Sentience

Disclaimer: I'm not actually sure who owns the gang these days, but I know I don't! I'm a poor educator-don't sue me! There are also some allusions to A Midsummer Night's Dream and Antony and Cleopatra here, but only because I'm feeling pretentious ;)

This needs some prior knowledge of Treasure of Tardos and Garden of Zinn in that Tardos keep is where this takes place (post episode, some time later when the Keep is at peace) and Sir Lawrence was the rightful heir to the kingdom of Zinn. He seemed to take a shine to Sheila in that episode, so here's my take on that. And beware, this will, at some point contain much shippy soppiness for those H&S and E&D fans (and a very predictable coupling elsewhere too!) what can I say? I'm a romantic! :)

Dedicated to Kimmy-a longtime friend in the Realm and fellow H&S obsessee.

The Great Hall at Tardos Keep was bedecked with all kinds of Winter and Pagan decoration. A little like New Year's Eve on Earth, the night of Sentience was a night where the origins of the Realm were celebrated, and the living showed their respect by dressing themselves in formal attire, or in the garb of nobles long dead. All around were giant glittering spider's webs, lit by the eerie glow of thousands of tiny candles. On the banqueting table at the back of the room lay a feast of exotic meats and vegetables. Candles glowed from within odd looking fruits, casting a strange light across the tables. Gargoyles and other bizarre creatures peered out from around the walls, and the ceiling of Tardos had been enchanted to suggest a starry night and a full moon.

The gang had received their invitation to the Sentience ball via Dungeonmaster, who had assured them that this was a feast not to be missed. Eric needed no further persuasion after hearing the word 'feast'; Hank took a little more gentle urging as he was concerned about losing time on their quest home; Sheila and Diana were secretly ashamed of their enthusiasm to 'dress up' for the night and Presto and Bobby were more than happy to tag along for the ride. Now, as the final preparations for the celebration were being made, the group were in their respective chambers preparing themselves for the night ahead.

"I don't know about the neckline on this dress, Diana-I don't think I've ever owned anything that was cut so low!" Sheila spoke to her best friend over her shoulder. The midnight blue velvet gown was indeed revealing. Sheila's pale breasts rose from the folds of the bodice as she drew breath, and her tiny waist was emphasised by the tight lacing of the corset. However, the effect was sensual and sophisticated, rather than overtly sexual, and Diana made no hesitation in telling her friend so.

"You look amazing," Diana responded, placing her trademark gold band back over her newly braided hair. Cliché though it was, she had chosen to attend the ball dressed as Cleopatra, and her beautiful dark skin was complimented perfectly by the honeycomb gold, form fitting sheath of the dress of the Egyptian queen. The costume was something that Presto had conjured up for her. She looked every inch the regal woman; Sheila couldn't help telling her friend so.

"Diana, you look absolutely wonderful," she said. "I think a certain Cavalier is going to have serious trouble keeping his jaw from the floor tonight!" Seeing her friend blush, Sheila couldn't resist another gentle dig "After all, it's not as if he's made much a secret of his feelings for you lately."

Diana giggled. "Says you! The Ranger won't know what to do with himself tonight either!"

A troubled look crossed Sheila's brow for a moment. "Oh Diana, it's not that simple. Remember who asked me to be his escort for tonight? I can't go running off to Hank's side when Sir Lawrence has travelled all the way to Tardos for the ball."

Sir Lawrence, or King Lawrence of Zinn to give him his proper title was a dignitary from a neighbouring kingdom. Sheila had saved him from a lifetime of enchantment by his sister Zinnia and as a result had gained the King's enormous admiration and, to a certain extent, his adoration. He had already asked her once to become his queen, but she had refused out of loyalty to her friends. Now, she sensed, as King Lawrence's escort for the night, she was laying herself open to the same situation.

It wasn't as if she wasn't very fond of King Lawrence. He was after all a kind, gentle and handsome man, and any woman would be honoured to have stirred his interest. Indeed, if her heart had not been irredeemably lost to a certain Ranger, she would probably have accepted his marriage proposal. But, sad though it was, as said Ranger had kept his feelings very close to his chest, Sheila couldn't give up hope that soon Hank would realise just how much he meant to her. And that, unfortunately for King Lawrence, was that. So, she kept asking herself, why in the Realm had she agreed to be his escort for the night? Well, a small part of her wanted to make Hank jealous, she was old enough to admit that, and also, she had the funniest feeling that once King Lawrence clapped eyes on Queen Solonara of Tardos, sparks were sure to fly. Of course, there was one small flaw in that direction, too. Or, to be more precise, a six feet one blonde haired blue eyed Ranger type flaw.

