Bindings

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chapter ten

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loose ends with ties to the future

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Yohji walked into his bedroom to find his lover kneeling on the floor in front of a large cedar chest that had spent the last several months in what remained of the attic’s storage area. There was a slight frown on Aya’s face as he searched through its contents, his emotions sad and a bit frustrated. On the floor beside him were two piles of what appeared to be velvet fabric, and from what Yohji could see of the inside of the chest it was more of the same.


"Aya?" He went to his mate and knelt beside him, his right hand resting on Aya’s shoulder in a gesture of comfort. "What are you looking for?" They had brought back almost everything that had been in the cottage where Aya’s parents spent the last few years of their lives, most of the chests and boxes going to the Fujimiya townhouse while a couple of chests and most of the books had remained here. Aya had seemed uninterested in anything other than the books and had not looked through the chests other than to give his sister’s quilt to Emmie.

Hissing slightly under his breath, Aya held up a handful of light blue fabric that was neatly folded. "We should change the bed’s curtains since the weather is getting warmer," he explained while setting the fabric aside and resuming his search. "I remembered that we packed something that should work well for the summer heat."

"If it ever gets warm," Yohji remarked with a worried glance at the nearest window. While it was not really cold anymore, it was not as warm as it should be this time of the year. "You sure you want to get rid of the velvet curtains already?" He was actually a little sad at the idea; the thick, heavy fabric was permeated with their scent, and all he had to do to feel comforted when Aya was not in bed with him was to breathe in deeply.

Aya’s answer was a non-committal grunt, which Yohji translated as ‘yes’. After shoving more of the various duvets and sets of sheets aside, Aya pulled out something wrapped in white cotton and placed it on his lap. Once the cotton was unfolded, Yohji could see the gleam of dark green fabric.

"They’re from Xan and made of silk," Aya explained as he held up some of the rich fabric. "The weave should be tight enough to block out the sun, but the curtains light enough that they don’t hold in the heat too much." He smiled as he looked at Yohji, the sadness from before slowly fading away. "If the green was a bit lighter, it would match your eyes."

"I thought you’d know by now that I’m thoroughly incomparable," Yohji teased, his right hand reaching to touch the silk. Most likely the curtains had cost more than Kira’s entire hope chest, and he had to admit that they would go well with the bed’s dark wood. "Are there any matching sheets?" He had an image in his head of Aya lying on a bed covered with the dark green silk, pale skin appearing even whiter than normal and red hair brighter.

His frown returning, Aya pushed the curtains toward Yohji and resumed his search. "I think there’s something… ah, yes." Pulling out another wrapped package, this time he revealed a set of matching sheets made of linen so fine it might be mistaken for silk at first, with silk edging along the top and a pattern of ivy stitched along it in a lighter green.

Oh yes, Yohji’s little fantasy seemed a lot more real all of a sudden. "Let’s change the bed right now!" He did his best to pull his mate onto his feet, but Aya hissed and resisted.

"We have to wash them first! They’ve been in storage for years."

"Oh, right. Damn." Yohji glared at the chest as if it was the hunk of wood’s fault. The chest had obviously been spelled to keep anything from damaging its contents, but the sheets did reek rather strongly of cedar. While that normally was not a scent that he minded, he would much rather be able to smell his mate instead. "We’ll have to wait until tomorrow now, since the laundry service already picked up the dirty linens for the day."

Aya snorted in amusement and set the sheets and curtains aside before he started to put everything else back into the chest. "Since when do you care so much about our bed linens, other than them being clean?"

"When I can only imagine how beautiful you’ll look while lying naked on top of them," Yohji purred into his lover’s ear, following the words with a leisurely lick. "Just think of how much fun we can have getting them all dirty." He would have to look through the chest himself a bit later to see what other goodies it possessed, because they would definitely need a few spare sets of sheets with their active sex-life. However, he had more interesting things to do at the moment.

This time Aya allowed himself to be pulled to his feet, violet eyes darker than normal from desire. Cupping his hand against the side of his lover’s face, Yohji stared into them for a moment, pleased that Aya was not disturbed enough by going through his parents’ things for there to be any silver swirling amidst now pansy-dark irises. The few times when their year together had seemed longer than that to him was when they dealt with Aya’s past and all the pain it contained; to have such a clear sign that Aya was indeed able to remember the good times without being haunted by the bad made Yohji purr in happiness.

"Well, they’re not expensive as hell linen and silk, but I guess our current sheets will have to do." He tried to sound upset over that fact, but really, who cared as long as he had Aya naked on the bed? As he spoke, he set about removing the clothes from his lover’s body, undoing the laces of the dark blue tunic so it could be pulled off and tossed aside. His own shirt followed soon afterwards, leaving them both to push down their unlaced pants and step out of the now annoying garments as they crossed the room toward the bed.

"You always amaze me with the many sacrifices you make." There was that sarcasm in Aya’s tone again, although Yohji was finally growing used to it. Instead of staring at the man in amazement, he laughed and sat down on the bed while pulling Aya onto his lap.

"Nothing’s too good for my special Cat," he crooned, then laughed some more when that ‘cat’ made a spitting sound out of anger. He stifled it with a kiss, teeth closing around Aya’s bottom lip for a moment before he pushed his tongue into slick warmth.

Aya moaned as the kiss deepened, his hands scrambling along Yohji’s back and causing shivers of pleasure and pain. Part of Yohji longed for the moment when those sharp nails would sink into his flesh, all because it was Aya’s way of marking him and a sign that Aya was mindless with pleasure. Oh yes, he wanted that so desperately, his hunger practically screaming for it.

However, he was not a slave to that hunger, not anymore. Now he could rein it in, could ignore it long enough to ensure that Aya was feeling as much ecstasy as possible. It was not just about feeding anymore, and right now he wanted to savor this time with his mate.

He lay down on the bed, hips wiggling as he scooted backwards. The action made both of them moan as their bodies rocked together, cocks already hard and now growing slick as they rubbed against the other. Yohji shivered again, this time at the feel of wetness trailing down his cock as Aya shifted about, the following coldness against damp skin in stark contrast to the heat he felt everywhere else.

His hands settled on Aya’s ass, squeezing the firm flesh for a moment and feeling muscles flex beneath smooth skin. Something thumped onto the bed beside him and he reached for it since he already knew what it would be. Aya’s shadows could be so useful at times, though he wished they would learn how to undo the damn lid to the jar of lubricant so he would not have to manage it one-handed. When he had a naked, squirming mate on top of him, the last thing he wanted to do was tear both of his hands away from all that lovely white flesh.

"Yotan," Aya murmured, deep voice rendered even deeper by passion and need, and a touch sibilant as well. His eyes were so heavy-lidded they were nearly closed, dark purple peeking out through the narrow slits. There were no more words, not that Yohji had expected them, but the link between them practically thrummed with the love, desire and need he felt from his mate. Pleasure and anticipation soon swirled into the heady mix when his now slick fingers dipped between the cheeks of Aya’s ass.

"I love how you look right now," he purred, eyes intent on Aya’s face as one finger slowly pushed inside. "Your face isn’t as white anymore, now it’s a bit flushed, and I’m too busy to push back your bangs. Yet I know your eyes will close when I do this," he curled his finger as he spoke, flicking it back and forth several times, "and your lips will part when I do *this*." He added another finger, pushing as deeply as he could into the clenching heat. Aya’s body resisted for a few seconds, Aya’s mouth indeed open as he panted for air and shuddered.

"I know everything you’ll do now, the memories so ingrained that at times my dreams of this are so *damn* real," Yohji continued, adoring the way that Aya opened his eyes and tried to focus as if to follow what was being said. "All I have to do is think about the way you’ll moan or gasp, hoe touching the base of your spine will make you shiver, and it gets me hard as a fucking rock." It did, too. There was never even a hint of boredom about their lovemaking, not when it felt so incredibly good and all that experience only made it *better*. The sunlight coursing through him right now was almost making him delirious, Aya’s pleasure heightening his own at least tenfold.

He stroked his left hand along Aya’s spine, wanting to feel the way his lover did in fact shiver against him, his hips moving back and forth to create more wonderful friction. Aya was stretched out on top of him, arms curved around his head and lips only a couple of inches from his own. Trailing his fingers up along skin stretched tight over bony spine, Yohji tangled them in crimson hair and urged Aya a little closer. He did the shivering now, unable to stop it once their lips met and Aya gasped out his name.

His fingers continued to curl and twist about, more to prolong the pleasure that Aya felt whenever they moved *just* right than anything, and his hunger raged against having to wait any longer. Doing his best to ignore it, he held out a few seconds more until Aya nipped at the tip of his tongue. Breaking off the kiss, he opened his eyes in time to see his mate push up with his arms until Aya was once more straddling his hips.

"Give in to it, Yotan," Aya murmured, his nails scratching lightly down Yohji’s chest and stomach. "I can feel your hunger."

"Damn thing can be real insistent, eh love?" Yohji chuckled and pulled his fingers free, both hands grasping Aya’s hips to keep his mate from moving just yet. "Wait, okay?" He did his best to remember this moment, the sight of Aya with his face and part of his chest flushed with passion, skin glowing in the sunlight filtered through the curtains and tousled hair clinging wherever it touched Aya’s sweat-slick face and body. The air was once more scented by their desire, Yohji’s mouth watering as he inhaled sharply, then his hunger rushed to the fore and refused to be denied any longer.

