Disclaimer: This story is based on characters and situations created and owned by Diana Wynne Jones, et al. No money is being made and no copyright or trademark infringement is intended.

Author's Note: Written for Elspeth Vimes for Yuletide 2010. I think I managed to hit all the things she asked for in her prompt: Mordion/Vierran, a glimpse at Ann's real childhood, forest hijinks with Hume and Yam, and deeper glances into at least a few of the characters' lives. It was quite fun working out a way to fit them all into one story. :-)

Summary: Three games Vierran played with Mordion over the years.

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Childish Things
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1. My Grandmother's Attic

When she was very young, Vierran's teachers were mostly robots. This made them easy to fool. She didn't skive off too often - at least not since the time Father asked her to recite the times tables to demonstrate the famous Guaranty knack for mathematics and she fell completely apart in front of her family and several guests from the Houses of Accord and Covenant - but some days she promised the solemn, silvery machines that she was going to read the history of Homeworld or practice long division, honestly she was. Then she spent the afternoon talking to her voices instead.

She'd never had any proper friends - Siri was family, so she didn't count - but Vierran thought the voices did just as well. The Boy was about her age and she was sure they'd have lots of adventures if they ever met. He seemed an adventuring sort. The King and the Prisoner were like having Father pay attention to her in a good way: they listened to her ideas, they knew all kinds of interesting things, and they never talked down to her. And the Slave...

Vierran frowned as she slumped in her purple synth-plast chair and tried speaking to him again. Hello? Are you awake? Can you hear me?

He couldn't always. Quite often he'd go faint and fuzzy, or just stop in the middle of a sentence. Vierran thought that sometimes he went quiet because he had to use all his attention to keep his masters from hurting him or the other slaves he lived with, but other times it was like someone else - someone who didn't belong amongst them, someone who shouldn't have known about the voices at all - had taken a laser and cut the connection, or tried to build a wall around the Slave's mind.

The King, the Prisoner, and the Boy could barely hear the Slave, and they couldn't talk to him at all. They had to pass messages through Vierran.

Vierran thought that was horrible and unfair to the Slave - what did he do for company when she was asleep or busy? - but sometimes, down deep where she hoped none of the voices could overhear, she was glad that the Slave was her particular friend, even more than the other three were.

Vierran tried not to think about that very often. She didn't like how it made her feel.

Mostly she wished the Slave were free so they could meet properly. She thought he needed a hug. The Prisoner needed one too, and the Boy and the King needed friends just like she did, but she worried most about the Slave.

Hello? she tried again. Those horrible people haven't hurt you, have they?

I'm awake, the Slave said in his faint, faraway voice. I'm not hurt. How are you, Girl Child?

Vierran stuck the tip of her tongue between her teeth and grinned at the screen of her computer, flicking through a list of instructions for a game from some unimportant outer sector planet. Bored. Siri's gone to Ilkdown sector on holiday with Aunt and Uncle, the Boy and the Prisoner are sleeping, and the King's too busy to talk. Will you play a game with me?

There was a longish pause before the Slave said, I'd like to, but I don't know any games.

Vierran scowled. None? But you said-

She stopped. The Prisoner and the King had told her there were things the Slave didn't remember about his own life, and that he'd probably made himself forget in order to keep his masters from breaking him even worse. If you remind him that he used to play games and tricks for the other slaves, it will only hurt him, the King had said. That sort of made sense, since the Slave had tried to protect his friends but two of them were dead now. Vierran always felt bad when her horses were sick, so she supposed it would be worse if they were people and they died.

Sometimes forgetting is the only way to survive, the Prisoner had added. That didn't make any sense, and Vierran had said so, but the Prisoner had been very serious. In the end, Vierran had agreed not to push at the Slave when he forgot things.

You said your masters say you're clever, she said now. I'll teach you a game - I bet you'll figure it out really fast. Then you can teach your friends.

All right, the Slave said. How do we play a game without being together?

Vierran's grin returned. Games aren't just about running around or tossing balls back and forth. Some games are about words and using your mind. Father says if I practice very hard, I should be able to play war games in my head someday - he can hold the boards and all the moves for three games in his head at once! But I haven't learned any war games yet.

Good, said the Slave, with an unusually sharp tone to his voice.

