This chapter was betaed by the wonderful brissygirl to provide a smoother reading experience. All remaining mistakes are my own. See first chapter for disclaimers/additional warnings/summaries.


RECAP: Harry suffers through a surprisingly very good peptalk from Maury, Theo and Co. decide to go and get Ethan a RING! at the Hunt when Quinn offers to stay and keep an eye on Harry in the meantime, while Raspen and Dawne have a chat about their Royal Duties and more complications arise. Alcandor's Mother, the Queen Regent Ezperanza is shown personally inspecting the borders of the Merrow Waters with her entire guard fleet. Hermione gets Charlie's message and has a minor breakdown over the news.

This is your only note to Read SLOW. Seriously. Remember I said Quinn-Arc?
Ok.
Quinn-Arc

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ROYAL QUARTERS : NEVARAH : AIR QUEEN ARISTA, EARTH KING EDGAR


"Arista?" King Edgar paused outside of the door to his inner rooms.

It was rare to see the reigning Air Queen out at this hour. She tended to favour the mornings in the way that he preferred the evenings. Even now, the dimmed light in the unofficial lobby between their shared quarters, left her looking pale to translucent, almost.

Worry and distress was etched into every single faint wrinkle and the slight downturn of her lips. "We need to talk," Queen Arista said, quietly. Her voice was almost paper-like in its dry, whispery quality. "Perhaps we should have talked a long time ago."

King Edgar frowned. "What's this about?"

Her thin shoulders drooped even more. "The Deveraines," she said, humourlessly. "Who else?"

"...come in. This will take a while."


"You knew they'd take it to the courts the moment Ithycar returned to the realm." King Edgar seated himself on the overstuffed armchair beside the cosy fireplace. Everything in the sitting room was a nod to his Earthen element, from the gold-leaf inlays in the smooth wooden trim, to the soft hues of autumn.

Queen Arista seated herself gracefully on the large loveseat with the delicate knit blankets. She fingered one for a moment, before unfolding it to wrap around her shoulders. "I did. I hoped that I could take care of it before they did. Unfortunately, my hands were tied and my efforts thwarted."

"...that depends on how hard you tried," he said, evenly.

Her lips twisted into a slight grimaced. "I think, I underestimated their bloodthirst."

"A very foolish mistake to make. The Deveraines are not as innocent as they appear on the surface. They came here in blood and they will leave the same way, should there ever be another haven from their own realm."

"There won't be," she said, quietly. "Believe me, I am under no delusions that they only humour us by keeping their current status. Once a Royal, always a Royal."

He grunted. "They rarely ever exert their influence though. Nearly every power play I've ever caught wind of, was off-realm and as far removed from Nevarah as possible. They've gone out of their way not to tread on our claws. The least we could've done was to return the favour."

The grimace grew more pronounced. "You think I don't know that? Edgar, really! They pledged to my court and I welcomed them with open arms. I hold nothing against them in that way. Nevarah is a sanctuary realm for a reason!"

Golden eyes fluxed to a rich, hazel hue. "Then answer me this—why didn't you sort it when it came to you? And don't you dare give me any of that regulation-business. You could've sent the Coven after them, if necessary. You and I both know how far the crown reaches and what it can touch."

A flare of pain danced across her face. "Yes," she said, harshly. "A crown that forces the good of all against the suffering of one. I hate it, Edgar, but so help me, I refuse to let my mistakes fall on Dawne's shoulders."

"It won't. It was under your rule."

"They'll drag it into the courts and they'll request her, because I've failed them." There was no hiding the bitterness in her voice now. Instead, Queen Arista shrank back into the sofa, her eyes glinting like bits of silver.

The air in the room thinned, significantly.

King Edgar sighed; his jaw worked as he silently kept his own elemental control under wraps. "Were you even going to try? Has there been any word on what they would do if you did act on their behalf-?"

"They would never accept that and you know it."

"Arista-"

"Ilsa Deveraine is a Blood Title, what do you think she'll ask for, a pound of flesh?"

"...then cap it at a limit. I don't know why you'd bother to interfere with it now when so much time has passed. Whatever bargain was made, surely it's run out and the Deveraines can have whatever they like-"

"The Vaughn's feed us information and we exploit it as best as we can. You know the Lost Children of the Merrow suffer more than any others."

"They have, but it isn't just upon your shoulders. It's not on anyone's shoulders. The Merrow do not blame us for that."

"We still failed them," she said, stubbornly. "And because of that, there is a debt that will forever be repaid through the centuries, one recovered child at a time. I did not make that decision lightly!"

"I did not say you did. But you cannot weigh these sorts of things against each other! There is nothing to compare. It is not alright to save one at the expense of another."

"That's not what I mean and you know it!"

"Then what do you mean?" he challenged. "Tell me! Help me understand what you were thinking, Arista! Because I do not understand. I know there is much evil in the world. I know that we have the power to change some of it. I know that we can always do much and sometimes, we barely do enough."

"We can't save everyone. You were the one to remind me of that."

"But we can still try." He offered a crooked smile. "I know I told you that."

Her silvery eyes shimmered again. The air lightened, but the tension remained. Delicate claws were visible at the tips of her fine-fingered hands. In the soft light, her hair almost seemed to glow, skin growing translucent as her Claim marks stood out on her neck.

King Edgar sighed. "Perhaps some tea?"

Her smile was thin, the barest of polite graces. "I could not impose."

"Arielle's scapegrace—don't do that!" He said, sharply. "I'll make some. Perhaps a mix to settle your nerves?"

The click of her tongue against teeth was the only answer. Queen Arista merely curled deeper into the cushions, looking impossibly fragile. "Do as you like."

He sighed, pushing up from his seat across from her to move to the little tea service set in the corner. "I'm sure you've already thought this through in a million different ways, but humour me. Do you really have to defend them, the Vaughn's? The Deveraines will do what you didn't, if you simply cut them loose."

"Do you think that a wise course of action?" There was a hint of sarcasm in her voice.

He winced. "Well, they will do it rather publicly and with a great deal of—"

"Fanfare? Exaggeration? Blood everywhere?" Queen Arista shook her head, faintly. "They've always put on a good show and you know it. As much as I'd like to cut them loose, so to speak, it's not my decision anymore."

King Edgar turned in a hurry, a delicate floral teacup in hand. His hazel eyes grew wide, glittering in the shadowed room. "They pledged straight to Dawne?"

"I failed them once," she said, softly. "Once was enough."

"...Elven law is different from ours."

"Indeed." She wrung her hands together.

He returned his attention to the business of making tea. The soft clinks of the teacup and teaspoons filled the air. "...you don't think they'll-?"

"You have one bitter, injured child, three parents that watched, helpless, an absentee Alpha and an equally absent ACE." Queen Arista bared her fangs in a low growl. "How much rage do you think can fit into one soul? Because I guarantee it, there is more in that single Circle than in this entire realm and they will not settle for a mere death sentence or a formal reprimand of any kind. Arielle, save me, but Elven ruthlessness? Edgar, they will kill-"

"And as I've said, let it happen," King Edgar repeated. "The Vaughn's brought this on themselves. You cannot tell me they did not know they'd assaulted an Elf. The traits are not subtle and the Deveraines had quite a court presence before Ithycar left. They wear their crests like badges."

"...you think it was deliberate?"

"I think you do not wake up and decide to be an utter piece of-"

"Spare me, Edgar."

"Why?" He countered, sharply. The tea tray floated over to rest on the small table between them. He served her with careful flicks of golden energy, pouring, stirring and passing over the finished cup and saucer.

"I know I handled it badly, I do not need you to tell me that-"

"Then allow me to add that you should not, under any circumstances, do anything foolish like trying to weasel your way into the trial. Let Dawne handle it. If they want her, let them have her. You may have let them down in your own right, but allow her to make it right in your stead. At the very least, do not interfere. Best to let them judge her as she is."

"And would you let Raspen do that?" Queen Arista glared at him over the top of her teacup. "Would you stand idly by while one of your sworn court and your own Blood Title, decided to-"

"You're doing it again. You cannot compare this, Arista. There is no comparison. If Raspen were in the same position—I've already disappointed him by keeping my distance, because I was too preoccupied with other matters. A slight that was mentioned by one of my least favourite people—one that I am trying to remedy, even now. He is young, but he is strong. He has the support of his friends, his mentor and myself. Our entire family stands behind him and no matter what should come his way, I know he will be alright."

"The courts already weigh heavily on her shoulders. It is not the same. She's too young for this and they will ask her to make a decision that even the courts won't be able to overturn and she will have to live with that for the rest of her-!"

"But it's my choice to make, Mother," Dawne's quiet voice broke through the tension. She stood at the doorway leading to the kitchen, her filmy dressing gown draped around her like a shroud. Standing just behind her was an exhausted Raspen, if the shadows were to be believed.

Both of them held matching mugs with faint wisps of steam rising from the top.

King Edgar perked a brow. "Is there something you two need to tell us?" he inquired, gaze sharpening as it flicked between them, meaningfully.

Dawne grimaced. "Arielle's grace, no! We're friends! He's practically like my brother. I just—I couldn't sleep. I came to talk to Ras." Her silvery eyes flickered to her mother and back. "About the same thing I guess you came to speak to Uncle Edgar about?"

The King and Queen exchanged a glance.

Queen Arista sighed and patted the empty spot on the loveseat. "Come. We might as well speak of it, since we're all here."

Raspen frowned. He hardly thought the four of them was enough to be considered everyone involved, but he dutifully trailed after Dawne and took the armchair beside of his father.

"This trial, my darling, it is—very serious. It is not something you should have to undertake during your debut Hunt. It is a difficult task and I would not ask this of you if it were not-"

"Don't," Dawne said, tightly. Her silver eyes grew darker. "If you wouldn't ask it of me, because of some strange circumstance, then don't ask me now, because there's nothing strange about a family seeking retribution when the crown did them wrong—and we did them wrong, mother."

Queen Arista made a pained sound in her throat. "Dawne, my darling, this is not something to take so lightly. They will kill them. All of them. An entire name—a whole Clan, multiple Circles, wiped out because of-"

"Because of a girl?" Dawne matched her mother's gaze with her own steady one. "A girl that gave up her inheritancebecause the only thing it ever brought her was pain, disgust and self-loathing? Did you even talk to her?"

"Did you?" Queen Arista threw back, silver eyes glittering with pure emotion.

"No! Because when I asked to meet her, the reply that came back told me just how deeply your choice wounded her."

"Dawne—I—there were extenuating circumstances-"

"I don't care."

"Dawne!"

"I said, I don't care. That was you. That was your choice. This is me. I'll decide on my own. I don't care about what was at stake then, I care about now—because whatever happened back then? It's still hurting them now. Whatever bargain you made, we can find a way around it, but I won't stand by and just let-"

"It doesn't work like that!" Queen Arista sat up straight, the knitted blanket falling around her.

King Edgar frowned. He caught Raspen's eye and gave a slight shake of his head at the look of concern on his face. Such a sensitive topic was sure to bring out the stubbornness in two strong women, but he also knew it was something they needed to work out on their own.

"Then help me understand how it does!" Dawne snapped. "Because right now? Their newly soulbonded daughter, is very much in line to be one of my personal retainers and I have a great deal of admiration for her. I can't look her in the eye and tell her I expect her to protect me with her life when I couldn't even give her family the closure they begged for in your court!"


DAHLIA'S DECISION : DAHLIA'S ARMOR GALLERY, FOYER


The flicker of shadow out of the corner of her eye, made Dahlia curl her lip in a near-hiss. She recognized the aura, but didn't see the point in being happy about it. The fact that he'd returned was proof that her suspicions were correct and if there was anything that Dahlia hated with a passion—it was being right about the wrong sort of thing.

"He's gone then?" she demanded, hands on her hips.

Her second ACE, Rook, offered a sweeping bow with a mocking grin. Pink eyes flared with delight, his inky hair spilling over his shoulders in a silky curtain that fell to his waist, the trademark of a well-kept Dark Fae.

"Off-realm within the hour of upgrading his current kit. He won't be back, my Alpha."

Dahlia bristled. "Stop that. I know what you're doing and it's not going to work."

Rook smirked. "Really? You mean it? I mean, I could try to—ah." He stopped, taking a step back and waiting to see what her next move would be.

There was a quiet huff, before Dahlia turned away from the cabinet where her favourite throwing knives were kept and warded. She locked eyes with him, her steps sure and purposeful as she crowded him back against the door he'd just come through.

It was a testament to the dynamic between them in the way that he let her and the way she acknowledged it. He leaned into the door, head thunking against the wall, Dahlia standing toe-to-toe, their eyes locked in a silent dance.

"I mean it," she said, simply. "You know how I feel about this. About Wikhn. About everything that's lead up to this point. I am not in a good headspace to take you to task for it at this precise moment. Do not push me on this."

Rook blinked. After a beat, he held up both hands in a placating manner. "As you like," he said, mildly. "It wasn't my intention to offend and I would not ask it of you, now. We have far too much to handle at the moment."

"...it rarely ever is," Dahlia muttered. She backed away, flicking the doors to the knife cabinet closed with a quick spell from one hand. "I'll keep that in mind though and if you feel yourself slipping, I expect you to speak up."

"Don't I always?"

"No. Most times, I have to wrestle it out of you. Did you speak to the Tsyrocs?"

He winced, theatrically. "You wound me, my dearest. They'll back you, if you need it. They'll ignore you otherwise." He trailed after her, his steps careful and his movements measured.

"That's fine. We guessed as much." Dahlia fiddled with the locking charm on the door that led to her armour gallery. "Everything else is set?"

"We're clear to leave within a seventy-second count."

"Can't make it an even minute?"

"You said you wouldn't be able to leave without a warning, so there's ten-seconds built into that for you." He perked a brow. "Do not ask me what I had to give to earn those ten seconds."

Her purple-tinged gaze flicked over to him, this time looking him over from head to toe. She clicked her tongue against her teeth. "I won't, then. But whatever it is, don't do it again if it's a problem."

He snorted. "My prerogative."

