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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brief, stomach-tightening flashes when his gaze softened and he looked at her like she was something important, he’d withdrawn with the resolution of a man who finally understood the boundary neither of them should have crossed in the first place.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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#42
He couldn't hold that gaze.  He didn't deserve Nythadri's tenderness.  Her sympathy.  To have failed so utterly in front of her, his stomach throbbed with regret.  She knew shades of him he desperately tried to hide.  Worse, she'd seen his chaotic world with all the full view of a sun cresting the mountains but stayed to keep him company when she should run the other way.  She was just watching him, surely trying to decide if he were the selfish monster he knew himself to be.  He was selfish to come here.  Needing to wound and alienate her and so drive her away.  He knew all along he'd fail.  It was what drove him to collapse on that snowy step after leaving Andreu and Araya behind at South-harbour.  He knew he couldn't do it, yet for the chance that he might he had to try.  Or that's what he told himself; he only lied to himself after all.  Usually.  And when the end turned dismal, at least he'd be able to see her one more time.  Selfish.

He was breathing hard.  His bloody body was coiled to strike out at himself as ferociously as he had the black links that'd pounded him to a pulp in the Great Hall.  For all the good it did.  Their retaliation didn't shock him.  It was the helplessness to defend himself that drove a chunk of bone from his arm.  That drove him to that first bottle of brandy.  Then submission to Araya's house arrest.  He should have demanded a gate home and when that hadn't worked, stolen a bloody horse.  Light, how was he ever going to look Daryen in the eye after this?  Bloody delightful.

He forced himself to suck it up and look Nythadri in the eye, thoughts of Daryen set aside for now.  There was a flesh and blood woman in front of him, but her mirage could have been a hundred leagues away, and still lure too close.  His hands pressed tighter upon themselves, but he did it.  He had to get a grip.  On something.  Anything.  He wasn't on the verge of falling from the edge, this time.  He was on the verge of exploding.  Blood and ashes!   He shouldn't have come.  He'd known a lot of mistakes, but this was the glorified topper on that mountain hill of bullshit he'd conquered as his own royal domain.  And now he couldn't wade his way out because he didn't bloody want to even try.  

A crowbar couldn't have done it.  But Nythadri's delicate fingers pried his hands apart like wisps of smoke, and he crumpled like a pile of ashes disturbed by the breeze.  She pressed close and he thought his heart was going to stop.  She should be ripping out his throat and tossing it to the dogs, not curling her arms around his neck.  Not huddling close enough to feel her breathe.  He should shove every curve of her body from his arms, not hold her tighter.  He should do a thousand things, but he did none of them.  He didn't want to.  

Well.  This was just bloody great.  Jai found himself clinging to her like the damned finding salvation.  Which of course meant he not only threw in the towel on letting her go, but burned it to a crisp and walked away from it.  What was she doing?  Didn't she bloody realize he was annoying?  Paranoid?  Selfish?  And a bloody idiot?  God but it felt good to hold her.  He could wrap her shoulders twice with his arms.  His hands found the ridge of vulnerable bones in her back, and rubbed the curve of her low back gently, pulling her closer.  Tighter.  Her hair smelled like fresh rain, soft as milk on his cheeks.  He kissed the top of her head and didn't withdraw.  

Every ounce of anger slid from his shoulders like an old coat.  This was what he wanted.  Her.  He wanted her, dammit.  Blood and bloody ashes.  He swallowed dryly in reaction to her confidence.  Her undeserved belief in him.  He should run.  

As she had in the ocean, Nythadri withdrew but his arms wanted more.  When moonlight illuminated his pain back then, he was swallowing razors now.  He let her go, too afraid to move.  Definitely doubting the resolve to not follow her when she laid back on her bed.  Somehow he managed to only twist a little, just enough to watch her get comfortable.  

He cracked his neck a couple times in reaction to her question.  And blinked away the fog trying to collapse his throat.  And took a breath.  Then frowned.  And rolled his shoulders.  He leaned forward again.  That was uncomfortable.  Okay.  He sat back.  Tugged his sleeves.  No matter which way he sliced it, there was only one way to explain this.  "Uh--"  

He leaned forward again.  With palms pressed to his eyes, he brought himself to glance at her from the side.  Did she have to stretch out like that?  He was really going to do this.  
"Alright.  You know how I count?"  He scratched his face absently, wondering whatever in the world possessed him to tell a stranger in the Front Hall about that; a stranger that melted his heart with her eyes.  Light.  

He found his nails briefly.  They were filthy.  Zakar would have a heart attack.
"Zakar likes things clean.  Himself, especially."  He rubbed his hair, throat tight.  "Very clean.  I mean, he barely hugs his own kids."  

