Hello all!

This is a companion piece to the up and coming Tales of El: Stone Illusions. That's right! I will begin posting a second novel-length installment in my rae`lir universe. I'm sure you clever dears will recognize immediately how these characters relate to characters in Iron Butterfly (and therefore, will know who Stone Illusions focuses on), but impress me anyway. ^_~

Reminder: Rae`lir are oviparous hermaphrodites, and 'fen' and 'ka' are rae`lir titles for their parents.

Enjoy!


"Wait, what?" Parthrik lowered his eyes from the twin moons of El to look instead over the table at his ka.

Parthrik's fen sighed and set down the pitcher of water he brought from the cistern handpump. "I believe your ka was clear enough. What do you not understand?" He sat at the table as well.

Parthrik crossed his arms. "The part where he suggested I would be entering into a courtship with a stranger."

"Parthrik, please don't do this."

"Do what? Throw a fit because my parents decided to stick me in some kind of relational cage?"

"That is not fair, and this behavior is childish."

"It is not!" Parthrik turned his face away, his lips pressed together. He would have gotten up and stormed away, but his right leg was still healing, and he was too angry right then to concentrate properly on walking, so he would probably just succeed in slamming to his face. He almost wanted to shove his dinner plate away from him, but that would be childish.

"Parthrik, this is not a death sentence. You haven't even met him. You may like him."

Parthrik looked to Fen. 'May like him'. Not 'oh you'll really like him, because he's great'. "You haven't met him yet either, have you?"

"We have met him," Ka answered firmly. "And like your fen said, you haven't, so your reaction is unreasonable. We haven't promised bonding. We agreed to a courtship. If he turns out to be unbearable, then the courtship ends. It's that simple. But you being this resistant does you no credit."

"I'm not looking for credit. I'm looking to be able to live my life by my own decisions!"

"You mean like how you decided air-surfing a space vessel's landing wake would be a good use of your time?"

Parthrik winced. He knew Fen wasn't trying to be cruel, and in hindsight the decision was incredibly stupid. After all, the stunt, though exhilarating at first, left him with a lamed right leg among other permanent injuries. Still, one mistake didn't mean he needed to be pushed into a courtship, with an Ental of all rae`lirs. They were all… so… Sentinel. "Are you two punishing me for hurting myself?"

"Of course not!" Ka sounded offended by the question. "Why would you even ask that? We agreed last year when you returned from the temple that you could have a year to yourself to explore, get to know people as you wished. We also agree that after a year, arrangements for the future would start to be made."

"I didn't think you meant you'd be giving me away!"

"Oh, Parthrik…" Ka stood and walked around the table. He leaned over the back of Parthrik's chair, embracing him from behind, forcing Parthrik's head to the right to accommodate his presence. His mental walls shifted, extending to offer affection and truth to his son. "This is not about 'giving you away'. You'll always be our son, and we will always love you."

Parthrik's lips pressed together, unwillingly comforted by both the physical and mental gestures. "But you want me to bond into the Ental House," he grumbled

"We want you to have the best life possible," Fen answered, probably because Ka was so distracted with his physical attempt at reassurance. "This is the first step towards that."

"Just meet him," Ka requested as he stood upright, squeezing Parthrik's shoulders before he returned to his seat. "This is not a death sentence. You'll live through it, and nothing is final until you bond anyway."

"The point of courting is to bond," he grumbled.

"The point of courting is to concentrate on a single rae`lir to determine if bonding is the right thing for both of you. It is preparation for a lifetime unification. It must be respected as no less and no more."

"But I don't want a lifetime unification."

"At all?"

He flushed. "Right now. There's so much else I want to do."

Fen stood with a sigh, shaking his head. "You'll meet with the Ental boy. We will discuss things further later." Which was about as close as his parents ever came to saying, 'we've made our decisions, and that's final'. Great. Bonding into the Ental House.

Yippy.

