And Hardships Unnumbered

She didn’t know how long she’d been staring at the screen.

Her eyes followed the black lines her hand had drawn some time before, trying to make sense of the jumble. Every iteration she tried moving from her mind to the computer never seemed to come out right.

How many schematics had she gone through since starting this process? She couldn’t remember. All she knew at this point was it had become far too cumbersome to try and draw them on paper, having nearly filled a notebook with potential sketches. The computer was better, even if she could already feel her eyes twitching as she tried yet again to arrange the circuitry in a way that would work.

To some the illustrated mess might have looked like some sort of twisted puzzle, or even a maze. In some ways it was.

She’d seen a movie once, when she’d been younger, where a girl had to traverse a labyrinth to get to the center and save her baby brother. Right now she felt a certain kinship with that story, though she was designing her own labyrinth and it was her father trapped at the center she was trying to save.

The pathways, circuits, and wires of her father’s tech were familiar. She’d spent years learning them. But having to take the old and meld it safely with the new had been proving far harder than she’d imagined. She was building the maze up around herself and kept getting stuck along the way.

Once again she hit a dead end, cursed, and used the stylus to erase the work on the screen. Her floor might as well have been covered in crumpled up paper for all the progress she was making. She laid the stylus down with a little click, pressing her fingers against her eyes and trying to rub some life back into them. They were dry and tinged with red, aching slightly from nights with little sleep and too long staring at complicated pathways and bridges without blinking.

By this point, even stepping away from the computer didn’t help. She’d been seeing circuits in her sleep for the past several days.

A shaft of light shot across her desk, momentarily obscuring the screen, as the office door opened and Daniel entered. Had anyone else tried to come in right now she would probably have chased them away with a snarl. But not Daniel. She would have been a hermit by now if not for him. She’d been turning down invitations and other social engagements from friends so she could get more work done. Her exercise routine had suffered, and so had the time she’d been able to spend with Henderson. She felt guilty when she heard him whimpering by the door, trying to quietly beg for a walk, but she couldn’t leave the work undone.

She’d seen the downturn of her boyfriend’s lips when she crawled out of bed every morning, grabbed whatever food was at hand, and went right back into her office, sometimes without bothering to shower. So far he hadn’t said anything. He was worried, she could tell, but he knew how important this was to her.

So he’d started doing small things to make her take breaks, like threatening to unplug her computer if she didn’t come to bed or warning her that he’d start singing if she didn’t come out on a short walk with him. She knew him well enough to know he’d follow up on those threats and, despite a few glowers at the beginning, she’d given in. It was a somewhat convenient way to assuage her guilt over taking so long and it had been enough to keep her semi-human.

This time he came bearing something she could already tell smelled wonderful. Her stomach growled a lecture at her. Glancing over at the clock she winced when she realized how late it was. Somehow she’d managed to miss lunch, and it was nearing dinnertime now. She thought she’d eaten something that morning. Coffee for sure, at the very least.

Her desk was a mess, covered with papers and printed schematics with red pen marks all over them. Half dissembled implants were strewn among the mess along with a smattering of her tools.

Daniel made no comment about the state of the place, just gently shifting one of the piles aside to make room. The tray he’d brought bore a bowl of hearty stew, some fresh crusty bread, and a big glass of water in one corner where she could easily reach it. He didn’t seem like he was going to poke her to come eat with him tonight, and she was somewhat grateful for that.

She was hungry, but instead of going for the food she turned and slipped her arms around Daniel’s middle before he could leave, drawing him in and pressing her head against his stomach. He was warm, and smelled faintly of cinnamon, and at the moment she felt like she needed the contact more than she needed to fill her stomach.

“Long day?” He asked without hesitation, slipping an arm around her shoulders while his other hand brushed gently over her dark hair.

“At this rate I’m going to need a case of these damn implants to get something that works,” she said, her voice sounding bitter to her own ears.

“You’re not going to need that many, babe. You’ve got this. There’s probably no one else who could make this work.” He spoke with such an assured certainty. She wished she could match his faith in her.

“I’ve been banging my head against these schematics for days now, though. I feel like I’m so close but each time something is off and it just slips out of my grasp. Like I keep thinking I’ve finally found right the path but each time I hit a dead end and realize I’ve taken a wrong turn.”

“Wrong turn? Like in a maze?”

“Yes, it’s frustrating. Only it feels like I’m the one making the maze and I’m still getting lost in it. I know daddy is willing to be patient but I feel like I have a deadline.”

She let out a heavy sigh, and for a few moments Daniel just held her in silence. His fingers brushing through her hair helped soothe her frazzled nerves a bit, but not quite enough to allow her to relax.

“Sounds a bit like that movie. The one with the girl in the maze, and all the puppets, and the dancing baby.”

“You know that movie?” She asked, shifting a bit so she could look up at him, surprise on her face.

“I mean, I do have two sisters who were very fond of the leading man. Plus it’s a pretty cool movie. Though I admit I was more amused by the farting swamp at that age.”

His words drew a hearty laugh from her, momentarily alleviating the funk that had settled over her in the past few days. It felt good to laugh and she squeezed Daniel’s middle in a silent gesture of thanks.

He smiled down at her, then arched a brow in thought.

“If you’re trying to find your way through a maze, why not leave yourself some breadcrumbs?”

“Breadcrumbs?” She arched a brow.

“Yes, sort of like way-markers. Isn’t that what the girl in the movie did? She used lipstick marks on the floor so she knew were she’d been. You know, if you get a certain part of the way through and realize you’re lost, you wouldn’t have to go all the way back to the start.”

Robin’s brows furrowed. “I mean, I can’t just-”

But why couldn’t she? There had been parts of her schematics that had worked, at least up until a point. Why did she have to scrap everything each time and start all over? Had she worked herself up that much she’d been running headlong into the same wall over and over?

“Y-you might have something there. I kept getting so frustrated each time my designs weren’t working out like I wanted that I just scrapped them. I swear I had the delete key almost on autopilot. There were even aspects I kept returning to over and over in each iteration, so there must be merit in them.” She could even picture them now, shining bright like beacons. She might not be able to see over the walls, but they could at least let her know she was going in the right direction.

“There is always merit in your designs, babe. Sometimes it just takes a little while for you to realize when you’re in the thick of it.” He smiled down at her and she felt a warmth spread through her, drawing a soft smile of her own to her lips.

“Sometimes I do get caught up in things. Honestly, Daniel, what would I do without you?”

“Probably better,” he said, the hint of a grin quirking his lips as he teased.

For all of his desire to prove himself to everyone out there, he always surprised her with how humble he could be with her.

“Oh don’t you even start that with me, Daniel Barrett. Are you questioning my choice in men?” She tried to give him a sharp look, but it was quickly subsumed by laughter and this time she thought the lighter feeling would stick around.

“Thanks, babe,” she said, after her laughter had subsided, wanting him to know just how grateful she was for his help. He had the patience of a saint sometimes.

“Anytime.” Daniel leaned down and kissed the top of her head.

