The day after a damaging storm such as a hurricane or a tornado is often disconcertingly beautiful and serene. So it was the morning after the events in the Castle at Kilika. The sun rose like a great blossoming flower, unfurling its red orange petals over a turquoise basin dappled with creamy white. A soft and insinuating breeze brought the fragrance of sea-salt laced with the sweetness of mysterious perfumes to the senses of those fortunate enough to be awake in the dawn. It was one of those flawless days which every so often come along to renew one's belief in perfection.
Nooj had not slept. He had paced the floor, tried to lie down, tossed on his narrow bed, opened windows, closed them again when he could not bear the sight of the moons on the water, sworn against a merciless fate which had robbed him of what he most treasured, and started the entire routine over again. He could not remember when he had last eaten or what. He longed for Paine as a man lost in a desert longs for water. She had been his anchor, his ballast for so long. Now he was drifting, unaware of where he might wash up. He felt empty and incomplete. Her image floated just beyond his reach, her face cold and unreadable.
He limped over to the small balcony, which extended past the walls of the Castle. There, he looked down on the sharp barnacle-encrusted rocks at the base of the structure. It was a dizzying view and he clutched the railing with his right hand lest he lose his balance. As he watched, a figure took shape, lifting its arms to beckon him. The Lady Death gazed into his eyes and summoned him to her embrace. A frisson of fear swept through his body, and he threw himself back against the inner wall. Had the Soul Shadow not been exorcised? Was he once again to suffer through that Dark Night? Delicately, he extended his mental fingers into the recesses of his mind, searching for any sign of the interloper which had cost him so dearly. He could detect nothing, but was that any assurance? He could not remember if he had been aware of the invader before it had been cast out. The room suddenly seemed to shrink in and press against him, and he hurried to the door and the wide hallway outside.
Paine sat up in her bed, propped up on the pillows, looking out at the same beautiful clear morning, and she cursed it. How dare the sun shine so brightly or the air smell so sweet on a day like this? What right did the world have to still contain freshness and beauty when her life was devastated beyond repair?
She, too, had passed a long, hard night. After Nooj left her, she'd cried and cried, only stopping when her strength gave out. Eventually she'd fallen into a sort of stupor, neither asleep nor truly awake, curled up in the chair. At some point during the night, Baralai had found her there. He'd gathered her up in his arms and carried her to her bedchamber. She had cried again, nestled against her friend's chest, and he had soothed her, murmuring soft words and stroking her hair. Then he'd sat with her, just being there in a chair next to the bed, providing a small measure of comfort with his presence as she wept helplessly. Once again she cried herself into exhaustion; when the last sob had hiccupped away, Baralai laid a hand on her forehead and chanted an ancient healing spell, followed by another to cast sleep. All she heard were the first few words before she felt the calming magic suffuse her body, and then she slipped into blessed unconsciousness.
Her sleep had been free of dreams; waking was the nightmare.
She had lain awake for an hour now and had not moved beyond sitting up. Still sore and weak from the birthing process, her breasts heavy and uncomfortable with the milk that would now never nourish a growing child, she wanted nothing more than to shut out the world and let it carry on without her. A few knocks had come at the door, but so far she'd ignored them all. This one was more insistent than the others, though, so finally she forced herself to stir. "Come," she called out, her voice little more than a croak through a throat still raw from weeping. She had not yet cried this morning; she feared that, if she started again, she might never stop.
Yuna entered the room, a tray balanced in her left hand. "Paine," she said tenderly. She set the tray down on the bedside table, and gave Paine a glass of water. "Did you get any sleep?" she asked as she lowered herself to the edge of the bed.
"A little." Paine took a sip of the water, then handed Yuna the glass back. "Baralai helped with that."
Yuna nodded. "I brought you some breakfast. Fruit, tea, juice, some bread. I'm sure you're not hungry," she added, forestalling the protest that Paine was about to make. "But you need to eat a bit of something to keep your strength up."
"In a little while," Paine said. "I know you're right, but I don't think I could force anything down yet." She looked down at the hands that splayed over her lap.
"As soon as you can." Yuna glanced around the room. "Did Nooj leave already, or did he find another place to sleep so you could get more rest?"
Paine continued to pluck at the covers as she answered. "I sent him away," she whispered. "I couldn't-- I can't-- He did this, don't you see? He opened himself up, let that… monster back into our lives, and it killed my baby!" The tears began to leak from her eyes again. "I don't know if I can forgive him this time."
