|Promises: Chapter Three
||[Apr. 26th, 2007|06:54 am]
Two Authors, One Mind
New to the story? Headers are here. Or start at the beginning.
It was one of those rare days in Kilika when the rains ruled. Usually a passing afternoon shower was the extent of precipitation in the area, just enough to keep the jungle properly moist when intermixed with the occasional brief downpour. But today was cloudy with the unrelenting grayness which meant the overcast intended to stay the entire day and dampen spirits as well as the terrain.
Nooj made his painful way up the stairs to the rooms Paine had established as her own during the past week. Rainy days made his body ache in the areas where the machina prostheses had been attached. He cursed the stiffness and wondered if he might better be coping with the insinuating sands of Bikanel. There were modern lifts installed in the Castle but he had continued his self-imposed penance of not using them. Somewhere in his ethical code book there was a passage which dictated that physical duress must be a part of any atonement. It fit in with his up-bringing and military training. After all, he had bared his back to the lash to pay for his sins when he was a cadet. How was this any different? He had committed a wrong and must suffer accordingly.
Eventually he reached her door and rapped on it with the metal knuckles of his left hand. "May I come in?"
"Yes." Her answer was toneless with no suggestion of welcome.
She was not in her usual chair, and it took him a few minutes to spot her on the window seat, curled up and gazing out at the needles of rain which fell with a dispirited constancy.
"My ... " He stopped, then started again. "Are you well?"
"Well enough. Why have you come? This isn't the time for your usual visit and Jarl isn't with you." She turned in his direction but did not look directly at him, but rather at some point in space past his shoulder.
"I wanted to see you alone. Paine, I have come to beg your forgiveness again." He took another step nearer her. "I know I wronged you but I did not intend to--"
"That's enough." She met his eyes now, and her own were snapping with fury. "Do you really think an apology will make any difference? Will it bring her back?"
She rose from her seat, uncoiling like a cobra, stretching toward him as if to strike. "You did this. You in your self-centered arrogance. You couldn't make a commitment and you invited this... this horror into our lives and killed our baby. You might as well have put your hand over her face and smothered her or crushed her skull. You did this!" Her voice had risen to reach a near shout; her next words dropped in volume but lost none of their harshness. "I put up with you because I don't want to upset Jarl and the twins but that doesn't mean I want you back in my life." She turned her back on him and leaned her right hand on the sill. "Go away and leave me alone."
He stood, oddly diminished, as though her cruel words had taken part of him away. "Will you not hear me?"
"No." She did not turn around. "I know how clever you are with words. I've heard you convince armies to go die for you and I know you can twist meanings until they are the opposite of what they really are. You deceived me once, not again. Go!"
The door closed with a nearly inaudible click, and she sank back on the window seat, resting her forehead on the cool glass. Her tears had finally dried up after a week of weeping, and she stared without sight out into the rain. The sound of his dragging footsteps seemed to echo like thunder in her ears.
It was as well that Nooj encountered no well-meaning persons when he left Paine's rooms that morning. He was in no mood to respond to kindly questions as to his feelings and plans. In fact, it is doubtful he would have noticed anyone around him as he made his way to his own quarters, still wrapped in a cocoon of darkness both physical and emotional.
Once in the small suite he had moved himself into, he closed the door without much concern for the noise he made, only just stopping himself from slamming it in a fit of frustration. He made his way to the balcony and stepped outside into the rain, heedless of the chill moisture which quickly soaked him to the skin. He had not permitted himself to look down to the spot where he had seen Lady Death beckoning on that traumatic day a week prior. But now, fresh from his abortive visit to Paine, he leaned over the railing and peered through his splattered spectacles.
The specter was there, waiting, her arms moving like stands of kelp in the watery air. Her face, implacable, searched his own and seemed to offer peace, warmth and acceptance. He leaned further and let himself overbalance; then he was falling, falling through water and clouds and sun and darkness and the rocks waited below like shark's teeth, ready to rend him and render him to Nothingness.
Panting, Nooj pressed himself against the wall as though he would become a part of the stone. His good hand gripped the reassuring solidity of the structure with a desperate fierceness. Had he done it, finally? Had he finally chosen to actively go to Death? Was that the reality, and this the dream? He was uncertain, dizzy with the memory of the air rushing past him as he fell. He dared not close his eyes lest the illusion of safety vanish with his view of the sky.
