“We need a diversion.”

            Tao looked up into Dar’s eyes, his friend’s face so close to his own, and thought quickly. “Diversion?”

            “Something fast and unexpected. There’s a lot of them,” Dar confirmed, trying to make it seem as though he wasn’t looking at anything other than Tao.

            “Kiss me.”

His focus now really on Tao, Dar murmured, “What?”

Shocked that the words had actually blurted themselves out, Tao repeated softly, “Kiss me. Then I’ll make it seem like I have to go relieve myself and circle around them. They’ll be focused on you.”

“Too dangerous.”

“It’s the only way, Dar.”

Looking into the changeable eyes that were now so dark he could see himself in them, Dar felt his loins tighten. He’d been aching to do just this forever. Perhaps just one taste in the name of a diversion would be all right. And it had been Tao’s idea after all. He leaned the rest of the way in, one hand moving to rest on his friend’s hip, and pressed his lips gently to Tao’s. After a hesitant moment, Tao’s mouth opened to his and Dar’s tongue slid in, tasting and sliding over Tao’s tongue.

Dar pulled back reluctantly and saw with interest that Tao’s eyes were closed and he appeared to have thoroughly enjoyed the kiss. Louder, for their watchers to hear, he said, “We should take a rest.”

Tao’s eyes opened at his words and he nodded, unable to speak. The confines of his new breeches seemed far too tight all of a sudden and he hoped that Dar wouldn’t notice. He sat abruptly, into the soft moss and ferns, and leaned against a fallen log. Dar sat very close to him, gazing at him almost as Ruh did a potential meal. When he’d asked Dar to kiss him, it had been without thought.

Dar lounged against the log but his legs were sprawled out. He set his staff just on the other side of the log, within easy reaching distance. “Does it hurt for you to sit for long periods of time?”

Thrown by the question, Tao replied with a frown, “No. Does it you?”

“If I sit up like that, yes. I think there’s something about the bone at the bottom of my back that isn’t quite right. It’s always been like that,” Dar confessed.

Half-smiling, Tao said honestly, “I like learning new things about you, especially after all this time.”

Returning the smile, Dar shifted forward and echoed, “I like that you like learning new things about me…especially after all this time.”

This time, Dar’s hand reached up to capture the back of Tao’s neck and brought the smaller man to him. He didn’t know what he’d been expecting but it certainly wasn’t such whole-hearted enthusiasm. Tao pushed forward so that he was almost lying on top of Dar, his tongue growing aggressive and demanding entrance. Dar’s mouth opened and this time, Tao tasted him with such sweet intensity that Dar forgot that Zad and his soldiers were watching them and groaned with need.

Tao’s hand slid down Dar’s back then traced his thigh and brought Dar’s leg up, behind him. Dar stiffened in more ways than one but didn’t release his friend’s mouth; couldn’t have if he’d wanted to, Tao was still in control of this kiss. The world swam before his eyes, narrowed only to the dark points of Tao’s eyes as his leg tightened its hold around Tao’s waist.

When he felt Tao’s hand encircle his ankle, he suddenly remembered that this was a diversion and that Tao was about to face Zad and his men alone. At least for the first few moments until Dar could attack. He tried to stay clear on the frightening thought of Tao facing Zad alone but the Eiron’s mouth was too clever and distracted him completely. When Tao pulled away, they were both breathing heavily and Dar wanted nothing more than to roll them so that he could lay full length over Tao and show him exactly how much he loved him.

Breaking the silence, Tao said, “I ah, I need to, I’ll be right ah, right back.”

Dar grabbed his hand, and ordered quietly, “Be careful.” Louder, he said, “Hurry back.”

Tao grinned cheekily. “Always.”


*  *  *  *


Zad licked at suddenly dry lips and shifted, adjusting himself to a more comfortable position. Aloud, Zad complained, “Spare me from lovers.”

There were quiet chuckles and Kelb asked, “Should we follow the Eiron?”

Zad shook his head and met his commander’s eyes. “You heard him. He’ll be back. He never strays far from the BeastMaster and now we know why.”

“Yes, my lord.”

Zad wasn’t fooled by the subservient tone; he knew that Kelb was aching to kill him. Almost as much as Zad was aching to find a home for his cock inside Tao’s soft backside. He knew that Tao and the BeastMaster weren’t physically lovers from the way they were interacting, despite the hotness of their kisses. It was suddenly so obvious that they’d been in love for a very long time. There was nothing that made a man fight harder than love and both Tao and the BeastMaster were impossibly fierce when the other was threatened.

