Bindings

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chapter four

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opportunities and introductions

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At first, Aya mistook the sensation of fingers combing through his hair to be Yohji, the incessant touch breaking his concentration as he searched the shadows for any sign of movement. He hissed faintly in annoyance and moved to bat away his mate’s hand, only to feel coldness and something not quite substantial.

/Death, young one, a death!/ a shinigami purred, finally stilling its caress to Aya’s hair.

/News we have for you, painful death and release./ That came from Aya’s right side, and there was a quick brush against his arm as if the shinigami had rushed past him.

"What?" He rubbed his forehead as he slowly leaned back from the edge of the roof he was perched on and glanced in Yohji’s direction. His mate had realized that something was happening and hurried over from other side of the roof.

"Did you find the agents?"

"They’re not here." Aya ran his hand along his mate’s right arm in a soothing manner then nodded at the shadows that hovered around him. "It’s just the shinigami this time."

"I’d rather it be some murderous bounds," Yohji muttered under his breath, his fingers jerking through his hair as if the rough treatment would help to work out his current fit of temper. While he continued to swear quietly, Aya returned his attention back to the shinigami.

"You said something about a death?" His heart began to race as he waited for an answer, anxious to find out if the shinigami were going along with his request to inform him of any deaths by flesh gaki bounds within the city limits. They’d never been willing to help him out in such a manner before, but they’d been oddly cooperative since introducing him to Reno. While he suspected it was part of their plan to make him ‘leave the golden one’, he wouldn’t complain too much if it helped track down the Esset agents.

The shinigami hissed for a few seconds before one wrapped itself around his shoulders, its touch cool yet reassuring. /We’ve just fed, the soul screaming for release from life and pain. Delicious it was./ Once again, those fingers were back combing through his hair as images flashed through his mind: dark alley, the front of shops that had obviously been closed for the night, a sign painted with various seashells hanging above a pale blue door, blood on brown cobblestones flecked with iron set in diamond pattern. His breath hitched when he spied a flash of teeth and glowing eyes, only really able to make out the small build of the flesh gaki bound before the visions stopped. As much as he wanted more information, he knew not to press for it now, not when all the shinigami truly cared about was the energy they feasted upon.

Working with the Shadow Guard had made him fairly familiar with the seedier parts of the city, and Yohji had taught him all about the street patterns. Whispering thanks to the shinigami, he opened his eyes and stared at his mate’s anxious face. "The street was set in a diamond pattern, brown stones with iron flecks. It seems to be primarily a shopping area, and there was a sign of seashells hanging above a light blue door." From his years as a Guard as well as living here his entire life, Yohji knew the city very well. "That’s on the edge of the Eastern quarter, correct?"

Yohji rubbed his eyes and concentrated on the description. "Yeah, it’s not too far from the Northern quarter so the area’s actually pretty decent. They’ve moved on from the docks by a fair distance, which probably means they’re working their way to the more populous areas." He stared back at Aya for several seconds then reached out to give one of his eartails a gentle hug. "We’ll tell Yuushi to start around Linden Street and to look for that sign." That said, he didn’t immediately move to either tell Yuushi in person or to use his copper bracelet.

Aya sighed and leaned against his lover, needing that contact after dealing with the shinigami. Despite his best intentions, there was still a part of him that resented being trapped in human form, but the ache he felt over that fact always faded away whenever he touched Yohji. "We need to help find the body."


"I know." Yohji pressed a kiss against his forehead. "Did they show you anything else? Like maybe who’s behind the killings?"

Holding his lover close for a couple of heartbeats, Aya shook his head then reluctantly pushed Yohji away. "Not much, really." The shinigami really didn’t care about how people died or why, and he was surprised that they managed to show him this much. "But I’m certain that the flesh gaki bound is either a woman or a very small, feminine man." That settled the question of which of the two agents was behind the feeding.

Yohji grunted softly as he led the way to the fire escape, his left hand busy tapping something on the copper bracelet around his right wrist. "Sounds like the Elders sent someone who wouldn’t be taken for much of a physical threat, maybe to throw off the Guards." He made a point to stop sending the message to Yuushi and motioned for Aya to precede him down the metal stairs, still not caring for Aya’s faster way of reaching the street by just jumping down to the ground.

They made their way down the *slow* way and hurried to the horses; Aya’s bracelet started thrumming as Yuushi sent out a message to all the Shadow Guard in the immediate vicinity to converge around Linden Street to help look for the agents’ latest victim and possibly the agents themselves. He was about to ask the shinigami exactly when the murder had occurred before he remembered that they weren’t very good with time.

Following Yohji to the area where they suspected the body would be found, Aya extended the shadows around them so no one would see them racing down the streets. There was something thrilling in being able to gallop along empty streets that would be crowded in a few more hours, so many people in the apartments he rode past oblivious to the clatter of iron-shod hooves on cobblestones. He recalled Reno telling him about running through the city via its rooftops, something that Aya had done a few times himself while on missions for the Takatori. It felt so good to let loose his powers and do such things, to break free of most of the constraints that came with a human body.

By the time they reached their destination, Yuushi was already there with Naru and Eri by his side. Judging from the way their horses were panting, they’d just arrived before Aya and Yohji. He extended the shadows around the small group, mindful that the last thing they wanted was someone looking out the window and eavesdropping on them.

Yuushi patted his horse’s neck when the shadow ward went up. "Thank you, Aya. Cora, Bae Young, Anthony and Jake are already searching along the street. Jake said there’s a shop a couple of blocks northward where you can buy things carved out of mother of pearl." He motioned for them to ride in that direction, constantly looking around them.

"I’m not picking up any unusual thoughts, though that only means that the agents might have shields too strong for me to breach. Can you sense anything, Aya?" For once, Eri didn’t seem to have a problem speaking to him directly, especially with Yohji riding so close to him that their thighs brushed together.

"No." He shook his head and hissed slightly in frustration. "There’re too many lives around here, all I’m sensing are humans. I’d have to be close to the agents to find them." All around him were small apartments housing mostly sleeping humans, their homes filled with various magical items. With all that ‘interference’, he wouldn’t have much luck finding the agents unless they used their talents while not too far away from him. Add to that the fact that there were now bound Shadow Guards wandering the area, and he didn’t have much hope of tracking down the targets.

Yohji shook his head when Eri asked him the same question. "I’m not finding any emotions that are out of the ordinary, sad to say. Just a lot of tired people." He let out a breath in frustration, so clearly wanting to do something to help stop the murders that Aya reached out to pat him on the shoulder. He got a quick grin in return, followed by a pulse of reassurance. "They probably left the area as quickly as they could."

"If they could pull off a murder with no one noticing, I’m sure they’d rather leave the crime scene than hole up somewhere and wait out the inevitable search that’ll happen once the body’s discovered." Yuushi clicked his tongue in disgust and didn’t stop looking about. "Aya, Yohji said you only caught a glimpse of the murderer. Can you share that image with Eri, please?"

Used to only letting Schuldig into his mind, Aya frowned slightly but nodded. "All right. It’s not much, I warn you now." He felt the soul gaki bound’s talent search him out and allowed it to read his thoughts, which were focused on what the shinigami had shown him. Eri sat up straighter on her horse, her face strained and the reins dropping from her hands as she mentally scanned those images.

"Thank you," she whispered when she was done, her voice hoarse and expression haunted as she urged her horse closer to Yuushi’s. Naru glanced between her and Aya for a few seconds, obviously worried about his partner, before going to join Eri. When Aya looked to his mate in case Yohji knew what was going on, all he got was a gentle smile in return and the sense of protective anger.

"Yohji?"

"According to Schu, you’re a bit different from the rest of us," Yohji explained, his voice pitched quiet and roughened with that anger. He shook his head a few times and smiled again at Aya. "It’s all right."

Aya had the impression that it wasn’t, not really, but didn’t feel in the mood to ask any further while they were in the middle of a murder investigation. He knew that Schuldig wasn’t very happy to go into his thoughts but hadn’t thought his mind was that different from everyone else’s. After all, Yohji didn’t have a problem sensing his emotions all the time….

"Wait, turn left," Yuushi ordered. "Aya, extend the shadow ward down the alley, okay?" He stopped tapping on his wrist and jumped out of the saddle, the reins held clenched in his hand as he led his horse down the narrow alley.

Doing as he was told, Aya waited until they’d approached the alley’s entrance before dismounting his horse. He could sense that there was a human and a bound just ahead, as well as the faint tingle of recent energy.

/Here it is, young one. Such a feast,/ a shinigami crooned, sounding very sated and pleased with itself.

He’d met the two Guards standing a careful distance from the bloody mess of flesh that had once been a human a few times at the Koneko: Anthony with his prematurely greyed black hair and usually smiling demeanor, Jake a mid-level fire elemental who kept his dark brown hair cut very short and wasn’t as serious as he always looked. Once the shadow wards were in place, Jake held up his hands and several balls of fire burst into existence to illuminate the alley.

"I could have done something like that," Naru muttered as he made sure the horses were tied a safe distance from the body then joined them to look about the brightly lit space.

"Bound magic won’t taint anything around the body, like human magic can do," Jake replied, his expression solemn even as his words carried a bit of antagonism.

Anthony grunted and crouched down to inspect something on the ground. "Just keep the heat away from the body or I won’t be able to eat cooked steaks for at least a month. And send one of those globes over here, I think I found a footprint."

Jake complied with his partner’s request, and everyone but Aya and Yuushi rushed to see what Anthony had discovered. Very well aware that he hadn’t the training that everyone else present had gone through, Aya just wanted to keep out of the way. His abilities didn’t have much to do with finding clues other than the method, location and approximate time when a person had died. Judging from the still slick pools of blood and the chunks of flesh torn from the victim’s body, no one needed those answers from him.

