That night, Paine did not go to Nooj's rooms. It was a temptation; his pull was difficult to resist. But she had a great deal to think about, and she would think better with her head clear, not clouded by the intoxication of his touch and scent. So she walked down the hallway, alone, in the direction of her own bed, and reflected on the events of the past few days.
Dinner had been a strange affair. Jarl had been itchy and miserable, so she had excused him early, giving him a small tub of lotion and sending him to bed. Gippal had been uncharacteristically quiet; Nooj had arrived late and seemed distracted. So the meal had passed in near silence, and it had been a relief to escape the dining room. Nooj had stayed behind, still lost in thought, barely acknowledging her "Good night." It was unlike him, and it made her uneasy.
She reached her rooms, opened the door, and sat down in the rocking chair before the unlit fireplace. Throughout this trial, she had taken one item on faith: Nooj wanted her back. She had made every decision with that thought in the back of her mind. She saw him looking at her at every opportunity, felt him reaching out to her with his heart and soul. It had been comforting to assume that the decision to reconcile or not rested entirely in her hands.
But tonight something was different. He'd been preoccupied, distant, hardly even noticed that she was in the room. Paine tipped her head back and wondered what could possibly have caused the change. Simply worry over the twins? Or could he have changed his mind about wanting her forgiveness? Or -- and she sat bolt upright with a horrible thought, her fingers digging into the armrests as the old terror washed through her. What if he had given up on ever getting her back and was making plans to kill himself? All of her life with Nooj, she had feared that possibility. What if it came true? What if she couldn't stop him this time?
She pushed herself out of her seat, then stopped. "No," she murmured. She couldn't influence his decisions on this. Not anymore. She had opened the door to reconciliation, but she needed him to walk through it on his own. If she nudged him, even a little, she wouldn't be able to trust any changes. All she could do now was wait.
But for how long?
Paine crossed her arms tightly over her chest and began to pace, her path a tight circle on the bedroom floor. She could already see that this was going to be a long night.
Nooj woke very early in the morning, even before the sun had entirely risen. He had suffered through a restless night, broken by numerous wakings when he thought of another point he needed to check in his decision-making. When he had first reached his conclusion the evening before, he had been inclined to rush directly to Paine to tell her what he had discovered but good sense had prevailed and he had waited until he could be entirely sure there were no holes in his reasoning and that he was prepared to answer any questions she might have. He was only too aware that this was almost assuredly his only chance to persuade Paine to believe him and if he failed it would be the end of any hope for a future. Part of him was glad that Paine had not come to him the past night. He would not have been able to hold his tongue, and he knew everything had to be done exactly right, without clumsiness or error.
He dressed as slowly as he could, examining in his mind yet again the chain of logical and emotional thought he had forged the night before and still finding it firm and sustaining.
When Nooj walked through the gate to the upper courtyard in the ruddy sunrise, he was surprised to see Jarl already waiting. The boy's face fell when he saw only his father step into the open space.
"Is Mother not going to eat with us?" His still-treble voice held a querulous note.
"She may be up later. Why are you so early?" His father settled down and unfolded his napkin.
Jarl made circles on the stone table with the base of his juice glass. "I just woke up and was hungry." He did not look Nooj in the eye and his posture simply shouted depression.
"Then eat. That's the best cure for hunger." Nooj said with scant sympathy. He was still concentrating on how to make sure he and Paine were undisturbed when he talked to her. It must be today; the situation could not continue as it was much longer.
"Mama!" Nooj was roused from his reverie by his son's glad exclamation. He glanced up and saw Paine approaching, her smooth expression yielding no hint as to her thoughts. But she had come to breakfast with them. That must mean something.
He stood to greet her, bowing over her hand with his usual grave courtesy. "My dearest, I am glad you have joined us. May I pour you some juice?"
Paine laughed lightly. "Isn't it generally the lady's prerogative to pour?" She lifted the pitcher, decanted a tall glass of crimson juice, and took a deep swallow.
