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Two Steps Forward by Ali
Two Steps Forward by Ali
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Two Steps Forward

Sometimes, I wonder how we survived this far.

We've been together twenty-two years now, most of them spent in hard training, the last six being the most peaceful times we've ever had, but in total, six at war. Those six years should have had the worst effect on our lives, and yet somehow, we're okay.  

All those losses, all the scars we carry, and we're still able to take a step forward every day, leading normal lives, raising normal families. Or, I suppose, as normal as being legendary reincarnations allows us to be. But normal's relative, isn't it? Once upon a time we were five kids in bird costumes saving the world, or leading dual lives, or dispatching wave after wave of cannon fodder. That was normal to us. Now normal is being married to the man I love with two children. Normal is having a proper job, living in a more-or-less proper home. We survived this far just to be normal.

I don't mind it, but I know I'm not the only one who misses the other normal.

  Jun Shimada

She watched them outside, playing with their Uncle Jinpei. Her little brother showed no loss of speed since the old days as he caught them out one by one without working up a sweat. The children should have known by now the pointlessness of playing tag with Jinpei, but being children, they didn't care.

"Are they still out there?" Joe yelled from the kitchen. "Dinner's almost ready."

Ryu appeared from the den, folding the newspaper he'd been reading. "Ah, good, Joe. I was beginning to wonder." He joined Jun at the window, rumbling a contented sigh. "Jinpei seems to refuse to grow up, na, Jun?"

"I was thinking that," she returned, smiling. Her smile grew when she saw Ken joining them, insisting that the come inside now or face the consequences. Any Eagle authority he lorded over them failed to have any effect at all, even though she could see that strength radiating as powerfully as it ever had. The children  and Jinpei  had turned and run in the opposite direction.

He looked back at her, always aware of her watching him, a mock pained look on his face and shaking his head as if to say, "Why me?" With a shrug and her blessings, he tore off after them, tagging them all out: his daughter first, then his nephew, his son, and with a final pounce like a panther, drove Jinpei into the grass. Jun and Ryu sniggered at this, and Jun admitted that Jinpei didn't seem to be the only one who wouldn't grow up.

Iori, Tokiko and Vincnt came tearing through the front door, by some miracle knocking nothing over and hardly stepping on each other's heels when an ordinary tangle of children's limbs would automatically mean disaster. But then again, Jun sighed, they weren't exactly ordinary children.

"Oy, oy," Ryu bellowed as he blocked their way to the dinner table. "Enough of that. Go and wash up before dinner."

Vincnt had squeezed past Ryu's hulking form and wove his way into the kitchen. Even before the door could finish its back-swing, he was scampering out again, a bread roll trailing just behind his head. "Vincnt! Upstairs! Or no dinner for you!" his father barked.

"But Papa," the boy began as Ryu hoisted him over his shoulder to deposit him upstairs, "I'm hungry."

Tokiko shrieked as her Uncle Ryu caught her by the waist and tucked her under his arm, then said, "You're always hungry, Vincnt."

"Shut up."

The small girl's bright blue eyes widened. "Mama!"

Jun shook her head at her nephew in that way maternal figures did to make the child in question feel bad. "Watch your language, young man. I won't be responsible for what else your father might throw at you."

A small voice said, "Sorry, Aunt Junie," just as it disappeared up the stairs.

Now turning to her own son, she said, "What are you waiting for, Iori? Go wash up. Uncle Joe's going to put dinner on the table soon."

But eight-year-old Iori was looking anxiously at the door. "Isn't Dad coming inside?"

"He will, he will," she answered, ruffling his jade-black hair. "Has he ever missed dinner when it's Uncle Joe's turn?"

Blue eyes beseeched her, not quite convinced. When he heard the front door close, he turned quickly to see, and all the tension his mother had sensed in him evaporated almost instantly as his father came towards the dining area. "Do as your mother tells you, Iori," Ken said, smiling at him without looking, and only then did the boy rush upstairs to catch up with his sister and cousin.

 She felt his arms reach around her from behind and allowed herself to melt into his embrace, wrapped in the soft cotton of his shirt, even though she continued to stare after her son. "He's just like you, you know that."

"What, over-protective?" He felt her nod against his shoulder and nodded in return, following her line of sight. "I suppose so. Even if it is a little misdirected."

"There is something endearing about a eight-year-old child wanting to protect a full-fledged Shield of Heaven, don't you think?"

The low rumbling of his chuckle made her smile, even as he drew away from her. "Hai. But that is something he does not know, nor should he need to know." As he made his way to the kitchen  carefully, for fear of more flying bread rolls  she watched him, as she always watched him, realizing that she was so used to the way he looked now that it would be difficult for Iori to ever discover his father's true identity if she herself was so prone to forgetting. The children were too young to remember when Ken had chosen to permanently don the otherwise-useless rimless glasses and wear his hair past his shoulder blades held in a traditional tie, so he appeared to them in no other way.

When she, too, entered the kitchen, her husband stood leaning against the counter, taking bites out of a bread roll  which she assumed he caught when it was flung at him. His former second, the Condor, or until six years ago, the Archer, bustled around the kitchen. "It's up to you whether or not you want to tell him, Joe."

"How can I explain it to him if you won't explain it to your own children?" Joe returned, his tone hard but not angry. "God only knows why he doesn't ask when most children his age would. Maybe he got that from Lien."

Ken smiled at this. "Aa. She is the Shield of Peace, after all. Even though Lien is the deadliest of all the matron Shields." He took another bite of his roll. "But remember that you chose to raise Vincnt here instead of back in the courts of the Valley, just as I did."

Joe failed to flinch as he dropped the hot pan of roasted vegetables onto the cooling rack without oven mitts. "I know, but that doesn't mean I don't think he needs a mother."

"He accepts Junie as his mother-figure readily enough," he replied. "Vincnt is aware that he has a mother, and that she is Lien; isn't that enough for you? He calls Jun 'Aunt Junie' for a reason, just as you called my mother 'Mama Sayuri.'"

"I'm not saying it's not enough!" The slamming of the oven door punctuated his sentence. "I just "

 "Miss her?" Jun cut in.

Both men stood silent for several moments before Ken moved to take the hot casserole dish out of Joe's hands to keep the heat from searing his synthetic skin. Growling as he folded his arms, Joe said, "Yes. I miss her."

"So go to her," she said, as if it was the most obvious thing to do. "Go and see her. She won't exactly slam her door in your face, you know."

