A/N: This takes place in Wild Mage, about four days after Numair transforms back into a human from hawk form and is travelling to Corus with Onua and Daine. Thanks to lionesseyes13 for reading this over and to Sweet Sassy Sarah for being beast beta (lmao). This was inspired somewhere in the thought process I went through after reading the latest Lacunae update by Loten, whose work I highly recommend.
"We may as well set up camp here," Onua said as she stopped in front of a clearing just off the road. It had obviously been used repeatedly by travellers along this route and was well-flattened, with a burned area surrounded by stones for a fire-pit. Numair looked it over as his friend and her assistant moved the ponies off the road. He wondered, idly, if there was not a more secure location to camp. Not that they weren't fully up to protecting themselves, if it came to that, but recent events had made him slightly more cautious than usual.
He stepped forward quickly to help Daine picket the ponies' lines even though she hardly needed his assistance. She smiled when he held the lines for her while she pounded individual ones into the ground.
"There's no river nearby, Onua," she said as they worked their way down the line. Onua had begun to get out the necessary food and equipment from the packs. Neither Onua nor Numair questioned the girl's declaration, although they exchanged a glance; Numair had already informed Onua of his suspicions regarding her assistant's magical capabilities and Onua had filled him in on what she had observed since meeting Daine in Galla. "Do you want me to see if I can get some rabbits?"
"That would be excellent, Daine," Onua replied. "Numair and I can set up camp and get the ponies settled in while you do that. No, Tahoi, stay here," she said to the dog as he followed Daine, who had grabbed her hunting equipment and began to walk from the camp.
"It's fine, Onua. Tahoi knows to be quiet while I hunt, right, Tahoi?" She looked down at the dog and nodded after a moment. With a wave to her human companions, she slipped into the forest.
"She doesn't even realize she's doing it, does she?" Onua asked Numair when Daine was out of earshot.
"I highly doubt she is aware of how it appears to us," he replied. "To her, it must be completely normal, such as is your connection to horses for you. She would have never developed this ability; it would have been a part of her life since infancy. In those conditions, normality is relevant to personal experience and not an overall human experience."
Onua nodded and handed him a brush for the ponies. Together, they moved along the line in silence, Numair combing out the worst of the tangles while Onua did the more complicated work of checking hooves and treating for insects.
Numair had fallen into the routine of the silence when Onua spoke again. "Numair, how are you holding up?"
"Are you questioning Alanna's healing abilities?" Numair said, laughing, without looking up from the pony. "You should know better than that by now."
She was quiet for a moment. "That's not what I meant."
He looked up from the pony, then. Onua was watching him, her expression torn between deep concern and something that looked disturbingly like pity. He looked at her, confused. "Onua," he said gently, "it was just a broken arm."
"That's... not what I meant, either," she said, softly. He looked down at the pony and turned the brush over in his hands. The silence grew. Don't say it, Onua. He realized what she was concerned about, suddenly, and was torn between understanding her concern and, inexplicably, anger at her for bringing it up at all. He shook his head, turning over the brush again before he moved on to the last horse, hoping she would just let it go. Onua followed suit, after a long moment, and they worked together in silence.
"Onua—" he began, but then he saw Daine walk into the clearing, from over Onua's shoulder, and he smiled at the girl. Onua twisted and asked Daine a question.
"Three," Daine replied, holding the fat rabbits up by their ears.
"I'll clean them," Numair said, moving quickly to put the brush away and take the rabbits from Daine. "No, no, you caught them; it's only just," he said, overriding her protests until he was at the edge of their camp, sitting on a log skinning the rabbits with Tahoi as company.
"I blame this on you, you know," he told the dog. He sighed when Tahoi ignored him, the dog's gaze instead fixed on the piece of rabbit Numair held. Numair tossed it for the dog to snatch out of the air. Without even seeming to chew, the piece was swallowed and Tahoi continued his pleading.
"Oh, now, you didn't even taste that one." He tossed the dog another piece, regardless, and set into the second rabbit.
It had been Tahoi's fault, he thought.
Numair had sometimes travelled with Onua for stretches between Corus and the Gallan border, when it was necessary for him to be in the area for some piece of work or another. Numair always appreciated the extra company of Onua and her assistants while out on the roads, although she often roped him into caring for the ponies, when he joined them on their way back to Corus.
On one of these trips, a few years ago, Onua and her assistant, named Melanie, had gone to the creek nearby to wash up while Numair unpacked their cooking supplies. Tahoi had followed the women, at first, but returned on his own to the camp, choosing the ground right beside Numair to shake off on from his obvious dunk in the creek. Numair stood quickly from the pack, getting away from the splashes of water, but the damage was done. He held his shirt by the bottom, twisting to look at the streaks of mud that now decorated his back.
"Honestly, animal!" Numair said to Tahoi. "Was that strictly necessary?" The dog ignored him and took his usual place in the shade near his Mistress' pack. Numair glared after him for a moment before he realized what he was doing, and then turned back to his pack.
He muttered to himself as he stripped off the wet one and crouched to rummage through his pack for his spare. He hadn't wanted to do laundry this evening, but apparently Onua's beast had another idea of what was important....
He heard a muffled sound behind him and turned quickly. Onua stood on the edge of the camp, her hair wet and her drying cloths held in her hands. She stared, wide-eyed, at Numair, who was now standing shirtless in the clearing. Numair pulled his clean shirt on quickly, turning to face her as he did so. He felt a rush of blood to his head that had nothing to do with embarrassment over her walking in on him half-dressed. He was far from the most modest man, and travelling together on the road led invariably to some unavoidable intimacies. He had, however, prevented most anyone from seeing him shirtless in full light.
