Chasing Threads

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chapter two

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of awakenings and relationships

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Schuldig 'felt' the world around him as he woke up, his eyes closed and body motionless, yet mind stirring as he left sleep behind.  Beside him was Masato, still asleep for once despite the fact that the man was usually dragging *him* from their nice, comfortable bed, because of some mental defect that he had failed to pass on to Yohji.  Why he was not up and about already, cooking breakfast or going on about starting their mission was a mystery to Schuldig, but he saw little reason to turn down a gift to the gods, another hour or two of sleep aside.  After a quick mental scan to make sure that all was mostly well around them, he smiled to himself and began to shift around on the bed, squirming about beneath the sheets to loosen them enough for him to turn over and face his mate.  Masato slept on his side with his arm draped over Schuldig's waist, a delightfully warm presence with all that golden, toned skin to touch and stroke. 

Schuldig inched forward and nibbled on his mate's stubbled chin as his hands stroked along Masato's broad, muscular chest.  At the physical contact, the mental link between them deepened, thoughts and emotions becoming more entwined, a wonderful mix of sleepiness, desire, love and hunger.  For someone who had spent of most his life sensing the thoughts and emotions of others, he was unable to imagine what it would be like to live without Masato in his head, to not wake up and either sense his mate slowly drift to consciousness or have a 'part' of him already be aware and facing the day.  On the rare mornings when he could start them out like this, feeling that drowsiness give way to pleasure and lust, to have that awareness come into focus and be directed all on him....  Well, it sure as hell beat getting a little more sleep, and the rush of sizzling emotions gave his body a jolt much more potent than a cup of coffee.

He was purring in delight by the time Masato was aware enough to start kissing him, large hands reaching to pull him closer, caressing up and down his naked back as their bodies pressed together.  <Always up to something, Brat,> was 'mumbled' across their link, Masato's thought processes slowly catching up to his body's actions.  Despite the accusatory tone to the words, those actions seemed very pleased at the moment as he rolled onto his back and pulled Schuldig on top of him. 

<Hmm, and here I thought you'd reward me for being up early for once.>  Schuldig pulled away just enough to end the kiss and pout down at his lover, drinking in the sight of Masato's tousled dark gold hair and handsome face.  <What ever happened to positive reinforcement?>

Masato laughed and gave him a gentle smack on the ass.  "Dammit, Schu, I've trouble keeping up with you when I'm wide awake, let alone still mostly asleep and half-mad with hunger."  He rocked his hips upward so Schuldig could feel just how aroused he was just then.  "I think it's safe to say you win this round."  From his thoughts Schuldig could tell that he did not really mind giving in to whatever crazy scheme was being used against him, as long as he had a happy mate in his arms to start the day.  That was pretty much what Schuldig had been counting on, along with Masato's succubae bound hunger, and he *always* did his best to get what he wanted.

"Good."  The purr roughened his words as he leaned forward, his left hand searching out the small jar of lube that they kept on the nightstand.  "Then you'll have no objections while I have my way with you."  The thought had entered his mind when he had seen his mate sleeping beside him, all his to be enjoyed and mark and keep, and if he had to spend the damn day doing a job for his bastard of a father then he wanted to at least start it off right.

Not that he had expected any resistance from Masato, but the assent he felt over their link, followed by a quick nod, made him smile and duck down for a quick kiss.  <Like I'm going to object to anything other than you leaving this bed right now,> Masato answered, his arms wrapping around Schuldig's back and his fingers tracing over the bumps of his spine until he shivered in reaction.

There were times when Schuldig wished that his lover put up more of a struggle; he was a contrary soul and did find a source of amusement out of conflict, in arguments and taking what he wanted.  Masato could never be called a weakling and he did stand up to Schuldig on matters that he thought were important, such as helping out Crawford and recruiting fellow bounds to fight in the war.  It was just... the man was just so damn *mellow*.  He could see where Yohji got the whole 'go with the flow' mentality from, refusing to put up a fight unless absolutely necessary.  While it meant that Schuldig usually got his way, sometimes it might be nice to have to work for it a little more.

<And then you would just sulk because you didn't get your way.  I think you like having things to bitch about, personally,> Masato shot back, having been able to follow Schuldig's thoughts with ease because of their bond.  <You say I worry too much about the future, I say you focus too much on what's in front of you - or not in front of you, as the case may be.  Guess we balance each other out.>

"I didn't wake you up to discuss my character flaws," Schuldig snapped as he sat back on his heels.  "Not unless it's about how I'm too much of a man for you to take."

Masato rolled his eyes as he pushed up onto his elbows.  "I forget how damn cranky you can be before your first cup of coffee."  He leaned in for a quick kiss.  <You're the one holding up on the great sex for sudden philosophical debates.  I'm beginning to wonder if I should contact Cassandra and ask her to check up on you,> he said as he turned over onto his stomach.

Schuldig gave his mate's right shoulder a shove to hurry things along, the grin back on his face as he regained some composure.  "Only if you want her to learn way too much about our sex lives in the next few minutes, because *that's* what I'm about to focus on *now*."  He undid the lid to the jar and scooted down a little farther along Masato's thighs.  "You better not be in a hurry to start working for that asshole father of mine," he asked as he slicked up his fingers.

"No, I'm just starving and getting a bit annoyed at being woken up with the promise of sex and so far being denied."  Masato glanced over his shoulder to glare at Schuldig, the expression softening a little as the slick fingers pressed against him.  He bent his knees and lifted his hips for better access without any prompting, smiling at Schuldig's appreciation of the view.  "What happened, ah, to you being the impatient one?"

"Wouldn't it suck for now to be the time when all your lessons kicked in, no?"  Schuldig snickered as he pushed a finger inside of his mate, conscious of the sense of pressure over their link easing before he added another.  His own hunger was growing, not as sharp as Masato's as he fed off of more general emotions than lust and pleasure, such as the constant stream of love and desire that came from his mate, but it was such an intoxicating rush moments such as this.  Sex with Masato would leave him buzzing for hours from the energy despite being drained by the succubae bound, a give and take that once again only proved how evenly balanced out they were.  He never was very good at waiting for what he wanted, impatient with need and his cock aching to be buried inside of his mate's body, to feel that heat and tightness squeezing around him.

He knew the second that Masato was prepared, his fingers pulling out after one final teasing flick against that spot which whet his appetite and made Masato squirm on the bed before him.  His mate was growling out his name as he slicked up his cock, those large hands he adored feeling all over his body reaching back for him to pull him forward, grasping his hips even as he shifted about on the bed.  <Who's impatient now?> was all he managed to send before he lined up and thrust forward, reveling in having a fellow bound as a lover, someone who could take the force from his hips and meet it, who would not break, whose mind was so entwined with his own that for a moment it felt as if it was *his* body being thrust into with a pleasure so sharp it drove the breath from his lungs.

It only got better from there.  Each touch, each slide of skin on skin, each thrust, each bite and lick and caress, it amplified *everything*.  They fed off of each other, energy and emotion pouring back and forth, thoughts bouncing around between them and utterly focused on each other, on the pleasure they felt and making it better.  They *knew* what to do to make the ecstasy burn even brighter and did it without thinking, someone's hand stroking along Masato's cock with just the right speed and tightness, another hand scratching down Schuldig's chest, their hips moving in perfect sync and tilting just *right* to hit that spot inside of Masato, causing muscles to clench around Schuldig's cock.  Schuldig bit down on his mate's shoulder, teeth leaving a deep, bruising mark and breaking skin, a sympathetic ache spreading along his own right shoulder as Masato yelled out his name.  Pleasure thundered through them, merging their emotions into one as it reached its apex then crashed into them both.

<Oh... bloody hell.>  Schuldig forced himself to roll off of Masato's back and onto of the bed once he felt he had some semblance of control over his body.  It always took several minutes to separate their thoughts and emotions after an orgasm, the pleasure binding them together so tightly as if it hated to let them go, and in a way he felt some reluctance to do just that.  He sometimes wondered if he and Masato were a little less individualistic what would happen to them some day....

