Jarl sat in the shaded area of the upper courtyard and waited. Normally he ignored the bower that was set up here to keep off the hot sun and the tropical rains, but today he was glad to keep under its protection. He checked the angle of the sun and wondered what time it was. Usually his father got here before he did, but today he'd been waiting for a few minutes. He poured himself a glass of juice and fixed his gaze on the exit of the lift. Father wasn't sick again, was he?
On that thought, the lift panel slid open, revealing a sight that almost knocked Jarl out of his chair: Paine, stepping into the sunshine, with Nooj a pace behind her. His parents, together, in the morning? He could hardly believe it. Did this mean that Mama was sleeping in Father's room again? Was life finally going to get back to normal?
He stood up and raced over to his mother, then hugged her around the waist. "Mama! What are you doing here?"
Paine rested a hand on the top of his head, carefully avoiding all the burned areas. "I'm joining you for breakfast. I hope that's okay."
Jarl grinned at her, then looked over to Nooj, who nodded with a small smile. "Good morning, Jarl," he said.
"Good morning." Jarl's heart thudded in his chest; he was almost too excited to breathe. Father smiling? Mama here, by his side? Then Paine glanced over her shoulder at Nooj, tension plain on her face, and his hopes fell a little.
No, maybe everything wasn't quite all right yet.
But this still had to be a good sign. Determined to make their meal a pleasant one, Jarl took his mother by the hand. "Come on, breakfast is ready. I was waiting."
Paine shook her shoulders and looked back down at Jarl, smiling a little now. "Of course. Show me the way."
He pulled her forward and then stepped respectfully back as she took a seat on the stone bench at the built-in table. Then he paused; would it be better to sit across from her, or next to her? Maybe if he sat across then she and Father would sit together like they used to, instead of as far away from each other as they could manage. But while he hesitated, Nooj beat him to the decision, sitting caddy-corner from Paine, a guarded look in his eyes. Slightly disappointed, Jarl settled down on the bench next to his father and took the bowl of fruit salad that Paine had dished up for him. They ate in silence for several minutes; the atmosphere was awkward, but not as tense as it had been at dinner lately. After a few minutes of pushing food around her plate and taking only the occasional bite, Paine looked at Jarl. "Did you sleep all right?"
"Yes, thank you," Jarl answered. "The medicine you gave me helped a lot."
Nooj looked up from his own meal and across the table. "The burn salve?" he asked. "The kind you used in the desert?"
She froze for a second, then nodded. "Baralai showed me how to make it, several years back. I keep some around, just in case. Good thing, too." Her posture loosened as she reached over to muss Jarl's hair; he squirmed away and blushed. "How do you feel?"
"Better. It doesn't hurt as much. But my arms itch."
Paine nodded. "That's good, it means it's healing. I warn you, that'll get worse before it gets better. Try not to scratch too much. If it starts peeling, let me know -- I have a cream for that too."
"Okay. So Mama, you get sunburns too?"
"Yes, if I'm not careful." She raised an eyebrow at her son. "So you'll be careful from now on, right?"
He squirmed under her unyielding gaze. "Yes ma'am." He stole a look at his father, afraid of further disapproval, but Nooj wasn't looking in his direction; instead, he was watching Paine. Needing to get them talking again, Jarl turned the conversation back to the last topic Nooj had mentioned. "Did you get sunburned in the desert? Was that the same desert where you met Daddy?"
"That's right." Paine's tone became more tentative, almost wary, and she did not look at Nooj as she spoke. "During the Crimson Squad training." She leaned forward as if to say more, then stopped. Jarl glanced back and forth between his parents; his father was still silent, still watching his mother, still with an oddly intense look on his face.
Without warning, Paine swung her legs around the bench and stood. Jarl sat back and a sense of panic started to rise in his chest. "Wait, Mama, you aren't finished with breakfast. Or telling me the story."
Paine glanced at her barely-touched plate, then at Jarl. "Some other time, I promise." She tousled his hair as she walked past him, and then she paused at Nooj's side, laying a light hand on his left shoulder. For a moment she just stood there, and they looked at each other; they seemed to be communicating something, but Jarl couldn't even guess what. Finally she stepped away. "See you at dinner," she said, and then she was gone, walking briskly down the stairs.
Jarl watched her disappear and felt disappointment rise in the back of his throat. Whatever he did to try and keep them together, it was never enough. He swiveled in his seat to look at Nooj. "Father, sir, can I talk to you?"
