The moon had risen high into the sky by the time she returned. He remained where she had left him and only glanced at her when she slipped into the room and placed a tray on the table.
"I thought you might have skipped dinner," she pushed the tray towards him and reclaimed her original seat. He shook his head and motioned that he wasn't hungry. The previous hours were a blur of running over what he should say, what he could say, all the years between them and all the things he never did and what he had done now. Nothing seemed sufficient.
She leaned back, candlelight casting shadows across her face. He noticed how the light flickered. The candle would need to be changed soon.
"You came back."
"I said I would."
"I wouldn't have blamed you if you hadn't," his words felt thick in his throat, each one taking tangible effort to produce.
"There's no sense in ignoring this now that it's on the table," she motioned with her hand, as if it were something solid laid out before them. She seemed tired. "But having this conversation would not have been fair without me taking care of what needed to be settled first. It's already not fair." When he didn't respond she continued, "Alistair and I are over."
He looked up then, head jerking up and lips parting in surprise. "Daine, I —"
She laughed, colder than he had ever heard from her, "no need to look so stricken. I know you haven't promised me anything."
"That's not what I meant," what he was willing to offer her wasn't under discussion. Yet, anyway. "I just mean that if you love him—"
"I do," her gaze didn't waver, "but I love you more, and no one deserves to marry someone who loves them second-best."
He sank back in his chair, covering his mouth with his hand. He felt it trembling against his lips. Any words he had hoped to summon escaped him. He had built a life around protecting her from how his affections could ruin her, and now—so close to an ending of sorts—he had inflicted the worst of it.
She sighed,and he knew she must be vexed to be the one leading the conversation. If he had any notion of how to navigate these waters he would, but hadn't this been his fault all alone? "So regardless of what happens with you and I, ending it was needful. He deserves more." She studied her hand where it tugged at the cuff of her sleeve.
"So do you," he spoke softly, struggling with whether or not to reach out to her. It felt like everything he wanted was within his grasp in the worst possible way.
She stood, suddenly, and moved to the window. "You're right. I do." She turned to lean against the sill, arms crossed. "As do you. Everyone in this deserves more; so why has it come to this?"
He dropped his gaze and despite the time he took to choose his words they didn't feel like enough. "I just want you to be happy, magelet. That's all I've ever wanted." It was the truth, at least.
"You don't think you can make me happy?"
"Not in the way you should be. You should be with someone you own age; someone who won't ruin your reputation."
"Because my reputation is so shining," she nearly laughed. "Lovers breach larger gaps all the time."
"You know what people will say, what they will think. I was your teacher ," he shook his head. "It's not impossible, but it does not—will not—come without a cost. A cost that there is no need for you to pay. You can have a different path. An easier one."
"And if it's the one I want?" For just a moment she softened, something peeking through the anger and disappointment.
He pinched the bridge of his nose, "and what about when I am an old man and you are still young? When you decide you've made a mistake and already wasted your life and youth on it?" His voice cracked, "I wouldn't be able to bear it."
"Are you protecting me or yourself?"
His head snapped up, surprised by the venom in her voice. He'd spent years convincing himself that they shouldn't be together, so why was it so hard to convince her? "You said Alistair makes you happy. Perhaps you've been too hasty; some more thought—"
"You think I made this decision lightly ?" He had never heard her take so much offense to something. He looked at her, really looked at her in a way that he had not allowed himself to since she returned. The candlelight waned but he could see the telltale signs that she had been crying written on her face. He had thought that her parting with Alistair had been lengthy, but perhaps not. His stomach twisted at the thought of her trying to collect herself enough to return to him.
"You think I chose this on a whim ? As if this isn't the very thing I've been thinking about for years ?" Her usually steady cadence had risen to a yell before she jerked back with an intake of breath, turning away from him and leaning forward on the windowsill.
"You didn't say anything either," he knew it was a mistake as soon as he said it.
She turned her head to him, moonlight illuminating half of her face and firelight the other. There was something dangerous about her when she spoke—and he felt a shiver run down his spine. "I said plenty." She shook her head, and stared out over the grounds. "How many times did I ask to spend more time with you, or extend an evening," she trailed off with a sigh.
"That's hardly explicit." Why couldn't he stop digging his grave? A thousand small moments came to him, unbidden—her knocking on his guest room late at night to say she couldn't sleep, suggesting they take the long way home for another night under the stars, seeking him out where she knew they could be alone. A hundred Inn's, a hundred roads, a thousand chances he had let pass by as soon as he felt them draw too close to that ledge.
