Bindings

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by nekojita

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chapter one

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a beginning and an ending and a beginning

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Aya had thought that he’d seen the Koneko crowded before, but the number of tonight’s guests put to shame any other night that he could recall, even considering all the year end holidays. Almost every single Guard in the city – and several handfuls from neighboring towns, he was willing to bet – that wasn’t working had to be here, dressed in their uniforms of all things. They weren’t the only ones busy drinking and laughing; almost a third of the customers were dressed in normal clothes, befitting their merchant and tradesmen status. Few and far between were the people wearing fine clothes, the shimmer of silk and visible softness of cashmere noticeable even in the flickering candlelight. Aya self-consciously called the shadows closer, not wanting to stand out with his vibrant coloring or the expensive nature of his black and silver clothes. Yohji had asked him not to change after coming back from Byakuren’s temple, telling him he liked the way Aya looked in the outfit. They didn’t have many excuses to dress nice, between helping out at the Koneko and all of the missions.

"Let me get this straight – all this fuss is over a smelly brat, right? Little thing about yay big," Reno didn’t bother to put his empty glass aside as he gestured with his hands, "that shrieks a lot and shits its pants all the time. Why?" While his black and white clothes were of a very fine nature, he hadn’t been invited to Mari’s naming ceremony. He’d been waiting at the Koneko for Aya to come home, already into half a bottle of whiskey and wanting nothing more than to bitch about his mate. The current party had derailed him from that plan as he and Aya more or less huddled in the corner and tried to figure out why everyone was acting so… *odd*.

"Remind me to never let you near a baby," Rude muttered under his breath as he snatched away the glass and poured more whiskey into it. When that was done, he refilled Aya’s as well. While Aya would rather be with his mate, Yohji and Jo were in the thick of the crowd talking to Lilla and Toshi, which meant that he was better off here in the dark corner.

"Why the hell would you give me one of those things in the first place?" Reno’s brows furrowed as he sipped his whiskey, a slouching, messy presence leaning against the plastered wall. His confusion changed as an obviously wicked thought popped into his head. "Though it might be fun feeding a brat to a flesh gaki bound. Wanna bet they could eat ‘em in one bite?"

As far as Aya could tell, his friend wasn’t joking; that the shinigami seemed to agree with Reno was also a cause for concern. Aya didn’t really want to be near Mari or any other infant, not when he wasn’t sure what his nature could do to such a fragile new life, but he had a few fuzzy memories of peering down at a very young Aya-chan with excitement and affection. "Obviously, you never had any siblings," he told his friend before enjoying his drink.

Reno snorted and waited until he’d finished his glass of whiskey before commenting. "Who the hell knows? Might have twenty of ‘em by now, not that I’d ever be able to tell who the fuck they are if we met." He tugged on his illusion-cloaked hair, a color that not many people would come by naturally. "Anyway, no brat’s worth all this damn fuss. You’d think that Lilla popped out the new royal heir. Stupid humans." He sneered to show his disapproval of the party even as he held up his glass for another refill.

Aya shared a look with Rude, the tall gokenin letting out an aggrieved sigh as he complied with his partner’s wishes. Aya had noticed that lately, the more annoyed Reno got with Rufus, the more he would insult humans. Considering that there were very few highborn bounds, he had a feeling he knew what was bothering his friend. However, he didn’t think that tonight was a good time for Reno to bash humans and their often perplexing customs, not when a friend was so happy to celebrate the naming day of her month-old daughter. "No one’s forcing you to be here."

Standing up straight, Reno frowned at the coldness of Aya’s remark and shoved his once again empty glass in Rude’s direction. "No, you’re right. I can go back home and drink in a room that doesn’t stink from humans." He wrinkled his nose as if smelling a foul odor, his eyes almost pure silver. Then, as it often occurred with the dubhach, his nasty mood quickly changed into something else. "How about *I’m* the one reeking of humans for once, eh?" There was a sharp, disturbing edge to his smile, his eyes still silver behind the illusion of pale hazel, and the shinigami immediately began to murmur about what a terrible mate Rufus was to Reno. Knowing that it wouldn’t do any good to try to dissuade his friend from this latest act of folly, Aya merely inclined his head in a gesture of ‘goodbye’; he’d told Reno not to pick any fights inside the Koneko and knew his friend would honor that request.

As Reno shrugged off the cloak of shadows that had kept the rest of the room from noticing him, he plastered on a smile seductive enough to make Aya wince at the thought of the trouble his friend was getting into. After a month or two of acknowledging their bond and trying to find some sort of middle ground, Reno and Rufus still chafed at the restrictions of their relationship and tormented each other on an almost daily basis. In all honesty, Aya wondered if they’d ever have the type of relationship that he shared with Yohji and he worried about Reno. Some bounds could never stop pushing the boundaries of their mating bond, and he suspected that was the case here.

If he wasn’t too happy with the situation, Rude was *very* upset. The earth elemental muttered under his breath about not being paid enough while he ran his hands over his bald head. "I guess it’s better than him using the shadows to pick pockets, but it’s not going to be fun when we get home."

Aya watched his friend sidle up to one of the Guard and smile in such a manner that he was immediately given a drink. "It’s only fair." His voice was even colder this time; he knew he let the shared nature between him and Reno influence his feelings, but Rufus truly shouldn’t expect to be able to flirt with human women all day and have his mate merely accept that fact. The few times that Yohji had to do such a thing for a mission, he made sure that Aya was aware of just how little he liked it.

Rude’s dark complexion became a touch ruddier and he ducked his head. "True, but the rest of us don’t deserve to be caught in the middle." With that said, he gave Aya a short bow and went after his partner.

The buffer between him and the crowd now gone, Aya shook his head and decided to see if there was anything that he could do in the kitchen. The common room was too packed with people right now to be comfortable for him, even if he could easily recognize over a dozen bounds. Seeing Duo standing beside Toshi and doing his best to finish a pint of beer in one go, Aya assumed that Trowa could be found reading or playing a game of chess with Reiichi in the library. For a moment he was tempted to go there instead, but changed his mind again when he noticed that Yohji had left the common room without his notice.

Heading to the kitchen, he opened the door to find Maddox, Nagi and Omi busy putting together platters of food while Touya glared into the very full sink of dirty dishes he was doing his best to wash as quickly as possible. Over by the far fireplace, Jo and Yohji fussed with something in a wicker basket. Aya could sense the faint pulse of life inside of it, which made his spine straighten and his heart constrict when he thought about his sister.

"There you are, Cat. We figured it wouldn’t take you long to find us in here." Yohji winked and held out his left arm, an invitation that Aya couldn’t resist. He crossed the room and leaned against his mate, for a moment rubbing his cheek against fine bronze silk while Yohji’s arm settled across his shoulders.

Jo smiled at them as she fussed with the blankets covering a sleeping Mari. "Lilla and Toshi don’t expect you to stay for the party, Aya. They’re content that you could attend the Naming ceremony." She didn’t seem upset that he’d spent the last hour huddled in one of the common room’s corners, neither did Yohji. Grateful that those closest to him understood how he still couldn’t bear to deal with so many people, he grunted once and closed his eyes for a few seconds.

"What is the point of this party?" He knew that it was custom to take a month old child to a temple of the parents’ choosing to present the child to the gods and bestow upon it a name, but he didn’t think the increasingly raucous party in the other room was normal. At the least, he had no memory of such a thing after his sister had been born.

Yohji’s left hand soothed up and down his arm and a kiss was pressed against his right temple, making him purr softly and open his eyes. "It’s a Guard thing, I guess. Not many choose to have kids, and Toshi’s really well-liked." He laughed a couple of times, the sound muted in what had to be respect for a sleeping baby. "And the Guard always likes a good excuse for a party."

Jo snorted as she moved away from the basket and urged them to do the same. "Lilla’s family is also well-liked, and Mari’s the first baby born to an Eto Guard in over a year," she explained while pouring all of them what smelled to be spiced cider. "Considering that she was born in the year when there will be a royal birth, it’s an auspicious event."

Aya nodded even though he really didn’t understand; he had to agree with Reno that humans put a lot of importance on certain events that didn’t seem worth it in the end. What did it matter if there was a huge party after Mari’s Naming? What mattered was appeasing the gods, and who would remember such an event in another twenty years or so? More than likely, it was just an excuse to eat lots of food and get very drunk.

"She’s got a courageous father and a lovely mother, now with Byakuren’s influence over her life it should be a good one." Yohji nuzzled Aya’s temple and gave his left shoulder a squeeze.

Snorting again, Jo pointed a long, bony finger in Yohji’s direction. "I find it very interesting that the child had someone so clearly sworn to Jouyoku stand in for her at a Naming held in Byakuren’s temple."

"That’s why you were there, to help balance things out!" Judging from Yohji’s smirk and the mirth that Aya felt over the link, Yohji wanted to laugh but held it back because of the baby. "They didn’t really need us to stand in as witnesses," he said a moment later, his voice hushed and emotions proud. "Someone from Lilla’s family and a Guard like Yuushi would have been fine."

