Bindings

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chapter nine

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celebration

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Duo woke up to the realization that he was the only person in bed. For a moment he found himself believing that the last two days had been just a dream, that Trowa was not his mate, and then he inhaled deeply. There was still a faint whiff of sex in the bedroom’s air, a lingering memory of yesterday morning, and Trowa’s scent clung to his skin and hair. His mate might not be in bed with him right now, but it had not been a dream. All the shocking revelations last night were not a dream, either.

Sitting up on the bed, Duo cursed under his breath as he ran his hands over his hair. Solo really was dead; despite the way he had reacted immediately upon hearing the news, it had taken a while to truly sink in. His best friend in the world, the boy who had protected him when he had been too young to fight and showed him how to survive, had been killed. In a way, he thought of it as his fault since Solo would never have been taken captive if he had not been a bound. Yet that guilt was tiny compared to the anger he felt at the people who truly were responsible for his friend’s death. The only reason he had ever served the Elders was because of Solo, and they had broken their promise.

One of the first things he had learned upon being taken to Berin was that a bound should never, *ever* go back on their given word - proving one’s self false before the gods was just begging for a very painful retribution. The Elders had broken their word to Duo and he would make damn sure that they paid for that; he might have told the kid in the library that he would get first shot at actually killing the old pricks, but that did not mean that Duo could not make their lives pure misery while waiting for his chance. No, he would do whatever the hell Crawford and Jei wanted of him and smile while the Elders’ grand plans came crashing down around them.

His head still ached from all the information he had taken in last night, so much so that he would probably need a day or two to assimilate all of it and then know the best decisions to make, but he had a little time. Getting out of bed, he went to the bathing room and then the necessity room, finally emerging from the bedroom clean and wearing his grey robe. There was no particular hurry to be up and about other than his desire to see Trowa and find out what his lover was currently making; Yuushi had told him to stay home another day so he could adjust to the new bond with Trowa, who also was given some time off.

Duo had not any problems with that order, not after everything that had happened recently, and he and Trowa had stayed up half the night talking about things. He felt like an idiot to not have noticed what was going on with several people he considered good friends and could not wait to see Quatre and Wufei again. While he would join in on any plan to take down the Elders after yesterday, he felt some relief that his fellow conspirators appeared very well organized and likely to succeed. Considering that they had bounds in Kritiker’s *Guard* and a *kage* on their side, he really did believe that they stood a chance of destroying the Elders.

He entered the kitchen to find Trowa dressed for the day in dark grey pants and a blue shirt, feet adorably bare and his bangs tucked back from his face. Trowa frowned as he flipped something on the large skillet that covered the top of the stove, and Duo began to drool when he realized that breakfast would be pancakes.

"Oh sweet gods, Trowa, I absolutely love you," he groaned as he approached his mate, practically salivating when he noticed that there were *blueberries* in the pancakes. He would go through a thousand more nights like last night if assured of waking up to mornings like this one.

Trowa almost dropped the pancake before putting it on the plate set by the stove, then whirled around to stare at Duo, his green eyes wide with surprise. It was then that Duo realized what he had just said and felt a blush take over his face.

"You… what?" Trowa asked, his voice so quiet and unsure that Duo stopped worrying about himself.

Deciding to face up to what he had let slip, Duo slowly approached his lover and reached out to caress the left side of Trowa’s face. "I really do, you know." His throat tightened as he tried to say the words, suddenly unsure himself that they were welcome. They might be mates, but did that mean they *had* to love each other?

Cupping his left hand over Duo’s, Trowa grabbed hold of him and pulled him forward for a kiss. Duo was surprised by it at first, then he stood a little on his toes to even out their heights and kissed Trowa back with all the passion he could muster. The kiss deepened and continued, a wonderful play of lips, teeth and tongue, until the smell of something burnt registered on Duo’s dazed senses.

He pulled away, but Trowa did not move though he had to notice the odor as well. "I… me, too," Trowa whispered, golden skin marred by a redness that Duo knew had nothing to do with the water elemental standing so close to the stove. Then Trowa turned around and flipped the very burnt pancake into the sink.

Smiling at the admission, Duo risked a hug while Trowa faced the stove and poured some more pancake batter. "Good." He wanted to hum in happiness over the fact that Trowa loved him. That Trowa had not actually said the word exactly did not bother him; Trowa could lie with the best of them when he felt a need to do so, which made the halting, shy manner of the not quite confession even more special. But it had been there in his eyes and his expression, and Duo swore he could feel an echo of the emotion that had filled his chest for so long.

"So, blueberry pancakes? I thought you said that we didn’t have much food left yesterday," he asked while pouring himself some coffee and giving his mate a little space.

Trowa snorted, the sound soft and amused. "I didn’t exactly lie; the ingredients for the pancake batter were in the cupboards and about the only thing in the cold box were blueberries, milk, eggs and an orange."

"Which means we get blueberry pancakes for breakfast, and that makes me very happy." Duo sat down at the already set table and grinned.

"It’s not the biggest breakfast we’ve ever had, but it’ll tide us over until we do some shopping." Trowa set the last of the pancakes on the plate and joined Duo at the table, the slightest of blushes still on his cheeks. "Since Birman and Yuushi approved our day off for today, I assume it won’t be a problem if we’re seen by your coworkers."

"Nope." Duo frowned into his coffee mug for a moment. He still could not quite believe that a Shadow Guard existed and most of the people he had worked with the last month or so were a part of it. Hell, *he* was part of it now since he had found out the truth and sworn to fight against Esset. At least he finally knew why Nicole and a few others in the Guard annoyed the hell out of him, and he was going to singe off an inch or two of Schuldig’s hair the next time he ran into the meddling bastard. Well, the next time they ran into each other and Masato was not around. For the first time in months, he could think of the succubae bound without feeling intense jealousy and hatred.

"Good." Trowa nodded twice and placed several of the fluffy pancakes on his plate, then began to cover them in butter. "We really do need the food, and I’m sure I’ll have to stay late a day or two to help Birman to catch up on all the work I’ve missed." He glanced at the kitchen window and so missed Duo’s unhappy look over the news. "It’s going to rain later this afternoon."

"When *hasn’t* it rained lately?" Duo grumbled as he forked about six pancakes onto his plate, his stomach growling at the sight of all the delicious food. "But I don’t feel like there’s much of a ‘punch’ to this front, or anything behind it." He poured enough maple syrup onto his pancakes that it almost spilled off of the plate, then began to dig in. "Oh, this is so good," he mumbled around a mouthful of food.

Trowa’s left eyebrow arched slightly, something that he could *see* for once, since auburn hair was not covering half of the man’s face. "I should hope so, considering the way you’re eating them." The corners of his lips twitched upward before he had a bite to eat himself. "No, I don’t feel any unusual amount of moisture headed for Kritiker now; it may be that the Elders have finally realized how much damage they’ve done," he said, once his mouth was empty.

Duo grunted and chewed a few more times before swallowing, already reaching for more of the delicious pancakes. "That or they’ve exhausted all the elemental bounds who can control the weather." He knew they usually relied on Shin, Rei and Gou for the important stuff, and while they were very powerful, *no one* could continue to affect the weather so steadily for too long.

"Yes. I imagine that Kritiker will get a bit of a reprieve. During that time, we should have a chance to set up things well enough to control the flooding issues." Trowa stared off into space for a few seconds, most likely reaching out with his talent to test the amount of moisture in the surrounding earth and air.

A shudder ran through Duo as he thought about how if Trowa was not so good at going undercover, he would be locked up in the palace much like Shin and forced to constantly monitor and affect the weather. As it was, he did not think the Elders knew just how easily Trowa could do those things, more and more convinced each day that his friend and now lover had downplayed his talent as much as possible while in Berin. "I’m sure the farmers will appreciate that."

To his surprise, Trowa actually laughed. "I wouldn’t think that you’d have much sympathy for people who raise cows and play in the mud."

"Hey! I have lots of sympathy for them, I just don’t want to stay with ‘em! I’m a city boy," Duo grumbled, pleased that Trowa could tease him like that. He did not want their relationship to be just about sex, he wanted it to be about love, trust and happiness.

With that in mind, he pushed his scraped clean plate aside and rested his elbows on the table. "So, we’re going grocery shopping, right?"


The change of topic made Trowa’s mood turn serious and he looked around the kitchen as if figuring out the shopping list. "Oh yes. We should ask Sandra if she needs anything, and it might be best to take the cart with us."

That meant that Trowa really wanted to stock up on the food, which was sensible considering how much they ate. "Yeah, we can ask her to accept some packages for us in exchange for the shopping," he said, watching to see his lover’s reaction.

Trowa looked back at him and frowned, just a slight furrowing of brow and flattening of lips. "We won’t have any packages if we go grocery shopping," he pointed out, clearly waiting to hear Duo’s rebuttal.

If they were just buying food then no, they would not need stuff delivered to the apartment, but Duo had done a lot of thinking since yesterday, and a lot of planning as well. "We need more than groceries."

"Such as?" Trowa picked up his mug of coffee and leaned back in his chair, eyes intent on Duo while he sipped the hot beverage.

"Such as a few more sets of sheets," Duo explained, immediately noticing the hint of pink to his lover’s cheeks. "I’ve a feeling they’ll need to be changed more often, and we might as well invest in some better quality sets since we’ll be using them for years." There, he had finally said it out loud, the fact that they’d be living together for a very long time – gods willing, that was.

