Bindings

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chapter six

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visions and manipulations

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Crawford lay in his bed, his eyes closed and his hands folded over his chest. The scent of tea emanated from the nightstand, where half a pot of one of Cassandra’s special blends sat in case he needed to drink more. The cleverly blended herbs helped to put his mind in an attentive yet calm state, something that he needed when he was doing his best to summon a vision. This was something that did not always work for precogs, no matter how powerful they might be, but he had a *feeling* that he would see a glimpse of the future soon enough - the tips of his fingers tingled slightly and there was a faint buzzing in his ears.

He had spent the past hour lying on the bed, the apartment quiet since Jei had left him in peace and gone out searching for the agents. At least Xao Li had given them the names, images and tentative backgrounds this morning. Concentrating on that information, he did his best to suppress any emotions that might interfere with his talent.

Grega was a flesh gaki bound who had forsaken her first name and taken on her family name in its place to show her contempt at the parents who had disowned her after her true nature surfaced. She was pretty, as most bounds were, but nothing exceptional with her dark eyes and hair and golden skin. From what Quatre had discovered for him, he knew that she was about mid-level as flesh gaki bounds ranked themselves, known more for her savagery than any remarkable intelligence. She was a very good choice to blend into a city full of humans, nothing that would stand out too much and possessing just enough personality foibles to be overlooked as an uncaring killer.

Her partner, however, would attract more attention than her if he was not a soul gaki bound powerful enough to ensure that no one unwanted noticed him. Even then, Dillon’s height, muscular build and broad shoulders would give a person the impression that he was one of the many laborers who came to the city to either work or sell their wares. Again, the man was nothing exceptional in either talent or appearance; he was smart enough to follow orders yet not powerful enough to think to betray the Elders. He doted on Grega, as she did on him, which provided the bounds with a link strong enough to make sure her nature never got the best of her at an inopportune time.

Crawford now knew about their looks, natures and personalities, and had passed this information on to the Shadow Guard. Unfortunately, there was little guarantee that the agents had not altered their appearances by various means after leaving Berin. Even with powerful soul gaki bounds such as Schuldig, Eri and Yonekuni looking for them, they would be very difficult to find.

This left Crawford hoping for some sort of revelation that would assist in the bounds’ capture, hopefully before there were any new murders. It had almost been a week since the last death, and he was willing to bet that they would establish some sort of pattern before breaking it in a ruthless and bloodthirsty manner to affect Eto’s disturbed citizens even more than the already gruesome murders did. The first murder had been considered a fluke, a sailor with a shady past killed in an area of town known for its crime rate. The second murder, however, had been pure inspiration on the agents’ parts since people were horrified over a young, hardworking woman being killed while surrounded by so many potential witnesses who claimed to have never heard a thing.

Birman’s employees had done too good of a job spreading the rumor about a wizard’s creation being behind the murders, while Botan had put to good use the opportunity to arrest some of his less law-abiding fellow wizards. News that the victim had possessed a fake charm at the time of her death had only fed into those rumors, as did several public arrests of wizards charged with selling fake or faulty charms.

While Crawford was all for anything that would hurt the type of wizard who would use bound blood in their spells, he had to admit that such actions were already altering the future. The one vision he had had in the last couple of weeks had focused on a possible wizards’ revolt a few years from now if the murders continued for too long. That was what had convinced him that he needed to have Yohji and Aya step back from the investigation.

They had done as he had asked, so now that they were less involved in searching for the agents and he knew who the agents were, why would his stubborn power not show him the answers that he desperately needed before things got even more out of control? Things could turn out so badly that he would even accept it if the vision revealed itself to Cassandra, no matter how much that would gall him.

Just when he was about to pour himself more tea, the familiar and much sought-after sense of disorientation made it seem as if the bed was spinning slightly. Clearing his mind as calmly and quickly as he could manage, he opened himself up to the vision.

It was not as clear as he would have liked it to be, doubtlessly because of Aya and Yohji’s lingering presence in the investigation. However, it was enough for him to make out the important details, such as the color and pattern of the street’s cobblestones and the positions and fullness of the moons in the sky above.

Then his attention was snared by the amount of blood spilled onto the cobblestones, vivid flashes of crimson over stone that left him confused before he realized that there would be more than one body left this time in at least two different locations. The first, if the order of the visions were correct, would be a well dressed man, probably expecting to be left alone because of his obvious wealth and authority. Then there would be… Crawford refused to let himself be affected by the sight of a woman’s body surrounded by that of two very young children, one of them an infant. It was not who had been killed that bothered him so much as knowledge of how people would react to the news of the crime once they heard it. Oh yes, few things pulled humans together like an assault against their children, and he had the suspicion that for the family to have been murdered outside like that, that they had been coerced from their house. When people learned that they were not even safe inside of their homes, they would become blood-thirsty for the monsters behind the murders.

Fixing the necessary information into his memory, he let the rest of the vision rush through him, carefully noting the possibility of bounds being blamed for the deaths even now and how weakened Kritiker could become if its citizens lost faith in the Guard and their king. Once the images stopped and he felt in control of himself again, he let out a slow breath and focused for several minutes on what he had learned before moving.

Slowly sitting up in bed, he reached for the copper bracelet that allowed him to communicate with the Shadow Guard and Birman so he could send her and Yuushi a message to meet him at the Koneko in a few hours. That should give him enough time to recover and for most of the inn’s patrons to go home, allowing them some quiet and privacy.

His stomach rumbled as he tapped the message, so he spared the thought of Jo’s cooking to appease his growing appetite. Visions took a lot out of him, and he would need to be surrounded by the emotions of others to ensure that both hungers were satiated. Feasting on succulently cooked pork and the pleased, slightly inebriated emotions of the Koneko’s patrons was much more preferred than having to hunt down live prey. Although… considering how much trouble and inconvenience the agents had caused him in the last few weeks, he would be willing to make an exception and join Jei on a hunt. If he could risk the Elders finding out about his growing betrayals, he would assist in apprehending the enemy bounds, but settled for the absolute knowledge that they would be captured soon enough. Jei could take a bite or two out of the agents for him.

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Aya woke to pleasure, the emotion bubbling up inside of him with each stroke of his mate’s calloused palm along his cock, each lick and kiss to the back of his neck. His eyes fluttered open as he moaned, the needy sound rumbling in the back of his throat. Yohji’s teeth grazed along the back of his neck, Yohji’s cock rubbed between the cleft of his ass and it all felt so incredible. After a fitful sleep where he had been tormented by dreams of Yohji leaving him, this helped to assuage his fears.

Yet this contact, as pleasurable as it was, was not all that he needed. "Yotan… want you in me," he moaned, aching to feel Yohji deep inside of him, their bodies connected in such an intimate way. However, all Yohji did was growl softly and increase the pace of the strokes along Aya’s cock, his teeth biting deeper into Aya’s neck.

Aya wanted to argue, wanted turn around and kiss his mate, but the ecstasy he felt suddenly spiked, growing so powerful that his body gave in to it, his orgasm catching him by surprise and leaving him temporarily witless. The echoing rush of potent emotion meant that Yohji had come, too, but by the time that he was able to move again, Yohji was already off the bed.

"Yotan." Forcing his body to sit up, Aya wrinkled his nose in distaste and used the already soiled sheet to wipe his stomach clean. "Are you in a hurry?" he asked as his mate filled the wash basin with water and quickly wiped himself clean. This was so unlike Yohji, who always held him close after sex and usually tried for another round. Aya’s eyes narrowed as he stared at his lover, his heart sinking when he felt that disconcerting sense of disappointment and unhappiness over their link.

Yohji paused in washing himself to cross over to the bed and give Aya a kiss to the tip of his nose. "Yeah. I’m sorry, Cat, but I promised to help Mickey with the wine delivery today, and he even asked the guys not to bring it until this afternoon so I’d be awake." He smiled at Aya, the expression tinged with a hint of sadness, and went back to finish cleaning up.

As excuses went, it was a good one, but Yohji was still acting very distant toward Aya, the same that he had been for most of yesterday. This had been the first time they had had any type of sex since Aya’s ‘fun’ with Reno, and he had been hoping that once his mate had fed from him, things would be back to normal. Yohji could not go without properly feeding for long, and even now Aya could feel some hunger, but the stubborn fool had chosen a way to get some ‘sunlight’ that was mostly unfulfilling, in Aya’s opinion. And now they could not talk about what was wrong since Mickey was probably downstairs waiting for Yohji.

Aya remained on the bed and watched the man he loved get ready. When Yohji was done combing his hair and about to head for the door, he cleared his throat and risked making his mate even more upset with him. "Ah, I have a few books that I need to return to the Royal Library."

Yohji paused and glanced at the mostly curtained window, through which a cloudy sky could be seen. "I guess you can’t wait until sundown to leave, but be careful out there, okay?" He looked at Aya, love and concern flowing over their link and helping to put Aya at ease.

"I’ll wear a cloak." Gathering his courage, Aya spoke again before Yohji reached the door. "Since it’s not too far from the Royal Library, I thought I’d stop by Rufus’ house and check on Reno." His back stiffened when he felt how upset that plan made Yohji. "No one will see me, and I’ll only talk to him for a few minutes." Anger slowly built in him; he was an adult and should be able to see his friends whenever he wanted without Yohji punishing him like this.

Yohji swore under his breath and dragged his fingers through his neatly combed hair, causing disarray to the blond strands. "Be careful," he repeated, his angry expression softening as he stared at Aya. "You’re worried about him, aren’t you?"

