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There was a lot on his mind as he made his way down the stairs and toward the kitchen. Taro’s words struck him, but there was still too much distance and unanswered questions lingering between him and Tationy. Forgetting and moving forward was not as easy as one would think for someone his age. It was not as though he could say, life is short. It wasn’t; he had proven that by living as long as he had. So, it ultimately gave him many years and then some to think about everything that bothered him.

As he moved down the hall he could hear Tationy’s voice. She was talking with someone. He had put off seeing her for hours, but as much as he wanted to stave off the inevitable it would be difficult to avoid her forever. The truth was, he hadn’t made a decision on what he wanted to do and he was hoping by the time he reached the kitchen he would have some sort of answer.

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The closer he got the easier it was to hear the conversation she was having with another. At first he had assumed it was a fellow Ishi, but the voice was female and carried with it a particular accent that indicated it belonged to one of the Zenaku. Kuro did not particularly want to intrude upon their discussion. So, at first he simply leaned against the wall outside the kitchen allowing his thoughts to wander.

“Are you cooking? What am I asking, of course you are. So, did you get the Elder of the Ishi on a new healthy diet.”

“We went to the farmer’s market on the way home yesterday and picked up a few things, but I will need to go to a regular grocery store to get some real food in this house. I swear all he has is junk food.”

“He is normal. You have just spent too many years among the Kari dealing with their get from the earth healthy living shit. A girl needs a candy bar now and again.”

Tationy sighed, “Ahh, I could kind of go for a snickers.”

A moment of silence overtook the conversion before the person she was speaking to burst and asked, “What the fuck are you pregnant?”

The deeper the two got in the conversation the more Kuro forgot about his own thoughts. He hated spying, but what man would not have his attention violently pulled to his woman’s private conversation when the word pregnant came into it. It was not as though they had sex just one time since her arrival. It was too soon for most people to speculate because conception took time and signs of pregnancy took even longer. Tationy, with her eyes of the goddess would know right away which was why her protesting troubled Kuro so much, “What? No. Don’t be ridiculous.”

“Why is that ridiculous? His dick has not been in his girl in a very long time, there is no way a guy that old is not going to dip it in at least once without a condom.” There was an expecting pause that fallowed the words of the woman, “Your silence tells me he did. Girl, you be pregnant.”

Kuro stepped into the room his eyes fixing upon Tationy. She had a rather pensive expression upon her face as she cooked. She was dismissive of the conversation as she changed the focus, “I am not pregnant and do you seriously kiss Orlando with that mouth?”

“My mouth does a lot more than kiss him. I lick him from top to bottom and he loves it.”

“That is too much information, Imari,” Tationy responded as Kuro cleared his throat. Before the woman on the other end could even respond, Tationy had ended the call by saying, “I will call you back later.”

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There was a great deal of silence as Kuro mauled over what he wanted to say and the conversation he just eavesdropped on. A pregnancy would certainly complicate things, but it was not as though he would be disappointed. It would give a sense of stability to both of them. There was no way either of them would walk away from the other if there was a child involved, it was simply not who they were as people.

She had already told him she could not go through the loss of a child again and that was why Bak was not her son. So, he could understand why she protested so vehemently. “About our conversation last night. You are right; there is a double standard in this relationship. I don’t approve of the Kari. I never will. I don’t like them and whatever your reasons were for staying with them do not matter because they will always just be scum.”

“Wow, disregarding my feelings.”

Despite the words, she had spoken them in such a quieted voice that he was uncertain how she truly felt about what he had just said. Due to this, it took him a moment before he would offer anything further to the conversation, “I will call Oro and have him head over to your apartment to finish packing up all of that stuff and deal with your lease.”

“Is that how it is Kuro? Are you just going to hide my sin away and pretend it did not happen while yours is staring me right in the face each day?”

He sighed, “No. I cannot expect you to let go of that man if I am not able to do the same. I will pack up Taro’s belongings and give them to Oro. He can take it all to Ishi Shipping and Mikio can store it away until we decide what to do with it permanently.”

