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“Hey, Bun Chou, someone's at the gate looking for you,” says Meiken, sticking his head into Rakushun's room. “Don't get too excited, it's not a pretty girl this time, just some kid.”

“Huh?” Rakushun puts down his book and slides the chair out, puzzling. It could be the En Taiho, he guesses, with his hair wrapped up so that people won't recognize him, but it's more Enki's way to show up at the window in the middle of the night just to make a nuisance of himself. “He's still at the gate, you said?”

“Yeah, I'll take you there.”

Rakushun follows Meiken out of the dorms, his short hanjuu legs making two steps for every one of the other scholar's. He raises a furred arm to shield his eyes from the sudden burst of sunlight. “He didn't say what his name was?”

“Um. Youshi, I think,” answers Meiken, scanning across the university yard, and Rakushun startles. He knows that name from letters, but it couldn't possibly be - “Oh, there he is. Hey, I found him for you!” He waves over at the lean, tan figure approaching from the gate, with a top-tail of startling crimson hair that blazes bright in the sun.

Even without the hair, Rakushun would recognize that stride anywhere. He manages to pull himself together before he shouts out the name he knows her by. She's got good reasons to want to go unnoticed, and the scholars here might catch the unusual first name. “Youshi - what are you doing here?”

“You came to my last big ceremony. I thought I'd come see yours.” Her voice couldn't be a man's, but it's low enough to pass for a boy's on the brink of puberty. “Um – if it's not inconvenient for you to have me here?”

“Of course not, but I never thought you'd be able to take off for a little thing like this!”

“You're graduating first from the best university in En. That's not so little.”

“Well, for you . . .” There's only a few steps of distance between them now, and he finds himself grinning up at her like an idiot. If he had to admit it, her smile looks a bit doofy as well - which isn't a very dignified thought to have about the king of Kei, but a scholar is after all dedicated to the truth.

“It's good to see you again.” Yoko glances over at Meiken, and then bends down to clap a hand on Rakushun's shoulder in greeting before straightening and adjusting the sword strapped to her back. Trying too hard to act like a boy, he thinks, and tries not to laugh.

But that reminds him that Meiken's waiting for an explanation, and so he turns back to his classmate. “Youshi here is the one who helped me get here from Kou. There's no way I would be here without him – so you should say thank you, or you wouldn't have had anyone to help you memorize those last twenty precepts for Professor Gyouki.”

“Hey! Wasn't it the other way around? Who helped you pass archery by the skin of your teeth?” protests Meiken, before offering a polite nod of his head to Yoko, who returns it. “So you're here for the graduation? I hope you reserved space in an inn already – with so many people's families here, most of the rooms are booked up.”

“Oh – no, I didn't think to,” says Yoko, dismayed. “I only just arrived.”

Rakushun frowns. He gets that she can't bring her Daiboku with her if she's trying to stay undercover, but - “You really shouldn't be traveling around like this by yourself anyway, Youshi, sheesh. Isn't Keiki at least with you?”

“Of course not. We couldn't both be away at once. You always worry too much, though. I'll just -”

“You'll just stay with me,” Rakushun says firmly. Not that he would be much use at protecting Yoko from any danger – in fact, it's more likely to be the other way around; Yoko's taken down more youma than he can count with that sword of hers, and he's cheerfully accepted from long ago the fact that he's a brain and not a brawn – but if he knows Yoko she'll just go bunk down under a ranka tree or something, and there's no way he's comfortable with the king of Kei doing that on his account. “It'll be like all those inns we stayed in on the way here from Kou.”

“If you're sure it won't be any trouble,” Yoko demurs, and, catching the look he gives her, grins and adds, “And as long as you don't put up a fight about me sleeping on the floor. I'm not kicking you out of your bed on the last night before you graduate!”

“They have spare futons and quilts in the supply cupboard,” Rakushun says. “I can sleep on one of those fine -”

I can sleep on one of those fine. You know I've slept on worse.”

Rakushun lets out an exaggerated sigh. “You're getting stubborner and stubborner all the time.”

