Bindings

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chapter three

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plots and death

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Botan noticed the size of the carafe of coffee sitting on the middle of the table and arched an eyebrow. "Is it going to be that bad a meeting?"

Birman smiled and motioned for him to sit down. Yuushi was already there, having no right to look so awake and in that good a shape when Botan was very well aware of how many hours he put into the Shadow Guard. Off to the side of the room, Trowa was a quiet presence organizing various files, and Birman left her desk to join them at the table. "Let’s just say that I’m sure we all want to be very awake for this meeting." She sounded a little tired herself, once more stretched between her duties as Spymaster and assisting Yuushi with the Shadow Guard.

Feeling a bit guilty that his work usually wasn’t as demanding as that of his friends, Botan bowed his head and took his seat. "I’m sure Omi will appreciate me not falling asleep during his lesson today." Now that Nagi had returned from Esset, Omi was more insistent than ever to learn as much magic as he could; to think that Botan had worried that his prized student would be too distracted to study properly.

Yuushi chuckled and poured the three of them some coffee. "Naru’s actually jealous that Omi knows more spells after just a few months than he learned in a couple of years. For Omi’s sake, he better not try to join the Shadow Guard!"

No, Botan could easily see the youthful-appearing Guard acting like an angry bound trying to prove he was the stronger of the two to a very amused – and powerful – Omi. Smiling at the image, he accepted the mug of coffee and nodded in thanks. "Since we’re drinking coffee and not whiskey, I assume that the agents haven’t been found."

"I’m afraid not." Yuushi’s smile vanished, leaving him once again the very intense young man that Botan knew well. "It’s not as if I’d expected them to be tracked down so easily, but I’m disheartened by the fact that we’ve found *nothing* as of yet."

Birman appeared just as frustrated as the young Captain sounded. "We haven’t found anything in the Gate records that might give us a lead, which strengthens the belief that one of them is a soul gaki bound. They probably hid their true appearances or even made the Guards on duty not notice them."

"The wizard who creates a spell to detect bound magic will be a very famous and wealthy one," Botan sighed. He’d even tried to do that himself, before he realized that his daughter was a bound. As much as it would help people in cases like this, such a spell would be too dangerous to bounds in the long run. "I thought you were working on having bounds stationed at all the Gates."

Birman’s lovely face went impassive; she only looked like that when she wanted nothing more than to kill someone and put the body on display. "I am, but we’ve run into interference from Kikyou."

"We’re currently approaching some of the older Guards who we trust to ask them to ‘retire’ until they’re called back for the war," Yuushi explained when it was clear that Birman was too furious to do so. "That’ll leave enough openings that we can recruit more people and rearrange assignments to have a bound stationed at each of the Gates for at least one shift a day." He shook his head and combed his fingers through his hair, a slight frown on his face. "I’ve been told more bounds are willing to join since most in the last class passed, but it’ll probably take a couple of years before we’ve enough in the Shadow Guard to always maintain their presence at the Gates."

"It’ll happen, though. While Manx plays her games with the Army and prepares for the birth of her child, I’m binding the king with as many promises as I can to ensure that the Shadow Guard lasts long after the war." It was a good thing that Birman’s mug was empty since she put it back on the table with a bit more force than necessary.

Trowa spoke up for the first time since Botan had entered the room, his face as impassive as Birman’s and half hidden by his reddish-brown hair. "More bounds will be fleeing Esset soon and seeking sanctuary in Eto. I’m sure you’ll have all the recruits you need within the next year," he said, as he placed a stack of papers to the right of Birman then retreated back to the filing cabinets. With the dark green of his tunic, he blended into the shadows almost as well as Aya could, yet Botan felt a faint hint of attraction that he usually associated with being near Neely. It wasn’t anything sexual in nature, at least not for him, but it made him want to pay attention to the bound instead of what his friends were saying. Thankfully, Cassandra had taught him a couple of mental exercises that allowed him to focus his mind on the current discussion and not Trowa.

"We’ll have to be more careful of who’s told about the Shadow Guard, but yes, I believe you’re right, Trowa." Birman nodded and checked the papers quickly, a slight smile returning to her face. "Try to quit working for me so you can join them and I’ll have you chained to the filing cabinets."

Botan was taken aback at first by the joke, aware that to many bounds the issue of their freedom was a sensitive one, but Trowa actually chuckled and bowed his head. "I promise not to pull a ‘Reiichi’ on you."

"Good, though I’ll order the chains just in case. I don’t trust those ‘blue coats’ as far as I can throw them." It was clear from the teasing between them and the smiles on their faces that Birman and Trowa had developed some sort of affection for each other, which made Botan happy to see. His friend needed someone who could help her with all the hard work that had been dumped on her because of the approaching war, who could also handle her ‘quirky’ sense of humor.

Yuushi grunted and pointed his right index finger at Birman. "Just accept the fact that we won that round, and be aware that some of our new recruits are quite skilled in lock picking – as is Reiichi."

Normally at this point, Botan would be calling his friends ‘children’ and chiding them to focus on work, but he figured they needed to let off a little steam. The situation between the ‘blue coats’ and the formerly ‘green coats’ had deteriorated lately, causing headaches for all involved and then some. That the Spymaster and a Captain, even if a largely unrecognized one, were working so closely together spoke volumes about what could be accomplished if one simply recognized the gravity of what awaited them in the future. Too bad that not enough people truly believed that Esset was more than ready to wage war on Kritiker.

"I’m sure Reiichi will be quite pleased to know that he’s still being fought over to this day," Botan said, a little reluctant to break into the conversation but also aware that numerous things needed to be done today.

"And I’m certain that he’s well aware of it." Yuushi shook his head even as he smiled. "Because of his injury, he can’t be put on patrol unless necessary, so he’s spending his time assisting the Elrics in finding out as much information as possible about the Elders and any orders they might have issued during the War."

"That information will be very valuable in trying to anticipate future attacks." Birman pulled a piece of paper from the pile. "I would love to have some sort of insight on how they’ll react when we redirect their attempt at discrediting bounds."

Botan felt what remained of his amusement vanish, replaced by frustration and a sense of guilt. "Are the rumors already being spread about an escaped magical experiment?" His people were supposed to keep track of such things, but news always reached the Spymaster first.

"Yes." Birman gave him a sympathetic look, well aware that he wasn’t pleased with the plan. "While there is talk of the murder being a result of a ravenous bound, there’s also rumor about a deranged attacker and a monster created by magic." She passed the paper over to him. "The belief is that whatever caused the murders in Timbergrey has made its way to the capital."

He felt the coffee in his stomach churn as he read the paper, upset that his own kind were taking the blame for something that they were innocent of… *this* time. In a way it balanced out the crimes committed in Timbergrey and covered up because the wizards involved were of royal blood. The gods definitely believed in a balance of sorts.

"There seems to be some debate on if the creature made its way here or was brought by a wizard." He held up the piece of paper then folded it and tucked it into the leather pouch on his belt when Birman nodded her permission. "Is there a preference for either story?"

"No." She didn’t appear the slightest bit guilty as she spoke, but then again, she’d always done whatever was necessary to protect her king and country. "When creating rumors, it’s best to put out the barest bones of a story and let people embellish them as they will."

Of course, because people would twist the story anyway as time went on. "Please keep me updated on all rumors."

Birman finally showed some emotion, the tiniest bit of sorrow. "I truly appreciate your cooperation on this matter, Botan."

He knew she did, and that was in part why he was allowing her and Yuushi to go along with this plan. "I won’t say that it won’t benefit me in some manner." He took a deep breath, his hands cupping the cooling mug of coffee in an attempt to capture its escaping warmth. "Jens Trautmann’s involvement in the kidnapping ring has made it clear that at least a few wizards are breaking the rules we’ve sworn to obey." Once word had spread about the man’s conviction and execution, a handful of wizards had fled the city, including Sreedhar Razak. Unfortunately, Botan didn’t have the authority to keep close enough tabs on all the known wizards in Kritiker unless he had some sort of proof that they were breaking the law, not when his predecessors had weakened the position of Royal Wizard over the centuries. Some of the people awarded that title had felt that more progress could be made if they weren’t forced to follow such strict guidelines.

"There should be enough of an outcry over the situation that I can investigate a few wizards whom I suspect of using bound and human blood to cut corners." That he had to resort to a basically underhanded method to do so left him with a bitter taste in his mouth – at least until he thought about Cassandra and his daughter. He could all too well imagine what a wizard like Razak would do if he had either of those two women captive.

Yuushi leaned back in his chair, a grim look on his face as he stared into his empty mug. "I’m afraid you’ll have to get used to things like this. Some of my people have expressed their fears over wizards finding out about the Shadow Guard or taking advantage of the bounds fleeing into Kritiker. They are very well aware of how much free rein wizards were given during the Binding War in hopes of creating new weapons and believe that some will try to do the same in this war by using bound blood. It would be best to identify those wizards now and hamper their ability to work undetected." When Botan and Birman stared at him in surprise, he shrugged and reached for the carafe. "What? You think I can live so long with Reiichi and not have some of his cleverness rub off on me?"

"Maybe I should have some of my people room with him for a few months," Birman mumbled as she wrote something down on a piece of paper.

As much as Botan hated to admit it, Yuushi was right. If it were another person who held his position now, bounds could be facing a new wave of persecution in hopes of creating and refining spells powerful enough to defeat Esset. Which would only make bounds flee from Kritiker, probably back to Esset to strengthen its army. "I’m hoping to prevent such abuses as soon as possible. It’s not going to be an easy task." No, he’d have his work cut out for him and probably gain a fair bit of hatred from his own kind. That didn’t change the fact that wizards needed to learn that bounds weren’t magical constructs but beings that felt emotions and thought for themselves. Or that humans weren’t to be broken down into components that would strengthen a spell. War tended to bring out the best and the worst in people, and wizards often went to either extreme in their desire to create new spells.