It wasn’t all that long since he’d taken the Eiron’s virginity and it was sweet to know that he’d already had what the BeastMaster obviously coveted.


*  *  *  *


Tao circled wide around to the area that he figured Zad and his men were. His heart was beating hard in his chest and this time it wasn’t from desire. Acid churned in his stomach causing a bad taste in his mouth as he drew closer. Moving silently through the underbrush, Dar’s bone knife firmly in hand, Tao saw the first of the soldiers and stopped a moment to plan this.

Everything inside clamored to rush in there and drive the knife deep into Zad’s belly. Fear that the brutal man would reveal his taking of Tao to Dar was high on the list of fears. Fear that Dar would then wish to have nothing to do with him as a friend or a lover was directly behind it. Highest on the list, however, was the need to protect Dar. Protecting Dar came in many fashions: watching to be sure the warrior didn’t over-exert himself; being at his back during a fight; being at his side when he needed to talk about something that was tearing him up inside; helping him with the quest to save his family.

Right now the threat was physical and in the form of the bald, scarred king sitting a very short distance away. Zad’s back was to him as the hardened man watched Dar like a hawk. Bile rose in his throat as he remembered how this man had used him, had forced pleasure from his body in the short time he’d been captive in Zad’s camp making weapons. If he’d known what the king had been planning to do, Tao would have pleaded with Dar not to leave him and let the elephants be slaughtered to secure his escape.

Instead, he’d blithely assured Dar that Zad had needed him, that he wouldn’t be harmed, and to go help Arina. It had been shortly after that that the king had him brought into his tent and shown him just how much ‘not harmed’ encompassed. Shaking the dark thoughts from his mind, Tao returned to the present and slipped ever closer to his mark. There were ten other soldiers besides Zad. Zad himself could be accounted for the strength of three men, as Tao so intimately knew.

He watched the older man for several moments as he talked softly with one of his soldiers. A soldier who looked as though he hated the very king he served. Tao memorized that face, thinking that perhaps they might have an ally there. There was actually a clear path to Zad and it looked like it would be ridiculously easy to jump Zad and drive the knife in.

“I wonder if the BeastMaster knows what a sweet piece of flesh he’s got there,” Zad mused, loud enough for everyone to hear.

That pushed Tao over the edge and he roared, running through the surprised soldiers to tackle Zad. Daggers flew through the air but he ignored them, concentrating on getting a grip on Zad long enough to kill the man. Tao rolled both of them over with a grunt until he was on top and pressed the knife into Zad’s throat. Glittering eyes stared up at him and the king grinned ferally.

“Go ahead, Tao. I know you want to kill me,” Zad said easily, as though there wasn’t a knife ready to cut into his throat.

Tao pressed the knife in, the blade drawing blood, but couldn’t seem to go any further. This was wrong. No matter what he told himself, this wasn’t protecting Dar, this was protecting himself and his secrets…and getting revenge.

“Do you ever think about our time together, Tao?” Zad asked with perverse pleasure. “I do. I think of how wonderful it felt to bury myself in your ass and how you bled for me, like all good virgins do.”

His hand was shaking on the knife now as he fought not to drive it into the exposed skin under him.

“I think you should thank me for introducing you to the pleasures of the body. After all, now you’ll know what to do with the BeastMaster if he ever decides to claim you. Probably won’t though, knowing now that I had you first.”

The triumph in that voice was enough to break the spell and Tao realized there was a shadow over he and Zad. Dar was standing there, a sorrowful look on his face that told Tao that his friend had heard everything Zad had said, even while fighting the soldiers who were now lying on the ground or gone. His mouth worked but no sounds came out.

Dar moved closer and a hand clasped Tao’s shoulder. “It’s all right Tao. Let’s go.”

“But, but you know…” Tao stammered.

Even more gently, Dar repeated, “It’s all right. We’ll talk about this later, I promise.”

Tao nodded abruptly and stood on shaky legs, accepting Dar’s help to keep his balance. After pressing the knife into Dar’s hand, Tao stumbled away, unable to bear Zad’s presence any longer.

Dar sheathed the knife into his boot and looked down at Zad who was stretched out on the ground like he hadn’t a care in the world. This man had taken Tao, brutally from the sound of it, and gloated over it. Tao had, of course, done the right thing in not killing him because then his friend would be haunted by murder, no matter how just his cause.

At times, it was a blessing to have been raised by a demon and grown up amongst animals. Dar didn’t have the same moral code as Tao and most others. Resting the blade end of his staff against Zad’s throat, retracing the line that Tao had already fleshed out, he warned, “If you ever come near him again, I will kill you. If you ever speak to him again, I will kill you. If you ever touch him again, I will make you wish that you were dead. The only reason that I don’t do so now is because he needs me more than I need to tear you apart. Do you understand me?”

