"Val, darling, blossom, pain in my furry behind, I am in no mood to translate back from batshit," he said through gritted teeth. He shoved her out of the way like he would an overeager puppy, sadly, 'out of the way' was more like 'right onto Tijana's lap'. The aeshema observed her new burden with undisguised distaste, then promptly deposited her back Shin's lap.

"This is not the time for musical valkyries," Tetsuya chided them, and he thought better of moving Val again. So, he had a lap full of pouting valkyrie. At least she was quiet, choosing to squeeze the life out of him with her bony arms while the adults got down to business.

The fairy map/model of Sirenhome was recreated and Drys showed off his incredibly frustrating grasp on magic by alternately zooming in, moving around, and rendering three dimensional models. The weak areas were mainly parts of town where the less magical population lived and therefore it boasted no wards or anything of the sort—most people were generally disinclined to make their homes a minefield. Steps were being taken to secure those areas, but it was slow going. All of that paled next to the main issue they faced.

Sirenhome was never built to be a fortress. It was a small town with no topographical defences. It could be surrounded, and if it was, they would be swamped and overrun. The one thing they had going for them were the somewhat narrow and chaotic streets combined with the haphazard hills and dips no one ever levelled but simply built over and around. Shin suggested building a wall, like in the old days, but he was overruled. Tetsuya took the opportunity to remind him again that they were not a proper army, they were assassins, not knights, and certainly not about to invite a siege.

"I'll do what I can to help what you've already set in motion," he told Drys. "I don't know how much I can do, but I can add my magic to the defences at the very least."

Tijana sat up a little straighter. "Your skill with strategy is not insubstantial," she said to him.

Val's arms around him tightened and he swatted her leg in annoyance. "Stop that. And nah, I'm not that bad I guess, but I've never actually run a a battle before," he pointed out. "But you have, haven't you," he said in tones of wonderment. "You've been trained for this, right Tija? Spirits, we have a demon general and I only just thought of it," he groaned.

"I am capable," she addressed Tetsuya.

"Of that there is no doubt, Tijana of the aeshema. The question is, are you willing?" Tetsuya asked.

"Of course she's willing, didn't she just offer?" Shin burst out.

Tetsuya's claws dragged over the tabletop with a screech. "Do not presume to answer for her, Shinobu. Her mind is her own. Isn't it, daughter of Tenereris?" Tijana nodded decisively and he smiled at her. "It is no small thing to stand against your own people, Shinobu. Did you not realise that is what we are asking of her? To you, the third realm is a threat. To her, it is home."

A chill ran down Shin's spine. "Will the aeshema fight?" he asked Tijana and slumped with relief when she shook her head no.

"The aeshema have no incentive to fight. Tenereris will not ask it of them," she said. "I stand with you for reasons that are my own."

"But you do stand with us?" Shin demanded.

"I am with you As'Diwa," she confirmed with what he knew was a smile in her voice.

"Then we welcome your expertise," Tetsuya said. "As for you, Shinobu, your knowledge and strengths are versatile. We could use you everywhere."

"I cannot adequately express how much it pains me to agree," Drys complained.

"Please, fairy god-bastard, my modesty," Shin answered back.

"Children," Tetsuya chided. "In the interest of keeping the peace I declare this meeting over. Drystan will remain here with Tijana and explain what we have done so far. I will take Shinobu elsewhere."

"What about me?" Val piped up.

"You may do as you like, little demi-goddess. You always do," Tetsuya said fondly.

"Just do it where I'm not for a while," Shin muttered.

"Shithead," she cursed at him and stuck out her tongue.

"Midget," he shot back.

"Baby."

"Me? You're the one sticking out her tongue."

"Puppy."

"Lunatic."

She smiled brightly. "Thank you!"

"I worry for my sanity when you're around," Shin said. "Get off my lap, I've got places to be."

Tetsuya was already standing and the tree-branches twitched after him mournfully. Shin looked at the glowing tree carefully. It was brighter than it had been when he'd come in. Some of it was still attached to Drys.

"This might be a crazy thought," he began, "but shouldn't Val be tied into the barrier? She's powerful, right?"

"No!" cried Tetsuya and Drys as one. "No," Drys repeated less vehemently. "While the boost would be a great thing, she's not stable enough to be an anchor."

