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Six intricately beaded braids hung over one shoulder, symbolic of his mastery of six circles.  The rest of his luxurious blond hair framed his youthful face, and tumbled down his back.  Even among his own people, his dazzling smile drew more than a fair share of attention.

In this corner of the world, he even had the exotic allure of being an outsider.  Peculiar of attire, accent, mannerisms... and of propriety.

Especially that seemed to be playing against him, this night.

His first misstep was courting a married woman.  His next was inviting her husband to join them.

Unscathed but for the goblet of wine that now stained the front of his tunic, Holi neatly retreated.

Kear ran his fingers through his beard, watching the interplay across the room.  The folk of Onrac had a slightly more... conservative approach to cosmology and to life, and in particular to the passionate arts that inspired it, as his colleague ought very well to have known by now.

Leaning into the table, Holi folded his arms and buried his face in his sleeves.  A heavy sigh heaved his shoulders, and, raising his head a fraction, he flicked his gaze across the table.  His attention lingered on Oura, before meeting Kear’s eyes with a discontented stare, and finally moving on to Kiua.

“My dear, I hate to take advantage of our circumstances,” Holi drawled at last, “But for the sake of the world, would you deign take pity on this poor wretch?”

Breathing a scoff, Kiua rolled her eyes.

“You make it sound so dramatic,” she replied, smirking ever faintly.

“Yes, well...” Holi replied, a wry smile touching his lips.  “I do fear my veneration will be found lacking, and I will wake to find the Goddess has abandoned me.”

Kiua downed the remainder of her tankard in one long draught, and stood, offering him a hand.  “For the sake of the Goddess, then, best not tarry.  She’s not one to be kept waiting.”

There was a sway in her hip as she led him towards the stairs, and she flicked her auburn braid over her shoulder as they crossed the floor.  Kear had no doubt that she was well aware of the attention their departure garnered, just as he knew he was not the only one watching them leave.

Though he might have been of the few not to find it scandalous.

Kiua had once been his apprentice.  She had since traveled the world for herself, long before they had reunited and she became his lover.

It felt like a lifetime ago.

Holi had a peculiar way of working – he most often only turned to his fellows when he hadn’t any other prospects, but Kear could never begrudge Kiua in taking him up on it, any more than he would have suspected her begrudging him.

As he pondered, Oura finished her tea and set the empty cup on its saucer.  Standing, she shook out her woolen robes – which she still insisted upon wearing even though it was sweltering.

Not for the first time, he wondered what she actually felt, beneath the meticulous facade.  She had softened somewhat, since their first meeting on the shores of Coneria, which was but something Kear knew only from having seen her grow in that time.

Meeting his curious stare, she stated, “I think I shall take a walk before retiring for the night.”

Which had as much to do with Holi, he presumed.

There had been a curious tension between the two of them since they’d met, but perhaps that was to be expected from such diametrical wellsprings of magic.  She was his contrast in many ways, the night to his sunlight.  The restraint to his decadence.  At first they had clashed, then grew content in ignoring one another... and, most curiously, since the dam of power had been broken and light began flowing to the Orbs anew, they had begun to get along, albeit mostly in small ways.

Leaning back, Kear fell into a meditative trance.

***

The beads of seven braids clacked together as Holi clambered forth from the tent.  Dividing her attention between meditation and minding the fire, Oura regarded him coolly as he draped himself across the desert sand beside her.  The red tattoos on his skin bled together in the dim light, shifting darkly along his muscles, with every movement and breath he took.  Their trail disappeared under his half-fastened trousers.

“I ought to be grateful, I suppose,” Oura remarked in thought, “that you were mindful enough to don trousers.”

The man beside her made a soft, amused little sound that might have been the stirrings of a you’re welcome, before rolling over onto his back.

“You know, I... um... wanted to say...”

“If you’ve come to ask I join your orgy, I respectfully decline.”

Holi laughed.  A heartfelt sound, which only prompted her to sigh.

“That’s not it at all,” he assured her.  “I wanted to tell you, I’ve... come to admire your self-discipline.”

She blinked at him, staring up to the stars in the firelight.  His gaze fell back to Earth, and the corner of his lip quirked at her bleak expression.

