Chapter One: The First Time

The room was dim but full of love and warmth, candles settling quietly along each table and dispersed generously along the bar. The few patrons in the Less Crowded Inn--properly named--were mostly regulars, friends and family. The woman behind the bar smiled to herself, revelling in a rare moment of peace.

Her life had not always been so easy, and even though tonight her smile was carefree, she still had a not-so-gentle life to face in the morning. She sighed softly, her shoulders rising and falling daintily with the action, wild locks of copper-toned hair shifting ever so slightly. Her deep brown eyes passed over the room once more, a sudden wash of memories flooding her--Lhotum, her abusive first mate; Bonnie, the woman who's dying wish had given her a new life; Condal, her fiance of sorts that couldn't marry her unless he could take her to bed, an emotional and physical impossibility for her after living with Lhotum. She had only been away from home for a year, yet in that time she had gained enough experience for a lifetime.

With a short toss of her head, the memories were gone and the dull voices of the tavern once again filled her senses. A few unknown patrons were seated sparcely about, all of them content to keep to themselves. In a booth near the door, her sister Callie Storm and a close friend to them both, a man by the name of Magus Zeal, sat teasing one another in a manner that would make most blush.

Callie wasn't her sister by blood, but by respect and love. The two women had met after a tragic accident nearly half a year ago and had bonded quickly. They were inseperable now, each fighting for the other's insane causes, even if they didn't believe in it themselves. All that mattered was that they were friends, and that was friends did.
Zeal stood slowly, catching her attention as his deep blue gaze shifted to her for a brief moment, a secret smile tight on his lips. They had known each other in the most intimate of ways once, a painful reminder to her of why she was unable to perform the acts that her fiance demanded of her. Acts of love, they should have been, not of greed or guilt or pain. Zeal had never hurt her himself, not intentionally, but the memories he produced were too much for her and she left him alone. He had recovered quickly, turning to Callie for support.
"Goodnight, brat," he grinned, bowing slightly. She snorted with mock indignance.

"My name is Matilda Celeste Saint John, Matty if you please...but not brat." Her mouth turned up in a brilliant smile and Zeal laughed, moving towards the door.

"Aye, Matty, ye are a brat." He disappeared before she could reply and there was a soft relieved grunt from the direction of the setee by the hearth. Matty turned her gaze from the door to the giant fair-haired Norseman sitting upon the couch cozily with his mug of ale. He caught her lifted brow and amused, curious smile.
"'Tis odd, ye know, Matty," he muttered cryptically, taking another swig before clarifying himself. "How much I agree with Condal for once." Well...sort of clarifying himself.

Callie crossed to the bar, eyeing Zonker, the great Norseman, warily. She had feelings for Zeal, as any blind man could see, and Matty knew she didn't appreciate the attack on him. She kept her mouth shut for the moment, however, and smiled to her sister, taking the glass from her outstretched hand.

To see the two women next to each other was to know that they were, without a doubt, sisters. The same red hair, the same mischevious look to their innocent faces. Callie was a good deal taller, however, and had a slightly more cynical view on life than did her smaller friend.

Matty finally took the bait, smiling patiently over at Zonker. "Agreed on what?"

She fought the urge to roll her eyes, coming to Zeal's--and in a way, Callie's--defense gently, so as not to offend Zonker.
"He did help Callie out, dear. He just needs to learn to lighten up."
Zeal had just bargained for Callie's life after one of her far too frequently occuring slave matches had gone awry. Then he'd brought Callie back to the tavern and proceeded to lecture the lot of them on various topics. He is a bit of a pain, Matty relented to herself, but refused to speak the words before her sister.

"He helped her out?" Zonker did nothing to conceal his astonishment. "How? Are you as foolish as he?" The Norseman's views were clear. He disapproved of Callie's ways, especially concerning slaving, and accepted her only because she was a relative of Matty's. Matty, he knew, was loyal to the death. It would be a long time, and would take Callie's proving herself to him, before he would finally accept her for the good woman that she truly was.
"I trust him, Zonker," was her only defense.

Zonker grumbled again. He had led a long, sometimes tortured life himself. He'd been subject to slavers for a long time, and he detested them with a passion that most didn't realize he had until his fury was upon them.

Zonker was, for the most part, a quiet and peaceful tavern owner. With his wife, Moriah, he was the father to two small children, and the little family was unbreakable. There was a love within them that knocked Matty senseless. The moment she knew it existed, she knew she would settle for nothing less. The problem was finding someone to provide and share it with.
"As ye wish. As for me, he can kiss my Nordic..." He cut himself off and cleared his throat, not wanting to curse before the ladies.

Matty smiled over at him then brightened suddenly, bursting from her perch behind the bar as though she'd been lit on fire. She had suddenly remembered the date, and with it a chance to change the subject.
"That reminds me! It's Valentine's!" she cried, grabbing her pack from the kitchen and dragging it back out to the main area.

Callie groaned, rolling her eyes as she pushed off the bar and headed towards the door. She was going to use that note as her cue to leave.
"Please don't remind me. I'm alone enough as it is," she muttered as she paused for a moment, her curiousity getting the better of her. She watched her sister empty the contents of her pack onto the tavern floor. Matty dug out a shiny new spittoon and flourished it with a rose for the occasion, siddling up to the Norseman with a delighted grin. He was still muttering about Zeal, much to her dismay.
"He seems tae think I am some weak tavern owner or some such. He doth talk down tae everyone!"

Matty sighed softly. "I told him not to tell you what to do..."
"He cannae help it, he believes himself tae be Odin's gift tae Rhydin." Rhydin was the not-so-small village where they all lived.

Callie laughed at Zonker's rantings, covering up her hurt, and started towards the door again, nodding to them both. "I won't comment. Goodnight to the both of you, it's past my bedtime."

Matty waved to her sister and Zonker returned the nod, both of them watching and waiting until she was out of sight to resume their conversation. Matty hurried up and spoke before Zonker could get in another complaint, pouting prettily to add to the effect as she shoved the spittoon into his lap.
"Are you so angry that you won't even take this?"

