The Fire Within

The Fire Within
by Morgana

Story Notes

Author’s Email: morganalebeau@yahoo.com

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

Pairings: Ash/Vaysh and Pellaz/Caeru

Rating: NC-17

Summary: Caeru recovers from an attack and learns some surprising facts about Vaysh.

Spoilers regarding book four, The Shades of Time and Memory.

Disclaimer: Not mine. No copyright infringement is intended.

Warning: AU of course.

Beta read by Patricia and DA, thanks sweeties!

All remaining mistakes are mine.

The Fire Within

From Storm Constantine’s The Shades of Time and Memory

Pellaz nodded thoughtfully. “I’ll have them clean you up,” he said. “I’ll send Vaysh to you. He can sit with you.”

“Vaysh,” Caeru said dully. “Is that because I’m like him now? Barren? Is he going to talk to me about that, try and make me adjust?” He laughed bleakly.

“No,” Pellaz replied. “It’s because Vaysh is trained to protect a har, which is more than can be said for our so-called security staff. But that is not your concern. Just get well again.”

Vaysh wasn’t surprised to find out what Pellaz wanted from him when the Tigron visited with him that evening. Earlier that day, they had already established that the security staff had failed Caeru miserably and he had offered to look after the injured Tigrina. The offer had been accepted and Vaysh wondered how much persuasion on Pellaz’ part it had taken to make Caeru agree to this arrangement.

As he studied his friend’s face, Vaysh couldn’t help but notice that the expression in Pellaz’ eyes had changed during the last few days. In the past, when Pellaz had talked about the Tigrina, he had done so with little interest in Caeru’s actual well-being. But that had changed. Those eyes radiated concern.

“I’ll look after him,” Vaysh promised as he made his way over to the door. On his way over to Caeru’s sick room, he would pick up his weapons. No attacker would take him by surprise. Pellaz had been right in that aspect: Thiede had trained him well.

Looking exhausted, Pellaz nodded once. “Thank you.” He hadn’t known who else to turn to. Vaysh was the only har he would entrust Caeru’s life to.

Vaysh nodded in turn and closed the door behind him. As he started to walk, his thoughts involuntarily drifted off to the things he had heard lately. Apparently, Pellaz had exhausted himself by healing Caeru’s gravest injuries and the Tigron had literally chased off every har who had dared approach. Did that mean Pellaz had finally admitted to himself that he cared about Caeru after all? Vaysh hoped so for it would finally solidify and deepen the relationship between Tigron and Tigrina. Pellaz had been in denial for much too long. Although Vaysh understood Pellaz’ twisted way of thinking, he had never quite agreed with the way his friend had treated Caeru. It was amazing how much humanity had survived in Pellaz.

What a tangled web they had woven: Pellaz, Caeru, and Cal. It was amazing they hadn’t killed each other, considering the past they shared. Vaysh shook his head and was unwilling to dwell upon his own past which surfaced unintentionally. Pellaz had told Vaysh that he had ordered Ashmael to leave when the other har had visited with Caeru. Ashmael had complied and that fact puzzled Vaysh. Had Ashmael somehow understood what Pellaz had been going through?

Thinking of his former chesnari was the wrong thing to do and Vaysh forced his thoughts away from Ashmael. It was useless to dwell on a past that had died many years ago. He had a job to do – one which Pellaz had entrusted to him and he wouldn’t fail his friend. He vowed to keep the Tigrina safe.

***

Caeru was too exhausted to pay Vaysh’s arrival much attention. Pellaz had told him that the red-haired har would watch over him and Caeru had accepted that, although he didn’t believe he was in any danger any more. The attacker had been after the pearl and Caeru had been of little importance to the villain.

Closing the door behind him, Vaysh scanned the room. Caeru’s bed and the medical equipment took up most of the room. A chair stood next to the bed, where Pellaz doubtlessly had sat working his healing and keeping his vigil. Caeru’s eyes were closed and Vaysh felt no need to disturb the other har’s slumber.

Vaysh sat down on the chair next to the bed. He doubted the assailant would make a second appearance. It was obvious that the pearl had been the target and that Caeru had just been the unfortunate har who had happened to host it.

His gray eyes focused on Caeru’s torso and Vaysh’s features contorted briefly. The attacker had slashed the pearl from the Tigrina’s body, and by doing that, had caused immense damage to the other har. It would take weeks, if not months, for Caeru to recover. That was *if* the other har still possessed the will to fight for full recovery. Vaysh put himself in Caeru’s place and felt deeply for the other har, who was now barren. Caeru had lost a precious pearl and Vaysh knew the other har had to be hurting beyond measure. /I understand that you want to die. I would feel the same way./

Vaysh’s thoughts brushed against Caeru’s mind and the Tigrina slowed opened his eyes. Seeing Vaysh sit there reminded him of something he had told Pellaz. When Pellaz had said that Vaysh would sit with him, he had assumed it would be because Vaysh was barren, but Pellaz had denied that. Now, Caeru couldn’t help but wonder if his condition affected Vaysh’s emotional state, no matter in what small way. “Vaysh…”

Hearing Caeru speak his name made Vaysh lean in closer and his red hair tumbled down his shoulders. “I’ll keep you safe. I promised Pellaz I would.” When he had accepted the assignment he hadn’t thought he would feel some sort of connection to Caeru, but to his surprise, he did. Maybe it was because they had something in common now. Both of them were barren and had experienced great pain. Caeru’s abdomen had been slashed open and the pearl taken, while Vaysh had been subjected to Thiede’s madness. Something connected them now — pain. “Are you in much pain?”

Caeru found the strength to shake his head. “The medication… Pell’s healing…pain lessened,” he mumbled with obvious effort. Sometimes he thought he was floating near the ceiling and could see his traumatized body beneath him. What he saw didn’t look pretty. His flesh was raw and his abdomen resembled a labyrinth of cuts and scarring.

Vaysh reached for the bottled water and offered Caeru a drink. Caeru eyed the water greedily, but didn’t raise a hand to reach for it. Belatedly, Vaysh realized that Caeru was still too weak to help himself, so he exchanged his chair for the side of the bed. “I’ll assist you.”

Caeru accepted the help and allowed Vaysh to help him drink. He swallowed a few sips of water and then felt drained once more. His eyes closed and he released a shuddering breath. “Enough,” he muttered shakily.

Vaysh placed the bottle aside and studied Caeru’s drained appearance. “You should sleep now.”

Caeru’s eyes fluttered open and focused on Vaysh. /I didn’t know you made such a good nurse,/ he commented mentally since he was too tired to voice his thoughts aloud. He hoped Vaysh wouldn’t mind communicating that way, but he couldn’t be certain since they had never done so before.

“I have some experience,” Vaysh replied while allowing the mind touch. He pulled up the blankets and tucked them around the Tigrina’s form. They’d seldom had dealings in the past and Vaysh barely knew Caeru personally. He only knew what Pellaz had told him about the Tigrina.

/What kind of experience?/ Caeru was tired, but his mind was too awake to surrender to sleep just yet. Dreadful memories tormented him and he hoped that Vaysh would distract him.

Vaysh considered how much he could tell the other har. Caeru knew nothing about Pellaz’ remaking and maybe it would be good if he did. Maybe then Caeru would gain a better understanding of Pellaz. “I took care of Pellaz in the beginning.”

Caeru’s eyes opened further and begged Vaysh to continue. Any tale would serve to distract him away from thoughts of the attack.

“After Thiede had remade Pellaz, he was weak for some time. Physically and emotionally he was a mess and Thiede assigned the task of taking care of him to me. I nursed him back to health. He was in as much agony as you are now, Caeru.”

/It’s hard to imagine Pellaz in any kind of pain,/ Caeru shared in mind touch.

Vaysh leaned in closer and cocked his head as he gazed into Caeru’s blue eyes. “Pellaz feels pain as much as you do. However, Thiede trained him to hide that pain and Orien did the same thing before him. Pellaz was conditioned in a way that makes it nearly impossible for him to express his emotions in public. He even finds it hard to show his feelings when it is just me close.” Showing that he possessed vast knowledge about Pellaz, Vaysh added, “Orien once told him to never cry in public. Pellaz always obeyed that order. Only lately has he begun to realize that keeping his pain to himself causes him to hurt more. He is learning that there are different ways to handle emotions.”

Caeru listened with fascination. During the few minutes with Vaysh, he had learned more about Pellaz than he had ever heard from the Tigron himself. Pellaz always guarded his emotions and privacy well – too well. Vaysh himself was also a mystery to Caeru, and under normal circumstances he would have loved to question the other har, but these weren’t normal circumstances and he felt weary. /I need to sleep./

“Then rest. I’ll stay.” Vaysh leaned back in his chair and Caeru’s eyes closed again. He would do his best to keep the Tigrina safe.

***

Vaysh startled awake sometime during the night. It wasn’t because of an intruder: he didn’t sense a foreign presence and quickly realized it was Caeru who had woken him. The other har was thrashing on the bed and sobbing. The dimmed light enabled him to see Caeru’s features and he found that the other har’s face was wet with tears. Unable to emotionally distance himself from the injured Tigrina, Vaysh sat down on the bed and gently stroked Caeru’s face. “Wake up, you’re having a bad dream.” It wasn’t hard to guess what that nightmare was about. Without a doubt it featured the attack Caeru had suffered.

Caeru however didn’t react and Vaysh knew he had to find a way to reach the injured har before the Tigrina’s tossing would add to his injuries. Mentally, he reached out. /Rue, wake up. You’re having a nightmare. You’re safe./ Normally he would never call the Tigrina that nickname. Only Pell, and lately Cal did, but Vaysh hoped the tactic worked and would pull Caeru from his nightmares. It did and Caeru’s eyes opened. Vaysh flinched at seeing the anguish in them. “You had a nightmare.”

Caeru couldn’t stop sobbing and yelped when he realized that it wasn’t Pell sitting there, but Vaysh, who was practically a stranger. He wanted Pell close, not Vaysh!

“I’m sorry that it’s just me,” Vaysh murmured and considered putting more distance between them, but then Caeru’s pain-filled moans reached him and he found he couldn’t turn his back on the injured har. “Is there anything I can do?”

Caeru knew better than to ask for Pellaz’ presence by his bed. If the other har had wanted to keep him company he would have been there. But Vaysh *was* there and at the moment, Vaysh was all he had. /I don’t know,/ he sent, hoping that somehow Vaysh *did* know.

Vaysh wasn’t a tactile har. Most of the time, he did his best to limit any physical contact, but in a way, Caeru reminded him of himself and of how he had been after Thiede had discarded him. He had been hurting back then and had felt lonely. He would have sold his soul to have had a har at his bedside to hold his hand back then. /Don’t think of Ash, just don’t,/ he warned himself.

Caeru would have held his breath if the action hadn’t caused more pressure on his already hurting torso. What would Vaysh do? The other har had the reputation of being icy and distant and had never been known to reach out to someone. Was that going to change now? Unexpectedly, Vaysh’s right hand moved toward his and the next thing Caeru felt was cool fingers curled around his. Vaysh was actually holding his hand! This development baffled him and he momentarily forgot the trauma he had recently suffered.

/Thank you. I understand that this isn’t easy on you either./ Vaysh’s expression suddenly changed and Caeru wondered if he had said something wrong. But Vaysh didn’t pull away and instead squeezed his fingers. /I know nothing about you… Will you tell me?/

“Not now. You need to rest.” Vaysh had no intention of sharing his past with Caeru. The fewer hara who knew about his past, the better!

***

Pellaz visited while Caeru was still asleep. Vaysh offered to wake the injured har, but Pellaz waved the offer away. “It’s important he rests. Don’t wake him on my account.” The Tigron seated himself on the side of the bed and fingered a strand of Caeru’s hair. “How’s he doing?”

“He’s been having nightmares,” Vaysh replied, keeping his distance since Pellaz had returned to the Tigrina’s side. “He’s lonely.”

“I wish I could spend more time with him,” Pellaz said as he caressed Caeru’s face. “But Cal has disappeared and…” He didn’t know what to do at the moment. His life was a mess – again. “Stay with him, Vaysh? You know what to do. You saw me through an ordeal once.”

But that had been different back then. He had been a different har. In the past, Vaysh had been able to keep his emotional distance and had nursed Pellaz back to health because it had been his duty. But Pellaz had changed him. The other har had made him aware of the fact that he wasn’t as dead inside as he had always thought. Pellaz had re-awoken certain feelings in him and that worked to his disadvantage now. Back then, he had been able to lock out Pellaz’ suffering, but now, he couldn’t lock out Caeru’s. Pellaz had changed that.

“Vaysh?” Frowning, Pellaz rose from the bed and approached his friend and confidant. Vaysh was the one har he had always been able to count on, regardless of the circumstances he had found himself in. “What’s wrong with you?” The expression in the gray eyes was one he had never seen before. Vaysh looked wounded – almost ensnared.

“Nothing’s wrong,” Vaysh replied a little too quickly.

Pellaz didn’t believe him, but let it go. He had more important matters on his mind than Vaysh’s emotional state, like finding Cal for example and uncovering what had happened to their pearl. “Just promise me that you’ll look after him and nurse him back to health.”

Vaysh swallowed hard. Pellaz had no idea what he was asking him, but Vaysh knew better than to tell the Tigron no, especially at this moment. “I’ll do everything I can.”

“Good. I’m counting on you, Vaysh. Be there for Rue because I can’t.” Pellaz gave Caeru another concerned look and then turned around. He exited the room and left Caeru in Vaysh’s care.

***

When Caeru awoke, the first thing he became aware of was the fact that Vaysh was holding his hand. /You stayed,/ he murmured, still feeling too weary to speak aloud. /How long have you been here now?/ He had no idea how much time had passed since the last time they had talked.

“Two days now,” Vaysh replied and squeezed Caeru’s fingers lightly. “Sheeva visited earlier and urged me to see to it that you eat and drink. Can you sit up?”

/I don’t know. I don’t feel that strong./

“I’ll help you. Tell me if it hurts.” Vaysh carefully pulled Caeru into an upright position and monitored the other har closely. “Give me a moment,” he said and placed some pillows against the headboard so the injured har could recline. “Better?” Caeru nodded his head and Vaysh sat down on the bed so he was closer to the injured har. “Do you think you can eat?” Sheeva had had soup delivered earlier.

/I’ll try./ Caeru had no appetite, but would try to eat the soup. Vaysh helped him and he managed to swallow a few sips. Caeru closed his eyes and tried hard not to dwell on his injured abdomen. /How bad is it?/ he asked eventually when he failed to put the matter out of his mind.

“I haven’t looked. You should give yourself time to heal.” Vaysh put the nearly empty bowl aside and placed a glass filled with water at Caeru’s lips. “Drink.”

Caeru complied, but the mere act drained him and he wanted to go back to sleep again.

“Pellaz was here while you were asleep.” Vaysh thought it would aid Caeru’s recovery if the other har knew that Pellaz hadn’t forgotten about him. Caeru opened his eyes and locked gazes with him. The expression in the blue eyes told him that Caeru hungered for more information. “He wanted to know how you were doing and he asked me to look after you. He wants to be there for you, but… Cal’s still missing and there is no trace of your attacker or the pearl.”