} • {

Parthrik followed his parents up the hill towards the house at the top of the grass-covered incline. He hated that a half-a-year ago, the climb would have been nothing, and he really hated that he found himself unconsciously cursing the Entals for suggesting meeting at this remote house of theirs so he had to climb the damn hill. They had a perfectly fine home in the middle of Alness where there were no hills. Parthrik's family had a perfectly fine house the Entals could have come to instead. Parthrik frowned, those feelings made him feel weak and broken, but they were real.

He might not have minded so much if he wasn't also irritated about the timing of their meeting. Some of Parthrik's friends had gone to Rae`tine. A large group of humans had come to the Royal City for some sort of summit with the rae`lir King and High Council. Certainly, Parthrik had encountered humans before, but it was always a bit exciting to encounter them again. Humans were so different from rae`lirs, and the Gartian language was so interesting to hear! But no; he couldn't go with his friends to Rae`tine because he had attend this oh-so-important meeting with the Entals.

Near the house, he paused, his attention catching on a wide sled with a draw-string. It was probably used to haul stuff up the hill, because the house was so far removed from existing transport networks there probably were no crawlers that could reach it. He paused, looking down the hill again. The vegetation along the path was wet enough that the sled would probably slide over it very smoothly. He'd regained enough balance that—

"Don't even think about it, little one."

He glanced to Ka, who had a stern, almost fearful look in his eye that was only enhanced by the blatant concern radiating from his mind. Parthrik flushed lightly. "What?"

"You know exactly 'what'; more importantly, so do I. Come along."

Parthrik pressed his lips together and swallowed his dissatisfied huff. He followed his parents, trying to walk a little faster, just to try and feel less… incapable. A year ago, when Ka warned him off from things like sliding down the hill on that sled, it would have been only from a sense of inappropriate behavior. It was obvious that now, most of his reason grew from belief that Parthrik couldn't have his fun without injuring himself further.

They reached the house, and Parthrik's grip tightened on his cane as he stood behind his parents. He took a moment to assess the house itself. The style was very old… 'classic' was it? The construct appeared to be wood, and the roofs were slanted, coming to points in several places with the corners all turned up in a wave-like pattern. It reminded him of the few water temples he'd visited in the past when he was still training at the Jusin Light Temple. The building was a single story, but obviously had a sprawling footprint.

The door slid aside to reveal a tall, young rae`lir. He smiled brightly and nodded his head forward, his gaze casting over the three before coming to rest on Parthrik. His smile widened ever so slightly, and that subtle change made Parthrik's breath catch. Maybe things wouldn't be so bad.

"Welcome. My employers are in the courtyard. You are invited to make use of the wash hall, to rest, or to join my employers immediately."

Employers? Parthrik instantly deflated at the realization that this wasn't the son of the Ental House, so that smile… the fact that it was exciting… it meant nothing. Aw, damn it.

Fen glanced back at Parthrik and smiled a little, looking a bit amused. He turned to the servant again. "We will happily accept the offer to utilize the wash hall." Fen must have used Parthrik's appearance to make his decision, which meant he must look like he needed rearranging. He flushed, running his fingers through his hair.

"Very good, sirs. Please, follow me."

After refreshing themselves in the wash room, the servant — whose name was Norti — escorted them towards the courtyard. "Welcome, welcome!" A middle-aged rae`lir intercepted them in a long empty room. He held out both his arms in welcome. "We are so pleased you were able to join us."

Ka gripped the stranger's forearms. "Always a pleasure, Jenol." Ka turned and gestured Parthrik forward. "This is my son, Parthrik."

Jenol chuckled. "He looks so much like you when we were young, Parae, he hardly needs an introduction." Jenol faced Parthrik and touched his left shoulder in polite greeting. "It is an honor to meet you, Master Mol'te. I am Jenol of the Ental House."