The ruse worked and Zonker finally accepted the gift. His look, however, told her that he didn't take it seriously.
"Thank thee, Matty, dear," he replied, his tone considerably milder, gentle almost. She was like a younger sister to him, and he cared for her deeply, wanting very much to protect her feelings. He knew they were delicate, even if she didn't.

"You're welcome, grumps," she muttered, resuming her post. Some odd new patrons Matty had never seen had wandered in and were keeping mostly to themselves off in a corner. Matty was half grateful for that, and half not, knowing what happened when things got idle. She began to think when things got idle.

Zonker was by her side suddenly, tucking the spittoon behind his bar with a yawn. He smiled--a rare thing of late--and looked down at her sheepishly for the action, affording her a small hug--another rarity.
"Fare thee well, Matty. 'Tis time I return tae the keep."

Matty returned the hug, startled for a moment, but recovering quickly. "Goodnight, Zonk. I'll try and control Magus from now on."
Zonker didn't reply, clearly not wanting to continue along that subject, and was gone without any further comment. Matty sighed, resting her chin in her hands, elbows on the countertop, and reluctantly turned her attention to the other patrons for the first time.

The three in the corner were dressed in rags, one far older than the others and appearing to be blind. One of the younger two was pressing him with questions as the other seemed to mill about aimlessly. She eyed them warily but knew her duty as Zonker's tender and smiled.
"Hello, all...anyone need a drink?" Her voice held cheer that belied what was going on inside her heart and mind now that there was nothing to truly distract her. Her thoughts wandered to the past and to Condal, despite her efforts to shove them aside.
The wandering one didn't even glance up, saying something about wanting old junk. Matty lifted a brow and turned to the other two instead.
No reply. They were two wrapped up in solving the mysteries of one another to even know she existed. She sighed and shrugged, leaving them to their own devices. Then he appeared.

Stepping in out of the cold February wind quietly, his mere presence suggesting a strength like none she'd ever known.
The man seemed more like a god when he stepped into the candle lit room, long black hair swirling about his shoulders in a gust of cold wind. His deep blue eyes scanned the room for a moment before he continued on. He moved extremely gracefully for a man of his size and stature. Matty turned her attention to this new stranger without hesitation, smiling a welcome that she doubted he noticed as he headed blindly to the end of the bar.
"Drink sir?"

He had barely settled himself on the farthest stool when she got the question out. He nodded, his voice quiet.
"If it wouldn't be too much trouble...a cup of tea might be'am..."
His hair shimmered in the candlelight, brilliant blue eyes skimming the room again.

Matty smiled and poured him a cup from a pot made earlier, all too happy to oblige. She was still smiling as she set the cup before him, hesitating for the briefest of moments.
"Here you go, sir." A slight pause, then she spoke again. "We don't get many knights around here requesting tea."

The knight--his occupation apparent from his apparel--smiled faintly as he lifted the cup, nearly melting her heart on the spot. His next words caused her to soften to him even more, though she knew not why.
"Thank you, ma'am...getting drunk just doesn't help anymore..."

Her instincts kicked in. Something was wrong. Instead of letting it drop as any person with half a heart would have done, she persisted, leaning against the counter in an action that let the knight know she wasn't going away just yet. She paused again, debating with herself, but her curiousity won out.
"What doesn't getting drunk help?"

The knight sipped his tea silently, being careful not to burn his mouth. He set the cup back on the counter, blue eyes regarding it seriously, as if it held all the answers to life's greatest questions.
"Doesn't stop the pain...doesn't heal the hurt...just gives one a hangover. Not fun." His quiet tone attempted levity but failed miserably. Matty's heart broke for him.

She smiled gently, brown eyes never leaving that serious, pained face. "I know hangovers well. If you don't mind my asking, what troubles you, sir?"

He finally glanced up at her, deep blue pools revealing hurt and something else, something that made her want him to look away again despite their unworldly beauty.
" one. Ma'am."

He kept saying that. Ma'am. Damn it all, she wasn't even old enough to be a ma'am. And always as an afterthought, as if gently trying to tell her something. Matty smiled again, knowing deep inside that she'd already determined to help this man. She stuck her hand out towards him.
"Forgive me. Name's Matty." Then, almost as if his last words had just sunken in, she spoke again. "Did you lose someone close, sir?"

He took her hand lightly, but she could still feel great power and gentle warmth pulsating through the touch. His voice again, so soft, so deep.
"Hello, me Mikal. And you could say that, yes..."
In an instant, the touch was gone, and he was lifting his tea again.

"Pleasure to meet you, Mikal." She paused, watching him, her concern growing. "Do you need to talk about it?"

The knight, Mikal, shook his head, midnight tresses flowing around his face, eyes lowered once again as he sipped his tea. His voice was still the same soft whisper from a moment ago, but it was a fraction less steady now, making Matty wish she'd never asked.
" happened a long time ago, Matty, but some wounds never heal, I suppose..."

Matty nodded ever so slightly, her eyes lowering as well. Pictures, memories, nightmares flashed through her mind. Lhotum. She forced it all aside. This wasn't about her, not tonight.
"I know exactly how that is. Is there anything I can do to help?" She thanked the gods that her voice didn't waver.

"No..." His voice was gentle, understanding what she left unspoken, knowing that they both needed a change of subject. "Unless you think that another cup of tea would be the remedy, that is..." He pushed an empty cup towards her that she hadn't even seen him drink.

She smiled gently, thanking and soothing in the same action as she took the cup. But she wasn't ready to let this drop. She could see in his face that though he didn't want to face this, didn't want to think about it this night, something had to change. Now.
"I know it couldn't hurt," she replied, refilling the teacup and sliding it back across the counter. She poured herself a cup as well, indulging when she knew she shouldn't. She dove back into the difficult subject matter, but more gently, and with a different tactic.
"Don't you have other friends to help ease your pain, Mikal? Shouldn't you be with them?"
The moment the question was out, she realized she was glad he wasn't with them and was here instead. She recognized the thought as shameful and mentally scolded herself, reminding her straying brain that she'd only known him for a few minutes.

