Dragomir brought the first of the dishes he’d prepared that day and placed it in the center of the table, which Tatiana had set with the fine dishes he’d given her for Christmas. With the eight guests they were having, she’d been excited to at last use the set in full and put out all the place settings she had. Amelie gurgled at him as he passed on his way back to the kitchen, and Dragomir couldn’t help but stop and take her tiny hand in his. He made a silly face, and she giggled happily, squirming around in her highchair. Dragomir felt Pierre’s eyes on his back and stood up, glancing at him with a stern expression. Pierre seemed concerned that his unconventional lifestyle would have a negative affect on his baby girl, but Dragomir refused to acknowledge his worries.
It was about five minutes until five, and all of the guests would be arriving presently. Tatiana had gone to her room to change, and the twins were relaxing in the mock-sitting room while Pierre sat rigidly in his seat. He’d been opposed to hosting such an ‘extravagant party,’ as he’d deemed it; he’d been hoping they could go to Niles’s. But Dragomir wanted to cook, and it only seemed appropriate. Besides, he’d bought everything he’d used with some money he’d been saving, with the explicit purpose of preventing Pierre from expressing any real complaints. Niles was on his way, as were both Viorica and the Lt. Colonel, and at the knock on the door, Amelie squealed with delight, and Dragomir hurried to beat his brothers to answering the door, wondering who’d arrived first.
Corinne squeezed Viorica's hand a last time before the door opened, and Captain Hirlea appeared, smiling cordially at them. Corinne smiled back, smoothing her dress nervously, and followed him inside. Though she knew she had been invited and Viorica's other siblings knew the full extent of their relationship, she still felt nervous, as if she was going through judgment all over again. For the occasion, she had dressed up, put on jewelry, curled her hair, even, and she hoped it would pay off in the end.
As she entered the room, she took a deep breath and did her best to look charming. Smiling, she looked from one brother to the other. "It's nice to meet you. I'm Corinne Delancy."
“A pleasure to meet you.” Razvan bowed after getting to his feet. “My name is Razvan.”
“And I’m Marius.” Marius smiled, straightening up from his quick bow.
Viorica smiled at her brothers, glad to have them all home, and especially happy that Corinne was at last meeting them. Aside from Dragomir, Marius was her favorite sibling, and she always missed him during the long intervals between visits. Viorica knew Tatiana had written to the two of them extensively about her and Corinne, and was a little worried that they might be rather biased due to her older sister’s opinions, but she prayed they’d withheld their judgment; anyone who met Corinne was bound to realize just how amazing she was, and they were sure to appreciate the happiness she’d found.
“We’re just waiting for Niles,” Dragomir explained, “but feel free to take a seat here or in the dining room, sir. I’m sure he’ll be here shortly.”
Corinne did an awkward sort of half-bow-half-curtsy, then took a seat next to Viorica on the sofa, smiling contentedly and listening to her talk animatedly with her brothers. She was adorable, and it allowed Corinne to relax slightly just watching her.
Niles pulled up to the Hirleas' hurriedly and jumped out of the automobile, running up the drive. He had taken too long after he had gotten home to shower and have his hair dried and to dress and fix his hair, and now he was late. Knocking hurriedly, he smoothed his clothes and fingered his hair, waiting for someone to answer. Though he had already met Marius and Razvan, he still wanted to make a good impression, and he had dressed in one of his best outfits, a deep red brocade jacket and paler red vest. It was one of his favourites, because it reminded him of Dragomir, and even in his nervousness, he smiled to himself.
Dragomir heard Niles pull up and opened the door hurriedly; he’d been slightly worried when he realized that Niles was running late, but as the door opened, he realized why. Niles had bathed and changed, and looked now looked stunning. Dragomir ushered him inside with a grin and shut the door, pulling him into the kiss he’d been afraid to press to his lips in the park, and giving him a light squeeze. “You look really great,” Dragomir breathed, pulling back. He noted that Pierre was glaring at them, and smiled smugly to himself.
Niles stood up on his toes to press another quick kiss to Dragomir's lips, smiling up at him and blushing lightly. "Thanks," he replied, leaning into Dragomir's embrace, still not wanting to pull away, and allowing Dragomir to lead him into the room in which, by now, most of the party was waiting. "Sorry I'm late," he said sheepishly, looking around. The Lt. Colonel was already there and seated next to Viorica, and Marius, Razvan, Pierre, and Amelie were all present as well. Niles didn't think he had ever seen so many people on the Hirleas' home, but it was nice, being all together, and he was suddenly overwhelmed with bubbly happiness at the thought of being a part, even a very peripheral one, of a family.
“It’s not a problem, Niles,” Tatiana said softly with a mild smile.
“Except that the food has probably gotten cold.” Pierre rolled his eyes with irritation.
“Then we shouldn’t delay,” Razvan offered, getting to his feet.
“Yeah, I’m starving!” Marius exclaimed, getting up and making his way to the table. Tatiana smiled with a little more conviction and went into the kitchen to get the other dishes, laying them out elegantly on the table.
With Tatiana’s assistance, Dragomir had gone all out. He’d consulted with Niles’s servants on where to buy the finest cuts of meat, and had personally gone and selected purchased all of his ingredients. Tatiana prepared a dish of sweetmeats, and had cut and arranged a selection of fruit, which she’d arranged around the veal tenderloin marinade that Dragomir spent most of the day preparing. She then placed a basket of fresh baked bread at the far end of the table to complete the dinner spread. With everyone seated, Dragomir took the main dish first, and passed it directly to Niles; he wasn’t yet back to his original weight, and Dragomir wanted to make sure he didn’t hold back.
Niles served himself a generous helping; it occurred to him to take less, but since Dragomir had prepared so much so extravagantly, he decided it would be all right, and he was already starving. He was working his way back up to his original weight; now at 105 pounds, he was getting closer, but his eating habits were still in excess and he still found himself always hungry. Smiling sheepishly, he passed the dish on, trying not to be self-conscious about the amount he knew he would consume.
“This looks so good, Dragos!” Viorica exclaimed, serving herself a rather large portion, rationalizing that there was plenty to go around and that Niles had done it first. She loved it when Dragomir was home to cook; there was something about his food that always tasted better than Tatiana’s, despite her best efforts, and she intended to eat as much as she could, while she could. She passed the dish on, smiling brightly. Nothing could be better than eating with Corinne and having her whole family home, with Niles there to boot.