"Besides, the doors to the House of Peace are rather heavy to slam," Ken added. He got out serving spoons and plunked one into each dish. "She is not going to object to you coming to see her, Joe. You're her husband."

"Consort," he corrected, trying not to choke on the word. "I'm her consort. I can never be her husband."

Jun placed a careful hand on his arm. "But you knew that, didn't you? You knew that because she's an Immortal Shield, she can never have a husband." He flinched under her touch at those words, jaw working in silence. "Oh, what difference would it make as long as you love her?" Still silence. She was growing impatient.

"If you are wondering what I think you're wondering, then the answer is no," her husband said.

Joe looked up, growing impossibly more tense. "What do you mean, no?"

A dish in each hand, Ken made his way back out to the dining area where he could hear the three children vocalizing their hunger all too clearly. "She has had no other consorts. Not since she married you. In fact," he paused to push the door open and hold it in place with his foot, "the others say that this has been the first time in a very long time since she's decided to keep to just one consort."

Very slowly, Joe unfolded his arms, his shoulders falling slack. "When was the last time?"

He wore a kind, knowing smile as he said it; Joe should have already guessed the answer just by seeing that smile. "The last time? Kujaku, the first Archer." Clearing his throat, breath hitching a little, he changed his tone and said, "Dinner's ready!" Children's cheers rang loud in reply.

"How does he know?" he asked no one in particular, perhaps even unaware that he'd asked the question out loud.

Jun gathered a couple of other dishes in her hands. "He's been back there once or twice this month already. Visiting, doing some of the necessary duties of a Shield. He always asks Lien if she had anything to give you, a letter or anything like that, but she seems to always decline."

Joe hmphed, and set his arms folded across his chest once more. "So how come he's never asked me?"

"Well, he never exactly plans the visits back to the Valley. But come to think of it now, he should have thought to do so. I will remember to whack him senseless for forgetting to ask you." As she left the kitchen, he grabbed the pitcher of juice and followed, as thankful to Jun for her generosity as he was sorry for Ken, who was going to suffer for his ignorance.

Once the dishes were done and the children were settled in the library with Jinpei, Joe found Ken walking towards him as he sat in front of the fire in the lounge. He couldn't help but grin at the droplets of water that clung to his glasses and the handfuls of sopping wet hair that managed to escape the tie; Jun had been true to her word. The deep blue eyes were indignant, the mouth a grim slash, and when he spoke, his voice was dangerously low. "I certainly hope you're happy."

"It's your own fault, not asking me."

He pulled off his glasses, wiping them with the end of his shirt and set them on the table, then tore the blue ribbon out of his hair, shaking it loose. For the few minutes he finger-combed his hair before tying it back again, he looked exactly as he did in the wars, whether in his white wings with a boomerang in his hand, or the black shroud holding a sword. "If you wanted to see her badly enough you wouldn't need me as an excuse to go there," he returned. "What sort of pride are you riding on?"

Joe had not expected that. "It's got nothing to do with pride."

"Then what has been stopping you from going there yourself? You know how to get there. You know where the portal is. You know how far the walk is between the House of Mercy and the House of Peace. In fact, you don't even have to go from the House of Mercy, you can go straight to her."

"All right, shut up already." Joe leaned forward in his chair and tried to ignore the deep blue stare hovering above him. As he dropped his face into his hands, he wondered if those hands would ever show age the same way Ken slowly grew older, but only briefly.

Ken set himself on the arm of a soft chair, his glasses now back in place. Softer, he asked, "What has been stopping you?"

"You already know the answer to that, you legendary freak."

"Do I?"

"You gave me the answer earlier. The answer was 'no', remember?"

The younger man gave a brief nod. "So you stayed away all this time because you thought she'd taken another consort in your absence." He picked up a small stuffed rabbit that lay in the chair he perched upon  no doubt Tokiko had left it there  and hurled it at Joe, catching him neatly on the forehead and knocking his head back. "Baka yarou!"

Putting the rabbit aside, Joe pointed to the glass jar sitting on the mantelpiece with a large label that read 'Swearing Jar'. Ken fished out a few coins from his pocket and plunked them into the jar without acknowledging the admonishment, eyes blazing with anger. "She's missed you all this time, wondering why you never come by, even if it was with me. She's wondered why she always has to make the effort, if she had done something wrong to offend you, to keep you away. She's needed to be with you, but she's kept to herself. I ask her if she had anything to give you, anything at all, and even though I know she has something to give or say, she says no." He inhaled deeply, his breath catching, arms shaking in suppressing the urge to deck his former second. "I thought you'd have learned by now. I thought after what happened before, when you first came back to us, you would understand what we went through, and you would never make the same mistake again."

Joe openly stared, mouth working to say something but no words seemed to form. The air crackled with Ken's anger, the pulses of energy emanating from that space just below his sternum, and he tried to remember the last time Ken had 'let go'. Instead of asking about it, he said, "Why didn't you tell me?"

"Because it's your marriage," came the curt answer. "I didn't want to interfere, but perhaps now it has gone on for long enough." He stood up, snatched the rabbit back and turned towards the library. "I'm going back to the Valley tomorrow after dawn. If you're any the wiser you're welcome to come with me. Tell Vincnt that you have some things to check up with the racing team at the track. I'm going to hand this back to my daughter, and then I need to let go."

"I was going to ask you about that."

He stopped, but did not turn to face his childhood friend. Nodding, he replied, "It's been some time." His breath hitched again. "I should let go tonight before something goes wrong."

"It's not like you to forget something like that," Joe said, brows beetling. "You sound like you're suffocating."

Now he half-turned, and Joe could now see the coarse lines on Ken's right hand that were absent on his own. "I am, actually." But he smiled, his gaze dropping to the stuffed rabbit in his hand. "It's just that they  they take up so much of my time, give me so much peace, I hardly notice anything that could be wrong with me."

Joe, too, now smiled. "Aa."

Jinpei and Ryu were telling them stories about the Seven Shields of Heaven again. Smiling, Ken shook his head, thankful that there were no pictures of the Shields to be shown, unlike all the other fairytale stories the children read and listened to. One day, he knew that they would grow smart enough to goad him into sketching representations of these legendary characters for them, and he still had not decided what to do when that time came. Nor had he decided when they would be old enough to understand their heritage, afraid of making the same mistake Dr. Nambu had in not telling him about his father, the same mistake Kikei had in telling him too late with too little time to learn.

But not tonight, he told himself. Someday, but not tonight. He gasped as he felt his breath more than just hitch. It felt as if a small but hard object had just kicked him in the chest. Soon, he had to go soon.

