"Does anyone know we're coming?" Kitsune asked when they got off at the port in Honeysuckle.
"Someone will be here," Nick said.
They thanked Ruslan and began to wander towards the gates. Nick was still somewhat weak and leaned on Kitsune a little. He hoped it would be Ryan who met them. He hadn't seen any of his family in seven years, though. He wasn't sure how he would react. But the closer they got to the gate, the closer he felt he was to passing out.
Kitsune stopped when she saw a tall man with greying blonde hair waiting at the gate with an expression on his face somewhere between grief and joy. There was a woman in white robes with him, and she, too, looked equally happy and sad. "Is that your dad?" she asked.
Nick looked where Kitsune was looking. He felt a lump rise in his throat. He didn't remember his dad looking that old. "Yes," he said. "And that's Anala with him."
They headed towards the gate. By the time they were close enough, Andre had tears on his face. "Nikolai," he said.
"Dad," Nick mumbled. He fell into his father's arms and passed out.
Andre put his hand on the back of Nick's head and held his son tightly. For a long time, he said nothing. Then he looked at Kitsune and smiled. "You must be Kitsune," he said.
"Yeah," she said, looking down at her feet.
"He's told me quite a bit about you."
"He, uh ... "
"Told you nothing, did he? Well, isn't that just like him? I'll lecture him on his manners later. Let's get him home."
Kitsune expected there to be a crowd of people waiting for Nick's arrival, but the estate was quiet. One servant helped them get Nick to a room then stayed while Anala healed Nick's injuries more fully than Lash had been able to do. Andre showed Kitsune to a room a few doors down from where Nick was.
"Where is everyone?" Kitsune asked.
"Preparing for the ball. It's the day after tomorrow. I take it Holden was able to give you your invitation."
"Yeah, but I don't have anything to wear."
"Don't worry about that."
"What about Talon and Ryan? Are they here?"
"They are. They'll want to talk to you later, I'm sure. You and Nikolai have quite a story to share with us, but it can wait a little while. You must be tired."
"Tired, hungry, scared, confused, pissed off. I've been all over the place lately. I think the only thing I'm really sure of is Nick."
"Thank you for bringing him home. You can't imagine how much I've missed him these last seven years. He wrote letters every month. I always knew what he was doing and where he was. But letters aren't quite the same."
"He tries really hard to act like he doesn't have any feelings, but I know he missed you too."
"Well, you get some rest. I'll have someone bring you something to eat, and I'll tell Angelique to bring the tailor to see you tomorrow to make you a dress for the ball."
"Thanks. For everything. Especially for being Nick's dad. I know that sounds stupid, but I don't know how else to say what I mean. I mean, he's a good kid, and I think you had a lot to do with that."
Andre smiled. Kitsune wasn't surprised that it was the same breathtakingly charming smile that Nick had flashed her so often. "Get some rest," he said. "This will all be over soon."
In the morning, Angelique Falkenberg came to Kitsune's room with a tailor and several bolts of different materials in various colors. Angelique had never married and never had children of her own, but she had enjoyed helping her sister take care of her kids and Ryan and Regan's children. Taking care of others was what she did best, and Kitsune enjoyed being fussed over and listening to Angelique's flighty chatter. As the youngest Falkenberg, aside from Talon, she had had to fend for herself in a lot of ways. As a result, she wasn't anything like her brothers and sister.
When the pattern had been decided upon, the measurements taken and black velvet had been chosen, Angelique pressed her hands to Kitsune's cheeks and said, "You are going to be the most beautiful woman at the ball. You're going to be so beautiful that everyone is going to fall in love with you. You didn't know you could look like that, did you?"
Kitsune shook her head.
"Oh, just wait 'til you and Nicky get married! You'll be so beautiful that day that he won't be able to say 'I do.' And you'll have beautiful babies, too. Oh, I'm sorry. I'm getting way ahead of myself. I'm just so glad he's home. And I'm glad to know he hasn't been all alone. We've all been really worried. I guess we could have done something about trying to find him, but Valeska wouldn't hear of it. She figured if he had left, then he didn't want to be here."