He pushed himself back into the dark room on legs almost too shaky to support him. Once there, he threw himself into the inadequate chair he had not bothered to replace and took deep breaths, steadying his mind. His own touch assured him he was still intact, that the fall had been the product of his troubled brain. Still, the continued presence of Death proved that he was not yet turned from the obsession which had shaped his life from the time he had become a truly conscious being. How, how to root out that most deeply embedded part of himself? and would he still be Nooj if he did?
He had a sudden urge to see and hold his children -- his living pledges to the future. Perhaps he could draw from them some hint of how to remake his thoughts. No, he decided, that would be unfair. The burden was his, not theirs, and he was not sure he could bear the cheerful bustle of the nursery. It would be too great a dissonance at this time when darkness was his atmosphere. As if to punctuate his confusion, a brilliant flash of lightning penetrated the gloom, followed immediately by a crash of thunder which shook the entire building.
Nooj wondered whether the children would be afraid. They were not used to storms like this, not with the ocean surrounding them and making the sounds and visions so much more dramatic. The forks of fire which pierced the sky were reflected and multiplied by the mirror of the sea, and the accompanying noise was echoed over and over by the roar of the waves as they attacked the shore. He needed to go and see if the twins were all right. Jarl was old enough to know that this was just a natural phenomenon, but the little ones might be frightened.
He pushed himself upright, fighting the vertigo which threatened to topple him to the bare floor and, clutching his cane firmly, headed for the door. His children would have at least one parent they could rely on.
As he walked down the corridor, he did not hear the light footsteps behind him and was unaware of the presence of Jarl until a small hand crept into his.
"Where are you going, sir?" Jarl looked up at his father questioningly.
"Up to the nursery to make sure the twins are all right. Is the storm bothering you?"
"No, sir," the boy answered sturdily. "I'm too old to be afraid of thunder and lightning. Nanny told me when I was eight it was the last year I could hide in the closet. Why aren't we using the lift?"
Nooj had his response ready. "We need the exercise. There isn't enough space here to get out in the open and do things so we need to find what opportunity we can to keep healthy. It's lazy to use a lift when you can walk."
"Oh. Why are you all wet?"
"I stepped out on the balcony and stayed a little too long. Why are you so curious about things?" He looked down at his son's tousled head. "You don't usually ask so many questions."
Jarl trudged along for a few steps. "I guess I'm sort of bored, sir. There's nobody my age to play with or talk to. The twins have each other and I don't understand their language and everybody else is too old or too busy. I've read everything that looks interesting and... well, when can we go home?"
Nooj heard the faintly querulous note in the boy's voice and sympathized. Jarl wanted things back the way they had been and, most fervently, so did he. "We need to stay here a space longer so that your mother can have the care she needs. We'll go home just as soon as we can. I promise you."
In the nursery, the heavy fabric had been drawn over the closed windows, muffling the peals of thunder and obscuring the explosions of light. The two young maids hired to entertain the children sprang to their feet when they saw the tall figure of the Meyvn step through the door. Bobbing and nervously twisting their aprons, they flattened themselves again the side wall and lowered their eyes. More used to his occasional sudden appearances, the nanny simply lifted her head from where she dozed in the easy chair, and nodded to her charges' father.
"I don't mean to disturb you; I just wanted to check..." With a quick gesture, Nooj scooped Avice up and clutched her to his chest. "How's my girl? Look! I've brought your big brother to see you."
The child threw her arms around her father's neck and planted a messy kiss on his cheek before drawing back in dismay. "Oh -- you're all wet and cold. Want me to get you warm?" She renewed her grip even more tightly.
Avtor wrapped his arms around Nooj's right leg. "Me too, Daddy. I'll get you warmer."
Seeing the man besieged by clinging offspring, Careelon leapt from her seat to detach the little boy. "Here. Come over to the fire. It's nasty weather."
Once seated in the chair the nanny had vacated, Nooj arranged his progeny, taking a twin on each knee and motioning Jarl to the hassock at his side. Surrounded as he was by the unconditional love of his young, the sense of rightness which had so long eluded him returned. For a time, he put aside his nightmarish imaginings. He reveled in the peace.
When the door opened again, he was in such a drowsy state of contentment that he hardly noticed Paine's entrance. A few moments passed before he registered her presence just to the side of the fireplace, observing the familial scene, her face unreadable.
His startled jerk roused the children. Seeing their mother, the twins hurled themselves from his arms with a shout of "Mama!" Jarl opened his eyes, but did not move or shift his position, still lightly holding his father's arm.
Paine knelt and gathered in the twins. "Everyone okay? Mama's here."
