Chapter 9

The two boys hurried down the long hallway. The taller, older of the two, had the sure footsteps of someone who was exactly where he belonged. The smaller boy, whom he was dragging along by the hand, looked ready to vomit.

"Come on, Saphir. We're going to be late."

"Jade, this is a bad idea. Let's just go home."

"We're not going anywhere until you speak to the professor, you ninny. She's waiting for us."

Unable to escape (Jade had a death-grip on him) Saphir tried to calm his turning stomach. Jade knocked on a huge, wooden door, and then without waiting for an answer shoved it open and marched inside, his terrified pet in tow.

Beautiful.

The woman who stood up to greet them was the most beautiful woman Saphir had ever seen. She looked like an angel, a goddess, and rather than easing his fear, it heightened it. He was conscious that even in Jade's old clothing he looked shabby and poor. Surely this woman would be angry at him for coming into her parlor and disturbing her evening.

"Jade, shame on you! What have you been telling him about me? He's scared to death." The woman knelt down in front of him, and sweet perfume met his nose. "It's okay, Saphir. Don't be afraid. My name is Professor Nebilim. Jade's been telling me all about you. I've been waiting to meet you."

Saphir forced himself to offer her a hand. "Nice to meet you, Ma'am."

"Jade, why don't you excuse us for a few minutes, and allow Saphir and I to talk in private?"

Saphir gave Jade a worried look, wondering how Jade would react to being told what to do. To his surprise, Jade nodded to the professor and obediently left the room. Saphir was torn between wanting to run after him, and between wanting to find out more about someone who could actually earn Jade's respect.

"Would you like some hot cocoa, Saphir? I would have offered some to Jade, but he doesn't like it. Can you imagine not liking chocolate?" She shook her head in wonder. "Silly boy. He's incredibly gifted, but just between the two of us he's not always as smart as he thinks he is.

Saphir swallowed a grin, chiding himself for being so disloyal to Jade as to be amused by the comment. "Yes, Ma'am. Cocoa would be fine."

She busied herself for a few moments, and then sat two cups down on a table near the fire, motioning for Saphir to take the far chair.

"Jade seems to think that when the new school term starts, you should go here, not to the regular village school. He was very adamant about it."

"I think he's wrong, Ma'am." He lowered his head. "About this, anyway."

"Oh?"

"My mother is his maid, Ma'am. We can't afford for me to go to school here. We moved to Keterburg because my mother thought it would be good for me to live near the children who did."

"Saphir, do you really think everyone who goes here is wealthy? Some are, and some students are here because they belong here. Even if Jade didn't have a coin to his name, this would still be the school he attended. We have scholarships for students that deserve them."

Saphir thought of the classrooms they passed, the expensive furniture, the general feel of privilege in the air. Why would they ever want him?

"I'm going to ask you a few questions." Professor Nebilim reached for a thick, well-read book. "Don't be afraid to tell me if you don't know the answer, or don't understand what I'm asking."

Saphir sipped his cocoa, and nodded solemnly.

Finally, after what seemed like forever, she closed the book. "My, my, it seems that Jade wasn't exaggerating."

"Did I do alright, Ma'am?"

"You did better than alright. You knew the answers to questions Jade missed, and he was older than you when I gave him that test." She gave him a brilliant smile that he returned. "Saphir, you are attending this school if I have to nail you to the floor. If I let you slip through my fingers I'd never forgive myself."

"But…"

"I determine who gets the scholarships, and I've decided that it's you."

"May I go tell Jade?" He was so excited he could barely sit still.

"In a moment. Before you do, I think I'll tell you a secret."

The boy leaned forward and she lowered her voice. "Have you ever heard the expression 'It's lonely at the top'?"

"Yes, Ma'am. My mother tells me that sometimes."

"Well, Jade has always been the smartest by far of all of his classmates. He's been at the top for a very long time." She waited for Saphir to pick up what she was implying.

"Jade is lonely, Ma'am?"

"Professor. You're one of my students now, Saphir. Yes, I think Jade is very lonely. Not that he'd ever admit that, but he's never had a friend near his own age that he could speak to as an equal. You know that the other children are afraid of him, right?"

"Yes, Ma'am. Professor. He thinks it's funny."

"Yes, I know he does. I think you're exactly the kind of friend Jade needs in his life. You may be younger, but I think there's a lot our mutual friend could learn from you. Will you do your best to teach him?"

"Yes, Professor." He wasn't sure what he was supposed to teach Jade, but he would have agreed to anything to make this beautiful goddess happy. "I promise."

"Good." She stood up and offered him her hand, and he took it after a moment of hesitation. "Let's go tell your mother your good news."

Jade was lounging in the hallway, trying hard not to look like he'd been waiting for them the entire time.

"Jade! I got in! I'm going to school here!"

"Of course you did." Jade shrugged. "Stop being so silly; I told you that the professor would want you."

To Saphir's shock, Professor Nebilim reached over and gave Jade a light tap on the head. "You be respectful to your classmate, young man."

"Yes, Professor."

The three of them walked out of the school together, and through the dark, snowy night. Saphir, unable to help himself, spun around in glee trying to catch flakes on his tongue. Professor Nebilim laughed, and the sound was like church bells to Saphir's ears. Jade was trying to look disgusted, but his lips were twitching as he watched the younger boy dance in the snow. In his entire life, Saphir couldn't remember a more perfect day, or ever being so happy.

Don't let it end, he thought. Please, don't ever let this ever end.

He awoke to both pain and warmth, and tried to clear his head enough to remember where he was and what had happened.