"Oh." Yuna ran a hand over Paine's back. "Oh Paine. I understand. But he's devastated about Polarok's death. I know he is. He never meant for this to happen." Paine shook her head, tears still falling, as Yuna continued. "He loved her, too. I could see it, at the Sending. And you shouldn't worry about her. She's safe now, at peace on the Farplane."
"I know." Paine had to force out words that threatened to break into a wail. "But she doesn't belong on the Farplane! She belongs here, with me." And then the sobs began in earnest as Yuna wrapped her arms around Paine's shoulders and pulled her close, rocking her as she cried.
With a growing feeling of alarm, Nooj moved as quickly as he could through the corridors of the building, down and out into the central courtyard. As he had hoped, Baralai was there, basking in the sun, his sleeves turned back and his collar unpinned.
"Nooj! Come sit with me and let's talk."
"I was hunting for you." Nooj lowered himself into the adjacent chair.
"You found me." Baralai turned slightly to face the other man. "What can I do to help?"
"Have you seen Paine this morning? How is she?"
"I haven’t seen her. I've only been up a little while and didn't want to wake her. She needs to rest as much as possible. It was courteous of you to find another room so as not to disturb her."
Nooj nodded ruefully. "Yes, courteous. Baralai, we are ... she doesn't want me anymore."
"Give her time. She's been through a lot in the past couple of months and especially the last day. She needs to recover and come to terms with all that's happened. Polarok is at peace on the Farplane, and when Paine realizes that she'll be less anguished. You have to be patient and wait. She'll need you sooner than you think, and there're the other children for you to consider. You're finding this hard to accept right now but life does go on, even after such a tragic event as this. It must go on and so must you."
"The children. I don't know how they'll take this. The twins... they're too young to understand or even to notice. But you know Jarl, how perceptive he is. He sees everything so clearly. Wait! Has anybody told him about his sister yet?" Nooj began to struggle to rise from his chair, his face twisted with grief and horror.
Baralai sat up straighter, alarmed. He had never seen Nooj in such a state. "Sit down, old friend. He's been told. Paine and Lulu told him last night. Calm yourself."
The older man collapsed against the cushions, his cane between his knees, his fingers convulsively tightening and loosening on the grip. "I've destroyed Paine; I can't hurt my boy."
"Paine is not destroyed," Baralai assured him. "She's stronger than you think she is. She will survive and go on, if for no other reason than the children. The real question is: what are you going to do?"
"Baralai, I tried. I really believed I had the ... my problem ... beaten. I told Paine I would live and I meant it. I meant it. I thought I'd put all that behind me and was doing the right things for Paine and our family. I meant it when I told her I would live, and I'm alive. What happened?"
The Praetor paused for a moment, choosing his words carefully. "Nooj, I've known you for a long time and I know you're no coward. But I think you haven't looked at what you are inside; I don't think you ever have. You're going to have to face that part of you which has never truly given consent to life and you're going to have to change that if you want to convince Paine you're serious about the oath you swore to her."
Nooj lifted his head and stared bleakly into the distance. "I came near to killing myself a few minutes ago. I looked down at the sea and saw Death waiting for me and I wanted to join Her. It is the closest I have ever come to finding my own destruction."
"What! Nooj!" Baralai started up and grabbed his friend's arm. "Why? Because Paine banished you for a day? Did that damned Shadow do that much damage? You've never even considered suicide before. Have you?"
"Not actively. I've been willing to wait until my death would have some meaning, some value for my country. Except while the Shadow was riding me. I would look at my knife and wonder why I didn't get it over with. But I never came so close as ... Baralai, are you sure it was destroyed? What if it killed my child and has returned to kill me as well?" He stared at the younger man.
Baralai had never thought to see fear in the eyes of the Warrior. But there it was, unmistakable and blatant. "I saw it disappear myself. It faded into a nothingness and dissolved. It's gone and there is nothing of it left. We can call Yuna or Dona and have one of them confirm it, but I saw it."
"Then the flaw is within me." Nooj dropped his head to his clenched hands and drew long shuddering breaths. "Baralai, Paine rejected me forever. I'm only permitted to stay this close because of our ..." His voice broke and he could not go on.
Baralai was horrified at the sight of his brave, stoic companion brought so low. He had never entertained the possibility that Nooj might fall apart when he had always been the one who had been the unyielding fortress of strength. Yuna had said that without any faith to use as a bulwark Nooj was the most vulnerable of them all, but until this moment it had seemed only the opinion of a woman steeped in spirituality. He could think of nothing to say and, in the hope that the human touch might comfort where words were inadequate, laid his hand on the shoulder of the devastated man, only to have it shaken off with a familiar imperious gesture.