Jarl beamed at his mother, and she took a seat and smiled back. "How are you feeling?" she asked. "Still itchy?"
"Yeah," he admitted as he scratched. "And it looks funny." He held out an arm for her inspection; the skin had faded from an angry red to a deep pink, and it was covered with small whitish circles.
Paine shook her head. "It's going to peel, I'm afraid. Sorry, kid, looks like you inherited my skin. If your father got a burn like that, it would fade into a tan, but you and I aren't so lucky. I'll bring some lotion by your room later, okay?"
"Okay." He took his arm back and rubbed it with the other hand, then dove into his food. After casting Nooj a tentative look, Paine did the same, and he quickly followed suit.
The meal was a quiet one, but congenial. Jarl finished first, following his last bite of egg by drinking half a glass of juice in what appeared to be a single swallow. He belched, then quickly covered his mouth with a hand. Mortified, he turned to his parents. "Uh, excuse me. And may I be excused?" he asked.
"You may," Paine said, hiding a smile. "But you need to stay out of the sun for at least another day. I'll come by your room in a few minutes."
He nodded, then left. Paine and Nooj glanced at one another, then their plates, a shared wariness filling the air at the awkwardness of being left alone together.
Nooj broke the silence first, leaning forward and resting his hands on the table. "Paine, will you have time for me to come talk to you this afternoon?" He looked at her with what he hoped was a benign expression. "I have something we need to discuss."
Paine's breath caught in her throat and her heartbeat accelerated a notch. Her feeling that something had changed seemed to be justified. But was the news good or bad? At least a request to talk suggested that he wasn't planning an imminent suicide, and with that realization the worst of her fears lifted, for the time being.
Careful not to betray any of this in her face, she turned to him with a quick nod. "This afternoon," she said as she stood. "After lunch. I'll be in my rooms." She leaned down and lightly kissed his forehead. "See you then."
It was late afternoon when he went to her. The twins were having a nap; Nooj had asked Gippal, with no explanations, to keep Jarl occupied for a time, and all was quiet in the Castle. He found her curled up on the window seat, gazing out at the open sea. It was the first time he had gone to her rooms alone in weeks. Most of their meetings took place in his quarters or on neutral ground.
He entered the open door without knocking. Hearing his footsteps, she turned in his direction. "Hello."
"Paine." He crossed the floor and stood before her. "Thank you for agreeing to hear me out. I will not ask again if I disappoint you now."
She nodded. "Say what you came here to say."
"I am fully aware of what I have done to hurt you and our bond, of how I have betrayed my own honor and brought about tragedy which could have been prevented." He paused and met her eyes fully. "Now I want to tell you where I have been and what I have learned."
She nodded again, this time without speaking. They were both cognizant of the fact that this was their final chance to mend things, that after this, there could be no more discussion, no more hope of reconciliation. They had moved past the easy quarrels and apologies of their early days and had come to the point where only absolute honesty and trust could hope to save them and the life they had built together.
She shifted a little on the padded sill and made room for him to sit without touching her. He sat awkwardly, half turned away from her and lowered his head. After a long while, she said, "Go ahead; I'm listening."
He watched his black-gloved hand flex on the handle of his cane. "It is hard to know how to begin." It felt as though he'd rehearsed this moment a dozen times, but still he hesitated; so much was at stake. Drawing a deep breath, he continued, carefully choosing his words. "Jarl came to me and wanted to talk about his future profession. He was concerned that he did not have the spirit or talent to become a Warrior and he thought that was his only choice, because of what we both are and have been." He looked at her quickly to make sure she was understanding and saw that she was. "I assured him he had many other choices and suggested we investigate them when we got home again."