They're not real war, just pieces on a board to teach about strategy, Vierran assured him hastily. She didn't want the Slave to think badly of her. Father says business is like war with manners and gloves, so it's good practice to learn how to think circles around people. She made a face and spun in her chair, stretching her arms out so it felt almost like she was doing tricks on the antigrav sled Siri had got for her birthday last month.

I don't know why he bothers, Vierran continued. I'm good at numbers and research, but Siri's better at that sort of thing than I am. She'll almost-for-certain end up as Father's heir. Siri's always better at lessons and people than I am. She's prettier too, Vierran added, a little bitterly. She liked Siri, but she didn't want to be a hostage in the House of Balance, and that was the way things were heading. She didn't want Siri to be a hostage either, but...

Vierran cut that thought off before it could finish.

The Slave wasn't answering.

Hello? Vierran thought.

He sent a sense of startlement, as if she'd jolted him out of a complicated thought. I'm here. I was thinking that it can also be difficult to be the one everyone expects to be the best.

I know that, Vierran said scornfully. Siri's always complaining about that. But anyway, I was looking up games from outer sector planets - I'm pretending it's for a report on teaching company factors how to blend in - and I found lots of ideas. One of them's called something like 'A storage unit owned by my house elder.'

I have no house elders. Do they usually own storage units? What do they put in them? the Slave asked.

Vierran raked her hair out of her eyes and frowned at her computer screen, making sure she had the game rules clear in her mind. My family has lots of storage units since we're a merchant house, and we put all kinds of stuff in them, but that's not the point. You take turns pretending to find things in the storage unit, and each time you have to repeat back all the things everyone already found. I think there's a pattern related to some weird writing system? But we could just go thirteen turns each.

She hoped the Slave would agree to play. He needed more fun in his life, and Vierran felt a little guilty telling him all about her own life when his was so awful. It was like holding a fresh apple in front of a starving horse and then slapping its nose and making it drink scummy green water instead.

I don't think I'll be very good at playing, but I'll try, the Slave said.

"Yes!" Vierran shouted, bouncing in her chair. Then she moved over to her bed, flopped on her back and closed her eyes so she could start imagining things properly. I'll start. I went to my house elder's storage unit and I found... a necklace made of raw flint.

That seems unlikely, said the Slave. Does this storage unit make use of theta-space?

What's theta-space? Anyway, it doesn't have to make sense. Think of the craziest things to find - that's the fun part! Vierran told him. Think of really long things, so they're hard to remember, or things that are silly so they make us laugh. Go on, try it.

I went to a theta-space storage unit, the Slave said slowly, and I found... a model of the human body made to show the correct position of the internal organs. And a necklace made of raw flint.

Eww, Vierran said with a frown. That was an odd thing to pretend about finding. What did the Slave need to know about hearts and stomachs for? And why did he sound so sad?

You're supposed to put the new thing last, so it's harder to remember, she said. Anyway, I went to my house elder's storage unit and I found a necklace made of raw flint, a model of the human body that shows its internal organs, and a bucketful of starberries. Vierran liked starberries - they were sweet and tart and syrupy delicious. Maybe she could ask Mother to serve some with dinner tonight.

I went to the storage unit and found a necklace made of raw flint, a model of the human body made to show the correct position of the internal organs, a bucketful of starberries, and a friend who teaches me new games, said the Slave. What are starberries?

Vierran wanted to hit the people who'd kept the Slave from knowing about starberries. That was no fair at all.

She spent the rest of the game pretending to find every method of escaping prisons she'd ever read about in books or seen in the trashy holo epics Mother kept on the top shelf in her office. At the very end, after the Slave's thirteenth turn, she added, And I found you and your friends, because you got out and never had to go back to your masters. You should escape. I know you can do it. Nobody deserves to be locked up and treated like garbage. Why don't you run away?

She pushed that idea at him for days.

One month later, when two more of the Slave's friends were dead - one caught when he tried to escape, and one who killed herself because she was too sad to keep living - Vierran asked the Prisoner and the King if she'd been wrong to make the Slave think about escape.

He might have hit upon the idea himself, sooner or later. In a way it's lucky the other child tried first, so the Slave learned from his example. If his masters are who I think they are, they have no mercy, said the Prisoner.

Still, you didn't think about the potential consequences. You bear some responsibility, though the choice ultimately belonged to the Slave and to the child who died, said the King.

