Disclaimer: I don't own anything!

Author's Note: I have just finished reading Twilight's Dawn, the newest book in the Black Jewels series by Anne Bishop. If you haven't read those books yet, I must demand that you go out and read them. They are truly the most incredible things I've ever read.

I find it strange, and difficult, to write such idealistic people mostly because it starts getting a little cheesy for me, but I tried to make it as not-cheesy as possible.

-/-/-/-

"I have a dream that one day out in the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood…I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by their character.

With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to climb up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day."

-Martin Luther King Jr. "I Have a Dream" speech, August 28, 1963

-/-/-/-

They're on their own. That's the one thought that ran through Martel's mind as she watched the barge containing her parents' coffins float down the river and out to sea, where Undine would reclaim their spirits. Or so the priests said.

Mithos tugged at her skirt. He's so small, she thought. How would she ever be able to care for the both of them? But still she knelt beside him, uncaring that her skirt was going to get dirty from kneeling on the banks of the river. Her brother was more important.

"What is it?" She asked him, unconsciously tucking a lock of his blonde hair behind a triangular ear. It was getting so long. She would have to be the one to cut it now, not Mama.

"Where are Mama and Papa goin'?" He looked so very lost, all big blue eyes in a pale face.

"They're going to see Undine." Martel told him.

"Oh." He paused in thought. "Are they going to come back?"

"No, they're not, Mithos."

"Oh." He managed a smile, dazzling in its innocence and confidence. "We'll be okay. You're here. You're not going with them, right?"

Martel smiled back, unable to help herself. "No, I'm not."

"Promise?"

"Yeah, I promise."

-/-/-/-

The forest surrounding Heimdall welcomed them in, hid them in their dim shadows and their strong branches. The ground here is muddy and the trees roots are all but drowned in water. Martel sometimes caught large eyes watching them from beneath the water, from high in the trees, but they do not attack.

"Why'd they do that?" Mithos asked, looking over at her. They're both hungry, not having eaten since they'd run into the forest for cover two days ago. "Chase us out? We didn't do nothing wrong, did we?"

"No, Mithos, we didn't."

"So why?"

Martel felt the discordant anger and frustration, but pushed it down because those emotions won't help them now. "Because we're half-elves."

"…Is that it?"

"Yeah, Mithos. That's it."

"That's stupid." Mithos muttered, pulling his knees up to his chest. "They've known us all our lives and we've never done nothing wrong."

"Anything." Martel finally corrected. "We've never done anything wrong."

Mithos repeated it and she knew that he'll file away the information and she probably wouldn't have to correct him on it again. Mithos was intelligent like that. If he heard something one or twice, he'd remember it forever.

"Where're we gonna go?"

"Far away from here." Martel wished she had a better plan, but she doesn't. She had never been outside of Heimdall's borders, has never seen anything beyond the elves' fertile, green lands. But she'll figure it out. She has to. It's her job as a big sister, after all.

-/-/-/-

"Hey! Kid!"

Martel had that dropping feeling in the pit of her stomach—one that she knew wasn't because of hunger—and she whirled, looking for her brother's familiar head of blonde hair. It wasn't hard to find him. An older boy had Mithos' wrist in a firm grip, another boy with a small coin purse in his hand with a large bird right behind them, its plumage shining almost silver in the sun and its feathers were gilded with green that reminded her of the sun streaming through the leaves.

"Let him go!"

All three boys turned to look at her. The one holding her brother's wrist has bluish-green eyes that had been narrowed with suspicion before they widened at the sight of her. His hair was the most curious shade of blue—not that Martel had any room to talk, when she thought of her own pale green locks—and it's only when she takes a closer look that she notices the slight slant to his eyes and the triangular shape of his ears. A half-elf.

The other boy was slightly shorter than the half-elf, with red-tinted eyes and a head of auburn hair that looked like it had never known a brush. There was a sword at his waist—rather young for a professional soldier, wasn't he?—and a dagger at his belt. When she searched for any elven traces in his features, she didn't find any. A human travelling with a half-elf? Absurd.

"He was trying to steal from us." The half-elf said.

"And you got all your money back! How about letting me go?" Mithos tugged futilely, trying to get his arm free with no avail.

"Plant your feet, boyo. This conversation isn't done."

"He wasn't trying to hurt you." Martel assured them. "We haven't eaten in some time. We just needed some money."

The half-elf and the human exchanged looks—Martel had never seen two people ever have an entire conversation without speaking before—and they looked back at them. "You could've asked." The half-elf said.

Martel and Mithos both blinked at them. "What?"

"If you'd just asked us, we would've helped you out." The human said. He has strange eyes, and it wasn't simply the color. They seemed too old for such a young face.

Mithos raised his chin. "We don't need your charity."

"Accepting help when you need it isn't charity." The half-elf snapped. "It's being smart."

Martel pinched the bridge of her nose. "Look, could we start over? We just got off on the wrong foot."

The half-elf and the human had another one of their wordless conversations before the half-elf released Mithos. "Sure." He held out a hand. "M'name's Yuan."

Martel smiled and shook the offered hand. "Martel. And this is Mithos."

The human introduced himself as Kratos—a quiet squawk and a tug on his shirt by the bird had him introducing it as Noishe—and suggested that they get dinner from one of the stalls in the market because the inn was looking rather full tonight.

It's only over a simple dinner of stew and tea that Martel found the courage to ask them why they were travelling together. Kratos and Yuan looked at each other, shrug and said, at precisely the same time, "We're best friends."

The very idea seemed insane, impossible, yet the living proof was sitting in front of her. Yuan and Kratos joked and talked with each other easily, like there were no boundaries between them. Perhaps, Martel thought, there really weren't. After all, the only difference was their race and clearly that wasn't an issue.

"I wish I could bring you both back to Heimdall." They looked at her with inquisitive eyes. "You two are proof that humans and half-elves can live in peace together."

Yuan smiled. "'Peace' is a very mild way of putting it."

"You're the one who causes the fuss all the time." Kratos pointed out and Yuan shoves him playfully.

"Am not! You're right next to me the whole time! You're just so tiny that no one notices."

Kratos glared at him—not a serious glare, or at least, Martel didn't think so—but Yuan just let it roll right off him. Mithos sniggered, the first real noise he'd made since they got their food and found an outside table outside of a tavern.

It's only after they're all finished with dinner and were simply basking in the joy of a full stomach and good company—and perhaps there is a little laziness thrown in the mix as well—that Yuan looked at her. "Why's a woman and a boy travelling alone all the way from Heimdall? It's not safe."

Martel bristled. "I can protect us." She said, temper adding a slight edge to her tone.

Yuan looked at her as though she'd done something interesting. "And clearly, you've been doing a bang-up job so far." He said dryly.

"You—you arrogant…" The words escaped her.

Yuan smirked. "Quite the blank you've got there. Lots of stuff could go there."

"Yuan, shut up." Kratos told him and its Martel's first clue that these two don't get through their days without argument or disagreeing. "What they do is their business."

"But it's not safe!" Yuan turned back to them. "You two should travel with us for a while, at least until we get to the capital."

"And we're not questioning your abilities to protect the both of you." Kratos said soothingly before she could reiterate her point. "It's safer in numbers, after all and, quite honestly, I could use a buffer. Months in Yuan's company is far too long."

Martel agreed, tentatively, because they're kind, if in a weird way, and they can't be all bad if they're willing to be friends with a different race. And they were almost sort of charming, not that she'd admit it.

-/-/-/

They should have parted ways at the capital. Should have entered the city, smiled and wished each other good fortune on their respective journeys.

But they didn't.

Martel hadn't been quite sure how it happened—probably something with Yuan being protective again, which would result in her calling him a collie again (Really, he was as protective as one)—but they'd ended up walking to the army barracks to enlist after hiding Noishe outside the city. Noishe didn't do well with city walls.

"We won't be much good in an army." Martel told them. "Mithos and I…we're not fighters."

The officer behind the desk studied her. "You seem like a smart woman."

"I am."

"We have need of a Healer."

"I only know the basics."

"That's plenty and you can apprentice with Marjane. She's our other Healer, but she's been in the war too long."

Only one Healer, Martel thought. Surely there had to be more than one Healer for this area.

The man had continued talking and Martel only caught the last of it. "…But him…he's a child. No children in this army."

Martel wrapped a protective arm around Mithos' shoulders. "Either he comes or we both go and you're out of a Healer and I can't imagine that many of them are lining up to join the ranks."

Yuan and Kratos stared at her. Had they really expected her to walk away? She didn't even know why she was joining the army. She hated fighting. But she also knew, somehow, that in the two months since she'd been travelling with Kratos and Yuan, that they had become friends. And it had been a long time since she'd had friends.

The officer glanced between her and Mithos. "I'm pretty sure he can help out you Healers with your errands. Perhaps he can even apprentice to a blacksmith."

Martel smiled angelically. "I'm so glad you were willing to compromise."

It's later that the laughter bursts out of Yuan. Martel hadn't understood why, and told him so. Yuan only grinned at her. "You're quite the woman, Martel."

-/-/-/-

Mithos is an early riser, something Martel wasn't able to understand. Why would he want to be awake before the sun? Usually, that meant she had to be awake too. Her brother had a penchant for mischief, after all. But once, when Kratos found her awake and sleepy-eyed, he'd gently pushed her back toward her tent.

"Go back to sleep." He told her. Technically, it was an order, but he sounded more lovingly exasperated than stern. "I'll look after him."

Martel liked Kratos. Quiet as he tended to be, she found that the nights when she couldn't sleep, the memories of Heimdall still riding her, (…Filth…half-breeds…not wanted…exiled…) he was an excellent companion. He listened without judgment and offered comfort without expectations.

Yuan pokes his head inside her tent a few hours later. "I saved you some coffee if you want to walk to breakfast with me."

Whatever else could be said about Yuan, he knew how to wake her up.

When Martel took a sip from her mug without thinking, she looked over at him, surprised. "How'd you know I like my coffee black?"

"You act like I don't notice you."

"Most people don't."

"Well, most people are idiots." He said, which made Martel chuckle. "And I think I should warn you about something now."

She eyed him. "Was it something you did?"

"Nope. This time, I'm actually entirely innocent." He downed the rest of his coffee before he said, "You know how Kratos was keeping an eye on Mithos this morning?"

"Yes."

"Well, Kratos—from long-ingrained habit, believe me—trains in the morning. Mithos was watching him and asked if Kratos could teach him that. Kratos, being the literal person that he is, said that yes, he could teach him—not that he would—but he didn't think how that would translate to Mithos as a solid yes. So Mithos is now learning the basics of swordsmanship."

When Martel didn't say anything, Yuan leaned forward a bit, trying to read her expression. "Are you mad?"

"…No. It's just weird to hear that my brother is learning to use a sword. It means he's growing up faster than I thought."

"If you're against his learning it, you could just ask him not to." Yuan suggested.

Martel shook her head. "Mithos wouldn't do that. He loves to learn."

"He loves you more. I think he'd be willing to do anything for you."

Martel chuckled. "I'll keep that in mind when you try and rope him into another one of your hare-brained pranks."

There was no guilt in Yuan's smile. "Oh, did I tell you? I have a wonderful new one all lined up for that lieutenant that shouts too much."

"What've you thought of now?"

"Well, you know his mustache?"

"Of course." How could anyone who had ever met the man not? The lieutenant's mustache was a great, walrusy thing, waxed smooth and the pride and joy of the man's life.

"I was thinking I could…"

Yes, these boys she'd found herself with were very different from anyone else she'd ever met. But at least they made her laugh.

-/-/-/-

The warfront is a bloody place. Red rain, as the desert people called the blood that hung suspended for a few minutes after magic had been used because of the mana-charged air, seemed to be everywhere. The entire landscape was painted in browns and reds.

Martel hated it.

But she was out here trying to bring people back to health, trying to make sure they got home to families that were waiting for them. To the children asking mothers where their fathers and brothers were. Would they come back? She wanted those mothers to be able to say yes, like she'd been unable to when Mithos asked.

Mithos makes sure she remembers to eat, makes sure that she catches a short nap or two during the day so she didn't over-exhaust herself. When Martel tiredly accused him of fussing, Mithos promptly told her that she was his sister and if she was going to be dumb enough not to take care of herself, then someone had to and that it might as well be him.

That made Martel smile briefly and kiss his forehead, something that had recently begun making him squirm ("I'm too old for this, Martel!"). When he asked her why, she just told him that no one could ask for a better little brother.

-/-/-/-

Yuan was not a nervous person by nature. So when he stood in front of her, not quite meeting her eyes and a hand was behind his back, her interest was piqued.

"A reliable source may or may not have told me that today was your birthday, so I had to get you something, but our wages haven't been paid yet, so I couldn't get you something real fancy and this is all I could think of." He said it all in one breath, thrusting out the hand that had been previously behind his back.