<Great, so if I turn into a lazy brat then I know who to blame.>

Masato smiled when Schuldig managed a weak punch in his general direction.  In return, he reached out with a shaky right hand and tucked back a strand of hair sticking to Schuldig's forehead.  <If you're that worried about it, I guess we could cut back on the sex.>

<I think the sex just now was so good it fried your brain or something, Old Man.>  Schuldig sneered at his lover.  <Like you could go more than a day without me.>

<True.>  Masato smiled and closed his eyes.  <Give me a couple of minutes and I'll make us breakfast.  Then we can start work, I guess.>  Considering the sense of energy that now thrummed over their link, he seemed to lack any and all enthusiasm for the task ahead of them.

"Oh, sure, go ahead and ruin my day after such a great start."  Schuldig forced himself to sit up on the bed.  "Tell me again why we're working for that asshole?"

"Because your mother will be very upset with you if you don't, and there's no telling how many bounds that wizard might harm if we don't find him."  For such an easy-going man, there was a note of iron will in Masato's deep voice.  He sat up as well, his shoulder-length hair tousled around his face and his hazel eyes narrowed in a rare show of temper. "Look, I know how much you hate jumping whenever Crawford says so.  It's not fair that your whole life has basically been about fighting for this war."  He reached out to give Schuldig's back a gentle rub, which belied the angry focus of his emotions.  "But I spent decades on the run from a wizard a lot like this Garcia, and I refuse to do nothing while another bastard like Yoru wanders around the city looking for bound blood.  It's not just about Reno or Aya, Schu, or about Crawford.  If you're going to be shitty about this mission because your dad gave your orders, then stay at home while I look for Garcia on my own."

Schuldig twisted on the bed to better look at his mate, even though the emotions over their link told him that Masato was serious about everything he had just said.  He knew that Masato had spent years running because of his succubae blood, had left behind his first mate, Miyuki, in part because of Yoru and had stayed away from Yohji for so many years as well in fear of leading the wizard to his son.  Some of what made Masato so worried about the future was all that time on the run, and the years of hard living made Masato take *nothing* for granted.  Schuldig had thought that his mate had been rather easy on Crawford over the assignment and should have thought things through a little better.  Dammit, this really was more personal than his feelings over being bossed around by a man who had only taken part in his conception in order to have a weapon on hand to use during the war against the Elders.

<All right, dammit.>  He folded his arms over his chest as he glared at his mate.  <First, you're going to make me pancakes for breakfast, even if they're not as good as Jo's.  And I get to pick where we're having dinner tonight, too, since I doubt we'll be anywhere near the Koneko.  I also get to call Crawford whatever the hell I want since he's saddled us with this assignment and giving us shit-all little in the way of help to track down this Garcia.  I'll do my best, but no questioning my actions, okay?  All that matters is if what I do works, right?>

Masato stared back for several seconds.  <Just do your best to find the bastard, that's all I ask.>  Once again, he reached out to tuck back a strand of Schuldig's unruly hair, his fingers wrapping the reddish-orange strands around them a couple of times first.  <You're one of the most talented soul gaki bounds I've ever known despite your young age, and definitely the most powerful.  If you're serious about finding Garcia, he won't have a chance, not even in a city this size.>

<Damn right he won't.>  Schuldig leaned forward for a kiss, one that lingered for several seconds and only ended when he nipped Masato's bottom lip.  "Pancakes.  Oh, and coffee."

"Yes, oh impatient one."  Masato gave him a smack on the ass and got out of bed.  "Just make sure to leave some hot water for me or the wizard will be able to smell me coming."  He rubbed his bitten shoulder before pulling on a robe.

Schuldig thought that people being able to smell him on his mate would be a good thing - until he remembered that they had promised to visit his mother that morning.  Damn, he would just have to settle for having an obedient slave of a lover.

*******

Aya sat in his window seat and looked out over the garden; with summer fading into fall, some of the flowers had lost their blooms, but the trees were starting to shade into reds and golds and the many chrysanthemum plants were beginning to bud.  It was a lovely in-between time, the seasons fluctuating back and forth until fall won out entirely, with many benefits of both to be enjoyed until that time.  Considering how cold and snowy the previous winter had been, and that this one promised to be much of the same, everyone was determined to enjoy the bit of warmth that lingered as long as possible.  Summer had been a little colder and wetter than usual, a sign of how much the weather had been tampered with thanks to Esset, and was a taste of how things would be for years to come.  Even with the cousins safe up in the mountains, there was only so much that could be set to right before the war.

At least the garden had flourished despite the chancy weather.  Aya wished that he could have claimed responsibility for it, or at least more than the small part he did in reclaiming the grounds after the years of neglect following Miyuki's passing.  However, the vast improvement in the last few weeks had largely been due to the arrival of an earth elemental, one with an affinity for plants, who spent most of his days outside tending to the gardens.  Aya could sense Sebastian out there even now, near the wards around the lavender patch, and wondered what was being tended to today.  He felt a slight stab of jealousy, missing his time spent weeding the herb patch or looking after the roses, even though he had been in agreement to take in the bound and give him the task.  All too well he could remember how adrift he had felt after arriving at the Koneko and needing work to repay the inn's kindness; after so many years of abuse, it was not so simple to accept such a freely offered gift.  Sebastian has clearly been on the run from something, and ready to flee again rather than face what seemed to be a trap of generosity.  Having to work for his meals and room made the offer acceptable, and soon enough the Koneko's odd magic worked its spell and he ended up being adopted as a 'stray' as well.  That Aya lost some time out in the garden was a small price to pay for another bound's happiness.  Well, make that two bounds' happiness, in that Yohji was ecstatic that he no longer spent hours out in the sun 'playing in the dirt'.

Aya hated to admit it, but his mate had a point.  Perhaps it was from using his talent on a daily basis now, when at Timbergrey he had been limited to using it mostly for missions or training lest he offend the Takatori, but he found himself coping less and less well with sunlight.  If he went out on errands, he did his best to line his cloak or clothes with shadows to lessen the impact of it on him, and chose the shaded side of the street.  There was not always shade to be found in the garden, or shops to stop into in order to get some respite from the sun for a short while.  He wondered if the work he did for Birman and Yuushi was strengthening his shinigami nature, and knew there was little that he could do about it if that was the case.  Oaths had been sworn and there was a war approaching, and he was on a precipice of sorts.  He was still so young as bound considered things, doubly so for a shinigami, and necessary to get better control over his powers.  He needed to gain strength yet still retain some of the humanity that made him a kage and not a shinigami.

There were better things for him to spend his time on than tending to rose bushes and herb gardens, yet he missed them just the same.  That he would be unable to leave the Koneko's grounds unless on a mission for the foreseeable future only made it seem worse, as he could while away some of the time outside, yet he should be upstairs in the library sorting books or helping Omi practicing spells.  Perhaps he could go out one night with Yohji and sit beneath the stars amid the rose bushes and enjoy the garden... if his mate did not get side-tracked by the lavender patch.

As if sensing Aya's thoughts, Yohji began to stir in bed, pushing aside the dark green sheets as his left hand roamed about.  "Aya?" he asked, voice thick with sleep and emotions tinged with concern.

"Over here," Aya called out, feeling a little sorry now for leaving the bed even if he had been unable to go back to sleep over an hour ago and hated the thought of waking up his mate.

"Everything okay?"  Yohji kicked off the covers and got out of bed, hair tousled and eyes heavy-lidded, his emotions calming down as he realized that everything was all right.  He shuffled across the room and gave Aya a kiss on the forehead, waiting for Aya to tilt up his chin for a proper kiss.  "Hmm, the bed's more comfortable, you know.  Not to mention warm."  He motioned for Aya to shift forward so he could squeeze in behind him on the padded seat.

"That's what robes are for."  Aya hummed in pleasure when his lover's arms wrapped around him, as always happy to have Yohji near him.  "You were sleeping and I just couldn't lie still any longer."

