The First Age

Full Version: Homeward Bound
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Accepted Elsae

Huh. Nythadri was pretty flustered. Huh. That's weird. Elsae tipped her face first one way, her eyes roamed over the kalediscope of Nythadri's expressions brief as they were, then it tilted back the other way like she were unsure if what she was looking at was something she recognized or not. Nythadri was cool as an ice pepper usually. She had that heavy lidded impatience that girls tended to glare when waiting for some silly nonsense erupting around them to die back down. Nythadri paled a little, if someone could say the moon could turn a shade crisper, the moment the wheels turned over. You do know him. Well, that much was to be expected. If he knew her, it was only logical that the knowing was mutual.

Elsae did seriously consider Nythadri's question. It was a surprisingly good one too. Had she thought to ask his name? Did his name matter? She shrugged and turned sideways as Nythadri snaked past, shift fluttering, and retrieved a dress. Nythadri dressed in silence, as Elsae only crossed her arms and blatantly watched the bands of color get pulled over her head and down the rest of her.

Nythadri appreciated it? Twice said. You are flustered. Why? It was almost as interesting to see evidence of Nythadri - the Nythadri, the one of them who was the most composed, the most chilling, and most smartwitted among them - crack her stoney exterior than it was to wonder what it was chiseling away at it. Everyone knew Nythadri was high born back in Andor. It was no secret she'd been a noblewoman. There were a few of them floating around in white. Technically Elsae herself was one too, though she quickly learned to stop talking about her mother's house. Besides it was too little known to prick more than the most nosy of Gray ears and nobody expected an imp like Elsae to have ever come from anywhere in society. Nythadri though, she was definitely a noble's daughter, from glare downward. It was funny then to see such roles reversed among them.

She shrugged again at the request, unbothered by the semantics of a favor versus an order. She did however quirk a little smile at the addendum to the request. Stay or listen. Not that eavesdropping would even cross her mind. Not with the One Power anyway, and her rooms were too far away to know if anything happened. Alida was next door to Elsae, and as far as Els was concerned, neighborly circumstances just tended to lend itself to some things. Like Byron's door. The gaidin kept it locked, which Elsae did happen to check on at a semi-regular schedule. So therefore he must not wish anyone to wander inside.

Els stifled a yawn about then and rubbed her eyes. She'd lost track of Nythadri those last few moments, and blinked herself warm wetness across her eyes to wake herself back up. She was pretty tired too. Nythadri was at the door looking out. She didn't say anything. Is he still there? Then the door widened and nobody seemed anxious to move.

So she twisted sideways and slid past Nythadri. She glanced up at Jai, getting a good look at what he actually looked like, as someone might who wanted the knowledge to reproduce a decent sketch later at will. A few steps down the hall her voice carried back to them, though she didn't turn to let them see the small smile across her lips. Not even so much as a glance when she disappeared behind her own door. "You're welcome."
[Image: Jai.jpg]

With the door sealed, darkness slammed.  The ash of a hundred pyres swirled, choking; his chest hurt inhaling it, but on he kept drawing.  The courtyard below was drenched with the same mournful emptiness.  Not so much as moonlight penetrated, but his eyes were tuned to the passage that brought him here.  Waiting.  Motionless.  Perched to react at any flicker of light.  At any drop of footfalls.  

He didn't intend on lingering long enough to learn the necessary thumbprint to skim out of here.  Traveling was out, too.  Unless he made it to the yard where this whole thing began.  Out there he'd felt the Pattern shear itself apart in Daryen's hands, and once known, he knew he could reproduce it.  There were three exterior walls separating him from cold air.  Probably a minute of running.  Two or three more minutes more to find that yard.  Not that he intended to run.  He didn't need to.  

The whisper of an opening door.  He turned.  And she was there.  Looking at him.  A fall to his knees all over again, but he didn't flinch.  Could barely breathe.  He was bloody out of his mind being here.  But there was no other choice.  It had to be tonight, while his blood pumped hot enough to see it through.

He couldn't well make out her face.  Not with the harshness of staring into fresh flame flickering behind her.  Darkening her hair.  Casting her shape in ghostly silhouette.  Jai swallowed, eyes weary.  They fell to the floor.  Not to look back up until they were alone.  

The moment they did, he moved into action.  Fluid strides carried him close.  Achingly close.  He grabbed her arm and led her inside her own room.  
"Come on."  

The man who touched hilt to heart was buried deep now.  If he remained at all.  He shut them in, blocking the door with his stance.  He could hardly bring himself to look at her, and when he did, a cold smile formed until he strangled control back to his grasp and it died away.  
"Guards are looking for me.  I didn't exactly knock," he explained.  

He didn't want to watch himself uncurl the barb.  But this wasn't the first time he found himself coaxing instinct toward bloody acts he never intended to do.  If he were going to maintain a steady hand, and rip the flesh free, her eyes were going to have to be his cold anchor once more.  His resolve was melting.  

"I'm going to tell myself you sleep fully dressed.  Because I know you prefer to peel the layers when I'm around." A mild grin briefly touched his face, but the stretch of tender skin was followed by a wince he was too tired to hide.  The pit inside was growing.  But he ignored both, and studied their surroundings.  Biding the time.  He didn't want to do this.  With all his heart.

Her room was carved from the same smooth stone as the rest of the White Tower.  Ogier and Saidar's handiwork unground by this last Age.  But their unnatural refinement was the extent of the similarities between her space and the cave in the Black Tower assigned as his.  The room seemed touched by femininity.  Untainted by lingering scents likely still festering in his.  Her desk was tidy, but used.  Nothing broken by the mindless practice of forms.  A wardrobe hid personal affects.  Probably home to items more likely to be the sentimental keepsakes of normal people, a violin for instance, than the honored sewing pack tossed in his.  Lt. Tomdry lent him that kit the night before his vivisection.  Jai kept it on him ever since: passing long hours mending, fireside; until recently that is.  She'd slept rather than collapsed unconscious, bottles not strewn: the blankets were tussled.  As was her hair.  Light.  

He pressed the inside corners of his eyes tight, willing the ache casting them with dull shadows to erode fully away.  To focus clear-headed.  One smooth motion.  Pull the barb free and don't bleed out.  It sounded easy.  Far easier than it actually was.  But he had to stay sane.  Keep going.  Stupor served the Black Tower nothing.  It'd be poor gratitude to the smith that finally polished off his latest weapon to rust the steel its first night in use.  

Nythadri was probably wondering what insanity justified all this.  The last few days weren't exactly displaced reality for her.  Nothing sent her to her knees, begging and crying.  Helpless.  She was better than to let something like that happen; or to give in to despair afterward.  The witness of her brother's murder hadn't ripped her apart: she admitted the context of failure, straight faced and level headed.  Failure was the first hook to drop from his meat, but unlike the other wounds, this one he left untended.  Ignored; an earned toy for the ghosts to torture him.  While to her a pendant delivered and a check deposited were the notable events of the week.  And a trip up town.  She had to question his sanity.  She was right to.

