"Lai! About time you called." Gippal slid behind his desk and stared anxiously into the commsphere. "Rikku and I have been going crazy wondering over here."
As if summoned by the sound of her name, Rikku appeared in the corner of the screen. "Did it work?" she asked. "Is it gone?" Baralai had called them on his flight to Kilika and filled them in on the basic details of Nooj's possession by the Soul Shadow.
Baralai sighed heavily. "It is gone, but we paid a terrible price for its expulsion." And he went on to describe the events of the previous evening. When he had finished, Gippal sat back in his chair, shocked, as Rikku buried her face in his neck with a sob. His arm drifted up and around her shoulders, pulling her tightly to him.
"I-- I don't even know what to say." All the usual cockiness had drained from Gippal's voice and expression. "How are they holding up?"
"Not well, I'm afraid. They're both devastated, as you would expect, but it's more complicated than just overwhelming grief. Paine blames Nooj, you see. And she's not entirely wrong to do so, and Nooj knows it. So there's anger and guilt along with the sadness, and I don't know how they're going to recover." He remembered Nooj's hopeless demeanor from that morning, and shook his head. "I've never seen either of them brought this low. It scares me a little, to be honest."
"Anything we can do?" Gippal asked. Rikku looked up, eyes shining, and nodded in support. "It'd be hard for either of us to get away right now, but if they need me..."
"I appreciate the offer, but there's no need," Baralai said. "I'll be here through tomorrow, and Yuna is staying for awhile. I don't know how much other company would be a help, and how much it would be a bother."
Gippal drummed his fingers on the desktop. "Things will ease up here in a couple of weeks, maybe I can come then. If I know the Noojster, he's not ready to talk now, but by then I bet he will be."
"A fair analysis," Baralai responded with a hint of a smile. "Do you want me to let them know?"
"Nah." Gippal grinned. "He's more likely to be honest if he's ambushed." He sat forward again, and his face shifted back into its previous sober expression. "So how about you? You doing all right?"
"I suppose." Baralai shrugged. "The death of a child, not to mention the attendant grief of its parents, is awful to experience. If only..." His words trailed off, heart too heavy to continue speaking.
Gippal cocked his head to the left. "Baralai. You had better not be blaming yourself for this."
Baralai spread his hands. "I should have realized that the Shadow would not let go of its existence so easily. I should have taken more precautions to protect Paine and the child." Gippal opened his mouth to interrupt, but Baralai stopped him with a shake of his head. "I don't blame myself entirely. But I am angry with myself for not even thinking of it. The stakes were so high: three lives, all dear to me. I should have been more careful."
"Don't do that." Rikku laid her fingertips against the bottom of the commsphere screen. "Don't you even take this on yourself. Sounds like everyone is trying to blame themselves, but it's just like before. The one who's really to blame is Shuyin. Just, remember that, 'kay? Make sure everyone remembers."
Baralai rested a hand on the edge of his own sphere, taking comfort from her attempt to reach out to him. "You're right, of course. Thank you."
"'Course I'm right." She smiled through her drying tears. "Please, tell Paine how sorry I am. Let her know that she should call if she needs me, any time. Oh, and give her a kiss for me? Nooj too, if he'll let you."
In spite of himself, Baralai smiled back . "Gippal? Any messages?"
"Just the same thing. If they need me for anything, I'm there. We're just an airship ride away."
Rikku withdrew her hand and swiped at her cheeks with a sleeve. "They will be okay, right?" she asked anxiously. "I mean, it'll take time, but they'll have to get on with their lives eventually. Won't they?"
"I hope so," Baralai said, and meant it.
Her last visitor had come and gone -- Baralai, who'd arrived bearing condolences from Gippal and Rikku, along with a box filled with small bottles: sleeping draughts that he'd spent the afternoon whipping up for her. "I know you hate magically-induced sleep," he'd said, "but you need rest if you are to heal and recover. So if you have any trouble, consider it? Please?" Then he'd left with a quick hug, taking away the dinner tray that she'd barely touched, and the door closed behind him. She was finally alone; she could weep again.
