An Unexpected Yuletide Present

Disclaimer: I still don't own the Coldfire Trilogy

Warnings: slash, but nothing explicit, and quite a fair amount of caries inducing Christmas/Yuletide fluff

Author's note 1: Well, Black Dragon's Ghost, I really wanted to write a songfic for you, using the lyrics of 'Darkness, Darkness..', but the time was too short, and this project will have to wait till next year. Same goes for my plans to write my own version of Charles Dickens' 'A Christmas Carol' and the Coldfire Advent calendar (24 drabbles), unfortunately, but God willing we will all be around next December and enjoy sharing our fanfics... You didn't request anything specific, and so I can just hope you like this humble Christmas fic of mine, lovey. Somehow the story originating from the insane idea of Gerald Tarrant aka Hawthorne in a Santa Clause outfit got completely out of hand (as usual), and as a matter of fact it could have done with a bit more polishing, especially the latter parts, but it was so damned hard to find time for writing at all that it'll just have to do... I still owe Silvereyedbitch the Sex Shop ficlet for her stocking, but just in case I won't be able to post it in time (don't hit me, I'll try my best, I promise...) I'd like to apologize in advance and wish a Merry Christmas to all of you!

Author's note 2: Everybody as exited about Yuletide as I am? There were several Coldfire Trilogy requests, and I hope they all got an assignment and nobody defaulted...

Author's note 3: It's nine reindeers, because I included sweet red-nosed Rudolph…

oooooooooooooooooooooooooooo o

His broad shoulders stooped Damien unlocked his apartment door, shook the fresh snowfall off his winter coat and braced himself for the sight of a bleak room including a rarely used kitchenette which contained, besides the barest basics, next to no personal belongings. Months had passed since Gerald's supposed tragic death at the hands of his last living descendant, and the crushing sorrow and heartbreaking feeling of bereavement and guilt had been dulled by the passing of time and the strange encounter on Black Ridge Pass into a paralyzing apathy instead which was sucking the marrow from his bones and cast a grey cloud of utter hopelessness on his lonely, drab existence. With all his heart Vryce was grateful that in the wake of the bitter loss of his religious vocation and his companions alike at the very least his healing skills were still in demand, and whenever possible he preferred to work his heart out at the hospital instead of brooding over disastrous incidents which couldn't be helped any longer when locked up in his little closet. Dreading another desolate night filled with cudgeling his brains when everybody else was celebrating with their loved ones what had once represented the holy Christmas Eve for a large part of the population of good old Earth he had volunteered for the evening shift much to the delight of his colleagues with family ties, but fate in the form of a mysterious busybody had willed otherwise.

To Vryce's astonishment a cheerfully whistling Healer Stephen had already been busy with preparing the pharmaceuticals for the poor souls confined to the sickbed during the Yuletide celebrations when he had arrived at the hospital a quarter to six, and on his irritated inquiry his chubby colleague had just grinned from ear to ear and had given him a good-natured pat on the back. "Don't act the innocent, you naughty old boy", the healer had winked meaningfully. "As you presumably very well know an unknown benefactor offered me five hundred bucks if I agreed to cover for you tonight. God only knows why considered your sour face, but somebody seems to be very keen on your presence. Did you collar a rich widow recently whose bed you're going to warm during the holidays, you secretive old lecher? Well, what the heck! I'm a free agent, and with dough in my pockets I can paint the town red on New Years Eve. Maybe I'll invite busty nurse Lucy for the famous buffet at the Grand Hotel, and and if my generosity doesn't fail to appeal to her the last night of the old year might have some additional gratifying pleasures in store for me…"

A fuming Damien who was wondering what on Earth and Erna was going on couldn't have cared less about his colleague holding forth at great length about his seduction strategies with a lewd grin, but when the former priest had settled for a more detailed interrogation Stephen had barely been able to serve with a satisfying answer. The absurd proposal had been made in epistolary form on costly hand made paper, and the deal had been pulled of by a prestigious solicitor's office in Bond Street which had doubtlessly shut up shop for the holidays at this late hour. All in all Damien had been none the wiser but a lot more enervated than prior to his arrival at his workplace, and after bidding his snickering colleague a curt farewell he grumblingly had wrapped himself into his old coat again and had hit the road home along deserted streets covered by a blanket of snow. The better part of the mansions Vryce had passed on his way to his miserable apartment had been brightened by candlelight shining through the windows and reflecting on the white mantle, and the sound of bells and faint human voices intoning the heart-warming ancient Yuletide carols had accompanied the lonely wanderer up to his front door.