Sure enough, once Solonara had heard that the gang had accepted her invitation to the Sentience Ball, she had wasted no time in asking Hank to be her escort. Solonara had made no secret of her feelings for Hank last time the gang had visited Tardos, asking him to accompany her in a tour of the newly refurbished Keep and grounds, and although Hank had chivalrously rebuffed her tentative advances, Sheila knew that the beautiful blonde queen still thought very highly of the Ranger. So it came as no surprise when Solonara had asked Hank to be her partner for the night. The Ranger had taken much good natured ribbing from the other male gang members over this particular "date".

"Well, I guess we'd better get to the party," Diana said gently to her friend. Right on cue, there was a knock on the outer door to their chambers and the lady in waiting to the two girls opened it. There, on the other side, stood Eric and a page to King Lawrence.

The page was the first to speak. "My lady Sheila, his highness has asked that you be escorted to the ante chamber where he waits with eagerness for you to become his consort for the evening." With a bow and a flourish, the page delivered his message.

Sheila glanced at Diana and giggled nervously. "Well, I guess I'd better go and meet with the King!" The two girls embraced for an instant, with a whispered "good luck" from each to each. Then, Sheila gathered up her skirts and walked gracefully through the door of the outer chamber.

That left Diana alone with the Cavalier. As he moved out from behind the pillared door to the girls' chamber, it was difficult to tell whose intake of breath was the sharper. Eric, upon seeing his close friend (and the subject of many of his nocturnal fantasies) dressed in an outfit that complimented her already devastating beauty felt his knees go weak and his stomach fall through to touch his toes.

"Diana, I mean, my lady...you look...you look..." he gasped.

"Spit it out Cavalier, we've got a party to go to!" Diana quipped nervously, to hide her own blushes.

Eric cleared his throat and his voice became stronger. "You look breathtaking." He walked slowly up to her, took her hand and brought it slowly to his lips. "She did lie In her pavilion, cloth-of-gold of tissue, O'erpicturing that Venus where we see The fancy outwork nature."

"Why, Cavalier, I didn't know you knew that much Shakespeare!" Diana responded, then her voice softened. "You look pretty amazing yourself."

The Cavalier did indeed look handsome that night. Gone were the tattered blue chain mail and yellow armour, and in their place was a pair of tight fitting brown breeches and an ivory coloured shirt with antique lace that spilled invitingly over his pale hands. Brown boots finished the ensemble, and the whole outfit softened the lines of his body, while revealing his now muscular legs and well developed torso. Diana knew that his time in the Realm had changed him from the knock-kneed gym class shirker that he used to be back on Earth, and here in front of her was the proof that the boy had indeed become a man.

There was a pause as Eric straightened back up again and his eyes met with Diana's. The current between them was so strong it could almost be seen, and Diana was the first to break the gaze, nervous of the intensity of feeling that was overcoming her. As if he sensed her nerves, Eric offered Diana his arm.

"Are you ready to party, Tardos style?" he asked playfully.

"You bet!" Diana replied, taking his proffered arm. They wandered from the chamber, back at ease in one another's company, as they had been for so long.

It was nearly time to meet Queen Solonara, Hank reflected as he tidied his hair as best he could. He knew he couldn't very well have refused her request for him to escort her to the ball, but he did feel a real sense of unease -and embarrassment- about it. He was no fool. Back on Earth he'd had his fair share of girls who found him attractive, he'd even dated a few of them casually, but that was nothing compared to the prospect of being a queen's consort for the night.

You must be crazy he thought to himself. Any other man would have jumped at the chance to escort the flawlessly beautiful Solonara on Sentience Night. And he could not deny he found her extremely attractive. Her honey coloured skin and her long blonde tresses were enough to drive any man wild, least of all a man who had kept rigidly celibate for the past...well however long he'd been in the Realm. But attractive as Solonara was, there was another woman who held this Ranger's heart...and she didn't even know it.

