Lyrics taken from Blue by the Smashing Pumpkins (Album: Pisces Iscariot)

Chimera – Epilogue

Hey Blue, where'd you run to now?
Miss you since they found you out
I've been waiting such a long time
For your smile, for you

The names were blurring on the page. They always did.

"Say again?" she said tiredly. Chatoya rubbed at her forehead with one hand, a throbbing headache taking root above her eyes. She could have erased it with one tap, an ounce of dragon power, but she didn't. This pain took away another, stealthier pain.

A hand wrapped around her wrist, and drew her arm down to the table. "I think we've done enough for tonight," Vaje Chusson said. His eyes were kind, a little pitying. "You're shattered."

She wanted to laugh out loud, but knew the sound would be bitter, harsh as a raven posturing over carrion. That was truer than he knew.

"It's early," she said. So early, and there were all these files to wade through, paper piled high.

She'd never understood just what the assassins had meant when they talked about a contract. She'd imagined a flimsy piece of paper, but instead, it was a thick document, packed with every detail of every mark's life. From the car they drove to the way they took their coffee.

Vaje groaned half-heartedly. "Aren't you hungry?"

Hunger... She paused from flicking through another file, her fingers riddled with papercuts she no longer felt. Yes, there was always a constant ache in her now, but if she didn't eat, at least she could pretend it was food she needed.

"No," Chatoya said, and bent her head back to the folder.

"Look, it's pretty unlikely any of this lot are going to bite the gravedust tonight," wheedled the shapeshifter. "Lady, c'mon! I know they're all important to you, I know that, but even we have to sleep."

But that was it.

However much she pored over these files, with their photographs in splashes of bright colour, with their neatly typed words and sometimes surprisingly tender observations, they meant nothing. It seemed an effort even to read them, let alone feel any compassion for these people thrust up as targets for Pursang's hunters Desperately, she tried to care about the family man who had snubbed the wrong Night Lord, the young working woman who'd overheard the wrong conversation, but she remained blank.

She wanted herself back again. To be that livid, scared witch who had stood up to Blue Malefici time and again, who had been so naïve as not to know she loved him. If only she could rip away those times and live them forever, glorying in her innocence, in her tragic self-belief.

Better than being this hollow, congealed creature.

She searched the contracts, hoping to see something that would raise anger in her, feigning sharp words in the hope something would echo in her soul, wanting to feel pity instead of this flat, dead regret.

All she found was her belief that it didn't matter.

How could it matter? How could anything matter when there existed the surety that she could not win in this endless intricate game of lives? When she found herself not a player but a piece?

The belief grew everyday, and her despair with it. It couldn't be true, oh gods, it couldn't be true. If she could find one life that touched her, one sentence that made her heart stir, it would not be true.

"Go to bed," she ordered without looking up. "I'll carry on. I'll sleep later."

She didn't see the resignation in Vaje's face. She didn't need to; they'd played out this scene for weeks. Sometimes Lance would be there, punching the air at her stubbornness; sometimes Aspen with his soft pleading. None of them made a difference.

But instead of muttering something sullen and wandering off, he folded his arms. "No, you won't. I know this one, witch, and I ain't buying. You'll stay up all night, and you'll be here when I get up tomorrow, and then you'll lie about it."

"Fine," she murmured, fingers red and rough from flicking through too many pages. "I won't bother lying next time."

A strange, low sound filled the room and it was a good few seconds before she realised it was Vaje, growling. A glance up told her it might be time to overturn the table and take shelter under it - his eyes were narrowed, while the foot he was tapping had become a blur.

"You. Cannot. Live. This. Way. Chatoya, you will kill yourself. You're a ghost as it is - you looked in a mirror lately?"

He reached over and tugged her hair, fingers catching on the knots. For a moment, she thought he'd done it in spite - in a crazy flash, it seemed it wasn't Vaje at all, but a boy who'd cast a shadow long across her life, yet in his absence, seemed to have blotted out all light. His voice echoed in her head, quizzical and cold.

Tell me, what do you see when you look in the mirror now?

And his betrayal slashed her again, she bled again.

Even the numbness was better.

But she blinked, and it was only Vaje with his eyes so full of compassion that he could never be Blue. Only Vaje, safe, solid, calm. And she cursed him for it.

"Please..." the coyote shifter said, tipping up her face with gentle fingers. "Leave it. Get some shuteye."

Go to her empty bed, where there was no imprint of his body, where his weight would not be warm and heavy at her side - where there was too much room for her to turn endlessly, tangling the sheets between her legs. Wanting back his cruelty, his taunts, his unexpected serenity, wanting anything but her lonely world.

"Tomorrow," she said, not meaning it.

He scowled.

"Promise," she said, not meaning it.

A sigh escaped him. "Okay. But if you don't keep it, I'll make Lance sing. And until you've heard his rendition of 'My Heart Will Go On', you've never known torture."

She half-smiled, because it was what was expected, before bending her attention back to the files.

Distantly, the creak of the stairs registered; the low noises of hurried chat as the house settled into silence like some great lazing lion.

Page after page turned under her eyes. She was reaching for the next file, knuckles knocking her half-empty coffee, cold and scummy with milk. And then her eyes focused on the name.

Black printed copperplate. She read it once.

And in her heart, faint as a beacon on the edge of the horizon, something flickered.

Again, Chatoya read the name. In the hush, she became aware of her heartbeat, quicker than it had been, pounding out the rhythms of her pain. And again, hardly believing it.

Of course, it was only logical it should be here, among the legions of the other condemned. But she hadn't thought...she'd never really believed. This file was different from all the others.

It was Jepar's. And it made interest tingle icily in the back of her head.

She'd never known exactly why it was he'd come to Ryars Valley; as the son of a prominent shapeshifter house, there was virtually nothing his family connections couldn't buy, bribe or bully him out of. And yet, those laughing green eyes would cool every time she asked, and the one time she had dared to push him, neither of them spoke again until the bruise on her arm and the cut on his face had healed.

Slowly, she opened it. The first page wasn't the usual neat typeface, but handwritten, and on an expensive, gilt-laden letterhead at that, though someone had had the sense to laminate it. A label in the corner read: 'Extracted, Jubatus Vault, Rothschilde Bank, 13.02.64 by S. Chusson.'

She knew enough jargon now to translate. Vaje had stolen it, thirty-odd years ago. The writing was long and sloping, easy to read.

January 19th, 1944

For Simone and Anthony, future parents of Jepar Jubatus; that you may understand your child's future, and suffer his loss with grace:

We have always been an honourable family. We were most faithful to the Five in the Burning Times, and for that, Fireblade gave us the gift of prophecy; to see in flames the shape of the future where others see the shapes of the smoke.

We had thought our last seer dead, but shortly after Samhain of last year, I received a letter from her. I enclose it here in full. Remember that our seers have led us to high status and renown, even when their prophecies are hard to accept

In blood and honour,
Nicholas Jubatus
Third heir to House Jubatus

Blood and honour. She traced the crest at the top of the parchment that bore the same motto in Latin. Jepar's family had supported the Five? Yes...deep in the hidden crevices of her memory, she glimpsed Kheo with his hand resting casually on a cheetah's back, fondling the thick fur, as one might a favoured pet.

Most faithful. And most enslaved. Chatoya shuddered, angry that those dark times should still reach across the years to touch her now.

"Our memory will never fade," she heard Kheo murmur, his voice fresh and confident as if he stood beside her. "We are the greatest of them all. And they will know it."

They knew it. They hated it - and they killed you for it.

Curious now, she flipped over the letter. Pinned underneath was another letterhead, the crest identical but the words different, and the handwriting cramped and hurried.

Seen in the flames by Merle Jubatus, November 1st, 1943

Dearest Nicholas,

Please pass this on to your nephew's family. The sight comes to me only rarely now, but last night I was shown some most startling events in the Samhain bonfires.

The good news first - Anthony will rise to become the head of House Jubatus, and further increase our influence among the Nightworld. He will have two children; the elder a girl, and the younger a boy, both strong in power. The boy will be Jepar, named for my father, and the girl Gatajri.

The boy will commit a great crime, and be exiled for his sins; but in his exile, he will balance the evil he had done with many small acts, and one great one. Impossible though it seems, Kheoussan Rastaban will return, and seek war. He will call to the Four like a blood moon rising, call them back from beyond the grave if he must, and they will be powerless against him.

He is not dead; far from it, and he wants the world to burn.

Jepar's part in this will be significant, yet he will have to sacrifice one he holds most dear if he is to have even a chance of success. If there is weakness in his character - he will fail. The Burning Times will return, and this time, there will be no Ryar, no rebellion. We supported the Five to ensure our survival - but the world can no longer suffer the wrath of dragons. He must be strong, and those around him must be strong, for he will have some part in Kheoussan's awakening and if he realises...if he falters...well, I am glad that I shall be nothing but bones picked clean.

I am sorry to be the bearer of such news,
Merle Jubatus
Seer of House Jubatus

Oh, sweet Goddess.

Chatoya read the words over and over, desperately hoping they would change; that it was not true. Please, no. If she closed her eyes, Kheo was there, imprinted on her eyelids as he was imprinted on her heart.

Kheo's kitten. Of all the Four, Bhari had been closest to Kheo, but even she had not understood the complex, poisonous paths his mind walked. Even she had feared him.

Physically, he was never very prepossessing; where Fireblade's very face screamed out his inhumanity, the fire snaking under his skin, Kheo was shadowy and subtle. Nothing about him stood out, except for the vast softness of his eyes. Eyes to coax, to seduce - and to terrorise.

"We will never die," he had said mildly, playing with a piece of cord. Twisting it through his fingers, though Bhari knew it was not thread but woven from hair. Shiny auburn hair, rolled between his palms. "Do you truly think we were born for something so mundane as death?"

Bhari had shrugged. Hael was lost to her by then; couched deep in mourning for his massacred family. "Nothing is forever."