“Well, the amount you two have taken makes me worry I didn’t get enough. I bet it will all be gone before I get the chance to have seconds!” Marius teased, stopping only when Viorica kicked him under the table.
“I’m sure there will be more than enough, right?” Razvan asked Dragomir hopefully to make sure his brother’s theory hadn’t been correct.
“Ow, don’t kick me!” Marius laughed, scooting his chair away from Viorica abruptly and making a loud noise. Pierre, who he had the misfortune of sitting next to, caught him by the arm.
“Grow up! You’ll frighten Amelie,” he spat irritably. Amelie was giggling at the action, and seemed to be enjoying all the extra people to watch. Tatiana smiled at her little gurgling noises and began to feed her, ignoring Pierre’s little drama with Marius to her right. “The two of you are so immature. How can you expect to raise children if you still act like a juvenile yourself?” Lately, Pierre had taken on a rather high-and-mighty attitude, and had been refusing to listen to anyone about the things he ought to be doing as a parent. Marius laughed at the irony, but chose not to pursue the debate. He’d found that ignoring Pierre was the best way to handle him.
Turning to Corinne and Viorica, Marius talked over his brother and addressed Corinne. “So, it’s good to get to meet you in person. Tatiana has been writing letters for a while to keep us updated, but we were both interested in getting to know you ourselves.”
“Yes,” Razvan piped in, “You’ve been Dragomir’s superior for a long time, but now you’re like family.” He smiled kindly, and Viorica beamed back at him. She was relieved they were both being so nice about it all, and she hoped Corinne would get a better impression of her family from their reactions. “We’re both glad you were able to make it to dinner tonight. We’re only going to be here a few days, so it’s a relief it all worked out the way it did.”
Corinne was surprised, and hesitated a moment before breaking into a wide smile. "I'm so glad I got to meet you, too! Viorica's told me about you before, but I don't know very much about you. I'm really glad I'm getting a chance to talk to you. Please, tell me, what is it that you do?" She couldn't help but laugh slightly, grinning broadly. It felt good to be accepted, really accepted, unconditionally, by members of Viorica's family.
“It’s really dull, I’m afraid—” Marius began. He never liked to talk about what they did; there were so many more interesting things that could be discussed that he hated to talk about the mundane. Razvan, however, was very proud of the job they did together, and interrupted his brother, eager to tell.
“We live in Southern Galia,” he explained keenly, “right on the border with Hesparia. We were lucky enough to enter in an arrangement with a very wealthy noble who owns a vineyard, and we’ve been working the land he owns for just over three years now,” Razvan concluded proudly.
Marius nodded with a slight air of exasperated boredom. “Yeah, it was a really good deal.” He sighed. “He gets to live in the fancy house and puts his name on the bottle, and pays us whatever we need to live and to get things done on the property.”
“We brought some of our best Sauvignon Blanc, for after dinner,” Razvan added excitedly, hardly noticing his brother’s lack of enthusiasm.
"Oh, excellent," Corinne replied with a smile. She didn't drink, but on such an occasion, she supposed, a little alcohol would be all right. "That's really interesting about your work, too. I've never known much about any sort of work outside the military, besides secretarial work, nor anything about wine." She smiled, resting her head on a hand and looking on interestedly. "It's a shame your wives and children weren't able to make it, I'd like to meet them, too."
Viorica laughed and shook her head with amusement. “They already have way too many kids! They’d never fit if they came to visit!” she said jokingly. Razvan looked indignant, but Marius laughed as well.
“You’re probably right!” Turning to Corinne, he explained, “I have twins,” Marius grinned, “and another little one due in fall.” His attitude changed from jocular to that of a proud father as he thought of his little boys back at home. “And Razvan here already has three,” Marius added with a smirk.
Corinne smiled warmly. "I'm sure they're all adorable," she commented with a nod. "I love children, though, of course, I don't plan to have any myself." She laughed slightly, embarrassedly. "Still, I'd love to meet them sometime. We'll have to work something out, if you'd be willing."
Viorica felt herself almost ask ‘why not?’ but caught herself just in time. She blushed at what she’d almost asked so stupidly, and wondered if adoption could be possible. If not, Dragomir and herself would certainly be breaking the family trend…
“Yes, in the near future, we want to bring them so that they can all meet Amelie,” Razvan said with a nod.
“And Dragomir has never met any of mine, either,” Marius said rather regretfully.
“He was away the only time we’ve ever been to visit,” Viorica explained. “If something can be worked out, everyone will have to come up sometime to meet everyone else!” she said excitedly.
"I'd love that," Corinne replied with a smile, glancing to Viorica, who seemed to be contemplating something. Corinne made a mental note to remember to ask her later, then turned back to the twins. "If you'd all like to come down for a visit sometime, I have plenty of free room at my estate. I live with only my mother, so there would be plenty of space for either or both of your families. Of course, only if you'd like."
"That would be lovely." Razvan beamed. "It's so kind of you to offer us a place to stay." Marius nodded enthusiastically before stuffing a large forkful into his mouth and sitting back in his seat. The food was delicious, and the company was equally interesting; he couldn't ask for more.
Dragomir watched with satisfaction as the dishes he'd prepared circled around the table until finally, nothing remained. Razvan stood to retrieve the bottle of white wine he'd brought as Tatiana fetched the glasses and bottle opener. Marius claimed the honors of opening the elegant green glass bottle, and poured each guest a full glass before sitting back and lifting his glass to the cliché toast of family.
"This is a Sauvignon grape, isn't it?" Dragomir asked after he'd taken a few sips.
"Yes," Razvan said proudly. "We only just bottled it last fall." He indicated the date and name elegantly scrawled on the bottle's label, thoughtless of how little the written characters meant to Dragomir.
"We had to bring a Sauvignon; it tastes best young," Marius added. "Do you like it?" He asked hopefully, turning to Niles. He seemed like he would be the type to be particularly delightful drunk, so Marius hoped the slightly sweet, almost tropical flavor would be to his liking.
"It's delicious!" Niles replied enthusiastically, finishing his glass a little too quickly. The wine was sweet, which appealed to his tastes, and he was especially eager to be complementary because it was made by Dragomir's relatives. He licked his lips and hesitated, wishing for more but not wanting to deprive anyone else.
Dragomir saw that Niles had drained his glass rather quickly, and, as he had throughout the meal, served him some more. Marius grinned and placed his elbows on the table casually.