Jenol? Parthrik knew that name. His ka had told him so many stories about childhood adventures shared between Ka and his friend 'Jenol'. Was… this why Parthrik was being offered to this Jenol's son? No matter the reason, if this was Jenol from Ka's stories, then he couldn't be all that stuffy. After all, the stories of Ka's childhood with Jenol at least partially inspired many of Parthrik's best times. "I've heard a lot about you," he said with a smile. "I've never been able to pull off a hover-transport leap over the river in Alness. Did you really do it in one try?"

Jenol's eyes widened a little, and a bit of white appeared upon his bluish cheeks with his flush. "Well… yes. But I watched some twelve others attempt it several times first. I let them make my mistakes for me." He chuckled. "Parae, how much did you tell him about when we were wild?"

Ka laughed. "Just enough. You remember my bonded, Lathrik?"

"Yes, of course." Jenol turned and gave the same warm greeting of clasped forearms. "It is wonderful to see you again."

"You as well, Master Ental. Is your boy around?"

"Yes. Darnol is practicing with Daress in the courtyard. Come with me." He glanced at Parthrik and his smile widened. "We'll introduce the two of you."

They followed as Jenol led towards the courtyard. Parthrik cleared his throat. "Are you a Sentinel, Master Ental?"

"Oh yes. Not a very good one, I'll admit," he chuckled. "I mostly do paperwork and administrative work. My bonded is also a Sentinel and would probably be what you think of when you think of a Sentinel."

A humorless, stuffed-robe with no time for anything other than rules and boundaries? Joy.

They stepped out onto the covered walkway that ran the perimeter of the courtyard. There, in the center, ankle-deep in a small, natural pool, two rae`lirs were slowly moving through what was obviously some complicated dance or martial form. Each gesture, each sweep of a limb was careful and controlled. Their faces held the same intense concentration: eyes were focused and hard, lips slightly down turned without a muscle flinching anywhere.

"Mmmm I always love watching them do this."

Parthrik glanced over at him, noting how Jenol's expression was all… soft and adoring.

"Don't you ever join them?"

Jenol shook his head. "When it comes to dancing, somehow, I'm quite clumsy. I was never able to master the Water Lords' Songs."

"What Lords' Songs? Then you are a Water Temple Keeper?"

Jenol glanced over him and grinned. "Well… try not to spread it around but I never made it past apprentice. Not devoted enough, apparently. But I met Daress at the temple, so maybe I just found something else that took up all my devotion." He laughed warmly. It was about that time that the two completed and relaxed their postures. "Daress! Darnol! Our guests have arrived!"

The older rae`lir smiled, the expression welcoming and warm. "Ah, good!" He squeezed the younger rae`lir's closest shoulder, then, approached his family's guests. "Welcome."

Parthrik couldn't help but notice that the younger rae`lir, Darnol, had no change in his expression. His gaze appeared flat and unimpressed, his lips unmoving. Certainly, he was attractive and his body impressive, but he looked entirely put out with the situation. Was he somehow even more displeased with this arrangement than Parthrik? Why? Parthrik was fun and exciting! He was worth getting to know and certainly worth this sour-puss's precious dance time.

As polite greetings were exchanged, Parthrik stood there feeling awkward and unhappy. This Darnol did not remove his eyes from him. It wasn't exactly a hateful look, but maybe cold analytical? Parthrik would almost rather hateful, because that, he knew what to do with.

"Why don't you two go for a walk and get to know each other?" Jenol suggested.

Both looked at him. Parthrik agreed and managed a smile as he turned his gaze back to Darnol. He promised he'd try.

Darnol's expression had not changed, but his eyes moved down, shifting between Parthrik's cane and his leg. "You are injured. If you agree just to be agreeable, there—"

Parthrik's eyes widened. "I agreed because I agreed." He managed to keep his tone just beneath spiteful. "And I'm not injured, I have a bum leg." Which came from an injury, but it wasn't going to get better. Clearly this was some kind of issue for a young Sentinel who was well-toned and in full and careful control of his body. "I'm going for a walk, join me or don't." He turned, hating that he couldn't stomp away. At least the gait was less 'slow hobble' and more 'determined limp'. Like it made any difference.

