Biting into the strawberry, Mikomi made a little noise of contentment as the sweet juices filled her mouth. She giggled lightly as some dripped down her bottom lip and chin, holding her free hand up to catch the juices. Next to her, Ashton chuckled. "Here," he held up a cloth napkin to her mouth, wiping up the liquid.

"Sorry," she told him after swallowing, a slight blush staining her cheeks. "I've just never had such juicy strawberries. They're amazing."

"Don't let it get around," he told her in a conspiratorial whisper. "But Jason really has a green thumb. He can grow anything. It'd really ruin his image as our best wrestler though, so…"

Smiling lightly, she assured him, "It stays between us." Mikomi glanced at the part of strawberry still in her hand, then held it up for him suggestively. "Do you want it?"

With a grin, he told her, "Sure." Opening his mouth, he was glad that all the green tips had been cut off the edge of the fruit, allowing her to slide the entire piece into his mouth. As his lips closed, he savored the strawberry, tongue gliding across her fingertips as she pulled away. It almost felt like a current was running down his body at the touch, and glancing at the look of surprise on her face, he wondered if she felt the same. "Thanks."

"No problem," she whispered, staring at the table as she unconsciously played with her hair, which he had tied up only the day before. The princess reached into the wooden bowl for another strawberry, and he watched her nibble on the skin of the fruit, taking it into her mouth slowly. His heart was pounding so loud that he almost missed Desdemona's greeting of, "You two look cozy. Whatcha up to?"

Mikomi seemed to recover faster than he did, looking up at their friends. "Eating strawberries. Do you want one?"

"Are you going to hand-feed it to me, Princess?" Ray teased, a leering grin on his face as he waggled his blond eyebrows in her direction.

Seeing the blush spread over his princess's face, Ashton ordered, "Knock it off." The deep scowl on his face let Ray know that he meant business and the blond man backed down.

Desdemona rolled her eyes. "Yeah, Ray, we all know Princess Mikomi belongs to Ashton."

"I don't belong to anyone but myself!" Mikomi protested indignantly, blue eyes flashing in anger.

"Sure you don't," the redhead nodded, deciding to humor the royal. "Just keep telling yourself that."

As Mikomi opened her mouth to argue, Ray cut in, "Hey, Princess, you know that little barrier that people have between their brain and their mouth that plays interference? It's also known as tact? Yeah, Dezzie missed the pick up day on that one."

Crossing her arms over her chest, Desdemona frowned. "I just don't think I should have to censor myself because it'll make others upset."

"But one day you're going to say something to the wrong person," Ashton pointed out. "And they're going to get you back, probably in a very painful way. Just remember: you are small; you'll fly far."

Dezzie considered that as the kitchen door opened. Ashton briefly wondered if no one had anything else to do except to destroy his snack time with Mikomi, and almost felt guilty when Calandra came in. Her green eyes narrowed on the princess as she announced, "You did quite a number on my boyfriend yesterday."

Scowling, the princess met her steely gaze. "He started it."

"Wait a minute," Ray blinked, looking back and forth between the two women. "The princess hurt Damon? I thought it was Ashton!"

"Nope," the bandit leader's brother leaned back in his chair, self-satisfied smile on his face. "It was all her."

"You don't have to sound so happy about it," the healer snapped, pushing Ashton's chair into the upright position angrily. "He's your brother and if I hadn't been around, there could have been some serious damage."

Munching on a strawberry, Desdemona remarked. "But he probably deserved it. I mean, he had it coming to him."

Ray put his head in his hands as a murderous look passed over Calandra's eyes. "Yet more proof that her mouth is faster than any other part of her body."

"But he did deserve it," Ashton insisted. "The guy was trying to cut off my fingers! It's just as well that he gets shot in the hand."

Sighing, the older woman noted, "I didn't agree with what he was trying to do, but there were better ways to get out of that situation."

"He should consider himself lucky," Mikomi announced, raising her nose in the air slightly. "I was aiming for his neck."

Calandra decided to ignore that, glancing around the kitchen. "What is there that I can bring him for lunch?"

Raising an eyebrow, Ashton questioned, "He can't make his own lunch? Aw, did the princess hurt his little bitty ego so much that he won't come out of his room?"

The healer smacked him upside the head. "He's busy trying to fix what you screwed up. Now what is there to eat?"

