Bindings

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chapter five

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allies and imperfections revealed

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Trowa sat up in bed when he felt something composed mostly of water pass the ward he had set around the apartment’s front door. Certain that it was not a thief or someone meaning him any harm because of the rush of contentment and relief he felt, he murmured the word that lit the candle nearest the bed. By the time his eyes adjusted to the light, Duo stood in the bedroom’s doorway, an owlish look on his face and the coat of his uniform completely unbuttoned.

"Did you find them?" Trowa’s voice was pitched low, more to hide the relief he felt than out of any concern for disturbing the neighbors.

"Eh?" Duo rubbed his eyes for a few seconds then shook his head. "The wizard and his monster? Nah, else I’d still be working." He snorted once then continued toward the bed, pulling off his coat and looking as if he wanted to toss it to the floor. Instead, he changed course and headed toward the desk, draping first the coat and then his pants over the back of its chair. "Wouldn’t be lucky enough to find ‘em on my first night shift, anyway." The white shirt he wore did end up on the floor once he was done with its buttons, and he was left standing there only in his underwear. Trowa became acutely aware of the fact that he was staring at his mostly naked roommate and ducked his head.

"Sorry to wake you up." Duo did sound apologetic, and he remained standing by the bed. "I know you have to be up in a couple of hours."

"It’s all right." Trowa toyed with the ends of his long bangs, doing his best not to look in Duo’s direction again. Even though his friend was just an inch or two shorter than him, Duo appeared smaller than that with his clothes on. With them off… the fire elemental’s body lost that illusion of slightness, with clear definition of muscles and breadth of shoulders compared to lean hips. Mindful of his own appearance, Trowa tugged the sheet that had pooled onto his lap up a bit higher since he was not wearing a shirt.

The motion seemed to be a sign for Duo, who cleared his throat and stepped toward the bathroom. "I’m gonna wash off before bed. I promise not to make any noise."

That made Trowa smile as he nodded and resumed lying down in bed. It was not so much a matter of noise as him sensing flowing water in the other room at a time when the taps were usually firmly shut. Certain that Duo would say something about trying to be quieter tomorrow, he did not have the heart to point out that as long as he had wards around the apartment, he would know whenever Duo returned home from work. Considering the risks they faced during this mission, there was no way he would deactivate the wards just to get a bit of sleep – not that he was sleeping well while knowing that Duo was out hunting fellow bounds from Esset.

Trowa wanted to tell Duo the truth about who was responsible for the murders, but since the Elders had not alerted anyone from their group about the two other agents, there was no way he could explain away that knowledge. Well, he could give the credit to Crawford’s visions, which might lead Duo to question why no one was doing their best to assist the agents. There was also the fact that Duo would feel even more torn over his loyalty to the Elders at the expense of his new job and colleagues, which was something that Trowa wanted to avoid as much as possible. Crawford had assured him that Duo would fight on their behalf shortly enough, so the less stress and guilt his friend suffered over being a spy, the better.

Duo only took a few minutes to clean up, so Trowa was still awake by the time he joined him in bed. "I guess I didn’t think how my being out so late would mess up your sleep," Duo said after vanquishing the candlelight. He truly sounded apologetic over the situation, leaving Trowa with a vague feeling of guilt. "Maybe I should sleep on the couch or crash somewhere else."


"No." Trowa hoped he could blame the lack of sleep on how rough his voice sounded just then. "I’d sense you wherever you were in the apartment, and it’s not fair to make you sleep elsewhere because of work." He attempted to smile, more disturbed than he wanted to admit by the thought of not having Duo sleeping beside him for at least a couple of hours a day. Why he was so upset over not having someone who was just supposed to be his roommate and partner near him as often as possible was something he was doing his best not to think about lately, considering how much the most logical answer to the situation worried him.

His friend was quiet for a several seconds and then yawned. "All right, if it really doesn’t bother you." Duo managed a laugh as he made himself comfortable in bed. "Besides, you’ll get your revenge when you wake up for work." He yawned again and stilled, lying on his back just about half a foot away from Trowa. If it was anyone else, that closeness would send Trowa scrambling from the bed, yet it seemed so far tonight.

"Exactly." Wanting so much to tell Duo to be careful, Trowa forced his eyes closed instead, unwilling to expose his true emotions just then or to keep Duo awake when the man was so clearly tired.

Whether it was from working so late or the energy exerted during the patrol tonight, Duo did not take long to fall asleep. Trowa lay there in the bed listening to his friend’s breathing even out until he was certain that Duo was unconscious. Then, moving very slowly and carefully, he inched closer until he was almost pressed against the fire elemental, his right hand resting lightly on Duo’s hip. Since he was the first one to be up tomorrow, Duo shouldn’t even realize that they were touching.

For so very long, he had never wanted physical contact with anyone. Now… now the concern and fear that had settled in his chest and ached all night had finally loosened, leaving him with a feeling of peace. Duo was home, safe and sound, and Trowa could once more breathe in his scent and bask in his warmth.

There was no more doubt in his mind that he wanted the fire elemental bound, even if he still felt repulsed at the mere idea of being intimate or even simply physical with anyone else. Lust was such an unknown emotion to him, yet it plagued him every minute of the day now, only mildly appeased when he was close to Duo like this. Now that he had accepted that fact, he was left with no idea of what to do next. Duo *seemed* to want him back, if the kiss and finger licking were any indication, but was it simple desire on his friend’s part or something deeper, something that neither of them could escape? Both possibilities left him filled with a sense of panic, but it was only the first one that was also accompanied with a sense of pain.

All he could do was wait and see what happened next, possibly leave the next move to Duo so he could gauge his friend’s true motives a bit better. He had not been lying when he had told him that he would not be anyone’s ‘fuckbuddy’, and there were so many lives at stake if he made the wrong decision. Fretful of the dangers they both faced, Trowa lay awake in bed a long time, watching Duo sleep.

*******

Aya let out a short puff of air in an attempt to rid himself of the bangs clinging to his forehead. The weather was not so much warm that evening as humid, a stickiness to the air that let everyone know there would be more rain showers soon enough. Even though Trowa had promised that the rain would not break over the city, he could not do much about the air’s humidity.

At least there was some wind to move the air, and the windows of the attic library were open to allow as much of a breeze as possible into the room. Even though it would mean longer days, Aya looked forward to summer and the end of the spring showers. Surely the Elders would not be stupid enough to keep sending so much rain into Kritiker when they would need it for their own crops.

"You know, I don’t think I ever really noticed how many books you have, Cat," Yohji muttered as he flipped through one of the few he could read, the two of them sitting on the table surrounded by various books. "Or that I’d want the ravenous horde here to help go through this stack."

The complaint and the frustrated look on his mate’s face made Aya smile and lean over to trail the fingers of his right hand along Yohji’s back. "I’m sure they’ll be back here as soon as they can to help us." The Elric brothers had lives of their own, and tonight was when Al hoped to spend some time with his girlfriend and Ed to take advantage of Roy’s early departure from the palace and work. Aya had no doubt that Ed at least would be back tomorrow, spending a few hours after his shift at the Royal Library was over before going home to wait for his mate.

"I think it’s more to mooch free food from Jo and make some copies of their own, but it’s your optimistic nature that I love most about you." Yohji chuckled and leaned over to nuzzle the side of Aya’s neck.

Smiling at the affectionate gesture and how Yohji really was doing his best to help with the research when going through ancient history texts was not his ‘thing’, Aya purred slightly and scooted closer to his lover. "Just another hour and we can go out." He knew that Yohji would much rather *do* something than sit and read a book.

So he was rather surprised when his lover shook his head. "Nah, might be a good night to stay inside." He grinned at Aya’s incredulous expression and took advantage of that surprise to tug on an eartail. "Close your mouth – there aren’t any fireflies out to be caught just yet."

Glaring at the idiot, Aya safely tucked his eartails out of harm’s way. "I’m not sure that Yuushi will be pleased to hear that we’re staying in tonight."

"Actually, he won’t mind." Yohji set the book aside with proper consideration for of its old age and delicate condition then turned to directly face Aya. "You were still down in the hot spring when I ran into him and Crawford in the kitchen today. The short of it is, Crawford’s wondering if the reason he hasn’t had any more visions of the murders is because of our involvement."

Again, Aya found himself surprised by what his mate had to say, although he quickly considered Crawford’s problem. "I guess… he’s always claimed that he can’t see things very well when I’m involved, and you’re completely invulnerable to any magic or talent other than mine now." All these months of Yohji feeding from him had afforded him several protections, and deep down Aya was pleased if his lover would be hidden from any visions. However, it did make things a bit difficult when they needed those visions for answers.

Nodding, Yohji reached for Aya and pulled him across the table so they were sitting knee to knee on its surface. "I mean, it’s not like he can see everything he wants, but he had the one vision before we involved ourselves in the matter, so…." His grin just then took on a rueful edge. "Yuushi said he still wants our help on apprehending the agents, but it shouldn’t hurt things if we take the next few nights off. Well, he does expect us to be awake in case he needs our help, but if we’re not actively looking for the agents…."

"Then maybe Crawford can see something," Aya finished. It made sense, and it would be something they would have to keep in mind for any future cases. Since Crawford was back and hoping to remain in Eto until the war started, the Shadow Guard would surely ask for his help on certain cases.

"So we still have to stay up all night, but at least we’ll be home." Yohji waggled his eyebrows in a manner that Aya knew very well, making him moan in mock dismay as he was pulled even closer for a kiss. At least that prevented the man from asking something ridiculous like ‘what can we possibly do with all that time?’.

Judging from the sense of relief that mixed with the desire and love that Aya felt over their link, he was certain that Yohji was happy to be able to stay home and keep him out of any danger. He really could not fault his mate for that, not when he felt much the same about Yohji, although…. As much as he tried to downplay it, his hunger was making itself known, and using his talent to assist the Shadow Guard was not helping. He was hoping to find the agents soon and be able to feed.