His father did not reply at first; he was looking intently at the stairwell. Something about his eyes made Jarl wonder if he was trying to make Mama come back just by staring in the direction she had gone. Then, as if he'd been on some sort of time delay, he blinked and then smiled down at Jarl distractedly. "Of course. I was about to go to the library. We can have a talk there if you like. Come, let's get you indoors. I think you'd best stay out of the sun today."
"Yessir." Jarl stood respectfully, then followed Nooj away from the breakfast table and into the lift.
Paine wandered into the nursery and was taken aback by the scene that greeted her: Avice and Avtor sitting in the middle of the floor, pulling on either side of a stuffed dog and shouting at one another. Normally she could understand about one phrase in four of their private language, but this sounded like babble to her ears. She started forward to step in and break up the fight, when Avice yanked the toy away with a shriek. Avtor lost his balance and tumbled backwards to the ground, then scurried off under the nearby table as Avice retreated to the other side of the room, crowing over her prize. After a moment's thought, Paine decided to stand with the loser of this particular battle; she crouched next to the table and held out a hand.
"Come to Mama?" she asked softly.
Avtor shook his head and clung to the table leg. "I want Daddy. Where's Daddy? I wanna go home." Then he buried his face in his arm; she stretched out her hand and touched his shoulder, but he just shook her off and shrank away from her, muttering words that she could not comprehend.
"Sorry, ma'am." Paine straightened up and turned to see Careelon hurrying to her side with a sheepish look. "There's no use talking to him when he gets like that."
"Are they always like this in the mornings?" Paine asked.
The nanny sighed. "Just for the last couple of weeks. And not every morning, but often enough. They've been fighting more, and crying and complaining. But I'm sure it's nothing serious; they're just adjusting to their new home. They'll be back to normal once they've accepted the change."
Paine looked at her son, huddled in a corner, then at her daughter, who shook the dog and grumbled at it in a threatening manner. Then she turned to the nanny. "Send word to Nooj that Avtor has been asking for him," she said. "I'll be back later this afternoon." And she left the nursery, brooding and troubled.
Nooj settled in his usual recliner and, reaching with his cane, pulled a smaller chair up in front of him. “Sit down, Jarl, and tell me what’s on your mind. Are you sure you had enough breakfast?”
“Yessir,” Jarl said, climbing onto the seat and staring at his legs stretched out before him. They did not quite touch the floor. "Father, I've been thinking." He swung his legs vigorously.
Nooj looked indulgently at his older son. "About what?"
"Me and ... Gippal and I were talking the other day about things." He stared fixedly at a part of the arm of the chair and started picking at an invisible flaw.
Nooj waited with what patience he could summon. Talking to Jarl lately had become a trial since the boy had adopted some of the Al Bhed habits of indirection.
"Well - me and ... Gippal and I were talking about what I ought to be when I grow up." Jarl raised his left hand to his right arm and started to scratch absently. "You know, I'm going to be ten pretty soon and I ought to start thinking about what I ought to study and learn so ..."
"That's a good idea." Nooj nodded his encouragement. "I chose my profession when I was even younger than you. Of course, in those days there weren't as many choices as there are now. What are you thinking about becoming?"
"I don't think I can be an engineer like Uncle Gippal; I'm not that good with my hands and I don't really understand what he's talking about most of the time when he tells me about motors and pulleys and stuff like that. Do you think you have to be born knowing about some things?"
"I'm not sure but I think it's probable. What else?"
"I don't want to be a healer. You have to deal with so much yucky stuff, Uncle Gippal says you can't be squeamish if you're a healer, and I don't think I have the talent to be a mage. So ... I want to ask you something." Jarl shifted in his chair and scratched some more, this time at his right leg.
His father smiled, anticipating what was coming. "Go ahead; I'll answer if I can."
"Father, can a Warrior be scared to die?" Suddenly, Jarl's eyes took on a wisdom and directness very like his mother's. It was not the question Nooj had expected and he was uncertain how to respond.
"Most men and women are not eager to die. They're not exactly scared but they do try to avoid it if they can."
"You're a Warrior, aren't you? Are you scared to die?" Jarl was stubborn when he sought information.
"Yes, I was trained as a Warrior and have been one all my life. I went into training when I was not much older than you and was taught how to lead troops and fight enemies. It's not an easy life. Your mother is one too. I want you to learn much more and think much longer before you take that path."
"But are you scared of death?" Jarl would not look away, and it dawned on Nooj that the boy was not going to let this go, that this was an issue of serious concern to him. Redirection was not going to work; time to face the issue head on.
"No," he said. "But that's different."
"When I became a Warrior there was still Sin in the world and then Vegnagun and other really dangerous creatures. Now, Spira is mostly at peace and Warriors are only needed to act as a sort of world police force. There's not as much need for men and women to do the sorts of things which used to expose them to sudden death. It's a better world, my son."