Aya must have felt when his demon nature took over fully and moved, raising up on his knees the same time that he shifted backwards. Yohji only had a moment to rub his slick fingers over his cock before Aya grasped it by its base, beautiful face a study of concentration as he slowly descended. Oh hell, Yohji *had* to sketch his lover’s face like that one day, partially hidden in shadows from the thick bangs and lips parted the tiniest bit. Then sensation overtook sight as he felt Aya’s body engulf the tip of his cock.

His head tossed backwards, he struggled to breathe as his mate continued downward, his cock wrapped more and more by that incredible heat. Aya was so damn tight, not enough to hurt either of them but just right, as if his body had been made with Yohji’s in mind. The way that Yohji’s hands fit along the curve of Aya’s hips only confirmed that idea, his thumbs rubbing against the swell of bone.

"Fuck, but you feel so good." It was not just the fit of their bodies that made it feel that way, but the emotions that went along with all that pleasure: the love, trust, need and passion that burned so hotly that there were times when he thought his skin would crack open from the heat. It was as if he were on fire, yet instead of pain it was all ecstasy, instead of being destroyed it was as if his entire being were fortified.

When he moved his hand from Aya’s left hip to Aya’s cock, it was as if an inferno raged inside of his chest. The pleasure spiked even more; he experienced pulses of the potent emotion whenever he stroked his hand over hard flesh, when he snapped his hips upwards into wonderful tightness. Aya moved in sync with him, eartails flopping about from the growing intensity of their motions, eyes closed as if he could bear nothing other than what he was feeling.

Yohji groaned as he drank it all in, his senses heightened by hunger to an almost painful extent. Everything was so incredible, so intense that he wanted to drag this moment out until he was immolated by the sunlight rushing into him. His left hand grabbed Aya’s hip even tighter, fingers digging in as he urged his mate to move faster, harder. The spike of ecstasy just then made his heart beat even quicker and his breath to catch as if a weight had settled onto his chest. There was a high pitched whine from Aya, almost as if he were trying to speak but was unable to form the words, then his nails raked down Yohji’s chest hard enough to draw blood.

Knowing his mate’s orgasm was about to slam into him, Yohji lifted his back away from the bed, sitting up as quickly as possible and drawing Aya toward him as his lips sought out the pulse racing beneath pale skin. His mouth latched onto Aya’s neck right before the sunlight seared through him, the pleasure he felt caught up in the maelstrom until it grew strong enough to nearly tear him apart when he came as well.

One of these days he should end up awash in disappointment when the ecstasy finally faded away, as always leaving him short of breath and trembling as his body did its best to calm down. Yet so far it had not happened, no matter how intense the orgasm had been, because he always found Aya in his arms, his mate a languid bundle of muscle and bone that purred softly and gently hugged him back. Now was no exception, even if Aya appeared ready to fall asleep at any moment, eyes closed and body so relaxed that the only thing that kept him upright was Yohji’s hold on him.

"Sorry it was so terrible this time, love," Yohji teased, his smile growing when it took at least a minute for Aya to open his eyes and give him the weakest glare he had ever seen.

"Fool," Aya mumbled, the insult utterly lacking in heat or disdain. One of these days Yohji would find an old jester’s costume just to witness his lover’s reaction to seeing him wearing it.

"I guess I’ll just have to strive for better next time." He barely managed to tilt up Aya’s chin before his poor left shoulder was bitten in response, and ended up getting his fingers nipped instead. He chuckled as he stroked the back of his abused fingers along his mate’s cheek. "I promise."

Aya snorted and closed his eyes, his head tilted into the caress while Yohji returned some of the energy he had taken. Maybe one day they would figure out how to stop the feeding during sex once he had enough, but it was so tied into the pleasure and love they felt that Aya had never complained about being drained to the point of exhaustion as long as he got some of it back.

"You’ll look for any excuse to ‘practice’." Aya sounded tired yet pleased, one of his small smiles on his face and a faint purr in the back of his throat.

"You know me so well." Yohji pressed a kiss to his lover’s forehead then lay back down, holding Aya close as he stretched out on the bed. They were a bit sticky with sweat and Aya’s release, their chests also smeared with blood from the scratches that had already healed. In another minute or two, Yohji would get up and fetch a washcloth so they could clean up, but he always enjoyed moments like these when they could relax together. Soon enough they would have to move, and he wanted to take Aya to the kitchen to eat something before they had a soak in the hot spring.

Playing with a few strands of Aya’s hair, he lay still until he felt his mate shift about. "Stay here," he whispered as he helped Aya to roll onto the bed, then got up to fetch the washcloth. He almost tripped over the chest, having completely forgotten about it, and just managed to not stub his toes against it. Laughing at himself over his clumsiness, he wet a cloth then returned to the bed.

"I think your furniture is trying to kill me," he said as he wiped the cloth along Aya’s chest, the motions slow and almost teasing. If he were not so full of ‘sunlight’ right now, he would make the sponge bath as provocative as possible, but he would probably only get smacked upside the head before Aya rolled over and went to sleep.

"Nice to know it’s good for something." Aya opened his eyes and smiled in the face of Yohji’s pout, then reached out to tuck back a lock of Yohji’s hair that was falling into his eyes. "It’s an inanimate object, Yotan. Don’t tell me you’re going to be jealous of it, too."

"Jealous, no. Concerned? Hell yes. If it tries to kill me again, it’ll become kindling." He grinned at Aya’s amused snort and leaned down to give his lover a quick kiss. "Seriously, are we keeping it here?" They had the room for it, but he much preferred being able to stretch out in front of the fire on cold nights than keep spare linens on hand.

"We’ll go through it again later then take the chest back into the attic. I think Kira is hoping that I wouldn’t mind getting rid of a few things." The thought of giving away more of his family’s belongings did not seem to bother Aya this time, although Yohji supposed a set of sheets was not quite as special as the quilt Aya-chan had loved. At least Aya could take comfort in the fact that it seemed to be Emmie’s favorite possession.

"I say you get her to hem the green curtains if they need it in exchange for anything." Yohji cleaned himself as well and tossed the cloth in the direction of the washbasin, unwilling to leave the bed again just yet.

"I’m sure we’ll work something out." Lying on the bed, Aya looked ready to fall asleep again, body relaxed and expression content. "Especially since she wants something and we can’t sew to save our lives."

Yohji snorted and lay down beside his mate. "Speak for yourself. I’ve actually managed to sew on a button at least… ah, once in my life." His voice was shaking with the laughter that he did his best to suppress, but he could not resist waggling his eyebrows when Aya actually laughed in response.

"I’m sure that’s why you much prefer tops with laces to this day." Aya sighed and shook his head. "Nagi always did the sewing for me."

"Why am I not surprised that the little demon is good at handling pointy things?" Yohji yelped when his left side was pinched in retaliation to the insult. "Dammit, I’m gonna make you wear mittens if you keep that up."

Aya did not seem too impressed with that threat. "He said something about a festival in the southern Silver district and asked me if we’d like to go with him and Omi tonight." There was the faint sensation of hope over their link, which let Yohji know that his lover was interested in going.

"I don’t see why not." Aya needed a new clasp for the cloak that Yohji had given him for their anniversary, and he usually liked picking up presents for the women on the Koneko’s staff at artisan festivals. "Do you want to eat here or somewhere along the way?"

"Here." No doubt Aya’s practical nature was the reason for that decision; he saw no sense in paying for food elsewhere unless it was a special occasion. Yohji smiled and was happy that at least one of them was good at saving money since they had definitely need it in the future – if he had to live for centuries, he refused to work that entire time.

"I think Jo said something about pork chops and baked potatoes for dinner. Yum." Yohji grabbed his lover’s left hand and pretended to gnaw on it for a few seconds. "Though nothing is as good as you, Cat."

"Which must be why you indulge so much," Aya replied, his tone wry and his expression amused. "That and you’re a glutton."

"Hey, I have to make up for your miserly ways somehow." Yohji sat up, smiling when Aya followed suit. "Well, unless it comes to books, and then you throw gold coins about as if they were copper."

"Those books will come in handy one day. At the very least, they’ll make Al and Ed our slaves for life." Aya was smiling as he got off the bed, pausing to stretch his back before he went to pick up the dirty washcloth.

Yohji laughed at the excellent point his lover had made. "All right, I give in on that one." Besides, the books were indeed proving their weight in gold with the information they revealed, and at least reading them was a hobby that kept Aya inside and out of the sunlight. They had already had one fight this spring about Aya being out in the garden too much, and he was sure there would be more when the plants were in full bloom.

Aya tossed him a pleased look over his shoulder before washing a bit more, then went to get dressed. Of course he managed to step around the chest without any lack of gracefulness on his part, which made Yohji mutter under his breath about cats who liked to show off. Then he went to wash himself clean before retrieving the clothes that had been tossed about earlier.

Once they were decent enough for Jo not to yell at them, they went to the kitchen, Aya’s stomach rumbling quietly. "I don’t think you would have made it to the Southern Silver district without dinner," Yohji teased.

Aya glared and almost managed to smack him on the back of the head. "I wasn’t the one who just enjoyed a feast," he hissed, stomping past Yohji down the stairs with an offended air.

Ah well, the grumpy bastard was right, Yohji told himself, unable to stop smiling since he did feel so good after a feeding. Aya’s temper would be a lot better once he got some food into him to take off the edge of exhaustion, and there would be lots of treats to buy at the festival tonight. Even if he had to watch Omi paw at Nagi while they were out, he would have a good time.