The war had been in its early stages; the Drax flooded over the witches in wave after catastrophic wave, and victory had seemed certain and absolute - merely a matter of time.

He tied a loose knot in the string, and his smile, always so sweet, flickered. "How little you know, darling, even after all these years."

"We shall die," she said coolly, "as all the Drax did. We shall tire of this world and then we will scatter ourselves into dust and drift on the winds. But we will not die in this war, Kheo, and we shall not die until we choose to."

He pulled tight the knot, and in the small antechamber behind him, a woman screamed. Raising an eyebrow, he offered her the cord. "Would you like to try?" The discussion was over, she knew, and he was feeling playful. "These mortal enchantments have their uses after all."

"I have no time to play with your pets."

A tiny frown turned down his mouth. "Darling! Pets are very calming. Just the thing to soothe you after a long day." His index finger sharpened into a talon; one flick, and a smattering of hairs cascaded to the floor as the captured witch wailed. "Besides, you must appreciate them while you can. They have such short lives."

"They certainly do around you," she remarked, bored of his obsession with mortals. The woman's screams rose higher, shrilling painfully on Bhari's hearing as Kheo twisted the hair into a series of intricate loops. "Enough of this racket!"

Bhari gestured, just once, and the woman was silenced. Kheo's eyes chilled, until the icy-blue flecks in them glittered like tiny razors.

"Be wary of taking too many liberties," he said very, very softly. "Hael still does not know just how his family died."

The threat made anger curl tightly through her gut, but she met his glare without a qualm. Her words were clipped and bitter, bitter as the loss of Hael. "I only executed the plan. As I recall, you masterminded it."

He chuckled, a lazy, boyish sound. "My darling betrayer, which of us has the blacker past? Who will Hael blame? His family were necessary casualties. Nothing else would have won him over to war, and without this war, those wretched witches will spread like the disease they are. You know as well as I that Hael was thinking of standing with the rebels - but now, he is only ours."

Yes, that had been Kheo. He had shied from nothing, making those around him dance like marionettes in the intricate and bloody steps of his endless schemes. Infinitely complex, equally treacherous, the only gentleness he had ever shown had been - oddly enough - to Ryar.

So like Blue, she realised with an unpleasant jolt. Yet Kheo was more whimsical, more volatile. A careful hand could guide and temper his mood. But no one could ever touch Blue Malefici. Goddess knew, she had tried. Like an atheist seeking heaven, she had tried, and found only hopelessness and hell.

Alone of the Five, Kheo could meld his powers and keep his soul separate. Alone of them, he could take control of the others, and bend their wills to his own.

He had rarely done it; ever-wary, he had known the best way to leash each of the Four. To Bhari, he had promised power and prominence. To Fireblade, a vast battlefield and glory, his name echoing down the ages in awe. To Hael, the gracious lie of peace to come, and vengeance. And to Ryar?

Who knew what he could possibly have promised Ryar.

And if Kheo were to return...

Chatoya shuddered. She would be lost to Bhari - there would be no chance to fight, nothing but the titanic violence of the dragon. No resisting Kheo's call - he was Ether, Spirit.

"And what does that mean?" Bhari had asked in her light, mocking voice when she first met him. He had been little more than a fey child then, old beyond his years. "Spirit. Nothing, it seems to me."

And he had smiled, a terrible and gentle smile, and crooked one finger.

She was dragged forwards, as if her skeleton sought to explode from under her skin; blackness flowered around her. Bhari had shrieked, but there had been no sound, no sensation - nothing but the darkness all about her, and her thoughts.

She had hung in that nadir for what might have been minutes, but seemed like years. Aware only that she was utterly alone - that this emptiness yawned on and on, and what if it went on forever, with her trapped here...?

Spirit, his voice came like a hymn into her mind, and her panic dimmed. It's just another word for soul, and that, my dear, is what I have power over. Every. Single. Soul.

"The world can no longer suffer the wrath of dragons," Chatoya quoted softly, Bhari's fear a mangled discord in the back of her mind. "But it looks like we will."

Did the others know? She was sure Ryar did not, and as for Fireblade, well, he would be saying nothing. Unless Kheo should come, and give him back his soul with one careless gesture.

And Hael...Blue...

She put her head in her hands, fingers scrubbing at her temples. She had thought the sharp sting of his absence would fade. But here she was, and some part of her still yearned for him, a part logic could not touch.

She had to know. If Kheo was truly going to return...

She had to talk to Blue.

X - X - X - X - X

The next morning saw her seated around the rickety dining room table with three caffeine-high mercenaries. Fatigue weighed down her body, but now there was a buzzing anticipation with it.

Papers were spread between them, the phone was nearby, and a large bag of chips was open and rapidly disappearing.

"...and then Marie banished the incubus back to the howling netherworld from which it came - her words, not mine - and sent the man who summoned it along as a passenger," finished Lance, reading the report with a perfectly straight face. "She always did have a flair for dramatics."

"What she's leaving out," put in Vaje, around a mouthful of tortillas, "was that she undoubtedly gave the incubus her address and told him to call by to go bump in the night."

The weekly reports from Pursang fell midway between the surreal and the stupefying. At first, she had suspected Lance and Vaje were trying to wind her up, but when Aspen Martin joined the proceedings, it became obvious it was all frighteningly true.

"Okay, sign off her cheque," she said wearily. "And any extracurricular demonic rituals are on her time, not ours."

"I dated a succubus once," murmured Lance with a fond glint to his sea-green eyes. "Unbelievably tiring. I just couldn't keep it up."

"That's what she said," chorused Vaje and Aspen.

Lance gave the pair of them a sulky stare to rival Cougar at his worst. "Envy. It's so sad to see."

Chatoya was beginning to find all sorts of bizarre in-jokes and old arguments surfacing between the three. It had never really occurred to her that they were close, in the way of people who had survived a trial of fire and had scars to compare.

"Enough," she said dryly. "I do not want to know the disturbing details of your bedroom exploits."

Particularly when they seemed so insignificant. She had been debating over whether to let the three of them know about Kheo; it had been a long time since Vaje had found those letters, and without knowing about the Five, it was unlikely he'd have put the pieces together back then.

"Next up," Aspen said, ripping open a thin brown envelope. "Well, here's a surprise!" A boyish smile played about his mouth. "Monty O'Shea finally won Neike Klein by rite of passion."

"About bloody time," said Lance, sounding curiously satisfied. "I was afraid the idiot would cock it up and go for conquest."

"Neike would have cracked his skull like an egg," agreed the vampire, with a little shake of his head. "Didn't you go for conquest with her a couple of decades back, Vaje?"

The coyote scowled. "Yeah, yeah, and she wiped the floor with me. How was I supposed to know she was the hearts and flowers type?"

The conversation was going completely over her head. "What on earth are you talking about?" She plucked the letter out of Aspen's hands in case that made more sense. It didn't.

Am pleased to inform Chatoya Irkil, Pursanguia and Fury, that M. O'Shea and N. Klein are now bound by rite of passion. A good time was had by all.

Underneath, someone had scribbled: but not by those of us in the room below who could hear way too much. Keep it down, lovers!

Pursanguia was her official title. The rest of it might as well have been gibberish. "In English?" she asked.

Vaje, as the most coherent of the three, took over. "Well, we're a pretty close-knit organisation, and from time to time, our members do tend to get tangled up in lust, or love, but usually lust. It's not good for business to have emotions affecting everything, so if you want to swap body fluids with another Fury, there are rules. Firstly, courtesy. No touching without explicit permission."

"Very important," put in Lance, "We tend to keep a lot of weapons close to hand. Don't want people getting bits lopped off because they hit on the wrong sociopath."

"Secondly, if you want to stake a claim to someone - and this applies to any kind of obligation, not just a relationship - it has to be done in one of two ways. Rite of conquest or rite of passion. There used to be rite of blood as well, but only complete headcases do that one." Vaje spread his hands. "Obviously passion only tends to apply to relationships."

"You claimed Pursang by rite of conquest," Aspen spoke up, voice soft. "When you beat me. Well. Me when I was possessed."

"I did?" she said, startled. She had just thought that was Blue being difficult; not that it might be part of the complex social structure of the Furies.

"You got possessed again?" Lance shook his head. "Martin, you are careless."

"Conquest is always a battle of some kind," Vaje informed her, ignoring the others. "When Blue tried to win the Four by conquest, he wound up fighting us all. More often, conquest is a duel. If you win, you claim the other person for whatever terms you agree on."

"If you're like Vaje, you wind up as the lady's personal slave for a month after because you let her choose your punishment," elaborated Lance. "This is why it's very, very important that you make your terms watertight. Don't give them any way to wriggle out of what you want. Murder is our job, but politics is our hobby."

"Rite of passion though..." Misty nostalgia crept into the coyote's eyes. "A lot of the Furies shun it, but it's much harder to win someone with words and charm than to club them with a big stick until they fall over. Tempt someone enough to spend one night with you, and you're bound for a year."

"Romantics," grumbled Lance. "I like the big stick approach."

"Why a year?" she said.

"It's arbitrary really, but the idea is that you'll think before locking yourself into that kind of commitment. Failing that, you can try for conquest and set a shorter time."

"Without it," Aspen said, fixed on her with peculiar intensity. "No one in the Furies can claim they have any hold on you. Not even if you're legally married." She heard too what he did not say, and it strummed a low chord in her heart.

Not even your soulmate.

"But with either of the rites, you can win whatever you want if you set the terms properly. Blue claimed Aspen and Therese by conquest, and that meant he had K'Shaia and Pursang into the bargain. Then you came along, and damn me, he's your soulmate and he can't seem to find a way around you!" Lance gave a lazy, smug smile.

She struggled to hide the stab of familiar pain. Around me? No. He found his way through me, knifed me with my own artless love because I was gullible, because I was too careless.

Aspen was watching her with a kind of sweet pity in his eyes. He knew the difficulties of piecing yourself back together, one jagged shard at a time, and if she had known him better, maybe they would have talked about it - maybe both of them could have taken some comfort from it. As it was, they merely observed one another, mute and respectful, as the cracks slowly reduced.

