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a guest Jun 26th, 2019 115 Never
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  1. Mira was rarely ever an object to a Noble; even more rarely to a Noble of the Four Great Houses. Regardless, the cost of booking a first class seat upon the soonest possible flight to Bareahard had totaled to an outrageous amount, one most likely unaffordable to the majority of Heimdallr’s citizens. Jusis sits cross legged in his seat, dangling his foot just as nervously as he twists the very expensive Orbal Airship ticket in his gloved hands.
  2.  
  3. The flight was certainly shorter than the drive would have been – so short, in fact, that it would be no real effort to turn right back around and hop on a Heimdallr-bound airship, in an effort to take back the decision he’d made in the middle of the night.
  4.  
  5. Machias would most likely be waking up soon, Jusis sighs, checking the watch Machias had gifted him only eight or so hours ago. Perhaps, if he used his Dukely powers to insist the airport staff simply charge his account, he’d be able to plan his return flight to coincide perfectly with when Machias would indeed be waking up…
  6.  
  7. “No,” Jusis’ conscience argues, causing him to shut his eyes in irritation; his conscience is the last thing in Zemuria he wishes to entertain, after everything it had put him through as of late. “You have already inconvenienced your staff with the need to arrange for one of your chauffeurs to meet you at such an unholy hour, and you have certainly inconvenienced the Regnitz family enough to warrant your permanent departure from the Imperial Centre. The least cowardly and disrespectful thing you could do is not turn around in your tracks and go running back to them, simply because it is what you want.”
  8.  
  9. Jusis sighs at the thought, unable to argue against it; what good was being a Duke if said Duke could not have all that which he desired?
  10.  
  11. The ticket in his hand is entirely illegible, so horribly twisted and mangled by his own hands, that it is a good thing he no longer needs it. He stares down at the outline of Bareahard below as they finally approach the city limits, the snow covered rooftops green, grey, white and black, compared to the golden night time glitter of Heimdallr and Crossbell.
  12.  
  13. The sun barely begins to rise on the other side of the horizon, and his stomach lurches painfully; both from the less than graceful descent they begin into Bareahard, as well as over the thought of spending his first day of Aidios knows how long would be a life without Machias to brighten it at some point.
  14.  
  15. He scoffs and looks away moodily, for a patron is barely able to contain his nosiness that assuredly stems from the mystery surrounding the troubled Lord of Kreuzen Province’s early morning journey to his home town. It takes all of his self control to not unleash three days’ worth of stress, hurt, and anguish upon the nameless man, though the general numbness he feels over the situation is enough to curtail the tirade he would otherwise set loose against his innocent constituents.
  16.  
  17. “Yes, hello? Harold? Yes. It is I. I have just landed,” Jusis barks into his Arcus the moment the airship comes to a stop in the port, the two other first class passengers aboard the early bird flight quick to collect their things and disembark, lest they overhear their future Duke. “I have next to no luggage, therefore I require little in the ways of curbside service. I ask that you simply pull the car around out front and await me at the arrivals gate. I will be there shortly.”
  18.  
  19. He hangs up without another word, completely ignoring his driver’s friendly attempt at wishing him a happy belated birthday, and well wishes upon seeing him again; he had, after all, been driving Jusis around since he was nine years old.
  20.  
  21. Jusis sighs heavily, gathering his coat and scarf and dressing himself accordingly; he would apologize soon enough – if the ability to hold a conversation longer than a sentence is able to come to him, at that.
  22.  
  23. He picks up his (now two) suitcases, Carl having given one to take back the various birthday gifts given to him by his classmates, stepping out from the airship and stalking his way through the barren airport. It is barely five am. He does not make eye contact with what few passengers litter the hub. A bodega attendant begins assembling his news stand for the day, unloading bundled stacks of the day’s edition of The Chronicle from a cart next to his station. Just the title alone causes Jusis’ nose to turn up that much higher in the air. He almost has half a tyrannical mind to make his first act as Duke to ban its distribution throughout Kreuzen. He sets his luggage down once he makes his way outside, the wind sharp, frozen, and unforgiving.
  24.  
  25. It’s weird, being back in Bareahard – the city is so much more refined than Heimdallr, the heavy snow fall having long since been plowed into neat bundles, the road ways completely clear of ice or sleet. Jusis smirks to himself; whereas those very few of the Ost District who even owned an Orbal Car had to account for the delay of untreated winter roads in their commute, the affluent drivers of Bareahard had little knowledge of even the concept of such a thing.
  26.  
  27. Then again, Jusis frowns, for Harold pulls the usual royal green limousine around the bend, the hubcaps and hood ornament perfectly buffed, despite the salt and grit on the roads; were it not for falling in love with a native of Heimdallr’s poorest and least developed neighborhood, he too, would have no idea that such a lifestyle not only existed, but was…pleasant, and easily bearable, given the people who inhabited it (even Patiry, Jusis notes with a sad, distant smile).
  28.  
  29. “Pull yourself together,” Jusis’ conscience snaps, and Harold, ever so immaculately dressed, his charcoal grey hair and mustache perfectly coiffed, even given the absurdly early hour, steps out of the driver’s seat before bowing low before Jusis.
  30.  
  31. “Lord Albarea,” he calls, distant and servile – the only two demeanors anyone in this damned city knew how to bestow upon Jusis – yet unable to hide that human sense of fondness for the man he addresses, whom he too, had helped raised over the years. “How wonderful it is to see you after such a time. Shall I take your luggage?”
  32.  
  33. “That will not be necessary,” Jusis tries to sound a bit more friendly – he’d always resented Helmut’s treatment of their family’s servants – though it is impossible to mask the heaviness of his heart. “If you could simply open the trunk, I shall place my belongings in there myself. I have many delicate gifts from my friends inside of these suitcases.”
  34.  
  35. “How lovely,” Harold smiles. “It is nice to hear that you had a pleasant birthday indeed.”
  36.  
  37. Jusis freezes at the words, glaring up at him from over the trunk’s edge before shoving his luggage inside and slamming the trunk with a lot more force than necessary.
  38.  
  39. “You are going to be Duke, for Aidios’ sake,” his conscience continues as Harold opens the back seat door, Jusis climbing in wordlessly following the gesture. “Neither you, nor your staff, nor your people have time to moon about over your ridiculous romantic troubles.”
  40.  
  41. “Forgive me if I am overstepping any boundaries, Lord Albarea –”
  42.  
  43. “Please, Harold,” Jusis closes his eyes, resting his forehead in the palm of his hand. “Two months is not nearly enough time to have forgotten that I insist that, if you must use any titles with me at all, Lord Jusis is more than sufficient.”
  44.  
  45. “…Y—yes…” Harold amends, looking at Jusis warily in the rearview mirror before continuing. “…I know that you spare what details you wish of your own volition, and withhold those you do not care to share, but…I cannot help but notice that you are returning from your Rumspringen a whole two months earlier than what is customary of the Noble Class; is everything alright?”
  46.  
  47. “Everything is fine.”
  48.  
  49. Jusis scoffs to himself, staring moodily out the window.
  50.  
  51. “Nearly two months after living with Regnitz, and I am nearly as poor a liar as he.”
  52.  
  53. “I simply take my charge much more seriously than my peers, is all; I haven’t the time to vacation around when there is much to be done to prepare for the assumption of Father’s old title.”
  54.  
  55. “Lord Jusis, you know Lord Rufus would be incredibly despondent to hear that you are not making the most of your youth.”
  56.  
  57. Jusis smirks sadly as he stares out the window, bathed in the glow of gaslights that flicker past outside. How utterly untrue Harold’s statement was; in just two months, Jusis had travelled abroad on multiple whims, plunged head first into dangerous situations with naught but the carelessness of youth to keep him afloat. He’d had so much to drink that he’d actually fallen prey to a hangover for the first time in his life. He’d partied with Princes and their bodyguards, and cared little for the reputation he left behind in such spaces. He’d spent hours upon hours with his beloved classmates, able to gossip and laugh, as if each of them did not represent the future of their country in some morbid or taxing way. He’d loved passionately, recklessly, thoughtlessly – without qualms, cares, worries, or considerations. He’d indulged in that very same love so intimately, that every single love song and story and film he’d been forced to confront over the years suddenly made sense.
  58.  
  59. Jusis had discovered the joys of youth so successfully, in fact, that the Governor of Heimdallr himself had to intervene, lest he sully everything it is he now comes home to face. He’d connected so deeply with his youth, he left it abruptly before it would destroy him.
  60.  
  61. “The best thing you can do for both Machias and yourself at this point, is return to him, truly, honestly, as the capable adult who can love him in the way he needs to be loved – and by then he too, will be the one you need.”
  62.  
  63. Carl’s words had made sense – they still make sense – even if they hurt more than they had when Carl had first spoken them aloud.
  64.  
  65. “I saw the article in the evening edition of The Chronicle from a few days ago; it appeared you were in Celdic with your classmate, touring about? Did something go wrong?”
  66.  
  67. Jusis purses his lips, eyes falling shut dramatically.
  68.  
  69. “I have no desire to speak about it,” Jusis answers curtly. “I wish to be taken to the mansion, where I can sleep to a reasonable hour. I have no interest in entertaining anything beyond that.”
  70.  
  71. “…As you wish, Lord Jusis,” Harold nods in acknowledgement, sparing Jusis a final glance in the rearview mirror – one he misses entirely. Bareahard’s Central Plaza is empty; a completely different energy, versus the early morning, rush hour traffic of the capital. He smiles reluctantly, the massive, festively decorated firs that tower on each side of the cathedral a welcomed and familiar sight. Bareahard is a lot more virginal and pure than he remembers it being.
  72.  
  73. At least until they make the slow turn onto the long, stone bridge leading toward the Albarea Mansion, whose grounds are perfectly manicured, its massive gardens bedecked in untouched snow.
  74.  
  75. “At least allow for me to see to it your provisions are brought inside, Lord Jusis. I understand the urgency behind your need for rest,” Harold frowns into the mirror once he finally manages to traverse the massive drive before the Mansion’s main gate.
  76.  
  77. “I will not reject that proposal,” Jusis finally concedes after a moment of thought. “It is much appreciated.”
  78.  
  79. “Certainly,” Harold shuts off the ignition, and Jusis waits patiently for him to open the passenger seat door. “Should I have a maid draw you a bath, or perhaps prepare an early breakfast?”
  80.  
  81. “None of that is necessary,” Jusis takes both the case of his sheathed sword, and a suitcase containing the presents in hand – the other massive one could be handled by his staff indeed. “I shall call for them myself should I require anything else. You have already woken up in the middle of the night to fetch me from a last minute flight; you have both my gratitude, and my faith that you will find some rest yourself, until I have further need of your services.”
  82.  
  83. “Yes, Lord Jusis,” Harold bows, opening the massive main doors of the Mansion subserviently for him. “Welcome home.”
  84.  
  85. Jusis scoffs, eyes fluttering about the massive entrance hall – nothing has changed. The floors are spotless and waxed, the walls pristine, the glittering, gold-framed portraits and works of art perfectly dusted and not at all askew. The fine strips of carpeted flooring leading to the different wings do not harbor a single speck of dirt, and the various plants are so perfectly watered and vibrant, one would think the Mansion were a greenhouse for how well they thrive in the middle of winter.
  86.  
  87. It would be impossible for anything about the Mansion to harken back to the Regnitz home – dusty, old, with sunbleached wooden floors, stone walls with uneven and rustic bits of brick that jutted out in unpredictable places, homely hearths of rust-spotted cast iron, potbellied, woodburning stoves nestled into compact corners, yet all so earnestly cradled with a tenderness that stemmed from a genuine sense of affection, rather than the expense of people whose entire lives were dedicated to keep up the appearance of such –
  88.  
  89. Everything about the Mansion is all so meticulously curated and maintained; how could anyone believe that a single soul actually lives here?!
  90.  
  91. “Resides, maybe,” Jusis sourly notes. He hisses through his teeth, shaking his head as he realizes that, despite the fact that the Albarea property took up the same amount of space as the Ost District and then some, the confines of it are so much more claustrophobic than even the smallest of linen closets at Machias’ house. Had anyone whoever inhabited these halls ever truly lived within them?!
  92.  
  93. “Perhaps I can be the first in my lineage to actually do so.”
  94.  
  95. But how, Jusis asks himself; how could he possible manage it, when the very person who taught him how to live in the first place, is six hours away, and currently battles the wrath of the Blood and Iron Chancellor?
  96.  
  97. “Lord Jusis, the rest of your belongings are in Hannah’s care. She has placed them in your room for you to unpack as you see fit.”
  98.  
  99. “Thank you, Harold,” Jusis nods. “I am going to go find some rest now.”
  100.  
  101. Harold bows one more time, leaving Jusis on his own to make his way to the whole wing of the Mansion he occupies. He walks down the wing’s beautiful main corridor, his hollow footsteps echoing off both the sleek marble floors and mahogany oak walls. He traverses the entire expanse, through foyers and tea rooms and studies that could have satisfied an entire family, yet belongs only to him all the same. It takes him a fair amount of time to reach the door of his master bedroom, inlaid with gold and ivory; it is almost impossible how little he missed it during his time with Machias. He’d give nearly anything to stand before Machias’ bedroom door, rather than his own, the bedroom door that creaked when opened too slowly, the bedroom door whose frame was a little warped near the top, and had diviots where Carl had charted Machias’ growth into it over the years.
  102.  
