twinsouls2

Fanfic: Twin Souls: Chapter 29: Assignments

Title: Chapter 29: Assignments
Arc: Twin Souls
Characters: Academy Jyuushiro and Shunsui
Rating: PG
Word Count: ~4400
Summary: The students of the Tactics and Strategy Class get a three week patrolling assignment.
Beta: incandescens, without whom this story would not exist.
Author's Notes: Research notes at the end so no spoilers, and I loved it when incandescens asked me if there were going to be any antagonists in the story right before I handed her this chapter.
Disclaimer: I do not own Bleach nor the characters of Bleach, and I do not make money off these writings.

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A woman jumped from rooftop to rooftop, using the fireworks as cover from attention. She landed as lightly as a cat each time. She stopped behind the shadow of a chimney to peel off her white hair rolling the wig carefully to tuck into a special pouch. The wrinkles would wash off later and her fortune-telling equipment was safe enough in the market place: she would be there again tomorrow.

She was challenged by one of the shadow warriors before she was even within a block of the house. She gave the bulky man the hand signal.

He said, "The gears of time..."

"... grind all to dust. And the tree spreads..."

"... its branches far and wide."

She nodded, sure now that he wasn't simply a decoy for some other clan, and he waved her on.

The room was lit by a single candle in a half-shade lantern that threw its shadow behind the desk. The single brilliant point of light dazzled her night vision, even as the man she knew was there could see her enter.

"What did you find?" The question was even and calm.

"The white-haired one reacted. The dark-haired one covered it with sexual innuendo that made the first truly angry. They ran off."

"So there is something between them," the man mused.

"Indeed."

"And?"

"I followed them of course, and heard the dark-haired one murmuring to the other about overthrowing the order of things. Are they..." She hesitated, wondering if she was over-reaching her assignment.

"What are you thinking?"

There was no refusing that question, and it gratified her that her lord cared what she thought. "Are they teaching treason in that school?"

"That is something we need to find out." The grim tone from Shihouin Itsuki, head of the Shihouin Clan, made her shiver. "Soi Ma Yi, I have a new assignment for you."




"Sato Takumi is dead?" Takahashi Shirou let the frown show, then sighed as he put down his brush and waved the administrator's escort out of the room. There was no need for anyone to know more than what would be publicly obvious soon enough. He had checked to make sure his thinning blond hair was in place, and knew he looked the proper Hatsuzora gentleman in blue and gold kimono when the front gates had warned him that the low-ranked administrator of the Academy guardsmen had arrived.

"That is too bad," Shirou continued. "I suspect it was a fair fight, no?"

The administrator nodded his white-haired head, stroking his long beard nervously. He looked intimidated, which gratified Shirou in some small sense, but then he was paying the man's gambling debts. Both the man's gratitude and his fear of blackmail were working for him.

Finally, the administrator said, "All evidence indicates that his challenge was given properly, and the response by the challenged was appropriate. There were no extra parties involved, and the witnesses were reliable."

"Was it particularly bloody?"

Pursed lips met his question, a hesitation and then a nod. "One of the guards said that the death was a hard one, Takahashi-sama."

"Do you know if he said anything as he died?"

A shake of the head to his question. "I believe there was only a request for a quick death, which was mercifully granted."

Shirou nodded, and bit his lip to hide his relief. "A terrible way to go."

As much as he hated losing as valuable a tool as Takumi had been against the other bastard branches of the Hatsuzora house, he was glad that his interference in matters would now never be known. He liked it when things worked out to his benefit no matter which way the cards fell.

"Indeed, a very rash and ill-considered challenge. Uekiya-san is well known for his survival abilities."

Shirou didn't bother agreeing. "Do you have a copy of the full report with you?"

The administrator handed over a scroll.

Shirou noted that the scroll had still been wet when it was rolled up, ink smudged against the back of the paper. The man had done this quickly, if not surreptitiously. He took his time looking it over, enough time to make the administrator begin to fidget in impatience.

"Lord, I will be missed in my duties."

"Then we will be quick." He reached under his desk and pulled out a bag of coins, which he tossed to the man. "I do not wish any of the records to change. I am pleased with the information you have brought me: continuing to do so will be to our mutual benefit."

The administrator caught the bag, bowed deeply and left.

Shirou sat back, sipped his tea, and thought.