“I’m glad you like it,” Marius said rather mischievously. “Drink all you like, we’ve brought plenty.”
“That’s right.” Razvan addressed everyone else, “we have a few more bottles yet, still in the kitchen.” He smiled as Dragomir finished the bottle and Tatiana stood to bring the others out, placing them on the table, but not taking her seat.
“I’m afraid that’s all I’m up for tonight,” she announced with a soft smile as she took Amelie into her arms. Pierre stood up immediately, before he’d even finished his glass, but Tatiana eased him back into his seat gently. “Don’t worry, I’ll be fine. Why don’t you stay up awhile?”
“With them?” Pierre sneered.
“Aww, let him go with you, Tatiana,” Marius groaned. “We don’t want to waste anything on him, after all.” Tatiana’s expression hardened momentarily, but Pierre drained his cup and poured another, simply to spite Marius.
“No, please feel free to stay, Pierre.” Razvan forced a meek smile. “Don’t listen to him.”
“I will.” Pierre said matter-of-factly, taking another sip. “Goodnight Tatiana,” he said, his demeanor changing entirely as he looked up at her and pressed a soft kiss to the sleeping Amelie’s forehead. Turning back to the table, he put up his sneer again, as if challenging anyone to complain of his presence.
Niles didn't pay much attention to Pierre; he wasn't doing anything that really needed any threatening, and he wasn't necessarily bothering anyone, anyway. Instead, he focused on his newly refilled glass, taking a few more sips. He was beginning to feel a little dizzy, tipsy, even, but it tasted good, and he didn't want anyone to know, and it just tasted so good, so he did his best to hide it, drinking quietly and listening instead to what was going on.
Dragomir noticed the steady reddening of Niles’s cheeks and smirked to himself, refilling Niles’s glass once again before pouring himself another as well. He himself rarely got drunk at all, but he remembered the last time Niles had had a few too much to drink, and looked back on the recollection with fondness. Niles was always adorable, and a drunk Niles was certainly no exception. Although, the rising color of Niles’s cheeks made Dragomir feel a little hot himself, which was a slight problem…
Marius got up and moved to the other side of Pierre, taking Tatiana’s now vacant seat next to Niles. Razvan and Corinne were involved in some dull discussion of professions, and Niles’s steady progression into drunkenness was far more interesting. Marius moved to pour himself another glass in his new seat, and spilled some of the clear sparking liquid on to the table. Apparently he too was slipping a little.
“You’d think that’d you would have developed a tolerance by now.” Pierre said haughtily. He trusted himself to know when to stop, and planned to stick around to make fun of everyone once they’d lost it. As he was, he’d already cut himself off from more refills and planned to take as long as he could to finish his current glass.
“You just don’t know how to appreciate it,” Marius grinned, slurring slightly. “Isn’t that right, Niles?” he asked rhetorically, filling Niles’s glass again even though it was not yet empty.
Niles thanked Marius slurily, nodding but then regretting it as the world sloshed slightly around him like the newly added wine in his glass. He took another sip, which became more of a gulp halfway through, then looked around. Everyone seemed to look different now, after a few glasses of alcohol, and he couldn't remember why he hadn't been talking earlier. Blushing, he smiled sheepishly around the table. He knew that, earlier, he hadn't thought Dragomir's brothers as attractive as their elder sibling, but now, as he was looking again, they just looked so similar... He took another sip then set down his glass to speak.
"Y'know...earlier, I know I said somethin' else...but... you guys are actually really cute..." he pointed out to Marius and Razvan as a whole. "There's jus' somethin' about Hirleas tha's really hot....I dunno wha' it is, but man." He took another drink, his face growing more flushed. "I didn' even know there was more of you guys. I wish I'd met you guys sooner 'r somethin'..." he licked his lips, realizing that he was probably ranting on while no one cared. Sighing, he took another drink, then turned to Pierre. "Even you're kinda pretty, an' you're not even really related," he remarked, taking another swallow and resting an elbow on the table with another sigh.
Razvan’s eyes widened in a scandalized horror and his head snapped around to Viorica, who’d almost lost her seat in a slightly-intoxicated fit of laughter. Pierre, too, looked to Niles as with an expression of the utmost disgust; not only had he been compared to the Hirleas, who, aside from Tatiana, he wanted nothing to do with, but Niles, a man, had just complemented him in a manner he was thoroughly uncomfortable with.
“Why thank you, Niles.” Marius chuckled. Unthinkingly, he ran his hand affectionately over Niles’s cheek, slurring, “You’re pretty damn attractive yourself.”
Dragomir stood abruptly and caught his arm roughly, giving his younger brother a look that meant business. “Watch it,” he said a little harshly, narrowing his eyes. He knew they were both drunk by now, and didn’t take it much to heart, but he wanted to make sure some shred of order was retained, and he particularly didn’t want anyone touching Niles.
Niles blinked up at Dragomir, flushing further and feeling guilty. "'m sorry, Dragomir," he murmured, biting his lip slightly. "I didn' mean 'nything by it...." Trying to make up for it, he leaned closer, moving so that he was sitting in Dragomir's lap. "An' you know you're the hottest...an' I love you." He looked up into Dragomir's eyes, his own wide and asking for forgiveness.
Dragomir looked back down into his blue eyes and felt consoled. There was no way he could be mad at him after all, especially not for something like that. In fact…Niles’s uncharacteristic flirtatiousness and his eagerness to make up for it gave Dragomir another little jolt of longing. He wished vaguely that he wasn’t still so sober so that he wasn’t feeling quite as strongly conscious of his need for restraint. Still, a little show of affection wouldn’t hurt, especially not to discourage any dispute of his reigning “hotness.” He pressed a hard kiss to Niles’s lips and wrapped his arms around his waist possessively. Marius had better think twice about flirting with Niles.
“Please, that’s the last thing any of us want to see now,” Pierre groaned, rolling his eyes. “We’ve just eaten, after all!”
“Shut up, Pierre!” Viorica yelled loudly without realizing. Picking up her napkin, she crumpled it into a ball and threw it at him for added effect.
“What was that?” he yelled back at her, throwing the napkin to the floor angrily.
Marius seized Pierre’s moment of distraction to pour a little more wine into his glass—only enough so that he wouldn’t notice when he next took a sip. Marius hated Pierre, but perhaps, if he got drunk enough, he would at least be entertaining.