Yohji nuzzled the side of his neck and hugged him close.  "There were... no bad dreams, right?"   He sounded regretful to ask the question, his emotions concerned as his right hand stroked up and down Aya's arm.

"No, nothing like that."  For once the nightmares had left him alone, it had just been restlessness that had driven Aya from bed.  He had debated going downstairs but had been reluctant to leave Yohji's presence, so settled for watching the sun rise through the sky above the garden.  "It's been a long time since I just sat here and watched over things."

"To think we used to lead such quiet lives."  Yohji chuckled for a few seconds, the sound warm and soothing, and gave Aya's neck a kiss.  "Maybe that's one good thing that'll come out of this.  How about I grab us some bottles of wine and some snacks tonight, and you leave off the books a little early?  There's no more fireflies for the season, but if it's a clear night we can watch the stars."

Aya smiled at the offer.  "That sounds wonderful."  All of a sudden, being restricted to the Koneko was not such a burden.  He knew that Yohji would never be far from his side, and chafed at him being confined just as much as he did.  "Maybe one night we can take a blanket and go down to the garden."

There was a warm, viscous flow of desire and hunger over their link.  "Mmm, you just might be able to talk me into that, Cat."  Judging from Yohji's lust-filled emotions, his mate was envisioning said blanket being spread out in the lavender patch.  Aya swallowed a sigh and barely resisted the urge to swing his elbow back into Yohji's ribs.

"I'd like to be able to watch the stars at some point in the evening," Aya muttered.

"Oh, you'll be seeing stars, I promise," Yohji promised in such a lascivious tone that this time Aya let loose with the elbow.  All the idiot did was laugh and press Aya's elbows to his side.  "I know, I know, 'behave'."  He kissed Aya's neck again.  "You all make it sound as if I'm nothing but naughty all the time."

"Well, you do sleep eventually," Aya pointed out, and earned another wonderful laugh.  He smiled a little in response, and tilted his head back so he could see his lover's grinning face.  Yohji no longer appeared sleepy, though his eyes were still heavy-lidded.  They sparkled with amusement and love as he trailed his fingers along the right side of Aya's face.  There was a rush of desire, for a moment Aya was unsure of if it was his or Yohji's, and then he was urged to sit up so Yohji could slide off of the bench.

"You haven't eaten breakfast yet, right?" Yohji asked as he headed for the wash basin. 

Feeling a bit bereft at the sudden abandonment, Aya shook his head.  "No." 

"Well, let's get something to eat, then see about a nice soak downstairs.  You need to keep your energy up."  The last words came out in a husky mumble before Yohji leaned forward to wash his face, which helped to clear up Aya's confusion.

Ah, so that was it.  Aya went to pick out his clothes for the day, feeling better about his mate's 'distance' now that he was reminded about Yohji's resolution to rein in his hunger as long as Aya had less opportunities to feed.  Since Aya was confined to the Koneko's grounds in order to avoid Garcia, there was little chance of him encountering any deaths.

"If Omi's not assisting Botan in creating more charms today, I may spend an hour or two helping him practice spells," he told Yohji as he dressed in dark blue pants with a light grey, long-sleeved tunic.  Once Yohji was finished washing up, he smiled in approval of the outfit, then chose brown pants with a cream colored loose shirt.

Yohji fussed with his wavy hair after pulling on his shirt.  "I don't know if I should be worried about the way the kid hasn't blown up the place yet.  I mean, when you compare his skills with Naru's...."

Aya held back on the comment that his wards prevented such an accident from happening in the first place, since he knew that was not the point that his lover was trying to make.  "He is very powerful.  I think it's a mix of his talent and the care that Botan's taking in his lessons."  How many wizards could say that they had personally been trained by a Royal Wizard?  Usually wizards of that rank only oversaw special students that they took on after the young men spent years studying under other teachers to reach a certain level of skill, whereas Omi had learned everything from Botan.  From what Aya understood, Botan was skipping over a lot of the 'basics' and teaching the boy what boiled down to be the essentials of magic, certain that Omi could handle the more complex concepts and spells.  Considering how little time they had before the war started, no one could argue with Botan as long as Omi proved himself capable of absorbing the lessons.

"Ah well, guess it's a good thing he never was much of a brat, or else he'd be getting revenge on me now for spanking his ass red!"  Yohji laughed as he held the door open for Aya.  "There's no way I'd have watched over him for years and let him get away with stuff if he'd been spoiled."

They made their way to the kitchen, the sounds of the inn reaching them all the way to the back stairs.  It was going to be another busy day at the Koneko, things becoming lively once more as another caravan season approached.  There would be an influx of guests looking for rooms, and even more people stopping by for meals in-between shopping.  That the inn boasted a Harper in residence had only added to its appeal, especially since a friend or two of Koyu's could be found joining him on most nights.  Aya frowned as he thought of one friend in particular, an older master Harper who loved to ask him lots of questions about how he had spent his day and what he thought about various things, whose presence always made Koyu and Teddy anxious for some reason. 

The Koneko needed each and every one of the new employees it had hired recently, from the part-time workers who helped in the main room to the new strays it had taken in.  Aya supposed he would get used to them in time, that they would become 'family' much in the way that Jo, Mickey and the rest had, trusted friends if not family in the true sense.  However, being a shinigami bound made forming new bonds rather difficult for him.  The main thing was to know that he could trust these people and to accept that they had every right to this home that he did.

As usual, the kitchen was full of people as they ate breakfast, though judging from the sight of only two dark blue uniforms, Yuushi, Eri and Naru had already left for the day.  Ken and Miko were seated at one of the tables, along with Neely, Ani, Mickey, Jo and the new hire, while Maddox and Kira were busy preparing food.  Since Nagi was gone as well as Omi, Aya assumed that the two young men were at the palace.  He glanced at Ken and raised his left eyebrow as he sat down, his left hand motioning at the spot at the table where the two teenagers would usually sit.

"Eh?"  Ken paused to shove an entire cinnamon roll into his mouth and swallowed.  "Oh, Omi and Nagi?  Yeah, Botan sent a message last night asking them to stop by this morning, something about a shipment of stones.  I think he wanted Nagi to do his thing with them."  He wiped his mouth with the back of his right hand.

Miko rolled her eyes at her partner's manners.  "They asked us to let you know where they were and said that they should be back this afternoon."  She sipped her coffee.  "They went with Eri and Naru to the palace."

Even though Aya knew that Nagi was more than powerful enough to look after himself and that Omi would never allow anyone to harm his boyfriend, he was reassured by hearing about the 'escort'.  "Thank you."  He repeated the words when Maddox set a plate of scrambled eggs, bacon and toast in front of him, followed by a pot of tea.

"Hmm, I'm willing to bet that Omi will make a stop or two at various flavored ice stands along the way home today."  Yohji frowned into his mug of coffee for a moment.  "You'd think after eating so many of them, all that sweetness would temper Nagi's sour disposition."  He managed to move his leg out of the way just in time to avoid a kick from Aya. 

Jo snorted in amusement as she looked up into the heavens.  "All this time, and I never could understand why the gods made Aya your mate and not Nagi.  Clearly the two of you were meant for each other."  Around the table there were various sounds of choking from anyone who had been unlucky enough to be eating or drinking when she made such a comment.  For his part, Aya raised his just-filled mug of tea to the woman in appreciation, and set it down in time before his mate clutched him to his side.

"Don't *say* things like that!  What if they hear you and think you're serious?"  Yohji whimpered in mock fear as he nuzzled Aya's neck. 

Ken finally cleared his throat and laughed.  "Oh sweet gods, what I wouldn't give to see that happen!  Even if the Koneko wouldn't be standing for more than a day afterward!"  He mimicked something flying through the air and smacking into his left hand, which then fell down.

Mickey glared at Ken for his audacity, even if his lips kept twitching upward in an attempt to smile.  "There are much better ways to renovate than by having Yohji flung through walls, thank you very much!  Though it might save money in the long run."  His expression turned thoughtful.