He knew how it sounded.  That it made as much sense as a spymaster galloping a Razor.  "Okay."  He closed his eyes.  "I see patterns.  Everywhere.  There are base number systems.  Alchemy systems.  Geometry systems.  Alphabetical systems.  All of it, Its called arithmancy."  He swallowed.  His head spun with illustrations. "--And it makes up the very fabric of the universe.  Think of every important number we know.  The Five powers.  Seven seals on the Dark One's prison.  Thirteen Forsaken.  Circles of sixty-six.    We call it the bloody Pattern."  He shrugged.  It was painfully obvious to him; always had been.  It was a bloody trap.  Like these four walls.  Was it getting hot in here?  Most people thought he was crazy; they were probably right.

His palm drew back sweaty when he loosened his collar.  
"What I see everywhere, and what Zakar thinks is going to someday choke him, our brother Andreu sees in people.  He can sense a conspiracy in a snowstorm.  The hell of it is, he's right half the time." Jai could relate.

He rubbed his cuffs.  He should probably button his coat.  Eh, who was he kidding?  He loosened the collar a bit more.  Neck hot.  Chest hot.  Arms sweating.  He rubbed his hair again, it was mostly dry by now.  Laying your soul bare wasn't the most comfortable thing in the world.  

"Dru knows something's going on.  I just didn't realize Zak was behind it all until after Caemlyn.  He set up a rival, using White Tower books, and betrayed his partner in Andor at the last second in the name of consolidation.  Yeah.  He's is a dick, but he's really good at what he does, I had to throw Dru off his trail.  Otherwise it was a matter of time before Dru learned the truth.  And once he did, he'd have no mercy."  His father would die of shame.  His mother wouldn't understand, and wither away in ignorance and confusion.  Zakar had kids, after all.  Jai's nieces.  He met them last week.

He opened and closed his hand a couple times, then looked up, eyes determined.  He cleared his throat.  

"I love my family Nythadri, and I'm not going to be around anyway.  I don't see another choice."  Did she understand?  That she had to get away from Andreu's bloodhounds.  Once he caught her scent, he'd not turn back until he knew the truth of her family's inheritance.  Which would eventually lead him to its source; from Ellis it was an easy jump back to Jai.  And the price their Asha'man brother paid to protect his family's peace would be worthless then.  He could march to the Last Battle a disavowed man, but not if he knew he was responsible for ruining his family's life forever.  He already made them suffer so much – Asad's sword.  His throat started tightening again.  

Light it was hot in here.
Only darkness shows you the light.


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#43
White Tower teachings – in fact the very nature of saidar itself - gifted women with the foundations of serenity the Aes Sedai were renowned for. Nythadri looked calm now, but it was not entirely true; even as she relaxed against the headboard her heart pounded a torrent made deafening by the fear time was slipping through her fingers. But she yielded it to the turn of the Wheel; forced herself to accept what would come, and much like the fall backwards into saidar she trusted to that unknown – or at least her ability to bend with the shape of the Pattern. He was here, now. Her chest spread with warmth, born from the weightlessness of having placed yourself in the palm of another’s hand, and despite every available opportunity they had chosen not to crush you. She’d never intended to pour that trust into Jai, and still wasn’t convinced it was wise, but when she looked at him - remembering the tightness of his grip in reply to hers, the shiver his hands sent up her spine – such doubts were rendered silent. 

His question, but moreso the cynical edge to his tone, prompted something of a wry smile. The sentimental tinge to her mood made it a simple answer, a certain one, but she sensed the raw nerve it touched and chose to say nothing. His wasn’t the disbelief of a gratified ego seeking to savour praise, it was like a glimpse of scar tissue. No wound to heal. It was just him. The bitter conviction that nothing like honour could co-exist with the beast saidin made of men -  or if it did, that it was not enough to offer salvation. For a man who lived his life in shadows it was a painfully black and white outlook. Although considering all their conversations in Arad Doman about trust - their scorn of it, perhaps he was simply pointing out how foolish it was of her to place that much faith in him, to place any faith in him at all. But she knew that too, and it impeded the roguish fondness of her expression not a whit; light, if anything it made her fall a little further. In any case, she didn't intend her words as the naive earnestness of an idealist placing an unattainable burden about his shoulders - that would render them meaningless, and she was not the sort to offer empty platitudes to those for whom she cared. No, Nythadri was far quicker to instead speak murderous truths. If Daryen had not stopped Jai during the hunt, he would have killed Tamal Suaya no question. She remembered the look in his eyes as clearly as the resultant pang of fear which had pushed her away from him. She trusted him despite it. 

Light. She shouldn't. But she did. For no rational reason she could fathom, she did. Whether he refused to see it or not, he was a good man. 

