Bindings

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chapter seven

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of bonds and duty

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Yuushi stood behind the shadow ward that Aya had set up for him, Eri, Naru, Ken and Miko earlier that evening and looked down on the street below. Almost all of the shops were closed, the street a ribbon of darkness lit with the occasional warm glow of candlelight dampened by mist from the softly falling rain. Trowa had done a wonderful job of redirecting the rain to the northern part of the city, helping to ensure that there were few innocents to worry about as the evening progressed. The longer that Yuushi waited up here, kept thankfully warm and dry by a good rain slicker and some handy charms, the less people entered and left those remaining shops, their pace as they left hurried, as if they were uncomfortable being outside after the sun had gone down and rain clouds obscured the moons.

They had very good reasons to be concerned, so he wished them to go home or shop elsewhere or just *leave* to do whatever the hell they wanted so the agents would feel that it was safe to strike. Reiichi was waiting on horseback a few blocks away, eager to put an end to the murders as well as try out his new gauntlets. Yuushi spared a moment of fear for his friend, the emotion quickly stifled as he thought about how Botan, Aya and the others would never let the man be injured if they could help it. No, the gauntlets would work and most likely Reiichi would find himself acting as ‘bait’ more often in the future.

As for the kage, he and Yohji were a couple of blocks away as well, sitting in a very nice and expensive tea shop. They were far enough from what Crawford felt would be the area of the attack that they should not impact the precog’s visions in case he saw a change to tonight’s events, yet close enough to help subdue the agents if necessary. They had gone to the shop after Aya had set the wards, Yohji grinning as he informed Yuushi that he expected the Guard to pick up their bill from the shop. Yuushi was willing to bet his pension that the bastard was currently stuffing Aya silly with very, *very* expensive pastries.

"Penny for your thoughts, since they seem so amused?"

Eri’s soft voice shook him from the mental image of Yohji’s sly grin, and he glanced aside for a moment to give her a smile before he resumed watching the street for anything suspicious. "Just wondering how much Yohji will spend at the teashop tonight."

"Ah." She chuckled, the sound as soft as her voice, and stood beside him as she also watched over the street. "I heard him mention something about creampuffs and cats, so I imagine the damage will be quite considerable." The dark blue hood of her rain slicker framed her pretty face, and Yuushi realized that she must be growing her hair out a little since several black strands clung to her forehead from all the moisture in the air.

"I’ll just make Birman pay the bill," he muttered, a little annoyed at himself for being so easily distracted. Behind him, he could hear Naru, Ken and Miko chatting about something… the few people who remained out on the street, from the sounds of it. They also had their voices pitched low, even though no one could see or hear them on the other side of the shadow ward.

"I suspect she’ll be torn between not wanting to pay what should be the Guard’s bill and happy about figuring out how to get the money out of Kikyou after all." Eri leaned forward as if to get a better look down the street, her face very near the faint, translucent wall of darkness that hid them from view. "I would have thought there’d be less traffic than this."

Yuushi motioned toward where several carriages waited for their owners’ return. "I suppose one can feel a bit safer when surrounded by wood and metal."

"Yes, not to mention there are much easier targets for the ‘monster’ to strike, such as the poor servants who aren’t blessed to sit inside the carriage." Sarcasm was heavy in her voice as she turned to give the carriages a dirty look. "I’m surprised that the agents haven’t moved into a wealthy area like this before tonight."

There was no guarantee that they would be here tonight, but he did not feel like jinxing things by speaking that thought aloud. "They’re trying to make it clear that no one’s safe from murder, be it a poor dockhand or a rich person who lets their need for fancy wine goblets outweigh their common sense."

He had been born into a reasonably well-off family - not highborn or truly wealthy, but respectable. His ancestors had a history of repaying the fortune given to them by the gods by joining the Guard, and he had been determined to take part in that tradition even before his parents died. A cousin and her family were currently living in his parents’ house not too far from here to look after it and he did not need to worry about receiving a pension from the Guard to keep him fed once he retired, but he had never been brought up to be concerned about the things that seemed to occupy the people walking about below. No, he would not waste his time on a cool, rainy day buying extravagant items that were meant to display his wealth and social status.

Neither would Eri, judging from her reaction just now. The little she said about her family indicated that they had been farmers, blessed enough to support themselves but far from wealthy. When he thought about how long she had been wandering around Kritiker and probably a couple of other countries as well, relying on what she could provide herself with her talent and hard work, he got the feeling that she would not be impressed with a finely cut crystal goblet that was only meant to serve red wine either.

"There are so many districts in Eto that it’s as if the city is made up of several different worlds," he said, his voice pitched lower than normal so no one but Eri should hear it.

Despite the blowing wind and falling rain, she had heard it and nodded in response. "I’d much rather spend my evening in the Western green district, enjoying a good meal and listening to a Harper play." The smile on her unadorned face just then was very wistful, her eyes distant as she turned in his direction. "Maybe one day save up enough money to buy a small apartment in that area, a place with a balcony to grow a few plants and within walking distance of the Koneko and a few shops."

"You’ll have to hurry up before Mickey buys all the land that he can so the Koneko will grow even bigger and make more money for Kira’s dowry," he teased, and despite the fact that he was standing outside on a cool, rainy night for the purpose of finding two bound murderers, he felt a flash of warmth when that smile lost its wistfulness.

"Maybe he’ll let me rent a quiet corner of it and pretend that my small house is really a shed for Aya’s gardening tools." Eri giggled a couple of times and shook her head.

"Just make sure that ‘shed’ isn’t anywhere near the lavender patch," he warned, which prompted a few more giggles from Eri.

"Hmm, no, that would be a bad thing." She sighed and leaned forward some more when the last person on the street got into their carriage and headed toward the center of the city. "It’s difficult to tell with the clouds, but I think this is around the time of Crawford’s vision."

"Yes." Despite the joy Yuushi had felt while talking with Eri, he had been paying attention to the time and his surroundings. His right hand took to tapping on his copper bracelet to confirm that everyone was in place, some of the tension leaving his body when Toshi tapped back that he and Duo were at least ten blocks away and heading further to the west. "Now that the street is cleared, maybe our ‘guests’ will show up."

Eri ‘hmmed’ again, the distant look from before returning to her face as she stood still. "I think… there are minds approaching from Bower Street, still a few blocks away." She shook her head and made to run her hands through her hair before she remembered about the hood of her rain slicker. "There’re not enough people around them for me to get a good ‘look’ at them, and if they’re the agents then I don’t want to risk Dillon sensing my thoughts."

"Yes, but that’s the direction Schuldig said he’d mostly tracked them down to hiding in." Yuushi tapped a command to Reiichi to start riding toward this area, while Naru, Miko and Ken hurried over to join him and Eri. There was a flare of excitement when Yonekuni tapped back that he could ‘sense’ someone walking past them while his partner did not see anyone, lending credence to the belief that the agents were on their way. "They seem to be three blocks out now."

Ken growled, the sound utterly vicious as it grew louder. "Even with this rain, I bet I can smell them once they’re within a block of us." He inhaled sharply, nostrils flaring and lips pulling back from very sharp teeth.

"Don’t forget about me when you go jumping to the ground," Miko grumbled the same time she gave her partner a smack on the back of his head. "Some of us break easily, you know."

"Oh, don’t I wish." Ken was smacked again for that smart comment, but Yuushi noticed that he was smiling despite the fact that he currently threatened to tear out Miko’s throat and save the world from her incessant yapping.

<She does a very good job distracting him when his demon nature is about to take over.> When had Eri’s ‘voice’ become such a soothing presence in his mind, Yuushi wondered for a second before doing his best to hide that thought.

<I’m going to have to rearrange partners again, aren’t I?> he complained, hoping that covered the sudden uneasiness he felt over Eri possibly reading such private thoughts.

<Perhaps you shouldn’t. Even if those two admit the truth about what they feel for each other, you might do more damage than good by splitting them apart. I doubt few others could do as good a job as Miko does in keeping Ken in line.> Eri touched his right arm, the contact light and fleeting, before stepping away.

Well, few people were as suicidal as Miko, and she did appear to really enjoy smacking Ken in Yuushi’s opinion, so he would wait until forced to make a decision to figure out what would happen to the partners. He just hoped that Miko continued doing such a great job of reining Ken in when the Esset flesh gaki bound arrived since he wanted both bounds taken alive for questioning; Birman would have his head and balls – and that was just for starters – if she lost out on a chance to find out more about any Esset spies in Kritiker.

Meanwhile, Naru took Eri’s place beside Yuushi. "Shouldn’t Reiichi be here soon?" That question was immediately answered as a tall figure riding a bay horse appeared as if summoned out of the fog and rain. Its rider stopped the animal before a post where he then dismounted, tied it in place and headed for a shop known for the quality of its porcelain trinkets. Even if the watchers on the roof were not wearing rings that enabled them to see through the man’s illusion charm, Reiichi would be recognized for his slight limp.

"I hope he doesn’t spend too much money in there," Yuushi muttered, unwilling to deal with all the paperwork connected with repaying receipts and the such.

Naru gave him a sympathetic pat on the right shoulder. "He did mention something about a niece’s birthday…."

"Oh hell." If his right hand was not so busy tapping on the bracelet, Yuushi would use it to pinch the bridge of his nose in a feeble attempt to stave off the building headache. As it was, he almost missed the message from Yohji that they were ready to move at a moment’s notice.

"I’m sensing something." Eri followed the words with a savage hiss and pushed back the hood of her slicker so she could better see. "It’s-"

"It’s them." The growl was so thick in Ken’s voice that it was difficult to understand the words, but the way he almost leapt off the roof was telling enough. Only Miko’s hand on his shoulder and her whispering his name kept him in place. "I can smell that bitch."

Too bad the soul gaki bound with her, Dillon, hadn’t thought about people smelling his partner as opposed to seeing or hearing her. A grim smile formed on Yuushi’s lips as he gave the bound Guards a little more room to do whatever was necessary. Naru flashed an unhappy look in Eri’s direction but left her alone, well aware by now that he would only get in the way if he remained by her side during this part of the assignment.