Mikal took his time answering, turning his attention instead to his wrist with a quiet smile. A small but deadly looking crossbow was strapped there, and he glanced about the room once before removing the weapon and laying it across the counter in one deft move. His free hand moved to absently rub the slightly reddened wrist for a moment before retreiving the teacup again, glancing up at her as he shook his head.
"No, they have done all they can..."

Matty blinked, angry for a brief moment with his friends. She hid her anger from him though, giving him a small sideways smile.
"I never put much faith in quitting trying to help someone before the problem is fixed." The change in him was immediate upon the delivery of her words. He withdrew back into himself, sipping carefully at his tea.

"Your intentions are kind, Matty, and I thank you for them...but..."
He trailed off, but she knew the rest of his sentence. But back off. He set down his teacup, regarding it seriously again. Matty was determined, however, and refused to relent. Instead, she lifted a brow challengingly.
"But I'm pushy and annoying." She smiled. "I know, I've been told often."

To her surprise, he graced her with a small, quiet smile and spoke to her in that gentle, reassuring voice again. "Whoever has said that did not know of what they spoke, for if you were truly pushy and annoying, I wouldn't have bothered speaking to you, Matty...nor bothered with telling you my name."

She was stunned speechless for a moment, a feat not easily achieved. Zonker would have never let her live it down. A faint blush covered her cheeks as she smiled shyly into her own tea.
"Thank you, but I'm being tame right now. Earlier I was dancing about and laughing like a loon. Believe me, they are right."
It was true. Most of her family had been in the tavern tonight, and she became rather uninhibited when she felt safe. She had danced and sang badly and laughed with the carefree air of a child, much to the amusement of her several brothers and her sister, Callie.

His voice was so soft she barely heard it.
"Matty...though I rarely laugh and dance anymore, I see nothing wrong with others doing that, and enjoying life...God knows somebody has to..."

She looked to him and smiled a little, her heart breaking again. "Surely you know some happiness..."

He only shrugged, his eyes still downcast. That was the last straw for her. She straightened her shoulders and set her jaw, a true smile gracing her lips as she watched him.
"You do know you've just given me a new mission in life, Mikal."
He didn't even look at her. Matty felt like reaching across the counter and yanking his ears or something horrible, but she restrained herself, simply watching him. He frowned a bit and rubbed his wrists again, reaching across to fiddle with the straps on his cross bow, determined not to get too involved. She knew his motives, and she wouldn't let him get away with it. She watched with a bit of amusement as he inspected the straps meticulously.

"Have I now?" he muttered.
She tilted her head at him, still smiling, not about to let him get away with it, with ignoring her. "Yes, you have....I'm going to make it my duty to see you laugh and something wrong? Something I said?" If he wasn't going to offer an explaination, she was going to force it out of him.

He glanced up at her, choosing to ignore her declaration to help him. "Hmm? Oh, no Matty...just can't stand it when I get silly and in a hurry and forget to oil the damn straps on this..." He tapped the cross bow gently, almost lovingly. "The chaffing is a bother." A rare smile. "Not to mention wears the hell out of cuffs and such..."

She chose not to bristle at his blatent passing over of her statement because he graced her with a smile, and instead drew her stool closer to the counter, holding out her hand.
"Let me see."

Again, he froze up without a word, his hand not moving from it's resting spot on the cross bow. Matty flushed slighty, knowing how foolish the act was. He was hurt, and it was too much too soon. No contact. There must be some rule written somewhere that said that, as often as she broke the damn thing. She nodded slowly, smiling to cover her exasperation at herself.
"Okay, I won't touch it...I think I have something back here, though..."
She frowned in concentration as she bent, searching through the bottles under the bar. Several medicinal alcohols, but not what she was looking for. Where was that stupid jar? There...behind the whiskey. She sat up, producing a small, slightly dusty jar of salve with a smile.
Mikal glanced at her warily, sighing a bit and sighing as he reached for his tea again. She set the jar on the counter and scooted her stool back again, giving him the room he seemed to desire so. She smiled a bit at the sigh and the look.
"Do you have an affliction for medical aid, sir?"

He shook his head, setting the teacup back down to push his sleeve up, revealing deep red marks where the straps had chaffed. He glanced quietly at the jar of salve. "What is it?"

Matty stood, frowning in concern at the condition of his arm. She hadn't realized the extent of the damage the straps had done. Had he said something about that earlier that she missed? She leaned on the counter, prying the lid from the strong smelling jar of salve, but refrained from offering to apply it herself.
"It's just some healing may burn but it'll help. You really should do something about that, you know."

He held up a hand with a quiet smile that seemed to say poor, silly woman, setting his other hand over the chaffed area. "Watch, Matty. These are nothing." His eyes, those beautiful blue orbs, seemed to turn eerily inward for a long moment.
Matty held her breath, blinking. She'd never seen anything like what he was doing, and she prayed he wasn't going to pass out on her.

For the longest of moments, his eyes remained in that far, distant, yet somehow inward place, then he twitched hard and blinked, and they refocused. She stared at him, waiting until she was sure he was back to normal...or as close as he could get.
"Are you all right?"
She grimaced as her voice betrayed her, barely coming out in a whisper.

"I think so...except that I could really use another cup of tea..." His voice was almost as soft as hers as he removed his hand from his wrist.

She held in a gasp as she saw that the marks were gone, the skin looked perfectly healthy. Cursing inwardly at her reaction, she forced herself to calm and poured him another cup of tea, unable to keep her hand from trembling slightly.
"I suppose that means you don't need the salve..."
Her attempt at a joke seemed to lighten the air a bit.

He glanced towards the crossbow again, the strange meditations all but forgotten to him.
"No, but if it's not too much trouble...some neatsfoot oil, if you have it."

