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Early Wednesday morning, Kuro made the journey to the neighboring nation of Progmato with his brother Mikio. It was not something either of them did because they wanted to, it was necessary. There was never much in the way of conversation and this time was no different. Bak always managed to get himself out of going, but their father Jin Ishi was not about to let all of his sons skip out on seeing Dr. Chee Hamara for their bi-annual blood work and neurological scans. It was a dreaded day because neither Ishi could be certain if they would walk away with good news or bad.

Imitso Encephalopathy – Progressive genetic neurological disorder that causes an advance stage of deterioration in mental faculties and afflicts those with Ishi blood to varying degrees.

Forest of the Ancients – Garden of the Gods located on Earth. It was believed to be the birthplace of chalta’s and where each clan was given their unique abilities.

Nakamaru – A group of demons created by Rin that possessed humans from various clans.

The only thing that the Ishi feared was a genetic disorder called Imitso Encephalopathy. Nothing in the world was more frightening than losing themselves to a disease that would destroy their ability to even think and function.  Eventually, one by one the Ishi would suffer and become shells of the men and women they were. There was an old story, told among the Ishi that Rin did battle with a demon of the Nakamaru in a place favored by the gods. No longer a god himself, his mind simply could not handle the overwhelming power of the Forest of the Ancients and his blood was tainted. Each generation descended from him, suffered under the weight of that poison.

As they exited the car and made their way toward the building his brother finally spoke, “How has the handling of the Kari account been going for you?”

“It hasn’t. Since that meeting, Zen Kari and I have not communicated. No calls from anyone from the Kari Foundation.”

“Do you believe he has no intention on using our company?”

Kuro considered the question, “I do not think it is that. He seems a pretty cautious guy and there was some mention of crisis management. Zen Kari is a planner. I doubt he leaves anything to chance. This is most likely a calculated decision.”

There was a moment of silence and Mikio eventually responded with, “I concur with your assessment.” Was that approval? Kuro was not certain until his brother continued speaking, “I admit I was unhappy with fathers decision to have you handle that account, but after watching your path unfold it is an appropriate decision. Zen Kari is ill-prepared for someone like you. This will work to our advantage.”

“What exactly do you mean by ill-prepared for someone like me?”

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If Mikio had intended to respond he was taking far longer to do so then Kuro might have expected. There was a quietness to his brothers voice as he finally spoke though did not answer his question, “Callous men we appear to be as we step forward on a dangerous path against the Kari. With disapproval and contempt you challenge your kin.” The closer they got to the office a figure came in to view, “I will tell you why I dislike the Kari. They are self-righteous. Even now the man before us holds his head high and keeps that complacent and stoic Kari expression. His body is tense, his anger boiling, and yet his face lies. Kari men cannot be trusted because there is no truth in their eyes. Men that harness themselves in such a fashion have a weakness that is far uglier than any we snakes adorn. They are ticking dangerously and that metal they guard their emotions with is brittle. Men like the Kari are too delicate to stand on their own.”

As much as he wanted to argue he had spent enough time with Hiko and Semei to know that just about anything could set them off. Kari men were far more sensitive than they appeared to be. As they approached closer to Kyo Kari, his mind was no longer thinking about his brothers words. Instead, he was wondering why Kyo was standing outside the office of Chee Hamara with such a look upon his face. His brother was right, Kyo was angry.

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When they finally made it to where Kyo was standing his brother headed inside the building while Kuro came to a sudden stop. He could ask what Kyo was doing there, but it was probably better to not get involved in whatever business had brought the Kari so far away from Thacian City. Opening his mouth to say hello he was silenced rather suddenly by the voice of Eri Maiba, “Kuro Ishi, suspicious that you come all this way to see a doctor.”

Why the two of them were together brought plenty of questions to mind, but Kuro just smiled as he spoke, “Maybe I am here for the view.”

“Well, if that is the case, then you can give me a ride back to Aslann.” Kuro noticed how Kyo instantly turned to look at Eri. It was obvious from the hard stare Kyo gave her to his posture that her request did not make him happy. “Kyo was kind enough to give me a ride, but he has to go. Isn’t that right Kyo?”

Kuro did not know why, but he felt like he stepped right in the middle of something he did not want to step in. Before he could even open his mouth to say no, Kyo began walking away. Not even a hello or a goodbye and that was not like the Kari he knew.

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He had kept his eyes upon Kyo for as long as he could see him, but once a Kari man walked away from something there was no point in chasing after him. They did not make decisions like that on whims and whatever it was lingering between Eri and Kyo it was painful enough that the Kari bit back the hurt and the anger and gave up. He had never asked his mother about people like Semei or Kyo. Kuro always assumed that guys like those would have paths clear of any obstacles. Definitely not the type of Kari men to stick their feet in something that would bring them issues later, yet he was standing with Eri and wondering what it was that defeated that Kari.

There was some time that passed before he allowed his attention to fall upon Eri again. His body moved without him willing it as he found a seat under a tree. It would be a moment before Eri would join him. She never apologized for whatever it was she dragged him into. Of course, he could have actually gotten the word no out of his mouth in protest. He finally spoke, “I think considering the position you just put me in with Kyo, you should tell me what is going on.”

