Chasing Threads

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chapter three

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missions and new beginnings

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Bethwynn slipped out the kitchen door with a mug of coffee held in her left hand, a trail of aromatic steam rising into the cool morning air that made her mouth water.  There had been little money back home for luxury items such as coffee, though she had always hovered by the vendor's stall in the small market back in Everton for the wonderful aromas that had enveloped the area because of the expensive wares.  She could enjoy smelling the goods while feeding from the emotions of everyone doing their shopping as she traded the surplus eggs and vegetables from the small family farm for whatever necessary items they needed.

She still found it difficult to believe that she was in Eto, so far away from the farm that she had grown up on, away from her family and few friends.  Tears formed in her eyes as she wondered how her mother, step-father and younger brothers were doing; she had left them a letter saying that she wanted more from life than farming and would see what luck the gods would bestow on her in one of the larger cities.  There was no way she could tell them that she was a bound and had to leave before being dragged off to Esset to fight in their army or discovered by the Guard or Army, but she had a feeling that her mother already knew....  Her mother had never pushed for her to settle down, as many of her friends had already done, and would always grow pensive when people brought up her first husband, who had vanished one day.  No, Bethwynn suspected that her mother understood why she had left and why she could never return, and cherished the love she had felt from her that night she had hugged her close for the last time. 

While there was no way to explain why she would stop aging soon, she could probably send letters to let them know she had found a new home once she was certain it was safe to do so.  She would consult with Jo before she did, unwilling to risk any danger to the Koneko after it had taken her in without any qualms.  It had been just as Yuda had said, she mused as she walked into the garden, the grass and various plants glimmering in the early morning sun from a coating of dew.  Her head was still spinning from the suddenness of finding a new home and a new job, along with the revelations that there were hopes of bounds being able to work alongside of humans.

Ever since she had realized that she was a bound, she had done her best to hide what she was.  Being so close to Esset, Everton was probably more accepting of bounds than many places in Kritiker, as there were few families who could claim a bloodline free of them.  They were rarely spoken of, and a pall was cast on the area whenever a bound was caught and taken away by the Guard.  Bethwynn suspected that there were some families that supported Esset due to ties with the country, sons and daughters who had fled at points in time across the border for safety, but that was something that was never spoken out loud.  Whenever a stranger appeared at the market, people made sure not to ask where they were from or why they were shopping for an item.  She had run into Rama several times before her friend had finally admitted to being from Esset, risking the border crossing in order to purchase herbs and vegetables for her family.

Coming across an elaborate and lovely koi pond, Bethwynn bent down to pick up a couple of pebbles that she began to toss into the small pond as she sipped her coffee.  Rama would have loved the chance to enjoy the beverage, a thought that caused a slight pain in Bethwynn's chest as she swallowed.  The next toss of the stone was a little harder than she intended as she tried to distract herself from the sorrowful thoughts.

"Here now, I just put in those lilies."

The mild complaint and the emotions that accompanied it - annoyance, amusement and friendliness - made her drop the remaining pebbles and almost the mug of coffee as she turned around to find a dark-haired man dressed in dark clothes and a thick, dirt-stained canvas apron standing a few feet away.  There was a bucket by his feet and basket filled with various garden implements in his gloved left hand, his appearance indicating that he worked in the garden.  She realized he must be the earth elemental bound who Jo and Mickey had told her about and whom she had failed to meet yet.  "Oh!  I'm sorry!  Ah, I'm Bethwynn." The words rushed from her mouth in her haste to apologize and a blush from embarrassment at her thoughtlessness spread across her cheeks.

He set the basket down as well and held out his right hand.  "I know, I'm Sebastian."  His eyes were brown and his smile kind, his age seeming to be mid to late twenties.  From what she had learned from Rama, that meant he could be several decades to a couple of centuries old, depending on how much demon soul he possessed.  "I thought you were to be helping out in the kitchen, so don't tell me that they sent you out here to pitch in with the weeding!"

She flushed again a little as she glanced around at the immaculate flower beds that appeared to need no assistance on her part.  "Ah, well, I just... it's quiet... uhm...."  How did she put into words that she had slipped outside to escape from the crowd gathered in the kitchen without making it sound to be an insult?

