The Box

I can't explain myself, I'm afraid.
Because I'm not myself, you see....

It is this, it is this that oppresses my soul.

— Lewis Carroll

Sometimes he feels like a language no one can understand. Or an animal in a glass tank in a zoo, limited to grunts and snarls for speech.

An incident earlier today turned the Meyvn Nooj bluer than an inkwell. To see someone so depressed made for an interesting spectacle amidst the vitality of his followers. Now they stand outside his enclosure and peer in at him. Their eyes bleed cupfuls of compassion. They reach out and touch the barrier, wanting to communicate, wanting to soothe. The more persistent ones begin to bang on it. Come out, come out, they say.

He can't reply, for he feels the restrictions of his tongue. He is frustrated, but not by his muteness.

But no matter how much he may want them to go away, he can never be apart from them. In the strangest of ways he is bound to them. He clings to their beliefs -- his beliefs -- like the last grape on the vine. Follow me and we'll make the whole world open its eyes. We'll spoon-feed them the truth. We'll make them see where they are wrong. Innumerable promises spill forth from the dimpled wound that is his mouth, the lips once bruised with kisses attempting to understand. He means everything and nothing. Just as the kisser couldn't totally reach him, so his own words can't really sway him. But he cleaved to her then and cleaves to these now in spite of it all, because they were and are life.

As alien as that word may be. And as hurtful, too: Life was Paine before and it's still pain now. But Nooj can never completely give up on anything, including himself. When the tide goes out he'll be frank and call it stupidity; when it comes back in he'll chance that it may be optimism.

The people still chant their request. It becomes a mantra driving home to a crescendo. Come out, come out! Bright and happy, it flings rays of sunshine on his darkness. Smile, be at ease! What goes down will soon come up!

He sighs. If it's one way fate was kind to him, it was in giving him the precious gift of patience.

He makes his face into a mask, all politeness with a hint of underlying stubbornness -- the steel beneath the silk. It's the weary frown below gentle eyes like the sea at mid-morn. There's a faraway quality to those eyes and it deceived very many, since rather than looking out, he's always looking in. He watches a struggle unfold against a backdrop of memories.

Just give me this moment and I'll give you all the others.

He gives his followers his back and not his ears. He turns and hobbles off into a dark cave, armed only with a wet match. Along the way the mask peels off and his face crumples.

It's a long way down to his destination. His footsteps never falter. Left, right -- tap of rubber cap, left, right -- another tap. The voices behind him soon fade. The rays of light go away. The caged bird is going off to sing for a while.

He will sing about today and how it was cold earlier. He will sing about how he was outside in it for a while. He'll remember how his skin prickled with every breeze, but how part of him was left untouched by late autumn's chilly fingers. When he went back inside, half of him warmed up, while the other half felt like a block of ice. It touched off a classic domino effect. The hands on the clock face turned backwards and he could recall everything. Now his mind wanders idly. It jumps from thought to thought.

He sinks where he stands into a bottomless ocean. Like curious minnows, fragments of the past follow him downward. They spiral along with him, then around him. They constrict; he strains against them. He feels someone come up from behind him and place a hand on either of his shoulders. You shouldn't talk that way, a voice reprimands. It's the voice of Lucil, his second-in-command. She sounds a little hurt as she speaks.

He turns to look at her, but she is no longer there. He faces forward again and finds himself staring into a black eye patch and Gippal's swirled left eye. You don't smile as often as you should. Not nearly enough, he says, wearing that trademark grin of his, the one that was easy to come and hard to resist. Nooj tries to touch him, but he shakes his head reproachfully and vanishes.

Nooj lowers his head despondently and finds Paine holding on to him. Her pale arms are draped languorously over his shoulders. The smooth slope of her neck revives the memory of countless kisses there -- it was one of his favorite spots on her body. Luca, the sphere theater, she goads. Your first music sphere. Remember that one song? You said it reminded you of me.

But I shot you, he says, bewildered. You should be dead.

Humph, probably, she responds bitterly. I wonder whose fault that is?