/The pearl… I never wanted to host it, not really./ Caeru hadn’t wanted to admit it to Vaysh, but it had somehow slipped out.

Curious, Vaysh inched closer. “Is it true? Did both Cal and Pellaz create it?”

Caeru didn’t really want to discuss that part, but since he had addressed the matter himself, he felt that Vaysh had the right to inquire about it. /Yes, they did./ Caeru had felt special and loved when the three of them had taken aruna. Both Pell and Cal had been caring and sweet and the pearl had been made in love and acceptance. But later on, Caeru had started to wonder if they had done the right thing.

Vaysh sensed he should stop pressuring Caeru and backed down. “I’m certain Pell will find the pearl. If anyone can, it’s him.”

Since he was still reclining against the pillows it was easy for Caeru to study Vaysh’s face. /Why are you still here? Is it just because Pell asked you to?/

Vaysh didn’t know what answer Caeru wanted to hear and decided to be completely honest. “Yes, I’m here because Pellaz asked me to.” Seeing an unreadable look in Caeru’s eyes, he quickly added, “I’m glad he asked me. I think it’s right for me to be here.”

Caeru wondered once more about Vaysh and he hoped that the other har would one day tell him his story, just like Vaysh had said he would.

***

“You can’t move back to your rooms just yet. You need to stay here for at least two more days.” Tigrina or not, Sheeva was putting his foot down. One thing he didn’t want to face was the Tigron’s wrath because he hadn’t taken good care of Caeru.

“I agree,” Vaysh said while enduring the vile look Caeru gave him. The Tigrina could do little but glare at him since Caeru was still bed-ridden. Not that he would have felt intimidated if Caeru had tried a different means to make him comply.

“Well…I…don’t!” Caeru had regained some of his vigor and had found the strength to speak aloud. When it was just Vaysh and him though, he preferred to use mind touch since it was less draining. But at the moment, he wanted both Sheeva and Vaysh to know that that he wanted out. Being locked up in this facility was driving him mad!

“You must be patient a little longer. If you continue to recover I’ll let you leave the day after tomorrow,” Sheeva said. “And that’s final.” The har left the room, thinking it wise not to agitate Caeru any further. After all, he wanted the other har to heal and not deteriorate.

Caeru gave Vaysh a mocking glare. /You could have backed me up!/

Vaysh shook his head. “I agree with Sheeva. You’re far from healed. Your abdomen was slashed open and…”

/You don’t have to remind me!/ Caeru screamed the words into Vaysh’s mind and the red-haired har involuntarily took a few steps away from the bed. /I’m sorry. I didn’t want to scream at you… It’s just…it hurts…I lost the pearl…/

Vaysh flinched. He had never lost a pearl. He had lost his fertility. “You already delivered a pearl and you have a harling. Pellaz will find the second pearl and return it to you. I know he will.”

Caeru frowned as he sensed something odd inside Vaysh’s mind and tried to label the sensation, but the emotion was too transparent and by the next moment, Vaysh had put up barriers in his mind so Caeru couldn’t explore any further. Had it something to do with the fact that he had lost the pearl? /I’m tired,/ Caeru sent. /I need to rest./ The truth was that he needed to think about the matter. What had he sensed in Vaysh’s mind just now?

“Yes, you should.” Caeru had calmed down since his outburst and Vaysh judged it safe to seat himself next to the bed on the chair again. “Caeru?” Caeru looked at Vaysh questioningly and the red-haired har said, “I’m really sorry you lost the pearl.”

Caeru wanted to explore the matter further, but first he needed to get his strength back. For now, he carefully filed Vaysh’s words away. He would find out their true meaning in time.

***

Vaysh was lulled into sleep and in his sleep, he journeyed back in time, back to those dreadful days when Thiede had taken him and had tried to make him into his Tigron. Vaysh had never wanted for it to happen, but Thiede had proceeded at any rate. There had been no way of stopping the powerful har, and every so often, Vaysh relived the painful transformation in his dreams, causing him to groan in remembered anguish.

Caeru woke because Vaysh’s sleep was restless. The blond har blinked and then fixed his gaze upon the troubled har who was moving restlessly on the chair. Vaysh’s lips moved and the red-haired har raised his hands as if to defend himself. “No, don’t… I don’t want you to… Ash!”

Caeru frowned. The first bit had been uttered in a pleading tone, as if Vaysh was trying to fight somehar off. The second part had definitely been a call for help. For some reason Vaysh believed Ashmael would help him. Caeru never wondered if Ash was Ashmael, he simply accepted it as a fact. /What’s your connection with Ashmael?/ he wondered, intrigued. And who had Vaysh been pleading with in the first place?

He knew very little of Vaysh. Vaysh was ‘Pellaz’ lap dog’ as somehar of the Hegemony had once formulated it. Wherever Pellaz was, Vaysh was as well. Vaysh was a shadow, body-guard, Advisor, and probably Pellaz’ only true confidant. Vaysh wielded his own power, although the har himself would never admit to that. Caeru expected the nightmare to pass, but it didn’t, and Vaysh grew even more agitated.

Like Vaysh had done before, Caeru reached out and brushed against Vaysh’s mind in the hope that the other har’s barriers were down. /Vaysh, it is me, Rue, wake up./ Swimming in Vaysh’s mind, the chaotic texture of it overwhelmed him. A har’s mind normally was well-organized, but Vaysh’s was nothing like that. Caeru was sucked in and felt like he was about to drown. He seriously considered pulling back, but then reminded himself that Vaysh had also persisted the other day and he could do nothing less. /Vaysh, wake up. I need you!/ He hoped that by addressing Vaysh’s sense of responsibility he would get the other har to wake up.

Vaysh startled awake and his large eyes instantly met Caeru’s. The last thing he remembered was hearing ‘I need you’. “What’s wrong?” He flipped back his hair, which had turned moist from sweat and wiped at his brow. He felt warm and feverish and would have loved to retire to his rooms to curl up on his bed and shut the world out.

“You had a bad dream. I couldn’t reach you at first, so I tried a different approach.” Caeru managed to push himself upright and noticed Vaysh’s panicked expression. “You called out for…” Ashmael’s name died on his lips as he saw Vaysh’s frightened look. Why frightened, he wondered?

Vaysh erected his barriers anew and tried to establish some emotional distance between them. “I’ll stay awake from this moment on. I won’t fall asleep again.”

Caeru recognized the defense mechanisms which slammed into place. He used similar ones and one of them was using his sharp tongue to keep other hara from getting close to him. Vaysh hid behind a mask of his own – one of detachment. “I don’t mind. You helped me escape my nightmare the other night.”

“I’m here to watch over and protect you. I shouldn’t have fallen asleep.” Vaysh got to his feet and paced the room like a caged animal. Had he really called out for Ashmael? And to make matters even worse, Caeru had heard him! Had he given away his secret?

“Vaysh, sit down.” Caeru’s voice carried authority, but he wasn’t certain the other har would obey. In the past, Vaysh had made it all too clear that he only answered to Pellaz.

Vaysh looked at Caeru and tried to glare at him, but failed when he saw how much the other har was still hurting. Vaysh returned and sat down on his chair. “I’d rather not talk about the matter.”

/I understand that, but maybe you should./ Caeru wiggled his fingers and hoped Vaysh understood. Vaysh didn’t disappoint him and curled his fingers around his hand. /I won’t pressure you into telling me. I respect your privacy just as you respected mine, but I want you to know that you have a listening ear if you need to unburden your soul./

“My soul,” Vaysh replied bitterly. “I lost my soul years ago.”

Caeru wondered if that was a sign Vaysh wanted to talk after all. /When?/

Vaysh stood at a crossroads, he sensed it clearly. He had never really confided in someone. Yes, he had told Pellaz bits and pieces, but he had never told somehar everything that had happened to him. Was Caeru the har he could entrust his history too? Did he want to? “I lost my soul when Thiede killed me.”

Caeru blinked. That wasn’t the answer he had expected to hear. “What?” His eyes widened and he stared at Vaysh in shock.

“You heard correctly. Thiede…” Vaysh momentarily faltered. “But that’s the wrong part to start my story with. It starts long before that.”

/You’re going to tell me?/ Caeru found it hard to believe that Vaysh had decided to trust him.

“Why not? Somehar should know everything that happened.” But before he started his tale he needed a drink. Regretting that no sheh was close, he had to settle for the herbal tea that Sheeva had left behind. “Do you want some too?” he asked as he poured himself a cup. Caeru nodded his head and Vaysh poured the Tigrina some tea as well. He returned to his chair and handed Caeru the cup. It pleased him to see that the other har had recovered enough to curl his fingers around the cup and drink unaided.

/Start at the beginning?/ Caeru requested.

“The beginning?” Vaysh gave Caeru a bitter look. “It all started when a beautiful har came into town one day. He looked like an angel with his long, blond hair and sparkling blue eyes. My family was rich and we lived in luxury. I was a spoiled brat, to be honest.” Vaysh sipped his tea and watched how Caeru made himself more comfortable.

“I was very naive back then. I seldom ventured outside. I had private tutors and few friends. My parents desperately wanted to protect me from the world and because they were rich, they managed to do so for a long time. But then the world started to fall apart around us and there were rumors of ‘creatures’ that roamed the earth. Creatures, which were as beautiful as they were cruel and I quickly surmised that this stranger was one of them. I wanted to see for myself.”

Caeru blinked. He found it hard to imagine Vaysh as a human youngster who had been raised in such a protective environment.

“I snuck out of the house one night and found him and several of his ‘followers’ beneath a bridge. They flocked around him. All he had to do to keep them docile was smile at them. I had hidden myself between the rubble and hoped to remain undetected, but he sensed my presence and looked me right in the eye. What I saw in his eyes scared me and I ran all the way home. I vowed to stay indoors from that moment on because I had sensed that he would change my life if we were to ever meet again. He was dangerous.” Vaysh laughed bitterly again. “Ash has always been dangerous, although his claws lost some of their sharpness these last few years.”

/It was Ashmael who came to your town then?/ Fascinated, Caeru sipped his tea.

“Yes, he had been incepted a few months before that and was looking to establish a tribe, creating more hara as he crossed the land. I didn’t know it at the time, but the moment he looked at me, he had set his mind on adding me to his collection of adorers.” Vaysh closed his eyes and thought back to that time. “I never found out how he managed to get past the watchmen, or the dogs, but the next evening, he was in my rooms. He didn’t speak, he just looked at me with those eyes of his and I went weak in the knees. I fainted. When I woke up again, I wasn’t at home anymore. I was at his shelter beneath the bridge. I don’t remember what happened then in detail. I was scared and excited at the same time.

I do remember lying on the cold ground and this golden angel towering over me. I felt entranced — hypnotized – and couldn’t move my body. I was his prisoner in so many ways… There were no rituals for me. I didn’t know what to expect, and when he incepted me, I was totally unprepared for the transformation which followed. There was blood and then pain came… Ash remained at my side through it all. I still hear him whispering soothing words into my ear. He held me in his arms and rocked me until I was ready to take aruna with him.

And then the pain changed into pleasure. I was soume for him and we fit perfectly. I was still too much of a child to understand what he was doing – how he had changed me. I only knew that I belonged to him from that moment on, and by the Aghama, I wanted to belong to him!”

Vaysh drew in a deep breath and looked at his hands. He saw that they were shaking and quickly set his cup aside. Reluctantly, he sought out Caeru’s eyes. “I must admit that I was thrilled to be with Ash once I had made my peace with my changed status. Ash and I… We quickly became chesna and we forsook all others. We only took aruna together and were never tempted to seek pleasure elsewhere. The other hara we encountered and traveled with thought of us as freaks for a while since we refused to take aruna with the hara who fancied us. One night, somehar decided he wanted to take aruna with me and I rejected him. He reacted violently and tried to force himself on me.”

Vaysh opened his eyes, since he didn’t want to remember that scene in detail. “You should have seen Ashmael when he happened upon us. He came close to killing that har. In the end, the tribe decided we couldn’t stay with them and they left without us. Ash and I didn’t mind though. We had located a deserted cottage and were going to live there. We were perfectly happy – for a short time.”

The ease with which Vaysh told his story amazed Caeru. He had expected the other har to put up some sort of fight, but Vaysh was eager to continue.

“We lived there for two years. Had we known back then how easy it was to create a pearl, we would have done so. But we were children in a new world and understood little of the concept of Wraeththu. We thought that aruna was the ultimate fulfillment and never tried to take our joining to the next level.”

Since he had reached his most painful memories, Vaysh wasn’t sure he could continue. To his surprise, Caeru suddenly reached out to him and curled his fingers around his. With this show of compassion Vaysh found the strength to continue.

“Thiede killed me. He put a gun to my head and pulled the trigger. He didn’t do it himself, of course. He used some vagabond humans to do the deed for him, but it was Thiede who made them do it… I died in Ash’s arms.” Vaysh paused, uncertain if he could or wanted to continue.

/You have come so far. Don’t stop now./ Vaysh had kept all this inside for a long time and it needed out.

“After I died, Thiede tried to remake me, but the process didn’t work. I didn’t turn out as he expected. He burned me on the inside. I’m barren and became useless to him. He made me Pellaz’ confidant and for that I’m grateful. Pellaz gave me a reason to live.” He wasn’t going to share any details of his remaking with Caeru. That would be too painful.

Caeru sensed how wounded Vaysh still was after all these years and would have liked to question Vaysh some more regarding the things Thiede had done in order to remake him, but he didn’t want to push Vaysh that far. The other har wasn’t ready for that yet. /I’m barren too,/ he supplied, hoping it would build a bridge between them. /We should stick together./

“Maybe.” Vaysh still felt dazed that he had told Caeru so much. He shouldn’t have… There was no way of knowing what the Tigrina would do with this newly acquired knowledge once Caeru went back to his scheming ways. Vaysh suddenly regretted confiding in Caeru and grew angry with himself. What had gotten into him to tell Caeru his life’s tale?

Caeru didn’t need to read Vaysh’s mind to know what the other har was thinking. /I’ll keep this to myself. Your history’s safe with me./

Vaysh shrugged his shoulders once and then raised his head to meet Caeru’s gaze. “What are you going to do with this knowledge?”

Caeru caressed the back of Vaysh’s hand with his fingertips. /You put your trust in me. I’m not going to betray that. Don’t think that little of me./

Vaysh’s emotions were very close to the surface and he felt like he could burst out into tears at any moment. “Whatever you do, don’t talk to Ash about any of this! Promise me!”

Caeru’s first reaction was to promise Vaysh to never approach Ashmael, but then he reconsidered. He used up the last remnants of his strength when he pulled Vaysh close so he could study those swimming eyes when he asked, “Do you love him still?”

Vaysh’s heart raced and he tried to free himself of Caeru’s restricting hold, but then he grew motionless. Caeru was injured and Vaysh couldn’t risk pulling away. “Don’t ask me that!” His voice dripped with venom.

