Disclaimer: I don't own the characters.
Numair sighed and tried to sink as far as he could into the warm water. He'd been looking forward to a hot bath all day and, after battling a rather vicious nest of spidrens, he felt he'd earned the right to at least that small comfort. But it seemed the Gods, or his exceedingly long legs, were conspiring against him. He'd be surprised if Daine could sit comfortably in the small tin tub he'd been provided to bathe in; as it was, he had to sit with his knees drawn up to his chest to fit inside.
Thinking longingly of home, where everything was built to accommodate his height, he gave up on getting properly clean and stepped out of the tub. A shiver ran through his body as his foot touched the bare wooden floorboard. The ramshackle inn where they were spending the night provided only the most basic protection from the elements; although they were safe from the rain and wind that raged outside, the bitter cold of winter was all pervasive, and seemed to sink into the very bones of him. He supposed he should be grateful they hadn't been forced to make yet another camp out in the open, but he couldn't help but grumble to himself. He detested the cold.
Moving quickly, he towelled off and dug around in his pack for a fresh set of clothes. After a few moments of rummaging he discovered a tunic and pair of breeches that weren't caked in mud: a rare sight these days. Muttering thanks for the small piece of good luck, he pulled them on and then bound his thick hair back with a leather thong. He fretted over it for a moment, trying to make stray strands lie flat against his head. The realisation of the futility of his efforts, coupled with a voice in his head (that sounded suspiciously like Daine) teasing him about his vanity, made him stop.
No sooner had he given up on his useless grooming than there was a knock on the door. He opened it and found Daine smiling up at him, carrying two bowls of what looked like stew and a rolled up blanket under her arm. His heart twisted with a strange mix of emotions: elation to see her and sadness at the deep weariness evident in her eyes. Since the barrier between the Realms dissolved they'd both received more than their fair share of trouble and grief, and it was beginning to show in the young woman's face.
"I found us some supper," Daine said, gently pushing her way past Numair into his room. "Though I couldn't tell you what it is," She raised one of the bowls to her eyes and eyed it critically, trying to determine the contents. After a few seconds she gave up and shrugged. "As long as it's not game it'll do for me."
"Perhaps we should eat downstairs," Numair said, still hovering anxiously next to the open door. "The inn keeper might-might get the wrong idea." He'd always been able to laugh it off when gossips insinuated that he and Daine shared a bed; their friends knew that he loved and respected Daine and, more importantly, so did she. Lately he was easily angered by people's sordid ideas. Mostly because those same sordid ideas, his lips closing on Daine's, running his fingers through her unruly curls, featured prominently in his imaginings.
"Mithros take me, Numair, when did you start to care about what the likes of him thinks?" She set the bowls down on a rickety table and settled herself in an equally unstable looking chair. Crossing her arms firmly over her chest, she shot Numair a look that clearly told him she wouldn't be moved. "You've no cause to fret in any case. The inn keeper's had his eyes stuck on my backside since we arrived. His thoughts may not be as white as a lily but I doubt you're in any of them."
"His eyes have been where?" Numair spluttered. Ideas of how to teach the man a lesson in manners began whizzing through his mind. He could have a cordial word with him, just as he'd done with Kaddar when the prince had gotten too close to his student. Or he could remove one of his limbs. No doubt either way would work, but at that moment Numair was finding the latter vastly more appealing.
"Sit down and eat," Daine ordered. "Mayhap later I'll let you give him some leaves."
"You would think I'd created a whole orchard out of men, the way you go on about that." He grumbled, reluctantly taking a seat opposite her. He speared a grey lump of meat with his fork and brought it up to his nose, sniffing it gingerly. It didn't smell like any food he knew, but he didn't have the luxury of choice. Trying not to feel, taste, or in any other way sense the meat, he took a large bite and gulped it down. He was rather relieved to discover that it didn't really have a flavour; no taste was better than a foul one.
Teacher and student ate their meal swiftly and in silence. There was no reason for haste, but recently they'd grown accustomed to having to bolt down food before being called out to the latest emergency, and they were finding it hard to break the habit. Once the bowls were clean and the rumbling of their stomachs had been silenced, Numair produced a bottle of wine he'd purchased earlier. He suspected that it would be watered down but the only other drink on sale was ale, which didn't seem to agree well with Daine. He poured some into her glass and then sloshed a rather more generous measure into his own. Taking a sip, he winced. His suspicion had been correct: he might as well take a drink from a lake. Across the table, Daine was looking equally unimpressed.
"We'll be home soon," She said, pushing away the dusty goblet of wine. "Only another day's ride."
"Home." Numair's eyes misted over in the way they always did when he thought of the piles of scrolls and books that awaited him in his study.
"Yes, mighty mage, you'll be back amongst your books soon enough." She teased him gently.