He entered the library greeted by Vincnt's voice badgering his two uncles. "C'mon, tell us a scary one! Please, Uncle Ryu? Uncle Jinpei? Please?" The sandy-brown-haired child with the violet eyes sat upright kneeling on the floor, his small hands pointlessly nudging Ryu's leg.

Iori sat patiently on the floor, legs crossed, yet nodding so rapidly that his hair never rested until he stopped. "Didn't they have huge, scary battles with undead creatures, or summonings, or things like that?"

His sister, however, curled her knees to her chest, hands over her ears. "No! No scary stories! Uncle Jinpei, you promised"

 "Are you frightening them again, you two?" Ken asked.

Iori looked up, perfectly innocent. "No, Dad." Then, after some thought, he added, "Not yet."

"Iie! I don't want any scary stories! Uncle Jinpei promised!"

"You're such a baby, Tokiko."

"Am not! Daddy, tell Vincnt I'm not a baby!"

Ken's older child sat there, face in his hands, shaking his head, mumbling something that sounded like, "Here we go again." Ken smiled at the familiar gesture.  

Amidst the repetitive exchange of "Am not!" and "Are too!" Tokiko's bright blue eyes had begun to moisten, and her father scooped her up into his arms, handing her the stuffed rabbit she'd left behind as she curled against him, clutching the rabbit close to her chest. "All right, that's enough, both of you. Ryu, Jinpei, no scary stories. It's not going to be either of you who has to go and deal with children's nightmares later tonight."

Ryu grinned broadly. "True. But you don't mind."

"Aa," he replied, stroking Tokiko's dark hair back into place. "But Joe, on the other hand"

Jinpei winced. "Ergh. Good point. Better not."

Vincnt did not look pleased, folding his arms across his chest and wearing a scowl much like his father's. "Papa won't mind," he insisted.

"Oh no, trust me, Papa does mind."

"But Uncle Jinpei, he never grumbles about it."

"Sou da," the former Owl, the former Traveler, said. "That's because he has finished growling at the rest of us about it."

It was Iori's turn to look unhappy. "Dad, does Uncle Joe really growl at you?"

Ken looked as though it was the most incredulous question he'd ever been asked. Jinpei and Ryu burst into instantaneous laughter. "Yes, Iori. All the time."

"Why do you let him?"

Shrugging as he placed Tokiko on the floor, he answered, "Because it's his way. Babies cry, cats mewl, dogs bark, Uncle Joe growls." He bit his lip as his breath caught again, now more urgent than before. Jinpei  Swallow, Thief  cocked his head to one side in question, and Ryu made a gesture of similar meaning; to both he twitched his left hand ever so slightly: I'll be okay.

Unexpectedly, Iori's eyes darkened, and Vincnt tensed. "What's wrong, Dad?"

Ken remained relaxed even as he felt his heart vault to his throat, allowing the corners of his mouth to curve into a smile that he hoped looked reassuring. "Nothing, Iori." He can sense it, or at the very least, he can tell there's something wrong. Vincnt doesn't doubt it, either. Are they growing so fast already? Are they learning already? Can we raise and protect three Shield children? "I need to go out for a bit. I won't be gone long."

While she untied and retied the ribbon around her rabbit's neck, oblivious to the tension around her, Tokiko said, "You will be back to tuck me in, won't you, Daddy?"

His smile grew sincere at this. "Of course I will." And he left the room, very much aware of his son's eyes so like his own burning into his back.

The beach was deserted; a few seabirds sat nesting in their alcoves in the rocks, but all around him only the sea and wind could be heard. His footsteps remained silent as the ninja he once was until he reached the deep cove, where he would not be seen from the house, even though he could still see the warm glow of lights shining from it.

So much has changed, he thought, drawing the house into his mind. Once upon a time a man lived there and raised five children on his own  six, for the little while Kikei stayed with them. Now that man was gone, and three separate though overlapping family units lived there: the original family of five, the Asakuras and the Shimadas. And the Washios? But that was only a name, after all. Kentaro had been the last true Washio, and until now Ken could not help but wonder if his father had known who Sayuri really was, if he had ever known that he had married the last scion of the legendary Shimada clan.

Cold and clear like so many of the past nights, his hands remained warm and dry. The scar on his right palm looked old and faint in the moonlight, at times hard to see because of all the calluses on his hands. He regarded it, and thought of the scar's twin, just below his sternum, and marveled at, hated and forgave the odds that led to them.

He allowed one last reminder that it was time, one more gasping breath, before he held his arms out wide, closed his eyes, tilted his head back, and let go.

The inherent powers of the immortal Shield of Mercy flowed out of him eagerly, floating and spinning and whirling, welcoming the freedom after being kept inside for so long. A mortal body like Ken's was not strong enough to contain them for such long periods of time, especially since they accumulate, and in return they allowed themselves to be released every now and again, to renew the cycle of containment, to give Ken's body some much need space and even more needed rest. They stretched out into the open night sky, like a huge, shapeless yawning form, and waited for him.

Set apart from his legacy, at least for the moment, he sighed, feeling his own breath in his lungs comfortable and easy. Though he knew it would be at least two full days before he could summon the powers once more on his own, it no longer worried him. The wars were over and he did not need to be  to use the term they'd initially reserved for Joe  'on full power' all the time. Seeing, hearing, tasting, feeling all the power around him, his arms fell back to his sides, nodding his acknowledgement when he sensed the question: So what now?

It was not cold enough for snow, too dry for rain. The winds were already strong on their own, and Ken, the Shield of Mercy, the Stormreaver, considered the possibilities.

As exciting as was the tale of Fuma, the Shield of Courage's campaign against a horde of soldiers, skilled horsemen and bowmen who were ransacking a major city in a faraway land, robbing them of their finely-woven carpets of spider-silk, their carvings of obsidian and jade and their precious volumes of histories and magic, it dulled in the light of what Tokiko could see through the window.

"'Niichan, Vincnt, look!" she shrieked, pointing outside. "Lights in the sky!"

The two boys' heads whipped around before they scrambled to their feet, noses and hands pressed firmly against the glass. "It's a, it's a," Iori struggled to remember the word. "An aurora!" he proclaimed at last.

"Northern lights," Vincnt agreed.

"Hey, are we in the northern or southern half of the world?"

Vincnt pulled away from the window to regard his cousin. "Not sure. Why?"

"Well, I wanna know if it's borealis or australis."

Before Vincnt could contemplate an answer, both boys were smacked across the head with a stuffed rabbit. "Be quiet! I wanna watch the lights."