Yuushi continued to tap out messages on his bracelet, all the while staring at the body. "What did you find?"

"A footprint, and a big one at that," Anthony called out. "Nothing else identifiable than the size, but there aren’t too many people walking around who are this big."

Yohji snorted as he tucked back the hair falling onto his face and carefully rocked back onto his heels. His expression and emotions were of strong concentration, which prompted a smile from Aya despite the grim atmosphere around them. This was what Yohji had trained to do, part of a job he’d loved for several years before the Takatori had inadvertently used him. As exhausting as it could be to work for the Shadow Guard, Aya was happy that the man he loved was once again able to put the skills that mattered to him to good use.

Yohji motioned off to the left. "There’s another footprint over there, from the looks of it. Considering how clean the last scene was, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were left deliberately."

Eri nodded and cautiously made her way closer to the body, stopping a good yard away. "Probably to leave little doubt that something human – or human appearing – had been involved in the murder." She glanced upward, at the buildings that fenced in the alley. "All I’m registering are sleeping minds right now. I’ll come back later when they’re awake, but I’m willing to bet they didn’t hear anything." Her brow furrowed as she stared at one of the buildings. "It’s so hard to tell when they’re unconscious… but I think one of the residents had a compulsion forced on him to go to sleep."

That made Yuushi pause in tapping out orders, most likely to the bounds whom Aya sensed were searching the immediate blocks around the murder scene, and stare intently at Eri. "I want you to go to the nearest station house and rest for a couple of hours." When Eri’s face became flushed and her mouth opened in what Aya was sure was a complaint, Yuushi shook his head and pointed in the eastern direction. "Go now. You’ve been working for several hours already so I want you to get some rest while we investigate the scene. When we’re ready to stage a discovery, then you can come back and scan the minds of the neighbors."

Aya found it interesting how quickly the explanation appeared to soothe the woman’s pride. She bowed her head, her expression no longer upset. "All right, you have a point." The flushed appearance from before returned faintly when Yuushi gave her a tender smile. "I won’t risk this case by not being fully awake while dealing with possible witnesses."

"I know you wouldn’t, it’s just too easy to get caught up in things while they’re happening so quickly." Yuushi chuckled for a moment, the sound tired and not very amused. "I want to keep the murder a secret for a few more hours, until we have all the information we can find. I’ll need you once it’s done, so go with Cora and Bae Young. Naru can stay here in case we run across any spells."

Naru’s chest puffed out in pride while Eri nodded before leaving the alley. Aya tried to figure out why Yuushi had two Guards escorting the soul gaki bound to the nearest Guard’s station when it was clear that if she could sense the agents’ mental tampering, she was powerful enough to pick up their thoughts even if they were shielded. "You do know that she should be more powerful than the other soul gaki bound, right?" he couldn’t help but ask, unsure just how much Yuushi knew about bounds.

Of all things, Yuushi blushed a little as he nodded, his hands busy running through his disheveled blond hair. "She’s tired and I don’t want any of my people walking around this neighborhood on their own." His explanation seemed rather gruff to Aya, but he merely shrugged and put it down to a human thing – at least, until he felt a wave of amusement and sympathy from his mate. That was it, he and Yohji would talk about the two Shadow Guards once they were alone and had the time to do so.

Returning to Aya’s side, Yohji waved at the body with his right hand while his left arm settled around Aya’s waist. "The scene’s messy as hell with blood, but I only found a couple of footprints. I definitely think they were staged, Yuushi."

"Thank you." Yuushi frowned as he stared at the dead human. "I guess it’s one way to make people think about bounds being the murderers, but it could also be interpreted as a human being witness to the crime. I’ll let Birman spin an acceptable rumor out of this." He rubbed his eyes and turned toward Aya. "What can you tell me about the murder victim?"

"Only that the person definitely died here and within the past half an hour, I’d say." Aya based that answer on the faint amount of energy that lingered in the alley. "The shinigami said there was a lot of pain."

A few feet away, Anthony gagged and hunched over as if struggling to control himself. His partner patted him on the back a few times before looking at Yuushi. "I believe the victim’s a woman, sir, judging from the scraps of cloth we’re finding and… well, based on a knowledge of human anatomy." That made Anthony gag again.

"Don’t get any closer, we can wait on a definite answer until Ken and Ogden arrive to go over the scene for any scents they can find. That should just be a couple more minutes." Yuushi tapped a few times on his bracelet then sighed. "There are several taverns in this area."

Yohji nodded as he hugged Aya closer. "Not too many inns around here, so the staff would have to go home at night. It would be pretty easy to find someone walking by themselves."

"Which would imply that they were familiar enough with the area to have an idea of when people would leave for home and where they were going." Yuushi’s eyes narrowed and he brushed the thumb of his right hand over his lips several times. "If Eri’s right about them forcing a neighbor asleep, that could mean they were here waiting for a while."

It seemed as if both men had the same idea at the same time. "Did you have anyone check the immediate buildings?" Yohji asked, a hint of a predatory growl to his voice.

Yuushi smiled, the expression grim yet oddly pleased, too. "No, I assumed that they had already fled the scene."

That made Yohji smile as well, and he turned to Aya after picking up on Aya’s confusion. "If they were standing around this area while waiting for a suitable victim, then it might give Ken and Ogden a better read on their scents than right here, where there’s so much blood."

Not to mention where several other people had been standing for the last ten minutes, Aya realized. While his sense of smell was several times better than a human’s, a flesh gaki bound could pick up so much more with a mere sniff. He was so used to his own talents that he tended to forget that fact. "Remind them to check the rooftops." At Yohji’s arched brow, Aya smiled the tiniest amount. "I know you don’t care to be up there, but it’s a good place to watch what’s going on and not be noticed. If the soul gaki bound is weaker than Eri, then he probably was trying to conserve his power and not use it so much to ensure that he and his partner weren’t noticed."


"Ken’s gonna love climbing up onto all these roofs and sniffing them." Yohji glanced upward and smiled. "Good thing he’s not afraid of heights, though I’m sure Miko’s gonna complain about all those steps."

"Miko will go up regardless of that fact, since she does the best job of keeping Ken in line." Yuushi didn’t sound as if he had any sympathy for his fellow Guard. "Before Naru casts a few spells, can you tell us if there’s any magic around here, Aya?"

Aya shook his head, having already checked for that as soon as he’d arrived at the alley. "No, nothing out here, not even a spell to keep the rats away. The agents didn’t use any magic other than their own."

Yuushi frowned at that bit of news, most likely upset that they’d lost another means of tracking down the agents, while Jake left his partner’s side and approached Aya with caution. "Are you sure? It looks as if there’s a charm lying near the body." He motioned in its direction, one of his balls of flame hovering above it.

Aya could easily see the charm now, as could Yohji, but Naru slid a little closer to the body. "There are runes on it, ones for… uhm, that might be ‘aversion’." He tried to step closer until Yuushi cleared his throat, stopping the wizard in his tracks. "Dammit, I can’t see it well enough, but I’d say it’s a charm." He folded his arms over his chest and looked at Aya, his demeanor focused but not confrontational. "Are you sure there’s no magic to it?"

"I’m positive." Aya could feel the thrum of magic all around him, minor spells to keep away vermin, to light and blow out candles, to keep small spaces cold and the like. But all of that was inside the buildings, not outside.

"Botan will want to know about that. He should also be able to tell if it was made here or in Esset." Naru bounced on his toes a couple of times and appeared ready to explain some more, but was cut off by the sound of approaching hooves.

Ken and Miko didn’t have any problems with the shadow wards since they were both in possession of rings made from Aya’s blood. Ken practically leapt from his horse while Miko muttered under her breath about rushing around and tied them up near the entrance to the alley. Her partner inhaled deeply as he walked straight to the body, stopping just shy of the outermost pool of blood.

"It’s a woman," he said, voice thick with a growl and his claws extended. "Not to state the obvious, but she suffered a hell of a lot, judging from the stink of fear and pain."

"That confirms one thing for us," Yuushi said while he and everyone else in the alley got out of Ken’s way. Aya watched his friend with interest since he usually arrived at the murder scenes after Ken was finished checking them for any tell-tale scents.

"I’m picking up two other scents, one that makes me…." He stopped and shook his head, his teeth gleaming in the fireballs’ light. It wasn’t until Miko approached and gave him a nudge in the side that he resumed talking. "Oh yeah, one’s definitely a flesh gaki bound. Female, again, and male." He had to use the heels of his hands to rub his eyes since his claws were fully extended.

"We think they were waiting around here for their victim," Yuushi said while motioning at the buildings surrounding the alley. "I want you and Ogden to search them as completely as possible."

Ken growled and flashed his teeth. "Tell Ogden to search down here, we’ll take the roofs," he said. When Miko cursed under her breath, he actually smiled. "Less people up there so it’ll be easier for me to find the bastards’ scent. Ogden was able to pick up on it better at the other scene since there were fewer people about, so he’ll have an easier time finding anything down here."

"You just like making me climb up rusty old ladders," Miko sniffed, already heading toward one of the metal stairwells. "Let’s get this over with so I can add another ruined uniform to the collection."

Aya, Yohji and Yuushi watched them go, then Yohji coughed twice and turned toward the Shadow Captain. "What do you want us to do? We can help search the surrounding blocks until almost sunrise."

Yuushi nodded, a tired smile of gratitude forming on his face. "That sounds fine to me. I know there are a few taverns that are still open and a couple of gambling dens as well. You can search them without drawing any attention to yourselves."

Yohji gave Aya a questioning look. "You up to that while maintaining the ward here for a few more hours?"