"Anyway, onto the next," said Lance, professional again, bending that tousled blond head over writing. "Hayley Wright in Scotland thinks she's tracked down our missing member..."

All the while, an idea was drumming a tattoo in her mind; conquest or passion, he has not won me yet.

And if there was one thing she was sure of - Blue Malefici hated to lose.

X - X - X - X - X

That night, for the first time in weeks, she reached along the soulmate connection that always floated at the base of her thoughts. She had learned to ignore it, yet always she was aware that her mirror, her echo, her nemesis lay but a blink away.

It was time to see him again. Yes, she might have Kheo as an excuse, but in truth, she knew, Blue's absence had left her longing for him. Her nights were haunted by the inky blue of his eyes and the memory of his warm skin, cloud-pale; by the strange caution of his kisses and hands. Those frail moments when that control had slipped, skidded, and the monster had become only a man.

She lay back on her bed and drifted, ghostly, towards her soulmate.

X - X - X - X - X

He dreamed of how it had been, when he had worn this face that he had stolen. Before the Burning Times came, and he was left desolate.

Before then...when the nights had been slow, lived in a delicious languor.

Sweat was a drying layer on his skin. Beside him, Bhari's breath was barely audible, her arm thrown over his chest. She, so graceful awake, was an ungainly sprawl in sleep, and Hael smiled to see her. She would hate the indignity; so averse to anything that spoke of pleasure for the sake of pleasure.

This uncomplicated affection was utterly alien to Blue Malefici, and so he explored it with care and incredulity, with something of Hael's own curiosity, had he but known it.

He felt the changes in himself like growing pains; a twinge here, and ache there, the result uncertain. Since he had brought the Four together, pieces of Hael remained bright and vigilant, and he often tumbled across thoughts that were not his, felt sensations that struck him coldly.

Hael had been so much he was not; a man who laughed at himself and anything that struck him as amusing, however silly or inappropriate; who used mockery not to wound, but to bind. Where he had embraced a chilly isolation, Hael thrived on company.

Those changes he could see; it was the others, pervasive, subtle, that startled him.

Orelie Perette had called from Paris, briskly reporting her successful kill. "One over-confident artist who will paint no more strange pictures," she had purred. "Shall I burn the others?"

"Are they any good?" he had asked, and from the silence on the phone, that was not what she had thought to hear.

"I..." Orelie regained her composure. "Mon diable, they have your face on them."

He felt the last ghosts of Hael, reflecting that murdering the artist had been a waste. Blue stamped on the thought. "Nothing sells faster than a dead artist's pictures. Burn them," he'd said and hung up.

A meeting with Nightfire's Latino envoys, in the damp heat of Ecuador. Blue had got up to order a cocktail from the bar of the small restaurant they were gathered in, and the Brazilian envoy had stopped mid-spate when he returned.

"But...Diablo..." The man was very carefully using his formal title. "We - you never drink."

Blue noted the beading sweat on his temples, the cat-cool attention of the other six, and raised the glass to him. "Clearly, I do."

"I..." The man reeked of fear, sour and stale. "I was mistaken, Diablo."

"You were not," he corrected. "As I recall, I banned drinking when discussing business matters."

"And have you changed your mind?" The gutsy woman opposite him arched her eyebrows questioningly. No title. No deference. He was amused, if not impressed. "I could use a drink after the month we've had in Argentina."

"Feel free," he said mildly. "As someone once told me, we have enough vices that one more will make no difference."

"What's yours?" she inquired, gesturing to the orange concoction. The others had shot to the bar like a pack of ravening dingoes.

"It's a Comfortable Screw up against a Wall," he said smoothly, and let his sinuous, wicked smile curl across his mouth. "Fancy one?"

She gawked. "Diablo..." Now there was respect in her voice. "Are you being funny?"

"We train you to recognise sixteen hundred types of weapon. Don't tell me you can't recognise a joke."

There had been other incidents too, brief and maybe unsettling, if he hadn't realised that it leant a new, more dangerous unpredictability to his actions. Now they watched him scrupulously, unsure if it was an act or a trick, never thinking it might simply be character.

And he had discovered - to his surprise - that he didn't mind these dreams, spent in the heady dragon times. More often than not, he found himself exploring the secrets of Bhari as surely as he had explored the secrets of violence and death. And in this, new intrigue; he knew her as though she was a part of himself. Knew the taste of her skin, and the weight of her thick black hair; knew with pleasing familiarity the way her face shifted from expression to expression.

Blue could have stopped these dreams of long-dead love, but he chose not to.

And if sometimes, he looked at Bhari and thought her face not quite right, found it too lush and beautiful for his liking - if he wished for her eyes to be moss-green, her voice to be softer, he thought himself haunted.

Not one of the people he had killed had ever haunted him as Chatoya Irkil did, yet surely his destruction of her had been more triumphant, more brilliantly executed?

Why then, did there seem little savour to it?

He knew the answer, of course; lies were for people who needed a gentle world, who could not bear the fact that truth was sometimes ugly and brutal.

He had spent his life searching for some trial of fire, something that would truly challenge him and oppose him, and in the end, it had not been a creature of deceit and evil, it had not been someone who fought him on his terms. Somehow, somewhere, she had fought him on hers - with her courage, and her warmth, and her endless tenacity.

Of all of them, she had understood him most, and yet she was everything he was not, much as Hael was. Bhari, the deceiver, the destroyer, had made herself a home in a girl who knew nothing of either of those things, except for what he had shown her. How strange.

Beside him, Bhari stirred, and levered herself up from where she lay on her stomach.

And her eyes were jungle-green, as if his thoughts had conjured her.

"Hello," she said, her voice was carefully neutral. It was her; slowly Bhari's features were remoulding themselves into his witch's, and the dream took on a wavering, unreal quality. "We need to talk."

And then his witch realised that she was naked, and so was he, and very obviously put two and two together to make foreplay. She moved almost offensively fast, scuttling across the room to huddle against the far wall, arms wrapped firmly around her knees and her livid glare simmering on his skin.

This was - unexpected. "I assume this isn't a social call."

The tan on her arms and legs wasn't matched by the glimpse of her side he could see, and he dwelt idly on the remembrance of her under his hands, the smoothness of her skin and the surprising delicacy of her bones. Of how he had trailed his fingers over the curves of her body, how snugly she had fit against him in sleep. He wondered how she'd taste. He let that desire fill his eyes, and watched it unnerve her.

"If it is, it's an X-rated number," she muttered, her cheeks flushed. "It's about Kheo. I...don't think he's dead."

"Why, has his psychotic ex-wife tried to resurrect him?" he inquired icily.

She glared. "I don't know - have you given her a spell for it?"

Touché, and before he could stop it, he had flashed Hael's impish smile. "I learned my lesson last time. The Four will never be as they were."

"They will if Kheo returns," she said softly, and there was a certainty to her eyes that he read as truth. "I found a prophecy in Pursang's files. It says he's sleeping, and I don't mean that in the poetic sense."

He rifled through Hael's memories like a robber, but there was nothing there. Hael's surrender to the enchanted sleep had come shortly after he learned it had been his lover who had slaughtered his family to push him into warfare.

She was Kheo's kitten, Hael's voice whispered, laced with tragedy. I was fool enough to think she might be mine, but she was his to the last. She loved me, but she loved power more, and she killed my family for it.

"Are you certain?" he said.

"Positive. It's in Jepar's file. And it's not exactly unlikely, is it? He's going to resurrect the Burning Times, Blue, and this time there won't be anyone to deny him."

"A minor irritant," he said, shrugging it off. "My life is full of them."

Oh…she felt that verbal slice, the flinch in her expression told him that. "I'd hardly describe Kheo as a minor irritant." Her voice was waspish, but it didn't quite cover that moment of vulnerability. "We need to talk about how we're going to stop him-"

"We?" he interrupted coldly. "Why on earth would I want to stop him? I assure you, I'm far more interested in negotiating with him."

X - X - X - X - X

Chatoya shouldn't have been surprised, but she was. "You're joking."

"No, if I was joking, I'd have said a man walked into a bar and said 'ouch'. Clearly, I'm not."

Oh gods. He'd acquired a sense of humour. A dreadful one. "Do you think you'll get a chance to negotiate? He controlled the Four, Blue, and he can make us bend to his every whim if he wants. He can wake Hael and hand him your soul."

"And do you think he'll want to tussle with Hael again?" enquired Blue. "I assure you, my motives will be far more to his liking. He'd prefer an ally to an enemy. And who knows, witch of mine - behave, and I might even persuade Kheo to let you be."

"How generous!" So here they were once more, on opposite sides of a battle, and she had to win. "And I suppose all I have to do is beg at your feet."

"Well, if you like being on your knees, I can find something for you to do," he purred, but the words cut.

This was too intimate for her liking. She wanted to be fighting him, livid and bold, not staggering beneath the weight of her private pain.

Then fight, she told herself. Don't stand here and let him flay your defences from you. These are dreamscapes; a world as malleable and breakable as dough.

And once, they had been Bhari's realms. Anchored in earth, she alone could walk the dreams undeceived by their sly illusions. Feet of clay, Hael had teased. Head in the clouds, she had retorted, and sent him a dream that had woken him shuddering and shocked.

Air can build castles in the sky, whispered the Earth Drax's voice, insidious and invasive. But only earth may make them real, and in doing so, choose the nature of reality. Let him build his expectations, his fortress - and then tear it down, let it tumble into nothing.

With a flicker of her fingers, Chatoya was clothed again, some of her equanimity restored.

He gave her a hint of his wicked smile, letting his thoughts shine so clearly on his face she wanted to blush again. "Pity. Naked women have so much more bargaining power."

"I have no intention of bargaining," she stated coldly.

A small sigh; he actually seemed disappointed. "And I was looking forward to your…concessions."