Trowa nodded once and continued to sip his coffee, so Duo figured that was his cue to go on. "We’ll ask Sandra to accept an order of linens for us - some sheets and maybe a few new duvets as well. I was thinking that it’s about time we looked at getting a chair or a small couch for the living room in case we have friends over, but that can probably wait for a couple of weeks. We’ll need more towels, too, and we didn’t bring many clothes with us." He also wanted to just wander around a few stores one day and see what little trinkets he could find, all the things he had seen over the years and imagined belonged in a proper house, something that he had never thought to have for himself. They had moved into the apartment under the belief that this would be where they stayed for a mission, but now… now their undercover assignments really were their jobs, ones that they could actually keep once the war was over. He knew that Trowa enjoyed working for Birman and definitely was skilled at what he did, while Duo found that the Guard truly was a good fit for him. His coworkers were not as stuffy as he had feared they would be, the work was interesting if a little repetitive, and where else would he have the chance to hold down a job where people knew what he was and accepted that fact? All he had had to look forward to in Berin was to keep being the Elders’ personal shinigami and errand boy.

Now he had a chance at a real life with the man he loved. All the domestic stuff he had laughed at Quatre about *mattered* now, something he still did not quite understand even as he embraced it. This was his and Trowa’s home, and it was time to treat it as such – even if he and Trowa had never really had a home before. That made what they had here even more important.

"That’s going to require a lot of money," Trowa said after a minute’s reflection. "Won’t that attract attention?"

Duo shook his head, then reached for the pot of coffee to refill his and Trowa’s mugs. "Not really. We moved here to start new jobs with little more than what we carried on our backs or what came with the apartment, and I had to get through training first to be accepted as a Guard. Now that I’ve been one for almost two months, it’ll just seem as if we waited a safe amount of time before spending the coin." He paused to add some sugar to his coffee. "We’ve got more than enough money." A growl roughened his voice as he thought about the coins that the Elders had given them before they left Berin. Somehow it was fitting to use the money those pricks had intended to help destroy Kritiker to start their new life here.

"I believe it would be best to not buy everything at once." Trowa picked up his mug but only held it in his right hand as he stared intently at Duo. "The sheets and the towels today, maybe a few articles of clothing and the groceries. We’ll hold off on the furniture for a couple of weeks, since we’re not planning on having anyone over just yet." Then he smiled at Duo, the expression a touch shy, and Duo’s heart began to race.

"Then it’s a plan." Duo could not resist reaching across the table to give Trowa’s left hand a squeeze. "Once we’ve gotten the furniture, maybe we could invite a few coworkers over for dinner or something." That would convince any spies that the Elders had watching them that they were working hard to fit in with people they were supposed to betray while giving Duo a chance to talk to some of the other bounds who worked for the Guard. "Just… not Jei, all right? I don’t think I can take being threatened in my own home," he growled.

That prompted a brief chuckle from Trowa, who did not try to pull his hand free. "I wouldn’t want the place to be trashed in a fight after we worked so hard on it." He closed his eyes for a few seconds as if thinking of something. "If this is just an act to-"

"No, it’s not an act." Duo cut off his lover before Trowa could finish. "This is *our* life now, Trowa. I know we have to make sure the Elders and their spies don’t suspect us of being disloyal - and I refuse to let them influence us any more than that. They’ll think we’re doing a really good job of blending in, while in truth we’re building a new life for ourselves, okay?" A life that no one, not even Heero, would get a chance to destroy.

"All right." Trowa twisted his hand so he could squeeze Duo’s in return. "We’ll need some new rugs, too, now that you mostly remember to take your boots off at the door." His smile was as tremulous as before, but it strengthened when Duo did not take offense at the jab.

"I just need to be reminded about twenty more times, I think." Duo laughed at how difficult it was proving to learn such a simple thing, but he was trying to break a many years old habit. "At least I remember to take the trash out on the proper days!"

"And you even do the dishes," Trowa murmured, slowly moving his hand from Duo’s so he could start cleaning the table. "Now how about you put some of those newly acquired domestic skills to use so we can get the kitchen cleaned up quickly then go shopping. We’ve a lot to buy today."

Yes, they did, and the sooner they got it done the sooner they would be back home to make dinner and spend the night together. Duo looked forward to that quiet time, something they really did need after all the upheavals lately. He had finally gotten his chance to sit on the couch with Trowa and just talk, no longer hampered by any secrets. Smiling in anticipation, he got up from the table so he could start washing the dishes.

*******

Birman set one of the mugs of coffee that she was carrying down on Botan’s desk, the drink both a peace offering and something to restore Botan’s obviously flagging spirits. "When was the last time you went home?" she asked, even though she already had a good idea about the answer.

He snorted and picked up the mug, holding it cradled between his hands for a few seconds despite its heat. "I would not ask that question if I were you, considering that you have a couch in your office, too." The way she grimaced in response provoked a slight smile from him, exhaustion changing into surprise when he sipped his coffee. "Sweet gods, is this half whiskey?"

"I’d say about a third; I know you’ve a long day ahead of you and didn’t want you drunk before lunch," she answered with an airy wave of her hand. "You… well, you look like you could use it." There, that was the closest she had come to bringing up the topic of Michael Orosz in two days.

Botan’s smile vanished, replaced by a serious expression that was heartening to see after his sad demeanor yesterday. "There were a great many things that required my attention." He motioned to a stack of papers covered by a flat, round grey stone with a red rune carved into it. From what she could see of the top document, it bore the seal of one of the city’s more powerful wizards.

She waited to see if he would mention anything else, then sipped her coffee to wet her throat before speaking. "I know the response of the general population to the news, but not the wizarding community. Will there be a problem?" As much as she hated to bring up such a painful subject to her friend, she had a job of her own to do.

"Not really." He sighed and leaned back in his chair, his face losing its ageless quality for a few seconds. "Orosz was considered a pariah by the wizards who follow the rules and so deserved his fate – something that they’d been expecting to befall him at some point or another. Among his fellow criminals, they’re mainly concerned about protecting themselves and not being brought in for any questioning. His closest associates have basically fled the capital, although not before one or two of them attempted to break through the wards that I’d set up around his house. I believe it’s more a case of removing any evidence of their involvement or wanting his notes rather than suspecting that things aren’t what they seem," he assured her.

That was almost word for word what her spies had told her, but she always preferred checking with Botan when it came to anything related to magic. "Thank you." She paused for a moment before continuing. "I know you weren’t happy with what you had to do, but I believe it will benefit Kritiker in the long run."

"It’ll benefit the bounds, at the least." He spun around the ring on his right hand with his right thumb, a distant look on his face that led her to believe that he was thinking about Kaede. "I need to identify and track down any rogue wizards before the war, anyway, so it’s only happening a little sooner than I’d expected."

Birman nodded in understanding. "Correct me if I’m wrong, but my impression is that most wizards would have nothing to do with using human or bound blood in spells."

"You’re right." Botan’s expression lost some of its seriousness, replaced by tired relief. "I’ve actually gotten several offers of assistance and information. While I’ve no doubt that a few of my fellow wizards are seeking to either protect themselves or ingratiate themselves with the king, I believe most of the offers are genuinely inspired by the fear of what will happen if too many of our kind turn to the ‘easy’ way of empowering and focusing their spells." He let out a slow breath and rubbed the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger. "We are not exempt from facing the wrath of the gods if we overstep the boundaries we’ve sworn to accept, and we’re all aware of what happened to Kritiker and Esset’s wizards after the war. Despite their brilliance and ‘best’ intentions, they still paid the price."

"Yes." She tried not to seem too interested in what Botan was saying; everyone knew that the most powerful wizards the world had ever seen had not lived past the war their magics had fueled for so many years, but it was not often that you heard another wizard talk about the two men. Every time in the past when she had pressed Botan for more information, he had grown very uncomfortable and changed the topic. "So we’ve presented a ‘criminal’ to the public who, if executed for a crime he didn’t commit, never the less deserved such a fate because of the ones he did. There is no visible backlash that we’re aware of at this point, be it from wizards or humans, and I spent the last night arranging for a suitable explanation to reach the ears of the Elders as to what happened to their agents. Go home, Botan." Exhaustion crept into her voice the longer she spoke, her tone plaintive by the time she urged her friend to leave the palace.

He smiled and raised his mug as if to give her a toast. "That sounds like advice you should heed yourself." Swallowing the last of the coffee/whiskey blend, he set the empty mug onto the desk. "I hope to only be here for another hour or two."

"I’ve a few things that I need to look into since Trowa isn’t here today," she explained while doing her best not to yawn. "But I hope to be done in a couple of hours myself." Then she would go home and collapse into her bed, hopefully catching up on all the sleep she had missed in the last few days.

"Good." Botan sat forward again and shuffled through some of the stacks of paper on his desk. "How are things with Trowa?"

"Well, from what I hear. Yuushi informed me last night that Duo was told the truth and has willingly joined the Shadow Guard." She played with the bracelet around her left wrist. "At least now I can send messages directly to Duo whenever my employee pushes himself too hard, though I dread what will happen should he ever be injured while working."

Judging from Botan’s wry chuckle, he did not have too much sympathy for her. "I understand that it’s not good to get caught between a pair of mated bounds when one of them is very concerned for the other." He shook his head, then handed her a sheaf of papers wrapped in oiled cloth and closed with a wax seal. "That’s a list of all the charms I believe the Shadow Guard, and to some extent the rest of the Guard, should start carrying soon, and a description of what they’ll do." His expression once more turned serious. "Omi and I found some very interesting charms while going through Reiji and Masafumi’s belongings, and if Esset is to believe that the Guard has enough charms to stop two bounds…."

"They’re to believe that Naru has enough magical skill to stop two bounds foolish enough to attack a person while he was on duty nearby," she clarified, but accepted the papers with a polite bow of her head. "None the less, I fully support better equipping the Shadow Guard and Guard." It was only logical, considering the Guard’s loyalty to the king and the threat to the throne and country that had been exposed last year. She had argued for the increased use of magical items on a trial basis, the charms to be spread out through ‘chosen’ candidates to see if they would be effective and worth the effort of equipping the Army before the war. That was a topic that had kept Manx busy for the better part of three weeks; Kikyou had not been willing to risk his people should the charms fail while General Hakuro insisted that too much training went into the Army’s personnel to volunteer its own people.