Corinne, who had been resting her head on Viorica's shoulder in a state of intoxicated semi-somnia, looked blearily around, making a questioning noise. When she realized it was only Pierre, however, she shut her eyes again. She shouldn't have had so much already...but it hardly mattered, now at least she wouldn't do anything she would regret later, and the wine really had been good...she would have to remember to compliment Viorica's brothers later.
Niles glanced over his shoulder at Pierre, scowling and sticking out his tongue at him for lack of a more sophisticated response. Then, to spite him, he turned back to Dragomir and kissed him again, open-mouthed, fervidly, and squirmed slightly on his lap, wishing that they were somewhere more discrete all of a sudden.
Dragomir was both surprised and even more turned on by Niles’s brazen action, and kissed back somewhat desperately, ignoring everyone else. Let them think what they wanted; for all they knew, he was equally drunk and couldn’t control himself—the second part, at least, was true.
Pierre made a face of disgust and turned to Razvan—for lack of anything else—who was scrutinizing the ceiling in an effort to grant Dragomir and Niles some privacy. Marius jumped on the opportunity once again to fill Pierre’s glass a little more, this time, perhaps going a bit too far. Viorica noticed and giggled, causing Pierre to look back at her abruptly. “What?” he demanded. She shrugged her shoulders defensively, though she was smirking quite broadly, and rested her head against Corinne’s comfortably. Peeved, Pierre got to his feet abruptly. “Well, I’ve had enough of this.”
“But you haven’t finished yet.” Marius whined, indicating Pierre’s ‘miraculously’ full glass. “It would be rude to leave now.”
Pierre glanced at his cup quizzically, and sat back down. He could have sworn it was almost empty. But he didn’t want it to go to waste, so he took another sip. The rest of his glass wouldn’t be enough for him to get too tipsy, after all, and there was no harm in finishing it.
Feeling accomplished, Marius got up and stumbled over to his seat next to Razvan with the last of the half empty bottle sloshing around in his hand. “Com’on, Raz. Don’t be a wuss.” He grinned sloppily, reaching for Razvan’s empty glass. “Have s’more.” Before his brother could protest, Marius had emptied the entire bottle into his glass, which overflowed onto the table. “There you go,” Marius grinned, slapping Razvan hard on the back. “Drink up.”
“You should have offered our guests more, first.” Razvan pouted. He didn’t particularly want to get any drunker than he already felt—always practical, he was dreading the next morning already. “Corinne,” he asked politely in a soft voice, “you didn’t want any more, did you?”
Corinne opened her eyes again to look at Razvan, then shook her head slowly. "N' thank you," she managed, trying hard not to slur her words. "Please... have it yourself." She managed a bleary smile, readjusted herself against Viorica, then closed her eyes again.
Niles wrapped his arms tightly around Dragomir' neck, mewling against his lips and forgetting himself entirely. He didn't remember that he was in company, nor did he care, all of a sudden, it was as if it was their first night back together all over again; he was desperate for closeness, and he couldn't bring himself to pull away. It certainly didn't help his situation, either, that he felt warm and a little dizzy, and that everything was a little blurry around the edges.
Forgetting himself, their location, and the presence of all his siblings, Dragomir growled lightly and slipped a hand under Niles’s shirt. Yes, there was no used holding back now; Dragomir was quite unable to stop, and as Niles seemed equally enthusiastic, he didn’t plan to.
Pierre slammed his now-empty glass down on to the table and looked scandalized at Dragomir and Niles. “That’s disgusting’nd unn-necess-ssary.” Pierre stumbled over his words. He’d drunk too much, he knew it, and yet he’d only had three glasses. It was terrible, and he was determined to pretend as though he was completely unaffected.
“Careful, there, Pierre. Don’t hurt yourself with those big words,” Marius said soothingly, patting Pierre comfortingly on the back as Razvan drained his glass as well.
“Shuddaup,” Pierre snapped, swatting Marius’s hand away. “I’ve only’d three glasseses.”
“Only three? You should be ashamed of yourself,” Marius chided. “Weren’t you just accusing me of being a lightweight a little while ago?”
“I’m nota lightweight…” Pierre whined, becoming indignant.
Corinne was vaguely aware of what was going on from her position when she opened her eyes partway, and smirked at the men behaving like...well...men. Being drunk and acting like an idiot...how male. She smirked to herself before closing her eyes again, sighing into Viorica's neck comfortably.
Niles gasped as he felt Dragomir's hands against his chest, winding his fingers in Dragomir's hair, and was still entirely unaware that they were still in plain sight of everyone else, conscious of only Dragomir.
Dragomir broke the kiss abruptly to breath before pressing his lips hungrily to Niles’s neck and untucking his shirt, ignoring the vest. As Dragomir worked his way up to nibble Niles’s ear affectionately, he let his eyes slide open a quarter of the way and suddenly became very aware of where they were and just what they were doing in front of whom. Blushing furiously, he pulled back and withdrew his hands from Niles’s chest. He hoped he could pull off acting drunk; otherwise, Viorica would never let him hear the end of it.
Slipping his hands beneath Niles and arranging his legs on either side of him, Dragomir stood, teetering exaggeratedly, and hitching Niles up a little higher with a shudder at the immensely pleasurable friction the action had induced. “We’ll jus’ be on our way…” Dragomir did his best impression of a drunken slur and smiled dumbly. “G’night,” he called, turning and walking shakily in the direction of the door, on his way to Niles’s car. He didn’t think Niles could drive, and so he knew they wouldn’t be heading home, but at least there, they’d have the privacy they needed.
Niles was aware of being picked up and moved, but his head was still feeling sloshy, and so he rested his head on Dragomir's shoulder, allowing him to take him wherever he wanted. When he was brought outside and deposited in his automobile, he was confused for only a moment before he realized: they didn't necessarily have to go just yet. Grinning through his blush, he reached up, pulling Dragomir down on top of him, and kissed him once again. Though it had been a lovely evening, he was looking forward even more to the rest of the night.
Perceval made his way down the hallway on the familiar path to Algernon's office. He'd just received a coded letter from Donavan informing him of the progress the boy he was training had made. Perceval remembered with disdain the period of time the two had stayed with him, and the time when that Faustino had pickpocketed him distinctly reminded him of his distaste for young children. Still, to know he'd made progress was very important and significant news that had to be passed on to Algernon right away. And besides, Perceval was always looking for an excuse to visit Algernon.