And so Paine gave in to the tears she had been holding back all day. She fell back on the bed and clutched her pillow, sobbing into it, trying not to wail too loudly lest the children hear and be frightened. Her soul ached, her heart raced, and she felt all too keenly the empty space at her breast where Polarok should be. She was struck by the sudden realization that she wanted Nooj with her, right now, more than anything else in the world. She needed him to shelter her in his arms and kiss her tears away and help shoulder the burden of grief. She craved his touch and his reassurance that everything would be all right.
In a daze, she rose from the bed and stumbled to the door, intending to call a servant and have him sent to her. Her hand fell on the metal doorknob, and its coolness shocked her back to reality. She couldn't call Nooj. She couldn't even bear the sight of him. He'd come and she'd remember his betrayal, as fresh as it was last night. It felt like the desert all over again, or Vegnagun, all the times she'd watched him march willingly, even cheerfully, into the jaws of his own destruction, no care for how much his death would hurt her. Only this time it wasn't just her, it was the children they'd made together, the life she'd thought they shared. How could she ever take comfort from him again, knowing how much he had held back from her, was still holding back, even after over a decade?
She turned back to the bed, and swept her arm across the bedside table. She hit a glass of water, and it flew into the wall with a satisfying smash, shattering into pieces much as her life had. She threw herself against the pillows again, crying anew, so consumed that she didn't hear the door open, or the light footsteps that approached her bed. It took a small hand shaking her shoulder before she registered the presence of her first-born child.
"Mama?" She rolled over to see Jarl looking down at her, dressed in his sleeping gown, eyes wide with alarm. "Mama! Mama, what's wrong?"
Instantly she began to take in gulps of air, calming her choking sobs into deep breaths, and she sat up. "Jarl. I'm sorry; I didn't mean to scare you." She reached out to him, and he did not hesitate to jump onto the bed and into her arms. She scooted back so that she could rest against the headboard. "Why are you here?"
He nuzzled her side. "I couldn't sleep so I decided to take a walk, and then I heard a crash from your room, and I wanted to make sure you were okay."
"I'm all right," she assured him as she stroked his hair. "A glass fell off the table. I'll send for someone to clean it up in a minute."
Jarl looked up at his mother. "But why were you crying? Is it because of the baby? You're still sad, aren't you."
"I am." Paine considered her next words with great care. "I'll be sad for a long time. I loved your baby sister very much, and I miss her. And if you're still sad, that's okay, too. When someone important to us dies, it's okay to take a bit of a break from your normal life. It's called mourning."
"Is that why you've been in bed all day?" His hand crept up into his mouth, an old habit from his babyhood; Paine hadn't seen him do that in years. "Because you're mourning? Or are you sick, like Father was?"
"Not exactly," she said. "Do you remember after the twins were born? I spent a few days in bed then, too."
"Oh, right. I remember now." Jarl sighed with relief, then pulled his thumb free, as though he had just noticed it in his mouth, and tried to wipe it on the sheets surreptitiously; Paine had to bite the inside of her cheek to avoid a smile. "So it's the same?"
"Yes. Giving birth to a baby is hard work, so I need to rest. But you don't need to worry. I'll be up and about soon, I promise." She hugged him again and kissed his forehead. "I'm sorry, Jarl. I know your father and I have given you a lot to worry about lately. Far more than you should ever have to bear."
"It's okay," he said, leaning his head against her. "I love you, Mama."
"I love you, too," she replied, the tightness returning to her throat. "Very much. No matter how sad I am, I will always love you."
He yawned and burrowed more deeply into her bosom as she relaxed down onto the mattress, resting her head against the still-damp pillow. "It's okay if you want to cry some more. I won't be afraid this time."
His unexpected permission was enough to send a fresh wave of tears down her cheeks. She held him and quietly wept: in mourning for her lost daughter, in fear of losing her heart's desire, and in gratitude for such a loving and understanding son. It was not long before mother and child both fell into a peaceful, healing sleep.
Nooj reached across the bed and found only emptiness. Waking fully, he cursed the fate which had left him alone and comfortless in the darkness of the room. Then he remembered it was not fate, but his own mistakes which had done this and the entire tower of memories came cascading down, almost burying him in the detritus of his life.
He threw back the covers and looked at himself. The machina limbs seemed more clumsy than ever; he had grown thinner, and so they seemed too large and heavy for his body. The lurid scars which seamed his left side burned in the dim light. How could he ever have thought this was a fit bed-mate for the beauty of Paine?
