chapter eight


harsh truths


Duo lay in bed, so utterly content that he was not sure if he was awake or asleep at the moment. Oh, he could *recall* waking up over an hour ago, staring back and forth between the alarm clock and a sleeping Trowa before deciding to turn off the device then reach for his copper bracelet. He had contacted Blair to let the man know that he was not feeling well enough to report to work today and asked the man to pass on to Birman that Trowa was sick, too. Once that had been done, he had made himself comfortable lying down before resuming watching over his… his mate.

*That* was why he was unsure if he was dreaming this or not. Was he really Trowa’s mate? He could not stop smiling as he tenderly brushed aside the lock of auburn hair that lay across Trowa’s nose. His lover was deeply asleep, not even twitching at the light touches or Duo moving about on the bed.

They were mates. For something that he wanted so much, he had some difficulty accepting it. Life did not act that way – at least, not for him. No, be it Fate or the gods, something out there appeared to love taking everything that mattered to him away. There had been his family, then Solo and his freedom, soon followed by his dignity and happiness. The Elders had made him a slave, forced him to hunt down his own kind and even kill a few of them, and now… now he had the man he had loved for so damn long in bed with him, trusting him enough to sleep heavily as if dead.

Well, to be honest, Trowa’s exhaustion was in part from meddling with the weather again and everything that had happened last night. Duo sighed in happiness as he remembered the latter; oh gods, how amazing it had been to finally be able to give in to his desire for the water elemental bound. He still could not believe that Trowa had accepted him and wanted to have sex.

He had dreamed about it happening for so long now; it had occupied a good bit of his free time and even when he should have been paying attention to other things he had been imagining just how he would go about having sex with Trowa. Because of all the time they had spent together, all the years he had watched how Trowa reacted whenever someone was close to him, Duo had decided to not aggravate his friend’s dislike of being pinned down or crowded. So he figured that it would be best to not be on top, and since all his fantasies had included him kissing and biting Trowa’s neck he took that into account as well. He had planned on taking things very slowly so as not to spook his friend, had thought to spend a long time kissing each other before he moved down Trowa’s body. After memorizing every inch of the water elemental bound, he would move on to oral sex, making sure his lover came before taking things any further. Only when Trowa was utterly relaxed and almost begging for it would they then fuck.

However, in reality things had not exactly gone that way. Duo’s smile turned a little bittersweet as he thought about how he had been unable to take things that slowly, how something inside of him had practically forced him to accept what was being offered as if… as if to make his claim to Trowa as clear as possible. It had taken every bit of strength that he had to offer the man the choice to end things, and when Trowa had said ‘okay’….

Yeah, Duo could not really doubt that they were mates after last night. He had been driven to mark Trowa’s neck, to take the man and make him his as if he had no other choice to do that but to die. All those years spent wanting Trowa, the couple of months living together and the last few weeks of Trowa touching or kissing him and then pulling away… Duo was surprised that he had not done anything sooner, to be honest. Being kissed by Trowa last night was the final straw; he had no other recourse but to kiss Trowa back and admit his true feelings.

Then Trowa had done the same, and Duo had felt as if all the pain he had suffered had suddenly been wiped from his soul with that acceptance. Purring in happiness, he crept closer to his lover, his left hand curling around the back of Trowa’s neck. The skin behind the long, auburn hair was so soft and warm that he could not resist stroking it with the lightest of touches.

He refused to feel guilty over the surreptitious cuddling, not after what had happened last night – not after what had happened the nights *before* that, when he had woken up to find Trowa lying right beside him with the bound’s arm draped over his waist or chest. It had been so damn difficult to not return the embrace, but he had not wanted to wake Trowa up and scare him away.

But now…. Now he figured that he was allowed this. The intention behind the caresses was not sexual, he just needed to be able to touch Trowa and assure himself that last night had not been a dream. Trowa lay facing him only an inch or two away, clearly resting on *Duo’s* side of the bed. Duo could recall Trowa falling asleep last night while held close in his arms.

They had to be mates, because Trowa certainly had never allowed anyone else this close, not even Masato. The jealously that Duo had felt toward the succubae bound was slowly fading; he was not happy that Masato had been able to touch Trowa, even if only in pretense, but at least they had not been lovers. He was the one touching Trowa now - almost holding him in fact, and he had been the one to leave those bruises that had barely faded through the night on Trowa’s neck.

That was just more proof that they were bound to each other now. He trailed his fingers along the dark marks and almost groaned when he remembered making those bruises. He would have been so happy to just be lovers with Trowa, but to be mates as well….

They would never leave each other, not now. Hell, they would be unable to be physically apart for more than a few days, most likely. They would spend the rest of their lives together, the bond between them growing stronger until they could sense each other’s emotions, until they would not be ‘complete’ unless the other were near. There would be no more doubts, no more fears of being alone, no need for anyone but each other.

And if the Elders found out about their link, it would be used against them. Flames appeared on the wicks of all the candles in the room while Duo struggled to control both his temper and his talent. He finally managed both by channeling some energy into the wards around the apartment that would keep Trowa safe. There was no way he would allow anyone to hurt or take Trowa away from him, *ever*. Be it Fate or the gods or the Elders, he would destroy whatever tried to take his happiness from him this time. Since something had clearly tied him and Trowa together, he had some hope that the first two would not ruin his life this time, and he was pretty sure he could take on the Elders. Oh yes, just thinking of what they had done to Yuda and Shin made him growl in fury and tangle his fingers in Trowa’s hair.

Trowa would *never* be used against him. He had been too young and unsure of his talent when they had snatched Solo away to put up a decent fight, and all that had been between them was friendship and brotherly love. Now his entire being was focused on keeping Trowa safe, and if he had to fry three old pricks to do it, then he would start their pyre without a moment’s hesitation or doubt.

No, he would do whatever he had to if it meant that Trowa would be safe. Whatever loyalty he had toward the Elders was now shattered, and the only thing that kept him willing to pretend to still be their lackey was that he had to figure out some way to free Solo. He would put up with the pretense of being the Elders’ spy for a little longer, and hopefully Trowa would be able to help him come up with a plan that would free his best friend. If they covered their tracks well enough and waited until just before the war broke out, the last thing the Elders would worry about was a mere human who had snuck away from his captors.

Now that Duo had gotten what he had wanted most – Trowa – he could focus his energies on Solo. He lay there in bed, his fingers combing through his mate’s hair or stroking along warm, smooth skin as he put some serious thoughts into the rescue plan. What had hampered him the most in the past had been not knowing *where* Solo was held captive, but perhaps Trowa had heard something or could ask his friends for help.

He was rubbing the ball of his thumb along Trowa’s right ear when he felt him begin to stir. Almost snatching his hands away, he reminded himself that the contact was all right and continued with the caress while intently watching Trowa’s face for any sign of displeasure or fear.

His mate took another minute to fully awaken, dark green eyes finally fluttering open and gradually focusing on him. Trowa stared for several seconds, his face blank of any emotion other than sleepiness, then closed his eyes and purred softly. Taking that as a good sign – a bad sign would have been Trowa making all of his blood rush out of his nose or something – Duo smiled and moved his fingers along his mate’s jaw. "Good morning."

"Hmm." Trowa rubbed the left side of his face against the pillow a couple of times. "How much longer before the alarm goes off?"

Duo chuckled nervously and forced himself to confess since he would be found out soon anyway. "Ah, yeah, the clock. It should have gone off about two hours ago."

"What?" Trowa moved with surprising speed and sat up in bed, his ponytail sliding down his bare chest as he quickly turned to look at the clock. He stared at for a few seconds before rubbing his eyes and looking again. "Why didn’t it go off? Is it broken?" While he talked, he pushed the covers aside as if to get out of bed.

"No, it works just fine when it’s turned on." Duo grabbed hold of Trowa’s left arm and tugged him back down in bed. "I turned it off."

Trowa frowned but allowed himself to lie back down on the bed. "Why?"

One had to appreciate a man who cut to the chase like that, Duo told himself. "Because you were exhausted," he admitted and dared to caress the side of Trowa’s face. "And there was no way I wanted either of us to go into work today, not after last night." It had actually hurt to think about that, to get out of the bed they shared and not see each other all day. After how long it had taken them to get to this point, they deserved more than just a night spent together. "I sent a message to Blair telling him we both didn’t feel good, and asked him to pass that on to Birman. He replied back that he had done so and for us to get better soon." He rushed through the explanation, praying that it did not upset or offend Trowa.

The water elemental bound continued to regard him for several seconds, not saying a word the entire time. Then Trowa sighed and reached down to pull up the sheets he had tossed aside. "I hope you’re not planning on calling us off sick again tomorrow."

"Well…." Duo had, to be honest, hoping to claim that they had both come down with a nasty cold or something, but he got the impression that admitting to it would not go over well right now. "You’re really tired and I think it would do us both a lot of good to get some rest today."

Trowa grunted and closed his eyes, falling silent again while Duo stared at him, too anxious to remember to breathe properly. Then he opened his eyes and sighed again. "I guess it won’t hurt to spend the day in bed." He smiled at Duo, the sight so heartwarming and welcome that Duo laughed in happiness.

"Yeah. I mean, we both have been working a lot lately, and since they caught the wizard the Guard really doesn’t need me out on patrol right now." He dared to reach for his lover again and smiled when Trowa did not shake off his left hand. "You… you don’t look as tired as you did last night." For some odd reason, he had a… ‘sense’ that Trowa was not as tired, either, and wondered if it was the new bond between them.

"No, I think the extra sleep helped." Trowa shifted closer to Duo, his body slowly relaxing when Duo gave him a hug. "I… there were no nightmares last night."

"That’s good." Duo leaned forward to give his lover a kiss on the forehead. They had shared a bed long enough for him to know that Trowa’s sleep could be incredibly fitful, though Trowa would do his best not to move or cry out when disturbed by the terrible dreams. "I slept like the dead, myself." Well, after spending almost an hour lying there with his new mate in his arms, grinning enough that his face still ached a little.

Trowa snorted softly and began to slide his fingers along Duo’s left ribcage, the touch so light that it was almost ticklish. He frowned slightly as he stared at Duo’s upper chest. "It’s not good to say things like that."

"Meh, I happen to think there are much better ways to tempt the gods than something minor than that." Duo did his best not to shiver at the touch; much like his own earlier, it did not seem to be sexual in nature; it was more as if Trowa was just seeing if he was real and if the caress was allowed. Yet his body was beginning to have some ideas about what that touch could lead to if it became a bit steadier.