She was tired or it was suddenly funny; funny in the most dark and humourless way, which was precisely why it stoked up ashes of morbid amusement and made her want to laugh at the pair of them. It would only take the smallest stretch to brush the foot of her extended leg against his thigh. A playful torment, though it would only have been intended to catch his attention, both to the deadpan humour in her eyes and tense restraint of sitting so close yet so carefully apart. Because despite whatever disaster had brought him here, if she couldn't fall into the comfort of his arms she at least wanted to see him smile. To brighten the horizon of night with the promise of morning. To tease a grin even though his world was still crumbling at the edges, because she was selfish enough to love the way it lit his face. He'd lost so much, so much because of her, and he should resent her for it. Blame her. When he'd pulled her into her own room to warn her away it should have been sincere. A hard, clean severance. Instead the Pattern had wound them closer, and the knots were now so tight she didn't think she could unpick them even if she'd wanted to. He'd lost his sword, lost some part of himself. But he'd won her. Imprisoned in seven bands of colour, it was hardly much in the way of consolation. Which was why, in the end, her foot never moved.  

The smile faded behind a bite of the lip. Jai seemed uncomfortable, fidgety; sitting forward, back, rubbing his face, frowning. The agitation spread in waves, and it made her want to still it from him. To share calm and strength with touch and presence, except that way led a path she could ill afford to follow in the heart of the Tower. Could ill afford to follow at all, really, though it didn’t seem to stop her toeing to the edge of the cliff, tugging Jai along behind her whilst the pendulum of her fears swung between the anxiety he would pull away to the startling realisation that he might just throw them both over the edge. No, the latter was more a strange mix of trepidation and longing than a fear, because light for every rational thought keeping her hands clasped about the pillow and her back pressed firm against the headboard there was another burning for a crack in the tension; foolish, ardent, girlish desire that probably should have flamed her cheeks rather than her eyes. It wasn’t a dare, not like it had been in the warm waters of the Aryth, just a presence heating the equanimity of her expression; one she either couldn't erase or was making no efforts to hide. Remember the ring, Nythadri. 

She listened to him with the focus of one paying close attention; a potentially judging look, particularly framed by those ice-pale eyes, though in reality it was only the flare of concentration as she was caught on those first words, rather than in judgement of what he actually said. You know how I count. The bold intensity of that weighing expression didn’t matter anyway because he never looked at her; kept his eyes shut for the most part, and continued to shift and fuss like the very air was closing in on him. It wasn’t the explanation she had been expecting, and for a moment the tangent took her by surprise. In the Front Hall she had called it a gift, wrongly so she had realised later, at least in his eyes, and the conflict only exemplified itself now. Because he really was ill at ease, rife with the fevered air of confession - at least she assumed that's why he was uncomfortable. He seemed to be sweating, when channelers never sweat. Her hands itched, by now, to grab his wrists and stop that bloody restlessness. But she just let him talk, still and silent and thinking. 

Patterns. A thousand different patterns, and a thousand different methods of seeing those patterns and translating those patterns and understanding those patterns. The Pattern. A cluttered world. Light. He'd professed to decoding his own death note. Counted footsteps. Calculated wall tiles. And that was probably just the outer edges of a neurosis he tried so desperately to hide it coated him with the stigma of a questionable sanity. It also explained the origins of a paranoia that stung so deep he would kill a man for what everyone else could be convinced was a stray arrow. She thought she understood, at least in faint essence, though if she recognised the shining nets of daes dae'mar it was not in so orderly and rational a fashion; there was no explanation to the pulls of intuition, the way sometimes apparently disparate facts simply clicked and shimmered a picture. Not for her. She understood the power of something you could not control, at least; a facet of yourself that weighed a burden you could not simply wish away. For that, the best comfort she could give was a look of simple acceptance, if he ever looked at her anyway. 

So Zakar Kojima had used the Tower. No surprise flickered in her reaction, just grimness. If she counted Jai's word as fact, not just more supposition atop the suspicions she had already had, then it placed her in an awkward position. The serpent ring tightened on her finger; tightened and flashed a premonition of fear against the hope she would ever truly have to chose between Jai and the Tower. Because she knew as an Accepted, as a child of the Tower, she should be delivering this information to the relevant authorities. Did he even realise how much trust those simple words placed in her? Or how much risk. Her thoughts moved past it with all the care one displayed for a sleeping, dangerous animal; one she should make sure did not one day wake and come for her throat. Supposition, she decided, and if she repeated it to herself enough times it would be true. The Light send it was not a lie she need ever have to tell. 

She turned the name Andreu over carefully, curiously, while Jai carried on. Another brother. With another... unique facet to him. Her gaze lingered on the bruises; first at Jai's knuckles as his fingers snaked viciously through his hair, then at his face - which still seemed determined not to turn towards her. Whatever the conversation between them, it had come to blows, clearly, but the meandering of those thoughts never reached a conclusion - because she suddenly realised where this was going, and her heart sunk. "So you took the blame?" Light. Light! 