Martel stared at the simple bouquet. There were quite a few daisies, some bluebells and lavender and white gardenias. Yuan started shifting nervously when she didn't say anything for long heartbeats.

"You like flowers, don't you? I figured flowers were a thing that girls liked so…" Yuan trailed off, but he still didn't meet her eyes.

A delighted smile was spreading across her face. She couldn't help it. No one had ever given her a bouquet before. Martel threw her arms around Yuan, hugging him tightly. "Relax. I love it."

Yuan smiled—Martel wondered if she was imagining the slight pink tinge to his cheeks—before hugging her back and wishing her a happy birthday.

-/-/-/-

"You were being stupid, weren't you?" Martel says as she smeared a salve over Kratos' arm. The cut wasn't anything too serious—in truth, he probably didn't even need it looked at—but the point was that it had happened during a spar and participants weren't supposed to be injured during sparring.

"I wouldn't call it stupid…"

"Reckless goes under the category of stupid." And clearly, Noishe agreed with her because he rapped his beak on Kratos' head almost like a reprimand.

"When you put it that way, then yes, I was being stupid."

Martel snorted as she wrapped a bandage around his arm. "Who were you sparring with?"

"Mithos."

Her eyes darted up to meet his. "What?"

"It was mostly my fault. I made a careless mistake, but Mithos has been improving in leaps and bounds lately."

"Yeah, he tends to do that." She replied, her mind only half-focusing on the conversation.

"It bothers you, doesn't it?"

"What?"

"Him learning to fight."

Kratos could be surprisingly perceptive sometimes.

"No, I don't mind that. I'm actually kind of grateful for it, actually. I know I won't be able to protect him forever. The part that I mind is that it just kind of feels like he shouldn't have to be learning this at all, y'know? He's only twelve years old. He should be in school—" She fell silent. Even if there were no war, half-elves wouldn't be allowed to go to school. But it was a nice dream.

"And playing with the other kids in the street?" Kratos suggested quietly. They could both pretend, for now, that he didn't know why she'd stopped. "Enjoying the summer with friends? Getting top marks in all of his classes?"

Martel nodded. "Yeah. Things like that."

"Where would you be? If this were a perfect world, I mean."

Kratos did things like that, asking strange and sometimes very blunt questions. But Martel was grateful for it most days. Too many people liked to dance around an idea, never actually getting to the meat of the matter.

"If this were a perfect world?" Martel leaned back a little, trying to imagine it. It was harder than it should have been. "I think I'd like my own house. A small place, but with lots of space outside, for something like a garden. Maybe a few chickens and a goat. A simple place, but one that no one could take away from me."

Kratos smiled a little and quietly stroked a hand down Noishe's neck. "With an iron stove that you could sit in front of during the winter, listening to the rain?"

"Mmhm. What about you? If this were a perfect world, where would you be?"

"I'd want a library all my own, with bookshelves going all the way to the ceiling. It'd be comfortable there, with a little fireplace and some couches, the comfortable kind that you can slouch and read in." It's a room he's imagined many times, one with wide windows that let in lots of light. The books would be well-worn, the pages yellowed. "And—I think…I think I'd want to be to a schoolteacher."

She could imagine that. Kratos, with his endless patience—except for Yuan, sometimes, but even then, it was the friendly kind of exasperated impatience. The brotherly kind—and his love of learning. Martel's father had taught her to read, and had taught Mithos his letters before he'd died. Martel had continued teaching Mithos all that she could, but Kratos was better at explaining things than she was.

"Think these dreams could ever come true?" Martel asked quietly.

"I like to think so."

"It would take a lot of work."

"I never thought I'd hear the day when Martel Yggdrasill would shy away from work. And here I was thinking that you were different from the other girls." Martel glared playfully at him and he chuckled. "The only problem would be where to start."

"Nothing will change if people don't start thinking differently, if they don't start understanding that half-elves are people too. That we got dreams and lives and that we're just as good as full-bloods."

"People have tried that already." Kratos pointed out. "This whole war? I think that's what started it."

"But why choose this kind of violence?" She hesitated. "I think that if we kept on fighting, then the humans would be right of everything they accused us of. There should be a peaceful way to end this."

Kratos was studying her. "What?"

"When I first met you and Mithos, I wondered if you two were really brother and sister. You don't really look alike. But I can see the resemblance now. You guys think the same."

"Has Mithos said something to you?" And not to her? They'd shared everything in the past.

Kratos' smile was understanding. "I don't think he wanted to worry you. It wasn't anything major, really. He was just wondering out loud why we were even fighting this war. I told him I didn't know."

"Sometimes I think he's too smart for his own good."

"He'll grow into himself." Mithos' level of intelligence could be almost frightening in a child to people who didn't know him. But Kratos could see, somewhere in the distant, misty future, the man that Mithos would grow up to be. His intelligence would fit him then, just like his lengthening arms and legs kept making him trip up because he wasn't quite used to them yet.

"Probably not as soon as he'd like. It takes longer for us to grow up, remember?"

"I never cease to remind Yuan about it." At her confused look, he elaborated. "It annoyed him for the longest time that I was taller than him for three years when we were growing up."

It's hard for Martel to imagine because Kratos is short for a man, hardly taller than her. But she finished tying the bandage—her hands had stilled while they spoke of dreams and seemingly impossible things—and she told him that she wanted to work for it. Wanted to try and have her garden and his library.

Kratos only nodded. "Me too."

-/-/-/-

Yuan likes to help her gather herbs for the healing rooms. At first, he couldn't remember their names, but he never forgot what they looked like. When she commented on it, he said that he never forgot anything he saw.

Those times are usually fairly quiet between them. Some light conversation and usually a shared lunch since they were out there most of the afternoon, but that was about it. But it was a comfortable silence, one that didn't press or suffocate. Noishe always came with them, whether as a precaution against bandits or simply because he wanted to, none of them were quite sure.

Martel reveled in the dirt beneath her fingers, in the clear air. Here, there is no red rain. This place is painted in healthy shades of green and the vibrant flashes of flowers. This is something like her garden would be, Martel thought.

They're getting ready to leave when Yuan asked her to wait a minute and he ran back to get something. When he came back, he just smiled and carefully poked a flower in her hair. It was small and the color of gold with a black throat.

"I was right." Yuan said, beaming before he kissed her cheek. "It suits you."

-/-/-/-

The half-elven king was built like a dancer, lean and muscular. His hair was gray, not from age, but simply from natural coloration. He looked tired, Martel thought. Constantly tired as though he never got enough sleep. And he never liked to sit on his throne, preferring to walk with the people who came to see him.

They tried explaining their plan to him (Their plan wasn't even quite a plan yet. Just a hope, an idea) but they couldn't even quite put it into words because they were all trying to explain it, not at the same time, but with different phrasings and it all just got rather tangled.

Finally, Mithos raised his voice just loud enough to be heard over theirs. "We don't want to keep fighting anymore. This war is stupid and people are getting their lives torn apart for it. There has to be a way to figure out whatever problems the humans and the half-elves have with each other."

The king's eyes were haunted and Martel knows that he's seen more than his fair share of the war. Their king was not one to sit in his throne room while others were risking their lives. "It won't be easy. The humans, despite their short life spans, seem to have long memories and they don't trust us."

"We should try just the same." Mithos said firmly.

Martel thought she could see a shadow of the man that Mithos would become. Proud—naturally, he's part elvish—strong, intelligent, peace-loving. (But she's not quite sure when Mithos changed from the boy from her memories to this child-man before her) Yes, Martel liked the man she saw.

-/-/-/-

Martel and Mithos have never been in human lands. She wasn't sure what she expected, but she (guiltily) found herself surprised at how very much like the half-elven lands it seemed. The towns don't quite feel the same, because they use magitechnology rather than magic to light their lanterns and start their ovens, but the houses are similar to their homeland. Arched roofs, sturdy walls, flowerboxes in the windows and dirt streets in the poorer side of town.

Martel, Mithos and Yuan kept their ears carefully hidden and Noishe had strict orders to stay well outside the city borders. For the most part, they can pass for human. Mithos is the most elf-like of all of them, all long-limbed and lovely-faced, but since he's still so young, he could pass for a human. Yuan is stockier than most half-elves, built a little more powerfully. But he keeps his slanted eyes down, not meeting anyone's eyes. Kratos is their validation. He couldn't be anything but human and they're nothing more than soldiers coming home from the warfront.

In between towns, Mithos muttered that they shouldn't have to hide, that they were ambassadors of peace from the King, but he knows as well as the rest of them do that they'd be attacked at the first sign of their heritage.

Kratos had been very withdrawn since they entered the human lands, hardly speaking a word. When Martel questioned him, he didn't reply, but she heard Yuan talking to him quietly at night.

"What's upsetting him?" She asked Yuan one morning, before the others were awake.

Yuan glanced between her and Kratos before he let out a sigh. "He won't like me telling you—he's not proud of this at all—but you have the right to know. Kratos' family was very military. His dad was a general—is a general, as far as I know. He, uh, he and Kratos don't exactly get along in the best of terms-"

"He hates his son?" Martel assumed.

"Yeah. And that's mostly my fault." Yuan rubbed his arm a little nervously. "But Kratos is worried that he'll find us. I met the general a few times. He wouldn't hesitate to kill us."

How could such a ruthless man have had Kratos for a son? "Are you sure Kratos isn't adopted?"

Yuan laughed a little hollowly. "It would've been a lot easier if he were."

Martel can't coax a better reply from him (Though she's not entirely sure if she wants one) and she senses that, sometimes, he was Yuan-and-Kratos rather than simply Yuan. It's a strange thing, being an –and-someone, Martel knew because she had been Mithos-and-Martel for so very long, still is Mithos-and-Martel sometimes.

And –and-someone secrets are very different than personal secrets.

/-/-/-

The human king didn't trust them. He's outraged about their being there, but when he saw, exactly, who was sent—a woman, a child and two young warriors hardly seem like a threat—he calmed down a little.

The human king was powerfully built with gray peppering his hair and beard. Martel didn't know whether he had been on the battlefield recently, but he had been, once upon a time. An ugly scar mars the left side of his face, stretching and warping his skin.

"Peace?" He repeated when he heard why they were there. "He wants to end this peacefully?"

"Why does that sound like such a lucrative idea to you?" Martel asked, hands on her hips. "Do you think we want this war any more than you do?"

The king's eyes flashed. "I don't expect a half-breed to be able to understand political subtleties-"

"You don't understand them yourself." Kratos interrupted. "You didn't start this war. Your father did and it got shoved on you when he was killed. You don't know why this war started. You're just following by example."

The king studied Kratos. "You're Aurion's boy, are you?"

"According to him, I'm not." Kratos replied coldly.

The king glanced between Kratos and the others. "I can see why. Associating with half-breeds…clearly, you're a traitor to your own people."

"A people who are blind in their arrogance. I think I'm better off where I am."

There was a satisfied smirk on Yuan's lips and Martel knew that it must be a Yuan-and-Kratos thing.

They didn't convince the king that day, but they made a stand, made themselves known. It was a start.

-/-/-/-

They traveled along the coast towards their homeland (It wasn't Kratos' homeland, but Martel had long since stopped considering Kratos as simply a human.). It was strange to feel such warm weather when, back at the capital, the weather had been so chilly.

Mithos ran into the surf with Noishe on their first night by the ocean. He laughed as a wave bowled him over and Noishe fished him out by the shirt collar. Martel smiled as she sat with Kratos near the fire, being careful to keep an eye on Mithos. That was how things should be, Martel thought. Mithos shouldn't be concerned about the war. He should be enjoying times like these.

Yuan's hands grasped her own and he gently tugged her to her feet. "Come on!"

When Martel figured out where he was taking her, her protestations were only half-hearted and she gasped when the cold water touched her feet, her calves, her waist. Yuan laughed at her expression and she pushes him playfully.

His head broke clear of the water and he shuddered at the sudden cold. He looked at her disbelievingly and Martel only grinned at him. She knew what he was going to do as soon as she saw the smirk curl on his lips, but she couldn't react fast enough as one of his hands fastened around her ankle and tugged, throwing her off balance.

Yuan was grinning when she surfaced and she could hear Mithos laughing nearby. Yuan stood and offered her a hand up, his other hand brushing stubborn blue locks away from his face. Martel took his hand, but rather than allowing him to pull her up, she yanked hard, which made Yuan end up face first back in the water.

He came up sputtering and Kratos burst out laughing. Yuan glared balefully at her. "You are a very diabolical woman."

Martel smiled sweetly. "You started it."

It only took a minute before the laughter bubbled from their lips. It didn't take long until they're both breathless with laughter. Martel turned to say something to Yuan, but the words are lost in her throat when she noticed just how intently Yuan was watching her.

"Is something wrong?" She asked him.

He didn't reply, instead leaning forward until she could count his eyelashes. Martel froze when she felt his lips tentatively brush hers. Yuan jolted away the next instant, scrambling to his feet and up the shore.

