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Homeward Bound
#11
Araya didn’t watch the sword forms. Even though the smooth seduction of violence lured his gaze like a sick lover’s touch, he did not watch. Every movement was ingrained anyway, and the name of each form unfurled naturally in his subconscious. Parting the Silk, Wind and Rain, Ribbon in the Air. The appreciation repulsed him before it turned to stone in his gut. The pall of recognition; this is what I am too. But they were old friends now, hatred and acceptance; disenchanted bedfellows wedded by unbreakable oaths and the crushing fist of saidin. So he perched on the edge of a chair’s arm, gaze diffused to watch nothing in particular, and waited. Outside the room he could hear the mundane scrape of cutlery, the pleasant hum of Hana’s voice. The juxtaposition was discordant; this house he called a home but did not live in, and the brother who danced death within it.

Sometime later his head popped up at recognition of his name. Thoughts fresh from introspection made him unusually severe in expression; more worthy of the black he so seldom wore. Araya was not without shadow, nor the steel core required of a man worthy of both pins. He shrugged, brushed the words aside just like that: you don’t owe me anything, and meant it. At the Tower he’d tried to find someone who knew Jai, knew him well enough to fix whatever was broken. Given the state Jai had been in when Araya had dragged him off Tower grounds, he had expected worse. Honestly, Jai didn’t seem so bad. Tired, which was to be expected, but otherwise he was exactly as he was supposed to be; tied to the cause, tied to the Tower, tied to the Dragon. Harbinger of death in black. The perfect chastened brother.

Still, he didn’t answer the second question right away. Jai presented something of a moral quandary.

Araya acknowledged himself for what he was; in as much as one raised by the Tuatha’an ever could accept himself to be the antithesis to everything he believed. He was a weapon; a blood drenched, accursed weapon. His soul was ruined. And he coped by reaching out to those around him, scooping up the lost and setting them right. Widowed Hana, orphaned Korene. He protected them so they did not have to protect themselves; helped them how he could, because he could. But when the final horn sounded he would march, and he would leave them. Maybe he would die. If the Tuatha’an never found the Song, and the Light send that they did, the consequences of Last Battle might crush this little piece of paradise; who knew what winning would cost? But why not make that difference while he could? Even if it all crumbled to dust.

Jai, though, Jai was as damned as Araya; there was no soul to save. Did it mean he deserved a blinkered existence of masochistic adherence to duty? Because the promise of it was there in that solemn gaze, like a dog brought to heel. It sat uneasy with Araya, but the thing was, for some men relentless obedience was the kinder path. It eradicated the self - removed all the difficulties a man could ever have with the blade’s edge of his fate, so that life was simple and precise and beyond the mists of doubt. A single shining path; the path that Jai’s numb gaze saw now. There was no fault in that. Araya had been there too, when his life had seeped through fingers clutched at his neck.

“The M’Hael knows where you are.”
The cold had gotten into his throat; his voice was brittle as the scuttle of leaves in midst of a dry autumn. He considered the request. Araya was not the type to play games, and nor did he pretend to know what was best for a Brother. He’d promised no strings – offered partly in honest aid, and partly because he had no idea how to even begin untangling the knot of another man’s demons. Jai was unflinching, but Asha’man were taught to be unflinching. A man could be dead inside and still keep moving, but Asha'man weren't required to function as men, just as soldiers. “You’ll go back to the Black Tower when you can create the Gate yourself.”
He said it with a blank face, reiterating among the first of lessons ingrained in a soldier, and watched for signs of cracks.
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#12
His memories of Araya were a thick fog. A figure meandering beneath Daryen's watch at first. That man was no where to be seen, now. Replaced him was a figment of selfless duty who contemplated everything but reflected nothing. Araya was wrapped with rules snug as the scarves always noosed at his throat. Not a man of the black, but not one lacking in discipline either. There was absolutely no question in Jai's mind about his brother's character.

The images in Jai's head of Araya did not match the patient force sharing the room. Gone seemed the quiet-spoken soul: the man with women and children, fond of pomade and an eye for furniture, who nestled his head in pillows at night and woke the next morning willing to don a cheerful wardrobe. That man seemed an illusion to the reality of what was staring him down now, ready to contain the sanity if it were to splinter. Just like everyone else, as Daryen managed with sheer presence of will and Nythadri succeeded with a single look. Only as he couldn't fight with Daryen, and as he didn't want to with Nythadri, Jai stared Araya back.

He fell to automatic attention. Stiff spined, balanced stance, blank of reaction, hands tucked behind his back. Araya might haul him to the wall and slam his eardrums with threats, and at this moment he could with relative ease, and Jai would only stare straight as any Soldier taking the wrath of his superiors. Blank but for drilled in compliance.

Only behind his back his hands were clenched and beneath his coat his heart drummed fury. Never had he asked to be dragged here. Yet here he was imprisoned. The length of recovery was unknown. A week or a month? Cording a single rope of Air into obedience was enough to break a sweat. The idea of grappling all the Powers with enough coordination to wormhole the Pattern itself? It was a task Jai knew he'd not survive.

He was trapped. Ironically desperate to return to duty when a week ago he was desperate to flee it. It was an exhausting pendulum to ride. Enough to shred a man of his will; or so he imagined. There was none left of his to rip apart.

One option remained: grab a saddle and return the old fashioned way. Course, given he had no socks or belt, it was quite obvious he was also penniless and leaning again on the mercy of other shoulders. Short of thievery, which turned his stomach to acid, or paying a visit home, which turned his tongue to ash, Araya's guest he was forced to remain.

His hands wrung, his chest tight, heaving with frustration within the dark folds, but Araya wasn't the only man of discipline in the room:
"Yes sir."


It may be clear this was Araya's show. His rules, his house, but Jai was going to be damned if he were in Tar Valon a minute longer than necessary. Which meant swallowing exhaustion and straining his grip on saidin as often as possible until strength reformed enough to Travel.

The Oneness immediately followed, and lashes of the Power wrenched the room back together without hesitation. All from the unmoving Asha'man holding attention at its center. Jai barely blinked as he worked, though the One Power raged around him until sweat trickled past his eyes like tears. Furniture, blood and ashes! Shoving two pieces at a time took as much concentration as snapping deathgates apart. Lofting a chair over a rug for ten seconds harder than razoring the filth infesting some distant valley for hours on end. The last of it left him depleted and staring at the would-be weapon strewn at his feet.

Numbed by the thrashing of Saidin, he slowly knelt when he couldn't hang on any longer. Lowered of his own accord to one knee, the black pooled around him; four times now an expert at the move. The sword pin first, a year after Mikel's wager; now that was a fun night. The Dragon pin soon after, another proud moment; but days later saw him slit in half. To accept a medal he wouldn't wear, third.

The fourth bended knee, on the other hand, not two days ago, he'd deserved.

Regardless of weather, tomorrow would see the routine performed in the garden if Araya had one; if not, back to the wall the furniture would return. Modest Valoni homes were void of the grass and fences of smaller towns, but Shayol Ghul would freeze over before Jai strolled down the street looking for a place to satiate compulsion elsewhere.

The moment he picked it up, he immediately tossed the stick to a corner by hand: loathing having to touch it now, but needing it at the same time. A sickness he was fully aware rotted away within, but did nothing about. Only when he turned away, grim, ready to eat again and drink a gallon of milk, did Jai contemplate how the foreseeable future was going to unfold, and the brother in command until released from it.

He stopped at a window and withdrew the covering. Its lace felt like an iron curtain in his fingers.
"Where on the island are we?"
A resigned question, but he had to know how close he was to everything he needed to hide from. The frown as he stared out drenched his face with despair.