"I wonder when my kind will realize that a battle will be fought in which they’ll only play a minor role," he thought aloud. This time, bounds would take the center stage, so to speak, using their magics that often thwarted a wizard’s spells… or in the case of Aya and Reno, completely negated them. Things would change greatly because of the approaching war, and he was well aware how little people liked change, especially wizards.

"I wonder when they’ll realize that bounds will no longer allow themselves to be hunted down and bled for a wizard’s convenience." Judging from the way all three of them jumped, no one had noticed when Trowa had approached the table with another stack of papers.

"There might be more than one war in the future." Birman sighed, then managed a smile in thanks for Trowa’s hard work. "Things will be very bloody if the Elders manage the return of their creator."

As impassive as Trowa’s face had been before, now it appeared as if a mask carved from marble for all the emotion it displayed. "Crawford will see to it that they don’t. I believe Jei has some opposition to the plan as well."

While his face was utterly devoid of emotion, Trowa’s voice contained a hint of roughness from everything he must be suppressing. Botan thought that he finally understood why the young man so willingly followed Crawford, just from the slightest reveal of pure conviction.

"Not to show a lack of faith in either of those gentlemen, but it would be best if we don’t rely solely upon them." Birman began to hand papers to Botan and Yuushi. "One of the things I’ve been arranging, with Eri and Trowa’s assistance, are safe houses scattered throughout the city. I don’t want all of the responsibility of housing bounds in need to fall on the Koneko, not when it’s essential to Kritiker’s success in the war that Esset is prevented from finding out about the inn. If you’re unsure of any bound’s loyalty, arrange for them to stay at one of the other places." She looked at him and motioned toward the list. "I’m assuming that you’ll share it with Cassandra."

"Of course." And if he knew his lover, she would be waiting at the door to be given a kiss *and* the list when he visited her this afternoon. That image restored his good mood and his conviction that he was doing what was best, no matter if some of his kind would consider him a traitor.

Yuushi stared at the sheets with something like suspicion for a few seconds. "I’m not sure if Jo will be relieved that she doesn’t have to feed the entire bound population or slighted over this, so I’m not going to be the one to tell her about the safe houses." He folded the papers and tucked them inside his dark blue coat.

"Wuss," Birman teased.

"No, merely blessed with a great sense of self-preservation," Yuushi shot back with a charming smile.

Botan was beginning to understand the rumors about the two being lovers, and even wished that they were true. The fact that Birman was too busy with work lately to spend any time with her married lover actually made him happy since he felt his friend deserved better. While he had the suspicion that Eri would do her best to ensure that Birman was never more than friends with Yuushi, it would be a good thing if she found someone else to love.

"You’ve got that, ‘I’m meddling with the fate of mortals’ gleam in your eye, you old lecher." Birman grinned and tapped her fingers against her mug. "Behave yourself."

"As a certain beautiful and wise lady’s irrepressible son would say, ‘there’s no fun in that’." He grinned at his friend in as cheeky a manner as possible, also something he’d learned from Schuldig.

Birman laughed while Yuushi took to tapping something on his bracelet. "If there’s no more information to be exchanged, I’m afraid I need to leave to assist my Captain with some paperwork," the Guard explained, an annoyed look on his face.

So of course Birman smiled sweetly and shook her head. "No, that’s it for now. We’ll meet back here tomorrow, if you don’t mind." When Botan and Yuushi nodded in agreement, she rose from the table and motioned toward the door. "Then I wish you a good day, gentlemen."

Botan got to his feet, intending to leave the room and head to the Koneko. "I hope to have a list of wizards who will require some watching in another day or two."

"Good." Once more, the smile was gone from Birman’s face as she focused on work. "Please keep me up to date on any information that Cassandra passes on. I’ve a meeting arranged with Crawford, but he’s not always as forthcoming as she is."

"I understand." He didn’t mind being a go-between for the two women, much preferring to keep Birman away from Cassandra as much as he could. Fate and Esset had robbed him of the two other women he’d loved, so he would do what he could to not attract unwanted attention to Cassandra. His friend appeared to understand this and didn’t push to speak to Cassandra in person, although he was sure his lover knew when Birman would be at the Koneko and needed to be told of something right away. "Have a good day, Birman. You too, Trowa."

The water elemental waved in goodbye while Birman gave him a quick hug before sending him on his way. Squaring his shoulders, he made his way through the palace, intent on arriving in time for Omi’s lesson.

*******

The look on Schuldig’s face at the moment was so disgruntled that Omi wished that Botan had taught him the spell that would preserve an image long enough for it to be painted. Instead, he could only enjoy the moment while it lasted, which promised to be a decent amount of time if he were to guess. Schuldig appeared too frustrated to be happy any time soon.

"I mean, look at me." He lounged against the table, the ragged and tousled strands of his reddish-orange hair falling onto its surface as well as his shoulders and left arm. "I am young, virile as hell, sexy as Jouyoku *and* I have a succubae bound as a mate. So why the hell am I spending my nights hunting down some asshole bounds instead of enjoying sex?!" He pounded his fist into the table as if to emphasis his point.

"Be thankful that the girls aren’t here now or your head would become intimate with my rolling pin," Jo snapped as she fussed with the contents of a huge kettle bubbling away in one of the fireplaces. "And don’t expect any sympathy for having to work for once! Especially when you used to spend the nights out snatching purses and robbing homes before you met Masato!"

For his part, Masato ignored the way that Schuldig stuck his tongue out at Jo and then yelped when he was whacked with a wooden spoon. Omi guessed that the poor man was used to it at this point, after having Schuldig as a mate for almost a year. He smiled when he thought that Yohji and Aya wouldn’t be the only ones having an anniversary soon, especially since the night that Schuldig and Masato had become mates was the first time that he and Nagi had…. Blushing slightly, he slanted a look at his lover, who was currently glaring at a bowl of carrots as if they were mocking him with their unpeeled state.

"Aren’t you going to do anything, dammit?" Schuldig snarled at his mate, who merely shrugged and drank more coffee.

"I’m hoping that she’ll have better luck smacking some sense into you than I’ve had," Masato replied, then went back to enjoying his drink.

While Schuldig growled, his hair practically bristling in anger, Omi did his best to hide his grin as he chopped celery at the same time. "Why are you here so early if you were out all night? Aya and Yohji didn’t get back until a few of hours ago and will probably sleep until dinner." At least, that was the way they’d spent the last couple days.

Glaring at Masato as if he knew his life would be in jeopardy if he turned the look on Jo, who was clearly watching for it with the way she held her spoon like a weapon, Schuldig sniffed. "Unlike a certain redhead, I can stand being exposed to sunlight so we’re out there earlier than Yohji and Aya." He reached over to poke his mate on the left shoulder. "Yohji looks after *his* lover."

"Because other than traumatizing him with massive bills from bookstores, Yohji’s lover doesn’t cause him half as much grief as you do me," Masato complained, sounding so weary that Omi actually felt sorry for him. "And I fed from you this morning, so it’s not as if your sex life is entirely lacking."

"Hmph, I still say I’m too good for all this grunt work." Schuldig sulked for another moment before smiling and draping his arms around Masato, his chin resting on his mate’s left shoulder. "And we should have some time before going back out there tonight." His words actually made Masato grin and set aside his precious mug of coffee.

Busy peeling carrots, Nagi snorted loudly and did something to make the bench that the older bounds sat on jump slightly. "Some of us are trying to work *now*, so go away if you’re just going to grope each other."

"Big words from a little boy who doesn’t have Jei here to back him up," Schuldig spat, facing Nagi so the two could glare at each other. The staring contest threatened to go on for a long time until Omi waved a knife in front of their faces as a distraction.

"Jei might not be here, but *I* am. How would you like it if the taxes for the apartment you bought suddenly quadrupled, hmm?" He smiled at his friend and made it clear in his thoughts that he *wasn’t* kidding. Maybe he didn’t have fangs or claws or could choke a person with a thought, but that didn’t mean he was to be taken lightly either.

Schuldig appeared furious for a couple of seconds then burst out in laughter. "You’re mean, Omi." He reached over to tousle Omi’s hair. "Glad to see I helped raise you right."

That remark prompted Omi to snort in amusement. "Yes, between you and Yohji looking after me during my formative years, I’m sure the Court will do whatever it can to keep me as far away from the throne as possible." Some of his teasing mood vanished as he thought about the approaching birth of what Cassandra had told him would be his sister and the way the whole Court was so excited about it. Almost no one mentioned ‘Mamoru’ these days, even if that was something he preferred. It just hurt to know that the highborns would be more accepting of his baby sister than him because of what had happened to his mother.

As if sensing his mood, Nagi gave up the battle with the carrots to inch closer and hug him gently around the waist. "That’s good, because you being stuck at Court would ruin all our plans." Omi glanced over his shoulder so they could share a grin, happily thinking about how they would see the world once the war was finished. Any dark thoughts of things that would keep them from their plans were carefully shoved into the far recesses of his mind.

They smiled at each other until Schuldig made a gagging noise, which thankfully was cut short by Masato giving the idiot a whap on the backside. "Behave, Brat."

Schuldig sniffed as he rubbed his sore ass. "Oh, come on, we’re told to go back home if we want to fool around, but they were two seconds from falling onto the floor and doing each other right here?"

There was another smack, this time delivered invisibly by Nagi’s talent. "We’re not as crass as you are, Schuldig." He made the knives on the various racks around the kitchen rattle in warning when Schuldig bared his teeth in response.

Both bounds looked very intimidating until Jo cleared her throat and rapped the wooden spoon against the rim of the iron kettle. "What have I told you idiots about acting like that while in *my* kitchen?"


It was amusing how one human could scare two powerful people so easily, and it gave Omi some hope about keeping his friends from walking all over him as the years progressed. He smiled at Jo and received a wink in response while Nagi and Schuldig suddenly took to looking at the tabletop. Even Masato was smiling and raised his mug in a salute to Jo.