“Well, people do keep telling me it's part of my job to assert myself.”

“You must be getting good at it.” He looks up at her again, feeling the fur around his eyes crinkle up with smiling. “'Course, I figured you were, from your letters, but it's good to see in person, too.”

“Well, it's nice to meet you, Youshi,” Meiken says - Rakushun glances hastily over at him, guiltily aware that he'd pretty much forgotten he was there - “but I need to go check in on my own family guests before they get bored and come looking for me. I'll see you both tomorrow at the ceremony, all right?” He waves and turns away, leaving Rakushun and Yoko still smiling at each other in the yard.

 

“Shoukei, you’re still studying?” Suzu leans against the door of the royal scribe’s chambers, fidgeting with the sleeves of her tunic. With Yoko planning to be travelling at least a week, Suzu doesn’t have many duties to fulfill, and she’s spent the past few days wandering around looking at loose ends. Shoukei, on the other hand, is still required to be present at council sessions – in fact, her presence is even more necessary than usual, since her notes need to be clear enough that she can fill Yoko in on all the details when she returns. But all the meetings are over for the day, and Suzu's clearly hoping that Shoukei will be around to talk by now.

“Yes –” Shoukei looks up, and, seeing Suzu’s face, sets down her pen. “But I can take a break for a while. Come on in.”

Not needing to be asked twice, Suzu wanders into the room and flops down on Shoukei’s bed. “It might be just me,” she says, half-joking and half-complaining, “but it seems like you’re working three times as hard now that Yoko’s gone. Isn’t that the opposite of how it’s supposed to be? Most people work harder when the king’s around to see it and slack off when she’s away.”

“Yes,” Shoukei retorts, “right until someone else notices and kicks them right out of office.” She manages to hold the prim expression that accompanies this declaration for all of thirty seconds, Suzu eyeing her dubiously all the while, until her face twitches itself into a wicked smile. “Not that there aren’t plenty of those slackers in the ministry right now. You should have seen the Taifuku snoring away in his chair!”

This earns a giggle from Suzu, and Shoukei grins, satisfied with herself. “The truth is, though, you’re right. I am studying harder now. Rakushun graduating – it’s made me start thinking.” Suzu tilts her head, making a ‘go on’ gesture with her hand, and Shoukei elaborates: “I’m thinking I might like to go to university. Not right now!” she adds hastily, seeing Suzu’s face fall – the other girl’s a lot tougher than she looks when it counts, but she’s still prone to getting awfully emotional at the littlest thing sometimes. “I don’t know nearly enough now anyway even to get in. But in a few years, maybe, once I’ve studied enough to be a candidate.”

“A Royal Scribe doesn’t need a university education.”

“No – but I’m not going to go being the royal scribe forever. I mean, let’s face it, I’m smarter than a lot of those airheads Yoko still has floating around the court from the time of that last Empress. You know it, I know it, and Yoko knows it. Right?”

“Someone thinks a lot of herself,” Suzu says, but she sits up on the bed, folding her legs cross-legged under her. (Shoukei represses a wince at the way Suzu's position crumples the expensive silk of her skirt and outer kimono; after the years of hardship, Shoukei doesn’t think she’ll take the dress of the aristocracy for granted ever again.) “But okay, you’re right. Not that it’s hard to be smarter than the Taifuku.”

“Yoko’s court is definitely better than it used to be, but it needs to be a lot better if we’re going to turn Kei into a country as strong as En. I wasted my time in the court of Hou. I sat by as my parents made stricter and stricter laws until they turned tyrannical – well, their principles were good and I believed them, but their execution was rotten and we all know it. Now -” She holds out her ink-stained hands, calloused from the pen and still marked with the old nicks and scars of fieldwork. “I’ve stolen from a king, I’ve thrown a stone at an executioner, I’ve helped out with a rebellion. I came this close to being drawn and quartered myself. I’ve been a tyrant and a criminal and a vigilante. You tell me if anyone’s better qualified to make decisions about laws for the people than I am.”

