Chasing Threads

*******

by nekojita

*******

chapter one

*******

arrivals and restraints

*******

Birman gave the stack of papers before her a quick read-through while Trowa answered the knock at her office door.  Her assistant seemed to have made yet another conquest, judging from the awe-struck, stuttered voice that drifted into the room as he accepted the small cart laden with food and beverage for the morning meeting.  She glanced up in time to see the poor page's face turn as red as the tunic she wore when Trowa bestowed a thankful smile on the girl, who nearly walked into the door frame as she turned to leave the room.  Birman took in how the dark green shirt Trowa wore made his eyes appear even more brilliant in color and made the golden tone to his skin almost glow, and made a mental note to *not* let him interact with anyone at Court today without wearing an illusion charm.  The last thing she needed was some horny highborn to have a heart-attack because of inappropriate touching or a rampaging Shadow Guard hellbent on castrating half of the Court in defense of his mate. 

"Does Duo have the early shift today?" she asked as Trowa set the pitchers of coffee and tea on the table.

"Yes, he's assigned to it for the rest of this week."  He paused to look at her for a few seconds, his head tilted to the side so his bangs fell away from the left side of his face, before resuming the task of setting out the snacks for the meeting.

Well, that explained why Trowa had managed to get out of the house dressed like that.  On second thought, Birman decided it would be best to not let her assistant leave her office without an illusion charm.  It was a good thing that there was more than enough work to keep him occupied here today, not to mention that she often accomplished a lot thanks to the 'side-effect' of having a water elemental nearby; Trowa's quiet, soothing nature helped her to concentrate and kept her calm regardless of the topic before her.  That she got to enjoy him looking so handsome today was an added bonus... as long as Duo stayed far, far away.

The slices of cranberry bread looked very tempting, so she helped herself to a couple while Trowa poured her a cup of coffee.  He sat down to her left and poured himself a cup of black tea, then made up for himself a plate with various slices of fruit, sweet breads and pastries.  "Mariela sent me a message last night that she'll be an hour or so late for her meeting with you.  I didn't think that would be a problem as you left your afternoon free to go over the reports from the Eastern quarter."

Birman's eyebrows raised at that bit of news and she had to be careful swallowing her coffee.  "Hmm.  I assume that she managed to land a 'date' with Lord Satori, then."

Trowa nodded as he bit into an apple slice, his teeth white and sharp.  "She couldn't send much at the time, but the fact that we haven't heard from her yet would seem to indicate that it went well."

If the succubae bound had run into trouble, one of the soul gaki bounds who worked for Birman would have already been notified and warned her and Trowa.  No, Birman was pretty certain that right now, Mariela was 'occupied' in Lord Satori's bed, hard-pressed not to purr from such a delicious meal and busy wrapping the highborn around her dainty little finger.  Ah, to be so blessed with a job that one truly did love....  Mariela had been slowly yet insidiously working her way closer to the lord these last couple of weeks, careful not to rely upon her talent too much so it would seem natural, a lord taking her on as a mistress, ever since Lord Rufus and Crawford had approached Birman with the news that the Elders would approach Satori soon about betraying Kritiker.

"Good.  I'm sure the others will be pleased to know that they'll have to pick up her slack if things went as well as we hope last night."  She shared a grin with Trowa at the thought of the other succubae bounds' reactions upon their new assignments; she could only wish there were as many of those bounds as there were elemental ones, but it did seem as if a lot of them had gravitated to Eto and the other big cities in Kritiker lately, and were very willing to work for the country's Spymaster.  After all, it was what they had been made for all those centuries ago, and many of them took a perverse delight in being able to feed, get paid and build a future for their kind at the same time.  Birman knew that Mustang had a couple of the bounds squirreled away in the Army, but for the most part, she was building quite the spy network with succubae and soul gaki bounds.

As she jotted down on her calendar the change in the meeting time, there was a quick knock on her door that heralded the arrival of the guests she had been waiting for - Botan, Yuushi and Blair.  Botan waited until the other men were through the door before he closed it and muttered something, what was certainly a spell to keep anyone else from entering or overhearing their conversation.  Birman nodded in appreciation to him as he approached the table, and was given a tired smile in return.

"Gentlemen, please, help yourself," she said as she motioned to the food and beverages.  Botan and Blair were quick to take her up on the offer, no doubt to replenish energy used for various talents, and Yuushi waited until they had full plates and mugs before he poured himself some coffee.

The five of them met together at least three times a week, a seemingly routine conference between Royal Wizard, Guard and Spymaster.  By all rights it should be Kikyou attending, but Birman had made the first few meetings as boring as possible to discourage his attendance, and then Manx had had her brilliant idea to bring together the Army and the Guard (and it would take a potent as hell truth spell to get Birman to admit to asking Eri to encourage that particular thought into her former colleague's head) which meant that Kikyou decided to attend the more 'important' of the two sessions.  Their numbers had grown a bit over time, and occasionally Reiichi and Omi would sit in, as well as various members of the Shadow Guard depending on the talents or viewpoints needed for a particular issue. 

Birman decided to get things started.  "So, assuming that the King is able to increase the budget for the Guards, will you be able to start a new class of recruits before the year end holidays?"

Yuushi tapped the fingers of his right hand against the notebook he had brought with him, a slight frown on his handsome face as he considered the question.  "There are over thirty bounds and twenty humans on a waiting list for the Shadow Guards, and about forty other candidates to mix in with them."  He glanced over at Blair, who nodded in agreement.  "We're already going through the list and figuring out who has the best chance of completing training as well as possessing the talents we most need.  I just hope the Council agrees to the increase soon, before we lose some promising candidates to the long wait."

"I don't think the Council is going to have much of a choice in the matter."  Botan pushed his half-finished plate of food away as if he had suddenly lost his appetite, appearing tired and a bit worn all of a sudden.  He looked out of place, surrounded by Yuushi and Blair dressed in their impeccable, dark blue uniforms, and tidy as always Trowa, all of them young, handsome men in their prime.  The wizard's robe was an old one, predating Cassandra, wrinkled and plain, and he looked to have gotten more grey in his hair.  "It's coming to the year anniversary of the Setan Caravan deaths and kidnappings.  I'm certain that the parents of those children will *not* let the memory fade so quickly."

"No, and between that, the deaths this spring and the rumors of war, everyone I know of is agreeing with more Guards even if there is a new tax," Yuushi added.  "I've not heard one complaint over the proposed increase.  If anything, we're constantly asked to increase our patrols as much as possible.  It almost makes me nervous - what if Esset decides to strike at the Guard to weaken our ability to protect?"

Trowa stared into the mug held between his hands as he spoke, his voice quiet but serious.  "Crawford, Duo and I have had discussions about this lately, as we've wondered the same.  There's a chance that they sent Duo here not only to spy on the Guard, but to act as a saboteur.  If that's the case...."  He looked up from the mug to stare directly at Yuushi.  "We're willing to compromise our mission by directly disobeying orders if there's no other choice.  The risk of harming the Guard is too great, especially the Shadow Guard.  It would be best to provide the illusion that our Esset identities were discovered and we were killed should the worse come to worst."

Despite the grim topic, Yuushi appeared relieved.  "Hopefully it won't get to that point, and the Elders won't risk losing the two of you as spies."  He bowed his head in Trowa's direction.  "Thank you.  I'd hate to lose Duo's skills until the war if the two of you were forced to hide until then."

"And there's no way I'm willing to forgo the best assistant I've ever had," Birman added, just to make things clear.  "I still have those chains ready for you."

Trowa smiled at the old joke and ducked his head.  "Yes, ma'am."

The tension in the room eased and everyone leaned back in their chairs.  Birman truly did hope that Esset did not push Trowa and Duo into open betrayal, as the two men were very important and helpful.  But it was good to know that they were willing to stand up to their former masters if necessary.  "I do have a few of my people assigned to pay careful attention to anything related to the Guard.  As you said, Yuushi, sentiment is in your favor at the moment, as well as toward the Army.  People are noticing the tension between Kritiker and Esset, as well as the unnatural weather.  Anything that might keep them safe is a good thing right now."  With a bit of careful planning and propaganda, that could include bounds as well.  Across the table, Blair gave her a quick nod as if he had picked up on that thought.  As she was not thinking anything that needed to be shielded at the moment, she did not mind.