"Ever so generous." Dahlia sighed as the armour gallery doors slid open. "Thank you for taking care of that. I've been—struggling, I guess? It's one thing to know that a promise is made and another to realize that out of all of those things, debts are being recalled faster than you can repay them."

"I am glad I could ease the burden, if only for a short while," he said, lips twitching in barely concealed amusement. "You sound as if you're about to drift off to your own death march. Is it really that bad?"

"Yes," Dahlia growled. She tossed her head, hair flipping over her shoulder.

It was a gorgeous display room, with floor to ceiling shelves that disappeared up into the projected starry space of the void. Rows upon rows of gleaming armour sets were illuminated in soft, warm lights, carefully displayed and showcased to show each set's particular advantage.

Because it was Dahlia, it was arranged by use and not something pointless like cut or colour. She stepped over the threshold, gaze lingering on the Cosmic armour set to her left. It was a sturdy suit of armour, but she wanted more than simply general protection.

Something specific, despite how impossible a wish it was.

Rook frowned. "Dyshoka is still insisting? I thought you said you would tell them."

"I did. It's her family. How could I deny the only thing she's ever asked of me? You know she never asks for anything."

"But You've explained?"

"I've tried, Rook. Operative word being tried. She isn't Gheyo. It doesn't hit the same way. I'm sure she's tried to make excuses to her parents, but you're talking about the Kalziks' only daughter. The others all have twins and legacies and—and this is Dyshoka. The one in the middle. The one alone. You can't tell me that they haven't been planning something for her since her birth and inheritance, even. Arielle, I bet even my Mera would want to have some sort of formal ceremony to mark everything, but she has Mama to reign her in."

"Does she?" Rook teased.

"Shut your mouth." Dahlia tapped her foot impatiently along the shuffle strip on the floor, watching as the conveyor cycled through the available options in front of her. "If she decides to throw something, I'll throw her! She knows what I have to deal with."

"She's your mother though. Just like Dyshoka has her own family. She's not alone now," Rook murmured. "She's ours. So are you." He opened his arms, beckoning faintly. "C'mon..."

The soft, half-growl was barely audible, before Dahlia shuffled close enough to accept the proffered hug. She tucked her face in the crook of his neck, all but melting into the tight hug that followed.

"...hate this," she muttered. "Hate it so much."

"You hate the reason," he corrected, resting his chin atop her head. "The reason for it, not the sacrifice."

Dahlia took a shaky breath. "Yeah. Damn it. I'd do it a thousand times over, if it meant that Mama never had to."

"And all that does is make you a good daughter," Rook said, quietly. "Makes you a good Gheyo, a good ACE, a good Alpha. Makes you who you are, deep down inside, you hear me?"

"Don't I always?"

"Dahlia."

"...yeah. Thanks, Rook." She twisted enough to kiss his chin. "Pick me some armour?"

"For what?"

"Gotta go visit the Oracle's Maw."

He hissed in sympathy. "Something fancy then? Showing off your petals?"

"I have three with petals. A gold-purple, a blue-silver and a white-black—well, more of a grey-black, but there's some white on it."

"Gold-purple," Rook said, at once. "Suits you best."

Dahlia barked a laugh. "We'll have to be fast."

"Aren't we always?"

"...if he calls-"

"You'll go. We'll all go," Rook soothed. "You know he won't."

"Unfortunately, I do."

"So, what are you going to do about it?" He swayed her gently in his arms, amused that she allowed it.

"Send Mei. She knows how to handle him and if he's hurting that deeply, he won't let anyone else close enough to help."

Rook laughed. "He's in so much trouble, isn't he?"

Dahlia snorted. "What do you think?"

"I think if you want some company, I could go with?"

A spark of violet lit up Dahlia's eyes. They glowed faintly in the darkened light of her armour gallery. "I have been neglecting you, haven't I?" she intoned, the rote phrase familiar among Bonded.

"Terribly," he purred. "And if you could spare the time, I wouldn't complain, really. Something is better than nothing."

"Is it?"

"Yes...I'm still worried about him though."

"He didn't see you arrive, did he?"

"No, he ran before then. Wik doesn't do anything by halves. He's off-realm now and even if we follow, he's likely jumped a few 'ports in between to put some distance between himself and here. We'd need to track him or hunt what he's hunting."

"True. I guess we'll just have to show him. Actions always speak louder than words."

"Indeed, they do." Rook gave her one last squeeze. "So, gold-purple?"

"Third row, fifty-six from the front." She scraped her claws gently along the glittery column of his neck. "Bring it to my room. I'll be ready for you then."

He smirked. "Sure about that?"

Dahlia's eyes fluxed purple. "Don't tease if you can't take it," she murmured. "Because right now, I'll make all the time in the realms to handle you."

Mischief shimmered in his coral gaze. "Promises, promises..."


"Vampires?" Dahlia frowned. "He took a request from King Edgar for Vampires?"

She held her left arm up while Rook painstakingly fitted the gleaming armour into place. The past few hours had been utterly delightful, a chance for both of them to reconnect and indulge a bit of their darker desires.

He'd been attentive and expressive and she'd given him everything she'd promised. The end result was a happily thrumming bond and their quiet conversation now, as he shared every single detail, he could remember from pulling Wikhn's Off-Realm request.

"If I didn't know you, I'd resent that," Rook said, calmly. "I know what I saw and it was written quite clearly on the request. I'm fairly certain he's doing it to get off-realm and not because he wants to start a war with them or anything of the sort."

"What I'd like to know is where that idiot King gets off on making a request like that of a single Gheyo!" Dahlia bristled, protectively. "He can handle himself, but he shouldn't have to—especially not in Vampire territory. That's practically-"

"Suicidal?" Rook tapped her arm, motioning for her to twirl. "Yes. Figured that out for myself. I didn't think he'd be that upset about it, though."

"You didn't see his face. Of course, he's upset about it. How could he not be?" Dahlia bit her lip. "It's-"

"If you say it's your fault, we're going to argue." He fitted another piece of armour over her right bicep. "He's a big boy. He knows he can ask for help."

"He's hurting and he's running."

"And giving chase won't help either of you."

Dahlia grimaced. A pale spark of lavender flashed near her left ear. "I already said I wasn't going after him right away. I can't."

"You mean you have no other choice," he said, fondly. "He's hurting, babe, you have to give him some space."

"I'm giving him all the space I can, but I won't stand and watch him self-destruct."

"I would never ask that of you. None of us would." Rook hesitated. He squeezed her hand, gently lowering her arm back to her side, fitted snugly into the shining armour. "He trusts you. He trusts that you'll always be there for him. That you won't let him get to limits where he'll break."

"I know," she said, her voice low and pained. "I know, Rook."

"Then trust him back. Trust that he'll call for you, when he needs to. It's not easy, but it's worth it."

"And if he doesn't?"

"Trust," Rook repeated. He skimmed glittery fingers over the obvious love bite on her neck. "Trust me, babe."

Dahlia nearly smiled. She supposed that was good enough for now. If it wasn't, well, she'd just have to figure out how to make it work. Just like any good Training ACE. Just like any good Alpha.

Just like any good soulmate.


THE DIVE - THEO, ETHAN, CHARLIE


The ring glittered brightly on Ethan's finger, catching in the sunlight overhead and causing a happy flutter in his stomach every single time he noticed the bit of finery. It helped to keep his feelings in check when he could look over and see Theo's ring glinting on his finger and Charlie's on his as well.

Such a small, simple detail that served to make him feel so wanted. So grounded. Proof that he was definitely a welcome addition to their little Circle. The pleased feelings grew to a point of pride and Ethan stowed it away for later. He wanted to simply enjoy their company now, before his family descended and ruined whatever calm quiet, they would have cultivated together.

"So—houses?" Charlie ventured. "Properties or-?"

"We could always take a tour around the Hunt ourselves," Ethan offered, his voice rather quiet. Still, he'd spoken and automatically, both of them turned to face him. It almost made him smile. They really did listen to him and it poked at a small corner of his Pareyic instincts. "...only if you want to."

Theo rubbed his chin for a moment, a thoughtful expression on his face. "We probably wouldn't have that much time to tour somewhere if we're meeting your family for lunch," he said, slowly. "Was there a particular place you wanted to go or-?"

"Maybe back to The Dive?" Charlie rolled his shoulders back, his blue eyes shining with interest. His hair seemed to spark a few times, yet remained silkily splayed across his broad shoulders, flameless.

Ethan blinked at him. "The Dive?" he repeated, slowly. "Why?"

Charlie shrugged. "Harry thought he felt something there, it could be-"

"Felt something or reacted to something?" Theo mused.

"Could be either. He reacted, but I think it wasn't the location. He was fine just watching at the rails and then-" Charlie shrugged.

"We can go," Ethan said, shuffling close enough to casually link arms with Charlie. "Even without Harry, we might still feel something. You're right. It could've been a person. I mean, that was very—visceral. Makes me think it was a soul connection."

"Oh?" Theo hummed. He circled around to Ethan's other side, helpfully linking arms as well to walk in an odd-three-person-wall. "Was there something that gave it away or...?"

Ethan flushed. "I'm not saying it was, I'm saying it could be. Harry is probably attracting his Soulmates and not quite realizing it. There's plenty of evidence in the Archives that talks about the different kinds of reactions that accompany soulbonds. It usually depends heavily on the Submissive and their personal needs."

"Really? You think it's Harry-specific?" Theo wanted to know. He obligingly let Ethan led the way in the direction of The Dive.

"Yes. See, when I saw him, I couldn't help but feel like I absolutely had to connect with him. Just to see him again, to speak, to reach out—I sent multiple favours and never had a response, though I can understand why, given the entire time since I've Bonded into our Circle. Favours seem as if it's the last thing on either of your minds and I can't blame you for it. Especially now, given that Harry's—unavailable at present. If it's been anything like this since you've all come together, no wonder it's—well, it is what it is."

"Indeed, it is," Theo said, his amusement quite clearly reflecting in his shining golden gaze. "I guess we're more used to it than I thought. But you do have a good point. Should we be sorting through these or something? I don't want to leave people hanging, but favours for Harry are-"

"There's favours for you two as well and I have my own," Ethan said, primly. "You can at least sort through your own. You'll know right away what to reject or reconsider."

"And maybe we'll see something or someone," Charlie said. "That might help, right? And we can Hunt on our own too, right?"

Ethan side-eyed him. "Got your eye on someone?" he teased. "Anyone I should vet before we all get interested?"

Charlie's hair sparked audibly. "Not really. I just—Ethan!"

"What? I'm only asking. I don't have anyone in mind now, but if you did see someone or something you like, I'd definitely go ahead and lend a hand."

"With what?" Charlie countered. His hair burst into soft flames, floating gently around his neck, skimming the tops of his shoulders.

"Background checks, obviously," Ethan said, matter-of-factly. "The Hartwoods have blanket permission to dig into certain things. At least, I could make sure that we're not being dragged into anything unawares. Not everyone comes without baggage."

"Even if you did," Theo said, mildly. "That wouldn't be a problem, you do realize that, right?"

Ethan twitched. "...I do now," he said, quietly. "But I am serious. I have connections both on my own and under my family name. The Hartwoods have quite a reputation and I'm not just saying that to boost my own ego."

"And when you need to make use of it, you're more than welcome to," Theo said, smoothly. "But don't feel as if that's all you're here for. Harry likes you. We like you. That's why you're here."

"And the soulbond," Ethan said, lightly. "Don't forget the soulbond."

"What did it feel like?" Charlie asked. He dodged a group of passing young dragels on his right, allowing Ethan to tug him a bit to the left.

"When we met? Like falling into a million pieces and then coming right back together to feel more whole than I'd ever felt before. Like I'd been missing a little piece of myself and Harry just happened to be holding it. We were standing in line, you know? For something to eat and—I—we shook hands. An introduction. There was a spark. Such an obvious spark that we couldn't ignore it and it all happened so quickly afterward."

Charlie's smile grew soft. "I don't think there was a spark on my end," he said, slowly. "I just knew that there was something about him. Something that made me want to protect the way that he was, when no one else was watching. Quiet, content, happy. Not at all like some battle-weary Chosen One that they all seemed hellbent on making him."

"He has that way about him," Theo added. "That way where he's just exactly who he is and you realize that being so close to someone who is trying so hard—it makes you want to try a little harder yourself. Just to be worthy of him, just to try and offer some company from walking the same path in similar shoes."

They approached The Dive, serious conversation fading out to the returning expressions and exclamations of delight. Like their previous visit, The Dive was teeming with energy that was bright and joyous.

Hundreds of dragels, it seemed, flew overhead in a stunningly glittery array of shining wings and plated armour. Colourful blobs of colour and small, short banners floated around on hovering little platforms, while the clouds seemed to be multi-coloured in various pastel shades.

It was everything extravagant, playful and enticing all at the same time.

Charlie sucked in a breath, unable to keep the rush of giddiness from washing over him. Vibrant light reflected in his blue eyes as he strained forward, drinking in the scene of so many happy—and airborne—dragels in the same space. "How—there's more-?"

Ethan laughed, releasing his hold on Charlie's arm, but guiding him with a hand on his sleeve instead. "The Hunt always starts out a bit quiet. Not everyone wants to come in for the first week and such. There's always, you know, more families turning up, more dragels 'porting in, all of that stuff. The Dive is popular with the Air Elementals for obvious reasons and that means, they're probably taking their time drifting down from the Sky City."

"There's definitely more of them today than before," Theo said. He leaned into Ethan's side, allowing his own gaze to wander, albeit in a more subtle manner.

"Comfortable?" Ethan checked, glancing at both of them.

Theo shrugged. "It's not—unsettling, but it's what it is."

"Do you think, maybe, I have an affinity?" Charlie asked, tentatively. "It feels like a power rush just standing here." He glanced down at his feet, noting the increase of energy as he crossed over from the main walk into the white-stoned section labelled as The Dive.

"It's very possible," Ethan said. "You can have two or three affinities, given your elemental composition and magic levels. I'd guess that Harry probably has a few that he's not sure of as yet-"

"Earth Affinity?" Theo guessed.

"Probably, since he's got two of us before he's taken on any other elements," Ethan mused. He tugged Charlie a bit closer, continuing on up the main walk of The Dive.