Still, he quickly forgot about the hunger and how it had been several days since the last murder as the kiss went on, his attention gradually consumed by how good Yohji always made him feel. His fingers had just undone the clasp holding most of Yohji’s hair back when there was a knock at the door. That prompted a heavy sigh from him and an outright growl from his mate as they both shifted about to see who was bothering them now.


It only took Aya a second or two to identify who was interrupting them. His lips curved slightly in a smile before Reno pushed open the door and stuck his head inside the room. "Eh, anything kinky going on in here?" Aya assumed it was Rufus’ presence behind the dubhach that had kept Reno from just barging past the shadow wards.

"No, but go away and give us five minutes and there could be," Yohji growled, the sound turning into a yelp when Aya smacked him on the stomach for the remark. "Ouch! Okay, I take it back, the kinky stuff is happening right now." He had the gall to laugh and trap Aya’s hands in his before Aya could hit him again.

"Good, I love to watch a fun show." Reno winked as he entered the room, Rufus trailing behind him, his attention clearly snagged by the room’s many books. "Since I know you keep the smutty books in the bedroom, I’ll assume that you’re not up here looking at naughty pictures."

Snapping his teeth at Yohji’s muttered ‘I wish’, Aya did his best to yank his hands free. "No, we’re hoping to find something about the agents or where they might be hiding. Crawford smuggled some copies of a few censuses that the Elders had taken in Berin, and we’re also checking old city maps in case there’s any reason the agents are attacking people in the Eastern quarter."

"At least, so far in the Eastern quarter." Yohji dragged Aya’s hands to his lips for a quick kiss each then let them go, Aya’s left hand lingering against his mouth for a few seconds. "Though there’s a good chance they might head into the Northern one."

"Yes, the last body wasn’t found too far from it," Rufus remarked as he pulled a book from the shelves and slowly flipped through its faded pages. "The fact that you’re in the Western quarter is the only reason we’re here tonight." He looked up from the book to stare at Reno for a few seconds.

Reno rolled his eyes and lounged against the table near Aya. "His mighty lordship wouldn’t let me leave the house without him." He heaved a long sigh before smiling brightly at Aya. "Are you sure you don’t want to exchange mates? He can buy a hell of a lot of books, you know."

That made both blond men start to growl, Rufus’ blue eyes almost glowing with fury while Yohji hugged Aya closer. "No, Reno," Aya said as he put up with the sudden bear hug, although he had to admit having a very wealthy lover would be nice.

"Damn, didn’t think it would work but it was worth a shot." To add more fuel to the fire, Reno blew a kiss in Yohji’s direction; Aya knew his friend was not flirting with his mate so he did little more than sniff in response. However, Rufus put the book back on the shelf so he could drag Reno away from the table. That made Aya frown and pull away from Yohji, unhappy both to have lost the comfort of Reno’s presence and about the way his friend was being manhandled.

The room was quiet for a good minute or two, Rufus having pressed Reno against one of the bookshelves, kissing him with a ferocity that made Aya uneasy for his friend. He glanced at his own lover and had his chin captured and pulled forward so they could do some kissing of their own, Yohji’s amusement and possessiveness washing into him the entire time.

"Reno told me about this library, and I must admit that I’m very impressed."

Their kiss broke off as Rufus spoke, Aya left panting a little from its intensity. Yohji gave him a heavy-lidded look that promised there would be more of that later, even though they had enjoyed a leisurely bout of sex after waking up today. The unspoken promise provoked a low purr from Aya before he turned to look at Rufus.

The ‘mighty lord’ was a bit rumpled at the moment, his hair tousled and the white coat he wore over a black shirt pushed a little bit down his left shoulder. Normally immaculate, he did not seem to notice his less than perfect state as he was once more flipping through a book. Behind him, Reno leaned against a bookshelf with a very pleased smile on his face.

"Its intent is to provide bounds with information about their powers and their history." Aya let a little coldness creep into his voice to discourage any attempts on Rufus’ part to try to buy the rare tomes.

"I can imagine that there’s a lot to be learned here." He closed the book and stared intently at Aya. "From what I’ve been told, you’re very protective of the books, but I’m willing to offer you a very nice sum to allow someone to copy them for me."

Relaxing a little when he realized it was not an outright offer to buy the books themselves, Aya gave it a minute’s consideration. While he was not certain how far Rufus would share the books beyond his own people, the lord had enough bounds sworn to him that it could help quite a few of them over the years. There was also the fact that he and Yohji did have to think of the future. "We’ll arrange a suitable figure some other evening," he informed Rufus, thinking of a time when either Ed or Reiichi would be available to help him with the bargaining.

"Let me know which evening and we’ll come to an agreement." Rufus appeared very pleased with himself, which puzzled Aya; it was not as if he was trying to keep the knowledge to himself, just protect it so it would not vanish.

"What is it with you people and books?" Yohji murmured in his left ear after giving it a lick.

"We want the knowledge that they contain," Aya whispered back, and gave his mate a gentle whap to the ribs as well. He knew that Yohji was aware of how important the books were, but the man just loved to tease him about them.

"Such a mean cat." Yohji whimpered for a few seconds then hugged him closer, seeming content to just hold him at the moment. Tilting his head back to give his lover a quizzical look, Aya then settled against him and resumed going through one of the census books. He was both impressed and concerned that the Elders had thought to list as many bounds as they could, well aware that they would use lists like these to their advantage when the war started. After five pages, Yohji nuzzled his ear and let him go to get off the table and wander around the room. From what Aya could feel over their link, his lover was more than a little bored.

And so was Reno, judging from the expression on his face and the way he hissed at Rufus. "If you’re gonna be up here reading all night, why can’t I go downstairs and have a drink?"

"Because the last time you were here and had a drink, it was bought by somebody who was counting on you to repay his ‘generosity’ by giving him a blowjob," Rufus remarked, a slight roughening to his voice the only sign of his displeasure while he continued to read a book.

"Then hand over some drinking money and I’ll give you a blowjob whenever the hell you want it," Reno snapped as he took to stalking around the room, almost circling his mate.

"I don’t need to waste money on alcohol for that."

Hissing at Rufus’ verbal jab, sparks flew from Reno’s left hand when Yohji poked him in the side. "Hey, I thought you were a dubhach and not a succubae bound. Aren’t you supposed to be talking about how depressing your life is and not oral sex?" It was rather obvious that Yohji was in one of his teasing moods – Aya was just grateful that he was not the target of his mate’s ‘unique’ humor.

Obviously stunned by the comment for a few seconds, Reno quickly recovered and chuckled. "Well, I bitch all the time about how I got stuck with a bastard of a mate," he glanced at Rufus, who did not bother to look up from the book over the insult, "Does that count as ‘depressing’?"

"Not if you’re getting sex out of it." Yohji laughed at the quick glare he got from Rufus, pleased to have gotten some sort of reaction.

"Yeah, well, *someone* just wants some fancy sparks of his own," Reno muttered as those very sparks burst into life around his hands.

If he was hoping to get a reaction out of his mate, Rufus again did not oblige him. "I don’t hear you complaining about that during the sex." He turned to another page, and Aya could have sworn he heard Reno’s teeth snap together from across the room.

Of course, Yohji could not leave a furious redhead alone, now could he? He poked Reno in the side again while he chuckled. "You look like a firecracker when you do that. Gonna hire yourself out for any festivals this year? Maybe earn some drinking money on your own?"

Reno hissed as he turned on the idiot. "I’ll show you fireworks!" The sparks that flew between him and Yohji were brightly colored and loud, though the impression that Aya got over the link with Yohji was that they did not really hurt. Perhaps Reno was restraining himself somewhat, or perhaps Yohji’s altered nature allowed him to absorb their energy instead, but one of the sparks sizzled when it landed against the cover of a book.

That was enough for Aya. He was off the table in an instant, the census book still held in his left hand as he approached the two fools who were about to set his library on fire. "Stop it!" he snarled while pushing between Yohji and Reno.


From Yohji he got the sense of an apology, but all Reno did was stop with the sparks… in favor of snatching the book from Aya’s hands. "There’s a better way to spend an evening than reading, ya know!" He grinned as he managed to sidestep Aya’s reaching grasp.


"Give that back before you damage it!" Aya tried to catch his friend again, but Reno seemed to be at least as fast as he was. While Yohji took to laughing, he chased the fool around the table and even one of the leather chairs, doing his best to get the book back before it was dropped or caught on fire. "Reno!"

"Nope, much, much better things to do!" Reno laughed as he jerked his arm back just in time to prevent Aya from grabbing the book.

Growing furious with the childish antics, Aya gathered the shadows to him, determined to trap Reno like a fly in a spider’s web. But they were sluggish to respond to his mental command to snare the dubhach, almost as if he was not quite tangible. Putting his impressive speed to use, Reno laughed again as he headed straight for the open window.

"Catch me if you can!" was all he said before he actually dove *out* of the window. Angry over the theft of his book and too caught up in the chase to get it back, Aya did not even think before he followed Reno out the window.

He heard Yohji cry out his name and felt a pulse of fear, but he focused on twisting through the air to make sure that he landed on his feet. The attic was higher up than Yohji’s room, but he had jumped from greater heights and suffered no ill effects before. Sending a wave of reassurance to his mate, Aya focused his attention on the figure fleeing before him, certain that he would catch Reno in a few more seconds and that they could then return to the inn.

The problem was, he *did not* catch up to Reno as quickly as he expected. The speed that the dubhach had shown up in the attic had not been a fluke; Reno truly could move as fast as Aya and made no effort to hold himself back to a more human pace. He had also surrounded himself with shadows, rendering him invisible and apparently safe from Aya’s shadows – at least, it required more concentration and energy than Aya was willing to provide at the moment. So he chased after Reno instead.

Laughter filled the air as Reno held up the book for a few seconds then tucked it into what appeared to be an inner pocket of his black coat. That left both his hands free, which he put to good use crawling up the wall of an apartment building a couple of blocks from the Koneko. With the approach of darkness, the streets had become empty of people, but Reno still took the route least likely to be crowded for this mad gambit across the city.

