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Homeward Bound
#1
[[Continued from Under Guard]]

A nondescript room waited beyond, fashioned with various bits of furniture that cohesively failed to mark the area’s purpose. The only windows topped the height of the walls, the slits streaming a ghostly sort of light over brightly upholstered chairs and gleaming darkwood cabinets. A treasure trove of dust-covered ornaments littered shelves, and there were a few rolled rugs stacked in a corner. Araya stumbled through the gateway, but managed to negotiate Jai into one of the chairs before he ended up on the floor again. Little puffs of dust dispersed under the weight, bright like tiny stars before the vortex of saidin wrenched away and robbed the fleeting beauty.

“We’re in Tar Valon. To get that jaw fixed.”
Jai had been mumbling to himself so he was certainly conscious, but how many of those words would penetrate the veil of fog was anyone’s guess. Araya explained nevertheless, shrugging off his blood-marked coat and tossing it on one of the cabinets. The shirt beneath was the deep blush of sunset, and when he pushed up its sleeves one wrist glinted dully with a number of silver and leather bracelets. “Not the Tower though. Seems to me you could do with somewhere quiet to sleep off the hangover. No questions, if you don’t want to talk. But one condition: You’re in my home, Brother. Best behaviour expected. Other people live here.”
Hana would curse him for the open trust, he’d bet, but the privacy of a static brick-built home was a wispy concept for Araya to fathom. The Tuatha’an were a community, bound together by a common purpose that found little use for the isolation favoured by towns and cities, where neighbours might not know neighbours. Araya was open-hearted at the best of times, and Jai was a brother.

He waited briefly for any sign of cognition, but was loath to waste time that could be better spent hailing a Healer. “I'll be right back."


*
The door opened onto a hallway; cleanly swept floorboards but for the woven rug running down the centre, and tidily painted walls. A frowning, investigative face greeted the racket he made lumping half-way down the stairs; which had been the desired outcome. He didn’t want to scare Hana half to death, though she was used to the undeclared comings and goings by now; it was why the room upstairs was vacant, after all. Shrewd eyes levelled him head to toe. Must she always look so suspicious to see him home? Though maybe this time she had a basis for that wary expression, since he was hovering between steps, hand on the bannister, his own expression slightly uncertain as he combed the area around her.

“The kid?”


“With her tutor, as well she should be at this time of day.”
The suspicion was coalescing in those grey eyes, punctuated by a fold of the arms.

“Good.”
A little tension eased; his only concern in bringing Jai here rather than the heart of the White Tower. “Light, good. I’ve an injured Brother upstairs. She doesn’t need to see this…”


“A man should be wiser with what he brings into his home,”
Hana interrupted curtly. “Particularly when that home houses a child.”


She’d already begun to ascend with heavy, resolved footsteps. But Araya caught her wrist. “I don’t trust him, the state he’s in right now. Must have drowned his sorrows in a brewery, Hana. Probably doesn’t even know where he is. I need you to go to the Tower, bring back a Healer. I can’t fix broken bones.”


She took a moment to contemplate both his expression and words, though both spoke as truthfully as the other. She did not ask why he had not Travelled straight to the Tower; he supposed she didn't need to. “Korene will be back for lunch. I'm not going to spend the rest of the morning loitering in the White Tower's foyer. You'll write me a message to take, so that they'll sooner listen to an old woman's pleas."


Araya's gaze drew the shadowed hallway at the top of the stairs, not entirely at ease with leaving the other Asha'man unattended up there. Jai was hardly in his right mind with that much alcohol fueling his veins in place of blood. But he nodded, and followed her down the rest of the stairs. The quickly scrawled note made it explicitly clear that it was an Asha’man in need, and detailed the worst of the injuries so that someone suitable could be sent. Hana’s lips pursed a thin line; it was a look that clearly said: you don’t pay me enough for this, but ever the diligent worker she shrugged herself into a coat and took the note from his grasp. She didn't even smile when he kissed her head and thanked her for her help. With that done, Araya headed back upstairs; best make sure the guy hadn’t swallowed his tongue or choked on his own vomit.
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#2
Yeah. Fun. Expand the horizons. Think of the possibilities. There were plenty of hardcore revolutionaries walking about these days. A good old fashioned chip on the shoulder really put a guy on edge. A creative insult later and anyone could find themselves neck deep in this sort of claw off your own face fun. Araya didn't sound too interested. Maybe it just wasn't for everyone. Only the insane ones. Yeah. That sounded about right.

Kitten-weak, Araya strained and Jai was dragged to his feet. Their first step ticked off a count in the back of his head. Then a second one. Light, kittens were cute. Scared to death of him, though. Last time Jai went to scoop up one of the little fuzz balls, he'd ended up soaking a bloodied up hand in ice water the rest of the night. So fun he hardly cared about claw marks ruining a good black sleeve.

Another step. It bloody well hurt to spit; Dragonmount had an easier time coughing up its insides. But swallowing what was still leaking from the gumline was quickly turning his stomach again. Emptying it the first time was pleasant enough. So more bulbous drooling it was. He probably looked about as awesome as it felt, too. Another step. Three. He swayed, uncertain of what was going on when the next count came to a halt. Forges of a stoking threat descended. So distracting, it'd cook a man alive and he'd only stretch out, grab the salt, and drink the skin-dripping flames faster. So, yeah; the menacing human barbecue of close quarters saidin drew his attention. Human barbecue? That's it, he was going crazy alright. What'd he used to tell himself? You're out of your bloody mind you flaming crazy-. Jai watched the Pattern scorch before his eyes blankly, fist gripping Araya's coat through it. Araya was channeling. What was the guy wearing? Was that a pink scarf? It was a guy, right? Right. Sure; he was channeling. Jai was up to speed now.

It was dusty where they went. With terrible lighting. And the furniture was half-rotted. What wasn't covered by sheets at the least. Araya tossed him in a chair. Out of which he bloody nearly fell, but eventually came around to rolling his head back to the cushion, bloody ready to pass out again. Unfortunately, he didn't stay there long. Throat clogging drainage seeped backward; blood from the toothless crypt in his gumline pouring down the wrong direction. Jai groaned something about eating a steak and ended up leaning forward, forehead in his hands and letting gravity do the work.

Wait. Tar Valon? He looked up as Araya was taking off his clothes, no.. just a coat. Right, not a woman. Just a guy; Asha'man probably; one not fond of black. Odd, really. He'd look pretty good in it. Then again, a good clean black uniform dappered up the ugliest of mugs. Just for proof, Jai looked down at himself. His coat hung completely open. The shirt beneath barely buttoned together. The fine fibers of both collars were soggy with blood, spit, and vomit. Half of which stuck like dry scabs to the spikes across his unshaven throat. The sweet aroma of strong drink almost covered the faint fragrance of urine. Yeah. Black could dapper up a trolloc face.

So. Probably Asha'man. Given that Araya could- Do stuff. Like channel gateways. It was a good thing he wasn't a lady. Other than the disturbing wonder of a lady channeling saidin, Jai wasn't particularly at the top of his game just then if she'd had something in mind. Though, actually. He probably could- No. Maybe not. Turned out, Araya only cast a spoiled coat to a cabinet revealing a not-pink shirt beneath. Scarlet scarf, green coat, and whatever color shirt that was. He must have a sporadic love of color-palettes. The shirt was more orange than pink Jai wagered, staring at it, trying to decide. Actually, it was kind of a good looking color.

Araya's slender silhouette retreated, and Jai blinked at the vapory echo of where it'd been. Home. Not the Tower. Tar Valon.

"Blud'n'bluddy-"
The rest of the curse was throaty, frothy frustrations. But he was too tired to do anything about it besides drape his arms across his knees and wait.

Then he looked at his lap. Damn it. His head hung, bowed in defeat, and he started tugging off his boots. A brief check inside, and he found his name. Good. Always important to wear your own boots. They were shoved aside, and moments later Jai risked his odds at standing on his own. So far, so good. Coat slid off first and tossed somewhere. Belt then.. No, he wasn't wearing a belt. Shirt wasn't tucked in either. And half the buttons had been skipped, so it came away pretty fast and went flying through the dusty air. Difficult hobbling got rid of the pants, there was nothing underneath. Then those were kicked aside as well and soon enough sweet relief followed.

