Ashes of Fate, Season 2

by Cynus

Episode 8

The Other Half

There was a difference in his step. He was hiding something, or at least he was thinking about something that he didn't want Finn to know about. As good as Ivan was at concealing his feelings, Finn was a master of reading other people, and there was no doubt when he was holding back.

Of course, none of that gave him the right to address it while they were walking down the hallway. Ivan would broach the subject when he wanted to, and no sooner. It was Finn's place to serve and obey regardless of what information Ivan was withholding, and as long as Ivan held up his end of the bargain Finn would do his part. Ivan had promised that Max would remain safe, and so far that had been true as far as Ivan had any say in the matter. Finn's loyalty could never be questioned as long as that fact remained true.

The day had been spent in a horrendous series of interrogations, which was something that Finn had never enjoyed doing. Neither the helicopter pilot nor the werewolf which had been subdued by Peter were particularly talkative, and that means Finn had been required to delve into their minds in order to withdraw the necessary information. Ivan could have done the deed himself, but he was always quick to point out that as much as Finn hated intruding on another's thoughts in such a manner, he needed the practice.

Finn had grudgingly agreed to perform the act, and in time he had managed to withdraw the information that they had been seeking. Lieutenant Greenwood had lead the coup, and it had not been directed by Nightshade, though the helicopter had been loaned to the Lieutenant as a show of good faith on their part, that they would endorse his rise to power as the new leader of Skinwalker. The Lieutenant had been planning the coup for months, and he had sought out every soldier that he knew was dissatisfied with Ivan's leadership. In total, he had only managed to assemble a force of thirty-two, at least from the knowledge that Finn was able to acquire.

The possibility remained, however, that there were still more waiting to act. Neither of the prisoners had been aware of every member involved in the coup. One had known nineteen names, and the other had known twenty-four. The fact that neither knew every name was disconcerting to Finn, and he kept it in the forefront of his thoughts, knowing that there could be any number of soldiers ready to turn on Ivan at some point in the future.

At first Finn had assumed that Ivan's quiet demeanor was a result of dwelling upon that same knowledge, but the more he watched Ivan as they walked down the hall, he realized that Ivan's mind was somewhere else entirely. The soldiers that they passed were hardly spared a second glance from the Grand Shaman, though Finn eyed each one with a carefully concealed eye of suspicion. Whatever it was that dwelled on Ivan's mind, it evidently had little to do with the imminent danger of another coup.

They reached Ivan's room, and the two soldiers that were following them took up their positions on either side of the door. Finn nodded to them both and then moved to leave when Ivan spoke up suddenly, "Finn, if you have a moment, would you please join me?"

Finn turned back to Ivan and inclined his head in acknowledgement as Ivan unlocked the door to his bedchambers. He began to wonder if Ivan had begun trying to read his thoughts, and was deciding to reveal his concerns, whatever they may be. As Finn stepped into the room, Ivan closed the door behind him and locked it again, before moving to the window and pulling back the curtains. As the window was cleared, silvery moonlight poured in through the glass. Ivan remained near the window, though he turned to face Finn with a smile on his face but grim eyes.

"Yesterday I spoke to someone about Scheherazade," Ivan said slowly. Finn blinked several times but kept his conflicted emotions out of his expression as he met Ivan's eyes. He knew the look on Ivan's face well, even though he also knew that Ivan was trying to pontificate about his intentions. Finn nearly rolled his eyes at the thought, but kept his composure after several steadying breaths. When Finn didn't immediately respond, Ivan turned toward the window and stared out at the moonlit night, his eyes seeming trapped in a distant memory. Finn took several quiet steps toward him and then stopped, sensing that Ivan was about to continue. "I talked to them about the lore of the Djinn. It was an enlightening conversation for both of us, to be quite honest. Though I must say I have mixed feelings about the end result, to be completely honest."

"You're about to tell me that you're going to perform another ritual for a wish, aren't you?" Finn stated more than asked. Ivan's head dropped from the window to the floor, and then he turned to face Finn, and his eyes were all the confirmation that Finn needed.

"Am I that easy for you to read?" Ivan asked with a mirthless chuckle.

"There is no other reason that you would bring it up," Finn answered, smirking. "You know that I abhor the concept of wishes. Why are you even asking me? I helped you once, and I'll never do it again. In this you do not have my loyalty."

"It's for a good cause, Finn…" Ivan began, but Finn put his hand up to stall any further efforts on Ivan's part in trying to convince him. To Finn's surprise, Ivan did not continue again when he let his hand drop to his side.

"You're asking me to believe in good and evil again, huh?" Finn replied with a chuckle. "There's no such thing as a good cause, only the cause of order or the cause of disorder. Wishes cause disorder when there is no cause to do so. We lesser beings should not tamper with things we know nothing about."

"Even after all these years, Jack's teachings are still at the core of your philosophy," Ivan observed, shaking his head and smiling. "I knew it was a long shot, though it would have had a much greater chance of success if you were helping us. Nevala and I can do it alone, but having one more shaman of your level…"

"Would make no difference in whether or not this is something that I have any place in doing." Finn finished with a sad smile as he joined Ivan at the window. "I'm not sorry, either. I cannot help you."

Ivan nodded and returned his gaze to the window, looking out at the lights of the city illuminated around them. Finn followed his gaze, and focused on the streetlamps which seemed to serve as guardians against the gloomy night. To many, he assumed, the lamps seemed to establish a boundary against the darkness, but Finn had always seen it differently. He saw the way the light slowly began to dim as it fed into the surrounding shadows; the way it seemed to turn slowly into the darkness. He had always seen life in much the same way, that there was a natural balance to light and dark; order and disorder. To interfere with that balance unnecessarily, he knew to be the greatest of sins.

"You know, I'm glad you refused, Finn," Ivan said softly, and Finn smiled as he heard the depth of respect in Ivan's voice. "I've come to rely upon your integrity; the way you never compromise on your morals, unique as that morality may be."

"Then why did you ask, Ivan?" Finn asked without turning. A moth was fighting to get close to the light of the nearby streetlamp, and its dance of death seemed fitting to Finn's mood on the conversation. The struggle through the disorder of life and chasing the orderly death was a mirror to Finn's own existence.

"It wasn't a test, necessarily," Ivan replied, sighing, "But I suppose I did want to know if you had changed at all. This life is full of unexpected twists and turns."

