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In the split second during which reality changed, Ryou remembered the Honda falling a considerable distance through the air last time he'd tried to move through space by cheating his way past the usual three dimensions. And horses did not come equipped with airbags. Oh shit-

His horse screamed in panic- but its hooves hit solid surface an instant later. The animal skidded and slid to its rump, legs splaying out until it was almost flat on the ground, at which point Ryou lost whatever support his stirrups gave him and tumbled off.

He picked himself up dazedly. Nothing broken this time, though his right side was now as bruised as his left. He panicked for a moment when he realized he'd lost his glasses - but they'd only skidded a little away before fetching up against a fallen tapestry, and were intact when he picked them up. His hand was shaking when he fit them onto his nose, but he immediately felt more centered once the world lost its blurriness.

The surface onto which he'd fallen then took up all of his attention. Tiles. He and his horse had skidded over tiles. They were cool beneath his fingers, a beautiful deep blue with black edges in a honeycomb pattern. Ryou took in a wobbly breath as the import of these tiles dawned on him.

He was inside a building, in a long, large corridor. And though he could not see it, his unnamed sense told him that he was at the top of a tall structure and that on the roof right above his head floated a red banner. He'd done it. He'd actually done it. The wobbly breath left his lungs in a shaky sigh of relief.

His horse had fetched up against a wall a few meters away from a double wooden door decorated and reinforced with wrought iron. They were thrown open, a dead body serving as a door wedge for the left hand door. Ryou tore his gaze away from the curlicues of blood marring the blue of the floor to concentrate on the picture framed by the doorway. Four armed men were staring back at him as if he was the most extraordinary thing they'd ever seen, while behind them stood Darius, looking at Ryou as if he'd expected this all along.

While all the humans stood about in silence, Ryou's horse got to its feet, its hooves making a jarringly out-of-place clippety clop sound against the tiles.

The closest soldier to Ryou snapped out of his shock, gripped his sword and took one step forward.

"Hold it," ordered Darius. "I'll deal with this. All of you, leave."

"Wha-aat?!" the soldier shouted, astonishment temporarily robbing him of respect for his superior office. "But- but sir, he-"

"Out. And take this with you."

The subordinate's jaw moved helplessly, then he gave Ryou one last bewildered, fearful glare and went to get 'this' from where it lay right next to Darius. He grabbed one heel, one of his companions grabbed the other, and they dragged the corpse out, leaving a smear of blood on the tiles and rugs. Ryou, who'd gotten to his feet along with his horse, glanced briefly at the body as it passed by; an Aksumite man in his late forties, face frozen in a death rictus beneath the thin golden circlet around his brow. He was dressed in a toga and gold-edged tunic, but no armor or weapons. Sezerena in all likelihood, and it seemed he had not even tried to defend himself once his city and guards had fallen. Ryou couldn't find it in himself to wonder why.

The last two men took care of the other bodies: a man Sezerena's age in decorated amor, and the guard who'd died by the door. Darius waited in silence. His gaze did not waver from Ryou. He looked much like he had when Ryou had last seen him, which was only three hours ago, even if it felt like longer. His sword was drawn, the edge a mess of blood, fibers and other unidentifiable particles. There was a splash of blood on his left side, black against the red of his armor. There was no visible damage to the lamellar, so the blood was probably not his. His jaw was clenched as he stared unblinking at Ryou. The latter wasn't sure what that expression meant.

A clatter in the stairwell made him look around. Half a dozen Hounds rushed up the steps with weapons drawn, alerted by the sound of the horse. The one in the lead took one look at Ryou and stopped so abruptly that one of his friends barreled into him and then staggered back, swearing. The first soldier whipped off his helmet to get an unimpeded wide-eyed view of him, at which point Ryou recognized him as Dionysodoros. The Greek soldier stared at him for three long seconds, then he took in the rest of the scene, the corpses being hauled out, and the look on Darius's face. He promptly turned and started to do crowd control, shooing all but two other Hounds back down the stairs.