"There's an interesting bit of news out of Shirakawa," Blair informed the small group, his normally reserved demeanor touched with a hint of excitement.  "The village has become the patron of Mizuko family." 

Across the table from the soul gaki bound, Trowa went still, the half of his face visible through the thick fall of auburn hair paling slightly.  "Is it... willing?"

"Yes," Blair quickly assured him, moving forward fast enough that his long braid of hair slid over his shoulder.

At Birman and Botan's obvious confusion, Yuushi decided to elaborate.  "It seems that the village was spared a very bad flood this summer because of a young water elemental whose family has lived in the area for generations.  He over-extended his talent trying to protect the village, which led to his discovery.  However, it seems his neighbors finally recognized what he and his family had been doing for them over the years and have asked them to stay.  All these years they've been praying to the local temple, never realizing that various water elementals have been protecting them.  They're not eager to drive out the only thing that's keeping them from being flooded out of their homes."

Birman hated to sound so pessimistic, but she had to ask.  "Are you certain the offer is genuine?"

"Yes, a friend of Yonekuni's verified that the villagers are more grateful than afraid or hateful, and I've arranged a change in the Guards to ensure that Esset doesn't find out about the Mizuko line."  Yuushi rubbed his temples as if he had a headache.  "Robin never felt very comfortable in Eto and only stayed here because she wanted to be in the Shadow Guard, and Iruka wanted to move his family someplace quieter.  They agreed to partner up and should work well together." 

So it was already beginning to happen.  Birman felt a slight fluttering in her chest that she promised herself she could savor later on, maybe at the Koneko as she shared the good news with Reiichi, Yohji and Aya.  As if she were gaining some psychic gifts herself, the next bit of news brought her back to reality.

"I wish what I had to report was anywhere near as cheerful," Botan said, his sorrowful expression robbing everyone of their smiles.  "I stopped by to chat with an old friend yesterday, and she told me something I'd been waiting to hear.  Victor Garcia has been spotted in Kippo, where the Otobu and Seiba caravans were stopped." 

It took a moment for Birman to recall the importance of the name, and she thought the same was true for Yuushi and Blair.  "We were expecting him to return with the fall caravans." 

"Kippo is just a couple of stops outside of the city for those caravans," Yuushi said as he flipped open his notebook, Blair busy doing the same.  "They should be entering the Northern gate."  He looked at Botan.  "Do you want us to bring him in?"

Botan glanced in Birman's direction, and when she gave him a quick shake of her head, sighed and shook his head as well.  "I highly doubt you'll be able to spot him, and it might be too dangerous to do anything when surrounded by so many witnesses.  Crawford has promised me that Schuldig and Masato will search for him once he's in the city, so I think it's best to leave it to those two, if there are no objections."

"As I told you before, I'm more than willing to defer to your opinion on this matter."  Birman tried to leave the magical stuff to her friend, the expert in such things, whenever possible.

"I agree with Birman, especially if there's a chance in drawing unwelcome attention to the Shadow Guard."  Yuushi turned toward Blair, and the two Guards seemed to have a telepathic conversation.  " Aren’t you going to involve Yohji and Aya in the search?"

Birman swore she saw Botan wince at the question.  "No.  It's... not wise to involve Aya in anything that has to do with bloodletting and wizards."  There was a faint tremor in his voice as he spoke.  "A soul gaki bound and a succubae bound should have little problem hunting someone down, especially when considering how powerful Schuldig and Masato are."

"There's also the fact that Garcia suspected Reno of at least being a bound, and possibly being a dubhach or a kage.  I don't think it would be in our best interest to send Aya after him in case the latter was true," Birman pointed out.  Oh, there was no doubt about it, Botan had *definitely* winced just then.  She sensed a story that needed to be told.

"Yes, which is why Lord Shinra wished to be informed upon Garcia's return."  Trowa made a note in his elegant handwriting, no doubt about warning said Lord as soon as the meeting was over. 

Just as long as the lord did not think to take over this mission.  Birman felt a headache of her own coming on.  "What are the chances of him recognizing Aya or Reno?" Suddenly, what had been a possibility seemed an all too real possibility that might lead to half of the city being destroyed.

"I honestly can't say.  Reno wears an illusion charm, but there's no telling if his nature negates the marks Garcia placed on him or not as they predate him coming into his full power.  As for Aya, it'll raise too many questions if he starts wearing one now."  Botan began tapping his empty mug against the table top.  "If Garcia marked Reno suspecting that he was a shinigami-bound, it can be bad."

"Knowing Lord Shinra, most likely he'll make sure that Reno is kept out of sight.  Aya... from the discussions we've already had about this topic, he seems amicable to the suggestion of remaining near the Koneko until Garcia is found."  Birman did some wincing of her own as she remembered those conversations and the arguments between Aya and Yohji. 

Yuushi frowned as he consulted something in his notebook.  "Even if Aya remains near the Koneko, there's still the fact that a kage will be on the grounds of an inn that hosts several bounds and the crown prince.  Even with all the wards and spells around the place, as well as the Guards living there and Aya and Yohji's presence, I think we need to increase security a bit more.  I don't want to chance Garcia getting anywhere near the inn, if possible."

"We can rearrange patrols so there are bounds around the inn at all times," Blair suggested as he motioned to what looked to be a duty roster.

"That's in part what I had in mind, but I'd also like a Guard there during the day."

Birman considered Yuushi's proposal.  "How will you manage getting Kikyou's approval for that?"

The Shadow Captain of the Guard shrugged at the question.  "I'm... not very certain right now.  Maybe someone will volunteer."

Trowa cleared his throat as he fetched something from the small leather pouch on his belt.  When he had everyone's attention, he held up a small illusion charm.  "Or you could make it seem as if one of the Guard who lives at the inn has been injured and so needs to stay at home until they're healed, almost like the story Reiichi uses, yes?"

Everyone stared at the quiet man for a few seconds, and then Yuushi, Botan and Birman laughed.  "Indeed, a brilliant suggestion," Blair murmured in approval as he tucked back a strand of his auburn hair.  "Now, the question is which Guard?  Ken, Eri or Naru?"

Yuushi considered the matter for a moment.  "I think Ken's the best choice.  If he were to be out of work on an injury, we could probably give him some sort of false paperwork assignment as busy work and have Miko assist as well.  That way we can have an extra Guard during the day, before Naru and Eri return home."  And knowing Miko, she would most likely remain at the Koneko for a good bit of the evening as well.

"With Yohji's emphatic skills, I doubt Eri's telepathic ability will be missed much during the day.  He should be able to pick up on anyone being a bit too curious or interested in someone at the Koneko, not to mention should Garcia try to kidnap or harm a bound," Trowa commented, his expression even more bland than usual as he refused to show any emotion in regards to the wizard.

"And Aya can sense any attempt at magic."   Between the Shadow Guard, Aya and Yohji, the Koneko would be safe.  The King could not fault them for leaving Omi unprotected in the face of possible danger, not that Garcia would be interested in an apprentice wizard, other than to perhaps try to entice the teenager into using bound blood for spells and to help him out.  She almost wished the fool would try to do such a thing, just to see what inventive way Omi would come up with to tie to man into knots - literally.

"So, we have to inform Lord Shinra about Garcia's return, speak to Ken and Miko about the assignment change, and rearrange some shifts.  It's probably a waste of breath and effort, but I'll speak with Crawford in case he needs any updating on the situation."  Birman wrinkled her nose as the men expressed their amusement over her chasing after the precog.  Ah well, Jei always bought her a drink or two and asked about the cats.  "Did I leave anything out?"

"What about who's going to tell the Koneko staff about Garcia?" Yuushi asked.

She gave him her sweetest smile.  "Why, you are since you live there."  When he started cursing, she grinned in triumph and reached for the nearest pot of coffee.  "You're the one who gets hazard pay, after all."

*******

Schuldig pouted as he noticed the pitcher of beer on the table on front of Crawford, and nothing else.  "What, no whiskey?" he asked as he dropped down onto the bench.

His mate sighed as he sat down beside him, brow furrowed and emotions already a bit frazzled.  "Let's save the hard liquor for after this conversation is over, all right?"  Masato began to pour the beer into three mugs, his hand steady despite Schuldig leaning in close to blow into his ear.  "Brat, why don't you shock the hell out of the gods and us included by behaving for ten minutes?"

"Yes, by all means, a show of your actual age would be quite the miracle," Crawford commented as he accepted a mug from Masato, his voice so dry that the fucking miracle was that all the liquid at the table did not evaporate immediately. 

