chapter two


searching for answers


Yohji let out a slow breath as he sat on the bench beside Aya, wishing for the world that they were still up in bed and not down here in the kitchen surrounded by a bunch of grim-faced Guards. Draping his left arm over his mate’s shoulders, he lifted a mug almost overflowing with coffee to his lips with his free hand while staring directly at Yuushi, who was standing perilously close to one of the fireplaces.

That seemed to be the cue the Guard was waiting for since he began to speak. "Ogden and Moritaki found a body this morning on one of the smaller Eastern quarter docks." Being Yuushi, he didn’t waste any time and cut right to the heart of the matter. "We don’t know who the victim is, but we’ve no doubt that he was killed by the Esset agents who Crawford warned us about." He nodded in Crawford’s direction.

The fact that the precog was here just a little after sunrise instead of in his new apartment had tipped Yohji off as much as the demeanor of the Guards. Crawford didn’t look at all like he’d been dragged from his comfortable bed, either; he was dressed in wrinkle-free light grey and blue clothes and didn’t ‘feel’ tired at all to Yohji. "You mean the corpse had clearly been fed upon by a flesh-gaki bound."

Yohji winced at how calmly Crawford had described the poor victim’s murder. "Don’t tell me he was… gnawed upon." He deliberately didn’t look at Ken, who was sitting next to Miko at the end of the table. Naru made a gagging sound as he scooted farther away from Crawford, as if sickened by something, while Eri’s expression turned impassive.

"Yes, I’m afraid he was, in a manner that would leave no doubt that he’d been attacked and partially eaten by something." Yuushi combed his fingers through his hair and sat down at the table, smiling a little when Reiichi handed him a mug of coffee that he’d just added cream and sugar to moments before.

"They’re not wasting any time." Aya frowned into his mug of tea, a weary presence inside of Yohji’s head that made him want to order Aya back into their bed. They both were tired, but Aya was the one who supplied Yohji with necessary energy so he was always very anxious about his mate’s lack of sleep since he feared leaving Aya too drained to defend himself. Closing his eyes, he sent a little bit of energy to Aya and received a warm pulse of gratitude in response.

"No, although this may have been a ‘test’," Crawford explained, as calm as if he was talking about ordering breakfast. "A feel for how they’d have to act to go about committing the murders without detection."

Jo was a silent figure in the kitchen, moving amongst the hearths and the stove and the table to prepare things and bring more coffee. This time, she placed a large plate filled with cinnamon rolls fresh from the oven onto the table, her gaze lingering on Yohji and Aya for a few seconds before she returned to work. Yohji grabbed three of the still hot rolls and put two of them on the plate in front of his lover.

Reiichi cleared his throat and waited until Ken had snatched some rolls before helping himself. "There’s the question of how well they know the city. If they’re unfamiliar with it, we may have more time between the murders." He looked at Crawford, clearly hoping for some sort of answer.

The precog stared into his coffee mug for a few seconds as if searching for the necessary revelations. "All I saw of the agents were their backs; I’m willing to guess that the smaller agent is a woman with shoulder-length light brown hair, while the other one was clearly a man. That should whittle the possible pairs down, but the Elders have a lot of bounds working for them. I only know of their more powerful agents." For the first time since Yohji had found him in the kitchen, he sounded upset about something – most likely his lack of knowledge. "I’ve already arranged for a message to be sent back to Esset to see if some acquaintances of mine can track down the recipients of the mission."

Ken grunted, his lips covered with icing and a feral gleam in his eyes. "We know one of them is a flesh gaki bound. They don’t need to be powerful, just able to control their demon nature enough to leave behind a body to be found."

"Good point, Ken-ken," Yohji murmured, smiling a little when his friend appeared pleased with the praise. Many people thought that Ken had been picked as one of Omi’s ‘babysitters’ because of his youth, friendly nature and athletic build, but those were just side benefits of the fact that he had a brain and wasn’t afraid to use it. He might not be as book smart as Aya and Reiichi, but Ken could see to the heart of the matter that would leave some scholars puzzled.

"No showing off before my second cup of coffee," Miko muttered, her eyes barely open as she leaned against Ken’s right shoulder. She may have looked ready to fall asleep, but Yohji sensed concentration from her and once again thought about how those two had most likely been paired together as much for the fact that they got along well as that they didn’t seem any type of threat. People would underestimate them and end up in jail or worse for their stupidity.

Ken reached up to pat his partner’s right cheek while Yuushi, Crawford and Reiichi appeared to consider what he had just said. "Unfortunately, that widens the pool considerably," Crawford admitted with an unhappy sigh. "In Esset, power is everything, so the stronger your demon soul, the more you’ll come to people’s attention."

"But I thought not all flesh gaki bounds have a lot of control over their nature. Jared failed to be admitted to the Shadow Guard because of that inability," Reiichi pointed out, his hands wrapped around his mug as if to keep them warm. That position left the top inch of his charmed gauntlets exposed; Yohji had never seen the man without them ever since Botan had finished creating the weapons.

"They have little control when they’re young, but most are able to rein their demon nature in if necessary once they pass their first century." Crawford gave up staring at his coffee to look at Ken. "Of course, those who possess a strong will are exceptions to that rule."

Aya nodded and had to wait until he swallowed the last of his roll before he could speak. "Or someone could be controlling the flesh gaki bound."

Yohji groaned and rubbed his thumb over his mate’s icing smeared lips. "You’re not helping narrow down the pool of suspects, Cat." He ignored Aya’s glare as he licked his thumb clean.

"No, but it’s best to have as much information as possible. As Aya has just reminded me, the other bound may be a soul gaki, thus able to control his or her partner if they lose themselves to their hunger." Crawford pushed his mug away, a slight smile on his face as he lost himself to thought for a few seconds. The bastard was enjoying the guessing game, from the feel of it.

"What about a water elemental?" Yuushi motioned to the back door. "Moritaki’s paired with Ogden to help him stay in control of his demon nature."

Crawford shook his head. "While I haven’t met the man, the fact that Ogden made it through the training means that he already has very good control of his demon soul. I’m willing to bet that Moritaki merely acts as a focus, a calming, unthreatening, yet clearly not prey presence that helps Ogden remember not to give in to his hunger." He tapped himself on the chest. "While I’m soul gaki bound, my primary talent is seeing the future. I can’t reach into Jei’s mind to control him." There was such obvious regret in the words he’d just uttered that Yohji was hard-pressed not to smile. "However, I can act much as a water elemental does in being a ‘center’ for him."

Yohji had always wondered why those two had been paired together, other than the fact that Jei didn’t take Crawford’s shit and could get through the day without trying to kill him. Well, he could most of the time…. "Do we have a count of how many bounds there are in the city?" Yohji asked, wondering just how difficult it was going to be to find the agents.

Crawford grimaced and helped himself to the last cinnamon roll. "Considering how word about the Shadow Guard and the approaching war are being carefully spread, that number is most likely in the hundreds. I’ve no hopes of keeping track of everyone and no desire to do so should the worst happen." He stared directly at Yohji, the roll held near his mouth, yet he hesitated to eat. "While it could be argued that I’m the lead traitor against the Elders, I by no means know everything or everyone who is involved on my side. There’s the risk of being discovered, as well as the fact that bounds are by nature reluctant to expose too much about themselves."

This was something that Yohji would probably know if he’d been raised by his bound father and not his human mother, or if he’d even known he was a bound before meeting Aya. He knew he was lucky to have had such a ‘safe’ childhood and refused to feel guilty about it or to feel ashamed of how he still had a lot to learn about his own kind. "I didn’t think you had a list or anything, but I figured that you’d have some idea." He paused to take a sip of his coffee while he considered a few ideas. "Do we risk letting bounds not involved with the Shadow Guard know about the agents?"

"No." Crawford didn’t even need time to think about the answer from the way he replied so quickly. "The last thing we want is for the Elders to figure out that we know about their plan. They would wonder how it had been discovered and why the humans hadn’t reacted in a panic. No, our best bet is for the Shadow Guard to find their agents so it appears as if the Guard had stumbled onto them."

"Which leaves us with the question of how much do we ‘overreact’ to the situation," Yuushi said, a grim expression on his face that made him appear older than he was. "The last thing I want is any anti-bound hysteria when it might adversely affect my people."

Eri spoke for the first time since Yohji had come downstairs. "It would certainly cause some of the bounds gathered here to flee the city. And I just realized that with so many bounds coming here to escape the Elders’ hounds, that it’ll be even more difficult to find the agents from among them."

"It seems that the Elders have put a lot of thought into this." Aya looked in Crawford’s direction, although Yohji didn’t sense more than a mild curiosity from his mate.

Nor did Crawford react as if he’d just been accused of something. He straightened up on the bench and reached past a quiet Naru to grab the carafe of coffee, then filled his and Yohji’s mugs. "I am the Elders’ most trusted precognitive… and they tell me very little of their plans." He sighed in frustration and shook his head. "Part of it is that I’m not often in Berin, but there’s also the fact that they are very paranoid and mistrustful of any bound they feel is powerful enough to challenge them." Eri nodded in support of what he’d said.