He was not surprised to find the kitchen occupied by friends, and actually managed a pleasant grin for his father when he saw Masato and Schuldig sitting at one of the tables. He was full of sunshine and Aya was on the other side of the room from the older succubae bound, so all was mostly well. Masato appeared startled for a moment then smiled back, his right arm wrapping around Schuldig’s upper chest in a motion that was more ‘I have mine and you have yours’ than anything territorial. Schuldig rolled his eyes at the embrace, yet was smiling as he tilted his head back to nip at his mate’s stubbled jaw.

<I don’t know if I should be happy that you two are getting along so well or upset that he’s not gonna drag me to the office and fuck me silly to prove that I’m his,> Schuldig sent, a faint tickle in the back of Yohji’s mind.

<I say wait until I’m gone to make him jealous as hell, then you can have both,> he sent back, grinning when he recognized the evil twinkle in his best friend’s eyes. <Just be sure that Jo isn’t around when you do it.>

Schuldig rolled his eyes again. <Takes more than a rolling pin to the head to distract me from fantastic sex. I mean – ah, talk some more later, Yotan.> Masato must have noticed the mental conversation because his arm had tightened around Schuldig’s chest and he had begun to nuzzle the soul gaki bound’s left ear.

Pretty certain that Schuldig would get his ‘fantastic sex’ very soon, Yohji shook his head and joined his own mate at another table. Aya already had a plate heaped with pork chops and baked potatoes before him, and hunger, happiness and contentment flowed over their link as he scooped some sour cream onto the potatoes.

"What, don’t I get anything?" he asked Jo, his mouth down-turned into what he believed was a rather convincing pout.

"Something tells me that you’re not the one in need of a good meal right now," Jo shot back, but she did go over to the stove to fix him a plate of food. Thinking not very dark thoughts on how Aya had managed to get the woman thoroughly wrapped around his little finger, Yohji settled for pouring himself some wine while he waited for his meal.

"She really spoils you, you know," he complained as Aya started munching on his potatoes. His mate snorted and shook his head, too busy chewing to come up with a proper retort, from the looks of it.

Jo returned with a plate almost as full of food, and he had the thought that teasing her any more just then might not be a good idea. Nope, he would wait until he had his dinner before he whined about being unloved.

"You two have any plans for tonight?" Ken asked a few minutes later, still dressed in his uniform which meant that he had probably just gotten off duty.

"Aya said that there’s a festival that Omi and Nagi are going to, so we’re tagging along."

Ken ate an entire potato in one bite then nodded. "Yeah, Omi mentioned it to me earlier, too. If you don’t mind, I was hoping that Miko and I could come with you."

Yohji’s left eyebrow twitched but he managed to not show how interested he was by what Ken had just said. "I don’t see why not. We’ll probably split up once we get there, but it’ll be fun to go to the silver district together." Especially since he was willing to bet that Miko would ‘harass’ his ex-partner the entire time, just to get some reactions from Ken, reactions that Ken was oh so happy to provide. So it would be an amusing time for all.

<Oh, sure, don’t invite your best friend to tag along.> Schuldig managed to sound offended, but Yohji knew the meddling bastard too well to fall for it. <What if I wanted to come, eh?>

<You’ll be too busy having sex with my father, remember?>

<Ah, right. Never mind, I’ll check up on you tomorrow to hear about how many times Miko put Ken in his place tonight.> Schuldig waved his right hand a few times before returning his attention back to Masato.

"I’m going to start keeping a bucket of cold water around for whenever those two visit," Jo muttered as she grabbed Yohji and Aya’s empty plates. Yohji had the impression that Schuldig better pick a more private place than the office to have his ‘fun’ since Jo seemed on to him tonight.

"At least Aya and I contain ourselves to our room," he said with a sniff, then laughed when Jo gave him the most dubious of looks. "Okay, *most* of the time we do." He nuzzled his mate’s left ear and smiled when Aya rested against him. "We do our best to not traumatize the kiddies." Who were thankfully nowhere to be found this afternoon, which meant that Maddox had probably already gone to the festival with Emmie and Neely. Now Yohji understood what the girls had been talking about earlier as they had rushed about gathering all the dirty towels and replacing them with new ones in the bathing rooms.

"I think you still give yourself too much credit, but you’re welcome to your delusions." Jo actually patted him on the head before returning to the stove, which made Yohji wonder if Aya’s newly discovered sense of sarcasm was all Reno’s fault. Come to think about it, Ed could be pretty damn sarcastic himself, especially when Mustang was around….

"We need to find you some better friends," he told his mate, not believing that the day had come when he was thankful for *Nagi*, of all things. At least the little demon was not nearly as sarcastic as the rest of Aya’s friends.

Aya did not even bother to answer that right away; he just shook his head and waited for Jo to return with more food. A full plate before him once more, he gave Yohji a cool look. "Says the man whose best friend is currently molesting your father as we speak."

Yohji refused to look in Schuldig and Masato’s direction since he did not want to lose his appetite. "Oh, hush." He did turn to scowl at Ken, who was chuckling between tearing off chunks from an uncooked chicken. "That goes for you, too."

"Hey, at least I’m not the one trying to get it on with your old man," Ken shot back.

"No, you’d be more interested in having him for dinner than for sex." Thank all the gods for that one, because there was no way Yohji could handle his two best friends wanting to fuck Masato. In a way, he had to be grateful for Schuldig ending up mated to the man. Then he thought about it a little more and was grateful as hell that Schuldig could not read his thoughts on the sly anymore, which was the only thing saving him from being harassed by that thought about the bastard’s mating bond for the rest of his life.

While Ken laughed out loud, Jo started yelling at Schuldig and Masato to go back to their apartment before they ended up drenched with cold water and knocked out. Having the feeling that spending several hours at a crowded, noisy street festival would be a good thing, Yohji whispered into Aya’s ear to finish his dinner quickly. That the sooner they left meant the sooner they would be back home and up in their bedroom had nothing at all to do with his sudden impatience, he told himself, a smug grin on his face that made Aya apprehensive and Ken scoot away.

But first they had to put that set of sheets in the laundry pile so they would be ready in a couple of days.

********

"I can’t believe we’re going through with this," Wufei muttered, the scowl on his face fierce enough to send anyone they came across scurrying out of their way.

Quatre did his best not to smile in the face of his lover’s disgruntlement and managed as soothing an expression as he could. "We are only doing our duty to Esset." When all that did was make Wufei’s scowl darken, he sighed and decided on a more private means of communication. <You agreed that this was a good idea, and recent events in Kritiker have made the Elders eager to appear peaceful and non-threatening.> The ancient bounds were both furious and worried that two of their agents had been stopped by a Guard, even if the man was supposed to be a wizard. While every indication was that Grega and Dillon had died before revealing why they were attacking humans, the Elders were suspicious about why no one in Eto was accusing bounds of the murders. It was clear that Kritiker was up to something by blaming the deaths on a rogue wizard, but Crawford and Birman had clouded the truth enough that it seemed that the king was merely taking advantage of the chance to exert some control over his country’s wizards.

Wufei looked as if he wanted to dispute that fact, his lips pressing together so tightly that they almost disappeared. <It was easier to accept before we became obligated to deal with the child!>

Quatre shook his head, doing his best not to smile in response to that statement. Why his lover was so upset over having to deal with a ‘child’, he did not understand. He also found it amusing how Wufei acted as if the young woman was barely more than an infant. She might not be fifteen years old yet, over a decade younger than Wufei or himself, but she was hardly a ‘child’. If anything, he would expect Wufei to have some respect for her lack of years considering how many of the older bounds treated *them* as if they were children.

"Just think about the profound amount of wisdom you can bestow upon her unworthy self," he finally said, doing his best to keep his expression solemn. Unfortunately, his lover knew him too well.

"I’ll save some of that wisdom to bestow upon *you* later," Wufei threatened, but at least his expression settled into something not quite as terrifying as it had been moments before. However, there were few people around now to see it.

They had reached a part of the palace where they had rarely ventured in their several years of ‘residence’. In a way it was a good thing – few people reached this part of the palace without the Elders’ approval so it was a sign that they were trusted. What worried Quatre was if they would be allowed to *leave* as well.

This was where the Elders housed both the people whom they felt required close supervision as well as those who were most loyal to the ancient bounds. The ‘heir’ to Esset’s throne had not left this part of the palace even once in her life, supposedly for her own protection. Those who had rebelled against the Elders yet whose powers were necessary to the Elders’ plans were kept here as well - again for their ‘protection’ - as well as anyone truly vital to Kritiker’s overthrow. There had been plans to keep the kage housed here, which would have been interesting to see since the man would have been able to negate whatever wards and guards had been set up to keep him caged.

Upon receiving summons for him to ‘represent’ his family in Berin, Quatre had done his best to avoid this series of rooms and hallways. He had downplayed his talent as much as possible, coming across as someone who might possess a very powerful demon soul yet lacked the will to put his power to much use. He knew that Crawford had helped him set up his own quarters just outside of this area and that the precog had kept Trowa, Duo and Wufei from disappearing into this section as well. Heero’s rooms were down the hallway to the left, not far from Anthony’s, and Quatre expected to run across Tan Xi at any moment.

