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Loose Threads

Ten

Iain paused to watch as Theodora loaded cattle into the shuttle. They'd chosen the ones they were taking and herded them into a central location where Theodora could sedate them and load them to begin the process of putting them into stasis for the trip. The sedation part had been completed by tiny flying drones about the size of a horsefly and now she was using tractor beams to pick them up and put them into stasis storage.

“Daddy?”

He looked down to see Seraphina and Olivia. “Good morning, ladies.”

“Daddy,” Seraphina repeated questioningly. “What are you doing to the cows?”

“They're going with us as a precaution,” he said. “This is a first trip to a new place and if anything goes wrong during the trip we want to make sure we have everything we need to set up our clan and family wherever we might end up. So the cows and chickens and everything else that we're taking will be put to sleep and go on the Theodora with us. If they were awake it would be really loud and smelly and the animals would be very unhappy so it’s best if they’re asleep.” Theodora could make a special module for them where they could live in animal splendor, but Iain only wanted that if they were going to be keeping cattle on the ship full time.

Olivia held up her hands and Iain obligingly picked her up and held her sitting on his right arm. “Daddy,” she said quietly, “are you going to take us too?”

“Of course I am, Olivia. I wouldn't dream of going anywhere without my girls,” he said with a laugh. According to her twee, she had minor abandonment issues because her mother had been away so much. But he, all of her mothers and her twee were working to make her realize that she'd never be alone again unless she wanted to. He felt a tiny hand take his free one and smiled at Seraphina. “Have you been on the ship yet?”

“No, Daddy, we haven't.”

“Well, it's really big and you could spend a long time trying to explore the whole thing, but there are special places that I hope you're going to like a lot.”

“My twee says that there's a place we can fly even though we're too young to learn how,” Seraphina confided.

That would be the microgravity gymnasium, his twee said.

“That's right. I'll be able to fly with you there, although I’m sure you’ll be a lot better at it than I will be.” He kissed Olivia on the cheek and put her down with her sister. “I'll show you when I have a chance.”

Seraphina took her sister's hand. “Love you, Daddy.”

“I love you both,” Iain knelt and kissed Seraphina on the cheek. “Now go find your mother please and be safe.”

“Yes, Daddy,” they chorused and ran in a beeline for where their twees told them Lucy was working.

Ninhursag landed beside him. “The loading is going well and we're taking tissue samples of everything we load. Next time we won't have to take them and can instead clone them if it becomes necessary. And the next time we bunch the herds for branding and medicine we'll sample everyone we get our hands on for storage both for going places and in case something terrible happens to our herds and crops.”

That will be a lot easier than rounding up the pigs again, the scummy little bastards. Canaan appeared in front of Iain. “I swear they have radios and warn their friends we’re coming for them as soon as we grab the first one.”

Iain chuckled. “Pigs are pretty smart. How’s the schedule looking?”

Ninhursag’s eyes went unfocused for a second. “Without any more complications we should be ready to embark the clan tomorrow around sunset. I’d suggest waiting until after the next morning’s chores are done so those chores are not waiting for us as soon as we get back.”

“That sounds good to me.” Iain watched an ostrich being sedated for the trip. The drone landed on its head and the animal slowly sank to the ground. Once it was still, the drone lifted off and moved on to its next victim. They’d finally found the ostrich farm they’d escaped from, and it looked like ferals had killed everyone who lived there. All of the human bones they’d found had been scattered over a small area and deeply scarred and cracked from sharp teeth. They’d been discovered interspersed with the bones of several ostriches that had been treated the same way. The pen walls had been torn down to get at the ostriches, which is what suggested feral activity as opposed to aware pokegirls or bandits. Humans or aware pokegirls would have opened the unlocked gate for access to the birds and humans were unlikely to cannibalize others. The ostriches they’d been finding were probably the lucky ones who had ran past their attackers during the confusion and escaped. It had been decided to keep them and breed them since they had a male and nearly two dozen females and to take DNA from all of the bones for more breed diversity. Iain was more than willing to take a road trip to Africa for more samples or live birds but his command staff had vetoed the idea at least for the moment.

Canaan yawned, her fangs gleaming in the sunlight. “You look so content I almost feel guilty to spoil it but it's almost time for your appointment.”

“I thought I asked them to reschedule,” Iain grumbled.

“You did, but they insisted that this was the only time available for them for some time in the future.”

“Fine.” He looked around to make sure the kids were out of earshot. “Fuck.” He checked his twee. “I've got forty five minutes and I'm busy. If they're early they can wait.”

“Are you going to show them how important you are by being fashionably late?” Ninhursag grinned when he glared at her. “No, huh?”

“I am not a government asshole even if I got suckered into being a government patsy with that Ranger crap,” he mock snarled. “People who do that to me piss me off royally. I'd rather face the Zombabes than do something like that to someone no matter how I feel about them.”

“You will face them soon enough,” Canaan said in a sepulchral tone. “Who do you want with you for this?”

“Ninhursag and Lucifer,” Iain said without hesitation. “They're our best negotiators. You’d be good too, but they know you’re a telepath and probably think they’re prepared to stop your abilities.”

Canaan gave him a malevolent grin. “Ygerna would probably do this for free.”

“While I'm certain she'd love to get Poppet and the others by the short and curlies, I think she's best right now where she is making sure the entire library gets moved onto the Theodora safely. She can ravage the Haven Wolf family when she gets her chance for redress.”

“They probably shave,” Canaan noted. “Or don't have pubic hair to begin with, so there won’t be much to grab unless you go for their clitorises.”

Ninhursag looked around to make sure Eve wasn't within earshot. “Iain could check and find out with his perception,” she said to Canaan.

Iain chuckled. “You could check without me. The saying refers to the hairs on the back of the neck, not pubic hair.”

“Why there,” Ninhursag asked. Instead of answering Iain walked around behind her, grabbed the hair at the nape of her neck and jerked hard. “Ow!” She gave him a hard look as he walked back to where he'd been standing. “I am not one of the women who likes being manhandled by you.”

“And that’s why people don’t like being grabbed there,” he said. “Showing you was a lot easier than trying to get you to believe me when I told you it can really hurt if you do it right.” He looked back at Daphne, who was doing an impressive job of being inconspicuous. “Iain is moving.”

She chuckled and checked her GAR 15 before falling into position behind him. “And where is Iain moving to so I can alert the press?”

“He’s going to meander and see where his help is needed,” Iain replied airily. “And when he finds that place, he’s going to help.” He glanced at Ninhursag. “Unless I can sneak off to my magical studies and conveniently forget the meeting that’s coming up.” She gave him a flat look and he smiled. “Go ahead, blame me for trying.” He spotted Olivia and Seraphina running towards him with Lucifer walking more sedately after them. “Whoops, I might be needed right here.”

Canaan chuckled. “Are you aware that those two are a godsend? Those two little darlings are letting everyone see that infants can actually become interesting creatures and making more people think about having children of their own.” She looked over her shoulder at Daphne. “Right?”

“Shut up,” came the good natured reply. Canaan kept looking at her and she finally shrugged. “Yes, I’m thinking about some of my own, as if you couldn’t tell you bloody brain spy. Those two are just so cute and Iain is so good with them.” She glanced at the oncoming Lucifer. “And she gets extra time with him because of them, which is something to keep in mind too.”

Ninhursag shook her head. “I’m next,” she said firmly. Iain gave her a surprised look and she smiled at him. “Yes, I changed my mind about having children now and I don’t think I’m the only one. You’ll also find that several of the women who have already had litters may not want to wait to have more.” She suddenly grinned. “Oh and Joyce doesn’t think her litter should count since she was pregnant when she arrived here and, get this, according to her argument, it isn’t right that you didn’t get her pregnant. Apparently I’m just there to hold your hand while you impregnate these poor girls.” She watched him count in his head and nodded when he looked surprised and counted again. “We may have to start doing the pregnancies in groups or do them more than once a month to keep people from getting pissed about waiting.”

“What about Pandora?”

“That’s still a work in progress, Iain. She’s going to change her mind; we just have to have patience while she gets around to it.”

“All right.” Iain looked thoughtful “We’ll start doing the pregnancy ceremony on the full and new moons and once a week until we catch up. Let’s continue to only do one woman at a time though. I don’t want to cheapen the act for them. Doubling should start working through the interested women unless we get a sudden influx of needy women from outside of the clan.”

“Under the rule that Joyce is trying to invoke,” Lucifer said as Seraphina and Olivia each grabbed one of Iain’s hands, “I’m not sure I want to wait either.”

“Clan leadership doesn’t have to wait until a ceremonial day,” Ninhursag said. Iain gave her a puzzled look and she smiled at him. “RHIP.”

He rolled his eyes. “Fine. Just remember that I have to be available for this.”

She nodded. “I will. We’ll set something up with your help.”

