Stress Relief

by Jump Ai (じゃんぷEYE)

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/30202.html)

(sequel to The Lion & the Paladin: see SSBB no.6)

The paladin’s quarters at the top of the main tower were the largest rooms of the barracks, though none of the guards begrudged him the space, filled as it was by thick tomes of learning and stoppered flasks of noxious chemicals. His narrow cot was no larger than any common soldier’s, and the linens as cheap and rough. He dressed and spoke as befitted his advanced office, but for his own person he demanded no coddling niceties, and the men respected him for that.

They also appreciated that he had that highest room. Even a trained paladin couldn’t descend five flights of old wooden stairs in complete silence. The creaking gave them a couple moments’ warning.

This morning, however, the men in the mess all were shooting looks at the stairwell as they breakfasted. The sun had risen nearly an hour before with no sign of the paladin. When at last they heard the fall of boots on the steps above, most of them gulped their last bites and hurried to their duties with a keen punctuality that would have made their commanders proud. Those few remaining glanced at each other in companionable resignation, except for one young private, who rolled his eyes towards the stairs and remarked, “Way past time for him to be up, innit? Must’ve tied on a few last night.”

“You shut it,” snapped the old sergeant next to him.

“Hey, there’s no sin in it,” the private said. He had recently transferred from Evanston, a city large enough to have two master paladins and a journeyman or two to boot, and had the education himself to have lost a small town man’s superstitious reverence for learning. “He’s no priest; even a master paladin’s a man like any of us. They got beer and whores in the Grandcrown, same as anywhere.”

“Maybe so, but Sir Quest isn’t any of us. Or any of your other paladins,” because the sergeant had been to Evanston once himself, and understood the difference. Their city might be barely more than a town, but none of Evanston’s paladins had taken the highest score on every graduation exam. “Maybe he’s no priest, to turn up his nose at a round offered to him, but he wouldn’t overdo it. Most like he spent all night looking for a cure for pureleaf blight.”

The private might have argued the point, but the paladin himself then appeared. Despite the late morning, he was composed as ever, black hair drawn back in a perfect queue and no line of his white robes out of place. All that betrayed his poise was the rapid pace of his words, though they held no audible irritation, only his usual calm confidence. “Sergeant Kiroku, Private Bradler, can you be spared from your duties this morning?”

“Yes, sir,” the sergeant said, jerking to his feet with a salute as he stamped on young Bradler’s boot under the table. The private jumped up with a sloppier salute, ducking his head from the paladin’s ebon stare.

Quest nodded. “Good. I need leaf and soil samples from the southern pureleaf fields, a dozen should be enough. You’re familiar with the sampling equipment, Sergeant?”

“Yes, sir. Happy to, sir.”

“Thank you. You’ll be eligible for the outside hazard bonus, naturally, I’ll see to the forms when I return. Be careful out there,” the paladin warned.

“You’ll not be coming with us? Er, sir?” the private asked.

“No. I need to collect samples from the western fields.”

“Ah,” said the sergeant. “You’ll be taking a guard escort with you, sir?”

“I’ll be fine,” Quest said, with the merest hint of impatience.

“As you say, sir. We’ll be going now, then, sir.” He saluted smartly, the private hastily following suit.

Bradler, sensitive to his superior’s mood, didn’t say anything until they were at the equipment shack, out of the paladin’s earshot. “He’ll really go to the western limits alone? But that’s bordering the pride’s territory.”

“It is.” The sergeant nodded proudly. “You think he’s got reason to fear the hems? He can fight the Lion himself. I’ve seen it, with these two eyes myself.”

The private was staring and making an unsuccessful attempt to hide it. “I’d heard that tossed around, but the pride’s king…”

“Oh, Cale’s a monster, sure enough, even for a hem. But Sir Quest is a master paladin, and that’s stronger than any master creature.”

“Can’t see it myself, with him so…”

Kiroku shot the private a knowing look. “That’d be the first time he spoke to you, wouldn’t it be.”

“It would,” Bradler admitted. “He’s…taller than I took him for.” The paladin’s willowy frame was deceptively slight; face to face, he was of a height with Bradler himself. Though it would have been difficult to look down on Quest even if he had been shorter; the assured cant of his head and the sharpness of his black eyes would put him on a level with anyone, even without the rank of master paladin. But that he had the strength of body to match that will–it was hard to credit, with him so slender, and the face around those eyes so delicate, the sharp features like fine carving, skin pale and pure as a lady’s. The private’s ears reddened to recall it.

The sergeant chuckled. “He’s a rare one, our Sir Quest. But don’t be fooled–he is a paladin, and not just of the books. Any way there is to fight, he’s learned it. He’s stronger than us, lad. Strong enough that he can march into hem territory and come out again. He’s a master paladin, and he’s here to protect us citizens. He’ll never forget that, and the best we can do is remember it, and always help him in his duty.”

“Yes, sir,” the private said, saluting, and this time he meant it.

Usually Quest would have walked the six kilometers to the city limits. But usually he didn’t awaken a good hour and a half after he had intended to start the day. It had been a restless night, a long time for any sleep to come, and that which had was rife with tense and disquieting dreams. As he had been troubled since the congressional decree had been announced last week. With little enough reason, and he berated himself for it. He was a paladin, not a politician; his duty was to enforce policy, not judge it.

Besides, he had other duties. Unprofessional, to allow himself to be so distracted. Unprofessional, too, for a paladin to dwell on past mistakes, so he forced aside the frustration of the late morning, and took the garrison’s solar cycle to the western border. It was a peaceful ride through the fields, green leaves lining the narrow road and wind whistling through his helmet.

In ten minutes he reached the city limits, the red-tagged electric fence that divided the fields from the rocky plains of the pride’s territory. There were no citizens tending this quadrant of land, and none of the hem gang visible on the other side of the fence. He strode alone among the dark green stalks, swimming in a sea of long blades up to his chin.

The blight here wasn’t as bad as he had feared; of the plants he examined, only half had sickly yellow streaking the leaves. Quest clipped samples of both afflicted leaves and healthy, then crouched to dig a finger into the earth between the stalks, verifying it was as wet as it should be. Perhaps a problem in the irrigation system–

He heard the whisper of leaves brushing more than wind behind him, but before he could tell whether it was a bird or something larger, a powerful arm wrapped around his neck, and the weight of a heavy body pressed to his back. A low voice rumbled, “Out at the city limits alone? You should be more careful, paladin.”

Only a hem could have approached so quietly. But few of the lion’s pride would have crossed the fence. Quest, listening with the sharp focus of surprise, could hear no one else nearby. It was only him, and Cale. The lion himself, uncontested leader of the largest gang in the state, considered to be among the most dangerous hems ever born. Of his gang, for all their power, only Cale would dare take on a paladin alone.

Had Quest realized sooner, he could have blocked or dodged. But now his arms were pinned, and in brute strength, the hem was the stronger; Quest couldn’t break the hold. Cale’s breath was hot on his cheek, hissing in his ear, “So what will you do now?”