"It's a dance, Numair. It takes two. I can't always lead." She straightened, but didn't turn back to him. "There's only so many steps I could take—only so many steps backwards I could watch you take—before I had to accept what you were trying to tell me. What I thought you were trying to tell me." Her voice cracked again, and she wrapped her arms around herself, "and after Blue Harbor—"
She didn't finish the statement; didn't have to. That night was a ghost that would not leave him be. How she covered his hand, pressed against her cheek, with her own. How she had turned into his touch and kissed his pulse where it pounded in his wrist. How she had reached back to open her door; a clear invitation if there had ever been one. How he had pulled back, wishing her a good night, and walked away. How what would have happened had he leaned into her haunted him every night since. The things he imagined her doing—he flushed, ashamed.
"I thought that was my answer. That I had been imagining—" she broke off. He could hear the embarrassment in her voice. It had been easy enough to convince himself that he was doing just that: imagining her advances as wishful thinking. He hadn't seriously considered that she was reaching out in earnest, or that he had been hurting her. Or perhaps he hadn't let himself. A martyr's path is narrow, after all.
"You weren't." He leaned forward, rubbing his face. "I don't have an excuse that will make this all better, Daine. I wish I did. I did what I thought was best to protect you; please believe that I would never purposely try to cause you harm."
"But you have, and it shouldn't have been you deciding. It should have been us deciding," she hesitated, turning back to him. She took a breath, something he recognized as her centering herself. "It's something we should be deciding." The candlelight was almost gone. Though he couldn't make out her expression, he could hear longing in her voice.
"You're right." He felt something in him break, his chest constricting around what little hope he hadn't been able to shed. He was tired of keeping her at an arm's length. She nodded, and sat back down. He busied himself with swapping out the candle, fumbling to light it. He was tempted to skip the fuss and use his gift but that ended poorly more often than not. Besides, he wanted to draw this moment out a little longer. With the first wave over and the second about to shore there was something calm in the break—something he wanted to hold onto because when it did pass nothing would ever be the same.
The room brightened as the flame took, illuminating her more fully. She looked tired. He flexed his hand, fighting the urge to reach out and comfort her but every pretense he would have used to do so before had been stripped. Everything was so intimate now—the way her chest rose and fell when she looked at him, the way the candlelight fell on them both. Just existing in the same space with a mutual understanding of what was happening felt like a trespass—every defense laid bare. He flexed his hand, fighting the urge to reach out to her.
"Where do you want to start?" He asked when he realized she was waiting on him.
"I honestly don't know. All this, and—" She leaned back and sighed, "like I said; you've made no promises. Sometimes things end where they start; or before."
"Anything. Everything. I would promise you everything." The words came as if pulled from him. He had spent so long not telling her what he wanted and now he needed her to know that she was all he wanted.
She watched him, but didn't speak. There was a hesitance in her gaze that unnerved him. What if it was her turn to walk away? For all his talk of protecting her, had he really been protecting himself from what would become of him without her? If they weren't lovers, could they be friends with all this mess between them? If they tried would it always feel like this—something thick and palpable that hung around them like humidity without the thunder that followed? A tension that would never have the opportunity to break.
"Daine, you know I love you—"
"Do you?" It wasn't an accusation. The thought that she may not actually know gripped him; one of many vying for what tortured him most.
"Very much." His words all sounded like an apology, or a plea. Maybe both.
She looked away, propping her chin on her hand and tapping her lip. "I know you love me, but to be in love," she bit her lip.
"Tell me what has you worried," he coaxed. Tell me what to say .
"There's a difference."
"I know ." Gods, did he know. He'd spent the better part of a decade ruminating on just how one turns into the other.
"I just," she let out a frustrated sound, low in her throat. "I know you have love for me but we've been through so much together. So many of the same tragedies; the same loss. How many times have we risked everything for one another? Nearly died together? It would be fair simple to confuse all of that with love."
"I would argue that we wouldn't have walked at each other's sides for so long had it not been for love. Is comradery that poor a start?"
"No; there are plenty of relationships based on the same. Comfortable; safe. It's good groundwork but it's not everything," she looked at him with sympathy, "and I want more than that."
"I don't understand," the words caught in his throat and he steeled himself for the worst of his fears. She'd dismissed all of the reasons he knew he wasn't right for her; what had he missed?
She dropped her gaze and flushed. "I want more than a comrade; more than comfortable . I know what we have is fair significant—I wouldn't want to dismiss it—but I want to be with someone who wants me as a woman." He had to strain to hear her.
"You think I don't want to bed you?" His surprise eclipsed any instinct to phrase it delicately. Of all the accusations he feared, that was surely the last.