Eri shrugged her shoulders, “Kyo still thinks that he and I have some sort of connection with each other. That if I just said yes to going out with him….well he is a hopeless romantic really, but I am not interested in dorky guys like him.”

“So, are you playing some sort of game with him then? Why even ask him to bring you here if you are just going to treat him like scum on the bottom of your shoes?”

“Exaggerating a bit aren’t we? I needed a ride and he offered, it is not like I promised him my cupcake in return for the favor.” Kuro could tell she was being dishonest with each word she spoke, which only made him wonder why. Eri was not exactly subtle in her behavior. Most people knew her to be a mean girl. She would be nice to your face and talk about you behind your back, but this felt different. Part of him thought it seemed almost malicious in nature, despite how innocent she appeared. What was she lording over Kyo Kari? He did not get an opportunity to ask that question as he heard her say as she stood, “Great she is here.”

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He stood, scanning the area for the ‘she’ that Eri had been speaking about. It would take him a moment to focus in on a familiar face walking toward where they had been sitting. Her arrival only confused him more. “My parents will be back in an hour, so we need to get going. I am still technically grounded. They will have a fit if they find out I left the house to come and get you,” Tsubaki spoke as she stopped before them.

“Eri, you failed to mention that you asked Tsubaki to pick you up. Should I assume that you were trying to make Kyo jealous?”

She smiled, “Assume what you want.”

Tsubaki could not hide her surprise, “Kyo was here?”

“Coincidence,” Eri responded which Kuro knew to be an outright lie yet she managed it with a straight face. The entire situation was suspicious. His mind worked overtime trying to solve the puzzle. What would bring two people that hate each other together and yet be a secret between two best friends? Whatever it was there was plenty of secrets being held by Eri Maiba.

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Throughout his appointment and the long silent ride back to Thacian City, he thought of what it might be that was lingering between Eri Maiba and Kyo Kari. It was not as though lying was hard for Eri to do, but admittedly it was the first time Kuro had ever heard of her lying to a friend. There was a point where he had considered that the two might be dating, stranger things had happened in Aslann after all. He never in a million years thought Hiko Kari would ever have a girlfriend and yet, he did. It was about that point that he walked into his office and came face-to-face with her.

Those eyes; how he hated them. He had spent his entire life staring at them. Kuro was never really the type of guy that cared about what his future was. He lived for the moment, no matter how big or how small. The eyes of the Tylo represented power, influence, and foresight. People that had them generally could not be trusted. They were always working an angle or had some sort of agenda, he learned that from his mother and his brother. So, he found himself wondering what nefarious reason was she standing before him.

“How was your appointment?”

Keeping his expression neutral he responded, “I want to be surprised you know about that, but I suppose there is not many secrets kept from you. It went well enough. How about you? When was the last time you went?”

“Would it surprise you to learn I have not?”

“A luxury neither of us can afford. Ishi blood is Ishi blood regardless of whom has it. What happens if you start showing signs? What about Hiko?”

“I would rather not know. Do you really want to spend your whole life preparing for what will come, instead of enjoying what you have at this moment? I hardly thought you the type.”

Tationy was right. Kuro did not really care one way or the other. Sure there was fear for all Ishi, but did he really want to be controlled by it? “Why are you here?” He asked changing the topic rather suddenly.

With a gentle hand she gestured toward his desk and his eyes focused in on a file as she spoke, “Zen wished for me to deliver that to you. He will be available for a late dinner meeting to discuss it. He expects you to be there.”

Kuro smirked, “Oh, this lowly Ishi is expected by the great lord of the Kari. How humbled and honored I am.”

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She noticeably sighed, “How facetious of you. It is clear you have no interest in handling the Kari account. Less even to be at Ishi Shipping. What is it that is really keeping you bound?”

His eyes remained upon her, “Is this a back and forth? If so, I would like to know what really brought you here. Certainly a messenger could have delivered that file and the words of Zen Kari. Why did you take it upon yourself to make the trip?”

There was hesitation from her though he could not understand why. He got the impression when she finally spoke that those were not the words she wanted to speak, “Have you talked to Sadamitsu?”

Pursing his lips he responded, “So this is about that.” Kuro took a moment to pause as he considered how he wanted to answer, “I have not spoken to him and I do not intend to.”

“Is it alright like this?”

“Separating myself from Hiko and Sadamitsu was…”

Tationy interrupted him, “I was referring to your dream. Is walking away from it really what you want?”

He was not certain why her words surprised him so much so it took him far longer to respond, “I never thought I would get the opportunity to play my music. Then, Sadamitsu called and told me about the audition. As much as I wanted to be there for him, I also wanted it for myself. In the end I made a decision.”

“Did you know they would not pick you?”

“I suspected that they were looking for something specific. I do not have the eyes of the Tylo and asking my brother or mother the answer to that question would have caused a disruption I was not willing to deal with at that time.”

“Regret it?”

“Not for a single moment. I played my music and they liked it.”

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As she moved toward him, Kuro found himself wondering if she realized how enticing men found her. Every action, from the way she spoke to how she walked was true Yamada. There was no hiding or denying it even if she wanted to.

She responded while removing a pin from her hair, “Miroku Tylo knew going into the audition what he wanted. Regardless of whom might have been better the path was already decided long before you and Sadamitsu even played. It was your actions that dictated the outcome. Only yourself to blame.” Stopping before him she reached to his lapel and placed the little flowered pin. It was with confidence and ease she invaded his space and if he was honest at that moment he was not disappointed by her actions in the slightest.