"Didn't she worry at all? I mean, that's her kid."
"She worried. She wept even, every night for at least a year. Because she knew why he left. She had tried to be like our father and wouldn't let him be different. But he was different. Tirell and I were different, too, but we knew we could afford our eccentricities because no one was watching us. Talon would have run away had he grown up here, I know. He would have gotten it into his head to be a pilot, told that's not what nobles do and then left so he could do it anyway. And people would have noticed. They would have wanted to know what the youngest boy was going to do. It's the same with Nick. But he couldn't be the way he was expected to be."
"If it's any consolation, I think he turned out just fine."
"Of course you do. You're in love."
"Do you think he's okay enough for me to see him now?"
"Sure, let's go check on him."
Anala was coming out of Nick's room as they walked down the hall. She looked tired, but she had a certain glow to her.
"How is he?" Angelique asked.
"He's fine," Anala said. "Kitsune, are you okay? I was so worried about Nikolai that I didn't even ask if you needed healing. I'm sorry."
"I'm fine, thanks," Kitsune said.
"He still needs to rest a little. Don't talk him to death, Angelique. Give him a few more days."
Angelique laughed. "He'll just fall asleep anyway," she said. "How do you think I got him to sleep so soundly when he was a baby?"
When they walked into the room, Nick's eyes were half shut and glowing faintly, but the glow was gone almost as soon as they noticed it. Angelique stayed for about half an hour. After she left, Kitsune crawled into the bed with Nick, and they fell asleep in each other's arms.
They were awakened later that afternoon by a knock on the door. Ryan stepped into the room and said, "Talon wants to see you now."
They walked into a room that was brightly lit by the sunshine that poured in through the large windows in the rounded alcoves at each end of the long room. There were several chairs in the alcoves and small tables already holding several empty glasses. A long mahogany dining table filled the center of the area, and at that moment, it wasn't set for a meal. Kitsune recognized the two BII detectives who looked more than a little confused as to what was going on. Lash was sitting at one end of the dining table. Andre and Valeska were standing near the door, and Valeska seemed to turn to stone when Nick and Kitsune came in behind Ryan. She didn't seem to know how she was supposed to react at seeing her youngest son for the first time in seven years, knowing that she had helped push him towards the decision to run away. Nick didn't know what to do either, but then he stepped towards her and hugged her. She burst into tears. After a minute, she pushed him away then slapped him. "Don't you ever, ever, ever run away like that again!" she said. "Do you hear me?"
"I'll try something different next time," Nick said.
Valeska laughed through her tears and hugged her son again.
Talon stood up from one of the chairs in the alcove on the east end of the room. The color of his eyes had faded to pale grey. His hair was silver, and old age looked good on him. He walked to the end of the table where Lash was sitting as if he could still see. "Welcome back, Nick," he said.
"Thank you," Nick said. "I suppose I have quite a bit of explaining to do."
"I have some of my own to do."
"Damn right you do," Lash mumbled.
Talon laughed. "You'll get your hazard pay. Don't worry."
"Where should I start?" Nick asked.
"You could start by telling us what the hell you've done with the jewel," Aaron said.
Nick paused. "It's safe."
"It's staying right where it is," Talon said. "It's where it belongs."
"But I thought it was yours."
"It was. It came out of my eye when I didn't need it any more. Now it's yours."
"What exactly is it?" Gaston asked. "Is it a light gem? A diamond?"
"It's God's tear. See, I told you I had my own explaining to do. When I was eighteen, I died. I saw God, and she cried. Her tear landed on my face, and it stayed with me when I woke up. It's like a good luck charm. I wouldn't have made it through the end of the First Republic without it. And I wouldn't have made it long enough to see the start of the Second Republic. God protects her angels. We are her children after all. Some children need a little more looking after than others. Besides, I don't think we can take it out. It's taken root."