  103. He swings it open, instantly welcomed by the sight of the massive bedroom, still in the exact same state in which he left it. The room had clearly been dusted in his absence, thus everything still shimmers and glitters in a pristine shade of royal green. A stack of unopened mail rests upon the small coffee table in the sitting room attached to the bedroom proper, a folded stack of laundry set neatly upon the seat of a stiff backed, finely upholstered chair. The chandelier is off, the thick curtains closed, leaving Jusis no choice but to turn on one of the many porcelain lamps upon his many side tables. His bedroom floods with weak, white light. He drops his luggage and hangs up his overcoat upon the ornate coatrack with a heavy exhale before attending to the stack of neglected, unanswered mail. He brings the stack over to his birch writing desk, turning on the lamp that rests upon it.
  104.  
  105. The topmost letter is sealed within a thick, crimson envelope, the golden crest of Thors emblazed in the top right hand corner: Thors Military Academy Alumni Association – no doubt a plea for donations. Jusis massages his forehead before mumbling dejectedly under his breath; he supposes it had been long enough since he’d graduated for the Academy to start soliciting him for money. He further supposes that it is customary for Albarea graduates to donate to their Alma Matter – though he would be sure to insist that his donation does not require a facility or collection in his name. He answers the letter with an impatient huff, scribbling his signature and enclosing a generous check therein before resealing the envelope and tossing it upon the other corner of his desk. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t received an excellent education at Thors; it allowing him to get acquainted with Machias – and the rest of Class VII, for that matter, was well worth the twenty thousand Mira he sends to fix the curling in his bedroom at the dorm.
  106.  
  107. The next letter – an invitation to some Crainagh wedding – he opens it with a little more force than necessary, the last name unpleasantly reminding him of Machias’ past with Ambassador Crainagh’s daughter. He crumbles it without a second glance upon noticing that it is not her wedding; he would assuredly throw a drink (or his sword) in her face should they otherwise meet in person.
  108.  
  109. He flips disinterestedly through other letters – grant proposals for Kreuzen-based non-profits, some causes more heartfelt and genuine than others, setting them aside and mentally promising to give them a second look over after a few more hours of needed sleep.
  110.  
  111. Another heap of letters stem from various Albarean senders, most of whom Jusis hadn’t spoken to in nearly fifteen years. While attempts are made at wishing him well for his Rumspringen or his birthday, the letters themselves are forced and disingenuous, their drafters much more interested in currying the future Duke’s favor than rekindling any sort of real relationship with him.
  112.  
  113. Jusis scoffs in disgust, tossing away the increasingly elaborate and ornate collection of birthday cards. He could not be any less interested in trading contact with Machias for that with insufferable cousins and deplorable great aunts and uncles. It is simply a twist too much of the emotional knife that embeds itself in his heart.
  114.  
  115. Were he but Rufus, who had so openly and blatantly cast aside all of his connections to the Albrea family and name – save for Jusis himself – he would not have even bothered with opening their communicative efforts.
  116.  
  117. The last letter, enclosed in a plain envelope, compared to the rest of the Albarea family, comes from Reinhold Albarea – Helmut’s brother, and Rufus’ biological father. Jusis’ eyes widen with begrudging curiosity as he rereads the name, unfurling the letter and reading its brief contents.
  118.  
  119. Dear Jusis,
  120.  
  121. I am writing to wish you a lovely Rumspringen, a happy birthday, and a pleasant winter solstice, all at once. I hope this winter season guides you to a pleasant and successful ascension to the title of Duke in the Spring. No doubt you will do a much better job at it than my brother. Should you or Rufus need anything, you both know where I can be found.
  122.  
  123. Your Uncle Reinhold.
  124.  
  125. How long had it been since Reinhold Albarea had made any sort of contact with the rest of the family, let alone Jusis? Like father like son, he’d done much to avoid any sort of correspondence with their relatives following Rufus’ birth. While the well wishes do not drip with insincerity and ulterior motives like those of the others, he cannot help but wonder if there is not something more to Reinhold Albarea’s words…
  126.  
  127. How little he missed this; constantly having to inspect and analyze every single interaction for signs of trickery and deceit. It had been, after all, one of the many things that drew Jusis to Machias, even as enemies; for as unpleasant as Machias had been at the time, he’d been so authentic and genuine…
  128.  
  129. Goddess, Jusis sighs, slumping against his desk. Machias really had upended everything about Jusis’ life, to the point where he cannot even check his own damn mail without longing for him…
  130.  
  131. Authentic and genuine does not even begin to accurately describe him, Jusis silently deliberates as he rises from his desk, turning off the lamps before undressing and slipping into his cool, massive – empty, lonely – bed. He was utterly fearless – not just in his deeds, but in the expression of his beliefs and values. No doubt Machias would have been the type to neglect sending a card to someone he hated, simply because social customs dictate it.
  132.  
  133. He’d been the first person in his entire life to not only forego any sort of subservient behavior upon meeting him, to not just not dance delicately around Jusis’ title and status, but had purposefully tripped him in an effort to – what was it all in effort of? To protest the Nobility? To express his anger? To avenge his cousin? To protect himself from whatever perceived aggression he felt the Nobility to harbor?
  134.  
  135. “To get my attention?” Jusis wonders, staring at the flames of the fire in the marble fireplace, tended to by one of his many servants upon hearing of Jusis’ arrival at the Mansion. Who knows, Jusis sighs, bathed in the glow of the smouldering embers he faces. Merely that he’d always regarded the Albarea name to be a shield of some sort; one that protected Jusis from so much in the world, given the distance and reverence the name alone commanded. And yet, it kept him trapped behind his own anguish.
  136.  
  137. Everything about this life was so controlled, artificial, railroaded (in some ways, quite literally) according to a system that, per Machias, was determined centuries before either of them were even born.
  138.  
  139. Determined, protective, shielding, yes – but by Aidios if it doesn’t leave Jusis trapped in misery.
  140.  
  141. And there was Machias himself, tossing the weight of his legacy aside as if it were nothing since the very beginning, exposing Jusis, yet freeing him all the same.
  142.  
  143. Sure, coming back to Bareahard meant his and Machias’ safety, but what of his happiness? For all of their flaws, both as individuals and as a couple, at least Jusis could say that he was happy when he was with Machias. But it is unfair, just as Carl said; it is unfair to trade the miserable protection of the Nobility for the protection that Machias is able to offer, at the expense of Machias himself.
  144.  
  145. “At least this way, no one gets hurt any further as a result of my actions. Actions that boil down to me either feeling too much, or nothing at all.”
  146.  
  147. Had he not returned to Bareahard to try to learn a middle ground between those two emotional states? Much in the same way Machias had needed to learn how to evolve past his blind hatred, Jusis too, needed to learn how to thrive without self-destructive protection.
  148.  
  149. In that sense, he’s no different from Machias at all. It had taken Jusis nearly five entire years to realize that he is just as chaotic, unbridled and uncontrollable as Machias in the art of self-expression – just from the opposite end.
  150.  
  151. “And if we find some way to meet in the middle…” Jusis tries to comfort himself, finding sleep comes to him no matter how much he would prefer to brood.
  152.  
  153.  
  154. Breakfast is intensely lonely.
  155.  
  156. Jusis is the only person at a long, massive table meant for at least fiteen people. The intricate silver candle holders are unlit, the chandelier above, coupled with the grey winter light that filters in through the massive windows more than enough to shine a spotlight on Jusis’ seclusion.
  157.  
  158. Jusis lowers his wrists against the table, dejected and unable to finish his meager breakfast. The kitchen had done its best to recreate Machias’ breakfast sandwich to his liking, yet something is simply missing. The bread is too artisianal, the crusty, cracked wheat tough and grainy, struggling to soak up what little butter the chef had spared. The bacon, while expertly smoked and cured, simply isn’t salty enough; Jusis’ lips do not shrivel and pucker with every bite. Whatever replacement the kitchen had opted for instead of the brown sauce is sweet, instead of tangy and spicy. The eggs are overwhipped and airy, yet runny at the same time – nothing at all like the crispy, thin, fried goodness that Machias had introduced him to.
  159.  
  160. “Is everything to your liking, Lord Albarea?” a younger maid asks him delicately, to which Jusis simply sets the sandwhich down upon the silver plate, staring ahead out the window.
  161.  
  162. Far be it from Jusis to take the barely picked at sandwich off his plate and toss it in her frowning face. Not only was she not the one who made the sandwhich, but such tantrum-like and petulant behavior was all too Helmut like for Jusis’ tastes…
  163.  
  164. “Fine,” he snaps before rising, adjusting his cravat and pushing the plate aside. “Fetch Harold, please. I require a drive out into the city.”
  165.  
  166. She frowns, gently collecting Jusis’ wordlessly abandoned breakfast before bowing.
  167.  
  168. “As you wish.”
  169.  
  170. Goddess, how Jusis hated that single phrase. As you wish. As you wish. As you wish. Was it the only sentence his staff knew how to say? How many times was the same line uttered in a single day alone, over and over again?
  171.  
  172. Jusis scoffs as he dresses himself for the snowfall that picks up again outside, not even bothering to thank the woman as she takes his dishes and begins to sort the table. Any time he thanked his staff, it usually went unheeded at best, or was met with sheepish humility at worst. As if acknowledgement of Jusis’ gratitude was some sort of unwieldly honor none of them felt worthy of accepting.
  173.  
  174. It is yet another thing he loves about Machias, about being with and near and around him; he was the one of the few people, and certainly the very first person he’d ever met who didn’t give a damn or otherwise live for the sole purpose of fulfilling Jusis’ wishes. Even yesterday, on Jusis’ own birthday, he’d been content – adamant, even – about living life according to his own standard and will, even if it meant going directly against Jusis’ wishes.
  175.  
  176. Goddess, that passion, Jusis laments, frowning as he leaves the dining room and begins the long trek toward the Mansion’s main foyer. The passion of all of his classmates, at that. He loved them all so dearly and individually for it.
  177.  
  178. But only Machias Regnitz had the audacity to actively, audibly, verbally tell Lord Jusis Albarea to go fuck himself whenever he fancied. And only Machias Regnitz could get away with it. Jusis sighs as he continues to entertain yet another thought of Machias, of the way he tended to groan and roll around before properly waking up. Of his irritability that usually lasted all the way through breakfast. Of the way, despite that early morning attitude of his, Machias still managed to treat him with a strange and almost contradicting tenderness; in the way he’d prepare his tea and hand him a thermos, in the way he’d take Jusis’ overcoat from the coat rack and drape it over his shoulders, in the way he…well…
  179.  
  180. Jusis frowns down at his feet for a moment.
  181.  
  182. Everything.
  183.  
  184. “Are you alright, Lord Jusis?!” Harold calls from the massive entrance hall, his voice echoing rather cavernously about the granite walls.
  185.  
  186. “Yes, everything is fine,” Jusis assures him, hand sliding down the golden bannister as he traverses the grand staircase. “I apologize for summoning you yet again in such rapid succession. I hope I haven’t woken you.”
  187.  
  188. “No, Lord Jusis, I was actually about to go out for breakfast as it is,” Harold assures him, adjusting his gloves before pulling the door open once the two of them reach it. He pulls out a set of keys from his coat, opening the backseat door for Jusis before getting into the car himself. “Where are we off to?”
  189.  
  190. “Central plaza. I require some sundries.”
  191.  
  192. “Yes, of course. Though would you not prefer to send one of your shoppers instead? It’s quite cold, and the snow is a lot heavier than anticipated.”
  193.  
  194. “No. I long for both the distraction, and the fresh air,” Jusis sighs, pulling his frantically buzzing Arcus out of his overcoat pocket; it is a good thing he’d preemptively set his Arcus to silent; Machias’ current call marks the fortieth attempt in a row at reaching Jusis – perhaps even more, given that he had ignored the Arcus completely during ‘breakfast’.
  195.  
  196. “I see…” Harold frowns, inching carefully down the massive drive, fresh snow making the road a little slippery. “Were you not able to get some rest since your arrival a few hours ago?”
  197.  
  198. “A little,” Jusis explains, eyelashes fluttering as he dramatically shuts his eyes; even reading Machias’ name on the screen is too painful an endeavor at the moment.
  199.  
  200. “I know I asked you already this morning, but are you okay, Lord Jusis?” Harold asks kindly. “You have seemed burdened and distracted since your rather abrupt arrival.”
  201.  
  202. He does not immediately answer, frowning instead at Machias’ text: Are you serious?! You just up and leave in the middle of the night and don’t answer my bazillion calls to your Arcus?! Are you gonna ignore this too?! What the hell is going on, Jusis?!
  203.  
  204. “…It’s fine,” Jusis lies, staring moodily out the back seat window.
  205.  
  206. By Aidios, Jusis Albarea, I’m putting on my damn shoes and walking to Bareahard. I know that’s where you are. Just where the fuck do you get off leaving me a note and just running away like this?! Answer me already, dammit!
  207.  
  208. His Arcus rings again, and Jusis rejects the call.
  209.  
  210. “He won’t like that.”
  211.  
  212. Sure enough, yet another text follows a moment later.
  213.  
  214. Oh, so you are there. Well, guess it’s good to know you’re not dead or captured or something. Nope, you’re just ignoring me like none of this ever happened, and we’re going back to how things were before your Rumspringen. Cool. Great.
  215.  
  216. Jusis scoffs, rubbing his forehead wearily; what part of ‘do not try to contact me, as it will break my resolve’ did Machias not understand?!
  217.  
  218. I dunno who or what the hell it was that put you up to this, but I’m serious here…
  219.  