The agents kept to the shadows as they slunk their way down the street, towards Reiichi’s horse. The woman, Grega, lashed out with her right hand and the horse let out a panicked neigh as it reared away from the bound then fled down the street, acting as if a demon was nipping at its heels. Grega laughed at its reaction and said something that Yuushi could not make out to her partner, and they both settled back against the wall of the closed perfume shop as if waiting for something.

/Reiichi, they’re here. Just spooked your horse./

/Ichiro will kill me if it’s harmed,/ Reiichi tapped back, which proved that the man truly was insane if he was worried about a horse right now. Still, Yuushi gritted his teeth and tapped out a command to one of his Shadow Guards to find the animal. Why the hell had Birman not just gone ahead and made Reiichi the Shadow Guard Captain? It would certainly save Yuushi a hell of a lot of work.

/If you so please, get your ass out here so you can be killed,/ he tapped back.

/Anything for the father of my child./

The choking sound that Yuushi made at that comment had Naru looking at him with evident concern and Eri’s shoulders starting to shake as if she was trying hard not to laugh. Her amusement came to a quick end when Reiichi finally left the shop.

He headed for where he had left his horse, and due to the evening’s darkness and weather, it was understandable that he did not seem to notice that it was not there until just a few feet away. Cursing out loud, Reiichi made a show of looking around, turning his back to the agents who had just begun to move.

Yuushi wanted to yell at his friend to turn around, but Reiichi could see through illusion spells thanks to the gauntlets, his ring passed on to Eri since he had received the weapons. So Reiichi knew the bounds were there, yet still managed that successful act when Grega reached out to tap him on the right shoulder.

"Looking for something?" she asked, the words coming out in a cruel purr.

"Not yet, Ken, not until they attack." Miko appeared to be doing her best to hold her partner back through force, both her hands on his shoulders and her expression strained.

"I know!" he snarled back, shrugging his shoulders as if to get her to let go.

"The bitch wants a little fun first." Rare anger showed on Eri’s face, and it was clear that she was ready to jump down the two stories that would take her to the ground.

Just what they needed, Yuushi thought to himself, and his anger and resolve to make this capture a certainty sharpened even further. Yet they had protocol to follow, important rules that assured that the Shadow Guard did not overstep its bounds and tarnish the name of the Guard.

"Something has happened to my horse," Reiichi answered, his expression and the tone in his voice both extremely annoyed. "Did you see what happened?"

Grega laughed while Dillon stood off to the side, perfectly still with his eyes closed. Guessing that the soul gaki bound was ensuring that no one noticed what was about to occur, Yuushi ordered Aya and Yohji to come right away and waited for Grega to attack Reiichi.

She did not make him wait for long. Laughing in Reiichi’s face, she trailed her fingers down his chest. "I happened to it, human."

Reiichi made as if to bat her hand aside, only to have his wrist caught. "I’m not amused and I want my horse returned to me." He sounded haughty enough just then to give most highborns a run for their money.

"I don’t care, human." Grega shoved his hand aside, her own pulling back and its claws clearly extending. "Now it’s time to play with you." Moving so fast that her hand was a mere blur, she sent it slashing toward Reiichi’s chest. Yet instead of cutting into cloth and flesh, she shrieked as darkness formed around Reiichi’s body before her claws reached it. The moment that the protective armor formed, Eri and Ken moved into action; Eri jumping right away while Ken grabbed hold of Miko and jumped once she was firmly in his arms.

Grega tried attacking Reiichi again, but he stepped back in time to avoid the worst of the blow. While she shrieked a second time, Dillon motioned toward the rapidly approaching Guards and appeared stunned when nothing happened. Neither of them had enough time to figure out what had just happened before Ken and Eri slammed into the pair.

Displaying a savagery Yuushi had never seen from her before, Eri kicked out at the bewildered Dillon and actually sent the large bound flying backwards. She leaped and landed on the man, hands and legs pinning him to the ground, and Yuushi was almost certain the fight was no longer merely physical. His suspicions were confirmed after several seconds when Dillon appeared to pass out.

Meanwhile, the fight between Grega and Ken could not be anything but physical as they did their best to claw each other to death. Miko remained just behind Ken, moving with him yet staying about two arms lengths away as he jumped about. The flesh gaki bounds were snarling loud enough for the entire street to hear, and it took Yuushi several seconds to notice that the area around the agents and his people had grown slightly darker.

He looked back at the fight to find Grega slammed into a wall, bleeding profusely from her neck as if it had just been slashed. Ken lurched forward as if to deliver the killing blow, but Miko grabbed onto his upraised, blood-stained right arm and did her best to yank it back. "Ken, *no*!" For a moment it looked as if that would not work, that Miko would be the next person attacked, then Ken shook himself and let his arm fall to his side. He was liberally splattered with blood, but did not appear to be badly wounded.

"You really are hell on your uniforms, Ken-ken." The darkness around one of the shops pulled back to reveal Yohji and Aya, the kage’s eyes pure silver as he followed his mate toward Ken and Miko. "Now, is she gonna die before Birman can talk to her?" Yohji motioned toward Grega, who was slumped against the wall, her hands pressed to her throat as if to staunch the flow of blood. Her eyes were impossibly wide as she stared past Yohji at Aya, who had changed direction and gone to check up on Reiichi instead.

The two men’s presence made Yuushi swear as he scrambled down the ladder to the street, Naru almost stepping on his hands in the same haste to join the other Guards. "You’ll be docked pay if she’s dead, Hidaka!"

"I didn’t cut her that deep, just enough to take the fight out of her!" Ken complained, his expression sullen and at odds with the slash across his nose that was already healing and the smears of blood around his mouth. "I bet she’ll be ready to fight again in a few more minutes."

"That’s not exactly a good thing." Eri left her target lying unconscious in the street and approached Grega, pausing to look at Aya for a second before he motioned her on toward the panting flesh gaki bound. She did something to knock Grega out as well, and when the agent’s hands fell from her throat, it was clear that the wound was healing quickly enough for it to not be a threat to her health. No, she should live long enough for Birman to interrogate her and Dillon, and then Aya could kill them with the Shadow Guard’s blessing.

The grim smile from before returned as Yuushi tapped out a message to the rest of the Shadow Guard that the agents were now in custody. As he did so, he turned toward Reiichi. "Are you all right?" When his friend, no longer encased in the shadow armor, smiled and said ‘yes’, he looked in Aya and Yohji’s direction. "How long were you here?"

"Long enough to see Eri kick some ass," Yohji replied, and flashed a grin at the soul gaki bound when she backed away from Grega. "We were ready to step in if there were any problems, but we didn’t want to rush things since it looked like you had everything under control." He reached out to pull Aya to his side, his right hand stroking along his lover’s pale cheek until Aya looked at him with violet-hued eyes.

About to comment about how they had just stood off to the side during the fight, Yuushi reminded himself that the Shadow Guard would not always have the two men around to assist them on missions like this. It was important to see just how effective Miko was in keeping Ken from going too far, and all that really mattered was that there seemed to be no witnesses to their actions. "What about the new wards?"

"I set them in place earlier and activated them once we got your message," Aya replied, a faint hiss to his voice but otherwise seeming his normal self. "They can stay up however long you need them."

Yuushi bowed his head in thanks. "It should only be a few more minutes." He turned to Eri and gave her a questioning look.

She nodded and motioned toward one of the open shops. "No one heard a thing, and I’m keeping a couple of people from closing their shops until we’ve cleaned up the scene." That said, she gave her partner a poke in the side.

"Just give me a minute or two to get rid of the blood," Naru grumbled as he pulled out a small bag from the inside of his cloak. The stones he shook from the pouch thankfully did not glow, at least not until he dropped them on ground wherever there was any blood. They produced a hissing sound and some smoke, dissolving quickly and leaving no trace of the blood behind.

Reiichi walked over to Yuushi, his expression very pleased. "I barely felt her blows through the armor." He touched his chest right where there would have been a gaping hole had those blows landed. "I’d say that that the armor and the mission was a success."

"You make very good bait," Yuushi teased his friend, enjoying the rush of relief he allowed himself now that his people were safe and the agents captured.

"It’s my irresistible nature, I assume." Laughter shaded Reiichi’s deep, warm voice, and even Aya smiled at the joke.

"Yes, well, do you want to see how ‘irresistible’ you are when it comes to prying some answers out of these two?" Yuushi motioned toward the unconscious bounds, some of the pleasure he felt at successfully doing his job fading. He could kill someone if there was a need, a life to protect or a crime to end, but he never had much of a stomach for interrogating the people he captured. Thankfully, that was a task that fell to Birman, but he knew the Spymaster would not be adverse to Reiichi’s presence during the proceedings. No, if anything she would be happy to have him there since he tended to catch things that others might overlook, and he did not seem to be bothered with interrogations once he was certain that the suspects were indeed guilty. Considering how one of the suspects had done her best to gut him, Reiichi should have no problem with these two.

Yuushi’s friend bowed his head, a humorless smile on his face and a hint of darkness in his normally bright eyes. "If you don’t mind; I know you have a lot of work to do and I can report to you once the interrogation is finished."

"It would save me a bit of time." Yuushi sighed and rubbed his eyes, feeling exhaustion set in now that the excitement was over. Knowing that the agents would not be able to kill any more people would help him sleep well tonight, and tomorrow there were half a dozen other matters that would require his attention. His right hand dropped back to his side and he watched as bands of darkness formed around the two agents. Even if they somehow woke up during the trip to the palace, Aya’s shadow bonds would make sure they could not escape.

"Let me go get our horses," Yohji said, pausing for a moment for a quick kiss with Aya. "Then we’ll follow you back to the palace."

"Shouldn’t take too long to get there, at least," Naru pointed out before heading in the direction where they had stashed their horses and a carriage to use for transporting the agents. "Do you want me to go with them or with you, Yuushi?"

Considering the offer, Yuushi eventually shook his head. "Go with Eri to the palace." He turned to the soul gaki bound and offered her an apologetic smile. "I know Birman has her own people now for the interrogation, but I’d feel better if you’re with the suspects until they’re in her custody and she says she doesn’t need any more of your assistance."

Eri did not take the request to work for a few more hours with any visible ill grace. "Natsumi is strong enough to overcome Dillon’s shields, so I doubt Birman will need my help. I’ll turn the agents over to her and then go home once I finish giving Blair my report."

