AN: This is a back story from the longer Iron Butterfly. I don't believe it's necessary to read IB first, but it may help with subtle nuances. However, since it's back-story about semi-major characters, it contains some spoilers for Iron Butterfly. Nothing major, just a warning.

Relevant information (laid out much cleaner and in a more fun manner in IB but necessary for a smooth read here):
- Rae`lire are oviparous hermaphrodites inhabitants of the planet El. For convenience, and because I hate using 'it' for living creatures, all gender-neutral pronouns in El'ink (their language) are translated to the masculine equivalent in English.
- Fen = parent that produces the egg
- Ka = non-egg producing parent

So, without further ado, I give you A Star in Darkness:


Garen, the temple's young groundskeeper, gripped his reed-broom tighter. Pain shot through his clenched jaw as he listened to the gossiping temple keepers approaching from up the stone pathway. Garen knew he should keep his head down, lest the keepers catch the hatred in his eyes. He knew his hatred was wrong… of course he knew it was wrong. After all, even the teachings of the Stone Lords, harshest of all the Elemental Deities, condemned carrying hatred in one's heart. He knew the dangers of the hatred he nursed. Every day, he felt the shadows creeping further in, attempting to smother him. While he waited for the final choking gasps, his heart and life remained as veiled in gloom as his given name suggested they would forever be.

Despite himself, the inordinately tall rae`lir glanced up when the temple keepers rounded the corner and stopped short when they noticed him. Their eyes, as dark as shadow, fell into blunt condemnation. Garen's jaw clenched even harder as he transferred his ire and his gaze to his sweeping. Stupid leaves. Wretched bushes and vines. Damned seasons.

"Did you know?" the noisy whisper reached his ears as the four continued on. "That's the one taken from the admiral's estate."

"No! Really?"

"Then that means—"

"Yeah… he's a knizel."

Garen's eyes pinched shut until they burned as the heated whispering disappeared down the shallow path beside the sharp bluff that supported the Western Stone Temple of Dusk. He hadn't chosen to enter that old pervert's house. He'd never asked to be made a manor whore—a knizel. It wasn't his fault that his fen and his ka died on that starship, leaving him behind at the helpless age of two years so that he couldn't even remember their faces, only remember their warmth in his intangible dreams.

"Hey."

Garen's eyes flew open, and his heart leapt to his throat when something made soft contact with his lower arm. Drinking in the view of a shorter rae`lir, Garen managed to remind himself how to breathe. The stranger's hand remained pressed against Garen's arm, but his eyes shone up with a strange pale-blue—like an exploding nova—instead of the typical black. The open regard in his stare startled Garen.

"You're bleeding." His voice rang as sweet and accepting as his expression. His free hand moved inside his odd robes, which gave the air of both a temple keeper as well as that of the aristocracy. However, he certainly wasn't a keeper of the Stone Temple: instead of a Stone Keeper's short, beige robe, the stranger wore a long, blue robe the color of the pre-dawn sky that contrasted with the daystar-yellow robe-tie.

Garen jolted when a soft cloth brushed against the corner of his mouth. The touch pulled him from his stupor and allowed him to recognize the sharp taste of blood.

"You shouldn't bite your lip." The stranger's crystalline eyes shone like the very daystar as he stared up at Garen. "It doesn't do those keepers a lick of harm."

Garen found his normally acrid tongue felt like dead weight in his bloody mouth. All he could do was stare back at the smiling rae`lir who continued to swipe at the white blood on Garen's lip. How long had it been since he'd been touched? How much longer had it been since he didn't recoil in immediate disgust? His chest tightened at the realization he couldn't recall. But here, the feeling of this smaller rae`lir's fingers against his chin, cheek, and lips induced no such response. On the contrary, it actually felt rather… nice.

"They're jackasses, you know—worthless darnots. Don't listen to a word," the angel said, lowering his hand and the cloth. "My name is Ja`le." His name. Not his family name. No breath of what family he was even from. That was even more surprising than the delicate voice and placid tone announcing such harsh condemnation against the temple keepers.

Ja`le giggled and pulled Garen's head down so he could see the wound better. "It'll heal soon enough." His eyes shifted from Garen's mouth to his bony eyes. For a moment, the two simply held gaze in a silent exchange that somehow felt more personal than even the sex Garen had submitted to with Admiral Takran.

"You have a name, stranger, or am I going to have to keep thinking of you as 'that attractive rae`lir with a broom'?" Ja`le's smile shifted from simple regard to teasing affection. "I could call you 'Gorgeous' if you'd like, or maybe 'Handsome'? I imagine 'Sexy' would be a little too forward at the moment."

Normally, Garen would provide his humiliating 'family' name, but the stranger had opened himself by providing his given name. The least Garen could do was to offer the same. "I… I'm Garen," he forced through a hoarse throat as a flush rushed his face.

"It's nice to meet you." With another disarming smile, Ja`le took the broom from Garen and dropped it against the nearest path-lining boulder. Ja`le then slid his arm under Garen's. "Show me around? I couldn't stand the guide they gave me, but my Master will still expect me to know something about the Western Temple."

Garen desperately wanted to shake off the semi-disconcerting hold and growl his need to return to work. However, when he looked down into those shining eyes, a shaft of light pierced the gloom enshrouding his heart.

"Are you worried about getting in trouble?"

Garen looked away. If he wasn't careful, he would find himself completely captivated by those strange, alluring eyes and that beautiful smile. "A little."

"Don't you think it might be worth it? I always have the most fun when I should be doing something else."

Garen choked on his own spit after a sharp inhalation. He offered what he hoped to be a disapproving frown. "A rae`lir's only honor is in fulfilling his obligations.

Ja`le laughed, light and soft like the warbling of the dawn songbirds. "Of course you're right, Ren. But don't you think that, every now and then, a rae`lir's heart is more important than his stuffy honor?"

"My name is Garen," he reminded, unable to fight the pale flush at being thrust so quickly into the intimacy of nicknames.

"You said," Ja`le returned with a smile. "It doesn't suit you. When I look at you, I get the feeling that you are far more 'star' than you are 'darkness'… or at least that you don't want to be a darkened star. You don't mind if I call you Ren, do you?"

At such a forward question, Garen found himself wondering if he disliked the nickname or was merely surprised. "I suppose not."

"Good!" Ja`le beamed. "You won't get in trouble. I promise."

Garen realized that he and Ja`le were already some distance down the path paved in the red granite of the surrounding bluffs. He raised his eyebrow at the confident assertion. Who was this rae`lir that he could claim something like that? Garen did not sense even a shred of dishonesty, so Ja`le believed his own words.

Garen sighed and shook his head with a slight smile. Even if Ja`le was wrong, this didn't seem so bad. Garen would let himself enjoy the strange exchange and the enigmatic bundle of light and energy that clung at his side. Even if for only one afternoon, he would creep from the shrouding shadows and bask in the natural light this stranger exuded.