"Why is it you only war with words?" Bhari had said the same to Hael, long ago; and she had circled him as Chatoya did now. The thought was eerie, for the past and present were only thinly split here, and with the right handling, one could become the other.

Perhaps she could play that to her advantage.

There was a small tightening in his jaw; she leaned over, and traced her finger across it.

"Why is it you only play with wiles?" he threw back, exactly as Hael had. The tones were a smidgen more bored, his face haughtier, yet she wondered if he knew that memories were leading him.

"Because I am playing," she answered, each circuit of him moving that fraction closer. "When I war, my weapons have much more of an edge."

"This is no war."

"It's no game." How gracefully he had manipulated her, and she had danced to her doom, enchanted by the music. "It was never a game."

"Then why did we play by rules?" That cool condescension was all his, and so was the merest curl of his mouth. "It was not for my benefit, witch of mine."

She knew where best to strike him then; his pride was always his weakness, and now she would make it his wound.

"I am not yours until you win me," she informed him. "Isn't that the law of the Furies? Rite of conquest or rite of passion. You have had neither."

Something warm began to smoulder in his eyes, deepening their colour to indigo. "And who am I to conquer, Chatoya Irkil? Let's not pretend you would allow the monster into your bed."

There it was; that quicksilver bitterness, the frosty tracks of a life spent alone and outcast. Oh yes, it grated on him, that monster who remembered the boy he had once been.

"I already did."

His eyebrows arched, quick, mocking. "More a wrong of passion than a rite, I'd say. And since when do you care about the rules of the Furies?"

"I am one," she said simply. "I don't just live by your laws - I make them. You chose it that way." And now, she thought, you will have to take the consequences. "And how do the Furies speak about you these days, Blue? Do they wonder why you can't control your soulmate - a mere witch, after all? Do they wonder why you let me live?"

She leant over him, glaring down into that fetching, indifferent face. She longed to smash past his absolute confidence, and she knew just how to do it.

Chatoya dropped her voice to a whisper. "Do they wonder if there's weakness in you? Do they gossip that the Demon Fury has surrendered"

His shoulders tightened.

She stood again, and turned her back on him. "After all," Chatoya said lightly, "if you can't control your own soulmate, how can you control Nightfire?"

"If you want your rite of conquest, then you have it. What is it you want? Set your terms."

"Help with Kheo. Every scrap of information Nightfire has on him - and K'Shaia too, if you can manage it. No active interference in Pursang's business or with our members unless it's with my express permission. No persecution of my friends."

"That's a loose term," he said shortly."Though I doubt it's an issue - you have to win first."

"I'll send you a list," she informed him with the imperious tilt of her head she had learnt from Jepar. "Your terms."

"When I win, you will continue to run Pursang - but through me. There will be no more of this ridiculous attempt to turn a business into a charity. You will stay away from my half-brother." His voice was steel, but there was an undercurrent of tension to it, vibrating like a wire. "You will make no attempt to defy Kheoussan Rastaban, if he wakes. And you will defer to me in every way."

It was an unappealing set of terms, but she had no choice. She needed his help with Kheo, and she needed to be unfettered in order to run Pursang. This had better work, she prayed. Goddess, let it work.

"Done," she said, and held out her hand.

For a frozen moment, he only looked back, and then he stood, naked and self-assured, and brushed her fingers with his own. "Done. As the challenged, you may choose the time, place, and weapons."

She concentrated, pulling Bhari's memories from the back of her mind like a rope of handkerchiefs. What she was about to do would have been impossible without the dragon's knowledge and power.

The dragonfire rolled out from her body in shockwaves, and where it hit, pieces of the scenery began to melt and drip away, colours changing and reforming in a slow circus. Under her feet the rough ground evened out, and became tightly packed dirt, while the cave shrunk into small bricked walls that formed a large square.

Weapon racks were off to one side; this was the imperial training ground of the Eastern desert lands, where the heat was as arduous and prickly as the people. Bhari had grown up here, the privileged daughter of a wealthy merchant, and a warrior befitting her highborn status. In her homeland, unlike Hael's, women were expected to fight, and to be good enough to hold their own against men.

She gestured to the square, open under the blazing sun. "The Court of Brilliance. Eastern staves. And now."

"Overly dramatic. If ingenious - I've never seen anything quite like these weapons, though Hael…well, we both know how that fight went."

And that was exactly the point. Hael and Bhari's duel had been a demonstration, and Bhari had been careful not to harm him. There were one or two - tricks of the Easterners' fighting that he had never been privy to. And that meant Blue didn't know either.

"You might want to get dressed," she pointed out levelly. "Or you'll wind up a lovely shade of lobster red."

"I didn't know you cared."

Oh yes you did, you bastard. And that's exactly why we're here.

She turned her back on him in one precise swivel, and so she missed his thoughtful look. But she didn't miss the small pinch of his power as he decided that naked fighting and naked ambition rarely went well together.

Chatoya picked out a stave; a long staff, five feet long, but tipped with gleaming metal hooks at each end, and with the ancient equivalent of a knuckleduster protecting the hand grips. Sharp spikes jutted from the wood at irregular intervals. This weapon could be as much a danger to its wielder as to its victim without care.

Blue strolled past her, so close she felt the air stir on her skin. He spent a few moments examining the staves, before picking one and swiping a few test cuts in the air. Already he was at ease; but then, that was what Nightfire had spent years training him for.

And then he turned, and his teeth gleamed in something that wasn't even close to a smile; his face was focused, his body relaxed, and it struck her that for the first time, she was looking at the face Blue wore when he killed.

And it didn't look much different.

"Shall we dance?" he drawled, the challenge ringing with contempt.

She had a brief and horrible mental image of Blue wearing a top hat and tap-dancing with the staff. Chatoya stamped down on it before it manifested itself. Dreams were very, very tricky things, and the last thing she needed was to turn him into Robert Palmer.

"How about I teach you the lesson you so badly need?" she suggested and whirled the stave in a deliberately flashy move, sunlight fracturing along the blades.

They edged about each other, and Chatoya let Bhari's soul, the tatters of her skill, slide under her skin along with her power.

He feinted a side cut at her, and before she had even realised, there was the solid thump of wood on wood. It was unnerving to feel someone else's instincts guiding her movements, but it was also the only protection she had here.

"And which lesson is that?" he asked, casual as if they were catching a coffee. "Witch to bitch in five seconds flat?"

And then he was attacking, pressing down on her - the staff whipped at her head, her feet, her torso, and to her amazement, she found herself blocking every blow, stepping like a dancer through the deadly motions.
Enough of this, fumed Bhari impatiently. He's good, but he didn't spend three thousand years being thrown around by men who invented this art.

Chatoya was almost a passenger; for a frightening moment, her and Bhari's memories melded - a wavering image of Hael overlaid Blue Malefici, before fading into strings of smoke.

Unexpectedly she was moving forward, inside his attack, her arms and wrists aching from the weight of the wood. The staff blurred in her hands, left, right, and then the end blade swung down and round, hooking round his ankle and yanking the feet from under him.

"Upright to horizontal in five seconds flat, actually," she said, impressed at her calm. Or was it just numbness at this surreal battle?

He got to his feet gingerly. Blood was pooling around his foot, and his weight was leant on the other. It wasn't healing, nor would it here - this was her chosen battleground, and he was only mortal now.

"An art I'm sure you're practiced at." He sounded distracted, but his face cleared, and he settled back into a fighting stance. "How about we try a different way?"

She was unprepared for his swiftness, and the thought chimed in her mind. He was testing you too, and now it's for real.

His blood spattered the ground as the staff swung and darted, and she felt Bhari's fierce joy rise at the challenge. Again, and again, she parried and danced away from him, each time taking small bites from his flesh, leaving dark trails on his clothes. A blade sliced her arm, and Bhari's presence almost overwhelmed her with combative fury.

Let me take over, child, ordered the Drax, more alive now than she ever had been. Let me beat this little upstart.

For once, content - if uneasy - to be a passenger, Chatoya let the Drax's withered memories win this fight. Without Bhari, it would have been a rout.

As it happened, it was a rout: he stood no chance against a woman who had learned these murderous steps from the moment she was old enough to walk. Blows showered on him, light twinkling from the blades as they clattered together. The solid thud of wood on wood, and she knew her body would be a mass of muscle ache when she woke: back and forth they moved, him lamed and his face a mask of sweat, she moving with trained economy, delighting in his unease.

His hands slipped on the stave, slicing the web of his thumb - in that instant, Bhari swerved her body, throwing a honed blade into the centre of his weapon. With a splintery, feeble crack, it snapped - and he was disarmed.

One last move, the blades swirling as if they were silver ribbons and not metal, and as she knocked his feet from under him, her blade lay at his throat.

And as simply as that, she had won. Not through her own prowess - it was a dirty victory, but a victory all the same.

She looked down the staff at him. "How's that different way working out for you?"

His answer was grudging, and she fancied there was surprise in his face. "Differently."

"I want all the information on Kheo with me in six weeks. Catalogued and labelled. It was just lovely doing business with you." Chatoya gave him what she hoped was a cold smile. "Don't bother me again."

He lurched to his feet, laced with a dozen cuts. It was a petty, but wonderfully satisfying moment to see him beaten, and Chatoya considered bringing the stave down on his head just to drive the point, so to speak, home, but resisted. "I take it we're finished."

And just like that, he had hurt her once more. How trite, how easy. But she wouldn't let him see it. "We're done," she replied, and he was gone, only his footprints to show he had ever been there.

She began to move back towards waking, back into the safety of empty dreams. She didn't look back as the ancient memory began to drip and decay around her.

X - X - X - X - X

The world spun; her heart spun with it. She stood in a hectic cyclone of colour, her stomach swimming in the blurred scenery. Her head ached, her temples rapping out the tempo of her hurt. She shut her eyes, expecting to open them onto dawn filtering through her curtains.

The spinning slowed, and she opened her eyes. Her bedroom - yes, but in bright daylight, and there was a man lying on her bed.

