She kissed him again, harder, both of her hands coming up to capture his stubbly, filthy face. The sheer force of the contact was uncomfortable, almost brutal but he barely noticed, found himself incapable of cognizance beyond noting the hungry way she’d pressed herself against him. He let his palms dig into her hips for all that it was not possible to pull her any closer.
Daine leaned back to breath and then opened her mouth against his, much more gently now. Her hands moved across his chest in a way that was not suggestive of checking for injuries and she was doing something very interesting with her tongue.
She froze when someone cleared their throat loudly.
“I suppose I’m happy to see you, too.” Alanna’s eyebrows were gently raised, the stone on her necklace glowing brightly in the damp cellar. The contingent of Riders with her were all studiously studying different but apparently equally entrancing sections of the moldy ceiling.
Daine looked at their audience, back at him and promptly turned a fascinating, mottled shade of scarlet. “Are you hurt bad?” She asked softly as she climbed off of his lap and stood up.
“No, my dear,” He told her, touching his lips for a moment. “No, nothing like that. How long was I down here?”
“Two days,” Daine told him, offering a hand to pull him to his feet.
“I missed your birthday.” Numair replied, stupidly, pausing to hiss softly as his naked fingertips grazed her palm.
“I’ll be having more, Goddess willing. You must be thirsty.”
She didn’t wait for his nod and pressed a flagon of water into his hand. He drank it down.
Daine captured the unoccupied hand in hers and looked it over, careful to neither touch the open fingertips nor look at his face. “This I already knew about.” She told him softly.
“Do I want to know how?”
Daine shrugged with one shoulder. “He sent the nails to me.”
“Oh, very.” She agreed. Her tone grew choked. “I thought you were probably dead, when none of the People could find you right away. It took me ages to think of some other reason you’d be out of my reach.”
He hugged her tightly against his filthy shirt and kissed her forehead with his bloody lips. “I’m fine, Magelet. Really.”
“Daine?” Alanna gestured to the floor. What had been stone floor minutes ago was now an increasingly massive hoard of rats. The Rider Company had hands on swords and slings. One of their hands began to glow, softly white.
“Oh, right.” Daine said, casually, like an unwelcome acquaintance had invited themselves to lunch. She gestured at the Riders and then turned to Alanna. “Weapons away, please. I promised them forty barrels of salt pork if they found him today. They’re only here to collect.”
Alanna was the first, and for a long moment the only, one to put her weapon away. Slowly the others followed suit.
Daine spoke her half out loud for the benefit of the already alarmed bystanders, fists against her hips. “It’s on its way from Pirate’s Swoop. Of course not. I may owe you everything but I will not be hearing your sass. I honor my bargains, miss.”
There was a long pause as a particularly massive rat reared up on its hind legs and twittered.
“No. I’ll stay here with you. As a matter of fact I insist. But you can’t have him. Because you can’t, that’s why.”
The rat twittered further and Daine responded with finality. “You can have me or no one. You know the rest of the Two Leggers here are scared stiff of you. I won’t have you bullying none of them neither.”
Alanna pressed glowing hands into his shackle that was covered in strange, asymmetric runes. It fell away with a crack and he sighed at the relief of magic returning, of not being defenseless.
She led him out to a cart and pressed clean clothes into his hands. They chatted while he changed behind the cart.
“I’d have hugged you too but your stench is unspeakable.” She murmured to him.
Numair was relieved that he appeared well enough to taunt. “Evidently it actually can be spoken of.”
Alanna huffed a short laugh. “It really is good to see you. It’s been a tense couple of days, not that I need to tell you.”
“I’ve had worse.” He meant it in jest but his tone was too flat and serious. Alanna didn’t smile and he changed the subject. “Did he want a ransom for me?”
Alanna losed a single snort. “No, he wanted to have Jon perish in a horseback riding accident or from some strange snake bite.”
“Isn’t it? George is eager to ask him all about it.”
“He told me that those runes blocked any animals from finding me, too.”
“They did.” Alanna told him. “Daine says that rats aren’t People, that they’re different somehow. They found you quite easily, once she made it worth their while.”
“I’ll have to ask her about that.”
“Sounds like you two are due for a few conversations, unless there’s some development I don’t know about.”