"Ha fucking ha," Schuldig shot back, as always annoyed as hell by his father's mere presence.  "For someone who's here to ask a favor, you're going about it in a damn lousy way."  He could be home having sex with his mate right now, not sitting at the Koneko being told to do some work.  The last thing he needed was to put up with his father's shitty attitude on top of that.

<An attitude you in no way inherited, right?>  Masato was all innocence when Schuldig turned to glare at him, just sipping his beer and smiling.  <Do you ever think that if you stopped fighting him so much that maybe he'd stop being such an asshole to you?>

<I think you should stop drinking because you're obviously already too drunk for words.>  Schuldig sniffed and turned his back to his mate.  "Where's Jei tonight?" he asked to change the topic, before they got into a fight that might lead to something truly unthinkable, such as no sex when they got back home.

"He's meeting with Birman to discuss a few important matters."  Crawford set the half-empty mug aside and folded his arms on the table in front of him.  He was dressed in black and light grey tonight, the material fine and a little out of place in the Koneko, especially when compared to the more informal outfits that Schuldig and Masato wore.  Schuldig wondered if someone had been hanging out around Court earlier and what the hell the manipulative bastard was up to now.

"And you dragged out here to insult my maturity level, which you could have done while we were happy at home in bed.  Get to the point of all of this real soon or we're leaving," Schuldig complained as he waved Maria over and indicated that they wanted some food.  She nodded in understanding and hurried to the kitchen, from the quick read of her thoughts well aware that they needed a larger platter than normal.

Crawford closed his eyes and pressed his lips together, as if counting down in his head for patience.  "I swear before all the gods, you are the best argument there ever could be for the low reproduction rate of bounds."  When Schuldig glared at the asshole for the insult - and had to smack Masato on the thigh for daring to laugh at it - Crawford brushed an invisible speck of dust from his left sleeve and seemed ready to finally get to the point of the evening.  "I have a job for the two of you."

"No shit," Schuldig sneered before draining his mug dry.  He wiped some foam from his lips and held the mug out for Masato to refill it.  "And here I thought you asked us to dinner just to enjoy our lovely personalities."

"Schu," Masato warned, his emotions urging caution and his handsome face marred by a frown.  <In all seriousness, antagonizing him like this is only going to prolong things.>

<Yeah, but it makes me feel better for having to put with this shit and for being stuck with the job in the end.>

Masato had no reply for that, only a wave of love and exasperation.

Crawford was quiet, most likely allowing them their mental conversation, and around that time Maria and Omi had arrived with a large platter of cold ham and sliced cheese, a basket of bread and more beer.  The grand revelation of what would be the most recent annoyance in a long string of them dating back to last spring was delayed until they all assembled several sandwiches and had something to whet their appetites.  "I assume that this is about something more than just asking us to talk to a few people to convince them to fight for us, right?" Masato after he wiped his mouth clean of breadcrumbs. 

"Correct."  Crawford refilled all of their mugs before he continued.  "I believe I mentioned to you a few weeks ago that there would be a certain wizard returning to town whom I would need you to track down."

Schuldig set his beer aside and licked his lips as he stared at his father.  "Garcia, right?  The bastard who marked Reno and who Botan's heard uses bound blood in his spells?"  Normally, he had a problem with any job that Crawford tried to assign him on the principle that he was not the man's slave, blood tie or no blood tie, but for something dealing with a bastard who thought bounds were disposable objects....  "Is that what this is about?"

"Yes.  Botan has received word through his sources that Garcia is planning on sneaking into town any day now to conduct some business and replenish supplies."  Crawford returned Schuldig's look with a blandness that was insulting, considering the topic, if one did not know him for the unemotional asshole that he was.  <Considering that we suspect him of being familiar with shinigami bound traits, it's too dangerous to ask Aya to find him.  It's also too dangerous to leave this in the hands of the Shadow Guard and run the chance of him uncovering that bounds are working in that organization.  Should he disseminate that information before his capture....>

<A lot of your manipulations would be for nothing, and what a shame that would be, huh.>  Schuldig felt a distinct lack of sympathy the meddling bastard, however, he did not need Masato's disapproving stare to remind him that those manipulations were for the benefit of them all.  "So it's up to us, eh?"

"May the gods have mercy on us all," Crawford muttered before draining his mug of beer in a couple of swallows.  <Both of you are more than powerful enough to use illusion, glamour and coercion to help track Garcia down, and you have the rings to protect you from any spells.  You'll do.>

Schuldig glared at his father for the utter lack of confidence.  "Gee, thanks so much for that.  I feel so inspired to get off my ass and do you this favor now.  I'm thinking that maybe someone else can do it for you after all."

Crawford set the mug down on the table with care and looked directly at Schuldig, his eyes bright behind the thin lenses of his glasses.  "You *will* do this.  Garcia poses too much of a threat to our kind because of what he may know, and it is more than likely that he will be searching among us for 'supplies' to fuel his spells."  His blue eyes narrowed and his expression hardened as a rare flash of anger slipped past his mental shields.  <You may not care much for humans, but are you willing to indulge your laziness and perverse desire to annoy me at the expense of one of our own?>

Dammit, the bastard had a point, Schuldig thought as he bared his teeth at his father.  If it were only humans involved, he could not care less what this Garcia got up to, but if other bounds were harmed, that was something else.  Plus, he knew his mother would never let him hear the end of this matter, and he could already feel a sense of disapproval from Masato over his reluctance to accept the assignment.  Why did he have to be so talented and perfect?

<Schu... look, I'm not happy with the thought of searching through the whole damn city just on Crawford's say-so, but I'm not about to let some wizard hunt us down, either.  I know you weren't so against this idea when Crawford and Botan mentioned it last summer, so why fight him on it now?>  Masato rubbed a hand up and down his back, a soothing gesture meant to calm and distract him from the anger that always simmered in him when he had to deal with his father.  He always resented how he had so little choice in his life because of Crawford's plans, and his impulses were to resist as much as possible when he could.  Yet Masato had a point... even if he did not have to say it to his lover.

<Hmph, you're going to owe me big time for this.>  He held out long enough to get a wave of assent from Masato and had to stifle a rush of happiness at getting his way as he nodded in Crawford's direction.  "Okay, we'll do it.  <We're doing whatever *I* want for the next two weeks.>  Oh yes, having Masato fulfill his desires during that time would go a long way towards appeasing his ruffled pride at being Crawford's errand boy once again.

<Like you don't usually get your way in the end, Brat, but whatever,> Masato shot back over their telepathic link and smiled, a quick flash of teeth before he focused his attention on Crawford.  His hand lingered on the small of Schuldig's back for a few seconds, a sign that he did not mind too much the conditions of the agreement.

"I'm so happy that your devotion to our kind has won out in the end," Crawford replied in a scathing tone, which made Schuldig worry for a moment that the man had seen something to do with his recent deal with his mate.  "Keep in mind that you need to do this as unobtrusively as possible, as well as turn Garcia over to Birman *alive* and in suitable condition for questioning."  At Schuldig's grimace at the conditions, Crawford looked at Masato.  "I'm counting on your restraint for that.  If the danger of discovery is there, then death is acceptable, but the two of you are skilled enough that I expect you to bring him in alive."  When Schuldig opened his mouth to complain, his father's expression took on a predatory nature that was more suited to Jei.  <Believe me, he will more than suffer for what he's done if you take him to Birman.  Nothing you two can do to him will compare to what she, Aya and Jei together can think up.>  The expression combined with the utter conviction to his thoughts made Schuldig shiver in dread; maybe his father was hanging out with a kage and a flesh gaki bound a little too much.  Masato picked up on that thought and agreed.

"Okay, consider me sufficiently creeped out right now," Masato mumbled as he reached for the pitcher of beer.  "Can we count on you for any visions?  It is a big city after all."

Crawford nodded, his expression back to normal, thank the gods.  "I'll pass along anything that comes to me.  All I've 'seen' in regards to your actions in the near future revolves around the Northern and Central districts, so I suggest that you focus your searches there."

"Great, at least that rules out over two thirds of the city," Schuldig complained as he helped himself to another sandwich.  Ah well, if it were going to be easy, then Crawford would have given the task to someone else.  "We'll find the asshole and get him to Birman alive, but we're gonna kick his ass a few times for putting us through all this shit, I'm warning you right now."  If Crawford was upset over that, he could just go fuck himself.