Zad paled at the deceptively gentle words and nodded slowly, not mistaking the look of death in the BeastMaster’s eyes.

“Good.” Dar spun his staff and it slammed into the side of Zad’s head. It wasn’t a killing blow, much as he might wish it; he had far too much control over his staff to make a mistake like that. No, it wouldn’t kill Zad but it would give him headaches and nausea and the shakes for weeks to come. It was all the justice he could give Tao for now.

Later was another story.


*  *  *  *


He found Tao a good distance away, sitting lifeless on the ground. He didn’t want to stop so close to Zad’s power base and said quietly, “Let’s keep moving.”

Tao nodded and stood, falling into step beside Dar.

They traveled silently for the rest of the day and into dusk, trying to put as much space between them and Zad as possible. Dar found a secluded glade in the forest and gently ordered Tao to sit and rest. Ruh curled up beside the unusually quiet man and Kodo and Podo nestled in his lap. Dar looked at his friend with worry then began making camp for the night. It didn’t take long and soon the fire was going and food had been gathered for the evening meal.

When he sat on the other side of Tao, the smaller man flinched but Dar only offered him some fruit. After a hesitant moment, Tao took it and began eating. Dar remained quiet while they ate and held back from talking until there had been time for Tao to digest his food. He wanted to make sure his friend had time to relax before they talked. The moon was high in the sky before he asked, “Why didn’t you tell me?”

Tao’s head hung in his hands and he didn’t answer at first. “I didn’t want…I thought you would think less of me for it. That I couldn’t stop him. And then, when all this started happening with your family, there were more important things to think about.”

Dar thought his words over carefully before speaking. He half turned so that he could look at Tao as he said, “There is nothing in this world more important to me, than you.”

Tao looked up at that, meeting his eyes.

“I don’t think I will forgive myself knowing that I could have saved you from that and didn’t,” Dar continued, swallowing against a throat tight with guilt.

“Dar, no…”

“Let me finish, please,” Dar interrupted. He half reached out to brush his thumb over Tao’s cheek, then thought better of it and his hand returned to his thigh. “I should have known that Zad wouldn’t be content to merely have you in his power. I thought that you making the weapons for him would be enough. But that’s not that kind of man he is. He needs to wield his power over others helpless to stop him. And you were helpless, Tao. As helpless as if he’d had you chained or held down by his men. You were staying there for me and he knew it. He counted on it. I’m guessing that he even threatened you with it.

“I let my duty get in the way of your safety Tao, and that’s going to be with me until I die. I can only hope that you forgive me for letting you down. I can only hope that…that you know how much I love you. How much I pray that you will continue to be my friend and maybe, even though I don’t deserve it, that you will trust me enough again, someday, to be your lover.”

Tao couldn’t believe the words that he was hearing. Dar was asking for his forgiveness? Dar loved him? Overwhelmed, he tried to speak but couldn’t make the words come, didn’t even know what he wanted to say. His stomach was churning again and he felt ill. As though sensing what he wanted, what he needed, Dar’s arms encircled him and held him tight. All the fear and helpless rage and pain that Zad had put him through rose violently, coming out in sobs.

Dar held Tao’s shaking body for an eternity wishing that anything but this had brought them together.


*  *  *  *


When Tao woke, it was to gritty eyes, a sore throat and a throbbing head. He didn’t know how long he’d cried in Dar’s arms and felt embarrassed at breaking down. He knew that Dar wouldn’t hold it against him but it still felt weak to have done so. Despite that, it was good not to have to pretend any longer. The first few days had been the worst when his emotions had been all over the place and he was still sore. Each time thereafter that they’d run into Zad, Tao had been scared, wondering when Zad would blurt out the truth. He’d seen the speculative look in the king’s eyes more than once, as though choosing his time carefully.

Turning his thoughts from things he couldn’t change, and certainly didn’t want to dwell on, Tao looked at Dar instead. Even in the faint moonlight, he could see the sharp planes of his friend’s face, the muscled ridges that made up his body. It was strange how he never truly thought about how much strength Dar wielded. He saw it all the time and yet never really reflected upon it. If Zad was as strong as three men then Dar was at least double that because he’d fought and beaten the king many times. Dar’s gentle manner belied the incredible strength resting in his slender frame.

