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Chapter 7

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* * *

Kaven leaned against the balcony in the lower gardens, gazing listlessly out over the newly-budding foliage. It was nice, he supposed, to see the greenery returning, but at the same time, at least the barren winter landscape had somewhat matched his mood.

He sighed, lowering his head to his arms, which lay folded across the top of the balcony wall. Three months. It had really been three months since he'd left... Say his name, you coward, just say it ...since he'd left Thorne's family's farms. Since he'd traveled on his trip alone, sending all but one coach back to the palace once they'd made their deliveries.

Three months, since Ilyria had told him he was making Thorne miserable, and if he really cared about him at all he'd just let him go.

He sighed, pushing himself up off the wall and sliding back into his lower chambers. He knew it shouldn't surprise him. He made everyone miserable, eventually. Even his own mother. The fact that he'd been around at all made her miserable, because it meant she had to stay, instead of returning to her home and seeing her family again. He made his father miserable because he wasn't the great war hero the general wanted him to be; he made Selria miserable because their engagement forced her to keep her real love a secret.

Most of all, he made himself miserable, because he managed to drive everyone in his life away.

He moved toward his desk, reaching under the cushion of the seat and pulling out the sheaf of parchment Thorne had copied his lessons onto. He kept them hidden, after the incident that had occurred one evening not two weeks after he returned from his trip to the camps; his father had caught him reading the love ballad--the one Thorne had performed for the lady Desidia--and weeping, and had destroyed the parchment and beaten Kaven rather severely, shouting that this was why Kaven would never be a war hero like Othalion himself, because weaklings don't become heroes.

But it wasn't the ballad that made him cry, and he knew it.

He kept the others hidden, not wanting to risk losing the only real link he had left to the one naga who'd ever extended him any genuine offers of friendship. Even if those offers had turned out to be false in the end, Kaven wasn't willing to forget them, or pretend they hadn't happened. It was real--it had been real, and he refused to believe otherwise. Even if Thorne had eventually realized what everyone in Kaven's life eventually did: that he'd be better off without him. It had still been real. And Kaven wasn't going to wallow, or let his own grief and sadness keep him from working toward the good he'd learned he could do.

His father and King Ipson hadn't seen the reason, at first, to reassign all the troops based on their region of recruitment. When Kaven had tried to explain the benefits of allowing the troops to go home and work their lands on leave, the King had merely snorted. "We have plenty to eat, don't we? Our troops have plenty to eat?"

Kaven had sighed, frustrated. "But they won't," he said, "if we let the farmers starve. This way everyone has enough, and if the farms are more productive, the soldiers will have more to eat as well."

It had taken some doing, but he'd finally arranged it, organizing the most massive troop reassignment in history. The soldiers were given their new locations, and had been moving in small units over the past month--they couldn't risk leaving any of the outposts completely unmanned, after all, for the duration of a reassignment--and while only a few were completely restaffed, the reports had been favorable, so far. The farmlands near those outposts were more productive, turning out more profit, and the soldiers were far more energetic, the proximity to their families giving them a vitality that no amount of food could. When Kaven had visited one of them on his routine trips, he'd been thrilled to see the improvement.

"It also saves us quite a lot on supplies," one of the Commanders at the outpost told him. "We don't have to keep boarding the soldiers who can't go home on their leave time, because they can go home."

Even Ipson and Othalion had to admit it was a good idea, and Kaven only wished he could take more joy in their praise. But the loneliness that he'd never really noticed until Thorne had arrived and cured it had begun creeping up on him again, and the best he'd been able to do was keep a bittersweet contentment.

Tash had kept him company at first, and suggested (rather timidly, as though Kaven without Thorne would somehow become frightening and mean) that Kaven go visit the minstrel. Kaven had smiled, and thanked the lad for the suggestion, promising to consider it. But he hadn't been able to bring himself to do so. Thorne was probably married by now, starting his own family, and the last thing he needed was some pathetic prince who couldn't find friends in a palace full of nagas intruding on his time and keeping him from moving on with his real life.

So he stayed at the palace, visiting the outposts when he had to, and slipped further and further into himself. Soon, Tash and the other staff stopped speaking to him, clearly frightened by his abrupt turn of mood. Kaven didn't blame them, and while he missed them, he couldn't bring himself to seek them out. It was just too dangerous, he decided, having friends. Sure, it was nice for awhile not to be alone, but it hurt too badly, when they left again. Better to stay alone, and at least be secure in the knowledge that it couldn't get any worse.

He curled on his mattress, tail coiled around his body, and gazed at the parchments, fingers tracing the now-familiar loop of Thorne's elegant handwriting, blinking rapidly to try to forestall the tears that stung at his eyes.

Idiot, he hissed at himself. No wonder Father is ashamed of you. Weakling. Coward. Idiot.

He swallowed, squeezing his eyes shut and sighing again.

He was just about to drift into a restless sleep when there was suddenly a knock at his door.