Olivia tugged on his hand. “It’s snack time,” she said with a smile. “Come eat with us, Daddy.”

Canaan shook her head. “I’ve defeated more foes than she has hairs on her head and I can’t resist that look either. My own daughters can’t do that to me.” She gave Lucifer an amused glance. “This is some special Megami-sama power, isn’t it? It’s how your puny offspring live to adulthood.”

“No, this seems to be unique to these two,” she replied. “Some of my other children were lucky if they could make me like them, much less anyone else.”

“Well, apparently I’m off to snack time,” Iain said. “Can I ask the other mothers if they’d like snacks too?”

Seraphina nodded. “Yes, please, Daddy.”

Iain looked around the group. “I think that your mother and Ninhursag should definitely take snack time with us.” He smiled at Ninhursag. “And when my guests arrive I think they should take snack time with us too. I think they should meet our newest little girls who charm everyone who meets them.”

The Elfqueen blinked and her eyes lit up. “That’s a wonderful idea.”

Lucifer caught Iain’s eye. If they even contemplate harm to either of my daughters, she began.

You’ll be standing over their bleeding corpses and wondering how I moved so much faster than you that they were already dead before you could get to them, he interrupted her.

I’ll beat you both, Canaan said, because I’ll know they’re contemplating it first.

Iain and Lucy looked at each other and began laughing. Olivia tugged on his hand. “Tell me the joke,” she said quietly.

Iain knelt and kissed her gently. “Little one, do you use your twee to talk to your sister without us knowing?”

She nodded gravely. “Sometimes, at night so Mommy doesn’t know we’re awake.” Lucifer looked startled at the admission.

“And do you remember my saying that I’d try to never talk down to you?” She nodded. “Well there wasn’t a joke, exactly, but your mother and I were talking using our twees about how much we’d do to protect you and Seraphina from bad people. The fact that we’d both be so fierce in protecting you surprised us and made us laugh.”

Olivia looked him solemnly in the eyes. “You’d kill them, wouldn’t you? That’s what Mommy does to bad people. We will kill bad people when we grow up.”

Seraphina grabbed his neck and hugged him hard. Iain managed not to wince at the pain as her greater than human strength wrenched at his vertebra. “But not you, Daddy, you’re a good bad person. We would never kill you.” He heard choked off laughter from somewhere nearby.

“That’s good to hear,” he managed to get out as he slowly twisted his head and neck to find some slack in her grip. “And yes, I will kill all of the bad people who try to hurt you.”

Seraphina let him go suddenly. “Did I hug you too hard, Daddy?” She looked worried.

Iain hastened to reassure her. “You hurt me a little bit, but sometimes that’s going to happen until you learn to control your strength and realize how easy it is to hurt me.” Hands touched his neck and he managed not to sigh in relief as Lucifer healed him. Thank you.

You are very welcome. There was a pause, Daddy. Lucifer’s eyes twinkled merrily when he glanced at her.

He slowly stood. “So where is there a good place for snack time and what are we eating?”

“We were planning to have snacks under the Omega tree since it’s in bloom and so pretty,” Lucifer said. She hefted a bag. “And the snacks are right here.”

“Lead on,” he said. Then he turned to Daphne, speaking in a low voice. “I’m not judging your ability to guard us, but I’m going to summon Pandora to join you.”

The Whorizard surprised him with a relieved look. “Thank you,” she said quietly. “I didn’t want to be responsible for rescuing you while the rest of the clan leaders died if something went wrong and Pandora has warned us about how wrong this meeting could go but I didn’t know how to say it.”

“Never be afraid to tell me that you need help doing this job or that you feel something is wrong,” Iain replied. “I won’t take it personally and neither will anyone else and especially not Pandora. Hell it might save someone’s life, maybe even mine.”

“Help,” Daphne said plaintively.

He chuckled. “Come with us.” He reached out through his delta bond. Pandora, Daphne is feeling a little overwhelmed since the meeting with the representatives from Haven will be starting soon and she’d like some help. I’d like it to be you.

He still felt that joy over their bond even after all of the time since she’d evolved. Strangely enough it was even present when she was furious with him and he cherished it. Can I be there in five minutes or do I need to be there now?

We can wait five minutes. “She’ll be here in a few minutes,” Iain told Daphne. She nodded and he turned and headed after the kids and his ladies.

Ninhursag glanced at him as he came even with her. Problem?

I wanted Pandora here as a guard along with Daphne and was letting Daphne know so she wouldn’t be offended when Pandora showed up.

I’ll forgo the normal round of incredulity at you doing something to increase your security and I’ll just say that’s a good decision.

I can learn. He thought about it and reached out through his twee. Joyce, we’re probably going to meet with some people from Haven at the Omega tree while taking a quick break from loading. Could you send a case of beer and some other drinks out please? I’ll have someone pick it up.

Just a moment, she responded. She was back a handful of seconds later. Silver and Ryan are here and they’ll leave in just a minute with it.

That will be excellent. Thank you.

Joyce wasn’t done. Ryan wants to know who is guarding you.

Daphne and Pandora are.

Thank you. I’ll let her know.

A couple of minutes later Silver came racing up and skidded to a halt next to the Omega tree as Olivia was telling each person where to sit and Seraphina was guiding them to their assigned place. Ryan slid off her back with a case of beer and Dianthus followed her, holding a large leather bag. Even with her slung bow and quiver, she made the landing look graceful. Silver shifted to her bipedal form. “We brought beer and more snacks.”

Iain was looking at Dianthus. “So Ryan wanted to know who was on guard here.”

“She did, master, in case she felt you needed more coverage. I didn’t care what the answer was. You do.” Her hair was growing out and was almost a pixie style. She caught him looking at it. “Have you decided that this is my best feature, master?”

He smiled. “I’m still undecided. You know, I already have Pandora to worry and decide I always need more guards.”

“Yes, master, and she does that well but I have spoken with many people and it will take more than one person to worry about you adequately.”

Ninhursag laughed from where she was sitting. “She’s right about that. Help Daphne, Dianthus.”

“Yes, my queen.” Dianthus handed the bag to Iain and unslung her bow.

Iain put the bag down in front of Ninhursag. “I’ll be right back. The tree wants to chat.”

Ninhursag caught his ankle as he started to step away. He looked down at her and she smiled. “Take care.” Above her smile, her eyes were serious. Our tree talks to you more than it does to anyone else. I sometimes wonder. Do not give it sperm.

“I will.” That has never come up and all I can say to that is knotholes and yuck.

She laughed. “Go then.”

He was back a few minutes later and dropped a cloth wrapped package into Ninhursag’s lap. She blinked and opened it up to reveal what looked like an Omega tree seed except that it was nearly five times the normal size. She gave him a curious look and he jerked a thumb towards the trunk of the massive tree. “The tree wants this to go with us in case the worst happens.” He smiled when her eyes widened before dropping to stare at the thing in her lap. “Hey, I just walk through life. Strange things happen around me no matter what I seem to do to try and avoid them.”

She rose, stopping long enough to kiss him on the cheek. “I am so glad that Eve thought I’d be good here and brought you to me.” Then she was gone.

“Where did Ninhursag go? She has her seat.” Seraphina frowned at him, looking exactly what she was at the moment, a cross six year old girl.

“She’ll be back. She’s got to put something away but it shouldn’t take more than a few minutes.”

Seraphina perked up. “Thank you, Daddy.” She grabbed his hand. “You sit over here.”

He looked around as she led him to sit next to Lucifer. Ryan and Silver had taken up station near Daphne and Dianthus and showed no signs of leaving. Are you two going to be staying to guard me?

We’re staying to guard everyone else, Silver said. Daphne, Dianthus and Pandora have you.

Then do it right and everyone spread out further in a circular pattern and coordinate together so you can guard all sides of us so we can’t be blindsided by something coming around the trunk of the tree. That’ll also look more like you’re guarding us from ferals and less like you’re just guarding us from Poppet.

Yes sir.

Pandora arrived with Allison and Heather as they were redeploying. She looked around and went into a quick conference with Dianthus. In a moment, she, Heather and Dianthus were on station near Iain and his family while everyone else moved out farther away. Her eyes met Iain’s when he glanced over his shoulder at her. That was a good plan on the deployment. You’ve been listening to me. I wasn’t sure.

I don’t want to die and you’re good at protecting me. Of course I listen to you. She nodded to him and he went back to paying attention to the snack time.

The bag Dianthus had brought contained more snacks and they were being passed out when Theodora touched his mind. Poppet, Elizabeth, Bellona and Kasumi are here. I’m leading them to you. The tone of the communication changed as Ninhursag and the others straightened and Iain knew Theodora was talking to him alone. I don’t believe Kasumi is part of the negotiating team, but I’m unsure as to why she is here. She is definitely not happy about something but it is more sadness than anger.

