Because Creon's unrequited love was too painful to leave alone. And it's long because I had no idea Eric would get this chatty.
The Chimaera's Kiss
The first time they met, they were enemies.
Eric faced the taller man across the expanse of darkened water, clinging to the ash-smudged staff that was the only thing holding him upright. The small waves of the newly created river lapped at the edges of the stone he stood on, negating any spell he might have tried to cast. He was an earth and air mage, not a water mage, and any running water canceled out his power just as soon as he called it up.
"Let me go," he hissed, but it might have been more convincing if his voice hadn't broken in the middle of it.
The dark-haired bastard on the bank just scoffed at him, staring down an aristocratic nose at Eric's somewhat battered form. "Right. And I just let you walk, after chasing you how many miles for that stupid stone? I think not."
If he hadn't been shaking with exhaustion and absolutely, damnably helpless, Eric would have sworn at him, or at the very least rolled his eyes. As it was, he managed a soft snort at the white sorcerer and leaned further away from the water. "Right," he echoed disbelievingly. "And that smooth, suave, oh-so-convincing delivery is supposed to make me hand over the Orb to you? To quote a moron, I think not."
The other mage bristled, face flushing with anger and making his Marks stand out in sharp relief. They were numerous, delicate, and intricate, done all in sapphire blue—the mark of a water mage, and a powerful one at that. Baiting him was quite likely one of the most stupidly suicidal things Eric had done in a long time, but he was tired, wet, cold, hungry, and magically exhausted, and couldn't bring himself to care that he was an earth mage facing his greatest foil.
But, before the bad-tempered, newly indignant sorcerer could swamp him with a wave—or something equally demeaning and deadly—a soft call of "Creon! Stop!" pulled him up short. Both Eric and the white sorcerer turned towards the sound of the voice, and Eric blinked in surprise.
The man standing there was only a little older than Eric, and only a little taller, with long hair pulled back into a braid that glimmered with darts of silver and gold light. His pretty, fey face—bearing more Marks than Eric had ever seen on one person before—was softened by a sweet smile as he looked Eric over and raised a hand as though in reassurance.
"Hello," he said cheerfully. "I'm Felix Phoenix, Grand Master of the Moon-Lady's Hand. That Orb you took—it's vital to our defense of the town. Can you give it back, please?"
And with that smile, Eric fell in love.
But not with the lovely, kindly, sweet-tempered Grand Master, of course.
That would have been too easy.
No. He fell in love with the look on Creon's face when he looked at the beautiful master mage. With the open adoration in an otherwise unpleasant, prickly man. With the utter, hopeless love with which Creon Arkadios viewed his Grand Master, and the never-ending irony of Eric's own situation because of it.
Without a word, he handed over the Orb of the Sun, and allowed Creon to bind him and drag him back to the camp of the Moon-Lady's Hand.
And if he rather failed at keeping his mouth shut along the way, and happened to rile the handsome sorcerer once or twice—or a dozen times—then he dismissed it as all fair and good.
If he had to have his heart broken in the same moment he fell in love, at least he wouldn't go peaceably.
Creon stormed into the main hall of the inn, slammed down the money to cover the room, and jerked his head at the waiting Eric. "Come on. They won't be following for another few days, but some of us actually have duties to take care of."
Eric fell into step beside him, looking solemn and slightly wistful. "You knew Felix was going to find the Harlequin. It's all he's wanted for ten years now. Give up, Creon. His heart has already left you."
"Give up? Like you have?" Creon glared at the blond man. "I don't think so. The second Felix is unhappy, I'm slaughtering the interfering bastard and taking his place. And don't try to say you'd do anything else, either."
Eric picked morosely at his food, which was hardly appetizing on a good day. Now, when he had lost what little appetite he'd ever had for the thankfully unrecognizable vegetables-and-meat-and-mystery-gravy mush on his plate, it was one step shy of nauseating. Elite peacekeeping mercenaries the Hand might be, but their cook needed to be strung up over a bed of coals until he actually lived up to his title.
But poking at the slimy grey blob didn't make for a successful distraction, and his thoughts drifted right back to where they shouldn't be, and where they had managed to linger all day—his handsome, haunting partner, who was currently in the middle of a deep sulk.