"It’ll keep Omi out of trouble, making all those charms, but I believe he’s up to it and it’ll teach him a strong basis of defensive and offensive spells." A small smile appeared on Botan’s face, the same one that almost always formed whenever he talked about his star pupil. "He thinks he might have a way of stabilizing the charms if Nagi helps him with their making."

Birman smiled as well and wondered if anyone had thought of such a thing before; most charms were made from stone or metal, the rest crafted out of things such as bone or wood. As she understood it, some or all of that should fall under what an elemental bound could control, though she thought that Nagi’s talent lay in being able to move things with his mind. "He’s going to be very powerful, isn’t he?" she asked, a little in awe of the talent that had been uncovered in Omi last summer.

"Very powerful and very resourceful; his relationship with several bounds means he’ll think of things in ways that other wizards wouldn’t." Botan folded his hands on top of his desk, his smile stronger than before. "Which is why I’ve taken steps to ensure that he’ll never abuse that power or knowledge. He was upset that I wouldn’t let him watch me enhance Reiichi’s gauntlets, but since Aya’s blood was involved in the original magic, I didn’t want him present while I altered the spell. If I know that boy, he’ll come up with a way soon enough that *won’t* involve the use of blood, having never been taught how to use it and more than clever enough to think up an alternative."

"He’ll be a wonderful king to serve under; I just hope I live that long," Birman murmured. To the Court, Mamoru was a weakling who was too shy to take on his duties, yet ‘Omi’ was being trained the best way that she, Botan, Manx and the king knew how to be the best ruler possible for Kritiker. She felt a little remorse over her part in it since she knew Omi never wanted to be king, but that in a way was a good thing since he held none of his uncle’s determination to rule no matter what.

"No one knows what the future will hold – other than one or two people I could name." Botan laughed at his own joke and Birman found herself chuckling as well. "The rest of us will find out soon enough, and it better hold a decent night’s sleep for both our sakes."

"Oh, yes." Birman sighed and rose from her chair, body aching from the lack of rest. "We need time to recuperate before Yohji and Aya’s party." She deliberately changed the topic to something much lighter, something they both could look forward to without any guilt on their parts.

"I plan on fasting a good day or two beforehand so I can do all the food that Jo has planned some justice!" Smiling almost from ear to ear, Botan did a good impression of a flesh gaki bound just then. Birman could not help but think of Jei as she waved goodbye to her friend, which led her thoughts to the Koneko as she left the room. She had not been able to stop by lately because of work, but it should be possible to show up for some dinner and a chance to talk to Reiichi and Yuushi tomorrow night. For once, she thought it would be nice to not have to spend that time discussing work, which Yohji had already informed her how that particular topic was *not* to be brought up the entire night of his party in a few days’ time. She could use some practice before then, and it was always enjoyable to watch Reiichi fluster Yuushi with such skill and ingenuity.

*******

Jo watched over Emmie as she applied a rose to one of the already iced cakes sitting out on the table. The girl’s tongue peeked past her lips as she carefully turned the bag of frosting about, slowly forming a mostly perfect red rose. "Good. Now you just have about a hundred more to do," she told Emmie, a wry smile on her face.

Emmie wrinkled her nose in response. "I think it’s more than that." Then she giggled, clearly up for the challenge. "Neely said she would put on the leaves and the edging once I’m done." She swiped her finger over the tip of the bag for a lick of frosting then resumed decorating the cake.

For her part, Neely was helping Maddox peel some potatoes, while Nagi used his talent to turn the racks of beef and pork that cooked in the largest fireplace. "I’ll be there in ten more minutes, unless Jo finds another bag of potatoes," Neely said, a rare frown on her face as she shook a right hand that had to be cramping from holding a paring knife for so long.

"I promise you that there’s not a single bag of unpeeled potatoes left in the inn." Jo laughed and went back to stirring the pots on the stove. "You should know better, considering how many bounds will be here tonight," she chided. As it was, every space in the kitchen was taken up with some sort of food or another, be it already baked or waiting to be cooked. There would be pork roasts and roast beef, four dozen chickens and several large dishes of shepherd’s pie that Nagi had already laid claim to, enough sweets to stock a bakery for a few days and plenty of wine, beer and cider. Yohji had been planning the party for the last two months with her help, the food and alcohol orders carefully padded the last couple of weeks so Aya would not suspect anything. Even though there would be less people than normal in the inn tonight, a good many of them would be bounds who would not have to hide what they were for once.

Eri had shown up two hours ago and was busy making sure that the inn’s overnight guests would remain in the sectioned-off part of the main room and not notice anything unusual about the party tonight. Botan had been by earlier to help Omi set up several important wards, and in another hour it would be time for Yohji to bring Aya down from their bedroom for the party. Jo still was not sure how the quiet man would react to the surprise, but she always had trouble denying Yohji anything he wanted so much.

In a way, the party was not just to celebrate Aya and Yohji first year anniversary; there was Nagi’s arrival to consider, so Omi had contributed to the cost of the party tonight as had Yuushi and Birman to thank the members of the Shadow Guard for their hard work. But a good bit of the attention would be on Yohji and Aya, without whom none of the other events would have happened. Jo merely hoped that everyone would be too busy eating and drinking to make a point of tracking Aya down and forcing him to be sociable all night long.

She helped Nagi baste the cooking meat for a bit and then left the kitchen to check up on the main dining room. The screens separating it into two uneven-sized rooms were already up, and Schuldig was busy directing several people to hang colorful banners on the walls and from the ceilings. Of course he had a comfortable seat while doing so, saved from climbing up on chairs and small ladders like Masato, Miko, Ken and Naru were doing. Masato actually whimpered when she walked by, but she also caught the smile and the wink he gave her so she knew he was letting his mate get away with being so dictatorial. Omi was busy by the screens, from the looks of it muttering over the wards, so she decided to let him be.

"Don’t you think you should be showing them how things are done?" she asked Schuldig while she leaned against the back of his chair.

Brat that he was, he smiled and shook his head. "No, I’d only make them feel completely inadequate when faced with the artistry of my work." He chuckled when she rolled her eyes at that bit of nonsense. "I was told to sit down and stay out of trouble, so that’s what I’m doing." He waved in the direction of the chairs set up for all of Koyu’s Harper friends. "We need to get it done before they show up."

"Hmm." Ani, Marta and Kira had already done an excellent job of setting up the tables, which bore small branches of apple and cherry blossoms around burning candles. Lilla had made up a special batch of Aya’s favorite lavender candles, so the air smelled wonderful and was very soothing. All that was missing was a table for the gifts, but Yohji had told everyone that would not be necessary. He was not throwing the party to get anything, but to acknowledge a very special event in his life and share his happiness with his friends. He had also confided in Jo that he knew that it was pretty silly to count all the years when he and Aya could live for centuries, but he felt the first anniversary deserved some notice and would remind people that there were things to look forward to after the war. For something that was still a year or two away, it had begun to consume a lot of people’s attention.

So it was very important tonight for everyone to have a good time – especially since people had finally gotten over their fear of being eaten by a wizard’s monster if they ventured outside after dark. Jo snorted at that thought, then sobered up when she realized that most of the Shadow Guard would be here tonight and hoping for a hell of a party. Reiichi had told her that Yuushi had done his best rearranging shifts to accommodate everyone, and she could only pray that she had enough food for that ravenous mob.

<Knowing you and your fascination with stuffing people so full of food they can barely move for an hour or two afterwards, things will be fine.> Schuldig patted her right hand while he sent the message, prompting her to ruffle his hair in response.

"You never complain when you’re the one being stuffed full," she pointed out, deliberately thinking of all the times he had come to the Koneko practically begging for food.

Schuldig laughed and did his best to restore some sort of order to his mess of a hairstyle. "I like being stuffed-"

"Schuldig." Jo gave him a warning look. "Save talk like that for the party, and you’d best make sure that Neely or Emmie aren’t around then." Or else.

He pouted and folded his arms over his chest. "They have to find out about sex sometime, you know."

"Yes, I do know, and if it’s because of your or Yohji’s foul mouths, they may very well learn about death then, too." She glared at him to get her point across. As long as possible, she wanted the girls to remain innocent – not ignorant, which was impossible when living with a succubae bound anyway, but innocent. They were not like Ed or Ani, forced to grow up too soon even if for two very different reasons, and as long as the girls did not seem to be in a hurry for any boyfriends or girlfriends, then Jo was determined to allow them to proceed at their own pace. Though she could not help but notice the way that Jason blushed and stammered whenever around Emmie and wondered how much longer that would be.

<Poor kid’s too afraid to even touch her, so don’t worry about him.> When she stared at Schuldig in amazement, he huffed under his breath and stared across the room at Masato. <What? I like the girl a little, okay? She asks the most amusing questions.>

"Don’t worry, I’ll keep your secret." Jo gave a lock of his hair one more tug before walking away. "And they’ve too many banners around the fireplace."

While Schuldig resumed barking out orders to his ‘servants’, she made sure the small space set up for the inn’s guests was fine and stopped to chat with Mickey as he watched the front door. That allowed her a chance to tease him about how soon they would be holding a wedding reception here for him and Kira, which made him blush and stammer much the same way Jason did whenever Emmie cornered him and asked him questions about horses and being a bound. He was saved by Koyu, Teddy and several Harpers appearing, having to assist them with the carrying and setting up of their instruments. Judging from the way that the Harper who had brought a bodhran to play sniffed the air in a very dramatic fashion and asked when dinner would be ready, she did not think all her hard work would be under attack from bounds alone. Ah well, the Harpers appeared to be mostly Journeymen with an actual Master or two amidst them – she frowned at the oldest of the Harpers in particular, certain that he looked very familiar – and it was not many parties that could boast so many of them playing unless a highborn or two were involved. Well, highborns who were not hiding their true identities, that was….