"Oh."  Sebastian stepped closer to the pond and leaned over the water, his attention on the floating lily pads.  His accent was more refined than hers, indicating that he must have come from one of the cities scattered across Kritiker and not some tiny farming community.  "The garden normally is quiet in the morning and late evenings, and of course whenever the weather's not the best.  You might find Ichiro and Jason out tending to the horses or enjoying a bit of sun, but that's usually it."  She assumed that the plants were fine because he turned toward her and smiled.  "Meanwhile, the kitchen is almost always hectic, especially in the mornings.  You have the staff busy preparing not only breakfast but getting the meals ready for the rest of the day, Marta fussing over Neely and Emmie before sending the latter off to school and sitting down to teach the former her lessons, all the Guards on duty for the day stuffing themselves silly before work and everyone else showing up to eat and join in the confusion as well."  He patted a lumpy bulge behind his apron.  "I usually get up early, grab a pot of tea and a quick bite, then wrap up something to eat later to tide me over until things thin out a bit."

As she had feared, it sounded as if the last two mornings *were* the norm.  She sighed and finished off the last of her coffee.  "In other words, I had best get used to it."  She had not meant for the words to come out in such a forlorn manner.

Sebastian laughed as he reached behind his apron to pull out the wrapped lump, which ended up being a couple of cranberry muffins.  She shook her head when he offered one to her, as she sensed his hunger.  "I'm afraid so."  They were quiet as he ate the pastries, save for a piece or two of dough that he tossed to the fish.  Then he shook out the napkin and tucked it back into the pocket behind the apron, a kind expression on his face. "I know it's not what I'm used to, all the noise and teasing.  I'm still trying to get used to having so many humans about, let alone see one merely sit there while being growled at.  But this is a good place, and none of the staff or the humans they trust mean us any harm."  He managed a slight smile as he bowed a little, his emotions a mix of incredulity, happiness and hope.  "There are worse things to get used to."

"I know."  She had felt the guarded emotions of some of the bounds she had come across in the market back home and knew that they had suffered much, had felt echoes of that from the ones who had helped her on the way to Eto.  Even Yuda and Ruka had felt a bit like that from time to time, when they had been away from their lovers or coming back after purchasing supplies that one day.  For all the fear she had suffered over the possibility of being discovered or taken by the Elder's agents, Bethwynn knew that she had led a peaceful and fortunate life.  She merely was unused to seeing so much interaction between humans and bounds, two races she had always been led to believe could never coexist together outside of unspoken family loyalty.  Yet she had sat through a couple of meals where Ken, a flesh gaki bound, would routinely snarl, growl and bare his teeth at Miko, a human, who would not so much as flinch in reaction to a fearful display of teeth and power - if anything, she would smack him on the shoulder and tell him to 'behave' or threaten to pull his fangs if he kept baring them at her.  These people talked openly about things such as a bound's extended lifetime, something that Bethwynn herself found painful to accept as it meant that she was now cut off from her family lest people realize that she would soon stop aging, and mating bonds and demon strength.  "It's... it's a bit odd to hear humans talk so openly about bound things that *I* don't even know much about."

Sebastian grunted and nodded as he straightened out his apron.  "I haven't been here long, but from what I've picked up, the Koneko's protected bounds for a long time.  The staff always knew that Yohji was a bound, and he grew up here along with a bound friend, so I guess they're used to our kind."  He was amazed by that fact, which made Bethwynn wonder what his own childhood must have been like.  "Yohji, Schuldig and Ed are a lot like the bounds I've met who were brought up by their bound parents."  His emotions took on an envious turn, which made her believe that he had been raised by a human parent, much like herself.

Rama had been raised by her earth elemental mother, so Bethwynn understood what Sebastian was saying; there was something about bounds who had been raised by their own kind that set them apart from those who had been raised by humans, a sense of a... comfort about who they were and their abilities that remained even when around humans.  She had thought that Yohji had said something about his mother being human, so perhaps his father had helped raise him or something. 