The valkyrie giggled and stood up to pat Shin on the head. He batted her hand away irritatedly. "And the two of you aren't enough to balance?"

"No, we are not. It was difficult to combine kitsune and sídhe magic, but not impossible. Think of it as interweaving darkness and sunlight," Tetsuya lectured. "If we were to add a storm to that weave, there would have to be something of equal power to balance it. We have no such thing at our disposal."

"How about aeshema rage," Shin suggested.

"Do you want to kill us all?" Drys blanched.

Shin shrugged and said, "I guess that's a no, then. Shall we, sensei?" Tetsuya hooked their arms together and shadow-shifted them both out of there.

It wasn't the best of experiences for Shin, who disliked any kind of non-physical travel, but it was a far cry from the discomfort of Shade. For one, shadow-shifting wasn't freezing torture, it was more akin to floating through a fog. According to Tetsuya it felt like that because he had no control over it, unlike him, who simply felt the shadows and jumped through them until he arrived at the one he wanted to emerge from. He described it like hopscotch for kitsune—actually, no, that was what Shin made of it. Tetsuya merely shrugged and admitted it wasn't entirely inaccurate.

"That was... quite a big production for no real gain," Shin said wearily.

"I must disagree. I gained exactly what I set out to," the kitsune said.

"What, Tijana?" Shin wrinkled his nose. "A lot of work to win over one demoness. You could have plied her with knowledge. She's pretty susceptible to that."

"You would have been angered had I attempted bribery. No, your friend needs to see she is valued, as are you. An opportunity to share our motivations was also not to be missed." After a moment of silence, Tetsuya spoke softly. "I must express both my admiration as well as disappointment with this conversation."

"Thanks, I think?" Shin said, puzzled.

"Of course I do understand that it is something we will have to grow into, yet I had hoped understanding between us would be more fluid than it is."

"Not my fault," Shin said defensively. "Trust doesn't exactly come easily to me these days." Tetsuya watched him but said nothing. "So where are we going?" Shin asked, uncomfortable with the heavy silence.

"Most of the evacuation is being organised at Sofia's, by Sofia. As you know, she is a natural mother and will do anything to protect the people," Tetsuya said.

Shin chuckled. "Good choice. She'd probably die before letting something happen to the children."

"Let us hope it will not come to that," Tetsuya said. "We are here."

The bed and breakfast Shin had thought of as home loomed in front of them. This time Shin felt the barrier before they crossed it. It was similar to the one surrounding the town while being completely different. He could clearly feel many different magics woven into it. Tetsuya gestured for him to lead on which meant it was probably safe for him to pass through.

"Parents are never reassured until they can take an active role in protecting their offspring," Tetsuya commented. "This may just be the most safe place in all of Sirenhome."

"Good." When it came to the children, they were all of one mind. Whatever else Death Song or Sirenhome was, it was a home to these kids. Shin knew first hand how important that was.

Sounds of laughter drifted to meet him with every step he took closer to the house that had been, for all intents and purposes, his sanctuary. He'd not know how quiet the previous weeks had been before then, hadn't realised how much you could miss such a simple thing as children's laughter. Quite against his will he thought of the baby demon, Vay.

The door opened easily with the same heady feeling of homecoming he'd experienced upon first seeing Tetsuya. The thundering of little feet down the stairs announced the giggling boys who flew past Shin, a pair of wolf cubs snapping at their heels playfully. The children barely paused to wave at him, running straight into the sitting room and slamming doors shut behind them.

Tetsuya placed a hand on Shin's arm and guided him towards the study. "A wardstone is kept here. It would be prudent to add your strength to it."

"Yes, of course. I'll do all I can," Shin said.

"Good. You may remain here afterwards. I am sure your Aunt would appreciate a hand with the children." He paused, his black eyes focused unwaveringly on Shinobu. "I ask that you return to me when it is time for your to retire. Out of all of Sirenhome it is you who is most vulnerable to an attack. Your bond to the incubus still ties you to him. No matter the distance, he will always be able to find you."

Shin grit his teeth, every instinct he had rebelling against the mere idea of such weakness. He hadn't escaped, he was on holiday. It didn't matter how far he ran, did it? He would never be free of his chains.

"Shinobu," the kitsune called to him. "My son, I beg of you, do not be foolhardy. I will not lose you again."