Suzu stares at her. “You're saying – Shoukei, you’re seriously aiming to be the Minister of Autumn? In charge of the whole justice system?”

“Well, not at first, of course.” Shoukei drops her hands and leans back, exaggeratedly casual. “I mean, I figure I’ll have to start off small somewhere in the bureaucracy, right? I can't get Yoko into too much trouble for promoting foreigners again. But eventually, yeah, that’s where I want to be. Doing a good job with Kei's laws, that's the best answer I can give to Hou for the things the last king was trying for and the way we all blew it.” She waits long enough to see that the other girl understands how much she's saying, sees it in the sudden empathy in Suzu's eyes, and moves on quickly with a laugh. “I’m going to have to tell Rakushun, hands off that position! I mean he’s smart enough for it, but he’s too nice, you know? He’d let everyone off and give them a second chance on the off-chance they’ll feel bad and reform. That soft spot of his worked out great for me, but it's not so good for a kingdom. I’m mean enough to actually enact some penalties. Enough that people will respect the law, not enough that it’s too harsh for people to live with.”

“Rakushun! What does he have to do with it?”

“Oh, come on, Suzu,” says Shoukei, the smirk sneaking back onto her face. “What do you think Yoko's doing in En?”

 

 

"What are you thinking you'll do now you've graduated?" Before Rakushun can answer, Yoko laughs. "You know, it's funny - everyone was always having that conversation in school, back home. What will you do when you've graduated, will you go to college, will you work? Only I wasn't close enough to ask anybody, and nobody ever asked me. The person I was then, I couldn't have answered anything interesting anyway.” She runs her hands through her long unbound hair, sending it wildly in all directions. “It's crazy after all this time, but sometimes I still stop and think 'how can I be a king when I don't even have a degree?'"

Rakushun's ears twitch in amusement. “That's an easy one. You get people who have degrees to be educated for you.”

“Are you volunteering?” She sits up straight on the guest futon, abruptly serious. “That was a selfish question, asking about your future. The truth is I asked it because I want you to come work for Kei. But if that's not what you want for yourself, then you shouldn't listen to me.”

It's the first time she's made a direct request of it. Oh, in her messages, she's said one thing and another to let him know there's always a place there for him. And he hasn't been in any doubt about the fact that she'd be happy if he chose to live there – not really. When a monarch names an era after you, it's hard not to take that as at least something of an invitation. Maybe it’s hearing her say it so bluntly that makes the difference, because for the past few months he's been thinking he hasn't completely made up his mind. And yet now he finds himself saying, without any hesitation whatsoever, “Yes. I'm volunteering.”

Yoko's eyes widen. She's probably the only king in the world, Rakushun thinks, who would present an offer of a prestigious position to a hanjuu and be surprised to hear an acceptance. “Hear me all the way out first,” she says, slowly. “As Yoko, I want you because you're wise and kind, because you're smarter than anybody I know and because I trust you more than anyone." Her description is completely matter-of-fact, and Rakushun is glad that rats don't blush. "As king I want you because I need loyal people, but also as an example. Do you see? If you're there, as king, I'll have to use you. You'll be a token hanjuu minister. You'll have to work twice as hard and be twice as good as anybody else, and people will hate you for it because I'll rub their faces in it. You won't be able to pull that 'aw shucks I'm just a rat' act anymore -"

"Hey," exclaims Rakushun, mock-indignant, and pokes her lightly in the shoulder with his left hind foot. “I don't say that. I say, 'I'm just a brilliant rat'."

Yoko refuses to be distracted. “Anyway, you should think about that before you say yes so easily. Your home is Kou – and you would have a much better life in En. Why come to Kei?"

"I like En," Rakushun says. He’d thought he hadn't decided, but it seems all the time he was going back-and-forth he had worked it out without realizing. "I think I could do good work in En. But there's nothing that needs to change here – the Ever-King has a good setup, and things are mostly under control. I've thought about going back to Kou, but honestly, until there's a good king set on the throne there, there's not much anyone can do, and my mom would be just as happy to move somewhere else. The problems in Kei are some of the same ones that we had in Kou, but they're fixable. I think you can fix them. Give me five years or so in En to learn what I'm doing -" Five years to show that you're not giving me anything I don't deserve, he means; five years to make it clear to everyone that he's the best junior official En has ever seen - "and then you can steal me and use me for whatever you want."

