Standing in the portico, Sage took out the map from his back pocket and tapped it with his wand, wood hitting parchment loudly in the eerie silence. Then he walked to Pierin and, bending forward a little, he held out a hand to him. The young man grasped it and let the Master Duelist help him to his feet.
"Are you okay?" Sage asked, intently looking at his charge, who did look the worse for wear.
"Yeah," Pierin answered, shaking his head to clear it. He was still slightly panting, and his legs felt weak, as if they had been turned into cotton candy by a jinx, but it was part in elation, he realized. He reached up to wipe the blood from his eyelid before it dripped into his eye.
"Come on," Sage smiled, slapping him on the shoulder hard enough to make him stagger. He knew that look. "Let me check this laceration." And he started to point his wand at the youth’s pale and bloodied face.
But Pierin shook his head, in determination this time, and stepped back. "No, I’m good. It’s not that deep."
"So you won’t mind if I have a look at it," Sorka said in her best no-nonsense tone, walking out of the Thermal Baths with Camie.
Sage almost cracked a smile. He remembered that the first time he had heard her use that tone, at Hogwarts, he had thought to himself that it wasn’t really ‘his’ Sorka. So he had wondered, until he had met Minerva McGonagall. After that, at the first opportunity, hiding a smile, he had remarked that some of the older woman’s mannerism had obviously rubbed off on Sorka and was showing through when she wore her ‘teacher’ hat. The young woman had scoffed, then she had sheepishly admitted that she had borrowed some of the ex-Headmistress’ tricks to compensate for her youth.
Outwardly ignoring her husband, but inwardly sharing a smile with him, Sorka turned and tilted the young man’s head to have a good look at his wound. "You will have a scar," she observed. But Pierin knew that of course. It was his first fight, and this would be his badge of courage. When he shrugged, proving her right, she added, "At least, let me clean some of the blood for you."
When she was done, Sage said, "Let’s go and pick up your friends, then we’ll return to the shop."
As they were heading towards the tavern where she and Sage had left the three other teens, Sorka peeked at the two who were walking beside them. Camie’s clothes were torn and her short brown hair undone, but she had a dreamy look that reminded the young woman of her friend Luna. She had fought back, and it had left her in an adrenaline haze. The lesion above Pierin’s eye had stopped bleeding thanks to the silent spell she had cast right before vanishing the blood. He was walking with his head high, and his eyes were bright.
Sorka looked at her husband, and Sage gave her an almost imperceptible nod. It had been a long day already, and they weren’t done yet.
Zara, Donal and Sparks seemed relieved to see them coming back.
"What took you so long?" Donal asked, getting to his feet and rubbing his neck. He kept on glancing at Pierin from the corner of his eyes.
Sage’s eyebrows raised, "We’ve been gone less than twenty minutes."
"Oh, and I almost thought that Pierin there was the only one who had run into… uh… whatever he ran into," Sparks snorted, giving his friend an ironic look.
Pierin blushed, but it was Camie who answered, pointing her wand at the offender in an uncharacteristically bold gesture. "Shut your mouth. I bet you were the first who fell," she hissed, glowering at him through narrowed eyes.
"Kids," Sorka warned. She didn’t need her gift to know that they were still upset by what they had just been through. Right now, their thoughts were a little jumbled. Given time, they would understand better, but in the meanwhile, they were on edge and prone to lash out at each other.
"Let’s go," Sage added, his eyes meeting his wife’s, understanding passing between the two of them.
They soon were leaving the empty building, and a minute later, they went back to the shop by Portkey. As soon as they were there, Sparks, Donal and Zara started to head for the door. As Sorka expected, their shoulders had started to slump in defeat. The young witch sighed inwardly – this had never been about humiliating or thwarting them, but they would feel that way, of course.
"Wait," Sage called after them. "Come here. I have something to show you."
They looked surprised, and glanced at each other. But Pierin and Camie were already taking place around the workbench with Sorka and Sage, so Zara, Donal and Sparks joined them.