"It’s perhaps something that should have been expected." Reiichi pushed his empty plate aside and rested his elbows on the table. "I’ve read accounts of Esset doing something similar to this during the War – sending agents into cities to murder innocents and create chaos and fear."

Now *that* got Aya sitting up straight and thinking hard, concentrating on something so much that it was the only thing Yohji could feel over their link. "That’s how the Captain’s family was murdered, after all. It’s been supposed that they targeted her husband and children to render her unfit for duty from the terrible loss. I don’t know why I didn’t think of that earlier." He sounded and felt a bit disgusted with himself, prompting Yohji to give him a tender hug.

"Neither did I," Reiichi admitted with a sad smile. "So we’re left with a chance that they might target the families of important highborns or officials."

"I didn’t see anything to indicate that," Crawford countered while Yuushi cursed under his breath. "That would also be too bold a move for them to make right now. If they happen across someone important, they might take the risk, but I believe their main goal is to rekindle the fear and hatred most people have for bounds."

"Which I’ll bet some of the wizards around here will fan the flames of in hopes that they’ll be able to openly hunt down bounds." Naru’s quiet comment seemed to take everyone by surprise, and this time it was Eri who made a choking sound.

"I know I won’t stand for something like that," Ken spat, the tips of his fangs gleaming in the room’s dim light and his claws extended. "Nor will a bunch of other bounds."

"Leading to an undeclared war between bounds and wizards, which would weaken Kritiker in the end." Crawford actually appeared sick for a few seconds. "They’ve clearly thought this through and must have been waiting for the right time to put the plan into action."

Miko poked Ken in the side until he turned toward her and snarled, the sound fading away beneath her stern gaze. "They’re a bunch of power-hungry, manipulative assholes."

"That goes without saying." His good mood appearing to be restored, Crawford set his mug aside and folded his hands together. "The Elders will be very displeased when their plan fails."

"Do we really care about that?" Yohji asked as he got up to help Jo bring some platters of food to the table. "I mean, we don’t want them to find out the truth, but…." But they also couldn’t let the bastards get what they wanted, either.

Crawford snorted, amused by some thought or another. "They’d be terribly offended if they knew your opinion of them." He actually smiled before shaking his head. "I think our main objectives should be to stop the agents and keep Esset from finding out about the Shadow Guard." He glanced at Yuushi as if awaiting acknowledgement or an argument.

"I agree." Yuushi brushed aside the golden bangs falling onto his forehead and stared at the table for a few seconds. "I’ll need to talk to Birman about this; if anyone can figure out this mess, it’ll be her. We can’t hide everything, but there must be some sort of middle ground we can reach between not giving the Elders what they want while not raising their suspicions, either."

Everyone gathered at the table nodded, even Jo, as she set a plate of bacon near Aya. "I’ll pay attention to any gossip I hear at the market or from the guests."

"That would be very helpful, as I know people are sometimes uncomfortable discussing such things with the Guard." Yuushi smiled at her in appreciation before helping himself to some scrambled eggs.

While the table went quiet save for some snarled threats over the food, Yohji made sure that his and Aya’s plates were full; he couldn’t shake Jo’s offer from his head. As a respected member of the neighborhood, he was sure that she’d hear a lot of gossip that wouldn’t reach his or anyone else’s ears, which would keep them apprised of just how well the Elders’ plan was working. But could they turn gossip to their advantage?

"What if we started our own rumors, eh?" When he had everyone’s attention, he smiled and held up his hands as if in surrender. "I mean, uhm, what if we said that some wizard’s creation had gotten loose?" The people in Timbergrey hadn’t been out hunting down bounds, after all, so it could work.

Everyone merely stared at him for a minute before Reiichi laughed and patted Yuushi on the back. "See, that’s why I don’t make any blond jokes at your or Yohji’s expense."

Yuushi shrugged off his friend’s hand and appeared to be considering Yohji’s comment. "It might work. People are still very upset that a wizard was involved with the kidnapping ring and tend to think the worst of them right now." That statement prompted a sad smile from Naru.

"It is entirely plausible." Crawford fell silent for a few seconds, his eyes unfocused as Yohji felt the tingle that he associated with magic. "They won’t be happy, but it shouldn’t be expected that Kritiker wouldn’t turn the murders to its own advantage and use them as an excuse to tighten its control over its wizards."

Yohji wasn’t sure if he liked the country he was about to fight for being thought of as so ruthless, but he’d spent too much time at Court to deny that fact. What mattered in the end was defeating Esset and giving bounds some hope for the future.

"In that case, Botan needs to become involved," Aya said in between bites of bacon. "I’m sure he and Birman will be able to invent a plausible cover story, so that leaves me to ask what you want from Yohji and me." He might be sitting there looking adorable and only threatening to a piece of cooked pig, but Yohji knew his mate was determined to catch the agents.

"I’d planned for you to patrol likely areas where the agents might act next." Yuushi set down his fork as he spoke, more interested in talking and organizing than eating. "The two of you can remain hidden and perhaps sense the attacks?"

"I’d have to be pretty close to the bounds to sense their nature, and I’d only know if the death is right about to occur or already has." Aya frowned and hissed a little, but there was no answer from the shadows in the room. "Flesh and soul gaki magic isn’t as easy to sense as that of elementals or succubae because it’s not always affecting something else."

Yuushi bowed his head. "Whatever help you can give us will be greatly appreciated."

Aya grunted in response and didn’t bother saying anything else, clearly thinking on what he could do for the Shadow Guard. Yohji tucked back an eartail and left his lover alone to figure out a few things. "I can always question people, see if they’ve noticed any strangers in the area." The compulsion would be good for that, and if anyone remained uncooperative, he could always force an answer from them with his new talent.

Yuushi nodded and resumed eating his breakfast; everyone was gulping down the food as if starving, but Yohji knew it was them eating while they could. Once breakfast was over, everyone would either be on patrol duty looking for the agents or locked in the palace, discussing ways to track the bastards down. He and Aya would leave to get more rest since it was clear what they were going to be doing at night for the foreseeable future.

Reiichi offered to spend the day searching through some history books in case he could find any more information on the Elders using tactics similar to the murders in the past, and Crawford informed Yuushi that he’d be willing to meet with him, Birman and Botan later that evening. Jo returned to the table with more food, a worried expression on her face which let Yohji know that he and Aya would be in for some pampering once everyone else was gone. He could feel her unhappiness over them working and risking their lives, even though he knew that she’d never dream of stopping them.

It would almost have been a normal breakfast if not for everyone’s concern and concentration, the way that Reiichi didn’t tease Naru or Miko didn’t attempt to steal Ken’s food. Too much was at stake for jokes right now, and Yohji was willing to wager no sex for a week that everyone wasn’t happy with the fact that there would be more murders before they found enough information to track the killers. In an age where a kage was born, the crown prince was a talented wizard and bounds were in the Guard, it was hard to remember that not everything could be solved by magic or wishful thinking. No, they’d have to do things the hard way: a lot of work, effort, luck and inspired thinking, along with some heartfelt prayers. If it wasn’t for the fact that people were dying, Yohji could enjoy acting like a Guard again. Considering how the war kept advancing, it might be one of his last chances to do so.


"Stop it."

Reno’s lips had barely pulled back from his teeth when Rude whispered the admonishment, which did nothing to soothe his growing temper. Unable to actually bare his teeth in the presence of so many humans, he instead brushed his hand along the back of Rude’s black coat as if to rid it of lint or smooth away a wrinkle. Being Rude’s, the coat of course was in impeccable shape, but it at least gave Reno the opportunity to shock his partner a little in a desperate need to vent his anger *somehow*. Of course the bastard merely grunted and slanted a dirty look his way over the rims of his shaded glasses.

Since Rufus was in the middle of a swarm of bitches, Reno’s high and mighty lord and master didn’t notice the slight use of his talent. Considering how strained things had been between them lately, he doubted that Rude would tattle on him either, although he wouldn’t pull that trick again for fear of being punched through a wall once their shift was over. No, he allowed himself a few seconds to relish being a pain in someone’s ass then forced his attention back onto his job.

He truly detested these boring as hell tea parties; they were always held in some highborn’s solarium or heated garden, which meant that not only did he have to put up with a bunch of humans but sunlight as well. Today it was Rufus’ turn to host one, and since the day was warm enough they were outside. Of course the fucking weather was sunny, almost as if it was in league with Rufus to drive Reno over the edge. While he and Rude had managed to find a bit of shade to stand in while they watched over Rufus, the sunlight was taking its toll on him, leaving him feeling weaker with every passing hour. If it wasn’t for the fact that he *knew* Rufus was deliberately assigning him to these parties in hopes that he’d complain about the sun and so end up stuck inside, he’d bitch up a storm or do something to bring the party to a screeching halt. Instead, all he could do was stand there and suffer.