"I'll come home to you," he said, swallowing his anger.

Tetsuya turned to leave. "Thank you."

"For what? Needing a babysitter?" he spat.

"For letting me care for you when I have failed you so spectacularly in the past," Tetsuya corrected.

"You—what—oh come on! Will you stop that already? Do you have a Jewish mother giving you lessons in guilt?" Shin spluttered. "We didn't know, none of us even suspected. There was so much shit going on damn it, we were all distracted and with good reason. Why would we think the third realm wanted an immature ōkami? It makes no sense." Tetsuya didn't agree or disagree which was just so typically Tetsuya. "We'll do all we can and hope it's enough," Shin said firmly.

"We certainly shall try," Tetsuya agreed, disappearing into the shadows.

A little hand tugged at his clothes and he looked down. The little blond bit her lip and glanced around anxiously. "Are you going to do magic?" the girl asked.

Shin smiled reassuringly. "Indeed I am. Would you like to see?"

She beamed and rushed ahead of him, screaming, "Shin is going to do magic!" at the top of her impressive siren lungs.

Laughing happily, Shin trailed after her, doing his level best to avoid being trampled in the stampede of children that followed. If the enthusiasm was any indication, he would be doing a lot more than updating the wardstone. He found that he didn't mind that at all.

The familiar touch of his adoptive mother made him pause before entering the study itself. She was trembling, her jaw clenched tightly. He breathed in deeply, then pulled her into his arms for a tight hug.

"I will make hot chocolate. Herd them into the kitchen when you're finished, will you?" she murmured against his chest. He blinked away tears and made a noise of assent. They released each other and Sofia straightened his clothes out of habit, then walked away with determination in every step. Shin smiled. They would be just fine.

That evening he fell on top of his futon feeling tired but happy. Tijana was by his side, listening to his tales of great adventure with the little monsters of Sirenhome until deep into the night.

"I am gratified to hear your day has been productive," she said once he'd finished.

"I don't know about productive. I'm not the one who's been plotting against the demon horde with a rule-breaking fairy," Shin teased. "He didn't give you any trouble did he? He can be a right pain."

Tijana gave him one of her superior glares in answer. "As I am not compelled to obey him, he cannot influence me either negatively or positively. He is competent, which is all that matters," she said in the tone of someone too disinclined to say any more on the subject. Shin, of course, couldn't leave it at that. He propped himself up on his arms and smirked at her.

"That's quite the compliment coming from you. Don't tell me you've been charmed. I do hear the fair folk are very good at that."

"You are displaying an alarming lack of intelligence As'Diwa. Are you well?"

"That's not a no, Tijana," he continued teasing.

She exhaled a little louder than necessary. "You forget I have spent many years in the service of those whose charms are much more persuasive than those of your friend. I will not be so easily compromised as that. Now come, I believe we have been neglecting your training," she said, folding herself into her usual meditation pose. With a short burst of laughter Shin followed suit, allowing her to pull him into herself, and let go, plunging happily into the maelstrom that was aeshema rage.

They fell asleep together, side by side, connected but not touching. There were no dreams at all that night.

The next morning, Tetsuya took him by the hand right after breakfast to shadow-shift them to town while Drys came to collect Tijana. They came out of the shadows near the school. There was a different vibe to it than Shin was used to. There were absolutely no children anywhere, but the building was hardly empty. The magic emanating from it was nearly overwhelming.

"What's going on in here?" he asked Tetsuya, following him inside.

"We have gathered the magic users in the school as to combine their expertise and strengths. They are developing several traps, wards, and delayed spells for the oncoming battle," the kitsune explained. "The school was merely the most suitable building for an undertaking of such size."

Shin looked around curiously. The classrooms were occupied by groups of adults, mostly, and a few teenagers here and there. They were well-warded so he didn't hear anything but it was obvious that whatever was happening in them, it wasn't the creation of benign charms. He spotted May and three others of her coven pouring over what had to be grimoires. The books were large and looked very old, the kind that were written on skin instead of paper, the kind that were written in blood and ash, and were full of suffering and hate. He shuddered and looked away.

Tetsuya was watching him with his head cocked to the side. "You are discomfited?"

Shin closed his eyes and inhaled. Slowly, he exhaled. "It's nothing. Has there been word from the third realm? Demands, ultimatums, anything like that?"