Evaluate her behavior and presume she did ask Shikarou for another child and got the response you predicted.

One question. Does Shikarou love her?

Iain frowned. He was fond enough of her at the end of Where None Has Gone Before to think he loved her but enough time has passed since then and the beginning of New Beginnings for such ardor to cool. They don’t really communicate much and she mentioned that all people do is talk business when they meet. In his case I suspect what might have been love for her has become feeling comfortable with her. It happens when people don’t spend time together except casually, which is why I’m not fighting when my ladies want quality time with me as much as I might otherwise. I don’t want that to happen to us if we can avoid it.

With that added data, her sadness would make perfect sense. However, her being here still does not.

It might to me. She just got badly hurt by someone she cares for and wants to get away from where it happened for a while.

Would this be a suitable time to plant more seeds?

Maybe. I’ll see what I can do.

Yes, clan leader.

Canaan’s antenna twitched. You’re still talking to Theodora. Care to share?

I’d rather not since it involves being very sneaky.

Never you mind then. I’ll wait and see the wonderful surprise.

A few minutes later Theodora led the four Haven women to the group. Kasumi was staring up the silver leaves and red flowers of the tree as Poppet nodded to Iain. “I wasn’t expecting so many people at this meeting. Is this payback for the one Shikarou surprised you with?”

That brought Kasumi’s attention back to the meeting. Iain shook his head. “No, I’d like all of you to meet Olivia and Seraphina. They’re Lucy’s kids and we’re all here because we’re finishing up snack time. Please have a seat and join us. We have beer, cold tea, water and there’s some fresh blood for Elizabeth, although it’s mortal blood and she might not be interested in it. We also have a wide selection of snacks, and feel free to help yourselves.” He smiled. “Ladies, this is Poppet, Bellona, Elizabeth and Kasumi.” He went around the circle on his side, naming all of the women.

Bellona was watching Pandora, Heather and Dianthus. “Do you need so many guards?”

“Ferals hit the tree above us two days ago,” Ninhursag said. “Things are more active here than on Haven, so for any gathering of people where they’re going to be too busy to watch the area around them there are usually guards.”

Ninhursag finished her beer and dropped it into the trash sack that had been in the bag Dianthus had brought. “You’re interested in Iain’s stories and you’re here to bargain for them, correct?”

Poppet nodded. “We are. What do you want for them?”

“We’ll get to that,” Ninhursag said. “But first a sample so you can get an idea of how valuable these stories can be.” She pulled a handheld from her pocket and tossed it to Poppet. “We knew Poppet would be here today, but not who might accompany her so this story is one about Poppet. Please read it.”

Iain looked at Lucifer. “And I think it’s time for me to leave. I was going to take the girls for a walk if you didn’t mind.”

“I’d be grateful if you did. This may take a while.” Lucy was watching Poppet turn pale. “I see you picked a good story for her.”

“It’s the one where she met Jamie,” he replied. “Ladies,” he said loudly enough to be heard by everyone. “I know that Poppet and her group expected to deal with me about my stories, but the truth is that Ninhursag and Lucifer are going to handle this discussion since I can’t stop staring at Bellona’s tits.” The Dragonqueen gave him an amused smile. “So since it’s probably bad for my heart to do that, I’m going to take Olivia and Seraphina and we’re going to go for a walk.” He smiled disarmingly. “Relax, it’s going to be a walk that is a lot more boring than this and no fun whatsoever, I reassure you.” Elizabeth and Canaan laughed. “So I am not bailing on an excruciatingly boring meeting to scamper off to something interesting.” He put his hand over his heart and tried to look innocently at everyone. “Trust me.”

That broke the tension that had been building and even got a smile out of Kasumi as everyone laughed. Iain got to his feet and waited as the security cordon readjusted to let him leave with Pandora and Dianthus. He reached out through his twee. Hey. Heather’s eyes flicked towards him and away as she kept sweeping the area for threats. You are my favorite Elf. Dianthus joining my personal detail does not mean you are off of it. You will still be guarding my valuable carcass almost as much as you did before.

Pandora makes that decision, she replied.

I overrode her when you wanted to join my detail and I’ll do it again if I have to. It just means that three of you are good enough to protect me full time and you’ll be free to give me kits.

She twitched but didn’t otherwise react. I’d like that and thank you. Now stop distracting me. Since her shoulders had relaxed, Iain let her be.

“Come on, ladies. I need company on my walk.”

Seraphina popped to her feet. “Yes, Daddy.” Olivia just walked over and took his hand.

Pandora glanced at him as the started to walk around the Omega tree. What was Heather so pissed about?

Elfqueens replace Elves and she saw it happening to her. He stopped and looked at the two little girls. “I would like one of you to be so nice as to ask Kasumi Wolf to join us and not take no for an answer. Could you do that for me?”

Seraphina grinned. “Yes, Daddy. It’ll be fun.” She raced around the tree, followed at a trot by Dianthus.

She’s not being replaced. Pandora replied irritably. I would never do that. She has the same connection with you that I do. Dianthus has it too. We are the damned ones that you saved and we will never fail to protect you. I recommend you take both of them from Ninhursag’s court so their loyalties are never divided. I also want you to delta bond them to you so they’re not dependent on me to be able to find you.

Have Heather come back with Seraphina and Kasumi, Iain instructed. There is enough firepower already at that meeting that guards aren’t really needed.

You’re right. I’ve told her.

What is this the damned thing you mentioned?

You rescued Dianthus from centuries of abuse and you gave her worth that will eventually become self-worth. You rescued Heather from that abusive bastard who held her and possibly from death at Ninhursag’s hands. And you made my soul whole and rescued me from my self-torture over the death of my tamer. Pandora glanced at him. We are the damned and you have freed us from the hells in which we were trapped.

Iain wasn’t going to break even in that discussion, much less win so instead he watched as Seraphina lured Kasumi from the meeting and brought her around the tree, flanked by Dianthus and Heather.

Olivia tugged on his hand. “Daddy,” she asked quietly, “why is she sad?”

“I’m not entirely sure,” he replied just as quietly, “I think I know but it’s not something to share right now.”

“Yes, Daddy. Can we make her happy?”

“I’m not sure about that either, but perhaps we can make her less sad.” He smiled at Kasumi as she joined them. “Hi.”

She nodded to him. “Hello, Iain Grey.”

“Hey, don’t go all Nipponese on me now. We’re friends. I’m Iain.”

She blinked and smiled slightly. “And what would I be?”

“Why you’re Kasumi. You’re not going to be Mrs. Wolf to me and Professor is right out.”

She gave him an amused look. “You’re not going to stop this, are you?”

“Nope. But if you’d like we can change the subject. Ask me about this tree.”

She looked up. “It is incredible. What magic made it possible?”

“When I met Ninhursag, she didn’t have a living bow. We went out to get her one and after she did we had an accident involving some magic and it changed her bow and quiver to look like they do now.” He glanced at her. “I don’t know if Lynn and Gwyneth have shared this, but the arrows of a living bow’s quiver grow from the bottom of the quiver.”

Kasumi looked interested in spite of herself. “No, I would have remembered if they’d told me that.”

Dianthus looked at Heather and jerked her head towards them. “Show her.”

“Yes, queen.” Heather dropped her quiver off of her shoulders and moved to Iain. “She can look inside mine and see, sir.”

Kasumi peered inside. “Can you run out of arrows?”

Heather nodded. “The quiver can grow them a lot faster than you might suppose but eventually it’ll need to rest and we’ll run low at that point. But fired arrows can be retrieved and reused if necessary to extend our ammunition and non-living arrows can also be used in an emergency. To tire out my quiver would take over an hour of constant shooting.”

Kasumi nodded to her. “Thank you for showing me that.”

Heather returned to her post as Iain gestured at the tree. “If an arrow is pulled from the quiver and thrust point first into the ground, it’ll sprout as a tree of the type that the quiver came from. In Heather’s case it would be a blackjack oak. Ninhursag's arrows were unique, so we planted one to see what would grow and it turned into a tree a lot like this one.”

Kasumi eyed him curiously. “Is this tree different?”

“It turns out that the trees from her quiver are all female and wouldn’t flower without some help so that it had both male and female flowers on it.” Iain said. “This tree grew up able to make male and female flowers.”

“What kind of magic was used to make that first tree fertile?”

“I was involved in the creation of the bow and quiver,” Iain said. “And my blood was needed to complete the process. And a little experimentation shows that any arrow from her quiver will need my blood to produce a fertile tree. Unfortunately for me and the first tree both, it was fully grown when we discovered this issue and so more than a few drops of my blood was required. We later calculated that it took close to twenty percent of my blood volume. That’s never fun.”

Kasumi gave him an amused smile. “And how many times has that happened to you?”

“More than I’d like to think about.”