Across the garden, Rufus laughed at something that a brainless twit with more hair than clothes said, which made Reno grit his teeth in frustration and jealousy. So far, he hadn’t found much good in the mating bond forced on him, but at least it meant that Rufus was off-limits to other people – or should be off-limits. Fucking humans and their need to spawn squalling brats to take over the family fortunes were messing with the system, leaving Reno to stand by helplessly while a bunch of highborn women threw themselves at his mate. He didn’t care if Rufus *was* rich as hell and had ties to the royal family on his mother’s side - the bastard was in no way a good ‘catch’ and should be left alone. If it wouldn’t get him killed by Tseng, he’d go stand on a table and shout out each and every one of Rufus’ faults to scare the bitches away.

"Again, stop it."

Reno hadn’t even been aware that he’d started growling until he heard the rumbled command, which caused him to rub his gloved hands over his face and barely suppress a whine. It was beginning to be too much – sunlight, pain, humans, boredom; he just wanted to go inside and curl up someplace dark and quiet. Hell, he was even wearing gloves and had laced up his shirt all the way today, doing his best to expose as little skin as possible. Only the fact that he’d be permanently taken off guard duty if he asked not to work these parties kept him in place.

Rude’s right hand reached over and stroked along his back in a movement similar to his own just a couple of minutes before. Instead of electric shocks, however, Reno felt a bit of energy flow into him that lessened the pain the slightest bit. "Bet you just love being out in this fucking garden," he said with a chuckle, his voice pitched low so as not to be heard by anyone other than Rude.

His partner snorted once and resumed standing with his hands clasped in front of him. Rude had to be in his fucking element right now, feet firm on the ground and lots of potential weapons around. "More than you do, that’s apparent."

Reno didn’t get a chance to say anything about how unhappy he was, thanks to some high pitched giggling. Standing just past the shadows he was currently seeking refuge in were three highborn women. They were dressed in brightly colored gowns with matching hats and heavy shawls to keep any exposed skin out of the sun or from being chilled by the wind, and had doused themselves in enough perfume that he couldn’t smell any of the natural flowers that had just started to bloom. What was the fucking point of being in a garden when you couldn’t even smell all the damn flowers?

They were staring in his and Rude’s direction, being so blatant about it that he wanted to hide behind a wall of shadows. Oh great, more brainless twits who got all hot and bothered by the ‘help’, he was willing to bet. There always were one or two of them at these things, in the mood to be a bit ‘naughty’ or emboldened because of a dare from one of their friends. It didn’t help that he was standing next to a very tall, handsome guy who never failed to attract attention, and this time he only suppressed the urge to snarl by counting down how much longer the party from hell should last.

Distracted by figuring out how long they’d been there, he almost jumped when the women stepped closer to him and Rude. "You two must be hot, standing around in those black uniforms," the one with the long blonde hair cooed, reeking so strongly of gardenias that Reno wanted to gag.

"Maybe you’d like something to drink." The blonde with shoulder-length hair offered a glass of what smelled like champagne in their direction, which actually tempted Reno until they stepped even closer. The first blonde and the twit with the dark brown hair hovered near Rude, almost dwarfed by his size, while the other blonde stood right next to Reno.

"We’re fine," Rude rumbled, his face perfectly impassive and his eyes hidden by his glasses. He didn’t usually go for human women in the first place, preferring lovers who could handle his strength and stamina, so these bitches didn’t stand a chance with him. Didn’t stop them from trying, unfortunately.

Still, it was shocking that one of them seemed to be fixated on Reno, to the point that her chest brushed against his right arm as she once more offered the champagne. "We haven’t seen you drink anything during the entire party. Surely Lord Shinra won’t mind if you wet your throats a little." The perfume that she’d basically bathed in must be a mix of lilacs and musk, the stench making Reno’s throat go dry and his eyes water slightly. He was about to knock aside both the glass and the bitch holding it when Rude bumped into him.

"We’re sorry, but he would indeed mind, so we’ll have to say ‘no’." This time, Rude didn’t sound quite so polite, his voice taking on a dark tone as he stepped in front of Reno. "While we appreciate your kindness, we’d rather not be reprimanded by our lord for failing in our duty."

The women pouted, leaving Reno to wonder if they were just looking for some non-highborns to slum with or if they’d been hoping to get him and Rude into trouble. Most likely it was the latter, considering some of the shit he’d seen these people pull during what were supposed to be genteel gatherings. For a moment he was pissed off enough that he focused on their life-force, so weak when compared to Rude or Rufus’, and thought about how easy it would be to set it free. Then he could drink it in, the energy a welcome relief from the pain and exhaustion the sunlight made him suffer.

<So weak they are, fit only to be our meals. You should have nothing to do with humans other than to feed,> a shinigami crooned as it wrapped around Reno, its touch a welcome coolness. He nodded in agreement, wishing more than anything that he could put his power to use in order to either flee or destroy. So what if there was a war approaching - they didn’t need to put up with humans and their bullshit like this.

<Yes, we do. You and Rude are to go inside.> Rufus didn’t sound too happy at the moment.

Reno opened his eyes, unaware that he’d closed them once the shinigami had spoken to him. He found that the twits had moved away, standing at a nearby table with rather dazed expressions on their faces, and Rufus was glaring at him from across the garden. <We’re here to make sure that no one stabs you in the back or something, even if you deserve it,> he told his mate while doing a bit of glaring of his own.

Rufus looked away as if bored and began talking to one of his guests. <Tseng and Elena will be here in a moment. Once they arrive, you *will* go inside. I refuse to have this party ruined because of your behavior.>

Not caring if any humans heard him or not, Reno hissed in fury, wanting nothing more than to shock the idiot who was his mate. <We didn’t do anything, dammit!> A bunch of human twits tried to amuse themselves by bothering him and Rude, and Rufus bitched at *him*. As far as he was concerned, the shinigami were correct about Rufus being a brainless asshole who didn’t deserve him.

Rufus didn’t bother to give a reply, just stifled the link to the point where Reno could barely feel his lover’s emotions. About to go over there and smack the bastard, Reno found himself grabbed by the upper left arm and dragged into the sunlight. "Tseng’s here now, so let’s go."

"Dammit, Rude, you always side with him!" Reno snarled the words, at this point not wanting any more attention from the humans scattered about the garden – and noticed that no one seemed to be paying them the slightest regards. He’d bet his entire salary that Rufus was behind that, and was about to start a fight on the principle of the matter. Unfortunately, exposure to the sun left him too weak to fight against his friend, so he ended up shoved inside before he could do more than let loose a few sparks.

The relief from being out of the sun was so intense that he stopped struggling once inside. All he did was shake off Rude’s hand and give his friend a glare for a few seconds. "Ya gonna come into the bath with me to make sure I behave?"

Rude didn’t seem offended or upset by his nasty tone. "All I was told to do was get you inside, so find someone else to scrub your back." He smiled when Reno cursed at him, appearing at ease for the first time since the party had started. "And don’t forget to wash behind your ears."

Deciding that Rude didn’t deserve the anger that he felt toward Rufus and the humans outside, Reno laughed and waved at his friend as he walked away. "Yes, Mother, I’ll be good." His mood was mostly restored by the friendly teasing, that and the prospect of washing off the bitches’ stink. Eager for a bath, he didn’t even wait until he reached the room he shared with Rufus before he started stripping off his uniform, leaving behind a trail of discarded clothes.

Once in the bathroom, he locked the door to make sure that he could enjoy a nice, long soak in private. Scrubbing his skin clean would take a bit more effort than usual, considering how the stench of those three bitches clung to him. His temper continued to build as he washed himself; he’d wager whatever Rufus wanted that he’d been deliberately stuck on garden duty today, his anger flaring more at the thought of how Rufus had no problem using his weaknesses against him.

<He shouldn’t be your mate.> The shinigami were back, their phantom caresses soothing Reno’s now reddened skin. <You can be free of him.>

"I’m not too sure about that." Reno sat on the edge of the very large tub while it filled with hot water, a frown on his face as he thought about the bond between them. Even with the pain from the sunlight and the recent argument, Rufus didn’t entirely block their link, aware now of how that usually led to Reno’s two souls fighting with each other.

<You’re not meant to be tied to him! Shed your flesh, young one. You’ll never be alone if you do.>

No, he wouldn’t, and that prospect scared Reno a little. He liked the shinigami and felt comforted by their presence, but he didn’t know if he was willing to be with a ‘pack’ every minute of the day. There was also the human fear that they were wrong, that ‘shedding his flesh’ would only lead to his death. He wasn’t sure if he could do the insubstantial trick that Aya had done, not when he was weighed down with a human soul.

Not wanting to argue with the shinigami, he merely shook his head and slipped beneath the hot water to rest against the bottom of the marble tub. He didn’t know why this always made him feel better – Aya said that he’d never felt the need to submerge himself, at least not in water – but it helped to cut off the confusing world and give him a bit of peace.