He sighed, face too drawn to grin again, not when the sickle swung close.  He no longer scrambled from the scythe's path like he had last they were together.  Though he knew he could manage a final grin once the blade chunked in his spine.  He'd pay that price a hundred times over if it meant deflecting the reaper's attentions from those he cared about.  A thousand times.

Do it.  He followed her.  Standing close, but carefully untouching; his resolve wasn't that strong.  Potential burned his throat like the snow vaporized by saidin.  The promise of intensity sharpened his tongue.  This is what he came to say.  The only way he could think to save her.

"You took the money to Zakar?"  He asked.  Voice low, and Light burn him, threatening.  "Get it out.  Tomorrow.  Move it.  Give it away.  Burn it for all I care.  But get your name out of Zakar's head.  And never seek me again." He barely heard himself say it.  

The command would have chilled a corpse; it chilled him.  But it wasn't sacrifice; not to him.  He was no hero.  He didn't have the greatness to bend history itself.  But seeking the depths veiled by Nythadri's flared eyes, wondering what she was thinking, the way shadow fell across half of her face, obscuring her lips and darkening her hair and brightening her eyes, Jai was never more decided on changing a small portion of events to protect her.  If his death were to someday count for something, he might as well make his life mean something too.
A frown down-turned the edges of her lips as he grabbed her arm with urgency’s force and pulled her in. His fingers cut just a little too hard, as did the tight edge in his voice, but though her muscles clenched under the grip she didn’t try and cast him off. Just followed. "Why am I not surprised." No question in her tone, just dull-edged sarcasm. If she were otherwise affected by the menace in his countenance perhaps the only sign was that when she retreated to lean against her desk her arms were folded, eyes narrowed. She looked to the door he blocked – not because she yet felt threatened, but because it was the first rule that had truly been broken instead of… interpreted creatively. She said nothing, though, just watched as his gaze managed to settle everywhere but on her. His brief effort at humour or an attempt to incite a reaction – whatever it had been – was ignored, and suggested that perhaps the folded arms was less a measure of self-protection and more the expectant pose of someone waiting for answers. Jai’s uniform was soaked cold like he had been wandering the streets; that it was still damp now, even though he had been waiting outside her door for several minutes, burned a suspicion he lacked the strength. Asha’man used saidin for everything, often without even pausing to consider it, and he took pride in the black cut of that uniform. Not that she was willing to gamble on the assumption he was powerless. 

The briefest flicker of a grin was swallowed by a wince, and weariness descended for what felt like a timeless eternity. He spoke of urgency and hunting guards, and then he just stopped, like the life had simply drained right out of him. A hollow gaze took stock of all the pointless effects in her room and never once paused to look her in the eye, despite the fact her gaze never unlocked from his. It was that reluctance keeping her bare feet planted firmly on the floor instead of covering the distance. Her fingers itched to cup his face, to smooth away such wretched conflict, then to smirk and jibe the fresh shaved beard; repay him the taunt about her dress. She loved those boyish smiles, but they seemed gone now, and rejection was like blood in the back of her throat. He’d seen a rare side of her in Arad Doman, though even when he’d gathered her up close in the ocean she’d been hesitant to fall too deep into that graceful affection. Lust was one thing; the soft look that had been in his eye then was quite another, though that look was a distant memory from the one he gave her now, shadowed gravely in candlelight.

Two steps brought him close. Her skin prickled, jaw tense. He’d been unconscious when she’d confronted Imaad, but the same fearlessness propelled her now as it had then. She straightened from her perch against the desk, a hair's breathe away, all steel and ice. Jai was far too tall to stare eye to eye, but her gaze was unwavering defiance when those words washed her cold.

Never seek me again.

He'd shown too much hesitancy for the words to bleed her out completely, but she'd never even allow him to see there was a wound. She'd tend it later, alone, like she always did bar the one night she'd spilled her soul; but now, carried by the rise of habitual instinct in the face of opposition she was flooded with anger. It pounded in her chest; all the frustration pent up since word of Caemlyn had first reached her ears. Arad Doman had been an entity unto its own; a precious bubble of a memory amidst all the Seanchan horror. He had crossed the line, and now he was the one to warn her back? Disappeared. Disappeared! Until an Aes Sedai's pact had forced her hand to an Ajah and the full terror of consequences had been revealed. The beating ran fresh in her mind; she could move her hand a fraction and feel the emptiness at his hip. If he searched her desk, he would find more evidence of how steeped she was in this; how deep the guilt gnawed. And he told her to back off.

For the first time she regretted it - telling him about Tashir. Now her fingers didn't itch to caress; they burned to push him back out of her space. To glare him down until he realised the consequences he'd rained down on her. If Arad Doman had been a mistake, then it was one they had made together. The loyalty with which he had spoken about Daryen had squeezed her heart tight that night. The betrayal now made her feel sick; her own naivete. Fire burned her blood; drove her breathing deep. She'd slapped Imaad when the rage had seethed so strong, but for Jai she buried it. Not because he didn't deserve it, but because she remembered where they were; the sleeping bodies - the hopefully sleeping bodies - at either wall.

"It wasn’t me who put my name in his head in the first place. Unless it's your brother's habit to call Tower women whores, and I would imagine it isn't. It would hardly be good for a business nestled in the heart of Tar Valon." The words were low, and they were emotionless; evidence enough that such tight control was necessary - not to stop her falling apart, but to lock away the temper that would bring the Tower down on their heads. It had hardly been required for Zakar to approve the account in person, and Jaslene had stopped her in the street afterwards with all the warmth of a long-lost friend. If Nythadri's name had come to Zakar's attention, then the fault lay with Jai. And if Zakar's reception of Nythadri had been less than pleasant, then that was down to him too. She wouldn't take the blame for that when she had been forced to act with such limited information.

"The answer is no."

The threat was enough for her to swing the opposite way regardless, but it wasn't simply the threat that resolved her answer so categorically. Zakar had been quite insistent in warning against White Tower involvement, and he had clearly thought she knew something. She had guesses - but she had also been honest: whatever he was involved in, she simply didn't care. The thing was, if Zakar thought she knew anything detrimental to his affairs - detrimental to his reputation - he was not going to just let her walk away. The coin would filter its way out eventually, once the scandal in Caemlyn had died down and her father had spun a web of lies to explain the rise of his House back to health. She'd taken it all under her name to protect them, and sometimes to protect was to take a risk. Or make a sacrifice. And she wouldn't walk away. Jai could stare her down all night but it wouldn't make a difference; she wouldn't walk away.

Light.

Nythadri blinked, finally, and her eyes held closed for a few precious seconds. The poison of anger was swallowed, at least for that moment. For all the brazen strength she displayed, untouchable, unbreakable, her hold by now was tentative. She'd let Jai in too close too fast for her usual defensive apathy to take the full brunt of feeling, and she was tired.  What a fool. What a light-blasted fool. She reached for his chest. She had the distinct impression he might crumble to dust the moment her hand connected, but the muscle beneath her palm was solid. The pressure was not hard; she was just urging him back enough to slip away from his chilling gaze. She had limits. Even she had limits.
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She was impossible to read: all ice and mistrust.  But was she really any different from the person who melted against his chest in Arad Doman?  She had been resistant then, also, but he'd glimpsed beyond her shield.  Playful, but honest about it.  Nythadri might as well have walked behind a wall rather than heft her shield, and it killed him to think he was responsible.

