"Do you ever think about, um, settling down?"

I looked over at Tao in surprise and repeated, "Settling down?"

He looked uncomfortable but answered, "Yes. Finding a woman to love and making a family."

Uncertain where this whole conversation had come from, I shrugged. "Not really."

He looked frustrated. I knew that look and sighed faintly to myself. He was working himself up to talk about something that he didn't really want to talk about. Sometimes I thought that Tao deliberately set himself up for a fall. But then his next words surprised me even more since they had no real bearing on his earlier words. Suddenly I wondered if the Sorceress was playing with me again.

"You're going to be King."

Blinking, I nodded. "One day. After we defeat Balcifer."

"So you're going to need an heir," he continued.

"Right." I could tell that my short answers were starting to irritate him but if he was going to start an argument, I wasn't going to give him any help. It was bad enough that we barely saw each other any more, there was no chance that I was going to spend our time together fighting. I snorted quietly to myself and thought, 'Not without a fight.'

He paused for a few minutes then seemed to think of a new tack. "I was thinking about what I would do once you were crowned."

I frowned, confused. "What do you mean?"

"Well, once you're King, you won't need me around any more," Tao answered with a shrug.

Feeling a headache begin, I felt certain that this conversation was definitely the Sorceress' fault. I could just tell. "Tao, technically, I don't need you now." He looked hurt so I added hastily, "I want you to be with me. You're my best friend. That isn't going to change when I'm King."

I don't know why but that didn't seem to reassure him any. Instead he said, "Things change, Dar. Do me a favor when you're King, though?"

Anything as long as it stopped this disturbing conversation. "Name it."

His eyes, dark and serious, met mine. "Find someone to love. Don't marry someone just because your father thought it would be good for the kingdom. We know how well that turned out the last time."

My thoughts darkened as I thought about his words and I had to look away from him.

His voice was soft but insistent, despite the faint undertone of pleading. "Promise me, Dar."

As if I could refuse him something. As though I could refuse him anything? Sighing, I nodded. "I promise."

The troubling conversation faded quickly from my mind. Why wouldn't it? I didn't want to think about Tao making me promise to love someone else and then really didn't want to think about what I'd just thought. He was my best friend, a brother, a comrade who had saved my life more times than I could remember. There were problems to be solved, enemies to be fought, and Balcifer still to be defeated.

Arina stayed with us more and more as time went on. It was safer for all of us, despite the added trouble that she seemed to attract like one of those stones Tao discovered clinging to metal. It was a relief to me, as well, to have another warrior around that I could count on to protect Tao. Not that he couldn't take care of himself, most times, but he didn't always think before rushing into something. Arina knew that and looked out for him when I couldn't.

Sometimes she didn't even complain about it.

We did it finally. We found my family and defeated Balcifer. With that done, I discovered just how much trouble I was really in. These were people I'd never met and people who still thought of me as a baby or younger sibling. Not people who knew me as the BeastMaster, a grown man and warrior for a very long time. They loved me, I had no doubt about that, and I loved them as well. We just didn't relate very well, as Tao pointed out to me on the many, many occasions when he kept me from storming away in disgust.

What disturbed me the most was how they treated Tao. They were polite and friendly to all appearances. Grateful that he had helped me find and free them all. Happy that he'd been my friend while I was exiled, as they called it. Even more, they were glad that it was he who'd been injured in that final battle with Balcifer and not me. Nothing horrible if you didn't count the fact that his hand had been ruined, which precluded him ever writing again. Still, better a disfigured scholar than a disfigured king. Not that they ever said so, but I could sense it. And if I could, I knew that Tao could as well.

The first couple of years were so busy and filled with problems that it wasn't much different from the original battles against the Nords and Zad's army. There were mercenaries and bandits trying their might against us. There were so many things that needed taking care of. Tao was there with me, as he always had been. I made Arina my General, which completely took care of her scoffing that hard work never payed off. According to Tao, her feet didn't touch the ground for days after. Also according to Tao, my brothers were less than thrilled at having a woman lead our armies.

I found out, eventually, that my family didn't make things easy on Tao. To them, he was a skilled commoner, useful for his knowledge but irritating in the extreme because I listened to him more than I did them. He was my advisor and my best friend, the one I shared myself with, just as he always had been. But, just like Tao, he never breathed a word of the misery they made of his life.

I heard about it from Arina after the damage had been done.

* * * *

"Arina, what is going on? Where's Tao?" Dar demanded.

Sighing, Arina sprawled in a nearby chair and said, "Depends on who's asking."

Frowning, Dar asked, "What do you mean?"

"Is this Dar the friend asking, or is this Dar the Magnificent asking?"

Dar stiffened at the near-venomous quality to her voice and took a long, close look at his friend. She looked tired, ill-spent and deeply upset about something. It occurred to him that they didn't spend hardly any time together any more, outside of discussing the state of the army. Sitting opposite her, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, Dar asked softly, "Tell me what's going on, please?"

After rubbing her eyes wearily, Arina returned his gaze and said, "Tao's gone."

The world seemed to tilt. When he could speak again, Dar asked in a strangled voice, "Gone?"

"Yes. Gone. As in elsewhere, not here. Out and about, in the world. Doing that scholar thing that he hasn't been able to do in four years. Longer, really, since he was with you for what, three years before that? He's trying to find a little peace of mind and I, for one, sincerely hope that he gets what he needs," she finished firmly.

Helplessly, Dar said, "But, he's supposed to be here. With me."

Looking at him seriously, Arina said, "Maybe you should have told him that once in a while. Maybe if you had made it clear to the others that he wasn't a dishrag to be battered around, he would still be here. Maybe if you had shown him some respect, he would still be here."

Feeling completely blindsided, Dar stood and repeated, "Respect?"

Suddenly angry, Arina stood and stalked away. She punched the wall a couple of times then strode back, dark eyes blazing with fury. "Yes, Dar! Respect. That little thing that makes everyone's world a little easier to live in? Surely you remember the concept."

"But I do, I've always respected Tao," he protested.

She grabbed his shirt and dragged him close, until they were literally face to face. "Not in the last two years that I've seen. Do you know what he goes through to be here with you? What he puts up with? All the snide remarks, the insults. The attitude that he was just so much dirt to be scraped off their boots. Not to mention the accidents. I put a stop to those after the third one by beating the culprit to a pulp once I found out who was behind it. But it should have been you who did that. You were supposed to be his friend, Dar!"

She released him with a snarl and turned away, trying to get herself under control. "Look. I know he didn't go to you with his problems. I tried to get him to tell you, or to let me tell you, but you know how he is. Stubborn. Honorable. Really stubborn. I was ready to throttle him myself when he made me promise not to speak. He kept thinking that you'd realize what was going on. When that didn't happen, well, I guess he had enough."

"So he left. He just packed a bag and left," Dar said in disbelief.

"Pretty much."

"How long ago?"

Her short bark of laughter held no humor. "How long ago did you notice he was gone?"

"Two days. I questioned everyone but no one could remember seeing him in at least four days. And you weren't here to ask," Dar reported.

"They're more observant than you are then. He left ten days ago."

The world tilted again. "Ten days?"

An unpleasant smile crossed her lips. "Yep. And he didn't tell me where he went so if you want to find him, you're going to have to track him down yourself."

"Why are you, why are you like this?" he asked. He couldn't understand where her anger was coming from.

"Because Tao is like a brother to me and I am sick of you taking advantage of him," she said quietly. "He helped to make you king, Dar. He stood by you through the worst kinds of horror. He lost his place as an Eiron scholar because of you. He did it cheerfully until you turned on him. Unfortunately, you didn't do it in such a way that gave him the freedom to leave. You just withdrew from him, took away your friendship. But he continued to stay and help because of his loyalty to you. Then, finally, he couldn't do it anymore."