Time lost all meaning while he was in the bath, especially since the tub was charmed to keep the water hot. He heard the muffled murmurs of the shinigami, most likely more pleas for him to leave Rufus, along with the beating of his heart. It was funny how still a person could be when they didn’t have to worry about breathing, and oddly comforting.

So he wasn’t very happy when an arm reached beneath the water to grab his left shoulder and yank him upward. Sputtering in surprise, he did his best to tuck aside the wet hair clinging to his face so he could glare at Rufus. "What the hell are you doing here?" Dammit, he *knew* that he’d found and hidden all the keys to the bathroom, even going so far as to substitute fake ones on Rufus and Tseng’s key rings.

"Making sure you aren’t creating more trouble," Rufus spat, the sleeves of his shirts rolled up and a disgruntled expression on his face. He pushed into Reno’s mind, the link fully restored with a rush of emotion that left Reno breathless for a few seconds. "What do you mean, you hid all the keys?"

Great, that had to be the main thought in his head just then. Reno flopped his arms about until they settled on the rim of the tub, splashing water onto the floor and Rufus. "Shouldn’t you be out there with all those bitches in heat?" he snarled, hoping that would be enough of a distraction to get them off the unwanted topic.

<The party’s over, which is why I came here to find you.> Rufus’s hold slid from Reno’s shoulder to the nape of his neck, long fingers tangling in his wet hair. <You’ve been in the tub for over an hour.>

"I’m enjoying myself, so go away." He flicked more water at his mate, nose wrinkling in distaste at the human stink that clung to Rufus. "Find your own bathroom; you *reek*."

"This *is* my bathroom," Rufus snarled, the hold on Reno’s hair tightening. "And you didn’t lock the door."

"Yes, I did. Wanted some fucking peace and to make sure no one followed me in here." Reno bared his teeth at his lover, making it clear that Rufus was included in the latter.

He expected some sort of violent reaction, a kiss, cursing or even him being shoved back under the water, so he was surprised when Rufus let go of him and got up from the tub. He watched in confusion while Rufus went to the bathroom door, excitement and hope flowing over their link, and locked the door. Rufus frowned at the lock, appearing to be concentrating on something, and actually laughed when the door unlocked and opened.

"What the hell?" Reno sat up in the tub and tried to figure out what had just happened, other than Rufus getting his fucking jollies from something simple like the door unlocking. That was a trick that only Reno and Aya could do, as far as he knew, and wondered if a spell was involved. "Did you get a new charm?"

Rufus repeated his actions again, a huge grin on his face when the door unlocked once more. "Yohji said something like this would happen; I’ve noticed that my night vision has been improving and hoped that there would be more to it than that."

"More than what?" A sinking feeling settling in his abdomen, Reno crawled out of the tub and grabbed a towel.

"That I would pick up some of your physical powers because of the bond between us. I only feed off of your emotions, not your energy, so it took longer for me than it did for him." Rufus’ own emotions were entirely too smug as he began to remove his clothes.

"Wait a second – you knew this would happen?" As did Yohji and Aya? Why hadn’t Reno’s friend said anything? His eyes narrowed in suspicion as he stared at his mate.

Rufus shrugged, his shirts dropping to the floor and his expression terribly pleased. "It’s been known to happen between mated bounds, the sharing of talents. I hadn’t thought it would go past affecting my mental talents until finally puzzling out a comment Yohji made to me about my vision improving." Once naked, he sat on the low stool and filled the basin made out of thin porcelain with warm water so he could wash before a soak.

Putting his speed to good use, Reno snatched away the basin of water and dumped it over Rufus’ head. "You. Fucking. Bastard." Then he tossed the basin aside and left the bathroom amid the loud crash of breaking porcelain, the towel threatening to fall off his hips as he stalked toward the bed.

"Dammit! That wasn’t amusing!" Rufus followed him into the bedroom, dripping water everywhere, his face mostly hidden by his wet bangs. The same time, he pushed deep into Reno’s mind looking for find the cause of his temper. <You’re upset that I’m gaining more of your abilities?>

In the process of crawling into bed, Reno threw a pillow at his incredulous lover with as much force as possible. <It’s more than just the fucking talent thing!> He struggled to make his thoughts coalesce enough so that he wouldn’t have to explain too much. <You make me be out in the damn sun all day or watch while those bitches try to fuck you where you’re standing because you want me to do something to get you out of your promise.> To do something that would mean he couldn’t be Rufus’ gokenin anymore. <You don’t give a damn how I feel about things and you just keep *taking*.> He was tied to Rufus, to *living*, and now Rufus got even more from him. Letting out a fierce snarl, he lay down and yanked the sheets over his head. It wasn’t as comforting as the bath had been, but it was dark and cool and he was alone.

That was, until the sheets were lifted to the right side of him and Rufus joined him in bed. He rolled over to present his back to his lover, the snarl returning when a wet arm wrapped around his side and chest. <To those ‘bitches’, I’m an unmarried, wealthy Lord who is neither a bound nor mated to one. For all of our sakes, I go along with the illusion that I’m human and in need of an heir. All that matters is that I’d never willingly touch one of them, as well as the fact that I couldn’t have sex with them even if I wanted.> Rufus was clearly hoping to sway him with calm reason, although he had the sense to realise that a gentle kiss to the back of the neck wouldn’t hurt, either. <And yes, I’m hoping that you’ll stop being my gokenin so you won’t have to be out in the sun, let alone interact with humans and be touched by them.> Reno wasn’t the only one snarling just then as jealousy washed over their link. <It’s safer that way.>

Rufus honestly believed that, feeling that safety was worth Reno’s boredom and frustration. Why couldn’t he see that the same thing that drove him to keep Reno safe was what made Reno insist on being at his side as much as possible?

<I… didn’t think of it like that.> Rufus sighed against the nape of Reno’s neck and hugged him closer. "This is such a fucking mess."

"Yeah, and it’s all your fault." Reno’s voice was rough from all the snarling, but he finally relaxed into his mate’s embrace. "So learn to deal with it." He wasn’t a pet, ordered to stay in the room and not make a mess.

Sighing again, Rufus stroked his hand down Reno’s chest. "We *both* have to accept that there are things we can’t change and deal with them." Such as attention from humans who didn’t know about the bond between them and how that bond made them act toward each other. It was almost as if Reno could read that thought, though he knew it wasn’t possible. At least… it wasn’t *now*.

Rufus’ emotions took a decidedly grumpy turn. <Just remember that *I* feed from you, not the other way around, so you might not pick up anything from me at all.>

"Killjoy," Reno muttered and closed his eyes. He was still tired from being out in the sun, so a nap would help restore some of that stolen energy. <You off to do more socializing today?> And by socializing, he meant drive some stupid bitches into a feeding frenzy.

<No, I think a nap right now is a good idea.>

He was left torn between the pleasure of having Rufus hold him like this while they both rested, his mate’s scent filling the air around him, and the smugness he’d sensed over his flash of jealousy. Later he’d snark about how he had little cause to be jealous at all – not over *Rufus* - but right now he didn’t have the energy to do the fight justice.



Duo took a deep breath as he stood on the landing in front of the door that led to Jei and Crawford’s apartment. He wished that the men had stayed at the Koneko – where there would be witnesses and maybe someone crazy enough to try to save him if Jei went berserk on him – instead of moving to the quiet apartment building, even if he understood the dangers of having everyone live at the same location. In a way, he should be thankful as hell that the two older bounds weren’t living in the same apartment building that he did, where he’d run into Jei every day….

Shaking his head, he attempted to focus his thoughts on what mattered, not let them wander about while he screwed up the courage to knock. Jei was an intelligent, mostly fair man. It was the fact that he also had very sharp and numerous fangs as well as claws that could slice through armor that Duo was trying to forget right about now.

His hand was hovering inches from the door when it opened up to reveal a disheveled, barely dressed Jei. "You’re annoying the hell out of me, just standing there," the flesh gaki bound growled while motioning for Duo to step inside. "That and the neighbors will believe that I’m about to be arrested."

"Sorry, I didn’t think about how it would look if I showed up in my uniform." Duo gave the man a sheepish grin and tried not to be too obvious about checking out the apartment. For quarters where two men lived, one of them with a nasty habit of gnawing on bones, the place didn’t look too bad. Must be the neat-freak, Crawford, who kept it all nice and tidy.

Jei snorted and turned around to head into what appeared to be the kitchen, dressed only in some loose underwear and an untied robe. "You should, you know. We’re not here to take in the scenery or enjoy a few parties," he snapped. For all intents and purposes, he looked and acted like someone who had just gotten out of bed, an image that was reinforced by the way he grabbed a mug of coffee off the kitchen table and gulped it down.

"Did I wake you up?" Duo had thought that now would be a great time to visit Jei, before dinner when he’d most likely be on his way out for a meal or something.

Jei shrugged and went to the counter to pour himself more coffee, finally being civil enough to offer Duo some as well. "I was up all night running errands." He didn’t elaborate at all, which was fine by Duo. More than likely, the Elders had given Jei and Crawford special assignments while they lived in Eto.