"Nothing as of yet, but I expect there will be. The slighted party is civilised enough to follow at least some of the protocol," Tetsuya said.

"Yeah," Shin snorted, "The children of Na'amah are nothing if not civilised." He drew a sharp breath. "Tell me you have someone monitoring dreams. They can pick us off one by one and we'd never even know until it was too late."

Tetsuya smiled in approval. "It is not so easy as that, Shinobu. While the children of Na'amah could in theory feed off someone through dreams, it is not so simple for them. The Legendary are not easy prey, and those Mundanes who cannot protect themselves have been taken care of by our witches. I have also taken it upon myself to periodically take stock of the goings on in the dreams of our residents. Sadly, I cannot be everywhere at once. Ah, here we are." Tetsuya showed him inside the headmaster's office and gestured at the desk.

"Try not to spread yourself too thin, sensei. You're the big gun and we need you in good health. Who's in charge here?"

Tetsuya's face betrayed nothing. "I had hoped it would be you."

He very conveniently didn't think of the full implications of what Tetsuya was asking. "We'll need Tijana. There are at least four circles of demons I know nothing but the bare bones about. I can't be sure how likely it is for any of them to be part of the attack." He circled around the desk and took a seat in the leather chair. "What else is going on?"

Tetsuya sat in one of the chairs on the other side of the desk in a surreal role-reversal for them. Shin tried to concentrate on what the kitsune was saying rather than the absurd seating arrangement. "There is a group of alchemists and Mundane soldiers working together to create all sorts of ranged weaponry. They gather in the Spring Halls. I have put Sarowitz and Colonel Rand in charge of them."

"No way," Shin exclaimed laughingly. "I knew it!"

Tetsuya laughed along with him. "Of course you did, I would expect no less of you."

"Sensei, what about the regular fighters?" Shin asked. "Believe me, I'm honoured as hell you'd give me this responsibility, but you trained me in more than magic."

"Those more inclined towards physical battle gather at Donovan's diner in the mornings and evenings," Tetsuya answered him. "I realise you are a competent fighter, Shinobu, but I need you here more than I need you to help the warriors prepare."

Shin bit his lip. The kitsune looked tired, more tired than Shin had ever seen him. "All right. All right, I'll do whatever I can."

Tetsuya inclined his head. "That is all I ask. Please, familiarise yourself with the goings-on at the school while I return to my house. I will have Tijana join you when she is able. Talk to the aeshema. It is possible she knows more than she is aware of."

"Yes, yes, as soon as Drys releases her from his leafy clutches," Shin said, waving his hand dismissively. There was much to do and gods only knew how long they had to do it. Valerie seemed to think they had time to prepare, but Shin was very familiar with how spectacularly useless sight was thanks to all the laws of the universe and its management. When a seer said time, it could mean anything from a week to a month to maybe a day or two. As an optimist, Shin guessed they had a week if they were lucky.

What he needed to do was find out what exactly had already been done, what was still in the works, and what was still hypothetical. He found a pen and a nearby piece of paper, wrote out a note asking for one member of each group to come to the headmaster's office to report on their progress, then used a handy spell Tetsuya had taught him to deliver a copy of it to each room with a life sign inside it.

The first to show was a disgruntled and slightly soggy witch he knew by the name of Brendan. The minute the man spotted Shin his eyes went wide and he tried—and failed—to say three things at once. Out of all three he was going for—surprise, disbelief, and irritation—he settled in the end for the least useful of the three. "Where's Tetsuya? Why are you here?" and, of course, "Demons, great, thank you by the way."

Shin pinched the bridge of his nose. He predicted it would be a long, long day, but what was, was, and he would deal with it.

He was absolutely right in his prediction. The ritual had to be repeated with each new arrival before they could move on to more useful discussions. It was easy to see they didn't quite know what to think of Shin's presence but were tentatively siding with disapproval on general principle. The pattern changed when May arrived with sisters April, June, and brother Winter in tow.

"For Morrigan's sake get out of my way can you not see the fuckton of book I'm holding?" she said, and to be fair it was Winter doing all the holding but it got the job done and cleared a path for her straight to his desk. Winter set the book down with a heavy thud. She looked at him, blew a lock of hair out of her face and hummed. Then, she twisted the book around so Shin could see, in excruciating detail, what was written.