"Yes." As long as Aya stayed out of any sunlight, he should be able to manage. But he was starting to feel hungry, and sooner rather than later would have to feed. Yohji didn’t like it when he fed on suspected killers or rapists, but he was losing hope that he could hold out until they found the Esset agents. If worse came to worst, he’d have to take to prowling various temples where terminally ill people went to die in peace.

As if sensing his thoughts, Yohji frowned and a wave of concern washed over their link. Yet all he did was tell Yuushi that they’d start at one of the gambling dens a couple of blocks away and work around the crime scene. Then he grasped Aya’s right hand and led him out of the alley.

"You sure you’re okay, Cat? You feel a little tired to me." Energy flowed from Yohji into him, his hand tingling at the transfer; it wasn’t enough for him to yell at his mate, but enough that Aya felt a little more awake and aware.

"I’ll be fine, at least for another week or two," he admitted, wanting to put Yohji at ease and unwilling to lie about something so important. Besides, Yohji would be able to feel his growing hunger, which would only lead to a fight between them if he tried to hide things.

"Hmph." Yohji pressed his lips together as if he wanted to say something while worry and love flowed over their link. Yet all he did was untie the reins of their horses’ bridles and give Aya a push up into the saddle. "Jo will have a nice, big breakfast for us once we get home."

Aya nodded, aware that while the food would help with his energy levels, it wouldn’t truly placate the gnawing sense of hunger. There was something to be said about being able to feed from another’s emotions or energy, although he didn’t have to ‘feed’ as often as soul gaki or succubae bounds.

They rode the first block in silence, Yohji waving and nodding at the Shadow Guard who did the same to them. When they turned to go down an unfamiliar street, Aya glanced at his lover. "I’ve never been to a gambling den before."

Yohji chuckled and turned to smile at Aya. "See, I’m the one who takes you to all the fun places." Then his expression turned serious. "We’ll use your shadows to get in and out without anyone noticing us. Most dens won’t let any strangers inside unless a regular can vouch for them, so if the agents are in one of them, then they forced their way inside by magical or mundane means."

Considering the last two murder scenes and times, Aya had a feeling that the agents wouldn’t do anything as brazen or forceful as that; they seemed to do their best not to attract any notice or risk being seen. However, they just might enter a gambling den or an inn because it did seem atypical behavior for them. There were too many possibilities right now, when the Shadow Guard knew so little about the agents and how they thought. Aya didn’t think he was going to be feeding off the two anytime soon. That meant more late nights, but he didn’t really mind it since he was spending the time with Yohji. They’d catch the agents in the end, it was only a matter of how many people died by that point.

*******

Rufus woke up feeling as if something was out of place. His right arm stretched out to touch warm sheets but no lover, the loss of Reno making him open his eyes and sit up with a curse. Had the fool left in the middle of the night again to go sit out by the koi pond? That had happened just two nights ago, and they’d argued for over twenty minutes before he’d been able to make Reno return inside. What was the fascination for a bunch of brightly colored fish?

/Reno./

His eyes had just about adjusted to the darkness when he heard his mate snort as if amused and move about the room. "Yeah?"

He found the dubhach on the other side of the room, surreptitiously pulling on a pair of pants from the looks of it. At his direct stare, Reno sighed and straightened up, the black pants not laced all the way and sliding down his hips.

"What in all the hells are you doing?" Reno barely bothered with a robe or discarded shirt when he went to sit by the pond, and Rufus wasn’t optimistic enough to believe that his stubborn mate had accepted the order to not go outside unless fully dressed. So that meant the fool was up to something, and judging from how quietly he’d moved about the room to gather his clothes and begin to dress, it was something he hadn’t wanted Rufus to know about. In fact, the link between them was slightly blocked, the emotions he should be feeling as clearly as his own muffled as if to not attract his attention. "You’re not going anywhere." He bent his knees and folded his arms on top of them, his expression as stern as he could make it to relay that he wasn’t in the mood for nonsense right now.

Reno tossed the shirt he was about to pull on onto the ground and cursed, his hands balling into fists and resting on his jutting hipbones. "I’m just gonna go check something out, okay? I’ll take Tseng or Rude with me if it’ll make you happy." His eyes had a hint of silver to them and the air around him appeared darker than the rest of the room. Those two things made Rufus’ eyes narrow and a sense of uneasiness to settle in his chest.

"You aren’t going anywhere," he repeated, a touch of a growl to his voice as he struggled with the urge to force the command on his mate. "The shinigami are here, aren’t they?" He didn’t hear the hissing sound that Yohji had warned him about, but he’d gotten better in the last few weeks at telling what was a mere shadow and what wasn’t. "Tell them to go away and then get back into bed."

There was a flash of anger over their link and Reno began to hiss, the sound soft and annoyed. "No."

"Reno…." His patience snapping, Rufus mentally forced his way through the partially blocked link and deep into Reno’s mind, unwilling to spend the next hour attempting to drag out of his mate why the idiot suddenly had to leave. Reno yowled like a furious cat over the intrusion in his head and launched himself onto the bed. Having suspected such a reaction, Rufus tossed the covers aside in time to catch his mate and roll Reno onto his back, all the while still searching for an answer. When he found it, he growled in earnest and tightened his hold on Reno’s wrists hard enough to feel bone shift beneath his fingers and an answering spark of pain.

/There is no way in any hell that I’ll allow you to go hunt for the Elders’ agents. Your brain is truly defective if you thought I wouldn’t skin you alive for such stupidity!/ It was there in Reno’s memories, the shinigami telling him about the murder and alerting Aya to it as well, the fool’s ‘brilliant’ idea to join his friend and see if he couldn’t help find the agents. The thoughts only fueled Rufus’ anger, along with some other emotion that was strong and dark and very possessive.

"I’ll use the fucking shadows to hide me!" Reno hissed some more and struggled to break free, but he’d always been the physically weaker of the two of them. "Dammit, let go!"

"No." Rufus used his greater strength and weight to his advantage, not about to let the gods’ cursed fool get up and go commit what would basically be suicide – for the two of them. "It’s bad enough that there are bounds loyal to the Elders in Eto, and now you want to go find them! You won’t so much as get within ten blocks of them, you fool!" As long as Rufus had any say in the matter – no, as long as he was *alive*, then Reno was going to listen to him on this, at the least! "I won’t have you endanger all of us by chasing after two people who would love dearly to tell their masters about a dubhach running around the city!"

"They won’t even know what I am!" Reno shouted, bucking his hips in an attempt to dislodge Rufus and only stopping when his wrists were squeezed even tighter. /Stop that! They won’t see me, I promise! I’ll be with Aya the entire time!/

/*No*./ If Yohji wanted to risk his mate attracting the Elders’ attention, then that was his decision. However, Rufus wasn’t him and there was no way he’d allow such a risk to Reno, not after barely getting him out of Berin in time just a couple of months ago. He wouldn’t accept anything that would bring his mate to those old bastards’ attention again, anything that would put Reno in danger. If he had to order Tseng to sit on the suicidal bastard all day long to ensure that Reno didn’t run off again, he’d do it.

"But-"

"NO!" Rufus snarled, all sense of patience and calm torn away by his mate’s refusal to listen and obey. /All it takes is them suspecting what you are and sending back a report, and this city will be torn apart as the Elders do whatever they have to in order to get their hands on you!/ They would take Reno away from him, would turn the dubhach into a weapon regardless of his wants or feelings. Rufus would never stand back and allow something that was so *his* to be stolen like that, and the resulting fight would lay waste to everything around them. He would protect Reno with all of his power and resources.

"They can’t suspect what they don’t see, for fuck’s sake!" Reno continued to attempt to writhe his way free, the shorter segments of his hair clinging to his face. Since his nails couldn’t reach Rufus they clawed into the bedding instead, and Rufus could sense his gokenin gathered outside of the room, keeping careful watch in case they had to break up a fight.

"We were damn lucky to get out of Berin without anyone figuring out what you are, and I refuse to push my luck here! Do you really want to put all of us in danger just so you can have some fun?" he demanded to know, desperate to figure out the twisted nonsense that Reno used in place of logic.

Yowling once more, Reno arched his back off the bed in a desperate attempt to break free. "The sooner they’re caught the better, right?"

"The Shadow Guard doesn’t need your help. You won’t listen to orders from me, so why would you follow their lead?" Rufus had been approached about the agents, both to warn him of their presence in the city and to ask that if they contacted him, that he let the Shadow Guard know. He had no problem with the latter and hadn’t seen the need to offer his people to help track the agents down since he doubted that they’d be of much assistance.

/You won’t go anywhere without me or one of the gokenin by your side, do you understand?/ He put as much force behind the words as he could, desperate to make them sink into his foolish lover’s brain. /You will stay as far away from the Elders’ agents as possible./

His concern only rated another furious hiss from his mate, but Reno did stop struggling and lay still on the bed, his eyes closed and his chest heaving as he panted. /But Aya-/

/Is not you, is not my gokenin and is not my damn mate! My only concern is *you*./ Rufus glared at the idiot sprawled beneath him, somewhat hampered by the hair that fell before his eyes. /Listen to me for once, you stubborn bastard./

"Huh, could say the same about you," Reno answered, some of his anger turning into amusement. "Why don’t you come with me, then? You can make sure that-"

/*NO*./ Dammit, what would it take for Reno to give up on the incredibly foolish idea? If Rufus could only force his will on his mate… the part of him which urged him to keep Reno safe wanted to do that more than anything. Yet he was equally upset over the thought of Reno being little more than a puppet.

Torn between conflicting impulses, he snarled and leaned down to kiss the idiot quiet, unwilling to argue about the matter any longer. If logic didn’t work, perhaps passion would.