"Says the man who deliberately doused all the bonfires one Kisei’s Night." Trowa stopped frowning and finally looked him in the face. "You should be more careful."

About to come back with some witty remark in the negative, Duo realized that his actions did not just affect himself anymore. No, whatever he suffered, Trowa would suffer as well, and that was unacceptable to him. "I will," he whispered, catching Trowa’s hand so he could press a kiss against its fingertips. They pressed against his lips for several seconds before skimming along his jaw.

"Knowing you, you’ll do your best to be careful. It’s just that you’re always the type who *does* things, rather than consider all the options." Trowa smiled as he spoke, the expression a little rueful and his voice light. "That’s not a bad trait, mind you."

"Not when you want something done," Duo agreed, relieved that Trowa knew him so well. It was true what had been said about him; while he was not completely impulsive, he felt there was a time that standing still and considering things would be a lot worse than going with whatever seemed right at the moment. He was not stupid, but he was not like Trowa, either, someone who could calmly assess the situation and come up with a dozen plans in a matter of seconds before moving into action. That was why Trowa was usually chosen to go undercover while Heero and Duo were mostly used for ‘retrieve or destroy’ missions. Heero was pretty good at calculating the odds as well, but he tended not to care about the damage he did while achieving the Elders’ goal.

"Hmm, very true." Trowa’s fingers moved backwards until they could push into Duo’s hair. "How’s your hand today?"

Distracted by the feel of those fingers combing through his tangled hair, Duo almost did not hear the quietly spoken question. "Eh? Oh, yeah." He shifted about until he could hold up his right hand. "There’s not even any sign of the bite today." It had been mostly healed last night, just a red outline of teeth on his skin before they had gone to bed. "Hope I don’t get any diseases from the little brat."

"I’d think it would be the other way around."

Again, the words were so quietly spoken that it took a few seconds for them to register in Duo’s mind. When he did realize that he had been insulted, he growled deep in his throat and rolled over, dragging Trowa on top of him. "I believe I’m offended by that."

Trowa appeared startled for a few seconds, but to Duo’s vast relief he did not try to pull away and eventually smiled. Still, Duo made sure not to hug his mate too tightly, very conscious of the fact that Trowa had not been touched like this in years. And then it would not have been in a good way, either. Oh, hell, if he had known that Trowa and Masato had only been pretending to be lovers, he would never have worked up the courage to confess his true feelings last night.

"You only ‘believe’?" Trowa asked, his expression so bland that Duo knew he was being teased.

"Yeah, and I *know* that I should get some sort of recompense for the insult," he grumbled. "Something like this." He lifted his head to brush his lips against Trowa’s, only intending to share a brief kiss.

Yet he could not help but linger as their lips met, and was lost completely when Trowa kissed him back. Too aware of the promise he had made last night about not rushing things, he did his best to think about anything that would keep his body from reacting to the kiss. The way that Trowa’s tongue circled his lips and Trowa’s fingers stroked along his neck made him realize that he was in big trouble, and then the growing hardness he felt pressed against his thigh completely did him in.

"I’m sorry," he gasped as he broke off the kiss, so desperate to assure himself that this was real, that they were indeed lovers that he was unable to hold back any longer. It had been too many years, so much frustration and fear and despair that his control was completely in pieces. And more than anything, he wanted to give Trowa pleasure, to prove that having a lover and a mate would be a *good* thing. Pushing back the covers, he shifted down the bed, moving quickly from need and determination.

"Duo, what-" Trowa’s voice grew tight and cut off when Duo pulled down the drawstring pants he had worn to bed. Wanting so much to make up for last night and his ruined plans, Duo reached for the half-hard cock before him and placed a kiss on Trowa’s inner right thigh.

"Trust me." He needed that trust as much as he needed to do something that would put his fears to rest. His fingers wrapping around warm flesh, he took a minute to nuzzle the silky, nearly hairless skin of Trowa’s thighs while settling between his lover’s legs. Trowa’s pubic hair was a darker red than the rest of his hair, the small patch very curly and coarse. As for his cock, it was much like the water elemental bound in that it was long and slender, Duo’s fingers easily curling around it. To his immense relief, it began to harden beneath his touch, and Trowa tentatively touched the top of his head.

"You don’t have to," Trowa whispered, his voice so quiet that Duo looked away from the man’s cock and to his face.

"Yeah, but I want to." He wanted to make up for last night so badly. Funny, how he had been so content to merely touch Trowa all morning, and a simple kiss had made him so damn horny that he could not help doing this. But there was the terrible fear that last night might have been some sort of fluke, something which would destroy him if it were true.

Fortunately, that did not seem to be the case now. He leaned forward to lick the tip of Trowa’s cock, the moan he provoked from his lover so loud and unexpected that he started to purr in response. Trowa tasted so… so *clean*, not at all sweaty or salty. Duo licked again, shifting about so his tongue could trail down his lover’s cock.

He had given a fair amount of blowjobs in his life, and received a good bit in return. It was not something he minded doing; it was more of a reciprocal matter than anything, or else it was inspired by the perverse desire to completely undo whomever he was fucking. With Trowa, it was more than that, it was the need to give all that he could without taking *anything*. For too many years, people had taken everything from Trowa, had used brute force and threats and pain to strip him of all that mattered to a person. Duo wanted to give all that back and prove that he did not want Trowa just for his own pleasure; as mates, they had been drawn to each other just as much physically as emotionally, and he wanted to make it clear that Trowa would not have anything to fear from him on that front. As much as he wished he could just hold back and abstain, it was not possible for them now.

So he would do this for the man he loved, and it genuinely made him happy to do so. Wrapping his lips around the tip of Trowa’s cock, he sucked on it, gently at first and then with growing pressure. When Trowa gasped and bucked his hips, Duo took more of the cock into his mouth, purring madly as his lips met his fingers curled around the cock’s base. With his left hand, he stroked along the inside of Trowa’s left thigh, the touch as soothing as he could make it. After sucking for several seconds, he moved his mouth back up, tongue licking its way to the cock’s tip and then flicking about.

Trowa gasped again and tossed his head back, his lean, gorgeous body covered with a sheen of sweat that Duo swore tasted like rainwater. He also swore he felt a faint echo of pleasure as his right hand pumped along Trowa’s cock, his own twitching at the sight before him. Normally so quiet, so reserved, and here Trowa’s golden skin was flushed with desire, his green eyes even darker than usual and his bangs tossed back from his face to leave it fully exposed for once. Whispering Duo’s name, Trowa’s fingers clenched in Duo’s hair but did not try to force his head in any direction.

Taking that for a subtle hint, Duo resumed what he had been doing, lips and tongue and hands moving together to provide the most pleasure he could to the man he loved. His own cock was so fucking hard just then, and he did his best to ignore it since this was not about his needs now. No, it was about the way Trowa’s entire body trembled, the rush of sweetness in his mouth as he pushed his mate closer to climax, the way his name had broken down into inarticulate, endearing moans. He had just cupped his lover’s balls with his left hand when he felt them twitch – that and the faint echo of pleasure suddenly growing stronger was all the warning that he needed to pull back a little. Catching Trowa’s release on his tongue and not with the back of his throat, he continued to suck until the pulses stopped.

Mindful of the mess on his face, he wiped it clean with the sheet right after he let Trowa’s cock slip from his mouth. Then he kissed his way up his mate’s limp body, smiling at the slight shivers he provoked and memorizing those spots for future use. Trowa’s hipbones, the spot right below his navel and where his ribcage started seemed especially sensitive. By the time he had gotten to Trowa’s neck, he used his arms to keep his weight from pinning down his mate, leaning forward to suck hard for a few seconds and leave a new bruise. Then he sat back on his heels, his knees on either side of Trowa’s hips, and waited for the water elemental bound to recover.

It took Trowa a little longer than he would have thought, but the idiot had admitted to controlling the weather yesterday so that was probably it. Duo stared at his lover’s mouth, wanting nothing more than to kiss it and unsure about what would happen next.

Stirring sluggishly as if his body did not want to move, Trowa turned his head to gaze directly at Duo. His face was still flushed and it looked as if he had bitten his lower lip, the skin red and slightly swollen. Duo would never forget how he appeared just then, so beautiful and open. Then Trowa licked his lips and raised the hands that had fallen onto the bed. "Wha… what about you?" His voice sounded dry and a bit weak, his expression turning a little apprehensive as he tried to shift his thighs apart.

"I’m fine," Duo quickly assured his mate, his right hand reaching into his pajama pants to pull out his erect cock. "Just rest and let me look at you, okay?"


"No." Duo did not allow himself to be moved, determined that Trowa understand that this was not going to be a purely reciprocal relationship when it came to sex. If anything, he would ask for as little as possible from his mate, unwilling for even one moment that Trowa should think that he was being used again. "I’m fine." He was, too; he could taste Trowa in his mouth, could smell his mate on his skin and see him before him, and that was more than enough.

Trowa looked so confused just then that Duo half expected him to cry at any moment, and then he shook his head. Sitting up, Trowa reached back to undo the clasp that held his long hair in a ponytail then dropped it onto the bed.

"Thank you," he murmured as his left arm encircled Duo’s shoulders and his right hand settled on top of the one stroking along Duo’s cock. The kiss he gave Duo next was hesitant at first, his tongue flicking along Duo’s lips for a moment then pulling away. A moment later it returned, Trowa’s lips parting as he deepened the kiss.

Tasting Trowa again, feeling silky hair brush against his skin and Trowa’s hand tight around his cock, Duo moaned and clutched his lover closer. To his shame he did not last long, but it did not really matter since Trowa had already come. What did matter was Trowa doing this for him, kissing him, holding on to him and pressing a gentle kiss against the side of his head as he cried out in release.

And his lover continued to hold him afterwards, the both of them a bit sweaty and more than a little messy. He mumbled Trowa’s name as he combed his fingers through loose auburn hair, telling from the slight tenseness in the water elemental bound’s body that it was not entirely comfortable for Trowa for them to stay like this. "Thank you."

"You’re welcome." Trowa tucked back the hair that had escaped Duo’s braid and smiled. "Is it… always so sudden?"

"Hmm?" Duo stared in confusion at his mate. "What, you mean doing stuff like that?"

Trowa nodded. "I… it was like something was lit inside of me." There was the slightest of blushes to his cheeks. "We were kissing and then…."

Smiling in reassurance, Duo cupped his hand along the right side of Trowa’s face, that slight heat burning into his palm. "It was like a damn bonfire went off in me." He glanced away for a few seconds, a little embarrassed himself. "I… well, you don’t have to worry about that happening all the time. Not to say I would not love to do it, but…." Oh hell, he was making a mess of this.

