IMPORTANT: There is a fully explicit version of this chapter up at AO3 at this web address: h.t.t.p : / / archiveofourown.o.r.g / works / 7314583

(Please note the periods between h.t.t.p. and o.r.g and the spaces added because Fictionpress also doesn't allow inserting links AT ALL. That is the best I could do. You can also go to my profile and the AO3 link is there). I didn't realize Fictionpress didn't allow explicit content and I highly recommend you go and read the version on AO3 instead of this fade to black one.

Calm Before

"Wait, wait— oh, that's better. Harder."

Shanza buried his face in Ikeda's neck to muffle his laughter.

"Don't stop," Ikeda groused, flexing his shoulders and dislodging Shanza from his hiding place, spooned up behind him on the bed. "You have no idea how uncomfortable I am."

Shanza swallowed another laugh and obliged him by continuing to scratch his back, skirting around the puckered ridges. It had been over three weeks since Ikeda's battle against the dragon. His wounds were progressing well into the final healing phases, with tough scabs knitting over the tender injuries. Ikeda had at last been able to discard all need for bandaging, too, which was a blessing, as the cloth wrappings had been stifling in Methron's heat.

The one drawback to his swift recovery was the insatiable itching, as if there were beetles caught beneath the surface of his skin, skittering back and forth, following the seam of hardened scar tissue in search of an exit that wasn't to be found. Ikeda would take pain over this infernal itching any day—especially as his back, with the eight raking lacerations, crawled with the worst irritation where he couldn't reach.

"If I scratch any harder, I'll tear these afresh and then you'll be back where you started, bleeding everywhere and moaning in pain," Shanza said.

Ikeda scowled, not that Shanza could see it, draped as he was across his back. "That might be preferable."

"Is it really that bad?" Shanza wondered. He pressed a condoling kiss beneath Ikeda's jaw.

"Yes!"

Ikeda shifted irritably, wishing Shanza would just press harder. His nails were decently long and firm enough for the task, particularly since he had succumbed and let Evadne paint them bright turquoise the day before. But he didn't apply enough pressure.

"Perhaps a numbing cream would help," Shanza said, more to himself than to Ikeda.

Unwinding from Ikeda, who grumbled reprovingly as his scratching fingers lifted away, Shanza swept across the floor and stooped to examine his collection of herbs and tonics and salves, scattered atop the room's only table. Sifting through the mélange of bottles, Shanza 'hmmed' and selected a squat jar filled with a murky, gelatinous substance. Ikeda eyed it warily as Shanza neared him, hoping this remedy wouldn't make him reek of sour sweat as the aloe from the previous weeks had.

"You're a terrible patient," Shanza told him, reading the censure in Ikeda's expression. "And if you so much as stub your toe after this, I don't care how much pain you're in, I'm not helping you."

Ikeda smirked at him, unrepentant, and he might have been more concerned at the threat if they hadn't both known it was a lie. With a surreptitious returning smile, Shanza slipped onto the bed and settled cross-legged behind him. The jar's lid twisted off with a sharp snap and then Ikeda could smell the salve, leafy and crisp. Shanza slathered the concoction across his scars and sutures and cream turned syrupy, slipping over the craggy landscape of Ikeda's back. In its wake a faint chill followed, as if his skin breathed.

"That's better," Ikeda conceded.

No longer distracted by the prickling discomfort, Ikeda noticed how very sensual it felt to have Shanza's bare hands moving over his skin, slick and caressing. Swinging his feet off the floor, Ikeda caught Shanza's arms and toppled him. He laughed as Shanza collapsed backwards. The look of alarm on his face was amusing, especially when it flashed into outrage.

"What are you—" Shanza sputtered into silence when Ikeda released his arms to lean more fully overtop him. He captured Shanza's lips in a slow kiss. Humming low in his throat with pleasure, Shanza succumbed. Ikeda slid his fingers past the hem of Shanza's shirt, peeling the gauzy cloth from his skin and exploring the smooth plane of his stomach.

Harrumphing into Ikeda's kiss, Shanza broke away and swatted at him, struggling to rise. But with his greater bulk and strength combined, Ikeda easily kept him pinned. All Shanza accomplished was to wiggle enticingly beneath him.

Glowering up at Ikeda, Shanza protested, "I've just gotten dressed—"

Ikeda smothered his objections with another blistering kiss. He tugged the sash looped over Shanza's shoulder free and tossed it to the floor. "That is the sorriest excuse I've ever heard."

Shoving at the hand that was picking apart the bindings that secured the outer layer of his top, Shanza reproached, "Do you have any idea how much work it is to fasten all these ties? Other people have attendants to help them, you know, but someone frightened all of mine back to Azaria, so the very least you could do is—"

"More fool you for getting dressed in the first place," Ikeda drawled and, pushing the confining cloth of Shanza's shirt aside, he traced the bud of one nipple with the scarred pad of his thumb. The next complaint knotted in Shanza's throat. "Do you really want me to stop?"

"No," Shanza murmured against his lips, a breathy whisper. "I don't really want you to stop."

Shanza's fingers had clenched around the waist of Ikeda's shirt and his knuckles dug into the hard abdomen beneath. He drew Ikeda down, molding their bodies together, and then they were really kissing, with tongues and teeth and stuttering heartbeats twining together.

Ikeda shifted onto his side and pulled Shanza with him, one arm snaking around his hips. Shanza's hand was still tucked in his waistband, as if he didn't know what to do with it, or wasn't sure if he should take the next step, but his other had crept up Ikeda's neck to tangled in his hair.

"I suppose- I suppose we have a bit of time." Want and fear thudded through him. Ikeda had been so hurt, Shanza hadn't dared pressure him. But now Ikeda drew him into the hard, hungry embrace of his body.

Shanza pushed up on his elbows so he could shrug off the twisted layers of his shirts. The mass of silk and embroidered chiffon slithered from his arms and sank to pool atop the floor in iridescent puddles. Freed, Shanza reached for the waist of Ikeda's pants, his eyelids half-shuttered in what he hoped was a coy look, seeking out the fierce gaze opposite—

—and a sudden knock from the door jarred them both upright.

"It had better be important!" Ikeda barked, scooping Shanza's tangled clothes up and scowling at the knotted mess. "Unless Methron's been invaded, I don't give a-"

"It's Erakil, it must be," Shanza shushed him, the hot prickles of arousal withering. He wobbled when he surged to his feet.