He wasn't that interested in the school, its teachers, or even the students. Being the fourth son of a second cousin to the heir made for an interesting problem if he wanted the power to lead his clan. He'd already gotten rid of his brothers, half his cousins, and the heir himself. He was nearly done toppling the top tiers of Hatsuzora. Now he all he wanted was to claim the wreckage once they were done fighting the other Clans or the Academy.

It didn't matter which they fought. Again, that was the beauty of his plan.

So long as Hatsuzora's Clan Head and his cronies were dead set against the Academy, Shirou would benefit from setting them against each other and the Clans against them all.




After New Years, Yamamoto-sama handed out scrolls to everyone, each tied with a colored string. The two red ones went to Kali and Kaoru, green ones to Hayato and Kenshin, and blue ones went to Shunsui and Jyuushiro.

"These are your assignments for the next three weeks. The patrols went so well, we are implementing more thorough scouting missions. Some of you," Yamamoto-sama said, looking straight at Kali, "have proven to be especially gifted at finding Hollow groupings and strongholds. I wish for you to map out what you find, and bring them back for the all-Clan meeting before the spring push so that we might all work on an approach to rid us of them."

"So the point of the exercise is to observe, not to engage them, sir?" Kaoru asked quietly. He got an exasperated look from Kali, which he ignored with ease.

"Indeed. You are not to fight them. Just warn the people around them so that they can be safe, and record their locations. We need to understand their motion, habits, and how and where they are congregating."

Kaoru didn't make any indication whatsoever of triumph that Jyuushiro could see, yet Kali punched him in the shoulder anyway.

Jyuushiro curiously untied and unrolled his scroll. The map was unfamiliar. A blue line meandered through flat plains, then looped and swirled about what looked like rocky and steep terrain. He frowned. "We won't know this land very well."

"This exercise is how you will get to know it. You will be protecting everyone, not just the people you know," Yamamoto-sama stated. Daisuke-san shifted from one foot to the other where he stood to the side, and Jyuushiro remembered what he'd said in his garden.

"In that case, Kenshin and Hayato, can you help us out with this?" Shunsui suddenly asked. "I think these are Ryuu and Shiba territories."

The nod Yamamoto-sama gave to Shunsui released them all from their seats.

It turned out that they had a rotation of routes of what lands each person knew and what they'd been assigned. Kenshin and Hayato mostly covered the city and surrounding areas, the usual stomping grounds of the Kuchiki and Shihouin. Kali and Kaoru had the areas Shunsui and Jyuushiro knew well. Soon all three maps had various notations on them, stick figures, drawings, characters of various types next to each expected path to indicate what might be expected in each spot. Dark areas the Hollows liked to congregate, villages that were so small they didn't show up on the maps, waterways that hadn't been marked, and level campsites that were favored childhood memories.

Yamamoto-sama and Daisuke-san mostly sat back and watched, but then Daisuke-san asked, "What are all those sketched-in gray lines there?"

Kenshin frowned. "Oh, that? It's a series of caves we... both found and built. Some of it's left over from mining efforts for salt, gold, and coal. There's a lot to it. See? Here, here, and here, they come out in a lot of places."

"That's right at the foot of our mountains," Shunsui said with a frown.

"Yes," Hayato said quietly. "There are a few shafts that come up to various parts of our mountain as well, and a few entrances by our castle. I think some of the shafts are to make sure there's good air down there, and some are traveling tunnels linked to caves that were already part of the mountain."

"What do you use those for?" Jyuushiro asked curiously.

"Well, getting to Kyouraku's holdings is easier through the tunnels, and we like to trade with them and sometimes with the Ryuu as well," Kenshin said.

Hayato huffed a laugh. "Lazy lowlanders. All the locals also use the caves as defensible strongholds."

Shunsui frowned. "Hmm... do they also do the usual survival things remote villages do?"

Hayato couldn't quite meet Shunsui's eyes. "Aye. There's some of that too."

Kenshin watched the exchange, brows beetled. "You have to be kidding."

Shunsui shrugged. "Kyouraku's done our best to adopt the reiatsu-gifted kids and babies into the castle staff; but it's still tough going among our mountains, especially in the villages where they simply don't have the food."

Hayato sighed, and this time he met Shunsui's eyes. "I hate that."

The nod he got from Shunsui looked sympathetic and wry.