"I have laundry to do, after Melanie is done at the stream," Numair said, surprising himself with how level his voice was. "Do you have any for me to take?"
"Numair...." Onua paused, looking at him.
"I really don't mind doing it all at once," he said, picking up his dirty shirt to look it over again. "It will save us all time since Tahoi made it necessary, anyway."
"Numair... do you want to discuss it?"
"Mithros, Onua, do you want your laundry done or not?" he snapped. He regretted it instantly—he hadn't known he would speak in that tone before the words were out of his mouth—and Onua jumped and winced, just slightly, but enough to send another shot of guilt through him. Her assistant, drying her hair as she walked into the clearing, froze, staring between them wide-eyed. "Never mind. I'll be down at the stream if you need me," he said, walking away from the awkward silence that surrounded them.
"What in the name—" Melanie began, but stopped suddenly, as if hushed by Onua. Numair walked to the stream and, feeling the need, continued to follow it further from camp. Guilt ate at him. Perhaps too strongly, he realized, as if it was trying to hide a deeper feeling. He stopped walking and closed his eyes, listening to stream and the sounds of birds in the forest. It wasn't that he wasn't feeling guilty about snapping at Onua—he was—it was just that he would much rather think about feeling guilty than to think about the scars on his back and what they represented.
He squatted beside the water, dunking his shirt in the cold stream. They weren't bad, he reflected. The scars, he meant. They weren't raised, and could hardly be seen in dim light. They had faded over the past few years dramatically, until they were hardly noticeably lighter streaks on his darker skin.
It was incontestable, however, that Ozorne and his dungeons had not been kind in even the short space of time he had spent there.
He scrubbed roughly at the mud, trying to remove all of the stains. He dunked it back under the water, but when he pulled the shirt out to examine, the mud was still there in streaks, as if it was mocking him.
Finished with the third rabbit, Numair glanced over at the women. Onua was telling a story—no doubt about him, somehow— and Daine was laughing. He smiled at the sight, and collected the rabbit meat and his knife and carried everything back over to the fire they had built. Daine smiled up at him as he approached.
"Is it true you once fired one of your housekeepers for walking too loud?" the girl asked.
"Onua no doubt left out that the woman wore wooden shoes, yes?" Numair said, and Onua laughed and nodded at Daine's questioning look. "I tried my best to have her wear slippers, or even boots, but she would have none of it. It drove me to distraction for weeks. She simply had to go."
Daine smiled again, and looked back down at the lines she was untangling. Numair looked at Onua as he sat down at the fire. She smiled slightly, which he returned with a gentle pat on her arm.
Dinner was a quiet affair, with more eating than conversation as the sun set and the hard work of the day caught up with them. After a brief meditation, their packs were unrolled and the wards were set for the night. Daine said sleepy good-nights and left the adults by the fire to crawl into her bedroll. She was asleep with Tahoi curled beside her within minutes.
"I'm sorry," Numair said.
"I shouldn't pry," Onua replied, shaking her head. "I know you don't like to talk about your past. You've never wanted to talk to me about it, and I should have respected that."
"You never asked again," he said quietly. She shrugged, understanding that he was speaking of the incident when she had seen his scars.
"You didn't want me to," she said. "I told you about my life, about my husband, because I wanted to. Because it helped. I never thought that meant you had to do the same. You were so upset that day...."
"I'm sorry if I frightened you," he said, remembering how his outburst had made her wince.
Onua almost laughed. "It wasn't that. You are my friend and I haven't believed for a moment that you would do something to harm me. Numair, I wasn't afraid of you. I was afraid for you." He looked up at her. "Memories can, sometimes, be like a bruise. You hardly know it's there until you poke at it, and then it hurts... but you can't stop. You become obsessed with poking it again, just to make sure it's still there, still sore. You looked so pained, so suddenly, by my questions and I was afraid that I had poked that bruise. I didn't want to make you relive something you didn't want to."
Numair shook his head. "You were just concerned, and I shouldn't... I should...." He paused. "I just find it... difficult." The fire snapped, drawing his gaze and holding it. "It's not the scars. They don't really matter, not so much. It's.... I can't think about it, Onua, without feeling this hatred for Ozorne, and it makes me feel... out of control. Like I'm not myself, but back to who I was after that and," he shook his head, "I don't like who I was after that. Sinthya's dungeon, it brought it back. It did. But, it was as if it wasn't as bad, because I had been there before and I knew I had been fine. Besides," he smiled across the fire at Onua, "I had friends to come back to this time."
Onua smiled back at him. He went back to staring at the fire, thinking about Sinthya and Ozorne and trying to not let that hatred rise up in him again. Because, sometimes, the hatred ate at him. Perhaps too strongly, he realized, as if it was trying to hide a deeper feeling. Onua stood up and stretched, making her excuses for leaving the fire. He told her he would stay up a little while, no, don't look at me like that, I am not brooding, dear. He smiled up at Onua, wishing her a good sleep as she walked around the fire to go to her bedroll. Her hand rested lightly on his shoulder as she said something comforting that he nodded to, automatically.
He thought again of his incarceration in his Ozorne's dungeons, when the friend he had trusted above all others arranged for his arrest and torture. He remembered little of the following days more than the questions he was asked and how Ozorne had been the one asking them while he was beaten. Even the memory of the pain paled beside that.
The hate rose in him, again, and this time Numair embraced it. It was just that he would much rather think about hating Ozorne than to think about the scars on his back and what they represented.