She was greeted by Tai- er, Kaname's mother, who always seemed both pleased that she should take such an interest in her son, and wary of her for some reason. Perhaps she sensed Yuka's (carefully hidden) dislike of her. Yuka disliked the woman because she treated Kaname unfairly, she had no spine when it came to her husband, and she spoiled her other son to the point where it was a trial to be around the arrogant little brat. Still, it made no sense for Yuka to make an enemy of the woman so she was the model of politeness and kept her dislike to herself.

"Ah! Yuka-chan! So glad you could come today!" the woman said, all smiles and welcome.

Her other son was hovering in the background, just the same as he always did when she came to visit. He was scowling, also as usual. He still had a bit of a chip on his shoulder that Yuka had gone through him to gain more information on Kaname before she approached him. Well tough, the boy had enough of his own way at home; Yuka was not going to line up for him.

"Pleased to visit, Mrs. Takasoto, pardon the intrusion," Yuka said, bowing politely.

"Kaname's in his room, painting, as usual," Mrs. Takasoto said, motioning her in and setting out her usual guest shoes. "Go right on up, I'll be up with snacks in a few minutes."

"You don't need to go to any trouble," Yuka tried to reassure her.

In truth, the older woman was trouble. Because of her interruptions, Yuka had to wait until she knew the woman was out of hearing range before she could stop talking of inconsequentials like school and tests and get down to why she really came.

"Non-sense, no trouble at all," Mrs. Takasoto replied. "You're the only one who ever comes to visit my Kaname. My other boy has so many friends over all the time playing that game system we got him for New Years, but Kaname never had a single friend until you came along."

Yuka smiled politely because she had nothing she could say to a statement like that and hurried up to Kaname's room.

As ever it was filled with the scent of oil-paint and turpentine. Kaname stood in the light of the sole window of the room. It did not face north, so the hours when he could get truly good light to paint by were limited. Kaname disliked artificial light for painting. He worked away hurriedly, his brush-strokes quick and efficient but deft and certain as well. He was shaping up to have a wonderful talent. Yuka studied his painting, it was unfinished, the painting was done in the blurry style favored by impressionists like Monet and Van Gogh; the colors were vivid but the shapes and features in them were vague and dreamlike. Yuka could just make out an impression of a lions body, but light gleamed off from the tail of a snake and golden hair glinted softly in the diffusion of color.

"I had another dream last night, Yuka. This one was more vivid than any I've had all week," Kaname said in his quiet, almost emotionless voice.

She could make out what looked like the glow of a single candle in the background, and an impression of moonlight landing on some kind of cloth that had a soft sheen to it, probably silk.

"That's Sanshi," Yuka explained to him. "It's a creature from the other world, with the hindquarters of a lion, the torso of a woman, the tail of a snake and... I'm not sure what else."

She didn't tell him that she had heard from Youko that the creature had been bonded to him personally, like some kind of mutant nursemaid, but she didn't think he was quite ready to hear that bit yet. Kaname still thought he was human. She wondered whose job it was going to be to finally break it to him that he wasn't, and hoped it wouldn't fall to her. She was lousy with emotional conflicts.

"Tell me more about the other world," Kaname said.

Yuka smiled a little and made herself comfortable while he painted.

"After your mother comes in with those snacks she threatened I will," Yuka said.

Snacktime when Yuka visited was the only time that Kaname could get food without meat in it at home. Yuka used her status as a guest to get Mrs. Takasoto to give them vegetables and fruits and water (no dairy).

"Thank-you for coming over," Kaname said.

His eyes and attention were on his painting, but Yuka could hear the sincerity in his voice. Kaname knew he was different from others somehow, and while it was his nature to accept the world more passively than many would, that didn't mean that he didn't feel lonely because of it. Yuka often felt like more of a young mother to him than his mother was. Yuka felt personally that Kaname's mother did little for him, she never checked with him to see whether he was getting on fine in school or if he was being picked on, she never seemed to praise him or help him with his homework (Kaname never mentioned it anyway) and Yuka sensed that the only time she ever paid him any attention at all was when he was doing something she didn't like.

Any other parent would have covered the walls of their home in his paintings! Yuka thought irritably to herself.