If he wanted her, he could have her. Perhaps he was too confident in this way of thinking as she fussed with his tie and under heavy-lidded eyes he watched her. “Do you do this for Hiko?”

“Such is not his way.”

“I hate asking…”

“Then don’t,” She responded curtly. The silence that overtook the room was almost as heavy as it was earlier in the day when he was standing with Eri and Kyo. Why did he get the impression that everyone was keeping secrets? It would not be unheard of, for someone with Tylo blood to carry the burden of their foresight, but this somehow felt different. Did she not love Hiko? He did not want to read into it, but perhaps this was why Mikio was so confident that eventually she would come to him. Maybe even the reason he said that this was how she wanted the game to be played. “How is your face? Abe didn’t hurt you did he?”

How easy it was for a moment to become so tense and then she would ease all of that heaviness away with a single question. The Yamada were frightening. “Someone like him is not going to hurt me.”

“I wonder how true a statement like that is, Kuro Ishi. Confidence is certainly something you have in abundance and yet, within your heart lingers doubt. Often you find yourself wondering if you are good enough. The answer is, you are, but you cannot keep moving through the world without purpose. It is not enough to want something, you must also be willing to fight for it. Obstacles will be thrown in your path…..”

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He grabbed her arms aggressively, “Don’t read my future.”

Perhaps because he was so used to the unmoved response of his mother and brother he was ill-prepared for the emotion that crossed her features. “I was stating present fact and not some whimsical possibility. The murky waters of your future are not worth my time or my energy. ”

Quickly releasing her he ran his fingers through his hair, “I apologize. The only Tylos I am used to dealing with on a daily basis are my …. no matter, I should not have jumped to conclusions.”

“No one likes to know their future Kuro,” She spoke softly. “The eyes of the Tylo are a burden. I have seen my life in the past, in the present, and in the future and it does not bring me security only heartache. How many lives can one person live before they do not wish to live anymore? I ask myself this question often. There are days I want to go back to the girl I was. When everything was a dream, clouded by a haze that seems more like the stuff of fantasy from a whimsical child, but there is no going back once you have unlocked a part of you. Sometimes, I think it would be better not knowing. I envy those that can remain ignorant.” There was a momentary pause, her eyes washing over him, “Where did you go the night of the camping trip?”

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Kuro had managed to get out of answering that question the few times Sadamitsu and Hiko had asked. Somehow he doubted Tationy would let him get away with saying he went for a walk. His mind wandered to that night and more importantly to the person he snuck away to meet, “Always making me wait,” Abe responded as Kuro walked toward him.

“Sorry, it took longer than I thought it would for them to get distracted.”

“Glad to see I am a priority.”

“Don’t do that.”

“Do what exactly? Every time we make plans Kuro you find a reason to back out. If you are not interested just fucking say as much. Stop playing these games.”

“Those words are kind of funny coming from you considering you are sleeping with Tsubaki and picking fights with Hiko over Tationy. From where I am standing…”

“From where you are standing? Seriously are you going to go down that road? Who the fuck asked Moochie Sweela to the dance? I can tell you it sure as hell was not me. In fact, I did not ask anyone. I made plans for…” He stopped talking suddenly.

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Since his arrival to Sofore Academy, Abe was larger than life. Everyone knew who he was long before he got himself kicked out of Aslann High School. He was Abe Sosa, son of Emitoya Sosa. There were not many as wealthy as his family was. The moment Kuro had saw him, he thought that this guy was something special.

There were plenty of good looking people in Aslann. It was not like he was the first to cross Kuro’s path, but Abe had a presence about him.  A lot of people saw him as a sadist and certainly there was that side of him, but he had never been like that with Kuro. When they were together, Abe was a different person and there were times that Kuro considered that he might be the only one on the planet that Abe really did care about.

Then he found out that he was still sleeping with Tsubaki and a distance grew between them, worse yet Abe had admitted that he harmed Tationy at one point. These things had put roadblocks in their path, but it was not as though he was without his own sin.

Abe was more than willing to come out and say they were together, but Kuro had been apprehensive. It was not as though he was hiding the fact he was pansexual. He was certain his brother Mikio was aware and even his mother, but Abe was not exactly the type of guy you brought home to meet the parents. If Kuro had a type, then he was probably a glutton for punishment because he always seemed to go for the ones with the “I’m bad and I know it” vibe.

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There was an unwelcome pause that lingered far to long, “Are we breaking up?”

Kuro stared at Abe, “I just have a lot of stuff going on. We are in different places. Want different things. Were you even going to tell me that you were recruited by the Thacian City Rockets? I had to hear about it from Tsubaki. Do you have any idea how that makes me feel?”

“How it makes you feel?” Abe laughed, “Five dinners you blew off. Five opportunities for me to tell you. Hiko and Sadamitsu are always more important than I am. They need you to rescue them and off you go without even thinking twice about it, but when I make plans for us you cancel it like it means nothing at all. Why are they more important than I am?”