Those few moments of silence were tense, but Jai never smoothed his sleeves or swiped the snowmelt trickling from his hair.  He stared, hardened, until the delay it took to process her reply.  And he looked away, cowed by too much shame to look her in the eye.  

At his best Zakar was a dick.  His words were backhands.  What's worse, he meant them.  Zak was truthful to a fault, and clung to that trait like a true born borderlander to his honor.  Andreu knew it too, but he seemed to accept this as one of Zakar's lesser faults, but to Jai the vein pulsed deep.  Why stand in him?  If Dru found the proof he needed, Zak would deflect it toward Jai without hesitation.  Jai knew the answer, but it was probably the hardest one to accept.

He started nodding to himself.  He rubbed heavy eyes and shook his head.  

Stepping up for Zak in the name of family peace was the lie he told himself.  That was just it: Jai only lied to himself.  Or used to; he seemed to be getting the hang of it today.  Sickening as it was to face, the man was his family, and Jai was more like him than he was anyone else in it.  He was ready to pound his smug face in for dragging Nythadri's name through the mud, but when he spit on her, it was because he thought she deserved his judgement.  If he called Nythadri a whore, it was because he thought she viced Jai by the balls.  Figuratively and literally.   And who's fault was that?  Who's Nythadri?  Jaslene once asked.  Jai squeezed his eyes tighter, Blood and bloody ashes.

Yeah.  That was about right.  It'd be nice to figure some of these things out ahead of time.  If it weren't so damned messed up, and he wasn't on the verge of tears, Jai could have laughed.  Maybe he should laugh?  No.  Not quite yet.  It'd be the howl of a madman and too much like Andreu.  Zakar was venomous, but Dru was the more dangerous of the pair: a man ruled by chaos when Jai still clung to order.  A reckless devotion to order, probably, but Jai was in control of his own head.  Not that regret didn't make him want to spill his guts, but what guy didn't carry around guilt?  

The stormy roar of emotions died suddenly, a violence quick to rise and fast to fall.  Control, he told himself, and his mind quieted.  The Black Tower's boot crushed what remained of defiance, and Jai remembered his goal in all this.  He took refuge in the ever present emptiness, the great comfort men wielded like shields to buffer the savage nature of seizing saidin.  

He lifted his eyes, undeterred by Nythadri's piercing gaze.  How he could now resist what everything in him screamed to do, to sweep her close, brush the hair from her face, and crumble to her shoulder, he didn't want to guess.  Why he couldn't call on that same buffer and keep that knee in the Great Hall?  Why was he unable to cast the ever-cursed pride to the Oneness?  It would have saved him a lot of pain, not that dodging punishment topped his priorities, across the whole span of his life.  That night he ran for the sword ready to hurl himself into the fight, it wasn't for honor.  So why could he now stare into Nythadri's eyes as they flared the truth of who was at fault?  And not want to make her see that everything which happened was not what he intended to do?

It didn't really matter.  She was buying the lie.  A heat resonated beneath her ice bed.  The river did not yet glow red, but Jai knew those depths were stirring.  She was buying it, and it deadened the usually wide open windows to his soul from sight.  Why was he so well armored now?  It wasn't strength of reformed mail.  It was a man stripped bare to mortal flesh and stepping forward anyway.  An illusion.  One that if he believed firm enough, others would follow the trick, and believe him invincible.  When he disappeared, they'd tell themselves it was a magical twist of light.  A befalling of fate, not droplets of carnage clung to the air like fountain mist.  Nythadri need only believe enough to think him a monster.  It would save her a lot of pain if she did.  That was what he was here to do.

He was on the verge of walking away.  Disappearing as per her wish.  Cold nights waited, knowing only the last scorching look she gave him, but he would find warmth.  Transient comfort, but effective.  Like food for fuel and sleep for strength.  The existence might be lonely, but that didn't matter.  Not when it purchased something of this much value.  

The last barb was free.  The chains broken, and he was at peace with it.  Dribbling and wounded, but head raised and eyes level.  Whatever drained away would drain away, and it would take a s long as it would take to kill him.  And that was something he could accept now; because there was nothing left to lose.  Because the cause meant something.  Maybe Araya was more right than Jai gave the man credit.  Fantastic.  

"The answer is no."  

What?  The brush of fingertips pressed him away, and he went obediently.  But mouth parted, confused.  He absently watched the hand nestled against his coat as though they belonged to two other people.  In one breath she refused his rejection, and in the next pushed him away.  He ran his hands through glistening hair, then pulled the wet palms down cheeks.  Anger edged its way in. No?  His arms dropped to his sides.  

Jai flashed a focused look around them long enough to encage the room with the same ward he'd used in Arad Doman.  Then, with saidin pounding his chest and casing his throat, his response snapped.  
"Yes you will!"  

He stared while she blinked, but his frustration rolled across her lids like water. "You will let me do this!  Because I-" Then his mouth slammed shut, and nothing else issued but sounds of heavy breathing.  

The sudden halt in momentum made room for exhaustion.  The last few hours were a little rough.  The two bowls of stew and handful of snacks were long drained from his stomach.  Walking around Tar Valon wasn't exactly battle conditions, but it wasn't a walk in the park either.  Determination only kept a man upright for so long, and he wasn't sure if he had the strength to oppose Nythadri much longer.

The room's sole chair skidded suddenly, catching him as he sank into it, elbows on his knees and head in his hands.  Releasing saidin became necessary at that point.  The going back and forth, flexing and quaking, it was like walking a storm surge.  
"-because I want to do the right thing."  
Threat doused her of rationality; it was the surest way to blind her to all the nuances she normally caught, and at the same time stirred the unrepentant defiance that closed her ears off to sense. If he wanted to make her listen he was appealing to the wrong side of her. Even now the intricacies of the words buzzing back and forth in her head were overcast by the fact he had condescended to demand of her. It blazed a thousand ancient familial arguments, you will do this, Nythadri, you will do that, Nythadri, and readied her for war without even knowing or caring what it was she fought. The same corruption had heightened her conflict with Imaad and put her at odds with more of the Aes Sedai than she cared to count. But like most faults, she was incapable of stopping herself. At that moment, if he’d walked away she would have let him leave – only to drown under the cold tide of regret as soon as the door clicked back into place. Her head was swimming conflict already. He should have left, but until she could figure her head out, she was glad he hadn’t.

Jai moved back, gave her room to breathe, and she was grateful for the distance. Grateful but suddenly worried she’d just drawn a line; marked an end. So much so her fingers almost tightened a grip to bring him back close. Until she remembered his warning; then her hand drew back. Despite being the one to spit rejection he seemed bewildered by the gesture, but it didn’t last long. Nythadri flinched at the snap, recoiling like she’d caught sight of the beast nurtured by saidin staring out of Jai’s eyes. The volume of his voice hadn’t been anticipated, which was why she’d reacted, but she cursed herself all the same. Dragged from her bed in the middle of the night, and on one of the rare occasions she’d actually managed to fall quite peaceably asleep, she was hardly at her best. No reply came forth, though; her answer had been resolute and didn’t need repeating. He could shout all he wanted. 