  220. Jusis rubs his eyes, Machias sending another rapid text in the short break of Jusis’ attention span.
  221.  
  222. Dammit Albarea, you’ve just added insult to the injury that was falling for you despite doing everything I could to not, ‘cause now I can’t live without you.
  223.  
  224. Jusis sighs wearily through his nose, trying his best to focus on the fat snowflakes that flutter to the ground instead.
  225.  
  226. I love you.
  227.  
  228. “I love you too…” Jusis mouths to the Arcus, though he sets it down irritably, for Machias immediately follows up the message with yet another call. “Harold, I have a strange request for you,” Jusis starts wearily, for Harold now puts the car in park once they reach the central plaza.
  229.  
  230. “Yes, Lord Jusis?”
  231.  
  232. “Would you mind letting me out here? I have an important phone call I need to take and require a bit of privacy.”
  233.  
  234. “I…I suppose I may,” Harold frowns, tires scrunching above the snow as he pulls over toward the curb. “Are you certain you want to get out here? The walkways are untreated, given it is a Sunday, and most of the province was shut down yesterday due to your birthday. It is a bit of a walk from here to Soircere’s café.”
  235.  
  236. “Yes, just find somewhere to park, I do not mind the – wait – what do you mean the province was shut down due to my birthday?!” Jusis catches himself, one foot still in the car, the other on the icy sidewalk.
  237.  
  238. “The Duke or Duchess’ birthday has always been regarded as a provincial holiday, your lordship,” Harold explains with a bit of a laugh, as if it is the most obvious thing in the world.
  239.  
  240. “I see…” Jusis frowns. “I suppose my utter disdain for my Father left me ignorant of the fact until now. In any case, do come find me at my uncle’s café. We can continue from there to the Solstice Market. There are a handful of groceries I require that I would prefer to be fresh.”
  241.  
  242. “Of course,” Harold nods with a smile, and Jusis shuts the car door before stalking as aggressively as he can, given the slip of his elegant boots upon the snow. He snatches the Arcus to his ear, Machias not disappointing and calling yet again.
  243.  
  244. “Listen,” Jusis barks the moment he answers the call, continuing before Machias can even get a word in edge wise. “Listen carefully, in fact, as I will only grant you the privilege of hearing this a single time,” Jusis breathily instructs, stomping his way across a snow covered bridge overlooking a frozen aqueduct. “I can’t live without you either, but I do seem to recall telling you in quite explicit terms not to contact me. There’s a reason for it, and it is one that is to our benefit, even if we can’t quite conceive of it now. That being said, I know you, Regnitz, and that your threat to come to Bareahard was not empty,” Jusis inhales sharply. “If you should find yourself in Bareahard on my account, I will have you forcefully removed from the city. Please do not test how serious I am on that matter. I love you, Regnitz; now please don’t call me anymore.”
  245.  
  246. “Wait, Ju –!”
  247.  
  248. He somehow manages the monologue in a handful of breaths and seconds, placing the silent (for now) Arcus into his pocket before stomping his feet upon the frozen rug outside of the café. His Arcus actually falls silent for the first time since Machias had woken up earlier that morning, and Jusis exhales before walking into the warmth of the café.
  249.  
  250. His uncle, the head chef and owner of the café, double takes at the sight of Jusis walking in to his restaurant, a smile spreading across his face.
  251.  
  252. “Jusis! Oh my Goddess, is that you?!”
  253.  
  254. “Hello, Uncle Hammond,” Jusis shudders, his body still adjusting to the change in temperature, and his mind still distracted by thoughts of Machias. He heads over toward the bar, leaning his forearms against the edge of it. “I take it you are well?”
  255.  
  256. “Well, -- yeah, same old same old on my end,” he laughs, untying his apron and retying it so it is no longer crooked. “You’re the real star of the show! Makin’ the newspaper, goin’ about on your Rumspringen, not to mention I’ll need to call you Duke in a few months, here –!”
  257.  
  258. “Nonsense, you would be the last person on Earth with a need to address me as such,” Jusis waves his hand, smiling as best as he can, given the weight of his heart break.
  259.  
  260. “I know your birthday was yesterday – I would’ve sent a card, but when rumors of your Rumspringen started going around, I thought it best to hold onto it until you were in Bareahard. You back at the Albarea Mansion?”
  261.  
  262. “Yes,” Jusis nods, chewing on his lip a little. “And after spending two months away from it, I find the breakfast prepared at the mansion to be disappointing indeed…”
  263.  
  264. “Yeah, that’s how it works…” Uncle Hammond sighs with a bit of a frown. “You get a bite of food outside of those Nobles circles and suddenly it’s all so flavorless when you come back to it.”
  265.  
  266. “Funny,” Jusis sighs, closing his eyes softly. “The very same thing could be said for life away from the Nobility as well…”
  267.  
  268. His uncle frowns at Jusis’ weighted expression, though Jusis tries to recover as quickly as possible.
  269.  
  270. “Hence my visit this morning; not that catching up with you is any less an attraction.”
  271.  
  272. “Yeah, it’s always nice to see you, Jusis…” he smiles warmly, the blue eyes both he, Jusis, and his mother all had in common glittering affectionately. “By Aidios, if you haven’t grown a ton since you first went to Thors. Not to mention how good you look; you wear that whole Noble look so naturally you know. Your mother would’ve been proud.”
  273.  
  274. “Yes…” Jusis sighs, his heart stinging at the thought of his beloved mother; it was a sore topic for Jusis, even after fifteen years. “I should hope she would have been.”
  275.  
  276. “Well, what is it you want? I figure we can chat while we wait for your food to cook, huh?!” Uncle Hammond clasps Jusis on the shoulder, before laughing.
  277.  
  278. “Honestly, my request is quite simple,” Jusis strips himself of his gloves, swinging a leg over a stool as he goes to sit at the counter. “I cannot remember the name of the establishment for the life of me, but I was introduced to a bacon, egg and cheese breakfast sandwich whilst on my Rumspringen. The one procured for me was utterly decadent; white bread turned golden, so soaked in butter. The bacon was salty and yet so chewy. The egg was thin and crispy, almost fried on the edges. There was this strange brown sauce on it as well – a condiment I had never heard of prior to this sandwich. By Aidios if it was not the most delicious thing I’ve ever eaten in my life, I…” Jusis frowns, distracted by the mental image of himself descending the stairs of the Regnitz home, a barely dressed, bed-headed Machias turning to smile at him, carrying two plates worth of said breakfast sandwiches in his hands.
  279.  
  280. “That’s easy enough to whip up,” Uncle Hammond’s smile is gracious, but it doesn’t match the one that Machias offers him, now fading slowly from his mind’s eye. “I take it the cooks at the Albarea kitchen didn’t do it justice?!”
  281.  
  282. “Aidios no,” Jusis grimaces. “You cannot use cracked weat multigrain, it completely degrades the nature of the damn thing,” he scoffs as if mortally offended. “Not to mention the kitchen thought it prudent to substite the butter for coconut oil. It was all sorts of a mess. If I could have two of them, please, I’d like to give one to my driver as thanks for his services.”
  283.  
  284. “Heh – sounds like you’re pretty into your breakfast sandwiches,” Uncle Hammond chuckles, taking the ticket he writes and placing it in the kitchen’s window.
  285.  
  286. “Well, the person who introduced me to them in the first place holds quite a special place in my heart…” Jusis shares with a sigh before he can either think about or stop the words from coming out. “I guess you could say the sandwich, while a simple and yet unexpected masterpiece of a dish, will always remind me of…” Jusis cuts himself short, shaking his head; it is not as if he would not see Machias again. “You know how I do not like to complain, or make too much work for my servants; I’d rather acquire the necessary ingredients to cook it myself, than make any extra demands of the cooks at the mansion.”
  287.  
  288. “You really are your mother’s son…” Uncle Hammond chuckles, both of them turning to watch Harold as he comes in from outside, covered in a dusting of snow. “Harold!”
  289.  
  290. “Hammond,” Harold raises a hand in a friendly greeting before turning to his charge. “Have you taken care of your business, Lord Jusis?”
  291.  
  292. “I have,” Jusis nods. “I asked my uncle to cook a certain breakfast sandwich I had during my Rumspringen. I got him to make you one as well.”
  293.  
  294. “That’s very kind of you,” Harold smiles. “I appreciate the effort.”
  295.  
  296. “Asking my uncle to make me a couple of sandwiches is hardly any effort, Harold,” Jusis smirks lamely, Uncle Hammond clearly a little unsure how to act or respond to the reverent treatment his nephew receives.
  297.  
  298. “You able to sit and chat for a little while longer?” Uncle Hammond asks as the two sandwiches appear in the window, steaming, warm and fresh; Jusis nearly salvates at the sight of them.
  299.  
  300. “I’m afraid not, I sadly have to ask if we cannot take them to go,” Jusis sighs, rising from the chair as Uncle Hammond begins to wrap them and place them in a to go bag. “Though I assure you I will be back to visit soon; I do not suspect I’ll have need to leave Bareahard any time soon…”
  301.  
  302. “Well, it was wonderful seeing you both either way,” Uncle Hammond grins, handing Jusis the bag. “You gotta stop by again anyway to pick up your birthday gift.”
  303.  
  304. “I shall,” Jusis smiles, the smell emanating from the tote instantly reminding him of Machias – not that he needs any extra push in that regard. “Until then, take care, Uncle Hammond. I promise not to let the business of these next few months keep me away for too long.”
  305.  
  306. He pays and leaves a very generous tip before taking his uncle into a loving hug and stepping back out into the snowy city’s center together with Harold.
  307.  
  308. “I must thank you again for thinking of me, Lord Jusis,” Harold says humbly, to which Jusis scoffs with a bit of haughty unawareness.
  309.  
  310. “Say nothing of it; you said you wanted breakfast, and I am such a fan of these sandwiches, that I would make them the provincial dish, if I could.”
  311.  
  312. “I’m pretty sure you actually could, Lord Jusis; your father changed the provincial seal to the Albarean gardenia.”
  313.  
  314. Jusis snorts for a second, though the gesture falters as he pulls his buzzing Arcus from his pocket, frowning down as he reads the words upon it.
  315.  
  316. Jusis please. I can’t go another three years without you. Not after having you in my life again. I love you too much for that, you arrogant Noble.
  317.  
  318. “Did you hear me, Your Lordship?”
  319.  
  320. Jusis starts suddenly at Harold’s concerned voice, his frown and watchful gaze mirroring his tone.
  321.  
  322. “I…” Jusis blinks rapidly, Machias’ latest text message splitting into three as his vision blurs from a gust of piercing wind. “I’m afraid I did not.”
  323.  
  324. “Lord Jusis, I can only stress so much how worried I am for you, even if the act goes against your wishes,” Harold stops in his tracks as Jusis does as well, the Arcus at his side in one hand, the bag of food in the other.
  325.  
  326. “I am honestly concerned that there is an issue or matter that has brought you back to Bareahard so suddenly and unexpectedly.”
  327.  
  328. “You needn’t be,” Jusis frowns, for Machias sends yet another message.
  329.  
  330. You really are serious about this, then. I guess there’s nothing I can do or say that’ll convince you to come back so just know that it’s only been four hours since I’ve woken up and saw that you left and I’m already at my wit’s end here. You’re so unbelievably precious to me. But it’s because of that that I’m gonna try my best to listen to you I guess. So I’ll wait. I’ll be here waiting for you until you’re ready. Whenever that is. I waited for you during the war, I waited for you after our argument, and I’ll wait for you again now. For as long as you need, and as long as you want.
  331.  
  332. Jusis’ fingers curl around the Arcus, the sounds of the world muting themselves as he reads Machias’ last lines over and over and over again.
  333.  
  334. Just promise to come back to me after it’s all said and done.
  335.  
  336. “Lord Jusis…” Harold nervously chances, clearly much more aware of the fact that they’d been standing still in front of the café for nearly half a minute than Jusis.
  337.  
  338. I promise. But I am blocking you now, Regnitz, ere you do not uphold your end of the bargain and cease contact with me. I love you.
  339.  
  340. “You look quite ill, shall I take you home –?!”
  341.  
  342. “No Harold,” Jusis sighs, nestling his Arcus in his overcoat pocket. “I still have yet to gather the groceries I wanted to purchase. The winter market on Artisan Street will certainly have what it is I am looking for.”
  343.  
  344. “And what is that, exactly?” Harold asks, following Jusis as he looks both ways before crossing the street – not that it matters. The accumulating snow, coupled with the crowd that filters slowly out of the Bareahard Cathedral, renders traffic to a near halt. The massive bells sound for noon, the whole square flooded with church goers and tourists of the winter market alike.
  345.  
  346. Jusis walks idly past the massive firs, inhaling the complimentary scent of balsam, cedar, and cinnamon. The wooden stalls are lined with festive lights, poinsettas, and strips of fir, the smell of celebration nearly ingrained into the air.
  347.  
  348. How little does Jusis feel like celebrating.
  349.  
  350. “You know you needn’t accompany me should you wish to wait in the car or go elsewhere,” Jusis mutters from the corner of his lips, trying his best to ignore the stares he garners from a cluster of tourists who occupy a stall of handmade ornaments.
  351.  
  352. “I do not mind, Lord Jusis,” Harold assures him. “I am enjoying the sights.”
  353.  
  354. Jusis nods once, wrinkling his nose at the smell of grilled sausages that permeates the air with each frigid gust of wind. His eyes dart about the various stalls, most of them occupied by dozens upon dozens of sorts of handmade arts and crafts. Lovely as it all is, he searches very specifically for a grocer of some sort – he knows such vendors tend to reserve at least a strip or two of stalls –
  355.  
