I was hired to be a ghostwriter for the anthropologist Sarah Alstein who wanted to write a book about her experiences in the Talihu, a jungle valley where a very isolated group lived. She had studied them for nearly a decade and had written multiple papers on them, but now she wanted to write something that would be accessible to the public and I'd been chosen.

For better or worse, to take on this assignment, I'd agreed to be introduced to the tribe she'd spent most of her time studying, in order to better understand what I would be writing about. I didn't really see the need, but she was funding the trip and was insistent. Who was I to argue when she was footing the bill?

Among anthropology circles, the tribe (Tsectulek in their own tongue) was lightly called the Peacock tribe (although it was with great humor that some pointed out they were the Peafowl tribe). Among the animal kingdom, the male is normally the sex that must prove itself to the female in order to mate. Among humans, the female is the one that tries to impress the male with physical beauty.

However, the Tsectulek follow traditional animal behavior in their courting: The women's appearances do not matter, only their health and strength, while the men are primped within an inch of their life in order to impress. Beautiful men, everywhere you look. With my weakness as it was, I should have known better, and yet I found myself flying (trucking, donkeying and walking) to this remote location.

"I'm impressed you haven't complained more," Sarah chirped happily. I had thought she was a cross woman at first, but once we'd entered the jungle she became almost merry. I suppose it was more her home than anything outside of it ever was.

"What's the point of complaining?" I pointed out, shifting the weight of the pack on my back. It was half the size of our two guides, a couple from the tribe, but it still dug into my shoulders.

When we met them, the guides, both locals, had gotten my attention. The woman was broad and strong but still feminine, carrying equal weight to her husband. It was her husband who'd caught my eye, not because he was exceedingly handsome, but because he was not. He was fairly good looking, easy on the eyes for certain, and fit, but nothing that drove me to distraction. I'd nearly celebrated—maybe temptation wouldn't be around every hut.

"Once the male has found a mate," Sarah had started off, obviously seeing me watch Yulthu, "they no longer work so hard to keep up appearances. After all, the prize has been won and now the efforts go toward rearing young and feeding the family."


That had not been encouraging. Sarah did not know of my weakness, or at least I hadn't told her of it. But she was a woman used to studying people and taking things for as she saw them, not for what they seemed, and I had little doubt she suspected.

Yulthu's wife said something in their rapid tongue and her husband and Sarah laughed for a moment before she translated, "Ntu says you should consider staying with the village, that you'd do well there."

I blushed, which just made the women laugh harder, "They must have a different judge of beauty here then."

"Not really." She did not elaborate.

They spoke, but I had no chance to follow the conversation as Sarah did not translate. It was well enough, there was plenty to absorb my attention as we walked through the humid wilderness. Flashes of color flew overhead and I saw birds darting among the limbs and leaves, calling out in sometimes beautiful, sometimes terrible cries of romance.

"We're nearly there," Sarah said, perking up.

I kept behind the three as they eagerly crossed the final distance. On the edge of the village we paused, as we were greeted by important members of the tribe. I tried to stay hidden, but Sarah pulled me to stand beside her, showing me off to them, and them off to me.

Two elders, male and female, stood in similar skirts (I suppose loin cloth could be used, but that draws up images of barbarians) and not much else. They were old and wrinkled, but had the same brown skin as was common in the area. I tried to keep my eyes on them, but as they all set off in their native tongue, my focus wandered to the boys beside them.

I call them boys, but they ranged in age from twelve to young adult, each more breath-taking than the last, until my eyes fell on the oldest and my chest ached to know something so perfect existed. So perfect that I could never have.

His black hair sheened like a raven's wing, long and free, brushed back off his shoulders except for a single braid that hung from his temple. His skin was not just brown, it had a bronze tint, as if it were dusted with gold. He was tall, lean but not scrawny; no, he was long muscles that could outrun a lion and outclimb a monkey. His face was broad, but still delicate, feminized enough to make him beautiful but not weak.

