A/N: This is a sequel to Interim Report, which is itself the second in a series exploring those experiences of Nooj in his early days which went to making him the sort of man he turned out to be.
The character of Nooj and the setting of the story are the sole properties of Square/Enix. The other characters and the events sprang from my teeming brain.
An End to Innocence
I. The Experiment
Little had changed at the cadet training camp situated in the heart of the Calm Lands when Nooj returned early from furlough after his event filled first year. The same buildings stood, including the armory and the infirmary, both of which had become intimately familiar to him during the last few weeks of the previous term. Having few ties remaining at his birthplace and a demanding internal call summoning him back to the isolated post, he had spent only a few days on Kilika before returning to duty. No one thought this strange since he had seemed destined from his earliest years to be a Warrior.
However, he had not returned so precipitously to study the arts of war but to comfort and care for an infant fiend he had orphaned late in the past year. During a disastrous mission, he had killed the parents of a Queen Coeurl kit and now felt himself responsible for the well-being of the little beast.
Since he was largely alone at the encampment aside from the servants keeping watch over the equipment, he had no difficulty in finding the animal and taking charge of its tending. After spending several days curled up with it in its pen, he brought it into the barracks where he slept and shared his bed with the forlorn creature, feeding it from his own hands and accustoming it to his touch and scent. Before long, they had become inseparable, the boy and the kit, sharing much the same temperament and trusting one another to the exclusion of all others.
While little had changed outwardly, there had been a profound change in the attitude of the commanders of the camp. At the beginning of the break, when the students had left for their homes, the senior staff had convened a meeting. What to do with this troublesome prodigy they had on their hands? How best to get a leash on him so that he could be made as useful as he promised to be to the army? They were aware of the danger of breaking such tools in the effort to hone them. After much discussion and argument, it was decided to try an experiment. Since Nooj had proved himself possessed of a powerful will and had demonstrated the ability to govern himself, it was proposed he be permitted to do just that - until he proved himself incapable. In so far as it was commensurable with military discipline, routine regulations - those designed to mold the individual to the standard - would be relaxed or ignored for him and he would be assisted to find his own path, so long as he did not veer too far from the ideal or cause scandal.
His rank would be restored and he would be given as his second in command another cadet who was being groomed for advancement - a girl from the Bikanel camp wo bore the name Kaith. She was his counterpart in many ways so they should function well together. It was hoped her less saturnine attitude would temper his darkness.
Nooj, of course, was unaware of any of these concessions. He was not inclined toward prying into the affairs of others and did not notice that some of the rules which bound them were absent for him. Like the one on pets. When the superior officers began to trickle in and saw that the kit and Nooj were always together, they decided that the presence of the animal would be silently overlooked. Nooj had never even considered separating from his companion so was not surprised at the lack of efforts to part them. The members of his company relished the idea of a unique mascot and any protests from others at the base were efficiently squelched.
The boy was prepared for the rigors of his second year of training, having almost completely recovered from the injuries he had incurred in the year past. His shoulder, treated by magic, was healed. The cuts on his back had become narrow red threads of smooth tissue. Given more time, they would become even less noticeable, if never completely gone. He no longer paid them any attention except when he heard the sudden gasp from someone who had not seen them before when he changed his shirt in the dormitory. The marks on his buttocks were more prominent since they had been frequently reopened when he performed calisthenics during training exercises. Only his shower mates had seen those.
He also took little notice of the fact it had taken him less than half the time since he had returned from the brief furlough to regain the rank which had been stripped from him at the end of the first year. Without any fuss or ceremony, the patches had been returned to his shirts and the badges to his chest. None of the other cadets protested this rapid reparation since he was easily recognized as the best of the current crop of students, including even those in the year ahead of him. It was obvious he should be treated as the natural leader he was.
In another month, the second year cadets would be expected to decide which branch of the military they wished to enter so that their third and final year at the camps could be tailored toward that end. The most rapid rise in rank was to be found in the regular army, so that would be the choice of most of the students. Nooj was expected to select this service and shoot quickly to the very top. It was thought entirely possible he would be a commandant before he was twenty.
At one time, his immediate superiors would have agreed with that thought but a careful study of the causes leading to the death of the student under his command and his reaction to that death had convinced them his talents lay more in the areas of the elite corps - those like the Crusaders who worked more often alone or in small groups. It had not escaped them that their star pupil had little taste for the company of his fellow humans. The boy had, after all, killed his first man when he was only thirteen and death held no terror for him. He would be best trained in unconventional weapons and techniques and left to shape his own destiny. So it was decreed he be given individual tutoring in strategy and related topics and largely freed from communal missions.
Nooj and Kaith strolled across the parade ground to the Armory, the largest building on the base and the center of most activities. They were still getting to know one another, having met for the first time the preceding day.
"So, I guess you'll be going into the regular army. I'll bet you're going to be the youngest Full Commandant ever." The girl mentioned, trying to strike the right tone between fawning and sincere admiration.