But Caeru didn’t buy the act. /Be honest with me./ When Vaysh had talked about Ashmael earlier, the other har’s voice had echoed with love.

Caeru’s blue eyes flashed, signaling that he expected Vaysh to answer his question and, for a moment, Vaysh considered shrugging the injured har off and running away. But then he managed to compose himself again. “Do you still love Pellaz after everything he did to you?”

Caeru took the blow in stride. Vaysh was wounded on the inside and that pain was making him lash out. Caeru understood about lashing out. He had done so often in the past because he was hurting inside. /You do. You love him still./

Vaysh stared at Caeru. “What do you want from me? I told you what you wanted to know. Let me go now!”

But Caeru shook his head. He didn’t know how much longer he could keep this up, but he had to try. He would pay for abusing his strength later. /Why don’t you talk to Ashmael then? Make him understand what happened to you?/ The look Vaysh gave him chilled Caeru on the inside. There was so much death, so much hatred and pain in that stare that it made him gasp for air.

“Don’t you understand? I’m dead where Ash is concerned! The old Vaysh whom Ash had loved died in his arms. I’m a shell. I’m nothing like I was before Thiede took me. I’m…” A look of confusion shot through Vaysh’s eyes. “I don’t know who I am anymore. Or what I am. I simply am. I carry out Pellaz’ wishes… I vegetate… Part of me is dead.”

Caeru begged to differ however. /Vaysh, you need to stop seeing yourself as the victim. Yes, what Thiede did was awful and he wrecked your life. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have your life back. You have to take it back! You’re alive and so is Ashmael. If you really love him, then you should go after him and make him see that the two of you can be together again!/

Having drained himself with that speech, Caeru’s hand glided away from Vaysh’s as he panted softly. The mere act of speaking to Vaysh with his mind had drained him, but he wasn’t done yet. /Vaysh, Ashmael doesn’t have a chesnari. He takes aruna occasionally with Cobweb, if the rumors are true, but they are not chesna! Ashmael hasn’t been chesna with anyhar! Did it ever occur to you that he’s waiting for you?/

But Vaysh shook his head vehemently. “I have nothing left to offer Ashmael. The past is just that.”

/You’re fooling yourself, Vaysh./ Caeru closed his eyes and wished he had more stamina for he wanted to finish this conversation properly. /Vaysh, you went through hell and you survived the ordeal. You’re different, yes, but you’re also strong!/

Vaysh’s eyes, which had been swimming, released their tears. “There’s no strength left in me, Caeru. It died a long time ago.”

Caeru opened his eyes and wished he had the strength to wrap his arms around the other har so he could comfort him. /Vaysh, you’re as strong as you allow yourself to be. You convinced yourself that you’re weak. You took the easy way out. Don’t you owe Ashmael, and yourself, to try again?/

Vaysh leaned back into the comfort of his chair and repeatedly shook his head. “You’re wrong. There’s nothing left of me. Thiede burned me.” He expected Caeru to contradict him, but one look at the Tigrina told him that the injured har had succumbed to fatigue. “Don’t you understand?” he whispered now that Caeru could no longer reason with him. “Ash doesn’t want me anymore. I love him still – I always will – but he no longer loves me!” And with that, Vaysh hid his face in his hands and wept.

***

Ashmael entered Pellaz’ private rooms and advanced on the other har. It never ceased to amaze Ashmael how Pellaz had managed to find a way into his heart. When they had first met, he had been determined to hate the usurper, but instead, they had become friends. He quickly looked about, searching for the shadow that always lurked close.

He would never forget the moment he had come face to face with Vaysh all those years ago. He had thought his former chesnari dead and then Vaysh had appeared out of nowhere. His heart had stopped beating for a long minute as he had looked into those familiar eyes. The things which had first registered with him back then had been the red hair, the other har’s pale complexion, and the sheer terror that had spread over the graceful features.

Since then, Ashmael had made it a point to avoid dealing with Vaysh, but because the other har was Pellaz’ confidant, he ran into his former chesnari regularly. Whenever he did, an uncomfortable distance would form between them and chills would run down his spine.

Pellaz looked up and waved Ashmael closer. “I didn’t know you would visit with me today.” He had been lost in thought, trying to find a way to locate Cal. Why did Cal always leave when he needed him so badly?

“How’s the Tigrina?” Ashmael seated himself opposite Pellaz and noticed the drained expression in the Tigron’s eyes. Pellaz hid his emotions most of the time, but at the present, some of Pellaz’ sadness remained at the surface. It was a rare occurrence for the Tigron to let some of his emotions show.

“He’ll live.” Pellaz straightened the folds of his garment. “Vaysh’s guarding him.” Eager to direct Ashmael’s scrutiny away from his person, he added, “Thiede trained Vaysh well. Rue’s quite safe with him.” He wasn’t being cruel on purpose. He just didn’t want Ashmael to pry in his feelings.

Ashmael managed to repress the flinch that threatened to shake his frame. Pellaz had brought up Vaysh to unbalance him. “He’ll do his job and keep the Tigrina safe.”

Pellaz suddenly felt tired of all the games they played. It didn’t matter which har he was dealing with, there was always a certain amount of manipulation and scheming going on. He wanted to do away with it. Caeru had gotten hurt because of it and Pellaz didn’t want to go with the charade. “I have wanted to talk to you about Vaysh for a long time.”

Ashmael’s steel-blue eyes remained locked with Pellaz’ and didn’t blink. “There’s nothing to discuss.” He didn’t know Pellaz’ motives for bringing this matter up, but he was going to nip it in the bud. They weren’t going to discuss Vaysh!

Pellaz reached for a glass of sheh and took a sip. He pulled his knees close to his chest and let the glass balance on his right knee. His fingers were tightly wrapped around the base of the glass, and looking at Ashmael through the liquid, the other har’s features became distorted. “He told me that he died in your arms. Is that true?”

“Vaysh never lies!” Ashmael barked. Too late he realized that Pellaz had managed to hit a nerve after all.

“I died in Cal’s arms. I know what Vaysh went through, but what happened to you? What did witnessing Vaysh’s death to you? Watching me die drove Cal insane.”

Ashmael got to his feet and walked toward the doorway. “I’m not discussing this with you.”

Pellaz nodded his head. “True, you should discuss this with Vaysh first.”

Ashmael suddenly spun around and glared at Pellaz. “He doesn’t want to talk to me, remember? You told me so yourself!”

Pellaz closed his eyes and his features contorted. “I lied.”

Ashmael’s eyes widened. “You lied?” He must have misheard!

“I lied when I said that Vaysh didn’t want to talk to you. I didn’t want the two of you to talk back then. I wanted to keep Vaysh to myself. I didn’t want to share.”

Ashmael continued to stare at Pellaz in shock. The Tigron looked innocent enough, but Ashmael knew the amount of scheming Pellaz was capable of when the situation called for it. “You lied to me?”

Pellaz opened his eyes and nodded. “In fact, Vaysh was eager to talk to you.”

Ashmael blinked. He couldn’t believe what he had just heard. “That’s not true! You’re lying, though the reason why eludes me!”

Pellaz slowly pushed himself to his feet. He didn’t attempt to approach Ashmael though and just remained standing there. “I’m sorry I lied to you back then. I want to make amends now… Let me.” Ever since he had admitted his feelings for Caeru to himself, a change had come over him.

“Stay out of my affairs, Pellaz.” Ashmael was furious and slammed the door closed behind him. His thoughts spun in different directions and his emotions were getting out of control. He needed to take back control! Ashmael marched down the corridor. He didn’t know where he was going. He just needed to get away from Pellaz.

***

Ashmael made it back to his rooms and collapsed onto the nearest chair. He still had a hard time believing the things Pellaz had told him. Could it be true? Could it be that Vaysh *had* wanted to talk to him and that Pellaz had sabotaged that attempt? Pellaz could be possessive at times, that much was true. But would he be *that* selfish to keep them apart on purpose?

His head spun and he massaged his temples. He felt numb, yet at the same time, every emotion he was capable of was raging through his mind. Until that moment, Ashmael had refused to consider the possibility of Vaysh and him discussing their situation. They had lived in limbo for the last few years and, although he had tried, he had failed to make peace with his past.

Leaning his head back against the comfort of the chair, he closed his eyes. It was easy to remember how Vaysh had looked the first time they had taken aruna. Back then, the red hair had been blond and those eyes had been filled with love for him. He had taken Vaysh away from a safe home where he had been pampered and had thrust Vaysh into a world in which they were nomads. They had traveled for a long time and had eventually made their home in that little cottage. They had been perfectly happy for two short years and then…

Then a shot had shattered their peace and everything had ended. A group of humans had attacked their home and one of them had shot Vaysh. Ashmael had instantly known that Vaysh was lost and had taken his rage out on the humans. He had killed all five of them and had saved Vaysh’s murderer for last. The moment he had placed his hands around the human’s neck to squeeze the air out of him, the eyes of the human had cleared and Ashmael had wondered about the strange expression in them. The human had looked stunned.

Only after running into Vaysh when he was visiting Pellaz had he finally been able to put all the pieces of the puzzle together. Talking to Cal had also helped him realize how Thiede had wronged him – and Vaysh of course. Thiede had sent the humans and had made them attack Vaysh. It might have been a human who had actually pulled the trigger, but it was Thiede who had made him do it.

Ashmael allowed for the whole truth to sink in, and his hands, which had been relaxed a moment ago, became fists. Thiede had killed Vaysh, had brought him back to life, and had then created this caricature of his former chesnari. The only problem was that he could never call the Aghama on his actions. Thiede was too powerful. So what *could* he do?

He could talk to Vaysh, but when that happened, he wanted it to happen on his terms and no one was going to interfere with their discussion. Not Pellaz and certainly not Thiede!

***

Vaysh had turned quiet after their conversation the other night and Caeru didn’t pressure him into talking. He accepted that the red-haired har needed time to come to terms with the fact that his secret was out. Caeru however hoped that when the time was right, Vaysh would continue to confide in him.

“You look better today,” Sheeva said when he checked on the Tigrina’s injuries. “If you continue to improve like this, I’ll allow you to return to your rooms tomorrow evening.”

Caeru accepted that he had to stay another day and didn’t object. He waited for Sheeva to leave and, once they were alone again, he turned his head to study Vaysh’s expression. The other har appeared lost in thought and Caeru surmised Vaysh was thinking about Ashmael. He was tempted to address the matter again, but then reminded himself not to pressure Vaysh. “Do you think Pell will visit with me any time soon?” He had regained enough strength to speak aloud and no longer needed to use mind touch in order to communicate with Vaysh.

“Do you want me to find him?”

Caeru shook his head. “I prefer for him to come to me because he wants to see me. Not because he’s pressured into visiting me.” Vaysh hovered near the doorway and looked nervous. “Vaysh, sit with me.”

Vaysh drew in a deep breath and complied. He seated himself on the chair next to the bed and looked Caeru in the eye. “Pellaz loves you, you know, in his own way.”

Caeru managed a weak smile. “I would like to believe that… But I don’t think he does.”

Vaysh cocked his head. “He saved your life, didn’t he?”

“But he refused to tell me why.” Caeru reached for his tea and sipped. He *was* improving and for that he was grateful. He felt useless since he was bedridden and feared he might lose some of the power which he wielded as Tigrina.

Vaysh wanted to comfort Caeru and tried to convince him. “I have seen the expression in his eyes change. Whenever he looks at you now or speaks about you, his expression is soft and caring. He realized that he loves you still when he faced losing you.”

Caeru wanted to protest Vaysh’s observation, but then the door opened and Pellaz stood in the doorway. Vaysh looked over his shoulder and the words he had wanted to speak froze on his lips. A wicked gleam appeared in Vaysh’s eyes and he hoped he would get a chance to make both hara admit their feelings for each other. Maybe not right now, but in the end.

“I hope I’m not disturbing your rest?” Pellaz wasn’t certain he should continue his visit. Visiting Caeru had seemed a good idea at the time, but now he was wondering what had made him come there. /It’s just because I’m worried. He almost died…/

“You’re not disturbing anything!” Vaysh rose from his chair and offered it to Pellaz.

Pellaz wanted to dismiss the offer, but realized it would be rude if he did. So he seated himself and tried to keep eye contact with Caeru to a minimum.

Vaysh took a few steps away from them and busied himself making tea. That way he hoped they would feel ‘safe’ enough to talk freely.

Pellaz stopped himself from fumbling with the fabric of his sleeve. He was strangely nervous now that he was facing Caeru. “You look better,” he offered eventually. He peeked at Caeru from beneath his long eyelashes.

“I feel stronger…thanks to you.” Caeru wasn’t sure how to react to this mellow Pellaz. “I’m surprised you’re visiting.”

Pellaz wished he knew how to handle this situation better. He felt strangely vulnerable and lost. “I visited before, but you were asleep back then.”

Caeru nodded. “Vaysh told me.”

Pellaz glanced at Vaysh and offered his friend a grateful smile. “Thank you for sitting with Caeru.” Vaysh nodded and then looked away, forcing Pellaz to direct his attention back to the Tigrina. “I’m sorry that I can’t visit more often, but… Cal’s missing and…”

Caeru looked at Pellaz as he searched for the right words and truly saw the other har for the very first time. Instead of the insanely handsome har he always used to see when he looked at Pellaz, he saw a confused har who was trying so hard to do his best that it was killing him inside. Until that moment, Caeru had never really understood how high a price Pellaz paid for being Tigron. “Pell, it’s okay,” he interrupted the stuttering har. Pellaz’ expression changed and Caeru noticed how relieved the other har looked. “I understand.” He really understood. Being Tigron demanded much of Pellaz’ time and energy.

Pellaz inched closer and stared at Caeru’s hand which rested above the sheet. Caeru could tell that Pellaz wanted to make contact, but the Tigron was afraid to reach out. That realization stunned him: Pellaz was actually worried that he would be rejected. Caeru took the first step and placed his hand atop of Pellaz’.

Pellaz looked up sharply and Caeru cringed at the trapped expression that appeared in the other har’s eyes. “Are you afraid of me?” It was an insane question, but one Caeru felt he had to ask.

Pellaz almost snatched his hand away, but in the end, he successfully fought that urge. He had come there for a reason: he wanted to face his demons and look them in the eye. “Maybe.”

Caeru gave Pellaz a look filled with disbelief. “But why?”

Pellaz sighed. Caeru was going to make him explain himself. “Rue, must I…?”

Caeru determinedly nodded his head. “You owe me an answer. Why didn’t you let me die? Why did you fight to keep me alive? I deserve an answer, Pell.”

“You *do* deserve an answer. I’m just not sure I can give you one. I don’t understand any of this myself.”

“Be honest, Pell. Stop playing games.”

Caeru’s words shocked Pellaz. “I don’t want to play any games.” But manipulating and scheming had become second nature to him throughout the years and being honest and open was hard.

Caeru’s expression softened and he rubbed Pellaz’ fingers. “Then don’t.”