Finn raised an incredulous eyebrow as he turned toward Ivan. "To what are you referring?"

"Max is getting tired, Finn," Ivan said, laying a hand on Finn's shoulder. "You should take your husband home for a few days and give him some rest. He's not been himself, lately."

"At a time like this?" Finn asked, not bothering to disguise his anger. "How could you possibly ask me to leave when you've just had an attempt made on your life and Nightshade is threatening to come down on you at any moment?"

"The ritual is going forward whether you help me or not, and during my preparations I will have Nevala with me nearly every second," Ivan replied with a thin smile. "Since you will be unavailable, I will have to ask someone to take your place, and I think Ethan will do about as well as anyone. Between the two of them, I'm sure I will be sufficiently protected. Didn't Nevala defend me well enough the other night?"

"Are you replacing me, Ivan?" Finn asked. "Is Merlin's homecoming spelling the end of Lancelot?" "Hardly." Ivan chuckled. "But it does give Lancelot a chance for a much needed reprieve with his lover. Don't look at this as a release from your responsibilities, look to it as a fulfillment of my oath to you, dear Finn. I promised to keep Max safe, and he is in danger both mentally and emotionally. He needs a reprieve."

Finn sighed but eventually nodded. "Very well, though I will ensure that my remaining soldiers are exceptionally vigilant while I am gone. I don't like this, Ivan. I don't like any of it."

"You don't like the fact that you'll be spending time with your lover?" Ivan asked with an amused grin.

"Well, maybe that part," Finn admitted with a laugh, though his eyes immediately became serious again as the laughter subsided.

"If it will make you feel better, I can give you an assignment and then make it an order," Ivan replied with a twinkle in his eye. Finn nodded and gestured for Ivan to continue. "Take the boys with you, Tristan, Micah, and Zach, and I suppose on that note, Jacob. The subject of the ritual would probably prefer that the boys were kept occupied during the ritual anyway."

"As you command, Grand Shaman," Finn said formally, bowing low into the light streaming in from the window. He straightened and looked Ivan in the eye, keeping his tone and expression neutral as he said, "If there is nothing else, I must go inform Max."

"Finn… Don't take this personally…" Ivan began, but was cut off by Finn clearing his throat. Ivan sighed and shook his head. "No, there is nothing else. You may go."

Finn turned on his heel and was out the door a second later. He would be loyal, and he would follow his orders, but no matter how Ivan twisted his words, Finn wasn't going to like it. But then he was reminded of the moth, who flirted with the light of the streetlamp. In the end, the result was always the same, as it would be for the moth. Whether it died to the flame or died in pursuit of it, it would still die.

And whether Ivan's goals were met or not, the result would be the same; Finn would die in the end. All he could do was make the best of the time he had. And that meant spending time with Max. As much as he hated to admit it, Ivan was right about Max needing a break. Finn could only hope that the break wouldn't cost them everything they had already worked for.

"Do you think that they'll want to come?" Max asked as they walked through the halls of the mansion. He was keeping as professional of an appearance as he could manage, despite his profound excitement about the prospect of going home. He knew that Finn was worried about leaving Ivan, but at the same time there was nothing Max would rather do than take a break in the country with Finn.

"I don't know, but they will be meeting us above," Finn said with a smile as he reached out and grasped Max's hand. "I figured that you would rather surprise them, considering it's more your style. I left the details out of my message to meet us."

Max was thrilled by the feel of Finn's hand in his own, and entwined their fingers together. It had been a long time since Finn had held his hand in public, more from a need to present a professional appearance while on duty than of anything else. There was a great deal which was abnormal about their current situation. Finn was dressed in street clothes for the first time in over a year, and Max was certain it had been months for him as well. The clothing felt odd against his skin, and seemed out of place on Finn as well, but at the same time it was also the way Max preferred to see his lover.

"Finn! Max!" Micah called out from behind. Max turned and grinned as Micah rushed toward them, with Tristan, Zach, and Jacob following a bit more slowly. Tristan was looking much better, though Peter had been clear that he was to watch himself carefully and avoid any further head injuries. Peter had made Max promise that he would watch over Tristan while they were away, and Max had every intention of making good on that promise.

"Micah! You're all ready to go then?" Finn asked, wiggling his eyebrows. "I hope you're all ready to swim. I know that it's a sign of being out of touch with the rest of the country's problems but, we do have a heated pool at our estate."

"Yes, Tristan at least can't wait," Micah replied, rolling his eyes. "It's all he's been talking about since you invited us. Zach seems a little more reserved, but then again, that's typical as well." Zach arrived and punched Micah in the arm, apparently hearing the remark. "Ouch! Hey, what was that for?"

"Maybe I'd be a little less reserved if I had someone other than this lout to talk to," Zach said, nodding back to Jacob. "He keeps complaining about how he's not going to get to see the others for a few days. I for one am ready to get out of this city. I've been stuck inside far too long!"

"Hey, some people get homesick easily," Jacob said defensively. "But then again, I guess this isn't home so I shouldn't really be complaining." He shrugged and looked to Finn and Jacob. "As much as I am still naturally suspicious about everything in this setting, thank you for the invitation."

"You're very welcome, Jacob," Max said sincerely before turning to Tristan. "And you, Tristan. Are you as geared up for swimming as Micah makes you out to be?"

"That depends," Tristan asked with a sly smile. "Do we get to swim naked?"

"No sex in my pool, but otherwise yes, if that is your desire," Finn interjected with a grin. "Now come on, we have others waiting for us."

"Others?" Micah asked, looking back at his friends. "I thought it was just going to be us."

"Well, I have a couple of friends that I was hoping would join us," Max said, wiggling his eyebrows suggestively. "Finn was kind enough to humor me in inviting them, and so if we could get to the roof as quickly as possible…"

"What are we waiting for?" Micah said excitedly. "Let's go!"

Max smiled and Micah's exuberance and directed that he should lead the way. Tristan stepped to Micah's side and eyed Finn and Max's hands before sliding his own into Micah's. Micah looked down in surprise but then squeezed Tristan's hand tightly as he started down the hallway. Finn started walking after them, and Zach and Jacob took up the rear.