Stifling a sigh Damien opened his door and froze on the threshold thunderstruck, utterly incapable of processing the visual input. Very possibly the horrific events of the past years including the repeated draining of his veins and suffering from nightmares who would have driven each and every sane human being over the edge with dread when placing himself on the starving Hunter's menu in addition to the deplorable death of his companions had taken their toll in the long run, and he was slowly but surely in for the madhouse. The dreary, cramped room which had born more resemblance to an hermitage than a bachelor's den not even two hours ago was lit by a fire crackling merrily in the fire place and by two large wax candles in intricately wrought silver candelabras whose shine was reflecting in the red and golden hand blown glass ornaments adorning the numerous garlands of unfir sprigs. The mouthwatering aroma of roast beef wafted through the room, emanating from the festively decorated table resplendent with silverware and fine bone china hand painted with traditional Yuletide themes and tickling Damien's delighted nose while warring for attention with the no less delicious flavours of Yorkshire pudding and gingerbread.

Finding himself all of a sudden in surroundings resembling the showroom of a quality store specialized in Yuletide commodities Vryce blinked dazedly and rubbed his disbelieving eyes, but in the next instance a barely discernible movement at the window arrested his attention, and when the shadowy shape turned around and stepped gracefully into the candlelight the warrior knight's breath caught in his throat, and his knees buckling he had to hold on to the door frame in a death grip to prevent himself from collapsing on the spot.

Eyes as dark and promising as the Yuletide night shone from a delicate, exotic face framed by a veritable waterfall of black, luscious hair reaching down all the way to a slender behind tightly encased in red silk velvet pants which were complemented by a formidable matching short coat trimmed with white unfox and a pair of supple, evidently custom-made black boots.

Coming across the youth who had suggested in his roundabout way that Tarrant's decapitation down in the vaults of the Hunter's obsidian Keep had represented nothing but a well-wrought ruse for the crusaders' benefit in his measly flat all of a sudden instantly had put the better part of Damien's brain cells into a seasonal hibernation, but nonetheless he vaguely remembered a colourful picture in an ancient volume treasured in the renowned library of the seminary in Ganji, a volume dedicated to the days of celebration and the accompanying customs on their mother planet Earth. Learning from their mistakes the colonists had been forced to abandon the belief in a benign being living at the North Pole and travelling in a sleigh drawn by nine flying reindeers just to descend down chimneys on Christmas Eve in order to deliver wondrous gifts to the kindhearted faithful along with the worship of saints and angels soon after the landing, but if the strange attire of his vespertine visitor wasn't a dead ringer for Santa Clause's garments Damien would eat his hat for breakfast. The only thing spoiling the impression was the lack of a snow-white, big bushy beard and a pointy red velvet cap, not to mention the potbelly, but if the doubtlessly attractive new package indeed housed Gerald Tarrant's essence consenting to that kind of uglification would very likely represent a much too tall order for a being as vain and supercilious as Lucifer himself who hadn't been above wasting the last ounces of his waning strength on a superfluous Working destined to rearrange his tousled, mud coated hair back into the accustomed shining, shoulder-length waves .

"You!" Damien's heart was hammering painfully inside his chest, and a trickle of cold sweat was running down his back while he faced the man who had been called many a name in the long centuries of his existence. Gerald Tarrant, the Neocount of Merentha, Premier Knight of his order and Knight of the Realm, the Prophet. A whole bunch of definitely less flattering appellations invented by a terrified population who needed a label for the nocturnal abomination terrorizing half the continent by preying on their womenfolk crossed Damien's mind as well: the Hunter, the Prince of Jahanna, Evil Incarnate. The Darkest Prince of Hell. So many names for two sides of the very same coin, and now he didn't even know how to address his former companion without jeopardizing his new existence. "Now we're meeting for the second time, and I still don't know how to call you, stranger."