So he was startled to see instead one of the succubae bound’s closest friend, Martha, practically pinning another person against the wall in one of the small nooks usually used by the servants while they waited for a high-ranked bound to require their assistance. If it were not for the angry and frustrated buzz of her thoughts, he would never have notice her, and Wufei glanced at the shadowed area as well when Quatre stopped in front of it.


Normally he did his best to not openly interfere with the actions of his fellow bounds in Berin, but what he sensed from the fire elemental made him gasp in disgust. Foremost in Martha’s thoughts was how the charm powered by Tan Xi’s blood failed to get any desired result from her ‘prey’. No matter how much she tried, her hands stroking along the silent man’s body and her mouth sucking on his throat, she got no reaction whatsoever other than resigned disinterest.

While Quatre might have qualms about openly moving against someone favored by the Elders, Wufei did not. His dark eyes narrowed and his lips twisted by a fierce growl, he grabbed Martha by her shoulders and almost tossed her out into the hallway. The short woman snarled in response, her pretty face marred with rage that quickly faded when confronted by a bound who was much, *much* more furious and powerful than herself.

"I did not know that we molested each other in public," Wufei spat while the various bits of metal in the hallway – doorknobs, oil chandeliers, hinges, carpet tacks – hummed and vibrated from his anger.

"But…." Martha glanced at the man who stood perfectly still in the shadowed alcove, his eyes still closed and his arms hugged tight across his chest, and then quickly looked aside. "I didn’t-"

"Didn’t what? Force yourself upon Shin?" Wufei motioned at the water elemental before slashing his hand through the air in front of the woman huddled before him. "You are a-"

"Are you under orders?" Quatre asked, using his power to keep his lover from uttering an insult that might cause him to earn the Elders’ ire. "Answer me, Martha." He put the slightest amount of heat and force into the command, allowing his demon nature to come to the fore – something he very rarely did while in public.

"No." Martha hung her head and whimpered, dark brown hair covering her now pale face. "I just thought… thought they’d be happy if I succeeded."

There was no need to ask who ‘they’ were. Quatre held Wufei still while the fire elemental scurried away, truly terrified that the great General would harm her for her actions. By all accounts she deserved to be hurt, at the least for what she had tried to inflict upon another bound. Quatre gave his lover’s right shoulder a quick squeeze before turning to see if Shin required any help.

The water elemental had not moved at all, the bangs of his long, pale green hair hiding most of his face and the ties of his black silk long tunic partially undone. There were several livid bruises on his neck and scratches on the exposed skin of his chest, but what disturbed Quatre the most was how emaciated the bound appeared. Shin had never been particularly ‘robust’, his physique tall yet lean, but he now seemed to be little more than skin and bone.

Any concern over his physical well-being was sublimated by the utter lack of expression on his normally beautiful face. When he opened them, his golden eyes were dull, containing no spark of life that was not just an effect of light reflecting off of his glasses. "Thank you," he said, his voice quiet and as emotionless as his expression.

"Shin…." Quatre wanted to touch the man but was afraid that he might do more damage and harm. "Do you want me to call Rei or Gou?" Why had those two allowed Shin outside of their rooms unaccompanied?

"Gai already left to fetch them. I didn’t want him to start a fight." Shin’s voice was as thin as his body, containing no substance as if he did not have the energy to even *feel* anymore. Considering the rumors of how hard the Elders were forcing him to work, Quatre suspected that it was partially true. All he picked up from the bound was exhaustion and despair.

However, before he could offer any sort of comfort, Wufei had to say something that did not help the situation at all. "I would hardly expect one of your status and power to allow yourself to be mauled like that."

Shin shrugged, finally forcing himself away from the wall as he stepped out into the hallway. "I see no reason why it should bother me. It’s not as if she would have gotten what she wanted." He bowed his head, body swaying as if he were ready to topple over, and went on his way. Quatre watched him leave in a state of shock over how hopeless the man was, not moving until he saw Gai and Gou run around the corner down the hallway as if fleeing from enemies, almost knocking into their cousin in their haste.

"Let’s go," Quatre told his lover, nearly having to drag Wufei along with him. "It’ll do you no good to yell at them."

"Don’t say that, too!" Wufei hissed, completely outraged at the thought of someone suffering abuse just to avoid a confrontation.

<As much as I hate to admit it, Shin was right to not cause any trouble. The Elders are displeased with him right now, and he’s already pushing himself too far in an attempt to appease their demands.> From what Quatre could tell, Shin was slowly killing himself as it was while trying to find the water that Berin needed.

<So that gives Martha and the like cause to rape him? All so they can bear powerful children and gain the Elders’ favor?> Wufei sent back, so full of anger and disgust that it made Quatre’s head ache.

<No, and you know it doesn’t.> For a moment he felt as helpless as Shin. <But he was also right that it would do her no good. Shin only ever… responded to one person and Yuda is no longer here.>

<Because the Elders refused to allow them to mate.> The metal scattered about the hallway thrummed again, and Quatre was afraid that his lover was so furious that they would both lose control of their talents. <Just so they wouldn’t lose Yuda’s abilities and the chance for either man to father children who could be raised as slaves.>

<And in doing such a horrid thing, they lost all they had tried to gain,> Quatre answered, struggling for a moment to control his own temper. <Yuda and Ruka escaped while Shin and Rei haven’t taken any lovers since then, nor have Gai or Gou.> It was clear that the Elders had hoped for at least Gou to pass on his ability, yet Quatre had heard rumors that the fire elemental was ‘unable to perform’ anymore. When he had dared to dip inside of the stoic man’s mind for an answer, he got the impression that Gai was somehow responsible.

Wufei snorted in disgust. <Not that it does them much good when people like Martha will do their best to ‘earn’ the Elders’ favor by using force.> He clenched his right hand, and the doorknob nearest him shattered into thousands of metal slivers that flew out about a foot before dropping onto the carpeted floor. <Why can’t we tell more people about the Shadow Guard, dammit?>

Quatre did not have to answer that; Wufei was well aware that if word got out in Esset that bounds had a chance of a job and a real life in Kritiker, the Elders would launch the war the very next day. Crawford’s people were doing their best to spread the word very carefully among the bounds who had made their way to Kritiker and could be trusted, and bounds had been killed who would have sold that information to the Elders. While most of the bounds who were ‘loyal’ to the Elders believed there to be no chance for their kind to have any positive future unless the Elders were in power, it would take more than hearing about the Shadow Guard to convince enough that they could indeed live safely amongst humans.

<We should reach the girl’s rooms shortly,> he sent instead, hoping that would be enough to make his lover swallow all that anger and hatred. Wufei had such a strong sense of justice that it was tested almost daily in Berin, yet so far he had been able to control his temper so as to not ruin all of Crawford’s plans. They might not be able to help the majority of the bounds in Esset now, but if they were very careful and did their best, things would be different in the future.

"I warn you now, if she’s a sniveling idiot then I’m leaving her solely to you," Wufei spat, his expression still furious even though his mind was becoming calm. "I detest women who use tears to get whatever they want! Bah!"

"Someday, I must really meet the women you grew up with," Quatre murmured, unable to hold back a laugh when he took the brunt of his lover’s glare. Oh, he had seen glimpses of Wufei’s memories over the years, and from what he could tell those women were formidable as hell. If they ever got together with Quatre’s sisters, he had the suspicion that both Kritiker and Esset would find themselves taken over in a matter of days, as well as the rest of the world.

"I can’t believe I ended up with someone like you," Wufei grumbled, the words pitched low but not low enough that Quatre would not hear them. So he pulled on his most simpering of smiles, his eyes wide with feigned innocence as he grabbed the grumpy man’s left arm.

"But I only want you to be happy!"

"I think you’re confusing ‘happy’ with ‘driven insane’." Wufei was still glaring, but now the corners of his mouth kept twitching as if he had trouble not smiling.

Quatre waved his left hand about a few times. "Either works for me." He had to bite his bottom lip to keep from smiling, and Wufei did not get a chance to answer because they had finally reached the ‘royal quarters’. At least the Elders allotted the Esset royal family quarters that properly reflected their highborn status, even if the guards stationed in the hallway were there to keep the current princess inside instead of for her protection.

He gave the guards a polite nod, the smile on his face one that he often wore when dealing with the Elders’ people. It was friendly and dignified, going well with the illusion that he was a kind young man who only wanted his friends to be happy. While that was mostly true, the image he presented hid the fact that he would do whatever was necessary to keep his loved ones safe.

For his part, Wufei was able to get along with being his usual grumpy self, eyes narrowed in annoyance and lips pressed together as if he were barely resisting the urge to shout ‘idiot’ at everyone. That image was as misleading as Quatre’s, as Wufei was much more thoughtful and sensitive than people would ever believe. However, to them he was the Elders’ prized General, the man who would coldly order fellow bounds to their deaths in a manner that would best suit their masters.

The two guards, tall, broad-shouldered bounds who looked as if they might be related to that one gokenin of Shinra’s, bowed low before opening the doors to the private apartment. They were soul gaki and flesh gaki bounds respectively, powerful enough to sense whatever weapons Quatre and Wufei carried and scan their surface thoughts. Quatre allowed the invasive ‘brush’ against his mind, well assured that the man stood no chance of dipping past his or Wufei’s mental shields to find the truth.

