Reconstructing Zia

Reconstructing Zia
by Morgana

Story Notes

Editor\'s PickMain pairing: Aris/Zia and Zia/Pellaz (Aris/Cobweb mentioned)

Rating: NC-17

Summary: Aris makes it his quest to get through to Zia and convince him he loves him.

Warning: Alternate Universe.

Author’s Email: morganalebeau@yahoo.com

Web page: http://www.paranoid.nl/avalon

Disclaimer: Not mine. No copyright infringement is intended. All characters, belong to Storm Constantine. Spoilers for Terzah’s Sons!

Beta read by Patricia and DA, thanks sweeties! All remaining mistakes are mine.

Part 1

“Can I talk to you?” Staying out of Zia’s mind was hard for Aris, who had wandered among Zia’s thoughts for some time. But he had taken Terzah’s advice to heart and was determined to talk to Zia instead of assuming that Zia’s thoughts revealed what the other young man really thought of him. Sometimes being a telepath worked against him and Aris had discovered that the hard way.

Zia looked up from where he was sitting. He had retreated into the boys’ bedroom, since he had been the only one present and had wanted to take a nap. Aris’ visit was a surprise and he didn’t know how to react to it. In the end, he nodded.

Zia’s pale blue eyes revealed nothing where the young man’s feelings were concerned and Aris felt handicapped since he couldn’t fall back on his telepathy. He seated himself on the floor next to Zia and sighed. The fact that Zia planned on leaving the family to dwell in an abandoned cabin high up in the mountains had shocked him. It had also made him realize that he didn’t want to lose Zia. He loved him and needed the other young man close, but would he be able to convince Zia of that?

Zia was a troubled youngster and except for Aris, only Terzah knew just how troubled. Terzah had seen the pain Zia had suffered in the young man’s disturbing dreams and Aris… Aris had experienced them first hand. He would never forget the trauma Gorin had inflicted on them. For Zia things had been even worse. Gorin had kept Zia chained to the bed and had used him for sex, all the time brainwashing Zia into making the young man believe that Gorin was doing those things out of love. As a result, Zia’s concept of love was twisted at best.

Cocking his head, Zia wondered about the sad expression on Aris’ face. “What’s wrong?” Aris was a friend, a very good friend, and it hurt to see Aris in such anguish. “Did something happen to one of the children?” Terzah, the har who had taken them in, had accumulated a large family over the years. Only Illan, Terzah’s and Zen’s harling was of their blood. The rest of the strays had been taken in throughout the years. Aris and Zia had been the latest additions to the family and Zia was grateful that Terzah had adopted them. He owed Terzah a lot. They both did.

Aris shook his head. “The other children are fine.” He raised his head and tentatively made eye contact with Zia. Since he no longer had his telepathy to guide him, he felt adrift. “Terzah told me that you’re leaving.”

Zia drew in a deep breath. He had hoped Aris wouldn’t have found out until he had left. That would have made things easier on the both of them. Looking at Aris, he realized just how much the other boy had changed during the last few years. Aris had turned into a fine man, something that was out of reach for him since he had been castrated as a child. Aris was a gifted telepath, loved by many, and on his way to becoming a man children would look up to. Aris’ future was bright, while Zia’s was gloomy. “I need to be alone for a while,” he said, telling Aris a half-lie.

“I don’t want you to go away.” Aris’ hand moved over the floor and he opened it. His palm faced upward and he prayed that Zia would place his hand in his. “Can’t you stay?”

Zia looked at the outstretched hand, but didn’t take it. He couldn’t encourage Aris in that way. “I don’t feel well,” he retorted, opting for another part of the truth. “You know that harish magic has always bothered me, but back then, it didn’t make me feel so ill. That changed after the bear attacked me. I sense Terzah’s magic all around me and it’s affecting me. I need to get away from it.”

Aris blinked when Zia mentioned the bear attack. Back then, he had almost lost Zia. The bear had attacked them and Zia had managed to kill the beast eventually, but had suffered grave injuries in the process. It had taken Zia a long time to recover from the attack and that had been just another time when Aris had faced losing Zia. “Let me come with you,” he pleaded and wiggled his fingers, hoping Zia would finally make contact. Zia had touched him in the past, which was quite unique since the abused young man usually shunned all physical contact. Not even Terzah could touch Zia without causing the young man distress.

“No!” Zia shook his head. “You need to stay and take care of the family.” It was a weak excuse and he wasn’t surprised when Aris countered his argument.

“That’s Terzah’s job. I don’t want to get into his way.” Terzah was protective of every member of his family and that character trait had saved their lives in the past. Looking at Zia, Aris smiled weakly. Although Zia and Terzah weren’t related, their appearances resembled each other. Like Terzah, Zia had long black hair that reached his waist and the palest eyes he had ever seen. They were even of the same height. A human who didn’t know about hara could have mistaken them for brothers. “Zia, I came here to talk.”

“Then talk.” Zia stared at Aris’ hand and a part of him craved taking hold of it and pulling it close to his chest, but another part shrunk away from such a gesture. He couldn’t encourage Aris that way. In the past, Aris had told him that he cared about him and Zia was afraid he was holding the young man back. Aris would be much better off without having to worry about him. “Say what you have to say.”

Aris drew in a deep breath and then raised his hand slowly. He reached for a strand of Zia’s hair and caressed it. Zia’s eyes widened and Aris felt sad, realizing the young man was about to bolt from the room. “Please stay.”

Zia nodded and allowed the touch. What was it that Aris wanted from him?

“I care about you. I told you so in the past,” Aris began his monologue. “But there’s more. I love you.”


Zia blinked and then shook his head. The movement caused the strand of black hair to slip from between Aris’ fingers. “You don’t love me. You only think you do. You pity me. That’s all there is.” He really believed that. He had *made* himself believe that.

Saddened, Aris searched Zia’s gaze. In the past, he hadn’t contradicted Zia when the young man had thought that. That had been a mistake. Terzah had told him he needed to say the words aloud and to expose Zia to new ideas. He had been a coward in the past and had let Zia keep him at a distance. “That’s not true. I love you, Zia. You’re all I can think of during the day and I dream of you at night. I long for your presence when you’re away hunting. I even stole one of your shirts so I could keep it with me.”

The dark-haired youth blinked a second time. “You did what?” Why would Aris do such a thing?

“I love you, Zia, and I want to be with you. Please don’t leave.” Aris’ bottom lip quivered and he gave the young man a pleading look. “We’ve been through so much together. Don’t lock me out now.”

They shared a horrid history. Both boys had been wards to a man who had used and abused them as he had seen fit. Gorin had beaten Aris repeatedly and had kept Zia to warm his bed. Aris had handled the abuse better than Zia had. Zia had been with Gorin for years before Aris had joined the household. Aris had risked his life several times in the past to make sure Zia was safe. No matter how hard Zia pushed him away, Aris always bounced back.

Zia swallowed hard. “You don’t know what you’re asking, Aris.” When would Aristander finally understand that he could do so much better? “I’m a freak, Aris, you know that. I’m not a normal boy and I won’t be a normal man.” He laughed bitterly when he realized what he had said. “Let me correct that. I’ll never be a man to begin with.”

“I don’t care!” Aris glared at Zia. “I want you just the way you are!”

Pulling his legs to his chest, Zia rested his chin on top of his knees. He had to be more specific, more direct if he wanted to get through to Aris. He had known this conversation had been coming and had tried to mentally prepare himself for that day. “I’m still a mess, Aristander, even after all these years living with Terzah. I’ll never be able to sort myself out. I still have nightmares, although they’re less frequent now. I can’t bear anyone’s touch, not even Terzah’s, and I’m unreliable. You have seen me overreact in the past.” A dark shadow appeared in his eyes, darkening their color. “Terzah should have left me in that room. He shouldn’t have set me free. He shouldn’t have saved my life.”

Angry, Aris glared at Zia. “I can’t believe you said that! Gorin locked you up in that room and chained you to the bed! You say he never hurt you, but we both know that isn’t the truth! He hurt you time and time again!”

Zia’s eyes filled with anger as well. “He loved me! I loved him!” How many years had it taken him to convince himself that his abuser loved him? That Gorin was touching him that way because he loved him? In the end, Zia had started to believe his own lies for they had kept him safe. “He took care of me! He took care of a useless boy, a worthless boy! He found a way for me to pay him back for his kindness!” Sex was all he was good for, Gorin had told him so time and time again and Zia had started to believe it. Nothing Terzah or Aris said could convince him otherwise!

“I don’t want to talk about Gorin,” Aris said, knowing he wouldn’t win that fight. Before Zia could understand the abuse he had suffered, he had to learn the true meaning of love. “Gorin’s gone and you’re still here.”

Since he had used up his energy, Zia shrunk into himself, feeling ashamed and defeated. After Terzah had exposed Gorin, Gorin had been taken into custody. Zia had disappeared for a while in a panic. He had hid near a river bank and had helped Gorin escape from jail one night. He had been convinced that Gorin would take him along and keep him safe, but Gorin had left without him. Zia’s world had been shattered and he had lost his will to live. He had returned to his shelter near the river, wanting to die. He had caught a cold after nearly freezing to death, but then Aris had found him, doubtlessly using his telepathy to track him down. He had refused to eat the food Aris had brought or wear the clothes the other boy had stolen from the kafta. He had really wanted to die back then.

But then Terzah had found him and had taken charge of his life. The har had taken him to the infirmary and had made him a part of Terzah’s ever expanding family. Zia had felt lost, but Aris had been close and, somehow, he had pulled through.

“Zia? I don’t know what’s going on in that head of yours.” Aris was tempted to use telepathy to find out, but then remembered Terzah’s words. He didn’t want to jump to conclusions simply by reading Zia’s thoughts, so he waited for the young man to talk to him again.

Zia lowered his head and said, “I was remembering that day at the river bank when Terzah found me.”

“That was a good day,” Aris agreed. “I was so afraid you’d die because you were coughing so badly. I’m glad Terzah followed me.”

“He should have let me die.” Zia felt miserable.

Aris moved a little closer and took Zia’s hand in his. Blue eyes looked at him in wary surprise. “You’re precious to me. Please give me a chance to make you see that I really love you and want to be with you.”

Zia cocked his head. “You don’t love me, but Gorin did. He showed me he loved me all the time. You barely touch me.”

Aris fought for control at hearing that. Gorin had really brainwashed Zia. “I love you in a different way. It’s a different kind of love.” Zia gave him a look that spoke of confusion. “I want to show you how much I love you in a different way.” No matter how many times Zia proclaimed he had loved Gorin, Aris didn’t quite believe him. Zia had had choices in the past. He could have chosen to be with Gorin, but each time he had been given his freedom to make his own decision, he had chosen to be with Aris instead. “Do you remember the day when Terzah came to the house and found me more dead than alive?” Zia nodded and Aris continued. “Gorin had beaten me so severely that I could have died. You know that. I reached out to you during those last moments.”

Zia nodded. “I’ll never forget that.” He had panicked when Aris had touched his mind to whisper words of goodbye.

“Terzah set you free. He broke the chain that kept you confined to the bed and you came for me. You showed them where to find me.”

Zia nodded again. “They wanted to help you.”

Raising his other arm, Aris placed the palm of his hand against Zia’s cheek. Again, the young man allowed it. “My greatest regret is that I was unconscious when you came for me.”

“Why is that?” Zia cocked his head involuntarily and caused Aris’ fingers to caress his skin by doing that. He shivered.

“I only knew you in my mind.” Until the day that Terzah had taken charge, they had never seen each other. They had lived in each other’s minds since Gorin had kept Zia locked away and Aris had never had a chance to see eye to eye with the other boy. “You’re so much more beautiful than I thought. On the inside and out,” he added.

Zia blushed. “I’m ugly on the inside. You know what I did in the past.”

“You had no choice but to act like that, Zia.” Aris hoped he was finally getting through to Zia. “I loved you from the start.”

Zia’s voice trembled when he whispered, “But I don’t love you back.”

Aris wasn’t surprised to hear that. He had expected it. It was time to reveal something Terzah had once told him. He had come so far he couldn’t stop now and let Zia win. He had to do this for both their sakes. “Terzah and I discussed you recently.”

Zia’s eyes widened. “Why would you do that?”

“I was upset because you always told me no when I invited you along. I couldn’t understand why you didn’t want to spend time with me.”

Zia lowered his gaze again. “I don’t feel comfortable around Varill and Memnet or your other friends. They always look at me a certain way and I know what they’re thinking. They just don’t say it aloud. They think I’m a whore and a freak.”

Aris’ heart twisted in his chest. “They don’t think of you like that, but you’ve convinced yourself they do.” Varill and Memnet had tried to befriend Zia. Not everyone thought of Zia as a whore and a freak. Some people realized Zia was just another one of Gorin’s victims. Only Zia didn’t see that. “But you’re distracting me. I wanted to say that Terzah told me something important. Something I hadn’t thought of myself. He said I should ask you to spend time with me alone away from the other boys. He was convinced that you would say yes if asked you that.”

One layer of confusion settled atop of another in Zia’s mind. “Why would you do that?”

“Because I want you close. I want to make you happy. I want to hold you in my arms when you go to sleep. I want you to understand how much I love you.”

“But you won’t have sex with me.”

The bold statement shocked Aris and he gave the black-haired boy a thoughtful look. “I would like to have sex with you eventually.”

Zia crawled away from Aris until his back hit the fabric that separated one room from the other. “Gorin touched me because he loved me. He had sex with me because it was the only way he could show me how much he loved me. I’m too damaged. Don’t you think I get that? Sex is all I’m good for and you’re talking about a different way of showing me you love me. I can’t do that. I’m not…whole enough to understand that.” He retreated into a corner and rocked back and forth. “Please forget about me, Aris. Become a har and leave me behind.”

It took most of Aris’ discipline not to scream at Zia in anger. What would it take to get through to the young man? “I’ll only become a har if you do the same. I won’t be separated from you.”

“I can never be har, Aris. Their magic is poison to me. I’d probably die during inception.”

“You don’t know that.” Aris refused to let Zia win. He was going to fight to the bitter end. “Zen said that there’s hope for you. That there are hara working on a cure for people like you who were exposed to the Ferrar crystals. You can’t give up hope like that, Zia. I won’t let you.”

“I’m hopeless, Aris. Why can’t you accept that?” Zia’s eyes filled with tears. He had tried being strong, but the confrontation had drained him. He had already felt weak to begin with since being in constant contact with harish magic made him feel exhausted all the time.

“You’re not hopeless.” Aris moved closer and opened his arms. “Please, Zia. We’ve come this far.” He was glad he had taken Terzah’s advise to heart and *talked* to Zia instead of just reading his mind. “I know you have feelings for me, even though you won’t admit them to yourself. Please give me this chance. Let me show you how much I love you.”

What Aris was proposing scared the hell out of Zia. It meant giving up the little control he had managed to get on his life. He had only felt safe and in control during those moments when he had been in Gorin’s room without the man present. The bed had been his home and the walls hadn’t kept him confined but had kept everything evil outside. He didn’t have to worry about being attacked, or almost being burned to death, or about being used as entertainment for men who thought it would be ‘fun’ to castrate him and cut him. That bed had been his safety zone and Gorin had been a known factor. As long he had given the man what he had wanted, Gorin had kept him safe.

Giving his body to Gorin had been a small price to pay for being safe. The four men who had castrated him had hurt him more than Gorin ever had. Gorin had loved him, had kept him safe… And now Aris was asking him to leave all that behind and to put his trust in him. “I don’t know if I’m strong enough to do that.”

Aris released a relieved sigh when he heard Zia’s answer. “I’ll be strong for you, if you’ll accept my strength.” He sat in front of Zia once more and longed to take him in his arms and make him feel safe again. “Zia, I want to go with you. I want to fix that cabin up with you and, once we made it our home, I want to show you that I can make you happy. That’s all I want: to make you happy.”

Tears streamed from Zia’s eyes and dripped from his chin. “I don’t deserve being happy. Not after the things I did.”

“I know you helped Gorin escape,” Aris answered and placed his hands on either side of Zia’s head. His fingers buried themselves in the fine black hair and Aris leaned in closer. “I know you think Gorin loved you and that you loved him. I know that it takes time to change that. But I also know that you can make that change if you allow me to guide you. Zia, I have loved you for so long and I was afraid to tell you. I was afraid I would say the wrong thing or do something that would spook you. I might appear confident to you, but on the inside I feel insecure. You have been hurt so badly. I have seen the past in your mind and I see it in your eyes now. I’ll probably make mistakes and we’ll have to work hard where your recovery is concerned, but I’m convinced we can do this together.”

Zia devoured every word Aris said and found he couldn’t deny the young man. Aris had taken so many risks for him in the past that it would be ungrateful to turn him away now. Zia was still convinced that, in time, Aris would come to see how badly matched they were. He didn’t deserve Aris, but maybe Aris had to realize that for himself.

“Say yes, Zia. Say yes to me, to us, to yourself.” Aris trembled when Zia didn’t speak. His telepathy could have told him what Zia was thinking, but he refused to find out that way.

“I’ll let you come with me,” Zia answered in a voice that shook with fear and emotion. “But don’t get your hopes up. I’m not the right person for you. I’m not the right person for anyone.”

Aris briefly closed his eyes in relief. He *had* gotten through to Zia in the end. He had his chance to prove his feelings to Zia. He just prayed he wasn’t going to fuck up.

***

“Eavesdropping?” Zen came up behind Terzah and wrapped his arms around his chesnari.

Terzah melted in the embrace and pushed back. His reaction to Zen never ceased to amaze him. One touch and he burned with desire for the other har. “Aris and Zia finally talked.” He turned in the embrace and smiled at Zen. The expression in his chesnari’s eyes told him exactly what Zen was up to and the realization that aruna was within reach made him feel warm. “Zia will let Aris accompany him.”

“That’s good news,” Zen replied, pleased. “I hope Aris will talk some sense into Zia.” Like Terzah, he worried about Zia. They had taken in many children, but none of them was as damaged as Zia. “They’ll find a way.”

Terzah hoped so as well. If not, he might have to resort to locking them up together until they finally admitted their feelings to each other.

***

“Terzah?” Zia scanned the main room with his eyes and was relieved to find that Terzah and he were the only ones present. He couldn’t have done this with an audience.

Terzah was busy mending one of David’s shirts and placed the needlework aside so he could lock gazes with his son. Zia would leave in the morning and he wasn’t surprised that his son had come to say his temporary goodbyes. He expected Aris to drop by that evening as well. “Zia,” he greeted his son, acknowledging the boy’s presence. Terzah smiled and realized that Zia wouldn’t be a boy much longer. Aris and Zia both were on their way to become adults.

Zia approached and sat down at some distance from the har. He didn’t know exactly why he had come to see Terzah other than to say goodbye. There was a reason why, but he couldn’t quite figure it out. “I’m leaving tomorrow.”

Terzah nodded. “I couldn’t stop you even if I wanted to.”

Zia smiled at Terzah and inched closer. It was a pity that harish magic made him ill else he might have stayed. “Something strange happened,” he admitted, surprising himself. “Aris wants to head into the mountains with me.”

Terzah’s smile stayed in place. “I told him you wouldn’t refuse him if he asked you to spend time with him away from his friends.” Zia’s movements were skittish and Terzah kept his distance, letting his son decide what would happen next. Zia had always been the son he had worried about the most. Zia had been hurt so badly in the past that Terzah at one point had given up hope that his son might recover. But he should have known better. He should have known that love would find a way since Aris loved Zia to death.

“I don’t know what to do about Aris,” Zia whispered. “I believe he’s making a mistake.”

Terzah’s smile faded. “And what mistake might that be?”

“I told you… I’m not the right person for him to be with. I’m…” Zia failed to find the right words. “I’ll lead him to destruction.”

Terzah couldn’t believe he was hearing this. “Is that the latest thing you have managed to convince yourself of? Really, I should just shake some sense into you.” Zia looked up and Terzah saw the frightened look in the pale eyes. “I won’t touch you against your will. You know that.” Zia nodded and Terzah continued. “I told you once that you could have everything if only you believed in it. You told me you believed in nothing. Wouldn’t you like to believe in something?”

“In what?” Zia searched Terzah’s eyes and read the concern and love in them. He loved Terzah back, but had never been able to show it. He only knew of one way to express that love and Terzah had told him a long time ago that they weren’t going to have sex in any way. So what other way was there to show his affection and gratitude? He didn’t know.

Terzah brought his face closer to Zia’s and whispered, “Don’t you want to believe that Aris loves you? That he can make you happy?”

Zia pulled away and his eyes filled with confusion. “It’s pity. That’s what he feels for me.”

Terzah shook his head. “Let’s look at this rationally and correct me if I’m wrong. Aris got caught by Gorin because he was coming back for you. He wanted to take you with him.”

Zia nodded. Why was Terzah telling him this? He already knew that.

“Aris tried to take away any memories I had so you would be safe after I took him in.” Zia nodded again. “Aris brought you food and stole clothing so you would be warm. He cared for you when you were half dead.”

“Why are you telling me this? I know that.”

“You know it, but you don’t understand what it means. Don’t interrupt me again until I’ve finished.” Terzah cocked his head and continued, “He kept a vigil at your side when that bear injured you. He never leaves your side for long. He constantly worries about you. His eyes follow you wherever you go. He even sleeps wearing one of your shirts when you’re away.”

Zia’s mouth went dry. Rationally, he knew all those things. But what had Terzah implied when he had said that he didn’t understand what they meant?

“What Aris feels for you isn’t pity. He loves you and I believe you love him back, if only you’d let yourself. You’re afraid to admit the truth.” Terzah half expected Zia to jump to his feet and bolt, like he had done in the past, but instead, Zia remained where he was and looked at him with large eyes. “I remember your dreams, Zia. I remember your terror. It’s safe in Gorin’s room. It makes you feel safe when you tell yourself that Gorin loves you and that it’s the reason why he keeps you chained to the bed and uses you for sex. Thinking like that gave you the illusion of safety, but that’s all it is, Zia. An illusion.”

Zia bowed his head. Deep down in his heart he had always known that. “Are you mad with me, Terzah?” He peeked at the har’s face and prepared himself to flee the room if necessary.

“No, I’m not. I understand why you did it. You had to protect yourself.” Terzah placed a finger beneath Zia’s chin and raised the handsome face. Most of the time when he touched Zia he could sense his son’s loathing at being touched, but this time, he didn’t feel such a thing. “I told you that I would drag you out of that room a hundred times if it was necessary, but maybe you can do it yourself? Leave that room?”

“That thought frightens me.” Zia had allowed Terzah to touch him for a moment, but then pulled away. “I never felt that safe before. In that room, I knew what to expect.”

“And now you don’t. Zia, that’s life. Aris is scared too.”

Zia shook his head. “Aristander isn’t scared of anything.”

Terzah smiled. No matter how hard Zia tried to deny the truth, it still showed in his words, his voice, and his eyes. “Aris is afraid he’ll hurt you. He doesn’t know how to act around you. Gorin’s ghost still haunts you and is a horrible contender for your love as far as Aris is concerned.”

Bowing his head, Zia let his dark hair tumble in front of his face. Terzah however wouldn’t have any of that and pushed the strands aside so he could see Zia’s face. “You suffered terribly in the past and now you get a chance to be happy in life. Why are you so determined to not even try? You owe it to yourself and to Aris to at least try!”

“It’s easy for you to say that.” Zia’s voice was barely audible. “You have Zen. You have your family. You’re afraid of nothing.”

Terzah shook his head. “Look at me, Zia.” He waited for the boy to raise his head and once they had made eye contact, he stated, “I’m afraid, Zia.”

Gasping slightly, Zia whispered, “Why would you be afraid?”

“I’m afraid one of my sons will throw away his chance at happiness.”

Zia closed his eyes and his body trembled. “I can’t be what Aris wants me to be.”

“All Aris wants is for you to stop fighting him and love him back. You can do that. I know you can.”

Terzah’s words made Zia open his eyes. “I’m not sure I can.”

“But I am.” Terzah gave into his need to comfort Zia and pulled the boy close in spite of knowing it would make Zia feel uncomfortable. “Believe in yourself, Zia. Believe in Aris’ love for you. Let him guide you.”

Zia shivered in the embrace. It wasn’t because he loathed Terzah’s touch for he had gotten better at accepting the har’s embraces, but it was the magic that clung to Terzah that was causing him to develop a headache. He had to pull away.

“I understand,” Terzah whispered, having felt Zia’s acceptance of his closeness. “Go to Aris. Sleep at his side. Put your trust in him.”

Zia got to his feet and stood indecisively for a moment. Then he turned on his heel and left the main room.

Terzah smiled and felt proud of his sons – all of them.

***

Aris was awake when Zia entered the bedroom, but pretended to be asleep. Sometimes it was easier for Zia when he didn’t feel pressured. Zia had lain down to sleep in his arms in the past, but Zia’s behavior was highly unpredictable. Aris wanted Zia to know that he always had a choice.

As he heard Zia approach, Aris was tempted once more to search the other boy’s thoughts, but he managed to restrain himself. He couldn’t afford to make a mistake because of something Zia was thinking. Zia’s mind was mixed up and Aris saw it as his duty to make Zia think about the behavior the young man displayed.

Zia stood close to Aris, who was stretched out on the floor. He felt jittery and wasn’t sure he could carry out his plan. He had intended to lie down close to Aris and wait for the young man to pull him close. But now he wasn’t sure he could follow through. Admitting to himself that Aris might really love him scared him. And what frightened him even more was the possibility that he returned those feelings.

Taking it one step at a time, Zia knelt on the floor and raised his right hand. It trembled when he reached to stroke Aris’ blond hair. It had been short when Terzah had rescued them from Gorin’s reign of terror, but it was shoulder length now. Aris had decided to let it grow and Zia enjoyed seeing him wear it like that. It added softness to Aris’ face which he found appealing.

Caught… Trapped… That’s how he felt when he realized what he had just admitted to himself. He found Aris appealing.

Unable to pretend he was asleep any longer Aris opened his eyes to find out what Zia was doing. He was pleased to find the other boy so close, but worried when he saw the turbulent cast to the blue eyes. “Zia? I can make you feel safe.” He didn’t know if they were the right words to say. Maybe he had already made his first mistake and didn’t know it yet. He just didn’t know how to act around Zia.

“Can you really?” Zia looked at Aris in surprise. “Did you read my thoughts just now?”

“No, I stopped doing that.” Aris extended an arm and offered Zia his hand. “Please take it.”

Zia stared at the offered limb for a long moment before placing his trembling hand in it. “Can you really make me feel safe?”

Slowly, Aris pulled Zia close. Zia’s eyes moved about wildly for he was used to sleeping in such a way that he could always keep an eye on the door. But Aris was encouraging him to lie down face to face with him.

“You can trust me.” Aris felt a bit saddened that, after all they had been through, Zia still didn’t trust him unconditionally. But then he reminded himself that it was normal for Zia to question intentions. Zia had only known pain and abuse.

“I want to trust you,” Zia whispered. “But I need to be able to see the door curtains.”

“Then I’ll move.” Aris moved about until his back was toward the door curtains. That way, Zia could be face to face with him and still watch the entrance. “Better?”