Better. He checked out his hand since it seemed to leave a smear of blood on everything it touched. Sure enough, a good jagged cut dug to the tendons. From clutching up the edge of that sword when he'd been reaching for the hilt. Like a steel paper-cut. An unimpressed shrug and he checked out the room then. It was a terrible room. Hot in there, despite the slick of feverish skin; though he knew he wasn't sick. Hadn't been sick since turning Soldier. They should really put that little perk on the flyer, might get more guys lined up when the scouts ride through town: that channelers don't get sick. They lost limbs and blew one another's faces off, but no common colds slowed down their kind.

The windows probably hadn't been opened this Age either. He wandered over to stand beneath the glass: narrow slits a foot overhead streamed in cloudy light. So up a piece of furniture he went and peered out.

The shake of his head flung spit-laden blood from the corner of his lips, which he wiped away with the same hand across which had poured the stomach contents. Not the sliced up one, which was as gritty with mud as it was from what oozed from the gash. With the other hand; the one that looked like he was wearing a red glove; colorful, Araya would appreciate it. But forgetting to be gentle during the swipe, he cringed at the what swung beneath his fingertips. Momentary blindness followed. It wasn't exactly habit to avoid touching your own face, after all.

It was Tar Valon alright. Bloody gleaming roofs and beautiful architecture. Clean and crime-free. With plenty to do at night. Great food, good music, good wine. Theatre, balls, dancing, art. There were worse places to live. "Dammit."
He said to himself just as noise shattered the illusion of safety.

He circled when the door creaked open behind him, hand instinctively going for the ever-present hilt he wasn't wearing. But padded in shock across upon finding only an empty hip.
Only darkness shows you the light.


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#3
“Huh.”
Araya stood in the doorway, arms folded, expression suspended somewhere between amusement and disbelief. He looked Jai from head to toe to head again, took stock of the random flung uniform and the suspicious stench, and sighed. “And you’re naked. Of course you’re naked. Makes perfect sense, right?”
Jai was wobbling, still patting his side like he’d lost something, the back of one heel half hanging over the edge of the cabinet he’d somehow managed to climb. Not quite the scene he’d expected to return to.

Light. One hand snaked back over white-blonde hair, scruffed at it as though trying to order the thoughts in his head, and then he finally entered the room. The door he left half open, so he could hear any noises downstairs; but pushed to enough it did not look like a big shining escape route. “That’s Kandori winterwood you’re padding footprints all over. Antique. Or… old, at least. Think you could sit down, Jai? Use the wall to balance yourself. If you can.”


Technically he supposed it didn’t matter if Jai fell, though obviously the preference was that he didn’t. Billowy twists of Air would soften the landing if he did, albeit discretely; there would be no bonds to keep him up there lest Jai mistake the effort for a prison. Araya hadn’t missed the whipcord defensive instincts that had shot hand to the one-time placement of a sword when he’d first opened the door. And he’d rather deal with a docile drunk than a panicked one.

The thud of his boots muffled as he moved from floorboard to a rather threadbare gold and green rug. Time for some damage control, he supposed. He wasn’t sure what an Aes Sedai’s reaction would be upon discovering she had been called to the aid of one utterly inebriated, utterly naked Asha’man. No, that wasn’t true, he had some idea; what he wasn’t sure on was whether she might refuse to play her part in such a farcical situation – Araya hadn’t, after all, specified for a Yellow; just someone capable of Healing bones. Either way, I’m going to have to warn her before she comes in. It was unfortunate that anyone had to see Jai in this state at all, but – in Araya’s opinion, at least – rather that person be a Sister, than a Brother who might later have cause or desire to use it against him.

“So you remember the part I said about other people living here, right? The women and children kind. Especially the children. So we’re going to have to reconsider this liberalist attitude towards clothes…”
Only, there was no point forcing him back into the black, and Jai was both taller and broader than anything Araya might lend him. So let’s see what we can find. The first set of rickety drawers, belonging to a white-stained Tarein bedroom dresser, contained odds and ends he suspected might have belonged to its previous owner; buttons, bits of ribbon and not much else. The second was more promising. The piles of material had been folded neatly, but had clearly not been touched since; the smell was faintly musty. "Huh, here we go."


He glanced up to check on Jai, then back down to the fabrics; though he kept the Asha'man in his periphery. The top bolt was blue as cloudless sky, and vividly bright. It reminded him of sun-soaked summer, especially with the yellow-gold thread-work thick round the edges. Light, silky; it would make a nice shirt, actually, but he had not bought it for him. It had been for Korene. Same as all the other bits of fabric in here; all of them collected in those early days of guardianship, when he’d been at a bit of a loss as to his role in her life. Well, until Hana had finally let her exasperation over-boil. “I wouldn’t even make curtains with this, Araya. Leave the girl’s dresses to me.”
Light, such a long time ago now.

He pulled the blue one out in a sleek ripple, but let it float to the floor. Beautiful fabric, gorgeous colours, but entirely unsuited to protecting modesty. A rummage later produced something closer to the wool of an Asha’man’s uniform in thickness and feel, if hardly in colour. It was a strikingly rich shade of mauve, no pattern, no embellishment; one of his later attempts at being conservative, he recalled with half a grin. He shook it out, and by its size it might have once found occupation as wealthy man’s blanket. Well, wealthy woman’s, anyway.

“Sorry. No black.”
He held it out to Jai, then decided better of the freedom. He didn’t fancy the chances Jai would understand what it was even for. And it turned out crossing the room elucidated another useful item - a black carved bowl filled with once fragrant bits of dried flowers. Those he tipped into the still open drawer housing the buttons and ribbon, then tucked under his arm while he covered Jai up. If Araya were concerned or embarrassed by another man’s nudity, it did not show. Nor did he stare at the scarring, though it was impossible not to notice. Wounds like that left horror stuffed in a man’s head long after the flesh had healed.

The bowl he placed in Jai’s lap, though nudged it towards his good hand. “Sit forward a bit, and dribble into that.”
Or be sick again, if the need arose, though he didn’t say that. immediate job done, Araya perched on the edge of Jai’s cabinet. Light. He pinched the bridge of his nose and laughed his gurgling horror of a laugh. Oh Light. Hana was going to kill him, she really was.


Edited by Raffe, Jan 23 2018, 03:25 PM.
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#4
Hip jutting forward. The leg half-contorted and unbalanced beneath. It was quite the stance to hold. A hand searched the wall for invisible holds. Toes curled around the lip of the cabinet. The other foot braced behind. There was definitely no sword to draw; and the merry reason as to why finally dawned. It was about then Jai realized there were moments in a man's life when he would face insurmountable odds. When a split second decision separated men of action from the indecisive idiots. This was one such moment. An incredible cast of the die where Jai managed to grip a challenge by the throat and choke out the ability to do the hardest thing he ever had to do. He somehow did it.

Sit down. And try to without breaking his neck. For a second, it was close. And he wavered back and forth between whether Araya's suggestion was a good idea at all. The hesitation turned the attempt into more of a backslick, sweaty slide down the wall with a hard thump at the end but once bare feet found their first floorboards, he flipped Araya two animated thumbs up and settled in for what was next.

Kandori winterwood? Huh. Wow. This was definitely the costliest furniture he'd ever sat buckskinned on before. Probably; there was likely some gaudy sea folk isle treasure floating around Daryen's place that'd had much the same pleasure. At least Daryen's places were cleaner. Araya should really get a maid or something.

He looked down. And swirled dusty trail marks along the top surface blankly. Dirty, bloody palms smearing the trail as he did. Kandori Winterwood was fancy stuff. Really expensive. Hard to find. Difficult to export. A beast for the best of furniture makers to market. Araya had fantastic taste. If Araya was concerned about footprints padding up his antiques, he didn't seem too worried about telling blokes to sit on it.

He'd get over it. The cabinet wasn't Kandori winterwood anyway; it was an Altaran walnut knockoff. Complete with a little split on one edge an auctioneer would call character; but the splinter gave it away. Winterwood was a hardy borderlander grain, tight and hewn from broadleaf trees. Walnut was comparable in strength, but burled with knotty complexities beneath the surface missing in winterwood. Both stained gloriously dark though.