He ignored his parents' soft, embarrassed apologies and was almost disappointed to hear feet hurrying after him.

} • {

Parthrik looked up as he touched the announcing panel at the main door to the Ental Manor in Alness. The sky had opened, allowing the first rains of the Cold Wet. He sighed. An entire season. A season of 'trying' and doing his best to figure out how his parents thought this courtship and eventual bonding with that cold, unchanging rae`lir was part of a 'best life' for Parthrik.

The door slid to the side, revealing Norti, that servant with the charming smile and infective energy. He displayed both once again. "Ah, Master Mol'te, please come in."

Parthrik hated that the question returned of why couldn't it be Norti whom he was in the midst of courting? Darnol's parents weren't reserved or aloof like Darnol. "Thank you, Norti." As they headed to the now familiar library where he and Darnol most often sat when Parthrik visited the Ental Manor. A library. And him. It was almost laughable.

Norti opened the door for Parthrik. "Master Ental will join you shortly. He's just returned from the Sentinel Center. I will inform him you've arrived."

"Thank you."

"Of course, Master Mol'te."

When Norti left, Parthrik looked around, imagining how the afternoon would go. It would probably go a lot like every other afternoon he'd spent with Darnol: boring, with moments of faintly insulting 'concern' to spice things up. Parthrik leaned his cane against the wall and gritted his teeth. "You can do it," he said to himself. "All the way across and back. If you can… you can pick up some iced gelweed on the way home."

The process was awkward, lifting his weak, numb leg and pushing it forward. Since it was also a little stiff, he could use it as something of a pivot point, hopping with his good leg. About halfway across the room, a twinge in his core reminded him of other injuries, and he froze. His jaw tightened. Damn it! He gripped the back of the chair he stood beside and almost cursed aloud.

"Here." The low voice accompanied a faint weight coming to rest against his shoulder.

Parthrik jerked his gaze up, finding Darnol standing beside him, hand on Parthrik's shoulder as he held Parthrik's cane out towards him. Parthrik's flush deepened from exertion to embarrassment as he snatched the cane from Darnol. He moved around to the front of the chair and sat with a grumbled 'Thanks'.

Wordlessly, Darnol went to the nearby chair. For some time, they sat in silence. At last, Darnol spoke. "I thought we agreed to meet by the river."

"I got there before I received your message that you would be late. I didn't want to just sit."

"So… you walked here?"

Parthrik's jaw tightened and he looked at Darnol with his gaze narrowing. "Yes. I walked." He saw the slight answering frown, but Darnol said nothing. Parthrik tried to let it go, push it all away, but found it wouldn't be suppressed. "This bothers you?"

"It bothers me that my being late led you to walk here instead, yes."

"Why?" Parthrik all but hissed. He was tired of Darnol constantly suggesting that Parthrik was too weak to handle something, but never coming out and saying it. It felt deceptive and condescending. "Why does it bother you?"

Darnol met his gaze, his own still distant and unreadable, but his frown was real. "We had an agreement, and I couldn't uphold my end. You seemed distressed when I found you here, and you were pushing yourself to cross the room without your cane. What can I deduce except that you are displeased with how you must walk? And yet you crossed half Alness on foot to get here."

"Oh, by the breath of the Light Lords," Parthrik grumbled, pinching his brow again. "I can walk!"

"I know this."

"But you'd rather I sat by the river twiddling my thumbs and wait for you."

"I would have preferred to be there on time."

Parthrik pressed his lips together. "Is this how it's going to go? I mean for the rest of our lives? Are you expecting me to live in some kind of box because you think I can't walk? If that's the case you've got another thing coming. I won't live my life in cage, and I won't be treated as if I'm broken, because I'm not."

Darnol's expression did not shift, and it looked as if he meant to just continue staring silently at Parthrik. After a moment, however, he reached into his robe's inner pocket and produced a thin, brown book, barely wider than his palm. He set it on the small, round table between their chairs and settled his eyes straight across the room.