“I am not trying to make you feel that way. They are not more important…”

Abe turned away, “Whatever. When you need me, I always drop everything. When I need you …. ”

Kuro reached out instinctively grabbing Abe’s arm to stop him from leaving, “Abe, you and I are a mess. We both have feelings for other people that are unresolved. This stuff with Sofore and our own personal futures are complicated enough without adding whatever this is into the mix. I am not even given the opportunity to do what I want right now and it is really selfish of you to lay this at my feet especially seeing you are sharing a bed with Tsubaki.”

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Abe yanked his hand away, “Let’s go back to how things were before.”

“What do you mean by that,” Kuro asked?

He could hear the coldness in Abe’s voice, “You are just some Ishi snake and I am the scion of the Sosa. Consider it a momentary weakness on my part, but I am tired of poking the snake with a stick. I would rather just chop its head off.”

Uncertain why he was so surprised, his body tensed as he stared at Abe’s back. What did the guy really expect? They were in love with other people and he was sleeping around. It was not like it was ever going to work out anyway. Despite those reasons, Kuro felt that Abe seemed far more hurt than would be expected from a guy like him. Those opportunities he should have taken to protest, say anything, try to calm the situation were met with silence; his own and Abe’s. He could tell that Abe was waiting for him to say something, but the most Kuro managed to speak was, “Abe, please be reasonable and don’t make a scene.”

“I’m making a scene,” Abe responded as he opened the door to his vehicle, climbed in, slammed the door shut, and took off at speeds that were dangerous and out of control.

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His thoughts quickly distracted by the intercom, which thankfully disrupted the flow of the moment. He did not understand why he was so relieved, it was not as though he was hiding anything. Pressing a button, the office manager spoke, “Mr. Ishi, your eleven o’clock is here.”

“Thank you,” He responded as he turned his attention back toward Tationy, but she was already departing his office. He wanted to stop her. There were things unsaid between them. Questions he wanted to ask, things he felt needed to be said. In the end, he thought perhaps that was why she left so quickly.

There would be a few moments of quiet contemplation as he waited for the man he was to interview to enter his office. He had memorized all of the information and even had the guy investigated. A foreigner from Japan with a long history of the nefarious sort.

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Kuro watched him as he entered the office. He was aware that the man would most likely offer a handshake over a formal bow. It was how “foreigners” in the business world were greeted by the Japanese. He did, however, bow his head and offer his business card to Kuro, with the print clearly readable by his eyes. He understood he was expected to look at it before taking it and that he was to offer one of his own. This was part of the mans customs, but it would hardly get him anywhere in Aslann.

With a casual hand, Kuro gestured for him to take a seat as he spoke. “Shiseki Sou, am I saying that right?”

Shiseki gave a brief nod of his head as he responded, “That is correct.”

“I am going to be direct with you, it is going to be very difficult for you to find work here in Aslann without knowing someone. Most of the companies owned by the clans of Aslann do not allow outsiders especially foreigners to wander their halls so freely. Despite your skills with language, your impressive background as a manager, you are just another Japanese businessman trying to get a foot in the door of Aslann elite holdings.” His expression was subtle, but Kuro could tell that Shiseki was slightly taken aback by the directness. “Don’t lie to me. Right now is your only opportunity you are going to be given. There were some transgressions in your background check. Interviewed by the police numerous times and the casino you oversaw was even raided. There is a link between you and the now defunct Nakano-Kai. Are you Yakuza?”

Surprisingly the man did not hesitate, “In a way you always are even when you are not any longer.”

“I doubt they just let you walk away. What was your price for freedom?” There was a heaviness around him and he did not respond. It was clear he was thinking heavily on what it was, but Kuro was already pretty certain he knew. He did not even need Mikio’s eyes to tell him that what Shiseki gave up was his own wife. “If you cannot answer this question, you might as well find the door.”

“I had known nothing else.” The man spoke then quickly continued, “My father was Yakuza, his friends, the kids I grew up with always talked about being Yakuza. It was bound to happen sooner or later. I am really good with money. A smart guy the boss would tell me, too smart sometimes. I knew how to keep my mouth shut though and that is what is most important to the Yakuza. Don’t betray them and don’t talk about family business. There are consequences for such actions. I have seen friends and even my father lose fingers in a ritual called yubitsume. An atonement for their offenses. I was not going to be that sort of man. Honorable? Probably not to many, but to the boss I was loyal and trusted. Too valuable to just let go without paying a rather steep price.”

“That price?”

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“My wife Ume foolishly wandered into the den of the lions and begged for my freedom. She was impassioned and he was not unsympathetic to her pleas. He agreed to freeing me from my ‘servitude’ if she sacrificed something in return. All of her fingers on her left hand were to be removed and she agreed without hesitation. I had arrived to stop her foolishness, but she would not listen. She wanted a different life for me and our daughter Ameya. The boss had changed his mind and said that her fingers were no longer enough to lose such a valuable asset and she quickly grabbed the weapon that they were to use to cut her fingers off and asked if her life was enough. I don’t think he thought she would actually do it and to be honest, I didn’t either. Sitting in her blood, I held her as she died and I was told to leave Japan and never return.”

Kuro quietly listened to the man’s tale. It was not anything he had not heard hundreds of times in Aslann. Clans had their own justice in a lot of ways even though such matters were kept behind closed doors, there would be occasional rumors and dark whispers about what had transpired. “It is a great loss you suffered. How is your daughter?”