Charlie sniffed appreciatively at the scents of fried sweets and savoury treats. It was hard to miss the interesting smells and sights, as the constant, gentle current of air wafted through the sloped walkway leading up to the observation floors.

"We'll know when we find the rest of us, I suppose," Theo said, easily. "Snacks when we're on the way down?"

"It'll ruin your appetite," Ethan said, dryly. "And then my Mother would want to know why you're not eating enough and why I'm not doing anything about it, no matter how much I explain that we just had a light snack and-"

"Snacks on the way up, then?" Charlie asked, grinning widely.

"...we just ate," Ethan said.

"Snacks," Theo said, cheerfully. "Charlie hasn't tried any of these really—so it would be terrible to leave him wondering about it, while everyone else is walking by and-"

Ethan groaned. "Fine! Snacks on the way up," he said, trying to pull free of Theo's grasp on his arm. "You're both-"

"So glad we have your approval," Theo said, a half-smirk on his face. "I see something tasty right over there, hm?"


Hands laden with little takeout trays, Ethan led them up four more levels of the sloped walkway parallel to The Dive, before branching out past the sweeping, charmed curtains that billowed out from the ornate pillars.

The observation deck was wide open to the air, in full view of natural light with a few charms overhead for muted shadow, to protect from the heat. Tall, wide rails trailed down as far as the eye could see from one end of the walkway to the other. Safety charms were visible in evenly spaced sections with warning signs to be careful and attentive at all times.

Charlie set his takeout tray down on the broad, blue-tinted railing, his eyebrows arching up in surprise. "It fits," he said, half to himself.

Ethan snorted. "Of course, it does. Not all Pareyas have half-a-dozen hands. The railing's wide enough to sit on too, but only in the lower sections. The higher up you get, unless you have an Air affinity, there are a few more restrictions. Safety reasons, mostly."

"We're higher up than before," Theo said, leaning forward to look over the edge. His lips quirked up in a fond smile. "It's been a long time since I've come this far up."

"Your Oretta?" Ethan dug out packets of sauce from his robe pockets, doling them out with a practiced hand. "My father brought me up here a fair amount when I was younger. His sister, my aunt, is an Air Nameless. She loves the height and the wind."

"Yes," Theo said, accepting a sweet-and-sour packet for his savoury fried dumplings. "I think I was just used to it, because of her. The height and the—freedom, I suppose." He took a delicate bite out of one dumpling and stared down at the teeming swarm of dragels below. "There's a lot of young ones down there."

"The Deveraines are an Air Circle," Ethan mumbled. "Makes sense. Yes—today is actually a show day of sorts? For the under-one-century bracket."

Charlie perked up. "There's brackets?"

"Age brackets and affinity preference," Ethan said, easily. "Most don't care about age once you're past your first century. At that point, you're expected to be heading towards your maturity or at least, close to reaching it. Affinity is usually helpful, because you don't want to accidentally pit elements against each other. It causes unnecessary strife and stress."

"Like Merrow and Fire?" Charlie sniffed the proffered packet of newly opened sauce. "Is it spicy?"

"Mild spice," Ethan said, squeezing a little bead on one of Charlie's dumplings. "Give it a try. You might like it."

Charlie did, brightening at once. "It's sour," he said, face scrunching. "I like it."

"That's the citrus rinds," Ethan said, grinning. "And yes, it's wonderful." He handed over the packet and took another one for himself. "And yes, like Merrow and Fire. If Harry wanted to have a Merrow in his Circle, we'd definitely need our own estate and it'd have to be near water. Really close to water. Probably half-on land and half in the water, for comfort's sake. They wouldn't be able to live on land."

"It's that bad?" Charlie's brows furrowed together.

"Well, it depends on the Merrow, but they'd only live on land if they were afraid of something in the water. I hate to say it, but if they are afraid of something in the water then the rest of us are—doomed."

Theo winced. "But if they have a water source?"

"It'd have to be more than just tubs and a hot spring," Ethan said, practically. He nibbled on a dumpling, a serious expression on his face. "And you'd have to be aware that Merrow customs are very different from ours. There'll likely be quite a culture gap."

"But it is possible, isn't it?"

"There's always half-Merrows," Ethan said, carefully. "A full Merrow is possible, yes, but you'd be asking them to give up a lot. I mean, a lot. They'd have to really care about you. Genuinely care and they'd also require a lot of extra accommodations for their element. Not just the close to water and all that."

"You know a lot," Charlie ventured.

"Hartwoods are scholars," Ethan said, lightly. "We are curious and we like to learn. Merrows like the heavy elements, Earth, Shadow and Storm. To keep a Merrow, even a half-Merrow, happily or at least, contented with a landwalking-based Circle, you'd have to make sure you stacked the elements in their favour. They won't interact otherwise and they definitely wouldn't be happy if, say, there more Fire Elements than other elements."

Charlie winced. "I could see that," he said, softly.

"Thinking about someone in particular?" Theo asked. He chewed on another bite of dumpling, leaning forward to rest his elbows on the railing.

"Harry and Alec," Charlie admitted. "I mean, if Merrows are so picky, why do they keep running into each other, you know?"

"They might be picky," Ethan said, slowly. "But they can also be incredibly petty. Don't be fooled." He leaned over the railing, smiling at a group of lazily circling dragels below. "That's an air dance, by the way—the rose-gold wings all flying in pattern over there?"

"Where?" Charlie leaned to the side, following Ethan's pointing finger. "Oh. That's lovely."

"Isn't it?" Ethan grinned. "They're young ones, this is probably their first Hunt and that one off to the side there, is their flying instructor. They're counting and leading them in rhythm."

Charlie found himself mirroring the grin. "They're fast learners."


Ethan coaxed them several floors higher to the next Observation Floor, explaining that the higher up they went, the more expert fliers they'd see. Theo trotted alongside him, keeping pace, while Charlie ambled behind at a more leisurely walk.

They stopped several times to stare out at the aerial acrobatics taking place just outside the open-air walkway.

"At this height, you start to see Gheyos," Ethan explained. "Mostly the younger ones or the lower ranks, like Knight, Page, and so on. Trainees are kept higher up, so they don't cause any issues. After this point, about ten floors up, it's all ranks, any affinity and so on. You can tell if they're available by asking. They won't volunteer, though it's safe to say that they won't engage unless they're interested. Most of them will be too preoccupied with stretching their wings and performing high-dives. This particular point is the perfect spot for a deep dive and a good wing-stretch if needed."

"Are Trainees eligible?" Charlie asked. He quickened his step to follow them out onto the observation deck. "For courting and all that?"

"They're of age," Ethan explained. "But usually a good ACE or training sponsor will hold them back until they settle into a rank. That's on account of the fact that an unsolidified rank can cause a lot of turmoil in a Gheyo Suite. Especially if they have ACE potential and they're bonding into a Circle that already has an ACE."

Theo winced. "Sounds bloody and messy."

"It usually is," Ethan said, soberly. "That's why it's important to pick ranks that are comfortable where they are or at least, open about what they want. It's quite common for Suites to pair up by complimentary rank, but remain unbonded, which helps to cut down on some of the aggression and negates a bit of the expected stifling from a dominant rank finding their footing."

"Simple explanation, please?" Charlie threw him an apologetic glance.

"If you have an ACE, then you work with them to fill out the Suite," Ethan explained. "Don't pick, say, a King or a Prince and then leave them hanging out in the open like that. A Joker is sort of acceptable. At least, by polite standards, because a Joker can answer to an ACE, but that doesn't mean that they will. Usually, they're partial to the Alpha or Beta, maybe even a favourite Pareya, it depends really."

"On what?"

Ethan winced. "What I meant is that, when you're putting together a Suite, you need to have the right ranks to balance each other out. If you wait too long, it causes problems for them, if you don't give them some time to settle and sort of push-and-shove a bit, you also cause problems for them. Every Suite is different. Every Circle's needs are different, but it's always best to start with an ACE, then work with that ACE's preferences."

Charlie hummed. "So, you're saying if someone catches our eye-"

"Then make sure they know what they're getting into by courting you or accepting a courtship from our Circle," Ethan said, quickly. "I'm not trying to discourage you, just a warning that if you see someone, don't just rush in-"

"You aren't discouraging anything," Charlie said, simply. "I appreciate the explanations. I didn't know half of all that, so I'm glad you answered. Ebony's been teaching me a bit, but a lot of it is more about how my rank works and what to expect from it. Basic interactions. Some etiquette and all that."

Ethan's smile was soft at the corners. "Definitely useful things to know," he said. "Now, you see up there? That's a group of at least Princess-ranked Gheyos. I think they're playing a capture-the-flag of sorts."

"Looks more like tag," Theo said, squinting. "How can they even-" he flinched, wincing. "That has to hurt."

"Oh, I'm sure it does," Ethan said, eyes sparkling. "It does look like tag, now that I follow that little flag—yep. That's tag. Watch how they're doing those little side dips? It's on purpose to show off their wingspan. Larger wings, means more weight, more strength and more windpower generated. Smaller wings are manoeuvrability, tight spaces and smaller builds, but possibly thicker scales."


Charlie was in mid-laugh when his flame flared high and bright, burning the incoming projectile to a pile of ash on the railing a split-second before it could connect with his face.

It happened so quickly, that by the time he flinched, Ethan's shield had gone up and Theo's eyes had fluxed to a rich, dark brown, his lip curled in a threatening hiss. His own shield layered up over Ethan's, sparking gold at the corners.

"...flag," Ethan said, faintly. "Good reflexes." He patted Charlie's arm, reassuringly, but his own eyes were a light shade of brown. He scanned the sky, a flicker of irritation showing through. "They should have better control over their free throws..."

"Oi!" A spiky-haired teen appeared above the railing, crimson-champagne coloured wings flaring out behind him, his eyes a greyish shade, lips twisted into an angry grimace. "You didn't have to burn it! Was just a flag. Wouldn't have even hurt if it hit you-!" he huffed. "What kind of Pareya can't catch a da-"

Ethan scowled, darkly. "You'd better not be about to finish that sentence the way I think you were headed-"

Charlie perked a brow at that. His flames had reacted on pure instinct. He hadn't even been paying attention, more attuned to Ethan's slow conversation on the different types of dishes he could expect for lunch, than the swooping, flying daredevils in the section of sky before them.

The young Gheyo bristled at once, red-tipped claws clenching tight above the red-spines of his wings. "Hey—I'm talking you, flamehead, not your little golden watchdog-!"

Ethan bristled, the light brown shifting to a definite black. "Watch your mouth," he growled. "You have no right to speak to him like that, nor to-"

Charlie allowed himself to be shuffled back when Ethan stepped protectively in front of him. He tried to think on what was so insulting about the comment, but came up short. Theo reached out, grabbing his arm to tow him closer and out of harm's way.

"That was my flag and he just-!" the Gheyo growled.

"And an apology would've gone a long way in negotiating whether we'd replace it or not," Ethan snapped. "Right now, I don't think we will."

"It's just a flag-!" the blond bristled. "It didn't even come near you! Get your head out of your-!"

The sharp slice of wind forced them apart, before a sleek Gheyo hurtled between them in a rush of air and magic so whisper-soft, that if Charlie wasn't standing right there, he would've sworn they imagined it.

He'd never seen such effortless command of someone with that much bulk and attitude effectively folding themselves into a small space—and somehow, still coming out on top. One moment he was behind Ethan, the next, he was behind Ethan and the mysterious new Gheyo, protected by dull grey-gold wings with large-plated scales so seamlessly interlocked that if he hadn't seen them flex up close—well, Charlie had simply never seen wings like that before.

It was different from the other Gheyo wings he'd seen with the obvious heavy plating or extra-thick scales. This Gheyo was different, though obviously still sturdy and well-protected by more than his bulk. A medium-build of sorts, the Gheyo in question was a delicately tanned man with a sharp undercut in his platinum blond hair.

Smoky grey eyes and a full-black Flexi-suit of armour completed the look, along with an easy stance that allowed him the best movement while shielding all of them from the angry Gheyo still snarling at Ethan.

Charlie was both privately amused and curious. He hadn't even seen the other Gheyo's approach, it was simply the blurred streak of silver and black shooting down from the sky, that had registered a few seconds later.

Effectively shouldering off the young Gheyo and forcing Ethan back a step, the newcomer balanced precariously on the edge of the railing, before stepping down onto the observation deck, wings curving inward to keep from crowding Charlie and the others back, while still providing a physical barrier of sorts

"Brexten," the new Gheyo said, sternly. "We talked about this. What are you doing?"

Brexten bristled, hunching in on himself, his smaller wings flaring out in agitation. A pretty mixture of white-gold-and-crimson splotches with gleaming black points curving up from the tops of the wing spines. "None of your business, old man—quit stalking me like it's your only saving-"

"He's not bothering you, is he?" the new Gheyo asked, his tone polite, his expression deliberately blank as he turned to catch Theo's eye. "Please excuse him. He has a tendency to let his mouth runaway with him. They're trying to train him out of it. Results are a little slow in coming." He caught the young Gheyo by the scuff of his neck, ignoring the exaggerated flails to get free.

"Oi, put me down—put me down, you over-sized lug of a-!"

"Calling me names earns you laps," the Gheyo said, sternly. "And I have better things to do than watch you fly laps today, Brexten. Watch. Your. Mouth!"

Brexten glared at him, heatedly. "You're not even a whole rank above my-"

"But I am above you," he said, mildly. "And I don't appreciate you making things difficult for the rest of us during the Hunt who are actively hunting. Just because you've been jilted and can't shake the chip on your shoulder, doesn't mean that everyone else has to suffer along with you."

"Stuff it, you old-!"

The Gheyo's silvery eyes narrowed faintly. He held up Brexten easily with one large hand and then reached up giving both of his wings a sharp tug at the points where scale met skin, at the upper half of his spine.

A quiet, pleading whimper slipped out.

"You're being a brat," the Gheyo said, flatly. "And you tore up your wings again. Do you really think Wylowe's going to keep healing you if you can't even go an hour without landing in her clinic?"

Brexten hung dejectedly from his grasp, a sullen glare on his face.