* * *

Thorne knocked again, hoping Kaven was inside. Rivek had been astonished to see him, and had admitted his chambers had been given away, so he'd have to see what could be done. Thorne hadn't really planned on sleeping before seeking Kaven out, but he had to admit it would've been nice to wash, and at the least he wanted to sit down, soon. Travel in early spring was difficult enough, with the weather against you, snow melt turning the roads to muck, and his own inability to tolerate the cold. Add in the recently healed broken arm--that still ached in the damp--and he felt like he'd been put through a wringer.

"Kaven?" he called, when there was still no answer, feeling himself slump slightly. "Are you there?"

There was a crash from the inside of the chamber, and the door suddenly swung open.

And there he was. Kaven. Prince Kaven, now, perhaps; Thorne wasn't certain just how welcome he would be, at least at first. Until he could explain.

And he looked...well, probably almost as bad as Thorne did himself. Kaven had grown thin again, in the months of Thorne's absence, the lines of weariness and sadness returning to his face. He was pale, too--though whether that was due to a malady of some sort or the sheer shock of seeing Thorne, the minstrel wasn't sure.

"Th...Thorne?" Kaven whispered, voice cracking a little, eyes impossibly wide as he gripped the door frame so hard his knuckles turned white.

Thorne managed a smile for him, though he really thought neither of them should be up, from the looks of it. "Um. Hi. Sorry, I would've been back months ago, but I fell in a storm and broke my arm and had to find a place to winter so it could heal..."

Kaven renewed his grip on the door frame as his eyes traveled slowly over Thorne, taking in the mud, the thinness, the way he favored his left arm, cradling it in protectively against his chest. "You f--you wou--wh--" Kaven shook his head sharply, clearly trying to settle on which question to ask first as his eyes flew back up to Thorne's face. "You're...back?" he whispered at last. "T-to...I mean ho--how...?"

"Ilyria told me what she said...She didn't have a right to do that. You've never made me unhappy, and I was glad to be your friend, glad to..." Thorne swayed, slightly, and swallowed. "Kaven, can I come in and sit down for this? I've been up since before dawn, and I'm...well, I know I'm a mess, but can I come in anyway?"

Kaven looked stricken. "Ye-yes! Please, Thorne, please...please come in, lie down, I'll order a bath, and a healer--are you hurt? Still? Do you need...are you hungry?" Kaven was hovering around Thorne, clearly distraught, hands reaching for the smaller naga then pulling away again, uncertain. There were tears in his eyes, but Thorne doubted the prince even realized it, as he darted forward and grabbed a blanket, returning and draping it gently over Thorne's shoulders.

Thorne smiled, sinking down onto a cushion with a sigh, wrapping his tail around himself and tugging the blanket closer. "I wouldn't say no to food...the inn where I stayed wasn't the best, and I've been on trail rations for a week. And I think my arm's fine, just aching because of the weather, but a healer would know better than I would. But sit down, Kaven? We need to talk, first. Please?"

"No, no--let me order you food, and a bath, and we can talk when it's on the way, you need...I mean, a week! Trail rations, really? You..." he shook himself, sliding quickly to the wall and ringing for a page; one arrived moments later, though Thorne didn't recognize him. "Yes--hello, a bath! We need a bath, hot, please, quickly, and food. As much of it as you can bring. And tea! And cider, if there's any left. Hurry, please!"

The page nodded, eyes wide, and hurried away; Kaven turned back into the chamber but didn't look at Thorne, running distraught hands over his hair and looking around. "I know I had...I could've sworn! Maybe...oh!" He reached under the stand at the mirror, pulling out a small jar of cream. He broke the wax seal and moved forward, offering it to Thorne. "I used this on my arm when I broke it ten years ago--well, not this exactly, obviously, but stuff like it, it really helps a lot...here, can I help...?"

He moved to offer the jar to Thorne and open it at the same time, and in his haste fumbled it, dropping it to the cushions. "Shit!"

"Kaven!" Thorne scooped up the small jar before hardly any of it had spilled, and set it aside on the low table. "You have to calm down and breathe, all right? I'm fine, just tired and a little dirty, and we can take care of that, but just...calm down, all right? I'm not going anywhere, and you're going to send yourself into hysterics. Just sit down, and take a breath. I'm fine, I promise you, and I'm not leaving. We've got time for everything."

Kaven didn't look up, but he didn't move away, either; he slumped in front of Thorne, clasping his violently shaking hands in his lap. "All right," he whispered. "I'm...I'm sorry. Um. What...what did you need to--to t-talk to me a...abo..." he didn't get any further before he dissolved into tears, bringing his hands up to his face and shaking silently.

"Kaven..." Thorne scooted closer, laying his hand lightly on the other naga's shoulder. "Lady, I didn't think you'd be this unhappy to see me," he teased, very gently, pulling the prince into his embrace lightly enough that he could resist if he wanted to.