The door cracked open, admitting the guard's dark face. His mouth was contorted in a grimace but his eyes betrayed him, glittering with mirth.

"Shumba is back."

Ikeda muttered, "I couldn't have guessed."

Disappointment and relief warred within him and Shanza wanted to push his face into his palms so he didn't have to face either of those feelings. Though he could scarcely resent Erakil for interrupting when he brought such welcome news. Of course, they wouldn't have managed to continue with Shumba freshly arrived anyhow. And Shanza had missed the wily guard.

"Is he in the courtyard?" Shanza glanced at the window in a futile effort to see into the space below. The curtain stretched across the window frame prohibited proper sight beyond the room— all he could see were shadowed shapes and blotches beyond the gauzy barrier. "Ryunne is with him?"

"Yes. They've just dismounted."

"They're all right?"

At Erakil's arched brow, Shanza waved, dismissing the question. "I'll look for myself. Ikeda could you-" Ikeda had already disentangled one of his shirts and, rising, held it open for him. Slipping his arms through the sleeves, Shanza tugged it shut and shifted closer to the strong chest at his back. He pecked an affectionate kiss to Ikeda's jaw. "Thank you."

"Hmm."

Passing Erakil and ducking into the hallway beyond, Shanza had hardly taken three steps when the familiar chime of steel and the swishing of loose cotton echoed up the stairwell towards him. Shumba, dusty and tan, rounded the corner two seconds later, his long strides nearly carrying right into Shanza.

"Serpent!"

"Shumba!" Shanza embraced him. He knew the desert held innumerable dangers, particularly for a Gifted foreigner. His relief at Shumba's safe return filled him with such lightness he felt he might float. "Welcome back. I worried. If anything had happened… I could never forgive myself."

The leather of Shumba's jerkin creaked as he raised his arms to return the hug. The smell of desert sun and gritty sand—and camel— suffused Shanza's nostrils while Shumba's laughter rumbled through the ribs crushed beneath Shanza's embrace.

"You shouldn't have worried," Shumba chided. "I'm quite capable of protecting myself."

Pulling away, Shumb's mirthful face faded into a serious countenance that emphasized the dirt trapped in the lines at his brow and mouth. His eyes, usually so forthright, darted aside and Shanza caught the twitch of his fingers at the hilt of a baselard strapped to his hip.

"How is he?"

"Ikeda?" Shanza guessed, understanding at once the source of Shumba's unease. "He's well. You know how stubborn he is. He wouldn't let a little thing like a dragon bet the better of him. Naturally he's overjoyed to hear of your return."

"I thought you looked flushed," Shumba said, relaxing enough to flash a smirk.

Shanza felt his cheeks warm. "Go easy on him, won't you? He's recovering, but it was a trial."

Shumba's shook his head, more in wonder than in refusal, and the tousled curls of his hair flecked sand onto his shoulders. "So he's all right then? Truly?"

"Yes. He's gained some new keepsakes, but he's mostly back to his cheerful self."

There was a hardness to Shumba's gift-bright gaze, a glint of reproach. Though whether it was directed inwards or meant for Shanza, he couldn't discern.

"I almost sent for you. Believe me, I wanted to. When they brought him back after the attack..." Shanza had put a brave face on for Shumba, had made light of the assault to discourage any guilt Shumba might feel, but he ruined it by hiccupping and had to swallow hard against the lump caught in his throat. "But it wouldn't have been right. Halvaella's need was greater. Ikeda knew that."

"I should have been here."

Shanza squeezed Shumba's arm, feeling the sinewy muscle beneath the thin cover of his sleeve flex and shudder. "I asked you to go."

Shumba opened his mouth to argue but Shanza silenced him with a smile. "Please, don't fret. I'm so proud of you. We've heard wonderful things about your work in Halvaella. Everyone is truly grateful. And Ikeda is fine, I promise you. Come, we'll see him together."

With a tug to get him moving, Shanza led Shumba into the room he and Ikeda shared. Leaning next to the doorframe, Erakil nodded at Shumba. Ikeda was still seated on the bed and he offered Shumba a glower in greeting.

"So you made it back alive."

"Don't sound so disappointed, Dragon," Shumba said. The normality of Erakil and Shanza's presence, their lack of concern, seemed to ease the rigid tension to Shumba's shoulders.

Ikeda's narrowed eyes followed Shanza across the room, giving Shumba ample opportunity to scrutinize him undetected. The Dragon was hale enough, though the mess of burns peppered across his bare chest made Shumba cringe in sympathy. Worse was the fact that those sprawled, puckered scabs were only the visible injuries. Shumba hated to imagine what the rest of his body might reveal. It must have been a desperate battle. To have fought and killed another dragon... Shumba grimaced.

Shanza had paused next to the bed. Scooping his tangled clothes from the floor, he sifted through the bundle of teal and silver cloth. He gave Ikeda a benign smile. "If you'd like to check my handiwork, Shumba, you're more than welcome."

"Excuse me?" Ikeda asked.

"Yes," Shumba said, treading towards them, his bare feet silent against the pitted rock of the floor. He stopped next to the low table crowded by Shanza's herb collection and washed his hands in a bowl of water. "I did hear you were the one to tend him. How did that happen? There must be a capable healer or at least a medicus of some sort in the whole of Penira. I'm surprised Lord Shakhty didn't offer you the use of his physicians."

"He did," Shanza said. He had crossed his arms. The effect was somewhat ruined by the nest of colourful fabric tucked to his chest. "But you know our Dragon. Stubborn as a goat."

"Excuse me-"

"Why don't you stand up so Shumba can have a look at your back? It's the most impressive bit of dragon workmanship."

Ikeda glowered at Shanza and Shumba sidled up next to him so they both peered down their noses. Even Erakil, stationed at the doorway, fixed Ikeda with his sharp hawk-eyes.

Huffing, Ikeda clambered to his feet. At least if he was standing he'd be able to fend them off from a respectable height. Sitting on the bed, he had felt like a scolded child. But as soon as he'd risen Shanza dropped the mound of clothes back on the floor, poked Ikeda's chest with a single finger, then swirled it in the air, indicating he should turn around.

Ikeda complied begrudgingly and when he had shifted towards the bed, he felt Shanza's hand settle on the crook of his hip. The warm weight of his palm stroked upwards across the rugged terrain of Ikeda's side, soothing and appreciative.

Silence behind him, then calloused fingertips that didn't belong to Shanza grazed the edge of his shoulder. They hovered over the beginning to the eight immense lacerations that crossed his back. Ikeda flinched as Shumba's clinical touch prodded at the hardened seam of scars.