The Gheyo sighed. "Don't give me that face. If you're going to pitch a fit, expect to reap the consequences." He leaned over the railing, and stuck two fingers in his mouth. A sharp piercing whistle sliced through the air.

Two answering whistles came from somewhere overhead.

As if in answer, the Gheyo simply thrust his hand—and Brexten—over the railing as if he weighed nothing at all. "Amari!" he called out, when a pretty blonde Gheyo dropped down within range, her sweeping ponytail streaming in the air behind her.

"Zach," she fairly purred, touching down to stand on the broad railing. "and company." She offered a deep bow, staying perfectly balanced, despite her large, protectively plated wings. "I'd ask what I owe the pleasure to, but I think I just caught your little troublemaker. Brexten, Brexton, you know, I was hoping I wouldn't have to deal with your snobby little-"

"Don't insult him, it just makes him prickly," Zach said, wearily. "Just have him run some laps or turn him over to the ACE in charge. I'll tap out with you in an hour or so, if you want to throw him in with the other trainees. He's been sulking for most of the day."

"An hour?" Brexten squirmed frantically as he was literally handed over to the care of Amari who looked all too happy to have him. "Zach, no—wait—I-!"

"You should've thought of that before you started taking your temper out on an innocent bystander just because he had red hair," Zach scolded. "And you should thank Amari for showing up, because if she didn't—it wouldn't just be one hour."

Brexten eeped and shrank back from Zach's powerful glare.

There was a light chuckle from Amari, before she tucked him under one arm as if he were nothing more than a sack of flour. "Say sorry to the nice people," she chirped. "And promise Zach that you'll be a good boy."


THE DIVE : ZACH'S POV


Zach sighed when the duo disappeared over the railing. Amari had Brexten well in claw and he was reasonably sure they'd be fine. The fact that he'd had to come chasing after him was not so fine, but at least there hadn't been any bloodshed.

Yet.

He resisted the urge to roll his neck to the side to crack it. Presenting a polite and unified front was always a good idea, even if it bothered him to have to apologize for something that was entirely out of his control.

"I'm so sorry about Brexten," he said, bowing deeply. "Extremely sorry. Our Trainees are usually better behaved, but he's coming into a Princess rank and it's really turning his personality inside out."

The tall, dark fellow eyed him with obvious suspicion, his arms crossed over his chest, showing off a lightly muscled build. Eyes still dark brown, the gold still ringed at the corners, showing no signs of fading back to normal. "I thought Trainees weren't allowed this far down."

"They aren't—unless they have supervision," Zach explained. "I took my eye off of him for a moment to break up another squabble. Again, I'm terribly sorry, it will not happen again." He held the hazel-eyed stare until he could see the faintest sliver of gold peeking through.

That was good. Even if the dragel didn't outright forgive him, he was at least pacified enough to hopefully not press any formal charges. It was the shorter one standing off to his left, that stepped forward instead.

He dipped his head in a polite nod, his posture crisp and clean, just like his dress robes. There was a vaguely muted aura emanating from him and as he straightened, the robe's collar slipped slightly, showing off clean claim marks along his pale neck.

Oh...he's an Alpha...so...small though. Young, probably. But he's Bonded. Not that young, then. Maybe it's his first Hunt? Interesting.

Zach fought the urge to react at once. There was something inside of him that had perked up at that realization. It was almost as if every single one of his Gheyo instincts had screamed that the mysterious young Alpha was to be immediately protected and shielded.

From what? he tried to reason with himself, but his Gheyo Prince instincts were already overriding common sense. Listen to him. Listen to the little Alpha. He is speaking...

"Apology accepted. That doesn't happen often, does it?" He straightened up, his expression schooled into a mask of polite indifference, though his posture relaxed, projecting a more calm and open air.

Zach felt his words catch in his throat. Right. He was supposed to answer that. Not stare like an idiot. "Brexten? He's been acting out since the Hunt started. The others are usually more well-behaved. There's a demonstration happening in the Arenas though, so most of the upper ranks are there right now, setting things in order. It leaves the rest of us a little too free."

"Love troubles?" Amusement coloured the tone of the tanned, redheaded dragel standing well behind his two companions. His eyes were a bright, shocking blue, a stark contrast to his vibrant, tri-colour hair that was currently half-flickering around his shoulders. He was by far, the tallest of the trio and the most relaxed.

Beta? His mind teased. Rheyo? No—I didn't see that many marks on the little Alpha. Why aren't they wearing them openly? Maybe he's an Advisor...Arielle, I can't tell...his whole aura is different...

"Sort of. The little Beta that was courting him changed his mind. A Fire Type. He's holding a grudge because it's his first crush or something like that. I'm not his Training ACE. He's not my headache, but I was roped into helping out with refereeing." Zach gestured upwards to the sky. "So, I get to play both sides of it."

"So, it wasn't your fault?" The annoyed fellow relaxed, his arms falling open to his sides. A glimmering golden crest was embroidered over the heart-side, showing off a familiar symbol, glistening in gold, courtesy of the delicate bejewelled pin that was clipped to the wide collar.

Hartwood Clan. Ah. That explains the annoyance. Zach kept his smile in place, wondering if he'd have to apologize again, before excusing himself.

"Pretty sure it wasn't, E," the redhead said, cheerfully. "I'm Charlie, this is my alpha, Theodore and our Pareya, Ethan. I didn't catch your name?"

The warmth in Charlie's voice caught Zach entirely off guard. He swallowed down the confusing jumble of words and tried to stall until his voice would work properly.

Silence stretched for a moment.

"...Zach," he managed, belatedly. "Zach Grimnauth...Gheyo Prince."

Ethan's eyebrows arched upward in a measuring curve. "Pleasure," he said, crisply. "Second or third Hunt?"

Zach's polite smile held. "Third," he said, quietly. "I should be on my way. So sorry to have interrupted your viewing-"

"What were they playing?" Charlie skirted around Ethan, brushing past Theo with a light tap on his shoulder. There was something welcoming and inviting in the way his gentle gaze settled over Zach like a warm blanket.

It was almost like having a dose of liquid courage poured over him from head to toe.

"The game," Charlie clarified. He gestured to the railing. "I almost asked Ethan, but I was too busy trying all of the snacks. Brexten said it was some kind of a flag?" One tanned hand brushed light—ever so lightly—on Zach's shoulder, as Charlie led the way back to the safety rail. "This is my first Hunt and my first time in Nevarah."

Zach blinked. "First time in Nevarah?" He trailed after Charlie; curiosity sparked. "Did you 'port in for the Hunt?"

"More like running for our lives," Charlie said, lightly. "It's better now. Have you always been in Nevarah?"

"...off-realm a few times," Zach admitted. He mirrored Charlie's stance, leaning against the railing, one arm braced effortlessly at an angle. "Where—which realm—if you don't mind my asking?"

Charlie shrugged. "Why would I mind?" He turned his solemn face to the open air. "Earth."

A soft, whistling breath slipped out before Zach could help himself. "That's—a long way," he said, at last. "I'm glad you made it here without issue. Are you staying here for the Hunt or-?"

"Staying for the Hunt," Theodore said, smoothly. He took up Charlie's other side, pressing close enough for their arms to touch, his expression guarded, but less suspicious than before. "Maybe longer."

His brow furrowed in thought as Zach mentally sifted through the conversation picking out helpful details. "Your Submissive is—Hunting?"

Ethan settled in beside Theodore, his eyes still measuring. "Yes, but at present, we do not have the foundations for a Gheyo Suite."

Ah.

And there was the rub.

No ACE meant no chance of considering courtship or otherwise. It was difficult to charm an ACE, but a chore that he wouldn't have minded, seeing that two-thirds of the triad was so agreeable despite such a startling introduction.

No Submissive present meant he couldn't even guess at what kind of an ACE they'd attract or prefer, much less what type of Gheyos would suit them. Zach stubbornly pushed his disappointment away. He shouldn't have let his hopes climb so quickly.

Of course, his luck couldn't be that good. Or maybe it was that bad. At this point, he didn't know which one it was.

There were some days where he wished his rank was a little higher up in the courts, but most of the time, he was fairly content as a Gheyo Prince, especially when there was a good King or Queen over him. Rarely did he ever find an ACE that suited his temperament, but a Gheyo King or Queen was easy enough.

They would always run interference between his rank, preventing any unnecessary squabbles from starting up. He'd yet to find a dynamic that worked the way it was supposed to.

At least, in a way that didn't rub him the wrong way.

Oh well. There were worse ways to spend a few hours. It wasn't like they'd hated him on sight for being a lesser rank...


KALZIK FAMILY, MAIN ESTATE : GUEST COTTAGE : Quinn & Kyle


Quinn rose from the living room floor with a soft huff. Joints popped and clicked as he stretched with care, testing each limb in turn. Sitting on the floor for so long had put his left leg to sleep. Grimacing, he eased back onto the floor to stretch properly.

A few slow breaths and careful stretches left him with a satisfying ache in the right places. More Yoga...he thought, absently. Maybe Mama's morning class? I'm too young for this...

He shuffled around the low coffee table in the centre of the fluffy rug on the floor. As usual, his paperwork was spread out across the entire surface, scattered with little sticky notes he liked to use, along with various ink sticks.

Color-coding the entire mess was a huge help and he liked to work with the actual papers before digitizing the entire thing. It simply helped him feel more connected to his patients, especially when there were so many of them.

Charming the papers to stay put, he trotted out of the living room heading for Harry's bedroom. He'd promised Theo that he'd keep an eye on him, after all, and it was a promise he meant to make good on.

None of the monitoring spells had gone off while he'd been sorting his paperwork, so he figured everything was alright. It was simply habit to check on a patient anyway. Spells were not infallible, after all.

He tapped softly on the doorframe—another habit—before stepping into the bedroom. Nothing had changed since he'd last been there.

Harry remained neatly tucked under the blankets, his posture perfect, his eyes closed.

It was both a relief and a sorrow entangled together at once. Harry being awake would certainly be good for his Bonded, yet at the same time, it was clear that he'd needed rest from the first day that Quinn had laid eyes on him.

A flicker of worry curled through him and Quinn stubbornly pushed it away. He'd already made his choice. This was simply—well, he wasn't sure there was a name for whatever this was, but at the very least, even if he couldn't stand beside Harry, he could be there for him in his Healer capacity.

He could almost hear Dyshoka's faintly chiding words in the back of his mind, a gentle, but stern reminder to choose his own future.

A future that he had absolutely no right to even consider with everything that he'd already done. Harry was sure to be—unhappy?—at the very least. He wouldn't hate him; Quinn was sure of that. There was too much of a wounded soul tangled up inside of him. A young man forced to grow up and harden into a battle-ready warrior.

Oh, the signs were there.

They were all there and the first time he'd locked eyes with him, Quinn knew.

This was the person that would turn his world upside down. That would absolutely destroy every little carefully constructed wall he'd ever built up around himself. Every fragile bit of stone and mortar that he'd used to keep his bleeding heart from crying all over the place.

A slight tremor ran through him again. He'd done it out of reflex, really, more of a habit than anything else.

By the time he'd slowed down to think of what he'd done or what they could've had, he'd already felt the timing slip and jar him back to the present. A present where he was nothing more than a silent witness, a helpful observer, another distant hopeful standing on the side-lines.

Not hunting, eh?

The thought was almost mocking. He couldn't have answered any other way. It was simply too big of a leap now. Too much to ask for, to hope for, to dare to trust—no, it was better of this way. A nice, quiet, calm existence where troublesome things like hearts, souls and magic were free to interact withoutdragging him into their pointless dramas.

He rubbed a hand firmly across the ache in his chest. It'd grown worse overnight, if he was being honest. To be so close to all of them and then waking up with Theo like that—Quinn gritted his teeth.

Best not to think about it.

Entertaining those sorts of thoughts would only make it so much worse when they all moved out when Harry woke. There was certainly no reason for them to stay and he was sure that they'd be eager to return to the Hunt.

He'd all but pushed them out of the door that morning, to try and encourage them to stretch their wings and minds, a little bit. Purely selfish on his part, because having them all underfoot and so close to interact with was nothing short of torture.

But he'd done it to himself. There was no one else to blame.

Quinn drew near, the familiar spell at hand to check Harry's vitals and magic levels. His gaze lingered on Harry's peaceful face, a flicker of relief in his teal eyes. Harry had been through so much in the short time since he'd arrived on Nevarah.

He deserved to have some rest, no matter how little, even if it was through a healing trance. Quinn found himself hoping that it was helping and that he wasn't tangled up in nightmares or some other troublesome thing.

Good, peaceful, restful sleep was the key to making the most of a healing trance. It'd be rude to check whether it was peaceful, but given that there were no obvious, visible signs of distress, he figured everything was alright for now.

Perhaps he would have to check in with the Kadels and ask one of them to Dreamwalk. Politely.

Quinn sighed. That was a conversation that would be troublesome. It would be hard to find a Kadel Healer that was withinthe current plane of existence during the Hunt. Still, for Harry's sake, he'd at least make an effort.

The quiet chime of the requested readout, sounded somewhere off to his left. Quinn's attention shifted at once to skim over the compilation of necessary numbers and charts.

All was well.

His shoulders slumped, true relief trickling through him.

You make me worry far too much... He mused, hand resting atop the blanket, inches away from Harry's blanket-covered one. I worry even though I have no real reason to justify it. You just—you deserve better things than what's been handed to you. I am sorry I haven't the-

Quinn jerked back, startled by a message bubble chiming so close to his ears. He huffed, glancing at the caller and recognizing the familiar shock of bright green hair.

Kyle.

It was only ever Kyle that would reach out to him like that. Quinn bristled and calmed in a matter of seconds. Maybe it was better to talk to family than to wallow in his own thoughts. It was far too tempting to trip down a darker path if he wasn't careful.

"Quinn, you'd better answer this you big idi—oh. Quinn. Hi." Kyle gave a sheepish laugh, ruffling his forest-green hair, a pink tint to his tanned face. "Sorry. I meant-"

Quinn merely perked a brow in silent question. He had a fairly good idea what Kyle meant, but there was a bit of smug satisfaction in watching him flail about to find the politest way to phrase what he'd intended to say.