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Kuro was not surprised she fell silent. Though admittedly he did not expect it to linger for as long as it did. At the moment he decided to ask her if that was not acceptable she had said, “Then what? You hide away in your room and watch his final words over and over again. I am not going to compete with a dead man Kuro. So, maybe it is better if I stay someplace else.”

There was not even a moment for him to take in her words as he hastily responded, “Is that what you want?” Certainly he had thought it might be a better option if he left her in the care of Nao, but he was far too selfish. There was no way he would let her out of his sight now that she was here. Running his fingers through his hair he released a frustrated sigh as he opened his mouth to speak, but was quickly halted by her words.

“I am not pregnant. Whatever foolishness you are thinking just forget it.”

Kuro snorted, “Oh, so what if I am thinking those thoughts. Whether you are or are not does not mean shit right this moment because that is not even what we are talking about, but seeing you want us to be on that topic I find you are protesting a bit too much. So, if there is a chance you need to be telling me.”

He watched her clean up and fix two plates; placing them upon the table she gave him a sidelong glance before taking a seat. Not surprising she was avoiding having any sort of heated conversation with him. So, it was with apprehension that he took a seat at the table.

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Kuro wished he understood the heaviness. Even with Taro’s words he was still foolishly making the same mistakes. He wanted it so much; wanted her so much. Certainly he was trying too hard to understand and going about fixing it all the wrong ways. He knew that and did not need anyone to tell him.

Tationy must have anticipated his sullenness as she sighed and asked, “Did his words bring you any comfort or enlightenment?”

“I have watched it so many times and yet I still make the same mistakes. So, I cannot say if they did or not. I hear and understand his words, but I sometimes wonder if I am too old and set in my ways to make things happen the way I want them to.”

“What is it you want?”

“Same thing I always wanted. Us with nothing and no one in our way. Never works out that way though.”

“Maybe the issue is not what you think it is. Have you considered that the only thing ever standing in our way is us.”

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Kuro somberly responded, “I have. Which makes me wonder what I have been holding on to all these years. What is wrong with us if we are the ones sabotaging our future?” The question was rhetorical as he bit into the sandwich she had made. After moments of quiet contemplating while he chewed his food he managed to utter the words, “I am afraid of losing you again.”

Foolishly he expected her to say something about being afraid of losing him as well, but there came no offered response. When he turned to look at her, she was staring at him chewing upon a piece of her sandwich. The corner of his mouth twitched as she quickly looked away. How did she expect him to take her seriously with that cute puffy look upon her face. Even if she protested a million times he would never believe she wasn’t pregnant.

After a few moments he snorted and shook his head, “The least you could say is you are afraid as well. Instead, you give me that face…”

She interrupted him, “I’m afraid of everything.”

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“Oh, everything huh. Does that leave room for anything else?”

“Sometimes it does not feel like it,” She said simply. “Then I am reminded that I woke up in the past and survived that experience because you gave me strength and taught me how to love.” Kuro was comforted by her words.

They were a strange pair. They eased into conversations in the most unconventional ways. Most of the time they started out with him arguing and her avoiding, but it never lasted long.

It was clear that the time apart had hindered them in some ways. Perhaps they were simply to use to dealing with other people. The last two relationships Kuro had been in were with Taro (Pronunciation: tear-oh; tear as in tear it up) Anami (Pronunciation: uh-nom-me) and Zen Kari.

Taro was always look at me, want me, desire me and Zen was emotionally distant and matter-a-fact. Despite their distances, when he looked back upon it all he could clearly see that his relationship with Taro, mirrored in a lot of ways the one he had with Zen.

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His thoughts were interrupted when Tationy asked, “Is something wrong with your sandwich? You have been staring at it for a while now.”

“No,” He said as he glanced toward her then returned his attention upon the two slices of bread embracing a piece of melted cheese. “Why are we eating this exactly? We went shopping and you bought all of those fruits and vegetables. Doesn’t this go against your food choices.”

“It was his favorite. I thought you might appreciate it.”