Numair scoffed at that and emerged in the clean clothes, feeling more himself already. “I am fairly certain there is almost nothing you don’t know about.”
“Advantages of my marriage. One of several, I might add.” She bumped his shoulder with hers and he laughed with the simple joy of a dirty joke between friends.
When he arrived back at his rooms they were not empty.
Daine greeted him carefully, looking him over with exacting care from several steps away.
He tried not to grin too hugely at her presence and forced himself to look away from her face after a few seconds. “I presume you and the Rat Queen solved your differences?”
Daine smiled in a way that showed some teeth at that. “She’s more of a Warlord, really. They don’t have anyone in charge unless there’s something big going on that concerns all of them.”
“I suppose I’m honored, then.” Numair looked around his room carefully.
Things were all slightly off. Books that he had arranged just so were jumbled, spread across his bed and his desk and his floor. The bed he’d left perfectly made had clearly been slept in. His hairbrush was flung on the ground, now utterly bare of hair. “Did you come here? When I was gone?”
Daine, for some reason, blushed. “Several times. First to get some hair, though Alanna and I both knew better than to hope that’d actually work. Then to teach some wolves your scent but we both know how that went. The rats tracked you down based on a rough description, actually. She said that they didn’t need to come here and apparently they didn’t.”
“Was it you that slept in the bed?”
She kicked the floor, going rigid. “Yes. You have all the papers on Wild Magic in here already, seeing as you wrote most of ‘em. Sometimes I’d catch a few minutes sleep but mostly I read.” Daine tried a smile and seemed relieved that it didn’t fit too poorly. “Seems I’m also the only one that can make out most of your notes, too.”
He blinked a few times, trying to think nothing at all about the fact that she’d laid in his bed, refusing to recall how often he’d thought fantasized about just such an occurrence. He furrowed his brows and gestured at the wash basin. “I suppose that’s your toothbrush?”
“It is.” Daine sighed, flinching like she’d been caught in a lie. “I’d read every cursed word twice and then some and then when I couldn’t read another word sometimes I would just lay still for a time. The blankets smelled like you.”
“Oh,” He said again, unsure of what to do with a statement that was equal parts sentimental and touching and more than a little exciting.
“I hope you don’t mind too much.”
“Of course not. It’s not like I was using it.”
She beamed up at him, clearly relieved.
He wished that after this many years with all of them that she wouldn’t be so continually stunned by these bare kindnesses. It was deeply sweet and profoundly tragic and sometimes he wondered if any of them could have done more or better for her. And the profound shift in his view of her complicated every thoughtful act, had him regularly wondering and trying to remember whether or not he’d tried so hard in the past, when all he’d wanted was her friendship.
None of those words would be helpful to speak out loud so he stuck with silence.
“I’ll send them to the laundry.” Daine said, and reached down for the bottom sheet. “I was hoping I’d beat you back by a few hours, get a chance to wash them.”
He grasped her wrist softly, forgetting about his stupid fingers and hissing at the sting. She froze, staring up at him. “It’s fine, Magelet. I’ll take care of it tomorrow.”
Daine grabbed his hand again and whistled. “I thought Alanna took care of this?”
“She did,” Numair told her. “She took away the infection but she can’t regrow the nails and if she takes away the swelling they’ll heal slower.”
“Do you want,” She directed her eyes to the floor. “Do you want to tell me about it?”
He weighed the offer. “If I ever do wish to discuss these things, you would certainly be my first choice.”
For the first time since she’d entered she didn’t look nervous at all. She grinned at him. “It’s a deal.”
He wanted to help her neaten up his bedroom and study but he really and truly couldn’t. His attempts ended in upturned inkwells and dropped sheafs of parchment. He tried briefly to ignore the tiny hot pinpricks and grab a soiled shirt. Daine immediately noticed and asked him, with exaggerated sincerity, to try not to be quite so stupid in the future.
She turned away from her task to inspect him again for a long slow moment with a gaze that was exacting and clinical. Daine reached up to touch his hair, took her fingers away and inspected the filth on them. “Why haven’t you...Oh.”
He muttered softly, inexplicably embarrassed. “I was waiting for the water they brought me to cool. It’s very uncomfortable to dip my hands in otherwise.”
“Oh, don’t be silly.” Daine seemed relieved, happy to have something to do with her hands besides knotting them against themselves. “Here, sit. I’ll do it.”