Zia still hesitated, but then Terzah’s words returned to him. Aris loved him and wanted to keep him safe. He could trust Aris, if he decided to take that step and shed a part of his past. “I’m scared,” he admitted in a raw voice.

“I know.” Aris waited patiently until Zia had made himself comfortable on his side and then took one of the cool hands in his. “I’ll never let anyone hurt you again.”

“What if *you* hurt me?” Zia wanted to cover his mouth with his hand, but Aris still had a hold on it.

“I’ll never hurt you. I love you.”

Aris’ trusting eyes looked into his and Zia realized the young man believed those words. Aris was convinced he loved him. “And what if *I* hurt *you*?”

Breath catching as he sensed the change that had come over Zia, Aris decided that talking to Terzah always helped. “I’m strong. I can take it, but Zia, I know you’ll never hurt me on purpose.”

Zia bit his bottom lip and tried to control his nervousness. Yes, he could see the entrance, but normally he only slept when there was no one else in the room. Now Aris was holding his hand and looking at him in a way that puzzled him.

“Try to sleep, Zia,” Aris whispered. He wanted nothing more than to bury Zia in a tight embrace so the young man knew he was being watched over, but he was scared Zia would run if he attempted anything like that. It was already a great achievement that Zia was letting him hold his hand. “I’ll watch over you and keep you safe.”

“No one ever offered to do that for me.” Zia’s memory could be selective at times.

“Terzah watched over you more than once and so did I. He guarded your dreams when you were recovering from that bear attack.”

“Terzah doesn’t count,” Zia muttered beneath his breath. “Terzah is crazy.”

Aris chuckled. “Don’t let him hear that.” But he knew what Zia had meant by that. Terzah would go to extremes to keep his sons safe. Until that day, it amazed Aris that Terzah had taken them in and had adopted them as his own. That har’s love was unconditional and that fact had finally also registered with Zia, it seemed. “He will kill anyone who wants to hurt us.”

It was very uncharacteristic for Zia to fall asleep quickly, but the day’s events had drained him. “I love Terzah…” His eyes were closing and as far as Zia was concerned, he had thought it and not said it aloud.

“I love him too,” Aris whispered and gently rubbed Zia’s cool fingers between his. “And I love you.” But Zia was already asleep at that point and no longer heard him. “One day, I’ll find a way to show you how much.” And with that, Aris placed a kiss onto the tips of Zia’s fingers and pressed the precious limb close to his chest. He had received a chance and he wasn’t going to fuck up. He would help Zia become whole again.

Part 2

It was the strangest sensation for Zia as Aris prepared to leave with him. He had long made his peace with the idea that he would head for the mountains on his own and it had never crossed his mind that Aris would want to tag along.

“Don’t forget to take this with you.” Zen carried the bearskin coat with him that Terzah had made for Zia. “It’ll keep you warm.” He knew that Terzah and Zia had said their goodbyes and he wanted to do the same before Zia rode out of his life. “I still remember the day Terzah gave you that coat.”

Zia turned around and kept his eyes lowered. He wasn’t used to dealing with Zen. Although he liked the har, being alone with him made him feel nervous. “So do I.” He would never forget that day either…

***

“Welcome home, Zia.” David gave his brother a worried look. Zia looked pale and was unable to walk unaided. Terzah had carried him inside and Zen had made a resting place in the main room so they could keep an eye on Zia while was recovering.

“Thank you, David.” Zia felt tired and wanted to go back to sleep. Before Terzah had taken him from the infirmary Telaim had fed him some drugs so he wouldn’t be in pain during the transport. Those drugs had made him tired.

Terzah lowered him onto a nest of blankets and Zia curled up as much as his injuries allowed him to. He wondered if he could fall asleep with his eyes open. He wanted to rest, but there were too many people in the room. He couldn’t close his eyes. David knelt at his side and the boy patted his hair. Under normal circumstances Zia would have shaken the hand off, but he was too drugged to protest.

“You need to get better, Zia,” David said and placed a kiss onto Zia’s good cheek. “I’m glad the bear didn’t kill you. You’re my brother.” The boy had then taken pity on the drugged Zia and had allowed Illan to take him to Ezra. That left Terzah, Zen, Aris, and Zia behind in the kafta.

Aris remained at Zia’s side and made sure the other boy wasn’t disturbed again. “Terzah, he needs to rest.”

Terzah nodded. “But once he wakes up, he’s going to eat.” Zia had lost weight which he couldn’t afford to lose.

Aris stroked Zia’s hair and felt Terzah probe his mind. He looked up, wondering what was bothering the har. Terzah however raised a hand and waved the question that had been bothering him away. He would wait for Zia to wake up and then he would address the matter.

Zia woke a few hours later. His throat was dry and felt like sand-paper. He opened his eyes in search of water. A glass filled with water stood close by and he reached for it. His coordination however was clumsy at best and he almost knocked it over. A hand reached for it and steadied it before water could slosh over the rim. “Aris.”

“Don’t try to speak, Zia. You’re still weak.” Aris helped Zia drink and then lay at a small distance from the injured boy. “You scared me. I thought you were going to die.”

He wouldn’t have minded if the bear had ended his life, but Zia was careful not to speak the words aloud. He had the feeling Aris didn’t want to hear them.

“Terzah brought you home. He didn’t want to leave you in Telaim’s care longer than necessary.”

Terzah suddenly appeared in the doorway and walked toward his sons. He carried the fur of the bear he had skinned in his hands. He lowered himself onto his heels in front of Zia and placed the bearskin on the floor. “Are you in any pain, Zia?”

Aris smiled. Terzah had asked him that again and again after the har had saved him from Gorin.

Zia considered lying, but one look from Terzah made the lie die on his lips. “A little.”

“Telaim gave me pills in case you were in pain. Aris, will you get them for me?”

Aris realized Terzah was sending him away, but he trusted the har and left.

“I’m proud of you,” Terzah said. “You remembered what I told you about a bear attack. Your quick actions saved the others.” Zia blushed and tried to turn his head away, but Terzah wouldn’t allow it. He cupped Zia’s good cheek and forced the boy to maintain eye contact. “I skinned the bear and we took the meat to the poor families who needed the food. You did well.”

“I only did what you told me to do.” Zia wished Terzah would go away. All that praise was making him tense. He wasn’t used to someone complimenting him in such a way. For most of his life, he had been told he was useless and worthless and he didn’t know how to react to Terzah.

“In my clan it’s an honor to wear such a coat,” Terzah stated as he placed the bear’s fur atop of the blankets that kept Zia warm. “Every har who sees it will know you killed the beast.”

Zia swallowed convulsively. “You made that for me?”

“You did well, Zia. It’s your right to wear it with pride.” Terzah smiled. “Zia, are you comfortable like this? Or do you want me to move you someplace else?”

“I’m fine.” Zia’s head reeled from the things Terzah had said. “Are you really proud of me?”

Terzah knew he probably shouldn’t do it, considering Zia’s past reactions to his presence, but he couldn’t stop himself and placed a kiss onto the boy’s brow. Zia’s mind didn’t turn as hostile as it had in the past and Terzah smiled. Zia had learned to accept his touch. Hopefully in the future, Zia would also find pleasure in being touched. “Very proud, my son.”

“Terzah, I found the pills.” Aris hovered near the doorway. He wasn’t sure Terzah had already finished talking with Zia. At Terzah’s signal, he approached and sat cross-legged on the floor. He handed Terzah the vial that held the pills.

Terzah carefully raised Zia until the injured boy could drink more easily. He removed a pill from the vial and placed it on Zia’s tongue. He helped Zia drink and made sure his son had swallowed the pill. “You should go back to sleep.”

The drug would probably make him sleepy again, but Zia didn’t want to be alone. “Can Aris stay?” He didn’t want to take up too much of Terzah’s time. The other boys needed Terzah too.

“But of course.” Terzah made sure Zia was resting comfortably and left the room.

Aris took his place at Zia’s side and reclaimed the boy’s hand. He rubbed the fingers and smiled at Zia. “Terzah is right. Go back to sleep.”

Zia looked at their joined hands and smiled. The fur of the coat rubbed against his skin. He had never thought Terzah would present him with a trophy and for the first time in his life, he felt something akin to pride.

***

“Zia?” Zen frowned. Zia had gone quiet and had a distant look in his eyes. He didn’t want to startle his son, but that expression worried him.

Zia let go of the fond memory and focused on Zen again. “I’m sorry. I was lost in thought.” It had taken him some time to understand and accept that Zen was a kind har, who, like Terzah, had accepted him into the family. Their kindness was something Zia had found hard to accept in the past. For a long time, he had waited for them to collect their price for letting him stay, but that had never happened. Eventually he had accepted that neither Terzah, nor Zen, had a hidden agenda.

Zen always felt nervous around Zia. Zia didn’t know that he was the har who had invented the Ferrar crystals that had killed Zia’s parents and had damaged Zia’s psyche. He had suggested telling Zia once, but Terzah had put his foot down and had told him not to do it. He had listened to Terzah.

“Zia, I hope you’ll find what you’re looking for in those mountains,” Zen said eventually.

Zia nodded and kept his gaze lowered. “So do I.” The magic wasn’t that strong in Zen, but it still bothered Zia. He was looking forward to getting away from the camp because then his psyche could cleanse itself. He would feel better once he had rid himself of the remnants their magic left on his soul.

“You always have a home with us. Please remember that.” Zen wanted to hug Zia goodbye, but since he had seldom touched the boy in the past, he didn’t think Zia would welcome an embrace at that point. His feelings of guilt doubled. Zia represented all the humans he had hurt during his time as a Varr. “Take my blessing with you.”

“Thank you.” Zia started to feel uncomfortable and quickly fled the room. He left the kafta and headed for Brigand, his horse. He felt eyes upon him and knew that Terzah was watching from inside the kafta. Maybe Zen had even joined him at that point. He pulled his bearskin coat close and saddled Brigand.

“Zia? I’m ready.” Aris had said his goodbyes to Terzah and Zen and was ready to take the next step.

“I’m not sure I am,” Zia muttered beneath his breath, but it was too late to back out now. He had no choice. If he stayed, he would end up being poisoned from the inside.

“We can do this together.” Aris mounted his horse and waited for Zia to join him. Since he had made the decision to make his stand with Zia, he felt relieved and, in a way, happy. He was looking forward to having Zia all to himself for the next few months.

Zia slid onto Brigand’s back and steered his horse closer to Aris’. He didn’t know what the future would bring and that scared him. Aris had promised to keep him safe, but could the young man keep that promise? It took so little to make him panic.

“Zia, everything will be okay.”

“I thought you were no longer reading my mind?”

“I don’t need to read your mind to know you’re scared. I know you, Zia.”

Zia sighed. It was true. Aris knew him well. “I’ll have to trust you then.” Aris nodded and Zia could only hope the young man realized what he had just agreed to take on.

***

“We should make camp for the night,” Aris said and looked about. “There’s a cave over there we could use for shelter.” They had traveled most of the day, but the horses had grown tired and Aris would welcome a break as well. “What do you think, Zia?”

But Zia had frozen the moment Aris had mentioned the cave. Grueling memories broke through to the surface and Zia trembled fiercely.

Aris’ telepathy unintentionally kicked in and warned him that something was wrong with Zia. It hadn’t been his intention to probe Zia’s thoughts, but he was drawn to his companion’s pain like a moth to a flame. “Zia? What’s wrong?” He steered his horse closer to Brigand and cringed at seeing the distant look in Zia’s eyes. In his mind, he could hear Zia screaming. “Zia!” He placed a hand on Zia’s arm and hoped it would provoke a reaction. He got one.

“Don’t touch me!” Zia pulled away. His uncontrolled movements made him lose his balance and he tumbled from Brigand’s back. Aris was beside him a moment later, but that didn’t calm him down. “They’re on fire…”

Aris had no choice. He pulled Zia against him and held him close. He touched Zia’s mind and was almost thrown out by the sheer force of the flames that licked at Zia’s mind. “What happened?” A moment later, he stood inside a cave, which blazed with fire.

“The Varrs attacked…” Zia found it hard to talk, but did his best to tell Aris what had happened. “We were using a cave for shelter and had been living there for a few weeks. When the Varrs came, we were trapped. There was no way out.” In his terror, Zia had curled his fingers around Aris’ wrist. “My father saved me by covering me with blankets so the fire wouldn’t reach me. It slowed the fire down, but it still burned me.”

“They used Ferrar crystals.” Aris knew Zia had been exposed to them. He just hadn’t known when it had happened. He guided Zia’s head against his shoulder and rocked him. Reaching out telepathically, he soothed Zia’s troubled mind.

“I can’t go inside that cave,” Zia whispered against Aris’ chest. “I’d go mad.”

“You don’t have to,” Aris said soothingly. “We can make camp here in the clearing.”

Since the terror was residing, Zia became aware of the situation he was in. Aris was holding him, rocking him, and he was allowing it. “Let me go.”

Aris released Zia reluctantly. He had the feeling that the nightmares might be back that night and he intended to keep a close eye on Zia.

***

“I’m going hunting. We need something to eat.” Zia was trying hard to pretend that nothing had happened earlier that day. He still felt nauseous as he remembered that he had suffered that break down in front of Aris. They had moved away from the cave, but since Zia’s memories were still close, he continued to feel tense.

“I’ll come with you.” Aris wasn’t any good at hunting, but he refused to let Zia out of his sight.

“Why?” Zia turned around and frowned. Out of all of Terzah’s sons, Aris made the worst hunter.

“To cover your back.” Aris wasn’t going to accept ‘no’ for an answer. “I want to be there in case you happen upon a bear.”

Zia considering refusing Aris, but remembered that the other boy had kept a vigil at his bed for one week after the bear had attacked him. “Don’t get in the way.”

“You sound like Terzah,” Aris commented and grinned. He liked seeing this new side to Zia.

***

Aris ate the last bit of grilled rabbit and smiled at Zia. Zia had caught two rabbits, providing them with dinner. He had even gutted and prepared them. “You make an excellent provider.”

Zia looked away. “I’ll never have a family to provide for.”

Stupid, stupid, stupid! Aris cursed himself. Sometimes he forgot that Zia would never have any children of his own. “I’m sorry.”

Zia shrugged. “It’s not your fault that I’m like this.” Zia wasn’t ready to address the matter, not after reliving his parents’ deaths that afternoon. His mother and father had died in the attack which had left him burned and orphaned. “At least you can have children.”

Aris almost choked on the last bit of rabbit. “What did you say?”

“You’ll become har in time and then you will create a pearl, just like Terzah and Zen did.”

Aris blinked. “You’re obsessed with the notion that I want to become har. I told you before that I won’t become har unless we find a way to make you har too.”

Zia played with the hem of his sleeve and avoided eye contact. “I’m resilient to their magic, Aris. I’ll never become har.”

“Telaim said there was a healer who was working with survivors. Maybe they have found a cure by now and we just don’t know it yet.” He hadn’t realized that Zia wanted to become har. He was getting better at reading between the lines.

“I’d love to be like Terzah,” Zia admitted huskily.

“You’re just as beautiful, Zia. Maybe even more beautiful.”

Zia didn’t know how to react to such flattery. “We should extinguish the fire. It’s getting dark and I don’t want to draw anyone’s attention.”

Aris moved closer to Zia while the young man extinguished the fire. “Terzah changed my life.”

Zia nodded. “He changed mine too – for the better.”

“Can I ask you something personal?”

“You can take it from my mind if you like. It’s not like I can keep things from you at any rate.” Zia pulled the bearskin coat closer around his frame.

“Why did you think I didn’t care for you? I was getting desperate when you kept declining my every invitation to spend time with me.”

“Varill and Memnet were always close.” Zia buried himself deeper in the warmth of the coat. “I would have said yes if it had just been you.”

“That’s what Terzah said.” Unnoticed by Zia, Aris had managed to rest a hand on the other boy’s knee. “It’s just the two of us now and I’m nervous.”

Zia arched an eyebrow. “Why are you nervous?” If anyone should be nervous it was him and not Aris!

“I’m constantly worried I might do something to chase you off.” Aris rested his head against Zia’s knee and was thrilled when the young man allowed it. “I want to make you happy.”

Zia was at a loss. Aris mystified him. “It’s not too late for you to go back to Terzah’s kafta.” Each time Aris told him that he wanted to make him happy he felt he had lost a little more control.

“When I return there it’ll be with you at my side.” Aris was determined to not give into Zia’s gloomy demeanor. “You’ll see. We’ll make it together.”

If only Zia felt as confident as Aris.

***

That night, Zia couldn’t sleep. He sat upright with his back against the trunk of a tree. That way, no one could attack him in the back. Aris had stretched out close to the fire. At first, Zia thought Aris was asleep, but then the pair of extraordinary eyes opened and looked at him. One of Aris’ eyes was green and the other brown. “Why are you looking at me like that?”

“I was wondering why you won’t come over here so I can hold you.” Aris wasn’t sure Zia would accept.

“I feel safer with my back resting against the tree.”

“Safer… I can make you feel safe too, Zia.” Everything in Zia’s mind revolved about being safe. If only he could find a way to make Zia make safe. “Will you give me this chance?”

Zia was tempted to decline, but the look Aris gave him made him feel guilty. “Aris, I…”

Aris raised an arm and waited for Zia to make his decision. “You have a choice, Zia.”

The fact that he *had* a choice only confused Zia further. Terzah had taught him he had a choice to be touched or not, but he still found it hard to exorcize that right. He pushed himself to his feet and walked over to where Aris was resting. “I don’t know…” Looking about, he wondered how he was supposed to lie down. Attackers could come from everywhere.

“Trust me. I can sense them coming. I’ll wake you and protect you. You’re just as safe with me as you were inside the kafta.” Zia lowered himself onto the earth and looked into Aris’ eyes. “Trust me, I’ll keep you safe.” Zia nodded and Aris pulled him close. “Lie down facing the fire, Zia.” He loved looking at the fire. When he had lived in Gorin’s house, he had been denied that warmth.

Zia complied, but he couldn’t stop shaking. The fire was to his right and Aris spooned up behind him. He was wedged in-between and felt trapped. Then he felt Aris touch his mind and soothe him.

“You’re safe, Zia.” Aris caressed Zia’s mind until the racing thoughts started to slow down. “You’re safe with me.”

Zia relaxed eventually and pressed back against Aris. It amazed him how much he trusted Aris. Much had to do with the fact that they shared the same past. “You’ll wake me if you sense strangers?”

“I will,” Aris promised and stroked Zia’s hair. “Now sleep.”

Lured into a state of relaxation by Aris stroking his mind and his hair, Zia gave in and dozed off.

***

Aris woke when Zia began whimpering in his sleep. Zia’s movement intensified and it seemed as if he was struggling with something. It was too bad that he didn’t possess Terzah’s powers, for then he could have soothed the sleeper’s troubled dreams. But he was *just* a telepath and had no power over memories and nightmares. All he could do was wake Zia up. “Zia, wake up.”

A scream erupted from Zia’s lips, but his eyes opened at hearing Aris’ voice. Suddenly, he grew motionless and his face froze. He didn’t know where he was or what was happening and felt disorientated. Suddenly, he realized he wasn’t alone. Arms were wrapped around him and someone was in his mind. “Aris…”

“Yes, I’m here. You’re safe. No one is going to hurt you.” Aris continued to soothe him. It surprised him that Zia hadn’t struggled free yet. In the past, Zia had tried to free himself. Was Zia finally getting better? “Do you want to tell me what the nightmare was about?”

“Can’t you take it from my mind?” He’d rather not say the words aloud.

“I’d rather have you say it.” He wanted to keep the use of his telepathy to a minimum. They needed to communicate verbally.

“I saw my parents die again.”

“Tell me.” Aris realized why it was important they talked. He could have taken the information from Zia’s mind, but then he would have taken Zia’s opportunity away to be comforted.

“They attacked during the night. My mother went up in flames first. My father threw blankets atop of me and died protecting me. I still feel the heat.” Zia needed the comfort and did something new to him. He buried his face against Aris’ shoulder. He wanted to crawl inside Aris and feel safe. “My skin was burned and blistered… I didn’t know that the Ferrar crystals had also affected me in another way.” Aris held him tight and Zia needed that, craved it. It was a revelation to him, that he could savor being held so tight, but if anyone else but Aris had held him, he would have freaked out and bolted.

“You’re safe with me.” Aris kissed the crown of Zia’s head and was thrilled to see how easily Zia accepted the caress. He knew Zia might fight him over it tomorrow, if he would try it again. Zia nodded against his chest and Aris used his telepathy to ease Zia back into sleep again.

***

Zia felt odd when he woke up the next morning. He remembered having nightmares during the night and should have felt disorientated, but he didn’t. He felt calm and relaxed. It was seldom that he felt that way upon waking up. Most of the time, he woke up to the memory of some man raping him. He sat upright and frowned. The previous night he had fallen asleep with Aris’ arms wrapped around him. The young man was nowhere in sight now. He pulled his warm coat close and wondered what to do.

“I thought I should provide breakfast, since you provided us with dinner last night.” Aris walked up to Zia and smiled. He was using his shirt to carry the berries and nuts he had found. “Hungry?” He sat down next to Zia and offered him the fruit.

Zia blinked and then returned the smile. It was good to breathe in the crisp air, to hear the birds sing, and have Aris at his side. He almost felt happy. He ate a few berries and then lowered his gaze. His feelings confused him. Something warm was crawling up from his abdomen and he didn’t know what it was. He had never felt anything like it before. It was a warm sensation that tickled his insides and made him feel giddy.

Aris wondered about the blush that settled on Zia’s face, but he didn’t probe the young man’s mind. “You’re gaining color.” Zia normally looked pale, but the blush and the weak tan he was gaining gave his face some color.

“It’s being away from the kafta… There’s no harish magic on the water here…or the berries and the nuts.” He didn’t feel that exhausted. As a matter of fact, he felt energized. He might grow stronger since he was no longer constantly exposed to harish magic.

Aris ate his share of the berries and then handed Zia the water skin. “There’s a river close by.”

Zia nodded. “We need to follow it upstream. The cabin is located near it.” They sat nearby each other and he felt strangely nervous. Zia didn’t know what these feelings were about or how he should handle them.

Aris however sensed that something extraordinary had happened. The blush, Zia’s nervousness, and the acceptance of the berries…they all led Aris to believe that he was getting through to Zia and that the young man’s feelings were breaking through to the surface. “Do you want to stay or move on?”

Peeking at Aris’ face, Zia nodded. “We should move on. If we keep up yesterday’s pace, we might arrive at the cabin at night fall.” He would feel more comfortable if they could sleep inside the cabin. He didn’t like being in the open that much.

“Let’s get moving.” Aris got to his feet and extended his hand to pull Zia to his feet.

Zia stared at the limb and eventually placed his hand in it. Aris pulled him to his feet and Zia bowed his head. Aris wanted to let go of his hand, but Zia maintained the hold. He wanted to say something first. “Thank you for last night. I remember what you did.”

Aris shuffled his feet, feeling nervous. “It was nothing. I don’t want you to hurt, Zia.”

Not knowing what to say, Zia walked toward Brigand. His feelings confused him and he needed a moment alone. Thankfully for Zia, Aris understood and didn’t try to follow him.

***

The silence that settled between them was comfortable. They exchanged looks and smiles and Aris kept his distance. He didn’t want to confuse Zia any further. He could tell that Zia was struggling with his feelings and wished he could help him, but he couldn’t rush anything. Zia needed time to understand what he was feeling and simply telling him ‘You’re in love’ wouldn’t do.

It was early in the evening when Zia said, “I’m glad you came along.”

Aris blinked in surprise and turned his head to look at Zia. He hadn’t thought the young man would voice such a thing so soon. “I’m glad you allowed me to tag along.” Zia smiled and the smile actually reached those pale blue eyes.

They went back to their silence after that, but that silence was broken when they reached the cabin.

***

“The cabin needs a lot of fixing,” Aris said as he inspected the structure. He wasn’t even sure they could sleep safely in there that night. “Maybe we should make camp to be on the safe side.”

“I slept in there before,” Zia replied. “The bedroom’s walls are stable. We only need to fix part of the kitchen roof. As long as it doesn’t rain, we should be all right.”

Aris wasn’t going to fight over a leaking roof. “If you say it’s okay, it’s okay.” Zia gave him a surprised look and Aris smiled. “Why don’t you take care of the horses while I try to sort things out here?” Zia nodded and left. Aris tidied the bedroom first. He made sure the bed was made and opened the window to let some fresh air in. Next he went into the kitchen. He found a large piece of plastic and managed to fix the roof for the moment. They needed to find a more permanent solution during the next few days. The cabin also had a living area and a small bathroom. Aris understood why Zia wanted to stay in the cabin. It was peaceful there.

Once the sun had set and the moon had risen, all he heard was the chirping of the crickets and cicadas. Aris went outside and watched the crescent moon appear in the midnight heaven. Zia came up behind him and Aris smiled at the young man, who looked less haunted since they were there. “It’s beautiful here.”

Zia was glad that Aris liked it there. “I thought the same thing. I like it here.” It was peaceful.

Reaching for Zia’s hand, Aris hoped the young man would allow the touch. Zia gave him a puzzled look, but didn’t shake the limb off. “You picked a great place.”

Zia didn’t know how to react to all the praise. “I discovered it by accident.”

“That doesn’t matter. It’s perfect.” Unfortunately, it started to rain and Aris pulled Zia inside. “Don’t go into the kitchen.” He wasn’t sure the improvised roof would hold.

“I’m tired,” Zia admitted. “We will clean out the rest of the rooms tomorrow, when it’s light.”

Aris agreed. “Shall we go into the bedroom then?”

Zia froze. Alarm appeared in his eyes and he seemed to stop breathing. Worried, Aris stopped in his tracks and studied the young man. “Zia?” Had he done something wrong? “Did I say something wrong?” Zia still didn’t react and Aris started to panic. “Zia?” As a last resort, he reached out to Zia and the moment he did, he was pulled violently into the other man’s mind.

Part 3

The room he was in was dark and reeked of piss and blood. Aris felt like he was about to throw up, but since he was just another thought in Zia’s mind, he couldn’t find any relief from the stench that way. He had to suffer with Zia. Looking about, he realized he wasn’t alone in the room. In a corner, curled up in a fetal position was a boy with short black hair.

“Zia?” Aris hurried over to his side, but the battered boy, who couldn’t be any older than ten, didn’t react to his presence. Closer examination revealed that the skin wasn’t just black and blue with bruises, but also blistered. The blisters had a peculiar shape and Aris realized someone had extinguished his cigarettes on Zia’s arms. “Oh no…”

The boy flinched and Aris cocked his head so he could see Zia’s face. It was covered with bruises and he had one huge black eye. “Zia? You need to wake up from the trance you are in.” What had brought this state on?

“Are you ready, boy? You’re wanted in the bedroom.” A burly man entered the room and started to haul Zia to his feet. “You made a mess of yourself! Can’t you use the bucket? Do you have to piss yourself?”