"Oh, thanks a lot, Mick!"

Neely frowned at Yohji as he glared at his foster-brother.  "You should be very grateful for any mate the gods decide to send you, even if it is Nagi!" she chided him.  "Many bounds would consider themselves very fortunate to receive such a blessing!"  Aya's mate actually began to squirm from the force of her disapproving stare, despite the fact that she was several years younger and several inches shorter than him.

"Yes, Yohji, one mustn't be ungrateful about a gift from the gods," Ani added, her hands covering her mouth as she struggled not to giggle.

While everyone joined in on teasing Yohji, Bethwynn looked around the room with an expression of such confusion on her face, Aya felt a stab of sympathy for her.  He knew that he had been left stunned by the camaraderie shown by the staff here after so much isolation, unable to tell friendly teasing from insults at first.  Yet how did he explain things to the young woman when there were still times when he did not understand it himself?  All he could do was catch Jo's attention and nod in Bethwynn's direction.

Thankfully, Jo caught on quickly.  "Ah well, as much fun as it is to tease Yotan, the gods knew what they were doing when they paired him with Aya and Nagi with Omi," she said, putting an end to all of the jokes.  "Now I suppose we can sit back and wait to see who else they bring together."  She motioned at Aya's untouched plate and frowned, causing him to pick up a piece of bacon and start eating.

Now that the focus was off of him, Yohji draped his left arm over Aya's shoulder and smiled, his emotions calmer with a thread of mischief.  "Oh, I hear a wedding's the perfect place for people to meet."  He looked right at Mickey as he bit into his piece of toast.

For such a large, usually imperturbable man, Mickey blushed and appeared flustered at the comment.  "Uhm."  He opened his mouth a time or two after that and then gulped down the rest of his coffee.

Kira left off preparing more scrambled eggs to defend her fiancé, her hands resting on his broad shoulders as she stood behind him.  "Oh hush, Yotan.  You won't be rushing my big day unless you're going to start working on embroidering my dress for me, as well as the rest of my hope chest and a half of other things I bet that if I went into details with right now I'd have you squirming your way underneath the table!"  She grinned in triumph when Yohji threw his hands up in defeat and laughed.

"All right, I give, I give!  I just think it's going to be one hell of a party, whenever the two of you finally settle on a date."  His smile took on a sad edge, as did his emotions.  "It's the one good thing we're looking forward to right now."

Aya nudged his lover in the side and tried to feel as reassuring as he could.  "I thought Mickey wanted to buy the rest of the block before he set the date," he said, mentioning the one topic that he knew made everyone laugh.  As always it did the trick - well, Mickey groaned and shook his head.

"You know, go ahead and tease me, but I sure as hell don't hear any complaints about being so ambitious when it's time to hand out the shares."  He folded his arms over his chest and managed to look very put-upon for a minute, until Kira patted him on the shoulders, whispered something in his ear and gave him a kiss on the cheek before returning to the stove.

Neely nodded as she helped herself to several more orange jam tarts.  "I know that Mom's very happy to have some money to put away.  You'd think she's a banker and not a healer with the way she can go on about interest rates sometimes."  She frowned at a tart before taking a bite out of it.

Ken groaned and leaned forward onto the table, his arms folded before him.  "Please, wait until you get enough of the Shadow Guard together and they all start talking about pensions and saving accounts and the such.  It sucks all the joy I'm beginning to have at the thought of not growing old any time soon."  He made a sour face until Miko poked him in the side, then gave her a thoughtful look.  "Then again, I can make fun of certain people as they get all wrinkled and fat, so maybe it won't be as bad as I think."

"Bastard," Miko muttered as she poured them both some more coffee.

"But a young, cute one for centuries to come," Ken pointed out with obvious pride, and laughed when Miko tried to poke him in the ribs again.

Throughout all the complaining and teasing, Bethwynn sat with her eyes very wide and her lips pressed tightly together, as if afraid of saying anything.  She looked back and forth between the various bounds and humans, as if amazed at the way they interacted with each other, daring to touch one another and joke about things such as extended life spans and mating bonds.  Aya supposed that she would have to learn that such things were normal at the Koneko, and wondered if she knew yet what he was.  Considering that she looked him in the eye when he glanced in her direction, he doubted that she did.  He was in no hurry to reveal the truth to her.  The whole flinching away in terror routine got very tiring very quickly, as did the other most common reaction, which was being treated in awe as if he was the savior of the bound race.  He merely wished to be left alone so he could live in peace until the war, kill the Elders' lackeys and then resume his quiet life here at the Koneko.

"Well, as fun as it is to watch Miko put Ken in his place and to tease Yotan, I promised Zhing that I'd meet her so we could do some shopping."  Ani had a wistful smile on her face as she rose from the table.  "I swear, each year I need to buy more and more yarn for Solstice presents." 

Jo reached into her pocket to fetch a small piece of folded paper.  "If you don't mind, there are a few items I need for Ichiro and myself."  Ani nodded as she accepted the list, her smile strengthening as Jo gave her a quick kiss on the cheek in thanks.

"Well, if you're going to run errands for an ingrate like Jo," Yohji drawled, grinning when Jo tried to scowl at him for the slight to her name only to give in after a few seconds and shake her head in hopelessness.  "There's a couple of things you can pick up on the way back from the wool market. I bet you probably know what they are." He inclined his head in Aya’s direction.

Ani laughed as she tucked Jo's list into the leather purse on her belt and came around the table to she could accept the handful of coins that Yohji held out to her.  "How can anyone say 'no' to you, Yotan?"  She laughed some more, the sound bright and happy, when he moved with blurring speed to pull the pink ribbon tied around her dark brown ponytail free.  "Aya needs to bite you some more."

"Don't give him any ideas, darling.  There's a couple of coins there for some new ribbons, if Zhing doesn't mind."  Yohji winked as he handed back the ribbon that matched her tunic.

"She knows you're taken and I'm faithful."  Ani paused to retie the ribbon around her hair and then headed for the door, as always so cheerful at the prospect of spending part of the day with her girlfriend.  Aya felt a quick stab of envy that she was able to go about so freely, which he pushed aside so he could finish his breakfast.  One of the things that had been ingrained into him early on in life was that sometimes one had to accept what fate had dealt you and bear the burden as best as possible.  After spending so many years for all intents and purposes trapped in two small rooms, he could deal with remaining within the Koneko's grounds for a couple of weeks unless there was an urgent mission.  However, his resolve to not brood over his situation aside, if he found out that Schuldig was failing to take the mission to find Garcia seriously, then he would use the soul gaki bound for target practice one evening.

"Uhm, I don't know what you're thinking about, Cat, but I think you need to chomp on more bacon before you decide my poor shoulder is an acceptable substitute," Yohji mumbled.  His mate gave him a kiss on the forehead before leaving the table with both their plates in his hands to wheedle refills of breakfast from Kira, who was only too happy to oblige.  During that time, it appeared that Bethwynn had reached her limit of the human/bound interaction that she could take for the morning, as she quietly left her empty plate on the table and approached Jo.

"Ma'am, is it time to start my shift?"  Her voice was soft and betrayed her nervousness, as did the way her hands twisted the material of her dark blue skirt.

Jo looked her up and down, as if to make sure she was properly rested and fed, and then motioned to Maddox with her right hand.  "Maddox will explain to you what to do with the dishes."  The young man was more than ready to do just that; he stood by the sink with a pale yellow apron in his hands ready for the bound, a friendly smile on his face.

As Maddox taught Bethwynn what to do with the dirty dishes, Yohji continued to shamelessly flirt with Kira, Ken and Miko fought over the last of the jam tarts while Mickey and Neely watched on and laughed, Aya sipped his tea and looked at Jo.  She shrugged and poured herself more coffee.  "Touya's at the age now where he wants to have evenings free to hang out with his friends and mature enough to watch the front door.  He doesn't have a problem dealing with people and he has a good sense of them, so it's a waste to keep him in here or running food," she said to his unasked question about Bethwynn's job assignment.