Nick put his hand over the spot where Duncan had put the jewel. He could feel its power under his palm, and he could feel tiny, squiggly lines radiating out from the jewel and working their way through his whole body. Removing it from his body would require removing all the roots as well, and that would have been a long, painful process.
"The museum will be compensated for the loss," Talon said. "If the curator wants, we can make another Shikkongou and pretend like you actually recovered the stolen goods. It'll be empty, but I don't think anyone will notice."
"We'll contact her when we're done here," Gaston said.
"Why was it in the museum in the first place?"
"You wanna take that one, Nick?"
Nick shook his head. "Not really," he said.
"Sure you do."
"All right. I stole it when I ran away. I sold it to some archeologists when I got to Lore so I could afford passage to Walden City. I got quite a bit for it, if that's any consolation."
"Nikolai, how could you do such a thing?" Valeska asked.
"I knew no one would notice. It wasn't the first time I'd stolen something. No one noticed before."
"You stole your brothers' and sister's allowances, didn't you? No wonder they always seemed to need more so soon afterwards."
"Don't apologize," Andre said. "It serves them all right for not paying any attention. Your mother and I should have noticed, too."
"I knew it was gone," Talon said. "And I knew he'd taken it. I didn't say anything because I knew what would happen to it. I'd had these visions before Nick was even born. Nothing in the visions ever changed, so I knew there wasn't a damn thing I could do to change it. I just had to let it happen."
"But that didn't stop you from hiring me to help them," Lash said.
"No. Because I knew Nick would need you."
"Was I in your visions?"
"Yeah. Like I said, it was the exact same thing every time. I've never had any other visions that didn't change if I had them more than once. It's because of what Nick is."
"He is the Shaman star, isn't he?" Aaron asked.
Talon looked at Nick, and Nick started to realize that Talon's blindness was only in the physical aspect. Talon could still see auras and magic. He could see anything that gave off any kind of energy at all. "Yes and no," Talon said.
"When I died, God told me that when the fire returned to her, their love made a new star," Nick said. "She said it was similar to Shaman because of blood, but it's not Shaman. It doesn't use Firefly and Yuusei. And it's not an oracle like Shaman. It's a warrior."
Talon's eyes shifted slowly into a deep purple. "Then we'll call him by another name," he said. "We'll call him Samurai." The color drained from his eyes.
The whole room was silent, staring at Talon and at Nick. Kitsune grabbed Nick's hand and squeezed. He looked at her and smiled.
"This isn't quite done," Talon said. "There's still a lot to tell."
It took several hours to get the whole story out, but when Nick and Kitsune were done, everything that had happened was out in the open. Nick only left out what Ghostshadow had done to him before the fight on the beach, and Kitsune wasn't sure if she should mention Andre's will and the letters she had found in Pavel's desk.
"How did Esterhazy know about you and Kitsune?" Andre asked Nick. "If you had never worked off of Walden City, how could he have known?"
"He has a psychic named Seren who was tweaked to track Talon," Nick said. "She could pick me up easily because Samurai is so similar to Shaman."
"It wasn't just that," Kitsune said. "Chaos told me that Pavel told Esterhazy."
"How would Pavel know anything about us?"
"I don't know. He made an effort to find out. When I got the financials off his computer, I found a bunch of letters in his desk about your dad's will. I don't think he was too happy about it."
Nick looked at Andre but said nothing.
"We've had innumerable fights about this," Andre said. "He found out that I'm leaving everything to you. He and Ganya and Noreen will get enough of the Falkenberg money. The Afinogenov estate will never belong to anyone who doesn't conduct himself as a true noble should."
"But Dad, I'm a thief," Nick said.
"And even in that, you've displayed the qualities of a true noble. And now that you are done with that profession, I'm certain that you'll continue to show those qualities. Pavel knows he can't change my mind on this matter. He knows that your mother agrees completely with me."
