Ashes of Fate, Season 2

by Cynus

Episode 7


It was the first time Luke had been in a car in nearly twenty years, and he had to admit that he was more than a little motion sick. Still the trip was short, and it pulled up to the curb and let them out for a breath of fresh air after only a few minutes. They could have walked the distance just as easily, but when Hayden had heard that there was the opportunity of taking a vehicle instead, he had jumped at the chance.

As Luke recovered from his nausea, he looked at his husband and found him staring at the car with eyes full of wonder and excitement. At least he had finally found some of a silver lining in their current predicament. Luke smiled and watched as Hayden paced around the car, admiring the solar panels that gave the car its charge. Luke wasn't surprised at Hayden's enthusiasm. This was a car that had been on the verge of production just before the war broke out. There were probably a few of them still sitting in forgotten government facilities, and the fact that Ivan had acquired one made perfect sense.

Hayden had known about the project for a long time, and had even helped test it. He had certainly never expected to see one on the road, however, and Luke was glad that Hayden had had the opportunity, despite the fact that it was at the offer of one of their enemies. They pulled away from the vehicle and looked at the small delegation that was there to meet them. A trio of soldiers centered on Max Derringer, the latter of which was smiling at them warmly. Standing off to the side were Zach and Jacob, both looking like they would rather be anywhere else. Luke wondered if they had perhaps come for the same reason that he had agreed to; to settle the curiosity about what was going on, and hoping that Max had the answers.

"I'm glad that the two of you decided to accept my offer for a tour today," Max said pleasantly as Luke and Hayden joined his group. Zach and Jacob looked up and smiled, but otherwise remained silent. Both hand grim eyes and were focused inwardly, but their smiles were genuine. He understood why they were upset. They were worried about Tristan.

"I am here more to discover why you extended the offer at all than because of the tour itself," Luke replied neutrally, letting his eyes drift toward Max's. He saw genuine hospitality waiting for him there, which surprised him, though there was also something he was hiding.

"If you'll follow me I believe that will all be made clear," Max replied, gesturing down the busy street. He started walking and the soldiers turned to follow him. Zach shrugged and turned after him, while Jacob wordlessly fell instep beside Zach.

"Hayden at least appears to be happy to be here," Max observed with a grin as Luke and Hayden fell into step beside him. "Did you enjoy your ride?"

"I did, though if you think that means we're friends then you have a lot to learn about us, Max," Hayden replied with a tight-lipped frown. "We're only in this city because our family is here, and we're glad that we stayed considering what happened two nights ago."

"That is part of why I invited you today," Max said smoothly. "We wanted to thank you for your assistance in capturing the helicopter pilot as he tried to escape. We were hoping that a day out in the city might be something that the four of you would enjoy."

"At least it will give me a chance to stretch my legs," Zach offered with a snort. "I've been sitting by Tristan's bed with Micah for the better part of the last two days, and I was starting to cramp up."

"Oh come on! I've been trying to get you to go outside ever since Peter said that Tristan was going to be all right!" Jacob protested. "I had to beg you to come out here!"

"We'll see how we feel at the end of the day," Luke said cautiously. "I suppose we have no other choice, really. We don't want to offend our hosts and what in the world is that?"

"That," Max replied with a knowing grin, "Is our destination; The Merlin Museum."

The museum was a work of art in itself, and Luke was surprised to find it in such pristine condition. The entire building had been constructed of the finest materials that the nearby region had to offer, and it dominated the view from the street. How it had survived the ravages of the war so completely unscathed was a mystery to him. There had to be more to the story than met the eye.

Hayden, Jacob, and Zach seemed equally impressed by the structure, though only Jacob seemed to appreciate the same awe that Luke felt. They had spoken of their shared love for architecture and art, and it was one of the ways that they had always bonded. Hayden could appreciate art in a general sense, but he was much more attached to natural scenic vistas than civilization. But this… this was exactly what Luke had hated most about what the war had done to the world.

"When was this building constructed?" Luke asked as Max led him and Hayden through the glass doors of the structure, past a row of guards that stood at attention. They eyed Zach cautiously, but made no move on him when Max waved them through. The trio of guards that had accompanied Max took up position outside the door with the other soldiers.

Max turned and gave Luke a knowing look, with a bit of smugness added for good measure. "Ivan had it constructed ten years ago. It had been in his plans for a long time but it took some time to get the materials together."