She rolled her eyes and he saw that they were over-bright. "I've seen you with lovers before, Numair. I've seen how you look at them, and how you speak to them. On occasion I've seen the way you kiss them," if she was trying to hide how her voice wavered she was failing, "I want to be with someone who feels that way about me."
"Please," she held up a hand, "don't. You've always expressed that you think I'm pretty enough, but I've seen the women you go for. I know you have a type and it's far from me. We might as well be frank."
"I want you in my bed," he flushed at his own forwardness, " desperately ."
"You do?" She studied him, surprise passing across her face as she registered his sincerity.
"Very much so."
"Do you think about it?" She looked at him in a way he barely recognized; a way that brought him back to Blue Harbor.
His lips were dry and he licked them,"about making love to you? All the time." His breath had quickened, and he felt his body responding to the way her lips parted and the heat in her eyes at his words. He never thought he would be sitting there, talking to her so frankly about his fantasies. Never thought he would see how much she enjoyed hearing it. He couldn't help himself, "do you?"
"Yes," she ran her thumb along her lower lip, gaze travelling over his chest and arms and back up to his face. They sat in a heated silence, neither one wanting to break the tension they were savoring.
She broke eye contact first, with a flush, and he blinked as if released from a trance. He cleared his throat, trying to reign his body in. "Magelet, you can have anything of me you desire. Freely, willingly, and happily. Body and soul." He leaned forward and clasped his hands together. He'd made his choice. "I am in this completely. If you will have me."
She reached out, pulling his hand into her own. When she looked at him he felt his stomach drop to see her lip quivering. "I want to, but—" she drew in a shaky breath.
He squeezed her hand, trying to hide the burning in his own eyes. At least he would know he had tried. "It's okay. I understand."
"No," she brought her other hand to cover his, "I don't mean no , I just—" she took another wavering breath,exhaling slowly. "A few hours ago I was with another man. One who wanted to marry me and who I loved."
She shook her head, "I wish it were as simple as ending one thing and starting another, but it's not. And I don't want you thinking that I'm unsure of my choice," she placed a hand under his chin and coaxed him to look at her, "because I'm not. I am very sure. But just like it wasn't fair to talk to you about this while he was still waiting for me, I don't think it's fair to you for things to start while I'm still grieving him—or to me, for that matter."
He nodded, wishing he didn't understand.
"I understand if you don't want to wait," she drew away, "but after so long I feel we owe it to ourselves to do this right if we do it at all."
"I'll wait. I'm very good at waiting." He was pleased to see her give a small smile, albeit a wet one.
"I don't think I can give you a timeline."
"That's alright. Take all the time you need. I'm not going anywhere." He hoped she would come back to him, when all was said and done. She stood and moved to the window again. "Are you okay?" He asked, when she didn't speak, and she sighed and leaned her head against the window frame.
"Tonight has been a fair weight to balance. Right now I am tired, more than anything. And happy. And sad. Mostly tired."
"What do we do now?"
"I think I should go away for a while," she turned her head to him, sensing his unease. "Not far; the Swoop maybe. Clear my head."
He nodded, standing and feeling his limbs protest after spending so long in one position. "I understand." He moved to stand next to her, a sliver of moonlight the only thing separating them. "You can write if—"
"I know. I will." They kept their voices low, as if any sudden movement could chase away what fledgling of a start they had. He reached out to brush a curl from his face and hesitated—so many years of pulling away ingrained in his muscle memory—before pushing forward and allowing his hand to brush against her cheek and down her neck as he did so. He leaned forward and pressed his forehead against hers and she sank into his hands where they pressed into her shoulders. Her breathing was steady but shallow. Gods how he wanted to kiss her, but time is what she had asked of him and so she would have it.
He ran his hand along her arms and reveled in the feeling of touching her so freely before pulling her into a tight hug. She returned it in kind, threading her arms over his shoulders and burying her hands in his hair. He could feel her breathe on his neck and closed his eyes as he allowed himself to fall into the feeling of her body against his. He wasn't sure how long they stayed like that, only that it was not long enough. When she looked up at him her cheeks were wet. She squeezed his hand as she drew back and he let her go, watching her as she did. For the second time that night he was alone.
The following morning Numair leaned against the barracks wall as the sun began to creep above the horizon. His suspicions had been correct and he pushed himself upright when Daine appeared, leading Cloud from the stables. She paused when she saw him, one hand gripping her saddle horn. He didn't go to her; everything that had needed to be said was said. His night had been sleepless, reveling in the possibility of a future with her and cursing himself for not pushing harder in turn. He smiled, though, and raised his hand to her in a farewell he hoped would be fleeting. She returned the gesture and mounted Cloud in a fluid motion, looking back as the two took off at a trot. He watched her go, fading into the rising sun.