Kaven crumbled into his arms, his own winding around Thorne's waist, head buried on Thorne's shoulder. "You...you c-came back," he whispered brokenly. "N-no one's e-ever..."

"I wouldn't have left, if I'd had a choice," Thorne said softly, stroking Kaven's hair with his right hand, aching at the surprise and buried pain in Kaven's voice. "You've never made me unhappy, Kaven, I'm so sorry Ilyria told you you did..."

"A-are you all right?" Kaven said suddenly, pulling away and wiping at his eyes, staring at Thorne. "You're not hurt, are you? Other than your arm? Do you need...I mean, um..."

Thorne reached out, wiping Kaven's tears away more gently than he was doing it himself, and smiled softly. "I'm fine. Farmboys are tough, didn't you know? It was a bad winter, but I'll be good as new in a few weeks, promise. What about you? You look awful, you know."

Kaven blinked. "Oh," he said, looking down at himself. "I do? I mean...I guess...um..."

Before he could say anything else, there was a knock at the door, and moments later, servants were filing in with a bath tub, trays of food, and large pitchers of cider. Kaven rose on his coils and moved to help them, thanking them as they left, then turned back to Thorne. "S-so...hungry? Or do you want a bath first? Or you could get in the bath, and I could fix you a plate..."

"You could stop hovering for just a moment," Thorne replied, pushing himself up slowly. "Kaven, I'm sorry. I truly am, and more so that I was idiot enough to get myself hurt and couldn't make it here as quickly as I wanted. Can I stay?"

Kaven's eyes went huge. "Please?" he said. "I mean, you...I thought you were going to...?"

"I want to," Thorne assured him quickly. "Just thought I'd better ask before I moved back into the palace. If they can find room for me, of course," he added with a wry grin. But it faded, slowly, and he ducked his head. "I really missed you," he offered shyly.

Kaven bit back a sob, a shaky grin crossing his face. "Yeah?" he murmured.

"Well...yeah. You're my best friend."

Kaven's mouth dropped open, and for a moment he simply stared at Thorne. "I...I am?" he whispered, eyes filling again.

Thorne slid hesitantly forward to hug Kaven, though the pressure from his left arm was very light. "You are," he said softly, when he pulled back. "I really like you, Kaven. And you can ask Ilyria, sometime, but I was very mad when I found out you'd left because of what she said. You don't make me unhappy. The opposite. She's just afraid I won't get married and have younglings and all, now that I'm here at the palace and distracted."

Kaven blinked. "I see," he said. "Um. You told her you still would?"

Thorne shook his head. "Told her I was more likely to find what makes me happy here than at home. And I don't fit in there, but I thought I did, with you..."

"You do," Kaven said quickly, and his eyes were wide again. "Thorne, if I thought...if I'd known she was...that it wasn't true, I never would've..."

"I know," Thorne replied, sinking down again. "I don't blame you, and I don't really blame her, either. She's my older sister, she was just doing what she thinks is best for me. She was wrong, but...I don't blame her. And I'm back and only a bit worse for wear." He let out a long sigh, pinching the bridge of his nose. "I think I'll take that bath now, though."

"Of course!" Kaven moved forward, wrapping one arm around Thorne's back and supporting him by the elbow, helping him to the tub, then helping him up into it.

Thorne sank gratefully into the water, not even too embarrassed when Kaven took his muddy clothes away. "Lady, this feels wonderful..." He sighed, letting the heat seep into muscles long overused, releasing knots of tension he didn't realize he'd had. He knew he should scrub, start working the mud from his scales, and his hair, but he didn't want to move. He closed his eyes, letting himself sink under the water briefly before rising again, sighing.

He heard Kaven moving around, but didn't open his eyes again until, suddenly, there was a noise from directly behind him, and a pair of large, strong hands in his hair. He jumped, then smiled, relaxing back again. "Good service, here. I'll have to stay again..." He trailed off, nearly purring as Kaven's hands massaged his scalp as much as cleaned it. "Mmmmmmm...."

Kaven swallowed audibly behind him, but his motions didn't cease. "Good?" he said after a moment, and his voice was a little higher than usual.

Thorne opened his eyes and smiled gently, reaching up to squeeze one of Kaven's forearms lightly. "It's wonderful, Kaven, thank you. You're going to have me completely spoiled." He sighed, softly. "Is there anything I can do? You still look so upset..."

"I'm fine," Kaven insisted, though his voice broke a little.

"You don't have to be," Thorne said, closing his eyes again. "I'm not. I'm just too tired to show it. Lady, it's good to be home..."

Kaven said nothing, but kept washing Thorne's hair, fingers moving in gentle, soothing circles even as the prince took sharp, almost-gasping breaths from behind him. For a long time they were silent, Kaven washing then rinsing Thorne's hair, then washing it again. Then, very softly, Kaven whispered, "I missed you."