Oh, Creon, he thought sadly, remembering the words that had passed between them at the inn, a long, morose month ago. If only you knew. Give up? That's exactly what I've done, all the time I've known you. That 'anything else' you scoff at is exactly what I've done—I've given up all hope of ever being happy, and helped you try to recover the man of your dreams, because I knew it would make you happy.
With a sigh, he pushed the plate away, picked up his teacup, and tried to focus on the reports he had spread out in front of him. Pages and pages of reports, because his partner—and damn the moody bastard to hell and back, Eric thought darkly, in no mood to be kind—was too busy brooding over a lost love to pull his own weight.
"Just needs to have an affair with a half-sister and he'll be a proper Byronic hero," he muttered, and sighed again, inking his pen and managing all of seven additional words before he was once more overcome with melancholy and slumped down against the table. It didn't help that he was still regarded warily by the rest of the mages of the Hand, due to his past as a black sorcerer—though regarded warily was a bit of an understatement. Reviled was probably far closer to the truth. Eric couldn't blame them, really. After all, they spent all of their lives fighting against dark mages and those disrupting the peace, and then their Grand Master up and brought one back home with him (though, knowing how Phoenix was with strays, it probably had just been more of a surprise that he hadn't done it before).
They still hated him, though, and feared him in equal measure.
Eric picked up his head before he could manage to smear the blue ink all over his cheek and glanced covertly around the Dining Hall of the Hand's castle headquarters. Yes, as ever, there were a good three tables between himself and everyone else. It made him wonder, sometimes, why he even bothered coming here to eat in the first place. Or why he ate at all.
Enough of that, he scolded himself silently, frowning down at the neat lines of his own script in front of him. Depressed is acceptable. Suicidal is pushing it a bit far, dimwit! After all, it's not as though…
What? That was a much smaller voice, sharper and meaner and tinged with the dark magic Eric was so very, very good at. It's not as though he doesn't know you exist? But what good is knowledge without care? If you vanished now, would he ever notice? Or would he still be stuck pining over Grand Master Phoenix and obsessing about the handsome redhead Phoenix brought back with him?
With an inward groan, Eric resigned himself to the reality of getting no work done, and, in turn, getting chewed out by Horatio, the overseer for his and the broody Byron's unit. However, with Creon in their shared quarters, the only productive alternative to agonizing over his reports was to eat, and that was even less appealing. He could go to the training grounds, but the Healers had threatened to strap him to a bed in the infirmary if he didn't let his wounds from the last mission heal at least a bit more. And then there was the ever-reliable escape to the library, but that felt a bit too much like hiding—and therefore a bit too close to the truth—for Eric's peace of mind.
"Damned brooding bastard," he muttered again, even if it was just as ineffective as the first dozen times, and changed absolutely nothing.
"Dare I suspect that you're badmouthing your partner, Chimaera?" a cheerful voice teased, and Eric had to bite back a groan. Of all the people in the Hand that he hadn't wanted to see…
Nevertheless, he picked himself up from his slumped position over the inkpot and half-rose, giving the Hand's Grand Master a quick salute, because he was still officially on duty, even if he was recuperating. "Sir. I thought you would still be resting after your travels. Are you feeling well?"
Felix Phoenix slid into the chair across from him, the tall, auburn-haired man who had been his shadow ever since his return taking the seat next to him. The stranger—Felix's lover, as everyone knew, and the reason Creon was sulking—eyed Eric as if he were a threat, while Felix rolled his sapphire eyes at the formality and flapped a hand at the younger man, urging him to take his seat again.
"I'm fine," he assured the other mage. "We're actually leaving on another mission as soon as we eat. We sailed up the Glass River, so there wasn't much to do but sleep and—" Suddenly, he cut himself off, a look of horror coming over his face as his mind registered what his mouth had been about to say. Mortified and blushing, he took refuge behind his soup bowl with a squeak.
The stranger, Eric could see, was trying very hard to hide a grin.
Clearing his throat and changing the subject—because he could be merciful, when the occasion called for it—Eric nodded to the redhead and offered a perfunctory half-smile. "Hello. I don't believe we've met before. I'm Eric Chimaera."
The other man nodded in return. He didn't try to shake hands, and Eric didn't offer. "Bastien Harlequin. You're new? A bit old to be enlisting, aren't you?" The words were friendly enough, but the tone held something sharp and ugly beneath the surface. Eric heard it and understood it immediately—after all, anyone who could see or feel magic would know that he was far from pure. Harlequin was simply reacting accordingly.
