Steel Leaves.

Shizumaru found himself standing on the patch of gray that occupied about one fifth of the Keep's courtyard. It was night; the stars glimmered high above, through the air shadow, shining their soft light down. When he heard footsteps behind himself, he did not turn around.

"Shizumaru...come to bed. It's late." A small, delicate-looking hand rested on his shoulder. He turned to look at it, seeing the slim lines of the fingers, the pale skin.

"I...I am not ready to go inside, yet, Rimu." His hand rose, touched Rimururu's lightly. She sighed, and embraced him gently, resting her cheek against the back of his neck.

"I understand, Shizu, but you've been out here for hours. Just standing here."

"I am remembering him, Rimururu. From when we first met. He was coarse, he was a womanizer...but he was family, and he was my friend." His voice grew fond, wistful. "He tried to teach me funk. I was not the best of pupils, but I would like think I picked up some things from him, eventually."

She laughed softly. "I know. He was...fun to be around, I guess. I remember the first time I actually really met him and talked to him--that party after you all defeated Annadil." She paused, thoughtful. "He was really charming, but kept on looking over his shoulder at Kasumi."

"I remember that. It was like he was trying not to flirt with you." For the first time that day since hearing the news, Shizumaru smiled. "Because doing so was just natural for him."

Rimururu let go of him and walked around in front. She purposefully looked into his eyes, forced him to meet her gaze. "Do you really think he would want for you to stand around for hours doing nothing? Like you've been doing for the entire day!" Her expression softened slightly. "Please, Shizumaru...at least come inside and have something to eat. There are still some leftovers from dinner."

Shizumaru sighed, and finally nodded. "Yes. You are right." He paused briefly, then reached into the bag at his side, and pulled out a seed, which he examined with intense concentration for a few moments. "Just let me...." He walked forward, and made his way to the border of the gray area with the non-elemental ground within the walls of the Keep. Rimururu followed at his side, quietly.

He stopped, regarding a patch of bare ground--it had been covered with grass but had cleared by the time he reached it--for a few seconds, and then knelt down, pushing the seed into its center. Then he straightened up and stepped back. Within seconds, the ground burst open, and a tree grew up, up high, several times taller than himself. He turned around to Rimururu, and smiled sadly.

"Ironwood. Exceptionally hard. So heavy that it does not float in water." Behind him, the bark warped slightly, forming letters in Thari: Ota "Shaft" Tenjou, Prince of Amber, Child of Metal.

"Fitting," whispered Rimururu, looking at the tree, then at Shizumaru. "I think he'd be honored." She reached her hand out, and he took it, squeezing softly. In silence, she led him back to the fortress, led him inside. They paused by the kitchen, but a look exchanged, a shake of his head, and they proceeded to go upstairs to their quarters.

The light was on in Moriya's bedroom; it shone beneath his door. The two paused in front of it; Shizumaru frowned, and Rimururu now shook her head. After a few seconds, he could hear the sound of brush on paper from within. Poems, most likely. A single haiku carved into the ground of Ota's former pattern chamber was only a start. The two moved on and quickly disappeared into their room. Soon, by the dim light of Konril's glow, from where he sat quiescent in his nook, they had undressed for bed, and were slipping beneath the sheets. Without a moment's pause, Shizumaru rolled over and gathered her up into his arms.

"I cannot believe it. After all this time, after all he had survived. For him to die like this." His voice was thick, rasping.

Rimururu sniffled, and nodded, laying her head against his chest. "I know. It's just stupid. I mean, I mean...."

She trailed off, and neither spoke for some time. The beating of his heart, usually a comforting sound, tonight only seemed to serve as a reminder of mortality. Each pulse, each thump...time ticking away, blood pouring out. Shizumaru might (might...) live forever, but she was still aging slowly, though he was searching for a way to fix that. And a sword thrust through the heart, a spell burning flesh from bones, a mind being broken like a stick...that could end it for either of them. Just as it had ended for Ota, someone who should have been immortal.

"Rimururu...please, do not cry...." His arms tightened around her, and his voice caught. "Because when you start--"

"I'm sorry," she sobbed, only now realizing that she had started weeping again. "But I...just...can't help it. I can't."