After straightening his uniform and carefully arranging his hair, Perceval opened the door carefully to check that Algernon was, indeed, unoccupied with an appointment. "Good afternoon, sir." Perceval smiled, bowing deeply and shutting the door behind him once he was sure no one else was present.
Algernon looked up from the paperwork he was filling out to see Perceval, and smiled at the thought of a distraction. "Percy. Lovely to see you," he replied, not rising from his seat but instead beckoning towards his desk. "What news have you brought me today?"
Perceval smiled again, striding gracefully over to Algernon's desk and bowing slightly once again. "I received a coded letter from my cousin, sir. It seems everything is proceeding as according to plan. The boy has, apparently, made a lot of progress, sir." Perceval smirked, pleased with himself for being the one to deliver the good news. Donavan had asked if he himself should make a visit, but Perceval had assured him that it was quite unnecessary. His efforts were, after all, best directed to training the Esparanza boy.
"Excellent," Algernon replied with a smirk, rearranging his desk and motioning for Perceval to sit. "What did your dear cousin say? Were there any details?" His lips curled slightly at the edges at the thought of his plan in such perfect motion, he wanted to know the details of the boy's descent into being an assassin.
"He didn't go into too much detail, unfortunately." Perceval sighed. "At my request, he disposed of our last messenger and neither of us still entirely trust the new man he picked." Perceval rolled his eyes and took the seat that Algernon had cleared for him, leaning forward so that his hair fell forward off of his shoulders elegantly. "He did say that the boy is a very capable student. He seems to be learning even more rapidly than we could have hoped," Perceval said delightedly. "I gather Donavan has had him watch a few executions so far, but the boy has yet to bloody his own hands."
"Still, a very positive start," Algernon approved with a nod, idly running his hand over Perceval's cheek. "I'm looking forward to meeting the boy again, and seeing what he can do... Do you think your cousin would allow it?" His fingers found their way into Perceval's hair, and he twirled it between them as he awaited an answer.
Perceval's eyes fluttered shut and he leaned slightly into Algernon's hand. Perceval opened his eyes slowly and watched languidly as Algernon's fingers worked their way through his hair. "I think something can be arranged..." Perceval practically purred. He disliked the idea of Donavan spending any time at all with Algernon, even if they were only meeting to see the Esparanza boy, but he knew it would be good to see the boy's progress. "I'll write to him," Perceval answered at last. "I'm sure he'd be glad to give us a little demonstration."
"Wonderful," Algernon replied, pressing a kiss to Perceval's hair between his fingers. "Thank you, Percy, really, you've gone above and beyond with this whole operation, and I'm very grateful." He smirked, but quickly replaced it with a look of innocence. "What would you like as a reward?"
"A reward?" Perceval asked facetiously, looking at Algernon out of the corner of his eye seductively. He knew exactly what he wanted, and he was quite certain Algernon had a fair idea, but Perceval was never direct. "I want..." Perceval paused for a moment, pressing his hand to his lips thoughtfully, "whatever you're willing to give me."
Algernon smirked, sliding his arms around Perceval's waist and pulling him off the desk, into his lap. "Whatever I'm willing to give, hm? How considerate of you, Percy, but really, you mustn't hold back..." He kissed Perceval lightly on the lips before trailing kisses down his neck, then nibbling at his ear. "Perhaps, after a little distraction, you'll be able to voice your desires properly?" He wrapped an arm around Perceval's waist tightly, and smiled to himself. A nice little distraction, indeed.
Dragomir was just beginning to doze off after a few hours spent awake when he became aware of Niles stirring lightly next to him. He didn't open his eyes, instead redoubling his efforts to fall asleep as Niles began to work his way out from under the covers. Dragomir didn't want Niles to think that he'd been responsible for waking him up, and relaxed, sleep-like, as Niles moved his arm and slipped out of bed. Dragomir knew he'd be back shortly, and he'd try his best to fall asleep before his return.
Dragomir waited for a few minutes, listening for the sound of Niles padding softly back towards the bed, and found that he simply couldn't find sleep while he was so distracted waiting for Niles's return. Sitting up, Dragomir turned on a lamp and looked around blinkingly. Niles did not appear to have gone to the bathroom, so what could he possibly be doing at such a late hour? Dragomir got up slowly and pulled on a pair of knickers, determined to find out what Niles was up to.
As quietly as he could, candle in hand, Niles made his way downstairs to the pantry, doing his best not to wake any of the servants or Dragomir. Carefully, he let himself in, pulling the door shut behind him and setting his candle softly on the ground, then began to look around for something to eat. He had been laying half-awake in bed for some time, trying his hardest to fall asleep and being quite unable because he was just so hungry. He still had not regained all of the weight he had lost during Dragomir's time in prison, and, besides eating embarrassingly huge portions at meals, he found himself hungry at odd times of day and night, which led to this midnight expedition.
However, as he looked around, there was not much that he knew how to prepare. Niles was effectively useless in the kitchen, and since he was trying his hardest not to disturb anyone else, he realized he would have to eat something that required no preparation. Easier said than done; he was sick of straight bread, which had been his main diet while Dragomir had been incarcerated, and not a whole lot else could be eaten without any cooking or boiling or cutting or anything. Finally, he decided upon some croissants he found with the pastries, after all, they weren't really that plain, and he didn't have much of another option. Sighing, he removed a few from the bag and, sitting on the floor, began eating them quickly and somewhat guiltily.
Dragomir descended the stairs to the main floor on a whim, and walked along the landing looking for any sign of light coming from under the doors. Finding none, he arrived at the dining room, pausing in front of the servant’s entrance that connected to the kitchens. Had Niles been hungry? If so, he’d probably headed to the kitchen. It seemed like a rather silly thought; if Niles really had been hungry, he could have woken any of the servants who would have been happy to make something for him and would probably already be up and bustling around with all the lights on. Still, Niles was always very considerate of his servants, and probably hadn’t wanted to disturb them. Smiling at the sweetness of the idea, Dragomir went into the kitchen and looked around.
No lights were on in the large room, but as Dragomir continued to glance around the area, he noted that a faint and flickering light was coming from under the pantry door. Dragomir grinned; Niles really had been hungry. “There you are!” Dragomir laughed as he pulled open the door and found Niles eating a pastry by the light of a small candle.