“Ameya struggles. We have traveled around a bit, but she never quite makes friends and the death of her mother still haunts her, even though she tries desperately to stay strong for me. I need this job, Mr. Ishi. I need it for her and me. If you do not give me this opportunity, then she and I will be forced to pick up and move again. Ameya needs stability, friends, and to stop worry so much about her father. I would beg, but I understand that the clans of Aslann are not fond of such behavior so all I can really do is make my request and hope you have some sympathy.”

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Turning away from the man he frowned deeply. This was harder than he thought it was going to be. Mikio had told him a week ago about this interview and how he would be the one handling it. Kuro understood what that meant. It was a test to see if he was capable. There were hundreds of questions he could ask the man. He saw his resume, he checked out his credentials. Was he qualified? Probably more than Kuro was, but the clans of Aslann did not hire outsiders into their companies. The right thing to do would be to tell the man no and send him on his way.

He must have been taking too long to respond because he heard Shiseki Sou say, “If there is no convincing you…” Anything the man said after that was lost to Kuro as he bowed his head and his attention was drawn toward a sticky note. Certainly it had not been there when Tationy pointed out the file. Had she placed it there when he was distracted? Was it always there and he never noticed? No, he would have noticed. Which meant she placed it there before she left while he was tending to the intercom.

It was clear that the note was written by two different people. One a block print with a place and a time. Obviously this had to be the writing of Zen Kari and the other, a stylish cursive with the words hire him, Kuro written in pink ink. Somehow he had no doubt that was written by Tationy and he inwardly could not help wondering why. Was she helping him? There was a part of him that considered that this might be some nefarious plan being hatched by yet another Tylo, but at the same time, he did not believe she was like that. No, not a single bit.

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The day of the rehearsal he saw such a pained expression upon her face and there was no way that someone who felt so deeply would intentionally inflict pain upon another. He had only intended to step inside and grab his stuff before he took off. He had already told Hiko that he was going after his company and his girl.

That look upon her face was because she knew the path he was walking. Did it disappoint her? As he stared at her he could not help wondering what she thought of him and for the first time in a long time what the eyes of the Tylo saw for his path. At that time though, he had quickly brushed those thoughts away because he was not a man that was going to be controlled by fate and strangled by his future.

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Kuro turned, as his gazed washed over Shiseki Sou he thought about how this was going to be perceived by his brother and father. Weakness and a mistake he was certain as he extended his hand. It took the Japanese man a moment to stand and accept, uncertainty of what it meant was clear upon his face.

When he finally did Kuro spoke, “You can start tomorrow.” It wasn’t going to be some glamorous position. The man was simply going to oversee the warehouse and shipping yards. That was not to say it was not a job that was unimportant. No, in fact Shiseki Sou was going to be quite busy. The Ishi controlled shipping in Aslann. Anything that left or came into the nation by boats was part of their domain. It was a multi-billion dollar a year business and he was the first outsider to be welcomed into its ranks.

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For the better part of the day, Kuro was showing him around and getting him acclimated to his new position. When he was finally done handling his new employee he returned to his office none to surprised to see his brother standing there.

Mikio was always hard to read. Those with the eyes of the Tylo generally were, but there were none among the Tylo like him. That scrutinizing gaze lingered upon him as the sounds of ships docking rang out. There was a serenity among the noise of the shipping lanes. Perhaps he thought so because he grew up around it. He sighed as the smell of the sea and rain reminded him of the brooding man before him. He was used to being the child none of them expected anything of. He was the spare. If for some reason Mikio and Bak could not run the company he would be given it to carry on until someone better came along. Kuro was well aware of his standing among his kin, especially where his father was concerned.

Still, his brother before him was the one Kuro always looked up to and idolized. Mikio had everything that Kuro wanted. To say he was envious would be an understatement and yet he was not deluded into thinking that his father would ever pat him on his shoulder and say ‘dat a boy’.

Perhaps it was the long and uncomfortable, yet not unexpected silence that made this moment seem heavier. Much as he always did, Mikio finally spoke with his cigarette still between his lips, “Was your decision to hire him based on what you wanted or her influence?” Despite his words, Kuro was thinking about how Mikio was always just that cool. Never did the cigarette ever drop when he spoke. There were times when the longest bit of ash just remained on the burned tip. It said a great deal about how at ease Mikio was at all times that the smoke could remain so undisturbed even with the most subtle amount of movement.

Forcing himself to look away from his brother, “If you knew she was going to leave me a note, why did you not intervene?”

“This is the first direct action she has taken in some time and I wanted to see what she would do. Lately, when she makes a decision and I see it within the time-stream it is over domestic things like pots and groceries. Her movement through time used to be so easy to read and now, I wonder why the decisions she is making are so unimportant in the grand scheme of time.”

“Maybe she is happy just being his woman.”

Mikio slowly responded, “No, that is not it. A strong woman like her does not bend to the will of a man and become domesticated. She chooses that path.”

Kuro considered his brothers words, “Why do you find it so difficult to believe that she is in love with him?”

There was a lingering pause, perhaps far longer than his brother normally would take in answering. It was almost uncomfortable, “I know what she gave up for him.”

What she gave up; what did he mean by that? Kuro frowned, “Is this about Abe? It is my understanding that relationship was a mess to begin with.”