At last Shumba's fingers withdrew. "Do they still give you much pain?"

Ikeda hmm'd and scowled.

"They itch," Shanza translated. "Insatiably."

"That's good."

"Good?"

"They're healing," Shumba said. "And healing well. You may have missed your calling, Serpent."

"My mother was a skilled herbalist." Shanza's hand slipped down to caress Ikeda's waist. "Lunara, I mean. Is there anything you can do to hasten his recovery?"

Ikeda shifted so he faced them. He was interested in hearing the answer and his patience for gawking was thoroughly exhausted. Shanza's massaging fingers dropped away and Ikeda had a moment to regret the loss of contact.

"I'm afraid not. I'll see about that itching, but it seems you and time have done my work for me."

"Stop the itching," Ikeda growled, "and I'll never complain of your incompetency again."

"Ikeda-"

"Those wounds must be very irksome, indeed," Shumba drawled, but his gold rings were already glinting on his fingers, the webbed chain dangling between his knuckles. He gestured for Ikeda to sit on the stool beside them. "I'll have a go at them, though I can't promise I'll be able to mend them entirely. Scabs and scars are finicky."

"Thank you," Shanza said. He caught sight of Shumba's deeply tanned hands and the sand stuck deep beneath his nails. "Whatever happened to your gloves?"

"Your brother happened to them."

"Ryunne?"

"He's a great deal like you, Serpent," Shumba's wry smirk had returned and he flashed it at Erakil. "Prone to trouble."

Ikeda snorted his agreement. But Shanza had paled with alarm and he teetered for a moment, torn between rushing down the stairs to check for himself and interrogating Shumba. To think he had endangered not only Shumba, but Ryunne also—! It had been terribly irresponsible of him.

"He's not hurt, is he? Nothing's happened-"

"Of course—yes, he's perfectly fine. I would never have let him come to harm." Shumba hoped the fierce vehemence in his voice hadn't sounded as possessively protective to Shanza and Ikeda as it had to his own ears. "That doesn't mean it didn't do its best to find him."

Shanza sagged. "To think of all the grief I could have prevented if I'd only gone to Halvaella myself."

"No!" Shumba, Erakil, and Ikeda chorused at once, a resounding objection that echoed through the sun-streaked room.

"Who here would dare harm me? With my reputation, and as the Serpent! No one in Methron would raise a finger to hurt me!"

"What about that dragon," Ikeda said. Shanza stiffened and met the chipped ice of Ikeda's eyes

"We've already discussed-"

Ikeda stood so abruptly the stool rocked behind him. His face was set in a grim cast, his jaw tight. "And I thought I made it clear-"

Erakil coughed. The sharp sound roused Shanza and Ikeda from an argument that might quickly have dissolved into an embarrassing spat.

"Serpent," Shumba placated. "It is all of our duty here, and our greatest wish, to keep you safe. To protect you."

"I'm not an invalid," Shanza protested. "I'm certainly not helpless!" He desperately wanted to shout 'I could kill you all!' just to press the point, because he could, if they wanted to compare who packed the biggest punch or swung the biggest sword or what have you. He could kill them all in the blink of an eye, and none of them could boast that. Although that was a horrible thought and Shanza was glad he'd had the sense not to blurt it out.

"But you're prone to trouble and you're never wearing those when you ought to be!" Shumba struck out an arm, pointing to Shanza's abandoned evira, slumped atop each other like the carcasses of two glinting gold snakes at the foot of the bed.

Shanza's mouth worked wordlessly and he felt a furious red flush spreading to his hairline. He didn't relish the thought of attempting to justify their removal by telling Shumba that he only took them off when he and Ikeda were getting very intimate and very naked. That they 'got in the way' and diminished the feel of Ikeda's skin hardly seemed a convincing defence.

"Well," Shanza floundered. "That is quite beside the point. I don't see why I shouldn't be allowed to protect all of you, also." Shanza met Ikeda's scowl with his own. "And we did discuss this."

Ikeda looked about to object but Shumba was faster. "Good!" He clapped his hands together, as if to close the subject, and righted the stool. "Now that we're all in agreement, why don't you sit down again, Dragon, and I'll see about that itching."

For a moment Shanza thought Ikeda would argue further. Shanza drew himself up, preparing to remind him about certain words they'd exchanged regarding trust and promises, but Ikeda sat with only a few grumbled imprecations. The healing injuries' itching must have been truly unbearable.

Shanza swept forward and smoothed the rumpled tendrils of Ikeda's curls back from his face. He dropped a kiss atop the crown of his head and murmured, "I'd like to go greet Ryunne. Shall I stay?"

"Go on." Ikeda tilted his chin up and their eyes met. Humour glimmered in the clear blue of his gaze. "I can fend this prankster off on my own."

"Be nice." Shanza turned to Shumba. "Are you up to this? You've only just returned and it's no easy journey from Halvaella."

"Go see your brother. I'll take care of him."

Stooping to retrieve his evira and slipping them on, Shanza crossed to the door and paused to eye the two men, his guard and his partner, and hoped they'd both still be breathing when he returned. Erakil stood as immobile as a sculpture etched into the rock frame of the door. "You'll stop them killing each other, won't you?"

Erakil gave a grave nod and Shanza squeezed his arm in thanks, grateful that he hadn't teased him. Reassured, Shanza slipped into the hallway to the sound of Ikeda and Shumba's renewed bickering nipping at his heels.

Shanza meandered down the staircase to the floor below, smiling to himself. With everyone back under one roof, an uneasiness inside of him had settled. He could hear Evadne's voice from the kitchen and he slowed. He was wary of interrupting, particularly if she proved to be talking with Cavar or Lumen, who still treated him as if he carried a plague.

"I like your sash," he heard Evadne's high voice say. "But orange is better."

To his surprise and pleasure it was Ryunne who replied. "Um, thanks. How's Ikeda?"

"He's cranky."

Shanza stifled a laugh and crept closer as Ryunne prompted, "Oh?"

"Shanza says it's because he's sore and itchy." Evadne sniffed and her voice dropped to a confiding whisper that was slightly quieter than a shout, "but I think it's because I saw them having sex."

Shanza stubbed his toe on the doorframe and narrowly avoided smashing face-first into the wall. His limbs were leaden and uncooperative with mortification and he had to clap a hand over his mouth to refrain from gargling in horror. He likely needn't have worried about muffling any panicked noises, however, as they surely would have been drowned out by Ryunne's sputtering.