Aya remained right behind him, using shadows to help him climb up the brick wall. It was not until he was on the roof that he realized he had begun purring, thrilled with the ‘hunt’. How long had it been since he had done this? The last time he could recall chasing someone down like this, wrapped in shadows and putting these talents to use, was during a mission for the Takatori. That caused a moment of pain, which only increased the concern he felt from Yohji, but it quickly vanished as he concentrated and leapt from the top of one building to another. Reno had chosen a path that was leading them away from the Koneko and toward the more populated section of the Western district.

Aya was not sure exactly how much time passed during the chase; one moment it felt like mere seconds, another as if he had been running all evening. Despite the emotions he felt from his mate, he reveled in the motion and the speed, the thrill of falling through the air and scrambling back upwards, the challenge slanted slate roofs provided and the pride of perfect balance. The city whizzed on past, just a blur, since the only thing he focused on was the banner of crimson that was Reno’s hair and the pleased laughter filling his ears.

Despite his efforts, which admittedly were not his best, Reno stayed just out of reach. There were times when Aya even forgot what had started this, he was enjoying racing about so much, but every now and then he would catch the hard shape of the book against Reno’s coat. That would prompt him to increase his pace, but the anger from before had vanished; however Reno had gotten him out here, he was grateful for the opportunity to run like this.

At some point in their race, the shinigami had joined them. Aya could hear their pleased purrs and feel them wrap around him, crooning at him to continue running. They were around Reno, too, stroking through the long tail of hair that flowed behind the dubhach and cheering him on. For a moment Aya felt so… so *whole*, his talent put to use as he was surrounded by his own kind. Yet there was that constant stream of Yohji’s emotions that reminded him the chase could not go on forever.

That gave him the will to put an end to it, and when Reno was jarred from his running by a loose slate, Aya sped forward to grab his friend by the right arm and yank him back up. Neither of them were out of breath from the wild run, but Reno’s cheeks were flushed and his eyes were glowing pools of molten silver. The shadows around him made his skin and hair gleam, and Aya wondered if he looked the same just then.

<Such fun, young ones! Come, come, run some more!>

<Shed the flesh! Think of how fast and free you’ll be then,> another shinigami crooned, twining its way around Reno’s shoulders until he shivered in response.

"Ah, thanks, but I sorta like the flesh sometimes," Reno mumbled as he pulled the book from his pocket. "Though you’re right about running some more." He wrinkled his nose at Aya as he handed over the book. "Weren’t you having fun?"

"… Yes." Aya accepted the book and sighed. "Yes, I was." He sent another wave of reassurance back to Yohji, who was feeling angry as well as concerned and a touch fearful.

"Then why did you end it like that? Don’t tell me you were worried about me falling." Reno made a spitting sound and waved his left hand through the air. "Would’ve landed on my feet and the book would be all right." His face took on an angry cast for a few seconds. "And I wouldn’t have slipped at all if it wasn’t for the bastard bothering me." There was little doubt just who the ‘bastard’ was.

Feeling too sheepish to say that he was worried about his mate, Aya shrugged and urged Reno up higher on to the roof. They were in a section of the city he was not very familiar with, one much like where they had found the woman’s body several days ago. There were a lot of closed shops and a few open taverns and bars despite the fact that the streets were once again lacking in people. Word of the wizard and his ‘monster’ had spread through the city.

"I didn’t plan on going so far into the city," he admitted after a moment’s pause. "We should go back now."

<No, run some more!> one of the shinigami cried out while weaving around Aya.

"Yeah, what… it said." Reno folded his arms over his chest and looked as if he was not moving anytime soon. "What’s wrong? I could tell you were having fun, and now you have your book back nice and safe. Why can’t we run around some more?"

The book in question tucked between his jerkin and shirt, Aya ran his fingers through his hair and felt a pang of remorse when a few strands from his eartails were tugged on because of a small knot. "Yohji’s worried about me, so I think it’s best to head home."

Reno made a rude noise and rolled his eyes. "You’re a kage, so what’s to worry about? No one can see or hear us right now, and it’s not like we’re about to bump into anyone up here." He motioned to the roof they were standing on and the lack of any humans to be seen. "We can run back to the inn, if you’d like, but there are better buildings out this way." The shinigami agreed with him.

Aya was not sure he could properly explain things, not when Reno did not have the closest of bonds with Rufus and the shinigami were urging them to forget about their mates. He did not want it to seem as if Yohji was holding him back… even if that was somewhat the truth. But it was not in a negative sense, not really.

"Aya," Reno drawled, much like a child who had lost its patience over a delay in a game.

"Yohji’s worried," Aya repeated as he headed towards the Koneko, feeling sad at putting a definite end to their fun.

"Fuck, then he is like Rufus." Reno spat the words as he walked beside Aya, his hands tucked into the pockets of his black coat and his shoulders hunched forward. Most of his hair had escaped the tie that had held it back in a ponytail, the loose strands falling around his face and moving gently in the wind. "Does he act this way every time you enjoy a nice run?"

Silent for several seconds, Aya let out a slow sigh and hugged the book to his chest. "I… haven’t really run like this a lot since I’ve been with him. He doesn’t like it when I go too kage on him, like using my speed or jumping down buildings without any warning."

<Such a foolish mate he is, that golden one. Not worthy.>

The rest of the shinigami took up the last two words, hissing them repeatedly while Reno grimaced and draped his right arm around Aya’s shoulders. "You said that Yohji didn’t know he was a bound until you two met, right? Maybe that’s why he doesn’t like you doing shit like this." Reno showed an amazing amount of insight, and the words were spoken softly as if in commiseration. "Rufus didn’t usually give me that much grief over the speed or the sparks unless we were around humans, though that changed once we became mates." He grimaced again and sparks flew out from the fingertips of his right hand, a tickling sensation that made Aya shiver slightly.

This was why Aya had settled on Reno being a friend so quickly – there was so much that he did not have to explain to the man, so much that was shared between them. "I did things like this for the Takatori all the time," he admitted, only pausing for a moment before mentioning his captors. "They didn’t care as long as I cloaked myself and there were no witnesses. I thought it would be the same while working for the Spymaster, but Yohji’s always with me and he worries if I leave him behind or act too… kage." Act too much like himself. The problem was that Aya’s mate had a talent that was too different from his own; Yohji dealt with emotion, glamour and compulsion while Aya’s talents were physical in nature, for the most part.

"Hmm." Reno did not say anything else until they jumped across to another roof. "Guess I have to be grateful to Rufus for something." He did not sound happy about that fact. "I mean, he’s really pissed at me right now, but it’s because I left without his permission or a babysitter to keep me out of trouble more than anything." He held up his left hand and opened and closed his fingers in a manner to represent a mouth talking. "’Don’t draw attention to yourself, you’ll get us all killed or worse’," he said, voice roughened to sound a little like Rufus’.

"Yohji’s really upset, too." Aya frowned as he sent his mate more assurances, confused as to why Yohji’s emotions were this riled up. He was not harmed in any way and he could look after himself, so what was so wrong with him leaving like that?

Reno took to complaining a bit more about his mate, repeating some of the foolish commands he’d been given in the last few months, while Aya nodded in sympathy and the shinigami urged them both to leave their mates. They’d only gotten a few more blocks when there was a familiar spike of energy, one that made Aya moan in hunger and Reno to shiver as if cold.

<A death, young ones, a death! Energy to feast upon!> The shinigami gave them a hard shove to the left, the direction from which the energy had come.

Aya shared a look with Reno, one of hunger and curiosity, and they moved at the same time toward that energy. It was close enough that Aya’s hunger had been ever so slightly slackened by it, and they only had to cross one roof and jump to the ground to find its source.

They both stood by the building whose roof they had just come down from, cloaked in shadows and not saying anything as they stared at the people in front of them. There was a man who looked only a few years older than them lying on the ground, faint traces of energy still around his body as blood flowed out to stain the cobblestones. A rather young woman huddled near the man’s body, tears streaming down her face as she patted the man as if to wake him up. Two men stood just a foot or two away, the taller one holding a bloody knife in his hand while the shorter, stockier man reached for the girl. When she opened her mouth to scream, he hit her with enough force to knock the wind out of her so that she landed a couple of feet away.

"Won’t do you much good to scream, not when the Guard’s all in the Eastern and Northern quarters. No one will come out if they think a monster’s eating you," the taller one laughed, a cruel smile on his haggard face as he used a dirty cloth to clean blood from the knife.

"Though if you’re quiet, maybe you won’t be joining your boyfriend any time soon," the other man said as he approached the girl, now holding out a knife as well. "Get to your feet."

"No. Please… no." The girl scooted backwards as she spoke, the words garbled as if her mouth could not work properly. Judging from the blood that spilled down her chin, a tooth had been damaged or knocked loose.

<Another death to come, we can taste it,> one of the shinigami crooned as it rubbed against Aya’s shoulders. <Can you sense it?>

Aya could, actually, a sharpening of the hunger and a flare of anticipation that made him inhale deeply. Beside him, Reno nodded and chuckled, his fingers splayed as sparks danced across their tips.

<Oh yes, death is thick around those two. Stained by it, they are, so sweet and strong. They’ve fed us well.>

"Well then, let’s give ‘em a taste of it," Reno purred and stepped forward, his eyes reflecting the dim light from the moons like a cat’s. Aya stepped forward as well, nerves tingling as he waited for that rush of energy, casting a shadow ward around the girl while she sobbed and huddled into herself, then another to hide the part of the street where he, Reno and the two men were standing in case there were any observers.

The shadows fell from Reno when he was a few feet away from the men, who were cursing under their breath over the girl’s ‘disappearance’. The shorter one instantly held up his knife in a threatening manner, his expression one of fear and anger. "Who the fuck are you?"

"Doesn’t matter," Reno said and laughed, the sound containing not even a trace of human warmth and spooking the humans even more. They had barely moved toward Reno when he flung out his hands, the sparks raining forth as brilliant as stars. The sight of them was beautiful, the smell of ozone stinging to Aya’s nose and followed by the stench of burnt flesh. The men barely had a chance to scream before they died, bodies shuddering as if hit by lightning, then sweet energy rushed into Aya in a very welcome flood.