Kasumi’s smile vanished. “You’re serious.”

He nodded. “I wish I was kidding, but yes I am. I’ve had some interesting adventures since I was kidnapped.”

Pandora snorted and Kasumi turned to glance at her. “Understatement is one of his bad habits,” the Archangel said. “He’s almost died on multiple occasions, the last when he helped Kerrik.”

Iain waved a hand. “Hey, that one shouldn’t really count. I had medical care on standby so as long as Kerrik couldn’t shred my brain I wasn’t in completely mortal danger.” Heather made a strangled noise and Iain rolled his eyes. “And there’s always commentary from the peanut gallery.” He looked up into the branches. “This tree required my blood too because it came from Ninhursag’s quiver, but we gave it blood when she planted it so it didn’t need nearly as much. According to the tree, my blood is why the flowers are so red.” He looked around. “Unfortunately they smell really good so the ones close to the ground get picked clean pretty quickly.” He looked down at Seraphina. “I don’t suppose I could boost you to a higher branch and you wouldn’t be nice enough to climb up there and get some flowers for Kasumi, would you?”

She shook her head. “Mother made us promise not to climb the Omega trees. But you can ask the tree to give you flowers, Daddy.”

“I can?” She nodded. “I thought I was supposed to be the guy who knew things.”

Olivia giggled. “We are not guys, Daddy.”

Kasumi chuckled as Iain shook his head. “You’re right and I should have realized that.” He sighed. “Kasumi, do you mind waiting a minute while I try to exercise a power I’m told I have but have never used?”

She nodded. “You asked me on this walk, Iain, and I am grateful for the invitation. I am at your disposal.”

“Thanks.” He put his hands on the closest branch and closed his eyes as he adjusted his energy to match that of the tree. “I realize that people keep pinching your flowers,” he said quietly, “but I was hoping that you would give me a spray of them if you wouldn’t mind.”

Kasumi watched as the branches overhead trembled and one moved, lowering and moving sideways until it was directly over his head. Iain turned over a hand and a spray of blood red flowers dropped free from the branch and landed in it. “Thank you,” he said gently, “and I thank you for the explanation too. It makes me happy to know we’re not really bothering you when we do.” He opened his eyes and she was surprised to see they were completely silver for a second before turning back to their normal color. He offered her the flowers. “They’ve got a fascinating scent. Nobody has been able to identify it and Theodora thinks it’s unique. If it wasn’t from the Omega tree we might try processing it into perfume.”

She took the flowers and sniffed them carefully. As a kami, many scents were just too overpowering for her to enjoy, so she was pleasantly surprised at how wonderful these smelled. The odor was intoxicating and temporarily banished her sadness. “They’re heavenly,” she said as she breathed deeply.

“Please keep them.” He looked at Dianthus and Heather. “The tree told me that it deliberately grows flowers low enough to be picked so we can enjoy them. The flowers we can’t reach are more than enough for it to set fruit for us to later eat. Pass the word around when you get the chance since I know some Elves were getting a little snarky about people harvesting the flowers.”

“We will, master,” Dianthus replied.

Kasumi was looking up into the tree. Every branch she could see was almost completely covered with the hanging bunches of flowers amidst the dense silver leaves. “How much fruit will this tree set?”

“In the past, every flower it has will set fruit,” Iain said. “We harvested tons of it last year. The meat has a texture like avocado but it tastes like a rich dark chocolate. I’d offer you some but any from last year was eaten long ago. We keep the seeds and we’re planting them all over Texas since once a tree gets over thirty meters or so tall it will often kill feral pokegirls who attack it.” He glanced at her. “This is your first visit to the ranch. Would you like a tour of the property?” He looked around. “Well, the nearby property, that is.”

“Why would it be just the nearby property?”

“We’re near enough to the main ranch that we can tour it fairly easily, but we have a satellite ranch at the lake where we’re farming fish, turtles and frogs, another at the edge of the forest where we have suitable land for two squares mile of pecan orchard that we’re farming for pecans and pecan truffles, the pig ranch which has its headquarters way north of here and is also used for deer and kattle management on my property, the fruit orchards which are near the wine crops and we just finished planting the winery and hops farms which are several miles away from the Sabine House area to keep ferals from raiding us just for the grapes and other berries we’re growing there.” He frowned. “I must admit that nearly everywhere is pretty hectic today with the packing. That’s why I asked Poppet to reschedule, but there’s no real harm done that she didn’t. We just may end up leaving a couple of hours later tomorrow.”

“You’re packing?”

Iain nodded. “We’re taking a trip.”

Kasumi frowned slightly. “Are you being deliberately vague?”

Pandora’s face moved but she managed not to laugh as Iain seemed to think about it for a minute before nodding. “Yes, I am.”

“Why?”

“Habit, I guess. Your family and mine seem to be at minor odds a lot and keeping information out of the hands of your family seems prudent a good chunk of the time.” Iain shrugged. “You see, we’re going on a trip to another universe.” Kasumi blinked and he smiled. “We expect to come back within a few hours of leaving but even if you’re going someplace you’ve been to dozens of times there’s always a tiny but real chance that the random factors could slingshot you far from both your destination and your origin universe. The clan leadership demanded a rule that was duly laid before the rank and file of the clan and passed unanimously that whenever I go across universes, the whole clan goes with me. We’ve never been to the universe we’re aiming for this time, so there is that higher than normal chance for disaster, but still it’s pretty small. Amusingly enough, you’ve been there. Well, your family has. You didn’t go. The annoying bit is that we can’t ask Shikarou for the coordinates.”

Kasumi looked puzzled. “What universe is that?”

“It’s where the Glasgow pokegirls came from. I have a NurseJoy that Jamie and Poppet gave me, a nice lady by the name of Siobhan. It turns out that she was Recognized with her previous owner and she really misses him and would like to know if he’s dead or not. If he is alive, she’ll probably go with him and I’ll have to decide if I want to go through this again with another NurseJoy. If not, she can grieve his death and hopefully join us wholeheartedly. But she wants some kind of resolution, it’s my job as clan leader to try and get it for her and I’d really like it if she stopped moping around.”

“Why couldn’t you ask my husband for the coordinates to this universe?”

“We’d like to leave this year, that’s why,” Pandora muttered.

Apparently Kasumi heard her, for her cheeks reddened. “My husband is not a cruel man. I’m sure that a properly worded request would result in the coordinates you desire in good time.”

“First of all, your husband, while not a cruel man, isn’t all that friendly and there is no assurance he’d ever give us those coordinates. I’m sure he’d come up with a good reason why we shouldn’t have them, too. Anyways, even if he did decide to provide them, in good time for an immortal can be a very long time indeed for the rest of us,” Iain said quietly. “And I am well aware that while he doesn’t actually hate me or mine, we have never received and don’t expect Christmas cards from him.” He grimaced. “I just get tired of the games.”

“What games?”

“Well, Eve and I go to Haven to visit you. She and you are becoming pretty good friends and we, well we get along ok.”

“You’re not my friend?”

“I don’t think you consider yourself to be my friend, Kasumi. As long as I believe you feel that way, why should I bother trying to be your friend? Anyways, the game I’m talking about is the one where nobody comes to visit us until Poppet wants something and then she acts like she’s just one of the girls here. We are kind of proud of what we’ve done here and real friends would at least pretend to be interested so we can show off a little.” He sighed. “Sorry. Theodora just pointed out I was whining and it’s not polite. So I’m sorry you had to listen to me whine about my feeling that your family is snubbing mine. The truth is we have tried to be a little friendly but when it wasn’t reciprocated we didn’t bother to keep trying. We’ve got way too many other things that are,” he paused, searching for the polite way to say it and then gave it up for the truth, “honestly, that are a lot more important than Shikarou getting his fur ruffled over the fact that I’m usually right when we disagree.”

Kasumi tilted her head and smiled slightly. “It didn’t help that Kerrik agreed with you in every instance,” she said quietly. “And Shikarou was particularly put out about the fact that his father chose to seek your help instead of his in regaining his full power.”

“Actually, I was completely stupid and volunteered,” Iain admitted. “Kerrik wasn’t planning to go that route until I suggested it. It wasn’t the wrong thing for me to do but I’d have cheerfully given the job to Shikarou if he wanted it. I came within a hair’s breadth of dying and that was almost the closest I’ve ever been to death.”

“I have seen video of the event,” Kasumi said disbelievingly. “And Faelan’s mother was very explicit in just how badly you were hurt since she has your memories. How were you ever closer to death than that?”