Still, it stung just a little bit, because Felix was one of the only mages who accepted him, and while having his past thrown in Felix's face wouldn't likely turn the Grand Master against him immediately, it could. Someday. If Eric were unlucky.
And he knew by now that he always was.
Eric pushed to his feet, corking his inkbottle and hurriedly gathering up his paperwork and pen. "Sorry," he told the appalled Felix. "I've got to get these finished for Horatio. Perhaps I'll see you later, sir." He bowed his head to Harlequin, who looked slightly startled, as well. "Sir. Good day."
He wanted to call it a dignified retreat, but Eric knew the truth of it.
"Bastien," Felix hissed, rounding on his lover. His normally tranquil eyes flashed with blue fire, and he pinned the Harlequin in place with a fierce stare. "What was that for? He just introduced himself! That was all!"
From the way Bastien shifted uneasily, he was obviously trying to concoct some way of getting out of this. After several moments, his mouth firmed into a thin line, and he snapped, "What in the hell are you doing with a damned black sorcerer, Felix? Since when did the Hand open its doors to his type?"
Felix's eyes narrowed into warning slits of blue. "His type?" he asked icily. "Do you mean someone drafted by the Black Hundreds almost as soon as he could walk on his own? Someone who spent years as a loyal follower, and then betrayed the only family he had ever known when I asked him to? Someone who gets ever filthy, horrid, and awful mission, just because the dispatchers think the Hand would be better off without him? Someone like that, Bastien?" He waited a beat, then demanded, "When you talk about his type, are you talking about brave, selfless soldiers who have thrown themselves between an ally and a malevolent spell more times than I can count? Who've saved my life more times than even you have?"
Bastien stared at him for a moment, green eyes surprised, and then slowly shook his head. "Yes," he said simply. "Someone like that. No matter what he does now, he's still a black sorcerer. I might not be a shining example of humanity, myself, but at least I never used my powers to harm innocents. He has. I can feel it." He reached out and took Felix's hand in his own, eyes firm and serious. "Felix, I wouldn't say this if I didn't think it necessary, but please. Get rid of him. He's detrimental to your safety, and the safety of the entire Hand. Than man has killed before with magic, and he'll do it again. I just don't want it to be one of us, when it happens."
Turning his gaze to his soup, Felix said nothing more, and began to eat. After a tense moment, Bastien sighed and did the same, and the subject was dropped.
But it wasn't forgotten.
Eric ended up, after an hour of wandering, in the library, and abandoned his reports to the nearest table as he immersed himself in the stacks. The Archivist wasn't present, but he was probably the only person in the Hand whom Eric could truly call a friend, and had given Eric free rein to use the library whenever he wished.
He took advantage of that permission often—maybe too often, Eric knew. The library was his sanctuary, his haven from the rest of the Moon-Lady's Hand, and he often retreated here when he should have remained and faced down his opponents among the other mages. He didn't like to think of himself as a coward, but Eric was self-aware enough to realize that that was exactly what his policy of non-confrontation bordered on, at times.
Sighing—and he was doing an annoying amount of that today, and had been for the last month, damn Creon to hell for his infectious moodiness!—Eric claimed a thick volume on an obscure branch of agricultural earth manipulation and settled in one of the padded window seats, trying to focus on the tiny words.
It didn't work, of course.
Damn his magic, too, for giving him an ear into Felix's conversation with the Harlequin, he thought irritably, though he knew that twenty years of staying alive amidst the backstabbing and maneuvering of the Black Hundreds, where eavesdropping was often the only thing that kept one live, wasn't likely to vanish in a mere three years of safety. It was hardly even something conscious, by now.
And Felix hadn't said anything. Eric's heart clenched, feeling like it turned to stone in his chest mid-beat. He knew—because he was rational and intelligent, if nothing else—that Felix hadn't been giving in to the argument, but somehow it still felt that way. Somehow, Eric got the sickening, sinking feeling that it would only be a matter of time before something happened and the Hand either drove him away or executed him. The latter was more likely than the former, and he half-wondered why he felt so damnably sad at the idea of these people he had lived and worked with for three years turning their backs on him all at once. He wasn't even liked. Why should that make him feel as though the bottom had fallen out of his world?
"Brooding will do you no good whatsoever," a firm voice said, and someone plucked the treatise on earth magic out of his hands. Eric blinked at the absence for a moment, then looked up at the dark-skinned mage standing in front of him.