-/-/-/-

"You seem to have everyone in quite the turmoil." Kratos told her conversationally when it was their turn to get the firewood.

"What're you talking about?"

"Yuan is in a panic because he thinks he scared you off or that you'll hate him now."

It had been two days since their kiss and Martel was still reeling. Relationships weren't safe, not in wartime when people could be killed at the drop of a hat. But Yuan was different than anyone else she'd ever met. He always had been.

"I could never hate him."

"That's what I told him, but he seems to think that my opinion is invalid in this case."

"You knew, didn't you? How he felt about me?"

Kratos blinked at her as he bent to get another branch. "Of course I did. He told me."

"And you never thought that I might like to know too?"

Kratos shrugged, unrepentant. "It wasn't my place."

Martel's heart sunk a little. It had been a Yuan-and-Kratos secret, one that Martel knew that he wouldn't reveal to her without Yuan's express permission.

"I don't know what to do about this."

"And you expect me to?" Kratos winced a little. His voice had come out a little sharper than he'd intended. "Sorry. I haven't been getting much sleep lately."

"That's because you insist on taking the watches!" She fixed him with a steady warning look. "We'll keep watch tonight. You sleep."

Kratos wanted to argue, but knew that there was no point. When Martel dug in her heels about something, there was no way he could win. "…Alright."

"And Yuan isn't 'everyone' by the way." Kratos stared at her, not able to follow her mental jump. "You said that I've got everyone in turmoil. He's not everyone."

"Mithos isn't much better off."

Martel nearly dropped the firewood in her hands. "What? Why?"

"He's worried that you're going to forget about him if you fall in love with Yuan; that you'll leave too."

Martel felt suddenly chilled, though it was a warm night. She and Mithos had never really discussed what had happened to their parents, but Mithos wasn't stupid. He might not fully understand the concept of death, mostly out of maturity rather than lack of intelligence, but he knew what it meant.

"He told you that?"

Kratos nodded. "Almost word for word this morning."

"Why wouldn't he say something to me?"

"I honestly have no idea."

Martel looked at him. "Here, take these for me?"

Kratos swayed a little with the added weight of her stack of wood on his, but he quickly regained his balance. He opened his mouth to ask what she was doing, but she'd already darted back towards camp.

Mithos' head shot up when he heard footsteps coming rapidly towards camp. Martel was running toward him and nearly slipped on the moist soil as she came to a stop in front of him.

"Martel? Is something wrong?" Mithos asked, eyebrows furrowed with confusion.

She seemed about to say something, but she ended up smiling and chuckling a little, the breath without the sound. She ruffled his hair and kissed his forehead in the way he pretended to hate. She was still smiling (Martel's smile was the prettiest thing in the world, in Mithos' opinion) when she pulled back and met his eyes.

"Have I told you lately that you're the greatest little brother anyone could have?"

Mithos blinked at her, not sure where this sudden (Reassuring) sentimentality was coming from. He felt his face go a little red and he took a few steps back. "You're being the girly kind of weird again, Martel."

Martel laughed and it sounded like silver bells. She gave him a quick one-armed hug, one that he appreciated and basked in the warmth of. "I'm your sister. I'm allowed to be weird every now and again."

Martel listened as Mithos started up the kind of trivial argument that always seemed so simple to spark between siblings. She wasn't sure where he'd gotten the idea that she would leave or forget about him. Nothing could ever make her forget about Mithos.

-/-/-/-

"You're mad at me, aren't you?"

Martel glanced up at Yuan. He stood about three or four steps away and was very determinedly not looking at her. Martel rocked back on her heels as she set the plate she'd been washing in the stream aside.

"What makes you say that?"

Yuan shrugged a little helplessly. "We've barely spoken in a week, not since…Anyway, what else could you be?"

"Did the idea that I could be just as nervous as you are right now ever even enter your mind?"

Yuan's gaze slid a little closer to her. "…No, I suppose it didn't…Are you? Nervous, I mean."

"I-I don't know how to do this, Yuan. No one's ever seen me in that way before."

"'Cause they're blind idiots." Yuan muttered.

Martel felt a flutter of female vanity. She wasn't usually prone to it, but it was nice to be noticed like that from a man.

"Regardless of whether they're blind or not, I've never done anything like this before."

"And I have?"

"Are you blind yourself? Women are mooning after you in every village we pass through."

In truth, Yuan hadn't noticed. Not in the almost year since he'd met Martel. "They—they're not…" What? Beautiful? Some of them had been. Smart? They could have been. But they'd all been missing something essential. "They're just…not." He finished lamely.

Martel took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. "Do you really want to try this? I mean, it might not end real well and-"

"I remember that the ladies from the village would always come by when Mama baked." Yuan interrupted. "And they'd all talk and gossip, but I remember once, someone asked Mama whether she regretted being with my Poppi. And Mama went quiet for a little bit, but I always remember what she answered. She said, 'I had other options. I could've gone to proper school back in Heimdall, but I chose to go with him for better or worse. And it's turned out better than I could've imagined.'

"So yes, Martel, I want to try. Even if this ends badly between us, I want to look back on my life and not have any regrets on what might have happened if I had the courage to do this."

Martel looked at Yuan, really looked at him before she nodded. "…Yeah, so do I."

His responding, delighted grin before he kissed her again was brilliant and heart-stopping.

-/-/-/-

Mithos came to sit beside her while she mixed poultices. For a long time, he didn't say anything. Simply watched. Martel didn't inquire as to why he was there. Mithos could never sit still for very long, especially when he had something on his mind.

"I wanna learn magic." Mithos finally blurted.

"What kind?" Martel was very careful not to let her slight apprehension show. Mithos was turning thirteen in three weeks, already on his way to becoming a young man (She sounds so very like her mother at that moment. She had used similar words when speaking about Martel when she was at that age) and she knows that that means that he does reckless things because, regardless of intelligence, there is that invulnerability that all teenagers thought they had.

Mithos shifted uncomfortably. "The fighting kind."

"Mithos-"

"I want to be of use here, Martel! I'm tired of just sitting around."

"You already are of use."

"Not in the actual fighting."

"You don't need to be and besides, you're not of age-"

"And I'm already better than most of the swordsmen here. You can't even deny that."

"No, I can't. Why can't you be satisfied with knowing as much as you do now?" Martel already knew the answer to that. Mithos had an insatiable curiosity for nearly everything on the planet and that only reinforces her idea that he should become a scholar, not a warrior. He would like it much better, she thought.

"Because-" Mithos couldn't explain it. Were there even words for the way that tantalizing knowledge would lie just beyond your fingertips, that on the next page or the next lesson there would be the answer to all of your questions? "Just because."

"But why the aggressive kind of magic? I could help you learn the healing arts." Martel suggested. Marjane was a patient teacher, especially when she had to teach a person who hardly knew anything of magic despite spending the first few years of her life in Heimdall.

Mithos mumbled something.

"Please speak up."

"I just…wanna be able to protect you." Mithos said a little louder. "I mean, you protected me all the time."

"Who's the one that nags at me to eat when I forget?"

"I do."

"And who fusses to make sure I get enough sleep and that I don't catch a chill?"

"I do."

"And who was it that gave Yuan the 'hurt her and you die' speech?" Seeing the shock in her little brother's eyes, Martel fought a grin. "Yes, I heard about that."

"You weren't supposed to."

"Does it embarrass you?"

"A little bit." He confessed. "But somebody had to do it!"

"See? You already do plenty to protect me."

"It's not enough." Mithos said.

"Tell you what; I'll make you a deal. You can learn magic—any kind of magic—if you do the laundry."

Mithos eyed her. "How much laundry?"

"However much there is until you think you've learned enough. Sound fair?"

"You should be a politician." Mithos said, perhaps a little petulantly. "You're really good at negotiating."

"Deal?"

"Yeah, deal."

-/-/-/-

It was very quiet without the boys. Her boys. All three of them. They'd been sent out to be reinforcements on the border and Martel had been ordered to stay in the capital to care for the soldiers that had been sent back because of their injuries.

The humans had new weapons. Ones that no one had ever seen before. They were similar to guns, but rather than shooting lead, they left deep burns, sometimes straight through the skin. Lasers, they were called.

The laser wounds themselves were relatively simple to care for. It was the infection that got in them that made things difficult. Martel's stock of herbs to make her poultices and pastes was running low and magic, as far as she knew, wasn't able to take care of infection.

And there were the explosions from the Mana Cannon, the human weapon that rumors were circulating about all through the army. It was being called Thor's Hammer by some. Martel didn't often listen to those rumors. She didn't have to. She saw the damage close-up, had to treat the missing limbs and raging burns.

"I remember livin' out on my papa's farm." One of the men said hollowly as Martel passed by him, his eyes never straying from where his left hand once was. "I had two brothers, always near me. We slept in the same room, even. The fields went on forever out there. M' oldest brother used to sit astride the fence and watch the horses. His favorite was Daisy. Most beautiful mare you ever saw. An' my other brother used to sit outside and watch the clouds from the strawberry patch. Laziest bum I ever met, but I loved him." The man looked up at her, eyes hollow and bruised. "You ever love someone?"

Her thoughts immediately flashed to the boys. Mithos, Yuan and Kratos. "Yes, I've loved someone."

"Tha's good. Tha's real good. Pretty girl like you oughta love someone." His voice faded to little more than mumbles as he kept cradling the stump of his hand.

Martel left him, knowing that, sometimes, memories were better than facing reality. She knelt beside one of the recruits (One of the newer ones, she could tell. She couldn't recognize him and anyone who'd lived this long had been in her healing room for one reason or another) and asked, "How are you feeling?"

He tried to shrug and winced as he pulled at the stitches on his arm and shoulder. "Fine, more or less."

Martel checked the stitches for infection, but they were clean. She wished she could have used magic for every laceration, for every burn, but she had to save her magic for those that couldn't heal quickly enough on their own. "Any complications? Trouble breathing?"

The boy (He really was a boy. He looked hardly older than Mithos) had already been healed for his entire side being nearly sliced open. From about halfway up his side coming around to the opposite hip. It had very nearly punctured his lung.

He shook his head. "No. Well, sometimes, but it goes away real fast."

"When's it happen?"

"No time specific. Sometimes, I'll just be sittin' outside, tryin' to get my rest like you told me, and suddenly my chest started hurting and then it went away a couple minutes later."

Martel listened to his breathing, checked his pulse. Both were steady, nothing out of the ordinary. Phantom pains, perhaps? "I want you to stay here for the next few days, just in case. It's better to not take chances."

"Yes'm."

The boy stood, careful not to jostle his arm too much. Martel glanced at the clock. Late afternoon. How had she not been hungry yet? She hadn't eaten since breakfast.

"Lady Martel! Lady Martel!"

She turned to the little girl that lived in the flower shop across the street. She was a pretty little thing, all red curls and gray eyes. "What is it, honey?"

"Them boys are back! Mithos 'n Yuan 'n Kratos!"

"Where are they?"

"They's just gettin' in the city gates now, Lady. Terry Flynn saw 'em and came runnin' to tell me, so I came to tell you."

"Thank you." Martel glanced around her healing room and decided that no one was in immediate danger and could do without her for a few minutes. After nearly a month of not seeing them, of not hearing their voices or just feeling their presence nearby, she needed to see them. Needed to make sure they were alright and weren't going to be her next patients.

Yuan's arm was in a splint, Kratos was limping a little, Mithos had a thin cut along one cheek and they were all dusty from the road but they smiled when they saw her. (They look both triumphant and weary. Martel knew the feeling well) She embraced each of them, taking comfort in the fact that she could feel them. That they were here and alive and mostly okay.

Yuan kissed her cheek, holding her longer though he was being careful of his injured arm. "You worry too much." He told her.

-/-/-/-

She and Yuan walked together most nights. Not far, usually only around the capital and never the same path twice in a row, but Martel loved those nights. It was then that they spoke on every subject and then some, that they laughed and could pretend, for just a few hours, that there was no war. (Sometimes, Martel was guiltily grateful for the war. If there hadn't been such prejudice, such discrimination, she never would have left Heimdall and would never have met Yuan.)

Yuan told her of his childhood in a small mountain village, of the trees he and his brother would race to climb. He told her of the street performers that came through every spring and the way that he and his brother would save their meager coins to buy sweet ice to watch their performances.

His voice grew quiet when he spoke of how the humans had invaded his village, of the way that the air tasted of ash and gunpowder. He couldn't forgive them for that, he told her. He might want peace with the humans, might be able to live and work with them, might be best friends with one, but he couldn't ever forgive them for it.

When Yuan talked about how he and Kratos became friends, he lit up. He talked about how timid Kratos had been then (The very notion makes Martel want to laugh. Kratos? Timid? It seemed impossible, though Yuan assured her that it wasn't) and how strange it felt, learning that perhaps not everything that they had heard about the other race was true. He told her how he'd been so surprised to hear Kratos talking about breaking the law so he could learn to read. He related to her his difficulties with learning letters, how the blots of ink on the page had frustrated him.

