Edgar ran a hand through his hair, scratching the back of his neck in puzzlement. He wasn't sure what he'd been expecting. Something gothic or black or at the very least something well-guarded. Something as ominous and impassive as its owner, definitely.
What he got was a neat brick house at the end of a lane in a neighborhood teeming with children and the little fuzzy dogs the islanders favored. It had a neat lawn with a few trees that were drowsing in the noontime sun. Edgar ran his hand along the sturdy fence that bordered the lane and wondered if he could have taken a wrong turn somewhere.
A loud and familiar bark brought his eyes back up just as the front door of the house opened and a black and tan blur shot out, heading straight for him. Edgar wasted about three seconds scrabbling for a weapon that wasn't there before a hundred pounds of dog leaped the fence like a dream and caught him in the chest.
Dog and man tumbled to the ground, and the king of Figaro was unceremoniously treated to the most atrocious display of doggie affection, complete with slobber-to-the-face attack and thorough crotch-sniffing. "Ack...bleah...whoa, boy, watch it! Heh. I need those." Edgar struggled into a sitting position and managed to fend the happy canine off to arms' length, where he wasn't at such a disadvantage. Smiling, he scratched hard behind the dog's ears and told him, "I missed you, too, Interceptor."
Interceptor's tongue lolled out of his mouth in pleasure.
That was when several high-pitched barks caught Edgar's attention. Looking up, he saw another black-and-tan hound, a female this time, watching him warily through the fence. She was surrounded by about half-a-dozen balls of black-and-tan fur that were rolling in the grass, whiffling and barking at him through the fence (which, he noticed, was laced through with wire tight enough so that they couldn't wiggle through), and other suitably puppylike behaviors.
Edgar looked back at Interceptor. "Been busy, eh boy?"
Interceptor licked his chops smugly. Then his head shot up, and in a whirl of dust he was back over the fence.
Edgar stood, brushing himself off with a smile, and found himself facing a complete stranger. For a moment, despite the fact that Interceptor was sitting at the stranger's feet as if he was meant to be there, Edgar was still sure that he had the wrong house. The man facing him was his own height, lean and somewhat pale, dressed in a white shirt rolled at the cuffs and black trousers. His face was rather average, perhaps a bit older than Edgar, perhaps not, framed by pale, blonde-brown hair pulled back in a tail. It was the eyes, though, that were unmistakable. They were the same eyes, dark and shuttered, that had peered out from above a veiled mask.
Edgar mentally shook himself. Well, you didn't really expect him to wear that black getup all the time, did you? He'd scare the crap out of the neighborhood kids.
"Your Highness." The soft tenor voice was the same, too.
Fine. So it's him. Edgar snorted. "Ah, please don't start that. I've got enough people 'Highness'ing me as it is."
Shadow's mouth relaxed into an almost-smile. "Edgar." His hands went to open the gate, gently nudging away two inquisitive balls of fur with his booted foot. "Come in."
Edgar slipped in, careful to dodge the puppies and eyeing the silent, ever-watchful mother warily. "Gods, how many of them are there?"
Shadow turned to walk back to the house. "Go ahead and say it."
Edgar smiled. "...cute."
Shadow sighed and held open the door for him. "So was Interceptor, once. They grow out of it, thankfully."
The inside of the house was another shock. The front door opened into a living room with a small, open kitchen off to the left. Clean white walls and wooden furniture and the smell of tea combined with the leaf-dappled sunlight streaming through the windows to make something, if not cozy, at least comfortable. The only indication of its owners' profession was two crossed katanas above the fireplace. Neither were ones Shadow had carried into battle, but both were well-cared for and, if Edgar's eye was true, quite old and valuable.
Shadow closed the door, leaving the dam and pups outside.
"Are you going to train them?" Edgar asked.
"If the neighborhood kids don't kidnap them all first. Tea?"
"Have a seat."
He may be a rude bastard, but it is rather nice to be treated like a real person.
Edgar sat at the small kitchen table and watched as arguably the most dangerous mercenary in the world made him tea. Interceptor lay down at the king's feet, and Edgar rubbed his ears, struggling to think of something to say. "When you train them, will they answer only to you or to anyone?"
Shadow turned and fixed him with an unreadable look. "It depends on how I train them. Why?"
Edgar shrugged. "I've seen Interceptor in battle. Twenty like him in a regiment, or accompanying guards, would be a big asset."
Shadow nodded as if the idea had occurred to him before, reaching up onto a shelf above the stove for the tea tin. Edgar's eyes followed his hand and saw that there were two of them, one each of two kinds. One was Mobliz Red, Sabin's favorite. Shadow didn't pick up that one.
Edgar wrenched his mind back on track when he realized Shadow was talking. "...possible. To be like Interceptor, though, they must be trained carefully and intelligent to begin with, or all you end up with is a mean dog."