Except for he didn't. Instead, Kyle's gaze sharpened to a near inhuman sliver of ethereal green with flecks of shimmering bronze, a Fae's judging gaze that would see past a simple facade.

"Quinn-what's wrong? You weren't—you haven't-" Kyle paused. He glanced over his shoulder, then rose from his current seat and moved through halls and doorways, secluding himself in a private room for the duration of his call. "You'd better not be self-destructing on me," he said, harshly. "And I'll know if you have."

The unexpected scold should've ruffled his scales, but Quinn could only find himself falling a bit deeper into the mental tangle he'd created for himself. He wasn't sure how to feel about Kyle pulling on that rare brotherly relationship that they'd tentatively crafted.

He'd expected news about Dyshoka—or avoiding the topic of his favourite sister altogether—he wasn't prepared for genuine worry.

For Kyle to care on such a level.

"Quinn?" Kyle prompted, meaningfully. "I need an answer, please. Everything alright? You look kind of—bad." He craned his neck as if trying to look through the message bubble to see everything on Quinn's end.

Shaking his head, Quinn poked the bubble. He signed, briefly, with his hands, giving a slight tilt of his head in the direction of the bed.

"Harry?" Kyle echoed, green eyes narrowing even further. "That's—awful. I'm sorry to hear that. How did—can you tell me about it? Where's the rest of his Circle? Did Mama come to check on him?"

Quinn sighed. His parents would probably come, if he invited him. They would also keep their distance out of respect from his initial request for Harry and his Circle to stay, expecting that he would call if he needed help.

He carefully signed a few more phrases, taking care not to trip over his explanation. The last thing he needed was for Kyle to step through and decide that he couldn't be left alone to wallow.

"Well, I guess it's good their hunting," Kyle said, slowly. "I'm surprised you managed to get them to leave. Their little Alpha likes to stick close to home. He worries more than you do."

Another shrug accompanied the quick shapes and twists of his hands.

Kyle blushed. "We're fine," he said, flustered. "Don't just ask me that. We're fine."

Quinn shrugged again.

"Yes. I promise. I swear. Whatever you want me to say. It's all—fine. Sort of." He scratched his chin, rubbing at the patchy scruff. "That was partially what I was calling to ask you about. I know Mama has her—well, let me put this way. Can we get out of a big celebration?"

Quinn blinked. He shook his head.

"No way at all?"

Another head shake.

"Lovely. How long would it take to get back in her good graces if we had to skip out early?"

Quinn winced.

Kyle mirrored him. "That bad, huh?" His shoulders drooped visibly. "I'm pretty sure we'll have to, but it's on account of Gheyo business."

Quinn glanced towards Harry's sleeping form. He spun a privacy bubble on his fingers and cast it over the bed. Just in case there was some rare chance that Harry might be aware of what was happening around him, it was best not to drag him into his family drama.

Especially if Kyle intended to take the conversation down more embarrassing turns.


"...you're moping," Kyle said, quietly. He glanced over his shoulder again, leaning out of view of the bubble. "Emily, was that you? No, it's Quinn. I'll step through. Try not to need me? Yeah. Love you too, babe."

Quinn shook his head, hands waving in a poor attempt to dissuade the impending conversation of doom.

"Too late for that," Kyle said, matter-of-factly. "You can deal with me or Bharin. Take your pick."

His emphatic headshake only earned him a very pointed look.

Quinn sighed. This would be a long afternoon...


"You did what?" Kyle stared at him, his hair bristling and straining as if it were some fiery mane somehow contained within. "Are you serious? You can't—that's—Quinten!"

Quinn fought the urge to flinch. He knew an angry Fae when he saw one and Kyle wasn't just upset, no he was furious in a way that was absolutely unmistakable.

"I ought to call Bharin down here right now. Give me one good reason why I shouldn't!"

He's running errands, he isn't available to-

"He'd be available if I asked him," Kyle growled. "He'd come right now, if I flash-summoned him and you know it."

Don't! Please—he's in the—he might be-!

"You have some nerve carrying on about soulbonds, your soulcasts and Dyshoka's happiness—when you're over here, stabbing yourself in the back, because you've decided to be miserable for the rest of your life for some kind of godforsaken penance!"

That's not it! I have my reasons and-!

"And they're stupid reasons!" Kyle snapped. "I told you a long time ago, that I would call you out if you ever did something so monumentally stupid as the reason that landed us in this position in the first place!"

Kyle-

"No! You sit down and shut up. Listen to me for once in your life! Mistakes are made. They are lessons that we learnfrom. If we don't learn from them the first time around, guess what? The entire universe conspires to bring it around to our attention again and again, until we learn it."

Quinn cautiously eased down onto the soft cushions of the sofa in the living room. He had a feeling if he so much as breathed too loudly, that Kyle would absolutely lose it. An uncomfortable weight settled in the pit of his stomach, Kyle's words finding a target.

It wasn't that he didn't want to learn, it was that learning was—painful. The kind of pain that he'd tried to escape once before.


HARTWOOD VIEWING BOX : THEO, CHARLIE & ETHAN


"You're sure you're alright to meet them?" Ethan fussed. He was trying not to fret, but it was hard. As the day had worn on, Theo had gotten progressively worse in terms overall mood, temperament and general energy level.

Even Charlie had noticed, exchanging worried glances with Ethan behind Theo's back. They'd chatted and not-flirted with Zach for a few hours, before moving on to view some of the artistic sculptures displayed in the Fire Section, moving on towards the main auditorium for the day's entertainment.

Ethan had suggested they simply head straight to the Hartwood viewing box to avoid the hassle of trying to meet up with his family out in the open. It was only after they'd headed in that direction, that he'd noticed Theo's lethargy.

"It's fine, I'm fine," Theo said, lightly, brushing away the concern as if it were nothing. "Who did you say would meet us today?"

Ethan frowned; lips pursed. He reached out, hand-dropping halfway as he took in Theo's hazel eyes. "...if you're sure," he said, quietly. "Please—lean on me, if you need to, alright?"

Theo grunted in answer. A slight haze seemed to have settled over him and he moved carefully, but steadily beside Charlie.

"My parents and siblings," Ethan recited. "The usual for immediate family. There's probably a handful of cousins and such that will come along for the fun of it. All of us siblings and cousins kind of have our own little groups, you know?"

Charlie grinned. "Sounds like a lot of fun."

"It's fun until someone breaks a bone," Ethan said, fondly. "Or tears a wing. But nevermind them, they won't be trying to dare you to your deaths at a first meeting."

"...our deaths?" Theo echoed. "What? Ethan!"

"Curiosity," Ethan said, simply. "A scholar's most important trait, besides persistence, is curiosity. If you aren't curious, then you wouldn't really care to be studying or researching something, you know?"

"How many siblings?" Charlie asked.

Ethan's grin grew wider. "A lot," he said, meaningfully. "A whole lot."


"Hartwood girls in the house!" A piercing whoop announced an entire legion of girls swarming into the Hartwoods large viewing box. Dressed in bright casual wear with various merit badges pinned on collars and lapels, robes billowing behind them, they descended like a flock of hyper avians.

Theo sank further into his seat, tucked away beside Ethan, his flat hazel eyes darkening even more. His fingers twitched, faintly as if he'd like to 'port himself straight out of there, but was managing to stay exactly where he was by sheer force of will.

Charlie cast a sympathetic look his way and patted Theo's knee, discreetly. His curious blue-eyed gaze took in the dozen young women who were happily swamping the viewing box, chattering excitedly in what he was sure was more than five different languages.

Ethan sighed, exasperated. "Feel free to spell your ears," he mumbled. "They have no sense of volume or manners when they're debating something."

"You're the one with the penchant for rules and sound-levels and-" the bouncy girl paused, her golden eyes fluxing even brighter. "Oh. My. STARS! Is that your boyfriend? Did you actually bring someone to the Hunt? Arielle and Ergen—are you courting?"

Soft pink dusted across Ethan's cheeks. He facepalmed. "Indoor voice, Marissa?" he tried, faintly. "Do you have to broadcast my entire personal life to the whole-"

"Oh, shush you. There's privacy spells slapped all over this thing!" She flapped a hand at the viewing box's interior while nearly vibrating out of her fancy heeled shoes. "Stars, I can't believe it! You, of all people? With an actual—is that your type?" She leaned on Ethan, hooking her chin over his shoulder, forcing him to hold up her weight. "That's your type? They're so adorable, oh my-!"

"Marissa!" Ethan growled. Scales dotted his arms and neck.

"I mean yum-!" Marissa winked at Charlie, her delighted gaze sweeping over him even as she gave a little hop. "I didn't know you liked Fire types. I could've hooked you up sooner. Like, way sooner, but—this is so good. I can just—" she trailed off in a mad cackle.

Ethan reached back to push her off of his shoulder, a hint of fondness showing at the corners. "Quit creeping on them and don't crowd either! Why'd you have to bring your whole-"

"Girlsquad!" Marissa squealed. She pulled away from Ethan to throw herself into the happy arms of her apparent friends. "You're not the only one with courting hots right now!" She sagged into three pairs of indulgent arms, popping back up on her feet with an exaggerated bow. "These three are like—mine. For keeps and stuff." She gave another hop. "Like, definitely for keeps. Wait—you do know that Mama's here, right?"

Ethan nodded, once.

Her eyes narrowed. "And you brought your boyfriends to meet Mama? Are you-"

"They're not my boyfriends-"

"Ethan, I love you, because you're my brother, but you don't bring anybody home, much less to the viewing box. Like, ever. I've noticed."

He sighed, patiently. "Because they aren't friends of any kind."

Now her brow furrowed as if he'd just given her a very specific clue. Seconds later, her eyes grew wide and round. "Oh. My. Stars! You didn't!"

Ethan shrugged.

"...do you need me to like, run interference for you or something? Because, like, I could stall, but you're still totally going to get-"

"It's fine, but thanks." Ethan bit back a smirk. "Maybe you should worry about your own situation-?"

Marissa spun on her heel. She squeaked, loudly. "Mama? Mama! Oh Caspers, Ros, I thought you were Mama. What were you doing right behind me? Get that spell away from me-!"

"You know, I'm tempted to scream and shriek a bit too," an amused voice drawled. "But I think Marissa did enough of that for all of us, don't you think?" Tall and curvy, with a smirk fairly reminiscent of the Hartwood Submissive, the woman in question seemed like barely tempered mischief wrapped up in scholar's robes.

Her eyes were bright and shining, much like Ethan's, with her black and burgundy robes well-fitted and tailored to her height. Shiny booted feet and three cords of gold chain fastened the formal half-cloak to a neat drape across her left shoulder. Her hair was a sleek, shiny coif at the nape of her neck, sporting highlights of ruby red and flashes of blonde. Gold earrings in a geometric pattern dangled from her ears, a matching charm hanging off of the bracelet on her left wrist.

"Roslynn!" Ethan jumped. For a moment, there was pure panic in his face, before his expression smoothed over. "Please, for the love of Ergen," he began.

Roslynn's grin was truly terrifying. "I won't scare them much," she purred. "I just want to welcome them to the family. You know, since they made my baby brother so very happy."

Ethan groaned. He could feel tendrils of worry channelling through Theo and Charlie's bonds. "It's—I can tell you later, alright? Please?" His words trailed off in a whine when Roslynn caught him in a headlock, ignoring his flailing. "Roz, no—hey—ow! Lemme go!"

Her grin turned gleeful. "That's not the password," she said, cheerily. She scrubbed her knuckles harder over his head, dodging the frantic flails.

"Ow—ugh—you're the worst—the best sister-!"

Roslynn laughed. She released him from the torture, hugging him tight enough to prompt another squawk. "Oh, come on, you! I haven't seen you in three years and that's the kind of welcome I get?"

He threw her a dirty look in response and stepped out of arms' reach, primly straightening his robes. "I heard from you plenty in the past three years. More than the entire time I've been under the scholarship of-"

"Marissa had it wrong though," Roslynn hummed, knowingly. "The Fire's not your Alpha, is he? Charming fellow though. Hello." She held out a hand, flashing her teeth in a gleaming smile. "Welcome to the Hartwoods—Beta rank, right? Thank you for accepting my idiot brother. I'm his favourite older sister. You can call me-"

"Roslynn!" Ethan launched himself at her only to be taken out sideways by a hulk of a man with a shiny eyebrow piercing and burnished arm guards that went up past his elbows. "Ow—Trey? Trey, stop it—let me-!"

"Siblings and cousins?" Charlie asked, conversationally. He shook Roslynn's hand with a warm, firm grip and directed his question to Ethan, currently wrestling on the ground with the newcomer.

He could understand the sibling rule of fight-on-sight, depending on the sibling. He did the same with Bill and the twins, after all. Percy had been specifically excluded from that exclusive group, courtesy of Molly. Ron had never made it on there, by virtue of being less known to Charlie by the time he'd moved out.

"Siblings," Ethan grunted. He flipped Trey over with a twist of his hip and pinned him to the ground, golden eyes flashing. "Quit it! You're making a scene and-!"

"And you're helping, I know," Trey said, smirking. He reversed their positions, laughing delightedly at the look of disgruntlement on Ethan's face. "Oh, come on! No need to sulk. There's spells for that."

"Ethan!" another chorus rose up, followed by a pair of smirking triplets and another, shorter looking version of Roslynn with hot pink hair.

Ethan paled.

Roslynn snickered. "You didn't really think you'd get away with this, did you? Sneaking off to court and all that, hm?"

"He didn't sneak," Charlie said, calmly. He reached over to grab Ethan by the arm, hauling him up and out from under his brother with practiced ease. "Trey, was it? Nice to meet you. Charlie Weasley. I'm the Beta." He held out a hand.

"Don't!" Ethan growled, when Trey looked as if he would pull Charlie down with him, instead of accepting the hand up from the ground. "I swear to Ergen himself, if you so much as-"

"Good grief kid, relax," Roslynn said, a flicker of concern passing briefly through her golden gaze. She cast a cleaning spell at him and straightened up all of their robes with another neatening charm. The next three charms that followed were for hair, teeth and minor scrapes.