The brown-haired man shrugged. "Whatever you make him, I guess."

Calandra started rummaging through the cupboards as Mikomi told her, "I'm sorry I had to shoot Damon, but I wasn't going to let him hurt Ashton."

"It's okay, Princess," the healer sighed, gathering up a plate of bread and cheeses. "I understand. Just don't do it again."

"That's not fair," Ashton protested, crossing his arms over his chest. . "You never let me off that easily."

"Well, I like the princess."

Mikomi giggled at Ashton's disgruntled pout before something in the hallway caught her eye. "Emi! Come here."

The general froze, backing up slowly and glancing into the room hesitantly with Fox at her side. "Yes, Mikomi?"

The princess waved her over. "I want you to meet someone. This is Calandra; she is the one who fixed my thumb yesterday. Calandra, this is my bodyguard, General Emerald Silver."

"We've met," Emerald said shortly, shifting her weight from foot to foot, looking as if she would bolt at any second.

Calandra smiled lightly. "How are you, Emerald?"

"Fine," she muttered, staring at the toe of her boot scuffing at the floor.

Picking up a tray full of food, the healer said, "I should probably get this to Damon. You know, Princess, I don't think we were ever properly introduced. I'm Calandra Silver. I'm sure I'll see you around." She headed out the door, whispering to the general, "It was nice to see you, Em."

Frowning, Mikomi stared at her bodyguard. "Silver? But…but that's your last name."

Emerald shrugged. "I always told you I had an older sister."

"But you didn't tell me that she was a Shadow Dragon!" the princess cried indignantly, blonde hair falling into her eyes as she shook her head furiously. "What, is Ashton your brother?"

"Um, technically, if Damon and Callie ever got married, I'd be her brother-in-law," Ashton mentioned, clearing his throat. "Just saying."

The look Emerald gave him let him know that he was not helping in the least. "Oh, so is Fox your cousin too?" the princess continued to rant, throwing up her arms angrily.

"We are not related," Fox assured her, looking disgruntled at the very idea of it.

"Yeah, I thought you three just grew up together," Dezzie mentioned, biting into a new strawberry.

Mikomi stared at the girl, blue eyes wide with shock. Next to the bandit woman, Ray buried his head in his hands, "Dez, from now on just…just don't talk anymore, okay?"

Shaking her head, the princess stormed out of the room, ignoring Emerald's calls after her. "Mikomi!"

Desdemona sighed. "You know when you're rocking in a rocking chair, and you go so far that you almost fall over backwards, but at the last instant you catch yourself? That's how I feel all the time."

Mikomi continued down the hallways into Ashton's room, slamming the door shut behind her as she paced back and forth between his desk and bed. The door opened again and the owner of the room stuck his head inside. "At least you can find your way here," Ashton noted. The blonde turned towards him, glaring furiously. He held his hands up in defense. "Okay, okay. You're not in the mood. Sorry."

"I'm more than just 'not in the mood,' Ashton!" she snapped.

"Right, right. You're angry, I get that," he tried to soothe.

"I'm not just angry, I'm…I'm…" with a loud sigh, she sat down on his bed, resting her head in her hands, blonde curls falling from behind her shoulders.

Ashton sat down next to her, stroking her back softly. "You sound hurt to me." She looked up at him with tears in her eyes and for a moment he felt like his heart was being stabbed.

Mikomi leaned against him with a sigh, relaxing slightly as his arm wrapped around her shoulder. "How could she not tell me? Not tell anyone?"

"I think admitting that after all these years she's known where the Shadow Dragon headquarters are would probably be considered treason," he pointed out, resting his head on top on top of her soft curls. "Besides, you don't expect her to sell out her sister, do you?"

"Did you three really grow up together?" she whispered.

"Not exactly. We were all friends when we were kids, but didn't know each other too long before we joined with Hyrak," Ashton explained.

Biting her bottom lip, Mikomi ruminated, "How did she end up being a general for the king's armies?"

"I ask myself the same thing sometimes. She always was the weird one. But she's also the one who tries to make everyone else happy," he explained. "I mean, she protects her sister and her friends—though I'm not sure how much she considers Fox and me friends anymore… But she still fights with us and does her job because that's what she does. It's probably really hard for her."

Mikomi looked up, blue eyes meeting brown. "You just want me to forgive her."