"Yes." Aya offered his lover a tremulous smile. "I’m not trying to have any more ‘fun’ or cause trouble, Yotan, but from what you’ve said, Rufus is furious with him and the shinigami are upset." All they would tell him was that Reno’s ‘golden one’ was being a proper bastard and that Reno was unhappy. "I won’t be long." He did not mention that if he left now, his return should be well before the Esset agents were out looking for a new victim.

Turning away from the door, Yohji once again crossed to the bed, this time grabbing Aya by the shoulders and pulling him into a breath-stealing, passionate kiss. He had hopes that it would soon lead to more, but as he tried to tug his mate onto the bed, there was a loud banging on the door.

"Yohji! The wine’s almost all unloaded."

"Dammit, Mick, you have awful timing!" Yohji shouted as he pulled away. At least there was a smile on his face as he yanked on one of Aya’s eartails. "You better wear your cloak or I’ll sic Jo on you."

"I will." Aya batted his mate’s hand aside and waited for Yohji to leave the room before getting out of bed. He debated soaking in one of the tubs on this floor, but decided he could get by with using the wash basin for now. Maybe he would come back with a suggestion that would lead to a great excuse to soak in the hot spring for a while tonight.

Once he was clean, teeth brushed and the faint stubble on the edge of his chin scraped off, he got dressed and headed downstairs. He was wearing a colorful – for him – tunic, its plum shade another attempt at appeasing Yohji. Jo gave him a long look when he entered the kitchen, and he held up the stack of books as an excuse to merely have a quick swallow of tea and several pasties wrapped in a thin cloth that he could eat on the way to the Royal Library.

"You’ll be eating a proper meal when you get back," she warned as she handed over the pasties. "I know it can be hard on a body to stay up all night when you’re not used to it."

"Yohji should be done with the wine by then and we can have dinner together," he replied, unwilling to tell her that he did not feel quite so hungry anymore since he had feasted on the energy of two men’s deaths the night before last and was not being drained by Yohji very much. She had been paying the two of them a lot of attention since the other night, so most likely she realized something was wrong between them. Either she had decided to give them some time to work things out or was waiting until later for some answers; he did not care as long as he could make his escape before the interrogation started.

He was wearing his cloak when he ran across Yohji, the pasties tucked into its inner pocket and the hood pulled over his face. Of course Yohji tugged the hood forward even more, but he followed the action with a quick kiss so Aya did little more than grumble about how he was not a child before going on his way.

Since it was a cool spring day, he was not the only one wearing a lightweight cloak as he went about his errands, and several people were even wearing rain slickers as they stared at the cloud-filled sky. Aya was not sure how much longer Trowa could hold off the rain, a fact that made him grateful that he would not be out searching the city anytime soon. It was bad enough to be away from his comfortable bedroom, but to be out in the rain for hours at a time just added to the general misery of hunting for people who were too good at hiding.

Thoughts of the agents and when they would kill again occupied him during the long walk to the Royal Library, which was a welcome relief from worrying about Yohji. He could have taken a carriage, but he was used to the walk and needed something to do to burn off some nervous energy. It was not until he was halfway there that his stomach felt settled enough to eat the delicious pasties.

Since Ed was not working this afternoon, Aya merely returned the books and went on his way, cloaked in shadows so no one saw him. The Royal Library was centered close to the middle of the city, not far from the palace which was its true heart. There were mainly shops and restaurants in the Eastern and Western quarters around the center, more expensive than what could be found farther from the palace, while the Northern quarter held many fine homes that belonged to the richer merchants and artists. They were obviously trying to echo the fine mansions of the Southern district, which was where he headed in search of Rufus’ family home. He had never been to the mansion before, but Kikyou usually found some excuse or another to bring him to this area and he knew the heraldry that belonged to Rufus’ mother’s family. It did not take him too long to find the gate that bore the sigil of a five petal, white and gold lily on a shield of light blue marked with seven stars.

Of course the guard stationed at the closed gate was no problem for Aya, who easily climbed the fence and approached the house. The shinigami had joined him along the way and tugged on his cloak to make him go not to the mansion’s front door but off to the side and around the back. He passed many gardens along the way, some flowers just starting to bloom and all the bushes and trees neatly trimmed.

<The golden one has ordered him to stay,> one of the shinigami hissed, fury evident in its wispy voice.

<One of us, forced to accept orders! We are to go wherever we please, even the gods agree!> complained another one, sounding more upset than angry.

<Flesh leads to bindings, young one. Shed it and nothing can harm you again, can trap you against your will.>

But as Reno had said the other night, Aya was not quite ready to shed his flesh just yet. If Yohji did not want anything more to do with him, then it would be a different story. Until then he would cling to his body and the joy and pleasure it could bring him.

He had to climb another fence, this one made of weathered cedar planks with intricate lattice-work carved along the top. Once on the ground, he found himself in another garden, this one filled predominately with rose bushes, cherry and camellia trees. It was clear that the garden was meant to be a private one, entered only through a gate that was mostly hidden along the far side or from the terrace of what probably was the mansion’s master bedroom. In the middle of the lushly filled space was a koi pond twice the size of the Koneko’s, large enough that there was a cedar planked bridge across it.

Lying on the bridge was Reno, dressed in grey pants and a blue shirt, his long hair falling into the water as he trailed the fingers of his left hand along its surface. At first Aya wondered if the man was too distracted to notice him, then his friend raised his right hand and waved, attention focused on the pond. Or rather, Aya realized when he drew closer, the fish that swum inside of it.

They were a very colorful lot, almost all of them the much sought after tri-colors save for a couple of albinos. Aya sat next to his friend and leaned forward to better examine the fish. "They’re lovely."

"Yeah, I like ‘em." Reno dipped his fingers deeper into the water, the fish rushing forward to brush against them, lips moving as if hoping to be fed. "Rufus says they’re getting too damn big because I keep feeding ‘em, but they’re fun to watch." His eyes narrowed and sparks flew to hit a predominately gold koi with coin-sized red and white spots. "Though that one’s a greedy bugger."

"Ah." Aya was not quite sure what to say, having never suspected Reno of enjoying such a… quiet hobby. Yet it was very soothing to sit in such a lovely – and shaded – garden and watch the fish swim about in the lily-festooned pond. There were various charmed globes of light scattered about that produced a bewitching effect and made the lighter-colored scales of the fish glow in the dark water. "So, you’re still alive, I see."

Reno snorted and sat up, grimacing as he wrung out his hair, his feet settling in the water and immediately being swarmed by the fish. "Apparently, death would be too good for me." He rolled his eyes and flipped back the wet strands, a grim smile appearing on his face. "Other than Rufus being affected by it, too, I mean. No, the bastard managed to sneak a coercion on me that keeps me from leaving the house’s grounds, and Tseng’s planned daily sparring sessions with me so I don’t grow too bored." He sighed then, the sound one of long-suffering.

No wonder the shinigami were not pleased with the situation, Aya thought as he searched for the cloth that had been wrapped around the pasties and shook it out over the pond so the fish could snack on the leftover crust. "I’m sorry," he said in a very quiet voice, well aware of how much the punishment must be bothering Reno.

His friend shrugged and leaned forward for a moment to zap the ‘greedy bugger’ again. "Eh, I still had a lot of fun that night, and it means I won’t be stuck standing around in the sun anytime soon." He smiled at Aya, the expression slipping away when Aya could not smile back. "Oh hell, don’t tell me that you’re in trouble, too."

"I’m afraid so." Moving slowly, Aya shifted to the side until his shoulder brushed against Reno’s, needing some sort of comfort. "It’s not as if Yohji’s furious or anything, it’s just…."

"What, giving you the silent treatment? Making sure everyone else is pissed off with you? Hiding the damn alcohol?" Reno asked, his voice growing angrier by the moment. "What the fuck did we do so wrong, eh?" His left hand smacked into the wooden bridge and made it shake.

<Leave them, young ones. Shed the flesh and leave them behind.>

"Don’t tempt me right now," Reno muttered as he nudged Aya in the side. "Oi, want me to beat some sense into him? You’ll have to bring him here for me to do it within the next two weeks, but I’m sure I can take Yohji down."

Aya’s lips twitched as he accepted the ‘good’ intentions behind the threat against his mate. "No, I’m perfectly capable of taking him down on my own, thanks." His pleasant mood vanished as he thought back to waking up. "He’s not being mean or anything, or telling the others about what happened, he’s just… there’s this distance between us."

"He’s ignoring you, then?"

"Not quite." Aya frowned and struggled to find the right words. "He talks to me, but there’s this distance and a sense of disappointment between us. I don’t know what to do," he admitted, his chest aching as he thought about Yohji not wanting him anymore.

Reno nibbled on his bottom lip for a few seconds, appearing lost in thought. "Did you guys fight over that night at all?"

"A bit, and then I apologized." Aya was tempted to remove his boots so he could dangle his feet in the water much like Reno was doing, just so he could kick it to vent some frustration. "I don’t understand why that didn’t make things better."

"Fuck if I know, too." Reno leaned back until he lay on the bridge and looked up at the faint outlines of moons that had begun to appear in the sky. "I mean, it’s not something I usually do with Rufus because if I do it once, he’s gonna expect it every time." He hissed in anger for several seconds to show what he thought about that. "Not like I’m at fault, really, when he’s such a manipulative, controlling bastard."