It would not be long before the party started, so she went back to the kitchen to ensure that everything was nearly ready and to instruct Touya, Ani and Marta to put out the platters of fruit, vegetables, bread and cheese that the guests could enjoy as snacks. Jei, Ken, Jared, Odgen and any other flesh gaki bound invited to the party tonight had been warned under pain of death by rolling pin to not decimate the trays before the guests had all arrived. Jo figured that people were on their own after that, but was sure that more than enough of them could stand up to the gluttons without too much bloodshed.

Caught up in the craziness of preparing for the party, she smiled as she stirred a large pot of gravy and thought that it should be a good night. Everyone was so happy and excited, and it was not often that they had the excuse to have so many friends gathered together. Yohji might find himself throwing such a party every year, regardless of his thoughts on the matter, just so everyone could have an annual excuse to enjoy themselves. Jo was certain the local food and alcohol merchants would be very happy if that were the case.

*******

<Yohji, when are you coming down? Almost everyone’s here now.> Schuldig’s ‘voice’ was faint in Yohji’s head, a barely heard whisper that he had been waiting for the past hour.

<We’ll join you in a minute.> He checked once more that the room was in order since Omi and Nagi would sneak up here in a little bit to deliver the roses that Marta’s friend had grown for Aya. Smoothing his hand down the front of his dark green tunic, he then put aside the notebook he had been pretending to record his and Aya’s finances in and got up from the desk. Aya was sitting in the window seat, a book in his lap even though he was spending more time staring out the window onto the garden below.

Yohji reached for and tangled Aya’s left eartail around his fingers. "Feel in the mood for some dinner, Cat?"

Aya hissed softly and retrieved his hair before it was tugged. "I guess." He set the book onto one of the shelves that lined either end of the seat, a slight smile on his face as he turned around to face Yohji. "Are you that bored with me reading?"

"Well, I could’ve thought of better ways to spend the evening, but I didn’t want to wear you out after this morning." Yohji waggled his eyebrows and grabbed hold of Aya’s hands to pull his mate onto his feet. "You taste better than anything that Jo could cook," he murmured and leaned in for a kiss, his demon soul purring in happiness at the feel of sunlight trickling across his lips.

He had not told Aya why they had spent most of the morning in bed, making love several times in as slow and tender a manner as possible. The hours had passed in a languid, erotic blur, broken down into the sensations of skin against skin, heat, friction and incredible bliss. Aya had not resisted at all, had reached for Yohji time and time again until he had been too exhausted to do anything more than nap. They had enjoyed a leisurely soak afterwards, and Yohji had allowed his mate some reading time to ensure that the day was as enjoyable as he could make it. That Aya had been kept too occupied to notice what was going on downstairs was a bonus to his rather pleasurable plan.

He did not think that Aya had any clue what today’s date signified and had to move fast to snatch up a light grey colored tunic with a silver sheen to hold it up to Aya. "I think you’ve got a stain on that shirt, love. Don’t want Cassandra fussing over your clothes now, do you?" He waved the tunic before his lover several times before Aya sighed and grabbed it.

"The last thing I need at this point is more clothes," Aya muttered, which made Yohji grateful that amongst the presents he planned on giving Aya tonight there was only a new cloak and a pair of gloves.

"I’m all for you doing without them altogether, but that would mean you’d have to never leave the room," he replied with some more waggling of the eyebrows, and knew that Aya’s answering frown was only a pretense. No, he could feel his mate’s happiness and amusement, the emotions made obvious when he stroked his fingers along Aya’s bruised neck and received a purr in response. For a moment he wanted nothing more than to toss Aya onto the bed and have more sex, but he had to save something for later. Besides, his cat would be upset if they went downstairs to a room filled with their friends while they reeked of sex.

Once Aya had changed tops and combed his hair into some semblance of order, they finally left the room. Yohji wrapped his left arm around his lover’s waist, doing his best to hide his excitement and apprehensiveness. He was aware that Aya might not take well to being surprised like this, but… but it was such a *human* thing, walking into a room and finding one’s friends had arranged a party in secret, something that Aya had probably never experienced before. Hell, he had probably only had a few birthday and Winter Solstice parties in his life, attended by his family and a handful of other people. If Aya hated things tonight they could always retreat back to their room or into the library, but Yohji was determined to at least try to hold a proper party for his lover.

Aya grew curious as they walked down the stairs and could hear music and a crowd that was obviously having a very good time. Yohji was willing to bet the lack of running into anyone while on the stairs and the fact that Stephen was watching the front door, a task that usually fell to the full-time staff and not the people they had hired in the last several months to assist on a part-time basis, only fueled that curiosity. Aya gave Stephen a cool frown, which served well as a distraction while Yohji led him through the doorway to the main room.

Screens off to the left allowed the inn’s overnight guests some privacy, leaving the majority of the main room filled with their many friends, acquaintances and coworkers. While the space was not as crowded as normal, it was mostly full of people who let out a very loud and happy cheer when Yohji and Aya walked into the room.

It sounded like most of them were yelling, ‘Congratulations, Yohji and Aya!’, though it was kind of difficult to tell with all the noise. Aya went perfectly still, almost making Yohji trip when he realized that his mate was not moving anymore. He quickly stepped back and soothed his left hand up and down Aya’s spine.

"It’s a party, love," he whispered into his mate’s ear, newly worried over Aya’s reaction to the event.

Aya finally moved, eyes a mixture of silver and violet and narrowed slightly as he seemed now oblivious to the people cheering for them. "What party?"


"It’s our anniversary. A year ago today, you came to the Koneko." Yohji dared a kiss as Aya’s astonishment washed over their link.

He was not exactly kissed back, but Aya allowed himself to be led through the room toward their usual table. Along the way, various people tossed dried flower petals at them, reached out to shake Yohji’s hand or pat Yohji’s shoulder and offered the both of them many congratulations and more anniversaries to look forward to in the upcoming years. Yohji spied most of the Shadow Guard, all of the Koneko’s full-time staff, Birman, Botan, Cassandra and numerous other friends. Lady Meara was even here along with a couple of the Judges and Council members who supported the Shadow Guard, as were several bounds who were not affiliated with the Shadow Guard or Birman yet had found a safe haven at the Koneko. Reno was present as well, waving to Aya from the table not far from where they were headed, surrounded by Rufus, Tseng, Elena and Rude. Yohji thought he saw a gleam of something bright around the dubhach’s neck, but was tugged to the table set up for him and Aya before he could get a better look.

Jo was already sitting there, and after offering her congratulations, she began to fuss with pouring some wine for them. Aya used the opportunity to yank Yohji close and hiss in his ear. "Anniversary?"

"Yeah." Yohji brushed the back of his fingers along Aya’s left cheek. "Look, I know you’re not crazy about surprises, but I wanted to celebrate the day we met each other."

"By inviting a lot of noisy people?" Aya sounded incredulous and snatched the offered glass of wine from Jo’s hand. He drained it in one go before opening his eyes again and staring at Yohji. "Has it… has it really been a year?" His tone was more plaintive than annoyed now, and there was a sense of guilt over their link.

"Yeah," Yohji repeated. He scooted closer to his mate and pulled Aya into his arms, almost ending up with Aya in his lap. "A year ago today, the gods blessed me more than I can ever thank them for, and I wanted to remind people of that fact. Of course, a lot of other people wanted an excuse for a party, but…." He kissed Aya, knowing that sometimes Aya really did not want an explanation when reassurance could do. Putting all the love and happiness he felt inside into the kiss, he did not pull away until his mate had relaxed once more.

"I didn’t remember," Aya murmured against his lips, eyes heavy-lidded and the guilt stronger now.

"It’s all right." Yohji once more caressed Aya’s cheek, then combed his fingers through ragged, silky hair. "I know you’re not good at judging time and I purposely didn’t remind you because I wanted it to be a surprise. I just thought our first anniversary should be memorable as hell so we never forget it through the years."

Aya chuckled, the sound half a hiss yet still amused. Well, mostly amused. "So you thought this was a good idea?" He shook his head and glanced around the room. "I… what are we going to do all night?"

Upset over how uncertain Aya felt and sounded, Yohji leaned in to nuzzle his mate’s neck. "The plan is to have a lot of food and drink, do a bit of dancing and talk to some friends, but it’s really up to you. We can go back upstairs if you like." Oh hell, maybe he should have only invited a few people….

To his surprise, Aya shook his head after a few moments. "You planned this, so we should stay here." He did not sound very happy about it; Yohji hoped once the shock wore off and he got some wine into his lover that Aya would feel a bit more relaxed.

"Thanks, Cat. We’ll only stay as long as you want, I promise." He gave Aya’s firm ass a couple of pats and let his lover sit back on the bench.

Then Jo decided to save the day, so to speak. She refilled Aya’s wine glass and gave him a reassuring smile. "Since it’s a party, I made sure to bake several cakes in your and Yohji’s honor. I’m quite proud of the way the spice and almond one turned out, and I swear that Emmie put enough icing on it for three cakes!"

Now *that* got a smile out of Aya, albeit a slight one. "Cake?" he asked, head tilted slightly to the side.

"Cakes, a couple hundred fruit tarts, all the cookies we could buy from a few bakeries and some pies as well." Jo handed Yohji his wine glass and gave him a quick wink. "But no cake until you’ve had a proper dinner. I’ll ask Maddox to bring some roast chickens to your table now that you’re here."

This time, Aya sipped his wine. "Thank you." To Yohji’s surprise and delight, his mate bowed his head low. "You must have put a lot of effort into the party."

"We all did." Jo waved in Yohji’s direction. "He’s been planning this for months, then Omi, Yuushi and Birman decided that it would be a good thing to help with since it gives Omi a chance to celebrate with Nagi and the Shadow Guard a bit of recognition. Things might have gotten a little out of hand, but everyone’s looking forward to a fun time. All you have to do is sit here and enjoy yourself," she assured Aya, even reaching over to pat him on the hand.