"But," Yuan confessed, "It was absolutely worth it."

In return, Martel told him about Heimdall. About the graceful trees with their slender branches that seemed so strong that nothing could break them down. About how you could taste the mana in the air. She spoke of grand libraries whose spiraling shelves were stacked with great tomes in a room that had a stream running through it, and the way that sunlight would slant through the tall windows.

She told him about her mother and father, how her mother had been a university student and her father had become fascinated by her.

"Mother always said that Father used to chase after her, trying to get her to agree to go to dinner with him. She always said no because she was there for her studies." Martel said. "But my father was a stubborn man and she gave in on the night before she had to leave to go back home."

"Did she?"

"What?"

"Go back home."

Martel smiled and shook her head. "No, she never did. She finished her studies in Heimdall's university, though apparently it took much begging on my father's part. They got married in the autumn, when the leaves were red and golden."

The twist of Yuan's lips hadn't quite been a smile, but Martel had no other words for it. They had been walking along the city wall; on one side was the relative safety of homes and shops and on the other was the open land. He'd leaned against the wall, eyes focused on the distant horizon. "Mama never told us how she met Poppi…I think it hurt her to think about it."

"Was your mother elven?"

Yuan nodded. "You'd think I should know why she was out near the mountains, how she fell in love with Poppi, everything."

Martel mimicked him, placing her forearms on the wall. "…Maybe, somewhere, she still thought like an elf. Still thought that humans weren't worth it."

"Then why stay? She could have left us to go back to her homeland at any time."

"Well, if she was anything like you, maybe she cared too much about you and your brother to leave."

Yuan didn't say anything for a while, lost in thought. Perhaps he'd gotten more from his mother than simply her eyes. After all, hadn't Kratos offered him chances to leave more than once? Offered him the chance to go back to his village? But Yuan had chosen to stay. (And perhaps that made all the difference. He'd chosen to continue being with Kratos, rather than having been plucked away from his life to do so) Kratos had asked him why once. Yuan had only shrugged. 'You're my best friend.' He remembered saying. 'Do I need another reason?'

"You could be right."

Martel had pushed him good-naturedly with her shoulder. "Haven't you heard? Women are always right."

Yuan burst out laughing and wrapped an arm around her waist, tugging her closer. "Now, what liar ever told you a thing like that?"

"My father did." She replied coolly, lips till curved upwards.

"In that case, I take it back. Your father must have been a wise man."

Before Martel could retort, the ground shook violently beneath them as the stone crumbled from below their feet. The drop wasn't a long one, and Martel heard Yuan grunt loudly at the sudden stop. A low hum vibrated through the air and the air flashed brilliantly white.

When Martel looked up, the sky was devoid of all clouds, though there were still purple and green spots from the bright light. "What was that?"

"Martel, I would love you so much more right now if you would be so kind as to get off." Yuan shifted underneath her and Martel scrambled to her feet.

"Are you alright?" She asked as she helped him up.

"Other than a sore back? I'm dandy." He narrowed his eyes, studying her. "You're not hurt are you?"

Martel shook her head. They looked around at the ruins of what had been the city walls. "What could've done this?"

"The Mana Cannon."

His eyes grew dark with memory and Martel is reminded that she wasn't the only one who had seen the damage that Thor's Hammer could inflict.

"We should find the others." Martel said, uneasy with the look in his eyes. Darkness didn't belong in Yuan's eyes, his expression. Yuan's face was meant for mischief and laughter and teasing, not for shadows and sorrow.

They clambered out carefully and there were shouts of families looking for children and cousins and friends and neighbors and please please please let them be alright among the ruins of this part of town. The destruction went in a clear path, one that had carved a deep trench through the streets.

A squawk behind them made them look. Noishe was hopping nimbly across the debris as he came towards them. Yuan immediately stroked the protozoan's long neck, soothing him with quiet words that he wasn't sure he himself believed.

"Martel!"

She turned immediately to the sound, the familiar voice that was blessedly alive and well and Mithos was hugging her tightly.

"Is everyone alright?" Martel asked Kratos, who looked a little pale and drawn.

"I don't know. We were checking for survivors when we saw the two of you."

"Lady Martel!" The girl couldn't be more than nine years old. She was panting and Martel wondered if she was imagining the fact that she could see the little girl still trembling with fear. "Lady, my-my sister. She needs your help. Please, Lady!"

Martel didn't think twice. "Lead the way."

Yuan looked down at Mithos (He found it so strange to think that soon, he wouldn't have to anymore. Mithos was hitting growth spurts and, while clumsy as nature dictated for those years, Yuan was sure that Mithos would be taller than him one day.) "Stay with her while we check for damages."

Mithos only nodded, jogging after his sister, sliding a little as some of the dirt crumbled under his feet.

Martel was surprised when she saw a familiar blonde head duck into the ruins of the house, though she supposed that she shouldn't be. Mithos just spoke a word and opened his hand, conjuring a ball of witchlight to hover in the air, casting a gentle, warm light through the dimness.

"How can I help?" He asked.

-/-/-/-

The King wanted to talk to them. From the stories that they'd all heard as children, they had not imagined the King to be the kind of man to be helping with the aftermath of the attack, to be clearing rubble and helping survivors. But, Martel supposed, it was something that most every half-elf grew up with. You don't abandon family and, in half-elven society, every neighbor and their mother was family.

"The humans have gone too far." The King began. He sounded weary, like just about everyone that Martel had spoken to since the attack. "This wasn't an attack on a border city or a small village like their targets usually are. They just escalated this to an entirely new level."

"I think that that's what they want." Kratos said. "The humans may have the larger army with training, but we have magic and easily defensible lands. Along with that, the elves haven't yet chosen a side. If they make it look like we provoked the attack with the Mana Cannon, the elves might be more inclined to help them."

The King's eyes flicked to Kratos. "You understand their thinking well."

"An unfortunate if not helpful side effect of being raised among them."

"Then what do you think is the best course of action?"

"Don't give in. Don't retaliate."

The King's eyes flashed, not with temper but with the automatic defiance that seemed as inherent to half-elves as pride was to full-blooded elves. "Are you saying that we should give up?"

"Of course not." This time it was Yuan who spoke, sounding slightly irritated. "Didn't it occur to you that there are other ways of ending this war?"

Martel wanted to remind him that he was speaking to a king, but then she remembered that it would probably make little difference. Yuan cared very little for title. Respect from him had to be earned.

"We tried peace. It didn't work."

"What made you think it would work right away?" Mithos demanded. "Peace is something that has to be worked for."

"And if I were to send any ambassadors into human lands to bring the treaty, they'd be killed once they crossed the border!"

"That didn't stop you from sending us last time."

"Would you be willing to go again?"

"On one condition." All eyes turned to look at Martel. "Get more Healers out here. There's too much work for too few of us."

The King looked at her approvingly. There couldn't be many women who were willing to speak up to him like that. "That can be arranged. Especially if all women have your skill."

Martel was a little insulted on behalf of her gender that the king believed that they hadn't been capable of the job before, that healing was all that they were good for, but she held her tongue. This wasn't the time to discuss those things.

"Then we'll go."

"I do have a condition of my own, however."

"And what is that?"

"That you won't leave until their king agrees to meet with me."

"He won't meet you in our lands and you won't go there. The elves have cut themselves off. No one is allowed past their borders. Where would you meet him?"

The King pulled out a well-worn map of the world. He studied it carefully. "…Here." He said, pointing. "The elves surrendered these lands many years ago, but no one has been able to lay claim to them."

"Why?" Mithos asked, leaning to get a closer look. "That's the elves' land of Kharlan, where they first landed."

"They say it's haunted. Ridiculous notions, really. The only thing there is a rogue tribe of elves that don't wish to stay connected with Heimdall. Their mission, or so they say, is to protect the Giant Tree."

"If you know that, why haven't you claimed those lands?"

"I have no fight with them. They're trying to live peacefully just as we are and they're much closer to succeeding."

"If they protect the Giant Tree, why has mana slowly been lessening?" Martel asked. "I can feel it everywhere I go."

"I have asked them this very same question. They say that the Giant Tree is dying."

"That's impossible! That tree has stood for millennia, ever since the elves first came here on Derris-Kharlan!"

"Yes, but these are hard days and the humans' new magitechnology weapons use a great deal of mana. I don't think that the Tree can keep up anymore."

"Do the humans understand what their magitechnology is costing everyone?" Mithos exclaimed. "Every living thing needs mana, even more than they need water. Have they been told about the kind of damage they're doing?"

"Humans aren't taught about such things like mana in school." Kratos told him. "Since we don't use it on a regular basis, like those of elven blood, it's neglected as part of our education. At best, it's only mentioned in regards to magic and magitechnology, not its effect on the world."

"And even if they were, I doubt most of them would care." Yuan muttered. "Humans are an arrogant lot."

"Just as half-elves have problems with authority." Kratos pointed out. It was a strange quirk of their relationship. Whenever the difference in their race was brought up in regards to them, which was rare, they hardly seemed fazed by it. In fact, they tended to joke about it.

"And you've never had issues with authority." Yuan scoffed. It was something theirs, these taunts and jabs.

"Going back to the original point," The king said, "You all could be teaching them this. Let them know about the mana crisis. If they don't know, they won't do anything to stop it."

"Are you asking us to be ambassadors or peace-talkers?" Kratos asked.

"I was under the impression that they were one and the same."

"That is the impression of an idealistic king, not a realistic one."

"And you are not idealists yourselves? You are the ones that speak of a peaceful way to end this war."

"But we aren't responsible for an entire people!" Mithos retorted. "Kratos is right! You need to lead our people. Let them dream and help work for it, but you are the one who knows the resources, who knows the tide of the war. You must make the decisions based on whether they are smart, not whether they are right."

"You think you're being wise, boy, but the people won't trust me if that were the case."

"You underestimate your people."

"And you overestimate them and yourselves."

Mithos bristled. "Allow me to know the people with who I travel and live and work. You sit on your throne and send out troops, but you don't know what it costs!"

"Boy-"

"He's right." Martel interrupted. "You may work with the people when a tragedy like the attack happened, but you haven't worked to stop this war. Only to attack back."

Mithos looked a little surprised that she agreed with him. He'd thought she'd scold him for speaking so disrespectfully to a king.

The king eyed her. "When I was a boy, my uncle told me that I should always listen to women who were smarter than me. By which he meant all of them."

"Your uncle was a wise man."

"I always thought so. I think that, if I were wise, I would listen to you now. I shall strive to work with the people for something better, but things cannot change if this war doesn't stop."

"We'll help you stop the war. But it needs to be done quickly. The people won't be able to live like this much longer."

The king sighed. "No, they can't. And I'm betting the humans are no better off, are they?"

Though he wasn't mentioned by name, Kratos knew that the question was directed at him. "Most of them, no."

"You'll leave in the morning for Sylvarant. Tell their king that I'll meet them in the elves' land of Kharlan to discuss peace treaties."

"Yes, sir."

-/-/-/-

"Do you really think this could work?" Yuan said quietly. They sat on a hill overlooking the site where, tomorrow, hopefully, the kings would sign the peace treaty.

"It's worked so far, hasn't it?" Martel asked from where she leaned against him, her back to his chest, his arms around her waist.

"Barely. And we've only gotten this far with luck."

"Is that what you believe?"

"If you're talking about the Summon Spirits…"

"No, I'm not. We've met them, remember? And, as powerful as they are, they are not gods. You don't think that maybe this was all destined to happen?"

Yuan snorted. "Destiny? You think that that's been driving all of this?"

"It's a better explanation than luck."

"It's a girlish notion is what it is."

Martel accepted the light jab, knowing that Yuan often said things like that without thinking. They sat in silence for a long time before Yuan said quietly, "Do you think they'll tell stories about us?"

"What?"

"Stories. Songs. Do you think they'll write some about us?"

"And what would they call us?"

"The four heroes of the Kharlan War, naturally."

Martel chuckled. "Real creative."

"Hey, I never claimed to be a bard."

"I doubt we'll be remembered at all. The King will be, of course, but we're not the stuff that legends are made of."

"No?" Yuan propped his chin on her shoulder, placing a kiss on her neck. "How did those legends become legends anyway? They made it themselves, at the tip of a sword. We just did it a different way is all."

"Perhaps."

"For someone who was willing to believe that humans and half-elves can get along in peace, you don't seem so welcoming to the idea of become a legend."

"Perhaps that's just a silly boyish notion." She said tartly, a smile curving her lips.

Yuan laughed. "Yes, perhaps."

-/-/-/-

Kharlan was hauntingly beautiful, the trees strong and unscarred by battles. The heights of these trees couldn't be guessed, but they stood in the daylight like living towers. Their leaves seemed to glow with an internal light, for that was how powerful the mana that ran through this earth was. Their boughs were laden with soft yellow and violet flowers. Much of the forest was lost in soft shadows, but the grass was still green, as though still able to remember the sun.