It took a moment longer to unravel in her mind. Jai would protect a brother who would not do him the same courtesy, and it blazed a defiance in her chest that for a moment stiffened her jaw and hardened her gaze. Her outstretched leg drew up to meet the other, then folded crosslegged. The pillow still in her lap, though forgotten, she leaned forwards, elbows on her knees. "And what do you think the Tower will do? If Andreu’s investigations come to their attention. If they think you crossed them." Her voice was low, and terribly still; worry an inherent crack she didn’t try to hide. If Jai chose to sacrifice himself in the eyes of his family she could not stop him, if she may not approve that it was for Zakar’s sake. But she would not let him destroy himself. Not for Zakar. Not for his family. After Caemlyn - light, even without the disaster of Caemlyn - he could not afford to be seen meddling with that kind of politics. The economic ramifications of that had the potential to be far worse than the consequences of interfering with Winther. He was an Asha'man, and he had already learned how meagerly he was protected. The punishment he would face was not worth the preservation of one family's pride. 

And for light's sake, Zakar would not hesitate from noosing Jai’s neck himself. If Nythadri had gleaned enough to know as much from from a single meeting with the man then Jai must know it too. Would Zakar be grateful that Jai had taken the burden of blame to save him? Or would he seize the opportunity to ruin the brother for whom jealously fisted a grip so tight it had seethed out in front of a stranger. Confessing to Andreu just about handed Zakar the keys to Jai's deliverance. Would Zakar be so cruel as to see his brother arrested for it? Nythadri neither meant to wait to find out, nor to give Zakar the benefit of the doubt. There were options. Zakar would not spare Jai unless she was able to manoeuvre him into a position where he had to, if that were even possible. No, of course it would be possible. All men had prices; flaws that could be bent to will. But she couldn’t promise it would leave his family intact, and the rawness in his voice gave her pause in a way threats and intimidation would never have. He had lost so much; adding his family to that list would destroy him. 

Frustration returned in sickening waves. He was asking her to do nothing while he stepped in to close a breach they had both helped create. For a dangerous second she was close to exploding. How many more times would she be made to stay her hand? Crushed by powerlessness. Forced to do nothing. Abruptly she thought of the woman, Jaslene, who had flagged her down in the street. Pictured Jai's worried mother, remembered her promise, and felt sick - how could she tell him of it now, when he had already started the motions that would shatter his mother's heart? Did he not realise how much pain his betrayal would cause? Why do you think you’re so expendable? Anger bristled at his ignorance and boiled up to poison on her tongue, ready to lash out, ready to rain down every nuanced flaw in such a stupid, stupid plan. But she was stilled by the sudden recognition that she didn’t want to hurt him in that way; didn’t want to pull the veil of that lie away from his eyes. Of course he knew it would bring pain to the family he left behind. He weighed the consequences and took the path that would best preserve the people he loved. She brought her hands to her forehead, soothed her temples, then combed her fingers back through her hair. Thinking. Forcing composure like an iron shutter. 

Lythia had a Green watching over her family in Caemlyn, so it was possible she could start filtering the money back faster than she had planned. It meant trusting the Aes Sedai more than she would like; it meant trusting her father's ability to keep his mouth shut more than she would like. But if it soothed Jai she would do it. Light burn her for a bloody fool but she would do it. It didn't solve the problem though; if Andreu was as meticulous as Jai suggested, the coin was not the only trail that led back to her: her name was on Zakar's list of those with immediate access to him. She had been able to tell by the clerk's reaction alone that it was an unusual invitation, and if Andreu were to find out about it then it would mark her out as blatantly as the suspicious origins of her family's new found inheritance - because why would Zakar Kojima have any interest in a White Tower Accepted? But Jai didn't know that, and she wasn't going to burden him with the information. Let him at least leave this room with that peace. 

She let her face fall into her hands, head bowed, and rubbed at her eyes. She didn't like it; she didn't like it at all, this intention of his that she should be complicit while he made such a sacrifice. The wrath of the Tower hovered too close, and Jai's fate balanced on the whim of one brother who spared no love for him and the other who might be clever enough to see through whatever misdirection sent him off the trail anyway. Would Andreu be open to reason? Would knowing the truth be enough, or did he seek justice? She didn't know enough to justify the risk of finding that out, and she couldn't ask Jai his opinion because it would suggest she had notions of interfering. She looked up, though didn't fully rise from her hands; just rested her chin on both curled fists. Silence reigned in the moments she looked at him, reflecting how weak she felt around the edges; how, if she promised to move the coin tomorrow (more likely today, by now) like Jai asked, she would be facing down Zakar with an unrested mind and hardly at her best... but that at least she would have the opportunity, and the excuse, to speak to him. 