"What do you do, then?" Aya asked, now having a little insight into why his friend got into so many fights with Rufus. While he had no doubt that Rufus was to blame for a lot of things, he did not understand why Reno would not try to resolve their fights as quickly as possible and save himself some annoyance and punishment. Aya had learned early on that apologizing usually got him some sort of reprieve from whoever he had angered, no matter how much it offended his pride to say those words.

Reno laughed and tugged on the back of Aya’s cloak. "I let him fuck me, the same advice that I’ll give to you." The grin on his face was very pleased and a touch evil. "Let Yohji fuck you, Aya, and that’ll make things better. Bare your throat, claw his back, scream his name a lot and he’ll be feeling much too smug afterwards to care about the fight any longer. Make it a rough fuck or do it a few times and you can even wring a little sympathy out of how he manhandled you and turn the tables a bit. That works for me almost all the time."

That bit of advice was not what Aya wanted to hear right now. "The problem is, he hasn’t… properly fed from me since the day before yesterday," he growled, finally admitting what was bothering him the most.

Fortunately, Reno seemed to know enough about succubae bounds to know how serious that statement was. "What, no sex at all?" He stopped looking at the fish to stare in shock at Aya.

"Uhm, not really." Aya was not going to explain in detail about what had occurred upon waking. "That’s never happened before unless I was injured or low on energy." Which had not been for months, and he had gotten used to Yohji’s affectionate nature and the knowledge that they would have a couple of hours each day to lose themselves in each other.

"Hmm." Reno scratched his left temple and appeared to be thinking "You did let him know that you’re up for it, right? Maybe he thinks you’re pissed off at him?"

"He knows that’s not true," Aya said through gritted teeth, reflecting back on how his plea was ignored earlier in the day.

"Damn, then I don’t know what to say." Reno played with a strand of his hair, the smile gone from his face and replaced with a worried frown. "Does he like anything particularly kinky? Maybe you could wear a dress or just an apron or whatever tickles his fancy?"

Aya hissed and smacked Reno on the stomach. "No!" He glared at his friend, stopping himself in time from loudly proclaiming that all Yohji seemed to need was him remotely in the mood. They had played with a few things, but there was a lot that Aya could not bear doing still, something that Yohji did not seem to mind at all. Well, other than clearly missing getting a blowjob…. He shivered at that thought, not sure he could manage such a thing just to get back in Yohji’s good graces since it had required a lot from him to do it for his mate’s birthday.

"Ow! Dammit, it was just a suggestion. Why am I not surprised that Yohji’s not as much of a kinky bastard as Rufus is," Reno grumbled as he rubbed his stomach. His expression turned distant as he stared at the sky. "Sometimes I really wish there was a way to swap mates, ya know? Just to… I don’t know, just to get a break from time to time." He sounded utterly worn out and rubbed his eyes as if they were bothering him.

Aya had to look away for a few moments, wishing that he was any good at comforting people. "I’m not trading Yohji for anything." He stared at the swimming fish, the gold color of one of them reminding him of his mate’s hair.

"Eh, don’t blame you on that, even if he’s being an asshole right now." Reno sat up and kicked his feet a little, causing the fish to scatter. "Sorry I can’t be of more help."

Aya shrugged to show it did not really bother him. As much as he would like to have come up with some sort of answer to his problem, at least he knew that Reno was mostly okay and got to see his friend. "I’ll figure something out."

Reno was quiet for a minute, then burst into laughter. He reached over to yank back the hood of Aya’s cloak and smiled in the face of the glare he got in return. "So maybe my advice won’t work in this situation, but you could always turn it on its head!" When Aya stared at him in complete befuddlement, Reno gave him a lewd wink. "You do the fucking." Reno’s smile slipped a little when Aya did not immediately respond. "Eh, he does let you fuck him, right? Don’t tell me that Yohji truly is a lot like Rufus."

Aya shook his head and adjusted the hood of the cloak so it rested comfortably on his shoulders. "No, that won’t be a problem." He thought about the bit of advice for a moment. All he had been doing for the past two days was reacting to Yohji’s mood and that had gotten him nothing. Had not Yohji said they would ‘both’ work things out? Maybe his mate was unhappy because Aya did not seem to be trying to do anything other than not make him any more upset. "That just might work."

"Great!" Reno laughed some more and tossed sparks into the air, causing the fish to scatter once again. "Glad I could be of use to someone." There was more bitterness in his voice just then than there had any right to be.

Displeased over his friend’s treatment, Aya wished that there was something he could do in return, other than eviscerate Rufus with a blade made out of shadows. "I guess it’s my turn to apologize."

"Nah." Reno shrugged and caused sparks to jump back and forth between his hands. "Not like you could do any good, not when Rufus is such a stubborn asshole." He sighed and shook his head. "It’s just two weeks, and he won’t be able to do something like that to me again," he growled.

"I’ll stop by often and bring you something to eat and drink." That was all Aya knew how to do, falling back on Jo’s sure-fire remedy to cheer someone up. Thankfully, it seemed to work very well on Reno, judging from his friend’s pleased smile.

They had taken to watching the fish again, Aya in no hurry to return home when he still felt that sense of distance from his mate, and it was only a few minutes later when they heard someone walk down the marble steps from the terrace. He caught sight of Rufus minus his usual white coat and feet bare, black and white shirts partially unbuttoned and untucked from his pants, approach the pond. There was a slight smile on the soul gaki bound’s face that faded when he caught sight of Aya.

"I didn’t expect to see you here," he said as he stepped onto the wooden bridge, displeasure plain on his face and in his tone of voice.

"Yeah, well, you’re known to be such a fucking bastard that he stopped by to make sure I was still alive," Reno huffed as he stood up, body moving in a flowing motion and eyes bright silver. Aya was taken back by his friend’s vehemence, although the shinigami cheered Reno on.

Rufus went perfectly still, his blue eyes filled with an anger that made Aya gather the shadows around his right hand so he could form a weapon if need be. However, Reno’s mate surprised him by letting out a slow breath and shaking his head.

"Then he’s clearly seen that you are still among the living and lacking manners as usual." Rufus bowed slightly in Aya’s direction. "Are you joining us for dinner?"

"No, I promised to eat at the Koneko tonight," Aya replied with a very shallow bow. Even he could tell that Rufus was not happy with his presence here, yet the man nevertheless remained courteous with a guest.

"Then I imagine you’ll accept the invitation another night."

Reno’s glare weakened as he stared at Rufus, slowly taken over by confusion. "Eh, weren’t you supposed to be having dinner with some old hag tonight?"

"It’s been rescheduled for another time." Rufus’ voice had its usual smoothness, his expression not impassive but a bland mask that gave little away. "For some reason, I thought it might be more interesting to eat at home today." He waved his right hand as if in goodbye and turned around, headed back the way he had came. Reno stared after him, his expression still confused but now a little sad as well.

Aya touched his friend on the right shoulder. "I did promise Jo that I’d eat at home tonight, and Yohji that I wouldn’t be gone for too long. I’ll be back in a couple of days."

"Okay. Save some pasties for me next time." Reno smiled over his shoulder as he went after Rufus, his eyes and seemingly his disposition back to normal. Thinking it might be best to get away from here before the mates started another fight, Aya cloaked himself in shadows once again and headed home.

Mindful of how late it had become, he ran the entire way, staying to the streets and going around any traffic he came across. Which, admittedly, was not much since most people appeared determined to be some place safe before the sun set because of the recent murders. A city the size of Eto usually had a couple of murders a month, but not quite so gruesome as the two bodies left by the agents. Add to that the rumor that a wizard and his pet monster were behind the deaths and not many people were taking unnecessary risks. Even the Koneko had seen some of its business drop off in the last few nights, its only customers the guests who were staying at the inn or regulars who lived just a few blocks away. If the murders spread to the Western quarter, business would be affected even more as no one would want to be out walking after dark.

By the time he reached the Koneko, dinner was in full swing and the staff busy seeing to the customers’ needs. Aya hung his cloak up in the kitchen and looked around for his mate, a little surprised to not find him down here waiting to eat. Failing to see Yohji, he looked for Jo, who was busy supervising Maddox as he sliced up a large pork roast.

"He’s upstairs," Jo answered without Aya even having to ask a question. "Said he wanted to change before dinner so he did not ruin anyone’s appetite."

"Thank you." Aya nodded briefly and went upstairs, his stomach unsettled by a mixture of nervousness, fear and anticipation. Yohji seemed in a better mood than earlier, although the exhaustion that Aya picked up was probably from more than just carrying around heavy kegs of wine for a couple of hours. The idiot really should know better than to skip feeding, but Aya hoped to do something about that very shortly.

He entered their room and found Yohji dressed only in a pair of pants, his hair damp as if he had run a wet comb through it. "Oh sweet gods, you went to the Royal Library and didn’t bring any books back?!" Yohji’s expression was one of utter astonishment and he clutched his hands to his chest as if to steady his heart. "Are you really Aya?"

"Idiot," Aya hissed as he approached his mate, refusing to be amused when he had something so important to do.

"Yeah, it’s you all right." Yohji smiled and reached for the clean shirt he had draped over one of the railings of the washbasin’s stand, and blinked in surprise when Aya snatched it away before he could even touch it. "Ah, is something wrong?"

"Yes." Aya tossed the shirt aside and refused to be put off by Yohji’s expression turning serious again. He stepped up close to his mate and inhaled deeply, momentarily dizzy from the wonderful, clean scent of his mate.

