In which the author returns after an ABSURDEDLY long period of inactivity.  Author's note at the bottom.

Chapter 31 - Promises

            Ainé sighed wearily and collapsed onto the bench.  Dair couldn't keep from grinning; he sat beside her and draped an arm around her shoulders.

            "It wasn't that bad," he told her.

            Her eyes fluttered shut and her head leaned against his shoulder.  "Maybe not for you, but you're used to fancy dinners and parties.  I'm not."

            He chuckled and merely tightened his grip on her.  Dinner had been busier than usual, with acquaintances dropping by to offer their congratulations and his parents beaming at the end of the table.  He and Ainé and Dreana had agreed not to tell anyone– even his parents– the truth of what had happened the past few days, so all of court now were under the impression that Ainé was Dair's wife.

            His mother had been overjoyed; Reahl hadn't stopped smiling all evening.  Dair had the feeling that by making Ainé her daughter-in-law he'd somehow given his mother a much-wanted present.  Aron seemed proud of him, and Dair knew that part of it was in relief that his son was finally settling down.  He had been a bit nervous of his father's reaction, since Aron knew all of what Ainé really was, but Aron had simply hugged Ainé and welcomed her into the family.

            The approval of his parents was a weight off his mind.  He planned on turning this charade into reality as it was, and their acceptance cleared away one of the boulders in his path.  He already knew that Ainé and Dreana got along well– too well, really, for his peace of mind– but knowing that his parents also liked her was a relief.

            They sat in silence together, resting on the bench in the cool night air.  Dair finally found his voice.  "So how bad of a husband am I?"

            She laughed lightly.  "Oh, you're doing a pretty good job so far," she informed him, burrowing closer.

            "So when all of this is over, would you mind marrying me for real?"

            She stiffened at his words, and looked away.  "I can't."

            He had expected this, but it still stung.  Dair reached out and caught her chin, tilting it so she was forced to meet his eyes.  "Why not?"

            Her smile was bittersweet.  "Look at me, Dair.  I was a decent thief and lockpick who wasn't good enough to get into Paradise when I died.  I'm roughly the age of your great-grandmother.  I die, on average, once every four or five years, sometimes more.  I'm not the kind of girl you want to marry."

            "You're a Dragonborn," Dair responded, sliding his hand back into her hair.  "You're a decent person.  You care about the souls of the dead enough to carry salt around with you everywhere.  To me, you're barely twenty, and it wouldn't matter if you were a hundred.  It doesn't matter that you die and get reborn– it just matters that you're alive now.  I love you, Ainé."

            Liquid was pooling in her blue eyes, but she blinked the tears back.  "You shouldn't," she whispered.

            He leaned forward and kissed her softly.  "I do," he said.  One hand came up and traced the silver design she wore at her throat.

            She broke away and stood, eyes panicked.  "Dair, you can't," she said.  "It's not fair to you."

            "I don't care if it's fair or not!" he shouted, coming to stand before her.  "It's my decision to make.  Do you love me?"

            Her mouth opened to shout back a retort, then closed again.  Ainé crossed her arms and seemed to steel herself.  "No," she said.

            "Liar."

            "I can't, Dair.  After Rehin I promised I wouldn't love another man again.  It's not fair to you."  She uncrossed her arms and one hand came up to rub at her eyes.  "What if I marry you and die in forty years?  I'll come back, but you'll be an old man and I'll be young again– and you'll hate me for it.  And when you die, you'll go off to Paradise and we'll never see each other again since I'll never be able to join you there.  It's not fair to you, Dair.  I can't do that to you."

            Dair took her shaking hands in his.  "You're trying to protect me.  If that's not love, I don't know what is."

            "Dair–" Ainé started, but he bent and kissed her, long and hard.

            "You love me."

            "No.  I can't.  I won't let myself."

            She was in denial; Dair felt relief well up in him.  She did love him, but out of some misguided fear, wasn't letting herself.  "I want you to make me a promise, Ainé."

            She looked up at him suspiciously.  "What?"

            "If you decide you're wrong– if you decide that you do love me– you have to tell me.  Even," he added, seeing her mouth open, "if you won't marry me after you admit it.  You have to promise."

            She stared up at him, blue eyes dark and nearly unreadable, for a full minute.  Then, "Oath on it," she swore, tapping her chest where her dragon tattoo lay.  "If I change my mind, I'll tell you."

            "Good."  Dair wondered how long it would take; he wasn't a very patient man.

            They were silent for a long time.  "We should probably go to bed," he said at last.  "It's been a long day."

            Ainé had been moved into his rooms when his parents had found out they were supposedly married.  It was a bit awkward as they turned their backs on each other, trying to put their nightclothes on, and rather strange to climb into his bed together.  Dair released his light spell, and the room fell into darkness.

            Beside him, Ainé turned toward him, blankets whispering together, and reached a hand out for his.  "Dair?" she asked softly.

            "Hm?"

            "I can't love you, but I do like you."

            He felt his smile stretching, and pulled her close so that he could wrap his arms around her.  "Thanks." 

            They fell asleep still cradled together.

A/N:  I can't believe how long there was between posts.  Apologies.  This semester was hell on earth and I had so much stress.  Anyway, I should be returning to this story more soon, as it's nearly finished and I get to write a lot of final battle scenes.  Hopefully I will have a few more chapters up this winter break, and hopefully next semester will be a bit less stressful so there won't be a semester-long hiatus before this story is finished.

Reviews are appreciated.

-Keth