Quest smiled, a tight-lipped smirk, and arched his back to grind his hips to Cale’s. The hem growled deep in his throat, and his hold loosened enough for Quest to twist his head. He caught Cale’s ear between his teeth and bit down, hard.

Cale yelped (more a dog’s noise than a lion’s) and yanked away, almost leaving half a lobe behind. “Bastard!”

Not giving him a chance to return the favor, Quest kicked the hem’s feet out from under him. Cale landed hard, crushing pureleaf stalks, and Quest followed him down with a blow hard enough to bruise his knuckles. Wincing, Cale glared up at him with fearless, impossibly attractive ferocity, amber eyes catching the sun and lips drawn back in a feral snarl.

He growled wordlessly, clapped his hand around the back of Quest’s skull and dragged his head down to crush their mouths together. His kiss was as rough and demanding as his arms around Quest, and the paladin sighed and let himself relax against that sun-warmed, strong body. In the summer heat, Cale wore no tunic, just rough linen trunks, and his skin was tanned gold, smooth over the sleek swell of hard muscle. The pale hair on his chest and arms was soft, fur-like; and the fall of his golden mane was thick but also fine, as Quest’s fist knotted in it. His other hand slid further down–no tail yet under the cloth, but that was only a matter of time.

Cale’s able tongue traced down his throat, and the paladin tilted back his head to allow it, closing his eyes against the slanting morning sunlight. He already had collected what he needed; even if he returned to the city now, he would have to wait for the guards’ samples to run an analysis. And an hour’s tarrying might help him focus later, stave off the distraction of his physical being when he needed to work.

Besides, it had been days since they had had this chance, and Cale was in no mood to wait, shoving urgently against Quest, a humming purr in his throat. Quest shrugged off his robes, undoing the clasps one-handed with Cale’s eager assistance, stowed his glasses in their case and set his uniform aside among the green stalks, after taking one small vial from his belt.

Cale’s hands slipped under the last layer of white cotton, calloused palms rough against his skin. Quest wrapped his hand around the hem’s larger one, feeling the swelling pads at his fingertips, the nails tightening into sheathed claws, scraping his skin too carefully light to mark him.

It never ceased to amaze him, that transformation. All the fools who claimed hems were monsters, they had never witnessed this change, had never felt for themselves the balance. All that is amazing and beautiful, in animal and man both–he pitied them, those ignorant ones who didn’t know what it was to be embraced by this power. A beast’s strength, but a man’s will and passion behind it.

Those pitiful ones–those ignorant, arrogant bigots, who didn’t know and refused to listen–or else they did know, and were afraid. Quest bit down on his lip, hard enough to draw blood, clasped Cale tighter and felt the hem move against him. All that strength focused on him, striving for release–a man’s will, but a man can only do so much against the overwhelming instincts of a beast, and Cale had neither need nor desire for control. Leader of his gang, bowing to no one and beholden to nothing, he had no use for the discipline that must rule a paladin’s life.

And perhaps Quest should be wary of such wild energies, but the rigors of his training were a match for even that unrestrained strength, and he had renounced fear when he had set foot on the ship that had flown him to the Grandcrown’s paladin academy. Let Cale lose himself in the uninhibited blood tide; he had wits enough for them both. He pushed up against the hem, so that Cale felt his hardness, and the lion’s growl vibrated through both their bodies. His teeth grazed Quest’s throat, newly sharp points catching his skin, and Quest let a slight sound escape.

They rolled onto their sides, blades of leaves brushing their bare skin and his elbow sinking into the soft damp earth. Cale shone gold against the duller green plants, and the fiery yellow of his eyes might have scorched as he looked at Quest, might have devoured him. But the lion didn’t move, not yet, close enough to burn, but no closer.

Quest pushed the vial into his hand–something of a paw now, the fingers bent into claws, but four digits and a thumb, still useable. “Well? What are you waiting for?”

“What’s wrong?” Cale asked, the words a little indistinct around the feline fangs, but his voice calm, not the urgent growl.

“Wrong?”

“I haven’t seen you out here in so long, I was thinking of dyeing my hair and going into the city. I thought you’d be checking on this blight days ago, Quest. And now you’re this upset.”

“Upset, am I? Maybe you can’t understand a man’s concerns,” Quest said, curling his hand around the wood-hard length between Cale’s legs, so the hem’s hips bucked. “A beast only ruts in the proper season, after all.”

Cale snarled, a guttural lion’s cough, wounded pride and inflamed desire together. “Show you the season for it,” and he pulled the paladin to him, crushing the vial in his fist, so the oil ran over his claws as the round-edged crystal fragments scattered on the ground. Then his hands were to Quest’s body, groping lower, and Quest’s own hips thrust up as the hem’s slicked fingers slid inside.

The proper season after all, he observed through a haze of sun and sky and golden skin. Cale entered, and he moved to take all of him, feeling his throat open with his own body’s release, though whatever sound might have come with his seed was lost in the all-encompassing thunder of the beast’s roar.

Twenty minutes later, Quest disentangled himself from the hem’s sweaty, too-warm embrace. He shoved to his feet, brushed at the mud caking on his skin. Cale blinked lazily after him as Quest moved through the pureleaf stalks, following the irrigation pipeline to the spigot at the end of the row.

He spun the wheel and turned the stream of water onto himself. Heated to bath temperature by the sun, not refreshing, but it washed the dirt away.

Cale joined him, cat-quiet. He ducked his head under the stream, then straightened and shook droplets off his pale mane. Hems had little to fear from the poisons in the soil, but on occasion Cale showed a feline inclination toward cleanliness. Back arching with pleasure under the shower, he rubbed at ground-in earth, as shining rivulets ran down his skin, outlining every curve of taut and perfect form.

Quest looked away, busied himself with his own cleaning. His own skin was pale; he would burn if he stayed uncovered. And a paladin should have modesty, even if a beast could forgo it. If a citizen assigned to tend the fields happened to come early…

Though Cale showed no sign of concern, of anything but enjoyment, eyes closed and head thrown back, his profile burnished gold backed by blue sky.

“Really,” Quest muttered, “don’t cats usually bathe with their tongues?”

Cale cracked an amber eye to a narrow, irritated slit; but then he laughed. “Would you like me to help you bathe?” and he snatched Quest’s wrist, brought it to his mouth to lick the line of veins down his inner arm. His tongue was rough, ticklingly rasped, and Quest had to catch back a gasp as he ripped his arm away.

“We don’t have to be out here,” Cale said, letting him go. “The cave maybe isn’t as nice as your place in the tower, but we have bedding and blankets.” He cupped his hands under the stream, brought water to his mouth and sipped, then spat it out, making a face. “And we have real water, too, not this piped stuff. How can anyone in your city drink this?”

“I’m no hem, to be able to drink unfiltered runoff. And why would I be coming to your den?” Quest said. “I’ve no more right to be in the pride’s territory than you have to be within city limits.”