<Jo asked me to pass along that she threatened to feed anyone who tries to make Aya stand up and give a toast to Jei and Ken,> Schuldig sent, an amused tickle in Yohji’s mind. <We figure that we’ll give Aya some time to settle in then join you at the table.>

<Thanks.> A little chagrined that his friends felt the need to give Aya so much space, Yohji took a long drink from his wineglass while Jo got up to presumably fetch their dinner. All around the room people were laughing and chatting, the Harpers having fun playing some music softly enough to allow the many conversations. Lilla and Toshi were seated just a couple of tables away and raised their glasses when Yohji looked in their direction, as did Trowa and Duo who had joined the couple at the table. Seated even closer were Ed, Mustang, Al, Winry and Hughes, and Yohji assumed the very small old woman smoking a pipe at their table must be Winry’s grandmother, whom he had heard so much about. Ed got out of his seat as if to come over, only to be yanked back down by Mustang a moment later, so the kid settled for waving at Aya.

Aya waved back, a pensive look on his face and nervousness flowing over their link. "They’re really here for us?" He sounded as if he had trouble grasping the concept of the party.

"Yes, they are." Yohji turned in his seat so he could better look at his mate. "They’re our friends – most of them are, anyway – and they want to share in our happiness." He laughed and tucked back one of Aya’s eartails. "That there’s a lot of free food and drink helps too, but for the most part, they’re here for us."

"A whole year." Aya sighed and trailed two of his fingers along Yohji’s lips. "It doesn’t feel that long to me. I mean, part of me knew this was around the time when I came to the Koneko, but I never thought it was today." He shook his head and made to pull his hand away, but Yohji caught it and pressed a kiss against his lover’s fingertips.

"I’ll never forget the date. I really did want you from the moment I saw you, and it was as if my life turned around that instant." There had been so much anger, remorse and hopelessness, and then Aya had come and Yohji had been instantly infatuated. "You had a few things distracting you at the time, so don’t feel bad."

That got a soft laugh from his lover. "A few things." Aya’s smile turned bittersweet, yet some of the nervousness vanished. "I was too worried about the mission to realize that I wanted you, too."

Yohji smiled and kissed Aya’s fingers again before letting them go. "I bet you’ll never forget the day now, hmm?"

"No." Aya shook his head and rolled his eyes. "I must say… this day is much better than last year." There was a flash of pain, the emotion weaker than it had been the other times when Aya recalled the past.

"I want it to be perfect." Yohji shrugged in the face of Aya’s incredulous stare. "Okay, so maybe a big party isn’t ‘perfect’ in your opinion. I swear though, that if you give it a chance, it won’t be half as bad as you’re thinking it’ll be."

Aya did not look convinced of that, but he was sitting down still and not glaring, so Yohji would accept that. However, he had a feeling he better not plan a similar party for Aya’s birthday in a couple of months, not unless his mate’s attitude underwent a significant change. At least everyone here understood that Aya was not the most social of people and that they should give him enough space to sit quietly through the night. Yohji could count on Ed, Reiichi and Reno to keep his mate company while he went out to thank everyone who had come, and maybe he had even get a dance or two later.

He was startled when Aya gave his right hand a squeeze. "Maybe it’s not exactly perfect in my opinion, but I think you wanted this party, so it is in yours." Aya smiled, the expression so loving that Yohji began to regret ever leaving their bedroom. "The first part of the day was to me one of the best ways to celebrate our anniversary, so we’ll give your way a try now."

"Wait, we could’ve just stayed in bed all day and had sex?" Yohji asked, feeling a bit like an idiot now for going overboard. "I’m going to remind you of what you just said for the next few centuries, love," he swore, and leaned in for another kiss, happily contemplating how to go about enjoying those future anniversaries. Aya laughed for a moment, the sound cut off as Yohji’s mouth pressed against his, then began to purr as he kissed back.

They were interrupted by Jo, Maddox and Emmie arriving at the table, everyone carrying a platter of food. Emmie hesitated before Yohji motioned for her to sit beside him, a huge smile on her face as she set the plate of roasted vegetables and mashed potatoes down, then hurried to have a seat. Jo had a knowing look on her face when she set a tray covered with various fruit and cheese tarts by Aya, and Maddox put down a platter covered with four entire roast chickens. "I believe Omi and Nagi are coming," he explained, and sure enough, the two were headed right for the table, a huge dish of shepherd’s pie clutched in Nagi’s hands.

Yohji’s concern that their privacy coming to an end would increase Aya’s uneasiness was soon proven unfounded. Having a very happy Nagi sit right across from Aya, between Jo and Omi, seemed to help Aya relax. At the least, it meant that most people would be staring at their friends’ backs now, but Yohji thought it was mostly the familiarity of the situation that helped. How many nights had they sat down like this? Maybe not for most of the year, but for several months of it had been spent with Nagi and Omi nearby, Jo joining them whenever she could, along with various other friends.

Nagi glared at Yohji and shifted the platter with the chicken closer to Aya. "You get to go first," he explained, making Yohji want to pretend to snatch up all the chicken thighs, just to see how the little demon would react. Thankfully, Omi nudged Nagi in the ribs and made the demon stop glaring.

"Thank you." Now more amused than anxious, Aya picked up the carving knife and helped himself to the thighs on one of the birds, along with the drumsticks and some of its breast. Yohji held up the tray of vegetables and grinned at how the rest of Aya’s plate was soon covered by them, well aware that his lover could not be too upset if he was eating that much. He had been careful not to drain Aya too much today, since being tired would only make Aya less willing to put up with the party, so he knew his mate was not just eating to replace what had been taken earlier.

Once Aya was done, he prepared his own plate, hurrying when Aya made a point to not eat until he was ready. Nagi saw that as an excuse to tear into his shepherd’s pie, although Jo scooped some of it onto Emmie’s plate so she stood a chance of having a helping of the delicious dish. A few more people arrived for the party, Jei and Crawford among them, which led to more noise that thankfully settled down after several minutes.

"I thought Reno was not allowed out for a few more days," Aya said, after enjoying one of the thighs and a few cherry tarts.

Yohji shrugged and tried for an innocent expression. "Hmm, he’s here? I didn’t notice." He chuckled when Aya gave him a thankfully gentle poke in the ribs. "Well, maybe someone sent an invitation to Rufus and reminded him that Reno would owe him a favor if allowed to attend."

Aya did not look too happy to hear that, his face settling into a frown that lasted several seconds before he sighed. "I suppose it wouldn’t be good if Rufus had told him to remain home." He waved to his friend while Rufus and Yohji exchanged looks that made it clear that they would be on their guard so there was not a repeat of what had happened the last time their mates had gotten together at the Koneko.

Wanting to say that whatever Reno had promised for a chance to go out for a night was not Aya’s concern, Yohji wisely continued eating his dinner instead. He made sure to thank Jo for the delicious food, as did Aya, and they were soon on their fourth glass of wine.

"We forgot about a toast!" Omi said, earning a warning look from Jo before it was clear that he was not trying to stand up and include other people. Instead, he merely raised his wine glass in Aya and Yohji’s direction. "Uhm… in memory of this special day and in eternal thanks for what the gods have so generously bestowed upon us." He smiled at Nagi and made sure to clink his glass against his lover’s before everyone else’s.

"You do a good job with the speeches," Yohji teased his friend with a wink, his grin widening when Omi blushed at the praise. It had been a good toast, one that summed up his thoughts on the day, and he smiled at Aya when he chinked their glasses together.

Emmie giggled when Yohji poured a little of his wine into her glass of water. "Maddox is afraid that there’ll be a big party like this for our first anniversary."

"Sorry, Sunshine, but I don’t think you get a big drinking party like this until you’re old enough to actually drink." Yohji winked at her when she pretended to be crestfallen, which she ruined by giggling soon enough. "But I’m sure we’ll do something." They did not celebrate all of the staff’s arrival at the inn because most of them were too scared or hurt those first few days here, but judging from the nod he got from Jo, they would do something for the kids. He figured that would be one anniversary party that Aya would be happy to attend, since there would most likely be more cake.

"I can’t believe so many people showed up!" Emmie practically bounced in her seat, forgetting to eat her dinner while she looked around the room. "And Reiichi said he would take turns dancing with me and Neely later!"

"Be sure to save a dance for me." Yohji heaved a dramatic sigh. "Since that’ll probably be the only chance I have to dance tonight."

This time, his lover’s elbow into his ribs was not so gentle. "We’ll dance," Aya muttered, expression turning blank as he looked across the room. "It won’t get much more crowded, will it?" he asked, his voice quieter than before.

"No, this should be about it," Yohji soothed, leaning over to nuzzle Aya’s left ear. "I promise that we didn’t invite the entire city."

That earned him an amused snort from his mate. "As if they’d fit in here." He relaxed a little more, not quite as much as he did on a normal night spent down here, but it was better than Yohji had hoped for after Aya’s initial reaction to the party.


"I’ve enough problems feeding the people we’ve invited." Jo frowned as she turned to observe the party’s guests, probably shaking her head at the sight of Jei tearing into a barely cooked roast as big as a young infant. "Ah well, they seem to be having fun."

Neely, Marta, Botan and Cassandra were the next ones to join them at the table; Cassandra’s cheeks were a little flushed, a clear sign that she had been in the wine already. Her illusion was gone for tonight, which might explain why Botan’s arm on her waist was a bit more proprietary than usual. "Is there space?" she asked, the words followed by a pleased giggle.

Aya nodded and motioned at the seats at the end of the table, which quickly got filled with their new guests. "Congratulations," Botan offered, which was echoed by everyone else. He made sure to pat Omi on the back as he said the words, which made the kid beam with happiness and pride. "To think of all the introductions and pairings that happened because of four men arriving at the inn on this day a year ago," he continued, while he raised his glass.

"Some of them good, some of them not," Yohji could not resist saying, and laughed even though Nagi managed to nail him in the right shin and Aya in the ribs. "All right, I was just joking."