Niles looked up, almost like a startled animal, when Dragomir spoke, and quickly set the pastry aside in a sort of half-attempt to hide what he had been doing. Flushing embarrassedly, he looked down. "I'm sorry...I just...I was so hungry..." he tried to explain, feeling hot tears of embarrassment and guilt forming in his eyes. "I didn't mean to disturb you...I'm sorry."
Dragomir knelt, smiling apologetically; Niles looked as if he were about to cry, and that had not been his intention at all. “Don’t apologize,” Dragomir said soothingly. “You didn’t wake me up. I just wondered where you’d gone.” He glanced down at the half-eaten pastry and the box of pastries that he assumed had been set aside for breakfast. “Are you still hungry?” Dragomir asked, after a looking around the rest of the pantry and realizing why Niles had turned to the pastries. He closed the bag of baked goods and handed Niles the half-eaten thing, standing and offering him a hand up. “Do you want me to make you a snack before we go back to bed?”
Niles' eyes lit up. "Really? Would you? Well, I mean, you don't have to or anything, and I don't want to keep you up or anything..." He bit his lip, then smiled up at Dragomir, accepting his hand. "Yes, I'd like that a lot! Thank you, Dragomir." He stood up on his toes, pecking Dragomir on the cheek. "I love you."
Dragomir grinned and pulled Niles to him in a soft embrace. “I love you too,” he murmured. Releasing Niles, he lifted the candle so that he could examine the pantry’s contents. “What are you in the mood for?” he asked, rummaging through the shelves. Dragomir put the bag of pastries away and noticed a pie crust that had probably been made for the following day’s desert. Still, it probably wouldn’t be too missed. “How about a quiche?” he asked enthusiastically, grabbing the basket of eggs and pie crust. “It won’t take very long, and eggs will be more filling than just bread.”
Niles clapped his hands together. "Oh, yes, please! That sounds good!" He followed Dragomir out of the pantry and back into the kitchen and perched himself on one of the counters so that he could watch Dragomir work as he began to get out the things he needed. "Thank you so much. You're the greatest."
“Of course.” Dragomir smiled. “I’m glad you’re eating if you’re hungry, and I was having trouble sleeping anyway,” he added, dumping some milk and several eggs into a large bowl. He never measured anything and instead based his cooking solely on texture. The mixture wasn’t quite thick enough, so he added another egg before beginning to beat the concoction. He found a little bit of leftover cheese and added it as well, before deeming the inside of the quiche ready. When he went to fill the crust, however, he realized that he’d made too much filling and that quite a bit would be left over. There wasn’t much he could do, though, aside from leave the bowl out. Perhaps the servants could find some use for it. Dragomir placed the completed quiche in the oven and turned to Niles with a grin. “There we go. It’ll be ready in about a half an hour.” Dragomir wiped his hand unconsciously on his knickers and took a seat next to Niles on the counter, pecking him softly on the cheek and reaching for his hand. “I hope this will carry you through till breakfast.” He laughed jokingly.
"I'm sure it will," Niles replied distractedly, gazing at Dragomir. Sitting on the counter, he was beginning to feel a bit uncomfortable in more ways than one. He was beginning to wonder if his hormones were permanently out of whack after the three weeks away from Dragomir, or if his body was still feeling the need to make up for lost time, but whatever the reason, he squirmed slightly on the counter, leaning forward to look at Dragomir and pouting slightly. "But, Dragomir...I'm hungry now..." he whined, licking his lips slowly. "Isn't there something else I could have....while we wait?" He hoped that would be a good enough hint, otherwise, he would be very embarrassed.
Dragomir smirked broadly, thoroughly amused and rather aroused by Niles’s forwardness. “Hmmm,” Dragomir mused, leaning over Niles and closing the gap between them, “I’ll see what I can do about that…” he said lowly, capturing Niles’s lips in a fervid kiss and pulling him on top of himself. They did have a lot of time to kill, and there was no better way to pass the time. Dragomir was determined to satisfy Niles’s appetite, whatever it took, and he himself had suddenly become ravenous.
Niles wrapped his arms around Dragomir's neck, kissing him back passionately and pressing against him, unintentionally grinding his hips against Dragomir's. Breaking the kiss, he moaned in reaction, flushing slightly, embarrassedly. "I love you," he breathed, almost panted, against Dragomir's lips before kissing him again.
Dragomir kissed back, deepening the kiss and locating the hem of Niles’s nightshirt. He trailed his finger’s up Niles’s thigh, dragging the thin shift up slowly. It was a warm night, and it was unlikely that Niles was wearing anything else; his hypothesis confirmed, Dragomir smirked into the kiss and paused teasingly to press against Niles through the fabric.
Niles broke the kiss to cry out, arching up into Dragomir's touches. Already, he was overly excited, and he could hardly bear Dragomir teasing him that way, but he knew that soon, he would be rewarded, and, with that thought in mind, he kissed Dragomir once again, his hands finding the buttons of Dragomir's knickers and pulling at them impatiently. Despite how it had started out, this night wasn't turning out half bad after all.
The sun was warm, the spring air crisp; the new leaves were just beginning to bud, and Faustino looked absolutely dashing—even for an eight year old—in his blue jacket and peacock feather-adorned hat. Donavan, however, was trying not to notice how much Faustino had grown and matured in the last few months. He carried himself with more confidence, and he’d grown to be quite and accomplished thief with little fear of death.
Donavan had decided that the spring weather could best be enjoyed by taking a stroll through the park; additionally, he’d promised Faustino a treat to be purchased with whatever money he managed to liberate from passersby. Seemingly on cue, Donavan spotted their first target. A wealthy looking woman had just gotten out of her automobile, and was heading towards them. Discreetly, Donavan leaned in towards Faustino and murmured under his breath, “Why don’t you try that one? She looks like she’s loaded.”
Faustino nodded, looking straight ahead, hesitating a moment before taking off in a playful run, looking back at Donavan and doing his best not to look at his target until he careened into her, knocking her handbag out of her hand and causing her to stumble backwards.
"Oh!" he exclaimed, putting his hands over his mouth in an act. "I'm so sorry! I didn't see you there, ma'am. Are you all right?"
The woman, in the midst of righting herself, nodded, smiling at him. "It's quite all right, young man, thank you for being so polite about it!" She gave him a pat on the head, then reached for her bag.
"Let me get it for you," Faustino said quickly, bending over with his back to the woman and getting in and out of the flimsy bag in a matter of seconds before turning to her and handing her the purse. "I'm sorry for knocking it out of your hand." He bowed, then smiled at her, stashing the coin purse quickly in his pocket.