The potential answers crowd like overeager solicitors at the door to his mind. They ring a whole bunch of bells. His fault? No, it was Shuyin's. But who was Shuyin? Sometimes he thinks Shuyin was someone he made up, to explain why he cracked like an empty eggshell on that ill-starred day.

It was Shuyin's, he says, but Paine already disappeared.

He realizes that he stopped sinking then. He is in total darkness now. Beautiful, he thinks, for with darkness comes the illusion of nothingness. That means true clarity, untainted and unspoiled. That means oblivion. If he tries hard enough, it can even mean death as well.

Yet when he starts to walk forward, he doesn't do so with confidence. There is reluctance in his steps. He heard once that man usually fears the unknown. Darkness -- and death, too -- comes under that category, he knows. But at the same time, he should welcome its presence. He yearns for death.


...You know, I wonder sometimes....

You want to die.

Yes. I mean, most of me.... Yes, of course.... Wait, no, I'm not that sure --

All of a sudden the darkness begins to diminish, as if in response to his doubt. It recedes very gradually. A familiar landscape is revealed, crawling off into infinity, leaving behind a long stretch of blood-soaked sand. A gray sea tumbles forth to lick incessantly at its edge. It hisses with every coming and going, alive and breathing, yet as lifeless as the gloomy sky above it. Black shapes rise in the distance, forming ominous cliffs that oversee a shoreline he instantly recognizes. Djose, Djose, they cry.

And there before him is his younger self, lying broken on the beach. His head is turned away. The only sign of life that can be seen is the rise and fall of his chest.

Nooj opens his mouth, but no sound comes out. He has no idea what to say to himself -- to his old self.

Past Nooj soon looks his way. His eyes are open. They seem to be reflecting the ocean, as they are gray now instead of blue. Could you do me a favor, he asks.

Present Nooj is still stupefied. He feels himself nod, although he isn't sure if he is actually doing so, or if it's just his desire performing the gesture in his mind.

Past Nooj cocks his head in the direction of a gun that lies out of his reach. That gun there, it's still loaded. Right here, he says, pointing at a spot between his eyes with the first finger of his right hand. It's a sure shot, he adds. He smiles afterwards, wanly. Ironically.

Present Nooj's eyes widen. He is shocked to the core. How could you want me to do such a thing, he snaps at his younger self.

How could you, past Nooj retorts.

Present Nooj watches dumbly as a handful of Crusaders gather around his old self. Their horrified comments drift into his ears. He turns away from the scenario. Anger and frustration touch his features, furrowing his brow and pulling his lips down into a frown. He walks away hurriedly, fuming. He is furious...with himself.

He walks for what feels like an eternity. Along the way he spars with more memories. They yap at his heels, persistent wolves with fangs flashing, tearing into him like he's a carcass. I'm alive, damn it, he tries to reason with them, but they'll have none of it. They get the better of him and pull him down to his knees. He stumbles, weary of thought and fighting. Inside his own head he sees himself passing on, fulfilling a hidden wish.

But death doesn't always come to those who seek it.

Instead, destiny's flotsam washes up on a shore where no one lives, where the sun hides behind a screen of clouds. No more past Nooj, no more appalled Crusaders, no more growling wolves. He is alone now. He is unreachable.

Today haunts him and he feels cold again. He shivers and reaches for something to cover himself.

He slips on a robe and suddenly he's the meyvn of the Youth League. Still cold, he puts on another and becomes the rabble-rouser, urging his fellow hot-blooded men and women to fight for their beliefs. Another garment and he's the ex-warrior, the former Crusader injured in a battle that claimed many lives but somehow spared his. The next robe goes on and he's a tired cripple, bent like a gnarled tree, crotchety like those old folks of New Yevon that he likes to mock so much. Disgusted by that one, he reaches for the final mantle and is transformed into the passionate youth. Vigor fills him up and runs through his veins. He is satisfied now. He is no longer cold.