"You have an abysmal sense of humor, Kudoh," Nagi sniffed, making his disdain obvious for a few seconds until Omi handed him a blueberry tart. Then he was back to being a teenager again, smiling shyly at his boyfriend and giving him a kiss once the tart had been eaten.

"I believe the gods knew what they were doing." Cassandra giggled again, hands busy tucking back the long, curly strands of her hair that was almost as unruly as her son’s. "This day will be remembered for a long time to come."

"And all the other anniversaries that follow because of it." Yohji thought of when Aya had first become his lover, then when he had found out about his bound nature and that they were mates, followed by Aya agreeing to fight the Takatori and remain with him forever. So many important dates that he always wanted to remember; he was a bit concerned about the time coming when he would lose track of when things had occurred because of living so long. Not that it was a bad thing, being so old, not when he would have Aya by his side for all those years.

Cassandra smiled and nodded, as did Marta. Jo began to fuss and make sure that everyone had some food on their plates, and Aya ended up with a couple more thighs that he happily munched on along with some more mashed potatoes and roasted carrots. Yohji even managed to get an entire spoonful of shepherd’s pie when Nagi’s attention was on something across the room, payback for his bruised shin.

So maybe they were sitting mostly quiet in a corner and the majority of their friends seemed hesitant to come over just yet – all that really mattered to Yohji was that he had Aya by him right now in a decent mood, and there was a promise for a few dances later tonight. The wine seemed to help lighten Aya’s spirits, as did the mostly mundane talk about the weather, the food, and what silly antics various people were up to elsewhere in the room. They needed nights like this, a chance to both celebrate and remind themselves of what it was like to be human and mostly unconcerned with the world. There would be no talk of work at all, or of the war, and any mentions of the past year carefully brought up only the good times. Yohji found himself surprised at how many of those they had managed to fit in before the king’s wedding, and things had gotten much better once Aya was past his depression after losing his sister and Nagi’s immediate departure.

He leaned over for another nuzzle to Aya’s ear. "We’ll stick around for another hour or two; long enough for you to talk to Reno and Ed, gorge yourself on cake and twirl me around a few times during the dancing. Then we’ll go upstairs, I promise." He had not expected to spend the entire night down here in the first place, not when he had presents to give and wanted to enjoy some time with his mate alone.

Relief washed over their link as Aya turned to smile at him. Yohji was struck by the fact that his lover would have sat down here all night just for him, unhappy about the crowd and the noise, but not about to deprive him of his enjoyment. Swearing to himself to be more careful in planning future parties, he gave Aya a tender kiss in gratitude and apology.

"I love you," he whispered, daring to make Aya a little flustered when out in public, yet comfortable saying the words when surrounded by friends.

To his delight, Aya brushed their lips together again. "I love you, too," he whispered back, cheeks slightly pink and not just because of the wine. "I’ll love you even more when we get out of here."

"Now that’s a promise I look forward to," Yohji answered with a chuckle, risking Jo’s wrath by doing his best to kiss Aya breathless, even if Emmie and Neely were at the table. He figured he just might get away with it tonight since it was his anniversary.

*******

Reno moaned in near-bliss as the cake’s frosting melted on his tongue, wonderfully sweet and delicious. "Oh, you need to have more anniversaries," he told Aya as he quickly prepared another forkful to be shoved into his mouth.

Aya nodded several times, too busy eating his own cake to answer properly. Not that Reno minded; things like this were meant to be savored, and delicious cake, damn good wine and enough food to leave him feeling as if he would not need to eat for three days meant that he was very happy right now. Not even the fact that he was wearing a collar for everyone to see and had been threatened with being dragged back home on the end of a leash if he misbehaved bothered him. No, especially not when Rufus was staring at him as he licked all the frosting off the fork, a familiar sensation of lust flowing over their link each time his tongue flicked past his lips.

Yohji had a similar expression on his face as he stared at Aya, leaving Reno to wonder just how long his friend would be down here tonight. As long as Rufus did not make him leave the party whenever Aya did, he did not mind, and was relieved that Aya appeared to be back on good terms with his mate. The same could mostly be said about him and Rufus; they had not fought too much in the last week, even though he was growing bored as hell not being able to leave his mate’s house. There were just a few more days left to his ‘punishment’, thank the gods.

"So, is it shinigami nature that makes the two of you love sweets so much?" Yohji grinned and leaned forward to lick up a bit of stray frosting that clung to Aya’s lips. "Not that I’m complaining about the fact, mind you."

"Right, like you haven’t had three slices of cake already," Aya grumbled, his eyes narrowed as if in anger, yet his lips curved in a faint smile.

"What can I say? I like sweet things." Yohji leaned in for another lick then purred loudly. "Maybe I should start calling you ‘Sugar’ instead of ‘Cat’."

"Do that and *you’ll* be sleeping in the rosebushes," Aya snapped, his anger seeming a bit more real now. Despite that fact, Yohji laughed and pulled him closer for a proper kiss. Reno watched with interest until Rude coughed loudly, prompting him to look away from the couple to see if his friend was all right.

"What?" he asked, frowning when he realized that Rude was fine.

"It’s not polite to stare."

Reno stuck out his tongue at that bit of nonsense. "The way I look at it, if it’s done in public then it’s intended to be stared at." Besides, what was the hang-up over being ‘demonstrative’ in front of other people? Everyone had sex so it was not like they were seeing something unusual.

<Because it’s a matter of manners, something you’ve never quite grasped, and there’s a huge difference between kissing a loved one in front of others and having sex before an unwilling audience,> Rufus informed him, his tone snotty enough to make Reno grit his teeth in annoyance. He shoved another forkful of cake into his mouth, feeling the need to bite into something.

<You’re just a prude,> he sent back, tongue flicking out once more to lick at the frosting that covered his bottom lip. <Unless you’re pissed off enough, that is, then you don’t care who’s watching us fuck.> It did not bother him at all to have an audience and he could not figure out why Rufus was up for that sometimes and other times absolutely refused to give in to some fun. Everyone considered Reno ‘unpredictable’, when as far as Reno was concerned, that was a term that they should call themselves.

Rufus appeared ready for another snooty comment, but thankfully, Yohji and Aya broke apart and the succubae bound urged Aya to his feet. "I think it’s time to do a bit of dancing." When Aya frowned in response, Yohji rolled his eyes and tugged his lover toward the dance floor. "I promise that you can have more cake later."

Aya’s hissed retort was lost beneath the sound of music and people laughing, though Reno bet it was a good one. That left him, Rufus and Rude alone at the table, everyone else having got up to dance in the past ten minutes or so. Even Tseng and Elena were out on the now crowded space cleared for dancing, Elena smiling so brightly that you knew her night had been made by something as simple as spinning around to music. Reno thought that dancing was a rather silly waste of time and was happy to stay at the table.

<I’d think that you’d like an excuse to be pressed close to someone.> There was an odd ‘note’ to Rufus’ ‘voice’, something that made Reno frown as he studied his mate’s blank expression.

"Not when you can’t do anything more than step around in circles." There were much better ways to use up one’s energy, and they usually involved being a hell of a lot closer than the people were out on the dance floor. Although Yohji held Aya pretty tightly against him, lips pulling back to bare his teeth at any other couple that got a little too near him and Aya.

Rude sighed just then, the sound loud and plaintive. "I can’t believe that you don’t see any fun in a bit of dancing." He stared out at the dance floor, more particularly at the spot where a tall, pretty Shadow Guard was standing on the edge of it as if waiting for a partner to present himself.

Rufus must have noticed where his gokenin’s attention kept wandering and motioned toward the people dancing. "Go, Rude." When Rude started to shake his head, Rufus growled a little. "I believe that Reno and I will be fine on our own."

Rude glanced at Reno as if asking if it was all right, and Reno rolled his eyes as he shooed his partner away. "Go ask her to dance and maybe you’ll get lucky tonight." That prompted an amused snort from Rude, who had already gotten lucky with that particular Guard, and he finally got up from the table to go talk to her. Reno watched him leave, a little jealous that his friend could mostly do whatever he wanted.

He was a bit surprised when Rufus edged closer, one hand rising to play with the clasp of the black velvet collar wrapped around Reno’s neck. "Even Aya dances." Again, there was that odd note that made Reno’s frown return despite the fact that he wanted to shiver in pleasure at the feel of fingers brushing along the back of his neck.

"Yeah, because he just wants to make Yohji happy," he replied, his slightest movement making the platinum bell that hung at the front of the collar chime. He thought Rufus had been kidding about making him wear the thing to the party, and had to admit that every time he heard the bell it reminded him of what lay ahead if he managed to not get into any trouble tonight. Rufus was even more dominating and forceful whenever Reno wore the thing, leading to a couple of hours of highly enjoyable sex that left him happily drained and sore. If he could not really do anything tomorrow because of being forbidden to work or leave the house, at least he had spend the day in bed recovering from all the sex tonight.

"And you don’t want to make me happy?" Rufus whispered the words in his right ear and made him shiver again.

"I…" He stopped trying to speak and moaned at the images flickering through his mind; him naked, hands tied with black ribbons and stretched above his head, his body bruised in several places by the marks of Rufus’ intense passion. He could almost feel the restraints when he closed his eyes, his skin slick with sweat and semen, his body aching to be filled again with his mate’s thick cock.

<This would make me very happy.> Rufus’ mental voice was a pleased, salacious purr, the fingers of his right hand stroking along the side of Reno’s neck. <But I don’t think that you care about my happiness, do you?>

"Oh hell, yes." Reno gasped as the images stopped, his body thrumming with need and heart racing at the thought of that fantasy being brought to life. He moved to straddle Rufus’ lap and demand some attention when they suddenly were not the only ones sitting at the secluded table anymore.

The woman precog, Cassandra, smiled at him while her lover, the wizard, sat beside her. Reno frowned, well aware that Rufus would chastise him if he did anything ‘amoral’ just then, and wondered why the hell the two had to sit here of all places.