"Please keep in mind that I’ve no means to control the brat and don’t kick me out with him," he told Jo, and laughed when a growling Schuldig suddenly straddled his lap. As if to prove his statement wrong, he easily managed to defeat his mate’s obvious anger with a rather passionate kiss. Omi looked away in embarrassment, smiling once again when he felt Nagi’s lips brush against his hair before his lover returned to the bowl of carrots.

Jo hmphed and resumed stirring the pot, for once not putting a halt to the blatant signs of affection going on in her kitchen – probably because all Schuldig and Masato were doing was kissing, for once. Omi was sure that Schuldig wouldn’t have any qualms about taking things further in front of an audience, but Masato was more of a calming and rational influence than he gave himself credit for.

"I’ll need the carrots and celery done in a few minutes." Jo tapped the spoon against the kettle’s rim once more and then hung it up by the fireplace. "Are the two of you going to stick around for something to eat, besides each other?"

Masato broke off the kiss and leaned back enough so he could see her and nod. "Yes, please. We were planning on leaving for work from here, if you don’t mind."

"Yeah." Schuldig appeared much too pleased with himself as he resumed sitting on the bench. "Skulking around the city takes up a lot of energy, so we need lots of good and filling food to eat." He actually purred when Masato refilled his coffee mug.

Jo muttered under her breath before coming to the table to check up on Omi and Nagi’s progress. "I’ve known you for most of your life, and *everything* you do takes up a lot of energy." She picked up a piece of carrot and popped it into her mouth. "The soup will done in another hour, but there are chicken and beef pasties now if you want them."

"Where will you be patrolling tonight?" Omi asked, more than a little jealous over how all his friends seemed to be helping the Shadow Guard lately. "Back to the Eastern quarter?"

"Yeah, on the off-chance that the agents are still in that area." Masato frowned while he draped his left arm around Schuldig’s shoulders and hugged him close. "We’ve no idea if they’re going to work their way into the city from the Eastern docks or strike in another area, but we’re hoping that they haven’t had much time to move elsewhere yet."

Schuldig let out a loud breath and rubbed his eyes. "There are just too many minds here for me to read all of them, and we don’t even have a clear idea of what the agents look like, for fuck’s sake." Jo looked up at the profanity but didn’t chastise Schuldig for once. "As much as I hate to say it, our best bet is to wait for another murder and then scan the minds of anyone in the immediate vicinity to see if they saw something."

"Which isn’t much of a plan at all, considering that the agents should be smart enough to not leave behind any witnesses," Masato pointed out with a harsh growl. "Look at the agents the Elders have sent into Eto so far this past year – all of them are among their best and most powerful. I doubt they’d risk an important mission to idiots."

That seemed to dampen whatever good mood the kitchen had held, and everyone fell silent as if thinking over what had been said. At least, that was what Omi was doing while he absentmindedly chopped the last of the celery. "As you said, they’ll be very difficult to catch so I don’t see why no one wants another wizard to help out." He was still an apprentice but he was very knowledgeable about the city thanks to Yohji and Schuldig, and knew enough magic to help out in *some* way.

Everyone snapped free from their thoughts and gave him disproving looks. "You’re staying in the Koneko, Omi." Jo’s voice was the perfect flatness that she always employed when at her most serious. That Nagi, Masato and Schuldig nodded in agreement made Omi feel even more frustrated.

"I highly doubt I’d be in any danger with so many bounds and Shadow Guards out looking for the killers, and I have this," he pulled the illusion charm out from beneath his cotton tunic to show everyone, "to prevent anyone from recognizing me." He was tired of hearing about how the ‘crown prince’ of Kritiker couldn’t risk himself on such a dangerous assignment. Dammit, they weren’t even letting him leave the Koneko’s grounds!

"You’re still a young man who appears like an easy target," Schuldig explained as if reading his mind, which most likely was the case. "If they’re checking out their victims at all, they’ll figure out that you’ve many friends and work at a popular inn, which would provoke a lot of grief and anger over your death."

Masato added his logic to his mate’s, not giving Omi any time to argue. "And there’s a very real chance that once they realize that people are being misled to believe that wizards are behind the murder, they might change their targets to debunk the rumors. A good way to do that is to go after wizards themselves, which would lead the bastards to fight the rumors and try to prove them wrong." He gave Omi a concerned look. "It would be easier to kill an apprentice wizard than a full-fledged one."

They might have a point, but Omi refused to have his life hampered by ‘maybes’. "There’s no way to prove that things will happen like you said. I at least should be able to help with the shopping again!" Even Emmie and Neely were allowed to go to the market as long as they had an adult with them.

Jo stopped mixing together the ingredients for a cake to fold her arms over her chest and stare coldly at Omi. "I promised that you would be kept safe, and you *will* be."

"Because I’m a prince?" Omi scoffed. Shoving the cutting board away from him, he mimicked Jo’s pose. "My life’s not any more special than the rest of the Koneko’s staff."

"No, but I swore to keep you safe and that’s what I’m doing." The look on Jo’s face and the sharpness to her words indicated that she wouldn’t be budged over the matter.

However, he wasn’t ready to throw in the towel just yet. "But I’d have Nagi with me, so what does it matter?" He smiled at his lover, certain that Nagi would be his partner, and the two of them were powerful enough to protect themselves.

So it came as a shock when Nagi shook his head. "I agree with Jo." At Omi’s hurt look, he sighed and once more gave up on the carrots. "I don’t want you to be in any danger, and there’s a good chance you might be targeted." He reached out as if to touch Omi’s face but stopped just short of doing that. "And it would be very bad if you were seen in my company by the agents, since they might recognize me."

"Nagi-"

"Just listen to us. I won’t risk you being brought to the Elders’ attention, and Jo swore to your father and Lady Meara that she’d keep you safe. If either of them found out that you were walking around the city when there are Esset agents committing murders, they might use that to take you back to the palace." Nagi’s expression turned grim. "Then how would we see each other?"

Omi sighed and grabbed his boyfriend’s hand to give it a comforting squeeze. "All right." He hadn’t thought that the others were doing more than just protecting him, such as making sure he could remain at the Koneko for a while longer.

/Because you’re damn stubborn, kiddo,/ Schuldig informed him, a smile on his lips as he leaned against Masato. /And no one wanted to bring up that if your father or Manx sees enough of a threat outside of the palace, they’d drag you back where they think it’s ‘safe’. Have more faith in your friends./

"Says the man who laughed for almost an hour when he found out that I’d gotten so drunk that I was sick for two days," Omi muttered under his breath, but he’d gotten the point. As upset as he’d been at the thought of being ‘coddled’ by his friends, thinking about leaving the Koneko was worse, so he could understand why they’d tried to spare him that. "All right, I’ll abide by your wishes, Jo." After admitting ‘defeat’, he tugged Nagi close enough to give him a hug.

"Nice to see someone uses their brain around here." Jo patted him on the shoulder before taking the chopped celery over to the kettle. "Now finish the carrots and heat some pasties for our guests. Dinner’s not too far off so there’s a lot that needs to be done in the next hour or two."

"Yes, ma’am!" Nagi and Omi shared a smile before they worked together to cut all the peeled carrots. Omi still wasn’t very happy with the thought of being stuck in the Koneko for the foreseeable future… but it beat being at the palace and he had Nagi back with him. Certain that his boyfriend wouldn’t leave him behind to go out unless it was necessary, it meant they’d have even more time to spend together. Maybe they could arrange some time off in the evening to practice with their talents, and it was always so nice to be able to sit in the main room and listen to music together.

/Meh, Yotan infected you with his ‘romanticism’; you’re a lost cause. What’s next, feeding Nagi treats with your own hand?/ Schuldig could put a lot of sneering into a mental conversation.

Omi smiled sweetly at his friend. "I believe that Botan said that he and Cassandra will be visiting for dinner. Should I go fetch a bottle of the red wine they like so much?" While Jo told him that would be fine, he wrinkled his nose at Schuldig. /I’m sure your mother will have lots to say about that remark, Schu, along with your complaints about having to do a bit of honest work./

While Schuldig took to swearing under his breath, Omi gave Nagi a wink to let his lover know he’d explain the soul gaki bound’s sudden fit of temper later. Really, Schuldig should know better by now, considering how much he and Yohji had practically raised him.

*******

Reno stormed into the Koneko, so furious that he could barely hold back from snarling. His temper wasn’t helped either by the sunlight he’d suffered through while riding from Rufus’ house to the inn or the fact that it seemed as if Rufus was doing his best to break down the mental block that kept him out of Reno’s mind. The bastard was an almost presence in his head, a nagging ache that just wouldn’t go away. Reno bared his teeth at no one in particular as he strengthened the block, for once both of his souls having no problem with the link between him and Rufus being ‘shut down’.

He found the big guy, Mickey, lounging behind the tall stand that held the inn’s guest registry and keys to the rooms, and some of that anger relented a little. Mickey looked too much like Rude, even taking into account the lighter skin tone and the whole hair thing, and Reno never was able to hold much of a temper against his best friend. Not even the thought that Rude was probably on his way here to collect him upset him much, since it wasn’t as if Rude had a say in the matter. "Where’s Aya?" he asked, hands combing through his hair as he tried to get rid of his bad mood as best he could.

Mickey gave him a good look for a few seconds and motioned upstairs. "He and Yohji had a late night so they’re still in bed. Do you- hey! They’re sleeping!" Mickey shouted as soon as Reno headed up the stairs. He spared the human a wave of his hand before increasing his speed. There was something he had to discuss with Aya and Yohji, and not much time within which to do it. Dammit, Rufus could come and go as he fucking pleased, yet Reno had his friends sicced on him the moment he left the house without groveling for his lord and master’s permission. If it wouldn’t cause him so much pain as well, he’d just kick Rufus’ ass to teach him a lesson.