Reno went still beneath him, not even breathing as Rufus licked at his lips then pushed his tongue past them. Using the mental link, he sent along the desire he always felt for his mate and added a few images as well. When Reno refused to move for several seconds, he wondered if they’d just exchange the current fight for an older one dealing with Rufus feeding from the dubhach to gain new powers, then Reno moaned and parted his lips.

Rufus still felt anger from his mate, but it was quickly fading away, unable to be maintained for long in the face of so much desire and need. As much as he hated being ‘weakened’ by the bond between them, he had to admit to being amazed by the emotions it could evoke. Never in his life had he ever wanted anyone the way he did Reno, and the simple act of kissing, of stroking hands along a bare, bony chest felt so pleasurable.

While he was naked, Reno had that annoying pair of pants on, something he quickly set about removing so he could feel *all* of his mate beneath him, the sensation of smooth skin tightly covering hard muscle and bone. Reno groaned and wriggled beneath him, just as eager to shed the clothes that had just been pulled on, causing Rufus to smile in victory.

"Stop… smiling," Reno moaned, his back arching as Rufus’ hands stroked along the side of his ribs. Rufus repeated the motion, adoring the way his lover’s lower body pressed against his own in response. They were both hard, Reno’s cock leaving a slick trail wherever it rubbed against Rufus’ thigh as they shifted about, seeking the most comfortable way to fit their bodies together. He hissed a little as sharp claws scratched down his back, not enough to break the skin but to leave tingling lines in their wake.

"Why should I?" he asked just before moving his mouth to his mate’s neck, unable to resist leaving a mark or two there. Besides, Reno mewled in the most adorable way when his neck was sucked on like that, the fight just seeming to leave him when Rufus’ teeth threatened to draw blood.

That surrender was so sweet, so intoxicating that Rufus moaned in ecstasy and bit harder, wanting to prove yet again that Reno was his. The demon soul inside of him clamored for it, spurred him on until he tasted blood, his fingers digging into Reno’s firm ass as his cock slid back and forth inside its cleft. There was no more fear or anxiety that his mate would rush into danger, that there was a chance of Reno being harmed or taken away from him. No, not now when he had his mate pinned to the bed, head tilted back and hands clutching him even closer.

/… Rufus…./ Reno’s mind was filled with a kaleidoscope of images, fractured thoughts and punishingly intense emotions, all of them revolving around Rufus. There was that clarity that was only achieved when both the dubhach’s souls were in unison about their desires. What they wanted was Rufus filling Reno’s mind and body, their warring natures quieted by utter domination. That was what Rufus wanted, too, both his souls united with the overwhelming need to take everything his lover offered to him.

He could feel what Reno wanted, a dizzying mixture of lust and need that had more to do with assurance than physical pleasure. Yet all Rufus could do was leave another possessive mark on Reno’s already bruised neck, wrap his hand around his mate’s hard cock and move closer for another ardent kiss in hopes that those actions would express the possessiveness that consumed him, that very emotion pouring over their link too strongly for him to even think to block it.

This time Reno’s nails drew blood, an answering mark to those Rufus had left on his mate’s neck, and those images coalesced into one of Rufus fucking him, thrusting in hard and fast until they were joined so deeply and lost in pleasure. That image and the accompanying emotions energized Rufus, made him burn with their intensity until he couldn’t possibly imagine doing anything other than exactly what Reno wanted.

Half the lube ended up spilled onto the bed’s velvet coverlet, not that Rufus cared about anything other than the drops that clung to his fingers. Reno was still slick from the sex they’d had before falling asleep, his body opening so willingly to Rufus’ fingers that Rufus moaned in anticipation and delight. Even though he’d ‘fed’ earlier from his mate’s emotions, the demon part of him purred at the pleasure and want that poured over the link. He felt so powerful at that moment, body tingling with energy as well as ecstasy, so deeply imbedded in Reno’s mind that the usual pressure from all the people’s thoughts around him simply vanished.

"Now, dammit," Reno snarled, his nails once more drawing blood from Rufus’ scratched back. One of these days the bastard would leave scars behind, Rufus thought as he glared at his mate, his anger melting away at the sight of Reno’s flushed face, pale eyes darkened with desire and bruised neck. The quick retort he’d been about to say was quickly forgotten, along with anything that would keep him from the pleasure they both craved.

"Reno." He breathed his mate’s name as he pushed inside, his arms trembling as he held himself above Reno so he could see the man’s lovely face. As always, Reno didn’t hold back on the emotions he felt, his eyes drifting shut as he bit his bottom lip and moaned in satisfaction. Wanting to be inside even deeper, Rufus rocked back so he could drape Reno’s legs over his shoulders, his hands gripping Reno’s hips with bruising intensity to pull him closer. /Touch yourself, I want to see you doing that./ As great as it felt to have Reno’s body move so enticingly beneath his own, what he wanted now was to be able to visually feast on his lover.

Chuckling softly, Reno did as he was told, his left hand wrapping around his cock while his right hand brushed along the bruises on his neck. He stared directly at Rufus, his eyes heavy-lidded with passion, his thoughts filled with the pleasure he derived from watching Rufus in return. Their minds wrapped around each other, much like their bodies, their movements fluid and in synch despite the growing franticness behind them. The ecstasy was almost sharp enough to hurt, increasing with each deep thrust, each sweat-slicked stroke, each clenching grip. Rufus could so clearly feel whatever Reno did, the sensations from his mate a pleasurable echo that slowly yet surely reverberated between them as Reno felt what he did and sent it back.

Despite how searing the ecstasy became, the feel of Reno’s body so tight and hot around him, it was the emotions that did Rufus in, the all-encompassing need he felt from Reno that only grew stronger the more he sought to sate it. If he was at all rational at the moment, if he wasn’t so befuddled by the mating link then he’d be afraid of that need, would deny it with his last breath yet now all he did was drink it in, his dual natures strangely placated by it. The way that Reno looked at him as if he was the only thing in the world produced an emotion so potent, so frightening that he lost the tenuous amount of control that he had over himself and plummeted straight into that ecstasy, body and mind engulfed by it.

He let himself fall forward, Reno’s legs slipping from his shoulders as he once more pinned his mate to the bed. He could feel Reno’s hand move between their bodies a few more frantic times, feel Reno’s body arch against his as even more ecstasy crashed into him. Closing his eyes, all he could do was ride it out, his body trembling and his mind blanked by the powerful emotion.

When it finally did fade away, he was left with a feeling of perfect peace, not so much too tired to move as utterly unwilling to do so. That was, until a wet tongue licked along his ear and nails weakly scratched down his back.

"Dammit, Reno." He somehow managed the strength to glare at his idiot mate as he rolled over onto his side.

Reno wrinkled his nose and stuck out the tip of his tongue, his face still flushed and spider-webbed by strands of long hair. "Too heavy." He flopped his right arm over his forehead and raised his left hand so he could lick its fingers clean.

Waiting until that task was done, Rufus moved in for a kiss, shivering slightly at the taste of his lover’s release. "No, you’re supposed to say something like ‘too good’."

That provoked an amused grunt from his lover. "Right." Reno grunted again as he shifted over to his left side so he could face Rufus. "Not bad."

/I didn’t allow my back to be clawed for a ‘not bad’./ Rufus glared some more and trailed the back of his fingers along one of the livid bitemarks on the idiot’s throat.

/No, you allowed it to keep me here./ Reno smacked his lips together and closed his eyes, his right hand reaching out to tug Rufus closer. /At least that’s more fun than chasing after a couple of assholes./

/Then keep that in mind and listen to me for once./ Rufus draped his arm over his mate, a little disturbed at how happy he was to just comb out the tangles in Reno’s tousled hair.

"Nah, have to make you work for it." Reno actually chuckled and inched a little closer. "I’m not stupid, you know. They never would have known I was there."

Rufus sighed and waited until he undid a particularly nasty knot before replying. "Forgive me if I’ve no faith in the gods’ sense of amusement. It’s not so much me distrusting you as unable to ignore all the things that could potentially go wrong." He knew that Reno had earned the right to be one of his gokenin and was intelligent enough to look after himself. What worried him was that Reno had no true sense of self-preservation.

"You fuss over things even more than Reeve does, which is pretty bad." Reno’s teeth scraped along Rufus’ chin, followed by the soothing lap of a tongue. "Did you ever think that I might find ‘em and kill ‘em?"

"Yes." It would solve the problem of the agents reporting back things that Rufus didn’t want the Elders to know, but he didn’t think the risks were worth it. "Leave it to the Shadow Guard, Reno. Don’t be so greedy that you won’t allow anyone else to have some fun." He gave his mate’s ass a playful smack.

That earned him another nip to the chin. "Right, need to stay by you and make sure those human bitches don’t do their best to fuck you at the next tea party."

The jealousy and possessiveness that Rufus felt just then went a long way to appeasing whatever annoyance remained from their fight. Even though he wasn’t amused with Reno’s little fits of temper during the parties, he had to admit to a smug pride over the way his mate wasn’t willing to ‘share’.

"No more spilled wine or you’ll stay here while I attend those parties," he warned, unwilling to allow Reno to draw any attention to himself – especially since not all of those ‘human bitches’ were interested in Rufus.

"One of these days you’ll tell me something I’m allowed to do and I’ll pass out from the shock," Reno grumbled, sounding and feeling rather sleepy.

"Mmm." Rufus hid his smile against his lover’s unruly hair, amused despite himself. One day, when the war was over and he was certain that it was safe, he could allow Reno a bit more freedom. Of course, that would probably just lead to at least another war, massive destruction and a whole lot of other headaches that he didn’t want to think about right now. Despite it all, it might just be interesting enough to see what Reno would do….

/Go to bed, Tseng. For once there’s no broken furniture and barely any broken skin,/ he sent to his head gokenin, lips twitching at the ‘skin’ comment.