"I didn't mean to hurt anyone," Vierran whispered. "I just wanted the Slave to be happy, and to be able to talk to us all the time." Now he was worse off than ever.

The next time she was able to hear the Slave, he seemed to think it was all his fault that his friends were dead.

No! It's not your fault, Vierran told him, over and over. You shouldn't blame yourself. It was your masters who made everything go wrong. You just wanted to be free like you ought to have always been. And I'm sorry. But I know you'll be free one day, she told him. Don't give up!

I won't, the Slave said, and there was something terrible in his mind, fierce and sharp and broken. Vierran started to cry. The Slave had lost so much, and nobody should have to live like he did. She thought about spending all her life locked in a little room with nobody but Siri and her voices for company, and then imagined if she lost Siri...

I'm sorry, she said again. She would give up her voices if the Slave could just be free. She really, truly would. Even if it meant she wouldn't have friends anymore.

It wasn't your fault, Girl Child, said the Slave, still with that fierce, cold edge to his thoughts. It was them. My masters. Their fault. They want us to love them and believe in them, but I won't. I won't love anyone who kills people for no reason. They can't make me. He paused, and when he spoke again the cold edge was gone from his mind. If you keep talking to me, I think I can make a wall in my mind and keep that part free. If you'll stay. If you'll help.

Yes, of course, anything, Vierran promised. I believe in you! She scrubbed at her eyes, hoping he couldn't tell that she was crying.

Thank you, said the Slave, a little awkwardly. Um. Why don't you tell me more about your life? It's nice to remember that there's a world outside of my room, where people don't always hurt.

Vierran took a deep breath and started telling him all about the newest horse Mother had bought for her eighth birthday. After a while the Boy woke and joined the conversation, talking about his own first horse and how he and his father were trying to train the lazy animal to fight dragons. Vierran passed the story on to the Slave, who listened eagerly.

Later on, the Slave forgot he'd ever played games with Vierran. He forgot his two dead friends like he'd forgotten the two who died before Vierran first heard him. Then he forgot his best friend when he had to kill her. The Slave forgot a lot of things.

Vierran never reminded him. She just kept talking, like she'd promised, and she tried to remember for him.

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2. I Spy

Ann walked past the yellow pretzel bag in the hollow tree, wondering if she'd reach the stream this time, or whether the Bannus would slide her up to the river. Instead, she found herself thrashing through a heavily overgrown clearing in the forest, completely lost. She looked upward toward the sun, which was unhelpfully straight over head. "It wouldn't help much even if it were off to one side," she grumbled to herself, "since there's no way of telling what time of day it's meant to be in here, or which way I ought to go."

She thrashed onward, in as close to a straight line as she could manage. Near the edge of the clearing, she stopped to pick some raspberries from a clump of scrubby, rambling canes. They were tart and sweet, and reminded her that Mordion and Hume might still need food even after Mordion's shopping expedition.

Ann yanked off her anorak - really, it was far too warm to be wearing it anyway - and set to work piling the cloth high with raspberries. It was sticky work, and her back began to ache from bending down peering amongst leaves and thorns for the tiny red berries, but the thought of Mordion's face when she brought him something useful kept her going.

Finally she bundled up her treasure and slogged onward through the remnants of the clearing and back into the cool of the forest proper. And she'd either been much closer to the river than she'd thought or the Bannus was playing tricks again - "Damn Bannus!" Ann muttered - because she hadn't gone ten steps before she was teetering on the edge of the high, earthy bank that pinned the river down in its racing path.

She climbed down and crossed over, hopping from rock to rock and getting her shoes soaked despite her trouble. As she climbed up the other bank, she heard voices coming from the cave.

Hume was very young today and Mordion looked absolutely exhausted from running after him. "No, don't touch that," he said, pulling Hume away from the fire pit with a practiced motion. "I don't have time to work up a healing spell if you burn your hand."

"But it's magic and you're magic! Do a spell so I can pick it up," Hume said, stamping his foot. "I want to play with the fire!"

"Yam-" Mordion began.

"He would hurt himself trying to escape my grip," Yam said in his maddeningly level voice. "I have told you this each time you ask."

"Hello!" Ann called as she dusted herself off, dropping her anorak beside her at the top of the bank. "Who wants raspberries?"