The man who'd objected to Darius's order earlier, an Alliance officer by the looks of his decorated breastplate, gave his hold on Sezerena's ankle to one of the Hounds and then he marched back to the end room with a deeply suspicious look on his face.

"Bahador," said Darius without looking his way, "make sure Rand gets the body. He'll know what to do. Dionysodoros, set a guard on the stairs up to here. I'm not to be disturbed." Then he lifted one hand and crooked the fingers at Ryou in a short beckoning gesture.

Bahador had a lengthy objection scrawled all over his face, but Dionysodoros and the other Hounds had moved instantly to obey and that left him alone in the hallway with his unspoken apprehensions, the source of which was looking right at him. In the end he bowed curtly and left, passing Ryou as the latter stepped through the door frame, avoiding the trickles of blood.

The room was large, the width of this end of the citadel's rectangular tower. Apertures without any windows pierced three of its sides, with tapestries hanging from poles to act as sliding curtains. Decorated wooden slats leaned against the wall next to each, ready for servants to board them up in case of rain or wind or the owner's whimsy. Darius stood near a large marble desk full of vellum papers, wax and clay tablets, and now liberally splattered with blood. His metal helm was perched on top of a bunch of leather-bound books, scarring the covers. Two thirds of the room had been a study, a library and place to lounge on couches and eat. To one side stood the bedroom portion of the room, separated from the rest by a wooden partition heavily pierced with fretwork. Several panels had been knocked down. From the pool of blood beneath them, that was where the second man in Sezerena's room had died. The bed, draped with a rich green coverlet, was on a platform with rugs and skins spread all around it. The walls were covered in symbols, geometrical patterns and figures done in earthy, vibrant colors, highlighted by draperies, statuaries and shelves with various weapons and precious objects. The room was large enough where the effect was resplendent rather than cluttered. It was a light year away from anything Ryou had seen so far in the Outlands, the diametrical opposite of the crude dwellings in tiny farmland villages. The air, redolent with the scent of incense, now mostly smelled of smoke wafting in from outside. And blood, of course, that meaty, metallic tang of blood and bodies that Ryou had been blissfully ignorant of this time last month.

He didn’t give his surroundings more than a cursory glance, despite all the things that could catch the eye, before he brought his focus back on Darius who had yet to move or say anything to him.

When their gazes met again, his friend spoke.

"You came back."

"Yes. I-..." Ryou fished for words to explain his behavior that didn't sound like something out of a teen romance. It was embarrassing and more to the point, the triteness of it could not explain the abysmal insanity that was moving him right now. "You didn't actually ask me if I wanted to leave this morning. I don't, I want to stay. We've been through a lot together-" but that didn't have any bearing on his decision. Ryou mentally stumbled as arguments, counterarguments and burnt bridges rushed through his mind, but he caught himself and faced without flinching this man who'd brought him here. "Forget it. I'm here now, so it's your move. If you want me to go away, then look me in the eye and tell me so."

"I thought dismissing you in public earlier and then having you escorted to the nearest crossing under guard was pretty much the same thing." But Darius was still looking straight at him, unlike this morning, and that intense stare told Ryou that no, it was not the same thing.

"Do you want me to leave?" Ryou challenged.

Darius snorted. "Don't play coy, Ryou, you're not some simpering eunuch. You know damn well what I want by now. If you expect me to court you like a fucking Ionian, you're going to be disappointed."

Ryou felt suddenly breathless as his view of this conversation shifted. It was as if he'd thought he had a tall mountain ahead of him to climb, only to glance down and see clouds beneath him. He'd been wondering all morning how much Darius's occasional come-ons had been lies to manipulate him and how much had been teasing. Looks like it'd been neither. It was obvious Darius teased him because he liked to get under Ryou's skin, but beneath that he'd been perfectly serious about both his desires as well as the reason for not acting upon them, and he'd expected Ryou to understand that. Ryou was just not used to anyone being quite that upfront and casual about men sleeping together. The cultural gap had caused him to misread the situation, along with all those other reasons that'd been circling around his head this morning, trying to convince him that, beyond a little impersonal lust, there was nothing between two strangers from different worlds who could barely understand each other and who'd only known each other a short, dangerous, painful time.