/Yes, my lord./ Tseng shared in his amusement, quite happy to go back to bed rather than break up a fight between Rufus and Reno.

At least, no fight to break up tonight. Rufus tightened his arms around his mate and wondered if there was a way to make sure that Reno didn’t try to slip away another night, driven by the bond he shared with the kage and shinigami. That thought stirred Rufus’ jealousy, made him want to lock Reno away where it was safe. Only knowledge that such actions would make Reno even more determined to escape kept him from thinking over the matter any further, his body and mind exhausted despite the energy he’d gained from feasting on Reno’s emotions.

*******

Quatre sat in his comfortable chair and watched his lover pace back forth as if a caged animal… confined to the luxury of his private study. Partly amused and partly aroused by the sight of Wufei’s handsome face set in concentration and lithe body in continuous motion, Quatre enjoyed his tea until it became obvious that he’d have to be the first person to speak. "I’m half-tempted to throw a ball of yarn your way, you know."

"What?" That did the trick and made Wufei stop in his tracks and look at Quatre. "Ball of yarn? What nonsense are you going on about now?"

For an answer, all Quatre did was smile and motion at the tray of tea and cakes that Rasheed had brought him a few minutes ago. "Would you like something to eat or drink?"

"I’m not sure this is the time for such frivolous things," Wufei replied with a snort, yet never the less he crossed the room to grab a couple of strawberry cakes. "You are aware that we’ve no time to fool around with a human child, correct?" At Quatre’s benign smile, he grunted and shoved an entire cake in his mouth. /Of course not, what was I thinking?/

"I’m more aware of things than you believe," Quatre chided his lover. Really, Wufei should have more faith in him, but the man did love to fuss over things. "I’ll admit that the timing is not perfect, but it’ll take the Elders a few more days to approve my request in regards to the girl. Then we’ll give it another few days so we don’t appear too eager, leaving us at least a week to help find out who the Elders sent to Eto." That said, he sipped his tea, then set the empty cup down to refill it. Well aware of who he was meeting with and why, Rasheed had thankfully included some potent brandy in the teapot. He truly loved Wufei, but there were times when the man needed to sit back and trust in Fate and Quatre’s machinations.

Wufei wiped at the crumbs clinging to his lips. "Considering that we’ve been searching for that information these last few days and finding nothing, I’m not sure a week is enough time."

He had a point, Quatre had to admit, yet there was only so much they could do. "I’ve faith that we’ll find some information soon. Alexis… has proven to be a more valuable find than I’d hoped for." He’d been very tentative in his overtures on her loyalty to the Elders, using his talent as much as he dared and having his people investigate her past. What he was uncovering lent him hope that she could be swayed to their side, but he truly missed Crawford and having confirmation from the precog that he wasn’t risking too much. In a way, he might have that already since he’d not received any message to leave her alone, but they only dared communicate so much while Crawford was in Eto.

"Once I’m sure that we can trust her, I feel that she may have the answers we need, at least half of them." She should know best about all the flesh gaki bounds in Berin recently, as those bounds were always mindful of each other to prevent fights of dominance. And when they found out who was the flesh gaki bound sent to Eto, then they’d be a short step away from identifying the other bound, too.

About to start pacing again, Wufei stopped after two steps and turned toward Quatre. "I… don’t mistrust her." He tilted his head to the side as if trying to put his emotions in order. "When you think of her behavior the last few decades, she’s made sure to not antagonize the Elders, nor draw unwelcome attention to herself. Considering how powerful she is, one would expect her to have ingratiated herself with the Elders and enjoy being considered one of their favorites." His lips twisted into a sneer at the last few words.

"Exactly." Most bounds who are as much demon as Alexis have curried the Elders’ favors and benefited from their ‘honored’ status, but not her. Yet the way she carefully walked the line between appearing loyal and not giving reason to be doubted was very telling. While the Elders and their lackeys might not be concerned with those who toe the line and do little more, Crawford had taught Quatre to pay attention to those individuals as potential allies.

Wufei made a spitting sound and returned for more cakes. "Then throw some more of your senseless parties so we can invite her and feel her out some more." He leaned down for a quick kiss that tasted of strawberries to take the sting out of his words. It wasn’t so much that he mocked Quatre’s parties as that he was appalled that two warriors had to resort to such tactics to help win a war.

"I shall," Quatre murmured. "If I plan enough, that will buy us some time before we deal with the girl."

His lover grimaced, the expression so exaggerated that he had to stifle a laugh. "Quatre, I love you and have given you my utmost faith, but if she’s some silly twit who only cares about dresses and parties then I’m abandoning you to this foolishness." He had to quickly eat the remaining cake in his hand so he could fold his arms over his chest and glare in Quatre’s direction. /I can’t stand it when they cry./

/Neither can I, to be honest./ Having several older sisters had made him mostly immune to such tactics, but he disliked them all the same. And when a woman cried for a genuine reason… he shook his head and enjoyed more calming tea. /Think of it this way – a few hours a week for the next two years or so spent with the girl or at least several decades trapped here in charge of the new government./ Judging from the way his lover shuddered in distaste, Quatre knew there wouldn’t be too many more complaints about the royal heir… at least until they met the girl.

"I’m left torn between hoping we find the identities of the agents soon and wanting more time before dealing with the child." Wufei sighed and ran his hands through his hair. "You’d better make it *three* whole years locked up on your estate."

"I’ll do my best to honor that promise." More than anything, Quatre would love several years spent mostly alone with his lover, Berin and politics and espionage behind them as they enjoyed each others’ company.

Wufei snorted and approached the chair once more, not bothering with the cakes as he knelt at Quatre’s feet. "I know you’ll worry about the country and such, but once things are stable you need to put it behind you, love." He reached out to stroke Quatre’s cheek. "You are one of the noblest people I’ve ever met, and it tears at me to see you play these games no matter what it costs you."

"That’s why I have you." Quatre smiled at his lover and cupped the hand pressed to his cheek. "You’ll make sure that I don’t turn into something that we’d both hate." He knew he could be too ruthless at times, pushed past the point of honor, but Wufei was always there to rein him in.

"Remember that the next time you call me high-handed." Wufei mock glared for a few seconds before moving forward for a kiss. This time it wasn’t a quick brush of the lips but something leisurely and full of love. /I trust you and I’ll follow your lead, as always./

/I know./ And he had faith that Wufei would always be there for him, allowed his lover inside of his heart and mind to the extent he’d never allowed anyone else.

The kiss ended, Wufei shifting back to once more mock-glare at him. "If she’s a weeping fool, it’ll be five years, I warn you now."

"Yes, milord." Quatre laughed when his lover glared at him in earnest.

*******

Duo adjusted his heavy coat as he glanced up at the sky filled with dark clouds threatening to unleash a torrent of rain at any moment. Even though Trowa had assured him that it wouldn’t rain while he was working today, he had to admit to some doubts over his friend’s ability to gauge the weather. From what he could tell, the wind wasn’t moving much at all and there was no warm front behind the current cool weather to move the clouds along with any amount of speed.

There was no doubt anymore that the weather was well and truly fucked up. He sighed and gave up on his coat, still trying to get used to the new uniform even if he felt the long coat and dark colors made him look sexy as hell. Kritiker was receiving too much rain, which meant that Esset had to be lacking it, and it was starting to affect other countries as well. If by some chance Esset and Kritiker didn’t go to war because of the Elders’ plans, it would probably be started elsewhere on the continent due to lack of water or crops.

He wondered how a few friends were doing back in Berin, since he was sure that they were hard at work on sending all this rain his way. Shin and Rei were usually the ones stuck obeying the Elders’ orders in that regard, with Gou assisting them from time to time. Thought of the other fire elemental made Duo want to growl, his lips pulling back a little before he reminded himself where he was. Aware that he was allowing himself to be distracted, he shook his head and focused back on work.

Unfortunately, that meant he had to resume listening to his partner, too, which wasn’t a good thing right now. Not when the man was *still* on the topic of frilly dresses of all things.

"… the lace one that Cassandra made for her. Lilla thinks that would be the best one for Mari’s first portrait, although I know her mother is pressuring her to go with the one they gave us for the Naming Ceremony." Toshi had the most idiotic smiles ever possible on his face, his slanted eyes almost hidden by his curved cheeks. "Which one do you prefer?"

Now, part of Duo knew that he was still trying to establish a good partner relationship with the human and so he should lie and come up with some sort of answer, but really, how the hell could he even pretend to give an opinion about something as ridiculous as a dress for a baby? "Sorry, I wasn’t paying attention," he admitted, an embarrassed smile on his face and his right hand scratching at the back of his head.

Toshi laughed and patted him on the left shoulder. "I’m boring you again, aren’t I? Naru told me the other day that I’m only able to speak about Mari anymore." He didn’t seem embarrassed or really sorry about that fact and laughed again.

Was this how most parents acted? Duo wasn’t sure since he didn’t really remember his own, but it was a bit touching to see how much Toshi really did love his newborn daughter. A small voice inside his head whispered if the human would still love her so much if he found out she was a bound, but Duo pushed the dark thought away and shrugged. "Well, it is true that every word out of your mouth is about her, but I was mainly wondering if it was going to rain soon or not, and thinking about a few friends. This weather can’t be good for them." He motioned at the darkening sky and was glad that their shift would be over within an hour. Trowa would be cutting it rather fine with his prediction about the rain.

Toshi glanced upward and nodded. "The weather’s usually warmer this time of year and not so rainy." He brushed aside the bangs clinging to his forehead then motioned at the vendors along the street who appeared to be wrapping out some of their goods. "Looks as if you’re not the only one who thinks it’s going to rain soon."