“Truly,” he assured her.  “I almost envy you.  All the same, I doubt I could do it.”  He swallowed, only to cough on a dry chuckle.  “Or not do it, as it were.”

“Of that, I’m certain,” Oura replied, not unkindly.

They sat together in silence, save for the crackle of the fire.  At length, Holi reached over to pat her knee.

“You should sleep, you know,” he told her.  “I can take watch.  That’ll... it’ll keep me going for a while.”

Oura almost disagreed.

Then cast her gaze out into the desert.  For once, that might not have been such a bad idea of his... After all, their days weren’t getting any easier, and they would need all that they had.

Meeting his uniquely earnest gaze, she nodded once decisively.  He pushed himself off the ground to sit upright, brushing sand off his bare skin as she stood and headed for the tent.

In the distance, their destination loomed in the moonlight, a dark spire visible for many long miles distant.

***

At the end of the world, what good were eight braids and the sum of good deeds?

The barrier of power surrounding them crackled, draining Oura’s energy further as she struggled to keep the two of them alive under the onslaught of raw malevolence that threatened engulfed them.  Their fellows had fallen, and against the darkness his own magic had dwindled to nothing.

Skilled as she was, determined, Oura stood at his shoulder beside him, the sword of legend slipped an inch free from its scabbard, yet her expression was frozen in indecision.  Her thoughts must have echoed his own: what good was a mere sword against the sum of evil of the world?

How did you fight evil, with anger and force of will that only fed it?

If only he had the power, he might have been able to flood the ancient temple with his goddess’s might.

If only.

And Holi laughed, because it was foolish to think.

Oura’s gaze slid to him, and he saw the same strike of inspiration reflected in her eyes.  More skeptical, of course.

“Could you do it?” she asked, above the whirlwind of conflicting energy surrounding them.

He shook his head, still smiling mirthlessly as he leaned into her.

“I’m not... not certain.”

He would never have asked it of her, of all people.  And there simply wasn’t the time to do it properly, and with all the things they never spoke of...

But the world was ending all around them.

And she was nothing if not dedicated to their cause.

Her mouth found his, unpracticed but soft and warm and a little bloodied from the storm.

Her vows broke with a thunderous crack of energy.  Light flooded his senses and his very being.  Far too much to hold, all at once.

Love, not evil.

Life, not death.

Rebirth, not stagnation.

Light and darkness.

Balance, in all things.

When his vision returned, the temple was still.

Chaos had vanished from the world.

***

“Maybe it will return after a while,” Kiua suggested, as much to give hope as to fill the silence, as they sat beside one another and stared out across the lake.

It didn’t seem likely.  Oura had been bereft of even the simplest of magic in the days since they’d faced Chaos.

It made Kiua happy that her own school of magic was less stringent in that regard.  “All that from a kiss?  Really?”

Oura nodded.

“At least,” she stated, emphasized perhaps by the sheathed sword that rested across her lap, “I’m still good at hitting things.”

“Maybe you’ll have to apprentice all over again?  Kear can be tough to learn under, but he’s fair...”  Kiua continued to think out loud.  Licking her lip, she added, “I’m more than sure Holi would love to teach you his school of magic.”

Oura scoffed.

“I’m not sure I’m prepared for that level of commitment just yet.”

Kiua’s jaw dropped, but she recovered swiftly enough to stutter, “Wait... did you just... was that a joke?”

“I’ve made a few of them so far.  You never noticed?”

“No, I...”

Kiua broke into a giggle.  Patting her friend’s shoulder good-naturedly, she fought to recover and cleared her throat.

“You know we’re here for you,” she said.  “For this, and for when you want to learn... whatever.  If ever.”

“Thank you.”

Still smiling, she kissed Oura’s cheek.  Then bounced to her feet.  “I’m gonna go grab some candy before they run out.”

 

Lingering behind, Oura watched her go.

Across the lake, the sun had reached the horizon.  The celebration carried on, lanterns illuminating the darkness, here and across the water.

They’d saved the world.

Now...?

Now, what?

Gathering her robes together, cradling the Masamune in one hand, Oura stood and hurried down the path.

“Kiua!  Wait!”