Typical Pareya spellwork.

Charlie's hawk-like gaze missed none of it. His smile remained fixed in a set that Ethan could only think was 'firmly polite'.

Before he could run further interference though, Roslynn summoned up her natural charm and immediately drew him in with a great conversation opener—"Is that a dragon's tooth?" she tapped her own ear, nodding at Charlie.

Barely noticeable, but only because he was looking for it, Ethan watched Charlie relax and smile wider.

"It is, actually. Got this from a lovely dragon on a reserve in..."

Their conversation took off with a running leap and information that Ethan didn't particularly need to know at that moment. Instead, he scanned the entire group for Theo, wishing that maybe, he could've held his family off until Harry was awake.

They wouldn't have smothered Harry.

No—wait.

They would have.

Albeit with half the enthusiasm as they have at the moment, taking their cues from Harry instead of from Ethan. A flash of gold caught his eye and Ethan had no time to relax when he spotted Theo locked in conversation with another one of his older brothers.

Another sigh bubbled up. Theo looked significantly better than he had a few minutes ago, but with everything he knew of his new Alpha, he was sure there was some minute detail that would give it all away.

Theo had been obviously out of sorts and Ethan was fairly certain that nothing, short of Harry, would've set him back to rights. Which meant he was either faking it or using a likability charm of some sort.

Ethan wasn't sure how he felt about either option. Theo seemed like the type to keep everything to himself until it all bubbled over and without Harry around to pick up on the subtler shifts, Ethan was on his own to decipher the hint.

Squaring his shoulders, Ethan trotted over. Roslynn wouldn't poke too much at Charlie and Ethan has faith in the redhead's ability to know his limits. It was Theo that worried him now, because the sense of agitation simmering in his veins was directly traced right back to him, no matter how charming and polite he appeared on the outside.

"Theo?" Ethan slipped in front of him, effectively shouldering one of his brothers back, his concern fixed solely on his impassive Alpha. "Did you want to meet my sister? She's with Charlie." He pointed to where he'd left them, silently pleading for Theo to take the out.

"...your brothers are interesting," Theo said, at last. "I suppose I may as well meet your sister."

Ethan rubbed his forehead at the expected bursts of laughter from his two brothers. "You two better not have been trying to traumatize him," he warned. "Because I'm not in the mood for jokes right now. We just came here to-"

"You should've brought your adorable Submissive with you-"

There was a single split-second where Ethan caught the faintest flare of gold in Theo's eyes. It shuttered almost instantly, but before he could process that minute shift in emotion and intent, there was burst of fiery warmth behind him.

Charlie's flaming arm draped over his shoulder, followed by his flickering hand reaching out to Theo. The branding heat nearly seared his own arm, before Charlie's element tempered itself. "Hey you two, I think I just got a message from our mutual friend—we should take a look at it, yeah?"

And just like that, Charlie herded them up and away from the entire viewing box of Hartwoods with a bright smile and a cheery wave.

"We'll be right back," he assured them. "Just need to take care of business."


"You don't have a message," Theo said, flatly.

They stood outside in the narrow walkway around the mid-upper section of the main auditorium for the Hunt. The Hartwood box was large and half-sheltered from the natural light and sections overhead.

Noisy cheers and shouts were dimmed by the layered spellwork to provide a bit of a rest from the brightness of the events. But Charlie simply stood there, watching as Theo looked everywhere around the concrete walls, floor and reinforced columns.

Everywhere but at him.

"You looked like you needed a break," Charlie said, quietly. "I thought you might want a breather." He hooked an arm around Ethan's shoulders and towed him in for a hug and a kiss dropped atop his head. "So, did you."

Ethan groaned. "I told you it'd be loud," he said, fighting a near-pout. "And busy and possibly very much-"

"It's fine," Theo said, briskly. "It was just—slightly overwhelming for-"

"You were worrying," Charlie said, simply. "Worrying about Harry, the courts and everything else in between that. You said you'd tell us before things got to a breaking point."

"I can't turn it off," Theo gritted out. "And right now, the distance from Harry isn't helping."

"I didn't realize your soulbond was that deep," Ethan murmured. He rubbed the back of his neck, guiltily. "I should have seen this coming. You haven't been an entire day away from him before, have you? I mean, an entire day without some sort of reassurance or an open bond without-"

"What do you mean?" Charlie released him, but still kept his wide stance, back to the door where that opened out into the Hartwood viewing box.

"They're close?" Ethan blinked, confused. "I mean, they're very finely attuned to each other. That's usually a mark of closeness in a soulbond. It can happen without one too, but it's usually noticeable when two people who are soulbonded, mirror each other's tics when apart."

Charlie hummed. "That's interesting. What would you have done differently?"

"You do it too," Ethan said, cautiously. "You're attuned to Theo, since he's here, but you're letting him worry about Harry while you worry about him. Ideally, I would've cut the day short or at least, split in halves. We could've gone home to eat lunch with Quinn, so we could check-in on Harry for an hour or so, then stepped back out."

Blue eyes grew wide in surprise. "I-I guess so. I wasn't looking at it like that." Charlie frowned. "Could we check in on him now?"

"We could call Quinn. I'm sure he won't mind if you just want to check up on Harry. If we visit now though, no matter how short we intend it to be, you won't want to leave. Neither of you." Ethan waited a moment. When neither of his Bonded responded, he sighed. "Or I can call Quinn and we can take it from there," he said, half-to-himself.

Before either of them could protest, he'd spun a quick message bubble on his hand and directed the call to Quinn Kalzik.

There was a foggy swirl of greyness, before the call was accepted and Quinn's worried face appeared in the bubble. He signed something with his hands, before scowling and then trying a different spell, before a monotone voice crackled through on their end.

"...something...wrong? Harry's...fine..."

"Just checking in," Ethan said, finding it easier to smile than expected. "Everything alright?"

"Taking a breather?" Amusement sparkled in Quinn's teal eyes. "Harry's fine. His trance is holding well. I haven't planned the dinner menu yet, but I've almost finished my paperwork, so there's that. Having fun?"

Ethan's smile grew wider. He was grateful for the fact that Quinn had simply taken the call in stride as if it were no problem at all. "Hartwoods in the house," he said, flashing a grin that had a little too much helplessness wound up in it. "We're at the Hunt."

"So, I see. Where are you? Auditorium?"

"Yeah. Viewing box—my Clan." Ethan shrugged. "It's nice."

Charlie stifled a laugh. "We're taking a breather," he said, easily. "Thanks for keeping an eye on Harry for us."

Teal eyes flickered, briefly. "You're restless—separation anxiety?"

Ethan huffed. "They're fine. I think. Just wanted to check in on Harry."

"I'll show you. Stay on the line..." Quinn's surroundings came into view as he began to move, walking from the living room to the bedroom where Harry's peaceful form was soon visible. "No changes. I checked his vitals around lunch. I can run another check now. I'll send you the results. Anything else?"

Theo shook his head, curtly.


Upon returning to the Hartwood viewing box, things had calmed down considerably. The reason was quite obvious, as the Hartwood triad were now in attendance and taking charge of the situation. Introductions were still taking place as Marissa introduced her Intended and suffered through the minute embarrassment that followed such things.

Her siblings ribbed her as each of the Intended stepped up to declare their intentions and formally request permission to continue said courtship with the triad's blessing. Roslyn provided her own cheerful commentary in the background and between all of that noise and celebration, no one noticed when Ethan slipped back in.

Theo and Charlie followed him into the viewing box, taking their cues from the way he kept to the outskirts of his celebrating family, hanging back to wait for a good lull in the conversation before drawing their attention.

"Will we have to do that too?" Charlie asked, brow furrowed.

"No," Ethan said, reassuringly. "We're already bonded. Mama will likely—well, all of them really—will scold about not inviting them to a formal ceremony and all that, but with these-" he tapped his shoulders where his marks were hidden beneath his robes. "There's no need for that."

"...seems complicated," Theo said. His dark eyes tracked Marissa's movements and the Hartwood triad with care. "Will they have an issue with Harry not being here?"

"I explained," Ethan said, shrugging. "That's the best we can hope for at this point. I'm sure they'll welcome you, but just-"

"You're worrying almost as much as Theo," Charlie murmured. "It's just family. It'll be fine."

Theo and Ethan both fixed him with a look.

Charlie blinked. "...that probably means something different to you, doesn't it?" He rubbed his face. "Family is—whether you choose it or you're born into it—they are the people that accept you as you are, because when you see them, when you reach out to them, you're home."

There was a quiet round of applause.

Charlie twitched.

A lovely woman with rich, dark skin and a wide, smiling mouth, held his gaze with a soft look. "That is exactly what family is," she praised. "Family is where you are loved without having to ask for it, because that is the very essence of what love is." She drew near, pausing to make a soft clicking sound to draw her Bonded to her. "And you are right, family is not always what is made by blood, but what is forged through friendship and sometimes, even, necessity. It is what your heart decides for you, when it knows it is safe."

Theo stiffened, his gaze turning wary as he eyed their approach. He didn't complain when Charlie shifted to subtly shield him, prompting Ethan to step forward to take charge of their little group.

"Mama—you were supposed to wait," he said, wryly. "But thank you for that? I think?"

Her lips twitched; amusement clear. "Debate it later," she said, easily. "Aren't you going to introduce me to your Bonded?"

Ethan twitched, feeling a sharp jolt of worry from both of his Bonded. He kept his smile in place, throwing his mother an exasperated look. "Theo, Charlie, as I mentioned before, these are my parents. Mama?"

The triad stepped forward in unison. The family resemblance was clear to see in his Mera and Sire, but his Third was almost a direct contrast with his bleached blond hair and shining silver eyes.

"Kunal Hartwood, I'm Ethan's Sire," Kunal said, bowing shallowly. His eyes were a soft, welcoming gold and his expression was one of warmth and acceptance.

"Leonell Hartwood—I'm his Third," Leonell said. He inclined his head in the briefest hint of a nod, his slender frame nearly half the size of Kunal's considerable bulk. "And this lovely lady is our Astrid-"

"And my mother," Ethan finished, holding out a hand to pull her forward. "Mama, these are my Bonded. Charlie, the Beta and Theodore, the Alpha."


HARRY AND MAURY : MINDSCAPE


Harry couldn't help but purr as he lounged, cuddled into Maury's side, those broad fingers stroking through his hair in the most soothing, gentle motions possible. Simply put, he'd never felt so content, loved and wanted all at the same time.

There was a soft chuckle from overhead as Maury's kind eyes shimmered down at him. "Figured it out?" he asked.

Harry made a noise of disagreement in his throat as he slumped further into Maury's side. "A little?" he hedged. "I know about Quinn's voice and the whole story with Kyle and Dyshoka—he told me that, you know? All on his own. It was—sad."

Maury hummed.

"The worst part of it was that I could feel all of that. It wasn't just sad, Oret, it was heart-breaking. To see the way that Kyle was cast out by his family, the way the Kalzik's took him in, even while Quinn's situation changed everything. I-I guess that's why Dyshoka seemed so sad at first, you know?"

"How so?" Maury prompted.

"Warm, but unapproachable?" Harry offered. "It's hard to explain, but I know that feeling. I've felt it before. Approachable, but a little awkward at first, then friendly. Warm. Kind. And a wall goes back up. I-I don't know how to explain that."

"Depends on what you're trying to explain." Maury stroked a hand through Harry's thick, fluffy hair. He sifted through the memories of their recent conversations, nodding slowly when he found the aforementioned event.

"It sort of reminds me of Theo, a little bit."

"Really?"

Harry flushed. "I-I didn't even know which way I—well, you know. It hadn't occurred to me. I just—when I saw Theo, there was just a sense of rightness. A bit of worry, a little bit of shock, even, but it just felt right. I saw him and it was like, oh, that's what it's supposed to feel like."

A small smile curled across Maury's face. "That's what it was like with Ryuusen. I used to babysit him, you know? He was a brat, even when he was a teenager and his parents couldn't leave him alone on their estate for more than a day, because he had this penchant for dismantling things. Always wanting to know what made them tick, how it worked and how he could take it apart into smaller pieces than physically possible."

Harry sputtered a laugh. "Really?"

"Oh yes, really. They would drop him over at Emerald Hollow, my parents' estate and later mine. He was never happy to be there, until I made it a goal to befriend him. That went about as well as you can expect, but eventually we reached an agreement of sorts. I started to tutor him for some of the specialized exams and he came to talk to me instead of fight with me."

Now Harry's eyebrows were arched almost up to his hair. "Fight with you?" he echoed.

"I favoured knives, once upon a time. I learned them from Ryu."

Harry squirmed for a moment, resettling himself with some effort. "I-I wish I knew more than the basic spells I know now," he said, quietly. "I don't know that much, except for I shouldn't ever use Theo's password, that I can pull on Charlie's flames and if I can do anything with Ethan's Earth element, I don't know how to do it."

Maury patted his head. "Then you ask," he said, simply. "You ask and be willing to learn." He frowned. "What are you doing? You've been doing that for a while now."

Harry blinked up at him, before Maury reached down to gently pull his hand away from where he'd been rubbing at his chest, directly over his heart. "I-I don't know?"

"Does it hurt? Are you injured?" Maury frowned. "You're in a healing trance," he mumbled, half to himself. "You shouldn't be hurting—there's—hold on."

"Oret?" Harry nearly pouted when he lost his warm, comfortable spot. "What's wrong?"

"Check your physical body," Maury said, briskly. "Reach out and check each of your limbs in turn, then try and sense your magic. You do that by closing your eyes and imagining that you're awake, that you're in your body and that you can feel, understand?"

Harry nodded, quickly. The urgency in Maury's voice had him moving to follow directions at once. The vaguest hint of discomfort settled in his chest, as if a heavy weight were slowly settling atop him.

He made a confused noise at the unexpected sensation but was gratified to feel Maury's energy wrapping around him like a hug.

"I'm right here, I'll help you if you need me. Breathe in, breathe out—close your eyes. Do as I've said."

And Harry did.


"It's just Quinn," Harry said, slowly as he came back to himself. The entire experience of shifting between his mindscape and his current physical body was jarring and strange.

