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Homeward Bound
#51
Not a terrible promise; a safety net. An escape route ringed with absolution should it be needed. Nythadri’s gaze tightened at the edges as he touched on something delicate, and she was ready to argue his naivety and so protect them both from the pressures of expectation. Promises were easy to speak but harder to honour; she would neither make nor accept one she could not be sure of, and the vehemence behind this one was foolish. Her expression was set stubbornly, though there was a spark of conciliatory warmth in his eyes. And his hands were distracting, trailing a welcome flush of heat against her skin. He would not win this argument, would not force a compromise from her, but she could feel herself melting under that flame, feel the ire in her die until it was only her heart beating dangerously. Her face softened understanding, then sparked an accusing smile at his teasing touch. She would have captured those fingers, brought bruised knuckles to her lips, but he pulled her in before she had the chance.  

She sank willingly; glad to press into the comfort of his chest, to feel the solid circle of his arms. For probably the last time. The coat muffled the intimacy of his heat, but his strength suffused her; the overwhelming sincerity of it. The surety of it. She could close her eyes and forget the existence of anything beyond, which was as dangerous as it was liberating. But the serpent ring was still there, cold on her finger, and his collar flashed sombre pins that hid the beautiful curve of his neck from her lips. It anchored her against the sheer force of him; held her back from the brink of making equally absurd promises. He’d coaxed trust from her so quickly; too quickly, and she'd be reluctant to admit to the shame of it. But she supposed she'd told him true; it was a thing that either was or wasn't. She’d stopped trying to understand how their threads had tangled so mercilessly. In those simple moments of touch and silence she’d never felt so cherished. 

As the moments passed, she began to feel the weight of goodbye like a bitter edge. She favoured the quick and painless, the austerely undramatic. Light, she had never even properly said goodbye to her family before leaving Caemlyn. Nor regretted it. Ten minutes ago Jai could have left without a crack marring her cool façade - no matter what she felt inside. But he lingered, and feeling his reluctance – his desire– mirror her own so closely made it difficult for her. He made it difficult. Old memories shifted in defiance of the iron hand that held them down, permeating sadness. Because she thought she knew the way this would end. There was nothing to be done, though; it was too late to reclaim feelings she’d recklessly let him nurture. She’d walked too far along the path, convincing herself of the insignificance of each step until now there was no way back. But she wouldn’t change a second of it. 

A weak acceptance lightened her mood, welcomed her back to the moment. She loved the possession of his arms about her neck; the quiet way he watched her, unabashed. He’d find no secrets she did not offer willingly, but the earnestness of her expression now was no secret. Nythadri might be frugal with promises and decorative words, but beneath the derisive ice that insulted a man who promised to answer the call for anything, lay a stirring dreamer. Glimmers of it pierced the austerity of her, softened the intensity of her gaze with something intimate. Her expression flickered with a smirk; abject recognition for the frustrating way in which he unravelled her completely. And maybe playful accusation for that weakness. 

The beat of her own vulnerability made her want to slip away from captivation. She didn’t, though it was burning an ache in her chest; knowing that in minutes a gateway would steal him a thousand miles and more away whether she was ready for it or not. It was like finding something you’d lost, only to then find yourself forced to relinquish it again. Her arms retreated, though only far enough that her fingers now ran a soft inspection over the buttons of his coat. She suddenly regretted how he’d left her bed before she’d woken, though it had been prudent. What she wanted and what she knew to be best clashed conflict in her head enough to give her a headache, and Jai had crept through enough defences to cloud her judgement. Because it was starting to feel like an acceptable risk. Her hands trailed down, fluttering a path remembered in ocean waters before they finally withdrew. If she held onto him now she might not let go. She might call in that anything early. 

“I know.” He’d have to try harder than cruel truths in order to offend her, though he seemed to care anyway. That unnecessary concern suddenly made her laugh, and her hand caught his in spontaneous affection; fingers lacing his, her thumb ghosting his palm, before she finally let go. She’d thought acceptance would come by acknowledging the truth she might not see him again; instead she suddenly found it easier to vow that she would. Control wrought a new steel; she felt refortified. A playful light sparked her eyes in reaction to that beautiful, damnable grin. “Might take more than socks, Jai. And I do not bloody snore.” 

