Edit May 2010: FFN decided to eat all the scene dividers so I'm having to go back and add them all in again. I'm also removing the review responses. NOTHING ELSE HAS BEEN ALTERED; if you've read this story before, you don't need to read it again (although you're more than welcome to).
Incidentally, credit for Alanna's opening line in the last chapter – "How are you not dead?" – goes to Madame Star. It's a fair point, really! In the interests of public safety, I must warn you, there will be shameless amounts of fluff ahead – please use caution when reading this fic in public.
This was a familiar situation, Numair mused. It was several days later; he wasn't fully healed yet, but he was recovering and had reached the point where he was able to get up, have a bath and a shave and dress himself in clean clothing. That alone was absolute bliss. He was also healed enough that he wasn't sleeping all day; as a result, the mage was bored. Alanna had finally ordered him to take some gentle exercise, with emphasis on the gentle, and to stay out of people's way.
He wandered through Legann's keep in the sunshine, hands in his pockets, with no apparent destination in mind as he thought about what he'd missed while unconscious. What remained of the opposing army had retreated so far and fast that they were probably all back behind their own borders already. The enemy immortals, those that remained in this realm – apparently many had vanished during the battle – had scattered; mopping them up would be the work of the next few months. Tortall's losses had been surprisingly light, given everything that had happened, although the final tally wouldn't be known for a few more days at least.
That final tally wouldn't be accurate, either, he reflected soberly. Nobody was going to mourn Rikash but for himself and Daine. Barzha and Hebakh had taken their flock and departed, not staying to join their fellows in despoiling the dead; he had no idea what had happened to the Stormwing's body. Nobody would grieve for the darkings, either. Briefly he wondered how many other situations like that existed; how many had died with nobody to mourn for them?
After a moment he shook it off. The day was warm, the air was clean, and he felt good enough to want to keep that feeling. There would be time to dwell on the darkness, but right now he wanted sunlight. Their other immortal allies had returned home; the badger god had dropped by Numair's room in the middle of the night to wish him farewell, and to add to the tally of the people who had said I told you so recently. Diamondflame and Wingstar too had departed, with vague hints that if it was possible they would like Kitten to visit the Dragonlands at some point – although given the way dragons thought, that might not be until after both Numair and Daine had died of old age, assuming they lived that long.
He found his way down to the stables eventually. It wasn't too difficult to find the particular stall he sought; Numair simply put his fingers in his mouth and whistled, then listened for a moment and followed the answering call. Hauling himself up stiffly, he perched awkwardly on the partition dividing two stalls and reached into the dimness; Spots snuffled at his hand before swinging his head around and solidly nudging against Numair's chest, burying his nose against Numair's shirt and apparently sniffing him over for injuries – he'd seen Cloud do the same to Daine more times than he could count.
Numair looked around with somewhat theatrical caution to check that he was unobserved, before smiling and putting his arms around the gelding's neck, hugging him. "Hello, boy," he murmured softly. "Miss me?" Spots pushed closer for a moment before tossing his head to break the hug. Blowing out a breath into Numair's face, he dropped his nose and pointedly nudged Numair's hip – or, more precisely, his trouser pocket. Numair grinned wryly. "That's what I thought." Reaching into the indicated pocket, he produced an apple and deftly twisted it into two halves, feeding one to his horse. "You old fraud."
Crunching the fruit, Spots didn't bother to respond, except to dribble sticky juice down Numair's sleeve as he reached for the second piece of apple. Numair sat in the hay-scented dimness of the stable for a time, absently combing his gelding's mane with his fingers; once upon a time a horse had just been a horse, but even before he'd met Daine, he and Spots had been together for years. They made a good team. And after so long around the Wildmage, the gelding was more intelligent than many humans.
"Tell me where Daine is?" he asked finally. Spots rolled an eye at him and snorted; he'd never realised horses could snigger before. "Oh, shut up," he told the animal wryly. "You don't get to say 'I told you so' if I couldn't understand you telling me. It doesn't count." The gelding blew through his nose, clearly amused, and flicked an ear. "Everyone's a mind reader these days," Numair grumbled. "Just answer the question, please?"