Edgar nodded, accepting the cup of tea. Shadow nudged the sugar bowl on the table closer to his guest, and waited until Edgar was done spooning it into his cup. He added none to his own, Edgar noticed.
Edgar's host leaned his elbows forward on the table, cup cradled in his hands. "But you didn't hunt me down to talk to me about dogs."
Edgar's eyes slid to the Mobliz Red. He set down his cup. "No. No, I didn't." He met Shadow's eyes across the table. They held the same expression he'd seen a hundred times, as Shadow walked alongside him, or hissed in pain, or called magic to his hands, or sent bladed death whirling towards an enemy: guarded, watchful, wary.
Quietly, "Were you surprised that I found you here?" It had surprised Edgar, to be sure, when he'd found out that Shadow had a house here, someplace permanent and normal for a man who seemed to value the safety of shiftless anonymity.
Shadow's gaze didn't waver. "Not particularly. I was expecting you. And kings have many ways of finding things out. Several of them involve hiring people like me."
There was kind of strained undercurrent to the comment. People like me. Edgar understood, and was suddenly very happy that he hadn't brought in a mercenary to track Shadow down. Oh, that would have been a good idea. Shadow's hideout known by someone for sale. "The woman who tracked you here has been a retainer to my family for longer than I've been alive. She's, if anything, more trustworthy than me."
The ninja's shoulders relaxed just a bit, and he nodded, sipping at his tea.
What does he see in you? The questions crowded in, but the silence stretched. What do you want?
Edgar had tried the whole airship-ride to the island to come up with a tactful way to bring up the subject.
Why are you sleeping with my brother?
He hadn't found one.
"I...I want to talk to you about Sabin."
The name dropped into the silence like a stone and was swallowed up. Edgar had wondered what Shadow's reaction would be when confronted. It was so damnably hard to read the man under normal circumstances. How would an assassin react when confronted by a king about sleeping with the king's brother?
The answer was: with an almost pained sigh and the chink of a cup being set on the table. "Edgar, have you talked with Sabin about this?"
The king of Figaro shifted uncomfortably. "Some...."
Shadow raised an eyebrow at him.
"He...hells, you know what he's like." Yes, yes he does. Oh, gods— Edgar bulled on. "I asked him if he'd thought it through and of course he hadn't, and I asked if it was such a good idea to get involved with a..."
Shadow's eyebrow went up a little farther.
"...well, to get involved, and he pretty much told me to mind my own business. Loudly."
"I'll bet. Involved with a what?"
"Uh...." Edgar sputtered in a very unkinglike fashion at being pressed so boldly.
"Spit it out, Edgar." His eyes were still as cool as always, but the edge in Shadow's voice was sharpening by the second, quickly becoming something that could draw blood. Edgar began to wonder if it had been such a good idea to come unarmed. "With a killer? A mercenary? A commoner? A man? Which part is bothering you?"
At his tone, Interceptor growled reflexively and moved to his master's side, his head swiveling about the room in search of the danger.
Yes, definitely a bad idea to come unarmed. But the king of Figaro refused to drop his eyes, and his voice was steady, though in the face of Shadow's anger he had to fight for it. "All of them."
Slowly, Shadow sighed and picked his tea back up. "Down, Interceptor." His hand found the dog's head and rested there. Interceptor rolled his eyes up to his master, as if checking to see if he really meant it, then laid back down at the side of his chair. "Let me guess," the ninja said, "what's been going through your mind. One of your first thoughts was probably that I am untrustworthy and a possible danger to Sabin, since not so long ago I was murdering people for money."
Edgar winced a bit at the words, and Shadow answered it, his eyes not moving from Edgar's. "It's the truth. You know it and I know it and he knows it and we've all thought it, so no more mincing around the subject. Yes, I was an assassin, and at one point, I would have killed him or you or just about anyone else for the right price. But that was before. Before the world went to hell and before I decided that I liked it enough to fight for it. Before I let all of you...."
For the first time in his life Edgar saw Shadow flinch, in word if not in deed. Shadow's eyes moved blindly to the open window, where the sound of children playing wafted in on the morning breeze. Edgar's stab of victory at finally not being the only one to be uncomfortably at a loss for words was short-lived. For the smallest of moments, he could see the man underneath the mask, and the view was educational.
"Before I saw the value in having friends as opposed to allies." He looked back at Edgar. Then, simply, "Before I fell in love with your brother."
Edgar certainly hadn't been expecting that. A promise to do no harm, an admission of affection, perhaps.... He was doubly shocked when Shadow—Shadow!—actually chuckled. "You should see the look on your face."
Trying to school whatever that look was back into something more suitable for the ruler of Figaro, Edgar gulped rather desperately at his tea.
"But," Shadow continued, "I'm sure that you've checked up on me as much as you could, and if your retainer was good instead of just lucky, she probably told you that I've got enough money to live comfortably for the rest of my life. I do. I could stay here and raise dogs if I wanted to. I probably won't just because I'd be bored out of my mind. But if I'm hired to do anything else, it won't be killing. Bodyguard work, or perhaps I'll give Locke a run for his money if some rich bastard wants some lost treasure. No more assassinations. In all the ways you're worried about, I'm quite simply no longer for sale."