Words burst from him because he could no longer bear the stillness of the room. He hungered for the sound of humanity and, since he was isolated by his own decision, he could only speak to himself.
"You are the most obvious fool who ever walked these lands! You, you arrogant idiot who thought you were good enough for her. You expected her to yield to your choices and excuse your errors, simply because they were yours!" He pushed himself up from the bed and stumped across the floor to the mirror.
"Nooj. Nooj! Is there anything wrong?" It was Baralai, tapping urgently on the door.
"Come in. What are you doing up this early?" Nooj wrapped his robe around his nakedness and gestured to a chair as Baralai opened the door and stepped through.
"I was taking a turn around the halls. I used to do it at Bevelle and it's become a habit. Then I saw a light under your door ..."
Nooj turned away and moved to the bed, sitting heavily. "I've realized what a fool I am and made a noise about it. Sorry, I didn't mean to disturb you."
The Praetor smiled. "No problem. I was awake anyway. Want to talk about it?"
Nooj's first instinct was to refuse. Then he thought better of it. It might help to have a sounding board and Baralai might be able to assure him it was not as bad as he feared.
"If you have time and patience."
"Always." Baralai sat down and composed himself to listen.
"This is the longest I have slept apart from Paine since we came together. She has to know that I'm grieving for our daughter too. Why won't she let me comfort her and find some way to share our loss? Doesn't she understand I never meant this to happen?"
Baralai shook his head. "Nooj, I told you yesterday that it would be hard for Paine to get over her sense of betrayal. It's not as though it's entirely your fault, no one thinks that. There's plenty of blame to go around. I know I should have placed more protection around her while we were doing the exorcism. It didn't occur to me that she or the baby might be in danger, but that's no excuse for my neglect. But she doesn't care about that. She's feeling now like she couldn't protect Polarok and she's lashing out at anybody she can reach to convince herself it's not her fault. You can't expect her to be rational."
Nooj stared into the distance, not indicating that he had heard a single word. "I woke up a while ago and reached for her. It was only then that I remembered ... Baralai, is this ever going to end?"
"It will end one way or another. Paine can't keep crying; she's going to run out of tears one of these days and then the numbness will set in and then, for most people, a sort of acceptance takes over. I don't know how her mourning will go. It's always different."
The other man pounded his cane into the floor. "This hurts more than anything I've ever borne. I'd go through all the other agonies to spare her this. I'd give my other arm and leg."
"I know that and I'm sure at some level so does she." Baralai leaned forward in his seat. "Do you want my advice, or do you just want me to listen?"
"Oh, say whatever you're thinking. My brain has gone to mush." Nooj threw himself back against the cushions and gazed through smeared spectacles at the sky just beginning to lighten outside.
"Back off, my friend. Don't push things. Don't try to touch her; let her make the first move. If she sees you with the children, it will help your image with her but, above all, do not lie to her again. If you cannot break your love affair with Death, don't tell her you have. One more lie and you're done for where Paine is concerned."
Nooj stared at Baralai as though the other had lost his senses. "Do you think I'd take another chance like that?"
"I know you've managed to live a lie for ten years and more, and I know how much you want her back. So-- yes. I think you'd do it if you thought it would work. I'm telling you it won't, and I'm hoping you'll do the hard job of looking at yourself and making the changes you have to make if you're to reconstruct your life. I'm talking about life, Nooj, not the fancy image you've held so long. This is serious; it's a place you have to deal with. No more fantasies." It was rare for the diplomat to speak so plainly.
There was a prolonged and awkward silence. Baralai broke it. "Do you want Gippal to come? He offered when I spoke to him yesterday."
"No. Why should another life be disrupted? Thank you for your ear and your counsel." Nooj stood and Baralai took the hint and left, knowing that he had not really been thanked at all.
Long after the sun had risen, still exhausted from a mostly sleepless night, Nooj remembered what Baralai had said and dismissed it as the well-meaning blathering of a near priest. He had tried to take light breakfast with limited success and then made the effort to involve himself in a treatise dealing with various philosophies of government.