Relenting, the horse turned his head and stared fixedly through the left side of his stall and slightly upwards. Numair processed this; he was getting better at communicating with animals now. "The walltops?" he guessed. The gelding whickered softly, and Numair gave him another apple. "Thank you. Stop trying to bite the stableboys. We'll be going home soon." Jumping down, and wincing as the landing jarred him, he headed back out into the sunshine and turned left, heading for the stair up to the walltop.
He found her eventually, leaning on the walltop and looking out over the distant harbour, and took a moment just to look at her, memorising small details – the gleam of sunlight on her hair, picking out all the subtle highlights in her curls; the curve of her back, her shirt caught against the stone and stretched across her shoulders; the air of relaxation in her stance as she propped her chin on her hand and looked at the view. Vaguely aware that he was staring, he reluctantly forced himself to stop, and cleared his throat gently to announce his presence.
Turning, she smiled at him. "Hello. Look who's up and around."
"Only just," he replied ruefully, limping towards her. "Alanna says it'll be a few days yet before the soreness heals properly." He leaned against the walltop beside her, not quite close enough to touch, acutely aware of the scant inches separating them. "What about you?"
"I'm all right. I was mostly healed before I came back; I was more tired than anything."
He nodded and they stood without speaking for a while. Kitten was sitting by Daine's feet; since they'd come back, the dragon had refused to let her foster mother out of her sight for more than a few minutes. Turning, Numair carefully lowered himself to sit on the walkway, leaning back against the wall gratefully and closing his eyes; he felt more than saw Daine sit beside him. They still weren't quite touching; it created an oddly pleasant sense of tension, and Numair broke the mood with some regret.
"Do you want to talk about it?"
"About what?" she asked unconvincingly. He opened one eye.
"About whatever it is that you weren't telling us the day I woke up." She looked away, and he stretched his legs out across the width of the walkway. "I've known you too long, magelet – I always know when you're hiding something," he reminded her with a smile. When her expression didn't lighten, he added reflectively, "When you don't say something, it's always for a good reason. I won't push. But if you do want to talk..." He left it hanging and settled back against the stone.
"It's two things, really," she admitted finally, sounding uncertain. "I... You should know one of them. And I think... I think I need to tell someone about the other. It... bothers me."
Despite the fact that she clearly needed to talk, Daine was silent for some time, before finally taking a deep breath and visibly steeling herself. "It was after... everything I told you all," she began slowly; her eyes were fixed somewhere in the distance, her hands curled into loose fists, and he could feel the tension in her body. "The... the Black God suggested that the Stormwings should be held in the Divine Realms because of what Ozorne did. Maybe all immortals. I..." She fell silent, visibly struggling for words; watching her uncertainly, seeing the depths of her turmoil in her eyes, Numair hesitantly reached out and laid his hand over hers. Taking a breath and avoiding his eyes, she ended in a rush of words. "I wouldn't let them, I argued to let them all stay in the mortal realms."
She pulled away from his hand and drew her knees up under her chin. Now she did look at him, and he recognised the almost wounded look in her eyes; he'd seen it before, on a remote beach years ago, when she had told him – and Onua – what had happened to her in Snowsdale. It was the look that said more clearly than words that she expected rejection.
Knowing how much was riding on his response, Numair took a few minutes to think things through. He had overheard her conversation with Rikash about Stormwing origins; they had a specific place and role in mortal life. The barrier that had originally segregated them had been made by humans, mages like himself; it had never been intended. And not all the immortals now loose were bad. There were many benign species, and the Stormwings themselves were highly individual – Barzha's flock were surely not the only members of their kind willing to embrace change. Besides, the worst Stormwing of them all had originally been human.
The world is changing. It's arrogant and stupid to think we have the power to stop it, and we certainly don't have the right. No, he didn't like the idea, but that didn't matter. "In your place, Daine, I hope I would have had the courage to do exactly the same," he said finally, looking at her.
She relaxed very slightly, but the almost painful shadow of fear in her eyes didn't lessen. "Really?"
"Really," he repeated firmly. "We've been fighting them for more than four years, magelet. I know you wouldn't have made such a decision lightly, or out of sentiment. Humans need predators too, just like any other animal. I taught you about food chains myself, remember?"
The faintest shadow of a smile crossed her face. "I remember."
