Traditions

Nikerym 'Ksherea

Li'eth sighed, absently rubbing the chittering cub behind the ears. He hadn't particularly liked the swamp – it smelled and he was constantly slipping in the mud. But he didn't really like the forest he'd ventured into either.

"Hold on, Kai." Li'eth murmured to the cub, and Kai flicked his tail in acknowledgment, narrowly missing giving Li'eth a mouthful of fur. Kai's little nails dug into his shoulder, but Li'eth didn't begrudge him the grip, climbing down out of the tree slowly.

He'd lost sight of the group he'd been tracking in the dense trees, and Kai's suggestion of taking to the trees hadn't panned out. "It was a good idea though." Li'eth soothed, loosening Kai's claws. "Have you got their scent at all?"

Kai chattered fretfully, his furry ears slanting backwards.

"I see." Li'eth sighed. "So the tree was a really bad idea." Kai chattered indignantly, narrowing pale blue eyes. "No, I know there's no way you could've known that. I don't blame you."

Kai's tail whipped agitatedly and Li'eth lowered his voice. "Widespread stun, you think?"

Kai chittered happily and clambered down Li'eth's arm as he stretched it out parallel. The little cub settled happily in the palm of Li'eth's hand as Li'eth's other hand slipped under his light tunic to pull out a thin amber jewel, big enough to cover his palm but small enough that he could close his hand around it when he needed to.

With a wink at Kai, who winked back, looking particularly devious with his ears perked up and the feline smile on his face, Li'eth chanted the three words that would set off the stunning spell. A wash of pale red swam through the trees as though they weren't there, and Li'eth felt the spell lose it's vitality as it hit the six men who had been trying to surround him.

Li'eth let the spell run unchecked for a moment before he was sure it wouldn't hit any more would-be ambushers, and then clenched his hand around the amber stone. Kai scrambled up his arm and settled once again on his shoulder, nosing below his ear sleepily. Spellcasting always took a lot out of the little cub.

"Want the sling?" Li'eth offered as he tucked away the stone. Kai blinked at him sleepily before rubbing against his face. Li'eth smiled and let Kai scramble down the front of his shirt into the big pocket sewn inside. Kai twisted a few times before settling down, a warm, furry weight against his chest.

"I'm going to check those guys out." Li'eth murmured - quietly, as he knew Kai was likely already asleep. Rounding the trees, he was slightly dismayed to realize how close the men had gotten. There were two barely a dozen yards off, both knocked unconscious by the blow.

Li'eth rolled his eyes. "I guess we weren't being as stealthy as we thought." Li'eth murmured, nudging the leg of one of the fallen warriors. The two of them were both from the group he'd been tracking.

"Six though – I must've knocked out the target." Li'eth sighed, glancing down at the little bulge in his tunic. "It'll make him easier to transport though."

Li'eth grinned, pulling the rope from around his waist. It was a quick bit of work to secure the magicked ropes around the men's waists, tying them closer than courtesy allowed to each other. Kai stirred, as though sensing his mischief, but Li'eth ignored it, deciding he didn't mind the forest too much after all as he slipped through the trees towards where the next man was.

This man was alone, and had the scruffiest beard Li'eth had ever seen. Li'eth had no remorse in carefully tying the man face to face with a tree, though it was quite a bit of work to get him that way. Li'eth grinned. It was a practical joke of sorts in any case. No one said he couldn't have his fun while he was doing it.

The last group had three people in it, and his target was glaringly obvious – wearing thick, unpractical and rich looking red where his 'protectors' wore a more practical green- and brown-dyed varieties of uniform. Not that Li'eth thought his target needed protectors. The man was obviously taller than he was, and almost twice as wide, though it was obviously from muscle and not fat.

All three lay face-down in the mud. Li'eth snickered and nudged his target with a toe. Nothing, but he hadn't really expected anything. The stunning spell was rather effective, and they should all be out for another few hours at least. But how to transfer the target?

"Kai?" Li'eth poked at the little bundle gently, smiling when he felt Kai stir. "Come on, I need your help with a weightless charm."

Kai shifted about before poking his head up crossly, pale blue eyes narrowed at him. "Please, Kai? I can't carry him, and I can't exactly shove him in one of the trunks."

Kai sniffed and climbed to his shoulder, digging his claws in spitefully. Li'eth sighed, letting Kai clamber down to his left hand as he fished out a scrap of leather. Scooping up a pine cone, he held tight to the things as Kai curled into his hand.

"Thank you, Kai." Li'eth smiled as Kai bit his thumb lightly before rubbing his cheek against it. The incantation for this spell was longer, but he didn't have to hold Kai away from the crystal. A moment later Li'eth lifted Kai back to his shoulder and let him slip back to the sling inside his shirt.

The pine cone was a bit warm to his touch, but that was normal so Li'eth ignored it, stringing the pine cone onto the leather strip. It was too short to be a necklace, but a bracelet should work just as well. Li'eth grinned and snagged a thick hand, tying the cord around it carefully. Tight enough that it wouldn't come off but loose enough that it didn't cut off circulation.

"Come on, now, time to go." Li'eth flipped the man over, his lips quirking in a grin when he realized that the front of the man's tunic was covered in mud. As was his face. Brown hair was pulled back into a short ponytail, but that was all he could make out. Li'eth sighed – it wouldn't be nice to leave his face covered in mud, no matter if he had cheated.

"Where did I put it?" Li'eth searched his many pockets, before coming up with a small square of cloth, no bigger than his fingertip. "There we go." With a quick twist, Li'eth stretched it out into a full handkerchief, dark blue with a small white flower pattern on it.

Wiping off the man's face, Li'eth decided that arrogant and cheating though the man might be, he was rather cute. He'd need a bath before all of the mud would wash off, but for now the strong chin, full lips and high cheekbones were as clean as they were going to get.

Li'eth discarded the handkerchief and pulled the man up easily. The weightless charm didn't get rid of the weight completely, but it did make it so that the grown man weighed about as much as a peach. He was more unwieldy than anything. Careful not to disturb Kai, Li'eth slung the unconscious man around his shoulders and started walking. There was still a week or so before he could reach home, this goose chase had really gotten them way off course.

☼☼☼

Anthony woke suddenly, though he felt rather disoriented as he blinked at the horizon. It was vertical instead of the normal horizontal. And bobbing up and down. It took him a moment to realize he was being carried. Anthony blinked – who would have the strength to carry him? Why would they be carrying him? And why weren't his arm and leg feeling like they were about to fall off from his weight pulling at them?

Anthony frowned, all he could see of the person carrying him was a pale grey tunic and dark leggings, both lined with bulging pockets.

"I know, it's getting dark." Anthony started in shock when he heard the voice, alerting the person carrying him to his aware state. "He's awake!" The same voice spoke, and abruptly he hit the ground, though with much less force than he would've thought possible.