Pellaz swallowed hard. “That isn’t as easy as it sounds.” But he was going to try. “Rue, I care about you…” That was the first step and all he was capable of at the moment.

Vaysh smiled at hearing that admission. “You *care* about me.” Caeru smiled and rubbed the knuckles of Pellaz’ hand. He knew how to read between the lines and understood what the other har was trying to say.

“I know that’s hard to believe, considering the way I have treated you in the past.” Pellaz paled and he lowered his gaze. “I never wanted to hurt you on purpose.”

“You wanted to hurt yourself because you felt like you betrayed Cal by loving me,” Caeru answered for Pell. He hoped he wasn’t pushing Pellaz too far.

Pellaz’ pallor increased and his hand, which rested in-between Caeru’s fingers, trembled. “You nailed that one, Rue. I’m sorry you got hurt in the process.”

Caeru was still too weak to leave the bed, but he could pull Pellaz closer. Pellaz didn’t protest and moved until he sat on the side of the bed. Guilt was written all over the other har’s face – guilt and shame. “We have been through a lot, Pell, and if some good comes out of all that pain, it was worth it, don’t you think so?” Pellaz’ hand shook in his and Caeru risked it all when he pulled Pellaz close enough to fold an arm around him.

Pellaz wanted to pull away, not because he didn’t want to be embraced, but because he was afraid the movement might cause Caeru pain. “Be careful.”

“I’m strong enough to do this…if you don’t fight me, that is.” But his actions were draining him and Caeru wasn’t sure how much longer he could sustain this position.

“Let me,” Pellaz whispered and folded his arms around the injured har. Holding Caeru close, Pellaz closed his eyes. Why had he fought this for so long? Cal had tried to make him see how much he loved Caeru and that it was alright to love him, but he had fought that realization. It had taken Caeru almost dying to make him see the truth. “I’m sorry, Rue.” He felt guilty for acting the way he had. “You’re injured and I should be comforting you and now I’m…” Now he was about to burst out in tears in Caeru’s arms instead!

Caeru’s heart swelled with emotion now that Pellaz was finally accepting him and his love. “Don’t worry… I don’t mind being there for you. I always dreamt of you coming to me in this way. I love you. I always did.” Tears escaped Caeru’s eyes, but they were tears of happiness. Pellaz’ tears however were ones of sorrow and guilt and Caeru could only hope that the other har would forgive himself in the end.

***

Vaysh slipped out of the room for he wanted them to have complete privacy. He didn’t feel comfortable watching them hold each other in such an emotional way. It reminded him of something he would never have again – Ashmael’s embrace. Vaysh however didn’t want to stray too far away in case Pellaz left Caeru alone unexpectedly. He was still responsible for the other har’s safety.

There was a garden to his right and Vaysh removed his shoes. He blinked when he stepped onto the grass. It tickled his soles and a hesitant smile surfaced on his face as he remembered the happy times which he had shared with Ashmael. Their little cottage had come with a lovely rose garden and Ashmael had gifted one rose to him each day. But remembering things like that was dangerous.

“Vaysh?”

Vaysh was almost expecting Ashmael to be standing there, but it was only Velaxis. Raising his defenses, Vaysh made sure the other har couldn’t read his thoughts. He didn’t trust Velaxis. For some time now he had suspected the other har to be Thiede’s spy and he wanted nothing to do with him. “Velaxis.” Having steeled his expression, he met the other har’s gaze.

“I assume our Tigron is still visiting the Tigrina? It warms my heart to see that they have finally buried the hatchet.”

Vaysh regarded each of Velaxis’ words with caution and suspicion. Outwardly, he remained polite. “It would appear they did.”

Velaxis moved closer and eyed Vaysh closely. “Aren’t you supposed to guard the Tigrina?”

“Don’t worry. No harm will come to Caeru as long as I’m responsible for his safety.”

Velaxis realized he had caught Vaysh at an inopportune moment. The other har seemed hostile, and Velaxis, always the diplomat, backed down and took his leave.

Vaysh felt relieved once Velaxis was gone. Although he had always told himself that there was only one har he trusted unconditionally, namely Pellaz, he now realized that he couldn’t completely trust his friend. As Tigron, Pellaz had an agenda of his own. Could he trust Caeru then? Vaysh was a lonely har and, in his heart, he yearned for a companion. But Caeru was whimsical and could turn on him. The Tigrina could be as manipulative as Pellaz. No, he couldn’t trust Caeru either. Was there no har then he could really trust?

***

Was there really no har he could trust? Who would listen to him and understand his dilemma? Ashmael had paced his rooms for hours and still had to reach a decision. He could no longer go to Pellaz for advice for the Tigron had purposefully lied to him. He might have gone to Cal, but the har had left Immanion without a trace. There was no other member of the Hegemony he trusted. There was only one har he would entrust his life to, even though they hadn’t talked for years – Vaysh.

His thoughts were running in circles. Ashmael knew there was no way out for him. He had to seek out Vaysh and confront him – had to face him and talk to him. But did he have the courage to do that? What if he had waited too long and Vaysh rejected him? Back then, Vaysh might have wanted to talk to him, but maybe Vaysh had changed his mind and no longer wanted anything to do with him.

/But he loves me… He said he would love me forever. Those were his dying words./ Vaysh had died proclaiming his love for him. Ashmael looked at his hands, which clawed at the windowsill. He had buried his fingernails in the wood without even noticing it. Ashmael had fought many great battles in his life, had faced all enemies head on, but he had never been this scared before.

***

“Vaysh? Would you go back and sit with Caeru? He fell asleep as I left, but I don’t think he should be alone.” Pellaz sat down on the grass beside Vaysh and studied his friend. “Something about you is different.”

Vaysh wasn’t sure he wanted to discuss the matter with Pellaz. This was something private – something between Caeru and him. “I’ll sit with him. You’re right. It’s still too early for him to be alone.” He made to rise from the grass, but Pellaz placed his right hand on his wrist to keep him in place.

“Vaysh, what’s happening to you? You’re acting strangely.” Pellaz couldn’t put his finger on it, but something was different about Vaysh.

“I don’t know what’s happening,” Vaysh replied. He bowed his head and let his red hair shield his face from Pellaz’ inquiring gaze. “It’s Caeru. Seeing him…seeing you…seeing the two of you finally get closer to each other…reminds me of something… Of someone to be exact.”

“Ashmael.” Pellaz nodded his head once. “Why don’t you talk to him?”

“I told you: I don’t want to talk to him!” Vaysh shook off Pellaz’ hand and got to his feet. He wanted to walk away from his friend, but suddenly Pellaz stood next to him and stopped him by pulling him aside. “Let me go!”

“Why are you so stubborn?” Pellaz sounded frustrated.

“I don’t want to talk to him! Now let me go!” Vaysh wanted to pull free again, but the expression in Pellaz’ eyes warned him not to attempt that. Pellaz wanted to talk to him and wouldn’t tolerate it if he left. “Pell, don’t you understand? I can’t go back to the way I was before. What Ash and I had is gone!”

Pellaz felt deeply for Vaysh. “Trust me, I understand. When Cal returned to me, everything changed. What Cal and I have differs from what we had in the past, but it’s not worse or better, it’s just different.” He moved his hands until they rested on Vaysh’s shoulders, which were tense beneath his touch. “You owe it to yourself to at least try, Vaysh.”

“It’s too late to try, Pell.” Vaysh erected his icy barriers again and pushed Pellaz away. “Just leave me be.”

Pellaz watched Vaysh as his friend walked away from him. “That’s the one thing I can’t do, Vaysh. I can’t let you be.”

***

Caeru was still asleep upon Vaysh’s return. The red-haired har picked up a tray that held food and listlessly nibbled on some bread. Ashmael had loved to feed him little bits and had often nibbled on his lip during intimate moments. Vaysh growled as his memories regarding those moments surfaced. “I don’t want to remember…”

He instantly grew quiet because Caeru suddenly moved about and his lips became a tight line. He simply had to endure life and find some measure of happiness in fulfilling his duty.

***

Caeru no longer found it difficult to accept Vaysh’s help during the day. He was determined to make a full recovery and accepted the help the other har was offering. Pellaz’ visit had given him hope and he finally had a reason to get better again. Pellaz ‘cared’ for him. Well, Caeru knew what Pellaz had really wanted to tell him. Pellaz still loved him!

Caeru felt happy and smiled frequently at Vaysh, whose mood darkened with each passing minute. An inner darkness spread from Vaysh’s core and seeing it made him shiver. A depression shrouded Vaysh like a dark cloud and almost made Caeru feel physically ill again. It was time he took action! “Vaysh?”

Vaysh didn’t hear Caeru at first. Only when the Tigrina repeated his name did the sound register with him. “Do you need something?”

Caeru nodded. “I need you to do something for me. An errand.”

Vaysh’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “What kind of errand?”

“I want you to fetch Ashmael for me and take him here. I want to talk to him.” Caeru hoped this wasn’t going to backfire on him, but he had a feeling that subtle wouldn’t work with Vaysh.

Vaysh determinedly shook his head. “I’m not fetching him. Ask another har to do that for you.” He would be gone the moment Ashmael entered the room.

Damn, his plan had backfired all right! “Vaysh, stop fighting this! Just talk to him!”

But Vaysh remained unimpressed. “Sheeva said you could move back to your rooms. Do you want me to take you there?”

Vaysh succeeded in distracting Caeru, who shivered violently. All of a sudden, he was no longer in a rush to go back there. “Maybe I should stay here a little longer.”

Caeru’s odd reaction puzzled Vaysh and he sat down on the side of the bed. “I thought you wanted out of here?” He was relieved that Caeru seemed to have forgotten about Ashmael.

Caeru fumbled the corner of the sheet and frowned. “My rooms… Have they been cleaned?”

The question took Vaysh aback, who only then realized why Caeru was reluctant to return to his rooms. Caeru had been attacked in his rooms and had been bleeding to death when they had found him. “You don’t have to go back there if you don’t want to.”

“Where else should I stay?” Caeru drew in a shuddering breath and carefully shrugged.

“You can stay with me.” Pellaz had overheard the last part of their conversation and easily made the offer for Caeru to move into his rooms for the time being. Had he been in Caeru’s place, he wouldn’t have wanted to go back there either. Although the blood had been cleaned away and the rooms tidied, Caeru wouldn’t feel safe there for a long time.

“Stay with you?” Pellaz’ offer stunned Caeru. He had hoped they would continue to grow close, but hadn’t thought Pellaz would take such a big step just yet.

“Yes, stay with me.” Pellaz had felt nervous when he had first made his offer, but now he was growing more and more convinced that he was doing the right thing.

Caeru was more than willing to give Pellaz this chance to prove himself and nodded his head in acceptance of the offer.

Vaysh felt happy for them both. Surely now the Tigron and Tigrina of Immanion would get their chance to deepen their relationship. The only dark cloud that hovered over their happiness was Cal’s disappearance. Cal belonged in Immanion, whether the har knew that or not. They had to get Cal back!

***

Vaysh helped Caeru move into Pellaz’ rooms. The Tigrina radiated a sense of unease, even though Pellaz himself had invited him to stay. Caeru couldn’t shake the sensation that Pellaz would change his mind overnight and throw him out. Pellaz being so sweet and caring unnerved him. Pellaz had treated him with disdain in the past and the change the Tigron was going through seemed unreal to Caeru.

“Are you comfortable?” Pellaz walked up to the bed and came to a halt next to Vaysh, who was tucking the sheet around the Tigrina’s body to make sure Caeru didn’t cool off rapidly. The fever, although weakened, was still present.

Caeru nodded once. His mouth felt dry and his vocal cords refused to cooperate. He found it *so* hard to believe that Pellaz wanted him there!

“Vaysh? I don’t think we need you for the time being. Maybe you would like to rest?” Pellaz had noticed the growing dark circles beneath his friend’s eyes and he once more wished Ashmael and Vaysh would stop avoiding each other. Although Vaysh would never admit to it, the red-haired har needed someone to take care of him. Vaysh always neglected his own needs.

Vaysh wasn’t surprised to be sent away. He had expected for it to happen. “If you need me, send for me.” Pellaz and Caeru needed some time alone and Vaysh was going to give them that. His only regret was that he had to return to cold and empty rooms. It would have been nice if someone had been there awaiting him.

“I will,” Pellaz promised and smiled gratefully at the other har.

Realizing that his presence was no longer required, Vaysh left the Tigron’s rooms and headed for his own.

***

Ashmael watched Vaysh closely. He had hidden himself in the shadows of the heavy curtains that blocked the sun’s light. The corridor was full of shadows and Ashmael easily managed to follow Vaysh to the other har’s rooms.

Vaysh was lost in thought and never noticed the shadow on his trail. Not even in his wildest dreams would he have thought that Ashmael would seek him out and follow his every move.

The way Vaysh moved told Ashmael that the other har felt tired. The red head was bowed, the shoulders slumped, and the eyes had lost their usual sharpness. Ashmael didn’t have a plan. He didn’t know what he was going to do upon arriving at Vaysh’s rooms.

Vaysh drew in a deep breath and pushed the door to his quarters ajar. They were situated close to Pellaz’ and, if desired, he could enter the Tigron’s rooms by crossing the balcony that connected their suites. In a way, he had become Pellaz’ body guard, as well as his advisor, confidante, and friend. He no longer had a life of his own: he lived Pellaz’.

He closed the door behind him and made his way into the bathroom. He removed his clothes and stepped in front of the mirror. Vaysh forced himself to look at his reflection and flinched at seeing the caricature of a har that stared back at him. His hair had been fair once, golden almost. His gray eyes, dark with sorrow and pain at the moment, had once sparkled with love and life. His body had been more muscular back then and not as skeletal as it was now. His red hair tumbled down his tense shoulders and the ends brushed against his buttocks. Ashmael had called him beautiful once.

That thought hurt and he bowed his head. Silently, he wept and the tears dripped from his chin onto his arms, which he had crossed in front of his chest. Thiede had destroyed him in so many ways. Thiede had destroyed him in body and mind, had burned him, and had forced aruna on him. Thiede’s lap dogs had kept him down, had forced him to stay in place while Thiede took possession of his body and his soul. He had barely survived… Sometimes, he wished he had died back then. That would have solved his problems.

Ashmael stood in the doorway to the bathroom and stared at the red-haired har. In the past, he had loved Vaysh more than life itself and he had believed that love dead until now. He had done his best to convince himself that his love had died along with Vaysh, but as he looked at the miserable looking har standing in front of him, he realized he had fooled himself. His heart still beat strongly with love for the other har.

“Vaysh,” he whispered and steeled himself for whatever reaction Vaysh would throw at him. He expected his former chesnari to lash out at him, maybe even attack him and chase him away. He was prepared to be lectured, to be screamed at, but what he didn’t expect was Vaysh raising his head and looking at him in the mirror. Vaysh was eerily calm and simply stood there, looking at him.

Vaysh should have been surprised to see Ashmael standing there, but for some reason he wasn’t. Maybe he had subconsciously picked up on the other har’s presence, maybe he had expected for this to happen. He didn’t speak and let Ashmael take the lead, just like in the past.

