The moment the door closed, it sank in just how much more of a home the Hall of Healing had become than the Deep ever had. Perhaps the appointments weren’t quite so sumptuous, definitely not so spacious, and the food was much simpler fare, but he felt safe there. For the past few years especially, the Deep had kept him in a state ranging from anxiety to active terror.

Jisarr sagged against the door with a sigh of relief.

Rima looked from one of them to the other. “Aynithral’s market may be the most hectic place I’ve seen, but the both of you look rather too wrung for even that.”

“The market, averting a bloody riot, and interrogation by a rather prickly general. That’s enough to leave anybody feeling wrung,” Tavi put in. “I think I need a drink, and I’m strongly considering getting you one on healer’s orders.” With that parting word to Jisarr, she disappeared deeper into the building.

Somewhat reluctantly, Jisarr made himself move from the door to one of the seats in the receiving room. “As for myself, I think an apt word would be ‘flattened.’ It feels rather as though any control I might have had over the broad strokes of my destiny has been firmly taken away.” He went into detail – the mob in the market, how he’d stepped up to confront them and tamp out that particular spark, the half-willing trek back into the Deep. “Prickly” wasn’t a strong enough word for General Keslar – that was an infamously dangerous man, and trying to negotiate with him had rather been like wrestling with a half-dozen cave adders and hoping not to get bit.

And yet, in the end, apparently he hadn’t got bit. Keslar had grudgingly acknowledged that things were starting to unravel for the occupying forces – there were too many in the city who resented their presence. If they wanted to keep some semblance of peace, they’d also need at least some semblance of cooperation with Jisarr, or several very influential people would soon start joining forces to oppose and undermine them.

The General hadn’t named names, but Jisarr rather suspected that the willworker Karo was among them, and possibly orchestrating it to at least some extent. He knew Jisarr was alive and being generally well-treated, but he’d also known Jisarr was not technically free – and if others had taken his words to mean that something worse had happened to the city’s vanished sovereign, he might not have been quick to correct them.

“It’s plausible,” Rima confirmed once he’d aired that possibility. “When it comes down to it, manipulating people is the bulk of what we do. While we’re told to do it for the greater good, that can mean many different things to many different people, and one doesn’t rise to station such as his without some degree of practicality bordering on ruthlessness. Here in the capital, perhaps it’s that much more so.”

Jisarr shook his head. “His lot are more determined that I take my place than the occupiers that I be kept from it. I suppose it means for more pleasant confinement once I’m out of here; I was at least able to convince the man that the Dukes held more to blame for the state of the provinces than I did.” He sighed. “I’m only now starting to learn how bad that state is. One of my first deeds on being reinstated will have to be to sit in judgement on that nest of adders. I am not looking forward to it.”

“But you’re facing it all the same,” she pointed out. “That you’re doing so even though it’s an uncomfortable prospect speaks better of you, I think, than being eager.”

“I can only hope it won’t all be like this, because this is not the life I’d have chosen for myself or the people around me, had I a choice.” But then, would he have even known what possibilities might be out there, back when he might have made such a choice? Did he even know now?

Well, he did know that, hectic as it might have been, the notion of owning a stall in that bustling market was appealing enough to be quite a wrench when it was so firmly denied him.

Rima’s ears splayed as she gave him a sympathetic grimace. “Did you at least have time enough to do what you’d set out to do, before the rest of it erupted?”

That reminder made his outlook brighten somewhat, even if it brought with it some degree of fresh anxiety. “So I did. By every kind and patient spirit in the Deeps, I’d not counted on how having it be my choice as to what to obtain, instead of delegating the task, would make my choices feel so much more important.”

“But it’s importance that you ascribe to it,” she pointed out.

He flicked his ears forward. “So it is. For the people close to me.” Perhaps a life in politics needn’t be wholly unrewarding, if he could at least keep those people safe and happy. “Speaking of which…”

“He roused and took a quick meal shortly after you departed,” she reported. “So far as I know, he’s been dozing since.” Before he could digest that, she went on, “For my part, now that the two of you are back here, I think I should at least try to find out what Karo is planning. We’ll see whether he thinks it more important that I’m provincial, or a willworker.” With that, Rima made her way out, leaving him, for the moment, alone with his thoughts.

Dren had been doing a great deal of sleeping, lately. Some of it, no doubt, had been quite necessary, but could it get to be too much? That was probably something for the healers to say. For his part, Jisarr just hoped to make the next awakening a memorable one.