With an irritated sigh, he closed his book, pushed himself up from the chair and with careful precision replaced the volume on the shelf. He used to be able to read for hours, not noticing the passage of time. Now he was finding it impossible to settle down and concentrate. The words lost their meaning even as he read them, and he had to go back and re-read entire chapters because he could not remember what they had been about. He wondered if grief was actually capable of producing insanity. It seemed his mind was no longer the reliable tool he had trusted it to be. No matter what he tried as a distraction, his thoughts were constantly interrupted by Paine. Not the woman herself as she claimed his attention in conversation or dispute, but the image of her presence, which he missed more than he would ever have thought possible.
Where she had been, he found only a void, a nothingness which made his concept of an afterlife seem pulsating with vigor. It had only been a day since she had expelled him but it seemed forever. For the first time in his adult life, he was lonely, the solitude he had sought for so long soured in his mind, and he hungered for the sound of a particular voice, the sight of a beloved form. Impatiently, he shook himself and, with a sudden air of decision, made for the door. The nursery was sure to be lively at this hour. He would visit his children. There he could find human comfort as well as the fugitive reflection of Paine.
By the time Nooj had dragged his halting steps up the two floors to the tower holding the nursery, he was wondering if this was such a good idea. The lift would have been far easier, but he had forbidden himself such indulgences until Paine forgave him.
The spacious room was drenched in light and laughter, the high ceiling barely able to contain the glittering energy of the children who cast rainbows of happiness into the air. It was a different universe from the silent gloom of the library. The young maids were playing chase and tickle games with the twins and Jarl was bent over a pad of paper at a table in the corner while the nanny lightly dozed by the fire. Nooj moved as unobtrusively as possible into the space, desiring both to become a part of the peaceful scene as well as to stay the invisible observer.
"What are you up to, son?" He placed a hesitant hand on the boy's shoulder.
"Father! I was just making a plan for how I want my room when we get back home. You want to see it?" Jarl looked up hopefully.
"Of course. Are you eager to go back home?" Nooj turned the drawing paper around so that he could examine the work. "This is really good, Jarl. You have a genuine talent for this. I didn't know you could draw this well." The proportions of the boy's room on Mushroom Rock Road had been faithfully preserved and the furnishings, both actual and desired, were placed with exacting skill. Shadows were accurately rendered and there was even a creditable attempt at foreshortening which fixed objects firmly in their positions. "How long have you been doing this kind of thing?"
"A long time. You never had time for me to show you and I didn't think you were interested in something as silly as drawing. It's not something a Warrior needs to know about."
Nooj felt himself flushing in shame. Had he really been so oblivious to the world of his first-born? "I'm sorry, son. I haven't been the best father to you. And why should you care about what Warriors do? You're your own man and if you have a gift, you should develop it." Impulsively, he turned the boy to face him, searching in the young face for those traces he knew to be there. As the boy lifted his head to look at his father and the sunlight shone full on his features, his eyes flashed the fiery red of his mother's. Nooj felt a glow in his heart and wondered if it was wrong to hunt Paine in the faces of their children and to love them in proportion to the degree of likeness found. It was a habit he had begun in their earliest years and he found it a comfort now.
"Maybe I could show you some of my other drawings when we get home?" Jarl's offer was a tentative one but welcomed by the guilt stricken man.
"I would like that more than anything." Nooj surprised them both by bending to kiss Jarl on the forehead. "You are a remarkable young man and I will try to be a better father to deserve you."
It was Jarl's turn to blush at the unexpected affectionate praise. "Thank you, Father. I hope you'll like them. And I think you're the best father I could have. I always knew you were busy and had really important work to do. It's all right. Honest! It is."
The man could say nothing more so contented himself with a firm squeeze on his son's shoulder and, to hide the emotion on his face, turned to the nanny.
"Well, Carlyn ..." he began.
"Careelon, sir." The nanny corrected him, yawning. She had been quietly watching the byplay between the two males and had put her own interpretation on it.
"Of course, Careelon. Are my youngest driving you insane?"
"Oh no, sir. They're good babies. With each other to play with, they're no trouble at all. They've been little angels since the day they were born." The woman smiled and smoothed her apron.