He moaned in delight, the hunger that had plagued him for the last few weeks vanquished beneath that sudden flood, the moment only ruined by the sudden wave of panic he felt from Yohji. Sending more reassurances to his mate, Aya combed his fingers through his hair and smiled, revitalized by the energy released upon the men’s deaths.

"Oh, fuck…." Reno had the most decadent of smiles on his face, strands of his long hair waving about as if he was surrounded by bursts of air. "So damn good."

"Yes." Aya rubbed his hands over his face then let them fall down so he could stare at the bodies. "I haven’t fed in several weeks."

"Eh, it’s just been a couple for me, but I’ve been out in the sun a lot since then." Reno shrugged, appearing utterly at peace at having two dead bodies by his feet. "Don’t usually feed out in the open like this when Tseng’s not around to make sure there’s nothing left to be found." He kicked one of the bodies with his left foot.

"That… wouldn’t be a good idea right now." Aya looked around for a place to hide the bodies and wished that they were closer to the docks. "I’ll let the Shadow Guard take care of them." And the girl, he remembered as well when he glanced in her direction. Between seeing her companion killed, almost being raped and then trapped in darkness, she seemed to have entered a state of shock. Good, that meant she shouldn’t move before Eri or another of the Shadow Guard’s soul gaki bounds got here to tamper with her memories. "I can leave the wards up until then." They’d just need someone with a ring made of his blood and tears to break the wards.

While Reno nodded in agreement, Aya reached into the black leather pouch that hung from his belt to fetch the copper bracelet. He kept it in the pouch because the thing’s magic was a constant irritation against his skin and he hated to wear it unless on a mission. Tapping out a quick message, he let Yuushi know that two murderers and rapists had been killed in order to protect the young woman. Oh, they could have easily restrained the men, but there was less of a chance of his and Reno’s secrets getting out if the criminal witnesses were dead, and he felt that the men had been guilty enough to warrant death. If the shinigami said that they’d killed others before, then they were probably being sought by the Guard for a few crimes.

Reno reached over to tap the bracelet once Aya removed it from his wrist. "Eh, those things come in handy, but Rufus won’t let me wear one since I used the shadows to keep it from working." He shrugged before climbing back up to the rooftop, a wicked grin on his face and an equally wicked laugh tumbling from his lips. "Now I’m stuck with him in my head."

"I can only feel Yohji’s emotions," Aya confessed as he followed his friend, eager to return to the Koneko since it was clear that Yohji would not stop worrying about him until he was back home. He knew that his mate had felt the bursts of energy from him feeding, but he had not been harmed at all so what was wrong? All he and Reno had done was have a bit of fun running around, and they had saved someone as well. Once they got back to the Koneko, everything would be fine, and now Yohji would not have to worry about draining him dry. It was a promising night so far.

*******

"Aya! Dammit, stop doing that and get back here! Aya! You’re giving me a heart attack, for fuck’s sake!" Yohji shouted out the open attic window, in danger of falling out of it himself with the way he was leaning out after his mate.


For his part, Rufus did not waste the breath or energy required with useless shouting. <Reno, *get back here*!> He focused all of his anger into the words, yet was not very surprised when they did not have any effect on the idiot. Instead, he felt a rush of excitement, happiness and slight annoyance, the latter emotion no doubt directed at him. <You’ll be punished if you don’t return right *now*.> He meant that threat, and yet again was not surprised when it was easily ignored.

Despite already knowing how things would turn out, it did not keep him from being furious with his mate at the moment. He had made it very clear to Reno that the dubhach was not supposed to go out *anywhere* unless Rufus, Tseng or Rude were with him to ensure there was not mass destruction or important secrets revealed. Yet Reno had jumped out the window of the top floor of a very popular inn without a thought about the consequences. At least he had Aya with him, and Rufus held some hope the kage at least had enough of a functioning brain to keep the two of them out of trouble.

"Aya!"

"I’m very certain that he can’t hear you," Rufus snapped, growing bored with the way his ears ached from the man shouting like that. "While everyone else in the inn can."

Yohji glared at him while Rufus settled in one of the leather chairs, then walked away from the window to sit in the other chair. "I can’t believe he just… jumped out of a window like that." He turned so he could look outside, which was not much to see since the sun had set a couple of hours ago.

Rufus flipped open the book he held in his right hand and skimmed its pages. "Reno goes out windows all the time; I sometimes wonder if he even knows what a door is for." Other than to lock it against him, something that did not work very well anymore.

Yohji made a spitting noise and looked ready to jump out of his seat. "Aren’t you worried at all about your mate? He just jumped down several stories and is now running through a city filled with quite a few wizards and two Esset agents who would love nothing better than to take him captive! Do I even need to tell you what they’d do to him if they caught him?" The succubae bound glared at Rufus, his hands rubbing up and down the inside of his arms all the while, pushing back the sleeves of his dark brown shirt.

"First, it should be very obvious to you now that neither of those two idiots were bothered in the slightest by the fall." Rufus set the book on his lap so he could glare back at Yohji. "Second, I am very well aware of how many wizards are in this city, probably more so than you, and I haven’t forgotten about those agents." That was part of the reason why Reno was not supposed to go out on his own, but at least he was reasonably sure that Reno had not jumped out to find the agents. No, what he got from his mate was a sense of fun, like a child playing a challenging game of tag. "Third, I am also very aware of what those wizards and agents would love to do to him, which is why I got the feeble-minded fool out of Esset in the first place." Some heat crept into his voice at the thought of how his mate seemed to love nothing more than messing up his plans.

"What I don’t think *you* realize is that what’s currently running through this ‘dangerous’ city is a dubhach and a kage." He tapped the fingers of his left hand against the arm of the chair in annoyance. "I believe it’s much more likely that we’ll hear reports of half the city being destroyed than either one of them being captured." That was a very real possibility if Reno was involved. "While I have serious doubts on at least one of the idiots’ sense of preservation, I have none that they’ll be the victors of any fight."

"Yeah, but after how much damage and in front of how many witnesses?" Yohji grumbled, his hands tugging through his hair in a manner that had to be painful. "I thought you told Reno he wasn’t allowed to go anywhere without you."

Oh, of course Yohji would remember that line from earlier. Rufus’ eyes narrowed and he wished that there was a bottle of alcohol in the room. "Funny, I have this faint memory of us having a chat not too long ago about me being heavy-handed in ordering my mate about." He got some satisfaction at Yohji’s flustered look and sent another mental command to Reno to return home which was promptly ignored.

"He seemed to actually listen to you back then." When Rufus scoffed at that statement, the succubae bound actually smiled a little. "Okay, maybe not so much." He sighed and combed his fingers through his hair again, this time not tugging on the shoulder-length strands. "Can’t you make him come back?"

"No more than you can order Aya back, it seems." Rufus frowned and tried yet again, at least hoping to annoy Reno enough to make the dubhach return to bitch at him. "I seem to have little luck using compulsion on him whenever he’s around Aya. Also, he’s been a bit hungry lately, and that always leads to irrational behavior on his part." This time it was Yohji’s turn to scoff. "All right, even more irrational behavior on his part." Dammit, why the hell had the gods chosen to make him suffer by having Reno as a mate?

Still, something he said seemed to sink into Yohji’s thick head. "Hungry, eh? Aya’s been pretty starved for energy lately, too." His hands settled in his lap, fingers entwined and toying with the silver and amethyst ring he always wore.

Rufus sighed and spun his own signet ring around his left middle finger, doing his best to distract himself from the worry and fear that was obviously plaguing Yohji. "All I know is that whenever Reno’s hungry for energy, he seems to lose whatever miniscule portion of common sense that he normally has." He remembered Reno’s antics back in Berin and shuddered, still amazed that they’d gotten away from the Elders without raising any suspicions.

"Hmm." Yohji stared at his hands for several seconds. "Aya’s been hoping to find the agents soon and feed off of them. We really haven’t had any missions lately where… well, where anyone dies." He seemed a little troubled by the thought, which Rufus did not quite understand. Death should be second-hand to a bound; some of them either required it to feed, such as flesh gaki bounds, dubhach or kage, or were driven to it to protect themselves. Then there was the fact that humans died so easily and so quickly.

"Don’t you let him hunt his own… meal from time to time?" Rufus almost rolled his eyes at Yohji’s shocked expression. "That was part of the reason for me bringing Reno here tonight, to give him a chance to feed on the way home." Tseng and Elena were downstairs waiting for them, and it would give Tseng a chance to feed as well. "There’s always a criminal to be found if one looks hard enough, even more so in a large city like this."

Yohji closed his eyes and shook his head. "I know that’s how Jei and others feed, but…." He shook his head again, and Rufus thought it was silly denial on the man’s part. Those of their kind who hunted always went after the humans who would never be missed, the criminals who preyed on their own kind. "Aya’s used to feeding whenever he’s on a mission."

"That seems rather restrictive to me." Rufus noticed that Yohji’s expression changed, only for an instant, as if he had recalled something that disputed what had just been said. "However the man feeds, what is a known fact is that he and Reno were both hungry. Given how they behave when together, I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that they’d do something so childish." That was what it was, too, childish. Reno and Aya were very young, as bound determined things, and had an odd sort of attraction with each other, a… pack mentality, as it were. Rufus should have expected them to forget about acting human when together, and resolved to be more careful about that in the future.

His explanations did not seem to be doing Yohji any good, however, and his annoyance grew over that fact. "Look, you and others have taken me to task for being ‘overbearing’ with Reno, binding him with oaths and doing my best to force him to act human." His fingers once again tapped against tanned leather, in part because he could not truly enjoy tossing those accusations back in Yohji’s face at the moment since he was so concerned about his mate. "I present to you a prime example of why I’m such a ‘controlling bastard’." He waved his right hand in the direction of the open window. "Imagine him doing something like this while *in* Berin, of all places, and that’s a mere taste of what I put up with on an almost daily basis." By the time he had finished, he was snarling in pent-up anger.