"Then I guess I'll need to move that light-forsaken money." The ghost of a smile, albeit a tired smile, lifted her lips; recognition of her own submission, and the rarity of it, as well as an indication of her understanding. She would do it, not because he demanded or threatened, but because it meant something to him. As simple and painless as that. The decision set with resolution, certainty. She needed more time to outline a plan, time she probably didn't have, but she would fix this - and hope to light she didn't make any mistakes in her haste. She sat up from her hands, pinning him with a stare. "But I swear, Jai, I bloody swear, that if either of them tries to serve you up to the Tower for it..." She didn't finish, she didn't suppose she needed to, because the promise burned coals of her eyes. He would understand her conviction, but the moment she saw that he did the full force of it left her. Tension dropped from her shoulders, and her fingers massaged where frozen toes peeked from the hem of her dress under either knee. "Light...".
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#44
Sandstorms in the Blasted Lands could strip flesh off the bone one grain at a time.  Talk about hell on fire.  Eventually they put the horses down and the living crawled to safety.  The spongebaths on the other side were nice, but when the time came Jai didn't turn down a Healing.  

Volunteering for double guard because standing all night was better than the faceless screams in his dreams.  Who needed sleep anyway?

A steel toed kick in the groin.  Choking because his nostrils were plugged up from hurling a stomach of blood up and out.  Guts literally laying in the mud.

All that?  An apple pie picnic in the park compared to this torture.

Yeah.  He told himself to not look, but taking his own advice never panned out.  He looked.  And his entire body sank a little.  She was blank.  Faceless as those screams in his nightmares.  How'd she do it?  Nythadri was black as a nighttime bay while Jai ripped his soul from his chest.  Actually, he would have preferred that.  

He caught the movement of her legs curling beneath her and braced for whatever words were about to follow sure they were going to sting.  Her eyes, those Light-blasted, grace-saving, hedonic eyes, flew to his hands like an accusation.  Hands which grasped hilt then touched heart like a bloody hypocrit.  On his honor, Jai knew his own intentions were noble; though it was probably best to stop swearing on his honor.  And noble unless it involved women.  Or cards.  Or ale.  But good intentions paved short roads to hell.  

Nythadri's question punched the air from his throat.  Maybe it was sitting around, insides swimming with hunger or dragging his bloody sack of meat around all night, but in the spur of the moment decision which landed Andreu a black eye, thoughts of the Tower--the White Tower--were far from consideration.  Though he was quick enough to turn his back on blood, march up and kick in the place's front door.  Until now.  The White Tower.  Right.  He rubbed his forehead.

How did Nythadri think of these things?  
"Dru will keep things in house.  He's ruthless, but not stupid.  So long as the Tower doesn't have reason to watch him, he's careful enough to not draw attention like that."  Right?  He thought back to the trio they'd left behind in that alley.  Were those three the fallout of a calculated, careful plan?  Or something far more primal?

It'd be impossible to connect a man who smelled like fish guts to the pampered banking executive dashing around Tar Valon like social life was his sport.  Blood and ashes.  His own brother didn't recognize him!  Granted, it'd been eleven years, and a guy can only take so many hits to the head before he starts questioning his eyesight, but Light!  

Jai shook his head.  Absently scratching his earlobe to hide a yawn.  Poorly.  By this point Nythadri could probably read him like a book.  Light knew Daryen could.  And Jaslene.  And, probably everyone.

But he was coming to recognize Nythadri in turn.  She could go still as a statue when she wanted.  She'd blanked out every twist and smirk the moment Fate found them speaking in the front hall.  She turned on the charm just to spite Nisele while Jai sat back, happy to let them fight it out.  But now, Nythadri was bothered.  He'd never seen her streak fingers through those strands of hair like this.  Nor rub her eyes like she could hardly stand what they beheld.  It pained him.  Every moment of her discomfort was his fault, but rather than cause her no further inconvenience, he wanted to make it up to her.  He'd find a way.  Somehow.

Then, she surprised him with a smile.  Subtle as morning fog hovering above a cold lake, but just as beautiful.  More, actually, compared to the dismal tension leading up to now.  It eased some of the nerves strangling his stomach, but her sudden agreement left him--uhh.  Well.

Speechless.  

He blinked.  Then, twisted around to fully watch her.  Then sat still without a single clue as to what changed her mind.  Nothing could have shocked him more.  Scratch that.  It was best to assume he'd never figure Nythadri out.  Of course she could still shock him.  Of course.   She was completely tantalizing and enormously frustrating at the same time and stuck in his head like a spike to the brain.  The bloody woman.  She agreed?  After everything?  She'd move the account.  Her name would be erased from Zakar's mind and gone from Dru's line of sight.  Thank the Light.  She'd be safe.  Their families could disentangle.  The politics would blow over.  And things could go back to the way they were before.  Or--close enough.

His grin was tired, but warmed with gratitude and relief undimmed by the rest of her promise; hearing but not hearing.  Before she could finish her curse, he was near.  His scarred palm smothered one of her hands, then curled around her wrist and ran up along the sleeve of her dress.  He pushed the pillow from her lap.  He knew exactly what he was doing and did it because he bloody wanted to.  After everything, why not?  Probably best to not dwell on that question.

Their kiss was reunion.  He'd been uneasy since Arad Doman.  Not that the rest of his life wasn't peachy, but the weeks since they'd last parted was bloody delightful.  But finding welcome with her, the world calmed.