“Yet here I am. And you’re welcome there. Even if my people didn’t know you, most of us don’t bother to hate sapes as much as they hate us.”

It was casually said; Cale hadn’t lived in the cities for years, and had never been a citizen. But Quest felt his spine stiffen under the water–cooling now, the longer it ran, though not cold enough, not with the hem so close.

Then Cale was abruptly closer, stepping up behind him and almost touching, hardly more distance than the flow of the water between them. It could have been an attack, but Cale was leaving himself open, arms spread low, defenses deliberately dropped. Quest could kill him with one blow. Or lean back a fraction and complete the embrace.

He kept himself still instead. Let the hem do what he wanted. Cale could be trusted; lions were the most social cats, after all, and Quest supposed their liaisons made him a de facto member of the pride. No reason for his heart to start pounding as if he had some deadly predator drooling on him.

At least that unnecessary rush of adrenaline drove out other thoughts. The distraction the hem presented did have advantages.

Quest knew he had kept his expression calm. But animals can smell fear, and maybe Cale could scent more than that, because he said, quietly, “Something’s bothering you. What’s wrong?”

The same as he had asked before. But this wasn’t any concern of Cale’s, nothing to do with a hem who had forsaken the cities.

Cale was close enough Quest could hear his breathing. The paladin pushed his head under the spigot, let the cool current carry away that sound. Straightening up again, he turned off the water. “The afternoon field tenders will be here shortly.”

“No farmers due for another hour,” Cale said, but he shook himself off like a dog and followed the paladin through the field. He pulled on his cutoff trousers without heed of his damp skin, then watched Quest dry himself with a corner of his robe. “Why bother, in this heat?” he asked, as Quest donned his paladin’s uniform. “There’s no one to see. Besides,” and the hem’s baritone lowered, amber eyes glowing in the sun, “the cave’s not far. Only a short run past the fence.”

“Perhaps you have nothing more to do than lie in shade all day. I have other concerns,” Quest said sharply, fastening his belt and settling the rectangular-framed glasses on his nose. “I need my lab to analyze these samples.” And there in the tower beyond the city walls, the hem would not follow him. While in other states he might be able to pass for a regular human, his size and the pale gold of his hair were too well-known here. Cale was too smart to risk it, for all the lust burning in his eyes now as he prowled nearer. “I have my duties, and you’ve gotten what you wanted today.”

Cale leaned forward. “What I wanted?” His breath was hotter than the humid breeze, sweet-sour redolence. “You were the one taking.”

“I? Who jumped the fence?”

“Who decided to collect samples ten meters from my territory?”

Cale sounded more amused than irritated, and that irritated Quest more than the hem’s anger would have. Worse because he was right. He had needed plants from the western fields, but there had been no reason to gather them so close to the pride’s territory.

“Who let a lion get so close he could’ve devoured you whole?” Cale purred, and they were cheek to cheek now. The hem’s sun-baked skin was feverishly warm, what should have been an uncomfortable heat in the summer midday. It wasn’t. Quest felt his body respond, knew Cale was close enough to feel it as well.

“I was too focused,” Quest said. “I let myself be distracted.” Duty or not, it was a damnable mistake. A paladin could not afford to let his guard down. If he continued this way, his failure would be worse than this minor lapse.

That awareness was a better antidote than lukewarm water, and Cale noticed. He drew back enough to examine the paladin’s face, his own expression oddly serious. “Some distraction is good for you, Quest. You work too hard.”

“So should I be snoring half the day away, like a lion?”

“You’d make a terrible lion,” Cale said. “Though, a black mane…” and he caressed the ebon strands pulled back into Quest’s braid. “I know how you clean sapes feel about hems, but it would be something to see.”

Quest shoved the hem’s paw away. His stomach twisted, and he momentarily blocked Cale’s view with his sleeve before it showed in the paleness of his face. Of course the beast would say clean; it was common wisdom that the paladin academy only accepted the genetically flawless.

He lowered his arm, forced himself to meet Cale’s eyes unflinching and unaffected. “You can break from napping to tarry here,” he said, and was satisfied by the evenness of his voice, “but I have work to do. If you’re quite done…”

“Not quite,” Cale said, predictably, and predictably he leaned forward, stole a kiss that Quest let go with minimal response. Not so little that Cale might believe anything wrong, but not enough to provoke him to further distraction. And Cale got it, backing away, calm with understanding. The hem might be difficult to satisfy, but easy enough to manipulate. “All right,” he said, “go on, get back to your duty.” He glanced around the field, the flattened stalks where their bodies had rolled, and a wicked grin crossed his face. “Or shall I help you plant replacements?”

“You’ve done enough.”

“Not nearly,” Cale said, still grinning. “Though there would’ve been less damage done in the caves, Sir Paladin.”

Quest would allow that as the parting shot, but as he headed to the solar cycle, Cale behind him said, “You’re right, Quest, that a beast doesn’t have a schedule to keep. When you need the…distraction–whenever you do, I don’t mind.”

Quest stopped. “Need?” he said, and heard himself the unnaturalness of his own voice. But he was rarely this angry, this suddenly. The damned hem, to claim such license–“Am I the beast now–the bitch in heat, and it was by my need that you leapt on me, that you could hardly keep your hands steady long enough to force it in and fuck me? How generous of you!”

“You were the one to tell me I couldn’t do anything to you that you didn’t want done.”

“What I want,” Quest said, “is not what I need. A paladin’s life is not a beast’s–you have the freedom to give in to whatever base instinct drives you, but my duty comes before any animal urges. If I choose to humor yours on occasion, it’s because I can afford to. Not out of any need.”

“So you’re humoring me.” And now Cale was as angry as he, the hem’s fury revealed in his deeper growl, the changing of his throat. There would be claws digging into his palms within those closed fists.

“Do you think I lose all control the moment you touch me? That you can suck out my sanity with a kiss?” Quest asked with sardonic ire. “Our alliance is important, and I won’t forget the promises I swore to your pride. What happens between us beyond that–it’s a pleasant enough distraction. A useful one, if I am overworked. Stress can be as poisonous as anything in the wilderness. But this pastime of ours is one diversion of many, in part with my personal research and my literature. Relaxing, but irrelevant to my duties. Certainly not worth the risk of crossing into your territory.”

Cale didn’t answer in words, his growl dropping to a point beyond speech. The hem moved, quick as a pouncing predator, almost too fast to see. Too fast to dodge, as his hands curled around Quest’s arms, and the claws were unsheathed; he could feel the points against his skin, through his robes. He looked into the lion’s glowing eyes–the iris expanded, so more amber showed than whites–and for an instant wondered if he had pushed too far, if the bestial half of Cale’s nature would overwhelm the intellect he lazily maintained.