Instead her chair slid forward, and Jai collapsed into it.

Nythadri paused, uncertain. His words were ringing. You have to let me do this. Her weight fell back against the desk, fingers braced against its edges. Because I want to do the right thing. And what exactly was that? And for who? She raked her fingers over her scalp and stared up at the ceiling while Jai bled out on her floor. When he had liberated the pendant she assumed he thought he had been offering justice, and he had been wrong. Now he thought, what? That he was protecting her? You have to let me do this… Was he even going to tell her why, or did he truly just expect to bend the will the Aes Sedai had taken years to shape? If so it was a trust she didn't have to give. When Farune had turned his back and walked away a little piece of Nythadri had wrenched with him, the wound staunched with enough alcohol to see her swiftly packed up to the Farm. She'd thought the lesson had been learned; men were not creatures to be trusted with hearts; and the White Tower, for all its inadequacies, never turned its back. If you were so foolish as to betray it, it ruined you completely, but it never turned its back.

She’d been stupid to let Jai kiss her that second time, to let him toe the boundary between meaningless lust and the spark of something else. She’d known it at the time, but had still convinced herself it meant nothing. A pleasant distraction in a country hundreds of miles from home, with a neat beginning and ending; nothing more, because it couldn’t be anything more. But the constructed lie had only given room for her hold to slip and something like faith to grow in the hollow space. As furious as she'd been to find Tashir's pendant in her palm, and as senseless and rash as Jai's actions had been, they'd undoubtedly nurtured the spread of that small, glowing feeling. She cared, and because she cared, when the demand plummeted to a plea she suddenly heard, and understood. Nythadri had no qualms being callous, and when pushed in a corner she had always been drawn to spitefulness irrespective of her own interests. She was capable of cutting him loose; of giving in to what he wanted and finishing the job he’d started. At least she thought she was capable.

Before her, he had at least been coping. One foot in front of the other, wrapped in a cynic’s embrace, but coping. After her he would do the same, a little darker, a little more broken, and on a straight march toward the Last Battle. That's all Asha'man were required to do. But it doesn't make it right. 

Short footsteps padded from one side of the room to the other as she retrieved the rumpled blankets from her bed. Kindness could shatter a man in this state and Jai seemed determined to judge her shoulders too fragile to lean on, but she was uncompromising. “You’re dripping all over my floor,” she told him, as though practicality could cancel out the underlying tenderness as she draped the fabric about his shoulders, then tugged it round his front. She crouched as she did so, sank to her knees and rested back on her heels. Her hands dropped into her lap. No part of her touched him, but she was close enough for him to feel the shadow of her presence. Looking up at him now, she considered how lucky she was to not have known him before the Arches. If the air split golden now she didn’t know what she’d do. She was glad she didn’t have to find out.

"Jai, I thought the money was Winther’s, that’s why I took it out of Caemlyn. I didn’t know it wasn’t until I’d spoken with Zakar." She explained quietly, voice level to mask an unusual hesitancy. She was tense, and tired, and had no idea if Jai would even listen or if he'd retreated so far into his own head her words only crashed into stone walls. Her gaze wavered between looking at him and blinking shut, considering her next words like one considers footfalls on the edge of a cliff. His hands were as beat up as his face; it was the first time she’d noticed because she'd been so reluctant to look down, and it sunk her heart a little lower. She wished she’d been able to talk more with Lythia, but drew on the Green's earlier advice as the moment of uncertainty lingered. 'Such it becomes our place to coax our brothers back when they drift toward insanity… because we can handle it.' “I know what they did to you.” It came out whispered, choked, but she found strength from somewhere, and though she knew he would not like what she had to say, she continued. "And if you think I’m going to walk away now you really are crazy." She pushed up off her toes, still resting on her knees, and pulled his hands away from his face, mindful of the bruised knuckles, but firm. “What are you so afraid of?” 
It was a graceful sound, Nythadri's gentle crossing.  Light let her go for the door.  Let her fume a burn so cold that he could walk out knowing she was better off.  It was a strange wish but a pure one.  Unblemished by regret for the most part.  Not for Arad Doman, anyway.  Nor for Caemlyn.  Not for the desert the pieces of his bloodied soul watered.  Light let Nythadri give him some sign.  A hint of hatred, remorse, regret, disgust; some shade of disappointment.  And he could cross the threshold and not look back.  

Her footfalls ceased, then cloth whipped, unfurled, and something sank onto his shoulders.  Something heavy.  Soft.  

White folds pooled on the floor beneath him.  Narrow strips of color wove in curls and loops.  And he tensed when Nythadri knelt, nearly nervous for what she might do until the explanation pulled his understanding to the floor beneath.  He realized his feet were cold but dry in snug seams worth their weight in gold.  The soles were soaked, though.  The rest of the boots wet to the ankle.  He'd never cleaned them after waking at Araya's, and his eyes instantly saw the stains.  They were his alright.  His shoes; his blood.  Meanwhile Nythadri's feet were bare as his.  A bad sign, that.  Going without socks.  Didn't she know it was bloody winter?

He heard what she said next.  Light, a guy can't dodge something like that.  There was a time when he would hold his breath just to hear her say his name.  But in the same breath as his, others darkened her lips like old friends.  Zakar?  Winther?  She thought the money was Winther's?  Not for the first time, and definitely not for the last, Jai was speechless.  How did Nythadri do it?  She blinks and holds the Council of Merchants in the palm of her hand.  It's not a death note.  The Seanchan she played like witless puppets.  He was aware how much she hated her own mastery of the game, but he was in awe of it.  She knew then, who orchestrated the donation.  Aharon was never the charitable sort, but relieving that prick the burden of book keeping was doing him a favor.  And Jai had to do something with the money.  She probably knew about the pendant.  Had she connected murder as well?  Light!  Did she know everything?  That there was always another mastermind.  That this time, the man pulling the strings was his own brother.  That theirs was a seriously messed up situation.  

There wasn't time to think about it.  Nythadri's distant whisper which followed struck a brittle cord.  Yet he didn't cringe at the sting of a new wound.  His vision didn't go white.  He didn't double over in shock.  He just sat there.  Unmoving.  Not particularly wanting to hear any more.  It was like she knew every secret he held dear.  The flashes she resurrected came fast, but he watched defiance and blood and silver spray by without flinching.  As though he were sitting back in another man's head and watching the fool scramble about.  The guy was constantly confused and completely oblivious to pretty much everything.  He only knew what was going on in himself, and then only as much to know it was all a charade, but plowed on anyway.  Nythadri knew?  He blinked.  

She pulled his hands, but his eyes followed freely.  She might as well have pulled him from the chair, for he fell forward weakly, draped still in her blanket and landed before her, knee to knee.  But for that surrendered moment, he didn't let her go.  His hands curled around hers, hard, like to release her now meant they would never return.  There was a fresh scar on the right palm from when he found the short sword lost in the dirt, and clutched it desperately by the blade back to his grasp.  There were others she'd not seen before either; but it didn't occur to him to hide a one.  Bloodied hilt aside, out of all the flashes to soar through his mind, one shone in them all.  The way he knew he would always remember Nythadri.  Not the moment her priestly dress dropped to the sand.  Nor the moment water first lifted her jet dark hair.  Though he'd be dead if those weren't close seconds.  But for the dare in her eyes when she turned, drenched in moonlight, and captured him breathless.  

