Equal Partners




by



Ann Marie Olson





Story © 2001 Ann Marie Olson






     It had been a long week, but it had been worth it. For this brief period of time, Mikhail had managed to keep Avilan's undivided attention.
     "Do you really think he'll like this?" There were still many things which struck him as odd about his new home.
     "Yes," a fan of tiny lines appeared at the corner of Avilan's bright blue eyes. His and Karola's youngest had left the nest late last fall ... for good. Now the two one time leaders of Russia, in fact if not in name, were enjoying their retirement. Or so they said.
     In Mikhail's opinion, they were busier than ever. "He'll like it." Avilan straightened out the front panel of Mikhail's robes. He still felt strange, as if he were wearing a dress. "Although you do have to learn not to trip on your hem." He knelt, inspecting the dust hem.
     "I thought it was supposed to be removable." Mikhail winced.
     "Not while you're wearing it." He flicked a dozen stitches into the gaping seam. It would have taken Mikhail forever to get a seam so straight.
     "Oh, you'll learn." He held the needle in the corner of his mouth. "Hold still," he turned Mikhail around. "Sorry," the needle flashed on the edge of Mikhail's new awareness. "Still, I said." His growl froze Mikhail to the floor.
     For all his beauty and frivolous airs, Avilan was not a man to be trifled with. Particularly not when he had a needle in his hands. Mikhail was amazed again at how deft he was. Before he'd met the Rus, he would have never thought to see any male so adept at what was so typically a woman's craft.
     Not that he'd say any such thing around his sisters. But even still, at Kaon, big, strong men did not spend their days sewing and weaving. "What is so unusual about Valtanir sewing?"
     "Huh?" Avilan's deft hands reset the shoulder pads. Without them the heavy garment would have dug painfully into Mikhail's shoulders. "Has Tzer been fussing at you again?"
     "Not fussing really," he held out his arms at Avilan's manipulation. "Only, well, he dances around the subject as if it were embarrassing."
     "In a way it is." Avilan sighed, his expressive lips pursed. "Valtanir is a bit odd. He's not very Sime."
     "He looks like it to me." Mikhail felt his cheeks pink a bit. Valtanir had been the only other Sime here he'd thought at all about approaching. For some reason he'd seemed far more gentle than so many of the Russian Channels, what they called Lords.
     "Oh, I'm not saying he wouldn't defend Lexi to the death and beyond. Far from it." Avilan blinked at him. He tapped one finger against his lips. "You really have to do something with your hair." Sounding like a hen, he clucked a few times.
     "Protect her?" Mikhail didn't like the sound of that. He'd had Simes trying to 'protect' him since establishment.
     "Oh," Avilan waved his hand, studying something on Mikhail's chest. "Not that he'd stop her from doing something she wanted. Well, maybe with Lexi he would. Um," he leaned forward. "Hold still."
     "How is that different from Western Channels protecting Gens to death?" Mikhail wrinkled his nose at the memory. Here he was circumscribed by tradition and societal expectations, but if he really wanted to, he could walk up to any Sime, tell them to go jump in the Moskva, and they'd come back soaking wet.
     It was a heady experience after being paid about as much attention as a milk cow. After the first time he'd sent a poor renSime to do just that, he was so ashamed of himself, he'd given in to his wiles and given him transfer. That too had been a shock. Tzer had never once chided him for the occasional transfers he'd given renSimes, shrugging his shoulders and saying it was Mikhail's right.
     And he did have to admit it gave him tremendous freedom in some ways. His own body could easily give transfer to half a dozen renSimes and Tzer'd never miss the selyn. It wasn't particularly enjoyable, but then it didn't hurt anything here either. Never, not once, had he had a renSime give him the look he'd learned very young meant they were zlinning him with an idea of attacking.
     Even when he'd accidentally flared his field for Tzer in front of their guards. They'd run at maximum augmentation ... away. After that Mikhail had been a bit more discrete with his field. Not because he was afraid of luring a Sime to try to kill, but rather because he'd been mortally ashamed at having scared them so badly.
     "Have you ever watched Tzer when you're in a mixed group?" Avilan sat in front of him and was looking for something inside Mikhail's new kador. His hand got a bit familiar and Mikhail gave him a raspberry.
     "I know." He winked, returning to his work.
     "He's always trying to be between me any Lords in need." Mikhail only now realized what his partner had been doing. "The little brat."