"Paris," he said in surprise. "How long have you been here?" He must have been far more distracted than he realized, for anyone to be able to sneak up on him. The little part of him that was still used to the Black Hundreds—a large part, actually, if he was truthful—screamed at him that his carelessness would get him killed, but somehow, Eric couldn't bring himself to care at the moment.
Paris frowned at him, as though he knew what Eric was thinking, and smacked him lightly on the head with the book. "Enough, Chimaera," he chided. "No more moping. If you're not going to do anything productive, come help me shelve books." He turned with a snapping flare of his long robes, the black material only one shade darker than his skin, and strode towards the wide desk near the doors. When Eric hesitated, he barked, "Now, Chimaera."
A touch sheepishly, Eric followed, and allowed the Archivist to thrust several stacks of books into his arms to be sorted. "I suppose you want me to tell you what's wrong?" he asked wearily.
Paris gave him a dark look through his multitude of thin braids, because the ribbon was forever slipping out and he couldn't be bothered to find it again amidst the many shelves. The look suited him, though. "No, Eric. I called you over to glare at you for my own health, because I am masochistic in that way." There was a beat as Eric tried to puzzle out if he was being sarcastic—it was hard, because Paris was strange like that—and the dark-skinned mage rolled his eyes. "Yes, you dimwit, so talk!"
As if to emphasize his point, an intimidatingly thick volume on water magic thumped down on the table right between them.
Always able to recognize a threat when it presented itself—so nicely, too, in this case, especially with the accompanying glare that Paris leveled at him—Eric quickly recounted the conversation between Felix and the Harlequin. "And it's not just him," he added helplessly, stacking three books on fire magic off to the side. "I know you think I'm overreacting, but the looks have been getting darker for months now, ever since our last run-in with the Black Hundreds. I'm not stupid, Paris. I knew when I returned the Orb to the Grand Master that I was never going to fit in anywhere again. If the Hundreds capture me, I'll be tortured, and if I'm lucky, I'll die before they can get really inventive. If I stay here…"
His hands lingered on the books in front of him, and he closed his eyes, fighting back a wave of despair. When a gentle hand settled on his shoulder, he opened his eyes again and stared up into Paris's compassionate face. "If I stay here, they'll still kill me eventually," he whispered, fighting off the tremors he could feel beginning. "Someday, when Grand Master Phoenix isn't here, and something goes wrong, they'll look for someone to blame, and it will be me. all I can hope for is a merciful execution."
"Oh, little one." Paris sighed and pulled him around the table and into a tight hug, stroking his golden hair. "How long have you been thinking this? How long have you been living with your certainty that we would only betray you?" He drew back and touched Eric's cheek, the gesture kind and comforting. His smile was soft. "Little one, you don't give us enough credit—or yourself. While I'm certain you have a dozen plans for your escape, I also think that you are underestimating the number of people who would come to your defense, should you need it."
Eric tried to convince himself that those words sounded anything but hollow, and failed.
It was getting on towards midnight before Eric finally made it back to the set of rooms he shared with Creon. He had helped Paris in the library, then been drafted by Master Lysander to help with paperwork, then managed to fill out his own reports, then gotten a loud, lengthy lecture from Horatio about turning things in late, and another lecture about not sharing the work equally. Then there had been another trip to see the Healers, and dinner—though he couldn't have said which nauseated him more. He'd never had a very good reaction to healing spells.
Despite the hour, Creon was still awake, ensconced in the living area that connected their two rooms. He didn't appear to be read, or working, or doing much of anything except for brooding, so Eric, despite his throbbing shoulder and ribs and his bone-deep weariness, dragged himself over to one of the overstuffed chairs and collapsed into it, surveying his partner critically.
"Have you eaten yet?" he asked after a moment.
Creon waved a hand, dismissing the concern, and stared at him for a moment. Eric's breath froze in his throat at that, because Creon was actually looking at him. He had never seen that level of awareness in the water mage's eyes before, Hadn't had all of that intensity turned on him since the short time when they were enemies. And it was beautiful. Creon's dark grey eyes seemed to glow like ashes over smoldering coals, or storm clouds just covering a lightning storm. Creon was beautiful, and though Eric had been aware of it before, this was somehow different, better, because all of that energy and power and beauty was directed at him.