Just at that moment, when the maids giggled and withdrew, the twins noticed their father was among them and exuberantly ran at his legs, nearly knocking him over. Jarl leapt up to lend support and crowed in triumph as he grasped Nooj around the waist and kept him from falling.
"Daddy, Daddy," Avice and Avtor began chanting, intermixing the name with words from their own private language and dancing a wildly inventive tarantella around their father and their older brother. Nooj managed to drop into the chair Jarl pulled up behind him and tug a twin onto each knee. To his amusement, Avtor seemed to be showing a sprinkle of silvery threads in his formerly all dark hair. Avice was still as she had been. Did this mean the boy was going to inherit his mother's hair? Time would tell. For now, it was sufficient to see his beloved's image in the three mirrors, those testaments to their love and union.
Avice started a song of her own devising, leaning on the broad chest of her sire and rubbing her face against him. After a moment, Avtor copied her and Nooj felt his heart stop within him. He was enclosed in a cocoon of love, Jarl's hand on his arm, his cheek pressed against the intact shoulder, the young ones nestling like so many baby birds in the protection of his embrace. How could he have risked these miracles for any reason? And what might Polarok have been like? He had been possessed of it all -- lover, family, success -- and had thought it secure and endless. How could he have so deceived himself? Did it take loss to reveal value? If only it could be again as it was, or as he had thought it to be. If only he could freeze this instant, he would willingly forego all else. This sweetness, this warmth; if only Paine were here smiling at them. Had he been capable of weeping, he would have done so, from the mixture of happiness and grief which consumed him.
That morning, Paine had felt strong enough to move from the bed to the chair by the window, and she had been resting there for most of the day, a throw across her lap. Baralai leaned back against the windowsill, hands resting on the frame as the sun set over his shoulder. She looked up at him, and took a deep breath, pushing back the tears that were always there, just behind her forehead. "I wish you didn't have to go."
"I know." Baralai dipped his head with a sigh. "But I must; I've let my responsibilities to Bevelle slide for too long already. If you need to talk, you can always call. And Yuna will be here."
"And I appreciate her more than I can say," Paine replied. "But I'm still going to miss you." She dropped her head down, hands twisting in her lap.
Baralai took a step forward, knelt at Paine's feet, and grasped her hands. "I'm sorry," he said, his voice breaking. "I'm so damned sorry. I was arrogant, and I thought I knew all the answers, so I didn't take any measures to protect you or your family. If I could have prevented this..."
Paine met his eyes, which were filled with pleading and guilt. "Don't," she said sharply. "Don't you dare take the blame. We all know where the true responsibility lies. And you can't deflect it from him."
"No!" She yanked her hands free and leapt out of the chair, knocking Baralai off-balance; his arms flailed as he attempted to keep upright. Her hands balled into fists so tight that her fingernails pierced her palms, and she whirled around to face him. "He betrayed me. He betrayed my children. He told me he loved me, he promised would live, and it was nothing but lies! So don't even try to shift blame on yourself. If he really loved me more than death, there wouldn't have been a Shadow for you to protect us from in the first place!" The tears began to flow again, and she turned away, lifting a hand to cover her mouth in a futile attempt to stop her sobs.
In an instant Baralai had stood and crossed the room to her, enfolding her in his arms. She turned around one more time and buried her face in the lapels of his robe. And as he held her up, kept her from falling as she shuddered with the powerful sobs that wracked her whole body, he knew that she did not mourn for Polarok alone.
Eventually the storm passed and the rains subsided, manifesting only in the occasional hiccup. He led her back to her bed, and she laid down, eyes closed in exhaustion. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "I think I've cried more in the last two days than during the entire rest of my life put together."
Baralai shook his head with a fond smile, and brushed the hair back from her face. "No apologies," he said. "On orders from your healer."
She opened her eyes and they were still wet. "Come back soon?"
"As soon as I can." He cupped her cheek. "Would you like some help sleeping?" She nodded, and he moved his hand to her forehead. He had only spoken the first few words of the spell when her eyes drifted closed and her breathing shifted into the patterns of slumber. Withdrawing his hand, he watched her sleep for a few moments. Then he stepped away, lifting his pack to his shoulder and slowly backing out of the room, heart heavy as he made his way out of the Castle and back to the airship that would take him to Bevelle.