Once they were inside, a woman who was almost Quatre’s height stepped forward, her light blond hair pulled back into a neat bun and her brown and white dress plain but tidy. "Lord Raberba-Winner, General Wufei," she said with a low bow, her hands clenched around her skirt. "Princess Helena is expecting you."

She did not bother to introduce herself, but from her worried thoughts Quatre knew that she was named Lisa and that she was an earth elemental chosen to watch over the human girl. That was a job she took very seriously, not because she had been ordered to do so but because she cared for child. In fact, Quatre found as he very carefully rifled through her memories, she had looked after the girl’s father and grandfather as well. There was a thought in there about the father that he made sure to ‘file away’, its poignancy softening his feelings to the girl even before he had met her.

"The princess wasn’t informed of your visit until an hour ago, so please forgive her if she’s not quite prepared," Lisa said, her concern for the child growing along with her confusion over who the Elders had sent here. She knew of Quatre and Wufei by reputation only, and had only one explanation in mind as to why they would pay Helena a visit.

Quatre offered Lisa a true smile, one meant to reassure rather than fool. "There’s nothing to be worried about, I swear that to you. We mean the girl no harm."

Lisa was not exactly comforted by the promise, not when ‘no harm’ was such a vague phrase. Still, she knew that he and Wufei were very powerful and was resolved to not put up any fight unless absolutely necessary. "Thank you, my lord." She bowed her head again as she led them through several rooms that were finely if sparsely decorated.

She stopped before a closed door and opened it, motioning for them to enter. "I’ll wait out here in case you should need anything." And so she could watch over Helena as much as possible.

Quatre nodded and stepped into the room, which was brightly lit thanks to several mirrors and all the windows that covered the southern wall. Again, the room was sparsely decorated with a couple of chairs, a couch, a small desk and a bookcase cluttered with baskets on every shelf. There was also an easel by the window, behind which stood a young woman with dark brown hair and eyes. Her dress was made from finer fabric than Lisa’s but was just as plain, its light grey color smudged with what appeared to be colored chalk along the cuffs on its sleeves.

The girl, Helena, frowned as she rubbed something on the canvas before her, her eyebrows drawn together in concentration. It was not until the door closed behind Quatre and Wufei that she seemed to realize that she had company. "Oh," she exclaimed as she looked up from the canvas, a bright red flush staining her pretty but unremarkable face. "Oh!"

"Princess Helena," Quatre said while bestowing a bow on the young woman. When she stepped away from the easel he saw that she was not the ‘waif-like’ beauty his sisters had scoffed about while reading him stories of princess and heroes after tucking him into bed, but he felt that many a person would find her attractive. She was just beginning to mature, the dress clinging to slight curves that most likely would become more prominent over the years.

Beside him, Wufei inclined his head only slightly, but at least he was not glaring at the poor girl – or was not as long as she did not appear to be ready to burst into tears. Helena looked back and forth between him and Wufei, a frown on her face and her emotions just as confused and worried as Lisa’s. Quatre made a point to mentally share that fact with his lover.

"Ah, good day." She executed a mostly shaky curtsy, her grey skirts now marked by the colored chalk that coated her fingers. "It’s a pleasure to meet you," she lied.

"And us, you." Quatre smoothed his right hand down the front of his blue velvet coat and stepped forward. "I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but we are cousins."

She nodded, her long hair sliding over her shoulders with the motion. "We are removed by…," she paused as she did the mental calculations, "eighteen generations on my side."

"Yes." It was a good bit less on his, since his family had stopped intermarrying with the royal line once bound blood had made its way into the Raberba-Winner bloodlines. Still, he was hoping that the reminder that they were connected in some way would put the girl at ease. It appeared to do the opposite, however, when she became even more panicked at the mention of their relationship.

Helena nodded and absentmindedly continued to wipe her hands on her skirt. "Ah, I should be offering you something to drink, no?" She looked ready to burst into those dreaded tears when she motioned to a small bar tucked into the corner of the room. "There should be some brandy, if you like."

Wufei finally took some pity on the girl and waved his hand at the offer. "That won’t be necessary. Pardon my bluntness, but I’m left with the feeling that you’ve no idea why we’re here, correct?"

"Yes." Helena did her best to put on a brave front, her bottom lip quivering slightly as she straightened her back and looked at them directly. "We were only given word that you would pay us a visit, but not why." She fell quiet for a few seconds, her eyes slowly gleaming from tears that were barely held back. "Please, I’m not ready to be married!" she whispered, her voice ragged with fear.

"Married?" Wufei’s tone was one of utter horror. "You think we’re here to marry you?"

"No!" Helena whipped her head from side to side so quickly that a tear went flying through the air. "But you’re here to tell me who I am to marry, right?"

Quatre put his hand on Wufei’s arm before his lover could respond to the question. "No, we’re not." Giving the girl his gentlest smile, he slowly stepped forward. "I will admit that there is a real possibility that you might be presented to Kritiker’s crown prince at some point, but there is no official talk of marriage as of yet. We’re only here to prepare you for a visit to Kritiker as a gesture of good will on Esset’s part."

The girl looked ready to collapse where she stood – in fact, she stepped forward so she could lean against a chair. "I’m not going to be married right away?" The confusion was still there in her thoughts, although she was more relieved than worried now. "Then… why are you here?"

"He just told you why we’re here," Wufei muttered, more unnerved than he liked to admit at the near run-in with a crying female.

Quatre sent his lover a slight mental whap and a request for him to be quiet. "As I said, there is a chance that you may go to Kritiker in the near future." He did his best to project an aura of truthfulness and kindness, something he had gotten very good at over the years. "Kritiker’s queen will bear a child soon, and there should be some events in the upcoming year that you’ll be invited to attend. While I’m sure the possibility of marriage between you and the crown prince will be brought up at some point, it will only be talk." He could tell from her thoughts that she knew she would never be allowed to leave Esset to marry, let alone to the country’s greatest enemy.

"I could leave Berin for a while?" Her smile just then utterly transformed her, emphasizing her youth and attractiveness. "Oh, even if it’s just for a little while, I’d love to travel somewhere."

Wufei used his power to make the buttons of Quatre’s coat throb against his chest, a sign that he was about to talk again. "You would leave here as Esset’s representative, which means that you’ll require adequate training." He scowled only a little, and to the girl’s credit, she did not burst into tears or try to hide from him. "We are here to assess your education and social skills." Well, Quatre was here for the latter, since Wufei could not be bothered with such things unless absolutely necessary.

"Oh, I understand." Helena nodded and stepped away from the chair. "Lisa and Charles see to my education, although I’m afraid I don’t have access to many books." She waved in the direction of the bookshelf as if in example.

It was no surprise that she did not have free access to any library, not when her sole purpose in life was to bear a child – something that might no longer be necessary if the Elders won the war against Kritiker and anyone else who threatened them. Helena was aware of the earlier fact, Quatre realized as he delved as deeply as he dared into her thoughts. That was why she assumed that they were here to inform her of her impending marriage, never mind the fact that she was still under-aged.

<Go easy on her, please. I can sense that she’s intelligent and feel no malice in her,> he sent to his lover, willing to give the girl a chance until they had a better idea of her true nature. It was not often when someone surprised him by being different than what he expected them to be, but it was best to proceed with caution.

<She best not ask to read some nauseatingly flowery prose,> Wufei warned, not in a mind to deal with any foolishness at all. However, he was a good deal less gruff when addressing the girl. "Once we’ve evaluated your reading comprehension, we’ll allow you access to books from our own libraries," he said. "I shall be in charge of your education while Lord Quatre teaches you the necessary etiquette."

Helena nodded again, happy to go along with anything that got her out of these rooms and did not require her to take a stranger as a husband. "I’ll do whatever you ask." She motioned a little toward the easel. "I… well, there’s not much for me to do other than have lessons and draw, so hopefully I won’t be too much of a bother to you." She was not afraid of the fact that they were bounds and powerful ones at that, or that they reported to the Elders, but that they might feel that Lisa and Charles had not done an adequate job with her education.

"I’m sure it’ll be more of a case of polishing what you’ve been taught rather than starting from the ground up," Quatre assured the girl. As much as he was aware that she might betray them, that she was young enough to not be trusted and very inexperienced with the world, he liked her. She was bright, friendly and kind, and her isolated upbringing had shielded her from the politics of this place. While there was no hope at all of her taking control of Esset in the next year or two… he felt certain that she could one day.

Wufei must have sensed something over the light link he kept opened between them most of the time. <Well? Please don’t tell me that you’ve found another lost cause to take under your protection.>

<I believe she’ll do. We’ll know more in a few months, but at the least she is something we can work with for now.> He would do his best to not let his emotions or sympathy leave them open to betrayal or failure.

<At least she isn’t crying.> Wufei sighed, the sound slight enough that Quatre doubted that Helena heard it, and approached the girl. "Show me the books you’ve used for your studies. As a future queen, you’ll be expected to know the history of your own country as well as those that surround it." Any doubts he felt were not evident in his demeanor at all, and he lost some of his customary gruffness when dealing with strangers. "I hope you have a good memory for dates, child."

While Helena once more nodded and scrambled to show Wufei where she kept those books, Quatre followed them only to the door so he could ask Lisa to order some refreshments since they would be here for a while. He knew from her thoughts that she had eavesdropped and was assured that the child would not be taken from her anytime soon, and there was a genuine smile on the earth elemental’s face as she bowed and hurried to fulfill his request.