"Maybe they believe that Mari will catch some of the Koneko’s luck from us," Jo remarked in a quiet voice, but Aya knew that she was also proud to have been chosen for the event. He felt that Jo had been chosen because there were few stronger people out there, as well as ones who would always be honest with Mari, even over things she didn’t want to hear. As for Yohji, it was clear that he’d never let anything happen to the girl, not with the way he still looked out for Lilla.

Sipping his spiced drink, Aya leaned against his lover and watched Nagi and Omi leave the room with more food for the guests. Now that the kitchen was a bit quieter, he looked back at Jo, her usual plain clothes and bright aprons exchanged for a dark blue dress that bore Cassandra’s intricate and beautiful embroidery. "They chose what they felt would be best for their daughter. That’s something even I can understand."

She flushed a little at the compliment and bowed her head. "I guess I should get used to it – Kira told me that she expects me to stand as witness for any children that she and Mickey have." A happy smile curved her thin lips, and he knew that she couldn’t wait to have children to look after once again. For someone who had lost her own son so many years ago, she didn’t let the loss keep her from being a wonderful surrogate mother for others.

Yohji sat up a little, his arm still around Aya, and pretended to appear upset. "Hey, they haven’t said anything about me being a witness for their kids!" If it wasn’t for the amusement that Aya felt from his mate, he’d knock his elbow into Yohji’s ribs.

As it was, Jo snorted in derision and pushed a plate covered with a large variety of cookies toward their side of the table. "I think they’re waiting to see how well you do with Mari first."

Picking up an almond cookie, Yohji gave it to Aya while he frowned over Jo’s comment. "What do you mean? I plan on keeping an eye out on Mari. No one will hurt her while I’m around." He truly meant the words, all fierce and protective inside. Aya didn’t quite understand how there could be so much affection and concern for a person so soon after they were born, not when there wasn’t a connection by blood or nature, and decided that it must be a human thing.

"Which is probably why Lilla picked you in the first place." Jo’s wicked smile just then could almost put Reno’s to shame. "She’s hoping that your expertise in…seducing impressionable young women means that you’ll be able to keep people like the way you used to be away from her daughter!" The words were spoken in obvious jest, most likely to keep them from hurting Yohji. While Aya gave Jo a warning glare over them, he had to admit she was most likely correct….

Yohji slapped his free hand onto the table and straightened up, his green eyes bright with anger. "I was never that bad!" he almost shouted, quickly lowering his voice after the first two words. His scowl changed into an expression of concern as he glanced in Mari’s direction. "I… well, I never slept with anyone who wasn’t an adult," he added after a few seconds, a sheepish grin on his face as if he’d just realized he was being teased.

Jo looked as if she wanted to say something else, but merely shook her head and smiled. "I almost feel sorry for anyone who tries to date the poor girl, between being the daughter of a Guard and having you as an honorary uncle."

"I imagine it’ll almost be as bad as someone wanting to date poor Neely." His good mood restored, Yohji handed Aya another almond cookie and enjoyed his drink. "Maybe I should compare notes with Marta one of-"

The kitchen door swung open, cutting him off as Neely and Emmie rushed into the room. Fortunately the girls were quiet, despite their haste. "Yohji! Yuushi told me to tell you to get back into the room. He said it’s ‘time’." The words were practically hissed as Emmie spoke them in a rush and a low tone. Beside her, Neely nodded and bounced on her toes as if anxious to return to the common room.

Not sure what Yuushi wanted his mate for, Aya stared in confusion as Jo and Yohji quickly stood to their feet. Yohji tugged him to his while Jo asked Maddox to keep an eye on Mari for a few minutes.

"Come on, it’s time for a Guard tradition," Yohji said, left hand resting on Aya’s left hip while his right one fumbled for something tucked into the pockets of his dark brown pants. Aya’s confusion grew when he noticed that Jo was also searching for something, which turned out to be a small pouch that clinked as if filled with coins.

When they’d reached the common room, they found the crowd within more or less quiet. Yuushi stood near the area where Koyu and several of his Harper friends sat with their instruments, taking a break in playing music. The Shadow Captain noticed their return and nodded in their direction before holding up a large wicker basket dyed dark blue and white. "All right, now that everyone’s either drunk as hell or almost there, we’re going to pass the basket in Mari’s honor. To Mari, may she grow up taking after her lovely and talented mother and not the ugly oaf who was blessed enough to be her father!" He grinned as he raised the glass held in his left hand, everyone in the room laughing and echoing his sentiments as they raised their drinks as well in what appeared to be a toast. Aya wasn’t quite sure, especially when he noticed the grim look on Toshi’s face and the strained smile on Lilla’s.

As if no one else noticed the reactions of the new parents, the crowd laughed and cheered when Yuushi put what appeared to be a small coin purse into the basket and passed it around. Reiichi must have returned from the library as he took the basket from his friend and dropped a couple of silver coins into it before giving it to Naru. Aya watched the basket get passed around the room for a few seconds before turning to look at his mate.

Yohji answered before he could even ask the question. "It’s a Guard tradition, Cat." The happiness from before was dulled with sadness. "Whenever a Guard has a child, we gather together to have a party on the Naming day and we pass the basket around. Should anything happen to Toshi, then Lilla and Mari will have some savings to fall back on to help supplement his pension. Should the gods bless the family, then it’ll go toward Mari’s wedding gift." He tenderly tucked back the bangs falling onto Aya’s forehead, his fingers trailing warmth along Aya’s cheek. "We – well, the Guard looks after its own, never forgetting that it’s not a job where you can expect to retire from old age."

"The bastard who fathered Mickey and Teddy spent all their Naming gift money," Jo muttered, her eyes following the basket and her coin purse held at the ready even though she wasn’t a Guard. Several people who weren’t in Guard uniform were contributing to the basket, including Botan and Cassandra. "Lost it gambling a while before he died." The animosity was thick in her voice, made her eyes narrow and her lips press together.

"I’ll say that judging from tonight’s crowd, Lilla won’t have much to worry about should…." Yohji shook his head and hugged Aya closer. If Aya had to guess from what was left unsaid, the Guard was contributing more than usual to one of their own’s child. Then he remembered the approaching war and realized that a good many of the people here tonight – certainly the bounds and the Shadow Guard, probably felt that there was a very strong chance that Lilla and Mari would need that money at some point.

That cast tonight’s party in a different light for him. He didn’t understand how the prospect of certain death for some of them drove them on to celebrate even more, but they had his respect because of it. At the least, he could understand about making preparations and doing one’s best to protect one’s family.

Toshi appeared to regain his good mood and was once more laughing with his fellow Guards, his new partner having left his side to go over to Trowa. Across the room, Rude was clearly trying to drag Reno away from several Guards, his hands wrapped around Reno’s upper arms as if he was seconds away from picking up the dubhach and carrying him out of the inn. Emmie and Neely had gone to Yuushi and most likely were asking him all about the Guard tradition, Marta hovering a few feet away from her daughter but smiling as she chatted with Reiichi.

Standing next to his mate, Aya contemplated all the invisible ties between the people gathered at the Koneko. He’d understood the ones between family members and fellow bounds, and Yohji had taught him what it meant to find a lover and to give all he had for his mate’s happiness. The last several months here at the Koneko was making him comprehend the bonds between friends and coworkers, something he didn’t always grasp. Tonight had taught him a little more.

The basket finally reached them, so Yohji and Jo added their contribution to it. When Aya patted his pockets and realized that he hadn’t any money on him, Yohji shook his head and handed the basket to Mickey. "Don’t worry, I put in enough for both of us." He sighed, the sound wistful and quiet, then nuzzled Aya’s temple. "It’s a bit of a sad tradition, but everyone feels better knowing that the kid will be looked after should the worst happen. Once the basket gets back to Yuushi, everyone will resume drinking and making fun of Toshi."

"And things will get very loud again," Aya said, his brow furrowed as he thought about all the noise and the mess there would be for the staff to clean up. He’d stick around until things were done to help Nagi and Omi get things ready for tomorrow.

Yohji laughed and tugged on one of his eartails. "Trust you to worry about shit like that. It’s a party, you’re supposed to enjoy it." He waggled his eyebrows at Aya as his voice grew husky. "It’s always nice to celebrate things."

There was the impression that Yohji meant more than he was saying, but Aya hadn’t the faintest of ideas what. So he shrugged and stepped closer to the wall, content to remain here as long as Yohji was beside him and the shadows partially hid them. "One can go about celebrating quietly, you know."

Laughing again, Yohji pulled him in close for a kiss. It was a few enjoyable seconds later before he spoke again. "I’ll keep that in mind." Aya was left confused again, but that didn’t last for very long since Yohji resumed the kiss.

*******

Trowa sighed as he watched his roommate sprawl about in a drunken manner on the couch. "I can lessen the amount of alcohol in your blood, you know," he offered as he hung up his cloak and arranged both their boots in a neat row next to the door.

Duo laughed and waved his right hand about as if attempting to swat a fly. "Nah, I’ll burn it off soon enough, and it’s not like I have to work tomorrow. It’s fun feeling a bit tipsy." He laughed again then started to hum a cheerful tune, his eyes drifting closed as he leaned his head against the back of the couch.