Maury twitched. "Are you sure? That wasn't a mild reaction—Harry, I don't think you're reacting to something that ordinary. I think something might have happened-"

Harry rolled his neck from side to side, feeling as if he'd been sitting for hours instead of what was probably mere minutes. "But nothing happened? I mean, he came in to check on me? I think it was his status spell that might've done it. Didn't feel or see any other magic. It's—strange to be like this. In-between."

"You haven't reacted to that before though," Maury said, frowning. "And it should feel strange, to some degree. This is not something that normally happens without some sort of predisposition towards a certain type of magic."

Harry blinked. "I have a different type of magic? I-I thought I was...Nameless."

"With affinities," Maury reminded. "That means your magic is something of a neutral energy, so it can easily mesh with literally every element. The Bonded you're closest too, will be the ones you're able to use their element straightaway. The others will take time."

Surprise shone plainly on Harry's face. "All of them?" he dared to ask.

Maury nearly smiled. "Indeed. That is part of the fun of being a Nameless. Has no one mentioned that? They should have. It means that you'll have to work a bit though. You'll need to master all of the elements and not just one or two."

Almost at once, Harry sat up, eagerly. "I don't mind the work. I don't. I'll do whatever I have to-"

"You need to practice using your empathy, tuning into your Bonded and finding the rest of your Circle," Maury said, gently. "In between of that, as you use your Empathy, you increase your ability to control and manipulate your energies. Growing closer to your Bonded will show you how they control and use their energies. You might even be able to help them with being more attuned to their own selves."

"Really? Is that—an Empath thing?"

Maury stifled a laugh. "It is," he said, simply. "You might want to make sure you make time to check in with their emotions—as well as yours—and notice when you're absorbing, reflecting or mirroring. You won't know you're doing it at first, but eventually, you'll be able to pick out what you're doing, why you're doing and what would've triggered you in the first place."

Harry scrunched up his face in a slight frown, a hint of frustration showing at the corners. "So, nothing that would actually-"

"You should meditate," Maury said, holding up one finger. "Make sure you're sleeping as much as you can until you have a natural resting cycle—from what you've told me, you haven't had a proper one and it'll shift and morph, until your Circle is complete. But you want at least one full, natural Cycle, alright?" He held up a second finger. "Practice the elements in small, practical ways, such as being outdoors, barefoot, for Earth. Channelling warmth, either to dry something or sunbathing, for Fire, moonbathing for Shadow, dance or practice sets of a type of self-defence for Storm, and wing extensions for Air."

Emerald eyes shuttered, briefly. "And for Water? The Merrow?"

Maury smirked. "A luxurious bubble bath. You want to spend as much time in the water as you can and playing with your magic when you're there. Hot springs, bubble baths, staying well-hydrated, is an absolute must. That also includes using hydrating grooming products and possibly enhancing that with water crystals or something of the sort."

"W-would that attract a Merrow's attention?"

"I think you've already attracted Alec's attention, it's more a matter of whether he'll view you as someone worthy of his affection. To some degree, you already are, otherwise, he wouldn't have bothered to track you down a second time—and believe me, it's quite likely that there's no chance you ran into each other more than once."

Harry nodded, slowly. "I didn't say Alec," he said, grumpily.

"But you meant Alec," Maury returned, easily. "Merrow are possessive. Notoriously so, but you won't find yourself feeling stifled. They're more along the lines of making sure you have absolutely everything you could ever think of wanting or wishing for, so that you'll never, ever consider leaving. They'll spoil you in a thousand different ways and they want to be shown off—on their terms."

"That doesn't sound too bad, I guess?"

"They expect loyalty though. You absolutely must keep your word with them. Spending a certain amount of time together is mandatory, or else they'll simply vanish somewhere that they feel more appreciated. Whether that is returning home or simply staying closer to water to soothe their own instincts."

"Is it—that different?" Harry ventured. "The whole—bond, for them?"

Maury hesitated, a different shift overtaking him. "Merrow society is very different from us, landwalkers," he began. "They have the most intricate courting rituals, a beautifully crafted, yet fierce society and they take all responsibilities very seriously. When they bond into a landwalker Circle or even a half-landwalker Circle, they're already giving up far more than you will ever know to complete that connection."

Harry rubbed his chest, faintly, brows furrowed. "I-if it's so sad though, why would they-?"

"Because of love," Maury said, simply. "They have hearts, souls, hopes and dreams, just like the rest of us. Maybe there's something inside of you that calls out to a part of them that they want to know or feel again. So, they reach out and close a gap."

"It sounds sad," Harry said, at last. "How could they be happy with giving up that much?"

"If you asked them, they'd say it's because they have you," Maury explained. "Which is usually why every single Circle that ever has a Merrow bonded in, will go out of their way to make sure they are comfortable and content. Eventually, that pays off and a Merrow's loyalty, Harry, is until Death. There is nothing in the realms that could ever make it out to be otherwise."

Slowly, Harry nodded. He turned the thought over in his head, thinking back to the vaguely disjointed meetings with Alec and the split-second where he'd almost thought they had something.

His fingers dug into his chest, raking thin lines of blissful relief through his restless body. It was almost as if something were burning its way out of his chest and—ow!

"Harry!" Maury's worried face came into view. "Stop—don't do that. You'll hurt yourself. Are you sure there was just that one spell by Quinn? Did you feel anything else?"

Slowly, Harry shook his head. "Not really? I didn't sense anyone else though. Usually, I can feel Theo and Charlie. Ethan, now, too, but always Theo."

Maury's frown deepened. "Is he still there? Can you sense his connection?"

"...distantly. He's—tired?" Harry bit his lip. "A little stressed, I think. Maybe wherever he is? Whatever he's doing?"

Maury hummed. "Reach out to the emotion and pull it closer to yourself, so you can examine it. Pick it apart, piece by piece, if it feels too big to assign one label to it."

"What if I can't do that?"

"Reach for three emotions," Maury said. "Then dive into each of them in turn."

"Theo's alright," Harry said, after a beat. "So's Charlie and Ethan. They're out in the Hunt? At least, that's what I'm reading from them. Out and about, something startled Theo. He's relaxing though, so it probably wasn't anything serious."

"Nicely done," Maury praised. He reached out to offer another headpat and smiled when Harry leaned into the gesture. "You were reacting to him, then."

Harry hesitated. "I-I'm not so sure," he said, slowly. "I think I was reacting...to Quinn." A thin spark of teal energy snapped and crackled off to his left. Harry yelped.


KALZIK FAMILY, MAIN ESTATE : GUEST COTTAGE : HARRY'S BEDROOM: KYLE + QUINN


It was scarcely ten minutes into Kyle's lecture when the odd, burning sensation made itself known. Quinn started, vaguely, a hand moving to rub at his chest almost as a reflex. He knew something was wrong when Kyle stopped in mid-sentence, an expression of mild horror settling on his face.

"Quinn?" Kyle's voice was cautious and measured. "What did you do today?"

A glare was easily summoned as Quinn rubbed harshly at his chest. What do you think I've been doing today? I had paperwork and even some—why are you looking at me like that?

"Because it looks like there's something about to claw its way out of your chest," Kyle said. A vibrant, emerald haze flared to life around his entire body. Slowly, he reached out even as Quinn flinched back.

W-wait-! Don't touch me unless—! Quinn doubled over in pain, his eyes fluxing from teal to green and straight to pitch black. Theo—go find Theo. He signed, desperately. And set up a perimeter along the -!

Kyle hovered anxiously, a message-bubble already forming off to his left. "Quinn—hey, Quinn, focus on me, c'mon. Don't just give—I know it hurts, you gotta look at me, buddy, alright?" He dropped to a crouch; his hands aglow.

You can't-! Quinn protested, even as his knees wobbled. It. Hurts-!

"Pain is the most common side effect to messing with soulbonds," Kyle quipped. He winced at the Look that Quinn threw his way. "Right. Sorry. No time for—you know, I'm not going to say it, but I am going to say that if you'd just stopped moping at your—Emily? Babe?"

The message bubble chimed to show Dyshoka's anxious face on the other end. A hand was pressed to her mouth and pretty golden eyes were halfway hazel.

Kyle winced. "Dyshoka, sweetheart—you need to get Emily and send her over, alright? If you think you'll get feedback from this, then I need you to at least stay in a room with-"

Quinn shuddered, mouth opening in a soundless cry as brilliant teal energy began to spill out of his chest. Slowly, the teal crackles ignited and spread, until his entire body was one crackling, flickering beacon of energy.

"...Kesmar's bloody reefs," Kyle muttered. He scrambled backward, throwing up two shields in quick succession. "Dy? On second thought, make that a 'portal and pull me through, please?"

"Hold your breath," came the quick reply. "And don't fight the pull!" Dyshoka, true to her word, pulled him straight on through.

Kyle tumbled to the floor, wincing at the landing that jarred his shoulder. "Quinn's hid his soulbond and it's about to-" he stopped at the look on her face. "You knew that was coming, didn't you?"

Dyshoka only offered a small, sad smile. "You should probably find Theo and the others. They aren't there right now, are they? They'll need to be, since Harry's not conscious-" she stopped. A spark of golden energy snapped off to the right of her head.

His eyes narrowed. "Tell me you weren't about to say, since Harry's not conscious yet."

Dyshoka's smile grew wide, remaining firmly in place. "Alright, I won't. Do you need an immediate 'port to Theo and the others or-?"

Kyle tugged on his hair, groaning. "Why? Why me?" he mumbled, shaking his head. "He's lucky that he's a decent brother that I don't—what?"

Dyshoka's smile softened. She leaned over to kiss his cheek. "You're a good brother too," she said, softly. "Thank you for taking care of him."

A flush of warmth washed over him. Kyle looked away. "Portal, please?"

"Step right through," Dyshoka murmured. A thin disc of shimmering white-blue-gold energy spun to life in her hands. She flicked her hands downward, catching the edge of the disc with her foot and stretching her arms overhead to make the portal large enough.

Kyle found himself grinning as he darted through.


Quinn jolted, awareness bleeding back into him as he found himself standing beside the bed, his attention locked on Harry's resting form.

Panic flooded through him at once and he scrambled back, staring down at his chest in horror as the bright threads of teal energy continued to spill out of him as if there was simply too much soul-energy contained within his body to stay safely trapped within.

No! Nonononono—Harry-!

As if on cue, glowing emerald eyes flew open. Robotically, Harry sat up, his movements stiff and jerky. In the centre of his chest, a green bubble of shimmering light came to the surface. It lit the entire room with the sheer power contained within, radiating a powerful glow.

Quinn squeezed his eyes shut, unable to look directly at it. He could feel a sense of yearning now, clawing its way to the surface, dredging up all the feelings he thought he'd hidden from that first fateful meeting.

His eyes burned, but remained tearless.

The rustle of the blankets and sheets, forced him to push his own worries aside in favour of Harry slowly attempting to leave the bed.

Harry, no! You can't—the trance-! But his silent pleas went unheard as Harry simply continued to untangle himself from the covers, his entire being focused on Quinn.

The sharpened pain from earlier, made itself known as it returned with a vengeance. Quinn stumbled forward one step and then another, before he was within arm's reach.

One of Harry's hands shot out, catching him by the sleeve, his grip unnaturally strong. The same powerful, bewitching energy grew to a fevered pitch—a loud humming that resonated through the walls, the air, echoing through his head—and settling in his very soul.

Quinn bit through his lip, uncaring of the sting as it healed over, slowly, his consciousness slipping again. He took another step forward, reaching out to Harry who reached right back. Their hands slotted together, perfectly, fingers overlapping and energy intertwining without a single hitch.

A single spark of emerald fire raced down Harry's left side and straight to their joined hands, pushing through to rush straight up Quinn's left side, burrowing into his chest.

"Qu-inn?" Harry spoke with the power of a thousand beings channelled through him. A voice otherworldly, yet somehow, profoundly deep.

As if saying his name was the only promise in all the realms that he would ever need.

Quinn choked. He hadn't wanted it to turn out this way, not with this kind of fanfare and loss of control and yet—he knew, it was much too late to try to stop anything now.


OUTSIDE NEVARAH : WIKHN - HEADING FURTHER INTO 'PORTAL SPACE TOWARDS VAMPIRE TERRITORY


Flitting silently through the empty, darkened stretch of portal-space, Wikhn lightened his body yet again, allowing the air currents to push him through to the final destination. Shadow walking wasn't something he did often, largely because it affected his secondary perception skills on his Fae side.

Yes, they were certainly fickler than his dragel side, but sometimes they picked up on things miles away before his dragel-senses ever kicked into gear. At times like this, the headstart was something useful.

A small wisp of shadow tickled around his wrist as he drifted, bestowing a sliver of memory that he'd been trying to ignore.

Rook's words stuck in his head, right at the forefront, because he hadn't been able to avoid the Dark Fae who knew him almost as well as Dahlia had. The Dark Fae that was still covering for him in that annoyingly caring way of his, without ever asking anything of him in return. It made his skin sparkle from the sheer depth of emotion contained within that gesture and Wikhn hated it. He couldn't turn it off, not when those words kept replaying in his head while Rook's stare had been so calm and understanding.

You're running because you don't want to face your future...

He was wrong. One-hundred percent wrong. He wasn't running. He wasn't. It was just taking an assignment that couldn't be refused in a location where no one he knew would be able to pop-in and surprise him for conversations he didn't want.

Not running. Definitely not running, because there were consequences for that and he really didn't want to deal with those.

No, wait. He wasn't Dahlia's anymore. It's not like she would care. Not like it would even matter. He'd seen the way they'd all reacted, converging on the stage floor in the auditorium. The way Dahlia had squared up to face Lady Paielda, despite all the whining and grumbling about it when proposed earlier.

The empty, hollowed feeling in his stomach was the worst. A stark reminder that they'd had something very special and yet—now, it was shattered. Ground to bits beneath stubbornness and sorrow.

She hadn't even sent anyone after him.

Rook didn't count—he'd been headed in on his way when he'd passed Wikhn. A delayed summons pulling him in from Arielle knew what darkened corner of the realm gave birth to chaos. Dahlia had only trained three Dark Fae in her role as a Training ACE.