Kratos and Yuan stood guard behind their king, the human king having two guards of his own. Mithos and Martel stood in between them with a group of the rogue elves. They looked almost wild, those elves, with long, tangled hair and very bright eyes. They had the elegance of their race, but rather than being marred by the wilderness, it seemed almost enhanced.

"This won't be easy." The human king warned as he signed the treaty. "The people, all of them, won't accept it."

"Not right away." The half-elven king agreed as the paper was passed to him. "But people can change."

"Let's hope so." The human hesitated before holding out a hand. "I-I'd be honored to try for peace with you."

The kings looked between themselves, taking each other's measure before the half-elf clasped the human's hand. "As would I."

-/-/-/-

"We did it."

Martel over from where she was keeping watch to Yuan, who still lay awake in their shared bedroll. "I heard you the twelfth time. Aren't you going to sleep?"

Yuan rolled over, propping his head up on one elbow. "It just doesn't seem real, y'know? Like…something should feel different now that, legally, the war is over. But everything feels the same."

"I think it's because we still don't quite believe it. How can a piece of paper stop a war?"

"…We're still slaves." Yuan said quietly.

Martel lanced a look at him. "We are not slaves."

Yuan met her look with one of his own. "You think I don't know that? I was talking about half-elves in general. Just because the war is over doesn't mean that the slaves are going to be freed or that we'll be treated like full-bloods."

Martel crouched beside him, tucking some of his blue hair behind a triangular ear. "You're not a slave anymore."

"Believe me, I'm aware."

"But you still think like you are."

Yuan avoided her eyes. "I was only a slave for a few months before I met Kratos. It's not much really. Not when you think about how long half-elves live. But still…it's a powerful thing. Knowing that you're nothing more than an animal to an entire race of people. Not even worth a whole person."

Martel didn't understand the last part. "What are you talking about?"

He met her gaze. "You mean you never saw the ads for the auctions? Since most half-elves never even learn their letters, never mind how to do math, it wouldn't matter. But one of the ads had both human and half-elven slaves. The half-elven ones were worth three fifths of what the humans were."

Martel ran her thumb across the back of Yuan's hand. His sleeve had slipped down his forearm, exposing the brand that had been burned into his skin. Yuan was a man that never forgot and only rarely forgave.

"We'll change that." She promised him. "If peace is possible, so is equality."

"Yeah? You think so?" But he believed her. It was written on his face.

"Yeah. Discrimination isn't something that's born in people. It's taught. And we can teach them different."

Yuan grinned. "Let's do it."

-/-/-/-

They'd joined the other half-elves in the town square of the capital to hear the king's announcement. They'd sat towards the back on a low garden wall, heard the king's voice boom out over the din.

They'd frozen, however, when every slanted pair of eyes in the crowd turned to look at them when the king announced who the people responsible for the treaty were. They had all been tugged into the crowd, being hugged and kissed and people were laughing and crying with relief. Their husbands and sons and brothers could come home now.

At some point during the grand feast that the city had managed to scrounge together in order to celebrate (No proper half-elven celebration was without food after all) Yuan wrapped his arms around Martel from behind, tugging her gently behind a tree.

"What's this all about?" She laughed, turning around in his arms.

"Two things." He said. "One, I told you so. We are heroes."

Martel rolled her eyes. Yuan could be a little childish sometimes. "And the other thing?"

She could feel the nervous energy humming like electricity under his skin. He wet his lips. "I-I wanted to…Would you—I mean—would you ever marry me?"

Martel stared at him, heartbeat suddenly very loud in her chest. Couldn't Yuan hear it? "Are you asking me to?"

Yuan let out a breath of laughter. "I-I guess. Yes, yes I am. Will you marry me?"

Could she be married to him? Could she imagine waking up beside him every morning, sleeping beside him every night? Could she imagine building a life with this man? "Absolutely."

The look on his face is part disbelief, part joy, part relief before he was picking her up and swinging her around, laughing. Someone from the crowd asked what all the excitement was about.

Yuan was still holding her tight, though he'd stopped swinging her, and looked as though he was on top of the world when he shouted, "She said yes!"

-/-/-/-

Martel was unaccustomed to wearing jewelry. She never wore it, even when her parents were alive. The ring was woven half of gold, half of steel with their names inscribed on the inside. To many, the names would mean very little. But Martel knew, as did all half-elves who could very clearly remember a time before they were literate, that their names were not the important part. The fact that they knew that their names were there and that they can read them is the important part. It was a small freedom, but a vital one.

Kratos caught her studying the ring one afternoon when she took a break from the relief effort for the Mana Cannon attack sight.

"Can't quite believe it's there, can you?" Kratos asked as he took a seat beside her, offering her his canteen.

She took several grateful sips before passing it back. "How'd you know?"

"Because Yuan's doing the same thing. He's constantly fiddling with it."

"He told you beforehand, didn't he?"

Kratos nodded and Martel wasn't surprised in the least. The two shared everything, it seemed. "He wasn't sure how to go about it or what to do."

"And he thought you would?"

"Are you calling me unromantic?" Kratos' smirking expression didn't match the mock offense of his tone.

"Kratos, I love you, but you are quite possibly one of the least romantic people I've ever met. But," Martel shrugged. "Desperate times call for desperate measures, I suppose and since you were the best option…"

"That wounds me deeply."

"I'm sure you'll survive."

"So how's it feel knowing that you're being made an honest woman?"

Martel made a face at Kratos, making him laugh. She was entitled to be immature every now and again. "I'll have you know that I've always been an honest woman."

"I'd hope so." Kratos said with mock sternness. "Can't have my best friend marrying a dishonest woman."

Martel arched an eyebrow. "Oh really now?"

"Of course not! It's my duty as honorary best friend." Kratos was still smiling as he stood and offered Martel a hand up. "But since you are clearly an honest woman, there's nothing to worry about and I would be honored to escort you to dinner."

Martel chuckled as she took his hand and she was pulled to her feet. They were sweet men, really, once one got past the protective instincts and strange quirks.

-/-/-/-

Her dress is borrowed from the carpenter's daughter, Karie, who helps adjust the dress adjust better in some areas. The dress is simple in a kind of practicality that only half-elves have. The only kind of embellishment at all is that the bodice is vaguely designed like feathers or leaves and it leaves Martel's shoulders uncomfortably bare.

"This feels…surreal, I suppose." She confessed.

Karie laced up the dress' back. "I think that's what it's supposed to feel like."

Martel glances over her shoulder at her. "I thought this was your dress, so I assumed…"

Karie shook her head. "No, I'm not married. Not yet, anyway. This was my mother's dress."

"I-I shouldn't be wearing this-" Martel knows how her people are. They share everything from food to clothes to homes. But there was something very intimate about wearing the dress that someone else had inherited, one that they hadn't yet had the chance to wear.

"No, no! It's fine. Really. I-Sometimes I think I'll never get married anyway."

"Why not?"

Karie shrugged. "I'm not real pretty and I'm not the sharpest tool in the toolbox, if you get my meaning. And the only boy I ever liked…well."

Martel looked at the girl. She wasn't lying She wasn't a great beauty, but then, neither was Martel herself. Karie's hair was a curious shade of red that was tinged with violet. Her eyes were a very plain brown.

"What happened to him?"

"He was drafted. I ain't seen him since." Karie smiled wistfully. "I miss him. He was my best friend."

"You'll see him again. The war is over. Everyone's coming home."

"You don't hafta be so nice, Lady Martel. I may not be smart, but I ain't an idiot either. I know he's probably not coming back."

"Something tells me he is. It's chaotic out there, but I'm sure he's trying his hardest to get home."

"Thank you, Lady. Look at me, talkin' about all this on your wedding day."

"I'm grateful for your company, Karie."

A knock on the door had them both turning and Mithos' blonde head poked inside. He smiled warmly at the sight of his sister. "Martel, you look beautiful."

"Thank you, Mithos, but I feel a little sick."

He tilted his head in that considering manner of his. It was an old habit of his, as though, sometimes, seeing the world normally wasn't enough. Maybe sometimes, he just needed to see it sideways. "Have you eaten?"

"Not since breakfast. I've been too nervous."

Mithos rolled his eyes exasperatedly before leaving the room. He came back a few minutes later with a pastry wrapped in a napkin. He held it out to her. "Eat before you forget to later."

Martel chuckled as she accepted the food, automatically splitting it in half before offering a piece to Mithos. Mithos broke off a small piece of the portion she'd handed him before gently pushing it back towards her. She offered the other piece to Karie. "Would you like some?"

"No thank you. I actually have to be going. Gotta figure out where the family's sittin' an' all that. Congratulations, Lady." She said, before leaving.

"Where did you get this?" Martel asked Mithos, holding the pastry up demonstratively. It was filled with strawberries, whatever it was. Martel hadn't had fresh strawberries in what felt like forever.

"Stole it from the kitchen."

"Mithos." Martel admonished.

"'S fine. They got a huge plate of 'em. The kitchen smells fantastic by the way."

"I can imagine." One of the inns had volunteered their kitchen for the wedding, saying that it was the least they could do. Martel and Yuan had both felt a little uncomfortable accepting charity like that when they really hadn't done much to deserve it, but weddings needed food.

"I don't know where they found all that food, but…you should see it, Martel! I could smell some kind of meat in the oven and there was a huge pot of stew on the stove…"

Martel chuckled. Sometimes, Mithos was still very much a child and she was grateful for those moments. The war hadn't entirely stolen his childhood. Someone else knocked on the door, pausing a moment before coming inside.

She had never seen Kratos so cleaned up. He was almost always clean-shaven, but he'd attempted to flatten his hair into some semblance of order and while he wasn't wearing a suit, he was wearing a new muslin shirt that was a dark reddish-purple. His breeches had been ironed and he'd cleaned the mud from his boots.

His eyes went to the empty, crumb-filled napkin in her hands. "You stole food from the kitchen? And you didn't save me any?"

"Early bird gets the worm." Martel told him.

"And the second mouse gets the cheese." Kratos shot back. "I came to make sure you hadn't fainted from nerves."

"Kratos, what, in our almost two years of knowing each other, made you think that I'm the kind of woman to faint over anything?" Martel asked, hands on her hips.

Mithos snickered a little. The very thought of Martel fainting was enough to make him laugh. She was too strong for that.

"Some blushing bride you are."

"Your expectations are a little too low."

"Ouch." Martel's tongue had quite the sharp side, even if she didn't use it often. "Now, would you rather be here, arguing with me, or out there getting married?"

"Well when you put it like that…" She said, trying not to laugh as she walked towards the door.

"Martel!" Mithos called. "Don't forget these."

He passed her the flowers that some of the younger girls from the neighborhood had collected—with Noishe and their mother's supervision of course (Noishe is as protective as the boys and he had grown attached to the little girls who stroked his neck and talked to him about everything and nothing at all.) Baby's breath, amaryllises, daisies. It was nothing fancy, but it was more than many could hope for in these times.

-/-/-/-

Life is strange without a war. Their entire lives, the war has existed; at times, it was merely in the background, a fact that was never experienced, but it was still a tangible thing. Now, it isn't there and it leaves them wary, like they're waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Their days are spent restoring and rebuilding under a hot sun. Occasionally, the king will ask them for advice (they're not sure when they became the king's unofficial advisors, but it's odd to go into the throne room and be welcomed as friends) and those days are becoming increasingly more common.

There were people travelling. Not an odd thing by any means, but half-elves have a strange ability to shrink away and yet have spines of steel that they display with teeth bared and that is what they did when the humans first walked tentatively through their streets.

The humans were relieved when they see Kratos and they immediately gravitate towards them. Once, they asked him if he found it difficult, being around half-elves day in and day out. Kratos had looked genuinely baffled and said, "Why would it?"

And after that day, the humans weren't as comfortable around Kratos. How could the man not understand that the half-elves were so very different from them?

The answer came when they saw an admittedly pretty half-elven woman come to sit by him at the lunch break. He traded the stuffed tomato that the innkeeper had made for him for her sandwich. The woman laughed when he made a face at the tomato as he passed it to her.

Of course. The woman was his lover. That was why he was so comfortable around them. The word spread throughout the community, both human and half-elven.

A man came to join them for lunch one day. A half-elf with blue hair tied back with a leather thong. He leaned against the wall by where Kratos was sitting. He drew his left hand from his pocket, rubbing his chin as he looked down at Kratos.

"So, Kratos, when, exactly, did you start sleeping with my wife?"

The humans' eyes were drawn to the plain gold-and-steel band on his fourth finger.

"Um…never. And I wouldn't." Kratos turned to the woman. "No offense."

"None taken." She'd replied dryly. "And what in the name of hell gave you the idea that we were sleeping together, Yuan?"

