He knows it must be a dream, because there's no way a place like this could actually exist; a place without light or dark, without sound or silence, without substance or space. There's nothing. He is nothing.
Should he be frightened? He has the distant sense that he should be. But he's not. How could he be? Fear is an emotion. He would have to exist to feel emotions, wouldn't he?
A voice. That can't be right. There is no sound in this place.
"Adam, please, come back."
The voice sounds so worried. So shredded, wrecked, sad.
No, don't be sad. Please don't be sad.
Adam drifts, absently searching for the source of that voice—and suddenly he finds he does exist after all. He has ears to hear, eyes to see, a mouth to speak, a heart to break.
There's something shining in the nothingness. A glowing gold cord, wispy and ill-formed in some places, but when he wraps his hands around it, it feels tangible enough.
He follows it.
There's a hand tangled in his hair, a thumb rubbing back and forth over his forehead like an afterthought. Michael.
Adam opens his eyes.
Michael's face swims in his vision, slowly coming into focus. He looks tense and bedraggled, like he's gone ten rounds with a—Well, with a kelpie. Hair matted and spiked at odd angles. Clothes damp, stretched in some places, torn in others: unsalvageable and good for nothing but the rag pile, his servant's mind points out.
He takes stock of the room. Small. Stark white walls. Rolling table of hospital instruments along one wall. Cot beneath him. Thin blanket pulled over him. Chair by the bedside, currently occupied by Michael. He must be in an infirmary.
"You look like hell," Adam croaks.
Michael cracks a weak smile, relief palpable. "You should talk. You look like death warmed over."
"Such a flatterer," Adam says dryly. "So what happened?" He frowns. "I think I must have hit my head at some point? I seem to remember you riding to the rescue on the back of a unicorn, if you believe it. How silly is that?"
Michael ducks his head, suddenly fascinated with the bland white bedspread.
Adam's jaw drops. "That actually happened! How did I miss the fact that you are actually a maiden?"
"I have a way with animals," Michael says defensively.
Adam opens his mouth, fully intending to take full advantage of this prime mocking opportunity (because how often does life give you unicorns?), when he notices a woman frowning at them from the doorway. Her skin and hair are dark, her fashionable gown a stunning emerald under the white of her apron. She's beautiful. And strong.
Adam can feel the magic around her, flowing muted beneath her skin. A mage.
No, not just a mage: an Archmage.
He is in the presence of none other than Lady Raphael, Archmage of Earth and the finest healer of the century.
"M-my lady," Adam stammers, trying to prop himself up on his elbows in a hopeless effort to greet the lady with the respect she deserves. This does not go over well with Michael, who pushes him back down with a warning glower, snapping, "What are you doing? Don't move. You're still healing."
"So overprotective," Lady Raphael observes coolly. "Let the boy alone. He is well enough to move about; in fact, he should be ready to leave the infirmary before too long."
"Who is the healer here? Do you doubt my abilities? I thought not. Now, I believe introductions are in order, don't you?"
Michael heaves a put-upon sigh, looking aggrieved but resigned, and obeys, delivering the introductions with a sharpness that Adam finds slightly out of character.
Raphael promptly dismisses Michael with a curt, "Your darling boy is awake, so quit your fretting and go see to yourself while I check him over."
Adam is frankly impressed by her audacity.
"That man," Raphael murmurs, shaking her head in obvious fondness once Michael has gone. She directs a small smile at Adam. "You will have your hands full with that one, dear boy."
"He's not usually like that."
"No," she agrees, "he's not. He was just very worried about you. You scared him, I think. You were dead when he finally managed to wrest you from the kelpie and carry you out of the water. It took some doing to purge your lungs of the water and return breath to your body—and even then we couldn't be sure you would make it. Michael was a right mess when he delivered you to me."
Adam stares at Raphael, dumbfounded.
Dead? He'd been dead?
She settles down on the chair at the side of the bed and pats his cheek gently. "Now, let's discuss your injuries, shall we?"