Nooj stood, slipping from Jarl's grip, not daring to approach her. They had, without discussion, settled on a sort of truce -- a united front would be maintained in the presence of the children -- but he feared to push the limits after the morning's episode.
"Well, well," Careelon blustered with brave cheer. "We're all together. Isn't this nice?"
Silence greeted her foray so she tried again. "Who would like a nice cup of hot sitark?" The twins immediately tore themselves from Paine's embrace and excitedly capered and clapped their chubby hands, jabbering at one another in their special language.
Paine gave Nooj a wry smile. "It looks like we're less popular than a hot drink."
"Looks that way," Nooj responded, relieved to see the rules still held. "Jarl, you want some?"
"Yes, Father, if you and Mother will join us." He looked long and closely at each of his parents.
"Bring me a cup then. And you?" He turned to Paine. "Will you have one too?"
"Very well. Let's make it a party ... a rainy day party." She pulled up a chair and sat, stretching her legs out before her and relaxing.
It was only a short time before a luscious tea was spread before them. To the eyes of a stranger, they might present a flawless picture of a happy family; Nooj held Avice and tenderly fed her bites of cake and buttered scones while Paine did the same for Avtor. Jarl perched on a stool between them, alternately patting first one parent, then the other on the knee, measuring out his caresses with careful impartiality. Yes, they were the very epitome of the perfect family, save for the fact that the two adults did not meet one another's eyes.
The kitchen fire roared merrily as Paine walked into the room. Yuna finished talking with the cook and dismissed her, then sat down at the table, inviting Paine to join her with a gesture. "How are you holding up?"
Paine shrugged. "About the same." She stared off in the distance. "I yelled at Nooj today. He came in and started trying to apologize again, and I just snapped, got in his face about how he'd killed our daughter. I told him to leave me alone, that I didn't want him to be part of my life anymore." She shook her head with a sigh. "I wish I knew whether that were true."
"So you still aren't sure what you want?" Yuna set a mug of tea in front of Paine.
"I'm as confused as ever." Paine glanced at the drink, then pushed it aside. "There's a part of me that keeps telling me I shouldn't blame him. I know it's not fair or logical to hold him totally responsible. I forgave him for shooting me when he was under Shuyin's control; why can't I forgive him for this?"
Yuna sipped her tea and set the cup down. "It's not exactly the same," she said. "Besides, the shooting only hurt you. I know I'd find it much easier to forgive Tidus for making a mistake that hurt me than for making one that hurt our children."
"Maybe." Paine laid her hands on the table. "Speaking of Tidus, how much longer were you planning on staying? He and the kids must really be missing you by now."
"They'll be okay for a little while longer." Yuna smiled to herself. "They're probably all enjoying the taste of freedom. And Lulu is there to keep everyone in line. So don't worry about that; I'm here for as long as you need me. Anyway, back to the matter at hand. What will you do?" She placed her hands on Paine's and looked across the table at her friend.
Paine turned her palms over and squeezed the slim fingers that rested in hers, happy for the simple, comforting touch of another person. "I don't know," she said. "All I know is that, for the first time, I can imagine a future without Nooj in it. And I don't know whether that makes me feel free, or desperately frightened."
Yuna tightened her grip on Paine's hands. "Give it time," she said. "You'll figure out what you want, whether that means finding a way to forgive him or a way to move on alone. But I hope you can work things out together. He loves you so much."
Paine's eyes focused on the table. "Does he?" she asked. "Or is it the prospect of death he really loves? I thought I knew the answer to that question once. Now I'm not so sure." She raised her face to the ceiling, remembering. "And yet, I saw him with the children today. He was in the nursery, with the twins snuggled up in his lap, and he looked so content, so peaceful. It made me feel… I don't know. Happy, sad, angry, all at once." She looked back at Yuna with a wry smile. "Hell. I'm such a mess. I just don't know anything anymore."
The two women fell into a companionable silence. Then Yuna cocked her head to the side thoughtfully. "Do you still love him?"
Paine didn't move, her breath catching in her chest as she struggled with herself, knowing the answer, not wanting to admit the truth. But Yuna would see right through anything else, and so she answered, almost too softly to be heard.
"Yes," she said. "I do." She pulled her hands free and clasped them together on the table. "But I'm not sure that's enough anymore."
Yuna nodded gravely, and the friends sat together in silence until the cook came back in the room, shooing them out so she could start supper.