"If it’s a bad time, I can come another day." Duo accepted the mug of coffee with a nervous grin and began to edge his way closer to the door. "I mean, it’s not like what I have to say can’t wait…." He’d much rather approach the topic when Jei was in a better mood.

Grunting softly, Jei held his mug in one hand and pointed at the kitchen table with the other. "I was already up and I’d much rather get this out of the way now. You came here for a reason, so sit your ass down and tell me what it is." He bared his teeth to reinforce the order, which made Duo wonder what body part he was going to lose today.

Doing as he’d been told, Duo picked the seat farthest from the one where Jei sat and assured himself that he could jump out the window if attacked. They were four stories up, but he was pretty sure he could survive the fall as long as his throat wasn’t ripped out. "Uhm, you see…."

Jei snorted again and cut him off. "How’s Trowa? He hasn’t suffered any relapses or problems from over-extending his talent, has he?"

Duo winced since Jei had hit pretty close to what he wanted to discuss. "No, he seems to be fine." He had the impression that Trowa was using his power an awful lot considering how tired the water elemental could be and how often he appeared to be meditating instead of reading a book or sleeping, but he wasn’t questioning why that was so. Kritiker had suffered a lot of snow this winter, and now that spring was here, there was flooding from all of it melting. Or at least, there should be, something more than the minor floods that plagued the city and surrounding area from time to time.

Jei flashed him a smile filled with sharp teeth and inhaled deeply. "He’s why you’re here, isn’t he?" One second, he was sitting at the table; the next Duo found himself slammed into a wall so hard that his teeth ached and his back felt damn near broken. "Nervousness and lust, that’s not something I should be smelling from you when we’re talking about him." Jei’s mouth became impossibly wide as he pushed Duo even harder into the wall.

Great, so Duo was going to be done in by his fucking sweat glands; so much for worrying about the approaching war. He tried to argue with Jei but found it a bit difficult to breathe with the arm pressed against his throat. When he tried to burn the bastard off of him, something much too sharp pressed against his crotch. That effectively drove all the fight out of him.

Normally he wouldn’t mind too much if an attractive, albeit scarred, man was touching his balls, but he knew that Jei wasn’t into foreplay so much as mutilation where he was concerned. "No- not… ah!"

The pressure against his throat relaxed somewhat, but those sharp claws dug a little deeper. "Dammit, don’t castrate me!" he managed to yell while coughing.

Jei bared his teeth in an expression that had nothing to do with smiling. "Why not? Then Trowa won’t have to worry about you doing something with your dick that will lead to it being pulled off and shoved down your throat by me."

Angered by that comment, Duo managed a few sparks before he swore he felt the skin on his balls begin to part beneath those fucking claws. "He’s not helpless! He’d kill me long before you could!"

"That’s true." The claws pulled back a little, leaving Duo to say a quick prayer to whatever god had taken mercy on him and his manhood. Jei didn’t look ready to back off, though, not with the way he didn’t cover his teeth and his golden eye glowed. "Never forget that if you try anything. I’d slice your nuts off, but he’ll make ‘em explode."

Duo winced at the mental imagery prompted by those words and did his best to cross his legs. "He’s had no cause to even think about doing that, nor will he." Why the hell did Jei have to be so protective about the water elemental? And did Masato have to go through this shit before he got to sleep with Trowa? For a moment, he actually felt some respect for the succubae bound.

"He better not." Jei grunted again and backed off to lean against the table, claws and teeth still on display and tension in his lean body that made it clear to Duo he’d never have a chance to stop the overprotective bastard if Jei wanted to attack again. "So, why the hell are you here?"

Taking a deep breath, Duo barely resisted the urge to cup his balls to make sure they were still whole and attached. "Because I want… uhm, damn, it sounds like bullshit, but I want to court him." He chose ‘court’ because it went beyond dating; it meant more than just going out to dinner and seeing how far he could get in regards to sex. What he wanted was to make Trowa feel happy and safe, to build as much of a future as he could when things were headed straight to hell in a couple of years.

"What, you here to talk about dowries or something?" Jei’s rough voice dripped with disdain as he pointed a claw-tipped finger in Duo’s direction. "You gonna write him poetry and tell him how pretty his eyes are?"

Okay, so it hadn’t been the best choice of words but dammit, Duo didn’t deserve to be sneered at like that. "I want him to be happy! I want it to mean something more to him than going out for dinner!" It *had* to mean something more than that because despite Trowa’s past with Masato, Duo didn’t think his friend would accept something so casual.

"You want sex." Jei inhaled again, a growl rumbling in his throat. "You want him to let down his guard enough so you can fuck him. He’s already broken in, right? And they say water elemental ass is even better than succubae bound. There’s that whole rumor about self-lub-"

The vile words made something inside of Duo’s head snap, and time once more jumped forward until he found Jei stretched out on top of the table with him on top of the older bound, a ball of fire hovering over Jei’s chest and causing the skin beneath to blacken and burn. "Don’t you *ever* talk about Trowa like that!" Spittle flew from his lips onto Jei’s smiling face. Then he ended up thrown across the room before he could burn out the bastard’s heart. His head hit a cabinet hard enough to break the wood and leave him dazed.

"Oh… hell," he managed to sputter when he found himself jerked onto his feet and slammed against the wall once more. Preparing to die from having his throat torn out, he was in the process of closing his eyes when Jei stepped away and righted a chair so he could sit in it.

"Break anything else and I’ll eat your fucking toes. The last thing I need is to put up with Crawford bitching about us making a mess in here." Jei grimaced when he noticed the coffee spilled about and got up to throw a towel at Duo then motioned to the mess on the floor. He didn’t seem bothered in the least over how burnt his chest was, though the flesh was already healing.

"Then don’t insult Trowa like that." Duo could take the threats and insults toward himself, but Trowa didn’t deserve that shit. His friend had already suffered more than enough, and it *wasn’t* all about sex between them.

Jei grunted again while he cleaned the kitchen table, then poured himself more coffee. "What do you really want from him? Tell me the truth or you’ll have to use a straw to piss, Duo."

He used the time it took to clean up the floor to get his thoughts in order. "It’s like I said – I want him to be happy and I don’t want anyone to ever hurt him again. Yeah, I’d be thrilled if we could have sex, but I know that won’t happen for a long time, if ever." He wanted Trowa to trust him, to come sit by him after a long day at work and rest his head on Duo’s shoulder, to be able to touch him and hug him whenever he felt the need for some physical contact. More than anything, he wanted to make Trowa laugh and smile, to let down his guard when around Duo.

The room was quiet as it was set to rights as much as possible, Duo feeling a little guilty over the broken cabinet even though his head hurt like hell. "Are you in love with him?" Jei asked, no sarcasm or disdain in his rough voice for once.

Duo gave the question the utmost consideration, even though he was pretty sure he already knew the answer; it wouldn’t do for Jei to think that he wasn’t taking it seriously. "Yeah, I think I am." He shrugged and tossed the wet towel into the sink. "At the very least, I’m well on my way towards loving him." It was a little hard to tell, since he’d never cared that way for someone before, not in a romantic manner. Sure, he loved Solo with all his heart, but that was as a friend and a brother. Thoughts of Solo drove him on to put up with the Elders’ bullshit and to recall all the ways his friend had protected him when he’d been a child, while thoughts of Trowa made something burn inside of him and drove him to protect and cheer up the quiet man.

There was the click of sharp teeth, but Jei remained in his chair, thank the gods. "You *think*. Hmph." He sipped his coffee as the claws on his left hand tapped against the table’s top. "You’re not lying, I know that much. Now tell me this - what do you think he feels for you?" His golden eye was intent on Duo, who had the feeling that he was rather close to death right now.

"I… he lets me touch him." No sense in holding back, not when Jei really would maim or kill him if he doubted Duo’s intentions. After all, there’d been quite a few suitors for Trowa over the years and not many had gotten close enough to the water elemental to have their heads or hearts exploded. Jei had really only been reprimanded over his ‘meals’ the one time, when he ate a powerful soul gaki bound. "Not much, just little things like brushing back his hair or touching his cheek or hand, but it’s more than I’ve seen him let anyone else do." Even when Masato and Trowa had been out in public, he’d barely seen them touch each other.

"For him, that is a lot." Jei closed his eye and sipped more coffee. "I know he can look after himself, I helped train him and I’ve seen what happens when people push him too far. But someone like him can handle that, even with all he’s been through." His eye snapped open and he glared at Duo. "He won’t break if someone touches him when he doesn’t want them to and I’ve seen him shrug off some asshole trying to molest him as if he was just swatting a fly. Trowa’s strong and he’ll never let himself be used again. But he trusts you, something he never did with any of those other bastards, so you wanting just to fuck him would do more damage than a bunch of sick fucks holding him down and raping him." He was snarling by then, the sound so savage that the hair stood up on the back of Duo’s neck and on his arms.