He pushed a lock of blonde hair behind her ear. "I think she deserves to be forgiven. She's always looked out for you, hasn't she? I mean, up until now. But it's not her fault that we know how to kick her butt."

"She could totally take you," she smiled lightly.

"She has before and I dare say she could again," he chuckled. "I think she could take anyone who tried to hurt you. I'd hate to see what she would do to Damon. No, no, wait, scratch that. I'd love to see what she'd do to Damon. Not that you don't do a wonderful job yourself." Ashton cupped Mikomi's chin in his hand. "So, are you going to let her know you understand?"

The princess considered it for a second. "I think I'll let her sweat for a little while longer."

He shook his head, lowering his hand back down to the bed. "You can be really cruel, Princess."

"What are you going to do about it?" she smirked. "And didn't I say you could stop calling me that?"

"Sorry. It's a hard habit to break." Standing up, he offered her a hand. "You should go tell her. Don't make her suffer."

"If you insist," she mock sighed, taking his hand and allowing him to pull her up. She rose to her feet, their bodies only a few inches apart as the princess stared up at him, her mouth suddenly dry. Ashton's other hand rested on her hip, supporting her and keeping her where she was. The princess swallowed hard, trying to rid herself of her parched throat.

He continued to hold her hand, gently stroking the top of it with his calloused thumb. "You wouldn't want her to turn us in, would you?" he asked huskily.

"No," she whispered, placing her hand gently on his shoulder and staring up into his dark eyes. "I guess not. I mean, I…I don't think I'd want to see you on trial or anything like that."

"I appreciate you not wanting to see me hung," he smiled, moving almost imperceptivity closer to her.

"Of course not," she assured him, breathing heavily. "You won't let anyone hurt me and I feel the same for you."

Ashton leaned forward, resting his forehead against hers, never breaking eye contact. "You feel the same way?"

Her breath caught in her throat as she fumbled over her words, "I mean, see, I…"

"Mikomi…" he breathed, moving closer to her.

"Ashton…" She tilted her head up, eyes slowly drifting closed.

The door to the room slammed open, causing the two to jump apart. The princess's heart was beating faster than she knew was possible as she faced the door and the unknown Shadow Dragon standing there. Ashton's mouth curled into an angry scowl. "You know, maybe instead of teaching you guys archery I should teach you how to knock!"

"Sorry, man." The new bandit looked anything but sorry.

Sighing, Ashton demanded, "What do you want, Gar?"

"Just heard some news that I thought you'd appreciate," Gar explained, smirking. "We just got a letter back from the king. He's giving into our demands. The princess is going home first thing in the morning."

Mikomi and Ashton looked at each other wildly, feeling an identical hole being ripped in the pit of their stomachs.

The next morning, Mikomi sat on Ashton's bed, staring at the ground beneath her feet. The bricks were a cornucopia of reds and browns, seeming to almost make a pattern until obstructed by the blue and white rug in the middle of the room. She examined the carpet for a minute, following the path laid out in the intricately curved stitching and woven pattern.

She didn't even notice when Emerald came in to the room. The general watched her charge for a moment, then cleared her throat. Still, the princess ignored her. Emerald watched Mikomi's face—she seemed lost, unaware of what was going on around her. Though the holder was still in her hair, it had come mostly undone, with strands hanging in front of her face, lips parted as they always when she was in deep concentration.

"You're not still mad at me, are you?" Emerald tried, raising her voice a little higher than it needed to be.

The princess finally looked up, blinking for a moment as if she wasn't sure where she was or what was happening. After reality set in, she smiled softly. "No, of course not. I was just…thinking, is all."

"Anything important?" the bodyguard asked, sitting next to her on the bed, watching the princess out of the corner of her emerald green eyes, noticing that Mikomi's own eyes were more of a cloudy grey than their usual bright blue.

"No, it's really nothing," Mikomi shook her head. For a moment, it seemed as if she was going to ask her friend a question, then changed her mind. "Did you want to talk to me about something?"

Emerald shook her head. "Just wanted to see if you were ready to go yet. Excited about going home?"

"I guess," Mikomi replied noncommittally, shrugging a shoulder.

Raising an eyebrow, the general noted, "You don't seem very enthusiastic about it. Don't you want to see Konner?"

The blonde sighed. "Of course I want to see my brother. And my parents. But I could do without just about everyone else there. I don't want to see you get in trouble either."