Iain was quiet for a little bit and when he spoke his voice was almost uninflected. “When I was first kidnapped, I was tortured, both physically and with magic and healed between episodes. Even today, with the help of my twee and my magic I still can’t remember exactly what happened then and I’ve reluctantly accepted that it is probably for the best that I can’t. I would come out of the torture not knowing how long it had been and if I’d been in there for hours, minutes, days or years. I never got to see the outside and there were no clocks around. I still have no idea how long I was in their hands. It all felt like it lasted forever every time I was subjected to it. I still lose pieces of time sometimes because of that torture, but the one thing I do remember clearly was the overriding sense of absolute hopelessness I had. Anyone can be broken and I went so far past that point that I had nothing left except my refusal to tell them what they wanted and sometimes I couldn’t remember what it was. My existence became nothing but pain and there was nothing I wouldn’t have done to make that pain stop. So when the opportunity came, I was eager to taunt a PsiDyke into burying her knife in my heart, which she did almost as eagerly as I wanted her to.” Everyone was staring at Iain since he’d never told this story. “The only reason I didn’t die is because the PsiDyke realized what she’d done and raised the alarm barely in time to save me. Scheherazade was their prisoner too and they ordered her to save my life or they were going to kill her for it. It’s how we met.” He shook himself and his voice returned to normal. “Anyways that’s what I meant.”

Seraphina and Olivia hugged him around the waist. “Daddy, we won’t ever let anyone hurt you like that again. You’ll always be safe! We promise!”

He knelt and hugged them back. “You can’t promise me that. I will not allow it,” he said gently. “You won’t be strong enough to protect me that completely for years and by then you’ll have your own lives to live, with men or women that you can give your hearts and bodies to unreservedly. You deserve that. I won’t allow you to cripple your lives with a promise like that for me. I survived my captivity and I will survive it again if I have to, and if it does happen again this time I’ll have your love and the love of everyone else to keep me so strong that I might not even feel the pain.” He smiled as he stood. “But, of course, my first goal is to keep from ever being in that situation again.” He looked at Pandora. “And that is why I have taken some of the steps to protect myself that I have, even if you and the others hate them.”

“I never said I didn’t understand why you made those decisions,” Pandora replied softly. “Although you’ve never said anything about your captivity before and now I understand better, but I can never agree with them.”

“And that is your choice,” he said. “But even if I could unmake them I would not.” He turned back to Kasumi as Pandora audibly ground her teeth. “And that bit of vagueness I am not going to explain today. As much as I like you personally and as much as I respect some of the things your family has done, someday I might find myself in your dungeons because there’s a lot they’ve done that I won’t ever be able to accept.”

Kasumi nodded. “Do you think that you and Shikarou can ever be friends?”

“Have you ever seen him call a human male a friend,” Iain asked.

Kasumi looked surprised and then thoughtful. “Ranma was his friend, but otherwise I can’t remember him saying that about any human male.”

Iain smiled. “Then I probably won’t hold my breath about it happening to me. Anyways, I think that’s enough politics. Would you like that tour or is there anything else you’d like to do?”

“Can we go swimming,” Olivia asked eagerly. “I want to go swimming.”

“Yes! Swimming!” Seraphina grabbed Iain’s hand. “At the springs!”

“I was asking Kasumi, not you two,” Iain said with a smile.

Kasumi suddenly found herself faced by two identical eager young Megami-sama. “Can we go swimming, Kasumi? You can come too! Swimming is fun!” They crowded closer and hugged her. “Please!”

Iain took the two girls by the hands and tugged them away. “Let Kasumi breathe ladies.”

“I have no specific plans,” Kasumi said slowly. She met his gaze and he was surprised at the faint twinkle in her eyes. “If they want to swim I won’t forbid it.”

Iain stared at her as the two Megami-sama whirled to gaze pleadingly at him. “Did you just make me the bad parent,” he asked incredulously.

Kasumi gave him an innocent smile. “I did not. I gave you the choice.”

“That was extraordinarily cruel,” Iain said with a smile of his own, “and very well played.” He looked at the girls. “Fine, swim. Theodora, please clear the springs for us.” He looked at Pandora. “Since we don't have any other transport available right now, I guess a teleport is in order.”

“I cannot carry you, the girls and Kasumi together,” Pandora said. “Heather cannot carry anyone yet and Dianthus has not been to the springs. In any case, she has not yet had her transport capability evaluated so she cannot carry anyone either, as you well know.”

“I guess more training is in order then,” Iain said. “After Theodora has cleared the springs area Barb can watch the rest of us while Heather goes on ahead and you take the girls, then Kasumi and then me and then finally Barb. We won’t leave the area until all of you are there.”

Pandora nodded. “That is the best compromise.” She took the girls by the hands. “You are not to enter the water until your father is there and gives you permission, do you understand me? If you don’t obey me I will get you out of the water and then freeze the springs so that you cannot swim today. And then I will tell Lucy about your disobedience.” They nodded. “Good.”

Theodora appeared. “The spring zone is clear. Because of the girls I sweep it every few hours just to make sure they have someplace to swim. I have combat drones on station overhead in case of trouble.”

“Thank you,” Iain said. “Girls, thank Theodora for being so nice.”

“Thank you, Theodora,” they chorused. “You’re awesome!”

Heather vanished, followed a second later by Pandora and the girls. Pandora returned and grabbed Kasumi’s hand. They disappeared. Finally the Archangel appeared. “Dianthus, give me your pokeball.” The Elfqueen handed it to Pandora, who recovered her and took Iain’s hand. “This saves me a trip.” She looked into Iain’s eyes. “Are you trying to seduce her?”

Iain shrugged. “I doubt she’s in the mood for seduction right now and, honestly, I’m winging this more than usual. I didn’t know she was coming so I didn’t make any plans regarding her.”

“Dianthus thinks you are.” The scene changed and they were standing at the Barton House. “Raquel is at the springs with Heather so I thought we’d get some drinks before going to the springs.”

“Dianthus is weird,” Iain said. “Can’t I spend time with a woman without planning her seduction?”

“Not that I have seen.” She smiled at him. “You are thinking about seducing me right now.”

“True.” Surprise rippled through him. “Wait, you can’t read minds!”

“I don’t have to read your mind to know that.” She disappeared inside house only to return a second later with a basket. “Theodora put it together for us.”

“We probably should put a fridge in the vault,” Iain said as Pandora took his hand.

The scene changed again. “No,” she disagreed, “the reason we didn’t put one there originally is still valid.” She let him go and released Dianthus. “I’ll open the vault. Your daughters would like a moment of your time.”

Iain turned around. Kasumi was standing near Heather with an amused smile while Raquel was on the other side of the pool and not too far from the trees they’d grown for some shade. Directly in front of him Seraphina was bouncing in place while Olivia was waiting patiently, at least until you looked into her eyes and saw the bridled eagerness gleaming in them. “Very well ladies, you have permission to swim, but don’t leave the main spring.”

Clothes flew in all directions and two naked little girls hit the water like otters to disappear with nary a splash.

“Next time,” Dianthus suggested, “make them fold their clothes neatly and put them somewhere safe.”

“I’ll remember that. I’m still new to this whole parenting thing for those two.”

“I am going to look around since I’ve never been here,” the Elfqueen continued.

“That’s why Raquel is here,” Iain said. “Go.”

Kasumi was watching the pool. ‘They haven’t come up yet,” she observed.

“They won’t for a while. They’re both old enough to use magic to breathe water,” Iain said. “Theodora is keeping an eye on them.” Iain was too with his perception, but that wasn’t any of Kasumi’s business.

Kasumi looked around curiously. The pool was surrounded by lush grass and nearby Pandora was standing and watching as a hatch opened in the center of a two meter square slab of concrete set in the ground. “What is that?”

“We come here a lot in the spring, summer and fall,” Iain said. “The pools are fed by the Edwards Aquifer and the water is cold year round, so in the heat of the year this is a really nice place for a party. The vault is where we store all of the party stuff like chairs, tables and whatnot. It’s flush with the ground so most ferals wouldn’t even notice it, much less bother with it, and we spray the exterior with a solvent when we’re done that removes any scents from the concrete.”

Pandora laid out some chairs close together and put the basket beside the one on the left. “I’ll get you a table too.”

“Thank you.” He turned back to Kasumi. “So, have a seat.”

“Daddy!” Iain turned around to see a little girl watching him from the pool. “Come swim with us!”

He shook his head. “Seraphina, I’m pretty sure that Kasumi didn’t come to visit prepared to go swimming and I’m not going to leave her alone up here to go gallivanting off with you two.”

The girl turned her attention on his guest. “Come swimming, Kasumi! It’s fun!”

“Perhaps next time,” Kasumi said. She sat down in one of the chairs. “But not today.”

The girl made a face that vanished into a bright smile. “Next time!” She vanished back under the surface.

“What are they doing under there,” Kasumi asked as Iain settled down in the other chair. Pandora plopped a lightweight table down next to the basket and moved off to take her post.