She reached up and took gentle hold of his collar, pulling him down so she could press a kiss to his lips, letting it linger a few moments before she let him go.

Daniel looked far happier than he had when he’d come in and, letting his fingers brush across her cheek, excused himself so she could get back to work.

She finally took up the food he’d left, feeling more energized than she had in days.

Thinking back she remembered the girl in that movie hadn’t made it to the center of that labyrinth on her own. She’d had companions that had helped support her along the way, that had remained steadfast even when everything seemed lost.

She felt grateful each day to have someone who cared for her so much, and who was going to help her save her father. It was only a matter of time until she got to the center and her father would be on his feet again. That would make it all worth it, in the end.

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Love and Light

“…ecent?”

“Crescent?”

Crescent’s ears perked up, starting slightly when his name broke through the reverie he’d been lost in. He’d been staring out the great windows in Seibel Abolan’s quarters, momentarily lost in the field of stars that lay in the void just beyond.

“I’m sorry,” he said, turning toward his host with a sheepish face. He felt his cheeks heat, though thankfully the color was obscured by his fur. “Sometimes I lose myself a bit, and I must say you have a fabulous view.”

Seibel handed him the cup of tea he’d been preparing, giving him a smile that told him without words that all was well. It was reassuring. When he thought about it, he realized it said something that he was comfortable enough with this man for him to have drifted off in the first place.

He took the cup with a soft thanks and watched as the grey-skinned man poured one for himself. He could see the appeal in a man like this; he was certainly attractive, despite what some would have called detractions in his bionics and the broken horn. Each movement Seibel made was smooth and deliberate, and he found it somewhat mesmerizing to watch.

He’d invited Seibel with them to the market, but this was the first time he’d really gotten to observe him without distraction, having followed Domerin’s suggestion to get to know him better. He’d been rather surprised when the man had invited him over for tea.

“I understand” Seibel said, his calm smile not faltering. “It doesn’t matter how old I get, the stars always fill me with wonder. My people say they’re the lanterns of the Divines, hung when the universe was new to light our way to the heavens.”

“That’s a beautiful sentiment,” Crescent said, a smile touching his lips. It was rather poetic, another surprise from this man. “Do you believe it?”

Seibel seemed so taciturn at times; he could picture him being the religious type. He lifted the steaming cup to take in the scent, appreciating that the gentle notes didn’t overwhelm his sense of smell.

“I did, when I was young, but not so much anymore.” The man’s voice was soft, tinged with a sadness Crescent hadn’t expected.

“Why not?”

A somewhat sad smile came to the man’s lips, and for a moment he was reminded of Domerin in his more melancholy moments.

“It’s a bit different when you’re flying past one of those lanterns in a spaceship, though it’s surprisingly still easy to believe they were made by the Divines. But, I turned from the Word because my people have used it as an excuse far too often to justify war. Our high priests send men and women out into horror and death from the safety of their temples, never knowing it themselves.”

“That’s awful!” Crescent shook his head, disbelief on his face. Domerin had always made sure he was in the trenches with his people; it was a core of who he was. What sort of cowards hid in a temple while their people died?

“It is. We’ve been involved in this conflict almost since the beginning. Countless lives have been lost chasing divine right. I used to buy into all that bullshit, do you believe that?”

The question caught him off guard, but the slight upward play at the corners of Seibel’s lips put him at ease.

“It’s easy to believe what everyone else around you does.”

“That it is. I signed up to fight as soon as I was old enough, and was off planet mired in mud before a year was out. I was good at it too, much like Domerin is. But war isn’t glorious and I saw no divinity in it. I fought for a very long time before it eventually chewed me up and spit me out like it does with everyone it touches, and I was left missing half my face. That’s how I met Domerin.”

Crescent stared at him a few long moments. Seibel was blunt, that was for sure, but he could appreciate that. “I’m sorry you had to go through all that. I’ve been quickly learning what war does to people too. Even when they’re not directly in it’s path, like Domerin. It’s hard to imagine fighting for so long, like you and he have. For my people life is hard, fast, and short. We had territory scuffles but I couldn’t even conceive of a war like this. It wasn’t until I met Domerin that I even knew anyone could live as long as his people do. Sometimes I forget he’s got centuries behind him and he’s seen things I can barely contemplate. I’ve always thought I must have looked like a baby to him when we first met.”

He looked down a moment, but when he met Seibel’s gaze again the man had that same calm smile on his lips.

“Many species like ours look down on shorter-lived races, and treat them like children, but Domerin would never have seen you that way. When you live as long as we do it’s easy to forget what it’s like to be young. The years to begin to blur together and you struggle to find meaning. But that is not how Domerin sees the world. He cannot, after what he’s been through, though I tend to think he would still be searching even if he’d never had his accident.”

Crescent couldn’t help but offer the other man a smile. At first glance Seibel looked like such a tight laced person, but he really wasn’t. He could see why he and Domerin got on so well.

“I feel the same way, actually. I used to worry a lot about what people thought of me. I didn’t even know what a toaster was when I was taken from my planet, let alone how to get along in the wider galaxy. But Domerin’s confidence in me helped me get past that; he was far more patient with me than I think most would have been. I owe a lot to him, and I’ll never forget that.”

Seibel’s smile edged up more toward a grin.

“From what he tells me, he owes a lot to you too. The Kattar must be more stubborn than all the other species in the universe to break through to that man.”

Unlike at dinner, Seibel’s comments and humor were more understated today, but there was a glint in his eye that suggested joking and Crescent took it for what it was.

“We are known for being recklessly determined sometimes,” he said, giving a hearty laugh over the rim of his cup. He hesitated a moment, then went on, his furry brows knitting slightly. “You… don’t mind what I am?”

Seibel gave him a quizzical look. “Whyever should I? I don’t care that you’re new to the wider galaxy, or that you have fur. You’re clearly a man of intelligence and Domerin speaks highly of you. I need no further assurances. Besides, I consider that you came to see me in your natural form to be a compliment. I imagine you keep that secret very close, outside of the Dragons, and it’s clear you trust Domerin’s word about me. It tells me a lot about you, that you don’t feel the need to hide yourself in front of me.”

The man’s words brought another small bout of heat to his cheeks, but he smiled in the wake of it.

“I do keep my secret close to the chest, but I know Domerin would never say I could change in front of you if he didn’t trust you. He’s been more supportive of what I am, and of my people, than I could ever have asked.”

“I hope you know I also extend the same support. If your people ever need a haven they are more than welcome here. I would be happy to host them. There are jobs aplenty and this is as safe a place as any to become acclimated to living among others.”

A great sense of warmth grew in Crescent’s chest as the man said that and for a moment he didn’t know what to say. He knew Domerin and Seibel shared many of the same values, but such an offer was something he’d never expected. The man had gained his respect, that was for sure.

“T-thank you so much!” He managed around a lump of emotion in his throat. “I’m frankly overwhelmed. Having seen your station I fully believe it would be a good place for the Kattar to learn. I’ll have to mention it to Domerin.”