Sage took out the map, unfolded it and flattened it down. Then he drew his wand and pointed it at the parchment, which immediately started to cover the tabletop until it was as wide and half as long as it was. The drawing itself faded, then a close up of the street where the Portkey had taken them appeared. Dots formed, each with a tag, and shot up into one inch tall representations of them all.
"Now, watch closely," Sage advised, and he nodded to Sorka, who tapped the map with her wand.
The figures started to move around, like in a movie, or to be more accurate like in an holographic video, replaying what the seven of them had done during the practice. They could see every detail of the architecture. At that point, Muggles would have thought that cameras had followed their every move. But it was very advanced magic.
The youngsters were surprised to find out that their two teachers had been spying on them from a rooftop, and Sorka and Sage, who were watching them, saw them make chagrined faces. Obviously, none had thought of that possibility. Sparks hung his head in shame when ‘he’ dropped his wand in shock a mere second before ‘Sage’s’ spell hit him. Seeing this, Camie bit on her lower lip to refrain from making a comment – she knew that her turn would come soon. Zara blushed when ‘she’ fumbled with her wand as though she didn’t know anymore which end of it she must hold in her hand. Donal groaned as ‘he’ betrayed his position to ‘Sage’, then seemed taken aback when ‘he’ cast a spell upside down in defense. Camie intently watched ‘herself’ battling against ‘Sorka’, oblivious of Sparks’ incredulous gaze that was going from the girl to her magical hologram and back again, and shook her head when she fell. Sage and Sorka exchanged an amused look above their heads. Finally, Pierin winced, seeing ‘himself’ turn around blindly and hit a column with his head, having misjudged the distance.
As they all were watching the map, Sage saw an eighth dot appear, with a tag, inside the boundaries. But he barely had time to read the name before the ‘trespasser’ stepped back and disappeared. He blinked and almost swore under his breath. Then he looked up sharply at Sorka, but her face told him that she hadn’t noticed anything wrong. He pushed the thought aside, but they would have to talk about this later.
It lasted one more minute, then the images faded and finally blinked off, and the map was nothing but a simple parchment again.
"Can you tell me what was your first mistake?" Sage asked in the silence that followed, having regained his composure. When none of them spoke up, he looked at Pierin. "You can’t have already forgotten, can you?"
The young man sighed. "We should have stayed together." Then he quickly shut his mouth, probably to stop himself from reminding his friends that he had tried to call them back.
"Precisely," Sage nodded his head, knowing very well that the confused youth felt as if he had been let down.
Beside him, Sorka was silent. She was there to support him. She knew what he was about to tell them, and she would not intervene unless he wanted her to. It was his class. But she could feel that something was bothering him deep down – something that had nothing to do with what they were doing here.
"Are you saying that if we had, we would have been able to kick your ass?" Sparks drolled. Then he blushed scarlet when they all looked at him and Camie rolled her eyes. His friends did not believe it was the best time to crack a joke.
"I doubt it," the wizard said, his eyes narrowing slightly. "But you would have stood a better chance," he added, knowing that he had to drive that point home. He looked at them in turn, and they started to squirm. "Pierin ordered you to come back and fight, and you disobeyed him."
There were a few sharp intakes of breath; even Pierin looked surprised.
"Wait," Donal started. "He wasn’t our leader, so we didn’t have…"
Sage held up his hand, palm forward, to stop him. Then he started to pace, calmly, in front of them. "We followed you. And as the time went by, you were looking more and more to Pierin for leadership. Obviously, you were smart enough to recognize those qualities in your friend." He stopped abruptly. "But when Sorka and I started our assault, you didn’t listen to your instincts."
All of a sudden, they all seemed to have discovered something interesting in the room. "You’d said you wouldn’t hold back, and you sure weren’t," Zara tentatively said.
"But you could have held us at bay for some time, if you had shielded. It would have given you some time to organize your defense and strategy."