Yohji looked ready to react to that anger, his eyes narrowing and lips pressing tightly together, but all he did was jump from the chair and take to pacing around the room. "Okay, I now understand the point you were trying to make back then. I guess I’m lucky in that Aya’s usually a hell of a lot more reserved than Reno and prone to thinking things through. But I’ve watched him jump from rooftops as if it’s nothing, curl up in a nest of shinigami and look happy to have those cold, hissing bastards around him, and turn fucking insubstantial on me." He was growling as he spoke, looking ready to destroy something but trapped in a room filled with priceless books. "And each time he does something like that, it’s either ‘oh, I always do this’ or ‘sorry, didn’t know that would happen’ and he acts as if it’s *normal*." This time he did lash out, his hand grabbing the curtains that framed one of the windows and yanking them down. As long as he kept the damn curtain rods to himself, Rufus let him have some destructive fun.

"All that still doesn’t compare to trying to kill himself on a regular basis," Rufus muttered, smiling slightly when Yohji glared in his direction. "I thought you were the expert on shinigami. None of this should surprise you."

That made Yohji laugh, some of his anger seeming to burn off. "Right. I probably know more than most people, but that’s still like comparing a cup of water to the fucking ocean." He let out a slow breath, his hands clenching and unclenching. "Aya surprises me on an almost daily basis. Most of it’s good, but something like tonight…." He shook his head and leaned out the ‘point of exit’ for the redheaded idiots. "What’s really bothering me right now is that I can feel his emotions, and he’s *happy*. Not only that, but he’s also confused, and I know that has to do with me."

"We’re the mean ones trying to spoil their fun." Reno had not tried to block the link with Rufus and was only ignoring him right now, determined to enjoy that ‘fun’. Rufus had a few moments of anger toward Aya for teaching the idiot how to stifle the link in any manner. "The thing to keep in mind, however, is that there’s no pain or fear. If there was any trouble, we’d know that much." Which was not much of a relief when Reno and Aya could be halfway across the city by now.

Laughing at that comment, Yohji sat down in the windowsill. "Rufus, surely I can’t be the first person to tell you that you do a *horrible* job of reassuring a person." He smiled in the face of Rufus’ annoyed scowl.

"I see no point in distracting a distressed person by acting the fool, not when I’ve Reno for that," he snapped, for a moment thinking of how to best punish his wayward mate. If they were not so rare and valuable, he’d serve the koi that Reno loved to watch for dinner one night.

"Yeah, but he’s not here right now, is he?" Yohji’s smile faded as he looked out over the city. "Sorry, that didn’t come out quite how I meant it." He looked in Rufus’ direction when Rufus grunted in response. "If I didn’t think it would get me maimed for life, I’d say a collar-"

A wave of warmth, energy and pleasure slammed into Rufus, the potent emotions clearly Reno’s. As he shivered in delight and his nerves took to tingling, mind suddenly clearer for the energy he had just fed upon, he was certain of one thing. "Reno just enjoyed a ‘meal’."

"I know, so did Aya," Yohji snarled, his green eyes almost glowing and his lips pulled back from his mouth. He looked ready to jump out the damn window before Rufus got up from the chair and grabbed him by the shoulder; the *last* thing they needed right now was another idiot - one driven almost to madness with concern at that - running around.

"*Think*, Kudoh. Or feel, at least." Rufus gave the man a good shake as well. "Is there any pain? Any signs of trouble?" From Reno he got the image of a young woman huddled over a dead body, two men armed with knives whose faces soon contorted with agony, then Aya’s smiling face and the purrs of the shinigami. "I can do more than feel Reno’s emotions, and all he did was take advantage of an opportunity."

Yohji growled and shook off his hand. "Dammit, no, Aya’s even happier right now." He cursed under his breath as he settled back on the window ledge. "What the hell is he doing?"

Putting his talent to use, Rufus sent a mental query to Yohji and was slightly taken back when the succubae bound lowered his shields enough so he could send what he had picked up from Reno. "There’s something about the Shadow Guards, but Reno’s thoughts are always a muddle once he’s fed, and Aya’s presence isn’t helping any."

"If I thought they’d listen to us, I’d say we need to keep those two apart," Yohji grumbled, his right hand massaging his left shoulder as if it was sore. "Aya’s probably alerted the Shadow Guard to the fact that there are some bodies that need to be taken care of as well as the poor girl." He frowned at the darkness outside. "Dammit, he really is going to give me a heart attack."

"Get used to it." Rufus returned to his chair. "Whenever they’re together, Reno and Aya bring out the shinigami in each other. But don’t worry, Reno won’t be anywhere near the Koneko for a while." His eyes narrowed as he stared out the window. Now that Reno had fed, the redhead was going to be confined to the city mansion for at *least* two weeks.

Yohji chuckled, not sounding very amused. "Good luck with that. I can’t even attempt to keep Aya inside, not when the Shadow Guard need us and…." He fell quiet and shook his head. "No, I could never do that to him. But dammit, we need to talk about this. All it would take is the agents figuring out what he is and the war would start as soon as they reported back to the Elders."

"I know." Rufus rested his head against the back of the chair and closed his eyes. "I wish I could control Reno as much as I’m accused of doing. I don’t care if he’s bored, he’d at least be safe." There would be no more worry about his mate spending too much time out in the sun, or being driven to try to take his life again. There certainly would not be the ever-wearying fear of someone discovering what Reno really was and doing their best to take him away from Rufus. "They’re so very rare and powerful, but so susceptible to weakness as well. Why can’t they realize just how valuable they are and allow themselves to be protected?" Why did Reno have to fight him so much? It was not a case of thinking that the redhead was weak, not at all. But Rufus’ ‘tyranny’ was so much better than Reno being regarded solely as a weapon to be used or destroyed, or constantly bled for his blood.

The heartfelt sigh from across the room let Rufus know that he was not alone in feeling that way. "Aya would raze the city to pebbles if he thought I was in danger, yet he can’t fucking understand why I’m about to go mad with fear right now. I thought… I thought maybe it was what the Takatori had done to him, but now that doesn’t seem to be it. At least, not entirely. Maybe he’s more like Reno with that lack of self-preservation than I’d suspected."

"’Shinigami are not meant to be trapped in flesh for it goes against all things natural’." Rufus opened his eyes and stared at the plain white ceiling above him. "They say that Esset’s Wizard tried to bind them to a body, too, long before Kritiker’s Wizard thought to do so. But it was Kritiker who came across the way to trap the shinigami in flesh first – and the feat was never repeated again." He thought of the way the shinigami constantly drove Reno to ‘shed the flesh’, the way they felt it was cruelly trapping the dubhach. Rufus had never felt more than a passing interest the few times he had come across a soul gaki, had never felt that he was ‘trapped’. No, if anything there were some enjoyments that a body allowed an insubstantial demon so there was no conflict. Not for any bound other than Reno and Aya, that was.

The room was quiet for a couple of minutes, until Rufus grunted and sat up straight in the chair. "Whatever excuses we can think of for their behavior tonight, it doesn’t excuse the fact that Reno’s an insubordinate fool. As soon as he comes back – and I’ll bet you twenty gold coins it’ll be through that window so you might want to move – we’re leaving." He sent a mental command to Tseng and Elena to be prepared to leave soon, unwilling to fill them in on what had happened tonight. No, he would wait until they got home and then let Tseng tear into the redheaded idiot.

That prompted a laugh from Yohji, who followed Rufus’ suggestion. "I can feel Aya getting closer, and I won’t take you up on that bet. Need the damn money to pay for more books." He scowled as he looked around the room. "Nah, he’d kill me if I hid them away," he muttered under his breath.

They did not have long to wait, which was fortunate for their rather frayed tempers. Reno was the first one through the window and was snatched away the moment he was fully in the room. He let out a furious hiss as he was slammed against the wall, his nails digging into Rufus’ shoulders as he was kissed with a furious passion. Rufus wanted to throttle the idiot, to do something that might make him *think* for once, but settled on allowing a sense of possession to both calm his temper and render Reno in a more pliable mood. He drove deep into his mate’s mind, searching intently for any thoughts or memories hidden from him that dealt with the recent ‘excursion’ and only stopped when he was certain that Reno had not done anything that would put them in danger. <You are a thrice-damned fool!>

<It was fun!> Reno’s nails bit deeper the same time he pressed his body against Rufus’. <I’m not a fucking child who can’t look after himself!>

<I beg to differ, and we’ll discuss this when we get back home.> Rufus broke off the kiss and found that Aya was back as well, hissing something to Yohji that only made the succubae bound look even more angry. "Good night, gentlemen," he wished the mated pair; he did not expect any response from them since they were obviously caught up in their own fight.

"Come." He wrapped his right hand around Reno’s wrist and dragged the hissing fool out of the library. When Reno dug his heels in right outside of the room, Rufus once again kissed him, pulling his mate to him the same time that he pushed deep into Reno’s mind. Having fed tonight meant that Reno was more ‘susceptible’ to mental coercion, his mind in an almost drunken state. Since Rufus had fed from the intense emotions that always followed his mate’s feedings, he had an extra bit of power to make the command stick.

<You will *not* interfere with us returning home right now. Once we are there, you *will* remain on the estate grounds until I tell you that you may leave. Even think to disobey me and you’ll be confined to our room, Reno. Don’t push me on this, not after your actions tonight.>

Reno’s eyes took on a glazed cast, slowly losing their silver color to return to their normal aquamarine. "But… just…."

"I don’t care," Rufus snapped, cutting across the feeble explanation. His arms around the small of Reno’s back, he hugged his mate to him even closer. "You wanted to have some fun? Then I hope it was worth the punishment you have in store for you." Now that Reno was back and Rufus did not have to keep Yohji calm, the fear and anger he had done his best to suppress rushed to the fore. "I won’t let you be a threat to yourself or other people."