The fact that the boys seemed to be accepting their current situation with a smile was enough to make Max forget his own troubles for a moment. It had been a long time since he had been able to witness such youthful exuberance, and he had forgotten how good it felt to see young people in love, not only with each other but with life itself. His own youth was so far behind him now that he sometimes forgot how it had felt; he hated the way he seemed to forget those things.

He squeezed Finn's fingers once, and then felt him mimic the gesture an instant later. Finn was so strong that Max often was forced to wonder if he ever had the doubts or insecurities that Max faced on a daily basis. Max was never too far away from wondering if he was going to make it to the end of the war, either mentally or physically. He had no doubt in Ivan's mission; it was definitely the right thing to do to attempt to disrupt Oberon and to free the ancient ones from prison. It was definitely the right thing to do to attempt to make the world a place where all people could live in harmony.

But no matter his level of faith in the path they were on, the sheer amount of obstacles that seemed to stand in their way seemed insurmountable at times. Before they even had to worry about facing Oberon and attempting to free Ivan's ancestors they had to reach Avalon. In order to reach Avalon they had to find it, and it order to find it they had to have some level of intelligence on where it was.

Of course, none of that could even happen before the war was settled. Ivan had joined with the Alliance for two major reasons. The one that everyone knew, was that he benefited from their influence and power in taking down the previous human regime. The second but equally important reason for Ivan's own goals, was to gain access to the resources of knowledge controlled by Nightshade and Noh-Kitsune. The lore of the Americas was predominantly oral in nature, at least if it were ancient enough to give Ivan any credible amount of usefulness in finding out how to defeat Oberon. The resources of Europe and East Asia, on the other hand, were vast and ancient; he had hoped that through becoming a member of The Alliance, he would be able to access that deep and ancient lore, but instead he had been met with resistance at nearly every point in the process.

And now, The Alliance had turned on him. Nightshade had backed an assassination attempt and a coup, and they were preparing to commit genocide on the human race, if they had not begun already. Everything that Ivan had managed to accomplish, despite Nightshade breathing down his neck, now stood in jeopardy. It was enough to drive Max mad.

His role in Ivan's government had become more and more difficult with each passing year. Ivan had trusted few members of his inner circle with the true knowledge of his designs. At first there had been a dozen beyond Ivan who knew, but five were killed over the first five years of the conflict. Another two had died from sickness, another from the ravages of time. Another went missing several years ago while researching in Europe, and another was serving as the Ambassador to Noh-Kitsune. Finn and Max were the last two remaining members of that initial inner circle who had remained by Ivan's side. Finn had been put in charge of Ivan's personal security detail, while Max was trusted to help Ivan run the country.

But now there were more who knew. Now the inner circle had been extended again to include Tristan and Micah, and of course Nevala. When Ivan had first told them about Nevala's appearance in the Arizona desert, he had made tracking down The Icarus Confederacy his top priority. It was that switch in focus that had also driven General Faust to try to beat them to the punch, and had eventually led them to Kurt's ghost. Now they had the rest of the confederacy on board as well, even though some of them were still waiting to be told about Ivan's reasons for pursuing Avalon. Max was starting to feel relief for the first time in over a year, but he still needed the break.

He had been so lost in his thoughts that he hadn't realized they had reached the stairs that led to the roof. A smile began to spread across his face as he thought about who would be waiting for them at the top. Although the members of The Confederacy still didn't trust Max, Finn, or Ivan's intentions, Max had already formed his opinion about all of them. He liked every single one, and wanted to get to know them better. Liking people had always come easy to him, but even then, some had it easier than others.

Micah opened the door to the roof, and stepped outside, quickly followed by Tristan and then Finn and Max, and the smile that Max had felt growing before nearly doubled in size. Hayden and Luke looked at Micah and Tristan with questioning eyes, and Tristan and Micah seemed no less confused by Hayden and Luke's presence. "Wait, are you guys coming with us?" Micah asked as the two couples crossed the distance between them.

"Coming with you?" Hayden asked, looking at Luke for an answer. His husband shrugged and shook his head, and Hayden turned back to Micah. "Coming with you where?"

"The reason that we asked to meet you was to see if you wanted to come to our estate for a few days," Max said smoothly as he let go of Finn's hand so that he could extend it first to Hayden and then to Luke. He held Luke's hand for a touch longer than he should have, but he doubted that Luke thought much about it, despite Max's warm smile. "If you're interested, we'd love to have the two of you fly us there. We can take your vehicle instead of ours."

"Wait… you're going to let me fly again?" Hayden asked, his eyes wide with surprise. "I thought I would never see the inside of my baby again. As far as I'm concerned, we're in, but it's Luke's call."

"We didn't prepare anything to take with us," Luke said, shaking his head. "We can't impose on you like that…"

"You guys are really weird," Zach observed. Everyone turned to look at him and he snorted with suppressed laughter. "This is probably the strangest conversation I've witnessed in a long time."

"I apologize for my friend here," Jacob said with a grin. "He never knew what a sitcom was, and he's never known what a dinner party is either; not to mention getting invited by your rich friends to their country estate. I have to admit that I'm a bit surprised at how quickly you reverted to your suburban upbringing, Luke. You sound like you stepped out of a television show! You're so… domestic."

"That aside," Max said with a chuckle, "You wouldn't be imposing at all. We have staff that live at the estate year round, and they take good care of the place. We'll be able to provide you with everything that you need. The boys here were already invited and are excited to go. Two more bodies will hardly make it unbearable."

"As for why you've been cleared to fly again," Finn added as soon as Max had finished speaking, "We cleared that with Ivan this morning. Since you have decided to help us, we see no great risk in letting you use your equipment again. After all, we're certainly no longer enemies."

"Consider it a show of good faith on our part that we mean what we said when we promised that you have your freedom," Max added with a gesture toward the aircraft which stood on the far end of the rooftop where it had been landed by Hayden almost a week before. "If you're willing to take us, then please, lead the way."

Luke and Hayden shared a look, and for once there was little distrust in it. Max sucked in his breath and held it, holding onto the hope that they were finally open to trusting him. When they turned back toward him, their eyes told him everything Max needed to know, and he released his breath slowly. "Of course we'll come. How could we say 'no' after a discussion like that?" Luke asked with a twinkle in his eye. "Besides, I have to keep up my reputation of being the domestic housewife."

"The only question I have is, where are Peter, Ethan, and Nevala?" Hayden asked with a raised eyebrow. "They should be with the family!"