As Raphael methodically outlines Adam's injuries and describes how her capable team of healers had addressed each one, Adam alternates between gawking at her in astonishment and marveling at his unmarked skin. Adam had been a mess when he'd been brought in—scraped and bruised all over, one shoulder dislocated, and his hands reduced to an exposed, bloody, meaty mess. It had taken the skill and endurance of no less than ten fully-trained healers to put him back in good order.
As it happened, his hands had been the most difficult to mend. During the course of Michael's daring rescue, he was forced to sacrifice finesse for speed—meaning that the skin of Adam's hands had been forfeit. He'd been lucky; most healers were not experienced with repairing such extensive nerve damage. If Raphael had not been readily available to oversee the procedure, Adam would have lost most of the sensitivity in his hands and possibly some functionality.
But now he is in near-perfect condition: hands unblemished, shoulder back in place, not a scrape or bruise in sight. The only side-effect of any consequence is some lingering hypersensitivity in his hands.
"You'll want to be careful for the next few days until it settles. Sensations will be a lot more intense—grab onto something too hot or too cold and you will regret it, I assure you."
"Yes, my lady."
Hypersensitivity is a small price to pay, all things considered.
When Michael finally returns for him, Adam can't help himself: he throws his arms around Michael and holds on tight.
With the remainder of their third trial cancelled, Adam and Michael now face an unexpected abundance of free time; unfortunately, neither is in any fit state to enjoy it. Adam just wants to hide. Michael seems to want the same—or, at least, he is content to lead Adam directly from the infirmary to their newly assigned apartment.
Adam has never been happier to hear the soft 'snick' of a door locking behind him.
Michael goes straight for the decanter of wine waiting for them on the dinette table, downing an entire glass in one go before slumping into a chair and pouring himself another.
Adam is briefly taken aback by the display, but, after a moment, he claims the chair opposite Michael and takes a glass for himself. The first swallow is sharp and bitter. The second goes down a little easier. Without even thinking about it, Adam slips off his socks and shoes and stretches one foot out to rest against Michael's bare ankle.
After a while, Michael says, "I heard you cry out for me, you know." Michael taps his forehead with his index finger. "Here. I heard you in my mind. I was moving before anyone knew there was a problem. Before the alarm ever sounded. I have never been more terrified than I was in that moment." Michael makes a choked noise, something between a laugh and a sob, and brings his glass back to his lips, drinking deep.
Remembering his own fear, Adam closes his eyes and takes a few calming breaths.
"I hate to think of how scared you must have been," Michael continues. "I am so sorry, Adam. You have no idea how sorry I am."
"It wasn't your fault."
"I lost you. I was too late and I lost you."
Fiercely, eyes blazing, Michael hisses, "I did." He gestures wildly, knocking over his glass in the process. The wine soaks instantly into the white tablecloth, staining it a deep, sickening red. "You were dead, Adam. I felt you die. Do you have any idea what that was like for me? Our bond hasn't even been consummated, much less made permanent, but I—" He pauses, sucking in an unsteady breath. "I don't know how it is for you, but I am already committed."
Adam stares down at the rippling liquid in his glass.
"Before I woke up in the infirmary," Adam says slowly, "I had a dream. I was dead. Just a formless spirit, floating in the ether. You called me back. And I came." He wets his lips and looks up to catch Michael's gaze. "Ask me again if I am committed."
Then, at least to himself, Adam acknowledges that if he had the option to walk away now—a real choice, one that wouldn't spell disaster for his mother or for himself—he doesn't know if he would take it.
"Adam," Michael breathes and looks as though he's about to say something that will inevitably embarrass them both, so Adam hastily blurts, "Take me to bed," and blushes to the roots of his hair when he realizes what he's just said. No one has ever accused him of being suave.
Michael's mouth quirks into a lopsided smile. "As you wish," he says, and rounds the table to take Adam by the hand, leading him to the bed as he had led him into the bath the night before.
Adam's pulse pounds in his ears.