“Please do. I think he’ll be open to the idea.”

“I think he will be too.” Crescent went a bit quiet then, still a bit overwhelmed. He took a long sip from his cup and used it to gather himself, looking over at Seibel as the man sipped from his own.

“You haven’t hidden yourself from me either, you know, and I appreciate that.” He went on when Seibel gave him a quizzical look.

“During the tour, during dinner, and at the market, I could tell you were being yourself. You weren’t trying to put on some show for me, or try to impress me, and most importantly you didn’t try to test me, to see if I was worthy of Domerin. You trusted him about me, like I trust him about you. I just wanted to thank you for that.”

Seibel seemed to get his meaning, a soft smile touching his lips that warmed his eyes and expression. “You don’t have to thank me. I was lucky, I got to know Domerin before he had up all the walls that he does now, but I know how high and thick they are. All joking about stubbornness aside, I know you must really care for him if you were willing to court him as you did. He deserves to be loved that way, by someone who genuinely cares about his well-being. If he thinks you worthy of his love, then I trust that you are.”

Crescent looked down a moment, taking that as great praise coming from someone like Seibel. He was so very glad Domerin had such a good friend in his life.

“I do. Really care about him, I mean. I know he’s been through a lot of things I can never really understand or fully relate to but I love him no matter what. The things he went through are a part of his life and I would never try to deny part of who he is. But, I have to say, I’m really glad he has someone like you in his life. Someone who understands in a way I can’t. He- told me the two of you got each other through some really rough times, and I’ll be forever grateful for that, as I’m sure he will be too.”

“He was there for me when I needed him too,” Seibel said, looking across the space at him, something slightly hard to read in his gaze. “But, to be honest… I don’t know that I could have ever given him what you can. Even what you and Robin did for him after he lost his bionics. I wish I’d been there, but I don’t know if I could have kept him afloat to see the other side.”

Seibel trailed off, but Crescent got the feeling he had more to say, and so waited patiently until he went on.

“Domerin and I… we both walked through hell and came out the other side. That changes a person. In our case we were both broken in different ways, and I still do not consider myself to be whole. Sometimes something is taken from you, and you never get it back. I was already on the battlefield while Domerin was still young, while he lost a loved one long before I did. We understand each other’s pain in a way that doesn’t need to be spoken with words, but I do not know that Domerin and I can heal each other. Two broken halves can come together and create something, but there are still always going to be leaks. We both understood that too.”

Seibel’s words were spoken so calmly, but they held such weight, threatening to bear down on him. But he’d learned from Domerin that you had to roll with it, even if you couldn’t carry it fully by yourself.

“I never thought I could simply swoop in and fix all of Domerin’s problems,” Crescent said softly. “I wasn’t even trying to fix him. I just wanted to be with him and help make him happy in whatever way I could. If that meant just sitting with him when he was hurting then that was what I’d do. Over time, things started to get better. They aren’t perfect and there are plenty of bad days. There will always be cracks and imperfections, but that’s just part of life. If I can use what I have to help stem the leaks and close those cracks, I will see it done. I happily give Domerin all my love and I consider myself a lucky man that he gives me his in return.”

He worried for a moment he’d said too much, offended his host, but the ghost of a smile touched Seibel’s lips, and it grew after a few moments.

“You know, I can see what Domerin sees in you. You’re like the lanterns that hang in the vast darkness of space. There are followers of the Word who eschew war and those who use the stars as excuses to sate their own agendas. They say the great lanterns were given to us by the Divines to show us the way to devotion, great deeds, and, mostly importantly of all, to love. That was to be the Word we spread. Perhaps you are Domerin’s lantern, here to lead him out of the darkness toward a brighter day. I’d like to believe that, anyway.”

Once again Seibel managed to leave him speechless. He hadn’t been sure what to think when Domerin had first introduced them and when he’d revealed that they’d been lovers. But he could tell Seibel was a good man. He would know it blindfolded and he could understand why Domerin felt such a kinship to him. He thought he understood now why he said Seibel was like another part of him.

His love cared very deeply for this man and he knew now he could never sever what the two of them shared. If Domerin wanted him to help share his joy with Seibel, he would do it. He felt comfortable welcoming him into their relationship, to try and help the ache both men seemed to feel so keenly to go away, even if only for a time.

He didn’t know much about Seibel’s beliefs or if what he said was true, but he could be their lantern, if they needed him to be. Love was something he’d found with Domerin, and he had more than enough to go around.

“So would I, my friend,” he said, giving Seibel a genuine smile. “So would I.”

Purgatory

A sudden shock of pain tore Seibel from the gentle, dark abyss he had been floating in for who knew how long. A low groan sounded from a battered throat, and as his eyes fought to open the world swam in front of his vision, leaving him feeling dizzy. Not that there was much to see, wherever he was.

What had happened? He remembered resting, someone calling for help. Then… Oh god. The men had grabbed him, then there’d been nothing but the wind pouring around his ears and sharp pain with each jolt and bump of their bike. He must have passed out, as he had no idea where he was now.

The edges of his vision were murky, though he realized with some relief that it was only because of the dim lighting in the room, instead of some damage to his precious eyesight. The sharpest edge of the pain had began to dull, though now it radiated through his body, not offering much respite.

He focused on his breathing, trying to ease it from quick and shallow to something slower. As the moments passed he was keenly aware of the sweat soaking his skin, the uncomfortable heat crawling through his body, and what felt like something else sticky under his shirt.

He didn’t have much time to contemplate it, however, as a figure leaned into view, half blocking out what little light he could see. Blinking up at it did little to help.

“Wh-”

“Not much of a doctor, are you, running out of your safe place at the first sign of someone in trouble? Pretty stupid, if you ask me.”

The voice was familiar, but didn’t immediately register. He said nothing, trying to order his mind.

The flat of a hand connected sharply with the side of his face, momentarily chasing the thoughts from his head, leaving a painful sting in its wake.

“What are you, deaf? I asked you a question.” The figure leaned down over him, taking a hold of the front of his shirt and giving him a sharp shake. The pain it caused his still healing body drew another soft groan from his lips.

“The hell kind of people does Lorcasf surround himself with? Are you made of glass? I swear to-”

“He doesn’t look all that good, boss.” A second voice, far more timid, rose up. Its owner came into sight, leaning down over him. These hands were far gentler as they undid the top button of his shirt and drew the fabric aside, revealing the bandages that lay underneath. “I think he might be hurt.”

“The hell?” The first figure brushed the second aside and half-ripped his shirt open. In the light he could see the face twist and contort. Hands took hold of him, roughly pulling his shirt off his shoulders as he was suddenly turned onto his side.

He cried out as his wounds roared to life anew, his vision swimming. It hurt to be in this position, but they held him firmly still, twisting his body as someone began poking and prodding across his back.

“Look at this, Samon, he’s covered all over in lashes.” Fingers pushed against his bandages, inflaming one of the lash marks Domerin had given him. He bit back a cry.