"I don't need pity; I need answers!" Nooj snarled, glaring at the white-haired man.
More relieved than offended to hear this more typical tone coming from his friend, Baralai leaned away again. "Well, you won't find any answers until you admit what you are. Any solutions will have to come from inside you and from Paine. She's the one who feels betrayed and abandoned. She's just lost a part of herself as well as the baby. Nooj, there's a sickness in you which you have to confront yourself. You say you saw Death herself waiting for you on the shore? How long since you've eaten? You're as pale as a ghost and you were tottering when you came out here."
"I don't want food. I can't eat." Stubborn truculence flavored the statement.
Paying no mind to the protestations, Baralai beckoned to a servant who was watering the plantings by the wall. "Bring a breakfast tray out at once. Make sure there's plenty of fruit and a flagon of ale."
"Ale? This early in the day? What do you think I am, a drunk?" Nooj expostulated.
"You need the appetite stimulant of alcohol and ale is nourishing. And I don't know what you are; that's your responsibility." He turned around and called the servant back. "While you're inside, ask a maid to send young Jarl along to us. And bring two trays, the boy will break his fast with his father."
"What game are you up to now, you meddler? I'm trying to protect Jarl, not involve him. Gardener, disregard that last order."
The servant looked questioningly at a space between the two men. Baralai waved a hand. "Do as I said and hurry." Without pausing again, the messenger took off at a trot.
"Damn you! Will you let me make the decisions for my own family?" Nooj shouted angrily.
"Certainly, when you have regained your ability to make good decisions. You haven't exactly been a paragon of responsibility lately." Baralai stretched back out and closed his eyes. "Jarl is a great deal more mature than you are right now, and he will be less troubled if he is trusted with the truth and feels he is a part of the solution. The way to Paine may well lie through your precocious son."
"Whoever said you could cry until there were no tears left was wrong," Paine said when she could speak again, still leaning on Yuna. "There will never be anything but tears, ever again."
Yuna tightened her grip. "I know," she murmured. "I know you feel hopeless and helpless right now. But you will find reason to live and carry on." She pulled away a bit and glanced at the breakfast tray. "Are you ready to eat a little? And perhaps then we'll send for the twins."
Paine sighed. "I hate for them to see me this way."
"They need to know you're going to be okay," Yuna told her. "They need you, and you need them."
Biting her lip, Paine glanced out the window. "You're very good at that," she said.
"At what?" Yuna asked.
Paine looked back at her old friend. "Being right."
Yuna smiled. "Years of practice," she said. "Here, let me fix you a plate of something, and I'll get a servant to bring up the children." She bustled around the tray, then handed Paine a selection of fruit and bread, setting a cup of tea beside her. "What about Nooj?" she asked, hesitantly. "Should I send for him as well?"
Sitting up straighter, Paine took a bite of bread and forced herself to swallow, washing it down with a sip of tea. "Not yet," she replied in a low voice. "I-- no. I'm not ready."
Yuna only nodded, and set about delivering her messages.
Jarl arrived in the courtyard just ahead of a train of servants carrying folding tables and trays of food as well as vases spilling over with flowers and armloads of blindingly white tablecloths and napkins. The boy stood back while the preparations were made for a hearty meal and a smaller chair was drawn up the table placed before his father.
"Are you all right, Father?" He spoke almost too softly to be heard. "You look tired."
Nooj looked at his oldest son and felt his heart twist within his chest. There was such concern on the child's face. He saw once again before him Polarok as he had last seen her with the mingled likeness of himself and Paine clearly marked, then noted that same blending in the boy. He closed his eyes and swallowed heavily.
"I am sad, my son, but I am well and you need not worry about me. I had a sort of sickness and it is gone now. Sit down and we'll have breakfast together. But no ale for you." It was a feeble joke but both Jarl and Nooj smiled faintly and a subtle easing of the atmosphere took place as the boy took his seat.
"I was afraid you might die," Jarl said, smearing honey on his muffin. "You were so pale and wouldn't talk to me or Mother."
"I'm sorry. It was the sickness and now it's gone. Here, have some of this juice; it's good, just a little sour to wake you up." He poured a glass and passed it over.
"Is Mama all right? I haven't seen her this morning."
"We're letting her sleep as long as she can. Yesterday was hard on her. We'll go up and see her a little later."
Jarl nodded solemnly. "Aunt Lulu and Mama told me about the baby, my little sister. Is that why you're sad?"