Jai let the curtain go, swinging freely, as he turned about, silently begging Araya for an honest answer with his look alone. Back on Tar Valon. Somewhere on those streets his name hovered frozen in stone above a gilded building. Around the corner perhaps swung the lazy sign of a playfully named tavern. His father was likely journeying home after a day in public office. His brothers likely wondering if he was dead. His mother probably staring blank at the portrait he'd sworn to complete, but knew now he never would. It would be kinder if Andreu cancelled her weekly appointments with Tower Healers and simply let her fade into bliss. Light knew the rest of them would envy her before the end. Brief wonder considered what Nythadri was doing right then.

He rubbed his eyes, tired. "I'm from Tar Valon, Araya."
Then straightened his sleeves and checked out the room again. The whitewashed walls. The brass lamps. A stack of logs by the fireplace. "My home is somewhere out there. I don't recognize your street, but I'd like to avoid my own if its up to me. The nearest cross roads will tell me enough."


Not that his preferences meant much now. About then Araya could order him to crawl home and kiss his doorstep hello, and there'd be little resistance on Jai's part. There were other things he'd rather endure, but if Jai was living his life up to him, he'd still be face down in the dirt somewhere.
Only darkness shows you the light.


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#13
The stiff stand to attention felt like mockery. Araya had never been one for that sort of formality, and he didn’t know Jai well enough to fathom the level of sincerity. Not that he could fault the grim determination or the void expression; it was all utterly by the book, like any sense of the actual man had simply vanished. He shrugged at the curt ‘Yes sir’, and stood as the room’s furniture began to reassemble. The authority didn’t sit right with him; he wasn’t the type of man to intentionally bend another’s will. Light, it was usually the other way around, with him at the beck and call of others. Worse, even he could sense Jai’s captive frustration, and he wavered in that moment; considered opening the Gate and letting Jai go.

His arms folded, chin burying into the scarf he had not yet bothered to remove, a frown drawing his brows close. He’d expected more resistance from a full Asha’man; more fire, more hostility. Araya might have, what, a decade’s seniority? But he had no eminence attached to his name, nor even a reputation of worthy note to warrant such swift capitulation... which levelled the blame toward Jai’s punishment instead. Every man on Black Tower grounds that Araya had spoken to agreed upon the point at which Jai had broken. So was this what the stronger man really looked like; burnt through with duty, mindlessly compliant? Was Araya staring at the calibre of solider that would one day factor the difference between the Dark One’s defeat and his success? Or was it a front? Death disguised as duty?

And then something else hit him. Light. Was he just being selfish? Displacing concern for Trista upon someone he had some chance of helping, even if he didn’t need or want the help, so that he felt like he was at least doing something? Araya scruffed a hand through his hair as that possibility occurred to him, and flopped down in one of the rearranged chairs. She could be anywhere. He had a vague sense of direction, of course, though he’d barely let himself dwell on it since Arad Doman. Even now the awareness didn’t quite settle, though he knew he would have to realise it eventually; it was kind of the point. For now though he watched Jai discard the beheaded broomstick and stalk to the window. ‘You can’t take in every waif and stray, Araya.’

“Outskirts, southside. Not far from the Grove.”
The admission of home was met with the kind of look that said he had not known, but at the same time did not quite comprehend the significance. The location slipped from his tongue freely, surprised that Jai felt the need to pin him with that look of desperate askance; neither lying nor withholding ever occurred to him. “You grew up here? Huh.”
He took a moment to imagine it. Then, after a moment, clarified: “Home for me was wherever the wagons stopped rolling.”
The affable grin was back; the casual shrug. A few days, to make sure he really is ok. Then if he still wants to go back to the Tower, I’ll take him. It seemed a favourable compromise; one he almost voiced, if he could have thought of the words to frame it. He imagined it would have fallen on deaf ears anyway. Jai already saw the bars, though if he walked right out the door now Araya would not stop him. “Hungry? I can bring a bowl through if you like. If you’re desperate to avoid your own family, I won’t foist mine on you.”
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#14
South. In a breath the layout of the city flashed. Probabilities roared, but the taste left his hunger unsatisfied, and he scrubbed a hand through his hair. Nodding. South was good. Safe.

He nodded, confirming Araya's question. Yes, he grew up here but on the opposite side of the island thank the Light. It was a small comfort someone of the Black Tower didn't know, but privacy wasn't quite as coveted as it once was.

Then, Araya's admission left him at a loss for words. Wagons? His brow narrowed a moment, then paled suddenly. The sort of sympathy to leave a sick taste in a man's mouth.
"Blood and ashes you're a Tinker."
Araya's cheerful wardrobe, today a green coat paired with a violet scarf, the painful furniture, even the way he stuck his hands in his pockets. Like a symbolic turning of the other cheek. So obvious.

He collapsed in a nearby chair, rubbing his eyes and hoping to wake from this nightmare. But Araya's temperate voice remained, offering kindnesses after all this. Jai would have laughed at the absurdity of it if the wind hadn't been knocked from his lungs. Light! The guy dragged his bloody mug off the grounds, fetching food because his houseguest was too spineless to get it himself. Right. He had absolutely no intention of letting Araya do another bloody thing on his behalf. Thankfully, at that moment, his stomach was too tied up in knots to put anything in it anyway. He'd likely regret it later, but he still shook his head no.

The kind of desperation Araya described wasn't so straightforward anyway. Jai was aware of his limits. Just as he knew exactly how much of the Power he could channel before being consumed by it. It was easy to ignore during the day. When tasks consumed his attention, but every soldier's life was often boring as much as it was dangerous. He sat around as often as not, and those moments left a man's imagination to wander. Training was the only thing that kept him from making the alternate versions of his life a reality. That self-awareness stung, acid on an open wound, but such was why he hadn't written Nythadri a single letter as he so wanted. He'd pour out his heart, but no matter which responded, from dismissal to utter silence, he knew what he'd do next. That was a path he couldn't explore.

"She is your family then? Hana said she was widowed?"
He swallowed saying the word, looking briefly away. If not Araya's wife, A sister perhaps? Mother? Light, Araya couldn't have a daughter with gray in her hair? He blinked, studying Araya's outline. A child Tinker grown to a beautiful demon of a man.

Somehow, though. Araya did it. Here sat a man who saddled two horses galloping opposite directions. He had the answers, if Jai was brave enough to hear them.
A deep breath and he forced the question from his throat: "How do you do it?"


Then he heard it. What he asked, how he asked it. The question hung on the air like the stench of decay. He leaned forward and shoved his face to his hands. There was no escaping it now.
"Your family. You love them right?"
His hands fell to his lap, and he looked up. Too uncomfortable to relax as Araya was. Then a torrent of questions erupted. His heart pounded desperately, eyes seeking answers.
"Every time you leave, you have to say goodbye, right?"
Not a regular man's goodbye, but to stare forlorn into the eyes of cold reality. Every time was not a goodbye, it was the goodbye.
His stomach turned. "How do you do that to yourself? To them? You know you won't come back one time."
Forget the horror of actually leaving, but their suffering was the fault of the Asha'man's selfishness. Would it not be better to spare them that?

Shivers chilled every fine hair on his body. "Say you come back. How do you look them in the eye when you know what you've done? Shadowcreatures. Darkfriends."
He shook his head. Piles of carcasses, the stench of warm bodies indistinguishable from what they were before. It didn't matter whether bits of fur caught the wind or not. They were all the same mounds of pink in the end. From the nastiest of foes to the most sinister of girls. They all had the same look before obliteration. Frightened. Horrified. Abhorrence.

But they were men of the Black Tower. Soldiers could walk a battlefield and turn a blind eye to the screams of their friends piercing the night. They could sit at a fire and clean their boots that night without thinking about what it was they wiped off. They woke the next day and walked dark paths so others didn't. When closeted together, it was a tentative sort of balance. But then they return to the civilized world, and he had no idea how to behave in it.

Horrified by the idea, Jai posed his final question. The cold scenario was far from hypothetical. "Aren't you afraid? Someone wakes you up in the middle of the night and you turn to instinct before you realize where you are? Or who's waking you?"
It was a dangerous thing to wake an exhausted Asha'man, and he only lets it happen once before he stops sharing beds with the innocent.