The young man bowed his head ever so slightly. "May I introduce myself? Gerald Hawthorne, at your service."

So amazingly the Christian name was still Gerald after all, indicating that the soul of his former brother in arms hadn't been subjected to as profound a change as the transformed youthful body, but putting out his mental feelers for the taint a millennium of evil beyond mortal reckoning must have most certainly left on his friend against all odds Damien just detected a vague feeling of discomfort mixed with breathless anticipation instead of the icy chill and vile corruption he remembered so well from the horrendous incidents when he had had to endure the Hunter's malignant essence coiling around his psyche like a serpentine fiend from the abysses of hell.

For long seconds Vryce just stood rooted to the spot, his eyes glued to the young man standing regally in the centre of the room as if he were utterly oblivious to the fact that the warrior knight could finally acquit himself of his promise to rid the world of Tarrant's taint just by calling his true name. His racing thoughts still preoccupied with handling the adept's presence in his humble lodgings and its possible implications Damien nonetheless didn't fail to notice how marvellously the red velvet garments complemented the warm colour of Gerald's skin and the black strands of hair shining in the candle-light, and feasting his eyes on the breathtakingly alluring sight like a man dying of thirst would behold a cold, clear spring sight he almost choked with emotions he didn't dare to put a name on yet. Dear God, there was no denying that he had learned to cherish the indomitable human soul on the rare occasions it had shone through the Hunter's hellish trappings like a flashing diamond half buried under layers of dirt and had missed vulking Gerald Tarrant like a lost limb, but the jarring rush of desire which had threatened to overwhelm his common sense a mere few seconds ago was a different kettle of fish altogether.

"Care to tell my why you are here, Gerald?" Damien croaked hoarsely when he had at long last regained the capacity for coherent speech. "If you don't mind my saying you evidently weren't keen on my presence any longer when you left me out in the rain and wandered off into your new life without looking back on Black Ridge Pass. Why visiting your discarded ally on Yule Eve? God is my witness that you were never one to indulge on sentimentality."

To his consternation Vryce was very well aware that his strangled voice was oozing with acid bitterness and barely veiled despair, but Hawthorne just continued to face him serenely with those dark, fathomless eyes, utterly unfazed by the accusation and an infuriating half-smile curling the corners of his mouth. "Why I am here, Vryce? As usual you're failing to register the obvious. I'm here to make you a gift."

A gift? "What the hell are you talking about, you vulking son of a bitch?" Vryce blurted out, his hackles rising. "I had it up to here with you talking in riddles, but if you're referring to those ridiculous greens and the food you can just forget about it. Working for my livelihood like any decent man should I need no alms, Gerald, and I can bloody well buy my own stuff. Not that I felt inclined to celebrate after… after…" Lost in the haunting memories of a severed head and grey eyes staring blankly into eternity Damien's mouth was working silently, but no words came forth any longer, and to his horror he realized that his eyes were tearing up very much against his will. Shit!

His sight blurring and lost in a veritable surge of hurt pride warring with anger and the rather contradictory temptation to pull the adept into a hug and kiss him breathless Damien hadn't even realized that Hawthorne was gracefully crossing the distance between them until he was standing barely an arm's length away, much too close for the warrior knight's peace of mind who gritted his teeth against the renewed onrush of desire sending waves of pure heat through his abdomen.

"Jumping to unverified conclusions is doubtlessly another one of your bad habits, Vryce, but we can discuss your shortcomings later. The greens, as you've so harshly called my efforts at honouring old Terran customs with a festive decoration, and dinner are just an additional treat intended for raising your low spirits and putting a bit of meat on your bones again, but kindly keep your blunt mouth shut for a change now and let me relieve you of the task of unwrapping your true Yule present. I'm finding myself running thin of patience."