Not all of the bounds here were like Yohji, so outgoing and confident.  Ken was mostly happy and pleasant, but he kept a bit of distance from Bethwynn and only teased the people he obviously knew well, such as Miko, Omi and Yohji.  Eri and Nagi were quiet, going about their work and hanging out with a handful of friends afterwards, sparing few words for Bethwynn in the process.  Natsuko seemed nice the two times their paths had crossed, and Aya... well, she noticed that he tended to hold himself apart from a lot of people and did not take his aloofness personally.

A splash of water from the koi pond reminded her of her surroundings; she shook her head and smiled at Sebastian.  "I think that I need to return to the kitchen to start my shift."  She bowed a little as she held the empty cup between both hands.  "It was nice to meet you, and I hope I didn't do any lasting damage to the lilies."

He waved aside any concern over the plants.  "No, they're fine.  You'll see come spring, when they bloom."

She felt warmth spread through her chest at the idea of still being at the Koneko in the spring, at the prospect of a new home and a new life.  Despite the unfamiliarity of so many things here and the reasons she had left her family and home, she did look forward to a new beginning.  The other bounds talked about the upcoming war with Esset as if it were a certainty, which made her long for security all the more.  If Jo was serious about her earning wages for her work, perhaps she could send some of that money home to her mother, along with some encouragement for her family to do whatever was necessary to remain safe during the turbulent times.

But for right now, she had to earn that money and make sure that her place here was certain.  Waving farewell to Sebastian, she turned toward the inn and the chaos that awaited her inside.

*******

Yohji frowned at the huge bowl of herb and bread stuffing that was set on the table on front of him and crossed his arms over his chest.  "And why have *I* been picked for the dubious honor of stuffing mushrooms, hmm?  What makes you think I don't have anything better to do?"

Jo snorted in derision and handed him a pale green apron to wear over his cream colored shirt that had been a recent present from Aya.  "Because your 'something better' would be to go upstairs and harass Aya, which would end up with you nursing a sore head and him furious over damaging a book from tossing it at your thick head."  Her expression turned to one of certain victory as she pushed the bowl closer.  "Besides, he likes stuffed mushrooms."

"Oh, sure, be all under-handed and remind me about how cute he gets when he starts purring over his favorite dishes," Yohji grumbled as he admitted defeat and pulled on the apron.  Still, he had to grin as he rolled up his sleeves with care to make sure the embroidered cuffs remained clean.  Purring, well-fed boyfriends usually led to enjoyable nights up in their bedroom.  His smile took on a lascivious nature as he recalled the evening before, when he finally gave into his hunger.  He knew that Aya had been a little upset over the distance between them all day, a necessity with things so uncertain right now.  Between restraining his hunger for so long and Aya's need for reassurance, the sex had been more passionate than usual, the 'sunlight' almost scouring through his veins in a blaze of heat and bliss as Aya's body had clenched around him, nails scratching along his back to add a kiss of pain to the exquisite ecstasy and mark in him return as he-

"*Yotan*."

Yohji blinked his eyes as he snapped back to the present, Jo's flushed face only a few inches away as she stared at him with narrowed eyes.  "Behave yourself," was all she said before moving away, her voice a bit hoarse as if she had yelled his name more than once.  He blinked his eyes a few more times and noticed that Bethwynn was holding on to the sink as if to support herself, while Maddox was just picking up a knife to resume chopping vegetables, his face bright red and his hands shaking a little as he took a careful chop or two.

"Ah, sorry about that."  Yohji ducked his head as he reached for a mushroom with his left hand and the spoon in the huge mixing bowl with his right.  Oops, he needed to maintain better control over his demon nature while partially 'abstaining' like this.  It was difficult to be around Aya so much and not give in to the temptation to feed whenever he wanted, but he was doing his best to limit the amount of energy he drained from his mate when there was no way of telling when Aya would be able to feed again.  He almost wished that he could give his lover free rein to run around the city with Reno and take on any unsuspecting rapists or murderers who thought the shinigami bounds were easy targets or something, just so he would have fewer worries over how much strength Aya would have if it came to a sudden fight.  Sure, all it would take was one death and Aya would be fine, but if some wizard got the drop on him somehow....