“Seems an odd state for a doctor to be in, boss.” A calloused touch ran almost lightly over exposed skin, across one of the faded scars on his chest. This wasn’t Domerin’s careful touch, but he hadn’t the strength to pull away from it.

The two of them talked over him, as if he weren’t there, his pain growing by the moment. But, instead of running from it, he pulled his mind in, focused on it. He’d learned this precious lesson under Domerin’s care; how to use pain, to let it help him. He wrapped himself in it like a blanket, honing in on every moment, every detail he could catch.

He focused on their voices, and he finally recognized the first one, and just who he was dealing with. Zemo. The very man Domerin had been hunting. A sinking feeling settled into the pit of his stomach. All Domerin’s concerns had come to naught, as he’d been foolish enough to leave the caravan, practically throwing himself into danger.

“-eird, boss, he’s gone all quiet. Is he okay?” The second voice sounded somewhat concerned as he came back to the moment. The pair turned him, laying him down finally. The floor here was hard, but cold, and that helped numb his now half-exposed back somewhat.

Zemo leaned over him, eyes fixed on him. “He’s still breathing. But what do you know? It looks like good old Domerin Lorcasf likes to beat his people. I knew there had to be something wrong with that bastard. Looks like he’s been beating this one for a good long while, now hasn’t he?”

The man clearly expected an answer but he remained silent. He saw no reason to give this mad jackal anything more than he’d already gotten.

Zemo frowned, and laid the palm of one hand atop his shoulder. Then he pressed down hard, grinding the heel of his hand into his skin. Fire blossomed inside him and he cried out before he could stop himself, but even that didn’t make the man stop. He kept the pressure on for several more seconds before pulling back.

“I expect you to answer me when I ask you a question, old man.”

His body trembled, but not out of fear. This was too much, and he knew it. Domerin had been right that he couldn’t handle more than resting. But despite that he turned his eyes to Zemo and just narrowed them. This man was not Ilinir, not Domerin, was no agent of the faith, and had no authority over him. He was dirt under his heels as far as he was concerned.

Zemo let out a growl of frustration and thumped a fist into the center of his chest, not hard enough to take his breath but enough to aggravate his wounds. And he didn’t stop there. With a look of grim glee the man jabbed fingers into his bandages, took hold of his shoulders and squeezed, slapped his back. The moments stretched into what felt like a small eternity, as the pain threatened to overwhelm him.

Screams eventually tore from his lips, unable to stop them, his vision darkening until he was sure he’d pass out. But he still refused to give the bastard anything more, and would never beg for mercy.

“Boss, wait! Wait!” The other voice called out, sounding half panicked now, but fearful too. “H-he’s old, boss, remember? We need him. Lorcasf won’t give you what you want if you can’t give him back his doctor. Look at him, I think he’s probably learned his lesson.”

That, finally, seemed to calm down his captor enough, though Zemo was huffing and puffing, clearly trying to get his rage under control. For a moment he looked as if he wanted to start beating his companion instead, but he finally stilled and his expression became cool. A look of relief passed across the face of the man he’d called Samon.

“At least the old fool knows who he’s dealing with now, don’t you, doctor? You can see just how much Lorcasf appreciates what he’s got if he treats you like this. But, you know, you don’t have to go back to him. You don’t have to go back to being his slave, and whatever it is he does to you. I can take care of you too.”

Seibel was awash in agony, not even having the strength to narrow his eyes. He laid still, focusing on his breathing once again, and trying not to fall into whatever dark pit wanted to swallow him up.

Zemo, at least, seemed to realize this and he pulled to his feet with a dismissive huff.

“Just something to think about, old man. Lorcasf has brainwashed you, but it doesn’t have to be that way. You have other options.”

The two men stepped away, and he heard the thud of a door, and the turning of a lock, though in his state there was no chance he would be going anywhere. But the sound of it couldn’t help but remind him of another lock, another chamber, a different pain.

No matter how much it hurt, the pain Domerin bought him was always welcome. He reveled in the sharpness in the moment, and the ache that he carried around with him afterward was like a warm blanket. It was soothing, familiar, comforting.

Not a day ago his god had turned his eyes upon him, and brought him back to his truth path. Now, some godless heathen had despoiled that divine pain, had tried to make a mockery of it. It filled him with anger, and it hurt in a completely different way. The physical pain had started to fade to aches, but it still hurt inside.

What would his god say to this perversion of his penance?

He closed his eyes and Domerin’s face filled his vision. Despite his torment, thinking of him helped to ease the tension in his body somewhat. He thought back over their recent session, how harsh Domerin was and how gentle in turns. His caresses, the bite of his knives, his soft breath against his ear, fingers tight in his hair. It was all one, hard and soft, dark and light, pain and pleasure.

He thought of the man binding his wounds, tending to him so carefully, carrying him to rest. It was everything his faith spoke of to build a person into a better version of themselves. Zemo’s harsh treatment only made that all the more clear to him. How could any man hope to achieve the perfection he had already experienced?

The realization soothed him somewhat and his breathing became easier.

Domerin would come for him. He knew it as much as he knew the sun would rise. He would not allow a member of his caravan to be stolen away like this, not by the very man he’d been hunting.

He sent a silent prayer to Ilinir to watch over and deliver him. He would ask forgiveness, if it came to that, but for the moment he finally allowed oblivion to take him for a time, welcoming its sweet embrace.

Rude Awakening

Crescent had retired to his quarters not long after the two masters had left the gathering. Usually he looked forward to night-time, but this day had left him tired and more than a little confused. Travel was new enough but the obvious tension between Domerin and Master Abolan had been rubbing unpleasently against him all night, and he found he tossed in bed, instead of falling into his usual easy sleep.

Ire for the guild master was not new, but perhaps it had been the naked way their host had called him out that troubled him so. Either way, he couldn’t let himself dwell on it. They were in for a full day tomorrow and he would be in no shape for anything if he didn’t get some sleep.

He didn’t know how long he was out for before he started awake, every danger instinct inside of him flaring to life. His eyes went wide, straining against the gloom of the room for any speck of light. His hand shot down, quick as a snake striking, closing instantly around the blade he’d tucked between the mattress and bed frame.

Someone was here, and for an assassin that meant a quick reaction, or a quick death.

He swung as he caught motion out of the corner of his eye, though his blade met nothing but empty air. His blood was pumping now, breath quick, eyes darting back and forth as he searched for the intruder. It took everything inside of him not to let the feline erupt from below his skin.

He drew in a few breaths, trying to calm himself. It wouldn’t help if he lashed out wildly, and so he stilled, feeling out whoever had intruded. He could almost feel eyes upon him, though he couldn’t yet pinpoint where they were coming from.

He crouched, ready to spring, when there was a soft click.

Light flooded the room, momentary blinding him in the sudden brightness, as the overhead light came on.

He blinked, on the defensive, but no attack came.

When he could finally see again his eyes widened when he realized who was standing across from him, and for a moment he stared, dumbfounded.