"Don't worry about me," Emerald assured her, tightening her ponytail. "I can take care of myself just fine. Besides, I know you won't let them fire me."

"Just let 'em try," Mikomi grinned lightly. "They have not yet faced my wrath."

"All we have to tell them is what you did to Damon and they'll be shaking in their breeches," the brunette laughed. "I don't think I ever congratulated you on that. Good job."

"Thanks," she replied, blushing with pride.

There was a knock on the door before Ashton poked his head inside. "Am I interrupting something?"

"Nope, c'mon in," Emerald said, waving him over.

He walked in, Mikomi's lavender dress in hand. "I had it cleaned for you. Thought you'd want to wear it home."

Mikomi sighed in relief. "I can't wait to get out of these pants."

The general suddenly frowned. "I have no idea what Fox did with my clothes. Excuse me while I go track him down."

"Don't hurt him," Ashton requested, chocolate brown eyes pleading with her.

"What, and ruin my fun?" she asked in mock surprise before leaving.

Mikomi stood up and took the dress from him, unsure of what to say for the moment. "I…um…guess I should get dressed."

He nodded, "Right. We're leaving as soon as the two of you are ready. I'll just wait outside for you."

Swallowing hard to rid herself of the knot that had formed in her throat, Mikomi stripped herself of the Shadow Dragon's shirt and pants, laying them nicely across Ashton's bed. Then she gently stepped into her dress, sliding the sleeves up her shoulders and adjusting the embroidery on the chest line. As she reached behind herself to do the buttons she could reach, Mikomi couldn't help but thinking that somehow the dress didn't fit quite right anymore.

"Ashton?" she called out lightly. "Could you help me with something?"

He came back inside, gazing at her for a moment before asking, "What is it?"

She blushed lightly. "I usually ask Emerald or a maid to do this, but I can never reach the two buttons in the middle," she explained, showing her back to him. "Do you mind?"

"Not at all," he promised, moving behind her and finishing the two buttons, the gentle brush of his hands against the milky white skin of her back sending shivers up her spine. "There, all done."

"Thank you," she turned around, smiling self-consciously.

"Let me get this too." Ashton reached around her head, pulling out the piece of his shirt that he had tied her hair back with. "You know, I doubt there're too many women on the continent that can pull off a dress like that as well as they can a good pair of pants."

Mikomi smoothed down her hair with her hands, giggling lightly. "Thanks. For everything, really. For taking care of me and making sure I was safe and being so nice. Just…just for everything." Before she lost her nerve, Mikomi leaned over and kissed his cheek gently.

Ashton fought back the urge to touch the spot with his hand. "It was my pleasure, Mikomi. And that offer for us to kidnap you again whenever you need a vacation still stands."

"I'll remember that," the princess nodded as she slipped her feet into the matching heels of her outfit. "I suppose I'm ready to go."

"Well, then," he swallowed hard, suppressing all urges to say anything other than, "Let's go."

Emerald and Fox were already waiting outside by the horses, as well with the bandit accompaniment. Both pretended not to look at each other, but kept shooting furtive glances at the other when they were sure they weren't watching. Running a hand through his mahogany hair, Fox bit back a groan. Were they ever going to grow up? Sucking up his pride, he began, "Emerald…"

She glanced at him, seeming almost as if she was going to listen to him and not immediately reply back with a smart comment. Any conversation that may have transpired was cut short when Damon caught sight of Ashton and Mikomi coming out of the headquarters. "Finally! Let's get going before they change their minds."

"We're going to need to blindfold you two," Ashton explained to Mikomi and Emerald. "Just as a safety precaution." He helped wrap the blindfold around the princess's eyes and swung her up on his horse in front of him as Fox gave Emerald a hand up behind him.

It didn't take long for them to reach the supposedly neutral clearing where the exchange would take place. Ashton ascended to the ground first, grabbing Mikomi around the waist and helping her down. Damon, who as at the head of the pack, faced the king as he ordered, "Give us our princess."

Damon shook his head. "First we want to see the written agreement that Shadow Dragons get full reign of the marketplace."

"I want to see Mikomi!" King Brion ordered, loud voice startling the birds in the trees around them as he sat above them in his warhorse.

"No deal," the bandit leader shrugged. "I guess we'll just take her back with us." Though he knew his brother was only baiting the royal, Ashton couldn't help but feel a momentary leap of excitement. "Let's go, guys."