"So Pierin did everything right, and we did it all wrong," Donal sighed, his tone bitter.
"No, Pierin only asserted himself as your leader when it was too late." Sage met his best student’s gaze, and the young man nodded almost imperceptibly, understanding and accepting the rebuke.
They mulled this over for a minute, then Sage gave his wife the briefest of glances, and Sorka stepped forward – he wanted her to address their unvoiced question. "Were you scared?" she asked. None of them answered, but Camie, Zara and Donal hung theirs head in shame. "Do you truly think we did it because we wanted to, uh, well, to use Sparks’ expression, kick your ass?" Sorka continued.
"You did, didn’t you?" Sparks shrugged. "It was kind of easy for you. You know a lot of tricks that we don’t, so we weren’t going to wait and let you use them.
"So you were scared," Sage stated. "And you were because you didn’t know what to expect. How many of you had been hit by a true curse or jinx before?" When he got no response, he let out an explosive breath. ‘Alright, that’s what I thought after watching you playing around. Now can one of you tell me how he or she felt after having been hit?"
The silence stretched, then Camie held up her head and said in a clear voice, "I was frightened."
Sage smile encouragingly at her. "Thank you, young lady. Now can you tell me how you would feel if it happened again?"
The brunette was taken aback by the question, but she thought about it and her eyes widened a little, at the same time as Pierin’s and Donal’s. "I wouldn’t be so frightened," she admitted. Then she met Sage’s and Sorka’s eyes in turn. "You know how it feels, so you don’t mind anymore."
"Well," Sorka amended, "I wouldn’t say that. Being jinxed or cursed is not the kind of experience one looks forward to."
They grimaced a smile, and Sage glanced at her warmly.
"But you’ve got the gist of it," he said to Camie. "Today was a good start. Next time we meet, you will learn how every one of those spells feel. You will pair up and take turn casting them at each other. Believe me, it is always better to have experienced a spell before being hit by an enemy, because your brain can still function and maybe you’ll remember that most of them have effects that you can counterspell yourself."
All the kids heaved a sigh at those words. Only Pierin had thought to use a counterspell during the practice.
"Today’s practice was also to remind you that dueling is serious business. In all probability, you will never have to fight for your life, and thus use the skills you’re learning here."
"So why can’t we just enjoy ourselves?" Sparks wondered.
Sage stifled a sigh of exasperation and tried to remember if the kid had taken a blow to the head to be so dense all of a sudden. "Because fighting is no game," he simply said.
"But you’re enjoying yourself…" the boy insisted.
"No, never," Sage cut him.
"Then, why…? We heard you and Sorka joking one day we were early…"
Sorka stepped in. "You can joke during a fight to encourage each other to give your best. You can taunt your enemy to make them believe that you are not scared." She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "But no one in their right mind would think that fighting is fun."
"Fighting is anything but fun," Sage added on. "Fighting is messy, painful, and visceral. You can’t join a fight thinking that the worst that will happen to you is a nosebleed. Your enemy wants to see the color of your blood, your guts spilling to the ground, your flesh being ripped from your bones and your limbs torn from your body. There is nothing that stinks worse or that is more gruesome than a battlefield. It makes you want to retch, but if you do, you’re dead. You can trust us, no one wants to experience this."
"If you don’t like to fight, why did you?" Zara inquired in a subdued voice. "Did you have no choice?"
"You always have a choice," Sorka asserted. "And fighting to try and stay alive had more appeal than death."
"But it wasn’t your job," Sparks stuttered. "You could have let others do the fighting…"
"And cower in a dark corner, hoping that someone would fight, because they liked it better than we did?" Sage shook his head. "No, you have to fight your own battles, even the ones that don’t take place on a battlefield." He looked at Sorka and held out his hand to her, and she took it. "I want to be able to protect this beautiful lady."
"But she can protect herself…" Donal started.
"Yes, that she can do. But does it mean that as I’m fighting for myself, I cannot fight for her and all the ones on my side, as they are too?" He lifted his eyes towards the flat. "Do you think that I would trust the protection of my son to anyone else?"