"Was it the materials or the pieces that he had to find?" Jacob asked as he came up to Luke's side and stared in awe at the collection that met them on the other side of the doors. There were statues, paintings, and all manner of artifacts kept behind small glass cases. It was like stepping into their past. Neither of them had seen an actual museum in working condition in over twenty years, and as their eyes met briefly they shared a look of excitement.

"A little of both," Max conceded with a satisfied nod. "Ivan thought that you would appreciate it however. When he suggested it I asked to be the one to take you myself."

"Oh?" Luke replied, startled by the admission.

"Believe it or not, I'm a student of your work, Luke," Max replied with a humble bow of his head. "I was studying to become an aeronautical engineer when the war broke out. They leaked out some of your work to those of us studying at MIT, and I had the privilege of becoming quite intimate with it."

"I'm assuming everything you studied was 'theoretical'?" Hayden offered with a smirk. He took a step away and started looking at several of the items in the foremost display case while Luke and Max continued their discussion.

"The truth is, having seen your work in action on several occasions, I'm impressed by how far behind our engineering actually was," Max replied with a laugh. "If only you had been allowed to continue; what wonders would we have today?"

"You do realize that it is Ivan's doing that stopped us from continuing, right?" Luke retorted.

"Ivan staged a coup, but he intended to keep the system intact and change it from the inside," Max replied, shaking his head. "The Alliance wouldn't allow that, claiming it was too dangerous to allow any 'human' system to remain in effect, and they are the ones that pushed the war to the next level, like they are now."

"And what proof do you have of that?" Luke asked impatiently. "Am I to simply take the word of Ivan's right-hand man as evidence that he is not the evil man I claim him to be?"

"Evidence is why I brought you here, Luke," Max said, gesturing to the museum. "This entire building is dedicated to the teachers who shaped society and made it what it was, and what it could be again with a little work from people like you and me. From the Greeks to the Arabs to the Chinese to the Native Americans, this is a shrine to learning, and may it never be destroyed."

Jacob shook his head and said, "You speak as if it's a holy place."

"It is. Not in a dogmatic religious sense, but in more of a spiritual way." Max replied with a sincere smile. "Did you notice how the guards left us at the door?"

Luke looked back to where the guards were waiting outside, and nodded slowly. "You don't allow weapons in here. This is a place that is meant to keep out violence, rather than endorse it."

"Yes. That is the idea, anyway," Max said, nodding to Jacob. "Of course for Jacob's sake we allowed Zach to retain possession of the knife."

"Okay, Max. You have my interest. Show me this museum of yours and I'll try to keep an open mind," Luke replied when he looked back to Max.

"That's all I ask, Luke." Max replied with a satisfied nod. "If at the end you are still unwilling to consider helping us, then that is up to you, but I have more faith in you than that."

"Oh? You sound like you think you know me pretty well," Luke said with a raised eyebrow.

"Well…" Max said as he glanced toward Hayden and blushed. "There isn't exactly a surplus of gay aeronautical engineers for me to idolize. It wasn't that hard to pick you."

"Don't tell me you had a crush on me?" Luke said, dumbfounded. "I thought that you and Colonel Turner were a couple and have both been working for Ivan for a long time."

"Oh, it wasn't like that," Max admitted with a chuckle. "You were an ideal for me; something to strive for. You gave me hope that the world wasn't going to crush me under the weight of bigotry and hatred. You made it, Luke."

"Yes, but what has happened to my accomplishments?" Luke asked with a raised eyebrow. "The world I helped to build and better was destroyed."

"Not all of it," Max replied cryptically, before waving Luke forward and then gesturing to the first display case. "Come on, let me show you some of the exhibits and you'll see what I mean."

Tristan's eyes strained against the light of the morning sun against his face as they blinked open for the first time in two days. He immediately closed them again and groaned, reaching his hand up to his eyes to cover them the rest of the way. He felt the bandage that was wrapped around his head then, and it took him a moment to remember why it was there. The image of the werewolf flashed through his mind as the wolf picked his head up and smashed it against the floor.

He forced his eyes open then and looked around the room, the movement making his head spin. He was still in the mansion, in his same room, though he was not alone. Nevala sat cross-legged on the floor a few feet away, watching him. Nevala had grown some in the time since Tristan had seen him last, but the hair color and scaly flesh on his bare torso were unmistakable. Now appearing as a boy of sixteen or seventeen, he was back to a level that Tristan was comfortable with him.