"You, Mickey and Yohji know best."  As far as Aya was concerned, if the three of them were happy with the way things were run at the inn, then he had no questions or issues with their decisions.  They had spent most, if not all, of their lives here, and had connections to the place that he never would.  He suspected that it was more than the fact that he was a shinigami bound.

"What do I know best?" Yohji asked as he returned with their food.  "Hmm?  How to be an amazing-"  Fortunately, a stern look from Jo put an end to the conversation, considering that Neely was still seated at the table.  Yohji leaned over and nuzzled Aya's right ear.  "We'll finish this topic later," he whispered.  Love, hunger and desire flowed over their link, making Aya shiver as he lifted a piece of bacon to his mouth.  Perhaps it was a good thing that he was having seconds of breakfast.

*******

Heero saw the blade coming at him and spun to avoid it, swinging his own sword up as he pivoted on his left heel.  If only he could use his bound speed - Major Marquis was very fast for a human and was pushing him to his self-imposed limits, would be a challenge for a minute or two if he was able to fight at full ability.  He reminded himself of the importance of his mission and tried not to feel the sting of defeat when reverberating force made him lose hold of his weapon and pain flared along his right forearm.

"Hold!"  Lieutenant Noin called out Heero's sword dropped to the pounded sand of the practice ground.  Major Marquis took a quick step back, his sword held to the side as he paid Heero careful attention, his handsome face unmarred by sweat and his tinted glasses settled in place on his nose.  Only his long, pale blond hair showed any sign of the recent work-out, the almost white strands slightly tousled from rapid movement.  He made an inspiring picture of what an Army officer should be - tall, lean, impeccable, sharp.  Heero found himself wishing the man had been born a bound.

"Your skills have been improving, Private Yuy.  It's harder to take advantage of your left side," the major commented as he bowed slightly and sheathed his sword.

Heero felt a strange flush of heat across his cheeks as he bowed deeper before bending forward to retrieve his sword.  "Thank you."  He had been spending as much time as he could practicing, to the point that his fellow platoon members groaned and begged off whenever he asked for a sparring partner.  While he had picked up some skill over the years by training with Wufei and Trowa, he lacked both of their skill and had relied more on his own powers and hand to hand combat.  It was much easier to complete missions when he was unencumbered by heavy weapons, and he had been overlooked numerous times as a suspect because of such a lack of 'evidence'.  He had learned only enough to protect himself should he find himself in a fight with such weapons, and now needed to improve those skills if he wanted to advance in Kritiker's army.  That it also raised his esteem in the Major's eyes... was not critical to the mission, he told himself.  Where did such a useless emotion stem from?

"They say you're just about the only one who can beat him, Sir," Lieutenant Noin commented as she approached them, a pleased smile on her face as she stood a couple of feet away, her hands clasped behind her back.  Like the major, she was immaculately dressed, her short, black hair neatly combed and her uniform free of any dirt or wrinkles.  "Maybe we should station the two of you on the front lines should there be the need for any action, and the rest of us can take it easy."

A slight smile teased the corners of Major Marquis' lips.  "As if you'd just sit things out during a battle, Lieutenant."  He removed the white leather gloves from his hands and brushed back a long strand of hair that clung to the front of his dark blue jacket.  "And speaking of 'battles', I believe we've a short amount of time to make ourselves presentable before we're due at the palace for General Marko's discussion on troop re-organization."  The faint smile vanished, replaced by a displeased twist of the lips.  Noin was more evident in her unhappiness, her dark blue eyes narrowed and her brow furrowed. 

When Heero moved to follow, Lieutenant Noin held out her hand and shook her head.  "Continue your work-out or your muscles will get sore.  Then report to Sergeant Anderson to assist in organizing the reports we received from Major Hughes' department."

For a moment, Heero almost opened his mouth to argue with her.  Being able to overhear the discussion about troop re-organization was very important, and he had been doing his best to be assigned as Major Marquis' attaché during the discussions at the palace.  Yet for the past few days, he kept being assigned to other duties, and there would only be a few more meetings held on the topic, from the little he *had* been able to pick up.  The tiny bits of information he had been able to glean from overheard conversations had amounted to very little, and left him feeling as if he was letting the Elders down on his mission.

He also had been unable to see Relena in almost two weeks.  An uncomfortable tightness in his chest made him frown at Noin's retreating back as he began a series of practice movements with his sword, the patterns so routine that he flowed through them mindlessly.  Why did a human affect him this much?  She held some value to his mission in that she was the sister to his commanding officer and thus a potential hostage, despite the fact that the Major had done his best to sever all ties to his family for some reason that Heero had failed to uncover in the short amount of time he had been in the city.  Local convention held that the Major seeked fame and glory through military connections, something that would have been denied through the pacifistic constraints of his family had he not disinherited himself, but the man that Heero had studied with careful intent these last few months was much too honorable to be concerned with such things.  No, he was certain that if the girl was in danger, the Major would risk much for her well-being.

Despite her youthfulness, Relena had enough status in Court to have an idea of what was going on in a lot of those private meetings between highborns, ministers and officials.  It was clever of Heero to cultivate a friendship with her and gain her trust, in order to be able to finagle whatever secrets he could out of her and send them back to Esset.  The Elders were pleased with him in managing such a relationship with a highborn and understood that it would take him some time to be able to report anything of interest, considering that his nature was not one where he could entice the truth, such as a water elemental or a succubae bound, nor could he just pry it from the girl's thoughts.  Never had he been so frustrated with his own talents before - at least, when he was away from Relena and focused on his mission.  When he was with her, often all he could think of was not to come across as too much of an idiot and how completely different they were.  Oh, and how much she made him feel at peace.

He slashed his sword through the air as if it were his own confusing emotions that he were cutting down.  How could one person make him feel this way?  He needed to talk to someone about this, and the only one who came to mind was Trowa.  Unfortunately, just as he had been unable to see Relena lately, the same applied to his friend.  Between their work schedules and Heero being kept mostly on the Army base, they had been unable to meet up.  He would have to do his best to arrange a meeting in the evening some time soon.  While Trowa was not the most outgoing person around, he was one of Esset's best double-agents and seemed to understand emotions, if unwilling to partake in them himself.  He should be able to clear up any confusion that Heero was suffering from and put his mind at ease.  It had to be a simple case of being in unfamiliar territory - of dealing with so many highborn and humans on a daily basis, when in the past Heero's missions had been of a more temporary nature.  He had gone in, killed or obtained what was necessary and gotten back out.  Really, all of this subterfuge was more the expertise of Trowa and Duo, not himself.  He was only here because the Elders had asked such a thing of him.  That they did meant that he would do whatever was necessary to make sure he never let them down.

There was so much wealth and beauty here in Kritiker.  Each day he was amazed anew by something - the abundance of wildlife in *city parks*, the ability to wander down a street and have so much food available, the Royal Library with its wealth of knowledge from around the world....  Kritiker had not been punished as Esset had by its refusal to hunt down bounds and kill them for an accident of birth and blood.  Kritiker had been accepted by its neighbors for a policy of genocide that it had embraced against a race that had helped it win a war.  All the things that made this country so beautiful would soon belong to Esset and would be enjoyed by bounds, the same race that had made it possible for Kritiker to enjoy so much prosperity.  This country and its people would pay for its betrayal, for turning against the bounds who had not asked to be created to fight a war they had no part in.

Heero pushed away the distracting thoughts and focused on his sword practice.  He would push himself to be the best that he could be in body, mind and talent, his two souls united and intent on victory.  Nothing would distract him from his mission.  He would ensure a future for his kind, something more than just 'existing' that they did now in Esset.  All the grand hopes and dreams that the Elders had told him about would come true, a time of peace and prosperity, even if he had to bring it about through fire and blood.  It would be worth it in the end, despite all the betrayal and death.  It had to be.  Once the war was over everything would be better.  He would fight for that future.