And then Creon was right in front of him, leaning over with his hands braced on the arms of the chair, and he was kissing him, kissing Eric as though he'd been thinking about it for months, and Eric couldn't do anything but respond, reach up and twist his fingers in the dark hair and pull Creon closer, because this was what he had wanted ever since that first night on the riverbank. It was hot and messy and sharp with teeth-edges and burning desire, and Creon drew back just enough to whisper roughly, "You don't mind?"
Because hindsight was perfect, Eric knew he should have noticed something then, should have seen the inconsistencies and oddness about the whole thing. But at the moment, all he could think was Mind? I've wanted this for as long as I've known you, so how could I possibly mind? What he managed to say, after a breathless moment, was, "Hardly," and he dragged Creon closer, feeling elegant hands, calloused from his mage's staff, fumbling with the buttons on his shirt. Eric wriggled, trying to help, trying to get his hands free so he could touch Creon, but Creon had taken control and he couldn't do anything but let the other mage strip him and drag him out of the chair, pushing him back down against the seat. Then Creon was on top of him, hot and hard against his back, and there were fingers sliding down his back to trace over his entrance.
Eric hissed as first one finger, then another pushed roughly in and then withdrew. When they returned, they were slick with oil, and he hissed again, this time in pleasure, arching back into the touch. "Creon," he whispered breathlessly, as those fingers circled and scissored, brushing over the spot that sent liquid fire racing through his nerves. "Creon, please. I want you. I need you."
Creon's free hand rose, and Eric jerked a little in shock as it slid over his mouth, stifling his words. "Hush," Creon murmured from behind him, the fingers withdrawing from Eric's body and sliding up his bandaged side to pinch and twist at his nipples. Eric jerked, whimpering, as sharp spikes of pleasure shot through him with each touch. And then it was better still, because there was a hot, blunt pressure at his entrance and Creon was sliding forward, filling him and claiming him. Eric couldn't stop himself from crying out as the other man's length pushed deep into him, parting muscle to slide smoothly home, and Eric swore he'd never felt something go so deep and not be pain, but this was wonderful.
Creon pulled back, then thrust forward again, and Eric's back bowed, bucking against the bigger man as every nerve ending lit up. He shuddered, pressing back as Creon set a hard, fast rhythm, each deep stroke pushing him hard against the edge of the chair. He'd doubtless have bruises in the morning, but right now, right here, all he could think about was the weight of Creon at his back, the burning warmth of Creon's free hand sliding down his body to grip his cock in a tight hold and jerk it roughly with each thrust. Eric sobbed with pleasure, jerking into the touch and back against the mage he loved, the man he loved, who had finally—
The pleasure was too much, and he was coming, but over the roaring in his ears, he quite clearly heard Creon low shout of "Felix!" as he reached his own peak.
And Eric's world cracked like glass, fissures of agony lancing through him even as he surrendered to the darkness.
Creon realized, sometime around midday, that Eric was avoiding him.
This realization was so sudden and unexpected that he froze right in the middle of the corridor, carrying a pile of new coats from the seamstress's workrooms to the quartermaster. And once he realized it, he also realized that he should have seen it sooner, should have noticed, because Eric was always there, even when Creon didn't want him to be. He was constantly hovering, mothering, guarding, or simply nearby, and the sudden lack of that was almost jarring.
With a sinking feeling, the water mage began to suspect that this new absence had something to do with last night and what had happened between them.
Creon knew quite well that he wasn't the brightest mage in the Hand. His preferred approach to overcoming a problem was to hit it with as much power as he could muster, and to keep doing so until it ceased to be a problem. He was blunt and somewhat dense, tending to overlook even simple things that he really should have noticed. Normally, he never worried about emotions or anyone's feeling, because they didn't matter.
This was something he needed help with. And, as such, there was only one person in the entire Hand who wouldn't give him a useless answer. Thankfully, he was on his way there.
"Lysander," he called, stepping in to the main supply room and looking around for the Master fire mage. "I need to talk to you."
"It's been a long time since I've heard those particular words pass your lips," Lysander said in amusement, rounding the corner of the shelves and arching an eyebrow at him. "What have you done this time, Creon?"
Had he not been an incredibly powerful water mage, and almost thirty, and therefore a grown man, Creon would have fidgeted. Seeing as he was, he firmly clamped down on the impulse and faced his friend squarely, somehow already suspecting that this conversation was going to go very, very wrong.