All his father did was sigh and motion to Maria to bring some more alcohol to the table.  "To be perfectly honest, I'll be amazed if you show that much restraint.  Leave his mind intact and his body mostly unbroken and I'll be pleased beyond words.  Fail to do so and you'll have to face not so much my wrath but Birman and Jei's, I warn you now."  He stared at Schuldig long enough to make sure that his point got across, which was made evident when Schuldig shuddered in horror at the thought of those two tearing into him over being deprived of their prize.  Birman might not be a bound, but she could be a righteously evil bitch when she put her mind to it, and Jei was *not* one to be deprived of his favorite prey/meal.

"Right, right, we got it.  Now, if you don't mind, we're heading home so I can suck Masato dry and then fuck him so hard that *I* pass out."  He smiled at the distaste that flickered across his father's face at the announcement and the rush of lust from his mate.  "We'll get to as soon as you let us know the bastard’s in town."

"I hope you have half as good as an evening that I'm about to," Masato wished Crawford with a big grin as he rose from the table.

*******

Aya heaved a heartfelt sighed in annoyance as he surveyed the crowd before him, the deep breath almost as satisfying as a quick snap of the teeth and not quite as dangerous a tell that he was a bound.  He swore that the city had finally emptied out after Princess Ouka's Naming ceremony and the endless celebrations that had followed, hundreds of excuses to roll the late summer festivals into the auspicious occasion until he had wanted nothing more than to use his power to push the throngs of party-goers through the streets and outside the city walls so he could have some peace and quiet once more.  Not a day had gone by the last several weeks that the Koneko had not been fully booked and packed with revelers; if it were not for his wards and Omi's silence charms, Aya would have fled to his family's deserted house in the highborn district.

Just when things seemed to have calmed down enough that he could run an errand for Jo without his shinigami nature being set too much on edge by the maddening press of humanity that had filled Eto recently, he was caught up in what appeared to be the pre-caravan rush to buy the last of certain goods before new ones took their places.  Aya clutched the basket containing jars of lavender and orange blossom honey closer to his right side as he slid between the small gaps amongst people along the grey cobblestone road, grateful for the slight repellent aspect of his nature when he had the shadows gathered around him beneath his cloak as he did.  The annoyance grew stronger as he left the small side street where Moira's store was located and turned onto the main road that would lead him back to the Koneko; there were even more people here, busy shopping and chatting.

He was certain that he would return home to find a couple of Guards sitting in the kitchen, drinking coffee and eating sweets while they told Jo and the others about the approaching caravans.  In the past, such an occurrence had been one to look forward to, as Yohji would immediately make plans for an overcast day when they could go out to look through the newly arrived wares and see if there was anything that they wanted.  Aya's lover delighted in finding him gifts, and caravans usually brought a couple of books that Aya had been waiting for, so they both ended up happy. 

However, this fall there was something else that was supposed to come to the city with the many wagons almost overburdened with goods – Victor Garcia.  Aya would bet the silver brooch that Yohji had given him for his birthday that Botan would stop by for dinner tonight or tomorrow, most likely with Cassandra by his side as protection as sorts, as he delivered the latest news on the rogue wizard's status.  Aya rubbed his left hand over the entwined cat design, his brow furrowed as he anticipated his mate's over-protective and furious mood.  Yohji would *not* be pleased to hear that a wizard known for using bound blood would soon be back in the city, eager for fresh victims to fuel his spells.

As much as going out in bright sunlight made Aya's eyes ache and his skin feel as if it was slowly being rubbed raw by rough paper, his energy draining away as surely and steadily as from one of those awful bleedings he had suffered through at the Takatori's hands, as much as he disliked and distrusted the press of people around him, he did enjoy being helpful to Jo and the Koneko by doing the occasional grocery run.  Also, he took some satisfaction in a good job of haggling for a decent price, both in saving the inn some money and by pushing himself in dealing with the humans like that, something he never would have done as 'Ran'.  He looked forward to these errands, as infrequent as they were anymore with the new additions at the inn and the jobs that Birman asked of him and Yohji.  It was a shame that today would be the last time he would likely do one for a few weeks to come.

There was no way that Yohji would let him run errands for the Koneko while Garcia was anywhere close to the city.  Aya hitched the basket full of honey a little higher up his right forearm and glared at nothing in particular as he fought the urge to growl.  'Over-protective' was inadequate at describing his paranoid mate - who failed to grasp that if Aya was in danger of being sought out and having his blood drained for spells, that Yohji was, too.  They could fight over Yohji's inane decree that Aya would do his best to remain as unobtrusive as possible while the wizard was in the city - they *had* fought over it, in fact, many, *many* times - and the only reason that Aya was willing to go along with his lover's wishes was that if he remained safely out of Garcia's sight, then so would Yohji.  They both would remain near the Koneko as much as possible, unless on assignment for Birman, in which case Aya would put his talent to use and *no one* would see them unless he wished it.

He just hoped that Schuldig got his ass into gear and found the wizard as quickly as possible.  The soul gaki bound might detest work as a general principle, but the more effort he put into the task, the faster he should have it done and the sooner he could go back to screwing around with Masato to his heart's content.  Perhaps the fact that no bound was safe while Garcia was on the hunt for blood, including Cassandra, would give Schuldig some added incentive to listen to Crawford for once.

Reaching the Koneko's familiar red brick walls, he stepped through the arched gate that led to the small courtyard in front of the stables.  Jason waved to him before riding past on Yohji's horse, off to give the brown gelding some exercise for the day.  Ichiro was busy brushing down Aya's grey, who looked to be enjoying a bit of sunlight after a similar ride.  Fetching the apple from the basket that he had brought out with him earlier, Aya fed Keiun and gave him an affectionate pat on the neck as the horse munched away in evident pleasure.

"I'm surprised Jason manages to get such good rides out of them considering the crowds," he commented, his tone as bland as possible so as not to pressure an answer from the older man.

Ichiro grunted once and continued to comb out Keiun's mane before he answered.  "The boy does have a way with animals."  He looked over Keiun's neck at Aya, his dark, deep-set eyes twinkling with amusement that was otherwise bereft from his solemn face.  "Some lord saw him out there a week or two ago and liked how he handled a horse on a crowded street.  Made him an offer."

Considering that this was the third such offer that Aya was aware of, Ichiro seemed rather unconcerned.  The first had been from an officer who thought that Jason could have a promising career in the Army's cavalry, much like Ichiro once had, and the second from a merchant who had been impressed with how the teenager had calmed her temperamental horse.  Those two times, Jason had stammered out a barely audible excuse and fled back to the stables, where he obviously felt the most secure.  "I assume it wasn't a good enough of an offer."  Aya smiled a little as he stepped back and shook his head, well aware of how much such a thing would - or would not - matter to him.

Ichiro grunted again.  "You trying to put Cass to shame?"  For a man who spent most of his time hanging out with horses, Ichiro had a way with words when he did decide to speak.  "He knows he's free to follow whatever path he wants, but he's also smart enough to know to never rush away from a good home."  There was a roughness to his voice that indicated he was very familiar with what he spoke about.

There was no unspoken rule that once the Koneko took you in that you had to remain there forever; Aya had the impression that most strays were transient in nature, there for only a few days or a few weeks, just long enough to recover one's strength or balance and then start a new life.  The exception to the rules appeared to be the ones who stayed on to take jobs at the inn, and he had yet to learn of any who left for new careers.  He had the suspicion that Emi might prove to be one, in that she hoped to join the Guard when she was old enough, but he did not need Cassandra's talent to imagine her sitting at the Koneko's kitchen table on a daily basis even then, one of the chosen Shadow Guard on hand to protect the inn's secrets.  There was Omi and Nagi as well, bound for the castle eventually, and he and Yohji, but the rest of the staff... those whom fate should be kind enough to allow 'normal' lives, he imagined that they would be more than willing to accept the sanctuary that they had found here for as long as possible.

He left Ichiro to the man's beloved work, well aware of how Ichiro much preferred the company of horses to people, one or two exceptions aside.  There was no sight of Sebastian on his way to the inn, but the herbs along the walkway had been freshly weeded and there were other signs of the earth elemental throughout the garden.  Upon entering the kitchen, Aya had his earlier suspicions proven true when he found not only Ken and Miko sitting at one of the kitchen tables, but Duo and Toshi as well.  The four Guards' presence was not what had him staring in bemusement, but the large, black patch over Ken's left eye.  "Did you lose a fight with Jei?" he had to ask as he handed the basket filled with honey jars over to a grinning Jo.