  356. His heart jumps up into his throat, shattering to a thousand pieces before pooling sickeningly in his stomach – steamy trails of piping hot coffee catch his attention, Jusis unable to pull himself away. He pensively strolls over, dragging his fingers across the matte surface of an airlocked bag, jutting along the bumpy outline of the coffee beans stored inside.
  357.  
  358. “Might I try some…?” Jusis asks the elderly man who tends to the make shift coffee shop, who adjusts his glasses before his eyes widen.
  359.  
  360. “L – Lord Albarea! A-a-absolutely, you may!” he gasps and stutters, Jusis inclining his head in gratitude before taking a cup into his hands and chancing a small sip; cloves, ginger, nutmeg, chocolate, even a little bit of peppermint – all of the aforementioned flavors combine with a perfectly fashioned roast.
  361.  
  362. “There’s no doubt he would love this…” Jusis frowns, staring at nothing in particular as he cups the coffee against his chin, wholly absentminded.
  363.  
  364. “Is – is it to your liking, Lord Albarea?!” the old man stammers, chewing nervously on his thin lips, as if the entirety of his livelihood rests upon Jusis’ answer. Naturally, Jusis’ internal monologue gags at the lingering taste of coffee on his tongue, the bitter and pungent liquid much more tastefully paired with Machias, than anything that could otherwise be served. Though the poor sap behind the stall does not need to know any of this.
  365.  
  366. “Indeed,” Jusis nods, neither unfriendly nor warm. “I shall take a bag of this and another of your espresso blend. There’s no need to grind them, but please gift wrap both, if you would be so kind.”
  367.  
  368. “R – right away!” the old man bows nervously before rushing about what little space there is at the stall at break neck speed.
  369.  
  370. Jusis shakes his head, watching the black coffee as it laps around the rim of the cup, still too hot to take any significant amount of sips from.
  371.  
  372. “Were I to finish this cup, would it be the same as kissing you?”
  373.  
  374. For the first time in Jusis’ life, he does not want to spare a single drop of the drink he once found the most revolting of all.
  375.  
  376. “Your Rumspringen left you quite changed indeed, Lord Jusis,” Harold chuckles from over his shoulder. “I remember you hated coffee once upon a time.”
  377.  
  378. “That once upon a time was, up until recently, my entire life,” Jusis frowns, closing his eyes and sighing. “Though you are correct; I did acquire a taste for the occasional cup as a result of my Rumspringen.”
  379.  
  380. How obvious must it be that he stares down at the coffee not in appreciation of the beverage itself, but as if a look alone would suddenly summon Machias to savor it with him, here and now?
  381.  
  382. He brings the rim to his lips, not even caring about the burning flashes the hot liquid leaves behind before cooling adequately along hi tongue. Jusis shivers, a chill washing over him – a chill that only a kiss or touch from Machias could possibly dispel, at this point...
  383.  
  384. “…take your bags, Lord Jusis?”
  385.  
  386. “What?!” Jusis starts softly, lowering the cup as he follows Harold’s gaze. “Oh. I see.” He takes the gift bag the old man extended to him who knows how long ago, nodding in acknowledgement befoere leading Harold deeper into the market.
  387.  
  388. He frowns as he looks at Jusis who continues to lead the way, the frost of the early afternoon nothing compared to the frigid and icy eyes of the Lord of Kreuzen Province. By Aidios, was it truly a spectacle how much Jusis had grown and changed over the years. He’d thought the jump between his departure and return from Thors was significant; yet something appears to grip Jusis – mold and change him in a way that is entirely unfamiliar to Harold – the very man who had picked him up from his uncle’s care following his mother’s passing, and had brought him to the mansion in the first place.
  389.  
  390. He does not know whether the partially-present, aimless, and distracted air with which Jusis peruses the stalls is something to contemplate. He stops in his tracks as Jusis thoughtfully taps his chin, wintry eyes clouded in deliberation as he observes a paperback stall, filled to the brim with fine stationary, and non fictional works of history and political science.
  391.  
  392. A flash of inspiration takes hold of Harold, who watches Jusis as he almost longingly studies the cover of a book depicting scenic snapshots of Heimdallr’s Dreichels Plaza during the winter.
  393.  
  394. The article from the Evening Chronicle, showing Jusis as he’d toured about with his friend and former classmate – none other than Machias Regnitz, the very same man who had been seen with a coffee cup in hand in the photograph the journalist had featured. The sudden taste for the breakfast sandwiches they’d both neglected to actually eat – a beloved and working class delicacy, often sold at food carts in the Capital, given the fast-paced lifestyle of its inhabitants – the very same Machias Regnitz who, if the Chronicle is to be believed, stands accused of a slurry of crimes, all of which would guarantee a life in prison, should he be convicted. The sudden return to Bareahard, heavy hearted, heartbroken, at that…
  395.  
  396. “Lord Jusis, I must say the act of you stopping to entertain a book on Reformist policies is nearly as shocking a thing to witness as the coffee it is you nurse.”
  397.  
  398. Jusis turns sharply toward Harold at the comment, eyes wide and and vulnerable, as if he begs Harold to forgive him – though for what exactly, he hasn’t the slightest clue...
  399.  
  400. Harold sighs, watching Jusis sadly as he thumbs through the book on Reformist policies, eyes glazing over as he stares down at a page containing the official governmental portrait of Carl Regnitz. Jusis’ fingers trail idly up and down the glossy page following the other – one depicting an admittedly handsome and rather captivating Machias Regnitz, eyes blazing full of intensity.
  401.  
  402. Chief Imperial Judicial Inspector, is the caption below what Harold assumes is his own official governmental portrait.
  403.  
  404. “Jusis.”
  405.  
  406. Jusis slowly shuts the book, looking at Harold in shock, taken aback at the sudden neglect he shows for titles or formalities.
  407.  
  408. “Do – do you –?!” he can’t even bring himself to pose the question; it is one thing to address his Lord in such a manner, but to pry, accuse, involve himself in his private relationships, affairs, and business –
  409.  
  410. “…What?” Jusis whispers, that same vulnerable, guilty look exposing the entire spectrum of Jusis’ emotions. “Do I what?”
  411.  
  412. Harold clears his throat, averting his gaze toward a roasted almond stall directly across from the one they currently entertain. He knows that face, he realizes; not just in the sense that one would come to recognize the son of one of the nation’s most influential people. Rather, from the dozens of wanted posters Helmut Albarea had plastered throughout the province during the Civil War, from the way he’d been expressly forbidden to help Jusis escape the mansion when Helmut Albarea had wrongfully imprisoned Machias during their brief field study in the city all those years ago.
  413.  
  414. “I…” Harold swallows sharply, the act stealing whatever question he meant to pose along with his breath. “Do…you remember what it is you’re looking for?” Harold attempts to deflect, and if Jusis considers the attempt at changing the subject to be either obvious or otherwise inflammatory, he does not comment as much.
  415.  
  416. “Yes,” he starts instead, placing the book back upon the display, sparing it one final glance before allowing Harold to lead him away. “I want to purchase the groceries necessary to make that sandwich for myself at the mansion.”
  417.  
  418. Neither of them speak for the rest of Jusis’ distracted attempt at shopping. Harold can only watch him in silent concern and interest as Jusis mumbles about from stall to stall, perusing the goods and grumbling irritably here and there (“Ugh – this bread is much too crusty for such a thing. This cheese is too sharp. This bacon too fatty. These eggs too small. This sauce isn’t nearly spiced enough.”). Still, he seems content enough with his purchases after a while, and Harold receives Jusis’ silent nod of approval that they head back to the mansion a whole hour later.
  419.  
  420. “Allow me to take some of your goods,” Harold holds out a hand, for Jusis opens a massive black umbrella to shield them both from the falling snow, now that they turn on the much less crowded Artisan Street. Jusis wordlessly obliges, and Harold studies the umbrella with interest; the white horses galloping along the circumference of the rim is a lovely touch, and the canvas of the umbrella itself appears to be sturdy and entirely weather proof.
  421.  
  422. “How nice,” Harold smiles, readjusting the brown paper bags in his hand so they are less cumbersome a burden. They carefully make their way down the slopped, cobblestone road all slicked with untreated ice. “A gift, I presume?”
  423.  
  424. Jusis’ eyes flash momentarily, and he frowns as he stares straight ahead at nothing in particular.
  425.  
  426. “…Yes.”
  427.  
  428. Harold tries to smile, but Jusis seems unwilling to meet his eye. They finally locate where Harold had parked, an inch and a half of snow having accumulated on the car during their trapse about the plaza.
  429.  
  430. “Please, Lord Jusis. If you would get settled in the back seat, I can warm up the car, scrape off the ice, and set your groceries in the trunk.”
  431.  
  432. Jusis closes his eyes and nods, settling into the comfortable leather seat. Harold closes the door once Jusis’ entire body rests with aloof indifference inside of the car, the heated seats and climate control working almost instantly to provide an escape from the below-freezing temperatures outside.
  433.  
  434. He scrolls lazily through his Arcus, frowning as he attempts to find the origin Machias’ frantic collection of texts. They go on forever, Jusis notes, some messages just a series of keyboard smashing, as if composed in an effort to merely get his attention, rather than say anything in particular.
  435.  
  436. “As if he could take his eyes off you long enough for them to land on anyone else.”
  437.  
  438. As if Jusis could ever do so himself. It’s with great pain that he finally presses the block option, confirming his choice to ‘block all communication from this contact’. He exhales, irritably crossing his legs as Harold finally does a sufficient job of clearing the windshields of ice and snow.
  439.  
  440. They pull away from the curb, a tense static hanging between them both as Harold attempts to maintain the silence Jusis clearly wants, yet he himself wants to break.
  441.  
  442. “What was it you wanted to ask me, Harold?”
  443.  
  444. Jusis’ voice is full of suspicion, devoid of any amusement. The question itself is sudden, as if Jusis had long since been prepared to pose it.
  445.  
  446. “I know for a fact your question had naught to do with my shopping list.”
  447.  
  448. How accurate, Harold frowns, tapping a finger against the steering wheel as he waits for the light to turn green.
  449.  
  450. “…Think nothing of it, Lord Jusis. The question would have been impertinent and inappropriate.”
  451.  
  452. “You’re forgiven,” Jusis dismisses the concerns, staring into the rear view mirror. “But clearly something was on your mind that you wished to express, so please; indulge me.”
  453.  
  454. Harold glances into the mirror and sees the expression reflected back at him. He can tell that his charge means it and is not in the mood to entertain being put off.
  455.  
  456. “…Allow me, then, to start with a question that is of no less genuine interest, but perhaps a bit more…substantial,” Harold sighs, eyes flashing quickly into the rear view mirror once again. “Is your sudden return to Bareahard at all related to the…developments detailed in yesterday’s issue of The Chronicle?”
  457.  
  458. Jusis scoffs, gently lowering the closed umbrella so it rests along the floor of the back seat.
  459.  
  460. “Yes. Though not because there is any truth to such developments. Be aware that the lies directed at the Regnitzes are nothing short of slander, and the machinations of power hungry, contemptible individuals who cannot stand to see the country in the hands of those that would actually do it some good.”
  461.  
  462. Harold frowns, but Jusis is quick to continue.
  463.  
  464. “Let me put it this way; it is surely not your first time witnessing the Albarea tendency to frame and extort Carl and Machias for their own gain. Merely that the buck did not stop with my father.”
  465.  
  466. “Lord Jusis…” Harold chews his lip, not wanting to speak ill of either Rufus or Helmut, even with the knowledge that he’d be well within good company to do so. “The charges against him are very dire,” he tries his best to be sensitive, to avoid any sort of inflammatory topic or remark. “Drug trafficking and attempted assassination, I – I’m afraid things are looking quite grave for your former classmate.”
  467.  
  468. “Believe me, there’s nowhere I’d rather be at the moment than Heimdallr, assisting and supporting him throughout this madness. But the fact of the matter is that the situation is too unwieldly for me to try to tackle without at least the formal weight of my title in my corner.”
  469.  
  470. “Do not think I am passing judgment on your decision to return, Lord Jusis. I am very happy to see you, in fact. The mansion was quite an empty nest without you, and, between us both, you’ve always been my favorite of your relatives, and hold quite a special place in my heart. Even if you can be rather…moody at times,” Harold nervously eases into his amendment, surprised to see that Jusis actually chuckles a little at the admission. “However, I am more than just your servant and your driver; I am a human being who cares for you, and I see how greatly it is your decision to leave your friend is weighing on you.”
  471.  
  472. “I think even the blind could see the way the burden of it all weighs upon my shoulders. I think Rufus even made some sort of lovely aside in the article about how Regnitz’s charges would destroy me, or something to that effect,” Jusis rolls his eyes. “It hurts, naturally. I do not like the passiveness of my current role in the situation. I’m sure you remember your refusal to drive me beyond the provincial border to find my classmates during the war.”
  473.  
  474. “I – I was in no position to argue with your father’s wishes, Lord Jusis.”
  475.  
  476. “I understand. You needn’t defend yourself in that regard,” Jusis waves a hand, cutting the rest of his sentence short before continuing. “Just be aware of the fact that Regnitz is entirely innocent. I’m afraid I cannot say much more beyond that at the moment. Also know that I will not tolerate any sort of disparagement toward Regnitz in my household. The fact that the entire nation has jumped so quickly to believe the account of our manipulative Chancellor and my conniving brother makes me ill, and I could not stomach it from my own staff.”