     "Don't scold him for it." Avilan looked up, his eyes twinkling with laughter. "He's only following the model he knows."
     "To keep other Simes from me?"
     "Well, yes," Avilan grinned. "Flattering, no?"
     "Not really," he spoke without thinking. Then he looked down into Avilan's knowing eyes. He raised one silvered eyebrow. Doubt rose off him in waves. "Well, yes," no one other than Tzer had ever shown such appreciation. "But I've never asked him to protect me."
     "And he'd probably deny doing it if you mentioned it." Avilan's grin widened. "He wants you for his own. We've civilized them some, but there's always a part of all Simes which isn't sure of their next transfer."
     "I can understand that." Since he'd permanently bonded Tzer last winter, he'd never once gone over twenty eight days. Unlike when he'd worked for the Techton, where he regularly ran out to thirty or more. "They can't live without it."
     "Neither can we, m'lad." Avilan did something arcane to tiny beads strung across the bias cut on the swept front. "I know I can't anymore. And even when I could, it made me feel like hell. Now, well, I don't know if I would last for more than a few days."
     "You look well enough." Mikhail stared, even though he knew it was quite impolite.
     "Oh, with a shunt I'd survive. But not doing without. My body is too accustomed to consistent transfers. My heart and lungs would probably fail if I tried to go overfield." He stood, with a number of pops and clicks. "Arkay isn't the only one getting old."
     "Why don't you go out with them?" Mikhail turned at Avilan's prodding.
     "Because our place is here, m'lad." He reached forward and touched the cloth covering the mirror. "No, not quite yet."
     "Tzer is simply responding to instinct." Avilan pulled a number of small tins from various pockets in his own robes. He flicked up the lights. "But instinct or not, the actions are very real. He loves you, Mikhail." Avilan tipped Mikhail's chin up. "Look down." He held a brush up to Mikhail's face.
     "You aren't going to paint my face!"
     "Only a little," he made more of those clucking sounds. Mikhail grimaced. "I'll paint your face like that." Mikhail stopped.
     "Then why does he try to protect me?" Mikhail had to put the word into what they called High Simelan here, or the Simelan he'd grown up with. He still couldn't make heads or tails of the Russian/Simelan hybrid mess they called Low Simelan.
     "Would cherish be a better term?" The one Avilan used was colored with shades of love, fascination, honor and even worship. It made Mikhail feel very small. "I think so."
     "I know so." He met Avilan's eyes at last. "Do you really think it is such a thing?"
     "I know it is." Avilan ran a brush through Mikhail's hair again. "Why did you cut it?"
     "Had to." He shrugged. "Never thought I'd get to come home."
     "Well, don't do it again." He flicked the cover from the mirror. Mikhail gasped, stepping back from the image. The person in the mirror was certainly male, dress and makeup included. Somehow Avilan had managed to make him look even more male with them.
     But there was something more to it. A softness to the lines of the rich cloth and the art with which Avilan had made him up. Mikhail'd never thought of himself as soft. He'd always taken care of himself, and often his Channel partner for the month.
     "Let Tzer care for you, Mikhail." Avilan stood at his side. "It isn't wanting to cage you like an animal. He only wants to make it possible for you to be Gen. Having to be strong and aggressive is for Simes. They're good at it. Let him lead."
     "I'm just supposed to sit back and let him tell me what to do?" Mikhail gaped. Avilan had never seemed to be so dominated by Karola.
     "Hardly," his smile held more wickedness than Mikhail could comprehend. "He'll do as you wish at your lightest whim. Don't overdrive the lad."
     "How?" Mikhail turned, glancing the fantastic sprays of crystal and diamond sewn across the black wool. They all glittered in the light, particularly when Avilan waved them down. Then they glowed, seeming even brighter than the room lights.
     "Let him run out ahead." Avilan grimaced. "You've never hunted with hounds, have you?"
     "No," he shook his head, thinking this was something he wasn't too sure about learning.
     "You have to let the hounds run. You can't hunt with them by keeping them on leashes. If they're good, they'll come back." Avilan cocked his head. "Have you watched Nashen and Arkay?"
     "Yes, quite a bit." He thought back on the times he'd seen the two men together. "No, I'd not say Arkay was at all subservient to Nashen."
     Avilan sputtered.
     "Are you all right?" Mikhail patted him on the back. He was as solid as an old oak tree. He certainly wasn't on the verge of death by old age.
     "No, I wouldn't say so." He coughed a couple of times. "But you notice how Nashen is always looking ahead, clearing Arkay's path."