Having the feeling that he and poor Helena were about to be bombarded with a long history lesson today, Quatre sent a message to his head gokenin, Abdul, and informed the man that they most likely would be late for dinner – as well as to make sure there were at least three open bottles of wine waiting for him for when he did return. He had always done much better dealing with people than memorizing dry things such as dates and names of important battles, so he needed something to look forward to later if he had to suffer along with the poor girl.

*******

Botan wandered through the crowded market, the hood of his cloak pulled forward on the off-chance that someone might recognize him as the Royal Wizard. The day was too cool for this time of year, the sky overcast and threatening to rain at any moment. He had sat through a meeting the other day with Trowa, Duo, Crawford, Marta and Birman to discuss the unnatural weather; he had left it feeling unhappy over the bounds’ belief that the weather would not return to normal anytime soon and annoyance at Crawford’s enigmatic promise that some sort of relief would be on its way in a couple of months. A couple of months would be too late for a lot of farmers, though Trowa and his fellow water elementals had hope of slowing the onslaught of rain in the upcoming weeks.

Meetings such as that were only one of the many things that required his time lately; he spent a few hours each week talking to fellow wizards who were determined to stamp out any use of blood or body parts in spells and charms as well as redesign the training curriculum of prospective wizards. Manx was due to have her baby soon, which meant that he would then have to verify the effectiveness of hundreds of wards in preparation for the upcoming parties held at the palace. There was Omi’s training to oversee, too, as well as the creation of various charms for the Shadow Guard, and he insisted on being able to spend at least three evenings a week with Cassandra. It was a good thing that he could get by on a few hours of sleep a night for several days in a row.

Right now he was busy with an errand that he had put off for too long, from a lack of spare time rather than to avoid anything unpleasant. He continued through the market, pausing at several booths to buy some ribbons for Cassandra and Kaede, a few spices that he needed for the rare times when he cooked his own meals and a new leather pouch. It was a pleasant way to spend an afternoon, and he thankfully found Keiko’s booth not far from the table of leather goods. She was tucked into a corner of the street, a spot that allowed her room for her booth and customers while affording her some privacy as well.

Of course her wares were not out on display; Botan sat down in the chair in front of the table covered with dark blue cloth and nodded at the woman. Keiko’s black hair was just beginning to turn grey, her face still very youthful despite the fact that she was over eighty years old. It was the working of the more powerful and demanding spells that really seemed to slow a wizard’s aging, and she was talented enough to cast more magic than her fellow ‘herb witches’ could. "Good day, Keiko."

"Good day, Botan." She bowed her head in acknowledgement, the smile on her tinted lips a genuine one. "This is an unexpected pleasure." As she spoke, she placed a small charm in the shape of a sleeping dog carved into milky quartz onto the table.

Assured that no one would overhear their conversation, he made himself comfortable on the wooden chair and pulled a small cloth bag out from an inner pocket of his light brown robe. Keiko’s almost black eyes lit up when she saw it, her smile widening as the bag’s contents clicked when he set it on the table next to the charm.


"They are…?"

"Mostly semi-precious stones, but I’ve more of the rubies that I gave you last time." Botan felt it was very fitting to give some of Reiji and Masafumi’s bountiful collection of stones for charms to a witch; the more precious stones would hold a spell longer and were something she would not usually be able to buy, especially not ones like he had just placed on the table with their lack of impurities.

"Thank you." She bowed her head again, her small right hand smoothly moving to pick up the bag and tuck it beneath the table. "I assume that you’re not just here because you’re in a generous mood, ne?"

He laughed at her question, his smile just as pleased as hers when she again reached down to pull out a large, charmed flask that held hot, sweetened black tea. "Some of those would have found their way to you regardless, but yes, I’m hoping to negate the favor I’m about to ask."

Keiko was a very skilled witch, powerful enough to be a renowned wizard if she were only male. Many of her kind were bitter that people did not believe that women could handle anything more than simple spells such as charms and common wards, but she seemed content on selling her small magics to strangers and proving the misogynistic lies wrong to the people she trusted. "You needn’t give me so many stones, unless you plan to ask my hand in marriage."

Laughing again, he knew that she was not offended by his response – mostly because she had a much younger husband at home who was a fine stone carver and a wonderful father to their children. "I fear I’d be too late for that."

"Hmm, yes, you have a point." Keiko sipped her drink then set the tiny cup aside. "So what is it?"

She also preferred to not waste time dancing around an issue, for which Botan was grateful. "How are things with you and the others lately?" he asked, a question that he often repeated during his visits.

Keiko shrugged and waved her left hand, which bore a new ring with a thick gold band. "Business has been good." She met his gaze directly, her expression unguarded so he would know she told no lies. "Ever since word got out that the one girl who was murdered died with a false charm on her possession, we witches have been very busy. Our wares might not be very fancy and we won’t promise to make a person invisible, but none of our charms have failed unless from old age or over-use."

He nodded to show that he understood what she was saying. "Is that true outside of the city?" He wanted to know if there was any fall-out from Orosz taking the blame for the murders, more so he could prevent any sort of uprising from his kind in response to a lack of business than anything.

"We’ve always done well outside of the city." Keiko chuckled and offered to refill his tiny cup, which he pushed closer to her. "Not many wizards want to live in the middle of nowhere or accept chickens or hay in exchange for charms and wards." She tilted her head to the side and looked beyond him for a moment, at the crowd that walked past on the busy street. "Though I understand now some of my friends are seeing a bit more coin to enchant water pumps or set up wards along fences."

That was pretty much what he had expected to hear; ever since his kind had been assured that they would not lose work to female wizards and spreading the lies that women could not be proper magic-workers, ‘witches’ had dispersed through the countryside and dealt with the people too poor to pay a wizard’s fees. Only a few worked within cities such as Keiko did, in part because strangers might accuse her of being a bound and not a witch in reaction to the way she aged so slowly or could do magic. One of the first things that Botan had done after becoming the Royal Wizard was to give the women as much protection that he could; now that he knew the truth about his lineage, he had a feeling that bound blood had snuck into his family when his great-grandfather had married a herb witch of exceptional talent and a very murky past.

"I expected some people to become mistrustful of wizards after the murders, but hopefully there will be no retaliation against your kind." He wet his throat with the sweet tea and promised himself to bring some of Cassandra’s blends the next time he paid Keiko a visit.

Keiko shrugged and set her cup to the side. "I doubt we’ll get enough new customers to make anyone jealous, and it’s the smaller charms we sell, as usual." She folded her hands in front of her and looked him directly in the face. "Botan, we both know that those stones are worth more than the question you always ask of me. What do you truly want?"

He smiled at her frankness and reached for another pouch. "This isn’t for you, but for you to share." There were more stones, not as many rubies or sapphires as he had given Keiko before since he would have need of those soon enough. "They might not seem exceptional, but I want you and your friends to try them." They were the stones that Nagi and a few other earth elementals had ‘altered’ – Nagi had tried to describe what he was doing, but all Botan knew was that the impurities in the stones appeared gone and they now required less effort for a spell to ‘take’ on them.

Keiko frowned as she opened the bag to remove a blue topaz that was now without any visible flaw, its shape perfectly cut and its color the darkest blue he had ever seen in such a stone. "I would think this was a sapphire, but it’s not." She rolled the gem between her fingers and resumed staring at him. "This should hold a protective spell to help anchor a house ward for several years, I would think."

If only she had been born a man – or was born back when his kind had first tried to discredit their female counterparts. "I’m hoping that it and the others will be used for protective spells."

She was quiet for a long minute, her dark eyes unreadable as she held his gaze. "There’s been some interesting rumors lately. People hear about the queen talking to the Army and the Guard, as well as seeing all the new posters for recruitment into either organization. It makes them think the Army and the Guard might be called upon to do something other than participate in parades and watch over fancy parties."

"It’s always best to be prepared, and the king has every right to be worried after his own brother tried to kill him last year," Botan reminded her, unable to come right out and say that yes, there would be a war soon. Kritiker’s citizens on the whole were not stupid, and tensions with Esset had been simmering for centuries. It did not require much for someone as knowledgeable as Keiko to put things together and begin making plans.

"Hmm, I’ve a great-grandnephew who is on his way here to join the Army." She put the topaz back in its pouch. "Stones like these will come in very handy for people like him, who deserve a little extra protection yet can’t afford anything elaborate." The pouch safely tucked away, she once again tilted her head. "Do I want to know where you got such things?"

Botan wondered how she would react if he told her that bounds had handled the stones she had just touched. "Let’s just say that I’m exploring new techniques that require no sacrifice on anyone’s part, as well as having some… unexpected avenues open to me." Witches were not known to be antagonistic to bounds, not when they were both shunned to some extent, but he would not risk endangering his friends just because he liked Keiko and had dealt with her for over a decade.

"Perhaps one day you’d be willing to share such techniques and avenues," she replied after a moment’s silence. "While I may be a bit jealous, I can’t complain when I reap from them in some manner. The stones will go out, as will a carefully worded warning. Is there anything else?" Her tone was still friendly, but there was a note of strain to it that cautioned that she was worried about being asked to do too much.

Aware that Keiko knew the stones’ true worth and that she would feel obligated to him for quite some time to come, Botan shook his head. "That is all for today. I thank you for the tea."

"It’s almost a necessity on such a dreary day." Keiko’s smile took on a calculated edge. "Such odd weather we’re having. It reminds me of stories my grandfather told me of how things were back during the Binding War."