"I missed you, too," Thorne replied, turning in the tub to hold onto the side, looking up at Kaven, trying not to hope Kaven had missed him as much as he'd missed the prince. "You know this is where I want to be, right? Here, with you, helping you however I can..."

Kaven's shoulders were slumped, his eyes wet; he'd lost the panicked energy of before, and now he just looked sad. "I...I didn't...I mean, I thought, but then Ilyria said, and...and you did seem so sad, and I guess..." he shrugged, wrapping his arms around his middle and looking down. "You wouldn't be the first, to decide you didn't want to be around me."

"I'll never decide that," Thorne said softly. "Never. I don't think you could change so much that I wouldn't rather be here." He reached out, one wet hand closing around Kaven's forearm again. "And hey. It's over, and I'm back, and I won't let you ditch me again. It's not for my own good, all right?" He made a face. "Ilyria meddles too much, anyway."

Kaven bit his lip, nodding, then suddenly stooped, catching Thorne's face between his hands and pressing a kiss to his forehead before drawing him into a somewhat awkward if sincere hug. "Don't," he whispered. "Don't go again, ever...I...I couldn't..." he shook his head.

Thorne's heart leapt at the kiss, and he pressed as closely against Kaven as the odd angle would let him. "I won't. I swear, I won't..." He caught himself just before saying "I won't leave you" knowing it was at once too dramatic, and too...well. Too much of what one lover would say to another. And Kaven was not that, and never could be. Even if he had just kissed him.

Kaven finally pulled himself together enough to draw away. "I'm sorry," he said, wiping at his face. "I guess...I haven't been sleeping really well, and, um..."

Thorne slide back down into the water, curling his arm against his side and sighing. "Me either. Though I've been sleeping rough...I couldn't even play my way into places, and I ran out of coin..."

Kaven suddenly looked horrified, hand flying to his mouth. "Oh...Thorne, your arm..." he slid around so he could look into Thorne's face. "Can...can you still play?"

"Yes, when it's not aching I'm fine," Thorne replied, massaging his wrist lightly under the water. "Or I should be. I...my lyre was broken, in the fall," he admitted, softly. "I'll have to get one of the instrument makers in the city to take a look at her. I don't think it's an impossible fix, but..." He half-shrugged. "I spent what I had to winter in the inn, and then traveled rough as soon as the weather broke. If the cold didn't bother me so much, I would've been here weeks ago..."

Kaven's look of horror hadn't faded any--if anything, it had gotten worse. He pushed himself backwards. "You--all this, b-because...oh, Lady..."

"Because I didn't look where I was going and slid in the mud," Thorne said, sighing again. "Kaven, it wasn't your fault...I could've stayed at one of the camps long enough for them to arrange an escort. They offered. But I was stubborn, and said no, I'd be fine on my own, and then tumbled down a hill for my trouble. And she's just cracked, but I unstrung her to take the stress off. It shouldn't be a difficult fix, and if it is, I'll get a new one. I love my lady, but she's not irreplaceable."

"But you are," Kaven said suddenly, staring at Thorne in dismay. "Thorne, what if...what if you'd broken your neck, instead of your arm? Or what if you hadn't been able to get back up the hill, or...or..."

"Believe me, I thought of all that," Thorne replied with a wince, remembering lying at the bottom of the path, wind knocked out of him, just feeling the beginnings of pain. "I promise, coaches and carriages from now on. That is if you ever get me out of this bath. Which judging from the amount of mud on my tail may be a no..."

Kaven didn't seem to hear him. "You could have died," he whispered, and now his eyes were distant, clouded. "You could've died...like they did, because of me, because I made a stupid mistake..."

"Oh Kaven..." Thorne struggled up, out of the bath, ignoring the water that slopped out with him. "I'm all right. I'm all right, and it was only my own stupidity to blame, not you...It wasn't your fault. It really wasn't."

Kaven stared up at him, panicked, clearly not really seeing him. "They...b-but...I killed them, I did, I might as well have, and you...Thorne...!"

Thorne grabbed Kaven by the shoulders, and shook him lightly. "No. No, you didn't. You made a mistake, but if you'd been properly trained it wouldn't have happened. And you thought I was safe at home, didn't you? It's not your fault I couldn't wait a day and slid over an unstable path. It's not your fault."

Kaven sobbed again, then lunged forward, wrapping his arms around Thorne's shoulders and crushing their mouths together in a desperate kiss.

Thorne stiffened for a moment, his mind not able to make sense of Kaven's actions. But his body caught up much more quickly, molding him against the other naga, kissing back as their tails slid against each other. When they finally broke apart, Thorne blinked up at him. "Um. Hi?"

Kaven gazed down at him, then shook his head. "Talk too much," he muttered, before leaning in and kissing Thorne again, deeply.

Thorne kissed him back, whimpering softly against the press of Kaven's mouth, then his tongue, wondering if maybe he'd fallen asleep in the bath and this was all just an incredible dream. Probably not, though, if he was dreaming he wouldn't be wet and his arm wouldn't hurt and...Shut up, Thorne! Just enjoy it!