Ashmael carefully took a step closer and stood right behind Vaysh. Seeing his lover’s emaciated form filled him with rage. “You have not been taking care of yourself.”

Vaysh turned around so he could look Ashmael in the eye. He felt strangely calm and accepting of the fact that their confrontation had finally come. “I lack a reason to take care of myself,” he admitted in all honesty. “I’m only still alive because Pellaz wants me around. If it hadn’t been for him, I would have killed myself a long time ago.” It was the first time ever that he could admit that truth to himself. “When I was living in Thiede’s tower, I wanted to kill myself, especially once I heard I was a failure.”

Ashmael swallowed hard. “You’re not a failure.”

“But I am.” Vaysh cocked his head and couldn’t stop himself from raising an arm and touching Ashmael’s face. The other har felt warm to the touch and Vaysh yearned to feel that warmth against – inside him. “I’m barren.”

“You’re still Vaysh,” Ashmael said determinedly.

“I’m not the Vaysh you used to know – the one you loved. That Vaysh is gone. He died many years ago.” His hand dropped to his side and Vaysh bowed his head.

“I still love you,” Ashmael blurted out. He was at a loss at the moment. He only knew he had to somehow get through to Vaysh. “I never stopped loving you.”

A sad smile surfaced on Vaysh’s face and he raised his head so he could study Ashmael’s eyes. “You should forget about me.”

“I can’t.” Ashmael took another step closer and boldly wrapped his arms around Vaysh’s naked form. “Ever since I had run into you, you’re all I can think about. You’re the first thing on my mind when I wake up and the last thing when I go to sleep. I even dream about you.”

Vaysh shook his head and gave Ashmael a look full of sorrow. “Forget about me, Ash. I’m nothing but a ghost.”

“You feel very real to me.” Ashmael ran his fingers along Vaysh’s arms and then pulled the other har close. “You feel alive to me.”

“I’m dead on the inside. Don’t you know that? Can’t you see it in my eyes?” Vaysh gave in to temptation and rested his head against Ashmael’s strong shoulder.

“I see my reflection in your eyes, Vaysh. I see an echo of the love we once shared. It’s still there, no matter how hard you deny you love me.” Ashmael buried his fingers in Vaysh’s red hair and tucked his former chesnari’s head beneath his chin. “We have been running for a long time. Don’t you think it’s about time we faced the truth?”

“And what’s that?” Vaysh muttered against Ashmael’s chest. The other har’s scent hadn’t changed and Vaysh remembered the good times they had shared – days of love filled with happiness.

“The truth is that we’re still in love and you can’t deny that.” Ashmael placed a finger beneath Vaysh’s chin and raised the precious face so he could make eye contact. “I love you still.”

Vaysh knew from personal experience that putting up resistance was useless. “You swept me off my feet back then as well.” Many years ago, Ashmael had found a way into his rooms and had simply carried him away after he had fainted. “That happened so long ago, Ash. Why start all over again now?”

“You fooled me for a while, giving me the cold shoulder like you did, but I realized the truth, Vaysh. You love me still. We’re going to start all over again because we deserve a second chance. I don’t know what Thiede did to you to make you the way you’re now, but I’m determined to try again. Are you going to fight me? Or are you going to let me have my way with you? Like you did so many years ago?”

Vaysh cocked his head and stared into Ashmael’s eyes, which shone with love and determination. “I should fight you. I should throw you out. I should scream at you and tell you to never come close to me again!”

“But you’re not going to do that,” Ashmael said with certainty.

“I should… I really should.” But he didn’t want to chase Ashmael off. He wanted to stay in this embrace forever. “Things won’t be easy for us, Ash. Maybe you’ll come to hate me once you learn what Thiede did to me.”

“I could never hate you.” Ashmael brought his arms up along Vaysh’s back and pulled the smaller har against him. Vaysh had always felt right in his arms and that hadn’t changed. “I love you still,” he said and leaned in closer to instigate their first kiss in this lifetime. He wasn’t as sure as he pretended to be on whether or not Vaysh would allow this, but he had to try. He pressed his lips onto Vaysh’s and waited for the other har to either push him away or surrender to him.

***

Pellaz had lain down and had pulled Caeru carefully into his arms. The healing har needed his sleep and Pellaz was content to hold him. He knew it couldn’t last though. Tharmifex would appear shortly and demand his attention. For the moment, he simply enjoyed holding Caeru and he allowed himself to feel the love he had suppressed for so long.

***

Ashmael’s bold seduction took Vaysh’s breath away. A part of him found it impossible to believe that they were kissing or even that Ashmael’s arms were wrapped around him. But the scent he inhaled was Ashmael’s and the golden hair that teased his skin was unmistakably Ashmael’s too. Vaysh closed his eyes and lost himself in the kiss, which was becoming more intense. The kiss grew to be their first, hesitant sharing of breath and Vaysh quickly locked away any painful memories that might ruin the perfect moment.

His body reacted to the gentle touches Ashmael bestowed onto his skin and he quivered in delight. Unable to keep back the transformation, he allowed for it to happen and his soume-lam throbbed with desire while his ouana-lim retracted. Ashmael had always had this effect on him and he was helpless to stop it from happening.

Vaysh’s reaction to sharing breath overwhelmed Ashmael, who had expected Vaysh to fight him off once the other har realized what was about to happen. “It’s been so long,” he whispered against Vaysh’s lips. “I need you… I want you.”

Vaysh suddenly regained his senses and pushed Ashmael away from him. “No,” he whispered while panting hard. Growing aware of his nakedness, he grabbed a morning robe and put it on. “No,” he repeated. “I can’t do this!”

Vaysh’s reaction stunned Ashmael, who looked at the other har in shock. “But I thought…?” He felt at a loss. What had he done wrong? Vaysh had reacted to his touch like he had in the past. Ashmael had been under the impression that everything was right once more.

“You don’t understand. You can’t understand.” Vaysh turned away from Ashmael and buried his face in the palm of his hands as he bowed his head and wept.

Ashmael’s heart contracted at seeing the pain Vaysh was in. “You’re right. I don’t understand. Was it something I did? I felt you react to me. Why pull away?” He felt undecided. Should he wrap his arms around Vaysh or keep his distance?

“Please go away.” Vaysh wiped at his tears and continued to hide his face from Ashmael. “Just go away!”

Ashmael however had no intention of leaving…certainly not when Vaysh was in so much emotional pain. “Vaysh, why don’t you tell me why you’re reacting in this way?”

“I can’t.” Vaysh sounded broken and he shivered at the thought of having to tell Ashmael what Thiede had done to him in the past. “Please don’t make me.”

Ashmael decided to take a leap of faith and resolutely wrapped his arms around Vaysh’s shoulders. He expected a reaction and he got one. Vaysh shook violently in the embrace and the red-haired har tried to struggle free, but Ashmael didn’t let go. He held onto Vaysh, believing that if he let go now, Vaysh would be lost to him forever.

“Don’t do this to me! I can’t be this way! Let me go! Please let me go!” Vaysh flashbacked to the past and recalled the way Thiede’s servants had kept him down while the mighty har had entered him. “I can’t feel like this!”

“Why?” Ashmael pulled Vaysh close. The other har continued to fight him off and in the end, he managed to turn Vaysh around so he could make eye contact. He was shocked to see the flood of tears that flowed down his former chesnari’s cheeks. “Please tell me why? Why does being held frighten you?”

Vaysh didn’t think when he cried out, “Because that’s what they did!” He banged his fists against the other har’s chest. “They held me down so he could-” His eyes widened as he realized what he had been about to confess to Ashmael. “I don’t want you to know this!”

Ashmael was busy putting all the pieces of the puzzle together. “Who’s he?” The conclusion he had reached was too horrible to believe that it could be true.

“Thiede.” Vaysh sagged against Ashmael and the blond har caught him in his strong arms. Suddenly he was lifted and cradled against a powerful chest. He seemed to float in the air, but in reality he was merely being carried over to the bed. “Why can’t you let me be and go away?” He felt limp and didn’t object when Ashmael lowered him onto the bed. The blond har then stretched out on his side and pulled him close to his chest. Vaysh lacked the power to move away from Ashmael. In truth, he wanted to be close to the other har.

Ashmael moistened his lips and considered which approach would be best to convince Vaysh that it was okay to talk about what had happened to him. “What did Thiede do to you while the other hara were holding you down?”

Vaysh closed his eyes and shivered violently. “He forced me…to take aruna with him… I didn’t want to do that… I didn’t want to be unfaithful to you… I love you.”

Ashmael grew enraged when he finally learned what had happened to his former chesnari. “He subjected you to pelki?”

Vaysh kept his eyes closed, but nodded his head. “That’s what he does. That’s how he transfers his power onto us. Pellaz went through the same thing.”

Ashmael couldn’t believe the things he was hearing. “Pellaz too?”

Vaysh finally found the courage to open his eyes and look at Ashmael. “Thiede’s essence is horrible. I was too weak to absorb it. It burned me from the inside. I became barren and… I *am* a failure, Ash. Thiede only succeeded with Pellaz. The other hara became his servants… I’m just one of them.”

Ashmael blinked. “The other hara? Vaysh, how many times did he try…?”

“Too many times. The hara that held me down were subjected to the same pain in the past. You should have seen their faces. They felt sorry for me, but at the same time, they loved seeing me in the same amount of pain they had been in.”

Ashmael tucked Vaysh’s head beneath his chin and rubbed his former chesnari’s back through the fabric of the morning robe. “If I had known… If I had known what he was doing to you… I would have found a way to stop him!”

Vaysh shook his head against Ashmael’s chest. “He’s too powerful. Trust me… I know how powerful he really is. I house only a portion of his power, but…”

Ashmael kissed the red hair and rubbed the small of Vaysh’s back. “I’m going to protect you from this moment on.”

Vaysh snorted. He didn’t need protection any more. He needed something else, but he didn’t know what it was he really needed. “I’m no longer in any danger, Ash.”

Ashmael sighed deeply and let his fingers glide through the long, red hair. “I missed that – you saying my name.”

It all felt so right – so comfortable – and Vaysh’s guard was down at any rate. So he forgot to watch his words when he replied, “And I missed sleeping in your arms.” His eyes began to close. His days had been long and tiring when he had sat with Caeru. “You used…to bring me…roses… Do you…remember?”

Ashmael remembered only too well and the memory caused tears to flow from his eyes. “I remember,” he whispered as he soothed Vaysh. “I never forgot.” Vaysh moved closer until Ashmael tightened his hold on the other har. “I never forgot about you.”

Vaysh however didn’t hear that last admission for he had fallen asleep.

***

Caeru was alone when he awoke in the morning. He slowly sat upright and scanned his surroundings. At first, he had difficulty identifying the rooms he was in, but then he remembered that Pellaz had invited him to stay in his private rooms. Caeru reclined against some pillows and looked closer. He had been in Pellaz’ rooms before, but he had never had the time to really examine them. To his surprise, he found that several of his personal belongings had found their way into Pellaz’ bedroom. There was his brush on the vanity and his favorite scented oil on the nightstand. One of his blankets had made it onto Pellaz’ bed and he even located one of his evening robes on a nearby chair. Everything looked like he lived there – or was that just an illusion? Was it perhaps about to become true?

“I thought you would remain asleep a little longer.” Pellaz approached the bed carrying a tray set with tea and food.

Caeru blinked in surprise. “You don’t have to do that yourself.”

“I want to.” Pellaz placed the tray onto Caeru’s lap and seated himself next to the healing har. He gave the other har a thoughtful look. “Rue?”

“Yes?” Caeru reached for the tea and blew on the surface so it would cool.

“You should have slept in my bed for years. I was wrong in the past. Can you forgive me for that?” Admitting the truth was hard on Pellaz and he only managed to do so when he locked his emotions away.

Caeru looked at Pellaz and saw the war that was raging deep down inside the other har’s soul. “I forgive you,” he said. “I forgive you because I love you. I only ever wanted your love – nothing else. I never wanted to become Tigrina and I never wanted Wolf to grow up like that.”

Pellaz swallowed hard. “I even took our harling’s name away from you.”

“I survived,” Caeru retorted, only half joking. “You hurt me a lot, Pell.”

Pellaz bowed his head. “I was angry with myself for loving you because I felt unfaithful to Cal. The truth is that Cal and you are alike in many ways.” He laughed mirthlessly. “They call Cal Tigron now, but in a way I gained another Tigrina when Cal came to Immanion.”

Caeru finally managed a smile. “Two Tigrinas and one Tigron? I can live with that arrangement.”

Pellaz raised his head and returned Caeru’s smile weakly. “May I touch you?” He felt like he had lost the right to touch Caeru because of the way he had treated him in the past.

Caeru gave Pellaz a surprised look. “But of course.” Pellaz’ question puzzled him.

Pellaz raised his right hand and caressed Caeru’s face. The Tigrina leaned into the touch and rubbed his cheek against the palm of Pellaz’ hand. Pellaz laughed softly. “You’re purring.”

Caeru smiled predatorily at Pellaz. “Want to hear me growl?”

“In time.” Pellaz touched his lips to Caeru’s. It was *only* a kiss, but at the same time, it was so much more – it was a promise and both hara knew it for what it was.

***

Ashmael had held Vaysh through the night and had been shocked to find out just how troubled the other har’s sleep was. Thiede tormented Vaysh even in his dreams. That shouldn’t have come as a surprise though, considering Vaysh had relived horrible moments when he had told Ashmael what had happened after his death.

Holding Vaysh tight, Ashmael made a promise – one he would never forsake. He vowed to love Vaysh forever, to keep him close, and to never let anyone come between them again. He vowed to fight for Vaysh if necessary. The other har was his now – his to love and to protect, to defend and care for. No one – not even Thiede – would take Vaysh away from him again!

***

Pellaz faced a dilemma. He had promised Caeru that the Tigrina wouldn’t be alone, but at the same time, he had to attend to his duties and Vaysh hadn’t returned yet. Caeru was dozing pleasantly and Pellaz decided to risk leaving his consort’s side for a moment. He snuck onto the balcony and used the passageway that connected his rooms to Vaysh’s.

“Vaysh?” he called softly, wondering what was keeping his friend from returning to his duty.

He shoved the curtains aside and was surprised to find that Vaysh wasn’t up and about yet. His gaze wandered to the bed and his eyes widened when he saw who was occupying it.

Ashmael glared at Pellaz. “Leave us alone,” he whispered since he didn’t want Vaysh to wake just yet. The other har’s nightmares had gone away with the rising sun and he wanted Vaysh to have a chance to truly rest.

Pellaz smiled kindly, but Ashmael didn’t see it and continued to glare at the Tigron. “Whatever it is that you want from him, it has to wait.”