At least there weren’t any people on the stairs since everyone was either downstairs eating or outside, which meant that Rufus couldn’t get too pissed off at his little display of dubhach nature. Even if someone was around to see him run up the stairs with inhuman speed, all he had to do was cloak himself in shadows. Thoughts of his power only made him remember part of the reason why he was here, which made him growl out loud and move even faster.

By the time he reached Aya’s bedroom he’d pulled the shadows around him since he was in no mood to deal with humans; since Aya had forbidden him from harming anyone staying at the Koneko, it was just better to go by them unnoticed than feel the urge to fry their hearts over them staring at him. Reno’s hunger pulsed in response, a brief cry to remind him that it needed to be fed sometime in the next week or so. Rufus had him outside too much lately, which drained him almost as much as healing major wounds.

Noticing the shadow wards around the door, Reno shrugged and hugged the shadows tighter around him while holding his hand above the door knob. The lock easily opened, and he didn’t feel any of the chill or disorientation that he normally did when crossing wards. Stepping into the dark room, he wandered over to the curtained bed and sat down by Aya’s feet.

Aya was asleep, although appearing to stir awake from the frown that suddenly formed on his face and the way he shifted about, while Yohji lay still with his right arm draped over Aya’s waist. The sheets were pushed down past the men’s hips, probably because with the curtains on the windows and the side of the bed facing them drawn shut the air around bed was a bit stuffy. Reno undid the laces of his white shirt while waiting for Aya to wake up.

About a minute or two later, Aya’s eyes fluttered open and he looked about, not seeming to really notice Reno until he blinked a few times. "Reno…?"

"Hey, Aya. I thought you liked waking up early." Reno bounced on the bed a couple of times, and Yohji finally decided to join the land of the awake, too. He shot upright in bed while mumbling Aya’s name, his right hand pulling golden threads from the gauntlet on his left wrist. "You, too, Yohji." Reno smiled at both of them as he leaned against the bedpost.

"Re- what the *hell?* Is this a dream?" Yohji glared at him, stopped from throwing the wire by Aya’s hand on his. For his part, Aya seemed to be trying to decide if he should be just as upset or not.

"In the flesh, Yotan." Reno leered at the blond and stretched his feet out in front of him, mindful of his boots for once, since it was Aya’s bed. "Which, might I say, you have a lot of." He gestured at Yohji’s uncovered crotch and laughed when his friend actually blushed.

Meanwhile, Aya seemed to settle on ‘upset’. "Reno, *what* are you doing here? We were sleeping and the door was locked." There was a definite snap to the words, leaving Reno to wonder what exactly was wrong. He hadn’t insulted Yohji back there, after all….

Figuring that he had just as much if not more reason to be pissed off, Reno leaned forward, stopping himself from growling just in time since this was Aya’s turf. "Why the hell didn’t you warn me, huh? I had to find out from Rufus, dammit." He was still furious at being surprised by the matter, let alone by his asshole mate’s behavior the past few days.

Aya hissed and yanked the sheets up to his chest, a glare on his face that would do Rufus proud. "What are you talking about?"

"The whole power thing," Reno spat and waved his right hand in a confused looking Yohji’s direction. "The bastard can unlock things now and he’s trying to get the shadows to form around him!"

"Bastard? You mean Rufus?" Aya turned his glare on his own mate when Yohji snickered at his question. He also pulled up the sheets pooled in Yohji’s lap before returning his attention to Reno. "He can open locks?"

"Hell yes. He said that Yohji told him something like that would happen." If he wasn’t sure that Aya would get pissed off, he’d send a shower of sparks Yohji’s way to thank his friend for passing on that bit of information to Rufus and not him. "Now he’s trying to feed from me all the time so he’ll get more powers!" Unable to attack anyone in the room, he took to yanking on his hair to relieve the anger and frustration he felt.

/Unworthy he is, the golden one,/ a shinigami hissed as shadows stroked along Reno’s left cheek.

/Both of them are unworthy. Leave them behind, young ones. We will never lie to you,/ another one urged, from the sounds of it hovering around Aya as it spoke.

"Hush," Aya snarled, his attention shifting back and forth between Reno and Yohji. "Pardon my inability to pick up on things right away, but you came here and woke us up because Rufus found out that he can take on some of your powers if he feeds from you, correct?" He was back to glaring, but this time not just at Reno. "And Yohji told him this?"

Yohji shot Reno a sour look and attempted to placate his mate by massaging Aya’s shoulders. "All I did was tell him to get a bed like ours when he complained about how he always had to keep the bedroom’s curtains closed for Reno, as well as mention that it wouldn’t be a problem for long. I didn’t say anything else, and I don’t really see why Reno has to break into our bedroom just because Rufus is paying him some attention."

"He’s only doing it because he wants more power!" Reno banged his fists into the velvet duvet and hissed. At first he’d been happy that Rufus was spending more time with him, and the sex had been great. But after two days of Rufus seeming to provoke him to one reaction after another, be it lust, anger or amusement, he’d grown suspicious and demanded answers. Fucking bastard hadn’t even bothered to lie, instead he mentally lapped up Reno’s anger as if it was a fine wine or something. "Thinks he can do everything I can if he gets enough emotions from me." And it was all Yohji’s fault, more or less – which he wasn’t stupid enough to point out when Aya was around, let alone in a pissy mood for whatever reason.

"Look, I’m sorry I said anything, all right?" Yohji grumbled as he tried to comb out the knots in his hair with his fingers. "But it’s not like it’s a big secret and I don’t see how me having a big mouth means you can break into our damn room while we’re sleeping! What if *I’d* been feeding, eh?" He let out a yelp when Aya growled and smacked him on the shoulder. "Hey! Stop it!"

Aya bared his teeth at his mate before he turned back to Reno. "He does have a point; I can name at least four books that mention bounds taking on some of the talents of their mates over time."

"Yeah, but Rufus either didn’t know about or remember that little fact," Reno pointed out with a pout, his arms folded over his chest and sparks fizzling around his fingertips. "Now I can’t lock him out of anything, which is a pain in the ass." Dammit, was it so much to want to enjoy a fucking bath in peace? Or have a place to hide after deliberately dumping a glass of wine on one of his mate’s annoying guests?

Yohji shuddered and then draped his arm slowly around Aya’s shoulders as if afraid of being hit again. "Funny, but I don’t see *him* in our room when he hasn’t been invited."

Reno bristled at the thick sarcasm and began to agree with the shinigami about both ‘golden ones’. "Give it time. As it is, all you were doing was sleeping and it’s not like you have something I haven’t seen before." He made sure to sneer as he gestured to Yohji’s now covered lap. "Thought you succubae-bounds were supposed to be impressive."

"You just said I had a lot of ‘it’, you little-"

"Stop it!" Aya snapped his teeth together for added emphasis and took to glaring at them again. "Reno, if you’re just here to bitch, consider that done and get out. I’ll meet you down in the library in about ten minutes." Yohji looked as if he wanted to complain about something, but a particularly nasty glare from Aya made him stay quiet.

"Nah, if you’re so tired that me waking you up has you this grouchy, just go back to sleep." Reno had come to vent and had pretty much done that, even though he was still a bit upset over things. "Besides, I need to get moving again or I’ll end up dragged back home." He *knew* that Rufus had to be furious at being blocked out of his head for so long, which served the bastard right after all the times he’d done it to Reno.

Aya’s glare faded into concern. "Is everything all right? You can stay here if you want." His eyes changed to silver as he spoke, and Reno knew that if Rufus dared to show up here that his mate would get his ass kicked. Unfortunately, he was pretty sure it would be Tseng or Rude sent to fetch him and he didn’t want his friends to get into a fight.

He shrugged as he got off the bed, in a better mood now than he’d been when he’d first gotten to the Koneko. "Eh, I think I’m gonna use this as a chance to explore the city for a bit. The sun should be going down soon, and Schuldig told me he’d take me to this bar he really likes." He could use a drink now, even though he wasn’t sure if he could keep up blocking the link if he got drunk. Now to track down the soul gaki bound and persuade him to play instead of work.

"The two of you better be careful," Yohji said as he lay back down. "I don’t want Masato showing up here complaining about how you wrecked half the city!"

Reno stuck his tongue out and waved, anxious to get on the move since it seemed that Rufus had stopped trying to tear down the block on their link; that meant he was up to something Reno was sure he wouldn’t like. "We wouldn’t think of it unless you were with us!"

He left the room as quickly as he’d entered, pausing a moment to make sure that the door locked behind him. Time to disappear since Rufus would know that he’d come to the Koneko, and maybe he could talk to Schuldig to find out how power could be passed on from a soul gaki bound over a mate’s link. Despite how much he loved dishing them out, surprises in his regard weren’t things he cared for, not when they always seemed to cost him something – especially when it was Rufus doing the surprising.

*******

Yohji almost laughed at the sight before him; Ed was sitting in the middle of the table, of all things, surrounded by a huge stack of books that Al was busy rearranging. While the Elrics were busy at the table, Aya and Reiichi kept looking through the bookshelves, their faces wearing identical expressions of concentration.

"Didn’t Qingbo write a series of books on the hierarchy amongst the Esset bounds?" Reiichi asked as he carefully pulled a book from the shelf in front of him and flipped through its pages.

Aya grunted as he held a very thick book out to Al, who made sure to have a good grasp on it before carrying it to the table. "Howard references it while discussing the shift in power that took place in Esset during the War, as does Saleem in her account of the creation of bounds. I haven’t had a chance to look at her works because she chose a very obscure dialect in which to write." He glared at a bookshelf to the left of Reiichi, leaving Yohji with the impression that he was very annoyed to be thwarted in his pursuit of knowledge.

"Eh, I’ll take a look at it tonight, since I can usually figure out the weirder Esset stuff." Ed didn’t bother to look up from the book he was reading and taking notes from as he spoke, the frown on his face belying the joy he felt while researching.