Hume bounced on his toes like an excited rabbit. "Ann! What's raspberries? Are they to eat or to play with or to-"

"To eat," said Ann, opening her anorak to show Hume the pile of red and slightly squashed berries. She popped one into her mouth and licked her fingers. "See?"

"Only one handful, Hume," Mordion said, leaning down to catch Hume before he could grab all the berries for himself. "We should save some for dinner and for tomorrow's breakfast."

"You're no fair," said Hume, and stomped off to eat his handful of raspberries all by himself on the far side of the fire. Mordion watched him go, and sighed. His face was more drawn than usual, tiredness pulling his skin tight over his skull, and he looked as though he hadn't shaved or washed in a week.

"You need a break," Ann pronounced. She picked up her anorak and shoved it into his hands. "Go put these away, eat a few yourself, and take a nap. I'll look after Hume for a couple hours and Yam can make sure you don't get eaten by a wolf or a dragon."

Mordion looked down at the raspberries in bemusement. "Are you certain-?" he began.

Ann prodded him toward the cave and its makeshift wooden extension. "Yes. Go get some sleep. You look like death warmed over."

Mordion went.

Really, if he didn't have Ann keeping an eye out, she didn't know what might happen to him. Hume didn't always know enough to realize that Mordion couldn't do everything, Yam didn't seem to care if Mordion worked himself to death so long as Hume was all right, and it wasn't as if Mordion ever remembered that he deserved to be taken care of as much as anyone else.

Ann waited until she was sure Mordion was sitting down and resting before she grabbed a suddenly handy bucket and trudged around the fire pit to where Hume was sitting and sulking. "Come on," she said briskly, "we're going to pick more raspberries."

As she'd hoped, Hume perked up at the thought of more sweet, sticky fruit. "Where?" he asked. "I know all the places in the wood, but I never saw any raspberries."

"Across the river," Ann said. "Now be very careful so I can help you down the bank and across the water. If you fall in, Mordion will be upset and we don't want to spoil his day."

"I should come with you," Yam said, suddenly looming silver and blank-faced behind Ann's shoulder. "The river can be dangerous."

"Yes, I know, which is why I'm going to be holding Hume's hand all the way across," Ann snapped. "You stay here and make sure Mordion doesn't get up and try doing anything. Sit on him if you have to. That's an order, do you hear?"

She saw Hume stick his tongue out at Yam as she spun on her heel and stalked downstream, looking for a shallower way down to the river. When they reached the shore, Hume took Ann's hand and let her lead him from rock to rock across the water and up the opposite bank.

Ann had a sudden moment of panic as they walked back upstream - what if she'd gone too far and they crossed out of theta-space without noticing? She didn't want Hume to vanish. But they reached the raspberry clearing uneventfully. "Mind the thorns!" Ann called as Hume yelled in glee and charged into the scrub in pursuit of a butterfly. "Don't go so far you can't see me!"

Then she set her bucket down and began to fill it with raspberries.

After a while, Hume returned and helped her in peaceful silence. This lasted all of ten minutes before he started wriggling and throwing berries at Ann.

Little beast, Ann thought. Boys were all the same, and they all wanted to play at war. She'd learned that from Martin. But there were ways to deal with her brother, and maybe one of them would work on Hume.

"Let's play a game," she suggested.

"Yes! You be a dragon and I'm a knight from the castle," said Hume. "See, I have a sword!" He grabbed a half-rotten stick from the ground and waved it in Ann's general direction.

"Maybe later," said Ann, wondering yet again why everything came back to dragons with Hume. "First I'm going to teach you a new game. This one is very important for dragon-slayers, okay? It helps you see and remember all the things around you, in case one of them turns out to be a hiding place or a secret weapon or maybe a second dragon in disguise."

Hume looked skeptical, but he lowered his stick. "How do you play?"

"It's called 'I Spy.' One person picks something they see, and the other person has to guess what it is. Your only clue is the color. So," - Ann looked around the clearing and marked a tree with a spray of those peculiar, fluffy pink flowers - "I spy with my little eye, something pink."

Hume looked around with a scowl. "The butterfly," he guessed, pointing his stick.

"No."

Hume's scowl deepened. "The raspberries."

"They're red, not pink," said Ann. "Try again. Pretend you're looking for a dragon. All you know is that it's hidden itself with magic and is pretending to be something pink."