Nimble fingers busied themselves with the black belt, and when the velvet outer garment was gliding downwards to the floor in the blink of an eye Damien's eyes very nearly popped out of his head, and his mouth agape he forgot how to breathe. Obviously Gerald hadn't bothered with wearing anything beneath the coat despite temperatures at approximately ten degrees below zero, and the warrior knight stared longingly at the slender, juvenile body, balling his hands into fists in a desperate attempt to prevent himself from taking the liberty of caressing the smooth, flawless skin. Now you're finally loosing your marbles, Vryce, Damien mused absentmindedly. This simply can't mean what you presume it does. The man has been married, has sired three children before he chose to barter his humanity to the Unnamed, for God's sake. He has to be as straight as the infamous road to hell. As straight as you have been before you met vulking Gerald Tarrant…"

"I hope you don't mind that I didn't tie a bow into my hair, Vryce", a husky voice cut into his panicked mental ramblings, "but going over the top is not my style, as you very well know."

Damien blinked dazedly, utterly taken aback at the unveiled invitation delivered in a throaty, seductive purr so unwonted for the ever so collected adept that he wouldn't have thought it possible if he hadn't heard it with his own ears. An elegant, black eyebrow rose in self-deprecating amusement, and when Gerald's welcoming smile widened almost imperceptibly the warrior knight threw all caution to the wind and tumbled head over heels into the abyss of Hawthorne's sparkling eyes. Instincts and long-suppressed subconscious need gained the upper hand over reason, and in the next instance Damien was kissing Gerald like a drowning man, his hands buried in the storm surge of raven black hair and the proof of his arousal pressing against a wiry, eager body trembling under the sudden onslaught of longings which had been denied fulfillment for almost a millennium.

Heartened by Hawthorne's enthusiastic response and his heated groan the warrior knight scooped Gerald up in his arms in a haze of desire, carried the chuckling adept across the room and lowered him gently on his narrow bedstead, already halfway out of his own clothes when he joined the man he had walked to hell and back for on the thin straw mattress in a heartbeat. Slender but utterly determined arms gripped Vryce's shoulders, pulling him on top of the object of his desire, and all the mental defences erected to shield himself from the true cause for his despair crumbling into dust Damien surrendered to his yearnings, not even remotely aware that his tears were falling on the young, pretty visage so unlike to Tarrant's pale features while they kissed and touched with increasing urgency, moving in an age-old rhythm until they drowned in the sensations.

oooooooooooooooooooooooooooo

When Damien stretched his limbs heavy with the lassitude of afterglow and yawned heartily his gaze fell on the vacated space at his side, and he instantly returned from Yuletide wonderland to more earthly domains. Judged by the candles which had already burned down considerably since they had started their shared journey into the realms of pleasure he'd been asleep for quite a while, and apparently Gerald had availed himself of the opportunity of taking French leave and had left the premises on soft feet like a bloody uncat. His heart sinking with disappointment Damien sighed and tenderly stroked the sheets still warmed by Hawthorne's body heat, resisting the futile urge of burying his nose in the pillow in order to catch a lingering remnant of his lover's scent just by a small margin.

His lover. The ancient soul of vulking Gerald Tarrant shining through the changed body like a blazing flame which could either save a lost wanderer from freezing to death or destroy each and everything in its path like a raging wildfire. Groaning inwardly Vryce raked his hair, still trying to digest the unbelievable turn of events. The gift Hawthornehad given him that memorable night surpassed each and everything Damien could have imagined even in his wildest dreams, and even if he never set eyes on the adept again he would store those priceless reminiscences in his very own personal treasure chest hidden deep down in his soul, would never forget up to his dying day how Gerald had shivered in his arms and had ecstatically moaned his name in the throes of passion, for once not giving a damn for pride and dignity. Nonetheless very much against his will Vryce had foolishly lend himself to the illusion that the adept had had something a bit more lasting than a one-night-stand in mind when he had turned up at his lodgings, and having his inane hopes for the future collapsing like a house of cards the warrior knight was at the verge of despair again, a despair only marginally less fell than the utter desolation which had almost driven him to betray his religious belief by committing the mortal sin of suicide more than once during those abominable months preceding Gerald's unexpected reappearance like a phoenix from the ashes on Black Ridge Pass.