Dar walked to the window, his thoughts in turmoil as he tried to find some kind of balance in a world unmade. Tao was really gone.

After a while, Arina joined him, leaning against the wall, and said, "You're a good King, Dar. You're compassionate and understanding when needed, and strong and hard when needed. This world is a much better place for having you as a power to contend with. But I don't think you're happy here. I think the last time that I saw you truly happy was that night, directly after we defeated Balcifer. Do you remember it?"

How could he forget? They'd all been drunk and bloody and exhausted. Tao had curled up by the fire, his arm heavily bandaged. Dar had curled up around Tao, putting one arm under Tao's head as a cushion and the other around his friend's waist, holding him close. He'd felt a contentedness then that had more to do with the warm, injured man in his arms than the battle they had just won. "I remember."

"I know you feel an obligation to be King. I know you feel an obligation to your family. God knows why. But think about this long and hard, Dar. Anyone can be King but not just anyone can be the BeastMaster. Just like not everyone can settle for 'best friend' when what they really want is 'lover'."

Another tilt. Would the world ever be still again? He took a deep breath and she reached over to squeeze his arm.

"I love you, Dar. I love you both because you're my family, but you're a stupid bastard sometimes," she said dryly.

Apparently. "I ah, I have to think."

She nodded and walked to the door but paused there. "I would suggest a nice letter clearly outlining your successor. I also suggest making several copies and leaving them with different people. Just in case."

Right. Just in case. He shook his head violently. What was he thinking? He couldn't possibly leave! But Tao was gone. Really gone and not coming back. Well, that wasn't for sure. Tao would probably just take some time to satisfy his incurable wanderlust before coming back. He'd done it before after all. Every so often Tao would disappear, but he always came back.

Of course, he'd always left a note saying that he'd be back and Dar had found no such note this time. Sighing, he looked up at the sky and willed for his friend to return.

* * * *

Over a fortnight and still Tao was alone. He sighed, looking wistfully westward, back where he'd left Dar and Arina. It had been seven years since he'd been last on his own and he wasn't used to it. The campfire was warm and comfortable but he missed having someone to share it with. The good thing was that he was a lot more capable of looking after himself this time, even with his ruined hand. He absently checked the long knife strapped to his thigh. Arina's going-away present when she had realized that he wasn't going to change his mind this time.

He hadn't left for the reasons that she assumed. He could have dealt with the poor behavior of the others if it meant staying with Dar. Even though Dar had been sucked into a schedule so busy it left little time for their friendship, Tao had been content. He had his studies, new friends who did care about him, a wonderful place to live, and Arina was there for him when Dar couldn't be.

No, the real reason he'd left was because Dar needed to get on with his life. He needed to get married and produce an heir for the throne. Though nothing had ever happened between them, Tao knew their connection would keep Dar from getting married. He instinctively knew that Dar would see it as a betrayal of their friendship no matter how many women Tao pushed at him.

And he had pushed women at his friend on a fairly regular basis. At least Dar's family couldn't accuse him of trying to keep Dar to himself in that manner. He knew exactly the type of women Dar liked and had made it one of his duties to find his friend a wife. He grinned faintly, thinking of the last time he'd done that. She'd been very pretty with red hair and green eyes. She'd also had a temper and attitude as big as Arina's used to be. Dar had been intrigued by her, Tao had seen the instant attraction in his friend's eyes. Unfortunately, by the end of the night, Dar had been lounging by his side while Arina had taken the young woman out for a breath of fresh air.

Definitely not how he'd planned the evening to go.

It hadn't helped matters any when, at the end of the night, Dar had walked him back to his rooms and they had talked quietly at his door for a few minutes. Dar had leaned towards him, his eyes soft with love and friendship, and Tao had had to smile and gently push his friend towards his own rooms. He had ached to let Dar kiss him, had been positive that it would have happened, but he couldn't give in to the need. The world needed Dar as King and it was Tao's job to keep his friend safe, even from himself. Which was why he'd left the next day.

Sighing, he returned to the present and poked a stick into the fire, stirring the coals. This was his life. He'd found his way back to Xinca without too much trouble but it had been too strange to stay. It had been a free city for years now and while the Eirons played a big part in the make up of the city, Tao had felt very uncomfortable; as though he'd been away from his own people too long to be able to understand them. After so long, he finally realized that Dar and Arina were his people, his family.

A rustling in the bushes nearby caught his attention though he didn't show it. Sliding his eyes towards the left, he caught the glimpse of skin as his observer moved slowly. Hiding a smile, Tao figured that he or she hadn't thought that he'd heard them. It was amazing how many people thought that just because his hand didn't work, the rest of him was somehow deficient. Shrugging to himself, Tao tossed the stick into the fire and stretched, arching his back, then lay down, pulling his blanket up. He used the movement to unsheathe his blade, holding it comfortably under the blanket.

It took a long time for his watcher to make any move, let alone one that would bring him or her into the light of the fire. Tao was getting tired despite his resolve when the person shifted back to their original place across from the fire, though still hidden. He could tell the other was fairly large, probably a man, but not much other than that. He sighed to himself, wishing it was Dar watching him but knowing that it wouldn't be. Dar wouldn't need to hide.

Though his eyes were closed, he could hear the stranger edging closer. Peering out from under his lashes, he saw a young man, a good deal younger than himself, staring at him cautiously. His clothes were ragged and hung from him like they were too big. It was too dark to see much of anything else but Tao thought he had reddish hair.

"Hungry?" Tao asked softly.

The man jumped, startled, and backed away.

Tao pushed himself up with his good hand. "I won't hurt you and I have extra food, though it's only fruit. You are welcome to it."

The man stared at him suspiciously then drew nearer the fire. "Are you, are you Tao? The Eiron's Healer?"

Surprised by the title, Tao smiled. "My name is Tao, yes, and I have been known to heal people here and there. Are you hurt?"

"Not me," the man replied. "My village. There's a sickness. Could you come? Help us?"

Tao thought about it for a moment then nodded. Why not? There was certainly nothing to keep him here and nowhere now that he belonged.

* * * *

"You seem distracted, Dar."

Dar looked away from the window at his mother's voice, forcing a smile. "I am a little."

"You miss him."

He didn't bother to deny it. It had been a month since Tao had left and Dar was miserable without his friend. He didn't need Arina's constant scowl to let him know that he'd made a terrible mistake; was still making one. "Very much."

She sighed and walked to him, resting a hand on his shoulder. "You're an excellent King, Dar, and a better son than I am a mother."

Surprised, he half turned, looking into her eyes. The torchlight glinted in her pale hair, piled up on her head. "What do you mean? You're a wonderful mother."

Shaking her head, she smiled wryly and said, "If I were, I would never have forced you into this. When I first saw you, I was so wrapped up in getting my little boy back that I didn't really look at your life, look at you. Then, when you freed us and defeated Balcifer, I was wrapped up in you fulfilling your father's desire to make you his heir. He knew you were special, Dar, from the moment you were born. We all knew it."

She sighed and her hand came up to cup his face. "This life is slowly strangling you, I can see that now. When Tao was here all I could see was his interference, the way you turned to him, instead of your family, and I was jealous. I had my little boy back but he didn't come to me. I'm ashamed to say that I took my jealousy out on Tao and gave him little reason to feel welcome here.

"But he made all of this bearable to you, didn't he? He was the peacemaker, the translator between us when I didn't even know that we were speaking different languages. Mostly because Tao translated for us so well," she admitted with a wry smile. "But now that he's gone, I can see you for the man you are, not my lost little baby. You're the BeastMaster, a warrior who has no real use for the trappings of this life, though this life is something you are very good at living. Go find him, Dar. Find him and show him that you love him, as I know you do. And if you can give him my apologies while you're at it, I would be grateful."