Aris swallowed hard and closed his eyes. “Zia, I get it. You were freaked out because I said we were going to move to the bedroom. It’s okay. The bedroom’s safe.” Suddenly, his surroundings changed, and this time, he recognized them. He had seen the room through Zia’s eyes before. “I don’t want to be in this room, Zia.” They were in Gorin’s house in the room where Gorin had kept Zia chained to the bed. It was dark in there because the oil lamp had been extinguished and, since there was no window in the room, neither the sun nor the moon could illuminate it.

Zia was on the bed. He sat upright and was rocking back and forth. He hadn’t intended to drag Aris into his mind, but had reached out without giving it any thought. It had just happened. “Go away.”

“I can’t. You’re keeping me here.” Aris hoped that Zia wasn’t going to conjure up Gorin from his memory. He wasn’t sure he could handle Gorin at that point. He sat down on the edge of the bed and tried to make out Zia’s expression in the dark. “Why did you bring me here?”

“You said something… A word… Bedroom…and I… I remembered…” Zia looked about. Although it was dark he knew every inch of this room by heart. He knew how far he could walk before the chain stopped him. He knew how long it would take him to leave the bed and light the lamp. Those things made him feel safe. There was only one thing that could disrupt that peaceful feeling and that was Gorin. Aris had been right when he had said that Zia never loved Gorin, but Zia wasn’t ready to admit that yet. It had made him feel safer to believe Gorin cared about him.

“We’re in the cabin up in the mountains,” Aris stated as he tried to find Zia’s hand in the dark. “Your cabin. You wanted to go there, remember?”

Zia nodded. “I remember.” The spell he had been under broke and he collapsed against Aris. “I’m sorry I dragged you along. That never happened before.”

Instead of guiding Zia toward the bed, Aris opted to take the trembling man to the living room. They sat down on the tattered couch and dust flew into the air. The two young men paid it no attention though. They were focused on each other. “Do you want to talk about what happened?”

“Not really,” Zia mumbled and tried to pull away from Aris. “But I bet you’re going to make me.”

“You’re right.” Aris loosened his hold on Zia, but didn’t release him. “I understand about Gorin’s room, Zia, but… Where did you take me before that?”

The dark-haired youth shied away from Aris, but since the other man didn’t let him go, his moving space was limited. “Gorin wasn’t the only man who wanted me in his bed.” Oh, damn, why had he said that? He should keep his mouth shut!

Drawing in a deep breath, Aris prepared himself for more unpleasant news. “Who was that man in the doorway?”

Zia looked away from Aris. He couldn’t look at him and tell his tale at the same time. “I lost my parents… You know that.” Zia decided to skip some parts of what had happened after that. He would only tell Aris what he needed to know. “Other people took me in, but they were bad people. They kept me locked up in the basement and made me have sex with their customers. Those men hurt me.” Zia was surprised he could tell Aris without wanting to run. “One day, Gorin came to the house and demanded they hand me over to them. He took me home, bathed me, and dressed me in red silk.”

Aris didn’t know what to say and remained quiet.

“Gorin chained me to the bed and… He was kind to me. He didn’t beat me the way the other man had. He had sex with me, but it wasn’t that bad.” Zia cringed, knowing the way it sounded. “I was happy when I was alone in the room. I felt safe at those times and Gorin made it possible.”

Aris couldn’t stop his tears from sliding down his face. Little by little, the horrible tale of Zia’s life unfolded. “I want to hurt them. I want to hurt them so badly!” He wanted to kill the bastards who had hurt Zia in the past, including Gorin!

Aris’ outburst took Zia aback. It pulled him from his entranced state and made him blink. “What?”

“I want to squeeze the life out of them, Zia! I want to make them pay for what they did to you!”

Zia stared at Aris in disbelief. Not even Terzah had displayed such a fierce reaction. “Aris, calm down.”

“No! I mean it! I want them to feel as much pain as you did!”

Feeling strangely calm, Zia curled his fingers around Aris’ wrist. “You can’t hurt them. You don’t even know where they are.”

Zia’s words calmed Aris down. “You’re right,” he mumbled, panting hard. “But should I ever meet them I’ll cut their throats.”

Zia knew he had to do something to distract Aris. “Now who sounds like Terzah?” He forced himself to smile. It worked. Aris’ breathing calmed down.

“I do.” Aris smiled weakly at Zia. “I just want to protect you.”

Zia returned the smile a bit more genuinely. “That means a lot to me.” The strange feeling in the pit of his stomach was back and made him feel warm on the inside.

“Let’s sleep on the couch for tonight.” Aris stretched and was touched when Zia moved into his arms. They were making progress. “I’ll guard our surroundings. Remember, no one can sneak up on us.” His telepathy would alert him.

Zia rested his head against Aris’ shoulder and closed his eyes. He wasn’t sure he could sleep, but he planned on getting some rest at the very least.

***

During the next day, Aris fixed the kitchen roof while Zia left to hunt. Aris had been pleasantly surprised to find that Zia had planted some seeds the first time he had been up there and vegetables had started to grow. They had lettuce, tomatoes, potatoes, and beans. Aris also had full confidence in Zia’s ability to provide them with meat. Zia was an excellent hunter. They wouldn’t die from hunger any time soon.

“That should hold,” Aris muttered when he finished fixing up the roof. He had used a ladder which they had found in the shed to reach the damaged section and watched Zia from a bit of height. Zia raised his head and looked at him. In his hands, Zia carried two dead rabbits. “Dinner!” Aris crowed, pleased.

Zia nodded his head. “I’ll clean and prepare them. Is it safe to work in the kitchen?”

“Yes, I fixed the roof.” Aris descended the ladder and jumped onto the ground. “I also cleaned the place.” Opening the front door, Aris gestured for Zia to enter. “Have a look.”

Zia stepped inside. Aris had really cleaned the place up. The dust was gone and the cabin looked inviting. “I’ll like living here.” He entered the kitchen and placed the rabbits on the sink. “Aris?” He turned around and made eye contact. Aris approached and came to a halt in front of him. “Do you think you’ll be happy here too?”

Aris nodded. “I know I will.” Slowly, he raised his right hand and pressed his palm against Zia’s face. He involuntarily sucked in his breath and waited for Zia to either shake him off or accept the caress.

Zia trembled when Aris’ thumb moved against his cheek. It was a strange caress, but one he was willing to accept. “I don’t know what to do,” he admitted nervously. “What do you want from me?”

“Enjoy my touch.” Aris took a step closer. “I’d like to hold you…if I may.”

Zia’s nervousness increased. He wasn’t sure he wouldn’t feel trapped with Aris’ arms locked around him. But in the end, he nodded his head. He’d give it a try.

Aris wrapped Zia up in a loose hug and held him close. He didn’t put any pressure on the young man and made sure Zia could always move out of the embrace if he wanted to. He rested his head against Zia’s shoulder and closed his eyes in bliss. “I always wanted to be this close to you.”

“You’re the only one who…” Zia’s voice shook so badly he had to stop speaking. He composed himself and then tried again. “You’re the only one who I ever let get this close to me.” Everyone else had forced themselves upon him.

Aris smiled against Zia’s shoulder. “I love you,” he whispered and hoped Zia had finally started to believe him. “I really do.”

A lump of emotions formed in Zia’s throat and he didn’t know what to say to that. In the end, he whispered, “I don’t want to hurt you.” He felt as insecure as Aris did. Both men didn’t know what step they should take next.

“You won’t hurt me.” Aris rocked Zia slowly and felt the other man relax against him. “You won’t.”

***

That evening, Zia faced a difficult decision. They had talked for some time and Aris had taught him a card game, but eventually the time had come to turn in for the night. That meant going to bed…and into the bedroom.

Aris sensed that something was wrong even without the use of his telepathy. “Zia?”

“I’m not sure I can go in there.” Zia drew in a deep breath. During his first stay there he had also slept on the couch.

“Don’t you think it’s about time you did away with your demons? Or do you want them to have such power over you?” Aris shifted closer to Zia on the couch. “Do you want to be scared the rest of your life?”

“It’s not as easy as you make it sound.” Zia cringed and lowered his gaze. “I’m scared the memories will surface again.”

“Would it help if I erected a safety zone around the two of us? Do you remember Terzah’s wards? I can create something akin to it. Should someone find us, we would wake the moment they passed through it and they would feel such discomfort that they would want to leave again.”

Zia’s eyes widened. “Can you really do that?”

“I did that after Terzah rescued me and I was staying with Telaim. I’m stronger now than I was then. I can easily do it.” Aris was confident he would manage.

“Can we sleep on the couch for one more night with your wards in place? Maybe tomorrow I can… I might feel strong enough to…to sleep in the bed…”

Aris felt relieved that Zia was telling him what he could and couldn’t do. As far as he was concerned that was a good sign. “Sure, we can sleep here tonight.” He wouldn’t force Zia to face any demons he wasn’t ready yet to confront. “Maybe tomorrow.”

They lay down on the couch and Zia moved into Aris’ arms out of his own accord. That Zia trusted him touched Aris. “You’re safe with me,” Aris murmured, knowing Zia needed to hear it. “Safe.”

It had taken Zia some time to start believing that, but he was finally beginning to understand that Aris was for real.

***

Zia studied Aris’ expression. He had woken up first and finally had a chance to look at Aris while taking his time. He liked the other young man who had risked so much for him, but he didn’t know how to interact with him. Aris wanted something from him he wasn’t sure he could give him. Zia was eighteen years old and twelve of those had been filled with abuse.

Losing his parents in the fire had damaged him, being pinned to the forest ground and being castrated had damaged him, being kept as a whore for ten long years had damaged him. He wasn’t good enough for Aris. Aris should have turned har. He deserved a chesnari who loved him, like Zen loved Terzah. Not this damaged version of Zia.

He tried to reach back into his past and remember the love his parents had shown him. His mother had stroked his hair when he had gone to sleep and his father had let him sit on his knee. Those first few years of his life had been filled with love in spite of the hardships he had suffered while they had been on the run for the Varrs.

Could he ever go back to being the loving child he had been once? His mother had used to shower his face with kisses and his father had loved to give him raspberries on his tummy. As a child, Zia had loved receiving their demonstrations of love. But could the adult Zia make the change and find a way to accept and give love again?

“You’re not worrying that early in the morning, are you?” Aris had opened his eyes and studied Zia’s face. Zia was lost in thought and he hoped the bad memories weren’t haunting the young man again.

Zia shook his head and tried to remain as relaxed as he had felt upon wakening up. He didn’t want to feel so nervous and panicked all the time. “I care about you too,” Zia whispered, wanting Aris to know what he was feeling. “And I want to make you happy in turn. You did so much for me in the past.” Aris stayed quiet and Zia found the courage to continue. “I’m not scared of you, Aristander. I never was.”

Aris smiled and brushed a strand of raven hair behind Zia’s ear. He was thrilled that Zia was allowing more intimacy between them. They were taking small steps, but they were moving forward. “I never thought you were scared of me. You just don’t know how to act, do you, Zia?”

Zia felt relieved at hearing that. “You’re right. I don’t know what is…acceptable behavior on my part. I only know how Gorin wanted me to react. I don’t know what you want from me. I can’t do what feels right to me, because…because that’s not what I should be doing.” He knew that much. “I know my responses aren’t normal.”

“Why do you say that?” Aris thought it important that he gave Zia a chance to think aloud.

“I’ve watched Terzah and Zen when they thought I wasn’t looking. I wanted to know what it was like to have a ‘normal’ relationship.” Zia lowered his gaze and stared at Aris’ chest. “The first time I heard Terzah scream during aruna I thought Zen was raping him.”

Aris rubbed Zia’s scalp and remained quiet. He wanted Zia to continue since the young man finally felt safe enough to confide in him.

“I snuck up on them – I wanted to help Terzah in case Zen had hurt him.” Terzah had looked at him in surprise when he had found Zia standing in the main room waiting for him and had asked him why he was standing there. Zia had stuttered something impossible to understand and Terzah had wanted to question him further, but then Zen had appeared. Zen had immediately grasped the situation and had calmly explained to him that Terzah hadn’t been hurt and that he had cried out because he had felt pleasure. Zia had just stared at them and hadn’t believed Zen’s explanation. No one felt such pleasure during that act…no one. He had never spied on them again and had covered his ears each time Zen had made Terzah scream.

“Zen would never hurt Terzah.” Aris knew where Zia was coming from and there was only one way for Zia to understand that sex could be about love and pleasure. But Zia was in no way ready for a detailed demonstration. “And I would never hurt you.” Aris touched his lips to Zia’s and kissed him lightly. Zia’s eyes grew big and confusion colored them.

“Why did you do that?” Zia raised a hand and touched his lips, rubbing the sensitive skin there.

“Because I love you. People who are in love kiss. And hara who are in love share breathe. You have seen Zen and Terzah do that.” Zia nodded and Aris smiled. “I want to kiss you because I love you. That’s how I show my love.”

“Gorin never did that.” Zia frowned. One of Gorin’s ‘favorite’ ways of expressing his ‘love’ had been tying him to the bed and taking his pleasure from him. He had always kept quiet, had pretended he liked it, but deep down he had recoiled and hated Gorin for what the other man was doing to him. He blinked, suddenly realizing something important. There was a thin line between love and hate. The feeling that he had thought was love was in fact hate. He hated Gorin. He hated all those men who had hurt him. It was hatred and not love he had felt in the past. “Oh,” he said and whimpered. “I didn’t think…didn’t know…”

Aris didn’t know exactly what kind of insight Zia had gained, but he sensed it was an important moment for the young man and didn’t want to disturb it. He just stroked the dark hair and smiled at Zia. Zia’s trance lasted for a few more minutes and then the expression in the blue eyes changed.

“Aristander, I…” Zia buried his face against Aris’ chest and failed to stop the flood of tears that filled and left his eyes. “I didn’t know…” He sobbed in Aris’ hold for several minutes and, when the flood finally stopped, he felt calm and at peace. A new feeling had taken hold of him and he didn’t know how to label it. It was already morning, but Zia didn’t want to get up just yet. “Can we stay like this for another moment?”

“Of course we can. There’s no reason for us to get up any time soon.” Aris was happy to be close to Zia and hold him.

***

Zia spent most of the day on his own, thinking. He had moved to the river and sat there letting his feet dangle in the cool water. The revelation he’d had that morning still occupied him and he wondered how he could have let himself believe that Gorin had loved him. His parents had loved him. But not Gorin. And now Aristander loved him. How was he going to deal with that?

“Zia? If you don’t want me close, just tell me and I…?” Aris wasn’t sure Zia wanted him around at the moment. Something was happening to the young man and Aris didn’t want to disturb Zia’s musings.

“No, stay.” Zia grabbed hold of Aris’ wrist. “Please sit down.”

Surprised that he was invited to stay, Aris complied and sat down next to Zia. “I don’t want to pry, but you look…different.”

“Something happened this morning. I realized something.” Zia looked at Aris’ fingers and stroked them with his fingertips. It was new for him to bestow a caress onto someone out of his own accord. He was touching Aris because he wanted to touch him.

Aris was surprised that Zia was caressing his hand and let it happen. “What did you realize?”

“I realized that I hate Gorin. I made myself believe he cared for me and it was safest for me to think I loved him back. I was lying to myself and I believed my lies.”

Aris sucked in his breath and felt triumphant at hearing Zia’s words. Had Zia finally grasped the truth?

“You love me for the right reasons and I care about you in turn, but I don’t know if I’m still capable of loving you…”

Aris interrupted him. “Of course you are! I see it in your eyes!”

“You have too much faith in me,” Zia whispered and twined their fingers.

“You’ll gain faith in yourself in time. Trust me. I’ll help.” Aris gave Zia a brilliant smile.

Zia peeked at Aris and returned the smile. “You’ll have to have faith for the both of us.”

“I can manage that,” Aris said confidently. “We’ll make this work.”

***

Zia eyed Aris closely. It was a hot day and Aris was in the process of removing his clothes. “What are you doing?” he asked and frowned.

“I’m going for a swim in the river. Are you joining me?” Aris stepped out of his trousers and was naked. He waded into the river, bearing the still cool temperature and then turned to grin at Zia. “Or don’t you do cold?”

Zia felt conflicted. One part of him wanted to join Aris for a swim, but another part shied away from taking his clothes off in front of Aris and being naked. He shook his head and seated himself on the grass so he could watch Aris. Aris wasn’t overly muscular, but he had gained some muscle tone due to his life with the hara. The blond hair continued to grow and now reached Aris’ shoulder blades. One green and one brown eye looked at him. “Go on, swim!”

Aris felt a bit disappointed that Zia wasn’t joining him, but also realized it would be too soon for the young man to take that step. They had only just shared their first kiss. He didn’t want Zia to feel guilty for not joining him and swam away from the river bank. He continued to feel Zia’s eyes upon his form and made sure he stayed in sight all the time.

Zia liked watching Aris swim. It was nice to see the other young man so carefree.

***

That evening, Zia retreated into the bathroom to wash. He had carried two buckets of water into the house, since the plumbing also needed fixing and he was about to fill a large bowl when Aris entered the room. Aris leaned against the doorframe and watched him.

“That water is freezing cold. It’s cooled down since this afternoon.” Aris disliked the idea of Zia washing up in icy water. “We should warm it.”

Zia shrugged his shoulders. “I can deal with it.” He had washed up in cold water before.

“But you don’t have to deal with it, Zia.” Aris took hold of one bucket and carried it into the kitchen. They had cut wood earlier that day and Aris had lit up the fire place. He took hold of a large kettle and put the water into it. “I’ll bring it in once it’s warm.”

That left Zia with a dilemma. From the way Aris had sounded, the other man expected him to start undressing. Zia looked at the mirror positioned above the wash bowl and stared at his reflection. He was still handsome, he knew that, but Aris looked deeper than just that. Aris loved him on the inside as well.

Aris peeked into the bathroom and saw Zia looking at his reflection. The water had warmed up and should be used before it would cool down again. “Careful, coming through,” he called as he carried the kettle into the bathroom. “You should get out of those clothes, Zia.”

Zia knew he had another decision to make. Aris had seen him naked before, but that had been during times when he had been injured. Aris knew what he looked like underneath his clothes. Zia removed his shirt and shivered. A cool night had followed a warm day.

Aris didn’t want to peek but couldn’t stop himself. Zia was beautiful, but his body carried its share of scars. Some burns had never completely healed and scars had formed on the lithe body. “Is there anything else I can do to help?” He picked up the second bucket so he could heat more water for Zia, who doubtlessly also wanted to wash his long hair.

“No, thank you.” Zia felt shy, but it was a good kind of shy. He wasn’t scared and didn’t feel intimidated by Aris’ presence. He waited for Aris to leave the room and then stepped out of his loose-fitting trousers. He grabbed hold of the soap and worked up lather. As he started to wash up, he remembered a time when he hadn’t had the luxury of cleaning himself up. He took great care in removing all of the dust and dirt from his body and the water started to change into a muddy color.

“Here’s more hot water.” Aris hoped Zia wouldn’t panic. Zia was naked and there was another man in the room – even though Aris was the other man, he didn’t know what kind of effect his presence would have on Zia.

Zia tensed and looked at Aris from over his shoulder. He felt vulnerable since he was naked and tried to cover his private parts with his hands.

Aris poured the muddy water into the sink and filled the bowl again with steaming hot water. “Zia?”

Zia belatedly realized how foolish he was acting. Aris had seen him naked before and knew he didn’t look normal.

“It’s okay, you know. I have seen you naked. I even helped Terzah wash you up while you were recovering from that bear attack.”

Zia’s face grew flustered. Aris had seen his shame then.

Realizing that it was the wrong moment to discuss something so intimate, Aris left the room so Zia could finish up.

Zia quickly washed his hair and grabbed one of the towels Aris had put out for him. He dried his hair and then his skin. He didn’t want to slip back into the clothes he had worn on the road, but the rest of his clothes were in the saddlebags and those were in the living room.

Aris cleared his throat with a soft cough and extended his right arm into the room from the doorway. “Would you like a clean outfit?”

Zia accepted the green robes Aris handed him. They had been a gift from Terzah. He put them on and finger combed his hair to rid himself of the worst snarls.

“Go into the living room so you can warm up. I’ll clean up here.” Aris wanted Zia in front of the fire place and wrapped up in the warm blanket he had placed on the floor.

“You don’t have to. I made a mess, I should clean up.”

Aris shook his head and shooed Zia out of the bathroom. “Go, warm up.”

Left with no choice, Zia made his way over to the fire and sat down in front of the fire place. The blanket looked warm and inviting and he wrapped it around his frame. His thoughts drifted back to the moment when he had refused the blanket Terzah had offered him after the har had brought him home from the infirmary. He had still wanted to die back then. He had felt guilty because he’d helped Gorin escape.

When Aris returned to the living room, he found Zia wrapped up in the blanket. “Is there enough room for me to fit in there as well?”

Zia lifted the blanket and watched Aris settle down next to him. Aris tucked the blanket around them and folded an arm around Zia. “You don’t have to feel ashamed you know because…because…”

“Because they castrated me?” Zia was surprised he could say the words so calmly. Maybe he had expected for the conversation to happen. “I’ll never be a man – a real man.”

Aris glared at Zia. “Don’t you say that! Being a real man takes more than a pair of balls!”

Stunned, Zia stared at Aris. “What did you say?”

“Zia, you’re more a man than some scum like Gorin will ever be!”

Zia lowered his gaze and stared into the fire. “Did Terzah tell you how it happened?”

Aris shook his head. “He didn’t. I didn’t even know he knew.” It hurt a bit that Terzah was privy to information he’d always wanted to know.

“Do you want to know?” Zia shivered beneath the warm blanket.

“Only if you want to tell me.”

Zia shrugged. “You’ll find out sooner or later. Do you remember me telling you that the Varrs killed my parents?” Aris nodded and Zia continued. “I was injured. The flames had burned my skin, but I was still able to run. I ran for days. I exhausted myself. I found no water or food. Then, I ran into four men on horseback.” Zia shivered and closed his eyes, but that only caused the memories to intensify. He opened them again and slowly raised his gaze.

Looking at Aris, he continued his tale. “They didn’t have to catch me. I threw myself at their feet and begged for water and food.” Aris’ hold on him tightened and Zia allowed it. “They threw me bits of food and I wolfed it down. I didn’t realize it was just a distraction. One of them snuck up on me and trapped me. He held me tight and then he threw me onto the ground. They…” Zia swallowed hard. “They raped me.”

Aris’ telepathy leaked and comforting thoughts flowed into Zia’s mind, assuring him he wasn’t alone. Zia accepted the comfort and continued to look at Aris. Looking at Aris helped him focus and keep the memories at bay. “It lasted most of the night and they started to drink. A few hours later, they were drunk and uncovered their knives. They were talking about making me into a girl and keeping me with them. I was too young to understand what they planned to do to me.” Aris curled his fingers around Zia’s and squeezed. Zia gasped and then continued, “They didn’t bother to knock me out or get me drunk. They simply cut me. There was so much blood! The pain was terrible and I screamed!”

“Zia,” Aris whispered and rocked Zia in his arms.

“I almost died. I don’t know why I survived. It wasn’t thanks to them. They dragged me with them and sold me off to the nearest brothel. The owner was thrilled to have me and threw me into the basement.”

Aris nodded as he remembered reliving that scene with Zia. “It’s not fair that you had to live through all that.”

Zia nodded. “You’re right. It’s not fair. But life never is.” He shivered and finally lowered his gaze again. He stared at the flames and sighed. “They liked it… liked raping me, those customers and Gorin…they liked the fact that I couldn’t grow erect. They treated me like a girl…”

Aris listened and didn’t offer any ‘wise’ advice. He hadn’t lived it and everything he would say would sound hypocritical.

Zia wasn’t sure he should ask his next question, but he still did. “Will you treat me like a girl?”

Aris swallowed hard. “I’ll treat you the way you want to be treated when that times comes.”

Zia managed a weak smile. “I really like you, Aristander.”

Aristander returned the smile and nodded his head. “I like you too.”

“Would you kiss me? Or don’t you want to kiss me any longer? Now that you know…?” Zia felt scared. Had Aris changed his mind?

But Aris quickly set Zia’s worries to rest by claiming those soft lips and kissing him. He kept the kiss light and superficial and when he pulled back, he retorted, “Does that answer your question?”

Zia slowly nodded his head once. “I guess it does.” He felt immensely relieved that Aris didn’t seem to mind his castrated state that much and, for the first time, Zia wondered what having sex with Aris would be like.

***

Aris gave the couch a displeased look and Zia noticed it. They had slept in the living room for the last few nights and Zia had thought Aris was okay with it, but now he wasn’t so sure any more. “Is anything wrong?”

Aris hadn’t wanted to bring it up, but since Zia was asking… “I love holding you when you sleep…you know that, don’t you?” Zia nodded and Aris continued. “But the couch is too small. It’s giving me a back ache.” It was okay to sleep on the couch for one or two nights, but he hoped they would move on to the bed shortly.

Feeling guilty, Zia looked at the bedroom door. He knew he had to face his fears one night, but he hadn’t thought it would be that night. “I don’t want you to be in any discomfort,” he whispered and his gaze shifted back to the couch. “We can sleep in the bedroom.” However, he had no idea how he would react when he would wake up in there. It had taken a long time for him to accept Terzah’s kafta as his home. For years, he had thought he was waking up in his room in Gorin’s house before realizing he was in the kafta. Getting used to being in a different room would take time.

“Are you ready to take that step? I don’t want to rush you.” Aris would bear the discomfort of sleeping on the couch if it helped Zia sleep better.

Zia shook his head. “No, you’re right. We should try this.” Zia walked over to the bedroom door and opened it. Inside was a surprisingly comfortable bed. Whoever had lived there before must have built it himself. Aris had spread a warm blanket over it, which had been a gift from Deuel. The har had given them the plaid when he had heard they were going to live in the hills. It was bright red with different shades of orange and gold woven in it. The blanket added a cozy touch to the room.

Aris followed Zia in and waited for the young man to make up his mind.

Realizing that Aris was waiting for him to do something, Zia removed the robes he was wearing. Beneath them he still wore a shirt that he wasn’t going to remove. He lifted the blanket and slipped between the covers. His long, black hair created a halo around his head when it touched the pillow. Large, blue eyes focused on Aris.

Aris swallowed hard and then followed Zia’s example. He removed his trousers, but kept his shirt on. He lay down close to Zia and let the other young man decide if he wanted to move into his arms or not. He felt thrilled when Zia inched closer and he opened his arms to hug the young man close to him. His gaze sought out Zia’s and Aris smiled. “Thank you for trusting me.”

Zia’s face grew slightly flustered. “I trusted you from the beginning.” Looking into Aris’ eyes, Zia felt the young man’s mind reach for his. “It’s more than trust…” he whispered and felt shy and nervous making his confession. “I always knew it was more than that, but… Gorin…” Aris suddenly lifted his hand and placed a finger against his lips, silencing Zia.

“Try to leave him in the past. I know he had a big impact on your life – and on mine also – but we moved on. You have to move on too, Zia.” Zia nodded against his chest and Aris felt hopeful that the young man would find a way to deal with his ghosts. If only Gorin stopped being so close all the time! That was why he had stopped Zia from talking just then. He didn’t want Gorin’s ghost to take form in their bedroom.

“It’s hard to do that,” Zia muttered, but he would try. Aris’ arms, wrapped around him, felt comforting and he began to relax. “It’s hard to believe you still want me.”