Michael doesn't hesitate before he starts stripping Adam out of his infirmary-issued clothes, not even to ask permission, and that has Adam's hackles rising—until he recognizes the tinge of desperation in Michael's actions. This isn't about lust.
"Please," Michael says, "please, I just need to see."
He doesn't say what, exactly, he needs to see. He doesn't have to.
Adam's body is fully exposed now. He sees what Michael sees.
Michael is gentler than ever as he guides Adam down to the bed and lightly runs his hands over Adam's body with almost clinical precision, "almost" being the operative word. Adam can't imagine a healer ever touching a patient quite like this.
There are a few new scars—small ones, fresh and stark against pale skin. His person had been assaulted more aggressively by those stray branches than he'd registered at the time. Michael traces each of these scars intently, starting with his feet and moving categorically upward, like he's mapping out Adam's geography.
Adam reacts. He's a teenage boy—of course he reacts. By the time Michael has reached the mark stretching long and thin over Adam's right hip, he's so hard he may just die. Again.
The way Michael's index finger strokes back and forth along the length of that particular scar, passing so close to Adam's cock without ever acknowledging it—that is the absolute last straw.
"Michael," Adam says through grit teeth, "if you don't touch me, I may just have to murder you."
The finger on Adam's hip ceases his stroking. Michael's gaze flickers up to meet Adam's and there is no mistaking the desire burning there, all for Adam.
Adam breath catches in his throat. Without really being conscious of it, he reaches out to tangle his fingers in Michael's hair and reel him in for a slow searing kiss. Michael comes easily, coaxing Adam to roll onto one side so that they are laying in perfect alignment. When Michael's tongue invades Adam's mouth, Adam groans, his hips canting instinctively—and then they are both groaning, the motion having brought their cocks flush together.
Michael's hands resume their exploration of Adam's skin with new purpose. It's not long before Adam is desperate with arousal, panting and clutching at the blankets beneath him, struggling to keep it together. Michael doesn't even pause to shed his own clothes before he reaches for one of the vials of oil on the bedside table. There's something unspeakably erotic about that.
This time around Michael's fingers don't feel quite as strange when they work him open.
"Oh, yes, please," he gasps again and again—shameless, eager, wanting—until at last he can take no more and Michael is persuaded to give him what they both need.
Adam spreads his legs wider in invitation, heart pounding a deafening rhythm. This is it. This is the moment they've been working up to—and, yes, he's a little afraid, but he wants.
Tossing the last of his clothes hastily to the floor, Michael's weight settles over Adam like it belongs there. The hard jut of Michael's erection teases against his ass. His breath hitches.
"Ready?" Michael's voice cracks on the word and Adam can't find his voice to reply, only managing a curt nod.
And then Michael is easing in. Slow. Insistent.
There is nothing that could have prepared Adam for the stretch and burn of Michael's cock splitting him open.
"Oh," he gasps, hands flying to Michael's shoulders, nails digging in hard enough to draw blood. Adam squeezes his eyes shut tight against the tears threatening to spill over, against the sight of Michael's worried face peering down at him. It hurts. It hurts so badly.
"Adam," Michael says, insistent. "Adam, are you—"
"Fine," Adam grits out. "I'm fine. Just. Keep going."
Michael is still for an endless moment.
Then his hands are on Adam's hips and—
And Adam is blinking his eyes open to find himself straddling Michael's lap, Michael on his back beneath him.
"It'll be better this way," Michael says gruffly. "You'll be able to control the pace."
Adam shifts uncomfortably. "I don't..."
"Adam." Michael smiles that placid smile of his and takes one of Adam's wrists to guide his hand toward—toward, oh gods, toward that mouth.
Soft lips wrap around an index finger, sucking it in and—
Adam lets out a strangled noise, hips jerking in shock.
Apparently Raphael hadn't been exaggerating about that hypersensitivity issue.