He watched her long and quietly.  If there was pain soaring beyond his distant eyes, he tried to numb it from view.  If there was fear, he wanted to shield it.  He knew what she meant.  Who they were; though he'd disagree the fault lay with anyone beyond himself.  That she might offer half truths didn't occur, nor how she heard of such business, but he still prayed she didn't know half of what she claimed to know.  Yet he knew what she meant, and when his eyes sank for a weary second, he noted the stripes of color pressed against his knees.  He could feel her ring pressed hot between their fingers.

He gripped her hand tighter, ignoring the ring digging in her flesh and the stretch of raw skin across his knuckles.  All the noise and confusion collapsed before this silver moment when they looked at one another.  In that peace, he found himself turning her wrist and bringing it to his face.  He brushed the back of her hand against the slope of his cheek, fingers interlaced, eyes closed.  Soundless.  He memorized the feel of her, the bend of her fingers, the warmth of her touch.  Unlike in that sandy bed, it was her turn to press, and Jai now the one to yield.  It was probably a mistake, but Jai made a lot of them.  All the time, really, and lost to the trance of it, to the ache in his lungs, he wasn't sure he could tell if this was one of them.  

One hand separated from hers while he lowered the other against his coat.  Could she feel how hard his chest beat beneath?  The cloth was wet still, but he wasn't cold.  Not nestled in her blanket.  Which made him want to close his eyes, draw her in and lay back for the night.  They were both tired, and Jai could make it in the press of her lips, the penetrance of her study.  But he didn't.  Right then, what he wanted and what he feared were so completely opposite and so utterly intertwined, segregating them was soon to become impossible.  

Those sinful lashes struck hard.  From the depths of this morbid moment her wit dared him to forget all this bloody drama and spark something playful in her ear in its stead.  Probably about the bare feet.  Wit and humor.  A mystery he couldn't figure out.  She ran to catch him falling from the saddle.  She saw something behind bloodied hands.  She comforted a cold shell.  She protected.  When it should be the other way around.  He brushed the hair from her shoulder with the freed hand, completely absorbed in the task, and finally summoned the courage to let her see what he didn't want her to see.  

"Yeah.  Well," he spoke quietly.  "They left a mess behind, didn't they?"  He slipped into a modest smile, voice tight.  The day in question was blacked out as the night which followed.  Their details ripped away, dissolved as a corpse in the earth.  Driven from forethought not by pain, though the shame was grating, but by enlightenment.   Jai knew what condition of a man was carried away.  He knew his own limits, and freely admitted to them.  And Light guard his thoughts, but lost in the glaze of green, seafoam spiked with iridescent blue, did he know what he wanted.  

He absently watched himself release her.  The guilt of surviving when others lingered in agony pulsed strong.  As did the disappointment from a man Jai revered as a father.  

"I'm glad i'm still alive, Nythadri," he admitted, still trying to convince himself of that stone sharp reality.  He had gotten up, but not because he deserved to go on, but for the chance to atone.  Thoughtless, his hand fell to a place on the other arm as roaring pounded his ears.  From the ground he'd felt like laying in the bottom of an inescapable pit.  Handholds crumbling in his reach and footholds falling by without tread.  Until there was no other choice but sit and wither in bloody memory.  

"Alive, i can fix things.  And I won't stop trying to get it right."  The promise sounded hollow to his ears, but he meant it.  With every fiber.

He should have turned to the tiles, drawn the stars, or stared into flickering flame, but the pace of forms were hollow now, the balance of equations less beautiful, and the stability of rhythms unreliable.  A smile should not be soothing.  A hand should not be grounding.  

It was across a cold sea he stared.  Waters of night where the world seemed to end, but there was something stirring beneath that black sky.  The salt and wind would whip and wear, but the hours meant nothing.  He knew what he did wrong, and Jai would never stop seeking that redemption.  Not if he had to blaze his own hope on the horizon.  

Walking away was the honorable thing to do.

Right?
When his weight tipped forward she tensed to brace the unexpected fall, suddenly worried he was more injured than she’d realised. He clasped her hands tight, as tight as he had on the beach when he’d confessed how he’d gotten the scar, and for a moment she pulled to break free, utterly convinced that if she looked at the palm she’d pressed against his chest she’d find it bloody. The tautness racing up her arms only lasted as long as it took for her to realise that if he was gravely wounded, it was not physically so. Her tension loosened, if not the concern tight behind tired eyes; she was solemn, intent, waiting for answers, but in that quiet moment her mind stilled, thoughts muffled as though swathed under a gentle blanket of fresh snow. Blessedly still. She never noticed the scars, new or old, lining the hands that encased hers; she looked at him then and only saw a man. Pins be damned, serpent ring be damned. Just a man.

When he teased her hand to his face he was lucky the rest of her didn’t follow. The conflicts that contradicted the threat of Jai’s words with the gentleness of his actions were not hindrances to the way she looked at him. Even her own doubts were risks to be dashed in moments of recklessness, later to be repented at leisure. Nythadri was not shy, and she knew what she wanted - knew too, then, that even as he ordered her to stay away he'd yield to her embrace.  She would risk it; even in the heart of the Tower she would risk it. But what Jai offered with one hand he denied with the other, and even Nythadri recognised the point at which the thrill of racing to the edge was outweighed by the waiting jaws when she fell; especially when it was a fall she had suffered before. She would not implore him, nor continue to reach out when each touch was bittersweet and futile. Pride wouldn’t let her. It would destroy them both. If he left – when he left, she was beginning to realise – she would not stop him. He’d already written his ending. You have to let me do this. 

Her fingers tangled in the fabric of his jacket, pressed flat against a beating heart, and she wished, light she wished, the seconds would stop ticking forward. Her expression was still, but the peace of the moment was melting and there was a glistening betrayal in her eyes. She wouldn’t cry, but the sting was there; burning her eyes, burning her chest. He never answered her question with words, but he didn’t have to. She understood, and the truth cut far deeper than forced demands and the pretence of callousness Jai simply lacked. Instinct tugged at her to move away, shield what was left of her vulnerabilities and not let herself mistake earnestness for promises. It was not only foolish, but an affront to every Aes Sedai teaching the Tower had forced on her. Still, she sat on the precipice a moment longer, because facing the pain was the only way she was going to learn. She offered everything, and it was not enough. It was cruel, but it was also inevitable. What else should she have expected? She only had herself to blame. 

He let her go but she was already withdrawing; her hand did not fall gently when released but pulled back. No hatred, no remorse; nor regret or disgust. The anger of before had drained, replaced by something weak and exposed. Affection crumbled what intimidation could not. She began to realise in the self same moment how much receipt of that pendant had affected her; beneath all the self-protective layers of anger, the frustration, the guilt - hidden even from herself. It was dark and Jai was fighting his own demons; she doubted he would notice the brief rouse of that second ghost, the smaller and frailer of the two, but the one she held closer than the death of her brother. Weakness was more shameful than guilt, and a far easier sin to hide. Usually. The slip lasted mere seconds before she regained her composure, drew herself together and detached herself from the warm memories of every touch. Her hands clasped in her lap, fingers interlaced inwards; the gentle picture of patience. Hidden from view her nails pierced hard into her palms; the quickest way she knew to puncture the swell of emotion at its crest. To think. Ready to face the truths Jai was so keen to hide; to weather the storm and try to keep them both afloat.