Dar stood there for a long time, staring at his mother in shock. When he finally regained his voice, he asked hoarsely, "What are you saying to me?"

Bringing him down for a kiss, she pressed her lips to his forehead and whispered, "I release you from your duties here, Dar. You're free, like every wild thing should be."

"But, what about the kingdom? This will cause so many problems. I can't leave and have everything we fought so hard for fall apart. It's my responsibility to..."

She stopped his words by putting her hand over his mouth. "I will take care of everything, my son. There will be no trouble. The kingship will fall to your eldest brother, probably as it should have in the first place. Go, Dar. Be free."

Dar's smile was blinding and he pulled her close in a tight hug. "Thank you, thank you so much mother. I love you."

She smiled sadly and watched as he ran from the room without looking back.

* * * *


I didn't even know that I'd been missing it until it was returned to me. I don't think I've stripped that fast in my life. The second the door closed behind me in my private suite, my shirt was torn off. Next came the boots and breeches. Tossed aside like the irritating trappings they were. I hadn't realized how much I hated clothing until I had to wear it every day. I caught a glimpse of myself in a reflecting glass and stopped, surprised by the sight.

I was pale. Thinner than I remembered being since a youth. Though still muscled, I wasn't near as strong as I had been when the Kingship had been thrust upon me. My hair was far shorter than it had been when Tao and I had traveled together. Its neatness irritated me so much suddenly, that I ran both my hands through it, messing it about. Better.

I strode naked across the room to where I'd hidden my loincloth, weapons harness and bone staff so long ago. It had reverted from sword to staff almost immediately after Balcifer's destruction. Dartanus had said that it would become a sword again in times of great need.

It took a few minutes to wrap the leather around me, I'd almost forgotten the complicated straps. Standing in the middle of the room, I spun the staff around me, getting reacquainted with it. It was heavier than I remembered, but then, I wasn't as strong as I had been. Shrugging off the thought, I wished that Kodo and Podo were still with me but they had died the year before. I hoped to meet up with Ruh and Sharak but wasn't holding my breath. They had left long ago.

The door opened and I spun towards it, holding my staff at the ready. I wanted to smile when my brother entered the room but wasn't sure how my leaving would be taken. Then my sister and other brother entered the room behind him and suddenly it felt like an ambush. I stiffened, automatically noting escape routes though I knew they wouldn't hurt me. No, they were just going to try and keep me here.

"Oh Dar, you're really leaving?" Alisia asked with a disappointed sigh.

I nodded cautiously and kept silent.

"Didn't take you long to revert to being the BeastMaster," Semtar observed quietly.

Though I knew it wasn't an insult, it still felt like one. "This is who I am. I've tried to be King but it's not who I am."

"It is, Dar! You're so much better at this than you give yourself credit for!" Semtar insisted.

"I don't want it. I never did," I said quietly, willing for them to understand.

"And that's why you make a better King than I ever could," Sendar commented, stepping forward. He was plainly remembering his affair with Callista and the attempt to take the throne from me by force. "I do want this."

"You're a good man, Sendar. As long as you remember that, you'll be a good King," I said firmly.

He stared at me for a long moment then held out his arm. I took it with relief and found myself pulled into a hug. Then I was surrounded by my other siblings and felt loved and supported for the first time since Tao had left. When we finally broke apart, I said, "Thank you all, for everything. And I'll be back whenever I can."

"With Tao," Semtar said more than asked.

I nodded, tense again, but he only smiled faintly in response. There didn't seem to be anything else to say so I smiled at them all and left, not looking back. I found the walk out of the palace very amusing. Every person who crossed my path stopped and stared in shock as I walked by, the BeastMaster once more.


* * * *

Dar spent five days traveling straight towards Xinca. He knew that even if Tao wasn't there, his friend would have at least have taken the time to drop in and check things out again. He could only hope that someone there would remember Tao, know where the scholar had gone if he wasn't still there. He wished that he wasn't going into a city so soon, the time he'd spent alone in the wilds had healed something deep inside that he hadn't even known was broken.

He hadn't spoken a word since leaving his siblings. He'd let his mind drift in the soothing cadence of nature, reveling in the animals and their needs. Tao had always forced him to leave the castle every so often to do just this. Tao had known better than Dar just how much he needed the connection. It occurred to Dar that Tao had purposely done this shortly before leaving. Tao had been almost completely silent the whole trip, smiling and knowing just what Dar needed, usually before he did.

Suddenly, Dar saw that trip and the subsequent attempts at matchmaking for what they were. Tao had been taking care of him, trying to make sure that he had everything he needed. Tao had been saying goodbye without really saying a word. Pain ran through Dar as he thought of how much his friend had gone through for him. All for him. Why hadn't Tao asked for anything for himself? Why didn't Tao ever?

But Dar knew the answer to that even before the questions fully faded. Tao always put everyone else before his own needs. When it came to the needs of the people he loved, Tao was definitely last in line. Sighing a little as he left the edge of the forest, he caught his first sight of Xinca in five years. It looked prosperous, fruit and vegetable stands outside the city walls in a mini-market. People came and went as they pleased. And best of all, only honest city militia as far as Dar could see.

He wasn't sure where he was going exactly, didn't even know where to start. One of the learning centers was probably the best place. The Eiron had returned to their scholarly ways, almost to a one, dropping their swords with relief. Though they no longer numbered even half as many as they used to, there was still a sizeable population in Xinca. Course settled, Dar asked directions to the library and learning centers. The woman he asked looked at him strangely but gave clear directions and he arrived there in short order.

It was one of the larger stone buildings in the city, not surprising since the Eirons had returned. As he entered the main room, he stopped the first friendly-looking person he saw, and asked, "Do you know a man named Tao?"

The man's eyes widened as he looked at Dar. For some reason, his sharp gaze made Dar uncomfortable. "Who're you?"

"A friend," he answered.

Though still suspicious, the man said, "He was here about a month ago. Didn't stay long, though we all wanted him to settle here again. He's been without his people for too long."

"Did he say where he was going?" Dar asked.

The man shook his head. "He looked too weary to go far though. I knew him when he was a boy and I was surprised by how he'd changed. So sad about his arm, too, his writing was always so beautiful."

Dar's lips tightened, the familiar flare of guilt rising up, but he said, "Thank you for your help."

Nodding, the man turned to go then turned back. "If you're looking to get him back, BeastMaster, I feel I should warn you against it."

Startled, both by the recognition and the advice, Dar asked, "Why?"

"Because from what I saw, Tao is searching for something right now. Himself maybe. He can't do that if he's looking after you."

Flushing, Dar nonetheless straightened and said, "He won't be looking after me this time."

The man looked at him a moment longer then turned and walked away. Feeling as though he'd been judged unworthy, Dar also turned and walked away.

* * * *

The village was slowly regaining its equilibrium and Tao found himself strangely soothed by its healthier rhythms. There were twenty families in all, ranging from five to ten members each, comprising the village to which Marken had brought him. There had been several deaths during the young man's journey to find a healer and when they arrived, several more were at death's door.

Fortunately, Tao recognized it as a lung-fever that Xinca had dealt with when he was a child. He gathered the necessary herbs and prepared the proper tonic, instructing everyone in its use. Not everyone was sick, but better safe than sorry.

He'd found a strange kind of peace living near the large lake. Marken's people were fishers, for the most part, trading for the other things that they needed. They were friendly and enjoyed singing and laughter. With the recent deaths, their joy in living seemed to have increased, though most were still feeling the losses emotionally. As he lived among them, Tao found himself becoming part of their world and something inside began to heal.