"Aren’t you going to dance?" Cassandra asked, sounding a little out of breath. He had seen her out on the dance floor just a few minutes ago, being twirled around by the wizard, and wished that they had stayed out there.

"No." There was an edge of anger to his voice that made her stop smiling and eye him warily, but he knew he could take her if it came to a fight.

<There will be no fighting tonight,> Rufus reminded him, and stroked his hand down Reno’s back. "I’m afraid that Reno doesn’t care for dancing," Rufus explained.

<Not that kind, at least,> Reno sent back, doing his best to ensure that the images from before came true very soon. <Come on, I’m sure there’s a spare room we can use and you can fuck me just like that.>

<I think I’d rather wait until we’re back home.> Judging from the smugness that flavored those words and the smile on Rufus’ face, Reno knew that his mate was being a bastard and ensuring that they did not remain at the party for much longer. Rufus always tried to weasel his way out of a bargain somehow, especially if Reno had given up something important on his end.

"That’s a shame, as it’s not often one gets to dance when so many Harpers are playing." Cassandra’s smile had returned, though she still glanced warily in Reno’s direction. "I believe there are going to be a lot of exhausted guests by the end of the night."

"Yeah, especially if they-"

"Reno." Rufus’ sharp snarl cut off what he was about to say, and mindful that he had promised not to stir up any trouble tonight in return for being allowed to attend the party, Reno pressed his lips together and did his best to rein in his temper. Dammit, he hated having to watch what he said and did just because no one other than Aya really understood him. Why waste time and effort on a party where you were supposed to relax when you had to be on your best behavior the entire time? Were not the damn things about having fun?

Of course Rufus picked up on that thought. <Most people can have fun doing things that don’t involve sex or violence. Be nice to Aya’s guests or you’ll have him upset with you as well as me.>

Reno whined and hunched over on the bench, then decided that at least he could enjoy some more cake and beer without getting into trouble.

"I’ve hopes of Reno seeing the allure of an energetic dance at some point, though I don’t believe it’ll happen in the next century or two," Rufus said, which prompted a giggle from Cassandra and a distracted smile from the wizard. The human kept staring at Reno, which made him want to toss some sparks to end the unwanted attention that had been directed at him for most of the night. He had never talked to the man before and barely been around him, so why all the frowns and long stares?

Rufus seemed to pick up on the wizard’s odd behavior. "If there’s something you want to ask Reno, I advise you to come out with it," he told the man, a hint of a growl in his voice.

The wizard jerked as if surprised, then his smile took on a guilty edge. "I’m sorry, I know I’ve been terribly rude. It’s just that I’ve never seen Reno’s marks up close before."

At first thinking the wizard meant the bruises on his neck, Reno quickly realized that the human was staring at his cheeks instead. "Eh, these things?" He swiped the back of his left forefinger along one of the red lines.

"Yes." The wizard bowed his head. "If you don’t mind telling me, how did you get them?"

It was Rufus’ turn to be startled, his emotions taking on a dark edge as they always did when people showed what he felt was too much attention to Reno. As it was, Reno did not mind being asked about the markings all that much, though he rarely told the truth. Since he did not have much in the way of amusement tonight other than being perverse, he figured he would tell the truth for once. "Eh, some client of my mother’s paid her a lot of money to put them on me when I was a kid." He had to raise his voice to be heard above Rufus’ warning growl. So what if the controlling bastard did not like people to know what his mother had done for a living?

<Because they may feel that you’ll follow along with the family ‘tradition.> Rufus’ mental voice was sharp with fury in his head, making him wince in response.

The wizard frowned and continued to stare at the marks. "Mother’s-" Beside him, Cassandra did something under the table that made him wince as well and stop what he was about to say. "Ah. Did you ever see the man again?"

"Nah." Reno cut himself a large chunk of the cake nearest him and shrugged. "He got into a fight with my mom and we moved a couple of weeks later." It had not been much longer after that that one of his mom’s ‘boyfriends’ wanted to do more than put some fancy lines on his face, so he had decided that he had rather risk life out on the streets than get raped every day for a few coins.

He could feel Rufus in his mind, sifting through those memories, his mate’s emotions carefully blocked. Yet there was more than a little anger and possessiveness in Rufus’ voice when he spoke to the wizard. "You know something about the markings, don’t you?"

The human frowned at the question, no doubt sensing the ‘tell me or else’ threat that was behind it. Reno did not know why Rufus did not just tear through the wizard’s mind for an answer but was glad his mate was showing some restraint for once.

"They’ve bothered me every time I’ve seen them, and I remembered the other day why that is so. Such markings have been used in the past as a way to ‘tag’ a person or animal that a wizard wished to keep track of. I can’t help but wonder if the man who did that to Reno had an idea that he might be a bound and wished to be able to find him once he reached puberty and developed his talent."

Rufus’ snarl just then was loud enough to stun the bounds at the next table over, prompting the Army guy to create fire along his fingers in warning. When he realized that the snarl had not been directed at him, he resumed talking to the kid, Ed, who was sitting beside him.

"However, I’m sure that Reno’s nature has negated whatever magic was in the markings," the wizard quickly assured Rufus. "I can’t sense anything from them at all, even though the lines are too fine to have been made by mundane means."

"I would certainly hope that one of your kind isn’t able to use them to track Reno down, else he won’t be alive for much longer." Rufus’ blue eyes shone with fury as he stared at the wizard for several long seconds, then grabbed hold of Reno’s left arm and urged him away from the table. "Now if you don’t mind, I think we’re going to take a walk to clear our heads."

Reno went to take his glass of beer with him before he was told to leave it. <Why should I?> he sent back, unhappy to be dragged about just because Rufus was in a snit.

<Because your mouth is going to be too busy doing other things for you to drink.> Rufus was still pissed off, but Reno suddenly did not care. One thing he was becoming *very* good at was turning that anger into something a lot more fun, and at least it was not too cold outside to shed a few clothes while going about doing just that.

Even if it made his knees hurt a bit, he had much rather be outside giving Rufus a blowjob than inside dancing any night.

*******

Yohji’s hand in his, Aya tugged his mate toward their bedroom, almost desperate for the peace and quiet he would find inside. As promised, he had danced to several songs with Yohji, then gone back to the table to have another slice of cake and chat with Ed and Roy for a few minutes before he decided that he had spent enough time at the party. Most of the guests seemed rather drunk by then and too busy dancing, talking or drinking to even notice that he and Yohji were leaving. Jo had promised to set aside some of the food and desserts for them to enjoy tomorrow, so he figured that there was little sense in sticking around much longer. Reno was nowhere to be found, Ed definitely had too much wine tonight, Reiichi was busy dancing with Birman of all people, and the Koneko staff were enjoying their chance to spend the evening with their loved ones.

"You don’t have to be so happy to leave the party," Yohji grumbled, but Aya could feel that he was not really bothered by their early departure. Just to make sure things stayed that way, he paused outside their bedroom door and pulled his mate in close enough for a kiss.

Yohji tasted sweet from all the dessert and wine tonight, his lips a little rough from the sugary icing and skin warm from all the dancing. Aya moaned as the kiss deepened, so happy to have his lover all to himself again, and fumbled behind him at the doorknob. The shadows took pity on him and made the door open, causing him and Yohji to stumble inside.

It was the almost overwhelming scent of roses that made him break off the kiss and look about, confused as to why he was smelling them when the ones outside in the garden had not bloomed yet. He was astonished by the sight of the room filled with the flowers, at least ten dozen roses in various colors and in full bloom scattered about in glass and porcelain vases. Several candles were lit as well, the scent of lavender mixing with the heady aroma of roses.

"Yotan?"

His lover wrapped long arms around him and hugged him close, his back pressing against Yohji’s chest. "Happy anniversary, Love."

Looking back at Yohji, Aya frowned and moved his trapped right arm as much as possible to wave at all the flowers. "You did this?"

Yohji chuckled and moved forward, making Aya step closer to the bed. "Not all by myself, I have to admit, but yeah. One of Marta’s friends grew them for me while Omi and Nagi snuck them up here right before they started dancing."

The surprises kept coming tonight, although Aya had a problem being bothered by this one. He made Yohji pause so he could reach out and rub his fingers along the petals of one of the red roses placed by the bed. With the delayed blooming of many flowers because of the unseasonably cool and rainy weather, he missed roses the most and was pleased to have some to enjoy for a few days. "Thank you," he whispered, suddenly unsure over how he was supposed to react to all of Yohji’s thoughtful planning for this day.

He found himself turned around and gently forced to sit on the bed, then Yohji quickly straddled his hips and knelt on his lap. "Hey, you’re supposed to be happy, not apprehensive," his lover chided, fingers tilting up his chin so he looked at Yohji.

"What if I’m both?" He chewed on his bottom lip for a moment before moving forward for a brief kiss. "Thank you." This time, his voice and emotions were more certain.

"Cat… I keep telling you that presents are to be enjoyed. You don’t owe me anything for them." Yohji’s fingers combed through his hair, the sensation making him shiver in delight. "I just want to make you happy." Now it was Yohji’s turn to whisper, his tone as earnest as his expression.

"I know." Aya did, even if he did not quite *understand* why it made Yohji so happy to give such things. Then again, he found pleasure in giving Yohji something that made his lover smile, but nothing as extravagant as tonight. For a moment he wanted to bring up how much everything must have cost, before he decided that he did not want to start a fight.

"You better," Yohji mumbled, even as he smiled and massaged the back of Aya’s neck. "Because I’m not gonna stop giving them to you. Especially not when there’s a reason for them, like our anniversary or your birthday."

Aya frowned when reminded of the importance of today’s date. "But… I don’t have anything for you." That was what bothered him the most about Yohji’s largesse; he hated it when he was taken by surprise by a date or an event and had nothing to give in return.