  477.  
  478. “I don’t doubt your testimony, know that much,” Harold explains, easing on the brakes as he presses a button on the dashboard in order to open the massive iron gates to the mansion. “All I need is your word on the matter, as this is your friend and classmate, and your character has always been honorable and trustworthy.”
  479.  
  480. Jusis scoffs dismissively, but allows Harold to continue.
  481.  
  482. “But, if you’ll let me speak out of turn, Lord Jusis; I have also been with you for a grand total of seven hours since the abrupt end of your Rumspringen, and…”
  483.  
  484. “What is it you want me to say here, Harold?!” Jusis growls, throwing his hands in the air in exasperation. “That the fact that I am leaving my best friend to the dogs of the press and our despicable Chancellor, all while I get waited on hand and foot, is the most gut wrenching and difficult decision I have had to come to in my entire life?! That I have been forced to prioritize my legacy over the livelihood of the one I love – a livelihood that was thrown into jeopardy on my account to begin with?”
  485.  
  486. Harold exhales heavily, shutting off the ignition and frowning at his lap. Jusis, meanwhile, rests his forehead in the palm of his hand, rubbing is wearily as the car settles into the curated drive.
  487.  
  488. “Forgive me if I seem a bit impatient,” Jusis bites through clenched teeth. “But as you’ve assuredly caught on by now over the years, I’m quite weary of Albarea affairs directly impacting that poor man, all whilst I scramble about in an attempt to right the wrongs done to him in my name.”
  489.  
  490. Harold slowly glances back up into the rearview mirror, watching Jusis as he crosses his arms and taps his forearm impatiently.
  491.  
  492. “Do not think I have fallen deaf to the immediate bouts of gossip my sudden return has sparked amongst my servants. Apparently the lot of you expected me to come back to the mansion with some Lady of social standing hooked into my arm, two months pregnant and with a shotgun wedding in the works.”
  493.  
  494. “Know I participated in no such discussion Lord Jusis. I told the cleaners that such talk was inappropriate –”
  495.  
  496. “They can waste oxygen speculating as much as they wish. It does not change the fact that it is Regnitz who holds my affections.”
  497.  
  498. Harold sighs; he has no need to pose the question after all.
  499.  
  500. “Thus, as one of perhaps only eight or nine people on this planet I can actually trust, I ask that you just proceed as normal with me and allow me the space to handle this situation as I see fit. I appreciate your concern, I do. But apart from driving me back to Heimdallr yourself, so that I may take back this decision and be together with him again, and refusing to entertain any sort of rumors surrounding my love life, I’m afraid there’s nothing you can do.”
  501.  
  502. “I’m sorry to hear that, Lord Jusis,” Harold whispers, allowing them both a few moments of silence before he gets out of the car, opening the back seat door for Jusis.
  503.  
  504. “That being said, I need your word that you will not drive me to Heimdallr, no matter how I protest or plead; the decision to leave the city, while difficult, was the correct one. Regnitz and I are both well aware of it, despite the fact that we are both taking it rather poorly.”
  505.  
  506. “Certainly,” Harold nods, taking Jusis’ various purchases out of the trunk. “What…what shall I do with your belongings?” he tries to redirect the conversation, despite being the one to initiate it in the first place.
  507.  
  508. “If you could have the groceries placed in the kichtens of my wing, rather than the main one, that would be very kind. If you could also have the coffee taken to the mail room and have them delivered to – to the Regnitzes as soon as possible, I would also be grateful,” Jusis orders rather sheepishly, as if embarrassed or ashamed of his requests. “Forgive me for my previous outburst. It would appear that seven hours is as long as I can go without allowing my disdain for such a lifestyle to show itself. It does not excuse the fact that I am pouring my heart out to the innocent.”
  509.  
  510. “Nonsense, Lord Albarea. Knowing the extent of your struggles allows me to better serve you.”
  511.  
  512. “But I do not want to be served, I just…” Jusis sighs, staring up the staircase that leads to the entrance to the mansion. “I don’t know. Forget I said anything.”
  513.  
  514. Harold watches as Jusis stalks up the staircase, the massive wooden doors slamming with finality behind him.
  515.  
  516. When the doorbell to the Regnitz home rings, Machias is the one who scrambles from the kitchen table to answer it – although he knows, logically, that it is not Jusis who means to visit him and Carl, the more fanciful and, Aidios forbid, emotional side of Machias cannot help but hope – even if it is for a fraction of a second. His hope, coupled with the desire to catch a glimpse of the world beyond the confines of his house is very tempting; he’d begrudgingly agreed to Carl’s advice that he lays low until Rufus issued him a formal court date.
  517.  
  518. “Be sure to check who it is before answering the door, son,” Carl instructs from the table with a frown. While their neighbors had respected their wishes to leave them in peace (along with vehement cries of support, not a single resident of the Ost District willing to believe the events as presented in The Chronicle), the RMP seizing the car and combing the house for further “evidence” had left them both rather sour to any other unexpected visitors.
  519.  
  520. Machias closes his eyes; it had been the longest two weeks of his life. He foolishly, naively, prays to Aidios that they neednt’t be any longer. His heart pounds in his throat as he notices a head of blond hair weaving in and out of view of the door’s peephole. His hands shake as he wrenches the door open, though his entire body slackens as he realizes it is only the mail man, leaving behind nothing but a medium-sized package upon the stoop.
  521.  
  522. He sighs, staring down at it for a moment, taking it inside and closing the door with more force than necessary.
  523.  
  524. “Don’t just bring strange packages in here, Machias, we don’t know who sent it, or for what purpose,” Carl concernedly scolds, though the words go unheeded. Despite Carl’s apprehension, Machias knows within seconds who it was that sent the package.
  525.  
  526. “What is it?” Carl questions, rising slowly from the table and making his way over to Machias, who continues to stare down at the package in the living room. “Is everything alright?!”
  527.  
  528. Machias turns to glare at Carl, who no longer awaits an answer, taking the package into his own hands and bringing it into the kitchen instead.
  529.  
  530. “Ah,” he purses his lips, readjusting his glasses upon the bridge of his nose; the winged stallions flank the intricate, blue and green crest of the Albarea family, emblazoned where a stamp or two would usually go. Carl smiles sadly; rarely was official correspondence from one of the Four Great Houses hand addressed by the Lord or Lady themselves, but Jusis’ thin, elongated cursive is almost as recognizable as the blue ink it is that Machias prefers – certainly no accident on Jusis’ part.
  531.  
  532. Machias slumps into a chair at the table, resting his head against the cradle of his forearms.
  533.  
  534. “Are you not going to open it?” Carl chances, frowning at Machias’ lack of response. He sighs at the prolonged silence. “And just when Machias had finally started to get his mind on track.”
  535.  
  536. He opens the box carefully, noticing a folded letter rests atop two bulging packs of what Carl immediately assumes are coffee beans. He unfurls it, rubbing his eyes.
  537.  
  538. I saw this coffee at the Winter Market in Bareahard and thought of you. I even stomached a cup of it to make sure it would be to your liking. –Jusis
  539.  
  540. “Aidios,” Carl thinks to himself, his thumb brushing absentmindedly over the white gardenia that crowns the official Albarea letterhead. “Can these two seriously not go even a month without – without –”
  541.  
  542. “So what even is it…” Machias groans, voice muffled by his arms.
  543.  
  544. “Coffee,” Carl sighs, setting the letter down gently next to Machias. “From Bareahard. A gift from Jusis, obviously.”
  545.  
  546. Bright chandeliers instantly blind Machias, the resplendent crystals casting iridescent spots of light across the massive ballroom-turned-reception hall. It’s a good thing he opted to wear his contacts, rather than his glasses. He stands in the entrance way for a few moments in an attempt to gather his bearings, instantly overwhelmed by the sheer volume of both the amount of conversation, and the sea of people in the room. Sequins, glitter, rhinestones, and jewelry glint under the effects of the lights above, and right away a light coat of sweat gathers where his neck meets the collar of his finely pressed dress shirt.
  547.  
  548. Function certainly meets form for Machias this evening; his suit, while a tasteful one that encapsulates the demand and dignity of the office of Vice Chancellor, definitely flatters him enough to turn both heads and camera shutters alike toward him.
  549.  
  550. Not that anyone at the reception is unpleasant to look at; perhaps only the Schwarz Auction could be known to house so many good looking people at once.
  551.  
  552. “Nice crowd, Elliot,” Machias smirks to himself, wondering just how many of the beautiful young women in attendance had a history with him. He scans briefly over the dozens of tables that litter the room in an attempt to find any familiar faces – those of Thors certainly being a priority. He catches sight of what he assumes is Alisa, far off on the other side of the room – it’s weird, the connection Class VII all had with one another, even after all this time; all he needed was the briefest of glances in her general direction, and right away his heart swelled with familiar affection at the thought of his former classmates.
  553.  
  554. Maybe, just maybe, Jusis is among them. He sucks his teeth at the thought, willing the pang of hurt that pools in his stomach to go away; how long had he spent preparing himself for the fact that Jusis was unlikely to show, unlikely to reach out, unlikely to acknowledge his extistence? Why should tonight be any different? If he hadn’t shown at his and Carl’s inauguration, and if he hadn’t received an invite to Jusis’ coronation, what, exactly, would make Elliot’s concert any more worthy an occasion to try to reconcile? To make things work again?
  555.  
  556. Had Jusis maybe grown so used to life apart from him, that he’d hoped Machias would have finally moved past the two meager months they’d spent together and moved on with his life?! Sure, he’d promised to return to him at some point, but that point was never defined – nor was what it would be, exactly, he would return as; political equals? Rivals? An easily forgettable name on a list of holiday greeting cards?
  557.  
  558. No matter how much Machias loves him, and no matter how quick he is to defend Jusis from his own faults (and Jusis from Machias’ own, even), even he is not so fanatical to ignore what is perhaps Jusis’ most glaring fault of all: his tendency to run away and bottle everything up, rather than face it head on with the care and attention that was needed.
  559.  
  560. He plucks a glass of whatever alcoholic beverage it is the bar tender places upon the table he keeps, heaving his way past guests unaware who are too engrossed in their separate conversations to realize that the Vice Chancellor nudges through them in an attempt to get those he cherishes more than anyone else in Zemuria. Even if the one he cherishes most of all still appears to be blatantly missing.
  561.  
  562. Sure enough, his guess is correct: Alisa goes to join the rest of the Thors group with a martini in hand, her long blonde hair pulled back into a bun, gathered tastefully behind a shimmering, diamond barette, perfectly complimenting her spaghetti-strapped, silver dress. She looks beautiful, Machias notes to himself, as do the rest of the ladies. It may have only been months, but it feels like years; he cannot help but return Fie’s massive grin as she catches sight of him, instantly setting her drink down mid-conversation with Laura.
  563.  
  564. It’s wonderful to see her again, his heart threatening to burst through his chest the closer she comes.
  565. She rushes toward him with incredible speed, jumping into arms that are only just barely able to catch her, for Machias manages to place his own drink down at the table occupied by Rean, Gaius, and Millium.
  566.  
  567. “Aidios!” Machias grunts as Fie collides with him, using a forearm to support her (admittedly very little) weight. Yet more of it adds itself from behind, and Machias catches a flash of red hair before Elliot flings himself onto the group hug, now sandwiched in between them both. “Hello, you two!” Machias muffledly cries, smashed against both Fie and Elliot’s chests. It is a good thing indeed he decided not to wear his glasses.
  568.  
  569. “Don’t hog Machias all to yourselves, now!” Sara cries tipsily, adding herself to the cluster of her entagled students. Machias’ whole face squashes comedically as the three of them pull him in various directions. Sure enough, Millium joins in on the fun, hopping on Elliot’s back, causing Machias to double over some more.
  570.  
  571. “Come on, you and Fie are wearing very short dresses!” Machias tries to cry out from the human prison that traps him, but none of their other classmates seem willing to set him free. Laura giggles to herself as she slowly comes over, extending a hand to pull down the hem of Fie’s dress, for it rides up dangerously as a result of her hold on Machias.
  572.  
  573. “Alright, alright, let him go, we all want a turn now!” Angie windmills her way over, everyone else letting him go before she grabs hold of his face, making a dramatic show of pressing it deliberately against her (very visible) cleavage.
  574.  
  575. “Guys, you’re making it really difficult for me to make it out of here alive without incriminating pictures ending up in the paper tomorrow…” Machias grunts, to which Angie lets him go.
  576.  
  577. “Oh yeah, you’re a big shot now, I forgot,” she laughs.
  578.  
  579. “Who the hell just forgets when their friend becomes Vice Chancellor of the country they live in?! You were at my inauguration, for Aidios’ sake!” Machias shrieks as he goes around and takes everyone into heartfelt, normal hugs.
  580.  
  581. “Bold of you to assume I was sober for it,” Angie sticks her tongue out before sighing. “So then I guess that means we won’t be doin’ Jaegerbombs during the intermission?” she frowns.
  582.  
  583. Sara’s eyes widen as she brings her wine glass to her lips, looking at Machias with interest.
  584.  
  585. “Don’t even try to hide it,” Fie instantly interrupts, Machias laughing nervously as he looks between them all. “He and Jusis got hella drunk a few times back when he was still in town.”
  586.  