If Vryce had learned one thing while travelling with the Hunter it was the undeniable fact that the paramount founder father of his faith never did anything without a reason although the rank and file more often than not had some difficulties in comprehending his twisted motivations, but whatever Gerald's actual motives for being intimate with him there was no doubt that for Damien himself their union had meant so much more than the mere assuaging of the mundane needs of the body, a true act of love finally mending the bleeding wounds of his heart.

For the first time since he had had to witness Tarrant's severed head cast into a blazing bonfire he had felt whole again when he had been clinging to the adept like a lifeline to sanity during their love-making, but setting his heart on a man who'd been leading a solitary life for centuries and had apparently managed to find a life in the new world Damien still wasn't quite able to fathom would doubtlessly tug at his heartstrings and shatter the sparse remains of a precarious psychic balance already gravely impaired by the dire events of the last three years culminating in Gerald's fake death when Hawthorne finally dropped him like a hot potato to move on to pastures new. Yeah Vryce, the warrior knight thought bitterly, keep on candy-coating the bleak truth that the vulking son of a bitch once again made a decision for both of you and left you in the lurch when he'd gotten what he'd come for, and one of these days you might even believe the lot of pigshit you're talking…

Close to throwing a tantrum born from sheer frustration Damien got up and dragged his weary body to the table, scorning the cooled down slices of roast beef but helping himself to a glass of the pricey ruby red Bordeaux from one of the most renowned vineyard estates on the Eastern continent, but before he was able to down more than a sip or two the grating door swung open, and the warrior knight couldn't help but blink once more in utter bewilderment like an owl dazzled with light when a rather noteworthy procession entered his humble lodgings.

A portly, apple-cheeked guy in the white apron and toque of a head chef and several scullions were almost bent double under the weight of the enormous silver trays they were carrying, and the delicious aromas emitting from the tureens and plates made Damien's mouth water despite his dejection and confusion. In a blink the table was cleared and laid anew under the surveillance of a smirking Gerald Hawthorne directing the willing hands very much in the manner he had presumably commanded his troops in battle, and feeling the almost palpable waves of smugness radiating from the adept Damien felt mightily torn between the equally tempting urges to kick the incorrigible bastard's shapely ass and dragging Gerald to his bed for a second round of most pleasurable activities. Damn him!

After a by no means insignificant amount of money had changed hands discreetly in the blink of an eye and the kitchen staff had left with a fair amount of kowtowing to 'Your Lordship' a smothering blanket of deep silence fell on the small room, shattered solely by the faint crackling of the fire and Damien's erratic breaths. "What are you staring at, Vryce? One could think I've suddenly grown two horns and a cloven hoof."

"Considering certain events in the past I cannot mention without endangering your vulking life the image isn't entirely unreasonable, Gerald, but I'm rather looking for the pointy ears. You are quite overgrown for a Yule elf, but yet…"

"Either you changed your habits in my absence and consumed one of those despicable drugs available on the black market or you had one glass too many of the delectable Bordeaux while I was running my feet off for a second attempt at a decent Yule Eve meal, Vryce", Gerald retorted haughtily. "When you practically jumped at me and tempted me to forget all about dinner and indulge in the pleasures of the flesh instead you spoiled my plans for a peacefully shared meal, and because of your insatiable appetites of a different kind the dishes had long cooled down before you finally dozed off to a doubtlessly well deserved slumber. After all the exertion it took to satisfy your needs I needed a bit more substantial than gingerbread and spiced biscuits, and you don't really expect me to digest stale roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, do you? "

Gaping at Hawthorne as if the man had indeed grown horns or pointy ears Vryce was losing his temper for the second time on that memorable night, much too bugged out to register the genuine spark of human humour lurking just underneath the jarringly lordly façade. "Just wait a minute, you insolent ass", he barked irritably, "I'm not the one who forked out five hundred bloody bucks for getting the benefit of my presence and nipped down here for a little striptease show, so how dare you suggest that I seduced you to something you hadn't planned all along? If you're already harbouring second thoughts concerning what has come to pass between us tonight you can collect you trinkets and leave, Gerald. I won't show you the door, but I'm not holding you either. You don't owe me anything, and don't you feel obliged to keep me company because of a twisted sense of honour. I'm not a vulking virgin damsel you've dishonoured!"