     "Except when Arkay whistles him back." Mikhail grinned, thinking of watching the two of them. "But yes, now I can see it. Arkay does follow Nashen, physically, but his nager leads him and buffers him."
     "Yes, exactly. That way Nashen knows what Arkay wants of him." Avilan grinned. "Karola and I do it too. She doesn't listen as well as Nashen though."
     "Female?"
     "No," Avilan snorted. "Kir was a master at it. She ran Valentine as if he were an extension of herself, even when he was healthy. It was just they way Val was. He needed his Sharm Lord to be strong willed and decisive."
     "Did you mean to say 'needed'?" He wondered at the odd phrasing.
     "Yes, actually," he grinned. "Its very much a transfer sort of thing. Simes are not very focused. They'll run off after every hare, fox and pheasant they zlin. Its up to us to keep them after what we want."
     "That isn't very fair." Mikhail wondered if anywhere there was equality.
     "No, it isn't." Avilan's wicked smile returned. "Enjoy it."
     "But I don't want to be cruel."
     "You won't be." Avilan lost his grin. "Trust me. Tzer needs the security of knowing you'll be there for him."
     "But how does ordering him around give him security."
     "Because then he knows he's doing right, not frittering away his time or energy on useless pursuits." Avilan's shrug was frustrating. "He wants you to hold him tight."
     "In bed," Mikhail protested. "Besides, I don't want to babysit him. We have a toddler already." At the thought of Shanir he couldn't help but smile, despite how near transfer loomed.
     "Thats why you let them run and don't leash them too tight." He returned his pigments, thread, pincushion and other implements to various pockets. "Don't choke him, but don't ignore him either."
     "How do I find the balance?" He glanced at the huge couch he'd talked Tzer into putting in their rooms. It was comfortable, if amazingly awkward to work around. Had Tzer acceded to Mikhail's desire for the thing just because he feared loosing his source of selyn?
     "You are bondmates, Mikhail." Avilan rested his hand on Mikhail's shoulder. If you discomfit him, you'll feel it."
     "Even if I'm so focused on myself I don't notice?" He shivered briefly.
     "You can't." He winked. "Trust me. Give yourself time to grow. Take this winter to learn of your pairing. You'll both find where you are most comfortable. Come spend some time with ..." he blinked. "Tell you what. Why don't Karola and I join you here for the winter?"
     "Sure," he replied without thinking.
     "We can stay in Arkay and Nashen's rooms."
     "What ... uh, shouldn't, oh dear," he had to think about this. "Shouldn't I ask Tzer? What about Arkay and Nashen?"
     "Your choice, really." He shrugged. "Again, this is your home. Besides, think for a moment. Do you really think you would want to do something that would upset Tzer?"
     "No," he said slowly. "Oh," his eyes got huge. "Is this what you mean by a true bonding?" The light dawned. "No, I guess I wouldn't want something Tzer wouldn't want, would I?"
     "No, you wouldn't." Avilan's grin suddenly fled. "Oops!" He ran to the far door. "I'll ... we'll, be waiting for you." He slipped out through the bathroom.
     Mikhail waved down the lights even further. Tzer's Sime quick footsteps crossed the floor. He turned to see his partner stop in the doorway.
     His heart beat tripped over in his chest.
     "Its been a year." He held out his hand. The heavy robes made it appear as if he were gliding across the floor. Tzer's eyes widened in appreciation.
     "So it has." His voice was softer than the wind's low hiss. Silver eyes met his. As always, there was a shyness to their gaze. Mikhail reached up to touch, his fingers trembling. Would Tzer accept him?
    
     Tzer caught Mikhail's hand and held it to his face. He'd zlinned Avilan vanish through the far door, but wasn't going to say anything. The cool touch of his partner, so long missed and so long far away reassured him again of the fact he was truly here, not merely a fantasy.
     When Mikhail'd been gone, Tzer'd dreamed of him, both good and ill. He'd prayed with all his soul to Allah for Mikhail's return and cowered in terror of his own memory of having nearly murdered him. He turned his face and kissed the soft skin of Mikhail's palm.
     The taste of him, salty with nervous sweat and sweet with his own perfume was as sweet as any true gift of Allah. He'd not been as pious before. He'd trusted to himself to know what was right.
     With Mikhail's maiming, at Tzer's hand, he'd learned to love Allah with all his heart. Allah would make it all right, and had. "I love thee." He brushed his cheek against Mikhail's dampened palm.