There was no response within a few moments of him gently tapping on the door. Slipping through, he found that Dren was indeed still resting, apparently quite comfortably if not exactly in a way that suggested he’d meant to sleep long; he was not on the bed, but sprawled out along a couch with his tail hooked over the armrest, on his back with one arm tucked under his neck and the other hand resting on his stomach. In the very dim light emerging from the tiny gap in the lamp’s shade, even from the door Jisarr could make out a faint green gleam on Dren’s claws from the patterns upon his rampant arousal.

Seeing that, Jisarr’s first reaction was shame at his part in the other man’s supernaturally-heightened lust, but he forced it back. There were men who’d give much to have the kind of drive and recovery that Dren now did. With the worst of the companion enchantments unwoven, did the man mind the ones he had left?

Had anyone asked him that? Jisarr himself had not. It was a deficiency he ought to correct. After he took advantage of it. Because with that initial revulsion pushed back, what he felt most on seeing Dren lying there, his manhood standing proud over his stomach, was want.

Dren didn’t stir when Jisarr shut the door and came over to him, nor when he set his packages on the table beside the couch, nor when he knelt right next to that couch. He most certainly did stir when Jisarr touched his tongue to the other man’s piercing, giving a soft lick over the head of his shaft; he gasped, shivering, his hand tensing.

There was nothing about the motion that said stop, no squirming away from the touch, and thus emboldened, Jisarr wrapped his hand right around the delightful warmth of Dren’s length, drawing the tip into his mouth, flesh-warmed metal and stone smooth and hard against his tongue. He gave that ring another nudge, and Dren shivered, his hand settling atop Jisarr’s head, urging him on.

It didn’t take long, and it wasn’t very complicated. Maybe half a minute of bobbing his head along his lover’s rigid manhood, cradling its base with his hand, and Dren bucked up against him, warm, sticky essence pulsing over his tongue and down his throat.

When he let the man’s length slip from his mouth and looked up, Dren was grinning down at him, and ruffled between his ears. It was plain enough that he found this approach amusingly novel.

He took one more deep breath, still laden with the scent of seed, before he swallowed down the last traces of it and took a breath. “I got a few things for you,” he said. “I came in here to deliver them, but then I aw you here, and, well…” He shrugged.

Dren smiled and curled in to nuzzle at his ears. When he drew back, though, curiosity was plain on his face, his head tilted to one side.

Strange. He’d stood up before a crowd of people, many of whom likely held him in poor regard, and though he’d been nervous, even afraid, nonetheless the words had come. Here, faced only with someone he had every reason to believe was fond of him, his tongue just didn’t want to work. All the things he’d thought of in advance had completely fled from his mind for a few tense moments. He was on the verge of just giving up and handing over the things wordlessly, had laid his hand on the journal to do just that, when at least something came to him. “I was hoping that the future might bring you some good memories,” he managed. “I thought this might give you some means to preserve the best of them – be it for yourself or to share.”

Dren did like books; oh, how his eyes lit on seeing this one, even though there wasn’t – yet – anything written in it. He caressed the cover, hefted it in his hands, flicked a few pages over, then shut and clasped it again to turn his attention to the ink and pen. The stationer had been considerate enough to include a little square of blank paper, and while Jisarr couldn’t really tell what he was getting from it, the results of a few moments of scribbling seemed to satisfy Dren.

He could tell, though, that it wasn’t a casual examination. “Scribe in the family?” he hazarded, realizing rather belatedly that he’d never learned much about Dren’s broader life. His own profession, of course, had been all too relevant, and Jisarr had picked up some details of his most personal thoughts – though he might need to relearn them by now for one reason or another. But he didn’t really know much about Dren.

Now Dren flicked his ears in acknowledgement, carefully stoppering the ink, as Jisarr brought out the next, much smaller packet, the little felt-lined box that the wristlet had been laid in. Dren didn’t even wait for an explanation; once his finger had brushed over the glyph, once he’d deciphered it, he turned his head and pulled Jisarr into a firm kiss.

When had Dren got bigger than him? When they’d first met, Dren was sufficiently younger that Jisarr still had an edge in size over him. At the time of his release, he’d been so underfed that he’d looked smaller than he was, and a tendency to slouch – to curl up as though he could disappear, some of the time – had heightened that. But now it was Jisarr who had to turn his head upwards to meet that kiss, and when it broke, it was Dren’s arm that settled easily over his shoulders, not the other way around.