Walnut aside, it was still a good piece; a hard, durable wood without being excessively heavy. Would look spectacular cleaned up; especially with this finish. It wasn't everyday decorators came across perfect parallel grains nor studied scrolled feet so intricate. A guy could store a lot of stuff in this baby. Scarves; those were the days. Araya was wearing a scarf, blood-scarlet, disturbing morbid colored one, but it looked plenty soft. Probably felt great against the throat on those bone-chilling days; Jai dully scratched his own sticky growth. Or any day, really. Dulled eyes followed Araya around the room, glued to watching the scarf. For someone with such a problem with clothes, Araya sure had a lot of them. Clothes did come in handy, should probably get some new ones someday. Though Jai was pretty attached to the black. Maybe a good scarf? There was something to be said about a guy skilled in accessorizing.

More than clothes, Araya had an impressive collection of random stuff stockpiled. Probably holing up for the Last Battle. Practical. Tar Valon was the closest city to the borderlands. It was sure to burn to the ground first, after all. Shame, really. It's a great city. Good food, good art. Great tailors. Lamp lit nights, streets always open. Markets never closed up, taverns without end. Run out of Domani sunset peppers spicing up dainty little goblets of drink during some charity gala's after party? Not a problem in Tar Valon. Jingle a bit of change and more appeared straight away.

A guy never wanted for anything in Tar Valon. Not so much as a beggar on these streets. Beautiful people flocked everywhere: not all of them swaying Aes Sedai and gaudy booted warders either. Wonder what happened to that guy? It'd be quite the joke to run into him again. Could ask him where he bloody found those boots; if Jai could remember to pause during the bashing in of his face to let him answer. Ah, Tomdry; Jai shook his head sadly. Creator take his soul. Absolutely didn't deserve to die like that. One cry of furious war and run down a Fade until it hacked off your limbs and left you rolling about at its mercy. Light. But what a way to go. If only everyone could be so lucky.

It was trolloc balls sweaty hot in this light-forsaken flaming room though. Dragon shelter the unlucky bastard kid forced to live here. So Araya had women and kids? What was he going to do when the Last Battle hit? Leave them behind in Tar Valon to fend for themselves with the city melting all around? The guy seemed too chipper for that kind of morbid ending, should probably ask him how he did it someday. That is, if Jai regained the ability to talk.

Araya's airy fabric rippled amazingly slow to the floor. A cornflower bolt of whimsical blue. But a corner of it darkened when it hit. Probably ruined it. A shame, really. Sharan mulberry really was expensive, more so than the commoner, wilder silk variety, and the threading looked like custom stitching too. Tight as skin, actually. Probably a month's worth of devotion to get it in place. Quality stuff. Fortunately, if a guy put his head down, it could probably be picked out in an afternoon.

Other colors swirled from the drawer. Avocado green woven into shiny sheets. Beach yellow. Crimson, plum, strawberry: hard dyes to set just right. Some were spun with thread-of-gold; some plain, others folded with only a hint of their full design showing. But nothing with that certain, dull gleam of silk spun black wool. The softest, freshest fabric to ever graze a man's skin.

Jai's gaze fell to his coat: sharp edges, neat trim, high collar; tapered waist that flared out below. A cut of artwork flopped inside out across a cold lantern now; sheer black lining apparent on the inside and smothering the lamp's rigid shape underneath. Fitting those long flared coats to a man took talent; if the guy wanted to turn a few heads at least. A commission any tailor would be happy to challenge. Jai's had, anyway, though he'd never know the man's excitement to look at the bill. Though demanding, tailors weren't exactly in the pro bono service, forcing him back for appointment after appointment to get the pattern just right.

Araya shook out a cranberry-red sheet. Except, cranberry was a stretch. Inside out bird-flesh pink was closer to the mark. The fabric landed in his lap, which was strewn between uncertain fingers for the next little while. As with everything else he touched, blood smeared it, but the color blended naturally. It eventually went wrapped around his shoulders like an old woman's afghan, and draped down his chest. The tail of it folded across his thighs, but was open down the front for the most part. Plenty of space across the abdomen for a streaking scar and Lennox's blue bootprints to still be seen between the folds. Light, it was hard to breathe. And suddenly hotter than it was before.

Araya moved around a bit, but Jai stopped watching before something was stuffed into his arms. The bowl caught the bloody drool without much laboring around to get into the right position. He was pretty slumped over by that point. It was nice, though. Gave him something to hang onto. The heat snapped away suddenly, and he shivered under the impromptu blanket, chilled back and forth as though riding through a fever now. And he didn't feel so good about then; more than just nausea. He was about ready to find a bed. And a bottle with a straw.

Araya perched himself against the cabinet next to him, muttering. He caught the man's eyes briefly; two of the four ghostly orbs hovering back and forth at least. His eyes weren't sunken under dehydrated cliffs; they was studious and thoughtful. Just as he had been in the few scenes from Arad Doman in which Jai found floating around in hazy memories. Vague recollection saw him speaking with Nythadri once, and his slender shape mingled about the same crowd as had Jai and Daryen at the time. Though far more anonymously. Unless Daryen knew. Surely he knew. Light.

He hugged the bowl a little tighter. Just thinking about Daryen knocked something free in his head. Like equal forces of saidin pounding saidin toward a direction it didn't want to go. With the pressure gonging away at the inside of his eyeballs, Jai considered digging around Araya's stockpile for a drill. Just to carve a tunnel through his own face.

Old, dead questions spiked about then. He had no idea who the guy next to him was. Beyond having a crazy obsession with pigmentation and fine eye for collecting furniture, that was. And preferences for vacationing on the coast. It was focus to suck up enough breath through the nose, but moments later Jai coughed out an extra bolus into the bowl, stringy, spit laden blood, for his tongue to utter a single, muddled question.
"Who-?"
But didn't get the rest of the question out.

Only darkness shows you the light.


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#5
Araya left the unfinished question hanging, not quite sure how to provide a feasible answer to what he presumed the question to be. Did Jai remember him from Arad Doman? Possible; Araya had not been there in any official capacity – had even made attempts to tone down his attire – but he was no master spy, no great game player. He had not hid. The memories tightened discord in his chest, but he had had to see Daryen’s plan played out with his own eyes. No matter how much it burned. "Probably a question better answered when you’re sober, huh? Or at least able to hold down a conversation."


Noises drifted from downstairs; the sweetly pitched murmur of female voices. The click of a closing door. It didn't look like Jai was going to be up to any more antics - he looked pretty terrible by now, truth told - but Araya waited a few moments more before heading to the door, listening to the sounds of footsteps below as they grew clearer. By the time he'd gotten to the hallway to stand sentinel, they were making their way up the stairs; the Aes Sedai first, Hana hovering behind. The Sister was tall for a woman, and dark of hair and eye. Simplicity encapsulated the elegant lines of her dress, high-necked after a Borderland fashion and of modest steel blue colouring. He didn’t know her. “Light’s blessing, Asha’man. I am Esenya Sedai.”
Her gaze held a distinct clarity; the sort of pure, majestic confidence one only found in the north. Stable as a mountain. Araya was not really one for ceremony, but under the circumstances he thought it best to meet formality with formality.

"Thank you for coming so swiftly, Esenya Sedai. My name is Araya."
No scraping bow, though he did politely incline his head. Then paused, glancing at his fingers wound about the door handle. How best to phrase what she was going to find within? He figured Yellows - and he presumed she was likely to be one, despite no indication in her dress - were used to disturbing sights, unusual sights, heinous sights. There was no evidence of Hana's note on her person, but she would have some idea of the injuries she had come to Heal. Just not the drunk part; and that, there was no hiding once she entered. The stiff stench of it permeated from Jai's very pores. "I should preface this with an apology of sorts, Aes Sedai. Asha’man Kojima took it upon himself to self-medicate trauma with alcohol. Besides the obvious injuries, he’s not looking too good-"


She held up a pacifying hand to cut him off, and used her other to place gentle pressure on the half-closed door; not impatiently, just ready to do what she had come to do. Araya let go of the handle, and it opened to admit full view of the man slumped on the winterwood cabinet, naked but for the mauve blanket cast over his shoulders and pooling about his thighs. The room had hardly been pristine to begin with, but blood smeared with dust on the surfaces he had touched whilst stumbling about unattended, the pieces of black uniform still scattered where they had landed. Boots lay askew; one upright, the other a fallen soldier. Mixed with the musty scent of old, the metallic tang of blood and queasiness of stale vomit, was the smell of the questionable damp patch. He'd been sitting in the room so long, Araya had forgotten about that. If Esenya Sedai was affected at all, she did not show it.