“They’re probably chasing crawdads or fish,” Iain said. He pulled a beer from the basket. “Drink? I don’t have any nihonshu or a broiler to heat it properly even if I did. I will if you come back though.”

“Thank you, but beer is fine.”

Iain got himself a beer and leaned back in the chair. He glanced at Kasumi, who was looking sad again. “Do you want to talk about it?”

Her head came around in surprise, which quickly changed to suspicion. “Talk about what?”

“Relax. Canaan did not go through your mind and, if she did accidentally, she wouldn’t tell me unless you were planning to kill someone I care for. I got the impression that you didn’t come here for the negotiations, what with you being here and the negotiations being a hundred kilometers that way,” he pointed east with his bottle. “And you kind of look like someone took your puppy away. I don’t repeat what people tell me and talking about a problem often makes it more manageable, or at least makes you feel better.”

Kasumi shook her head. “I could not bother you with something so personal.”

“Well, I can't insist, Kasumi. All I can do is offer to listen as best I can without judgment or comment.”

She glanced at him. “Without comment?”

He nodded. “Without comment. I have realized that a lot of people who someone might otherwise safely confide in seem to believe that anyone who does so wants them to try and solve their problem. Sometimes I suppose that is true, but anyone with half a brain will ask for that help up front. Most of the time, however, all they really wanted to do is have someone listen to them without doing anything more than making the occasional encouraging noise while they do.” He smiled at her. “I love Eve very much, but she is one of those self-appointed problem solvers and likes to think she's helping.”

“And you are not one of these problem solvers?”

Iain chuckled. “No, I am definitely one of those problem solvers. The difference is I keep those solutions to myself unless I am asked to provide them. And if someone chooses to ask for my opinion and then ignores it, I can't make people be as right as I usually am.” He smirked. “Not that I normally put it that way to them. I just say that it's their choice as to whether or not they use the opinion they've solicited. If they choose not to, I don't normally let it bother me.”

“So you would have a solution to my problem if I was to share it, but you would not tell me that unless I asked you to?”

“I can't guarantee I have a solution that will work and even if it does you might not want to hear it,” Iain said. “If you came to me and said your sun was getting ready to go nova and you wanted a way to prevent that, I'd probably suggest moving to another solar system instead.”

Kasumi sighed. “I should return home. You have more important things to do if you are preparing to leave.”

“No, I don't,” Iain said. She looked surprised. “I said that you don't think that you're my friend. I also said that while you think that I don't see a reason to be your friend. I never said I didn't want you to be my friend and to be yours. I do want that.” He smiled. “And besides, I'm already packed and I've been told that right now my help isn't needed. If Poppet hadn't insisted on today for the meeting I'd be off studying my magic or practicing combat runs in a stingship.” He glanced at the pool. “Or doing almost exactly what I'm doing now and entertaining two six years olds with an incredible penchant for finding the absolute worst place to try and help.”

Kasumi blinked as her twee informed her about what a stingship was. “You have combat spacecraft?”

“The Theodora is armed, so yes. As for stingships, the Theodora has a full complement of parasite craft, including combat vehicles. I'll never be a natural pilot but flying them in simulations is a lot of fun.” He took a pull on his bottle. “But I'd rather be here watching a couple of my daughters scare the daylights out of crawfish and talking with you than wondering how I managed to miss a tiny little spaceship with my weapons and then managed to hit a planet with my ship.” He flashed a grin. “My first combat missions were absolute disasters, at least for my side.”

Kasumi chuckled. “Everyone who starts any sort of martial art must understand that no one begins as a master.”

“True.” Iain leaned back in his chair and watched a cloud overhead. “Speaking of martial arts, did you ask about learning the Tsukkiken style from your husband or father in law?”

“I did.”

Iain lifted his head to look at her but she was staring into the pool with a fixed expression and didn't seem to notice. He waited a few minutes but she didn't stop staring into the pool, even when Olivia came to the surface, looked around and dove again. “Kasumi.” Nothing. He raised his voice. “Kasumi!” She jerked and looked at him. Tears glittered in her eyes. “Can you stay here a few days?”

She blinked several times and wiped at her eyes. “What?”

“Can you stay here a few days?”

Her eyes looked into his for over a minute before she responded. “I shouldn't,” she finally said.

“I didn't ask if you should or not, I asked if you could. Can you?”

“Why is it important?”

“We're leaving in the morning and expect to be back tomorrow afternoon, at least as far as local time is concerned. You really look like you need some time to work through something and I thought you could come with us.” He held up a hand to stop her when she started to speak. “On this trip there will be some hijinks with time while we're gone. Here a day will pass, but we expect that for us this trip will take roughly two weeks. That would give you the time to get a good start on working through whatever has you so unhappy right now and would give you a break from your responsibilities on Haven to help you focus on it.”

Kasumi shook her head. “I could never get permission to do that.”

“So don't.” She gave him a shocked look and he grinned. “I happen to know that Shikarou is a firm believer in same philosophy of behavior that I sometimes use, that being a lot of the time is it much easier to ask for and receive forgiveness than it is to get permission. You'll be my guest on the trip and won't have to do anything more than eat enough to not die while you're with us. Or if you'd like to participate in our little adventure you can do that too and I'll do my best to keep you safe during it.”

“That's a really bad idea,” Pandora said. “Kasumi has no field experience and this is going to be a terrible time to start acquiring it.”

“She's a good fighter, she just hasn't had to actually fight on a battlefield. Besides, if she sticks close to me how much fighting is she likely to see?”

Pandora scowled at him. “None if we're lucky.”

“What are you two talking about,” Kasumi asked curiously. “You said you were going to let this Siobhan see if her old master is still alive. How much danger could there be?”

Pandora looked at Kasumi like she was an idiot. “Siobhan came from the Glasgow theft,” she said sarcastically. “She's from Glasgow. Her master is from Glasgow. Glasgow is overrun with Zombabes. We have to go to Siobhan's house first. It is in Glasgow. We will be fighting Zombabes and you'll be dead weight.”

“Pandora,” Iain snapped. “You can't know that.”

“Fine, she'll probably be dead weight.”

Kasumi's eyes were hooded as she glared at Pandora. “I am kami,” she said coldly. She looked at Iain. “You would let me come on this mission?”

He nodded. “I would welcome your company.”

“Then I will come.” She shot Pandora another hard look. “And we will see about my worth.” She frowned. “I do not have any clothes for this trip and I did not bring my pokegirls with me.

Iain started to ask about her sanity in being at Poppet's mercy and stopped himself just before the words popped out. “We can provide you with anything you need,” Iain said, “but if there's something specific you want, if you don't ask too many questions I can probably provide transport back to your place to get it.”

“What do you mean, too many questions,” Kasumi asked.

Iain gave her an innocent smile. “Everything you need is in your bedroom suite, right?”

“Yes, why?”

“Well, arriving at your house would probably involve some questions about why you're getting your things.” He grimaced, “I have someone who has been in your bedroom and she can teleport you straight there so you can get your stuff.”

Kasumi's eyebrows rose. “You have had someone in my bedroom.” Her voice was even, but Iain could hear the question in it.

“It could be,” he said carefully, “that someone from a special group has been in the bedroom of every member of the royal family in Haven. We are a cautious folk here and recently your husband has not been a friend of ours, so certain precautions might have been considered in order, just in case.”

Kasumi was staring at him in shock. “And how is it that our security elements did not detect your precautions while they were being laid?”

“We, um, might know a couple of tricks with technology that Shikarou hasn't bothered to avail himself of due to an inherent arrogance,” Iain said quietly, “that comes from not being nearly as squishy as I am. Those tricks might keep your surveillance systems from noticing us during our initial entry and then some additions to that security system might make it possible afterwards to visit undetected.”

“You were planning to kill us,” Kasumi asked incredulously.

“Neutralize is more the word I'd probably use. Murdering your family would get Kerrik involved against us and that would prove unhealthy,” Iain replied. “Your family being wrapped in miles of duct tape he might actually find funny. And they were contingency plans only, in case I needed to get my hands on Shikarou even if at the time he was feeling like being rather uncommunicative.” He shrugged. “However, it turns out to be a bit fortuitous for you since you can get your things and your girls without being hindered while doing so with uncomfortable questions from anyone.” He smiled suddenly. “You of all people can appreciate the practicality that made those plans necessary.”

Kasumi stared at him for several seconds before laughing suddenly. “I should be appalled that you'd think of us as your enemy, but you are right in that I can understand such caution on your part.”

“You should be pleased that we take the potential threat you pose so seriously,” Iain replied. “And I realize that in telling you, I am accepting that those windows into your security will be closed as quickly as your people can locate them. So, do you want that transport?”

Kasumi nodded. “If I am going with you I have no choice.”

Iain reached out through his bonds with his dead. Eirian, who has been to Kasumi's home and can teleport her there instead of using shadow walk? I don't want anyone finding out about shadow walking.