The groundskeeper bent his arm to allow a more comfortable hold for his shorter companion. As they walked, he quietly shared what he knew about the things they passed: what this building was for, who that temple was dedicated to, how many keepers the temple housed, how often observers visited. He answered Ja`le's frequent questions and found himself enjoying Ja`le's curiosity, his enthusiasm, and his joy. "The Western Stone Temple is one of the oldest elemental temples on El. Only the High Northern Water Temple is older—though it is quite a bit older."

Ja`le's hands tightened. "That's my temple! I didn't know it was the oldest! How old are they?"

The corners of Garen's mouth twitched into a smile. How old was this rae`lir? He looked like he should be at least fifteen, but he acted like… like a four-year-old kid. His excitement was both confusing and strangely comforting. More importantly, he said he was from the High Northern Water Temple. Did that mean he was part of the contingent visiting for the holy Unity Ceremony observed by the highest members of the Four Great Temples?

What was Garen thinking? Even the lowest member of a delegation like that would command the deepest respect and honor of even the higher stone temple keepers. Garen was no one; he shouldn't even look at the visitor. Blood chilling, Garen began to pull away.

Ja`le, however, seemed to anticipated Garen's attempted escape; his hands tightened, and he pressed closer to Garen's side. "How old are they, Ren?" His voice came much softer, almost pleading. Was he afraid of rejection?

Garen swallowed hard and forced his gut to calm. "The High Northern Water Temple—or something like it—has stood almost since the earliest days of rae`lire's full arrival on land. They began to carve out the Western Stone Temple some several hundreds of years later."

"That old?" Ja`le mused as his expression twisted back into a joyous smile. "I guess that explains the dusty smell in some places!"

"You'll forgive me if I say you're a little strange, won't you?" Garen could not explain nor understand how such a forward, blunt statement could pass his lips—especially since he'd just decided this rae`lir was of great importance.

Ja`le giggled. "I know everyone thinks so." He laughed outright. "But you're the first one to say so. I like you!"

Garen's eyes widened, and he swallowed hard against the flush that claimed his face. No one had ever… said something like that before. Sure, the admiral had complemented his body but never him.

"Do you… Do you like me, too? Even though I'm strange?"

Garen stopped walking when the soft question reached his ears. Ja`le didn't try and pull them forward. Instead, he lifted his gentle, questioning eyes to lock them with Garen's. His expression hung somewhere between hope and sadness as he waited for the answer. Garen's chest tightened until he wondered if it might collapse on him.

There was no way he could offer the words of affirmation that had instantly leapt to his tongue. Still, that almost sacred light, which cut through his darkness, demanded he must. Even while his mind lost ground against his heart, a gentle illumination danced along the edges of both. Garen swallowed hard as the sensation of a tentative mental probe brushed over him. It reminded him of a cool breeze that staved off the midday heat of a harsh daystar.

His skin and muscles shivered in response to the soothing, foreign touch that felt even stranger and warmer than the unexpected physical, verbal, and silent exchanges. Still, Garen couldn't find the strength or the will to be offended by the unsolicited mental reaching. Even during, or perhaps because of, his time as a knizel, he'd only ever encountered mental walls of iron, condemning him to his bitter isolation. Arrival at the stone temple shortly after his thirteenth year only brought about deeper solitude. Here, everyone knew of his former life, whereas at the admiral's manor, most were unaware; he was just 'that kid the admiral took in'. Now, three years later, this Ja`le was only the second to speak to him as if he was a living being, and the first as if somehow worthy of more than simple pity.

At last, Garen forced out a shaky breath. In that moment, he abandoned logic and surrendered to his heart and the longing therein that demanded he open himself to the mental invitation. "Ja`le," he choked as he glanced away—straight ahead—embarrassed. In the tiniest increments, he dropped his own protective mental barriers; ones that hid the walls of ice and thorns raised by the rae`lire around him. Garen extended the smallest bit of himself, careful and frightened, to allow full connection and exchange with this abrupt, puzzling individual. "I… I like you very much."

Ja`le accepted the return contact. In those moments of silent mental exchange, while the two explored, touched, and learned about each other, Garen found himself lost in wonder. Was this what it truly meant to be rae`lir? To trust? Something deep within whispered an even more dangerous question: To… to love?

The shorter rae`lir sighed as he slid forward and turned to face Garen. He smiled and kept gaze, though an expression of innocent embarrassment clung to his features. "Ka always laughed at me while he said I was the kind who would decide on my bonded in an instant. He said I should make sure to be careful and to wait until I found someone strong, loyal, and who would love me as much as I would him." Ja`le's smile elevated to the glittering brilliance of the stars. "I think I found him today. Am I wrong? Tell me I'm not wrong… Am I?"

Garen's face heated further, but he refused to avert his eyes. His hearts thundered in his tightening throat. "I… I don't know much about love," he mumbled, though his something deep and real screamed for him to simply express agreement.

For a moment, Ja`le said nothing as the two stared at each other. This pure and childlike rae`lir may think he'd found his bonded, but really, he knew absolutely nothing about Garen. Even their short mental exploration could not have changed that. Garen, on the other hand, knew all too well his faults, his failings, and his dark past. Regardless, in the silence, Garen felt a deep, painful condemnation as he gazed into the hurt, pleading eyes. Was he responsible for such heartbreak?

"You said you liked me."

"Yes. But that doesn't mean that I can… I mean… you're… You're here with the emissaries from the High Northern Water Temple, and from a prominent family at that, aren't you?"

"I am of that company," Ja`le answered. "What of it?"

"I am not so stupid as to think that I could even pretend to be worthy of one such as you."

"Delegate, temple keeper, or street sweeper… I'm just another rae`lir," Ja`le countered. For a moment, he said nothing as those piercing eyes of crystal blue stabbed through Garen. "If someone came to you and said I was a liar and that I hated you, would you believe them?"

Garen frowned and felt his brow twist in confusion. What he'd felt and sensed during their initial mental exchange told him that if nothing else, Ja`le was nothing if not honest and straightforward. "No…" Even to Garen's ears the word sounded more like a question than answer, though he knew full well it was utmost truth.

Ja`le's brow furrowed, making him appear more like a lost, frightened child than a young temple keeper. His fingertips barely brushed against the back of Garen's hand, and Garen struggled to keep motionless though reflex demanded he jerk away… or jerk forward to pull the shorter rae`lir into his arms.

"Ren, if I was in trouble, would you help me?"

"Yes," Garen answered without pause. After all, even if he couldn't admit to himself or Ja`le that he could 'love' him, the short rae`lir's kindness and consideration had at least earned Garen's unquestioning assistance.

"And if you saw someone hurting me, what would you do?"

"I'd kill him," Garen growled before he could process his words. The thought of witnessing Ja`le being hurt overrode any thinking he might have worked through, but he floundered in search of a rational thought that would confirm he'd overstated his response. He could find none; Garen really would kill anyone of any race who would dare to harm the crystal-eyed beauty standing so maddeningly near.