Aris drew in a deep breath and remained calm. “I want you – no one else.”

Zia dozed off with a smile on his face. Hearing that was a balm to his scarred soul.

Part 4

Aris went to sleep shortly after Zia did. Both slept peacefully through the night, but Aris forced himself to wake up just before sun rise. The room was still dark and he knew that, should Zia wake up in the dark, he might assume he was back in Gorin’s house. He wanted to be there for Zia should the young man need him.

He stroked the dark hair and smiled when Zia pressed closer to him. Being in the cabin was doing Zia a world of good and Aris understood why Zia had insisted on spending time there. Zia healed a bit more with each passing day. It helped that the two of them were alone and that there was no harish magic about to set Zia back in his physical recovery. They should have done this some time ago, but Aris had always felt nervous and insecure around Zia when they were alone.

His thoughts started to drift and he remembered the way Zia had been when Terzah had brought him to the kafta. Zia had wanted to die back then. He had helped Gorin escape from prison and then Gorin had left without Zia. Maybe that had been the moment when Zia had realized that Gorin didn’t love him as much as his abuser had said he did. It was still a mystery to Aris that Zia had developed feelings for Gorin in the first place, but in a twisted way, it made sense, he guessed. Gorin was all Zia had had for years. The man had kept him safe, but in return he had used Zia as he had seen fit. The problem was that Zia hadn’t minded paying such a high price for his safety because he had suffered much worse in the past.

Zia stirred in his arms and Aris prepared himself to battle Gorin’s ghost if necessary. But the blue eyes that looked into his were clear and Zia knew where he was and who he was with. “Good morning.”

Zia blinked and a soft air colored his gaze when he smiled at Aris. He hadn’t had much reason to smile in his past life, but that had changed the last few days. Aris was giving him a reason to smile. “Morning.”

“It’s still early… Shall we stay in bed a little longer?”

“I like that idea.” Waking up in Aris’ arms felt nice, even though they were still in the bedroom. That the nightmares had left him alone amazed him. He hadn’t expected that. Aris’ presence worked miracles. “Aristander?”

Aris continued to stroke Zia’s hair and hummed softly. It was a melody he had heard Zen hum occasionally.

“Would… Would you kiss me again?” No one had kissed him in the past. Not Gorin, not his other abusers. That Aris liked kissing him made him feel special and it caused him to feel warm inside. He didn’t understand where the sensation was coming from, but he *did* know he wanted to feel warm again.

“But of course!” That Zia was asking to be kissed was a miracle. Aris hadn’t thought Zia would let him be so close so quickly. With his arms wrapped around Zia, Aris touched his lips to the young man’s and kissed him. Zia responded by pressing against him and Aris deepened the kiss a bit. The tip of his tongue moved between Zia’s lips and he waited to see what Zia would do.

Zia kept his eyes wide open to convince himself that this was really happening. He parted his lips and teeth and his eyes widened when Aris’ tongue glided into his mouth.

Aris watched Zia’s reaction closely and also kept an inner eye on Zia’s thoughts. However, he didn’t feel any worry or alarm, just confused pleasure and that made him continue. He kept the kissing slow and hoped Zia felt comfortable under the attention he was getting. When they broke apart a few minutes later, Zia’s face was flushed and his breath came in gasps. “Did you like that?”

Zia stared at Aris in rapture. He needed a moment to compose himself. “Yes, I did. Can we do it again?”

“Now?”

“I would like that.”

Aris wasn’t able to deny Zia his request and kissed him again.

***

“What are you doing?” Zia had walked up to the river side and watched Aris sitting at the edge.

“I found some fishing rods in the shed behind the cabin. I thought I might supply dinner today.” Aris liked fishing. He liked sitting there and watching the stream. He raised a hand and smiled when Zia placed his hand inside. Zia sat down next to him and Aris rubbed Zia’s fingers. “I already caught that one.” Aris had taken a bucket filled with water with him and had placed the trout he had caught in it. “Do you think you can prepare it later?”

“That should be no problem.” Zia leaned against Aris and closed his eyes. A large tree which reached out to them provided them with some shade. The sun was hot that day.

“Zia, I want to ask you something.” Zia tensed against him and Aris hated the fact that he had caused Zia to grow upset. “I… I was wondering… You know that Terzah and Zen are blood-bonded. They love each other and are devoted to one another. I want that for us too. I want us…to be together…and not look at other people should we return to the kafta. I want us to be about us.” Aris was growing frustrated with his inability to explain this properly to Zia.

But Zia had understood. “Aris, I…” He didn’t know what he felt. A part of him felt honored that Aris wanted him to be his partner, but another part felt horrified that Aris would settle for someone like him.

Aris felt saddened when he picked up on Zia’s thoughts. He hadn’t wanted to read them – it had happened by accident. “I love you, Zia.”

Zia freed himself of Aris’ embrace, pulled his knees close to his chest, and wrapped his arms around them. “I want to love you back, Aristander.”

“I hear a ‘but’ in there.” Aris remained patient. It was important that they continued to take small steps and that he gave Zia the time he needed to sort everything out.

“Can I get it right? I don’t want to hurt you.” Zia worried that he might upset or hurt Aris in the future with his uncontrolled actions and behavior.

“You got the kissing part right earlier.” Aris inched over to Zia. “I understand why you’re worried, but you’re safe with me and I know I’m safe with you. Sure, there will be misunderstandings in the future, but I’m confident we’ll be able to sort everything out.”

Zia lifted his head and studied Aris’ eyes. “That’s why you came along, isn’t it? You want to make this work.”

“That’s right. I want to make this work, but I need your help.” Zia’s hand moved into his direction and Aris took it into his. The fingers no longer felt cold or clammy. He twined their fingers and smiled at Zia in a silly way. At the same time, something tugged at his fishing line. He hadn’t just caught one fish, but two… Zia included.

***

Zia left Aris to his fishing and went for a walk down the riverside. He had a lot to think about. When he had allowed Aris to take his hand, he had agreed to much more. He had agreed to spend the rest of his life with him. That didn’t scare Zia, but it did worry him. A part of him still expected Aris to want to become har at one point in his life and that was a path he couldn’t walk. When he had been exposed to the Ferrar crystals, he had become resilient to harish magic.

But…one of Terzah’s friends had mentioned an option Zia had rejected back then. That there was a healer working with Ferrar crystals survivors and, although a cure had not been found yet, it might happen in the future. Since he was about to commit to Aristander, he had to sort himself out too. Should the opportunity ever arise, would he want to become har? Did he want to be like Terzah? Did he?

The truth was that he would seize the opportunity to shed his human life and become har with both hands. Life as a human had brought him nothing but sorrow and pain. In the end, it was an easy decision. Yes, he would become har if the opportunity ever presented itself.

That was at least one thing he had managed to sort out. What about the rest? Zia seated himself on the grass and removed his shoes. He let his feet dangle in the water and sighed. There were other changes he had to make. Since Aris and he were going to be together in that way, he had to find a way to increase the level of intimacy between them. Not because he thought Aris would want them to become more intimate. No, he *wanted* them to become more intimate. Zia had realized that what Gorin had done to him had had little to do with the unselfish love that Aristander felt for him. Gorin had doubtlessly had some feelings for him, but those had been feelings based on power abuse and lust.

/I’ll have to let Aris take the lead,/ Zia realized. He would do his best to go along with the things Aris introduced to him. The kissing had been nice enough. Maybe the other things Aris wanted him to do would be pleasant as well.

***

Aris found Zia still sitting there an hour later. He had made a quick stop at the cabin to deposit the caught fish and had then left in search of Zia. “Ah, I finally found you.” He hoped he had given Zia enough time to think everything over. He knew their conversation had started a process and that Zia had to find out where he stood in all this.

Zia pushed himself to his feet, turned around, and wrapped his arms around Aris. He rested his head against Aris’ shoulder and replied, “I needed time to think.”

“And what conclusion did you reach?” The fact that Zia was embracing him filled Aris with hope.

“That I want to make this work too, but you have to be patient with me. I might make mistakes.”

“Don’t worry about that. I’ll make mistakes too.” Aris kissed the crown of Zia’s head and savored being held. It was a nice role reversal.

***

Later that evening, Zia taught Aris how to clean the fish. They prepared them together and Zia liked the fact that he was able to teach Aris something. Most of the time he felt like Aris was the teacher and he the student.

While Zia removed the fish from the pan, Aris made a cozy nest of blankets and pillows in the living room. He had found a few candles and, although the oil lamps provided them with enough light, he had lit the candles as well to add a bit of a romantic touch to the setting.

Zia arched an eyebrow upon entered the living room and couldn’t help but wonder about Aris’ plans for the night. He placed their plates on the floor and settled down next to Aris. He noticed the looks Aris kept giving him throughout dinner and started to feel nervous.

“Don’t be,” Aris murmured, reading Zia’s thoughts. “There’s no reason to be nervous.”

“That’s easy for you to say. You know how to act. I don’t. I’m afraid. Anything I do might offend you.” Zia sipped some of his water and avoided meeting Aris’ eyes. “It’s easy for you…”

Aris shook his head and the motion made Zia raise his gaze. “That’s not true. It’s not easy for me either.” Zia’s questioning look urged him to explain. “I’m nervous around you too. I know that Gorin hurt you, even if you refuse to admit it. I know the pain he caused you and I’m afraid to hurt you in turn. You suffered so much already, Zia.”

Zia blinked. “You *know* he hurt me?” What was that supposed to mean?

“I’m telepathic, Zia. I know what you think…or what Gorin thought. How else do you think I managed to escape?”

Zia had tensed during Aris’ speech. “Did you… Tell me you didn’t join my mind when… No, I would have felt you! You couldn’t have!” But then the true conclusion dawned on Zia and he cringed. Aris hadn’t joined *his* mind, he had joined Gorin’s! “Why did you do that?” Suddenly he was on his feet and bolted from the room, leaving a startled and guilty-looking Aris behind.

***

Zia was angry and scared at the same time. Aris had done something terrible. He had been inside Gorin’s mind while the man had had sex with him. Zia couldn’t help but wonder what particular scene Aris had watched.

Gorin had loved to tie him to the bed and Zia had let him. It wasn’t like he’d had a choice in the matter. He had loathed the times Gorin had tied him down, but the knowledge that Gorin would eventually leave and that the room would be his domain again had seen him through the ordeal. Sex with Gorin had always been painful, but Zia had trained himself not to feel the pain. In the beginning that had been difficult, but he had learned to emotionally distance himself from the scene. Sometimes, he had felt himself floating near the ceiling and would watch dispassionately as Gorin fucked him. When Gorin was done, he had would return to his body. He had denied any pain he had felt and it had worked. His body became numb over time and he’d no longer had to leave it in order to bear whatever it was that Gorin had had in store for him.

But now Aris had brought it all back. Just one little comment and Zia felt paranoid again. He felt like Gorin or any of the other men who had raped him in his short life would find him and drag him with them. “Why did you do that? Why did you have to tell me?”

Aris had followed Zia, afraid that the young man might take off and not return for the next few days. Zia had done that before and he didn’t want it to happen again. Hearing Zia’s question, he bowed his head. “I didn’t want to keep it a secret any more.”

Zia spun around. He hadn’t noticed Aris following him. Staring at Aris with big eyes, he wondered what to do. Should he run again?

“Please give me a chance to explain. Please…” Aris gave Zia a pleading look. When Zia stayed in place, he added, “I want to make you happy and that includes in bed. If we’re ever going to make love I want you to look at me with happiness in your eyes. Not with such coldness.” Gorin apparently hadn’t cared much about Zia’s feelings. The man had simply taken what he had wanted. If only Zia would admit to having been abused by Gorin!

Confusion took over and Zia frowned. He loved Gorin, didn’t he? Then why had he hated the man at the same time? Slowly, he went down on his knees and wrapped his arms around his waist. Hugging himself, he rocked and tried to make sense of the thoughts racing through his head.

Aris felt guilty for putting Zia in that state. That hadn’t been his intention. He knelt in front of the young man and looked at Zia. He didn’t have to be a telepath to see the young man’s distress. “May I hold you?” Zia nodded and Aris enfolded the distraught man in his arms. He would have loved to sort Zia’s thoughts out for the young man, but that would be trespassing. Zia had to do that himself.

“Can we stop talking about him? I’m confused,” Zia whispered into Aris’ ear.

“We’ll stop discussing him for now, but in the end, you’ll have to confront him.” Aris carefully helped Zia to his feet and guided him back to their cabin. Zia still had a long way to go.

***

During the next few days, Zia’s emotional state stabilized. It was like bolting from the room that day had freed him in a way. He would instigate a round of kissing every so often and cuddled up to Aris when they went to sleep. Gorin however was a closed subject for the time being and Aris respected that. In the mornings, Aris went swimming while Zia tended to their little vegetable garden. In the afternoons, they would walk together and Aris would try to cajole Zia into the water, but to no avail. Zia loved to watch him swim, but never joined him. In the evening, Zia went hunting and Aris busied himself around the house, getting everything ready for the evening. Zia always brought something home from his hunting trip and would then prepare it.

Happily, Aris watched Zia put on some much-needed weight and the ashen complexion belonged to the past now. Zia’s face was tanned and the pale eyes seemed more lucid with each passing day. At night, they slept in the bed and the nightmares left Zia alone. Aris began to wonder what their next step would be when someone knocked on their door one day.

***

Zen had let him go in the end. Terzah had been determined to visit their sons and had left Zen in charge of the remaining children. He had used Aris’ telepathy to find them and once he stood in front of their cabin, he wondered if Zia had found the peace of mind he’d needed so badly. He couldn’t help being concerned. That was just the way he was.

***

Zia’s hand went to his hunting knife when the knock echoed through the cabin. They ought to be alone and who ever was knocking on their door didn’t belong there. Aris gestured for him to hide, but Zia refused to do that. He could defend himself. Terzah had taught him how.

Aris grew worried when Zia headed for the doorway. It had been his intention to check on the intruder himself, but Zia had taken the initiative.

Zia withdrew the hunting knife from its sheath and opened the door. He was ready to protect his home from intruders. Stunned, he looked at Terzah, who was grinning at him.

“I see you found time to sharpen that knife?” Terzah’s first impression of Zia was positive. The young man’s face was tanned and the eyes free of fear and pain. The shirt Zia was wearing was Aris’ but neither of the men seemed to mind.

“Terzah!” Aris happily embraced the har and pulled him inside. “I didn’t think you would visit with us! It’s so far away from your kafta! What about David and…”

Terzah stopped him. “Zen takes care of them. Don’t worry. I left my sons in capable hands. I had to see for myself that the two of you were all right.” Aris was hugging him and Terzah patiently bore the embrace, although he wanted to check on Zia as well. Aris finally let go and Terzah smiled at Zia. “You look well.”

“I feel better,” Zia replied and managed a weak smile.

Terzah grinned. “You look handsome when you smile.” Aris laughed and Terzah joined him. “So, are you going to invite me into your home?” He hated houses and preferred his kafta, but since he was the guest, he would set his distaste aside.

“Please come inside! You’re always welcome here!” Aris closed the door behind Terzah and pulled the har along. “Zia was in the middle of preparing dinner!”

“Good, I’m hungry.” Terzah took in the rooms and realized his sons had created their home there. He followed Aris into the kitchen and watched Zia prepare the snapper Aris had caught earlier that day. “I won’t stay long,” he stated, afraid that he was intruding. “I’ll leave for home in the morning.”

“Then we must make good use of tonight!” Excitedly, Aris headed for the living room since they would eat dinner there.

That gave Terzah a moment alone with Zia. He placed two bundles on the kitchen counter. “I brought you some things. Food mostly and some clothes. There’s also a drawing in there that David made. He misses having the two of you around.”

Zia read between the lines. “I’m not coming home yet. I need more time.”

“I understand that. I’m not here to ask you to come home.” Terzah watched Zia prepare the fish. It appeared the young man had been more observant in the past than Terzah had thought. Zia was preparing the fish the way Terzah always did. “Did you find what you were looking for?”

Zia looked up and nodded. “It’s peaceful up here.”

“And what about having Aris for company? Does his chatter not irritate you?” Terzah smiled.

“No, it doesn’t. It’s nice to have someone to talk to.” Zia placed the fish, which was ready to be eaten, on the plates. “I’m learning things about myself.”

“Example please?” Terzah eyed the fish hungrily.

“He makes me face my feelings for Gorin and that’s something that scares me, but I’m not avoiding the issue any longer.” Zia closed his eyes for a while. “I thought I loved Gorin.”

“It was safe to feel that way,” Terzah agreed, showing that he understood.

“I guess so.” Zia picked up one of the plates and handed it to Terzah. “I didn’t realize it until the other day, but I hate Gorin. I don’t love him. I love Aristander.”

Terzah followed Zia into the living room and sat down on the floor in-between Zia and Aris. Zia handed Aris his plate and then stared at the food. “Terzah, I did the right thing by coming here.”

Terzah ate some of the fish and liked the taste. He wondered what other things Zia had learned just by watching him. “I think you’re right. You needed to do this. And I’m not here to talk you into coming back with me. I just want you to know that you always have a home to come back to.” Aris reached for his hand and Terzah curled his fingers around his son’s. “You’re family.”

Both Aris and Zia knew Terzah was being sincere and Aris showed that by squeezing the har’s fingers. Zia however found it harder to reach out. Being touched by someone else besides Aris made him nervous, even when it was *only* Terzah.

The har sucked in his breath when Zia unexpectedly took his other hand in his. In the past, Zia had never welcomed bodily contact, let alone instigate it. “Do you miss me? Even just a little?” he asked, trying to do away with the silence that had settled over them.

“Each day,” Aris replied. “We miss you every day.” Zia quickly nodded his head to show he agreed. He did miss the har and was happy to have Terzah as a guest.

***

They stayed up late that night. Aris and Terzah drank the sheh the har had brought and even Zia managed to down one glass, but after that, the young man went back to drinking tea. Terzah had brought him a new stash of tea and he was trying out a new flavor. They talked about Zen, the rest of the family, Deuel, Bela, and the hara in Immanion. Apparently another newspaper had reached the community, supplying them with new gossip. When the time came to go to sleep, Terzah was pleased to find that Zia and Aris retreated to the bedroom to sleep in each other’s arms. His heart still ached as he recalled how afraid Zia had been to go to sleep in the past. The boy had only slept for short amounts of time and only when he was alone in a room. It warmed his heart to see Zia accept Aris’ closeness so easily.

He reluctantly curled up on the couch and let his gaze sweep through the room. On the windowsill stood a vase with flowers, which Aris had told him earlier that evening he had gathered for Zia. David’s drawing had found a new home against the wall. Terzah noticed little details like bright stones, pebbles from the stream, and plants which had found their way into the cabin. His heart felt lighter since he could see his sons’ happiness with his own eyes.

***

The next morning, Terzah said his goodbyes and made to mount his horse when Zia unexpectedly approached. Terzah cocked his head and was about to ask Zia what was wrong when the young man took another step and bestowed a quick hug on him. A moment later, Zia quickly released him. To Terzah it didn’t matter that the hug had been so brief. What mattered was that Zia had reached out to him like that for the first time ever. “I’m proud of you,” he murmured. “You have come a long way. I love you, Zia.”

Zia bowed his head and hid behind his long hair. He still found it hard to accept such praise.

Aris and Zia waved Terzah goodbye and watched until the har had vanished from view.

***

The lack of sex was beginning to catch up with Aris. While he had still lived in Terzah’s kafta, he’d occasionally had sex with his friends. But out there, his only friend was his right hand. He had retreated into the bathroom, hoping to avoid detection there. The last time he had seen Zia, the young man had been tending to their vegetable garden and Aris counted on Zia being busy for the next few minutes. He unbuttoned his trousers and slid them down until they pooled around his ankles.

Curling his fingers around his member, he threw back his head and closed his eyes. He carefully shielded his thoughts, not wanting Zia to pick them up, since his fantasies featured the long-haired, blue-eyed man. He started to pump himself. Slowly at first, enjoying the mild friction his hand provided and pretended it was Zia’s hand fisting him. Zia, lovely Zia, with his big, blue eyes.

“Aris, where are…?” The last word got stuck in Zia’s throat as he burst into the bathroom. He had been searching for Aris and the only place he hadn’t looked yet was the bathroom. He never expected to find Aris pleasuring himself though and he froze in the doorway.

Aris opened his eyes and stared at Zia in shock. He let go of his cock and went to pull his pants back up when Zia unexpectedly spoke.

“Don’t. You don’t have to stop on my account.” He had been stupid. Aris was a young man and his body probably screamed for sex. Aris didn’t know that he had found out about the young man’s occasional flings with Varill and Memnet, but he knew about them. He had accidentally walked in on Aris and Memnet one day and had left before Aris had detected him. He had to make his decision in a split second. “Can I help?”

Aris felt shocked. Had Zia just offered to help get him off? “Zia, no, I don’t think… You’re not ready… I don’t want to impose.” If they ever engaged in that kind of activity he wanted it to be for the right reasons.

Zia drew in a deep breath and closed the bathroom door behind him. Aris was seated on the toilet and looked flushed. “I want to do this.” Zia hadn’t known if he possessed the strength to offer until the moment itself had arrived. He surprised himself by feeling so sure.

But Aris shook his head. “Zia, no.” Zia knelt in front of him and his long fingers reached for his member.

“Let me do this.”

Dazed, Aris tried to sweep Zia’s hands away, but the other man quickly curled his fingers around his straining member. He had been close to finding release when Zia had made his entrance. “No,” he moaned, mustering all his strength. He placed his fingers around Zia’s wrist and was ready to force Zia to let go. Nothing could have prepared him for the sad look that appeared in the pale blue eyes. “What?”

“You don’t want me to touch you, is that it? I’m a whore and you don’t want…”

“Stop it!” Aris’ erection was fading as he grew upset. “You’re not a whore!”

“You’re making me feel like one.” Zia was about to jump to his feet and run again, but Aris still had a hold on his wrist. “Let me go!” He started to rise from the floor, but Aris wouldn’t let go.

“Listen to me!”

Startled by Aris’ violent tone, Zia ceased struggling and remained on his knees in front of Aris. His black hair tumbled in front of his shoulder and hid his features.

“I’m sorry,” Aris whispered and turned Zia’s wrist around until he could kiss the palm. “I didn’t want you to see me doing this.” He frowned and then asked, “Why did you say that I make you feel like a whore? I’ve treated you with the utmost respect!”

“You won’t let me touch you,” Zia whispered from behind a curtain of hair. “You won’t let me do this for you. I’m not good enough for you. You only pretend you love me.”

Feeling confused, Aris only had one way out left. “Can I read your mind?” He had to be absolutely sure Zia was doing this because he loved him and out of a genuine desire to give him pleasure and not because Zia thought of this as his duty.

“I’ve nothing to hide.” Zia however didn’t meet Aris’ gaze for another minute. Only once Aris was through searching his thoughts did he look up. “Let me go. This is embarrassing.”

“I’m sorry,” Aris muttered. He had probed Zia’s thoughts and had found no ulterior motives. “I had to be sure.” Zia peeked at him and Aris let go of the young man’s hand so he could brush the black hair behind Zia’s ears. “If you want to touch me, touch me.” It was hard on Aris to believe that Zia was doing this because he wanted to. He always expected Zia’s past to catch up with him, but maybe Zia was stronger than Aris had thought.

“Do you still want me to touch you then?” Zia felt uncertain if his touches were really welcome.

“I want nothing more than to feel your hands on me. I was fantasizing about you. I had to shield my thoughts to keep you from finding out.” He stroked the dark hair and fingered a strand. “You’re the only one for me.”

Zia curled his fingers around Aris’ member, which was only semi-erect at that point. “I was being honest. I want to do this for you.” He leaned in closer when Aris reached for him and they kissed. The flesh in his hand hardened and he stroked slowly. Bringing Aris to orgasm was quite the experience for Zia. Aris was in his thoughts and tendrils of the telepath’s mind caressed the dark and hidden corners of his consciousness. It felt soothing.

Aris slid one hand into place at the nape of Zia’s neck and deepened the kiss, letting his tongue slide back into his lover’s mouth. He groaned as Zia sped up and he thrust into the tight fist. He kept his eyes open at all times and searched Zia’s. He only encountered love for him in Zia’s mind and Aris in turn poured his feelings of affection into Zia’s.

His climax was intense and unexpected. He sucked on the tip of Zia’s tongue as he found release and crushed his lover to him. Zia allowed for it to happen and semen escaped from the slit and dripped onto his fingers. “Oh,” Aris whispered and looked dreamily into Zia’s eyes. That was the best orgasm he’d ever had.

Once Aris had come, Zia started to feel nervous. He had been caught up in the moment and had wanted to make Aris feel good, but he wondered what would come next. How would Aris relax since his sexual tension had been relieved?

Aris sensed Zia’s growing apprehension, but failed to understand why his lover would react that way. Zia had given him an incredible gift and he wanted to return the favor. “I want you to come too.” His body was flushed, his breathing had sped up and he was still hard. Feeling Zia’s fingers curled around his cock made him want more.

Zia gave Aris a saddened look. “I can’t come, Aris. I was castrated, remember?”

Aris blinked. “Are you telling me you never climaxed?”

Zia shrugged. “I can’t come.”

But Aris shook his head. “You can climax. I know you can.”

“In case you hadn’t noticed, some parts of me are missing!” Zia glared stubbornly at Aris.

“I talked to Telaim before we left… There’s a way for you to climax…” He had felt nervous and tense when he had asked Telaim for advice, but the healer had done his best to tell him. Later, Zen had joined them and, although Aris had been red to the roots of his hair, he had listened and taken their advice to heart.

“You don’t have to lie. You won’t make me feel better about myself.” Zia wished the floor would open and swallow him.

“Will you let me show you?” Aris moved his hands until they rested on either side of the young man’s head. “Please trust me?”

Zia felt conflicted. Aris was giving him hope when there was none. “I can’t orgasm, Aris! I never have and never will!” He was shocked to hear himself screaming at Aris, but the young man didn’t even flinch. Aris continued to look him in the eye.

“Will you allow me to show you, Zia?” Aris repeated his question. /Please say yes./ They had taken such a huge step that day!

“Does that mean you’re going to touch me?” Zia wasn’t sure he was ready for that.

“I doubt I can bring you to orgasm with thoughts only. I need to touch you, yes.” Aris rubbed Zia’s face with his thumbs. “I trusted you just now. Now you need to trust me.”

Zia berated himself for getting his hopes up. There was no way he could climax, but Aris wasn’t going to believe him. Maybe he had to let Aris find out for himself. “You may try,” he mumbled, but thought, /It won’t work. It can’t work./

Part 5

“Let’s remove your clothes.” Aris had already removed his and busied himself disrobing Zia. Zia was tense and Aris did his best to radiate calm and love. “Hey, it’s me,” he said and lifted Zia’s chin once he had done away with the clothes. They were both naked and Aris was determined to do everything within his power to reassure Zia that everything was fine. “You know me.”

Zia felt too nervous to nod or speak. He trusted Aris and did his best to comply. “What do you want me to do?” he asked eventually.