He wondered what it would be like. He was evenly matched with the man, and with the partial man; the lion complete, however, was nothing he had faced before, and he had left himself open, unprepared for a true attack. Staring up into those mostly inhuman eyes, Quest felt his heart pounding, wondered if it was fear or something else that froze him still, waiting for whatever violence would come.

But Cale stopped. Mastered himself, released Quest unscathed and turned away. His voice was clearly articulated, a man’s voice with none of the lion’s guttural vocalization. There was only the slightest unsteadiness to it, a last hint of anger that quivered almost like laughter. “Then I apologize for the distraction of my irrelevant beast urges, and leave you to your duty, Sir Quest.”

He strode away, long powerful strides, the pureleaf rustling as he brushed between the stalks. Some meters away he slowed, long enough to say, without looking back, “Still, I won’t mind.”

Then he started to run, leaping over the bordering fence with room to spare, the grace of his movement as much a cat’s as a man.

Quest returned to the solar cycle and clamped on his helmet, kicked the bike into gear and shot off down the road. And if something in his gut dropped and roiled as if he were leaving a part of himself behind in that field, he was steadfast in ignoring it.

The tests on the pureleaf samples revealed nothing conclusive, save that same blight was afflicting all the fields, and it was worsening. If that continued, it would be nothing short of catastrophic; planting food crops next year would be impossible if the pureleaf hadn’t properly strained the poisons from the field. Analyzing the soil was problematic with his lab’s limited instrumentation; he sent samples to the capital but knew better than to expect a quick response, if any came at all.

In the meantime Quest set to designing his own analyses. Such was his duty. Necessary measures: a two-fold necessity, because the intellectual problem also kept him too busy to follow the developing political turmoil that was no business of a paladin’s.

Maintaining his calm was an effort, but he managed to betray no bias, whatever news came over the public channels in the next week. If his nights were short and sleepless, at least he didn’t tarnish the paladin image by spreading his unrest. No disagreement was worth shaking the citizens’ loyalty to national authority. That way lay chaos; civil war at best, anarchy at worst, and that would be tantamount to genocide. Gangs like Cale’s might live by no law save nature’s, but ordinary citizens could never survive the wilderness.

So Quest bit his tongue and said nothing, even when arguments broke out in the guard barracks–everyone had an opinion; rare was the citizen without any acquaintance with hems, and some had more personal reasons. Within the city walls the same tensions flared, though Quest saw little of that. It was only by chance that a paladin’s duties brought him to the alley that evening.

With twilight falling, the knot of people blocking his path surprised him, and their resentful mutters put him on his guard. As he approached, heads turned toward the unmistakable white of his robes, and he heard whispers of his title. The crowd obligingly parted for him, revealing a man crouched to protect a young girl, not more than nine.

The man was ordinary enough, brown-skinned and black-haired; but the girl’s short auburn curls were a poor match for her own dark skin. Her build was small and slight, and maybe her arms and legs were a little long, but it was the features of her face that gave her away, the black of her eyes and the great round ears, set too high on her head, twitching nervously.

Even as Quest got closer, he heard an anonymous whisper, “–to bring a thing like her here, where anyone could see her!”

The man’s head jerked up, impotent rage in his face, too many of them for him to fight. Then he caught sight of Quest, and his eyes widened, uncertainty draining the anger.

Quest hadn’t recognized the girl, but the man was one of the few humans in Cale’s gang. A citizen once, but he had chosen to abandon the cities with his hem daughter. He had no right to be here. But Quest had sworn loyalty to the pride, an enduring promise regardless of the irregularity of the original circumstances. And the girl was only a child. He swallowed his own anger, raised his voice to project over the crowd with a paladin’s even control. “Her presence here is not illegal. This child’s too young to be a citizen.”

“She’ll never be one, with that face,” shouted another obscure voice.

“Any child can live in the cities,” Quest reminded them, levelly. The fall of his sleeves hid his shaking fists. The crowd had not yet come to violence, but he heard the threat of it in the cacophony of mutters, and there were too many people to easily subdue without harm. The child huddled closer to her father. “Or would you drive a little girl into the wilderness?”

“She’s no girl, she’s an animal!” The crowd’s voice blended to anonymity; it could have been a man speaking or a woman, a teen or a senior; and didn’t matter, because any of them would have said it. “Him, too–how could any real human bear having such a monster?”

They pushed closer as Quest stood before the pair to shield them. “What are you doing, Paladin?” demanded the mob. “We’re the citizens here!”

Behind him he could hear the girl’s soft sobs. Quest put a hand to his belt and grimly considered. He had the compounds for a stun spray, but in these close quarters the gas’s toxicity would be dangerous. Setting off a flare in the street could clear a way for the two to escape, but it might cause a panic. Risky.

But the mob’s voice was getting uglier. Quest opened the flare pouch, curled his fingers around the sulfur-coated wax.

He was stopped by a roar that froze the crowd as effectively as paraliss gas. Then the mob’s brazen offense exploded into whimpering terror as they scrambled back from the beast bounded into their midst.

Cale had halfway transformed for the sake of speed, rising now from four legs to two, the extended length of his back making him even taller than usual. Glaring down from two meters’ height, tawny eyes glowing orange in the streetlights’ glare, he looked the part of a wild thing, a primal predator, fangs showing when he roared again. His tail lashed about his legs, but he stood as confidently upright as any man, without an animal’s hunched awkwardness. His face, too, was as much a man’s as a lion’s: his wrath was too distinct an emotion for an animal, and the pale mane flowing over his shoulders was thicker than a real lion’s.

He was magnificent, as no true animal could be, nor any man; and Quest for an instant could not move, caught in those glowing eyes. Then someone screamed–there wasn’t room in the alley for everyone to run at once, and those trapped closest to the lion were jammed against the walls, begging for their lives.

Begging him, crying out for the paladin to save them. Cale heard them, looked at Quest, and his mouth quirked in a small, terrible grin.

The teeth bared in that grimace made the mob wail the louder, and Quest knew what he had to do even before Cale cocked his head in invitation. “Beast!” the paladin shouted, bellowing to be heard over the panic. “You’ll not touch anyone!”

He lunged forward, aiming a kick at the back of Cale’s knees. Not bothering to pull the blow, but Cale was too quick for such a telegraphed attack, and countered with a wide punch. Quest blocked easily: a lion might be stronger than a man, but feline musculature wasn’t suited to such motion.

Behind him he heard the crowd’s frightened bleating as they retreated under his cover. Cale’s people had also taken the opportunity to escape, a glance over his shoulder reassured him. But some responsible citizen would surely summon the city guards, and apprehensively he listened for the alert whistles.

Which left him distracted, enough for Cale to wrap an arm around his neck and slam him against the nearer wall, crushing him to the brick with the weight of his body. “So, I won’t touch anyone?” he hissed into Quest’s ear. Bestially deep as that growl was, he could still hear the hem’s smirk in it.