Al nodded and caught several books before they could topple off the very crowded table. "Good, then I can read Tsang’s ‘Articles on the Evolution of Demons’." He had no problem showing the joy he felt, and hummed in happiness as he continued organizing things.

No, Yohji would be amused as hell if it wasn’t for the fact that he was being utterly ignored at the moment. He and Aya had woken up a bit early today so Aya and his fellow bibliophiles could spend the afternoon researching as much as they could about the Elders and Esset politics over the centuries, which didn’t leave much for Yohji to do. Oh, he was just as smart as everyone else in the room – well, maybe not as much as the Elrics – but he didn’t have the patience to sift through books, nor a strong knowledge of foreign languages or ancient dialects. He could understand the modern ones if he heard them and do a decent job of speaking them back, but Guards usually weren’t called on to do serious translating like this. Although he supposed he’d have to study Aya’s books sooner or later, either to kill the long stretch of time ahead of him or to be better prepared for what the future might hold for them. Right now… right now he’d leave his mate and friends to do all the hard work.

"I’m off to the kitchen," Yohji told Aya before giving his lover’s right temple a nuzzle and a kiss, smiling over how Aya allowed his attention to drift from the books to him for a few seconds. Not sticking around for an answer that would just be grunted at him anyway, Yohji waved to his friends and left the room. Ed shouted out that they’d need coffee and food soon, which finally did prompt a laugh from Yohji; trust the kid to wheedle a meal or two from Jo while doing what he loved.

As much as what the four men were doing was very important, the library had been filled with an addictive sense of concentration and happiness that Yohji immediately missed upon leaving the attic room. However, he felt some of that happiness again when he entered the kitchen, pleased to walk in on Emmie laughing. "What’s going on, Sunshine?"

She immediately set aside the potato she was peeling to race to his side. "Maddox said that Neely and I can decorate the cakes today! Well, if we promise not to eat most of the icing while we work." She wrinkled her nose as if to show what she thought about being teased over her love for sweets. Yohji chuckled and tapped her gently on the nose, which made her smile again.

"I see you picked up some bad habits from Aya." He laughed when she did a fair imitation of one of Aya’s annoyed grunts and spun around on her right heel to flounce her way back to one of the prep tables. "Didn’t anyone ever tell you lovely ladies that you’ll get fat if you keep eating all the icing? I mean, look at Kira." He waved in the lady in question’s direction, who no one in their right mind would consider ‘overweight’ at all. "We’re going to have to reinforce the floors soon because of her."

Kira, busy stuffing some chickens for dinner, stuck her tongue out at him. "Sure, Yotan, make fun of us poor fat people."

He couldn’t resist going over to give her delightfully round behind a pat. "You’ll be bigger than Mickey soon, sweetie." That made everyone in the kitchen laugh, and Kira threatened to smack him with a hand covered with bits of stuffing before he quickly dodged out of the way.

"So, what cakes are you baking?" he asked Maddox as he joined the younger man and peered into the large mixing bowl. "Ah, is it supposed to be that red or did you turn into a flesh gaki bound?"

Maddox smiled and held up the mixing spoon so Yohji could swipe up some batter with his finger. "It’s a new recipe, something called ‘red velvet’. Eleanor got some food dyes in so I thought I’d give it a try." He waited anxiously for Yohji to taste the batter, and smiled in relief when he nodded in approval. "It uses a lot of chocolate, though."

"Hmm, so you’d better keep Teddy out of the kitchen if you want to have any to serve the guests!" Yohji went to the stove to pour himself a cup of hot coffee before joining the girls in peeling and chopping the vegetables. It was a little odd to see so much activity going on in the kitchen without Jo being there to watch over things, but she deserved the break and Maddox was coming along just fine. "Hand me the bowl of green beans, Neely."

She smiled as she did just that, as sunny and pretty as always. "Do you want to help us decorate the cakes?" Beside her, Emmie nodded, and he grinned at how they could almost be mistaken as sisters. Emmie’s blond hair was darker and a lot shorter, but both were lovely young women wearing similarly fashioned clothes, courtesy of Cassandra. He was happy that they got along so well, since Emmie could really use a friend after leaving her large extended family behind, and Neely hadn’t much of a chance to play with other children her age – especially human children – while growing up.

"Yeah, since I doubt that Aya will remember I exist for a couple of hours." He sniffed in mock misery while the girls made soothing noises on his behalf. "That reminds me, Maddox, the ravenous horde would like some food and coffee."

Maddox laughed at the nickname for the Elric brothers. "Let me get the cake batter mixed and into some pans before I put together a couple of trays for them. I imagine that Reiichi and Aya would like something, too." There was a large grin on his face, his emotions bubbling at the opportunity to take care of his friends. The poor kid really was meant to be a cook, fussing over people as he spent the day making delicious things for them to eat. As much as Yohji didn’t look forward to a time when Jo wasn’t in charge of things, he was happy that she’d found someone suitable to take her place one day.

"I’m sure Mickey can take the trays upstairs." Kira did her best to blow a lock of hair out of her face, so Yohji left the green beans for a minute to go tuck the golden strand behind her ear. "Thank you. He and Teddy are downstairs doing an inventory of the liquor."

"Which means that Teddy will insist on sampling some of the kegs." Yohji laughed as he imagined his tipsy younger brother catching Jo’s ire when she returned from her afternoon out with Ichiro. That thought kept him very amused while he finished snapping off the ends of the beans. "So, we doing anything fancy with the icing?"

Emmie frowned as she considered the question, then shared a look with Neely. "Kira showed us how to make roses the other day, so I thought we could do that."

"We figured it’ll be good practice for your anniversary cakes," Kira chimed in with a teasing smile.

"I doubt Aya will care if the cakes have roses, just as long as there are lots of them and mostly for him!" He couldn’t wait to see the expression on his lover’s face at the desserts, which would be spice cakes with lots of buttercream frosting. Jo was already hording all the spices she’d need for them, while Neely and Emmie had asked to be able to help in their decoration. It was Yohji and Aya’s anniversary, but the rest of the Koneko wanted to pitch in as much as possible. "Roses will be nice, though." He smiled in gratitude at the girls, knowing that they’d do their best to make the cakes as pretty as possible. "And he’ll be happier if they’re not real, I imagine."

"It’s too early for real roses," Neely pointed out. "Though one of Mom’s friends could make some bloom for you, if you like."

Yohji gave the offer a moment’s consideration. "Actually, a couple dozen would be nice for our bedroom." Then the room would be filled with one of Aya’s favorite scents for their anniversary. "But not for the cakes. Considering the way some people around here devour the things, the poor roses might be eaten by mistake!" That prompted another round of laughter, although everyone continued to work through the merriment.

"We’ll see how well your cakes turn out, and then I can plan something for my wedding." Kira’s pretty face glowed with pride and joy, the emotions so strong that Yohji grinned over feeling them.

"Does that mean you’re close to setting a date then?"

"Hmm, I know *I* have one in mind, now to just make Mickey come around." She chuckled while readying the chickens to be put on their spits. "I’m not going to wait for him to raise a king’s ransom for my dowry."

He almost remarked that he didn’t see why not, considering the couple was sleeping together and that was one of the major benefits of marriage, but remembered the girls just in time. Having both Marta *and* Jo mad at a person was not a good way to live a long, pain-free life. "He’s doing his best to look after you." Yohji understood why his brother was being so insistent on saving up a lot of money for Kira, especially since most of the staff knew what would happen in the future. He also felt a sense of relief that he hadn’t to worry about things like that with Aya; they would never leave one another behind, not with the tight bond between them.

"I know." Kira sighed and paused in spitting the chickens to stare into the fire for a few seconds. "He’s a good man." That restored the pleased smile to her face.

"Yeah, he is, one of the best. It’s obvious that Mickey got all the good characteristics while Teddy got the bad." Yohji could never miss a chance to tease his adopted brother, knowing very well that Teddy would do the same for him.


There was more laughter, although wistful expressions soon appeared on Emmie and Neely’s faces. "My cousins would be fighting over him," Emmie said, past the point where she felt pain whenever mentioning her family.

Neely nodded in agreement. "I wouldn’t mind a mate like him. At least he wouldn’t have to worry about a dowry, then," she said, echoing what Yohji had been thinking a few minutes before.

"Whoever your mate is, he’ll be very lucky and you’ll be very happy." Yohji tousled the girl’s hair and did the same to Emmie’s as well. "Both of you will find great guys who will treat you as well as you deserve." They would if they knew what was good for them anyway, considering the girls’ family and friends. A predatory look had come over Maddox’s face, which told Yohji that he could give Marta and Jo a run for their money on ‘over-protectiveness’.

"As happy as you and Aya." Neely beamed in delight, and Yohji sincerely hoped that she didn’t have her heart set on being mated like he was. Not all mates were happy, as one could easily see upon spending five minutes with Reno and Rufus, and not all bounds were mated. Cassandra had remarked that it seemed as if a lot of mating bonds were happening, most likely because of the war, and was worried over how many bounds would die in pairs during the fighting. There were benefits *and* drawbacks to the bonds, and people could love each other just as much without it; just look at Omi and Nagi, Jo and Ichiro, Mickey and Kira.

"As happy as Aya surrounded by a bunch of spice cakes!" Yohji teased, aware that Emmie was feeling a bit jealous and left out and wanting to get Neely off the topic of mates. That led to more laughter and discussion of the anniversary plans. Between the good mood in the kitchen and the happiness he felt over his link with Aya, Yohji was able to forget about the darker things for a while and enjoy the moment. Oh, it wasn’t as good as being in bed with his mate, but he was having a fun time.

At least until the kitchen door opened to let in Nagi. The earth elemental stomped his way directly to Yohji, looking ready to tear something apart with his talent. Several bowls rattled as he walked past, and Yohji’s demon nature rushed to the fore as if ready to remind the damn brat that *he* was the more powerful one.