That got a hiss from his mate, which he silenced again with an almost brutal kiss. They needed to get home so he would know that Reno was safe, and then they were going to lock themselves in the bedroom. He would feed until utterly sated on his mate’s emotions, would mark Reno’s neck and fuck the man’s quarreling natures into submission so there would be no attempt to break the coercion anytime soon, would reinforce that coercion until there was no chance of it being broken, period. Tomorrow Reno could lash out at him and complain about not being able to do his job or leave the estate, and by then it would be too late.

Reno broke off the kiss with a loud gasp, pale face flushed and knees wobbling as if weak. Rufus did not give him any time to recover and dragged him downstairs. So he had just wanted a bit of fun? A chance to be ‘himself’? The fool would learn that there were times and places for such things even if it took Rufus centuries to drive the lesson home. The only question was how sane he would still be by then after so many decades of Reno pushing him past his limits.

*******

"I can’t believe that you just jumped out of the window like that and raced off," Yohji spat once Aya was standing before him, red hair tousled in a becoming manner and a slight flush to pale cheeks. More than anything he wanted to pull his mate close and kiss him breathless, but the anger and fear he felt would not allow that to happen.

The smile on Aya’s face faded upon hearing the angry words, his arms folding over his chest as he lifted his chin to stare up at Yohji. "I needed to get the book back before something happened to it." He spoke in a cold manner as he removed the book from his jerkin, a faint hiss to his voice. His emotions, however, were not so impassive but were a medley of confusion, annoyance and hurt.

Yohji felt much the same way at the moment, torn with the need to make sure Aya was all right and trying to make a point that the idiot appeared oblivious to at the moment. His hands clenched into fists to keep from reaching for the redhead, his teeth grinding together in anger at how Aya just did not seem to *get* it. "You jumped out of the fucking window, Aya! Then you ignored me while running around and killed someone!" Oh gods, his heart had almost exploded when he had felt that, so sure that Aya was protecting himself from either a wizard or the agents and too far away for Yohji to find and help him in time.

And now Aya stood in front of him acting as if nothing was wrong – no, was acting as if *Yohji* was the one at fault here! He even sniffed in a disapproving manner before he spoke. "Reno was the one to kill the men, and he did it to save a woman."

"Bullshit!" More than anything, Yohji wanted to lash out and hit something, but he would never do that while arguing with his mate. Aya had overcome being abused in the past, and Yohji would not undo all that hard work even to throw a book across the room. "You both were hungry, and I can’t see Reno lifting a damn finger to save a human!" If anything, Reno would just stand around and watch the murder happen.

That made Aya’s frown deepen and he leaned away from Yohji. "They were both killers, the shinigami told us, so it doesn’t matter why they died. I made sure there were no witnesses and Yuushi’s already sent someone to handle the situation." Aya’s right hand tapped the pouch on his belt twice before returning to its position against his chest. "What’s wrong about that? You never cared when I killed that rapist last year."

Yohji’s temper flared even hotter, which made Aya take a step back and him struggle to rein it in. The fact that Aya did not see any danger to what he had just done made that job so damn difficult, however, and it took Yohji a good minute to be able to speak without yelling. Not that he did speak; instead he turned around and stormed out of the room, hoping for their own sake that he did not run into any of his friends – especially Reno and Rufus. While he did not think this was entirely Reno’s fault, he doubted that he and Aya would be having this fight if the dubhach had stayed home tonight. No, it would have just happened another evening, more than likely.

Aya trailed after him, calling out his name much like Yohji had shouted out Aya’s when this mess had started, and Yohji could feel his mate’s anger grow as he was ignored. Not wanting to get into a fight in the hallway, he waited until they were in the room and the door closed before turning to face his idiot lover, who definitely looked pissed off now. "You did absolutely nothing wrong tonight, right? I’m being an asshole by yelling at you, I bet." He just managed to keep a snarl out of his voice, not wanting to make the fight any nastier than it had to be.

Cleary sensing the sarcasm behind the words, Aya eyed him warily and walked around the room to stand by the fireplace. "I know I worried you, and I’m sorry," he admitted, which took Yohji by surprise and almost made his anger fade. Then Aya had to continue and ruin things. "I know you don’t like it when I use my kage abilities like that, but… I guess I got caught up in how fun it could be to run like that."

Yohji was torn between feeling guilty over how he appeared to be depriving Aya of the joy of being a kage and… not furious but extremely disappointed that the man he loved did not understand why he had spent a part of tonight filled with utter fear. Crossing the room, he approached Aya, hands held out at his sides so he did not seem threatening in any way.

Aya did not try to move away, a puzzled frown on his face as he stared at Yohji, confusion and upset pouring over their link. Well, Yohji was equally upset and determined to do something about it. "Cat… look, I’m sorry that you feel that you can’t do those types of things because of me." He reached out to tuck a lock of hair behind Aya’s right ear and resisted the urge to continue with a caress. "But that’s not why I’m really hurt by what you did tonight. Did it ever occur to you that you went racing out there and could have run into the agents? Or worse, some wizards out looking to prove it’s not one of their own behind the murders?"

"That wouldn’t be a problem," Aya replied, his eyes narrowing as he stared at Yohji. "Reno and I used shadows to hide ourselves, and we’re more than able to protect ourselves."

Yeah, that was why Rufus was such an anal, over-protective prick when it came to Reno and why Aya bore so many scars on his body. Thankfully, Yohji had the sense not to say that out loud. "And there’s never the possibility for things to go wrong, is there?" he asked instead, his voice as cold as he could make it.

Flushing slightly, Aya looked away and chewed on his bottom lip for a couple of seconds while the shadows writhed around the room. "Nothing went wrong, though."

"Nothing *this time*." Yohji hissed in anger and stepped back, his fingers combing through his hair. "What would you do if I went downstairs and started using my latest ‘trick’ on people in front of everyone in the main room, eh?"

That got a reaction from Aya, an even louder hiss than Yohji’s and the flash of silver eyes. "It’s not the same thing, Yohji!"

"Isn’t it?" Feeling the need to move and vent some of his anger, Yohji strode across the room to the window, his mouth twisting in a grimace at the bitter thought of Aya jumping out of *this* one. "What if the girl you saved tells people something before Eri can erase her memories? What if Yuushi’s angry about you and Reno feeding from the criminals? Hell, what if Reno went all crazy again and did something bad? You took a big risk tonight and can’t even realize that." He shook his head, weighed down with the knowledge that there were some things that he could not make Aya see, not when his lover missed that vital, human element. Maybe not even if Aya was part human, considering the mess that Reno had gotten into tonight as well.

The room was quiet for several minutes, then Yohji almost jumped when he felt Aya’s arms wrap around him from behind. "I’m sorry, Yotan. I guess all I cared about was the book and catching Reno." Aya sighed and pressed his face against the left side of Yohji’s neck. "At least I got a chance to feed tonight so you don’t have to worry about me being so tired anymore."

No, that was one good thing about tonight, inadvertent as it was and possibly leading to more trouble for Aya in the future. Yohji patted his lover’s hands and shook his head again, a slight motion right and left. "I know, I could feel it happening." And it was as if someone had grabbed his heart and given it an agonizing squeeze at the time, despite the pleasure and satiation that Aya had felt.

There was little doubt in his mind that Yuushi would want to speak to them, but it would most likely wait until tomorrow when the Shadow Captain had finished the nightly search for the Esset agents. That Guards had to be diverted to cover for Aya was another reason for Yohji to be upset about, but he did not feel like pointing that out right now. In fact, he did not feel like continuing this discussion tonight. If he had not promised Yuushi to be ready in case the Shadow Guard needed him and Aya, he would crawl into bed and do his best to put the night behind him.

Instead, he gave Aya’s hands another pat. "Let’s go back to the library and see if we can’t find anything." He could feel how stunned his mate was over the suggestion, not one he would normally make when the time could be spent in more pleasurable ways. However, Yohji had fed this morning and he was not in the mood to feast on the energy that Aya had gotten tonight. Maybe it was pettiness on his part, but he wanted to prove a point to Aya now, one that he did not have much hope of getting through, sadly enough.

"Okay." Aya hugged him tightly for a moment, emotions a mix of love, concern and confusion, and Yohji returned that love. He did not feel any less of it for his mate, he just… as incredibly good as it could be between them, the times when he was faced with the horror of Aya’s past and the vast differences between them always made him fear for their happiness together.

Still, Aya was not Reno, Yohji reminded himself, doing his best to alleviate some of the concern that his mate felt. He would just have to come up with a better way of getting his point across to the man he loved than Rufus had so far managed.

******

Aya sat up in bed, a frown on his face and his hands tugging on the ends of his eartails. For the first time in what seemed to be weeks, Yohji was not still in bed when he woke up, either trying to sleep some more or hoping for a ‘snack’ to start their day. That Aya had not waken up when Yohji had made him wonder if his mate had blocked their link at some point during the day, although he could feel Yohji’s emotions now.

Normally his mate was cheerful once forced awake and out of bed, but that was only partly true today. There was some of the usual happiness, but it was laced with a sense of regret and sadness, as well as a touch of hunger. That emotion reminded Aya about the fact that they had not had sex before going to bed, either.

The evidence was very clear that Yohji was still upset with him over his actions last night. Still tugging on his hair, Aya hissed quietly and tried to figure out just what exactly was wrong. If Yohji was not angry at him for reveling in his kage nature and the bond between him and Reno, why was his lover still upset? Because Aya had gone out when there were agents from Esset and wizards about in the city? That had not stopped Yohji from going to the market on several occasions for Jo, with or without Aya by his side.

Getting out of bed, Aya did his best to ignore the faint hisses of the shinigami that urged him yet again to leave his lover. All this time, it had been the possibility of *him* leaving the man he loved behind, but now…. Yohji had never been so remote from him like this, so obviously disappointed. But Aya had apologized, so why were things not better? That was all it really took for him to forgive Yohji.