Michael's eyes laugh up at him as he continues to suck on Adam's finger like he'd sucked on Adam's cock just yesterday. The sensation is maddening, nerves tingling, sending jolts of liquid pleasure coursing through him until he finds himself rocking in Michael's lap, grinding down, taking Michael in deeper, deeper, deeper, down to the root of him.
He's lost then—too lost for words, too lost to truly register anything but the mouth sucking at his fingers one-by-one, the cock filling him up, the rising heat. He's burning up, smoldering into ashes, and it's still not enough, not nearly enough—
And then something snaps into place.
And it's like nothing Adam has experienced before.
Suddenly he can feel Michael. Can feel Michael's heart matching the frantic beat of Adam's own. Pleasure swells between them, Adam's desire spilling over into Michael and Michael's desire into Adam—a merciless cycle that builds and builds until Adam is no longer sure where he ends and Michael begins.
Yes, he thinks. Or maybe it's Michael's thought.. He doesn't know. It doesn't matter because he shaking apart, they're shaking apart, together, always together now, yes.
The first thing Adam notices when he comes back to himself is that he has collapsed on top of Michael, his come now smeared tacky between them.
The second is that the cock inside him is already hard again.
Adam's own spent cock twitches in sympathy and he tilts his head up to meet Michael's heated gaze.
When an acolyte comes to fetch Adam and Michael the next morning, she finds the door sealed against her. Hearing her persistent knocking, Adam gasps out, "Michael! Michael, shouldn't we stop? The last—ugh—last trial. We'll miss it."
Unconcerned, Michael tightens his hold on Adam's hips and thrusts harder. "I tried to tell you," Michael pants. "Sam and Lucifer didn't come out of their rooms once during their trial period except to travel to the next temple. It'll be—It'll be fine."
"Oh, Michael! I'm gonna. I'm gonna—"
With a guttural cry, Adam shakes apart, come splattering and smearing all over.
"And anyway—" Michael's hips jerk forward once, twice, then his breath hisses out as he comes, filling Adam with his seed. Adam is already filthy with it, wet and leaking and sticky and gods. He's ruined. If only he'd known it could be like this. "We're in the Earth Temple. Enki is a fertility god. Do you think he would really disapprove?"
Adam can't find the words to reply, so he just wraps his arms around Michael's neck and drags him into a kiss.
By the time the sun sets on the fourth and final day of their trial period, Adam is exhausted and sore, rubbed raw in places he never even knew he had. Michael had been careful to work ointment into cramped muscles and into the stretched, used tissue of his most delicate place, but it could only do so much.
"If I was a better healer, you know I would take care of this for you," Michael had said, though Adam doubts his veracity. He's neither blind nor an idiot; he can see the spark of self-satisfied pride in Michael's eyes at the sight of Adam's aching, bowlegged walk. It's probably a sign of pending insanity that Adam likes that look on Michael.
Michael has apparently fucked all good sense right out of Adam.
Good sense returns on the carriage ride back to the city's center.
Sitting is unpleasant. The way the carriage jolts and jerks over the uneven cobblestones make the trip an absolute misery.
"I hate you."
"That's not what you said last night."
"You are never touching me again."
Michael throws his head back and laughs and laughs.
"Are you hungry?" Michael asks as he unlocks the door to his apartment, glancing over at Adam. "I could have a servant bring up a tray."
"All I want to do is sleep." Adam has been biting back yawns for the better part of an hour. If he tries to eat now, he'll probably just fall asleep at the table with a spoon hanging out of his mouth or something. He'll be lucky to stay awake long enough to perform his usual evening ablutions.
"Poor thing. Did I wear you out?"
Adam aims a kick at Michael's shin, but Michael swings the door open and darts inside at that precise moment, so he misses and finds himself stumbling forward instead. Michael's hands grab at Adam's shoulders, steadying him. The corners of Michael's eyes are crinkled with amusement.
"Come on, sweetheart. Let's get you to bed before you do yourself an injury."