Thankfully, Nagi came to a stop a couple of feet away and folded his arms over his chest in a fair impersonation of Aya. "That bastard’s here again," he spat, radiating so much hostility, disgust and hatred that Yohji didn’t need to read minds to figure out who ‘he’ meant.

His eyes narrowed in anger while his demon nature urged him to kill a potential rival. "Huh, figures that he’d show up on a good day."

"*Do* something about him, Kudoh. He can’t bother Aya if his neck is broken," Nagi hissed, the venom in his voice so harsh that the humans in the room appeared disquieted by it. More than anything, Nagi wanted to ‘do something’ to Kikyou, but had been forbidden by Aya. So had Yohji, technically… but his mate had told him not to attack or harm the bastard. That left a lot of leeway, especially now…

"Oh, I will, don’t worry." Yohji picked up a towel so he could wipe his hands clean then motioned for Nagi to lead the way. "I’ll be back soon to help with the cakes."

"Be careful," Kira murmured as he walked past her, and the concern in the room for him was almost palpable. He knew why they were worried, but they couldn’t understand the need to protect one’s mate.

"So who’s watching him?" he asked, as they headed to the foyer, the wooden panels shuddering along either side of Nagi.

"Omi. He wouldn’t let me stay with the asshole," Nagi spat, and Yohji had to smile at the mental image of the little demon twisting Kikyou’s broken body into a pretty bow. Too bad Omi was smart enough to realize it would be a very bad idea to leave his lover alone with Aya’s tormentor.

"Ah." Yohji stifled the link he shared with Aya right before he saw Kikyou, which was a good thing considering the rush of hatred he felt upon looking at the man. He’d never really been bothered by Kikyou before last year – he knew the human to be ambitious and had mostly understood why, and hadn’t cared about the dislike between them. Kikyou had always been jealous of his status in the Guard, and had basically forgotten about him as soon as he quit. Then Aya came along and….

"Good afternoon, Kikyou," he said, purposely leaving off any kind of polite bow or warmth in his voice.

Kikyou smoothed a hand down the front of his crimson coat. "Good afternoon, Kudoh. Not that I want you to take this the wrong way, but I’m here to see Aya, not you."

"Oh, I know *exactly* what you want." Yohji bared his teeth at the bastard. The desire that Kikyou felt toward Aya was a stench that made him want to tear the human apart, but he controlled the impulse. Barely. "Follow me." He patted Nagi on the back before leading Kikyou to the office where they could speak in privacy.

Kikyou waited to say anything else until they were in the room, a slightly disgruntled look on his face when he realized that Aya wasn’t present. "As I said, I’m here to speak to Aya."

"I know." Gods, Yohji had to struggle to keep a growl out of his voice. "However, he’s a bit busy right now. He’s helping some friends research a very important and large project." Folding his arms over his chest to keep his hands from reaching for Kikyou’s throat, Yohji called upon the coldness that preceded his new talent. That he wanted nothing more than to protect Aya made it very easy to summon.

"At least he’s doing something better than waiting tables," Kikyou sighed. "Look, I don’t have much time right now, as I’m sure you’re very aware of." His calm façade cracked a little under impatience, jealousy and annoyance. "I haven’t seen him for a few weeks so I’m not in the mood to wait any longer."

"You will." Yohji stepped closer to the human, doing his best to control his temper and focus his talent. More than anything, he wanted to send Kikyou running from the Koneko, bound to never return, yet that wouldn’t be good. No, too many people knew that Kikyou was interested in Aya and that they had some sort of arrangement to see each other, and it would attract attention if the human just gave up all of a sudden. Yohji had thought about the situation long and hard ever since he realized that he could ‘influence’ people.

However, he didn’t know how long that ‘influence’ would last, and he couldn’t do anything that would make Kikyou or his friends suspect that the Captain had been unduly influenced. "I told you that he’s busy." Sibilance crept into Yohji’s voice, the room growing darker as he called upon the compulsion. "And he’ll be very busy for the next few weeks, at the least." That was the simple truth – as long as the agents from Esset were out there, Aya would be spending most of his time and energy hunting them down. The last thing he needed was Kikyou depriving him of sleep, taking him out into the sunlight and stressing him with unwanted attention. "If you care for Aya as you say you do, you’ll leave him alone until the project’s completed."


No one got to be the Captain of the Guard without possessing an iron will, and Kikyou was no exception. For a moment he tried to resist the compulsion, driven by his desire to see Aya, then it began to sink in. "But… we have an agreement," he whispered, dark eyes slightly glazed as Yohji’s power washed through him.

"Yes, you do." An agreement that Yohji would do his best to break, but he had to be very careful about how he did it. "You’re both very busy men, and you’re needed at Court right now. It would be bad if you were distracted from Kritiker’s best interests because of your personal life, and Aya’s job is very demanding. You can wait a while longer to take him out again." He focused his power as tightly as he could, doing his best to use the compulsion and not outright words to get what he wanted. As of yet, he hadn’t figured out how to make people forget the conversations they had with him when he issued the compulsions, so it was best to be cautious. Especially when his actions could put Aya in danger.

Kikyou resisted for a few more seconds before bowing his head. "I don’t want to cause him any trouble or exhaust him any further." He let out an angry sigh and shook his head. "I’d hoped that the situation at Court would have improved by now and we could resume our weekly dates. It would figure that whenever I have a day free, he’d be occupied with a new job. I’ll just tell him that we’ll have to wait a little longer for another date."

Yohji bared his teeth again, both natures refusing to let Kikyou anywhere near his mate. "As I said, he’s very busy and he’s not working alone. Why don’t you write him a note?" That way, he had a hope of hiding what he’d done from Aya and not losing a mouthful of flesh from his abused shoulder. Resisting the urge to rub the scarred area, he smiled at Kikyou while motioning toward the desk. "Write him a letter." That was as direct an order as he could risk right now.

Nodding, Kikyou approached the desk and picked up a sheet of the blank paper that Mickey kept stacked in a tray. Yohji did his best to not peek at the letter and strove for an innocent expression while it was being written. Once finished, Kikyou went so far as to borrow some wax and seal it shut before handing it to him. "It’s only for a few weeks, Kudoh. Despite what you may think, I’m concerned for Aya’s welfare and want him to do well. When things quiet down, I *will* return and the dates will resume. He doesn’t belong here." Kikyou looked around the room, contempt plain on his face.

This time, Yohji kept his teeth covered as he smiled, all humor driven from him by the man’s arrogance. "He’s where he’s happy, and one day you’ll recognize it." Until then, Yohji would continue putting his talent to use to keep them apart, and some of his actions were to Kikyou’s benefit. The day the man overstepped his bounds and tried to kiss – or worse – Aya again, he’d end up dead.

"He should be at Court," Kikyou snapped while brushing wax from his personal seal before returning it to the pouch on his belt. "Now, I have work of my own to do, so good day." He didn’t bother with any bows or other pleasantries before quickly leaving the room, which was fine with Yohji.

He left as well, waiting a few seconds to ensure that Kikyou had time to leave the inn so he didn’t have to see the bastard anymore. Heading to the foyer, he removed the faint block on the link and had the impression that Aya hadn’t even noticed its existence, his mate was concentrating so much on something. Probably some old dialect or a debate with Ed, which was also fine with Yohji.

Nagi gave him a cold stare when he approached the boy and Omi, as if extremely disappointed that the human was still alive. Yohji smiled and waved the letter about. "I’m going to see if Maddox has the food together for our beloved bookworms, then take it and this upstairs."

"What about the asshole?" Nagi didn’t even flinch when Omi elbowed him in the side and urged him to speak more quietly.

This time, Yohji allowed his teeth to show, sure that Nagi wouldn’t take it as a threat toward him. "Aya will be left alone for a few weeks."

Omi looked between him and Nagi, then sighed. "I don’t want to know how right now, maybe not ever, but I hope what you did works." He grabbed his lover by the left arm and urged him back to the door. "Come on, Jo wanted all of the keys polished and we’re to organize the spares and the closet."

Nagi’s glare wavered as he was pulled away. "You better come up with something more than a ‘few weeks’, but at least it’s something for now."

Barely resisting the urge to smack the little demon, Yohji almost threw the letter at him instead before remembering that Nagi could strike back with something a hell of a lot heavier. "Worrying about Aya’s my job, and I won’t let him be bothered by *anyone*," he growled, before turning around and going back to the kitchen. He knew that Nagi was just looking out for his friend, but Aya was *Yohji’s* responsibility.

Oh well, he’d bought his mate a few weeks’ pardon from Kikyou, at the least, and would take him some tea and snacks. Hopefully, Aya and the others wouldn’t work all evening, so they’d be able to spend a little time together before another night out prowling the city. There hadn’t been a second murder yet, and all of the Shadow Guard felt on edge since they were sure the reprieve wouldn’t last more than another night or two.

At least he’d done something to ensure that Aya could focus on the mission and not be distracted or harassed… he just wished that his lover finding out wouldn’t lead to a world of trouble on his part. Aya would much rather face Kikyou than risk Yohji’s talent being discovered, but Yohji was more than willing to take that chance. After all, it was a lot less of a risk than him being identified as the man who’d ripped out Kikyou’s heart and shoved it down the bastard’s throat. Too bad his lover didn’t see things that way…. It was pretty bad when he could count on Nagi to back him up and not Aya, he thought as a wry grin twisted his lips.

*******

Birman uncorked the bottle of whiskey and poured its contents into the three mugs before her. "I know a woman shouldn’t complain about spending the night in the company of two handsome men, but I’m not exactly filled with joy at the prospect." She made sure to pour twice as much in Jei’s mug than hers or Crawford’s.

Jei picked up his mug and flashed his very sharp, very white teeth. "What if I promise to nibble on you a little?"