In the same way the dimensions had opened before him - beyond description and comprehension, yet understood anyway - Ryou felt a rush. Ever since he was thirteen and let reason guide his behavior when it came to love, he had never been able to touch that pulsing, fragile, indomitable feeling again. Now he remembered why. Love was a territory where reason did not dwell and would not allow one to reach.

"I don't want you to court me," he said, and was mildly pleased when that came out in a steady voice as straightforward as Darius's.

"That's good, but you're going to be disappointed anyway." Darius moved towards Ryou slowly, propping his bloodied sword in passing against the arm of a low chair. "Other men and women have tried to advance their status by bedding Ghan the Beast, Uchee Ryou, and better men than you have tried to tame me."

"I am not trying to-"

"You saw what I did to Sezerena?" asked Darius, interrupting Ryou's cutting objection.

"It'd have been hard to miss," Ryou said sourly, once more noting in passing his moral degeneration.

Darius jabbed a finger at a red curtain lined with beadwork, half torn from a rod, which was to one side of the entrance, a side passage paralleling the corridor and leading to the room before this one. "His women are next door, as dead as he is."

That did give Ryou a jolt. "They killed themselves?" he asked, giving the side door an upset look despite himself.

Darius's slow advance hit a pause. "How did you-...you think I'm incapable of slitting the bellies of a couple of dumb ewes?"

Ryou forced himself to look away from the red curtain. "Well I don't think you'd do it personally, no, since you told me back when I got you out of the hospital in Tokyo that you don't hurt women."

"You-..." Darius pressed his lips together and then he growled, "Didn't anything else I say about myself get through your head? Or are you only going to remember the few good points I mentioned?"

"That's not exactly what I'd call a good point, Darius, and no, I remember everything equally, the good and the bad, that's my nature," Ryou answered, nettled. "But in my country, back when we fought feudal wars, Sezerena's concubines would have stabbed themselves as a matter of course rather than be taken alive, so I didn't really think about your involvement one way or another."

Darius stared at him as if weighing that. "It looks like they went traditional and took poison, which is a little less messy," he finally said. "But they wouldn't have done it if Terentius was taking the citadel. They did it because they feared what Ghan the Beast would do to them."

"The effects of that reputation you mentioned a few days ago," Ryou said caustically, "the one you told me was overrated but useful for scaring your enemies into submission."

That got him the usual irritated look when Ryou remembered something Darius had forgotten he'd mentioned. Then he crossed the distance between them in five swift strides. Before he could even blink, Ryou found himself caught against the opened door, his wrists pinned back against the decorated wood at shoulder height.

"What I am saying, you stubborn gods-blinded fool, is that you have no idea who I am. Haven't you figured that out by now? I would think-"

"Why, are you a liar?"

Darius's eyes blazed in sudden fury. "You dare-"

"The amount of things you failed to tell me is pretty abysmal, Darius," Ryou said and felt a little vindictive satisfaction when the steely gaze that'd never shown fear or remorse before twitched away from his for a moment. "But even if I've only known you for a few weeks, I can tell you weren't putting on an act all that time, if at all. You told me yourself that you don't dissemble, and I don't think you do, I think you're damned proud of being open, direct and blunt to the point of callousness. It'd have been easier for you to lie during our voyage, make up a fake name and some harmless history about yourself and leave it at that, but you didn't. The few personal things you did tell me were the truth. I do have an idea of who you are. What I've known of you these past weeks was your good side-"

"I-"

"-and your bad side is what you've been showing me since yesterday in spades, and maybe I still don't know- Ow- Ah, Darius, stop! That's my broken-"

Darius let abruptly go of the wrists he'd been gripping. Ryou cradled his broken forearm to his chest and tried to get his breath back. The limb had been no more than sore all morning - for reasons that might or might not be related to the intervention of the goddess of good health - but the sharp throb of pain when Darius's fingers had angrily tightened had reminded Ryou that he did have a fairly serious injury he should be treating with care.