Jun entered the room, her daughter's squeals like a happy siren to her. She noted the three children, faces pressed against the window, a very tiny voice in the back of her mind complaining about the smears they were going to leave behind, and then focused her attention on her husband's handiwork painting the night sky. "C'mon, why don't we go watch outside. Get your coats on."

They wasted no time leaving the room like the small tornadoes that they were and reaching into the hall closet for their coats and warm boots. Tokiko, very small for her age of five, waited for her older brother to get her coat down for her while Vincnt helped her put her boots on.

"They move really fast, don't they?" Ryu said as he came out of the room with Jun. "Give them another year, especially your little girl, and they'll be plenty harder to get to the dinner table on time."

She stifled a groan. "I wonder if Hakase had it this bad with us. If we kept running off, using his training against him."

"I'm sure he had worse," the large man replied with a hearty laugh. "We've only got three, and he had five, as well as Ken's brother, who was as stubborn as the next person."

"Perhaps," she returned. "Or maybe, when the children reach that age when they become aware of their powers, maybe that's when everything is going to go insane."

Ryu nodded. "Maybe."

"Wai, hayaku, Mama! Let's go!" Tokiko called from the front door, bouncing up and down.

"Yeah, can we go now? The lights could go out soon," Iori said.

Jun gathered her own coat from the closet, handing Ryu his. "Go on, but be careful. Hold on to your sister, Iori," she said. Her sentence barely ended when they burst out the door and into the night, running out to the edge of the garden where the view was best. Through the window from which she'd watched them earlier, she could see Vincnt and Iori holding each of Tokiko's hands, every now and then carrying her off the ground, helping her keep up with them.

"I don't see what the rush is," Jun said to Ryu. "Ken will keep that up for as long as he likes."

"Not too long, I hope," Joe called from the stairs. "Those kids need to be in bed soon, and so do I if I'm going with Ken after sunrise."

Ryu threw Joe's jacket at him, grinning. "Come out and watch the lights, you big grouch. Come and watch your son."

He hmphed a little, then shrugged on the jacket and went outside with them. Closing in on the children, the three pairs of hands frantically pointing from one wave of color to the next, each trying to get the others' attention, Joe realized they were short of one. "Where's Jinpei?"

In answer, streaks of light shot across the sky, exploding into showers of even more color, each time complimenting the ribbons of northern lights in the sky. The greens, blues and violets caused by Ken's powers were offset by yellows and oranges and reds and pinks of the fireworks. The children grew all the more excited, with Tokiko squealing in delight at each loud bang and flash, Vincnt looking in every skyward direction at once and Iori admiring silently.

Somewhere down on the beach, the three adults knew, Jinpei stood armed with perhaps no more than pebbles that he'd infused with his own magicks of a Holy Guardian. Each pebble was first infused with the desired effect  fire and lightning, then some color  then flung with as much force as possible into the air before it took on a life of its own and shot across the sky, bursting as any firework would. He paid great attention to the exact hues of the sky before launching his little packages; it might as well be a good show for the children while he was at it. And Ken would approve.

The light show lasted for some time. Joe, Jun and Ryu still stood a short distance behind the children, but Tokiko was already yawning and leaning heavily on Iori, the only one left standing; Vincnt had taken a seat on the ground, chewing absently on a blade of grass. Soon the fireworks ended  Jinpei might have either run out of pebbles or exhausted his magic  and the northern lights faded away into the darkness as those powers returned to the body that housed them, calm, quiet and small again.

Above the beach, Iori managed to walk back into the house by himself, sluggishly, needing a prod or two from his mother or his uncles. Joe, in a motion that still sometimes appeared uncharacteristic of him, collected his son in his arms and carried him inside and upstairs, the same way Jun cradled Tokiko all the way to her bed and helped her into her bedclothes. When she checked on Iori he had put on his pajama bottoms the wrong way round, but she did not have the heart to wake him just for that.

As she closed the door to her son's room, Jinpei came up the stairs, gave a huge yawn before waving her goodnight, stopping only to check on Tokiko before making his way to his own bedroom.

The same bedroom, she thought, awash with memories. Jinpei slept in the same room he'd grown up in, at the end of the corridor, across the way from where Vincnt now slept. Joe and Ryu still guarded the stairs while Iori and Tokiko slumbered in the very rooms she and Ken had chosen so many years ago, and as the resident married couple, they got the master bedroom. Kikei's room has been empty for so long people only come and go, until Vincnt was born. And then Iori, and Tokiko. I wonder if there will be more? She smiled at the thought of her strong, bright and perhaps a little too spirited children.

Poor Iori, she thought, remembering those eyes beseeching her earlier that evening as he waited for his father to enter the house. Iori's over-protectiveness of his father had far more to do with past events than with having inherited his father's character, and she knew it even if Iori himself could not remember.

She remembered.

"Give me the keys, 'Neechan. I'll get the door."

"Just so you won't have to carry anything, eh?" Ryu said.

Jun struggled out of Joe's car, clutching her sleeping baby daughter to her breast. "Please, Ryu, Jinpei, not now. She's just gone to sleep, and you know how much trouble she's had sleeping as it is."

Ryu said nothing, only scratching the back of his head.

"At least Ken's back with Iori already," Joe said, noticing the other car as he hoisted Vincnt out of the back seat. "Well, Vincnt, shall we see what your little cousin is up to?"

The boy nodded so hard and so fast he bounced in his father's arms. "Iori! Where's Iori?"

"Inside, Vincnt. When we get inside, we'll " He stilled, even as his son continued to bounce. Jinpei had yet to open the door; the key he needed had become entangled with the other keys on the chain. But he could hear his young nephew wailing from somewhere inside the house. Crying loud and clear and frightened and endless. "Something's wrong." He handed Vincnt to Ryu, leaving the child confused and alarmed at his father's behavior, and raced to the door. Jinpei only just got it open, and he slid through it, following Iori's voice.

"Ken? Ken, where are you?"

Jun rushed in, quickly handing her daughter to Jinpei. "Take her upstairs, and hurry. Make sure she doesn't hear anything." As Jinpei vanished up the stairs, Ryu followed with Vincnt, already sensing that the boy was beginning to panic.

Iori's crying came from the kitchen, and Joe and Jun burst in, fearing the worst.

Ken lay sprawled on his side on the floor, still and soundless. His son sat small and rumpled next to him, tiny hands shaking his father's shoulder, trying to get him to wake up. His face was damp and dirty with tears and he now screamed more than he cried.