Nooj stared into the corner of the room; Paine could tell he was organizing his mind, so she kept silent. "You know how it was when we were his age, with Sin still around. To be willing to sacrifice your life for Spira in that fight was the most noble thing a person could do. To serve Spira was what we all wanted... for revenge, for patriotism, whatever. I was alone, orphaned and had already met Sin, so what I became was the natural thing. I believed I had survived for only one thing and so I dedicated myself to that purpose. You understand?"
He cast her a questioning glance, and she thought back to when they had found one another again, reuniting after the battle with Vegnagun. That had been their first real opportunity to share their histories, and he'd told her the story of why he became a Deathseeker. "I do," she said. "I remember."
He nodded and continued, "After talking with Jarl, I began to think. About the way Spira is today. Paine, Warriors like I have always been aren't needed anymore. We were useful when dying for our world was a real possibility and we needed people who were eager to make that sacrifice. But now - it's all different. Dying isn't needed. Spira is hungry for people to live and repopulate. It requires leaders not martyrs."
Paine crossed her arms across her knees and raised a sardonic eyebrow, pressing her back against the window frame. "So that's why you'll choose to live? Because wanting to die isn't the logical thing to do anymore?"
He quickly turned his head and almost glared at her. "Would you trust me if I gave you some sort of sentimental reason? I am what I have come to be; you can't expect me to become someone else, to wear another mask in an effort to please you. I want our life together again. But I refuse to build on quicksand another time. I'm trying to tell you the whole truth about what I've discovered and decided. If it's not enough then I'll leave you in peace and go my way. But for Ixion's sake, hear me out before you condemn me."
She turned to look out the window and took a deep breath, calming herself. Then she looked back at him with a half smile. "Sorry," she said. "You're right. I won't interrupt again. Go on."
Still fixing her with his eye, he began again. "Yes, it is logical for those who love Spira to give her our lives instead of our deaths now. I was wrong to continue to think that my only contribution to our world would be to die for her. In my defense, I will say that living with that belief for most of my life had made it into a part of me and it's hard to disentangle my duty to Spira from my duty to die. I had always felt, since my first escape, that I owed the world a death, and I've tried to find a way to discharge the debt."
He pushed himself up from the window seat and turned to look out across the sea. "Paine, it's not easy to admit I was wrong. But I was. I misunderstood what the world was trying to teach me and tried to be true to you and my own outmoded self at the same time. I should have listened more to my advisors and less to my own convictions. Now -- here is the part I wish I didn't have to tell you about."
He sat down again, this time not facing her but staring at the floor. "Since we have been here, I have seen the Lady Death several times. She stands on the spit of rocks under the balcony off my room and raises her arms to me, drawing me to her. Beloved... I... I am afraid to go onto the balcony. I, Nooj the Undying, am afraid! In spite of everything, I know my weaknesses and I'm afraid she will... I haven't tried since I realized that my ideas were wrong. Habit is so strong.
"Paine. I want to stay with you and I mean to. I love you past describing -- I didn't realize how much until I have been so stupid as to... you understand? I know where I went wrong and I am finally ready to make it right. I know I don't deserve another chance but if you will be gracious enough to give it to me I will prove to you that I'm worth your love. I will live, not grudgingly but fully. I want to cherish every moment you and our children are with me, and I want to survive to see grandchildren and more. I will hold nothing back. I will lay everything at your feet to make up for what I have done to you in the past decade. Nothing Death could have ever given me would match what you have held out for my taking. But before I can accept anything more from you, I have to face the Lady one last time. I have to face her, and I have to do it now, with you as my witness. Will you go to my rooms with me and onto the balcony?" The speech given, he finally turned to look into her eyes, his face distorted with fear and longing. Hesitantly, he held out his hand.
She shifted, tucking her legs beneath her as she leaned forward and took his hand in both of hers. "I bet you probably think admitting all this was a show of weakness," she murmured, looking at him with an air of wonderment as though she was seeing him for the first time. "But you're wrong, my love. This is the bravest thing you've ever done." Impulsively, she brought his hand to her lips and brushed them over his knuckles. All the love and tenderness she had been fighting for the past few weeks came rushing back, and she let the emotions show in her face. Dropping her right hand, leaving her left intertwined with his, she slid off the window seat and looked down at him.