The temperature flared hot. His chest tightened, his head pulsed. This was why he couldn't stay in Tar Valon. He paced. Hard. Arms folded across his chest. Then they disentangled, and frustrated, scrubbed at hair. The bloody room wasn't large enough for more than a few strides each way. It was only upon the third pass he realized he'd even left the chair. "We don't reach for the weapon under our pillow, Araya! We are the weapon!"


Everything came to a stop. And ten years of questions stared their chasm at Araya, but his throat strained. Choked. This was the torture of Tar Valon. That for some reason the city was a punishment he couldn't outrun, and not so easily discarded as a simple sword.

He fell quiet, a black pillar looking down into his own palms, head bowed. What would Nythadri say of their hands now? Could something damned by violence reach for something purer? Memory flashed. The scent of the sea, the taste of saltwater. The graze of her fingers. A voice whispering in his ear.

"No."
He shook his head quietly.

Jaw tight, "No. I don't want to know."
He knew his own limits. Having the secret to living as two men would crush, not free, him and in the end he would utterly fail both causes.

If Hana heard any of that, she'd have her answer. He glanced at Araya a moment, resolute, compliant but on the precipice of something. Then the bars slammed in place, and Jai headed for the door.

Only darkness shows you the light.


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#15
Jai’s surprise was met with the rasp of Araya’s chuckle, a dry, bone-rattle thing. It had taken years to find the light side of damnation, but if he hadn’t come to terms with it he never would have earned either pin. He was a weapon so others didn’t have to be; he fought so others were able to turn aside. A tinker would die before he raised a blade, but few tinkers ever saw the chaos of the blightborder. It was a sacrifice he made in their stead, because he had to believe such purity would still exist after Tar’mon Gaidon. “‘Was’ is more accurate. I think Tinker and Asha’man are rather mutually exclusive, don’t you? Plus, I have a house.”
The words were not as heavy with regret as they might have been a decade ago, and the self-effacing humour provoked another easy laugh as he gestured the solid walls around them. If he noticed the burden of sympathy, he gave no sign.

“She is, to both questions.”
He didn’t quite understand what he was being asked at first, so his words were starkly factual. Family for one of the Tuatha’an was not as simple as shared blood, it was something bred from the ties of loyalty and rooted in camaraderie. Hana was family. She just… was. He had no qualms or hesitations in referring to her as that, even if she herself wore the mantle of housekeep as if to be anything else was improper. “We’re not related. I knew her husband.”
Something instinctual swallowed back the name he might have otherwise offered: Daeyl. A tingle of warning – maybe something in Jai’s expression or his intonation – suddenly prompted him to wonder where the question had come from in the first place, but he had scant time to contemplate it.

‘How do you do it?’ The meaning of that took a moment to sink in. He watched the hair-line fractures as they chinked about Jai a little at a time, until that blank duty shattered to something far more monstrous. He fell into his hands, like the pressure could dislodge all the thoughts from his skull. Whatever Araya had expected, this was not it. These were burdens that sunk heavy and deep, and once released they cut a vicious path. The accusations shivered past pain, but Araya weathered the tirade. Every single one was valid, and every single one stung like a fresh pink cut as it flew from Jai’s mouth. But Araya had no answers. He didn’t know quite how to explain it; that indulging his humanity was the only way he stopped himself from ripping apart. That the razor-edged risks were outweighed by the fear of being alone - or worse, of leaving this world lacking any shred of goodness. One man’s compromise with his own soul was another’s fall into nightmare. He had no advice to offer.

Araya’s expression fell grim. To the destruction death left behind, he was not ignorant. He was never likely to forget the way Hana had crumpled the day he came to deliver Daeyl’s effects. Her face had fallen into her hands much like Jai’s did now, and she’d sunk down into a desolate pool of black skirts, the mourning ribbons looped about her arms hanging long and still. He didn’t know what to do. He could only think that the folded uniform must have manifested the wrenched loss of the bond when she had felt him die, and as soon he thought it once he couldn’t stop. It beat in his head like a heartbeat: the loss, the pain. He didn’t know what to do. Though Hana’s eyes were pink, there were no tears, and when her pallid face looked up, the words from her lips demanded to know how Daeyl had died. ‘I knew the risks,’ she said that over and over in the hour he had stayed with her. ‘I knew the risks.’ And so did Araya.

Now Jai was pacing, eating up the space from wall to wall like a caged menagerie beast. Araya’s chin sunk into his fist, watching the back and forth, the twitchy scrubbing of hair, and wondered when Jai would realise he couldn’t go on like this. Devil’s compromise or duty’s blinding path – or something else entirely – but he had to make a decision, and it had to be one he could live with; self-destruction wasn’t an option – not till the Dark One rotted. Some men simply weren’t capable of extricating themselves from emotion; if Jai chose compromise, each fear he’d spat today would wait to haunt every moment of discontent, and even the happiest of lives had those. If he chose duty, Araya was beginning to realise, then the same fears would still be snatching at his ankles to drag him under in every moment of weakened resolve. And even the most stalwart soldier had moments of that, too. Fact was, the doubts never left. If Jai was going to be the best he could be for the Tower, for the Light, then he was going to have to find a way to exist without ripping apart at the seams.

When Jai stopped, eyes blazing a hollow taint, Araya stared back. Silent. Jai had no wife. His family was tucked safe in Tar Valon untouched by their abomination son. He would leave no widow, no mourning family: none of his fears would come to pass. So where did the vehemence come from? If he was walking the path of responsibility, detached from the trappings of an ordinary man’s life, burden though it may be, he had no right to fall victim to such a rage. Araya didn’t know Jai. Moments earlier, compliance had been dominant. Days before that, the rebelliousness of a drunken brawl had seen him face down in the dirt. Which one spoke more truth he was only now beginning to comprehend. He’s afraid of the potential harm he might inflict. It was exactly why Aes Sedai made their novices cast off old lives. But Asha’man were not Aes Sedai. The ironic thing was that Araya also knew what it was like to be the one left behind; to wonder if the last goodbye was the final goodbye. Memories of Arad Doman incited a hand to massage his brow; trying to capture words to explain the essence of feeling. Why he’d agreed to Trista’s request, though it left him in a knife-edged limbo. But the stab of questions barely gave him time to respond.

“Weapons, yes. But sentient weapons. Flesh and blood weapons. What else do you think I fight for if not for them?”
The words were heavy, truthful, and in Araya’s whisper-tones barely audible. But Jai was looking at his hands, lost – and then he was shaking his head, shutting down, walking away. Araya didn’t stop him reaching for the door, but he did speak, louder this time. “Jai."
He knew the man would stop; was aware that whatever fragility had allowed the deluge to flow, it was done now. "You should really speak to Hana.”
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#16

Araya's rhetoric unleashed a storm on the horizon unacknowledged by those too far from the thunder. A moment later he was on the threshold, door open and cheeks slapped with the cold air of freedom. A regular street waited without. Empty but for evidence of late-night travelers. Footsteps criss-crossing the snow.

His head pounded with enough consequence from the hangover to not be tempted by the lure of seeking another so soon; the lack of coppers likely helping him set aside that unhealthy invocation. The call of his name turned him slow, but willing to face whatever order was going to follow. An odd one came. Confusion reigned for the next few moments.

Hana? The outline of cold facts presented themselves: amily but not related by blood, something else bound the two together, Araya knew her husband. A chill scraped the edges of understanding, but Jai had a feeling Hana was a mystery best left in the dark.

What few noises once filtered through the walls before had since died out so quiet he wondered if they'd ever truly been real. Tense as though the house itself braced for what was building within its rooms. Jai's eyes were drawn toward the direction he last knew Hana to be and that direction he stared. She was a breathing woman, hardened by time, but his last memory of her was cheerful as Araya's wardrobe. Yet she was shadowed by something which didn't cling to Araya: the subdued smile of a survivor. One who earned the right to grin again. Ironic then, that Araya was the unwed man, yet his shoulders were dragged down by something unseen. While Hana, the one who'd loved and lost, carried on with her head held high.