"Oh, God, Ken." She swept Iori into her arms, cradling him, rocking him, shushing him all that she could to calm him down, knowing that Joe would look after Ken. Trusting in that her attention focused on soothing her son as much as she could, murmuring and whispering and insisting that "Daddy will be all right. It's okay, honey, please, it's okay"

Joe gathered Ken in his arms and called for Ryu, lifted his younger brother's slender form easily as if he weighted nothing at all and made for the front door. "Call ahead, Junie," he said. "Call the Medical Research Center. Ryu and I will take him." He only saw her brief nod, so absorbed was she in calming her son; Ryu needed no further instruction, familiar with the routine. They made for the car once more, the engine still warm: Ryu drove, Joe stayed in the back seat with Ken, whose breaths were even but shallow.

Iori cried dry tears for nearly another hour until he had exhausted himself; Jun could not help but marvel at the tiny one's strength to cry for so long, so hard, that he'd continued to cry as loud as he could until someone would come to help his father, even though after that he'd forgotten how to stop. When she tucked him into his bed muffled sobs and hiccups still escaped him every so often, and it was much, much later when he was silent at last.

Ryu called not long after: Ken was all right, just another collapse, he would need to spend the night. "Dr. Olusanya said that considering how long it's been since his illness last affected him, we shouldn't have to worry, it's unlikely that it'll happen again. We just might have to start the remission count again." He sounded tired, and maybe a little disheartened, picturing the calendar in the kitchen they used to mark Ken's remission days.

He'd been nearly a year in the clear.

Now they had to start over again.

The calendar now stood on a desk in their bedroom, because the children might start to ask questions. She marked off another day in a brown marker  the first year had been in green, the second yellow, the third pink, and this was the fourth. Already a blue marker sat still in its plastic wrapper in the desk drawer, waiting for the fourth year to pass before they could start marking the fifth and final year.

Then it'll be over, she smiled.

"And why is my wife smiling?" asked a voice just entering their bedroom. "Is it because she enjoyed the light show, because the children are finally asleep, or because her husband is nothing more than an overgrown child?"

Her smile broadened as she felt his arms encircle her waist, his chin resting on her shoulder. He smelled like clean air and saltwater, and his skin and clothes still carried the chill of the autumn wind, yet his hands, folded across her stomach, glowed with warmth.

"All of the above," she said. "And then some."

"Really? What did I miss out?"

She turned on her heels to face him without breaking his embrace, her hands wandered carefully to brush his hair out of his eyes, tuck it behind his ears. "In two months, we can start with the blue marker, for one."

His blue eyes widened, glowed. "Wow. So soon?"

"Mm-hmm." She plucked his glasses off the bridge of his nose and placed them on the desk.

"What else?"

The playfulness of his voice and expression vanished when he saw her smile fade into something more rueful, more thoughtful, when her gaze fell away from his own. He tilted his head, tried to catch her eye again, but her eyes remained fascinated by the floor. "What is it? Is something wrong?"

She shook her head, jade-black tresses swishing like quiet feathers. "I'm smiling because you're still here."

His hand reached under her chin, pulling her face up to his own, taking a couple of seconds to drift away in her deep green eyes. "Silly, strange woman. Where else would I be?" The shock-horror-how-could-you look she gave him did not faze him anymore now; there was a time when he would have run in the opposite direction. "Junie, if you keep thinking about everything that could have been, when are you going to think about you and me, here and now?"

"But, but Iori and Tokiko if you hadn't, they wouldn't be"

"Yes, I know, but they're here now, and so am I. Can we leave it at that?"

"But  "


It was hard not to give up. So sure, so certain, the ex-Eagle in front of her now. So many things made their contribution to his change, from the hot-tempered, brash, moody teenager to the enigmatic and knowing adult, and yet she knew that everything that made him Ken all still remained. She nestled against him, warming a single cold spot on his shirt with her cheek, her arms crushed between their two bodies.

"Why can't I do this?" came her question, muffled by his shirt. "Why can't I just accept that you're here?"

He let out a long breath; as he inhaled he took in the smell of her, a mixture of sweet jasmine and sharp citrus, and somewhere underneath all that lingered the phantom scents of sweat, blood and explosives. "I can't blame you for feeling that way. I'm just as aware as you are of the number of times we could have lost each other. But that's 'could have', Junie. It's not what is. And what is, is that I'm standing right here right now and we have two kids who I am out of my mind in love with, just as I am with you."

She allowed herself to smile, nod. How do you argue with that?

"Two steps forward a time, koishii," he whispered. "Two steps as they come."

Her head came up at last, but so did one of her eyebrows. "Two? Isn't it one step at a time?"

"Aa." He took the opportunity to beep her nose. "But seeing as we spent all our lives moving fifty steps forward a time, I'd say two is a fair number for now."

"I suppose."

A comfortable silence settled over them, the house quiet besides the low bass-lines coming from the stereo in Jinpei's room and the wind outside. She could hear his heartbeat deep inside his chest, he could hear her breathe, he could hear the thrumming of her own Holy Guardian magic inside her, and after a little while more, he could hear what it was she wanted from him that very moment.

Ken learned not long after discovering that he was the new Shield of Mercy that being a Shield of Heaven gave him greater sensitivity to the world around him, which proved useful more often than not, except when it made him aware of sunrise.

The days were growing shorter and darker; some mornings it was hard to tell if the sun was out there at all. But Ken knew. And tired or not, damn it, he would always know.

Autumn's invisible sun seemed to beam down right on top of him even as he slept, his legs tangled with hers, his right arm pinned by her head and his left draped lazily over her hip, holding her close to him. Relishing too much in her softness and warmth as they lay like spoons, he tried to ignore the call of sunrise, tried to shut out the light he knew radiated outside whether the clouds blocked it or not, to forget about the heat of the sun that wasn't there even though he could sense it. He buried his face in the crook of her shoulder, in the silken blanket of her hair, but he heard her say, "You said sunrise. You should get up."

He groaned, and cuddled even closer to her, placing small kisses across her bare shoulders and back. "I don't want to."

She smiled at this petulant reply. "You owe Joe this. And besides, even if I don't make you get up, sunrise will. And sunrise won't give you another five minutes."

"Hai, koishii." He drew his arms away from her and rolled onto his back, stretching before searching for the loose trousers he wore to sleep. His eyes crinkled, remembering the night before, when he found them, still folded neatly over the clothes rack. Putting them on, he slipped into his sleeping yukata, not bothering with the sash, and padded out of the bedroom, down the corridor to Joe's room.