"Of course I'll go with you," she said. "Whatever is out there, we'll face it together. Just like we should've faced everything together. I'm sorry I shut you out for so long. It was a mistake. And I promise never to do it again."
He silently rose from the window seat and, like partners in a stately dance, they moved together to the door, then down the corridor to his rooms. He opened the door and bowed her in, taking her hand again and leading her to the balcony. The curtains of the open door billowed in the breeze off the sea and obscured the details of the small space between the wall and the railing. Without realizing it, he tightened his grip on her hand and slowed his step as they neared the outer edge.
Nooj closed his eyes for a brief moment as he leaned forward and looked down to the small rocky beach below the balcony. When he made himself open them, she was there. The Lady Death in her filmy dark robes and her alabaster skin was there, beckoning to him, her arms like the gracefully swaying tentacles of an anemone, palely boneless and endlessly promising. He shook his head and stepped even closer to Paine, whispering softly and distinctly the word "No."
He was aware of the warmth of the living form at his side, her breast against his arm as she leaned into him. The eyes of the Lady Death were compelling, pulling him like magnets to her embrace. For time without meaning he felt himself torn between the two - the passion for escape into Nothingness warring with the compassion of the woman who held him back. With an effort beyond his own strength, buttressed by a will augmenting his own, he tore his gaze from the temptation below and focused on the face of the mother of his children. She said nothing with her lips, letting her soul speak through her scarlet eyes. "No!" he shouted. "This is my choice!" With the desperation of a man clutching a spar in a ship wreck and storm, he embraced Paine and clung tightly, staring over her head at the figure of Death as she stretched out her arms to claim him. "No! I choose ... I choose to live!"
And then the power of Death released him and he almost fell; only the support of the woman in his arms kept him on his feet.
Death gazed at him with the eyes of an abandoned lover and parted her lips. A distant keen came to his ears, sharp and desperate, as though the phantasm below mourned all the deaths in the world and could not bear the grief. He continued to look and reject the figure, growing firmer in his posture as she grew less solid. The constant wind off the sea began to tear at her garments and then at her body, dissolving her into wisps of sea spray and fog. And she was gone, leaving only the wet rocks and the purling waves.
Nooj tightened his grip on Paine and bent his face into her hair. Were those tears on his cheeks? No, he realized, the salty moisture on his cheekbones was nothing more than the spray from the waves. "Beloved, beloved. It's over. Paine, don't leave me. I need you so much; love you so utterly. Stay with me." He drew back and looked into her countenance, searching for signs that she understood what had happened and could bring herself to trust him again.
She laid her palm on his cheek and gazed deeply into his dark eyes as a profound sense of relief washed over her. It was finally over. They were both free. "I'm here," she told him. "I'm here and I love you. And I promise I'm not going anywhere. Not now, not ever." She drew him down for a kiss that overwhelmed them both with its tenderness. "I've missed you so much," she murmured into his mouth. She kissed him again, on his lips and on his cheek, and then butted her forehead up against his, holding him close and sharing his breath.
He closed his eyes and swallowed. "Did you see her? Did you see her go?"
"I saw... something," Paine said, thinking back over what had just happened. "Not a woman, but there was a-- a shape. Something about the size of a person shimmering down there. Looking at it reminded me of the cave. I can't say why, exactly. But I felt the same dread that overwhelmed me that day." She ran a finger along Nooj's jaw and shivered with the memory. "Then, when you banished her, I looked back down and saw the shimmer fade away, and then the feeling went away too. Whatever it was, it's gone."
"It was Death, and it is gone. For good." He drew back then, speaking rapidly, the words that had been bottled up inside him for too long coming out in a torrent. "Paine! I've made the choice freely now and we're safe from the doubts inside me. We have a life to live together, let me tell you ..."