If Parthrik's core hadn't progressed to a gnawing ache he would have stood up and stormed away. However, a tantrum over having his very real feelings ignored just wasn't worth the enhance pain he would endure if he didn't wait out the ache.

"Read it."

Parthrik blinked, now a little surprised. "What?"

"The book. Read it."

Parthrik looked at it, now a little curious about its contents. Parthrik almost asked why he should bother to read it, but maybe… maybe Darnol had been trying to answer his question with the book? Grumbling under his breath, Parthrik picked up the book and opened it.

It was… a notebook? Who wrote in books? It was so much easier to dictate into a dataplate, or if one had to, write on one of those. Oh right… Darnol was a Water Temple Keeper. They were extremely traditional. He looked over the first page, finding that the handwriting was careful and neat, very unlike his own when he ended up having to write.

He dislikes me. Parthrik blinked at the first line, a sinking feeling in his stomach. I suppose I can see how he might have taken my concern as rudeness. Fen says I am too blunt, and I must be. It was not a good start, though he did laugh a little at the walk's conclusion. I don't understand what he was laughing at, but there is perhaps hope.

Parthrik felt ill when he remembered what he was laughing it. It… had not been kind towards Darnol, and seeing Darnol's initial thoughts about the day that could only be their meeting, that unkindness now felt a little like unfairness. He closed the book. "I… am not sure I should be reading this."

"I gave it to you to read."

"But—"

"Please." He stood up. "I am going to get some tea. I'll be back… later."

Parthrik was under no delusion that Darnol left for any reason other than to give Parthrik privacy to read Darnol's personal thoughts. Maybe he was sparing himself the embarrassment… or maybe he knew it could spare them both.

When the door shut, Parthrik looked down to the book again. Curiosity got the better of him. What could be in the book that Darnol wanted Parthrik to be able to read after he asked that question?

He is so beautiful. I tried to tell him today, but he just looked at me as if I was mocking him. He does that often, a slight tilt of his head forward and down; his eyes go half-lidded and he stares at me with that faint frown. He always changes the subject when I've offended him.

He changes the subject a lot.

I understand he is going through a hard time and is dissatisfied with his injury. His parents warned me that he is also quite displeased with the arranged-nature of our courtship. I regret that I cannot empathize… I suppose it would be difficult for someone like him — bright and outgoing with El itself at his feet — to settle for… me.

Still, he seems to appreciate adventure and chance. I remember he mentioned some time ago he wanted to watch the landing of that new freighter class. Perhaps if we run into each other there, it will feel more natural for him.

Parthrik winced, remembering how that apparently not-chance-meeting had gone. He turned the page, unsure if he wanted to read more of Darnol's analysis of him. So far it was not reflecting well on his behavior… and Darnol clearly knew what every gesture, expression, and conversation meant. Parthrik was an idiot. Of course, he did. He was not only serious, he was a trained Sentinel.

He was displeased to see me. He did not introduce me to his companions, but perhaps that was reasonable. The tall one very obviously has interest in Parthrik. Perhaps they are… more than friends. Or perhaps Parthrik simply wishes to pretend he is not in any sort of relationship with me.

It hurt that Darnol's second guess was right. Parthrik skimmed through a few more pages, finding himself stunned by the insight. Darnol… Darnol already knew him. It was obvious. Each word, each assessment of their interactions showed that Darnol understood things about Parthrik that Parthrik didn't even want to acknowledge were a part of him.

It showed Parthrik something else: Darnol was trying incredibly hard. He took cold rebuffs that Parthrik assumed flew right over his head, and picked them apart, trying to figure out how to offend Parthrik less, make him enjoy their interactions. Part of it was obviously duty — duty to his parents and duty to Parthrik as his courted — but part of it was obviously a desire that if they eventually bonded that Parthrik was happy, that he didn't feel… caged.