They fell silent again, and Sage and Sorka could tell that they had not been wasting their time. "Come on," the witch said. "Elsie made dinner for all of us."
As they were leaving the workshop, Camie observed, "How can we pair up since we’re five?"
"What? Did you think Sorka and I would deprive you of a chance to jinx or curse us?" Sage answered, mischief plain in his tone.
The brunette gulped but nodded her head.
Later, as Sage was wiping his mouth after brushing his teeth, Sorka slipped behind him and wrapped her arms around his torso. She kissed the nape of his neck, smelling soap and shampoo, her fingers playing with the soft light brown hair on his chest, and she saw him smile at her in the mirror.
"Haven’t you had enough exercise already, love?" Sage asked, raising an eyebrow to emphasize his words, the fire in his eyes betraying his own need, more urgent now that her palms were drawing teasing circles, closer and closer to his sensitive flesh.
Sorka didn’t answer but pressed her breasts to his bare back and playfully, but gently, nipped at the skin at the base of his neck, where it met with his shoulder, her hands reaching their targets. Sage groaned deep in his throat and turned around toward her so fast that she involuntarily stepped back. He bent low enough that he could wrap his arms around her upper thighs and sweep her off of her feet, throwing her onto his shoulder, squealing, as he straightened up. "I thought you were tired, Sage Solon!" she said, laughter bubbling in her voice as he was walking out of the bathroom.
"Well, I’m going to put you to bed, am I not?" he answered in the same tone.
"And leave me wanting after presenting me such a fine view?" Sorka exclaimed, feigning shock, as her eyes were roaming his pyjamas bottom clad buttocks. If she had let herself sag down, she could have touched them, maybe even… Her full lips stretched into an impish smile. "Is there anything wrong with what you’re holding?" she asked, wiggling her hips a little.
Sage slapped her cheeks playfully, making her gasp and giggle again. "Oh, no, believe me, I’m enjoying the view too," he shot back, her enticing scent feeling his nostrils with every breath he took. Jasmine and so much more – it was intoxicating. He smiled. He knew her smell so well, in every situation.
"Don’t you dare do this again!" Sorka warned, trying to sound in a huff. But she let out a gasping, "Ah!" when he gave a quick nibble at the flesh close to his face.
Sage let his love fall down across the mattress and, standing up, looked at her. She rose herself up on her elbows in slow deliberate motions, her eyes never leaving his face, her breasts showing underneath her camisole, straining the thin material. Her long hair cascaded down behind her back, pooling on the white sheet, a few locks caressing down her shoulders before settling. She was stunning, and she knew it of course. He felt a pull in his gut, and it tightened when she lifted one foot and extended her leg to press her sole and toes against him.
Sage close his eyes momentarily, his desire flaring, then he leaned down and over her, kneeling on the bed between his wife’s legs, as her foot accompanied his move and slipped up and around his waist.
Sorka smiled and when their lips met, she wrapped her arms and legs around her love, aching for his touch. Sage chuckled, almost breaking the kiss, and pressed her down onto the bed, until most of his weight was comfortably supported by the woman under him. The tip of his tongue slid along her lower lip, and she opened them for him, inviting him to explore further with a sigh. She tasted so sweet. He would never have enough of her.
"Wait, Sage," she panted. Sorka let her legs fell on each side of her husband and he rolled onto his back, bringing her on top of him. He framed her flushed face with his hands and whispered, "What is it, love?" Then he added, because she was taking her time to respond, "We don’t have to, if you don’t feel like it anymore."
He barely had time enough to finish his sentence. She lowered her face and sealed his silly mouth with her own, moving against him in a way that left no doubt concerning her intentions. Sage wrapped one arm around her shoulders and the other around her lower back. His hand inched under her top and rested there, caressing her soft skin with his thumb.