It was strange to watch the air shiver and split but feel none of it, not that she’d yet stopped trying to feel a fraction of the darkness that deepened his expression. This time he slipped from her, and she felt the loss of it; the tightening in her chest no sooner felt than banished. Memory was no substitute for the feel of him; she realised quite suddenly that she was actually going to miss him, and had no idea how he had done that to her. The sensation was met with an odd blend of dismay and charm, the contest of head and heart; it was beginning to dawn on her how hard she’d fallen. Reflection drew her in silent, and though she didn’t want to torture herself with the moments before the gate snapped shut, her feet stood solid and her gaze lingered on his face. Faintly amused, faintly contemplative. Then a wry smile, as he bowed and spoke and the gate winked shut. 

Anything. 

 
Anything. 

Nythadri would ask nothing at all, of course. But the words burrowed deep; more to the point, they burrowed exactly where she did not want them to be. She didn’t linger on the thought, just watched as soft darkness replaced the glow of the Gate and the silence grew somehow fuller. Jai left no trace, but for that every blink branded its ghostly impression over her vision, a halo of light around the dark spot where he’d been standing. She did not bother to coax the hearth to flame – did not plan to be around long enough to benefit – but she did turn to spark some of the candles on her desk. Her fingers idly ruffled the papers there, wondering if he’d been curious while she slept. Not that it mattered; he may have found some of the contents surprising, but there were no secrets here. Not exactly. She liberated some clean paper but did not sit to write, just stooped over. Coils of hair looped on the desk as concentration hunched her lower, but the words came easy. It was her hand that struggled to keep up. 

She left the words to dry as she cleaned and dressed, then unrumpled squashed blankets and made the bed. Thinking all the while. Choices sprung a thousand different avenues. Jai had heard what he'd wanted last night, but she’d made no promises about the money. No binding oaths. Not that she had inclination to betray him, but she wanted to do what was best – and that meant thinking about what he had asked, pulling it apart and studying all the individual pieces. 

If the account remained and Andreu discovered it, Zakar’s secrets would unravel. Perhaps her name would be caught in the tangle. Perhaps her family. The Kojimas would destroy themselves, and she knew what that would do to Jai. The burden of it would spring another finger from the cliff-edge, and she would have to reach a little further to save him. If she even could. It essentially boiled down to one thing; that Andreu had to believe the matter settled. From what Jai had told her, blood and bruises and fierce words had ended the trail, unless Andreu looked closer. The man who Jai purported to sniff conspiracy on honest winds had to trust his brother’s word; let it drop. Removing the account neatened the edges of the lie. Or potentially left a ragged and guilty hole – she could not be sure without knowing how much Andreu even knew. More damning was her name on Zakar’s list because it formed a link only Zakar could erase. 

It was a mess. 

And simply put, Nythadri had no qualms with a family tearing itself apart, with the crumbling of one of Tar Valon’s ancient and trusted institutions. Zakar’s fall would be restitution. He had manipulated the Tower, and what Jai asked – what he probably had no bloody idea that he had asked – was that she not only turn a blind eye, but protect a criminal. And in that small way, betray the Tower. The implication settled cold in her stomach, hardened ice in her veins. But Nythadri carried such burdens well; she did not baulk at all the things she had to lose, perhaps because she was convinced she would find a way to adhere to her obligations. Perhaps because of what she had to gain. 

Because she hadn’t promised, but she had. In essence. In the brightening of Jai’s expression and the way he’d melted into her, relief and wonder and gratitude pouring out so hard it had flamed in her chest, and in that moment he could have asked anything and she would have agreed just to hold onto that feeling. Care of him meant too much, even in that one small thing, to blur the edges of what she had and had not said she would do. 

She would move the account. 

But after that, after that, she would do as she saw fit to cauterise the edges of the wound Jai had made. And hope she found a balance that wouldn’t burn them all.
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