Quest was nearly paralyzed again, and it wasn’t from the lion’s considerable mass. Cale’s heart was pounding as hard as his own with the adrenaline of the fight, he could feel the beat through the press of the lion’s chest. Unconsciously he arched his back against him, Cale’s rumbled growl throbbing through his own body.

The relieved cries of the crowd behind them brought him sharply back to sense. The guards would be armed to handle this threat. Quest twisted to free himself, dropped to one knee to throw Cale over his shoulder. Which should have been into the wall, but Cale torqued to land on his feet, neatly as any cat.

“Get out of here, beast,” Quest commanded, as he stared up at the lion. “We’ll make a rug from your skin.”

From the gasps of the crowd, no one else recognized Cale’s harsh snarl as a laugh. His tawny eyes met Quest’s again; then he disappeared down the dark alley.

Several braver citizens rushed to gather around the paladin, extending eager hands to help him up. “Here, Sir Quest–are you all right, Sir Quest?–Did he bite you?–now that’s what a paladin should be–never seen anything like it, to face the Lion himself like that–”

Quest stood without accepting their assistance. Wondering that they couldn’t hear the pounding of his heart, loud as it was in his own ears. The guards were almost here, announced by the tramp of their boots on the street’s pavement.

The girl and her father were nowhere in sight, at least. Following their leader back outside the city walls, presumably. “I’ll make sure the lion is gone,” Quest told the waiting crowd, and headed into the alleys himself, frowning at the murmurs behind him, the citizens jabbering in admiration of his supposed bravery.

They were hardly out of earshot when a golden shadow dropped down beside him from the greater darkness of the buildings. “I’m gone,” Cale assured him. His voice had returned to a human baritone, but his eyes still reflected orange where they caught the faint ambient light. “You’re okay?”

“Worry about your own hide,” Quest said. “It’s not bulletproof.”

“It’s okay, we’re only a block from the wall. Denver asked me to give you his thanks, and his apologies. He’s been sick, needed city medicine. Faline wasn’t supposed to come along, but she was too worried for her father not to follow him. I didn’t think it would be a big problem, her being just a kid, but something’s got the citizens riled up against hems again?”

“You hadn’t heard?”

Cale shook his shaggy head.

“There’s a new law,” Quest said, and drew himself up, issuing it as formally as he related government decrees to the city’s board. It was the only way he could say it calmly. “Marriage is no longer allowed between a hem and a non-hem human, whether carrier or clean. All such marriages are annulled and will not be recognized by city, state, or national government.”

“Yeah, thought it might be something like that,” Cale said.

That blithe unconcern stung. “You care so little?” Quest hissed, tenuous calm slipping. “Those hems allowed citizenship are already denied the right to reproduce–can you stomach such further abasement of your own people?”

“My people? My people aren’t citizens,” Cale replied. “City laws have nothing to do with us, until they outlaw hems altogether. When they come to exterminate us, then I’ll care. Until then–anyone stupid or cowardly enough to stay abased in the cities does so by their own choice.” He paused, and Quest saw the hem looking at him through the shadows, through the red haze of anger over his eyes. He drew a pacifying breath, as Cale said, “That’s it, isn’t it. This law’s what’s had you so worked up. Why? You’re no hem, and not married to one either, that I know.”

Not that it would be any of the beast’s business if he were. Any more than the truth was. “It’s not a matter simple enough for a beast to grasp,” Quest said, and did not keep the biting insult out of his tone. “The concerns of citizens are my concerns, but no affair of a hem who’s decided to walk away and turn his back on anyone weaker than himself.”

He could feel Cale’s sparked anger, tension in the air like a subliminal growl, and braced himself for the answering attack. Cale was close enough that heat of his body radiated against Quest’s own skin, and there was no watching crowd now. Not that it had stopped the hem before, when he had shoved Quest to the wall. A wild beast has no realization of propriety, no need for self-control.

Except that Cale moved away now, back instead of forward. As he had a week ago in the pureleaf fields, and as then, his voice was calm, embers of anger not banked but extinguished. “As you say, I’m no citizen. And neither are my people, but thank you for saving them. I’m sorry they took you from your work,” and the sincerity of that apology was emphasized with such guileless earnesty that it might be rendered insincere. “I won’t distract you further.”

Then he was gone, moving past the paladin to vanish into the shadows with a predator’s perfect silence, leaving Quest alone in the warm summer night, out of breath and sweating under the humid air. For all that he had shivered as Cale’s arm brushed his, with frustrated indignation, or a human’s instinctive fear of the feral, or something else entirely.

Something of that fight hounded Quest, worried at him like the hem’s teeth at his throat. While not the first time they had battled before witnesses–before citizens, who ascribed near supernatural powers to the Lion, and in turn to Quest for holding his own against him–something had been indescribably different this time. The nature of Cale’s attacks, the tenor of his growls and their confrontation in the alley, all of it was subtly but distinctly off.

As frustrating as the unsolved problem of the pureleaf blight. Of course that crisis took precedence over such a minor personal matter. And yet the issue of the hem vexed him. He saw nothing of Cale over the next week, yet when he tried to clear his thoughts to sleep at night, the troubling chemical equations were invariably replaced by the memory of the hem grappling with him, the weight of his body pressing him to the rough brick. Yet afterwards Cale had kept such careful distance, as if his heart hadn’t been pounding as hard as Quest’s own. Arguing without attempting to steal a kiss, a touch–usually the hem pawed at him at any opportunity, shameless a beast as ever was in heat. But that alley fight had played out like all the hundreds of altercations in the two years before they had acknowledged that stimulating extra component to their rivalry.

Distracting. Gallingly so.

Though that was nothing to his ire when he figured out what the beast’s game was.

Not that he would give Cale the satisfaction of confrontation, but it irritated like a rash that shouldn’t be scratched. Left him frustrated even after he at last isolated the blight’s cause–an empty victory, as it were; it proved to be a reaction to a rare mold, but to locate the mold’s source he had to go out to the pureleaf fields again, the western fields where the blight was worst. Too close to the pride’s territory, but duty left him no choice.

He focused on preparing the rain collectors, and didn’t glance at the wilderness over the fence, whatever might be there. Such was his distraction that the accompanying guards noticed before Quest did. The paladin caught sight of one of the men shouldering his rifle, aiming at a patch of brush beyond the fence, and followed his squint to a flash of white fur behind the thistle.

“Stop!” he rapped out, before the man’s finger closed on the trigger. “Put that down.”

The guard flinched and hastily lowered the gun. “Yes, sir?”

“What were you doing?”

“Dinner, sir,” the man said, honest confusion furrowing his brow. “Just an animal–look, sir.”

He pointed. Just beyond the fence a deer emerged from the brush, daintily posed on long, fragile legs. A half-grown fawn, white spots speckling her auburn coat, but the large dark eyes staring at them were too clever for an animal’s.

Lips pressed so tight they whitened, Quest turned back to the guard, who recoiled from his ebon glare. “There are no deer in the wilderness here,” the paladin said, precisely so no word would be misunderstood. “It’s illegal to hunt any apparent animal in the pride’s territory, and you’d do best to remember that, Private.”