This morning, I told Fen and Ka of my intention to end the courtship. I wanted their support before I did so, as I do not wish to embarrass them. He will never be happy with me. Every time we meet, he pulls further away and a little more of his energy fades. I am unsure if he would see the courtship through to the end, since I cannot quite grasp his relationship with his parents, but it is obvious they wish for us to bond. If I sever the courtship, however, it would likely spare him most conflict with his parents. I would hope, anyway. The do not seem the kind who would berate him for not 'trying hard enough'. I would not have him try any harder, since that would obviously make him untrue to himself. Even more, I have no desire to see his spirit die for the sake of something he has no wish to endure.

Ka requested I wait to break the courtship. He asked me to give it another season.

I conceded.

Part of me feels this concession is more evidence that we should not be together: I am not strong enough to do what's right for him, because there is this damned hope that I am wrong…

Parthrik's fist tightened around his robe, and he blinked at the final words on the last page. He swallowed hard and shook his head as he closed the book. Darnol was… much more complicated that Parthrik gave him credit for. Parthrik felt unfair in assuming Darnol's expressions were empty, flat, or disengaged, because he was clearly anything but.

There was only one thing to do.

Parthrik stood, having to lean a little heavier on his cane than usual because the pain in his core weakened his right leg even further. He found Darnol sitting in the corner of a large kitchen. There was a tray prepared with tea as well as a small plate of what looked like gelweed cookies. Darnol sat motionless, reading a dataplate. He looked up the moment Parthrik stopped in the door.

"Oh…" He stood, setting the dataplate down and he turned towards the tray. "The water is taking a while to prepare."

Parthrik heard the dishonesty, but also something that sounded a bit like regret. Like… maybe he was sorry that Parthrik had sought him out instead of allowing him to bring the tea. But now Parthrik knew for sure that the delay was Darnol trying offer privacy.

"It's okay," Parthrik approached the little table where Darnol had been sitting. "May I join you?"

"Of course."

Parthrik listened harder, trying to measure the tone, trying to figure out if it was really disinterest he heard, or if his expectations had layered something over Darnol that the young Sentinel did not deserve.

Darnol brought the tray to the table and set it down before he sat as well.

"I like gelweed cookies."

"I… know."

Parthrik looked at him. "You 'know'?"

Darnol nodded. "When our families met for dinner at that fundraiser? Of all the desserts on the table, you ate only the gelweed cookies."

Parthrik flushed. "You are… very analytical."

"That is true."

"I… I don't want you to break off our courtship."

Darnol's eyes widened ever so slightly before he looked up. "You don't?"

Parthrik shook his head, unable to hold Darnol's intense gaze. "I have been… unfair. I see that. In refusing to get to know you as you really are instead of what I expected and what… I feel about myself…" He wasn't sure what he was trying to say from there, but he sighed and shook his head. "I'd like to get to know you, and… and I'm glad that you agreed to give it another season."

"You are."

Parthrik nodded and looked up, finding the faintest hint of a smile on Darnol's lips as Darnol said: "I am clearly not good at conveying to you what I'm thinking."

"You write it well enough, so you know how to convey it."

"I do not believe I will be able to say it well enough. I am…" He shrugged and looked away.

"Then write me letters, and we'll start there. I will try to be more generous with my assumptions." Parthrik's smile widened, and he reached over to lay his hand over Darnol's. He was surprised by the sudden warmth he felt and how his core relaxed a little, letting the pain abate. "I will perhaps even remember to ask if what I think you mean is what you mean before I change conversations."

"I never once intended to offend you."

"I believe you."

} • {

Parthrik leaned back, looking up at the cloudless sky. Darnol almost never moved when he sat, so he was a perfect back-rest, strong and warm with a comfortable shoulder for Parthrik's head. Parthrik closed his eyes and reached up to begin to massage the back of Darnol's head. His hair was smooth and warm near his scalp.