"It's never easy when you're hungry," Jyuushiro said reflectively, thinking about all his adopted siblings. The others just looked at him for a moment. Kenshin was the one that nodded after a small hesitation. Jyuushiro shook his head, and wondered if he'd been the only one in this room to ever go hungry.

Kaoru surprised him by murmuring, "There are a great many homeless children right here in Rukongai, within sight of the walls of Seireitei."

"What?" Shunsui drawled. "Didn't you know that Seireitei just tosses its homeless over the wall?"

Kali stamped her foot. "No we don't, Shunsui. Well, at least the Shihouin takes care of its orphans. We foster and adopt the young dead if they show promise."

"And the ones that don't?" Shunsui's question went unanswered. Jyuushiro met his eyes as everyone else turned away.

Kali pointed at her trail, and then at the trail through Shunsui's and Jyuushiro's map. "Hey. Does this mean we might be able to meet up here? It'll be about two-thirds of the way through the trip, and it would be fun to see you two. Kenshin and Hayato will be stuck here in the city, but..."

Shunsui's frustration seethed in his reiatsu, but all attention turned to the maps. They determined that, yes, it was possible for the four of them to meet at the far end of the tunnels. By the end of the class, everyone had a far better feeling for what it was they were going to do, and how they were going to go about it.

"Feel free to ask Daisuke-san and I any logistics questions you might have. Take the rest of the week to flesh out your plans. You leave the first day of next week to walk these paths," Yamamoto-sama said. "You need to be prepared."




On the last day before they were to go out, Jyuushiro was surprised to find Yamamoto-sama taking a hand in the kendo classes. Both Shunsui and Jyuushiro went to a single sword in the common classes with the other students. They did the common warm-ups and strengthening exercises with the rest of the class.

The dojo doors were cracked open to the winter air, so the smell of sweat and exertion wasn't as overwhelming as it could get when a storm raged outside and the doors were firmly shut. Jyuushiro knelt at the edge of the mats next to Shunsui, and watched as other students lined up for their turn against the old man.

He looked so frail, bent over his stick, eyes surrounded by so many wrinkles they looked nearly shut. Abe Tarou, who was nearly as big as his guardsman father, and a determined-looking Takahashi Rina charged him with their bokken held high.

Yamamoto-sama stepped forward into their attacks, catching Abe-kun's faster and stronger strike while it was still high. His knobby and gnarled walking stick caught the bokken's edge, and Yamamoto turned the force of the attack to the side and down. The motion knocked Abe-kun's center off-balance, and he whirled as he fell. The thick end of the walking stick caught the very tip of Takahashi's zanpakutou on its way down, and the weight of it knocked her blade aside. The momentum of her run pushed her past Yamamoto-sama's onward progress.

"Did you see?" Yamamoto-sama asked the class.

Everyone nodded.

"What did you see, Kyouraku-kun?"

Everyone looked at Shunsui, who paused in thought before answering. "You actively used their attacks to your advantage."

"Come at me, you and Ukitake-kun."

Jyuushiro and Shunsui exchanged a glance. They'd done this before, and had been turned as easily as Abe-kun and Takahashi; but they'd learned a bit about coordination and timing together since that time.

Jyuushiro watched Shunsui's forward knee, and when Shunsui put his weight forward to start his attack, Jyuushiro sprang forward as well. Both of them kiai'ed in one voice and struck at Yamamoto-sama's sides.

The old man whirled, sleeves and robes swirling even as Ryujin Jakka pin-wheeled. Jyuushiro suddenly saw that the tiny difference in their heights and speeds had already defeated them. The slight lag between the tip of his sword and the tip of Shunsui's, as small as it was it, allowed Yamamoto-sama the time to get the heavy end of Ryunjin Jakka in the way of Shunsui's attack first. That motion gave him the room to move far enough to elude Jyuushiro's strike. Jyuushiro had a moment to be amazed that Yamamoto-sama saw and used the difference as they'd come at him, just before the small end of Ryunjin Jakka rudely probed the point between his shoulders and sent him stumbling past. At least he only hit the floor, unlike Shunsui who had to leap a seated line of students before hitting the wall.

There was a stunned silence for a few moments before the murmuring and soft laughter started; but then it was everyone else's turn. By the time the whole class was done, Yamamoto-sama hadn't even broken a sweat; and no one was laughing at anyone else anymore.