Still, it seemed that Trowa understood what he was trying to say. "There’s a time and place for such a thing. I guess I have to get used to it." His eyes turned distant and his expression was touched with pain. "I never thought I would."

"Just remember that you don’t have to do anything you don’t want," Duo whispered as he leaned forward so their foreheads met. "Kick me out of bed if you feel like it, or, well, you certainly can make sure I’m no longer much in the mood with just a thought."

That made Trowa’s smile return, and he trailed the tip of his finger along Duo’s now flaccid cock. "Very true. But this morning was nice, and it’s not as if we’re late for anything."

"Nope, other than a bath and some breakfast." Duo let out a breath that he was not aware of holding and laughed. He had not messed things up, thank the gods, he had given Trowa some pleasure and hopefully he could rein in his libido enough now to not try anything for the rest of the day. It was so difficult to be torn between his demon soul which wanted him to revel in the new bond with Trowa and the human soul which reminded him that the last thing he wanted to do was hurt someone he loved so much. Not only was there the fact that Trowa did not need to be rushed into things, but even with a bound nature that leaned towards quick healing, Trowa probably would appreciate not being overwhelmed with an active sex life after so many years of abstinence.

"A bath sounds wonderful." There was a clear note of longing in Trowa’s voice just then, so Duo got the hint and moved from his lover’s lap.

"Well, you can take one first while I strip the bed," he said, already in the process of tugging the duvet cover along with him as he stood up. Trowa was very particular about sleeping on clean sheets, so he figured that if sweat and dirt were bad, what they had just done was even more so.

Trowa stretched his arms above his head before he got up, mindful of the pants that were pushed down past his knees. He kicked them off and headed toward the bathing room stark naked, his loose hair a thick cloak around him. "Then I can start breakfast while you wash up."

Wanting more than anything to follow his mate into the bathing room, Duo clenched the duvet in his hands and had to count to ten. By that time, the bathing room’s door was closed and he assumed that Trowa was not waiting for an answer. Calm down, he told himself as he stripped the bed. Jei really would bite off his cock if he thought with it and not his brain.

He went to the closet to fetch a clean set of sheets and chuckled when he counted the two spare sets. Trowa usually changed them every few days, and it only took two days for the laundry service to return them nice and clean. But if they really were a couple now, they would need to buy a few more sets, just ‘in case’.

He looked around the apartment with a fresh attitude, seeing all the things that would have to change now that they were truly living together. They would need new sheets and probably some more towels as well, and some extra pillows would help if both of them were to spend more time on the bed together. Oh, and he would definitely have to stop at that one store again soon, since he had only bought enough lubricant to satisfy, er, himself. He would need more, and a better quality at that. Oh hell, he would not feel guilty about last night because how was he to know that they would finally have sex then? It was not supposed to happen for a few more months or so.

The bed was made and he was gathering a few things together when Trowa left the bathing room, his hair dry and pulled neatly into a ponytail even if it did smell freshly washed. To Duo’s surprise, there were no bangs covering his mate’s face; Trowa appeared a little nervous so he set his stuff on the bed and went over to kiss the gorgeous man. "You’re too good-looking to hide behind that hair all the time," he murmured as he pulled away, his fingers tracing over the curve of a sharp cheekbone. "But I think I’ll be too jealous if you walk around like this in front of others," he admitted.

That seemed to set Trowa back to rights. Duo got an arched eyebrow and a slightly haughty look in response. "Since it’s my hair, I’ll decide how to wear it. Go wash off."

Knowing that Trowa would be back to hiding behind his bangs once they were out in public, Duo was never the less delighted by the fact that Trowa left his hair as it was. He gathered up his stuff again and went to wash off, noting that there was no water outside of the deep tub. Ah, the joys of living with a water elemental bound, even if they were a bit anal about wearing boots around the apartment. Once clean, he only spent a couple of minutes soaking in the tub, mainly for the peace it always imparted more than anything. After climbing out of the tub, he used his talent to dry his body and hair, smiling as he even took care of any spilled water scattered about the small room.

Since Trowa had not changed out of his blue robe once finished with his bath, Duo did not bother to get dressed, either. That was another thing he would look into getting – his robe was nice, but the dark grey material was getting a bit thin in spots and showing its age. Since he had always changed as quickly as possible after his baths, he had not minded, but now that he would not feel so self-conscious about not being dressed around Trowa, he would get a new one. And if it happened to be a bit clingy to show off his very nice body and rather impressive ass then so much the better.

The apartment’s air was scented with something truly delicious, and Duo found Trowa cooking a mixture of scrambled eggs, spicy sausage, peppers, tomatoes and onions. He breathed in deeply and dared to press a kiss to the side of Trowa’s still bruised neck. "That smells wonderful. I’ll make the toast."

"That’s your specialty," Trowa murmured as he stirred the mix in the iron skillet. Duo sliced the bread and used his talent to toast it just right for the both of them, then set the table so they would be able to eat once the eggs were done. Trowa set the skillet and the pot of just brewed coffee onto the table, then motioned for Duo to help himself while he buttered some toast.

Mindful of his lover’s lower energy levels, Duo did not quite take half of the food, though he tried not to be so obvious about it. And he also tried not to drool while watching Trowa slather apple jelly onto some toast and wonder if he could manage to spill it all over himself.

"We’ll need to go grocery shopping soon," Trowa said, shaking Duo out of his perverted imagination before he got into trouble. "I might not be able to manage enough for us to eat tonight."

No doubt he had been planning to do some shopping after work, Duo thought to himself, yet refused to feel guilty about messing things up by calling them both in sick. "It wouldn’t look good if the Guard found either of us out at the market when we’re too sick to work. Maybe Sandra can lend us something to tide us over."

"Mmm." Trowa took several neat bites of toast, the speed at which he did so the only indication of his hunger. "We could get something to eat at the Koneko."

Duo almost choked on his coffee after hearing that. "Oh, yeah, it’ll be so much better to hang out at an inn filled with Guards," he said, the sarcasm thick in his voice.

Trowa did not seem bothered by it and merely shrugged as he continued to eat. "We don’t have to go through the front entrance, and we’re supposed to be spies, aren’t we?" He stared evenly at Duo as if daring him to say anything else sarcastic.

Dammit, Duo could not wait until he was able to sense his mate’s emotions – if people were not lying about that benefit to the mating bond, that was. Trowa was too hard to read at the best of times, yet he was left with the niggling impression that something important was happening here, something that Trowa was not about to come out and say. His first instinct was to be a pain in the ass until he found out the truth, but it was never a good idea to intentionally antagonize the person you were sleeping with if you had any hopes for more sex in the future. That was doubly so when your lover could make your head explode with a mere thought – or another body part if he needed you to keep your head for a little longer.

So he settled for being blunt, something else he was good at. "Why do you want to go to the Koneko tonight? Don’t tell me you’re missing Jo’s shepherd pie or want to read a book from the library." Or worse, maybe Trowa wanted to see Masato.... The curtains almost burst into fire before Duo told himself that he was being a jealous fool and that Trowa would not be interested in anyone else now.

Trowa shrugged again, to Duo’s eyes appearing almost too nonchalant; normally he got treated to iciness and disproval if he was being deliberately rude or hitting too close to the mark. "To be honest, I want to talk to Crawford about a few things." Trowa stared intently at Duo. "I think we need to get his opinion on what’s happened between us." There was the first true sign of emotion in his voice since they had sat down to breakfast, a hint of anger that Duo did not think was directed at himself. He would feel better about that fact if he was not suddenly so worried.

"Do you think that’s wise? I mean… the last thing I want is for the Elders to find out about us." He would do whatever was necessary to keep Trowa safe.

His mate continued to stare back, his expression serious but not bothered. "We can trust Crawford. If my suspicions are correct, he knew this was going to happen so if he meant to betray us, it would have already occurred. I’m sure the Elders would much rather us not be tied to each other when they’ve hopes of producing more powerful elemental bounds." Again, there was that hint of anger, a little stronger now, and definitely not directed at Duo.

Trowa had a very good point there, so much so that Duo felt a bit silly now. "Yeah, you’re right." He sat back in his chair and smiled in apology. "I guess I’m just worried about things going wrong. They usually do whenever I’m this happy."

That admission softened Trowa’s demeanor. "I swear to you, Duo, that we won’t be betrayed by either Crawford or Jei." He seemed ready to say something else but shook his head and picked at his breakfast. "We’ll sneak into the Koneko, ask them a few questions and come back home."

"Don’t forget about getting a bite to eat as well." Duo picked up his coffee mug and studied the man he was now tied to for the rest of his life. He would swear that Trowa was still hiding something, but he was not in the mood to force the issue just now. Besides, Crawford might have a few answers that he needed to know, and it would be good to have a powerful precog on their side. So he would go along with Trowa’s request and pay extra attention to what happened once they got to the inn. "Maybe even a pint or two of beer to make it worth our while."

The slight tension in Trowa’s shoulders relaxed, something he would never have noticed before last night. "That can be arranged, I’m sure." Trowa smiled in gratitude and resumed eating.

Since the food was too delicious to waste, Duo did as well, even if his appetite was a bit diminished now. He had always felt that Trowa kept a lot of secrets, and finding the truth out about him and Masato only reinforced that. But Duo had been hoping that would not be the case now that they were lovers. He reminded himself that they had only been together for less than a day and he should be patient. It was just that patience had never been a particular virtue of his.

Then he realized that Jei would probably be at the Koneko tonight if Crawford was there, and he groaned loudly enough to make Trowa stare at him in confusion. Not about to go into how Jei was ‘looking out’ for his friend, Duo got up from the table in search for some alcohol, deciding there was no sense in waiting until tonight for a drink if he was likely to lose a body part or two at the same time.


Yohji gave Jared as stern a look as he could manage as he handed over the sealed letter. "You do know how to find the Shinra residence, correct? It’s not too far from the palace, on Chrysanthemum Street." He was still unsure about trusting this assignment to the flesh gaki bound, but no one else who worked at the Koneko had time to spare to deliver it for him, and none of the Shadow Guard was on patrol in that part of the city yet. He could always hire a messenger, but he felt that Rufus would better accept the letter if it were delivered by a bound.

Jared rolled his eyes and snapped his teeth together. "Yeah, I just had to memorize a damn map of the entire city a few months ago." Surprisingly, he was not bitter about not being made a Guard; if anything Yohji thought he was a little relieved, and it was not like he had no job now. He often delivered messages for the Shadow Guard as well as doing a bit of investigative work that suited his nature. Jared had even admitted that it was Nicole who had wanted to be a Guard; he had just come to keep an eye on her and see if there were any way he could help fight back against Esset.