She nodded, checking the shelves behind her and finding the oil surprisingly fast. She turned, setting the jar on the counter, and took a deep calming breath. Her body and demeanor composed themselves quickly as she curled up on her stool again. She finally trusted her voice to speak.
"Isn't there a better remedy than...than what you just did?" Not that it hadn't been a damned good remedy. He was healed, wasn't he?

He smiled quietly again, and she was finding that she liked that smile more every time he gifted her with it.
"Thank you, Matty. Actually, that's kind of...cheating a bit, I suppose, but it wasn't exactly a fatal wound or anything, so..." He let the sentence trail off as if she was supposed to know what 'so' meant.

She refrained from rolling her eyes, choosing to smile instead.
"Keep the salve, then. Is there anything else I should know before I start giving you things you don't need?"

He grinned softly, reaching for the neatsfoot oil for his crossbow, then paused, frowning. "Soft cloth?"
Matty pulled a handkerchief from her pack, handing it to him with a smile. "You do know you don't have to speak so softly...I don't think anyone's going to overhear you in here." She glanced around, noting formally that the other patrons had left, and she found herself secretly glad. She didn't want her attention diverted tonight. Something was special about this man, about this night.

"Thanks...and I wasn't aware that I was speaking softly." He took the handkerchief and began to slowly coat it with the oil, gently and methodically letting it soak into the straps on the crossbow. This weapon was special to him, she made a mental note of that. He glanced up at her and she fought not to swoon. "Was I?"

"No, sir. I'm sure I was just talking too loud." She smiled, watching him curiously. "If you don't mind my asking, what profession requires so many...accessories?"
He let out soft half chuckle and Matty nearly leaped for joy. They were certainly making progress.

"Matty, to my ears...the whole bloody world is loud now. I'll adjust in time, I suppose..."
She smiled in return. Actually, it was closer to grinning like an idiot, but she chose not to see it that way. "I've a tendency to run on the loud side. Forgive me, it's one of my billion bad habits." Not to mention the product of growing up with four older brothers, but she was sure that kind of information would bore Mikal at this point. She decided to stick with the present.

He let the comment pass almost as if he hadn't heard it, turning his attention back to his beloved crossbow. She sat on her hands to keep from throwing the thing out the window.
"Actually, I've many professions...but this, this is actually toy." He finished oiling the straps and double checked the safety on it, or what she presumed to be the safety. She smiled softly at the gesture, choosing to think of it as a protective one, and sipped her tea.
"Helluva play toy..."
He paused in his work and glanced up at her. No smile this time, but at least she got him to look at her. "Thanks."
She grinned. "Did you ever think of getting a dog, maybe? I hear their nice to play with too...and they rarely shoot you in the foot." She'd been so elated to have his sole attention for one moment, she was greedy for more. She had to do something to get him to just look at her, talk to her instead of mumble in the general direction of that crossbow.
"How loud can you be?" she blurted out, crossing her arms in what she hoped was a challenging looking pose. Maybe that would get his attention.
Instead of looking at her, he chuckled quietly. He did, however, set the crossbow aside, trading it in for his tea. This gave her heart and she smiled.
"You really don't want to know, Matty..."
"Yes, I do. How loud can you be?" She grinned defiantly, deciding to play with the knight. God knew they both needed a bit of levity this evening. "I don't think you can be very loud at all."
Instead of responding to her teasing, he cradled the cup between his large hands and sighed, seeming to shrink before her eyes. No, no, no...not yet, she had to draw him out. Think, Matty damn it...
"Come with me." She walked to the door, refusing to let him get away with retreating again.

She smiled, despite her growing exasperation. He certainly was making her work for any type of friendship. "We're just stepping outside, silly. I'm five feet tall, you think I can hurt you?" She tugged on her overshoes and opened the door, moving out onto the steps. She turned after one step down, hands on her hips, watching him.

"Matty, your height and mine make that quite possible in fact..." Mikal set his cup of tea down and turned on the stool to look at her, a faint and almost teasing smile playing on his lips. She could have fainted from delight right then and there, choosing to smile instead and play back. She couldn't very well end this game before it began
. "Okay, I promise not to beat you up," she grinned. Mikal shook his head and gave in, grabbing his wrist crossbow off the bar. He slid off the stool slowly, walking to her. She noticed for the first time that he seemed to tower over her, his sheer size radiating a kind of gentle power.
"Okay, fine, outside it is....still, why?" he asked, shivering a bit from a sharp gust.
She grinned and turned, hopping down the steps easily. Even in the heavy overshoes and her forever cumbersome skirts, she crossed into the clearing with ease. His slow progress was giving her heart...or perhaps wings.
"We're going to say goodnight to the moon. So that he can hear us." She smiled over at him and froze immediately. She'd done something terribly wrong.

Mikal stopped dead in his tracks, his eyes flickering with a faint hint of pain. Before she could say another word, he turned and walked back inside, his soft whisper reaching her on another gust of wind.
"No." There was nothing hesitant or questionable about his refusal.
She stood there, stunned for a moment. What had she done? Hurrying back to the tavern, she paused on the steps, leaning on the doorframe to watch him. Whatever it was, she was going to undo it. No way could he come so far--and she was confident that he'd come somewhat out of his shell--to turn back now. She wouldn't allow it.
"Mikal? Did I do something wrong?"
He didn't answer, didn't even look at her. His tall, broad form slid back onto the stool and he retreieved the cup of tea again, the tension in his shoulders almost visible. Matty was sure if she would have touched him, she would only have felt muscle as cold and hard as steel. She was sure his eyes were resembling that very same hardness at this moment.

She couldn't afford to let it drop. And whether he knew it or not, neither could he. "I'm sorry. Would you like to talk about it?" Her voice held a gentleness that almost surprised her.
"What is there to talk about? The anguish that that sort of an attempt causes...?" His whisper was almost accusatory, and she grimaced inwardly. At least he wasn't keeping it bottled up, right?
She removed her overshoes again and crossed the room back to her seat behind the bar. She was right about the look in his eyes. Had it been possible, she was sure he would have melted that teacup by now.
"What sort of an attempt would that be, sir?" she asked, debating her sanity.
"Talking that" He trailed off and sighed, glancing up at her with eyes so full of misery and pain she nearly burst into tears. His hands, big gentle fingers, toyed absently with the teacup. Probably to keep from strangling me, she thought to herself, but steeled herself and kept pushing.
"I truly believe I can talk as far as I want. Anyone can." She smiled gently, trying to reassure him.