He glanced outside. Pale flakes fell straight on windless air. Deep enough to look in need of shoving aside; drifts already began to crawl their way up the sides of everything. The cold tugged at his clothes, promising cartharsis waited out on those streets. It was just a matter of walking long enough to find it. And he knew he'd find it. Yet the beauty of walking through the snow would be a solitary path. It would be looking through the glass at what was untouchable on the other side.

As he waited blank with indecision, the warmth of the room leaked out around him. This house was a cozy hearth. A crackling fire a man could sit beside and stare at fascinated for hours on end. Better yet, he could share the fire with someone who knew to appreciate the moment for what it was. The sort of huddling that brought everyone together around one epicenter of warmth. A simple necessity, but the kind that forged bonds. Not the wealthy blazes of abundance that segregated everyone to their separate wings in the name of privacy.

His shoulders dropped, "I know what you fight for."
A determined sigh for the ages escaped. Dry, crushed, but a beautiful, sorrowed sound. The stem of a crumpled rose. The rift of disturbed snow. He shook his head again. Thoughtlines formed across his brow. Turned down his lips.

The hoarse way his brother spoke registered and Jai studied the scarf knotted at his brother's neck. A strange sort of respect kept him from asking about it. Just as Araya let his curiosity fester unanswered in return. Daryen had a kid he'd never mentioned. Jai, a scar he never explained. These brothers weren't the only ones with cores, and digging deep, Jai latched on to his. Nythadri was the only one willing to trust, and he'd learned his lesson.

"You're right."
He shrugged in stronger agreement with Araya than the man likely knew. Concentration darkened his face a moment, but no roar of saidin blazed to life. Instead, he delved into his own head rather than the Source. It'd be a good few hours before he channeled again, but in the meantime, his head was eager to stretch to its limits. His mouth formed words, but no syllable explained what they were.

Then, satisfied he was clear headed enough to count cards, but it'd take more than a headache to obliterate that skill. Least ways, he was unlikely to be threatened for a cheat in this saintly city of channelers. Not with the uniform, but gambling was never about the money.

He blinked the rest away, smoothed his sleeves, and pinned Araya man to man, "flesh and blood?"
Araya didn't strike him the old-fashioned sort, but he nodded an invite out there, and waited just in case the guy decided he could use a night away from the family. "If you're interested?"
A dark innuendo, perhaps, for men of honor but Jai wasn't so tragic a hero to think himself above it anyway. Araya was a good looking guy. All he'd have to do is walk in, hands in his pockets, and stand there. Jai would wager it'd be five minutes before he was drowning in more attention than most guys saw in a year.

Silence. Then, a shrug. "I'll see you in the morning."
Early morning, likely. His stance on sleeping arrangements was rather clear. Face drawn, a moment after, he left.
Only darkness shows you the light.


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#17
Araya stood wearily when he heard the front door open, and followed the path Jai had taken. The house’s warmth sucked out in seconds, chilling the narrow hallway to an ice-tunnel. He lingered for valuable seconds to seek Hana’s judgement, wondering what in the Light he was supposed to do now. Still at the kitchen table, in plain view of both doors, she caught both men in her stare. A frown darkened her brow, lips thin. How much of that did she hear? He offered an apologetic half-smile, but her gaze only swept to the wide open door, where crystals of snow already collected on the threshold. Right. Twisted round in her chair, speckles of breadcrumb still on her lips, Korene’s large, doleful eyes followed the procession – until Hana’s curt words drew her back round. “Child, finish your food.”


He followed Jai, but only as far as the doorway, where he stood like a sentinel – albeit one that saw fit to lean casually against the wall, one hand in pocket. Words floated in the back of his mind; explanations, mostly – this house, the people in it, a million cascading whys. But in the end he said nothing, just watched as Jai mouthed silent words and nodded to himself. He seemed collected again; cast severe in black and sorrow, but in control, and Araya was not so sure he wanted to prod deep enough to disturb those fragile masks again. The invitation, innuendo-touched or otherwise, elicited raised brows and an affable grin touched by age. He didn’t blame a man seeking solace, and there were worse ways to do it, but these days it was succour with less draw than it used to have. He understood, though Light it made him feel old; fifteen years past it might have been the sort of comfort he chased too.

Ever the optimist, Araya chose to ignore the dark undertones, though he felt them ripple from Jai like contaminating smoke. He watched the man’s retreating back, pulled his hand from his pocket and folded his arms. Was it wise to abandon him to Tar Valon alone? It felt like loosening an arrow into the night; you couldn’t quite be sure of the potential risk. Already Jai had transformed from chastened brother to desperate accuser and back, and Araya doubted this new display of control was infinite. Sorrow blanketed him thick. At the same time, of course, an Asha’man needed no babysitter: even one fresh from public beating was one Araya was willing to trust to the integrity of the pins at his throat. Jai had sullied the Tower’s name, and paid for it. He wouldn’t be making that same mistake again, least not so soon. Which was good, because Araya would make an incompetent minder anyway.

He glanced back at Hana, whose piercing gaze seemed more interested to see the door closed and what was left of the heat preserved than the moral dilemma Araya faced. Though, if she had heard anything Jai had said, he didn’t believe that as truth for a minute. An apologetic grin did nothing to alleviate her impatience; her brows rose starkly. Make a decision.

In the end it was good-hearted human nature that tugged Araya from the threshold and sunk his boots into velvet snow. Brotherhood. The Tinker-ish notion that company was better than being alone. It took a moment to catch up, and when he did he fell into stride. "You have an idea of where you want to go?"
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#18
With the door sealed off, darkness fell like a cloak. It was freezing cold. Not a few steps later the wind kicked up, but it lacked the strength to disturb more than his ears. When the wind finally died, Jai realized just how insanely quiet it was. A million collective breaths being held before the break of a storm. Or the city was resting peacefully. It was the same kind of quiet.

Lamps glowed white orbs left and right down Araya's street. South side, near the outer rim of the island. It was a gamble either direction, but standing there, snowflakes collecting in his hair and dusting across his shoulders, Jai slid his hands in his pockets and took the right for no particular reason at all. It simply felt like the way to go.

His gaze fell to the pristine sparkles blanketing the path as took off; down from the height of buildings. He realized it was dumb, but he couldn't help lingering on the feeling of what it was to be the first to walk across new fallen snow. It was nice but reminded him of a hundred other quiet nights, when the shadows were too thick to distinguish earth churned up by saidin from the dead lumped up beside them.

After the adrenaline inside that consumed had been the last few minutes diminished, he remembered how exhausted he was; and just exactly where he was. Even out here, the slim line of bridges arc'd overhead, much as they did over the rest of the city. They connected guard towers as often as not. The city watch would be on patrol, then. Trudging through the sleet, head held high, ears numb, fingers locked around the hilt of a sword. Circling the outer wall with a brother. The sickle of torchlight gleaming from their armored shoulders. The honored guardians of Tar Valon waiting, daring the city's enemies to march into the open and face their fury. The glint of a thousand spearheads, the weight of a thousand shields. Honor. Home.

It'd been so appealing to a kid staring out his window, chin on his fist, and counting the days until he was old enough to enlist. In the meantime scheming up fake documents to join in early. He shook his head, but no self-deceptive smirk lightened his mood this time. "Right."
No light gleamed from his shoulders. No heroic gaze looked into the setting sun. "What else do you think I fight for if not for them?" Araya had asked with so much passion.

Torn, his brow darkened. What am I fighting for?

Then, a crunch. Hurried footsteps pounding through snow. Catching up to him.