"Allow me my paranoia," Yohji muttered. "And watch out for Rufus’ head gokenin; he’s a flesh gaki bound as powerful as Jei." That certainly took the color out of Jared’s normally ruddy complexion.

"Ah, yeah, I’ll deliver this and leave." Jared accepted the letter as if it were cursed and quickly tucked it into the large canvas bag he wore draped over his chest. "Anything else?"

"Nope, just be careful." Yohji leaned against the table and folded his arms over his chest as he wondered if he really was doing the right thing. But Reno was Aya’s friend, and on a night when they were supposed to have all their friends around them, he had to make some effort to get the troublemaker out of Rufus’ fancy mansion for a few hours. He hoped the letter he had included with the invitation to Rufus, Reno and Rufus’ gokenin would be good enough for the soul gaki bound to relent a little on Reno’s punishment. Yohji felt that there was some sort of understanding between him and Rufus, a common bond of being mated to such trying men. Besides, if the conniving lord played his cards right, he could get some sort of promise out of Reno in exchange for coming to the anniversary party.

Jared grunted and swiped a large sourdough roll off the table. "Don’t have to tell me that twice," he muttered before eating the bread in one bite. "See you later."

Yohji waved goodbye then turned to look at Jo. "So, anything else you think that I’m forgetting?"

"No." She pulled a small notepad out of the pocket of her dark blue skirt and flipped through a few pages. "You helped with the special liquor delivery, I’ve enough flour to bake all the cakes it’ll take to make Aya a very happy person – and sugar as well – and Marta said her friend will have those roses ready for you in time." She frowned as she squinted to read something. "Koyu’s got several Harper friends who are more than happy to stuff themselves silly on the food in return for playing for a few hours, and the staff’s getting the word out to the regulars that it’ll be a private party that night."

"Thanks." Yohji smiled in appreciation at all the hard work his friend had put into the surprise party and got up from the table to hug her as well. "I’m really grateful that you and Mickey don’t mind partially closing down the inn for the night."

Jo snorted and hugged him back before giving his head a slight tap. "As if Aya could enjoy a party when he’s surrounded by a bunch of strangers." Her frown returned for a few seconds. "Are you sure such a large party is the way to go? He seemed rather bothered by the crowd for Mari’s Naming Day."

That was something that had been worrying him off and on since the party, but Yohji had made too many plans to back out of things now. "Which is why I asked that you not send the inn’s customers to the library that night." He rubbed the back of his head and grinned, the expression a bit sheepish. "I figured he has to stick around a bit for the cake, at least."

"I just hope you know what you’re doing," Jo said while shaking her head. "And that he’s not too upset. I don’t think he has a clue about the approaching date."

Yohji shook his head as well. No, Aya did not seem to notice the importance of a calendar, unless he had a shift or something to keep track of. Yohji had overheard Aya and Nagi talking about being in Eto for almost a year a couple of days ago, but they had discussed it as if it were a general thing. They had been more excited about knowing what festivals were approaching and how the weather should be more than the exact date that they had arrived in the city.

He could not blame them, not really. They had been fleeing masters who had abused them and were under orders to kill the king and his family. That was not something that one wanted to remember, and he could only hope that Aya understood the happiness behind the date for him. It might have taken a bit longer for that happiness to catch up to Aya and Nagi, but for Yohji, he had been given a priceless gift the day he had met Aya and he wanted to show how grateful he was for it to the world.

"I just wish the weather was a bit more cooperative for things," he mumbled as he left Jo to go look out the window over the sink. If it were warmer and not so rainy, they could hold the party outside, but he was not about to ask Trowa or any other elemental bounds to tinker with the weather just for a special occasion. Besides, it would be easier to hide the final preparations if they were done inside, and Aya would be too worried about people damaging his garden to relax during an outside party. As it was, Aya was upset that the cooler and rainier than usual spring was preventing some of the plants from blooming. When he had arrived last year, the roses had just begun to flower, whereas this year the buds had only formed on the plants in the past week.

The notepad safely tucked into her pocket, Jo went back to the stove to fuss over the barley and ham soup she was making. "At least the worst of the rain is coming over the city and not the farmland. Marta said word has gone out to Kritiker’s water elementals and they’re doing their best to siphon as much of it into underground aquifers as possible."

"We won’t have to worry about a drought for a while, that’s certain." Marta and Trowa had explained a little of that plan to him a couple of weeks ago, about how the more experienced water elementals had judged that the underground lakes would be able to hold most of the collected rainwater *if* the crazy weather did not go on for more than a year or two. Birman and Yuushi had decided that no more powerful water elemental bounds would be accepted into the Shadow Guard before the war so they could focus on keeping the country from being flooded and crops ruined, and were considering doing the same for earth elementals as well. Cassandra had told Yohji and Aya that while some bounds were upset about that decision, they understood the necessity of it and were placated with Yuushi’s promise to give them first priority for training after Esset’s defeat. They just wanted to be sure that the Shadow Guard was not going after only soul and flesh gaki bounds, who had always been assured work as guards and soldiers during the Binding War and even now in Esset.

Jo’s sudden laughter made him turn away from the window and stare at her in confusion. She smiled and held up the wooden spoon she had used to stir the soup so he could have a taste. "I thought you’d be happy that it was too cloudy outside for the sun to bother Aya."

That made Yohji laugh as well. "You have a good point there." Then he tasted the soup and purred in pleasure. "Just the thing for a cool, overcast day. Think there will be enough bread to last through dinner?"

"There should be, as long as I can keep Jared, Ken and Jei out of my kitchen." Jo’s good mood vanished as she surveyed all the bread set out on the various tables and counters. "Maddox and Neely exhausted themselves baking it today."

So Yohji doubted it would be a good idea to help himself to a loaf before heading up to the attic library to check on his mate. Ah well, he could at least snag a piece of the cherry pastry twist before cutting some up for Aya and Ed. "Well, they did an excellent job since it smells *wonderful*." He inhaled deeply, for a moment wondering why few things in the word smelled as good as freshly baked bread.

"From the way that Jared kept stealing rolls, I’ll assume that they taste wonderful, too," Jo grumbled as she fussed around the kitchen, checking various pots and throwing a few more logs into the fireplaces. "If you’re going to take something upstairs, you better get it ready now."

"All right." He knew that she needed to prepare for dinner soon, and that the kitchen would be filled with the working staff running about. While he missed the hectic fun that a dinner shift at the Koneko could provide, he was more than happy to spend a quiet evening with Aya. They had put a lot of effort into catching the murderers last night, and had only gotten a few hours of sleep today. If it were not for the fact that they both were full of the energy Aya had gotten from killing the bounds and that Crawford had asked them to be present during dinner, they would still be in bed right now.

They would just spend their day in bed tomorrow, when it seemed that things would be a good bit quieter. At least, things had *better* be quieter; Yohji had it with special assignments and strange bounds and Aya leaping out of windows. That last bit was not fair, he told himself as he cut the pastry into large pieces, the biggest one set aside for Aya. His mate truly was sorry about what had happened, and even if Aya did not quite understand why it bothered Yohji so much, it was not because he did not care. No, Yohji just had to accept that there were some things about Aya that would never be ‘normal’. At least they had an understanding now that Aya would not go jumping several stories to the ground without giving Yohji some sort of warning first.

Putting together the very heavy tray of food, he had to admit that it was a good thing, their fight. A year ago… a year ago a fight like that would have made Aya withdraw from him in fear of retaliation and abuse. While Aya had been hurt by Yohji’s distance during the fight, he had never had a moment of fear that Yohji would cause him any harm. Now maybe Aya would also understand that he could be a bit cut off from his mate and have no plans to abandon Aya, and… well, it was nice for Aya to be the one in trouble for once, he thought with an amused grin. His poor shoulder needed a break, at the least.

More importantly, the situation had smoothed out after the fight, with Aya showing a bit more consideration over a few things but not haunted by their disagreement. As Schuldig had said, they were too ‘sappy’ most of the time and needed a reminder that things could not always be perfect between them. The future would be a lot more stressful to them and their relationship, so the stronger it was before then, the better.

Emmie and Ani reported to the kitchen for their evening shifts, so he spent a couple of minutes teasing both of the lovely young ladies and shooing them away from the tray when they tried to add more food. Since Aya had ‘fed’ last night and Yohji from him this morning, they did not need as much to eat as normal, and Ed had a very large snack upon first arriving at the Koneko. The pastry, pot of tea, apple and cheese slices and half a loaf of Maddox’s bread should be more than enough to keep their hunger from getting the best of them before dinner. As it was, Yohji suspected that once Aya enjoyed Jo’s soup and the cherry pie that was reserved for after dinner, he would have one very full and sleepy mate on his hands.

He made his way upstairs, using the staff staircase so he did not get sidetracked by customers or friends. Upon entering the attic library, he had to smile at the sight of Aya and Ed with their heads bowed over a very large, dusty old book. The last couple of inches of Aya’s eartails lay on the table, as well as Ed’s golden braid. They remained like that for all of about four seconds, before Ed raised his head and sniffed the air. "You brought food!"

"Yeah, if only to keep you from chewing on the books," he teased as he set the tray onto the table. It had become amusing, the way that most bounds obsessed over food. Aya and Nagi had their weakness for sweets, while Ed and Al went for anything warm and edible, and any bound who came to the Koneko always raved about the large quantity of good food they had while here. Yohji suspected it was because there were few places where they could eat their fill and not raise suspicions over their huge appetites.

Aya looked up from the book and smiled at him, the expression one of love and appreciation. Yohji could not help but purr when he felt those same emotions over their link. "Thank you."

Deciding not to tease his mate about how he did indeed possess manners at times, Yohji kissed Aya on the forehead instead. "Do I want to know what you’re reading now?"

"Something that Ed found buried beneath a very large stack of ‘retired’ books at the Library." Aya tilted his head a little more, a clear sign that he wanted a proper kiss, which Yohji was happy to give. The faint trickle of energy flowing into him made him shiver in pleasure, and he had to stop himself from thinking how it would feel later tonight or tomorrow when he fed more fully on it.

"Ah, is this something an ex-Guard should hear?" he murmured after ending the kiss.

"I only borrowed it!" Ed shouted, the words partially garbled since his mouth was full of cherry pastry, but at least he did not spit any of the food out.

Aya smiled, the expression growing brighter when Yohji grabbed the special piece of pastry and put it in front of him. "We’ll be sure to notify Birman about the book."