There was no heaviness at that moment as he bit into the sandwich with the comfort that she had chosen Taro’s favorite simply because she understood how he was feeling. Between bites he managed to say, “He was always encouraging me to fight hard. These days watching it is less about what he says and more about trying to figure out what I missed. Not that I think I could have saved him, but I refuse to believe he took his own life freely. He was miserable…”

Tationy interrupted him, “Just because one has despair within their heart does not mean they chose to end it all. Sometimes hopelessness wins and a person will try to escape it. Then, there are those like Taro who have seen that darkness firsthand, survived it, and live to fight another day.” She made her usual thoughtful sound before adding, “I wish I could give you an answer, but it is hidden from me.”

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Kuro pulled his attention away from his meal and allowed it to settle upon the side of her face. He was certain she understood that her words brought plenty of questions, though whether or not she would elaborate was always a guessing game with Tationy.

With a sigh she spoke freely much to his surprise, “There is a shadow that looms and then blankets some events. I am not certain what causes it, but there have been moments throughout history that my eyes have been unable to witness. Well that is not entirely true…” She paused briefly, “I can see them through other people. Taro’s farewell for example I have seen in your past.”

Opening his mouth she shut him down quickly, “I see a lot of things in your past, but it is the only moment that gives me pause.” Kuro could tell her lips were slightly pursed even from the side, “When I look beyond the veil I see him saying his final words to you, but then it simply cuts off. They are never finished. I did not understand why until I looked upon your past and heard the knock in the background. Someone, something, capable of moving outside the veil. I cannot tell you what happened to him, but perhaps the answer lies somewhere in that knock.”

Somewhere in that knock she had said. Kuro had always assumed it was the guy that Taro was sleeping with or dating. To be honest, he was not entirely certain what the relationship was and Taro pretended as though he was not involved with anyone. Once though, Kuro had noticed a hickey upon the darkened skin of his friend and realized that he had moved on in some form.

Maybe somewhere in his friends stuff was the answer, but was it really a path he wanted to walk down. He could not help wondering what jeopardy it would put his already rocky relationship with Tationy in. Preserving that was far more important to him even if the nagging voice in his head was begging to understand.

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“You have a look upon your face, Kuro of the Ishi.” She was teasing him, but he realized far to late he had slightly smiled as he thought about holding on to her and making certain that their relationship did not end prematurely.

This moment was key. Most people would continue discussing Taro and the situation of not knowing, but as much as he wanted to know she was far more important. “Do you want to go grocery shopping? You told your friend that all I have is junk food,” He left the words lingering there.

“Tomorrow. We are expecting company later today and it will just be nice to relax for a little while.” Kuro could hardly argue with those words so he simply nodded his head and finished his meal.

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The two spent the day doing their own things. They would meet each other along the way as they did things around his home. Their fingers would likely brush or they would give each other a sidelong look, but the distance was always there. When he finally spied her sleeping on the couch, he took a moment to breathe and just enjoy the sight of her.

It did not last long because his attention was drawn toward familiar voices and he spied Mikio and Nao exchanging words. When they realized his attention was upon them they slipped out the side door. It was suspicious, but not unexpected. With Nao’s presence that meant Togore was around someplace so he moved toward the usual gathering spot of his kin.

The son of his brother had barely changed a single bit. At least that is what Kuro thought when he first looked upon him. “Uncle,” Togore greeted in an exhausted tone as he leaned himself against the counter. “Who broke your coffeepot?”

“It is broken?” Kuro questioned then shrugged his shoulders, “This is what happens when unruly Ishi visit the house.”

Not unexpected there was a guarded silence that followed. His nephews eyes were fixed upon him. Whether or not he was going to address the elephant in the room was difficult to say, but it remained that way for quite some time. “Does my father know you called me back?” Togore finally braved asking.

“I told him.”

“Bet he is pissed off huh? Seriously, there is no need to answer that. Does not really matter anyway. Nao said you wanted me back so here I am. What do you need me to do?”

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Kuro frowned deeply, “Is this going to be an issue?”

“Isn’t that a question you should have asked before bringing me back?” Togore asked then subtly laughed. “It is not a problem on my part, but I am sure dear old dad cannot say the same. Don’t worry uncle…”

Quickly he interrupted Togore, “I am not worried about you. What I want to know is whether or not you are going to be able to keep your head on straight while your father is losing his shit.”