Not the one she imagined there, either.

He was on his side, one hand casually propping up his head, his toes scrunching into the duvet.

"Hello, Chatoya." Hael spoke as if she'd been expecting him. "I apologise for the intrusion, but I thought we needed to talk."

"This is a dream," she said. "How did you get here?" She searched his face for those elusive signs of Blue's presence. "How do I know you aren't Blue? This could be another trick."

"No trick." The man stared up at her, his eyes so rich, so river-green - so terribly regretful - that she felt a nip of empathy in her heart. "I wanted to talk to you alone. This was the only way I could think of. I'm not very good with dreams, but...I learned a little."

"You're a ghost." Yet he was all substance, her pillow indented where he must have laid his head.

"No." Hael smiled ruefully. "I did not die in the Burning Times. I choose to sleep - and, perchance, to dream. Dreams were all I had left."

"You survived?"

"If you call it survival."

He gazed through her, as if she were glass thinly covering his memories. And she supposed she was; a stained-glass window where Bhari lay huddled.

"I might as well have been dead," he conceded. "I'd lost everything. Bhari was gone, and then - there didn't seem any point, really. She massacred my family for that pointless war, but even when I hated her, I loved her." His mouth twisted. "I still love her, and I don't have a clue why."

Because she was beautiful, Chatoya wanted to tell him. Because she was dazzling and splendid, and because those flashes of tenderness beyond her cruelty gave you hope. Because you loved her wit, and the way she would pretend she didn't need you. And she loved you, most of all that was what drew you. She loved you and you alone, with ferocity and vehemence…

But because she was cruel, she used your love to trap you.

"She never understood it either," she answered, moving closer to him with small and wary steps. "She did love you, Hael."

"Did she?" There was surprise twined around those words. "I was never sure."

If she didn't concentrate, she felt those phantom passions wrap around her skin like pythons, squeezing tight. "Oh god, yes." Chatoya took a deep breath, and pushed Bhari away, that jumble of sorrow, rage, desire. "Like you wouldn't believe."

"I never understood why she chose me," he confessed. "I was Drax, but she could have had Fireblade or Kheo. I was royalty, but kings went to their knees before her and begged for her favours. She cast aside men of power and ambition for me."

"Maybe she didn't want those things."

"No? Then why did she throw me away for them?"

"Because she didn't think she would be caught," she answered gently.

"No, I don't suppose she would have done. She was a wonder." Dreams filled up his face with spun-sugar delicacy, hiding the grief for a brief instant, before they melted away. "And a monster."


His body curled closer, tighter about itself, as if he wished for arms to hold him close; to whisper the age-old lie. The demons are not real. They stalk our dreams, they gobble up our thoughts, but they cannot stretch beyond our minds. Howling, wretched, they sit squalid at the edges of our certainty, devouring our logic with fear.

"More of a monster than I ever dreamed. Just like your Blue."

Chatoya laughed. How could he be so naïve, he who had ignited the Burning Times? "Not mine."

"Are you sure?"

Yes. No. Maybe. She was never sure of anything with Blue, and that was the hardest fact to bear. However she placed her moments with him, turning and flipping them like pieces of a jigsaw, gaps remained, concealing the whole of it.

"As sure as I can be," she told him guardedly. "Are you really Hael?"

This man I love from afar, for whom I reach across the gulf of time and experience, with desire, with tenderness, and yes - yes, with love. Just to taste you once again. I love you despite my pain, through my pain - the last spark of life in this desperate lunacy I am caught in.

He held out his hand, crooked his fingers. "Touch me. Find out. I'm not your soulmate, Chatoya, but I am part of your soul. You can recognise me for who I am."

She took his hand, so warm, and he filled her mind with the lazy flutter of tropical breezes; with memories of his family, who he had fought to protect, and only opened to the devilish slash of a traitor's blade. Of Bhari, the sleepy hum of her voice when he woke her in the morning. And of the way it had felt when a witch called Chatoya Irkil had taken his power, awoken a storm - and woken him with it.

"You were so very alive," Hael said solemnly. "I wanted to know who'd made you angry and afraid."

Who else? That was when Blue had first begun his destruction of her. She had twisted herself up in Hael's power, rolling into it like a kitten squirming into a blanket, lost herself in rain-streaked skies and tearing wind. It had done nothing to diminish her grief.

She had nearly lost herself. Jepar had brought her back, yet sometimes she wondered what would have happened had she remained.

"Now you know," she told him with a rueful twist of a smile.

He was still holding her hand, and he didn't seem inclined to let go. "All too well. I find myself the companion of a monster once again. Don't let it play out to the same conclusion."

"I'm trying not to." His grasp was a luxury she could not take with the other that she loved, so she would take it with her phantom lover, and have her foolish pretence.

"It isn't foolish," he whispered, and she started. The green of his eyes deepened, slurry-slow, and Hael gently pulled her down to him, until she was crouched by the bedside, inches away. "Loving someone is never foolish. And it has been so long since anyone loved me."

She longed to smooth away the sad curve of his mouth. Without his laughter and secret smiles, Hael was but the broken shards of a seashell; the sound of the ocean destroyed, drifting aimlessly to heaven.

And perhaps that was why she touched her fingertip to his bottom lip, tracing his mouth; something flickering under her ribs at the harsh breath he took.

"You know," he said slowly, neither of them moving now, bar her finger. Drawing out the lines of his emotions, the shape of his words. "Sometimes, I see you in his dreams - and he dreams of you, Chatoya, my god, he dreams of you - and I think I could love you."

She half-smiled. But that small revelation…my god, he dreams of you…set off a tumble of sickening hope in her heart. Fool. Haven't you gone past this yet? "Did you come here to seduce me?"

"No, but I am offering you seduction, if you want it."

"I'm not into older men. Or disembodied men. Not matter what changes they can make to their body." She drew back her hand from him. This conversation was nothing she expected.
Hael raised his eyebrows and gave her the most sceptical look she'd ever seen. "Chatoya. I've had sex with women who'd been refining their talent for ten thousand years. Explain to me what you think you could offer that I haven't already had?"

Good point. And for a moment she felt more like herself than she had in weeks. "Battery-power?"

He burst out laughing, and with his head thrown back, he was Bhari's Hael, fearless and joyful. "I'll pass. No…" His mirth faded, and there was new resolve to his voice. "I wasn't talking about me."

"Then what did you mean?"

Strange emotions coiled in his eyes like the beginnings of a tornado. The weight of ages poured from them, bearing down on her with the knowledge of his anguish, his deathless and empty existence. "I know what it means to love evil, Chatoya. When I first met Bhari, someone warned me how it would be. They told me that she would be the best and the worst of all my days, that I would live as never before, lose as never again. Or I could have the quiet, safer life. You know how I chose."

"And were they right?" She wondered who this clever prophet had been, who had seen so clearly through Bhari's crafted public persona.

"She was right - and she made exactly the same choice as I did." He let his head loll back, a supplicant drinking in his blessing. "I always thought her too human for our times, but Ryar and I were more alike than I ever knew."

Ryar again, her presence a bare outline in misty recall, shining through in these intimate moments that Bhari would never have understood.

"As you and I are alike," continued Hael, focusing on her with new sharpness. "And you too have the choice, Chatoya. If you could have one day, one night, one chance with him, knowing it would be heaven and hell and no line between the two - or a mundane forever...which would it be?

A life of security, or the life she had lived; of flames and venom, of unfathomable betrayal and startling rapture. Oh it was no choice, she had already chosen.

It had been too late from the moment she let Blue Malefici slip past the bars around her heart and drawn him into the secret shadows of her self.

"You already know that."

"I want to hear it from you." His expression was the smooth acceptance of a confessor. "I need to."

She loathed him then, for making her unfold her pain like a wedding dress - only to find it torn, soiled, the dangling remnants of a promise kept.

"Even if you offered me one minute, I would take it," she said, her voice low. If she had this hopeless love, she would admit it, and she would fight it too. She would not let Blue have power over her because he could cause her pain. "If you offered me one second, I would still thank you for it."

His grip tightened with bruising force. "I am offering you more than a second…but I don't want your thanks. And you may not wish to give me them later."

"What do you mean?"

"I will give you that chance." It had the same solemnity of communion; here are my words, eat of them. "May you have more joy of it then ever I did."

"I don't want you to manipulate him-"

Hael caught her hand, and drew it slowly to his lips. A single light kiss brushed the knuckle of her index finger. "I couldn't if I tried. I can make him do nothing he does not wish…but I can persuade to do something he very much wants to. Do you think you have left no mark on him? Do you think he doesn't wonder when the world began to shift, and why it shifted around you?"

Blue had desired her, she knew that much. There had been passion in those few moments she found him unguarded - and times when she saw someone she might have liked, had their lives been aligned a fraction differently.

"I think he wonders," she answered with all the truth she knew. "You know, I think he even likes me, in his way. But I don't think that's enough for him."

"Once, no. chance, Chatoya. Do you want it?"

Green eyes met green. Earth and air, once they had run together, and it had been spectacular. They had gambled their love against the horror of war, and lost.

Her war had been more personal, yet there had been devastation and pain there too. But she had learnt. Damn it, she had survived, and she would not live her life afraid, sunk in despair.

"Yes," she breathed, and knew it to be the right answer.

The world spun; her heart spun with it.

X - X - X - X - X

She woke, expecting change, and found only the winter wind blowing in and bringing the clean scent of rain with it. Half-dazed, she wandered through the hours and went to bed again, to dream of Hael's hands, Hael's voice.

One day, one night, one chance...

The days began to topple past, yet she felt the change. Hope had returned, and this time, it would not be diminished by something as small as a kiss.

At her request, Ryar came to share a cup of tea, and reminisce over old times. Small, frail, she moved with a unicorn's grace, a joy in her steps that Bhari did not recall, but Chatoya revelled in.