Gathering his courage, he wrapped his arms around Yohji’s shoulders and rocked up onto his toes for a kiss that contained all the passion, love and need the stubborn idiot made him feel. Yohji tried to pull away at first, but Aya clung on and soon he was being kissed back with the same intensity that he put into the embrace.

Yohji’s arms slid around his waist and pulled him closer the same time that his lover moved forward, forcing him to step backward in response. He was about to protest until he realized that they were headed in the direction of the bed. Allowing Yohji to take the lead, Aya waited until after they both tumbled onto the bed to make his move.

He quickly rolled over until Yohji lay stretched beneath him, hands loosely pinned to the bed by his and expression a little stunned. Before he could speak, Aya leaned forward for another kiss.

This one was not as ardent as the previous one, but a bit sweeter for all its passion. He flicked his tongue along the roof of Yohji’s mouth and pulled back a little, teeth nipping at Yohji’s bottom lip.

"Cat-"

"No, Yohji, it’s my turn to speak." He gave his lover’s wrists a faint squeeze. "I was thinking about things on the way back home tonight, on how I could make things better." He let the shadows take the place of his hands so he could sit back a little, fingers trailing along Yohji’s naked chest.

"I truly am sorry to have caused you to worry so much." When it looked as if his mate was about to speak again, Aya brushed a faint line of shadows across his lips. "I’ll admit that I don’t quite understand *why* you were so fearful for me when I’m an intelligent adult who can look after himself, but I realized that I’d be just as worried about you if you ran off with Schuldig like I did with Reno." Make that more than worried since he knew that Schuldig had once loved Yohji as more than a friend and adopted brother. Shaking his head to dispel that dark thought, he did his best to put his thoughts and emotions into words.

"I swear to you that I’ll pay more attention to those concerns in the future. I won’t promise to never do anything that will make you feel that way again, but I should have respected your concerns," he admitted, voice hushed but still heard clearly in the quiet room.

Yohji arched his back beneath Aya’s caressing fingers and hissed for a couple of seconds. "Aya, I-"

This time he covered Yohji’s mouth with a solid band of shadows, earning a glare from his mate. "I’ve something else to say." He raked his nails lightly along Yohji’s stomach. "I’ll admit to being a bit foolish and only thinking about how nice it felt to run like that, but you’re being foolish yourself." His eyes narrowed and his hands stilled. "You tell me we’re going to work on what’s wrong and then won’t talk about it, and you *know* it’s not good to ignore your hunger." Not to mention that it had really hurt Aya, the fear and uncertainty that he had done something to push Yohji away, maybe forever.

Done saying what he had wanted to say, he removed the band so Yohji could speak in return. Expecting some sort of argument, he was startled when Yohji managed to break the thin bands of shadows around his wrists and grab him to yank him forward for another kiss that was a breathtaking mix of the previous two. It started out fierce, almost ravenous, Yohji’s hunger easily felt over the link, and melted into something very tender around the time that Aya was practically left gasping. He settled on top of his lover, his hands tangled in wavy blond hair, and sighed in regret when the kiss finally ended.

The smile Yohji gave him just then was the perfect salve for the pain and uncertainty that Aya had suffered the past two days. "Okay." He combed the fingers of his right hand through Aya’s hair. "We both were idiots, okay? I should have handled things a bit better but…." His smile turned a bit sheepish. "It’s more difficult than I thought it would be, accepting your friendship with Reno. You do things with him that you’ve never done before, and I guess part of the fear I felt was that you’d rather do those things with him and not me."

"Idiot," Aya murmured as he bent down to brush his lips along Yohji’s jaw. "I told you before that while he might make me happy, you’re the one that I need and love." Maybe not in those exact words, but he remembered a similar conversation with his lover about this. He could not see how Yohji could be so jealous, when he did not feel the slightest desire for the dubhach, then reminded himself that jealousy was not a very rational emotion.

Yohji moaned and rocked his hips forward. "So, is now when we kiss and make up?" He waggled his eyebrows for added emphasis, earning a smile from Aya despite himself.

"No, now is when I follow a very wise man’s advice and fuck you," he replied, the same time he pushed his hips down so Yohji could feel his arousal.

"If that ‘wise man’ is Reno, remind me to thank him the next time I see him," Yohji groaned, giving up on playing with Aya’s hair to grab hold of his hips and pull them closer.

Deciding that there had been enough talking for the moment, Aya grunted in response and nibbled in earnest on his lover’s jaw. He let go of Yohji’s hair as well, deciding that getting rid of their clothes was more important. Yohji appeared to think the same thing since he reluctantly let go of Aya to work on the laces of Aya’s tunic.

Giving his mate’s neck a lick in promise, Aya pulled back enough to shed the garment, then shifted about to get rid of his boots, pants and underwear as well. Yohji had the gall to laugh at his antics, so Aya thought it fair to use the shadows to rid the man of his pants. The way Yohji shivered at their cool touch made the breath catch in his throat and his clothes to go sailing through the air.

Once their clothes were gone, he could not resist the urge to stroke along Yohji’s golden body, prompting his mate to groan out his name and reach for him. He did not object to anything that brought their bodies closer together and had the shadows tumble the jar of lubricant onto the bed. "So beautiful," he whispered, his right hand splayed across the bottom of Yohji’s abdomen, just above the thick patch of curly, dark gold hair.

"I’m all yours," Yohji purred, green eyes glowing in the room’s faint light with a hunger that Aya could never resist filling. "And nothing’s as beautiful as you, Cat."

Not about to listen to his mate’s romantic nonsense, Aya shook his head and leaned forward for another kiss, nipping at Yohji’s lips as he shifted to the side then unscrewed the jar’s lid. The position was a little awkward, but this way he could feel most of Yohji’s body against his own, could savor the intoxicating skill his lover had when it came to kissing and still reach between Yohji’s legs.

Catching his breath when Aya’s fingers brushed against him, Yohji tangled his fingers in the hair of Aya’s nape and pulled him even closer, legs splayed wide with an eagerness that made Aya growl in contentment. He usually preferred being the one fucked, feeling Yohji so deep inside of him and handing over all the trust that the act required, but times like these were equally savored. Now he felt in return Yohji’s trust as he did his best to return some of the wonderful, addictive pleasure that his mate made him feel. Yohji’s hunger never differed despite who was the one on ‘top’ and the powerful anticipation he felt over their link assured him that Yohji enjoyed being fucked just as much as he did.

He almost called the shadows back, but decided that *he* would be the one making the man he loved feel as good as possible. They were his hands that caressed Yohji’s body, that pushed into such lovely heat with the utmost care. No matter how much he needed moments like these or how powerful his desire, he could never rush things, could not employ the roughness that he sometimes demanded from Yohji. Even when he felt Yohji’s body relax enough around his fingers, he continued to take his time until he was almost trembling from need.


"Dammit, if you don’t fuck me now I’m gonna… dammit," Yohji snarled, breaking off the kiss to toss his head back as he complained.

"Do what?" Aya asked, attention ensnared by the erotic sight of his mate’s arched neck.

Yohji laughed, the sound weak and breathless. "Don’t know, maybe borrow Jo’s rolling pin for a use that will get me maimed for life if not outright killed." He pushed at Aya’s side, clearly trying to get him to settle between those splayed legs. "Please, I want you inside of me."

Aya had said those same words just a couple of hours ago, and unlike Yohji he could not resist their allure. "All right." He slowly removed his fingers, hissing softly when he had to pull away to get more lubricant. Yohji grumbled as well, shifting about to grab one of the bed’s spare pillows and slide it beneath his hips.

"Ready whenever you are," Yohji quipped, the devilish smile on his face a stark contrast to the roiling hunger, need and lust of his emotions. The hunger tore at Aya, making his hands shake as he applied the lube and rendering him unable to think of anything besides how good it would feel to be inside of Yohji’s body, to feel his mate’s neck beneath his mouth and the potent ecstasy rushing over their link.

"Always, for you," he whispered as he lifted Yohji’s legs to his shoulders, his fingers skimming down smooth skin and taut muscle until he reached his lover’s hips. He scooted forward, right hand moving to position himself and then it was the sensation of sinking into blissful warmth that clenched around his cock and drew it in deeper. At the same time, Yohji groaned in pleasure and urged him forward, hands wrapped tightly around his arms as if to make sure he could not pull away.

As if Aya could even think to do such a thing right now. The intense pleasure he always felt upon entering his lover’s body made his breath catch in his throat and his eyes drift closed. It felt so incredibly good that it was no wonder that Yohji wanted sex all the time, and then he was in as far as he could go, bodies pressed firmly together.

"Oh sweet gods," Yohji moaned, his neck arched once more. "Move, move, move."

Aya scraped his teeth along golden flesh, wanting to bite down but holding back for now. "Yes." His sibilant voice echoed through the room, followed by the sweat-slick sound of him shifting back and then snapping his hips forward. When Yohji cried out in pleasure, Aya reached for his mate’s cock and began to stroke it in time with his thrusts.


The hunger was too consuming to not give into it, part of him needing to sate it just as much as he needed to snap his hips back and forth. It was about more than simple, albeit amazing pleasure; it was about giving everything he had to Yohji: his love, devotion, trust and even the energy that filled his body. The sensation of it flowing over their link made him shiver in delight, the faint sense of weakness a reassurance that he was giving the man he loved something that no one else could, not anymore. While his thrusts sped up he was careful to never use too much force, refusing to let the love and ecstasy be tainted by any hint of pain.