"Ryou," said Darius in the warning tone of one struggling for self-control, "it was a short battle but I've been killing half the morning and my blood is high. Don't provoke me."

Ryou moved the fingers gingerly and didn't bother to comment on that.

"Look at you," Darius sneered, gesturing at the injured arm as if this was just one more proof of voluntary blindness. "You told me about your life back there. You're a peaceful man with a family to return to, and since following me you've been injured multiple times and nearly killed. You're smart enough to have figured out by now the kind of enemies you'd make by my side. How can you consider staying here and risking more?"

Ryou straightened and pushed up his glasses. "I'll try to avoid getting anything broken in the future."

Darius looked like he didn't know quite what to do with that answer, so he just glared.

"It's true I don't know-...I don't know all that much about you, anymore than you know all that much about me. Maybe there can't be anything more between us." Because there might be too much of Ghan the Beast in this man, which would eventually kill the feelings Ryou had developed for Darius. That was Reason voicing its opinion again, and Ryou might have slipped out from under Reason's thumb for now, but he was still going to listen to it and see things without self-delusions. "But in the name of what there is, don't just chase me away if you're only doing this for my own benefit. If I'm wrong and you don't want me here, just tell me so instead of putting on this- this display of your less loveable qualities." Darius's eyes went wide as if he couldn't quite believe he'd just heard that. "I'll go if you tell me to, and why. What the hell would I do otherwise, camp outside your tent until you change your mind? That'd be ridiculous. I am just not going to leave without setting the record straight between us. I don't want regrets. Not this kind."

Darius's nostrils flared. "You make it sound all very reasonable."

"Trust me, reasonable is the last thing I'm being right now," Ryou muttered.

Someone was shouting one floor down, it sounded like orders, though he couldn't make them out. In the top tower everything was silent. Darius was glaring at a corner of the room as if the statue of a plump woman holding a deer had offended him. But as Ryou watched the face that'd become so familiar, the emotions shifted, changed. Darius glanced up at the ceiling, apparently having a brief, personal conversation with whatever gods had put him in this present situation, and then his focus was on Ryou again.

"And tell me, Inlander: if it turns out that you are a fool and I am a liar, and that there's nothing here but the beast they all talk about, what will you do?"

That sounded dire, but it wasn't a threat. It was a blunt question and a bit of a challenge, and it harked back to the clashes of will they'd been having since the moment they met, part of what had drawn them together across the amazing distance of cultures and backgrounds that separated them...

"I'd leave," Ryou replied without hesitation, because it was the truth and also what Darius wanted to hear.

"That's what I'm talking about," said Darius, moving closer, placing his hands slowly, deliberately on either side of Ryou's head and boxing him against the open door once more. "Maybe I won't let you leave even if you want to."

"I don't think you're that kind of man."

"And if you're wrong and I am?"

"Did you see how I got here?" Ryou shot back, looking Darius right in the eye. "Think you can stop me from leaving just by closing a door?"

A moment of sizzling silence and then Darius's lips twitched up in a smile he was obviously trying to fight, however unsuccessfully. "I do remember how you got here and I'm going to be very angry about it later, but right now, I have to ask: you took that insane gamble with your life just to come back here and ask this bastard half-Roman soldier if I want you to leave?"

"I-"

"You can't possibly think I'll say 'yes' and let a man like you walk away from me twice," said Darius and then his mouth pressed against Ryou's hard enough to knock his head back into the door.

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A note from Mal Chants

Finally on the same wavelength, only took a battle, magic and bloodshed for it to happen...


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Mal Chants

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