That was something that Trowa wouldn’t really know much about – feeling tipsy. He’d only experienced it twice, the first time he’d tried alcohol and several weeks ago, when he’d suffered from energy loss. All he knew was that he didn’t like not being in full control of himself and his talent, didn’t like that someone might be able to take advantage of him and it would be all his fault. So whenever he went drinking, such as tonight, he carefully monitored the amount of alcohol in his blood and altered it to ensure that he remained sober. If need be, he could pretend to be a bit drunk, thanks to Jei taking him to enough bars so he could watch inebriated humans in action.

"Come on, sit down and relax for a few minutes." Duo patted the couch as he slurred out the words, his eyes still closed yet his face turned in Trowa’s direction. Standing by the door for several seconds, Trowa decided that he didn’t see the harm in the request and crossed the room to take a seat by the fire elemental.

"I’m surprised that the Koneko has any alcohol left on its premises after tonight’s party." He slowly relaxed against plump, soft cushions, Duo’s scent making him breathe in deeply and his muscles slowly lose the tension they’d possessed most of the night. As the ‘boyfriend’ of a Guard, he’d had little choice but to go to the Koneko tonight, even if he’d managed to spend most of the time in the library where it had been nice and quiet. The Guard had accepted him as someone who cherished his space, and even made sure that no one crowded him when Duo wasn’t present or was distracted by another Guard.

"Hmm, I’d love to get down in the wine and beer cellars one day." Duo burped and quickly excused himself, his eyes opening so he could look at Trowa. "Thanks for coming tonight. I know I haven’t been a Guard very long, but it was important to be there."

Trowa nodded and found his right hand reaching out to tuck aside a lock of chestnut hair that had fallen along Duo’s nose. "I understand. It… was an interesting party. I never realized how much the Guard looked out for each other."

"Yeah." Duo rubbed his fingers against the spot that Trowa had inadvertently touched and grunted once. "I mean, I haven’t forgotten that this is a mission, but… even if they are the enemy, they have my respect. It wasn’t easy passing everything to become a Guard, and they really do look after their own." His expression turned guilty, his brows furrowed and his hands clenching into fists.

More than anything, Trowa hoped that Crawford wasn’t wrong about Duo’s future; he truly prayed that his friend would turn his back on the Elders and have the chance to remain in the Guard – in the *Shadow Guard*. Duo wasn’t aware of it just yet, but he already was in that organization, partnered with a man who’d been one of its first members and working alongside several bounds. If it wasn’t for Schuldig’s mental tampering, Duo would have figured that fact out by now, especially from the way he fought tooth and nail with the fire elemental, Nicole.

Emboldened by Crawford’s assurances and that Duo wasn’t quite sober, Trowa turned until he faced his friend. "There’s no telling what exactly the future will bring and when, so perhaps you’ll be able to remain a Guard for longer than you think."

Shifting about to fully face him as well, Duo frowned and reached out as if to touch him, his hand falling to the couch when a scant inch from Trowa’s face. "I don’t know if I’d like that, considering that I’m a spy. Sooner or later, I’ll have to pass along some information that will hurt the Guard." He sounded truly upset over that fact, his eyes heavy-lidded with remorse and his lips down-turned.

Duo still thought that he could harm the organization, something that wouldn’t happen since Yuushi and the rest of the Shadow Guard knew the true reason that he was there. How they could be so friendly with Duo, a potential enemy, Trowa didn’t understand, but it gave him hope that it would be a smooth transition when Duo chose Kritiker over Esset. More and more each day, he longed for that moment, for the time to come when he could tell his friend the truth and not hide so much from him. When he could do something about the obvious pain that Duo felt at the thought of betraying people who had become friends and working for those he deeply despised.

"How do you do it, Trowa? How do you go to work each day, smile at Birman and know that what you’re doing will hurt her?" Duo sounded so forlorn that Trowa once again felt the urge to touch him, to stroke his fingers along smooth, warm skin in an attempt to soothe.

He took a deep breath and thought about what he wanted to say. "I do what I have to, what I’ve chosen to do."

Grimacing at the softly spoken words, Duo sat up a bit straighter, now cross-legged in the middle of the couch with his long braid pooling into his lap. "Don’t tell me that you actually like working for the old bastards. I… you don’t, do you?" He tilted his head to the side while he waited for an answer.

"They are not who I would willingly swear my allegiance to," Trowa admitted with great reluctance, all the while cursing himself for not changing the topic already. Yes, he wanted to ‘feel’ Duo out on his loyalties, but drunk or not, there were certain things he couldn’t tell the other bound just yet. Not when there was a chance that Duo would repeat them to Heero or someone else loyal to the Elders. "As I said, I do what I have to, Duo, as do you."

That remark led to a period of prolonged silence, Duo swaying back and forth slightly while he seemed to consider what had been said. Then he let out a slow breath and began to undo the buttons of his dark blue coat. "I don’t know anymore, it’s coming down to what I *should* do, not what I’ve been *told* to do." His puckish face became flushed as if embarrassed and he looked away while he shrugged out of his uniform. "Gods, this is too serious to talk about after a night of drinking." Rubbing his face, he chuckled nervously then peered over his hands as if to gauge Trowa’s reaction.

Which was to smile and nod in response, grateful for an excuse to change the topic. "Toshi seems to have taken to you as a partner."

Duo groaned and rocked to the side enough that he leaned against the back of the couch. "Poor guy – comes back from a couple of weeks off for having a kid and gets stuck with a newbie!" This time his laugh was more genuine than before. "I never really thought that I’d like working with a human, but he’s not too bad. Goes on and on about his daughter way too much, but… he’s an awful lot like you and me." He seemed a bit surprised by that.

"Other than the fact that he can’t control the elements, will age very fast and doesn’t feel the need to growl at his own kind on a daily basis," Trowa teased. He, too, was finding that working alongside humans wasn’t as bad as he’d thought, but it helped in his case that the humans he worked for knew what he was and treated him with respect and care.

"I don’t know, I swear I heard Ken growl at Miko the other day when she tried to finish off his beer!" Duo’s good humor appeared to have been fully restored. "Those two are always together, too. I’ve noticed that a lot about most Guard partnerships and hope that Toshi doesn’t think I’m gonna babysit for him anytime soon!"

"Hmm, I’m sure he’s in no hurry to leave you with a fragile, impressionable child."

It took a moment for the jab to soak into Duo’s alcohol-dulled senses. "Ha, ha. Says the man who almost turned green when Lilla offered to let him hold the baby!"

Trowa shrugged, feeling a little embarrassed by his reaction. To his knowledge, he’d never held an infant in his life and hadn’t grown up around any other children until his power had manifested. So a child was a very strange, unfamiliar thing to him, something as foreign as the concept of having parents or being able to casually touch strangers. "I didn’t want to get stuck changing her diaper." A joke was much better than admitting the truth.

Duo wrinkled his nose as if smelling something foul. "How do they stand doing that? Not to mention the things spit up, too. Yuck."

"There goes the hope that you’ll raise your own child one day!" Trowa smiled to soften the impact of his words. He’d never heard Duo express any desire to start a family – few bounds trapped in Berin did, since the Elders on occasion forced various bounds to have sex with each other in the hopes of producing powerful offspring. If it wasn’t for the approaching war, he was certain that friends such as Duo and Wufei would be ordered to do just that, but the Elders needed as many powerful bounds unfettered with pregnancies or infants as possible so they could focus on fighting.

Making a gagging sound, Duo sat upright once again, his right arm stretched out over the top of the couch and his fingers brushing back and forth against the fabric next to Trowa’s left shoulder. "I can barely keep myself out of trouble, how could I manage to do that for a poor kid just like me?" His expression turned serious as he stared directly at Trowa. "Besides, I… I don’t think I’m the type to settle down with a woman, you know? I mean, they’re fine and all, but…."

That surprised Trowa, considering that Duo had had his fair share of female lovers in the past. "I’m sure Tan Xi will be heartbroken to find that out," he replied, at a loss for anything serious to say.

The tension in the room broke somewhat when Duo repeated the gagging sound. "Come on, I told you and everyone else that I only slept with her the one time to get her off my… er… back." He became flushed again and averted his eyes for several seconds. "It worked, too. She’s the type who wants what she can’t have and ignores you once you’re a notch on her bedpost."

"I wouldn’t know." To give the woman credit, she’d never tried her glamour on Trowa, had always seemed to tone that part of her talent down when she was near him. Not that Trowa would have reacted at all; other succubae bounds had tried, but he just wasn’t attracted to anyone. Well… he was only attracted to one person, and Duo wasn’t a succubae bound.

Duo’s attention was back on him, those lovely, indigo eyes narrowed as if in anger. "Yeah, but I’m sure something similar happened between you and Masato. He hasn’t come around once since we were assigned here, and I know he’s living with Schuldig now."

Not very surprised that Duo had found out that last bit and not bothered since it wasn’t a secret, Trowa nodded and did his best to not look away. "You’re supposed to be my boyfriend for this assignment, so it wouldn’t be good if he were near me all the time. It makes more sense for him to share quarters with Schuldig so they’re not alone."