"I'm sure you'll find something to occupy your time," Numair said quietly, carefully avoiding her eyes. "Master Perin, perhaps." Perin. He'd never really taken much notice of the boy. That was until Alanna mentioned that he'd become Daine's most devoted admirer. After that he'd taken a great interest in the clerk, and had discovered he didn't like him one bit. He detested the way his eyes lingered inappropriately on her body, the way he'd 'accidentally' bump into her so he could touch her. The logical part of Numair's brain, the bit that rarely had anything to do with his feelings for Daine, protested that he'd dislike Perin even if he was the most honourable of suitors, but he did his best to ignore it.
So caught up in gloomy thoughts about Perin, it took Numair a while to notice that Daine hadn't answered him. When he looked up he found her staring out of the window, a small frown creasing her forehead. "Daine?" He called out softly.
Daine jumped slightly, startled out of whatever reverie she was in. "Sorry, I had my head in the clouds for a moment."
"Mooning over Perin?" Numair asked, unable to keep the note of bitterness out of his voice despite his best attempts.
Daine stared at him, confused, as if trying to fathom what she'd just heard in his voice. Eventually she shook her head and turned her eyes back to the window. "Perin's been very – what's that word you taught me? – ranbunctious of late."
Numair frowned, having a very good idea of what Daine meant but hoping that he was wrong. "Rambunctious," He corrected automatically. "What do you mean?"
Even in the rapidly fading evening light he could see the blush that worked its way up her cheeks. Despite her embarrassment she managed to look him in the eye and say, "He doesn't know to keep his hands to himself."
Numair almost knocked over his glass of wine. That weasel of a boy! He should have warned him off, scared him, as he'd done once before. To think that he could have hurt his Daine – No, not his. But Perin, the presumptuous buffoon, still wasn't worthy of her. "I see," He said, his calm voice giving no indication of the sudden anger that had sprung up inside of him. "Would you like him to go the same way as Tristan Staghorn, or is there some other plant you'd prefer?"
Daine grinned broadly. "This is why people keep bringing that up. It's not needful, Numair. We were visiting the stables when he got rambunctious," She pronounced the word carefully, avoiding her earlier mistake "And it fair vexed Cloud. She gave him a bite that'll make him keep his manners in mind until at least the summer solstice."
"Even so," He muttered. "It wouldn't do any harm to reinforce the lesson."
Still smiling, Daine rose from her seat and something slipped off her lap. It was the blanket she'd arrived with which had gone forgotten during their meal and subsequent talk. Scooping it up off the floor, she threw it to Numair who caught it easily. "I thought you could use an extra blanket more than me. I know you hate being cold." She waved away his protests and then seated herself on the foot of the bed, looking over at him expectantly. "Do you still want to have a lesson tonight?" She asked.
"Would you remind me what exactly it was that I wanted to teach you?"
"You said that my 'knowledge of myths is sadly lacking.'"
"And right I was," He said, pulling the uncomfortable chair he was seated on closer to the bed. "Shall we begin?"
Daine fidgeted, trying to make herself comfortable. Eventually she lay on her stomach, propped her head up with her hands and told Numair she was ready. He launched into an explanation of a legend which he hoped wouldn't bore his student too much. Although her passion for learning quite often matched his, she didn't share his enthusiasm for the old tales. Often when he tried to tell her of such things he'd look up and see the faraway expression in her eyes that meant she'd slipped into a daydream. Now, he allowed his own eyes to shut as he spoke, and imagined the people, creatures and deities from the stories he was recounting.
By the time he finished night had fallen completely, and the only light came from the moon, which was large and bright now that the storm clouds had dispersed. Looking over at Daine, he saw that her head had lolled forwards onto the mattress. Her deep, even breathing told him that she was asleep. Sighing, he got to his feet and wondered what to do. Sharing a room for the night was out of the question. Despite what she had said earlier, he didn't want her to wake up to gossip. On the other hand, he was loathe to disturb her. She got so little rest; he didn't want to wake her, not when she looked so peaceful. The best course of action seemed to be to leave Daine where she was and spend the night in her room.
As gently as he could, he rolled her over so that she was lying on her back. She murmured unintelligibly and her brow creased, but she didn't wake. Once he was sure he hadn't disturbed her rest, Numair unlaced her heavy boots and pulled them off, letting them fall to the floor with a muffled thud. He covered her completely with the blanket she'd brought him and then, raising her head slightly, slipped a pillow beneath it. When he'd done all he could to ensure her comfort, he pressed a single, chaste kiss against her forehead. Her full lips, open slightly in sleep, looked awfully tempting. But, unlike the bumbling clerk, he wouldn't force his unwanted affection on her. The kiss he'd placed on her brow would sustain him until the next time she threw her arms around him or pecked his cheek.
Straightening, he noticed that one of her chestnut curls had tumbled across her face. He brushed it off her cheek and she moved closer to him, nuzzling into the palm of his hand. For a moment, as her hot skin burned his cold fingers, his control teetered dangerously on the edge. He could think of nothing he wanted more than to lie beside her, gather her up in his arms, kiss her. Then she turned her head and he quickly pulled his hand back, reproaching himself for his weakness.
Before temptation could seize him again, he hurried to the door. "Goodnight Magelet." He murmured, then slipped through the door and was gone.