"Then I suddenly recall a very important meeting that I have to attend," she replied with an amused grin. Despite the shiver of fear she felt whenever Jei showed his teeth, it was fun joking with the man about a matter that would make most people run away screaming in terror.

"And here I thought you had a sense of adventure," Jei grumbled, but he gave her a wink before gulping down some of the whiskey.

"Lady and… Jei, may I remind you that we’re here to discuss an important matter." Crawford adjusted his glasses before tapping his fingers against the table’s top while looking expectantly at Birman. She sighed, reached into her pocket and set the carved cat on the spot where he’d tapped, mostly content with the permanent veil of shadows that would keep most people from observing them while they talked. The charm would ensure that no one sitting by them heard what was being discussed.

"I won’t waste your time since I’m aware that one of you will be out searching the city shortly." She nodded in Jei’s direction since she knew that Crawford would not be physically joining the hunt; she wasn’t quite sure why not when he looked to be very fit and had to at least possess a bound’s increased strength and speed.

Jei snorted and grabbed the bottle to refill his mug – it was a good thing there was another one still corked on the table. "For all the good that me being out there sneaking around will do. I think it’s becoming clear that the old bastards sent people with experience this time."

That was certainly how it looked, she thought with some sadness. They had a kage, a couple of flesh gaki bounds and a few dozen other bounds searching for the agents and hadn’t had any luck yet. "We can’t count on any help from civilians, not when they’re being led to believe that a wizard is behind the murder."

"Which is for the best, all in all." Crawford adjusted his glasses again and stared off into the distance for a few seconds. "While I’m sure that Botan isn’t happy with the lie, maybe it’ll put him at ease to know that it’s made the future a little less… darker."

She didn’t say that Cassandra had basically confirmed that for Botan already, not with the way the two precogs didn’t like each other. "Thank you. It still doesn’t change the fact that a man was murdered and the same fate will befall more people while we sit here drinking whiskey and talking." She grimaced before taking a good swallow of what was some very potent alcohol.

Smiling again, Jei shrugged and leaned back against the wall. "At least it’s very good whiskey." He didn’t seem too bothered about people dying, but then again, the victims would most likely all be humans; she wasn’t under any illusion that her new friends had gotten over their hatred for her kind just because some humans were helping them now.

"I’m so glad it meets with your approval."

"Eh, add a pint of blood to it and it would taste great."

"And people wonder why we haven’t found the agents yet, when ‘we’ are so easily distracted." Few people did sarcasm as well as Crawford, and Birman should know, after spending most of her life at Court. If it wasn’t currently directed in part at her, she’d laugh at the statement.

"I am here to gain your wise opinion on what I should do," she replied, laying on the sarcasm herself. She must have made her point since the corners of Crawford’s mouth twitched and he actually bowed his head the slightest bit. He was a very good looking man, it was such a shame he was so standoffish.

"Then I’ve hope of someone here at this table listening to me, then." Jei snorted at his friend’s jab and rolled his eyes. "I want you to make sure that Duo is included in the search for the agents," Crawford informed her as if unaware of his partner’s antics.

That wasn’t anything she’d expected to hear, considering the situation with the fire elemental. "He’s not part of the Shadow Guard yet, correct?" she asked, her eyebrows rising when Crawford shook his head. "My understanding is that Yuushi is making sure Duo stays as far away from Shadow Guard matters as possible until his loyalty is proven, not to mention he’s unwilling to risk Toshi right now. Why aren’t you talking to him about this?" While she technically was Yuushi’s superior, she had enough work handling her spies and didn’t want to undermine the man’s authority.

"Because he’s spending a lot of time at the palace working." Crawford paused to sip his whiskey and seemed to nod in approval. "That and I believe he is unduly concerned about his Shadow Guard."

Crawford was right, but she didn’t think she could explain to him how rare it was for one of the Guards to have a family, let alone the risk Toshi was already under with an unreliable partner. "It doesn’t seem a very good idea to me to have one Esset agent hunt down two others." She liked Duo, he had a fun personality and it was clear his world revolved around Trowa, but she never forgot that he was the enemy still.

As if utterly unconcerned, Crawford shrugged and drank again. "He isn’t aware of them – none of us received word about the new agents, not even Heero. Schuldig scans his mind periodically in hopes that they’ll contact the Elders’ favorite and ask for some assistance."

"Which isn’t much of a hope considering he’s undercover and I doubt they want to risk their spy in the Army," Jei pointed out, a growl roughening his voice and his golden eye glowing in anger. "What plans do you have for Duo now, eh?"

Crawford appeared unaffected by Jei’s foul temper. "That’s a rather interesting question, considering the way you live to torment him. Are you afraid that he’ll be too busy for you to play with him?" Of all things, he seemed amused, so much so that Birman didn’t bother to try to drag both men back to the main topic. Besides, if she sat here quietly, maybe Jei would annoy some useful information from the enigmatic soul gaki bound.

"What, you have a problem with how I treat him all of a sudden? You didn’t even get your nose out of joint upon finding the kitchen wrecked the other day." This time Jei’s bared teeth could be taken as a grin, and left her wondering what had happened in the men’s kitchen.

"Who am I to deprive you of some simple pleasure?"

"Bullshit," Jei snorted, and actually laughed for a few seconds. "We both know that you live to deprive me of any and all fun." He scratched his claws over the table, thankfully not enough to scar the wood, or else he’d face Jo and Mickey’s wrath. Nothing ended conspiratorial talk faster than at least one of the conspirators being tossed out of the inn on his ass, Birman thought with growing amusement and sipped more whiskey. While the two men stared at each other, she waved to Marta and signaled that they needed some food. At the least, she did, or else the whiskey was going to make her drunk.

The impromptu standoff broke off when Crawford shook his head and actually smiled. "I merely like to keep you focused on what’s important." He sounded so pleasant that Birman knew the words to be a jab at Jei. "At least I’m allowing you to torment Duo to your heart’s content. Think of it as displacement therapy to vent your frustrations over another fire elemental." Oh no, he sounded much too amused, which made her grab the whiskey bottle and lean away from Jei.

The flesh gaki bound snarled savagely enough to make the hair on her arms and back of her neck stand on end. "You’re a fucking bastard."

"What else is new?" In the face of Jei’s wrath, Crawford calmly removed his glasses and began to clean them.

Jei snarled for a few more seconds before chuckling. "That is true." He snatched back the bottle and poured more whiskey, even refilling Birman and Crawford’s mugs as well. "At least you keep life interesting. Although I think you’ve got some personal reason to see Duo scared shitless on a weekly basis."


"It benefits the future," was all Crawford answered, and he even gave Marta a smile when she set a platter of sliced meat, cheeses and bread on the table. "Thank you."

"No, it’s because you’re a sadistic bastard." Jei didn’t wait to grab a third of the meat and slap it on a couple of slices of bread, so Birman made sure to snatch some of the food before it vanished.

"I’m not entirely sure he’s wrong," she told Crawford, and grinned when the man didn’t seem upset by her opinion of him.

"I admit to deriving some amusement from it," he said, before enjoying some of his drink. "However, the main reason why I’ve set you on him, Jei, is that it makes a wonderful distraction. He’s too busy worrying about you and his reactions to Trowa to wonder about all the little inconsistencies and oddities he witnesses while working for the Guard."


Trust Crawford to always look at the big picture even when setting up things to amuse himself, Birman thought while she ate her sandwich. If she wasn’t so certain that he wouldn’t willingly take orders from anyone, she’d do her best to get him to work for her. No, if by some chance he did agree, she’d be out of a job within months, and within a year he’d be in charge of the country.

"As I said, you’re a sadistic bastard." Jei grinned while he opened the second bottle of whiskey.

"The same could be said about you." Crawford set his mug down and pointed at his partner. "Don’t tell me you aren’t having fun making him jump through hoops to please you, or seeing how far you can scare him before he stops reacting in fear."

Jei shrugged and rubbed the center of his chest, just above his heart. "Kid’s got balls, I’ll say that much for him. While it is a lot of fun to make him piss his pants, all I’m really doing is ensuring that he’s worthy of Trowa." For once he appeared utterly serious.

"I wonder how Trowa would react to your fatherly behavior," Birman mused out loud, not quite sure her employee would appreciate Jei’s actions. No, he seemed the type of person who preferred to deal with his problems on his own.

"Hmph, he’d probably freeze my blood for a few minutes." Jei flashed his teeth and seemed back to himself. "Still doesn’t change the fact that I’m not gonna let Duo use or hurt him."

"They’re going to be mates, so that would never happen," Crawford murmured over the rim of his mug.

Jei snorted again, some of his anger from earlier returning. "Yeah, because we know how happy all mated couples are. I hear Shinra had to send his gokenin out to track down and drag back Reno the other night."

Crawford’s brows drew together as he frowned, his mug set aside so his fingers could tap against the tabletop again. "Shinra needs to keep a better leash on his mate considering what’s wandering around right now. I know he’s aware of the agents and how much trouble there would be if they found out about Reno."

Birman noticed the crowd in the Koneko and decided that enough time was being wasted on a conversation the two bounds could hold on their own time. "Gentlemen, not to interrupt your ‘let’s insult Lord Shinra’ fun, but I was hoping to discuss the very agents you just mentioned and then get some rest tonight." That earned her a snort of contempt from Jei and a scowl from Crawford, but she knew she’d made her point. "Now, back to another set of mates, if you please. One of them in particular – will Duo have something to do with catching the agents?" Maybe they would approach him for help?

"No, not quite." Crawford shook his head and picked up his mug. "He and Toshi won’t be in any danger from them, which should reassure Yuushi. However, if they are part of the hunt, then it will move certain things along that will lead to Duo declaring himself for our side and renouncing the Elders’ control."

Oh, then she no longer had any problems talking Yuushi into the assignment change. She nodded in agreement, and was a bit surprised to see Jei glaring again.