Aris considered his options. It was most likely that Zia wouldn’t feel comfortable lying on his back, so that wasn’t an option yet. Aris guided Zia to the bed. “Sit down.”

“Don’t you mean lie down?” Zia frowned. He had been pushed onto his back too many times to count.

“Sit down, Zia.” Aris waited for Zia to comply and then placed a pillow on the floor. “No need for sore knees,” he commented and grinned.

Zia couldn’t help smiling in spite of his nervousness. “What are you going to do?”

This would be so much easier if he could lay Zia down or maneuver him onto all fours, but he didn’t want Zia in such a vulnerable position. “Put your legs on my shoulders.” He hoped this would work. With Memnet, sex had been pretty straight forward and they had quickly climaxed. Things would be different with Zia.

Zia placed his hands behind him and reclined a bit. It was a good thing he was flexible. He lifted his long legs and rested them atop Aris’ shoulders. It was a strange position he found himself in and he had been in a number of strange positions in the past!

Aris reached for the vial which Telaim had told him to use if they ever took this step and uncapped it.

“What are you doing?” Zia watched every move Aris made closely. He didn’t feel aroused at all. He was tense and already regretted agreeing to this.

“It’s oil.” Aris coated his fingers with the substance and then placed the vial aside for the moment. “I love you, Zia,” he whispered and kissed the dark-haired man.

The kiss took him by surprise and Zia surrendered to Aris’ cunning tongue. Until a moment ago, he had been worried that Aris would find him lacking. He couldn’t grow erect, couldn’t come that way…couldn’t come any way, no matter what Aris said! But then the tip of Aris’ tongue stroked his pelvis and slick fingers suddenly glided down his perineum. At the same time, more oily fingers fondled his limp organ and Zia’s eyes widened. “Aris, I…” he whispered in-between kisses. He had wanted to tell Aris that he couldn’t grow erect, just in case the other young man didn’t know that.

Aris silenced Zia with more kissing. He had connected with Zia’s thoughts and would know when to stop before Zia did. As long as Zia wasn’t panicking and wanted him, he would follow through.

Zia sucked in his breath when one fingertip pressed against the entrance to his body. He knew that one finger would slide in easily, especially with the oil, and wouldn’t hurt him. Only when Aris would insert something bigger, like his cock, would he be in pain.

Aris enjoyed rubbing the soft texture and occasionally dipped the tip of his finger inside Zia’s body. He needed more oil and let some drizzle down in-between Zia’s buttocks.

Zia stared at Aris in bewilderment. Aris was slowly inserting his fingertip and then removing it over and over again. It felt like a mini-fuck and Zia had never felt this relaxed before. Even the fingers on his limp organ felt right.

/It would feel even better if you’d lie down,/ Aris whispered into Zia’s mind. /Please trust me./ He kept up the kissing since he couldn’t get enough of the way Zia tasted.

Zia slowly lowered himself onto his back and buried his fingernails in the blanket. Aris’ finger pushed deeper and started to stroke him on the inside. It was a strange sensation, not unpleasant, but he wondered why Aris was doing it.

Aris moved closer until he could cover Zia’s upper body with his. He didn’t put any weight on his lover’s body. Instead, he moved his chest over Zia’s and his erect nipples rubbed against Zia’s.

Something was happening. Zia didn’t know what it was, but the warm feeling in his groin was back and it was spreading through the rest of his body. He forced one hand to let go of the blanket and lifted it to slide his fingers into Aris’ blond hair.

Aris forced himself to remain calm and patient. Telaim had told him what to look for and Zen had tried to explain to him how to find Zia’s prostate, but the gland proved elusive.

Zia didn’t care what Aris was trying to do. Aris was making him feel good at any rate and that was a first. Looking into Aris’ eyes, he tried to place every ounce of the love which he found for the younger man in his gaze so Aris knew he was loved. Suddenly, his eyes widened and his lower body rippled with waves of pleasure.

Aris grinned. “I found my target,” he whispered and memorized the location of his lover’s gland. “Let’s see if I can make you come.” He was tempted to slide a second finger inside to intensify the feeling, but decided against it. One finger was enough to get the job done at that point. One finger was something Zia felt comfortable with.

“What…? Oh… Aris…. What… are you…” Zia arched his back and started to pant. It felt like he was on fire. Something spiraled up his groin and settled in his abdomen. Tiny aftershocks went through the rest of his body and he clung to Aris, who continued. “What are you…doing?”

Aris savored the sight of Zia quivering beneath him. The beautiful face was flushed as Zia tried to thrust against him and the long legs wrapped themselves around his body. “Telaim and Zen shared a secret with me. Trust me… I will make you come, love.”

Zia stared at Aris in rapture. His body convulsed as ever expanding waves coursed through his body. “Aris!” Something inside him burst into fiery red flames and he felt like he was about to faint from pleasure.

Aris claimed Zia’s lips. At the same time, he continued to manipulate the pleasure gland and the two actions catapulted Zia into ecstasy. Aris succumbed to temptation and joined Zia’s mind to ensure that he had really achieved his goal, namely for Zia to experience his first orgasm.

Zia felt Aris move through his mind and pulled the other man close. Aris finally released his bruised lips and he whispered, “I didn’t know…” He hadn’t known he could feel that way. A fine film of sweat covered his body and he stared at Aris, enraptured. It was only when he calmed down that he felt something sticky slide down his abdomen. “Did you come again?”

Aris gazed into Zia’s eyes and nodded. A sated expression lay in his eyes. “You made me come again.”

Zia guided Aris’ head to his shoulder and folded his arms around him. This time, Aris’ weight rested upon his body, but Zia didn’t mind. He finally understood. “You love me and want to make me happy.”

“Exactly.” Worn down, Aris closed his eyes and relished being skin-on-skin with Zia in such an intimate way. “I told you I could make you come.”

“I’ll never underestimate you again.” Zia smiled happily. He felt relaxed and sleepy and wanted to stay like that a few minutes longer.

***

“Come on in, Zia. The water’s perfect and you need to wash up any way!” Aris had run into the river and now swam toward Zia. “Come on in!”

Zia felt self-conscious as he stood there naked. It was silly really. There was no reason to feel shy after what he had let Aris do to him. Zia waded into the water and let the river clean him up. Aris reached for him and Zia moved away.

Aris’ eyes widened. Why did he sense fear in Zia’s mind?

“I can’t swim!” Zia spat out and quickly lowered his gaze. “No one ever taught me!”

“I’ll teach you. It’s really easy.” Aris spent the next few minutes showing Zia how to stay afloat. Once Zia had mastered that, Aris taught his lover the basic movements that would push him forward. Zia learned quickly and, although he occasionally swallowed water, he was quickly swimming next to Aris.

“You make me happy,” Aris said once they had left the water. They sat down on the grass to let their skin dry. “I’m so glad you let me tag along.”

“I’m glad too,” Zia agreed and gave Aris a warm smile. “I feel better. Much better.”

***

A week later, Zia still felt dazed. Aris had kept his promise and tried to make him happy each new day. It was a strange realization for someone like him that he was loved – really loved. What was even stranger was that Aris seemed content with being brought to orgasm manually. Zia had expected for them to move on, but in a way, he was relieved that Aris was going slow. He liked the fact that he could orgasm now and blushed fiercely at the memory of having done so for each day of the last week. Ever since Aris had found out he could climax that way, his lover had put that knowledge to practice every evening. Zia felt spoiled rotten.

***

“Zia?” Aris seated himself on the edge of the couch and moved Zia’s head onto his lap. He looked into the blue eyes as he stroked the soft hair.

Zia looked up. “What’s up?”

“I received a message from Terzah. He would like for us to visit if you’re ready. He might not admit it, but he misses us…badly, if I may say so.” He didn’t know if Zia was ready to return to Terzah’s kafta.

Zia considered the request. He had changed and felt strong enough to go home. “But only for a while. When the time is right I want to come back here.”

“Sure.” Aris bent down and kissed Zia’s brow. “We will always come back here.”

***

Bundling himself up in his bear skin coat, Zia mounted his horse. Aris steered his horse closer to Zia’s and they moved away from the cabin. “I’ll miss this place. It feels like home,” Zia murmured melancholy.

“It’s only for a short while.” Aris gave Zia a reassuring look. “I keep my promises, you know that. We will come back here.”

***

“Terzah! They’re here!” Excited, David ran toward the horses. “It’s Aris and Zia!”

Aris slipped off his horse’s back and caught David in his arms. “My, you’ve grown!”

David giggled and pressed a kiss onto Aris’ cheek. “Terzah says that if I keep growing like this, he’ll have to make me new clothes! These are almost too small!” He was excited about that! He wanted a new outfit!

“Zia!” David released him as Zia dismounted. David approached Zia, not knowing how the older boy would react to his presence. Zia’s behavior had always been unpredictable and he expected it to still be like that. “I missed you!” He wanted to hug Zia as well, but since he didn’t know how Zia would react to being touched, he simply smiled at him.

Terzah, who had heard David call out to him, appeared and approached. “Aris!” He was glad they had come to visit. Although they hadn’t been away that long, it felt like an eternity to him. He hugged Aris close and then waited for Zia to decide if he wanted a hug or not. This time, Zia stayed a step behind Aris and didn’t hug him, but the smile Zia gave him made Terzah happy. “Welcome home. I hope your stay will be a pleasant one!”

***

Their stay was far from pleasant. It all fell apart when Gorin returned to steal cattle from the farmers who were trying to do repairs after an immense earthquake hit their small town, emanating from Immanion. Trapped in the school building, he took several children as hostages, including David. When the bad news reached Terzah, Zen wasn’t about and Terzah had to negotiate with Gorin. Although Terzah loathed to go anywhere near Gorin, he talked to the man.

***

“Terzah? You’re angry, but…” Aris hadn’t wanted to pry, but couldn’t help himself. Terzah radiated such anger that it made his head reel. “What did Gorin say?”

Terzah spun around. His normally pale eyes shone with anger. “He had the guts to offer to trade five of the children for Zia, can you believe that?”

Aris’ mouth went dry and his hands turned to fists. “He said what?”

“Don’t worry. I told no one.” Terzah was already trying to think up a plan that would set the children free and have Gorin preferably dead. If only Zen had let him hunt Gorin down in the past! He would have gladly killed the scumbag. “Zia can never know.”

Aris nodded his head in understanding. “If he ever found out…” Zia would trade himself for the children and then Gorin would have the chance to abuse him again.

“Where’s Zia?”

“He doesn’t want to talk to me.” Aris pointed Terzah in the direction Zia had headed in. “I doubt you’ll get much out of him either.”

***

Terzah tried to talk to Zia, but it was just like Aris had said. Zia was silent and didn’t want to discuss his feelings. Terzah respected that, but there was one thing he needed to be sure of. “Will you carry out your part of the plan?”

Zia drew in a deep breath and hoped his voice sounded steady enough. “I’ll shoot him.” Terzah had devised a plan to free the children and it entailed killing Gorin. “I’ll do it.”

Terzah hoped Zia would follow through. So much of their plan and the children’s safety depended on Zia’s steady aim.

***

Zia stood on the roof across from the school and mentally prepared himself for what he was about to do. He was going to take a life. He was going to kill Gorin. Terzah would set Gorin up and give Zia a target to aim at. After he had released his arrow, the rest of the men and hara would move in and free the children. Everything depended on him.

Although Terzah’s suggestion had shocked him at first, Zia had made his peace with it. Gorin had left without him after he had fled prison and since the man had returned, Gorin hadn’t even inquired about him. In a way, that made his job easier.

/Gorin never loved you… You never loved Gorin. Gorin used and abused you…/ Zia reminded himself of the things he had discovered while he had stayed at the cabin. Gorin was a predator and Zia had allowed himself to be brainwashed.

He felt strangely calm when he placed the arrow in place. He was waiting for Terzah’s sign when suddenly Aris spoke to him mentally.

/The plan has changed. Gorin is holding David and you must aim precisely. Terzah will create a ball of light. That will be your aim. Can you do that?/ Aris worried about Zia, who had locked him out since Gorin’s return.

/I’ll do it. Now leave me be./ He needed to concentrate. He was going to kill Gorin.

***

Zia ran after Gorin died. His arrow had hit the target and had ended Gorin’s life. He would never forget the anger on David’s face when the boy had plunged a knife into Gorin’s chest. It was easy to guess what Gorin had done to the boy and that knowledge made him feel nauseous.

So Zia ran, but he didn’t run far. He hid in one of the deserted buildings and tried to sort out his thoughts and feelings. At the edge of his mind he felt Aris and Terzah searching for him, but he ignored them for the moment.

Guilt ate away at him. If he hadn’t set Gorin free then the man wouldn’t have returned. Gorin wouldn’t have taken the children hostage and wouldn’t have forced himself upon David. Oh, gods, how could he ever face David again?

***

It took Zia five days to gather enough courage to return to Terzah’s kafta. He knew Aris wasn’t overly worried since his lover had been able to connect to his mind. Aris knew he was alive and relatively well. Aris had gotten used to his strange habits and one of them was running away when he dreaded a confrontation.

He didn’t enter the kafta. He wasn’t sure what he was waiting for, but in the end, Terzah showed up and pulled him inside to watch the harling emerge from the pearl. Jewel was a bright harling with gifts not even Terzah fully understood.

Since he was being reunited with Aris, Zia gave him an apologetic look. “I’m sorry I vanished like that. Are you mad with me?” But Aris merely shook his head and Zia sensed Aris’ unconditional love for him.

***

Later that evening, when they had a room to themselves, Aris sat Zia down to talk to him. “Care to tell me what happened?”

“I ran, like I always do.” Zia felt tired. “Will this ever stop?”

Aris took Zia’s hands in-between his and rubbed them. “It has ended. Gorin’s dead.”

“I killed him.” Zia was about to suffer a break down, but he didn’t want to cave-in in front of Aris. “I killed him, Aris.”

“He got what he deserved, Zia. He abused you.” Aris slid his hands up Zia’s arms until he could bring him in for a hug. “You did well.”

Zia burst into tears and rocked in Aris’ embrace. “I should never have helped him escape! What was I thinking! I know what he did to David! What happened to David is my fault!”

“Don’t do this to yourself!” Aris rocked Zia. “Gorin hurt David! Not you! You’re just another one of Gorin’s victims!”

“It’s my fault,” Zia retorted, refusing to budge.

“If it’s anyone’s fault, it’s mine.” Terzah entered the room and remained near the doorway. “I had the chance to kill him – not once, but several times and I didn’t take it.” Terzah refused to let Zia take the blame. “You were a child when Gorin preyed on you! Don’t you forget that! I was the adult.”

Zia wiped at his eyes until his tears had been dried. “I killed him, Terzah. And I felt… I felt happy when I released that arrow. It felt good!” He raised his eyes and gave Terzah a pleading look. “It was like the first time we went hunting.”

Terzah lowered himself onto his heels. “You took out a predator. Gorin was dangerous. I wish I had had the honor of taking him out myself. Zia, you made sure the boys in this camp are safe now. Gorin would have preyed on them sooner or later. You saved a lot of lives that day.”

Zia couldn’t wallow in self-pity any longer. Terzah was right – he knew that. Gorin had wrecked a lot of lives. And if he hadn’t killed him, Gorin would have damaged even more children.

“You did well,” Terzah declared and lifted a hand to bestow a caress onto Zia’s face, which the young man easily accepted. “Don’t you ever forget that.”

***

“Zen?” Zia felt nervous since he was going to ask Zen for a favor. Zen was curled up in bed with his newest harling and looked happy. The last thing Zia wanted was to interrupt, so the young man turned to leave.

“Zia, don’t go! Come inside!” Zen sat upright and Jewel tried to catch a glimpse of the visitor.

“This won’t take long,” Zia mumbled as he approached the bed. “I was just wondering… One of the Gelaming officers knew the name of a healer who worked with Ferrar crystals survivors. I don’t want to bother them right now… Do you happen to know that name?”

Zen gestured for Zia to sit down on the bed. “I’ll write it down for you. I’m relieved you decided to seek him out.” Although on the outside his relationship with Zia was that of a parent looking out for a son, on the inside, Zen was hurting and hurting badly. He had invented the Ferrar crystals that had caused Zia’s condition. If it hadn’t been for that condition, Zia would have been incepted some time ago. Jewel waddled over to Zia and smiled brilliantly when the young man caught him in his arms.

Jewel instinctively liked Zia, sensing the goodness and the pain inside him. But the harling also saw happiness in Zia’s future. Zia was truly blessed for he had found true love.

Zia steadied Jewel and felt saddened. “I’ll never have children of my own.”

Zen swallowed hard. He was convinced that his actions as a Varr had ruined Zia’s life in more ways than one. “Zia, you are my son and I didn’t have anything to do with you being conceived. There are many ways to have a family.”

“Terzah told me the same thing, but I don’t believe him.” Zia looked at Zen. “You love Illan and Jewel best and don’t you deny it. They are your flesh and blood. I know you love David, Michael, and Aris too, but in a different way.”

“What are you implying, Zia?”

Jewel sat down and watched them. Something important was happening. He was sure of that.

Zia lowered his gaze. “I’m grateful you let Terzah take me in, but I also realize I never really belonged here.”

Zen gasped. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing!

“We never really talked and I understand why. I never really fit in.”

Zen had to stop this now. “Zia, it was me who decided we should take you home and make you part of the family. Terzah would never have done so if I hadn’t agreed.”

“You probably felt pity.”

Pity and guilt, but he couldn’t say that. “Zia, my heart went out to you. The things you lived through… I wanted to make your life better.”

Zia raised his eyes. He didn’t know what to make of the conversation. He had been so sure Zen had never wanted him around.

“I hope this healer will find a cure for you, Zia. I want you to recover and I would like nothing better than for you to become har.” Zen raised a hand and stroked Zia’s face. “But even if you decide to remain human, I want you to know that you’ll always have a home with me. I know that I’ve been a bad father. I should have been more involved in your life.”

Zia shrugged. “I was safe here. That was all that mattered to me.”

“I should have shown you that I loved you too. Terzah is so much better at that.” It was his guilt that had kept him back in the past. “If you ever need my help, you just have to ask for it.”

“Thank you.” Zia rose from the bed and walked over to the doorway. “I’ll visit that healer.”

“You’re leaving for Galhea then?”

Zia nodded. “Aris will accompany me. Once we delivered the goods and our messages, we’ll look for the healer.”

“I hope you’ll find the healer…and a cure, my son.”

Zia swallowed hard and nodded. He hoped so too.

***

“Can’t you stay any longer?” Terzah disliked seeing his children leave so quickly. “Are you sure you’re well enough to travel?” He still worried about Zia.

“I’m fine.” In his pocket, Zia carried a piece of paper with the healer’s name and his address. Aris and he would seek him out after they had visited with Swift. “We’ll always return to you, Terzah.” He took Terzah’s hand in his and squeezed it, knowing it would make Terzah happy that he reached out to him.

Terzah let them go of course. He wanted Zia to be cured because then his sons could become hara and stay with him forever.

Part 6

Mari, Zia, and Aris traveled to Galhea without complications. Most of the hara who lived along the way had heard that they were on their way and left them alone. It took them longer than expected to make that trip mainly because Aris got distracted along the way. The always curious young man loved to investigate and Mari and Zia indulged him, even when it meant delaying the trip.

When they entered Galhea several months later, Swift’s troops inspected their papers and goods before letting them pass. Zia and Aris escorted Mari to her contact and made sure all the goods were delivered to the right person. Mari then decided to stay with her contact and Aris and Zia now had time to consider their next move.

The hara in Galhea were friendly enough, although they still looked at them like they belonged in a freak show. It was understandable, considering the fact that they were the only humans that most of the hara had ever seen. In earlier times, the Varrs had done their best to eradicate them and Zia was the living proof of how viciously they had pursued that task.

Zia’s parents had died in an attack carried out by the Varrs. The hara had thrown the so-called Ferrar crystals inside the cave Zia and his family had been hiding in. The flames that had burst forth from the crystals had killed Zia’s father and mother. Zia had survived because his father had covered him with blankets, shielding him with his own body. Zia had carried away burns from the attack, but those had eventually healed. The scars that the attack had left on his psyche however had never gone away and had left him emotionally damaged until that very day.

They had come to Galhea to find the healer who worked with Ferrar crystals survivors, but it took Zia a lot of time to work up the necessary courage to

finally take that step. Aris didn’t pressure him, thinking it important that Zia took that step on his own once he was ready. Even if it took the young man three to four more years to do so as they made their way towards the center city of Galhea. The prospect of failure scared Zia and held him back for a long time.

Aris was thrilled when Zia finally made the decision to go look for this healer. Zia didn’t do well where confrontations were concerned and he admired his lover for taking this step.

They stood in the middle of what seemed to be a market square and felt rather trapped by the crowd of hara moving close to them. Zia would have run if he hadn’t promised himself to find this healer.

“Excuse me,” Aris addressed the har closest to him. “We’re looking for someone.” He looked at the piece of paper Zen had given Zia and said, “We’re looking for a har called Snake.” The har he had addressed gave him a strange look and Aris straightened his back. He knew why the har was looking at him like that. The har had probably never seen a human before and was wondering how to react.

“You’re looking for Snake? Why?” The har knew were Snake lived. Everyone did. Snake was the Tigron’s brother and lived with his chesnari Cobweb, who happened to be Swift’s hostling. But he wasn’t going to give that information to a human! The Aghama only knew what those humans were up to!

“We’re looking for him because he works on Ferrar crystals survivors,” Aris explained. Zia was hiding behind his back and Aris allowed it. Considering the fact that he felt nervous around these hara, he surmised it was even worse for Zia, who was sensitive to their magic.

The har arched an eyebrow. It *was* true that Snake worked with humans who had been injured in the Varrish attacks. His eye fell on the human standing behind the one who had addressed him and he couldn’t help but admire the young man’s beauty. It was unforgivable that no one had made him into a har yet! And then, he sensed something odd. “You’re a survivor?” he asked, addressing the dark-haired man.

Zia forced himself to nod. “Yes…that’s why we’re looking for this healer.”

Realizing the humans presented no danger the har raised his arm and pointed them in the direction of the house Cobweb and his family lived in. “That’s Forever. You’ll find Snake there.”

Aris and Zia felt relieved once they knew where to go next. “Thank you.” Aris pulled Zia to the side of the road. The looks they were attracting were getting to him. They had never been an attraction at home and Aris almost regretted coming there, but then he remembered the reason why they had traveled to Galhea. “We’ll find Snake,” he promised. Zia looked disturbed and his complexion was too pale. “Their magic is getting to you,” he stated, understanding what was happening.

“I don’t want to stay here any longer than is strictly necessary.” He wanted to return to their cabin in their mountains. The harish magic was affecting him.

***

It took them a few minutes to find the courage necessary for them to walk up to the house and knock on the front door. Above the door hung a sign that said, ‘We Dwell in Forever’. Aris gave Zia a worried look and squeezed his lover’s hand. He hoped they wouldn’t be turned away. Then everything would have been in vain. There was so much at stake for Zia!

One of the house hara opened the door and looked the humans up and down. It shocked him that these inferior beings had dared to knock on his door.

“We’re here to see Snake.” Aris uncovered a letter which Telaim, their healer, and Marek, one of the Gelaming officers, had written. “It’s a letter of recommendation. Please take it to Snake.” The letter would either open a door for them or not.

The house har looked at the letter as if it contained a lethal dosage of poison. He was inclined to simply dismiss the humans, but he also knew that Snake had an interest in their race. In the end, he took their letter and responded, “Wait here.”

Aris cringed when the har closed the door with a bang. Zia’s hand shook in his. “I’m sorry you have to go through this.” It was hard enough for Zia to be among so many people, be it hara or humans. And above that, they were treated like vermin.

Zia reminded himself why he was doing this. He wanted to heal and wanted to become har one day. That was why he bore their hatred and arrogance. He only hoped Snake wasn’t like these arrogant hara because then he wasn’t sure he could work with him.

A few minutes later the door opened again and the same har appeared. “Snake’s willing to see you.” He opened the door farther and his features contorted when the dirty humans stepped over the threshold of the house. Zia and Aris were covered in the dirt of the road.

Zia tightened his hold on Aris’ hand and his lover reacted by sending him calming thoughts. The action made the har look up sharply. He was surprised to find that one of the humans was a gifted telepath! “Wait here,” the har ordered. “Snake will join you in a few minutes.” He left them standing in the antechamber of Swift’s office.

“I’m nervous,” Zia whispered. “What if he refuses to work with me?” His eyes nervously scanned the room, which was decorated nicely enough, but the magic that lingered there made him feel uncomfortable. The magic that clung to the furniture and the walls felt odd to him though…different.

“We won’t give him that option.” Aris didn’t know how he could possibly force such a mighty har as Snake to work with Zia, but he would try his best. Their future depended on Snake’s ability to heal Zia.

The door opened and two hara stepped inside. Both were dark-haired. One wore his hair long, reaching his buttocks, while the other har’s was relatively short. Zia tried to hide behind Aris’ back again and cursed himself for being a coward, but the magic that clung to the long-haired har made him feel nauseous.

Snake knew what was happening. He had seen the same reaction in Ferrar crystals survivors before. They all reacted like that when exposed to Cobweb’s magic. “Welcome to Forever. I’m Snake.” Snake came to a halt at a distance from the two humans.

Aris inclined his head in greeting. “I’m Aris and this is my lover, Zia.”

Realizing he had to stop hiding, Zia took his place at Aris’ side. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. His stomach was tightly knotted and he was afraid he was going to throw up. That har’s magic was too strong – much stronger than Terzah’s!

Aris sensed Zia’s discomfort and wrapped his arms around his lover. “Draw in deep breaths. Maybe that will help.”

“It’s my presence,” Cobweb explained, feeling sorry for the human. “I should have known my presence would disturb you, but I wanted to make sure you presented no threat to my chesnari.” Some of the humans that had come to them for help had become aggressive and had tried to attack Snake. He took a few steps away from Zia and hovered near the doorway. The increased distance worked a small miracle for Zia as he stopped feeling so dizzy.

“Why don’t you sit down?” Snake needed information first if he wanted to create an effective treatment.

Zia sat down on a chair and tried to stop his hands from shaking. Aris sat down on the armrest and gathered his lover’s hands in his. Once Aris was rubbing them, the shaking lessened.

Snake watched the exchange and smiled. These two men loved each other and his thoughts involuntarily drifted back to the time when he had still been human. “When were you exposed to Ferrar crystals?” He leaned against the desk and took in Zia’s distressed state.

“When I was little.” Zia forced himself to look at Snake and idly wondered why all the hara looked so damn perfect. Snake was no exception.

“How long were you subjected to the radiation?”

“A few minutes. My father managed to take me out of the cave and into safety before he died.”

Cobweb listened closely. Part of the reason why he supported Snake in his quest to help these survivors was the fact that Terzian had been one of the Varrs to promote the use of these crystals when going after the humans. He felt he had a duty to help the victims of his former chesnari’s quest for power. His son, Swift, felt the same way and they supported Snake and the survivors in the best way they could.

Snake realized that treating Zia would demand time and energy. Zia had had a long time to build up a resistance to harish magic and that guard had doubled over time. He would try nonetheless. “Cobweb, we need a cleansed room.”