Jai paused and the count in his head slammed to a halt. Then, with hands in his pockets and snow dusting his shoulders, he turned, fearlessly unhurried, just as Araya joined him.

Huh. He came after all, and backlit by the white glow of lamplight, something of a surprised smile darted to life briefly before it delved from sight altogether. The two men caught eyes. Then, a nod and Jai returned to his previous pace. If perhaps half a step slower than it had been. The image of Araya's slim frame struggling to heft a taller brother to his feet the likely motivation to slow down.

Question asked. He looked blankly up, from staring at more than the few steps in front of him at least, and followed the consistent trail of lamplight leading to nowhere he recognized. It was a decent neighborhood. Rows of modest buildings lined either side of the street. But even the poorest of residences in Tar Valon was better than the best of many cities. Some had the flower pots of private residences, others the broad windows of storefronts. The sort of place a man would feel safe to leave his family behind. Or should. For a while longer.

They couldn't see it now, the craftsmen skill too excellent to tell without looking for it, but Jai would wager there were patches in Araya's half of the city as common as in his own. Cloven hooves once trampled these streets. The eyeless once stalked Tar Valon's open road. Repairs. They were still working on it, Ogier Masons. He wondered if the attack was before Araya's time or not. The guy had moments of age to him, despite the same youth that kept Jai young. Had Araya raced out his door that night to defend the city he'd chosen to plant his roots? Jai doubted the guy fumed defiance at his father like the hot-headed young man he'd been. Nor ready to sprint out like a hero, only to let himself be guilted back like a coward. He thought about that for a second.

A heavy sigh prepared him for the cold soon to shoot into hot lungs. He breathed deep, and the guilt fizzled out like a dying fire.

Where did he want to go? He blinked, realizing he'd never answered. "Anywhere that looks decent,"
he said with all the weight of a burdened memory he didn't mean to fall into. It was a different life. A different time; he had to move on. And focus on right now. And whatever it was they were soon to walk into. Something different happened every time the first face realized an Asha'man kicked back the door. In Bandar Eban the worst of it was shrugs and the best a roudy invite to join in on whatever was going on. In Tear it was roaring noise skid to immediate silence. In Caemlyn, it was mutters under everyone's breath. In Tar Valon? Well. They'd soon find out.

They stopped at a crossroads. It looked promising. A couple carts labored through the snow, goods tented. A guy in an abundant overcoat slipped on a hard pack, but caught himself on the verge of wiping out. But frozen shells of fountains looked abandoned for the winter and no particular sign caught his eye in the darkness.
"Uhh? Any input here?"
Left or right? He scratched his neck. Or onward? Jai shrugged to himself and followed Araya's lead. Other than a quick glance behind them, he didn't pay much attention which way they turned.

So long as where they ended up was a decent enough place willing to front the money to buy into a game, he really didn't care. There were always men willing to place a few bets. There was always something to eat. Though the quality of both tended to vary. Unless the anonymous reputation that came with being a man of the Dragon was enough to accept he was good for it. Had it been an issue of collateral, a pristine sword usually satisfied, but tonight Jai didn't have so much as a bloody belt buckle to put down. Coin or not, silver that fine could delight the most frugile of skeptics. Which left trading on his name. In this city, a banker's reputation was the surest bet in, but neither dropping his name nor taking money from Araya were options Jai was willing to consider.

They walked for a long way before Jai glanced over again. Araya's green coat seemed colorless in the low light, and the snow melted a wet sheen across his shoulders; dark and soaked as his own. The flakes disappeared in his pale hair, whiter than Daryen's was yellow, but not faded with age. More like he'd been born that way. The scarf would be nice, but Jai had his own high collar snug at his throat. No sword either, despite the commission. Light, he could understand a Tinker's choice to leave a blade behind. He caught his own hand about then. Absent habit about to send it to relax on a hilt that wasn't there. And quickly stuffed it back in his pocket, frowning.

They picked the first place they came to. Despite the bawdy sort of front, the place looked almost inviting. A broom was perched up by the door, but it seemed the step hadn't been swept for the last hour. Frost clung to the corners of the window. The yellow of a large fire illuminated the other side.

"You a gambling man, Araya?"
He asked, quietly. Staring the place a good look over. Five minutes might be enough to find a guy with Araya's quiet confidence occupied for the night, but that was plenty of time for Jai get his hands on a couple coppers. He cracked his neck to loosen up a bit; finally realizing he'd held his jaw tight the entire time.

A shrug and he led the way inside.
Only darkness shows you the light.


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#19
Scents blasted. A pleasant level of music strummed. A fire raged. The crowds weren't overflowing nor was the place exploding with business. It suited Jai just fine.

A man with silver hair worked casks of ale; he looked bored, disinterested. No inside joke punched the wind out of everyone like last time he strolled into a Tar Valoni tavern. Light, that had been hilarious. Once the spike of doubt that Jon was serious faded away. Your kind.

Between stomps pounding the snow from his boots and swipes shaking out his hair, he studied the room. Where people sat, who looked like they could handle themselves, the exits. That sort of thing. It was a normal place, he told himself. Nothing was going on. Somewhere to lay low. He glanced at Araya, wondering if his fellow asha'man approved.

Finger-like flames curled them closer, but sticky tables of warm ale were an easy temptation to ignore. He had no interest in drinking a drop again anytime soon. Not so much the hunger flooding his mouth. When chewing with an absent molar, every bite was a disturbing reminder. Most were pooled around the tables nearest the fire as though the room had been tipped that direction.

Unsurprising, Araya won a few quizzical looks. Green and violet weren't the common combinations after all. In Tar Valon, though, nobody seemed to care. The city was a melting pot of strange customs, and foreigners were welcome. Refugees included.

He expected defensive stares following him along like fearful dogs. He expected men to pat their coats or check their weapons. He expected the serving girls to retreat. Instead, one cute, plump girl with curled yellow hair that bounced when she laughed looked amused by Araya and smiled warmly for Jai; he caught himself smiling in return. A man seated alone stood and offered his table to them; Jai almost thought he'd heard wrong at first. When it was explained they were interested in cards, the man bowed his head and wished them luck. On and on the respect continued, small gestures that felt enormous in the darkness. A confused Jai scratched his scalp and looked to Araya for an explanation. Was this normal?

Three guys played cards. The first had the look of a dockworker. His rough trousers, gray shirt and threadbare coat were more dirty than clean. There were streaks on his clothes that looked like they'd doubled for a hand-towel. Though his interest in cleaning his hands didn't extend to the grime under his nails. Nor did he seem to care about his cards. Either he didn't know to keep them close to his chest or the hand wasn't worth protecting. Coin clinked, and Jai was surprised that he tossed more pennies to the center of the table. He glanced up about the time Jai arrived, but there was only fog in his eyes: too far gone to care who joined the table. A functional, but quiet drunk: Jai only understood all too well. At least he was lucid enough to shove his chair over to make more room.

"Raise five silvers. Valoni mind you."
The second guy shoved his promised wager forward, largely ignoring the Asha'man joining them. By this one's bald head he was older than the dockworker, but the rim of hair that remained was streaked with thin gray. Spots of ink dotted this man's fingertips like a scribe, but by his snug, simple coat and faded scarf he wasn't paid well enough to be a scribe. Secretary maybe. Or a clerk?

Which left the remaining player. By far the most professional of the group. He rechecked the hand held flush against the table by lifting the merest corner of his cards like it was only natural. He thought for a long moment, brow drawn in concentration until he decided whatever he held was worth the risk,
"Fine. Five silver pennies. Raise a mark."
He pushed the stack forward then leaned back confidently. Arms crossed, waiting. Patient. His wager was met immediately. Both men thought they had winning hands, apparently. The third shrugged and paid up.

The dealer, whom everyone at their table was slightly oriented to face, revealed the three cards at his favor. The poorer dockworker's shoulders sagged, but the two betting men had completely opposite reactions. The ink-stained scribe of sorts grinned triumphantly. He immediately revealed a decent combination of cards that when combined with the dealer's choices gave him something rarely to be beat.
"Ha'ah!"
He boasted, "finally got you this time..."
He grinned and started collecting his winnings.

