Title: Falling Slowly
Author: Jade Sabre
Notes: I have dragged my heels on posting this, but today is the day, because I began this story exactly two years ago, on the edge of June 6th and June 7th, 2008. Here is the culmination of two years of writing and editing, listening to the Once soundtrack on repeat and gnashing my teeth while trying to keep the tone consistent; and so now I present it to you, and hope you enjoy it; this is the last chapter to review, so if you've been reading, and enjoyed it, it would validate years of work for me to hear from you.
I recommend listening to the aforementioned soundtrack, as well as the song "Harbor" quoted before chapter one, because they are both one way of telling this story, the ending of which I humbly present to you.
To all of you who havereviewed, and favorited, and author-alerted: I cannot thank you enough. Sometimes I wish I'd been bitten by the story bug for a larger fandom, but your reviews are each so individually good that they more than make up for it. I appreciate it so very, very much.
And finally, once again, to Quark, dearest beta and bestest friend: I'm glad you liked it.
Disclaimer: I don't own Neverwinter Nights, or any of its sequels or expansions, or any of the characters contained herein, other than the ones I made up, who still belong to a world created by other people.
take this sinking boat
and point it home
we've still got time
He returns to the Keep from time to time—he has the closest ties to it of any of the Nine, and as the months roll by he finds the journey less painful, and often looks forward to his single ale on the house—poured by Sal and shared with the sergeants—and the growth of the soldiers who keep watch over the walls, which always seem to have some new protrusion every time he visits. While Veedle pays attention to the roads, and oversees the construction of the buildings which expand past the boundaries, his pride and joy is improving the walls, and his reward is hearing tales of implementations of his designs in Neverwinter herself. He is happy to bring these tales to the Master Builder, and just as happy to escape the lectures on the man's latest ideas. He is happy to attend a wedding, a year and a half later, seeing cool, crisp Kana married to the steadfast, obstinate Bevil Starling—a match he does not pretend to understand, but one which he can commiserate with, although in the first months of their happiness he cannot completely hide the pangs in his heart. The chasm remains, though he has covered the crack with mortar and sealing wax, and he is, generally speaking, content.
He has ample time to see to his affairs, from spending months on his estate to visiting his sister in Waterdeep a year after the final battle. Seeing her happily married to a man only a few years her elder fills him with peace; she is all froth and light, his little sister, a pretty girl—young woman, and he wonders if this happened while he was at the Luskan front, as he always does when he sees her—with a wide smile and a generous heart. He is fortunate enough to be her adored elder brother, which does not spare him from her teasing, but his brother-in-law often takes his side in their verbal spars, which causes his little sister's cheeks to flush and gives him the opportunity to sit back and watch them argue over insignificant matters with the tenderest ("…as anyone who wasn't as thick-skulled as a troll would clearly see"), most loving ("as a woman, my dear, it's to be expected you wouldn't actually under—ow!") words. He has an unfortunate habit of laughing, which interrupts their bonding, but he guesses that something must show in his face, because his sister rarely pesters him about bringing home a wife of his own, so that she will not be so outnumbered on his visits. He tells her, upon his departure, that she is a fine lady, a wonderful housemistresses, and every bit the sort of woman he hoped she would be; she blushes and hugs him close, and says, "Goodbye, brother," in a suspiciously emotional voice; but she does not cry, and he returns to Neverwinter with a light heart.
The Nine replace Callum with Andrey Ballard, although it takes a great deal of prodding and nigh-blackmailing to convince the old war hero to take the post; his squadmates become his personal captains, dispatched to every corner of the land while he attempts to rebuild his contacts from the safety of the Castle. Lairon travels to Luskan to report on its war with Ruathym, while Aimee immerses herself in the world of the Moonstone Mask and the nobility, learning to become just another pretty face and gather covert information. Darmon continues to lead the Greycloaks within the city, while Alander takes the job of supervising the Watch and Sigurth assists Ballard; Cadia remains the closest to their lord, while he and Mournee spend their time overseeing the more undercover aspects of guarding the city. The occasional cult to Cyric attempts to rise within the crypts, and of course the nobles are always feuding in a quiet, underhanded way, but for the most part the city is at peace, a long-awaited, well-earned peace, and his duties extend mostly to the formal aspects of being a Knight of Neverwinter.