“Y-yes, sir,” stammered the guard, gaze darting past Quest to the fawn, and he paled as he realized what he had almost done.

One of the other men, however, elbowed his mate and muttered, “A law’s a law, but an animal’s still an animal. Whatever it can pretend to be sometimes.”

“And a human being is as much an animal as any other species,” Quest said. “Which I’m sure you’d remember if the lion’s teeth were at your throat. The law is for your protection.”

All the men blanched at that reminder, and busied themselves without glancing over the fence again. When Quest checked, the fawn had retreated to a more distant thicket, but was still in sight, watching them. He made a sharp motion, and she bounded farther away. Though not far enough, he feared.

He had no choice. After the equipment was set up, Quest sent the men ahead to the next site, while he crossed the fence into the pride’s territory, sat himself on a sandstone slab and waited. It didn’t take long; the pride watched their territory’s border as closely as the city guarded their own. Twenty minutes later, Cale arrived.

Quest didn’t waste breath on greeting. “Your little girl almost got shot. Tell her father to keep her away from the city border.”

Cale sighed. He was hardly out of breath from the two-legged jog, but the summer humidity had raised a sheen of sweat over his tan. “She ran away from Denver. Can outpace him easy, with those legs. She wanted to see more of you.”

Quest blinked. “Me?”

“Her hero.” Cale chuckled. “You saved her and her papa–she hasn’t talked about anything else since. Since usually she’s afraid of any sapes but her father, we haven’t wanted to dissuade her. Such as by telling her what a right bastard you are.”

He grinned as he said it, a toothy smirk. But he was keeping a conspicuous distance from Quest, hands at his sides and eyes fixed on the paladin’s face.

Deliberately Quest took a step to close that gap, near enough for Cale to smell his sweat under his robes. “You think I don’t know what you’re doing, beast?”

“And what is that?” Cale returned. His breathing was faster, only a little, but from more than the strain of the run.

The hem’s nearness was like a static current against Quest’s skin, the tingling buildup before a lightning strike. “This game’s absurd. I might marvel at such unheard-of restraint in a beast, but did you expect more than that? Did you think that if you mastered yourself enough to resist touching me, that I’d be unable to resist touching you?”

“Oh, is that the game now?” Cale asked, rich humor in his baritone. He reached out his big hand, warm, calloused skin against Quest’s cheek, and it took all the steel in Quest’s spine to neither flinch nor close his eyes. “Guess my restraint won’t marvel you after all.”

Cale let his hand fall. “But I have things to do. It’s a busy duty, leading this gang.” He offered Quest a respectful nod, undermined only by the remainders of a grin quirking his mouth awry. “Thanks again for watching out for mine. We’ll take care of Faline, don’t worry. I’ll see you, Quest.”

Then the hem was gone, jogging off in an infuriating cloud of dust. The paladin coughed and spat sand, and climbed the fence without glancing back into the lion’s territory.

Four days later–four days of sample-taking and research, four nights of sleepless study and ineffectual experiments, and Quest was no closer to solving the blight. The source of the affecting mold eluded him no matter how many times he tested the soil, or the water at its source, or what rain fell in the heat of summer.

Visiting the mess for post-midnight coffee, he had plenty of company. The barracks had their own worries keeping them up, off-duty guards gathered in anxious knots no matter the hour. “Maybe we don’t got many hems in the city, but we still got ’em around. The pride’s up to something. No one’s seen the Lion in days; usually he’s always prowling the border.”

Quest ignored the late-night mutters. Cale’s gang posed no danger to any citizen, but it was pointless for him to say so. Though it was unusual for Cale not to be keeping watch–but that was none of his business, and Quest forced his wandering thoughts back to the critical problem of the blight as he climbed back up to his tower room, to the table of his experiments.

The acrid scent of the crushed pureleaf samples conjured a memory of the field, the green of the leaves and the brightness of the sun and the shining wet of Cale’s skin. The coolness of the shower, the heat of the hem’s body against his–

Quest shoved the samples away, opened a text instead. He shifted his glasses, blinked to adjust his tired eyes to the print. In the last week he had read the pureleaf’s genetic design analysis a dozen times, but he had to be missing something.

He didn’t exactly fall asleep, but between turning one page to the next he drifted, awoke some minutes later to the dream-evoked taste of Cale’s sweat on his tongue. He was irritatingly hard, and ringing in his ears was the mocking lilt in the hem’s voice as he turned away–“I’ll see you, Quest.” So derisively confident. As if he thought a paladin to be at his beck and call.

Word came through the following afternoon that the courts were officially in session over the new Homo hemitheria act. A scant few hours later new reports arrived of hem riots in the state capital and a dozen other cities. Quest, at the mayor’s reluctant request, saw that this news was not immediately disseminated, but the press would not stay ignorant for long and as most of the guards were privy to the broadcast, the damage was already done.

“We’ll be next,” a grizzled old sergeant pontificated in the mess, after dinner had been cleared away. “Soon as the pride gets wind of this–”

“Cale already knows, more like,” interjected another. “He’s planning something, the Lion and his gang. We should double the watch tonight.”

Quest took that opening, stepping into the ring of men. “I’ll confer with the mayor. For tonight we’ll accept volunteers for an extra watch–”

“Hell with that!” a young private called over him. “Watch and wait for the monsters to come for us? We shouldn’t give them the chance!”

Too many of the man’s fellows mumbled agreement. Quest cut him short, maintaining stiff-faced cool. “I’ll pass your suggestion to the mayor.”

“What if the hem come tomorrow? If we go for them now, before they’re ready–”

“You’re certain they’re not ready?” demanded Quest. “You think to catch the Lion off-guard?” He saw the change of expressions in the other guards, addressed them, “Are we ready to fight the pride, just we alone? How quick will the army be to assist a guard squad disobeying the chain of command?”

Most of the men nodded reluctantly. The outspoken private, seeing his comrades taking a step back, flushed with wounded pride. “No guns, no training–you think we’re too weak to face a gang of animals, Sir Paladin?”

He was a big young man, in his confident prime at barely twenty, and powerfully built from working in the fields. But his fighting stance was all belligerence and no prowess, and the only true action he had seen was in tavern brawls. Cale could break his neck with one blow, had he not sworn to Quest never to attack a citizen.

“Do you think yourself strong enough to take the lion?” Quest asked him. “Who thinks himself ready for that fight?”

The other men all backed further away, shaking their heads. Red-faced, the young private shouted, “We men, or sheep? Your Lion’s only a shit-eating beast, not a god–he can be hunted down like any animal!”

Quest kept his own face colorlessly calm. “Yet there are no volunteers for that hunt. Stand down, private.”

“I won’t take no orders from a coward whitecoat–I’ll show you how to fight like a man!” the private shouted, and swung his fist at the paladin’s jaw.