"I used to be able to reach the far end of the universe, Matty..." he replied in such a soft whisper she barely knew he spoke but for the moving of his lips. He set the teacup down and stared numbly at the bar counter. Damn, not again. Please don't go back there, stay with me.
She chewed on her lip a moment, knowing she had to push on, but wanting to do so gently, slowly. "You still can, Mikal. What's stopping you?"
"Pain...damage...old wounds that will never heal." He glanced up at her, and for that she was thankful. It was something, at least. "Pick one."
"I have all of those things, Mikal, and I can still talk to the moon." She tilted her head to the side, regarding him carefully.

He laughed, but it wasn't the gentle, warming chuckle from before. It was quiet and slightly bitter, a noise she'd rather not have ever heard. And he was looking at her now, really looking at her. There was nothing fleeting about his gaze now.
"Gods, you remind me so very much of her..." Her? She furrowed her brow. Who was her? Please, God, let Her be someone good.
"Remind you of who?"
"A...a student I once had..." His voice lowered even more as he added, "...and loved..."
She smiled a little, allowing it to widen indulgently as he said the word "loved". It gave her hope, but hope for what? "What did you teach her? Besides how to live?"
He continued, and she wished she'd kept her stupid mouth shut.
Fate hated her, that was the only answer she could think of. She winced at herself for talking before thinking, hurrying to make up for it. "I'm very sorry..."
" had no way of knowing, Matty..." He took a deep, shaky breath, and she knew he was trying to push the memories away. She had done it herself on so many occasions it was easy for her to spot another doing it. He had said her name, and not angrily. Hope again.
"I should be better at reading the signs by now." She smiled sadly.

"You and her would have gotten along well, I think, though..." Gods, more hope. She forced herself not to get too happy at the fact that it was taking less and less time to get him to open up. When she got too happy, too easy with him, she always seemed to screw up. Slowly, she reminded herself.
"I think I would have liked to know her. Did she touch the end of the universe too?"
He nodded quietly. "She did...and beyond..."
Matty's heart ached for him, and for love such as he seemed to still feel for this woman. She had to push that aside now and move on. She had to start chipping away at him again. She hoped he wouldn't hate her for the next question.
"Don't you think she'd want you to remember how?"

"I know she would, Matty...but I also know that she'd understand very well why I can't...not right now...Perhaps in time, but not right now..." She watched a piece or two of hope fly out the window and bit her lip. She had to keep--something occurred to her suddenly and she inhaled sharply.
"Oh, gods...did you just lose her recently?"
He shook his head and she remembered to breathe again. "No, was years ago that our bond was shattered...but the repercussions of her loss and the healing from that was barely underway when..." His voice broke for a moment and he paused. When he spoke again, it was in a whisper. "...when I found myself falling right back into the insanity."

She looked at him and tilted her head again in confusion. "I'm afraid you've lost me..."
"An insanity that I have only begun to crawl out of..."
She cut him off. "You aren't insane, Mikal."
He didn't answer, which she was learning was a very bad sign. He glanced to his cup instead and saw that it was empty, sighing softly. Matty noticed the empty teacup and promptly refilled it, nudging it back before him. Gods, she was going to keep pushing, even when she knew she shouldn't.
"I'm sorry for what I did, but is it okay if I keep trying to make you laugh and dance...even if it takes a while?" She gave him what she hoped was a reassuring smile.
He sighed, looking at her. Good sign. "It is, Matty..." Even better sign. "There are many forms of insanity, you know..." She watched his eyes and saw that something was going on inside of him, he seemed to be fighting some odd internal war. This subject was apparently important to him, or he thought it important that she understand, so she nodded and smiled a bit.
"What form is yours?"

"Internal." He took the teacup again with a faint smile. The good signs were outweighing the bad signs, she noted. "Thank you."
"I think we're on the same plane then. I've just reached internal insanity recently." She lifted a brow. "What caused yours? The woman?" If I were him, I'd just get up and walk out now. What the hell am I thinking, this isn't my business.
"Question, Matty, before I answer yours...Have you heard of the Mind's Eye?" He had straightened a bit and was speaking in a clearer voice. Something was up, and she was determined to find out what. She gave him her full attention.
"Yes...I believe so..."
"What happens when that which is known as the Mind's Eye is shattered? And yes, to a certain extent, in answer to your question."
"Then you have to start making decisions from your heart instead of your mind." She was a firm believer that the better decisions came from the heart anyway. She nodded a bit as if to back up her answer and refilled her own teacup, curling up on her stool to sip it.

He shook his head, leaning forward. "Perhaps for you, yes...but for me and those like me, when it is shattered, it is the same as shattering your soul. To heal and rebuild the solid base of the mental plane is a long and painful process. In the process, your mind is trapped within itself, the pain and hurt being directed inward, destroying indiscriminantly." His voiced seemed to have taken on a gentle lecturing rhythm. Matty, however, was determined to be a difficult student.
She nodded slowly at his answer, then questioned it. "But what do you believe is the basis for your soul? Your emotions or your rational thought?"
" we head into a realm of thought and philosophy that I have long struggled with and lost many an argument over...I have said both and at the same time something more...a core of self-knowledge."
Matty set her cup down and hugged her knees. "Yes, but we don't give our 'self-knowledge and our soul', we give our 'heart and soul'. I believe our heart is the basis for knowing ourself."
He smiled. "Perhaps so. Matty, what is a lifebond?" She paused, startled by the switch in subject, but followed along it easily once she gathered her wits again.
"A soulmate." She smiled back. "Or so I believe."
"Ahh...very good...and with the term 'bond' in there, what does that indicate?" His eyes began to sparkle just a bit, like a cat watching a mouse scurrying towards it's trap. Matty smiled anyway, thrilled at the direction of things.
"That the two souls share one heart...or one something."
He nodded enthusiastically. "Yes! Now..." He turned serious. Too serious. She knew he'd cornered her immediately. "What would be the result if that were to be torn apart."
She bit her lip. "That heart would be torn in two...and one cannot survive without the other in my opinion." He may have got her on that, but she saw a bit of light and followed it. "I always thought that if I found and then lost my soulmate, I would rather die by their side."

