Jaggonath, Year 1256 A.S.
five years after the Forest burned

"Gerald," Damien said the moment the alterwood door opened before him, exasperation in his voice, "you could have just asked."

A dark eyebrow rose. "I beg your pardon?" But he stepped back, letting Damien into his house.

"Contrary to what you seem to believe, I'm not in fact an idiot," Damien reminded him. "Neither is your wife."

Gerald's expression remained distant as they settled into chairs. "Perhaps you'd like to explain yourself. I can't just Work a Knowing any more, much as it would be preferable." He leaned back, presenting a perfect image of incomprehension.

Damien snorted. "It took me a while to get over the shock, but then that was the point, wasn't it? You knew I was here. You knew I'd see you, and find out what you'd been doing all these years. And you deliberately put it all to me in the worst possible light. You deliberately led me to the worst conclusions."

Gerald's expression remained unchanged, unrelenting. "Whyever would I do that, Vryce?"

"Because you're worried," Damien said gently. "Because you know what fine a line you're treading, and you're worried you're going too far. You wanted my perspective. Don't deny it. Speaking to Narilka made everything clear. And that, too, was deliberate, wasn't it? That's why you sent me to her."

It was typical, of course. Gerald had never done anything the easy way, not in all of his centuries. He hadn't been willing, or perhaps even able, to simply ask a friend's help. He had reached out to Damien, in the end, but in such a typically Gerald way - by manipulating him.

"Gerald," Damien murmured quietly. "You're still afraid to hope."

"Perhaps," Gerald admitted after a moment. "Or perhaps I've little cause for hope. You know what I've been, what I've done. Being free of my compact with the Unnamed doesn't free me from damnation."

Damien snorted. "Certain damnation still easier to accept than uncertain mercy, is it?"

Gerald looked away. He'd never dealt well with the unknowable. Simple trust, without calculations, probabilities and backup plans, was alien to him. But there were some matters in which there was no choice.

"The nature of the One God is mercy," Damien quoted the Prophet's words back at Gerald. "Don't you believe that any more? You're a man of the Church - have some faith."

Gerald's lip curled. "Faith, Vryce?" he struck back. "From you, who has lingered here in Jaggonath for five years, afraid to move on?"

Damien flinched. "Yes, well," he snapped, "perhaps I needed your damnable cynicism to remind me."

They stared at each other, belligerently, and it was only then that Damien realised it was true.

Gerald, it seemed, was coming to a similar conclusion. "As I needed your optimism, it seems."

What an admission, from this most reserved of men. It was true, in a manner - everything they'd done together, they'd only managed because they'd balanced each other. Once, he would have called it corruption - they'd corrupted each other, both failing their prior purity. But Damien had long stopped being able to regret the change in himself. It had made them something more than either of them could have been on his own.

And yet: "I'm not your conscience, you know," Damien couldn't help but add. He still - or perhaps again - had hopes for Gerald's journey of redemption, and that couldn't be merely reliance on a companion's balance. That had to come from within Gerald himself.

"No," Gerald agreed, sounding almost regretful. "I'm not blind to that, Vryce. I don't have that faith of yours; I'll never have it. And neither you nor Narilka can offer me absolution; only I can decide whether I'm crossing that line." He closed his eyes, as if searching within himself. "I don't believe I am; not now. And you ..." He looked up, eyeing Damien speculatively. "You've been of great assistance here, you realise. It would be churlish of me not to repay it." Brief hesitation; then he lifted a hand in a gesture of invitation. "How would you like to visit Merentha?"