*******

Rufus strolled through the gathering of highborns, a pleasant smile on his face and a half-empty cup of tea held cradled in his hand.  He was well-prepared to deal with Kritiker's Court today, dressed in impeccable white and black clothes that displayed his wealth with their fine material and craftsmanship, adorned here and there with precious metals and gemstones, and his mental link with Reno stifled just enough to prevent unwelcome emotions from influencing his actions.  At his back were Tseng and Elena, their outfits almost mirror images of his with black and white, leather and thick cotton and wool in stark cuts to reflect their gokenin status almost as much as their deadly grace. 

He had caused some talk when he first arrived in Eto with his refusal to be without his gokenin, various rumors going back and forth about the reasons for it.  Many of them fueled the alibi that the Elders and Crawford had provided him with leaving Esset - that he had done so to flee their displeasure - so he was content to let them breed unchecked.  Some commented on the streak of egotism that ran in his family, the need for attention, while others suggested that perhaps he still had too many ties to Esset and should not be trusted around the king.  Rufus ignored those rumors, uncaring what others thought about him and unconcerned if people imagined him to be a possible traitor when the king, through his Spymaster, knew the truth.  He trusted very few people in this world, and most of them were his gokenin.  Having them at his back put him at ease and allowed him to carry on with what needed to be done, it was as simple as that.  Considering that he was in a large banquet room that harbored some people who would willingly betray their own king and country, let alone a man whose blood was half that of an enemy state, he felt that he was justified in taking appropriate precautions.

Besides, Tseng was one of the most observant people whom Rufus had ever known, and Elena had a seemingly innocent air about her that made people careless around her.  Combine those two facts with their enhanced bound senses and they could glean the room for almost as much information that Rufus could obtain by scanning the minds that he came across during various conversations and introductions.  At least they would leave the gathering without suffering from a headache, Rufus thought with some envy as he sipped his tea.

Over the link he shared with Reno, he sensed growing boredom, frustration and unhappiness.  He paused for a minute under the pretext of examining an artful arrangement of roses and lilies to send a wave of similar emotions, doing his best to let his mate know that he was equally displeased with the situation.  Under ideal circumstances Reno would be here with him, grumbling about stupid tea parties and women who wore an overabundance of perfume and the such, but it was too much of a risk.  Lord Cheung had brought a mage in his entourage to the gathering, something about the man hoping to speak with the delegate from Xan who remained at the palace about a possible knowledge exchange.  Rufus' chest had grown tight at the sight of the dark-haired man wearing the brown tunic, and he had to rein in his talent before it tore through the mage's mind to verify if he was Victor Garcia.  Once he had his emotions under control and could rely upon the shinigami nature he had 'absorbed' from Reno to prevent the mage from detecting that his thoughts were being read, he had searched through them for his true identity.

The mage was safe as he was not Garcia nor did he know where the other wizard was, but it still proved Rufus' point that it was too dangerous to bring Reno to the palace for the time being.  Not that he expected Reno to see sense any time soon, especially considering the increased frustration and unhappiness he received as a response to his attempt at a 'peace offering'.  Dammit, why did the man have to be so stubborn?  How was it Rufus' fault that Reno was born such a rare type of bound that most wizards would want to drain him of his blood and almost all humans would want him dead in an instant?  He was just trying to keep the idiot safe at the moment, and that meant out of sight of any people who might recognize him for what he was.  Once Garcia was captured, interrogated and executed, then Reno could go about gallivanting around the city, playing with the shadows and trying to get himself killed by an angry mob.

Glaring at a particular rose with petals as red as fresh blood, Rufus debated blocking the link for the duration of the social gathering when he sensed several people approaching.  He did his best to school his features and stepped back from the arrangement as he heard his name be called out.

"Lord Shinra.  I did not expect you to be such an admirer of flowers."  Lady Meara motioned to the arrangement of roses and lilies.  "I thought your family appreciated the aesthetics of the handiwork of men, not nature."  Beside the revered Minister stood Judge Okihara and Lord Satoru, the current Konno heir.  They made a striking threesome, Lady Meara the oldest by far and dressed in a simple robe of fine, dark blue linen, Judge Oki wearing a severe outfit of black tunic and skirt and Lord Satoru managing to tone down the family colors of bright orange and blue a little with his formal tunic and pants.  They did not have much in common, other than their unwavering loyalty to King Shuiichi. 

Rufus set aside his cup of tea and executed a flawless bow to the minister.  "You speak the truth, Lady Meara, but I've been taught to recognize beauty in all its forms."  A slight bit of flattery there, if one chose to see it, something that Lady Meara would have the wit to appreciate if not the pride to take to heart.   Judging from the slight twitch of her lips and the lightening of her emotions with amusement, she did take the compliment for what it was meant to be and nothing more.

"Such a polite young man.  No wonder you do so well at whatever Court you find yourself in."  There was a slight sting in the words, which were at odds with her emotions.  That discordance put Rufus on guard, making him stand up straight and scan the area around him as surreptitiously as he could with both sight and talent.  As could be expected with having three people of relatively high rank gathered around him, a good bit of attention was focused in his direction, people giving up on their discussions in hopes of overhearing what was about to be said.

He brushed an imaginary speck of dust from the left sleeve of his white jacket as he sent a mental command to Tseng and Elena to not be alarmed.  "I've only been to two Courts in my lifetime. I wasn't aware that they qualified as such a high number," he commented as nonchalantly as possible.

Before any of the three could speak, a page stepped forward to retrieve Rufus' abandoned tea cup, all but invisible to most of the people in the room in his red uniform.  Years of learning to control his emotions kept Rufus from reacting as he recognized the other bound, his eyes blinking rapidly as he saw through the illusion that hid Trowa's auburn hair, green eyes and golden skin tone.  <Birman is interested in seeing if a certain story regarding you reaches the Elders' ears, and how,> the water element explained as he bowed and slipped aside.

Ah, that would account for the hostile air he received from Lady Meara and her friends, which did not match with their emotions and thoughts.  Rufus managed a slightly mocking smile and waited for one of them to respond to his comment about the number of Courts he had attended.

"Still, two is more than many of us can say," Judge Okihara commented at last, disdain clear on her high-pitched voice as she clasped her hands behind her back as if preparing to give a lecture.  "We have been *proud* to serve Kritiker and King Shuiichi as long as we have been able, not to show up on his doorstep as if to hide from some well-deserved punishment."

So that was the game they were willing to play, Rufus thought to himself as he mirrored the Judge's pose, a slight bit of mockery if one chose to take it that way.  "Ah, that rumor again."  He shook his head and managed a patronizing smile.  "I came to Kritiker to see for myself the conditions of my mother's estates.  The reports that I've been receiving for the last few years have been... unsatisfactory to say the least, and the matter had been put off for far too long."  There was some truth in to his words; he had neglected his mother's estates for a year or two longer than was wise, caught up in the business he had inherited from his father.  If he had not returned when he had, there would have been considerable damage to the house in the city in another winter like the past one.

"Hmph."  Lord Satoru stepped forward so he was no longer overshadowed by his two companions.  "Are we to assume that nothing that happened at the Court in Esset had any bearing on your presence here?"  As soon as he said the words, the young lord's cheeks flushed; most watching the exchange would assume the color to be a response to high emotion, that of someone who was known for his fierce loyalty to the king questioning a possible traitor.  Rufus picked up on Satoru's regret on his poor choice of wording, yet still wanted to throttle the idiot.  If he was not the expert in wordplay that Lady Meara and Judge Okihara were, then he should have left the speaking to those highly skilled ladies.

Still, the cat was out of the bag, as the saying went, and the young lord had only voiced what many people were thinking.  "The only thing that happened in Esset is that I realized that it would be a good time to look into my mother's holdings and perhaps see about doing a bit of business in Kritiker," he replied with as much composure as he could muster.  A small smile played across his lips.  "I fear my blood is tainted by my father's lineage, after all."  The joke about father's 'merchant' status - never mind that the business he had inherited was worth much more than the combined wealth of many of the highborns here - helped to dispel the serious air that had overtaken the room.  It would also reinforce the comment he had made about 'doing business in Kritiker' and there would be a whole new set of rumors circulating later, if he were any judge of human nature.