"Pavel is too much like Irial," Valeska said. "Which means he'll get what he deserves in the end. I made too many mistakes with all my babies."
Andre put his arms around Valeska, and she sobbed on his shoulder.
"They all made their own choices, Valeska," Talon said. "They tend to do that no matter what you tell them."
Gaston and Aaron stood up. "I think we've heard more than enough," Aaron said. "If it's not too much trouble, we'd like to go ahead and review the evidence now. We'll make the arrest at the ball tomorrow. We'll call in some back up just in case anything goes wrong."
"I don't think Esterhazy will put up a fight," Talon said.
"What about us?" Kitsune asked.
"That remains to be seen," Gaston said.
After Kitsune had handed over the evidence she had taken from the labs and from Pavel's office and Ryan had taken Gaston and Aaron somewhere to look over everything, Nick took Kitsune around the estate. They ended up in a seldom-used guesthouse that was connected to the main mansion by a greenhouse full of exotic flowers.
"What are we doing here?" Kitsune asked, looking around the living room. There was a thin layer of dust on the furniture and oppressive moisture in the air from the greenhouse.
"I used to hide my books out here," Nick said. He walked over to the fireplace and pulled on one of the sconces on the wall. A small panel slid open, revealing a hollow square that was stuffed full of dusty, yellowing books. He picked the one on top of the stack, looked at it briefly then put it back. "I don't remember that one."
"That doesn't answer my question about why we're here."
Nick shut the panel and took Kitsune's hand. He led her down a short hall and opened the door at the end of it. "I think this does," he said.
She walked into the room. Several candles lit the room, and there were roses everywhere. Rose petals were strewn across the white silk sheets on the huge four-poster bed. It was exactly what she had seen when she looked in the Shikkongou. She turned to Nick, too surprised for words.
"I told you I saw everything," he said.
"I'm sorry about Chaos," she said. "I feel like I cheated on you."
"You didn't. And he was very good at convincing you that I had betrayed you somehow. I might have done the same thing."
"You would have slept with him?"
"Not that part. I mean ... well, maybe. I have to admit I never put much thought into preferring one gender to the other. It always seemed to me to be a matter of trust, and I never let myself get there with anyone but you. But it's still hard because ... because ... "
"He raped you, didn't he?"
Nick closed his eyes to shut off the tears. "I almost ... I almost liked it," he whispered. "He was gentle, like he really did love me. I couldn't fight him anyway. I was still hurt pretty badly. It was easier just to let him do it. I was scared." He opened his eyes, and tears ran down his cheeks. "I was scared because I thought that if liked it, I wouldn't want you any more, but I wanted you so desperately. I don't know how it happened. I tried not to let it happen, but I fell in love with you."
She wiped the tears from his cheeks. "You had me confused for a long time. You always ignored my flirting, so I thought you were gay. But you never had boyfriends, so I figured you were just weird and didn't like sex at all. Which was fine because I knew that if I had a chance, I could change your mind about that. And you were always so affectionate with me. It killed me that I couldn't get you to admit how you really felt because I've been in love with you since the first time I saw you."
"This might be the last time we have a chance. I'll have to go away for a long time, maybe not as long as I hear the judge say in my vision, but longer than a month or two. And I don't expect you to wait for me."
"What are you talking about?"
"I have to turn myself in."
"No. No, you don't. Can't your parents get you out of it? Can't Talon get you out of it?"
"Yes, but I won't let them."
"I have to. It's part of that honor thing and being a real noble, like Dad was talking about. What's noble about letting my family use their money and influence to get me out of being punished for crimes I willingly committed?"
"Nothing, but - "
"Kit, I have to. If the BII chooses not to charge me, that's one thing, but I can't hide behind my family."
"Okay. All right. You're right. And if that's what you're gonna do, so am I."