"You're awake," Nevala remarked, cocking his head to the side curiously. "How was your rest?"

"I feel like I fell down a mountain," Tristan answered, groaning loudly. As he closed his eyes again. "What the hell happened? We must have won."

"Winning is a matter of perspective, I suppose." Nevala chuckled, and Tristan opened one eye to stare quizzically at Nevala. "We took casualties, and Ivan did make his intent to secede from The North Wer Alliance quite clear. The war is just beginning, and I wouldn't exactly call that 'winning'."

"So it was The Alliance that attacked then?" Tristan asked.

"We believe so," Nevala said with a light shrug. "Peter managed to capture one of their operatives; a double agent who was working for Ivan before. It turned out that Lieutenant Greenwood was orchestrating a coup, but they definitely had outside help."

Tristan shook his head and then immediately regretted the decision as a new wave of pain shot through his skull. "Who else but the Alliance could have helped them?"

"Well, it may not be The Alliance itself, but rather the European branch specifically, Nightshade," Nevala explained. "We have reason to believe that Noh-Kitsune is not as keen on genocide as The Alliance presents them to be."

"Are you implying that The Alliance may be breaking up?" Tristan asked, opening his eyes again to stare at Nevala. "Are we looking at a Wer civil war?"

"It's possible," Nevala conceded, "The Wer clans have never been too good at working together, even within their own clans. I'm honestly surprised that the alliance has lasted as long as it has. Of course, Ivan's generally been quite reasonable, except two decades ago when he started this mess." Nevala grumbled something unintelligible and then added, "The Kitsune I have found to be generally quite reasonable as well, though… not without their faults."

Tristan nodded slowly in acknowledgment and then realized something was missing in the situation. "What are you doing here? Where's Micah?"

"Micah has been at your side the entire time you've been unconscious, and I offered him a break. He didn't take it at first, but then Finn arrived and told him he was needed elsewhere. Thankfully, under our insistence he finally agreed to leave," Nevala explained with a low chuckle. "As for why I'm here, I thought that if you awoke I'd be of assistance in helping to calm your headache."

"In my experience as your student, I'd have to say that you generally increase my headaches rather than make them go away," Tristan said with a smirk. Nevala laughed heartily at that and then Tristan added, "It's certainly been throbbing the entire time we've been talking!"

"You sound like Ivan did, once long ago," Nevala said, shaking his head. "There are things I've learned, Tristan, that I never even thought were possible. It's in your heritage too, you know. There are things I can teach you now that are beyond your imagination."

"Like how you grew from being a five year old to adult in less than a week?" Tristan asked with a raised eyebrow. "How exactly is that working out for you? Are you ever going to stop or are you going to die of old age in a month?"

"Actually, I already knew the basis of that trick, before I became what I am now," Nevala replied. "No, I'll be balancing myself out here in a little while; perhaps when I've reached what for most would be their early twenties. And then I will remain that way for the end of time, well, sort of."

"So, you're saying you can control how quickly you age?" Tristan asked in wonder. "And now you're immortal?"

"Ageless is a more apt description I believe," Nevala countered. "But yes, once I came here and I was eating as regularly as I needed to in order to expand my growth, I was able to reach this point very quickly. I can still be killed, of course, but depending on the manner in which I die, I should be able to come back much as I did this last time. I believe I have that part figured out."

"And you're saying that you can teach me that?" Tristan asked, awestruck by the possibilities that were now laid out before him.

"Well, if neither of us dies, then surely," Nevala said with a twinkle in his eye. "But first, I need to teach you something about your cells and your brain, and then we'll see if we can get rid of those headaches."

"Very well, teacher," Tristan said as he tried to straighten up in bed. Through much groaning and maneuvering he was finally able to get to a sitting position, and then he looked at Nevala and nodded. "Let's begin."

"What is this all about, Finn? You know that I don't like being separated from Tristan like this, especially after what happened in our bedroom," Micah growled as he followed Finn through the corridors of the capitol building. Although he and Tristan had become a fixture of the building, he still received looks from the soldiers and civil workers that they passed, and he grew increasingly more uncomfortable the longer that he was kept away from the one comfort he had from home.