He washed off, then pulled on some black clothes, not in the mood to try to be cheerful when things were so askew in his world. Then he thought about how much Yohji loved to see him dressed in colors and changed his black tunic for one that was a light, almost silvery grey. Feeling self-conscious over the bright for him color, he went in search of his mate.

It came as no surprise when he found him in the kitchen, busy teasing Emmie and Neely while helping get things ready for dinner. Yohji looked his way and smiled, but it was a far cry from the way he would normally rush over to give Aya a hug or a kiss.

Not sure if he should even be here now, he slowly made his way across the room to stand by his mate. Neely and Emmie smiled and went back to work while Jo approached and handed him a cup of tea. "I figured you’d be down here soon since Yohji came looking for a bite to eat. How does some roast beef sandwiches and baked potatoes sound?"

"That’ll be fine, Jo." Aya accepted the mug and sat at the table so he could watch Yohji peel apples for what surely had to be some pies. "You… ate already?" he asked, his voice quiet since he was not sure if Yohji would speak to him or not.

"Yeah. Couldn’t take lying in bed anymore so I came down here." Yohji smiled and held out a peeled slice of apple, which Aya carefully accepted and nibbled on. The smile was not as warm as normal, but at least he still felt love and a hint of desire over their link.

"What is everyone doing?"

Yohji motioned to the bushel of apples that waited to be peeled and cut. "I’m getting the apples ready while Neely’s scrubbing the potatoes and Emmie’s slicing the bread." He leaned over to whisper in Aya’s left ear. "Just don’t mention the word ‘dishes’ to either of them right now, since I guess lunch was really busy today." To Aya’s surprise and delight, his lover gave his ear a quick lick.

That action made him feel a lot better, but Yohji did not follow it with any tugs on eartails or attempts at groping. Aya was left with the feeling that all was not quite forgiven and did not know how to handle a fight that had gone past them sleeping and waking up the next ‘day’. Should he apologize again? Was he even really the one at fault? Would Jo or the others have an idea what was wrong and how to fix it?

He stared at Jo when she brought him a plate of food and chided him to drink his tea, and he did not think that it would be a good idea to discuss the fight with her. She usually took his side, much to Yohji’s chagrin, and… and he did not know how he’d go about fixing things if she became upset with him as well. Maybe he could talk to Cassandra if she showed up later, or better yet, Reno. His friend seemed to manage getting out of a lot of arguments with Rufus and must have some idea of how to make things better.

As much fun as it had been to race through the city last night, Reno egging him on and the shinigami crying out in joy, it was not worth it if Yohji was upset with him. He wished that he had stopped the race right away and returned to the inn, despite the fact that he felt so much better having fed last night. Yet all that energy did not make him happy if he could not share it with his lover.

He was so unsettled by Yohji’s actions and his own feelings, he could only stare at the sandwiches and hold his mostly full mug between his hands. Sooner or later Jo would finish basting the beef and realize that he was not eating, but he just was not hungry right now. Maybe he should go back to the bedroom or the library and leave Yohji in peace.

Just as he got ready to leave, Yohji snaked an arm around his waist and gave him a quick squeeze. "Eat something, Cat. I know you’re not as hungry as before, but it’s not good if you skip a meal." This time, there was some concern mixed with the love that Aya sensed, although there still remained the bitter sting of disappointment.

"I’m not really hungry," he said, much more interested in Yohji looking at him and touching him.

His mate sighed and urged Aya to lift the mug to his lips. "I know the feeling." When Aya glanced away in pain, his ear was given another lick. "Look… I need a little time, all right?" Yohji whispered, his arm tightening around Aya’s waist. "I think we both need a little time to think about a few things, but it doesn’t mean I don’t love you with all my heart. It’s just something that we need to figure out like we did the compromise of not over-protecting each other, okay?"

"Okay." Aya turned on the bench to nuzzle Yohji’s jaw, still not very happy over the situation – not to mention very confused as to why exactly there *was* a situation – but at least Yohji still loved him. He just needed to figure out what it was that he had done wrong and fix it.

"Good, now eat." Yohji did a very accurate impression of Jo until Aya swallowed some tea and took a bite out of one of the sandwiches. "Then you can help me peel all these apples."

Aya would much rather go back to their bedroom and have sex, but would settle for peeling apples if it made his lover happy. Chewing on the delicious sandwich, he fervently hoped that Reno would have some sort of clue about what was wrong and how to make things better, because he was at an utter loss.

*******

Quatre did his best to stifle a yawn as he looked around the small ballroom he had reserved for that evening’s party. The room was full of people dressed in fine clothes, busy talking, drinking and eating as they moved about socializing. Some of Esset’s most powerful bounds were present tonight, some of them loyal to the Elders and some not.

The problem was telling the two apart, other than the people who had sworn themselves to Quatre and Crawford as loyal to their cause. Munching on a spring roll, Quatre surveyed the room and hoped to clarify the indecision on at least one person tonight.

Alexis stood halfway across the room, a large goblet in her right hand that was filled with a thick, dark red liquid that had to be at least half blood. She seemed to be enjoying her conversation with Wufei, Karen and Yasuhisa, a slight smile on her lips and her posture relaxed. Quatre must have been staring at her for too long because she turned to face him and lifted the goblet as if in a salute.

Well, if he’d been caught staring then he might as well go over and talk to her, rather than lurk around the outskirts of the party. Stopping by one of the refreshment tables to get a new glass of wine and a plate filled with the spring rolls that his lover adored, he made his way to the small group, pausing here or there to make sure that the rest of his guests were enjoying themselves. As much as these gatherings secretly bored him and increased the frustration he felt over doing ‘foolish’ things before the war, he knew that they were of some benefit. At the least, they kept everyone who shouldn’t know any better thinking of him as a foppish young lord, and they also proved excellent opportunities to gather information. He just hoped that this party was of some success on the latter front tonight.

"Are you all right?" he asked Wufei as he sidled next to his lover, the plate held high in offering. "It’s been a couple of hours and we haven’t run out of the spring rolls yet."

As predicted, Wufei produced a faint growl and snatched away the plate – careful not to spill any of its contents. "That’s because I’ve been busy talking. Isn’t that what one’s supposed to do at these things?" He had been trying to end the conversation for the last ten minutes so he could go get something to eat, and sent thanks to Quatre for the snacks even as he continued to glare.

<Don’t worry, I had them make extra tonight since you’re here,> he assured his lover, smiling at the way Wufei’s lips almost twitched into a pleased smile and ruined the grumpy image the earth elemental had cultivated all night.

<I’m giving you one more hour then I’m leaving with the rolls for some peace and quiet.>

<I’ll be sorely tempted to leave with you,> Quatre sent back as he leaned against his lover for a quick moment. "So, am I missing out on any wonderful gossip?" He smiled widely and batted his eyes, prompting Karen and Yasuhisa to laugh.

"To think that I was just telling myself that I need to ask you to teach me that innocent expression of yours." Yasuhisa laughed again, his cheeks slightly flushed as if he had had too much to drink – which was not the case. While not as strong an earth elemental bound as Wufei or Kimbei, his specialty lay in healing. Before he had been forced to Berin, he had served as a priest to Okuni-nushi, and had confided in Quatre that he merely waited for the war to be over so he could return to his temple and resume healing those in need. His priest’s mindset was evident in the plain and simply dyed clothes he wore and the way his black hair was cut short. While he may play the lecher and drunk, it was far from the truth.

Beside him, Karen could not appear any more different than the short man, especially since she towered over him by half a head. A head covered by long, impossibly curly brown hair that had been hennaed into a brilliant red color. Her silk outfit was just as bright and almost indecent with its lack of coverage. "Yasu, you couldn’t manage innocent if you practiced it for centuries," she chided, only to let out a high-pitched giggle when Yasuhisa pinched her bottom. "You old pervert."

"I’m only playing up my strengths, it seems," he shot back, and both bounds laughed at the old joke. They’d been friends for decades so Karen never minded Yasu acting out his perverted behavior on her.

"If the two of you are going to act like that, find another party for your show," Wufei sniffed, half of the spring rolls now gone. He was even hungrier than usual since he had been strengthening wards around his and Quatre’s quarters lately.

Karen followed Quatre’s act of batting her eyes and smiling. "Hmm, it must be tiring to be such a righteous man, General. In fact-" Her bright smile wilted a little and she clearly lost her train of thought as she stared in the direction of the room’s main door. "Your parties must be gaining in stature, Quatre," she said, the faint roughness in her voice belied by that smile growing stronger.

Quatre was not the only one turning to look at the door, and he had to raise his wine glass and sniff its contents once he recognized the two men who’d just entered, standing out among the crowd with the way the shorter man’s long blond hair turned brown at its ends, and with how tall and broad-shouldered his companion was. "Wufei, I suggest that if you want anything else to eat tonight from the buffet tables that you get it now."

Speaking for the first time since Quatre had joined the group, Alexis moved to stand beside him, the full skirts of her dark blue dress brushing against his leg. "I assume that Gou and Gai aren’t regular attendees at your parties, Lord Quatre?"

"They’re not regular attendees at anyone’s parties as far as I know," he murmured, using his talent as insidiously as possible to find out why the bounds were at his party. They were powerful enough that they never had to worry about invites, but they usually kept to themselves… ever since two years ago. Of course, both men were strong enough that it would not be easy picking up anything other than their surface thoughts.

"Ah, then I see it’s my chance to spread some gossip tonight." Alexis paused to sip more of her drink before she nodded to Quatre, her left hand twisting about the large golden topaz she wore on her necklace for a moment. "The Elders held an audience today with the most powerful wind, water and fire elementals in the palace."

That was nothing that Quatre did not know, but he bestowed upon the woman an encouraging smile. "My understanding was that they wished to discuss the situation with the weather." More exactly, with how best to use the weather to damage Kritiker while assuring that Esset had enough water, something that was slowly becoming a concern across the countryside. He did not say that, however, since there was only so much a foppish young lord should know, even if he was the most powerful soul gaki bound in Berin at the moment. Well, other than Thought, who clung to that title with desperation even if it was no longer true.