The right thing. There it was again, those ugly words; words that tasted like a mouthful of ash. Nythadri had no noble code by which to govern her life (at least not one she would confess to) and freely admitted to being self-indulgently selfish. As far as she was concerned Jai hadn’t done anything wrong, but she saw it then, in the honesty of his gaze; he believed. His only transgression - if it could even be called that - was to cross an institution that failed to protect its own members. But he didn’t see it. He thought he deserved what that bastard had done; the sudden clarity with which she realised it appalled her. He thinks the punishment was just. It was far from just. When Rand al’Thor had begun gathering the first Asha’man, the Last Battle might have descended any day. It still could. Necessity had bred soldiers, but more than thirty years had passed and still the Black Tower neglected to shelter the very men who would sacrifice their lives for the world that so often turned its back on channelers. Winther's accusations were a travesty that both Towers wrongly condoned; the Black in punishing Jai, and the White for allowing their brothers to get it so bloody wrong. Feelings cast aside - fingernails digging a little deeper - it was a consequence she would not turn her back on. He'd already written his ending, but it did not mean he'd written hers.

"And I’m a complication." She wielded the cold truth with a starkness that had always formed amongst her primary of defences. Ironically it played to her strengths, or at least trusted experience, to be outcast from what was proper and correct – and a source of strength was so very needed right now. A spark of morbid humour lit the depths of her pale eyes, accompanied by her habitual smirk - daring him to correct her, to lie to her. A mistake, not born of regret maybe, but of the lives hemming them both in - and a mistake was still a mistake. She was the obstacle stood right in the centre of his dogged path to duty, apparently, because there was little else to draw him here in the dead of night. Never seek me again. Zakar. The money. She hadn't sought Jai out; she'd begun to accept the silence as closure. But he'd come here anyway; desperate, urgent, and repeating the same mantra over and over: the need to do the right thing. If he'd been listening, he might notice she had done much the same thing; she would not turn her back.

"You don't look glad to be alive. You're battered. Bruised. And you're sopping wet. This epiphany of yours, Jai, does it include pushing your body to the edge of sustainability until it finally fails? Because it's a dreadful plan." Holding back from leaning in or touching him, her tone was a strange mix of accusing and soft, her gaze intense. Her thoughts were whirring, finally pulling a picture together. Every word. Every nuance.
Glistening eyes were not in the game plan.  I did that.  The whites blushed pink, and the color he found so fascinating sparkled like snow at sunset.  As curses ran through his mind, his very insides tightened; failing now wasn't an option.  Ice quickly embalmed his veins, circled his heart and flushed his mind of caring.  The apathy was welcome.  It kept him bolted to the torture table when he would have hugged her close and soothed such tender wounds.  Light, did he want to.

He didn't stop the snatched away hand, but he was confident she was hurt.  Wounded by a weapon he hadn't intended to wield.  The anger at first was real, but she slapped it aside like an imaginary sword.  But this second blade, one he hadn't realized he'd picked up, nicked an important vessel.  She pulled her hand away and shadows passed Nythadri's face as though the meager candles heaved in stormwinds.  Her recoil was natural, necessary; but made her vulnerable.  Jai set his jaw and tightened his grip on the newfound sword.  He wanted to finish this bloody business, silence the screams and leave mercy behind, but he hesitated.  Now the time had come, he wasn't sure if he could.  

Neither moved until the winds changed direction.  The darkness in Nythadri purpled like the sky before dawn.  Fresh determination rumbled that horizon, loud in Jai's skull like grit between teeth.  

"And I'm a complication," she said.  

She was armored in something.  A gleaming soldier of light beating back the melancholy consuming her realm, conquering it as Jai was suddenly swallowed by the long shadows of a morbid evenfall.  As she emerged, darkness was closing over the pit he couldn't escape.  He wasn't sure if he should panic in being swallowed up or enjoy the warmth that was being buried alive.

It was quiet in there.  Listening to himself breathe.  Should a man drink his last glimpse of starlight overhead or keep wary eyes on the crags in the walls around him?  Between those flint-sharp shards were sure to hoard monsters.  Or does he take the center and hold the swarm off as long as he can?  If the light died, he wouldn't be able to see them coming.

He fell off his knees and sat, legs crossed, and unsure how to answer.  Nythadri's blanket remained, cloaking his shoulders and piled on the floor around him.  Between the folds the pins reflected a dull gleam from a throat tense from constantly swallowing duty.  Against the silver sword, the dragon glowed orange in the meager light.  As Nythadri spoke on, its ferocious red eye followed a single dare at the monsters threatening to creep in the shadows up upon its master.  It watched her too like she might be one of them.

His arm was more than tired, but Jai ran a lifeless hand across damp hair.  It was a poor cover to hide the gruesome memories she summoned.  He could taste the iron slicking his throat like oil.  His body wanted to double over and collapse around the savage blows beating it senseless.  He watched the horizon go dark in helpless unconsciousness.  Yet on his crying lungs drew breath.  He lifted his face, clawed to his knees, and poured out his insides.  The sheer horror of it was blunted by liquid courage, but he remembered what it was like to stalk death.  Like most things, it seemed like a good idea at the time.  As that Dedicated knew, Jai never intended to hunt reapers, yet the first scythe to catch his eye drew him like a siren's song.  Right place at the right time.

His face was drawn.  Lines tightened the corners of his eyes aged him.  Surviving when one hoped for another outcome splashed a man with the faint elixir of death, the sort that clung to rotting wood.  It cloaked Jai now like Nythadri's blanket, threatening to drive his shoulders to the ground.  Someday it would; when his strength gave out again.  But not before dishonor was erased.  Not until the Black Tower won the service they deserved from their weapons.  

"I don't look glad to be alive?"  He asked.  His throat was dry as branches scratching on glass.  The sounds of clawing honesty.  She would not want to hear this.  Yet lies had not worked and threats drove Nythadri no step backward.  Jai was learning her weakness, and to him, it was the most natural exploitation of will he'd ever had the opportunity to crush.  

"You should have seen me when I wanted to die."  A horrible sound, scrapes on the window at the start of a storm.  As the winds rose, the intensity of the promise grew.  It was coming, and there was nothing anyone could do but wait for the storm to hit.  Though the volume of his voice remained the same, he stared into her flickering eyes and told her the immense truth.

"I'm wet because it's snowing outside, and I was too weak to Travel.  I'm bruised because I shoved myself up when every sane voice in my head screamed to stay down.  I'm battered because my pride slashed too low and spilled my guts and missed my heart for a second time.  And I push on because I know no other way to go," he explained.  