Yohji frowned at a mushroom as he spooned some of the herb and bread stuffing into it.  His mate would tell him he was being paranoid, and probably a few friends would as well.  Unfortunately, he had little faith in the gods and their sense of humor to trust that one of them would fail to find it funny that a kage could end up trapped or taken down by a wizard.  After all, in a way that had already happened in the past - to Aya and Aidan - and the Harpers just loved to remind people about how history did in fact repeat itself.  He would put up with being called paranoid, not that Aya had said anything to him yet, and go a little 'hungry'.  Anticipation could be a good thing, after all.  That and Jo had been right about him getting hit in the head if he tried anything while Aya and Ed were up there re-organizing the library.

He had gotten halfway through the bowl when the kitchen door opened to admit the object of his musing.  Aya strolled into the room with Ed on his heels, a slight smile on his face and his hands busy unrolling the sleeves of his pale grey shirt.  Taking that as a sign that Aya meant to be in the company of people other than Ed and himself for a while, Yohji smiled and motioned for his lover to sit beside him on the bench.  "I think there should be stuffed mushrooms for you soon."  He held out his left hand, the fingers of which were covered with bits of stuffing.

Aya's expression remained the same, but his eyes brightened with flecks of silver and there was a surge of love and desire over their link.  "We were hoping there would be something good for lunch," he said, his deep voice quiet in the spaciousness of the kitchen as he caught Yohji's hand.  He gave two of the fingers a quick lick before he sat down.

Quiet or not, Jo of course heard him and came over from one of the ovens with a tray of the cooked mushrooms.  "I'd say that you timed it rather well!"  She gave Ed a suspicious look as he sat down in a rush, a wide grin on his face as he stared at the tray, then shook her head and smiled at Aya.  "The roast beef should be cooled off by now, so there'll be that for sandwiches, along with some potato and leek soup and cherry pie."

"Oh, that sounds so delicious!" Ed exclaimed as he all but drooled.  Okay, Yohji knew that bounds required a lot of food to replace the energy they used for their talents, especially if they could not get it from other sources, such as emotions or deaths, but Ed should have been born a flesh gaki.  There were times when he swore the kid could out-eat Jei and Ken *combined*. 

"What, were you up there building bookshelves out of thin air or something?" he asked as he leaned forward to look around Aya at the kid.  "Is Naru gonna come home to find his bed has become the new home for tomes B through D?"

Ed grinned as he rubbed the back of his head.  "Well, I have to admit we were tempted to knock down a wall and get a bit more space, but I just, uhm, tinkered with a few bookshelves and solved our problem."  He glanced at Bethwynn as he spoke, at this point confident that Maddox could be trusted even if the boy was human.  In fact, Ed had few problems accepting the humans who had sworn themselves to Kritiker's cause, but whatever had happened before he had come to Eto had left him and Al distrusting of strange bounds.  He mostly took Aya's word on being able to trust anyone who was accepted as 'staff', though Yohji could feel that he would be on his guard around Bethwynn for some time to come, just as he had been around Sebastian and Natsuko.

"Just as long as Naru isn't upset about losing his bed," Jo said, her expression stern as she set the tray down and went over to a cabinet to fetch plates for everyone.  "Because when he's upset he tends to do foolish things, such as toss about those bombs of his, which makes *me* upset."  Everyone in the kitchen, even Bethwynn, became quiet for a few seconds at the prospect of an upset Jo.

She set the plates down and went to fetch the large platter of roast beef, and Maddox assisted by bringing over some bread and cheese.  As if he could smell the food, which probably was the case, Ken entered the kitchen just in time to be fed, with Miko right at his heels.  "Ah, see, I thought I smelled Ed," Ken remarked as he sat down across from the earth elemental.

Ed smacked both of his hands onto the table and rose up from the bench. "What, are you telling me that I stink?"

Ken rolled his, well, eye, since he was in the process of removing the eye-patch, at Ed's rather loud question.  "Oh, don't take it so personal.  It's just no one else around here smells of smoke, iron, paper and leather like you do."