“Would that be because she told you or because you slept with him?”

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Kuro was not surprised that Mikio was aware. There was no way he would be able to keep everything from the prying eyes of his brother and mother, not with them having the eyes of the Tylo. “I am not going to explain that to you if that is what you are expecting.”

“I don’t care who you sleep with. I am only asking your opinion on this matter. Why do you think she slipped you that note? This Japanese man, does she hold some power over him?”

The fact that Mikio was asking him these questions were not lost on him, but they brought up plenty of other questions that he wanted to ask. As if he did not have enough going on in his head without burdening his thoughts more, “I honestly don’t know, but my …. gut I guess tells me it is not calculated.”

“So, you believe her actions were simply that of someone trying to help you?”

Was that it? Somehow that seemed right, though he still did not know why she would go out of her way, “I think so.”

That silence befell the room again as though Mikio were considering the conversation, “I agree.”

Staring at his brother, “Twice in one day. I am starting to wonder what is going on.”

Removing his cigarette from his mouth, Kuro watched how smoke escaped his brothers lips as he spoke. “Your instincts are good, there is no denying that. However, you cannot move through this world by following your gut. It is only going to get you so far.” Those words almost echoed the ones spoken by Tationy earlier as he watched Mikio step toward the door, “The reason our father thinks you cannot handle a woman like her is because you deny your feelings. Stepping aside for that Kari, Semei so that he might pursue her was a mistake on your part. Had you approached her, she would be at your side. This is your weakness Kuro. There is plenty of confidence within you, but you are always letting other people trample on your dreams; like you did with that Anami boy. If you truly wanted to be in that band, you would never have done what you did. Stop thinking about other people and start fighting for what you want.”

Was his brother encouraging him? Kuro stared at his brothers back somehow managing to get the words out, “Are you telling me to go after her?”

It was with a casual shrug, Mikio responded with, “Who knows.”

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Who knows was Mikio’s go to response for answering without answering. It annoyed the hell out of him. Even as he sat waiting for Zen Kari to arrive, he kept thinking about the day and the words of everyone. The only thing that could top this day was a scene from Abe.

Kuro had done an interview without asking a single question of value. Truth was he had not intended to even hire the guy, but Tationy’s note was ultimately what changed his mind. She more than anyone confused him. Why would she be helping him? What was her motivation in all of this? He understood his families. They wanted the Tylo girl and to bring down the Kari. That was clear and he did not need a magic decoder ring to figure it out, but there were plenty of things that burdened his thoughts and Tationy Tylo was certainly one of them.

Was Mikio right? If he had approached her would the outcome have been different? He hated thinking about what if scenarios because they would get him nowhere. He was almost grateful when the curtain slid open and in stepped the persnickety Kari.

The waiter fussed about a moment and Kuro noticed how the Kari waved him off, “Two glasses of Merlot, nothing after 1889, and after you deliver them do not disturb us until we are ready to order.” How quickly the man departed was probably far more surprising because the Kari man commanded him with such authority. He was just a kid. Kuro looked older than he did as Zen Kari stood near the curtain regarding Kuro a moment. If he intended to say anything, Kuro could not be certain because he kept that rather stern poker-face. Admittedly, he knew very little about Zen Kari and for the life of him he could not remember mister persnickety teaching his physics class.

The Kari man did not even join Kuro until the waiter returned with the wine and disappeared again. Only then did Zen Kari step forward and actually take a seat, finally acknowledging him. “I hope the atmosphere is to your liking. I admit I have never interacted with a member of the Snake clan in such an informal setting. I am told that some members of your clan are sensitive to sights, sounds, and temperatures. I believe I read something to the effect of pinpoint accuracy through vibrations on low-level frequency. The awareness you must have of your surroundings, would make you a rather dangerous foe.”

Tension rested in his shoulders as he regarded the Kari. He was not certain why, but Mr. Persnickety gave off a dangerous aura, despite his appearance. It was nothing like the ones he had encountered before from Hiko and Semei, both their fathers, and even Hiko’s grandfather. This was different. Why had he not sensed it before? He realized quickly that the last time he was in a room with this man his father was setting there and he was not really paying attention. This time it was different, he was vulnerable and alone. No longer was he sheltered and protected by the hand of his father. The snake had slithered into the lair of a predator far more dangerous.

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He considered how to respond, his mouth opening and then closing rather suddenly. Anything he might have wanted to say seemed pointless because he was certain this man was already acutely aware. He most likely brushed up on anything he could get his hands-on regarding the Ishi and the truth was, he was probably more prepared for this second encounter than Kuro. He was almost thankful when the man changed gears, “I hear congratulations are in order. Have you decided what your long-term goals will be? Is a university in your future?”

Peering at the Kari, “That is not really an option for me at this point.”

Zen Kari was far too perceptive, “It is a shame that your father can afford such luxuries for your brothers, but you are overlooked.”

It took too much strength to keep from telling the Kari man where he could stick it. He did not need his pity. “I was unaware we were going to be sharing intimate details of our lives. Isn’t this a business meeting? If you want to get to know me on a personal level, I expect you to buy me dinner first.”