Hana caught him by the arm before he followed after the Sister. Her expression did not give much away, but then she was always austere edged disapproval. "You can’t take in every waif and stray, Araya."
Her brows rose purposeful meaning, lips pressed together. Including you, dearest Hana? Araya smiled, patting her fingers still cold from winter sun. He got her point, but Jai was a Brother, and Araya an Asha'man with little reputation to tarnish. And if he couldn't hold a hand out to a Brother in need, even when the reprisal marked him weak for doing so, then he came dangerously close to damning old territories - that of reconciling himself as both Tuatha'an and a man wrought to be a weapon in his very being. Better to walk the path that felt right. Even - thinking of Trista, which twisted - when it had terrible costs. "Thank you for bringing the Healer, Hana."
Her face might have cracked something of a smile; he couldn't be sure since she shook her head at the same time. Certainly there was a touch of exasperation when she met his eye. He liked to think there was fondness too. "I'll make up a bed then, shall I?"


When Hana had disappeared downstairs, he followed the Aes Sedai into the room. Though she did not turn from where she stood - several paces opposite Asha'man Kojima - she seemed to sense his presence because she spoke almost immediately. "And this is the calibre of man standing between us and the Dark One?"
Her admonishment lacked the sting Araya might have expected; her words were stately, noble – and full of a deep regret. Somehow it was worse. He glanced at Jai, and found himself hoping the man was too far gone to comprehend the condemnation. Esenya’s dark gaze studiously contemplated the man’s bowed head, his bloodied mouth and blotchy pallor beneath the enshrouding blanket. There was no sympathy, but neither was there contempt. The closest Araya could pitch her demeanour as, was a stoic sort of grief. Then her face hardened to conclusion.

"It doesn’t please me to Heal stupidity. There are men, good men, laying down their lives in the Borderlands while this man squanders Creator given life – and to what end? Duty is not supposed to be easy, Asha’man. Of course your lives are not easy. But it is no excuse."
Her gaze broke, and met Araya’s. There was a startling lack of judgement, just perception filtered through the eyes of a Borderlander. Disappointment was swallowed by a sense of resigned inevitability, like she had expected no less.

"Men make mistakes, Aes Sedai,"
he said levelly. It was hardly the moment for life-lessons to find purchase, nor was it her job to dish them out. Araya had little idea what road had led Jai to the here-and-now, nor did it matter much for him to feel inclined to help the here-and-now injuries. He'd meant what he'd said when he'd made the no-strings offer of refuge. "Will you Heal him?"


Her eyes narrowed like he had thrown an insult; which, in immediate hindsight, he supposed he had, if unintentionally. "Servant of All, Asha’man."
Esenya’s back straightened. "At least one of us here should stand up to expectation."
Closing the distance, her hand reached for Jai’s temple, the tips of her fingers sweeping back through his hair. She did not lift his head. Araya’s skin prickled at her grasp for saidar, and his jaw tightened; no chance of Jai wrestling saidin to buffer the impending cold flood, nor the toll it would take on the remaining vestiges of his energy. Not the most pleasant of experiences, but little to be done about it. Almost uncomfortable watching, he retreated to the side of the room and eventually came to rest against the Tarien dresser, his boots nestled in all the discarded fabric. And waited.

When the Aes Sedai’s hand finally drew back, it flopped to her side like the weariness had spread. Her breath drew a heavy sigh under the burden, but only for the moment it took to gather herself. Araya pushed himself up off the dresser he had been leaning on, but a brief wave of her hand brushed away his offer of hospitality before it left his lips. Tightness pinched her expression. "No need, Asha’man, though your kindness is appreciated. I am needed back at the Tower."
The emphasis there was on duty, he was sure, but Araya only nodded as she then continued to list on rote the expected aftermath of a Healing and the things that could be done to expedite the patient's recovery. Her parting was as formal as her greeting, echoed by Araya; mostly out of gratitude. She insisted on seeing herself out.

Jai was still slumped, and Araya wasn’t sure there was much keeping him upright. It was customary to eat and rest well after a Healing, though it was doubtful if he'd be able to stomach the former; rest it is then. The brief thud of footsteps warned Hana's return moments before she entered, shouldering the door because her hands were burdened by a sloshing basin of water. Not a strand of silver-laced dark blonde hair was out of its immaculate place, though her cheeks were faintly pinked from exertion. Araya gestured she pass it to him, but she ignored the offer and took it to set next to Jai. "Make yourself useful and warm the water, Araya. Drunk is no excuse for soiling good sheets, and he’s filthy with blood and muck."


"Don't you think it'd be kinder to just let him sleep it off? That Healing can't have been-"


"-I know the toll of Healing, thank you. And you know my opinion on filthy drunkards. Now, there’s no time to prepare a hot lunch so I’ve set cheese and bread on the counter downstairs. Korene will be home soon. If I have to ask you again, I'll just use the cold water."
She was already squeezing a cloth, and Araya knew better than to argue. If Hana wanted Jai clean before he slept, then that was exactly what would happen. A thread of Fire accomplished the task, and if his fellow Asha'man happened to look up it was accompanied by something of an apologetic look. Hana was ruthlessly maternal and, he imagined, Jai no more than a silly boy with a scraped knee in her eyes - Asha'man pins be damned. He watched as she removed the bowl from Jai's lap, lifting the guy's chin with one finger and angling it so he had no choice but to meet those determined grey eyes. "Asha’man Kojima. My name is Hana, and this is what's going to happen. I’m going to clean you up. Then a nice soft bed waits. No arguments."
She'd already grasped one of his hands; grip firm but uncompromising, when Araya left. He didn't come back until Hana called for him to help guide Jai to bed.
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#6
Jai rolled and one arm fell over the side of the bed. Scratchy fibers of a rug licked his fingertips, but unfortunately no glass clunked together. What was that Dedicated's name?
Focus. Concentrate. It was there somewhere- "Uhh. Dedicated?"
He risked a squint. The room was excessively brighter than he expected. Nobody came in, and Jai didn't call again.

He jerked awake half panicked something was wrong. The arm flopped over the side of the bed was dead numb below the wrist, and tingled painfully up to the shoulder. He shook it out and straightened himself out across the mattress. Light's blessings, Creator's shelter and all those happy things to the brilliant mind that first thought to save his feathers for a bed. Who knew? Hey fellas, let's shove bits of this animal carcass in a bag and sleep on it. Genius. Feather beds were pretty blasted fantastic. He sank in gratefully, pulling the blankets up to his chin as he did. This was a good one too. It sort of hugged your outline, but was packed firm enough to not go limp-spined in the depths. A few reinvigorating punches to his pillow and Jai found himself just as impressed with what was going on up there. Overly impressed, feeling about, actually. Finding more plump, odd shapes than just the one he'd buried his face into. Odd. He was usually pretty glad to have just one pillow, let alone more than there were heads to rest. Fascinated, he picked up one small enough to fit in his fist, then chucked it aside as others tumbled over when the first was dislodged. How bloody many were there? He settled back for now, intending to count them later.

Jai opened his eyes hesitantly and stared at the whitewashed ceiling. Light streamed around the edges of window curtains, though what time of day was ambiguous. He started to push up, but immediately sank back into the pillows. They were stacked together now like they'd been arranged behind him, but toppled in the hours since. A plate empty but for crumbs forgotten on the bedcoverings stared up beside him. Which was something of a first, waking up to evidence of earlier meals tucked in the sheets beside you he had no memory of eating. Least, he assumed it'd been his. He thrust it over to the table and stretched out, knuckling his back from the poor contortion.

Beds were great. He felt like he'd been sitting squat behind a muddy trench for days but nothing a good stretch on a decent bed couldn't cure. Though his heels hung over the end of this one, it was better than a pallet on the ground. A guy can't ask for much more than that.

His eyes were burning when next they opened. And head pounding. The sheets lay like a death shroud over his skin. Unmoved, undisturbed and had apparently been smoothed across a man more unconscious than asleep. And it was warm in here under the plump blanket. It was nice. He almost didn't get up, until his throat started begging his head for forgiveness. Cracked and neglected, standing under a Domani rainstorm with mouth gaped wide would be no relief. Shards of crystals came away from his eyes. The same from his lips. Then, he saw the heavensent glass of blessed water waiting next to the bed: he welcomed it in a few, desperate gulps. When his throat felt like it'd been dribbled in angel tears, he looked around half hoping there'd be more and half wondering where the blazes he was.