"Does that particular plan of yours involve Trowa?" he growled, his teeth exposed once more.

"Trowa won’t be in any danger." When Jei unsheathed his claws as well, Crawford sighed as if an adult dealing with an exasperating child. "This may come as a surprise to you, but Trowa is one of my closest friends. The only reason I’m not joining in on tormenting Duo to judge his worthiness is because I know they’ll be happy together." He pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose and glared at Jei. "I am very aware of Trowa’s situation, and what I have in mind will help him get over a few of the… reservations he still has." When Jei continued to bare his teeth, Crawford cursed under his breath. "Do I have to swear another damn oath?"


Jei growled for a few seconds then shook his head. "Just make sure you don’t forget that he is a good friend and not another pawn." He grabbed a large piece of meat and ate it in one bite. "So Duo will be good for him?"

"Yes." Crawford sounded exhausted all of a sudden and even rubbed his temples as if he had a headache. "They’ll balance each other out very well, and Duo will never willingly hurt Trowa." That seemed to put Jei at ease.


It also reassured Birman, who had come to care for the quiet water elemental after the last couple of months. At the least, she would do whatever she had to in order to keep Trowa working for her after the war. "You’re waiting for them to be mated to trust Duo, aren’t you?" She’d suspected that for the last few weeks.

For once, Crawford gave up an answer without too much effort on her part. "Yes. He’s never been entirely faithful to the Elders, not after they basically forced his allegiance. And Schuldig said he’s not happy with betraying the Guard and already thinking of ways to get around revealing any damaging information."

"He’s gonna lose it when he finds out about his friend," Jei said, so grimfaced that she assumed it wouldn’t be good news. That suspicion was confirmed when Crawford’s expression turned just as grim.

"That’s why he won’t find out until after becoming Trowa’s mate. He won’t risk harming the man he loves for immediate revenge, and it’ll seal his loyalty to us even more. Duo will do *anything* to keep Trowa safe after finding out the truth."

Birman wasn’t sure if she liked the thought of Trowa’s welfare being used like that, but didn’t think it was callousness on Crawford’s part – at least not completely. From what she’d seen and been told in the past year, no bound would willingly risk the safety of their mate, and not just because they were tied to each other. Once Trowa and Duo were together, she wouldn’t have any reservations about the fire elemental being loyal to Kritiker.

Then something else occurred to her. "Ah, I thought bounds as strong as Duo and Heero had very good mental shields, so how is Schuldig reading their thoughts so easily?" She had an idea, and wanted it confirmed so she could put it to use amongst her own people.

Judging from Crawford’s smile, he must know some of her reason for asking the question. "As you suspect, he’s able to put the ring made from Aya’s blood and tears to good use. However, it only hides his… intrusion into their minds; he’s powerful enough to overcome their shields, a feat that only two other bounds would be able to manage. That said, he limits any contact with them rather than risk discovery by probing too deeply."

Damn, there went one of her soul gaki bound spies borrowing her ring and doing something similar in the future. "I think I’m going to have to approach Lord Shinra soon and make some sort of deal with him, then." She wasn’t happy with the prospect since she knew he would demand something of equal or greater value from her in return. Even if he had sided for Kritiker, he would look after himself first, as always. "With the birth of the king’s second child, an invitation will be sent to Esset inviting a few ambassadors to witness the Naming. I’m sure they’ll send some bounds in the entourage." Yet the king would have to take that risk since it couldn’t look as if he was provoking the country in any manner. The surrounding countries, even Kritiker’s allies, wouldn’t be pleased with another war considering how destructive the last one had been, so they had to do their best to not be seen as its antagonists.

"That would be something he would excel at, considering his presence at Court." Crawford’s grin just then was as predatory as she’d ever seen from Jei. "Would you like some pointers on dealing with the man?"

Knowing that there was no love lost between the men from seeing them together once or twice, Birman grinned in response and leaned over the table. "By all means, enlighten me." Now this was worth staying up late and risking a hangover, she thought as she tapped out a message to Botan warning him to show up with lots of coffee for their morning meeting.

******

Tirzah groaned and rubbed her aching left shoulder. "We need a few strong men to help with carrying those damn trays." She groaned again upon working out a kink in her sore muscles, for a moment trying to count how many trays of heavy food and drink she’d carried out to the customers tonight.

Beside her, Megan laughed and flipped back her braid of long, dark hair. "Come on, the men like a skinny wench who can toss ‘em over her shoulder and drag ‘em off to bed." She exaggerated her southern accent as she spoke, to a degree that hadn’t been heard since she’d arrived in Eto to find work.

Laughing at her friend’s joke, Tirzah held up her arms to show off her mostly svelte figure. "And here I thought they liked a bit of flesh to grab hold of."

"Hmm, no, they much prefer to be manhandled." Megan flexed her left arm to show off her muscles, which really weren’t much. The poor girl was too skinny for her own good, though she did manage the trays with more ease than Tirzah.

"I think you just like to slap them around," Tirzah teased, for a moment not minding the fact that they were walking down a dark alley by themselves. Matt had walked Lee and Karen home since they lived farther away, and she was beginning to regret not asking one of the last customers to walk with her and Megan. Ah well, just a couple of blocks and she’d be home.

Megan laughed and fussed with the strands of hair that had escaped her braid. "Slap them, no, but I like the guys who don’t mind a woman being a bit bossy." She smiled and seemed to think about something. "I guess I take after my mother too much, and want someone like my dad. They were happy together."


She had enough admirers at work that Tirzah was sure she’d find a nice guy only too willing to be ordered to eat his dinner and help with the chores soon enough. That made her smile as she thought about Phillip and hoped that he finished his shift on time tonight. With all the rumors about rogue wizards out there, she wouldn’t be able to sleep until he returned home.

"Well, here we are." Megan stopped in front of a door painted dark green and motioned to the dark window of the floor above it. "Ah, do you want to come in?" She glanced up and down the street, then at the night sky, where the moons were mere slivers. "Or I can see if my brother will wake up and we’ll both walk you home."

Tirzah shook her head and held up the charm that Phillip had given her a few months ago, back when the children had gone missing. "No, it’s only a couple of blocks and this will ward off bad luck." He said the charm should keep people from noticing her when she wore it against her skin and didn’t draw attention to herself, so she tucked it into her bodice.

Her friend seemed to waver about accepting the chance to just go home and sleep, so she shooed Megan toward the door. "Go on, I’ll be fine. You just want me to owe you a favor so I’ll pick up that weekend shift for you."

Megan smiled in response, but it wasn’t a very heartfelt expression. "Yeah, you found me out. Be careful, okay?" She looked up at the sky again. "I always get nervous when it’s this dark out. My dad used to tell me that’s when the flesh gaki like to hunt."

"Hmm, I was told it was when the moons were full." Tirzah smiled and stepped out onto the street. "I’ll see you tomorrow." She waved goodbye and continued on her way, and noticed that Megan watched after her until she turned the corner. Pressing her hand against the charm, she hastened her step until the heels of her shoes clacked against the cobblestones. As much as she enjoyed the money she could make and her shifts matched well with Phillip’s, she did hate going home so late at night.

Anxious to get home, she looked up at the sky again and thought about how it was much nicer when the moons were full and glowing, whatever stories she’d been told as a child. Her attention snared by the moons, she didn’t notice the person standing in front of her until they bumped together. "Oh, I’m sorry." Her heart beat frantically in her chest, even after she told herself it was just another woman.

The stranger was smaller than her and as skinny as Megan. Her light brown hair was pulled back into a tight braid and her eyes were so dark they almost appeared black. "It’s best to look in front of you and not up at the sky, human."

The use of the word ‘human’ and the way the woman’s teeth gleamed in the dim moonlight made Tirzah wary, but she thought maybe this was some sort of cruel joke to scare her. The woman looked too normal, too… too harmless to be any danger, as if all it would take was one good hit from Tirzah to knock her to the ground. So why was she so afraid and why couldn’t she look away?

"I, ah, I’ll be on my way." She clutched at the charm again, hoping that the woman would look at something else so it could start working again. Taking a step away, she gasped when she felt herself bump into something very solid and larger. Reaching back, she felt smooth cotton over hard muscles, and then something clamped over her face, completely covering her mouth and nose.

She did her best to scream, but no sound would come forth as she was dragged into a dark alley. Frantically looking around, she found all the windows on the disappearing street to be dark, the time too late for the people who lived in the apartments above the shops to be awake or paying attention to what happened outside. Despite her best efforts to stop from being dragged into the darkness, whoever held her was too strong. They picked her up as if she was nothing and then she was in the dark alley with no windows for people to look out and see her.

Still trying to scream or draw some attention to what was happening, she flailed about with no success. Were they going to rob her? Sell her as a slave? Was… the person holding her might be a man, was he going to rape her? A thousand nightmare scenarios filled her head as the sense of dread grew. Searching about, she found the small woman standing at the alley’s exit, her lips curved in a smile. Any hope Tirzah had of the woman helping her died when she saw the cruelty in that expression. Then the lips parted to reveal an impossible amount of sharp fangs, all of them gleaming in the faint moonlight, and Tirzah couldn’t breathe from the sudden wave of fear she felt. No, this couldn’t be happening, Phillip or Megan would come looking for her, this was just a dream….

"But this is real, human. Now, let’s hope you’re as delicious as you look."

The hands holding her trapped and preventing her from screaming fell away, and she found herself merely standing there as the woman approached. No matter how much she screamed at herself to run, to cry out, to do *something*, she could only stand immobile as the stranger approached.

She had one more glimpse of those white, shining teeth, and then pain tore into her, so sharp and strong and wicked that she couldn’t believe that such a feeling was possible. As tears streamed down her face, she saw the teeth again, but now they were stained red with blood.

Then the pain grew even stronger as they tore into her again.

*******

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