"Hi." A bright face greeted, and Anthony barely caught sight of bright blonde hair and mischievous green eyes before the face ducked, snagging his arm. Anthony scowled at the boy – for his impression was of a youth, really – as he pulled a dagger and quickly sliced through a leather bracelet circling his wrist.

Anthony would've questioned it, but as soon as the dagger had passed through the leather, he'd fallen flat on his back. "Fuck." He swore, pushing himself up, and glowering at the unfazed boy. "What was that for?"

"I'm not carrying you anymore." The boy explained, the dagger slipping into one of the innumerable pockets. "So you didn't need the weightless charm."

"Weightless charm." Anthony repeated, mystified.

"Yep." The kid grinned. He was rather cute for a kid, with boyish good looks. He was thin, but not scrawny, and had a peculiar bulge in the front of his tunic. It didn't look natural so it was probably another pocket.

"Oh, fuck." Anthony cursed, scowling again. The kid just kept grinning. "Where's your bat-rat thing then?"

An eyebrow raised. "Bat-rat thing. I don't think Kai will be too pleased – Kai!"

Anthony ducked as something white and furry flew out of the kid's shirt and swarmed at him. "Kai! You can bite him later!" The kid berated, but Anthony didn't find it funny – he didn't want the flea-ridden creature anywhere near him. The thing scurried back over to the kid, squirreling up his leg and shirt to perch on his shoulder, where it hissed rather angrily at Anthony.

"You've upset him." The kid looked decidedly less cheerful at this, rubbing the thing behind it's ears. Kai, he'd called it. It was a typical bat-rat thing, with the overlarge ears and feline grin, wide whiskers and big eyes. It was white though – Anthony had never seen a white one before.

"Anthony DeLucas Reginald. You've been caught." The kid informed him solemnly.

"Right." Anthony sighed. It was entirely unfair – they'd been so close to catching their own target when they'd been blindsided by this.

"We're stopping here for the night." The kid informed him. "Make yourself at home. There's a stream a few yards off, but don't try to run off, Kai's going with you." This was met with indignant chattering. Anthony almost smiled as the kid sighed.

"Kai. You have to, I have to get camp set up. Unless you'd rather go hungry?" Kai huffed, whapping the kid on the nose before jumping down and chittering a bit more.

"Yes, it'll be fish, I promise." The kid laughed as Kai head butted his shin once before turning and narrowing bright blue eyes at him. Anthony sighed and shoved himself to his feet, still unsettled about the weightless thing.

The stream ran rapidly and Kai wouldn't go within three feet of the water. Anthony was far too aware of the mud that caked his face and had dried in his clothes. The rules stipulated that he couldn't run off unless it was nighttime, and there was still another hour before dark fell, so he was out of luck. Not that he thought he could outrun Kai – he knew from experience that those little buggers were fast.

Kai chittered at him in irritation and Anthony scowled at him, tempted to smear mud all over that pretty white fur. Kai's eyes narrowed as though he sensed Anthony's thoughts and Anthony pointedly turned his back on the creature, instead focusing on cleaning his face.

☼☼☼

Li'eth reached into a pocket and pulled out the things they'd need – the special bedroll, his bedroll, the cooking implements and the stash of food. Removing the shrinking charms quickly, he tucked those back into his pockets and set up camp, setting to frying up the fish that Kai had requested as payment for following Anthony.

The fish was almost done when Anthony appeared back in the clearing, followed by a hissing Kai. Li'eth sighed and held out a hand. Kai dashed over to him, burrowing into the crook of his arm and chattering like mad with rapid glances at Anthony.

"Yes, yes, I know." Li'eth set down the fry pan and soothed Kai's fur gently. "Just a few days, come on." Kai subsided, though he clearly didn't want to, and Li'eth smiled gently at him. Anthony scowled, taking a sullen seat across the fire.

"What's your name?" Anthony suddenly demanded, looking suspicious. Li'eth grinned.

"You can call me Lee." He informed him. "Do you like fish?"

"Yeah, it's fine." Anthony appeared to be lost in thought. Li'eth flipped the fish a last time and removed it from the fire, moving over to the other side of the fire to sit next to Anthony.

"Have as much as you'd like." Li'eth told him, spearing a bit on his dagger and feeding it carefully to Kai, who started to purr. Anthony helped himself in the same manner, noting idly that his sword was gone, though all his little daggers were still in place.

"Confirm you're part of the game." Anthony demanded after a moment.

"The middle name didn't do you?" Li'eth laughed. "Alright. You've cheated twice so far."

Anthony scowled. "Once."

"Twice." Li'eth maintained implacably as Kai curled up on his lap. "Though the second you can fix any moment now." Li'eth smiled at him expectantly.

"Fine. I concede the capture." Anthony scowled, shoving another bit of fish in his mouth and containing the curiosity of where these things had come from.

"Excellent." Li'eth grinned. "Does that confirm me?"

"Your full name might." Anthony muttered.

"Fine." Li'eth sighed, stroking Kai's head as he looked to protest. "My name is…"

Anthony scowled again as Li'eth blinked at him implacably.

"Secret." Li'eth winked at him and Anthony's scowl only deepened. "Oh, don't give me that look!" Li'eth scolded cheerfully. "Your pretty face might stay that way."

Anthony's eyes narrowed as he processed that – he'd just been called pretty. He'd have to ignore it, since he couldn't come up with a proper response. "Where do I sleep?" He finally asked as Li'eth fed more of the fish to Kai.

"There." Li'eth gestured to the larger bedroll to the left. "It should be comfortable, though it's been a while since anyone's used it."

Anthony merely grunted an acknowledgment, standing up from the campfire and heading towards the bedroll. He was already formulating plans of escape – nothing that would hurt either of them though, that was against the rules. No matter how much that bat-rat thing deserved it.

Li'eth waited a moment, feeding the last of the fish to Kai before fishing an apple out of his pocket for himself. He wasn't fond of fish, no matter how much Kai liked it. It took a moment as Anthony settled in, presumably to wait until Li'eth was asleep or his senses dulled by the need for sleep.

"What the fuck?!"

Li'eth grinned a bit, petting Kai, who was still purring as he jumped away from Li'eth to lick at the bones of the fish. "It's a secure thing, you won't be getting out of it." Li'eth commented idly, watching Kai delicately bite at the fish's bones.

Anthony let of a string of blistering swears.

"That's not going to help." Li'eth finally turned, smiling. Anthony glowered helplessly, tangled in the bedroll that had wrapped itself around him snugly. "And the more you struggle, the tighter it'll get."

"This is unfair." Anthony snarled, disregarding Li'eth's advice and struggling against the cloth again. It tightened another bit, restricting his movements even more.

"It was either the bedroll or ropes, and somehow I thought you'd be more comfortable on the ground, curled in warm blankets." Li'eth rolled his eyes, sarcastically.