"So I image, you'd never hurt me either?"

"That's right."

Ja`le smiled a little. "Ren," he whispered, stepping even closer, sliding his smaller hand all the way around Garen's fist. "If you thought you might be able to make me happy somehow, wouldn't you try?"

Garen's lips pressed into a thin line. "I…" He sighed and closed his eyes. "Probably."

By that time, Ja`le stood so close Garen could feel moist breathing against his lower neck. Slowly, the shorter rae`lir lifted his arms, sliding long fingers into Garen's hair behind his ears. In his disjointed control, Garen allowed Ja`le to tug his head down. For a moment, Ja`le made no connection, as if offering the chance to flee. If Garen's muddled mind called for escape, it wasn't audible over the screaming acceptance of Garen's soul.

"You wouldn't betray me, would you?"

Garen's fingers and breath trembled as he slipped his arms around Ja`le's waist. He pulled them together and curved his neck further until both sets of shivering, silver lips barely brushed against each other in innocent, awkward affection. A barrage of memories and emotions of the ancestors rushed Garen's consciousness and shattered his remaining reserves.

He pulled away just enough to press his forehead against Ja`le's. "Never. I… I would do whatever I could to take care of you… to make you happy… if you asked me to."

Ja`le lowered his eyes as if he were now the one embarrassed. "So if I said that I wanted… that it would make me happy… for you to make me your bonded?"

Garen swallowed hard and closed his eyes. "I would do anything—endure anything—to give you what you ask of me."

For a moment, silence hung between them like a precarious rock balanced on a windy pinnacle. Garen certainly knew, and Ja`le must too, of the potentially life-changing choice the shorter rae`lir was about to make. Garen after all, had just made his.

Foolish or not, he'd chosen Ja`le.

Ja`le drew in a long breath, and for a brief moment, Garen almost believe that he was going to speak of a rational second thought: Garen couldn't tell if he hoped for or feared such a declaration.

"Make me your bonded?" Ja`le whispered, his fists tightening around Garen's robe. "Right now? Right here?"

Skip over entirely any and all courting rites? It wasn't unheard of… just very uncommon. Garen's previous word washed over him. He abandoned every inhibiting thought and surrendered to the mental and emotional draw towards this slight rae`lir in his arms. Instead of a verbal answer, which might destroy him to speak, he pulled Ja`le's head up and claimed his mouth in a hungry, desperate kiss. For the first time in his life, he felt the desire, the need, and the ache for more when he shared breath with another—more heat, more connection, simply more. His hearts pounded, shaking his chest with each constriction, thundering with the very powerful emotion that stirred in response to the maelstrom of thoughts, mental caresses, and physical sensations.

Ja`le laughed and threw his arms around Garen's neck. Joyous light and waves of happiness and desire washed over Garen from the slender rae`lir in his arms. The constant darkness that had kept Garen company since his earliest memories shrank from the open adoration and blind devotion that wrapped around him and flowed from him in return.

"Let me take you somewhere more suitable." Garen knew all too well the humiliation and the pain of intimacy beyond the protective walls of private rooms. He couldn't imagine that even in bonding this could be lessened.

"No, Ren. Here. Now." Ja`le pouted as his arms tightened—like a child who feared a surrendered treasure would not be returned.

Garen shook his head as he forced himself to push Ja`le away slightly—not enough that it might feel like rejection, but enough to demonstrate his determination. He swallowed hard and fought to keep from snatching that magnetic individual back against his chest. "You deserve better."

"Well…" Ja`le smiled and trailed his fingers up and down either side of Garen's neck. He laughed and pulled closer. "My High Lord would be very hurt if I bonded in a Stone Lord's Temple-house. Anywhere else would be okay, I suppose."

The blunt discussion of such intimate exchange made Garen's chest tighten and his face flame. How could Ja`le keep such a childlike expression of happiness while speaking so?

Garen shook his head and reached for Ja`le's hand. "Come with me."

All the way along the narrow bluff-base trail, Garen's hearts raced, even falling out of synch for a breath or two, and his hand shook as he held tight to the smaller one. It didn't take long to reach the little stone hut where Garen dwelt away from the temple keepers as well as the housing of the previous groundskeeper. For once, he wished the trek might take longer. Garen took immaculate care of his home and carefully cultivated vines and flowers around the hut; however, he almost feared Ja`le might turn from him when he saw the simplistic way Garen lived. He hadn't, after all, denied his aristocracy when Garen suggested it. Maybe he only liked the idea of instant love, of a perfect stranger, of—

"It's charming," Ja`le whispered as he pulled nearer to Garen's side when the taller rae`lir paused.

Garen cleared his throat and guided Ja`le across the small, paved clearing and. "It… it's not much," he murmured as he pushed the door shut after they ducked beyond it.

For a moment, Ja`le cast his eyes around to take in the clean-swept floor, the single reading chair beside the hanging lamp, and the stack of books beside the chair. Ja`le turned to Garen and gripped the front of his black robe in either hand. "You like reading?"

Garen nodded. "Yes."

"That's a good hobby. You can learn a lot."

"Do you like to read?"

"Not at all." Ja`le laughed, and his eyes danced. "I don't have the patience—especially when it's written in the ancient script or formal tongue. Bor-ring! It's far more exciting to go out and explore—write on my own pages."

The corners of Garen's mouth turn upwards. "I might have guessed."

Ja`le's face grew serious once more as he slipped closer. "Thank you."

"For what?"

Ja`le stepped closer to Garen. "You've let me into your heart and your home—both of which are very private. Yes?"

Garen lowered his head to touch their foreheads together again. "Yes."

Ja`le snuggled against his chest and giggled. "Ren, every time you open your mouth, I love you even more. Make love to me."

Garen flushed. "You certainly are blunt, aren't you?"

Ja`le tilted his head back as he tugged Garen towards the thin sleeping-mat beside the wall. "Fen always said that honesty is a sword and I should never go unarmed."

"Is that so?" Garen permitted Ja`le to pull him down to the soft mat.

"That is so." Ja`le grinned. "We'll bond here, but we'll have to observe the rite at my temple, too, to appease my High Lord. That means you must come with me when I leave… you will, won't you?"

Garen nodded and answered more fully with a kiss, which the shorter rae`lir passionately returned.

Some hours later, Garen lay in quiet contemplation as he held the slender, nude body cuddled against his own. In the silent and pleasant weariness, Garen found himself lost in a gentle sensation he'd never imagined. Sure, he'd read about 'peace' and 'contentment' and 'fulfillment', but this was the first he encountered them. The physical feelings, sensations, and act had been wonderful—a little short-lived, but intense and real—yet it was not that which moved him. He would never forget the feeling of complete sharing, oneness, and openness. Ja`le had been naked before him in ways that far surpassed physical, and he before Ja`le as well. He at least understood now why it was referred to as 'bonding'. As long as he drew breath, he knew Ja`le would always be a part of him—the very best part of him.