Tao hadn't really forgotten, while living with Dar at the castle, just how much he needed to help others. He just hadn't been able to do anything about it. He'd been helping Dar, which indirectly helped others but did nothing for the healer in Tao's soul. Now he was there when someone was injured. He had saved lives, even with a simple, herbal remedy. He was doing what he hadn't done in too long and enjoying it immensely.

The only thing that saddened him was that Dar wasn't there to share it with him. He would have liked these people, Tao knew. Staring morosely into the cooking fire, he didn't notice Marken until the other man was seated beside him.

"Tao? Are you all right?"

Forcing a smile, Tao nodded. "As all right as I'll ever be."

"Maybe, I mean, you say that it helps to talk about things that bother us. I could listen for you," Marken offered.

His smile a little more genuine, Tao said, "It's an old pain, Marken, something that won't get better with the talking."

"Oh. How's your arm? Still aching from the rain?"

Tao grinned at the change of subject; subtle, Marken wasn't. "Much better, thank you. I never knew that particular root helped with bone aches. I have to find Vesha and thank her."

"Will you tell more stories tonight?" Marken asked with a shy smile.

Tao nodded, gently rubbing his friend's shoulder. Once the illness had been controlled, the village had returned to their custom of exchanging stories every fifth night. Most were teaching stories that contained family legends. Tao was adding his own stories of his adventures with Dar and Arina and everyone seemed to like them. That they enjoyed the way he told them soothed him as well, though he couldn't say why. Maybe it was because it had felt as though no one had listened to him in so long.

Marken smiled at him then said, "I'll see you at the fire."

Tao nodded and picked up the single, blank book he'd taken from Xinca. He was determined to train his good hand to write and though his letters looked little better than a child's, he knew that slowly he was getting better. It took concentration and patience but he never failed to spend the hour or so after supper, before darkness fell, practicing.

The strange feeling of being watched returned to him as he prepared to go to his small hut. They had given him the healer's hut when Tao expressed an interest in staying. Taking a long look around, Tao found nothing out of place but that didn't ease the itchy feeling at the back of his neck. Frowning, Tao rested his hand on the long-knife that was always strapped to his thigh and continued to search for whatever was out of place. The village was moving into its nightly routine, people talking and moving around easily, the scent of food cooking for the evening meal filled the air. The lake was calm, all the boats moored for the night. The forest surrounding the village held nothing aside from the usual bird calls and small animal noises.

Something drew his sight up into the trees himself and Tao froze at the sight that met his eyes. Even in the darkening twilight, Dar was visible, sitting easily on one of the large branches. He'd obviously been watching Tao, the angle of his seat showed that plainly. Their eyes met, even across the distance, and Tao's heart stopped for a moment. Dar was too far away to accurately read his eyes but it didn't matter.

Emotions churned within and Tao clutched his ruined arm to his chest, backing slowly away as Dar dropped lightly from the tree. The BeastMaster gracefully stood and began stalking him. The wall that stopped Tao's retreat came as a total surprise and panic began to rise within. Dar's silent, intent perusal continued to boil up everything Tao thought that he had successfully suppressed. A whimper escaped Tao as Dar stopped mere inches from him with eyes that looked as though the BeastMaster was going to either kill him or kiss him.

Tao wasn't sure which he feared more.

The shocked tableau was broken when several people approached and Marken ordered angrily, "Get away from him."

Dar didn't even look away from Tao at the demand. Instead, he said quietly, "Only if Tao tells me to go."

Swallowing against a completely dry throat, Tao couldn't seem to break the spell of Dar's eyes. He desperately wanted to break away, wanted to retreat within his hut and never face the intensity threatening now to drown him.

"Tao?" Marken asked hesitantly.

Finding his voice at last, and summoning the will to look at his young friend, Tao looked away from Dar. Marken and several men from the village were armed and obviously willing to defend him if he declared Dar a threat. And though Dar was a threat, it wasn't in a way they could help. "I'm fine, Marken. Thank you."

Still frowning, Marken eyed Dar suspiciously. "Are you sure?"

Dar inched forward so that Tao could feel his body heat and closed his eyes briefly to gather his wits. "I'm sure. Please. Leave us?"

Reluctantly Marken nodded and turned away, though he cast several looks back at them as he left.

Keeping his eyes off the man so close to him, Tao whispered, "You shouldn't have come, Dar."

"I'm sorry."

Though the words surprised him, Tao didn't dare look at his friend. Rolling his head back against the wall, Tao closed his eyes and asked, "For what?"

"For everything. I...left you alone...didn't give you the respect you deserved. I didn't, didn't tell everyone exactly what place in my life you had. I don't think I even told you," Dar murmured, trailing one finger down Tao's throat to rest on his pulse.

A chuckle surprised them both as Tao finally met Dar's eyes. "You've been talking to Arina."

Smiling faintly, Dar said, "She may have brought a few things to my attention."

For a while, things faded and they were once more best friends sharing a light moment. Then the moment passed and Tao sighed. "We might as well be comfortable while we talk."

Dar nodded and stepped back, allowing Tao to take the lead and following the smaller man towards another hut. He paused at the entrance then stepped inside. It was just as small within as without, just one room with a fireplace and sleeping pallet. There were dried herbs hanging on the walls and their fragrances were light and soothing. There were books stacked in several places, all carefully placed off the damp floor.

Tao moved to start a fire to counter the chill of the fall night then gestured for Dar to sit on a passel of cushions nearby. Dar sat and waited, unsure what the continued silence of his normally verbose friend meant.

Taking a cushion for himself, Tao sat across from Dar and asked, "Why did you come?"

"I missed you."

Tao smiled somewhat painfully at the honest answer. "And I missed you. You shouldn't have come, Dar. You don't know what's going to happen without your presence."

Dar shrugged. "It doesn't matter."

"How can you say that?" Tao demanded. "After everything we went through..."

"I'm not king anymore," Dar interrupted.

Stunned, Tao just looked at him, instinctively cradling his damaged hand. "Not, not king? But, but how is that possible?"

"Mother released me from my duty. Sendar is going to be king," Dar explained.

Of all the things that Tao expected to feel, thought that he would feel when he wished for just this to happen, anger had never been on the list. But it was present now, loud and clear, and it brought him to his feet. "Just like that!? You decide one day that you don't want it and just like that you're not king anymore?"

Confused, Dar got to his feet. "I thought that you would be pleased."

"Pleased that after everything I went through to fulfill your destiny, you abandoned it? Pleased that I lost the use of my hand for no reason? Why in all the hells would I be pleased about that?" Tao shouted, kicking the wall in his fury. Taking a deep breath in an effort to calm himself, Tao found that he couldn't. Too many emotions were bubbling up, too fast. "Dar, get out."


Closing his eyes in pain, both physical and emotional, Tao remained faced to the wall as he pleaded, "Please, Dar, leave. I need to think. Just...give me some time here."

Dar didn't say anything but Tao heard him leave. Leaning his forehead against the cool wooden wall, Tao didn't try to stop the confused tears that slipped down his cheeks.

* * * *

Time. It was the one thing, fortunately, that I had plenty of. I had been shocked by the force of Tao's fury but I probably shouldn't have. His loss was great and it was natural that he would think it for nothing. I just had to wait until he calmed down to remind him that it wasn't for nothing. That no matter who was king, his sacrifice had helped defeat Balcifer. That it had been the necessary distraction that allowed Dar to plunge his sword into Zad's body, the body that Balcifer had taken as his own.