The door opened before he could knock, and he leapt back two feet, his stance immediately defensive.

"I see old habits die hard," Joe said in a low growl, still not quite awake. "What took you so long?"

Ken straightened, eyes still wide. "Let me just get over the fact you're awake and standing first." As he watched Joe fold his arms and lean against the door frame, he relaxed, understanding why his second was awake before him. "Anxious?"

He shrugged and said nothing.

"Right." He gave a quick nod then made his way back to his bedroom. "Give me ten minutes. Be ready to go by then."

"Sure. Coffee?"

"Yeah, thanks. I think we'll both need it."

Joe stretched as a cat was wont and yawned. "You have no idea."

A thin layer of frost sparkled on the grass as they walked into the forest, and a cold, gentle wind tugged at their coats. Joe remained silent, his face its usual mask, his eyes intent on the man who walked with him. Minus the glasses and the tie in his hair this morning, he knew Ken carried the tanto blade hidden on his lower back, but he noted the wakizashi that was strapped to his belt, visible whenever the wind pulled on his topcoat hard enough.

"You're carrying your companion blade," he remarked evenly.

"Because you didn't carry a weapon," came the reply. "I haven't got enough power to open the portal right now."

The trees swallowed them; they could no longer see the house, nor could the house see them. They turned corners and followed unmarked paths they'd charted on their own all those years ago, the map imprinted in their memories. The sun had fully risen by the time they reached the hills, where the waterfall fed the river.

Ken drew the blade, flipped it, handed it hilt-first to Joe. "Do the honors," he smiled.

Even as he took the weapon, he began focusing his energy on the blade, willing it, rather than to burn like fire, freeze like ice or blow away like the wind, to open a doorway. A small smile curved the corners of his mouth as the blade glowed, and in three quick slashes  one upwards, one across, the last downwards  a portal opened to them, shaped like a roughly-hewn door marked by the slashes of the blade. They stood awash in the warm silver light emanating from the portal, in the scents of magic.

Joe flipped the blade and handed it back to Ken, hilt-first. "I don't know why I enjoy that."

"Blades were always your thing," he said, sheathing the blade once more. "You go first. I'm far less anxious than you."

"I'm not anxious."

"Suit yourself. Fifteen years later, you should know how pointless it is to lie to me."

Ken received a whack on the head, failing to block it two seconds earlier. "And fifteen years later," Joe said, "You should know how pointless it is to try and sound like you know everything around me."

The retaliation was not one Joe had not expected, neither was it one he anticipated. Ken's hand had gone back to the wakizashi  he saw that  and swiftly backed away thinking that the flat of the blade was going to race right after him. But instead of the flash of steel a blur of lacquered wood swooped past him, just inches away from his nose: he'd reacted to the relatively harmless sheath. In his confusion, a wild rustling of cloth  The edge of his coat, he realized  whipped at him from the opposite direction, and by the time he regained his visual sense, Ken had disappeared through the portal.

"Bastard," he murmured, grinning. "Don't you ever complain you're slowing down." And he raced into the portal after him.

     A later part of the morning found the three children finishing their breakfast to spend the day on the water with Ryu. With Ken and Joe both gone, the large man took it upon himself to entertain the children, perhaps teach them the finer points of sleeping with a forgotten fishing pole in one's hand.

"Aren't you coming with us, Uncle Jinpei?" Tokiko asked between bites of her waffle.

"Honey, don't talk with your mouth full," her mother interrupted.

The small girl swallowed and asked again, "Aren't you coming with us?"

Jinpei tried to look away but found he could not. Tokiko looked every bit like her mother save her dark hair and blue eyes, however it was these two details that made her so irresistible, that made him hurt so much. When he looked at her, he already knew what she would look like when she grew up. She would look like Kisaru.

Kisaru Washio. Kisaru Shimada. Either way, you're not here anymore.

"I have work to finish up, Tokiko," he said in all sincerity, thinking of the small pile of paperwork on his desk.

She pouted. It pulled his heartstrings all the more. "Aw, but work is boring."

"Even so, Little Hummingbird, it's because I was playing tag with you yesterday that I didn't get my work done," he said as he waved a teasing finger at her. "If I'd gotten my work done yesterday, then yes, I would go with you today."

"But  but" Her spoon seemed forgotten there in her hand, a look of horror on her face. "That's my fault?"

In a snap Vincnt said, "Yes."

"Iie!" Her lower lip trembled, unsure of whether she wanted to throw her spoon at Vincnt or bargain with Jinpei. Instead she turned to her brother. "'Niichan"

Without looking up from his breakfast, Iori reached over and cuffed the back of Vincnt's head, not hard enough to hurt, but enough to satisfy his sister. Vincnt, unfazed, said, "Ow."

Pleased that one thing was settled for now, she focused her attention on Jinpei again. "But Uncle Jinpei, it's a nice morning even if it's a little cold and we're going on Uncle Ryu's boat and we'll be on the water and we'll catch fish and maybe if we have enough you can cook fish for dinner, ne? Ne, Uncle Jinpei? With rice and that fried shrimp thing? Ne, Uncle Jinpei? Please?"

"Goodness, Tokiko, breathe in before you collapse," said her mother, laughing at her endless stream of words.

Jinpei shook his head. "I'm sure Uncle Ryu will catch enough fish for all of us. I will promise to cook them, though, if there's enough."

"But I want you to come with us," she said, breakfast forgotten altogether. She didn't even notice the two boys take advantage of that as they fought over the last waffle, decided to cut it in two, then fought for the larger half. "Why can't you come with us?"

"Same answer as before, Tokiko," he said.

She sighed. "Work?"


Her arms folded across her chest, the first signs of a sulk. "You're no fun."

He shrugged in apology. "Being a grown-up isn't much fun."

"I'm never gonna grow up," Vincnt announced, in a good mood now because of his victory in claiming the larger half of the waffle.

Iori looked at his cousin with curiosity. "Dad said you kinda have to at some point."

"Yeah, but that's when you're as old as Aunt Junie."

Jun choked on her coffee. "Nani?"

Jinpei ducked his head under the table.

"Otherwise, you don't have to until then," Vincnt insisted.

"Oh." But Iori seemed to continue to think about it. "Maybe we should check with Dad again," he decided as he gathered his plate and made for the kitchen.

Vincnt followed suit, taking Tokiko's plates as well. "Nah. Trust me."

Tokiko watched them go, and once she'd absorbed their conversation, she leant forward, said to Jinpei in a loud whisper, "I don't think we should trust Vincnt."