As the night crawled on, Garen's logical mind started to recoil from his own forward actions. After all, no intelligent rae`lir bonded—swore eternal love, devotion, and service—to a rae`lir he'd known less than a year, never mind less than an hour. Still, Garen couldn't find a measure of regret, or condemnation for his actions. Despite this, how would he be able to look Ja`le in the eye once the shorter rae`lir realized what a mistake he'd made in bonding with someone with a past as shameful and sordid as Garen's? After all, if Ja`le was now the best part of Garen, didn't that make Garen the worst part of Ja`le?

He closed his eyes with a sigh and held his sleeping companion tighter. Until Ja`le realized his error, Garen would live in the contented peace he'd never imagined he could own. He would hide the joy in his heart, and do whatever he could to care for Ja`le. When the shorter rae`lir discovered his horrible mistake, Garen would free him from his error. Many times in his life, Garen had considered the pros and cons of… ending it. If it provided Ja`le with escape and happiness, this time, Garen would find the strength and courage to not only attempt it, but succeed.

"You can't mean that…"

Garen startled and lifted his head, trying to see the face pressed against his chest. Was Ja`le awake or simply talking in his sleep?

Ja`le shifted, his blue eyes, pale even in the darkness, pierced holes through Garen's soul with the precision of a white-hot lance. Never before had Garen seen such a pained, frightened expression.

"What is it?" he breathed, worry wringing his chest in instant response to the cutting terror wafting from his… his bonded.

Ja`le's arms slithered around Garen's neck, and he drew himself up to hide his face against the broad shoulder. "You wouldn't really, would you? Please tell me you don't mean it."

"Ja`le…?" Garen stopped short when he realized that more than his own thoughts ambled through his turbulent mind. The foreign presence shivered just as badly as the body pressed against him.

Don't say you'll kill yourself… don't leave me… we're not a mistake… Don't regret us…

Garen's eyes flew wide as he realized he'd either woken Ja`le with his dark thoughts or thrust them upon his already-awake bonded. After so long with no mental contact of any kind, he'd forgotten that thoughts and emotions flowed like water between close rae`lire, especially blood relatives and most especially bonded.

"I… I'm sorry," he whispered, reaching into Ja`le's soft, tangled hair. "I'm so sorry. I never meant to—"

Ja`le jerked his head up, displaying something Garen had only read about in books about other races, but had never seen in rae`lirs: tears. "I saw your soul," he whispered. His voice was shaky and lacked any form of confidence. "I love you… you said you'd endure anything… you said you'd take care of me… why would you do something like… like that…?"

"Shhh," Garen quieted as he tightened his hold. "I'm sorry, Ja`le. It was wrong of me… wrong and cowardly. I'm sorry."

"You won't, will you? You won't kill yourself?"

Garen brush the moisture from Ja`le's cheeks. "Except upon your request, I won't."

"I would never!"

"Then neither would I," he whispered as he kissed Ja`le's forehead. "I'm sorry, Ja`le. I told you I didn't know much about love. I didn't mean to hurt you." It sounded weak and pathetic even in his ears, but it was all he could say. "I'm so sorry, Ja`le."

Ja`le sighed and dropped his head again, though his shoulders continued to tremble. "Ren, I'm not going to regret this. I'll never want to separate from you. I don't care about the past… only about our future. Tell me we have one."

Garen swallowed hard and gripped Ja`le's shoulders. We have a future together… for as long as you want me… we have a future

Thank you.

Garen knew there would be more to deal with and probably one or two bigger problems. He could only imagine what sort of trouble they would stumble into when Ja`le revealed his choice to his family. Even as understanding as his parents sounded in the little Ja`le had talked about them, Garen couldn't imagine they would be too pleased when they discovered their son bonded with someone like Garen without so much as an 'oh by the way…' ahead of time.

Oh well; all that was for tomorrow and the days after. Now was for sleeping next to this star fallen to El who was certainly going to keep Garen on his toes, with any luck, for a very long time. Garen smiled, pulled the slender body nearer, and let his eyes drift closed.

}{

Garen woke slowly, pulling from the darkness one sense at a time. At first, he was a confused as to why he heard breathing and motion. When he opened his eyes and glanced about, everything returned to him, and the subtle presence in the back of his mind made sense. He smiled when he saw his bonded sitting, stark-naked, in the reading chair while flipping through one of Garen's oldest books. It almost hurt to look upon someone who now seemed even brighter to his eyes than the daystar.

"Ah, you're awake. Star songs of the morning," Ja`le offered a beaming smile. He shifted a little and tilted his head. "You were so cute sleeping; I didn't want to wake you."

"Star songs…" Cute? Garen flushed and grabbed his robe as he emerged from the sleeping-mat. "It's too chilly to be sitting around with nothing on," he chided lightly. "You should put on your clothes."

Ja`le only laughed and pointed with his thumb at the small window behind him, which allowed morning light to stream over him. "It's warm enough, but here…" He accepted the cloth Garen offered and spread it over his folded legs as he held up the book he was looking at. "This is your favorite isn't it?"

"What?"

"This book. Your favorite?"

"How did you know?"

"It's the most worn," Ja`le explained as he motioned to the others and then gripped the old book once more against his chest. "You like the ones about plants."

"I suppose I do." Garen glanced around, feeling a bit awkward and unsteady. "How… how are you feeling?"

"Amazing," Ja`le answered without a moment's hesitation as he offered another beaming smile. "You were very gentle last night. Thank you."

Garen's flush only deepened. Honesty was a sword indeed. Before he could reply, a solid knock on the door demanded his focus. He stared at the door in his confusion. No one ever came to his door. No one was allowed to come to his door as commanded by the sympathetic High Master. What could possibly be going on?

Garen pulled the door open ever so slightly. It only took him a moment to assess the rae`lir standing there. He wore robes similar to Ja`le's, which meant he was probably also from the contingent from the High Northern Water Temple. His expression was wrought with both frustration and worry.

"Yes?"

"Forgive the intrusion, Master Takl," the stranger puffed as he lowered his head in a respectful nod—the first Garen had ever received. He lifted his eyes again, showing even clearer anxiety. "I am looking for Temple Keeper El'rae. An apprentice said he saw you two walking together yesterday. Do you know where I might find him? I must find him immediately."

El'rae?

"Oh, swamp flies." Ja`le huffed as he stood and jerked his robe on, only keeping it closed with a fist at his chest. "I can't believe you found me this quickly," he grumped as he slid up beside Garen, nudging him aside enough he could see out as well. He leaned heavily against the taller rae`lir's arm and laced their fingers together. "What do you need, Norin? Really; you're worse than Ka's best blood-hunter."