"If you like, I probably won’t be done until long after sunrise, so you’re more than welcome to use my bed after dropping Naru off at the Koneko," Reiichi offered, a knowing smile on his face that Yuushi’s right hand itched to smack off. What was his friend up to? Other than the blatantly obvious, that was. He was pretty sure that Reiichi knew about his urge when his friend sidled closer to Aya for protection, that annoying smile taking on an evil edge.

He felt his annoyance turn to surprise and an odd happiness when Eri laughed. "At this rate, I should probably just move into the Koneko, I spend so many nights there. If you don’t mind, I’ll take you up on your very generous offer." She bowed her head in thanks then slanted a look in Yuushi’s direction. "Who am I to turn down a comfortable bed and a chance to have one of Jo’s breakfasts?"

Feeling a bit out of sorts over hearing Eri remark on the comfort of *Reiichi’s* bed, Yuushi took a deep breath to snap himself out of a growing bad mood. "It would be an easier solution to that shed."

That prompted another laugh from Eri as well as a tender smile in his direction. "Yes, it certainly would." Ken stared at her in confusion while Miko had a fair version of Reiichi’s knowing smile on her face, Aya was his usual unreadable self and Reiichi seemed to be doing his best to hold back a laugh.

Reminding himself that he could not throttle the conspiring bastard until after Reiichi reported back to him about the interrogation, Yuushi somehow managed a smile in return while gritting his teeth and went off to see where Naru and the carriage were. He was almost run over by the horses a moment later, and took it as a sign that he just needed to go home and hide in bed for the rest of the night.

Ken made little work out of lifting the unconscious agents and dumping them inside of the carriage, displaying a lack of care that would be appalling if the two bounds were not murderers. Yohji showed up right about then, riding his horse while leading Aya’s grey behind him.

"So, did I miss anything?" he asked as he dismounted, the reins held in his left hand as he approached Aya. By then the rain was falling in earnest, Trowa apparently giving up on keeping it moderated in the areas where the Shadow Guard had been staked out for tonight’s mission.

"Just job and bed assignments," Reiichi remarked in an almost bored tone.

"Damn, I always miss out on the fun." Yohji laughed for a few seconds before he leaned forward to nuzzle Aya’s left temple. "You better not have any intentions of making me sleep in Ken’s bed. He’ll ravish me all night long if given a chance."

"Hey!" Ken, in the process of changing his uniform’s coat so it was not so obvious that he’d been in a fight earlier tonight, shook the clean coat in Yohji’s direction. "Who’s the one with the reputation of being a pervert, eh? Jo doesn’t threaten me with death by rolling pin because I’m only one very short step away from thoroughly corrupting poor Emmie and Neely!" he shouted.

"See, you’ve totally repressed all those longings for me, Ken-ken. You’re like one of Naru’s bombs, just ready to explode!"

"Can we not mention bombs right now?" Eri asked as she pushed past the two men to check on the agents. "It’s not wise to tempt the gods like that."

Naru quickly added his voice to the mix, making Yuushi damn glad that Aya’s shadow wards were still in effect. "Hey! I haven’t blown anything up by accident in… ah, days." Naru’s expression turned sheepish and he suddenly found something of interest on the ground to stare at.

Reiichi gave him a comforting pat on the back. "She’s just jealous, Naru." Somehow, he managed to say that with a straight face, even when Eri laughed in response.

"Elise likes my bombs," Naru muttered, and when Yohji opened his mouth to make some comment that Yuushi was *certain* he really did not need to hear, he cleared his throat as loudly as possible.

"If you children don’t mind, I think it would be best to get the suspects to Birman and let the people in this neighborhood go about their normal business. Someone might notice something’s not right if they’re kept here all night because of senseless squabbling."

Everyone but Aya and Reiichi apologized, and Yuushi promised himself a nice, strong drink as soon as he got back to the Koneko. Perhaps Jo would make him a hot toddy and he could spend some time commiserating with her over what it was like to work with a bunch of lunatics.

Waiting for everyone to either mount their horses or climb onto the carriage, Yuushi mounted his own horse and motioned for them to move. "I’ll see everyone back at the Koneko tomorrow morning." He looked at Eri and held up his left hand. "If there are any problems, please let me know."

"I doubt that will be the case, but if I’m wrong, I will." She motioned to the carriage that Reiichi was driving. "As I said, Natsumi will be able to breach their mental shields and find the answers that Birman wants."

Yuushi nodded in goodbye to her and the others and directed his horse to go west, back to the Koneko. The animal quickly complied, no doubt wanting to be back home so Ichiro and Jason could fuss over it and make sure it was well fed. Since the same would basically happen to him once he stepped inside of the inn’s kitchen, he could not really blame the horse for being so eager.

Now the main task that was left to be finished was two-fold and mostly in Birman’s hands. She would get the answers she needed from the agents and send her people to find the Esset sympathizers. They would decide if those people were to be left alone and carefully observed or to be taken into custody, most likely with the Shadow Guard and Aya and Yohji’s assistance. Birman would also have to come up with some cover story for how the bounds had been captured, something that would most likely make it seem as if the agents had been betrayed or the Guard had stumbled across them by sheer dumb luck. Yuushi had little doubt that Crawford would assist her in that regard, and was content to leave the matter in their hands. He would arrange for the necessary Guards to go along with their plot, but his involvement in this matter was mostly finished – at least for now. Considering he had the rest of Kritiker to protect, a couple of dozen new Guards to firmly settle into the organization and plans to recruit more people in the upcoming month, he was grateful for the reprieve. That was not even taking into account the work that Kikyou would dump on him while tied up in those senseless meetings with Manx and the Army.

At least Manx would be having her baby in a few more weeks, which should lead to some sort of reprieve for Yuushi for a short while. Thoughts of the princess-to-be made him think about Toshi, and he pondered over what Crawford had told him and Blair. He would have to send a message to Toshi tomorrow morning that he had be given a couple of days off while whatever was supposed to lead to Duo shifting allegiances occurred. Yuushi did not really care what exactly that was, as long as it did not break any laws and meant that he would not have to worry about Duo betraying his people. It had not been easy to truly rest the last two months, not when he knew there was a traitor in the Guard’s midst, a traitor he had to leave be.

Considering what he had heard about how the Elders forced bounds to be ‘loyal’ to them and Esset, he did not really hold anything against the man for being a spy. But he would not tolerate a danger to his people for much longer, not when they were taking on more risks with each passing day. Crawford better be proven right, or else Duo would soon be assigned to the farthest post from Eto that Yuushi could find.

However, he had to admit that Crawford had come through tonight, so perhaps things would be fine with Duo in another day or two. So far the gods had been kind to the Shadow Guard, and hopefully they would continue to be so for a while longer.

*******

In the middle of trying to grab the goblet of wine from his mate’s hand, Schuldig frowned when he felt someone’s thoughts brush against his mind. Since he recognized who it was and she did not annoy him *too* much, he lowered his shields enough to accept the message.

<We’ve caught the agents and are taking them back to the palace. Yohji asked me to let you know so you could tell Jo that he and Aya won’t be back until morning.> The message delivered, Eri quickly severed the contact.

Not minding the lost chance to respond to the message, Schuldig shook his head to clear it from the feel of the other soul gaki bound and sidled closer to Masato. "Eh, looks like the bad guys have been caught, and Yohji and Aya won’t be back until morning." There, he had been a good boy and done as he had been asked for once, so he deserved a treat. Masato must have recognized the smile on his face because the wine was suddenly held far out of his reach.

"You’ve your own glass, Brat."

"But I want yours," Schuldig purred, about to crawl into his mate’s lap when there was a whap to the back of his head. "Ow!"

"Behave yourself," Jo chided, her eyes narrowed in anger and her thoughts clearly on the two children who were seated at the table while Botan and Cassandra helped with their homework.

"You’re no fun." Schuldig pouted for a few seconds, until he had the impression he was about to be smacked again. "Did I tell you about how hard I worked today, and all I want is a bit of wine so I can enjoy myself?"

She sighed and shook her head, but grabbed the goblet from Masato’s hand and gave it to him. "It’s just easier this way," she muttered, before stalking back to the table where she had been busy slicing up several pumpkin pies. Maddox, occupied with whipping some cream for the dessert, eyed her warily before sending a disapproving look in Schuldig’s direction.

<No, I’m not purposely riling up your personal god and mentor, I’ll have you know,> he sent to the kid, a little disappointed that Maddox seemed to have gotten used to telepathic conversation. It was much more fun when the boy had practically jumped into the air whenever Schuldig had sent a private message.

<Behave,> Masato sent over their link, his left hand sliding around Schuldig’s back and grasping his left hip to pull him closer. <I haven’t had pumpkin pie in months, so if we get kicked out of here before she gives us any, neither of us will be happy.>

Schuldig stuck his tongue out in response, but he finally settled down and sipped his hard-earned wine. Despite his best efforts, he was too tired tonight to truly stir up trouble after spending the last two days searching through literally thousands of minds. He was a bit annoyed that he had not found the two agents by himself, but at least he had given a few leads to the Shadow Guard and Birman - leads that would have come in very handy if his father had been wrong about the murders tonight.

As if sensing his exhaustion, Masato hugged him even closer and gave his right ear a flirtatious nip. <Let me enjoy a bit of wine and some pie, and I’ll give you a massage when we get home tonight.> Images and emotions crossed their link; Masato’s happiness at having his own place to live at last and the fact that it was shared with Schuldig, wonderfully potent lust at the thought of having Schuldig naked and stretched out beneath him, relaxed from a full body massage and full of enough pleasure that Masato was able to feed from the emotion.

<You’re so lucky to have me,> Schuldig sent back, tilting his head so he could give his mate’s stubbled jaw a quick lick. If his mother was not here and Jo so clearly on the warpath, he would do a good bit more, but he would allow Masato that pie and be good for once. The massage later would definitely make it worth his while, as would the fact that they should have a few days to themselves now where they did not have anything to do other than fuck and eat and drink.

"You’re definitely a handful." Masato chuckled and snatched back his wine glass to finish off the last swallow.