Numair hesitated for a moment. “I’m not sure that’s entirely appropriate.”
Daine smiled in a pained sort of way. “I think we’re quite a bit past that for today, though that’s hardly your fault. And if propriety demands that you torment yourself all over again I’m not sure what it’s worth anyway.”
“My hair is absolutely disgusting.”
Daine seemed confused now. “All the more reason to get it scrubbed out, then.”
He stood unmoving and she sighed. “Please tell me you know better than to be ashamed about any of this.”
He paused and turned the words over. “I suppose I do.”
“Lovely. Then sit.”
Numair shifted from foot to foot for another long moment. Then he sat in front of the basin and she knelt behind him. She folded a blanket over and over on itself to pad the edge of the tub and then gestured for him to lean back.
She was very gentle, working through each matt with exacting care. It was very pleasant to have her touch him so intimately and for so long.
“Whose blood is this?” Daine asked softly as the water turned increasingly brown and red.
Numair shrugged a single shoulder. “There were a number of sources. Very little of that is mine.”
She hummed in satisfaction at the response and then scrubbed at his scalp.
When she was done and his hair smelled like soap and cedar instead of soot and death he sat back up, sighing in relief.
The soapy water had soaked into the blanket and the back of his shirt. He touched his sodden back and frowned.
“Oh, here.” She rose and fetched a clean linen shirt, pressing it into his hands.
Daine turned around without being asked and stayed that way for about a minute. He successfully wrestled out of his damp shirt, only managing to undo the top button with the assistance of his teeth. He forced his stiff limbs through the arm holes of the clean one.
Daine turned back around and watched him struggle for a few moments. “Of course. How silly. Here, let me.”
She reached and began matter-of-factly doing the buttons up. He closed his eyes and took deep, slow breaths, forcing himself to think of absolutely nothing at all.
That worked for exactly as long as it took her to pause and trace a large fern-shaped mark that began on his right ribs and wound up towards his arm. Her fingertips were rough and warm. “I’ve never seen this before.”
Numair took in a slow breath. It occurred to him that he should ask her to stop. “I suppose you haven’t.”
Daine shrugged. “More’n likely I just never noticed.” She smiled up at him. “It’s not like you ever undress on any casual occasions.”
There was a long moment as she realized what she’d said and winced, turning an interesting color of red. “I didn’t mean.” She paused, apparently unable or unwilling to describe exactly what she hadn’t been saying.
“I know.” What he’d intended to be a confident statement came out as a hoarse whisper.
Daine shook her head. “Right.” She continued to fasten the buttons, more roughly now, gaze pointed firmly down to her own feet.
He watched the top of her head and counted his own breaths.
Without hesitation, she traced a mark that was as thick and as long as a ring finger, just above his right hip.
Numair hissed and turned around, forcing his inhalations to slow, naming each of the Great Gods in turn under his breath.
She sounded startled, perhaps even sad. “I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
“You didn’t,” He said and could hear how choked his own voice sounded. He was grateful that she couldn’t see his face. “I just need a minute.”
“Oh,” Daine murmured softly, with far more comprehension in her tone than he wanted to hear. “Sorry about....Sorry. Do you want me to go?”
“No,” Numair told her, eyes shut tightly, and then followed a full minute of blessed silence as he finally worked his way through the whole heavenly court.
With a sigh, he groped blindly for a towel to address the continuing dripping, still unwilling to turn around. He dabbed at his hair somewhat ineffectually until Daine took the towel from him, too.
She wrapped it around his hair and squeezed tightly, brushed the final tangles out and rang it out again.
“Thank you,” He finally managed and then briefly wished for death before continuing on. “I’m sorry about--”
Daine cut him off with a hand wave. “I shouldn’t have...Well, I shouldn’t have. Anyway, I know that it’s not like you lot can help it. I suppose I’m female enough.”
“By what measure would you not be?”
Daine was rooting through the chaos on the desk. She shifted over one pile of paperwork and then another. “Hm?”
“In what circumstance would you not be sufficiently female?”
Daine’s look was dubious. “As far as you’re concerned, most of them. Here, sit and I’ll do your hair up.”
“As far as I’m concerned?” He repeated, feeling his eyebrows rise as he sat on his bed.