When his eyes captured mine, they were black pits of mystery, and when he smiled, I could see stars in them. When his lips moved, his full, pink lips, I realized he was talking, then that he was talking to me, and then that he was speaking English.

I tried to shake myself from the stupor he'd woven around me, "Sorry?"

The others laughed, making comment in their native tongue, but the god before me just ignored them. "Welcome to our village." His voice was thick with the English words, and my own language felt unwieldy compared to the grace with which they spoke their own.

"Th-thank you," I managed to only stutter once, unable to take my eyes from him. "What is your name?"

"I am Muyan. You are Ian Cross." He pronounced my name "e-Yan," emphasizing the "y."

"Yes," my heart was pounding in my chest and I realized I'd lost myself in his eyes and lips and was unaware of the outside world. "How did you know?"

"Sarah," said "SAH-rah," "tell us you come."

I was still staring in his eyes when he turned and said something to one of the others, and I realized they must have asked him a question. Blood rushed to my cheeks as I glanced around, but no one seemed bothered by my staring. They led us to the hut where we'd be staying.

"I told you they were beautiful," Sarah said with a certain amount of amusement.

"I never said they weren't," I mumbled, keeping my attention on her so it would not be caught by our guide, the beautiful Muyan.

"Muyan is the best in the tribe," Sarah bragged. "He's gotten more handsome with each year."

"I can see that," I said, before I could properly think about it. She did not make comment and I hoped Muyan did not hear. "I'm surprised he's not married yet, or whatever it is they do."

"He hasn't actually courted anyone yet. I suppose it's possible he's looking for someone that will match his beauty."

We said nothing more as he led us into the hut where a curtain hung between our two sides. We set up our cots as our companions left our belongings there and went off to do their own things. I fiddled with my luggage.

"So now that you've seen them, do you think your words will do them justice?"

"I will try," I admitted, "but I doubt even a picture could capture them."

She laughed, "So true." There was some silence as we both shuffled through our things. I had begun pondering if there was somewhere I could clean up, or at least get some privacy, when Sarah pulled back the curtain. "I know he's caught your eye, so I will give you this warning: relations between men is tolerated, but not among the elite, those like Muyan. Muyan will be expected to bear children and pass his features along, so do not go after him."

If I wasn't already red, her direct statements would have colored me. "I--" but I had nothing to say. Instead I nodded mutely, suddenly ashamed of my thoughts. After all, my attraction toward Muyan could cause him trouble, and when I left, he would be the one to deal with the consequences. I would be sure to keep my focus; this was not a holiday. "You're right."

"Of course I am."

"Is there a place I can wash up? I feel…dirty."

There was. It was a common wash area for just about everything in the village, a surprisingly clean river—and its pollutants were very different from those back home. The bath was ridiculously enjoyable, after getting over the lack of privacy, since Sarah joined me in the water and people came and went without bother, paying us no more heed than I suppose any visitor to the village.

I was kept busy until dinner, being introduced to people, learning who spoke English and who could help me with what if I ever needed it. It was strange how welcomed I felt, even though I was an outsider. I suppose it was because I was brought by Sarah, and she had become a beloved member of the tribe.

It was dinner that brought about curious circumstances. According to custom, the single men ate separate from the women and couples, so I was forced to leave the comfort of Sarah's side to join the other singles. I was a little shocked by this, but I think Sarah was planning it, because she told me to say if anything interesting happened. I suppose this was one part of tribe life she could not partake in.

Kiathk led me to where the single men ate, jabbering in his native tongue, even though he knew I didn't understand him. He spoke English, but not much, and I knew nothing of his language. But still, he spoke, pointing at things and going on as we entered the communal area, which distracted me until we got our food, and then I sat down and he was pulled over to some of his friends.

I wasn't exactly sure what was in my hand to be eaten, but it smelled edible and I took a glance around to see what the others were doing. And then there was a warm body sitting down beside me, far closer than spacing required, his arm pressed against mine. Muyan said, "If you use the bread to sop up the juices, it is like a spoon."

I stilled like some wild prey, except for my heart, which pounded. "Oh."