First pausing to flick on the lights and lock the apartment door behind them, Michael wraps an arm around Adam's shoulders and ushers Adam further into the apartment toward—Well, not toward the bedroom. Adam distinctly remembers that the bedroom was on the other side of the apartment. The door Michael is leading him toward is the one Adam couldn't open before, the one that was locked. Only it isn't locked anymore.
It swings open easily under Michael's hand.
The lights switch on.
"It's a bedroom."
"Yes," Michael says. "It's your bedroom. Do you like it?"
Adam scans the room, takes in the plush bed, the wardrobe, the dresser. It's much like Michael's bedroom: finely furnished, but bland. Void of personality.
"It's fine. But why would you go through the trouble? I thought—" He bites his lip, uncertain. He'd thought a lot of things. "I thought we'd be sharing a room."
"I wanted you to have a place to call your own," Michael says. "It used to be a work space, but I asked the servants to clear it out and make up a room for you. We may be bonded, but you are under no obligation to share my bed."
"I see," Adam says—and he does. He offers Michael a weak smile. "Thank you."
Michael looks at him with concern. "Are you—?"
"I'm really tired."
Sighing, Michael accepts the dismissal for what it is and presses a kiss to Adam's forehead with a murmured, "Sleep well."
Then he's gone. And Adam is alone.
Adam falls back onto the bed and stares up at the ceiling. What had he been thinking? How foolish he'd been, letting himself get caught up in Michael. Whatever else they are, they aren't lovers. Not really.
They are fully and completely bonded now. There's no need for them to be invading each other's space at all hours. Establishing some distance will be good for them both.
Tiredly, Adam forces himself back to his feet to investigate the contents of the dresser and wardrobe. All his clothes are there within, neatly pressed, and his other meager possessions have been tucked away on the shelf at the top of the wardrobe to be forgotten. Sad how the contents of the past eighteen years of his life fill only two drawers and a fraction of a wardrobe.
"I'm being melodramatic," Adam pronounces to the empty room. He's had enough of self-pity.
Changing into his familiar nightclothes, old and soft from use, he listens for Michael's movements and makes for the washroom to perform his ablutions only when he's sure Michael has retired to his own bed.
On the way back to his room, Adam's gaze is reluctantly drawn toward Michael's room. The door is half-open, the room beyond dark and quiet.
Adam resolutely returns to his own room and slips into his own bed.
Sleep eludes him.
His bed is soft, but not welcoming. Try as he might, he can't seem to get comfortable; it doesn't take a genius to figure out why. And it's ridiculous. He knows it's ridiculous. He's slept alone without trouble for years; a few nights of curling into the warmth of another body should make no difference. But it does.
It's quiet. Too quiet.
Tension builds in Adam, his head buzzing with a need that's entirely his own.
He can't do this. He doesn't care if Michael wants him in his bed or not. He refuses to sleep alone in the quiet gloom of this unfamiliar room.
Shoving aside the blankets, Adam swings his legs out of bed and pads determinedly out of his own room toward Michael's. He hesitates at the half-open door, listening. The faint sound of his bondmate's steady breaths puts Adam immediately more at ease.
Slow and careful, Adam slips past the door and ghosts around the bed to the open space beckoning him. The mattress dips a little beneath Adam's weight, but the bed is big enough that the dark shape bundled under the covers on the opposite side remains undisturbed.
After a few minutes of listening to Michael breathe, Adam starts to relax. But there's still something not quite right. Something is missing.
The bed shifts.
Michael lets out a sleepy mumble, shifting, rolling in his sleep.
Or at least Adam had assumed he was asleep. He's well and truly shocked when Michael's warmth slots up against him, his strong arms snaking around Adam to pull their bodies flush together.
Voice hushed, Michael says, "You decided to join me after all."
"Yeah," Adam mutters, blustering. "Well. I knew you'd be lonely without me."
He can feel Michael's lips curl where they're pressed against the crook of his neck. "I was lonely, yes. Thank you."
Sleep comes easily after that.