Lady Meara's face was taut with disgust, her hands clenched in her skirts as if to keep the material from touching Rufus and becoming tainted.  Judge Okihara managed a less pained expression as she bowed her head slightly.  "I suppose that you, as a merchant first," she put an emphasis on the last two words to ensure that they came across as an insult, "must be concerned about such business arrangements.  We should have considered that."  Her tone disagreed with her words, making it clear that she believed such concerns to be reprehensible.  However, her emotions and thoughts, along with Lady Meara's, were of respect for a game well-played, along with some regret for their current show of behavior.  He had a feeling that he would be receiving notes of apologies from them later, and looked forward to a long discussion with Birman at the Koneko in the near future.  How had the Spymaster gotten these two formidable women to play along like this?  He wanted to both throttle Birman for this charade and give her some well deserved dues.

"We're sorry for disturbing you," Lord Satoru said as he executed a stilted bow.  There was a fleeting thought that he would probably pay Rufus a visit later on, an intermediary for the two women to apologize for the ruse.  No doubt he would put on a show about ordering a sword or knife from Rufus and at the same time put him down to his friends, which was nothing new.  Rufus was used to being insulted or treated as an object of curiosity because of his Esset blood and his 'merchant' father.  If only these fools knew that he was also a bound and could read their thoughts, could feed off of their emotions and would outlive them by centuries....

"It's all right," he answered, his hands rising to rub his temples as his head began to ache from the press of so many emotions.  "I'm sure you were doing what you thought best."  The words came out as condescending as he could make them, not aimed so much at the threesome before him but at all the humans in the room.  They played their games, maneuvered to rise in rank at Court to be close to the king, to be appointed to positions that they believed to have power, and so very few of them realized that the next few years would be decided by almost *none* of those positions.  The Crown Prince, Spymaster and Royal Wizard would have some say, yes, the King even less, and other than that... what would they do if they found out that a human at a 'humble' inn had more say in deciding the fate of their country than they did, despite their rank or bloodlines?  That by far, those who *would* be influencing the future for the next few years would be bounds, most of them born out of common lineages. 

All of a sudden, he understood why Reno detested coming to the palace so much.  Why his mate believed spending any time at all in a Court - be it here or in Esset - was such a waste of time.  He had thought that perhaps Reno's uneducated nature blinded the redhead to the politics that went on in such environments, the jockeying for power that accompanied almost every action and word, how one had to weigh every thought and emotion.  Now, Rufus was left wondering if it was Reno's shinigami nature that rejected such surroundings instead, and just how much of themselves bounds had lost playing these games - had the *Elders* lost.  In their striving to be accepted by the human Courts around them, had they modeled their own too closely on their peers and fallen into the trappings of humanity?  Had that been part of what had gone wrong, of what had led them to stray from championing their own kind to becoming tyrants?

He usually reveled in such environments, yet now he struggled to hold back his talent from ripping through the minds around him and baring the information that he needed.  Even now, knowing the Spymaster's need of such an exchange that just happened, he felt oddly drained by the encounter.  There was little doubt in his mind that word would get back to the Elders, and even the fact that it would be favorable in his regard did little to cheer him on.  They would know that he was indeed ingratiating himself in the Court, as expected, 'pretending' to sell quality weapons to the 'enemy’.  What a good lackey he was being, yes?  When had such powerful beings become reduced to this?

Despite his earlier impulse, he opened his link with Reno.  His mate was still upset with him and seething about being restricted to the mansion grounds, but something in his emotions must have become apparent to Reno as the dubhach for once did not berate him with endless complaints.  <Eh, what happened?>

<Nothing... worth explaining now, when there's a depressing lack of liquor around.>  Rufus once more resumed 'appreciating' the floral arrangement as Lady Meara and her company made their leave.  <Go tell Albert to open several bottles of the red wine that arrived from Jun's shop for dinner, please.>  Just the exchange of thoughts and emotions helped to center him, something that would have panicked him months ago.  Like it or not, the mating link was irrevocable, and the less he struggled against it the less damage it did to his relationship with Reno.

There was a sense of puzzlement for a few seconds, followed by a flash of annoyance.  <What, am I your message boy now?>

<Yes, especially if you expect to partake in any of that wine.>  Despite all of the changes that had happened over the last year, Rufus still enjoyed needling his lover.  He made sure to partially block the link in time to save himself a headache.

<Highhanded bastard!  You get off on ordering people around or what?  I'll fucking tell him to open the wine, just so I can spit in it!>  Reno's emotions were furious enough to back that threat, but Rufus' staff had enough experience dealing with the temperamental redhead to be on their guard around him.  No, Rufus was certain that now he had ensured an angry mate who would need to be placated when he returned home, one who would probably vent some of that temper by fighting with Rude out in the garden rather than brooding in a dark bedroom with hissing shadows who would place the gods know what thoughts in his head.  Rufus much favored the first, even if he would most likely end up with a back scratched raw and short a crate of wine by the end of the night.

However, first he had to get through the rest of the afternoon.  He was turning from the flowers with the intention of resuming his stroll through the room when he noticed that Trowa was once again approaching him, a silver tray held in his hands.  On the tray was a pale blue and gold porcelain cup filled with tea, its steaming aroma a welcome remedy for Rufus' slight headache.  "Tea, sir," Trowa asked in a soft voice, his eyes downcast.

"Yes."  Rufus accepted the cup with barely a glance at the younger bound.  <Don't tell me that I have to put on another show,> he sent with some annoyance.

<No, that should be all for today.  Birman appreciates your help and asked me to pass on that she'll be at the Koneko in the next day or so.>  Trowa's mind was focused and quiet, indicating years spent learning mental shields to hide all but his surface emotions and thoughts.  Rufus could sense a hint of something beneath the shields, something that belied the calm exterior the water elemental displayed to the world, and had the sense to not push past them; he had heard enough stories about Trowa to know it would be foolish on his part to indulge in the curiosity.

<Tomorrow or the day after... should be doable.>  It would also serve to appease one rather riled mate, he suspected.  Perhaps Tseng could feed on the way home, providing some nourishment for Reno as well, which would improve Reno's mood.

As he sipped his tea, Rufus glanced out at the room, his eye catching sight of some of the highborn ladies.  If Reno was here, no doubt his lover would be making insulting remarks under his breath about their apparel - or the lack of it, with the current fashion of corsets and little else - and perfume, their seeming lack of intelligence and desperation to land a 'suitable' husband.  At least they could be easily appeased with the prospect of some money and a title, Rufus thought a bit darkly as he considered what awaited him at home.

*******

Botan examined the stones that were spread out on his desk, their deep blue color twinkling like pieces of captured clear sky.  The large, rectangular-cut blue topaz stones had been quite the find, as bereft of imperfections as they had been, and now they were even more valuable for casting spells thanks to Nagi.  The young bound had put his talent to use to make the gems more 'stable' and receptive to magic, something that Botan had done his best to analyze during the process and still did not quite understand.   From his discussions with Nagi and Edward, he knew that bounds were able to alter things on an unseen level, much in the way that healers were able to repair bodies and wizards could sometimes affect living creatures.  Nagi's abilities were derived from warding an item, from what Botan could tell, a mix of that ability and whatever it was that allowed him to move objects.  Even if he could not understand it, he could appreciate it as he now had plenty of stones to use in charms.

Omi and Nagi had left to return to the Koneko, but they would be back in two day's time so Omi could help cast magic that would turn most of the charms into protection spells for the Guard.  While the Shadow Guard training included work on mental shields to mask the thoughts of its human employees, such a defense could not be counted on to stand against a powerful soul gaki bound.  There were also all the regular Guard to consider, who were still in sensitive positions that could not be completely taken over by the limited Shadow Guard as of yet.  The organization needed charms that would help shield their thoughts and alert them to any mental attacks or attempts at coercion should the Elders use their agents against them.  Omi's strength and talent would be very helpful in creating the charms, and he would learn a rather complex spell at the same time.