After the common exercises, Jyuushiro and Shunsui moved off with Kenshin, Abe, and Tanaka Jirou. Ryuu-sama followed them after he had got the other groups started on their exercises.

"All right, you lot. I need you to start working on the kind of timing Yamamoto-sama showed you in his little demonstration. I am assuming that you folks saw what he was doing and how he was doing it: you're advanced enough to see that," Ryuu-sama started.

All of them nodded.

"But I'm not at all sure how to do anything about it, yet," Jyuushiro said ruefully. "I saw the difference in timing between our strikes, but I don't know if I could decide to do what Yamamoto-sama did before the attacks hit."

"Then let us work on reproducing your attacks in slow motion," Ryuu-sama said. "And you can see not only what happened, but what the correct response would be.

And so they did.

After a grueling hour of recreation and practicing all the hits from both sides, Shunsui asked, "What if we did it with two swords?"

Jyuushiro groaned with the others.

"You wish to try against me?" Ryuu-sama said with a grin. "With full reiatsu? I think you're skilled enough now that you won't impale yourself on my edges; and my reiatsu should be good enough to ward you two off."

"Please, Ryuu-shishou," Shunsui said.

Jyuushiro groaned. "And I bet you want me to be the second attacker."

Both men just looked at him. He sighed. "All right. Kenshin, can you lend me your other bokken?"

Kenshin handed over the wooden sword readily. Shunsui hefted his long and short blade. Ryuu-sama grinned a grin that would have looked more at home on a shark, and Jyuushiro hefted his two equal swords in his two hands. Unlike Shunsui, he'd found it easier to have them be the same, so he didn't have to think about the fact that he had two different capabilities in his two hands.

All three of them flared their reiatsu, and the other students backed up two paces.

When Ryuu-sama moved to attack them, it surprised Jyuushiro. Shunsui got his bigger blade up, but had it knocked from his hand as he took the brunt of the hit at a bad angle. Jyuushiro managed to take the rest of the force on his two crossed blades before Ryuu-sama's edge could touch Shunsui.

"Good. That's one way to deal with the strength deficit."

Ryuu-sama backed up one swift step, releasing Jyuushiro's blades, which he used together to swipe at Ryuu-sama. The teacher easily blocked them with his one before turning to deal with two snake-swift strikes by Shunsui with his smaller blade.

Then Ryuu-sama was no longer where Shunsui aimed, and Jyuushiro had to shift position to face him again before swatting at him with his left-hand sword. Ryuu-sama caught that blade with his own, and knocked it loose from Jyuushiro's too-weak grip. That same motion ended abruptly with Ryuu-sama's tip resting against Shunsui's throat, and Shunsui's small blade fell short of Ryuu-sama.

"Again?"

Shunsui nodded, a short jerky movement.

They all backed off. Shunsui and Jyuushiro picked up their lost weapons. The frown on Shunsui's face made Jyuushiro consciously decide to try to change the timing. They'd worked on this so hard since the trips home, though to different effects.

"Off the beat," Shunsui said and Jyuushiro nodded. It was their code for trying to make each sword strike independently of the other. It was a philosophy that they had applied to how they could fight together against an opponent as well.

Jyuushiro went straight in with his right blade, point first, but Ryuu-sama swatted the tip away from his chest. The block took Jyuushiro's right arm across his body to the left. He used that force to continue whirling in that direction, and brought the edge of his left-hand blade around to cut across Ryuu-sama's center. Ryuu-sama managed to recover from the block well enough to jump back, out of Jyuushiro's range. Meanwhile, Shunsui used Jyuushiro as a screen, blocking him from Ryuu-sama's view until he was a step from striking distance. He lunged forward with a big strike with his larger blade, and Ryuu-sama reacted quickly by blocking it up and away.

Shunsui's smaller blade snuck in under that block, and its tip nestled gently against Ryuu-sama's throat.

Jyuushiro saw the motion Ryuu-sama made when he swallowed against that pressure. What shocked him was seeing the trickle of blood that followed. Shunsui was strong enough to actually cut through Ryuu-sama's reiatsu.

"Nicely done," Ryuu-sama said quietly, and touched his throat with a frown.

Shunsui backed off hurriedly. "I'm sorry. I didn't..."