"The Ever-King will be so mad at me." Yoko grins, her voice just slightly higher than usual with relief. “He was counting on keeping you. But I need you much more than he does."

She says it without self-consciousness, which means, Rakushun thinks, that she is still speaking as the king – that when she says 'I', she means 'Kei'. Even three years ago she would never have done that, but it's correct. The king and the land are the same.

“I told you before you took the throne,” he tells her. From this position, sitting on his bed, he's looking down at her for once instead of the other way around. It's a strange angle to see her from. Her features are dim in the shadowed room, familiar and distant at once – but then she's always been far away from him, this king, even if she refuses to acknowledge it. “I've been wanting to see what kind of kingdom you'll make.”

“Rakushun . . .” She looks up at him in silence for a moment, and then suddenly pulls her borrowed quilt all the way over her head, any air of regal gravity decisively banished. "Hey,” she says, muffled. “I know you're not wearing anything, but is a blanket all right?"

He blinks at her, puzzled - not that she can see it, since she's effectively vanished under the fabric. "Huh?" He's a rat; rats don't need clothes; that is one of the many beauties of the condition.

"I didn't get to hug you when I arrived," she explains, under the quilt. He wonders for a startled moment why clothes should matter now - they never have to Yoko before, it was always him who squirmed, because as much as he's comfortable in himself it's awfully hard not to be awkward when a gorgeous girl is grabbing you in public and you're not wearing anything (and hard, too, not to remember what they would have said in Kou about someone clinging to a hanjuu in broad daylight) - and then he realizes that it still probably doesn't matter much to her. But it matters to him, or at least it's seemed to matter to him. And so she asked.

". . . Wait a moment," he says, and turns around, stretching himself off the foot of the bed to reach the basket where he keeps his few articles of clothing. After a moment of shuffling he finds a loose scholar's robe. He shrugs it over his shoulders as he shifts shape, then ties it quickly in the front, hoping that Yoko hasn't decided to stick her head out from under the blankets to see what he's doing.

When he looks over again, though, he sees that Yoko is continuing to do her best impersonation of a laundry basket and can't help but smile. He levers himself off the bed and kneels down on the pallet so that he can put human arms around the blanket cocoon. The fabric slides around and Yoko's head emerges, her striking hair visibly red even in the dim starlight from the window.

“Rakushun,” she says, faintly startled, and he gives her a half-smile and shrug – stubby rat arms don't give the best hugs, and it's easier when they're the same size anyway, right? - and she smiles back, small and real. Her left hand slips out of the blankets to cover his, which puts an end to his idea of withdrawing his arms and moving back away to give her space again. But if he had to admit it, staying there is fine with him.

"Thank you, Rakushun."

"Hey," he says, "for what?"

Yoko considers this for a moment, the blanket against his arms rising and falling just slightly with her breathing. "For being my friend. Have I ever thanked you for that?"

Rakushun doesn't answer. She has thanked him for it before, more than once. As always, it hurts, half that she thinks she needs to - friendship shouldn't be so rare, shouldn't require gratitude - and half because he knows why she says it and sometimes he feels the same way. He doesn’t have a tail right now to flick with discomfort, can't think of what to say, so finally instead he shifts his arms around her slightly and presses a kiss to the far left side of her forehead, right below her hairline. It seems the natural thing to do, in that moment - a gesture of comfort, friendship - and it must seem that way to her too because she closes her eyes and leans back against him, hair straggling out of the blankets and over the fabric of his robe. As usual when he's human-shaped, the clothes he's wearing are vaguely irritating. It would be nicer, he thinks, to be able to feel the texture of her hair against his skin.

Then he stops his thoughts there fast, because any further down that line might makes this whole thing fall a lot less into the category of comfort and friendship than it did a moment ago.