"I slept with Eric," he blurted out, and then winced. What was it Eric had once told him? You have the all subtlety of a big wooden club. Yes, that sounded about right.
Lysander's eyebrows went even higher, as though attempting to merge with his receding hairline. "Oh? So you finally realized that the poor boy is hopelessly in love with you, and not the Grand Master? Well, I'm happy for you both."
Creon's world crystallized, and his mind went blank.
Damn, was his only thought.
Paris said nothing when Eric turned up in the library the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that, though the Archivist looked as though he wanted to. Instead, he simply ordered Eric about in his usual gruff way, and made sure he ate, and that there was always a pot of tea on hand. Eric was grateful, especially to be left more or less alone. He hadn't confronted Creon since that night, hadn't even seen him since that night, and hoped things remained that way. It was a rather futile wish, given that they were partners and regularly assigned to missions together, but Eric allowed it to fester anyway, because he was that foolish and that stupid for thinking, even for a moment, that someone like Creon could want someone like him.
And then the Harlequin returned from his mission with Felix alone and wounded, and Eric's already cracked life shattered fully, and tumbled down in bright, glittering pieces around his feet.
"It was the Black Hundreds," the Harlequin rasped, leaning heavily on Master Silas's shoulder as he faced the assembled mages of the Hand. "They knew where we were going to be, and what we were doing there, and what abilities we had. There's only one explanation—someone must have betrayed us."
As he spoke the words, his gaze went straight to Eric.
Standing in position beside Creon, behind Horatio, and with the other mid-ranked mages, Eric clenched his hands into fists, fighting down equal parts misery and fury. This was exactly what he had feared. Exactly what he had known was going to happen.
But, somehow, the knowledge that he had been right was no comfort at all.
"Sir, with all respect due to you, the presence of a traitor is hardly the only way the Black Hundreds could have gotten that information," Paris objected, stepping forward from among the other Masters. His frown was firmly in place, and intimidating enough to make Eric want to step back, even if it wasn't directed at him. "There are thousands of spells, not even taking into consideration the invention of new ones. We can't guard against them all. A listening spell—"
"Enough." The Harlequin cut him off with a hiss of annoyance, pushing himself upright. "Archivist, your opinion is noted, but it is almost always the most simple explanation that is correct in the end, and I won't let a traitor go free when our Grand Master's life hangs in the balance. Eric Chimaera, you are to be taken to the dungeon to await execution." He turned to look at Eric, and his normally grass-green eyes flickered gold, just for the barest second.
He had seen that color before, that exact shade of old gold that stared back at him whenever he looked into a mirror. And that meant—
"Phillip," he whispered, not caring about the startled look Creon shot him, or the stiffening of Horatio as three sentinel mages from the castle's guard began to push through the crowd to reach him. He closed his eyes as everything came crashing down around him at once, despair fighting with tired horror for supremacy in his thoughts. A plot. It's all a plot to get revenge—against me, and against the Hand. They're using Harlequin's form to manipulate everyone. I can't—
A hand closed around his arm, as hard and immovable as a band of steel, and Eric glanced up at Creon. It was his hand, it was Creon holding him in place for the sentinels to capture. That betrayal, somehow, was worse than all the others. Eric knew that Creon hadn't been aware of his feelings when he used him for comfort, knew that Creon had simply been in pain and unhappy, but Eric also thought that he had been a good partner, that he had never let Creon down or let him be injured if there was anything at all he could do to prevent it. And right now, it wasn't Creon the lover who was betraying Eric, it was Creon the mage, who had been his partner for two years, and that hurt more than anything.
And then there was a rush of sound, like a river bursting free of a dam, and every bit of moisture in the air condensed around them, whirling up in a great cyclone that knocked other mages back with cries of shock. Equally startled, Eric stumbled backwards to get away from it, colliding with Creon's hard chest, and an equally hard arm closed around his shoulders.
"Hold on," the water mage murmured, and with a flick of his staff the cyclone condensed under their feet, lifting them into the air and straight up towards the skylight, which burst in a shower of glittering glass to let them through and they were free.
They were also perched precariously on the sloping roof of the Main Hall, teetering dangerously in the wind, and Creon looked slightly pale as he gripped Eric's shoulder even harder and hissed, "Well? Are you an air mage or aren't you?"