"Well, maybe not just yet." Trowa would have warned Duo to wear his rain slicker, then, and he’d never been wrong about the weather before. "I’m sure everyone’s hoping the rain slows down before it washes away the crops." Which most likely wouldn’t happen, if the Elders had their way; one of the best methods of crippling an army was to deprive it of food.

"At least all the wells will be full." Toshi didn’t seem the type of person to dwell on the negative. In the last few weeks that they’d been assigned to each other, Duo had always found him to be cheerful and optimistic. He’d thought that might have to do with the man recently becoming a father, but maybe it was more than that.

As much as he’d worried about being assigned a human as his partner, he had to admit that things had turned out pretty well. Since Toshi had lost his previous partner to administrative duties, they’d been paired together and so far got along fine. Toshi didn’t seem to mind having to break in a rookie Guard, and Duo got to benefit from having a partner who clearly knew the city and its political structure very well. They spent most of their days patrolling their assigned section, which contained a lot of shops and restaurants. Duo was seeing a side to life in Kritiker he never really had paid attention to before, the lives of its people as they worked and entertained themselves. If it wasn’t for the fact that he’d soon be betraying all his new friends and coworkers, he’d be happy.

"And people will need lots of candles if it’s not sunny out, which will make Lilla happy," Toshi continued, the stupid smile back on his face. "Which will be good since she said she’s going to hire an assistant soon because of Mari being in the shop with her." His eyes went unfocused and he appeared to be seeing something that wasn’t physically in front of him. "In a few years I’ll be able to bring her along with me during a shift, when it’s nice and quiet, that is."

"You want her to be a Guard?"

The question shook Toshi out of his reverie. "No, not really." A sheepish grin spread across Toshi’s face and he fussed with his overgrown bangs. "Much safer for her to go into the candle business, not to mention it’s better pay."

"This is not something I want to hear after surviving training and starting a new job," Duo grumbled, putting on a dejected air. When his partner laughed, he straightened up and flashed the man a wicked smile.

Toshi gave him another pat on the shoulder. "You should know better than anyone that the pay’s not the greatest and the work can be hard. But we get great pensions." He left unspoken the ‘if we live that long’ part.

Duo shrugged and looked around him; several people nodded or even waved at him as he walked past, their demeanors respectful. They could stop at any shop and get something to eat or drink for a bit of refreshment, and the vendors would know their names and give them something for free. If one thing had become clear to him ever since he’d become an official Guard, it was that the people of Eto truly did respect the organization. And lately, it was clear that those people were very relieved to see him and Toshi walking about.

"Not to mention we get to hunt down some demented wizard’s escaped pet," he said, a hint of frustration creeping into his voice. Since he was new to the organization and not involved directly with the murders, he knew just a little more than what was being gossiped about on the streets; that two people had been murdered in an extremely gruesome fashion, their bodies partially eaten. When he’d first heard all the details, he’d immediately suspected a flesh gaki bound, but the only one he knew who was in the city was Jei and that man wouldn’t be stupid enough to leave a corpse behind. Also, not even Jei could commit murders like that and not be discovered by someone, which just proved that magic was involved.

Uncharacteristically quiet all of a sudden, Toshi merely shrugged and didn’t say anything until they were past a series of vendors selling sweet tea and roasted nuts. "It’s a good thing we just hired more people or all of us would be pulling double shifts. As it is, another murder or two and that’ll happen regardless." He fiddled with the straight collar of his dark blue coat and shivered a little. "Since the Royal Wizard has decreed it a matter for his people, we’ve had some help from his apprentices and the Spymaster, but the people will only really be comforted if they see Guards out on the streets at all hours of the day."

Which meant that Duo would be stuck walking around this set of blocks for most of his day, growing bored as his coworkers hunted down the creature responsible for the murders. Oh, it wasn’t as if he truly cared if humans got eaten or not, but if he had a chance to take down a wizard then he wanted in on the fun. The ones in Berin who had sworn themselves to the Elders had been off-limits, but he’d had a few run-ins with others during various missions to hate them with a passion. "So let me guess, it’ll fall to newbies like me to patrol during the day while the more experienced Guards work the nightshifts, right?"

He was surprised when Toshi laughed, the sound more grim than amused. "Ah, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that." Toshi looked directly at him, the good humor that usually colored his emotions nowhere to be seen. "We’re to finish out our shift today and tomorrow, and then we’ll switch to a night-time one. Since the creature seems to be moving northward into the city, we’ll be patrolling part of the area where they think it’s likely it’ll attack again."

"Really?" Dammit, Duo knew he shouldn’t really grin over news related to something so grim, but he was used to a more active lifestyle and looked forward to frying up a wizard and his monster. Well, frying as much as he could without revealing his true nature, that was. Maybe he could knock Toshi out, blame it on the monster or the wizard, fry the sick fucks and get a pay raise. Not to mention that Trowa might actually be impressed over his actions, which would be really nice.

Despite his efforts to be nonchalant about his answer, Toshi chuckled and reached over to give his braid a tug. "We’re just trading walking around during the day for doing it at night, you know. It’s not as if we’re helping the Royal Wizard track down whoever’s selling the fake charms or the other leads we have with the murders."

"Which aren’t many from what I hear." Duo thought that was a little odd, really, since he knew a lot of the Guards who were involved with the case. Yet no matter how much he paid attention or asked questions while drinking with Naru, Eri, Yuushi and the others at the Koneko, they always changed the topic whenever he brought up the murders. Must be something they didn’t consider a newbie like him should know. On one hand that was good since he was a spy, but on the other hand it frustrated the hell out of him, having something be kept a secret.

"No, it’s not glamorous but it will be dangerous." Toshi’s good mood was dampened again, which was understandable since he was a new father and doing his best to be a new husband soon, too. "I imagine that Trowa won’t be very happy about the news."

Any mention of Duo’s roommate snagged his immediate attention. "Trowa?" He thought about the question, actually worried that he might do something to upset the water elemental. "Well, it’s not as if he has the safest job around, so he shouldn’t complain too much. But he’ll probably worry a little." Or he would if he truly was Duo’s lover. Still, a part of him wished that would be true, that Trowa would be concerned over his welfare even though they both knew that he could handle himself with ease against any wizards and their monsters.

"I’m sure he’ll worry a bit more than ‘a little’." Toshi nudged him in the ribs. "He’s crazy about you, after all."

Duo almost tripped over his own feet and smacked face first into the grey cobblestones when he heard that. Even worse than his clumsiness was the fact that he didn’t know how he should react just now; he was pretending that Trowa was his lover, but he didn’t want to say anything that would make Toshi expect some sort of reaction from Trowa in the future. "Ah… you see… he’s not really much of a worrier."

That prompted a snort of derision from Duo’s partner. "Oh, please. He’s always watching over you whenever you two are together at the Koneko. Several people have mentioned it, usually by saying that they wished their lovers paid that much attention to them. Maybe he lets you think he doesn’t worry so you don’t worry in return." Toshi gave him a wink.

"Oh." He really couldn’t think of anything else to say just then, too stunned by Toshi’s revelation. Trowa would spend a good part of any visit to the Koneko in its library, usually talking with Reiichi, Crawford or Aya, or even playing chess. But he’d sit with Duo for at least an hour or two, usually to have something to eat or to listen to some music. Duo had assumed that it was just his friend keeping up the illusion that they were lovers, but could it be that Trowa enjoyed spending that time with him? It wasn’t as if they talked much on those nights, saving their conversations for the quiet evenings when they stayed at home… which had been happening more and more often. He hadn’t thought much about returning to their apartment after a shift to have a nice dinner and then relax on the couch as he traded stories with the water elemental and did his best to make him smile.

For the past month or so, he’d been aware of his feelings for Trowa, how they strengthened with each passing day. While he knew that Trowa felt something for him, some spark of attraction, had he been so focused on his own emotions that he hadn’t really noticed Trowa’s? Had he done too good of a job convincing himself that it would take time – and lots of it at that – before he could have any relationship with Trowa other than friendship? Could that possibly be why Jei was giving him so much shit lately? If the flesh gaki bound could smell Duo’s desire, couldn’t he smell other people’s, too?

He let out a curse and nearly released a fireball when leather covered knuckles rapped against his forehead. "Hello, did I knock something loose in there or what?" Toshi laughed at him, completely oblivious as to how close he’d come to being singed.

Rubbing his forehead, Duo managed to summon up a cheerful smile. "Yeah, something like that. Just thinking about Trowa."

"You two are so cute together, you know? That’s what Lilla says, anyway." Toshi shrugged and motioned for them to stop at one of the shops that sold flavored teas. To Duo’s surprise, the human’s expression turned serious. "I’m a bit envious, you know? Trowa might not be a Guard, but considering his job… he has a good understanding of what goes on around here, and you can tell him things that would upset other people."

"I am pretty lucky." Or would be, Duo promised himself. This mission with Trowa was an opportunity that he couldn’t pass up, not when he might never have a chance to spend so much time alone with Trowa again. It was as if the gods were trying to make up for all the shit they’d put him through up til now, the people they’d taken away from him. Everything pushed him to be with his friend, to deepen their relationship, and he couldn’t remember anything he wanted as much as that. He just hoped that Trowa felt the same. Considering the kiss he’d gotten not too long ago when Trowa hadn’t been drunk at all, he felt a flutter of hope in his chest.

Toshi ordered two teas, raspberry flavored with honey, and thanked the smiling woman behind the counter when she said there was no charge. The Guard put down a couple of copper coins just the same, telling her to consider it a tip or payment toward the next customer and bid her a good day. "I’ve always said whatever makes you happy, and I guess Trowa’s good-looking in an ‘I swear I don’t like guys but yeah I can see him being hot’ type of way." He winked as he handed Duo his tea.