     "As I love thee." His lover's blue eyes were more brilliant than Tzer remembered. The fire of his selyn danced in their depths. "My Alamir." His thumb brushed Tzer's cheekbone.
     Even in the deepest need, Tzer's eyes stung with unsheddable tears. "My Alahin." He reaffirmed their bonding, giving himself over to Allah and his love. Mikhail's breath caught in his throat.
     "We are one in the hands of the One." His quote from the modern Surah tugged loose a single tear. He stepped forward, beads flickering in his nager, spraying the ambient with millions of rainbows. His other hand cupped the other side of Tzer's face. Soon he would be taller than his love, but not yet. Tzer lowered his eyes, not wishing to push himself on his lover.
     "I would know thee as this past year has shown I need thee." Mikhail's words rang with meanings beyond the simple sounds with his impossibly beautiful field. Unlike any other Sharm Lord, it formed great geometric crystals to Tzer's zlinning. Layers of infinite complexity and symmetry retreated beyond reality. "You too are beautiful, my Tzer."
     Startled, he blinked clear his vision to see Mikhail's eyes also wet with tears. "I will never live without thee again, my Alamir." His lips trembled.
     "Never again," all Tzer could do was shake his head no. "Without thee I am nothing but an empty shell, without life, without tomorrow."
     "You have Fatima now."
     "We have our Lady Fatima." He stepped into Mikhail's arms. They came around him, holding him physically safe as his nager embraced him in its crystalline sphere. "She is both our love, as She holds us safe, we keep Her well guarded."
     "But I would speak of thee and me." Mikhail's sweet breath caressed his ear. Neither of them had the long hair or fantastic jewelry of their station, but even still he'd trade nothing for Mikhail's presence in his arms. "We are together, now, here, under Allah's bond and within Allah's hands."
     Tzer's knees threatened to buckle with the force of his emotions, untrammeled with the buffering effects of Mikhail's field. "Never let any part us again?" He asked, hoping Mikhail would know what he asked. The cold darkness of need was distanced, but even so it clawed at his memories of being lost and alone without his Alahin.
     "No, never," he leaned back. Again Tzer could look him in the eyes. They were lined as they'd not been when they'd both been so frightfully innocent, but they also held the love Tzer had craved with every mote of his being during their separation. "Ins'Allah, Tzer," Mikhail grabbed him so hard he couldn't breathe. Not that he cared.
     "Yes, by the will of Allah." He stroked Mikhail's broad back. No fabric or other adornment could truly show how wonderful Mikhail truly was.
     "Would you like to do something special for tonight?" His voice quavered.
     "At thy will and thy wish." He breathed as Mikhail let loose some of his grip. But not too much. "I would follow thee through hell and retrieve thee from Azrael's arms."
     "Thou already have." He let Tzer go the rest of the way. All but Tzer's hand. His heart raced as they headed for the door. There were others out there. At Mikhail's side, he ... no, he wouldn't fight him. Tzer would stay back. No one would threaten Mikhail.
     A tiny smile played on Mikhail's lips. With the gesture of a falconer throwing off his gyrfalcon or eagle, Mikhail loosed Tzer's hand. Instantly he opened the door. The guards snapped to attention.
     He studied them, frowning briefly at a mote of dust on Falia's shoulder. She colored under her already dark skin. She'd never be so ill groomed again. Mikhail glided through the doorway, kador glittering even brighter in the hall lights.
     Together they walked down the hall, Tzer noting it would soon be time to replace the rushes on the floor. Something had changed. What was it? He stopped.
     "Oof!" Mikhail ran right into him. "What is it?"
     "What are you doing?" Tzer flailed around for an answer.
     "Let you go out front." He dropped his eyes. Rushes rustled beneath his restless feet. "Did I do wrong?"
     "No," Tzer said instantly, not wanting to discourage such a thing. "I'd only just noticed it."
     "Are you upset?"
     "No," he said even faster. "I like. Really I do."
     "As long as you're sure." He tipped his chin forward, his nager as restless as new snow. "I'd please thee."
     "Not at your discomfiture." Tzer's handling tentacles were beginning to twine in protest. Mikhail's eyes flicked downward and his field froze for the briefest instant. Tzer's breath hissed between his teeth before he could control it. Then Mikhail's field returned to normal.
     "I'm ..."
     Tzer silenced him with a tentacle tip. Mikhail, of course, kissed it. Tzer's knees wobbled. A single tiny drop of wetness escaped one lateral sheath. "Smell good," Mikhail's throaty purr nearly got him fondled in the hall.