Hume turned in a slow circle, dragging the stick in his wake. "Dragons aren't pink," he said scornfully. "Oh! That tree with the flowers! That's pink."

"And that's what I saw," said Ann. "Now it's your turn. Pick something and I'll try to guess."

Hume grinned. "I spy something green!"

Ann groaned. Something green? They were in a clearing in a forest. Half of everything around them was green! From the way he was laughing at her, Hume had done this on purpose. Still, better for him to be annoying her than for him to run off and trip out of the theta-space field by accident. "The grass," she guessed.

"Nope!" said Hume.

This went on for ages until Ann finally guessed not just raspberry leaves, but the one specific and very particular raspberry leaf that Hume was thinking of. In the meantime, Hume stuffed his face with berries until his mouth and cheeks and fingers were stained sticky purple-red, and his tracksuit was covered in green and brown stains from leaves and dirt. The sun had shifted a bit down in the sky - aha, so that way was west! Ann thought, and then realized that it shouldn't have been west at all, unless she'd turned completely around when she walked into Banners Wood. "Damn Bannus," she grumbled to herself, and wondered what the Prisoner or the King would make of it. The Boy would just laugh, and she never knew quite what the Slave might say.

"What did you say?" asked Hume.

"Nothing you needed to hear," said Ann, jerking back out of her thoughts. "Come on, time to go home. Mordion should be feeling better now, and you can teach him to play 'I Spy.'"

Hume giggled and grabbed Ann's hand with his own dirty, sticky fingers. "I bet he never guesses what I pick," he said.

"I don't know. Mordion knows a lot of things," Ann said, mostly just to be contrary.

But it turned out when they got back that whatever Hume or Ann picked, Mordion always guessed within three turns, no matter how tiny or specific the object they'd chosen. "You're cheating! You're reading our minds!" Hume shouted, getting ready to stomp off again. "You won't use magic to let me touch the fire, but you'll use spells to cheat at games. You're never any fair!"

Yam heaved himself up from his post at the door of the ramshackle wooden shelter and trudged after Hume as the boy ran into the trees. "I will bring him back," Yam said. "This is not what I was built for, but I will do it anyway."

"Gloomy old junkheap," Ann said, watching the robot's silvery skin vanish into the undergrowth. "Were you really cheating, though?"

Mordion shook his head with a bewildered air. "I don't think so," he said. "I simply remembered where you had been looking, watched your responses to my guesses, and put that together with what I know of your personalities and preferences. It's not hard to find the correct answer if you're paying attention."

Ann looked thoughtfully up at Mordion. "That's a lot of attention. Most people wouldn't bother trying that hard at 'I Spy.' Did the Reigners make you do things like that for real?"

Mordion looked utterly blank. "I don't remember."

"I bet they did," said Ann, and nodded decisively to herself. "Or maybe you wanted to know what they were thinking so you could have a better chance of fighting them, before they put the ban on you. You're very clever, you know? No wonder they were scared of you!"

Mordion looked almost abashed. "I doubt they were afraid. I'm sure I was more of a nuisance than a threat." He turned and stared toward the deep green wood where Hume and Yam had vanished. "I feel worse and worse about Hume. Whatever I did in the past, it's not right to use him as a weapon, no matter how eager he is to fight. He's too young to have any idea what he's getting into."

Then why, Ann wanted to ask, did you make him in the first place? But she knew better than to say that aloud, especially with how responsible Mordion already felt for Hume. Besides, Mordion had been more than halfway crazy when he'd created Hume. It would be wrong to hold anything from that day against him.

He still wasn't quite right in the head, but he was a lot better now - even if he didn't take proper care of himself and let Yam order him around too much and couldn't see what was what if Ann didn't tell him straight out where he was going wrong. It wasn't his fault the Reigners had made him crazy. He just needed a reminder now and then, and Ann was more than happy to help out. That was what friends did, and sometime in the past few days, Mordion had become her friend.

In fact, Ann realized suddenly, Mordion was probably the best friend she'd ever had. When had that happened, and why hadn't she noticed until now?

"You're doing all right, mostly," Ann told him. "We'll worry about the future when it gets here. If it gets here," she added, thinking about the Bannus. "Maybe the dragon won't ever come."