He could very easily go adrift and lose himself in tangles of black and white.  He could sink close enough to warm her chilled skin with his.  Very warm.  He could flip the Tower, both Towers, a universal gesture then carry on like warm-blooded men should.  

But he didn't let himself lose control.  No shades of gray permission let his hands wander too far as they had in ocean waters.  He gently tilted her chin from one side to the other and softened the way his lips pressed upon hers, but they did not chase chills down her neck.  His shadow covered most of her face, but upon a quick glimpse he caught a frame of dark hair falling around the edges.  His lids slid low once more.  

It was strengthening to do exactly what he wanted.  A sane economist would claim everything came with a price, but confession and acceptance bent the rules like the Master of Currency minting fresh coin.  Showing her exactly how he felt cost them nothing, because he was ready to make his own damn rules.  

Damp coat and all, he ended up stretched out on her bed sometime in the semi-near future.  His cheek sank into the pillow which was returned to her lap.  The hearth across the way sparked a low flare to life as he stared at it, but the extent of his attempts to warm the room stopped there.  He had no idea how long he stared into those orange licks and yellow sparks, and simply enjoying not fighting something for a few minutes.  He knew her oaths to the White Tower chained her here.  And it wasn't as though he was without obligation himself, but drained of the will to bother resisting any more, he'd figure it out.  Surely he wasn't the first guy to fall in love with a woman of the White Tower?

Well.  He'd gone this far.  He might as well tell the rest.  He had to explain the inheritance coursing his veins.  The reason duty and desire were constantly at war and give her a chance to bolt while she still could.  That he was born to this legacy as the namesake Arman Kojima granted his third son.  By the time Jai's throat split the sounds of that crackling fire, his voice was drained.  There was no need for the ward to keep conversation from breeching the walls.  It was quiet enough on its own, "My greatfather's name was Asad Kojima."

He closed his eyes, burning from having gone too long without blinking.  Or maybe from exhaustion.  
"A generation before the fall of Malkier, his carneira was sent here as a novice.  Asad never married, and fifteen years later, when the Tower was done with her, he left his trade and duty -- everything, to find her and marry her.  They never went back to Malkier."  Asad's sword went clean and untouched for generations afterward.  Until Jai picked it up.  Intending to give the blade the taste of shadowspawn blood it wanted.  The steel craved action.  Craved use.  He knew it because the ache in his chest craved the same thing.  
"I thought I deserved--"  He swallowed.  Then moved a little in case she was uncomfortale.  But he never finished the thought.

He'd never think of Nythadri as small as the word equated diminutive presence in his mind, and she was the infinite opposite of diminutive.  But with his shoulders against her knees and head on her lap, he was aware of narrow limbs beneath him.  Nythadri's presence was overtaking as the blue horizon of the Aryth in so many ways, but she was delicate at the same time.  She'd be easy to shield in a blast of shrapnel.  

A minute later, Jai was dead asleep.
Only darkness shows you the light.


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#45
Nythadri only had a moment to register (and wonder at) his surprise, to begin smiling at the way it finally finally broke relief like sunrise into his expression. She mirrored the relief, felt a knot loosen in her chest and at last unravel; a knot which had been there since she’d opened her door to the yawning abyss in his gaze and first felt the fear that, try as she might to piece him back together, what if in the end one piece was missing? But that grin, light that bloody grin; tired and fraying at the edges as it was, it soothed her with enough hope to belie the cynic she claimed to be. Whatever damage had been done, it could not be irrevocable. She was so tied to the rush of those thoughts, like a tentative balm on the angry wound of her guilt, that she missed Jai moving closer. Now surprise lit her eyes; surprise and captivation. 

His hand cupped hers, following the sudden shivers travelling up her arm and igniting a blush of warmth that made her forget he was not supposed to be here, so that she was smiling around his kisses; forgetting too that every little slip into this moment was going to make goodbye that much more difficult. Light, forgetting most of all how she’d vowed not to let a man get this close for that same reason. The press of him was so soft, the firm, gentle intention of every touch like his hands had only ever been meant for her. Fatigue was creeping around the edges of sense, fuelling the tender glow of desire, and she let the locks on discipline fall free as easily as yielding to saidar, barely thinking as she relinquished that control to him. Her hand snaked into his jacket as she kissed him back, leaning in if only a little; instinctively in sync. Her fingers caressed their way up to lightly stroke the back of his neck, smiling every time he released her lips. Like a light-forsaken fool, probably, but she was too absorbed to care. 

Exhaustion won out in the end, but it was a natural tranquillity; probably the first time one had not had to restrain themselves from the other with damning thoughts of what the consequences would be. Her fingers ran idle circles through the short strands of his hair, or smoothed it back, or just lay soft and still when she rocked on the edges of falling asleep. The faint pop and crackle of the saidin-wrought fire lulled her – he’d done that for her, she realised, which made her feel warmer than the flames – but moreso did his peace. She didn’t think she’d ever seen him so at ease; she’d grown so used to watching the continuous ebb and flow of frustration and resolution in him, always punctuated by tense gestures. Scrubbing his hair. Tugging his sleeves. Frowning. The hush was gratifying, not just to see but to share. It wasn’t so often Nythadri came across such peace either. 