Kaven pressed close, arms sliding down around Thorne's slim waist, drawing him in tight as his tongue continued to explore Thorne's mouth. He was making soft, whimpering noises in the back of his throat, and he didn't seem to be able to get close enough, coiling around Thorne even as he pressed him back against the bed. He broke the kiss only long enough to draw in a gasping breath and lift Thorne bodily up onto the mattress before sliding up after him, joining their mouths again and winding his tail around Thorne's.

I can't believe I'm about to do this... Thorne pulled away, putting his hand against Kaven's chest when the other naga tried to follow him, and searched the prince's face, his eyes. "Kaven...what're you doing?" Thorne's voice was breathless, and he licked his lips softly. "I mean...I'm enjoying it, definitely, but...but I think maybe this is...is too fast? I don't want something to happen and then have you regret it later..." Not to mention I couldn't take it if it turns out you're just overly emotional and looking for an outlet...

Kaven blinked at him for a moment, then shook his head, looking confused. "Wh-what? I--aren't you...do you not...?"

"I do. Lady, I do," Thorne breathed, blushing. "But...I want to know why, I guess. You never...never showed any sign of wanting me before..."

Kaven drew away, seeming to come back to himself a little, and bit his lip. "I...I'm not...I'm not sure," he whispered, looking perplexed. "I guess...I just...you were so hurt, looking for me, and I...you..."

Thorne firmly pushed down his disappointment, curling close against Kaven and resting his head on his shoulder. "We can, if you want to," he said softly. "But I think...I think it's the kind of thing that should wait until you know why you want to. To make sure you really do. I don't want...I don't want to end up being something you regret, Kaven. I care about you too much for that."

Kaven sighed, but wrapped his arms around Thorne, some unnamed tension seeming to seep from the prince. "Yeah," he said softly. "You're probably right. Damn you." He turned his cheek, resting it against the crown of Thorne's still-wet hair, and sighed. "I care about you too," he added. "You know that, right?"

"I do," Thorne replied, sighing softly, closing his eyes and relaxing into Kaven's embrace. He laughed softly. "Of course, we barely know each other, really. We've spent what, two weeks together, all told? Not much for seven and a half years..."

"That doesn't seem possible, does it?" Kaven murmured, and there was a note of amusement in his voice. "I mean...I feel like I've known you forever, but you're right. We really don't know each other well."

"We have plenty of time to, now," Thorne replied, yawning and shifting slightly. "And damn, I got mud on your blankets..."

"Couldn't possibly care less," Kaven said, sighing a little as he looped his tail around Thorne's.

Thorne giggled. "Now I'm getting mud on you. And it shows more on your tail than on mine..." But he didn't move away, just pressed a little closer. "I'm getting you wet, too," he observed a moment later, knowing if he didn't keep talking, he was going to fall asleep. Which he shouldn't do before he ate, he decided, as his stomach growled loudly a moment later.

Kaven sighed again. "Can't leave well enough alone, can you?" he murmured, then shifted, drawing away. Thorne thought he felt a brief press of lips against his head, but he couldn't be sure, as a moment later Kaven was sliding off the bed, moving over to the bath and peering down into the now-muddy water. "I think I'll call and have this changed," he said after a moment, "but if you want to eat while we're waiting I can bring the food to the bed." He glanced up at Thorne and grinned, shrugging. "Gonna have to change the sheets anyway, now."

"Your fault, you're the one who tossed me in here," Thorne replied with a grin, stretching a little as Kaven rang for a page. "And normally I'd say no, but I'm hungry enough and tired enough to let you get everything for me. Thank you, Kaven," he added, smiling shyly. "I was...Well. I didn't think you'd toss me back out, or anything, but I wasn't sure how glad you'd be to see I'd come back. And I had planned to at least get a bath before barging in on you."

Kaven looked surprised. "Why wouldn't I be happy to see you?" he mused, reaching for a plate and dishing spoonfuls of thick casserole onto it.

"Because you left me behind," Thorne said quietly. "I didn't know...I didn't know how much of it was people thinking they were doing what was best for me, and how much was you just...not wanting me around. I thought maybe I'd finally talked too much," he tried to joke, though it felt flat. "That last night was...awkward."

Kaven blinked, but before he could speak, there was a knock at the door. Kaven moved forward and requested fresh bathwater and clean bed linens, then set down the plate, moving forward again and sitting next to Thorne on the mattress. "Thorne," he said softly, reaching out to take Thorne's hand in his own, "I am so sorry I hurt you. I only left because Ilyria said you were unhappy with me, and...and that you were too nice to ever say so. She said you'd stick by me forever, no matter how much it hurt you, because you were worried about me, and I just...I thought if the only way I could ensure that you'd be happy was to leave, I'd leave. But I never wanted to." His mouth quirked into a half-smile. "We may not know each other well yet," he said, "but I know you well enough to know I want you by my side as long as that's where you really wanted to be."