"Aren't you the sweetest thing!" the woman exclaimed, patting him on the head again. Turning to Donavan, who had just approached, she smiled. "You should be very proud of your son, sir, he has outstanding manners."
Faustino blushed unwittingly. How could she think he was Donavan's son? He was most definitely not. That was nothing like it at all, he knew it, and he knew Donavan knew it too, but for some reason, it embarrassed him, and so he looked to Donavan, hoping to get away as quickly as possible.
Donavan blushed as well, completely unintentionally. Really, the looked nothing alike—how could she think they were related? It disturbed him at first, and it took a moment before he recovered, smiling and putting on an act. “Oh, I am. He’s very bright, too.” Donavan said affectionately. “You’re not hurt, though, are you, ma’am? Sometimes he forgets to look where he’s going.” Why was he upset at being thought of as Faustino’s father? Certianly he would be proud if Faustino was his son, who wouldn’t be? And yet, he couldn’t help but feel rather unsettled by the notion. For one, he didn’t want children, and for another…he never really thought of Faustino as being a child, as much as he tried to. No, to him, Faustino was much more.
"Not at all, not at all," the woman replied with a wave of her hand. "Good day to you both, then!" And with a smile to Faustino, she was gone.
Waiting a moment until he knew she was out of ear and eyeshot, Faustino turned to Donavan with a grin. "Want to see what I got?" he asked, pleased with himself, extracting the coin purse from his pocket.
Donavan grinned broadly. “Yes, do show. If it’s enough, we can go get ice cream, if you like.” He said as he leaned in towards Faustino, looking eagerly at the bag. He wondered vaguely how long it would take the woman to realize that she’d lost her purse; and if she’d even consider the cute little boy she’d run into as a potential thief. If she was rich enough, it wasn’t likely she’d give it another thought, and if she wasn’t, Donavan had little to fear from some foolish woman.
Faustino opened the small beaded coin purse carefully, grinning in glee when it revealed itself to be full of gold coins. Carefully, he counted them out, and his grin broadened when he finished. He had raked in quite a bit, more than enough for an outing. Closing the purse again, he held it out to Donavan. "I'd really like that, if it's okay with you!"
“I know just the place.” Donavan smiled, with a nod as he straightened. Looking up, he caught sight of someone and stiffened, the smile dropping form his features abruptly to be replaced by a cruel smirk. “Faustino,” he said slowly, “there’s something I want to do first—I hope you don’t mind?” He looked back down at him and reached for his hand. “There’s someone I just spotted that I’d like you to meet.” He smiled again in an eerie fashion and began leading Faustino across the street. There, ahead of them, Dragomir and Christian had just turned into the park, and Donavan wanted to commend Dragomir on his narrow escape from death.
“Why don’t we walk though the park?" Dragomir suggested. “I bet it’ll be nice now that it’s getting so warm.” He smiled, then turned to Niles and asked, slightly under his breath, “you aren’t still sore, are you?” Countertops were very uncomfortable, after all. They had both woken up sore that morning, and the head cook was quite distraught when he discovered that all the eggs had been used in Niles’s midnight snack. Dragomir felt a little guilty and volunteered to pick up some eggs himself, taking Niles with him. The walk, after all, would be a good stretch.
Niles blushed and nodded. "It still hurts a little to walk," he murmured back, "But not too much more than usual," he added a bright smile, to reassure Dragomir that he really was fine. Then, taking Dragomir' hand in his own, he followed him into the park, looking around happily at the plants and pleasant surroundings.
It was a good five minutes before Niles noticed the pair of figures approaching, but when he did, his stomach knotted, and he felt himself begin to tremble slightly with fear. Moving slightly behind Dragomir, he said softly, his voice tremulous, "Dragomir...look over there. Isn't...isn't that..." He swallowed, trying to get his voice to stop shaking so much. "Isn't that Donavan D'Aubigne?"
Dragomir tensed and wished desperately that he’d brought a weapon of some sort. Foolishly, he’d left them all behind, and he knew Donavan was always armed. “Stay behind me,” Dragomir said tightly, moving in front of Niles entirely.
“Isn’t that sweet, Faustino?” Donavan asked coldly. “He thinks he could do something to stop me.” Donavan smiled down at the boy he was with and stopped just a few paces in front of them. “But don’t worry, Dragomir. I’m not interested in a fight. Just a chat. And I wanted Faustino to meet you.” When Dragomir did not speak, he gave Faustino’s hand a light squeeze. “Do you remember them? The little one is the one that shot me.” Donavan’s voice was dangerously low, and it disturbed Dragomir to see him with a child.
“What are you doing here?” Dragomir growled.
“We were on our way to get ice cream.” Donavan smiled. “But I must say, Dragomir, I’m surprised to see you alive.”
When Niles peered around Dragomir, relieved to hear that Donavan was not planning on killing them, he noticed the small boy at his side glaring intently at him before fingering the pistol at his hip and looking up at Donavan. "May I kill him, Donavan?" he asked, with all the anxiousness of an anticipating child, and it disturbed Niles greatly. "May I kill the little one, please?" Niles shrunk back behind Dragomir again, finding his voice missing and frightened once more by this disturbing assassin of a child.
“Not yet, Faustino,” Donavan chided affectionately.
“Who’s that boy?” Dragomir demanded through clenched teeth.
“My protégé,” Donavan responded proudly. “This is Faustino. Faustino, that one is Dragomir. He used to work for me, and the other one is something-or-other-Christian.”
Dragomir ground his teeth and flexed his fingers, wishing he could hit Donavan in the face. He was dissuaded, however, by the way the young boy kept fingering his weapon. There was a look in his eyes that Dragomir knew well, and the devotion the boy held for Donavan made his gut wrench with pity. “What makes you brave enough to show your face in public, Donavan?” Dragomir asked at last, scathingly.
“I should ask the same of you,” Donavan said thoughtfully. “Weren’t you just tried for treason?”
“And what of it? I’m innocent.” Dragomir spat definitively.
“Oh? I don’t really think so… You were the one who got the poor girl involved in the first place. You should have hung for that.”
“How would you know?” Dragomir’s voice shook slightly; he was disconcerted by how much Donavan knew.
Donavan ignored his question and sighed. “It’s a shame they didn’t convict you… But it’s really no matter to me.” He looked directly into Dragomir’s eyes and smirked maliciously. “I’d rather kill you myself.”