“If you come work for me you know you’ll have to wear clothes all the time,” says Yoko without opening her eyes, and he twitches involuntarily. It's not that he has secrets from Yoko, but he wouldn't pick this exact moment to find out she's become a mind-reader. But apparently she was just pursuing a separate line of thought. “You can still be in rat-shape most of the time if you want, but even if you do you’ll have to wear those awful fancy outfits everyone lectures me about. Six layers of robes tailored just for you. You’ll really hate it.”

“I'm more used to it now. I’ve got to wear formal robes here too sometimes.”

“Not like these,” Yoko predicts darkly. “Serves you right. You used to go off on me too, the dignity of the kingdom and the majesty of rulers on and on, just like Keiki.”

“Bitten by my own dog,” murmurs Rakushun. He probably will mind the clothes, in the future, but that's then and this is now. “I’ll just have to rely on you to change the fashions, like the King of En did.”

“Maybe if I get to rule three hundred years I can, but I already get in enough trouble with my ministers for being informal. If I’m going to make you an important person they’ll make you look the part.” She tilts her head backwards against his shoulder so that she can look up into his face. “What minister should I make you, Rakushun?”

“Doesn't that depend more on which of your ministers you're most likely to get sick of in five years?”

“All of them,” says Yoko fervently, and they both laugh, his arms still wrapped loosely around her. “No, I mean it though. I can't promise anything, but if you could pick. Tell me how to use you best.”

It's an invitation to think out loud and he takes it, tossing questions back to her about the problems of the kingdom that she's touched on in her letters, speculating on how those might play out over the longer term. It's like the messages he’s sent her via messenger-bird – he always paused in those monologues, too, to leave room for the responses he’d never hear – except not like that at all, because instead of enunciating clearly for the bird he’s talking low in the dark and hearing her voice come back, because he can feel the shaking of her ribcage when she laughs and that makes all the difference in the world.

The time goes faster than they know it (and the dialogue, if they were awake enough to realize it, grows less and less coherent; the next day Rakushun is fairly sure he remembers seriously debating the merits of appointing Keiki to be the minister in charge of agriculture and using his bonded youma for model farming). Eventually he notices foggily that it's been a minute or two since he last asked a question and didn't get an answer. Her breathing has gone slower and raspier; he realizes, belatedly, that she's fallen asleep against him. He reaches to brush a strand of hair out of her face. She looks like she's sleeping well.

 

 

Suzu doesn't usually have any kind of problem sleeping – during the days of revolution, you took sleep where you could find it - but the moon's sinking lower and lower in the sky and she's still can't keep her mind still enough to doze off. For a moment she wonders if Shoukei or Koushou might still be awake, and then dismisses the thought. Both of them have duties to fill in the morning; it wouldn't be fair of her to disturb them.

But lying around in bed being awake is just making her depressed, so finally she pushes herself off the bed and grabs a vest to throw over her kimono. Maybe if she takes a walk, she'll start to feel tired.

The last person she expects to bump into on her way out of the residence is the Kei Taiho.

Suzu hastily takes a step or two backwards and bows in apology, feeling awkward and graceless. Everyone seems to feel that way around Keiki – except Shoukei, of course, who never appears to feel graceless around anyone. Thinking about that makes her think about Shoukei's new determination to go to university, and she bites her lip, feeling lower than ever.

Maybe Keiki catches that in her face, because instead of stalking silently onwards, he hesitates and says, “I'm sorry if I disturbed you, Lady Suzu.”

Coming from Keiki, this is an astounding level of social grace. Suzu's mouth quirks up a little. “I couldn't sleep, so I was going to take a walk. I guess you were doing the same thing?”

Keiki doesn't answer, but he doesn't stalk off either. Maybe this is a good sign. And if there's one thing that Suzu's learned over the past few years, it's that worrying about other people's problems is a good way to avoid fixating on your own. “Are you worrying about Yoko?” she ventures.