"You—how—when—what?"

"Their shirts were off and they were kissing," Evadne told him proudly.

"Oh," Ryunne uttered in a gust of relieved breath. "I hope that's all you-"

"Shanza," Chazal greeted him, materializing at his elbow, and the rest of Ryunne's question vanished beneath the booming of Shanza's heart, swelling in his ears like a peal of thunder. "You look flushed. Are you feeling all right?"

Shanza had almost squawked he was so startled. He prayed that the floor would split open and swallow him whole and, when that failed to actualize, he remembered he was wearing his evira and could do it himself.

Chazal's hand on his arm, his skin tough and warm, made him blink and reorient on his surroundings. With an effort, he reassembled his cracked composure and offered Chazal a wobbly smile.

"No, I'm—I'm quite well, thank you." Shanza rubbed his forehead, feeling dazed. "It's just, ah, the heat went to my head." That wasn't entirely a lie. There had been a great rush of blood to his face.

"You ought to sit down then," Chazal urged, still gripping the crook of Shanza's elbow and attempting to guide him into the kitchen.

Shanza's heels dug into the floor of their own volition. Ryunne and Evadne were in there. Evadne, who had seen Ikeda and himself—

"Shanza?"

Shanza blinked again. Chazal leaned in to peer at him, his heavy black brows furrowed in concern. "Come now, you'd best get off your feet and have some water."

"Ah," Shanza stalled, "I just realize I've forgotten my, er, Ikeda. I forgot to bring him. I mean, I forgot to tell him, ah, that we... are..." Chazal's look of concern had morphed into an almost comical gape of alarm the longer Shanza fumbled. Trailing off and giving himself a shake, as if to jerk his senses back into place, Shanza said, "I'm fine."

"Perhaps you should still take a seat." His tone doubtful, Chazal led him into the kitchen and Shanza went without protest. The heat in his cheeks had started to abate. He could probably face Ryunne and Evadne without choking on his own tongue out of mortification.

At Shanza's entrance, Ryunne sprang to his feet, flushing, and Evadne knocked her cup over, sloshing water across the table and down the front of her shirt. Chazal drew breath beside him, no doubt preparing to chastise her at the waste, but Shanza couldn't contain a helpless laugh. Ryunne joined him and even Evadne, stooped guiltily in her seat, cracked a smile. With a sigh, Chazal stepped past him, righting the cup and retrieving another for Shanza.

With that release of tension, Shanza shook off his embarrassment and scooped Ryunne into a hug. He pulled back to scan his brother's tan, happy face. Whatever had happened, the trip seemed to have benefited him.

"It's good to see you. I can't believe we let the two of you go alone. I don't know what I was thinking." He pulled Ryunne into another hug. He might have lost the one brother interested in forging a relationship with him, the brother he'd only begun to know. "But here you are, safely home, and looking rather stylish for it." Shanza gestured at the bright teal sash cinched around Ryunne's waist, a marked improvement from his previous oversized sack-like garments. Though he had meant the comment only as a tease, Ryunne flushed to his dusty hairline and his eyes shied away.

The reaction perplexed Shanza but he didn't push. Perhaps Ryunne was unused to compliments, particularly about his manner of dress. Accepting a cup of water from Chazal, Shanza sat at the table opposite Evadne, who was fussing with her drenched shirt and avoiding his eyes.

"How is Ikeda?" Ryunne asked.

"He's well." Better than he'd been in a long while, truthfully. Though Ikeda's body was still stiff, sore and itchy, he'd finally lowered the defences around his heart enough to let Shanza in. "Shumba's with him now."

Ryunne's cheeks, inexplicably, began to glow an even darker shade of pink. Shanza considered that for a moment before taking pity on Ryunne, who seemed reluctant to ask anything further. "Shumba said you met with some trouble?"

Ryunne nodded. "Raiders, on the way to Penira."

Beyond them, Chazal fumbled the water pitcher but he managed to catch it before any liquid escaped. Ryunne bit his lip, likely having forgotten his father was listening. "It was fine. As you can see. Shumba's very, um, capable."

Shanza realized his nails had punctured the soft wood of the table. He forced himself to relax. Shumba hadn't mentioned raiders to Shanza, but then again, he hadn't had the time to recount all of his adventures. No doubt he hadn't been in a hurry to tell Shanza about it. Raiders attacking, indeed.

"We'll talk about that later," Chazal said, firm. "For now, Evadne, it's time for your lessons. Come, I'll walk you." He set the pitcher on the table for Shanza and Ryunne then held his hand out to Evadne. She complained that she wanted to stay with her brothers and Shanza's breath caught at the swell of emotion that evoked in him.

When Chazal and Evadne had left, Shanza raised a brow at Ryunne. "Raiders? A plague? I can't believe I put you in so much danger."

"I volunteered."

"You're so young."

"I'm not a child!" Ryunne shouted and they both blinked at his own outburst. Ryunne frowned down at his lap. "That trip… that was the happiest I've ever been. My whole life, stuck in this house…"

Shanza sighed. He knew the life Ryunne must have led, trapped in the cage his parents had made to try to prevent any of their other children from following Shanza's nature. "I'm sorry. If I hadn't-" Shanza struggled with his own guilt, fought to keep his tone even, "-been what I am, things would have been better for you."

"It's not your fault."

"I know. I'm not ashamed. Not anymore." He reached across the table and Ryunne glanced up at him. "It always scared me, to be so different. But everything I have now…" Shanza cradled Ryunne's gloved hands between his gold-webbed fingers. He recognized the red leather, could feel where they fit Ryunne too loosely. He stroked his thumb across the knuckles and wondered that Ryunne insisted on wearing them. "You will always be welcome in Azaria. Wherever I am. If you wanted to come and visit, or even to stay, I would like that very much."

A tremor shivered through Ryunne's hands and Shanza clasped them tighter. Ryunne said in a small voice, "I'd like that too."

Leaning back, Shanza smiled and released him. "I'm so glad we could meet. I didn't imagine… well. I'd like it if we could spend some time together."

"When do you leave?"

"In a few days."

"So soon?" A flush spilled over Ryunne's cheeks and the depth of his dismay startled Shanza. He hadn't known Ryunne was so eager to be in his company.

"It's been one distraction after another. We need to settle in Azaria." He and Ikeda had duties, responsibilities, and they'd shirked them too long. It made him want to squirm when he thought of how negligent they'd been. They had to find the other Dawns. He and Ikeda had so much to do, now that Ikeda was well enough to travel.