With that, with Creon's familiar griping tone and pseudo-gruff words, hiding a kind heart and sharp mind—when he chose to apply it—Eric's shocked daze broke, and he pushed down any thoughts but those of magic. Even as thumps sounded from below, mages trying to get through the wall of water Creon had left over the opening, Eric gathered his power and flung it out about them like a net, then leapt forward to the edge of the roof and dove, pulling Creon right along with him.
And then they were airborne, the wind whistling around them as they were lifted like thistledown and whirled up into the sky. It was no controlled flight, nothing like a bird, but they were free and up and untouchable, and it didn't matter in the least. Eric took a deep breath and remembered for the first time in quite a while what it truly was to be an air mage, and with that feeling filling his chest like sunlight and Creon's rare smiles, he let the winds carry them far away.
"So?" Creon asked, huddling grumpily over the small campfire Eric had lit. "You realized something back there. What was it?"
In the process of growing a small berry bush into something that would actually feed them, Eric paused in shock and glanced up. "You meant you didn't know? You defied a Master, the Harlequin, because you thought I realized something? I always knew you were thick, but—"
"Oi, enough with the insults," Creon growled, holding his hands almost in the flames to ward off the night's chill. He looked down at the ground in front of him for a moment, then said gruffly, "We've been partners for almost three years now. I'd like to think I've got a pretty good idea of how your mind works, Chimaera. Eric. Whatever you saw during that bastard's little grandstanding speech, it was something important. Want to share?"
Slowly, leaving the bush to its own devices for the moment, Eric sank down into the dirt, once more feeling those crushing waves of realization and horror. "It wasn't Harlequin standing up there. It was Phillip," he said after a second of silence. "Phillip Chimaera, my older brother. He's a leader in the Black Hundreds." He bit his lip, worrying it between his teeth, then asked carefully, "Do you know anything about the Chimaera Clan?"
Creon's frown was thoughtful. "Only that they're one of the driving forces in the Hundreds," he said. "An old family, mostly water or fire mages."
Eric nodded, pulling his coat tighter around his shoulders. "Yes," he agreed bitterly, "and the only thing of any worth to my family is black sorcery. Ever since ancient times, the Chimaera Clan—the animals and the people both—have been seen as embodiments of the deceptive, even satanic forces of raw nature. Deception, like with the Harlequin family, but worse." He paused and concentrated, remembering the smooth elegance that the Grand Master always had, his lovely face, his gold-and-silver hair, and felt his own features shift and flow like water. When they settled, Felix Phoenix stared back at Creon across the fire, smiling slightly. Then the change faded, and Eric reached up to touch his own golden hair, smiling wryly.
"Anyone," he said, seeing the unspoken question on Creon's face. "If we've touched them, if we've met their eyes as we touched their skin, we can become them. It's only for a short time before the change has to be renewed, and we can't mimic their powers, but it's enough to give my family one of the highest ranks in the Black Hundreds."
Creon sat back on his heels, obviously mulling over this revelation. Eric watched him, watched the heartbreaking play of light and shadow over his strong-boned face, and felt his heart ache in his chest.
"Why?" he asked softly, unable to contain it any longer. "Why did you help me? why risk everything on a chance, on someone who could be a traitor?"
"You're not a traitor," the water mage said instantly, anger settling over his features as he met Eric's eyes firmly. "If it hadn't been for the shock of Bastien saying that, I'm sure more people would have come forward to defend you. And…" His voice faltered, and he dropped his gaze, looking away into the darkness. He took a deep breath, then finished in a rush, "Youloveme, soyouwouldn'tbetraytheHandright?"
Eric froze for a moment, processing that, and then said carefully, "Could you repeat that, please?"
Taking another breath, Creon met his eyes, almost wincing. "You love me," he repeated, still fast, but this time understandable. "So you wouldn't betray the Hand, right?"
"You knew?" Eric hissed, coming to his feet as pure fury roared through his veins. "You knew about my feelings and you still did that? You—"
"No! No! I only figured it out the other day, when you started avoiding me," Creon blurted, also rising. He raised his hands as though to ward off the smaller man. "I swear, I had no idea. I thought you were in love with Felix, too, and that we could…comfort each other." He dropped his hands, and there was something almost helpless in his eyes. "I wouldn't have done it if I knew about your feelings, I swear."
Warily, Eric took a step back, attempting to focus, and realized that he did believe Creon. For all his grumpy bear mannerisms and thorny walls, the water mage was kind, and would never take advantage of someone like that. And, besides, Eric had allowed everyone to think that he was in love with the Grand Master, so it was conceivable that Creon would think that his advance was actually helping both of them.
