Characters: Nooj, Paine, cast.
Spoilers: For all of FFX-2. Also incidental spoilers for FFX.
Disclaimer: Characters, settings, and concepts from Final Fantasy X-2 are copyright Square-Enix.
Notes: Set about twelve years post-canon (ie., not a part of the DSHnD AU). A sequel to The Dynast by kunstarniki.
The library was once more just a room lined with books. The electric feeling had vanished from the air, replaced by the scent of bindings and the dusty stillness of any place of study. Yuna faced Dona over the divan on which their patient had been lying. Both Summoners showed the exhaustion of the ordeal in their postures: staffs lowered, shoulders slumped, and Yuna could feel a slight trembling in her arms. She should have expected such a reaction after channeling the surprisingly great power of the ancient spells through her hands and fingers. It had been a long time since she'd worked with such strong magic.
When the malevolent residue of Shuyin, what Baralai had called a Soul Shadow, had taken over the mind and body of Nooj again, it had become necessary to expel the interloper by any means possible. Now that the job was done, it was time for recuperation on the part of the mages as well as the victim, but only after everything was proved to be well again.
Nooj had hurried from the room as soon as he had been freed, and Yuna was anxious about him. She had heard a distant sound as the Soul Shadow had dissipated and thought that might have been what drew Nooj so quickly from the library. Paine was in labor at the other end of that hallway -- could something have gone wrong? The baby was coming almost two months early, which was not without risk. And she was eager to make sure Nooj was suffering no lingering aftereffects from his possession. With these concerns in mind, she forced her weary feet to carry her out of the room, gathering momentum as she walked. She rushed down the hall and through the open door.
One look at Lulu's tear-stained face, and then the tableau of three still figures at the center of the room, told her all she needed to know. She turned around in place and shook her head at Dona and Barthello, who stood behind her, their faces mirroring her shock and horror.
"Go," she said, softly but firmly. "There's nothing more to do here. I'll find you later."
It was Barthello who acted first, taking a frozen Dona by the hand with a nod to Yuna, then pulling her away as Yuna stepped into the bedroom, closing the door behind her. She crossed to the bed and stood next to Nooj, who knelt beside it on the floor, face buried in his hands. Paine clutched the swaddled babe and stared blankly up at the ceiling. Yuna rested her hand on Paine's shoulder, and her friend turned to her, eyes empty of feeling.
"I'm sorry," Yuna whispered as her own eyes filled. "I'm so very sorry."
Paine nodded, mute.
Yuna blinked the tears away and turned to Lulu and Baralai, also motionless at the head of the bed. The midwife and her assistants all stood on the other side of the room, some quietly weeping, others too stunned to react. "The Shadow?" she asked.
Baralai dipped his head. "It took possession right after the birth. Killed the child, then vanished. It was all over so fast; there was nothing we could do." His eyes belied his words; Yuna saw a flash of guilt there, but she had no time to assuage it. Instead, she returned her attention to Paine, gently moving her hand to the other woman's forehead.
"Your baby needs to be Sent," she said. "I would be honored, if you would allow me?"
"Polarok." Paine's tone was flat, no emotion creeping in at all. "Yes. Please. Send her."
"All right." Yuna brushed back the hair that had fallen into Paine's eyes during the rigors of labor. "Would you like to join me?"
Paine shook her head, closed her eyes, and turned her face to the wall as she opened her hands, setting the tiny body free. Yuna bit her lip as she gathered the dead child into her arms -- babies should be squirming, full of life, not motionless and cold, she thought, and it almost sent another flood of tears down her cheeks. Instead, she turned to Nooj and placed a hand on his back. "Nooj. Please come."
He lifted his head to look at her, and she saw the bleakness in his eyes. Without a word or a look to anyone else in the room, he rose, then walked out the door, slowly, machina limbs dragging as though he could barely lift them.
Yuna started to follow, then paused by Lulu. "Send for the other children," she said under her breath. "I think it will help her to have them here for a little while. Just make sure they don't ask too many questions, or wear her out."
"I will." Lulu went over to the birthing attendants to deliver her instructions as Yuna left the room, the burden she carried growing heavier as she approached Nooj sitting on a bench in the hallway.
At Yuna’s gesture, Nooj pushed himself laboriously to his feet and followed the Summoner. Carrying the body of the child wrapped in her sleeves, she led the way to the courtyard where a few flambeaux had been lighted.
“Would you like to hold her while I give her peace?” she asked softly.
Nooj nodded and held out his arms, letting his cane fall to the grass. She laid the little corpse in the curve of his left arm and he settled it gently against the machina as though it could feel the unyielding surface. With a hesitant finger, he turned the face of his daughter so that he could see it clearly.
His eyes traced the features of his lost child. He could see reflections both of his own face and that of Paine echoed in the quiet visage. His vision blurred and, without conscious volition, his lips moved and words came.