The third man lifted his brows from the shadows of a wide-brimmed hat. He had yet to show his cards, but Jai was almost amused at what was playing out. Either the guy was too shamed to be caught bluffing or he was being dramatic. Turned out. He was being dramatic.

He seemed a quiet sort of man, but in a cool, collected way rather than with the bearing of an introvert. Then again, the choice of a hat and a thick beard added to the illusion. He was the sort who seemed to like his privacy, and didn't care if his customs or hygiene offended the manners of higher classed men. Not that he seemed the sort to gravitate toward fluffier circles; lucky bastard. He kept the collar of his coat turned up, but as it was unbuttoned, they could tell the clothes beneath were modest and had once been pressed. They certainly weren't plush or trimmed, but a vest fit him well and the white shirt beneath was clean if wrinkled somewhat from a day's wear. Jai couldn't quite tell how old he was, but there was no gray streaking his beard or woven through his hair. He kept it longer than Jai would prefer, curling all the way down to his shoulders. His eyes were sharp; darker brown than one would expect with his coloring. And alert, and the whole time he drank tea rather than the ales set before his companions.

He cleared his throat, and the scribe stopped, looking suddenly worried. The beard parted and teeth shone off a cavalier grin. He flipped the cards one at a time. The dockworker's jaw dropped, and Jai nodded to himself. Impressive. He didn't need the dealer's options to win out. He was laughing, the lighthearted winner, with the sounds of true merriment at the cost of another. As the scribe scowled at the dealer, he angrily swiped away the short stacks of coin he'd drawn toward himself and left the table. Accusations hurled, the winner didn't seem to mind, but his laugh died out. He wanted to make sure things didn't escalate beyond heated words. Apparently he'd been winning for a while.

The cards were recollected. The deck shuffled. And the dealer incorporated the two new players without a second glance.

"That was quite the hand."
Jai complimented the fellow he figured was going to give him a decent run tonight. Judging by the coins on his side. There were a fair amount of copper, but the rims of silver was nothing to sneer at either.
"Thanks."
He was reorganizing his winnings into precise stacks, but he paid too much attention to them. And Jai caught the man flicking eyes his way more than once. Narrowed, suspicious eyes. He could feel being studied. Weighed and measured; fascinated, like counterfeit gold.

Jai didn't bet on the first round of cards. He folded early. It was too soon to put out those feelers. When the round ended, he barely blinked before a sum filled his head. Face cards he added to an arbitrary count. Others he detracted from it. But counting cards was never about keeping track of what was played. It was a measurement of what cards remained to be played. Which gave a calculation of risk. When the risk was high, he would fold. When the risk was low, he would bet. When the risk was very low, he'd bet big. At least, that was the gist of it. It didn't take a stellar mind to keep track of a count like that, but a player's efficiency dramatically increased with the more side counts he could juggle. Tracking over all deck risk was one thing. Tracking deck risk and the appearance of a few power cards was a difficulty. Keeping track of deck risk and every card in the deck? There was a reason Jai wasn't worried about collateral when he wagered up.

Obviously, the longer a deck was played the greater accuracy afforded a counter. Jai was unsurprised when the man in the hat passed on betting more than a couple coppers for the next few rounds. He lost them to the dockworker, who seemed far more pleased with the moment than his opponent was disappointed.

It took several hands, but when Jai and the man both placed modest bets at the same time, he began to suspect he'd found another counter. When they both countered with the same increase in stake percentage, he knew he had.

Jai looked him over again. His coins were still neatly stacked. He pushed his bets carefully across the table rather than tossing them carelessly as other men tended to do. His coat fit him well, but in a looser sort of style. It almost seemed to hide the outline of a lean, strong man beneath.

Throughout the game so far Jai continued to catch him looking at him. Like he was studying something he found fascinating. He wasn't shifty or overly nervous. When he wanted a refill of his tea, he turned down a clean cup and made the girl bring him the boiling kettle to inspect tableside. Only after a studious peer inside and questioning sniff of the vapors did he allow the water poured. Of all things, the guy produced his own tea leaves as well, crushing and stirring them into the water unconcerned that everyone was staring. It was paranoia bordering on bizarre; Zakar could learn a thing or two from this guy.

On the next potentially profitable hand, Jai folded when he otherwise should have won. In doing so he lost almost everything he'd won so far, but what he bought was worth it: the brief moment of confusion to cross the card counter's face answered his questions. He was shocked by Jai's play: which meant both men knew the other was counting, but neither was willing to call the other on it. This was more than mutual respect; something was going on.

Jai tipped his head, acknowledging defeat with half a grin, and glanced at Araya. Did the Tinker have any idea what they were doing? Or did he only see a guy being taken to the cleaners?

"I thought you had me there, Asha'man."
The counter interrupted, neatly stacking his winnings. Beneath the beard he was grinning. Then he glanced toward Araya as though wondering if the oddly dressed fellow was a mere boy or another mindless weapon. Whatever he decided, he nodded a fearless greeting and went back to studying Jai, who in turn, shrugged despite his confusion.

"Me too. Perhaps we should up the stakes? Play for gold?"

The card counter laughed then suddenly cut himself off. The door opened and two men entered. Both were thick with muscle hiding under long coats. Both wore a sword at one hip and a dagger on the other. They studied the room from the door for a moment, unconcerned about bothering anyone. Then, apparently, they found who they were looking for.

Jai only watched as the card counter shoved his money into a coin bag with one good swipe of his arm. He tossed the bag in a pocket and shoved from the chair in a hurry. But not before tipping his hat to those he was leaving behind, "Pleasure playing with you gentlemen,"
his grin was fixed on Jai for a second, who only stared confusion in return, and he made for the back.

The two newcomers exchanged smirks like they expected as much to happen. Then they left the way they came.

"What the blazes was that about?"
The dockworker mumbled what the rest of them were wondering, then shrugged it off and went back to his ale without an answer. Araya frowned and Jai tapped his fingers thoughtfully on the table edge. Whatever trouble the card counter was in, it looked like he was being called to pay for it. Still, it ate at Jai. He'd never come across someone so skilled, but he'd seen men scamper out like that before.

He twisted around in his chair. The window was too frosted over to tell if anything was happening outside. Then it hit him. The counter ran out the back but the two left the way they came in. They seemed in no rush because they knew he was in here all along. They had the alley guarded.

"Blood and ashes,"
Jai muttered to himself, already knowing what he was going to do. Nythadri's brother died much the same way. Jumped, out-numbered, and beaten to death in darkness. And there was the body he'd nearly hurled into the abyss. There were plenty of corpses clawing at his feet, but none had been pounded back by his own fury; none but that guy. Not that he deserved anything better.

Then there was the way the stranger stared at Jai, who still couldn't shake off a bad feeling. Paranoid or not; his curiosity was stirred. He couldn't channel yet, and in the best of health he wasn't sure he could handle more than a couple of guys at the same time. As this was hardly the best of times, he pulled himself up, squeezed tired eyes and contemplated how to handle this. Araya was watching closely.

His meager winnings he distributed back to the dealer for a tip. The dockworker was oblivious to their leaving. Araya met him half way to the back exit. "I have a bad feeling about this,"
Jai told him despite a shot of doubt chilling his spine: something in him wanted to make sure Araya would go along with it. "I just want to make sure everything's okay?"
There was no law to break in that. Then again, he'd said as much before.

It was a straight shot to the back alley. So easy to slip out, Jai wondered if the card counter chose this place on that attribute alone. He was clever then. More if he knew he was being hunted.

The two asha'man slipped carefully into the night. Two shapes floating through the shadows. The snow had piled up back here. It was dead quiet. The whiteness reflected a diffuse sort of glow, but the shadows crept where it could. And markedly, no circle of men battered anyone.