"Nevala is helping Ivan with some research, and you know how Ethan has been. He's practically glued to Nevala's side," Max said with a chuckle. "As for Peter… He's still recovering from his blood loss, and unlike Tristan here who seems to heal very quickly, he still has a ways to go. Let's just hope that by the time we get back he's a new man."

Hayden nodded and said, "Then let's go. I'm driving, and Luke's riding shotgun."

"What the fuck does riding shotgun mean?" Zach asked, shaking his head. "Is this another joke only old people get?"

"Well, Zach, I was going to say that you could spend time in the cockpit too, learning how to fly, but if you think I'm old…" Hayden trailed off as he started walking away, followed by protests from Zach as the Confederacy members continued on toward the aircraft.

"That joke was in bad taste, you know, the one about Peter becoming a new man?" Finn whispered when the others were out of earshot. Max looked up and saw Finn's eyes, and though they were filled with love, they also had an edge to them that Max hated seeing.

"You know what, Finn?" Max said, losing his smile completely. "I am allowed to be happy and hopeful for Peter if I want to be, and you can take your moral superiority and shove it. Can we please just forget about it for these next few days and just love each other's company?"

"I'm sorry, Max, I shouldn't have said anything," Finn conceded with a sigh. "You're right. Tonight, we entertain, but once I get you alone…" he paused and leaned in, whispering in Max's ear in a way that send shivers down his spine, "I'll make sure to make it up to you."

Max nodded and slipped his hand into Finn's again. His smile returned as he stared into Finn's eyes and saw none of the edge that had been there before. "You'd better. It's been far too long. Now let's go join our new friends before they leave us behind."

"Peter! I'm so happy to see you!" Ethan exclaimed as he walked into the room. Peter was sitting up in bed with his blanket tucked around his torso. He was also wearing tightly wrapped bandages around his chest that concealed his breasts to some effect, though they were starting to chafe. Of all the people that Peter could have seen, however, Ethan was the one he was most comfortable around. After all, Ethan knew exactly what it was like to be stuck in a body he didn't ask for.

"If you had come to visit I wouldn't have turned you away," Peter replied with a slight smile. "You of all people should know that I welcome your company. How many times have we spent talking about things the others would never understand?"

"Well, it looks like you might be able to escape that now," Ethan said with a wide grin. Peter looked at him dumbly and then glanced at Ivan who was standing in the doorway and who shrugged in apology.

"Wait, so you know?" Peter asked, narrowing his eyes at Ivan before turning back to Ethan. "Why were you told?'

Ivan cleared his throat and then answered the question that the wide-eyed Ethan could not. "I said that I would need Nevala and my apprentice's help. Finn refused to participate, and so Ethan will be filling in as my apprentice. I apologize for not clearing it with you first, but I assumed that since you are willing to do anything to get this done…"

"No, that makes sense," Peter replied, shaking his head. "Of course I'm willing to accept this development, though I don't want anyone other than Ethan to know from among my friends. Not until it's over."

Nevala glided into the room, smiling pleasantly at Ivan and Ethan and then coming to stand by the side of Peter's head with his hands on his hips and a disapproving look on his face. Although Peter hadn't seen Nevala since they had left the complex, there was no mistaking his hair and eyes, and Peter had been kept up to date about the incredulous pace at which Nevala was maturing, but the now twenty-year-old man who stood in front of him still caught him off guard. The last time they had been in the same room Nevala had been a child, and now he was one of the most attractive men that Peter had ever seen. He was wearing a loose-fitting robe that showed off his bare chest beneath, and Peter's eyes slipped several times from Nevala's face to that chest.

"So… you're saying that we're not friends, Peter?" Nevala asked with disdain. "Is it too late for me to join the rest of them out in the country, Ivan?"

"Hey now, I didn't mean it like that," Peter said, smiling broadly. "I didn't include you in that distinction because I already knew that Ivan was asking you to participate, but you are definitely my friend. I am quite grateful that you're here and helping me. Thank you, Nevala."

"Don't mention it," Nevala said with a wave of his hand. "You might not thank me by the end of the day. I trust that you have come to terms with the fact that this might not work or that you may not like the price you end up paying?"

"I… I think so. And what were you saying about joining the others in the country?" Peter asked.

"I had the others sent away so that you wouldn't have to deal with the prospect of them finding out," Ivan explained. "They left yesterday. I didn't tell you because it honestly slipped my mind as Nevala and I were preparing, and training Ethan to fulfill his role today."

"Today?" Peter echoed. "You mean…"

"We're as ready as we're going to be to make the attempt," Ethan explained as he laid a hand on Peter's shoulder. Peter felt a tingle of electricity travel through his skin but otherwise Nevala's touch was unremarkable. He realized then that Ethan was touching him without his gloves.

"I know you just told me we're going to do it today but, Ethan… you're not wearing your gloves!" Peter said excitedly. "What made you decide to take the risk?"

"It's not much of a risk anymore, Peter," Ethan explained with a chuckle. "It seems that this 'apprentice' title that Ivan has applied to me is more than reflective of my role in your wish ritual. Ivan's taught me to control my powers to some degree. At least he's able to keep me from accidentally killing anyone."

"It seems like we may both be able to escape ourselves," Peter said with a hopeful smile. He turned to Ivan and said with a nod, "I'm ready to begin whenever you are."

"Very good." Ivan nodded and turned to Nevala and said, "In that case, Nevala, would you mind giving Peter instructions on how to prepare while I use Ethan to get the room ready?"

"Certainly," Nevala replied with a low bow before turning back to Peter. "There are some things that you are not going to like about this ritual, but unfortunately they are requirements. You will need to be naked, not only for the purposes of preparation but also for the terms of the ritual itself. We'll be warping your physical reality, and that will be significantly easier if we have full access to your physical self."

Peter grimaced and glanced toward his bandaged chest, though he couldn't see it through the blanket. "Do the bandages count?" He asked when he looked up to see Nevala's sympathetic smile.

"I'm afraid so," Nevala replied with a sigh. "Don't worry about it, Peter. We're not going to think anything of it. We're here to help you, and just try to remember that, okay?" Peter nodded slowly and Nevala continued, "The other thing you need to know before we go through with this is how it will feel. You're going to feel like we're inside of your head, and then you'll feel something that I can only describe as us 'scraping your soul'."