Ryuu-sama's eyes narrowed as he saw the blood on his fingertips. "No, that was my fault, I think." He eyed the two of them, then grinned that grin again. "You won't get off that easy. Come again. I want to make sure it wasn't just a fluke."




"Do you really think Ryuu-sama will take it?" Kuchiki Ren asked as he moved a cassia horse further into the shogi board of ebony and mountain pine. The pieces were ivory, the more powerful pieces larger than the weaker ones, each pointing in the direction they fought. He sat seiza on cushions before a solid table, and admired his beautiful companion and opponent.

"I'm fairly sure that he will if Yamamoto is somehow disabled. He feels a great deal of responsibility for the Academy and its ideals." Ryuu Hinata studied the board, then pushed a foot solder forward. Her face might be thought of as being a bit too hawkish for conventional beauty, her nose rather large and her eyes too sharp for her to inspire poetry.

"That might take care of two things at once for us," Ren noted as he thought over his move.

"Indeed. It would bring the Academy under the leadership of a noble, and it would do much more to keep my dear brother out of my hair with respect to how I run the Ryuu estates." Hinata pushed back the long silk of her hair, the deep blue black of a raven's wing. It fell to her ankles when she stood, and was one of her beauties. Though, privately, Ren thought her true wealth lay in the mind under that hair.

"Have you come up with a plan on how to do it?" Ren moved his silver general forward another square, and picked up a teacup to sip the liquor of golden osmanthus flowers. The delicate perfume of the liquid gave him quiet pleasure.

"Mmm... did you see their new assignment? They're off to find Hollows. I wonder what Yamamoto would do if they found far more pooled in one place than they thought they'd find." Hinata pushed forward her incense chariot deep into Ren's territory.

Ren studied the board. "I found it intriguing that my cousin will be traveling in the mountains."

Hinata looked up at him, her pale blue eyes steady. "You will not be killing him there, will you?"

"Who, me? Never." Ren snapped up Hinata's incense chariot with his flying chariot, then dropped her piece back on the board, now fighting for his side. "However, he is there to learn how to deal with Hollows. Perhaps I can help make his lessons more interesting."




When Jyuushiro got to their room, a cleaning lady was coming out of it with her basket full of dirty linens, their laundry, her cleaning supplies, duster and broom. She was a familiar sight, the same woman who had been in and out of their room since the start of the year. He bowed to her, and she gave him a fleeting smile and bowed deeply back before she went on to the next room. For an instant he looked back at her, wondering if she was related to the fortuneteller in the square: but then he shook his head at the random thought when he had so much else to do.

Jyuushiro flung himself into his room, dumped all the dojo equipment onto the floor, kicked his empty travel bag, and sighed. After his previous trip, there was so much he wanted to pack and just couldn't fit in: things he'd thought about like a journal, pen and paper for drawing, fancier foodstuffs, that extra robe for when it was too wet out, an extra bottle of camellia oil, the book he'd been wanting to read for months . . .

Shunsui was nowhere to be found. There were rumors that he'd gone out drinking with Kenshin, one last fling before going on duty for three weeks. Jyuushiro wasn't bitter about it, not at all.

He sat and thought for a while. "Priorities," he said to himself. "Pick what's important first, and then the rest can be left behind."

The map went in first, which he found on Shunsui's desk. Then winter survival gear: the things he needed to be warm and dry were easy. Dried food, and the bare minimal equipment to prepare fire and food were as simple as the kit to maintain and polish his zanpakutou. They expected to be fed, at least some, by the villagers, but the emergency supplies needed to be in the pack. The necessities were easy; however, the last pound of personal items baffled him.

Finally he ended up with the most effective of his medications, a small stack of washable clothes, and three Hell butterflies, as they'd proven so useful before. He added a roll of blank paper, a brush, and a stick of ink to their map, to make any changes in case things weren't as the map makers had drawn them. Finally, his hand hesitated over the pile of charms he'd brought back from home, and he gently picked out the one that Hiroko-chan had given him for his birthday and put that in as well. He ended up putting the others up about their room, and felt better for it.

In the morning he felt even better, as an obviously hung-over and groaning Shunsui stuffed things randomly into his bag.

The morning air chilled Jyuushiro down to the bone, even with his robes and furs. The pale dawn light rendered everything in grey and black shadows about them. Everyone looked pinched and a little wan in the low light as they gathered before the Gate, waiting for the Gatekeeper to open the way.