That prompted a very loud snort of derision from Duo. "Oh, they’re more than ‘not alone’. I can smell them all over each other." He paused, as if waiting for some sort of reaction from Trowa. "Don’t you care about that? The bastard fucks you as a convenient meal for a couple of months, then tosses you aside for someone else."

"It’s the mission," Trowa replied, doing his best to keep his voice even in the face of Duo’s bitter, loud tone. He’d never felt anything for Masato other than gratitude for driving away the other bounds interested in him for his talent or the challenge he provided. Masato had never touched him in the remotest sexual fashion, had gone out of his way to not cause Trowa any pain or fear. Even Schuldig, who had clearly been very jealous and upset over the charade, had admitted to Trowa that he wasn’t worried about his mate doing anything foolish, just that *he* wasn’t the one who was thought of as Masato’s lover. Now the soul gaki bound didn’t have to hide that fact any longer, although it was still a closely guarded secret that they were mates. No, anyone from Esset would just surmise that Masato was feeding from a teammate so as to not risk being discovered as a succubae bound.

"Fuck the mission." For some unfathomable reason, Duo really was upset over the topic. "You telling me that you finally have sex with someone and then don’t care when they move on to another fuckbuddy? Eh? You don’t seem the type to be in it for the casual kicks, Trowa."

His back growing straighter with every angrily spat word, Trowa finally felt upset enough to glare at his friend. "No, you’re right. What you are wrong about is any assumption you have in regards to my relationship with Masato. I advise that you drop the subject now, Duo."


All Duo did was scoff and lean forward, his fingers now brushing along Trowa’s shoulder. "You’re treading dangerous ground there, my friend. Prove that you’re willing to bend over for one guy, and the Elders may have you do it on a regular basis," he sneered.

Trowa was torn between two impulses- smacking some sense into Duo and remaining still so he could enjoy the tiny shivers of pleasure that raced through him at every touch from the drunken idiot. He didn’t know why it felt so good for Duo to touch him, or why the obvious disdain in his friend’s eyes hurt so much. Nothing made sense anymore when it came to Duo.

"That is going too far, Duo," he said as calmly as possible. "There are some things that I’ll *never* do."

"As if they care," was his friend’s instant retort.

Unfortunately, that was very true. Part of the risk he’d taken by agreeing to Crawford’s plan to hide the mating bond between Masato and Schuldig had been the guarantee that he wouldn’t be under the Elders’ control long enough for them to order him to put his water elemental nature to their use. He knew of too many bounds who had effectively been pimped out by them, either to gain information or the cooperation of humans that the Elders needed to support the approaching war. That was something he could *never* do – allow someone he didn’t implicitly know and trust to touch him, to be so intimate with him and risk the possibility of being abused again.

No, not after so many years of suffering unwanted touches, the pain of being forced again and again, often given no chance to heal…. His chest grew tight when he recalled the awful feeling of the weight of someone much bigger and heavier than him all over his body, of fingers shoving into him or forcing his jaws open. The saltiness of skin and semen, the animalistic grunts generated by a pleasure he’d never felt. There was no way he’d allow himself to be used like that against his will, that he would barter his body as if it was nothing. It was so difficult to breathe as he struggled with the pain-filled memories, doing his best to push them back into the recesses of his mind so he could do something other than lay curled up in a ball, screaming at the top of his lungs.

"Shhh, I’m sorry, Trowa, I’m really sorry."

He slowly realized that fingers were combing through his hair, not to hold his head still or to force it in a certain position, but to calm him down. Part of the reason why it was so difficult to breathe was that Duo held him tightly, their chests pressed together and his face tucked into the crook of his friend’s neck. Such closeness should have made the panic even stronger, should have him lashing out with his talent, yet it had the opposite effect. He was shocked to find his arms wrapped around Duo, hugging back just as fiercely, and the more he inhaled his friend’s intoxicating scent, the more his breathing slowed and deepened. For so many years, contact with another person was to be feared, to be avoided, yet now he couldn’t force his body to move away from Duo’s.

"I’m an idiot; I shouldn’t have brought it up. I… I just hate the thought of you being used, okay?" Duo was almost babbling, his voice tinged with hysteria as he continued to hold Trowa close.

"It’s… all right," Trowa managed after a few seconds. He took another deep breath and found his lips parting, his tongue sticking out as if he wanted to lick along the side of Duo’s neck. That impulse shocked him, but not as much as it should. Why did he want this man so badly?

Duo’s fingers continued stroking through his hair, which he just now realized had been released from the pewter clasp he’d worn tonight. Trowa’s own fingers dug into the fire elemental’s shoulders, his head momentarily fogged by pleasure and the scent of smoke mingled with an aroma overwhelmingly male. Only Duo smelled like this or dared to touch his hair until he was almost purring. Only Duo had been there for him when he’d been so helpless and hadn’t harmed him, hadn’t tried to take any advantage. Only Duo seemed to care that he might be treated by someone as a fuckbuddy and summarily discarded.

Trowa forced himself to pull back a little so he could breathe something other than Duo’s scent and could see his friend. He nervously looked upward and found the fire elemental staring at him, so clearly worried and guilt-ridden. "It’s all right," he repeated in a whisper, at a loss for what he could say to make things better.

"I really am sorry." Duo stopped combing his hair and cupped his right hand against Trowa’s cheek instead. "More than anything, I don’t want you to be hurt."

"I won’t be, Duo. Most certainly not by Masato." Oh, he wanted to tell his friend the truth, to admit that he’d never willingly taken a lover. Yet the fact that more and more he found himself wishing for Duo to be that for him made him blush and duck his head again. What did he do now? Despite the intense longing that filled him, that made him unable to pull away anymore, he wasn’t ready for such an admission, for anything other than gentle caresses. And despite how kind and giving Duo could be, he doubted his friend wanted someone as messed up as Trowa for a real boyfriend.

There was an odd sound just then, as if Duo tried to speak but could do little more than growl, and he brushed the back of his knuckles along Trowa’s cheek and down to his jaw. They stopped below his chin and exerted just enough force to make him look upward. He didn’t know what shocked him more, the feel of Duo’s warm, moist lips against his own or how quickly he moved to deepen the fleeting contact.

Duo tasted like spiced cider, that thought dredging up the memory of apple jelly from all those weeks ago. Trowa moaned just then, his eyes drifting shut and his lips parting even more, his tongue moving tentatively against the one he found inside his mouth. Duo continued to stroke his jaw, his left hand a solid but not threatening presence on the nape of his neck. Those shivers of pleasure were back, radiating from wherever Duo touched him, wherever there was warmth and pressure and the gentle caress of long fingers against his skin.

There was pleasure, shockingly pure pleasure that made him moan again, and then there was a wave of lust, of desire so strong that it slammed into Trowa with almost physical force. He could so easily imagine Duo on top of him, inside him, filling him and touching him and kissing him while the pleasure grew so sharp that it overwhelmed, his neck arched in offering and his mind consumed with *want*. It was that image that made him gasp and pull away, Duo’s hands not trying to prevent that from happening yet lingering on his skin for the barest of seconds.

He didn’t stop until he slammed against the arm of the couch, his entire body tingling and an unfamiliar stirring in his groin. For a few frantic heartbeats, he felt something inside of him scream for what he’d just shied from, to berate him to bridge the distance between him and Duo and finish what had been started. He grabbed his hair and tugged, trying to gain control of his traitorous demon half… and not entirely sure that it was traitorous.

Duo sat still, his hands held cradled against his chest as he struggled to breathe evenly. "Trowa-"

"We’re drunk." He quickly cut in before Duo could apologize or say anything embarrassing; the situation was already bad enough, in his opinion. "That’s all, we’re drunk."

For a moment it looked as if the fire elemental would object, then Duo shook his head and rubbed his eyes. "Yeah, just a bit too much to drink, I guess." He offered Trowa a sheepish grin. "We’ll have to watch that, next time."

"Yes." Trowa actually felt longing so strongly that it hurt at the mention of ‘next time’. Why couldn’t he get over this infatuation with Duo? Why did each caress, each touch only make him want the man even more? "I’m… I need to wash off before bed." He’d never be able to sleep with Duo’s scent clinging to him like this.

Duo laughed, the sound too strained to be amused. "Yeah, I think that’s a good idea. I’m gonna try to walk off the alcohol and then I’ll take a bath of my own." He lurched to his feet, dark blue coat left behind on the couch, and headed straight to the door. Trowa watched him pull on a pair of boots, unable to move just yet.

"Be careful," he whispered, to which Duo waved to show that he’d heard. Pulling his bent legs against his chest, Trowa watched his friend leave the apartment, feeling hollowed out by unfulfilled longing.

This… whatever it was between him and Duo wasn’t good. It only grew stronger all the time, until Trowa felt as if he had no control over his actions. Yet what bothered him the most wasn’t wanting Duo, it was… he wasn’t quite sure what it was. All he did know was that he was confused, frustrated and getting to the point where his demon nature was ready to take over to get what… what they both wanted.

So many years, so many fears, and here he was wanting someone so much it hurt. A voice in his head whispered that things would be better once he gave in, yet there was so much at stake right now. And it didn’t help that it seemed as if all choice was being stripped from him, a fact that he knew was very important but couldn’t quite recall why. Resting his head against his knees, he had to wonder when life had become so complicated. He allowed himself a couple of minutes to wallow in the confusion and self-pity before getting off the couch to go take a cold bath.