He glanced over at her, suspicious as always, "I don't know. Haven't made my mind up yet. I may go for the Crusaders." His voice, newly changed, had the slightly hoarse quality of disuse.
"Why them? You'll die a captain over there. They don't promote and they don't live long."
"I never expected to live long," he muttered almost too quietly to be understood. Then, more loudly, he continued, "I like the smaller teams and the stuff about unusual weapons and all. Anyway, I don't care. I don't want to be a Commandant. They have to hang around planning and don't get to go out and actually fight." He bent and tickled the ears of the half-grown coeurl walking beside him. The animal turned its head and slobbered over his hand.
"How did you tame that cat anyway?" The tall girl demanded. She was curious about her new captain who seemed immune to the ordinary restrictions of second-year cadets.
"Came back early from furlough and slept in the pen with it." Nooj responded, tugging at the loose fur around the neck of his pet. "It was scared and I held it while it slept."
"So, you're going to be a Crusader with a Queen Coeurl as your partner?" Kaith laughed and nudged her companion with her shoulder. "Man, nobody will ever forget you two. You planning to become a legend?"
The boy turned away slightly. "No. I just want to do what I want to do. Why did they assign you as my second? I never heard of you before and I don't know if you're good enough."
With a fierce flurry, she grabbed his arm and spun him about to face her. "I'm good enough. You'll learn that pretty quick. I was in the camp in Bikanel when they told me they thought I should be sent here to train with the best. If you're the best, you better prove it. I bet I can take you anytime, anywhere with any weapon."
He raised an eyebrow and snorted what might have been a laugh. "We'll see. Right now, I'm supposed to check you out with the sword. Let's go in and get it done."
Stiffly, Kaith led the way into the armory, a maze of small exercise and massage rooms, storage areas for weapons and variously sized practice areas. The room they entered was very large and contained a number of unfamiliar items. While Nooj led his pet to one of the smaller stalls and closed it inside so it would not try to join in their practice, the girl stood in the center and looked around curiously.
"What's that?" Kaith swallowed her umbrage long enough to ask, pointing at a waist-high device of slatted wood, curved on the upper side and looking rather like an over-sized lobster trap.
"You haven't met this yet? You probably will, with your attitude. It's the flogging horse. See -" He demonstrated. "You're stretched over the top with your wrists pulled tight and the master lays on the whip ... or the cat." He looked closely at her to see if she knew the story of his encounter with the horse his first year.
"No, I haven't seen one of these. Do they still use it? I thought they were supposed to go easier on us these days."
"Not likely, the latest blood stains on this horse are mine. I took forty-five lashes last year." There was just a hint of pride in his voice.
"You! I thought you were Mr. Perfect Cadet! What did you do to get that?"
Nooj turned away. She would get all the details out of someone but not him. He did not like to talk about that time; the guilt of his error was still too strong in him. He selected two swords from the rack against the wall.
"Epee or saber?" He asked, casting an eye over her slim form. "I think ... epee." He extended the haft of the light weapon.
"No. Saber. I like the feel of a stiffer blade." She reached for the hilt in this left hand.
"Very well. But I'm not going to hold back."
"Don't want you to."
For a time only the silken hiss of steel on steel and the shuffling of four feet disturbed the quiet of the large room and glittering motes in the beams of light which held the fencers in an illusionary amber cage. Finally, Nooj struck Kaith's blade up with his own and called a halt.
"You're not bad but you need to watch a few places." He had started on a detailed analysis of her technique when she interrupted him.
"If I'm making so many errors, why are you panting?"
He ignored her and continued his critique. When he had finished, he commented, "You should have taken notes. I'll test you again in a few days."
She curled her lip. "I can remember. Don't worry. ... Why don't you want me as your second in command?"
"I don't mind you as a person. I have to be sure of you as a warrior, be sure you're good enough. I made a mistake once." He turned aside to replace the swords they had used.
"So? Everybody makes mistakes. Some even make them more than once. It passes. You get over it."
"This one killed a girl." He faced her and looked into her wide grey eyes. "Do you think you could get over that?"
Kaith placed what she meant as a consoling hand on his arm. Quick to anger, she was equally swift in her compassion. "I didn't know. I'm new here. I'm sorry. Want to talk about it?"
Nooj shook his head but did not try to brush her hand away although he generally hated to be touched. He looked to one side without focusing while a long moment passed. "Let's get back for lunch. You'll be hungry before tonight."
Kaith looked at him from under her brows and made the sensible decision not to press him any further. She had already heard enough gossip around the camp to know he was something special, already a legend of sorts. She realized she had only to sit quietly and listen to the other students to learn whatever she needed to know about her cadet-captain.