"Kit - "
"Because I will wait for you no matter how long it is, and it'll be easier to wait if I know we're on the same planet."
"That's romantic in a twisted sort of way."
She smiled and began to take her clothes off. "Now lay me out on those rose petals and make love to me like a real noble."
Nick had forgotten how much he truly hated the annual ball and the fancy clothes he had to wear. No matter how many people told him he looked good, he thought he looked stupid and still way too thin. He was uncomfortable with all the attention he was getting and wished things would be over quickly, but Esterhazy hadn't arrived yet and neither had Pavel. He tried not to think too much. He danced with his mother and with his sister, though he refused to let himself be introduced formally to the single women. He didn't like the way they eyed him, grinning and licking their lips like hungry hyenas. He heard the older ladies whispering to each other, trying to come up with ways to get their daughters to marry him. He stood in a corner with Ryan and Regan's oldest daughter, Veronica, who was eighteen. She wasn't too happy about being there either and was getting the same kind of looks from the men that Nick was getting from the women. They drank and made fun of everyone, and Nick wondered where Kitsune was.
Ryan and Regan and Talon and Cherry arrived not long before Nick was certain he couldn't take it any more, and Talon pulled him aside almost immediately.
"I know what you're planning to do," Talon said.
"You can't make me change my mind," Nick said.
"I'm not gonna try. I just wanted to tell you what else I saw about it. It's ten years on the third level. That's way too harsh for what you'll be convicted of, but the judge is in Pavel's pocket."
"Does Pavel honestly believe making me serve that kind of time will help him get my father's money?"
"He'll never get that money. He knows that. If you die before Andre does, the money will come to my family. He's just being vindictive."
"I don't know why he wants it so badly. It's small compared to Mom's fortune."
"But that gets split evenly, and I have a feeling Valeska might be making a few changes before too long. And it is still a lot of money."
"That's not really what's bothering me about it though. There's something else, something I can't really see. It's like there's something bad waiting for you. I used to have something like that. It took me a long time to figure out what it was. But it still ended up being pretty bad. I just wanted you to know it's there, whatever it is, because it's not gonna wait for you to get out to come after you."
"So it's not Pavel."
"No. It's worse than that."
Nick wanted to ask what could be worse, but if he thought about it, he could come up with plenty that would be a lot worse. He would see it before too long anyway. The only thing he could do was wait for it.
He heard footsteps coming up the hallway to the ballroom and heard the crowd begin to murmur. Talon grabbed his elbow and turned him to face the door. "You might want to take a look at that," Talon said.
Nick felt his cheeks burning as he watched Kitsune walk towards him. He had never seen her dressed up, and all at once, the whole scene struck him as strange. He had never expected to return to the Falkenberg estate, much less to have Kitsune there with him and to be preparing to throw ten years of his life away.
She stopped in front of him. "What do you think?" she asked.
Nick tried to find something to say and couldn't.
"Speechless, huh? You don't look too bad yourself. Sorry I took so long. I was having trouble with the shoes. I ended up having to wear my boots." She lifted the hem of her dress to show him.
He laughed. "You're beautiful," he said.
"I wanna dance with you. I'll warn you, though. I will step on your feet."
"I don't think I'll mind." He took her hand and led her out to the dance floor.
Talon watched the swirling blue angel and the fox as they spun around the dance floor. He could feel the presence of something cold and black nearby, but he couldn't see anything. He felt it watching Nick and Kitsune and longing to grab them, but whatever it was, it wasn't able to do anything more than watch. After a while, it slipped away, and Talon felt it breaking and pulling itself together as it moved. Just before it left the room completely, Talon felt the presence turn its attention to him. The malice it directed at him was stronger than anything he had ever felt. He shuddered as cold chills washed over him. Then he passed out.
There was nothing in the vision. He was quite literally in a void, and it clawed absently at his throat and eyes. "Don't worry, angel," a soft voice whispered. It was so close he could feel cold, dry lips pressing against his ear. "I haven't forgotten about you. As soon as I'm done with pretty, I'll come for you." It laughed, and the vision was sucked away like water down a drain.