     "You do." He licked his lips, thinking of how good Mikhail would taste later tonight. Right now his nose was deadened to all but roniplin, but later, he knew the rich smells of his lover would be sweeter than even roniplin or dates.
     A soft chuckle came from behind him as the hall emptied out to the foyer. Black and silver marble reflected the bright lights overhead. This room was a bitch to heat in winter and Tzer could see his breath clearly.
     Before they left the building, he placed a heavy winter coat over his lover's shoulders. Mikhail stroked the soft fur with his cheek, even as his eyes watched Tzer's every move. This was how things should be.
     A bit flustered, Tzer grabbed the wrong coat. When he put it on, it dragged on the floor. He blushed, realizing he'd made the mistake because he was still staring at Mikhail.
     "I wasn't looking either." He winked, moving to block Tzer from the guards. He swapped coats quickly, careful to take his older one which wouldn't be so badly damaged if he leaked roniplin on the cuffs. It required cleaning anyway.
     The city streets were deserted. Snow piled against the walls over their heads already. This time of year, few people went out at all. It wasn't really cold, although Tzer zlinned up to note another storm coming in soon. Probably tonight if they were to have transfer away from the very well grounded townhouse.
     In its environs, Tzer didn't have to worry as much about disturbing weather patterns with his own transfers. But tonight it wouldn't matter. A few hours difference in the timing of this storm would do no harm.
     "Do we have to have transfer at home?" Mikhail's question brought him out of his contemplation of the sky overhead.
     "Is it truly your home?" Tzer asked, wondering.
     "Yes," Mikhail's hand cupped his elbow. The touch knifed through him with more force than the night air. Immediately he dampened the cuffs of his coat. Fortunately this one would not freeze to his arms even if he soaked it. A badger fur guard would zlin to that.
     "And no." He answered Mikhail's question with a wink.
     "Then I have a slightly different place for us to go." He nodded toward the street ahead of them. The ice wasn't yet thick enough for Tzer to worry about either of them slipping, but as they went deeper into the city, he wondered where Mikhail was leading him.
     At last they came to a huge building not half a klick from Kirov. Tzer could hear the river under the ice nearby. Lanterns gleamed brightly through glass windows. The one over the door was red.
     Tzer blushed and turned to Mikhail. "Yes, I know." His cheeks were red as well. From his nager, not all of it was from the cold. "We are expected." He reached for the door handle.
     Before he could get to it, Tzer opened it. A tiny anteroom sheltered the interior from the cold winter air. A young lord, hardly older than Tzer from the look of him, took their coats and offered them both soft indoor shoes. Tzer didn't let him get close to Mikhail.
     "Thank you," Mikhail's hand stroked Tzer's hair as he helped his lover into the slippers. They were black, and beaded as Mikhail's kador. Someone had been planning this for more than a few days. It was still cool and so Tzer hurried.
     "Your party is waiting for you." The doorman opened the far door. A wash of warmth, scented with the most wonderful foods and sweet perfumes curled around them.
     "Welcome, Lord and Sharm Lord Fatima," a wizened, but still quite bright eyed woman greeted them. "Oh, yes, I'm old. Don't you mind me." Her hand waved them toward the table. But her voice was still rich and as thick as cream. "I know your father, young Lord Tzer."
     "Which one?" He dared jest. This could be no other than Madame Halima herself. Tzer'd wondered as a child what she looked like to command such prices as he'd heard bandied about when no one had thought he could hear. Now, having met her he wondered if any price could be enough.
     "Both," her smile reminded him vaguely of someone. Tzer's eyes widened as he realized who ... Avilan! "Yes, young Lord. He and I share certain traits."
     "He's not a ..."
     Mikhail's cough cut off Tzer's nearly disastrous words. Calling Halima a whore would not be well received, no matter how true.
     "Ah yes, young lust." Her chuckle brought another surge of roniplin to Tzer's mouth.
     "You might be ..."
     " ... the most beautiful woman I've ever seen." Mikhail lifted her hand to his lips and kissed the back of it.
     Thank Allah for Sharm Lords, Tzer prayed. He'd been about to call Halima old. This time he bit his tongue. In need, he shouldn't be let out of the house.
     "You are quite wise, m'Lord Fatima." She tipped her head toward their seats. "We will also be having Lord and Sharm Lord Kirov join us this evening if they are available."