Of course, Hank knew that Sheila had feelings for him. That much was evident in the way they danced around one another whenever they came into close contact. And before the Realm had come along...well. Let's just say that their relationship, while it had been in the early stages, had filled him with a sense of passion and optimism that he'd never felt with anyone else before. But that was then. And this, this complicated life that he lived here in the Realm as leader of the group, was now. There was no way he could endanger her by admitting his true feelings while they were in this place. He hoped that this thing with Solonara, whatever it was, would at the very least enable him to forget that puzzle for a while. Although he had the darkest suspicion that it would actually push his feelings for Sheila into the foreground, which was the last place he wanted them.

Buttoning up the final button on his midnight blue shirt, Hank stepped out of his bed chamber and, right on cue, there was a knock at the outer door. On the other side of the door was Queen Solonara's lady in waiting.

"Sir, her highness requests that you join her in her private quarters to prepare for the opening of the Sentience Night ball." The lady spoke brightly, blushing in spite of herself at being faced with such a handsome man.

"Of course Julia," Hank replied. "Please tell the Queen that I will be delighted to join her." He unconsciously smoothed his hair one last time and set off at a semi-leisurely pace down the wide hallway. He hoped that tonight would give him the chance to throw off the mantle of leader, to a certain extent, and to assume no more adventurous a title than man, for the night at least.

On the other side of the castle, Sheila waited nervously in the ante room that was part of King Lawrence's set of rooms for his visit to Tardos. She adjusted the front of her dress for what felt like the fiftieth time, sat down on the luxuriously upholstered chaise lounge and just as promptly stood back up again. When she thought she couldn't stand the wait any longer, the door to the inner chambers opened and in walked King Lawrence.

Sheila drew an involuntary breath. The last time she had seen King Lawrence, he was thin and pale and bearded. Now, almost two years later, he had filled out, lost the beard and looked far more handsome and self assured.

"Your highness," she murmured, dropping into a curtsey.

"My Lady Sheila, it is wonderful to see you again," the King replied, taking her hand. "And please, let us dispense with the formalities, I was Sorlars to you once, let me be just plain Lawrence now."

"Of course your-I mean Lawrence. I hope you are well." Sheila still couldn't get over the change in the man. Whereas before he had been attractive in a rather bookish sort of way, now he looked far more woodsmanlike, far more like..." But no, she mustn't think of him that way.

"I am very well Sheila, and all the better for seeing you. You are a beauty any man would be proud to hold on his arm tonight." He had a flirtatious, yet friendly sparkle in his eye, and Sheila was put instantly at ease.

"Thank you Lawrence. I think the other guests must be waiting for us. It's nearly time for the ball to start." Sheila replied. She couldn't help it, she felt strangely drawn to the King, and all of a sudden, the very definite feelings she'd thought she'd had were getting extremely confused.

"I think you're right. May I?" Lawrence offered his arm and Sheila took it. As she did so, the king of Zinn gently pulled her towards him and Sheila felt a kiss with the lightness of a new butterfly's wing, descend onto her lips. His mouth was soft and welcoming, and for a moment Sheila gave into its tender pressure. Then, guiltily, she broke away.

"Uh, Lawrence, I.."

"Please, Sheila, let us save that thought for another time. I want you to enjoy this evening." Lawrence released her from his embrace and, trembling more than she could ever admit, although she was convinced Lawrence could feel her shivering, Sheila accompanied the king to the great Hall.

Queen Solonara paced her bedchamber nervously, in anticipation of the evening to come. She knew that tonight, as the first Sentience Night ball since the Keep's refurbishment was an extremely important event. She knew that she had made the right choice in picking her escort for the evening, and now she was awaiting his entrance to her private chambers.

"My Lady, the Ranger Hank is here," her chief lady in waiting announced as she entered the bed chamber.

Checking her appearance for one last time, Solonara was satisfied that she looked her best. She was dressed in burgundy velvet that clung to the upper half of her body, then billowed out into a storm cloud of grey. Her hair was curled in snaky ringlets and her tiara, a family heirloom, sat nestled amongst her rich golden locks. It was a huge change to what she had been wearing the last time she saw the Ranger, and she hoped, against all her better breeding and instinct, that he would appreciate her. Taking a deep breath, she left the bed chamber and walked, as regally as she could, through to where the Ranger was sitting.