"Well, you thought wrong." Anthony scowled, giving up his struggles finally. Li'eth sighed and stood, walking over to where Anthony lay. Kai looked up, giving a soft inquiring noise and Anthony had to admit that the bat-rat thing did have it's appeal. To soft, girly people.

Li'eth knelt down next to the bedroll, frowning a bit at Anthony. "If I didn't think you'd run off in the night, I'd let you out and not restrain you at all." He murmured quietly, looking pensive. "I'm not really sure I like this entire thing."

"It's tradition." Anthony stated stonily, eying Li'eth warily.

"And?" Li'eth sighed. "It's not really tradition. It's more of a running joke that's gotten old."

Anthony frowned. "Maybe."

"What, you think that having the royal families rush after each other in an attempt to kidnap the crown prince of the neighboring countries is a good tradition?" Li'eth asked with a raised eyebrow, shifting to sit cross-legged. Kai chittered disapprovingly from across the clearing before padding over to stare reproachfully up at Li'eth. "Yes, I know what you think." Li'eth smiled and held out a hand. Kai scrambled up his arm to perch on his shoulder.

"What does he think?" Anthony asked before he could stop himself.

"He doesn't like you." Li'eth informed him frankly. "And he thinks you should be taken down a peg or two, and while the exercise is stupid, it's probably a good experience for you. And for me."

Anthony scowled. Li'eth smiled. "Don't make a disparaging comment, he's barely refraining from scoring your face with his claws."

Anthony resisted the urge to stick out his tongue at the little creature, and instead settled for staring stonily at it.

"But what do you think about the whole thing?" Li'eth asked, absently smiling as Kai licked his ear quickly.

Anthony shrugged. "It's crap, but required." He answered shortly. "I don't have a choice, so I'm not going to think about it."

"You always have a choice." Li'eth smiled a bit crookedly. "I'm stuck between a few of them right now."

"Oh?" Anthony tried not to sound too curious. Li'eth smiled sadly, even as Kai butted his head against Li'eth's cheek for a moment.

"To continue with the game or to forsake it." Li'eth sighed, rubbing his forehead. "How close did your group come to catching the crown prince of my land?"

"Not at all." Anthony answered bluntly, frowning a bit. He didn't like the way the mischievous light had dimmed in his kidnapper's eyes. "Which member of the royal family are you?"

"Would you be willing to try for a tie?" Li'eth smiled suddenly, the light of mischief bright again.

"A tie?" Anthony frowned. "Of what sort?"

"Well, to win, I'd have to get you to Maerda Ports. And for you to win you'd have to get me to the same place. But what if we both showed up with each other and neither of us claiming to have caught each other?" Li'eth asked enthusiastically. "Though we'd have to make it a neutral place. Say I get my validators to come to a public place and you'd get yours to do the same and then no one can claim anything based on location."

"I knew it," was Anthony's only response. "Li'eth der'Mian!"

"You pronounced it wrong." Li'eth answered with a roll of his eyes. "But does that work for you?"

"Yeah, that's fine." Anthony sighed. "Though I don't think my father will be pleased."

"You're only saying that because he got beat by my mother." Li'eth grinned, moving with practiced movements to free Anthony from the bedroll without dislodging Kai, who was purring softly by his ear.

"Yeah, probably." Anthony agreed with a bit of a frown. "He didn't like being shown up by a woman."

"Most men don't." Li'eth answered absently, toying with a corner of the bedroll. He muttered something under his breath. "There. It shouldn't try to eat you alive now."

"Thanks." Anthony muttered dryly, running a hand through his hair in irritation.

"You're welcome." Kai chittered something and Li'eth laughed, smoothing back Kai's fur. "Kai says that he'd rather it did. Eat you alive."

Anthony scowled at the bat-rat thing. "I wish something would eat him alive."

Li'eth surprisingly didn't take offense to the comment, simply laughing and letting Kai clamber down his arm. Kai narrowed his eyes in a glare before turning on a paw and stalking off to the other, smaller bedroll and burrowing into it.

"It should only take a week to reach the Port." Li'eth stood, brushing off the knees of his breeches. "Then we can be done with this crap."

Anthony nodded. "Yeah."

"Goodnight." Li'eth smiled again and kicked off his boots before slipping into his blankets. Anthony could hear him murmuring something – presumably to Kai – before the clearing fell silent of voices.

Anthony frowned, wondering if he was doing the right thing. Sure he didn't like the tradition, but did he really mean to blow it out of the water like they would do? But he couldn't see himself being mean to Li'eth right now, the boy – well, man, he was nineteen – had looked so sad about being in the lead. Perhaps when they got closer to the Port he'd change his mind.

Anthony frowned, trying to remember what little he knew about the Merdai Prince. Li'eth was a sorcerer, everyone knew that, with one of the little bat-rat, snooping creatures as his pet, though sidekick was more accurate. He tended to study and play the occasional huge practical joke – the sort that took ages to plan and stood on a razor's edge of success.

The most known thing though – the fact that he had a twin. A twin who wasn't a sorcerer, a twin who spent more time in swordplay and the maid's beds than in the library. A twin whose claim upon the 'heir' title couldn't be dismissed, though that prince hadn't seemed to make a fuss about Li'eth's being named Crown Prince. Anthony wasn't sure.

He'd have to see what he could find out about Li'eth tomorrow – he was curious now and he wanted to see what he could find out about the bright-eyed boy.

☼☼☼

Anthony scowled irritably. He was following Li'eth through a series of meadows, each with grass that grew to his waist – higher on Li'eth. But Li'eth wasn't having any problems cutting through it and Anthony hissed as another twisted piece of grass lashed against his shin, leaving another welt.

It was hot out too, and he was sweating like crazy. Li'eth had tied that bright blonde hair back with a dark, green and brown mottled bandanna as his only concession to the heat, and Kai was hanging limply on his shoulder. Anthony reluctantly conceded that the little furball was probably worse off than he was, encased in that thick coat of fluff.

"We're making good time." Li'eth turned, still walking, but backwards. "We should be off the plains by mid-afternoon."

"And then?" Anthony mopped his brow. He'd always been helpless at geography, and if Li'eth knew where they were going, it was all the better.

"A hilly area. With a bunch of villages. The Shodeer Hills?" Li'eth smiled sympathetically as Kai whined, ears drooping.

"Ah. Aren't there mountains after that?" Anthony frowned with distaste, flinching as another reed whipped against the bare part of his leg. He'd rolled his cuffs up in deference to the heat, but it wasn't helping his legs any.

"Yeah, but we can take one of the passes so we don't have to actually hike the mountain." Li'eth's fingers delved into one of his pockets and he dug out a small charm, slowing to a stop. "Kai, help?"

Kai whined, looking at Li'eth sadly.

Li'eth just grinned. "Do you want a cooling charm or not?" Kai's ears perked up and Anthony fought a snicker as the little creature practically darted down Li'eth's arm to settle in his palm. Li'eth thumbed off the small string tied around the small trinket in his hand, and Anthony shook his head as he watched the small little thing grow into a palm sized amulet.