     "I would like that very much." He managed to get out without stepping on his laterals. This was an accomplishment this evening. Mikhail's fingers twined with his under the table. Together, even before transfer, a shadow of his appetite returned.
     "Do you wish to wait?" Mikhail's broad fingers slid between Tzer's tentacle sheathes.
     "I'm not sure." Now he was at a loss for words. Where would Nivanya and Ilyan be in their cycle? The other couple were so much older than he and Mikhail. Would they be upset if Tzer were to make more of a fool of himself?
     "They will be as you, nearing transfer. If you wish, there are some small sweetmeats for you while you wait." Halima's rich voice soothed away the worst of Tzer's fretting. It was impossible to fret with that voice tickling his arms.
     Then Mikhail spoke. "Which would you prefer?" His lips brushed Tzer's ear.
     "I think ..." he took a deep breath. "I would like something to sharpen my appetite."
     Mikhail's smile brought all of Tzer's tentacles out. It was so beautiful, he wanted to hold it to him for all time.
     "Ah, yes, the enthusiasms of youth." Halima chuckled. "Perhaps something soft, to begin with." A pair of middle aged rens appeared at Halima's command.
     Tzer was taken aback. This was not what he'd expected. But then the elder opened his mouth and began to sing. Without the overwhelming field of a lord or sharm lord, the words rang clear and true. It was a love song, one written years ago by Mikhail Chernoye. And it was Tzer's favorite.
     His partner sang the reply, her own sweet Gen promise offering herself to her partner. Tzer's bones melted under the delicate touch of the two musicians. Any sharm lord could command any Sime's submission, but her dainty renGen field held no such threat.
     The man's response held all the longing of need, even as it was true with the golden shimmer of the last flickers of selyn in his field. He was in need! Tzer had never dreamed to see or zlin such a thing.
     Closer and closer they came, each complementing each other in the most pure tones, nageric and physical imaginable. On all levels, the two musicians, obviously true lovers as well as performers, called to each other the dance of seduction to Chernoye's eternal words.
     At last the song ended, with them bound by hands and tentacles. As the last note passed their lips, they kissed. And with that kiss, they opened to each other.
     Tzer had never seen another's transfer. Not this close or this intimately. His heart was pounding in his laterals as the transfer kiss transmuted to one sexual rather than nageric.
     "I want you." Mikhail's soft murmur in his ear was enough to drive him over the edge. Tzer's tentacles, slick with roniplin struggled to find a hold on Mikhail's wrist.
     "Let me get out of ..." Mikhail's field quivered with shock. Tzer blinked back to reality to find two pairs of very deft hands had assisted them in the removal of their outer clothes. A soft chuckle and their audience was gone. Now this was heaven. He tipped his head, praying Mikhail would get the hint.
    
     Mikhail had never thought to visit a pleasure house before he'd left home. After Vayer had introduced him to such things, he'd wondered what it would be like to visit one with a partner. When Avilan had mentioned the fact Fatima had a running tab at the best House in the city, he'd jumped at the chance to bring Tzer here.
     It was not what he'd expected. Tzer's eyes closed, as his soft lips tempted Mikhail close. Without thinking of it, he brushed them with his own. Tzer's wordless moan thrummed through his body. Mikhail's hand came up and brushed his lover's soft hair back from his face.
     He chuckled softly when he saw the low table had been taken away. This was wonderful! The soft cushions gave easily as he teased Tzer forward. He knew he was not Avilan to seduce anyone he wished. His skill was not so great and he doubted it ever would be, but fortunately Tzer didn't seem to mind.
     A long boned, slender hand came up and cupped the back of his head. It was Mikhail's turn to sigh as Tzer's hot lips traced down over his throat. Someone, not in the room, but nearby began playing to themselves on a harp.
     "I like." Tzer looked up at him, grinning.
     "Indeed," he arched his neck and preened, as Avilan had taught him. Tzer's eyes widened at the gesture. Soft silk ribbons, damp with roniplin, twined between Tzer's tentacle sheaths. His benumbed fingers struggled to untie them.
     Tzer chuckled softly, his tentacles twining with Mikhail's fingers and hindering him even more. By the time he was done, his hands tingled with being coated in roniplin. "I like this, too." He licked a bit of the sweet fluid from his fingers. Tzer bit at his lower lip, staring intently at Mikhail's hands.
     "Would you like to help?" The dance of flirt and tease did not come naturally to Mikhail's lips. But to try to tempt Tzer was easier than he would have dreamed.