"I know," Duo whispered. He did, too, very aware of the trust he’d gained from watching over his friend while Trowa was sick. How often in Trowa’s life had that happened? Most likely not since he was brought to the palace after his talent had manifested. "I swear to all the gods, forsaking all light and happiness if I break my word, that I will *never* hurt him like that or betray his trust. If he won’t accept me as a lover then I’ll make do as his friend." He’d honor that oath, too. There was nothing to be gained by rushing Trowa and everything to lose, more than just his precious balls and life.

Jei grunted and set his mug aside, appearing impressed despite himself. "You better hope you never regret that oath, kid." He combed his fingers through his short, white hair. "As long as Trowa wants you, I’ve got no problem with you. Hell, you can have sex in the middle of the Koneko if you want, just as long as Jo doesn’t catch you two in the act." He snorted in amusement and began to pick at the healed and now peeling skin on his chest. "Trowa’s a friend and I just want him to be happy. If being with you does that for him, I can only fault his taste in men."

"Fuck off," Duo snapped, while giving the bastard the finger, even if Jei could bite off his hand with one snap of his jaws. "I’m one hell of a catch, I’ll have you know." He was sexy and smart and none of his previous lovers had ever complained about his skills at sex… well, none after the first attempt or two….

"Right, a runt like you. If all you can get in your bed is the likes of Tan Xi, then I think Trowa is too much for you to ever hope for," Jei scoffed, his voice dripping with disdain.

"It was *one* fucking time, and I only did it to get her to leave me alone!" Duo didn’t care if he was yelling loud enough for the neighbors to hear him, or at a man who could rip his throat out with barely any effort. "And don’t you think it’s up to Trowa to decide who’s worthy of him?"

Jei waved his clawed hand about as if batting aside an annoying fly. "All that matters is that he wants you. Could be a one-legged human hermaphrodite if that’s what turns him on."

"I think it takes a bit more than that." Duo knew that his friend would never trust a human enough to want them, which was fine with him. All he wanted was… well, was Trowa. "So you’re not gonna castrate me as long as I don’t push him, right?"

Jei bared his teeth again. "Hurt him in any manner and I’ll be after your ass in a not very fun way for *you*. That I swear by all the gods and on the pain of being stuck with Crawford for the rest of my life."

"Pretty impressive oath," Duo muttered as he straightened his disheveled uniform. The knot on his head should be healed by the time he got home, although he hoped to change his clothes and take a bath before Trowa returned. He knew he smelled pretty heavily of Jei, fear and anger right now. "But that’s fine with me since you’ll never need to keep that promise." He meant it, too.

"Consider yourself warned and able to see your ass out the door without my help." Jei waved at him to leave the kitchen. "There’re better ways for me to wake up than dealing with you."

Figuring that his best chance for getting out of there in one piece was to just shut his mouth and leave, Duo nodded ‘goodbye’ and made his escape as quickly as possible. That things had gone better than he’d expected did little to soothe his various aches and pains, and he’d probably have nightmares about being emasculated for the next week or two. While he respected Jei for his devotion to Trowa, he had to wish the water elemental bound didn’t have such protective friends. At least Crawford shouldn’t give him any shit over them starting a relationship together – whenever it finally happened – other than a possible lecture or two on not letting their feelings get in the way of their mission. No, all Crawford probably cared about was pleasing the Elders and doing a good job of screwing things up for Kritiker.

Duo still wasn’t sure how happy he was with his mission, but since it allowed him to live with Trowa and start a relationship without the Elders or their lackeys looking over his shoulder, he’d do whatever he had to if it meant he got to stay in Eto. After the mission when they had to return home… he’d better win Trowa over before then, because he was certain the water elemental wouldn’t want to give anyone a means to control him and force him to do what they wanted. That meant they’d have to hide things, but Duo considered it worth any effort or headaches on his part. Touching the still very sore back of his head, he winced when he realized his resolve was literal.

Still, he knew deep inside that Trowa was more than worth all this pain and effort. Just the thought of going home to their apartment, smelling Trowa’s scent mingled with his own, made the pain fade away and hastened his step. Now he was going home to a friend, but with a lot of patience and luck, one day it would be to his lover.


Dressed in the blue robe he’d put on after his bath, Yohji stood in front of his dresser and opened the second drawer from the top. Getting dressed for a mission was a bit tricky; the impulse was there to dress in head to toe black, which would look suspicious as hell if he had to talk to anyone. Yet he didn’t feel comfortable wearing light colored clothes even if he knew that Aya’s shadows would keep anyone from noticing him. So he settled for a pair of dark blue pants and a tunic that had a dark grey body with dark blue sleeves. Hopefully, he wouldn’t need to talk to anyone who wasn’t his mate or in the Shadow Guard, but it was best to be prepared. Even if he realized that they wouldn’t find the agents tonight, he’d been trained to always be ready for whatever happened on an assignment.

"What are you going to wear?" The outfit held in his right hand, he turned to find his lover staring out of the bedroom window onto the garden below, wearing a robe as well. Its scarlet color clashed a little with the ragged crimson hair that brushed against its collar, but it set off the rest of Aya’s exotic coloring just perfectly. Yohji smiled in appreciation and set the clothes on top of the dresser so he could go over to his mate.

Why did it seem that Aya was meant to fit against him so perfectly whenever he hugged his lover, his mouth in the perfect spot to whisper into a pale ear… or give it a quick kiss. "What are you looking at, hmm?"

"I was just thinking that soon the fireflies will be back," Aya purred as he leaned against Yohji. "Soon the garden will be filled with their light, as well as people chasing after the poor things."

Yohji snorted and hugged Aya a little closer. "I distinctly recall you being one of those people last summer." While he was going to miss the snowball fights they’d had this past winter, he had to admit that it was almost as much fun running around in the twilight with Aya, chasing after flickering lights and easily finding a dark enough spot to steal a kiss or three. In fact… he looked over to the left to see how the lavender patch was doing. It was just the beginning of spring, and while a few flowers and trees had already bloomed, the lavender wasn’t quite ready to do so yet. No, he’d have to wait a few more weeks until the patch was in full bloom, the fragrant flowers almost as heady a scent as that of his mate and the musk of sex. He grinned in anticipation and kissed Aya on the left temple.

Aya was quiet for a moment, then sighed, sounding a little tired even though he’d spent most of the day asleep. "The days keep getting longer. I’ll have to wait more and more to be able to go out and chase them with you."

"Hmm." That was a downside to summer – the clear, sunny days that stretched on almost forever, the sun bright and hot. Yohji frowned as he thought about doing his best to keep his mate in the shade to prevent pale skin from burning. "We need to buy some nice big hats for you." He couldn’t resist tugging on an eartail as he spoke. "Ones with very wide brims."

"Yotan," Aya snarled, more amused than angry even if he gave Yohji’s hand a rather strong whap. "I know enough to not be out in the sun all day."

"Sure you do, that’s why you ended up sunburned several times last year." Sensing his mate’s growing anger, Yohji sighed and shook his head. "Yeah, well, you won’t get too much of a chance to play in the sun for a while." It wasn’t the best topic to change to, but it did get them off the one about Aya’s reaction to sunlight before Yohji’s hand got bitten.

Aya grunted softly and turned to face Yohji. "No, we’re not dealing with over-confident humans this time. They’ll be doing their best to blend in and leave as few clues behind as possible." His eyes took on a silver cast. "This is what they’re trained to do, after all."

Yes, and it was something that Aya was trained to do as well, Yohji couldn’t help but remember. In a way, Aya should have a lot of insight into how the agents would act and go about their mission. They wouldn’t be able to hide themselves in shadows and they wouldn’t expect another bound to try to track them down, so there was some hope that they’d be caught before too long.

"It’s a little odd, hunting our own kind like this." Yohji tucked back the ragged bangs falling onto his lover’s face, thinking for a moment on how Aya’s hair didn’t seem able to be cut straight. Then his thoughts grew serious once again. "I wonder if they’ll figure out that the Guards aren’t all human."

"Hopefully not until it’s too late." Aya draped his arms over Yohji’s shoulders, his eyes heavy-lidded and his lips parted slightly. "But we should act as if they do know about us since it would be safest."

Feeling desire well up inside of him as he stared at his mate, Yohji tightened his hold around Aya’s waist. "I don’t think anyone will be taking any chances on this assignment, not when the targets are from Esset." He took a deep breath to calm down, only to have it heighten the desire when he inhaled Aya’s intoxicating scent. "Ah, Cat, I think it’s time for us to get dressed."

"Hmm, I have to disagree." Aya stepped closer and nuzzled Yohji’s jaw. "I think it’s time for you to feed, personally."

The words made Yohji’s nerves tingle and his cock twitch; he’d been very good about not feeding today since Aya had felt tired and they had to work tonight. "That can wait until we return from work." Oh gods, would it be a long night….

"No." Aya nipped at Yohji’s chin and rocked their groins together. "You’ll feed now so you won’t be so tired tonight."