The witch wasted no time and got down to business like it was usual. He kind of wanted to kiss her for it, until he learned that those evil looking grimoires were in fact family grimoires, and were every bit as bad as he'd assumed. There was a reason May was trusted to raise a temperamental naiad, and it wasn't her exceptional ability to swim.

In fact, all of the creations put before him ranged from terrible to fucking horrifying. There were nets that cut through flesh and bone, inverted protection circles that would liquefy anything alive, things with names like 'bed of a thousand pikes', and 'how to summon a boiling geyser in six easy steps', and 'shower of flaming shards'. Shin had thought he'd be a little more desensitised after his romp through Tartarus, but if he had to be perfectly honest he'd seen far more plush beds than he had proper torture while there.

If there was something to be learned from the experience it had to be that Sirenhome, or rather Death Song, was not prone to panic. They however were quite prone to massive, if not exactly well-planned, overkill.

Shin refused to be apprehensive about it but something had to be done and he was the one who had to do it. "This is all great, very frightening actually, wow, but it's kind of obvious none of you have ever had to tackle large numbers of adversaries," he said in the most non-confrontational tone he knew. "Don't get me wrong, it's all fucking impressive. It's just not going to do much good against an army of substantial size."

"Oh and you would know, would you?" his first visitor—Brendan—said.

Shin resisted the urge to rub his face. That was not the style of a calm and collected individual. On second thought, screw calm and collected. He snapped his fingers in an unnecessary gesture and watched with satisfaction as a tendril of yellow-gold demon magic sewed Brendan's mouth shut. It not only shut him up but had the added bonus of forcing them all to give him their undivided attention. He forcibly pushed down his anger to stop his features from transforming and didn't speak until he was absolutely sure neither his eyes nor teeth were anything but perfectly human.

"Believe it or not, I was actually educated in this shit. Look, I get it, this is bad. It's a little like shit creek and flayed alive all at once, I realise all that. But like it or not, I'm here, in this spot. I'm going to tell you what to do, and there's nothing you can do about it other than leave—which I would understand."

"Oh shut up and martyr for someone who cares," Dajana, one of the vila, huffed. "This is our home too. We have a right to fight for it. Now what are we doing wrong?"

He beamed at her and gathered the most relevant papers. "Look, each and every one of you has been aiming for outright murder when what you should really be looking into is grand-scale crippling."

"That sounds strangely arousing," Rah remarked to a backing chorus of sniggers from everyone. The other djinn especially looked rather pleased with their brother ifrit.

"I'm disturbed you think so," Shin said pleasantly. "Right. What I want id for you all to cover as much ground or air as you can, not trying to power it enough to eradicate, but disable. That should expand the range substantially and make life a hell of a lot easier on the hands-on fighters. They can just sweep up what you shoot down, again and again. We'll see what non-magic weaponry will be at our disposal and work out a proper strategy as soon as we have somewhere to start from." He gave in and rubbed his forehead. "The third realm is a fucking realm. We have to believe we're looking at overwhelming odds and prepare for them. If we end up facing a dozen demons—fucking great. Let's not count on it though."

"It would be expedient to have a better knowledge of our foes," said a tall sídhe woman.

"And you will have it," Shin promised. "As soon as I get my turn with the aeshema demoness who brought me home we will tell you all you need to know. What I want for now are as many ideas as you can think of. We'll weed through them later." He made a come hither gesture and the gold tread unravelled, leaving Brandon with small puncture wounds but free to speak. Happily, he did not.

"You're free to go. Please make me exceedingly proud—I would like to survive this," he said, waving them off.

They filed out of his office one by one looking less displeased while still allowing for some scepticism. The Marceux' stayed behind—April and June hovering by the door like twin statues while Winter stuck to May as always. She whispered something to him and he nodded.

"What?" he asked. The book was still in front of him and he pushed it gently towards the edge of the desk, waiting for Winter to take it. "Was there something else?"

Winter didn't speak. Couldn't, actually. Winter was one big scar from his jaw all the way down to his breastbone. He'd been savaged by a mad werewolf as a child, the damage so extensive that some of it was still impossible to repair—even for Tetsuya. It was unlikely he would ever be fully healed but he'd hardly let it slow him down.

"You did good, puppy," May said.

"Thank the gods. I worried for my pelt a few times back there," Shin joked. "So what can I do for you guys?"