"A copying spell, Kai." Li'eth told Kai, and Kai slanted a look at him before chittering in amusement. Li'eth just smiled and shifted a bit to stand with his feet about a foot apart, both Kai and the amulet held at right angles towards each other. Li'eth chanted something incomprehensible, and Anthony was temporarily blinded by a bright flare of light, like sunlight reflecting off the snow.

Blinking rapidly, he found his eyes cleared quickly. Li'eth was now holding two of the amulets and Kai was drooping again.

"Here, take this, and put it in a pocket or on a loop around your neck or something." Li'eth pressed the cool metal into his hand and Anthony was startled as a cool wash of air breezed over him. Li'eth had kneeled on the grassy plain, setting Kai down. Anthony watched curiously as Li'eth threaded the amulet on a stray bit of leather and carefully knotted it before slipping it over Kai's head, careful of his ears.

Kai let out a soft 'mrrr' noise and promptly skittered back into Li'eth's hand. Anthony almost smiled at the furball, but busied himself with tucking away the amulet instead.

"Thank you." Anthony finally said, remembering his manners – he was a prince, not an uncouth barbarian.

Li'eth just waved it off, then grinned mischievously. "Thank Kai, it's his energy."

Anthony scowled as Kai perked up and turned those malevolent blue eyes on him. "Thank you." He muttered sullenly and Li'eth laughed. Kai chattered excited, glancing back at Li'eth before yawning cutely.

"Kai says 'you're welcome.'" Li'eth grinned as Kai chattered indignantly, swarming up his shirt and disappearing down the front of it.

"He also called you a bunch of unflattering names." Li'eth added, smiling fondly at the little bundle squirming under his shirt. Anthony studied the odd spectacle for a moment before shaking his head.

"I didn't expect anything less from the little rat." Anthony replied, though it didn't have the heart to it he'd had yesterday. Kai was charming, even if he was a bat-rat thing. Li'eth shook his head, shoving the loose bits of string from the amulets away. "Do you really understand what he says?"

"Yeah, mostly." Li'eth smiled, securing his pockets shut and starting to wade through the tall grass again. "It's more of impressions, really strong impressions. I can sense what he's feeling through the energy bond, and he can do the same. That and the chattering he does? It has some sense of language to it."

"Ah." Anthony frowned, ignoring steadfastly the stupid grass that was scoring his shins.

"That was a mighty speculative word." Li'eth raised an eyebrow. "What?"

"Your ambassador." Anthony finally decided, in the interest of conversation purely.

"Tyr'mn." Li'eth spat distastefully. "Foul man."

Anthony stared at him for a moment. "What makes you say that?" He finally asked, managing to keep his tone level.

"Have you seen the way he treats his cub?" Li'eth exclaimed. "He's a terrible man and the only reason he was appointed to that post was because he's got a good relationship with your father."

"Cub?" Anthony frowned. "Is that what you call them?"

"Yes." Li'eth's anger deflated promptly. "Why? What do you call them?"

"Rats." Anthony answered with a smirk.

Li'eth rolled his eyes. "Walked right into that one."

Anthony just kept pushing through the grass. "Anyway, I had a point there. He and his rat don't communicate like you and Kai do."

"Yeah, they don't have a strong bond. Kai and I are really close." Li'eth smiled. "More than most, but it's not really a problem. Unless he's off with Tia."

"Tia?" Anthony frowned.

"His girlfriend." Li'eth grinned as Anthony choked. "Yes, he's got a girlfriend."

"Why?" Anthony finally spluttered.

"He likes her." Li'eth smirked. "A lot."

Anthony scowled. "They're allowed to have girlfriends?"

"Or boyfriends, but Kai prefers the girls." Li'eth rolled his eyes. "Where do you think the new cubs come from?"

Anthony choked again and Li'eth laughed so hard Kai growled sleepily.

"Great, thanks, I needed that." Anthony grumbled, pushing past Li'eth. Li'eth followed cheerfully, grinning at him.

"What, would you have preferred if I said that Kai was chaste?" Li'eth smiled. "Or I could go into detail about when and where and how Kai and his girlfriend – mmph."

Anthony scowled deeply. "I swear if you complete that sentence in the manner I think you're going to, I'm walking away." He pulled his hand away slowly, half-expecting Li'eth to be pissed at him for touching him, but Li'eth was smiling widely.

"- go on dates." Li'eth blinked at him innocently, bright green eyes sharp and wicked in the bright sun.

"Right." Anthony sighed. Then blanched. "Oh, god, you probably know all the details too."

Li'eth laughed. "No, not all the details. I told you we cross feelings but not actually thoughts or visions or anything."

"Still. You know when he's…" Anthony cast a disgusted look at the bundle in Li'eth's shirt. "Never mind."

"Shut up." Li'eth laughed. "Yes, I do. That's when I block it out."

"You can block it out." Anthony sighed. "Why didn't you say that."

"Because it was worth it for the shade of red you are now." Li'eth winked, laughing again when Anthony stared at him, thunderstruck.

"I'm not talking to you." Anthony finally grumbled, aware that he sounded like his six-year-old brother but not caring much.

"Okay." Li'eth beamed at him cheerfully. "If you say so."

"I do." Anthony muttered, not looking at Li'eth's bright smile. Sure Li'eth was carefree – but even were he willing and available, that was just a political disaster waiting to happen. So Anthony concentrated walking and not on Li'eth. Though he wasn't so sure how well that would work – and dammit, he'd only known the other prince since yesterday! Anthony scowled as another reed lashed across his leg, near his ankle.

"Perhaps you should roll down your pant legs." Li'eth suggested solemnly, forcing Anthony to stop by slipping ahead of him and stopping before him, blocking his path.

"It's too hot." Anthony protested, and Li'eth rolled his eyes.

"You're an idiot. Do you feel too hot?" Li'eth pressed as Anthony scowled.

"No." Anthony sighed, pulling out the amulet. "I forgot."

"Roll down your pant legs." Li'eth ordered, shifting the front of his shirt and earning another sleepy growl. Anthony sighed and bent down, rolling down his pants haphazardly.

"When we get to one of those villages I'm getting fresh clothes." Anthony warned as the fabric crinkled, the dried mud flaking off onto his hands.

"Okay." Li'eth smiled, turning to start walking again. "I've got a bit of extra money, it should be fine."

"Great." Anthony answered, deadpan.

"What's your favorite part of your country?" Li'eth asked, plucking a reed and twirling it between his fingers rapidly.

"Favorite part?" Anthony asked back, mystified.

"Yeah. In Merdai there's this bit of land a few miles out of Othara, almost swallowed by desert. It's a pretty little oasis, with a small waterfall and brilliant green foliage. I like to go there when I'm avoiding lessons." Li'eth grinned impishly and Anthony squashed the insane urge to find out what that smile tasted like.