"I’m telling you, there are less hormones to put up with when you’re living with a guy!" Duo laughed a couple of times before he sipped his tea. "Then again, they can also throw things at you a hell of a lot harder than a woman, so it’s a give and take."

"I don’t know, I used to date a girl who could knock me out by throwing a skillet at my head." Toshi rubbed his abused skull and chuckled. "With Lilla, all I have to worry about is waking up to find out I’ve been covered with wax or something."

Duo winced in sympathy. "I’m assuming that’s meant in a non-kinky way." He winced again when Toshi nodded in a frantic manner.

"Not that I make a habit of upsetting her." Toshi motioned for them to resume their patrol, what should be one more trip around their section before they stopped at the local station then headed home. "We usually get along really well, even with the added surprise of Mari and her parents thinking she can do better than a Guard." He frowned for a few seconds, but the upset emotion didn’t appear to last for long. "I think we’ll be able to spend our lives together, but if not, Lilla and I have always been good friends and should be able to remain that way for Mari’s sake. She’s the most important thing in our lives, after all."

Having the fearful suspicion that he was about to be inflicted with more stories about baby dresses or worse, dirty diapers, Duo groaned internally and let his attention wander once more. Unless forced to do so by the Elders, he didn’t plan on having any kids. No, he didn’t think he’d do a good job of raising one and refused to subject some poor innocent to the Elders’ rule. He had no urge at all to procreate, especially after listening to Toshi the last few weeks, which was a good thing considering that he was doing his best to spend the rest of his life with another guy.

The rest of the shift was uneventful, and once they’d given their reports about the day’s events then Duo was free to go home. The sky still threatened to rain at any moment, but he continued to trust in Trowa’s judgment and didn’t waste money on a carriage ride home. Besides, he enjoyed walking to the apartment, hearing all the noise and chatter from the shops he passed, still receiving waves and shouted greetings and offers for food or drinks along the way. It seemed that everyone on the block where he lived knew he was a Guard by now, which was nice since the assholes in the downstairs apartment had become quieter at night and many of the shopkeepers made sure to stock up on his and Trowa’s favorite foods. There were some perks to this job, he thought with a smile as he paid for something one of the venders ran out onto the street to sell him then entered the stairwell of the apartment building.

By the time he reached his apartment, he was amused to see that it was raining outside, not too heavily though he was certain that would change soon enough. "You cut it close today, Trowa." Even without looking to see his roommate’s shoes by the door, he knew that Trowa was already home; something inside of his chest loosened as soon as he entered the apartment.

Trowa walked into the living room from the kitchen, two mugs of hot coffee in his hands. "You must have taken your time on the way home," he chastised as he handed one of the mugs to Duo.

"That’s because Barker let me know that he got a fresh batch of oranges in." Duo held up the small bag of fruit that he’d bought, which were among Trowa’s favorites.

"Oh." A rare smile spread across Trowa’s half-hidden face and he tucked aside his long bangs before reaching for the fruit. "What do I owe you?"

"Don’t worry about it." Duo waved aside the offer of money then set aside the coffee so he could undo the buttons of his uniform’s coat. "Was it a busy day at work?" he asked as he sat down on the couch, his feet propped up on the coffee table and his cup now balanced on his stomach.

"Hmm." Trowa left the room without a better explanation than that, only to return with an orange in his hand as well as a napkin. "I sat in on the interview with the boyfriend of the recent murder victim and will be helping Botan’s people track down the wizard who sold him the fake charm." He settled on the couch next to Duo, coffee placed on the table a safe distance from Duo’s feet so he could peel the orange.

Gods, Trowa had such long, nimble fingers that could make quick work of the fruit’s rind; Duo spent a very happy second or two imagining how it would feel to have those fingers stroke along his skin. "Do you really believe that the wizard who sold that charm is responsible for the murders?" he asked, his voice uncharacteristically hoarse at the moment.

Trowa shrugged, the motion as elegant as everything else he did. "Personally? No, I don’t, and I don’t believe that Botan thinks so, either. But it’s an excuse to find any wizards selling fake charms and there is a slight possibility that he may be connected to the wizard behind the murders."

"Well, be careful even if you don’t think there’s a connection." Duo didn’t like the thought of his friend facing off against any wizards, let alone one who used a magical construct to kill people. No, his demon nature protested strongly about that fact, which he did his best to control because he didn’t want Trowa to burst his balls over the mistaken belief that Trowa couldn’t handle himself.

So he sipped his coffee to gain a little time to control himself before speaking again. "I just found out today that I’ll be helping with the investigation after all. Toshi said we’ve two more shifts and then I’m on night duty." He felt a warm glow of pride that he, a rookie Guard, would be able to help in the case.

A piece of fruit halfway to his mouth, Trowa stopped and stared at Duo in obvious shock. "I wouldn’t think that they’d have any of the new Guards on that duty," he said, his voice very quiet and his face now impassive. He swallowed the fruit then carefully set aside the rest of it on the coffee table.

If Duo didn’t know any better, he’d say that his friend was very upset over the change at work. "Well, I know Toshi’s one of the older and higher ranked Guards, so they probably want him helping out however he can. I’m just tagging along, so to speak."

"I see." Trowa went very still and quiet for several seconds, which told Duo that the water elemental was *very upset*. "Be careful yourself, okay?" He didn’t look in Duo’s direction as he spoke, instead leaning forward to pick up another section of orange, his bangs once more falling onto his face. "I refuse to handle another partner on this assignment."


Despite the pathetic attempt at a joke, Duo knew that his friend was worried about him, which made him so happy that he had to fight to hold back a huge grin. "I won’t mess up," was all he said, for once forgoing any false sense of bravado or egotism. He carefully watched Trowa eat the piece of fruit then reached out for the gorgeous man’s hand.

"I see the oranges are really juicy." He pulled Trowa’s unresisting hand to his mouth so he could lick off the drops of juice clinging to it, his eyes intent on Trowa’s face. Allowing only a little of heat to show in his eyes, he limited himself to merely licking off the juice then letting go.

Yet Trowa’s hand remained by his mouth for a few heartbeats, the impassive mask cracking as Trowa stared back at him. To Duo’s shock and utter delight, there was an answering heat, so quickly smothered that he knew it would have been a huge mistake to push any farther than he’d just done right now. "I need to start on dinner," Trowa said, his voice betraying no emotion as he took the remaining orange and his mug of coffee back to the kitchen. "Thank you for the oranges."

"No problem, Trowa." Hell, if they actually did become lovers, Duo planned to buy the fruit however long they were in season so he could repeat what he’d just done again and again. The image of Trowa stretched out on the bed, naked save for gleaming drops of orange juice on his body, made Duo stifle a low, needful groan. "What’s for dinner tonight?" he called out to cover the sound.

"Steamed fish and vegetables with rice." Trowa’s voice was still perfectly emotionless, which meant that Duo’s actions must have really gotten to him. Since Duo still had all his blood pumping through his body, he’d assume that his friend had been bothered in the right way. "If you want dessert, we’ve been invited to the Koneko and promised apple pie."

Mention of the inn made Duo almost spill his coffee all over his lap. "Ah, who invited us?" It would probably be a good idea to go there and see what the rest of the Guard was up to, but he doubted that any of his coworkers would have passed a message along through Trowa.

"Jei did. He said that he might be able to help find the wizard since he keeps a very good… eye on them."

Duo cursed under his breath and set the coffee aside. "You know what? I think I’m going to soak in the tub before dinner. How much time do I have?"

"Half an hour."

Nodding in gratitude, Duo remembered that his friend was in the kitchen and so couldn’t see him. "Thanks." Half an hour wasn’t that long of a time, really, but it should help him to wash off the rush of desire he’d felt when licking Trowa’s hand. Now all he had to do was keep from thinking any remotely perverted thoughts about his friend and maybe, *just maybe*, Jei wouldn’t smell anything on him that would lead to him being bitten. Despite his promise to never hurt Trowa, Jei seemed to live to torment Duo in hopes of discouraging his plans for a relationship. The bastard didn’t stand a chance in that regards… but Duo remembered how quickly Jei could move and figured that it wouldn’t hurt to go to the inn smelling as cleanly as possible. Even if the wounds had long been healed by now, his balls still ached from the slight scratches he’d gotten from the insane bastard last week.

******

Heero’s back straightened when the door he was standing by opened, along with several other people dressed in Army or Page uniforms. He snapped even more to attention when Major Marquis nodded to him and held out a thick envelope.

"I’m afraid that this meeting will go longer than I’d intended, and I’d promised some information to Colonel Mustang. Please take this to him." The Major handed an envelope bearing his seal in green wax to Heero, a slight smile on his face when it was quickly accepted. "Then return in case I need another errand run."

"Yes, sir." Heero bowed the proper amount as he accepted the envelope, careful not to show his annoyance at the seal. Chances were that the seal contained a small ward that would reveal any attempts to tamper with it, so he wouldn’t be able to read the letter along the way to deliver it.

By the time he’d straightened up, the Major had closed the door to the room again, cutting off any chance to hear the discussion inside. The various lowly ranked Army soldiers and Court pages gathered about sighed and fidgeted when they were no longer being observed by a superior, none of them looking happy at the news of an extended meeting. Heero was willing to bet that they’d be hoping for a similar assignment to his just to have something to do instead of standing and waiting.

He didn’t waste any time on the errand, nodding politely to his fellow soldiers before turning on his left heel and heading down the quiet hallway. This section of the palace was used for various meetings, be they formal or informal, and he’d gotten to know it very well in the past couple of months. Frustration made him grind his teeth slightly over the building’s layout, which had prevented him from gaining access to the more private areas and administrative wings. At least Trowa was able to roam about mostly freely, everywhere but the wings where the royal family lived.