"Kheo?" she said, when Chatoya asked, and her face softened. The long eyelashes dropped to her cheeks, and expecting tears, the witch whipped out a box of tissues. Instead the Drax smiled. "He was kind."

"…kind," she echoed dumbly. "Are we talking about the same warmongering tyrannical despot?"

Ryar patted her hand with sisterly condescension. It was teasing, but belied by her solemn face. "Bhari met Kheo after he had been in my father's court for many years. When I met him, we were both very young. He heard me singing one night, and vowed to find me. I suppose you could say he was infatuated. When he did, we…grew close."

Hitch of her chest, as if the memories were difficult. The startled depths of her eyes hid nothing, but it wasn't pain Chatoya saw; it was affection for one lost.

"Forgive me," the dragon pleaded gently. "It has been a very long time since I told anyone. Kheo asked me to marry him, but I refused. My heart was elsewhere, by then." Her laughter was choked. "I chose Fireblade instead, and he called me a fool, he begged me to marry anyone else. After that, he began to change. He became the man the legends speak of."

Kheoussan Rastaban, the Soulless King. The last great leader of the dragons, and the instrument of their destruction.

"I prefer not to remember him that way." A small lift of her shoulder. "He was always kind to me, even at his worst. Maybe if he hadn't been, I would have left sooner. The war would not have lasted so long." Now the glisten of her eyes was tears. "We're all a fool for someone."

How true, Chatoya thought wryly. But better to be a king's fool than a killer's joke.

"Why do you ask?"

Chatoya took a deep breath. She had no idea how Ryar would take this; knowing that she and Kheo had been lovers changed everything. "Kheo is alive."

The dragon froze. Her expression didn't alter for long seconds. Inert, she seemed only an illusion of life. Then she said very slowly, "That can't be true."

"It is."

"Oh god. I…" She staggered to her feet, her slight confidence vanished. "I need to think about this."

When Chatoya tried to contact her the next day, Ryar had gone. There would be no help from that quarter.

X - X - X - X - X

The days spun by; her heart spun with them.

At first there was impatience and anticipation; later Chatoya realised that maybe Hael had only said it at all to offer her hope. Yet as her despair died, and her determination to be ready to confront Kheo increased, she began to mind less that the promised chance had not yet arrived. Perhaps would never arrive.

I have better things to do, she thought, awakening each day. She did not want to be like Hael, existing with nothing but the steady onslaught of time. That might be the price of loss, but not one she would accept.

She pored over contracts with fierce intensity. Vaje joined her one night, insisting she try his Greek coffee, wearing an expression that said he expected a refusal.

"Go for it," she said absently, scribbling notes. "And can you ring Faith and tell her that if she steals any more artwork from museums, she's really going to need hope and charity, because I'll cut her damn head off."

"Uh?" was the only sound she got. She glanced up, and he was stood open-mouthed. Finally he recovered enough to say, "You really want coffee?"

Typical Pursang. Concentrate on the important details. "Yep. Two sugars."

He gave her a long look, such concentration in his face that it took her a moment to work out the emotion there.

It was pride.

"Whatever was wrong is fixed, isn't it?" he said tactfully.

She had forgotten how good they were at concealing knowledge. Even Vaje, all blunt honesty and striking temper, knew the silent tricks of subterfuge. His eyes told her that he had seen the contours of her pain, mapped it against his own old injuries and found at least part of the truth.

She gave him a smile, a genuine one. "No, it isn't fixed. But I'm not broken."

"I knew something had changed," he admitted. "But...I didn't know you well enough to ask. I still don't."

"Someone hurt me." Mortally wounded, or so she had thought, but now found it untrue.

His face filled with leisured savagery, strands glowing in the hot amber of his eyes, until she saw just why Pursang had sought him out and made him theirs. "We will kill whoever hurts you."

It had the icy ring of a vow, yet she felt...comforted.

And she stared right back; let the cold and dying parts of herself fill her eyes, just as he had. Once she had feared the pieces she was losing - now she saw that as long as she fought, it was not loss, but change. "I can do it myself."

"It's always smart to have backup," he admonished, and flashed a rakish grin. "You're going to do well, Chatoya. We're going to do well."

"Stick around," she advised, and even gave him a wink. "I promise, it's going to be interesting."

Piece by piece, she would remould Pursang. No. It wouldn't be easy; it would be a process of lifetimes, and only one of them would be hers. But she would make the start, and make it now.

That night, for the first time in months, she lit a candle and prayed to the Goddess for those she loved. For Cern, who fled his past down wild paths and Lisa, who faced her present on gentler ones. For Jepar, whose happiness she would have to crumble between her fingers, and Aspen, rebuilding his life with painful slowness. For Ross, for Lance, for Vaje, who protected her as she would try to protect them. And for Cougar, who was hiding under a slew of sarcasm and vitriol.

Chatoya prayed for herself too, because she needed all the help she could get.

It would take time for them all to come to terms with the changes. But they had begun, and that was what mattered.

X - X - X - X - X

It was some days later when Chatoya woke, flushed and uncertain, from fever dreams swirling with unfamiliar laughter. The night was hot and close, the air heavy with the smell of toasted tarmac and rotting leaves - the last withering pieces of summer.

But that other scent...

A faint, crisp smell like freshly fallen snow, one that her human senses would never have noticed if they weren't so unfortunately attuned to him.

One chance...

Chatoya pushed herself up from the pillow, and felt the warmth of his body against her hand. "What are you doing here?" The words felt thick and clumsy in her sleep-clogged mouth.

Blue was a humped shape in the dark, an amorphous gargoyle, bar the faint, knife-edge gleam of his eyes. But his voice rode the oppressive night like ripples of smoke. "What would you like me to be doing?"

"Didn't I tell you not to bother me again?" she asked with more curiosity than vitriol. Thoughts unfurled in her mind like sails, trying to catch the changeable breezes of his mood.

"This will be much more interesting than mere bothering," he informed her with breathtaking aplomb. "Look upon it as an education."

Chatoya fumbled for the switch on her bedside lamp, trying not to touch him was stupid, but because if she did, he might melt into dust, into another broiling surge of fever dreams. During the weeks of his absence, the certain knowledge of him had become a reflex; when she could not occupy herself any longer, her mind flew back to him like a trained hawk.

Remaining in darkness, unresolved and impersonal, would have been easier. She thought she could even tell him to leave, and he would go, this night but a brief blot on her recollections. But she had always known this was not going to be easy.

The light snapped on, and when she had blinked away the sunspots, there he was.

Blue and white, her personal Jack Frost, tracing icy and glittering patterns across her heart. Against his poise, she was ungainly and dishevelled, her hair sleep-matted, her limbs heavy and liquid, and the fear of that dream clinging to her in a drying film of sweat. Shorn even of the flimsiest of masks, clothes, make-up, possessions, she felt naked.

"And what do you want to teach me?" Chatoya challenged.

He swayed forwards with the suppleness of a cobra - but she was the one charmed, held, waiting. "Passion."

The light sundered his face, leaving half in shadow, the other half in relief. She wondered how she looked, divided thus, and if he found her as welcome to his eyes.

"I don't think you're the one to teach me," she replied, splitting the sounds with silence as a blade might stab the gaps between an outspread palm. "If you couldn't conquer me with violence, what makes you think you can with sex?"

"I have no wish to conquer you," he said, drawing back from her. "And in that, witch of mine, like so much else, you're exceptional."

His mouth curved, and she felt her breath catch at the way it softened his face, stealing away the ferocity and the indifference.

"Me," she said flatly, though the words didn't surprise her. He dreams of you, Hael had said, my god, he dreams of you.

"Who else?" he enquired dryly. "Despite myself, Chatoya Irkil, I find myself making exceptions for you. Time and again, I'm surprised by you. Disturbed by you."

He reached out idly, pulling her hair through his fingers. Touching her without touching her, in a leisured way that reminded her of another man, stretching out from the past. Yet it was all Blue's measured subtlety, his hands drifting closer as if to brush her face, and swerving aside to bat at loose strands, playful, engaging, terribly tantalising.

"Intrigued by you," he finished, his voice low and amused.

Don't seduce me, she pleaded silently, hearing now the truth of Hael's warning. Hope and despair warred within her, the gleam of this one chance shadowed by the threat of his absence. Inconstant, he would stalk away - maybe not tomorrow, maybe not even the day after, but some day after that, he would be gone.

And even knowing this, she was glad he was here. Glad there would be something to clutch to her, to finger like a rosary and hold up against his cruelty. Goddess, what a fool she was.

"I've met women so beautiful that they were worshipped," he mused. "Women who had only to speak to seduce a room. And not one of them holds half the fascination that you do. You're so ordinary, so helpless, and even though you know it, you fight. I thought breaking you would satisfy me, but now I think that is not the kind of satisfaction I wanted at all."

His fingertips brushed across her lips, and the soulmate link leapt to life, so that for a moment, she was not one but two; that one soft touch echoed on her mouth, tarrying, and she saw herself through his eyes, felt her own breath shivering on her hand.

"Then what do you want?"

"To experience you," he said finally, as if this was the first time he had really considered it. "All of you. To find out why you haunt me so, why I want you so."

"Because you shouldn't," she said.

"That isn't it." He reached out again, his eyes dark with curiosity and lavish desire, to cup her neck. A crackling energy arced between them. "Not at all. You're weak and infuriating yet you keep fighting, and sometimes you even win. And once, if I could have rid myself of you, I would have. Now..."

He stopped, and she felt the surprise in his mind.

"Now?" she asked, her voice tight with anticipation.

Blue's laughter was a lazy sound that matched the simmering night. "Now life would be very boring without you."

"It would be very easy without you."

"Some things are better hard," he drawled. "Trust me on this."

His hand was gliding over her collarbone, toying with the strap of her camisole. Sparks sprang through the link at his touch, darting eerily under her skin.

"Considering what happened last time I trusted you...I'll pass." The question was poised on her lips; was it real, you and that girl? Or was it some elaborate game?