That just left one thing – and as Dren’s muzzle parted from his, the only words that really mattered came to him at last. “I want you,” he hissed, curling one hand behind the other man’s neck and the other, without any subtlety at all, around his half-firm length. “No more of this awkward dancing around I’ve been doing. I want you like I haven’t had you for two years. Now.”

That got Dren’s eyes to widen. By the way he pushed back into the kiss and started tugging at Jisarr’s clothing, it was the response he’d been hoping for.

He’d probably have been able to strip Jisarr down a fair bit faster if his hand hadn’t been distracted by the swell in the smaller man’s wrap, wiggling in right under the cloth to curl around it as it grew swiftly to full hardness, squeezing tight as Jisarr thrust up into his grip and moaned.

By the time the impeding cloth finally slipped free, they were both very hard indeed. For a moment, Dren hesitated, giving him a quizzical look; but this time Jisarr knew exactly what he wanted.

He unwrapped the crystal bottle, uncapped it, and carefully poured a measure of the contents onto his fingers. Before he applied it, he held his hand up, cupped a little, to give Dren a chance to sniff over them and shiver in approval, and then he slid the stuff over his aching length.

It had been quite a while indeed since either of them had been with another man like this, but some things, it seemed, stuck with the mind. Dren got himself settled on the bed, Jisarr crouched behind him, and they eased together slowly, but without one false movement. He nudged right into place on the first try, feeling his heart leap in eager anticipation.

Moments later, they were as close together as they could possibly be, with the wash of sensation as he’d plunged in still resonating in him. He shuddered, groaning over his lover’s shoulder.

And then, as soon as he’d recovered from that first thrust, it was time for another. And another. And then another. He sank his fingers and toes into the sheets, shoving himself forward again and again, and with each thrust Dren just shoved back against him in kind.

He faltered for a moment at the sound of a sharp metallic snap, but then Dren pawed at his arm, gasping, “Faster – harder,” and that focused him rather effectively again. He went faster, drove in harder – he worked every inch of himself out and in as fast as his body could possibly be made to move, his rising cries mingling with his lover’s. He was distantly aware of Dren’s weight shifting under him, of a hand slipping in and down – and then Dren threw back his head and bellowed in pleasure, spasming around Jisarr’s thrusting length, and the scent of seed on the air grew strong and fresh.

That was enough for him to feel the unstoppable surge of orgasm rising in him. It took a few moments, long enough for Dren’s motions to subside somewhat, but then it hit hard. He drove in as deep as he could, pressing down against the bigger man, yearning for just a short time to make the two of them one.

Then the intensity ebbed, frantic exertion started to take its toll, and he sagged atop his lover, panting hard. Their tails twisted together, and the next minute or two passed uninterrupted, with their laboured, gradually-steadying breaths the only sound.

Finally, when Jisarr’s spent length was starting to slip free, he mustered the energy to push himself up somewhat and draw out properly. It was just starting to dawn on him what had actually happened in the last few minutes when Dren sat up as well, brought his hands to his neck, and pulled free the fractured pieces of his collar.

“I suppose,” Dren croaked, then swallowed a few times; his voice hoarse, no doubt, from long disuse, heavy breathing, and the strength of his cry. It was clearer, if softer, when he tried again and produced, “I suppose there was something I truly needed to say.” For a moment he tensed as though to throw the metal aside, then he changed his mind and set the pieces gingerly on the bedside table, and then he turned to draw Jisarr into another kiss. “Thank you,” he whispered over the smaller man’s muzzle.

That was it. He’d hoped to set things in motion, yes, but instead it was done, or at least this part of it was. The collar was broken, and there would not be another to replace it. Whether it would satisfy the healers or not, he didn’t know, but that one thing told him that Dren was on the way to full recovery.

He held Dren tight, letting out a sigh of relief. This was the best sign he could have possibly hoped for that he was doing the right thing – that his affection could be a positive thing in Dren’s life to this day. His hesitation had been the last barrier, drawing this out for longer than it had needed to be – but now he could own it, acknowledge it, yet put it behind him and move on with the future.

“It’s been a dizzying cycle,” he confessed, arranging himself to nestle comfortably against the curve of Dren’s body. “But all in all, I think it’s been one of the best I’ve been through.”

After all, if in the course of a few minutes Dren could reverse the compulsions he’d laid on himself and snap his collar, was any good thing truly out of reach?