Yohji’s fingers clawed at his ass, intent on pulling him forward as much as he could go, barely letting him shift backwards enough to thrust forward again. Aya stared at the sight before him, of Yohji’s skin glowing from a sheen of sweat, shoulder-length hair clinging to that lovely face, the gleam of emerald green from heavy-lidded eyes. That sight, the smell of his mate’s enthralling scent, the feel of wondrous heat clenching around him and drawing him back in time after time, the rush of love/pleasure/desire/hunger…. Everything blended together in an exhilarating maelstrom of ecstasy, overwhelming Aya until he could not do anything but hunch forward and fasten his mouth to Yohji’s neck.


Taste joined that whirling, intense storm of sensation, the tang of sweat and something that was uniquely Yohji, something that Aya would crave for the rest of his life. Yet it was not enough, not yet, so he sucked harder as his teeth pressed in deep. Hunched over his mate and growing almost delirious with pleasure, he bit down until the faint taste of blood filled his mouth.

"Aya!" Yohji arched his back off the bed sharply enough to jar Aya, nails biting into his flesh in return as his lover came, the orgasm searing over their link to drag Aya along as well. His lips parted as he cried out as well, too far gone in pleasure to utter anything articulate.

The taste of Yohji’s blood and sweat lingering in his mouth, he gasped for air as his body was wracked with ecstasy, the almost violent trembles lasting for several seconds before he felt enveloped in warmth and contentment. His lover felt much the same and chuckled softly as he held Aya cradled against his chest.

They lay together for what had to be several minutes, the only sound Yohji’s slight grunt when Aya’s softened cock slipped from of his body. Then the idiot had the audacity to chuckle again. "I think we should make it mandatory to fight with each other at least once a month. Hell, I’d say once a day just so I could enjoy more sex like that, but we’d be too worn out to do any work."

Annoyed that the peaceful mood had been ruined, Aya bit his mate again, this time on Yohji’s scarred shoulder. "Don’t be so stupid." He did not think he could take too many fights like this past one; he much preferred it when they yelled at each other rather than deal with that destroying sense of disappointment and hurt.

Something of his thoughts must have been reflected in his emotions since Yohji hugged him close and pressed a kiss against his forehead. "I’m sorry, Cat." He sighed into Aya’s hair and tenderly trailed his fingers down Aya’s back. "I guess I wanted you to figure out a few things for yourself. That you were so uncertain over why I was upset bothered me, as did the thought that I keep you from being what you are. So I decided to give us both some space to realize what was really wrong and just made us even more miserable, na?"

"Idiot." Aya gave Yohji’s left ribs a half-hearted smack. He almost made a comment about how he never had been in any danger and so had not really understood Yohji’s reactions, then thought it best to remain quiet. Considering all that had happened to both of them, he could see being paranoid about their hard-won happiness being snatched away by Fate or some cruel whim of the gods. "At least you didn’t try to confine me to the Koneko for two weeks."

"Yeah, so save all those ‘idiot’ comments for another blond, okay?" Yohji grumbled about how abused he was under his breath and barely avoided being smacked again. "Though I’m wondering how much trouble I’ll get into for spanking you if you keep that up."

"Hmph." Aya sat up so he was straddling his mate’s hips. "I doubt you’d survive it," he warned, managing to give Yohji a ferocious scowl until his ass was fondled in a very familiar way. "Yotan…."

"What?" Yohji gave him a completely innocent look, never mind that Aya could sense his emotions just then. "I’m just thinking that there are better things I’d like to do to your ass."

It did not require much effort on Aya’s part to figure out what, exactly, and while he was very happy that things seemed back to normal for them, he could not forget about a promise he had made earlier today. "That’ll have to wait." He leaned forward to give his lover a quick kiss. "I promised Jo that we’d eat dinner here tonight, so we’d better get downstairs-"

"Before she shows up here and drags us to the kitchen," Yohji finished for him, adding a theatrical moan at the end. "She knows that something went wrong the other night and won’t leave us alone until she’s satisfied that we’re all right." He gave Aya’s ass one more pat and then motioned for Aya to move off of him. "So let’s make it a very quick dinner since I’m still a bit ‘hungry’."

"Whose fault is that?" Aya muttered, and had to stop moving from the bed when his right eartail was grabbed and given a yank. "Stop that!"

"Why? It’s so much fun!" Yohji chuckled and managed one more yank before his hand was smacked aside. "Ouch. You’re a grouchy bastard when you’re not getting lots of sex," he said while sulking.

Going to the washbasin, Aya reminded himself of how he would feel any pain that he inflicted on his mate, other than a few not deep enough bites. "Maybe there’s something to be said for you being distant with me."

Even though he had whispered the words, Yohji heard them and gave him a bear hug from behind. "You know that’s not true." He took to nibbling on Aya’s left ear, which made it very difficult to concentrate on pouring clean water into the basin.

Aya grunted in response, not wanting to admit that Yohji was correct. Instead, he leaned back for a few seconds, reveling in the feel of his mate’s arms around him and lips against his neck. Then the image of Jo’s stern visage flickered through his mind, causing him to sigh in regret and pull away. "We need to go downstairs," he reminded Yohji as he reached for a washcloth.

Yohji echoed his sigh of regret and let him go. "We’ll get something to eat and have a soak in the hot spring after dinner. If Yuushi or Birman don’t have anything for us to do, we can spend the rest of the night up here." His lascivious smile just then left little doubt on how they would spend all that time, which made Aya grateful that he had fed the night before last. Now he should not have any problem keeping up with his lover’s hunger for the next few weeks.

Once he was clean, he fetched a new pair of underwear and pulled back on the clothes he had been wearing earlier. Reminding himself to ask Jo about some care packages for Reno, he waited for Yohji to get ready so they could leave the room together. That he could no longer sense that distance and unhappiness over their link made him smile as they headed to the kitchen.

*******

Reiichi removed the illusion charm that Botan had given him so he could mask his return to the palace; he had been known well enough while living here to raise questions about why a retired Guard was paying a visit to the Spymaster while she was busy in a meeting with the Royal Wizard and a high-ranked Guard. Crawford had worn an illusion charm as well, and had removed it once he had entered the room. "I still suspect that you have me looking like a lecherous old man who should be locked away on mere principles," he told Botan with a teasing grin.

Botan laughed, the warm sound echoing around Birman’s office and probably startling Trowa as he poured coffee for them, judging from the way the stream of hot, dark liquid bent at an unnatural angle for a couple of seconds yet did not spill onto the table. "If you like, I can make you a new charm."

"Right, then I’ll probably look like an Eastern pleasure district whore," Reiichi muttered, his smile growing when Birman looked his way and did her best not to laugh. "I’m not that hard up for money, thank you very much."

"I’d think that you’d make more by being yourself," Blair commented, the slightest of smiles on his face although his tone was downright affectionate for the reserved bound. "I hear there are always highborn ladies looking for a gentlemen with whom to while away the long nights."

"Reiichi would no doubt leave them smiling even as he took all their money." Birman could not resist laughing as she spoke, her pale face flushed with amusement and happiness. Clearly she needed to laugh more often, considering all the times she came across as stressed and over-worked lately. Reiichi accepted a mug of coffee from Trowa and raised it in the lady’s honor. She smiled and echoed the movement once in possession of her own drink.

"All that matters is that they are happy, correct?" he asked, willing to go through with the joke until everyone seemed ready to discuss more important matters. "And that their husbands or fathers never find out about me."

"Then I better make you some levitation spells to help when you jump out of bedroom windows." In contrast to Birman, Botan seemed much more at ease lately, even though he was very busy searching for unscrupulous wizards who would sell anything for money. Being able to spend the evening in the company of a loved one had done wonders for the man, who had been alone for too long. That he had also received some news from his daughter this past year probably helped as well. Reiichi could not help but notice that the wizard was wearing a new ring on his right hand the last couple of months; the silver band appeared utterly seamless and quite plain except for the small, engraved flame symbol.

Everyone got a chuckle at the thought of Reiichi diving out of bedroom windows, even the normally quiet Trowa and Blair. The former went about his way getting things ready for the approaching discussion then sat off to the side behind Birman’s chair, while the latter seemed to relax the longer he was inside the office. Blair was slowly ‘letting his hair down’ amongst fellow Shadow Guard and people he knew he could trust, but Reiichi was willing to bet he would never be the life of the party. Which was something that was not really necessary - not when his unfailing manners and attention to detail meant that Yuushi had a very capable adjutant who could sit in meetings like this while the poor man had to do Kikyou’s work as well as his own.

Botan sipped his coffee and nodded once, his right hand reaching for the plate of sandwiches that Trowa had set down only moments before. "I must admit, I’m terribly reluctant to drop this conversation, but it would be best suited for some evening spent at the Koneko."

Reiichi was not the only one nodding in agreement. "All I ask is that you make sure that Naru isn’t there since I’m sure he’ll take the joke too far." His friend did not have many opportunities to tease him like that, and he saw no reason to make things easy for Naru.

"You might have a few of the Koneko’s guests offer to be your first customers," Crawford warned, a rare, very amused smile on his lips. He also reached for several sandwiches, and it was no doubt because of his, Trowa’s and Blair’s presences that there were enough of the snacks to feed an Army squadron.

At least the precog did not make any mention of the Koneko’s staff, Reiichi thought with relief as he drank some coffee. He knew that Marta was interested in him as more than friends, and was not quite sure how he felt about that fact right now other than very flattered. "Ah, but then I’d never find out why I’ve been invited to this discussion, other than for all of you to bask in my very handsome presence."