     Instead of words, Tzer captured one of Mikhail's hands. Bright sparks glittered behind his eyes as Tzer suckled first one, then all of his fingers. "Ins'Allah, yes, more," he leaned back against the seat. His body was growing light with wanting to be free of his selyn. Or perhaps he was simply becoming lightheaded with lust.
     "As you ask, my Alahin." Tiny sharp nips raised all the hair on his arms. Mikhail shuddered as waves of pleasure brought out his need. He needed Tzer.
     "Do you now?" A strange voice brought him out of his daze. He blinked, trying to clear his vision.
     Another silver haired person, a woman, sat at his other side. Tzer's glance came up and he stopped suddenly. Steel strong tentacles wrapped around Mikhail's wrists. He couldn't move. He could hardly breathe!
     "Who are you?" Tzer's low growl made Mikhail moan. There was something primitive and irresistible to the rough tone. "He's mine."
     "Is he?" Tiny bells rang as the stranger sat at his side. "And why would you be so selfish?" Her voice was as smooth as silk, even as her field seemed to goad Tzer on.
     Tzer's mouth opened, then he shrank back.
     "What are you doing here?" Mikhail glared at her.
     "This is my Home, my home as well." Her silver eyes were bright. Mikhail had no idea how old she was. She could be anywhere from thirty to sixty. "What are you doing with this puppy?"
     "He's my Alamir." Mikhail's heart sank as Tzer's tentacles slid from his wrists. "What is it, my pretty one?" He asked, in Arabic.
     "Am I not pretty?" She ran fingers and tentacles through her waist length silver hair. The woman looked familiar. But then Mikhail couldn't tell with the odd hair and eyes. Weren't there other Fatimas of the main line? "Yes, I am of Fatima in one way. I am, however, better known as the daughter of Madame Halima."
     "You tricked my father!" Tzer came alive in his arms. Mikhail grabbed him back from launching himself at the woman. "You have no right to be here."
     "From what I understand of Russian law, she does, my love." He stroked Tzer's trembling back. "Leave us." This had not turned out well at all.
     "No, I mean to take you for mine." Her hand landed on Mikhail's shoulder. It was too close. Tzer didn't hesitate. He bit. And not with his talents. With his teeth! "Hey!"
     Tzer wasn't letting go. As she drew back, he went with her. Soon he landed on her, on the floor. Mikhail wasn't so sure he wanted to pull him off her. But when he drew in his field to strike with his talents, Mikhail yanked the ambient out of his grasp.
     The woman's face was as white as her hair.
     "I recommend you rethink your plans." He stood, towering over both of them. Tzer looked up at him. Then he spat in her face. A thick gobbet of blood and phlegm marred her admittedly beautiful features. She tried to wipe it off on him, ineffectively. Mikhail smirked.
     "Well?" He asked, still not waving Tzer off. A low growl came from his lover, even though he didn't grab the woman's wrists or try another lightning strike.
     "Have him." She snarled, bucking between Tzer's knees. Tzer didn't budge. Instead he growled louder, his tentacles coming out to lace around his hands. Mikhail smiled, hoping she'd take the hint. "At your will, my Lords."
     "You should have remembered that earlier." He snapped, feeling quite put out. But when Tzer rose off her and came to his side, he wasn't so sure. The woman pulled out a square of cloth and wiped clean her face. "Get out of here."
     "No," she cocked one hip. Mikhail stepped forward. The odd, crawling feel of electricity caressed his hand. He raised it to her. Eyes wide, she stepped back. Fire sweeter than any honey traced his nerves. The world faded to shadows.
     Among them was the outline of white he know was their tormentor. He reached for her. The sound of a door slamming brought him back. Turning, he saw Tzer's mouth wide open.
     "That wasn't me." He shook his head quickly. "I don't have the selyn right now for something so extravagant."
     "What wasn't?" Mikhail shivered suddenly.
     "You called lightning." He grasped Mikhail's hand. The familiar feel of discharging potential went the wrong way. Mikhail gasped, trying not to arch into it. Before he'd only taken from Tzer! "Yes, my love." His smile was slightly crooked. "Although I find it very erotic."
     "Oh do you?" He brought up the pattern Nashen had taught him to find the potentials in Tzer's field. But this time he held them himself. The exquisite feel of rising energy ran from his scalp to his toenails.
     Tzer trilled, a sound Mikhail'd never heard from any human throat. Then he had to catch him before he fell to the floor. "Are you all right?"