Yuan only shrugged, an easy smile spreading on his lips. "I thought you'd have heard the rumors by now."

"Rumors. Oh, well that explains everything." Kratos said, leaning back a little.

"Well, the gossip vine's been saying that the reason you're so used to half-elves is 'cause you're sleeping with this lovely woman right here."

"The gossip vine is full of idiots." Kratos and the woman said in perfect and probably never to be repeated unison.

Yuan burst out laughing. "Yes, yes it is. Although it does on occasion provide a plethora of entertainment."

The three seem absolutely at ease with each other and the humans found that incredibly at-odds with the atmosphere of the rest of the relief effort.

They found it even more odd when they learned Kratos' last name.

"You're an Aurion? Like General Aurion?"

Kratos' face was impassive when he looked over at them. "Is there a point to all this?"

"Of course! Why would you be helping…them? You're an Aurion!"

Kratos' face entirely shuttered closed, no emotion whatsoever leaking through as he turned and walked away. The humans stared after him.

"If you're not going to apologize, get back to work."

The humans looked back at the woman that Kratos so often had lunch with standing near a pile of debris. She had tough gloves on her hands, which were settled on her hips. She was covered almost entirely in dirt and dust. Pale green hair was tied back in a practical braid, exposing the tips of triangular ears and her slanted hazel eyes flashed with temper.

"Why should we apologize?"

"Because you were being arrogant bastards. You're all still in the war mindset. I get it. Now get over it because those days are over."

"You have no right to be speaking to us like that!"

"I have every right! That's one of my best friends you were talking to and no one wants to remember the war anymore."

"Don't talk as if you know what the war was like." One of the humans said menacingly, stepping forward.

The woman didn't back down. "I do know. I was patching everyone up because of the damned war. I saw the damage and I know what it does to people."

"And that's the reason women don't belong on a battlefield." The human sneered. "Especially half-breed ones."

There was no warning and they never saw it coming. Her fist snapped out, cracking across his nose. There were exclamations of surprise, of pain.

There was no regret on the woman's face. "You all keep talking like that, half-elves would be right of everything we've accused you of."

-/-/-/-

Yuan sat beside Martel on their bed. "Are you alright?"

"Do I look like it?" She snapped before wincing. "I'm sorry. It's just…sometimes…"

He wrapped an arm around her shoulders, drawing her closer. "I know. And to answer your question, no, you don't."

"Things were supposed to be changing. The war is over."

"I know. But…I think that things aren't going to change until the people themselves start changing. And this time, I think it's the half-elves' fault. We didn't trust the humans the way we should have when they came here." Yuan sighed, leaning his cheek against her hair. "Old hatreds die hard."

"…But they won't change if we don't do something to change them."

He looked down at her. "What are you gonna do?"

"Try and smooth things over."

"You'd have better luck trying to smooth things over with an angry dragon."

"But I have to try anyway."

"Remind me again why I married such a stubborn woman?" Martel leaned up and kissed him. When they broke apart, Yuan just said, "Ah, that's why."

Martel smiled, her earlier mood not forgotten, but gone. Yuan was good at making her do that.

-/-/-/-

The humans tensed when they see the woman from yesterday coming towards them. There was a basket in her hands.

"What do you want?" One of them asked.

"Yeah, ain't you done enough damage?" Another said.

The woman took a deep breath and said, "I'm sorry. I-I let me temper get away from me yesterday. I shouldn't have done what I did." She held out the basket. "Hopefully, this helps."

One of the men took the basket warily, checking its contents. The smell of fresh bread and wildberries wafted up from inside. "What's this?"

"Food." There was an amused tilt to her lips.

"We know that."

"It's an apology and a peace offering."

The man who was holding the basket glanced between it and her before holding out his right hand. "My name's Jeremiah."

She smiled and shook hands with him. "Martel. It's nice to meet you."

-/-/-/-

"I move to abolish that law." Mithos wasn't tall, even for fifteen years old. Not that he looked any older than he had when he was fourteen. The long lived races had periods of rapid growth followed with long plateaus of stasis. Right now, he was in one of those plateaus.

"You don't know what politics you're dealing with." The human king said.

"I know that slavery is unnecessary and immoral. It should be illegal."

"Slavery has been supporting our economy for decades." The king objected.

"And look at the price! The war and the hatred between half-elves and humans wasn't getting any better with slavery."

"And who would work our fields?"

"Workers. Not slaves. A lot of people would be more than willing to work for humans for a decent pay, especially with how things are right now. Just ask for them help rather than take or demand it."

"No half-elves would trust us."

"Try." Mithos said. "Release the slaves, let them go back to their homes and maybe people would be willing to try again."

"You truly believe that?" The human king said. "Speaking as a half-elf who has seen what humans have done, do you believe it?"

"Yes, I do." Mithos hesitated, thinking of Martel and how she'd earned the humans' trust back in the capital. "And I think that the humans would be willing to accept us too."

The king studied the boy in front of him. Mithos might be little more than a teenager, but perhaps that was what the world needed. Because teenagers had seen enough of the world to be realistic, but could still remember being children, could still dream.

"Alright. I'll free the slaves."

A smile spread across Mithos' face, beautiful to behold. "Thank you."

-/-/-/-

Strange things were happening to survivors of the war. Even Yuan, Kratos, Mithos and Martel were feeling it. Food sometimes tasted like little more than ash in their mouths. Other times, the taste of it would explode in their mouth, overloading their senses and making them spit the food out. Sounds were sharper, smells were stronger. Martel no longer needed a candle to illuminate the dark passageways when she couldn't sleep and wanted to wander the corridors.

Travellers brought rumors of monstrous creatures that had attacked them. The monsters usually started appearing after people went missing. Sometimes, they recognized the names of the missing people. The last they'd heard of them, they were discussing on whether to remove the Exspheres. After all, the war was over. There was no need of them anymore.

When Yuan hears a loud thud coming from the bathroom, he waits a minute to see if Martel would shout an assurance that she was alright, that she'd just lost her balance or slipped a little getting out of the tub, but none came. He wrenched the door open and nearly bowled her over.

Martel was leaning naked against the wall in front of the mirror where she must have stumbled back, staring. She hadn't even turned the shower on yet.

"Martel?"

She turned towards him and in the area between her collarbone and her breasts, there were what appeared to be green and aqua scales. "Heavens above…" Yuan breathed. "Martel, what-?"

"I don't know!" She cried. "It wasn't there yesterday and today…"

"Hey, hey," Yuan wrapped his arms around her. She was trembling. "Sweetheart, you're going be alright, okay? I promise."

"You don't know that." Martel said, though her shaking was slowly subsiding.

"Have I ever broken a promise to you before?"

"No, I suppose not."

"Exactly. Now come on. Let's get you dressed and we'll go see Marjane. Maybe she'll know something about this."

As Martel found a shirt that would cover the…scales—one of Yuan's. She liked to wear his shirts and he'd long since stopped protesting about it (It takes her several tries to do the buttons up properly, her fingers are shaking so much)—the thought entered her mind that Yuan really was far too good to her sometimes.

-/-/-/-

Marjane didn't know what it was. And neither did anyone else. When Mithos and Kratos were told (Her first instinct is not to tell them. They don't need to be involved in this. But as soon as she saw them, she knew that she couldn't keep this from them. They were family.)

Mithos fussed and worried over her, and she let him because it made her feel better too.

"Martel…"He started one day almost a week after that terrifying first morning. "…I think I know someone who might know something."

"Who?"

"…The Storyteller."

"Mithos…"

"Hear me out! It's been almost ten years since we left." They hadn't left. They were run out, but neither of them brings that up. "I think they'll forgive us if we go back for this. This is an emergency." He paused. "…It's spreading, isn't it?"

How did he always know? Martel had tried to hide it from Yuan, tried to hide the way that the scales were spreading across her shoulders now. Yuan thought nothing of the fact that she hid her body. She'd always been a modest woman.

Martel sighed and nodded. "Yeah…it is."

"You need help, Martel. The Storyteller could have some answers." Mithos read the thought that flashed across her face. "This is a new world now. Elves shouldn't be so removed from it that their own laws apply. They shouldn't be able to discriminate against us. They could teach everyone a lot and we can persuade them to see that."

"Persuade?"

Mithos shrugged, a mischievous glint in his summer sky eyes. "Persuade, blackmail, argue into a corner. Whichever one works."

Martel chuckled. "I like the way you think, little brother."

-/-/-/-

"Well?" Yuan asked anxiously as Martel and the Storyteller came from the back room where he had been inspecting the illness. "Do you know what it is?"

"I shall make some tea and then I will explain."

They sat nervously at the small table inside his hut. The Storyteller lived towards the outskirts of Heimdall—for privacy, he said—and there were bookshelves abound against his walls. They seemed as though they would sag for all the weight of the tomes on their shelves. He also seemed to collect odds and ends; interestingly patterned scarves, half-finished paintings; there was a collection of odd stones atop a small shelf above his stove.

He pours them each a cup of tea and finally sits down. "I have seen this illness before, but only in miners."

"Miners?" They repeated. "We've never stepped in a mine a day in our lives."

"It is not an illness born of the mine itself. Exspheres, such as the ones that you all are wearing, are dwarven. Now, I have never heard of a dwarf catching any sort of disease from the Exspheres, but it could be that they are born with a resistance to it. Even among miners, this disease is very uncommon. It stems from the Exsphere."

"Can't I take it off then? Wouldn't that make it better?" Martel asked.

"You could. But I wouldn't suggest it. I studied your Exsphere and I noticed that it has no Key Crest."

"A what?"

"A Key Crest. You are aware of the fact that dwarven stones are very much like our plants; that is to say, they have poisons and benefits as well. Well, Exspheres are a parasitic stone, hardened over many years from minerals. They do enhance the user's natural abilities to their fullest potential, feeding on emotions of stress, but after a while, the stone begins to feed on the user. And, as you know, Exspheres are usually inserted directly into the skin, so it doesn't take long before they have a good hold on you.

"The dwarves found a way to stop the parasitism. They have a device known as a Key Crest, which more or less acts as a mount for the Exsphere. It allows the enhancing of the abilities to still happen, but since it doesn't attach to the skin, there's no danger of being infected."

"But what happens if she were to take it out?" Kratos asked. "If we can't stop what's already happened, what can we do to change it?"

"If you were to take it out now, at this stage, you'd most likely be turned into a monster. Your body has already become accustomed to running to the Exsphere's rhythm. If you took it out, your body would try to make up for the loss and would end up overcompensating. The mana in your body wouldn't be able to keep up and it would rage out of control, thus turning you into a monstrous creature."

That explained about the missing persons. They had removed their Exspheres, thinking that it was safe and had become the very creatures that the rumors were talking about.

"So what is this disease?"

The Storyteller sighed and drained his cup. "A small percentage of people have had a very different reaction to the Exspheres and I have a theory about this. Just as plants can evolve and change, I believe that so can the Exspheres. I think that, with the war and all of the other tragedies in the world, the Exspheres have absorbed so much stress that they have begun mutating into something else entirely. Your body is reacting to that, trying to slow the mutation and thus slowing your own bodily systems."

"I'm not sure I understand." Martel said.

"In short, the mutation in that Exsphere of yours is making your entire body slow down. At some point, you'll even stop aging. The dwarves call the disease Crystallization because that's what it does. You're becoming a living Exsphere."

"How do we stop it?" Mithos asked. "There must be a way."

"If there is one, I don't know it. If you like, I will ask a friend of mine in the dwarven community. But it will take a few days and I have no room to accommodate you."

The foursome glanced between each other. Could they stand to go back to such powerful discrimination after so many months working with people who were slowly becoming acclimated to living with different races, who were being more open-minded about some things than they could have ever hoped?

"That's alright." Martel said, speaking the boys' thoughts aloud. "We can stay in the inn."

The Storyteller looked at the group before him. "You are braver than many."

"Or just more stubborn." Yuan said, flashing a grin.

-/-/-/-

The elves of Heimdall didn't trust them. At all. Elves had long memories and Martel doubted that any of them had forgotten her and Mithos.

Yuan is in awe of Heimdall. "It's beautiful." He said, looking around. The air felt so very rich, the trees slender and the space! How very easy it would be to feel free here, were it not for the condescending looks of the inhabitants. "You really grew up here?"

"Is that so hard to believe?" Martel asked, looking sideways at him.

Yuan stared at her. She was teased for her hair color as a child, she'd told him. He'd said that he knew how that felt. But it's a lovely color, he thought, one that reminded him of new shoots rising from the ground, of spring leaves newly budding. And her eyes…they change color when the sunlight passed through them, shifting from hazel to brown to emerald.

"No." He said, still staring. "It's not hard to believe at all." Because surely someone as lovely as Martel would have to have been born in such a place as this.

"What're you thinking about to get that look on your face?" Martel asked, half-laughing.

"Are you sure you weren't drunk?"

"What?" She was outright grinning now.