"It is," Thorne replied, squeezing Kaven's fingers lightly. "And not just because I seem to get a lot of hot baths around you," he added, smiling now. "Ilyria...she means well. She really does. But she doesn't know as much as she thinks she does, either." He squeezed Kaven's hand again, before releasing it. "So what have I missed, being holed up in the middle of nowhere?"

Kaven's eyes lit up. "I convinced father and King Ipson to reassign the troops so they'd be closer to their homes," he said. "We're about a month into the relocation."

"Kaven, that's wonderful!" Thorne grinned, sitting up more as Kaven returned to dishing up food for him. "How'd you manage to make them think it was a good idea?"

Kaven rolled his eyes. "I didn't," he said, "but I managed to convince them that I'd be doing most of the work, and they wouldn't have to be involved." He finished loading the plate as full as he could and slid forward, handing it to Thorne before going to fill his own. When he returned, settling on his coils next to the bed with his plate, Thorne couldn't help but notice there was already more color to his cheeks than there had been when he'd first arrived.

"Anyway--the yields from the farms of the two reassigned outposts have already gone up, and the soldiers are healthier, too--we've had less call for medical supplies from them, even after just a month. I think it's the proximity to their families, and the fact that they can get some real rest during their leave, even if they do spend part of it helping on the farms." He bit into a roll, chewing thoughtfully. "It may also be because many of them are back with their sweethearts, too," he mused after a moment. "I think there've been three requests for weekend leave for hand fasting festivals."

Thorne laughed softly. "I'm not surprised by that. And I'd imagine they'll work all the harder, knowing they're protecting their own, when it comes to patrols and all." He started in on the food, moaning softly when he took a bite of the casserole. "Oh, I've missed Gimma's cooking," he murmured, before turning his attention back to Kaven. "So, you've implemented one of your schemes. Anything else? Have you talked to Selria?"

Kaven actually chuckled. "I have," he said. "She couldn't've been happier, trust me. Apparently she does have a sweetheart, though she didn't want to tell me who it was. Between us, though? I think it's Makah." He made a face, taking a sip of cider. "Though I've been wrong about that before..."

Thorne giggled, and blushed. "I don't think you are this time, it'd make sense...Whoever his sweetheart is, he always said he couldn't tell me, but he wanted to write poetry worthy of her. I rather got the impression she was a noble of some kind, and that they had to hide." He chewed another bite slowly, watching Kaven, glad to see him looking so much more animated. "It seems things have been going well for you..."

Kaven's lips twisted wryly. "I was productive, if that's what you mean," he said softly. "I was miserable, but for once I didn't let that get in the way of getting things done."

"Oh." Thorne set his fork down, shifting slightly. "I was miserable, too, but I won't be, now that I'm back. And I want to help you however I can. You're making a real difference already, Kaven."

Kaven grinned, looking pleased. "Yeah?" He chuckled, looking down at his plate. "Thanks. That means a lot to me, coming from you."

"It's true. And I want to be a part of that." Thorne grinned shyly. "My mum used to call me her little hero, because I wanted to save everything. Guess I haven't grown out of that."

Kaven was silent for a long moment, still looking down at his plate. Then, very softly, he said, "You've saved me." He glanced up, meeting Thorne's gaze solemnly.

Thorne blushed, dropping his eyes. "I couldn't just leave you in that creek, and I couldn't...couldn't let you go on feeling so alone, either. You gave me my life, Kaven, I couldn't let you turn away from yours."

Kaven simply nodded, and for a while they ate in silence. Soon after, servants arrived to change out the water, and left a pile of fresh bed linens on the table next to the bed when they saw Thorne was still in it. Kaven nodded at them when they'd finished, and invited them to help themselves to any of the food since there was plenty. The elder servants looked horrified, but the page slid forward and accepted a roll with a shy smile, which Kaven returned gladly. Then they left again, and Kaven set aside his plate, nodding toward Thorne's. "Do you want more to eat? Or are you ready to finish cleaning up?"

"Clean and then sleep, and hope I don't try to do both at the same time," Thorne replied with a yawn. "I'll have a healer see to my arm tomorrow." He stretched, before pulling himself up, setting his empty plate next to Kaven's. "Where should I sleep, tonight? Rivek said he'd try to find me rooms, but..."

Kaven looked embarrassed. "Oh. Uh--well, you could...you could just stay in here. If you want," he added quickly. "The bed's plenty big, or if that makes you uncomfortable I could easily get them to bring in a cot for me...I don't know how many rooms we have available right now, and the ones we do are probably not clean enough for visitors yet."

"I don't mind sharing, if you don't," Thorne said, shrugging--though only with his right shoulder--and working his way into the tub again. "It happened often enough when I was a child, anyway, whenever someone came to visit. And it's...well, it's nice to curl up close to someone." He blushed, but sank gratefully into the water, grabbing the soap and a soft brush to get to work on his tail.