     "No," he gasped, sliding his hands into Mikhail's translucent silk shirt. With each stroke, his skin trembled. When Mikhail returned the favor, Tzer's breath hissed in his throat.
     It was too much to resist. In a single grasp, Mikhail teased out Tzer's tentacles. He had to feel them against his skin. This time there were no boundaries between them. As true equals, he opened himself to his love. And this time, there would never be two again.
    
     Avilan watched Mikhail and Tzer throwing snowballs at each other in the courtyard. Mikhail'd recruited a bunch of house renSimes, Tzer a equal number of guards. There were probably spears left against walls all over the great townhouse. Fatima was close to Azov in so many ways.
     Karola wormed her way under his arm. "They are so cute together."
     "You say that of all our children." He kissed her brow, amazed at her having put up with him for so long.
     "Because its true." She elbowed him in the ribs.
     "Hey, I'm getting old." He complained, holding her tighter.
     "Now they have a chance to." Her hand slid inside his kador. It was cold! Avilan yelped and moved it under his armpit to warm it.
     "Did I do right?" He'd been one of the ones to vote for Tzer's ban. Part of him had known it would work out, if only both young men lived. Their love had been true. Avilan would always vote on the side of love. Arkay, and later Karola, had taught him as much many years ago.
     "Yes, my love." She sighed. "Even though I wasn't sure at the time. I did trust you."
     "I'm glad someone did." He grimaced at the memory of the fight. Even Tzer's mother, Darya, had argued for his death. She'd been raped at her fourth. Even the fact Tzer was her son had not been enough to deter her from what she perceived as justice.
     As it was, both the law and the right had been upheld. Tzer had been reckless. He had raped Mikhail. But it was Mikhail's right to commute Tzer's punishment, no one else's. "If Arkay hadn't asked for the ban ... maybe I wouldn't have done right."
     "Arkay has more sense than you give him credit for, sometimes, my love." Her hair was now liberally salted with silver, and her face lined with the years of bearing children, even though he and Arkay had gotten to raise them. And she was more beautiful than even the day he'd met her. Then he'd not known of her brilliant spirit or blazing intelligence.
     "Sometimes," he sighed, fingering the bracelet Arkay'd given him for his ascention. T'aszo had been too poor for even as much as a simple bracelet. Although it had only been years later that Arkay'd let slip the information. It was very like the man. "I wish we could have not put him under ban."
     "There I disagree with you." Her sharp tone brought him up short. "He had to be punished for his crime."
     "Even when it was all an accident?" He asked, sighing.
     "Afraid so," she shrugged. "We Simes aren't too clever sometimes. Allowing anyone to get away with such a crime without punishment would have been wrong."
     "You're right, as usual." He conceded, even as he smiled at the two youngsters turning the forecourt into a battle ground. With all the renSime power, they'd built huge fortresses across the open area. Avilan opened the window and leaned out. A huge clump of snow flew across the yard.
     "Did that little brat build a catapult?" Karola gasped.
     "Yes!" Avilan was trying not to laugh so hard they heard him across the buildings.
     "Get 'em, Tzer!" Nothing was holding Karola back. Nothing ever did. She charged out of the room. Avilan chased her. His kador was rucked up to his knees. They skidded out into the yard. Another Sime sized snowball flew through the air. Karola pounded on the door of Tzer's fort.
     Avilan went the other way. Mikhail opened the door. A normal sized snowball followed him in to smack against the far wall. The creaking of ropes and hissed breath of renSimes made him duck. A huge whump and another massive snowball flew into the air.
     A huge soggy mass of snow landed right in the middle of the fort.
     "Bloody whores of a misbegotten camel." Mikhail swore, directing renSimes to unbury their equipment. Avilan finally got a good look at it. It wasn't really a catapult, but with enough renSimes, the huge lever could put a lot of snow in the air.
     "Ammunition," Avilan pointed to the pile. Mikhail grinned. Soon they got the ropes unburied, after two more soggy snowballs. "I'm gonna get you!" Avilan shouted out one of the targeting ports.
     Ropes creaked into place. "Odein, Dva, Tre!" On three, another whump and an enormous snowball went flying. Karola's scream of outrage echoed off the snow covered walls. Avilan chuckled. Being partners had nothing to do with snow fights. Besides, both sides were equal, as it should be.
     Or perhaps more than equal, which was even better. Avilan watched the Lord's fortress collapse under a barrage of huge snowballs.

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