He showed me with his bread, smiling happily when I imitated. He ate gracefully, but a certain amount of poise had faded from his behavior. When I was able to glance around, I saw it was true of all the men—they were more relaxed. Muyan would tell me later that they ate separately so there were no women to impress and they could eat their meal in peace.

"Do you enjoy our food?" He asked once I'd taken a bite. I wasn't sure what to make of it, but it wasn't bad, so I nodded and swallowed.

"You speak English very well."

"I wanted to learn," he smiled and if I'd been eating I would have choked as my heart leapt in my throat. "Sarah has been here a long time, she taught many of us, but I was," he paused, "ah..hard..no…ah…determined."

I had to clear my throat before I could talk, "Why so determined?"

"I see the world shrink. I have visions of the world outside, and I see it come to us. We must learn your language or be broken of our own."

I wasn't sure how much of what he said was confused due to misused language or just culture clash, so I nodded and pretended to understand. I tried to discretely move away so his heat wasn't so near, while making it seem like I was just trying to eat, but he just leaned closer when I did. I wasn't sure if moving would be considered rude, but his warmth and scent were beginning to re-stir the reaction he'd planted earlier that day.

"What do you think of our home?"

My eyes lifted to him on their own command and I was speechless, once again, when I found the eager smile in his eyes and on his parted lips. I may have shuddered in ecstasy as I forced myself to look back at the food in my hand. "You have a lovely home."

I had just shoved something in my mouth when Muyan leaned closer, "And what do you think of me?"

As I started choking, Muyan wrapped his arms around my waist and squeezed, the suddenly gust of air forcing the chunk from my throat. As I gasped for air, his arms did not pull away, only one moved, the other staying around my waist.

"Are you fine?"

I trembled. I could have died fine several seconds ago when he was hugging me. "What are you doing?"

"Getting to know you," he frowned, pulling his arm away. "Is that not good?"

I glanced up, suddenly aware that my choking fit had drawn a lot of attention and they were not shy about staring. "I…such close touching is normally only for good friends or lovers where I'm from."

"Yes," he answered brightly, pressing his side to mine. "Good friends."

"Right…" I couldn't argue with that, and if I could have, I was rendered incapable by his proximity. My food had fallen to the ground, but I was no longer hungry. I could sustain myself on Muyan's beauty alone, I thought poetically.

"Here, we can share," he offered me a bite of his and when I tried to take the food from his hand, he refused to release it, so I instead guided his fingers to my mouth and took the bite that way. He finished off what I hadn't, then licked his fingers with such enthusiasm that my groin ached and I was grateful for the thickness of my pants.

Dinner passed this way, and when his food was eaten and mine was discarded, he vanished and I was left alone to find Sarah once again. But halfway to where I knew I could find her, I realized I could not look her in the face when I was heading a course exactly where she'd told me not to go with Muyan.

So instead I went to our hut, stripping to my pants and stretching out on the cot to rest. It was warmer than I was used to, but being shirtless helped, and I wondered if I should just take a page from local intelligence and go that way for the rest of my month-long stay. Warm and exhausted, I dozed in and out, listening to the sounds of the wild and of nature.

I didn't open my eyes when I heard someone enter the hut, figuring Sarah had returned. But when the curtain rustled, I looked to the blackness and found Muyan framed in the moonlight. The darkness did nothing to lessen his brilliance. The moon glittered off his golden skin, highlighting the curves and valleys of his muscles.

When I tried to sit up, he pressed his hand to my shoulder, warm and hot, it cut to my groin and I fell back helpless against him.

"You are beautiful." Those should have been my words, but he whispered them against my lips as he kissed me, and kissed me, his slender fingers running over my skin as I kissed him back.

I was lost in his kisses, in his caresses, in feeling his smooth skin as it moved beneath my hands. I was surprised when he straddled me, not just because I found this beautiful man over me, but because the cot did not break with our weight.

I did not stop him from stripping me, or myself from stripping him. I could not deny him anything. Not when he whimpered and begged me to enter him, not when he told me harder and faster, until the cot would break. Had he asked for the moon I would have reached for it.