"He'll be all right," Finn said with a chuckle. "Did you forget that Nevala is with him now? Besides, the guard has been tripled, and it's the middle of the day. I doubt that someone will get in to your lover, and if anyone does I'm sure young Tristan and The Mongoose will be able to fight them off."

"Still, I hardly see the point of this if all we're going to do is 'go for a walk' as you put it earlier," Micah replied with a roll of his eyes as they came upon a simple wooden door at the end of the hallway. Finn pulled out a set of keys and fit one into the lock as Micah continued, "I would rather be protecting him than stretching my le…" His breath caught in his throat as Finn opened the door and flipped a light switch on the other side, revealing a large room with a wooden floor, several large mats covering a quarter of the room, and the walls covered with weapons of various kinds, ranging from knives and swords to spears and clubs. Finn gestured for Micah to enter and then stepped inside himself, bowing before he entered.

"This is your training room," Micah said in wonder as he surveyed the array of weaponry. "What are we doing here?" he turned back to see that Finn had kicked off his shoes, and was in the process of removing his shirt. Micah gained new respect for Finn as Finn began to reveal his toned torso, his muscles in perfect form and taut with the strength that they possessed. Although Micah could change his body to one that would be similar in strength, Finn's was a work of art, sculpted by years spent in training. When Finn stood shirtless and sockless, he looked at Micah expectantly.

"I thought you could benefit from training with someone who could actually defeat you," Finn said when Micah didn't move. Micah's eyes widened as the words sunk in, and he laughed and started removing his shirt.

"How would you like me to face you?" Micah asked as he tossed his shirt to the side. "Would you like to face me human, feline, or something entirely different?"

"Face me however you'd like, and I'll show you were your weaknesses are," Finn said confidently. "Perhaps you won't have any when I face you with my hands and feet, but eventually I'll find a weapon you can't handle. This will be beneficial for me as well. I've never had an invincible opponent before."

Micah nodded and finished stripping. Unlike Finn, he didn't stop when he reached his pants and removed all of his clothing. Finn nodded in understanding, even when Micah didn't shift and instead assumed a readied stance. With a cocked eyebrow Finn assumed a fighting stance of his own and with a single nod from Micah he charged ahead. The training had begun.

Finn led with a strong forward cross, which Micah easily dodged, letting himself feel Finn's range and strength. He felt a pull on his legs as Finn tried to hook them with his own and pull him down, but he nimbly stepped over the attempted trip and then punched out with his own fist, aiming for Finn's shoulder. Finn back stepped quickly and spun around in a full roundhouse aimed at Micah's side. Micah dropped to the ground and ducked the leg, and then gave it a slight push backward while Finn was still righting himself.

Although the maneuver put Finn off balance, he used the extra momentum to throw himself into a forward roll away from Micah, landing the roll gracefully and then rising to his feet to face Micah again.

"You've got great instincts Micah. Have you ever been formally taught?" Finn asked, though he began circling around Micah, indicating that just because he was speaking it didn't mean he intended to take a break from the training.

"Only a bit from my parents," Micah replied before dashing forward, aiming for a shoulder rush to Finn's chest. Finn planted himself firmly and took the rush in his braced palms. Micah dropped low and wrapped his arms around Finn's waist and attempted to turn what was left of his momentum into a tackle, but that just earned him a quick series of punches to his ribcage before he pulled away.

"What you have in instinct, you lack in discipline," Finn said when Micah pulled away and shot him a frustrated look. "I can teach you to defeat those that have both, and I believe you have it in you to be the greatest warrior this world has ever seen."

"You are very sure of your own abilities, Finn," Micah said with a raised eyebrow. "But you haven't faced me at my best yet." He sneered as he shifted into his feline form, the expression becoming even more prominent as his teeth became shard and menacing. "Last time you faced me like this, you had a tool which could kill me; this time…"

Finn laughed as Micah charged, and that only served to fuel Micah's sudden anger. But then a second later the anger was replaced with confusion as he lay sprawled on the mat from the quick roundhouse that Finn had delivered to the side of his skull. He had been so intent on his anger that he had lost his focus, and Finn had set him up for it. He was starting to see Finn's game for what it was, and he decided to try something different.

As he rose to his feet, an evil smile spread across his lips. If a game was what Finn wanted, then a game was what Micah would give to him. Micah was going to have the time of his life. He noticed the look of understanding in Finn's eye as he charged, and couldn't help but let out his feline grin at the small smile that crept across Finn's face.