Hesitantly, Tao reached up and traced a finger over the clearly defined muscles of Dar’s chest, though he didn’t actually touch the skin. When Dar didn’t stir, he grew a little bolder and carefully rested his palm on his friend’s chest. He could feel the strong beating of Dar’s heart, the steady rise and fall of his breathing and it soothed Tao. He shifted slightly to gain better access and slowly moved his hand over the warm skin, barely touching.

Each level of muscle over bone, each pale strand of hair, each dip and hollow molded itself to his hand. He took particular time to examine the curves of all sides of Dar’s rib cage. For some reason it always attracted the worst blows from their enemies. Possibly because it protected the beating heart that drove Dar? Tao didn’t know but he prayed that it continued to shield in the future as it had in the past.

This was pure strength, Tao thought as he slid his hand over Dar’s arm. These arms and hands had both struck forcefully and cradled with infinite tenderness. Dar stirred and Tao froze, willing his friend not to wake. After an eternity, Dar shifted a little closer, resting his cheek on Tao’s shoulder, but remained asleep. Breathing a slow sigh of relief, Tao continued with his exploration.

He looked down and realized that even asleep, Dar’s body had reacted to Tao’s caresses. Flushing in the dark, Tao didn’t have to wonder why that pleased him so much. He didn’t want Dar reacting to anyone except him. It was the most selfish thing in the world since Dar would be King one day. He would need to take a bride and have children. As good with children as Dar was, it would be a crime for him not to become a father.

For now though…for now Tao could pretend that they were the only ones who mattered. Biting his lower lip, Tao’s fingers rested on the tie to Dar’s loincloth as he debated. Knowing that Dar loved him, that Dar wanted him, made the decision. If he was going to overcome the darkness that haunted him, Tao needed knowledge of every part of his friend’s body. Dar would understand.

Unknotting the ties took a lot longer than Tao anticipated since he had to work with only one hand. Dar stirred a few times and Tao froze each time, waiting for his friend’s breath to slow again into true sleep. Throughout it all, he could see the shadow of Dar’s hardness through the leather and his own groin tightened in unexpected arousal. He loved Dar, had for a very long time, but this physical need was still new to him.

Grinning faintly, he remembered the first time it had struck him. Dar and Ruh had been mock wrestling, the tiger having insulted Dar one too many times that day. Tao had been laughing, tears falling and barely able to keep his feet as he watched them rolling on the ground. The tiger, of course, was being careful not to rake Dar’s skin with his claws and Dar, of course, was being careful not to squeeze too hard. They were being so careful of each other that neither man nor tiger realized just how close to the river they were. Tao had looked at Sharak and winked, neither of them making a move to warn the wrestlers.

Sure enough, Dar and Ruh had fallen into the water. It was when Dar had sputtered his way up and out of the water that Tao’s desire had hit like a blow to his stomach. The sunlight had caught the water dripping down Dar’s body and the BeastMaster had practically glowed as he stalked out of the river, shaking the water from his hair much like Ruh. Tao had barely breathed as his friend walked closer, his balls and shaft tightening with shocking need.

“You could’ve warned us,” Dar had complained, laughter softening his eyes.

Tao had muttered something about paying attention and quickly walked away, ignoring Dar’s calls.

Returning his thoughts to the present, Tao looked at the shaft he had uncovered, mouth dry as he took in the length and breadth of it. His hand hovered above it. He ached to touch it but didn’t dare, knowing it would wake Dar. Nestled in a patch of what were sure to be darkly golden curls was the shaft that had occupied far too much of his imagination. He could barely make it out in the darkness, just the outline, but it was enough to realize that they were closely matched, which comforted Tao.

Zad had seemed unbearably big but that could’ve been due to fear and pain and the fact that the king didn’t care about Tao’s comfort or even his safety. Though Dar was a little larger than he was, it didn’t look at all uncomfortable. As a matter of fact, it looked tantalizing and Tao desperately wanted to discover what it felt like. Groaning faintly, Tao reached to his pants and adjusted the material to a less confining position. He should’ve known better than to play with fire like this.

Unexpectedly, one of Dar’s hands encircled his and brought it to surround Dar’s cock. Startled, Tao looked up at Dar’s face but his friend’s eyes were still closed. Of course Dar was awake, he woke with the faintest of sounds, never mind someone intimately touching him. There was a tension present but otherwise he seemed perfectly willing to go along with what Tao had been doing. Tao pressed a kiss to Dar’s soft hair and whispered, “Thank you.”

“Whatever you need.”