  587. “Yeah, like twice,” Machias mutters, and Laura glares at Fie for bringing the very thing the two of them had a whole twenty minute conversation about not doing. Regardless, Machias is determined not to let his hurt at the sudden mention of Jusis show. “Either way, don’t let me stop you guys. I’ll just make sure I lose the cameras before joining in,” Machias tries his best to recover; he’d promised himself he wouldn’t let thoughts of Jusis ruin what little time he sets aside for fun with them all. “Although, maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to forget that this was originally meant to be a classier affair? We can at least save the more…off-the-clock festivities for the after party.”
  588.  
  589. “Well, count me in for the after party!” Sara cheers, taking Alisa and Laura under each of her arms, Emma snorting with Angie. “Just don’t expect me to drive us anywhere!”
  590.  
  591. “How many has she had?” Machias mumbles to Elliot, who grins slowly before turning to Rean.
  592.  
  593. “Six,” Rean deadpans before snorting into his old fashioned.
  594.  
  595. “Yeaaaaah, unless you guys are going somewhere with bottomless baskets of hot wings?! Count me out of the after party,” Millium shrugs. “You guys owe me a brunch anyway!”
  596.  
  597. “It’s true, we’ll try to find somewhere that does both brunch and bottomless hot wings tomorrow morning,” Emma laughs, Millium giving her finger guns in agreement.
  598.  
  599. “Right – if you make sure it’s somewhere near my office, I’m sure I can make it for at least a little bit. Things haven’t quite started ramping up for me yet.”
  600.  
  601. “Sooo, are you gonna tell us about what life is like as, I dunno, the Vice Chancellor of Ere-fuckin’-bonia?!” Fie sarcastically starts, to which Alisa nods in emphatic agreement.
  602.  
  603. “Seriously! Rean and I don’t get anything from you except what’s in the paper, and we all know how reliable that rag turned out to be, so we’re not exactly rushing to consult it!”
  604.  
  605. “Sorry…” Machias offers nervously, Angie whispering “he’s not,” to Laura, who tries her best to hide her growing smile at the comment. “It’s been uh – it’s been a very hectic last eight months, and I’m sure you can imagine that the whole job has a bit of a learning curve that keeps my hands full…” he sighs, looking down at his feet before meeting all of their gazes again. “But I don’t really wanna spend tonight talking about politics; I do enough of that on the clock as is. That, and tonight’s not about me, it’s about Elliot,” he smiles at Elliot, who sheepishly waves a hand about before going “pssshhht.”
  606.  
  607. “No, it like, literally is though,” Millium folds her arms. “I hope you know I made a sign to wave from our balcony! And in between each movement I’m gonna scream ‘wooo, we love you, Elliot!’”
  608.  
  609. “Just make sure you’re not sitting near any of us when you do,” Gaius cautions with good humor, to which Millium turns her attention onto him.
  610.  
  611. “I hope you know you owe me a game of Blade tonight! You guys all owe me a lot of things!”
  612.  
  613. “I do,” Gaius nods, smiling down at her. “I promise I won’t let Wazy drag me away this time.”
  614.  
  615. “Where is he?!” Machias raises an eyebrow, to which Gaius sighs before looking around.
  616.  
  617. “I’m not sure, he ran into Kevin Graham and Prince Olivert unexpectedly and the three of them have been hovering over the open bar ever since.”
  618.  
  619. “And the only reason why I stopped hovering over it was because of these two over here,” Sara throws a thumb over at Alisa and Rean. “That, and the rest of you guys were late!”
  620.  
  621. “Hey, you never show up early or on time to a function or party, that’s rule number one,” Angie explains, Fie nodding in agreement.
  622.  
  623. “Who else is here?” Machias tries to sound casual, tries to inject weightlessness into his voice, but Emma clasps her hands against her front, smiling sadly at him.
  624.  
  625. “I think this is it of the Thors group,” she sighs quietly, all of them doing their best to not make the moment any more awkward for Machias than it already is.
  626.  
  627. “Nah, Patrick Hyarms is slinkin’ around here somewhere,” Angie grumbles. “He’s been following Elise around like a lost dog, though –”
  628.  
  629. “Hey, now…” Alisa glares up at Rean, who tenses at the mention of Elise. “She’s a grown woman; let her have the fun of stringing a handsome chap on her arm for an evening!”
  630.  
  631. “Yeah sure, but…does it have to be him?!” Rean deflates, not even bothering to wait for an answer.
  632.  
  633. “Speaking of handsome chaps,” Sara coos, leaning toward Machias. “Look at you, all front page of GQ magazine over here. Who taught you how to dress like that?!”
  634.  
  635. “Uh…” Machias nervously starts, Laura and Emma sharing a quiet look with one another, eyebrows raised. “I’m just wearing a suit?!” he weakly offers.
  636.  
  637. “Well, looks like you dropped the books and started droppin’ panties!” Sara winks, Machias gaping and waving his hands about wildly.
  638.  
  639. “No, that is not at all what happened –!”
  640.  
  641. “I’m serious guys, don’t listen to anything he says; I’m sure that’s the same suit he wore that day at the bar, if you guys know what I mean…” Fie smiles devilishly as the girls all cry in excited unison, Alisa leaning closer to get a better look at it.
  642.  
  643. “Oh my Goddess, it totally is! Except this time you dialed the bedroom eyes down from eleven to none.”
  644.  
  645. “Needless to say there’s a reason for that…” he mutters into his drink, though no one appears to have heard him.
  646.  
  647. “Yup, pretty sure that’s the suit that made Jusis finally just go ‘fuck it’ – literally, considering he jumped head first into Machias’ bed…” Fie whispers to Laura, whose eyes widen as she takes a sip of her drink.
  648.  
  649. “Bedroom eyes…?” Rean repeats, glancing at Elliot, who shrugs.
  650.  
  651. “Let’s just put it this way; you missed what was the collective reevaluation of everyone’s sexuality, courtesy of Machias’ unintentionally sexy ability to just walk into a bar…” Laura whispers, Millium looking between them all and suggestively wagging her eyebrows.
  652.  
  653. “They’re exaggerating,” Machias smirks, but the expression falters almost immediately; he scans about the room for one person in particular, despite the numerous pep talks he gave himself, mentally promising that he wouldn’t do exactly that.
  654.  
  655. “Well, all of my babies look good for that matter! Look at all of you cygnets, blossoming into swans! You’ve all grown up before my very eyes,” Sara playfully sniffs before wiping them. “And you’re all over the drinking age, so now the fun can really begin!”
  656.  
  657. “Speaking of fun, things have been suspiciously quiet from Wazy for a while. I’m going to go try and find him,” Gaius looks out into the crowd as if steeling himself for an arduous task.
  658.  
  659. “Let me come with you! I need another drink anyway!” Sara exclaims, linking her arm in Gaius’ and marching off in very out-of-sync step toward the open bar.
  660.  
  661. “Well, if Gaius doesn’t come back twelve drinks ahead of us all and six feet under, then Sara’s officially been surpassed as wildest drinking buddy of Thors,” Angie folds her arms, shaking her head as she watches them leave.
  662.  
  663. “I dunno…” Elliot laughs. “I’ve gotten some very interesting texts from you guys on your own nights out,” Rean next to him adding a “Seriously…” under his breath.
  664.  
  665. “Yeah, but it took like six of us to get that rowdy,” Alisa corrects. “She’s a one woman party crew.”
  666.  
  667. “Seriously, don’t doubt her now, me, Schera, and Olivert have trouble keeping up with her, you know…”
  668.  
  669. “Your messages are usually the wildest, Fie,” Elliot is sure to remind her.
  670.  
  671. “Eh – I learned from the best,” she shrugs.
  672.  
  673. “What kinds of wild messages do you get from her?” Laura asks, eyebrow raised and voice full of suspicion.
  674.  
  675. “Sorry Laura, Bro code dictates that what’s said in our group chat stays between Erebonia’s Next Top Models…” Elliot shrugs, Angie snorting into her drink.
  676.  
  677. “Excuse me?!” Alisa laughs, Emma watching as Millium strikes a number of dramatic poses, almost on cue.
  678.  
  679. “Oh, come on…” Machias flushes.
  680.  
  681. “It’s the name I came up with for my own private group chat with these two nerds,” Fie explains.
  682.  
  683. “You guys have a private group chat…?” Rean repeats incredulously.
  684.  
  685. “Uh yeah, duh. You guys really think that these two are gonna share all the spicy, racy details of their sex lives with just anyone?! How do you guys think I know as much about what turns Jusis on as I do?!”
  686.  
  687. “I – I – I don’t share anything like that!” Machias yelps, eyes wide with sudden panic. “Especially now I’m Vice Chancellor. Could you imagine what would happen if the press somehow got a hold of texts of that sort of nature?! About me and the Duke no less?! Not – not to mention that those sorts of things aren’t anybody’s business!” Machias insists, though Emma, Alisa, and even Rean smirk at him as if to say they’re not entirely convinced.
  688.  
  689. “I’ll give you all a hint,” Fie coos, Angie instantly leaning forward.
  690.  
  691. “Spill it, girl!”
  692.  
  693. “No!” Machias wails, his cheeks bright pink and his palms beginning to sweat.
  694.  
  695. “Jusis hates being bound to tradition, titles and the aristocracy,, but he doesn’t dislike a damn thing about being bound to the bedpo –!”
  696.  
  697. “That’s enough!” Machias grimaces, shaking his head quickly, unable to hear Emma’s interrogative aside of, “Jusis likes being tied up? That’s pretty hot…” she directs to Angie, who wolf whistles into her drink.
  698.  
  699. “Oh good Goddess…” Rean rubs his forehead. Laura appears equally unamused, folding her arms.
  700.  
  701. “How graphic are these details now, boys?” she asks rather dangerously, Emma, Millium and Angie raising their eyebrows and sharing “o” faces with one another. Machias still attempts to bounce back from the sheepishness of Fie’s comment, who grins brilliantly up at Laura’s stern frown.
  702.  
  703. “Nothing too graphic. If we text anything along those lines, it’s usually just me sayin’ ‘Laura’s gonna call me mama ‘cause we’re about to make babies’, or Elliot posting pictures of whatever hot chick he’s managed to woo for the night.”
  704.  
  705. “And you, Mr. Jusis-apparently-likes-it-best-with-his-hands-tied-behind-his-back?” Alisa points accusingly at Machias, who steps backward a little.
  706.  
  707. “First of all, he likes them tied above his head more than anything, though any sort of restraint will do…or at least that’s how it was at one point…” Machias muffled corrects under his breath. “But I –! I don’t –! Can we not discuss Jusis’ turn ons?! Especially with Millium standing here?!”
  708.  
  709. “Yeah, I’d rather not know those things about my little brother,” Millium laughs. “But as long as you two kids are having safe –!”
  710.  
  711. “Alright, I’m putting my foot down here, change of subject,” Rean referees, clearly as disturbed as Machias at the thought of what Millium was about to say aloud for them all to hear.
  712.  
  713. “No!” Alisa argues, narrowing her eyes at Fie. “What does Machias do in the group chat?!”
  714.  
  715. “He usually just puts eye or thumbs up emojis under whatever girly pic Elliot sends,” Fie shrugs, Machias’ cheeks now blazing bright red. “I’m sure you can imagine which girls get the eyes, though.”
  716.  
  717. Elliot nearly spits out his drink, laughing raucously as Machias groans into the hands that now cover his face.
  718.  
  719. “Just how much tail are you pullin’ here?!” Rean laughs.
  720.  
  721. “A lot,” Fie smirks, and Elliot chuckles nervously – he certainly doesn’t deny it.
  722.  
  723. “Pass along some of those numbers, then…” Angie mutters, Elliot giving her a subtle wink.
  724.  
  725. “Well, I’m sure you’ve seen Sara’s kahones tonight, Machias!” Millium giggles a little too loudly for Machias’ tastes.
  726.  
  727. “She’s definitely off limits…” Machias mutters. “And seriously guys, I don’t put anything like that in the group chat; it’s not like Jusis and I have seen each other recently enough for me to have anything spicier than water to share, anyway.”
  728.  
  729. “Yeah, see?! You guys have taken it too far,” Rean scolds them all, and Machias is thankful, ironically enough, when Patrick Hyarms comes rushing over. “Way too far.”
  730.  
  731. “Yeah, I think we’ll leave the admiration of our instructor to those of Zemuria who weren’t her former students…” Emma laughs, though all eyes are instantly on Patrick as he pants his way over to the group.
  732.  
  733. “Hello, everyone – shut your mouth, Rean, I can already see the question of where Elise is on your tongue, and she’s with Alfin at the moment,” Patrick instantly starts, frowning at him.
  734.  
  735. “I wasn’t going to say anything…” Rean mutters, sharing a sideways glance with Alisa, who smirks disbelievingly at him.
  736.  
  737. “Sorry to drop in on the fun –”
  738.  
  739. “’Sup, Pattycakes?!” Angie grins.
  740.  
  741. “Ugh – if you would hush, I would tell you,” Patrick glares at her before haughtily folding his arms. “Not to cause any sort of panic amongst the miniature gathering you have going on over here, especially with you, Regnitz; I’m going to need everyone to keep calm and not start a damned riot in this already very crowded banquet hall – but Duke Albarea just arrived –”
  742.  
  743. “WHAT?!” Machias shrieks, causing everyone around him to jump. He spins around violently, but Patrick places his hands on his shoulders to hold him in place.
  744.  
  745. “Didn’t I just say to not bulldoze your way over there?!”
  746.  
  747. “What do you expect, Pattycakes, for Machias to not go tearing off in whatever direction his boyfriend that he hasn’t seen in eight months is in?!” Angie rolls her eyes.
  748.  
  749. “Boyfriend?! So it’s official?!” Millium cheers, jumping up and down.