Miko grinned as she helped herself to some mushrooms.  "And what does Yohji smell like, hmm?"  She caught his attention and smiled widely before popping a mushroom into her mouth, her emotions a mix of amusement and happiness.  Ah, it seemed that someone was pleased to be able to spend so much time with Ken.  Yohji spared a thought about how much an idiot his good friend was for not realizing yet that Miko liked him as much more than a partner.

Ken removed the patch and looked about the room, most likely to make sure that Neely and Emmie were safely out of earshot.  "Sometimes I get a good whiff of paper and leather, too, and during the summer there's usually lavender, but mostly he always smells like-"

"I think we know what he always smells like."  Jo put an end to the conversation with a disapproving look around the table as she set down a huge platter of roast beef.  Yohji guessed that even if the girls were absent, she was not in the mood for such talk - that or she was taking pity on poor Bethwynn, who looked ready to drown herself in the sink to escape the conversation.  Someone really needed to develop some thicker skin if she hoped to live here without bursting some blood vessels; even Maddox was barely blushing from the conversation.

"I don't know why anyone would think I smell since I always take baths," Yohji remarked as he helped himself to some bread and several thick slices of the beef.  "I even remember to put on clean clothes every day!"  He joined in the laughter around the table when Aya sighed and knocked an elbow with little force into his left side.  While Yohji assembled a sandwich to eat, he made sure to look at Ken for several seconds and catch his friend's attention.  The slight nod he received for his troubles let him know that Ken and Miko had yet to spot any suspicious strangers who fit Garcia's description or who were asking around about redheads.

There was a chance that the wizard might try to track Reno down by seeing if any redheads matching his description had come to the city recently, and anyone who saw Reno and Aya together commented about how similar they looked *before* they found out about the charm that disguised the dubhach's pale skin and red hair.  Not for the first time, Yohji wished that the Takatori had thought to have 'Ran' do something to hide his distinctive coloring before leaving Timbergrey, and had even asked Crawford about why the hell he had let Aya come to the capital like that.  The infuriating precog had merely shrugged his shoulders and stated that he had mentioned the kage's distinctive coloring to the Takatori, only to be told that it was his job to keep 'Ran' out of trouble until the wedding so there was no need for disguises.  Crawford had continued on to say that in a way, Aya was hiding in plain sight in that very few people would believe that an actual kage would be doing something so mundane as living at an inn, and one filled with Guards at that, which would serve as better camouflage for his other kage traits than an illusion spell or dye. 

Yohji worried about those 'very few people' and prayed to whatever god would listen that Garcia failed to hear about the sexy yet anti-social redhead living at the Koneko and decide to investigate.  While it might very well mean an impromptu feeding for Aya and an end to his voluntary confinement, it could also lead to danger for Yohji's loved ones.  All in all, Yohji would much rather be a bit bored for a while, put up with Ed doing his best to eat the Koneko's pantries bare and go a little 'hungry' himself than deal with the wizard.

"Speaking of clothes, I wonder when Cassandra's going to pay us a visit."  Jo set a pitcher of water on the table before she sat down for lunch. 

"Hmm."  In the middle of enjoying his sandwich, Yohji quickly swallowed so he could be understood before speaking.  "Maybe she doesn't have much to say."  As much as he missed having his dear friend visit, he had to admit that the theory of 'no news is good news' was rather heartening.  If Cassandra thought there was the slightest chance of danger to Aya or the Koneko's staff, she would be here as soon as the vision faded to warn them all.  He did his best to not dwell on the fact that Aya's presence hindered her ability to see the future.

Jo shared a knowing look with him, her emotions as sharp as the knife she held in her hand as she sliced more bread, her eyes narrowing as they flickered about the room to the items that Yohji just now realized had been left about in the usually very organized kitchen.  Judging from the surge of dark protectiveness he felt from her, those various iron pans and marble rolling pins would be used with malicious intent on any wizard or other fool who thought to harm those who had been taken in by the Koneko.  Even Bethwynn turned to stare at the cook, her eyes wide and face pale.  "Maybe.  She should know by now that she's welcome here even if there's little to talk about other than the latest gossip." 