"Hmm, and it’s a good thing-"

"Trouble, you might not want to finish that thought." Cassandra flashed him a smile that made it clear where he had gotten his own before she resumed helping Emmie write an essay about Kritiker’s first king.

Pouting again, he could not sustain the expression for very long when he felt this pleased with himself. He was back at the Koneko, sitting in its wonderful kitchen with his mate by his side and his mother nearby, the air scented with the promise of some delicious food. Having Yohji here would have made things perfect, but things were pretty good as they were. Besides, this way he did not have to worry about Masato getting into any fights.

Jei chose that moment to return to the kitchen, a new bottle of wine in each of his hands. "Mickey said we could have the merlot with the red wax and red and blue label, right?" He held the bottles up for Jo’s approval, and grinned when she nodded. "Great, last thing I want tonight is for him to be chasing me around the damn inn while screaming about his wine."

"What, you’re afraid of a mere human?" Schuldig sneered as he held up his and Masato’s empty goblets.

Jei chuckled and shook his head. "Nah, what I’m afraid of is Kira coming after me with a broadsword when she finds out I ate her fiancé." He got a dirty look from Jo and Botan for that comment, which clearly did not bother him for long. At the least, Jei had developed a type of ‘blindness’ when around Kaede’s father; he did his best to pretend that the man did not exist, and Botan did not get his throat ripped out for being a wizard. If there was any one sign that Jei truly did care for Kaede, it was that, in Schuldig’s opinion. He felt Masato’s assent to that line of thought, along with how Masato was relieved that Cassandra was someone he easily liked and who liked him back in return.

<Of course, you’re blessed with me for the rest of your life so how can she not like you?>

<More like she feels the utmost sympathy for me.> Masato laughed when Schuldig growled over the insult, then appeased him by giving him the first goblet filled with wine. <Besides, the two of you are so much alike, how can I not like her and her me?>

"Hmph." Schuldig took his time drinking the tart wine before relaxing back against Masato. "So, you missed the news that they got the agents," he told Jei, substituting ‘agents’ for ‘fucking bastards’ at the last minute when he remembered about the pumpkin pie and his massage.

"Ah." Jei did not look too happy for someone who had run the risk of being exposed while the bastards were running around Eto, but it did not take Schuldig long to figure out what was the matter. Now that Trowa was not pretending to be Masato’s lover, he could admit some respect for the water elemental bound, though he did not see why Jei thought of him as such a good friend.

"You really think something will happen between those two so quickly?"

Jei, used to having his surface thoughts read like that, shrugged and poured himself a very full glass of wine. "Crawford seems to think so, and I’ve smelled those two around each other enough to know that-" He paused to look in Cassandra’s direction and noticed the warning look she was giving him. "Hm, let’s just say that I doubt they’ll be able to hold out much longer."

Neely, the precocious brat that she was, smiled and pushed aside the book of mathematics that Botan had been teaching her on Marta’s request. "You mean they’ll be mates, don’t you?"

"That seems to be the case," Jei grunted before gulping down the wine.

"Trowa’s so sad all the time, I hope Duo does a good job of cheering him up," she said, a dreamy smile on her face as she imagined a mate of her own. Not even Schuldig had the heart to tell her that it would probably never happen and she would have to settle for a ‘normal’ lover. He did not see why she was set on a mate of her own so badly, not when most people were happy without the bond between them and another person. He had certainly never expected to end up with one, although he’d gotten lucky with Masato.

<I heard that.>

"Shut up or you won’t get your pie," Schuldig warned, and almost laughed when he felt his mate’s exaggerated panic.

"Duo *will* do a good job of cheering up Trowa, if he knows what’s good for him," Jei said as he poured himself some more wine. He snapped his teeth for added emphasis and a truly evil gleam appeared in his eye.

Schuldig had to smile over how much Jei adored tormenting Duo. "Eh, I think you had him completely terrorized the other day." He snickered as he remembered that visit to the Koneko. "I’d never seen a man so grateful to be saved by a kid before."

"What sort of trouble have you been up to?" Jo set plates covered with large slices of pie and lots of whipped cream in front of Jei, Schuldig and Masato, then put her fists on her hips and glared at Jei.

The flesh gaki bound did not seem bothered by her apparent anger – then again, Jo could not fling fireballs at his ass. Schuldig had to wonder if part of the reason why his friend enjoyed tormenting the hell out of Duo was because the poor bastard was also a fire elemental bound.

"I’m just making sure the kid thinks with his head when it comes to Trowa." Somehow, Jei managed a mostly innocent expression, and Schuldig knew that Jo considered Trowa enough of a stray that she would not object to anyone looking out for his best interests. Jei glanced in Emmie and Neely’s direction, and no doubt noticed that Emmie was doing her best not to be distracted by schoolwork so she could overhear the conversation. Such a sly little brat, which was part of the reason why Schuldig liked her.

"Duo wouldn’t be so nervous about Jei if there wasn’t a good reason on his part," Masato pointed out, pausing in devouring his precious pie for a few seconds. Then he groaned in contentment. "Jo, this is absolutely wonderful."

Her stern look softened and she patted him on the shoulder. "Wait until this fall, when the pumpkins are fresh. I make a lot of pies, then." If Masato was not mated to Schuldig, he had the impression that the asshole would propose to Jo just then.

<I’m a hell of a lot better than a damn pie.>

<Yes, but I only get pumpkin pie a couple of times a year.> Masato winked at him, then held out a forkful of the dessert by way of appeasement. <Besides, I’ll go for fantastic sex over sweets any day.>

Mollified by that statement, Schuldig accepted the offering and had to admit that the pie was delicious, and started on his own slice. He had missed nights like this while in Berin; able to sit down with the people he cared about and be stuffed silly with great-tasting food. Between his mother and Jo, he and Masato almost never had to cook, although his mate did a great job of whipping up some simple meals. Considering the months they had spent away and the work that kept them pretty busy, they deserved some pampering.

"I guess we should tell Nagi and Omi about the news once they finish their shift." Jo picked up the empty plates and went back to get some more slices of pie. "I doubt we’ll be able to keep Omi inside once he finds out."

"He wants to take his boyfriend to some festivals." Schuldig poked Masato in the side to help get his hint across. "You know, show him a fun time and stuff him with all the goodies they sell at those things."

"What, you want me to catch you a few goldfish so you can take them home and kill them from neglect?" Masato asked. When Schuldig growled in response and sent over their link that *Yohji* was the one with the lousy track record when it came to fish, he laughed and leaned in for a kiss that tasted of spices and whipped cream. "We’ll find a night or two that we can take off."

"We better." Schuldig was growing very bored with meeting up with older bounds and helping them join the Army; his patience and control was severely tested by those who had known Masato for quite a few years and had not heard that the man was taken now.

"Can’t say I blame the kid for wanting some freedom, and he did honor his promise to stick to the inn." Jei frowned at Schuldig when he and Cassandra gave him stunned looks. "Yeah, I like the little bastard, he always buys me those sweetened nuts that I really enjoy," Jei muttered into his wine glass.

Jo let the profanity slip by, probably because it was not really meant as an insult to Omi. For Jei to tolerate *two* wizards – Botan was a given since Kaede’s heart would be broken if he hurt the man and there was the fact that Botan had helped them quite a lot, but Omi…. Jei really had taken Nagi under his wing.

Schuldig laughed as something occurred to him. "No wonder you’re making Duo sh- ah, shiver in his boots." Poor Jei needed some sort of outlet after reining in his desire to gut all wizards.

Jei raised his glass in salute. "Well, I must admit I get some fun out of it, but I really do want to make sure that he treats Trowa right." He sighed and set the glass on the table, his fingers stroking along the black leather patch he wore a couple of times. "Not like he’ll have much of a choice, if Crawford’s right."

"The kid really loves Trowa; you don’t need to be a soul gaki bound to know that." Masato trailed his fingers up and down Schuldig’s left arm, made happy by that simple contact. "I can sense that, and I’m surprised it’s taken them this long to get together, considering how much jealousy and hatred he directs at me." Schuldig growled at the thought of anyone wishing his mate ill, but allowed himself to be soothed by a kiss to his right temple.

"Yeah, but it won’t hurt to keep him on his toes, not to mention more than a little fun."

"No, it won’t," Masato agreed.

Finished with the pie, Jo wiped her hands on her apron and sat down at the table, content to let Maddox take over the kitchen for a bit. She tousled Schuldig’s hair then rested her chin in her right hand. "Just as long as they get ‘together’ somewhere other than the Koneko, I’ll be happy."

<Nah, it takes a succubae bound getting mated to turn the inn into a whorehouse,> Schuldig sent, knowing he would have a headache for a week if he spoke aloud. As it was, Jo gave him a very dark look as she remembered what had happened when *he* had become mates with Masato.

<Trouble, I think it would be a very good idea to take your mate back home.> Amusement and love tempered Cassandra’s thoughts, his mother the only person other than Masato who could slip into his mind so easily. <Go have some fun, and stop by my house tomorrow for breakfast.>

<It’s a date.> He blew a kiss at his mother, pleased that she was so happy tonight. While he still had some reservations about her dating a wizard, it was clear that Botan treated her right and brought her much happiness. He read from her thoughts that Botan would have to go back to the palace tonight, so it would just be the three of them for breakfast.

<There’s that one flower shop on the way to your mother’s house; we’ll stop there for a nice bouquet.>

Tilting his head back so he could look up at his mate, Schuldig smiled and thought about how he would repay Masato’s thoughtfulness once he got his massage. The images he sent made Masato’s hunger stir to life and the succubae bound stood up in an excited rush.


"Jo, I thank you for the wonderful dinner and dessert." Masato managed a smooth bow while yanking Schuldig to his feet as well. "Cassandra, I’ll see you in the morning. Everyone else, have a good night and we’ll probably see you again tomorrow." He made no effort to hide the fact that he wanted out of the inn as soon as possible, which made Schuldig grin with smug pride. Oh yes, having a mate could be a wonderful thing, especially one that could fuck you non-stop for several hours.

They left the Koneko with the sound of Cassandra and Jei’s laughter filling the air, along with Cassandra’s message that she would prepare a late breakfast for them.