"Ah, you're awake…"

Peter looked over from his bed and blinked several times as he realized that it was Ivan who had spoken to him. The room was otherwise empty, which seemed odd to Peter, seeing as how Ivan had always been in the presence of one of his soldiers every time that Peter had encountered him previously.

"What are you doing here?" Peter asked, and he started to shift to a sitting position. That was when he first noticed that he was almost entirely naked, except for his chest and thighs which were wrapped in bandages. As the blanket fell away revealing his breasts, he felt immediately vulnerable and pulled the blanket tight around him. Glaring at Ivan he choked out harshly, "Where are my clothes?"

"Lying in scraps in the trash heap," Ivan answered with a gentle smile. "I'm having new ones made for you. Unfortunately, the upper garment that you wore, the tight fitting one, is not going to be easily replaced."

Peter groaned and buried his face in his hands. "You mean I'm going to have to start showing what I am to everyone? How did I end up here, anyway?"

"Well, the good news is that no one outside of a small circle knows about you yet," Ivan said with an encouraging smile that Peter barely glimpsed as he uncovered one eye. "Nurim wrapped you up in the blanket from his cell when you lost consciousness to keep you warm, and then only my medical staff and I have otherwise been informed. You lost a great deal of blood, Peter."

"Defending myself against one of your soldiers, Ivan," Peter said with an edge to his voice. "I'm holding you responsible for this. Completely."

Ivan raised his hands in surrender. "That's why I'm here, Peter. I realized that I owe something to you; both for the fact that you lost something important to you, and because you also kept that bastard alive. Now I'll be able to extract intelligence from him. I think I have something that can make everything you lost seem…" he trailed off as if searching for the right word, and then smiled broadly as it came to him, "bearable."

"What do you mean?" Peter asked, raising the eyebrow of the one eye he still had uncovered. "The one thing that made it bearable was that I could hide what I despised. How could you possibly do any better for me?"

Ivan stood, walking the small distance to the window and then looking outside. He was silent for a moment as if he was considering his next words carefully, and Peter was more than happy to give him the time that he needed. He was devastated by the news that Ivan had delivered to him. Over his entire life, he had wanted nothing more than to escape the cruel reality that fate and thrust upon him at birth. He had been born female, but his mind had always screamed that it was wrong.

The tiger, however, had dominated him through his entire life, and she was definitely female, and never let him forget it. He had tried to transition, time and again, but to no avail. The tiger was too strong, and he would never outrun her. All he could do previously was to hide from her, and now that option had been stripped away from him.

He had been without hope for so long, but he had become accustomed to the way his life was forced to be. He had learned to accept it. Reality, his sensei had once said, was the cruelest of all teachers, and Peter knew that as well as anyone.

"In your school days, were you taught of Scheherazade?" Ivan asked without turning around. The question caught Peter off guard, and he didn't immediately respond. Ivan sighed and turned around, adding additional clarification, "The Arabian lore keeper?"

"Of course," Peter responded, confused. "She's very well respected in the lands that Noh-Kitsune governs. She's considered one of the great lore keepers, despite her human heritage. Why do you ask?"

"The Noh-Kitsune think that she was human and yet they still teach about her?" Ivan asked, blinking in surprise. "I seem to be learning a lot about my 'allies' that I never realized. Intriguing."

"You mean she wasn't human?"

"No," Ivan replied, shaking his head. "She was definitely not. She was a phoenix, sure as any phoenix ever was. However, the important thing is that you know of her, and her teachings. This means you've been taught about the Djinn."

"Yes…" Peter replied, suddenly starting to catch on to what Ivan was saying. "Wait, are you saying that you have someone who can grant me a wish? Wishes are just fairy tales!"

Ivan shot Peter a hard look, and he was not amused. Peter shrank down under that stare and Ivan's features softened a bit. "Funny, I thought it was mainly humans who still wanted to disregard the old legends as nothing of consequence. I forget that you are a scientist, Peter. Perhaps I should be clearer about my intentions."

"You're a djinni, aren't you?" Peter asked, awed by the sudden realization. "I hadn't realized it until now, but it suddenly makes sense. Though that still doesn't mean I'm ready to believe in wishes. Reality has taught me that wishes are fools' hopes."

