Author's Note: I know it's taken a while, but here's chapter one of the post-RotG fluff that I've been promising. And it is mostly fluff - don't expect a dramatic plot or even much action. I don't know how long it's going to be yet, but it's going to cover the first few months of Daine and Numair's relationship. It's not going to involve anything from Protector of the Small, even though that starts at around this time. Anyone who's ever been in love knows that for the first couple of months you can't think of anything except the other person, so from Daine and Numair's point of view the squabbling over whether girls should be put on probation passed them by completely (at least in my head). There's lots of issues they need to sort out and things they need to discuss before anything actually happens, and then there's the question of when/how their friends find out, and lots of other small things, so that's what I'm dealing with. The rest of the kingdom can go hang itself!
You'll see parts from both Daine and Numair's perspective, depending on who ends up working best as 'narrator' for a particular scene. There will be appearances from other characters, but most of the focus is going to be on our two favourite mages - I don't see many of you complaining, somehow. Regarding the title - there are quite a few good songs called Little By Little, including the one by Oasis that gets stuck in your head, but the one I was thinking of here is by a group called Laura and the Lovers. Feel free to google the lyrics. Yes, I'm soppy.
So anyway, here's the first chapter, which sees our heroes returning to Corus after the war.
Obligatory Disclaimer: Actually, most of this story is mine. Unfortunately the characters aren't.
The journey back from Legann was strange. It had been just the two of them for such a long time, but now they were travelling with half the army, or that was what it seemed like. Daine rode off to one side of the main column when she could, avoiding the crowded atmosphere, with only Cloud and Kitten for company a lot of the time – the dragonet flatly refused to leave her side even for a moment. She couldn't even talk to Numair often, since Alanna was keeping him under observation; he wasn't fully healed yet.
Despite that, he seemed remarkably well, given everything that had happened. She had half-expected something similar to the way he had been after Carthak, the quiet withdrawal into himself as he avoided speaking to anyone, but from what she had seen he was more like his old self than she had known him in months. He was more thoughtful, less inclined to casual conversation, but he responded brightly enough when someone spoke to him and seemed surprisingly cheerful. He did have a tendency to look vaguely bewildered occasionally when he thought nobody was watching him, though, which suggested that things hadn't quite sunk in yet.
The nights were the worst, Daine decided. On the road together they slept either side of their small campfire, only a couple of feet apart, usually close enough that she could hear his breathing; but with other people around, that changed. She remembered the first night, when she and Alanna had been setting up their bedding, and the Lioness had stared pointedly at Numair when he had started unpacking his own blankets; the mage had looked blank for some moments before realising what she meant, when he had flushed red and retreated to find somewhere else to sleep. It didn't feel right not having him close when she woke, and with so many humans around her friends among the People wouldn't come near; it made it difficult to sleep.
More than that, though, she knew from what Spots had told her that Numair didn't always do well on his own; he relied on his friends more than he realised. He always had trouble sleeping after anything remotely stressful, and the madness of the past few months certainly qualified; the gelding had turned as possessive as Kitten and practically stood guard over his master every night, much to the mage's amusement.
In addition, not being able to talk to him meant not being able to discuss anything more personal. During the long days of waiting for him to wake up, Daine had had a chance to sort out her thoughts and finally get over the shock of realising just how much their friendship had changed – with help from an unsympathetic Cloud and amused Spots; both horses had found it difficult to believe that she had truly had no idea how Numair felt about her. They had known since after Carthak, they had informed her cheerfully, and was she completely blind and deaf?
Thinking about it now, she smiled, resisting the urge to turn in the saddle and see if she could see him. In hindsight, it had been fairly obvious, and certainly she had known that something important had changed, but with typical two-legger self-delusion she had refused to let herself think about it. It was extremely strange in some ways – she'd never even had a crush on him, after all – but at the same time it made perfect sense, because he was so completely a part of her life that it would destroy her to lose him; she still remembered the darkness in Carthak when she had thought he was dead, and it had felt like the world had ended. She couldn't see any way that she could be with anyone else, even supposing she could find someone else who would calmly accept all the strangeness of her life; Numair had been so much a part of her for so long that she would always be comparing any man to him, and nobody else could compare, really.
And, all things considered, it would be rather nice to be able to tell him so. Since the conversation on the walls of Port Legann when she had told him about the choice she had made, they hadn't had any time alone whatsoever, and she missed him. At the same time, being alone with him presented its own set of problems, because she wasn't sure what he was expecting – if anything – and they really did need to talk about what happened next.