"You're doing it again," Kaname reminded her.

Yuka took a breath to calm her spike of irritation. Anyone else would have thought it unnatural how attuned Kaname was to the emotions of the people around him (and the other students at school did avoid him and whisper about it) but to Yuka it was only to be expected. It was his unique and special nature.

"I was just thinking that it's a shame that your mother does not display your work," Yuka replied. "Any other parent I could think of, except maybe mine-"

Her father would have displayed them (if she'd had the talent to paint the way Kaname did), but not because he liked them or thought that they had any real merit, but because doing so would enable them to boast of artistic talent in her family. As it stood, her father felt that if Yuka couldn't be born a natural child prodigy, then she should work her fingers to the bone to create the illusion of being one. She had grown to detest the violin for a number of reasons.

"- would be pleased to display them," Yuka informed him.

"Mother doesn't like them," Kaname said tonelessly. "She says that they look strange to her and she doesn't like the weird subjects of them."

"What about that map? The one you entered in the competition and won first place with?" Yuka questioned.

"I told the teacher to keep it. Mom said it didn't match the furniture."

A likely excuse. Didn't match the furniture indeed!

"Why are you so angry?"

"I'm not angry, I'm upset on your behalf," Yuka clarified, though she was aware she did still have some issues with her aggression.

She was just born in the wrong era. Everything was so tame and moderate in these modern days, everyone was expected to conform, to be nice, to bow politely. No-one seemed to fight for what they believed in anymore, and if a person was willing to do so they got labeled as violent and sent off to places for "sensitivity training' where they were made to turn all of their feelings into pasty, socially acceptable mealy little things without any fire behind them.

Yuka often wondered why she had ever come back. What had she been thinking? How could she have ever thought she could be happy marrying some mealy-mouthed little salary-man and raising three kids in the suburbs? What kind of life was that? This world she lived in drove her nuts, living in it was like always walking around with a shirt and shoes that are about half a size too small; tight in strange places and never quite right. She felt restless.

"You don't need to be, you know," Kaname said quietly. "I'm fine."

No you're not, you'll never be fine in this place. Not completely. You're too different. You're meant for something else, she thought at him, but said nothing out loud.

Kaname paused in his work and looked over at her, searchingly. She didn't actually think he could hear thoughts, but he must have picked up on the pity behind them.

"Why do you always feel sorry for me?" Kaname asked her honestly.

"Because," she avoided.

She knew already that she could not lie to him; it was the nature of the kirin to sense a lie. Dishonesty was as contrary to their nature as violence.

"Besides, who else would listen to my stories?" she changed the subject adroitly.

Kaname smiled his small, quiet smile as they listened to the sounds of his mother coming up the stairs and trying to do it silently so that she could overhear what they were speaking about. When she had gone, Yuka began to tell her Kaname about how babies were born on trees in the other world.

Kaname looked saddened as she told them how the whole village might join in an impromptu festival the moment a fruit appeared in answer to a hopeful set of parents petition to the gods for a child.

"So, there are no unwanted children over there..." he said sadly.

Yuka mentally kicked herself for picking that topic. She wasn't good with people, but even she was not so dense that she couldn't tell that Kaname felt unloved and unwelcome in his own home. His father was absent (apparently as much as possible) on business trips for much of the time. His mother was unnerved by him and lavished most of her time and affection on her younger, natural son.

He sighed a little, softly and murmured

"It must be nice..."

Yuka tried not to show how surprised she felt by that statement. In all of the time she had been telling these tales to him she had never once heard him say anything about them, either positive or negative. He'd never ventured a comment or opinion about them and Yuka was so taken aback and elated she wasn't sure how to proceed right away. She wanted to encourage his interest, but she knew if she pressured him he'd curl right back up into his shell again. She worded her next sentence carefully.

"It is by no means a perfect world," she said. "Even though the gods that rule it and set the system in place clearly tried their very hardest to make a world that would be fair, it cannot be so. There are people that are unwanted there, people that are abused and neglected, abandoned and betrayed. There are corrupt kings who use people to their own ends-"

Oh she knew that last one quite well. Granted, the king in question had been dying because he had lost the Way and denied the Mandate of Heaven, but it had still happened.