Letting out a shuddering breath, Eric finally nodded. "All right. I understand. Just…" He steeled himself and met Creon's storm cloud eyes. "Now that you know," he said quietly, "If I asked you to be my lover, be my partner, what would you say?"
Creon stared at him for a moment, shock and something that Eric could only hope was desire warring in his eyes. He licked his lips. "I…would say yes," he murmured.
"Oh, lovely! Now we can all go home happy. Isn't that wonderful, Bastien?"
The unexpected voice made both Creon and Eric jump, and they whirled around to find Grand Master Felix Phoenix emerging from the low brush, dusting off his black coat. Behind him came the Harlequin, dressed only in his skivvies and looking quite put out.
Thankfully, Creon was more alert, and stepped squarely in front of the smaller mage, raising his staff to a defensive position. "Eric?" he demanded. "Can you tell?"
"Easily." Eric knew what he was asking—they had always worked well together, almost to the point of sharing one mind. He stepped around Creon's staff and let his shape go liquid once more, this time his whole body instead of just his face. A moment later, a golden wolf slipped closer to the two startled mages, searching for any traces of the lemon-and-cumin scent that marked another Chimaera. There was none, and he trotted back to Creon and returned to his human shape, shaking off the lingering traces of black-and-white wolf-sight as he did.
"It's them," he assured his partner, putting a hand on his arm, and then bowed to the Grand Master. "Sirs, I believe there is a situation back at Headquarters that requires your presence. One of my family has take your shape, Harlequin"—and your clothes, Eric thought, but was too polite to say—"and accused me of being a traitor. Creon and I were able to escape, but we all should return before things get out of hand."
"If that's what you call a situation, I'd hate to see your version of a dilemma," the Harlequin muttered, then looked at Creon's coat somewhat wistfully. "Ah, you would happen to have a spare, would you?"
Creon gave him a dark look, then shucked off his jacket and tossed it over with a minimum of grumbling. "Let's go," he said crossly. "I hate camping, and I hate woods. We're going back to the castle, and when we get there, I'm going to kick the imposter out on his ass and get some sleep. Away from all of you."
Nevertheless, his fingers slid through Eric's and intertwined, and Eric felt his heart lift to exalted heights, nearly choking him as he squeezed gently in return.
Their return was, altogether, far less dramatic than Eric had thought it would be. As Grand Master, Felix held the Keys to the Castle, and he had simply forbidden entry to anyone who wasn't loyal to the Moon-Lady's Hand once they were close enough. It was quite amusing to watch his brother go flying out the nearest window, Eric reflected, and then nearly get drowned when Creon made the Glass River jump its banks and chase him. Phillip attempted to fly out of danger, but he forgot about his little brother's presence, and Eric took quite a bit of glee in cancelling his wind control while he was over the muddy, silt-cover expanse that normally housed the river. The black sorcerer plummeted out of the sky and hit the ground with a very satisfying squelch as the rest of the Hand poured out of the castle to see what had happened.
Somehow, though, it wasn't nearly as satisfying as when Creon seized Eric's elbows and dragged him into a deep kiss, right in the midst of the crowd.
"I don't love you yet," he murmured, directly into Eric's ear, and the former black sorcerer could feel the curve of a smile against his lips. "But I think we can work on that, don't you?"
"Definitely," Eric whispered back, wrapping his arms around the other mage. "Until then, I'll just have to love you enough for both of us."
He was still smiling when Creon pulled him into another kiss.
And…notes, because this story needs them:
1) This is not the world we know, but it's technologically equivalent to our 1900's.
2) The italicized paragraph comes from the previous story in this series, The Harlequin's Mask, which is Bastien and Felix's story.
3) If anyone knows where the names of the two groups (the Moon-Lady's Hand and the Black Hundreds) come from, you will get virtual cookies.
4) I'm going by the Medieval definition of chimera, not the one from Ancient Greece.
5) Yes, they really did have boxers in the 1900's. If you doubt this, Google Vintage the Skivvies Archive. And yes, that's real, too.
6) Anyone who knows where the majority of names in this story (i.e. Horatio, Lysander, Paris, etc.) come from, you will get even more virtual cookies, and will be allowed to request a story. The same goes if you know about the group names.