Darnol said nothing, but Parthrik could feel how some muscles in his back relaxed slightly.

"What are you reading?"

"A disturbance report from the Port District."

"Is it so very interesting that you need to read it instead of speaking with me?"

"No. But I do have to turn in my analysis tomorrow morning."

"Aw Darnol…" Parthrik sat up and scooted around, so he could drape himself against Darnol's raised knee. "I… I miss you."

Darnol's eyes widened a little, and he lowered the dataplate, to look at Parthrik. There was a faint flush in his cheeks. "Are you teasing me?"

Parthrik shook his head, grinning. "No. But if you're too busy, I could always go see if Norti will walk with me to the market."

Darnol's lips turned downwards in one of the most intense frowns Parthrik had ever seen from him; it was still relatively flat compared to most people. Parthrik smiled and reached out to touch his chin. "Now I'm teasing. Are you really jealous of Norti?"

"Yes."

Parthrik's smile faded. "Is it because you don't trust me to be true to our courtship?"

"It is because he is bright and expressive like you. I have seen how you smile at him, and he at you. It would be reasonable if… feelings developed, but I… would find that difficult to deal with."

Parthrik was both flattered and saddened for Darnol. After the past two seasons of a vastly improved courtship, did he still think Parthrik did not enjoy his company? "Have you seen me smile at him that way recently?"

"No. That does not mean…" Darnol shrugged and looked back at his dataplate.

Parthrik sighed, realizing that this was one of those topics that if Darnol forced himself to continue speaking, it would come out awkward and confusing. Parthrik shifted so he reclined on his side, his back against Darnol's hip. "Write me a letter about this, Darnol. I want to know what you're thinking." He closed his eyes intending to nap.

Parthrik's eyes flew wide when he felt Darnol's hand slide over his arm to settle against the center of his chest. While Darnol appeared to welcome Parthrik's many physical familiarities, he kept his hands carefully to himself. Parthrik had thought it was subtle rejection for a time, but a letter from Darnol had cleared that right up.

"I am thinking I love you," Darnol said softly. "I am thinking you will soon realize you would be far happier with someone who is energetic and charismatic like you, and I will be left heartbroken. And now that I've said this, I am thinking that you will feel guilt you have no business feeling when you do leave."

Parthrik sat up slowly and turned.

Love.

Darnol's actions had certainly suggested that level of attachment, but hearing the confirmation for the first time, preceding such heartbreaking words, it was both exhilarating and painful.

He touched Darnol's cheek to turn his face so Parthrik could look into his eyes. He ran fingers over Darnol's jaw and cheeks, his heart fluttering. "Forgive me, Darnol," he murmured. "I had not considered that my teasing would hurt you." He leaned forward, his arms wrapping around Darnol as he rested his head against Darnol's shoulder and held him tight. "You're always so calm and confident. I… I forget you have fears, too."

"It is not fear, Parthrik. It is logic."

Parthrik shook his head and sat back again so he could see Darnol's eyes. "No, Darnol, it's not. It is not logical that I would cast aside someone who has come to know me better than I know myself. It is not logical that I would trade what I've come to feel for you for the petty rush of a ready smile when your smile moves me so much when I do get to see it." He cupped Darnol's cheek. "You are not the only one who has been too afraid to speak of love. I… I had not thought you would believe me."

Darnol's eyes flickered, and he reached up to cover Parthrik's hand. "I am unsure what I should say."

"What do you want to say?"

"I want to express doubt, but I want to believe. I want to hear more, but I do not wish to doubt you if you say more." His eyes closed, and he shook his head. "I dislike that, when it comes to you, I question myself where I always know what I should do when you are not involved."

Parthrik chuckled softly. "Well… someone needs to keep you on your toes. But I promise, Darnol, I will tease less, and never about wanting to be with someone else." He shifted so he sat next to Darnol and leaned over, resting his head on Darnol's shoulder again. He closed his eyes. "I am sorry."

"Your apology is gratefully accepted."