Alexis bowed her head slightly. "Yes, the weather." Her tongue flicked out to wet her lips, its tip pointed and dark red. "I assume what isn’t common knowledge yet is Shin asked to speak to the Elders in private and raised his concerns over the lack of adequate underground reservoirs."

Quatre was not the only one shocked by that bit of news – not that the Elders were draining the country dry in their attempt to flood Kritiker, but that Shin had spoken up. Even if the quiet man was second only to Trowa in strength, he had always done whatever the Elders had asked of him with little spoken complaint.

Using his talent, Quatre skimmed Alexis’ surface thoughts, not wanting to ask aloud what the Elders had done in response. Despite her strength and impressive mental shields, he could easily pick up that the Elders had not been pleased and had demanded that Shin provide enough water for the crops that kept the palace’s inhabitants well-fed.

"Then I’ll bet my favorite emerald necklace that Gou’s here tonight to make sure no one suspects him or the others of truly opposing the Elders," Karen said, her voice pitched low to not carry very far. "Probably doesn’t want to be confined to his quarters again for several months."

Yasuhisa nudged the fire elemental bound in the side as his gaze flickered in Alexis’ direction. "Perhaps Gai managed to talk him into coming to the party so they could enjoy some good food." He glanced at the newcomers, as did Quatre and the others. One could not tell from Gai’s energetic behavior that anything was wrong, but Gou’s smile appeared forced, his mis-matched colored eyes hooded as if he was worried.

"Perhaps," Quatre replied before sipping his wine. All he could pick up from either of the bounds’ thoughts was concern for Shin being forced to push his talent too far – everything else was too tightly shielded to be read. Considering that Gai was not known for the best mental shields around, the earth elemental bound had to truly be worried over what had happened today.

<Before you even ask, I can’t read their thoughts very well,> Quatre sent to his lover. <However, that may change if Gai has enough to drink.>

Wufei handed his empty plate to a passing servant and ordered the man to return with it full of more spring rolls. <Shin and his cousins have always followed orders, even ones that have caused them great harm. For any of them to disagree now, and Shin at that…. It’s an important sign.>

<Yes, it is.> One they could not discuss while surrounded by so many people, even if Quatre was certain none of them could overhear his and Wufei’s thoughts. All it took was one slip and too many lives would be endangered, and they could wait to talk about how the Elders’ tightening, almost obsessive control over their ‘followers’ was sowing the dissent that they desperately needed to weaken Esset’s army. He shared a fleeting yet significant look with the man he loved and swore to pay more attention to Shin and his cousins in the future. They were the ones mostly responsible for controlling Esset’s weather, and if there finally was an excuse to pry them from the Elders’ side, then it had to be snatched.

"Yuda will be delighted to know that Shin is standing on his own at last," Alexis said, uttering a name that was rarely heard anymore in Berin. Karen giggled in response while Yasuhisa searched around the room to see if Tan Xi was present. Quatre barely resisted doing the same thing, choosing to focus on his mysterious guest instead.

"Shouldn’t the man in question be ‘rolling on his pyre’ over this latest news?" he asked, a polite grin on his face as he referred to the story that the Elders had told everyone almost two years ago.

Alexis sighed and slowly spun the goblet between her hands. "Ah yes, I keep forgetting that part, don’t I?" Her dark eyes took on a faraway look and her lips curved in a sad smile. "He was so handsome that I don’t think it was only his power that drew people to him. I wasn’t the only one saddened by his departure, I’m sure." Then her demeanor changed, the smile becoming as mysterious as herself. "There seems to be quite the exodus of people leaving Berin lately, which I suppose we must get used to with the approaching war. I was quite surprised when Crawford and his team left, taking with them three of the Elders’ best." She raised her glass in Quatre and Wufei’s direction.

"As you said, it’s to be expected when the war is only a couple of years away." Wufei did not bother to pretend to be bored any longer, his attention clearly focused on the flesh gaki bound. "I’m sure many more will be leaving in the coming months, as well as new people arriving."

"Hmm, yes." Alexis drained the last of her drink and held the empty goblet cradled against her chest with her right hand. "Though I must admit, I shed no tears when the Elders sent Grega and her lover to Eto a few weeks ago. She thinks herself stronger than she truly is and causes me so many headaches." Her lips parted just enough to show the white gleam of sharp teeth. "Perhaps if she’s less than successful at her endeavor, the Elders will finally let me tear out her throat." The words were almost incongruous coming from such a petite and pretty woman’s mouth, until one thought about those teeth and what had been mixed with the red wine in that goblet.

Quatre had known many flesh gaki bounds since childhood, so the happiness that radiated from Alexis at the thought of removing an annoying and unworthy rival was not what shocked him almost speechless. No, it was the information that he had been trying to unearth for the last couple of weeks handed over to him so easily that rendered him momentarily mute, along with the clear thought from Alexis that she knew what she was doing by revealing the identity of the two agents.

"Or perhaps she’ll run into Jei and he’ll have the honors of doing just that," she continued while staring directly at Quatre. "His temper is much shorter than mine, after all, and he suffers no fools. I pride myself on not being one as part of the reason why he and I get along rather well for our kind."

"I would never mistake you for a fool," Quatre replied, doing his best to recover his composure before someone who could not be trusted noticed. He managed a smile and bowed slightly to Alexis. "That and I’m sure Jei has enough sense to not challenge a worthy adversary such as you without just cause." He also put his talent to use to make sure that only he, Wufei, Karen and Yasuhisa were aware of this conversation.

Alexis shrugged and tapped her fingers against the goblet. "He has a slight edge in both physical strength and power over me, but I’ve never felt the need to challenge him. I’ve long been aware that I’d not only be taking on him but his friends as well, and such interesting friends they are."

She performed a perfect curtsy, her skirts spread wide against the floor for several seconds. "Lord Quatre and General Wufei, I thank you for your generosity in the lovely invites I’ve received lately. Your parties are always interesting and usually free of the mindlessness that has plagued many others that I’ve attended. However, I’ve a low tolerance for the things, even good ones, and there are more important things to do." Standing straight, she looked Quatre directly in the eye, a potentially challenging move yet that was not the impression he got from her at the moment. "I’m sure you’ll agree with me, and I hope that my idle ‘gossip’ can in some way help repay your fine hospitality."

"And if it doesn’t?" Wufei asked, ever one to push the boundaries and unveil a person’s true motives. Quatre was about to hit him over the head with his plate for that, but the sound of Alexis’ soft laughter stopped him in time.

"My instincts tell me that it does, General." She nodded once and smiled, her teeth bared in amusement and not threat. "However, if it has no value then I apologize and believe it would be best to part ways. If it does… then may I suggest that invites of a more intimate nature would be greatly welcomed." She looked around the room. "There’s much one can’t discuss while worried over how others will hear it and twist things about."

Yes, and most certainly if what was being twisted about was outright insubordination to start with, Quatre thought with an amused grin. "I fear I must give the brave General a day or two to recover from suffering through yet another of my parties, but you shall have that invite, my lady." He bowed low before Alexis, more than willing to take her offer at face value since he could feel her emotions and the huge surge of relief when she realized that she had not guessed wrong and damned herself. She truly was brave to take such a risk, which was a trait they desperately needed in the near future.

"Good night, then." Alexis nodded to Karen and Yasuhisa, who had wisely fallen silent during the discussion so as to leave matters in Quatre’s hands. The answering smiles they gave her were very warm and they bid her a good night in return.

"Well then, I believe I should go challenge young Gai to see who can hold his liquor better," Yasuhisa said after the few moments of silence that followed Alexis’ departure. "That should be just the thing to liven up this party."

"I suppose I could control myself long enough to talk to Gou about a few things that might concern us fire elemental bounds," Karen grumbled, looking very put upon for a few seconds. "I just hate a man who’s too busy glaring at me to notice my cleavage – especially when he’s that good-looking."

"And what a fine cleavage it is." Yasuhisa began to wax poetic at Karen’s rather exposed breasts as they left Quatre and Wufei, their smiling demeanors masking the seriousness they felt and the hope of finding out what really was going on with the other bounds. Quatre wished he could spend the entire evening in their presence, both for amusement’s sake and the fact that they were two people he could trust, but that could raise unwanted suspicions and he had other guests to talk to.

Wufei sniffed loudly and waved his empty plate in Quatre’s direction. "It seems they’ve run out of spring rolls after all, thanks to the arrival of a gluttonous child." He glared across the room at Gai for several seconds before returning that look to Quatre. "Need I even mention my extreme displeasure at this moment?"

Doing his best to appear properly somber at angering the feared General Wufei, Quatre managed not to smile as he bowed his head. "I hope another basket of your favorite tea will help appease your justifiable anger at me."

"I suppose," Wufei replied with a heavy sigh. "At least if there’s no more proper nourishment to be found here, I can leave." <How long will it take you to find out who Grega’s partner is?> he sent as he made a show of handing the empty plate to the first server who walked past.

<Only a few hours. I’d call for Gong Li then, but it would be best to wait until morning, I suppose.> Quatre hated to waste any time, but it would be for the best. No one would suspect anything at him sending yet another gift to his temperamental lover, and the excuse of running out to buy the expensive tea would allow Gong Li the privacy to contact her brother. Crawford had waited this long for the information, he could wait a few more hours. As it was, all Quatre would be able to give him would be names and mental images unless he uncovered more than he hoped tonight. Considering his luck so far, he was not going to hope for too much and offend the gods with his greediness.

"I shall do my best to not be such a failure at the next party. I’m sure you’ll be able to attend that one." He smiled brightly at his lover, whose answering groan of unhappiness was not much of an act. <I’ll see you as soon as I can get rid of my guests.>

<Give them another hour and a few more crates of wine and they won’t care if you’re here or not.> Wufei trailed his fingers along Quatre’s left arm as he walked past, the caress a promise for later that evening.

<It’ll be over soon enough.> Quatre watched Wufei leave, longing for the day when they did not have to waste their time together like this, before he shook his head and went off in search of another discussion and hopefully some more valuable information.

*******

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