He whispered back, just as loudly, "Maybe you're right."

"Saa, chibi-minna, are we ready to go?" Ryu bellowed as he came down the stairs, fishing gear in tow. "The tide is good now, and we'll catch plenty of fish for dinner. Some shrimp, too, if we're lucky."

"Shrimp!" The boys came tumbling out of the kitchen, made haste for the hall closet for their things again. This time it was Vincnt who brought down Tokiko's coat, and Iori who helped her with her boots. "Remember, Tokiko, when you're six you have to learn to do up your boots yourself," he said to her.

"Hai, 'Niichan," she replied, kicking her feet so she could see the neat laces he'd done up for her. "But you and Vincnt will help me until then, ne?"

Iori smiled then ruffled his sister's hair. "'Course we will." He caught Tokiko's coat as Vincnt tossed it to him and slipped it around her shoulders. "Uncle Ryu, we're ready to go now."

"Okay. Kiss your mom goodbye," he said, downing his morning coffee in one gulp. "Ah, good coffee."

Vincnt was first to give Jun her kiss, Tokiko came next, one arm in her coat and one out  "Bye, Mama!"  and finally Iori. Jun gave them each a kiss in return, until a huge shadow fell over her. She cocked an eyebrow.

"What?" Ryu said. "Don't I get one?"

"When you bring them home in one piece and dry," she said, doubly stressing the last word.

He scratched the back of his head, then shrugged. "Can't have 'em all, I guess."

"Don't let Vincnt bully Tokiko too much, okay?" Jinpei said.

The big man gave a small wave as he walked to the door, jumping a little, just as Jun and Jinpei did, when the horn of his pick-up truck beeped once, twice and again, followed by a chorus of, "Uncle Ryu!"

"How'd they get in the car?"

"Iori filched your keys while you were trying to get a bye-bye kiss from 'Neechan," Jinpei answered, looking every bit like the imp he was. "Vincnt knows enough about cars as it is, makes me wonder if Joe-aniki was like that when he was eight."

Jun shook her head, amused and at a loss. "Kami-sama help us."

Once they'd gone and the roar of the pick-up's engine faded away, Jinpei tended to the dishes, unaware of his sister's scrutiny. She knew that somewhere she'd lost track of his growing up: the overbite was gone, he'd grown taller, about the same height as Ken and was no longer skinny but wiry; it'd been many years since he could finally spar on even terms with both Ken and Joe, on occasion humbling them. He was no longer her little boy, her baby brother, and no longer need their protection or parenting.

But at this moment

"Jinpei, weren't you supposed to see Kyoko this afternoon?" she asked, drying the plates. "You'll be late if you don't hurry now."

Jinpei heaved a deep breath, his shoulders drooping. "I'm not seeing her today."

She waited.

"I won't be seeing her for a while." The water was turned off with an angry twist of the wrist.

She nodded, though he couldn't see her nod. "Your doing or hers?"

"Both, I guess." Flicking the water off his hands and drying them on a nearby towel, he said, "She doesn't want me too far, I don't want her too near. There doesn't seem to be a middle ground where we can stay happy."

"Have you tried?" she asked, settled on one of the barstools at the counter. "I know you more-than-like her. And you know we all like her."

"I know, I know," he replied. He leaned over the counter so that he could face her, and it worried her that he didn't seem to be very concerned about the issue. "It's not like how you and Ken worked out, you know."

Jun gathered more and more information the more her brother spoke. "I never said it is. What I want to know is whether or not you want it to work out." His expression did not change, his fingers flexed. "Because I know that if you want it to, you'll make it work out no matter what."

He pushed himself away from the counter, away from her, and paced the kitchen. His hand dug into his back pockets, careless, but the tautness of his shoulders showed something else. His concern for Tokiko was just as telling, the same went for the way he sometimes looked at Ken.

"Let her go, Jinpei."

The pacing stopped with his back turned to her.

"You have to let her go."

His head moved from side to side. "How can I let her go? It was because I let her go that she's not here now."

She went to him, wrapped her arms around him from behind, made a little difficult because he stood taller than her. He didn't move, didn't relax. "You've carried this with you for long enough now. It's time to step away, sweetie. Kisaru did not blame you for what happened, nor should you. How do you think she'd feel if she knew you were hurting this way, and hurting others because of it?"

"She'd  she'd  " He sighed now, sagging almost bonelessly into his sister's hug. "She'd whack me across the head with her bokken and tell me I was being an idiot."

There was no smile or humor there, Jun knew. "It's not going to be easy, less so now that you've carried this so far for so long. But if you're ever going to love anyone again the way you loved Kisaru, you have to start somewhere."

"Two steps forward a time. Two steps as they come."

Clever little husband mine.

"I don't know if I can, 'Neechan," he murmured, sotto voce. "I care for Kyoko, and I really wish I could make this work, but I don't know how to move away from Kisaru."

Her hug tightened, he didn't mind. "We all have to make our start somewhere, and this is a pretty good place."

"What, the kitchen?"

"If need be," she replied, relieved that some humor had returned. "I won't lie to you and say it'll be easy; I've never lied to you when it's this important. But keep these things in mind."

He extracted himself from the hug only to turn around and return it to her. He smiled now, and she regarded how handsome it made him, how much it brightened his face. "And what would those things be, 'Neechan?"

"Be. Fair." With each word she tapped his nose with her slender forefinger. "Be fair to Kisaru, because you're carrying her memory and her love for you. Be fair to Tokiko, because she should grow up as your niece, not as a reminder of someone else. And most of all, be fair to Kyoko."

Jinpei stood silent, his thoughts a whirlwind of memory, guilt and realization. I've been unfair to Kisaru and Tokiko all this time? I didn't mean to be, I just, I thought  I knew about Kyoko, but

"A little at a time, Little Brother," she said, breaking him out of his reverie. Pulling away  she had work of her own to do, a snack bar to check up on, for instance  she stopped long enough to take a bottle of water from the fridge before pushing the kitchen door open.



"Do you think," he began shuffling his foot back and forth, like he used to when he was a boy, "Do you think talking to Ken-aniki would help? I mean, I know it was a long time ago, but she was his  "

She cut him off with a nod. "I think that's a good start. You do that." Then she left, knowing that he'll be okay. He just needs a little shove, just like all we adults do. We still have some growing up to do. But right now, there was a little snack bar that needed tending to and a couple of gigs to set up for the week.