"The dragon always comes," Mordion said, with a hard, sharp certainty Ann had rarely heard from him. "The dragon always comes, and he's worse than you can ever imagine, no matter how hard you try."

Ann wanted to hug him and slap him and didn't dare do either. Instead she said, a bit desperately, "I spy with my little eye, something of many colors."

Mordion glanced down at her, confusion writ clear across his still tired face. "Isn't that against the rules?"

"Guess anyway," said Ann, holding his eyes with her own. "Cheat if you need to."

"The shelter," said Mordion.

"No."

"The fire."

"No," said Ann, shoving her hands into the pockets of her jeans and wishing she could look away from the strange connection she was starting to feel with Mordion. Her cheeks were flushing.

Mordion paused and looked incredulous. "Me?"

"Yes," said Ann, sure her face was going to catch fire any second now. "You. My friend."

Mordion smiled, and it lit up his face like magic, lapping outward to weaken Ann's knees. "My friend," he repeated. "Yes. Thank you."

Ann was never sure what might have happened next if Yam hadn't plodded back into the little bare patch, pulling Hume along behind him. As it was, she rushed over to help Mordion get Hume tidied and settled down for a nap, and by the time she got her anorak back - a bit stained with raspberry juice, but then, so was she so who really cared? - that strange sense of connection between her and Mordion was long broken, at least for today.

Maybe tomorrow, she told herself as she crossed the river. Maybe tomorrow.

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3. Hide and Seek

The worst part about being a Reigner, Vierran thought, was the meetings. That was one thing she hadn't minded missing out on when she'd become a hostage and Siri had been named as the designated heir of Guaranty. And now she had to deal with twice as many meetings as Siri.

Life could be horribly unfair even when things worked out.

Vierran sat at the glass table in the conference chamber, waiting for her timer to signal the game to start, and watched as the confusion of other people slowly sorted themselves out. Arthur had cornered Yam off near the back and was arguing fiercely about the probability of economic collapse on yet another outer sector prison planet if the Reigner organization suddenly ceased all its illegal activities without providing alternative work for the employees.

"-a thousand years to think of ways around Orm Pender's methods," Arthur was saying. "Don't tell me you didn't bother to make any plans for the aftermath!"

"Each world is different and local details must be taken into account," Yam said in the high, sweet voice that meant the Bannus was taking an argument seriously. "In addition, the changing actions of the House of Balance-"

"Oh, stuff that weasel talk. If you want numbers, I'll give you numbers. Then you can run scenarios until we manage to get the fewest possible people killed," Arthur said, and dragged Yam out of the room.

Vierran smiled down at her reflection.

Meanwhile, Martellian and Siri were ambling toward the doorway, his arm resting casually around her waist as their heads leaned toward each other. Vierran still wasn't sure what she thought of that development - Siri was far too good for Hume, but then, Martellian wasn't exactly Hume, any more than he was exactly the Prisoner. And Siri did like older men. Mostly Vierran hoped they would keep each other out of trouble.

"He's a sly old dog, my Uncle Wolf," said Fitela, popping up to whisper in Vierran's ear.

She jumped in her chair. He'd faded into the background as he so often did. It seemed odd for someone as in-your-face as he could be, but then you remembered that he'd trained to hunt dragons, and his stealth made much more sense - a lot more than it had ever made when they were Ann and Martin instead of their proper selves.

"Siri's a match for him," Vierran said, faking confidence in her cousin. "And we'll keep him in line if she gets in over her head."

Fitela grinned. "Oh yes. But who'll protect him from her?" At Vierran's blank surprise, he tipped back his head and laughed. "Uncle Wolf was always getting blindsided by pretty girls. From what Arthur tells me, that never changed. Ten gets you one your cousin will be walking all over him soon enough."

"Well, good for her," said Vierran, still a bit flustered. "Er. Not to pry, but I thought you were going to spend the next week touring the home offices of the major Houses?"

"I am indeed," Fitela said, clapping his hands. "Yes, yes I am. Do you know what's even better? Your gracious mother has offered to show me around. Your parents are wonderful," he added. "Mine were nice enough when they could be bothered to notice me, but that didn't happen very often. They were beyond obsessed with revenge against Uncle Wolf's enemies - it made my mother a little crazy, you know? Your parents kept a bit of themselves for themselves instead of going mad hating the Reigners. You don't mind me borrowing them now and then, do you?"