"When you agreed to marry me. Were you drunk?"

"No, I wasn't. What got that idea in your head?"

"Nothing specific." His arm rested on her waist, gently leaning her against him. They stood on the banks of the stream that ran through Heimdall, too awake to go to sleep. "Sometimes, I just wonder how I ever got this lucky."

"Well, at least you're aware of it."

He poked her ribs playfully in retaliation. "You know…I've been thinking."

"Never a good sign coming from you."

Yuan smiled, but didn't make any other indication that he'd heard her. "…Do you—I mean, what do you think about…about families?"

"Families? They're well and good, I suppose. Where are you going with this?"

"What would you say if I said that I wanted to start a family of our own?"

Martel's eyes widened and she stared at him in disbelief, not sure that she'd heard him correctly. "Us? Start a family?"

"You don't want it." His expression didn't change, but Martel could see the way that his eyes fell.

"No, it's not that!" She said hurriedly. "I-I just…I never thought about it. I mean, I've still got Mithos to look after. I think that…I think that I would love to start a family with you, Yuan—I couldn't imagine it with anyone else—but…"

"Mithos comes first, right?" Yuan couldn't even blame her. He knew about brothers. He'd had three himself, not that he knew what it was like to care for a younger one. He was the youngest of his family, and had never met his two eldest ones. But he did know about brothers. He could still remember those years with Kratos, living on their own. (Those days weren't so very long ago, but sometimes it felt like an eternity)

"One day," Martel promised. "One day, we'll have that. We'll have a home all to ourselves."

Yuan kissed her hair tenderly. "And a garden. Can't forget that."

"Of course not. We'd grow our own food and the place will be ours. No one will be able to take it from us."

"We have to have an extra bunk or two." Yuan reminded her. "For when friends come to visit."

"Naturally." Martel leaned back against him. "…Think there's actually a place like that out there?"

"Sure there is. And if there isn't, we'll make one."

"Have I ever told you that I like the way you think?"

"And here I thought you only married me for my good looks."

-/-/-/-

"You don't want to go outside? Get some fresh air?"

Mithos looked over at his teacher and friend. Kratos always brought a book with him, no matter where they were travelling. Sometimes, it would be a worn, yellowed paperback and other times it would be brand new, one that he'd saved up for that had the title elegantly tooled into the leather binding.

"Not really, no."

"Are you afraid?" Kratos asked, not meaning to be insulting.

Mithos' shoulders lifted and fell in a shrug. "…I don't know. I don't really remember this place—not like Martel does anyway. The clearest memory I have of this place is that they ran us out of here, just 'cause we're half-elves."

"I know the feeling."

Mithos glanced up at him. "But you're human."

"But Yuan isn't. When we'd try and stay in a town, get jobs, it usually wasn't long before he got found out. So we ran."

"But you could've stayed, right?"

"Probably."

"So why didn't you? Why didn't you just get Yuan out of there and settle in one place?"

Kratos had never thought about that. The thought had, quite honestly, never crossed his mind that he could have just stayed. Perhaps it was because Yuan had been his first friend, was his only brother. It was something unspoken, unagreed upon, but still very much there.

"I wouldn't have wanted to stay in a town like that anyway." Kratos said dismissively. "Any place that runs people out because of something they can't change isn't worth it."

Mithos stared at him. "How do you do that?"

"Do what?"

"Think like that. I've never met another human that does. And how come you never cared that me and Martel are half-elves too?"

"Martel and I." Kratos corrected quietly. "And because it doesn't matter. Your race isn't all you are."

Mithos quieted, taking in his words and mulling them over. It seemed like race had been all you heard about all of his life. There were vague memories of a time before it mattered (A woman with Martel's eyes and his blonde hair smiling at him...A man sitting at a table with Martel, a book between them…Playing skiprope in the grass…) but they are old and seem as though from a dream.

Mithos leaned his head against the window. "It's pretty out there."

"You should go."

Blue eyes went back to the human lounging on the bed. "…You were right. I am afraid. I'm afraid of what the elves will do when they see me again."

"You're not that child anymore." Kratos told him. "You can defend yourself now. They're not superior and neither are you. We're all on equal footing here."

"See, where do you get that confidence?"

"Some would call it arrogance."

"'Some' being Yuan?"

"He's said it enough times."

Kratos looked at Mithos over the top of his book, an eyebrow raised. "Are you still here? Get outside. There's a whole world out there."

Mithos thought about arguing that Kratos should be getting up too, but he could already guess what Kratos would say. That there was a whole world in that book of his too. Mithos wondered sometimes if books really were enough for Kratos.

Mithos had forgotten just how sensual an experience Heimdall could be. Or perhaps he had not truly understood what it was like back then. The colors here were brighter, and sometimes he'd catch something on the edge of his peripheral vision (Something like a color that doesn't exist, one that's new and breathtaking) but when he turned to get a closer look, it's gone.

The air here is fresh and clean, carrying with it the scent of flowers and sap and green. Mithos ran his hand along a fence post, starting slightly when he felt a slight jolt. Everything here had been seeped in mana for so long that they all carried some of it now. Though he couldn't see them, he could hear the stream and the high, clear whistling of birds.

(He can also hear the whispers, can see the eyes—more almond-shaped than most half-elves—following him warily. But he tries not to think about that because he's pushing the envelope, as the innkeeper put it, and he wants to try for some kind of peace with these people. He won't be intimidated. Not this time)

-/-/-/-

It took several days, as promised, for the Storyteller to call them back into his hut. Martel's disease had started spreading up her neck and down the valley of her breasts and she stood with her arms crossed, shoulders hunched. She knew she was among family—the Storyteller notwithstanding, but she trusted him anyway—but it was a very instinctive, female thing that she wanted to do nothing but hide right now, to let no one see the blue scales that were slowly crystallizing her body.

As if sensing the direction of her thoughts, Yuan's fingers tangled themselves with hers. "What did they say?" Yuan asked.

The Storyteller smiled at them and Martel noticed for the first time that he was the first elf she'd seen that showed signs of aging. There were soft creases at the corner of his eyes and gentle lines around his mouth. "My friend spoke of good news. He said that there is indeed a cure."

The words were out of Martel's mouth before she thought them. "What is it?"

"The usual Key Crest would not be able to hold the disease back at this stage. He said that there are two possibilities. One—there is another kind of Crest that they have invented, a more powerful one, that naturally needs more powerful materials. Zircon, a shard of mana and a Mana Leaf."

"Where can we find any of that?" Kratos asked.

"The Mana Leaf only grows deep in the gorge several miles south of here-"

"But we couldn't get it. Not in a million years." Martel interrupted hollowly.

"Why not?"

"The only people that can enter the gorge are those that have permission from the Elder." Martel's smile was sad with the knowledge of something that she couldn't change. "He wouldn't give permission for a half-elf."

"We can convince him." Mithos told her before swinging around to look at the Storyteller. "Can't we?"

The Storyteller hesitated before shaking his head slowly. "Unfortunately—and I am ashamed on behalf of my race to admit this—but she is right. The Elder does not trust half-elves and wouldn't dare allow one to take such a sacred plant."

"What's the other option?" Yuan asked, gripping his wife's hand tightly.

"He told me that a unicorn would know the magic to heal you."

"A unicorn?" Kratos repeated. "I thought that they had been hunted to extinction?"

"Very nearly. But there have been rumors of several unicorns still in existence, hiding."

"Where could they be that wouldn't have been exposed by the war?"

"From my understanding, they have been reduced to hiding near the Giant Kharlan Tree. It is the only place untouched by the fires of war." Even Heimdall had seen some of the war, though the damage was not nearly so extensive. Some fires, some bloodied plains and a single dropped bomb, early in the war, but the retaliation from the elves had been so powerful that the humans had quickly pulled away.

"No one knows where that is." Mithos said. "Its location's been lost to time."

"To most, perhaps. The location was woven into the mana leaf cloth many generations ago."

"You know it then?" Yuan leaned forward eagerly.

The Storyteller nodded and fetched an old map, crinkled and yellowed, its ink very nearly fading. He spreads out the parchment with weathered, ink-stained hands. "…Here." He said, pointing. "Deep in what was once one of our greatest forests."

"Kharlan." Mithos said, being the first to recognize it. "Where we signed the treaty."

"Indeed. You were not so far from the Kharlan Tree."

"And the unicorns will be there? Without a doubt?" Yuan pressed.

"I cannot guarantee that they will help you, but they will be there." The Storyteller rolled the old map up and handed it to the human, an unconscious sign of good faith.

The Storyteller was slightly surprised when the four smiled and thanked him. They were brave, far braver than they thought they were. Yes, he thought, the unicorns would come to them.

-/-/-/-

"This is the Giant Kharlan Tree?" Martel said in awe. Even craning her neck, she could not see the top of it. Its branches were as big around as most tree trunks and they extended far, covering a large area like an umbrella with thick leaves. The roots were knotted and as thick as the capital city's walls, rising up out of the ground to create arches and a labyrinth of twining wood before disappearing back into the ground. Vines hung down low and ivy crawled up its trunk. From where Martel stood, she could see birds of every shape and color nesting in those great branches, could see animals slinking across the roots.

But there was a pallor to this great tree, as though it were weakening from the inside. Some of the leaves' edges were crinkled brown and red.

Martel put her hand to one of the roots and felt something so much larger than herself thud through her fingertips. It felt like the very heartbeat of the world. Noishe jumped up to one of the arches, his beak nudging at the wood.

"It's incredible." Mithos said, ducking under one of the roots.

"It is also dying."

The four jumped, looking around for the source of the voice. There, a small herd of beautiful horses. The largest, a mare the color of pewter with a mane of starlight, stood in front, its pale eyes filled with wisdom. No, not horses, Martel realized when she saw the spiral horn extending from their foreheads. Unicorns.

"The Tree?" She managed finally. "It's dying?"

The mare bobbed its head once in a parody of a nod. "Yes. The War cost too much mana. Even the Great Tree is not inexhaustible. It has been slowly withering away for half a century."

"Why didn't anyone stop this?" Mithos asked, looking back at the Tree. It was so wondrous, so grand now. What would it have looked like in its prime?

"Because people did not want to understand the price of their hatred." The mare's eyes focused on Martel. "You know this price."

Martel's hands unconsciously went to her shoulder, where the infection had spread. "Yes…yes I do. We were told that you could help."

"We can, but we will not. It was your war, not ours. We will not help the price of your mistakes."

Mithos' temper flared. "This isn't her fault! Don't blame for it! We aren't responsible for this war! We ended it! We've been trying to have peace."

"It will not work. You do not understand the nature of people. Discrimination, prejudice…it shall never end. It is as old as life itself. The only thing that can be done is to weather it out."

"You're angry yourself, aren't you?" Martel said suddenly in realization. "Our people hunted yours…and you hate us for it."

The unicorn came slowly towards Martel. "Do you see those behind me? We are all that remains of what was a mighty race, and it is because your people wanted our horns for their medicines. They refused to understand that the magic of our horns does not work if it is taken. It must be a gift, freely given."

"We're asking you for it now." Martel said quietly. "I'm dying."

The unicorn only turned, slowly walking away.

"Unicorns were created to watch over the other races of the world." Kratos said a little loudly. "I remember reading that somewhere. It's true, isn't it?"

"You know not of what you speak, human." The mare said softly.

"Then explain it." Kratos countered. "How do you expect us to understand if no one will explain a thing?"

"We were created as caretakers, yes, but the world turned away from us. It hunted us down, as well as the creatures designated as its protectors."

"You're not protectors?" Kratos asked slowly. A familiar smooth beak and downy neck slid beneath his hand and he unconsciously stroked it.

The mare's eyes slid to Noishe. "No. The creature by your side is heir to the protectors."

Kratos' eyes widened and he looked down at Noishe, who looked back at him with mournful green eyes with its brown flecks, so full of intelligence. "Noishe?"

"You mean protozoans, right?" Yuan asked. "Protozoans were the protectors to the unicorns' caretakers. You worked together."

"Yes. But those days are long over. The protozoans were hunted for their blood as we were for our horns. Now, they are little more than a memory."

"They don't have to be." Mithos said. "Times can change. So can people."

"You are young and naïve enough to still believe that."

"I think he's right." All eyes turned to a young stallion, whose mane was like seafoam, eyes the clear blue of the ocean beneath the sun. His hide was like moonlight and his rump was speckled with the gray of doves and storm clouds.

"You are young as well."

The stallion raised his head in a clear act of defiance. "I am next in line to lead the herd. I know what we are, what we were meant to be and we have lost our purpose. This woman needs our help and I for one wish to help her."

"He's right." Mithos said. "You're so set in your ways that you don't see another path that this could go down."

The mare looked back at the other unicorns. They were few, not more than four, and two were very young, their horns little more than stubs on their foreheads. "Do you also agree with him?"