Taking a deep breath, Yohji pushed his mate away. "And no again, I won’t feed from you and leave you feeling exhausted. Get dressed, Aya." No matter how hungry he felt, he wasn’t going to risk draining his lover when they were hunting other bounds.

Aya made a spitting sound like a furious cat, his eyes glowing in the room’s dim light. "Don’t be an idiot, Yotan. I can sense that you’re hungry, so eat!"

"And I can feel that you’re tired, dammit!" Yohji tossed the shirt he was about to wear onto the floor. "You haven’t fed in a couple of weeks!"

"No, I haven’t, and I can go several more without really needing to do so." Aya stalked across the room, shadows furling out around him like a wind-tossed cloak. "And there’s always a chance that I can feed during the assignment, you idiot!"

Pissed off that he was being insulted over showing some concern for the pigheaded, masochistic fool he considered his lover, Yohji folded his arms over his chest and glared right back. "Exactly, how can you fight if you’re weak from hunger?"

Aya hissed so loudly that Yohji’s abused left shoulder twinged in phantom pain. "I can feed *while fighting*! All it takes is one death, by anyone’s hand, and I’ll have more than enough energy to finish the damn fight! Can you say the same?" Shadows writhed around the wall and Aya wasn’t the only thing hissing right now, which threatened to keep Yohji’s temper boiling since he never was too happy to be slandered by a bunch of jealous shinigami. Then he figured out what Aya was implying and actually blushed a little.

"Ah…. fuck." Yeah, as much as he hated to admit it, Aya had a point. He’d grown so used to his talent that he forgot that Aya could pretty much feed anywhere – unlike him. Running his hands through his hair, he looked at his furious mate. "What happens before you get that rush of energy, huh?"

Aya snapped his teeth together so hard that it was a miracle that he didn’t chip one of them. "I’ll leave the initial attack to you, all right? I don’t see the point in both of us being a bit drained when I’m the one who can benefit from any fighting that occurs." He let out his breath in a slow hiss and stepped closer to Yohji, the emotions flowing over their link not so upset anymore. "We’ve talked about this before, Yotan."

"Yeah." They had, too, but that hadn’t been when they were facing trained agents from Esset. Realizing that he was being a bit over-protective, Yohji bridged the space between them and slid his arms around Aya’s waist. "I don’t like it when you’re tired, okay? Especially when we have a mission."

There was no way a shrug should ever appear so elegant, but Aya managed that feat with ease. "It’s more from all the excitement over Mari’s naming and cleaning up the Koneko than anything. Sleeping through the days for the foreseeable future should help in that regard."

Yes, but Aya would be using his power during that same time period, Yohji thought to himself. However, he figured that he’d point that out another time since he was very certain he’d get bitten in a bad way if he continued the fight now. There was also the fact that they were supposed to meet up with Declan and Cerise in about an hour. "I hope you realize that I’ll be cheering Jo on while she stuffs you with food for the next couple of weeks." He smiled at the way Aya’s faint smile turned into an annoyed frown at that bit of news. "Also, we don’t have much time before we have to start working."

The frown morphed into a sexy grin that would have been utterly beyond Aya this time last year. Yohji purred in response, the sound growing stronger when Aya’s fingers threaded through his hair. "I have faith that you’ll manage something."

"Oh hell, I will." Yohji waggled his eyebrows as he moved them closer to the bed. "The awesome dick and I will never let you down!" he teased, his hands busy undoing the belt of Aya’s robe. Ah well, they needed to be naked to get dressed anyway, he told himself to appease the very faint sense of guilt he felt. Then he focused on his mate’s emotions, all that brilliant love, desire and need that rushed into him, that made his hunger sharpen and nerves tingle.

The robes hit the floor before they fell onto the bed, Aya actually laughing as he tumbled onto the soft mattress. That only made Yohji’s hunger flare even stronger, teased as it was by a rush of sunlight pouring into him. He felt so alive just then, consumed by his need and love for Aya, joyous over the link between them that bound them so closely together.

Pushing his mate onto his right side, Yohji spooned behind him while putting his talent to use. It wasn’t much of a compulsion, just enough to make Aya’s desire more intense, Aya’s pleasure more heightened. For a moment, he imagined them laying on the bed facing each other but in opposite directions, his lips brushing along Aya’s cock while his lover’s mouth wrapped around his own. There was a sharp pang of longing, which he quickly smothered while he reached for the lube. Aya had come a long way in the past year, but it would take a bit more time before they could do something like that. Besides, what Yohji had in mind was rather enjoyable.

"Yotan," Aya growled, frustration creeping into his emotions as he writhed on the bed.

"Patience, Cat." Yohji smiled at his mate and twisted open the ceramic jar so he could scoop out some lubricant. Once the jar was back on the nightstand, he settled behind Aya, the slick fingers of his right hand searching out that hidden heat while his left hand crept over his lover’s hip.

Aya’s answering growl was just too cute, the sound turning into a pleased purr when Yohji began to stroke his cock. Grinning at how easy it was to ‘tame’ this particular feline, Yohji quickly prepared his lover, slick fingers twisting about while he paid careful attention to what Aya was feeling. He didn’t want too much at once, but the point of this was to be a quick ‘meal’ that they could both enjoy.

Another frustrated growl let him know that Aya considered himself more than ready, so Yohji removed his fingers and nestled against his mate’s scarred back. Pressing kisses along Aya’s neck and shoulder, he adjusted himself and slowly pushed inside, his breath catching in his throat as his cock was gradually surrounded by clenching heat. "Fuck… so good." No matter how many times they did this, it always took him by surprise just how incredible Aya felt, the way he sunk into his lover’s body as if drawn in. His left hand tightened around Aya’s cock as his mind grew blank with pleasure.

"Yotan," Aya repeated, sounding just as breathless as Yohji felt.

"I know." Yohji pressed a lingering kiss to the side of his lover’s neck then moved, pulling back slowly only to snap his hips forward. Tomorrow, they could have torturously slow sex until Aya clawed his back raw, but not tonight. No, this was just something to whet his appetite and leave him energized enough that he could properly protect his mate.

Putting his talent to use, Yohji continued to heighten the pleasure that Aya felt, making each sharp thrust and tight stroke even more potent. That caused the sunlight to race into him, a never-retreating tidal wave of ecstasy that strengthened everything he felt as well, the sensations so potent that everything but them faded away. They were linked together by those sensations, those emotions, the binds between them growing tighter and tighter with each passing second. As powerful and satiating as the ecstasy could be, the love he felt only sweetened it and made it so much better that he couldn’t even recall what it had been like to feed from someone other than his mate.

Aya cried out, his body slick with sweat and limbs trembling, eyes tightly closed as he did his best to reach back for Yohji and pull him closer. Yohji entangled their left legs together as best he could and not slow the relentless thrusts, determined to make them both feel as wonderful as possible. His hand slid down Aya’s cock to cup his mate’s balls; at the same time, he pressed his teeth against the throat arched for him. The possessive touches caused a blazing arc of ecstasy in Aya, so powerful that Yohji could feel it as if it seared from his groin to his neck and back again. Aya’s hips slammed backward, the only warning he had that his lover was about to come, and then he was overwhelmed by burning sunlight. As his nerves sizzled under the ecstatic assault, he growled out Aya’s name and came as well.

The only problem with ‘quick’ sex was that it usually was so potent that neither of them could do much of anything for a few minutes afterwards. Yohji chuckled once he had enough breath to do so, reflecting on how the *last* thing he wanted to do right now was get out of bed. Judging from what he felt over their link, Aya wasn’t in any better shape, either.

"Your idea, you know," he said, before licking the wonderfully dark bruise on Aya’s neck.

He got a not so eloquent grunt in response and knew his mate was glaring behind closed eyelids. Chuckling again, he forced himself to move from his lover, the pain he felt from leaving Aya’s body not really a physical one. A little unsteady on his feet, he went to the wash basin to clean himself off, then returned to the bed with a wet cloth. "All right, I will admit that I feel a bit better now." The lethargy he felt was in response to the orgasm and was already fading away, leaving him feeling energized and ready to rip into pieces with his bare hands anyone who tried to harm Aya.

"Oh, I’m so glad." Aya snorted for added emphasis as if the sarcasm hadn’t been enough, even if his emotions were rather happy and sated right now. Reno really was being a bad influence, Yohji thought with a smile as he cleaned his mate.

"You gonna be okay?" He sat back on his heels and watched Aya slowly sit up. Once his lover was facing him, he tenderly tucked back the bangs falling onto Aya’s still flushed face. "We can be a bit late."

"No." Aya grabbed Yohji’s right hand and gave it a sharp nip followed by a kiss. "We agreed to meet them so we’ll be on time." With a low moan, he forced himself off the bed and went to the wash basin to finish wiping himself off.

Yohji stayed on the bed for another minute, watching his mate, the demon part of him pleased that Aya would spend the night smelling so strongly of him and sex. Then he hoped that they didn’t run into Li or any other of the succubae bounds in the Shadow Guard tonight and got off the bed as well. Picking his clothes off the floor, he finished getting ready and didn’t have to wait long for Aya to dress in his usual black and dark grey.