“Just try it,” Dragomir snarled.
“Not right now. I promised Faustino ice cream.” Donavan turned back to Faustino and smiled sweetly. “But it was nice to see you both. I’m glad he got to meet you, though I’m sure we’ll be seeing each other again soon.”
Faustino glowered back over his shoulder as Donavan led him away for a good minute or so, before finally turning back and looking down at his feet, mulling over what had just happened. The run-in with the two enemies who had, before now, been faceless in Faustino's consciousness, had evoked in him quite a few strong emotions, and now he struggled to sort them out. He knew one thing for sure now, though: he was not afraid to kill. Should Donavan have had allowed it, he would not have hesitated to shoot that Christian, shoot him in the head, unflinchingly, he knew for sure. He understood now that there were people who simply needed to be killed, for a good cause: people who would hurt Donavan, and protecting Donavan was the most important thing of all.
But beyond Christian, he realized, he was developing a strong feeling of dislike for the other man, Dragomir. He couldn't put his finger on why, but just knowing that he had worked for Donavan awoke in him an unfamiliar feeling of jealousy that stung at the pit of his stomach. It was completely stupid, and he knew it; Donavan hated Dragomir now, and wanted him dead, but he couldn't help but feel it anyway, and so he asked, carefully, "Donavan, what was Dragomir to you while he worked for you?"
Donavan stumbled slightly, surprised by the question. ”What does it matter? I hate him now.” He smiled, holding the door to the ice cream parlor open for Faustino. Why was Faustino curious about such a thing? It was long since over, and had little relevance. All that Faustino needed to know was that he wanted Dragomir dead. Nothing more. And even if he did try to explain, Faustino probably wouldn’t understand.
Faustino entered the store, then turned back to look at Donavan, blinking. So Donavan didn't want to tell him? It must have been something serious then...Faustino felt the envy grow in the pit of his stomach, and he looked at Donavan a moment longer, as he moved to his side, and lowered his voice. "When I kill Christian, may I kill him, then, too?" It was really stupid, to be so jealous of Donavan's attentions which, in the past, were not on him, but he felt it anyway, and he knew it would be good to get someone Donavan so hated out of the way.
Donavan paused and bit his lip. “…No.” He didn’t like deigning Faustino anything he wanted, especially since his desire for blood was such a breakthrough. But it was important to him that he should be the one to do it in the end. “I left him alive once and regretted it. I want to be the one to kill him in the end.” He smiled brightly to try and smooth over the mood, then turned to the person (who looked shaken, after hearing their conversation) waiting to take their order. “Two cones: a chocolate and a strawberry, please.”
Faustino frowned a moment, but decided the answer was satisfactory. After all, if Donavan wanted him dead badly enough to do it himself, Faustino couldn't complain. Instead, he smiled back up sweetly at Donavan and accepted his ice cream when it was handed to him. "Thank you, Donavan," he chimed melodiously, his mood lightened also by the prospect of sweets. He was beginning to get used to getting anything he wanted, but he didn't want to seem ungrateful.
The run-in with Donavan had left Dragomir quite shaken, and he squeezed Niles' hand all the more tightly as they started back to the house with the eggs. “I hate seeing him,” Dragomir said, for no reason than to say something, “And I don’t like that he’s training a kid. It’s disgusting.” He looked to Niles and chewed at his lip, hardly caring if it bled.
Niles nodded, he too was extremely shaken, and had trouble finding his voice. "It's just...so frightening," he agreed, hanging close at Dragomir's side. At the next statement, his expression darkened, and he looked down at his feet. "And by training, you mean..." he trailed, taking a deep breath. Dragomir never really had explained the whole situation to him, and it still pained him to think about it.
“Yes.” Dragomir said plainly with a shudder. “He already seems messed up… Donavan’s certainly teaching him to kill, too.” Dragomir recalled the way in which the boy had asked Donavan’s permission to kill them, and was thoroughly unsettled. He didn’t really want to think about it, though, and sighed to clear his head. “How do you think he knew so much about what happened?” He asked after a moment. The fact that Donavan seemed to know exactly what had happened concerned him, as no one outside the military should know anything about the trial.
"I-I don't know," Niles hesitated, just now realizing that that was out of place. "How could he have known? No one outside of the military would...unless he had a spy in the courtroom? One of the spectators?" he theorized. It didn't seem likely that someone would be able to sneak in, but Niles couldn't think of anything else.
“Yeah…” Dragomir began sucking at his lip, which had split, and tried to come up with a way to explain the extent of his concerns. “He…he gave me the feeling that he already knew everything, though, somehow. Beyond the trial… Like he thought I was going to be convicted because he knew what happened.” Dragomir couldn’t really explain why, and he wished that it wasn’t most likely due to the fact that he knew Donavan quite well once. “You don’t think he found out about my mission, or anything, do you?”
Niles furrowed his brow. "Wait...didn't Nicephore say that it was Donavan who ratted out Helene? So he must have known something...maybe he saw you talking to her or something? I-I don't know..." The whole idea was genuinely frightening, of Donavan knowing these things about Dragomir, and he was quite scared by it, clinging a little more tightly to Dragomir's hand.
“That’s right…” Dragomir said slowly. “I don’t think he could have seen us… We met out side of Berceuse Malheureuse territory. Although, since we saw him today, I don’t know how much that matters any more. He’s getting bolder.” Dragomir ran a nervous hand through his hair and squeezed Niles’s hand back, taking comfort in the other’s closeness. “He couldn’t have heard what was going on from anyone, could he? Who else, besides the Colonel, his men and I would have known?”
"No one, right?" Niles asked carefully. "Unless—maybe, the Brigadier General? But that doesn't help any..." the trailed. "I don't know, Dragomir, I don't know, and it's frightening." He wrapped an arm around Dragomir's, moving yet closer still, and feeling safer in the semi-embrace.
“Maybe…” Dragomir stopped walking holding Niles closer. “I think they know each other. Or they were acquaintances, or something…” Dragomir recalled a conversation between them he’d overheard when he’d first turned himself in, but most of his memories from that time period were rather vague. He’d been half delirious, but he could have sworn there was something. “We should…see if we can find out anything, or something.” It didn’t make any sense to him, but he wanted to figure out how the Berceuse Malheureuse had learned of his mission. He didn’t want it to happen again; he hated being accused of being associated with them, and he felt he owed it to Helene to get to the bottom of what had happened.