“Master Abolan?”

He was confused and shaken, nearly vibrating from the lingering adrenaline. He was very keenly aware that if the master assassin had wanted him dead he wouldn’t have woken up at all. That bothered him, more than he wanted to admit. But if attack wasn’t on his mind why hadn’t he roused him with the traditional signaling touch?

“Crescent, isn’t it?” The man asked, arching a brow, sounding as if he were reading the mail rather than standing in his room in the middle of the night.

He shifted in bed, drawing the covers a bit closer around him. He was the furthest from shy but for once was thankful he hadn’t slept naked. The question didn’t fool him for an instant. This man was well aware of who he was. He willed himself to breathe and returned the knife to it’s place, taking a moment to compose himself before speaking.

“That’s right, master. Is there something I can do for you?”

“Yes, there is. I must speak with you. Now.”

It wasn’t a request, and he didn’t dare argue, not after seeing how unforgiving the man had been that day.

He would move to get up, but the other man held up a hand, and he paused.

“Right where you are is fine.” He would take a seat in a plush chair that rested near the bed, watching him with that single eye of his. It was impossible to tell what he might be thinking, and he sat very still, as if still expecting an attack at any moment.

When it came, it was not in the shape he expected.

“You’re good, young man. I was only in the room a few minutes before you sensed I was there. Fast too.”

But not fast enough. The unspoken words hung in the air between them. He wasn’t sure what to say, but the older man went on.

“But, you were not raised in the guild.”

“How-”

“You’re much too old to be such a recent graduate.”

That was true, but he got the feeling there was more to it than that. Why would Master Abolan be here otherwise?

“Yes, quite good.” The man went on, as if he were talking to him. “It’s not easy for those raised outside of the guild to make it through the training, let alone to excel. But then again, the former master always did have a very good eye for people. I don’t think he would have made you the offer he did unless he was sure you were up to the challenge.”

Crescent quickly clamped his jaw, and set his face to its most neutral, not letting anything through. He didn’t know what the master was on about, but there was only one person left who knew about that deal, and she wouldn’t have talked.

“Master, I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re talking about. Is it possible you have the wrong room?” He tried his best to sound innocent, confused, hoping not to offend.

But Seibel didn’t seem put off, instead a knowing smile touching his lips.

“I understand your hesitancy, but lying will do you no good here. I know you made a deal with the former master, where he offered to buy your contract if you promised to help Master Lorcasf. I knew you’d taken the deal, but lost track of you after that. I must admit surprise that you made it through your training at all, let alone so quickly.”

Crescent bit his tongue. He didn’t want to speak of this but the the other man had details he shouldn’t, unless perhaps the former master had told him about it. One of the masters had whispered that the old man hated Domerin because he’d been appointed heir instead, and stolen his chance to be the guild leader. But if that were true, why would the old master have told him in the first place?

He supposed it didn’t matter right now. Seibel was looking at him expectantly, and he didn’t want to get to the point where the man started demanding.

“I didn’t ask for any special favors, if that’s what you’re suggesting. I worked and fought just as everyone else did.”

“I’m sure you fought very hard, but that doesn’t mean you didn’t benefit from the desires of the old master either.”

“If I did it was indirectly. With all due respect, I know guild law as well as you, master, and I swore loyalty to it when I joined.”

“As do we all,” the man returned, his tone sharp, holding a slight warning edge. “But that stops no one from also looking after themselves.”

Crescent bristled under the not so subtle accusation. He again willed himself to breathe, and shifted back to a tactic he’d used many a time back in his old life

“I’m afraid I’m a bit lost, Master Abolan. May I ask what it is you’re getting at?”

He infused it with as much innocent curiosity as he could. Unlike the nobles and johns back at the brothel, the man across from him clearly wasn’t taken in by the act, but if he wanted to accuse more he was going to have to come right out and say it. He was gambling, but didn’t think the man wanted to go that far.

A tense few seconds passed in silence, each of them looking at each other. Crescent refused to look away, refused to cow or crack.

Finally, after what seemed like a small eternity, Seibel smiled.

“Nothing at all, young man; merely pointing out facts. It’s good to know you’re so dedicated to the laws. We don’t have enough selfless assassins like you.” Though, by his tone, Crescent didn’t get the feeling the other man much believed him.

“As you say, Master Abolan.”

The older man regarded him silently for a few moments more, though it was impossible to gauge his thoughts.

Finally the man smiled again, but it didn’t reassure him, instead making him clutch the covers a bit more tightly. He was sure he’d seen the feline smile like that, just before pouncing, only this time he was the prey. It was not a comfortable place to be, not when the man after him was so high ranking.

“Well, this has been a most illuminating discussion, but I’m sure you’re eager to get some rest. You’ve a long day ahead.” He shifted, moving to get up.

“Are you going to tell Master Lorcasf?”

Seibel stopped at the sudden question. The way his grey eye bored into him made him wish he hadn’t spoken. He couldn’t charm or sweet talk this one, and that made things all the harder.

“Now why would I do that, Crescent? I’ve no reason to tell him, do I?” The man arched a brow, but a chill went down Crescent’s spine. Another word hung in the air, unspoken but ready to drag him down.

Yet. He had no reason to tell him yet.

For the first time in a long while, true fear bloomed in his chest. He was sure everything would be over if Domerin found out the truth. The man would never forgive him for that and, worse, it would break him. No matter how strong he acted, or how much he tried to avoid it, Domerin was, in some ways, more fragile than he would admit.

Master Abolan hated Domerin, and he would not allow him, or anyone, to use their relationship to hurt him. It was only knowing the old man would mop the floor with him that kept him in place when all his instincts told him to attack.

“No, Master Abolan,” he said, trying to keep his voice level, “there’s nothing he need know.”

“Very good. I’ll try my best to see that he doesn’t find out. I look forward to the rest of your visit, Crescent. It should prove to be… enlightening.”

7 Deadly Sins – Gluttony

You feel it, don’t you?

The voice was impossible.

One moment it boomed like thunder, shaking the space around him and making his ears ring. He was sure his bones would be shattered to pieces if the sound lasted much longer.

The next moment the voice was a whisper, an intimate breath of wind against the nape of his neck that made him want to shiver. Each word slithered over his skin like disembodied fingers sliding up and down the length of his body.

And for a moment, somehow, it was both, though he could not fathom how that could possibly be.

Even in the silence that followed he could still feel the after-echoes, the words lingering in his mind like ghosts.

But even those were swallowed up by what followed, by a feeling even greater, and more terrible. He could not deny the question put to him. His stomach rumbled and ached, his traitor of a body calling out for food. In all his years he’d never been made to go hungry, had never known a day without the bounty of the farms and jungle at his fingertips. Never knew a night without the sweet taste of wine on his lips. But he also knew instinctively what hunger felt like now, as if his stomach would fold in on itself. The emptiness, the fatigue, the sheer force of need. It was as if he hadn’t eaten in weeks or, he realized, as the warm coils around him tightened, a millennia.