Finally she couldn't take it any more, and rode back into the organised chaos of the travelling column to find him. They couldn't discuss anything about their relationship, or anything else really personal, and it was irritating that they would both have to be constantly watching everything they said or did, but at least she would be able to talk to him.
One glance told her that Numair was in pain still, and the first words she said to him when Cloud drew alongside were, "You shouldn't be riding."
"Hello to you too, magelet," he greeted her dryly, smiling slightly and outwardly mildly amused; but his eyes were warm and almost soft as he looked at her, an expression that sent warmth through her, and she smiled back at him as Kitten managed an awkward jump from Cloud's back to Spots to greet the mage with a soft chirp.
"Sorry. Hello. You still shouldn't be riding."
"Keep your voice down. Alanna is driving me insane as it is."
"Is it your hip?" she asked. His injuries had been truly bizarre; Alanna and the other Healers hadn't been able to work out how he got most of them, and he refused to explain. Some of the cuts on his back had looked like they came from blades, but far finer than any sword or knife could have managed; he had had some ugly burns, and some inexplicable bruising on his throat that looked like someone had tried to strangle him, and half the muscles in his body had been badly strained. There had been several internal injuries and some internal bleeding. He had had several broken bones that he had apparently been completely unaware of, and the usual damage caused by being totally and dangerously drained of all his reserves. The worst injury had been his hip; a piece of debris had struck him, somehow, and lodged right against the bone, and then he had walked half way back to Legann on it without noticing, every step causing more damage. He still walked with a limp, although it was healing.
He rolled his eyes at her now, a hint of a grin tugging at the corner of his mouth, and retorted, "As if you need to ask, when my dear faithful horse has no doubt been giving you full reports every time I so much as sneeze." Spots snorted and twitched an ear innocently, and Daine grinned ruefully. More seriously, Numair added, "Really, I'm fine. It just aches a bit, that's all, and it will ache just as much if I'm stuck in the back of a wagon going mad from boredom. I promise I'm being careful."
"Alanna's been nagging you a lot, I take it?"
"I think I'm being used as a substitute for her absent family. She hasn't got any children to nag, so she's decided I'll do." He turned slightly in the saddle – carefully – to look at her. "How are you faring?"
Knowing that he wouldn't let her get away with anything other than honesty, she glanced around to check that nobody else was close before she answered. "I'm... all right. My dreams have been a bit strange, but nothing as bad as I thought. I don't like travelling like this, though, and – I miss you," she added before she could stop herself saying it.
His eyes softened briefly before his usual flippant grin dislodged the expression for the benefit of anyone who might be watching. "I know, sweet," he said quietly. Raising his voice a little, he added, "It won't be long until we're rid of this noisy mob and back to our usual peaceful rides in the countryside."
"Oh, goody," Daine told him sarcastically, trying to hide a smile – it wasn't much of a description of their usual work, after all. "Apart from your hip, are you all right?" He opened his mouth to answer, and she glared at him warningly, knowing that he would almost certainly try to lie to her.
"Don't look at me like that," he muttered, his eyes gleaming with brief amusement before turning more serious. "I'm getting there."
"Any nightmares?" she asked softly.
"No. For nightmares, I would have to sleep." He half-smiled when she looked at him. "Don't worry so much. You know I don't sleep well when the routine is disrupted. Alanna's making sure I eat..."
"Good," she interrupted. "You've barely eaten anything for months. You've lost a lot of weight." And he hadn't had that much to lose in the first place.
Numair raised an eyebrow. "It's nice that you noticed," he replied, only partly teasing, before he grinned and shook his head. "I could say the same to you, in any case. We've both been under far too much stress with far too little rest." For a moment the carefree mask slipped, and she saw that he was as tired as she felt, still. It felt like they had been constantly on the move for years, rather than months.
"Jon's promised to let us rest when we get back to Corus," she said hopefully. His answering smile was wry; they both knew just how likely that was. The country was in chaos still, and the two of them were going to be needed. They would be lucky to have a couple of days to rest before they were out on the road again.
"We can always hope." He sighed after a moment, looking around briefly to make sure nobody else was close enough to hear. "And I would like to just have a chance to talk, if we can. About Hadensra, and the duel... It's bothering me," he admitted softly, his dark eyes troubled.
"I thought it was, when you wouldn't tell anyone what had happened," Daine said slowly. "I guessed it was bad. I don't think I've ever seen you that badly hurt."
"I thought I'd lost, at one point," he said reflectively. "He was stronger than I was at the time, and more experienced at that sort of fighting. I was telling the truth to the others; I got lucky. If you can call it luck," he added bleakly.