He broke the bleary-eyed contest with death moments later when burning eyes fell briefly to his hands.  There was only before and after.  The iron curtains of this pit were epiphanies he did not care to analyze.  But since Nythadri asked,
"Yes," he looked up.  

Simple as that.  Soldiers chased death down and either beat it to a bloody pulp or they didn't get up again.  Limits in body and mind caught up with those of the Power, or they fell behind like men chased down by dogs.  Theirs was a straight forward game.  A man grew stronger, or he was crushed by the weight.  And there was only one way to find out who lived and died.  When it had been his time, Jai blazed through the ranks for a reason.  Creator gifted abilities were one thing, but he took himself unbidden to the brink over and over again for one purpose only.  

"If you ever want to know how the first plan worked out, go find a Dedicated named Jindal Gestian, and ask him if this is a better one.  He should be easy to track down.  Though if they carved his tongue out, you might have to buy him a drink first; the words probably won't flow so easily." A morbid flavor twinged the corner of his lips, "I hear he likes brandy.  The kid stole a lot of bottles of the stuff not too many nights back."  The humor should appall even Nythadri, because he wasn't joking.

Who knew how Jindal would be punished.  Not that the specifics mattered.  Mutilation wasn't exactly the highlight of anyone's day.  Whatever it was, something in Jai hoped the kid escaped the worst of it.  He frowned a lot, but the Dedicated followed orders fine enough.  Then there was the gut-wrenching moment he caught him checking out the medal.  Though if he feared a drunk Asha'man more than the entire institution of the Black Tower, it was probably for the best his priorities were straightened out now.  It'd save everyone a lot of trouble down the road.  

Reality dimmed the dark humor once more; all the more haunting by the lack of sarcasm Nythadri might expect.  He looked at her from the chilling vantage truth gave him.  From the bottom of that pit looking up at the brightness likely soon to die altogether.

"I've had worse plans."  

He glanced at the door.
It was easier to think than to feel. A tentative hold though it might be, it felt safe. She felt in control. Her heart was beating hard, and its echo throbbed in the crescent shaped hollows she pushed into her palms. A rhythm to clear her thoughts, and to hold her back from stupidity. She had to untangle herself from the swell of emotion; distinguish the collision of past pains from the reality of the situation. She’d survived crueller than this. Crumbling now would yield nothing but regret when the clouds cleared and life continued on. She knew that, but when she looked at Jai stooped bleakly in her blanket the world beyond faded just a little in colour. She had to try and fix this, and do it without breaking herself in the process. An Aes Sedai could do that, and without surrendering to the passions of a mere mortal. So she cast a distance, focused on the facts instead; let it carry her up like she looked down on this sorry mess from above, anchored by a dragging sorrow, but propelled by the fierce desire to atone. Her gaze tore away, blocked Jai out. Think.

Why had he mentioned the money? Why tell her to get it out? Ellis’ money was dirty and Zakar was the puppeteer; he would protect the coin because in doing so he would protect himself, she had no doubts about that. Even without that assurance she had the Tower, for it would be a poor decision on Zakar’s part to turn against one of their daughters – and there was no discernible gain from doing so that she could see. There was no threat. She was safe. Unless. Unless Zakar already crossed the Tower. If true it implicated her. Badly. But only if Zakar’s machinations were exposed, and he would fight tooth and nail to keep the secret that would ruin his empire. Light. Light. It would explain why a man who ran business in the heart of the Shining City had been so insistent upon her promise not to involve the Aes Sedai; why he might have been concerned to find Ellis’ money in the hands of an Accepted in the first place. But it still gave her no motivation to move the coin; nor any useful insight. 

Her gaze dropped to Jai’s bruised hands, remembering the urgency with which he’d pulled her into her own room. Who’ve you been fighting, Jai? Zakar and the money were almost the first words out of his mouth. At the time she’d been so enraged by the threat she’d barely paused to consider it, but now the mystery was like a touchstone. Something to focus on. His injuries were angry and fresh, unlikely to be remnants of Lennox's ruthlessness.

Her gaze flicked back up.

What if someone knew? What is someone suspected?

But then Jai spoke, and it ripped Nythadri’s attention away from inner deliberations. The atmosphere was palpable, like a rising storm vibrated against the protective shell keeping her so very still - and, for the moment, very quiet. She never looked away from the yawning abyss, even when her own insides tightened against the images his words conjured. Transposed as it was against the violence she had witnessed slaughter her brother, and all the more potent for it, the guilt burned deep. With it came a sick realisation: that the desolate comfort she had offered on the beach had only ended up digging Jai a deeper grave. The horror of it branded an impression on her face and, reserves burned low and so utterly focused in the moment, she didn’t hide the shame of it. Just stared into the darkness. Light, how do I fix this? The wound fractured deep to his core; deeper than she had the wisdom or skill to nurse. She didn’t know how to soothe that pain; at least not without surpassing her limits, or making things worse. She had already done such a good job of making things worse.

Strangely, it was Jai who offered solace. The single word that should have crushed her instead brought a faint relief. A complication. A chance. A hope. If she cut her hands picking up the pieces, so be it. If she became the thorn in his side he resented, the mistake he regretted; so be it. She was used to the aspersion, to casting herself a dark role. Resolution settled, and she felt calmer. Her hands unclenched and she ran the palms together lightly once, the gouges left by her fingernails stinging, and though her eyes were cast down she was listening. Nythadri knew more of Jai's first plan than he realised or she was willing to admit. When she did not look up it was not out of empathy for the Dedicated, nor revulsion at Jai’s grim humourlessness. Talk of mutilation did not alarm her. The implication of Jai having exploited a kid in order to drown his sorrows did not sicken her. He was drunk. Lythia had not told her that, and it cast a nauseating shadow on that second beating, but even that did not move her. She would thank him for his stark honesty if it were not so heartbreaking, and she was reminded of the dark honesty that had drawn her to him in the front hall in the first place.

Worse plans, indeed. She did not speak straight away, as though waiting for the scuffle of his boots to mark an end. “Winther used what you did to accuse the Asha’man of vying for power in Andor, and he had a witness to back him up. The Queen couldn’t ignore that, and the Black Tower has no vindication against those sorts of lies. They made an example of you, Jai, but it doesn’t mean you deserved it. She didn’t expect the words pierce the darkness, though they were sincere. “You’re convinced it’s pride? Because I don’t see it. I see good intentions and tragic consequences. So why won’t you let me help?” If he was going to make the killing blow, now was the time to do it; she freely offered up her neck. When she looked up now her gaze was utterly earnest; maskless. She didn’t offer hollow sympathy. She didn’t offer reckless comfort. As much as she wanted to soothe the pain out of him, to coax him from the dark place he dwelt like sunlight on skin, she didn’t know how. So she offered the most honest aid she could, and steeled herself to watch him walk out the door.
He was strangely at peace with this.  Now that the noise and confusion were done, everything sort of slammed home.  His shoulders felt like his hands were made of lead.  His skull throbbed but pillows were a dream on a distant hill.  Watching Nythadri, eyes downcast as she folded inward, away from him, the rage in his heart joined his head and arms.  A brittle shell crumbling beneath its own weight.  That moment, sharing their last glimpse of sunlight, he wanted to step aside and let the final rays drizzle her pale skin rather than cinder his own.  Maybe he could have pulled off the jobs a little better, but every decision was for her, for his brothers, for everyone.  For bloody duty.  So if he were finally driving her away, every tedious step was a bitter victory but brutal turmoil to watch.