He was going to die if he didn’t eat something. Of this he was sure.

Only, he realized with growing horror, he couldn’t die.

He was immortal. No, the god inside of him was immortal, and he would live so long as that god made use of his body. He was sure it would leave him to suffer the gnawing hunger for all eternity. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t his mind; his stomach still felt the pain and the desire. The god hadn’t feasted in so long, and so neither had he. The sweet fruits and succulent meats he’d glutted himself on for his last meal seemed a lifetime ago, though it had been less than a day. The god’s hunger wasn’t just inside of him, it was him, and he was powerless to separate himself from it.

“I do,” he muttered.

It was too much, and he cried out. He felt invisible fingers sinking into his mind, peeling his thoughts back like banana leaves. They sifted though his memories, nibbling at the edges of his last meal, draining the color and taste from them. Before it went too dark, however, the feeling stopped, and he felt a wave of distaste wash over him.

It is as ash. Your food does not satisfy my hunger.

For a few moments the presence went still, letting the hunger grow and fill the void until it overwhelmed him, and he couldn’t help but wonder if this was some sort of punishment. It hurt, more than any wound could have, as if a pit had opened in the very core of his body.

He would eat anything at this point to make the pain go away, anything at all to stop the terrible hunger. He would gratefully gnaw a leather sandal strap, suck the skin from rotted fruit, gobble raw meat upon the ground.

The being inside of him shifted, practically purring at the last of his thoughts. A single phantom finger slid down his cheek, warm and dry, moving so smoothly he almost didn’t feel it.

Do not worry, my little vessel. I would not have us eat off the ground.

The words were like a gentle wind through dry grass, announcing the coming of a stalking jaguar. It sent a sickly shudder through him. It was a promise, he had no doubt.

What was more concerning though was that his body did not mirror that shiver. Up until now he’d been content enough to stay still but now he tried to move his arms and, while his mind registered that the motion should have occurred, nothing outside happened. It was the same with his legs, his fingers, even his eye lids. He started to panic, trying to reach out for something to grasp onto, but there was nothing, as if he were floating below the black surface of the nearby lake. He drew in several quick breaths, forcing his breathing to even out, even if his heart thrummed away in his chest.

Strangely enough, he could look out through his own eyes and observe the world around him. Even as he struggled in the nothing, he found himself looking into the large polished glass set into the wall of his room. His lips pulled back in a predatory smile, exposing his teeth. His brown eyes flashed, quick as a snake striking from the brush. His fingers ran deftly through his long raven hair, teased over his cheeks, and brushed across his lips. He looked pleased with himself, but he felt none of it, not his skin, or silky hair, nor the press of the fine cloth draped over his slender form.

He was trapped in his own body, tied, unable to do anything but watch and feel whatever the god wanted him to feel. Surely he would go mad like this, stuck amid the smothering heat and hunger.

The great serpent moved his legs. Down they went, through hallways, and stairwells, to the special ritual chamber that lay in the belly of the temple. He’d been there before, and longed to feel the smooth hewed stone, cool under his feet and the sense of mild dampness that seeped in below. The senses were there, vaguely, but he wondered if the god even felt such things. They were small feelings, perhaps inconsequential to one so grand. The god seemed to need powerful feelings and sensations to take notice of them. Always needing more and more.

The chamber they entered was small but empty, though as he approached he caught a whiff of the burnt charcoal and reed smell that usually clung to the high priest. The man had been here, recently no doubt, to prepare the room. As far as the man knew he was gone, and it was only the god that now walked the halls. No doubt he was eager to serve in all ways, pleased his ritual had been a success.

All the candles were in their proper places, bathing the room in flickering light, and flowers and cuttings from the surrounding jungle festooned nearly every surface. But their sweet scents were completely overpowered by another, far more sickly smell, that he didn’t have to stretch himself to catch.

In the center of the room, on a small altar, sat the great obsidian cauldron, its surface polished to a near perfect black glass, with sharp edges that could cut the careless. He knew what it was for, had seen it used so many times, but it seemed today it was all for him. It was filled, near to overflowing, with what the god had come here to find; recently harvested hearts. It only made sense that the god made flesh would need to feed, and there had been plenty of stock to pull from.

This. This is what we have hungered for, is it not?

They approached. Steam rose from the pile, and he could almost feel the warmth radiating from it without even touching it. The air smelt of iron, like the edge of a sword. The offering should have sickened him, turned his stomach. But, with a growing dread, all he felt was that ravishing hunger, washing away all other thoughts. It was exactly what he hungered for.

He flew forward, plunging his hands into the pile of meat and, for a moment, he couldn’t tell if he’d guided the move or if the god had. In that moment it didn’t matter; they were one step closer to what they wanted. He pushed deeper into the slickness, the heat inside feeling near enough to burn his hands, but he didn’t stop until his arms were sunk in to the elbows, and there they rested.

The smell of blood and offal assaulted him, but his stomach rumbled pleadingly, and he could feel his lips drawing upward in a pleased smile.

The god reveled in the heat, the sensation, the knowledge that all these hearts had been torn free for him. The serpent wanted and so he wanted.

His hands closed over a pair of hearts and drug them free from the rest. His arms were painted red that smeared over the pale linens he wore, but that was of little matter. He lifted one of the hearts and stuffed it into his mouth, biting out a huge chunk. Warm wetness filled his mouth, but he felt no disgust. He tore and bit, and pulled the flesh away, and swallowed in one great gulp. And for a moment that impossible hunger eased, and he held a glimmer of hope that this could, finally, sate him.

The feast began. He ate until his body was half covered in red. Ate until the heat began to cool. Ate until he felt as if he were going to burst from the inside. How his stomach could contain this much he would never know. But it soothed the horrible ache, and suffused him with a sense of strength and power that was not his own. He felt powerful, invincible, ready to strangle the world in his coils.

Through it all he was aware of being both apart from himself but still there, as if someone had lashed him to his own body, and drowning in the desires and being of another, near the threat of losing himself. He knew, deep down, this was how his life was going to be from now on. Watching every moment, but helpless to change it. He may as well have died. That, he thought, might have been a kindness.

Finally the god finished and rested for a time. He took some small comfort from the hearts filling his insides. But as the time passed he began to realize, with a great dismay, that the hunger began to creep back inside of him. He gave a cry and felt the god stir.

An amused chuckle sounded right against his ear.

The hunger never really dies. That is the fate of a god. A fate you now share. But there is power to be had. You will see.

Now that I possess flesh to walk in I will feed, and drink the life blood of this world. There are not enough beating hearts in this world, on any world, to sate my hunger. Not forever. But this world has mortals aplenty to appease it.

Again invisible fingers slid over him, dry and soft, and no matter what he did he could not escape them. He shuddered.

Oh my little vessel, this is just the beginning. I have so many wonderful things to show you. It will be truly glorious. 

Ruhk – Eye of the Beholder

Describe the same character twice. Once to hate, once to love.

“Well… he might just be Vahlok.”