Not for the first time, Heero reminded himself that this would be a long mission. To gain the trust that he needed to be an effective spy would take a lot of time and effort, something that the Elders were well aware of before they’d sent him and the others here. Trowa was doing little more than filing paperwork under the Spymaster’s supervision and pretending to be a page as he ran various errands, Duo was stuck on patrol in one of the city’s quietest sections and Heero was a glorified errand boy when he wasn’t practicing his skills at fighting. Most likely, it would take all of them a good year to be in positions where they could send the necessary information back to Esset. By that point, plans for the war should be underway and any information gleamed from the enemy would ensure that any battles between the two countries would be short and in Esset’s favor.

That should mean little destruction on either country’s part, something that Heero was finding himself hoping for the longer he stayed in Kritiker. The country and its capital were beautiful, a sharp contrast to how things were back at home. Once Kritiker was defeated, Heero’s friends and fellow bounds could enjoy this beauty and bountifulness, could make their homes here and live in peace. For someone who’d never thought past the war before, he was surprised to find himself thinking of ways to ensure he remained in this country once it was finished. Surely the Elders would grant him the request; he would be one their highest ranked servants who was familiar with Eto and how the country had been run. By remaining here, he could ensure that the transition into a vassal state to Esset went smoothly.

The hallways were filled with people, some of them highborns judging by their expensive clothes and pale skins. However, most of the people were like Heero, either servants, Army or Guard, all distinguishable by their various uniforms. He made sure to nod whenever he passed anyone from the Army and received a few sympathetic smiles from the other soldiers. None of them appeared happy to be stuck in the palace, delivering messages back and forth while their officers fought with the Queen and the Captain of the Guard over restructuring and new rules. At least they had some hope of a reprieve in the next month or so, when the Queen was expected to give birth to her baby.

Heero came to a halt near one of the large entrances to the Red garden, managing a polite if distant expression as various highborns and their servants came and went through the open glass doors. There was yet another gathering in the garden, one of many that he was certain were scattered across the palace’s grounds and wings. Highborns seemed to love nothing better than waste their days drinking and gossiping, leading such useless lives that Heero had to resist the urge to make the wind blow strong enough to ruin their senseless party. He was grateful that he hadn’t committed a lapse of control when he noticed which highborn was hosting the current party – Lord Shinra.

What had taken him a moment to realize the man’s identity was that the lord was wearing an illusion to hide the fact that he actually appeared a good fifteen years younger than his true age, something that people wouldn’t fail to notice as he was approaching what was middle age for humans. Shinra seemed to casually glance in his direction the same time that Heero felt a questioning ‘brush’ against his mind. He focused his thoughts to let the bound know that he wasn’t here for any official reason, and the slight pressure faded away as Shinra resumed chatting with an older woman who Heero recognized as the Minister of Agriculture.

While some senseless humans giggled about their appearances in the hallway, preventing Heero from moving forward, he used the time to search out Shinra’s gokenin. The tall one, Rude, gave him a slight nod, as aware of his presence as Shinra had been, while the bald man’s partner lounged against the wall and flapped his hand twice in Heero’s direction. He hadn’t noticed them at first because they were standing in the shadows, and his attention lingered for a few seconds longer than it took to see if they had any messages for him. Tan Xi had expressed an interest in the long-haired gokenin, Shinra’s lover according to rumor, so Heero dutifully observed him until the highborn women were out of his way. He saw nothing that would be worth the effort to report back to Tan Xi and so considered his duty to her done for the moment.

Now he had to worry about his duty to Marquis, something he was obliged to do even if the man was human and the enemy. Any slip on Heero’s part and he’d endanger a very important mission, so he pushed aside the revulsion he felt at seeing humans acting so idiotically and continued on his way. Mustang should be in the green meeting room on the second floor, and he’d finally reached the stairwell that would take him there. That was another meeting that Heero wished he could eavesdrop on, since Mustang was often in the company of Hughes from Intelligence. One thing that Heero had been able to find out during his short tenure in the Army was that Mustang and Hughes were very close friends. That might be a way to put some pressure on the Intelligence officer should they need to break him for information.

This hallway was less crowded than the lower one, and the few people who Heero passed were servants or soldiers. He had to step aside to allow a harried looking young man to push a very large cart draped with white linen and smelling of coffee, steak and vegetables pass him by. That made his stomach rumble a little since it had been a long time since breakfast.

Reaching the room, he knocked twice on the door and waited for it to be opened. "I’ve a message from Major Marquis for Colonel Mustang," he said, bowing slightly since the woman holding the door open was a Lieutenant. Something about her snagged his attention, made him stare intently at her pretty, unadorned face and the blond hair she wore long yet pulled back into a neat bun. Her eyes narrowed as well, then she stepped aside to allow Mustang to take her place at the door. Their presence prevented Heero from being able to see who else was inside the room.

"Yes?" Mustang held out his hand, his face expressionless and his dark eyes narrowed slightly. Heero handed over the letter with a deeper bow before, and noticed that Mustang examined the seal before nodding once. "Thank you." That was all he said before closing the door in Heero’s face.

Not having expected anything else than that, Heero was none the less a bit upset over his inability to ferret out more information. If he were a paranoid soul, he’d say that people knew he was a spy and were being careful not to let him see too much. Yet that was ridiculous since he’d have been captured and most likely executed by now if the truth was known. Lost in his own thoughts, he returned the way he came so he could spend the rest of his day guarding a closed door.


He’d just entered the stairwell when he bumped into someone huddled not far from the door. Acting on instant, he clutched the person to him, mindful of their – no, her smaller build and grabbed at the railing with his left hand. His shoulder was wrenched as a result, but he just managed to keep them both from tumbling headfirst down the stairs.

"Oh! Oh, I’m so sorry!" They ended up sprawled on the top step, Heero’s back pressing painfully into the railing with a young woman lying on top of him. Strands of her light brown hair covered her face and she kept patting his chest as if to make sure his heart was beating. "Are you hurt? Can I do anything? I truly am sorry," she babbled, her voice sounding young and panicked.

Letting go of the railing, he forced his sore left arm to move and grasped her by both shoulders. She appeared about his age, maybe a few years younger since she seemed human. Her clothes were very fine and made of silk; a cream colored shirt, pale pink jacket over that and a darker, full grey skirt. Her long hair was pulled back from her face with a pink bow, revealing her delicate and pretty features. There was something about her large, blue eyes that drew his attention, the way they were filled with what seemed to be genuine tears. Nothing about her struck him as false, which was something rare to find in the palace.

"I’m… fine." He gave her shoulders a nervous pat and motioned for her to get off of him, which she did with a very becoming blush and more apologies. Once she was standing, she fussed over him and not herself. "Who are you?" He couldn’t stop himself before asking that question, aware that he’d never seen her before.

"Oh!" She blushed again and ducked her head, finally paying herself some attention as she straightened out her full skirt. "I’m… are you sure you’re all right?" She waved at his left arm, which he held a bit stiffly against his side.

"It’ll be fine." It would, too, since his bound nature was already healing the sprain. Mindful of his own appearance, he tugged on his uniform’s jacket and brushed some dirt from his pants. "You shouldn’t be standing around in stairwells."

"I know." She offered him a nervous smile as she flipped her hair over her shoulders. "I’m sorry, I just… I’m not very familiar with this part of the palace." There was a guilty air about her, as if she was doing something she shouldn’t.

Heero couldn’t figure her out. She was dressed as a highborn, yet she professed ignorance of the palace and she was showing obvious concern for a lowly soldier – most of the highborn he ran into didn’t even seem to notice that he existed, let alone ask him if he was all right. And he was almost certain she was human, considering where they were and how diligent the highborn were to keep bound blood out of their families, yet he didn’t feel the automatic disdain toward her that he did to all humans. Basically, she was a puzzle, and one distracting him from his job at that. "Be more careful. Goodbye."

"Wait!" The girl grabbed his left arm as he turned around, then cried out and quickly let it go. "I’m sorry, I’m so sorry!" She stepped closer and moved her hands as if to pat him once more. "Ah, you’re in the 11th division, correct?" she asked, her voice quiet as he glared at her for the interruption.

"… Yes." His expression turned darker as he wondered how she’d known that. While the girl’s face paled slightly, she raised her chin and didn’t back away. "How did you know that?"

She motioned at the insignia and patches on his jacket. "I’ve studied all the Army markings." Her courage seemed to leave her and she once more ducked her head. "I’m sorry, I truly didn’t mean to bother you, let alone almost kill you and then get in your way. I’m sure your superior officer is waiting for you." She dared to look up and appeared to regain her courage when he nodded. "That would be Major Marquis, correct?"

"Yes." He didn’t see any reason to hide that fact, not when it was publicly known that he

was the man’s aide. The way that the girl’s breathing sped up and her lips curved slightly, that fact mattered to her a great deal. "Why do you ask?"

"I’ve much respect for the Major." From the way she said the words, he didn’t think she was lying, but he had the impression that she was leaving a lot unsaid. But before he could ask any more questions, she bowed deeply and raced up the stairs to the third floor. "Thank you, and I really am sorry for everything. I hope you’re truly not hurt."

"Wait, who are you?" Heero had to catch himself in time before he ran after her, mindful of his duty and the possibility of a trap. Something was going on here, something that made him very suspicious.

"I’m Relena," the girl shouted, right before she opened a door and went through it, from the sounds of it. He stared upwards for several seconds, doing his best to make sense out of the last few minutes and figure out if he’d heard that name before. Then he shook his head and hurried back to the Major in case he was needed for any more messages.

As he made his way down the stairs and through the crowded first floor hallway, the pain in his shoulder slowly faded while his confusion and curiosity about the strange human grew.

*******

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