However, Botan realized that he was unable to rely upon Omi for all of the spell-crafting that he would need in the next year or two.  He frowned as he began to sort through the stones, setting aside some of the smaller ones to be bagged instead of placed in the rosewood box that was placed in one of the drawers of his desk.  In another drawer was a list that he had done his best to ignore the last several months, containing the names of several suitable young wizards who had been recommended to him as potential students.  They had all finished their apprenticeships in good standing and were highly talented, most of them connected to various highborn families by blood if not obligation.

He supposed that the list was the Court's way of saying that he has procrastinated long enough in replacing Chen and Gregor.  It was no secret that he had taken on 'Omi', a youth talented in magic, but Omi had no formal training to allow him to be an official student of a Royal Wizard nor would the illusion cast about him and his 'past' stand up to close scrutiny if they tried to pass Mamoru off in such a position.  As it was, Omi snuck in and out of Botan's office the few times he did come to the Palace for the informal sessions of magic-casting that they felt were best done away from the Koneko.  Omi's training had granted Botan a bit of a reprieve, as had the fact that two of Botan's student assistants betraying the king, no matter how inadvertently, was a serious enough matter for there not to be a rush to replace them.  Now that over a year had passed and all signs pointed to an approaching war, that grace period was over.

There was little that Botan could say in disagreement.  His remaining assistants were overworked and skilled to the point that there was little left for him to teach them.  Perhaps bringing in some new 'blood' would not be as bad as he feared, and some fresh insight might be a good thing.  He just begrudged anything that took away more time from his busy day, as he already struggled with an increasingly busy agenda and to find a few free hours to meet with Cassandra.  Maybe he should follow Birman's example and start wearing various illusion charms so he could slink away undetected....

Smiling at that thought, well imagining that if he left the choice up to either his impish friend or his apprentice that the illusion would be quite outlandish indeed, he pulled the piece of paper from the drawer and did his best to consider the names.  It would not be quite the ordeal, he supposed, if it were not for the family ties that went with most of the names.  He understood the importance of any Court appointments and that in a way, they were doing the best they could for their blood, but he had little stomach for students who might have the talent but only planned to use their magic ability to further their family's ambitions.  The situation was much too perilous for that, and he dared not risk another situation like with the king's wedding.  He would have to ask Birman a favor and have her investigate the candidates as much as her people could to ensure that whomever he picked would be least likely inclined to use bound blood as an easy way to work magic or turn traitor to the throne.

For a moment he envied bounds like Cassandra and Schuldig.  He could throw runes and get an inclining of the future if the gods were kind, but nothing along the lines of his lover's visions or her son's insights into a person's thoughts.  There was much he would give to be able to interview the young men on the list and know for certain if they would betray him like Chen and Gregor had, if they could be trusted with Kritiker's future at stake or not.  If only there was a way to make Omi his - no.  He shook his head to clear it of the depressing thoughts.  First, Omi deserved the bit of freedom that he had right now, to stand on his own and develop into the young man who would eventually be king.  He was learning magic as fast as he could, and all being Botan's official student would do was overburden him with work while stripping away that precious freedom.  Omi would learn faster and better the way things were now, able to observe bounds and study with Aya, Nagi and Edward.  And the niggling thought of going to see Cassandra and showing her the list was squashed as well; see her, yes, and spend time in her company, most definitely.  However, he could not rely upon her visions for everything, or he would lose the ability to make his own decisions.  He doubted she would let things get to that point, but the mindset alone of wanting her to tell him what was best would be crippling enough.

He would make mistakes, and Cassandra had already proven that she was willing to stand by and let that happen if she believed it best.  He had been hurt that time with Yohji, when he had thoughtlessly asked for help to find Victor Garcia, and he could see why she had refused to intervene now.  How difficult it must be, to see so much and know that she must stay detached from most of it....  He envied her power and yet did not envy the burden it placed on his lover, the dark knowledge that she had to bear every day.  Nor did she see everything, and he knew there were times that those gaps worried her more than anything else.  Yet she did her best to show a cheerful face to the world, to focus on the good even when she knew so much of the darkness that waited for them all.

Suddenly, it did not seem so bad, having to choose a few names.  He still planned to ask for Birman's assistance on the matter, and it would be best to start that soon.  Worse come to worst, maybe he could throw some blame his friend's way if one or two of the boys turned out to be bad picks, he thought with a grim smile.  He just hoped that Manx did not try to interfere with his final say once he presented a list to the king.  Now that Ouka was born and the Naming ceremony over, she was back to playing politics again, doing her best to involve herself in everything.  Why Shuuichi let her meddle so much - Botan shook his head again.  Who was he to second-guess the king?  Shuuichi had done a respectable job governing the country so far, and if anything, one of the few complaints about him would be his lack of involvement.  Manx seemed determined to correct the situation, it was just that she often went about it in too heavy-handed a way as if to make up for her common blood.  She needed to be reminded that while she had run the Guard for several years, Birman had done an equally if not more admiral job as Spymaster and he had been the Royal Wizard for twice as long.  The last thing that he and Birman needed was for Manx to be telling them how to do their jobs, especially since so much had changed in the last year and a half.

Including the bounds in the Guard and for espionage had brought about so many unexpected changes.  Birman had informed him the other day that Judge Okihara had hired a soul gaki bound after her experiences in dealing with the Shadow Guard, and that Judge Ishikawa was waiting to see how the 'expiriment' turned out before hiring one as well.  It seemed the judges were interested in employees who were able to exchange information and news instantaneously with other people as well as able to read emotions and thoughts enough to gauge if a person was being honest.  For her part, Birman was annoyed at the possible loss of future soul gaki bound employees while hopeful that the bounds would find a new outlet of work; the fact that once they swore an oath it was considered very bad for them to break it ensured that they retained any confidential information.  Even Lady Meara had expressed an interest in hiring a water elemental bound after observing how people were often calm and attentive in Trowa's presence.  Botan wondered if anyone had fully explained to the woman the attraction that Trowa's kind held for most people - he doubted that Meara would abuse such a nature and felt almost sorry for anyone who tried to do so with her knowledge.

Bounds were slowly being accepted.  He did not fool himself that it would be country-wide if the truth were revealed tomorrow, as they had been careful about who knew the truth of the Shadow Guard.  The important thing was that bounds were working their way into Court, the Guard and the Army to a level that he would have thought impossible before the king's wedding.  Manx was not entirely comfortable with bounds working for Kritiker and he knew she saw them as an acceptable evil, a weapon to be used against Esset.  What would happen when she and Shuuichi realized that the 'weapon' could not be sheathed and stuck in some armory after the war?  He and Birman were doing their best to scatter bounds as much through the Court and Kritiker as possible so Shuuichi would have to honor the promise made after his wedding once the war was over.

On the off-chance that Botan did not survive the war, he needed to be certain that the next Royal Wizard would also honor that promise, as well as all the hard work he had done during his time at this post.  He would do his best to choose wisely this time around, to plan ahead even though he prayed with all his might that such arrangements would be unnecessary.  All he wanted after the war was to spend as much time as possible with Cassandra and Kaede, to have the two most important people in his life together at last.  He could only hope that the gods felt that he was owed that much.

One could hope as much as they wanted, and it would do little good if they did not put a bit of effort into things as well.  He gathered the remaining topaz stones into a small bag that he placed into the pouch on his belt for later on, and picked up the list of names.  Birman should be at her office around now, and if not, Trowa would be there.  He would discuss the list with either of them and his requirements, perhaps enjoy a cup of coffee and a bit of gossip, find out any important news that had happened while Nagi and Omi had been by.  Then he would finish one or two small tasks and be done with work for the day and could leave for Cassandra's. 

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