Birman groaned and made as if to throw her pen at him before most likely realizing that it might get broken. "You’ve been hanging out with Yohji and Schu for too long."

"They are very interesting characters." He set his mug aside and looked at the people gathered in the room. "So, why am I here? My duties so far during this case have been to make sure that Aya and Yohji are adequately protected, not to be involved in the search for the murderers." He had barely had to leave the Koneko at all the last couple of weeks, other than to go on shopping expeditions with Aya or to assist Yuushi in dealing with the two bodies his friend and Reno had left behind.

It was Crawford who spoke first, which tipped him off right away that what was about to be asked of him would most likely be dangerous or something he would not care to do. "You are aware that I’ve had a vision about the next murder, correct?"

"Yes. Yuushi informed me last night that they would happen in the Northern quarter." Reiichi thought of the reaction when the bodies were discovered in both an ‘upscale’ shopping district and then a nearby residential one.

Crawford nodded several times before he spoke. "Judging from the moons’ position and appearances, the first murder will happen approximately three hours after sundown in the glass district. The agents will choose a man of apparent wealth to prove that social boundaries are no protection against attack." That slight smile was back on the man’s lips, leaving Reiichi very little doubt where this was going.

"You are hoping that they’ll attack someone acting as bait, don’t you?" He did not need the various nods of the people around the table. "I assume that I’m here in hopes of volunteering to be that bait?" The thought, while giving him some pause because of the obvious danger involved, was more intriguing than frightening.

"We thought you would be the ideal choice, considering your renowned composure as well as your new weapon." Birman motioned toward the illusion-cloaked gauntlets that he never removed from his wrists. "They’re the perfect hidden weapon and the only armor we know of that’ll withstand a direct attack from a flesh gaki bound."

"Or at least they will be, once Aya supplies some more shadows to produce an adequate suit of armor for you," Botan added. "I spoke to him last night and he’s agreed to do so, and…." He paused, a hint of pink staining his cheeks as if embarrassed. "Ah, Cassandra said she’d have a suitable jerkin made for you by this afternoon."

No doubt the wizard was afraid that Reiichi would be offended by Cassandra’s belief that he would accept the mission, but he was merely grateful that the dear lady thought about his welfare. "I will need something to protect me from the cold of Aya’s shadows." He shifted in his seat to directly face Crawford. "Is there any specific reason why I’m the one you’ve picked to be the bait?" More importantly, had he been involved in any visions, which was something he doubted needed to be said aloud.

Bowing his head slightly, Crawford looked up and regarded him with a coolness that had more to do with detachment than dislike, in Reiichi’s opinion. "Botan can create an illusion charm that would render any person suitable for the assignment, but bounds use more than just their eyes when appraising someone. While you’re several years younger than the victim in my vision, you are still a mature, human male who easily radiates confidence and can pass for someone of importance. Also, you’ve very impressive mental shields for a human. With a little help from Eri, you’ll easily be able to convince the soul gaki bound that you’re not a Guard but rather an important merchant or even a highborn."

All of that made sense, Reiichi thought as he nodded in agreement. "And then there’s the matter of my gauntlets," he added as he tapped his wrists together.

"Yes."

Blair brushed breadcrumbs from his hands and joined in the discussion. "What Crawford said is very important – the agents have to know the Guard is looking for them and so far have shown that they take great care in picking their victims. If they were human, we could use anyone who was equipped with an illusion charm."

"And they most certainly are not human," Reiichi murmured.

"No, or we probably would have found them by now." Birman sighed as she poured more coffee for herself. "Considering that there are several soul gaki bounds - Shadow Guard and Spy trained - looking for them as well as the entire Guard and as many of my people whom I can spare," she admitted, sounding frustrated over the lack of results. She would have to get used to such things since he was willing to bet that many of their targets in the future would be bounds or wizards.

"The murders should happen tomorrow night, the following night at the latest," Crawford said, his eyes unfocused as if he were recalling the vision. "That should give you enough time to be fully prepared and for Schuldig or Eri to track down the general vicinity of the agents at best, or at least be in position to spot them as soon as they enter the Northern glass district." He did not sound at all doubtful about the situation, which was some comfort to Reiichi.

"Of course I’ll volunteer to be ‘bait’." His lips twitched almost involuntarily as he thought about how he got to go undercover dressed as a man of wealth as opposed to a child prostitute – and a cheap one at that.

"Thank you, Reiichi." The smile that Birman gave him was very grateful and shadowed by a hint of fear. He was touched by his friend’s concern and did his best to smile back in reassurance.

"As soon as Aya can ‘hand over’ enough shadows, I’ll practice with the new armor."

Blair looked up from the small notebook that he had placed on the table in front of him. "I’ll arrange for Eri to meet with you at the Koneko so she can assist with your mental shields and false persona. That usually doesn’t take more than a couple of hours if the people involved are intelligent and focused." He smiled at Reiichi, who bowed his head in acknowledgement of the compliment. "I’ll also arrange the Guard’s schedule so the Shadow Guard is stationed around the districts in question." Since the bound was usually unflappable in nature, it was only because Reiichi was looking closely at him that he noticed Blair’s shoulders tense at the same time that Crawford’s right fingers tapped three times on the table’s surface.

As if the little exchange had not happened, Blair continued with the necessary plans that needed to be made before such an important mission. "We still have in our possession the earrings enhanced with the blood that Li volunteered, which will help to draw the agents’ attention to you." He looked up from the notebook and stared hard at Reiichi’s ears. "Good, you do have them pierced." He nodded in satisfaction and scribbled something down on the notepad.

"Yes, since there have been times when I’ve needed to wear various charms," Reiichi admitted, amused despite himself. He would bet a great deal of money that Blair could recognize him by scent and body mannerisms, but the man probably never paid attention to whether or not he wore any jewelry.

Birman appeared amused as well, and he was also willing to bet that she had noticed the slight exchange between the two bounds, too. "Having at least a day will not only help us track down the general vicinity of the agents are, but might give us some leads to other Esset sympathizers. For the two bounds to be so well hidden, someone must be assisting them with supplies as well as the city’s layout."

"That is entirely possible." Crawford set his empty mug aside and reached for several sandwiches, handing half of them to Trowa. "The Elders have several agents scattered about the city, with orders to assist any bounds who show up on a mission." His usually impassive visage twisted with annoyance. "Jei and I are considered too powerful and skilled to need such assistance, which is why we’ve never been informed of their locations or identities."

"Because they don’t want to risk Kritiker stumbling across the undercover agents and sympathizers then following the trail back to their best agents," Trowa said, speaking up for the first time since he had given Reiichi and Crawford a soft greeting of ‘hello’. He looked over at the table with a slightly dazed expression on his face, leaving Reiichi with the impression that he must have been monitoring the weather again, something he did often when not undercover himself. That suspicion was soon proven true. "There have only been two occasions that I know of where they’ve informed Duo, Heero, or me of possible allies in various towns, and usually they are the weaker bounds who… are easily disposed of in their minds."

He shook his head as if to clear it of a dark thought then continued. "There’s another weather front moving in, though weaker than the previous ones. It feels as if it’s more following the newly established wind patterns than anything, so it won’t be a heavy rain." He paused and closed his eyes as if to check something. "It shouldn’t require too much effort on my part to have it rain more to the northern part of the city than the southern, ensuring that there are less people out than usual."

Birman looked to Crawford, who nodded after a moment’s consideration. "That would be extremely helpful, Trowa. If possible can you produce a lighter rain in the two targeted areas?" There was another smile of satisfaction when the water elemental bound nodded.

"That should ensure the original target doesn’t show up tomorrow night while not hampering our mission, although we’ll have to come up with something else if it’s two nights from now."

"I think… that we should be ‘safe’ in that regard," Crawford assured Birman. "While I can’t be a hundred percent certain, I have the strongest feelings in regard to tomorrow night."

It was sort of amusing to hear a precog – and a famously aloof one at that – talk about ‘feelings’, Reiichi thought as he helped himself to the last remaining ham and cheese sandwich. "So, we’ve preliminary plans for tomorrow night, willing bait," he motioned toward himself, "and some assurance that we’ll be successful. Is there anything else of importance to discuss?" Such as that signal between Blair and Crawford….

"We need more than bait to be ready by tomorrow, but a scapegoat as well," Botan mentioned, his good mood from earlier now appearing dampened. "Once I finish preparing Reiichi, I’ll spend the day choosing a suitable wizard candidate." His mouth twisted in apparent bitterness.

Birman was quiet for a few seconds before reaching out to pat her friend on the shoulder. "Do…. Is there a problem finding a wizard to blame for the murders?" That was not something that Reiichi had ever heard of before, let alone voluntarily participated in; the Guard had the strictest of rules against framing an innocent suspect and the few members who broke those rules were severely punished.

What Botan said next put his troubled conscience at ease. "The problem is that there are too many candidates," the wizard practically growled, which made Blair, Trowa and Crawford stare at him intently for several seconds. "I’ve four wizards I’m about to have taken into custody who have broken the laws about using human blood and organs for the use of spellcasting, not to mention using bound blood as well and selling defective charms. Two of them knowingly provided fake protection and security wards in return for money, a crime punishable by death." He ran his hands through his hair, leaving it in disarray as he stared down at the table. "All of them will be killed once the investigations are completed and I discuss their sentences with a Judge, it’s just a matter of whose reputation will be publicly sullied as well."