As Hank saw Solonara enter, he stood from the elegant chair. He felt an uncharacteristic flutter in his chest and a stirring on a far more physical level as he saw her.

"Your highness," he bowed deeply, "I hope that you are well."

"Ranger...Hank...please, do not be so formal on my behalf, I am Solonara to you and your friends." Solonara replied as he took her hand and kissed it. She couldn't help noticing how well his ebony breeches fitted his long, muscular legs, and how the broadness of his chest and arms was highlighted by the draping folds of the midnight blue shirt. The colour also complimented the sky blue of his eyes, which is exactly why she had had a hand in choosing it. It was a far cry from the well worn Ranger's outfit that had seen better days.

"It's good to see you again Solonara," Hank said as their eyes met.

"And you too. I trust you had a safe journey here."

Hank grimaced. "For the most part, although we ran into some orcs around Zinnia, but they were in retreat from King Lawrence's forces, so they didn't trifle with us."

Solonara looked thoughtful for a moment. "Ah yes, King Lawrence. He is a guest of honour, as you and your friends are, tonight. I have yet to meet him but I gather he is a brave and gallant man."

"Yes, he is." Hank replied with a twinge of jealousy. He remembered all too well King Lawrence's fondness for Sheila, and how torn up he had been inside to see her gentle and smiling response to the king.

As if she read his mind, Solonara swiftly changed the subject. "And now, I think we need to go and get the ball officially started," she whispered. "Before that Cavalier friend of yours eats the entire buffet!"

Hank laughed, a deep rich sound that made Solonara blush. "Yes, I think we probably should get going. Between him and Bobby, there won't be much left!" He offered Solonara his arm and the two of them strolled from the queen's private chambers and headed for the Great Hall.

The guests were already assembled in the Great Hall by the time to Royal couples were ready to make their entrance. Eric and Diana were chatting with some acquaintances they had made during their previous visit. Presto, dressed in a set of deep purple magician's robes that were a vast improvement on his old green ones, was holding court to a throng of small children, who were requesting that he conjure various items from his hat (which was still the same hat but he'd managed to colour coordinate it with the new robes with a little help from another mage at the party). Bobby, freed from the heavy burdens of travelling with older people, was demonstrating some of his better club swings to a group of boys around the same age-thankfully without the club, or several of the buffet tables would have gone flying.

As if fairies had thrown a blanket of silence over the crowd, the Head Footman announced the Royal couples' arrival:

"My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to you, our gracious Queen and most benevolent ruler, Queen Solonara of Tardos!" This was protocol-Solonara, as host of the party and so highest ranking royal, was the first to be introduced. As she descended the stairs, there was an awed hush. Many of the female guests wondered who the extremely attractive blonde man who escorted Solonara into the ballroom was. Some even found themselves thinking of finding a way to be introduced to him later on. Solonara and Hank reached the halfway point and began to speak.

"My Lords, Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you, our new and trusted friend, King Lawrence of Zinn. May our two kingdoms prosper with a renewed unity and vigour." This was a great compliment to King Lawrence that Solonara had chosen to introduce him to the crowd herself-it was the highest standard of royal etiquette.

An awed hush fell once more as King Lawrence walked down the opposite staircase with Sheila on his arm. Hank turned to face the two of them and drew in a sharp breath as he saw Sheila. She looked absolutely radiant. Her hair fell tantalisingly onto her creamy white shoulders, and her body was shown to its full advantage in the exquisite evening dress. But what stunned him, and stung him to the core, was the enraptured expression she wore. She was loving the role of consort to King Lawrence, that much was very clear. A stab of pure and total jealousy pierced Hank's soul as he took in the scene before him. Not even Solonara's presence beside him could remedy that. Remembering himself, he applauded with the other guests and the couple reached the halfway point, and forced a smile back onto his face.

Descending the staircase was one of the longest experiences of Sheila's life. The feeling of all eyes upon her was almost too much to bear. She smiled out at the crowd, but underneath the skirts of the dress, her knees were quivering. If ever she needed her invisibility cloak, it was now.

"Don't worry, Sheila, just smile." Lawrence murmured. "You look absolutely radiant, and I am the envy of every man in the Keep."