Only after we were sated and shifted so he was once again lying over me, did I realize what I had done.

"Oh god."

He shifted, our skin sticky with sweat and clinging. "Is it time for prayer?"

"I…I shouldn't have…I mean…Sarah warned me…" I barely made sense to myself, let alone someone for whom English was a second language. But he seemed to understand my panic.

"It is fine. It was good, was it not?"

He had propped himself up to watch me, and I wrapped my arms around him, crushing him to my chest, "Oh, god, it was amazing, Muyan. But we shouldn't have…I mean, you're meant to marry someone and I just…"

"You fear the elders will be mad?" he smiled, and I saw the devil in that look. "They will forgive this as being young, and they will not see it because I am beautiful. And you will leave soon and I will take a wife. Then everyone will be happy."

I frowned, realizing I must not be his first tryst, "You have this well thought out."

"I had all day to think of how to come to you." He hummed, rubbing his body against mine, waking us both though I thought myself exhausted. "How to get you."

Before anything could be started, Sarah returned, luckily staying on her side of the curtain. Muyan and I dressed and with a final kiss he left me by the door. Sarah must have heard the movement, because she joined me by the open area where a soft breeze blew.

In the light of the moon her eyes skimmed over my pale and bare chest, then she sighed and looked out into the night. "Be careful."


"Just be careful with him, since it seems you are unable to stay away."

"But he--"

"Just be careful," she sighed once more and turned, heading into her portion of our room.

My month was well spent. I made friends and learned more about their culture first hand than Sarah would have been able to describe to me, helping me construct her book more clearly in my mind. I also began learning the language, although it was so very different from my own.

Muyan became a personal tutor, forcing me to use his language while he would use mine, except for when he would talk for hours about his village and land, trying to teach me through immersion.

He also was my lover. He was right about people not saying anything, although the look in their eyes told me they saw. It was hard to hide, since his dark skin may blend any marks I left, my pale skin did not offer me the same kindness. They knew who left those bruising kisses, but I would be gone in a month and he would take a wife, and everyone would be happy.

At least, everyone in the tribe. I was not so blind to see that I had quickly fallen in love with Muyan, beyond his beauty and the sex. I could not help but think that he enjoyed my company as well, although he did not look to me with the longing that I felt in my heart. He knew he had duty to his tribe, while I was free to fall in love and suffer heartbreak.

The night before Sarah and I were to leave, the tribe had a grand celebration for us. We feasted, we danced, we laughed and we sang. And when it was late enough, we escaped to the river where we could share our intimacy in our own quiet.

["We are the river, and though we change, we are still the river,"] he murmured against my collarbone, stroking along my ribs. I ran my fingers through his hair, feeling the anxious flutter of my heart when I thought of the next day.

"I won't forget you."

"Nor I, you, Ian," he promised, leaving kisses in the wake of his words.

We spent the night together, moving to the hut and my cot when we needed to escape the bugs and the chill of evening. We kept our passions in check once Sarah returned, but it was enough to spend the night sleeping beside the one I loved. I woke before him, giving me the chance to stroke my fingers through his hair and memorize his peaceful face and every inch of his body.

When Sarah got up, I was forced to as well, and Muyan, lying atop me, gave me one last kiss, one final hug, one brush of his thumb against my cheek before he was gone. I was glad he was not seeing us off with the rest of the village; I wasn't certain I could stop my tears if he had.

Outside the elders greeted us with our guides and we said good-bye. I received hugs from many of them, but I am sure others were glad to see me go. Not that they did not like me, but I know some of the women were jealous of the attention I'd taken from Muyan and that I delayed him courting any of them. With our final words, the four of us headed into the wilds again, although they didn't seem nearly as wild as they had when I started. I tried to look at the birds that Muyan had taught me, but their bright colors just made me think of him.

My lips trembled, but I held back the sobs that burned to escape. Instead I wept as we walked, not caring that the others knew. We walked and I wept and I heard Ntu whisper to her husband, "Atch noi mongie eoix."