His head was empty, for the most part. There were moments, of course, smudging the last few pages of his life. There'd been drinking, that was for certain; a lot of it. And not needing the refreshment of memory to tell him that much. He rubbed his eyes raw, glaring flatly at what little light glowed from a lamp in an otherwise night-darkened room. The level of disinhibition that accompanied this kind of hangover usually bought a guy something of value: but not this time. No epic tavern dice battles. No proving there were no such things as leagues separating a guy from winning the charms of women supposedly out of his. Once, he woke up with the dawn sprawled out in a dingy bobbing along the southeast coast inland from Bandar Eban. Neither Jai nor the other guy passed out in the boat recalled what must surely have been an epic plan for a cage of white-tipped seagulls and a rig of stolen illuminator's rockets.

He labored up this time, shoving the blanket aside and realized there was nothing between him and the sheets. It was hard to be worried about where your clothes were when you didn't know where you were, so he lurched to his feet unconcerned for now. Steadying himself on a spindled bedpost. Then propped himself along the edge of an unadorned dresser while wobbling toward the door, eventually pulling it open. And finding still no answers.

He was on a landing. A couple of closed doors looked back at him, a skinny rug ran down the middle, and a flight of stairs led down. Not so much as a picture hung on the walls. He looked left again. Then right. Then down the stairs. "What the blazes?" and scrubbed his hair back in frustration. Then looked down at himself. It wasn't the skinniest he'd ever been, or the whitest, but a few days of labor oceanside wouldn't go rejected. Pants were probably the civil thing about now, so Jai sank back in the bedroom a moment in search of decency.

A bit of rummaging around found his uniform folded up on a chair. The threads shone, soft and inviting. His boots were nearby, and wiped of mud, but still in need of a long polish. No smallclothes, though. No belt and no socks. But again, he had bigger worries than missing garments. So pants would do for now, but he had to sit on the edge of the bed to hobble into each leg to get them on.

Bare footed, shirtless and uncaring about covering the skin-pinching ugly scarring ruining an otherwise acceptable physique, he made it most of the way down the stairs before someone showed up. She looked like his grandmother, only younger. Her dress she wore like a uniform, crossed at the waist with a clean apron, and her hair was pulled back from a moderate-aged face into a snug bun. Which she should let out, despite the threads of gray, her honey-colored hair shone against clear, but hard, eyes. And they were staring straight up at him, arms crossed. Not at all expressing surprise, either. And not looking the most sympathetic.

Jai blinked, paused on the bottom step, confusion stammering out. Her expression stirred something of recognition, but he wasn't quite sure what it was.
"Uhh, why do I feel like I should be embarrassed right now?"

Before she could answer, the long rays of dawning light broke through. He saw cloth; or, well, bolts of fabric flung about. There were lots of scrubbing his skin raw by her hand. Lots of blushing; at least, coalescence of blotchy cheeks into discernible embarrassment. He remembered endeavors to fight her off not going well. You'd think a guy wouldn't be so horrified to let a woman have her way with him. But blood and ashes! Jai's fiercely warm cheeks broke into an apologetic smile.

"Um, right. Uhh."
Hana was a hard woman, he decided. Not so much as a flicker broke her impassivity. Jai scrubbed his hair and tried again to put together where he was. It was a pretty ordinary looking place. Curtains dangled before shutters, all three windows he could see of them. Four chairs neatly faced one another by a warm fire. Decently woven rugs were scattered across the wooden floor unfurled in parallel with the orientation of the room opening around the bottom of the stairs. Whitewashed walls cornered everything in. Grays mostly, but muted earthy colors showed up here and there. Oddly, around the plush comforts of an otherwise institutionalized home, a mandarin orange cabinet stuck out like rage in a porcelain shop. Jai looked it over. If the first color weren't enough of a headache, the trim was painted beet red and dusted gold feet curled toward the floor like the claws of iron basin bathtubs.

Light what an ugly cabinet. Expensive design though. Somebody had pretty good taste, then to buy Winterwood. Winterwood, his jaw fell.
"Blood and ashes!"
A thrill of panic instantly flushed every pore and he caught himself just before falling weak-kneed in shock. Things rushed backwards in time. The Healing, Araya, Lennox, the M'Hael. His eyes shot to a window, imaging the spread of white-capped gleaming buildings rising up around this little colonial-esque graystone house as he had seen from the view upstairs.

There was no fighting it then. His knees gave way and he sat on the bottom step of the stairs, palms slid from feeling around his face to make sure it was all screwed back together and ended up shoving his eyes into palm-sealed darkness.
"Light what did I do?"
He asked himself, fingers shoving across his hair. The lights of memory were distant lamps but as soon as he found one flickering and turned toward it, the details surrounding such moments snuffed themselves away.

Nythadri first. She was there, crystal clear and staring. Lips parted as though about to speak. Or maybe smile with that sensational all-too-knowing smirk of hers. Or jab him with the kind of sarcastic banter he enjoyed struggling to parry in like kind. Arad Doman came and went like a wave. Then the sound of a barely-deflected crossbow bolt whispered uncomfortably close to his ear. He walked all night in the rain soaking wet: miserable and trudging through Caemlyn.

Something told him to stop digging around with Caemlyn. Leave the rest of that delicious day out of reach. It was a day, right? A Week? How long had he been out?

The cold entrance of that crypt of unwanted memories was a hard one to look into. But, hey, a black hole of the past down there or a black sky overhead now? One seemed no worse than the other. He sighed.

"She was right."
It was a sad sort of resolution he told himself, but a necessary one. "It's not an excuse. The world deserves better."
He wished he were a better man, the kind that could be what was needed. Then he sought out the patiently watching Hana as though she might have an answer to the question he hadn't asked, an answer to anything, which was absurd, of course, nobody had all the answers.

Esenya was right about more than his quality as a person. Forget that of a forged Asha'man. He knew the caliber of men who died every few minutes. All without glory or proclamation of great deeds or ballad-worthy sacrifices. Their bodies often left to be lumps on the horizon until someone was able to check boots for names. Guilt squeezed his eyes shut, hoping his father's undeserved commendations of his youngest son's honor would go ahead and disappear with the rest of a dead House. Maybe someday, if the Dragon Reborn did as prophecy said, those fields would see green autumn days once more. The sort of land he believed the survivors of these last days deserved to be happy again. That is, mostly happy; the world will hopefully be purged, but likely to be harsher place by then.

Stand tall or shrink down and fade away. Uphold expectation, not walk lazily apathetic toward the end. No matter how lost a man wanted to find himself along the way. What were a few complaints in a pyramid of graver burdens? The world to their saviors. Nor an army to its redeemer? An army completely on its own, but that meant they wouldn't fight this bloody war with every strangled breath; at least, Jai wanted to. It just had to be done. That Sister was right. Bloody right. Burn her.

Really, this life was more straightforward than a guy could hope to live. All he had to do was wake up every day and show up. Sounded simple. Go where told, eat when told, aim at whatever was needed, crash that night and do it all over again. Hopefully be useful. Or lucky enough to get in some time at a dice table once in a while. Snag someone to pass long nights. All he had to do was hold on to that, long enough to stay useful. And not go insane, no matter how appealing. And make the end count; nothing else made a difference. Jai wasn't the guy in charge, thank the Light. He just needed to show up. And no man could be in two places at once. So something had to give.

Then a moment of worry darkened Jai's tentative resolve. He was gone again. Did the Black Tower know? Was there an assignment he was missing? Light, what if there was?

Hana was saying something. He pinched the back of his neck, rummaging through the last few minutes to figure out what she'd said: something about the kitchen, maybe; while still figuring out where he was suppose to be and wondering what would happen since he wasn't there.

She retreated and Jai shoved determination into a more permanent pocket to dig out at swift need, and shifted about for a while as though going to stand and follow her that way. Light curse Dex and his bloody gentleman's cane. It'd come in handy about then. In the end, he settled back on the step and wished he'd put on the coat after all. It was too much effort to ignore the bite in the air with the Oneness' comforts, but the seventeen grueling stairs between him and black sleeves might as well be half a world away.
"Uh, would it be okay if I ate here?"
He called after her.

Hana didn't even turn around.