*******

Quatre tugged on the right sleeve of his blue silk overcoat. Inside, he sniffed at the fall of cream-colored lace that emerged from the sleeve, easily recalling his lover’s disdain over his foppish outfit and doing his best not to laugh out loud. Gaining control over himself, he pushed all personal thoughts of Wufei out of his head – while he was the strongest soul gaki bound left in Esset at the moment, he didn’t want to take any chance of someone discovering his true emotions for his lover. They had publicly acknowledged that they were in a relationship, but many people thought it was one based on mutual lust and convenience, not true love. He saw no need of correcting that wrong impression.

His thoughts mostly under control, he waited his turn to speak to the Elders. Some of the most powerful bounds were gathered in the solarium, wandering around the exotic plants that bloomed year round and doing their best to not be affected by the hot, humid air. As he’d been here at least once a week for the past four years, he was used to the place, but he never stopped longing for the moment when he could return to his peaceful, cool rooms.

Tan Xi was standing among a crowd of ‘admirers’, wearing a belted, wine colored tunic over a long skirt slit down the left side. For a moment, he felt the pull of her power, noticed a drop of sweat sliding down her golden skin and felt his heart race at the sound of her laughter. He never denied that she was a powerful succubae bound, nor that she knew how to put that talent to use. No, what made him able to look past the glamour was the thought of what she could have been if she hadn’t allowed being the Elders’ lackey to go to her head. He’d been in her thoughts, petty and power-obsessed that they were, and actually mourned the glimmer of decency that had been smothered by the Elders’ ‘care’. There were too many bounds like her in this room, willing to blindly follow the orders of the people they’d looked to as if gods. Even brilliant Heero was included in that group, although he had less of a chance than others to break free from the Elders’ conditioning, since they’d raised him as a child.

Yet there were those who were only here under duress, even if they made no outward sign of that fact. Bounds who had loved ones or things held ransom by the Elders, who saw no other choice and so grudgingly knelt before the triumvirate. Quatre made mental note of each and every one of them; some he’d already approached and felt that he could count on by the time the war came, some he still planned to work on in the next year or two.

But that wasn’t a line of thought that he should follow while here, either. Even though his thoughts were carefully shielded, he did allow other soul gaki bounds to pick up on his emotions, doing his best to not appear as if he had anything to hide. As a lord of a very large holding, it was to be expected that he wanted some privacy, and he was powerful enough that things could be painful if he weakened his shields for any reason and allowed everyone’s thoughts to fill his head. Emotions were another thing entirely, and he wanted to project the image of a mostly happy, carefree young lord who lived to serve. There was no place for bitterness or hatred in that persona, something he needed to keep in mind for the next few hours.

So he wandered over to Tan Xi’s group, determined to while away the minutes before the Elders deigned to speak to him. "Good day," he said with a courtly bow, the lace around his hands fluttering in the heavy air.

Tan Xi smiled and caressed his left cheek when he straightened back up. "Lord Quatre, it always makes me happy to see you," she purred, projecting a false persona of her own. Oh, she did enjoy his company, mostly for the prestige it brought her.

"Then I am a very content man," he said, while folding his hands over his heart. Around him, the small crowd chuckled and raised their glasses of wine to him. He smiled in return and took a glass from the tray of a passing servant. "Have I missed out on any riveting gossip? Please tell me that’s not so!" It was a very good thing that Wufei was over by the Elders and not present to see him play the fool.

Lord Anthony laughed and shook his head, dark blond hair fanning out around his thin face. "You haven’t missed much at all. We were just talking about how boring it’s been around here lately."

"Oh, yes." Kimbei, one of the more powerful earth elementals in the palace, frowned at his empty wineglass then stared forlornly at Quatre’s full one for a few seconds. "Why did the Elders have to send Schuldig and Duo out on the same mission? There haven’t been any good pranks around here lately." His hazel eyes lit up when another servant approached and he could exchange the empty glass for a full one.

There was more laughter over that remark, the bounds gathered in the discussion powerful enough that they could get away with what could be taken as a faint criticism against the Elders. "I’m afraid the Elders have put Esset’s welfare before our amusement." Tan Xi barely exposed her teeth during her reply, the subtlest of rebukes that only made Kimbei shrug and have a sip of his wine.

"I’ve no doubt they’re on a very important mission, I just hope it was concluded soon so I can resume betting on what Duo will burn next or who Schuldig will trick into doing something truly outrageous."

"You could always try pulling some pranks of your own," Alexis informed the earth elemental. "You used to be so good at them, too. I can still remember the time when you filled this room with thistles right before the winter solstice dance." She made sure to keep her fangs covered when she smiled, a goblet of red wine mixed with blood in her delicate hand.

Mention of the prank made everyone but Tan Xi laugh; she merely stood there while Anthony pounded Kimbei on his narrow shoulders and congratulated him on the joke, which had taken place over three decades ago.

"At least you were able to get rid of the plants very quickly," Tan Xi said with a disapproving sniff, in an instant reminding those gathered in the small group of her loyalty. The good humor faded, leaving Quatre to replace it as quickly as possible before the silence became too unbearable.

"I think it’s a very good thing that you pulled such a prank while Duo wasn’t here, or he would have jumped at the opportunity to burn those thistles to help ‘clean up’."

That had everyone smiling again, even Tan Xi. "The thistles and half the castle, if I know the boy. He’s too powerful for his own good." Martha was still smiling as she said it, but Quatre read her thoughts and knew that she was insulting his friend, jealous that Duo was a more powerful fire elemental than herself.

"Oh yes, very powerful." Alexis sipped her wine, her pale face perfectly impassive as if she was slightly bored. "So any mission he was sent on must be very important." She was over a century old, having spent most of her life forced into servitude to the Elders. Deep inside of her, hidden behind hunger and boredom, was a fiercely burning kernel of hate that Quatre had never noticed before. Then again, he’d never seen her in the company of Tan Xi, either, who seemed to bring it out in her; something about an old friend turned one of the succubae bound’s conquests.

"All missions are very important," Tan Xi sneered, her hand tugging on her dark skirt as if doing her best to ensure that no part of her outfit brushed against Alexis.

Still appearing utterly bland and unthreatening – despite the fact that she was as powerful a flesh gaki bound as Jei – Alexis’ brow furrowed the slightest bit. "Perhaps they’re looking for some traitors. I’ve heard that Yuda and Ruka were spotted by the Kritiker border." She dropped that particular bomb with a calmness that made Quatre want to applaud.

The effect the words had on Tan Xi was instantaneous. She bared her teeth in an expression that would never be taken for a smile and laughed, the sound bitter as old vinegar. "That is nothing but a rumor. The traitors were caught and executed over a year ago." She lied with surprising ease, yet no one nearby truly believed her.

"Hmm, yes, that’s true. Forgive me, I forgot that fact." Alexis bowed her head, her expression carefully schooled to not show the amusement and satisfaction she felt at rattling Tan Xi. The succubae bound did not like to be reminded of her much younger and more popular rival, after all, nor the fact that he continued to elude the Elders’ hounds.

"You must be getting old, my dear." Anthony put his arm around Tan Xi’s shoulders while he shot that jab at Alexis, never mind that he was a good century older than the dark haired woman.

Alexis bowed her head once more, the gesture elegant and hiding the quick gleam of sharp teeth. "That must be the case, I fear. Perhaps I should retire for the day." She finished her drink and set it aside before wishing everyone a good day.

When she straightened up from the formal bow, Quatre took a risk and sent a private message to her. <Alexis. If you don’t mind, I’d like to invite you to a small party I’m throwing tomorrow night.>

Not revealing the private communication, she turned to leave and stepped toward the door. <A small party hosted by the Lord Raberba-Winner? I shall be honored to attend.>

<I’ll send a servant to your room with more details,> Quatre replied, pretending to be busy enjoying his wine. <Until then, good day.>

He was taking a chance with the woman, but that hatred had been true and long-nurtured. Alexis had never been in the group that fawned over the Elders, had merely completed the missions given to her and stayed to herself, not quite a hermit but not truly social, either. She showed up at the required gatherings, spoke little and was known as a private person. That she could tear almost any bound in the palace into pieces with her bare hands or drain them of blood in a matter of minutes made people allow her that distance. She had the respect of most of the flesh gaki bounds here in Berin and wasn’t a person one wanted as an enemy.

Growing frustrated over wasting a day that could be spent dealing with the mound of paperwork on his desk, Quatre continued to sip the delicious wine and make small talk with Tan Xi and her associates. He’d just accepted what looked to be a tasty cream puff from a servant when he heard his name whispered in his head by Thought. Bowing to his companions, he handed the pastry to Kimbei and made his goodbyes before heading to where the Elders were sitting.

Despite the heat and humidity, Sense and Thought were still covered in their fur blankets, Strength sitting beside Sense and dressed in an old-fashioned uniform made out of heavy wool. Considering that they were almost a thousand years old, they were in surprisingly good condition, but Quatre always had the impulse to shudder in distaste when he saw their wrinkled, age-spotted skin and sunken eyes. They should have died by now, yet they clung to life and the hope that their restored creator would find a way to return to them their youth and power.