The whisper brought an ache to Tao’s gut and he pressed another kiss to Dar’s temple then returned his attention to the hot flesh in his hand. It felt heavy, thicker than he had imagined, and throbbed in time to Dar’s heartbeat. It almost throbbed in time to the rhythm pulsing through Tao. Moving his fingers, he felt out every part of Dar from the knob at the top to the hairy root and further, to the tightened sacks beneath.

When his hand encircled Dar’s balls, his friend let out such a groan that Tao immediately stopped.

“No Tao, gods, don’t stop,” Dar gasped.

Surprised, Tao’s hand returned and played gently with the globes for a few moments before sliding up to grasp Dar’s shaft once more. Dar was breathing much heavier now and his body shifted restlessly though it was obvious to Tao he was struggling not to move at all. Impulsively, Tao pulled and twisted. Dar gasped, jerking up in his hand, his hips struggling to follow the motion.

Restless now himself, Tao knew he wanted more but didn’t know how to go about it. His cock was heavy and aching, straining for freedom from his pants. But there was no way he was going to do anything to Dar that resembled what Zad had done to him. Miserably, he whispered, “Dar, what do I do?”

At that, Dar’s eyes opened. Smiling, he reached up to cup Tao’s face and replied, “It’s all right, Tao. It’s very simple. Take your clothes off.”

His fear of hurting Dar lessened his need and Tao shook his head. “I’m not going to hurt you.”

“You won’t hurt me, Tao. Trust me,” Dar assured him, staring steadily at him.

After a moment’s hesitation, Tao pulled off his shirt and pants then returned to his friend’s side. “Now what?”

“Lie on me,” Dar commanded gently.

Tao shook his head.

“I weigh more than you, Tao, you won’t hurt me,” Dar pointed out.

Nervously, Tao positioned himself over Dar, using his palms to keep all his weight off the other man. Dar out maneuvered him simply by knocking his hands out from under him then wrapping his arms around Tao to keep him in place. “Dar, I’m heavy, I shouldn’t…”

“You feel perfect to me,” Dar whispered in his ear.

There was a silky tone to Dar’s voice that Tao had never heard before. It made him aware of the fact that they were literally skin-to-skin. Embarrassed heat flushed through him and Tao buried his face in the hollow of Dar’s shoulder. Dar traced a wet path to his ear and nibbled gently on the tender ridge. Shivering with the sensation, Tao squirmed in Dar’s embrace but without any real intent to get free. Dar’s hands were now stroking lightly over his back, massaging the tension out of every muscle they met.

Under Dar’s caresses, Tao felt himself harden again, even though he didn’t really want to. This was too close, too close to what had happened. “Dar, stop, please.”

Instantly the hands stilled. “I will never hurt you, Tao, never. And you can’t hurt me.”

Tao thought about it as he breathed in Dar’s scent. He knew that wasn’t strictly true, knew that there were many ways in which he could hurt Dar but allowed that his friend was talking about physically. Tao was pretty sure that Dar was blurring the truth on that as well but didn’t openly question it. The fact Dar was trying to point out was that neither of them would knowingly hurt the other.

Cautiously, he pushed himself up on Dar’s chest and looked at his friend. Slowly, Tao leaned in and kissed Dar. Dar’s lips were just as soft and responsive as before and opened under his curious bid for entry. For a long time they simply lay there, feasting on each other’s mouths and tongues. Tao felt Dar’s hands moving over him with gentle caresses, moving slowly and carefully over his back and shoulders.

Without thinking, he began to rub against Dar, groaning at the friction of moving together. Tao shuddered as pleasure rolled through him when Dar’s mouth latched onto one of his nipples. His head rolled forward, onto Dar’s chest and his hands clutched at Dar’s shoulders, giving him something to push against. One of Dar’s legs wrapped around the back of his thighs, holding him loosely and driving them closer together.

Tao realized instinctively that Dar wanted more, could tell by the raggedness in the other man’s breathing and the sweat dripping slowly along every tensed muscle. The way Dar fought with himself to stay as still as possible, it was as though he was trying his best not to frighten Tao, that he wanted Tao to know the scholar was in charge. The sudden knowledge brought a heady sense of power and tenderness all at the same time that Tao was not ready for.

Gasping as his own release took him by surprise, Tao groaned out Dar’s name before collapsing on his friend. Dar jerked a couple of times against him and more wet heat covered them. Slowly, their breathing returned to normal and, as Tao’s senses also returned, he buried his face against Dar’s shoulder and mumbled, “I love you.”

Dar’s arms tightened around him. “I love you.”

It didn’t altogether banish the darkness trying to lay claim to Tao’s soul, but it did give him a ray of light and hope to cling to that things would be all right. So long as they were together, they could get through this. So long as Dar loved him.