Yet he still reports on Crossroad Keep, and that is why he is there to gather information for his six-month report, trying to avoid staring at Commander Kana as she calmly welcomes him as if nothing has changed since her wedding. Bevil is less contained; he claps the knight on the back and excitedly babbles about the plans he has for the son or daughter Kana so obviously carries. He congratulates them both, although Kana gives him a deadly stare as he does so; the general air of the Keep is festive, however, and he later joins several of the other sergeants in giving Bevil a time-honored, good-natured ribbing over a pint of ale in the Phoenix Tail. It is good to be back, he thinks, casting an eye over the crowded common room with only the slightest twinge that the former mistress is not here to learn of her friend's good fortune. And Bevil, too, in the course of the increasingly inebriated evening, remembers her, with a toast for the good Knight Captain, without whom he'd never left home and never met the woman of his dreams. "And his nightmares," mutters Jalboun, only to receive a swat from Katriona that misses his face and thumps his shoulder instead. They laugh, and eventually they stumble back up the hill to the Keep, and Bevil helps him to his room, and he manages to make it to his bed before passing out.
He wakes the next morning and immediately regrets it; light streams in past the open curtains of his window, and his head aches fiercely. It has been some time—years, if he stops to think—since he has had a proper hangover, and through the foggy haze of pain and deep unhappiness he remembers why he tries to avoid them. He finds himself missing Sand, of all people, for he has heard tale of the wizard's hangover cures, although the thought of actually asking him for such a brew makes him laugh and immediately wince. Bereft of his old opponent and sometimes-friend, he makes do with dressing himself and very carefully walking through the halls of the Keep, attempting to look as dignified as possible when every step makes his stomach churn and he really would rather go back to sleep until the pounding in his head subsides. Thankfully, relief awaits him at the breakfast table; an equally-haggard-looking Bevil slips him a potion under the table while Kana's back is turned, and from the terrified look in the man's eyes he takes the vial and resolves to use it after he has eaten. He watches, curious, as the paranoia in the other man's eyes disappears as soon as he matches gazes with his wife, and how they both seem to soften, ever-so-slightly, before returning to their professional demeanors. He smiles to himself, and after making promises to meet the commander on the walls, and slips out to take the potion. Its effects take a few minutes to settle, but soon his head is clear, and he feels ready to climb the walls.
Kana preemptively puts an end to any line of questioning concerning her personal wellbeing by taking him on laps of the walls at a pace faster than he would have thought a woman in her condition could manage. There is a certain waddle to her stride, but other than that she remains the graceful commander he has come to know, and he pays close attention as she takes him along the eastern wall and explains the latest petition to clear the trees and begin construction of yet another farming village. A pageboy—most of the street urchins have been assimilated, although they maintain a habit of streaking their faces with dirt in order to differentiate themselves from the more nobly-born runners—cautiously interrupts the tour with an urgent message for the commander, and she excuses herself, leaving him to bite his lip as she waddles away and hide his grin at the thought of the mighty Kana so soft and rounded, when her every word and action shows that she is still the hard-edged, disciplined warrior she has always been. He looks out, past the trees, towards the mountains that rise in the distance, wondering where the boundary of the Keep's lands lies. His own lands lie farther to the south and east, almost bordering the Mere, his own modest fortress situated atop the highest of the many foothills near the Sword Mountains. He runs a hand over the wall and thinks of his own quarries, mentally tallying the reports he has received from his mother, trying to decide if there will be enough stone to donate some to Veedle—quietly, of course—after they meet the latest order from Waterdeep.
So lost is he in his calculations that the pageboy must repeat his name twice before he realizes he is being called and turns to hear the message that Kana has urgently requested his presence in the entrance hall. He nods and returns to his thoughts, trusting his feet to lead him automatically to the front doors of the Keep—significantly upgraded, as they are every time he sees them; the gilt has been there for some time, but he thinks the tiny jewels in the Neverwinter Eye are new—and through, where he executes a perfunctory bow to the commander and asks if there has been some unforeseen problem. Kana, her eyes suspiciously bright—or it would be suspicious, if he had ever even remotely considered the possibility of tears in her eyes—nods brusquely across the room, and he turns, and he stops. He stops moving, stops calculating, stops thinking, stops breathing. Which makes sense, because he must be dead, because there is no other possible explanation for what he sees, though he is remarkably aware of his tight chest and clenched fists for someone who ought to, by all rights, be incorporeal.
Yet there she is, laughing, and in that sound—a sound which requires a working mind, breath from the lungs, and most importantly a good heart—he realizes he is not hallucinating, and he is not dead—and neither is she.