They cried together, pouring out quiet grief for an indeterminate time. They cried themselves to sleep, dreams the only relief from this. But were they truly relief? Memories of Ota, first meetings, the Rose Duel after the Annadil Crisis, a visit to the Keep, a visit to Shamber, the times when Shaft had "died" but came back (which would never happen again), a young Jacqueline curiously looking at infant Moriya under the watchful eye of both sets of parents, offering aid and comfort to Ota and Kasumi after Jacqueline had disappeared, reminiscing about old times after a sparring match just a few months ago--

Sunlight broke the spell. Shizumaru opened his crusted eyes with a wince, and blinked blearily at the morning. He took a shuddering breath, and looked down, finding Rimururu also stirring. She wiped her face with the back of her wrist, then raised her head.

"Did you dream of him too?"

She nodded. "It hurts. But at the same time...."

"At the same time, it helps?"

"Yeah. A little." She lay her head down again and snuggled up to him, seeking comfort in his warmth. And his heartbeat was once more a reassurance, not something sinister. He kissed her on top of her head, then sighed softly.

The moment was broken by a soft knock. "Mother? Father?"

The two struggled to sit up, holding onto each other for support, the blanket wrapped around them. "Come in, Moriya," Rimururu answered. The door swung open, and a slightly haggard Moriya walked in. She frowned. "You didn't sleep?"

Moriya shook his head. "I couldn't. The words just would not leave me alone." He held up his ink-stained fingers, and smiled wryly.

Shizumaru smiled too, after a fashion, and chuckled. "Give us a minute to get dressed and get ready, Son, and we will be out." The young man nodded, and withdrew. Quickly, the pair pulled on their clothes, took turns to splash their faces with water, and joined their son in the hallway.

In silence, they descended to the kitchen, where breakfast was served with quiet efficiency. The servants knew, and understood. They ate with little appetite, though the food was delicious. Today, it was nourishment, and that was all. They continued to sit there, staring at the table after everything was cleared away.

Finally, Shizumaru spoke. "Can I see your poems, Son?"

Moriya nodded. "Not all of it is poetry...I wrote a eulogy, too, though I don't think it's very good. Some of the poems, too.... Anyway, they're in my room--" He got up, and motioned for them to follow, so they did. They again moved in silence, all the way through Moriya's door and over to his desk. He picked up a stack of papers, and offered it to his parents. Shizumaru took some, and Rimururu took the rest. There were no crumpled sheets to be found anywhere in the room.

After a while, Rimururu said, quietly, "These are very nice, Moriya."

"Thank you, Mother."

Shizumaru nodded his assent, still reading. "...will you read these at their funeral?" Because, of course, they were mourning the passing of the Leather Knight of Shamber as well.

"Some of them, if they'll let me speak."

"I am sure they will, Moriya." Shizumaru flipped through a few more pages, then set them down on the desk; Rimururu followed suit. "You are going to be leading the investigation, Son?"

"Along with Motoko, yes. I will try my hardest." Moriya walked over to his window, looking out. "Uncle Ota's sword is called Justice, and we will fulfill its name."

Rimururu smiled gently and walked up behind her son, resting her hand on his shoulder. "You're a good boy, Moriya. I'm proud of you. Do your best, and please be careful." He was always her little boy, even though he was a grown man, now, and taller than her by half a foot.

Moriya murmured an absent, "Of course," and continued to stare out the window. Then he pointed. "That tree?"

Shizumaru joined them, now, nodding. "I planted it last night. Do you want to see it?"

And again they walked through the halls of the Keep, somberly. Soon they were standing in front of the ironwood. It seemed like it had grown even more overnight, without Shizumaru directing it to do so, higher than what one of its kind normally did. They gazed up at its branches, through the leaves that filtered out the sunlight.

"Another companion for the Golden Tree," said Moriya, quietly. There was a tree planted for the birth of every Prince and Princess of Amber since the taking of the Keep; his own stood in a special place near the Tree.

This was the first to be planted for a death.

There was a cough behind them. "Apologies for interrupting, but Princess Nanami is asking for Moriya." Kafuin's staff jingled softly. "She has some information for you, lad."

They turned around, and Moriya advanced. "Of course. I'll go to Amber directly. Mother, Father...."

"Good luck, Moriya."

"Keep us informed, Son."

"Right this way, my boy." Kafuin opened up a trump gate; Moriya nodded to his parents over his shoulder, and stepped through, vanishing. The wizened construct gazed through the gate for a few seconds, then closed it, sighing, before turning back to Shizumaru and Rimururu. "I'm sorry, lad, lass. Even I'd grown fond of Ota."

"We all have, Kafuin." Shizumaru gripped Rimururu's hand tightly; she squeezed back. Kafuin bowed to them, then vanished, leaving the two alone. They turned back to the tree.

"He'd be honored," Rimururu said, echoing herself.

They rested beneath the ironwood's shade that day.

End.