"I'm indulging my curiosity," she told him with a shrug. "You touched my family grimoire."

Shin glanced down at the intimidating tome and recoiled. "Fuck, fuck, shit, ass!"

Winter leaned closer, one of his hands on his sister's hip and the other clutching a glittering chain. May was smaller, the top of her head reached her brother's chin, but they had identical eyes. April and June were Irish twins with hair and eyes in warm earth tones, like their parents. May and Winter were dark-haired and blue-eyed, born different because of their parents' magic. May smirked, leaning further into her brother.

"And yet you're still alive. How fortuitous and intriguing."

"You set me up!" Shin yelled, using every ounce of his will to keep the sparks from forming at his fingertips.

Winter remained stoic. Her grin was unrepentant.

"Why yes, yes I did. My daughter cannot leave here. I will not place her in unfit hands."

"And careless? What's our stance on careless?" April questioned.

"I'm undecided," May admitted.

Shin glared at the woman he considered a friend. She was stills scrutinising him like a lab specimen. He closed the book in front of him with a loud bang. "You could send me to Hell right now and avoid making the choice. We both know that with your sisters behind you and an amplifier of your bloodline at full strength"—he nodded at Winter—"it's not an impossible task. But know this, May Marceaux," he said, his voice sounding odd even to his own ears, "I will fight you. Every step of the way, I will fight you with tooth and claw, and if that's not enough then I will fight you with demon magic, little black witch." He picked up the large book and tossed it carelessly at Winter, who snatched it out of the air. "Don't fucking test me, May. I'm sick and tired of playing games. If a nest of incubi couldn't keep me mindfucked, you won't either. Get out."

She didn't stop looking at him until Winter had dragged her all the way out and Shin had slammed the door behind them with a gust of wind. He was so fucking tired of being tested every step of the way. Of course they were frightened. Of course the situation was serious and he was an unknown element. He knew all that, he understood, and yet it ate away at him like acid.

Shin reclined in his chair and closed his eyes, extending his senses and falling into a shallow trance. If he was to be in charge of the school, there would have to be changes. Overrides keyed to him, wards, fail-safes. All things he hoped wouldn't be needed but probably would be. It took him hours—the work being carried out all around him called for a delicate touch lest he send them all to hell for a more permanent stay. Still, it was not impossible and he felt pleased with his manipulations.

After that there had been nothing to do but read up on what had been done and make notes of his own. A little adjustment, and some of it was perfectly useful. He didn't think it would be easy, beating so many different people into a cohesive unit, but he was guardedly optimistic.

As evening approached he let everyone know he was leaving and that he would make rounds the next day to work out a meeting schedule via the same notes he had used earlier. He sealed the office behind him with demon magic, making it impossible to open for anyone but himself and Tijana, possibly also Tetsuya. That done, he decided to take a stroll around town and see what all was going on and who all had stayed behind, maybe he would even take a look at his flat to see if it was still standing. Sure, Mister S was apparently a competent alchemist, but that didn't mean he was any less volatile or dangerous to his surroundings. If there was ever one thing alchemists excelled at, it had to be blowing shit up.

Shin was pleasantly surprised to find so many people were still around. The buzzing of aggressive wards and other defences was everywhere, but so were the people. It was still Sirenhome, if a little different. Some of the shops were closed, but a lot more than he'd expected were still open. The people refused to cower.

Without having realised it, his feet had brought him to Don's. It was incredibly noisy and crowded, he could tell that from afar. The music was playing loudly through the open door, but it wasn't Don's usual old school rock 'n roll—it was fast and crazy psychobilly. There were very few reasons Don would agree to changing his usual and Shin hurried to find out which one it was. He didn't even make it to the door before he was tackled to the ground by two squealing ogresses.

"Geese-Louise, Shiny, did your momma never teach you bathrobes aren't for outdoors?" the blond teased, her hands disappearing between the folds of his yukata to pinch his sides, making him laugh and struggle. The brunette in the meantime was tickling his bare feet without mercy.

"Suzie don't tease him or he'll dash off on his hardwood flip-flops," she said, giggling.