Sighing as I climbed a tree that gave me a clear view of Tao's hut, I saw the young man who had been talking with Tao earlier enter the hut. The same young man who'd been ready to defend Tao with his life. I hadn't been able to hear their conversation but hadn't missed the affectionate way Tao had touched the young man. Had I waited too long? Had this young man given Tao what I hadn't, the respect and freely-given love? I watched carefully and was rewarded with the young man's expulsion a short time later.

Settling into the crook of the tree branch for the night, I hoped that Tao would let me show him how much he meant to me. That he would give me the chance to re-earn his trust. I prayed that there hadn't been an ending between us that I'd been too wrapped up in myself to notice. Though the night air was chilled, it had nothing on the fear creeping into my heart.

* * * *


I wanted to strangle him. I really did. Finally, finally I had found a small measure of peace in my life and what does he do? He blows it to hell like one of the Sorceress' fireballs! He shows up and tells me that he doesn't have to be king anymore. He says that he's sorry. He says that he thought I would be pleased, like he did it all for me.

And he looked well-beyond good enough to eat.

Actually, he looked, well, tired. I wondered if the travel had been harder than he'd expected. I wasn't exactly in the middle of easy, lush country, after all. Beyond the forest were mountains to be traveled through, if he'd come along the same path as Marken and I. Well, it wasn't as though being king was physically taxing enough to keep him in the same shape he'd been in when we'd been traveling around fighting Nords and Zad's knights. Or Arina for that matter.

Sighing, I turned on my bed again and stared into the darkness. I knew he was still near. It was as though all the effort I'd spent trying to distance us might as well not have happened. I could sense him as clearly as I'd been able to since he'd first lost his power to communicate with the animals. It had been in that terrible silence that he'd first turned to me for comfort, unable to deal with the maddening quiet. I had held him in my arms for the first time that night and realized exactly what I couldn't have.

Talk about your bittersweet discoveries.

He was probably sitting in that tree, waiting for morning so he could try again. Dar was nothing if not persistent. I knew that he'd be back first thing to try and talk me round. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, almost literally. I couldn't let him give up the kingship just because he missed me. But I wanted him to, oh how badly did I want him to do just that. I wanted him to declare his love for me and give up everything to remain by my side.

So. I would either have to convince him that I didn't love him or return with him and I honestly didn't know which would be worse. Could I go back to living under the shadow of veiled insults and cold shoulders? Could I return to being at Dar's beck and call but never being able to make my own needs heard? Though I probably had a better chance of surviving that than of convincing Dar that I didn't love him. Just thinking about him filled the ache that had so long been a part of me.

There was no help for it. I wasn't going to get any sleep until we talked. Sighing again, I got out of bed and left my hut, heading for the edge of the forest. One way or the other, this would get settled.

* * * *

Dar looked down as Tao approached the forest, looking futilely through the dark for him. It was a few hours before dawn and he was surprised to see the other man so quickly. For a moment he just watched, enjoying the moonlight reflecting off the dark hair, taking in the strong body that moved easily through the night. It had been a long time since he'd allowed himself the pleasure of just looking at Tao, too long. When had he started to deny himself? He couldn't really remember but it was shortly after discovering the truth about his family.

That was when things had begun to change between them, he knew. While it was true there had been a lot going on back then, he knew that he'd deliberately kept the love hidden deep within. It was as though he'd sensed that he would have to give Tao up in some fashion and was trying to avoid it by not allowing himself to feel. Or at least not to express it as he had before. Tao had not only sensed it but helped him, doing what Dar had thought he'd needed.

Dar suddenly realized that that was the reason Tao had been so willing to be left behind so often when, before his quest, they'd practically been joined at the hip. When Tao stopped nearby, Dar dropped from his branch and called softly, "I'm over here."

Tao looked over at him then slowly crossed the distance, stopping less than a foot away. "You can't give up being king because you miss me. I'll go back with you."

Smiling gently, Dar reached up and cupped Tao's face. "Even if I wanted you to do that, which I don't, it would be too late. I'm sure that Sendar had the coronation the day after I left."


"Why? Because he's always wanted to be king," Dar answered with a soft snort.

Tao shook his head. "No. I mean. I know that. But, why don't you want me to go back with you?"

Brushing his thumb over Tao's cheek, Dar whispered, "Because it's not what you need. Tao, you've given up so much for me. For so long everything has been about what I need, what my destiny was. I can't remember the last time we did something, anything, that revolved around you and that's not right."

Tao's breath hitched and he stepped back, folding his arms across his chest protectively. "So you're saying that you want to, to what? What are you saying?"

"I'm saying that we should do whatever you want to do. It's past time," Dar said quietly.

Frowning suspiciously, Tao asked, "And if I just want to stay here and be their healer?"

"Then we stay here," Dar replied. "For as long as you want."

"Just like that."

Aching at the confused mistrust that practically vibrated from Tao, Dar repeated, "Just like that. I know that you don't have any real reason to believe me but I want you to trust me again, Tao. I'm willing to do anything to regain that trust."

"Anything?" Tao asked hesitantly.

Dar nodded. "Anything."

Tao moved a little closer and stretched out a hand to trace the thick scar along Dar's arm then rested his hand on the taller man's shoulder. Awkwardly, Tao put his other arm around Dar but didn't relax when Dar's arms surrounded his waist. For a long moment, he stood stiff in the careful embrace then pulled back. Looking up into his friend's night-shadowed eyes, Tao offered, "You can sleep with me, I mean, in my hut. If you want. You don't have to."

Dar smiled. "Thank you. I'd like that."

* * * *

It had been over three weeks and Tao was still waiting. Waiting for Dar to grow restless. Waiting for Dar to show signs of needing to leave. Waiting for Dar to grow impatient with the passive life of a fishing village. So far, it hadn't happened but Tao was a patient man and knew it would. One of these days, probably soon, Dar was going to be called away by some emergency and he would be left behind so the warrior could take care of it. It was just a matter of time, no matter what Dar said.

He leaned back against a tree as he watched Dar playing with the children, a smile hovering as his friend squirmed out of the strangleholds of three of the younger girls. They all loved him, of course, especially the girls. For hours at a time, he roamed with the children, racing and playing as though making up for his own lost childhood.

And perhaps he was. Certainly he was growing fitter and more tanned as time went on, despite the chill that grew every day. Dar's only concession to the cold was a light cloak if it rained. His hair had grown out some, shining golden in the sun. Tao laughed out loud as a couple of the older boys tackled Dar and they all went flying into the lake. Shaking his head, Tao looked over at Marken as the younger man called his name. "Marken. Where have you been?"

Grinning, Marken answered, "Just out exploring. I asked Dar to come, but he said he had more important things to do. I can see what he was talking about."

Chuckling, Tao said, "Dar didn't have much of a childhood. I think he's making up for lost time."

Sitting beside Tao, Marken agreed, "It certainly looks that way."

"So what were you exploring?" Tao asked, setting aside his book.

"There are some old ruins a couple days' journey from here," Marken explained. "I've always wondered what they said but can't read the runes."

Before Tao could say anything, Dar jogged over and collapsed to the ground. He stretched out and shamelessly put his head in Tao's lap. Grinning down at the damp man, Tao said, "I see they whipped your sorry butt again."

Grinning back, Dar said, "You know that I let them win."

"Sure. I believe you," Tao teased, hesitantly brushing wet, darkly golden bangs from Dar's forehead. Green-gold eyes smiled up at him before they closed. Shaking his head as Dar's breathing evened out into sleep, Tao looked at Marken who was staring at them with an odd expression. "Don't mind Dar. He'll sleep like the dead unless I actually try to move. Go on about the ruins."

"I still don't know what to make of him," Marken said honestly.

"Join the tribe," Tao muttered with almost dark amusement. He caught Marken's puzzled expression and shook his head. "Nothing. Never mind. You were saying before?"