Pellaz approached the bed and didn’t let Ashmael’s glare intimidate him. “I’m glad to find you here. I had hoped something like this would happen.” It also meant he had to find a new body guard for Caeru, but he would gladly do that if it meant Vaysh could spend time with Ashmael. “I don’t want to disturb his sleep.” Pellaz gave Ashmael a last look and then turned around to leave. Bemused, he looked over his shoulder and saw Ashmael tuck some red hair away from Vaysh’s face.

Ashmael felt relieved when Pellaz left. Although Vaysh and he had been chesna for years, this felt new and he needed time to accept the fact that they were about to become chesna again. He didn’t want Pellaz to watch them while their relationship was still so new.

Pellaz returned to his rooms and resigned himself to the task of watching over Caeru. He didn’t mind really. It only meant Tharmifex and Velaxis had to come to him in order to discuss that day’s occurrences. Sitting down on the bed, Pellaz studied Caeru’s sunken features. It would take the other har time to recover from the attack.

“Cal, where are you?” Pellaz whispered to the air. “Why did you have to leave again? I need you!” But there was no answer and in the end, all Pellaz could do was lie down and curl himself protectively around the Tigrina.

***

Vaysh’s eyelids fluttered before he buried himself deeper into the embrace. All of a sudden, his eyes opened and he stared in shock at Ashmael’s face that hovered only inches above his.

Ashmael smiled reassuringly. “Good morning.”

Vaysh blinked again. “You’re supposed to be gone. You’re only a dream.” During his sleep, he had grown convinced that Ashmael’s presence was nothing but a dream. There was no way that the other har was really close to him!

“I beg to differ. I’m quite real.” In order to prove his words to Vaysh, he touched his lips to the other har’s. He was careful to keep the kiss just that. He didn’t want Vaysh to panic again like he had the other night. He had to go very slowly, especially since he now knew what Thiede had done to his former chesnari.

Yes, Ashmael felt very real. Vaysh wanted to pull away, but his body refused to obey. Once the kiss had ended, Vaysh moistened his lips and he could still taste Ashmael on them. “I thought it was just a dream. How can this be?”

“I came to your rooms last night – just like I did that night so long ago. I should have done so the day I realized you were still alive and residing in Immanion. I have been remiss.”

“I was shocked when you entered Pellaz’ rooms that day, Ash. I knew you had become a member of the Hegemony and that there was a chance we would meet, but I wasn’t prepared to face you that day.”

“Why did you never contact me?” Ashmael kept his voice neutral since he didn’t want Vaysh to feel like he was judging him.

“I was afraid.” Vaysh swallowed nervously. “I have nothing more to give, Ash. I’m the walking dead.”

“That’s not true!” Ashmael shook his head determinedly. “You’re still the har I love – changed, yes – but not changed that much that I would no longer love you!”

“Sweet Ash…” Vaysh raised a hand and traced Ashmael’s top lip with a fingertip. “You always were determined to have your way with me.” He lacked the strength to fight the other har. “I can’t understand why you still want me, but if you really do, you can have me.”

Ashmael drew in a deep breath before claiming Vaysh’s lips. This time their sharing breath was intense because Ashmael carefully guided his memories, his pain, his love, his hope, and his dedication into Vaysh’s mind. He didn’t pry into the other har’s thoughts. He didn’t want to push Vaysh too far. Ashmael just wanted to give without having to receive something in turn.

Sharing breath overwhelmed Vaysh and he was capable of only letting Ashmael do as he pleased. The feelings, the regrets, and the love that entered his mind were sincere and he wrapped his thoughts around Ashmael’s in the hopes of offering some comfort.

Ashmael released Vaysh’s lips and looked into the gray eyes. Vaysh had accepted everything he had given and that pleased him. “Now you know how much I love you and how much I mourned your death.”

“And why you never took another chesnari,” Vaysh added.

“I only want you.” Ashmael hugged Vaysh tightly and wished he had approached the other har earlier. “It pains me to know that we wasted so much time. I could have been holding you some time ago if I hadn’t been so cowardly.”

“It’s my fault too,” Vaysh quickly said. “Don’t blame this on you.”

Ashmael remained quiet, but he did press a kiss onto Vaysh’s hair. From that moment on, he would commit himself to his chesnari’s recovery for that was what Vaysh really was – his true chesnari. Vaysh had never stopped being that.

***

Caeru had no choice but to watch Pellaz, Tharmifex, and Velaxis discuss Cal’s disappearance and the missing pearl. The discussion made him feel nauseous and his hands involuntarily settled on his mending abdomen. Like the other hara, he wanted to know what had happened to the pearl, but at the same time, he felt afraid to find out.

Pellaz happened to look at Caeru and noticed the expression on the Tigrina’s face. Realizing that the discussion was unbalancing Caeru, he dismissed Tharmifex and Velaxis. Once the two hara were gone, Pellaz moved over to the bed. “Are you hungry?” he asked in an attempt to distract the distressed har.

Caeru shook his head. “I would throw up if I ate at the moment.”

“I’m sorry you had to hear that. I wasn’t thinking.”

“What happened to our pearl? What do you think, Pell?”

Pell shrugged his shoulders. “I believe our pearl is still alive. If your attacker had wanted it destroyed, he would have done so. Instead, he took it with him.”

“What will happen to our pearl?”

“I wish I knew, Rue, but I don’t.” Pellaz wanted to comfort his consort, but wasn’t sure his touch would be welcome at that moment. Caeru *was* very upset. “If I had known any of this would happen, I would never have left you alone. I would have made sure guards were with you all the time.”

“You didn’t know this would happen.” Caeru sensed how much guilt was suppressing Pellaz. “Don’t blame yourself.”

Pellaz shook his head. “I *am* to blame. I know that creating that pearl was dangerous. I became careless.”

Caeru rested a hand at the nape of Pellaz’ neck. “You can’t change what happened, Pell. Accept it and move on. That’s what I usually do.” What other choice did he have? If he dwelled too long on what had happened, he would go insane.

“Maybe I’m not as strong as you.”

“I don’t believe that.” Caeru fingered a lock of Pellaz’ dark hair. “Shed that self-pity, Pell. It doesn’t suit you.”

“Maybe I’m still a bit too human,” Pellaz retorted half jokingly.

Caeru nodded thoughtfully. “You could be right about that. You had always remained too much human.”

***

“Don’t you have to…go places?” Vaysh didn’t know what to make of Ashmael’s continued presence in his rooms. Ashmael had briefly left the bed to fetch them breakfast and had quickly returned with a full tray.

“Not today,” Ashmael answered and selected a strawberry to feed Vaysh. “Open up.”

Too stunned for words, Vaysh complied and within the next moment, the juicy piece of fruit exploded between his teeth as he bit down on it. He chewed and then swallowed. “Ash, I…” Vaysh however didn’t get a chance to finish his sentence as a piece of banana was pushed past his lips. “What are you doing?” he asked after eating it.

“Feeding you, what else does it look like?” Ashmael was stretched out on his side and watched Vaysh push himself upright until he sat cross-legged on the bed.

“We need to talk,” Vaysh stated, although he didn’t really want to discuss the matter with Ashmael. It was, however, necessary that they did. “What does this mean for us?”

“It means we are chesna once more. What did you think it meant?” Ashmael sipped some water and continued to study the red-haired har.

Vaysh blinked. “Ash, things like that don’t happen so quickly.” Did Ashmael really think that they were chesna again so quickly?

“I refuse to let you go again, Vaysh, so that makes you my chesnari. Or do you object?”

Vaysh sighed deeply as he nodded his head. “Ash, I’m barren…didn’t you hear that? What use is a barren har to you? Why would you want me as your chesnari?” He didn’t want to be spiteful, but he wanted to get his point across when he added, “Cobweb would be a much better choice.”

Ashmael’s eyes showed his anger as he directed his gaze at Vaysh, who flinched. “I don’t want Cobweb as my chesnari. I want you.”

“He can give you harlings! He can take aruna with you! I can’t!” Vaysh tried hard to make Ashmael understand. “Don’t you get it? What good is a har who can’t give himself to you?”

Ashmael sat up and knelt on the bed in front of Vaysh. He hated being blunt, but he had to. “You took aruna with Pellaz once, didn’t you?”

Vaysh grew pale and averted his gaze. “How did you know?”

“I have my spies…” Ashmael reached for Vaysh’s hands and cradled them with his.

“I took aruna with Pellaz once, yes.” Vaysh kept his gaze lowered and his hands trembled fiercely inside Ashmael’s cradling hold. “I wasn’t myself when it happened. I was hurting so bad…”

“You need to have faith in us. You trusted yourself to Pellaz back then. Why do you believe you can’t trust yourself to me in time? Are you afraid I’ll hurt you? Don’t you know I would rather suffer myself than ever hurt you?”

The pleading voice made Vaysh look at Ashmael and he cringed at seeing the emotional hurt in those blue eyes. “It was different with Pellaz. We were never chesnari. I felt used when Thiede forced me and I have felt like that ever since. With Pellaz it was easy to pretend that I wasn’t damaged. I had never been with him before. He didn’t know what I was like when I was still whole. You do. I’ll disappoint you.”

Ashmael stared at Vaysh, unable to believe he had just heard that. “Vaysh, you won’t disappoint me! Ever!”

“I shiver when you touch me. I pulled back when you kissed me last night. I panicked. Ash, I don’t want you to find out what Thiede did to me – how it affected me in that way.” Vaysh bowed his head and stared at their joined hands. “Taking aruna with you now would be nothing like taking aruna in the past. What if I can’t enjoy us being together that way? What if I freak out on you? Those are very real possibilities.”

“What if you tremble with desire at my touch? What if you want me so badly that you’ll thrust up against me? What if sharing breath means our souls become one? What if you quiver beneath me and surge up to meet my thrusts? What if your body remembers what taking aruna is supposed to feel like? What if it remembers me and feels soothed?”

“You don’t play fair, Ash.”

“Neither do you.” Ashmael cupped Vaysh’s face in the palm of his hand. “Give us a chance to find out.”

“But not yet.”

Ashmael nodded for he had heard the fear in Vaysh’s voice. “We have time. There’s no need to rush this.”

Vaysh released a shuddering breath. “Thank you.” He inclined his head and looked Ashmael in the eye. “I need that time.”

“You have it…”

***

Caeru found Pellaz standing on the balcony looking out over Immanion. He left the bed and slowly made his way out into the open. Pellaz’ tender care and the loving attention the Tigron had heaped upon him were helping him heal and, although he still felt a bit weak, he was already strong enough to leave the bed. “What are you doing out here?” It was cold on the balcony. A fierce gale raged high above the city and pulled at Pellaz’ garment, a fiery red robe.

Caeru frowned when Pellaz didn’t answer him straight away. He could tell that the other har had heard him because his shoulders had slumped forward. “What’s the matter?” Boldly, he took another step until he stood in front of the Tigron and what he saw then stunned him. “You’re crying…why?” Pellaz’ face was wet with tears and the usually distant gaze was filled of pain.

Pellaz quickly wiped at his tears and tried to compose himself. Lately, he had forgotten Orien’s teachings too often and now he was even crying in public! Thiede would have reprimanded him and Orien would have frowned upon seeing him like that.

“Don’t…” Caeru caught Pellaz’ hand in his hand to stop the other har from wiping at his tears. “This is about Cal, isn’t it?” He didn’t need Cobweb’s psychic powers to know why Pellaz was upset. “He’ll return to you shortly.”

But Pellaz shook his head. “What if he’s gone for good this time? What if I drove him away? What did I do?”

“Knowing Cal, he had his reasons to leave and they had nothing to do with the way you behaved.” Caeru boldly wrapped his arms around the other har and hugged him loosely. He didn’t want to trigger a flight response simply because Pellaz felt confined.

Pellaz forced himself to nod. He had to believe that Caeru was right and that Cal would return to him. In the mean time, he had to remember what he *did* have…namely Caeru. “You shouldn’t be out here. It’s cold out here and you should be in bed resting.”

“I feel stronger, Pell. You’re helping me heal, you know.” But Caeru allowed Pellaz to take him back inside and, together, they made their way over to the bed where they sat down. Pellaz played with a lock of his hair and Caeru failed to resist the temptation the Tigron presented at the moment. Caeru leaned in closer and tentatively invited Pellaz to share breath. To his delight, Pellaz accepted and Caeru quickly lost himself in the other har’s essence. Pellaz had always tasted sweet and it was a sensation he had become addicted to a long time ago.

Pellaz brought his arms up along Caeru’s back and lowered the fair-haired har onto his back. Careful not to put any pressure on the mending abdominal area, Pellaz straddled Caeru’s upper thighs. The blond har beneath him quivered when hands found their way beneath the fabric of his morning robe.

Dreamily, Caeru stared into Pellaz’ eyes. “I always hoped this would happen one day.” He had always wanted Pellaz to be like this: caring and focused on his partner’s needs. “I need aruna too,” Caeru whispered when Pellaz remained quiet.

“But are you strong enough? I don’t want to hurt you.” He had hurt Caeru already too many times in the past. He brushed a few blond strands away from Caeru’s face and smiled at him.

“I’m strong enough. You won’t hurt me again. I know that.” Caeru’s hands rose and pushed the red robe down Pellaz’ shoulders, baring the other har to him. “I want you too.”

Pellaz leaned in closer and kissed Caeru before deepening the contact and sharing breath with him. Their hands moved simultaneously as they did away with the constraining fabric in-between them. Once they were naked, Caeru growled and then grinned at Pellaz. “Hear me roar.”

“I hear you, Rue. Is it time for me to feel your claws then?” Pellaz moved above Caeru and entered his consort before lowering himself, supporting himself with his hands on either side of Caeru’s head to make sure none of his weight rested on his consort’s body.

Caeru smiled predatorily and moved his hands until one of them rested on Pellaz’ buttock and the other against the small of his back. He waited until Pellaz and he were fully connected and then buried his long fingernails in his consort’s buttock. Pellaz groaned and a primal gleam appeared in Caeru’s eyes. In a way, Caeru was the real predator there and Pellaz his prey.

Pellaz did his best to make their aruna as pleasurable as possible for his consort. He controlled his thrusts, his movements, and guided them to a shared arunic high. The expression in Caeru’s eyes took his breath away for he looked like the first time they had taken aruna in Ferelithia. This was the har he had fallen for back then. This was the har he had created a pearl with. He hated admitting it, but Thiede had been right all along. Caeru was the perfect Tigrina. The only problem was that he wanted Cal at his side too.

A fine layer of sweat had formed on Caeru’s body and he panted softly as he came down from the pleasurable high aruna had brought him. Pellaz glided to one side and stretched out beside him. Caeru immediately turned onto his side as well and their arms moved simultaneously to enfold the other har. “You just made a dream come true.”

Pellaz gave Caeru a tired smile. “I like hearing you growl, Rue.”

Caeru grinned. “Noted. I’ll growl during aruna if that turns you on, Pell.” He felt light-headed. He had dreamt of Pell being gentle and caring during aruna and it had finally happened.

***

“I’ll be right back. Don’t leave while I’m away.” Ashmael didn’t want to leave Vaysh alone, not even for a few minutes, but he had no choice. He had to talk to Pellaz. Vaysh gave him a thoughtful look that indicated that the other har was trying to figure him out. “I need to talk to Pellaz.”