Kuro felt slightly victorious when Zen Kari did not respond. He was certain the heterosexual Kari man was slightly bewildered by what he was probably assuming was a gay man hitting on him. Though quickly that feeling of victory disappeared, “I intended to, after all you told me I could use you as I wish.”

Dumbfounded, he reached toward the glass of Merlot quickly drinking down half of it. Was this what Mikio was talking about when he said that Zen Kari would be ill-prepared for a guy like him? What exactly did his brother expect him to do? “I’m kind of seeing someone,” Kuro finally responded as he set the glass down.

“Tationy?”

“What? No, why would you even ask that?” He noticed how Zen’s eyes glanced to the small flowered pin at his lapel. Admittedly he did not know why she had given it to him so all he managed to say was, “She was fussing over me earlier. It probably had something to do with a meeting I was about to have. It means nothing.”

“I doubt Hiko would feel the same.”

“Is it your intent to tell him?”

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The pensive look that overtook the face of Zen Kari was clear. He was calculating whether or not it was in the best interest of the Kari to speak on the matter. Crisis management that was this guy’s playground. In a sick and sort of twisted way Kuro wanted to see Zen play a game of Bagola with his brother Mikio. Who would win? Certainly, Mikio had the eyes of the Tylo which garnered him sight beyond all others. This man before him though was not at all as he appeared. That innocent face; never had he seen a Kari with such young and delicate features not to mention his small frame and shorter stature. What was it about him? There was something that was familiar and nagging at him, yet he could not place his finger on it.

“Hiko is far too busy to be distracted with unnecessary information. It would be in your best interest to lock the pin away someplace where it will never be seen again.”

“That is it? Just like that you are going to forget you saw it, why?”

“I do not believe she is the type of woman to do something on a whim. Such a subtle action is unlike the Tylo. When they do something with purpose it is big and bold. They are not hiding it. In Bagola you can be cautious one move and aggressive the next, but you are never timid. Giving you that has nothing to do with her endgame.” The Kari man before him seemed so confident in that fact. Mr. Persnickety gave him little time to think about it though as he asked, “Explain to me how exactly you are kind of seeing someone.”

Somehow the conversation had ended back upon him. With a shrug of his shoulders Kuro responded, “Well, you know…”

“I do not. I am Kari. When we enter into a union there is no kind of.”

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Kuro nearly forgot that Kari men where like this. He chuckled, “Oh, how humble I am to be sitting before someone that can control his natural urges. If you must know, we had a difference of opinion. The short version is he felt that I was putting others above him and he ended it. I have not decided how I feel about it or for that matter whether or not it is over on my end.” He paused a moment, “Seeing we are on the topic, is there a Mr. or Mrs. Kari waiting at home for you?”

“I am not married.”

“Don’t most Kari enter into unions at fairly young ages? Betrothal ceremony or something like that?”

“It was not required of me.”

Not required of him? Kuro had heard once from Hiko that not all Kari children were entered into unions through betrothal ceremonies. That ultimately those things were worked out by the Elder of the Kari and the leader of the clan they were trying to procure the arrangement with. There were exceptions, Hiko called them, but he did not really go into great detail on it only that for one reason or another some Kari were predetermined by the Elder to be exempt. What was it about this man that allowed him to move so freely outside of the traditions of the Kari?

Kuro took a breath before saying, “Forgive me if this is rude, but when we first met my father commented on your less than traditional appearance. Eventually, you said a Kari man can embrace both modern and traditional ways. Hiko was always given such a hard time about his appearance and yet you seem, well-regarded by your kin, despite the fact that you have obviously accepted a modern lifestyle. What makes you different from Hiko?”

“A Kari that embraces both tradition and modernization needs to be able to move between both worlds seamlessly. Hiko is not the type of man capable of finding true balance. ”

Considering the man’s words, “This balance you speak of, from what I have always heard it is unattainable by the Kari. Part of why your clan fights against modernization so much. Are you telling me that you have reached the pinnacle of this seamless transition?” Mr. Persnickety’s gaze washed over him, which resulted in an uneasy feeling. With pursed lips he braved asking, “What clan are you from?”

“I am Kari, no other clans matter.”

He had spoken so casually as he lifted his menu and Kuro kept his eyes focused upon him. No one person was just one clan, despite this, many would just identify themselves as such. Even Kuro had often said he was just Ishi. Never acknowledging the fact that he also had Takahashi and Tylo blood from his parents and grandparents. He felt this sensation before, but could not remember where. It was a heavy, oppressive aura and Kuro realized far to late that he had willingly opened himself up on a personal level, like he had never done before.

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That tension had returned and he knew that he had to get out of this room to collect himself. As he stood suddenly, the attention of Zen fell upon him. The words to excuse himself did not want to leave his mouth, so he took a step toward the door to their private dining room. He just needed a moment that is what he told himself as he felt the hand of Zen upon his arm and he just reacted. Kuro was certain that this was not at all how Zen expected this evening to go and that was an understatement times ten on his part as he clenched his right fist and braced himself against the wall. The little Kari man had been forced into it with Kuro’s incredible height. The best thing to do would be to apologize. This was a business meeting and he was behaving like a brute.

He didn’t dare move. Could not bring himself to even look at the Kari and then he felt the man’s hands rest upon his back, “An agitated snake is a dangerous one. How long are you going to allow these emotions to fester before you do something you regret?”