"I see little reason why you should worry about the reputation of such wizards," Crawford said, his voice as cold as ice. The look that Botan gave him in return was just as chilly, but the wizard was the first one to glance aside.

"They deserve death and more, but the last thing any of us want is for the accusations to be proven false and doubt to be cast on whether or not a wizard was to blame for the murders." Botan grunted once and shook his head. "Thanks to the assistance of Birman’s people, I don’t believe any of them are aware of the investigations, and they’ve primarily kept to themselves during their careers. All of them have been outside of the capital in the past several months to obtain various supplies for their spells, so it won’t take much effort to make it look as if they were around Timbergrey in the past year."

Reiichi felt some sorrow for Botan and what had to be a very difficult choice to make, yet it was clear that all four suspects had broken laws that were meant to ensure that wizards did not take advantage of their customers. The crime of deliberately creating a false ward was one of the oldest death sentences known, and one that would inspire intense hatred against the guilty parties if made public knowledge. "Considering the approaching war, examples should be set to ensure that unscrupulous wizards don’t take advantage of people seeking protection," he said, his voice soft as he sought to both comfort Botan and remind the man of what was at stake.

The wizard grunted again. "Which is why I haven’t told all of you to go find a flesh gaki demon and fuck it," he snapped, falling into a rare display of profanity. Blair quite honestly looked shocked while Birman smiled and Crawford arched his left eyebrow.

"That is… quite the vivid picture," Crawford murmured in the answering silence. "Let me assure you that your ‘sacrifice’ will ensure that this country isn’t torn apart by a war between bounds and wizards that will leave it wide open to an attack from Esset."

"Which is what I remind myself of every day." Botan frowned for a few seconds then sighed. "It’s an unpleasant duty but one that I’m oath-bound to carry out. They’ve clearly broken the law and so don’t deserve any pity, I am just nervous about what some wizards will do if they feel they are being targeted as scapegoats." He stared at Crawford for a long moment and appeared relieved when the bound nodded in understanding.

"Very true, but I have faith in you and the Spymaster that things will be handled correctly. At the least, I’ve no visions to indicate that this plan will go wrong, and neither has Cassandra." Crawford removed his glasses to clean their lenses with a white cloth. Once that was done, he picked up another sandwich and gave a pointed look to Birman. "Now all that is required is ensuring that the proper Guards are located at the proper districts, as well as Aya and Yohji somewhere close by to be of assistance but not close enough to interfere with my talent."

"Yes, we’ll get to that in a moment." Birman turned to face Trowa, who once again seemed to be monitoring the weather. "Trowa, I promised to deliver some paperwork to the queen today, but this discussion is going on longer than I’d anticipated." She pointed to a bundle of paperwork wrapped in dark blue paper and tied with silver cord, bearing a seal that no doubt was warded to not open unless the right person touched it. "Please take it to her and then return with more refreshments."

It took Trowa a couple of seconds to nod and rise to his feet, which prompted twin frowns of unhappiness on Crawford and Birman’s faces. The precog turned to Birman once her assistant was out of the room. "Make him stay at home tomorrow since it’s clear that he’s using his talent too much. That’ll allow him some rest while he manipulates the weather to suit our needs."

"I’m sending him home once he returns," she snapped, her expression softening when Crawford continued to stare at her. "Sorry, I know he’s your friend, too, but he’s too quiet and stubborn for his own good at times, which worries me."

"Soon enough he’ll have someone who will be able to properly monitor his condition while looking after him," Crawford said, the most enigmatic of smiles on his handsome face.

"I assume that he was sent from this room for a reason?" Reiichi considered Trowa as a friend as well and wanted to know why the water elemental bound was not allowed to be here for the next part of the planning. "I saw you signal Blair when he was discussing the Guards’ roster."

Crawford bowed to him while Blair appeared more than a little chagrined at being caught out. "You don’t think that Trowa noticed, do you?"

"No," Crawford answered as he looked at the Guard. "He was too distracted at the time, which was why I risked sending the message that way." He straightened his white coat, never once looking away from Blair. "I’d already talked to Yuushi about this and received his permission, but feel free to check with him if you like. I want Duo and Toshi to be stationed near the glass district, but not part of the detail who’ll watch over Reiichi."

That request got the attention of everyone in the room. "You want Duo involved in the agents’ apprehension?" Birman asked as if speaking to an idiot. "Won’t that be a conflict of interest for him?"

"No, because he won’t be involved in their capture." Crawford once again stared off into the distance. "Have him patrol along the edge of the glass and wool districts, and I swear to you that he and Toshi won’t be harmed." There was a hard edge to his voice as he promised, which convinced Reiichi that the man spoke the truth.

Still, he was more than a little leery about the situation. "You do realize that he’s still a threat to the Shadow Guard and Toshi until he swears to our cause," he pointed out, and Blair nodded along to his words.

"I agree with Reiichi and would rather not put any of my people at risk if it’s not necessary."

Crawford smiled, the expression a touch disturbing because it was so self-satisfied. "I promise you that if you do as I request, that Duo won’t be a threat to the Shadow Guard for much longer." He looked from Blair to Birman. "And, before you even ask, it will benefit Trowa in the long run as well. Just… be prepared to do without him for a day or two after the agents are captured."

She looked distinctly unhappy to be told that, her dark eyes narrowing in suspicion. "You’re planning something, which is nothing new, but I fear that Trowa won’t be happy to be included unwillingly in your manipulations."

"He may not be at first, and he’ll have no problems making his displeasure known to me." For a moment, a touch of concern shadowed Crawford’s visage. "In the end… it truly will work out to his and Duo’s benefit, not just for the overall good of the war. He’ll be much less likely to push himself too far with his talent as well."

Birman regarded him intently for several seconds before looking away. "As long as you’re sure about that, then the decision ultimately falls to Yuushi as the Shadow Guard Captain." She glanced at Blair, who gave her a quick nod, then resumed staring at Crawford. "Just make sure that I don’t lose Trowa’s assistance for very long."

"No, just a few days."

There were many things that Reiichi wanted to ask Crawford, but he had the strong impression that he would fare even worse than Birman. All he could do right now was pay attention and ensure that Trowa did indeed come out in fine shape from whatever Crawford had in mind.

"Well, as I’m sure it won’t take Trowa very long to drop off the documents and return with more refreshments, is there anything else that he shouldn’t hear?" He looked around the table and was relieved everyone shook their head. "Then let’s go over the duty roster so Botan and I can return to the Koneko." There were a lot of things he had to do before tomorrow evening, very important things.

"Obviously, Eri and Naru should be stationed closest to where we feel the agents will strike," Blair said as he once more consulted his notebook. "No offense against Schuldig, but he’s not a Guard and so shouldn’t be directly involved in their capture."

"I’m sure he’ll be very grateful for a chance to stay at home tomorrow night," Crawford remarked, his tone exceedingly dry. That prompted a knowing smile from Botan, which he shared with Reiichi for a moment before they both turned their attention back to the discussion at hand.

*******

Nagi seriously considered using his power to make Omi stand still when his boyfriend paced yet again back and forth in front of the attic library’s door; he half-expected Jo to show up at any moment to yell at Omi about wearing down the floorboards. "You pacing about like that won’t make them work any faster, you know," he said while leaning against the wall opposite of the door, his arms folded over his chest.

Omi shot him a rather unhappy look and seemed to make a point of walking back and forth two more times before stopping. "What’s taking them so long?" he asked, voice pitched low so as to not disturb the people in the attic library, even though Nagi was willing to bet that Botan had erected a ward against noise around the room.

"I admit that I’m not a wizard, but I’ve never heard of anyone doing what Botan’s attempting so that’s most likely the reason why they’re taking their time." Nagi stared hard at the door for a moment and hoped that Aya was all right. His friend was not donating any blood and Kudoh was in there to make sure that Aya was not taken advantage of in any manner, but he still worried. Despite being so far away from his friend for over half a year and busy building a life with Omi ever since returning to Eto, worrying about Aya was a deeply ingrained habit.

At least something he had said made Omi smile for the first time in almost an hour. "You certainly know a lot about magic now." His smile faded and he approached Nagi to lean against the wall beside him. "I’m sorry; it’s just that it’s so frustrating to not be allowed to watch Botan work right now."

Nagi was sure there was more to it than that, but he had to admit that Omi did love few things more than learning new spells and uses for magic. However, Botan was adamant about never passing on the knowledge he had gained from using Aya’s blood and shadows in spells, which no one had a problem with since they wanted the kage to remain safe. Too many wizards would kill or worse to gain the knowledge that Botan had gained in the past year, and Nagi was sure that the man was also doing his best to protect Omi as well. People would rather go after a young wizard apprentice – unknowing that he was the Crown Prince as well – and force the truth out of him than the Royal Wizard, after all.

"They shouldn’t be much longer," he assured his boyfriend, which made Omi smile again and snake an arm around his shoulders. Feeling some of the tension in his body leave at the touch, he leaned to the left to bridge the slight distance between them. "We should at least be able to help Reiichi practice with his gauntlets when they’ve finished."

That seemed to cheer Omi up a bit more, to the point that he was given a kiss against his left temple. "It’s a good thing we had the morning shift today."