When she straightened again, they were both breathing raggedly. "I want to bear you another child," she said, her eyes into his, as his big hands were moving up her sides and stomach to cradle the swell of flesh that rose and fell to the rhythm of her heart.
"I thought… you said…" was all Sage could utter at first. He didn’t have to think about it however - he wanted a second child as much as she did.
"This is our life, our choice," Sorka told him. "As long as we are together, I’m not afraid." She nuzzled his neck, breathing in the scent of him, of them together.
"Then we better get to it," Sage grinned, grasping the bottom of her camisole, and started pulling it up.
Sorka lifted up her arms.
"Would you please curse me, Sparks!" Camie hissed in a low voice.
The kids had been partnered off at the beginning of the class, and it was the third time in a row that those two had to face each other.
"But… I can’t!" the redhead answered. "I can’t… curse a girl… just like this!"
The brunette rolled her eyes, exasperated, then narrowed them. "We’ve seen Sage cursed Sorka more than once! Do it or…" She fingered her wand, tapping her foot.
"Well, I’m not Sage, alr…?" Sparks started to say. The next instant, he was hanging upside down, as if from invisible ropes, his head two feet from the ground. "Hey!" he protested, torn between vexation and embarrassment. "Lemme down!"
Camie complied, letting him down roughly. "Now you can stop being a damn gentleman!" she all but snarled, lowering her wand arm.
Seated on a bench along the wall, Sorka tried not to laugh at the girl’s action and rejoinder – she sure had a real talent for repartee! Then she looked at her love, who was waiting for Zara to jinx him, and remembered their ‘first’ practice together.
Sorka was lying on top of her lover, secured there by his left arm that pinned her to him. She was lazily nuzzling his neck and caressing his face while the fingers of his right hand lightly stroked up and down her spine, from her neck to the middle of her back. Their lovemaking had left them awestruck by its intensity. So much so that Sage had thought, for a second, that she had used some trick, before reminding himself that she would never do so without him knowing and willing.
Suddenly Sage noticed a thin fading scar on Sorka’s right forearm, and she felt him tense. "What happened?" he asked her, the tip of his forefinger lightly brushing the mark.
‘Hm?" the girl answered, lifting her head up from his shoulder, then her mouth opened on a silent "Oh…" and she blushed.
He shifted her in his arms and rolled her onto her back, propping himself on one elbow to look down into her eyes, trying very hard not to let himself get distracted by how soft they were, how her long eyelashes ‘kissed’ her cheeks when she blinked. "How did you get this?"
Sorka swallowed, hard, but didn’t avert her eyes. "Ginny and I were ambushed by six Slytherins, last week, here, in Hogsmeade. It was nothing, just a weak cutting spell that bounced on a gutter."
Sage clenched his teeth, then he rolled on to his other side and jumped out of bed. He bent down to pick up his pants and started to pull them on. "Get dressed."
Puzzled, Sorka obeyed. Fifteen minutes later, she side-Apparated with him somewhere in the hills around Hogsmeade. The wind was autumn-crisp, and a particularly strong gust brought tears to her eyes. She sighed, wishing they were still snuggling in bed – she had not planned on leaving it for the duration of his stay!
"I want you to show me every offensive spell you know,’ Sage told her. "I will just defend myself, but I won’t counterattack."
Sorka smiled, remembering the hours she had spent in the Room of Requirement with her fellow members of Dumbledore’s Army. She had survived to the Final Battle. This would probably be a walk in the park.
One minutes later, Sage had disarmed her with a casual flick of his wand. "Too slow," he said.
Her eyes narrowed. She was slightly miffed. But she stifled her surging anger, knowing it wasn’t the best tactic. Instead, she looked at him, batting her eyelashes. "Oh, come on, it wasn’t that bad…"
"I’m waiting, Sorka," was all Sage answered.
Sorka sighed and obeyed. She tried to get to him, but each time he was ready for her assault – he was simply the fastest duelist she’d ever met.