Beryl will be there in a few minutes, my lord.

Thank you. “A Dragoness will be here in a few minutes to take you to your quarters,” Iain said.

Kasumi frowned. “We have no knowledge of you having Dragonesses.”

“It wouldn't be that special of a group if you did,” Iain pointed out.

“You have managed to sneak into our private quarters and put together a special unit that we had no knowledge of,” Kasumi said quietly. “Bellona considers herself well informed as to our potential threats, but I do not think you were even under consideration.”

“The arrogance of the kami,” Pandora said firmly.

Kasumi looked startled. “You could be right,” she said speculatively. She suddenly turned to Iain. “What happened to Eoghan and Germanicus?”

He regarded her for several seconds. “They are no more.”

She looked surprised. “How did you destroy them?”

“I had help from Ygerna,” Iain said. He looked past her. “Beryl.”

Kasumi turned to see an extremely animalistic dark red Dragoness standing next to the pool. “My lord,” she bowed. “I await your instructions.”

Iain got to his feet. “Beryl, this is Kasumi. She wants to get some of her possessions and I'd like you to teleport her to her bedroom suite and then bring her back here the same way once she has what she wants.”

“Am I to defend her, my lord?”

“If necessary, but don't act unless she is in danger.”

“Yes, my lord.” Beryl looked at Kasumi. “Come, kami.”

Iain shook his head as Kasumi got to her feet. “Her name is Kasumi, Beryl. Please use it.”

“Yes, my lord.” The massive head swung back to Kasumi, watching her.

Kasumi stopped and glanced at Iain. “Something about her bothers me.”

Beryl laughed hollowly. “This one has a strong survival drive, my lord.”

“You will be safe with Beryl for this trip,” Iain said.

Kasumi blinked. “This trip? And later?”

“All life ends, Kasumi Tendo Wolf,” Beryl said. “Yours will not end while you are under my protection.”

Iain stepped past Kasumi and stopped when he was in front of Beryl. Her head tilted down to look into his eyes. “Please stop teasing Kasumi, Beryl.” This can't be fun for you since she doesn't know enough to be properly afraid of you.

Beryl smiled. “As you command, my lord. I will not speak to her again unless it is absolutely necessary.”

“Thank you, Beryl.” He turned to Kasumi. “If you'd like, I can come with you.”

“Iain,” Pandora said warningly.

“I trust you, Iain, and through you your agents,” Kasumi said. “I will see you soon.” She took Beryl's hand. “Take me to my quarters, Beryl.” They vanished.

Iain looked at Pandora and she shook her head. “I didn't intend to goad her into coming with us. I was trying to get her to stay here. She has no business with us.” Dianthus laughed. “What is so funny, Elf?”

“It's Elfqueen,” Dianthus said good naturedly. “And you don't get to decide what business our master has with anyone.”

Seraphina popped above the surface of the water. “Daddy, who was the scary woman?” Olivia appeared next to her.

“That was Beryl and she works for me,” Iain said.

“Does Mommy know about her,” Olivia asked.

“She does. She doesn't like Beryl and Beryl's associates, but she understands why I have them and she accepts them for that reason.” He had a thought. “She also understands that I will try to make them be good bad people too, just like me.”

“She cannot be good, Daddy,” Olivia said firmly. “But she cannot be whole without you and so she will do what you want her to.”

“What does that mean,” Pandora asked.

“I'm not sure, but it may have to do with what they are.” He turned back to his daughters. “They will not hurt you or anyone else unless I want them to.”

“Yes, Daddy.” Seraphina waded out of the water as her sister submerged again. “Can I have something to drink?”

“There are towels in the basket,” Pandora said quietly.

Iain grabbed one and dried Seraphina as he reached out with his twee. Olivia, it's time for a break and a drink.

Yes Daddy. She shot out of the water and ran to him to stand for him to dry.

He finished drying both girls. “Swimming is done for the day so get dressed.” The girls protested but finally dragged on their clothes before sitting down to have some grape juice.

Pandora shook her head. “I've never seen Celestial nudists before.”

Iain chuckled. “The only reason I'm making them get dressed is I don't know how Kasumi feels about it. They don't bother me.”

“You hope they'll encourage more of us to wander around without clothes,” Pandora said back with an amused smile.

“I plead the fifth,” Iain replied. Heather smiled but managed not to laugh.

Raquel shook her head. “Trust our Iain to say he will let us make our own choice while still trying to influence that choice as much as he possibly can.”

“I have no idea what you're talking about,” Iain said loftily.

“Yes, you'd say that as part of your process,” Raquel observed.

We return, Beryl said through their bond.

“Kasumi's coming back,” Iain announced.

A moment later Beryl appeared with Kasumi. She let the kami go, bowed to Iain and vanished again as Kasumi released her Archmage, Nishiko.

It is interesting to note but understandable that Kasumi did not report what you told her about our subverting of their internal security systems, Theodora said to him. She would have been detained for some time by awkward questions and might not have been allowed to return if her intent had been divined. She really wants to get some time away from her family.

She needs it. “Welcome back, Kasumi,” Iain said, “and it's nice to see you again, Nishiko.”

“Clan Leader,” Nishiko said with a bow, “it is a pleasure to see you as well.”

She blinked in surprise when Iain waggled a finger at her. “We are no longer on Haven, Nishiko and instead on my land where my rules apply. Unless Kasumi expressly forbids it, I am Iain here and not Clan Leader.”

Nishiko gave him a surprised look and turned to Kasumi. “Mistress, what is your command?”

Kasumi gave Iain an amused smile. “We will be spending some time with the Grey clan, Nishiko, and he would be expected to follow our customs were he to stay on Haven. Do as he says.”

“Yes, Mistress.”

Theodora appeared. “There's a shuttle inbound for Kasumi's luggage. I'll ferry it aboard and put it in her quarters.”

“I don't have much in the way of luggage,” Kasumi said. “I didn't leave with luggage so taking it could cause people to wonder. But I wasn't going to leave without my harem and nobody knew I didn't bring them with me.”

“Cancel the shuttle, Theodora, but thank you,” Iain said. “Now for the either fun or unpleasant chore of letting Poppet's group know Kasumi will be staying for a few days.”

“Why would that be fun,” Pandora asked.

“Not for us,” Iain said, “I meant that Kasumi might enjoy doing it.”

Kasumi cocked her head. “Are you trying to lead me into being bad?”

“No, just giving you the opportunity to vent on Poppet and the others. That might be bad for her, but you're my guest and so I'm concerned about what's best for you as opposed to her.”

“Isn't Poppet your guest right now?”

Iain shook his head. “She's here on business. We did break bread, but that doesn't make me give her the rights of hospitality. You were invited to stay as my guest.”

“Rights of hospitality? I don't think that's normal clan behavior, is it?”

Iain shrugged. “It's this clan's and that's what matters. If you're my guest, you're under my protection. It's part of the original reason I was willing to help Ygerna confront your family over her books. If you need something and I can give it to you, I probably will. If you have a battle you need fought, I'll help.”

She gave him an amused smile. “Would you tell Poppet I'm staying?”

“If you'd like.” He looked at Pandora. “Let's exit near the tree. You've got the girls, Raquel can take Kasumi and Barb can carry me.”

“Dianthus hasn't been tested,” Pandora said.

“I will safely carry him,” Dianthus said.

Pandora glanced at her, then at Kasumi and nodded. “Do so.”

Dianthus took Iain's arm and they moved to the Omega tree. “I will request testing as soon as possible,” she told him as she let him go.

“Good.”

Raquel appeared with Kasumi at the same time that Heather arrived. “We didn't clean up,” she said.

“Theodora will take care of that and seal the vault,” Iain said, “this one time.” He watched as Kasumi released Nishiko again.

Raquel had moved closer to him and she saw his slight frown. “I don't think they're delta bonded,” she said quietly. “Or she could have summoned them to her from the pools.”

“It's been over twenty years,” he replied just as quietly.

“Time is not the necessary requirement,” she said back to him, “strong feelings are.”

“True.” Pandora appeared with the girls and he stepped forward to take his daughter's hands. “Any problems?”

Pandora shook her head. “Seraphina couldn't find a boot and Theodora had to locate it for us.”

Iain shook his head. “I’ll remember about neat piles of folded clothes next time. Let's get this done.”

The women were still sitting, but they were all working on the snacks. The only real change was that Eve had joined them and was sitting in Iain's place next to Lucifer. Poppet looked up as they approached. “I'm glad you showed up, Kasumi. We've got the stories and,” she shot Iain a glance, “it didn't cost us as much as I was afraid it would.”

“Our goal,” Ninhursag said, “wasn't to try to beggar you for them, Poppet. We just wanted to make sure you got them from us and we're not really close enough to give them as gifts, so you had to pay something for them. Just remember that you can't give them to others.”