Those deep, miserable, riveting blue eyes met and held hers seriously. "And so now you understand, Matty...I survived." She had known it was coming and was prepared, meeting his gaze evenly.
"Why?" He blinked.
"You survived by choice, so why? I know that I would not chose to survive without a damn good reason." She reached for her tea, a bit overconfident and knowing it, but not caring.
"No...I survived because those around me would not let me go....I didn't want to trust myself..."
She tilted her head, not ready to let this go yet. "Why did you let them?"
"I wasn't given the choice, Matty. I would have been content to stay locked inside my own madness in my mind...forever." He sipped his tea quietly.
She still couldn't drop it. "It would be easy to return to that place. What have you found to live for?" She was trying for force him to realize the futility of remaining so distant, so hurt and removed. If he was alive now, and sane, there was a reason.
"I did...return to that place I mean..."
She nodded slowly. "Okay...given the choice right now, today, would you chose to die?"
"I...I don't know...perhaps that is why it was so very needful for me to leave Sanctuary Mountain and come here...and to Eastwind..." He glanced at her. "To find the answer to that question." He looked at the cup in his hands again, sighing.
She smiled gently, reassuringly. Yes, she was going to push this, but that didn't mean she had to be brutal about it. She wanted to help this man, befriend him, not send him running.
"Do you believe you are even living as it is?"
"Not really...but I survive."
She smiled and spoke gently, finally deciding enough was enough. She would force him to question himself no longer. "I'll tell you a secret, Mikal. When you can speak to the moon, then you are alive again. I have faith in you, that you want to live again, and that you will."
He nodded quietly. "I think that I shall remember that, Matty...thank you."
"You're a good teacher." She smiled. "I'll remember what you've said too."
He sipped his tea again, murmuring softly into it, almost more to himself than to her. "When the student is ready, the teacher shall appear..."
She studied him, intrigued. He seemed to be naturally inclined to teach, yet resisted it for some reason. There had to be some answer, and as with all the rest of the topics she wanted to cover, she just plowed ahead and asked.
"Is it so bad? Teaching I mean?"
"No...not all of it. There are some things, though, that have been lost to me. But...I enjoy it..." Small half smile. "Providing, of course, that the student isn't stubborn." He set the mug down, toying with it absently. Matty kept watching him, brow lifted.
"What's been lost?"
He blinked sarcastically. "If it is lost, then how could I possibly know what it is?" He smiled over at her, and Matty's heart nearly soared. Yes! There's still hope if he's willing to play! She smiled back.
"If you lost it, you must have had it at one time and know that it is gone now....therefore, you must have some vague idea at the least..." She felt very proud of herself for having risen to the challenge. He gave her a thoughtful look.
"Hmm...interesting. I...I suppose that what "feels" like it's missing is" He frowned a bit as though he'd not quite hit the word he was searching for, or he had and didn't like the realization of it. Matty smiled softly.
"You are living on half a heart, do need balance." She paused, regarding him. "You know, I once heard a very smart man say 'you teach best what you most need to learn'..."

His reaction was far from anything she could have anticipated. He stared at her for a long stunned moment. She didn't quite know how to react, settling on a gentle smile, trying to act as if nothing was out of the ordinary.
"Mikal, in all your years of teaching, how often did you take time to learn?" She sipped her tea as she watched him, growing more and more concerned by his silence. He blinked for a moment, opening his mouth to speak before snapping it back shut and blinking again. She lifted a brow at him, resisting the urge to reach over and feel his forehead for a fever.
"Are you okay? Is it the tea?" She knew full well it wasn't the tea, but she needed something to say, something to break his stupor.
It seemed to work. He shook his head, still blinking at her strangely. "The tea is fine...I'm...okay..." His voice was distant, vague. She tilted her head, frowning at him, now very worried.
"Are you sure?"
"No...I'm Mikal...."

And that's when the miracle occurred. It was so unexpected that she nearly fell from her stool. He started laughing. First quietly, almost numbly, and then it slowly built into a rich, loud, ringing laugh that filled all the corners of the room and spread light where dark hadn't touched for years. It was full of life that even invigorated her. She smiled brightly at him in response, biting down on her lip to keep from laughing outright.
"I'm Mikal," he repeated, his voice holding a hint of discovery and delight, a wonderful mixture in a man that had just moments before been speaking of death. "I'm Mikal!"
Matty laughed contagiously, unable to keep from grinning at him. "I...yes, I know. You make life missions horribly easy, Mikal. I only have one left." She beamed from ear to ear, a secret pride filling her like nothing she'd ever felt before. So this was what it was to be happy again. She'd almost forgotten it.