Ken winced while Miko laughed and patted him on the back.  "Why do people assume that I'm stupid enough to get into a fight with that man?"  When his partner opened her mouth to enlighten him, he growled and shoved a small fruit tart into it, causing her to choke and cough for a few seconds.  "And no, I'm not trying to be just like him, either."

"Aw, I keep telling you that I know a great herbalist who can bleach your hair for you!" Duo teased while Toshi gave Miko a few friendly pats to the back to help her breathe. 

Aya turned a beseeching look to Jo, who motioned for him to sit down.  "I'll bring some tea and cake over to you in a minute."  That she was so willing to give him some sweets without insisting that he eat something more substantial first, especially after he spent some time out in the sun, made him suspicious.  When he saw the size of the slice of cake that she cut for him, he knew that the Shadow Guard was not here for a friendly visit.

"Why are you here?" he asked with a hint of sibilance in his voice.  Yohji was off with Crawford for the afternoon, supplying enough glamour to help sway a reluctant and powerful bound to their cause, and other than feeling a bit disgusted with himself and missing Aya, was fine.  Omi and Nagi were out helping Mickey pick up some new furniture, Marta and Neely were off visiting a friend of the healers, due to return the next day, so the only 'important' bound left at the inn was Aya, who did *not* need four Guards to look after him even if Reiichi was attending his niece's birthday party.

The Guards exchanged a set of nervous looks with each other before Ken cleared his throat a couple of times and turned toward Aya.  "Uhm, did you notice anything while you were out today?"  His left hand raised to scratch at the leather patch, his claws slightly unsheathed.

"People are expecting the caravans to arrive any day now," Aya answered as he folded his arms over his chest, not in the mood to play a game of questions.  "Tell me why you're all here and why you're wearing an eye-patch."  Ken had a strong enough demon soul that for him to require a patch to cover his eye, it had to have been wounded badly enough to have been lost or have him in too much pain to be sitting here chatting.

Ken sighed, his shoulders hunched forward as if he wanted nothing better than to be somewhere else.  "It's all connected."  He gave up on scratching at the patch and twirled his fingers around in the air.  "We got word that the first caravan of the season is just a couple of days outside of the city.  Botan, Birman and Yuushi got together and decided that...."  He hunched forward a little more and looked away from Aya.  "It's not just you and Yohji, okay?  There's a lot of bounds at the Koneko now, not to mention Omi and all those books upstairs.  They want to make sure that wizard doesn't learn anything he shouldn't, and I think Birman's worried about all the people the emperor sent to Court for the Naming ceremony who aren't in any hurry to leave."

All traces of the fruit tart wiped from her face, Miko leaned forward and draped her right arm over Ken's shoulder.  "Yuushi and Birman even came up with a good excuse for Ken-ken to stay at the Koneko for the next few weeks."  She poked at the eye-patch, earning a curse from her partner.  "It was a really clever illusion spell, and there's no way Kikyou will waste the money on a healer when there won't be any permanent damage, or so he was told."

Ken batted her hand away, but did not object to her close presence.  "We're supposed to work on organizing some documents while I heal, which Yuushi said can really wait another few decades to be put into order.  The boxes should arrive tomorrow."

There was a certain discussion that Aya would have with Yuushi and Birman when the two humans next showed up at the Koneko about their assumptions... but a quick glance at Jo tamped down on most of the anger he felt over the situation.  If she was not unduly upset over Ken and Miko being assigned to watch over the inn for the next few weeks, there was little for him to complain about.  He might be one of the people who would be kept under supervision - or at least, they would try - but it was true that there were others who lived here who deserved the protection.  Marta's healing ability would make her important during the war, and Esset was already feeling the effects of a drought, which made Neely's nascent talent very valuable.  There were also the bounds who came to the Koneko for sanctuary, who more than deserved to be kept safe from a power-hungry wizard.  As long as Ken and Miko understood that they were to trust Aya to look after himself, things should be fine.

He turned his attention to the other set of Guards, who were doing their best not to be noticed just then. "And you?"

"Eh, us?"  Duo laughed, the sound nervous and tight.  "Ah, well, it seems we got assigned to this area for the foreseeable future."  Some of his anxiousness vanished, replaced with pride as he sat up straight on the bench.  "Yuushi wants as many powerful bounds as possible around here in case there's any problems."

"Yeah, just don't forget about his orders to *not* reveal your talent," Toshi added as he sipped his coffee.  "He actually threatened to put a handful of Naru's bombs down the pants of anyone who showed off their powers unless absolutely necessary."  The reminder seemed to deflate Duo's good mood a little.

"No one's gonna be that stupid, trust me," Duo muttered.  For a moment, his eyes glowed red and his expression became one of pure malice, his face no longer appearing human.  Then he shook his head and once more was his usual amiable self.  "I just hope Schu and Masato leave enough for the rest of us to have some fun."

Aya waited for Jo to set his cake and a mug of tea down in front of him before he replied.  "My understanding is they would have orders to bring the wizard in alive."  Botan and Birman had questions for the man, after all; Aya was certain that he and Yohji would be asked to partake in the interrogation to ensure that no answers were missed.  He looked forward to that meal, the anticipation he felt causing the shinigami hovering around the edges of the room to hiss and writhe in happiness.

Part of what annoyed him the most about the whole situation was not the lack of freedom or the assumption that he needed to be protected, but that he was being left out of this hunt.  More than anyone, he knew what it felt like to be bled by a wizard, to be used as a source of easy spellwork.  Victor Garcia was a threat to him, and he had to ignore the man, to stay out of his way as if afraid.  Only the fact that searching for the wizard himself would adversely affect Yohji, would drive his mate's demon soul to the fore in the most dangerous manner kept him seated here instead of out there hunting already, content to leave the matter in the hands of someone he mostly trusted.  Schuldig better find the wizard, and soon at that, so Aya could make the bloodthirsty bastard pay for thinking that bounds were there solely for his convenience.

*******

Reno groaned as he opened his eyes, unwilling to wake up when the bed was so comfortable and warm.  There was a faint trickle of sunlight through a crack in the thick curtains, a line of light that trailed across the room and fell across his left arm and side.  He was about to complain to his mate about not closing the curtains properly when he realized that he was alone in bed.  Sitting up, he pushed back the tangle of hair falling onto his face and chest as he glared around the empty room.  When had the bastard gotten up?

He left the bed and stalked across the room, anger and suspicion building as he realized that the mental link between them was mostly stifled.  Around the dark room, the shadows hissed in reaction to his foul mood, the shinigami resuming their familiar refrain of badmouthing Rufus.  They had taken up permanent residence in the last few weeks, a comforting presence and always on Reno’s side.  Rufus was not exactly pleased with their presence, but then again, he kept doing things that deserved all the scorn that the shinigami heaped on him, including trying to sneak out of the house without Reno.  Opening the door to the office, Reno fixed his glare on his mate and stomped his way over to the bastard.

Rufus looked up from some documents he was sorting through as he stood by the desk, dressed for a day at Court.  His blue eyes narrowed when he saw Reno, his hand clenching around the papers and making the thick paper crackle.  "Has the concept of clothes completely escaped you?  It's called a 'robe'."

"Has the concept of 'gokenin' escaped *you*?" Reno asked in an equally chilly voice as his mate's as he folded his arms over his chest.  "How am I supposed to protect you when I'm still in bed?"

The papers were set aside so Rufus could jerk his right hand through his hair.  "I've several gokenin, and fail to see why I would need to have all of them around me at the same time.  So why don't you go back to bed, or failing that, put on some clothes and go terrify the fish."

Oh hell yes, someone was definitely up to something.  Reno bridged the distance between them and grabbed hold of expensive material that just begged to be wrinkled.  "Now why would I want to play with the fish when I can have fun at Court today, eh?"  His eyes narrowed in anger when his hands were grabbed and pried off of the lapels of Rufus' white linen coat. 

"Because you *won't* be at Court today, you'll be staying home."  Rufus stepped away from the desk, forcing Reno to step back as well.  "We might as well get this over with now.  You won't be going back to Court or the palace at any point in the near future."  He finally opened the link between them to its full strength, the intensity of his emotions strong enough to make Reno stumble.  "You will stay *here*." 