Who in return would make sure it vanished off the Royal Library’s inventory list, if Yohji knew her at all. After going through the many objects that had been retrieved from Timbergrey Castle, she had decided that there were some things that were best kept from the royal family’s hands – at least, any royal member other than Omi. Reiji had plundered a good bit of dangerous materials from the palace over the years, things that Birman and Botan were quite happy to have remain ‘lost’ as long as they were certain they were in good hands. If a thief ever got wind of what was at the Koneko, a seamstress’ shop and a certain Army Colonel’s home….

"So, what is it?"

"We’re having a little difficulty in translating it, but we think it’s a catalog of all the people who volunteered to Kritiker’s Wizard to be turned into bounds." Aya’s eyes flashed silver as he looked back at the book, his tongue flicking out to lick up the flakes of pastry that clung to his lips. After taking care of the flakes and cherry preserves on his hands, he used a tip of his now clean finger to slowly flip a page.

The writing was more than a little faded, but not to the point that a bound could not read the pale grey ink. Yohji’s eyes nearly crossed for a moment as he tried to decipher what had been written before realizing that the book’s author had taken one too many calligraphy classes. "Let’s see… ‘Johan Berher paired with… fire. Demon was very strong’," he read aloud.

"Yes." Aya motioned down the page, and the names appeared to be in alphabetical order, if Yohji was reading the characters properly. "This is just one book; Ed found several but couldn’t bring all of them out at the same time."

"I spent half the day finding all of them then hid them in the floor." Ed paused in his voracious eating to pour some tea for him and Aya. "If Birman can arrange for them to be fetched at the same time, it would be best."

Yohji read a few more names before moving away from the book; he was not about to risk spilling any crumbs onto the precious tome. "What were they doing there, do you think?" He could not imagine what would happen if a wizard had found the volumes.

Apparently, Aya and Ed’s thoughts were along the same line, considering their suddenly grim expressions. "I seriously believe that someone hid them there. Not many people willingly go that far back into the archives, and usually shifting the old books and scrolls in there to make sure no vermin have found them is a punishment job." Ed wrinkled his nose, his amusement making it clear that he did not feel that way about a chance to go through such ancient books. "I had to throw books at five patrons to get assigned the task."

"I’m pleased to see your dedication to the search of knowledge is so devout," Yohji teased, and laughed when Ed growled in such an adorable manner. He would bet a chance to spend a week in bed with Aya that at least half of those patrons had been ‘attacked’ for daring to mention the earth elemental’s height – or serious lack of it.

"Would have been easier if Al still worked at the Library." Ed’s anger sputtered out, replaced by wistfulness. "He does the better job of spotting things."

"I’m sure he’ll gladly spend some time here helping us transcribe the books," Aya said, his voice pitched lower than normal as he deliberately did not look at Ed. Yohji knew his mate was perplexed with the sudden distance between the siblings, not quite understanding why Al felt the need to create his own life. As a brother who had given his all for his younger sister – and she for him – he did not see why the two brothers were disagreeing so much about Al’s choice of a girlfriend and career.

That Aya was mated to someone, the same as Ed, did not help matters, so Yohji did not try to explain things to his lover even though he did understand Al’s actions. The kid was doing his best to build a life that would bring him happiness after the war, and even though he and Winry were young, they were obviously in love with each other. Maybe they would break up at a later point, but Yohji knew their feelings for each other now were very strong, as strong as what Omi and Nagi felt for each other. Aya and Ed could not see how such a thing could exist outside of a mating bond, but they had not had a chance to love anyone other than their family before they had met Yohji and Mustang.

Yohji felt a bit of sympathy for Mustang, who had to deal with Ed’s inexperience with life as well as his youthfulness. Realizing that fact, he shuddered in horror and wished that he had brought up a carafe of wine or a bottle of whiskey. "So you’re copying the books? Is that wise?"

Ed nodded and carefully lifted up half of the book to show its damaged hide covering. "They’re in awful shape from centuries of neglect, and I think trying to repair them will only make their condition worse. It’s best to copy them onto charmed paper so we can both preserve their information and ensure that it’s kept safe." The growl was back in his voice, the same as always when he talked about damaged books. There were a few things that Ed felt no mercy for, and at the top of that list were idiots who did not take proper care of books and the precious knowledge they contained.

"As dangerous as it is to have the family names of all these bounds, I know there are many of our kind out there who would love a chance to trace back their ancestry," Aya explained. "Between mine and Omi’s wards, I believe we’ll ensure that the books don’t fall into the hands of anyone who would use that information in a negative manner."

Such as tracking down the lineage of bounds for their own private source of bound blood, or to blackmail families who thought themselves clean of demon ‘taint’. Yohji grimaced at that thought, but had the utmost faith in Aya and Omi.

"It also might solve the question of if there are some bloodlines that are more accepting of demon souls than others," Ed pointed out, a smile back on his face as he practically bounced with excitement in his seat. "I believe the books were written in order to prove or disprove that theory so Kritiker’s Wizard would have an easier time of choosing volunteers for the process. The books were probably discarded when he realized that bounds would pass their nature on to their offspring."

Aya nodded and leaned back in his chair, his right hand seeking out Yohji’s left one. "I’m not sure if the person who hid the books realized that they could trace the lineage of the people listed here to see if there were some bloodlines which created more bounds or not, but it’s a very good thing that Ed found them."

"Yeah." Yohji gave his mate’s hand a squeeze and wondered if there would be any mention of the Kudoh family in the tomes before he remembered that the bloodline had been broken many times. However, the Kudoh family journal should have the original names of the people adopted into the family, at least of those who had chosen to record those names.

The room grew quiet after that, save for the occasional muttering of a translated name. Not one to enjoy doing research through a book, Yohji had to admit that his interest was kept captured for a couple of hours while helping Aya and Ed. Then again, he had his lover by his side and a chance to sit down for a bit, so that usually made things mostly right in his world.

Then Ed’s stomach growled loudly enough to sound like a tormented cat, prompting the kid to blush. "Ah, do you think it’s time for dinner yet?"

Yohji chuckled as he checked his watch. "I hope so, or else you might pull a flesh gaki bound on us." He was surprised to realize that so much time had passed. "I think we need to get downstairs soon," he whispered in Aya’s ear. "You sticking around for dinner, Ed?"

"Of course." Ed looked at him as if he was a blithering idiot before setting the damaged book on a shelf so it was out of the way of any other visitors to the room. "No point in going home to an empty house and cook dinner for myself." Despite his efforts to not sound so pitiful, he could not quite keep the emotion from his voice.

Knowing that Ed was not saying that to finagle an invite to dinner, Yohji sighed and spared a moment to nuzzle Aya’s right ear. "Mustang having dinner at the palace again?"

"Nah, it’s some fancy party that a General is throwing," Ed muttered, his eyebrows drawn together in annoyance. "He didn’t have a choice to turn down the invite, even if he’s been in meetings with the moron for the past week." He rubbed his right hand over his neck, which was bearing only one faint bruise.

Yohji had no problem with feeling sorry for Ed; the kid did not have the opportunity to spend as much time with Mustang as Yohji did with Aya, thanks to Mustang’s job and Ed’s youth. "My understanding is that the talks between the Army and the Guard will go on hiatus in a few more weeks." He hoped that the ‘persuasion’ he had used against Kikyou kept the bastard away from Aya, especially when he felt his mate start when he mentioned the cessation of discussions. Judging from a nightmare that Aya had the other day, he was worried about being forced out on more ‘dates’ in the near future.

He hugged Aya close while Ed nodded several times and smiled. "Yeah, and Roy said he’s put in enough time at the palace that he should be able to ask for several days’ leave. Hughes knows someone who owns a cabin about a day’s ride from the city, so we’ll go there for a long weekend."

Refusing to think about the excitement in Ed’s voice and what would most likely happen to the kid once he and Mustang were alone, Yohji urged Aya to stand up. "Well, I believe that if we hope to have any soup, we really need to go downstairs now. Come on, Cat."

"All right." Aya picked up the tray of empty dishes and mugs, which Yohji promptly snatched from him as they left the room. He had brought the tray upstairs, so it was only fair that he took it back to the kitchen.

He was not surprised to find that Crawford and Jei were sitting at one of the kitchen’s tables and already enjoying dinner. Taking the tray to the sink, he paused to kiss Jo on the cheek before sitting down himself. Looking at everyone gathered in the room, he realized that Neely and Emmie were not here. In fact, there was no one here but Jo, which was odd even if it was right after the busiest hour for dinner.

"Where are the girls?" he asked, hoping that they were just fetching some spices or preserves for Jo.

"I asked for them not to be here tonight." Crawford adjusted his glasses, and only careful attention on Yohji’s part allowed him to notice the quick glance in Jo’s direction.

"Cassandra invited them and Marta to dinner at her house, as well as to try on some of the new clothes that she made for the girls." Jo set a large bowl of soup each in front of Aya and Yohji, then returned to the stove to fetch another one, probably for Ed. "Ani and Kira are helping in the main room while Touya, Maddox, Nagi and Omi have the night off. I asked Maria to keep all of the part-time staff out of the kitchen tonight." Her eyes narrowed as she stared pointedly at Crawford. "Mickey helped me out during the worst of it, and will be back later to clean things up."

"You needn’t have gone to that much trouble, Jo." Crawford set his soup spoon down and returned the look. "I have every intention of moving my conversation with Trowa and Duo to the library soon after their arrival."

Sitting across from him, Jei snorted and reached for a loaf of bread, which he tore in half. "She lives with a mated pair of bounds; do you really believe that she won’t clear out the innocents when you’re about to deliberately piss off another mated pair?"

Jo patted Jei on the shoulder and picked up his empty bowl of soup, not even complaining about the way he quickly decimated the bread. "I’d rather be overly cautious than have someone be hurt."

"That’s why I have Aya here."

In the process of literally inhaling his soup, Ed growled at Crawford around his spoon. "Haven’t you learned your lesson about that yet? Does Roy need to burn your ass again?"

Crawford glared while rubbing his chest on a spot above his heart. "In this instance, there has been very little ‘meddling’ on my part." At Jei’s derisive snort, his eyes narrowed even more. "You know it’s the truth."

"Yeah, you just arranged things so they wouldn’t get together back in Esset and then threw them in the same apartment as soon as they got here." However, Jei relented after a moment. "But it really was for the best, considering what those old bastards would have done if they had found out about the bond."