After so many sleepless nights, Quest’s reflexes were slow, a quarter-second lapse or more. But the guard was far slower and awkward as a half-grown puppy. There was a hissing in Quest’s ears, and then he had the man on the tile floor, his arm twisted behind him, squealing helplessly.

“Sir Quest!” an anxious voice interceded, and the other guards crowded around. Two burly men hauled their junior to his feet. Several others hastened to help Quest up. “Are you all right, sir?”

Quest nodded, his gaze locked on the private. Had he born down with any more pressure he would have broken bones, and the boy hadn’t even known how to resist. He ought to introduce more complex situations into the training regime.

A lieutenant, summoned from the officer’s hall by the commotion, shoved through the guards. He looked from his man to the paladin, saluted and asked, “What should we do with him, Sir Quest?”

“Put him in confinement for now,” Quest said. “You and his sergeant can discuss the appropriate reprimand later. I wouldn’t counsel anything severe,” he added, as the man was escorted from the mess.

“But he assaulted you, did he not, sir?”

The hissing in his ears hadn’t faded, and Quest remembered the boy’s humiliated whimpering. He looked around the mess, raised his voice. “What did you see? I’m not clear on the details. Didn’t the private simply trip and fall?”

Astonished silence met his inquiry; at last Sergeant Kiroku said, “Well, I didn’t see it clear myself, but he’s a clumsy kid…”

“Anyone gets clumsy, when they’re fearing for their families and their home,” Quest said. “I don’t think anything more needs to be said about the matter.” With that he strode from the tower.

Alone on the empty training grounds, his hands curled into fists. He was shaking as badly as the private had been. One second more and he would have snapped the boy’s arm; a second after that…a paladin’s training is first of all about control, but that move he hadn’t learned from the academy masters, but in the brutal years before that. Another paladin would have been shocked by its crudity, but a common soldier had no trained defense. And Cale–would have instantly countered; there wasn’t a move in Quest’s repertoire that the hem hadn’t faced, and overcome.

Quest walked to the city’s gates, and through them. The guards on duty warned him of nightfall; he ignored them and kept walking down to the river, until he crossed into the pride’s territory. Then he started to run.

Full night had fallen by the time he reached the pride’s caves. Dark, mostly human eyes fixed on him as he entered. No guidance was offered, but Quest had been here before and needed none to find his way through the reinforced passages. There was no resistance, either; the hems of Cale’s gang stepped aside and watched him pass with unreadable expressions.

The main chambers were artificially cornered, remainders of a centuries’ old basement, lit by a small fire. There were a couple dozen people around that dim glow, playing games or talking. The little auburn-haired fawn was sitting in her father’s lap with a book, looking human but for the ears, listening as he read aloud to her. She glanced up at Quest, stifled a tiny gasp and hid her face in her father’s shoulder.

Cale was standing before the fire, waiting. He bowed his head when Quest met his eyes. “Welcome back.”

He wasn’t quite smiling. “Quit this foolish game,” Quest told him. “When you stay out of sight like this, the city suspects you of plotting violence. You can’t afford exacerbating their apprehensions now.”

“If they’re so scared of provoking us,” Cale said, “then why pass laws to do just that? Aren’t sapes the intelligent ones, if we’re the dumb beasts?”

“This is no joke,” Quest snapped. “The guard was all but ready to march on you tonight.”

Around him the other hems were on their feet, bristling, teeth glittering in the firelight. “Easy, guys,” Cale said, raising his hands, and they drew back. “A handful of part-time soldiers aren’t a real threat, guns or not. And they’re not coming anyway, are they?”

“No,” Quest answered the lion’s sharp querying look. “It wasn’t a serious consideration this time, but it soon might be. The citizens don’t trust you–if they don’t understand your game, they’ll believe the worse.”

“And you. Do you understand my game?” Cale asked, not teasing but seriously.

“I don’t need to understand,” Quest said. “I know that you won’t attack the citizens, and there’s no other consideration important enough to bother with.”

Cale was watching him with fire-lit eyes, a lion’s amber eyes in a man’s smooth-skinned face, pale silky mane falling over the powerful curves of his shoulders. Despite the draft, it was too warm in the underground chamber, too close. Quest turned on his heel and headed back down the corridors, back to the cave’s mouth.

The hem caught up with him halfway there, in the shadows between the torch-lit alcoves. “Quest,” he said, “I’m sorry I made trouble for you with your soldiers.” At the paladin’s look, he nodded. “You’re the one who stopped them from marching, aren’t you?”

“I vowed to protect your gang,” Quest said shortly. “I’d not forget that.”

“I’m grateful,” Cale said, with too-easy honesty. “I’d expect nothing less from you. Though,” and his voice changed, dropping to a subtly insolent inflection, “I wouldn’t expect you to run away from a few hems, either.”

The insult was too transparent to take seriously; it was a measure of his exhaustion that Quest felt himself stiffen. But he answered evenly, “If I’m running away now, then you’re surely the most cowardly lion I know, to have run so many times before from one man.”

“But maybe I only ran to see if you’d follow.” Cale was almost too close for him to breathe, suffocating gold glowing in the half-darkness. “Or maybe that’s also why you ran from me?”

“I ran from no one,” Quest said. “I had no further reason to stay.”

“Any coward afraid of losing would say the same,” Cale said, and it might have been teasingly meant, but it was too much, too soon after the guard’s pathetic offense.

The hem was no ignorant, vulnerable citizen; Cale was ready for his kick, countering smoothly. But Quest was another step still ahead of him, and exchanged the hem’s punch for his own fist in a flurry of blows.

In the shadows it was difficult to see Cale’s motion, but he didn’t have to. He knew the lion’s patterns, and when Cale lunged Quest used his own momentum against him. But Cale had already started to change, his growing mass pulling the paladin off-balance, so Quest was yanked along with him, landed against his chest and had to act fast to keep the edge. Pressed together, he could feel the swell of the hem’s altering muscles, the tearing of fabric as his clothes were ripped apart by the change. Cale growled, sharp teeth bared a hair’s breadth from Quest’s throat.

Cale was far larger than him now, half leonine, but for all the hem’s size Quest had him pinned, and the paladin took care not to leave himself open. But it didn’t matter, because Cale wasn’t trying to free himself anymore than the young private had, instead allowed himself to be forced to a crouch before Quest.

The blood was hissing in his ears again, pounding through his head. And it took so little thought or effort to tangle his fingers in that silken mane, to haul up the hem’s head and seal their mouths together, run his tongue over those feline fangs.

He had been pushing himself too hard and this loss of control was the price. But if he was to pay it then the hem would as well. Quest shoved Cale to the wall, hard enough that the hem’s skull could have cracked on the stone, then whirled a back kick at his head. But Cale only flinched, without any motion to block or dodge.

Quest halted the kick a centimeter from the hem’s head. “What’s the matter?” he demanded. “Have your feline eyes been struck blind?”