The possessiveness, protectiveness and anger he felt were enough to leave him speechless for a few seconds, to push past his own anger and amazement at Rufus' latest insane decree.  Then it sunk in that he was once more being treated like some helpless idiot who lacked the ability to protect himself, and his temper won out.  "Bullshit!  I'm not letting you pull the same shit you did back in Berin!  What, you gonna tell me I'm stuck in the room again?  That people can't see me?  What's the damn reason now, eh?"  He pushed in close, practically spitting in Rufus' face as he demanded answers, furious that he was being treated this way again.

The answer he received surprised him enough that he failed to bat aside his mate's finger as it brushed along his left cheek.  "These."  Warmth stroked along his cheekbones - along the tattoos on his face.  "I've received word that the wizard who marked you will be returning to the city shortly.  I refuse to allow him the opportunity to see if he can recognize his handiwork."

"What, one of my mom's old fucks is back in town and that's what has your panties in such a twist?"  Reno hissed in annoyance and flicked his left forefinger at the damned charmed earring that his sadistic lord and master insisted that he wear.  "What's the point of an illusion spell, eh?"

Rufus caught his hand and forced it down to his side.  "Considering your extremely rare nature and that of some of your acquaintances, the fact that we are currently involved in what some would consider an act of betrayal against our country and that a good portion of *this* country would want this entire household either dead or drained of blood, excuse me if I'm somewhat reluctant to trust that a simple illusion spell or your perverse as hell nature will somehow negate whatever magic he put into those marks."  Though Rufus' voice remained calm the entire time, his emotions grew more turbulent the longer the speech went on.  "So you will remain here and not risk massive destruction or the early start of the war by insisting on accompanying me to Court."

"In other words, I'm a fucking prisoner again," Reno spat, furious at how Rufus always was able to get out of his promises to treat him as a trusted gokenin.

Maybe his emotions gave him away, or his expression, because the highborn bastard actually relented a little.  "Reno...."  Rufus chanced his hand being smacked aside to tuck back the hair falling onto Reno's face, the gesture turning into a lingering caress along Reno's left cheekbone, jaw and neck.  "I can't risk you at Court, not knowing if the wizard will have a patron there or not.  It's also too dangerous to just let you wander around the city, at least during the day.  You should be safe at the Koneko, though," bitterness crept into his tone just then, "and I promise you that we'll go out at night."

"So I'm on a bit of a leash this time, eh?"  Part of Reno realized that Rufus was trying, but it still galled him that he was being treated this way, that he once again had his freedom denied.  There was no way that Rufus would allow anyone to treat him like this, so why did he do just that to Reno?

Strong fingers dug into Reno's bare shoulder for a moment.  "Be thankful I don't look into keeping you knocked out until they find the bastard," Rufus growled.  "I understand that opiates can be quite affective even against shinigami-souls."  When Reno hissed in response, he shook his head as if to clear it of the anger that flowed between them.  "Dammit, I didn't want to fight over this!"

Shrugging off his mate's hand, Reno took a step back.  "How the hell did you think I'd take the news?  That I'd be more than happy to just sit on my ass all day if it pleased you?"  He motioned to the shadows in the still-dark bedroom.  "Shit like this just makes me wish I could listen to 'em and leave your ass!  I bet Yohji doesn't treat Aya like this!"

"Aya's remaining at the Koneko and most likely not giving *his* mate anywhere near as much grief as you give me!" Rufus shouted back as he once more jerked his hand through his hair, tousling the blond strands.  "And believe me, if there was a way to undo the bond between us, I'd do it in a heart's beat!  The gods must have been in a cursing mood when they stuck me with you until we both die!"  His face took on a flushed appearance, no longer was he the impeccably dressed young lord from just a few minutes ago, attired in white and black.  He looked more human, more fallible, and Reno wanted nothing more than to punch him in the face and leave for good.

He turned to at least do the latter, sparks flying from his fists as he headed toward the bedroom, when he was grabbed by the upper arms and pulled back against fine linen and cotton.  "Dammit, why do you always fight me on everything?" Rufus asked, his voice rough with emotion, a roiling mix of anger, regret, desire and self-castigation that made Reno's head ache.  "We never discuss anything, it's always a fight."

"Says the man who tried to sneak out on me this morning," Reno grumbled while doing his best not to relax against his mate's warm, strong body.    The shinigami might be right about Rufus being an asshole, and it still hurt, hearing him say that he wished the bond between them was gone, but just being this close to him made Reno want to lean against that warmth and close his eyes. 

"Because I didn't want to argue."  Proving how much of a dirty fighter he was, Rufus began to comb his fingers through Reno's hair.  "Look, I know it's not the best solution, and I understand why you're not happy.  But the most effective way for the wizard to not find you is for him not to come across you.  I can't control his actions while in the city, but I can be certain he won't come here.  So please, stay where it's safe."

If Rufus had just asked in the first place, would Reno have agreed?  Probably... not.  Just the thought of being denied his usual spot by Rufus' side bothered him, made the demon part of him furious at being perceived as being so 'weak' and his human part worry about being unneeded.  "We can't keep going on this way," Reno said, his tone quiet as he tried to calm his dual natures.

Rufus said nothing for several seconds, his emotions too confusing to follow during that time, and then he kissed Reno on the right temple.  "I know. We just need to get through the war."

And then what?  Reno kept that question to himself, however, and chose to twist in his mate's arms instead in order to receive a proper kiss as he tangled his fingers through blond strands.  Rufus seemed willing to end the discussion just then, his hands stroking along Reno's bare back, through his own hair as the kiss deepened.  The man could be such a bastard at times, and the discussion was definitely not finished, but they could focus on more pleasurable things just now.

<I've no doubt you'll continue this later when you feel it's more advantageous to your cause.  It's not going to change anything, though,> Rufus informed him as his bottom lip was nipped.

"We'll see," Reno murmured as he started to walk backwards to the bedroom.  Doing his best to muddle his thoughts so someone failed to figure out his plan to keep them both from going to Court that day, he hissed in frustration when the door to their bedroom suite was opened. 

"Sir, we need to leave soon if we're to arrive on time," Tseng informed Rufus, his expression as unflappable as always despite catching his lord with his arms wrapped around a naked fellow gokenin.

Much to Reno's annoyance, Rufus gave him one last kiss and slipped free.  "Yes, I'm afraid you're correct."  He motioned for Reno to return to the bedroom.  "Go back to bed or put some clothes on."  The hint of a possessive growl in his voice made Tseng turn his back to Reno, who was very displeased at being neglected.

Realizing that as long as Tseng was here to act as a voice of fucking reason that there was no chance of goading Rufus into another fight and then a bout of sex, Reno threw his hands up in the air and did as he was told.  "Come back smelling like some human bitch and you can sleep with the damn fish for the rest of the week," he warned as he returned to bed.

Rufus replied something that was sure to be scathing enough to put him in his place, if only he had paid any attention to it.  Reno ignored his mate as he pulled the curtains shut and curled back beneath the blankets, determined to sleep away as much of the day that he could.  When Rufus did return from the palace, he wanted to be well-rested for the second part of their fight.

*******

Yohji surveyed the stack of books that surrounded his lover and sighed, left with the impression that Aya had walled himself off deliberately.  "How long do you think this is going to take?"

Aya, in the process of handing several tomes as thick as his forearm over to Ed, stopped and looked at Yohji.  "We're thinking at least a week."  Either something must have shown on Yohji's face or crossed over their link, because the books were shoved in Ed's direction and Aya circumvented the stacks with care so he could approach Yohji.  "I thought this would be a good time to reorganize, considering...."

"Yeah, with all the new additions we've gotten, we can make a lot of headway once we get everything cataloged properly and organized.  It'll help us out in case we missed something," Ed added as he created yet another stack, a grin on his face as he turned toward Yohji and Aya.  Something he saw made him blush slightly and mumble about working on the history texts from Xan.

When Yohji remained quiet, Aya was the one to sigh as he reached out to tuck back a lock of hair that had fallen onto Yohji's forehead.  "What else am I supposed to do? I thought you'd be happy with me up here."  He sounded confused and a little annoyed, his emotions much the same although mixed with a reassuring dose of love.

Realizing that he was being an idiot, Yohji shook his head and pulled his mate in closer for a quick kiss.  "I guess I just worried that you were upset or something."  He had been afraid that Aya had come to the attic library to sulk, and should have realized that his bibliophile of a cat would have seized the chance to play with books even if the situation that brought it about was less than ideal.