He has left his soul behind.

I wept.

If I had thought returning home would be some important, monumental event in my life, I was sadly mistaken. My friends had missed me and I had a rush of calls when I got back, but most I had to put off in order to work with Sarah and her book. I threw myself into it, drowning myself in the memories that were stored there.

In the end, the book did surprisingly well for nonfiction, and it boosted both our careers, as Sarah was very free about who had helped her write the story of the Peacock tribe. More work was good, since I'd done none in my absent month, and it let me settle into life again.

If my friends thought I was distant, they didn't say anything, and they didn't bother me when I couldn't seem to rile interest in any of the men who came my way. A few thought I was crazy when handsome guys would show interest, but all I could think was, They look so bland compared to Muyan.

I had hoped time and distance would help me forget him, or at least shove him to some corner of my mind, but the ache in my chest wouldn't go away. Just as I thought I was going to go crazy, Sarah contacted me again.

She was heading back to Talihu and wanted to know if I would like to join her. It involved paying my own way, but I accepted. Despite my desire to see Muyan again, I wasn't going in order to be with him. I hoped that he would have a wife, and possibly a child, and I could realize that it was really over. Maybe that would be enough to push me from where I was, lost in some crazed thought that he was The One. I knew he wasn't, our paths just happened to cross, so perhaps seeing him move on would help me.

I hoped.

The journey there did not go smoothly.

Our first flight was canceled, our second was delayed. When we were finally in the right country, the truck we'd hired had a flat tire and we had to wait an hour before we left the airport. The heat seemed to welcome me back, wrapping around me and cradling me, until I realized that I was just projecting my memories with Muyan on the weather. I nearly broke down at that, unsure if it was with laughter or tears.

The rest of the trip became a blur, as each moment I wondered what I was doing and if it was worth it. Worth having my heart broken again. Worth wasting all the money to come out here where I could catch some horrible disease. Worth seeing him again. I wondered if I was crazy. I wondered what he would think when he saw me.

Ntu and her husband were our guides once more, and I let their chatter fill my ear as they updated Sarah on everything that had changed and who had birthed and who had married and who had died. But I didn't listen, trapped in my thoughts and uncertain about being there. But it was too late to turn back now.

At the border of their village we were once again greeted by the elders and three of the more beautiful boys. They seemed dull to me, but I had been blinded by the sun, I knew this already.

["I am surprised Muyan is not here,"] Sarah said after everyone had greeted. ["But I suppose he is busy with his family."]

Frowns flickered over their faces, and they shared glances before Elder Hiukn answered, ["He is gone from us."]

["What?"] I interrupted, panic evident in my voice. Surely I had misunderstood.

["He was out hunting and met with a mad tiger. His fellow hunters were not swift enough,"] Hiukn said.

["He was ruined,"] Ntu added. ["Once he was well, he left the village."]

Yulthu caught me before I collapsed to the ground. I couldn't seem to gasp in air fast enough.

["Could he still be alive out there?"] Sarah asked, probably for my sake, as all I could do was gape like a fish.

["We do not know. He said he was heading for the city, but he knows so little of life outside of our way."]

"He's not dead?" I cried out, clinging to Yulthu to stand and look at them all. Realizing my blunder, I repeated, ["He's not dead?"]

["We have not heard from him since he left us."] Ntu watched me, worried. Did I look insane? My heart was pounding in my chest as I tried to straighten my thoughts.

["Can you take me there?"] I glanced between the two trusted guides, begging. ["Can you take me to the city?"]

I was lost in the rush of language, but they were at least considering my plea. It was enough to give me the strength to find my feet again. My body was still shaking, but I focused to follow the conversation.

["How will he find him in the city? Will we send them to wander aimlessly with him?"

"They don't have to stay with him, they can return once he's there. He can find his own way after that."

"We cannot leave tonight, we have walked so far already. And look at him, he will collapse soon."

"Tomorrow then, will you Ntu?"]

Ntu nodded and I fell on her in a grateful embrace. ["Thank you."]