She pulled a hair tie off of her own wrist and tugged his damp hair into a neat horsetail. He could feel her breath against his neck and began naming each vertebrae of the spine.
Daine seemed taken aback by his tone. She pulled a hand away from her task to gesture at her appearance, which was that of someone who’d spent two days reading late into the night and then making a very rapid trip on horseback rather than changing into unwrinkled clothing, applying make-up or indeed soap. She returned to tying his hair back, smoothing away the bumps gently. “Well, yes. As far as you’re concerned. It’s fine.” She turned her tone soothing. “It’s not like I’m no one’s type.”
“Do you sincerely labor under the delusion that you aren’t attractive?” Daine swore as the hair tie slipped from her grasp.
“Not in general.” She tried again, both with expressing the sentiment and tying his hair. “Most men I’m after don’t seem to object. At least, not to how I look.”
“Just not to me?” He could hear his own incredulity.
“Exactly,” She said evenly, finally forcing the hair through the tie. “There. Now I can finish tidying up in here a bit.”
“Magelet, I’ve no wish to make you uncomfortable,”
“At this point, I think it’d be perfectly fair if you did.” Her tone was mild, a bit amused.
“But I do have eyes.”
“You also have standards,” Daine bumped his shoulder with her own, smiling at him, inviting him back into the pattern of banter they’d shared for years.
“Of sorts.” Numair paused for a long moment and then spoke with care. “Daine. You actually believe that you lack sufficient merit to be found attractive by me ?”
Daine refused to look away from his shoulder. “Yes, basically. And ‘merit’ isn’t really the right word. There are better things to be than pretty. And in any case, I’m not upset by that anymore. And even when I was, I never held it against you.”
The words came out without any editing from higher thought. “No, that’s not correct. That is, I find you very attractive.”
Daine stared at him, blinking rapidly. “Well, you always do seem to notice only the best things about me. It’s right kind of you.”
“You think I muster an attraction to you out of generosity of spirit?”
She laughed at that and without warning lurched forward, hugged him tightly and pressed her face into his chest. “Something like that.”
“Objectively-” He began and she moved away just far enough to sock him in the shoulder and then leaned back against him.
“It’s all right. Really. I promise I’m not going to cry myself to sleep over whether or not you think I’m pretty.”
“I do, though.”
“Cry yourself to sleep pondering my beauty?” Daine was smiling at him again, far too close to both his face and a number of unflattering truths.
Numair was silent for a long moment. “You said that the notion, however laughable it may be, that I don’t find you attractive doesn’t bother you ‘anymore’”.
The smile slid off of her face like a shutter slamming shut. “I guess that is what I said.”
“When did that idea trouble you?”
She made a move to step away and mumbled so softly he couldn’t hear her. He prompted her gently.
“It’s fine. I know it’s nothing you can help and nothing I was ever entitled to.”
He couldn’t seem to take his eyes off of her shamed, red face. “But is that something you wanted?”
Daine nodded but did not look at him.
She exhaled. “I’m sorry. I really don’t think it’s fair to throw all of this at you. At all, but especially not after the week you’ve had.”
“I’m the one asking,” He’d tried to speak normally but it could hear the strain in his own voice.
Daine sighed. “Fine. I’m not sure when I first realized I wanted that kind of attention from you. Maybe year before last. But your friendship matters so much more than my crush. I want us to keep being close more than I want anything else. So I’m sorry about today, too.”
It took him a full breath to vocalize any response at all, through his frantic analysis of her casual description of a regard he’d never even seriously hoped for. “Hm?”
Daine winced. “About earlier. When we first found you.”
He was so focused on dissecting her earlier words that he didn’t correct his vacant expression rapidly enough. Daine elaborated further. “Earlier this afternoon? When I was so happy to see you alive that I stuck my tongue in your mouth? In front of basically everyone?”
She was looking up at him expectantly so he forced himself to respond. “I do seem to recall something like that.”
“Anyway, I am sorry. Really.”
“Don’t be.” He tried to speak casually but his voice caught on the words.
She whispered, either not hearing or not reacting. “I won’t do that again.”
Numair inhaled. He still wasn’t positive that this was a chance but he knew he wouldn’t be getting anything closer. “Actually, I’d prefer it if you did.”
“So if we could just go back to the way things were.”