The adept didn't bat so much as a black eyelash at his outburst, and realizing somewhat belatedly that his rambling and ranting would serve no purpose but raising his blood pressure to intolerable levels Damien slowly counted to ten from backwards and drew a deep breath in a valiant attempt to calm his raging emotions and pluck up courage for popping the vital question. "Listen, Gerald. I've never before dared to acknowledge to myself that my bloody feelings for you somehow moved way beyond the realms of mere camaraderie, and if you hadn't turned up here like a bolt from the blue and acted the seducer I might still fool myself with pretending that you were no more than a dear friend, but now the cat's been let out of the bag, and I need some answers. For my part I don't regret what has happened tonight, and if your plans for the future don't include me I'd just like you to know that my thoughts and best wishes will accompany you wherever you go. If you stay now though just to give me my marching orders when you tire of the novelty… May God forgive me, Gerald, but I don't think I can stand losing you thus."

To his horror the warrior knight's voice broke with emotion, and try as he might he wasn't able to force a single further word through his constricted throat when Hawthorne crossed the distance between them and cupped Damien's cheeks with his slender fingers. "Seriously, Vryce, if you didn't exist already I would have to invent you", the former Hunter whispered gently. "As a grown-up man you should be aware that there is no guarantee on affection and desire, and surely you know I wouldn't lay with you out of a misplaced sense of duty or stay at your side for the sake of my honour. Call it a foolish human notion, but I came here because the feelings you were referring to are mutual. There were days in the past months when I cursed you for your unique capacity for beguiling me into frequent trips down memory lane, but I suppose even a wise man has to follow the leadings of his heart every now and then."

With regard to certain landmarks in Gerald's colourful biography Damien would have never come up with the queer idea of filing the adept under the category 'wise man' despite his undeniable brilliant intelligence if he had ever bothered to reflect on that issue, but his mind buzzing with more urgent matters he decided to let that error of judgement pass without putting in his two pennies worth for the time being. "And where do we go from here, Gerald? Will you stay with me? For good?"

Hawthorne shook his head ever so slightly, a minute, graceful movement reminding Vryce so painfully of the Hunter despite the altered physical appearance that the breath hitched in his throat and his heart skipped a beat. "I cannot, Damien. If you still appreciate my presence we can spend the festive season together, but there are firm commitments I have to meet shortly after the turn of the year, and I won't be back to Jaggonath for at least two years, maybe even longer. I am sorry."

Albeit being politeness itself as Tarrant had always been wont to when he hadn't gone bump in the night and chased his hapless human prey to death in his forbidding domain not a sliver of doubt or regret was discernible in the calm, collected voice pronouncing the sentence with a finality so irrevocable that Vryce's blood turned to ice water in his veins, but to his astonishment the adept's sad, rueful eyes told quite a different story, and his overwrought mind finally processing the mind-blowing revelation that Hawthorne did indeed miraculously reciprocate his feelings but would decamp to new horizons anyway in about a fortnight Damien's fallible heart crawled up into his throat. "What kind of commitments?" he choked out hoarsely past the growing lump in his throat. "Dear God, Gerald, I've already bared my soul although it didn't come easy to me, and if passing on those bits of information isn't prohibited by a system of rules you haven't cared to let me in on yet will you please kindly stop dancing around your secrets and spill your guts out to me before I feel tempted to shake them out of you."

"It's not a confidential matter, Vryce", Gerald retorted calmly while inspecting the pick of the basket on the overflowing dining table, "and concerning my obligations I can give you any information you may desire, but my tale might take a while, and instead of fretting and cooling your heels you can just as well take a seat and break bread with me while I'll try hard to satisfy your curiosity."