Vierran shook her head. "Not at all. It's nice having someone to split the attention, honestly, and I think they always wanted a son as well as a daughter."

"We all win. Great!" said Fitela, grinning again. "On that note, I should be off, and you should go track down our elusive First Reigner, who has, as usual, slipped off without anyone noticing."

Vierran smiled to herself.

"Oh ho!" said Fitela. "You noticed, did you?"

"None of your business," said Vierran, never more glad that being together in person meant that the rest of her Hand couldn't hear all her thoughts anymore. It would have been impossible to get any sort of privacy if they'd still been voices in each others' heads.

Fitela laughed and tugged at a strand of Vierran's raggedy hair. "I can tell when I'm not wanted. See you in a week or two, Girl Child." He danced back out of reach, avoiding Vierran's halfhearted retaliatory swat, and swaggered out the door leaving Vierran alone in the pearly conference chamber.

Her timer was flashing that the count was done.

Vierran gathered her data cubes into her briefcase and turned out the lights as she left the room. She locked the door behind her, though there was no real need - unlike the previous Reigners, her Hand made a point of being as open and unsecretive as possible. But locking the door was a symbol: she wasn't Second Reigner now, just Vierran Guaranty.

She was going to find Mordion Agenos, not First Reigner.

Sometimes he needed to be reminded that he could have a life beyond his job.

It was difficult to find Mordion if he didn't want to be found. Theoretically Vierran could program a robot to keep track of him, or use the surveillance equipment built into the House of Balance, but Mordion had an uncanny knack for spotting when he was being tailed, and for making machines stop working when he didn't want to be spied on. "A legacy of my training," he'd said when Vierran had asked.

She never asked again.

Instead, she'd told him about an Earth game called hide and seek - something the Bannus had stuffed inside her head as part of its own intricate game, and which she'd taken away as a sort of souvenir. "If you need to go be alone, go," Vierran had said. "We don't mind. Just promise me you'll remember to come back after two hours. Or we could make it a game; if I find you before the two hours are up, I win."

"What do you get for winning?" Mordion had asked.

"Your company. I'll be very, very quiet," she promised. "Is that all right?"

He'd smiled. "If I don't mind being found, I'll tap your shoulder before I go." Today he'd tapped her shoulder and leaned down to whisper in her ear, "Give me a head start. I won't be good company until I sort out my thoughts." Vierran wasn't surprised; he always went distant when they unearthed more of Orm Pender's vicious schemes, and the deadly tournaments with booby-trap prizes that they'd found on this latest prison planet were nastier than most.

So Vierran had set her timer for longer than usual. Now she killed more time putting her data cubes in their proper drawers in her office - such a strange feeling, still, to have a proper office, let alone such a huge and ridiculously opulent one as this. They'd cleaned out the old Reigners' offices and quarters, obviously, since nobody wanted to be around such blatant reminders, but even the previously unused rooms in the House of Balance tended toward the overdone. Vierran kept making mental notes to get rid of the color-changing curtains and the absurd shag carpet, but more important things always seemed to come up.

She should ask Mordion for help. He'd stripped his own office down to the bare essentials nearly the first day they'd been back on Homeworld.

But that was a job thing. This, right now, wasn't about their jobs. This was just about two people finding each other and stealing a little bit of time for themselves.

Vierran leaned against the pearly wall of the corridor, wondering where Mordion might have gone. Then she smiled to herself and set off through the looping, pearly halls - which still reminded her of a badly drawn model of a human ear - toward the kitchens. First she needed a bunch of starberries. Then she would venture downward in search of her elusive quarry.

She found him where she expected, down in the bare, dank basement clothing storage rooms where she'd used to work. He was sitting at her old desk, reading one of the book cubes she'd brought down to pass the time. Vierran flushed, hoping it was one of the serious nonfiction books, not one of the fluffy romances or the rather bloodthirsty adventure serials.

She hoisted herself up onto the desk and watched him as he pressed the button on the side of the cube, turning the holographic pages more rapidly than she could possibly have read. She wouldn't put it past Mordion to be actually reading the book, though. If Reigner One had decided speed reading would be a useful skill for his Servant... well, Mordion would have learned it, and never mind the details.