"Well, the runes don't belong to our language, I've never seen their equivalent. That's not to say much, though, since I haven't really been very many places," Marken said.

Tao smiled. "You've traveled."

Marken shrugged and said, "But not like you and Dar."

Smile fading, Tao said, "It gets tiring after a while."

"I can't imagine that," Marken exclaimed. "There's so much out there to see and experience!"

"When you've been through all we have..." Tao's voice drifted off as he looked down at Dar. In sleep, the warrior looked almost as young as when they'd first met. The worry lines smoothed away and peace blessed his face. When they'd first started resting like this, Tao had been shocked to realize that he wasn't the only one who'd needed the break from their life. Dar had always seemed to handle it so well.

He'd also been shocked to realize just how much he needed to give Dar the safe haven his friend seemed to need. Dar had always been such a light sleeper, always ready to defend or fight at a moment's notice. He should have known that of course that kind of life would take its toll on the warrior. The first few days, Tao had waited for that instant battle-readiness whenever someone walked by and been pleasantly surprised when it hadn't happened.

His hand rested on Dar's chest, feeling the strong heartbeat with something akin to contentment. Bringing his thoughts back to Marken, he continued, "You're too young to know what you have here."

Marken snorted. "That's what my father says."

Tao smiled. "Julen is a wise man."

"He's a fisherman."

Tao's smile grew. "Like I said."

Shaking his head, Marken asked, "How old are you again? Because you sure don't look like an old man."

Tao chuckled at the implication, not at all bothered by the youthful insult. To his surprise, he felt Dar tense at the words and was surprised when Dar gracefully sat up in one movement. He was shocked at the dangerous words that came from Dar.

"He's old enough to have your respect."

Plainly startled, Marken swallowed nervously then said, "I didn't mean anything by it, Dar."

Dar's gaze was implacable. "Then you shouldn't have said it."

"You're right, of course. I'm sorry, Tao," Marken apologized sincerely.

Tao absently waved Marken's apology away, staring at Dar curiously, and said, "That's all right, Marken. Would you give us a minute here?"

Marken gratefully scrambled away.

Pursing his lips thoughtfully, Tao asked, "What was that about?"

Dar returned his gaze and answered, "I won't have anyone speak to you like that. You deserve better."

Tao hid a smile, knowing that his friend would misinterpret it. "Dar, he's young. He didn't mean any real insult to it and you know that. What was that really about?"

Dar's mouth twisted into a pained expression as he looked away. It took a few minutes but at last he said, "It's bad enough that I did nothing to stop it back at the palace. I won't make the same mistake twice."

This time Tao did smile and he lightly punched Dar's shoulder, startling the other man into looking at him. "Tell you what. Whenever I feel insulted, I'll let you know and then you can beat them up for me."

Dar snorted with reluctant amusement.

"Time to finish your nap. You're cranky," Tao teased, leaning back against the tree and lightly patting his legs.

Shaking his head, Dar nonetheless did as he was told and lay back down. This time, he carefully captured Tao's bad hand and held it in his own, lightly stroking the scarred flesh until he fell asleep.

Tao looked down at his sleeping friend and sighed, troubled eyes turning towards the lake.

* * * *

I want to trust him. I really, really, really want to trust him. These last couple of months have been wonderful. He's been wonderful. Since the weather turned and winter arrived, we've spent a lot of time inside, which I know isn't easy for him. But he hasn't complained, not yet anyhow. He's never spent a winter season anywhere that's been cold before. He's always moved us somewhere warm and comfortable. I don't know why I'm staying here since I'm not happy with the cold myself, it wreaks havoc on my hand, well, what's left of it at least.

I guess I'm still waiting.

* * * *


Tao looked up from the herbs he was mixing at Dar's voice. "What is it?"

"When we first met, for the first couple of years at least, I thought that you might want to...be with me. Was I right?" Dar asked quietly.

Not for the first time since the snow began falling, Tao silently cursed the close quarters. Somehow Dar had taken it into his head to reverse their roles and had been trying to draw him out with questions that Tao really didn't want to answer. He returned his attention to the herbs, needing to get the right measurements in order for the potion to work. Somehow, apparently when he hadn't been looking, Dar had inherited Ruh's patience and Tao knew that the other man would wait until he made some kind of answer. It didn't seem to matter whether the answer came after minutes or hours.

They'd spent the day outside with the village, blocking off sections of the ice and cutting holes in it to continue fishing. Tao had been incredulous that they really sat in the freezing cold but it wasn't long before there were little shacks dotting the large, ice-covered lake. There was also a section of ice by the shore where the children skated on metal shards attached to their boots. It had been after dark before Dar and Tao returned to the hut they shared and ate a simple dinner.

After Dar had lit the candles, he had taken out some clothing that needed repairing and Tao had started mixing potions. And then Dar had decided to drop his question right out of the sky. The problem was that Tao didn't know how to answer. He knew the answer, but didn't know if he should actually tell Dar. They'd returned to a comfortable level in their friendship and it had been wonderful. Tao didn't really want to upset the balance.

But then, if he didn't upset the balance, that meant that he wouldn't even have the chance to be with Dar as he truly wished. It was fear, plain and simple, and he wasn't sure how to get past it. He set aside the bowl and moved to sit near Dar but not right next to him as had become their custom of late. "Did you? Want to be with me, I mean?"

Dar stared into the fireplace for a few minutes, his fingers still as he contemplated the fire. "To be honest, I never really thought of you like that. Not, not in my mind. But in my heart, you were always there. Whenever something was wrong, you were there to fix it. When I lost Kyra, it was you who stopped me from doing myself harm. When I lost my abilities to talk with the animals, you were there to tell me it would be all right. I remember speaking the words to you over the campfire but it was only in your arms that I actually believed them. When I thought Arina was dead, you were the voice of reason keeping me on my path and not letting me give up hope. It didn't seem to matter what was going on in our lives, you were just...always there."

Tao's breath caught in his throat at the simple confession and he couldn't speak.

Dar reached out hesitantly, carding his fingers through Tao's dark hair then rested his hand on the back of Tao's neck. "I love you, Tao. I have for a long time. I know that I haven't given you any reason to think that I loved you, especially not in the last few years. I hope that you'll give me the chance to prove it to you."

Tao leaned into the caress and found himself gently pulled into Dar's arms. Dar held him lightly, his chin resting on Tao's shoulder, their cheeks touching.

"Do you remember that promise I gave you so long ago? Not to let my family dictate who I spent my life with? I promised you that I would find someone to love and I have. I'm so...filled with you that I can't even think of my life without you. I had a taste of that when you left the palace and I've never been so miserable in my life," Dar whispered. "Don't make me live without you, Tao, please?"

In all their years together, Dar had seldom said please to him. Not because he wouldn't have, but because Tao had hardly ever given him reason to. He turned in Dar's arms, burying his face in the strong hollow of Dar's shoulder and neck, breathing in the familiar scent. Their bodies lined up as perfectly as Tao had always imagined, the few times he'd allowed himself to imagine it. Barely able to speak, he gasped, "Gods, Dar, I love you."

Dar's arms tightened around him almost desperately as the warrior pressed his face to Tao's throat. He slowly lay back, pulling Tao on top of him and keeping his arms around the smaller man as though afraid Tao would break free.

Tao pushed up a little with his good arm to see Dar's eyes. Leaning in, he kissed Dar lightly on both cheeks and then licked briefly Dar's lower lip. He teased his tongue along the edge of Dar's chin, pausing to nibble here and there. Tao stopped at the tender skin where jaw met skull and sucked carefully there. Dar shuddered beneath him, his head lolling back as though he'd lost all strength and could no longer hold his it up. Strong hands slipped down Tao's back to grip his firm backside and it was Tao's turn to shiver from head to foot.