He gave a one-shouldered shrug. "You should know the answer to that by now. I made you a promise, and I kept it. I did what was necessary."

Yes, he would look at it that way.

How you hurt me. How you toyed and wavered and manoeuvred, taking my soul apart fragment by fragment. I used to love my life, I thought myself blessed because the sun always shone - but then you came.

And you were so much brighter and so much more beautiful, and you filled the world with colour and vitality - and only when it was too late did I realise that the light in you was only shadows of a different hue.

And now the sun is back, and I hate it because it will never replace you.

"It was cruel," she said.

"What were you expecting? A happy ending? You should know better by now. People like us make endings, but they're rarely happy."

"Then why are you here?" she threw at him.

He leaned in, and she felt the premonition of the kiss blooming like thunderheads on the horizons before his mouth touched hers, delicate pressure that sank into a mesh of lips and tongues. They moved into each other, his arms braced about her.

This was what she had missed most of all; this fiery, fragile fight, the kiss changing every moment, demanding, denying, teasing, but above all, overwhelming. One palm flat on his chest, she could feel his heart beating in tandem with her own, some small, strange quirk of the link.

At last he drew back, his eyes pools of gold, soft and sure. "To make a beginning," he said finally. "Isn't that what you want?"

"Is it what you want?" she countered, unwilling to admit her vulnerability.


"And if it isn't what I want?"

"Then you're a liar," he said dryly. "And a terrible one at that."

She didn't want him to go. Wasn't that why she had struck that quiet bargain with Hael, giving the deepest part of her pain in return for the cause of it all? And she knew how this would go, she already felt his absence, like the weightless shape of his shadow, but she thought now she could bear it.

"Stay then," Chatoya said, hearing the chime of her breaking heart, already planning how to mend herself once again. Madness this, but when had their relationship been anything else? She pulled him down to her, and gave him a smile she knew would die. "But you had better be entertaining."

His answering smile was succulent, a rich promise of all she suspected he would be, and as he turned the light away, leaving them in a mist of shade, Blue purred, "I'll see what I can do."

X - X - X - X - X

"Entertained?" he asked coolly, between kisses, and she answered, "Somewhat."

When half their clothes were on the floor, his hands sliding over her skin with wickedness, with tender finesse and the covers tangled at their feet, he murmured, "Entertained?" and she answered, with a catch in her voice, "Very."

When they brushed against one another, exploring, testing, discovering, skin on slick skin, her breath harsh in her throat, he asked raggedly, "Entertained?" and she said against the warmth of his neck, "Absolutely."

And when she pressed her palms flat against his back, legs entwined, their bodies moving in a careless, easy motion, his eyes half-lowered and darkly glazed, Chatoya whispered, "Entertained?" and he, voice throaty, lifted those dazzled, dazzling golden eyes to her and replied, "You have no idea."

He said nothing else.

X - X - X - X - X

Dawn was rolling in by time she fell into sleep, slumped against him. Her mind sank deeper and deeper, past the surface of her own thoughts and feelings, sliding inexorably down the link to the icy place where he kept his secrets. She expected some barrier, keeping her out, but there was nothing.

Chatoya found herself treading, barefoot once more, on slick ice. Fine mist dusted her skin with cold, and she waded through it, walking down this difficult and open road. Further in, she began to see shapes swaying under the icy walls and hear a babbling rush, and if she stopped to examine them, they became clearer, but not clear enough.

She travelled for what might have been minutes or years, through the winding trails of his soul, paths unblemished by anyone else's feet. Around her, images began to flicker through the ice. Sometimes faces she recognised hovered there. Blue and Aspen arguing idly, smoke spiralling from Aspen's cigarette. Vaje grumbling, Cougar aghast, pain ripened in his expression. Sometimes, she paused to watch, but knew that these brief recollections were not what she was seeking.

On and on and on, to the sacrosanct core of all Blue Malefici was, until she came to a place that did not belong among the ice: a glen, filled with leafy ferns. And there, she saw what she was looking for - something to do with her. It was not in the form she had expected, but there all the same, tentative but no less dangerous. She wasn't sure exactly what it meant, or even exactly what it was.

For a while, she examined it, and then left, uncertain, the ice burning her feet.

X - X - X - X - X

Chatoya woke slowly, reluctantly with scraps of the dream swimming in her head. She stretched - and found herself alone, only a patch of warmth on the bed to show he had ever been there.

She had expected him to leave, she had known that, but it still came as a shock to find he was gone so soon. For a few breaths, she only looked at the emptiness, but then reached for him, along the link that was no longer a twinkle in her mind, but a flame.

He was close by. And his emotions were seething against the link, stronger than she had ever felt them.

She could have run out of the house then, desperation speeding her to him. Rage choking her, born of a hurt that welled up deeply in her soul. She didn't.

Instead, she scrambled out of bed, wincing at aches in places she hadn't known could hurt. She showered, scrubbing the traces of him from her skin, dressed, acted like it was any other day; she made the bed and beat the hollow of his head from her pillow with perhaps a little more ferocity that was necessary.

The knowledge of what she had seen in him - found coiled in his deepest, most sacred self - tempered her.

Downstairs, Vaje had a rather knowing look on his face, while Lance pretended to be immersed in the newspaper the instant she walked in. Lisa was cooking breakfast with her back ramrod-straight, saying nothing. Chatoya ignored them all, and as Vaje opened his mouth, strode out the door.

She knew where he was. It was as if everything he was twined around her now, tangling them up together in a series of intricate knots that could never be undone.

How well she remembered this path. She had been angrier when she first stormed down it, slapping spiky branches back from her, the forest scratching at her skin. Following him here, in times when he had been a thing of distant, icy beauty to her, a thing of close, burning fear.

Always contrary.

The pine-scented shade swallowed her up, blocking out the pale morning light as she walked further and further into the wilderness, as the air became stifled and the trees too close. With the gentlest of touches, she moved through, a jolt of dragonfire taming the forest so it melted away before her.

She wasn't thinking of any of that. Only of trailing touches, and the soft shudder of his breath in her ears, of a time spent snarled up in the arms of her enemy and her love.

How cruel that they should be the same.

With a start, she realised she was here. Before her, the trees gave way to thick, lush layers of fern, six feet high and swaying only minutely.

He filled her senses like a neutron star. And how afraid she was that she would be burned up by him, made ashes to his fire.

Even so, she pushed her way through the ferns, into the clearing, where this madness had all begun.

Chatoya stopped, and her heart stopped with it.

Goddess, how beautiful he was.

And how completely wrong for this world. He was all bladed edges and serrated words, a weapon in a world that was used to wars fought for causes, not for amusement. He had always seemed encased in ice, his heart never to thaw, giving away not a shred of himself.

How wrong for the world, and how right for her.

Sitting against a tree, he had one knee drawn up, his other leg flung carelessly forward, utterly at ease. But then, Blue could seem at ease on a bed of nails. What he seemed, and what he was had always been poles apart. His eyes were the heavenly gold of sunlight, and turbulent.

Yes, he was beautiful, sat there.

The light was gentle on his face, lending softness to the hooded eyes that wasn't really true, and a winsome bend to his mouth that was mostly illusion. His hair was stark in this world of green and russet, just as stark against that too-pale skin.

"Here we are again," he murmured. Heavy as honey, his glance trailed over her. "And what now, witch of mine?"

She didn't know. Goddess, would she ever?

Instead, Chatoya moved to sit opposite him, curling down in the shade. The grass was cooler here, but the darkness was kinder to her than the crash of sunlight would have been. Strange that the sun should light him so wondrously, yet never touch him, as though he were made of diamond, enhanced by the light but never altered.

"Why did you do it?" she asked.

"Because I promised. Because it pleased me. Because your pain's delicious, because I can. You know that."

"I don't mean why did you hurt me," she said slowly. Her skin felt chilled by the nervous jolts of energy that ran along her body. "I meant...why did you come back?"

He should have left her. He had completed his revenge; he had shredded her foolish hopes, left her crumpled on the floor. It hadn't been the first time she had felt misery so black and profound that the days had ceased to matter, but it had been the first time there had been no hope with it. Her life had stretched ahead of her, ever hollow, only his treachery sounding about it like his velvet laughter.

He should have left her to her despair, but he hadn't. And she knew - Hael had told her - that Blue had wanted to come back. He had wanted her.

The blue crept back into his eyes. It was like watching the sun drowned, taken over by this thick inky colour that made him into some darkling creature.

"Because I wanted to."

She had been waiting for the admission, but to hear it out loud - so bold, it was still a shock.

"I love you," he said casually, and looked at her quizzically. "I thought that was obvious."

"When?" she asked, disbelieving. It was too strange, too odd, too amazing to be true. He was only toying with her; it was some new, warped game he was playing. "During which part of my personal torture was realisation supposed to hit me?"

His face was impassive, as it had always been, yet there were tiny gestures that spoke to her, tiny intimacies she had somehow come to recognise. The newly taut line of fingers around his knee; the intense focus he fixed on her, and the little firefly flicker of his mind in her consciousness.

"When I stopped."


"And you love me, of course." The statement was sudden, clipped out with faultless implacability. Yet...looking at him she saw something she'd never seen before.


She was stunned at the golden light that flooded back into his eyes. I did that, she thought. In his way, I think he does love me.

"Then I - I think I'm sorry." He breathed in deeply, and she suspected Blue had never said those words. When had he ever rued anything in his bloody, lucrative life? "I do love you, Chatoya. But not in the way you want."

"When did you get to be such an expert on what I want?" she demanded, almost angry now. Confessions of love were meant to be grand and great, made in joy. Not regret. Wasn't this the moment some part of her had spent forever waiting for?

"I'm not." He lifted one shoulder in a plain, blas gesture. "Sometimes I think I know nothing about you at all. But I know I can't be what you want. The monster does not understand love; the monster knows only the taste of blood, and the silence after the kill. And I am a monster."

"Aren't we all?" she whispered.