"I have some arrangements to make for tomorrow," Shanza said. He'd discussed it with King Shakhty and Ikeda a few days prior but the time had slipped past him. He didn't know the city well enough to find his own way and he didn't want to take a guide or guard with him. He'd wear his evira and sneak out while Erakil and Shumba fussed over Ikeda upstairs. As much as they despaired of him, Shanza was fully able to protecting himself, and it would give him a chance to wheedle information about those raiders from Ryunne. "Would you like to come with me?"

"Yes! I mean. That would be good." Ryunne stood so fast his knee caught the table and it wobbled between them. The pitcher teetered, fell, and a surge of water shot towards Ryunne, who had cringed and frozen. Shanza caught the water with the Gift and, rising to right the pitcher, he spiraled it back inside so that not one drop spilled. Watching Ryunne to gauge his reaction as the water slithered in snake-like coils back into the mouth of the pitcher, Shanza relaxed when Ryunne turned his wide eyes on Shanza and breathed, "that was amazing."

Shanza laughed. "Truly, all the trouble is worth it when I can perform a few tricks like that." He led Ryunne out of the kitchen then, into the dimness of the corridor. He wanted to leave before anyone else came looking for him.

"What's happening tomorrow?" Ryunne asked, trailing after him.

Smiling, Shanza pulled his scarf over his head to cover his light hair. "It's a surprise."


The next morning Shanza wavered in front of a mirror in their borrowed chamber, aghast. Nothing had gone right. He'd spent hours wandering around with Ryunne yesterday, unable to find the magister, returning footsore and dusty to a livid Ikeda. They'd argued at an increasing volume about Shanza's ability to protect himself until Erakil interrupted that everyone in the household could hear them. Shanza had followed that up by sleeping poorly and now the egg he'd forced down for breakfast sat like a stone in his stomach.

"This was a bad idea."

He couldn't get his top to sit right. It twisted across his chest where it should have fallen in graceful folds. He loosened the ties beneath his left arm and started fastening them again for the third time.

Ikeda sat at the foot of the bed watching him. He'd already tried helping but Shanza had squirmed and fussed and finally Ikeda had thrown up his hands in defeat and retreated to the bed. Shanza returned Ikeda's exasperated stare with a narrowed one of his own. Easy for him to criticize. Ikeda seemed to wake up immaculate, his hair somehow even more attractive after he'd slept on it. He was resplendent now, wearing a tunic of gradated blues the dark hues of the deep ocean, trimmed with black embroidery that matched his fitted leather trousers. He looked so good it almost hurt to gaze directly at him. A desperate hunger consumed Shanza when he did and he had to tear his eyes away.

"What was I thinking?"

"You were thinking Methron's suffering from a catastrophic drought and maybe you could help."

"What if it doesn't rain? What if nothing happens?" Shanza's fingers caught in one of the knots. He tugged the cloth forward, trying to see the ties better, but that made it snag all along his back. "What if it does rain?"

"Shanza."

"If it doesn't rain, does that mean I've lost the Serpent's favour? Or that Methron has? Or does it mean the Serpent lacks the power? Or that the Heavens are too out of balance? But what if it rains too much? It could flood."

"Shanza."

"What!" Shanza cried. Did Ikeda think repeating his name would help somehow? Then he saw the mess he'd made of the knots. "Oh, I've done it wrong again!"

"Why do you wear those complicated-"

"It's the style! We have to be fashionable for this. People will talk." Shanza tore the fastenings loose again. "And don't try and tell me you don't like it."

"I like it on the floor."

Shanza flushed hot all over. He thought of the previous morning, of Ikeda stripping him of his shirt and leaving it puddled on the floor. Shanza rather preferred it there too. "Oh, get out."

"Out?"

"I can't do this with you in here. You're too distracting."

Ikeda smirked and stood. "I'm distracting?"

"I mean it." Shanza took an unconscious half-step back as Ikeda advanced on him, the broad set of his shoulders and the piercing blue of his eyes emphasized by the fine tunic. Gods, why was he so attractive? Shanza's heart thudded in his breast and a strange crackling energy thrummed through him, as if the Gift had manifested in his marrow and sought to escape beneath his skin.

Stopping directly in front of Shanza, Ikeda cupped his face with both hands, the touch warm and rough and familiar. He stared down at Shanza without speaking, the gravid consideration of his gaze a balm against the itch of Shanza's raw nerves. Shanza shivered.

Ikeda pressed a chaste kiss to Shanza's forehead and stroked a thumb over his cheekbone. "Everything will be fine. I'll meet you outside." Then he turned and slipped out the door.

A bit unsteady in the wake of Ikeda's departure, Shanza groped for the stool behind himself and dropped onto it. He brushed his fingertips to his cheek where Ikeda had stroked him. He was still sitting there, flabbergasted, when the door opened and though he fully expected Ikeda again, Elmira entered.

With his defenses in the same state as his shirt, Shanza followed Elmira's approach with trepidation, wondering what she wanted. She carried a parcel and as she walked she unraveled it.

"That guard of yours said this was a gift for you." She shrugged. "Some merchant gave it to him."

Inside the cloth wrapping, Shanza saw a glimmer of scales. They winked in the light, some as pale as pearls and others dark like spilled ink, varied in size but all of them smaller than his palm. Dragon scales. Linked together with gold thread, ropes and layers of them, plucked from the delicate places on the dragon's body. They spilled into his hands like the glimmering nacre of a hundred crushed shells.

Shanza pulled the heavy mass of it onto his lap. The scales clacked together, a discordant music. They were oddly cold and Shanza knew with a certainty that was more instinct than anything else that they came from the dragon Ikeda had killed.

"It's worth a fortune," Elmira said, and the scales crunched together when Shanza's hands spasmed into two fists.

All of it belonged to Ikeda. Or should have belonged to him. That dragon had been a murderous beast, but… When Shanza thought of scavengers preying on the corpse, plucking scales and eyes and claws, cutting out the heart and organs, it made his Gift pulse with disgust. No respect, no dignity, no appreciation of life. Even Ikeda, who hated dragons, wouldn't have wished that fate on it.

Elmira peeled the necklace from his clenched fingers and slipped it around his neck. It pulled at him, the weight like a leash yanking him down, making him want to stoop. He was so distracted by the heft of the necklace and the unexpectedness of Elmira helping him that he couldn't summon a single reaction when she lifted his arm and reached for the ties to his shirt. She knotted the ties in silence, never looking at his face, bent so close to him he could smell the faint hyacinth scent in her hair. When she finished she surveyed him with a critical eye. Shanza squirmed beneath it, leery as she stepped back and pulled a string of opaque pink rubies out of a pouch at her belt.