"Thank you Lawrence, this must be the scariest night of my life!" Sheila whispered in return. They were nearly at the balcony where Hank and Solonara were standing. She tried to catch Hank's eye just before they reached the point where Lawrence would formally accept his invitation to the Keep, but he almost seemed to see right through her. A flicker of pain and annoyance ran through her, but she tried to shrug it off. To hell with him.

As Sheila and Lawrence reached the balcony, Hank tried to unclench his fist. His hands had tightened convulsively when he saw Lawrence dip his head and whisper to Sheila, and he had to force himself to be calm. As he released his fingers and absently wiped them on his breeches, a small drop of blood from his palm splashed on the carpeted floor.

King Lawrence and Sheila reached the other couple on the balcony and Lawrence took Solonara's extended right hand. He clasped it within his own and bowed slightly. Then, turning out towards the assembled guests, he spoke:

"Lords, Ladies and gentlemen of Tardos, it is my great honour, and my even greater pleasure, to attend the Sentience Ball tonight. I hope that this marks the beginning of a long and happy relationship between my own kingdom of Zinn and the land of Tardos. May this be the beginning of a long standing alliance between our two provinces."

A round of applause rippled forth from the Great Hall, and during this time, the two monarchs took the opportunity to greet one another.

"King Lawrence," Solonara began. "It is an honour and a pleasure to finally meet you. I hope that you will be a frequent visitor to my humble kingdom." She smiled at him, and for a moment, the two royals were caught up in their own world, that of breeding and privilege.

"I am delighted to be here, tonight of all nights," Lawrence replied. "And it is my pleasure to make your acquaintance, Queen Solonara. I hope that you will do me the hour of visiting Zinn in the very near future." The monarchs clasped hands, an odd, intimate gesture that left their escorts out on a limb for a moment.

Sheila glanced again at Hank, but his face was set and he did not acknowledge her smile. Instead, his gaze was locked on Solonara and Lawrence's clasped hands. With a stab of her own jealousy, Sheila surmised that this was the cause of his ire.

The monarchs turned back to their respective partners. "And now it is time to join the celebrations," Solonara said, a new richness to her voice. "Let us go down to the hall to make merry with the people of Tardos." With that, she turned back to Hank and smiled up at him. "I am certain that there will be many people who want to speak with you, Hank, and there is much dancing to be done."

Of course, Solonara," Hank replied, hastily returning her smile. Get it together his inner voice told him. This is nothing compared to some of the things you've faced in this world!

Sheila took Lawrence's arm once more, and the two couples descended the rest of the staircase. Watching them from close by, Diana and Eric had both caught the interchange, or to be more accurate, the supreme lack of it, between their two friends. Diana turned a worried expression towards Eric. "I sure hope those two are OK with this whole thing," She murmured.

Eric squeezed Diana's hand reassuringly. It felt warm, safe and solid, and Diana was instantly comforted. "It'll be alright; it's about time something like this happened to make them face their feelings for each other."

"I know," replied Diana. "The awful thing is, from the look on Sheila's face when King Lawrence was whispering to her, I think Hank might have some serious competition."

The royal couples reached the floor of the Great Hall and on cue the orchestra struck up. Their instruments looked strange and unusual to the Earth dwellers in the room, but the music was lively and soon all of them were caught up in the swirling and elegant movement of the dance. Eric and Diana moved perfectly in time with one another. Diana was secretly surprised at how well the Cavalier could dance, but she didn't say anything to him about it, for fear of putting him off his stride. As she twirled in his arms, she looked up at his face and smiled.

"This is the best night I've had in a long time," she murmured.

"Only one thing could make it more perfect for me," Eric replied softly.

"And what would that be?" Diana whispered, hoping that she already knew the answer.

"This." Eric dipped his head slightly and brushed his lips against Diana's. The kiss was sweet, and soft, and everything that they both had hoped it would be. Tentative lips metamorphosed into desire, until the kiss became an expression of all of their hitherto pent up yearning. The dance swirled around them, but they were caught in their own rhythm, totally oblivious now to the world outside their own union.

In the middle of the hall, the two royal couples swirled giddyingly to the music. Once Solonara had shown him the steps, Hank took the lead with assurance, and whirled the queen around the dance floor in perfect time to the music. Likewise, Lawrence was a strong partner, and Sheila felt herself being swept along.