"That sounds ugly, but I suppose it's worth it," Peter replied with a weak smile. "Let's do this then, unless there's something else you need to tell me."

"Well, I do have to give you directions on how to prepare mentally, not just physically," Nevala replied quickly, glancing back at Ivan and Ethan who were busy laying out a large piece of canvas across the floor. The canvas had been painted with an intricate design of four interlocked circles, one slightly larger than the others was set in the middle of the design, while the three outer circles were connected through an equilateral triangle. A number of other lines formed a variety of other geometric shapes that interconnected throughout the weave, but seemed less prominent than the circles and the triangle. Trails of Arabic script ran though the design at various points, though Peter's own understanding of the language was minimal at best. He glanced up nervously at Nevala who was looking at him again with a sympathetic smile.

"All right then, what do I need to do?" Peter asked, attempting to cover his anxiety about the coming ritual.

"You need to be focused on two things. One, the wish itself, and two, the price you are willing to pay," Nevala explained. "What will come of that will be up to the energies that we use, and we will have little say it what happens from there. You must do your best to keep all other thoughts from your mind. Any other thoughts could complicate the result you desire from the wish."

"We're just about ready to begin, Peter," Ivan said as he smoothed out a portion of the canvas. "I just need to do some meditative work to get into the proper mindset, and then I'll be ready. Nevala is going to do the talking, since I have to retain my focus, so unless you have any questions for me right now, from this point forward I ask that you take them up with him."

"I don't have any more questions," Peter said with a resolute nod. "I think I've got it."

"Very good," Ivan replied with a grin. "Then please, join us."

Their guests seemed to be enjoying themselves, though Finn wished that he could say the same for Max. Every time he turned around, Max was watching Tristan and Micah with a melancholy expression. There was something else that seemed to occupy Max's attention as well, and that was most telling in where Max refused to look. Hayden and Luke had been engaged in romantic displays of affection for the duration of their stay, and Max had all but ignored them when they were not in conversation with him.

Finn was sure he knew why Max had been behaving that way, though he struggled to find the appropriate way to bring it up with Max. He knew that with the pressures that had been put on them over the past few years, their relationship had become strained, and Max was constantly dreaming of the days they had once spent together in their hometown. Max had once been a very shy boy, and Finn had brought him out of his shell and helped him explore the world. They had gone on many adventures, and had been drawn closer together through shared experience.

And for the past several years, that shared experience had dried up and become but a few hours when they managed to share the same bed. Finn's time was spent at Ivan's side, and Max's time was spent taking care of Ivan's affairs. There never seemed to be a chance for time alone with each other.

"Why don't you and I leave them by the pool and go for a walk in the garden?" Finn asked as he rested a hand on Max's shoulder. Max seemed startled by the sudden gesture and looked up from his chair, blinking as he processed the suggestion.

"And leave our guests unsupervised in our home?" Max asked, a half-smile creeping onto his face, though his eyes were pained. "Are you so sure you want to do that?"

Finn looked out at the pool, seeing the three naked boys playing and splashing each other in the corner. They had taken to the idea of skinny-dipping quite easily, and were not shy at all about being in the presence of the older men. Finn had been forced to repress shaking his head at their antics when they had first arrived. While he had never had a problem with nudity himself, he was from a different era with different customs, and when he had been a boy of their age most of his friends would not have been caught dead skinny-dipping.

"I think they're going to be quite occupied. We did make it clear that there was no sex in the pool, didn't we?" Finn asked with a chuckle.

"Yes. Only a dozen times or so," Max replied, rolling his eyes. "But, then again Micah and Tristan do seem to be on the verge of it at every moment. I wonder why Zach puts up with it."

"Maybe he gets off on it?" Finn suggested with a shrug. "Come on, we can leave instructions for Hayden and Luke to make sure things don't get out of hand. Or perhaps I could ask Jacob to watch over things. He seems responsible enough."

"You only said that because you knew I was listening, didn't you?" Jacob asked from behind Finn. "You two go ahead and take your walk. I'll make sure that they keep the semen out of the pool."

"You don't hold back at all, do you?" Max asked with sparkling eyes. "Very well. If Jacob is going to take charge I would love to join you in the garden."

Finn nodded and extended his hand to Max to help him up from his chair, and he smiled warmly when Max took it and allowed himself to be pulled to his feet. Finn then offered his arm to Max and they walked slowly from the pool to the doors that led outside to the garden. Max was tense the entire time that they walked, and Finn slowly began to wonder if there was more going on than he suspected.

He knew that Max had always had a crush on Luke from the moment that Max had first learned about Luke's brilliance. At the beginning, Finn had not been worried about that crush, knowing that there was no way that anything would ever come of it, but as they walked past Hayden and Luke on their way to the outside, he noticed Max's head turn slightly as if he were watching them out of the corner of his eye. Regardless of whether or not there was any chance of Max getting with Luke, there was definitely something going on.

Finn made plans to address it as they stepped outside, letting go of Max's arm briefly to make sure that the door was closed properly behind them. He then took Max's arm again, and was surprised to find that the tension from before was gone. Thoroughly confused, Finn remained silent as they walked arm in arm through the garden until they came to a large stone bench that overlooked a presently inoperable fountain. He doubted that it would ever be operable again, given the state of the world, though the staff that watched over the estate kept the stone clean. It was like living in a partially complete world.

"This is nice," Max said quietly, "Finally being alone." Finn turned to Max to see that his hands were folded neatly in his lap as he stared at the ground in front of them. His smile was gone and his eyes were dark and distant.

"What's wrong, Max?" Finn asked, not willing to placate Max's desire to beat around the bush. "I thought that you wanted this vacation."

"Is it a vacation, Finn? Or are we babysitting?" Max asked, turning toward Finn and smiling weakly before the expression quickly became a frown. "Finn, you had to be ordered to come out here. I can't help but question if that's because you didn't want to spend time with me, as much as because of the fact that you don't want to leave Ivan."

"Do you really think that?' Finn asked, startled by the sudden admission. "Why would you believe that at all? After everything we've been through?"

"Oh no, no, no… you do not get to be offended by that," Max protested, standing up and glaring down at Finn as he crossed his arms over his chest. "I'm opening up to you, so no moral high ground from you or I'm going to walk away."