The silence after Pantriss’ declaration fell into his stomach like a lead weight, and he felt a moment of pure fear like he hadn’t in so very many years.

The eyes of her mother, who had not minutes before been looking at him with interest, turned hard and cold. He could feel other eyes, around and behind him, do the same. It was all he could do not to flee the room right then and there. Already his eyes were quickly scanning the surrounding area, mind furiously working to come up with an escape plan. It wouldn’t be easy, unarmed, but he’d faced worse odds.

His muscles tensed, ready to move, but stopped when he caught motion out of the corner of his eye, as Ves came to stand at his side. In her wake the rest of the Immortals melded out of the crowd, coming to his defense despite the possible danger to themselves. Even Pantriss, though part of him couldn’t understand why, after what she’d done.

He didn’t even fully relax once the danger had passed, and everyone had gone back to what they’d been doing. The room didn’t feel welcoming anymore and adrenaline ran through him, dancing like tendrils of lighting through his veins.

This was exactly what he’d feared when he’d agreed to come to this party, if it hadn’t happened in the exact way he’d thought. He’d been sure someone would recognize him, know him for what he truly was, and hell would finally break loose. Everything would be different when his precious anonymity had been stripped away. But he hadn’t expected his own teammate to out him. Decades of hiding, of watching every step he took, gone in the span of a few breaths. Despite Aaran reassurances, it was impossible not to feel exposed, trapped.

He stalked away from Pantriss, needing to move, to calm himself. After a round of thanking his fellows he ended up at the bar, downing a pair of drinks without hardly breathing. Anger swelled despite himself, and it was all he could do to keep himself from rounding on Pantriss. It hadn’t been her place to expose him like that. He would have been more than happy to leave Vahlok dead and buried, forever.

But that was Pantriss, wasn’t it? Always speaking up even when what they needed most was stealth and subtlety,  hammering her way through problems like a battering ram. She had no sense of why it could be better to lie and avoid the fall out. Sometimes her sense of honor and stubborn devotion drove him half mad. How the two of them had ever gotten on this long, he didn’t know. They were practically day and night.

It was only his danger sense that kept him calm in those moments. If he lashed out it would only confirm everything Pantriss’ mother already thought about him. He’d just be happy when this night was over.

The way his friends had come to his defense had helped calm him somewhat, and he took comfort from their nearby presence. Now that he’d had a chance to think about it he wondered how long had it been since he’d been able to say he had friends. No one else would ever had stood up for him like that. But they were only doing what he would have done for any of them.

Part of him had expected Pantriss to be the outlier, to turn on him when her mother did. She was still young and he’d always been able to tell she tried her best to impress her mother, and live up to her legacy. That much he could understand. Dranfel society was all about glory and great deeds, songs sung, and epics penned. He’d never been much the fan of all that, happy enough to leave it behind. But not everyone had that option.

Despite her apparently boundless confidence, he didn’t think Pantriss fully realized the extent of the amazing things she’d done in her life. From the very first day she’d impressed him, even as parts of her had driven him a bit crazy. Even after everything she was still trying to distinguish herself, outside of the shadow of her mother. Why wouldn’t she have left him and joined the rest that would have been happy to toss him in jail for the rest of his days? Tying herself to him would only ruin her chances.

But Pantriss had been no less quick to defend him than any of the others. She might have exposed him, but it hadn’t been done with malice. And, even more importantly, she hadn’t left him alone afterward. She’d never been the sort to leave her friends behind, no matter the situation, or how dangerous it was for her. Much like himself, she would cross galaxies to save a friend in need.

He’d found his center by the time she found him, and sat down to talk.

He knew, deep down, that he wasn’t going to be able to run away from his past forever, as much as he might have wanted to. Perhaps she’d done him a favor in tearing the bandage off now.

“Meet me in the memorial gardens in an hour.”

Her words settled into his chest, and he felt a sort of warmth suffuse him that he knew had nothing to do with the alcohol.

Not a half hour earlier he probably would have said no. Now he just nodded.

Ruhk walked the quiet hallways, part of him wondering if he was making the right decision, going to meet Pantriss in the gardens.

He’d never quite known what to make of her. Despite his former position he’d never particularly been the shining pinnacle of the Dranfel race. He’d just gone along with things, driven forward by his own moral code, letting his skill and strength speak for themselves. They’d brought him renown, titles, his position. But he’d always felt it was just dressing and, outside of his council glaive he hadn’t taken anything reminiscent of his old life off Xarzha.

Whereas he’d always been something of a outlier, Pantriss, in many ways, exemplified everything Dranfel. From her style of battle, to her music, the way she told stories, to her unwillingness to budge. It had screamed of everything he’d left behind, and he’d done all he could to put distance between them, at first. He’d been so sure she would never have understood.

But then he’d gotten to know her. The way she never compromised on her morals reminded him of himself. Her propensity for truth had been eye-opening. It was almost refreshing to someone like him, who lived far too long in the shadow. He’d almost forgotten what it felt like to be himself. Her light burned away the darkness, and eroded all the barriers he’d put up around himself.

Wasn’t she always the first to admit when she might not be able to do something? The first to throw herself into danger? The first to stand up for those would could not? Pantriss had her faults, but didn’t everyone? He hardly lacked his own.

He paused at the gates to the garden, a wall of tall hedges keeping him from seeing inside. He didn’t need to, though, to know that Pantriss would already be there, waiting for him.

What was she thinking right now? What would she say? There was only one way to find out.

Even so, he hesitated. There was still time to turn around and run. Everyone was still busy at the party. He could grab his glaive, a few other things, and be gone from here forever. He’d disappear again, just like last time. A new name, a new profession, a new life. He didn’t know what was going to happen from here on out. He didn’t who might be, even now, coming for his head.

Did he have the right to put Pantriss in that sort of danger?

But he already knew the answer. She was an adult, and a strong one. It wasn’t his place to make that decision for her, nor did he want to. If, one day, she decided he wasn’t worth it, that was something he’d deal with when the time came.

Yes, he could have run, but he didn’t want to anymore. He’d never thought this rag tag group would be where he’d find himself, where he’d find family, and more. He’d be damned if he denied what he felt when Pantriss’ face filled his mind.

He was a seasoned warrior who had slain Qu’ren. He’d fought by the side of Falkrid himself, was a veteran of so many battles. He’d left his entire life behind, carrying the weight and memory of a planet full of dead. Why, then, was he more afraid of walking through that hedge than he was of just about anything he’d ever done?

He drew in a few breaths, and and thought of Pantriss’ courage. Her spark, her light, called to his own and he felt his resolve firm. Squaring his shoulders, he stepped forward into the garden, to meet whatever future awaited.

If he was lucky, it would be side by side with the dranfel he loved.

7 Deadly Sins – Lust

Kevin moaned, as a pair of large, calloused hands moved over his body, fingers sliding through his fur. They touched with a skill borne of familiarity, and he responded in kind, running his sharp claws with care over taut, tanned skin. They left soft red lines in their wake, but that only drew out a pleased sound from his partner. The man above him hovered close, pinning him deliciously to the bed with his bulk. His skin radiated heat like a furnace, and he welcomed it, wanting it to consume him even as the heat in his blood did the same from the inside.