Jai tensed with warning. This was all wrong.

Araya looked about as uncomfortable as Jai felt but they carefully explored a bit further anyway: moving into the open center of the alley. It was then Jai realized what was left behind in the snow. Steel. A bare short-sword; dropped, right in the middle of the alley. He knelt down. The blade was clean. His frown deepened; what happened here? Who dropped..? Then he saw them.
Three bodies. Dragged to the shadows he hadn't noticed before. The two swordsmen from inside and the partner waiting in the back.
"What the-"
he didn't finish the question.
A thud landed softly behind them. The card counter dropped right behind Araya from wherever he'd been hiding. Not only was the man unhurt, but he still wore his hat and was holding a weapon. He quickly exploded into attack.

Araya must have caught a glimpse of it because he managed to throw his arm up just in time to block the charge. The weapon was more a piece of wood than an actual club, but it made just as nasty a sound when it connected with Araya's arm. Only inches from his head. It was a solid strike, but Jai thought the guy held back a little. Which made no sense. There wasn't time to wonder what it meant though. If anything. The Tinker grunted painfully, then grabbed his arm like it were split in two. He stumbled to the side, having caught the surprise off-balance and in mid-spin, lost his footing and fell.

The card counter slipped Araya an apology, "Sorry about that!"
Jai would have believed the sincerity, if they hadn't just been ambushed.

The guy gratefully pat the plank he turned into an impromptu club, but he didn't lower his defenses. "You know. I thought that'd be harder."
He grinned at the felled Asha'man like he was pleased with himself. Then, with Araya momentarily dealt with, he turned toward Jai.

Who was waiting. Discarded shortsword in hand.

Saidin would have been the more efficient weapon. But a fear deeper than instinct urged him to use steel. He knew in the way every asha'man knew, he was close to his limit. Channeling a lash would send their attacker to his knees, if Jai finessed the storm before it raged out of his control. If not, the man would not get up and the final silence would not relieve the questions burning through his head, and Jai was definitely not willing to crush himself for one alley lowlife.

Araya should only need a few moments to recover. And Jai was more than capable to give it to him. Armed, and emotions steadied with the simplicity of another man's sword, the level of calm he found was surprising. Almost as if he doubted they were in true danger.

The card counter hesitated like he expected a different reaction. Jai felt studied while the attacker's brief ferocity swung curious; but he attacked nonetheless, plank swinging. The Asha'man's sleek shadow charged; he'd been ready. It felt awkward, wielding an effective form hacked from rough timber rather than chiseled into something smooth. Twenty-five years of practicing, and his body rebelled.

The stranger swung the club confident the shorts-word wouldn't cleave it in two, but Jai had no other choice. There was no time to form an alternative plan. He doubled down on the hilt and sliced the way his own sword should have razored the air. The only way he knew how. The steel bit into the club, but neither man could withstand the force. It stuck like an axe in a tree, and both sword and club were wrenched from their grips. Relief was momentary.

Weaponless, snow kicked up when both recovered easily enough and quickly turned on one other. They were close in height. Jai hadn't noticed it inside when they'd both been seated. His opponent was broader shouldered than he'd anticipated as well, and keeping up where Jai was already beginning to tire. But he didn't much like the idea of being pommeled again: he refused to let himself feel it. Wear and fatigue scattered, fled before banishment.

He had no problem using the man's baggy clothes to work against him. He snatched the guy's wide collar and loose sleeve, and yanked him forward. It wasn't the most honorable move, but it did take the man by surprise. He grunted loud when Jai's knee slammed into his gut. Jai was too focused to grimace, though he knew how badly that hurt.

He stumbled back, but managed to throw an elbow toward Jai, who blocked the strike with his free forearm. Their back and forth was well matched. The man recovered and Jai was tiring, and for a moment wasn't sure if he was going to win. The guy took out three armed men already, and Jai didn't often find himself in these sorts of things where it seemed his opponent did.

But Jai held to that calm while his opponent quickly became frantic. His punches were hastier, and he was slipping more often in the snow. Then the opening Jai needed presented itself. Pain flared Jai's knuckles, but he shook off the flare while the card counter fell, clutching his face. Jai was panting, and his arms felt like water, but in the moment he wrenched the sword free of its post and pressed the point into the man's chest. A dark cavern crawled around the edges of his expression: a fury contained, for now. It was the mercy of circumstance that stayed his hand; he would have loved to channel about then. Or pound the sword into the man's heart. But not yet. This one had a lot to explain.

Breathless and beaten, he ripped the hat from his head and tossed it aside. It freed his hair and some light caught his face. Despite the grimace, his eyes were as sharp as they'd been before, but surprised. Whatever he expected to happen, it hadn't been that. When he burst into an insane grin, Jai's tension solidified. Questions swirled. Why the shock? That they'd followed him? That the Asha'man didn't channel? What was with that grin? This guy was out of his mind.

"Blood and ashes Jai,"
he started, glancing nervously at the sword digging into his flesh. "Finally learn how to handle yourself in a fight, huh? Nice beard."


Jai's heart stopped. This guy knew him, knew him well. Paranoia fluttered like quiet bats in the rafters. The Oneness chilled, and everything corroded. A hollow grave veiled his eyes while his mind raced, perched on the edge of night. Nothing remained but a hilt, a sword, and the pressure inching from his hands with the promise of an easy, swift kill. But armored in the Black Tower's retribution, he blinked and did not move.

"How do you know me?"


Only darkness shows you the light.


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#20
"You really don't recognize me?"
There was genuine surprise in the question. But no accusation despite the sword directed at his heart. "Ah well. It's the beard I guess. I hardly recognized you at first either,"
his smirk wasn't worried. "I'm glad to see you alive, kid. And looking properly overworked and scary,"
he barked a laugh, "I wasn't expecting a fist fight though. Missing a sword huh? At least shouldn't you be channeling or something. Unless the last decade was a really bad joke?"
The man shot Araya a humored glance like he might be in on it.

Jai was absolutely dumbfounded. The comment about his sword stung; but it was a scratch beside deeper wounds. His heart wasn't pounding but he couldn't move either. Couldn't see. Recognition scuttled in the darkness; and Jai's lips parted to speak a name, but his throat crisped to ashes. Nothing about this man on the ground was the aristocrat he once was. His hair was tangled with dirt and his temples shone with palpable sweat. Lines dug into the flesh around his eyes: crevices of age deepened by fatigue not pensive thoughts of a cultured man. They were tired of seeing the cares in the world those around him ignored, but determination gave him patience to tend them anyway. The same good humored patience to wait for the aura cloaking his captor to release him.

Jai slowly removed the sword from the man's chest who rubbed the spot where it had pressed and forced himself to laugh. Then he labored to sit up, but it was pained movements. He was hurting; Jai hadn't held back.

Jai took a step away. He needed the space to breathe as much as the man needed space to rise. Beneath the bad clothes, under the beard and behind the shadows of stress Jai knew he knew: he just wasn't sure if he should laugh with joy or go hang himself. Instead, he found himself doing neither. He chucked the sword away and slowly approached, half afraid it was all an illusion and stood there trying to decide if it was real or not. Then from a step away, he suddenly pulled his brother into a tight hug.

When their shadows parted, Jai took a step back, straightened out his already straight coat and sent his arms to cross over it not sure what to do now. A dark alley with three bodies, two asha'man and a madman. Sounds about right. "What are you doing down here? Who were those guys? And why did you bloody attack us?"
Then it dawned on him, as though this new epiphany were the stranger turn of events: "Wait, you were counting cards?"