The heat, he decided, was getting to him. "No particular place." He answered shortly. "Maybe the salle, but it's too easy to find me there."

"You know a good deal of swordplay then?" Li'eth questioned.

"Yeah. I wish I had my sword." He muttered with a pointed glare at Li'eth, who merely affected an innocent look.

"I'm not allowed to touch a blade other than for eating or building things." Li'eth shrugged. "I didn't take it off you."

"So that myth is true?" Anthony turned to study Li'eth's profile. Li'eth just shrugged.

"Yeah, Kai would disown me if I tried to actually kill another creature, unless it was a fish." Li'eth cradled the little bundle carefully with one of his arms. "I'd rather have him than a sword any day."

Anthony cracked a smile. "You really care about him." He said astutely.

"Yeah, he's like a little piece of me." Li'eth smiled reflectively. "It'd be like losing a piece of my soul to lose him."

Anthony's eyebrows rose in surprise. "Wow."

Li'eth grinned. "Yeah. Kai gets a big head about it sometimes, but then I remind him the same is true for him and he shuts up."

Anthony blinked, then laughed a bit, a deep throaty noise that startled him almost as much as it did Li'eth. "Kai already has a big head." He informed Li'eth seriously.

"I can't agree with that." Li'eth answered solemnly.

Anthony narrowed his eyes. "But it's true."

"I never said I disagreed with it." Li'eth grinned, green eyes twinkling. "Kai would try to sever my head if I told him he had a big head."

"Vicious." Anthony remarked, trying to distract himself from Li'eth's pretty face. But the reeds were thwacking harmlessly against his pants now and the stinging of the welts he already had didn't sting much.

"He can be." Li'eth remarked seriously. "If he was of a mind he could claw your eyes out."

Anthony scowled. "Then why hasn't he?"

"Because you've only insulted him." Li'eth answered without hesitation. "You hurt me or Tia or any of his family and he'd not hesitate."

"Ah," was the only response Anthony could make to that, and it made him doubly sure he didn't want to pursue the bit of attraction he was fighting – he liked his eyes intact.

☼☼☼

It was a few days later when Anthony decided he'd had enough.

He'd been putting up with far too much pressure, he reasoned. Anyone would be able to see his side of it, except for perhaps Li'eth. Anthony willed himself not to blink as he stared Kai down. They were camped out before the mountain passes, long, twisting tracks that Li'eth had wanted full daylight to navigate.

Li'eth had wandered off to find more firewood, since Anthony had gotten distracted trying to catch a rabbit for dinner – he was entirely exhausted of fish – and wandered back with a meager supply. He'd left Kai to make sure the fire didn't go out in the meantime.

They'd been staring at each other since he'd left. Anthony's eyes were starting to sting. Kai showed no signs of weakening and Anthony was contemplating means of cheating when Kai's eyes widened to a proportion that Anthony would've previously thought impossible.

Then the little rat streaked off, crying out shrilly.

Anthony blinked several times in succession, not comprehending for a moment. Why would the little rat run off – unless he sensed something amiss with Li'eth? Anthony was on his feet before he'd even thought to stand. He doused out the fire as quickly as his haste would allow and then darted off in the direction Kai had taken.

The trees were thick here, at the mountain's base, and obscured the fading afternoon light. Anthony couldn't find tracks and there was no noise to follow. He was bumbling blind in the forest and he just hoped it was merely passing traveler who had startled Li'eth or something and nothing grievous like a bear.

Dark as it was, there was no mistaking the bright white of Kai's fur. The little cub was crumpled at the base of a tree and Anthony felt a pang of fear as he glanced around. The trees were closer together here, but he didn't hear anyone nearby so he knelt down at Kai's side, smoothing the fur back.

The cub was still breathing, there was no blood staining his bright pelt and none of his limbs were sticking out at odd angles, so Anthony counted him as knocked out and scooped him up with a gentleness that he wouldn't have shown if the cub was awake.

Anthony found himself wishing once more that he had his sword and not the paltry little bow he'd picked up when Li'eth had bought him a new outfit at the small town on the edge of the hills. But it was no use now, so Anthony merely drew his long dagger, cradling Kai gently in the crook of his left arm.

But a search of the area turned up nothing more than a handful of trinkets that might've had some value to Li'eth, but were little more than trash to Anthony. He pocketed the odds and ends anyway, frowning in irritation.

A bear would've left blood and a half-mauled body. This stank of bandits. Or his kin. Anthony frowned – they hadn't thought of that – well, he hadn't, he didn't know what Li'eth had thought, ever. It was likely that they were looking for him, but if they found Li'eth and tried to get him to the Port, they'd lose their chance to trounce the farce.

He'd head towards the mountain pass then. Li'eth hadn't wanted to travel it at night, because he hadn't wanted to camp out in the middle of it. But if he didn't stop to camp, he could either get ahead of the group who'd taken Li'eth or at least stay on their trail. If they were indeed his kin and not bandits.

Anthony sighed and turned, getting his bearings for a moment before hiking swiftly towards the mountain. He kept his dagger drawn and his senses alert, bandits would most likely have stragglers – though why they'd take Li'eth and not just rob him, stab him, and leave him for dead was a mystery to Anthony.

Okay, he really hoped it was his kin – maybe his cousin Darius – who had nabbed Li'eth. Actually, anyone other than Difrel would be fine. He didn't trust his uncle to not give into temptation and cause a political incident himself. Anthony scowled and walked faster, careful of the soft bundle in his arm. Li'eth would kill him if he let anything happen to Kai.

☼☼☼

Li'eth stumbled as another of the three men shoved him forward across the rocky path. His hands were bound tightly together and he didn't think this was in the spirit of the exercise at all. His head was still reeling from the last few times he balked – and the feedback of Kai smacking into that tree like a rag doll.

Li'eth winced. He was entirely going to demand some sort of recompense for this maltreatment. It if had merely been him, he wouldn't have minded so much, but there was no reason for Kai to have been hurt.

He just hoped Anthony was able to find him quickly. Li'eth didn't like the idea of Kai lying unconscious on the forest floor, helpless against predators. Much like he didn't like the fact that his hands were slowly becoming numb, past the point of the tingling 'asleep' feeling that crawled across them.

"Faster." The man ahead of him grunted, snagging the rope that bound his hands and yanking him forward. Li'eth stumbled and fell this time, scraping both his knees on the gravel path. Li'eth yanked his hands back and sat down completely.

"Get up." The man commanded, scowling. Li'eth glared at him.

"No." He refused. "If you are indeed a part of the tradition, you've broken three rules already and I refuse to take another step further until they're rectified."

The man ignored his words, dark hair falling into his face as he leaned down and grabbed the rope again, the coarse horsehair biting into Li'eth's wrists cruelly. "If you won't come willingly, I'll knock you out and he'll carry you."

"It'll still slow you down." Li'eth didn't budge from his spot as the man glowered at him, frustrated. "You'll lose."