Adam is reaching for the teapot, having just slunk out of the bedroom to join Michael at the breakfast table, when Michael looks at him over the top of his newspaper to announce, "The High Priestesses have already sent word of the gods' decision."
Preoccupied as he is with the all-important question of whom he would have to bribe to get a cup of coffee around these parts, it takes Adam a moment to parse Michael's meaning. When he finally gets it, he fumbles and nearly drops the teapot. The rush of adrenaline is as good as ten cups of coffee.
"Already?" Adam laughs nervously. Michael's expression is inscrutable. "I thought we wouldn't find out one way or the other until the public ceremony this afternoon."
"A common misconception. The formal announcement is reserved for the public ceremony; however, the prospective bondmates are always warned beforehand."
Adam supposes that makes sense. It would be cruel for a pair to learn that their bond has been rejected before an audience. Especially if the pair were actually in love with each other. Which isn't the case with him and Michael. Obviously.
"So, uh, what's the verdict?"
Michael smiles his gentle smile. "We will be officially married in the sight of all of Haven before the day is through."
Adam tells himself that the warm feeling that flutters in his chest at the news is only relief at the knowledge that the whole ordeal will soon be over.
Intellectually, Adam had known that the public ceremony would be a big deal. Mage-vessel bonds are a rare and exalted blessing. Centuries have passed since the kingdom has been blessed with four bonded Archmages; that it has happened now is a miracle that bodes well for Haven's future. Of course the capital's inhabitants would celebrate the good news; heck, the whole kingdom would celebrate as the news spreads!
Nothing could have possibly prepared him for the reality of hundreds of people amassing in the palace courtyard and the thousands more outside the palace gates, all shouting and cheering as their carriage inches toward their destination. The king has declared the day a holiday, so the people are out in droves.
A narrow path has been cleared for them, uniformed guards discouraging people from crowding in too close, but they're going nowhere fast; this is a special event and everyone wants a glimpse of the "happy couple." The carriage is open in parade-fashion this time, so Adam can't even close the drapes and hide. All he can do is force a strained smile and try not to panic. Or throw up. Throwing up all over himself right now would be bad. The terrifying tailor that had wrestled Adam into the day's ceremonial robes—black and silver this time around—would surely hunt Adam down and murder him if he made a mess of things.
Is it really too late to run?
Michael (the bastard) is completely at ease with the attention, smiling and waving graciously at the crowds as they pass by. People are shouting out Michael's name from all sides. He's clearly well-liked. Loved, even.
Adam can't help but think of Dean. Are people surprised that Dean isn't the one by Michael's side? Disappointed? What must they think of Adam, interloper that he is?
They turn a corner. The palace rises up before them, large and majestic. He's seen it from a distance—it would have been impossible to miss—but there's a difference between catching glimpses of its looming towers and actually seeing it in its entirety, up-close and personal. It's like something out of a fairy tale: whitewashed, gold-trimmed and glorious under the noonday sun. It's too beautiful to be real. Why, it puts the temples to shame! What do the gods think of that?
"Glorious, is it not?" Michael says lowly, breath whispering into Adam's ear. Adam nods mutely, at a loss for words. Glorious doesn't even begin to cover it.
As the carriage passes through the front gate, the roar of the crowd becomes deafening. It doesn't help his nerves at all. By the time the carriage rolls to a stop at the foot of the palace steps, Adam is shaking so hard that Michael has to guide him out of the carriage and up the steps with a steadying arm around his waist; no doubt it appears very romantic to the crowd. For Adam it's the ultimate humiliation. He's not in control. Not at all.
He can't breathe. It's like there's a horse sitting on his chest, pressing all the air out of him, crushing him. He's panting, sucking in breaths in quick succession, but it isn't helping. He's falling apart, suffocating. This is so much worse than the initial ceremony.
If he swoons like a heroine in those silly romance novels his mother likes so much, he may just die.