"Good afternoon," he wished the Elders with a deep bow, purposely not looking at his lover, who stood on guard beside them. It was enough he could sense Wufei’s carefully cloaked loathing over being on display like this, a toy soldier for the Elders’ amusement.

"Good afternoon, Lord Quatre." It seemed that Sense was the spokesperson for the Elders today, a harmless smile on her face and her gnarled hands busy knitting what appeared to be a scarf out of fine wool. "We see that you are in good health and spirits today."

"Thank you; the gods have been kind and I’ve no complaints." He stood up straight and folded his hands in front of him while projecting a similarly ‘harmless’ image. "As always, I am able to serve in any manner that you need." The words fell from his lips automatically, ingrained in him from the last few years trapped in the palace.

Sense nodded and seemed even more pleased than before. "That is what we like about you best, Lord Quatre, that you’re so powerful and willing to serve." She beamed as if she was a proud grandmother and set her knitting aside. "I believe you wrote to us about something that you feel would benefit Esset?"

Mindful of the audience that he’d attracted and the capriciousness of the Elders, he bowed once more and then focused on the speech he’d prepared in his head. "I’ve come here to petition your valuable time so I may ask a favor of you." He waited until he had the attention of all three Elders before continuing, Wufei a curious presence in his mind since he hadn’t discussed this latest plan with his lover.

"We are willing to hear your request." Sense folded her hands in her lap and stared directly at him.

Hoping that he wasn’t taking too much of a chance, he bowed once more before standing with his back straight and chin held high. "I would like to request partial guardianship of Esset’s heir." The words were spoken clearly and loudly enough to be heard without fear of misinterpretation. Out of all the things he could have said, he would wager half his fortune that no one would have guessed that.

The Elders exchanged looks for a few seconds while the audience in the solarium twittered and murmured. "The heir has always been under our guardianship," Sense replied, a hint of displeasure in her raspy voice.

"I know, and all I’m truly asking is for the right to appraise her and tutor the child on whatever I feel she’s lacking." Quatre radiated innocence and earnestness, doing his best to not appear as a threat. Ever since the Wizard had taken over Esset’s army, the country’s true, *human* king and his bloodline had become hostages in the palace. They were allowed to marry to ensure that there always was an heir, someone for the Elders to trot out whenever dignitaries from other countries arrived, which had happened less and less over the centuries. Quatre couldn’t remember the last time the current heir had been seen by anyone other than those most loyal to the Elders.

There was another exchange of looks between the triumvirate and he could pick up on their mostly cloaked thoughts as they privately discussed the matter. They did trust him, but this request had truly taken them by surprise. "Why do you petition for such a thing?" Sense finally asked after several minutes.


He bowed again and smiled. "I apologize profusely if I overstep my bounds, but something occurred to me the other day during a discussion I had with Tan Xi." He glanced over his shoulder to smile at the succubae bound, enjoying her confusion and fear that she’d be included in any displeasure he roused from the Elders. "We were discussing how Kritiker’s king has been made paranoid by the recent assassination attempt and seems to be reorganizing and better equipping his army. I mentioned to Tan Xi that there’s always the possibility that he may think to turn that army on Esset in an attempt to rally his people to him by attacking a hated enemy." There was no need to look at Tan Xi to see her nodding in agreement.

Sense, Thought and Strength paused again to mull over that bit of information. "What does your request for the heir have to do with that matter?" Despite their misgivings, they were intrigued by the situation, trusting in him to put Esset first.

"I wish to tutor her to make her an acceptable bride for Kritiker’s crown prince." He had to wait a few seconds for the shock of that announcement to fade, and Wufei gave him a cold look that let him know that his lover didn’t appreciate not being made aware of this plan. "If Kritiker feels that Esset is willing to create such an alliance between us, it could cause division in an already fractured Court should the king push for war. He would be seen as the clear aggressor, and we the ones who extended the hopes of peace and were rebuffed for our effort."

Sense and Thought nodded while Strength gave him an even stare. "Your proposal… has merits. We suppose that the child should be made presentable so as to enforce the charade, and it could provide an opportunity to send an envoy to Kritiker."

He knew that they had been swayed by the request, yet the Elders didn’t do anything at what could be called a ‘normal’ pace. No, they would examine his request from all angles and make sure it didn’t cost them anything, that they would indeed benefit from it. Even as he’d come up with the idea and sent his note asking for an audience, he hadn’t been sure that they’d go through with it. However, he felt that he’d phrased things innocuously enough that they wouldn’t suspect him of any treachery.

"We will confer over your proposal and let you know soon, Lord Quatre. As always, thank you for your continued diligence in looking out for Esset’s benefit." Sense dipped her chin the slightest bit, the movement echoed by Thought and Strength. Quatre returned the not quite bow with one deep and reverent, making sure to appear as nothing more than a lackey eager to do whatever would make the triumvirate happy.

He allowed himself to be pulled back into Tan Xi’s group where he was questioned about his idea and if he truly was willing to take on a human child, of all things. Tan Xi did her best to express admiration and sympathy while internally thinking of ways to benefit from his actions. More people petitioned the Elders, causing ripples of interest and antagonism through the crowd depending on their request, until Quatre was left with a headache from being so fake and scanning so many minds. As soon as he judged that enough time had passed and that the gathering would be over soon anyway, he made his goodbyes again and went back to his quarters.

By the time Wufei was free from the Elders and joined him in the quiet apartment, he was lying on the couch in the library with a damp, cool compress over his eyes.

"What the hell are you plotting now? I swear, you’re almost as bad as Crawford!"

"Hello, Wufei. I see you had a wonderful day." He sat up and removed the compress so he could smile at his ruffled lover. Wufei always looked so sexy dressed in the dark red and black uniform that the Elders insisted he wear, even more so when his face was flushed and his dark eyes were flashing with anger.

Wufei sank down on the couch beside him and snatched the compress away so he could toss it aside. "No more of that nonsense from you, I want answers now. What are you planning, eh?" He folded his arms over his chest and waited impatiently for an answer.

Quatre couldn’t help but laugh and leaned in to brush his lips along his lover’s right cheek. "I truly do adore you, you know." That earned him a grimace of disgust but an internal lightening of the foul mood that Wufei projected with such skill.

"Something truly did occur to me the other day while I was discussing the state of Kritiker’s Court with Tan Xi," he explained, ensnaring his lover’s attention. Wufei’s frown vanished and he focused on what Quatre had to say, his mind shifting into an analytical mode that made Quatre want to smile in pride.

When his lover grunted to indicate that he should continue, Quatre dipped his head to the side. "I’m sorry that I didn’t say anything to you before this, but it didn’t really coalesce into something worthy of your attention until this morning, and by that time you were occupied. So I sent my letter to the Elders and felt that your obvious surprise would be a bonus to the situation." It would reinforce the impression that he didn’t share everything with Wufei, especially things of a political nature. Considering how much they plotted together, the subterfuge was welcome.

"And?" Wufei stared at him while undoing the many buttons of his wool coat.

Quatre cut to the heart of the matter. "Who is going to run the country after the war?" He smiled in satisfaction when Wufei’s eyes widened in surprise. "Yes, we’ve been plotting to overthrow the current government for several years now, but no one’s discussed what will happen after that." That wasn’t quite true – Crawford had mentioned that things would fall into place once the Elders had been overthrown, and had given Quatre a knowing look as he spoke. Quatre had a feeling that things were falling into place *now*, which would explain why Crawford had never tried to get him and Wufei out of the country as he had Trowa, Duo and Heero.

"I’ve always supposed… that one of the noble bound families would take over." Wufei frowned as he gave the question serious thought. "I’m sure Shinra would love nothing more than to set himself up as the new king." His voice was thick with disdain for anyone who would willingly take on such a position of power.

Quatre nodded. "I’ve no doubts he or Lord Anthony would gladly assume the throne, but then we’re left with the problem Esset has now – a bound ruling when the countries around us are led by humans who fear our kind. Even if Kritiker’s future king sees bounds as people and has taken one as his lover, Esset would have little support if a bound openly ran the country." That was why Esset’s royal line had been allowed to continue, and why the Elders ruled mostly from the shadows. All of the bounds within the country knew who was really in charge and so did a good many of the humans, but everyone clung to the illusion that a human government was in place.

Always quick to see to the heart of the matter, Wufei tossed aside the woolen coat and smiled. "Having someone with the strongest claim to the throne ready to become the queen should help prevent the country being torn apart by those seeking power while aiding Esset in forming new alliances." He was very pleased with Quatre’s logic and a bit jealous that he hadn’t thought of it himself. "What about the rest of what you told them?"

"Just what I felt was needed to get them to agree with me. From what Crawford has said, I doubt Prince Mamoru would be open to an arranged marriage." Which wasn’t to say that the boy wouldn’t go through with one if it was necessary, but as long as Kritiker’s new queen bore more children, the pressure would be off Mamoru. "All that matters is us being able to reach the heir, see if she would make a worthy queen and then teach her what she needs to know as quickly as possible."