["Tomorrow, foolish boy, tomorrow."]

I could not imagine waiting another day, but I knew I could not fight their logic. I had already gone so long without him, one more day should have been nothing. But the day and the night left me alone with my thoughts.

And all my thoughts turned to him.

The others refused to give me details about the incident, just whispering that he was ruined. They seemed as distraught about his attack and subsequent leaving as I did, although it was something in the past for them. Still, they refused to speak of it, as if mentioning it would bring bad luck to the rest of the village. I could imagine why, as the tigers had gotten more aggressive in the past few years. According to Sarah it was because development was destroying their home. The tigers were moving and desperate. Soon the Tsectulek would be too.

I had no idea how I would find him once I reached the city. If my understanding of the Tsectulek language was intermediate, then my understanding of the national language was basic, if that. I would have to rely on English and thin prayers. And more luck than a single person could possibly muster for one life.

I had money, but no real way to know how long it would last and if I would go broke searching for someone I may never find, or who did not want to be found in the first place.

It did not matter. I had to go.

My guides led me in silence, mostly, only whispering to one another. I was not in the mood to talk, having slept little the night before, half mad from exhaustion and completely mad for having thought this was a good idea. They took me to the donkey station and made sure I was provided with a new guide into the city before they returned home, Ntu leaving me with a hug and words of encouragement. ["It will not be so hard to find your soul again."]

I did not know if her words were true, but they sustained me for the next day and a half until I reached the city. There my guide left me in the district of some hotels and I was on my own.

I checked into the cheapest hotel so I would have a place to sleep that night, then went about finding temporary quarters in the lesser parts of town. I eventually found what I was looking for with a woman and her husband whose children were grown. Renting their room for the month was the same price as my hotel for one night. I promised to return the next day, then went back to my hotel to sleep.

While I knew the task ahead of me was not going to be easy, some part of me had hoped that I would stumble upon Muyan and we would be joyfully reunited. Of course, this dream was mere fantasy. My first month was spent searching for any sign of Tsectulek existence in the city. They did not often leave their villages in the lush valley, and they blended in among all the other natives who had.

Each day I would grasp at strings until I would find a possible lead, then I would take that lead to the end, where I would be sadly disappointed, no matter how sternly I told myself not to get my hopes up. My searches became easier as my capacity for the language improved, but it did not make my searches any more fruitful.

{"You should rest, foolish boy,"} my host insisted as I helped her with a late dinner.

{"Would you rest if one of your family was missing?"} I replied, slicing vegetables that I had just recently learned the names of.

{"But he is not your family. You are from the other side of the world."}

{"He is my soul."} I said, too exhausted to care about what taboos I was committing.

She hissed an inhale, then came to my side with a fierce whisper, {"Careful who you say that to, foolish boy. Some may take it wrong."} The look she gave me said volumes more than her terse words, and I nodded.

{"I meant he was my friend,"} I amended. {"I apologize, my comprehension is still bad.}

She nodded and smiled and went back to cooking. I took her warning to heart and kept my thoughts and feelings to myself. When people asked why I searched for him, I said he was a friend, or that his family wished to make sure he was safe.

Many were distrustful of my pale face and inability to speak the language properly. But sometimes it turned in my favor.

{"Greetings,"} I started with a woman, a native of the jungles. She turned her nose up at me, so I tried again, "Greetings." This earned me an even more sour expression, and with an exasperated sigh, I tried, ["I don't suppose you're Tsectulek?"]

Her eyes lit up with surprise and joy at hearing those words, ["Yes! Who are you, pale one, who speaks my tongue?"]

["My name is Ian,"] I had begun pronouncing it e-Yan as the natives did, ["and I'm searching for a friend of mine, one who left the valley."]

["So few leave the valley. Fewer still survive in this ghastly city. What is your one's name?"]

["Muyan."] I gave details about the part of the valley he was from, not that it would help the search, but it would show my knowledge of him and win me over in her heart. Then I tried to describe him, faltering at the end when I said there had been an accident, so he probably looked different.