  750.  
  751. Machias can’t even snipe at her for outing their relationship in such a public gathering, his heartbeat nearly drowning out the rest of whatever hectic conversation that the others have.
  752.  
  753. “Also, Jusis is here?!” Millium grins, shouting so loudly that Rean momentarily covers his ears.
  754.  
  755. “Can you not scream it aloud?! You’ll make Regnitz’s head explode,” Patrick admonishes her, Millium grumpily flipping him off when he turns his attention back to Machias. “You, on the other hand, need to play it cool –”
  756.  
  757. “Cool?!” Machias repeats in utter disbelief, the others watching the entire scene with interest, worry, and excitement of their own at the news. “You know what?! Angie’s right – you’re really expecting me to just go, ‘gee, that’s nice!’ at the news that he’s here after nearly a year of not seeing or talking to one another?!”
  758.  
  759. “Eight months ago I would have grabbed popcorn and watched the imminent shit storm that gathers on the horizon of what was supposed to be a lovely evening listening to Elliot’s music. Now, after having grown somewhat fond of you both, and you are the Vice Chancellor and he is the Duke, you’re going to want to draw as little attention as possible to whatever public little spat you wish to have. Whether it be because you pummel each other to death, or make even Sara and Wazy look like sisters of the Church and get down to business in the middle of the damned room.”
  760.  
  761. “I’d watch…” Emma mutters, Fie leaning a hand on Laura’s shoulder as she supports herself through the silent laughter she tries to curb at the comment.
  762.  
  763. “There’s a certain amount of grace you’re both going to have to have about this situation, and the dozens of ways I can envision you handling it are not at all indicative of that grace,” Patrick explains. “I know I sound like a pompous, arrogant Noble right now, but please, just trust me,” Patrick gazes into Machias’ eyes, genuine, serious, and free of malice. “Let him come to you, alright? Trust me. I know for a fact he loves you all, but he’s got some things to handle before he can open your and his heaping can of worms. That and Elliot does not deserve to have his night to shine ruined by whatever it is you are planning to do when you see each other again.”
  764.  
  765. “Jeeze, have some self-awareness – you’re asking Machias Regnitz to not flip a shit because Jusis is here! Even when they hated each other that was damn near impossible!” Alisa rolls her eyes.
  766.  
  767. “Precisely – it is why I am so adamantly demanding that Machias give his every action from here on out some damned thought when it comes to Jusis for a change,” Patrick bites back at her. “All of you at that. Just chill, alright?!”
  768.  
  769. “Yeah…” Millium rolls her eyes. “I’m gonna go find him, BRB,” she tears off, and Patrick holds Machias in place yet again.
  770.  
  771. “Do not let the seventeen year old girl be your role model for what the mature and responsible thing to do is in this case, Vice Chancellor Regnitz.”
  772.  
  773. Machias sighs, and Patrick slowly lets go of him once he becomes convinced that he won’t go running off after Millium.
  774.  
  775. “So she can go?!”
  776.  
  777. “She is not so horribly whipped by the man that running head first into him after however long it’s been between them will not engulf the entire place in flames. You, however, are going to have to wait your turn. Besides, there’s no way I’m catching up to her…” Patrick rolls his eyes. “That and you don’t want to look desperate. I’ve known Albarea a lot longer than you all, and trust me; for all of the bemoaning he does of public exposure, the only thing he hates more than his title is not receiving the attention he so desires from those he wants it from. That ‘those’ being you, Regnitz. I know that for a fact.”
  778.  
  779. “We’ll make sure Machias doesn’t go pants-on-head mental,” Fie assures him, Patrick nodding in both agreement and thanks.
  780.  
  781. “In other news, Sara and Wazy are dirty dancing near the bar, so Gaius told me to tell you he’ll be back as soon as his hands are no longer full –”
  782.  
  783. “You go get my sister away from there then,” Rean rather forcefully suggests. “We’ll tie Machias up if we have to.”
  784.  
  785. “You all have my gratitude,” Patrick nods before disappearing back off into the crowd.
  786.  
  787. “Hokay, well now Jusis is here, I don’t feel bad about ripping on you anymore,” Fie starts. “Who here has some rope?! Machias I know you do somewhere, never know when Jusis is gonna be in the moo –”
  788.  
  789. “We’re all relieved and excited to hear that Jusis is here, but Patrick is – Patrick is right,” Laura tries to explain, interrupting Fie. Alisa giggles at both Fie’s cut off comment, and Laura’s inability to hide her anguish at agreeing with Patrick Hyarms, of all people. “You’ve both got parts to play this evening, and a scandal is not something either of you want to start.”
  790.  
  791. “Rean, do you really want Elise to die alone surrounded by cats?! ‘Cause you’re this close to scaring away any man that could even get near her!” Alisa rounds on Rean, who innocently raises his hands.
  792.  
  793. “Man, I’m really glad to hear Jusis is here too, but…” Elliot frowns. “You’ll be alright, right Machias?”
  794.  
  795. “Yeah,” Machias sighs, not entirely sure whether he wants to run to Jusis or run away from him. “I – Patrick is right though…” he adds with that same bit of disdain Laura had in her voice a few moments ago. “Plus, after the near year-long silence he put me through, and I mean – shit, everything else on top of that, he can come to me for a change.”
  796.  
  797. “ME-ow,” Angie raises her eyebrows, which disappear even further into her hairline when Emma whispers “I don’t see how Jusis coming to him is any sort of change,” in her ear.
  798.  
  799. “Well, I’m gonna go take Machias to go get a drink – give him a little pre-game pep talk,” Fie grabs Machias’ arm. “We might all wanna erase our group chat messages, just in case Jusis goes through his Arcus at some point. Delete them titties, boys…” she whispers so only Elliot and Machias can hear. Elliot instantly whips it out, whistling innocently as he does so.
  800.  
  801. “He can take all the time in the world that he wants,” Machias instantly grumbles as soon as they are out of earshot of the others, folding his arms. “Unlike him, I made sure to get all of my stuff with the press out of the way before attending the event.”
  802.  
  803. “Yeah, well, no offense, but the Vice Chancellor doesn’t exactly pull in the same kinda gossipy, tabloidy crowd that a Duke would,” Fie shrugs. “They’ll come to you if some sort of political shit goes down or whatever. Otherwise, I think cornering Jusis into an interview would make for a better headline.”
  804.  
  805. “What’s that supposed to mean?” Machias deflates.
  806.  
  807. “I dunno – you’re like – you’re the one everyone’s gonna run to if, Aidios forbid, we get invaded or like, I dunno – The Chronicle needs a political voice on some big, major happening. Jusis is the one the papparazi are gonna flag down to ask what designer label his overcoat is made out of this evening. You’re a politician. He’s more of a celebrity.”
  808.  
  809. “You’re down playing the amount of political importance that Jusis assuredly has to deal with, you know…”
  810.  
  811. “I’m not saying he’s just here to look pretty, but looking pretty is definitely what the general public is more likely to care about.”
  812.  
  813. “Wow, so even after reaching the top of Zemuria’s political totem pole, I still lose out to a Noble…” Machias mutters, taking the shot of whiskey that Fie hands him. They clink it before downing it, and Machias begins to tap his foot impatiently.
  814.  
  815. “So…” Fie starts after the burn finally dissipates, swiping her elegantly styled bangs out of her face and tightening the ribbon that binds her spring green, strapless dress to her body. “…what all are you gonna say to him?!”
  816.  
  817. “I have no fucking idea,” Machias shakes his head. “I guess I could go through the zillions of texts and voice mails I’ve left him for nearly a year and start somewhere from there.”
  818.  
  819. “Well, when he said he blocked you all those months ago, I called him a told him he was a real idiot. He assured me that he loves you and all, and that he thought about you everyday and all that sappy stuff, so it shouldn’t be anything like it was when he first came to Heimdallr for his Rumspringen.”
  820.  
  821. “Yeah, but…” Machias sighs, rubbing his forehead. “I know. I know. I know it hurt, and I know it wasn’t his first choice to leave, and I know that my actions didn’t really leave him much in the way of other options, but…”
  822.  
  823. “But he didn’t have to go all soap opera and dramatically cease all contact with you and flourish about the papers and be such a diva about it?” Fie supplies for Machias once it becomes clear that he has no real way to complete his sentence.
  824.  
  825. “Yeah. That.”
  826.  
  827. Fie sighs, folding her arms and chewing on the inside of her cheek.
  828.  
  829. “Think about it this way…” she starts, looking out about the massive crowd; if Jusis really is somewhere within it, there’s no easy way to spot him. “You guys are both a lot better off than where you were when he left. And when he left that other time,” she winces, looking back up at him.
  830.  
  831. “Yeah, great; and who’s to say it won’t just end up being a third time that he leaves again?!” he shakes his head, grabbing another shot before downing it rather dramatically and slamming it back onto the bar. “I dunno. Why don’t you and Laura ever have this kind of drama?!”
  832.  
  833. “Really?! Machias Regnitz is really gonna stand here and ask me why his relationship with Jusis Albarea is more dramatic than anyone else’s you could possibly think of?!”
  834.  
  835. “Alright, alright…” Machias holds up a hand in concession. “It would just be nice if it wouldn’t be for a change.”
  836.  
  837. “I don’t think you guys would know what to do with yourselves if it ever weren’t,” she shrugs. “Don’t get me wrong, you two are, some-fuckin’-how, the cutest and best partner I could think of for the other. But let’s not pretend like you haven’t given your best audition for whatever soap opera it is you’re trying to pitch, here.”
  838.  
  839. “I guess…” Machias sighs, glancing off in the direction of a crowd that gathers near the other side of the room.
  840.  
  841. “Stay…” Fie warns. “Remember; he owes you the baby come back treatment.”
  842.  
  843. “I’d already spent all night bracing myself to accept the fact that he wasn’t gonna be here. Leave it to him to just – ruin everything…”
  844.  
  845. “Come on,” Fie smiles. “I know for a fact that him showing up tonight did anything but ruin your evening.”
  846.  
  847. “Maybe, but that doesn’t mean he’s not irritating and incredibly emotionally draining…”
  848.  
  849. “Well…” Fie’s smile widens, and both of them watch as Gaius comes striding over.
  850.  
  851. “Alright, I’ve given up; Wazy is now Sara’s responsibility,” Gaius sighs. “Also, did you guys see –”
  852.  
  853. “That Duke Dramatic has arrived and that Machias is, as a result, on the verge of a mental breakdown?! Yeah, it’s why we’re standing so damn close to the whiskey table,” Fie deadpans, handing Gaius a shot. “You look like you could use this.”
  854.  
  855. “You’d think the presence of two Dominions would be enough to keep Wazy, a Dominion himself, in check…” Gaius shakes his head.
  856.  
  857. “Eh – you can join Machias in the ‘you know damn well what it is you got yourself into’ club,” Fie smirks, raising her shot glass to Gaius’ as both of them down their respective ones.
  858.  
  859. “Can’t argue there, Gaius,” Machias mutters.
  860.  
  861. “Nope…” Gaius agrees before setting the glass down gently. “Though, depending on just how out of control they get, I may need some help getting us back to the hotel.”
  862.  
  863. “I’m gonna have my hands full with whatever a certain arrogant Noble decides to do for our first time speaking to one another in eight months, but if I need to hold back some hair, I’m sure I can get away for a moment,” Machias tries to offer.
  864.  
  865. “A support group is sounding better and better with each passing second,” Gaius raises his eyebrows, and all three of them turn around at the sound of Machias’ name, called out in surprise.
  866.  
  867. A pretty, thin woman stands behind them all, her elegant black halter dress accentuating an alluringly curvy figure – no doubt a very expensive article of clothing. Her blue eyes are piercing, stunning even, drawn out by the influence of a gorgeous make up job, diamond earrings dangling from each ear. She brings a gloved hand to her chest, flashing the three of them a gorgeous smile as her eyes travel the length of Machias’ body before meeting his own.
  868.  
  869. “Ohhhh shit…” Fie whispers, well aware of who it is that addresses them due to her closeness with Machias, though Gaius seems somewhat intrigued (and rather impressed) that such a beautiful, visibly wealthy woman seems to excited to see Machias.
  870.  
  871. “Amanda!” Machias’ eyes widen, a little taken aback with how blatantly her expression reveals that it is more than just familiarity that leaves her happy to see him. “It’s – it’s uh –”
  872.  
  873. “Been a while?” she laughs breathlessly, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear.
  874.  
  875. “Care to explain?” Gaius whispers to Fie, who stands on tip toe to reply.
  876.  
  877. “They were fuckin’ before Jusis came to Heimdallr. Clearly she’s realizing how badly she fucked up now he’s a hot Chancellor. But she doesn’t realize that she’s about to fuck up even worse with Jusis prowling around here somewhere.”
  878.  
  879. Gaius clicks his tongue against his teeth in understanding.
  880.  
  881. “I’m gonna suggest that we walk away slowly and try to catch a view of Jusis before he catches a view of them.”
  882.  
  883. “Excellent idea. Allow me to follow you and run away from this time bomb of a scene as soon as possible.”
  884.  
  885. Machias gestures silently to Gaius and Fie, who take off a little bit faster and a little bit more noticeably than they intended.  “Yeah…” he sighs, pursing his lips as he looks down at her.
  886.  
  887. There’s no mistaking how he was once taken by her, however briefly, however long ago. She certainly carries the refined air of a typical Noble; classically beautiful, and yet so seductive – almost fatally so. She exhales quickly, bringing those same blue eyes that once ensnared Machias, despite his better judgment, to his own.