"We?" Wufei always looked so raffish when he arched his left eyebrow like that, especially when wearing a loose, sleeveless undershirt and with his hair slightly mussed. "I did not hear my name included on that petition, I believe."

Ignoring his lover’s aloof demeanor, Quatre gave him a hug and a brief kiss. "I can teach her about politics and what she’ll need to survive in any court, but you’re the one who can teach her about the world." To his shame, he’d never left Esset, while Wufei had traveled to many different countries while still a young boy. "You are the scholar, my love."

Wufei’s demeanor instantly softened, as it always did when someone acknowledged that he was more than a weapon. "I suppose it would be best if the girl’s education was well-rounded." A second later, he was once more scowling as if faced with a very displeasing notion. "That’s if she has the intelligence to learn. I refuse to deal with some vapid twit who only cares about dresses and the latest gossip."

Quatre laughed and turned around so he could fall backwards into his lover’s lap, reaching up to undo the clasp that held shiny black hair captive. "If she’s like that, we’ll come up with another plan." He smiled at Wufei, so happy that the man he loved was willing to follow his lead and give him whatever support was necessary.

"Just as long as you realize that I *won’t* allow you to run this country," Wufei snarled, his emotions turbulent and possessive.

Quatre nodded, for a moment robbed of speech. For too long, they’d promised each other that they could put the masks of foppish lord and aloof soldier behind them as soon as the war was over. There was no way he’d take on the role of king when he’d finally have the chance to just be ‘Quatre’ again, to return to his estate and spend his days with Wufei. He wanted to see the rest of the world, to be able to while away an entire day or week in his library if he wanted to, helping his lover to research some obscure fact or read poetry or just learn as much as he could about some subject. Sharing those thoughts with Wufei, he smiled when he sensed the earth elemental’s agreement and wistful longing.

<You owe me such things after making me put up with your foolish behavior for so long,> Wufei sent the same time that he sniffed in disdain.

<Yes, I most certainly do.> Quatre laughed until Wufei leaned down to silence him with a kiss, and for a very enjoyable while managed to forget all about the future and royal heirs and various manipulations. All he kept in mind was that should he ever decide to become the king, it would be rather difficult to have sex with his lover in the library without fear of constantly being interrupted.

*******

Crawford sat in the living area of the apartment he shared with Jei, an oil lamp and a mug of hot coffee on the table beside him, a book in his hands for him to enjoy during the quiet evening. Jei had brought a stack of books home the other day, some of the most recent offerings from various publishers here in Eto. Crawford found it interesting spending his free time reading the things, often amused by the usually silly plots. However, there was more to his hobby than seeing if Guard Timothy managed to win the hand of the fair highborn Lady Anna; the books were a very good way to judge the mindset of the people they were marketed to and for him to keep up on current trends. He hadn’t lived a century yet, but being a powerful bound meant that he was already losing the grasp of time that was so important to humans.

He’d been warned about that by his father; precogs were especially prone to not being able to properly judge the passage of time because of the glimpses of the future their power revealed. So he grounded himself in the local newspapers and the popular novels of the time, reinforcing the current date and trends. That he could also gauge the population’s reactions to bounds and other things was another benefit of spending a few hours in a comfortable chair and a quiet apartment. When he finished a book, Jei would read it and they would then tear apart the worst of the bunch and discuss the better ones, an enjoyable way of passing the time while traveling or waiting for something to happen.

Perhaps he should suggest the hobby to Aya, who clearly showed the lack of time sense that eventually plagued all bounds. It was to be expected, he guessed, since Aya was pure demon, and the time the kage had spent in Takatori’s custody probably hadn’t helped, either. Crawford grinned as he set the book on his lap and reached for his coffee, recalling Aya’s surprised look when Omi had reminded him that he’d almost been in Eto for a year now. The anniversary of that date was fast approaching, leaving Crawford with the feeling that Yohji had a few things in mind that Aya wouldn’t ever expect.

The coffee was strong and slightly bitter, just how Crawford liked it, and he’d have to brew another pot in a few more minutes. Jei was out drinking with some of his friends who had recently joined the Army, allowing him a rare evening of peace and quiet. They got along surprisingly well as roommates, as long as Jei didn’t leave a mess after he ate and Crawford didn’t mention the dreaded ‘K’ word.

He almost snorted in amusement at that thought, mindful of the coffee he’d just sipped. Funny, how one could struggle so desperately against the inevitable. Oh, he understood in part why Jei did it since Kaede would be used against him by the Elders, but Jei didn’t have to be so… virulent in his rejection of the poor girl. Although it was very interesting how the flesh gaki bound didn’t seem so eager to find a ‘girlfriend’ during the current stay in Eto.

Ready to get back to Guard Timothy daring to look for love far outside of his own social circle, Crawford had just set his now half empty mug aside to focus on the book when a feeling of disorientation overcame him. He closed his eyes and concentrated on the flashes of the future, going into an almost trance that would ensure he would remember as much as possible.

Not surprisingly, the flashes weren’t of anything nice; he had a feeling that there would be little of anything not containing blood and death until after the war. The first thing he saw was a body left on the docks, the man’s throat torn out and entrails spilling from the gaping hole that had been his abdomen. More images of a similar nature seared their way into his mind, a chain of death that left him feeling apprehensive. There was a glimpse into Esset, the Elders’ smirking faces and a too-quick flash of a pair of bounds kneeling before them. One had a broad back and powerful build that dwarfed the more slender form of its partner.

Then the visions took on an even darker tone, brief glimpses of bounds he recognized being hunted and killed. The Shadow Guard fracturing as humans and bounds became suspicious of each other, Kritiker sent into turmoil as a new hatred of bounds was roused in as bloody a manner as possible. Crawford was drenched with sweat by the time his power faded away, mind reeling as he considered how much hard work would be destroyed by what he guessed to be the Elders’ latest plot. Part of himself was furious that he hadn’t anticipated such an act by those bastards, not when it made such perfect sense.

The Elders kept many bounds tied to them with the fact that Kritiker ‘despised’ their kind. People like Heero were brainwashed to believe that bounds could only be safe if the Elders ruled, humans kept in their place and unable to hunt them down. Of course the old bastards would fan whatever flames they could to back their lies and to drive more bounds to Esset to be used in their army.

For a moment, he felt a stark fear that they knew about the Shadow Guard before reason kicked in. No, this was something they would plan to their benefit even if the organization had never been created. If they did know about the Shadow Guard, then they would present a more forceful attack to tear apart something that would prove to be a true threat to them. Judging from what Crawford had seen, this latest plot was more insidious than a destructive assault, was meant to unfold slowly and build up as much fear, hatred and suspicion as possible.

His chest ached, causing him to drop the book in his hands to rub the spot where Roy had burned a rune into his flesh just a short while ago. Reminded of his brother and their fight, he supposed that he should go to the Koneko and warn Yuushi and Birman of what he’d seen. His allies seemed to have mostly forgiven him for withholding information in the past, but he doubted that would be the case this time. He hadn’t seen enough to send Jei out to deal with the agents so that meant he couldn’t stop things before the murders started. Best to tell people now before the corpses appeared and he was held accountable.

The pain flared for a few seconds then settled into a dull ache. For a moment he seethed with bitterness toward Roy for marking him like this; they *both* were sons of their father, after all. Crawford came off as the more manipulative of the two, mainly because of his power and his closer connection to their father. However, when one considered Roy’s actions in the past ten years, the way he’d wormed his way into the Army and risen in the ranks… Crawford wasn’t the only one who could be a manipulative bastard, who could use others to get what he wanted. No, he was just the only one branded. If Ed knew what was good for him, he’d place a similar rune on his mate to make sure that Roy didn’t turn into his father. In a way, it would be very fitting considering what had happened between Roy and Ed’s fathers.

Shaking his head to clear it of such dark and presently useless thoughts, Crawford pushed himself out of the chair so he could go wash off and then head to the Koneko. He didn’t have enough information to prevent the first few murders, just enough to warn them of what was to come. Once he told all he knew to Birman and Yuushi, he could send a message to Quatre and Wufei to see what they could uncover in Esset. No matter what, the Elders couldn’t be allowed to sow the fear and hatred that they needed to keep their army together.

And neither could Kritiker move in too overt a manner against the Esset agents, he realized with chagrin. Just like Trowa and the other powerful elementals were left with modifying the weather as subtly as they could, the Shadow Guard and the Spymaster would have to go about solving the murders as if they had no inclination that bound assassins were behind them. Crawford paused in the doorway of his bedroom for a moment as he contemplated the restrictions, then shrugged before he removed his shirt. That would be for Yuushi and Birman to figure out; he supplied the information, they acted upon it. And while they did so, he could use this latest action of the Elders to motivate a few bounds who wavered over which side to join to choose Kritiker.

He’d never forgotten the most important lesson from his father; if one was adequately prepared and willing to work, then *any* event could eventually be turned to one’s benefit. If there was one thing that Crawford was resolved to see done regardless of what it cost him or others, it would be to take down the Elders and all who blindly followed the old bastards. The visions from this evening were *nothing* compared to what he’d seen if he failed in that goal. Too bad his allies weren’t similarly ‘blessed’ with the ability to see the future, then they’d leave him alone to do whatever was necessary to change it.