Shin laughed and tried to push the both of them off or at least make them stop their assault. "Shut it, both of you," he gasped, "You've got no room to talk—I can see up both ends of your dresses! Ah, no, stop!" They grinned widely and pushed him back down time and again. Suzie and Jackie were as strong as any of their species but what gave them the edge was their perfect recollection of every ticklish spot he possessed thus reducing him to a limp pile of giggles.

"You know you like it!" they chorused, their clever hands unrelenting.

"Nononononono!" he gasped, dislodging one only to be overpowered by the other. "Argh, tits in face!"

"Boy, are you pawing at my sisters? You better not be pawing my sisters," a big ogre in a leather jacket threatened while looming in the doorway.

"Who's pawing at our sisters?" Another ogre appeared by his side, his yellow eyes narrowed angrily, but he quickly broke out in a smile. "Coo-ee, if that ain't Shiny!"

Meanwhile Jackie had pinned Shin's arms and Suzie was sitting on his legs. "Johnny! Save me!" Shin cried out. "They're killing me!"

"Aw, hell. Dean, why didn't you tell me Shiny was here? You know the terrors are always on him like flies on shit," the other ogre, Johnny, said. He sauntered over and plucked both girls off Shin, to their loud cries of protest. "Suzie, Jackie, he'll die if he can't breathe and then what'll you fight over, eh?" Johnny said reasonably.

"We worked it out! We were gonna share," Suzie pouted, flipping her curls back.

"Yeah, Johnny! Why you gotta stick your big nose in our business?" Jackie complained. Then in unison they turned to the other brother. "Dean," they whined, "tell him."

"None of y'all have grown up any," Dean grumbled. "It was throwing mud and terrorising the neighbourhood then and it's no different now. I ain't touching none of this with a ten foot pole, man. Shiny, you gotta put me and dad out of our misery—just pick one and marry her."

Shin laughed, dodging manly slaps and punches and decidedly unmanly pinches from the girls. "It's great to see you guys," he enthused. "Tour's over, then? Hell O'Billy still going strong?"

Suzie rolled her eyes. "Psht, no. Band's doing great but the tour's been cancelled for a family emergency."

"Your poor fans," Shin teased.

"They'll live. We came as soon as we heard. What, you think we'd miss all the fun? Hell to the no, daddy-o. Jackie's been polishing her shotgun so much it'll wear out and I'm aiming my bat at the first demon head I see." The sisters both crossed their arms, emphasising their impressive bosoms. They were smaller than their brothers, but Shin knew both girls weren't lacking in ogre strength even if they looked adorable rather than dangerous.

Johnny nudged Shin and they snickered. "Dad's going spare with them back. It's been a while, you know? He didn't believe me and Dean when we told him how much ass we had to kick to protect their virtue. It don't help none that they're allergic to full skirts," he grumbled.

"Well, you guys do have a pretty big fanbase, at least half of which wants in those skirt," Shin laughed. "At least you're home now and Don runs a pretty tight ship, yeah?"

"Ha! You should have been here two days ago," Johnny said, "dad tossed Richard out the window."

"Richard's a prick, he deserves it," Shin said.

"You said it. He's lucky dad got to him first—Dean was two steps behind and you know how he and Dick are. Now come on, dad's been worrying himself sick over you. Let's reassure him of your well-being."

"Aren't you all grown up and using big words," Shin said.

"Don't make me leash you, boy," Johnny said, grinning.

"At least buy him a beer first," Dean shot back, already dragging the sisters inside.

Johnny put one hand over his heart and the other on Shin's back. "Of course I will, my mama raised me to have manners."

"Now if only she'd managed to make you use them, too," Dean grumbled.

"I'm starting to worry for my virtue," Shin remarked. "Do I put off some kind of ogre-licious pheromones or something?"

"Naw," Dean said, clapping him on the back. "My little brother and sisters have questionable taste, just like our daddy."

"Are you calling your mother questionable?" Shin teased, "because I don't think that's a healthy attitude to have when your mother's an ogress."

"Boys?" Don bellowed from behind the counter. "What's that rumpus outside, then?"

"We found us a lost hound, pops!" Dean bellowed right back, gripping Shin by the shoulder and shoving him forward through the crowd. Don's heavy brows furrowed and he stopped wiping the glass he was holding to peer over the gathered people. His eyes landed on Shin and the glass clattered to the floor followed closely by the dishtowel.

"I'll be darned," he said. "Boy, is that really you?"

"In the flesh," Shin confirmed.