  888.  
  889. “So…” she starts with a low hum, and Machias subconsciously leans back slightly, for she steps a little closer. “What brings you here tonight?”
  890.  
  891. “Elliot – uh – Elliot Craig, he’s the concert master…”
  892.  
  893. “Mhm – I know,” she strokes her cheek, watching him hungrily. “I never knew you had such a refined taste or knowledge of music.”
  894.  
  895. “I mean – Elliot is – he’s – he’s a former classmate, and one of my best friends – not – not that I don’t like the music –”
  896.  
  897. “Oh Machias, you don’t have to be so nervous!” she giggles girlishly, a flirty undertone coating her voice – one that definitely would have captured his attention at another point in his life. “I seem to remember our personal history with one another involving a lot more than just talking.”
  898.  
  899. “Heh – yeah…” Machias scratches nervously behind his neck. “Time – time sure does fly –”
  900.  
  901. “Pff – really?! That’s your response?” she giggles again. “I see the office of Vice Chancellor has done you no favors in regards to how easily you stumble over your words sometimes.”
  902.  
  903. Machias offers her a nervous laugh of a scoff; she certainly had no need to know that not much was able to help him on that front, unless it somehow involved unintentionally seducing Jusis.
  904.  
  905. “Then again, it was one of the many, many things I found so charming about you,” she cradles her cheek in the palm of her hand, watching him rather longly. “You look good.”
  906.  
  907. “So – so do you!” Machias tries to smile; it is far from a lie, and he doesn’t want to be unkind or unfriendly, but…
  908.  
  909. He looks off toward Fie and Gaius, who stand in the middle of the room, lost in conversation with one another.
  910.  
  911. “Aidios, after all I’ve had to endure from you girls about how good with…those sorts of things Machias apparently is, he seems to be fumbling that chat with that woman a little bit,” Gaius frowns.
  912.  
  913. “Yeah, okay, I’m sure you’d be a bit awkward too if your ex had you cornered when your boyfriend could show up at any moment,” Fie deadpans.
  914.  
  915. “True – maybe we should help him get out of it?!”
  916.  
  917. “Are you kidding?! She’s so thirsty it’s not like she’d take the hint. She’d probably just try to come back to the table with us, which uh – I’m not bringing her back if Jusis is planning on showing up at some point,” Fie clenches her teeth, looking around. “Let him fumble his way out of it; she’ll get bored eventually. We can just play watch dog until Jusis shows up…”
  918.  
  919. Machias’ eyes narrow as he attempts to read Gaius and Fie’s lips from a distance, not even noticing that Amanda Crainagh continues to talk inspite of his distraction. “I – I’m sorry – what did you say…?”
  920.  
  921. “I asked if everything is alright?” she raises a perfectly manicured eyebrow, and Machias swallows before nodding.
  922.  
  923. “Y – yeah –”
  924.  
  925. “I just said it would be lovely if the two of us could find some time to catch up this evening!” she suggests, a sultry sort of passion blazing in her eyes – one Machias remembers had already been quite successful in the past. “I understand we parted on less than pleasant terms, but…not only has my father’s views on Commoners eased up after the last couple of years, but he’s not here this evening, either…”
  926.  
  927. “Oh, okay,” Machias lamely replies, backing up some more as she leans even closer. He catches a whiff of her peony scented perfume – the smell instantly reminding Machias of the candle of the same scent Jusis would sometimes burn in his dorm at Thors…
  928.  
  929. “Nice to hear that he’s come around, then…” Machias awkwardly offers, trying his best to make out Fie and Gaius’ strange and rather frazzled gestured from nearly halfway across the room.
  930.  
  931. “So I imagine Father and I will be making much more regular appearances in your office over the duration of your term, Vice Chancellor Regnitz,” she laughs softly, bringing a hand to her chest. “I must say, I’m looking forward to how you’ve furnished it, versus that of the Judicial branch.”
  932.  
  933. “It’s uh – it’s honestly not that different – maybe a little bigger –”
  934.  
  935. “Sounds interesting indeed, and like I’ve missed a lot over the last few years,” she pokes the tip of her tongue out briefly between her red lips. “Perhaps, during the intermission, we could meet back up and do some…catching up?” she flutters her eye lashes, long and dark, accentuated under the effects of the mascara she uses. She really is a beautiful woman, Machias thinks to himself; that much had certainly not changed. “I’d love to hear all about how things have been going for you and your father since the election.”
  936.  
  937. “N – not much…” Machias stutters rather distractedly, mouthing a “what?!” over to Fie and Gaius, who continue to gesture wildly from a distance.
  938.  
  939. “I doubt that,” she whispers, leaning in closer as she brings gentle, painted finger tips to stroke the fabric of his fine tie, the other hand tilting his chin to face her. “What a lovely garment – what is the label of it?” she narrows her eyes, smiling at Machias’ frozen, nervous expression.
  940.  
  941. “It’s Colserica, Crainagh; you can tell just by the single touch of the fabric alone.”
  942.  
  943. Machias stiffens, a voice drawing in so close behind him, that he can feel the flutter of breath on the nape of his neck. He freezes; cold at first, but then his body soon gives way to an undeniable heat at the feeling of an arm snaking around his hip, a large hand palming the dip of it. Long, delicate fingers curl against his waist, Jusis almost incriminatingly close as he finally, fully appears in Machias’ vision.
  944.  
  945. “Though those who are well acquainted with Regnitz are certainly aware of his preferred label when it comes to his ties; not that they are any less tempting to stroke, every now and again.”
  946.  
  947. He stands haughtily, possessively at Machias’ side, and all he can do is gape, lips slightly parted as Jusis finally opens his eyes – eyes a much deeper, fiercer, piercing, more beautiful shade of blue than those of whom he addresses. They are also, Machias nervously notes with a heavy swallow, full of that merciless lack of empathy all Albareas seemed able to convey with a look alone when necessary.
  948.  
  949. “Forgive me, Duke Albarea,” she straightens a little bit, running her hands to flatten the front of her curvy, form fitting dress. “I am not nearly as well acquainted with the intricacies of mens’ fashion as you.”
  950.  
  951. “Even given what little experience you assuredly have with our fashion, there are only so many suit makers on the continent that are worthy of gracing the Vice Chancellor’s frame,” he chuckles a little, so arrogant and inaccessible, as if deigning to notice her prescense is too much a burden for Jusis to bear for too long. “You cannot expect such a handsome and good looking man to wear just anything, now could you?”
  952.  
  953. “Your question leaves me no choice but to wonder which is it that you’re so familiar with, Lord Albarea,” she folds her arms, barely able to contain her disdain as her eyes shoot to the hand still curled around Machias’ waist. “The finer labels of Crossbell, or Vice Chancellor Regnitz’s taste for them?”
  954.  
  955. “Mmm…” Jusis purrs in what Machias knows is a mocking show of thought, closing his eyes and bringing the tips of his unoccupied fingers to his chin. “I think the answer to that question would depend all too well on just which one of my many faces it is you are asking…” Jusis challenges. Surely she notices the way Jusis bests her at her own game of tantalizing irresistibility– namely with ease and nary a second thought. “Duke Albarea would say that Vice Chancellor Regnitz is the only Commoner he has come to know with a taste in ties as exquisite as his own. Jusis Albarea, on the other hand, would say that he’d had enough experience playing around with Regnitz’s ties that he knows a Colserica when he sees one.”
  956.  
  957. “Aidios…” Machias’ breath catches in his throat, unable to do anything but call out her name in his thoughts. “By Aidios indeed if Jusis is not very well aware of what it is he is so plainly saying to this woman.”
  958.  
  959. “What?” Jusis chuckles with an arch of a single eyebrows. “Did the boys at your all-Noble school not compare senses of fashion every once in a while?”
  960.  
  961. “I’m aware that the two of you were once classmates,” Amanda glowers, her voice no longer sweet, but corrosive and dipped in venom; clearly she grows aware that she is losing whatever this is to Jusis. And for the first time in Machias’ life, he revels in his ability to witness Jusis verbally disarm his opponent with that natural, Aidios-given ability with which he is often known to. “But no, I can’t say my male counterparts at the Noble Boys’ school made a point of sitting around in each other’s rooms to…play with each other’s ties. Perhaps that is why Father opted I go to St. Astraia, rather than Thors, where such a thing is apparently customary.”
  962.  
  963. “Perhaps if you’d gone to Thors, you’d know Regnitz as well as I do,” Jusis smirks, flipping his hair with an elegant glove, Machias shivering as he catches sight of the watch he’d gifted him for his birthday upon his wrist. It pairs tastefully with his Noble raiment, Jusis clad head to toe in fine articles of Albarea green and white clothing. Perhaps Machias is rather biased, but not a single guest amongst them tonight could even compare to the sight of him.
  964.  
  965. “It’s because of that customary, yet admittedly unconventional part of our Alma Matter’s culture that will see to it that, once I depart from this conversation, it is I that Regnitz will follow in an effort to…catch up with, and not you.”
  966.  
  967. “Well,” she almost spits, directly avoiding Jusis’ condescending, glittering gaze and looking up at Machias with a regathering of her own attempt at seduction. “Perhaps when Duke Albarea has finished gracing you with his assuredly wanted presence, you can find me at some point before the evening is over.”
  968.  
  969. “Y – maybe, I – we’ve got a lot to discuss tonight…” Machias clears his throat, breathing in sharply through his nose.
  970.  
  971. “Well, I am now done entertaining those who so wanted to be graced by me this evening that they crowded me the moment I entered the concert hall. I would very much like to take the opportunity to catch up with Regnitz indeed,” Jusis turns to look up at Machias, eyes blazing with so many unspoken words – some of love and fondness, others of lust and desire.
  972.  
  973. “Jusis…” is all Machias can whisper, and Jusis brings the hand around his waist to tap with a juxtapositionally friendliness upon Machias’ shoulder. Even Amanda Crainagh appears to be released from his spell.
  974.  
  975. “Yes, Regnitz. We have all night to catch up, and I suspect we will necessitate the entirety of it. There’s much that I think we need to discuss, and who knows when the Duke and Vice Chancellor will have the time to do so at such an avail,” Jusis’ eyes are half lidded as he looks up at Machias, his voice low and very indicative of his desire to do more than just talk following Elliot’s concert. “If you could wait for me with our classmates, there’s something I’d like to make very clear to Lady Crainagh, namely between the two of us…”
  976.  
  977. Machias swallows before nodding stonily, his entire body equally as petrefied and tense as he makes his way back over to the table Class VII occupies.
  978.  
  979. “Now that the Commoners are no longer within earshot,” Jusis starts, watching Machias disappear before he turns to look at Amanda, a cold look of warning etched into his every feature. “I can speak to you in a manner that would perhaps be considered less than polite amongst those of our status. Consider this the most cordial and understanding warning you are to ever receive from me going forward: if I ever catch you trying – and admittedly failing – to seduce my man ever again, I’m afraid I’ll have to show you just why it is we Albareas have long since been known amongst the Nobility for our swordsmanship; even given the prowess of the Arseid viscounty.”
  980.  
  981. “Your man?!” she repeats, backing up a little in disgust. “Surely you don’t mean to say that –”
  982.  
  983. “Oh, but I do, dear,” Jusis’ scoffs, not even bothering to listen to the rest of her hissed exclamation. “I mean it very plainly, and very clearly.”
  984.  
  985. “Well, perhaps you ought to be more careful, Duke Albarea; I needn’t remind you that the majority of our class would never approve of such an…arrangement. It would be a shame if word were to get out about just how much you like to play with Regnitz and his ties with the doors closed.”
  986.  
  987. “And who would believe you? Why, I think any attempt you’d make at trying to go public with such a rumor would merely be met with dismissive hand waving. As nothing more than the failed attempt of a lesser Noblewoman’s at wooing a Commoner. Your testimony would be seen as naught but an ungerminated seed meant to sow disruption for the one who rejected her.”
  988.  
  989. “There was hardly any rejection when he had sex with me everyday for two months straight,” she bites back, completely devoid of any sort of poised or graceful air the Nobility tended to command. It stings a little, Jusis admits internally, especially given how long he’d gone from even texting Machias, let alone speaking to or seeing him in person – but if there is one thing the emotional walls he’d perfected since childhood are good for, it is allowing himself to never, ever show it. “Where were you then, Duke Albarea?”
  990.  
  991. “Pff – not getting fucked in a broom closet like some sort of shameful afterthought,” Jusis retaliates with such cold hearted readiness that she clutches her breast, gaping at him in horrible offense. “While my times with Regnitz may not be as numerous as your own, know that the effort he went through to get me into his bed far exceeds that of clocking out for lunch and taking me down a hallway. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have plans that do not revolve around commiserating with his exes. I would say that some of those plans involve things that you yourself intended to corner Regnitz so that you too, could do, but considering that Regnitz and I will most certainly be in a bed, even your own dreams cannot compare to my reality.”
  992.  
  993. Her jaw drops as he turns to walk toward the table at the end of the hall, though he turns around to address her one last time.
  994.  
  995. “By the way, your pathetic aim to make me jealous was even less successful than your attempt to entice him; I’m well aware of the fact that the two of you were involved once or twice at most. You are foolish if you did not think that Regnitz and I would actually talk to one another in addition to the other things we do; then again, given your experience, it’s not like you’d know that Regnitz can actually be quite chatty with those he actually fancies.”
  996.  
  997. He strides off toward the other end of the hall, not even bothering to give her a second glance.
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