"Your highness!" the stranger gasped as his eyes flicked first up and down Ja`le and then Garen. His face paled with an embarrassed flush. "I… you…" For a moment more, his jaw flopped without words coming out.

"What is it?" Ja`le demanded, sounding much like an impatient child. "You interrupt my first morning, and a very beautiful one I might add, with my bonded, and now you just stand there like an ice statue? What's so 'important'?"

Garen's mind whirled in the answering silence. Highness? El'rae? What in the name of every Holy Elemental Lord did he do last night?

Norin paled in his flush. "Your highness, his majesty sent a summons late in the evening. He instructed me to tell you to return the Royal Estate as soon as you are able."

Ja`le smiled and leaned heavier against Garen's side and tugged the door out of Garen's hand. "Send a reply to my fen and tell him I will return 'as soon as I am able', but that I have a few very important things to settle before then. Star songs, Norin."

Before Norin could make any sort of reply, Ja`le finished shutting the door in his face and then flounced back to the chair. Ja`le dropped down and picked up the book again. "Sorry about that. Norin never has had any sense of timing. In fact, very few from the Wah'ren House do." He flipped a page, looking every inch unaffected by the whole encounter. He lifted his eyes and smiled. "Are you hungry? I can't prepare much, but Ka always praised my boiled everroot. I noticed you had some, and thought it might be nice to have some ready when you woke up… but then I thought it would be more polite to wait instead of just helping myself to your things."

Garen blinked at the shorter rae`lir while his mind whirled in distracted confusion. "What… just happened?"

Ja`le looked up and tilted his head as if he didn't quite understand the question. "Ren? Is something wrong?"

Garen shook his head and pinched the bridge of his nose. Elemental Lords, was that reverberating in his ears the sound of reality cracking? Or had it cracked long ago and Garen only then realized it? "You really are who I think you are, aren't you?"

"Only if you think I'm your bonded," Ja`le answered, his voice tentative and careful. Garen heard him stand and tread over the bare floor to stop just before him. "Ren? I'm nervous. You closed your mind… Have I angered you? Did I do something wrong?"

Garen pressed harder into his fingertips, and his frown deepened even as he lifted the unconscious barrier he'd set up. "Ja`le—"

"If you still love me, put your arms around me until I'm not afraid anymore."

Garen opened his eyes to settle them on the most forlorn and anxious expression he'd ever encountered. Those ice-eyes glittered as they flicked back and forth between his. Garen's heart twisted under the terror flowing through their connection as he pulled Ja`le against his chest. "Forgive me," he whispered. "I did not mean the frighten you. Are you truly the High Prince of El?"

"Well, Fen is king," Ja`le whispered, the slight shiver in his body shaking his voice. "Are you angry I didn't make it clear? I didn't hide it on purpose… it just didn't come up… by the time I even thought of it, we'd already… I mean… I was so sleepy… I figured we'd talk about it later… You don't dislike royalty do you…? I'm sorry… I just… I didn't—"

"It's alright." Garen needed to sooth Ja`le's pained desperation. "I am only surprised… I had guessed your family was of some importance. I just never thought…" It didn't really matter what he had or hadn't thought of.

"You still love me?" Ja`le pulled back so they could commune with their eyes once more.

As before, Garen felt absolutely naked before his slender lover as inquisitive silence passed between them. The corners of his mouth turn up ever so slightly. "Of course. And as long as we're talking outright about our pasts and our lineage, you heard the stone temple keepers, didn't you? My past lies beneath an old, greedy rae`lir, too self-centered to keep the affections of his bonded or his sons and too arrogant to curry enough favor to survive the scandal of being found pounding his little whore in public." He sighed and ripped his gaze away, but knew he had to continue. "Ja`le, I said I would endure anything, and I meant it. Still, you must realize you too will suffer for this choice? You know that if you stay as my bonded, you will share in my shame, and my past will haunt you as it haunts me?"

Ja`le sighed and cuddled beneath Garen's chin. "I know… I knew all along. Isn't that what it means to be bonded?" For a moment, he was quiet. At last, he leaned back and laughed as he gazed up at Garen. "But I wouldn't let something as simple as all that make me regret what I know to be right. Even more, we are already bonded. Though my head is light and my spirit foolish, even I have more honor than to think of a bonding as something that can be undone—even one half-done as ours is."

Garen raised an eyebrow. "Half-done?"

Ja`le smiled. "Remember? I said we had to complete our bonding before High Lord Narsil. He would be very disappointed in me otherwise."

"I remember," Garen sighed and shook his head. He should have realized. Only the House of El'rae had any sort of need to bond before the High Water Lord. Maybe Garen had hidden from the facts to keep from backing out…

"Shall we then?"

Garen pulled his focus back to Ja`le. "Shall we what then?"

"Well, my fen is waiting for our arrival, and I can't go to him until we've finished. That means we must travel to the High Northern Water Temple as soon as possible and then to the capital… Oh, they're going to love you!"

Garen couldn't help his small smile as he shook his head. How could Ja`le make everything sound so absolute and simple? The groundskeeper, or rather former-groundskeeper it seemed, settled in his mind that he bonded with the absolute silliest rae`lir in all of El… and that it didn't bother him in the least. Rather, Ja`le's silliness shone as bright as his earnest honesty and unyielding devotion. He sighed. "I hope you're right."

"Oh I am." Ja`le gave a mischievous smile. He continued, his voice remaining light and unconcerned, "It's that damned High Council you're going to have to worry about—a herd of mindless elris."

When Ja`le pulled away to head towards Garen's small stove, Garen caught his wrist and tugged him back lightly. "Ja`le…" Garen arched his neck to brush a light kiss over the smooth forehead. "Something tells me that my life will never settle into monotony as long as you are at my side."

Ja`le only smiled.

} • {

Garen leaned back after he turned the page in his book. Almost absently, he slid his hand over Ja`le's chest. The prince sighed in his sleep and captured the hand with both of his own as he adjusted a little, pressing his head harder against Gale's thigh—a substitute-pillow as they lounged in the Royal Gardens. Garen recognized the subtle motion of Ja`le drawing from his sleep.

Garen made it through another three pages before Ja`le fully woke.

Ja`le yawned. "Thanks for letting me sleep." His voice was low and scratchy as always when he first woke up.

"You've been working very hard lately," Garen praised.

"Mmm," Ja`le agreed as his fingers tightened around Garen's hand. "I love you so much."

Garen closed the book. He leaned over to kiss Ja`le's temple. "Though I can't imagine why."

Ja`le smiled though he didn't open his eyes. "There you go again being silly."

Me being silly, Garen smirked to himself. "How should I know if you've never told me why?"

Ja`le's smile brightened, and his crystal-eyes held laughter as he looked up at his bonded. His hand lifted to trail along Garen's jaw. "I haven't? Really?"

"Really."

Ja`le laughed and closed his eyes again. The breeze played over them both, making Ja`le's loose hair dance over his forehead. "You remember the day we met?"