*******

When Birman passed on the message to Trowa that the agents from Esset had been captured, he concentrated on slowly unraveling his control over the weak rainstorm that covered the northern part of Eto. Now it would gradually shift southward then dissipate, more rain that the city truly did not need. If it were not for the fact that Eto had a very good sewer system, there would have been more than the minor flooding that he had been forced to allow when the winter’s snow had begun melting.

Now that the weather was not a concern of his any longer, he lay on his bed with the copper bracelet he had been given once he begun working for Birman held in his hands. More than anything, he wished it was attuned for all Shadow Guard messages so he had better information about what was going on. ‘The agents are in custody’ wasn’t much of anything, in his opinion, not when Duo was one of the Guards out there responsible for their capture.

He had felt a physical pain yesterday when Duo had returned home with the news that he would be patrolling a new area tonight. When Trowa had heard that it would be the same district where Crawford believed that the agents would strike, he had wanted to tell Duo not to report to work tonight. Of all things, he had been tempted to use his power against his friend, to do something that would make Duo unfit for work. Something inside of him had howled at him to do just that, to keep Duo safe from harm. Then, to add to his misery, he had spent the day in their apartment with the man since Birman had ordered him to remain at home while he influenced the weather. All that time spent with a sleeping Duo, lying so close….

Trowa whined in misery as he set the bracelet aside then rubbed his eyes. There had been even more pain when he had allowed his friend to leave their apartment, his demon nature demanding that he pull Duo close, bridge the distance between them so their bodies pressed together, so he could taste the fire elemental and-

He sat up on the bed in a rush, breathing labored and body tingling in an uncomfortable manner. To his horror, his cock was half-hard, reacting as it rarely did to his thoughts about other people. But it was Duo who occupied his mind, who he could smell on the bed linens and the furnishings around the room, that intoxicating, smoky scent that made him breathe in deeply and want to purr.

It was as if he was going insane. He got off the bed and paced around the room, needing to get farther from where Duo’s scent radiated the strongest, yet unwilling to go too far away. The impulses had been like this all day, tearing at him and urging him to do things he had never have considered before. He had barely resisted touching Duo before the fire elemental bound had left, and then the maddening desires had grown stronger until he had hardly been able to concentrate on controlling the weather. Now that his duty for the night was done, he had lost that precious focus to worry over his friend; there was little escape to be found from his unnerving emotions.

Whining with unhappiness again, he forced himself to leave the bedroom. The living room was only marginally better, Duo’s scent fainter in here since the fire elemental only spent a couple of hours a day curled up on the couch. Trowa resumed pacing, mind filled with all the things that could have gone wrong tonight. Duo was the most powerful fire elemental bound in Esset, so very few bounds in Berin did not know about him. That meant the agents most likely would recognize him on sight, especially since he normally stood out in a crowd with that long hair and those indigo-colored eyes. While they should be aware that he had been sent to Eto for a mission, would they remember that fact in time and not assume that he had turned traitor? Or would Duo react badly if he realized that the people he was hunting were not wizards or monsters created by magic but other bounds? The Shadow Guard knew what Duo was and why he was here… which would not mean much if Duo took to fighting his own coworkers for the sake of other bounds. That many of those coworkers *were* bounds meant that he stood a good chance of losing that fight.

As such thoughts continued to plague him, Trowa tugged on his long bangs in an effort to distract himself. Would it be too suspicious if he used the bracelet to ask about Duo’s welfare? Surely it would not seem too out of place for the man’s roommate and supposed lover to inquire about his health and if he would be returning home soon. Only, Trowa had never done so in the past, and what if Duo found out about it? Would not that make his friend very suspicious about what was going on?

Yet Crawford had assured Trowa that Duo would soon be on their side, which meant that he did not have to be fearful of revealing something that could hurt his friends and fellow co-conspirators for much longer. Trowa laughed aloud at that thought and went over to the living room window to open it, desperate for some air that did not smell so strongly of Duo. To think that one of his biggest fears upon finding out that he would share an apartment with the fire elemental bound was that he would do something to inadvertently reveal the truth. That seemed like such a faint concern now, when he was besieged by unfamiliar longings and strange impulses.

Dammit, it had been almost an hour since he had been informed that the agents were in custody; should that not be more than enough time for Duo to turn in his report and come home? If the man had to work a complete shift tonight…. Trowa shuddered and wrapped his arms around his chest as he leaned against the wall beside the open window. He did not think he could wait that long to find out if Duo was all right or not.

Perhaps he could pretend that he was running an errand for Birman and go look for his friend. The rain was finally tapering off, taking the only comfort that he had felt tonight with it and leaving him alone and weakened in return. He should not be pushing things with his talent again, not after over-extending himself just a couple of months ago, but the exhaustion helped him to sleep in the bed alone – and when Duo returned. Lately, it had been impossible to resist the man’s warmth and the comfort his mere presence provided, the way that he never had any bad nightmares when touching Duo in some manner or another.

Trowa laughed while tugging on his bangs once more with his right hand, the sound as unbalanced as he felt at the moment. Why did all of his thoughts come back to Duo? Why could he not get the man out of his mind for five whole minutes? It was like he was obsessed or something, or mated to the fire elemental bound. That could not possibly be what was happening, not as scared and broken as Trowa was; what god could be so cruel as to inflict him upon some poor bound for the rest of their lives? The bond was meant to be a special thing, to be cherished, and he was not the type of person that someone else would want to love and be mates with for the rest of their lives.

Even if Duo did want him in return, and oh gods how Trowa could count each instance when that seemed to be true, it meant nothing. He might have kept himself apart from others for the last several years, but he had witnessed enough pairings in Eto that had *nothing* to do with true feelings other than lust or a desire to please the Elders. He had been told that he was a reasonably handsome young man and Duo was known for taking on various lovers for mutual pleasure and little else, and they were now stuck living together. While Trowa would never deny that they were friends, he honestly did not believe there was more than that on Duo’s part.

That thought made the pain grow even sharper, made him huddle over with his left arm hugged tightly around his lower chest. Why should it hurt this badly? Why could not he get Duo out of his head? Trowa growled as the air turned humid around him, wanting desperately to lash out at something even though he knew there was no suitable target.

He had just calmed himself to the point that he could regain control of his talent when he felt a familiar presence over the wards outside the apartment’s door, his back snapping up straight and his hands falling to his sides as he focused on that presence. There was a rush of peace and longing when he recognized Duo, his talent focusing so strongly on the other bound that his legs wavered and his vision darkened for a few seconds. That was why it took him a moment to realize that Duo was bleeding.

Moving toward the door even before it opened, he was only a couple of feet from it when Duo stepped into the apartment with a pained smile on his face. He began to say Trowa’s name before he found himself shoved away from the door and back against the wall, the door slamming shut beside him as Trowa pressed close. Using his talent to search out the source of the blood, Trowa’s knees weakened again when he realized it was a relatively minor wound on Duo’s right hand.

"Eh? You gotta give me time to take off my boots before you get on my case about them!" Duo exclaimed in surprise, his left hand resting on Trowa’s shoulder as if to push him away, yet not applying any true pressure.

"What happened?" Trowa snarled, flooded with relief that it was not anything serious and upset that Duo had been harmed at all. Who had done it?

Duo held up his right hand as he stared directly at Trowa, showing off the slightly bleeding, crescent-shaped wound. "You’ll never believe this. I get relieved of duty since they caught the wizard, and on the way home run into some damn brat who thinks that *I’m* the monster! Little shit bit me when I tried to calm him down." He laughed a couple of times, the sound drifting off as he continued to look Trowa directly in the eyes.

Trowa wanted to groan at the irony of Duo getting bit by a human when unknowingly hunting a flesh gaki bound, but he could not seem to produce any sound just then. No, the pain was back, along with his demon nature rushing to the fore and obliterating all of his common sense as it screamed at him to do *something*. What, not even he was sure, at least not until he found himself lurching forward and pressing his lips against Duo’s.

At that slight contact, some of the pain faded; some comfort was found in the fact that Duo was safe and mostly whole and *right here*. Trowa could breathe in his scent, that addictive smoky, musky aroma blended with rain, sweat and a hint of blood, so dizzyingly intoxicating that he practically slumped against the fire elemental bound as if he could not support himself.

To his continuing surprise, he found himself steadied by Duo’s arms wrapping around him and Duo kissing him back. His demon soul purred at the contact, his lips parting as he felt Duo’s tongue rub against them. Somehow, his hands ended up tangled in Duo’s wet hair, the raindrops on his roommate’s rain slicker soaking into the thin tunic and pants he was wearing. It took him at least a minute to realize that he was moaning, the sound so full of need that it shocked him, made him try to pull away before he was forced to admit that he *wanted* someone so badly.

However, Duo did not seem willing to let him go. He was pulled back into the kiss, his friend’s hands clutching his shoulders then sliding along them after a moment’s hesitation. Trowa should detest such restraint, should lash out with his talent and break free, yet all he could do was kiss Duo in return, his right hand dragging up the long braid that draped down the fire elemental bound’s chest so he could break the flimsy tie that held the chestnut strands in place.

In return, the clasp holding most of his hair tied back was undone and dropped to the floor, Duo’s hands leaving Trowa’s shoulders for a moment to run through his hair and push it away from his face. The kiss broke off again, Duo staring at him with passionate intent for a few seconds while they both labored to breathe properly, then Trowa felt the slightest of tugs from the hand resting against the nape of his neck that urged him to lift his chin.

"Duo- ah!" It felt as if lightning had struck and raced through his body from his feet to his head, nerves tingling along his body at the feel of lips against his neck. This time his knees did buckle and only Duo’s arm wrapping around his waist kept him from tumbling to the floor.

The exquisite torture went on for what seemed forever; warm lips and the faint rasp of stubble along over-sensitive skin, his head falling backwards as he purred at the potent pleasure that suffused his entire body from such a simple contact. He wanted more of it, wanted Duo to suck harder instead of kissing so sweetly, wanted to feel his friend’s skin against his, to be pushed onto his back and-

"No!" Trowa pushed away again, once more shocked by his own emotions and lust. Breathing heavily, he shook his head to clear it, his neck throbbing wherever Duo’s lips had touched it. "No, this isn’t…." He wasn’t sure what it was or was not supposed to be, and faintly realized that Duo’s left arm was still around his waist and that the restraint did not fill him with panic.