Pain. His shoulder hurt, but not as bad as it should. Warmth. He was in a bed, a soft sheet under his back, a thick blanket on top of him. Something heavy across his waist, pinning him down onto the bed. Hot breath against the side of his head, a familiar scent.

Safe. He was safe.

"How are you feeling?" The room was pitch black, the voice disjointed in the darkness.

"Hurts still."

"I know. They were able to seal it up quite nicely with a few gels, but it's still going to bother you for a few days."

"Was anyone else hurt?"

"No, just you. Anise is going around telling everyone that you saved her life. Who knew you had a hero complex?"

"I do not. I was trying to protect Tokunaga, that's all."

Jade burst out laughing. "Oh, that's disappointing. Such a selfless deed would have definitely earned you a nice reward."

Saphir was silent for a moment, no energy to even be annoyed with Jade's teasing. It was simply too good just to be back here, back home again. "What will happen to the replicas?"

"They'll be put on trial. Since the majority of them wish to be treated just like anyone else, well, that includes responsibilities as well as rights. I can't see them avoiding spending their first few birthdays in prison."

"They didn't understand, Jade. They didn't understand that they weren't the same as their originals. I'm not excusing what they did, but… I wasn't any different."

"And now?"

"You're never too old to start over, right?"

"No, never. Do you remember what you said as I was carrying you out of the cavern?"

"I remember." He was quiet again. "It's nothing you need to concern yourself about. It's my problem, Jade. It's always been my problem, and I'll deal with it. I've been dealing with it for a long time now."

He was suddenly aware of a warm finger stroking his cheek. "You know better than anyone else the trouble I've always had understanding emotions. They never made much sense to me, and I especially never understood the concept of love. But all I know is that when I thought that by refusing to give into their demands, by knowing I could not give in, that I had killed you, I wanted to hit my knees and bawl like an infant. I couldn't imagine losing you again, not and surviving it. If that isn't love, then it's the best I can do and you'll have to accept it. If it's not love, then I don't know what else to call it."

He sighed. "I can't release you from your bond, you know. That's not up to me, and I wouldn't do that even if I could. Your status here hasn't changed; it can't change. Can you live with that?"

"I wasn't expecting it to change. I can live with whatever I have to, just to be with you." The joy was almost too much to bear.

The pain in his shoulder no longer mattered, vanished as for the briefest second warm lips found his, and he whimpered when the contact was broken. "Now, that's all you're getting until you're healed. Go back to sleep, Sapphire."

There was no lit fireplace, but the arm around him was warm, the blankets were soft, and the bed was so deep it seemed to embrace him. There had been no fireworks, or flowers, and no tearful declaration of love and devotion, but this was better. This was real.

Real was better than he could have ever imagined.

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"He's going to like me better, you know." Saphir commented as they rode the elevator to their floor in the expensive hotel.

"Michael is not going to like you better. It's obvious I'll be his favorite. He's already showing signs of being an extremely bright boy."

Saphir thought of the tiny copy of Nephry they'd just visited, and smiled to himself. They'd just see who which uncle he preferred; the one who could help him with his math homework, or the one already planning to give him a robot that would do the homework for him.

Jade chuckled to himself and unlocked the door of the hotel room. Saphir paused, and gave him a suspicious look before entering. "I'm sure it's just coincidence they gave us this room."

"Of course it's not. I requested it. Oh look, they patched up the hole in wall."

Glaring, Saphir reached up and rubbed the back of his skull. Jade laughed again, and pulled him into a kiss. "Don't pout. I thought you'd like something pleasant to scream about in here this time."

"That's not funny!"

"That's a matter of opinion, and as usual yours is wrong. Oh, I've arranged for the current owners of my old house to be absent tomorrow. I thought you and I could go have a look around, see what they've done with the place. Of course, if they had any idea what I intend to do to you in our old corner of the library, I would have probably had to pay them a bit extra."

Saphir couldn't formulate a coherent response to that. He instead focused on turning down the bed. "Michael really is a handsome child. We'll have to have him come stay with us sometimes. We have the room." His voice turned sulky. "It's not even like we have any pets to take up space."

"Your Majesty, may I present to you Lord Perry, the first rappig ever gestated completely in an artifical womb."

Jade motioned to the tiny, blanket-wrapped bundle in Saphir's arms. Saphir wasn't looking particularly happy.

"Oh…, come to Daddy." Peony moved forward, reaching out his arms toward the bundle. Saphir held it out after a moment, and Peony went to take it. He tugged on the blanket. Saphir tugged back. The emperor gave him an odd look and tugged harder. Saphir's grip was like iron.

"Saphir, the entire point of this was to give him the rappig. Let go of Perry."

Saphir glared at Peony and reluctantly released the little animal into the emperor's care. "You be careful with him. He's far more delicate than those beasts you currently have."

"I'll treat him like a prince, I promise." He moved the blanket aside and started down into the tiny face. "See? See? He's smiling. I told you he could smile."

"I think we'll definitely have to have him over, if only to give him a chance to thaw out now and then. And as for pets, I have all the pets I can handle at the moment. " Jade sat down on the bed and pulled Saphir down next to him, and the light in his eyes caused his "pet" to blush.

Jade leaned backward onto the bed, continuing to pull on Saphir forward until the smaller man was straddling him, his knees on the bed on either side of Jade's hips. He reached up and ghosted his knuckles across Saphir's cheek, the blood-red eyes that had sent hundreds screaming in terror soft with love.

"Now, given how warm they tend to keep this facility, I believe we're overdressed. I suggest you find a way to remedy that."

"As Master wishes."

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He drew a circle that shut me out

Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout

But love and I had the wit to win

We drew a circle that took him in.

-Edwin Markham