Kaven nodded, smiling a little, and slid forward, grabbing another brush and positioning himself at the end of the tub to help with the end of Thorne's tail, where the mud was the worst. "It is," he agreed. "And it's still chilly enough that it'll probably be warmer that way. Plus, I..." he trailed off, hand pausing in its movements for a split second before he finished: "I'd like you to be close by, tonight."

Thorne smiled, coiling the end of his tail around Kaven's wrist. "I'd like to be close, myself. Almost hard to believe I'm really here..." He shook his head and went back to cleaning, giggling when he looked up again to see his tail had curled its way up Kaven's arm by instinct. "Sorry..." He pulled back and let it fall again, into the water.

Kaven just chuckled. "You and Mekash..." he said, then winked when Thorne laughed again.

It took a good twenty minutes of scrubbing to get all the mud from Thorne's scales, but once they had, he felt a world better. The combination of the heat of the water, the food in his belly, and the massaging of the brushes on his tail had left him nearly asleep; Kaven had to help him back out of the tub, and Thorne had barely been able to remain upright while the prince helped him dry off. Then, warm and content, he helped Kaven change the sheets and climbed into the bed, curling up and stretching luxuriously before opening one eye and looking up at Kaven. "You coming?" he murmured.

Kaven smiled. "Be right there," he promised. "I just want to get some of this mud off my own tail."

"Mmm, all right." Thorne yawned, pressing himself against the back wall of the bed, slowly massaging his left wrist and forearm. "Sorry I got you all dirty..."

"As you so kindly pointed out," Kaven said, as he ran a towel over his own tail, "it was me who got myself dirty by not waiting until you were clean before I attacked you." He chuckled to himself, shaking his head, then tossed the towel aside and slid forward, bending to scoop something up off the floor before he pulled himself up over the edge of the bed. "And I think," he said, "that I've been dirty before, and will likely be dirty again, so no harm done."

He settled himself into the curved bowl of the mattress next to Thorne, shifting so their tails were coiled around one another, and drew Thorne's head down to rest on his shoulder, Thorne's back resting against Kaven's chest. "Here," he murmured, pulling Thorne's right arm away from his left. "Let me."

There was the sound of a jar opening, and a pungent scent filled Thorne's nostrils. Kaven scooped a handful of cream onto his fingers and rubbed his hands together, then began to gently massage the cream into Thorne's left arm and wrist. "This should help."

"Feels good at least," Thorne replied, relaxing into Kaven's touch, letting his eyes close as the other naga's hands worked over his arm. "Thank you, Kaven. For the bath, the food, this...Nice to come back and be so spoiled..." His voice was thick and heavy with sleep, and Thorne knew that he'd probably drift off if Kaven didn't stop and neither of them spoke. But that should be all right...and no matter what, he was home, curled around his prince, even, and wouldn't have to travel the next day. He was more than content.

Kaven sighed, chest rising and falling again gently beneath Thorne, and just before Thorne drifted off to sleep, he thought he felt a soft kiss pressed to his temple, and a gentle voice whisper, "Welcome home, Thorne."

But he might've just imagined it.

* * *

Thorne woke up warm, comfortable, and with someone snoring softly in his ear. "Merric, gerrof," he mumbled, shifting slightly before slumping back, too sluggish to move away.

The arm around his waist tightened a little, and there was a soft, sleepy hum that definitely wasn't Merric.

"Oh." Thorne's eyes popped open, and he shifted again, smiling as memory returned. He was in the palace, he'd arrived and seen Kaven and now...now the prince was curled all around him. Thorne giggled, softly, and pressed back, not sure how long he'd get to cuddle with Kaven--after all, they'd both been beyond stressed the night before, their defenses down because of it--but determined to squeeze in every moment he could.

Fortunately, Kaven didn't seem near to waking yet; though he could have gone back to sleep, Thorne fought the urge, devoting his attention instead to taking in the sensation of being held in the prince's arms, wrapped in his coils. His back was still to Kaven's chest, but at some point in the night they'd shifted so Kaven's tail was curled all around the bed, encircling Thorne's; he realized his own tail had wrapped itself back up so they were both resting on it like a pillow. He bit his lip, then shifted the tip just a little, drawing it up and over Kaven's middle, wrapping around the prince's waist. Kaven just sighed, pressing closer still, his lips against the back of Thorne's neck, and Thorne shivered lightly.

He'd kissed him. Kaven had kissed him.

Full on the lips, and everything. In fact, Thorne was certain if he hadn't stopped them, they would've done much more than kiss. Part of him still couldn't believe he'd done it, had pulled away. But he thought he was mostly glad that he had...after all, he wouldn't have wanted to take advantage of Kaven's state, wouldn't want his own taken advantage of in a similar situation...And Kaven had seemed more comfortable, afterwards.