"He speaks wisely." One said and something jolted through Martel's heart when she saw the ragged scar running down his left foreleg, evidence of what must once have been a violent wound.

The others nodded their assent.

The mare looked between them and back at their ragtag group, focusing particularly on Noishe. "I do not trust you." She stated. "But I will do my duty as leader of this herd and relinquish my horn to you, Lady. Use it well."

The mare glowed the silver of half-remembered dreams and starlight before vanishing, leaving only the horn on the ground.

"Wh-where did she go?" Martel stuttered out.

The stallion—now a leader—strode forward. "Our horns are our lives."

Martel's breath caught. "I…I'm so sorry…I-I can't accept the horn. Not at that price."

The stallion nudged the horn closer with his snout. "All will be well. She will be reborn in a different time, a different place." The look in his eyes was full of a kind of sorrowful hope. "I can only dream that, when she is reborn, that times will have changed and the world will be a better place, a free world where she can once again gallop in the fields without fear. I dream of many things. I dream that one day, the flowers of the Great Tree will bloom once again, that I shall see these foals grow into adults that our ancestors can be proud of. I dream that, perhaps, one day, that there will not be such hate in the world, that we can see each other simply as brothers and sisters. Do you have such dreams?"

Martel smiled as she bent to retrieve the horn. "Yes, yes I do. I want to see those days."

The stallion leaned his head forward carefully, his tongue licking her cheek. "Our dreams shall join with yours then, to realize that world. I believe that you can accomplish this."

One of Martel's hands went up without her thinking about it to gently stroke the side of his neck, her fingers lightly tangling themselves in his mane. "I'm grateful. Beyond all words, I'm grateful."

-/-/-/-

The Storyteller was not surprised to see them at his door again, the woman with the long spiral horn in her hands. "Yes, I thought they might come to you." He said by way of greeting. He was getting too accustomed to them, to having company, something he wasn't entirely comfortable with. After all, he had been a little removed from elven society so he could commit to his studies and because he didn't entirely agree with their views. He hadn't had much company since then.

"We were hoping that you knew what to do with this." Martel said, holding the horn up slightly to make her point.

"May I?" Martel handed him the horn. It was smooth and, if the old writings spoke the truth, harder even than diamond. There, along the spirals, were etchings in a language that predated even elven. "If I am correct, these are spells that can only be performed when holding this horn. They will cure you."

"Can you read that?"

"I can indeed. Please, come in while I decipher this."

They sat at the small table once again and Yuan could see the hopeful anxiety on Martel's face. She'd be better after this. "Hey," He whispered to get her attention. Those hazel eyes fixed on him. "You'll be fine. I promised, remember?"

Her smile wasn't quite up to its usual brilliance, but it was half-formed and honest. "Well, if you say so, then it must be true."

Yuan flashed her a small grin. "So glad that you're finally catching on."

The Storyteller half-listened to their voices as he studied the etchings. They were such hopeful people. They seemed so young to him, who had seen centuries and was beginning to feel the weight of Time like a gentle, firm hand on his shoulder, reminding him that there was no escape. That this group of half-elves (And a human, he reminds himself. The quiet one was human) were still able to dream like this was incredible and the Storyteller is reminded once more of why he cannot agree with the majority of the elven population when they say that the half-elves are abominations. What abomination could these people sitting in his kitchen be?

"I have it." He told them. "Come please."

Martel stood, somewhat stiffly. She was tired, he could see. Tired in a way someone as young as she should not be. Life-tired. He murmured the spell over and over, running his hand along the affected area and he felt the mana rush from him, but this mana was different. It was wilder somehow, in a way he had never felt before.

From the corner of his eyes, he can see the three men, eyes never off of her. They love her, all of them, each in their own way. Brother, friend, husband. Such powerful ties.

Martel gasped, a hand to her heart. She was sensitive to shift in mana, even for one of elven blood, and the wild mana of the unicorns coursing through her body and healing cells that were so damaged must have been exhilarating.

When the mana runs its course, he steps back and Martel shoves her sleeve up her shoulder, fingers running across skin that was once again smooth. Her husband was on his feet, smiling at her expression before he kissed her breathless.

Kratos was laughing, most likely from relief and Mithos was embracing his sister as soon as she and Yuan had broken apart. They're radiant in their youth, in their joy in that moment.

-/-/-/-

"What're you thinking about?" Yuan murmured.

Martel looked over her shoulder at her husband, whose arm was comfortably settled around her waist and chin was resting on her shoulder. "The unicorns." She replied.

"They were like something out of a dream, weren't they?"

"Yeah…I suppose. I was thinking more on what he said."

"About the world he wants to see?"

Martel nodded. "I want to see that world too. A world where kids don't know what the word 'war' means and they don't discriminate."

"A world without discrimination…It sounds crazy."

"No crazier than some of the things you've come up with over the years."

Yuan's chuckle rumbled against her back. "I prefer to think of them as strokes of genius."

"Of that, I have no doubt."

Yuan rested his forehead in the juncture where her shoulder met her neck. "I wonder if there's a limit to how many of a person's dreams can come true in a lifetime."

Martel turned over a little, a confused look on her face. "Where's this coming from?"

"I don't know. Just…we've been dreaming a lot, haven't we?"

"Yes…I suppose we have."

"And they've come true so far, haven't they? I mean…we ended the war. Peacefully. And you were cured. I married you. I'm just wondering if there's some kind of quota."

"Only one way to find out."

-/-/-/-

The day was perfect, one of those days that straddled the line between spring and summer just so. The sun was warm, but not scorching. The morning was moist, but not wet and the breeze was refreshing, yet not cool.

The capital has been very nearly rebuilt from the damage. The deep rut in the street was still getting filled in, but the wall was once again standing high and the houses destroyed in the attack had been restored to their former glory. (No one thinks about the fact that there should be people in those houses, or that the graveyard has more bodies lying beneath its surface)

They had each met up around lunch to have a cup of sweet ice that they bought at a vendor on the outskirts of town. Martel's favorite flavor was cherry, Mithos' sweet plum. Kratos liked the sourness of lemons and Yuan tasted the pomegranates of his childhood. They shared, naturally. Everyone took scoops of everyone else's. It's something they don't even think about anymore.

Mithos argued with Martel on the merits of plum vs. cherry while Yuan and Kratos sat back, letting the siblings enjoy each other. Peace fit like a new shirt, too tight or loose in some places and not entirely comfortable until it had been thoroughly washed several times.

"I'm running out of herbs." Martel mentioned, sipping at the melting ice. "I'll have to go and get some today."

"You want company?" Kratos asked.

"No, no. I'll be fine. Besides, do you really think Noishe would let me go alone?" A sleepy, affirmative trill came from Noishe, who was resting just outside the clinic. Noishe hardly left Martel alone for more than a few moments at a time. (Protector, her mind would whisper)

Kratos shrugged. "If you say so."

-/-/-/-

The afternoon was well on its way when they heard a sharp, familiar whistle that was Noishe's signal for help. It could be heard even across the city. Mithos dropped the beam he'd been helping carry, not even thinking to apologize because he was sprinting towards the fields outside the city where Martel preferred to gather her herbs.

Yuan left the wheelbarrow full of dirt to fill the rut in the road with smack in the center of the walkway, not concerned with what would be done with it. Noishe lived up to his bloodline. (Protector…) If he needed help, then things were bad.

Kratos left his hammer on the beam he'd been sitting high up on, nail only halfway in. His ankles jarred when he jumped down from his perch, but he ignored it and hit the ground running.

There was only one thought in their minds. (…MartelMartelMartel…)

A powerful flash of light illuminated the field and several shapes dropped, not getting back up. Yuan recognized the taste of Martel's magic, like a tangy orange on his tongue and a long knife was in his hand from where he kept it in a sheath on his forearm. He can hear the familiar sound of Kratos' sword being drawn with a single sharp motion somewhere nearby and elsewhere, Mithos' voice rising over the din, the sharp, bittersweet taste of grapefruit that seemed to mist the air as his mana spread and retracted in the beautifully violent dance that was his magic.

Yuan ducked under one swipe, knife going upwards through the jaw and into the brain before jerking the knife out and swinging it around to slice at one of the attackers tried to sneak up on him. Sometimes, Yuan would see Noishe's beak snap out, closing around someone's neck and snapping it in an instant. His wings spread wide, flapping as both a distraction and a warning.

Yuan tried to get to Martel (Is she okayIs she alright? Please be okay, pleasepleaseplease) but the throng was particularly thick around her and it takes a powerful, cutting hurricane wind tasting of grapefruit to clear them.

Yuan doesn't concern himself with the other enemies, his mind focused only on Martel. She's there, standing on her own two feet, in a way. She's leaning on her staff, the one she'd affixed the unicorn horn to the top of (For remembrance, she'd said. As a reminder) and her dress is a sickly red along one side, but her eyes are fierce, magic circles forming beneath her as she unleashed rapid fire spells that shone like a small sun before a shout of agony went up.

He grabbed her by the shoulders. "Hey, how bad is it?" Because 'are you okay' is a stupid question when he can see the red. So much red.

Martel's eyes—her lovely eyes—don't recognize him for a moment. "…Yuan."

"Yes, it's me. How bad are you hurt?"

Her smile was more of a grimace, a sick imitation of her usual radiance. "As bad as it looks."

Before Yuan could ask his next question, one of the mercenaries—for they couldn't be anything else—ran at them, shouting "Death to all half-elves!" Yuan silenced him with a word and the sharp, acrid taste of lightning permeated the air.

Refocusing on Martel—dimly, he's aware of Kratos cutting down the others and Mithos slowly working his way towards them—he told her to heal herself.

"I can't." She told him. "Not enough mana." She read the thought as it flashed across his face. "And I won't take yours. It could kill you."

"Dammit, but you're worth it!" Of all the times for Martel to dig in her heels about something…

He could hear Kratos' voice, asking something—Yuan wasn't focusing on any words but hers at the moment because she was what mattered—before there's the swift sound of a blade slicing through the air and the thud of a body hitting the ground. Kratos jogged up to them, blood running down the naked sword. Mithos wasn't far behind.

"They thought that you had control of the mana." Kratos told Martel quietly. (Perhaps he knew even then what would occur. Perhaps he saw it written in their postures, in the lines of desperation of Yuan's arms on Martel's shoulders)

"They're monsters." Mithos spat, all that rage masking terror because Martel was his and theirs and what would they ever do without her?

"Don't think like that." Martel told him as sharply as she could manage. Already, her legs were giving out and Yuan slid to the ground with her. "You're better than that."

A motherly sister to the very end, Yuan thought and this really was the end, he could feel it, pressing down against him like a terrible, terrible weight.

Martel's eyes focused on Yuan as much as they could and Yuan could feel her blood seeping into his knees were they touched her side. "You remember that last dream? I…I know…that you do."

(…A world without discrimination…crazy…flowers bloom again…hatred will disappear…see each other only as brothers and sisters…)

"Yeah…yeah, Martel, I remember it." His throat was knotted and the words came out strangled.

"Don't forget it…you promise?"

(Have I ever broken a promise to you before?)

"Of course. 'Course I promise."

"Don't talk like you won't see it, Martel." Mithos sounded so very much like a child, like the child he'd been when their parents died and Martel had first stood with him on those muddy banks. "You're gonna be fine." His voice cracked halfway through the last word and Martel knew that she wouldn't hear his voice fully mature, wouldn't see him grow up into the man she saw so long ago and that hurt more than the wounds.

Martel's eyes sought out Kratos and he knelt before her as well. Lady Martel, the children called her. Yes, she was their Lady, all of them, their Lady. A weak smile flitted on her lips. "So much…for that iron stove...and the garden…huh?"

"There'll be one." Kratos promised her. He'd make the garden himself if he had to.

"Watch…over them…won't you?"

Kratos only nodded. He didn't have to ask who 'them' was. He didn't wonder who was going to watch after him. The thought was lonely.

The light faded from her eyes and the ghost of the feeble smile on her lips. (…Her smile was the prettiest, Mithos thought…)

"Good riddance." Someone spat behind them. The voice was weak, as though it were someone's dying words, but the contempt was clear.

The three whirled and the snap from sorrow (She's gone, she's gone and she's not coming back and how would they ever be okay again without her?) to a deep, icy rage (They murdered her. Murdered her in cold blood) was instantaneous.

The rage came easily, the hatred even easier because all Yuan could think as he summoned the magic was that humans did this. Just as they'd taken his childhood home from him, and his brothers, they'd taken her as well.

Mithos felt the splintering and cracking, felt the world shatter into shards of glass that reflected things back at him. Most of it was MartelMartelMartel and she's gone and it was humans that did this.

He would never forgive them.

-/-/-/-

I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain. ~James Baldwin

-/-/-/-/

A/N: Ye gods, I did not plan for this to be this long. I hope I did this justice and if I didn't, that's fine because this came out far more elaborate than I originally planned it to be. Thank you for actually reading all of this.