Thankfully, the book was the study of marriage customs on Iony that Vierran had been reading when Reigner Three had come down and yanked her out of her accustomed life and into the notice of the Bannus. Vierran pushed the starberries toward Mordion and grinned to herself when he absently lifted one to his mouth - paused in startled pleasure at the taste - and then continued reading. She'd thought he might like them. Vierran popped a starberry into her own mouth and closed her eyes to properly enjoy the tart burst of flavor and the lingering sweet aftertaste.

After a few minutes, Mordion reached the end of the book and turned off the cube. He looked up at Vierran. "Do people really go through all that muddle and expense just to tell each other and the world that they want to be married?" he asked, picking another starberry out of the synth-plast basket.

"Apparently they do on Iony," said Vierran. She reached out and touched him lightly on his shoulder. "Tag. I found you."

"So you did. And in a storage unit, no less. I told you it must have been based on theta-space technology, to contain something as unlikely as a necklace of raw flint," said Mordion, and smiled.

Vierran smiled back, helpless against the warmth that flooded out from his expression. "You remember," she said. And the memory didn't seem to hurt - or at least not more than he could bear, since the amusement in his smile was as true and deep as the old pain lurking in the corners of his eyes.

"Yes," said Mordion. "The Bannus played us all to reach its own goals, but I suspect Yam does have a heart buried somewhere underneath all that machinery. He reminded me of a lot that I had forgotten. I'm sorry I couldn't protect you from overhearing what I lived through."

"Idiot," said Vierran. "You didn't need to protect me. What did I need protecting from? I had a family, a life, and more money than we all knew what to do with. You were the one who needed protecting! All I managed to do was wave my good fortune in your face all the time."

Vierran pushed the starberries aside and swung her legs across the desk until she was facing Mordion properly. His right hand lay on the edge of the desk; she grabbed it and pressed his fingers between her own. "Listen," she said before he could open his mouth. "I've wanted to say this for years, but the King and the Prisoner told me I shouldn't talk about anything you forgot. I'm sorry, Mordion. I wanted to be your friend, but I was a spoiled little brat. You weren't quite real to me, and your friends were even less real. I egged you on to escape because it never occurred to me that people who kept children locked up as slaves might punish them for trying to run away. I was horrible and selfish, and you never said anything nasty to me. So I'm sorry for that."

He looked as though he wanted to interrupt, but Vierran hurried onward. "I was a spoiled brat when I grew up, too. I treated you like a character in an adventure novel when you came down here to get clothes - I thought you were mysterious and interesting, and it never occurred to me that you and the Slave might be the same person. It never occurred to me to try helping you. So I'm sorry for that as well."

Vierran paused and took a deep gulping breath. "If you don't want to talk about those things, I'll never bring them up again, but I needed to say that once." She raised their joined hands and scowled down at her stumpy fingers, so awkward when seen next to Mordion's long, elegant bones.

"I know," said Mordion.

Vierran jerked her head up and stared at him. "What?"

"That you didn't think I was quite real," Mordion clarified. "I didn't think you were quite real either, so I understood. When I saw you working down here and thought you might be my Girl Child, I knew you still weren't seeing me properly, but I didn't mind. I liked that my world hadn't touched you. I liked that you were innocent." He brought his other hand up to clasp around Vierran's hands, his long fingers curling smoothly around her wrist. "But thank you. I'm glad you care. I always wanted a friend."

A friend. Vierran tried not to let her sinking heart show on her face. She'd hoped that maybe, after everything... but if Mordion wanted a friend, she'd be a friend. She couldn't do any less - they'd known each other most of their lives, and if they didn't hate each other by now, there was no question that at the very least they'd be best friends.

Mordion tugged gently upward on their joined hands, pulling Vierran's eyes back to meet his. "You found me," he said, a hint of that transformative smile lurking at the corners of his mouth.

"I did," said Vierran, wondering if she dared hope.

"Sir John told me an interesting Earth saying the other day," Mordion said. "He called it 'finders keepers.' You found me," he repeated, his smile breaking out just a little more.

"Oh? Oh! You get to keep me, too," said Vierran, and leaned in to kiss him.

When Mordion kissed back, she knew she'd guessed right.

o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o

AN: Thanks for reading, and please review! I appreciate all comments, but I'm particularly interested in knowing what parts of the story worked for you, what parts didn't, and why.