Vaysh’s eyes widened. “Why?”

“I want to make certain arrangements.”

“What kind of arrangements, Ash?” Vaysh didn’t know what to think of any of this.

“I want to take you away from here.” Ashmael had thought everything over during the night and he knew what he was going to do. “Your days of serving Pellaz are over.” He wasn’t prepared for the shock in Vaysh’s eyes when he said that. “What’s wrong?”

“Ash, all I have left is my duty to Pell and now you want to take that away from me? Why?” Vaysh was beginning to feel angry.

“I don’t want to take anything away from you, Vaysh. I want to give you something back.” Ashmael didn’t want to tell Vaysh about his plans just yet because he was afraid that Vaysh would shut down on him. “Trust me. You trusted me in the past. Can’t you do that again?”

“You don’t know what you’re asking for, Ash.” Trusting any har was difficult for him.

“But this is me, Vaysh. You *know* me. Please trust me!” Ashmael took Vaysh’s hands in his and rubbed the cold fingers. “Please, Vaysh.”

Vaysh had never been able to deny Ashmael. “I trust you. I always did. I’ll allow this…” He raised his gaze and looked pleadingly at the blond har. “Please don’t let me down, Ash.”

Ashmael rubbed the chilly hands until they started to warm up. “I won’t. I promise. For now, I want you to pack and ready yourself for departure. We’ll leave the moment I return.”

“And go where?” Ashmael’s instructions puzzled Vaysh.

“You’ll find out soon enough.” Ashmael placed a kiss on Vaysh’s brow. He was going to give life back to his chesnari.

***

Ashmael used the same way Pellaz had when the Tigron had stumbled in on them. A moment later, Ashmael stood in the Tigron’s private rooms and felt very glad he hadn’t arrived a minute earlier. Pellaz and Caeru were in bed holding each other. It wasn’t hard to deduce what had happened just moments before.

Pellaz glared at Ashmael. He didn’t take kindly to intruders, especially not when he had just taken aruna with his consort. “You could have had your visit announced!”

“You didn’t announce your visit either!” Ashmael stood his ground and noticed the sated expression in Caeru’s eyes. Apparently the Tigrina had finally had his way with Pellaz. “I’m taking Vaysh away from Immanion. We’re leaving.”

Pellaz’ eyes narrowed. No one was going to take Vaysh away from him! “I won’t allow it!”

Ashmael’s first thought was to react as sharply as Pell had, but then he recalled something Vaysh had told him. Pellaz had gone through the same ordeal as Vaysh had and some sort of connection had formed between the two hara. “I’m not taking him away from you,” he replied, using the insight he had just gained. “But Vaysh and I need this time away from Immanion. We won’t be gone for good. We’ll return in time.”

Pellaz freed himself of Caeru’s embrace and sat upright in bed. In his heart, he knew Ashmael was doing the right thing, but letting Vaysh go was hard. He trusted Vaysh – he always had. In a way, Vaysh had been his sole caregiver since Thiede had returned him to life. “Take good care of him,” Pellaz said eventually. “Don’t hurt him.”

Ashmael nodded his head in acknowledgement of the concern he saw in Pellaz’ eyes. He took a step closer to the bed, knelt beside it, and caressed the dark hair. “Vaysh told me what Thiede did to the two of you. I need to help him heal… Do you understand that? You were strong. Vaysh wasn’t… Vaysh needs more time to heal and he needs me. He needs to be away from Immanion.”

Caeru’s hand settled against Pellaz’ back and the Tigron accepted the comfort his consort was offering. It helped him meet Ashmael’s gaze when he replied, “I know he needs to heal. I have been selfish in the past. You see, for a long time, Vaysh was all I had. After Thiede remade me, I was a mess. Vaysh helped me through it. He helped me heal and now I have to do the same thing for him. Do whatever it takes to heal him, Ashmael. Please.”

Ashmael cupped Pellaz’ cheek in the palm of his hand and nodded. “I’ll see him healed, I promise. And then, we’ll come back to you.”

“Don’t forget about me. I need Vaysh too,” Pellaz reminded the blond and didn’t attempt to cover up his need where Vaysh was concerned.

Ashmael realized then that he had only known one part of Pellaz’ personality until that time. What Thiede had done to him in order to make him Tigron had affected Pellaz deeply. Once Vaysh had recovered and they had returned to Immanion, he planned on talking to Pellaz more in depth.

***

Ashmael returned to Vaysh’s rooms and was pleased to see that his chesnari had packed his belongings and was dressed in traveling clothes, ready to leave. Vaysh gave him a resigned look and, although he would have preferred to see a spark in those eyes instead, he accepted Vaysh’s demeanor. He knew it would change in the next few days. “We’re leaving.”

“And Pellaz let you get away with that?” The red head had expected Pellaz to put his foot down and forbid them to leave.

“He’s more understanding than you think.” Ashmael swung Vaysh’s duffle bag over his shoulder and gestured for the red-haired har to follow him.

“Where are we going?” Vaysh followed, but only hesitantly. His life had changed too much during the last few days and he found it hard to believe that it had changed for the better.

“You’ll find out soon enough,” Ashmael retorted, teasing Vaysh on purpose. He hoped it would pique the other har’s curiosity and cause him to feel alert.

***

Vaysh mounted the sedu, just as Ashmael had asked him to, and waited for the other har to take the lead again. He still had no idea where they were headed or what Ashmael’s plans were. A part of him was stunned that he was following Ashmael’s lead in the first place and that he had actually deserted Pell and his duties.

“Follow me… Don’t lose track of me!” Ashmael swung himself onto the sedu’s back and looked at Vaysh from over his shoulder. Vaysh nodded and Ashmael told the sedu where to go. A moment later, they were on the Otherlanes.

***

The Otherlanes vanished and the sedu had solid earth under their ‘feet’ once more. Vaysh looked about curiously and suffered a shock. “Why did you bring me here?” he gasped out, finding it hard to breathe as he looked upon the cottage that had been their home for two years. His gaze then drifted off to the right and he flinched as he saw himself lying there with a hole in his chest. A pool of blood had formed beneath his body and Ashmael had been holding him when he had released his last breath. “I don’t want to be here!”

Ashmael dismounted and made his way over to Vaysh. He had to stop Vaysh from running away and placed his hands around the other har’s waist. He lifted him off of the sedu and pulled him close. “I’m sorry, but we had to come here.” Hopefully Vaysh would understand why.

“I died there,” Vaysh whimpered and raised a shaky arm. “Over there.” The past was very close now and he remembered the sweet scent of the roses which had been in bloom that day. He felt the rays of the sun on his skin and vividly recalled the anguish that had resounded in Ashmael’s voice when his chesnari had seen him go down.

Ashmael guided Vaysh to the place where he had died. The blood was long gone and roses grew there instead. The grass was green and tiny insects moved through it and climbed up the stems of the roses. “It’s in the past, Vaysh.”

Vaysh stared at the spot and blinked. During the moment of his death, he had seen himself lying there, floating in the sky above himself before watching Ashmael give into his grief. Seeing Ashmael lose it hadn’t been pretty. “Thiede…” he whispered angrily. “Thiede took everything away from us.”

Ashmael was thrilled to hear the ‘us’ in that sentence. That meant Vaysh had accepted the fact that they were chesna again. “Yes, he took everything away from us, but now we have the chance to take it all back. This was our home, Vaysh. It can be that again if we want it to be.”

“I was happy here,” Vaysh admitted. His gaze traveled to the little garden which was situated behind the cottage and he smiled at seeing the roses growing there. “You used to give me a rose each day.”

Ashmael guided Vaysh into the garden and then cut one rose. He turned around, shortened the stem until only the flower remained, and removed the two thorns that still clung to the rose. Then he tucked it in-between Vaysh’s red strands.

Vaysh’s mouth went dry and he swallowed convulsively. “Do you really think we can go back?”

“We don’t have to go back. We can shape our present – and our future. If you want that.”

“And you want to do that here?”

“Yes, this is where we belong.”

“Eventually we’ll have to return to Immanion,” Vaysh pointed out.

“I know that. But we can come back here from time to time. Living in Immanion doesn’t mean we can’t have our own little slice of paradise here.”

Vaysh rested his head against Ashmael’s shoulder. “When I was still human, my mother told me about guardian angels. They look over us and keep us safe. When I met you that first time, I thought I had found an angel – a dangerous one, but still an angel. Until now, I didn’t realize that you *are* my guardian angel, Ash.”

Ashmael held Vaysh close and remained quiet. He didn’t want to disturb the peace and quiet that had settled over Vaysh after making that admission. He wanted his chesnari to have the time to deal with everything that was happening to him.

***

Vaysh remained in the rose garden while Ashmael tidied up the cottage. Removing the dust and putting blankets back onto their bed brought back happy memories. Contrary to Vaysh, Ashmael found it easy to remember the good times they had shared. He had worked through the attack, Vaysh’s death, and had mourned the loss. He had moved on. Vaysh had never had that chance…until now.

“Being back feels unreal,” Vaysh muttered as he entered the cottage. Standing in the doorway, he looked at Ashmael who had uncovered some sheh and food from their traveling bags. The blond har had put it on the table and was giving him an encouraging look. Ashmael wanted him to eat again.

“It feels the same to me,” Ashmael admitted. “But I’m glad to be back here. We were happy here, Vaysh.” He opened his arms and Vaysh moved into them. They stood close with their arms around each other and time seemed to stand still. “I want this moment to last forever.”

Vaysh nodded against Ashmael’s chest. “When I realized where you had taken me, I wanted to run. But then I realized you had done the right thing in coming back here. This is where it started, and then ended. Now we have to start again.” Lifting his head, he touched his lips to Ashmael’s and kissed him. Sharing breath, Vaysh opened his mind partially to Ashmael and allowed the other har to experience his feelings. He was happy at the moment – happy to have been reunited with the har he loved.

Ashmael was thrilled that Vaysh was opening up to him so quickly. He had resigned himself to weeks, maybe even months of waiting. /I love you,/ he stated mentally. /I love you so much./

Vaysh let his love wash over Ashmael and, by doing so, assured his chesnari that he felt the same.

***

That evening, Ashmael created a warm nest by heaping several blankets onto the bed and making certain the fire burned brightly and wouldn’t die during the night. He then lifted the blanket to invite Vaysh in. Contrary to Vaysh, Ashmael had undressed for the night. Vaysh was for some reason clinging to the shirt he was wearing and Ashmael surmised it was still too early for Vaysh to do away with it. The other har needed the shirt to feel safe. “Are you joining me?”

Vaysh felt undecided. Yes, he wanted to join Ashmael in bed, but he didn’t trust himself at the moment. Ashmael had fed him three glasses of sheh and he felt unbalanced. “I can sleep on the floor,” he suggested weakly. It wouldn’t be the first time he would choose the cold floor over a comfortable bed.

“Vaysh, this is our bed. Have a little faith in me.” Ashmael told himself to be patient. He couldn’t expect to repair a rift of several years in a few days. It was up to Vaysh to take this step or not and he would abide by the other har’s decision.

Vaysh sighed deeply and then walked over to the bed. He sat down with his back turned toward Ashmael and tried to regain control over his emotions. “I never thought I would ever come back here again…moreover with you at my side.”

Ashmael didn’t pressure Vaysh and waited patiently for his chesnari to make up his mind.

“It feels strange being back here. It feels even stranger to know that I could sleep in your arms tonight.” Vaysh shivered and his long hair danced against the small of his back when he moved his head to gaze upon Ashmael’s form. “I’m scared,” he admitted in a choked voice. “I’m scared I’ll panic when you touch me.”

Ashmael heard the real question in there and said, “We won’t take aruna until you’re ready.” Even if waiting for Vaysh would kill him. His body was ready to take aruna and he wanted nothing more than to feel connected to his chesnari in that way.

Vaysh was an intelligent har and saw the truth in Ashmael’s eyes. If it were up to Ashmael they would be taking aruna at that very moment, but he also knew that his chesnari would never break a promise. Shivering, Vaysh stretched out on his side and lay face to face with Ashmael.

“May I hold you?” Ashmael proceeded very carefully. He didn’t want to scare Vaysh in any way. Vaysh shakily nodded his head and Ashmael wrapped the other har up in a loose hug. “I remember our last night in this bed.”

Vaysh’s thoughts raced back and he nodded again. “I remember that night too.” They had just realized that there might be more to aruna than they had thought. They had been about to discover how to make a pearl. Each night and often during the day as well, they had taken aruna in this bed. The loving memories washed over Vaysh and remembering them made him relax.

Ashmael was thrilled to feel the tension melt from Vaysh and he kissed his chesnari’s brow. “Tomorrow, we’re going to work on getting you back in shape.”

Vaysh laughed. “I *am* in shape, Ash.” He might not look strong, but appearances were deceiving in his case. He had inherited his share of Thiede’s powers and no har, or human for that matter, presented a danger to him.

“No, I mean fatten you up a bit. Your bones stick out!” In Vaysh’s first life, the har had had some delicious curves and Ashmael wouldn’t mind seeing them again. “You know I love having something to hold on to.” This time, Vaysh laughed even harder and, for the first time, his laughter was genuine. It was warm and rang like a thousand bells. Ashmael had missed hearing it.

“Oh, yes, I remember that!” Vaysh gave Ashmael a loving smile and all of a sudden, snuggling up to his chesnari came natural. He rested his head against Ashmael’s shoulder, inched closer, and sighed contentedly when his chesnari tightened the embrace he was in. He felt safe and wanted. He hadn’t felt like that in a long time.

“I wish you sweet dreams, Vaysh.” Ashmael kissed the crown of Vaysh’s hair and then smiled into the red locks.

“Sweet dreams to you too, Ash.” Vaysh’s eyes were already closed. He hoped that maybe that night the nightmares would leave him alone.

***

Vaysh’s demons granted him a peaceful night in which the har slept undisturbed. Ashmael stayed awake on purpose just in case the nightmares surfaced again, but halfway through the night, he also succumbed to fatigue and fell asleep.

The next morning, it was Vaysh who woke up first. Opening his eyes, he thought he had lost his sanity upon seeing where he was. But then Ashmael’s presence registered with him and he looked at the handsome face relaxed in sleep. Ashmael was the only har for him. He had always known that. He might have taken aruna with Pellaz once, but that had been an accident as far as Vaysh was concerned. That should never have happened. Ashmael was the only har he wanted to take aruna with, but he wasn’t certain he could take that step. What if he flashed back to the things Thiede had done to him? What if he saw the faces of the hara who had kept him down instead of Ashmael’s? What if…?

“Stop doing that. You’re driving yourself insane.”