“Polarok, that’s what your mother named you. The gift. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. I wanted you so much. You were to be our treasure, our joy. I did not mean for you to pay for my sins, my crimes. You are so innocent, so beautiful. Forgive me, Polarok. Forgive me, my child, my daughter.” His words were too low to be heard by the attendants. They were whispered for the ears of the baby alone. He was repeating them like a mantra when he felt the changes begin. As Yuna danced her ritual, the pyreflies illuminated the body in his arms and the burden began to grow lighter. At the end, only the cradling curve of his arm remained, along with the memory of the tiny face. He stood there for a long time before accepting the cane Yuna held out to him and making his tortured way back inside the Castle.
Halfway down the hall, Yuna came across a servant carrying a basket of towels, some wet and steaming, others dry. Nooj came to a halt behind her as she turned back and approached him, holding one of each. "You're still covered in the oils we used for the exorcism," she said. "Let me clean you up first." She motioned him over to a nearby bench, and started dabbing at him with the hot towel. As she washed his face and the exposed portion of his chest, she looked him over. His color had returned along with his strength, the renewed vitality clear despite his obvious grief. He would be all right, Yuna decided. Physically, anyway. She handed him a soft dry cloth, and he scrubbed his face with it, using a little more vigor than was strictly necessary. When he had finished, she sat next to him and laid a hand lightly on his arm.
"I'm so sorry," she murmured. "I know that's inadequate; I only wish there was more I could say. If there's ever anything I can do for you, or Paine, or the children, please, just ask."
He looked at her, his drawn face somehow radiant. “Wasn’t she beautiful? You saw how beautiful she was?”
Yuna smiled tenderly, knowing what he wanted her to say. “She was very beautiful. She looked so much like Paine.”
“Yes, so much like Paine.” He paused, squeezing his eyes shut and forcing the next words through tight lips. “I wish I could believe.”
The Summoner’s hand closed more firmly on his arm. “I believe enough for both of us. Your little girl is safe and happy on the Farplane. She is laughing and gurgling and waving her arms and legs in a flower-starred meadow. There are many souls around her who will make it their joyful duty to care for her throughout eternity. Now, you must be strong and go to the rest of your family. They need you. Be at peace, dear Nooj.” Impulsively, she leaned over and kissed him on his cheek. “All will be well.”
Nooj stood outside the door to the birthing room. He fought the absurd feeling that he ought to knock first and reached for the handle, only to lurch away, startled, when the door opened of its own volition.
It was Lulu. She started as well, closed the door behind her, then looked up at Nooj.
"It is done," Nooj said, in answer to the unspoken question. "She is gone."
Lulu nodded. They stood in silence for a moment; when she spoke, her voice was even huskier than usual. "Paine is still inside, alone."
"The children?" Nooj asked.
"They were here, briefly," Lulu replied. "But Paine needs to rest, so we sent them to bed. Still, you should go to her." She continued on her way, trailing a sympathetic hand along his forearm and casting him a look of sorrow as she passed. Nooj nodded an acknowledgement, and then, with a deep breath, opened the door and walked through.
Paine had moved from the bed to an easy chair by the window. She sat there, still as death herself, her face blank as she gazed into the darkness. Nooj found it difficult to breathe, a band around his chest keeping him from taking in air. He was drawn to her, the need to hold her almost irresistible, and yet something stopped him from crossing the room. Instead, he spoke.
She said nothing, didn't even move.
He took a tentative step closer. "Paine. Dear heart. Let me comfort you, let me show you how desperately sorry I am. Please, my love. I swear--"
"You swear." At that, Paine turned in his direction. "The last time you made me a promise, you were unable to keep it. And because of that, our daughter is dead." She looked up at him, eyes cool and unreadable. "How am I supposed to trust anything you say, ever again?"
Nooj stood perfectly still but for the hand rotating on the head of his cane. He made no answer; he had no answer to give her. Paine shook her head with a sigh of disgust, the first true show of emotion she had allowed herself in his presence since Polarok's death.
"As I thought," she said, angry, bitter. She looked back out the window, staring into nothing.
"Do you want me to go?" Just speaking the words hurt his throat, and the band around his chest tightened further. Desperate not to lose her, he feared it might already be too late. Her reply was a long time coming; she sat motionless in the chair, her gaze never wavering.
Finally, she shifted and turned her eyes back to him, and this time he saw the pain there, the bottomless well of grief that she had been hiding, and his windpipe constricted even more at the sight of her anguish. "I don't know," she whispered. "I don't know what I want." She cleared her throat and lowered her eyes, and her next words were calmer, her tone once again without affect. "But for the children's sake, you should stay. They need you here. Assuming their needs still matter to you."
Her words stung, but he did not flinch; he deserved far worse. "Shall I find a guest room then?"
"That would be best." Her voice was still flat.
Nooj waited a moment longer, hoping for another crack in her façade. He ached for her, wanted nothing more than to gather her into his arms and grieve with her for their lost child, but he didn't dare. Instead, he nodded. "I will make certain the servants know where I can be found, should you require my presence." Without waiting for a response, he turned on his heel and left the room, letting the door close softly behind him.
In her chair, Paine let out the breath she had been holding. The sigh became a sob, and then she was curled up in a ball, her face pressed against the cushions to muffle the cries she could no longer hold back.