"Thank you." Crawford managed an amazing amount of iciness in those two words, enough to rival Rufus in prissiness. Must be something about soul gaki bounds, Yohji thought to himself as he ate his dinner, content to be out of the argument at the moment. Now that he was certain that he and Aya were here to limit any damage that Trowa and Duo might do, he just wanted to enjoy a good meal for however long he could. Apparently, Aya felt the same since he said little in favor of eating.

"Although I’m certain that Trowa will be upset over the fact that I chose to not tell him about his bond with Duo, it’s not his reaction that has me worried." That was not quite the truth, Yohji could tell, but if Crawford was willing to alienate one of his rare true friends, then Yohji was not going to pry into the matter. "Duo will learn something tonight that will make him… furious."

"Which is why I assume you want me here," Aya said as he picked up his cup of tea and held the cup cradled in his right hand. "He better not damage anything in the library." The silver gleam was back in his eyes and the sibilance in his voice.

"Not if you’ve properly warded the room." Yohji could not tell if Crawford really did not care if he pissed off Aya or just had balls the size of cannonballs. Either way, he was not happy at the moment, but at least he was not Duo or Trowa.

He tugged on Aya’s right eartail to distract his lover before Crawford ended up dead, and smiled in face of the scowl he got in return. "Hurry up and finish your dinner so we can have a slice or two of cherry pie before the trouble starts." When in fear of being bitten, always distract Aya with dessert – Yohji had indeed learned a few very important lessons over the past year. That was why he had given Omi a silver coin today to help him stock up on almond cookies to appease any temper Aya had over the upcoming party.

As if mindful of how much Jo hated it when people fought in her kitchen, everyone gathered at the table fell quiet and concentrated on eating as much soup and bread as they could. Ken stopped by for a brief visit, but after a look at everyone’s faces declared that he would be eating out in the main room. From the sound of it, quite a few Guards were out there, no doubt celebrating the fact that the Esset agents had been caught. Yohji figured that was why he had not seen Reiichi or Yuushi tonight.

Jo had just set down a second slice of pie for him and Aya when there was a knock on the back door. Sharing a knowing look with Crawford, he got up from the table to go let the poor fools in. Trowa and Duo were both wearing cloaks with the hoods pulled forward as if to disguise themselves, and Yohji almost asked them for the ‘password’ that would allow them inside before he sensed their emotions. No doubt about it, the two were definitely mates now, considering the amount of love and possessiveness he felt, but there was a heartbreaking amount of fear and concern mixed in with those emotions. They were probably worried sick about the wrong people finding out about their bond.

Anger was added to the mix when Trowa saw Crawford, as well as a whiff of jealousy that faded after Duo had purposely examined everyone who was in the room. Again, Yohji almost said something about how his father was not here, but Jo had made a very good point earlier about not riling up a pair of mated bounds when they were both on the edge. He would definitely never get another slice of cherry pie if he inadvertently led to the destruction of Jo’s precious kitchen.

"Welcome," he said instead and ushered the two men inside so he could close the door before Jo yelled at him for letting the warm air out and bugs inside. "Hate to tell you this, but you’ve been expected." Then he got the hell away from them so Crawford could deal with the two.


Trowa rode out the wave of anger he felt when Yohji stepped aside and motioned for him to enter the kitchen. Judging from the man’s comment and Crawford’s carefully blank expression, tonight’s visit had definitely been expected. In a way, finding the precog here made things a bit easier, but he still was not happy with the thought that what had happened between him and Duo had been planned out to some degree by someone who was supposed to be a good friend. How had Crawford managed to look him in the eye months ago and swear to him that being partnered with Duo was ‘necessary’ for their goal? Why could not he have just said back then that Duo would be Trowa’s mate?

Then the logical part of his brain kicked in and let him slowly enter the room and go sit at the table where everyone else was sharing a meal. He probably would not have reacted well to finding out that he had little choice but to take Duo on as a lover, and they had needed to work a few things out before he trusted the fire elemental enough to be physical with him. Still, he was not at all happy that Crawford had used his personal life to such an extent, just to ensure that Duo would not betray them to the Elders.

"Good evening," he murmured as he sat down, Duo taking the spot to his left. "So, we were expected?" he asked as he folded his hands on his lap and stared directly at Crawford.

Before the precog could answer, Jo cleared her throat so loudly that it had to hurt. Crawford shot her an annoyed glance before nodding to Trowa. "I had thought to let you and Duo enjoy some dinner first, but perhaps it’s best if we get business out of the way now."

"I promise that there will be some food left for you," Jo said, her arms folded over her chest in a manner that Trowa had learned meant she expected to have her will obeyed. And it usually was, judging from the way that everyone else at the table began to eat their slices of pie as if starving. He was left with the impression that the discussion would not be just between him, Crawford and Duo.

"Eh, figures we have to wait for the food and the beer," Duo grumbled and grabbed a couple of rolls before he rose to his feet. He handed one of the rolls to Trowa and smiled, the expression a bit lopsided. "Let’s get this over with, okay?"

Trowa nodded, not feeling inclined to speak just then. Duo had been quieter than usual on their walk here, and he had the feeling that his lover suspected that they were here for more than a meal and to let Crawford know that they were mates. He sent a quick prayer to the gods that his friend would let Duo know the truth that had been kept hidden so long so he did not feel as if he was betraying someone he loved.

Jei, Aya, Yohji and the teenaged boy – Ed, if he was not confusing the brothers – stood as well, which made Trowa distinctly nervous as it gave the impression that things might get out of hand tonight. He could understand Jei tagging along, but Aya tended to be included in things only when others had a use for his talent, in Trowa’s experience. Crawford tried to say something to Ed, but the boy gave him a furious look and stepped closer to Aya, as if expecting his friend’s presence to protect him or something. Considering that his friend was a kage, he got his way.

Duo did not appear happy when he followed everyone out of the kitchen, a suspicious look appearing on his face as they went to the library. Yet that suspicion did not seem directed at Trowa, not when Duo reached for his left hand and held it lightly, as if allowing him the chance to pull it free if he wanted. All he did was give it a reassuring squeeze and held on tightly.

The library was empty, a small fire burning in its fireplace and only a couple of candles lit. All of them burst into flame once Duo entered the room, yet Trowa noticed that there still seemed an awful lot of shadows clinging to the bookshelves and walls. Seeing the way a line of shadows crept toward Aya and Yohji, he realized it was not his imagination and that the kage must be using his power for some reason. Only his trust in Jei and Crawford kept him from leaving the room right away, dragging Duo along with him.

The door closed behind Crawford, the last person to enter the room, and a veil of shadows fell across it. Thankfully, Duo seemed too intent on keeping a nervous eye on Jei, who was standing nearby and had taken to ‘smiling’ at him in a manner that exposed most of his sharp teeth, to notice that fact. Yohji sat on the table usually used for taking notes or reading, Aya standing between his legs and wrapped in his arms, pale face even more impassive than normal. Ed sprawled out on a nearest leather chair, sitting in it sideways with his legs draped over one of the arms, and appeared to be playing with the thick metal band around his right wrist, making the steel form into various shapes even as he stared at Crawford intently with his odd, gold-colored eyes.

Seeing no point in dragging things out, Trowa took a deep breath and forced himself to let go of Duo’s hand. "I assume that it’ll come to no surprise that Duo and I are mates." Duo started beside him, clearly taken back by the open statement, but he did not say anything. Instead, he frowned and glanced back and forth between Trowa, Crawford and Jei, most likely wondering about why they were talking about such things in front of ‘strangers’.

Crawford nodded once and folded his arms over his chest, his back to the door as if he hoped to hide the shadows or prevent anyone from leaving the room just yet. "And I suppose that it will come as no surprise to you that I was already aware of that fact." His voice was perfectly flat, but there was the slightest of smiles on his face, not one of smugness but happiness. "Congratulations."

"Welcome to the club," Ed grunted, the metal forming into a sharp point as he motioned his right arm in Crawford’s direction. "He’s a veritable matchmaker, isn’t he? Maybe he should open up a stall in the market or something. Could make a damn fortune, I bet."

"Ed," Yohji warned, turning to look at the boy for several seconds.

Ed growled in response, and thankfully let the metal form back into a bracelet before Duo noticed what was happening. "Aw, come on; don’t tell me you’re not angry with him a bit, too."

"I would not dream of saying ‘no’, but bitch about him some other time, okay? You and Mustang got your chance a while ago, now it’s Trowa and Duo’s turn." Yohji smiled as he spoke, his arms tightening around Aya. The kage’s eyes were glowing in the room’s flickering light, making it hard to tell if it was from the various flames reflected in them or if they had gone silver.

"Yeah, it’s Duo and Trowa’s turn." Duo finally spoke up, appearing to decide that there were things more important than making sure that Jei was at least an arm’s length away at all times. "Right now, ‘Duo’ wants to know what the fuck is going on and what you mean by our ‘turn’." The flames in the fireplace grew brighter, and Trowa did not think it was the additional light that made the shadows darker.

Crawford, brilliant man that he could be most of the time, just had to pick that moment to come across rather snide. "I thought it would be obvious, Duo. By ‘turn’, they’re referring to the fact that they’ve already met their mates." He motioned in Aya and Yohji’s direction.

"What?" Astonishment made Duo’s voice louder and sharper than normal, as well as the flames on the candles doubling in size. "But, if they’re mates…." His voice trailed off as he stared at Aya and Yohji.

"Then we’re bounds, too. Though technically, only one of us has to be a bound." Yohji shrugged then smiled at Duo, the expression more of a warning than one of fellowship. "But both of us are bounds, and able to kick your ass if you think of blabbing that fact around."

"That’s not very helpful," Aya murmured, speaking up for the first time since he had entered the room, and from the sibilance in his voice Trowa knew that it was not the light that made the kage’s eyes turn silver. He grew worried for Duo, and found himself yanked closer to his mate’s side.

"I don’t fucking care what you are; think you can take us down and you’ll find out just how wrong you are. Leave Trowa the hell alone!" Duo snarled, the temperature of the air in the library going up by several degrees.

"Yeah, they’re mates all right. Let me know if you need any tips on how to handle fire elementals, Trowa," Ed offered while moving about to sit in the chair properly.

Trowa felt sorry for Duo; whatever his lover had expected to happen tonight, this certainly was not it. While he objected about how the revelations came about, at least Duo was finding out a few necessary things tonight. "I would like for everyone to stop making threats," he said as he stroked his hand along Duo’s tense back.

Crawford nodded and gave Ed a rather stern look for a couple of seconds. "I apologize, Duo. This was not quite how I’d expected to inform you that many of the people you’d assumed to be humans were in fact fellow bounds. That’s what happens when children take part in adult discussions." He could not have said the words any colder if he had tried.