Back in the kitchen, Jinpei looked out the window, gauging the wind, the chill in the air, wondered if his little niece, his Little Hummingbird, was warm enough, and planned the night's seafood dinner.

Fried shrimp thing? he puzzled. Then he grinned, laughing lowly to himself. Tempura, Tokiko. You meant tempura.
     He laughed a little more still, fondly recalling that Kisaru had not liked shrimp at all.

"How often have you been coming back here?" Joe said as they entered the threshold of the House of Mercy, which stood at the very depth of the Valley of White Shadows. The portal had taken them from the waterfall to the hidden valley, uncharted and unfound by common man. They'd improved at portal-summoning since the first days of their roles as the Shield of Mercy and the four Holy Guardians: Ken's first portal landed them in the heart of some nearby forest, which was only a little better than Ryu's dunking them in a river. Joe's portal this morning brought them right to the gates of Ken's domain.

"About once a month or so," he answered. "A little more frequently lately, since Hinoe just had another child."

Ken smiled to himself, thinking of his own children. "She seems to enjoy my company."

The gates had opened and shut upon their own will; no one manned them. The autumn garden blazed in bright color and the season's fruit swelled in their trees. Ken plucked an apple from a low-hanging branch, picking a second one for Joe. Inside the large polished quarters the servants of the house bustled about, some with their usual duties and some with new ones incurred by the Shield's visit. "I have some things to tend to here first, though. Half the time I don't even know what they are until I get here."

"Weird being a Shield, huh?"

"Still getting weirder, even though the battles are over now." A pair of menservants opened the doors to the House, bowing slightly as they passed through. Both Ken and Joe nodded in polite return. Once further into the foyer, Ken let out a weary sigh. "I'll never get used to this. I'll live to be a thousand and I'll never get used to this."

Joe shrugged. "I'm reminded now of why it was such a good idea to raise the kids away from here." He bit into his apple: it was ripe, juicy and crunchy, perfect. "You can get tired of perfect things really quickly."

"It's not just me, apparently," Ken said, munching his own piece of fruit as they ascended the stairway to the five separate bedchambers. "Karura told me once before that the original Shimada didn't care much for all this either. A descendant was suspect if they enjoyed this comfortable living too much too quickly."

The two men laughed, entering Ken's chamber. Joe's ease comforted Ken somewhat  how typical of Joe to relax just as he grew more wary. They left the remains of their fruit in an empty bowl on the small table by the door, and as they removed their coats a winged fireball came in through the open bay windows to come to rest at the foot of the bed. It unfurled itself to reveal a phoenix with jewel-like eyes, wings spread wide, graceful neck low in a bow of greeting.

"Good morning, my Lord," the creature said in its distinct female voice. "And good morning to you, too, Archer. It's been a while since you've set foot in the Valley, hasn't it?"

He'd forgotten about Azrael, thus he continued to watch the mythical bird intently. "I suppose so. I'm here to see Lady Lien."

"She will be pleased," she replied, hopping from one foot to the next. "Shall I inform her of your arrival?"

He looked quickly to Ken, glaring when he caught the grin and suppressed laugh. "No, thank you, Azrael, but I think she would appreciate the surprise." As he turned to leave for his own room, he called over his shoulder, "Tend to that idiot Shield for a while; I'm going to change."

Ken found himself flat against the wall, choking back his amusement, much of his wariness gone. He tried not to laugh again when, huffed, Azrael puffed out her fiery-feathered chest and said, "Well. He hasn't changed a bit. You'd think time would take the edge off him."

"Off Joe? Never," he replied, smiling at the familiar apparition, familiar not only to himself, but to his soul, and the many lives that soul lived that knew of the firebird that perched before him. "Azrael, could you please inform Lady Hinoe that I will be there to see her in a little while? She is expecting me."

She spread her wings once more and took flight, circling the room once before heading towards the window. "Done, my Lord. Shall I await you at the House of Faith?"

"If you like." And the bird was away.

He sat down on the bed, overwhelmed as he always felt whenever he made his visits back. Years later the sense of loss and being misplaced faded, but there was still much more of it left to go. It would be Iori's turn to feel lost, he knew, before he'd ever fully get over it.

Iori, he thought. Give or take another year, and it'd be time to teach him. Already he made a list in his mind: swordwork being the primary concern, inherent powers next, then the formalities, eventually more truth than he'd care to divulge.

He shook his head, and fought to sit still. After some time, not moving at all, his breaths grew deep and steady as he meditated, reciting his own words again.

Two steps as they come. Not then, just now.

Sometime during his meditation, the clothes he arrived in melted away and changed into the formalwear befitting a Shield of Heaven. Customarily black, the boots and fitting trousers felt no different from his BirdStyle, and the high-collared shirt and hooded cloak, he had grown used to by now. Joe waited for him at the door when he was next aware, dressed in his own garments that marked him as the Archer.

"Here goes nothing," he said, nonchalant. "I just might be the first to start a war right inside the walls of the House of Peace."

Ken nodded, still half-lost in his thoughts. "Good luck."

But Joe had already gone.

A little more time passed, and he rose to his feet at last, exiting the room and descending the stairway, his cloak flowing like a separate living entity behind him. Again, each person he passed dipped into a short bow for him, and with each step he took them in slightly easier, accepting his position in tiny bites at a time.

It was the only way he knew how.

Joe stood at the doors of the House of Peace, his nervousness marked only by his fiddling with the end of his own cloak. When was the last time he was here? In these clothes, with such formality? Everything felt odd, unfamiliar, and it was starting to feel like a bad idea.

She's your wife, for God's sake. It doesn't have to be this hard.

"Of course it doesn't."

His head snapped up: Lien, jet-black hair hanging over her eyes, brushing her shoulders, violet eyes twinkling, stood at the door, opened just enough for her to pass through. She was still, as ever, and forever, beautiful, more so now that she was smiling, what he guessed must be her first true smile in a long time.

"You know I hate it when you do that," he said, taking one step forward. His voice was soft, the edge barely audible. "I can never tell when you're not doing that."

Her smile broadened. "Still holding your cards close to your chest, my love?" She held her hand out to him, beckoning him to come closer, but he caught her hand midway, and held it firmly in his own. "I've missed you."

He drew her hand close to him, kissing the fingers lightly, head held low as he breathed the scent of her. How could I have forgotten how wonderful she feels, the way she smells? "Have you?"

She giggled, husky and warm. "How could a woman, immortal though I am, not miss her husband?"

Two steps more, and she was in his arms, in his embrace, and he knew he would never let go again.

The End
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