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Togore ran his fingers through his hair, “He is an emotional sort of guy. It is not as though I want his forgiveness or anything. I just wish he could move past it all. When he sees me he just goes back to that day and that is not really the answer you want I suspect. He and I will fight. We always fight. He will bear his fangs and call me names. I am used to him losing his shit. Just tell me what I need to do and I will do it and if he gets in my way, I will cut him  down like any other enemy.”

“Would it matter if I say he is your father.”

“That man has not been my father in a very long time and save us both the effort of faking this conversation. You do not need to lie to me and tell me he loves me either.”

“I cannot tell by your tone if you are mad at him or at me.”

Togore sighed, “Maybe I am at both of you. He sent me away, you let him.”

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Kuro took several steps toward Togore, but did not venture to reach out to the boy. Instead, he turned, leaned himself against the cabinet, shoved his hands into his pocket and responded, “At the time I did not have the power to prevent it.”

“Would you have if you did?”

The situation between Bak and Togore was complicated. There were times he had wondered how he would have reacted in the same situation. Would he have cast aside his son as quickly and callously as Bak had? He honestly did not know. Forgiveness is an impossible feat when there is unresolved pain.

“I don’t think your father sending you away solved anything,” Kuro stated. “He just used it as a means to pretend and forget, but we are Ishi. Long in life and sharp in tooth. Perhaps he thought that out of sight, out of mind was the best way to handle you. In the end, it made you bitter and him broken.”

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“Bitter and broken; we must be talking about that,” A familiar voice interjected. Nao always had the best timing for a change of topic. “I really do not think this dead issue is worth even speaking on further Kuro. With respect; Bak is a baby snake who had a baby snake. This situation is not going to resolve until he grows up.”

Kuro’s lips pursed and he had been half a second away from responding when he felt Mikio’s gaze fixe upon him. With a sigh he sternly responded, “We are not here to discuss the past. We always suspected there would come a time when war would be at our doorstep. With the arrival of the Queen of the Kari, times are quickly going to change.”

His words did nothing to calm the atmosphere as a subtle amount of tension swirled around the environment. Still, the men in the room remained silent as he continued speaking, “Yesterday, the first strike against our clan was made when a meteor was dropped on the head of Bak. Foolishly he protected another person which drained his seal.”

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Togore made an annoyed sound, “Of course he did. What did her tits look like?” Somberly he placed both hands upon the counter as he quickly added, “So, you want me to fix what he broke.”

“I imagine that Bak is a dead man walking at this point,” Nao stated simply.

Quickly Kuro confirmed, “He was moving around on sheer willpower. As he is right now, any further strike against him he will be unable to protect himself. His seal has already started fading. Honestly, I am not sure where his head has been lately…”

His nephew interrupted him with a sigh, “He never changes. So, I am guessing you want me to fix his seal. What else? I doubt you brought me all the way back here against his wishes for that.”

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Kuro ran his fingers through his hair as he quietly contemplated the question, “The Ishi need to prepare for war. There is no knowing when the next strike will come. Bak has been slacking in his duties. We have Matsuo running amok in our territory and a meteor that penetrated the preventive wards of our lands. This cannot be allowed to continue.”

“Togore and Nao, I need the two of you to reinforce the wards of our nation. I have a bad feeling that the Matsuo have been damaging key points. Whatever you need to do to ensure they cannot be tampered with, do it.”

“Mikk Saruwatari came to see me,” Mikio interjected. “I have sent him and his men on the hunt for Matsuo, but there will be a few too powerful for the Saruwatari to handle.”

With a resigning sigh Kuro stated, “You are no longer shackled. Whatever you need to do, simply do it Mikio.”

“Speaking of the Saruwatari,” Nao spoke up. “With the recent Kari that have visited our territory it would probably be best to check in on the Elders of the various clans that reside within our lands. It has been a well know military tactic for clans to pose as allies and strike from behind when a power has been weakened.”

“Mikk did say his father had a visitor…” Kuro stated.

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“If I might be so bold,” Nao began, “There are benefits to having the Queen of the Kari at your side. The numbers that will stand against us simply because he is the King of the Gods is astronomical, but there are those that will hesitate if the queen shows her support lies with the Ishi.”

“I do not wish to use her that way,” Kuro interjected.