One hour later, Sorka landed hard on her back, victim of her own spell that had rebounded on his shield, and felt air left her lungs with a ‘whoosh’… She wasn’t surprised anymore by his ungentlemanly behavior. She wanted her Sage back though – this one didn’t flirt or joke with her. It wasn’t exactly how she had imagined spending their time together.
Sorka tried to move - her bruised ego was urging her to stand up and keep on going - but she fell back, out of breath.
"Are you all right, sweetie?" Sage asked her, kneeling beside her to gather her gently in his arms.
Seeing the distress in his eyes, knowing that he would never hurt her, she swallowed back a sharp retort and leaned her head on his shoulder. "Yeah," she answered, relaxing in his embrace.
And all of a sudden, her erratic control over her gift around her lover made her feel rather than understand his reasons, and it doused her resentment as surely as if he had explained them to her. He wanted to protect her, no one had ever made him so aware of his protective side before, and he would do his best. And doing his best also meant to teach her to protect herself, because in spite of what his guts were telling him, realistically he knew that she was the only person she would be able to count on in every situation.
As all of this crossed her mind, Sorka realized that she had not been mad at him, but annoyed with herself. Instead of doing her best, she had tried to impress him.
"Don’t," he whispered in her ear, as if he had read her thoughts. And sometimes she believed that he could.
She sighed and shrugged. Then she told him, "I want to learn. Will you teach me again?" And she felt him smile.
They spent the next hour soaking in the large tub in the bathroom of his small room, and Sage made up to her for the rough practice, massaging and caressing away all her aches.
Sorka smiled. Sage had always been a hard taskmaster when it came to being able to defend oneself and counterattack. Their eyes met as Zara was pointing a wavering wand at him, and they exchanged a wink. The he turned back to his student as Rhianis was entering the workshop. She walked to Sorka and sat down beside her on the bench.
They watched Zara miss – she hit Sage’s arm instead of his torso – and winced when he lifted her up and turned her upside down, using his other hand, and said, “You’re going to try again… and again… till you do it right.”
“Poor girl,” Rhianis whispered and chuckled. “I’ll bet she would prefer being paired off with you.” She glanced at her friend, then she raised an eyebrow. “Is that why you’re here and he’s facing her?”
“Well…” Sorka responded, her hand moving to rest on her stomach, and a little secret smile formed on her lips.
“Oh, Circe’s Spellbook!” the innkeeper exclaimed, her eyes widening. When they all turned to look at her, she blushed slightly and giggled. Then she continued, but in a lower voice, “Are you pregnant?”
Sorka nodded with a happy smile on her face. She had known that night that it was the right time, and the right thing to do – they had both known. “The kids will have to face Sage in turn for some time,” she shrugged. “They’ll get over it – some don’t mind anyway.”
“When are you due?” Rhianis inquired. Then she added, as an afterthought, “You weren’t pregnant when you went playing in the Ruins, were you?”
“No, of course not!” Sorka rolled her eyes, then she indicated her husband with a nod of her head. “Even if I had been crazy enough, do you really think he would have let me?” Then her eyes narrowed and she asked, “Who told you, about the Ruins?”
“Ahrod and Lalee dined at The Seawanderer last night with Arzyl and Erina,” the blonde responded. “I overheard Arhod tell them about what you had done and how it gave him some ideas for his Aurors.”
“They are going to use the Ruins for their training?” Sorka asked, hoping she had misunderstood, because they liked the place.
“If the Powers That Be approve, yes,” Rhianis nodded her head, unaware of her friend’s grimace. “I guess Selina Sabin will have to find another playground... if you didn’t already scare her away.”
Sorka felt her guts twist and a cold lump form in her throat. “Who?” she breathed.
“Selina Sabin, the Seer.”
I hope you all appreciated the details in this rather shorter chapter - the shortest so far. ;-)
A very special thanks to the best 'beta reader' in the world. :-)
We'd like to dedicate this chapter to a friend of us who got engaged on Valentine's Day. Mel, we are both very happy for you. We knew you would find your Mr. Right.