Finn raised his hands in surrender and then patted the seat next to him. "I'm sorry that it came out that way. I didn't mean it. Please, don't go anywhere." Max nodded and let his arms fall to his side, and Finn dove for the sudden opening, launching himself off of the bench as he began to tickle Max's ribs. Max initially resisted and tried to push Finn away, but he couldn't withstand Finn's fingers for long, and Finn was able to guide him gently to the ground. Once he was there, he straddled Max's midsection and stared down at Max's eyes, losing himself in the sea of blue that looked up at him with delight that Max could no longer repress.

"I didn't mean it in terms of questioning how, I questioned why," Finn clarified with a grin. "I wanted to know the reason behind so that I could tackle the root of the issue. I figured it would be best for me to start by tackling you, since you were threatening to leave me."

"Point taken. Will you let me up?" Max asked, raising himself up on his elbows.

Finn shook his head and settled down on Max's crotch. "I kind of like it here, to be honest, but, if you're uncomfortable…" He slid off and to Max's side, propping himself up close against Max's body on one elbow. "I can adjust. Talk to me. Tell me what's up?"

"You've dropped your professionalism for once. That's good to see at least," Max replied with a sigh. "I don't know for sure what's up and what isn't, Finn. There's so much going through my head right now. It's a muddled mess of a thousand different questions, and I don't know what to do with any of it."

"Why don't you start with the biggest ones? Tell me why you're bothered by the presence of the others," Finn suggested, laying his free hand against Max's chest as he began to trace small circles against the cloth of his shirt. "I know it's different between why you're bothered by the boys and why you're bothered by Hayden and Luke."

"I love you, Finn, and I admire so much about you, especially your powers of observation, but this time you're dead wrong." Max said with a light giggle as he moved one hand to behind his head to serve as a pillow against the cold, hard ground, and then slipped his other hand into Finn's hand that was playing on his chest, bringing it down to nestle between their bodies. "It's definitely the same reason I'm bothered between the two couples, though I admit that they are two aspects to the same problem."

"And what is that?" Finn asked patiently. He gave Max's hand a comforting squeeze and smiled when Max squeezed back.

"When I look at Tristan and Micah, I see us when we were young; how in love we were and the way everything seemed brighter because at least we had each other. They are so full of energy and happiness that it blows me away to think that we were once like that," Max said bitterly. "Then I look at Hayden and Luke and how close they are. It became so painful that I had to look away and couldn't watch them anymore. We've drifted apart, Finn."

Finn was quiet for a moment as he considered the words. Max was right, at least partially, about the fact that they had drifted apart, but the cause wasn't hopeless. They had been together for a long time, and there was no way that Finn was going to give up yet. "Do you remember what I told you when I committed my life to yours, Max?" Finn asked, letting the hand that had been supporting his head move over to smooth Max's hair back from his face.

Max sighed contentedly under the gesture, and kept his eyes closed as he considered the memory. "Yes, of course," He replied with a small smile, "Like it was yesterday."

"I think it bears repeating again," Finn said with a gentle chuckle, "because I think you may need a reminder." He leaned forward and kissed Max's lips, pulled back slightly, and then kissed him again. He knew Max well, and was rewarded by the response he expected as Max let a slight giggle escape his lips.

"Then by all means," Max replied before moving his head up to plant a kiss on Finn's lips.

"Max," Finn began when Max settled on the ground again, "when I met you, you filled a void in my heart that I didn't know was there. It was like fate itself was drawing me to you. I found myself thinking about you every day, all the time. I still do, actually," He added with a chuckle, "Come to think of it. You're always there at least in part. But back then," He continued in a more serious tone, "you were the first thing that came to mind when I opened my eyes in the morning, and the last thing I thought of when I went to bed at night."

"And what about now?" Max asked, finally opening his eyes and staring at Finn with the question repeated his gaze.

Finn kept their eyes locked together as he answered, "You were then, and you still are, the other half of my soul. I feel like everything I do poorly, you do well, and everything I excel at, I'm able to support you in. Every time we have a conflict, it seems like we resolve it smoothly through knowing that we balance each other out." He made sure every single word was clear as he continued, "You are everything good in my life, and losing you would be the most painful thing I can imagine. It would be like losing half of myself."

"You do have a way with words, don't you?" Max said, giving Finn another quick peck on the lips, but when he pulled away he sighed and squeezed Finn's hand. "But then why is this so hard?" He asked with a shake of his head. "Why have we drifted apart?"

"Because sometimes I forget to look into the mirror of my soul and realize that I'm neglecting you," Finn said with an apologetic smile. "Sometimes I forget how important it is to take care of parts of me that I always assume will be there."

"I will always be there, Finn," Max said with a grin, and Finn felt moisture forming in his normally tearless eyes as Max continued, "You are as much a part of me as I am of you, and I'll never leave you. I promise."

Peter slid out of the bed nervously. The others were not watching him, giving him a semblance of privacy despite the fact that they were still in the room with him. He looked down at his bandage wrapped body, clearly seeing the parts of his body he wished were not there at all. He knew that his wounds were healed enough that he could remove the bandages, but they were keeping the rest of his shame contained.

"You know, it's going to be all right, Peter," Ethan said without looking up. He was studying a piece of paper in his hands that Ivan had handed to him several seconds earlier. "You are among friends, and we are here for you."

Peter nodded even though he knew that Ethan could not see the gesture and then took a deep breath. He began unwrapping the bandages slowly, closing his eyes as he did so to avoid having to witness his reveal to the others. He felt the bandages pull away from his skin and free his breasts, and then he had to take a deep breath to continue. Determined to get through it, he finished the process and then slowly opened his eyes to find the others in the same position they had been in before.

"You're going to need to take the central circle," Ivan directed, gesturing to the center of the canvas with one hand while he studied a paper in his other. It was similar to the one that he had handed off to Ethan.

"Between the three of you, I'm guessing?" Peter asked, since none of them had taken up position in the other circles. Ivan was standing near one, while Ethan was by the corner of the canvas, near the window. Nevala seemed to be meditating while standing off to the side of the canvas. Ivan did not respond, and Peter remembered his earlier admonition to direct his questions to Nevala. In light of the present circumstances, with Ivan studying his paper and Nevala seeming lost in trance, Peter wondered if he had misunderstood, but he trusted his earlier information and directed himself at Nevala. "Where are the three of you going to be?"