Garen smiled. "Of course."

"I was lying in the daystarlight atop a boulder when I heard sweeping. I must have watched you for at least an hour as you made your way up the path towards me."

"My sweeping was that interesting?"

Ja`le laughed and looked up at him. "I believe I mentioned to you almost immediately that day how attractive I find you."

Garen flushed. "You fell in love with my appearance?"

"Of course not; that's just what kept me watching you. At first, I couldn't tell what you kept stopping for, but as you came closer, I realized that every time you stopped, you'd bend down, pick something up, and then move it to the side before continuing on. You know, you could have swept those stupid lizards out of the way along with the leaves."

Garen's flush deepened, and he looked away. "No, I couldn't."

Ja`le smiled and closed his eyes again. "Then, I heard what those darnots were saying—I could tell you heard them, too. Instead of hauling off to beat them right there like the assholes deserved, you didn't say anything. You chose to hurt yourself instead of someone else that rightfully deserved it.

"Then, when you let me drag you off, when you opened up to me, let me in, showed me your soul…" Ja`le opened his eyes again and rolled over to prop himself up. He ran the fingers of his free hand along Garen's jaw. "I knew it was okay that I'd fallen in love with you."

Garen frowned. First, his inability to do his job without considering the damage he might do to the plentiful creatures—too ignorant to run from his broom—and then, his inability to stand up for himself… these were the things that caught his bonded's eye? "Ja`le, you're telling me that you fell in love with my weaknesses?"

"What 'weakness'?" Ja`le frowned. "Ren, if it is weakness to consider others, even stupid creatures, that cannot care for themselves, and weakness to avoid pointless confrontation and baiting, then by the Water Lords, the rae`lir race needs to fall from strength."

"Ja`le—"

The prince shifted to slide into Garen's lap. He use Garen's hair to pull the older rae`lir's head back and leaned forward to tease his tongue past silver lips. After a brief, hungry kiss, Ja`le sat back and massaged his fingers against Garen's scalp. "Ren, I saw that you had a strong heart, that you had apparently unending patience. I saw you were tough enough to rise about hurtful words. All traits my bonded would need to both be able to love someone like me and then to be able to stand by my side. Are you going to tell me I was wrong to fall in love with you?"

Garen's eyes closed when Ja`le nuzzled his neck. He shook his head and settled his hands on Ja`le's hips. "No."

"Tell me you love me."

Garen smiled, breathing in the deep scent of his beloved. "I love you." Of course, words were irrelevant. The way their minds meshed and swirled said more than their tongues words ever could; however, if Ja`le wanted to hear it, Garen was happy to oblige.

Ja`le slid his arms around Garen's neck. He rocked his hips and whispered in his bonded's ear: "Ren, I want your egg."

Garen stiffened, his eyes flying wide. Instantly, his mind froze, even though Ja`le continued to push at the edges, laying bare his deep desire for what he'd just asked for. Elemental Lords, they'd had this conversation already. Garen knew that Ja`le wanted an egg, but how could he, in good conscience, agree to that wish? Not with him and his past. Every time the slender prince asked, it drove a knife deeper in Garen's chest that he couldn't enthusiastically, or even half-heartedly, agree.

"Ja`le—"

"Ren," he whispered, heartbreak in his words and in the touch of his mind. "I know you're afraid. I know… but just imagine. Wouldn't it be marvelous? Your child, my child… I want your child. I want to take our love and hold it up for all of El to see. I want to hold him in my arms. Ren, I want your egg so much… I ache for him…"

"Ja`le…"

Ja`le pulled back and settled those intense eyes of crystal blue. "I'm not saying that you have to give me one just because I want one. I just want you to think about it, consider it seriously. Bonding with me hasn't turned out to be such a terrible idea, has it?"

Garen smiled and shook his head as he threaded his fingers through Ja`le's hair. For a moment, he simply drank in his beloved's image and his comforting presence. "It's been the best thing in my life."

Ja`le smiled. "Then you'll think about it?"

Garen's breath caught in his throat as he looked into those hopeful eyes. It would be so much safer just to continue to reject the idea and leave it at that. It was a terrible idea, and it would only end up hurting them all: him, Ja`le, and the egg yet to exist. If he let himself think about it, he knew what conclusion he would probably come to: that Ja`le's wish and Ja`le's love were great enough that any egg would be lucky to belong to him, even if it had Garen as ka as well.

He shook his head and sighed.

Ja`le immediately looked crestfallen. "You won't even think about it?" Hurt and sadness instantly charged the air around them.

Garen leaned forward to press a loving kiss against Ja`le's chin. "I don't have to think about it. If you think it's a good idea, then it must be a good idea."

Ja`le's eyes flew wide and a bright, joyous smile swept over his lips. "You agree? We really can try for an egg?"

"Yes, and I'll love him as I love you."

Ja`le laughed and swooped down to take excited possession of Garen's lips. His unending smile made the kiss a little awkward, but exciting nonetheless as his mind echoed of love, happiness, and hope.

Garen let his reservations and his doubts fade beneath the confident light washing over him. Ja`le was happy. Ja`le, though flighty as a jay bird, would be a good fen because his devotion was as wide as the stars, and Garen would do his best to protect them both. It would have to be enough.

} • {

Garen straightened his back as he settled his unbending glare on the group of glowering rae`lire who returned his animosity with equal fervor. A herd of mindless elris… that had been an apt description for El's High Council and its members.

"You may think you've become something because our idiot-princeling latched onto you, but Ja`le is as rash as he is empty-headed," one of the council members snarled.

"Furthermore," another began, "we have spent entire years working to mold that boy into some semblance of a decent ruler. You think you can succeed where we have only met limited success?"

"Besides, what can you know?" the closest rae`lir growled as he pushed away from the table. "Simply because you spent a few seasons screwing our prince gives you neither experience nor a voice in matters over state, you whore."

Garen's jaw locked until the pounding of his hearts made his vision dance. At last, his anger ebbed to a level where he might maintain some control over it.

Elemental Lords, why did they have to make everything so complicated? Garen had just wanted to deliver the message that, soon, Ja`le would take a break from attending royal duties. Why did they feel the need to turn the encounter into a smear-fest? "Honorable Councilmembers," he began. "You are all, of course, entitled to your opinion. If that is all the business the High Council has with me, I must return to his highness."

He stalked from the room without pausing when they called to him that they were 'in no way finished!' He was finished—his message delivered, after all—and they didn't sound like they had any real business with him.

Garen forced himself to breathe deep and slow as he combated his boiling anger. It would not do to blow up at the High Council yet again. He realized that every time he lost his temper, he justified their bigoted hatred and their malicious words. Really though, their cruel speech, harsh treatment, and backhanded operations nearly drove him back into his darkness, even with Ja`le's penetrating light ever near.