["Oooh, you look for quitetchi,"] she nodded solemnly.

"Quitetchi?" I asked, unfamiliar with the term.

["One who is alone,"] she reworded, and I nodded my understanding. At my inquisition, she told me where she'd seen him, and gave me a few more people who would know more before wishing me luck in my search. With thanks, I left, heading to the fruit stand where she said she often saw him.

The market spots were always packed, with people, animals, goods and carts, but I was able to make my way to the stand the woman had directed. I hesitated, unsure if I could approach and inquire about Muyan, unsure if I could face him, even though I'd worked so hard to see him.

Instead I lingered by the front of the shop, watching people come and go and give me curious glances. And then a young man emerged from the shop, walking backwards as he talked to someone inside. His hair was shorter, only to his chin, and his shoulders no longer bore the proud arch that I thought came so naturally to him, but that body could only belong to my Muyan. I stirred from my spot, nearing him, calling out, "Muyan!" He turned to face me and my breath choked me.

Most of his face was mutilated beyond recognition, torn asunder by the claw marks that shattered the beautiful visage. Only his eyes, dark and deep, were unharmed, and his lips, still pink and light, if not thinner and tense.

"Muyan…" I choked on dust and air and tears. "God…"

Neither of us moved for a long moment as the life of the market existed around us, unable to break us from out trance. Finally a patron cut between us and when our eyes broke, Muyan turned and began walking away. Startled from my shock, I leapt after him, grabbing his hand, "Muyan!"

He froze, keeping his back to me, but I stepped in front of him, forcing his face up so I could see. It was apparent the damage was not limited to his face; he walked with a slightly off gait and the scars disappeared beneath the shirt he was wearing. I gingerly touched once cheek and he winced.

"I'm sorry."

["Then go, already."] The shimmer in his eyes was not the sparkle of stars in joy.

"Leave?" I choked, shaking my head and hugging him. ["How could I leave when I've just found you?"]

He jerked away and I knew my face showed hurt because he said in a whisper, ["Perhaps we could go somewhere to talk?"]

I nodded and he led me back to his home. I was careful not to touch him, but I never let him out of my sight for fear that he would vanish like a breeze. Once we were in his one room apartment, nothing more than a bed, kitchen and bathroom, he paused and turned to me, "Okay."

I did not know if this was what he was permitting, but I wasn't sure I could stop myself from taking him into my arms and hugging him close to me, stroking his back and burrowing my face against his scarred neck. I would have never let him go, but it became apparent that he was not returning my affections, his arms still hanging by his side. Releasing him, I felt sick. Sick and foolish.

["I'm sorry for coming here without asking you. I am disrupting your life again."]

["You…"] he frowned. His fingers rose to touch his cheek, then dropped again as if caught at something bad. ["Why did you come?"]

"I heard what happened. I had to come and make sure you were alright. I—I know it was rash and stupid, but I had to see you."

["So you knew I looked like this?"] he asked, tentative.

"They told me there was an attack, but wouldn't give me any details. I didn't realize it was…so extreme," I nearly swallowed my last words.

["Now you've seen me."] He turned his head away, turning his back to me, hiding the damage, and it suddenly made sense to me.

"You think…" I stopped, taking a deep breath. "I missed you. Ntu keeps saying I've left my soul with you, and I can't help but think she's right. If you do not want me, if you've moved on, please tell me and I will go. But I love you."

He both tensed and relaxed at my words and I stepped closer, taking his hand. ["You do not understand the extent of the damage."] Tears pricked at the corners of his eyes and I moved so I could brush them off with my pinky.

"I'm willing to stay and find out." And then I kissed his perfect pink lips.

He was hesitant at first, but my touches were insistent and we found ourselves on the bed. My shirt was gone before his back touched the sheets, but he was reluctant to remove his clothing and I was not going to push it. Instead I let my hands reacquaint themselves with his body, stroking through the layers.

When my touch moved to his groin, his hands caught my wrists, trembling as they held me from my target.