When Talon hit the floor everyone stopped. Ryan and Nick were at his side in an instant with Regan and Cherry not far behind. Nick's eyes were popping and sparking as a blue flash faded from them. He turned towards the door, and Talon grabbed his wrist. "Let him go," Talon said. "There's nothing you can do right now."
"What the hell happened?" Kitsune asked. "Do I need to get a shotgun?"
"I don't think it would work," Nick said.
"Why? What is it?"
"It's nothing," Talon said. "It's literally nothing."
"I think we all need very strong drinks now," Ryan said.
"Duncan sent us a case of troll beer," Cherry said. "I'll go get some."
The party never really got going again after that. Half an hour later, Archer Esterhazy arrived with Pavel. They had barely walked in the door when Gaston and Aaron came in with half a dozen uniformed officers. Esterhazy was arrested on charges of illegal genetic experimentation, and Pavel managed to get away in the confusion. More uniformed officers arrived to search the estate, but Pavel had gotten away. When the confusion had died down and the guests were filing out, Nick and Kitsune approached Gaston and Aaron.
"I want to turn myself in," Nick said.
"Me, too," Kitsune said.
Aaron looked around the room for Andre and Valeska, but they were busy saying goodbye to the stunned guests. "I'm sure there's no need for that," he said.
"I want to confess to stealing the Shikkongou, killing Ghostshadow and killing Blackeye Hart," Nick said. "And anything else you can dig up. Like the robbery on Heartlight five years ago."
"That one was my idea," Kitsune said.
"In light of what we know about Esterhazy, I don't think either of you will serve enough time to make it worth the arrest," Gaston said. "That's a lot of forms to fill out for those charges."
"We have the right to stand in judgment for our crimes, and that's what we wish to do," Nick said. "What Esterhazy has done is irrelevant. We could have refused the job he offered us. We could have gone to the BII instead of going through with it. And I've taken two lives I had no right to take no matter what the circumstance were."
"But you're ... you're one of the angels. And you're a Falkenberg."
"So? I've committed crimes. I'll pay the price."
Aaron again looked around for Andre and Valeska and instead got Talon's attention. Talon came over to them. "Um ... are they serious?" Aaron asked.
"Nick's never been anything but serious since he was born," Talon said. "And obviously, wherever he goes, Kitsune goes."
"But we can't. He's ... "
"It's the Way of the Samurai star. That's the path he sees himself on."
"All right. If that's the way they want it to end."
"But it's not an end," Nick said. "It's just the beginning."
Nick and Kitsune were allowed to spend one more night at the Falkenberg estate, and they left with Gaston and Aaron very quietly at dawn to avoid any busybodies who would come calling on Andre and Valeska to talk about what happened at the ball. They went to Lyric first where they were formally charged and then sent to Boil to await trial.
Kitsune's trial was quick. She pled guilty to the charges and was sentenced to three years on the ninth level of Boil, with two years suspended. After the year she would serve, she was to return to Teatree and spend a probation period at the Falkenberg estate. She thought she would be bitter at having to serve any time at all, but she wasn't. She felt better for having confessed and knowing that she would be given a chance. She even looked forward to spending time with Nick's family.
Nick didn't have quite the same luck that Kitsune did. His arrest and the subsequent trial caused a universal scandal. Every day, something new came out, and as Esterhazy's trial also wore on, it seemed that no one would ever talk about anything else. After Nick was convicted and sentenced to ten years on the third level, an attempt was made to remove the jewel of blind vision from his side. It failed miserably. As soon as the incision was made, the jewel began to glow so brightly that no one could see to take it out. Nick spent two weeks in the hospital with an infection after that, and when he was finally taken to Boil, no one believed he could survive a week that close to the surface, much less ten years.
But they waited. And waited. And waited.