"So am I. And Mama is particularly sad since it was part of her and she loved it while it was still inside her. We have to make a try to cheer her up, you know. The twins made her laugh last night. Maybe we ought to send them up first."
Nooj noticed that Jarl was speaking in less elevated terms than usual. Maybe he thought simple language was more appropriate for sadness or maybe he thought only such words would be understood by his father.
"We'll make every effort to cheer up your mother. She's going to have to take some time to recover from this. You see, she was worried about me and that along with the death of Polarok has exhausted her. It'll take her a while but both you and the twins will be a great help. You know she loves you very much." Damn! He shook his head. Now Jarl's got me doing it.
Jarl was eating eagerly now, the natural resiliency of childhood reasserting itself. He dug into a platter of fruit with a coming appetite, only pausing to wipe away the juice which ran down his chin.
"And you're really all right? You're not hurt like Mama?"
"No. Not like your mother. I'm really all right. You can count on me." To his complete surprise, Nooj discovered that he meant that sentiment. In the glow of his son's presence, the phantoms of the shadows dissipated. He wanted to see his children grow and become fully human as adults. He wanted to seize the lad before him and hold him until they melted into one another. A desperate hunger for the touch and smell of a little boy almost consumed him. "Come here to me."
Jarl scurried around the table and threw his arms around his father's chest. "Daddy. I love you so much. Don't go away again." He buried his face in the intact shoulder and wept with the utter abandon of a child, finding in tears the release and comfort so often denied to adults. "Daddy, I was so scared."
Nooj could not speak past the obstruction in his throat. All he could do was hug the child firmly and stroke his back while making inchoate sounds of reassurance. He longed for this epiphany to last forever but knew from long experience that he had far to go to make this dream a permanent part of his life. There was too strong a pull to his past still resident in his spirit. Darkness still ruled much of his soul.
When he could trust his voice, Nooj murmured, "I'm not going anywhere. I'm here for you. I promise." Another promise, he thought. This one I must keep. This one is to my own self. I must try. I must try.
It had been a busier morning than Paine had expected. Not long after breaking her fast with Yuna, the midwife had come and performed a thorough physical examination. She had left Paine with strict orders to rest; almost immediately thereafter, the nanny had appeared, bringing Avtor and Avice for a visit, and soon the room rang with laughter as the two of them piled on the bed. Not restful, she supposed, but their sweet voices soothed her aching heart. She listened to them chatter at her and each other in their private language, and she touched them whenever they came near enough, trying to reassure herself that she wasn't alone.
After several minutes, she heard a rap over the din: Baralai, knocking on the doorframe. "Is this a bad time?" he asked.
Paine shook her head and motioned him inside. He made his way into the bedroom and perched on the edge of the bed; within seconds he was mobbed by two small children, who nearly bowled him over with cries of "Uncle 'Lai!" He smiled down at them and pulled two small wrapped candies out of his pockets. After taking their treats, the twins retreated to snuggle down on either side of their mother, sucking away with matching contented smiles.
"Good thinking," said Paine as she wrapped an arm around each child, pulling them close. "Now we'll have a little peace."
"I always come prepared when I visit your family," he responded, tone gentle, and then he said nothing more. Long minutes passed in the companionable silence, and Paine allowed herself to be distracted by the warm weight of healthy, happy children and the presence of an old friend.
Before long the energy of youth took over, and the twins squirmed loose, Avice making her escape to the floor first, soon followed by her brother. Paine was considering sliding out of bed to join them there when she was distracted by the sound of the door opening yet again. She looked up to the sight of Jarl hesitantly entering the room. Her heart wrenched at the evidence of recent tears on his cheeks. He tried so hard to be strong; sometimes she almost forgot that he was still a child.
"Come here," she said, holding out the arm that had cradled Avtor until a moment ago. Jarl gained confidence with each step, and soon he hopped up next to her on the bed. She hugged him and cleaned his face. "Everything will be all right."
"I know it will," he said. "Father said so, too. Right, Father?" And then Paine noticed what she had missed before: Nooj, hanging back in the doorway. She flinched before she could stop herself; the children didn't seem to notice, but he did, and he looked away, pain flashing across his face.
Paine controlled her breathing, schooled her expression. "Come in," she said.
Nooj looked at her. "Are you sure?"
She nodded, and he came inside, his halting steps even more tentative than Jarl's had been. He stopped far short of the bed, and with a nervous flick of his eyes to Baralai, he moved to the chair in the corner of the room, then sat. The room fell silent again, but this silence was not peaceful; the tension between them was palpable, sucking the atmosphere from the room. Baralai shifted uncomfortably, and Paine felt Jarl stiffen at her side.