He dragged himself up mid-throat scratching. The unbordered stubble was long enough now to send a man mad it itching. So push through the torture a few more days or go for a razor and find some sweet relief now? Eh, who was he kidding, shaving was way too much work.

He followed the way she went, finding himself in a kitchen of sorts until pulling out a square-backed chair at a round table and gratefully landed in it.
"I'suppose I owe you a thanks.."
His arms fell to his lap but he managed a sincere smile when she looked up from stirring something bubbling away. It smelled like stewed spicemeat. His mouth watered.
"So, uhh, thanks."
Grumbles erupted from his stomach loud enough that surely every frowning Aes Sedai in the Tower would have heard it. Fresh blood warmed his cheeks and Hana shook her head.
"Uhh."
He wasn't quite sure what to say. "It's Jana, right?"


"Hana, Asha'man,"
she corrected gently, accepting his apologetic nod then going back to chopping something green and leafy, tossing it in the stew.
He had no idea if she knew his name, nor really who she was at all, beyond being an obviously brilliant cook and a good reference whenever a guy wanted an embarrassing sponge bath. "Uhh. I'm Jai. Are you Araya's..,"
he cleared his throat awkwardly. "..wife?"


There was a pitcher of something beading down the sides with condensation sitting by itself on a counter. Cold milk, maybe? He was on the verge of channeling it over, but pondered whether she would care if he chugged it straight. There weren't any glasses sitting out, and women tended to be particular about strangers rummaging through their cabinets.
Only darkness shows you the light.


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#7
Hana kept busy in the kitchen, each movement precise and efficient. She gave off the distinct impression that her routine was undisrupted by the unusual company - and certainly by all appearances she was utterly unfazed by the scruffy, half undressed man at her kitchen table. Life continued as normal.

The pot of stew simmered while she pressed out dough for tomorrow’s bread and listened to the Asha’man stammering his way through pleasantries. She had sons his age or older, or at least that would be her guess from what she assumed Jai’s age to be. He seemed very young, and not just because of his profuse blushes and the awkwardness with which he handled the situation he had woken up to. Araya had not said much, which she had gathered was because he had nothing to say. He did not know the man he had brought into his house like a long lost brother. But even if Araya’s estimations had not been enough for Hana, the pins were. Hana might not trust as emphatically as a man brought up among the Tuatha’an, but she respected the black.

She nodded acknowledgement to his gratitude; she supposed he must have questions as to the motivation, but those were better posed to Araya. Though she did not think Jai would get satisfactory answers if he did ask; Araya was a force unto his own when it came to such random seeming altruism. It was a difficult concept to grasp, that the man expected nothing in return; which was perhaps why Hana herself took such diligent care of the house and child. Araya would save a whole lot of frowning suspicion if he at least made an effort to understand that others often expected there to be a catch. But that was Araya. Oblivious.

Her gaze only rose from her work because of the unwieldy way the word ‘wife’ spilled out. Like it was something embarrassing. Other than the eye contact, more a measure of surprise than anything, there was nothing untoward in her expression; it was not a topic she found uncomfortable, nor an implication she had not heard before. “No. I’m widowed.”
Once, saying the words aloud had been like reopening the wound, reminding her of the sheer reality of it. Every time the crush of emotion had deafened out the waking world, like her subconscious repeated a panicked search for the missing presence in her mind. Time had softened that blow, else the words had lost meaning. The emptiness was still there. But so were the warm memories. The Wheel Wove as it saw fit.

She waved down any offered condolence at her loss; it was only a factual answer to his question, not an entreaty for pity. “I care for the house, and for Araya’s ward,”
she said, retrieving a glass from one of the cabinets and placing it down on the table. She’d have to be blind to miss the way he was staring at that pitcher, and she remembered all too well how Daeyl had been after a Healing. The enticing aroma of hot food must be a torture, though one he would simply have to endure until the spicemeat was ready to be served. Her gaze remained on his face a moment longer. Araya had asked her not to pry into the events that had landed Jai a broken jaw – he had cited reasons of integrity, and a promise she doubted Jai would even remember Araya had made. That was idiocy. Men did not drink themselves to fever for no purpose, and a man left to his own devices would only let the real reason fester. Araya might think he was doing his brother a favour by granting a wide berth of privacy, but Hana begged to differ.

The world deserves better, he had said, with all the weight of someone walking tight along the edge. She did not think it was uncommon for the Asha’man to face that sort of moral dilemma; how could they not wonder if they stood up to the task? Whatever façade the institutions of channelers presented, they were still human. Daeyl had worn the same black uniform, and beneath it he had still just been a man. Her fingers drummed a contemplative rhythm as she left the table. Hana was a hard woman, but she was not without kindness. What mother ever wanted to see a child wander off a precipice, even if that child were not flesh and blood? Not that she was the type to coddle, either. “The stew could do with another half hour to thicken, but it would not be totally spoiled for being eaten early."
She'd been prepared to make him wait for the meal; Healing or no Healing, she was convinced that Jai's state had been down to his own doing, and thus the hardship would do him no harm. But men talked better on full stomachs, and Araya would be home before long. At the stove, she ladelled a helping of stew into a bowl. "Is it common, these days, for men of the Tower to drink so? Or have you a whole load of sorrows to drown?"
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#8
Every tired muscle braced for Hana's answer. Jai felt studied during those few seconds of suspended time, but he held up to whatever scrutiny zipped behind her eyes. Until her quiet answer rang the room with warnings, and he deflated. Hana? A widow? Jai scrubbed an anxious hand through his hair and looked away from the very creation he feared most but was ironically predestined to leave behind. Mindless, desires for the milk, if he guessed right, retracted its temptation. It felt wrong to want it now.

Histories rolled about. Words he memorized as a kid and honors he recited pretty often as a man about the value of a life lived or the peace of returning to ground when the call came, but Jai's newly mended jaw tightened, and a barricade erected itself. The words would be empty. Falling short of what a mourning wife deserved which was more than belated gestures from someone who didn't follow his own advice. Whoever her husband had been, she had no say in his ending, and here she was serving a man who'd impatiently took off to meet his end ahead of schedule and on his own terms.

Sorrow for her fate clawed his brows close to his eyes, even as he braved meeting the face of that fearsome future once more; a parallel reality that would have been his fate to leave behind had the smallest of events gone alternate ways; so close, it was a cold whisper on the back of his neck, taunting him with reminders that a woeful seed of destruction waited to ambush on the road ahead if he were not more careful. A father or brother, even the death of a son were all heartaches to overcome, but couldn't compare to the emptiness of life after losing the one soul that made a man get out of bed every day. To go on after that would an aimless existence of wandering. How did Hana do it?

He thought of Nythadri then. Not that he intended a proposal, probably would never see her again anyway, but he'd captured her languid arms with too much passion and stroked her milky skin with too much affection; he studied too closely the iridescent jewels that were her eyes and became lost in them, wondering what lurked behind those impenetrable, beautiful shields. Then he thought of the ill-fated dinner weeks behind him. He'd been fascinated by Mikel and Jaslene corralling their children, from the blunt faced tank that was their oldest girl, poor thing had Mikel's fat nose, to the curly haired waif that was their timid youngest. I know what those are, Haitham once uttered, pointing at Jai's throat and stumbling over Jai's title.

Hana brought the milk, and Jai graciously gulped it down as if it were tasteless but necessary fuel. It would be days before he was strong enough to Travel, unless Araya carted him around, and who knew what was waiting at the Black Tower when he returned; showing up on the brink of collapse probably wasn't the best plan to meet it. The weakness during recovery was a reality of flesh as ancient as the collection of widows during wars; and Jai knew well both routines. However unlike sleeping and eating, sitting around complaining was an inefficient way to change the reality of a man's situation. The answer was far simpler: heal up and get back to doing what needs done. And stop thinking about what might have been.

He dropped his wrist back to the table, the empty glass opaque with white residue.
"Thank-you,"
he said, but meant for more than just the drink. Rather than muddle up the awkward air with confusing gratitudes, he cast a hopeful, but invisible line between her and the pitcher she left behind. Milk was an expensive commodity, more so than sacks of tea, more than common wine, but the moment she granted permission, Jai prepared himself for the surge to come, and grappled the oversized chalice with saidin. Unburdening either of them from rising to fetch it. Channeling came without thinking those few tense moments. If he were alive enough to do any task, he did it with the Power.