He returned the smile, some of the friendliness from before now lacking. "There’s always been stories about how bounds can control the weather, but I don’t believe it’s as easy a thing to do as they say."

"Few things are, but I don’t feel that the current weather is very natural." She shrugged again and smoothed her hands over the table’s clothed surface. "All I do have faith in is that we live in very interesting times now. Almost a time of legends, if that doesn’t sound too ridiculous."

Botan thought of Aya and Yohji at the Koneko, of Reno strolling around the palace’s hallways and two precogs sitting down at a kitchen table to discuss the visions they had had the other day. Oh yes, it definitely threatened to be a time of legends, which was what worried him the most.

Thoughts of Reno reminded him of something else that had occupied his attention lately. "I apologize, but there’s one last thing I would like to ask of you today."


Keiko’s smile faded and she looked at him with open wariness. "Yes?"

"You and your fellow witches see a lot of things while sitting in a busy market, and I know you get a few of the items you need for spells from the same dealers as wizards." He waited for her to nod before continuing. "I’m looking for a wizard named Victor Garcia. He appeared to be around forty years old about fifteen years ago, and has light brown hair and hazel eyes. At one point he used to wear a charmed ring made out of a carat-weight ruby cut into a round shape." That was all the information he could get out of Reno about the man who had marked him years ago, and he had had to put up with a very protective and furious Rufus during that conversation. At least Cassandra had not been present for it that time and possibly placed in danger.

"All you want is for me to let you know if I or any of my friends see a wizard matching that description, correct?" Keiko’s smile returned when she was assured that he did not want her or her fellow witches to confront the man. "That should be easy enough to do." If anything, she was happy for a chance to get a wizard into trouble.

"Thank you, and good day," he said as he walked away from the table, eager to be at Cassandra’s in time for dinner tonight.

Keiko returned the sentiment as he left, and another customer was waiting to take his spot at the table. Patting himself to make sure he still had everything he had bought today, Botan turned left so he could take the quickest route to Cassandra’s shop. Along the way, he made sure he knew which wrapped paper package held the ribbons for his lover and which one was for his daughter. With luck, one of Crawford’s friends could carry the present back to Esset once Botan cast a few spells on the brightly colored fabrics. He missed his daughter so much and was frustrated to know that she was alive and out of his reach, but at least he got monthly letters from her now and could do a few small things to make her life better.

One day soon the war would be fought, and if he was lucky enough to survive it, he would be reunited with Kaede. The thought of sitting down to dinner with Cassandra and his daughter made him smile, the happiness that filled him enough to stave off the dark thoughts of how much that war was going to cost him and his friends.

*******

Duo grunted as he shoved the new couch a few more inches to the right then stepped aside to look at Trowa. Glancing back and forth between where the old couch was and the newer, smaller one had been placed, Trowa gave his mate a slight nod of approval.

"I doubt we’ll be able to invite too many people over, but at least a few of our friends will have a place to sit now." More than likely, he and Duo would sit on the smaller couch so he did not have to worry about anyone else being near him. While he was constantly amazed at how well he had adjusted to having a lover, he still could not tolerate anyone else touching him for long.

"They can bring their own damn furniture if they don’t like ours," Duo grumbled, face flushed and hair tousled from all the effort they had put into carrying the couch up the stairs and arranging it in their room. They had waited until the apartment building was quiet to move it, not wanting anyone to notice how relatively ‘easy’ it was to carry the surprisingly heavy piece of furniture for so long. Trowa was very grateful that they were stronger than humans because he did not see how anyone else could have gotten the couch up such narrow steps and around so many sharp turns. Well, perhaps Nagi and other earth elementals would have an easier task of it, but they would definitely attract too much attention doing so.

"Be thankful the bed was here when we moved in," he teased, a slight chuckle escaping him at the panicked look on his lover’s face.

"Oh hell, don’t tell me we’ll need a new one any time soon! Though I suppose new mattresses won’t be too much of a problem." Duo groaned as he flopped down on the couch, which was very comfortable even if the fabric that covered it was a bit of a dingy brown. It had come from the palace, something that one of Birman’s pages had found in storage the other week while looking for old documents. The couch was finely made and had probably barely been used before its fabric had faded from age and exposure to light. Trowa did not mind its less than attractive condition, not when they could just throw a blanket over it and have a nice, comfortable and cheap new piece of furniture. "And our friends better not expect anything more than this!"

"I’m sure if they’re so desperate to come over for a visit, they’ll manage to bring a chair or two of their own." Trowa stepped back a little more to get a better view of the room’s new arrangement, and was not sure if they really could fit in any more furniture. The apartment was just the right size for two people, but would be rather cramped if more than that stayed for longer than a few hours, he was willing to bet. As of yet, they had not had any guests other than Sandra and her family, and Cassandra.

Duo grunted again, a smile on his face as he shook his head while leaving the room. Trowa watched him go then began to fuss with the couch, picking up the blanket that had been left on the other one and draping it over their latest acquisition.

For someone who claimed that he could get through life with only a few cute friends by his side and a bottle of whiskey in his hand, Duo seemed to delight in buying new things lately. He had picked up the blanket that Trowa tucked around the new couch just last week, claiming that it was very soft and something bright for their living room. Trowa agreed about the soft part, although he did not see why their apartment needed anything dyed sky blue and light yellow in alternating stripes.


Still, the new couch looked a lot better now, and even if the room was crowded it appeared comfortable and lived in. They had asked Toshi’s brother-in-law to build them a bookcase that took up the unused space next to the door and it was rapidly being filled with books and the various knick-knacks they both tended to bring home. Trowa had actually unpacked the few precious items he had smuggled out of Berin in his saddlebags and displayed three masks and the knife with the carved ivory handle on one of the shelves. Upon finding out about his collections, Duo had bought him another mask, this one much more colorful than those he had purchased himself. He crossed the room to straighten up the items, which probably had been knocked about a little by his mate’s enthusiastic manner of dusting.

Tracing his right forefinger along the red eyebrow painted on the new mask, he smiled and wondered if he should be concerned about how happy he felt at the moment. It was normally an emotion that did not last very long in his experience, yet he had been filled with it for the past few weeks now. That was not to say that his new relationship with Duo was not infuriating at times – usually when his lover said something indiscreet while they were out having drinks with other Shadow Guards. It was also very trying to set up new boundaries because of the intimacy between them; they had been so careful before to give each other space, and now they did their best to balance the needs of their new bond and the solitude they both were used to.

"I saw another one just like that when Toshi and I were on patrol yesterday, but it was not as nice."

Trowa turned to face his lover, not surprised to find Duo handing him a glass full of white wine. It had become a sort of ritual between them to sit together and relax, enjoying either a bottle of wine or some coffee while they talked about their day. The time was rather late now, but they did not have to go to work in the morning and the apartment building was wonderfully quiet since most of its inhabitants were asleep. He felt that he could let his guard down for a while and enjoy this peaceful time before they retired for the night.

"I’d much rather have quality over quantity," he murmured as he settled on the new couch, deciding that it was time to start ‘breaking’ it in.

"Which is why you have me now," Duo teased, his grin turning wicked when Trowa smiled and shook his head.

"No comment."

Duo pouted a little as he joined Trowa on the small couch. "I think you’ve been hanging out with those highborns a bit too much." He put the open bottle of wine on the coffee table then leaned back against the furniture’s plump back cushions. "Oh, this really is nice."

"Yes, it is," Trowa sighed, his eyes drifting closed as he enjoyed a long sip of the sweet wine. He felt Duo settle closer to him, his mate’s arm draping along the back of the couch until Duo’s hand rested against his right shoulder. "So, do you think the apartment is suitable enough for visitors now?"

"I think Toshi better bring us a damn good bottle of wine when he and Lilla pay us a visit – that or some of her scented candles would be really nice. I like the spicy ones that Yuushi and Naru use." Duo inhaled deeply, and while he might not be able to enjoy some scented candles, at least the place was clean enough to not smell. Trowa rather enjoyed the mix of his and Duo’s scents, as well as a hint of the lemon-based furniture polish they used and the lingering aroma of their dinner earlier.

"I’m sure he’ll be an exemplary guest." Trowa’s lips twitched as he spoke, a smile trying to form as he thought about how he and Duo did not really know how to handle guests in their new home. Crawford and Jei had stopped by his rooms in Berin a few times, never staying long out of fear of making him uncomfortable or drawing unwanted attention, and he had always gone to visit Quatre and Wufei. Duo had not had many people pay him a visit outside of relaying messages from the Elders, so they did not have much experience to go on. Out of all the things that Trowa had imagined to learn while on this ‘assignment’, being a proper host had not been one of them.

Duo snorted in amusement and toyed with the ends of the hair tucked behind Trowa’s ear. "I can’t wait until you yell at him to take off his muddy boots." That time, Trowa could not hold back his smile.

"Still, it should make for an interesting night when they visit. I think he said that his mother is pushing to have a day or two with her granddaughter next week." Duo laughed at something he found amusing, the sound not containing any of the bitterness that Trowa had often heard back in Berin. "I can’t believe that I’m looking forward to a human paying me a visit, let alone working with one. It’s really odd. I mean, Solo was human, but…."

There was nothing Trowa could say to that last bit; he had never had a human to look up to once the old captain had been killed, and he still was not sure how to comfort his lover over the loss of Duo’s childhood friend. At least he could change the topic onto a less sensitive area. "I find it interesting that Heero said much the same thing yesterday."