"You know what to do if you find anything, right?" Daisuke-san asked crisply. Goro-kun stood behind him, waiting patiently to escort his mentor.

"Yes, sir!" The students chorused.

"Send you a Hell Butterfly and get the Hell out of there," murmured Kenshin.

Everyone laughed.

"That is the essence of it," Daisuke-san said dryly. "Come back in one piece."

"Yes, sir," they all said together again, and the stone gate rumbled up and open. The huge Gatekeeper peered down at them as if they were ants, and then gave them a slow bow as they left the city.




Author's Notes

One of the most intriguing aspects of Shogi, or Japanese Chess, is that captured pieces may be set back on the board playing for ones own side. Of course, this wasn't recorded as being done until nearly the sixteenth century, but... I haven't been strictly historically accurate with the piece to this point, either.

Soi Fong's name has been misspelled, in a way, as the correct Pinyin of her working code name should be Sui Feng (Smashing Bee/Wasp/Organized Insect). However, her name before she becamse Soi Fong was Fon(g) Shaolin, so I took that Fong as the family name for her ancestor.




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It made my morning to see this! What an excellent chapter! Intrigue and atmosphere all nicely done! Thank you for sharing!
*beams* You're very welcome! I'm glad that it made your morning. I seem to be finally rolling through this plotline and it's good to feel it finally coming together.

And thank you, too, for making my morning, too. It's fun to know people watch for this.
Oh, excellent! I love how the fortuneteller turned out to be other than she seemed. I also like how you've set up the antagonist--the entire system. The details about what happens to the children were chilling.
*grins* Yeah, it's kind of been happening the whole time, and finally brought it to the fore with Sato last chapter and the fortuneteller. I had been thinking of just sticking with the two oblivious students, but I think it's more fun to watch all the gears turn a bit.

Yeah, with the kids... but in a way it's just what happened with Rukia and Renji later, too... so perhaps not much has changed.

I have to admit that by getting the 'bad guys' outted, I've been cranking away at this much more solidly. *laughs*

Thanks!!
With the last two chapters, it really felt like a number of background things started clicking into place. It really works, as both Shunsui and Jyuushirou started out as somewhat oblivious, but they are becoming rapidly less and less so.

And no, not much has changed, but they have changed to the point where Rukongai street rats can get into the Academy and rise very high in the ranks on sheer strength/merit alone.
Oh, yes!! That last point is very true, and while they might be badgered a bit for their backgrounds it's not like they're denied the ability to learn.

And that is true here.

*grins* at the first. Yes, they're learning and experiencing stuff they haven't before and it was time. *dances about* It's so cool to have you pick out such important stuff even when I felt it was just 'floating out there' in the background...
:-) 95% done... and I'm just... I think when I'm done with it I might have to break off another 2000 word piece to start the next chapter... it's been running hard this way. It's nice.

Whew.
NEW CHAPTER YES! And just as I finished my re-read! Perfect timing.

SO excited about the bigger plot wheels starting to turn. The maid is the same person as the fortune teller, they've been spied on since the beginning of the year, OMG! Also it's a good thing Jyuushirou doesn't know that the head of the Shihouin clan heard about Shunsui's raunchy joke, I bet he'd really slap him then, lolol.

All these Republicans Clan leaders are so frustrating to read about! But that just means they're written well. Can't wait to see what happens out on the road. :)
*grins* I'm gratified to know that you reread the whole thing. Whew...

Well, they're been turning all the while, but they're starting to get touched by it, rather than just being by-standers.

Ooo. I *love* that last comment!! Thank you so much!
Again, well done!
looking forward to the next installment... thank you very much!
A new chapter! So exciting!
Oh, the intrigue! Your story is so full of plot; all the interweaving storylines are amazing! You truly have a great gift for storytelling. The delicacy with which you bring everything together is masterful! Thank you so much for writing and sharing your work! I'm really looking forward to reading what happens to the students while they are completing their assignments.
Thank you for the lovely and enthusiastic comment as well, that really made my night. *grin* I appreciate that so much. You're very welcome! And this is helping me get through a rather rough patch in the next chapter. *laughs*

Thank you so much!!
ooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo ... shiny distractions and hints of plot ... can't wait to see how this plays out.