"Was it worse than Dunlath?" she asked quietly; Carthak had been the worst experience of his life, but she knew he held Tristan's fate as the worst thing he had ever done.
Very slowly, he nodded. "Yes – and no. It was... different; less powerful. I mean, it wasn't a word of power, or anything that made me afraid of losing my sense of perspective. It was just... sickening."
Leaning over in the saddle, she touched his arm gently. "All right. We can talk about it when we're home. Maybe sooner if we can get away from everyone for a while?" she asked hopefully.
"Don't tempt me," he replied wryly, looking more cheerful. "The state I'm in, I wouldn't be able to outrun a three-legged rabbit; I certainly can't escape the Lioness in Healer mode." He stretched carefully. "When we're home," he said more seriously, giving her a warm smile. "We'll talk about everything then."
"What are you going to do with yourself now, Numair?" Alanna asked cheerfully.
"What any sane man would do," he replied as he eased his aching body out of the saddle and slid to the ground, wincing as the impact jarred still-sore muscles. "I'm going to have a hot bath and then go to sleep for about the next six months."
"Oh, that sounds nice. If only you were actually going to do that."
He sighed resignedly. "Fine, I'll bite. What am I going to do now?"
"You're going to go and see Jon."
"And it can't wait until I've got some sleep?" he asked plaintively. "I haven't seen a real bed in months." Legann's barracks-style quarters had had the same problem he encountered almost everywhere; camp cots were never designed for men who were six foot five. Unless he wanted to sleep curled up in a ball, he usually slept on the floor. More than that, he missed his own room, his own bed and his own things.
"Numair," Alanna said unusually seriously, "for weeks he thought you were dead. He hasn't seen you since Midsummer. Go and talk to him."
He blinked at her and nodded slowly, realising that she had a point. It must have been hard for their friends; he'd only seen glimpses of it. And Jon did have a tendency to blame himself; no doubt he had rationalised it and concluded that because he had sent the pair of them after the Skinners, it had therefore been his fault. "All right," he agreed quietly, feeling oddly off balance.
"Good boy," she told him, sounding more like the Lioness. "He won't keep you long; you still look pretty beaten up. Then you can go and sleep – as long as you promise to eat something first."
"Yes, Mother," he sighed.
He was more than a little startled when Jon actually hugged him on seeing him; most northern men tended to avoid any contact beyond a handshake or a rough shoulder punch, in his experience, and although Numair didn't have that particular issue he wasn't really physically demonstrative most of the time. Automatically responding, he found himself remembering something Daine had asked him once – why was it apparently only acceptable for men to hug one another if they also slapped each other roughly on the back at the same time? Given that he still felt a little stiff and ill-used, he could have done without it.
"Even by your standards, Numair, this is utterly unbelievable," Jon said calmly as though nothing had happened, motioning him to a chair.
He smiled wryly. "Tell me about it. I find it pretty hard to believe, and I was there. I know I say this every time, but this time it really wasn't my fault."
"You look terrible, you know."
Numair frowned. "Thank you?"
"I'm serious. You look older than I do."
"Well, thanks, Jon. I'm glad we've had this little talk," he replied sourly.
The king grinned at him. "Sorry. But you looked worse at Midsummer, you know, and you're obviously still healing – Alanna's already warned me not to keep you too long," he added wryly. "Anyway, my point is that whatever happened to you seems to have resolved itself."
"I don't know what you mean," Numair replied automatically, wondering tiredly if it was written on his forehead.
"None of us are blind, Numair, and you've been seriously depressed since the spring. There was obviously something wrong, and now it seems to be better, that's all. Don't get defensive; I'm trying to be nice."
Reluctantly, he smiled. "By telling me that I look older than you do? I feel all warm inside."
"I was trying to say that you're improving. In a month or two you should be back to your old self; which is good, because we're going to need you."
"Well, that doesn't sound at all ominous," he replied lightly, glad to shift the conversation away from dangerous waters.
"There's a specific reason I wanted to talk to you, but first, I need to ask you something. Can you replace the barrier between the realms?"
"No," he replied instantly. "I told you over the winter that I couldn't."
"Would you be willing to research it?"
Numair hesitated. "No, Jon," he said quietly after a moment. "I won't be a part of any attempt to recreate the barrier."
"Will you tell me why?"
He struggled with it; it wasn't easy to explain, not in a manner that the king would understand, and he definitely didn't want to draw any more attention to what Daine had been through – he was the only one who knew about that, and he intended to keep it that way. Finally he said simply, "Because I don't think it's right."
