aware of what she means to me."
"She doesn't need or want worship." Gippal stood his ground as Nooj stared down at him, eyes burning. "She wants truth and that's the one thing you haven't given her. Look, old man, I've known you a long time and I'm willing to put up with a lot from you because I know how loyal you are to the people you care about, but I'm not your lover. I share everything with Rikku and I'd trust her with my other eye. If we lost a child, it would be almost more than we could stand, but we could comfort one another because we have that trust. You betrayed Paine and left an opening for this to happen."
Nooj seemed to collapse in on himself at the reminder of Polarok's death. "I didn't know ..."
Gippal moved to his friend's side and laid a calloused hand on his arm, gentling his tone. "I know that and so does she. But that doesn't change what happened. You've got to fix everything that's broken in you and show Paine you've done it if you want to put your family back together. And first, you've got to stop denying the truth. I'll help if I can. Believe me, Nooj, life is sweeter than death; you just have to get comfortable with that and stop thinking in that old rut of yours."
With that, Gippal clapped the book in his other hand shut and set it down, as though to signal that he had said all he had to say on the subject. "I notice you're limping worse. You want me to take a look at that leg?"
"No. It's not the leg. I'm having some trouble with the places where the machina are attached," Nooj admitted with a frown.
"Have you checked with Baralai about that? You might have some inflammation or infection."
"No. I don't like to complain. It'll pass. Besides, Baralai's been gone almost two weeks now."
Disgusted, Gippal threw his hands up in the air. "Damnit, Nooj! Don't be such a martyr. It's not a crime to see a healer. Yuna's still here. Ask her to take a look."
His friend turned away and the old expression of stubborn resistance settled on his face. "I'll think about it."
Gippal spun on his heel, unable to bear the library for another minute. "I'm going to talk to Jarl. He makes sense."
"I know it's almost time for lunch and I'm sorry to bother you right now."
Yuna looked up at the sound of Nooj's voice from the doorway. "Please, come in. What can I do for you?"
The tall man limped slowly toward her. She noted his obvious pain and wondered if he had done something foolish lately -- not tending to an injury, perhaps? He had never been one to exercise much care for himself, but she had hoped he might have grown out of that by now.
"I am having some discomfort in the areas where the prostheses are joined to my remaining ..." He seemed not to know a delicate way to express the unique connections the Al Bhed had made between his living flesh and the mechanical limbs which gave him mobility.
"Yes, let me take a look." Yuna carefully avoided his eyes. She knew it must be very bad indeed to force him to ask for help. "Will you take off your tunic?"
He did as she requested, baring his upper body. Yuna could see the inflammation and swelling from across the room. "Is your leg the same?"
"A little worse, I think." He kept his countenance rigid and controlled. "It is more painful than the arm."
"I've seen you walking up and down the stairs often of late. And you seem generally restless; have you been walking more than usual? It may just be strain and overuse." She gently probed the area with her fingertips. "Can you let me examine the leg?"
He sat down on the chair she indicated and tugged the truncated end of his trousers from beneath the sheath on his right hip and exposed the stump of the thigh.
"Ooh!" Yuna drew in her breath at the sight of the oozing flesh. "That must hurt!" She reached out to touch him and he caught her hand.
"It's too messy for you to ..." he murmured. "Can you give me a salve or something?"
"I can do better than that." She smiled up at him. Lifting her staff from its place against the wall, she closed her eyes and began chanting a spell of healing. The radiant globe of the staff cast its aura across the lacerated skin and formed a soft shield over the damaged portions. Then she drew the staff over his arm, protecting it in the same way.
Nooj drew in a deep sigh of relief, unaware that he was doing so.
"That's better, isn't it?" she asked. "Now drink this." She held a small bottle to his lips and watched him swallow it. "I'll leave a course of this potion in your room; you are to drink one each morning and each evening until the infected area is clear. And take this ointment to rub into any stubborn spots. Understand?"
"Yes. Thank you, Lady Yuna. How may I repay you?" He pulled his shirt back on and tied the laces.
She stared knowingly at his shamefaced gratitude. "You can repay me by not being quite such a fool. You have sought pain deliberately. Any Summoner could see that. I know you, my friend, and know how your mind works. Get as much rest as possible, and no more unnecessary climbing of stairs until all the swelling and infections are gone. This building is full of lifts; you should use them. Is that clear?" She stared him down until he looked away with a mumbled assent.
Her gaze softened as she rested a hand on his good shoulder. "I have no intention of telling anyone what you have been up to unless you keep on doing it. Nooj, I understand what you think you're doing, but this is not the way to win Paine back to you. You ought to understand that. You have to stop being such a ...a ... Nooj!" She pursed her lips with affectionate exasperation and stepped away. "Now then. Will you have lunch with us?"