Shanza's breath snagged in his throat. He recognized them. It was the same strand he'd played with as a child, when his Gift had manifested— the very same sparkling bauble he and his cousin had fought over. She'd kept it. All those years. They hadn't let any of his siblings wear any adornments and yet she had kept it.

"I thought… it would go well in your hair."

Shanza couldn't speak. Words deserted him. He didn't know if she meant it as a peace-offering or a reprimand. He nodded, hollowed out, and Elmira picked the comb up.

Shanza tried to force the rigid line of tension from his body, uneasy with Elmira behind him. He felt vulnerable, exposed. Gradually, as she teased the snags out of his hair with a surprising gentleness, he unwound. He watched her in the mirror, lulled by the feel of her fingers twisting and tucking the strands until at last she strung the rubies through the plait she'd woven. They glinted in the sunlight like shed tears.

When she finished Shanza turned to face her and they stared at one another in silence. She didn't say anything and Shanza couldn't. Elmira put her hands on his shoulders, squeezed once, and then she left.

Shanza glanced at his own reflection as if it held an answer. A stranger peered back at him. His hair fell in an artful coil past the cords of scales and the smooth folds of his tunic, a diaphanous white that bled into the blue-green of sea foam. He looked, he thought, almost a match for Ikeda.

The rest of the house was empty and quiet when Shanza emerged from the bedroom. He found Ikeda waiting in the shadowed alcove of the main door, leaning against the stone frame.

"Who's this model of perfection?" Ikeda drawled after simply staring at him for several seconds. He traced the high arch of Shanza's cheekbone, followed the dusting of gold powder. He could feel the restraint in Ikeda's touch, his stifled desire to rip Shanza out of his layers of clothes. Oh yes, he had made a fully recovery. Ikeda's tone was light but his eyes bore into Shanza, promising: I will undo you.

The hot itch hummed through Shanza again and he couldn't resist leaning in to nip at Ikeda's bottom lip. Growling, Ikeda's arms came up to wrap around him, to crush him closer, but Shanza pushed him back with a firm shove to his chest. After the hassle it took to prepare, he wouldn't let Ikeda muss all of his hard work. Ikeda grunted as he hit the wall. He raised his hands in surrender.

When Shanza withdrew, Ikeda noticed the necklace. He stilled and lost his smirk.

"I can take it off."

"No." Ikeda smiled, a wolf's bared fangs. "I like you dressed in the spoils of my vanquished foes."

Shanza's heartbeat stuttered. His fingertips twitched where they still pressed against Ikeda. His voice so rough he hardly recognized it, Shanza said, "you're being distracting again."

"I apologize," Ikeda said, the words smouldering coals.

Shanza teetered on a precipice. Want swelled so huge in him he shuddered, felt he would drown, swept up in its current.

The door thudded open and bright light cut into the alcove. Shanza and Ikeda both flinched.

Erakil surveyed them with his usual dour expression. "You're late."

"How are we late? It doesn't start without us," Ikeda gritted.

"The King is waiting."

"Oh no," Ikeda said, flat, but he ushered Shanza outside in front of himself.

In the courtyard, King Shakhty was in an animated conversation with Chazal and Elmira, his entourage assembled behind him. All of Shanza's siblings had gathered, including Cavar and Lumen, who huddled together in a corner like two hunched vultures. Shanza ignored them and greeted Shakhty with genuine fondness and gave an internal oath of gratitude to the Serpent when Ikeda also addressed the King with perfect grace.

As they spoke, Shanza spied Ryunne and Shumba together. Ryunne had flushed pink to his hairline but he was focused on Shumba, listening to him with a shy smile. Shanza catalogued the way their bodies leaned towards each other, thoughtful. Ryunne had recounted much that had happened in their journey together, including the raiders and the plague and Ryunne's fall down the well in Halvaella. Ryunne seemed so in need of companionship. Their familiarity made sense. Shanza scrutinized them until Ikeda linked their arms. "Come."

"Are we starting?"

"Yes. King Shakhty will lead."

The King and a selection of nobles and court favourites left the courtyard first, followed by Shanza and Ikeda. Children flanked them on either side, carrying an awning to both signify their importance and shield them somewhat from the sun, Shanza guessed. Still, he pulled a sheer scarf over his hair to protect his head. He had to pinch Ikeda to stop him from shooing the children away.

Ikeda protested. "It's cruel, they're children. They'll drop it on us."

"They won't drop it and it's not cruel. It's as heavy as a pillow. Look how proud they are."

Shumba snickered, apparently within earshot behind them. Shanza searched but it seemed Ryunne had fallen back to walk with the rest of the family.

People lined the street beyond the gate of the Shilari's compound. Shanza hadn't expected so many and certainly not so far from the temple itself. A ripple, more anticipation than sound, spread through the crowd when Shanza and Ikeda reached them. No one cheered or called out; they scarcely spoke. Some kneeled, their hands cupped in he Dawn symbol, others openly cried.

The weight of their hope, their faith, spit Shanza beneath the breastbone and he stumbled. Ikeda, their arms still twined, caught him.

"Why are we on foot again?" Ikeda murmured.

Shanza exhaled. "It's to mimic a pilgrimage."

"Ah, a pilgrimage. From one point in the city to another. Remind me of that next time I walk to the market."

"It's symbolic." When Ikeda only arched a brow, Shanza sighed. "Why were you chosen, you're practically a heretic."

"I suppose the Gods were sick of sycophants."

Shanza patted the forearm he grasped. He knew Ikeda made light mostly to distract Shanza from his nervousness. Although Ikeda didn't enjoy all the pomp and ceremony he did believe. How could he not, after all they had been through?

The crowd thickened as they neared the temple, so many people gathered along the street and in the square that when Shanza and Ikeda passed the closest reached out to touch them, reverent fingertips tracing their arms, their clothing. Shanza could almost hear Ikeda grinding his teeth, a muscle in his jaw thumping, but he managed a benign visage for the onlookers.

Before them the circular outer courtyard of Penira's Serpent Temple stretched over a raised foundation, the white stone of its pillars hung with withered vines and wilted plants. Once the verdant jewel at the apex of Penira, it languished, stagnant pools of brackish water rotting where fountains should have poured clear water.