He felt Dar's cock harden against his own and moaned in sensation and need. He didn't even know what he needed but parting his legs so that his knees rested outside Dar's legs seemed like a good beginning; especially when it brought their groins into heavier contact. There hadn't been anyone in his bed and his body was angrily making that fact known, demanding its due. "Dar, I need you, so much."

Dar raised up on his elbows and brought their mouths together. Tao eagerly, greedily took possession of the kiss, thrusting his tongue into Dar's open, waiting mouth. The kiss lasted until neither had air to breathe and pulled raggedly but briefly apart to refill their lungs. Over and over their mouths met and parted, drinking in the essence of the other, until both were dizzy with want.

"Tao, Tao, wait," Dar groaned as Tao began rocking against him.

Tao froze and turned his face away, embarrassment flooding through him at how he'd practically ravished his friend on the floor. A declaration didn't mean he had consent to do anything he wanted. Ashamed, he said, "I'm sorry, Dar."

He started to get up but Dar's arms held him fast.

"Tao, it's all right, you didn't do anything wrong, really. I just wanted to know if you'd done this before," Dar asked gently.

Embarrassment of a different hue suffused him and Tao was still unable to meet his friend's eyes as he shook his head. A hand cupped his face and turned him so he had to look into Dar's eyes. Instead of laughter or pity, the only thing he saw was blinding love and tenderness.

"Thank you," Dar whispered.

Surprised, Tao asked, "What for?"

Smiling a little sadly, Dar answered, "Take your pick, Tao. There are so many reasons. For loving me. For denying yourself because of that love. For remaining by my side no matter how painful it was to you. For trying to do whatever was best for me, no matter the cost to you. For the precious gift of your body. For not hating me because I didn't protect you from Balcifer."

Tao was stunned when a tear slipped from Dar's eye. He leaned in and kissed the salty tear away. "Dar, I have never blamed you because what happened to me that night wasn't your fault."

"Yes, yes it was," Dar whispered fiercely. "I should have been able to find a way to save you. You shouldn't have had to go through that. I was so scared, Tao. When I reached the dungeon you were dead, your arm was all torn and bloody. When I saw Zad, when I knew it was Balcifer, I was filled with such a rage that I didn't even think. I couldn't think of anything except that you were dead and I would have to live without you."

"The righteous fire of love denied," Tao recited softly, remembering the prophecy they'd stumbled across towards the end of the quest.

"Will be ignited to end the reign of darkness," Dar finished with a nod. "For a long time all I did was sit there on the floor by your body, almost consumed with madness. I actually took my father's sword and was going to impale myself when you coughed and started to breathe again."

"Why didn't you say anything?" Tao asked, his fingers running through Dar's hair.

"For a long time, I didn't, I couldn't even think of it. I had to keep making sure that you were really alive," Dar explained.

Tao smiled suddenly. "You drove me nuts you know, for months after. Every time I turned around, there you were. And while it was a nice change, it was a little scary how you always knew exactly where I was."

Dar ducked his head and blushed. "I had Sharak keep an eye on you so I'd always know where you were."

Chuckling, Tao wrapped his arms around Dar and said, "Well, no one ever accused either of us of doing things half-way."

Dar relaxed into his arms for a long moment then looked up again, an intense look on his face. "Tao, let me do this right for you. I want to show you how much I love you. Will you let me?"

Tao nodded and climbed off Dar then held his hand down to help Dar up. Dar pushed him towards the bedding and asked, "Do you have any oils?"

Tao pointed towards the small corner where his healing oils and potion bases were kept. "Blue ceramic pot, smells like the white summer blossom."

It took a couple of minutes for Dar to locate the jar, then he breathed in its heady fragrance and smiled because Tao knew it was his favorite. He brought it to the sleeping pallet where Tao was waiting, already undressed and lying on his side, his leg brought up shyly to cover himself. Kneeling, Dar placed the oil beside the bedding and pulled off his own shirt and pants, dropping them onto Tao's pile of clothing.

His hand moved from Tao's ribs down to his flank, drawing goosebumps and a groan as it went. Dar took Tao's damaged hand and brought it to his lips, kissing the curled fingers gently, apologizing silently for not having stopped the damage. Tao's other hand reached up to grasp his shoulder and pull him down.

"I've wanted to touch you for so long," Tao murmured, his hand running over every part of Dar that he could. "I tried not to think of you like this but sometimes I just couldn't help it. I would dream of you, holding you, being held, kissing for an eternity."

Dar smiled and said, "Let's see if we can make those dreams come true."

Tao grinned suddenly and teased, "You're a romantic, aren't you? Under all these muscles, you're just a big pile of mush."

After capturing Tao's lips in a long, hard kiss, Dar pulled back and mock-threatened, "If you know what's good for you, you'll keep that knowledge to yourself."

Smiling broadly, Tao hooked his arm around Dar's neck to keep him close. "Oh I think we can come to some kind of arrangement."

Their lips met for another, longer kiss. Dar covered Tao's body completely with his own, careful not to crush the smaller man with his full weight. A simultaneous moan escaped both at the first touch of hardened shafts. Gasping at the feeling, Tao held tighter to Dar and wrapped a leg around his lover's hip, plundering his tongue into Dar's mouth fiercely. His stomach clenched in anticipation as their cocks continued to rub and press together. His balls tightened and Tao desperately pushed his hips up against Dar.

Then, unexpectedly, Dar lifted up, removing the friction even though Tao continued to hold on with his leg. "Tao, slow down, please. I want to make this last for you."

Breathing heavily, Tao collapsed back with a frustrated groan. "I've been waiting for years, Dar. Trust me, you don't need to draw it out any longer."

Chuckling, Dar briefly kissed his nose and said, "Trust me."

It was a loaded statement and they both knew it. Tao looked up into Dar's eyes for a long moment then nodded, releasing his hold and settling down into the pallet. "I trust you."

Dar's heart lightened at the words and he almost felt more relief at them than Tao's declaration of love. He straddled his lover, resting his ass on Tao's muscled thighs, feeling the strength in them. He reached over and scooped up the pot, pouring a generous amount into his hand then rubbing the oil into the smooth, nearly hairless body before him. Dar dug into the tense muscles, caressing and massaging in turn.

He brushed kisses over the warm flesh, following the path led by his hands and lingering over the hardened nipples. They seemed tastier somehow, the nubs teasing him with flavor as he sucked on them. He was barely aware of the gasps and moans coming from Tao, so intent was he on the feast before him. His hands continued to stroke and play with the muscles within reaching distance as he settled his attention between the two nipples.

When Tao jerked up against him, Dar reluctantly pulled back and then groaned at the sight of his lover. Tao was breathing heavily, his eyes closed tightly as he struggled with his control, and thin trails of sweat trickled between grooves of muscles. "Gods, Tao, you're so beautiful."

Tao's eyes opened at his words, astonishment breaking through his passion.

"It's true," Dar insisted quietly. His fingers teased along the gentle definitions of his lover's chest. "You're one of the most beautiful people I know and I'm going to spend the rest of my life making you believe that."

A soft smile lit Tao's eyes and he whispered, "Kiss me."

Thankful to have the opportunity, Dar did just that and tried to convey the depth of his love, desire and need through it. It was both soothing and inflaming and seemed to last forever. When Dar pulled away, Tao's eyes were completely closed, a peaceful expression on his face. Tao's eyes opened and Dar drank in the dark gaze for a long time. He shifted slightly and felt Tao's hardness thrumming eagerly against him.