There was no resisting those determined, authoritative tones, and Damien joined Hawthorne at the table and loaded his plate with a portion of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding while cold-shouldering the appetizers, utterly convinced that the culinary masterpieces the ever so picky adept had deemed worthy to pamper their palate would taste like the vulking sole of a shoe anyway in his current state of mind.

"As you can certainly imagine it has quickly gotten around that against all odds your venturous Captain Rozca has managed to return from his daring trip to the Deathlands alive and in one piece albeit suffering from some regrettable losses concerning ship and crew, and if you hadn't been busy with wallowing in guilt and self-pity you might have taken note on the agitated discussions in the council chambers about sending another delegation across Novatlantis. It was all over the papers, Vryce. The politicians and the corporation of traders were at each other's throats for weeks on end, but after an unknown benefactor stepped in and offered to sponsor the expedition the squabblers finally entered into an agreement and decided to extend their hands to their lost brothers and sisters in friendship by sending three merchant ships stuffed to the brim with diplomats and commercial goods. Only an avowed cynic would suggest that the prospect of obtaining a handsome piece of the action played a part in their decision, naturally" Gerald added with a contemptuous snort, and for a moment as fleeting as the passing of time listening to the unconversant, slightly husky voice with its so utterly familiar cadences brought their shared past to life again for the former priest. Lost in the memories of days gone by he closed his burning eyes and allowed himself the luxury of relishing the haunting images of a tall, lean body moving with inhuman grace and a deathly pale, angelic visage dominated by flashing silver eyes which were brimming with arrogance and haughty condescension. His heart suddenly in his mouth Damien swallowed convulsively, and he bowed his head to hide the overwhelming surge of affection and melancholy threatening to shatter his self-control.

"An unknown benefactor, Gerald? I just can't help wondering who that could be. And how you come into play, by the way..."

Hawthorne shrugged casually, his young face unreadable. "The generous sponsor has requested to remain anonymous, but as for me I was hired as a scientist. When you and the Hunter tried to bar the Undying Prince and Calesta from molding the planet to their liking you were much to preoccupied with escaping their henchmen and staying alive to waste valuable energy on analyzing the effects of several hundred years of divergent evolution on the flora and wildlife, a regrettable omission I intend to make up for."

That's all well and good, Gerald" Damien replied apprehensively, "but don't you forget some vital points like civil war, the Church in a state of upheaval and the lynching of ominous strangers, just to mention a few of them? Heaven forbid that I get in the way of your hunger for knowledge, but ending up being killed unnecessarily in the course of a vulking suicidal mission doesn't seem to befit a 'wise man' in my humble opinion."

"I feel flattered by your concern, but you don't have to get worked up over my safety, Vryce. According to a certain meddling Iezu you're very well acquainted with the Hunter's visions worked the wonder to knock some sense into the inflated ego of Andir Toshida, and eventually that pompous fool managed to put an end to the madness sweeping through the whole continent like a fire storm, doubtlessly aided by the sudden absence of Calesta's wicked manipulations. Naturally it will take some time, effort and a true leader until the heterodoxies of the past are weeded out of Gerald Tarrant's most treasured creation and the Church represents a beacon in the darkness for the faithful instead of an instrument of terror once again, but as long as the religious authorities will rely on the Prophet's teachings for their reconstitution and don't fall back into their previous errors there is still hope."

Registering the stifled agitation and barely veiled yearning in Gerald's low voice Damien's finely tuned warrior instincts instantly rang the alarm bell. "Don't tell me that you tinker with the stupid idea of disclosing certain facts to the Lord Regent, Gerald", he blurted out exasperatedly. "That course of action would be beyond foolhardy, even for you."

In the flickering candlelight it seemed to Vryce that the former Hunter smiled faintly. "Unlike you I'm not weary of life, and I very much doubt that Toshida would set a high value on my presence, anyway. Don't you worry, Vryce. I will try to keep out of harm's way, a New Year's pledge admittedly led ad absurdum by the fact that the healer supposed to care for our welfare drank himself into an early grave last week and James Morrison, the leader of the expedition, is a self-righteous, utterly incompetent coward more interested in frequenting Jaggonath's whorehouses and boasting about his virility than planning the voyage. I tried to oppose his appointment, but as Morrison is also the Lord Mayor's younger brother my objections fell on deaf ears unfortunately. Hopefully that miserable imbecile will do us the favour to fall overboard as soon as possible."