They could trust everyone in the room with Cassandra's true nature, it was upsetting Aya that they were trying to avoid by directly mentioning the potential danger he brought them all with his presence.  He would only do something foolish like try to leave and end up tied up in their bedroom for his troubles.  Yohji smiled at the mental image that thought produced, his attention wandering to what he could do with a bound mate sprawled out on his bed, until he got jabbed again in the ribs by a bony elbow with a lot more force than before.

"Thank you, Aya."  Jo nodded in approval and spooned several more mushrooms onto Aya's plate.

"I swear, one day I'm gonna ask the gods why they have to make our mates be a bunch of perverts," Ed grumbled through a mouthful of roast beef sandwich.  He barely paused in eating to launch into a tirade about the indignity of being stuck with an older, 'perverted as hell' mate which made it clear that Mustang must have done something in the last few days to upset the kid.  Yohji wrapped his left arm around Aya's waist and pulled his lover closer, content to spend some time together with the man he adored and some good friends while listening to Mustang being insulted.  He could push his worries aside for a short while with Aya safe by his side and purring softly.  If anyone thought to take this happiness away from him... well, they would be damn lucky if a rolling pin-wielding Jo and a hungry Ken were all they had to deal with, considering the hell that Yohji would unleash upon them for daring to even think to harm Aya. 

*******

Schuldig kicked at a stray pebble on the cobblestone road and sneered as it bounced onto the path of some oblivious twit with thin-soled, expensive looking shoes.  "How long do we have to stay here?  My skin is already starting to crawl."  His fingers itched, too, with the desire to unburden the unsuspecting fools around him of their rather fat purses.  This would be prime hunting grounds for him if he were not here on one of his bastard father's asinine missions.

"We're in no hurry today, Schu," Masato replied with a weary sigh.  <This is a good spot for Garcia to come to, for goods or to find some help, so we'll take our time to see if anyone's run across him yet or expecting him.  Once we're certain that he won't come here, then we'll move on.>  Exasperation flowed along with the explanation, Masato growing tired of defending his decision to start the hunt in this section of the city.

In theory, Schuldig could understand his mate's logic; this district was known for its magical items and the components that could be purchased that went into the various charms and spelled items that wizards and hedge witches sold to their clients.  The Central Magic district was more upper class and so would be out of Garcia's reach, that market smaller and much more exclusive, while the Northern Magic district was large enough that a wizard trying to avoid notice could hope to blend in with the crowd and conduct some necessary business on the sly.  *In theory*.  He was unwilling to put too much money on their target following conventional wisdom out of the sheer perverseness of the gods when it came to him and work as well as recent events in Eto's magic community.  Garcia had to know that Botan was cracking down on wizards who were using bound blood and would be proceeding cautiously - hell, more cautiously - whenever he did return to the city.  The asshole might not know that he had a bulls-eye figuratively painted on his back just yet, but that did not mean that he would just waltz into this market and let himself be tracked down as easily as one of Jouyoku's priests hiding in Byakuren's temple.

<Which is why we'll have to do more than just walk around here all day.  No one told us this would be an easy job,> Masato reminded him, an annoying presence in his mind.  His mate earned a smack to the stomach for following his thoughts so easily, something that *Schuldig* was supposed to do, not the other way around.  Really, he was the soul gaki bound, not Masato, who was finding himself much too comfortable in Schuldig's head lately.

<But I'm supposed to let you rummage around in mine as much as you like?>  Masato was more amused than upset by the insinuation, a slight smile on his handsome face as he looked down on Schuldig as they walked along a row of stalls selling various charms, the dark gold color of his hair gleaming in the sun.