Kaith was unusually tall for a Spiran female. She had shot up during her fourteenth year and now, approaching fifteen, was as tall and gracefully slender as a white willow. All her life she had longed to become one of the celebrated Warrior Women who took their places by the sides of the great men of Spira and defended the populace from the depredations of Sin and the other fiends who made war on the world she loved. Now she felt she was on her way to achieving her goal. After a year's exile on the training island of Bikanel, she was finally here at the Calm Lands Station where the best were sent and she had been assigned to Company A, led by the most promising aspiring Warrior on the planet. What was more, she was not only assigned to his company but placed as his second in command. She still did not understand what had brought her so far so fast or to what she owed her good fortune. Meeting Nooj had been like being ushered into the presence of a deity, although she did her best to hide her awe and respect. Maybe she had overdone it? Had she been too brusque? Too edgy? It was not easy to decide exactly how to act in the presence of your hero.
She had stayed quietly in her corner when her barracks mates began to exchange gossip about the camp and its luminaries. As they discussed Nooj, Kaith kept her ears as sharp as she could and tried to memorize every word. She heard the legends of his first year in the camp, the description of his solitary walk across the sun-bleached grass of the quadrant, blood making scarlet patterns on his khaki shirt. The details of the taking of the coeurl kit were laid out and marveled over; equally admired was his refusal to be publicly punished. The conversation did not stop until the subject of their gossip walked into the room and announced that lights would be extinguished in ten minutes so they had all better get ready for bed.
Kaith had not fully realized she would be sleeping in the same room as the male cadets. She knew, of course, that the sexes trained together in the armies of Spira but she had thought sleeping quarters, like showers, would be segregated. That was how it was done on Bikanel. Yet all around her boys and girls were shrugging out of their uniforms and those who had not bathed before supper were making mad dashes for the shower rooms. Turning her face toward the wall, she pulled on her sleeping tunic and slid off her clothes under the protection of that ample garment. She did not dare look around at Nooj until the sudden intake of breath from the girl beside her made her spin her head. Nooj had just stripped off his shirt and, as he bent to tend to his boots, the narrow crossing scars on his back were clearly visible. If he heard the murmur from the newcomers, he gave no sign but continued with his undressing. Like the others, he used his tunic as a modesty shield as he wriggled out of the tight breeches and underpants. When he was ready for bed, he turned slowly and, casting a stern eye over his corps, gestured them to their cots and signaled the lights out, leaving those who had not quite finished their preparations to do so in the dark.
As she lifted her blanket to slip into her bed, Kaith discovered she was holding her breath and let it out with a prolonged sigh. She lay in the darkened barracks, surrounded by nearly a hundred of her contemporaries, with the image of Nooj's flogged back filling her mental vision and bringing unaccustomed thoughts into her head. She dreamed that night.
Days passed, some exciting, most tedious. Kaith had her second practice session with Nooj and was commended for her improvement. The division of duty between the two was worked out and the leadership of the company was split in the appropriate manner. Since Nooj was assigned extra tutorials with the masters of strategy most days and was otherwise being pressed along an accelerated path to leadership, Kaith found herself doing more work than a second was usually called upon for. She had no complaints since the additional responsibility would prove to her advantage in the long run.
Every night when lights out neared, she tried to catch a glimpse of the scars on his back. They moved her in strange and profound ways. She did not know if she felt pity, horror or admiration of the brands which so clearly proved his metttle. She had heard the story often enough now to recite it herself and she tried to imagine if she would have been so strong and unbending in her own convictions. In her heart, she feared she would have failed the stoic standard her captain had set his corps.
Nooj had no conception of the turmoil his very existence was wreaking in the life of his assistant. He had tested her and, finding her satisfactory, had accepted her in her rank and used her accordingly. He heard the buzz every night when he bared his back and felt the eyes of his command tracing the marks with awed fascination. He did it deliberately. Some instinct told him it would bind his followers to him and enhance his already powerful reputation if he casually showed them the proof of his courage and strength. He bared his scarred back for the same reason he permitted the coeurl kit to share his bed most nights; it was the act of a man - one removed by experience and pain from the ranks of the children who had yet to feel the sharpness of adult punishment or to prove themselves by subjugating a feral beast. With his honorable scars and his snarling pet, Nooj made himself the only mature male in the room, the alpha.
He slept easily, more soundly, when the kit lay heavy against his chest, its purr filling his ears and canceling the noises made by the humans. His arm had become accustomed to curling around his pet and his cheek to pillowing on the still soft fur. The monitors who made the rounds of their sleeping charges often smiled at the sight of the tall youth cuddling his lethal companion like a child with a stuffed toy.
Nooj declined to name his pet, arguing he would someday return it to the wild and a name would be inappropriate. The truth, known only in the most personal protected area of his being, was that he would never willingly part with the animal and he had a private name for it he chose not to share with any other. In the depths of the night and in the quiet places he sought out for solitude, he would pull the animal to him and whisper,almost inaudibly, into its soft ear, "Nepetu". He had named it that because of the clean spicy fragrance of its fur.
Kaith thought if she was alert she might learn what Nooj called the kit. After all, she spent considerable time with the cadet-captain and his animal and he must address it by name sometime. So far, she had no luck; all communication between the two private and vaguely feral males seemed to be silent, subliminal.
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