Nooj looked out into the darkness, noting in a distant part of his brain that the storm had passed and the two moons of Spira were shedding the last veils of clouds like pallid dreamers, disrobing for bed. He still felt the sweet weight of Avice sleeping against his chest, her sticky hand gripping his tunic, her tousled hair tickling his neck. His body held the memory of Jarl dozing before the fire, back braced against his father's leg.
How could he entertain even for a moment the idea of leaving them? Was the embrace of the Lady Death sweeter than that of these products of his union with Paine? He had made these children, given them life, he and Paine together -- as they had created the lost child Polarok. He saw her slack face again, cradled in his arm, dissolving into the sublime beauty of the pyre-flies. He let grief have its way with him for a brief time, then cursed his weakness.
"Have you finished sniveling?" A strangely familiar voice came from a dark corner of the room. Nooj turned away from the window and in the direction of the sound.
"What are you doing here? You're not real, just a fantasy from my youth."
"Some fantasy! Your youth! You all of a sudden think you're all grown-up and matured? As I said, have you finished sniveling?" The speaker took shape as Nooj's vision cleared and his eyes adjusted to the shadows. It was a reflection of himself, somewhat older and harder in appearance. He had first seen it years ago, long before he had met Paine, and knew it to be a creation of his own mind. Knowing that did not make it easier to tolerate or reason with.
"I wasn't sniveling. I was remembering my child, she died..."
"And it was your fault. I know the story as well as you do. Maybe better. I watched the whole thing without letting my emotions get in the way."
Nooj snarled. "You think you always know who I am better than I do myself. What gives you such authority? It was my child and it was not all my fault. Yes, I was partly to blame but I didn't deliberately invite that invasion. I didn't invite Shuyin either. Twice I've been infested and it is somehow all my fault. No. It is not!"
The older self shook his head. "I warned you long ago that you were playing with danger. But you wouldn't listen, and so here you are. You had to play the old child's game of 'What if I die?' See where it got you?"
"What choice did I have?" Nooj whirled to face his visitor directly. "You know so much, you tell me. What choice did I have?"
"I warned you when you were still intact. I told you what would happen. But you were too enamored of your romantic ideas, your games. The legendary hero who risks all for his honor and his world. It's not so romantic now, when your sinews ache and you hobble like an old man even though you're still young. And not so romantic to sacrifice your daughter straight from the womb to the altar. That's not romantic at all, is it, hero?"
"Stop!" Nooj clasped his palms over his ears. "I won't hear you any more!"
"You can't stop hearing me. I'm in your head as well as in your room." The image smiled cruelly. "I'm here to make you face what you are. It's true you have improved a little since my last visit. You've stopped your sadistic torment of helpless prisoners and you have remained true to Paine, sexually true, anyway. But you still lust after another Lady and you can't deny it."
Nooj dropped into the chair behind him, letting his cane fall to the floor with a clatter. "I've changed. I love Paine, more than you know. More than I ever thought I could love anyone. She's my core, my anchor. I don't know how I can go on without her and she's leaving me."
"Do you blame her?" The apparition finally stepped out of the shadows and into the middle of the room, advancing on him with a relentless air. "You swore complete fidelity to her and promised her you would live. You didn't tell her about all those reservations you were holding on the life question. You didn't tell her you still had dreams about Death from which you woke with an erection. You didn't tell her how much you missed the thrill which you used to get from coming close to Nothingness; you didn't tell her you're a Death addict and won't even try to shake it."
"I didn't try to die. I didn't let it get in the way of our life together or our children. It was all internal, not a part of us, just me."
"Until another evil saw the vacancy in your soul and moved in. And it surely interfered then. It -- you -- killed Polarok. You let it in, your weakness, your self-indulgence, your immature fantasies. Oh, the beauty of a noble Death, how glorious it would be to be borne to a hero's tomb on the wings of honor and paeans of praise." The voice mocked him mercilessly. "You are a fool and a child. Jarl has more honor and dignity than you."
Nooj rose from his seat, hands gripping the armrests. "Go away. I can't take anymore. Leave me alone. Yes, yes, you're right. I know it. I just don't know what to do." He turned away from his reflection, his voice rising until he broke into a howl. "Paine!" The power of his cry shook the windows and shattered the silence of the room.
The reflection looked at him with fresh pity. "I'll go for now. But you must think and accept what I've said. Don't agree with me only to send me away. I'm used to your dissembling. You have to really accept it this time if you're to ever reclaim what was your life. You have to want it and value it, no lip service, but from your very center. I'll be back and we will talk and plan. Now, work, for the sake of your children and your love, work to retake your honor."