"Did you have to learn not to be scared? I don't think I could do that. When I think of death, I think how much I would miss you and Mother and even the twins. Daddy, I don't want to die." Jarl tucked his head down to his chest and blushed. "I think I may be too much of a coward to be a Warrior."
Nooj shook his head firmly. "You're not a coward. You're my son. And you have a long time before you have to think about death. There's no shame in wanting to live, you know. Your Uncle Gippal enjoys life and your Aunt Rikku is ... well, she's so full of life sometimes it seems like she has enough to keep the whole planet going." He forced a smile to his lips and hoped it looked natural. "Warriors don't have to die. I'm still alive and so is your mother. Besides, you don't have to make up your mind yet. You have time." He knew he was babbling but could think of no way to successfully end the conversation. "Listen to me, Jarl. When times are dangerous, the world needs certain kinds of people who know how to fight and who are willing to die. If these people are scared, they won't fight as well. So Warriors learn to control fear. But that's not something you should worry about. Jarl - have you ever thought of becoming a scholar or a teacher?"
"No sir. Do you think I could do that? It's not as good as being a Warrior, is it?"
"It's far better in a peaceful world. That's what I am learning to be now. And yes, you can do it. You're intelligent and curious. When we get back home, we'll look into how it would work out. Will that do? Or you might be an artist. Your drawings show a lot of talent."
Jarl bolted up from his seat, his feet hitting the floor with a crash. "Don't die, Daddy!" He leapt into Nooj's arms with such impetus he nearly tipped over the man's chair.
Nooj held the boy tightly. "What made you think of that? I'm not going out fighting anymore. You don't have to worry."
"But you're still a Warrior and if they need you they'll call you back and you may die because you're not scared and you'll take chances and I don't want it to happen." The words came out in an unbroken stream.
"Hush, my child. I'm not going to die. It's all right. Don't be frightened." He continued to pet the boy and murmur reassurances until the storm passed.
"You promise, Daddy?"
The man nuzzled the boy's tousled hair and did not respond in words.
After a few moments, a hesitant knock came at the door. Man and boy looked up together as it was opened, just a crack.
It was one of the two maids who typically watched the twins. “Sir, are you there? You’re needed in the nursery.”
Nooj started a bit, and pushed his son off his lap. It was rare for a summons to arrive from that quarter; was something seriously wrong? With a short grunt, he levered himself up and moved as quickly as possible toward the hall, throwing an apology over his shoulder to Jarl.
Rain pounded against the windows of the library, one of Kilika's typical afternoon downpours. Paine cracked the door open and peered inside -- she knew that Nooj spent a lot of time here, and she wasn't particularly looking to face him right now. Finding that the coast was clear, she stepped into the room and closed the door behind her. She made her way to the desk where the commsphere was installed and sat down, tapping the console and mulling her options. Making her decision, she pressed the key combination that would connect her with Yuna's cottage on Besaid.
After only a few seconds, the sphere's screen resolved into Tidus's smiling face. "Hey Paine," he said, expression mellowing as he recognized her. "How are you doing?"
"I'm all right," she answered. "Is Yuna around?"
"Yeah, she's out back in the garden. I'll get her."
"Thanks." But the word wasn't even out before Tidus had gone, and she was left speaking to an empty kitchen. A few minutes later, Yuna entered, brushing dirt off her hands and sliding into her seat, concern in her eyes.
"Paine?" she asked. "Is everything all right?"
"I'm fine," Paine assured the other woman. "Just, I wanted to talk to you about something." And then she immediately fell silent. How to even bring this up? For long minutes she sat, wracking her brain for the right words to explain her dilemma.
Yuna waited patiently; she was used to her friend's reluctance to talk about herself and her emotions. Eventually she decided that a prompt might be in order. "How are things with Nooj?"
"Well." Paine sighed. "That's what I wanted to talk about. We're talking again, a little. And... not just talking." She lowered her eyes and her voice. "I've... gone to him. At night. Three times now."
"Ah." Yuna leaned forward slightly. "And is that a good thing?"
Paine thought for a moment, then nodded. "It's helped me clarify some things. At first I told myself that I was just lonely and looking for a distraction. But that was all rationalization. I miss him. I want to work things out, be a family again."
"That's good, isn't it?" Yuna leaned forward, cupping her hands around the commsphere. "That you know what you want?"
"Maybe. But I'm still not sure it's the right thing to do." Paine leaned closer to the sphere as well, an intensity in her face. "He's been opening up to me a little more, letting me see his grief, and I needed that. It's shown me that he's able to change. And that means a lot to me, but I can't decide whether it's enough."