Him, Rook and Calla.

At one point, they'd all three been under her hand and instruction. He'd treasured those days, comfortable with his rank, his Fae nature and his fellow Dark Fae. Quiet, but strict training regimens that had become intensely personal as she'd helped each of them craft final spells suitable for use as a final password.

Wikhn took a shuddering breath. If he let himself drift now, he'd imagine her scent, a familiar musk with the faintest hint of florals to it. An energy that could be stifling and yet, somehow, was always so easy and light when it came to her own.

Kesmar.

He wasn't just going to miss her. He'd pine for her and that was the literal worst. Because, see, he'd asked. They'd talked about it. For days even, an entire week of negotiations and he'd made his request and she'd accepted his formal court.

They'd gone through all the right steps, the exchange of magic, the bonds of loyalty and then—Wikhn blinked, feeling the odd splatter of wetness on his face.

Tears? Really?

He willed them away, swabbing at his face with one ice-cold hand. There was no time for tears now. No place for them where he was headed. Fate had meddled and he meant to indulge every single bit of darkness that simmered unhappily in his body.

They'd almost sealed a soulbond, a true connection in a fragile, fledging state and then—then Harry had come.

Hurtling through time and space, it seemed, crash-landing into Nevarah and stumbling right into Quinn's clinic of all places. Captivating with those haunting emerald eyes and that genuine heart of gold, spilling hope everywhere and reaching out, in earnest.

Struggling to find his place, settle into his rank and be there for each of his Bonded in turn. Oh, that had hurt.

Because he'd already been open. So wide open that there was no chance of even reacting in any other way than shock, horror and a breakdown that even Mei couldn't drag him out of.

An open soul so close to someone that was apparently, another one of his Soulmates?

Wikhn was doomed before he'd even had the chance to process.

There were no words to describe that sort of disaster. Dahlia had shielded him, in her own way, her worry overtaking her rank as she'd pleaded with him to see a Healer.

One that wasn't Quinn Kalzik.

One that wouldn't give away the truth of a split-soulbond.

And yet, he couldn't even give her that. Pretending that everything was fine, nothing was wrong and that they could go through with their own bonding and then, they couldn't.

More of Harry's story came to light. More of his magic came to the surface and Wikhn—Wikhn was right there in the thick of it.

The initial refusal had worked. Harry, bless his precious soul, hadn't pushed. Maybe he'd wanted to. There were stories in those emerald eyes, but Wikhn's heart, already bruised and hurting, had wanted no part of it then.

He'd just wanted to crawl off into a corner and lick his wounds until everything was a confirmed nightmare. Then he could wake up and it'd all have gone back to normal.

Ha. Normal.

There was nothing normal about this.

If he chose Dahlia, it would satisfy half of the soulbond and at least, he knew where he stood with her—mostly. Even if she was upset now, he could find his way back to her good graces and live comfortably by her side, with her Circle. Maybe even force his rank to Joker, so he wouldn't have to bond in with the rest of them.

He'd had Joker potential long before he'd ever come under her hand.

But then there was Harry.

Kind, but fierce Harry with such a bright, steady energy and such strong conviction. Trying his best in a new world with new rules and new experiences. Everything was new, new, new and yet, Harry continued to steadily make progress, asking questions despite his frustrations and the occasional setbacks. Working to learn about his Bonded and his role within his Circle.

Harry. Just Harry.

Someone who made his world-weary soul feel at peace, as if every bit of fighting he'd ever done was worth the price. As if he could fall to his knees and crumble and yet—still be caught and cared for.

And yet, even as he thought of Harry, his heart grew heavy. There was more than history with Dahlia. She'd reached for him in his darkest moment and pulled him straight up beside her into the light. She'd dared him to go on living, instead of giving up. Challenged him to show the realms what he was capable of and now she'd created her own Circle.

A Soulbonded Circle.

One trembling hand reached up to rub at his chest. The burning, throbbing ache had dulled significantly since he'd left Nevarah. The space had done wonders for that. Clearing his mind of the haze that usually accompanied that level of pain.

Now, all he could do was see the bleak, empty path he'd chosen for himself.

He couldn't have both. He couldn't ask either of them to release him either. Sealing his soul would ease it all, but it wouldn't last long, unless he made it permanent and what kind of choice was that? How could he ever decide such a thing on his own? It wasn't fair. It couldn't be.

So that left him exactly where he'd started.

Alone, hurting and yes, Rook, running...


MALACHI, GIDEON AND FABIAN ESTATE : W/HERMIONE + SADARA PREWETT


Hermione shuffled out from the aforementioned guest room, trailing after where she'd last heard Gideon and Fabian. They were not, in fact, kidding about the lace-decorated room. Everything inside the cosy space had been covered with the delicate threads twisted into all manner of flower patterns and shapes.

She'd lingered long enough to wonder about the consequences of attempting to transfigure any of it into something plain, instead of risking ruining it by attempting to manually change it herself.

In the end, she'd given up, too worried about ruining something that wasn't hers. Being in Nevarah, no matter how strangely freely and disconcerting it was, left her no chance to subscribe to the illusions that she was very much on her own in an unfamiliar land.

A few minutes to herself had helped with willing away the awful blotchiness that came with crying and fussing. Hermione sniffled, wetly, wishing she knew more personal charms for clearing up emotional upsets.

Emotions were always causing trouble when it came to things like this. She cared. Against all her logic and worry, she cared and so now, she would make her way out to the living room to see what had happened to the lovely Sadara.

"...family still comes first," Sadara said, firmly. She stood in the centre of the living room with her hands on her hips, looking fiercer than Hermione had thought possible. "She's your sister, boys. Sometimes we make the wrong choices in the moment, because we believe them to be the right ones."

"Blood traitor!" Fabian half-snarled. "She had to go with him of all people!"

Gideon frowned, reaching out to place a calming hand on his twin's arm. "Regardless of his blood status," he said, matter-of-factly. "I'd like to know how she made it here in the first place and if she's here, then what was so awful that she had to-"

"Do not finish that, Gideon," Sadara said, softly. There was a pained gleam in her eyes. "You know as well as I do that-"

"We know!" Fabian said, harshly. "We know, Mama. If there was anyone among our group, don't think it was us? Looking out for our little Molly? With those honey-gold eyes and hair that couldn't be tamed?"

Malachi sighed, loudly.

Hermione jumped. She hadn't even sensed his approach, but he was now standing behind her, well within arm's reach. His gaze was knowing as he nudged her forward, guiding her into the room ahead of him.

"She was your sister and you both cared deeply for her," he said, firmly. "So, you'll at least listen to her, but you will not charge headfirst into painful conversations without laying some groundwork first." He glanced at Sadara. "I take it you're here because you're worried about damage control?"

Sadara's polite mask slipped a bit, the aura in the room dropping along with her smile. "I-I shouldn't even ask you two," she said, quietly. "But I know it was only you three that inherited my particular talent of magic."

Hermione glanced between them, wishing she could understand all of the strange subtext floating between them. It was like hearing one half of a conversation and not quite being able to put the pieces together.

She shifted, uncomfortably, drawing their attention despite her careful attempt not to.

"Wait a minute," Gideon said, slowly. "You said you came from off-realm, right?"

Hermione blinked. "...yes?"

"For your friend," Fabian continued. "Did he come here alone? You didn't say exactly-who else was with you?"

She twisted her dry hands together, unable to meet their eyes. The memories of Earth and the abrupt transition to Nevarah were not the things she wanted to remember so suddenly. "...my friend brought me, along with a few more of his friends. A new-Circle? A young one? They were-" she hesitated. "All men. I don't think they're who you're looking for?"

Gideon sighed, drooping. "Worth asking," he said, half-to-himself.

"They came on their own?" Fabian checked. "I mean, how did you get here?"

Hermione shrugged. "A portal, I think? I was unconscious for all of it. I know I moved places. There was a lot of energy and then there was a very," she swallowed hard, hands curled around her sleeves. "Couldn't you just check visitors' logs or something? I mean, if she's your-"

"Sister," Malachi supplied. "Their younger sister. She's been off-realm on Earth for a very long time. She left on bad terms, chasing love and a future that wasn't very promising."

Sadara sighed. The sorrow on her face made her look much older than she'd originally appeared. "What they're all not telling you is that my wonderful, talented, charming daughter ran off with the most disagreeable match she could pick for a life partner and ducked off-realm while pregnant. I ask myself where I went wrong in that she felt that she couldn't come to me. Even to say goodbye."

The twins stepped forward at once, enveloping her in a hug that looked as if it hurt. The entire trio mirrored a series of increasingly desolate expressions to the point that Hermione could swear she felt the very air weighing down on her shoulders.

"That's enough out of you two," Malachi said, briskly. "Come on. We promised to meet the others and I'm sure you'd rather be out and about shopping."

Gideon's head snapped up. "...books?" he dared to ask, tentatively.

Malachi rubbed his forehead.

Hermione fought the irrational urge to giggle. She could remember the scene from the library where the twins had immediately covered for each other over the issue of smuggling books home.

"The renovations won't be finished until after the Hunt," Malachi said, plainly. "Even if you buy them now, you don't have any place to put them, you likely won't have any time to read them and-"

"But Malachi!" they pleaded in chorus.

Hermione was close enough to hear the swear under his breath.

"Two!" he said, sternly. "Only two apiece. More than that and I will personally-!" He yelped when the twins' attention shifted from Sadara to him.

Hermione was pulled out of the way just in time, to be half-wrapped into a warm, motherly hug. She started, faintly.

"That will always distract them," Sadara said, fondly. "Do you want to come shopping, love? It'll be fun. I'll even spot you a bit of an allowance, hm?"

And that, Hermione, discovered, she couldn't resist. It was a kind enough gesture to gift her the power to do exactly what the twins intended to.

Buy books.


Hermione browsed through the tall stacks of beautifully gilded hardcover books, a familiar hunger for knowledge curling in the back of her throat. There was simply something soothing and exciting about a new book, all at the same time.

The chance to learn something new and the possibility that it might be a useful thing learned or a new favourite book. So far, she'd never regretted reading anything at least once. If nothing else, it gave her information for some future point.

"See anything you like?" Sadara asked. She held up a fancy pressed bookmark, checking the charmwork with a practised eye.

"Too many," Hermione said. "I don't even know where to start."

"How many do you have?" Sadara leaned over to examine her small armful of three lovely hardback books. "Those are good ones," she approved. "You can pick two more-there's a sale if you buy four, you get one free. Seems a shame not to indulge, hm?"

Her face warmed. Hermione managed to share a smile, feeling that warmth melted over her like the softest, gentlest of whispers, settling down in her very bones with a steady, giving warmth.

Five books? She could manage that.

She drifted around the side of the bookstall, half-heartedly attuned to the conversations floating around her. The Twins were currently being lectured for attempting to max out their book budget by purchasing expensive titles, aiming for quality over quantity and Lavender was nagging Neville about his hair in that awful cooing voice she used on Ron in the infirmary that one time.

Hermione froze.

The tight knot in her stomach sent a wave of nausea crashing over her, washing away the warm, fluttery feeling from being in such close proximity to Sadara. She strained to hear a bit better, holding her breath as if that would help her to hear better.

"...oh Neville, you really shouldn't push yourself so-my poor Nevy!"

Hermione choked. That sounded so much like Lavender Brown that there was no way she could stand on the other side of the stall and not venture out to take a look. Horror and worry intermingled with each other as she cautiously leaned out to the side and caught sight of a bushy head of hair.

Oh.

Oh no.

She was right.

It was Lavender Brown and Neville Longbottom.

It was also Molly Weasley with Ginny Weasley and-oh sweet crone of-!

Hermione nearly dropped her books as she connected the dots between Molly Weasley and the possible Molly Prewett at the exact time that Sadara circled the booth, her light, airy voice carrying easily in the warm air.

"How about this one, love? Would you like to know more about magical creatures?"

A mere croak of sound escaped her as Hermione simply stared. She saw the exact moment when Molly saw her-and by consequence Sadara.

She was not prepared to see the strong witch press a hand to her mouth and push Ginny protectively behind her.

"Hermione?" Sadara was at her arm. She looked up, following Hermione's line of sight-and dropped the books. They floated up to waist height before they could touch the ground.

"Wait-!" Hermione began, belatedly. "I-!"

But Sadara and Molly were already staring at each other, near mirrors of each other when Hermione found herself shuffled protectively behind the older dragel. Her words caught in her throat and she wished, for the millionth time, that she really was as clever as everyone expected her to be.


A/N: Hi and welcome to the new readers! It seems like a lot of you guys just recently found TBDH and I'm so happy to welcome you to the monster-fic, dragel-goodness that it is. This chapter was so hard to write! AHHHHHH! *screams into keyboard* I rewrote. So. SO MUCH. It topped out at 22k words, so y'all are getting 2k more than my original plan. LOL.

Did I mean to leave it exactly there...yes. Yes, I did.

This chapter was so hard to write for the Quinn and Wikhn sections. I would just like to remind y'all that I like happy endings and TBDH will end happily. There's just some chapters that are gonna hurt. *sheepish* I don't do the angst on purpose, I swear, though Brissy tells me that this chapter wasn't as sad and terrifying as I thought it was. Oh well.

RL is still being a bear, but I am hanging in there. Y'all take care and STAY SAFE! I am already working on chapter 113. ^_^ It's taking me about 3-4 months per chapter now, so expect the next one around October, probably?

Thank you for your continued support! I love you guys to the realms and back! ~Scion

Find me online as Chera Carmichael for updates on all kinds of dragel stuff. I also have a Tumblr for chapter update progress, random fandom slash and some AU fic teasers at Scioneeris.


Also, if you're keeping up with my original stuff, Episode 9 of The Dragel's Song is out and The Haunting of Harvest Hollow is also available now along with the first episode of the Ryker's Bane Serial. More updates coming this fall! Woohoo!

Thanks a BUNCH to everyone who's read, reviewed and shared about it-you make me ridiculously happy and I'm thrilled to have such amazing readers like you~!

Thank you for your continued support! I love you guys! ~Scion