But where discomfort was, now confusion sits in its place. Nooj looks down at himself. He has no idea who he is. Meyvn? Crusader? Cripple? Rebel? He shakes his head. He was better off being cold, he thinks.

So he removes all the excess clothing and bares himself to the mercy of the previous chill. He is unprotected and vulnerable, but not bothered by this in the least. He is Nooj again and that's all that matters.

It's about that time that his demons appear. Out of nowhere they stand before him, sharp against the overcast sky like the rocky crags of Djose, dark with malevolence. They take advantage of his defenselessness and wrap their hands around his wrists. They drag him inland and set him against a wall, then burden him with chains and shackles. The keys are turned in their locks and he is trapped. He becomes their prisoner.

It dawns on him then, that this may be the last robe he has to wear: that of the victim.

His silence is complete. Only his eyes speak, using a liquid language. However, he is not afraid. He knows these demons can't kill him. Fate may have created them, but Nooj embellished upon them as the years wore on. He gave them their faces and nametags. Desolation. Separation. Misunderstanding. Desire and Death, the twins.

Their choice of torture for their prey is a long-rehearsed role-play. You haven't slept in days, they say.

What's the point in trying to dream anymore, he answers.

You're still leading when you can't even bear the torch, they point out.

Sometimes I wonder what I'm doing it for, he muses.

The questions are overused rhetoric and the responses knee-jerk, but Nooj's participation is willing. There's something comforting about their sheer familiarity, even if they're tearing open old scars.

You've tried to stop this yourself once, they remind him.

More than once, he corrects them.

What held you back, they ask him.

I don't know, he admits.

He is broad-sided by a flashback then. Again he sees his younger self strewn in pieces over the Djose shore. How could you, the ghost repeats. Then, in a different tone, How could you? How could you think that way? How could you feel that way? There is such fire inside you.

Nooj hangs his head. He wishes the flames would die. Out, out, brief candle.

The demons hear his cry and react. Then do it, they incite him.

I can't, Nooj protests.

What holds you back, they inquire.

I don't know, he says again.

Hope echoes in his mind -- not as a feeling or a thought, but as a word. Hope. But hope rings too hollow.

Faith? Yes, that's it. Faith. Not so much in himself as in other things, like Spira's true nature and the youths who believe in him so adamantly, but it's a start. And maybe it's worth living for.

It doesn't seem like much now, however. He fends it off like a cornered dog, as if having faith in anything is a nightmarish possibility. He can't help sneering at the prospect of a simple solution -- that kind of idea is normally too good to be true. That and he believed in things once. He had faith before, but it didn't last. It ended with loss of limb; it died again with what probably amounted to the loss of three lives, one of which meant more to him than anything in the world. Faith is fragile with a short lifespan. It changes like the seasons. It's as inconsistent as the moon. It lives and dies. It is not worth having.

Yet he possesses it at this very moment. It's the very thing that's stopping him from putting out the candle. And still he asks himself, What holds me back? What holds me back?

He struggles in his shackles. He howls for release. He begs for it all to make sense. All the while, his demons snicker snidely at his foolishness.

Then footsteps approach. Nooj's ears pick up the sounds. The demons, the shackles, and the riddles are all swallowed by blackness. That in turn is pierced by the arrival of another human being. He raises his head, relieved at the interruption.

There, standing several respectable paces away, is a very concerned Commander Lucil. A friend and confidant from the old days, fate chose to put her by his side once more. For that Nooj is extremely grateful.

Her eyes are soft and speaking. Come out, come out, they say.

He feels her move towards him. She'll never fully understand him and she'll never really know what makes him tick off-key, but she's tendering a pair of very devoted listening ears and for now he'll have to accept that. It's better than having all those hands banging on the glass, he admits.

She takes a seat beside him. Now he is no longer alone in his little world. It starts to rain, but fortunately she remembered to bring an umbrella.

A/N: There were references to Macbeth and the Alanis Morissette song "Mary Jane" in this. Really, more than anything else, this was a character study on Nooj. For a man who sought death, he really managed to cling to (and depend on) life.