His eyes shone with a deep richness that hadn't been there before, and he threw his head back to continue on in his laughter. She watched him, her soul soaring, and for a moment she thought she heard the stars themselves laughing with this man, this wonderfully bright, powerful angel of a man. She was content just to smile at him in return, feeling an overwhelming sense of pure joy at his release.
His laughter finally softened slightly, the joy not lessening one bit as he finally got his mind back on track. Or as back on track as it was going to get that night. He looked at her, still grinning . "One left? What, Matty?"
"Laughing and dancing. We got laughing covered." She smiled at him, sipping her tea.
He chuckled and leaned back on his stool. "I don't dance, Matty. Never have..."
"Oh surely you jest!" It was her turn to laugh, but this time in disbelief. He just grinned foolishly back at her, shaking his head.
"Never learned as far as I can tell..."
"Stand up, right now. This is a disaster." She grinned and pointed. "Go stand in the middle of the room." Even as she was issuing orders, she cleared a spot on the bar top and climbed up, settling cross-legged on the counter.
Mikal looked at her, somewhat warily, but the light still in his eyes. She was damned well going to take advantage of it while it lasted, and she smiled back.
"You're going to start defying me now? Go on." She nudged him, her teasing tone leaving no room for question.
"But what?" She lifted a brow in that challenging way again, smiling and refilling her empty teacup as she waited patiently for him to obey.
"But what? Shoo now, or you'll force me to join you, and I'll just step on your toes." She smiled and pointed again.
Mikal finally relented with a sigh and a smile, slipping off the stool to go to the middle of the room. He paused suddenly, turning to look at her, slowly crossing his arms.
"Not alone. I have tough toes."
"I can tell you how, but actually doing it is not my forte," she laughed in protest. He grinned.
"Practice what you preach, Matty."
She paused, then smiled. "Amen, Mikal."
Hopping down from her perch on the counter, she crossed the distance to him, pausing only a foot away.
In truth, things were going better than she could have ever dreamed. Life missions for her usually took months, not hours. To make this kind of progress, especially with this man...there was something about him...something special... She forced those fanciful thoughts aside with a small sigh, trying desperately to remember how to dance properly. "Okay, now, just...bear with me..."
"Yes, ma'am..." He started to make a comment, then stopped, biting is tongue. Matty caught the look and grinned up at him.
"If you have something to say, student, say it."
His eyes, those beautiful deep blue eyes, danced. It was a sight that could have made a grown woman swoon, and she would have if not for the fact that if ever she were to be in his arms, she wanted to be fully awake for the experience.
"Not saying a word."
"Yeah, right...give me your hands." She held out her own hands, smiling up at him. She knew he was holding back on her, but she let it pass. She had bigger fish to fry. Like dancing without mowing him down.
"Yes, ma'am." He gave her his hands, and Matty froze, stunned. Physically, they were lightly calloused and warm, swallowing her own up. But there was something else...a slightly cool tingle raced across her nerves at every point where her hands made contact with his. It was pure heaven. Who is this man?
"Wait," he interrupted her thoughts and she blinked, smiling softly and still studying his hands as her voice responded, even if her eyes would not.
"What?" She finally looked up at him.
A silly grin crossed his face and the crossbow on his hip was suddenly reappearing on the bar top next to his wrist crossbow. She stared, stunned. He beamed.
"Much better...and safer. I understand it's bad form to accidently shoot your partner in the foot."
She laughed and nodded, snapping out of it once again. "Unless you want one angry partner."
"Or a sore foot."

He laughed again. Gods, but she could get used to that sound, to the look of joy in his eyes. She wanted him around, and the longer he stayed, the harder it was to let go. She knew nothing good could come of it, but she ignored all her past indiscretions screaming at her from deep inside her brain. Pain, pain is all that can come! Run away, don't look back! If she could have glared at herself, she would have. Instead, she concentrated on the moment.
"I'll try not to hurt you too badly," she grinned, looking down to her own feet with a groan. What had she been thinking? She was never going to be able to pull this off. She could barely dance herself without colliding with everything in the room. To dance with another...and to presume she could actually teach him to dance...well, at least she hadn't said she'd teach him to dance well.
"I told you, I have tough toes." His voice was oddly reassuring and she smiled, her confidence returning slowly. He made things so easy, she had never felt so at ease.
"Let me remember...okay, forgive me now, normally I dance alone and have a tendency to try and lead...just beat me if I do that..." She furrowed her brow in thought, going through the steps in her mind as she looked at her feet. She just barely moved them, trying to jump-start her brain.
Mikal shot her a "don't be ridiculous" look that she just happened to catch. She shrugged and smiled, almost sadly, before looking down again.
"It's happened," was all she would say, somewhat cryptically. Mikal opened his mouth to say something, but she rushed on. "I remember now. Okay, right foot forward, then left forward and to the side and have the right join it. Then just do the same thing, but going backwards and with the opposite feet...make a square. Not so hard." She smiled.
He returned the smile. "Not so hard."
She laughed and looked back to their feet, nodding slightly at him. "Okay, whenever you're ready, just...go." She forced her chin back up, eyes forward, trying to dance from memory. If she was going to do this, she was going to do it right. No cheating.
Mikal turned serious for a long moment without moving or saying a word, his face holding a distant look. Matty was beginning to worry and was just about to say something when a slow, odd little smile began creeping across his face as the faintest strains of the "Blue Danube" began to fill the air.
Matty stared at the room around them, amazed once again, more and more determined with every passing second that there was something magical about this man. He could do things...heal himself, move things with his mind, create music from silence...
She forced all thoughts aside, determined to abandon her overworked mind for a while. She smiled up at him, biting her lip as though it could keep her from taking the lead as they slowly began to dance.