"We'll be using the three outer circles," Nevala replied, opening his eyes and looking in Peter's direction. Peter began to feel vulnerable until Nevala locked their gazes together. "Everything is going to be fine, Peter," Nevala said soothingly. The cadence of his voice seemed to work almost like a lullaby, guiding Peter down into calm security. "Just flow with the energies and everything is going to work out."

A shuffling of clothing from the side brought Peter's attention back to Ethan who was in the process of removing the upper portion of his insulated suit. Peter raised an eyebrow and was about to ask what he was doing when Nevala explained, "Ivan thought it would make you more comfortable if we were on a level playing field, or, at least if the two of us joined you. He'll be remained clothed so that he doesn't lose his focus. Since he'll be guiding the ritual, we need him at his best."

"Wait, you're…" Peter began but was forced to stop as he turned his gaze back on Nevala and saw that he had already discarded his robe. Peter couldn't help but stare. Over the course of his practice as a physician, he had seen his fair share of naked people, and he had learned very early on to be professional about it, but he had never seen as unique of a specimen as Nevala. The scales that protected his chest and abs seemed to accentuate the muscles around them in such a way that Peter could trace every line. He found his eyes pulled ever lower by the flow lines that occurred naturally in Nevala's skin, and before he knew it he was staring at Nevala's penis. While Peter had never thought much about his sexuality, there was no denying that he was quickly aroused by the flesh that was on display in front of him.

He shook himself and coughed, feeling more vulnerable than he ever had before, and then he looked back up to Nevala's eyes and saw him grinning. "It's okay, Peter. I certainly don't mind you looking," Nevala said with a laugh. "Besides, that's part of the point of having a body you're comfortable with, isn't it? To show it off when you want to? How about we focus on getting you yours, and then we can talk about that look you just gave me."

"Yes, that would be the way I see it as well," Ethan interrupted, drawing Peter's attention back to him. Ethan wore a smile but his eyes were conflicted, and Peter mouthed a quick apology that Ethan accepted with a quick nod. Ethan's eyes brightened a bit as he said, "Let's get to it shall we?" He looked back down as he slid out of his pants, and Peter was rewarded with another sight of flesh that he had not expected to turn him on as much as it did. Thinking back over the few years he had spent with Ethan, he had never seen the man outside of his clothing. He never came to Peter seeking a physical, and with his living arrangements there was never a cause for awkward moments in the hallways.

Although Ethan was certainly no Adonis like Nevala was, the ageless quality that he had developed over his years was transferred to the rest of his flesh as well. He was very white; his skin had seen little sun in decades, but matching that to his light-colored hair it matched well. When Ethan removed the last piece of clothing from his body, Peter once again felt a pang of what he had thought was arousal, but he suddenly realized that it was a different emotion altogether.

It was true that he desired their parts, but it was not because of a sexual drive to have them, but rather because of envy. He desperately wanted to have one to match, and he had never been more aware of that fact than he was at that moment. It had been years since he had been in a situation where he himself was naked with other men, and it was easy to realize why. He was jealous, and he wanted what they had. He was no longer vulnerable; he was angry.

"Let's do this!" Peter said as he stepped onto the canvas and into the circle. He glanced at Nevala who was looking at him with appraising eyes. "Am I supposed to be standing, sitting, kneeling…?"

"Whatever will make you feel most comfortable," Nevala offered with a shrug as he stepped up to one of the circles himself and then knelt inside of it. "This could be a long ritual or a short one, depending on how long it takes for us to bring the energies around to your favor."

Peter nodded and knelt down in seiza, knowing that if he wanted to keep his mind clear of everything but the wish then it was his best bet. He had trained in that position for many years, and if it brought him focus in the dojo, he was sure it would do the same for him in the ritual. He closed his eyes and forced the anger away, taking deep meditative breaths to calm his agitated nerves. When he opened them again he found that he was facing the wall of the room, with Ivan in front of him and to the right, and Ethan in the circle to his left. Nevala was in the circle behind him. What surprised Peter was that he could see Nevala in his mind, as if the interconnected circles somehow created a psychic link between them. Ivan had set aside his paper and was sitting cross-legged with his eyes opened wide and staring as if he were in trance.

Ethan's eyes were closed and he seemed to be breathing rhythmically to aid his focus. Only Nevala seemed to be outside of meditative focus at the moment, and so Peter directed his question over his shoulder. "Are we about to begin, then?"

"Yes," Nevala answered gently. "Yes we are. Remember what we talked about. Maintain your focus on the wish and the price, and nothing more. I'm going to be holding a chant that should help you focus, but I can stop at any time if you need to address me. I will be contributing in other ways as well, but mostly by adding to Ivan's energy reserves. However, it will be most effective if we do not talk at all, so I suggest if you have any questions you pose them now."

"I think I am ready," Peter said resolutely, returning his focus to the wall in front of him. It was without decoration, and a plain off-white color. Almost like a blank canvas ready to be filled with paint. He latched onto that, using the imagery to help him clear his mind. "No," Peter clarified, "I am ready."

Nevala began chanting, low and steady, his voice taking on a resonance like that of a quiet rainstorm. Peter let the words, foreign words to his understanding but not to his soul, reverberate within his mind, feeding off of the rhythm of Nevala's voice. He used the imagery of the rain conjured up by Nevala's chant to wash away his idle thoughts, and forced his mind to only consider the object of his desire, and the object of his hatred.

It had been an easy decision as to what he would give up. In order to become the man he had always wanted to be, one part of himself had always stood in his way. The tiger blood that flowed through his veins that resisted all tampering. The tiger had been the one to prevent him from attaining his true happiness and peace, and it was time for the tiger to go. He held in his mind his perfect image of his male form, while simultaneously pushing away the tigress who tried to claw away the image, the two thoughts dancing to the sound of Nevala's chanting.

Ivan began speaking in a language that Peter did not recognize, or did not try to. He couldn't be certain. He ignored the words that Ivan was speaking and did as he was told, focusing instead only on the wish and the price. The room seemed to fade, becoming replaced with a formless void; formless all except for the circles that appeared beneath him and the others, and their physical presence as well. He knew, though he pushed the thought away quickly, that this was the moment Nevala had spoken of when he would feel them in his mind. The void was his mind, and they were now inside of it, watching the emptiness that he had created for his focus.