"Phew!" Sheila gasped. "This world sure knows how to dance!"

Lawrence laughed richly. "We certainly do. Dancing is one way that we express our passion-you can tell a great deal about the way someone is feeling by the way that they dance. For example, I can see that you are still nervous about your role in this evening's celebrations."

"How can you tell that?" Sheila asked as she was spun yet again.

"Because you are tense. You are refusing to give in to the passion of the dance. There is something on your mind that you are not willing to release." Lawrence smiled down at her. "I would like to help you to forget about what is worrying you, dear Sheila, if you would but allow me." He tightened his grip on her and Sheila felt her worries begin to fade. It was time to stop worrying about...certain other men in her life, and enjoy the fact that there was one, very attentive man, who desired her company, right here holding her close.

Hank whirled Solonara around in time to the music. She seemed feather-light and responsive to his lead. He felt her body pushed close to him by the intimacy of the dance, and his worries and stresses began to subside. It was all going to be OK, so long as he didn't look to his left, where Sheila seemed to be enjoying herself a little too much for his liking.

"Everyone seems to be enjoying themselves," he said quietly to Solonara.

"Yes, the Sentience Ball is usually a great success," Solonara replied. "And yet, I sense that your thoughts are elsewhere tonight."

Hank blushed. "Of course not, it just takes a little time for me to relax and be convinced that my friends and I are in a safe place. I guess I'm just out of practise!"

"Maybe this will help," Solonara murmured. She leaned upwards and touched her lips briefly against Hank's own.

Hank tensed, and then emotion won over good sense and he returned the kiss. It was a very public display of affection, and no sooner had Hank given into it, than he felt an immense guilt crash down upon his shoulders. Gently breaking the kiss, he looked down at Solonara.

"Your highness," he said, purposely addressing her formally. "I'm flattered by your attention but..."

Solonara cut him off with a wistful smile. "I know Ranger," she replied. "I merely wanted to assure you that you are safe. Do not fear your emotions; your honour and your honesty are an asset to you. Please, forgive me for presuming that we could be anything other than the good friends that we are." Momentarily her eyes glistened, then she regained control. "And now I think it is time that the two monarchs danced together, do you not?"

Hank inwardly gave a sigh of relief, but also felt a sting of rejection. He knew the latter feeling as totally unreasonable, because his reaction when Solonara kissed him had been an instinctive one, but now that it was over, well and truly between them, he felt an irrational pang of regret. Not only that, but he now had to contend with Sheila as a dance partner.

As the music paused, he bowed formally to Solonara and then turned to face Sheila, who should have been preparing to dance with him with a curtsey. However, Hank turned too soon and instead of Sheila and Lawrence preparing to change partners, he saw them locked together what appeared to be a passionate embrace. He couldn't help convulsively taking a step back, and almost knocked into another man who was preparing to change partners.

As if they sensed Hank's pain, Sheila and Lawrence broke apart and for a moment, Sheila's face registered shock and surprise. Then, masterful as ever, Lawrence took charge of the situation.

"My dear Hank, allow me to hand over this beautiful lady to your safe lead. And Solonara, it will be a pleasure to dance with the Queen of this court."

Hank nodded curtly, past the point of caring for royal protocol, and the royals changed partners. He guided Sheila into position for the next dance, ensuring that only the most necessary parts of their bodies were touching.

Sheila noticed his reaction and tried to make amends. "Hank, that was not what you think it was," she began. "If you'll let me explain I-"

"There's nothing you need to explain," Hank interrupted harshly. "Just tell me when you'll be taking up his offer of becoming queen of Zinn." He spun her around, keeping perfect time to the music.

"That's just the point, I won't be!" Sheila replied. "As I said, f you'll just listen-"

"You've got a funny way of rejecting a guy then," Hank retorted hotly. "If that kiss was anything to go by, I'm surprised Lawrence wasn't dragging you off to bed!"

Sheila was shocked to hear the man she loved speak with such bitterness. Then shock turned to anger, and she wanted to hit back. "And what about you?" she said angrily. "Since we've been in the Realm, you've never once tried to tell me how you feel. Are you saying now that you expect me to wait forever?" She continued. "At least Lawrence has made it perfectly clear how he feels about me."