Cobweb nodded for he had already gathered that. He was about to leave when Aris suddenly spoke up.

“We don’t want to intrude on your life here. We’re merely asking for your help. We’ll find a place to stay.”

But Cobweb shook his head. “You’re my guests.” Besides, he doubted any har in town would want to take in humans. “Snake and I insist.”

Aris gave Zia a quick look. “I don’t want to be disrespectful, but I’m not sure Zia is strong enough to stay here. Your presence affects him. The magic in this house affects him.” Zia had been growing paler and paler.

Snake nodded, feeling sympathy for Zia, who was struggling to not succumb to the magic around him. “I’d prefer for you to stay. If the treatment is successful you’ll only need to stay for one, maybe two weeks.”

That got Zia’s attention. “Does that mean you can cure me?”

“I won’t lie to you. There’s a chance you’ll always feel some mild discomfort when you’re around hara, but you shouldn’t be in any real pain.” Snake wanted to be honest with his newest patient.

Aris moistened his lips. He felt nervous about asking his next question. “We want to become har one day. Do you think it’ll be an option for Zia once you’re done treating him?”

Surprised, Snake looked at Zia. “You want to become har?” This was the first time ever that a survivor wanted to become har. Most survivors hated hara and wanted nothing to do with them after they left Galhea.

Zia felt drained, but also wanted to explain. “I have no parents. Neither does Aris. Our parents died a long time ago. A few years back, we suddenly gained a new family because a har took us in.”

Cobweb listened too in growing interest. A har had taken in humans?

“Terzah and Zen became the parents we never had. Our brothers are har and human… Well, the last one of them was incepted a few weeks ago.” Zia looked sharply at Snake when the har sucked in his breath. Did he know Terzah and Zen?

Mentally, Snake told Cobweb, /You remember them, don’t you? You were afraid it would be just another boring party when Zen caught sight of Terzah and carried him off./ Pellaz had arranged for the meeting, feeling confident that Zen and Terzah would find each other attractive and their first meeting had gone better than hoped. That night, Zen and Terzah had become chesna and had practically been inseparable after that. So they had taken in strays? /I thought Terzah hated humans./

/Things change,/ Cobweb replied. He studied Aris closely. “You’re a telepath.”

“You’re right.” Aris saw no reason to deny the truth.

/They make an odd couple,/ Snake told Cobweb.

/But their love is strong. Zia wants to heal and Aris will do whatever it takes to see it happen. These two have a chance./

Snake inclined his head and said, “Cobweb will take you to your room. We tried to banish magic from that room so I hope you’ll be comfortable there. Try to rest until dinner. We’ll start treatment in the morning.”

Zia rose from his chair and almost tumbled forward. Aris caught him and steadied him. He disliked his lover’s pale complexion and saw fear in the blue eyes. /We have no choice,/ he told Zia. /They’re our only hope./

Zia knew that as well.

***

The room was comfortable enough and the lack of harish magic was refreshing. Aris pulled Zia onto the bed and sighed appreciatively. The mattress was soft and yielding and he felt afloat. Zia moved into Aris’ arms and they rested for a while. “I hope this will work,” Aris said eventually, breaking the silence. “Snake and Cobweb seem genuine in their desire to help you.” He had briefly touched their minds and they had allowed it.

“I wonder what the treatment entails.” Zia would endure pain if there was light at the end of the tunnel for him. “I want to become har.”

For the first time ever, Aris allowed himself to picture such a future for them. “I want Terzah to incept me.”

Zia closed his eyes. “I don’t care who incepts me, as long as it’ll make me har.” Terzah would be his first choice also, but he doubted the har could incept them both at the same time. Maybe Zen would incept him then. “I don’t want to get my hopes up though. There’s always a chance this will fail.”

“This won’t fail. You’ll succeed.” Aris rolled Zia on top of him and gazed into the troubled blue eyes. He knew just what his lover needed and started to push the robes down Zia’s shoulder. “I need to feel you.”

Zia sighed. He felt the same way, but the strange surroundings made him feel on edge. He shrugged out of the robes, which pooled around his waist, where a belt kept them in place. He placed his hands palm down against Aris’ chest and tried to banish his worries and fear from his mind.

Aris stroked the warm flesh with his fingertips and slowly zeroed in on the hardening nipples. He rubbed them lightly at first and, once they were erect, teasingly pinched and rolled them between his fingertips. “I love you,” he whispered and claimed Zia’s lips. Zia had learned to find pleasure in his touch and nowadays yearned for intimacy. There was just one hurdle left for them to take.

Zia kissed Aris back and when he cocked his head, his long, raven hair tumbled onto Aris’ chest. His lover sighed appreciatively and Zia shook his head so the ends caressed Aris’ skin.

“You know me so well.” One thing he had to be careful of was the way he talked to Zia in bed. One wrong word could be enough to remind Zia of Gorin. “You feel so good against me.” He crushed Zia against him and savored their kiss. “I want you out of those clothes, love.”

Zia pushed himself into an upright position while straddling Aris’ waist. He unbuttoned Aris’ shirt and bared his lover’s chest. Aris had developed more muscle tone since they had taken to living in the cabin. He enjoyed running his hands up and down the torso and watched Aris quiver beneath the caress.

They broke off their lovemaking for a minute to remove their trousers, socks, and boots. Once they were they naked, Aris pulled Zia close again. Zia ended up stretched out on his back with Aris lying next to him. Zia had grown more confident in bed, although he still preferred for Aris to take the lead and guide him.

They kissed and Aris’ gaze took in Zia’s form hungrily. There were a few things he was eager to try where Zia was concerned. He moved lower and crept in place between Zia’s long legs. One hand had already located the vial with oil and he was in the process of uncapping it when he grew aware of Zia’s agitation as it swept through his mind. Immediately, he froze. Had he done something that had scared his lover?

“Aris, I want you to take me.” Zia’s voice trembled. “I want you to do this.” He wanted to know if having sex with Aris would differ from what he had been through with Gorin. “Please don’t deny me.”

Aris wasn’t so sure he should give in to Zia. “We agreed to take this slow.” In their past encounters two fingers was the most he had made Zia take.

“Aristander, I want this. I need to do this. You want us to be together, but I need to know if I can…satisfy you in that way. Don’t deny me this. If the treatment works, we’ll become har and then we’ll take aruna. I need to know if I can do that.”

Zia’s words made sense, but Aris remained worried. “We have time, Zia. We don’t have to do this now.”

“Please, Aristander, don’t make me beg.” That was what Gorin had done!

Receiving that particular thought, Aris sighed. “All right.” But he would stop at the first sign that Zia was panicking. He uncapped the vial and poured oil onto the palm of his hand. He curled his fingers around his cock and made sure each inch of it was covered. Then he oiled his fingers again and looked into Zia’s eyes. “But we’ll do this my way.” He refused to be rushed.

“I’ve been through this. I can handle the pain.” Zia was touched that Aris was this concerned about him, but he could take the pain.

“Zia, there isn’t supposed to be much pain.” Aris propped himself up on his side. Lying next to Zia, he looked at the trembling body that was his to feast upon. “Kiss me,” he demanded and Zia turned his head to comply. He eased Zia into the kissing, then deepened it, and moaned into his lover’s mouth. The tension that had built in Zia’s body lessened and Aris took that as a sign that his lover trusted him to take care of him.

His left hand moved lower until he found the tiny opening to Zia’s body. He massaged the outer ring as he continued the kissing. Zia’s eyes remained open and Aris sought for any fear in his lover’s mind, but the small amount he encountered convinced him that it was still okay for him to continue. It was normal that Zia felt some fear since he didn’t know what to expect. “Don’t worry. I’ll make this good for you.”

Zia trembled when one oiled finger suddenly slid past the guardian ring. He parted his legs further to give Aris more maneuvering space. “I’m sorry that I’m incomplete,” he whispered in an unguarded moment.

“I love you just the way you are, Zia.” Aris’ lips moved lower and left a trail of kisses from Zia’s throat to his belly button. At the same time, Aris rubbed Zia’s prostate. He had learned to quickly locate the nub inside his lover’s passage.

Zia closed his eyes and moaned. He had become addicted to the feeling of Aris rubbing him *there*. It was the best feeling in the world.

Aris moved in-between Zia’s long legs and ran his other hand up his lover’s chest. “You’re beautiful.” Leaning in closer, he lapped at Zia’s limp member. The fact that Zia couldn’t grow erect had never stopped him from paying his lover’s organ proper attention.

Zia concentrated on the spiraling pleasure that moved through his body. “Aris, I’m close.” He had quickly learned to identify the feeling of impending orgasm.

“Good.” Aris slipped a second digit inside. Zia writhed on the mattress and started to pant. A feverish glint appeared in the blue eyes and Aris waited for Zia to start pushing down on his fingers.

Zia wanted to come. The momentum that was building inside him was too much. He pushed down, trying to increase the pressure.

Aris leaned in closer and claimed Zia’s lips the moment he inserted a third finger. Zia hardly noticed the increased pressure. Aris added one last finger and found that Zia was taking four with little effort. His lover was relaxed and ready for him. “Zia, I’m going to make love to you now.”

The words hardly registered with Zia who was lost in a daze of lust. Aris removed his fingers one moment before Zia would have reached orgasm and his body rebelled against the cruelty. “Aristander,” he whispered. “I need you.”

“I know you do, love.” But Aris wasn’t taking any chances and added more oil to his cock. “I want to be inside your mind too,” he murmured as he slipped one hand beneath Zia’s buttocks.

Zia nodded his head. He knew why. “You’re always welcome in my head.” He was growing nervous since Aris was about to fuck him.

“No, I’m going to make love to you.” Gorin’s ghost was still there, contaminating Zia’s thoughts. “You’ll know the difference once we’re finished.” He took himself in hand and positioned himself.

Zia felt vulnerable, but at the same time also excited. “Do it.” Aris nodded and the next moment started to push inside. Zia kept his eyes open for he had to know it was Aris claiming him and no one else. Aris entered him slowly and paused each time Zia took in another inch. Zia raised his hands and rested them at the nape of Aris’ neck. “Push in all the way.”

Aris was doing his best not to do that. He wanted to go slowly to allow Zia to grow accustomed to the feeling, but in the end, he lost control and plunged in the last two inches.

Zia arched his back and screamed. Aris was right: this *was* different. He felt connected to Aris in a way he had never thought possible.

Aris rested his head against Zia’s shoulder and drew in a calming breath. He couldn’t lose control again! Being inside Zia felt incredible! A hot, tight glove pulsated around his cock and he was afraid he would climax too quickly. “Oh, Zia, you’re tight.”

Zia didn’t know how to react to that. Feeling Aris so deep inside him overwhelmed him. Aris had been right in that there was barely any pain. “It never felt like this before,” he whispered into Aris’ ear.

Aris lifted his head and smiled. “I feel the same way.” It hadn’t been this intense with any of his former partners. Searching Zia’s mind, Aris realized his lover wanted more. “I could move, if you want me to.” He was dying to thrust and bring them to orgasm, but he would only do so with Zia’s permission.

“Then move.” Zia didn’t know what to expect. Would Aris thrust deep and hard? Or move slowly?

Aris sought out Zia’s neck and suckled the skin there. He rested his weight on his lover’s body and wrapped his arms around Zia’s shoulders. He tried to get as close as possible to his lover.

Zia felt boneless. His legs, which he had tried to wrap around Aris’ waist, fell to each side of his lover’s body and trembled with each slow thrust. Aris flexed his hips again and again and delivered playful strokes that rubbed Zia’s prostate repeatedly. Clinging to Aris, Zia surrendered to the pleasure sweeping through him. He hadn’t believed it possible that he could orgasm this way, but Aris directed each thrust very carefully and the head of his cock rubbed the exact spot. It was the first time that having his body invaded in such a way brought Zia pleasure.

Aris released the skin caught between his lips and returned to kissing Zia. Zia’s hands moved through his hair and his lover even tugged at the strands with each delivered thrust. “I won’t last long,” he whispered into Zia’s ear. “You feel too good.” But he didn’t want to leave Zia behind. His fingers rubbed Zia’s rock hard nipples and he nuzzled the spot he had just suckled. At that moment Zia shifted beneath him and he delivered a particularly deep thrust.

Zia lost it. He screamed his pleasure and then orgasm took him. Having Aris make love to him in such a caring way intensified the experience and the walls of his passage contracted around Aris’ cock. It was an amazing feeling.

It was more than Aris could take. The contractions that massaged his cock made him come. “Oh, Zia…” He arched his back and nestled deep inside his lover’s channel. He felt excited one moment and lazy the next. A sated glaze appeared in his eyes and he was too sluggish to move. Zia’s arms wrapped around him and held him close and then the dam broke. “Zia…oh…Zia.”

Zia was startled when he realized what was happening. Aris was crying! “Aris, please don’t do this to me!” Why was Aris crying? Had he disappointed his lover after all? He had thought everything had gone well! “Aris, talk to me. Please talk to me!”

Aris lifted his wet face and gave Zia an apologetic look. “I’m so happy.”

Hearing those words confused Zia. “Then why are you crying?”

“Because I’m happy!” The adrenaline rush that had coursed through his body was weakening and Aris managed to get a grip. “You’re amazing, Zia.” Seeing the question in the blue eyes, he added, “Trust me… That’s a good thing.” He kissed Zia and, with that kiss, took away his lover’s remaining worries. “You did well.”

“I like it… I like feeling you inside me and you were right. There was no pain.” Aris’ member was softening and his lover slowly pulled out. Zia groaned at the moment of separation. He would feel sore in an hour, but he didn’t mind too much. It was a small price to pay for experiencing something that wonderful.

Aris was tempted to check for bleeding, but had the feeling doing that would make Zia feel embarrassed, so he dismissed the thought since he didn’t feel pain in Zia’s thoughts. He wanted to roll onto his side, but Zia stopped him.

“Don’t. I like feeling you on top of me. It makes me feel safe.”

Aris nodded. Who was he to deny Zia anything he wanted?

***

A knock on the door startled them. They had been dozing and had forgotten they weren’t in the cabin.

“You’re expected for dinner in thirty minutes.”

Aris cringed, realizing the state they were in. “We’d better clean up quick.” He hated spoiling the mood. Zia had never rested in his arms that relaxed before. “Hopefully there’s a bathroom.”

Zia didn’t want to get up, but also realized they couldn’t appear at the dinner table like that. He let go of Aris and sat upright. He hadn’t thought that making love with Aris would be that easy, but Aris had been right. Making love was different from having sex and he understood the difference now. He placed a kiss on Aris’ lips and then swung his feet onto the floor. Looking about, he spied a door in the corner. Curiously, he walked over to the doorway and opened the door. “Yes, there’s a bathroom.” There was a large tub and when he turned the faucet, warm water streamed into the bath tub. It was too bad they only had a few minutes. He would have loved to soak in there for hours.

Aris leaned against the doorway and watched Zia lower himself into the rapidly filling bathtub. He picked up a bottle of shampoo and soap before he made his way over to the tub and placed them on the stool next to the bathtub. He stepped into the warm water and settled down as Zia uncapped the shampoo and began washing his hair. Aris reached for the soap and worked up lather. “Zia?” The smile Zia gave him almost blinded him. “Love you.”

“I love you too.” Zia kissed Aris again. He had finally rid himself of Gorin’s ghost.

***

“Please sit down.” Snake raised a hand and gestured for his guests to sit down next to him.

Zia felt nervous once he was in the company of the hara. He had met Snake and Cobweb earlier that day, but the har that sat at the head of the table was unknown to him.

“I’m Swift,” the unknown har introduced himself and smiled reassuringly. “You’re welcome at my table. Please eat and drink with us.” He gave one of the house hara a sign and the har filled their goblets with sheh. “There’s also water, if you prefer that,” he offered and pointed at the carafe on the table.

Aris sat down and Zia was left with the only vacant chair, which was the one next to Snake. Cobweb sat on the opposite side of the table and Zia kept his gaze lowered as he felt the har’s power. Cobweb’s magic felt even stronger than Terzah’s. A plate with food was placed in front of him. At first, Zia wasn’t sure he could eat it, since the food was probably contaminated with their magic, but the first bite proved to him it was relatively clean.

“We have some human staff,” Swift explained. “We always had them, but since Snake has started to take in survivors we make better use of them. They’ll prepare your food and clean your room.”

“That’s why there’s so little magic residue in the room and on the food.” Snake raised his fork and encouraged his guests to eat. Trying to create some chit chat, he asked, “Have you ever been to Galhea before?”

Aris answered the question. “No, it’s the first time.”

“Do you like it here?” Swift asked as he studied Zia. When Zia had entered the dining room, Swift had thought he was dealing with another har, but then he had realized the truth. Zia was handsome, even for harish standards. If they ever found a way to make him har, his looks would rival those of Pellaz’.

“I’m not sure,” Aris replied. “Some of the hara we encountered this far didn’t like us being here.”

“Those are probably the pure-born,” Cobweb answered. “They never had dealings with humans before, while Snake and I remember what it was like to be human.”

Zia raised his eyes and looked at Snake. “May I ask what the treatment entails? What should I expect?”

Snake had expected the question. They all wanted to know what to expect. “We’ll subject you to some radiation. I won’t go into the scientific details since they’re hard to grasp. But the radiation should clean you of the residue the Ferrar crystals left on you. Imagine it like this…” Snake took hold of a napkin and placed it over an empty goblet. “The Ferrar crystals covered you with some very fine dust which forms a tight layer around you. Nothing gets through – not even harish magic. But you can sense it and it causes you discomfort, but for the rest, it has no effect on you. Subjecting you to a special kind of radiation will strip this layer away and leave you ‘open’.”

Aris had listened fascinated. “Does it always work?”

“In most cases, yes. Zia might always remain a little bit sensitive around hara, but it shouldn’t cause him any problems.”

Zia considered everything he had learned. “I have one more question. Can I be incepted after the treatment has been finished?”

“It still amazes me that you want to become har,” Snake replied thoughtfully. “I expected you to hate us, but the fact that a har raised you changed that.”

Swift, who remembered feisty Terzah from a visit to the court, had been stunned to hear that the har had taken in human children. Terzah had never hid his loathing where humans were concerned.

“Please answer my question…” Zia gave Snake a pleading look.

“It’s hard to say at this point. I’ll know more after you received the first three dosages of radiation. You must be patient.”

Cobweb had also given the matter some thought and had reached his own conclusion. “For a successful inception you would have to be incepted by someone powerful.”

Snake agreed. “Someone like Terzah wouldn’t be strong enough. This har’s blood has to counteract whatever Ferrar crystals residue stayed behind in your veins.”

“I hope you’re not suggesting Thiede,” Cobweb commented.

Snake shook his head. “No, I have someone different in mind, but it’s still too early. Maybe the treatment will wipe out the entire residue and someone like Zen can incept you, Zia.”

/Snake, what har are you thinking of?/ Cobweb had to know.

/Pellaz of course. He possesses Thiede’s power but not his uncaring attitude. Pellaz would be my first choice./ Snake knew of no other har who would be strong enough to successfully incept Zia.

Zia didn’t feel reassured, but it was out of his hands now. He could only hope for the best and he prayed the radiation would do the trick and cure him.

***

“I’m nervous,” Zia admitted upon entering the room Snake had made into a treatment room. Aris squeezed his fingers and Zia told himself to be strong. How painful could it be?

“It’s understandable that you’re nervous,” Snake replied as he gestured for the humans to approach. “But it might help if I told you that the procedure is absolutely painless.”

“That helps.” Zia drew in a deep breath and refused to let go of Aris’ hand just yet. “What will happen next?”

“I want you to step into that cabinet.” Snake pointed at the metal cabinet that stood in the corner of the room.

Zia grew nervous again. “I don’t have to take off my clothes, do I?”

Snake frowned at hearing such an odd question. “No, you don’t.” Why would Zia assume such a strange thing?

“You’ll have to let go of my hand, love.” Aris didn’t want Zia to leave his side, but this was something that had to be done. “Just remember the reward, Zia. You’ll become har if this works.”

Zia let go of Aris’ hand and smoothed his long, dark hair away from his face. Snake opened the door to the cabinet and stepped inside. There was nothing remarkable about it. It was like standing in a shower stall, except that this cabinet was made of metal. There was a small window through which he could maintain contact with the ‘outside world’ and he sought out Aris’ eyes. /You can do this,/ sounded in his mind as Aris tried to encourage him.

Aris moved over to Snake and watched the har prepare the correct dosage of radiation to be administered to Zia.

“You look bewildered,” Snake murmured.

“I didn’t know what I expected the treatment to be like. I guess I thought it would be about harish magic and not about a machine.”

“Harish magic doesn’t work with Zia. That’s the whole problem. We had to go back to conventional means. This machine was discovered in a deserted hospital and it took some time before our healers figured out what it could do. We tried a lot to cure Ferrar crystals survivors but nothing worked until we tried exposing them to radiation.”

“Are there many survivors?” Aris felt Zia starting to panic and reached out to him mentally. He soothed him and they maintained eye contact.

“A few hundred.” Snake had finally made his final calculations and started the machine. “Swift and Cobweb support their cause. Terzian was one of the hara who used the crystals to rid himself of unwanted humans and they felt it was their duty to care for the victims.”

Zia wondered when the treatment would finally start. He saw Snake and Aris talking and felt his lover’s comforting presence in his mind, but that was about it.

“Done,” Snake declared and pulled the lever that opened the cabinet’s door. “Let’s see how Zia’s doing.” Snake walked over to Zia, who had stepped out of the cabinet.

“Didn’t it work?” Zia frowned.

“You already had your first treatment. I told you it would be painless.” Snake smiled at Zia.

Zia blinked in surprise. “That was it? I didn’t notice a thing. I thought you still had to get started. I don’t feel any different,” he said after taking stock.

“You won’t feel any different until after the fourth, or with luck, the third treatment.”

Zia reached for Aris’ hand and twined their fingers. Snake’s expression however worried him. “Is something wrong?”

“I checked the readings during your first session. They’re extremely high.”

Zia cringed. “What does that mean?”

“It means you might need a larger number of treatments to correct your condition.” Snake regretted worrying the young man. “But your case isn’t hopeless, in case that’s what you’re thinking.”

“What do we do now? Does Zia need to rest?” Aris wanted a moment alone with Zia to reassure him. A hint of panic had remained in the young man’s mind.

“I’d recommend some rest, but not too much. We don’t want you tossing and turning at night.” Snake’s gaze shifted from Zia to Aris. “Take him outside. There are gardens to explore and the house has some interesting features as well. Make sure he eats and drinks enough fluids.”

Zia heard them talk, but wasn’t really listening. He didn’t feel any different and was convinced that the machine wasn’t working. He would never shed his old skin. He would never become har.

Snake turned his head in Zia’s direction. The sensitive har had picked up on Zia’s thoughts. “You won’t feel different for a while. It’s working, Zia. But it’s not an overnight cure.”

Zia lowered his gaze. “I’m afraid to hope it’ll work. Nothing in my life is ever easy.”

“Have some faith, Zia. For now you need to be patient.” Snake had seen this response in his patients before, but he had the idea Zia was struggling with other things as well.

Part 7

Aris followed Snake’s advice and took Zia for a walk. Snake hadn’t exaggerated for the gardens were stunning and they enjoyed their stroll until a har came walking up to them. They halted in their tracks as they recognized Cobweb. The har was dressed in the finest black silk and the robes hugged his body. In a way, Cobweb reminded them of Terzah.

Cobweb had sought them out on purpose, wanting to talk to them. “Can we speak?”

Aris and Zia exchanged a worried look. Had they somehow unwillingly offended their host?

“It’s nothing like that,” Cobweb added and pointed out a large bench to them. “Let’s sit for a while.”

Zia and Aris followed Cobweb over to the bench and seated themselves at some distance. “Did we do anything wrong?” Aris asked eventually.

Cobweb quickly shook his head and raised a hand. “I want to apologize to you, Zia.”

Zia thought he had misheard. “Why would you do that? You did nothing wrong.”

“I want to apologize on someone’s behalf. My former chesnari, Terzian, used Ferrar crystals on humans. I never approved of his methods, but my power was very limited back then. Swift and I fund Snake’s project to help survivors. We want to undo the damage the Varrs did.” In his way, Cobweb was trying to make amends for the past.

“I lost my parents in that attack,” Zia responded, opening up to Cobweb.

“I’m sorry about that.” Cobweb tried to imagine what it would have been like for Swift to lose Terzian and him in such way. “I hope you’ll leave here healed.”

A dreamy expression appeared in Zia’s eyes. “And then we’ll go back to Terzah.”

“You love him, don’t you?” Cobweb was surprised to find out how deep the humans’ feelings ran for their harish parents.

‘We love Terzah and Zen!” Aris declared. “They took us in when no one else wanted us. Terzah makes a good…mother.” He chuckled and Zia joined in.

“Ah, there you are! I was looking for you.” Swift, dressed in loose fitting and flowing green robes had finally located his elusive hostling.

“And why are you looking for me?” Cobweb eyed Swift closely.

“We’re expecting visitors.” Swift inclined his head in greeting at Zia and Aris. “Pellaz will arrive in three days.”

“The Tigron?” Zia had heard that name before.

Swift laughed. “He visits frequently. He likes the relaxed atmosphere here.”

“Does that mean we have to leave?” Surely, they didn’t want any humans around when the Tigron was visiting. At least, Aris thought so.

Swift frowned. “Why would you have to leave? We have enough room to house you. I just thought my hostling would like to know that he has to start preparing for all the necessary arrangements.”

Aris grew curious once he was certain they could stay and finish Zia’s treatments. “Do you think we’ll get to see him?”

Cobweb laughed. “You’re eager to meet him!’

Aris shrugged. “I saw a picture of him once in a newspaper. That’s all I know about him. It’s probably a unique chance to see him.”

Cobweb smiled mysteriously and remembered the suggestion Snake had made the other day. It wouldn’t hurt to introduce Pellaz to Zia (and Aris of course) and inquire if the Tigron would consider incepting the dark-haired human.

***

During the next three days, Zia received his daily dosage of radiation and was finally beginning to feel a difference. Normally when he was close to Cobweb, he felt uncomfortable, but that had changed. Also, it was easier to move among the hara during dinner time. He felt light-headed and the sun shone brighter. It was like a veil had been lifted and he was finally able to see properly. His step was lighter and quicker, he kissed Aris deeper, their love making intensified, and one evening, Aris found him weeping tears of happiness.

The treatment was working and Snake figured that Zia would be cured in another four to five days.

***

In the end, Pellaz arrived two days late. Apparently something had happened in Immanion and had set back his departure. Zia had undergone six treatments at that point and was positively radiant by the time Swift told them to get ready to welcome the Tigron to Forever.

“You look lovelier each day.” Aris felt awed whenever he looked at Zia these days. The black hair had gained a satin-like shine and the pale-blue eyes shone with life. A blush colored Zia’s cheeks most of the time and Aris fell in love all over again – even deeper this time.

Zia accepted the compliment, which made him blush even more. “I love you too,” he whispered and brought Aris in for a kiss. His tongue sought entry to Aris’ mouth and snuck inside. Aris moaned and Zia trembled with desire. “I want to make love tonight. Can we?”