Ed flipped him the finger. "I’m old enough to be stuck with your pervert of a brother for the rest of my life, so I think I’m an ‘adult’."

The flames about the room doubled in size again, which made everyone turn their attention back on Duo. "Okay, I’m getting a bit tired of what’s going on right now," he snarled, his left arm wrapped tightly around Trowa’s waist. "I thought we’d come here and talk to Crawford for a bit, not have our secret told to a bunch of people I barely know!" He looked at Trowa, his expression a mix of hurt and suspicion. "You knew what they are, did not you? Is this what you’ve been keeping from me?"

"It’s… part of it," Trowa admitted, feeling a bit ashamed for some reason.

"Why was not I supposed to know, then?" The hurt in Duo’s voice made Trowa close his eyes and shake his head, unable to explain things well enough to appease his mate.

Thankfully, Crawford was rarely at a loss for words. "Because they don’t work for Esset." That prompted another savage growl and more flames from Duo, and to Trowa’s growing panic an answering snarl from Yohji.

"I’m beginning to wonder if this is some sort of trap, which means if I don’t get some answers right *now*, people are gonna get burned." Duo pulled Trowa even closer, the move a protective one that left Trowa angry that he was assumed to be so helpless and concerned that Duo felt so threatened.

"It’s not a trap," he said, the words rushing from his mouth in his haste to reassure his mate. "I promise you that these people can be trusted."

Crawford let out a sharp huff of air. "As I said, things aren’t going quite how I’d intended tonight. We are not here to harm you or Trowa, merely to enlighten you about a few things."

"Then enlighten me already, dammit!" Duo stared directly at Crawford, his lips pulled back from his teeth. "What the hell is going on? Why are you telling these guys that we work for Esset?"

"Because you’re the only one in this room who *does* work for Esset," Jei snapped, moving from the bookcase that he had been leaning against to stalk around Duo and Trowa. "All that bullshit about how you would never hurt Trowa, and you’re working for the pricks who use him as if he was nothing more than a weapon or a valuable tool!" When Crawford stepped closer as if to cut him off, Jei waved a clawed hand at the precog. "If there’s anyone in here who can’t be trusted, it’s you, Duo!"

Trowa gave his lover’s arm a reassuring pat. "I’m sorry, but I’ve never willingly worked for the Elders. I’ve only pretended to do so while secretly assisting Crawford and Jei in planning their defeat." The worst of the secrets had been admitted, and he could only hope that Duo’s hatred for the Elders won out over his betrayal.

"What?" Duo turned Trowa to face him, his eyes wide with shock. "You… I thought… you always did whatever they asked."

"I only made it look that way, often with Crawford and Jei’s help," Trowa admitted while shaking his head. He dared to raise his right hand and cup it against the left side of Duo’s face. "I’d never willingly work for the people who allowed me to be abused just… just because they could not be bothered to save me." He could not admit the entire truth in front of everyone, but maybe tonight when it was just him and Duo. "I’m sorry, but we felt we could never trust you before now." Why did Crawford have to reveal their secrets in such a brutal manner?

"Trust *me*?" Duo laughed, the sound so bitter that Trowa expected to be shoved away at any moment. Instead, he was given a quick kiss and enveloped in both of his mate’s arms. "I’d never do anything to hurt you, *never*," he whispered, his voice ragged with pain.

Trowa closed his eyes and rested his head against Duo’s shoulder. "I know that… now."

That prompted another bitter laugh from Duo. "Yeah, which is why you’re telling me this tonight." When Trowa made to pull away, he was held even tighter. "I don’t hold it against you, not when those old bastards have everyone so afraid of being turned in as traitors." He kissed the side of Trowa’s head. "All right, you’ve made your point," he said a moment later, a hint of a growl still in his voice. "I couldn’t be trusted because let’s face it, if I turned out to be loyal to the Elders then you’d soon be dead. Kinda hard to tattletale on you when it means my mate will be punished, so I can see why you’re telling me this now. But is that the only reason behind this little chat tonight?"

Trowa lifted his head so he could look back and forth from Duo and Crawford, wondering the truth about that himself. It was clear to him after last night that Crawford had been waiting for him and Duo to be mates, trusting in that bond to keep Duo from betraying them, but it was not the best way to guarantee that Duo would join their side.

Crawford shook his head. "Duo, I know that you have never willingly obeyed the Elders."

"No, I haven’t." Duo took a deep breath and loosened his hold on Trowa enough that Trowa could turn around and face the room, Duo quickly pressing against his back and resting his chin on Trowa’s left shoulder. "Think I’m bothered to hear that you guys want them to fail? Then you couldn’t be more wrong. I can see why you wouldn’t trust me before this, but I’ll gladly cheer you on as they get their heads handed to them in the upcoming war. There’s just one problem, you see, and that’s why I came with Trowa tonight."

"And that’s your human buddy," Jei drawled, once more leaning against a bookshelf, this time the one closest to Crawford. That set off warning bells in Trowa’s head since it appeared to him that Jei was protecting his partner. "The one that the Elders have held hostage against you all these years."

"Yeah, Solo." Duo’s arms tightened around Trowa, his body so tense that Trowa reached back to caress his mate’s face in an attempt to soothe. He had known about the human for years; it was not common knowledge in Berin, but Crawford had confided in him and Quatre when they had asked him why Duo was not included in their rebellion.

"When they found out about me, they took him hostage and hid him away somewhere. The Elders swore that if I tried to run away or disobeyed orders that they would order Solo killed." The growl was back in Duo’s voice and the fire crackled almost loud enough to drown out the softly spoken words. Out of the corner of Trowa’s eyes, he saw Ed shift about, a look of pity on his face, although Aya and Yohji’s expressions were carefully guarded. "If you know about him, then maybe you can tell me where the hell he is and help me get him out of the Elders’ hands. Do that and I’ll burn Berin to the ground if you want me to."

Jei inched closer to Crawford, his lean body tensing as if prepared to burst into action at any moment, and Trowa had a sickening feeling of what was going to be said next. He wanted to close his eyes and hold Duo to him, but forced himself to pay attention to what was happening.

The look of sorrow on Crawford’s face confirmed his worst fears. "I’m afraid that’s not possible, Duo," he said, that emotion reflected in his tone. "Your friend has been dead for the past four years."

The room was utterly quiet after that announcement, not even the fire crackling as if it was reacting to Duo’s extreme shock. Trowa swore he felt the same emotion even though he had prepared himself for the revelation; that shock was soon followed by a tidal wave of rage and sorrow that he knew did not originate from himself. The library’s air grew unbearably hot, the flames burning so strongly that it was flooded with light as well. Those flames funneled away from their respected sources and raced through the air toward Crawford while Duo screamed in denial.

Jei burst into motion, jumping before Crawford as if to stop the flames with his body, but Trowa put his power to use first to create a wall of water to negate the flames. He had to use all the humidity in the room to do so, and thankfully the flames vanished seconds after hitting that wall.

"Duo, stop it!" he pleaded while dissipating the resulting steam before anyone was hurt. "It’s not Crawford’s fault!" He did his best to twist about so he could face his lover.

Duo shook his head and would not let Trowa move. "You’re lying to make me hate the Elders, aren’t you?" he shouted at Crawford, who urged Jei to move out of the way. Jei did so reluctantly, and Trowa caught a glimpse of shadows trailing down his friend’s legs to pool onto the carpeted floor.

"I wish I were." Crawford sighed and held his hands out at his sides, the gesture one of placation. "From what I’ve been told, your friend attempted to escape one too many times and his ‘keepers’ decided it was not worth the aggravation to keep him alive." There was actual sympathy in the precog’s voice.

"But I got letters from him every couple of months," Duo said, shaking his head as if to deny himself the reality of the situation.

"Because one of bounds assigned to watch over… Solo was a soul gaki bound. She knew him well enough to impersonate him in the letters sent after his death." Crawford paused for a moment, his hands clenching and unclenching into fists. "The Elders planned to tell you that he had been killed during the war."

Duo pressed his face against Trowa’s neck for several seconds, trembling so strongly that Trowa was afraid that he would collapse. Then he found himself pushed aside, Duo’s right hand quickly latching onto his wrist as he was dragged forward.

"I’m going to kill them!" Duo snarled, sounding more enraged than Trowa had ever heard.

"You’ll do no such thing." Crawford was once more blocking the door with Jei standing beside him.

"Like hell I won’t." Duo motioned with his left hand and flames billowed out of the fireplace in a repeat of his previous attack. "Move or die."

The flames were much hotter this time, leaving Trowa to doubt that he would be able to prevent his friends from being hurt. Yet while he gathered his power to him again, a net of shadows fell onto the flames and vanquished them in seconds, the same time that more shadows crept up from the floor and wrapped themselves around Duo as if bands of black rope.

"Aya"! Trowa shook his hand free from Duo’s suddenly weak grasp and tried to pull the shadows off of his lover. "Set him free, dammit!"

"No," the kage hissed, shadows whirling around the room to keep the various flames from being turned into weapons again. "I won’t harm him, but he’ll be the death of all of us if he goes after the Elders now."

Duo did his best to turn around and look at Aya, his hands clawing at the shadows and his mouth hanging open in shock. "You’re… oh hell." It was as if the wind was knocked out of him and he fell to his knees.

"Duo!" Trowa knelt beside him, drawing on his talent to lash out at Aya yet… yet it was as if it could not find a target in the kage or Yohji. He glared at the two men and slid his arms around Duo, doing his best to comfort his mate despite the extreme chill of the shadows. "Let him go!"

Crawford knelt down beside them, his right hand reaching out to tilt Duo’s head in his direction. "What Aya is doing is ensuring that you don’t commit an extreme act of foolishness." He glanced at Trowa for a few seconds, who stared back in hatred at this apparent betrayal. "Think of your mate, of what would happen to him if you go charging into Berin with the intent of exacting revenge. While you are one of the most powerful fire elementals around, I swear to you that you’ll be dead before you reach the Elders. That means that Trowa would die because of your foolishness. Is that what you want?"

Shivering so strongly that his muscles had to hurt, Duo somehow managed to shake his head. "Not… not Trowa."

"No, not Trowa." Crawford rocked back onto his heels and nodded in Aya’s direction. "Please let him go."

Aya did not visibly react to the plea, but the shadows around Duo melted away. Trowa hugged his lover as close as possible, doing his best to restore the stolen warmth. "Thank you," he mumbled, well aware that Aya did not have to listen to anyone and had a mate of his own to protect.