"We have a couple of minutes to stop by the kitchen and grab something for you to eat on the go," he sternly informed Aya, wanting his mate to recover some of the energy he’d just fed on. Aya appeared a little put out by the order but didn’t argue. Instead, he bumped their shoulders together and gave Yohji a tired grin before heading down the steps.

Following in his lover’s wake, Yohji smiled and just barely resisted the urge to swat Aya’s ass. No sense in starting another fight this evening, especially when they both were in such good moods. Not even the reason behind them going out tonight could dampen his spirits right now, not when his body still tingled from delicious sunlight and Aya’s love for him flowed over their mental link.

As potentially damaging as the Esset agents’ actions could be, at least now Yohji had an excuse to spend almost all his time with Aya. He was happy when they worked together, the trust between them so strong and reassuring. As long as he managed to not be an over-protective idiot during their searches, things should be fine. They’d do their best to track down the murdering bounds as quickly as possible and then hopefully be left in peace for a little while.

First things first, though… and that was going out into the city to look for the proverbial needle in a haystack. Now Yohji’s good mood dampened slightly, not even recovering when Jo took one look at Aya and told him that he wasn’t stepping foot outside the inn without taking a couple of sandwiches and some cookies with him. Yohji did manage to smile in the face of Jo’s wrathful glare, knowing that she wasn’t as angry with him as she appeared. After living with a mated succubae bound for almost a year, she was well aware that he needed to feed.

Almost a year… while it seemed a bit selfish of him, Yohji hoped they found the bounds soon. Just a few weeks and it would be the anniversary of when Aya had come to the Koneko, a date he planned to celebrate in thanks to the gods for bestowing so much love and happiness in his life. He wanted there to be no doubt whatsoever over how grateful he was to have Aya as his mate, and he’d always been a sucker for parties, he thought with a wry grin while sneaking a couple of cookies for himself. That action earned him a glare from his mate, which was only appeased when he offered a cookie and a kiss to Aya.

"Tell the truth, you love those cookies more than you do me," Yohji murmured, as he licked at the crumbs that clung to his lover’s lips.

Aya smiled and stepped away. "No, they’re just a close second. It’s Jo’s butter cream frosting that I love more than you," he tossed over his shoulder before heading for the door.

Laughing at how he’d been put in his place, Yohji followed, more than willing to argue about his – and the amazing dick’s – many virtues on their way to the Eastern quarter.


Wufei got up from his reading chair when Hein showed Gong Li into the library. The small-boned soul gaki bound bowed deeply before handing him a small basket with a floral fabric draped over its top. He could smell the fragrant tea inside of it, a jasmine blend that he was known to favor. "Good evening, Gong Li."

"Good evening, General Wufei." Gong Li bowed again then stood up straight, her eyes flickering to the camouflaged wards that hung on the library’s walls. "How are you?"

"Fine." There was a bit of a growl to his voice as he wondered how long they’d waste precious time with such trivialities; while she didn’t always come here for an important reason, mindful of not setting a dangerous precedent, Gong Li often brought him very useful pieces of news. "The wards are still functional and you know my people can be trusted." Quatre made sure of that fact on a weekly basis.

"I’m sorry." She didn’t quite relax, but some of the tension left her shoulders. "I have a message from Crawford."

He managed to not say that was why he assumed she was here, knowing that any sarcasm on his part would just fluster the dark-haired bound. Gong Li trod carefully here in Berin, being a bound with a relatively ‘weak’ demon soul and having her twin brother turn ‘traitor’. Xao Li had fled Esset over a decade ago, appearing to leave his fraternal twin sister behind in his rush for freedom. Since neither of them were considered powerful, the Elders hadn’t been upset enough over Xao Li’s desertion to punish the man’s sister, and even allowed Gong Li some measure of importance for proving her loyalty to them over her own blood.

What they didn’t know was that while the siblings weren’t powerful mind readers on their own, they had a link between them that was unbreakable and undetectable. No matter how far apart they were, they could clearly read each other’s thoughts. Gong Li had remained behind so that any of Wufei’s fellow conspirators in Kritiker could send an emergency message to Berin if there was a need. They were careful not to use the twins too often, though, reluctant to risk exposure of their most reliable means of communication.

So he took a deep breath and motioned for her to have a seat, which Gong Li declined with a quick shake of her head, the shorter black strands around her face fanning out with the curt motion. "Thank you, but I’m merely bringing you a gift from Lord Raberba-Winner who sends his apologies for not seeing you today." Her lips twitched slightly, a rare glint of humor on her part since she knew Wufei and Quatre enough to know that such a gift and the foolish reason behind it was meaningless to them.

"If you see him, tell him that I’ll be sure to think fondly of him as I sip the tea or whatever nonsense I’m supposed to utter in thanks." He grimaced in disgust and barely kept himself from tossing his hands up in the air. Really, all the stupid things they had to do to keep their true motives hidden could be very aggravating at times. "Now, what’s the message?"

Gong Li bowed, just her head this time, her waist-length hair sliding over the shoulder of her silk tunic. "It appears that the Elders have sent two bounds, one definitely a flesh gaki and another possibly a soul gaki, to Eto with orders to kill humans and leave their corpses to be found. Crawford believes it’s to cause the people of Kritiker to hate bounds and drive out any who reside in the country." All traces of humor had left her demeanor while she recited the message.

He didn’t need to hear much more to figure out why he was being informed of this. "I’m to find out who the bounds are, I assume?" As if he didn’t have enough to deal with right now, between the Elders’ desire for him to be a living ornament in their presence and Quatre’s idea about the royal heir.

"Yes." She nodded once and straightened up again. "The Shadow Guard is investigating the murders, but it would help if they have an idea of who they are looking for."

Wufei let out a sharp, aggrieved breath. Dammit, he couldn’t read minds and he wasn’t a known gossip, so Quatre would have to do most of the work. If his lover wasn’t busy with some inane party that Anthony was holding in the Elders’ honor, Gong Li would probably have given the message in person to Quatre. Unless Crawford had seen something and given appropriate instructions…. "Did Crawford specify that I was to look into the matter?"

Gong Li shook her head at the barked question, the hint of a smile back on her lips. "I was to give it to either you or Lord Quatre, but could only manage a few brief words with him today." She brushed back her hair and seemed to wait to see if he had any more questions or instructions. "Is there anything else? I’ve conveyed the message that was passed on to me."

Knowing that she probably had several other errands to run, he nodded and managed to summon up a grateful smile. "Thank you. I hope to be contacting you for some remarkably silly reason soon so you can pass the needed information back to Crawford." This time it was his turn to bow; while the Elders focused on power, the ‘weak’ bounds such as Gong Li were proving invaluable to the sadists’ downfall. "Oh, wait." He reached into his pouch to pull out several silver coins. "Appearances, I suppose," he said, as he gave her the coins in return for her ‘errand’. Low ‘ranking’ bounds had to support themselves in Berin, often by working for those more powerful; although Gong Li didn’t pass on the messages for money, she still gave up time that could be spent earning the coin that kept her fed and clothed.

"Hmm, they can be useful at times, General." Gong Li tilted her head to the side and gave him a true smile before leaving the room.

Alone again, he removed the covering from the basket and inhaled the tea’s delicious scent. He’d ask one of the servants to brew a pot for him now that he had something more important to do than read up on Court etiquette. As much as it grated on his nerves, he’d have to invite a few people to tea tomorrow… including Alexis. While Quatre was still trying to get a proper feel of the woman’s true loyalties, Wufei believed that she would be the one to know if any flesh gaki bounds had left Berin on a mission lately. Too bad her mental wards were too strong for Quatre to take the information from her head without her notice.

Despite the gravity of the situation, as well as the current lack of leads, Wufei felt energized by the ‘request’. Nothing galled him more than being useless, and that was how he felt at times. There was no way he’d be able to leave Berin before the war, denied the escape that Trowa, Crawford and Jei had taken. No, he was kept here as a means to control Quatre and to help plan for the upcoming battles. As the war drew closer, he would be of more use to those he falsely served, but the wait was getting to him. It was clear that things had already been set into motion and he’d believed until now that he had little part in the ‘small’ beginnings that would lead to changing the history of at least two countries and one race. Now he had an important task – two, if Quatre’s mad scheme paid off - which helped to put his restless soul at ease. Always one to rather be ‘doing’, he grabbed the basket and strode off to the kitchen, already working on the list of people he’d send invitations to later. If he *had* to be disgustingly social and proper, at least he could placate his pride with the fact that he was being traitorous as hell at the same time.

Revolution via shrimp puffs and tea. Dammit, Quatre had infected him with the nonsense, he thought with a fierce frown. The man would pay, oh yes, but the shame of it was that Quatre would do so quite happily. Wufei sniffed in disdain and hoped that things such as this were left out of the history books.


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