"Eh?" Duo sat up a little straighter on the couch, shifting about enough that Trowa opened his eyes and found his mate turned enough to face him. "We didn’t get a chance to talk about that for very long before I had to go to bed." The good humor from before was completely gone, replaced by a hint of concern that Trowa knew was not his own emotion. Duo was always uncomfortable about him meeting with Heero, afraid their old friend would figure things out and report them to the Elders. That thought made him shiver slightly, the tremors stilling when Duo caressed the left side of his face.

"I told you everything we shared about our ‘mission’, but this was a personal request." He liked Heero and had a little difficulty mentioning things that he believed Heero wanted to keep private between them. However, he could not help but wonder about the cryptic comments that Crawford had made in regards to the air elemental.

Duo looked stunned enough to fall off the couch if given the slightest of pushes. "Wait, Heero asked for something *personal*? What, does he want you to kill the king the next time you’re at Court so the Elders don’t have to work so hard?"

Frowning at the thick sarcasm in his lover’s voice, Trowa leaned forward to pour himself more wine and paused to think about his answer. He was growing worried about the building animosity that Duo felt toward their friend, well aware that it resulted from a mixture of concern about them being found out and hatred for anyone who supported the Elders. "First he mentioned how it wasn’t as bad as he had thought it would be to work for a human, and then he asked for my help in tracking a particular one down."

"Eh?" Duo’s anger lessened and he snatched at Trowa’s wineglass for a sip, the smile he gave in return so sweet that Trowa only sighed rather than glared at the presumptuous idiot. "Why does he want you to find a human? Does it have something to do with the mission?"

"I don’t think so." Trowa reached with his left hand to give the long braid that trailed down the front of his mate’s chest a slight tug. "He asked me to find a young girl named Relena who is supposedly a highborn."

As improbable as it seemed, Duo appeared even more stunned than before. "What, you’re telling me that Heero has finally noticed someone of the opposite sex?" He burst into laughter, his body shaking so much that Trowa snatched up his mate’s mostly empty glass of wine before an accident occurred. "Heero’s hormones must have finally kicked in!"

"I’m glad you find that fact so amusing," Trowa mumbled, actually feeling sorry for his quiet friend. "You’d best not tease him about it or you’ll be sleeping on this couch for a week or two."

The threat sobered Duo up very quickly, though the fire elemental was still grinning like a fool. "I’ll be good." He laughed some more at Trowa’s decidedly doubtful expression. "Okay, I’ll try to be good." Shaking his head, he laughed a couple more times then sighed. "Seriously, what does he want?"

"I don’t know," Trowa admitted, his head resting back against the couch. "All he said was that she should be a highborn in her late teens, that she had long, light brown hair and blue eyes. He mentioned that she appeared a bit… scatterbrained but seemed harmless." More than anything, Trowa wanted to know his friend’s true intention before he went through with such a request, unwilling to have an innocent be hurt during their mission, but he had at least questioned Heero enough to get the impression that the air elemental did not want to harm the girl.

"She sounds pretty." Duo tilted his head to the side while thinking about something. "Relena isn’t a common name."


"No, it isn’t. I’m sure if I ask Birman that she will know who the girl is, but I’m waiting to talk to Heero again and see his reaction when I don’t have any information for him." Then he would have a better idea of his friend’s true intent.

Duo snorted again, the sound more derisive than amused. "All joking aside, I doubt Heero would know what to do with a girl even if he was foolish enough to fall for a human. He’s always held that they’re only good to be a bound’s servant."

Sadly, that was Trowa’s impression about the situation. While Heero was not as spiteful to humans as some bounds in Berin, he tended to look down on them and had little to do with them outside of a mission. "It’s very perplexing, I’ll give you that."

"And what woman, human or bound, would be crazy enough to fall for him? He’s as emotional as a piece of rock," Duo scoffed, his hands wrapped around his braid as if he were ready to pull on it. "I mean, he’s not bad looking, but he only really ‘comes alive’ if he’s on a mission. Even if he likes this girl, why would she ever feel the same about him?"

"Very true." Trowa sipped his wine and wondered how their friend would react if he overheard this conversation. Heero would most likely shrug and then point out Duo’s many faults. That made Trowa think of something, his lips curling into a smile. "Then again, who but Crawford ever thought that I’d fall for you, hmm?"

Duo’s mouth opened and closed several times, then he carefully took Trowa’s wine glass and set it on the table before grabbing the front of Trowa’s tunic and pulling him in close for a kiss that that made Trowa gasp in shock at its intensity. Not long after that he was gasping for air, unable to breathe properly with Duo’s tongue so deep in his mouth and while being held so tightly.

His mate had a very smug expression on his face when he finally released Trowa, not taking things further than that searing kiss. "That’s because no one ever thought you’d be blessed enough by the gods to land a catch like me."

Trowa actually laughed at that bit of nonsense. "I suppose," he said, breathing still a little labored and face aching since he was smiling so much.

"No supposing about it." Duo rose from the couch with his right hand held out in invitation. "Now I think it’s time for you to go to bed since it’s obvious that the lack of sleep is affecting your brain."

"But am I going to sleep?" Trowa asked, feeling a shiver of excitement as he waited for the answer he already knew; the desire he felt as a warm tickle inside of his chest was not just his own.

"Eventually," Duo purred, his eyes dark with passion and a wanton smile on his face.

Trowa reached for his mate’s hand and allowed himself to be led to their bedroom.

*******

Aya approached the small shrine located in the Koneko’s back garden, the shinigami falling away the nearer he got to the wooden structure. They usually did not care to be around the shrine unless he was experiencing some strong emotion, which was not the case today.

No, though he felt a lingering and familiar sadness, it was more a subtle ache than a devouring pain. He would always miss his family, would feel their lack in his life… but he was happy and no longer experienced any guilt over that fact.

Of course the day had to be sunny, the blue sky barely clouded at all, but he had been resolved since last night to pay the shrine a visit and had harvested an armful of spring tulips to place on the small altar crowded with various name plaques and bowls to hold the burning incense sticks. Judging from the strong scent of incense, someone had already been here this morning to light several, perhaps Jo or Emmie for the loved ones they had lost. He set the flowers on the hand-carved wooden altar before pulling out several incense sticks from the container on hand. Once the sticks were firmly placed in a bowl of sand, he lit their ends and stepped back, his hands held pressed together.

He did not always come to the shrine; sometimes he lost track of the days, sometimes work was too busy and sometimes… sometimes he did not want to face the sorrow that always filled him when he saw the wooden boards painted to honor his family. Yohji told him that they knew that he loved them dearly so it did not matter if he lit incense every day or once a month, and there was some logic to that. Jo had told him that coming here was more a ceremony for the living than for the dead, and that was true.

Despite the impulse to come today, Aya was not sure what exactly he was doing. All his family would want from him was to be happy, and that he was. They would be relieved that he had found a lover and a new family of sorts, that he was no longer a slave and now protected by people who cared about him. To this day, he could remember the joy he had felt when he had broken the sphere containing Aya-chan’s soul, and once she realized that he could not join her, her happiness that he was alive and free. As long as he lived, his family would never be forgotten, which was the best tribute he could give to them.

Perhaps it was as Jo had said, that he was here for himself. There were times when he could not quite believe the happiness he had found, that Yohji was indeed his mate and that he was free to live however he liked. Standing before the altar did help to make everything so real and to put things in perspective.


A year ago, he had still lived in fear and pain, certain that his only future would be dealing out death and suffering endless degradations. A year ago, he had not quite been able to accept what Yohji had offered him, even if they had quickly become mates. A year ago… there had been no hope at all. Of all the things that Yohji and the Koneko had given him, hope was one of the most important. Even when faced with the prospect of a bloody and terrible war ahead, he still had hope for his future. Even if the gods decided that they were not done inflicting loss and suffering upon him, he had faith that Yohji would be by his side through it all, most likely cursing the gods until they decided to leave Aya alone.

Smiling at that thought, Aya bowed low three times before the offerings, whispering a pray to whatever god would listen that his parents’ and sister’s next life would contain all the joy and contentment that had been denied them in their last. Despite doing his best, there had not been any way he could save his family, and he was finally accepting that fact. As Yohji had repeated so many times in the past year, it had never been his fault in the first place. While he would always feel some guilt over his helplessness, he would not let it deprive him of the life he knew his family would want him to lead. So perhaps he was out here on this sunny day to let them know that he was fine. That he had found a new life for himself, one that would make them proud. Unlike this time last year, he was Aya and not Ran, was certain of himself and loved and most importantly, free.

Well, mostly free. He could feel Yohji’s growing concern over him being out in the sun and knew it would not be much longer before his mate came here to make sure he was all right. Bowing once more, Aya straightened up and gave the wooden plaque bearing an approximation of his family’s herald a sad smile before turning away.

If there was one thing the last year had taught him, it was while the past may do its best to hold him chained to the pain and hopelessness, that in the end he could walk away from it, that he could choose which memories to hold dear and which ones to allow time and healing to lessen. And should he not have the strength to push those painful memories away, all he had to do was find his mate and let Yohji vanquish that pain. Although the sorrow was nowhere near as strong as it had been in the past, he hurried across the garden, eager for the peace he found whenever he was near Yohji.

Even if the man was being a raving idiot about him being out in a little sunlight.

*******

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