Michael's voice is a soothing murmur in one ear and, as Adam's mind grapples for calm, suddenly he's a warm presence in the back of Adam's mind too—willing him to calm down, to let go of his fear. The mind-to-mind contact is brief and indistinct, nothing like it had been when the bond first snapped into place, but it's enough to startle him out of his panic attack.
They reach the top of the stairs and enter without incident, the door closing audibly behind them.
"Oh," Adam says weakly, slumping against Michael with a sigh.
"Yes," Michael agrees.
A soft cough catches their attention and they turn to find the High Priestess of Water hovering off to one side, looking a mixture of concerned and sympathetic.
Michael and Adam both bow respectfully in her direction.
"Good afternoon, my lady," Adam murmurs quietly.
"Well met," Michael adds.
Ellen nods her head in greeting. "Good afternoon to you too, boys. It's good to see you again." She offers Adam a wry smile. "Hopefully today will be less eventful than when I last saw you, yes? If you're ready, everyone is gathered on the balcony and ready to begin."
"Perhaps you could give us a few minutes?" Michael says, shooting a worried glance at Adam, still tucked up against him. Adam shakes his head and disentangles himself. He still doesn't feel quite himself, but he feels a lot better than he did a few minutes ago.
"No," he says, "I'll be alright. Let's do this."
The sooner they start, the sooner they'll be done and able move on. The fifty or so people that have been invited to the reception afterward will be a piece of cake by comparison.
If Michael doubts Adam's readiness to continue (and Adam is sure he does), he keeps his protests to himself.
The public ceremony is a simple affair.
Adam and Michael stand at the fore of the balcony where the crowd can see them, facing each other with Michael's right hand holding Adam's left as one-by-one the priestesses approach to bind their hands in ribbons and murmur their blessings in tones much too low for the noisy crowd to hear.
Priestess Kali steps forward first. "When you first stood before us, you stood as strangers," she starts. "Now you stand as mates, bound together both by your similarities and your differences. You have much to teach one another, much to learn from one another; continue to share of yourselves as you have done and you may enjoy a lasting and fulfilling partnership. In the name of Engirru, Lord of Fire, I hereby bless your union."
The red ribbon of fire coils around their joined hands in a delicate swirl. As Kali ties it off, the bit of ribbon flickers briefly to life, becoming a playful lick of flame that tickles without burning for a mere blink of an eye before it's nothing but a ribbon again. Adam's breath hitches and he looks into Michael eyes with astonishment. Michael stares back at him, lips quirked in fond reply as if to say, "The gods are watching. What did you expect?"
Priestess Charlie steps forward next, looking far more regal and composed than Adam would have expected after having met her. "Trust is one of the most important characteristics of any successful relationship. If you cannot trust your bondmate to steer you right when you are lost or blind to truth, then you will never find your way. Place your faith in one another and you will travel far. In the name of Enlil, Lord of Air, I hereby bless your union."
The yellow ribbon of air binds them together in a more chaotic fashion, entwining with the red ribbon and looping between their fingers without apparent rhyme or reason. When Charlie is done, Adam watches as the new ribbon shifts into a translucent swirl of mist and back again, less surprised this time, but no less impressed.
Priestess Ellen steps forward and says, "The world we live in is not always kind. Sometimes it is cold and cruel. Sometimes you will need to sacrifice for, bleed for, or fight for that which you hold dear to your heart. Never forget what is important to you and to your bondmate. In the name of Enmu, Lord of Water, I hereby bless your union."
Ellen loops the blue ribbon of water around their hands with practiced efficiency. The ribbon shifts into a wet, liquid band, burbling cheerfully for a moment before squirting a few drops of fluid into Michael's face and promptly shifting back to ribbon. Michael's expression of stunned indignation shakes a laugh out of Adam, though he muffles it quickly, biting his lip.
"Traitor," Michael mutters without rancor as the last of the priestesses, the only one Adam had yet to meet, steps forward.