Though she was trying desperately not to be, she was half-asleep when his hoarse voice broke the silence. She listened, but said nothing. At the end her chest tightened a little, and she leaned in, cupping his face in soft and protective instinct, her hair falling like a thick curtain of night to coil on her knees. She assumed to find his brow creased with the conclusion of that thought, but he was asleep. Completely and blissfully, this fearsome blade of the Dragon, his face now smooth and his breathing deep and even; it made her smile. She’d expected an Asha’man’s sleep to be something lighter, but probably he’d worked himself to the farthest reaches of his body’s sustainability. Given the incomparable endurance gifted a channeler that was saying something. How long since he’d last let himself sleep? She leaned back, resting her head, trying to think through thoughts too hazy for coherency. The room was warm and she was content. Light, it’d been such a long time since she’d felt this peaceful. This happy, truth told, although she was wary of the word – or, at least of the crash and fall that so often followed it. Her eyes wanted to close but she wouldn’t let them. If she overslept – if they both overslept – there was the danger of being caught with Jai here, which concerned her less than it should considering the consequences. She might also wake to find him gone. 

She sat there long past the point her legs grew numb and her shoulders ached from their angle against the headboard. In the end she only moved at all because if he spent all night resting in her lap he was going to wake up with the stiffest of necks, though probably he would wake aching anyway, if not from the fighting then from the angle he was laying on her bed. It was not unheard of for two Accepted to nestle together for comfort amongst other things, but these beds were built narrow and for the height of a woman; better than those furnishing novice bedrooms, but hardly the peak of comfort. Though on reflection, he’d probably slept in worse places. She disentangled herself slowly, careful not to wake him, and placed his head back down gently. It felt negligent to leave him uncovered, but the blankets were probably still damp and she would not use saidar to dry them now for the same reason she had not used it to dry Jai’s clothes in the first place. Anyone close enough to feel that glow of power at this time of night from the Accepted Tower might feel obliged to investigate further; no point inviting trouble. 

It was still dark and quiet and she had no idea what time it was. Bereft of ideas to keep herself awake, she sat by the fire and stared for a while. Until her eyelids weighted too heavy, the heat hot and drowsy on her face. She yawned into the back of her hand. There were enough ashes to bank the coals, which would make it easier to light in the morning. The Power would accomplish flame even if it went out altogether, of course, but habit and teaching always saw her do it by hand. The small room darkened as the flames were slowly and methodically smothered – the two candles had burned out long ago – until finally only glowing red embers marred the pitch black, and even that grew dim. She replaced the guard and stayed by the dying heat of the hearth, thinking. Jai’s admission about Andreu, frustratingly uncertain as it had been, mollified her somewhat. She yawned again, into both hands this time, hugged her knees up and leaned her forehead on them. Still, he should have thought of the Tower before he admitted so something so stupid. Her family would be grateful to receive the money so soon, though they might wonder at her change of mind. She couldn’t explain that it wasn’t Winther’s coin, but she could reassure them the Aes Sedai watched over their welfare. It was sort of true. And maybe it would remind her father to be sensible with his second chance at fortune. 

Her body was growing light. Ironic, all the nights ceaseless thought chased sleep to the furthest corners of possibility, and the one time she would be glad for it her senses misted a pleasant blanket of quietude. She leaned her chin in her fist, glared blearily into the darkness, irritated with her own inability to fight it off. Her iron will eroded a little at a time, hastened by the low sound of Jai's relaxed breathing. Foolish to even consider curling up next to him. Five years bound to the Tower and I've never overslept. Foolish, and she knew it, but she let the arrogance convince her anyway. She wouldn't oversleep, and he wouldn't leave before she woke. And if he did? Now she’d tamed the flames they wouldn’t accidentally burn to death, and if she was going to fall asleep she wasn’t going to do it on the floor. Even without light to guide her she could navigate her way. She climbed over Jai carefully and sank into the scant space between him and the wall. Hardly space for two but she didn't care, she was asleep almost before her head buried in her arms.
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#46
He woke feeling half past dead.  But Light it was hard to care.  At some point in the last few hours Jai stirred, awake enough to roll to his back and gather Nythadri close.  On the other side of where she lay, his fingers tingled numb.  Again, it was bloody hard to care.  Everything from the eyeballs down ached.  Not too surprising, but not that bad either.  He’d definitely woken to worse states before.  Truthfully, he lay there half grinning at the ceiling and enjoyed feeling Nythadri nestled against him.  Her steady breaths pressed rhythmically against his chest with the even pace of someone completely asleep.  