"I won't lose." The man vowed. "And if I do, it's you who will pay for it."

"Hah." Li'eth snorted inelegantly. "Untie me and I'll walk."

"No." He was told swiftly, and the man grabbed his face viciously, under his jaw. "You'll shut up, and walk as fast as we can, or I'll send Ratem back for your rodent."

Li'eth's entire expression darkened and he twisted out of the man's grasp, still feeling the imprint of fingers against his jaw. Without a second thought, he leaned back and drove his foot into the man's groin. Rolling to his feet, Li'eth scrambled in the front, large pocket on his pants, pulling out a small glass ball and dashing it at his feet.

Something heavy and hard hammered into his head though, and he went down heavily, hoping against hope that Anthony had Kai before he passed out, the smoke from the glass ball boiling angrily through the clearing.

☼☼☼

Anthony barely made it to the pass. He'd turned the wrong way, and only righted himself after he'd stumbled up on the remains of the campfire. He'd known the way from there and had quickly found the gravel trail that led into the mountain. The dim light from the sun setting was enough to see the four sets of footprints leading into the pass, confirming his suspicions.

Kai stirred as he started in, and Anthony sheathed his dagger finally, shifting to hold the cub in a more comfortable hold. Kai whined, blinking open wide blue eyes. He stared at Anthony for a moment before squirming indignantly. Anthony shrugged and set the creature down.

Kai took a step and hissed. Anthony watched with something akin to amusement as he shook a front paw and then started limping through the pass, without a backwards glance at Anthony as he hobbled forward on three paws.

Anthony sighed, half-jogging to catch up, scooping Kai off the ground when he caught up. Kai squeaked and looked indignant. "It's faster." Anthony explained, and Kai narrowed bright blue eyes at him before hooking claws in his shirtsleeve and pulling himself up to Anthony's shoulder. Kai mewed pitifully and Anthony sighed, hiking up the short incline and trying not to feel too sorry for the little rat.

☼☼☼

"I swear to god, I'm going to have all of you hung." Li'eth snarled, jerking away from the faceless two guards. They deferred automatically to the man he'd kicked in the balls – Difrel from what he'd heard.

"Shut up." Difrel snapped, and it would've been more impressive if it hadn't come out so hoarsely. The smoke had almost entirely obliterated his and the two guards' voices.

"Let. Me. Go." Li'eth snapped back, hissing as the other guard grabbed him by the upper arms. He'd always hated early mornings, and this one wasn't shaping up to be too spectacular. The man actually did as he was told and Li'eth fell on his ass, unable to balance with the thick ropes around his wrists.

He had to have at least a dozen scrapes and maybe the same number of bruises. He'd only woken a bit ago, to find himself slung over the shoulders of the first guard. A swift kick to the guard's side had induced a few of the bruises, as the man had dropped him quickly enough.

"No." Difrel snarled back, grabbing the rope and pulling Li'eth to his feet. Luckily the ropes had loosened last night, otherwise Li'eth wasn't sure he'd have hands to be tied.

Li'eth cursed roundly and kicked Difrel in the shins. The man cursed back and slapped him, making his head spin and the bruises on his chin throb. Difrel took advantage and yanked him to his feet, whirling him in the right direction as the two guards took up position on either side of him, grabbing his arms to hog march him once more.

Li'eth opened his mouth to give another blistering round of curses when a white blur caught his eyes. He barely had time to hold out his arms before Kai launched himself into them, burrowing into the front of Li'eth's shirt and crooning miserably.

"Difrel! What the hell do you think you're doing?"

Li'eth didn't think he'd ever been so glad to hear someone's voice. Anthony was glowering dangerously at the man and Li'eth yanked his arms free, soothing Kai without words. He turned his back on Difrel and Anthony as Kai slipped free, chattering angrily as he took up position on Li'eth's cupped palms.

Li'eth spoke a succession of harsh words – and all three men fell to the ground, unconscious. Kai sagged in his hands and Li'eth let him slip back inside his shirt. Anthony was walking over, crunching gravel beneath his feet as he walked. Li'eth turned and held out his hands wordlessly.

Anthony cursed and drew his dagger, slicing through the bonds quickly. Li'eth sighed, stretching and ignoring the thick red lines that circled his wrists. "Thanks." Li'eth murmured quietly, suddenly exhausted.

"What did you do to them?" Anthony asked, scrutinizing Li'eth. Li'eth wanted to squirm under the intense gaze, unwilling to examine the warm feeling pooling in the pit of his stomach – the one that had nothing to do with the warm weight of Kai's fur against his stomach.

"Knocked them out. They'll have a triple hangover when they wake up." Li'eth scowled, kicking the guard who was closer to him.

"Are you okay?" Anthony asked, ducking his head to meet Li'eth's eyes.

"Yeah." Li'eth sighed, blowing the puff of warm air out between them. "Just a bit battered." He grinned crookedly. "I kicked him in the balls." Li'eth gestured to Difrel.

"Good." Anthony decided darkly. "Has he caused a major political incident or do you still want to go on with this plan of yours? Because if you want, I'll let you turn me in."

"What? No." Li'eth sighed. "We're doing this still. Just because I got attacked by bandits who managed to stun Kai long enough to get a few blows in on me doesn't mean I want it to impede our progress." Li'eth rattled off, staring hard at Anthony.

Anthony smiled, relieved. "Are you sure?" He asked cautiously.

Li'eth rolled his eyes. "Positive. Come on, I don't want to be around here any longer."

"Okay." Anthony obediently fell into step beside Li'eth, following him along the gravelly path. Kai had curled immediately against his chest and Li'eth could feel his distress even as he trembled. Li'eth soothed him as well as he could, but it wasn't working. Li'eth sighed, pausing around the turn from where they'd left Li'eth's captors.

"Li'eth?" Anthony frowned, turning back to him.

"Just wait." Li'eth answered absently. "Come on Kai, out."

Kai whined, pressing a cold nose against his chest and Li'eth sighed, moving to unbutton his tunic. Anthony blinked, but didn't look away as Li'eth unhooked half the buttons and scooped Kai out forcefully. Kai wriggled free, hooking his arms in Li'eth's sleeves and pulling himself up to Li'eth's shoulder.

"It wasn't your fault." Li'eth fixed his shirt, ignoring Anthony. "There was nothing else you could've done in the situation." Kai just whined again, pressing his forehead against Li'eth's neck.

"They knocked you out!" Li'eth sighed. "I don't blame you, Kai. You did all you could."

Kai left off trying to melt into Li'eth's neck and stared at him balefully. Anthony sighed, he was finding he minded the creature less and less. And Kai's distress was touching in a way.

"I promise." Li'eth murmured solemnly. "Are you alright?" Li'eth carefully scooped Kai off his shoulders, holding him in his hands. Kai mewed, shaking the hurt paw a bit. Li'eth nodded. "Anywhere else?" Kai jerked his head no and jumped for the front of Li'eth's shirt, catching himself with his claws and climbing inside his pouch again.