"No, wait," the king sighed. "We'll give you the decree." He motioned to his squire, who ran forward, delivering the paper to Damon.

He quickly read them over, then looked up at the group of militiamen along with the king. "And this is posted on every shop in the marketplace?"

"We're doing the best we can to get the word around, and yes, they are posted. Just give us until tomorrow and it's all yours," the king announced, sounding tired and defeated.

"Very well," Damon nodded. "Bring the general and the princess forward."

Emerald ripped off her blindfold and took her sword back from the side of the horse she and Fox had been riding on. For a minute she looked at the bandit, unsure of what to do before just shaking her head and walking to the other side of the field.

Ashton led Mikomi to the front of the group before using one hand to help her take off her blindfold. His other hand clung tightly to hers and it seemed harder to let go as she pulled away. Hesitantly, he let her go, soft fingers sliding out of his grip. She looked back at him momentarily, blue eyes communicating the goodbye she feared to say in front of her family before she continued across the grass. As it grew harder to draw breaths in, Ashton wondered if this was what it felt like to be stabbed in the heart.

The king's squire gathered the women's horses, bringing them back to the side of the royals so that they could get on. After she was situated on top of Starlight, Mikomi sought out Ashton, mouthing, 'Bye,' to him. He mouthed back the same words before watching the entire company turn their backs on him and ride away.

Damon raised the written agreement in the air. "Shadow Dragons! Today we are triumphant!" The rest of the group cheered with him, following their leader back to the headquarters for the celebration. It took Ashton a moment before he was cognate enough to climb on to his horse. Fox waited there for him, giving him a light smile.

The party was in full swing by the time they got back to the hideout, with ale being passed around and instruments being played by those with musical talent and those without. As Ashton tried to make his way to his room, people would grab him, congratulate him on a job well done and tell them how proud they were, how they always knew he could do it.

It took all his will-power, as well as Fox dragging him away, to keep his fist out of Logan's face as he lied through his teeth. Finally, the leader's brother was able to break away from the crowd, barricading himself in his room. With a loud sigh, Ashton collapsed on his bed, closing his eyes tightly. The linens still smelled of her, that distinct smell that with just Mikomi. There may have been a few other scents mixed in, but he couldn't recognize them. They just made him think of her.

It wasn't fair. He groaned, grabbing his pillow and pressing it against his face as he tried not to think about how she looked while sleeping. Her face always seemed to have a peaceful expression, the curls framing her face seemed angelic as he watched her from the floor. Emerald was the one who mumbled in her sleep and often moved, usually in a way that curled herself around the princess, protecting her charge in her sleep. Ashton wondered if he'd do that too, if he had the chance.

Of course, she was even more beautiful when she was awake. Her eyes were always bright, reminding him of the sky on a sunny day, with rosy cheeks generally flushed from excitement. And her lips…well, she just had to practice that pout in the mirror. There was no way it could come naturally. As for the rest of her: nature had done its very best job on the rest of her.

As he continued to think, Fox came in, asking, "Hey, man, you want something to eat? There's a lot of food out here and people are asking for you."

"I'm not hungry," Ashton replied simply, staring up at the ceiling.

"Yeah, okay," Fox nodded. "I'll save you some for later." He left, closing the door behind him and hoping that Ashton would shake himself out of this funk soon. It wouldn't do well for him to not enjoy his success because of something trivial. Too many people in his life had done that, he realized, thinking of a pair of emerald green eyes that seemed to haunt him.

"Where's Ashton?" Nolie approached him, drinking from a large mug of ale.

Shrugging, he answered. "Just resting. The princess wore him out. I don't know how he put up with her for so long."

With a roll of her dark blue eyes, she agreed, "Tell me about it. I guess that's just the kind of guy he is. Brave and ambition. Think he'd mind if I went to check on him?"

"He kind of bit my head off when I went in," Fox lied easily. "Probably best to leave him until tomorrow."

"Right," she nodded. "Okay, thanks, Fox. I'll see you later."

As he watched her walk away, he almost wished that he had told her to go see Ashton, so she would get the verbal lashing she deserved for being such a fickle bitch. But remembering all the wounds caused on Emerald's part for the past two weeks, he just didn't have the heart. He just wished that they'd heal in time and hoped Ashton didn't let himself suffer as well.