"Heavens above, boy, come here and let me look at you proper!" Don shouted cheerfully.

Grinning widely, Shin pushed his way to the counter and hopped over it to let Don crush him to his chest. He laughed at Don's enthusiasm until he couldn't any more. "Don. Don. Don, air," he grunted.

"So sorry pup, just had to make sure you were real this time," Don said. "You'd never believe the madhouse you left behind when you disappeared! Strangest things kept happening."

"Oh yeah?" Shin said lightly. "Here I thought you'd enjoy some peace and quiet."

"Peace? Quiet?" Don spluttered. "No such thing for a long while. Things have been going from odd to crazy. I've never seen so much magic thrown around so casually and you know how that can affect things."

Shin frowned thoughtfully. "You mentioned something about me being real?"

"That was one of them," Don said, nodding. "Every so often someone'd see you strolling down the street, or sitting somewhere, calm as you please. Of course, it was never real. Should have been obvious really, from the things you were supposedly wearing. Though, the hair was about what it is now, if I remember it right."

Shin stared at him, at a loss for words. "Weird clothes, calm as you please?" he repeated. "You're sure?"

Don nodded again. "That's right. Actually, it took a while before anyone realised it was you at all. First thought was that it was a relative of the boss', a lady of some sort. Think it was Drystan who caught on first, if you'll believe it."

"Oh I'd believe it all right," Shin growled. At that moment, panting like he'd run a marathon, Kristoff Kirkpatrick stormed into the diner and crashed against the counter. He held up a hand to stave off questions while he caught his breath before he spoke. "Incoming. Outsider," he said breathlessly.

The uproar over the proclamation was predictable. Everyone had an opinion they wanted to share, but only after extensive swearing and yelling. Then, there was the generic arguing over who knew best and why this was so. Shin signalled Donovan's brood to join him in a less populated corner.

"I don't think one guy deserves to be faced with a whole battalion of killers," he said dryly. "It could be anything from a messenger to a passer-by. There's no need to show our willingness to attack anything that moves before we actually have to. Su, you mind asking Kirkpatrick where this outsider is approaching?"

She huffed at him but fluffed her hair and yanked down her dress a little, then sashayed over to Kirkpatrick. They spoke quietly for a moment, Kirkpatrick's eyes glued on Suzie's chest while she giggled and posed.

"He better stop looking at my sister like that," Dean said. "Tear his lungs out. They're for shit anyway."

She spun away and repeated her strut back to Shin. Suzie pushed past the crowd of arguing fighters, which parted easily under Dean and Johnny's glowering looks. "North side. The main road, looks like," she told them.

"All right. I'll signal in case it really is something. I'm going ahead," Shin said. He wove through the people and stopped at the counter. "Don, I'm off."

"'Course, kid. Make sure you come back, you hear me? Won't have you disappearing again." Don grasped his hand in a firm handshake and held it a bit before letting go.

"Sure, Don. I'll be back tomorrow," he promised. "Keep the coffee lethal, yeah? See you soon." He leapt out the door and dropped to all fours outside, setting off at a comfortable lope.

Wearing his fur was like coming home all over again, with a little extra disturbing on the side. He felt his marriage bond more keenly, desperately wishing he could tear it apart. The compulsions, at least, were entirely shredded. He shook the thoughts off and focused on finding his prey. His nose was in better working order than it had been for a while, and it kept telling him so much at once he wasn't sure he should trust it all.

He headed north, picking up speed but sticking to the shrubbery just in case, even though he didn't feel any danger.

When he saw just what it was approaching Sirenhome, he knew he was right. Needing to laugh uproariously, Shin changed back to two legs and trotted up to the side of the road. Barking loudly, two wolfhounds raced at him. He braced himself even though it was futile—he knew he'd allow them to knock him on his ass out of sheer joy at seeing them.

He was laughing and the dogs were barking and licking his face while they all rolled on the floor together. That's exactly how Sanders encountered them, when he rolled up on his vintage white Vespa, complete with dorky black helmet.

"Well," said the homunculus, "this isn't quite the welcome I envisioned."

Shin pointed at Sanders giggling uncontrollably, wheezing from a lack of breath. Sanders observed him coolly while Shin continued to laugh and gasp.

"I dare not ask," Sanders muttered.

Shin just laughed harder.