Nythadri’s hands clenched, then released whatever tension she held so fiercely.  His own knuckles wanted to react, yearning to shield hers.  Maybe graze a thumb down her cheek.  Tuck the tendrils of hair from her eyes and give her the horizon she deserved to behold.  He didn’t, though the memory of Arad Doman sang an enticing song.  His time standing with one step in the shade was done.  For her, it was time to leave such touches to memory.  

She probably thought his silence was his usual reaction.  The first time they spoke, he’d been neck deep in a mosaic of numbers and was oblivious for a long time.  She witnessed his poor navigation through a dark sea of obsessions, paranoia, calculations, and mistakes a dozen times since.  She watched a man batter himself on the rocks for slim reasons, but reasons which meant the world at the time.  How many times in those gales had Nythadri wielded an influence so strong even Daryen noticed the anomaly?  

Maybe it was Nythadri.  Maybe it was simple acceptance.  But the blood in the water diluted and drained on.  Nythadri explained the things he’d done like she sat on his shoulder the entire time of it.  As close as her witness was, as much as he wished she spoke true, she didn’t know the coldblooded rage that blinded him of all good intention.  She wasn’t aware of that brief moment of delight when a waste of a body twitched its final draw of breath.  She hadn’t realized how easily he turned on politics despite his hatred for manipulation.  She couldn’t sense the thrill of walking into a room knowing he’d conquered everyone in it single handedly.  When they looked in the mirror, they glimpsed the same reflection but they did not see the same man.  

”I deserved it, Nythadri,” he spoke the frigid truth, and Jai only lied to himself.  Usually.  He sounded like he was trying to convince her.  

His hand no longer ached.  The shoulder he’d thrown in Arad Doman was nothing now.  The hole in his gum was smooth.  Evidence of those near unbearable minutes or hours or however long it lasted were gone like a rainstorm.  Which made it all the worse.  He had been wrong, all these years since flaring the first flame.  True devastation wasn’t in the blow by blow.  It wasn’t found in the howls of shame.  It was facing the quiet aftermath.  A funeral was hard, but confronting an empty house was harder.  Breaking a sword was easy; the reforge was excruciating.  Looking into the disappointed eyes of that Aes Sedai; letting go of hatred for a father’s drastic measures because you forced his hand; going one step forward and falling two steps back.  When you sleep through a storm but the scratches on the window chilled your heart  Understanding what the flood washed away, and not mourning a single stone of it.  These were the things of horror.  Stones didn't weep.  Weapons didn't hide.

”And the world deserves better,” he uttered painfully.  Jai was starting to see.  He couldn’t slowly fall apart now.  This tunnel led only to one place.  If he could stop staring into the unknown and fight for a little more ground.  

Then her offer ripped everything apart.  Again.

Help?  He blinked like the word was strung together by foreign syllables.  The confusion reigned for a brief moment, and he wasn’t sure whether to kick it away or pick it up and look at it.  

She really believed she could help.  There was so much purity to the word, the power of it shattered good intentions with a genuine chisel when a hammer left no dent.  If there was ever a moment to fail, it was now.  

There were no knives at their throats.  Both could rip free of their oaths, walk out the door, and never look back.  There were a thousand places they might disappear.  The Last Battle would still fall like an inevitable, bloody sunset.  They were not the Kinslayer and Amyrlin; the world would endure or crumble regardless of one Aes Sedai and a single Asha'man.  They were only Jai and Nythadri, and both wanted out.  They could taste it on the air.  Escape.  Peace.  I could give that to her.  Right now.  

Would she go?  
Would he?

The shadows quickly filled with doubt.  He watched that pretty petal crumple before it curled to ash as the wind swept it mercifully onward.  He guessed both answers, and it killed him.  Yes.  Yes, he’d go, and every instinct guessed she would too.  A playful half grin.  Then offer to help her to her feet.  One surge of strength and neither Tower would find them again.  He thought about it.  Light, it would be insanely easy.  As hard as she’d studied his hands, he now turned to hers.  She was seated so patiently, fingers laid across her lap.  An image of certainty so strong he could forget her ties to Aes Sedai altogether.  The gold he crossed out, eyes led up by the saber of her arm.  Arms which once reduced him to a shuddering, incredible puddle.  The cap of her shoulder begged to be gripped and the slender tendons of her neck hinted like perfume.  At her throat once before, he remembered coaxing her into taking saidar.  Skin pebbled, she’d obeyed and they both gasped.  There would be no forgiving exploration of her lips this time.  Only fire and light; skin and desire.  She was watching with so much earnest emotion... The way the flat of her hand pressed against his chest.  Her pupils were flared to black stones, drinking in the low candlelight.  Her breathing was shallow, poised.  The arc of her collarbone formed a line beneath flawless wool.  The tilt of her face.

She couldn’t be thinking the same thing.  Right?  The cold, snatching woman of moments before wore a different armor now.  Had he mistaken plate and mail for gleaming hope and crashing invitation?  Light!  He was going to burn in eternity for this.  Just thinking about jeopardizing their duty was a guilt he could barely imagine; this dream had to fall to the floor.  Servants lived for others.  They take no wedding vows.  They don’t kick around in the waves, or race tiny feet up and down the beach, or curl up to watch the stars until dawn.  Imagination crashed in Nythadri's pale colored eyes, and he could feel it like a rolling thunder.  Simple lives belonged to the couple down the street.  Not to them.

Just to ram the thunder home, a choked whisper crept into his thoughts.  He had to strain now as when he first heard the words, but once the chase begun, he'd be damned if he sight now.   What else did a man fight for, if not for the things he loved?  Jai knew.  He was bloody staring right at it.

He drew a detached breath, dream descending and eyes lit with resolution.  Those inner passions he couldn't hide were slowly replaced by dedication.  A broken tool was only useless if it wasn't remade; he didn't want to stay broken forever.  
“I can be better, Nythadri.  I can be what I need to be,” he insisted.  To them both.  Light, he insisted.

He hadn't lied when he told Andreu he was different.  The Black Tower cleaved real shards, jagged and bloody, but if the splinters were to be recast, they had to be collected before they were kicked to the four corners of the earth.  

He had to put some distance between them as there was no hilt to pivot an apology.  His control came and went a hundred times tonight, but he didn’t want to test it on Nythadri any more.  He’d nearly failed already, and his limits were near.  He shoved himself to his feet.  Ignoring the wear and tear beneath the moves.  He piled the blankets on Nythadri's bed and joined them, sitting on the edge of it like he were ready to get up at a moment's notice.  But leaned forward, arms across his knees and fingers twined together, eyes directed toward the floor.  He was bothered by the stains on his boots and vaguely aware he wore no belt.  

Burn it all.  Polish would have to wait.  It'd take an hour to get them right again anyway.  He still never answered Nythadri's question and he couldn't tear himself away until she stopped reaching for him.  
“What do you want to know?”  He looked up, willing.
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