To his shock, Ashmael had also woken up and was giving him a concerned look. Vaysh grew pale and his fingers buried themselves in Ashmael’s golden hair. He didn’t know what made him do it, but suddenly he started to talk. “I woke up one day and Thiede was there. He didn’t even bother to tell me what had happened. I didn’t find out I had died and been remade until…” Vaysh drew in a deep breath and then continued. “His servants stripped me and brought me before him. Then I was forced onto my back and Thiede took possession of me. I tried to fight him, but I was weak compared to Thiede. He effortlessly had his way with me and filled me with his essence. It burned, Ash. I was on fire on the inside and no matter what I did, the pain wouldn’t go away. It spread from my center to the rest of my body.”

Ashmael caressed Vaysh’s face and his fingertips turned wet with the tears the other har was shedding. Ashmael didn’t speak though, sensing it was important Vaysh told him this.

“Thiede was enraged when he realized everything had gone wrong. He stared at me in disdain and ordered his servants to take me back to my room. I was horrible to look at. My body was burned and my skin had turned a horrible red and black. When this happened to Pellaz, he wasn’t in as much pain as I was back then. The transformation went better for him.”

Ashmael gasped. He had made the mistake of trying to imagine how Vaysh and Pellaz had looked like after having taken aruna with Thiede.

“Pellaz improved quickly and he shook off this cocoon to emerge as you know him now. It took me longer to recover on the outside.” Vaysh closed his eyes and shuddered violently. “I cared for Pellaz when he went through the transformation, but there was no one to take care of me during those pain filled days. I was alone.”

“Thiede didn’t…?” Ashmael failed to finish his sentence, shocked by everything he had learned.

“Thiede didn’t care for me. He came to see me just once and that was only to convince himself that he had failed. He raved. He was so angry with me. There was nothing I could do but endure his tantrum. I was still bedridden.”

Ashmael rubbed soothing circles onto Vaysh’s back and waited for his chesnari to continue.

“Then, one day, I felt stronger. I was able to leave my bed and found myself standing in front of a mirror. I had changed, Ash. My hair had taken on the same color as Thiede’s and I felt the power surge inside my soul. My body was a different matter though. It remained weak and brittle for a long time. Once I was strong enough to take my place among his servants, I joined the share of hara he had crippled with his experiments.”

“How many of you are there?”

Vaysh opened his eyes and gave Ashmael a probing look. “Not counting Pellaz, Thiede experimented with fourteen hara. We were failures, but Pellaz is his ultimate success.”

“You became Pellaz’ servant then?”

Vaysh shrugged slightly. “Thiede soon realized that, although I was a failed experiment, I *had* inherited most of his powers. If I had wanted to break free from him, I could have. He would have let me go, since I was no longer of any interest to him, but I had no place to go.”

Ashmael hoped he wouldn’t hurt Vaysh as he responded, “You could have come to me.”

Vaysh shook his head. “I didn’t remember you for a very long time. It was only when I started to care for Pellaz that some of my memories began to resurface. Honestly? I never considered returning to you. I felt too damaged, too used…too inferior and I was convinced that keeping my distance was best for you.”

Ashmael released a shuddering sigh. “You fool.” He hugged Vaysh tighter and they remained like that for a long time, just holding each other.

“But I had forgotten how determined you are when you really want something,” Vaysh managed to whisper against Ashmael’s chest. The hold Ashmael had on him was fierce.

“So what are you going to do now that you have confided in me, Vaysh?” Ashmael loosened the hold enough for Vaysh to raise his head and look at him. “Are you going to trust me and continue to let me in? I can’t do this on my own and neither can you. We must do this together if we want to succeed.”

Vaysh nodded against Ashmael’s shoulder. “I know that. I have accepted that. I have realized that we must do this together.”

“And you’re going to let me in?”

“I thought I was already doing that?” A confused expression appeared on Vaysh’s face.

“Good,” Ashmael said and kissed Vaysh on the lips. “Then we can move on.”

***

“Come on in, Vaysh. The water’s warm.” There was a stream near to the cottage and Ashmael had lured his chesnari into coming there. The water reached Ashmael’s waist. Vaysh gave him a suspicious look, which the blond har answered by splashing the other har. “Come on in!”

Vaysh wasn’t convinced that joining Ashmael in the water was a good idea for then he would be naked. Ashmael suddenly stilled and gave him a pleading look. /Please trust me,/ floated into his mind and Vaysh sighed deeply. He trusted Ashmael…that wasn’t the problem. Taking this particular step scared him, but he started to shed his clothes.

Ashmael became discreet and looked away as Vaysh undressed himself. His heart thumped hard and he felt grateful that his chesnari trusted him like that. A moment later, he heard Vaysh wade into the water.

Vaysh took his time making his way over to Ashmael. He didn’t remember the last time he had waded into a stream or swam in a lake. Feeling the water lap at his skin felt odd and Vaysh made it a point not to look at his reflection in the water. He concentrated on joining Ashmael instead. He shivered because, although the water was warm just as Ashmael had said, he still felt chilled. “What’s the fun in…” Vaysh didn’t get a chance to finish because Ashmael pulled him underneath the surface.

Ashmael was determined to not give into Vaysh’s gloomy demeanor. Once they surfaced again, Ashmael started to tickle his chesnari’s flanks.

“Oh, I hate it when…you do…that!” Vaysh wanted to glare at Ashmael but failed miserably. The tickling forced him to laugh and he tried to sweep Ashmael’s hands away. It didn’t take long for his fears to vanish and he laughed hard. Vaysh did his best to tickle Ashmael in turn. A few minutes later, Ashmael succeeded in wrapping his arms around him and pulled him close. Vaysh went willingly and met Ashmael halfway when the blond har claimed his lips. Sharing breath with Ashmael no longer felt threatening and Vaysh was able to surrender to the sweet sensation.

Ashmael smiled and cradled the back of Vaysh’s head in his hand. /I love you,/ he whispered into Vaysh’s mind, knowing how badly the other har needed to hear it.

/I love you too,/ Vaysh replied mentally and only then did he realize that they were skin against skin. And he wasn’t panicking. He wasn’t freaking out. /You manipulative bastard./

Ashmael only laughed. “You always appreciated my special talents, didn’t you?” Vaysh had actually paid him a compliment in calling him that.

“Yes, I did… I still do.” Vaysh smiled and slid his fingers through Ashmael’s blond hair. Since the tickling had stopped, he became pensive once more. “You’re right, Ash. Maybe we can make this work.”

Ashmael nodded his head once. “We’ll make it work. You’ll see.”

***

Ashmael had built a fire and had placed pillows and blankets on the floor in front of the fireplace. He felt comfortable and watched Vaysh, who was cleaning up after dinner. Everything felt right as Ashmael raised an arm to signal Vaysh to join him. Vaysh complied and knelt on the blanket beside him. Ashmael pulled him close and kissed him. He waited for Vaysh to either pull away or ease himself against him. He hoped the latter would happen, but he couldn’t be sure.

Vaysh eased himself against Ashmael and was overcome with a sense of contentment. He loved Ashmael and the other har loved him back. He was safe with Ashmael, who would never hurt or pressure him and that realization made him aware of his own needs. He needed Ashmael to feel safe as well. He wanted Ashmael to know he was loved in turn. And as far as Vaysh was concerned, there was only one way to do that.

Ashmael arched an eyebrow when Vaysh began unbuttoning his tunic. “You don’t have to do that,” he whispered.

“I want to.” Vaysh let the fabric slide down his shoulders and placed the tunic aside. Naked, he gave Ashmael a pleading look. “I want to do this, but I need to be in control.”

“You’re in control.” Ashmael reclined against the pillows and caressed Vaysh’s face. Vaysh moved closer and straddled his waist before Ashmael raised his arms and slid his fingers down Vaysh’s spine. The red head had always been soume to him, but Vaysh could be a very dominant partner if he set his mind to it. Ashmael had always loved surrendering himself to his chesnari. “I’m yours. I always was.”

Vaysh nodded absentmindedly and pushed the fabric of Ashmael’s shirt aside. “I remember the first time we took aruna right after you had made me a har.”

“I remember that night too.” Ashmael had taken the lead back then and had instructed Vaysh in the art of aruna.

“This time it’s going to be different.” This time, he would take the lead.

“I want you, Vaysh… Any way I can have you. Please touch me.”

Vaysh leaned in closer and shared breath with Ashmael. At the same time, he undid the lacing of his chesnari’s trousers and freed the ouana-lim that glittered brightly in his hand. His soume-lam had grown wet with desire and, to his surprise, the fear which he had expected to hit him full force stayed away. Ashmael was in his mind, and his chesnari’s ouana-lim was slowly invading his body. Vaysh twined his fingers with Ashmael’s before raising himself and pushing down.

Ashmael sucked in his breath involuntarily. Vaysh felt familiar in every way and he couldn’t get enough of his chesnari. “Share breath with me…”

Complying, Vaysh claimed Ashmael’s lips. The two hara didn’t move. There weren’t any wild thrusts or flying hair. They took aruna slowly, intent on experiencing each sensation that coursed through their bodies. Vaysh even forgot that he was barren.

The experience was too much for the two hara, who had longed for that moment for so long. Their entire beings exploded and fire leaked from Vaysh’s mind into Ashmael’s. They clung to each other and waited for the sensation to abide.

They stared at each other before Ashmael touched his lips to Vaysh’s brow. “Thank you for trusting me.”

Vaysh grew flustered and gave Ashmael a quick smile. “I remembered the way I used to feel during aruna and then everything happened instinctively.”

Ashmael nodded his head once. “You did well, Vaysh.”

Vaysh blanketed Ashmael’s body with his and smiled against his chesnari’s chest. He still had a long way to go where dealing with his past was concerned, but now he had Ashmael at his side to support him.

***

They settled into a comfortable routine during the next few days and Vaysh continued to relax. He had taken down his defenses and that had given Ashmael a chance to help him heal.

It was evening when Ashmael returned to the cottage where Vaysh was warming soup in a kettle over a fire. “This one’s for you,” Ashmael said and placed a rose in full bloom in Vaysh’s lap.

Vaysh grew flustered. “Thank you.” He lifted the rose and inhaled its sweet scent. “I’m happy thanks to you,” he whispered.

“I’m happy too.” Though Ashmael knew their happiness wouldn’t last forever. Sooner or later, Pellaz would ask them to return to Immanion. “We’ll return here regularly. I promise you that.”

Vaysh nodded. Like Ashmael he had always known they couldn’t flee Immanion permanently. “We should return to Immanion in a few days.”

“You’re right.” Ashmael hated to admit that. “I wish we could stay here though.”

“That’s wishful thinking.” But Vaysh also knew that they would come back to their little cottage. “Duty calls.”

“But not yet.” Ashmael planned on fully taking advantage of Vaysh’s mellow mood and instigated aruna again. Since their connection had been restored, Vaysh wouldn’t deny him ever again.

***

Vaysh sat with his back against the trunk of an apple tree with Ashmael’s head resting in his lap. His fingers played with the blond strands and Ashmael was twirling a blade of grass between his lips. They were idly watching the ducks swim down the stream when the mind call reached Vaysh.

/Vaysh? Can you hear me?/

The grass dropped from Ashmael’s lips and Vaysh’s fingers tightened in the blond hair. Ashmael looked Vaysh in the eye as he murmured, “Pellaz.”

“We knew this would happen.” Vaysh closed his eyes and concentrated on answering the call. /I hear you./

/I need to see you… Can I visit with you?/ Pellaz was already traveling the Otherlanes in the hopes that Vaysh would allow it.

Vaysh and Ashmael exchanged a look. Both hara were surprised to hear that Pellaz was on his way. “I will only say yes if you agree to it,” Vaysh stated.

Ashmael nodded once. “We can’t continue to shut him out. We need Pellaz on our side.” The Tigron was a valuable ally.

/Yes, you’re welcome,/ Vaysh said to Pellaz and then sighed. “Our stay in paradise has come to an end.”

“But only for now. This is our safe haven and no one’s going to take that away from us. No one.”

***

Pellaz left Peridot behind and advanced on the two hara. Ashmael was holding Vaysh’s hand and a protective glint rested in the blond har’s eyes. “It’s good to see you again.” Pellaz invaded Ashmael’s territory to give Vaysh a hug. He half expected Ashmael to growl at him or tell him to move away from Vaysh. “I hope I’m not intruding.” He had waited two weeks before visiting them and hoped Ashmael and Vaysh had had enough time to start rebuilding their relationship. “You look better, Vaysh.”

“I feel better, thanks to Ashmael’s love.” Vaysh curled his fingers tightly around Ashmael’s hand and started to walk toward the stream. Pellaz fell into step beside him and the three hara talked as they walked slowly. “Is it time for us to return to Immanion?”

“I’m afraid so. I need you, Vaysh. I don’t trust Tharmifex or Velaxis. I need you at my side. And I need you too, Ashmael.” Pellaz did his best not to sound demanding.

Vaysh nodded, understanding the position Pellaz found himself in. “We won’t desert you.”

“I know you won’t. It’s just… I need you.” Pellaz’ probed Ashmael’s eyes and found them thoughtful. “I have no intention of taking Vaysh away from you either.”

“I understand that.” Ashmael also understood that Pellaz needed them back in Immanion. “Vaysh…start packing?” He wanted a moment alone with Pellaz.

Vaysh gave his chesnari a puzzled look, but then remembered to trust the blond har. He nodded and disappeared inside the cottage.

Pellaz remained at a distance from Ashmael since he wasn’t certain why the blond har had sent Vaysh away. What did Ashmael want from him?

“Vaysh will stay at my residence in Immanion.” Ashmael stated it like a fact and not as a request.

Pellaz nodded, although he regretted losing his friend’s permanent proximity. “That request is understandable. I wouldn’t want to part from Cal either.” But Cal had parted from him. The har was still gone.

“Pell, I… I also wanted to say that I don’t intend to come between Vaysh and you. Vaysh told me what had happened to him – and to you. I understand that the two of you are somehow connected. What Thiede did…” Ashmael saw Pellaz shiver and the Tigron turned away from him so he could no longer see the other har’s face. Like Vaysh, Pellaz had been hurt too.

“Thank you for that. I need Vaysh, but in a way, he also needs me. Not like he needs you of course, but… I need him the most.” Pellaz drew in a deep breath and looked at Ashmael from over his shoulder. “In a way, I look upon him as my mother and my father.”

Ashmael frowned. “You still sound like a human.”

Pellaz shrugged. “I can’t help being me.”

Ashmael raised a hand and placed it on Pellaz’ shoulder. “I look upon you as a friend, Pell. The three of us will find a way to make things work.”

Pellaz sighed gratefully. “Thank you. I needed to hear that.”

***

Back in Immanion, Vaysh gathered his personal belongings from his rooms. He was moving into Ashmael’s residence and was about to say goodbye to these quarters. He found it hard to believe that everything had worked out so well. He still had Pellaz’ friendship and now he had also regained Ashmael’s love.

The mirror was still there and Vaysh stepped in front of it to study his reflection. The har that looked back at him was a changed har. Yes, he was still too skinny and too pale, but the fire was back in his eyes. His love for Ashmael had always been there, but the fire had been dampened by Thiede’s foul deeds. But Ashmael had sparked that flame once more and the fire within –his love for Ashmael – blazed once more.

The End

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