Parthrik curled his hands around Darnol's elbow and sighed. "I love you, too. I do. I… am grateful our parents arranged this."

Darnol's hand came to rest over Parthrik's. "As am I."

Parthrik felt a little guilty as a flicker of a thought passed through his mind. "Darnol… I… I told you about how I hurt my leg."

"You did."

"I… hurt more than my leg."

Darnol was quiet for a moment, something like concern drifting from his mind. "Are you in pain now?"

"Not usually. If I push myself too hard, sometimes it hurts again."

"Then I am sorry to hear that. Do I make you push yourself too hard?"

"No… I do it to myself, but that's not the point. I…" He sighed, eyes still closed. "The medics said that I damaged my oviduct… pretty badly. It… it's unlikely I would ever succeed at forming an egg."

Tense silence passed between the two that felt exactly like 'I don't know what to say' silence. Darnol's hand tightened. "You are telling me this because it makes you sad or because you are concerned regarding how I will feel about it?"

"Both," Parthrik admitted. "It does make me sad… but you… you're so strong, and physically… I mean… you're so amazing and I'm so… broken. Doesn't that displease you? With me, I mean?"

"No."

"It doesn't?"

"A body is a shell to hold a soul. Would we give up on a rae`lir waiting to hatch from an egg where the shell was flawed? Would we not keep him warm, do our best to compensate for whatever is fragile and broken? Eventually, the rae`lir hatches to a new, expanded world, and the shell is no more or less useful or valuable than a shell that was perfect. If that is the case, what right have I to find any displeasure over any imperfections, perceived or real, in your 'shell'?

Parthrik smiled, his face warming and his fingers tightening even further. "Sometimes, Darnol, the things you say are so beautiful I can hardly think."

"I speak only the truth as I know it."

Parthrik's smile widened. "I know." And that was what made it so moving. Darnol was pragmatic and true… true to himself and true to Parthrik. There was nothing trite in the comfort his words and his view offered. "I hope to be able to make you as happy as you make me, Darnol."

"I am certain you already do."

"Well… I'm willing to spend the rest of our lives testing that out."

Darnol shifted, and Parthrik lifted his head to look at him. Darnol's expression was more serious than Parthrik had ever seen it. His hands came to rest on either side of Parthrik's jaw, and for a moment, his eyes wandered over Parthrik's face, settling at last to meet his gaze. "So if I were to ask you to complete the courtship, to bond with me, you… would agree?"

Parthrik's stomach rolled in something between hope and anxiety. It was a big question and the answer could be life-changing. He swallowed hard and reached up to hold Darnol's wrists. "Yes."

"Would you need time to adjust to the idea?"

"No."

Darnol's face lightened with a flush, and a flicker of some unreadable emotion passed over his face and along the edges of his mental walls. "Would you be angry if I… did?"

Parthrik's brows rose, now something like dread filling him. Why had Darnol raised the subject if he wasn't ready himself? "Uhm… I would be… confused… and nervous," he admitted. "I… would wonder why you… you aren't sure about me when you've done so much and shown such commitment already."

Darnol leaned forward to press his forehead against Parthrik's. "It is not about me not being sure of you."

"Then… what?"

"I…"

Parthrik could sense hints of the whirling thoughts behind Darnol's mental walls. His heart broke a little, but he smiled. He slid his hands up from Darnol's wrists to his shoulders. "You aren't confident that even if I agree, that I won't later decide I made a mistake?"

Darnol nodded. "I never want to be your cage."

Parthrik smiled. "You're right." He felt Darnol wince and start to pull back. Parthrik shifted, brushing his lips lightly against Darnol's before he pressed their cheeks together. "You do lack confidence when it comes to me that you do not lack in other things. I will be patient while I continue to show you that you and a life with you are things I want… things I will always want." He grinned. "I will wait until your self-assurance regarding us catches up with everything else."

"You are very forbearing."

Parthrik giggled and then whispered: "You started it."