He knocked back two more refills, but once his hand swiped his lips dry, what it was Hana explained finally sank in.

A ward? Hana returned to work, and Jai was left blinking at the aftermath. And trying to ignore the black hole gnawing away at his insides. A man's mind never easily shifted gears, but today's sluggishness was grinding: befuddled more by the pounding headache than fatigue perhaps. Though to be honest, the headache wasn't that bad; clawing his way back through time and sorting out the mess he found was more unpleasant. What had Araya said? Women and children live here. Right. Well, he supposed Hana explained the women and now adoption explained the children part. He nodded slowly, understanding now. Kind of. Araya's family wasn't his family after all, but Jai had no idea who they were either.

Succombed to thirst, he poured the remaining milk, blankly staring at the way it fell short of a complete refill, then drank it slowly. Savoring every drop to slide down his throat and hoping there was more about. Hana moved from place to place, fetching jars of seasonings here or slicing something new there, and soon she settled at the stove, stirring in the finishing touches on the spicemeat with a heavy wooden spoon that looked sturdy enough to leave a welt. Jai remained where he was. He'd never watched a woman cook before. It was almost soothing, her steps a natural dance, going side to side. He found himself sequencing her rhythm as he would his own. Until she broke the trance with the promise of food.

The symphony of his count faded to the background leaving a silence strangely louder for a sensitive journeyman used to blazing his own path down a lonely road. Hana's gesture, serving a premature meal, was so touching Jai was left speechless, but the smiling gratitude he flashed upon her was enormous. He nearly jumped up and kissed her; or, at least hobbled up slowly and pecked brotherly lips upon her cheek.

The first spoonful burned his tongue, inhaling a stew before it was safely cooled, but the pain was worth it, and it revived a shriveled corpse with the flesh of a living man. His teeth shredded bites of meat quickly while savory spikes of rosemary swirled his nostrils with aroma. His mouth watered even as he ate it. He couldn't remember a better meal.

When the spoon hit the bottom of the bowl, a crust of bread saw the rest cleaned off. Then freed of the tunnel vision that was food demanding his entire concentration, Jai could give some thought to answering her earlier question. Not that he knew what to say. He faintly dragged dirty nails across the patchy beard for a moment, and an uneasy laugh escaped.
"Common? I don't think so, Hana."

Falling down slobbering drunk wasn't exactly becoming behavior for a man of the dragon pin. No matter how many of them wanted to befriend the bottle on a semi-regular basis. Leadership was insightful when they limited how many solaces a man could take out of the cellars on a given day. It'd taken some creative accounting on Jai's part to come up with the number still strewn around the empty, single room that was about the only place Jai claimed as his, and he wondered how much trouble that Dedicated was facing now. He should probably get back and clean it up soon. It probably wasn't smelling the best, and someone was sure to notice. Though after the last few heartsinking days, disorderly citations didn't seem so ominous as they used to.

He didn't think twice regarding her second question because there was nothing to think about. He studied her a moment, looking for signs of sadness, or the discipline to carry on despite it. Jai's look was an upgrade from the blank expressions up till now, but he receded without providing the explanation she sought. Where would he begin?

The faint itch of habit started clawing across his skin, drawing his fingertips like an oblivious moth toward an infernal end, and he said nothing. Thoughtless but for the feeling. Instead, he grazed the side of his thigh, scratching through the cloth, followed by a bit of a shift in his seat. Then a couple clawings across the back of his neck which ended in a squeeze for the tension under his skull. With no sleeves to tug, his hands pressed against one another safely under the table, one thumb absently digging around the callouses. He was looking around the room casually, but the place was tidy enough to please the sul'man's standards, never finding what he'd been seeking.

Then he broke the silence. "Does Araya have a sword tucked away I could borrow?"


Hana looked at him quizzically.

Unsure why, he went on. It seemed an usual enough question. Asha'man were required to wear a sword after all, and trained enough to not impale himself upon it,
"-or lathes? Anything like that?"

Finally, confused by Hana's confusion, he licked his lips. If she thought he was crazy before, this next option was likely to seal the deal.
"A broomstick?"

Honestly, he hoped for the narrow weight of an old, detached broomstick more than heavy steel at the moment. Lofting a sword through the air for thirty minutes on unsure arms was his idea of cruel and unusual punishment about then. But either way, morning or not, Jai had to get through the routine. Simple as the decision to keep breathing all day.
Only darkness shows you the light.


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#9
Hana was unperturbed by the channeling; did not even look up to confirm what she must have seen from the corner of her eye, just continued with what she was doing – which culminated in spooning a hearty portion of stew into a bowl, and setting it down on the table before the Asha’man. His responding smile was candid, boyish – authentic in the way of the young. So whatever troubled him to seek the bottom of a bottle and a broken jaw, she did not think he was so lost as to not be able to find his way back. Supposing the Tower gave him time to heal; she knew from experience that scars not of the flesh often fell to the care of an Ashaman’s wife, and Jai did not wear a ring.

She let him eat, undemanding of an answer to her questions, keeping herself busy. When he did speak, her own reply was a swift: “Good.”
The word held a note of old pride, but she left it at that, and did not even look up from her work until no more explanation followed the first. Not that she had really expected it to be that easy. He was looking at her, and she didn’t think it was the stare of inner contemplation, but one of outward study. Like he’d deflected the question back. Was he still thinking about the fact she had told him she was a widow? Or simply resisting the notion of looking back, of confronting whatever demon he had been running from in the first place, by thinking of her sorrows instead.

He never answered the second question, but he didn’t really need to; his fidgety actions spoke for themselves. She could make the question simpler: why did you drink so much? But interrogation served no purpose; she knew better than to either coax or demand explanations which would not come easily, even if she thought he should speak of whatever had happened. Fortunately, Hana also understood the need for routine, and the solace to be found in action that not only did not require thought, but consumed it. If he was going to insist on burying his head, better to do it in sword forms than heavy liquor.

She titled her head a little at the question. Araya must practise; he took the oath to forge himself as a weapon seriously, even when it did not sit naturally. But she had never witnessed it. Like a guilty necessity, he kept it hidden away. “If he does, as I’m sure he must have, I’ve never seen it here.”
Which was not to say there was not a sword in the house. Daeyl’s effects were in a box upstairs; the uniform folded neatly, the pins placed atop. The blade rested alongside in its scabbard. She aired out the uniform every now and then, the gaps between a little longer each time. Washed it, pressed it, folded it away. The pins she polished on quiet nights; old rituals, and the closest she ever felt to her husband. The sword, though, the sword she never touched, because Daeyl had always cared for it himself. “But I’m sure I can find you something.”


She retrieved the empty bowl, and the glass. “Though if you’ve the energy for sword forms, you’ve the energy to shave. And don’t forget your shirt next time.”
The words were softened by a smile – the first hint of one since she’d brought him through from the stairs, though that was not to mistake the fact she meant every word.

~*~

Snow had fallen; thick, wondrous, crunch under the foot snow – at least, until a thousand other footsteps compacted it down to treacherous ice. The main thoroughfares had been cleared, of course – it was Tar Valon, after all – but not the outskirts upon which Araya kept his house, where you could almost turn and reach up to the sky and capture the White Tower itself between forefinger and thumb. During the day, at least; it was dark now, or darkening, the snow glowing bright against lamplight. As they walked home, threads of fire sizzled the snow and ice to steam, creating an elaborate walkway where Korene placed her feet. It was intended to make her smile, as were most things Araya did around the kid, but he could tell by the darkening at her young brow she was only irritated with the babying. Hana had bundled her up for the outing; a dark navy scarf wound up to her nose, her hood pulled over tight, but he could still see that glower.

Araya didn’t feel the cold, but his hands were thrust into his pockets anyway; an olive-green jacket with ornate silver buttons and yellow threadwork. His chin buried down into the violet scarf wrapped round his neck, the tails drifting out behind him as he walked. A brooding walk. A thinking walk. Today's treat had been an escape to the Ogier Grove, where he'd told her the best stories he knew to fill the silence; the Tuatha’an, the Greenman, the Ogier – everything he could think off while she trundled behind, kicking powdery clumps of snow and watching her boots. Always the same ritual. She never answered, she never smiled – never even looked at him unless he asked her to, and then her eyes were dark pits, startlingly hollow, and it was usually him who looked away first.