Damien blinked, more than slightly baffled by the implications hidden in Gerald's words. So according to the adept the mission was still short of a healer, and on top of the misfortune the nominal leader forced upon the pitiable expedition members by the city council was an inept asshole who was already neglecting his duties before the ships had even cleared the port, a doubtlessly jarring fact for the pernickety adept who never did anything without a contingency plan or two up his sleeve. In Damien's opinion there were no two ways about it that his lover would have Morrison on toast before the first week of the journey had come to an end, and if a natural born commander like Gerald took matters into his own hands the other participants could very likely count their blessings, at least as long as the adept's brilliant but nonetheless slightly peculiar brain didn't hatch one of its more sinister ideas.

That still left them with the deplorable lack of a member of the medical profession, and gazing deeply into Gerald's dark eyes brimming with the same tense anticipation he had registered during the first minutes of Hawthorne's surprise visit Damien finally understood what was expected of him and breathed a heartfelt sigh of relief. Protecting the vulnerable inner core usually hidden under layers of his accustomed aloof hauteur and serene impassivity the former Hunter had opted for relating the bare facts and letting Vryce come to his own conclusions instead of forcing the matter, but evidently Gerald wanted him at his side when he sallied forth into the unknown once again and was offering him not just a job but a permanent warm place in his bed as well, and giddy with pleasure Damien got up and pulled his lover into a tight embrace. "Consider me recruited, Gerald. Up to recently I was vulking sure I had had enough adventures to last me a lifetime, but apparently I will have to correct my misjudgement. Can't have you trod the road to ruin all on your own, can I?"

Gerald didn't deign to grace him with a verbal reply, but the touched gleam in those black, piercing eyes weighing his soul and the radiant smile brightening the delicate face told the warrior knight everything he had to know, and gazing at the adept he sent a silent, heartfelt prayer at the address of the One God, utterly grateful that the Lord in His wisdom had granted both of them a second chance. As warm and homely as his lodgings presented themselves now there was no denying the truth hidden in the old proverb 'home is where the heart is', and whatever the faraway shores might have in store for them they would walk the road together and face their destiny hand in hand. His heart utterly at peace for the first time in years Damien smiled at his beloved and kissed him.

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P. S. Argh, I suppose the rather open ending also cries for a sequel. Help! Where's the vulking pause button for real life? I really wanted to write a different ending, with Damien answering noncommittally to Gerald's implied suggestion of accompanying him on his trip just to turn up at the last possible moment very much in the manner Tarrant arrived at the port at the end of BSR (a kind of 'two can play this game, love' hoax), but I simply ran out of time. I might fix that issue later if I indeed write a sequel. Dear God, all I've been doing during the last two or three days is working and panicked writing, and by now I'm so sleep deprived that I barely know my own name... Sorry for all the spelling errors and grammatical blunders I might have overlooked in my daze. Coffee to the rescue!

P.P.S. One may argue that Damien doesn't steer a wise course himself when trying to nail Gerald down to his plans concerning their relationship after he had just met him again (and made love to him for the first time). A lot of folks understandably don't cherish to get cornered and might turn tail and run in the next instance, but as we all know Damien has never been shy of voicing his opinion, and he simply can't face to get accustomed to Gerald's presence again and get his hopes up just to lose him once more, a comprehensible reaction all things considered (especially Tarrant's fake death at the hands of Andrys and the horrible months when he had to live with his insides burning with sorrow and guilt). Gerald on the other hand would give an arm and a leg (and a lot of money; of course he's the 'unknown benefactor') for gaining the opportunity to exert his influence on the reconstitution of his most treasured creation. The Church he founded so many centuries ago is still his true love, with the sole exception of Damien, of course...;-) To my astonishment I've just realized that both of my giveaway stories centre around the same topics: and unexpected gift of the carnal kind and dreading to lose the human being you love above everything else. And what does that tell about my own soul, I wonder...;-)