Calm down, he admonished himself. You'll worry Ja`le and that will hurt the egg. At the word 'egg' his rage roared even stronger. It was one thing for those old fools to direct their injustice at him, but when he'd heard them mumbling about the 'weakness' and 'disloyalty' that would surely plague the new egg's steps for life, he'd almost tripped right over the brink of sanity. He'd only talked himself down from it with the rationale that it was believed that both weaknesses and strengths were passed from ka to child. Since they truly believed him to be weak and disloyal, it only made sense that they would believe his son would be the same.

Still, that bitter hatred twisted Garen's heart. His child was going to live under that same hatred. Maybe it would have been better if they'd never made an egg together. Why had he permitted Ja`le convince him that it was a beautiful and wonderful idea? Even to gain an heir, a thought that hadn't seemed to enter Ja`le's mind—he'd just wanted their baby—this might not be worth the suffering.

Garen wanted to reach out to Ja`le, to take comfort from his bonded's steady love, but he knew that Ja`le and both the King and the King's Consort were busy at negotiations with the humans of Gartu. Past experience taught Garen, that even the slightest mental brush would distract Ja`le and reinforce the prince's constant desire to shirk responsibilities and leave to find his beloved. No. Garen would simply have to stand on his own strength and wait for Ja`le.

"My lord!"

Ja`le turned towards the frantic servant rushing toward him. The young rae`lir skidded to a halt as he fell into a respectful bow. "Forgive my interruption, his Highness's Consort," he panted. "The High Prince left the King's negotiation early complaining of a headache. On the way to your chambers, he fell. My lord, please come and—"

Before the boy could even finish his words, Garen darted back towards the long walk's entrance. "Summon his physician and Temple Keeper Wah'ren!" Garen dropped his mental shield, which prevented Ja`le from distracting himself, and felt his guts twist in horror. How long had Ja`le been screaming for him and he'd not heard? Elemental Lords damn him for his foolishness!

"Ja`le," he breathed dropping beside his beloved, who curled around himself on the cold, stone floor. Garen drew the prince's upper body into his lap and ran gentle fingers over the sweat-slicked forehead and the hair stuck there. "Oh, beloved, forgive me."

"Ren," Ja`le whimpered reaching up to grip Garen's sleeve. He turned his head to bury his face in Garen's lap. "High Lord Narsil… it… it hurts so much."

Garen forced himself to stave off his panic. Nothing would be improved by it, and he felt Ja`le's tentative grip on sanity would shatter without Garen's steady control. Tell me what's wrong, he soothed, reaching out with his mind.

Ja`le's mental touch was shivering and pained as he accepted Garen's contact. While his body moaned and whimpered, his mind wrapped around Garen with the strength of a constricting snake. Egg… was the only coherent sentiment.

Garen's eyes flew wide. "Oh, Elemental Lords," he invoked even he shifted his hold. He gritted his teeth as he ambled into a standing position with Ja`le curled in his arms. To say it was easy would have been an outright lie. Ja`le was no longer the slender waif he'd bonded with some six years ago. He was still much shorter than Garen, and not nearly as solid in build, but he was an adult—a full rae`lir by every standard—and he was carrying their egg. Still, Garen's determination overpowered logic and perhaps one or two physical laws to bring them both quickly to their chambers.

"Easy now." Garen ran comforting fingers over Ja`le's twisting face. "Everything will be fine."

Ja`le writhed, both hands drawing to his distended abdomen, as his eyes remained pinched shut. It was at that moment, Garen realized that Ja`le hadn't made a sound in some time and that his face paled in a deep flush. A disjointed memory of the Royal Physician's advice returned to Garen and he frowned, taking both sides of Ja`le's head. "Ja`le, look at me."

Slowly, the prince's eyes opened to display pain as Garen did not imagine a single rae`lir could bear.

Garen swallowed hard. "Ja`le, breathe."

For a moment only silence met him.

"You don't want to hurt our egg, do you?" Garen reasoned. "You take a breath right now for me."

In instant answer, Ja`le unclenched his jaw and sucked in the most desperate, ragged breath that Garen had ever had the displeasure of hearing. Immediately after the inhalation, a broken wail of pain shattered the air. It ripped at Garen. How could his beloved be in so much pain when Garen had sworn to protect him?

Keep breathing, he instructed as he continued to caress his loved-one both in the physical and the mental. He knew better than to think that Ja`le could hear him now in any other form than over their link.

At last, the physician, Norin, and the King himself arrived. Ja`le's protests of the pain had ebbed to quiet whimpering. The physician and Norin set about their tasks without a word while the King dropped to Ja`le's opposite side.

"Ah, my foolish child," he comforted with a tender smile—the most open Garen had ever observed from the reserved, stoic rae`lir. "You do pick the most inappropriate times for things."

"Fen…" Ja`le gasped. "Ren… I…"

The King smiled and laid his hand on Ja`le's forehead. "I understand, banu." He lifted apologetic eyes to Garen and sighed. "Garen," he began, "Ja`le would like you to leave."

Garen's chest tightened as his throat and eyes burned. Of course, he'd guessed what the King was going to say before he even finished his words. Still, it hurt to think he wasn't what his beloved needed or wanted in this very difficult time. Garen bit his lip before leaning over to lay a light kiss over Ja`le's forehead. "Be strong, my love," he whispered. I am always with you.

Without another word, Garen stood and left. He didn't even fight it when the King's mental wall rose around both him and Ja`le, shutting Garen out completely. He shivered a little in his sudden isolation. Six seemingly-short years since he'd experienced such. Even when he and Ja`le made their agreements to block each other out for reasons of state, it was never this complete or silent. The mental wall that Ja`le put up always remained fluid and inviting—the slightest push enough to dissolve it. Obviously, Garen's were a little more solid, but just as transient. Why hadn't it fallen when Ja`le called for him? He shook his head in realization. His anger had fortified his walls and trapped him within them just as they excluded his bonded.

Idiot, he growled to himself.

"You mustn't be so hard on yourself, boy."

Garen lifted his eyes in surprise. He hadn't heard the King's Consort approach. "K-ka," he breathed as he looked away in embarrassment from the sympathetic eyes.

The rae`lir chuckled and offered a hand to the taller rae`lir who sat in a miserable slump on the floor. "Walk with me."

Garen obeyed.

"It is a strange thing, bringing an egg to light," Janor began. "I know you are frightened, but do not worry. Tra`le tells me that everything is going just fine. Ja`le will bring your child to light and both he and little Ga`le will be fine. You'll see."

Garen couldn't help but smile. "Ja`le couldn't bear the thought of our child's name meaning darkness's hammer," he offered. "He's insisting on 'Gale'."

Janor was silent before he burst out laughing. "What an impractical boy. He thinks nothing of the High Council, does he? Really, a Rae`lir King with a name that mean's 'butterfly'? I think this may send some of those old fogies to their grave… I assume you did try and convince him otherwise?"