Before him a scene began to unfold, between his mental image of his male self and his tigress, who were circling each other like opponents in a sparring match, looking for an opening in each other's defenses. The tiger pounced and the image of Peter darted out of the way. The image of Peter then dashed in to try to wrestle the tiger to the ground, but the tiger was similarly elusive. They danced back and forth for an indeterminable amount of time as Peter watched, cheering silently for his image to win the battle.

The void slowly began to fill with light that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at once. It was bright and warm, and the tiger seemed confused by what was happening. Nevala's chanting increased in tempo, drawing Peter even further into focus on the fight in front of him. The tiger growled and darted away from Peter's image, looking around itself anxiously. The light seemed to collect beside it, filling the air and surrounding it from every angle. The tiger growled as it reared back, snapping at the light.

The light descended on the tiger, and the loud roar was the last thing that Peter felt as his whole mind erupted in heat. He screamed as he collapsed to the canvas, his mind burning as well as his soul. He couldn't see, he couldn't feel anything except for the formless fire that seemed to be consuming his flesh. He was certain he was dying, but all he could do was scream as he felt himself being torn apart. The pain continued for longer than he thought possible, thinking he had already been destroyed a long time before, but when it finally began to fade and his body began to cool and reform, he felt the canvas underneath him with one hand, gripping into the dense material and feeling his body slowly begin to relax. He was about to move his other arm when he felt fur beneath it.

Panic began to consume him as his skin itched against the fur, and he quickly opened his eyes and looked down, fearing that the worst had occurred. He found his panting chest, although soaking in sweat, flat and toned, devoid of breasts. His heart lurching at the faint glimmer of hope that suddenly arose within him, he let his gaze travel further down his body, which was less curvy than he had remembered, and then onto the dark patch of pubic hair, finding hanging beyond it the only piece of equipment he had ever dreamed of having. It wasn't monstrous nor small, but rather hung perfectly balanced between his legs.

Warring between confusion and elation, he looked behind him at his arm which was still incased in fur, and saw the orange and black stripes of a tiger waiting for him. He pulled his arm away quickly and out of the sea of fur, and then rolled away and onto his side, looking back in alarm at the unconscious tiger that lay in the ring with him. In the process of rolling away he collided with Nevala, whose eyes snapped open in surprise as he caught the flailing Peter and looked at the tiger with wide eyes.

"Well, that was an unexpected result," Nevala remarked. Peter squirmed in his arms, trying to get further away from the beast that lay in front of him, but Nevala held him fast. "Hang on, calm down," Nevala said in his soothing voice. "Everything is okay."

Once again, something in Nevala's voice began to calm Peter as he rested in Nevala's naked lap. He kept his eyes locked on the tiger as he heard Ethan gasp and scramble away from the animal. Ivan grunted and stood as well, which Peter caught out of his peripheral vision, but he otherwise did not look away from the beast in front of him.

"This is the result?" Ethan asked. "Certainly not what I expected but… Peter… Oh my god, look at you!" Peter was able to look away then, blinking several times at Ethan's expression, a mixture of confusion, fear, and delight. Peter followed Ethan's gaze and looked at his body again, this time allowing the image to sink in. He had been changed. The ritual had succeeded, and he had become a man. Everything he had always wanted was now at his fingertips.

He patted his flattened chest and then extended his hands lower, exploring every inch of his new skin. He stood, feeling his body move; his body, the one he had always imagined in his mind. It felt right, it felt normal. He looked at Ethan and smiled wide as tears of happiness came to his eyes. Ethan nodded with moist eyes of his own, and Peter turned his gaze first to Nevala to whom he mouthed a quick 'thank you', and then he turned his eyes toward Ivan, whom was watching the tiger cautiously.

"You… you did it," Peter choked out as he stepped toward Ivan. He was pleasantly surprised by the deeper voice that came from his mouth than he had previously spoken with. For a brief instant it seemed foreign to him, but then he realized that it was the same voice with which he had spoken inside of his mind for his entire life. "Thank you, Ivan. You may never know how much this means to me."

Ivan nodded slowly and then glanced at Peter, smiling weakly. "You may not thank me in the future. I have no idea what this," he said, gesturing at the tiger, "means, and I'm very curious to find out. You, however, do seem to have what you asked for. I think we can make the assumption at the very least everything is good for now. Why don't we…"

"Ivan, something is coming," Nevala interrupted. Peter returned his gaze to Nevala and saw a look of fear on his face; the first time he had ever witnessed that emotion in Nevala. "Goblins," Nevala whispered, turning to look at the window.

"Coming? I'm here," a deep, masculine voice said from the direction of the bed. The group turned as one to stare at the man who leaned casually against the bedpost, wearing a fine cut black suit with a white shirt buttoned up all the way to the top, and a black tie that hung around his neck. He had dark, wavy hair that was smoothed back, revealing a young face whose only sign of age was the bit of scruffy facial hair that covered his jaw and upper lip, as if he had not shaved in several days.

"Sparrow," Ivan said neutrally. "To what do I owe the displeasure of your presence?'

"You've been a very bad boy, Ivan," Sparrow replied, wiggling his eyebrows mischievously. "Nightshade wants to see you, and you're going to come now. Can't have any witnesses, either, so you can choose to come or to die. You have ten seconds to make your decision."

"They'll come," Ivan said as Nevala engulfed his hands in flames. The flames dissipated as Nevala turned his gaze to Ivan and raised a questioning eyebrow. "They'll come, but we will not be restrained. We are citizens of the Alliance, and I will not be bullied into submission."

"Very well. Then, it's time to go," Sparrow said and waved his hand, and Peter gasped as the world around him disappeared, leaving him with nothing but darkness and silence.

Cynus is starting out on a career as a full time professional writer.
If you enjoy his craft please consider becoming one of his patrons.
In order to support him just press this big button!
[Please note that this is entirely separate from supporting our website at]
Talk about this story on our forum

Authors deserve your feedback. It's the only payment they get. If you go to the top of the page you will find the author's name. Click that and you can email the author easily.* Please take a few moments, if you liked the story, to say so.

[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address (it goes directly to your clipboard without having the courtesy of mentioning that to you) to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. Note: If the email address pastes or arrives with %40 in the middle, replace that weird set of characters with an @ sign.]

* Some browsers may require a right click instead