“We won't,” Bellona assured her. “Shikarou knew about that requirement before we ever came here.”

“Good,” Iain said. “You're free to stay for dinner, but that won't be for several hours yet and we've got a lot of work to get done before then.”

Elizabeth shook her head. “We can't stay that long. Shikarou will want us back before then. We've got things to do too, I'm afraid.”

“It's no problem,” Iain said. “I really didn't think you could stay, but it would have been rude not to offer. But Kasumi is going to remain as my guest for a few days. Don't worry, I'll take good care of her.”

Poppet blinked at him. “Why?”

“I asked her to stay and she accepted.” Eve bit her lip as Iain smiled. “That is the usual method involved.”

“She can't stay,” Bellona said.

Iain regarded her curiously. “Why not? And don't tell me Shikarou didn't stamp her exit visa for more than eight hours.”

She started to say something and stopped. Finally she shook her head. “He's not going to like it and we were supposed to stay together.”

Iain's smile vanished. “Are you saying you don't trust me?”

“No, she didn't say that,” Elizabeth interrupted. “It's just so sudden. We didn't expect this.”

“If it helps I didn't expect to invite her when I got up this morning, so we're even in that regard.”

“I really think she should come home with us and she can come visit another day,” Elizabeth said. “What's so special about now?”

“We're taking a little trip,” Iain gestured at the shuttle that was sitting on the ground nearby. “We don't plan to be gone more than a day or two, but Kasumi is interested in seeing where we're going.” Ninhursag's head came around to stare at him until Lucifer tapped her on the hip and shook her head slightly. “If she goes home now, it's unlikely she'll be able to make it back in time to go with us.”

“Where are you going,” Poppet asked.

“Glasgow. I've been meaning to set up factors in Glasgow and Edinburgh and I've got some interviews lined up for potential hires for the position.”

“Why does Kasumi want to go to Glasgow?”

“I presume it's because I asked her to.” Iain scratched his cheek where his beard itched for a second. “Look, Kasumi's a big girl and she can make her own decisions, can't she?”

Poppet looked past him to Kasumi. “Well?”

Kasumi smiled at her. “My taming journey, as abbreviated as it was, took place in Edo and when I retired, I pretty much stayed on our island until we moved to Haven. I've never been to Glasgow and I'd like to see it. I checked and the war between Great Britain and Blue has never made it to the city so I should be perfectly safe. Why now? Well, Iain did ask me, I don't have another good way to get there and I don't really have any other responsibilities right now so this seemed like a good time for the trip. As far as my husband is concerned I don't see where my being away for a few days should be an issue. I'm not involved in the day to day activities of the court and the school is out of session for the next few months.” She glanced at Iain and then turned back to Poppet. “Iain has assured me that I shall want for nothing so the fact that I have little in the way of clothing should not be a problem.” She looked at Iain. “That is correct, isn't it?”

“We can provide you with just about anything you might ask for,” Iain said. “If we can't find it in Glasgow, Theodora can probably manufacture it and deliver it by shuttle in a short amount of time.” He flashed a smile. “Yes, running a shuttle in from her to drop off some shorts and blouses might seem a bit extravagant, but that's only because it is and Theodora spoils us pretty badly when we let her.”

“I'll make sure and relay this to Shikarou,” Poppet said. “Would you have a problem with him coming to Glasgow to see for himself or sending someone in his stead?”

Iain shrugged. “I don't see why not. He's been there before. Just remember that I'm not inviting him on this trip and seeing for himself and hanging out with us are two entirely different things. He can find his own way there if he wants to, but you'll be able to determine from the stories I know he's been to at least one Glasgow before. However, I would caution that the British and the Order of Pendragon have put heavy security in place because of the presence of members of the Royal family and they won't be expecting him, so he might want to call ahead and let them know he's coming just to be safe. I'll have Theodora send you the com codes for the people I use when I'm dropping by and I'll let them know he might call them so there's likely to be less potential problems.”

“Thank you for that,” Bellona said.

Poppet put down her plate and slid to her feet. “Thank you for everything.”

“You're very welcome,” Iain said. “I'm sorry I didn't get to spend more time with you during this visit, but maybe next time you won't be stuck in a meeting the whole time.” He looked from Bellona to Elizabeth. “That goes for you ladies as well.” He returned his attention to Poppet. “Should I expect an unhappy Shikarou to arrive in the next few hours?”

She exchanged a look with Elizabeth and shook her head. “I don't think so. Kasumi's been under some recent stress and this trip might be a good thing for her.” She smiled. “After all, you're not going to tie her up and keep her against her will.”

Iain grinned. “No, I wouldn't do that.”

“Then we'll be off.” She looked at the others. “Let's go home.” They vanished.

“Iain,” Ninhursag said slowly, “you invited Kasumi on our trip? Is that wise?”

“She knows where we're going,” Pandora said. “He was up front as to where and why and she still wanted to go.”

Iain was watching Kasumi and blinked at the wave of fury that swept over her face when Poppet and the others left. He kept his voice low. “Take a deep breath in through your nose and let it out slowly through your mouth until your lungs are empty. They're gone and you won't see them for a couple of weeks.”

“I can't believe he told them,” she hissed softly. “I asked him to keep our conversation private and they knew why I was upset. He had to have told them.”

“He probably thought telling them was keeping whatever you two discussed private,” Iain said in the same low voice.

“He was wrong.” Her eyes met his. “We leave in the morning. Where will I stay tonight?”

“We have some nice guest quarters in the main house or if you're feeling especially antisocial you can go to the Theodora tonight. I would strongly advise that you stay with us, though. You don't need to be alone right now with that much anger. I've been there and it's not a good idea.”

“I will listen to your advice and stay in your house.”

“Excellent.” Iain looked at Eve. “Kasumi will stay in the guest room tonight and leave with us tomorrow after morning chores. What are the plans for dinner?”

Ninhursag grinned. “With that question I really hope it's not your turn to cook.”

He laughed softly. “Yeah, that would kind of suggest a huge omelet with leftovers and cheese.”

“It's pizza tonight,” Lucifer said. “Lynn and Sofia have everything under control.”

Iain looked at Kasumi. “I hope you like pizza and some strange toppings.”

She gave him an amused smile. “Will there be eel?”

“That wasn't planned, but I can put in a special request for it.” He looked at Ninhursag. “Heltu said there were eels in the river.”

“I'll have them hunt us up some,” Ninhursag said. She vanished.

“You don't have to find eel just for me,” Kasumi said. “I was teasing about them.”

“Do you like eel on pizza?” She nodded. “Then don't worry about it. I've eaten eel and it's not too bad. I'm more than willing to try it on pizza. And most of these girls went through the Revenge war and the aftermath. They will try anything at least twice if it doesn't kill them.” He gestured to them. “How about I walk you and Nishiko to the house and show you your rooms for the night. Oh, and you can let the rest of your harem out if you want.”

“That would be nice and I’ll let the others out in a little bit.”

Pandora, Heather and Dianthus fell in behind them as they headed for the house.

Iain Grey

Inner Harem

Ninhursag Grey - Elfqueen & maharani

Eve Grey - Megami Sama

April Grey - Duelist & beta

Dominique Grey - Blessed Archmage

Pandora - Fiendish Archangel

Canaan - G Splice (Hunter Amachamp & Alaka-Wham)

Zareen - Nightmare

Raquel - Fiendish Rapitaur

Sofia - Ria

Vanessa – Evangelion

Lucifer – Megami Sama

Outer Harem

Allison – Umbrea (Outer Harem Alpha)

Daphne - Whorizard

Lynn - Growlie

Chuck – Doggirl

Ryan – Unicorn

Winifred - Rack (German)

Rosemary - Mistoffeles (Uruguayan)

Silver - Pegaslut

Joyce – Milktit

Outer Clan

Melanie – Iron Chef

Siobhan - NurseJoy (Glasgow)

Queendom / Outer Harem

12 Elves

Heather - Elf

Dionne - Elfqueen

Adrianna - Elfqueen

Dianthus Barbatus - Elfqueen

Heltu - Wet Queen

6 Wet Elves

Dead Harem

Eirian - Silver Dragoness

Aurum - Gold Dragoness

Skye - Blue Dragoness

Emerald - Green Dragoness

Beryl - Red Dragoness

Julia - human

Ling - Cheetit

Matilda - White Tigress

Liadan - Twau

Sorrel - Armsmistress

Natalie - Blazicunt

Maria – Slutton

Rhea Silvia - Chimera

Mother s & Children

Vanessa

Myrna

Saoirse

April

Dorothy: Duelist

Meara: Duelist

Regan: Duelist

Canaan

Hannah: Huntress

Rebecca: Huntress

Joyce

Lisa: Milktit

Sherrie: Milktit

Harriet: Milktit

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