"I must go tidy up first," he mumbled. "I'll make it if I can. I am in your debt, my Lady." He hastened through the door, the untucked trouser end lending an incongruously comic air to his rush.
Lunch had been a more cheerful affair than usual, with both Gippal and Yuna joining Paine and the children in the nursery. Everyone had crowded around the low table, and Gippal had kept the group entertained with stories about life at Djose and his travels around Spira with Rikku. Even Paine had smiled and laughed, sitting back and pulling Avtor onto her lap as she listened to his increasingly wild tales. But as the meal wound down, she fell quiet. As soon as the dishes were cleared and the twins hustled off for their afternoon nap, she stood without a word, tucked her arms around herself, and disappeared.
Jarl watched her go, and then left as well, trudging off in a different direction, leaving Gippal and Yuna alone in the nursery. Gippal stared out the open door for a moment, then turned to Yuna. "Does she do that every day?" he asked.
"I'm afraid so." Yuna was still watching the empty doorway. "She enjoys spending time with the children, but I think it also reminds her of what she's lost. Eventually it gets to be too much and she'll need to be alone." She shook her head and dropped her eyes. "I tried to follow her the first few times, but it was clear that I wasn't welcome. So I let her be."
"Yeah, well, you know Paine," Gippal said, flopping into the closest chair. "Always feeling like she has to be the strong one, toughing everything out by herself. Just like someone else I know." He snorted softly.
Yuna perched on the edge of the window seat. "You've talked with him?"
Gippal tossed his head with another snort. "Tried to, anyway. Don't know how much got through. He's lousy with guilt and regret, and so damned lonely. But he doesn't know how to even begin making amends. It's like he's waiting for some magic signal from Paine that everything'll get back to normal without any effort on his part. But of course it's not gonna work that way."
Yuna sighed. "No. And I'm not convinced that going back to the way things were before would be best for either of them, anyway."
Gippal twisted around in the chair and met Yuna's eyes. "Tell me the truth. Is there any hope for them? Or is Paine finished and just looking for a way out?"
"I think there's a chance," Yuna replied after a moment's thought. "If Nooj makes the changes he needs to make and convinces Paine that they're real. If she can get past her disappointment and anger and learn to trust him again. It's a tall order, but it's not impossible. But it will take some time and effort, from both of them."
"Damn." Gippal sprawled back in the chair, leaning his head back and looked at the ceiling. "If only I had more hope that Nooj could change."
"Anything is possible." Yuna smiled. "You know he came to me right before lunch and asked me to look at an injury that was causing him pain? His limp has been worse for days, anyone could see it; I think he's been inflicting physical stress on himself as some sort of penance."
Gippal groaned. "Only Nooj," he muttered. Then he looked up at Yuna with raised eyebrows. "But he came to you for help? I told him to see you, but I figured he'd be his usual stubborn self, and I've have to trick him into letting you into his rooms or something."
She chuckled. "No need. He really did come to me on his own. I fixed him up; he should be fine, if I convinced him to stop forcing his way up the stairs, and to take the medicine I prepared for him."
"Huh." His head flopped back again. "Well, maybe he can change then. Maybe."
"I hope so. Let's keep comparing notes?" On his nod, Yuna patted Gippal on the arm and headed for her rooms to make her daily call home while her friend closed his single eye and drifted into a restless nap.
"Father, can I talk to you?" The little boy hesitantly approached his sire. It was later that same afternoon, and Jarl was making his daily trip to the library.
"Of course, Jarl. Is something troubling you? Did you talk to your Uncle Gippal about paying him a visit?" Nooj put down the book he had been reading and turned his full attention to his son.
"Yessir. I told him I thought I had better stay here for a while. Oh -- I remembered to say 'thank you'. He's going to stay here for a longer visit instead."
"You know it's all right if you want to go to Djose, don't you?"
"Yessir, I know. But I just think it would be better for me to stay here right now."
"It's is your choice, my boy." Nooj sat up and leaned toward Jarl, motioning him closer. Jarl took a few steps, but stopped short of arm's reach. "Now, what's on your mind?"
The boy looked down at his bare feet, twisting his hands behind his back. "I was just wondering something."
"What? Come on, you can talk freely to me. Have I ever stopped you from telling me what you were thinking?"
Jarl looked up, still not quite meeting his father's eyes. "No sir. I was wondering if it was something I did that has made Mama so sad and has made you not stay in her room like you used to."
Nooj had not expected this. He had thought of many things his precocious son might ask, but not this. "Of course not. You know your little sister died right after she was born and that has made your mother very sad. I'm sad too, but women take these things harder since they are the ones who bear our children and are closer to them at first. Why do you think it has anything to do with you?"
"I don't know," Jarl mumbled. "I just don't like things how they are. When you and Mama stayed in the same room, you were happier and we all got along better."