She turns her gaze on him and he finds his chest is tight again for entirely different reasons, and she smiles shyly, but he cannot speak. He looks between her and Kana, and then fixes his gaze on her, drinking in the sight of her, unable to do anything but stare.
Kana thankfully interprets his look and says, "She just strolled right up to the gates with the others and asked to be let in. Apparently the blue one is—"
"Gannayev," she says, nodding, and he finally tears his gaze away from her and realizes that she is not alone. The man is, in fact, blue, and despite this is also dangerously handsome; near him also stands a woman whose tattoos mark her as a Red Wizard of Thay, and, bizarrely enough, Khelgar and Neeshka; the dwarf eyes the room with stereotypical dwarven disapproval of workmanship, while the tiefling looks as if she can't decide what to take first. He opens his mouth, finds he still has no words, and nods his head to them, instead.
The blue man laughs. "You never mentioned your friends were so shy, Tanith," he says, with a dangerously handsome smile. He cannot help but wince, slightly, but then she speaks and all his cares disappear in favor of concentrating on the smooth sound of her voice.
"Be kind, Gann," she chides, a teasing(ly flirtatious? Gods, he hopes not, but his knees are weak anyway) tone in her voice. "After all, I've just come back from the dead. Remember how shocked Khelgar was? Nearly cleft me in two with his axe, he did, before I convinced him it was really me."
She smiles at him as she says this, inviting him to share in her mirth, and his face wobbles into something resembling a smile, as though he can't quite remember how to do it—and he can't, because his shock is melting away and every kind of anxiety he can possibly imagine is taking its place. Her smile twitches in return, and she quickly turns back to her companions. "Well, then! Would you like the grand tour now, or later? And Kana—" she is all mischief and smiles "—what happened to you?"
"Your damned Harborman happened," Kana says, and he cannot take this amount of shock in one day and his legs abruptly cease working beneath him and he finds himself sitting on the floor. He blinks, as the impact seems to have finally cleared his head, but before he can rise she is leaning over him, and her expression is gentle as she cups his face in her hands and he closes his eyes to steady himself before opening them and examining her more closely. There are new lines etching themselves onto her face, worry lines that even the King of Shadows hadn't produced, but they are still very faint; her eyes are darker than he remembers, and wiser, and she is still so very lovely.
"You seem to have fallen down," she says, and despite the changes in her face, her voice remains the same, and this fills him with hope.
He says the first thing that comes to mind. "What Sand wouldn't have given to see that."
She laughs, her smile wide and brilliant, and he wants to take her hands and kiss them, but he is suddenly too shy, unsure as to what changes have been wrought in her, and instead he carefully climbs to his feet. He is aware of the others laughing, but mostly he is aware of her hands, and how they drop away as he stands, and the stab of disappointment that runs through him. He has a brief flash of irritation—he wishes he would make up his mind, and either take her into his arms and kiss her or else desist in his habit of not functioning every time she moved—and then she has slipped her hand into the crook of his arm and looks up at him with another heart-stopping smile (at this rate, he will be the dead one, and she will be the one left to mourn mistakenly, should she so choose) and says, "Well, Sir Nevalle, will you show me how my Keep has fared in my absence?"
"Certainly, my lady," he says, forcing himself to be professional, falling back on years of training and protocol practice to guide him while his conscious dwells on her voice saying his name, examining the two syllables—two and half, really, the way she stretches out the double "l" sound—for any clue into her psyche, though he is well aware that women are generally unfathomable and that his attempts are futile, but this does not stop him from turning it over and over again in his mind, savoring a sound he never thought he would hear again in his life. He wonders if the others, following, realize this; the dwarf and the tiefling almost certainly remember their parting before the King of Shadows, but the other two—especially the blue man, whose gaze lingers on the Knight Captain with more than simple flirtation in mind—are as much a mystery to him as he must be to them. He shows her the Keep, and she acts as though little has changed—as though she has not been dead for two years—but she has always been cheerful and cheeky around everyone, and what little knowledge he gained is now lost in a sea of hesitation and floundering confusion. He does not know how to convince her to speak to him alone, just as he does not know what she is thinking or whether or not she longs to link arms with Gannayev instead or if it is yet safe to consider opening himself again, even just a little.