Jon frowned. "Really?"
He nodded slowly. "The barrier was planned and executed by mortal men. It was never intended to be there. The immortals have as much right to be here as we do, Jon. The gods made them as well as us. And they aren't all monsters. Even the ones that are serve a purpose. Humans need predators to remind us that we are mortal. I don't have the right to try and change that, even if I did have the power." He at least owed Rikash this much.
The silence that followed made him nervous. Even after all these years, he couldn't quite shake off the Carthaki way of thinking; to defy the Emperor in such a way would mean instant death, if you were lucky, or very slow death if you weren't. Finally Jon shrugged and smiled. "I can't say I like that reasoning, Numair, but I suppose you have a point, and you've more than earned the right to refuse something on moral grounds – although I admit it's a bit of a surprise to find out that you actually have morals," he added.
Startled, he grinned and gave his king an outraged look. "Charming. If this is the thanks I get, next time you can stop your own damned war." Even if I was indirectly responsible for starting it in the first place, he added silently. Ripping the realms apart to get revenge on two mortals (well, mostly mortals) seemed a little excessive, but that was Ozorne for you.
"Ah, it's interesting that you mention that. That's what I actually wanted to talk to you about."
Jon nodded slowly. "I still find it all a bit difficult to accept, but you and Daine achieved something incredible. You may have literally saved the world, or at least the mortal realm. That deserves a reward."
Numair stared at him for a long moment, then started laughing. Judging by Jon's expression, that hadn't been the response he had been expecting, but... a reward? The idea was almost ludicrously funny, and he suspected he was more tired than he had thought. "What on earth for, Jon? You know that's not why we did it. It was our home we were saving. Everything else was more or less a happy afterthought. Don't get it all out of proportion."
"Numair," the king said in a slow and kindly talking-to-idiots voice, "the pair of you travelled to the Realms of the Gods and were given instructions on how to stop the Queen of Chaos from Gainel the Dream Master himself, before showing up on dragons and winning the war in a matter of days. Don't get it out of proportion?"
Still laughing, he gave in. "Well, I suppose, if you put it like that. But we don't need a reward, or particularly want one, come to that. You can ask Daine if you like, but I'm sure she'll tell you the same thing. I have everything I want already," he said more quietly, aware as always of the invisible chain on his wrist and fighting the sudden mad urge to grin – something he'd been struggling with more or less since... well, if he was honest, since the Stonemaze. "You can't even elevate us to the nobility, as neither of us are Tortallan by birth," he added with some relief – he would make a terrible lord, and Daine would probably quite literally die of embarrassment.
"There must be something."
Settling back in his chair, Numair thought about it tiredly, and after a moment he grinned as a sudden idea struck him. "Well, now that I think of it, I wouldn't mind moving to a proper suite of rooms," he said reflectively. "My quarters here in the palace were only ever supposed to be temporary, with the tower as my permanent home. I don't think that's really going to happen for years yet, given the current circumstances, so having somewhere more permanent here would be nice..." After all, he had someday to plan for. Maybe he was getting ahead of himself, but he was feeling unusually optimistic.
"I see," Jon managed in a carefully emotionless voice. "And what about Daine?"
He considered it. She did deserve a reward, of course, but in all honesty he couldn't really think of anything she would want. Except, apparently, him... Focus, Numair, he chided himself, fighting off a grin again. He really hoped he'd get used to this soon, because he felt like an idiot. "She did mention in the spring that the stables could use a new roof," he offered mischievously, trying not to laugh at the expression on Jon's face.
The king buried his head in his hands. "Bigger rooms and a stable roof. That's it? Mithros, Numair, the pair of you are utterly impossible."
"It's part of our charm," he replied, doing his best to look innocent.
"Just go away."
"As your Majesty commands."
As he left, Numair could hear Jon starting to laugh, and found himself grinning as he went in search of something to eat and a hot bath before preparing to enjoy the chance to sleep in his own bed without any desperate crises to disturb him.
Look, everyone, I've mostly got over my writer's block! And look, Daine gets to be the introspective one for once. It's about time she thought about things a bit. She and Numair have a lot to talk about over the next couple of chapters. I included some Numair/Alanna banter too, and then Jon got to learn - again - that these are not normal people. But really, what could he possibly offer either of them as a reward?
And why do men always have to slap each other when they hug? If I have any male reviewers, I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on this!
Anyway, the judging for the Knighthood of Ficship contest ends tomorrow, so when I next update this I'll hopefully know where my two stories were placed. Fingers crossed, eh? As always, please read and review, loves.