No one spoke for a minute or two, then Yohji cleared his throat. "Look, unlike everyone in this room except Aya, I’ve never dealt with the Elders. I haven’t lost loved ones to them or been unlucky enough to draw their attention." He let out a deep breath and began to play with Aya’s right eartail, his long fingers tangling in the crimson strands while the kage remained perfectly still in his arms. "But I know what it feels like to want revenge." His normally warm, smooth voice became rough with hatred. "I know what it’s like to want to protect my mate, to the point that I almost put him *in* harm’s way. Thankfully, a dear friend or two smacked some sense into me before I did something incredibly stupid." He looked directly at Duo, who stared back as if unable to look away. "Revenge is worthless if you hurt the one you’re supposed to protect."

Out of nowhere, Jei’s right hand swung at the left side of Duo’s head and smacked against it. "Remember the promise you made to me, you dumb fuck. I’m sorry about your friend, but he’s dead and Trowa’s not," the flesh gaki growled. When Trowa glared at him, Jei held his hands up in the air and stepped back.

Duo began to laugh, the sound quiet and surprisingly amused. When he struggled to stand up, Trowa helped him to his feet, his arms around his mate the entire time. "All right, I get the hint." He closed his eyes and leaned against Trowa. "In my defense, I find out I have a mate, that people knew I had a mate and did not say anything to me, that several people I thought of as humans are actually bounds, that my best friend is dead and oh yeah, there’s a fucking kage in the room." He nodded in Aya’s direction but did not look at the redhead. "Give me a fucking break, okay!" There was a distinct note of hysteria in his voice. "Any more surprises and you might as well knock me out right now because I’ve *had* it with the damn things!"

Trowa pressed his face against the side of Duo’s neck, his mate’s pulse frantic against his cheek. "I’m sorry, I didn’t think all this would happen." He looked up to glare at Crawford some more.

The precog had the grace to appear slightly abashed as he shrugged. "I hadn’t planned on so many revelations tonight, but in a way it’s for the best. Duo knows most of our secrets now."

"Most?" The hysterical edge had made its way into Duo’s laughter. "What the hell can you possibly spring on me now, eh? I’m the reincarnation of Esset’s Wizard? Heero’s my mother? It’s gonna start raining fucking gold coins in ten minutes?"

"Duo, please calm down." Trowa used his talent to slow the flow of blood in his mate’s veins, causing Duo to become slightly lethargic. "It’s nothing bad, I promise."

"He better get used to the surprises with this crowd," Ed muttered, his legs swinging so his feet kept kicking against the leather chair. "Aya, is there *anyone* who doesn’t find out about you in the worst way possible? Can’t you work on going ‘hey, I’m a kage, nice to meet you’ or something?"

To Trowa’s astonishment, both Aya and Duo laughed at the comment, as well as Yohji and Jei. "I don’t think that would work much better," the kage murmured and knocked his elbow back into his mate’s left side.

"Yeah, people would just think you’re nuts until you show them otherwise, and then still end up shitting their pants." Duo sounded more like himself now, and patted Trowa’s arms until he reluctantly loosened his hold. Moving to face him, Duo tucked Trowa’s bangs back behind his left ear. "Last night… that didn’t have anything to do with tonight, right?" His tone was practically pleading, as was his expression.

"It had *nothing* to do with tonight, I swear that to you before all the gods," Trowa whispered back. "I… it never would have happened for such a reason." He would never sell himself like that or cheapen Duo just to make Crawford’s life a bit easier.

"Okay." Duo’s smile just then was so relieved that Trowa found himself smiling back. "I really won’t let anything happen to you, even if I have to wait a thousand years to get back at the Elders."

He had spoken the words quietly, but bounds had a very good sense of hearing. Ed jumped from the chair and stalked over to Trowa and Duo, his golden eyes bright with fury. "Look, I’m sorry about your friend, I truly am. But get to the back of the damn queue when it comes to killing those bastards because I get the first shot!" he yelled while waving his hands about.

"Only if you get to them before me," Duo snarled, his eyes narrowing and the room growing warmer again. "I owe them a hell of a lot."

"You owe them a hell of a lot less than I do!" Ed spat. "They killed- they killed my family!" He looked almost ready to cry, his expressive eyes watering for a moment before his anger took over again. "Roy and I will deal with them, I swear that on my mother’s soul!"

Duo appeared as taken back as Trowa felt and glanced at him before focusing his attention on Ed. He was quiet for a few seconds then sighed. "You’ve got one shot, and you better damn well make them suffer," Duo grumbled, and Trowa felt some tension leave his mate’s body. There was no way to know for sure unless he asked Duo, but he was willing to bet that Duo was a bit relieved to not have to face the Elders directly. It was not a matter of cowardice or fear, but… they had been mates only for a day, yet Trowa felt a stab of fear whenever he thought about doing something that might cause Duo any harm.

"Trust me, they’ll be broken into bits and burned to ash," Ed growled, stepping back a little now that he got his way. He whirled around to look at Crawford. "Right?"

"You and Roy will face the Elders, according to my visions," the precog admitted with a slight bow of his head. When he looked up, he stared directly at Duo. "As for you, it would be best if you stay as far away from Berin as possible, even once the war starts. I worked hard to get you and Trowa out of Berin for several reasons, foremost to keep you safe because I knew it would not be long before you became mates. So keep that in mind because if you do anything that makes the Elders call you back, then both of you are in grave danger."

"Believe it or not, but I’ve been doing my best to *not* get sent back ever since getting here." Duo bared his teeth and pulled Trowa against him, his left hand wrapping Trowa’s ponytail around his wrist.

"Sweet gods, maybe the kid’s not as dumb as he looks." Jei once again showed his fangs to Duo when the fire elemental glared at him for the comment.

"Would be pretty stupid on your part to let an idiot in on your secrets, right?" Some of his temper seemed to vanish when Jei nodded in agreement. "Look, a lot of stuff has happened in the past day, all right?" He stroked his right hand down Trowa’s neck. "Up until about an hour ago, things were great." His hand was followed by a quick brush of his lips. "Really great. And now I’m about two minutes away from finding a cask of whiskey and getting very drunk, so if there’s anything else you want to throw at me tonight, you better make it quick."

Crawford looked in Yohji and Aya’s direction, and Yohji shrugged after a moment’s pause. "I’m sure either Reiichi or Yuushi’s in the main room," the succubae bound said.

Duo groaned and buried his face in the crook of Trowa’s neck. "I call off sick one friggen day, and it’s the one where you want me to talk to them." He raised his head and scowled at Crawford. "What, are they bounds too?"

"No, those two gentlemen are humans, but the same can’t be said for the rest of your coworkers." Crawford appeared very pleased with himself.

Trowa swore that Duo actually whimpered just then. "Oh hell, now you’re telling me that there are bounds in the fucking *Guard*!" He waved his hand in Aya’s direction. "Isn’t it enough I’m still trying to wrap my poor brain around *him* that you have to break it with fucking *bounds* in the fucking *Guard*!"

"Refer to Aya like that ever again and it won’t just be your brain that’s broken," Yohji snarled in absolute fury, making Trowa believe that he was about to leave the table to attack Duo. Fortunately, Aya tilted his head back and nipped at his mate’s chin, which seemed to do a fine job of distracting his mate. Trowa filed that away for future reference.

Jei lashed out again, and this time Trowa did not give his friend a warning look since Duo was pushing things. "You better start using that brain, broken or not." Jei sniffed and stood with his arms folded over his chest. "Promise to stop shrieking like that and I’ll go fetch a bottle of whiskey along with whoever’s here, Reiichi or Yuushi."

"I’m not shrieking, you sadistic bastard," Duo muttered while rubbing his most likely very sore head.

"If Reiichi’s not in the main room then he’s probably still resting from last night. I’d rather you bother Yuushi instead," Aya said with the slightest bit of sibilance to his voice. Jei shrugged then nodded in agreement.

Yohji combed his fingers through Aya’s eartail. "Unless anyone feels that there’s going to be more fireballs and melodrama, I don’t think you need Aya and me here anymore." He waited for Crawford to nod before gently pushing Aya away. "Come on, Cat, maybe we can wheedle one more slice of pie out of Jo tonight."

"I need to see if she’ll let me take some home to Roy and Al," Ed said as he followed Yohji and Aya to the door. "They should be getting home soon."

"I guess we can’t send you home with just a slice for Al," Yohji grumbled, appearing put out for some reason. "Oh, and I’ll ask Jo to make up some trays for Trowa and Duo." His voice roughened at the mention of Duo’s name, so Trowa made it a priority to get his mate to accept Aya’s unique nature as quickly as possible. While succubae bounds were not considered the most threatening of bounds, there was something about Yohji that warned him not to get into a fight with the man – and not just because of Yohji’s mate. Duo needed to adjust to the fact that both men were not human and treat them with the proper amount of respect.

"Thank you," Trowa told the departing men, relieved that things were calming down finally. He gave Crawford a look to let his friend know that he was not very happy with him still, but would wait for another time to have a private discussion with him. One thing was certain, he would force Crawford to swear to him that there were no more secrets being kept from him along the lines of him having a mate.

Crawford bowed his head as if in apology and motioned toward the table. "If you’ll be eating and drinking, then we should make ourselves comfortable. We still have a lot to talk about tonight."

Duo sighed upon hearing that and gave Trowa’s ribs a quick squeeze. Much to Trowa’s relief, his lover seemed shaken up by tonight’s revelations but not upset with him. He knew that they would have a lot of talking to do when they got home, but at least there were no more secrets between them – or at least, not on his part. If they truly wanted to build a future together, they would need to be honest to each other.

Motioning for him to move to the table, Duo caught his right hand and gave it a reassuring squeeze, followed by a kiss to his fingertips. The hopeful smile he was given made Trowa lean forward to return the kiss, this time against Duo’s lips.

"That just turned this evening around," Duo whispered, his eyes bright with happiness as he stroked the back of his fingers along Trowa’s right cheek.

"You’re very brave to say that before hearing the rest of what Crawford has to tell you." Yet Trowa did not think Duo would be upset again, not over finding out about the Shadow Guard. Made to feel a bit of a fool, but Schuldig had kept him from figuring out that some of his fellow trainees and coworkers were bounds. At the least, it should put Duo’s concerns about betraying his coworkers to rest.

They went to the table and sat down together, Duo’s left arm draped over his shoulders. A contact that would have sent him scrambling away just a day or two ago made him lean into it now, grateful for his lover’s warmth and presence. He noticed Crawford’s pleased smile, some of his anger at his friend lessening at that expression. His trust in the man was not broken – but he would definitely pay more attention to how Crawford phrased things in the future, that was certain.


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