Bevil, straightforward, bull-headed Bevil, is the one who presents them with the opportunity, though it is not until the next day and he has been forced to sit through dinner and watch her interact with the others while he attempts to make conversation with the Red Wizard—Safiya—which is awkward, at best, as the Red Wizards have been banned from Neverwinter soil for many, many years, and while he has no doubt that she is a kind woman, old prejudices die hard, and she seems just as ill at ease talking to a bodyguard. He spends the morning with Kana, again, while the Knight Captain wanders the Keep telling her friends tales of her adventures there, and the commander kindly does not comment on his inability to concentrate on any one set of statistics for an extended period of time. Then, just as they turn towards the mess hall for lunch, Bevil appears and takes his wife by the arm and insists that he needs her presence immediately, to deal with some pressing matter he refuses to elaborate. Kana gives her husband a look that suggests he is lying and will boil in oil for it, but he stands his ground and suggests that the amused knight go to his room in the Tower, so that Kana may find him quickly, once the pressing matter has been dealt with.
So he finds himself sitting on the floor in his old study, for in his absence no one has taken his place and the furniture—all but the obnoxiously pink-and-sparkly overstuffed armchair—has been carried off where it is needed. The bright noonday sun streams in through the window, illuminating the clouds of dust that fall through the air, and he contemplates them, stretching his legs out in front of him and staring at the dust rather than closing his eyes because whenever he closes his eyes all he can see is—
"May I join you?"
He looks at the doorway, and there she stands, a basket on one arm and the same smile—happy, yet tentative, he thinks, now that he sees her away from all her distractions—on her face. Seeing him glance at the basket she raises it and says, "I brought lunch."
"Then you are most welcome," he says, and he finally manages to smile back at her. She sits against the opposite wall, and divides the meal—cold chicken, apples, and a pint each of Sal's ale—between them. He tears off a strip of chicken with his teeth and chews on it; they have always treated these meals as battlefield ones, stripped of the pomp and circumstance of a courtly dinner, and he is relieved to see her do the same with her chicken, relieved to know that some things, at least, have not changed. How many, and what sorts, of things remains to be seen, but it is an encouraging beginning. He tries not to stare at her and ends up staring at his boots instead, between which he can see the deep blue of her gown and her tiny, silver-slippered feet, and he smiles in spite of himself—or perhaps simply because he wants to smile, and there is nothing to stop him from smiling. She sees the smile, and smiles back, and he realizes he is grinning stupidly at her but he cannot figure out how to control his own expression; he is a little giddy, such as he has not been in many, many years, and he is afraid his inexperience shows.
"So," she says, as she moves onto her apple, presumably inspecting it for brown spots rather than looking at his face.
"You're alive," he says, and as he says it the giddiness threatens to overcome him again, and he focuses his gaze on his boots.
"It's a bit of a surprise," she admits with a laugh, still running a finger over the skin of her apple. "There have been some pretty close calls. Too close for comfort. And you?"
He shrugs. "My city has been at peace."
"Thanks to you."
"I am quite sure you are over-exaggerating my role."
"No," he says, running a hand over the flagstone floor. "Your Keep has become quite a formidable force in your absence."
"I noticed," she says, and she finally takes a bite of her apple, standing as she does so. In another graceful movement she has settled in her chair, and the sight of her sinking into its plush cushions makes him smile again. She meets his eyes, the apple in her mouth, and when she has swallowed she says, in a far quieter voice, "And how have you been?"
"Well," he says, and he means it beyond its polite veneer. "Very, very well." Better, he wants to add, now that you're here, but isn't quite sure he has the right to do so. He remembers his mental verbosity upon her death and laughs at his inability to speak now that she is here, in front of him, real and warm and solid, tangible, yet somehow out of reach.
"I'm glad," she says, and casts her eyes to the apple, which she rolls in her hands. "I have…been better, but…I am well."
"Good," he says, and he does not know what else to say, and so he watches her take another bite of her apple, and then another, and as she takes the third, he musters up his courage (never lacking on the battlefield, yet somehow reduced to tattered shreds in her presence); as she swallows her fifth bite, he finally says, "What will you do now?"
"Now?" She looks surprised, as if she hasn't considered the question. "Well, I want to take Gann and Safiya to West Harbor—I think they'll like it there, it's swampy, kind of like Rashemen—"
"Oh, yes. I have stories," she says, a gleam of amusement brightening her eyes, "but they will keep a little longer. So to West Harbor I go, and then after that…who knows? I suppose," she says, her eyes now darting to his, now darting away, "it depends in part on what your lord wants."