The music swirled softly around them, filling into every corner and crevice. She could have sworn that she was breathing the song, feeling it pulse through her veins as Mikal steaded his hold on her and swept her across the floor gracefully, his steps lighter than anything she'd ever experienced or seen. Like hell he'd never learned to dance!
Matty stared at him, smiling widely as she allowed herself to be caught up in the moment, the dance, the music. She didn't want anything to ruin this, the most perfect minute that she'd ever lived, so she looked down to her feet to make sure she didn't stumble over his feet.
She felt his eyes on the top of her head more than saw him look at her. "Trust, Matty...look at me. Trust...I...I remember..." His voice held the wonder of a child that has just discovered a rainbow after a storm. It was warm, soft, inviting. She looked up at him, smiling quietly. "Learning, like dancing, depends on trust...does it not?"
He sent them spinning around a table in a neat whirl, her skirts brushing against his legs and the chairs. She nodded and smiled up at him, having to balance herself on her tiptoes to keep up.
"Not just learning, but living too."
"Living too, too..." He smiled a quiet, soft smile.
The music came to a sweet close, Mikal seeming to sense it before it happened. He whirled her one more time, then dipped her and dropped a light kiss on her forehead. She was stunned, but not too stunned to smile brightly, bowing her head to hide the faint blush coloring her cheeks.
Once the pink tint in her cheeks had passed, she looked up at him again, studying his face. So strong, yet so vulnerable. She gave him a lopsided grin, her mind not quite aware that she was still in his arms, even if her body knew it very well.
"You came here tonight to dance, Mikal. I'm very glad to have helped you accomplish that."
Mikal smiled softly down at her, still posed as if dancing; one hand on her waist holding her near, the other clasping hers. She could see his mind spinning behind those deep, shining blue eyes. His voice was soft again, the way it was when he first spoke to her.
"Thank you, Matty."
"Don't thank me," she smiled. "All the people you meet and all the things you do...those things are all in your life because you wanted them there, you drew them out. What you choose to do with them once they appear, however, is up to you. You simply chose to learn." She grinned playfully. "Or you saw a chance to get a free dance."
He bowed his head and his hands dropped to his sides again. Matty felt a sudden coldness, a vulnerability. What had come over her? She didn't feel this way before he touched her, why should she feel any different after the fact? She couldn't explain it, but she desperately wanted his arms around her again, she wanted to be whirling around the floor, dancing with this man.
His voice snapped her back to the present. "You gave me back the choice, though." His head was bowed, his eyes on the floor.
She smiled softly, stepping forward until she was barely a breath away from him. She had forced herself back into his vision again, and was tugging on his arm to gain his full attention.
"Are you going to shoot me now?"
It worked. He looked to her and grinned slightly. "No."
"Thank goodness, had me scared a minute. Thought maybe I'd stepped on your foot." She smiled and rolled her eyes, then softened her voice, her tone becoming slightly more serious. "You're a brilliant, bright man, Mikal."
"Not quite yet, Matty, but I'm a helluva lot closer than I was when I woke this morn, that's for certain." He was still grinning slightly, and Matty realized for the first time that he wasn't going to recede into his shell again, not this night. "And here I thought I was just going to find some quiet, out of the way place, have a couple cups of tea, then wander back to my rooms and get some sleep..."
"I'll step back behind my bar and allow that if you'd like," she smiled playfully, turning and going back to her seat behind the counter. He followed her, regaining his stool with a smile.
"Bit late for that, don't you think?"
She laughed, and she realized that it was as joyous as his had been a moment ago. That was something she hadn't experienced in a long, long time. Condal could never get her to laugh like that. "All I did was fulfill my latest life mission. I told you I was pushy. Guess I forgot to mention determined."
"But in the nicest way, Matty..." He smiled quietly at her, and she felt it go straight to her heart. No, this man would not soon be forgotten, even if she never saw him again. That sudden thought froze her blood. No, she had to see him again, she couldn't bear to have this sweet indulgence, and then be robbed of it for the rest of her life. "I shall have to go soon, I think...some sleep would be rather nice."
"I need my sleep too. Getting through to quietly stubborn men drains a woman. Thank you kindly for your company tonight, Mikal. I had a wonderful time." Stop him! Don't let him go! You nutcase, say something, do something!
He leaned his arms against the bartop, looking at her. She smiled, feeling a few warm fuzzies in the bottom of her stomach. She liked his gaze, his smile, his eyes. Her eyes fell to his hands. She loved his hands, strong and powerful yet gentle as a sparrow's breath. She could still feel them from the dance. Once again, his voice broke through her thoughts.
"You and would have been friends." He paused, smiling. "I"
She smiled softly, moved by his words. Her hand flew to her chest, just above her heart. "I feel as though I know her already." Say something, you idiot! Her thoughts fumbled over one another as she crossed the room to get her overshoes again, preparing to travel home through the snow.
" I ever going to see you again, or was this one of those hit and run, one time things?"
She could have killed herself. Could you be a little more blunt? Sheesh...
He sighed softly, his eyes seeming distant for a moment as he slipped off the stool and followed her path across the tavern to the doorway. His gaze returned as he slipped his weapons back into their respective places on his body.
"Ohhh....more than likely, Matty. I've been called a pest in some places..." He let out a faint chuckle as she allowed him through the door and locked it behind them. They both stood on the steps facing one another.
"You'll never be a pest at this inn. I'll always welcome your presence..." She grinned suddenly. "And besides, I already have a new life mission." She tugged her coat on and slid her pack over her shoulders, moving down the steps. He followed her and they paused again in the moonlight at the base of the steps.
Mikal made a show of adjusting his weapons--the straps on the bow on his arm and the settings to the safety on his hip-bow. Matty smiled, waiting for him to look at her again. Eventually he did, brow lifted in curiousity. "Oh?"
She smiled gently. "Now I have to get you to speak with the moon."
He closed the distance between them and her heartbeat quickened in response. Get a hold of yourself, woman. You just met the man! It seemed her heart and her mind had conflicting interests. His voice again, gentle in the silent night.
"Don't be surprised if the moon answers you one day, Matty girl..." He graced her with a cryptic little smile and bowed slightly. She was taken by surprise, unable to do anything except smile back and give him a small curtsy.
"Good eve, Mikal. It was a pleasure." She would wait to ask him what exactly that meant for a later date. He had promised he'd return, and she believed him. Trust. Learning, dancing,
"Good evening, Matty. And it was, indeed."
She smiled wordlessly, all words failing her anyhow, and waltzed lightly down the path towards home, bathed in moonlight and the sounds of his voice and the Blue Danube. Something had happened tonight. She had found something...her balance, perhaps. For the first time in her life, she felt no confusion, no doubt. Only...peace,

Had she looked back, she would have seen the same expression now gracing her face on Mikal's. He had the same questions and answers in his mind. This woman had affected him greatly, yet he knew not what it meant just yet. His eyes looked up at the night sky for a moment, catching a glimpse of the moon and he grinned a grin of pure delight.
And had she looked back she would have seen the truth about what had been bothering her all evening. His form changed, from that of human to dragon...deep, midnight blue dragon. In one easy movement, the man--the dragon--launched himself into the crisp night air and disappeared. Magic.

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