Shadow rose from his seat and moved to the stove, and in his tension his movements had that deadly grace Edgar was used to seeing, but it was defensive, like a sheathed sword.
"As for the commoner part, I am well aware that Sabin is a prince. That he's supposedly your heir. But to be honest, I'll be very surprised if you don't have a few bastards lined up already, let alone when you finally decide to marry. I'd bet good gold that even now he's no longer in the line of succession."
Edgar coughed, blushing. "You're enjoying this, aren't you?"
This time, Shadow's smile spilled into his eyes. "Immensely."
He returned with the teapot, refilling his cup and topping off Edgar's mostly untouched tea. "As for being a man," he said quietly, "I'm afraid I can't help you there. I'm not a woman, Edgar, and I never will be. I'm sorry if the fact that Sabin enjoys men disturbs you, but it's not something I nor he can do anything about. And if that sort of thing is something you'd like not to be public knowledge...." He shrugged. "I don't like any of my life to be public knowledge. You'll have to talk with Sabin about how he feels about it." Another smile as he turned to set the teapot to the stove. "I imagine he'll be more outspoken on the subject than I."
Edgar muttered something derisive into his tea. He looked up again as Shadow sat down. Some of the tension had bled out of the man's shoulders, and he ran his hands over Interceptor's back absently.
He seems to be retired, your Highness. He's put out the word he's not in the business anymore.**
And what does he want from my brother?
If you'll pardon my askin', your Highness, have you seen them together?
No. Merely heard. Why?
Prince Sabin came to visit him one night. Came whistlin' up the road, grinnin' like he was the happiest man alive. Jumped the fence, and the door opened before he was halfway there. Now, the Shadow's got the best poker face I've ever seen, even without that mask. They stood in the doorway for a few seconds, just watchin' each other, Prince Sabin grinnin' and the Shadow's face...opened.... I can't describe it. It was like the man came out from behind the mask. And he smiled.
The sun peeked out of the clouds outside, and a sliver of sunlight fell through the leaves onto the table between them. Edgar chose to take it as a sign. "Do you really love him?"
Shadow didn't flinch from Edgar's eyes. "I have never known anyone like Sabin. He is warm and open and caring and everything that we both know I am not. I keep expecting him to come to his senses while we're apart. But he makes me feel whole. He makes me feel like a worthwhile human being again. He is...life itself. Something I never thought I'd want or have again. I would kill for him, lay down my life for his. I will spend the rest of my life trying to be worthy of him. I will not harm him for all the world and—" his eyes went hard—"one way or another, neither will anyone else. On that, you have my oath, sworn on anything you like."
The two men stared at each other. Such an admission was something neither had been expecting, and in its pure simplicity it hung between them, heavy and shimmering in the air. Shadow finally looked down at the attack dog nosing his hand worriedly. "Where did that come from, eh?" he whispered to him.
Interceptor panted knowingly up at him.
Edgar finally found his tongue. What I wouldn't give to have a girl to feel that way about me. "All I've ever wanted is for Sabin to be happy. If you do that, then I don't care if you're a commoner or a man or a yeti. Just...take care of him. We've lost...too many people close to us, and he's my brother, and..." His hand clenched on the table. "He's my brother, Shadow."
Shadow slowly reached out and laid his hand next to Edgar's. It wasn't a touch, but it was as close to such a gesture as he'd ever offer. "I know."
The silence returned, less tense this time, both men looking out the window, collecting their thoughts. Eventually, Interceptor's mate imperiously nosed the door open, trailing whimpering balls of fur. For a long time the kitchen was filled with nothing but the sounds of whimpers and snuffles and dozens of little claws on the wooden floor.
"So." Edgar said thoughtfully, reaching down to let one of the girl-pups sniff his fingertips. "How long until these little guys are ready to be trained?"
Shadow picked up one that had been trying valiantly to worry its way through his boot. "Another week or two and they'll be fully weaned. That's the best time to start."
"I wasn't kidding. About the dogs. If you could show some of my men how to train them...."
Shadow pulled the pup back from the edge of the table, where it had been trying to drown itself in the remnants of his tea. "The best way to teach them would be for them to watch me with this litter."
Edgar nodded. "If you want, I could send some people here. Or" —I'm such a romantic at heart— "you could come to Figaro. We'd be happy to have you stay."
Shadow's eyes caught his again, and Edgar wasn't sure if the surprised warmth in them was due to his imagination or the offer or just the exuberant puppy trying to eat his fingers. "It would probably be the most efficient way. As long as it wouldn't be...trouble."
"Oh, I don't think it would be. After all, I've got connections." Edgar smiled into the remnants of his tea. "I've got the king's ear, you know."