His mouth goes suddenly dry, and hope, as terrible as it has always been, rises in him again. "Will you go wandering, like you said?"
"Wandering?" She starts to laugh, and then suddenly stops and looks him directly in the eye. She tosses the apple core onto the chicken bones and says, "Nevalle, I have fought the most powerful being I ever expected to meet only to be flung halfway across Faerûn for all my efforts. I have traveled three planes of existence with a hagspawn and a wizard, dealt with lords of life and death alike—I could eat souls, for gods' sake. I have seen the heights of power and the depths of weakness, watched men whittle away their lives for no reason, nearly lost myself to the Powers That Be—"
He watches her face, sees the lines deepen, the eyes darken, the skin draw tight with tension, and he reaches out his hands, though she is too far away to be placated. She sees the gesture and breaks off abruptly, and says, "Nevalle, I have wandered further and farther than I ever think I wanted to go in the first place. I just—I just want to go home."
She swallows, and he wonders what tone of voice he has, for he doesn't know—desperate, perhaps, or maybe just lonely—and she says, "Yes, I think so."
"I—" He stops, and simply holds out his hands, and waits.
She doesn't move. "I need time," she says, "time to adjust to being back here, time to look back at everything, time to—damn it, stop that."
"Stop what?" he asks, and is surprised at how playful his own voice sounds.
"Looking at me like—like—" And then she is out of her chair and her hands are in his, and she curls up against him and buries her face in his chest, his chest which is too constricted to breathe, infinitely aware of her right there, where she ought to be, filling the void as he has thought it would never be filled again. Her voice, muffled into his chest, mumbles, "Like you don't care two years have passed, like you—"
"They did," he says, one hand freeing itself from hers in order to stroke her hair—soft, so soft—"But I waited for you, too."
Her sigh shudders her frame, and she whispers, "I missed you. I missed you and I never even thought—I missed you—" and that is all he needs to tip her chin up and kiss her, slowly, softly, as he has dreamed of kissing her, as he knew he could never kiss her again. Her hands ghost his face before tangling in his hair, pulling him closer; she trembles beneath his touch, as if she is terrified, while he cradles her face, her head, with infinite tenderness and patience. He is overwhelmed with sensation, lightheaded with joy and surprise all at once; but more than that, he is at peace, and it is this peace he gives to her, slowly, trying to communicate through touch what he has never been able to put into words, that even as she hurt him, she filled him more completely than anything he has ever encountered before, and he wants nothing more than to reciprocate this fullness, this being, this peace.
His lips move from hers to her cheek, then her temple, brushing against her skin and her mussed hair, and she buries her face in the crook of his neck and shoulder and he can feel the tears, wet on her face, against his skin, and he holds her while she cries. "I love you," he whispers in her ear, as he has wanted to whisper for so many months, and she raises her head, and regards him with eyes wide with curiosity.
"What?" he asks, and she cocks her head, resting it against his shoulder as she looks up at him, and says, "What?"
"I love you," he says, and she smiles slowly, like a candle wick catching flame, brightening her whole face.
"It's very kind of you to say that, Sir Nevalle."
"It's very true, Lady Tanithar."
She smiles again, lazily this time, one finger tracing his eyebrows, down his nose. "Would you like to know a secret?"
"I know many secrets."
"Mm, you might not know this one." She looks up and meets his gaze, and he smiles back, just as lazy. "I think you might like to, though."
"I love you."
"You guessed." She taps him on the end of the nose. "But did you know?" Something about this amuses her beyond their surroundings, and she laughs.
"No," he says, smiling because she is smiling.
"Well," she says. "Now you know. You've managed to catch me, the most lascivious flirt to ever join the ranks of the Neverwinter nobility, and I've managed to catch the most Neverwinter-obsessed man to ever live in the city." She considers this, and places a finger over his lips when he opens them to protest this title—he can think of at least three living men who could vie for it—and finally says, "I think…I can live with that." She glances back at him and says, "Now, as to whether or not I can live with you…"
He blushes scarlet, for no reason other than the fact that these things take time—but they have time, now, all the time in the world to learn whatever else there is to know, and to learn it together.
"Tanithar?" he says, as her eyes take on that considering gleam he knows in so many facets, though he has never experienced it this closely.
"Yes?" she asks, already shifting to bring her head up and her lips close to his.
He brushes her hair away from her face, and runs a hand over her cheek, and then takes her hands in his, their fingers curling together as naturally as breathing, and says simply, "Welcome home."