The moment seemed to stretch out forever, but in reality it lasted only a few seconds before it was broken by a girlish giggle. "Daddy, Daddy!" Avice stood and ran over to her father, then hauled herself onto his lap. "Hi Daddy," she said, throwing her arms around his neck.
"Hello," Nooj said, his features softening as he ran a hand over his daughter's hair. She kissed his cheek and then jumped back down, reaching for the stuffed toy held by Avtor. The stiffness in the air had eased slightly, but it returned as Nooj looked up and across the room at Paine. "You are well?" he asked, his tone giving the words far more weight than the simple question would suggest.
"The midwife says I'll recover," Paine said. It was the shallowest answer she could give, and all she felt comfortable saying. She really would rather not have spoken to him at all, but Jarl was already on alert, looking back and forth between his parents with a bewildered expression, and she didn't want to alarm him further.
Nooj nodded. "I am glad to hear it." Awkward silence fell yet again, although this time it was punctuated by the soft babbling of the twins, still fighting good-naturedly over the toy.
"Well." Baralai lifted himself up on his feet. "I should go." Paine almost reached out to him, desperate to pluck at the corner of his robe and beg him not to leave her alone with Nooj. But then Jarl huddled closer, and she thought better of it. Best to put on the appearance of family unity, for the children's sake.
"Thank you," she said instead. He nodded down at her, then to Nooj, and he left, a thick fog of discomfort closing behind him as he walked through the room and out the door.
Baralai stepped into the library and pulled the door shut behind him. Lulu and Yuna curled together on the couch, the younger woman resting her head on the other's shoulder. Baralai crossed the room, sat next to Yuna on the other end of the couch, and tipped his head back with an exhausted sigh. These three had also slept little, still keyed up from the events of the day and too worried about their friends to get much rest. Much of the night they had spent sitting up in this very room, dozing, meditating, not talking much, taking it in shifts to check on Paine and the children, and to listen at Nooj's door for some sign that he had stopped pacing and fallen asleep. It never came.
"So." Lulu looked down the sofa at Baralai. "How are they?"
"I left them all in the bedroom," he answered without opening his eyes. "I have to say, though, it's tense in there. Paine was clearly not happy to see Nooj arrive with Jarl, but there was nothing she could do about it -- I'm sure Jarl would have pitched a fit if she'd sent his father away."
"It's hard for me to imagine Jarl throwing fits," Yuna commented.
Baralai raised his head to look at the two women. "These are unusual times," he said grimly.
Yuna sat up with a yawn, then glanced back and forth between her friends. "Whatever are we going to do?"
"I don't know that there's much we can do," Baralai replied, sitting up. "Physically, they're both going to be fine -- Nooj's recovery from being possessed by the Shadow seems to have been nearly instantaneous, and according to the midwife, Paine's delivery was routine. She examined Paine thoroughly and didn't see anything out of the ordinary except exhaustion, so rest and the standard postpartum care is all that's required. As for the rest..." He stopped speaking and shook his head.
"Paine is furious with him," said Yuna.
"He's furious with himself, too," Baralai told her. "And convinced that he's lost her forever." He cast a speculative look at Yuna. "Is he right?"
Yuna sighed. "I don't know," she murmured. "I just don't know. I don't think she knows either."
An uncomfortable silence fell as the trio considered the prospect that Nooj and Paine's partnership, once so strong, might be broken beyond repair. Finally Lulu broke the mood, uncurling from her seat and standing up. "Well. Unfortunately, I need to get back to Besaid. Ideally tonight. Wakka is off to Luca soon, and it's not fair to leave Tidus with all the children."
"I must go as well," Baralai said. "I've been wrapped up in the Soul Shadow problem for so long that my duties in Bevelle have been sadly neglected. I can put it off until tomorrow, but no later."
"I can stay," Yuna said firmly. "At least a week or two, maybe longer. I'll contact Tidus tonight and let him know."
"Perhaps I'll call Gippal," Baralai mused. "He and Rikku will want to know what happened, of course, but it may be good for him to come, if he can. Sometimes Nooj will talk to him when he won't talk to anyone else."
"So, it's decided." Yuna stood up and headed for the door, Lulu following. "I'll arrange for somewhere to sleep while Lulu gets ready to go. Give my love to Gippal," she called over her shoulder.
"Will do," Baralai said absently as he picked up the commsphere and wondered what on earth he was going to say.