Somehow he managed to speak, “I already regret.”  There was a chill that settled at the base of his neck that felt as though a presence was weighing him down and he needed to unburden himself. What was this power? It was the same feeling he got from Tationy, but with Zen it was a hundred times stronger. “What blood runs through your veins Kari?”

Interruptions were never entirely unexpected they happened a lot that day so when the curtain moved and the waiter stammered, Kuro knew exactly how it appeared, “Forgive me, I will come back.”

Zen’s composure was incredible. Not even a beat was skipped as he spoke with authority, “Mr. Ishi and I have made other arrangements for dinner, please apologize to the chef on our behalf. Bring me the check when you have a moment and you will be well compensated for the inconvenience this evening.” The waiter had rushed to attend to Zen Kari’s needs without any question or protest.

As he stood there quietly watching, Zen asked the waiter for his discretion as he slipped him an additional tip. The scene seemed as though it had played out several times before. Which made Kuro suspect that this was not the first time that Zen had been caught in such a compromising position; though whether or not that was true or not he could not say and he doubted the Kari man would be forthcoming.

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By the time they got to the parking area of the restaurant he was kicking himself. Leaning against his truck he sighed, “Is this going to cause issues between our companies?”

“Should it?” Zen asked from where he was standing. There was a part of Kuro that was secretly wishing it would. His father and brother would probably want him to have nothing further to do with the company if that was the case and he could go on and do his own things, “Would that really solve everything?”

That tension returned and Kuro finally realized what it was, “It is different from what Tationy does. I suspect she has the soothing Sato blood running through her veins, but you….my kin always told me that the snakes of the Ishi were easily charmed by the Waichia. I suppose that means the rumors of the power of the Waichia are true. Not sure if I am annoyed that you are reading my mind so easily.”

“Then you will find my next words rather unsettling. As you are right now, there is no challenge.”

“Oh,” He smiled, “That rather irritates me.”

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Kuro noticed how Zen took several steps in his direction. Though he said nothing until he leaned against Kuro’s truck, “Hiko is oblivious. Unless he gets hits by the most obvious sign he won’t ever notice your feelings. Tationy on the other hand, is acutely aware of the turbulence in your heart; both for Hiko and for her. Couple that with this other guy and you are a complete disaster. This conflict is like a cancer that needs to be cut away or it will continue to grow until it is too late.”

How easily this Kari read him, “Sometimes it feels like it is already too late.”

“Then you have bigger problems than worrying about your place at Ishi Shipping. The heart and the mind must work together. Indecisiveness is a hindrance. Once you make a decision, this conflict will lessen and your troubled mind will be unburdened.”

“What if what I want turns out to be her?”

“By her, I am assuming you are referring to Tationy. If that is the case, then expect a fight because Hiko is not going to lie down and allow you to just take her. I must say that I do not believe that either of them is the path you are truly considering. No matter how you feel, injecting yourself between them even if you want to, it is not the type of man you are. Perhaps if they were not together you might be so bold, but as things are now you would never forgive yourself if you crossed that line no matter if you decided in the end your heart was made only for Hiko or Tationy. This heaviness has a lot more to do with him, the one called Abe.”

It annoyed Kuro more than he was willing to admit that he could not block Zen Kari out of his thoughts, “Things with him are complicated.”

“The relationships that stimulate us mentally and psychically tend to be that way.” Zen paused, “Is he your boyfriend? Earlier you said you were kind of seeing someone, but did not say boyfriend.”

“We have not labeled it.”

“Yet he broke up with you. Sounds like he labeled it. If the two of you are meeting in private places, have not met each other’s family or friends, and you are not talking about the future then what are you holding on for? Seems to me, the relationship is one-sided on your part.”

“What are you saying?”

There was a quiet moment before the man that was almost a complete stranger to him responded, “I am saying that maybe it is you that is making things complicated.”

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Zen Kari was about the most insufferable person he had ever met, but when he noticed Zen push away from his truck and begin walking away he asked, “Are you taking off? What about our business meeting?”

“Everything I needed to say can be found on my notes in that file I had Tationy deliver. If you have any questions, you can reach me at the Kari Foundation Monday through Saturday.” Just like that? What was the point of even having a business dinner if there was no business or dinner. “Mr. Ishi,” Zen said as he stopped which drew Kuro’s attention upon him fully, “Those impure thoughts you had about me at our first meeting were inaccurate.” That tension returned, “A Kari man does not relinquish control in the bedroom. The passion of the Kari is like an untamed beast. He cannot be controlled or stopped once his enthusiasm has been unrestrained, with that said the only person that would be riding anyone is you. I am submissive to no one.”

Mikio had told him that Zen Kari would be ill-prepared for a guy like him, but at that point he could not see how that was possible. He imagined he appeared like a deer staring into the headlights of an oncoming car as he watched the unremarkable Kari man walk away. Did his brother understand the dangerous foe standing at the side of the Tylo girl? Contending with Tationy’s foresight was difficult enough, but how were they to combat a man that could read the minds of those around them? The pair together, there would be nothing Zen and Tationy could not accomplish. He was on edge, partly because of how exposed he felt this evening. More than that though Zen had given him far too much to think about. Was his words correct? He never considered that he might be the one complicating things between himself and Abe.

To Be Continued

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