Cale’s big cat lankiness was shrinking back to the lesser human frame, his head bowed, and that unearned submission was more infuriating than any defiance. “Or have you lost?” Quest asked, but even then Cale didn’t raise his head to growl, and when Quest threw his fist the hem took it against his chest without resisting, a hollow, painful impact that brought no reaction. As if he could no longer be bothered to take his part in their battle.

And that indolent apathy stung, as none of the hem’s other insults might. That the paladin mattered as little to Cale as any citizen; that he might so casually quit this game…

It was a game, just a game. He should walk away, back to the city–but there had been too many days, too many sleepless nights and restless dreams, too many mocking looks from the hem’s tawny eyes. As if he were this game’s master, and that could not be borne, that a hem could outmatch a paladin’s discipline.

Quest slammed Cale against the wall, forced up his head and kissed him again, a ravaging, devouring kiss. He shoved his knee between the hem’s legs–Cale was hard, his exposed length rammed against Quest’s thigh, as hard as Quest was himself under the white paladin robes; and for all Cale’s apparent composure, his whole body was tense, braced as if against a hurricane’s winds. He was losing after all.

Quest ran his hands over the rigid muscles, seeking with paladin trained fingers, finding the pressure points that could be used to paralyze; but there were other ways to stimulate those nerves, and Cale hissed with something that wasn’t pain. When the hem tried to shift, Quest hooked his boot around his ankle to knock him off-balance, into the corner where two walls met, shoulders wedged between the crumbling stone. There in the deeper shadows he trapped Cale, his lips to that golden, sweat-salty skin and the lion’s hot breath gusting down his back.

Winning, losing–he followed the course of perfectly sculpted muscle down the hem’s body, feeling Cale move to him, the flex and release of that powerful form. Strength enough to kill him, but he was just as strong. Stronger; the hem’s hands on his shoulder were trembling, as Quest lowered himself to his knees. He took as much of Cale as he could manage into his mouth, and Cale made an unnatural kittenish sound, a helpless mewling.

The paladin ignored that noise, ignored how his own pulse quickened with the cry. He did his work with fastidious focus, precise attention, closing his mouth around the thin silk skin over the blood-hot steel, swirling his tongue over the smooth swollen head. Cale’s hips bucked as he struggled for restraint, vainly fought his opponent’s exertions and finally lost it all in a rush, with a gasp that tore the breath from his chest.

Quest almost lost himself, pulled himself from the brink with such effort that he saw stars. He swallowed, stood (the robes hid the unsteadiness of his legs, the ache between his own thighs) and coolly met Cale’s eyes, round orange orbs glowing in the darkness, half-lidded after the release.

The paladin said nothing; but when he rocked back a step, Cale moved too fast to see, big hand wrapping around Quest’s wrist. “No,” he said, “not yet.”

His grip was clawless, not so tight that it couldn’t easily be broken. Gentle. “Let me, please,” Cale said, and no citizen had ever heard the lion beg before.

But then, no citizen had faced Cale in battle; no citizen would willingly enter the pride’s caves. A paladin’s duty was to the citizens, but their protector did not have to be a citizen himself. “Let you?” Quest echoed, and shook his head. “No–I’ll do as I like, not what you need, beast,” and he jerked free, snaked his arm under to grab Cale’s own wrist and twisted to wrench him around, the larger hem face-first to the wall and Quest behind him, holding fast for all he was panting for breath.

His white robes were too tight and he drew them aside, pushed down the pants to reveal himself. Cale tried to break free, turn towards him; Quest pressed him back to the stone and forced closer. Forced himself between Cale’s closed thighs, the rough heat of his skin a painful glory. Cale tightened the corded muscles of his legs around Quest, back curving to his pale bare chest, and the paladin set his hands to the wall on either side of Cale’s broad shoulders. Bracing himself, he arched his spine to thrust his hips, sliding himself in and out of the tight gap between those powerful thighs, until he was almost lost in the rhythm, in the desperate friction.

And all the while Cale’s low voice sounded in his ears as he bent his head to the hem’s, baritone hum resonating through their chests–his name, nothing but his name, only his name repeated and echoed like a chant, a prayer, a plea.

Quest came before he was ready, spattering on the stone, on Cale’s inner thighs. He shuddered, might have staggered were the hem not so close they were locked together, immobile. Then he did stumble as Cale pushed from the wall and turned to drag the paladin into the cage of his arms. Cale licked his cheek, a quick touch of a rough tongue.

“As you like,” he said, and the unsteadiness in his voice might almost have been laughter. Before Quest could resist Cale had pulled him deeper into the shadows, through a doorway he hadn’t even noticed–too distracted, dangerously unaware.

But there was always danger, and it was no safer anywhere than in the hems’ caves, with their too-strong leader. Cale’s arms were folded around him, drawing him down, bodies sealed together by sweat and strength and gravity, thigh to thigh, belly to belly, lips to lips.

His blunt man’s teeth were to the hem’s neck, his body riding that powerful, beautiful figure. Cale’s head tilted back with a moan as he pushed up into Quest, and the potential danger, winning or losing, the plights of citizen or city or hem or paladin–he relinquished them all in that single instant, or they relinquished him, but there was no absence, no void, because Cale’s breath and heat and golden form were great enough to overflow any vacuum.

Hours later, Quest awoke to darkness, to the even breathing of a body beside him and a warm heavy arm draped over his chest. He lay on a mattress, softer than his own cot, rushes rustling as he shifted. With the drugged lassitude of heavy sleep, he blinked, listened until he made out what had woken him. Liquid, trickling through pipes: it was raining above ground, and the remnants of the ancient building’s plumbing carried the water through the walls. Of course even if it weren’t acid rain, it would be undrinkable from whatever rust and molds had built up in the pipes in a century or more…

Molds, such as what grew in irrigation pipes, if improperly flushed–the blight was worst in the western pureleaf fields, and that was the oldest sprinkler system. He was a moron. A dolt. An idiot of the first through fourth degrees and he had no right to disparage a beast’s intelligence–

When he tried to sit up, reaching for the glasses which of course weren’t on the nonexistent shelf by his absent bed, he was prevented by the arm across his chest. Cale held him down, unreasonably strong for a beast three-quarters still asleep, mumbled, “Where…?”

“The blight,” Quest said, “the irrigation system–I need my lab–”

“Still night,” the hem yawned, almost unintelligibly. “City gates won’t open for hours.”

“It was in the water after all. Just not the source where I tested it–the pipes are contaminated–”

“Didn’t I tell you before your water was bad?”

“You did,” Quest was forced to admit, and woke up enough to add, “Is that to say I should listen to all your snarls and roars?”

“Not all,” Cale said, “only those that matter,” and he pulled Quest closer to nuzzle into his shoulder with a purring rumble. “Right now,” he spoke through that vibration, “you don’t need to listen to any words.”

There were answers enough that Quest could give to that. But this once, wrapped in the hem’s unyielding, warm embrace, the one he chose was, “All right.”

illustration by gnine

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