He didn’t know who was more relieved when they reached the threshold. Araya opened the door for Korene, ushering her through before Hana could complain they were letting the chill in. Wisps of fire steamed off the snow drifts huddled on the end of his boots, dried the melt from his hair – aided by the scruff of a hand – and finally mopped up the little wet puddles Korene was leaving in her wake down the hall, off in search of Hana. They found her in the kitchen, the room bursting warmth and the most heavenly aroma (he ate meat; it hadn’t been an option not to, at the Black Tower).

“Ahh, smells great!”
He said it with a good-natured grin, though he didn’t really feel like smiling. Hana must have noted the tightness in his eyes, because her head tilted in patient sympathy. Time, Hana always said. Give it time. But nearly a year had passed already, and he wondered if he had been wrong to ever take Korene away from the Borderlands. The fact was, children usually liked Araya. He pandered to their curiosity, spoke to them like adults, entertained their whims, and never lied. It was natural as breathing for Araya to make friends. But Korene hated him.

He shrugged a dogged I know and gestured his head upwards to ask after their Asha’man guest.

“Sword forms,”
Hana said, beckoning Korene closer to help her out of the heavy cloak and scarf. “Light, child, your fingers are like ice!”
She unravelled Korene like a parcel, cheeks and nose bright with cold, dark hair damp and frizzling on the ends. Small red hands peeped from woven mittens, and Hana rubbed them rigorously with her own, while the kid watched expressionless. To Araya, Hana said: “Through there.”


So Jai was up. Which was good.

Araya had been back to the Black Tower that very morning, firstly to speak to the M’Hael; to officialise the period for recovery and explain the disappearance. Even wore the black for the occasion. A risk, if Jai were then called back, but a risk worth taking – and only a small one, anyway, Araya thought, and far better than potentially being branded a deserter. Turned out there was no risk at all; the kind of trouble Jai had brought down on Black Tower heads, Araya was beginning to understand, was the kind of trouble best tucked out of the way until it cooled down. Keeping his head low was about the most competent thing Jai could be doing right now.

The second reason he’d gone back to the Tower had been less fruitful; to that end, he was still digging.

Araya knocked before he entered, but didn’t wait for permission. Lots of men lost themselves in practice, and he didn't really expect Jai to register him - not that that was the same thing as being unaware. Asha'man were weapons, they were never unaware. Hana had clearly given him leave to push the furniture out the way to allow him enough room for ease of movement, because all the stuffed chairs were backed up against the various cabinets lining the walls. Is that a broom?
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A steady, "Yes ma'am,"
and Jai left, spooning down a refilled bowl as he went.

An hour later his throat felt better, cleaner. It looked better too, Jai concluded, turning sideways by a mirror. He left a strip of sheared off beard along his jawline, though. Cut down short enough to look purposeful and orderly. The final swipe of a towel cleaned off the traces of soap, frosted over the steam on the mirror with the Power and studied the result. He looked tired. Testing out a half-hearted smirk, and Jai was unconvinced; he'd seen better days, that was for sure. The beard was a nice change. Though it reminded him of Zakar's, who'd kept the habit up since he was old enough to start sculpting facial hair. Their father did it too, but only around the mouth, never on up as though about to meet his trim sideburns. Jai had been likely to follow in their footsteps, but one grumble from Jaslene about scruffy-haired men snuffed the desire thirteen years cold. Until now.

An inner rumble of hunger tore his attention away, and he remembered the towel then. He was unsure what to do with it, and stood there looking down at the way the dead cloth was wadded up heavy in his hands. It was fuzzy white wool of apparent good quality because no fluffs stuck to his hair when he wrapped it hot and damp across his mouth those few minutes before the shave.

It was too dirty to return to the peg he'd found it on, but there was no basket drop it in either. He blankly scanned the basin pooled with muddled water perched before him. A faint residue of soap skimmed its surface and the stuff from Araya's kit was neatly lined up around the bowl. The kit itself was exactly like his, he'd found it easily enough. Though he'd been surprised to find the full gamut of cosmetics rather than just the basics within. Oil to smear on before shaving, cream to soften and lift rough stubble. Jai was surprised Araya fell among men who found shaving to be an art. Even his straightblade came with an ivory fitted handle, and the pin rotated smoothly when Jai snapped it shut. It went swiftly back in the kit the moment he was done with it. Unliking the way it sat so promising in his fingers and grazed so smoothly across his flesh. Razor aside, Araya must have been exposed to the finer things in life at some point, because a guy would move mountains to keep this kind of stock in his kit.

Jai finally folded the damp towel into a tight square and left it by the basin. One last bottle saw a dab of soothing balm coat his fingertips and soon enough it splashed cool and refreshing as a winter wind on his face. He left then, the faint aroma of lemon hanging on the air.

He carried the coat downstairs draped over one arm rather than wearing it. His shoulders were heavy enough as they were and the tapering waist rippled impeccably under its own weight. Hana must have had it pressed professionally? Not that she was incapable of such work herself, but the folds and creases were complex for someone not used to caring for the style. Unless Araya left his stuff around for Hana to tend? It seemed doubtful. The first channeling beat into a Soldier's daily repertoire was spiffing up his boots and pressing his uniform clean. After snapping that first flame to life, that is.

While the coat was neatly draped, his shirt was tucked in tight. Enough that every reach, lunge or stretch overhead would not see it come undone. An hour passed to see everything polished, boots included, and ready to go before he settled comfortably in the clarity of monotony, and was as still as much lost when the sounds of knocking registered.

It became a blur, the passage of time which followed. The coat hung across the back of one of those chairs he'd shoved toward the wall. The broom stick studied in his palm a few minutes before it was clenched with determination and the first swing slashed the air. The would-be weapon protested at first, lagging behind awkwardly, likely yearning for more mundane responsibilities. There was no gentle reverence urging it to become something other than what it was designed to be. It fought him, a sentiment Jai understood. But soon the stick wheedled its way from the path of prosaic destiny, likely getting a taste of something unrealized and liking it, sought another. Animated of its own accord, slashes wrenched the jagged control from the arm that pivoted it, and some minutes into the routine, smoother swings emerged.

Muscle trembled, defiant of the will's unreasonable demands, and watery, screaming for rest but the beautiful hum of accuracy was a poetry of distraction. Soon, the pace dissolved from his head. Furniture glossed abstract. Walls crumbled away. Araya's figure watching from the side aged, crumbled, then fell to the dusts of time and destiny. The last of it, a low reaching arc turned deflective and upright, was consuming in the way saidin kept Jai adhered to the pins when sounds of a deserter's evil promises tempted him toward freedom.

He was lunged forward at the end, broomstick out stretched, stoked within the furnace that was holding saidin at the same time. His legs held the stance, back tight, elbow stiff, until memory confirmed behind hot eyes there was no additional move to perform. Three counts later the wood clattered to the rug, his hands dropped to his sides, and he straightened out as much as weary shoulders allowed. Panting. And for the blink of an eye while he stared at the tired substitute resting on the floor, he accepted that it wasn't losing Asad's weapon, his stolen inheritance, that finally polished away a man of his identity, it was acknowledging that he was the weapon.

"Araya."
He met the other man's gaze, a clear-headed nod the only thing to otherwise fill in the silence stretched out while the two men watched one another. Jai braced as though something might happen, but a second later, he broke the trance-like tension, retrieved his coat and shrugged it on. Expert fingers soared up the buttons, expertly shrouding him in black warmth.

Beneath the black his body shook from the exertion. Saidin cooled as well, exhaustion forced him to let it go. But he refused to wilt. Not now.
"I know I owe you,"
his voice came out steadier than he thought it would. If it'd just hold a few more moments, "But if you would do me the additional favor of a Gate back to the Black Tower? I imagine I'm past due to report."


The precept of being what they were blanked almost all emotion from eyes recently reglazed to a new world view: one of compliance. The suspense of righting the wrongs he'd committed twitched this sabbatical with uneasy rest; he was ready to return and face what must be faced: to get it over with and not be a disappointment a second time. The M'Hael did his job well; Jai praised him for that.

They were both slaves to the same healthy fear. Though Jai's cut crisp, recent. The wounds still sore and the slashes still red. It rightly shadowed everything he thought, said, and wanted. Hopefully Araya would understand. And help, this one last time. He shuddered to wonder what would happen otherwise.
Only darkness shows you the light.


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