His father tried to explain. "Your mother needs her privacy right now. You know how much you wanted a place where you could be alone when we set things up for you to have a separate room -- outside the nursery? Well, your mother needs that now. She sometimes can't sleep easily so I stay away in order not to disturb her. That's all it is." He hated to tell the boy less than the truth but could not think of any other way to deal with the situation without burdening Jarl with information beyond his years.
"Father, do you still love Mother?" Jarl looked at Nooj with eyes that saw more than a child should see.
"More than anything else in the world," Nooj answered vehemently, without hesitation. "More than you can understand until you are grown up and find the one woman in the universe who's your proper mate."
"More than me and the twins?"
"As much. Your mother and I made you and the twins out of our love. So you're all a part of that. There is no distinction, no division." He held out his arms and his son came slowly to him and climbed on his knee, leaning against his chest and hiding his face.
Jarl's voice was almost inaudible. "There's nobody else you love as much?"
For a moment, anger obscured Nooj's vision. Who had been filling the boy's head with nonsense? This sounded like Gippal's doing. "There is nobody on the planet I love even a sand grain as much as I love my family. Has anybody told you differently?"
"No sir. It's just sometimes I have a feeling when I see you and you aren't looking that you're thinking about somebody else, somebody who means more, somebody you love ... in another way." Unconsciously, Jarl's thumb had crept into his mouth. He hadn't done that in years and Nooj was bothered by the regression.
"It's been a hard time for you, my son. We grown-ups have been so caught up in our own troubles we haven't given you enough thought. I promise it will change. I swear to you, there is no one living on this world I love as much as I love you. So don't think such thoughts. You are the center of my life." He hugged the child to him and rocked gently until Jarl became restless and scrambled down.
"I think I'll just go see if Mama is all right. Maybe I'll take her some fruit or something," he announced, brushing what might have been tears from his eyes and scampering off.
Nooj brooded for a long time after his son had left.
That night, Nooj could not sleep. The bed seemed so wide that he was lost in a wilderness of linens. With a groan, he remembered the nights he and Paine had shared a single narrow blanket while in training. They had huddled together and laughed as they hoarded warmth between their bodies. Then the one blanket had been enough for two of them; now a monk's bed was too large for his comfort. He ached for her, for the soft strength of her limbs, the curve of her hip, the pillow of her breast. Most of all he longed for her hand on his chest, feeling even in her sleep for the steady beat of his heart -- her assurance that he had not deserted her for the arms of Death.
Tossing back the sheet, he levered himself out of bed and walked in his loose shirt over to the balcony window. He did not dare go outside lest he look down and find his mistress waiting again; he would not risk the temptation to go to her embrace.
"So you can't sleep?" The unwelcome voice sounded in his ear. "No wonder -- with all the mistakes you've made and the harm you've caused, you don't deserve to sleep. You should be spending every moment trying to figure out a way to escape from the trap you've walked into."
"You again?" Nooj no longer tried to dispel the doppelganger, knowing it to be a useless exercise. "I heard you the last time."
"But did you do anything about it? I don't see you making any changes. You still think you can walk out on that balcony and into the bed of your true love."
Nooj stared into the night, not turning to look at his double. "Paine is my true love."
The shadowy figured laughed. "If she were, she would be in that bed over there and you wouldn't be standing in front of a window, afraid to step outside. No. I know who you truly love and so do you."
"I miss Paine. I reach out for her in my sleep and she isn't there." Nooj despised the whining note in his voice and stopped speaking.
"Of course she isn't there." The specter's words were calm, assured, almost smug. "She's sleeping and dreaming of a better man, one she can finally agree to have a formal ceremony with, one who will be there for her and the children when he's needed. One who won't go haring off to blubber about how much better everything will be when he's dead."
Without another word, Nooj pulled on his robe and knotted it about his waist. Picking up his cane from where it leaned against the bed stand, he made his way to the door leading to the corridor outside.
"Where do you think you're going?" the dark shape demanded. "To the library to get a book on how to be human?"
"I'm going to Paine and beg her to let me in. I'm going to swear I'll change."
"Didn't you hear a thing Gippal said to you? You can't expect her to believe your word again after what happened the last time she trusted you. You're going to have to change yourself first and then prove it to her."
"I don't know how to prove it."
"You don't know how to change. You want to mess up again?"
"I'm going to try. The worst she can do is turn me away." Nooj opened the door and started down the hall to Paine's rooms.
Once he was standing before her door, he paused and rested his forehead against the panels, unable to summon the courage to try the latch. He could not know that she, as awake as he, had heard the distinctive sounds of his progress and stood just inside, close enough to touch the door, her heart pounding, waiting to see what would happen next. After a while, she heard the footsteps recede, and she sagged, all the tension releasing as she drifted down to the floor, trailing her fingertips down the wooden panels. She leaned against the door and trembled for a long time, but whether from relief or regret, she could not have said.