While he had gotten used to sleeping in a bit while living in Esset, Nagi nodded in agreement. They had the night off since they had worked earlier in the day, and he was looking forward to sitting down to a meal shared with friends and listening to Koyu play his harp. Even though he was not too fond of the activity, he had even let Omi talk him into a few dances, at the least enjoying the chance to hug and pull close his boyfriend and the way that dancing made Omi laugh. Then he would be able to talk to Aya while Omi and Yohji spent a good hour or two teasing each other.

At least, that had been his plan for the evening, and despite the news of Crawford’s vision he had hopes it would still play out that way after they helped Reiichi with the gauntlets. Only now there would probably be a trace of sullenness since Omi was still upset that he could not help out on the mission in any way that let him leave the Koneko. As much as Nagi could understand how painful it was to think of himself as unable to help his friends, he was perfectly serious about ensuring that Omi was not in any danger from either the agents or the king.

"I suppose there are worse things than waking up early and baking bread for a couple of hours," was what he finally said, thinking on how he had taken over Aya’s job of helping Jo with the breakfast pastries and such. It was a much better job than the one he had barely endured while at Timbergrey castle, and he did not mind the work since it allowed him to spend most of his day with Omi. He had been told that he did not have to work at the inn, but a job here also provided a logical reason for him to remain at the Koneko should the Elders send anyone to check up on ‘their’ spies.

Omi laughed and tilted his head until it rested against Nagi’s. "See, that’s the wildly glamorous life you lead when you fall in love with a royal prince." He fell quiet after that, prompting Nagi to squeeze the hand that lay on his right shoulder.

"I’d rather happiness than glamour any day," he whispered, the attic hallway more than quiet enough that his lover could hear the words.

His hand was squeezed in return. "I want you to be happy, Nagi." There was another kiss to his temple, a lingering caress that made his cheeks blush and nerves tingle. "At least you won’t be so bored for much longer. Once the agents are caught, then we can go outside the Koneko’s grounds again."

Nagi hissed softly and yanked on his boyfriend’s hand. "I told you that it doesn’t really bother me, staying here with you." He snapped his teeth together for added emphasis, a habit he had picked up from watching Aya chastise Yohji all the time. Why could not Omi understand that he truly was happy just spending time with him? That after living so long at Timbergrey, he was more than willing to accept a limitation that he had chosen for himself out of love?

"I know." Omi slid free his arm and turned so he could look at Nagi, his right shoulder resting against the wall. "Thank you," he said, finally showing some sense. The fingers of his left hand trailed along Nagi’s cheek.

"Fool." Managing the fiercest of scowls that he could summon at the moment, he let the scorn lay heavy in his tone. "I’m beginning to think that you and Kudoh might be related by blood since you share the same foolishness."

That made Omi laugh and lean forward for a lingering, gentle kiss. "I’m sorry! I didn’t know that I was that bad!" He chuckled for a few seconds before growing serious. "I already talked to Jo and she said we could have a few nights off once the agents are in custody. We’re going to hit every festival we can find and I’ll buy you so many treats that you might actually gain a pound or two." He poked Nagi in the side for added emphasis; while Nagi had grown a couple of inches while in Berin, he had always been on the slender side since it was a common legacy with most elemental bounds. Only a freak like Rude could grow so massive. "They should be selling blueberry ices soon, even if the weather is cool for this time of year."

"You know me so well," Nagi grumbled, his heart fluttering at that thought. Jei had become a good friend in the past year, Schuldig an annoying ‘older brother’ while Masato and Crawford were two people he could go to for honest advice, but Aya and Omi were the ones who knew him the best.

"I like to think that." Omi cupped his left hand over Nagi’s cheek and leaned in for another lingering kiss. "You’re the most important person to me," he said, pulling back just the slightest bit so their lips continued to brush together.

A year ago, Nagi would have said that Aya was his most important person and never expect that to change. Then Aya had met Yohji, and while he felt the occasional stab of jealousy when he saw the men together, he had comprehended what had changed between him and Aya once Omi had come into his life. Aya was still his best friend, but Omi was who he loved, was who he wanted to spend all his time with and who could make him feel so happy with just a touch or a smile. "I-"

"You know, there are these things called ‘bedrooms’," a mocking voice said, cutting across his admission of love to Omi. Of *course* that voice belonged to a smirking Kudoh – well, smirking until Aya nailed him in the ribs with an elbow and that expression turned to one of pain. "Oh for the love of all the gods, Aya, they deserved that!" the man squawked.

"Says someone who doesn’t care where he is when he decides it’s time for a ‘light snack’," Aya snapped back, his glare turning into something much friendlier when he looked at Nagi. "Were you waiting here the entire time?"

"Most of it." Nagi glanced in Omi’s direction to explain that it was not his idea. "Did it work?"

Reiichi stepped out of the door and beside Aya and Yohji to show off his gauntlets. The silver bands appeared more tarnished than before, the slowly moving shadows much thicker now. "Try them," he said with a pleased smile on his lips.

Omi did not need any more of an invitation; he used his own gauntlets to summon a series of golden darts that were deflected by a black, glimmering armor that covered Reiichi the instant before they could strike. Nagi followed the attack by putting his power to use, but try as he might he could not ‘grasp’ Reiichi at all. He tried ‘hitting’ the Guard with concentrated blows, but their impact seemed severely limited since all Reiichi did was grunt slightly and sway when he really should have been sent flying through several walls and a couple hundred of yards beyond that.

"Gee, and here I always thought those two liked you, Reiichi!" Yohji laughed as he draped his arms around Aya’s shoulders. "Do you owe them money or something?"

Reiichi laughed as well and shook his head. "I’m sure they’re just doing their best to ensure that the Elders’ agents don’t get the honor of killing me." He rubbed his chest with his black-gloved right hand and nodded in Nagi and Omi’s direction. "Is that all?"

"We can practice some more out in the garden," Omi said, bouncing on his heels in excitement that was probably due to him thinking about all the spells he could hurl in poor Reiichi’s direction.

Nagi patted his boyfriend on the shoulder before he turned his attention back to Reiichi. "I know that Jared arrived shortly before we came up here, so if he’s still around he can see how well the armor holds up to flesh gaki bound claws and fangs." The bound had said he wanted to check up on Nicole and would probably stay for several hours, and should currently be in the kitchen sharing all the gossip he had gathered in the last few days with Jo and the others. Gossip that Reiichi and Yuushi would be interested in as well, since Jared acted as an informal spy for the Shadow Guard until he gained enough control over his demon half to be a proper member of the organization.

"Good, because if no one objects, I’d like to watch the attacks on Reiichi’s armor before I return to the palace to do some work," Botan said before flashing a smile at the Guard. "Just to make sure the armor works properly, mind you. It’s not that I’ll enjoy seeing you abused, Reiichi, I swear."

Reiichi vanished the shadow armor and took a swipe at Botan’s head. "Sure you don’t, you bastard." They shared a laugh together before stepping away from the library’s door.

"We’ll watch for a bit, too, since dinner won’t be ready for another hour." Yohji tugged the hood of Aya’s dark grey jerkin over the kage’s head. "Might be interesting to see how my wire affects the armor since it’s become ‘shadow-enhanced’ as well."

"I think I better ask Jo to reserve the hot spring for me later tonight before we go outside." Reiichi sighed in a melodramatic manner then shook his head. "To be honest, I’d rather know the armor’s weaknesses while my attackers are friends and not enemies. And I really hope that Cassandra has that quilted jerkin ready for me soon." He shivered and rubbed his hands up and down his arms in a vigorous manner as he made his way down the steps.

Nagi and Omi trailed after their friends, Omi latching on to his left hand and entwining their fingers together. More than likely, the prospect of helping out in even such a small manner like this made Omi feel better, which was perfectly fine with Nagi. Although he truly did not care if Omi was upset by not having such an active role in the current mission since it meant that his boyfriend was safe from harm while kept at the Koneko.

Nagi was sure they would be involved in other missions in the near future, and he would do his best then, as he did now to keep Omi safe. Despite the boy’s immense wizardly talents, he was still human and Nagi could not ever forget the fragility that was attached to that fact. He would remain by Omi’s side from now on, determined to be the shield that would keep all harm from the person he loved – be it with his power or his own body. He would heal from things that would leave Omi broken beyond hope of healing, and his talent was much more instinctive than his lover’s.

He could not protect Aya as much as he had wanted to in the past, and now that duty had fallen to Yohji. But he *would* be there for Omi, and that fact made him feel the most content that he had ever been in his life. No doubt his boyfriend would object to the promise he had sworn to himself, but since Omi had sworn something similar in his regard, it was something they would both have to accept. The gods might not have made them mates, but they loved each other with all their hearts and would always be there for each other.

And at least Omi was not the humongous idiot that Yohji Kudoh was, Nagi thought to himself as his lips pulled back from his teeth. The perverted bastard was leering at Aya’s ass as his friend went down the steps, and only the fact that by tripping the man now would probably lead to others being injured as well kept Nagi from using his talent just then. However, soon enough they would be outside, and how could it be his fault if a small but heavy object was accidentally sent flying in the direction of Kudoh’s head?

Something in his emotions must have tipped off his intentions because once down in the kitchen, Kudoh took to holding Aya close while glaring in Nagi’s direction. While a little upset that he would have to wait for another day to teach the perverted bastard some manners, he was comforted by the fact that Kudoh would not always have Aya around to act as a shield. Bounds lived a long time, after all, and just as Nagi planned to spend those many years with Omi, he also planned to torment Kudoh as much as possible to ensure that Aya was properly looked after in his stead.

*******

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