Hank drew breath to speak but Sheila's legendary Irish temper was in full flow. "And don't give me that rubbish about how it's your duty as leader to protect us all and treat us all the same. I don't buy it now and I never have."

The dancers whirled around in a swift rhythm. Hank pulled Sheila closer to him to keep up. "You don't understand," he replied. "I wasn't just making excuses. Have you any idea how hard it's been for me to see you every day and have to keep my distance?" Anger flared in him once more. "You think this is all so easy, you try being in my position for a while, then see how easy you think it is." Hank's ire seemed to increase with the pace of the dancing. He pulled Sheila in closer so she couldn't break from his grasp.

"Not to mention seeing you fawning all over King Lawrence like some kid with a crush-and as if that wasn't enough, you seem to love the fact that he wants you." He could feel her breasts heaving against him as he spun her round, and a stab of longing as strong as his anger ran him through.

"It's good to know that someone wants me!" Sheila hissed. Hank's grasp on her was so tight it was almost painful, and she was embarrassed, yet excited by the fact that, although they were arguing, she could sense his arousal washing over her like a current. It was as if the passion of their confrontation had awakened the desire in both of them.

"I do want you," Hank raised his voice. "I've always wanted you." His body was hot, and all of a sudden he was burning with desire. "Christ, Sheila, I've wanted you since the moment we met. And if you don't believe me, just feel what you're doing to me." He pulled her so close that the breath was sucked out of her. There was no denying his arousal now. A rush of pure desire spread through her, and she felt the heat spread from her face down...further...further. A moan escaped her lips as she realised that this feeling was what she had been waiting for. But no, it wasn't going to happen this way, not in anger.

Shaking, Sheila tried to regain what little control she had left. "Lawrence was kissing me goodbye," she said quietly, trying to focus again on the situation. "He knew damn well he had very little hope of winning me while you were around, no matter how distant you were."

Hank was stunned. "No, that was more than a goodbye kiss," he replied, uncertain now. "That was...was..."

"No Hank," Sheila countered. "He asked me if he could kiss me that way, for one last time, and I knew that he knew we could never be together. How could I marry him when it's you that I want?"

They were very close to each other now, and Hank could feel his heart beating in his chest like it would burst free. He couldn't believe that this was happening, after keeping aloof for so long. "Do you know how much I've wanted to hear you say that?" He whispered. "How scared I've been to tell you how I feel?"

Sheila nodded, her pulse racing. She suddenly felt faint and convulsively grabbed Hank's arm. The moment was here, at long, long last. "I know. But Hank, there's no need to be afraid any more."

Hank nodded, and looked deeply into Sheila's cerulean eyes. With the air of a prisoner who is finally released, he bent his head down and grazed his lips against hers. It was the kiss of two people who have been denied one another for too long, and as it deepened, both felt the burdens of their lifetimes slipping away from them. The music seemed to fade away as the two new lovers became caught up in their own private harmony, and it was obvious to all around them that this was a moment that was as significant as the celestial alignment. Sentience night had worked its magic on Sheila and Hank this eve, and they had been brought together not by magic, but by the power of their own feeling.

From the other side of the dance floor, Solonara and Lawrence glanced at the embracing couple and smiled. "Now, my love, didn't I tell you that Sentience night was the best night to bring those two together?" Lawrence teased his dance partner with a smile.

"I admit that your idea was a sound one," Solonara replied, a gentle smile on her face. "But I feel we must own up to Hank and Sheila, and my subjects, about the fact that we have known each other a little longer than one night." She laughed quietly. "After all, we owe it to our friends and our kingdoms to make this alliance an honest one from the start."

"You are right, of course," Lawrence agreed. "But the deception was all in a good cause, and I am certain that we will be forgiven for using Sentience as a good excuse to work our own magic." He pulled his future wife in closer. "Besides, I think that when we do tell them our news, in the light of all that has happened here tonight, we will be forgiven."

"So tell me, my darling," Solonara teased gently. "Were you really serious about marrying our titian haired beauty at one time?"

Lawrence smiled. "Well, that would depend," he began. "On whether you were serious about her handsome Ranger." They both grinned. At the end of the day, if it hadn't been for the two people they thought they were attracted to, the proposed alliance of kingdoms and hearts would never have happened. And in the context of both hearts and provinces, everything had worked out in the best possible way.

1