"Well then," he said more lightly, reaching to touch her cheek gently. He slid his fingers under her chin and turned her face to look at him. "You made the right choice, sweet," he told her softly. "Not the easy choice, or the pleasant choice, but the right one. I'm proud of you." After a moment he added wryly, "I wouldn't tell any of the Own or the Riders just yet, though. You've just created a lot of extra work for them."
Her answering grin held an edge of nerves, but he could see the relief in her eyes. Tracing his fingers along her jaw, he lingered for a moment as she turned her head slightly to nuzzle his palm before reluctantly pulling away. "Speaking of making choices... that's the other thing I need to tell you..."
Numair took his hand away with some reluctance, sternly telling himself to behave. Turning slightly to face her, he settled against the wall once more and waited. She seemed less nervous – no, not less nervous, but nervous in a different way, and he waited curiously to hear what else had happened.
"Mithros made me make a choice," Daine said softly, watching his face. "He told me that the Godborn make too many problems, that he had to... 'limit my influence', I think he said. I forget exactly. Anyway, he told me I had to choose – either I came back here to the mortal realms, or I stayed there as a lesser goddess, but I'd never be able to change my mind."
He hissed softly, staring at her. "That's not fair," he said before he could stop himself – usually that was one of his least favourite phrases, but in this instance he felt justified. That was her reward for saving the world? To have to choose between her mortal home and her immortal family? Momentary horror sent a shiver through him as for an instant he wondered wildly what choice she had made, before he told himself not to be an idiot – obviously she had chosen this realm, or she wouldn't be here now. Even so, the thought had scared him, and would probably haunt his dreams. Swallowing, he asked in some confusion, "Why did you choose here? Your family – your parents..." It was all she had ever wanted since he'd known her.
"It's not like I'll never see them again," she replied quietly. "They can still visit me, just not the other way around. I didn't belong there; neither of us did. I have friends here, and work; I'm needed." Colour rose in her cheeks, and she dropped her eyes, biting her lip before glancing up at him through lowered lashes. "And... I couldn't leave you."
Numair stared at her. For probably the first time in his life, he was completely and utterly lost for words – literally speechless. He spoke half a dozen languages, and he couldn't think of anything to say in any of them. This was beyond his comprehension, and it was quite a while before he found his voice.
"You... you gave up immortality and divine power for – me?" he asked incredulously. When she nodded, blushing now, he continued to stare at her. "Are you insane?"
Daine looked taken aback by this reaction. "What?"
"I'm not worth that, Daine," he managed hoarsely. His throat was tight, and he felt uncomfortably close to tears.
Her worried expression changed to one of exasperation. "You'd better be," she scolded playfully, "because I've chosen already." He must have looked as bewildered as he felt, because her eyes softened and she smiled, reaching out to touch his cheek as he had done to her earlier. "Ma said you were a good man," she told him gently, then smothered a giggle. "Well, what she actually said was that you were a fair strange man, but a good one."
Despite his confusion and almost-painful emotions, he half-smiled at the description, but continued to look at her uncertainly. This could not be real. Shaking her head slightly, she shifted onto her knees, moving closer. "Is it so hard to believe?" she asked softly.
"Yes," he replied honestly. "You know me better than anyone ever has. How can you possibly think I'm worth it?" She'd seen everything that he was over the years, good and bad.
"How can I not?" she countered. Sliding a hand into his hair, she tugged his head around and met his eyes. "I chose you. I love you. Now stop being an idiot." The brisk, matter-of-fact tone did more to restore his sanity than anything else could, and he started to believe that she actually meant it. A moment later she leaned closer and kissed him, and he lost what little remained of his ability to form coherent thoughts.
When they drew apart a while later – had his life depended on it, he couldn't have said how much time had passed, but it definitely hadn't been long enough – Numair grinned somewhat breathlessly at her. "You do realise it's going to take a lot more than that to stop me being an idiot?"
"I said no to being a goddess, remember?" she shot back, smiling and slightly flushed. "I don't have that sort of power."
"Thank you for that," he replied dryly, before smiling mischievously. "So let me make sure I've got this clear. You killed Ozorne, confronted the Queen of Chaos, stood up to the Greater Gods over Stormwing rights, argued with Mithros himself, and then turned down the chance to become a goddess?" He started to laugh helplessly before he'd even finished the sentence; she blushed, then glared at him, but he truly couldn't stop. Only when his ribs hurt and he couldn't breathe did he finally fall silent, gasping for air. "Oh, magelet, even for you that sounds like a busy day. And your mother thinks I'm strange?"