As he talked, he led her back inside his room, steering her toward the bed and pulling her down with him as he stretched out and sighed with relief.
"When I started thinking about what Jarl had said and realized that I had the wrong end of the stick, it hit me. I want to see Jarl grow up and become whatever he's going to be and the twins... I want to see them grow and see if they stay so much alike. There's an adventure out there and I don't want to miss it." He looked at her, his eyes bright with enthusiasm, and a light seemed to shine from his entire face as he smiled, the rare expression transforming his features in a way that Paine had always treasured. She wondered if it might be less rare from here on out.
"It will be an adventure. One that I look forward to sharing with you." She framed his face with her hands and just looked at him for a moment, basking in the warmth of his glow. "My love, I don't think I've ever seen you this happy before. I'm not quite sure what to make of it." He laughed; she kissed him, then dropped her hands to snuggle up against his chest with a sigh that went beyond contentment. "Tell me more."
He hugged her to him, almost purring with joy. "And I want to watch time pass with you. I want to welcome the grey in my hair and in yours and grow even lamer if you're by my side. Paine! We have time now; we don't have to hurry and squeeze every drop from our days. We have time to relax and enjoy the minutes and the little things, to drink joy like water. We have time."
He paused for a moment and the old familiar gravity returned to his expression. "When I saw where the truth lay, I was shamed that it had taken me so long to see it. I had thought I was more honest with myself than that. I think I'd fallen into this pattern of thinking without realizing what I was doing. Then I worried that you might have run out of patience with me and would never believe anything I said. Beloved, I truly thought I had made my choice long ago. I didn't mean to deceive you, you, my soul and center. I was so afraid you would never trust me again after I had lied in my heart -- even though I didn't mean to. I wouldn't have blamed you if you had just thrown me out." He clutched her until she could hardly breathe.
"I thought about it," she admitted. "Part of me wanted to. But I couldn't. I need you, Nooj, every bit as much as you need me." She felt him relax his grip as she dropped her forehead against his chest and leaned into him. "You didn't intend to lie to me, and I never truly believed that you had. But I was in so much pain, and it was easier to lash out at you than to think the whole situation through rationally." She raised her head and met his eyes. "I hurt you terribly. I hope you can forgive me."
With a sudden powerful move, he sat them both up and swung around on the bed so that they were seated side by side. He threw himself rather awkwardly on the floor before her and buried his face in her lap, inhaling the scent of her body like the incense it had become to him. Kneeling there, he looked up and said with careful clarity, "Beloved Paine, will you take formal vows with me so that we are one in the eyes of society as well as our own?"
All his hopes and future happiness lay in his face as he genuflected before her. She captured his chin between her fingers and raised it. It seemed like forever that she searched his face, her eyes solemn with the gravity of this decision.
"On her birthday," she said at last, softly, her expression warming but still serious. "In her honor, to give us a reason to remember with joy as well as sadness, so that we know her life and death were not in vain." She slid down to join him on the floor and wrapped her arms about his shoulders. "Yes, Nooj. Yes. I will pledge myself to you."
He let out a sighing breath of relief. "Thank you," he murmured as he laid his hands on her waist and pulled her into a long, tender kiss. Time ceased to have meaning as they held one another, rejoicing in their newfound unity, all the barriers they had constructed between them fallen at last.
Eventually Paine lifted her head from the hollow of Nooj's shoulder and noted the lengthening shadows. "It's getting late," she said. "We'll be late for dinner if we don't get moving."
Nooj laid his hand on her cheek and tipped her face up to his. "I don't need food." He smiled down at her and ran a finger along her jaw. "I have you. Every appetite is satisfied, just as long as we're together."
She nuzzled his throat and murmured, "The sooner we go and finish dinner, the sooner we can come right back here and satisfy another hunger or two."
He smiled even more broadly. "You mean that? Then let's go!"
Her response was a kiss brimming with promises as they stood and made a laughing exit from the room.