He made himself talk more loudly, over her. “I’d rather not.”
“I’d rather not go back to the way things were.”
She blanched. “Okay. Is that right now or forever? I mean, do you just need some time to feel more comfortable around me again or...”
“I did let you.” His fingers throbbed.
Daine scoffed. “Sure. You were too shocked to shove me off and it would’ve served me right if you had.”
“I was surprised.” Numair allowed.
“I am sorry.”
“You don’t need to be.” He took a deep breath. “If you’d like to continue how we have been these last years, that is one option. Of course. Always.”
“All right.” Her lips grew pursed. “And the other option would be that you take some time and space from me?”
“No. No, I doubt you could do anything that would make that palatable to me.”
“Okay.” Daine seemed mollified, calmer now. “Okay. Then what’s my other option?”
It hurt to reach for her. She looked up at him, brow crinkling in confusion but she stepped forward when he pulled gently, allowing herself to be guided into a tight embrace.
His lip split further against her mouth and his fingertips stung against her skin but he barely noticed because she’d responded immediately. For the second time that day she was pressing into him eagerly, rising up on her toes to further their contact, pulling away only to take gasping breaths against his throat. She ran a palm down from his jaw to his thigh and then pressed rough fingertips into his side, paying no particular attention to scars. He pulled her waist against him and the noise she made could only be called a moan.
She pulled away from him slightly and he froze. Daine gestured at the hand that was tangled in her hair. “Doesn’t that hurt?”
He paused to consider the question. “It does. I don’t care.”
She smiled and he had to remember to blink. “I’m afraid that I do.”
Daine grasped his hand in hers and very gently unwound a lock of her own hair from around his ragged thumb. She kissed the hollow in his wrist, where the pulse could be felt and then when he hesitated placed his hand back on her hip.
She pushed him gently, guiding him onto the bed and joining him there, resting her forehead against his shoulder for a moment. He wrapped his arms around her, pulling her tightly against him.
“You don’t know what it means to have you back home.” She told him. She shifted, not out of the embrace, just until she was more fully on top of him.
“I was at least equally happy to see you.” He assured her and cupped her face, kissing her again. Daine leaned into the touch without hesitation and it was, at this moment, absolutely impossible to compose any logical thoughts through the deafening noise of his own lust and doubt.
She began to reverse her earlier efforts on the shirt, pausing to nuzzle her face against his bare chest, running her hands over his arms.
“You don’t have to-” He started and she cut him off with a kiss.
“Of course I don’t.” She reached for her own shirt and paused. “Or are you saying that you want me to stop?”
“No.” He heard how strained and soft his own voice sounded and tried again. “That’s not what I want. But are you sure--”
“Positive.” She told him, shifting in his lap in a way that rendered all other perceptions briefly meaningless. “This may be my best idea to date.”
“I don’t know,” He felt himself grin. “When one considers the Beltane of your fifteenth year all other plans feel inadequate.”
Daine laughed and rested her forehead against his. “You couldn’t think of a better use for that wonderful memory of yours.”
“None immediately come to mind.”
He couldn’t seem to stop looking at her contented smile, her bare shoulders and thighs. He ran his hands over her legs with intent and she only leaned closer. He paused at her upper thighs.
“I’m afraid I can’t...” He let the sentence end, looking down at his hands.
She laughed at him and he blushed, even though she was undressed and on top of him and her smile was so welcoming. Everywhere her skin touched burned and he was trying to remember how to breath. She kissed his neck again, murmuring something about how she was sure they could come up with a satisfactory alternative.
He asked her if she would stay there, in his bed, with him.
She looked up at him like his facial expression was written in algebra. “Is that what you want?”
“Yes,” He told her. “Very much so.”
“We can talk some more tomorrow?” Daine offered, hesitant, staring at him intently. He understood immediately the question she was actually asking and reveled in the sound of those words.
“Yes.” He told her. “Yes.”
She stared at him for another endless moment. Numair didn’t know what she’d detected in her face but her smile was huge and impossible to look away from. She relaxed completely, melting into the wrinkled sheets and pillows, arranging herself until the length of her body pressed into his, head sinking onto his chest.
He whispered an endearment softly, focusing, knowing he would want to recall this precise moment again, many times.
“You too,” She told him. “Always.”