Keiki glowers over Suzu's head. “If the king wishes to lie to her ministers about her destination and put herself in danger by taking frivolous solo trips to neighboring kingdoms, that is her own concern.”

“. . . yeah, and you probably said the same thing before she left, too,” mutters Suzu, with a sigh. Kirins have been explained to her as beings of pure compassion; it's hard to remember that when the only kirin she sees on a regular basis is Kei's, who might be full of compassion but who also stick up his butt the size of Mount Fuji. “But . . . it isn't frivolous, is it? Shoukei said -”

After a few years at Yoko's court, Suzu's picked up at least a few of the rudiments of palace intrigue. She can practically hear Shoukei's voice shouting in her ear, not where people can hear you! “Um, Taiho,” she interrupts herself, “if you're not tired, would you come with me on my walk? I know it's late, but I just want to go out into the garden.”

Keiki gives her a startled look, but, after a moment, nods and turns around. They walk together in silence – Suzu doing her best to pretend it's companionable and not awkward – until they're well into the gardens, in the middle of a long open strip without much cover. It doesn't matter much if anyone sees them, Suzu thinks, as long as they can't hear them.

“I was going to say,” she says, keeping her voice low, “that Shoukei thinks Yoko's gone to recruit Rakushun for the ministry here. I don't know him well myself, just from that one visit, but from everything Yoko and Shoukei say of him that's a good thing, right?”

“I am not well acquainted with him either.”

“Well – but that's not even the point. We all know this court still needs cleaning out. Every year there's some other stupid, petty plot that gets everyone stressed. For things to really get done for Kei, Yoko needs people she can count on in important positions, doesn't she?”

Keiki gives a reluctant nod at this, looking, Suzu thinks cynically, like even unbending that much is physically painful.

“Even right now, the only two members of the government who are really in her circle of trust are Koukan and Kantai, and even then, as a general, Kantai doesn't have much influence with the ministers. Koushou's got a title, but in his heart he doesn't believe he's much more than a bodyguard, and that's all he wants to be. Shoukei told me she wants to enter the ministership, but it will take her a while to get there, and me -” She feels the familiar sob rising in her throat and forces it back down with all her might; she's not going to have one of her crying fits in front of Keiki of all people. “- I'm not really important or much good to anything. I want to help Yoko and Kei, to help build a good kingdom, but I don't know how. When Yoko's here it doesn't seem to matter – she needs someone to talk to or an extra pair of hands, and I can do that, but now she's gone I'm realizing I don't really do much else around here to help.”

Keiki looks, if possible, more uncomfortable than ever, and Suzu ducks her head, fiercely embarrassed. Somehow she always ends up talking about her own problems; somewhere Seishuu's probably laughing at her. “Ah – anyway, I just meant to say that if Yoko's starting to plan ahead for the government she wants to build to help her rule, then that should count as business of state. It may be done in an unorthodox manner, but it's not something frivolous at all.”

There's silence for long enough that it makes her jump when she hears Keiki's voice, answering as stiffly as ever. “When she's gone from the palace, I can't help but be concerned.” Suzu thinks she hears more in that 'concerned' than he'd like her to, and wonders if a less dignified word might not be a better choice. 'Fidgety', maybe, or 'antsy.' Aren't kirin supposed to be tied up in their rulers, too? “But you're certainly correct – she isn't an irresponsible ruler, however it may look sometimes.”

Suzu manages a grin. “You really should know that by now.”

“Yes,” Keiki says, slowly, and then adds after another moment, “You're much better at understanding her than I am. You shouldn't think of that as unimportant either, Lady Suzu.”

“Well,” Suzu says, automatically – the old familiar joke - “we are about the same age.” Which is only half true, of course; counted another way, Suzu is at least a hundred years older than Yoko. That makes her a few decades older than the Kei Taiho, too, which is a strange thought when he's always talking like everybody's babysitter. But he is quite a young kirin still, compared with one like Enki or Sairin, no matter how grown-up he looks. Four or five years is a very short time in the life of a king or a kirin. It's no wonder, Suzu thinks for the first time, that he gets anxious about his relationship with Yoko. He's not good with people, everyone knows that, and Yoko isn't the kind of natural social person who can smooth over awkwardness easily either. Over the years they'll grow comfortable with each other, and they'll be a good partnership for Kei. The process is already happening, but things like that take time.