She'd seen so much horror since he'd come here, and almost all of it had nothing to do with bloodshed. Only to do with the dark, primal malice she had seen woken in the people around her, and in her mirror. When Blue had returned, he had made them all angry, all bitter, all afraid.

Fear made them all ugly. Fear made the monster peer from everyone's eyes.

"No," he answered, sounding so cool and detached. But the flushed gold of his eyes read the lie to her. "People like you fight people like me. You don't fall in love with them. Do you honestly ever think we're going to get a house in the suburbs and have barbecues in the back garden, or take some revoltingly cute children to baseball matches?"

She looked at him. He who had brought her so much pain, and so much truth. Strange now, how simple it all seemed. "Do you think that's what I want?"

"Isn't it?" He arched one eyebrow up into the spiky hair. "Don't you want to be happy, witch of mine? You won't be that with me. I won't make futile promises never to hurt you, never to let you down, never to be cruel to you. I can't tell you that everything will be all right, I won't wipe away your tears or keep you safe. You'll hate me as much as you love me, and sometimes you won't be able to tell the difference. You have my soul, but I think you'll find you've made a poor choice."

"What made you think I had a choice?" she answered, and spread her hands, struggling for the words that would explain this. "No one dreams of loving someone who'll hurt them because it's fun, or it's profitable, or just because they don't know any better. But that doesn't change any of this. I do love you. And I don't want some damn house in the suburbs. I don't want barbecues, or kids. I want you."

His eyes widened.

"Don't you get it?" she hurled at him angrily. "I fell for you - you, the evil, vicious murderer. I don't want anything ordinary. You wanted me to love you - well, congratulations! You did a fantastic job. It's you I love, it's you I want, and I can't settle for anything else. And you want me to just walk away?"

"No," he said, the scorn in his voice not aimed at her. "I was supposed to be the one that walked away."

She understood - how could she not, when she knew him in this intimate, terrifying way. "So what now?"

"I don't know." His smile was slender as the crescent moon, with the same cruel radiance. "I'm not made for love. Witch of mine, I'll hurt you. And..."

He stopped, as if something had shocked him. And when he looked back to her, there was an odd dreaminess in his eyes.

"And I don't want to do that as much as I did," he finished. "But I will if I stay."

The words hit her like icy water hurled in her face.

"So you'll run out?" No, don't let your voice tremble. Don't be weak now when it's taken so much strength to get here. "Just because you're afraid?"

"Do you really think I'm afraid?" That familiar stinging derision was in his voice, making her small.

She met him, stare for stare, the tangled, fiery mass of emotions inside her too great to be silenced. How often had she let him make her mute, let him stab at her with his daggered words. "Yes. You're afraid. Welcome to the world, Blue. Let me give you a bit of cold, hard truth for once. Love is terrifying."

He said nothing.

"It's big, and it's awesome, and it takes you over. It's the most frightening thing on earth, because you can't control who you love. It makes you stupid, and it makes you crazy, and it can make you so, so happy. And yes, it can make you completely miserable too. But I guess you won't ever know that."

He stood then, his movements blurring with such speed. "Maybe I know."

In one motion, he had pulled her up to her feet, his face close and angry, every word chopped out. "But you don't. All I have ever done in my life is destroy. And I'll destroy you too eventually, witch of mine. I'll love you, but I'll still destroy you, because it's who I am. And I'll enjoy it too; I'll drink down every futile tear you cry, I'll listen to all your pitiful pleas, and savour them. You've said it a thousand times yourself; my nature is evil."

I was wrong when I said those things, she wanted to say. No one is ever only evil, and no one is ever only good. We're all less than we want, but more than we know. And goddess, yes, you are cold and cruel and wicked, but you are more than that.

You sheltered me when the wolves hurt me, and no one else would help me, and you made me safe.

I remember times when you were tender, and I remember all those times when you could have ended it, and you held back. I love you because you are so cruel; I love you because I know those few times when you have been anything other than cruel are rare, and precious, and mine alone.

You tried to destroy me - but you couldn't. Every way, you tried.

But the look on his face was taut and terrible. For the first time, Blue Malefici had found his world shaken. There was no fighting this, no destroying it. This was new to him, and nothing she could say would take away his fear.

She was afraid too, but she felt the promise of this intimacy, she felt the hints of the everyday miracle it could become.

"Go away," he said flatly. "Forget me. Or, if that's too much for your tiresome, emotional soul, hate me. Loathe me, detest me. That'll be better. After all, you're so well practised at it."

Blue turned his back on her. It was a simple, derisive gesture, meant to dismiss and to wound.

It did.

She hadn't thought anything could eclipse the hurt of seeing him kissing some other girl, of feeling her life fracture around her. But this came close, gods, it came close, rising up in her chest and choking her breath.

Rage came with it. She wanted to slap him, to kick him, to beat at him until he submitted. But he never would. He never would...and there was no reason for her to stay here.

As she walked away, she wanted to look back, to run back, to kiss him until it was forgotten. But she never would.

Instead, Chatoya Irkil left, those words ringing like funeral bells in her head. Haunting her; the delicious, sensual tone of his voice, the slide of light across his cheekbone when he turned, the tilt of his head.

Oh, Goddess, how would she survive?

She slammed her feet down on the road, wanting irrational, furious things. To stamp so hard her ankles broke and her legs shattered and her body dissolved into powder. Wanting to break the earth open and tumble into it. That would be better.

Better than facing this savage sharp pain of knowing he was not hers.

She walked long, endless minutes along the hot tarmac. Kicking at stones, kicking thoughts around her head but most of all, trying not to think of anything.

Failing miserably. Images danced like a flurry of butterflies under her eyelids. The line of his hip, the curious blankness in his face that had contrasted so distinctly to his tender hands. Walking that slim line between pain and pleasure, her back arched so much that it ached in that tight, sweet way.

Her fists bunched. Goddess, forget it. Hate him. Remember what he has done to you.

Oh, gods, what he had done. The slide of his mouth along her throat, his back sweaty and firm under her fingers. Damn him.

By the time she noticed the figure leaning against the stone wall at the roadside, she was close enough to make out the face.

Numbness swept her.

It was Blue. His face was perfectly blank, but his eyes were gold and fierce, and he said nothing as she approached, and Chatoya said nothing back.

She only stared for a moment, and then twisted her face back to the road ahead, and the faint, dusty horizon, the town looming like distant concrete islands.

He fell into step beside her, his strides long and graceful and flowing. His chest hitched slightly, as if he had been running hard. He must have, to have caught up with and overtaken her.

The last of the autumn sun beat down upon them, low in the sky. And as the chill winds lifted her hair, and brushed her skin, Blue took her hand.

He did it very lightly, his grip utterly impersonal.

Dream. Hallucination. Insanity. One of them. Numbness rolling over her, stilling all her thoughts into one deep tranquil pool that didn't care about whether this was right or wrong or real. It was; that would do.

They just walked and walked and walked, back along the road home. Cars passed, and as they came to the edges of the streets, people too. No one turned to look at this really rather ordinary sight of a boy and a girl walking hand in hand.

He stopped her somewhere, and left her leaning against the wall, carefully avoiding thinking or noticing where she was. If she noticed, it might become true - and he might fade away, like mist in the morning.

And then this moment, this perfect moment in an imperfect world - this oddest of maybes - would end.

He came out with a carrier bag, and nothing altered in his expressionless, stunning face. He just took her hand again, his fingers twining into hers tightly, so tight she felt his nails cut her skin, and blood ooze lazily down. But not by word or blink did he show that he had noticed her presence otherwise.

They walked on, her hand bleeding, the hurt deep and taut. He must have known, but he must not have cared. Yet she had to fight to keep her peace; this pain was not new, it was the well-known sting of being in his presence.

They came to her house, bare with the wallflowers browning, wilted under a waxing winter. Up the path, to the place that had been home until she had found somewhere else to keep her heart.

Faces pressed to the window, but she disregarded them. They mattered nothing.

They stopped outside her door, and she looked up into those thrilling eyes that weren't quite so fearless now. There was still cruelty in the line of his mouth, still malice in the glint of his eyes, and she knew that whatever else he became, Blue Malefici would always be detached, and merciless, and unpredictable.

He would hurt her; there would be tears in the night, and tears in the sunlight, and bruises that ran deeper than her skin. There would be danger, and pain, and small deceits, harsh words and harsher actions. Blood would lace all their days, and the grim reaper shadow them.

Blue Malefici would never change who he was.

And she would not change. She would stand up and fight him, and throw her words at him, and hate him in the difficult times, maybe hate him in the tranquil times, too. There would be nothing easy about him.

But there would be moments too, when she could lie in his arms and be safe from the entire world and its terrors. Times when she could take his hand, and know his most secret, delightful thoughts.

All those times didn't matter.

Only now ever mattered.

He gave her the bag, and she opened it, curious even in this drifting peace. There was a video inside. And a bag of popcorn. And a promise she had half-forgotten. And of course - he always kept his promises.

The numbness was gone, and she was almost gasping for breath.

"I'm not made for love," he told her calmly, and cupped her face in one hand. "But maybe I can learn."

She looked at him, and it hurt her heart. It hurt her - but more than the hurt was the happiness.

"Maybe we both can," Chatoya said.

That impassive expression never flickered, never changed at all. There was only the patient silence, and the beat of her heart, and the soft fizz of his soul under her skin.

And in his eyes, so fierce, so possessive, both horrific and wondrous, she saw her future.

"Perhaps," he answered coolly. It was enough. It was everything.

I lay with you this velvet morning
Stay with me for a while
Where we run to is up to you
Just stay with me for a while

~* Fin *~

So, if you've got this far, you probably deserve some sort of medal. It's a long fic, and one I thoroughly enjoyed writing. Chimera has been a labour of love from start to finish - but it would not have been what it is without the enthusiasm, encouragement, criticism and general awesomeness of the people who read it. So to you - thanks. You made it great: the flaws are all down to me.

And of course, as always, I would absolutely love to hear what you think.