“An asset that can turn the tide of war, no matter how valuable or loved, must always be used for victory. You told me that. Are you changing your view of war and martyrs after all of these years?”

The knowing look his Second in Command gave him brought a chill to his back and irritation to his heart. “I agree with Nao,” Mikio drew his attention. “She did not come here to sit on the sidelines and mend the wounds of Ishi men. Tationy has chosen to step upon the battlefield as a combatant. It is not your place to protect her, but direct her as you would any Ishi.”

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The two of them were teaming up against him. It did not surprise him and it explained the secretive conversation they shared together. With a grumble he glanced away though it was clear that both eyes were securely upon him. “We are here to give the Elder of the Ishi our consul. We are not telling you what to do,” Nao expressed. “However, we would be remiss if we did not address the valuable asset that is the Queen of the Kari.”

Nao was his little brother. He had practically raised him. Guided him into adulthood and taught him what it meant to be Ishi. There was no one he trusted more. Still, he could not help wondering if the words being spoke belonged to him or Mikio, the reincarnate of his father Rin.

It was with a knowing smile that Nao responded, “Perhaps we are being too forward with this advice and you should talk it over with her or do something small. The biggest gala of the year takes place tomorrow. Every power of Aslann will be there. The nation has been wildly speculating on whether or not the two of you will attend. It would go a long way to answer the questions that so many have and solidify the shaky foundation we are standing upon with our allies.”

Kuro responded with amusement, “Oh, I love how you think attending the most extravagant event of the year constitutes as small.”

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Nao spoke in a serious tone, “If you are not capable of doing this. Then, step aside and allow Rin to claim his queen.” The hard gaze of his younger brother told Kuro that he was not playing around. There was no backing down; his posture said as much. This was why he was Kuro’s Second in Command.

With a snorted laugh Kuro looked away, “Not telling me what to do you said. Seems as though you are trying to pick a fight, but I get it. She and I will attend. Cannot have you giving me that look and making it seems as though I am not doing my part. Is there anything else?”

“There is something…” Nao let his words linger there a moment. “It would be best if you had someone around to watch your flank. As the Elder of the Ishi, you have been pretty insistent that you did not need me hovering over you like an overprotective mother. That is no longer an option. I am not asking. I am telling you. It is time for the Elder of the Ishi to take the protection afforded to him by the position and seeing Rin’s host is also in need, I suggest the two of you watch each other’s backs.”

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Kuro’s gaze swiftly pulled away from Nao and settled upon Mikio. He could not help wondering if this was the doing of his father, Rin. The anger was clear in his features and the bite of his tone when he boldly asked, “You have had no interest in watching my back. Never once offered. I find it suspicious that Nao brings this up after all of these years. Which tells me this has nothing to do with me. So, what is it Mikio? Does Rin expect me to step aside?”

“Who knows,” Mikio responded.

Those words only annoyed him further, “This is not happening.”

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“I hate to interject myself into this father and son moment…” Togore began.

“Then don’t,” Kuro interrupted as he looked away from Mikio.

Togore awkwardly chuckled, “Uncle Kuro and Uncle…err…well…grandpa…whatever. I am not trying to butt my nose into this fucked up mess. I got my own issues with my dear old dad, but I think Nao might be right. Seriously, if shit goes down and something happens to you we are left without a leader. It is not as though the Ishi has ever been one of those clans where the best person rises to the top. We fight the shit out, get downright dirty and underhanded, and before you know it there are Ishi that are so pissed off they cannot even be in the same room together. It is every Ishi for himself, until outsiders try to knock us down.”

“Togore is right Kuro,” Nao stated.

Bluntly he responded, “I would rather have someone I trust watching my back.”

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Nao spoke sternly, “Mikio is the strongest of our kin. Above any other Ishi, it is his duty to protect you during a time of war. Trust or no trust, you know it has to be him. The enemies at our doorstep are not going to send their weakest fighters to kill our leader. They will send their best, their strongest, and their most relentless.”

Kuro knew that. It did not need to be said. Still, it hardly changed how he felt. He wanted to refuse. There was a moment when he opened his mouth to try, but instead he simply walked away from the conversation

To Be Continued

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