"Trowa." Duo’s voice sounded as if his throat was filled with glass – so raw and hurting that it made Trowa look at him in fear that he was hurt. There was indeed pain on his friend’s handsome face, along with such blatant need that he stopped trying to push the man away.

"I thought… I told myself that I wouldn’t rush things," Duo continued, voice growing even more raw with each word. "That I’d wait for you. But how the hell can I when you kiss me like that? Either go the hell away or let me… let me…." He pulled Trowa closer so he could feel his friend’s erection – could feel his *own* erection now that he was not so dazed by lust and need. "Please, make a decision, because I can’t trust myself any longer."

There was so much pain in that admission, in the beautiful eyes that stared at Trowa as if he was the only thing in the world. The demon part of him crowed in joy at the words, its choice entirely obvious in what it wanted Trowa to do. As for his human side… there was fear, the same fear that had been part of him for so long, but the faintest it had ever been. He was stunned to realize that the fear was not directed at Duo but himself, was over the searing emotions he felt whenever Duo was this close – no, not even when they were near each other but whenever he even thought about the man anymore. He was afraid because he *wanted* Duo more than anything else, even his revenge against the Elders.

The revelation was too much, made him sink to the ground… with his hands clutching Duo’s upper arms as if the man was his only anchor left in the world, pulling him down with him. Even if he could think clearly enough to want to move away, his body leaned against Duo’s as they sat in a jumble on the floor, craving that physical support and contact. "I… can’t think," he murmured, no longer torn between conflicting impulses but overwhelmed by what he truly wanted.

"Then I’m going," Duo groaned, the sound growing louder as he tried to slowly push Trowa away.

"No!" The fear grew in strength, but this time over the thought of Duo leaving him. Trowa yanked Duo back to the floor and kissed him again, not quite hitting the mark as he became clumsy with desperation. Maybe this would lead to pain, to more degradation, but he had already suffered so much so why did it matter if there was more? His demon soul assured him there would not be, as if he cared at this point as long as Duo did not go away. That would be as if the world became bereft of all water, all joy, all life, and his tolerance for denying himself had finally broken.

"No," he repeated, his lips brushing against Duo’s left cheek before they moved back to his mouth. "Don’t go. I… you." Why could he not put into words that he had made his choice?

Still, after a moment’s pause Duo seemed to understand what he was trying to say. He was kissed with an intensity that made his head spin, one of Duo’s hands tenderly cradling the nape of his neck while the other tilted his chin up the slightest bit. Just the movement of a skilled tongue, the application of a little suction - such seemingly trivial things that he had never before realised could bring such pleasure, and that now left him trembling with the desire for *more*.

Duo’s fingers caressed the side of his jaw as the kiss was brought to a reluctant end. "Do you really want me? Do you want more?" Duo’s tone was uncharacteristically hesitant as he pulled Trowa onto his lap, his left hand falling from Trowa’s neck to rest against the top of his ass. "Oh gods, I need more," he moaned, his eyes pleading with Trowa as if he was terrified of being denied.

The thought of what Duo wanted, the physical intimacy that Trowa had shunned for so long…. The fear grew a little stronger as remembered pain made Trowa close his eyes and lean his head forward until it rested against Duo’s. It had hurt so much in the past, yet he wasn’t sure if he could *not* do it right now. The mere thought of leaving Duo eclipsed the remembered pain with sharp panic and furious denial.

Something was on the edge of his thoughts, a reverent word that explained everything, and even if he still was not quite ready to admit to it right now, he finally realised that there would be no walking away from this. He was talented at denying himself what he needed, but there was no way he could do that to Duo. Somehow, his friend had become too important, too vital to him, had shattered the sense of solitude he’d surrounded himself with as a shield against the world.

So he tucked back the lock of hair falling onto Duo’s face, his fingers lingering against the spot beneath the man’s jaw where he could feel how frantically Duo’s heart beat. "Okay." Just the one word, yet the assent behind it made Trowa’s heart race fast enough that he thought it might burst, made his demon soul cry out in joy and inexplicable happiness pour into him.

Duo seemed to need a few seconds to understand that word, and then he somehow managed to gather Trowa close enough to pick him up in a sudden surge off the floor. "Yes, yes, yes," he chanted as he practically ran to the bedroom, his blatant eagerness wringing an amused sound from Trowa. He was amazed at how he could laugh at anything that had to do with what was going to happen next, yet he continued to smile when he was carefully set onto the bed as if a breakable, precious item.

Even the blatant reminder of what he had agreed to could not bring the fear and pain back to the fore; if anything, those emotions settled down as his demon soul reminded him that he had given in to this willingly. The look of extreme happiness on Duo’s face, such a stark contrast to the pain it had held before, helped to put him at ease. This was not like… was not like the past, he knew it. He had faith in Duo, a trust that he believed would not be broken.

About to kneel on the bed beside Trowa, Duo suddenly stopped and pulled back. "Ah! My boots! I’m sorry!" he babbled, as he hopped back and forth while pulling off the footgear, then tossed them away and shed the rain slicker as well. His hip-length hair was completely disheveled, his dark eyes gleaming in the faint moonlight that crept through the windows, damp uniform clinging to his toned body. To Trowa’s relief, he did not start pulling off the rest of those clothes.

Crawling on his hands and knees, Duo slowly approached Trowa, never looking away from Trowa’s face the entire time. "You can still stop this, Trowa. Any time you want to, put an end to it." Some of the agony was back from before, yet Trowa knew that his friend was speaking the truth. "Knock me out, bleed me dry, do whatever you want."

He could do it, too. His right hand lifted and pressed against that spot on Duo’s neck where the bound’s pulse beat just beneath sun-tanned skin. With a mere thought on his part, he could render Duo unconscious or unable to ‘perform’. That reminded him that he was not a child anymore, was not powerless and able to only accept the abuse. Even more, he’d *chosen* this, a voice whispering that he would never be able to undo that choice at this point even if he balked at what would soon follow. The thing was, he did not *want* to undo it. Maybe this would hurt, maybe he would have some regrets in the morning, and neither of those facts truly mattered when he thought about putting an end to the madness and yearning that had plagued him the last few months. If he was going to be honest with himself, those things had plagued him ever since he’d met Duo.

"Then do it right, Duo," he whispered, as he stroked along his friend’s neck, smiling a little at the way the pulse sped up and sweat broke out along thin skin.

Duo stared at him in shock for several seconds, then leaned to the side to fumble for something in his nightstand. He cursed under his breath until he found what he had been looking for, a small jar that Trowa had seen several times and politely ignored; yet not even that almost brutal reminder of what was about to happen shook his resolve.

Sitting back on his heels, Duo put the jar off to the side, leaving it within easy reach. Then he crawled forward until he was beside Trowa, his right hand reaching to tuck back the thick hair that covered part of Trowa’s face. "Do you really want this?"

Trowa felt a spark of exasperation at that question. While he appreciated that Duo seemed to be going out of his way to allow him the final say in things and to prove that he was not forcing Trowa to do anything, it was getting a bit ridiculous. "No, I’m just lying on the bed with you and waiting for us to have sex for the hell of it," he snapped, then yanked the idiot closer. Why did it figure that he had finally given in to his desire, only to have Duo drag things out even longer?

Duo yelped in surprise when he tumbled off-balance against Trowa, his hair falling forward to cover Trowa’s right hand. "Are you sure?" When Trowa glared at him, he sighed and brushed his thumb along Trowa’s left cheekbone in a tender caress. "I mean, it’s *me*."

That made Trowa’s annoyance vanish and his smile return. "I could say the same thing," he murmured, shaking his head at Duo’s sudden denial. "It’s because it’s you," he admitted, the smile fading as his need for the man grew. He had done it, had given in, and if Duo did not take what was offered soon he felt as if he would shatter.

"Oh." Duo repeated the caress before leaning in for a kiss. Unlike the previous ones, this started out so gentle that Trowa was taken aback. His eyes slowly drifted shut, a moan escaping when he felt Duo’s fingers lightly stroke along his throat. Such gentleness… he had never felt it before, not this so obvious concern for him and the pleasure he felt. That pleasure increased with each heartbeat, a slowly building warmth that was even sweeter than the lightning bolt from before.

Then the kiss took on a hungry edge, its passion increasing until Trowa once again clutched at Duo’s arms. He actually yelped when the world whirled around him and he found himself on top of his friend, Duo now stretched out on the bed.

"I thought… maybe this would be better," Duo whispered, one hand combing through Trowa’s hair while the other played with the laces of his tunic, slowly pulling them loose. "Do you… I mean, I’m fine with either, you know."

"What?" Trowa stared at his friend in confusion and almost jumped when his tunic was pulled upward.

"What I’m saying is that I want you and I don’t really care how we do this." There was a bit of an edge to Duo’s voice now, an indication that his patience was starting to wear thin as if he was pushed to his limits. He tugged the tunic over Trowa’s head, then began to undo the buttons of his dark blue coat.

Trowa finally figured out what was being asked. "Oh." He bit into his bottom lip and batted Duo’s hands aside so he could make quicker work of the buttons; he had agreed to this, was admitting that he *wanted* this, so he would not leave all the work to Duo. The fact that he was being offered a chance to be the one doing the fucking made him feel a little queasy. In all the fantasies he had had about him and Duo, he had been the one on the ‘bottom’, and he did not think he could risk possibly hurting his friend by changing things. "I want you to… do it." He leaned his head forward so his hair could cover his face and the furious blush that made his cheeks burn with heat and embarrassment.

Duo sat up and ran both hands through Trowa’s long hair, pulling it away so he could see Trowa’s face. "Hey, I’ll do whatever you ask." He smiled and rubbed the tips of their noses together. "All I want is you, it doesn’t matter how that happens." The smile changed into a more serious expression. "As long as you want me back, that is."

"Idiot," Trowa mumbled, wondering how the hell Duo could think that he might not want him as well when they were undressing each other and he still had a little trouble breathing after that last kiss. There was also the fact that he was hard as hell, his pants becoming more uncomfortable by the minute.