When they mounted the broad steps to the temple proper, King Shakhty turned to greet them once more. His entourage arrayed behind him, he pressed a ritual greeting kiss to Shanza and Ikeda's foreheads. He smiled at Shanza with the same kindness he had always shown him. Shanza nodded back, hoping he would one day deserve some of it.

Monks in white robes parted for them as Shanza and Ikeda passed into the inner courtyard. Even Erakil and Shumba stopped at the threshold, while the throng amassed outside watched through gaps in the stonework. Shanza stepped forward and dry leaves crunched under his foot.

It was quiet in the enclosing pillars, like a held breath. Few of the congregation along the streets had spoken during the procession and that had been eerily muted in its own way, but thousands of human bodies still made noise. Here it seemed the as if all the sound had sucked out into the ether.

Ikeda's boots scuffed beside him.

"It's beautiful," Ikeda said. An immense statue of the serpent rose before them, the smooth marble of its body chipped and faded with age, yet still magnificent as it arched up into the heavens and then curved down again, low enough that the head glowered within reach of the ground.

An intricate network of pools and runnels coiled out from the statue, their beds dry and cracked. Shanza studied them and saw that beneath the leaves and between the watercourses the slithering body of a sea serpent was etched in blue tiles. They were so worn by the passage of feet and the glaring sun they nearly disappeared into the surrounding white blocks.

Shanza bent and pressed his palm to the tile, felt a shock through the evira. There was power here, simmering, a deep well beneath the surface. He felt it swell in his body, in the charged air and the ancient stone all around him.

When he'd thought to come here, to pay homage to the Serpent and to ask for rain, he'd worried about using the right words. Some portentous phrase to unlock the heavens. He realized now it wasn't about magic words. Only intention mattered. Methron was his birth place, his home. It had shaped him, the hot sand and hatred had twisted and broken him and then through the darkness it had gifted him this new life. He had come to reclaim it. To forgive and to be forgiven. Absolution.

A small basin rested on a pedestal beneath the Serpent statue's great head. Shanza rose, drawn towards it. He wished he'd thought to bring an offering, but as he stroked the cool marble rim the scales of his necklace clattered together, grating like the rattle of dry bones. Shanza glanced down at it, conscious of Ikeda's attention. Ikeda had said nothing since they'd first entered, content to let Shanza wander.

Shanza leaned over the basin and snapped the necklace's gold thread in a single sharp tug. Scales fell in a pearlescent cascade, chiming where they struck the marble of the basin and bounced to ring against the tile beneath. The whole courtyard lit with the sound of a hundred tiny tolling bells.

Shanza laughed. This place. It hummed with energy. It sang to him as if awoken from a deep sleep. Power crackled in his veins, a wave crashing within, a hunger like a yawning mouth to the core of the earth splitting inside him. Shanza gasped, sure he would burst.

He reached up and caressed the statute's colossal stone jaw, nudged his forehead to the broad expanse between the Serpent's sightless eyes. He called on the torrent of power surging within him and released it.

The temple trembled, shouts from beyond the courtyard lost in the air's static charge, a smell of ozone permeating through the dust. An ephemeral serpent formed of cloud and water particles slithered out of the statue's gaping jaws. It twined around Shanza with the hiss of wind and the cold brush of sea spray and then it lunged into the open sky, driving higher and expanding until it was a great writhing dark cloud that stretched endlessly into the horizon.

The first drop of rain struck Shanza on the cheek. Then the patter of water on stone resonated all around them and he and Ikeda were blinking at each other through a deluge of rainfall. Cheering and singing from outside erupted through the downpour. He had done it. Brought rain to this drought-stricken land. He had called and the Serpent had answered.

Laughing with an abandon he usually reserved for private, Ikeda swooped Shanza off his feet and twirled him. When he slowed Shanza kissed him, suffused with love and pride and gratitude.

"Didn't I tell you it would be fine?" Ikeda said, setting Shanza down.

Instead of answering Shanza kissed him again, tasting the sharp clean water that had caught on his lips. He still thrummed with restless energy, with a hunger like an emptiness in his soul. Even after the release of that tremendous power he felt he would shake apart. He wanted closer, wanted to crawl inside Ikeda and never part from him.

Steps splashed as a monk approached them. He regarded Shanza with a reverence that made Ikeda laugh again. The monk beckoned them past the statue, to a domed building etched with serpent carvings in vivid blues.

"My Lords, you may pray in the inner sanctum if you wish. No one may enter but the Dawns." The monk wavered, then rushed to open the door for them. When they passed the monk Shanza thought the wetness of his cheeks may have been tears as well as rain.

Once Shanza and Ikeda entered the door boomed shut behind them, echoing through the huge hollow rotunda. A circular pool in the center of the chamber dominated most of the space, filling now with water that poured down through the coffered oculus that gaped open to the sky. On the far side from the door, an alter glowed with white-flame candles above a platform of silk rugs and pillows. The scent of damp stone and fresh rain washed over them.

Ikeda surveyed the empty space, the drip of water from his clothes a soft rhythmic slapping. They were both soaked through. The white of Shanza's shirt and pants was completely translucent. He could see the dusky flush of his own nipples beneath the ripple of wet fabric.

Shanza shivered.

Ikeda turned to him. His eyes were dark. "Are you cold?"

He wasn't cold. He was aflame. He wanted to sink his teeth into Ikeda's skin until he bruised him. He wanted to tear off this heavy clothing that clung to his body, an agony of sensation.

Overwhelmed, Shanza trembled. He didn't trust himself. With an exhaustion of will power he forced himself to walk towards the altar. He would— he would kneel and compose himself and thank the Serpent for all he had been given. This… fire in his blood would subside. It was merely a side-effect of the Serpent's latent power in this place.

Ikeda stalked him along the opposite edge of the pool, his footsteps chasing Shanza's frantic heartbeat. When Shanza rounded the pool, so did Ikeda. They stopped before the alter, facing each other. Ikeda's molten expression pared Shanza to the bone.

"Shall I worship the Serpent?" Ikeda said. "On my knees?"

Shanza had no time even to process that. Ikeda went to his knees and a shock of arousal punched through Shanza. Disbelief warred with desire and then Ikeda grasped the back of Shanza's thighs in his strong hands.

Looking into Ikeda's gaze was to fall into the ocean. Shanza gasped. All the strength went out of Shanza's legs and he slid into Ikeda's lap.