Yuna nodded. "Have you tried asking him for the changes you want?"
Paine shook her head emphatically and pushed slightly away from the table. "I don't dare. When he told me before that he'd given up seeking Death, on some level it was because he knew that was what I wanted to hear. I don't want that anymore."
"So what do you want?" Yuna asked gently.
"I want to believe," was Paine's soft reply. She had dropped her eyes again, and she stared at the table as she spoke. "I want to believe that he's embraced life, that he's not just willing to live, but happy about it. And in order to believe, I need to trust that the change comes from within, that he really, truly, means it."
Yuna sighed in sympathy. "And you can't make him mean it."
"Exactly." Paine flicked her eyes up to meet Yuna's. "I learned that one the hard way." The two women sat in silence for a moment, until Paine shifted away. "I don't expect you to have an answer for me. I guess I just needed to say it all out loud."
Yuna smiled and tapped the bottom of the sphere. "You know I'm always here for you. Keep me posted, okay? And good luck."
"Thanks." Paine managed a weak smile in return, then closed the connection, the pounding of the rain fading off to a quiet patter in the background.
When he had left the nursery, feeling that he had accomplished no useful purpose, Nooj wandered into the set of rooms he had chosen as his own. It was still wet outside, not exactly raining but not yet dry. He was relieved by this since it freed him from the possibility of going onto the balcony. He had much to consider after the morning’s events. With both his sons so unsettled and his daughter studiously ignoring his very presence, he was bitterly feeling a failure as a father and with Paine’s ambivalent actions at breakfast, the way forward had never seemed more obscure. Perhaps ambivalence was an improvement in her attitude, but it didn't feel like much of one. He sighed hopelessly. Maybe if he looked at things one more time, trying to factor in all the recent happenings. He took up the thought which had occurred to him while talking to Jarl and examined it carefully.
He had never questioned his reasons for dedicating himself to Death as her Paladin and, sometimes, servant. It had seemed such a natural part of his existence that it had needed no rationale. Now, all at once or maybe as a dawning understanding, everything seemed changed as though he had shaken the kaleidoscope of his thinking and was watching all the unique bits settle into a new conformation.
He had encountered Sin twice now and had survived against all odds. When Sin was finally destroyed, he had felt a sense of disappointment, as though there remained a debt he had yet to pay, and he had tried to discharge that debt in the battle with Shuyin. There, too, events had conspired against him and he had lived. Was this his fate? Was he destined to live for some reason? Had he grasped the wrong end of the stick from the very beginning?
His mind went back to his two sons. Avtor had clung to him when he had gone to the nursery, inconsolable for some reason. As best he could make out, Nooj thought the little boy wanted to go home, back to Mushroom Rock Road and a stable, predictable life. He had done his best to comfort Avtor, but his frantic sobbing was only stopped by exhaustion. And Jarl... the older boy was growing up with a speed which was unexpected to the eyes of his father. It was almost past time for Jarl to choose a path to follow for his life. In order to make such a major choice, he needed the security and peace of a settled existence, not one in which more than half his attention was diverted by worry about adult matters which should not concern him.
Nooj resumed his pacing. What to do? Which way to go? Standing as an obstacle in the path he now saw was his oath. He had vowed when very young to sacrifice his life for the good of Spira. And he had tried. He had never thought of his own preservation during all the battles in the years of war. He had been willing, no, eager, to die that Spira might be free and safe. And now? Was there any longer any reason for him to still honor that vow?
He found himself in an improbable spot: torn between his honor and his duty. He had never in all his life expected the two to be at odds. Yet, here it was. If he continued to seek the Lady Death, he betrayed his family, not only Paine but also the children they had made together... the ones for whom he was responsible. If he turned his face away from Nothingness, he dishonored his word, freely given. Whichever way he turned was Hell. This was the very sharp and unavoidable horn of a dilemma.
He had thought himself immune to fear and had always prided himself on his stoic refusal to yield to emotions. But the possibility of losing Paine frightened him in a way that injury and death had never been able to touch. With a groan of despair, he threw himself down in the chair and buried his face in his hands. There had to be a solution. It was a fact contrary to reason that there should be no escape from this conundrum. Every maze has an exit.
He sat there for a very long time, and the shadows were beginning to trace the time toward evening when a glimmering began to show in his darkness. Was that proper reasoning? Did the logic hold? He began to meticulously test the links of the chain he had glimpsed. He could find no flaw and sat looking at what lay before him with a sense of combined awe and disgust that he had been so long in seeing what was now so obvious.