"And court officials who over-tax and live well, while their people starve."

Suddenly, she was seized by an inspiration. She wondered if she should do it. Up until now she had been very quiet, very circumspect about the role of kings and kirin in that other world. She didn't want to push too hard, but she had made a breakthrough today, perhaps now was the time!

Well, why not? she thought to herself. One did not gain without risk, after all.

"But that is why they have the kirin!" Yuka said, injecting her voice with as much cheer and excitement as she could.

She was excited, but mostly because she was really going to try to get through to him. She was being cheerful so that maybe he'd like the idea right away.

"Kirin?" Kaname asked, sounding intrigued in spite of himself. "Like, mythical unicorns?"

"Yes exactly, though in the other world, they don't just have the form of a horse, they can also change shape so they look like men or women too. They have a very special, very unique job over there..."

"Like what?" Kaname asked, clearly being drawn in against his will.

Part of him wanted to know this, she could just feel it.

"Well, you remember how I told you that there are twelve kingdoms?"

He nodded.

"Each of these kingdoms is ruled over by a king or queen, but that person isn't born into a royal family like over here. Over there, in order to be a ruler you have to be chosen by a very special creature that is mandated by the gods. The Kirin. The Kirin picks out the next ruler when the old one has died."

"How?" Kaname asked.

"I don't know," Yuka replied. "I think that's something only the kirin know. And when they chose the next ruler they get down on their knees like this..."

Yuka knelt down, as though she were kowtowing herself in abject apology. It was not a natural pose for her to assume, and it felt a little odd doing it in her modern setting.

"And they say...'I swear never to desert my post before your throne.'"

Kaname froze, his gaze turned inward and Yuka wondered if she'd pushed things too far when she saw tears well up in his eyes. His voice was shaky as he broke the silence

"And then what?" he asked sounding short of breath.

"And then the prospective ruler accepts the will of heaven," Yuka said. "And the two of them enter into a one-of-a-kind compact."

"What kind of compact?"

"In order to rule a country effectively, the gods seem to feel it was necessary to have balance, an intellect to rule wisely and a heart to rule well. Rulers must often make very difficult decisions and commit actions which would go against kindness; it is the nature of ruling a kingdom. But on the other hand, a ruler who rules only with his head will not take into account the suffering and sorrows of his people. So the ruler leads the people, but there is a check on him or her in the form of the kirin, whose job it is to be the heart. He's the one who tells the ruler if his decree is too harsh or if he is not taking the needs of the people into account."

"The heart of the throne..." Kaname murmured.

"The two of them rule together until..." Yuka trailed off, reluctant to explain everything about it. She still remembered well that fateful night and the revelation of the King of Kou. She wasn't sure she wanted to go into the gory details just yet, so she simply said

"Until the ruler dies."

"And then the kirin has to pick another one?" Kaname asked.

"Ye-es," Yuka said a bit hesitantly.

"You are upset," Kaname stated.

"It's a sad business," Yuka replied deciding she would leave it at that. "Gosh, look at the time. I've been here for hours! I should really get back home, I still have to log in my practice hours or Father's going to cut off my escrima privileges."

Kaname looked at her steadily, perfectly well aware that, while she was speaking truthfully, it was an excuse. She smiled softly, and a touch ruefully, and rose to depart.

"Sleep well," she said, going to leave.

"Yuka?" he called over to her as she reached the door handle.

"Yes?" she asked, turning to look back.

He seemed to hesitate. Then he opened his mouth again, looking uncertain of what he wanted to say.

"What do you think it's like... to be the heart of the throne?"

Yuka took a moment to consider it before she answered.

"I think it must be confusing," she pronounced at last, thinking of Kourin and her fate; and the actions and fate of her ruler, King Kou.

Yuka had thought it sad that Kourin should be so good and so loving, and yet shackled to a ruler who would not stop what he was doing even though it caused his poor helpless kirin, who had never done anything but try to support him to the best of her abilities, fall ill of shitsudou. The king of Kou had made an essential slave of one who should have been his partner.

"Kirin are created by forces outside of their control for a purpose and a destiny they won't always have much of a say in," she replied. "So much seems to happen to them and it often seems that the only thing they can do is to try their best with what they are given."