Andreu shrugged. What terrors haunted the imagination that drove his sense of insecurity were bloody and distinct from those following Jai. Jai, who would devote every heartbeat to discovering the conspiracy that led him to be followed, to this man, an inert body was hardly a threat now. The three men, Jai continually checked were largely unmoving. So a few minutes of peace remained to them. And he was plenty relieved when one started to shuffle about. If the other two were also alive their bindings should hold for a while yet; and the gags would stifle enough noise to keep the nearest patrol from responding. Andreu shrugged dismissively,
"Yeah. Well I'm working. You were just cheating. And as for the jump, let's just say I like to be careful when i'm working"


Cheating? Jai looked mocked.

"Careful? Right."
Knowing this guy, that wasn't an exaggeration. He watched the man smear the hair out of his face and tie the longest of it from his eyes. Pulled back seemed to strip him of some years but the crowmarks remained. Jai barely recognized him. "We could have killed you,"
he added quietly. Honestly.

Dru glanced at the sword depressed in the snow a moment, then back to Jai, nodding slowly. But he knew the blade wasn't the true threat. It didn't censure his blunt reaction though.
"I know. You'll be at the Last Battle then?"


Jai stared, awkward and quiet. Enough snow had collected on his shoulders to no longer melt the moment it landed there. White dots froze against his chest.

Eventually, a slow nod as Andreu thrust cold his hands in his pockets. Jai thought about the warmth within the fibers of the new coat; men frequently said they grew cold as death grew closer. Though, in his own dance, it had been an insensate chill; numbness creeping up as paralysis sank in. Something the blankets of this world could not comfort.

Until then, the rich wool was a precautionary comfort, a symbol of a small way a man might face the unavoidable on his own terms. But despite the sentiment, there was no undoing how thoughtlessly Andreu experienced his baby brother's retaliation. Things would never be quite the same; and Jai's only salvation was not having channeled to do it, but eventually he'd slip and it'd happen. He'd prove first hand what he was capable of accomplishing without hiding the dark smile on his face while he did it. Yet another reason to walk away. It was something that had to be done; because he couldn't juggle like Araya. Jai needed separation: he needed to find that distant field, get up every day, and serve something greater than himself. Half the time he wondered if he should just shove himself into a closet and stay there until the walls were inked with black: a script so thick their author would not be able to decipher the madness penned there.

Until then, Jai had no interest in killing anyone he wasn't ordered to strike. But disproportionate brutality was hardly the conduct of gentlemen, even in an ambush. He was aware of what he was, but there was still hope his family would be spared from finding out. The plague of war already wasted his soul of their family's old honor, there was little reason to let them watch the rest of his humanity drip away. When Jai didn't elaborate, Dru waved away the tension as if the cold realities of the world were his to summon or banish at command.

Dripping. Light. He steeled himself, wondering when that memory would stop making him want to want to collapse. Then suddenly, Araya. Jai remembered the other man's presence. But he had no idea how where to begin. Except with the obvious: introduce them.

"Dru, this is Asha'man Araya- uh-"
The introduction was cut short, as he was unsure if Araya had a last name. Jai gestured between the two men anyway. The snow was falling straight again and when he squeezed the back of a knotted neck, he finally appreciated every flake wetting his hair. It was melting under his collar, but he ignored it for now; it was kind of too beautiful to wish it would stop. But Andreu was probably the best version of himself he could hope to be, the only embarrassment was his own hasty reaction. The man was definitely struggling, but he still had his little brother's respect. Probably because Jai understood what it was like to be tormented. If Araya could see through the insanity, hopefully he'd think the same way.

Andreu looked Araya over like he memorized everything about him, but that didn't stop him offering a friendly handshake if a cold palm from dusting snow from his clothes. An apologetic grin was stretched across his face.
"I am sorry about the arm. I really don't like to be followed. You understand?"
Forgiveness assumed, he quickly retreated a few steps. Whatever his comfort around Jai, something about Araya unnerved him, like he wasn't quite sure if he should trust him or not. The hesitation was probably justified. He had outright ambushed a pair of Asha'man. Not exactly the safest of moves.

While Dru's attention was occupied, Jai, arms crossed, watched carefully. He could practically feel Araya's opinion of him tanking. Which was understandable. He wasn't exactly catching Jai at his gleaming best the last few days. And his brother's antics weren't helping. Whatever Dru was involved in, he was apparently getting along fine but they were still worrisome. He'd attacked his own brother just because he didn't like to be followed. That, Jai understood. But Light, his paranoia was worse than ever. The madman didn't trust boiling water, after all. Though it was hard to blame him. Boiling water need not be poisoned to send a man to his knees as soundly as any sword.

"Araya, this madman,"
Jai glanced, half joking and half aware he were introducing himself, "is my brother, Andreu. That I haven't seen in eleven years."
He knew the same level of crazy shot through his veins as it did Dru's. As it did Zak's. And as it did their poor mother. Although surprisingly, the sanest of them was likely the one who coped by turning to steel in the morning and the bottle at night. Or used to. One was gone. The other, probably not wise to seek out again for a while. Like saidin, he knew when his limit was reached.

Andreu retrieved his hat and paused from pounding it back to shape only to tip it Araya's direction. Then grinned as though the hat reminded him of something, and he sloughed off through the snow to check on the men he'd captured.

Jai glanced at Araya, ignoring a touch of worry. Whatever it was that was going on, he had the urge to leave it behind. Explaining their way out of this one wouldn't be too easy.
"Why were they after you?"
He followed, watching with crossed arms as Dru nudged each body with his boot until he found one awake. Then he wrenched one up by the collar and shoved him against the wall.

A grunt, and Dru hauled a second, half-conscious thug into a seated position. But this one slumped against his companion not quite awake.
"Na. They weren't after me. I was after them."
He started checking pockets, and went on before Jai pressed the issue. "Suppose I won't ask what you're doing down here after all this time. But have you seen them yet?"
Andreu frowned and stood up, hands on his sides considering what he should do next. Whatever he was seeking, it obviously wasn't on these fellows' person.

They flashed through his mind before Jai could suppress the images. "Yeah. It went great. Dad said you've been out of town the last month. Mom cried when she first saw me and an hour later I'm pretty sure she had no idea who I was. Mikel bloody went off and married Jaslene. And if that doesn't make a guy want to stab himself in the throat, Zakar tried to have me shot in my own bedroom."
The curly-haired tike tugging on his coat, guards foolishly aiming him up, his loyalty called to question, the inheritance he never should have touched, Caemlyn and Ellis. Murder. Dishonor. He pictured himself kneeling. Then shock. Complete shock. Yeah. The last few weeks were great.

But Ellis was gone, his family's honor remained, Tashir was avenged, and a good family might find some peace. Jai would never really know for sure, but it was enough to imagine the pain leaving her eyes, that for the briefest of moments she might know peace, if that was all he bought, he'd pay the price again.

Behind blowing warm breath across his fingers, Andreu was laughing his ass off. For some insane reason, his laughing sounded less like desperation and more like facing reality. Jai relaxed a little.
"Yeah. That sounds about right. What happened with Zak, though? I was 'out of town' because he likes to keep tabs on everyone-"

Dru adjusted the hat and left it slightly skewed on his head. His coat looked trampled. A string of hair was sticking out behind one ear. Compared to the rigidity of Jai's uniform, the tight collar, the straight shoulders, the taper of the coat, the shined boots, and the man who filled it out, Dru looked downright homeless. No wonder Zakar would worry about Andreu, the guy looked like a wreck.
"-And-"
repeating himself for Araya's benefit, "-I don't like to be followed."


Dru returned in jovial spirits, clapped Jai on the shoulder and turned him about with such familiarity Jai wondered what his brother would do if truly believed someone was a threat. Let alone two asha'man. He had held back, right? If so, it was a fool's confidence. Their instincts for immediate action usually outranked the hesitation to consider brotherly bonds. But Andreu was the main act of his own traveling show. The man who stood center ring with nothing to rely on but a whip and the constriction of barely-trained beasts from slaying him any moment. And he did it all with a grin on his face. For that, Jai loved him. And Light, it was good to see him.

Only darkness shows you the light.


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