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Homeward Bound
#41
The unshadowed honesty of Nythadri’s expression never faltered, even though she knew such enduring patience only pushed Jai into a corner: options exhausted, walking away was the only thing left for him to do. She waited for that conclusion to dawn; for him to realise that each and every attempt to make her turn away would end futilely. So resigned, and ignoring the little inner tugs of sadness, she waited for him to leave. You shouldn’t have come here. Jai clearly knew that. For all those brief, stomach-tightening flashes when his gaze softened and he looked at her like she was something important, he’d withdrawn with the resolution of a man who finally understood the boundary neither of them should have crossed in the first place. And so had she, when she’d pulled her hand back from his. It was a path walked before, and well-remembered. Not that she was quite the devoted disciple, but she understood at least. The necessity of it. Because it was necessary.

She really shouldn’t be struggling to convince herself of that.

When did this become so difficult? Was there a single moment when their threads had begun tangling; an instant that marked the difference between being able to walk away, and not? Because every moment with Jai, right from the first, had been punctuated by finality. There was no future, never had been, so why couldn’t she just let go? An immediate answer knotted somewhere behind her ribs, buzzing with a dozen subtle emotions she dare not unpick, that were dangerous to analyse. Especially now. So she chose to think that it was because she owed him, and let the rest fall to the wayside. Feelings were irrelevant. Feelings only made this more complicated, and it didn’t need to be.

I have to fix this. And that’s what Aes Sedai did, right? Influenced from afar; pulled the strings and watched the dance in shadows unseen. She might never see him again, but she could smooth the path he’d chosen. And she would do it without hesitation. It was such single-minded obstinacy that sustained her against adversity – not just now, but through much of her life. A goal, a focus. When the door closed behind him she’d gather herself together and push the consequences down with the other things she didn’t want to feel. And then she would keep going, bury herself in work to lessen what remained of the sting, and she would fix the things she had helped to break. The world deserves better. The words iced in her veins, pledging retribution. She just had to survive the rejection, first.

Not a single part of her expected Jai to accept the help she extended with wide open palms, no matter how earnestly offered. Maybe Zakar’s poison had sunk its fangs deeper than she’d realised, or perhaps past experience eclipsed her expectations. The Tower put a great deal of effort into making sure its initiates understood that it and it alone was the only thing that could be relied upon – not that Nythadri had ever needed convincing as to the frailty of others – and it never occurred to her that the Black Tower would be any different. Her gaze followed him as he rose, her lips weighed down if not quite with a frown then certainly an expression bereft of cheer. She felt herself sink a little under the weight of disappointment, and despite herself she was remembering her brother and the desperate way she’d tried to rouse him after. How her hands had slid through blood over the battered cheeks of his slack expression, frantic for a spark of recognition. The flutter of an eyelid; the shock of bright blue eyes; a choke of breath. Because he’d still been warm, and maybe she’d confused the hammering of her own pulse with fraught blinding hope, despite the guards trying to pull her away from that painful, eternal lesson: that sometimes there was nothing you could do. No matter how much you wanted to. No matter how much you needed to. She took a breath, steeled herself. Waited.

But he didn’t leave. When he sat on the bed the surprise rippled across Nythadri’s expression, opening it like sunrise. Tugged from the sheltered walls of reason to the precipice of living in the moment, her thoughts went silent, stilled by the possibility she hadn’t foreseen. Her eyes ran over him, hunched forward, closed in on himself. Tense, ready to flee – like perhaps he thought he should. But he didn’t. He didn’t. He stayed, light he stayed, and she didn’t understand why it shuddered a beat that echoed out her whole ribcage, centring the entire world around a single moment. 

The emotion flooded a deluge she didn’t care to analyse beyond the wide intensity of it, and she just looked at him, and felt not just control slipping but the desire to even remain in control. Because the moment he stopped trying to fight her the foundation upon which her steel strength depended just crumbled. There was nothing to counter, nothing to resist. It was like hammering against a locked door only for it to suddenly give out beneath you. And light, but she was falling and falling, and thinking about that pendant, that bloody pendant, and why?

She’d leaned in, unconsciously. Her fingers brushed against his locked grip, and then her palms enveloped both hands, long musician’s fingers grazing where his wrists disappeared into the shadow of his cuffs. Her grip firmed, until she was urging his hands apart and filling the space they guarded. It was selfish to draw so close. He’d moved away for a reason, she knew that, but she never paused to allow self-discipline the footing to regain its composure. Her arms wound fierce about his neck, body pressed tight, face nestled between the tip of his collar and the curve of his jaw. He was warm and damp and alive, and she should have realised that sooner. The emotion swallowed her whole now, and poured like pure sunshine into the ardency of her grip, utterly unabashed. Gratitude for the pendant she’d not even kept, frustration that he should have been so stupid in the first place; the feeling hidden deep beyond that, the why she didn’t want to know the answer to because she did know the answer. Guilt for the part she had played, so much guilt. And relief, such a blessed release from everything pent up since she’d learned what the Black Tower would do to him, because he was alive and he was here. The last place he should be, but he was here, and she would not let the opportunity slip away.

For the while at least she was content to pretend everything that mattered was in this room; that Towers and Last Battles did not exist beyond it, that two threads entwined could not be unplucked from the Pattern by duty. If she was angry at yielding to weakness then she was more relieved to discover that behind the glass walls she was still human. For good or ill. Consequences blurred around the edges, and the fierce force of her emotions began to soften to something more tender. Her grip loosened, though she didn’t move right away, just relaxed against him and enjoyed the peace of it. One hand trailed his neck, drifting until it came to rest in the same spot he had held her hand minutes before. Thought was catching up. Common sense and reality. If she concentrated she could feel his heart beating, and she wondered: was she his salvation, or his ruin?

“You will be what you need to be,” she agreed, and with more certainty than the way he’d said it. A promise, almost. Duty was duty, and it hung around both their necks, but it did not have to be a millstone. The Black Tower might not care if its men buckled beneath the weight, so long as they fulfilled their ultimate purpose, but she cared. “That doesn’t mean it’s who you are.”

Nythadri retreated finally, catching Jai's eye for only the briefest of moments as she slipped away - determined to impart sincerity, but concerned as to what she might read from him in turn. And how she might react. She did not go far, only to sit at the top of the bed, the pillow she’d chucked at Elsae hugged in her lap, one leg bent, the other outstretched. Jai might seek a sensible distance, but now the fight had fled her she was less apt to being guarded. She was comfortable with the proximity, even when it left a cruel ache. Her eyes closed, head resting back against the wall. What time was it? How long before dawn broke and the first bells for breakfast began? She had no idea, nor much room left for anything but a peripheral care. “Something’s changed. You wouldn’t be here in the middle of the night otherwise. You wouldn’t be here at all. Though her eyes reopened then, it was less in accusation and more in factual obviousness. Something had catalysed Jai's decision to come here, and while she did not have details she had assumptions. "So, why?"
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