Ivan chuckled, which quickly evolved into a loud belly laugh, and when he returned his eyes to Peter's they were full of amusement. "I suppose that is a way of looking at it that isn't far off. Wishes come with a price, you see. They always do, and that's the part that Scheherazade often left out of her tales. Or, perhaps it is better said that the prices she presented were metaphorical."

"Price? So I'd have to pay a price to get what I wanted from a wish?" Peter replied, a touch annoyed by Ivan's words. "Isn't the fact that I did you a favor enough? Or, if you are not the one that sets the price, isn't it enough that I've already had to spend my life living like this?"

"Unfortunately no, the favor isn't enough, because I do not control that side," Ivan said, shaking his head sadly. "The Djinn serves as nothing but an intermediary for the energies that fulfill the wish. We touch the realm of dreams, and that is the only way in which we can fragment and warp reality in such a way that we can bring about one's heart's desire. As to your other point…" He trailed off, his eyes grim and his he thought carefully about what to say next.

"What? You can't leave it hanging like that," Peter pleaded, "I need more to go off of."

"You were born the way that you were for a reason," Ivan said slowly but deliberately. "Every Djinn understands the reality that is fate. You have a lesson to learn, and that was why you were given the circumstances that you were. The reason the price must be paid, is because you are fated to learn that lesson, even if you change the rules of the test. No man or woman escapes their fate."

Peter took a moment to digest Ivan's words. While he still wasn't sold on the thought that wishes granted by Djinni were an actual thing, he had to admit that he found the idea intriguing. All it took was one look down at his breasts to realize that he'd be willing to do almost anything to get rid of them.

"So, I'm to understand that you're offering me the opportunity to fulfill my wish?" Peter asked. "You can do that for me? All I have to do is pay some figurative price?" Ivan nodded, and Peter pressed for additional clarification. "Do I offer up something specific, or is it decided for me?"

"Slow down a bit, and I'll answer all of your questions in turn, but first I have to ask one of my own," Ivan replied with a gentle smile. "Do you want me to do it?"

"Yes. Definitely," Peter replied with a firm nod.

"Then to answer your first questions, yes, I am offering, and yes I can do it," Ivan said confidently. He settled back into the chair, and his eyes became more thoughtful as he continued, "I can fulfill all that you think you want. I'll need a little help on the ritual from my apprentice and from Nevala, but I'm certain I can grant your wish."

"And the price?"

"You will determine what you'll offer; the universe will determine what it will take," Ivan explained with a shrug. "I wish I could be clearer, but that is as much as I can give you."

The silence lingered for several moments as Peter let his thoughts digest the information. When he was finally done, he looked up to Ivan and said with a tremor in his voice, "If you do this, you'll have my loyalty forever."

"I tend to have that effect on people," Ivan replied slyly. "That being said, you'll owe me nothing. Remember, I'm doing this as repayment for your services."

Peter nodded, and Ivan rose to leave, but as he laid his hand on the door handle, he turned around and offered one last word on the matter. "Besides, you may not like the result as much as you believe you will. Don't say I didn't warn you when I told you there was a price."

And then he was gone, and Peter was left to wonder if any price would not be worth paying to have his heart's desire. One more look down, and he didn't have to think about it again. He knew what he wanted, and if Ivan was offering, there was no way he could refuse.

Micah was truly tired, and it had been a long time since he had felt that way. He glanced over at Finn, who, although he had broken a sweat from the intensity of their training session, still looked as if he could go for several more hours. If he hadn't already had a tremendous amount of respect for Finn, he would have gained it all in the day they had spent fighting each other.

What was more important, however, was how much Micah felt he had learned. There were many times that he had felt Finn's hands or feet collide with his flesh, but he had also felt elbows, knees, shoulders and every other part of Finn's body that he could find an opening to use. Finn had made full use of his body at every point, and Micah was astounded by his mastery.

He thought only shape shifters could come to know their own bodies that well. How wrong he had been.

"How did you learn to fight like that, Finn?" Micah asked when Finn handed him a cup of room temperature water. Micah drank a small amount and set it aside, looking up at Finn expectantly.