"I did." Garen's smile widened a touch. "He told me that when I carry the egg, I will be allowed to decide whether we observe decorum or not, but that he would never give his egg such a foreboding name. He said if I didn't like it, I was welcome to never touch him again."

"He does get his head stuck on the strangest things, doesn't he?"

"I suppose," Garen agreed. "After all, he picked me."

For a moment, Janor was quiet. "I don't know if we ever told you, Garen… both Tra`le and I feel he could not have made a better choice."

Garen actually stopped walking as he stared at the King's Consort. While he knew that Ja`le's ka and fen supported him—as attested by the law that no one was to ever even speak of Garen's past again: instant death to rumors—he'd never imagine it was for any reason more than they were as stuck with the situation as the rest of El was.

"R-really?"

Janor looked back at him and smiled. "Ah, I guess we didn't. My apologies, boy. Yes, of course. Ja`le has always leaned towards the undisciplined side. Still, he's an excellent judge of character, and you have proven to be a steadying force and a devoted mate. What more could we have wanted for our child?"

"Someone without a past like mine… Someone who would not bring him and his child the opposition of the High Council."

Janor actually laughed. "I never realized you were as silly as Ja`le."

Garen jerked his head up. "What?"

Janor turned and continued walking, leaving Garen no choice but to follow. "I already told you Ja`le is an excellent judge of character, and you know that both Tra`le and I are very concerned for our child and his well-being. Even if there was some rae`lir the High Council would approve of that, by some miracle, made it past King and Consort, Ja`le would never accept him, and vice versa. The High Council thinks only of themselves, the aristocracy, and tradition—in that order. I don't remember a time in our history when that did not put them at odds with the Royal Family for some reason or another. It is simply part of what it means to be of the House of El'rae. No. Ja`le could not have found a better partner than one who has seen the very darkest of El and somehow still managed to find the strength for love and compassion. You are what's best for both Ja`le and El itself. Never doubt that."

"Thank you."

"Not at all."

Garen's focus shifted back to his bonded, who currently fought for the life of their egg—for their son. Still, the King's mental wall stood between him and the most precious thing—things—in the universe. He knew he couldn't be comfortable until Ja`le was back in his arms and mind with their egg safe in the incubating chamber.

"Garen, I want you to look here and listen very carefully to me." Janor stopped walking and turned towards Garen.

Janor wasn't nearly as tall as the younger rae`lir, but in that moment he seemed towering. Garen planted his feet and fought the twisting in his gut that demanded he step back—a sign of both disrespect and weakness. "Yes?"

"You're extremely sharp; as such, I imagine you would have figured this out if you hadn't lost your parents so young, so I'm going to tell you, because you need to know. Even if Gale never realizes it, and many never do, he is going to want to be you. He is going to want to think like you, act like you, breathe, and even love like you. A child's closest bond will always be to his fen, but there is an unbreakable draw to one's ka. This is why rae`lirs believe our strengths and weaknesses are inherited from our ka. In a sense they are."

Garen swallowed hard and lowered his head. "I don't know if I can be a good ka."

Janor smiled. "That's why we're having this conversation, boy. You must be aware of your responsibilities. Gale exists right now. He's going to hatch whether you think you can be a good ka or not… Do you love Ja`le?"

Garen jerked his head up, surprised and almost offended by the question. "Of course."

"And Gale… do you love him?"

"More than my life."

"Then you are already a good ka, Garen. Continue on as you have and when Gale emulates you, he will have nothing to apologize for or regret."

"Ka… if rae`lirs want to be their ka…?" Garen stopped speaking, unsure how to appropriately phrase his question.

"You want to know why Ja`le acts nothing like I do?"

"Well…" He flushed. "Yes."

Janor smiled. "Ja`le doesn't do anything in partials or 'almosts'. His character is extreme, and he immerses himself in everything he does without reservation. Even wanting to emulate our ka does not mean we become little clones. Within two days of meeting Tra`le, I'd decided he would be my bonded: though it took him a little longer to agree than you did—that stubborn, stuffed robe." The King's Consort grinned. "I can't stand those ridiculous meetings, and I would take woods-walking over reading or recitation any day. Also… tall rae`lirs make my knees week." He laughed and turned away again when Gale choked. "Don't worry, boy; you're far too young to turn my head."

And you're blunt as a spoon, Garen groaned to himself.

Janor smirked as a teasing light entered his eyes. "Tra`le tells me that Ja`le's brought Gale to light, and though he still needs to rest, we may visit the egg. Come along, my boy, let's go meet your son."

} • {

Garen smiled lifting the newly hatched rae`lir to cradle the sleeping baby in his arms. Gale babbled in his infant comprehension as his immature mind darted around, reaching and touching and bumping into his parents' in search for the tiny entity that was his baby brother. He leaned far out of Ja`le's corralling arms, straining for the new addition to the Royal Family. "Ja`le, you know the High Council will never accept him."

Ja`le stepped closer, and Gale's little hand latched onto Garen's arm. Ja`le tilted his head in appraisal and laughed with that childish innocence he always managed to command. "What I know is that the High Council is a pack of idiots. That child is mine as much as Gale is yours. I know you're faithful to me. That's all that matters."

"Ja`le—"

"Ren, don't say any more. A new fen shouldn't worry over things like this. It's not good for you or for Ja`ren. This is an important time to bond. You don't want to warp our poor boy now, do you?"

"Isn't this a switch?" Garen replied with a light chuckle as he stepped closer. "Usually, it's me giving advice."

Ja`le smiled. "I think this is the first time that I've done something worthwhile before you. That's all."

"They are beautiful, aren't they?" Garen smiled as he looked down on his two sons. Gale had succeeded in his attempt to touch the sleeping baby, both mentally and physically. Now, he cooed at his little brother in his own still-childish gibberish. Ja`ren squirmed a little in unconscious response.

Ja`le leaned forward to press against Garen's arm and the taller rae`lir felt him smile. "They are the most beautiful of rae`lirs," he agreed. "And they will both find themselves the luckiest to have you as a parent."

Garen chuckled and shook his head. He knew what perils and trials his sons would face—most due to his past. "Perhaps we should say they will find themselves lucky that their parents love each other and them."

Ja`le smiled. "Perhaps."

Garen took the still moment to bask in the peace and joy of his bonded's mind and love as well as the wonder that radiated from Gale. He looked down on the baby—his throat tightening at the quiet innocence and the rapidly strengthening connection between himself and the little hatchling… his little Ja`ren… his banu.

Light.

So much light washing over him and his soul. He smiled and sent a grateful prayer to his Lords that they saw fit to give him such illuminating love. More than ever before, the darkness, which had once held such prominent position in his life, shrank away. It would always be there—a reminder—but he knew, after finding such love, he'd never fall beneath it again.

"Ja`le, I love you all," he murmured.

The prince looked up and smiled, leaning closer and standing on his tiptoes to steal a sweet, short kiss. "I know." He giggled. "And we love you, too."