But still...part of him couldn't help but wonder what it would've been like. But maybe I have a chance now. I mean...he wouldn't have kissed me if he wasn't interested at all, would he?

He frowned, considering. It wasn't...outside the realm of possibility, he supposed, for the kiss to have simply been driven out of emotions. Guilt was a pretty powerful thing--hell, it had been nearly killing the prince for seven years, before Thorne had arrived--but surely, surely, it wasn't enough to make Kaven...come on to him like that.

Was it?

He scowled, wishing his brain, like his mouth, would just shut up on occasion. He shoved all thoughts aside and pressed back further against Kaven's chest--then realized that at some point during his musings, the soft snoring had ceased, and there was now just the gentle sound of someone breathing.

"Morning?" he asked softly. "I'm sorry, was I thinking too loud?"

"No," Kaven said, voice amused, "but your tail is sort of squeezing me, and I now have to pee."

Thorne blushed, pulling his tail back. "Oops...I'm sorry, I didn't mean to..."

"Shhh," Kaven said, and pressed a soft kiss to Thorne's shoulder. "Don't worry about it."

Thorne blushed, but turned over on his back, slowly, smiling at Kaven. "All right, then I won't." He stretched his left arm out, slowly twisting his wrist around, before resting it against his chest again with a sigh. "I don't know if it was the balm, or the warmth, or what, but it feels better this morning. And I'm really here...I dreamed I'd dreamt it, if that makes sense."

"About as much sense as anything else you say," Kaven agreed, grinning at him. "And I'm glad to hear your arm's feeling better. My favorite bard has to be in top condition, after all."

"Thanks," Thorne replied dryly, though he couldn't stop the thrill at hearing he was Kaven's favorite bard. He'd known he probably was, of course, but that was quite different from hearing it said. "I'll still have a healer look at it, but I imagine I just made it angry traveling so soon...I should've waited for the weather to be better. But I didn't want to."

Kaven's smile softened a little. "Well," he said, "I suppose I should say I wish you'd waited, but I don't. I can't be anything but happy you're back." He shifted, then, beginning to uncoil himself, to Thorne's disappointment. "I have to talk to the commanders reporting on the troop movement," he explained, "but I'll be back soon, and maybe we can eat breakfast together?"

Thorne nodded, curling around himself when Kaven pulled free. "Mmm, all right. I'm going to be lazy and sleep in, since I haven't gotten to for a while, so I imagine I'll be right here when you get back."

"You'd better be," Kaven said, "because if you vanish again, I'm going to hunt you down myself."

Thorne giggled. "Mmm, I'm too sleepy to vanish. Have fun with your meetings, princeling, I'll be waiting for you right here."

"Fun and meetings," Kaven mused. "Not words I ever expected to go together." He chuckled at himself, pulling on his hip-wrap and sliding his golden coiled band through his long white hair, then nodded to Thorne. "Back soon, farm-boy. Get some rest."

Thorne answered with a mock snore that very shortly turned real.

* * *

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Ghee. 8D

Oh, this makes me so happy. Poor Kaven, though. The boy does not know how to take care of himself! >.< Sheez, Thorne, you got back just in time.

Mwee, that kiss. Hotter than a hot thing. Please to be having that happen more often. <3
Oh Kaven. So AWKARD the poor bub. *cuddles him*

Thorne is also fantastic.
Very glad to see them sort out a thing or two, and they're both so adorable in this chapter. Especially when all sleepy.
You stupid, uncommunicative boys *shakes head*

Ah well, they're back together now :)
I'm so happy to see another chapter so close to the last one ^_^
Ok, this makes up for the cliffhanger last time. But I feel so bad that they were apart so long. Poor Kaven thinking he drives everyone away. I hope they have some happiness coming their way.
Hooray, the first kiss! Oh dear god, my heart nearly stopped. Hehe, I have to admit to knowing the kiss was coming due to rabidly following you guys on y!gal and WORSHIPING all the OM artwork. *blush* I was all like, "Oh here it comes!" and then just about died when it did! Wonderful!

I am SO glad they've crossed the first hurdle (romance-wise) and can finally begin courting! Or dating, or whatever, lol. *happy sigh* Great work as always, and I'll be happily looking forward to more!
Oooh but Kaven doesn't know he loves Thorne yet, does he??? It will be lovely once he realizes.

This chapter was so full of warm and fuzzies. But I'm so ready to find out what happens next. I hope it's warmer and fuzzier. <3


mahh.... now i have to wait till this sunday...so long ...
It was progress... and then no... but the tension's gone from them both now so I'm so glad that they're ok with the new morning. And that was such a cute wake-up scene!! Poor Thorne broke his arm, hopefully the healer can make it feel even better than the salve could.
I'm rather glad that Thorne decided to stop Kaven too. Who knows how they would've been in the aftermath of desperate sex... someone would most likely have felt guilty and then the other one would've felt guilty for making them feel guilty. So I'm glad they decided to wait. :D


October 2009

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