"Ivan once taught me a very important lesson, early on in my shamanic training," Finn began to explain as he settled down on the floor in front of Micah. He leaned his naked back up against the wall, and patted the mat next to him, and Micah slid up and sat as he did, feeling the cold wall against his back and loving the feeling. He hadn't realized how much he had been sweating, which was a rarity for him. With his ability to regulate his body temperature however he liked, he usually avoided sweat glands. When he took human form, however, he liked to make the form complete, and that meant sweating when things became strenuous.

Finn continued after taking a sip from his own cup of water. "He taught me that understanding the spirit world didn't come about by studying books or lore, or learning rituals; no, the true technique to understanding comes from experiencing the spirit world. There is no substitute for experience when it comes to understanding."

"I think I understand," Micah said, nodding slowly. "It's like how no matter how much I plan out a new form I want to take, there's no way that I'll understand it until I actually try it."

Finn smiled and nodded. "Yes, that's part of it, but there's another side. Let me see if I can explain it another way. A certain philosopher named Alan Watts from the last century put it in these words, 'Zen does not confuse spirituality with thinking about god while peeling potatoes. Zen spirituality is just to peel the potatoes'. That philosophy is at the heart of my fighting style."

"I'm not sure that I understand it, to be honest," Micah said with a chuckle. "What does that mean?"

Finn grinned understandingly and explained, "What it means to me, is that I don't think about my technique, or how I'm going to face my opponent, instead I step into every fight and experience it for the new experience that it is. Fighting is a spiritual experience for me. I free my mind and let my body feel what it needs to do."

"Interesting. I'm not sure I could ever learn to do that," Micah said, upending his cup and taking a much longer drink than before.

"Really?" Finn said with wide eyes. Micah turned to him with surprise, and Finn started laughing almost to the point of hysterics. When he finally calmed down, Finn turned to him and said, "Micah, you already do that. It's the whole reason why I wanted to train you. You're a bloody natural! You just don't think about it, and that's why you don't realize it! You already have Zen!"

"You're insane," Micah muttered. "But I have to admit, with all your faults for serving the Alliance, I do like you."

"Likewise, for all your faults of being a rebel," Finn replied with a broad grin. "Shall we go another round?"

Micah thought about it for a moment but then shook his head. "No, it's time I got back to Tristan."

Finn nodded sagely. "Yes indeed. It's important to be with the ones you love. That being said, next time I'm available, I would appreciate another bout of training, if you're feeling up to it."

Micah grinned from ear to ear. "Of course. And next time, I'll win."

Finn chuckled loudly and then said, "The showers are over there, if you'd like one." He gestured to a small door across the dojo. "I don't know exactly how Shape shifters clean themselves but, from the look of the sweat on you, I'd imagine you feel like you need one."

"After you," Micah said, bowing respectfully. "I'd love a chance to freshen up for my lover, assuming he's awake."

"Don't worry," Finn said, laying a hand on Micah's shoulder. "I have a feeling that he'll be up and ready to see you by the time you get back."

"We have one more exhibit that we'd like to show you, if you're willing?" Max said as he gestured toward a large wooden door that seemed rather plain outside of its size. Luke and Hayden nodded, and Zach and Jacob stepped up after them.

"Is this not part of the normal tour, then?" Jacob asked with a slight smile. Hayden blinked several times, surprised to find that Jacob actually seemed sincere with his smile. He hadn't seen Jacob show and sign of happiness since Kurt had died, but at least the museum had done someone good.

"No. Very few people know what lies on the other side of that door," Max said with a solemn shake of his head. "Only the ones that matter know anything at all. Some have seen it, but don't know what it means, you on the other hand…" He took a step toward the door as he took a ring of keys from his pocket and found the correct one before fitting it into the lock. "You'll get the full tour."

"Then by all means, proceed," Luke said. Max nodded and turned the key in the lock, opening the door wide enough for them to fit through single file, and then gestured for them to go first. Hayden, Luke, and Jacob shared a look about who would go first, and then Zach led the group by stepping around Max and through.

Jacob shrugged and disappeared from sight, and then after rolling his eyes, Hayden stepped through the door after Zach. Luke followed closely behind, and once all of them where through Max stepped into the room as well. Hayden was confused when he reached the other side, and found a large ring, made of stone and set with large chairs around its perimeter. There was a small opening in the ring, which would allow one entrance to the center and address those sitting at the edge of the ring.