"Idiot," Aya grumbled as he gave Yohji's left ribs a light whap, but there was a slight smile on his face.  "You're the one who sulks, not me."

Not quite the 'idiot' that his mate made him out to be, Yohji decided not to point out all the adorable times he had caught Aya in various pouts and stole another quick kiss, doing his best to ignore his hunger while Ed was busy lurking just a few feet away and there were quite a few perilous stacks of highly valuable and fragile books about.  Ah, how the gods loved to torture him.  "I guess I should have expected you to be holed up in here," was all he did say when he finally let go of Aya and took a careful step back.  "When do you want me to bring up a snack?"

That got Ed's attention right away, the young man smiling wide enough to make Yohji's face ache just to see it.  "Ah, maybe in another hour?  There wasn't much to eat at the house this morning, and I let Al have what was left since he's working at the forge."

"How about I send Nagi on up with something now, okay?  We wouldn't want you to start nibbling on the books," Yohji teased as he headed for the door.  Ed's grateful thanks followed him on the way out, and Aya's appreciation and amusement flowed warm over their link, banishing the last of his guilt over the situation.

He still felt a little bad about the thought of his lover for all intents and purposes being confined to the Koneko for the foreseeable future after doing everything in his power the last year or so to pry Aya *out* of his shell, but he was unwilling to risk what might happen if Victor Garcia see Aya out on the street and recognized him.  Either one of two things would occur - he would spot Aya without their notice and do something very foolish later on that might cost innocents their lives and lead more people to realize what Aya was, which would lead to even more deaths, or Aya would recognize the wizard first and kill him.  In the latter case, hopefully it would happen without anyone else realizing that Aya was the cause of death, but it was not a perfect world.  They could not risk anyone else finding out that Aya was a kage, so it was best that he just stay out of sight until Schu tracked down Garcia.  Yohji felt a bit like an asshole for asking that of Aya, but it kept his demon soul from being possessed by the urge from killing any strangers who so much as looked at Aya in case they might be the damn wizard.  Life was all about compromises, unfortunately.

At least Aya had his libraries to retreat to, and he was grateful that Ed had a bit of free time and a lot of enthusiasm to help Aya reorganize all of the books in the attic.  Hell, he would even strive to be civil to Mustang when the asshole appeared later on to have dinner with the kid in order to show his appreciation.  Smiling as he entered the kitchen, he looked about for Nagi, who of course could be found by Omi, busy chopping vegetables under the watchful eye of Maddox.

"Hmm, now that looks like trouble.  What are you up to now, Yotan?"

Yohji's smile faded into a hurt expression.  "Me?"  His right hand rested against his chest.  "Why do you always think the worst of me?" he asked Jo as she stared at him from across the kitchen, her hands resting on her hips as she paused in flipping through a recipe book.

"Because I've known you almost all of your life?" she answered with a hint of exasperation in her voice.  "Now tell me what bit of trouble you're concocting so I can be prepared for the fall-out."

He laughed as he crossed the room to give her a quick kiss on the cheek.  "I swear before all the gods that for once, I'm in the clear.  I just came down from the attic and checking in on Aya."  When he noticed that he had Nagi's attention, he nodded to the younger bound.  "Believe it or not, but Ed's starving.  Would you mind taking up a plate of food since Mickey's waiting on me to go over the books?"

Nagi's face twisted into a grimace as he used the back of his right hand to push aside the black bangs falling onto his forehead.  "I guess I will, if only to make sure that Aya has some tea and sweets."  He glared at Yohji for a few seconds.  "I noticed that he didn't eat much at breakfast today.  You probably drained him too much to have a proper appetite, you glutton."  Beside him, Omi's blue eyes twinkled as he pressed his lips together, obviously doing his best not to laugh at the familiar display of rivalry.

Yohji rolled his eyes and threw his hands up in the air.  "Yes, yes, and I beat the shit out of him, too.  He just takes the abuse and begs for more, you know."  He let out a yelp when Jo pinched him on the side. "Oh come *on*, how can anyone not know that I'm kidding?"

"I thought you said you were being good," she snapped.  "I don't consider picking a fight in my kitchen not stirring up trouble!"

Taking a deep breath before he said something that would get him smacked with a rolling pin, Yohji decided that pointing out that *he* was not the one starting either fight was not worth the effort.  He wiped his hand down his wheat-colored tunic to restore whatever dignity he could and glared at everyone in the room, even Maddox.  "I'm going to have a damn drink in the office with Mickey."  That said, he fled the kitchen.

He kept his word once he entered what used to be his office, and now was his foster brother's.  Thankfully, Mickey still kept a decanter of very fine whiskey on the bookshelf along the one wall, which Yohji poured himself a very full glass of once he entered the room.  His brother, busy sitting behind the large desk calculating numbers, looked up but remained quiet until Yohji finished off one glass and poured himself another.  "So, I see your day is off to a wonderful start."

Yohji waved his left hand about as he sat down in the chair in front of the desk, mindful of his glass of whiskey.  "You know, I'm handsome as hell, young, intelligent, very sexy... it must be pure envy that makes everyone pick on me so."

Mickey smiled, a flash of white teeth behind a neatly trimmed black goatee.  "Of course, Yotan.  We're just lesser mortals basking in your glory, and sometimes our jealousy gets the better of us."

"See, that's why I always liked you best."  Yohji nodded as he sipped his drink.  "That and you've always had great taste in alcohol."

"Hm, I'd like to talk to you in part about the alcohol, but I've a feeling we have to continue this discussion first."  Mickey tapped his fingers against the ledger in front of him.  "Everything all right with Aya?"  All hint of joking was gone from demeanor; he might be built big and brawny, but he had a hell of a brain in his head and knew that it took more than the familiar teasing of the Koneko staff to bother Yohji enough for alcohol before lunch.

Finishing off the drink, Yohji set the empty glass aside and nodded.  "Yeah, I think so.   He's not entirely happy with having to stay here, but he's accepted why he's doing it.  I think as long as he has his books to play with, he'll be okay."  He just hoped that Schu found Garcia before Aya ran out of libraries to organize.

"It's not like he can do much in the garden anymore since we hired Sebastian, either," Mickey added as he got up from the desk with Yohji's glass in hand to go refill it, along with pouring himself a glass as well.

Yohji leaned back in his chair and grimaced a little.  "Actually, I'm happy about that."  While he had never been one to turn away a stray in need, he had to admit to a secret bit of pleasure on the inn taking in an earth elemental bound a short while ago whose new job was to keep up the gardens and grounds.  "The masochistic idiot never did learn that he and sunlight do *not* get along, and I've noticed that it's only gotten worse in the last few months."  He smiled in thanks as he accepted the glass from Mickey.  "The last time he was out there too long, it took him several hours to recover."  The more that Aya used his talent, the less resilient he was to sunlight.  He quickly sipped the whiskey to stop himself from thinking of how badly Aya would react to sunlight after using his power to fight in the war.

"Well, it'll be nice to not have to worry about taking turns shoveling come winter, and Aya couldn’t keep up with the grounds anymore and how much traffic they see from all the customers as well as work for Birman. It’s clearly become a full-time job."  Pride swelled in Mickey’s voice, the emotion washing through Yohji and making him even more inebriated than the whiskey; his brother truly did love the Koneko and took great pride in how well it was doing.

They were quiet for a couple of minutes as they savored their drinks and thought of the inn, Yohji reflecting on how much it had changed in the last year.  He wished that his mother was still alive to see what it had become, to give Mickey a huge hug for all his hard work and be happy that her family was doing so well.  Ah, if only the gods could have given her a few more years....

"So, if Aya's doing all right, then hopefully I can get a couple of hours of work out of you."  Mickey tapped his fingers once again against the ledger.  "We need to look over the damage the last three months have done to the wine cellars and prepare for the rest of the year."

"And here I thought you wanted me for some office sex.  Damn, another dream gone."  Yohji waited for Mickey's laughter to die down before he leaned in closer so they could go over the inn's stock of alcohol.

They had just gotten through the list of remaining stocks and were putting together an order when Kira knocked on the door and slipped into the room.  "Mick, Yohji?  I think you might want to come talk to someone," she told them, her hands twisting in the skirt of her light blue dress.  She had a slight smile on her face, her emotions a little anxious but not too worried so Yohji did not think it was anything bad that she wanted them to handle.  They rose from the desk to go see who was there, Mickey pausing to brush back a strand of his fiancée’s long blonde hair as he walked past.