"That’s me." Duo pressed a kiss against Trowa’s forehead then shrugged off the long coat, Trowa having to shift about to help with that. Next went his shirt, and Trowa could not resist stroking his hand along his roommate’s chest. Duo’s skin was so warm and smooth, his nipples darkened in arousal to a dusky brown. Wanting to see what would happen, he trailed his right forefinger in circles around the left nipple.

"Oh gods." Duo shook his head as he moaned, his hands falling from Trowa’s hair to caress their way down Trowa’s chest. The touch made Trowa hiss in pleasure and arch his back. How could something so simple feel so good?

"I’ve wanted to do this for so long." Duo leaned forward, Trowa now kneeling on his lap, and once more kissed Trowa’s neck. Like the last kiss, it was gentle at first, then the feel of teeth pressing against skin made Trowa cry out and his hips rock forward. His hands latched to the back of Duo’s head to make sure his friend did not try to pull away this time, the sensations of lips and tongue and teeth so ecstatic that Trowa felt dizzy from the searing emotion.

He did not even care when he felt Duo’s hand slide down the back of his pants, fingers warm and gentle as they cupped his ass. Logically, that was what would come next in the order of things, and he ached so much that he wanted nothing more than to have it done. First had been giving his consent, next was his body, and – no, first had been giving his heart to Duo, so why did the other two matter at all?

Teeth scraped a trail of sizzling pleasure up his neck to his left ear. "I’m sorry, I promise I won’t hurt you, but I can’t wait much longer." Duo sounded as if he was ready to cry, yet his touch remained gentle. "I wanted to make you come first, wanted to taste all of you, but…."

"But it’s too much," Trowa whispered, understanding all too well what Duo was trying to say. Maybe if they had given in to this sooner, maybe if they did not need each other so much…. He wanted to say he did not mind if there was any pain, but he knew that Duo truly cared if there was. "I want you, too."

"Fucking hell, you kill me when you say that." Duo laughed and pulled away, his expression one of pure desire. "Let’s get rid of these clothes, okay? I’m about to ruin my pants."

That made Trowa laugh as well, and whatever shyness he usually felt when naked in front of others was nowhere to be felt right now. The blush from earlier returned when he noticed Duo staring at him as he removed the pants, but it was not from fear or embarrassment, rather it had to do with the realization that Duo wanted him that much. When had someone looked at him as if he was so beautiful? It had always had to do with his water elemental nature in the past, was with the way that he could make other people feel. Yet the admiration and yearning that Duo showed just then proved that his friend wanted him for so much more.

He already knew how Duo looked when naked, yet his blush grew stronger when the bound wiggled out of his pants and threw them across the room. Unable to resist, he stroked Duo’s smooth chest once more, his fingers trailing along the curve of a hip and into the indent that led to the patch of curly, dark brown hair. Duo hissed in response and tugged him down, the action one more of determined insistence than force.

Allowing himself to fall forward, Trowa drew back a little when he was pushed onto his right side and Duo rolled over to face him. "You are so damn beautiful. Don’t know why you want me, but you’re stuck with me forever." Duo breathed the words with a sense of reverence that made Trowa duck his head and want to renounce them. Before he could, his head was tilted to the side and he received another tender kiss.

Wanting more than that, he was the one to deepen it this time, his tongue venturing into Duo’s warm mouth as his fingers stroked along his friend’s back. He could not get enough of touching the man, of feeling the way skin twitched and muscle flexed against his fingertips. Focusing on those sensations to keep himself steadied when he felt Duo’s fingers, now slick with lubricant, slide along his ass….

Yet he could not distract himself completely, not when things were so different from how they’d been in the past. There was no rough pawing, no brutal shoving of a mostly dry finger inside of him. Duo rubbed his slick fingers along Trowa’s hole for several seconds before one of them slowly pushed inside. His body resisted at first, but Duo nibbling on his jaw made him sigh in pleasure and his body to relax.

If he could tilt his head back and expose his throat to this man, what did it matter if he let him inside like that? There was some discomfort, but compared to the agony he had felt in the past and the pleasure he felt now, it did not bother him at all. He shifted his legs apart some more, breathed as evenly as he could while his neck was being kissed and gave himself to the trust, love and desire he felt.

Duo moaned his name, the sound almost strangled as fingers sunk deeper into Trowa’s body. He was surprised to hear himself moan as well, those tormenting dreams from the last few months filling his mind as he thought about what would happen next. His hips rocked back and forth, no longer just to feel Duo’s hard erection slide against his own but to take those fingers in even deeper. It was an odd sensation, feeling his body being stretched and prepared like that, the evident care that Duo was taking almost eradicating the slight fear that he felt.

After a particularly hard thrust from Duo and the scrape of teeth against his neck, Duo pulled his fingers free and pushed at Trowa’s left hip. "Turn around."

"What?" Trowa tugged on Duo’s hair to make the man kiss his neck again. "Why?"

The sound Duo made just then might have been a chuckle if he wasn’t purring so much. "Because it’ll be better that way." His expression turned serious as he stared at Trowa. "If… if you still want to do it, I mean."

Finally realizing what Duo wanted from him, Trowa took a deep breath and bridged the space between them for one more kiss in an attempt to placate the sudden unease he felt. Only the fact that he was certain that he could get up and walk out of the room without Duo forcing him back onto the bed gave him the courage to roll over onto his other side. The desire and need he felt were still the same, but this was one of the biggest leaps of faith and trust that he’d ever taken in his life.

As soon as he settled onto his left side, Duo pressed against him, slick cock rubbing against his inner thighs and lips brushing along his neck. Duo’s slick right hand wrapped around his cock, the touch making Trowa cry out in pleasure and surprise as those fingers tightened their grip around it. He could feel Duo’s smile at his reaction, and between the languid yet firm strokes and the gentle scrape of teeth against the back of his neck, he slowly relaxed again.

"Trowa-"

"Do it," he hissed in response, unable to take Duo giving him yet another chance to run away. He did not need that offer dangled in front of him right now, not when he knew he would regret it for the rest of his life if he gave in to such an impulse. Doing his best not to catch his breath, he closed his eyes and snaked his right hand back so he could tangle his fingers in the long, damp strands of Duo’s hair.

There was a moment of panic when he felt Duo’s cock nudge against him and gently push inside, yet before the emotion could spike into something that would make him jump from the bed or lash out with his power, Duo’s teeth bit hard into the back of his neck. The blazing rush of ecstasy made him whimper and tug on his friend’s hair, his neck arching and his hips pushing backwards.

No matter how well Duo had tried to prepare him, there was still a brief flash of pain as his body adjusted to the intrusion, yet so faint when compared to what he had experienced before that he was more stunned by its weakness than its actual existence. Duo instantly stilled, his hand continuing to stroke Trowa’s cock until it was fully hard once again, his lips brushing against Trowa’s sensitized neck as he whispered encouragement. More than anything, Trowa wished that they were facing each other so he could kiss his friend – no, his lover, but the thought of Duo pinning him to the bed caused the panic from before to return for a brief moment. No, this was better, was safer, and then Duo moved the tiniest bit and he lost all the concerns he had had about sex.

The pleasure was slow to build, but even the little bit he felt was incredible, a revelation after so many years of pain and abuse. Duo’s left arm cradled his head, fingers moving in short strokes through his hair, Duo’s mouth insistent and warm on his neck and right hand stroking along his cock until he was torn between thrusting back and thrusting forward. Soon his entire body thrummed with ecstasy, nerves afire wherever his skin touched Duo’s. All along his back, where their legs were tangled together and those most intimate, sensitive areas…. He had to close his eyes and simply give in to the sensations, the demon part of himself drinking them in and purring in pure contentment.

The strokes gradually became faster, the thrusts a little harder, and whenever that spot inside of him was hit the pleasure was so intense that Trowa forgot how to breathe. It was like a continuing pool of emotion, swirling inside of him faster and stronger with each caress and each rush of ecstasy, pulling him down and drowning him in it. Only used to the pleasure he had given himself – and rarely at that – he was lost to it, undone by its potency and how Duo dragged it out as if waiting for something to happen. Trowa felt as if his body was tightening, his fingertips and toes tingling madly. His heart was racing so fast and hard that it seemed to slam against his ribcage, and he had to struggle to breathe when a simple snap of Duo’s hips made him gasp. Never before had he felt anything like this, was unsure how far it would go, half-afraid that it would never stop since he could not withstand such a blissful, all-encompassing assault for long.

Then Duo’s teeth bit hard against his neck, a sharp pain that somehow was more potent than all the pleasure he felt, and that ecstasy crashed down on him, sweeping him along with it as it tore him away from the real world into one of pure feeling. As if from far away, he was aware of himself crying out, the sound almost unrecognizable as his own voice. He heard Duo’s answering response, his name shouted loud enough to disturb the neighbors, his body embraced tightly as he trembled from the after-shocks of his orgasm.

Duo trembled against him as well, holding onto him tightly as if afraid that he would get up and leave at any moment. Trowa wanted to laugh at that, it was so blatantly impossible just then; he could barely get his limbs to move and he was sure that he would topple to the floor if he tried to stand. He felt utterly drained, but it was a *good* sensation.

He shivered a little as the sweat on his skin dried, then the air around him suddenly warmed. Duo pressed a kiss against his now sore neck, a soft caress of lips that made him shiver again.

"Are you all right?"

Trowa shook his head the slightest bit, not sure how he should answer the question. When he felt Duo draw away slightly, he reached for and entwined the fingers of their right hands together. "Thank you. That… I think I hate them even more now," he said, his voice faint in the room’s quietness.

"Hmm?" Duo’s right arm tightened around his waist. "You mean…."

"Yeah." Trowa nodded twice. "How could they ruin something like that?" How could they have experienced any pleasure when he had gotten none from it?

"Oh." Duo nuzzled his neck and snuggled even closer. "So it was good this time, right? I mean… oh hell, I don’t care if Jei bites off my balls at this point, but I wanted it to be good for you."

Amused despite himself at how over-protective his long-time friend could be, Trowa gave Duo’s hand a squeeze. "Wonderful," he murmured, too embarrassed to give the act any more praise than that.