Priestess Jody—honest to goodness!—smirks at them before she says, "A life without passion is a life devoid of purpose. The desire you feel for one another is a precious gift; but beware lest you mistake one desire for another. Before you can truly know another's heart, you must first know your own. In the name of Enki, Lord of Earth, I hereby bless your union."
The green ribbon twists and a twines with the other ribbons, becoming, for a moment, a tangle of vines. Jody steps away.
"Thank you for giving me the gift of yourself. I do not deserve you, but I swear that I will spend the rest of my days trying to," Michael says quietly, sincerely, the words for Adam's ears alone.
Adam is floored. "I'm nothing special." He's just a servant, just a dumb boy with a sick mother and a deadbeat father. His only saving grace is in a gift he never wanted and has no idea what to do with.
"I guess my first task will be convincing you otherwise," Michael says and leans in to kiss Adam's cheek—a chaste gesture that shouldn't heat Adam's blood the way it does, that shouldn't make his heart race or his palms sweat.
Together they turn to face their audience, raising their bound hands high in the air to uproarious approval.
Spying on his bondmate from the shadows of the balcony overlooking the garden is creepy and intrusive, Michael knows, but every time Adam has slipped from sight this evening, Michael has found himself unsettled and anxious.
The last time Michael left Adam to his own devices, he nearly lost him forever; irrational though it may be, he cannot shake the foreboding sense that the danger is not over. The kelpie may be dead, but the question still remains: how did it slip past the temple's wards in the first place? Furthermore, what was it doing so close to human civilization? In ordinary circumstances, Michael might have passed the affair off as a fluke of fate, but considering the current situation, he cannot afford to ignore the possibility that the kelpie might have been part of a more sinister plot.
Adam is his responsibility. He will do all within his power to keep the boy safe.
Michael smiles wistfully as he watches Adam light up with laughter at something his mother has said, throwing his arms around her, enveloping her tiny, sickly form. Confined to a wheelchair as the woman is, the embrace is awkward, but, even from this distance, their love and affection for each other is clear as day. Adam is careful with her, so very careful.
Kate Milligan had arrived by train with a team of healers early that morning, a surprise for Adam. Michael had hoped she would be present to see her son publicly bonded, but the strain of travel had precluded that; still, she had insisted on at least making an appearance at the reception, despite her keepers' protests. Adam had clearly come by his stubbornness honestly. The way she had looked at Michael when they were introduced had made clear the fact that he would have to work very hard to win her favor. It would be an interesting challenge.
"Maybe Dean's apparent defection is not entirely the curse we thought it was."
Startled, Michael tilts his head to nod respectfully at the only man in the entire kingdom who would have dared to intrude on his solitude. "My liege," he says. "I am unsure of your meaning."
Chuck snorts in a most unkingly way and leans against the railing, glancing thoughtfully down at the mother and son laughing below before focusing again on Michael. "I have been worried about you—we all have," he says. "But now I see that we worried for nothing. I have never seen you look at anyone the way you look at that boy."
"How do I look at him?"
"Like you are a dragon and he a treasure you dearly wish to protect. You are clearly smitten."
Michael averts his eyes, directing his gaze back to Adam. Is he really so easy to read?
Chuck sighs and says, "Have you explained to him the reason for our urgency in cementing this bond?"
"No, and I'm not going to. Not yet."
"Are you sure that is wise? He must know there is something very strange about all of this."
Michael shrugs, hands going white knuckled on the railing. "He has his theories, I am sure, but I will not burden him with the truth until I absolutely must. Let him concentrate on making a life for himself here. There is nothing to be done until his training is complete anyway."
Perhaps it is cruel of him to keep secrets from his bondmate like this, especially secrets that will affect them both so profoundly, but would it not be crueler still to lay upon Adam a burden he is not yet equipped to bear? Adam is so young and already so frightened and vulnerable. Michael has taken so much from him, but he can give him this small thing: he can give him time.
"I understand you have had a chance to weave a little magic with him already. Will he be ready for what is coming, do you think? Will he be the vessel we need him to be?"
"He will have to be."
The alternative is too grave to consider.