Aris nodded and brushed his lips across Zia’s throat. “I want to make love to you right now.”

“We can’t. They want us to attend dinner.” The invitation had come as a surprise to Zia and Aris, but Snake and Cobweb had asked them to be present when they had dinner that evening. Apparently, they were even going to be introduced to the Tigron. “Zen likes Pellaz.” Zia remembered that much from overhearing conversations.

“Terzah wasn’t so fond of him.” Aris fixed Zia’s hair. Cobweb had gifted a set of onyx beads decorated with silver thread to Zia. Zia had been stunned to receive something that precious and had tried to refuse the gift. Cobweb however had been adamant about it and in the end, Zia had accepted. It was something Deuel would wear.

Aris fastened the last bead in Zia’s hair and then admired his handiwork. “You look stunning.” Dressed in robes which bordered between black and very dark purple, Zia looked harish. Aris felt lacking when he compared himself to his lover. He wasn’t handsome. He was just plain looking, no matter what clothes he wore or regardless of the way he fixed his hair.

Since their minds had grown tightly connected over the last few months, Zia picked up on the gloomy thoughts. “You’re beautiful, Aristander, on the inside and out.” He kissed his lover to get his point across. “You always stand out.”

Aris blushed. “I feel so inferior when I compare myself to you. I know that you’ll turn their heads…maybe even the Tigron’s and I…”

“You turn my head, Aristander.” Zia gave him a wicked smile. “I’ll prove that to you tonight when we’re alone.”

Aris’ blush deepened as he realized what Zia was hinting at. Zia had become more active in bed and Aris wondered on what to expect.

***

Pellaz was surprised to hear that Cobweb had invited two humans to have dinner with them that evening. “What’s behind it?” Cobweb wouldn’t do such a thing without an excellent reason.

“Both of them want to be incepted, but one of them, Zia, is a very special young man,” Cobweb explained. “He’s a Ferrar crystals survivor and Snake isn’t sure he can completely cure him. The boy however is determined to become har.”

“After what the Varrs did to him? That’s a strange choice.” Pellaz reclined and sipped his tea. Staying in Galhea always worked in soothing him. Immanion was a hornet’s nest at times and there, he could relax. He was among friends and family.

“I know what you’re thinking. His resolve surprised me too.” Snake caught his brother’s gaze. “But he was raised by hara.”

Pellaz’ curiosity was piqued upon hearing that. “Anyone I know?”

“Terzah and Zen,” Swift said. “Remember them?”

Pellaz did. He had been the one to get them together. “I had a good feeling about those two.”

“Apparently they raised several humans as their sons besides their own harling. I’m impressed,” Swift commented. “I remember how foul-mouthed and rebellious he was when you blood-bonded him to Zen.”

“I knew what I was doing.” Pellaz smiled. “And they raised this boy as their son?”

“His name is Zia. His lover’s name is Aris. They came here seeking treatment for Zia.” Snake eyed his brother closely. “The thing is… I’m not sure Terzah is strong enough to successfully incept Zia. Some residue that the Ferrar crystals left behind will stay behind in Zia’s blood. The har that incepts him has to be extremely powerful.”

Pellaz’ eyes narrowed as he finally caught on. “You want *me* to incept him?”

Snake gave his brother an apologetic look. “It might be the only way for Zia to become har. Or do you want Thiede to take the boy? Zia’s determined to do this.”

Pellaz shivered. No, Thiede wasn’t going to get his hands on the boy. “I never incepted someone before.”

“It’s not that hard,” Cobweb replied. “And a lot of things have changed since you went through the process. A lot of the harsh rituals you were subjected to have been abolished.”

“All we need is your blood,” Snake added. He cringed as he realized the way that had sounded. “I didn’t mean it like that.”

“I want to meet the boy first.” Pellaz wanted to see Zia for himself before he reached a decision. He wasn’t sure he should do this. His blood was powerful and it might prove too much to handle for Zia.

“They’ll attend dinner.” Cobweb leaned in closer and fingered a strand of Pellaz’ dark hair. “I believe you’ll approve of him, Pell. You might even take a liking to him.”

“Let me find out for myself.”

***

Zia and Aris were already seated when the hara arrived. They quickly got to their feet and, while Aris followed each move the Tigron made, Zia directed his gaze at the floor.

Pellaz’ first look was for Zia. Snake had described Zia to him and he was curious to find out if the human was as striking as Snake had made him out. But the black-haired boy kept his gaze lowered, while the telepath sought out his gaze. They made a striking pair, Pellaz mused. He had never seen someone who had one brown and one green eye. He sensed the telepathy in Aris and realized he wasn’t dealing with ordinary humans.

“Pellaz, may I introduce our guests to you? This is Aris and this is Zia.” Snake hoped Zia would look up for then the black-haired human would see Pellaz smiling at him.

Aris felt relieved at seeing Pellaz smile at them. There was no denying that Pellaz was beautiful even for a har, of which the standards were already high, but as far as he was concerned, Zia looked lovelier. Dressed in red silk, the Tigron oozed sensuality and power.

“Zia? Would you look at me?” Pellaz disliked the submissive behavior. Reaching out, he tasted pain, fear, and insecurity in Zia’s mind and it made him wonder what the young man had endured in his short life.

Since the Tigron himself had addressed him, Zia raised his gaze. He sucked in his breath in surprise. He didn’t know what he had expected Pellaz to look like, but not anything like what he saw. Pellaz’ eyes were warm and open and the lips were curled in a smile. Pellaz *was* the most beautiful vision he had ever seen. He wondered how to address the Tigron and since he didn’t know what to say, he stayed quiet.

Pellaz smiled. “You’re not scared of me, are you?” Aris tensed and Pellaz realized these two humans really loved each other.

“Not scared. I just don’t know how to address you…”

“Pellaz will do.” Pellaz gestured for them to seat themselves. “So, the two of you want to become har?”

Aris and Zia seated themselves and looked at each other. In the end, Zia replied, since Pellaz had addressed him a moment earlier. “Yes, we want to become har.”

Snake cleared his throat and drew Pellaz’ attention. Mentally, he explained, /Zia doesn’t know we’re considering you to incept him. It would only cause him to feel nervous./

Pellaz hid his surprise. /I thought you had prepared him?/

/Not yet./

Aris sensed that they were communicating mentally, but their shields were too strong and kept him out. He wondered what they were discussing.

“How do you like Galhea so far?” Pellaz asked in an effort to make conversation. He continued to study Zia and agreed with his brother. Zia would make a fabulous har and so would Aris. Aris’ new Wraeththu powers would at least double his strength as a telepath. He hadn’t thought he would agree with Snake, but since he had seen Zia, he realized his brother was right. It was Zia’s destiny to become har.

***

Zia started to relax when he realized that he had nothing to fear. Pellaz was pleasant company and he took a liking to the Tigron. Pellaz acted down to earth and it was hard to believe he was talking to the most powerful har on Earth.

Snake and Cobweb exchanged a pleased look. It appeared Pellaz was no longer averse to incepting Zia when the time came.

***

“It was a nice evening, don’t you think so?” Zia finished removing the beads from his hair and studied his reflection in the mirror. He was happy and it showed.

“I expected the Tigron to be harder to talk to.” Aris picked up the brush and untangled Zia’s long hair. “He’s nice.”

Zia turned around and pulled Aris close to him. Since he was sitting and Aris was standing, he could rest his head against Aris’ abdomen. “I made you a promise. I haven’t forgotten about it.”

Aris grinned. “I had hoped you’d remember.” He ran his fingers through Zia’s hair and marveled about the change that had come over his lover. It was hard to picture Zia as the scared boy he had been once. “Let’s move this to the bed?”

Zia nodded and got to his feet. He walked over to the bed and, as he did so, he unclasped the fastenings of his robes. The dark fabric dropped onto the floor and Zia stepped out of it. It was a strange sensation for Zia to feel proud of his body. In the past, he had felt ashamed, but Aris’ love had healed him. “Are you joining me?” He extended his arm and gestured for Aris to follow his example.

Aris didn’t know how quickly he should remove his shirt and trousers. Whatever Zia had in mind for him, he would gladly comply. “I love seeing you like that.”

Zia’s expression was soft and caring. “I know you do. You made this possible, do you know that?”

“You did it yourself.” Aris moved into Zia’s arms and kissed him. “Throughout dinner, you were all I could think about. About kissing you, touching you…” His fingertips glided down Zia’s spine and his hands ended up cupping the taut buttocks. “How do you want me?”

“Sit down on the floor.” Zia quickly spread a blanket over the tiles and then lowered himself onto his knees. Puzzled, Aris did as he was told. “Cross-legged,” Zia added and Aris changed position. “Yes, like that.”

Aris’ mouth watered and he couldn’t stop himself from rubbing Zia’s nipples with his thumb. Zia reacted by throwing back his head as one of Aris’ hands stole down toward Zia’s groin. “I want you…” He was already hard. He didn’t even need Zia’s touch to put him on fire. Just one look at Zia’s body and feeling his lover’s eyes upon him did the trick.

“Where’s the oil?” Zia had tried enticing Aris into making love without the use of oil, but Aris had flatly rejected the idea. Aris had told him that he didn’t want him to be in pain and since then, Zia always used it.

“Over there.”

Zia turned, reached for the vial, and grinned as Aris felt him up. He savored the touch – savored being free from pain – and being able to act the way he wanted. “Impatient, are you?”

“I need you.” Aris’ eyes were clouded with passion and lust. “I need you so much.”

Zia reached for his lover’s cock and drizzled oil onto it. He gave the rod a few expert strokes and Aris started thrusting into his hand in search of relief. “Not yet.”

Zia’s seductive tone, the sly look in those eyes, the warm fingers on his cock…all those things made Aris hungry for more. “Come here… please…”

Zia took pity on him and crawled closer. The moment he was within Aris’ reach, Aris’ hands slipped below his buttocks and pulled him closer. Aris’ head was cocked, the lips parted, and the tip of his tongue showed. Zia had never seen something that erotic before and knew he couldn’t make Aris wait that night.

Aris gasped when Zia placed his hands on his shoulders. Moving closer, Zia sat on his haunches. “Oh yes.” He finally knew what Zia had planned for him.

Zia drew in a deep breath and then breathed out. He reached below him and guided Aris’ member inside his body. Slowly, he impaled himself on the hard flesh and his grip on Aris’ shoulders tightened.

Acting quickly, Aris cupped Zia’s buttocks. That way he could slow Zia down and savor entering his lover a little longer. But in the end, Zia had taken him in. “Wrap your legs around me.” He guided the long legs around his waist and then crushed Zia to him. He touched his lips to his lover’s and kissed him greedily.

Aris’ mind was wide open and his lover’s pleasure rolled through Zia’s mind. Aris’ desire fueled his and, with Aris’ help, Zia rose, almost letting the hard flesh slip out of his body. But just before that happened, he pushed back down again. They screamed at the exquisite torture and Aris started to move Zia up and down his length. Zia caught on and rode his lover.

“Close…” Aris threw back his head. “Zia!” His arms wrapped around Zia and pushed the young man down onto his length. Pulsating, the organ released its seed and filled Zia from the inside. Zia however, hadn’t come yet, but the power of Aris’ orgasm which he felt in his mind pulled him along and he experienced his climax a moment later.

Exhausted, Zia collapsed against Aris and closed his eyes. Each time he made love with Aris, he thought it was the best loving he had ever had, but then something new happened and showed him that he hadn’t quite reached true bliss yet.

Rubbing Zia’s back, Aris tried to catch his breath. He had always hoped that Zia would one day release his passion, but once it had happened, he felt awed. “I wonder…” he tried, panting. “What it’ll be like…when we take aruna… If it’s anything like this…it might kill us.”

Zia laughed and buried his face in Aris’ blond hair. “You can’t die from pleasure.”

Aris smiled and hugged Zia close to him. “I hope you’re right.” He needed a moment to compose himself and so did Zia. “I love you so much.”

“Love you more.” Zia smiled. Their future looked bright and, for the first time in his life, Zia was perfectly happy.

***

“Let’s see how much harish magic still affects you.” Snake had administered another dose of radiation to Zia and wanted to put the young man to the test. “Cobweb?”

Zia remained fairly relaxed when Cobweb approached. He had been staying with them for over a week and no longer felt uncomfortable in Cobweb’s presence.

Cobweb focused his power and probed Zia’s mind. A week ago, that would have given Zia a major headache. Since Aris wasn’t close, Zia had to rely on his own strength. The telepath couldn’t help him. “Do you sense anything?”

Zia concentrated. “I feel something,” he said and frowned.

Snake was disappointed. He had hoped that the residue from the Ferrar crystals had finally been removed. He didn’t know if giving Zia another dosage of radiation would help. “Zia, we need to talk.”

Zia didn’t like the way that sounded. “I’m getting better…or not?”

“Yes, you made great progress, but we’ve reached our limits. Another dose of radiation won’t make a difference. This is as good as it’ll get.” Snake gave Zia a sad look. “I’m sorry, but I can’t cure you completely.”

Zia wished Aris was at his side, but Aris had accepted Swift’s invitation to be shown around the house. Zia belatedly realized they might have planned it that way so they could talk to him privately. “What does that mean for me? I can’t become har?”

Snake pulled up a chair and sat down. Cobweb came to a halt behind him and rested his hands on his chesnari’s shoulders. Snake drew in a deep breath and said, “I won’t lie to you. There’s always a risk when someone is incepted, but in your case, the risk is higher.”

“I can still be incepted?”

“Yes, but not by someone like Terzah or Zen. It would have to be someone more powerful.” Snake wondered how Zia would react to his proposal.

Zia felt disappointed. “I wanted one of them to incept me.”

“I know that,” Snake replied. “But that wouldn’t be wise.”

“But… Can I still become har?” So much depended on that!

Snake nodded. “I believe so. But you should let us pick the har to do it.”

Zia felt nervous. “Who do you have in mind? What about Aris?”

“Aris is the least of our problems. Cobweb can fetch Terzah and then Terzah can incept Aris, if that is what he wants. Or Cobweb or I can incept Aris. He’ll adapt quickly. His inception will go smoothly.”

“So I’m the problem?” Zia stared at his hands, which rested in his lap.

“Not a problem. We just need to take special care when we incept you. Zia, will you look at me?” Snake wanted to see Zia’s face when he made his suggestion.

Zia raised his gaze and forced himself to listen calmly. “Whom do you suggest?” He didn’t want some stranger to incept him!

“Pellaz.” Snake watched Zia carefully and it didn’t take long for the blue eyes to widen before a gasp escaped the youth.

“Pellaz?” Zia blinked. “But he’s Tigron!”

“Exactly. Pellaz is the most powerful har alive if we don’t count Thiede and Thiede isn’t an option.” Snake reached for Zia’s trembling hands and clasped them in-between his. “You don’t have to decide now. You have time to think this over.”

Zia needed to know one thing. “Did Pellaz actually agree to this?” He couldn’t believe that the Tigron was willing to incept someone like him!

“We talked to Pellaz that first day. That’s why we asked you to attend dinner. Pellaz wanted to meet you.” Snake smiled. “Yes, he agreed.” The three of them had talked after Swift, Zia, and Aris had left and Pellaz had agreed to incept Zia, if that was what Zia wanted.

Zia had a hard time believing them. “Do you believe it’ll work? That Pellaz can successfully incept me?”

“If Pell can’t do it, no har can.” Cobweb was fairly certain of that. “But the risk remains. I suggest you talk this through with Aris first. You must also keep in mind that you’d have to take aruna with Pellaz. Aris should also choose a har to take aruna with after inception. You should reach a decision together.”

Zia was relieved that he didn’t have to make a decision in that moment. “How much time do I have?”

“Pell plans to stay for two weeks… You have one week to decide. And if we follow through, Cobweb must fetch Terzah so he can incept Aris.” Snake doubted Aris would agree to Cobweb incepting him.

“Yes, Aris and I need to talk.” Zia was fairly sure that he wanted to take the risk and follow through, but he had to hear out Aris in the matter too. After all, they were in this together.

***

Aris noticed that something was wrong straight away. Zia was sitting on the bed and was rocking slowly. Zia hadn’t done that in a long while. He sat on the edge of the bed and then crawled closer. He embraced Zia from behind and eased his lover’s back against his chest. “Why are you upset?”

“I talked to Snake today.” Zia closed his eyes and pressed back. He needed Aris close. “I’ve reached the end of the line. I can’t be healed completely.”

Aris’ eyes widened. “But…”

“Their magic no longer bothers me,” Zia explained. “But some of the Ferrar crystals residue will always remain in my blood.”

“Can you still become har?”

Zia turned in the embrace and wrapped his legs around Aris’ waist. He leaned in closer and enfolded Aris in a hug. “There’s a risk with each inception, but the risk is bigger in my case. If I go ahead, they want Pellaz to incept me.”

“Pellaz? But I thought you wanted Zen to do it?”

“Zen isn’t powerful enough. The residue might fight him and gain the upper hand. Pellaz’ blood is much stronger.” He raised his head and gave Aris a thoughtful look. “Snake also said that I had to take aruna with Pellaz for the inception to be successful.” Zia gave Aris a pleading look. “I’m willing to take the risk if you are.”

Aris’ head reeled. “When do you have to decide this?”

“I have a week,” Zia said. “I’ll be honest with you, Aris. I want to do this. I don’t want to stay human.”

“But what if the inception goes wrong and you die?” Aris couldn’t imagine a life without Zia.

“That’s a risk I have to take. Aris, you want to be har and I want to be har too. If we decide against this, we would be living a lie.”

“We don’t have to decide yet,” Aris retorted. “We should think this over carefully.”

“Take all the time you need,” Zia replied. “My mind is made up, but I’ll only follow through if you agree to it.”

***

Later that evening, Aris and Zia went in search of Pellaz. They weren’t sure the Tigron would take his time to talk to them, but they had to try. They were holding hands when they happened upon Pellaz, who had retired into the garden. The har was on his back and staring at the darkening skies. Night was about to fall and the moon was making her first appearance that evening.

Pellaz sensed their presence and grew curious.

“I hope we’re not disturbing you…” Zia still didn’t know how to address Pellaz. “We would like a word with you, milord, if you can spare us a moment.” He hoped he had shown Pellaz proper respect by addressing him with ‘milord’.

Pellaz waved them closer, but didn’t get to his feet. “Lie down beside me.” He enjoyed looking at the star speckled heaven.

Zia and Aris exchanged a look. In the end, they lay down and stretched out on their backs. “May we speak with you? Or should we return later?” Zia didn’t want to offend the mighty har.

Realizing he wouldn’t get his peace until they had talked to him, Pellaz turned onto his side. Zia lay closest to him and he watched the handsome human. “You look a bit like Terzah.”

“We’re not related,” Zia answered and turned his head. “But I would like to become his son – his harish son.” Zia sucked in his breath when he felt Pellaz’ fingers tug at a strand of his hair.

Aris turned onto his side as well and watched them closely. Pellaz might be Tigron, but if he hurt Zia, Aris would defend his lover.

“What do you want to know, Zia?” Pellaz twirled the strand between his fingers. He had never considered incepting a human. Why should he? He was Tigron. He didn’t deal with such ‘common’ affairs. At the same time, he vividly recalled his own inception and how lonely and hurt he had felt. If he followed through and incepted Zia he would do things differently.

“I want to know if it’s true. Did you really agree to incept me?” Zia watched Pellaz with large eyes. Pellaz was beautiful to behold, even more so from such a short distance.

“I agreed to it, yes. I’ll incept you if that’s what you want.”

“Why did you agree to it? I mean, I’m not worthy of such an honor.”

“And why is that, Zia?” Pellaz wondered what had made the human say that.

“Don’t you know about my past?” Zia looked at Pellaz in surprise. “You’re so powerful. I thought it would take you only seconds to read my mind.”

“I haven’t read your mind and I have no plans to do so.” Pellaz frowned. “If you want to follow through, I’ll learn everything there’s to know about you during inception.”

“Then my past doesn’t matter to you?”

“Zia, you live in the present. I’ve learned one thing and that is that holding onto the past brings you nothing but pain. You have to look forward.” Pellaz’ fingertips moved across Zia’s brow and the young man trembled at his touch. Aris’ thoughts were racing and he felt the telepath become increasingly worried because he was touching Zia. “After inception you need to take aruna. Did Snake tell you that I’d be your first partner if you were to follow through?” He didn’t want any misunderstandings where this aspect was concerned. “I’d treat you well, Zia.”

Aris felt conflicted. If it had been up to him, he would have been Zia’s first arunic partner, but it was important they took aruna with an experienced har that first time. Aris hadn’t given the matter any thought yet, but he knew he would have to choose a partner too.

“Snake told me as much,” Zia admitted shyly. He wasn’t thrilled about the prospect of taking aruna with Pellaz, but knew it was a necessity if he wanted the inception to be a success. “I trust you to take care of me. Snake wouldn’t have suggested you if he didn’t think you were the right person for that job.”

“You’re determined to do this then?” Pellaz felt Zia’s resolve.

“I’m willing to take the risk.” Zia closed his eyes. In a strange way, Pellaz’ touch was comforting. Normally, a har’s touch made him nervous and edgy at least. “I want to become har and I’ll take aruna with you if that helps me achieve my goal.”

Pellaz looked at Aris and read resignation in the unique pair of eyes. Aris would give Zia what he wanted: namely the chance to become har. “I’ll tell Cobweb to fetch Terzah and I’ll set a time and date for your inception, Zia. Aris shall be incepted at the same time.” Pellaz cocked his head at Aris. “Did you already choose a partner?”

Aris shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know. Maybe you can suggest someone?” He didn’t care that much. All that mattered was that he could take aruna with Zia once he was fully har.

Pellaz considered the question. Zen would be a good choice, but Pellaz had the feeling Aris looked upon the har as his father. Zen was out of the question then. “Cobweb would be a good choice.”

Aris’ eyes widened. “But he’s together with Snake!”

Pellaz smiled. “I have the feeling Snake will understand.”

Zia suddenly interrupted them. “Will it hurt? Becoming har?” Zia had to know.

Pellaz nodded his head. “You’ll be in some discomfort for a few days. Especially you, Zia since your body will fight inception. Are you scared?”

Zia shook his head. “I’m not scared. If everything goes wrong, I’ll die, but I’ll have at least tried.”

“You can’t die!” Aris tightened his hold on Zia’s hand. “I can’t live without you.”

The depth of their love touched Pellaz. “Then we must make sure that everything will go smoothly for you, Zia.”

***

Zen froze when he was suddenly faced with a specter of his past. Cobweb, riding a sedu, had materialized close to the kafta and Zen’s first reaction was to panic. He still remembered Cobweb from the old times when the har had belonged to Terzian. To his knowledge, Terzian had never loved Cobweb. Terzian had only kept the other har to host pearls.

Cobweb had heard Pellaz had given Zen the task to take care of this settlement, but it was still hard for him to believe that the other har had changed. Zen had been one of Terzian’s confidantes and they had wreaked a lot of havoc in their time. Terzian, Ponclast, and Zen had been at the heart of the violent harish movement that had wanted to annihilate mankind. Meeting him under these circumstances was odd.

Terzah sensed when Zen’s thoughts became erratic and he reached out to his chesnari, trying to offer support and comfort even when he wasn’t close. He was at the school with David, but planned on returning to the kafta as quickly as possible.

“Cobweb…” Zen had found his voice again and nervously waited for the other har to address him. Cobweb had always been a beautiful and mysterious har and, at the time, Zen had desired the other har himself. But since Cobweb had belonged to Terzian, he had been off limits. Zen still felt guilty for the way he had acted back then and lowered his gaze since Cobweb knew how he had misbehaved.

“Zen.” Cobweb knew he had to keep the past just that: in the past. He was there for a reason and didn’t want to bring up precedent events. They had all made mistakes in the recent history. “I’m here to speak with you and Terzah.”

“Is something wrong with Zia? Or Aris?” Zen grew worried. “Are you here because something happened to them?”

Cobweb smiled. The old Zen would never have worried about two humans. “They’re fine. I’d prefer to tell my tale just once. Can you ask Terzah to join us?”

Zen sent Terzah the request mentally. “He’s already on his way.” Zen wondered what do to. “May I invite you into our kafta? I can make tea.”

Cobweb accepted the invitation with a graceful inclination of his head. He followed Zen inside and sat down on the floor. Terzah had created a home there and Cobweb felt the other har’s magic which protected the kafta. He raised the cup filled with peppermint tea and sipped. “You look well,” he commented in an effort to make conversation.

“I’m happy,” Zen admitted and then added, “I’ve changed, Cobweb.”

Cobweb nodded his head. “I can sense you have.” Zen’s mind felt different. The anger and aggression were gone from the other har’s mind. “I must admit I was surprised to find that you had taken in strays.”

“Someone had to take care of them and Zia… Zia’s special. I couldn’t turn him – or Aris – away simply because they were human, if that’s what you’re thinking. I learned from my past mistakes. I love them like they were my own flesh and blood.”

“You have changed,” Cobweb replied. “I remember a time you hunted them for pleasure.”

Zen bowed his head. “My greatest regret is creating the Ferrar crystals. They caused so much death.”

“And your son suffered from their affect for a long time.”

Zen raised his gaze and was about to inquire about Zia when Terzah rushed inside.

Terzah disliked having a strange har inside his kafta. Zen might have invited Cobweb inside, but Terzah felt territorial. This was home. “Who are you?”

Cobweb smiled mysteriously. “We met a few years ago. You were one of Caeru’s servants. I was visiting.”

Terzah suddenly remembered the other har’s name. “You’re Cobweb.” Terzian’s former chesnari. Terzian, the Varr who had run alongside Zen when his chesnari had still been Varr. “What do you want?”

Cobweb continued to smile. He should have expected Terzah to react like that. After all, he was intruding on the other har’s territory. “I’m here to talk to you about Aris and Zia.”

Curiosity got the better of him and Terzah sat down beside Zen. Possessively, he rested a hand on his chesnari’s knee. “What do you know of my sons?’

“They came to us for help. Snake has been working with survivors for a while and has managed to improve Zia’s condition.”

“Zia can’t be cured then?” Zen had quickly drawn the right conclusion.

“Not completely, no, but Snake is confident Zia can be incepted. That’s why I’m here. Aris wants you there, Terzah. He wants you to incept him.” Seeing Zen’s disappointment, Cobweb added, “And you’re welcome too, Zen. Bring your sons if they can’t be left alone.”

“Aris wants me to incept him?” Terzah felt honored, but then his eyes narrowed. “What about Zia? Will you let Zen incept him?”

Cobweb shook his head. “Pellaz will.”

Zen blinked and Terzah gave Cobweb a dirty look. “Pellaz?” Terzah hissed the name. “Why Pellaz?”

“Because Pellaz’ blood is strong. There’s a chance Zia will fight the inception because of the remaining residue. I’m sure he would have wanted the two of you to incept Aris and him, but your blood isn’t strong enough. You must do what’s best for Zia.”

“You don’t have to remind me of my duties toward my son,” Terzah growled, but then Zen’s hand settled on his arm and he started to calm down.

“That wasn’t my intention,” Cobweb quickly clarified. “I was just worried that you might not allow Pellaz to incept Zia. Snake and I are convinced that it’s the only way for Zia to become har.”