"Okay, we can go now." Li'eth smiled a bit, apparently not realizing that there were only four buttons buttoned now, where before there had been five. Anthony swallowed and nodded wordlessly, turning back to the twisting trail.

"Is he okay?" He broke the silence a few moment's later, missing Li'eth's cheerful banter already.

"Yeah." Li'eth smiled a bit. "He's feeling guilty because he couldn't really help when I was ambushed."

"Oh." Anthony frowned. "He's little though, what could he have done?"

"If he'd been able to get close to me I would've been able to do some sort of spell. But that man – Difrel – he saw Kai coming and knocked him into a tree." Li'eth scowled even as Anthony mimicked the expression.

"I'm going to speak with my father about this." Anthony glowered at the path. "He had no right to treat you or Kai the way he did."

Li'eth laughed lightly. "You and Kai seem to be getting along better."

"Yeah, so the furry bugger isn't so bad." Anthony grumbled, successfully distracted.

Li'eth laughed a bit more, smiling brightly. There still seemed to be a hint of shadow about his expression though, and Anthony scrutinized him carefully, trying to pick out what was wrong.

"Do I have something on my face?" Li'eth questioned, sounding amused. But Anthony wasn't paying attention, practically spraying up gravel as he made his way over.

"You're bruised." Anthony scowled, dusting his fingers against Li'eth's chin. Light blue and purple bruises brushed across his jaw, in the vague shape of fingerprints.

"Yes." Li'eth frowned. "Your kin weren't exactly gentle."

Anthony hissed in frustration, letting his fingers drop away. "Where else?"

"What?" Li'eth blinked as Anthony frowned at him from close up. Kai shifted a bit in his shirt, murmuring sleepily.

"Where else are you hurt?" Anthony persisted, the question reminding him of his conversation with Kai moments ago. Li'eth wordlessly held up his wrists, displaying the still-bright red bruises that were coiled about them. Anthony took hold of one hand gently, scrutinizing the bruises gently. "Anything else?"

Li'eth shrugged. "A few bruises but they were as much my fault as theirs."

"How bad?" Anthony demanded, his expression dark.

"Not bad." Li'eth answered blandly, not taking his hand back even as Anthony seemed to have forgotten he was holding it.

"Okay." Anthony sighed. "Do you have anything you can put on those? A numbing cream or something? Because they're going to start hurting soon."

"No." Li'eth shrugged. "When Kai wakes up I'll do a healing or something. For now it doesn't matter that much."

Anthony finally let go of his hand, and Li'eth missed the warmth for a moment. "If you want to stop to rest or anything, let me know." Anthony ordered, letting Li'eth step past him along the path.

"I will." Li'eth smiled shyly, but didn't say anything else, walking quietly, even as Anthony stewed, plotting revenge for every bruise.

☼☼☼

The port city of Maerda was a day away and Anthony was facing a bit of a dilemma.

Li'eth seemed entirely oblivious too, and that wasn't helping. Anthony sighed, they'd be in the city by nightfall the next day and he couldn't bring himself to be happy about it. He'd left on the mission wanting to get back to the castle as quickly as possible, but now he wanted nothing more than to be able to wait for a few more days, if not longer.

Li'eth had regained his cheer quickly after a healing from Kai, who refused to leave him alone anymore, clinging to a shoulder or curling in the palm of Li'eth's hand when he wasn't sleeping. Li'eth had teased him a bit for it, but nothing serious and Anthony had left off his teasing of Kai. They seemed to have reached an uneasy truce, and Anthony had no intention of breaking it.

The problem was that he liked Li'eth. He liked the Merdai prince quite a bit. But between Kai and their positions and Difrel, Anthony had no opportunity to do anything. He'd most likely end up spending the last day with Li'eth like he had the days before and then they'd go their separate ways and he'd only see the prince at state functions.

Anthony sighed and turned on his side, blinking into the darkness. Li'eth was stretched out somewhere behind him, probably already fast asleep. Anthony frowned, studying the trees that were only a few feet away. They'd made it through the mountain pass in one day, and Anthony would've pressed for more if he thought Li'eth was up to it. He didn't want Difrel and his men to catch up. Li'eth had said it was unlikely though, so he didn't bother worrying on it.

Anthony nearly died of shock when a soft, furry paw batted the side of his face. He glanced up, half-expecting a raccoon, but it was only Kai, pale fur standing out in the darkness. He growled softly at Anthony and Anthony scowled back, not wanting to admit he'd miss the little fur-rat too.

"What do you want?" He asked crossly, quietly. Kai batted him again, narrowing his eyes before slowly laying down in a facsimile of the position Anthony was lying in. Kai turned to look at him, eyes glinting in the dark as he slowly got up and started to walk. He took about three steps before he turned to look expectantly at Anthony.

"What?" Anthony scowled. "You want me to follow you?"

Kai nodded, his tail flicking impatiently. Anthony rolled his eyes and shoved himself to his feet. Early summer meant that the nights still got a bit chilly and he frowned as he took a step to put himself on par with Kai. Who promptly started to trot over to Li'eth.

Anthony sighed and followed, wondering if there was something wrong with Li'eth. The thought quickened his pace and he was at Li'eth's side in an instant. Li'eth appeared to be sleeping, curled a bit with his eyes closed and his breathing even.

"Li'eth?" Anthony kneeled slowly, his voice soft, turning accusing eyes on Kai when nothing happened. Kai actually stuck his tongue out, moving up to bop Li'eth on the nose. Li'eth started, his eyes opening wide.

"What?" Li'eth asked, frowning at Kai who merely chittered cheerfully before jumping gracefully over Li'eth's still form.

"I don't know." Anthony answered. "Kai led me over here. You're okay?"

"Yeah." Li'eth sat up, still frowning. Kai had disappeared.

"Do you know why?" Anthony prompted after sitting with Li'eth for a long, silent moment. Li'eth eyed him, flopping back down on his pallet inelegantly.

"Yes." Li'eth muttered, flinging an arm over his head.

Anthony waited. Li'eth didn't elaborate.

"Why?" Anthony finally asked, more curious now than he had been when Kai had woken him.

"I'm not telling, no matter what Kai thinks." Li'eth muttered, not moving. "You might as well go back to sleep."

Anthony frowned. "Oh, no. He woke me up, I want an explanation."

"No." Li'eth moved his arm to eye him. "If he's wrong I'm not up to dealing with the aftermath."

"You're not helping my curiosity." Anthony informed him. "Where did Kai go?"

"Nature called, apparently." Li'eth said dryly, shifting a bit to get comfortable.

"Can you tell me what it is about? In a roundabout way?" Anthony asked, sitting himself instead of kneeling on his knees.

"No." Li'eth frowned. "Can't you drop it?"

"No." Anthony returned. "I'm too curious now."