There were few who could truly match him here. His desire was voracious, and he made sure to give just as much as he took. Most fizzled out too soon, but Martin Amman was not one of them.

Kevin knew what he was. His species were impulsive at the worst times, landing them into all sorts of trouble they needed to get themselves out of. Luckily, most of the time, they had the wits to do so. But on a new world, interacting with other species, that didn’t always work. You couldn’t use your quick wits to mend a fractured relationship or make up for hurting someone you loved.

No, he was quickly learning that sort of thing took exactly the opposite. Introspection wasn’t something he was known for but he’d done perhaps more of it in the past few months than he ever had in the rest of his life. Little had he known that impulsiveness could take many forms.

He hadn’t been with anyone since Domerin had broken up with him and he’d foolishly decided that he should try to be more like Sesha. Though he’d been sincere in devoting himself to Domerin, his mind had been screaming with need after little more than a week. He didn’t honestly know how other people did it. Desire was something in his blood he could not deny; a base lust that coursed through the very DNA of his species.

His people were wanderers, but he’d found someone he wanted to come home to, someone he would have been willing to fight his lust for. He considered himself lucky Domerin didn’t ask that of him, giving him the freedom to seek out other lovers to sate himself. He hadn’t even needed to think before choosing Martin as the first to return to. The other man had been thrilled when he’d approached him about resuming their association, but first he’d forced him to sit down, so they could get some things straight before he’d even consider sleeping with him again. He’d been more relieved than he’d realized when Martin had agreed to his new terms. At least he knew the other man wasn’t going to bother Domerin any longer.

And so he’d finally let free the lighting that coursed through his veins, reveling as Martin took him to the edges of madness and over, into the abyss. He’d held this in so long he’d been sure the fire would boil his blood away.

As the heat cooled they both came to rest, and Martin gathered him up in his arms with a gentleness that would have surprised anyone who knew his strength. He laid his head against the man’s chest, the familiar double heartbeat thrumming in his ears.

For the moment he felt content here, warm, and sated. Even Martin was quiet for what was probably a record time for him. Eventually he shifted, and chuckled softly.

“You haven’t moved in about twenty minutes. I’ll bet even Domerin can’t wear you out like that.”

Kevin growled and pulled back sharply, forcing Martin’s arm to loosen enough so he could lift himself up. He shot the other man a hard look.

“I warned you about letting go of this thing with Domerin. Don’t make me regret my decision.”

Martin’s blue eyes widened, and for a moment he might have been a deer in the headlights.

“I was just kidding,  I promise!” The man tried to lightly stroke his arm, but he remained tense.

Martin’s brows furrowed and he moved to sit up, forcing Kevin to shift as well. He tucked his legs under him, and his look morphed to concern.

“Look, I’m sorry. It was a bad joke. I really have no interest in competing with Domerin anymore, okay? I saw what he did for all of us. I sent him my thoughts as hard as anyone else. He deserved it, and as far as I’m concerned, well… he’s a good guy. Peace?”

Kevin gave him a somewhat skeptical look, but finally nodded. Martin wasn’t the sort for subterfuge,  truthful to a fault, if poor in taste. The man might give him what he craved, but he had made it clear he’d cut him off in a second if he showed a hint of that former rivalry.

“Still mad at me?” Martin gently brushed his fingers down his arm in a conciliatory gesture.

Kevin shivered, body still sensitive from earlier, but he only shook his head.

Martin frowned and reached out. It was only moments before the man’s arms slid around his furred form and were drawing him into his lap. He fit perfectly, given their size difference, and Martin held him close against his muscled chest.

The man’s unique scent, mixed with that of their recent joining, filled his nose. He felt the spark of heat inside him already, needy and demanding, and he drew in a soft breath. It was so tempting just to give in, to not think anymore. It would have been easy. It always had been.

Martin knew him well enough to read that sound, and the way he pressed back against him, but instead of sliding his hands through his fur, he just gave him a gentle squeeze.

“What’s wrong, Kevin? Surely the sex wasn’t that bad.”

The question startled him out of his reverie, and he half turned to see Martin’s lips quirked up in a teasing grin. He couldn’t help but laugh softly, though before he could reply, the man went on, his voice far gentler.

“You don’t seem like yourself today.”

That surprised him. When had Martin become so observant?

“Sorry,” he admitted, an apologetic smile touching his lips, “there’s just a lot on my mind right now, and it’s been awhile since I- well, since I did something like this. Fed the fire this way. I kept thinking I could stay away from it, the need I mean, but I realized that’s just not possible.”

“Was that what you were doing? Why would you ever want to do that?” Martin asked, a single brow raised.

“I guess I thought it would be a distraction from… building a relationship. Most people in committed relationships don’t exactly sleep around. At least, not to the degree I do. But I can’t deny something that’s so integral a part of me. I think I would have lost myself eventually if I’d kept trying.” As much as he’d been the one to champion an open relationship at the beginning, these thoughts had plagued him, at least until Domerin had assured him that he was fine with his wandering.

“That’s still no reason to deny yourself. You think it’s a sin or something?”

“Oh come on, you know me better than that.” He said, gently bumping Martin’s stomach with his arm. “I just- things are different now. I want something more, and I was willing to give my up wandering to have it.”

Martin made a thoughtful sound that rumbled deep in his chest, and then he gave a little shrug.

“Seems to me any relationship that’s worth it wouldn’t expect you to deny a part of yourself like that. If it does it’s probably not good for you. It’s just pleasure. There’s nothing wrong with that, so long as you’re not hurting anybody.”

Kevin stared at the other man for a few long moments, amused. Leave it to Martin to reduce months of anxiety down into a few sentences. He might have come off as simple to a lot of people, but he was anything but stupid.

“He didn’t ask you to do that, did he? Domerin, I mean.”

“No,” Kevin said, giving a little smile, thinking Domerin wouldn’t have minded him sharing this one little detail. He’d been fine with the wandering, it was the other things that needed changing, so he could treat the man right.

“Good. I don’t see what the problem is then. Build your relationship with him, and I’ll be here the rest of the time. At least you know you’ll never go wanting.”

Martin’s hands began to move once more, sliding suggestively up and down his furred stomach. This time Kevin didn’t resist when he felt the familiar embers of desire start to glow.

“I think Domerin would be surprised to hear you say that,” he said, drawing in a pleased breath.

Martin’s chest shook softly against his back as he gave a little laugh. “I won’t tell him if you won’t. But for the moment, my dear, I believe we have a desire to feed.” The man’s large hand gently cupped his cheek, turning his head to the side and slightly up, so he could catch his lips in a passionate kiss.

Kevin didn’t say more, letting it carry him away once more.

Read what my writing partner, Megan Cutler, did with this prompt. Read The Sweetness of Eden: A Tale of Lust, over on her site.