“Taiho,” she says, with a sudden smile, “you should spend more time with me and Shoukei, you know that?”

Keiki stares at her. “Why?” he asks, bluntly, and then looks abruptly constipated, which Suzu thinks most likely represents embarrassment at the accidental social gaffe.

“Because Shoukei and I talk a lot,” Suzu says, grinning now, “and you need the practice.” Her heart's feeling abruptly lighter. She might not have a definite goal like Shoukei – not yet, anyway. But how could she be so stupid as to forget herself exactly what she'd been trying to tell the Taiho? Everyone needs someone around to talk to; everyone needs someone around to trust. And if anyone knows the importance of being able to talk to people, it's a kaikyaku like Suzu. If her only role in Yoko's court ends up being just this – no title, no ministership, just talking and lending an ear – that's no unimportant thing at all. “Thank you,” she says, abruptly, wondering if Keiki will understand.

Maybe he's not quite as hopeless at people as she'd thought, though, because instead of looking confused, he nods, and even smiles, very faintly. “Thank you as well, Lady Suzu.”

“I guess we should get back inside,” Suzu says, and glances over at the sky. Dawn is just about to break.

 

 

Rakushun wakes to light streaming in from the window, and hastily scrambles up from the futon, checking the sky anxiously for the time. He breathes a sigh of relief when he sees its position – it's later than he'd meant to sleep, for sure, but at least he hasn't missed his graduation.

“I was going to wake you up if you'd slept much longer,” Yoko says, grinning. “Don't worry, we're not late yet.” She's already dressed back in her boy's clothes, her hair tied up above her head - looking not at all the king, much more like the vagabond he met long ago. This should seem more like the 'real' Yoko, and it's how he used to think of her, the royalty a strange and unwanted addition to her character. But now he thinks the Yoko he will carry with him for the next five years is the one he saw last night - the king always in her and the kaikyaku always in her too, half a wise, forceful woman and half a lonely girl and always, entirely his friend.

“Well, thanks,” he says. “The ceremony's going to start pretty soon though, so -”

"Wait." Youko puts out her hand to his arm to halt him before he changes and then suddenly pulls him into a hard hug, her lean, muscled arms tight around him. "I wanted to do this while you were still my size," she says in his startled ear, "since I might not get another chance for a while. Don't try and visit if you don't have time – do your job well and come work for me faster." She steps back, taking him by the shoulders, and looks up at his face. She seems like she's searching for words. Finally: "But don't let the Ever-King keep you too busy to talk to the bird, either," she says, sounding disappointed in herself. Those weren't, it seems, the ones she wanted.

"I won't." Tilting his head down instead of up to look at her is still something he doesn't think he'll ever get used to, but he'll admit it does allow for a better angle – especially now that it's light, and he can see the vivid, anxious emerald of her eyes. "You, too."

"Of course. I've got to keep on your good side if you're still going to let me steal you in five years, after you've gotten fat and happy in En." Her fingers relax on his shoulders, and he thinks she's going to let go - but instead, so fast he hardly feels the warmth of it until after it's gone, she leans up with an awkward determination and presses her mouth right to his, almost bumping his nose in the process. Then she does release him and steps back, wearing such an air of resolve it makes him want to laugh. He wants to laugh anyway, out of sheer startlement. He wants to panic and tell her that she's a king and so, so far above him – the dying gasps of his 'aw-shucks-just-a-rat' act, he guesses - and he wants to reach over and try that again, slower this time so he can think about it while it's happening, but they've already had at least two last-chance embraces and that might start to verge on the ridiculous and besides which they’re going to be late.

Instead he grabs for her hands with both of his and says the first thing that comes into his head, which is, "Yoko - you don't have to seduce me to get me to Kei!”

“That's why I waited,” says Yoko, “until after you'd said yes.”