Large standards of medieval origin hung on the walls, embroidered white dragons on a field of blue. Jacob seemed frozen in place from where he stood in the center of the ring, looking at the standards with his eyes wide with shock. Zach's look was one of confusion, and Hayden was equally perplexed by the meaning behind the room.

Hayden looked to Luke and found his eyes thoughtful as he turned back to Max, and it was he who broke the silence. "Is this what I think it is?"

Max nodded and gestured to the standards. "Indeed, those once hung in Camelot. Ivan had to pay a great deal in assets to get those out of the hands of Nightshade, but he was willing to pay almost anything to get them." He shook his head and chuckled as he added, "The table, unfortunately, is a replica."

"SO what does it mean?" Hayden asked, suddenly beginning to catch on.

"There is a reason that Ivan named this museum after Merlin," Max began with a twinkle in his eye. "You see, Ivan considers Merlin to be the greatest of all teachers, though he claims that he always failed in his lessons. You can always ask Nevala about that if you have any doubts."

"What do you mea…" Jacob asked, turning toward Max, and then his eyes lit up with sudden revelation. "You're saying that Nevala was Merlin? And that means that Ivan…"

"Was King Arthur," Luke finished for him with a quirk of a smile. "That seems incredibly far-fetched for me, I'm afraid you'll have to do better than this to convince me that the mythological King is ruling Skinwalker today."

"Mythological King?" Max echoed with a chuckle. "After all that you've seen, you think that King Arthur was a myth as well? Trust me, he was and is very real. And yes, Ivan served in that role."

"And so, you think that we'll serve him because you say he was King Arthur?" Hayden asked with a chuckle. "I serve no king, that's been the way I've been since day one."

"No one said anything about serving anyone, Hayden. I'm asking you to work with Ivan. I'm asking you to help him avert genocide," Max said in a firm tone. "This is about saving lives, and the reason I brought you here was in the hopes of showing you that Ivan was once proud to call himself King. Don't you understand?"

"No, I'm afraid we still don't," Luke said, shaking his head. "Who he was and who he is are not the same thing."

"That's the point, Luke," Max continued with a helpless shake of his head. "We learn as we go. We can only do what we believe is best. We have to learn from our mistakes, and it's true that Ivan's made his fair share. The point is, that he holds on to the lessons he's learned, this entire place is a shrine to that. This room is a testimony to Ivan's vision of a better world."

"And what if we don't share his vision of what is better?" Jacob asked, coming up to stand beside Luke. "What then?"

"All we can do is present to you the truth as we see it," Max replied with a helpless shrug. "After that, it's really up to you to decide. I know Ivan believes that we need you in order to win this fight, but we're going to try, with or without you."

"You have me," Zach said, and four surprised gazes turned toward him. He shrugged and gestured to the room. "I don't know what all of this means. I've never heard of King Arthur, or Camelot, and I don't know who the fuck Merlin is, but I do know one thing. In all the time we've spent here, Ivan has been accommodating, Max and Finn have been more than gracious hosts, and when all hell broke loose two nights ago, there was no question that they were on our side."

"What are you saying, Zach?" Jacob asked in a neutral tone.

"I'm usually for giving people second chances, even though I haven't been doing too good at that myself lately. Sure, I fought Ivan for a long time, but…" Zach shrugged again as he sighed, and then he looked up and met Max's eyes. "The truth is, Max, that I don't know where I'm going in this world, but for now, fate has brought me here. I can see that your heart is in the right place, and Tristan and Micah trust you explicitly. I'm going to do the best I can to help you and Ivan prevent more death."

"I suppose that means I'm helping as well," Jacob mused. "I don't know about Ivan being King Arthur, but I suppose I can fact check that with Nevala."

Hayden and Luke shared a look, and Hayden saw the conflict in Luke's eyes. He felt it every bit as strongly as his husband did, but he knew a lot of it was his own stubbornness. He wanted to hold on to hating Ivan, and Luke wanted to hold on to blaming Ivan for the destruction of the world, the only problem was, the world was already destroyed, and no amount of hatred or blame was going to change anything.

"Perhaps we've been holding on to our ways a little too strongly, Luke," Hayden said with a weak smile. "Maybe it's time we learned the lessons that we should have learned long ago."

Luke nodded, slowly and first, but then he turned toward Max and said with a smile. "We'll help you, but we're keeping the house."

Max's grin lit up the whole room as he replied, "Of course, Luke. Ivan wouldn't have it any other way."

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