"Lovely." Li'eth frowned. "I'm not telling you anything." Li'eth told him seriously. "It's slightly personal and I'd rather keep it to myself."

"Okay?" Anthony decided confused was more apt a description in regards to this conversation. "If it's personal, why did Kai make me come over here?"

"Because it has to do with you." Li'eth mumbled, apparently without thinking, for his eyes widened in horror and he slapped a hand over his mouth.

Anthony blinked, processing. Personal, but it had to do with him. "You're not hurt somewhere embarrassing and need my help to fix it?" He guessed, making a face.

Li'eth stared at him for a moment before starting to laugh, his hand barely hiding the smile that crinkled the corners of his eyes.

"I think that's a no." Anthony continued wryly.

"That's a no." Li'eth agreed good-naturedly, smothering another laugh. "The healing spell earlier, in any case, remember?"

"Oh, right." Anthony propped his elbows on his knees and his chin on the palms of his hands. In truth he could only think that Li'eth's situation could be similar to his – but he wasn't sure. Did he want to make that leap and try it?

"Kai is such a troublemaker." Li'eth sighed. "The little bastard is probably laughing at me right now."

"You can't tell?" Anthony asked, attempting to distract himself.

"Nah, he's blocked me." Li'eth answered absently. "I can tell he's nearby, probably hidden in a tree, and that he's okay, but that's it."

"Ah." Anthony frowned as they lapsed into silence. Where was his courage now? He was a swordsman, a prince! He shouldn't be so damn frightful of this leap. But it wasn't him he was risking. It was the entire country's relationship with Merdai. Well, if need be he could always abdicate to Bastion. His brother wouldn't begrudge him.

"Li'eth?" He questioned, his tongue feeling thick as Li'eth turned to eye him.

"Hmm?" Li'eth asked, studying him quietly.

The words wouldn't form however much courage Anthony prided himself on having and the weight of Li'eth's eyes seemed to get heavier with the silence. Li'eth shifted himself up so he was resting on his elbows, tilting his head with a curious expression on his face.

"Anthony?" Li'eth questioned, and Anthony sighed, making a face.

"Don't hold this against my country, okay?" Anthony questioned finally, his voice thick. Li'eth barely had time to blink before Anthony had ducked down and kissed him softly on the lips, pulling back just as quickly.

Li'eth's elbows gave out and he stared, shocked, at the sky for a moment before starting to laugh. Glancing at Anthony, he laughed harder, a mix of bewilderment, embarrassment and a bit of anger flaring across his face.

"What?" Anthony finally asked, gruffly, looking away. Li'eth sat up quickly, awkwardly pushing out of his bedroll to throw his arms around Anthony's neck. Anthony merely stared at him in shock now.

"Good guess." Li'eth grinned and kissed him thoroughly. Anthony continued to be shocked for all of two seconds before he recovered admirably, throwing his arms around Li'eth's lower back and kissing him back fiercely.

"Oh!" Li'eth pulled away far too quickly for Anthony's liking, but he did recognize that they both needed to breathe, so he allowed it. Li'eth's bright green eyes were shadowed by nightfall, but he didn't have to imagine the downward tilt of his mouth. "What about tomorrow?" Li'eth questioned breathlessly, sounding upset.

"Tomorrow is tomorrow." Anthony answered. "We could take a few days getting back."

"But we have to go back soon anyway." Li'eth's arms tightened. "What then?"

"I don't know." Anthony admitted. "Can't we think about it tomorrow?"

Li'eth sighed and for a moment Anthony was afraid he was going to pull away completely for a moment. "Alright." Li'eth smiled wickedly. "I'd rather have this over nothing anyway." Anthony merely processed the 'alright,' before tumbling Li'eth back down to his bedroll, kissing him again with hands on Li'eth's hips and a smile on his face.

☼☼☼

In a tree about half a dozen feet away, Kai chattered satisfactorily before clambering down the tree, darting around the clearing to burrow in Anthony's bedroll. He wasn't going to be using it in any case, so Kai gladly partook of it, curling up in a tight ball and ignoring the soft noises from the other side of the camp. He fell asleep in moments.

☼☼☼

Anthony woke slowly to the oddest sensation of wet sandpaper on his cheek. There was a weight on his right arm, pinning it to the ground, and something was perched on his chest, it's paws on his chin as it licked him. Barely managing to retain his calm and not squeal like a little girl, Anthony opened his eyes to find Kai bathing his face slowly.

The cub let off when he saw Anthony was awake, flattening his ears and squinting at him. Anthony just stared, using his left hand to wipe the saliva from his cheek, making a face at Kai, who snorted and turned towards Li'eth.

Li'eth, who was still sleeping, pressed against his side and making his arm tingle. Anthony felt his insides melt even as Kai walked daintily off him to the ground, his tail swishing arrogantly.

Anthony ignored him, his mind jumping to their dilemma. Last night had merely enforced that he didn't want to let Li'eth go. Anthony frowned, pondering. How could he make sure that they stayed together for longer than a few days?

He could abdicate. Li'eth could abdicate. They both could abdicate. But that was extreme, who knew if this would last? Anthony blinked. A trial run though – he could claim sabbatical, since his father was still king, and follow Li'eth around for a year. Or for however long it took him to be sure in a decision one way or the other.

With a smile, Anthony ran a finger down Li'eth's cheek. Li'eth stirred, shifting warm skin closer and murmuring indistinctly. Anthony grinned, leaning down to kiss Li'eth softly, tilting his head up with his free hand.

"Mmm." Li'eth murmured into Anthony's lips, his eyes fluttering open to reveal sleepy green eyes. "Hi."

"Hi." Anthony grinned, aware he probably looked foolish but he didn't care. He used his half-asleep arm to tug Li'eth a bit closer, pressing more warm skin together. "I've had an idea."

"Have you?" Li'eth smiled wonderfully and Anthony splayed his hand against Li'eth's bare back.

"Yep." Anthony couldn't help but kiss Li'eth again, groaning as Li'eth returned the kiss with fervor, shifting to almost lay across him as he did so. "I'm… oh…" Anthony breathed out sharply as Li'eth shifted against him purposefully. "I'm…" He repeated, trying to focus, but it was made difficult by Li'eth's clever fingers smoothing over his chest teasingly.

"You're?" Li'eth prompted, distractedly.

"Taking a sabbatical." Anthony rushed out, catching Li'eth's fingers and twining them with his. "For a few months. Maybe longer."

Li'eth lit up. "Really?"

"Yeah." Anthony smiled. "My father's in good health so it shouldn't be an issue."

"You can do that?" Li'eth's eyes were bright.

"Yeah." Anthony grinned, sick of talking now that he'd gotten what he needed to say out. He toppled Li'eth, turning to pin him to the bedroll. "Good?"

"Good." Li'eth smiled sweetly. "Let's give Kai a headache."

Anthony grinned and kissed Li'eth again. He really liked his prince. Li'eth kissed back, thinking much the same of Anthony.

Teh End