Daine continued to glare at him, but finally her lips twitched and she half-smiled, giving in and laughing a little herself. "Well, when you put it like that..."
They sat quietly side by side in the sunlight for a while as his breathing returned to normal after his slightly hysterical laughing fit. Gradually the restful silence between them changed, the slow tension from earlier creeping in; it was almost settled between them, but not quite. They looked at one another, neither sure of what to say now; it was Daine who broke the impasse. "What happens now?" she asked uncertainly, her voice soft.
"Whatever you want," he replied without needing to think about it. He twisted to face her and met her eyes squarely. "I mean it, Daine. Someday, you told me, and that's fine with me. I'll wait." He smiled suddenly. "I think I've been waiting most of my life for you. A few more months or even years won't hurt." It might well sound stupid, but that didn't mean it wasn't true.
She still looked uncertain. "You asked me to marry you," she pointed out softly.
Numair's smile turned wry. "That was almost as much of a surprise to me as it was to you," he told her gently. "Don't worry about it, sweet. I didn't expect you to say yes. I'm not sure I even wanted you to, not yet. I meant it, never doubt that, but we have plenty of time – hopefully, the rest of our lives." She searched his face for a moment, then nodded, reassured, and returned his smile.
"You're still welcome to try and persuade me," she said mischievously, and he grinned at her.
"No arguments here, magelet."
Setting his back against the wall once more, he relaxed slowly, and smiled when she moved to rest against him; he slid his arm around her shoulders and drew her close, and she rested her head on his chest. Kitten moved to lie across both their laps, effectively ensuring that neither of them could move – and providing a convenient excuse if anyone came along and wondered why they were sitting so close together. Resting his cheek against her hair, Numair closed his eyes and let the last remnants of tension slide away. He wasn't afraid of the future any more; he was looking forward to it. This was where he truly belonged.
"I love you."
Spots is actually surprisingly good fun to write. You have to love a horse with a sense of humour. And when you think about it, both Spots and Cloud would have known how Numair felt long before he did – if nothing else, they'd have been able to smell it. Ahem. Interesting that neither of them told Daine, isn't it? There might be a story there.
At this point, Numair's the only one to know the full story, about the Stormwings and about Daine's choice. I imagine that once the full truth about their relationship comes out, Daine might tell the others that she effectively gave up immortality for him; I don't see her telling anyone else about the Stormwings for years yet, if ever. Who else would understand? Rikash was Numair's friend too, after all.
Numair makes another excellent point – how can Sarra justify calling him strange, compared to Daine? Seriously, she does much weirder things!
And no, Numair never expected Daine to say yes when he proposed. I'm not at all certain he even meant to ask her yet, the state he was in. He's just as worried about marriage being a trap as she is, after all. That doesn't mean he's not sincere; he really does want to spend the rest of his life with her. But neither of them are ready for marriage yet. All things in time.
That brings us to the end of this story, and of the quartet. I've been working on this for about a year now, start to finish, and it's been one hell of a ride. I've had a blast writing this and your response to it has been absolutely unbelievable. I never for a second imagined that I would get a tenth of the response I've had; I certainly never expected to not only be nominated for a competition but to do so well. I want to thank you all; you have no idea what this means to me. That something I've done has been so well received by so many people... it's incredible. Every time I read a review from someone telling me that I've got Numair exactly right, or that a line made them laugh, it makes me smile. Thank you all so much. It means more than I could ever say.
So, where do we go from here? I'm definitely not going to stop writing. That said, I think I do need a short break, a couple of weeks or so at the most I would imagine, just to clear my head. Then I will be returning to Tortall, and to my one-shots set between and after the books. And to Arram's story; I definitely want to try that, although I'm making no promises about whether or not I'll upload it – it's going to be very difficult to write. (I also have a feeling that several of you – naming no names; you know who you are! – are going to push me into trying some smut. I'm making no promises about that, either!) I have a few half-completed stories from other fandoms, too, but Tortall is always going to be my first love – as it were.
Future plans aside; for the moment, this is where the story ends. You've all made me very happy; I hope I've returned the favour in a small way. I love you all.