"We think she's a stray," Kira whispered as they preceded her out of the office, well aware of how good Yohji's bound hearing was.  He pulled on a friendly smile as they headed to the kitchen.

Jo must have cleared out everyone else, as Nagi, Omi and Maddox were nowhere to be seen.  Chances were good that Nagi and Omi were upstairs with Aya, which was fine with Yohji when there was a strange bound in his home.  He could sense her demon soul from across the room, the ability honed in recent months for situations just like this.  She had a fair amount of power, but was nowhere near Schu, Rufus or Eri's leagues.

"Hey, I thought someone said there was fresh coffee and cinnamon rolls here waiting for us," he said in a friendly manner as he approached the table where the bound and Jo were sitting.

The bound stopped looking at the table's top and jerked her head up in his direction, her brown eyes wide in surprise and fear.  Across from her, Jo gave him a slight nod in thanks at the seemingly harmless excuse for them being there as she got up to go over to the stove.  "I swear, one day all the food you eat is going to catch up to you and you won't be able to get in through the door, Yohji."

"Then he'll just insist that we bring it to him," Mickey joked as he joined Yohji at the table, a careful distance from the young woman.

"Yohji Kudoh?" the bound asked as she tucked her hands into her sleeves.  She stared at him as if he was about to spit fire at any moment, her emotions a mix of fear, reverence and hope.

"Yes, that's me."  He smiled in reassurance and radiated the emotion as well; he might not be psychic, but he doubted that the girl was much of a threat.  "Have you heard about me?  If the rumors were at all good, then I swear that they're true."

Jo snorted in derision as she returned to the table with two mugs full of coffee and a plate of cinnamon buns.  "Don't get her hopes up.  Yohji, Mickey, this is Bethwynn.  She's from Eyerton."  She sat back at the table, across from the bound, her work-roughened hands wrapped around a mug of coffee.  "She just got into the city today."

"Isn't Eyerton near the border with Esset?"  Yohji kept the question as nonchalant as possible as he sipped his hot coffee, doing his best so that it did not seem as an accusation; about a third of the bounds who came through the Koneko had ties to Esset somehow, and as long as they did not support the Elders, he had no conflict with them. 

Bethwynn's head once more shot up as she stared at him, her emotions fluctuating for several seconds as she struggled to control them.  "I'm not..."

"We know."  Yohji put as much assurance and acceptance that he could into the words, and risked a bit of glamour as well.  "Look, you're welcome here, honest."

His talent appeared to have some effect, as she slowly relaxed and nodded.  "They... uhm, Shin and Yuda, that is, said I would be."  She rubbed her eyes as if tired.  "I've a few notes that they asked me to pass along."  She wiped her right hand over her face and along the dark brown hair pulled back into a neat ponytail.  "I... well, my friend Rama and I heard stories about bounds heading to Eto.  Rama's an earth elemental with a talent for healing who used to cross the border to visit me often, and one day she didn't come like she said she would."  The words came out in a rush, as if a burden that she wished herself rid of.  When they finally stopped, Jo poured her some more coffee and quietly urged her to have another cinnamon roll.

Yohji shared a quick look with Mickey, and knew that he was not the only one who guessed what had happened to Bethwynn's friend, Rama.  Most likely, the poor girl had been taken by the Elders' loyal 'hounds', the bounds they sent out to retrieve anyone with talents they needed for the approaching war.  Healers were in almost as high demand as water elementals, kidnapped and held captive until the time they would be used to heal soldiers.  "So you headed to Eto on your own?" he asked after several minutes had passed, wanting to get as much of the story now as possible before Jo sent Bethwynn up to one of the rooms kept available for any strays in need.

Bethwynn nodded as she set her mostly empty mug aside.  "Yes, I was afraid that it wasn't safe at home anyone and headed to Eto.  I came across some other bounds along the way, and...."  For the first time since Yohji had walked into the room, she smiled, the expression transforming her into a lovely young woman.  "Do you know what I am?"  There was a hint of reverence in her voice as she asked the question.

"A soul gaki bound."  He saw no reason to hide his ability to tell bound talents, not if she had talked to Yuda and Shin and been sent here knowing his name.  "Do you know why the Koneko is special?" he asked in return.

"No one told me why so many of us are going to Eto," Bethwynn explained after she swallowed the last of her coffee.  "I thought at first it was to hide among so many people, but then I met Yuda and the others."  She blushed slightly when she mentioned the succubae bound.  "When I told them that I didn't want to just hide in the mountains, Yuda said I'd be safe here.  That you and Aya would make sure nothing would happen to me, and that you were special."  She believed what she was saying, and he doubted that it was because of any glamour that Yuda may have cast on her.

He wondered if she would believe him if he told her that a kage lived here, was in fact his mate, and felt a grudging respect and gratitude that Yuda and Shin had kept Aya's secret; he knew he could trust Crawford, who had faith in the men, and he never would have let them leave the Koneko if he believed them a threat, but it was still nice to know that Yuda, Shin and the cousins were not telling just anyone that Aya was a kage.  "There's a few good reasons why a lot of bounds are coming here, but they can wait until you get some rest."  He smiled and hoped that Aya would be around when Bethwynn found out about the Guard and Army secretly hiring bounds.  "Just know that the Koneko has always been a safe haven for bounds, and not just because one of its owners happened to spawn one."  He gave the girl a conspiratorial wink and dodged a halfhearted swing to his head from Jo.

"The only thing is we ask that you mind the privacy of everyone here," Mickey explained as he tapped the forefinger of his right hand against his temple.  It took Bethwynn a moment to understand the gesture, and she once more blushed when she did.

"Ah, well, my talent lies in sensing emotions, not actual thoughts.  I have to sense something to feed, but...."  Once more her soft voice drifted off and she looked to Yohji for help.

He smiled and reached across the table to pat her left hand.  "Just block things enough so you're only picking up general emotions and that'll be fine.  We'll ask that you don't influence any emotions on purpose unless it's for protection, and don't worry, there's been more than enough bounds here that we're used to someone's control slipping now and then."

Mickey coughed something into his hand that sounded suspiciously like 'Schuldig' while Jo groaned and shook her head.  "You can't be any worse than an overactive boy going through puberty," she told Bethwynn while rising from the table, "so don't worry too much if you do let something slip."  Her eyes narrowed and her hands settled on her hips as she looked the girl up and down.  "You need more in you than coffee and sweets, and those clothes are more threadbare than the rags we use on the floors.  Mickey, go see if her room will be ready soon and if there's any spare clothes that'll fit her."

"Yes, Jo."  Mickey gave Yohji a quick grin that clearly said no matter whose name was on the deed to the inn, Jo would always be in charge, and left the room to do her bidding.  Yohji snatched up a cinnamon roll and munched on it to see what his task would be while Jo fussed with things over by the stove.

Across the table, Bethwynn had the stunned expression rather familiar to most newly adopted strays.  "You'll learn quickly to just do what she says, she's always right and has your best interest at heart, even if it's usually to stuff you full of food and knock some sense into you," he whispered, thankful for bound hearing that should keep Jo from picking up on his sage advice.

Bethwynn gave him a confused look before turning toward Jo.  "Uhm...  I hadn't thought... that is... there's not much money.... I mean, I can...."

Jo stopped ladling some lamb stew into a bowl long enough to fix the poor girl with a very stern glare that put an end to the weak stream of words.  "You'll eat this, wash off all that dirt and have a soak, then get some rest.  Tomorrow we'll figure out what to do with you.  Touya's been complaining about the dishes, so you can start there, I suppose."

"Yes, ma'am," Bethwynn squeaked.

Fortunately, Yohji managed to get the smile off his face right before Jo turned her attention on him.  "As for you, go down to the hot spring and lock it up so she can have a bath in peace.  Once that's done, you can run some more food upstairs to Aya and Ed for lunch."  She sniffed in displeasure.  "Just make sure you don't bother Aya while he's busy doing work."

"Yes, ma'am," Yohji echoed, and this time did not bother to hide his smile as it was clear that Jo was loathe to tear into him as she normally would when it would run the risk of scaring off poor Bethwynn.  Hmm, this might work out to his advantage for the next few days....

*******

Return to Archive

Next Chapter