Smiling, Dar again picked up the oil and poured some into his hand then grasped Tao's cock. Tao moaned at the hold and the oil on Dar's hand mixed with the seed leaking from the shaft. Dar took his time, pumping it until Tao was tense and gasping before letting go. A wicked smile crossed his face at the disappointed moan. He desperately wanted to taste his lover but knew Tao wouldn't last if he did and he wanted Tao inside him the first time he came.

Another dribble of oil and he reached back to prepare himself. When Tao realized that nothing was happening to him, his eyes opened and he looked at Dar with a mix of curiosity and frustration.

"What are you doing?"

"Preparing myself for you," Dar answered.

Tao's eyes glazed momentarily before he swallowed and asked thickly, "Let me?"

In answer, Dar moved forward so he was seated on Tao's abdomen and then poured some oil onto his lover's fingers, rubbing it in. Tao hesitantly reached behind him, his fingers slipping between his asscheeks to brush over his opening. "Here?"

Dar nodded and leaned forward, spreading his legs a little wider to make himself more accessible. And, while he was there, he stole a kiss. A kiss that turned into a gasp when Tao's finger breached him slowly but surely, all hesitancy gone. He shuddered as the finger stayed still for a long moment then moved around, exploring curiously. "Oh Gods, Tao, that's good."

Tao kissed the side of Dar's throat then nibbled on his ear a little, drawing out another shiver. In all his dreams, he'd never thought of being the one to take Dar, had always assumed that it would be the other way around. When Dar had suggested this, Tao had almost come then and there. Now, feeling just his finger inside the warrior, Tao was struggling to maintain his control. He carefully pushed and pulled his finger within Dar then tried two fingers. He was startled when Dar bit him in warning, a growl rumbling deep in his chest. Grinning, Tao murmured, "I guess you liked that."

Staring at him hotly, Dar pushed back, driving the fingers deep within. Tao got the message and began moving inside Dar again.

"Push your fingers apart," Dar instructed on a gasp.

Tao did so and almost gasped himself at the tension and strength of the muscles there. And he was, he was supposed to, to...Tao shuddered at the thought of being buried within Dar, again almost losing control of himself. Dar lay fully on him, kissing his chest and nuzzling him sweetly, murmuring soft words of love and assurance. He pushed his fingers deeper and harder, as far in as they would go, and Dar quivered, moaning.

Dar pushed himself up and groaned, "Pull out, let me, Tao, I need you."

And somehow Tao understood enough to withdraw his fingers. Dar rose up on his knees and pulled Tao's hands to his hips, covering them with his own as he ever so slowly sank down on Tao's cock.

Shuddering almost continually when Dar finally rested fully on him, Tao held onto his control and sanity by a thread. The sight of Dar above him, surrounding him, of the sweat-slicked muscles shivering in reaction, it almost shattered him. He took several deep breaths and somehow managed a smile as Dar unconsciously echoed his actions.

Strong hands splayed over Tao's chest, rubbing against him, pushing Dar into a faint, rocking movement that shifted Tao within him. Tao hardly drew breath as the urge to move grew stronger. "Dar, Dar, I need..."

Dar rose up a little then sat back down, repeating the movement a few times before asking, "What? What do you need, Tao?"

Closing his eyes, Tao shook his head, unable to put it in words, his good hand gripping Dar's hip tight enough to leave bruises. Then Dar's hands reached under him, pulling Tao's legs up so his thighs brushed Dar's back, giving him a leverage he'd been lacking. "Do it, Tao, take me. Make me yours."

Groaning at the soft words, Tao gave in to the heat and sensation and shoved his hips up as Dar came down. It was like an explosion and even though he felt some of his seed spurt out, he was still hard, harder than he'd ever been as Dar's tight heat squeezed and cajoled his body. Even though he heard Dar urging him on, Tao couldn't make sense of the words as he continued to slam into Dar.

On one thrust, Dar cried out in ecstasy and Tao tried to repeat it, drawing out a few more of the same, all of it music to his ears. Dar's head fell back on the last, his muscles tensing as he came, shouting Tao's name. Feeling almost boneless, Dar lurched forward, barely holding himself up with his hands to either side of Tao.

Tao was desperate to come, desperate for release but it didn't seem to matter what he did. Almost as though, after so many years of wanting, finally having was too much for him and he couldn't let go. After a few minutes, Dar's voice finally penetrated and he heard the soothing words, relaxing in response to them and the tone.

"It's all right, Tao, we have time, take your time. I'm not going anywhere, love, relax, relax."

Tao slowed down then stopped moving altogether, breathing heavily, hard and aching inside Dar. He looked up and was surprised to find a loving smile on Dar's face. When he could talk again, he gasped, "What?"

Dar lowered himself to capture Tao's lips in a kiss. "The Gods will have to grant me extra strength after you've practiced a few times if this is what you're like now."

The completely unexpected compliment sparked a laugh from Tao and he felt himself relax even further. He closed his eyes, loving the soothing touch of Dar's hands caressing up and down his arms.

Smiling, Dar nodded in satisfaction and murmured, "I'm here for you, Tao, never going to leave you again. Just let it happen. You can't do anything wrong here, my love, trust me. I love you."

Whispered hot and wet against his ear, accompanied by a sharp bite to the lobe, the words sent Tao sharply over the edge, sucking in a breath at the sudden release. All he could do was lie there and feel as his seed burst from him, bathing Dar with his essence from the inside out. Dar snuggled down upon him, his head just under Tao's chin.

When he could move again, Tao wrapped his arms around Dar and squeezed tightly, joyfully, and whispered, "I love you, Dar."

Dar pressed his lips to the pulse point beating strong and steady beneath him. "Love you, Tao. Going to love you forever."

* * * *

"Are you sure you have to leave? The mountains aren't very passable right now," Marken said, disappointment obvious in his voice.

Tao looked at Dar who grinned before looking away as though to say, 'You're the one he has a crush on, you break it to him.' Shaking his head at his mate's behavior, Tao said, "It'll be spring before we get to the passes that we need to cross. We're going to spend some time looking over those ruins you told me about and then explore east a little."

"Well, if you ever come back this way..."

"We will definitely stop in," Tao promised. "Thank you, again, for letting me stay here. I don't know what I would have done without a safe place to stay."

"That old wound you told me about, it's all healed now, isn't it?" Marken asked suddenly.

Tao smiled and answered, "Yes, yes it is. And now it's time for a new beginning."

Marken nodded and they shook hands before Tao joined Dar and they left the village, waving goodbye to others in the village as they went. Just outside the forest's edge, Dar took Tao's hand in his, cradling the curled fingers carefully before raising them to his lips.

"You know what?" Tao asked as they moved easily over the snow covered ground.

Dar looked at his lover and replied, "What?"

"I think I'm going to like this whole revolves around me thing," Tao observed.

Laughing, Dar said, "I certainly hope so. I know I will."

"I was also thinking that we could head back to see your family," Tao suggested.

Dar shrugged. "We don't have to do that, Tao."

"I know," Tao agreed. "But I want to. I think, now that they don't think we're in some kind of competition, they'll probably be a little nicer."

Dar stopped walking and pulled Tao into his arms. Brushing dark hair from Tao's forehead, Dar said, "If they aren't, we won't stay. You're my family now, my life. If they want me, they have to accept and respect you."

Eyes shining with love, Tao rose up to catch his lover's mouth in a long, lingering kiss before drifting away. Nodding slowly, Tao breathed, "Oh yeah. Definitely liking this whole revolves around me thing."

Dar smiled and nibbled on his lover's ear, delighting in the shiver that resulted from the caress. "C'mon. Let's get going."

Tao nodded and reluctantly pulled free of Dar's warm embrace. Their hands remained linked as they headed towards the future.