Slipping his hold up to Shanza's waist, supporting him, Ikeda leaned back onto the silk rugs. Shanza had somehow ended up straddling him and he groaned and buried his face in Ikeda's neck.

"This is not— this is not what they had in mind."

"What better tribute," Ikeda threaded his fingers through Shanza's hair and coaxed him from his hiding place, "than our love?"

Then he kissed Shanza, kissed him with such possession and dominance it was as if he sought to devour him, and pulled him down onto the thick rugs.


Shanza woke. He was cramped and throbbing. He had no idea how long he'd dozed but Ikeda's limbs still enclosed him, his breath a slow, steady exhalation above Shanza's head. Apparently Ikeda had fallen asleep too.

Shanza brushed Ikeda's disheveled curls back and whispered a kiss across his brow. Grey light still drifted down from the oculus in the ceiling along with the falling rain so Shanza doubted too much time had passed. When he drew away Ikeda groaned and rolled onto his back, his eyes squinting open.

"I'm sore."

Ikeda inspected him with drowsy satisfaction, his expression a complicated mix of guilt and pride. Shanza returned it with an indulgent look.

Sweat had dried into itchy patches in the dips of his joints and his mouth tasted like a small rodent had curled up in it and died. He wobbled to his feet.

Shanza teetered towards the pool, his legs trembling under him. His bones and muscles had melted. Steps led down into the lapping water and Shanza had to brace himself on the pool's lip as he slipped his toes in.

The water was cool and so clear Shanza could see the veins in the stones at the bottom. The shower of rainfall from above pattered across the water's surface, sent ripples lapping out. Already the pool had filled to waist height. Shanza sank to his chest. The cool water soothed his flushed, abused skin. He sighed with relief.

Behind him, Ikeda lumbered upright. He hesitated at the pool's edge and then heaved himself down so he sat with only his feet in the water, the rest of him still gloriously naked. Livid scars crawled over the thick, sweeping muscles of his torso. Even in the coldness of the water a bubble of heat expanded in Shanza's belly. He dunked himself under to drown that thought.

He drifted beneath the surface, enjoying his own weightlessness, remembering how Ikeda had taught him to swim. He felt he might split at the seams, that he must glow with the hugeness of his love. He emerged gasping between Ikeda's feet, water cascading over his chest and streaming from his hair.

He sucked in lungfuls of air, the sweet sharpness of the rainwater in his mouth. Ikeda stared at him with such tenderness and vulnerability he might as well have cracked open his ribs and set his heart in Shanza's hands.

Shanza wanted to kiss him to reassure him but Ikeda looked so uncertain, waiting for Shanza to rebuke him. Sometimes Shanza forgot how fragile Ikeda could be, how much power Shanza had over him, like a small bird fluttering in the cage of his fingers.

Shanza wound his arms around Ikeda's neck. "Shall we go again?"

His sore, exhausted body protested the suggestion but Ikeda took it as the approval Shanza had intended and he huffed a tired laugh. He combed the tangles out of Shanza's hair, smoothed it out from where it clung in tendrils to his shoulders. The rubies were gone; he must have lost them in the pool.

Ikeda stroked the curve of Shanza's shoulder blades before settling on his waist, seemingly reluctant to release him. Content to stay, Shanza cupped water in his palms and washed Ikeda with it, brushing his fingertips over every inch of him, every rough patch of scar tissue and soft sweep of unblemished skin. When he finished Ikeda lifted him out of the pool and set him on his feet. Some of his strength had returned, enough at least to keep him upright.

They both leaned into a lingering kiss, unwilling to part, to break the spell of this intimacy. At last Shanza sighed against Ikeda and lead him back to the altar. They dressed in their damp clothing, neither of them speaking. Ikeda fastened the ties to Shanza's shirt without looking at them, his brow pressed to Shanza's, the gentle consideration of his touch wrenching Shanza's heart. Ikeda slid the evira back over Shanza's arms and kissed his knuckles when he was done.

Then he took Shanza by the hand and they walked to the door together. Ikeda went to open it and stopped.

"Shanza," he said, and then couldn't continue. Shanza saw the struggle in his face, the rush of emotion that swallowed all his words.

"I know," Shanza said.

Words had never been Ikeda's forte, even when he was shouting in anger. But when he looked at Shanza he looked with a naked gaze. Everything bared. His eyes spoke for him. Shanza stared into them now, at the love blazing in their blue depths.

I love you too, Shanza thought back, smiling with the certainty of it, and then he pushed the door open.

Raised voices echoed through the inner courtyard. It was restricted to Shanza, Ikeda, and the temple's caretakers on this day, but there was some commotion below. Indignant monks, their arms flapping like wings in their white robes, had gathered around Shumba and Erakil, distinctive in their red uniforms. Between the guards, in the middle the uproar, a familiar figure in battered armour.

Zethus Thea.

"Zethus!" Ikeda called. At his greeting the monks paused and then withdrew, though Shanza spied them muttering to each other. Ikeda grinned at Shanza and then at Zethus, obviously confused but pleased all the same. Shanza shared that sentiment. He was happy to see Zethus again, but— "What are you doing here?"

Zethus stepped forward and when Shanza saw his bleak expression all of his elation crumbled into a pit of foreboding. Ikeda's hand spasmed in his grasp. Zethus took a deep breath.

"It's Kaezik."


IMPORTANT: There is a fully explicit version of this chapter up at AO3 at this web address: h.t.t.p : / / archiveofourown.o.r.g / works / 7314583. (Please note the periods between h.t.t.p. and o.r.g and the spaces added because Fictionpress also doesn't allow inserting links AT ALL. That is the best I could do. You can also go to my profile and the AO3 link is there). I didn't realize Fictionpress didn't allow explicit content and I highly recommend you go and read the version on AO3 instead of this fade to black one. 'Back in the day' when I started this story I am pretty sure explicit content was permitted. I know I read some on this site ...

Thank you to everyone who continued to read this story after so many years, who commented and sent emails and kept it alive. I hope you enjoyed this chapter. There will be more.

This chapter concludes Part 4. The next chapter will introduce the final arc, Part 5: War.

I will be editing Chapter 1. After it's changed, if you prefer the original, please feel welcome to pm/email me and I would be happy to send you a copy. I will be pruning some characters.

If you noticed any inconsistencies or errors please let me know. I think my beta readers have gone into retirement. Sometimes I look at words and think: undo. Undue? Guilt. Quilt?

I am trying out wordpress/tumblr (links in profile) if anyone wants to catch up. 3