He traced a fingertip across her forehead, smoothing tumbles of hair from a porcelain brow, and let his eyes adjust to the dark.  There was little to see.  There was a trace glow of embers still.  They’d died a slow death while the two of them slept.  

His lids slid low and heavy once more, enjoying the steady pace of her breathing.  He thought about going back to sleep. He knew he could lay around long enough to be right lazy.  But this routine wasn’t exactly new.  And he was hungry.

Women were always light sleepers.  But Jai knew a thing or two about slipping from bed.  Quiet as a shadow he slid from the mattress.  It was a handy skill.  But he chuckled to himself, realizing quite suddenly why he was so careful not to wake her.  And it had nothing to do with his usual reasons.  

Upright, he knuckled his back and rubbed the ache of sleep from his eyes.  Nythadri must sense the expansion of space and stretched out to fill it.  Or maybe she sensed he was gone?  Before he turned into a total creep, probably should find something else to do other than watch Nythadri sleep.  He took a better look around.  She didn’t seem the sort to stash food in her room, but Jai frowned at the wardrobe curiously just in case.  Then he scrubbed his hair with a sigh and wondered what Nythadri’s stance was on guys with the unshaven, disheveled look.  Hopefully she was a fan.  Because, uh, it’d take a desperate Jai to razor his own neck with blades of Air.  And a mirror.  And he kind of liked the look.  

The White Tower.  Twelve hours ago this was exactly not where he pictured he’d be at the moment.  He remembered the exact moment the coin flipped in his head and he was ready to leave Bandar Eban in the dust.  The twang of a final, very tightly wound string, snapped, he hurled something at a wall, which sounded pretty bloody expensive by the enormous shattering erupting behind him, then ripped the bloody Pattern a new hole.  To somewhere.  Anywhere.  It was only afterward, standing in the shadow of Dragonmount, that he’d realized where he was.  Outside Tar Valon.  It’d been eleven years since he’d seen the capstone city of his birth.  And, well, since he was here--why the hell not?

Heh.  Hindsight.

He tucked in his shirt, thinking through the belts he still owned, and hoped one in particular was around.  Somewhere.  Then he took up Nythadri’s stool and went through the painful process of shoving off his boots, cringing at the lack of socks to soak up the leathery scent.  If he was going to do this, he needed some light.  But glancing at Nythadri, he wished she’d roll the other direction, but as she didn’t seem to sense the urgency by which Jai drummed his fingers on his knee, he channeled the barest flicker of a pale light.  Then hoped the angle he sat blocked that ghostly glow from bothering her, plopped the first boot on his lap, and went to work.

His boots were black leather.  Of course.  Anything else would ruin the whole head to toe black look.  And if a guy was going to do something, he might as well do it right.  These things roamed from mud pit backcountry everywhere to the scrubbed streets of a dozen metropolises.  And held up beautifully.  They should.  They cost half his inheritance; but a good pair of boots were life changing.  The best bootmakers were in Tar Valon, naturally.  And could take hundreds of steps to construct a single pair.  But the investment was bloody worth it if a guy valued his feet.  Eight months?  A year, maybe, to finish.  Completely worth it.  

The light was too dim to read the name inside the calf, but his thumb traced over where he knew the lettering to be.  Sometimes the only way to identify a guy was by the name on his boots.  Which were then of course harvested to be reused by someone in need of a new pair.  Which could quickly turn into a frustrating log of names if the new owner wasn't careful; and most weren't.  Just like the pins were collected to be recast.  Nobody ever said the Black Tower was wasteful.  

Five optimistic years into the dragon pin, Jai clearly recalled the spatter on these exact same boots while a pair of upstanding brothers nearly came to blows nearby.  All over claim to a bloody beltbuckle formerly owned by some Lordly Dedicated--Kerwin something or other.  Where was that guy from?  Somewhere gaudy.  Cairhien, maybe.  Well, either way, apparently the usual finders’ keepers protocol went out the window that delightful day.  But Jai’s solution seemed to appease the frowns.  He cleaved the silver two ways and each guy carried off an ornate half as his very own momento to remember their comrade.  At least, that’s what he told them they were going to do.  Otherwise they’d be chasing their scotch with shots of liquid silver and toasting the dead kid's memory with proper honors.  It was a nice, relaxing night after that.  Light, sometimes it was just nice to buff your boots in peace. 

He looked up when Nythadri stirred.  
"Mornin'," he grinned briefly and gave her eyes a second to adjust then flared the illumination up a notch or two.  "You know you have the cutest little snore.  Kind of like a puppy."  One final inspection in the good light and Jai stomped shining boots back on.  Short of a good shave and an iron, the rest of him likely looked about as great as he felt.  But hey, at least the boots were clean.  And the coat still black.  And who didn't look good in black, right?  

"So.  Pancakes?"  He leaned forward, arms resting on his knees.  Grinning mischievously.  And completely serious.  He was bloody hungry after all.
Only darkness shows you the light.


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