"It's okay," I whispered, and he released me. He whimpered when I touched him, but it wasn't in pleasure—he was flaccid beneath his pants and my touch, and when my fingers slid away, I worried that I no longer aroused him…until I saw the pain in his eyes.

He bit back a sob and would have left if I hadn't wrapped my arms around him, forcing him to weep into my shoulder. I rubbed his back as he cried and he clenched closer and closer to me, to the point of pain where his hands clawed my back, but I said nothing, just rubbed and soothed.

["I haven't been able to…since the…since it happened,"] he mumbled into my skin and I shifted so I could see his beautifully sad face. Kissing his tears, he shuddered and tried to hide away, but I shook my head, freeing one hand to brush his cheeks.

"I'm sorry you hurt," I whispered, repeating it in his native tongue.

For a long time we just laid in silence, barely moving except for a gentle stroke, a feather-light kiss, and a murmur of lips. When his trembles subsided completely, I moved over on his small bed, just enough to see his face and his body, but not enough to let him run away.

"Muyan," I whispered, stroking the scars on his cheek.

"I thought you only wanted me because I was beautiful," he admitted. "Now your beauty…" he paused. ["Your beauty shines more brilliantly for the dark that surrounds it."]

I smiled, my fingertips padding along his cheeks and brow, "You have a sweet tongue. You should be a writer."

"My tongue is sweet?"

I laughed, kissing him deeply, being sure to taste his tongue thoroughly, "Mm, yes, a very sweet tongue." I brushed my nose against his, "But I meant that you are very good at being romantic with your words."

["As are you, my crazy,"] he hesitated, then folded his hand over mine, "michun."

My breath caught and I nodded, kissing him three times before I whispered back, "Michun." The word did not translate well into English, and it was not used lightly among the Tsectulek. It indicated a lover, a mate, a pair that could not be broken. When a male finally wooed his female, she would call him her michun.

"No…don't…not until…" he pulled away from me, shaking so hard as he stood that he looked off kilter. When I went to help him he jerked away. His hands were unsteady as he removed his shirt, dropping it on the floor beside him. The scars crisscrossed his chest, blossoming on his stomach and once more vanishing beneath his pants.

I stared, shocked at how my beautiful Muyan had been torn to pieces, but I still reached for him. He met my hands, letting them graze over his scars in silent worship as his trembling hands undid his pants and pushed them to the floor as well. I had just absorbed the damage done to his torso when my gaze dropped. I was aware he was looking away, staring out the small window so he would not look at the carnage.

There were no words for what had been done. His cock was fairly undamaged, fairly compared to the rest of it, and I could see why he thought I would push him away. My fingers trailed down his chest, smoothing over his cock, which didn't even stir to my touch. He gasped when my fingers slid between his legs, cupping what was left of his sack.

I leaned forward, brushing my lips over his groin in a thousand delicate kisses. These gasps were more enjoyable, and when I slipped my tongue out to run along his length, I felt a twitch, although not much else.

"Please, Ian," he whimpered, grabbing my shoulders. He sounded in pain and I looked up, concerned. "I'm scared."

"Scared?" I guided him to lie back down with me beside him. His face screwed up, but he didn't answer, and I molded my body to his so I could kiss his cheek. "You've nothing to be frightened of. We'll work through whatever we need."

He closed his eyes, relaxing under my gentle rubs and soothing words. "I never should have let you leave."

"You had duties to your tribe."

"And not to my heart?" he frowned without opening his eyes. ["If you had not left, then I would not be giving you damaged goods now."]

"Yes, but would you be able to be happy?" I paused, stroking his cheek again, "Can you be happy now?"

["Can you accept what I have?"] He looked to me, hopeful and serious.

"Yes," I ran a hand down until I was cupping him. His breath caught, tense and frightened. I massaged gently with my thumb on his abdomen. "Can you?"

He inhaled long and deep, leaning forward to kiss me, his agile fingers opening my pants faster than I could breathe. Then they were inside, wrapping around my cock. He kissed me again and the beginnings of a struggling smile formed. "Yes, I can."