Yohji’s hands stroked along his neck and cupped his face so he had no choice but to look directly at his mate. "You give me your love, your trust and your body," Yohji purred, his green eyes practically glowing in the room’s flickering light. "You sit through a loud party I threw for us when I know you wanted nothing more than to come up here, and you danced with me for five songs." His thumbs stroked along Aya’s cheekbones, the touch feather-light. "And that’s just tonight. I’m well aware of everything you’ve given up for me, Aya, and I’m the one who feels like I owe you so much."

Aya closed his eyes and tilted his face into Yohji’s right hand. "While you’ve given me many of the same things, along with a home and a future," he murmured, not understanding why Yohji did not realize that without him, Aya would not have a life worth living.

"I can say the same." Yohji’s pleased chuckle filled the room. "My life might not have been as awful as yours before we met, but it was not very good, either. I would have most likely drunk myself to death one year, so you saved me just as much as you feel I saved you." Aya felt something warm brush against his nose and parted his lips just as Yohji’s mouth pressed against them.

The kiss was much like the ones from earlier that day, languid and full of love rather than passion. Aya clutched at Yohji’s broad shoulders, wanting nothing more than to confirm his mate’s presence and that this was not a dream. During all those years of being the Takatori’s pet killer he had never imagined that one day he would find someone like Yohji, someone who would make him feel safe and cherished.

Yohji eventually ended the kiss, leaning back enough so he could smile at Aya. "You arrived with little more than the clothes on your back and a bunch of heavy books, so I like giving you all the things you never had," he explained. While he spoke, he grasped Aya’s left hand and raised it to his lips to place a kiss against the gold and emerald ring that Aya always wore. "And I like making certain that everyone knows you’re mine." His voice roughened slightly, not with anger but a proud sense of possessiveness. "So how could I resist doing something that combines both, hmm?"

Aya actually laughed when confronted with that logic. "I suppose I should have expected it, then." He smiled and pressed the palm of his hand against Yohji’s lips for another kiss. "It’s not that I don’t appreciate our anniversary, it’s just…." He frowned and tried to best explain his thoughts. "I don’t think of it in terms of a ‘year’, Yohji, not when we’ve centuries ahead of us. So a year seems like nothing to me." Since he had no intention of dying anytime soon and refused to allow anything to harm the man he loved, he did indeed expect to live a very long time. Kage either died by their own choice or to save someone they cherished; he had every faith that Yohji was intelligent, skilled and powerful enough to not allow anyone to use him against Aya. Even if the worst happened, Aya still would not count their time together in months or years, not when it was so much better to just accept the gift of each day and look forward to many more.

Yohji shifted Aya’s hand about so he could place a kiss against the pulse beating in his wrist. "I guess it does seem silly when you put it like that. I still think of a few things in a human way, and time is one of them."

He would, too, Aya thought, at least for a little longer. Yohji already had some problems keeping track of the exact date from time to time, and was often surprised to realize that it was farther along in a week or a month than he had thought. In Aya’s opinion, there were better things about being human for a person to keep and so he was not bothered if he did not quite realize that an important holiday was a week away, or that what seemed to have happened the other day had really taken place a month ago.

"Just don’t struggle to hold onto that," Aya whispered, for a moment fearful of how such a thing would affect his mate. From everything he had read and been told, the reason why bounds lost most of their sense of tracking time was to make living so long bearable. It was bad enough that the day would come when all their current human friends were dead and the Koneko greatly altered by time; they did not need to be worn down by the constant reminder that they would lose many of the things they held dear to old age and change.

"I won’t." Yohji’s smile was reassuring before he placed a kiss against Aya’s rapidly beating pulse. "That’s why I made such a big fuss over this year – I know we won’t have much of a chance to have a party like this in the future and that I’ll even forget to throw one eventually. I just wanted you to know how thankful I am that we met."

"Idiot," Aya admonished, and did some hair tugging of his own. "I’m well aware of that." He was, too, just by the way that he could feel Yohji’s love for him, even when they were angry with each other, the little things his mate always did for him to make him smile or feel better. There was not a day that he did not feel cherished in some way, and strove to do his best to let Yohji know he felt the same way.

Yohji chuckled again, one of Aya’s favorite sounds in the world. How could he make his lover understand that he would rather be up here in their room, touching each other and able to hear each laugh, moan and gasp the other made, than be downstairs surrounded by all those people? Even if some of them were dear friends, Aya preferred to spend this time with Yohji.

"I guess I really am hopeless." Yohji moved from Aya’s lap to sit at the top of the bed, his legs stretched out across its surface. Recognizing an invitation when he saw one, Aya moved to reverse their previous positions, sitting on his mate’s lap with his hands resting on Yohji’s shoulders so he could play with the loose blond curls that brushed against his skin. "And you’re stuck with me forever."

"To think that you feel I should be thanking the gods for such a thing," Aya sniffed, comfortable enough now to make a joke. He smiled in pleasure when Yohji laughed again, a purr building in his throat at the feel of Yohji’s hands cupping his ass.

Yohji shook his head, making Aya’s fingers twitch at the sensation of hair sliding across his skin. "Oh, how you suffer." His smile took on a sly edge and he glanced across the room for a moment. "Maybe you need a few more gifts to cheer you up in the face of such an awful fate."

"Wait, there are more presents?" Aya stared incredulously at his mate for several seconds before he could manage an annoyed glare. "No, Yohji." Why could not the fool realize that he really did tend to go overboard with these things?

"But-"

"*No*." Aya continued to glare at his mate, then let out a slow breath and shook his head. "At least, no more gifts until we go shopping tomorrow so I can buy you a few things," he relented. The money had already been spent and, knowing Yohji, they were gifts he could use, but he still felt guilty over the fact that he had nothing to give in return. There were several items he had spotted in the city these last few weeks, and he had promised himself that he would get them whenever there was a suitable occasion, or a need to cheer Yohji up. Now was as good a time as any, and he did not want anything more until he repaid his lover for all the generosity shown to him.

Yohji actually pouted for a minute, then chuckled again and shook his head. "You know, if you *really* want to give me a gift or two, I can think of something that’s worth everything I bought you," he said, with a leer that made it all too clear what he was thinking about. Aya whapped the idiot on the side of the head in response.

"You already get *that*," he muttered, unhappy at the thought of using sex as a method of payment. He gave himself to Yohji to show his love and trust, and to make sure that Yohji had the energy that he needed. They had sex to make up after fights, to celebrate important events, for pleasure and comfort and for reassurance, and most importantly, because they loved each other. Except for that first time, when Aya had only been seeking an experience to help hold back the bleakness of what he thought would be his future, it had never been for anything calculated or emotionless.

His emotions were so roiled by his thoughts that Yohji moaned softly and hugged him close. "I’m sorry, I was only joking." Yohji’s hands soothed up and down his spine, careful of the spots where the worst of the old scars lingered, and Aya wondered when he had stopped caring about his back being touched like that. At the least, he did not mind when it was Yohji doing the touching, the emotion and intent behind the caresses enough to make him forget about the past.

He leaned forward until his forehead rested against Yohji’s, a soft, wordless murmur escaping from his throat when Yohji nudged his head aside to nuzzle his temple. "I’m an idiot, okay?" Yohji said, his voice pitched low and laced with regret. "A horny idiot at that, who’s always happy about any excuse to have sex with you that I can invent. I guess the awesome dick does the thinking a time or two, na?"

The old joke made Aya snort in amusement and give his head the slightest of shakes. "I believe it does the thinking a lot more than that, but I don’t usually mind. I want you most of the time, too." That was the honest truth; he might be able to rein in his desires more easily than Yohji did, between his nature and the many years of denying himself most of the things that would bring him fleeting pleasure, but it was rare that he did not want his mate.

"Good, because I’m here, ready and willing, whenever you want me," Yohji purred.

"As if I did not know that," Aya answered, willing to do a little teasing of his own. He turned his head to give his lover a kiss, putting a bit more passion into this one than the previous.

Moaning in response, Yohji’s hands once more cupped Aya’s ass and gave it a gentle squeeze. Yet he did not push any further than that, as if leaving the choice to Aya. That was something Aya appreciated, for while he did plan on enjoying sex with Yohji again tonight, right now he was happy for the chance to talk to his mate.

Most likely sensing Aya’s reluctance along with his happiness and pleasure, Yohji broke off the kiss with a wistful sigh. He did not seem to truly mind, however, and grinned at Aya while playing with his left eartail. "So, what are you gonna buy me tomorrow, hmm?"

"I thought you liked surprises," was Aya’s instant retort, and he had to grin himself at the look of disappointment that crossed his mate’s face.

"You’re being a mean kitty." Yohji sniffed as if holding back tears and gave Aya’s ass a gentle smack. "Mean kitties don’t get any almond cookies, you know."

"That threat would be more effective if I hadn’t stuffed myself with cake and cookies tonight," Aya pointed out with a fair bit of smugness.


However, he was not the only one who was smug just then. "How about, ‘mean kitties don’t get to read a very expensive book that Masuda’s spent the last four months searching high and low for’, hmm?"

Now *that* wiped the smug grin from Aya’s face. "Really?" He tried to think which book it could be, but he had given a long list to Masuda to search for and knew that Yohji could always ask Ed and Al for suggestions as well.

"Really." Yohji’s smile was one of pure victory. "You still sure you don’t want any more presents tonight?"

Nibbling on his bottom lip for a good minute, Aya finally conceded defeat. "I guess one more present tonight wouldn’t be too much," he sighed, too curious about the book to wait until tomorrow night.

"And you wonder why I call you ‘cat’," Yohji teased, and leaned forward for another kiss before Aya could really say what *he* thought about the silly nickname. Aya growled for a couple of seconds, before giving in to the desire he had held at bay all evening, deciding that he could always show his appreciation for his lover’s generosity a little earlier than he had planned. Yohji just better have the sense to leave him with enough energy to read his new book, if his lover knew what was good for him.

******* 

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