******

Ogden took a deep breath, careful to inhale through his mouth and not his nose. The stench down at the eastern docks was always terrible – a putrid mix of rotting fish, bilge water, bodily waste and garbage that overpowered the crisp, fresh scent of the sea. When he’d first been assigned to the docks, he hadn’t been sure if it was a punishment or not, although he understood the reason now. Truly acute senses were both a bane and a blessing down here, allowing him to find things that other - non-flesh gaki - bounds would never smell or hear.

Not that the body which lay gutted on one of the lesser used docks was hidden away by any means. What looked to have been a middle-aged sailor was mostly flat on his back, ruddy face bearing several bite marks, throat ripped out and belly torn open, entrails scattered about and several organs missing. Make that mostly missing, as he could see the partially eaten liver resting on the dead man’s chest, still glistening with the blood that made the rotting wooden boards slick. Ogden couldn’t stop himself from licking his lips and stepping forward.

"Ogden, no." Moritaki’s voice was quiet, as was his nature, yet contained enough strength to it to make Ogden stop in his tracks and snarl at his partner. Dark brown, slanted eyes narrowed even more, Moritaki’s moon-round and golden face as impassive as a carved idol. The lack of an obvious challenge and a rush of… of something as soothing as the sound of water lapping against the dock’s pillars made Ogden shake his head and snap back to normal.

"Are you all right?"

"Yeah, thanks." He smiled at his partner, allowing the water elemental’s nature to calm his own demon soul. Now was not the time to give in to that soul, not when he’d ruin a crime scene and get kicked out of the Shadow Guard. There weren’t many flesh gaki bounds in the organization yet, not when it was so difficult to control the need for blood and flesh during times of stress, but he wasn’t an untried youth. "The corpse’s pretty damn fresh."

Moritaki nodded, his shoulder-length black hair brushing against the thin wool of his uniform. "The blood hasn’t coagulated yet, so I’d say…." He carefully approached the pool of blood and knelt by it, his right hand hovering just above its surface. "Fifteen minutes, twenty at the most and we would have caught them." Frustration marred the usual smoothness of his deep voice, and the water beneath the dock slapped against the pillars with more force as if roused to anger.

Letting out a low snarl, Ogden tapped a message over his copper bracelet. "I’m not scenting any bounds in our immediate vicinity." Considering how one of the murderers had been a flesh gaki bound, he would *know* if another of his kind was within a block’s distance, even here – especially when his demon nature was so hungry. He had to once more push aside the temptation to pick up the liver and finish the tasty meal, only ridding himself of it when he thought about the younger flesh gaki bound who’d recently failed to become a Shadow Guard. Dammit, he could do this; if Ken could stand being around the bodies of all those kids a few months ago, he could deal with one incredibly bloody, smelly body.

His partner’s hand rested on his shoulder, causing his tensed muscles to relax and the hunger to fade slightly. He waited to finish sending the message to the Shadow Guard before he allowed himself to rest his head on Moritaki’s shoulder. "Why can’t you be a pretty girl with big tits, eh?" Then he could lose himself to another type of hunger. As it was, the familiar scent of his partner and friend helped to block out the enticing aroma of blood. Even when they were away from the docks, the water elemental always smelled like the ocean.

Moritaki laughed, the sound like a rumble of far-off thunder. "See, this is why you don’t have a steady girlfriend and I do. Believe it or not, but there’s more to a woman than the size of her chest or her bottom."

"Yeah, the size of her libido," was his instant retort. "You just like rubbing it in that you’ve got a fire elemental for a girlfriend."

"Yes, I do." Moritaki gave him a smug grin for a couple of seconds then sighed. "You all right now?" When Ogden nodded, he stepped away and went back to examining the body. "How soon before someone arrives to help keep the scene a secret?"

The bracelet on Ogden’s wrist pulsed out an answer. "Yonekuni and John are on their way." He heaved an exaggerated sigh. "Why couldn’t it be Eri and Naru? Her tits aren’t the biggest I’ve seen, but she’s pretty damn cute." Cracking jokes was a way to control his baser impulses, was a way to get him out of the ‘must eat’ mindset and into the one that would let him help investigate the murder.

"Okay, you’re buying breakfast if you don’t want me to tell her or Yuushi what you just said." Moritaki looked his way long enough to exchange a smile before returning his attention to the corpse. "I can keep the water off the dock and body as well as mess with the tides enough to ensure that no small boats come this way. Once Yonekuni gets here, he can make sure no civilians stumble across the scene."

"They timed it pretty damn well – another half an hour and someone might see them kill the poor bastard, yet the body’s still fresh enough to freak out any human who finds it." Too bad that it was a pair of bounds who’d discovered it first. Ogden approached the corpse as close as he dared and inhaled deeply.

"Getting a scent?"

He shook his head while tipping his right hand from side to side. "A little, but between it being a windy night, the sea spray and all the blood, it’s damn difficult to isolate it." Moving away from the body, he sniffed around the dock, still thwarted by the sea and the background stench, but able to pick up *something*. The short hair on the back of his neck bristled and he couldn’t help but snarl when he confirmed that ‘something’ as another flesh gaki bound’s scent. "Enough to recognize it again when I smell it." But not enough to track it right now, he left unsaid.

Moritaki nodded and knelt by the pool of blood once more. "They picked a good spot for a murder." He looked out over the water to the hint of color that lightened the dark, clouded sky. "Fishermen will be arriving soon to take their wares to the market, where they’d tell everyone about the body. It’s also a location that would normally result in the loss of any incriminating evidence, other than the most obvious." He motioned at the body, its wounds unmistakably the work of fangs and claws.

His throat tightening as he thought about the rumors that would spread, Ogden forced down a swallow and grunted. "Some might talk about demons or sea monsters on the loose, but enough would claim that a bound did this." The worst thing was, they’d have to let a few humans know about the murder, else they risked the assassins wondering how it had been covered up so efficiently. "Couldn’t the damn precog give us more information?"

"They don’t see everything, and we know enough to increase patrols and be alert to anything suspicious." Damn water elementals always had to be so calm about things, even when Moritaki’s heart raced faster and his lips were pulled the slightest bit from his teeth. "Not to mention we’d be out of a job if they did."

That prompted a surprised laugh from Ogden. "Yeah, you’re right." He was once again grateful that he’d been given a decent partner, one who could deal with his demon nature and keep him from getting too caught up in it. About to bitch over how long it was taking Yonekuni and John to arrive, he was interrupted by a message on his bracelet – and judging from Moritaki’s sudden movement, he’d gotten it, too. "Yuushi’s on his way." Relief flooded through him; the Shadow Captain may be a human, but one intelligent, strong and willful enough to have Ogden’s respect and allegiance. Yuushi would take over the scene and make the decisions, now he just had to ensure that it stayed intact and undiscovered by anyone not connected to the Shadow Guard.

"Eri’s going to be upset that Yonekuni beat her to the scene," Moritaki joked, appearing just as relieved as Ogden felt.

Smiling at the comment, Ogden stopped when he noticed a couple of feral dogs pacing back and forth at the roadside end of the dock. Baring his teeth, he produced a low growl that sent them and a few rats hiding in the shadows scurrying far away. "No, not this time… but I bet you a week’s worth of drinking that she’ll get another chance soon enough." Those bastard assassins wouldn’t stop until bounds were once more openly hunted down in Kritiker, or the Shadow Guard stopped them. He’d do his best to make sure it was the latter, but he knew it would take a couple more bodies to find enough clues about who the traitors were.

"Not touching that one," Moritaki sighed, his face hidden by his hair as he once more studied the corpse. "But I will bet you that this will be the only one in our territory."

"Yeah." This was the assassins warming up, so the next kill would be someplace more open, more visible. They’d probably go after women or kids soon in an attempt to make things even more grisly and emotional. What did it matter to them? All they were killing were humans, and eventually any bounds too stupid or weak to escape the mobs that would chase them down and tear them to bits. No, this would be the only death in Ogden’s territory, but he’d do whatever it took to make sure he was there when they caught the bastards. Something very precious was on the line, a chance of a future he’d never dared to imagine for himself and his kind, and no one was going to destroy that for him. Looking at his partner, he knew that Moritaki and all the bounds in the Shadow Guard felt the same way. With that in mind, he resumed sniffing anything that the assassins might have come in contact with, uncaring about the residual stench and the voice howling in his head to be fed. Soon enough it could eat – he just hoped there was enough of the assassins to go around.

All his life he’d been on the run from the Elders, staying one step ahead of the brainwashed bounds who hunted down their own kind and made them slaves. He’d found a home, a job and good friends here in Eto, found a way to fight back and protect what he held dear. For too long he’d run, but not anymore. The Elders had yet to realize that their ‘slaves’ had found something to fight for, something that gave them courage and hope. For the chance of a safe future, he’d willingly hunt down his own kind to ensure that the opportunities he’d wanted for so long could be shared with others.

The demon side of his soul purred over the upcoming hunt.

*******

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