"Really?" He could easily imagine the smile on his… lover’s face just then by the happiness in Duo’s voice. And then the idiot had to go and ruin the moment. "I thought maybe Masato would spoil you for anyone who wasn’t a succubae bound." If it was not for the jealousy practically dripping from Duo’s tone, Trowa would hit him for that remark.

As it was, he pulled away a little so he could turn around and face his lover. "I wouldn’t know about that," he mumbled as he settled back on the bed, unsure of what else to say but unwilling to let a lie ruin what they had just discovered together.

Duo looked so angry just then, yet his touch was gentle as he tucked Trowa’s bangs behind his left ear. "What do you mean? Don’t tell me he was lousy at sex, or were you the one to do the fucking?"

Why did they even have to talk about this just now? Trowa rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands, the exhaustion from before returning with a vengeance. "No, I did not fuck him," he muttered, hoping against common sense that the matter would be dropped. Why did Duo have to be so jealous of the other man? Masato was not the one in bed with him right now.

His hands were pulled from his eyes, Duo’s grasp gentle yet insistent. "You know, you don’t act like someone who’s really kissed another person, and you… ah, you were... oh gods, uhm, it did not feel like you’ve… had sex recently." At least Duo had the grace to blush slightly while mentioning such an intimate detail.

"I’m sorry to be such a disappointment." Trowa did his best to pull back on the mask of indifference, but he was so tired and it hurt so much to do such a thing to his lover. He tried to shake his head to free his hair, yet found himself kissed again. At first he resisted, but the tender way Duo licked at his lips and the hand stroking through his hair made him sigh and part his lips. All right, maybe he was not as good at this as Duo was, but the man did not really seem to mind that fact while they were kissing.

Duo was the one to end the kiss, yet he barely pulled away as he stared at Trowa. "You never cared that he started sleeping around with Schuldig, either, and a lot of people back in Berin thought that the two of you might become mates. I mean… he was the first person you ever wanted, so…."

Taking pity on the fool, Trowa shook his head and thought about what would be the best thing to say; he did not want to reveal all the secrets he had kept from Duo until he was sure that he would not jeopardize things. "We never were lovers. Crawford knew that I was being pressured by the Elders to take a lover so he asked Masato to pretend that we were together." While the Elders had been hoping more along the lines that he would impregnate a female bound, they were at least pleased that he was making some steps to overcome his past and had left him alone after that.

The expression on Duo’s face just then would have made him laugh if the moment was not so serious. "You mean…." At first he appeared utterly stunned, as if he had just been told he was a kage, and then there was a flash of anger, quickly replaced by amusement. "I’m gonna fucking kill Jei," he growled, which took Trowa by surprise. Then he laughed and explained what he had meant. "He kept telling me that things weren’t what they seemed whenever I brought up you and Masato."

"Ah." At least he had not betrayed anything important then, Trowa thought with some relief. "Jei knew, of course. He’d offered to do much the same with me, but…." Not only had he seen Jei as too much of a friend to act remotely intimate with the man, but he did not want Kaede after his head.

"You probably were too afraid of him taking a bite out of you one night," Duo grumbled. His bad mood from before was completely gone and he snuggled closer as he took to playing with a strand of Trowa’s hair. "So… why me, eh?" There was such a hopeful, happy look on his face that an image of a pleading puppy popped into Trowa’s mind. "You could have had so many other people over the years, yet you chose me."

"Why not you?" Trowa countered, not sure if he should say what he believed lay behind what had happened to them tonight – and for the last several years, he realized. "I wanted you, and it got to be too much to deny that fact," he whispered as he closed his eyes, unable to watch what effect those words would have on Duo.

The side of his face was stroked with such a light touch that he thought he was imagining it for a moment and had to open his eyes to find out if it was real. The emotion he saw in Duo’s eyes made his exasperation vanish and his right hand twitch with the desire to return the caress.

"All I know is I’ve never felt anything like this for anyone but you," Duo said, his voice faint but rough with powerful emotion. "First I thought that I’d never get you, and then when I had hope, I told myself that I’d have to wait a long time." His smile just then was as if he h ad gotten every present he had ever wanted one Winter Solstice day. "Like I said, I had all these great plans on what I’d do and when, and they got thrown out the window." He laughed and shook his head. "You’d think I’d know better by now."

Trowa cupped the hand that was caressing his face and took a chance. "Well… I think that tends to happen when one becomes mates with another person. It’s not an entirely logical process." He finally put into words what he had been doing his best to deny for so long.

Duo inhaled sharply at the revelation, his eyes going wide and his fingers twitching against Trowa’s cheekbone. "Mates?"

All of a sudden not very sure of himself, Trowa looked away. "I mean, it fits when I think about it: the way I wanted you so much, how it actually hurt to keep my distance from you and how I’ve acted the last few weeks." Was it just infatuation on his part? He had never felt any desire for another person before, so maybe he was thinking too much about these things? Perhaps this was the way everyone felt when they lusted after someone? But then, why did his neck still hurt?

Duo’s fingers slipped free of his hand and tilted up his chin until he had to look at his lover. Half-afraid to do so, he was surprised when he was given a kiss that made him ache from its tender and heartfelt manner. Such a simple contact, just the firm pressure of lips and Duo once again caressing his face, and he was left wondering how this could just be infatuation on his part.

"Yeah, it does make sense. I felt… I don’t know, as if this was all a dream until you told me it was ‘okay’ to want you." Duo took a deep breath and rolled onto his back, the arm around Trowa’s waist urging him to follow until he was stretched out on top of him. "I wondered about it at times, too, but I thought most mates got together soon after meeting each other."

"Only if they don’t fight the attraction," Trowa explained, fussing with his hair a bit so it was not trapped beneath Duo’s arm around his waist or his own body. He idly thought about his hair clasp but was not in the mood to get up and look for one right now. "We met so long ago… I wasn’t ready," he said with a sharp shake of his head. No, back then the pain had been too raw for him to even contemplate taking a lover.

Duo began to play with Trowa’s hair again, gathering a handful of the long strands and flicking them along his jaw. "Back then, the last thing I wanted was another-" He fell quiet suddenly, dropping Trowa’s hair so he could clutch him even tighter against his chest. "The Elders! If they find out, they’ll-"

Trowa hurried to put his hand over his roommate’s mouth before Duo disturbed the neighbors again. "They won’t know!" he hissed, unwilling to talk about the matter anymore until he discussed things with Crawford. "They’re all the way back in Berin, and no one here will tell them about us, I promise!" He prayed to the gods that Duo would not question him any further on the matter tonight.

The look Duo gave him was one of possession and doubt, and he found himself enveloped in an almost choking embrace. If it was not for the way he could feel Duo’s heart race in fear, he would struggle to free himself instead of merely laying there and doing his best to hug his lover back. "Heero would say something."

"So we’ll just avoid him. I’m the only one he talks to, anyway." Trowa’s voice came out in a squeak, he was being hugged so tightly.

That seemed to remind Duo that he did need to breathe, and he found the arms around him loosening slightly. "Damn right we will." Duo sighed and combed his fingers through Trowa’s hair in what was fast becoming a habitual gesture. "I won’t let them take you away from me." There was a savagery to his tone that Trowa had never heard before, and it made the demon soul inside of him purr in pride.

"I won’t let that happen, either," he replied, his voice barely more than a whisper. If he had not already decided to betray the Elders for numerous good reasons, he would do so now just to keep Duo safe. About to utter some more assurances, he found himself having to stifle a yawn instead.

That made Duo sit up, helping Trowa to do the same until he was straddling his lover’s hips. "You look exhausted." Duo’s right hand cupped the back of Trowa’s head while his left stroked over what had to be numerous bruises on Trowa’s neck. "You’ve been messing with the weather again, haven’t you?"

Considering the very stern look he was receiving from a fire elemental bound who possessed some sense of the weather and experience in dealing with someone who over-extended their talent, Trowa had no choice but to nod. "I thought… you were out there tonight." It was a partial truth, but good enough for an answer.

Duo’s expression softened to one of concern. "Well, I’m home now and you’re supposed to be getting some rest." His left hand skimmed down Trowa’s side then reluctantly pulled away. "How about this? We have a nice soak in the tub and you can heat up some of that clam chowder we’ve left over from earlier while I change the duvet, okay? Then we can curl up back here and you can get some sleep before you pass out and I have Jei after my ass for more than just… well, you know."

"I won’t let him touch you." Trowa shifted forward to give Duo a quick kiss on the forehead. "And what’s this ‘we soak in the tub’, hmm?"

"Let me just point out that the fanged bastard has a way of getting me alone when he wants to talk about you," Duo grumbled, his demeanor turning bashful while his fingers massaged the back of Trowa’s neck. "And I always thought the tub would fit two of us if we did not mind being a little crowded."

Now that he felt at peace after giving in to what he had been fighting for so long, Trowa realised he would not mind a nice soak with his… with his mate, but he was tired and a little sore from tonight’s sex. "A soak would be nice," he said, and something in his voice must have conveyed the doubts he was having.

"Hey." Duo gave his hair a gentle tug, as if just to make sure he had Trowa’s attention. "I told you, I never wanted to rush you." His expression was so earnest just then that it laid Trowa’s doubts to rest. "And it’s clear what you need right now is a hot soak, some food and a lot of rest. Everything else can wait." Judging from the tightness in Duo’s voice, he was resolved to a long wait.

Trowa brushed his fingers along Duo’s lips. "Until tomorrow, at the least," he promised. He could already feel the desire slowly building inside of him, tempered by his exhaustion and the need to adjust to everything that had happened tonight. The prospect of more sex both thrilled and worried him, but he figured he would deal with whichever emotion won out when that time finally came.

He could feel the way Duo’s body twitched at a hitched breath, and he found himself being kissed again, this time with a bit of heat. Duo felt so warm, so enveloping that he leaned against his mate and enjoyed the moment, amazed at how quickly he was becoming used to this.

Then he was gently pushed aside so Duo could get off the bed, his mate holding out a hand for him. "Come on, I’ll wash your back if you wash mine."

"Now that’s a tempting offer," Trowa murmured as he gave his hand to Duo and allowed himself to be led to the bathing room. His legs still felt a little weak and he had the strong urge to clean himself, but the prospect of a hot bath with Duo helped him to put his remaining fears to rest.

*******

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