“I had hoped one of us would incept Zia,” Zen mumbled. “I don’t know how he’ll react when dealing with someone like Pellaz.”

“They get along just fine. Don’t worry about that.” Cobweb grinned as both hara looked at him in surprise. “Pellaz and Zia met and they’re both comfortable with the prospect of Pellaz incepting Zia.”

“They met?” Zen’s eyes grew big.

“Pell happened to be visiting Galhea and we introduced him to Zia and Aris. Everything’s fine. Zia has even grown comfortable of the fact that Pellaz and he will take aruna after inception.”

Terzah sighed as he realized that he didn’t have the right to fight this. Cobweb was right: they had to do what was best for Zia. “And what about Aris?”

Cobweb inclined his head and felt a tad nervous about breaking this particular news to Terzah. “You’ll incept him and afterwards I’ll take aruna with him to complete the transformation.” Seeing Terzah was about to object, Cobweb added, “It was Aris’ decision that it should be me. I would never have offered myself. I’ll instruct him well. I still remember what it’s like to take aruna for the first time after having been human for so long.”

Sensing Terzah’s surrender, Cobweb reached out. “Will you come with me? You can bring the rest of your family, if they can’t be on their own. I believe Aris and Zia would like it if both of you witnessed their inception.”

Zen grew pale. That meant returning to Galhea. The last time he had visited Forever had been as a member of Terzian’s pack.

“You’re welcome,” Cobweb repeated his earlier statement. “The past’s over. You need to look toward the future and think of your sons’ well-being.”

“You’re right. I knew my past would catch up with me sooner or later. It’s best I got this over with now.” Zen swallowed hard, but then Terzah squeezed his knee and a smile started to surface on Zen’s face. “I won’t have to face my past alone, will I?”

Terzah smiled. “You have me. I’ll be there for you.”

Part 8

Zen felt uneasy and restless when he entered Forever. The memories associated with this place were bad and he reached for Terzah’s hand. Terzah curled his fingers around his and Zen drew in a deep breath. He could do this.

“Zen!” A scream echoed through the house before a “Terzah!” was added to it. Aris reached them first and hugged them close. Zia arrived a moment later, breathing hard from running. While Terzah hugged Aris, Zen directed his attention to Zia.

“You look well,” Zen stated, wonder coloring his voice. “Let me correct that, you look better than that. You look healthy!” Zia’s appearance took him aback. For the first time ever Zia looked in good physical shape and at ease. “Let me look at you.” Forgetting the old rules, namely that Zia never wanted to be touched, he placed his hands on either side of Zia’s head and studied him. A moment later, he realized his mistake and went to pull away, but then the fact that Zia was allowing the touch registered with him.

Zia smiled happily at Zen. “I feel better. Snake helped clean out the Ferrar crystals residue.”

Zen caressed Zia’s face and smiled at him. “I’m glad they were able to help you.”

Aris hugged Terzah close. At the same time, he listened in on Zen and Zia’s conversation. He was happy to have both hara there with him. “Thanks for coming,” he whispered into Terzah’s ear. “I really wanted you to incept me and no one else.” He still wasn’t completely comfortable with the fact that he had to take aruna with Cobweb to finish the transformation, but he couldn’t picture himself taking aruna with Terzah or Zen. They were his parents.

“I’ll incept you.” He had already incepted David some time ago and knew how to make the process as comfortable as possible. Once he had greeted Aris, it was time for him to move on to Zia. The change that had come over the young man left Terzah breathless. For one moment, he thought he was looking at a har already. “Zia.”

Zia stepped away from Zen and gave Terzah a brilliant smile. He opened his arms and enfolded Terzah in a hug.

Terzah beamed with pride and happiness when Zia embraced him. He had dreamt of holding Zia in his arms like that for a long time. “I’m so proud of you. You have come so far.”

Pulling back, Zia returned Terzah’s smile. “I’m glad Zen and you are here. Aris and I need you.”

“When will the inception take place?” Terzah asked. From the corner of his eye, he saw two other hara whom he had never seen before approach.

“In two days,” Zia replied. “And I’m happy about that.” He blushed. “Pellaz agreed to incept me and take aruna with me. I never thought he would. After all, he’s Tigron.”

“Pellaz has taken a liking to him,” Cobweb commented as he smiled at Snake and his son. “May I introduce my chesnari to you? This is Snake.”

Zen listened up. “That was the healer’s name.”

Snake nodded. “I helped Zia recover.”

“And this is my son, Swift.” Cobweb felt proud of the son he had raised. Swift was a fine har.

Zen felt grateful that Swift had taken after Cobweb and not Terzian. He wasn’t sure how he would have reacted if he had met with a younger version of the Varr.

“You’re welcome,” Swift said. He didn’t know about Zen’s troubled past. Cobweb hadn’t shared that information with him.

“Dinner’s ready,” Cobweb announced. “Would you like to join us?” He hoped Zen and Terzah would accept.

Zen nodded his head. “We will.” He was grateful that Cobweb had forgiven him for what he had done in the past. The har didn’t seem to hold a grudge against him.

***

Later that evening, Pellaz strolled into the room. Zen was about to rise from the table in order to greet him when Pellaz raised a hand and gestured for him to stay seated. When he stayed in Forever, he didn’t want to be treated like the Tigron. While he was there, he wanted to be Pellaz. “We meet again,” he greeted them and gave Terzah a wicked smile. “I trust Zen and you are happy these days?”

Terzah wanted to glare at Pellaz, but remembered who he was dealing with and kept back. “Yes, we’re happy.” In a way he should be grateful. It was Pellaz who had brought them together and now Pellaz was about to incept Zia and make his son har. “You’d better take good care of Zia,” he added, unable to suppress his concern.

Pellaz gave Terzah an understanding smile. “Don’t worry. I’ll look after him.” Pellaz placed some of the food onto his plate and walked back to the doorway. He didn’t want to disturb their happy reunion.

“You can stay, you know,” Aris called out as he picked up on Pellaz’ discomfort. It hadn’t taken him long to realize that Pellaz didn’t feel welcome at times like these. Although the reason why eluded him.

“No, I shouldn’t.” Pellaz gave Aris a warm smile. “Maybe another time.” He quickly stepped into the corridor and left.

“I don’t understand him,” Aris grumbled and looked over to Snake for an explanation. He had been surprised to learn that Snake and Pellaz were brothers.

Snake shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t understand him either. He’s changed since he became Tigron. A heavy burden rests on his shoulders. At times, I fear for him.”

Zia drew in a deep breath. He had added to that burden by asking Pellaz to incept him.

***

“You’re not eating,” Terzah commented, frowning. Zia had never eaten that much, but now Aris wasn’t eating either.

“Snake advised us to fast until the inception,” Aris explained and sipped water. “That way our bodies will be under less strain during the transformation.”

Terzah grumbled low in his throat. Of course. Zen had told David the same thing before Terzah had incepted him. “Do you know what to expect?”

“Snake and Cobweb told us.” Zia placed his hand on Terzah’s and relished being able to touch the har so freely. “We know what to expect.”

“Good.” Snake and Cobweb had better have prepared their sons. He wouldn’t let them get hurt.

***

Zia felt nervous. He had said his temporary goodbyes to Aris and had felt emotional at the time. It hadn’t helped that Aris had refused to let go of his hand when they’d had to part.

“Don’t worry,” Pellaz said and handed Zia a glass. “Drink that.”

Zia sipped. He knew what was going to happen, but he still worried. He needed to distract himself. “I thought inception would be…harder,” he murmured after a moment’s thought. He had joined Pellaz in his room and was waiting for things to happen.

“You’re lucky,” Pellaz replied as he remembered his own inception. “My inception was grueling. They insisted on all kinds of ritual. You’re being spared that.”

“Thank you.” Zia’s nervousness increased since Pellaz was so close. “I trust you to make my inception a success. If you can’t do it, no one can.”

Pellaz slid his fingers into Zia’s long hair and placed his hand at the nape of the young man’s neck. “I won’t lie to you. You’ll be in pain for a short while.”

“Will you stay with me?” Zia didn’t want to go through the process alone. It was bad enough that Terzah couldn’t be with him, but Terzah was incepting Aris that day. Pellaz’ thumb rubbed his neck and Zia relaxed further. He suspected Pellaz was using his magic on him, but since he didn’t sense it, he couldn’t be certain. If Pellaz was truly influencing him that way, it was working.

“I’ll see you through it, Zia, are you ready?”

Zia nodded and swallowed convulsively. “I believe in you. I believe you’re strong enough to make me har.”

Pellaz leaned in closer and brushed his lips across Zia’s brow. “That’s right. Believe in me.” That would make things much easier.

***

“I’m nervous,” Aris admitted when Terzah seated himself next to him. Cobweb was also present and Aris felt safe in spite of his nervousness. “I always knew this would happen, but… It still feels unreal.” Although he knew what to expect, he still worried about the outcome. “It’s so hard to understand that I’ll be like you in a few days.”

Terzah smiled and ruffled Aris’ blond hair. “All will go well, my son.” Soon, Aris would be his son in every sense of the word.

***

Zia looked deep into Pellaz’ eyes when the Tigron made an incision in his lower right arm. It didn’t hurt exactly, and Zia realized the water had been drugged so he wouldn’t feel any pain. “Thank you.”

Pellaz smiled warmly and made a cut in his own arm. “Don’t fight it, Zia. Just allow for it to happen.” He pulled Zia against him and reclined into a heap of pillows which had been piled against the headboard. Pressing his arm against Zia’s, he allowed for their blood to mingle.

“Just rest.” With his free hand, he stroked Zia’s hair and then hummed softly. Since a connection had been made, Zia’s thoughts, his memories, his hopes, his love, and his fears seeped into his mind and he finally understood why Zia had been afraid Pellaz would reject him. “Never be ashamed of your past,” Pellaz whispered into Zia’s ear. “It made you so much stronger.” Pellaz was grateful that the link allowed him to read Zia’s mind. The information he was receiving that moment would help him make the right decisions when it was time to take aruna.

Zia felt drowsy and didn’t fight the strange sensation taking hold of his body. He knew there would be pain, but Pellaz’ presence soothed him.

***

“Cobweb, help me?” Terzah had shared his blood with Aris and wanted to move his son to the bed. Cobweb assisted him and together they made sure Aris was comfortable on the bed. “His inception will go smoothly.” Aris wanted this and, once his body had adapted to its new state, Aris would wake up har.

***

“What’s happening to me?” Scared, Zia stared at Pellaz. He was in excruciating pain and there was nothing he could do to stop it. “Please help me!” He was trying to crawl away from Pellaz in the hopes that the movement would make the pain go away. Pellaz however held him tight.

“Your body’s changing. New organs are forming and it’s purifying itself. You must be strong now.” Pellaz remembered living through the ordeal himself. It had been even worse for him. He’d only had Flick to help him through it. “Just let it happen.” Using his powers, he soothed Zia’s mind and numbed the pain as much as he could. “Your blood is fighting inception.” The residue the Ferrar crystals had left behind was making inception harder than it should be.

His body shook with convulsions and Zia could feel something inside him shift. “What…?”

“You’re becoming har, Zia.” Pellaz hoped his blood was strong enough to make Zia complete. “An ouana-lim and soume-lam are harish organs, not human.” Hopefully they formed completely and Zia would be able to host a pearl or even create one while being ouana.

***

Aris’ transformation into har was rather painless. He went through less discomfort than Zia and when he opened his eyes two days later, his transformation was complete. The first person he saw was Terzah, hovering above him with a worried expression on his face.

“You’re awake… Cobweb, Aris is awake!”

Cobweb sat down on the edge of the bed. “You made it.”

“I always knew you would make a fine har.” Terzah felt proud. “You’re really my son now.”

Aris sat upright and frowned. “I feel different.”

“That’s because things have changed. Your body *is* different now. It’s harish.” Cobweb looked at Terzah and suggested, “I’ll help him bathe.”

Terzah nodded. His work there was done. He had incepted Aris and now Cobweb would instruct the new har in the art of aruna. As he left his son’s side, Terzah looked at Cobweb and said, “Please, treat him well.”

Cobweb nodded. “You can trust me.”

“What about Zia? Has there been any word yet?” Aris felt anxious as he thought about Zia’s inception.

Terzah shook his head. “Nothing yet. Let’s hope all is well.”

***

Zia screamed in pain. Something had gone wrong. He just knew it! He raised his head and searched for Pellaz.

“I’m here.” Pellaz held Zia close and rocked him. “Don’t give up. Fight!” Zia’s state didn’t worry him yet. His inception had been difficult too because Thiede’s blood had been so strong. “I thought I was going to die too.”

“I’ll die… I just know it. I don’t want to die… I love Aris…” Zia rocked back and forth in Pellaz’ arms and sobbed.

“You’re not going to die.” Pellaz was certain of that. “My blood is strong in you. You need to adapt. I went through the same thing.” Pellaz held Zia close and supported him the best way he could.

***

Aris stared at his changed body in wonder. He had seen Terzah naked when they had bathed, and Zen too, but he had never wondered how it would feel to possess a harish body himself. A need was building inside him and he knew what it was. He needed aruna.

“There’s no news of Zia’s inception yet,” Cobweb stated upon entering the bathroom. He wrapped Aris in warm towels and guided him into the bedroom. “No news is good news,” he added. “We knew it would take Zia longer to go through the transformation.”

“I wish we knew what was happening.” Aris looked out of the window. Pellaz’ rooms were located down there and he wanted to know what was happening at the moment.

“Aris?” Cobweb pulled Aris close and lifted the har’s chin with his fingertip. “Do you feel it?”

Aris nodded. “I do…” He needed aruna… He needed Cobweb. ‘Teach me.”

Cobweb nodded. “I’ll teach you what I know. You’ll know what to do when you meet with Zia. I’ll show you,” he whispered seductively. “Trust yourself to me…”

Aris couldn’t fight it – he didn’t want to fight it – this need was ancient and overwhelmed him. When Cobweb pressed his lips onto his, Aris surrendered and let the more experienced har take control.

***

Exhausted, Zia clung to Pellaz. The pain was finally subsiding, but he felt weak – immensely weak. “Pell?”

Pellaz lowered Zia onto the bed and curled himself protectively around the drained har. “It’s over. It’s done.”

Zia blinked in surprise. “It worked?” He was still alive!

“It worked. It just took you longer to be incepted.” Pellaz stroked Zia’s feverish brow. “I want you to rest while I prepare a bath.” Zia had made a mess of himself and needed to be cleaned up. “Don’t worry. I’ll help you.”

Zia nodded weakly. He no longer felt awkward in the Tigron’s presence. Now, he felt connected to him. “In a way, you’re my mother.”

Pellaz chuckled. “I know what you mean. I feel like I gained another son.”

“You have sons?” Zia didn’t know much about Pellaz and in this relaxed state, he felt confident enough to ask questions.

“I have two sons. One is called Abrimel and the other Loki.” Pellaz swiped Zia’s hair away from the damp face. “We need to clean you up.” He gently eased Zia onto the bed and out of his arms before rising from the bed. He stretched and then marched into the bathroom, all the while thinking how much more pleasant Zia’s inception had been compared to his.

***

Zia couldn’t take his eyes off his changed body. Pellaz was washing him, and although the wash cloth produced a pleasant sensation on his skin, all he had eyes for was his ouana-lim. “Do you think…?” He was scared to touch it.

Pellaz had gained a new insight in the way Zia thought after incepting him. He knew what made Zia act the way he did. “You’re wondering if it’s fully functional.”

Zia saw no reason to deny it. His eyes followed the wash cloth as Pellaz moved it over his skin. “Does it look normal to you?” He had nothing to compare it to.

Pellaz smiled and nodded. “Perfectly normal. Wraeththu organs differ from the human reproductive organs. I believe the transformation went well. You’ll find out when we take aruna in a bit.”

Zia leaned against Pellaz, uncaring that he was getting the Tigron’s robes wet. “I owe you so much.”

Pellaz sensed Zia’s gratitude. “I did it because I wanted to help.” He reached for a towel and told Zia to rise. After wrapping the fabric around Zia, he helped the har out of the bathtub. “Zia, are you nervous?” He dried Zia’s skin and made eye contact. Zia looked tired, but taking aruna would fix that. He knew that Zia would have preferred to take aruna with Aris for the first time, but unfortunately both newly-incepted hara needed to take aruna with an experienced har first.

Zia tiredly blinked and swayed dangerously. It was a good thing that Pellaz quickly steadied him. “I don’t know,” he admitted in surprise. “Should I be?” he asked Pellaz.

Pellaz shook his head. “You’re right. There’s no need to be nervous.” Since Zia was still swaying on his feet, Pellaz opted for scooping Zia up into his arms and carrying him to the furs that lay in front of the fire place. He lowered Zia onto them and then knelt next to him. He shrugged off his robes and looked at Zia, who gave him a strangely trusting look. “You’ll have to be soume, Zia.” But Zia could be ouana with Aris. In a way, that meant Zia could have ‘a’ first time with Aris after all.

“Will it hurt?” Zia parted his legs. He had made his peace with the way it was going to be. A part of him even felt flattered that it would be the Tigron initiating him into the art of aruna. His gaze drifted lower and his wide eyes took in Pellaz’ sparkling ouana-lim.

Pellaz shook his head. “Not if I can help it.” Once he had disposed of his clothes, Pellaz moved in-between Zia’s legs. Placing his hands on Zia’s chest, he gave the newly-incepted har an admiring look. “You’re handsome, Zia.” Zia laughed, obviously a bit embarrassed, and Pellaz leaned in closer to kiss Zia’s lips. “Think of Aris, Zia.” That would make taking aruna much more pleasurable. “I don’t mind if you close your eyes.”

But to his surprise, Zia didn’t want to do that. Pellaz was striking in his own right and the other har treated him with the utmost respect. “You didn’t have to do this… Yet you chose to incept me. I’ll not cheat on you in that way.”

Pellaz smiled warmly. “Then accept what I’m giving you, Zia.” Pellaz covered Zia’s body with his and slowly entered the newly-incepted har. He took his time and acted with great care. Through his temporary link with Zia he would be able to tell if Zia was in any discomfort. When Zia surged upward to meet him, Pellaz thusly reacted with similar enthusiasm.

Zia was finally har. His dream had come true.

***

Zia felt lazy and sated after taking aruna with Pellaz. His body felt different and his mind hummed with a new sense of wonder. Taking aruna with Pellaz had been wonderful. The older har had taken care of his needs and had guided them to a shared climax. Zia felt ready to take aruna with Aris now.

“I selected robes for you. I hope you don’t mind.” Pellaz was in the middle of fixing his long hair and smiled at Zia, who had just exited the bathroom. They had shared the large bathtub and in a way, they had said their goodbyes while washing each other’s hair and scrubbing the other har’s back. Zia would go to Aris and Pellaz would return to Immanion shortly.

Zia blinked. “Robes?” What was Pellaz talking about? He didn’t posses anything nice.

“They’re my gift to you.” Pellaz showed Zia into the bedroom and steered him toward the chair.

Zia gasped. “But those are yours!” He had seen Pellaz wear them the other day. It was a stunning outfit made of black silk, silver, and pearls.

“It suits you.” Pellaz smiled. “Let me look at you.” Zia blushed underneath his probing stare. “You’re perfect, Zia. Just perfect.”

***

Zen crashed excitedly into Aris’ room and grabbed the har by his shoulders. “There’s news!”

Aris blinked and stared at Zen. Cobweb had left an hour ago and Aris had been pacing since. “Is it good?”

Zen smiled and nodded. “Zia’s inception was hard but proved successful! He’s har now!” Zen grinned. “You’re going to take aruna shortly!”

***

Terzah and Zen waited in the corridor. Aris was inside the room, pacing nervously at he thought about taking aruna with Zia. Terzah and Zen were waiting for Pellaz and Zia to arrive. Both hara were nervous and wanted to see for themselves that Zia’s inception had gone well.

Terzah’s breath caught when he heard voices mumbling softly and he turned around. Pellaz rounded the corner first and then Zia followed suit. “Zia…” Terzah’s eyes started to fill with tears upon seeing the beauty that walked next to the Tigron.

Zen walked toward Zia and took him in his arms. “You had us worried.” He hugged Zia and then pulled away so he could study the har. Zia had undergone a true transformation. It showed that Pellaz’ blood now flowed through Zia’s veins.

Zia smiled warmly at Zen and then directed his attention to Terzah. “I survived,” he whispered. “It was worth the risk.” The outcome had been unsure for he could have died during inception. He went into Terzah’s arms to be hugged. “I’m har now. My greatest wish has come true.” Zia pulled away and recalled Terzah’s initial hostility toward Pellaz. “I owe it all to Pellaz. If he hadn’t incepted me, I might have died.”

Terzah realized the same thing and met Pellaz’ eyes. The expression in them was warm and caring. “Thank you. I might have misjudged you.”

Pellaz accepted the apology with a graceful nod. “I trust Aris is already waiting for Zia to join him?”

“Yes, and he’s impatient.” Zen stepped aside to let Zia pass and opened the door. “Go to him, Zia. The two of you waited long enough.”

Zia moistened his lips and tried to fight his nervousness, but to no avail. He bowed his head and quickly moved into the room.

Zen closed the door behind Zia and fastened his gaze on Pellaz. “I have a question.”

Pellaz had a good idea what Zen wanted to ask him. “I believe he’s complete.”

Zen hid his surprise. He hadn’t thought Pellaz would know what his question would be about. “Telaim told us that he had never heard of a castrated human becoming a fully functional har.”

“Maybe because no har has incepted a castrated human before.” Pellaz shrugged. Although Zia had been soume during aruna, he was convinced Zia was fully functional. “Wraeththu organs differ from a human’s. I’m not worried. I believe Zia’s complete.”

Terzah couldn’t believe the good news. “I was afraid to hope that something like that might happen. I always wanted him to be complete.” Terzah and Zen exchanged a look. They hoped Pellaz had reached the right conclusion and that Zia was ouana too.

***

Aris stopped pacing when a dark shadow glided into the room. Awed, he stared at his lover and blinked. “Zia?” Zia raised his head and Aris went weak in the knees. Being incepted had changed Zia. The long hair shone like ebony while the normally pale blue eyes had gained color and depth. The lips were fuller and the facial features more pronounced. Dressed in black with silver and pearls highlighting his looks, Zia looked like a mystical being.

Zia blushed. Aris’ reaction surprised him and made him worry that his appearance displeased Aris. Self-consciously, he tried to hide behind his hair.

“Don’t!” Aris quickly covered the distance between them and cupped Zia’s cheek in his hand. “You’re stunning!”

“You look handsome too,” Zia mumbled, blushing even more because of the compliment Aris had paid him.

“Let me look at you.” Aris studied his lover’s face and then smiled. “You worried me, Zia. I was afraid you’d die.”

“At one point I was afraid of the same thing. I felt like I was dying.” Zia moved toward Aris and pressed close. Aris immediately buried him in a hug and Zia sighed. “Pellaz took good care of me.”

Aris hugged Zia tight. He just wanted to convince himself that Zia had survived the ordeal, but his body had different ideas.

Zia experienced the same thing, but for him, it was different. He had expected to become soume in Aris’ presence like what had happened when he had taken aruna with Pellaz, but something else was happening.

Seeing Zia’s surprised expression, Aris reached out mentally and was stunned to find how easily he could touch Zia’s mind. Because Zia was har, his lover had been gifted with telepathic abilities. Realizing what was ‘wrong’, Aris’ hand slipped lower and encountered Zia’s ouana-lim.

Zia’s breath came in quick gasps. “Pellaz said I was whole and that I could be ouana for you. I didn’t dare believe him…” But he was aroused and the organ appeared to be functional. ”Do you want it to be that way?”

Aris nodded. “It would be a dream come true.” Aris reached for the clasp that kept Zia’s robes in place and tugged at it, sending the sea of black material down onto the floor. Zia’s blush deepened and spread over the rest of his body when he felt Aris’ gaze upon him. His ouana-lim opened like a flower and red and gold petals unfolded. Leaning in closer, Aris pressed his lips onto Zia’s. /I wonder what sharing breath will be like,/ he mused. He was about to find out.

Sharing breath was like nothing he had ever experienced before. He had shared some mind-blowing kisses with Zia in the past, but this was much more intense. He sensed more than just Zia’s thoughts – he felt Zia’s love for him.

Zia felt overwhelmed and opened his mind to Aris, sharing himself with his chesnari. His hands moved to undo the fastenings of Aris’ shirt and then slid the fabric down the broad shoulders. “I’m nervous,” he admitted. “I’ve never been in this situation before.” It had always been Aris who had done the taking.

“Don’t worry. You’ll know what to do.” Aris took Zia’s hand in his and pulled him toward the bed. He placed his hands against Zia’s chest and pushed the other har onto his back. “I can’t get enough of the way you taste,” he whispered and then enticed Zia into sharing breath again. His body reacted instinctively and his soume-lam glistened with moisture. “I’m ready,” he mumbled into Zia’s ear. “Are you?”

Zia shakily nodded his head. “I think I am.” He stared down his body at the spiraling colors that pulsed through his ouana-lim. He was going to be ouana and Aris soume, which was a complete role reversal for them. “I never thought I would be able to do this.” He had made his peace with being soume for the rest of his life, but life had decided differently.

Aris, eager to unite the two of them and once more taste the pleasure that aruna brought, raised himself. He placed his hands on either side of Zia’s head and then lowered himself onto the ouana-lim.

Zia moaned in ecstasy when their bodies connected and adjusted. Being in this position – being inside Aris – was an incredible feeling. He buried his fingers in Aris’ long hair and then thrust upward. Aris groaned and then pushed down. It didn’t take them long to figure out the pace that worked best for them. Aris’ hands moved over Zia’s chest, and he supported himself by placing them against his chesnari’s abdomen. The amount of pleasure that was building inside him almost made him faint. When they reached their climax, something erupted in Aris’ mind. Zia screamed and surrendered to the tidal wave that swept over him. They clung to each other and Zia swam in Aris’ mind.

“Zia…I…” Aris shook his head in wonder. “I didn’t know I loved you that much.”

Zia wanted to reply, but a sated sensation coursed through him and made it hard to concentrate on anything Aris was saying. Taking aruna with Aris had overwhelmed him, and in the end, he wrapped his arms around Aris and pulled him close to his chest. Holding Aris, Zia felt grateful for the amazing gift Pellaz had given him. For the first time in his life, he was whole – just the way life had intended him to be.

***

Standing in the corridor, Terzah, Zen, and Pellaz exchanged pleased looks. The screams coming from the bedroom told them that Zia and Aris were definitely enjoying aruna.

“He’s whole,” Pellaz said. He hadn’t known it would happen, but a link had formed between Zia and him, allowing him to read Zia’s mind. “He’s ouana and Aris soume.”

Terzah took Zen’s hand in his at hearing that good news. “Zia’s whole, Zen. Do you know what that means?”

Zen smiled and nodded. He wrapped an arm around Terzah’s shoulder and pulled his chesnari close. “It means our family is finally complete.”

Terzah nodded. He couldn’t have said it better. Zen was right. Their family was finally complete.

The End

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