<Exactly.  Don't you know by now that I get to do whatever I want, and you do only what I want you to do?>  Schuldig snorted in annoyance and folded his arms over his chest, much put out to have to constantly be explaining things to his lover after being together for over a year.  <Really, are you a slow learner or what?>

Masato laughed out loud, the deep, warm sound attracting attention from all around them and making people halt in their purchases to turn and stare at the man.  He looked a little out of place with his tousled hair, faint stubble on his chin and rumpled if finely made garments of brown and cream, a hint of the disreputable clinging to him no matter how much he tried to clean up.  Yet all that seemed to do was make him stand out from everyone else, to give him that extra bit of attention that most people lacked and draw the eye his way, followed by an affectionate smile and a shake of the head.  Schuldig found himself torn between wanting to smack his lover again and snarl at all the gawkers, which did *nothing* to improve his mood.  Forced out of a comfortable bed to work for Crawford of all people, and now he had to put up with people drooling over his moronic mate.  Oh, how the gods loved to abuse him.

"You are such a brat."  The words contained Masato's deep affection and respect for him, the 'insult' long turned into a term of endearment similar to Aya's 'idiot' for Yohji.  Schuldig sniffed at the familiar complaint, supposing that there might be the slightest hint of truth in it somewhere, which was why he allowed Masato to get away with it, and purposely looked in the opposite direction when his lover draped an arm over his shoulders and hugged him closer.  "But you're my brat, so I'll continue to suffer."

"You'll 'suffer' in ecstatic thankfulness over what the gods have been so generous to give you," Schuldig snapped with his nose in the air, unwilling to concede any ground when he felt that his pride was on the line.

"I wouldn't have it any other way."

"Hmph."  At least the idiot knew how blessed he really was.  Schuldig decided that it was time to show all of the bastards around them who was in possession of the object of their attention and turned to grab a handful of his lover's hair, catching Masato by surprise as he pressed their lips together.  Then Masato was kissing him back in earnest, uncaring that they were standing in the middle of a busy market, surrounded by a bunch of gawking idiots who were either cheering them on or muttering about offending delicate sensibilities.  Schuldig made sure to grope Masato's ass to put on a show for those assholes.

After about a minute, he broke off the kiss and released Masato's hair so he could grab the front of his mate's cream-colored tunic and use that as a hold to pull him through the crowd.  <Really, we could be home doing *much* better things than looking for a damn wizard, you know.>  He sent along a few images in case Masato had any doubts of what those 'better things' were.

Masato shook his head, either to clear out the images or in response to the familiar complaint, Schuldig was uncertain.  "We have work to do, remember?"

"Killjoy," Schuldig muttered without much heat; as much as he loved to complain, he was actually a little tired of hearing about how important this mission was from his mate, his mother, his bastard father, his best friend and just about everyone else.  As much as he really did hate working, it might just be easier to find the damn wizard, hand him over to Aya to be killed and then get back to his life of molesting Masato whenever possible than listen to all of their bitching.  "I'll go see if anyone has seen him around this set of stands," he muttered as he resigned himself to doing a bit of work - the sooner he got started, the sooner he could be back in his apartment having sex.

Masato gave him a comforting pat on the back.  "Good idea.  I'll see if he's stopped by the stands selling amulet stones."  He flashed a reassuring grin before wandering off, sunlight glinting on his hair.  For a moment Schuldig thought about Yohji, a little wistful that his friend was unable to be here to help out and a bit more bitter over the fact that Yohji was all but trapped at the Koneko because of Aya, then he shook his head and concentrated on getting the damn job done. 

He was going to need every bit of the tea that his mother had sent them home with last night by the time this mission was done; scanning through so many minds would drain him of energy and result in a pounding headache.  The kage tear and blood stone ring he wore helped lessen the impact of sliding past mental and magical barriers that various people had set up to protect their thoughts, not that he found anything of much use for his efforts.  Oh, Botan would probably have a list of wizards and their suppliers to check up on by the time this mission was done; Schuldig took the time to plant a 'pleasant' little surprise in the mind of one dealer whom he found had a stash of bound blood, a little twist that would leave the man writhing in agony when he got home later that evening.  Ah yes, he had learned a lot in taking down all the barriers and coercions that had been forced upon Shin's minds by the Elders, bastards that they were.  One could not help but learn from soul gaki bounds who had lived for so long, after all.  He spared a moment to send a quick message to his mother, certain that she would pass it to Botan so the Royal Wizard could send his people after the filth.

So Schuldig had some sense of accomplishment, yet no trail for Garcia as of yet and the beginnings of a headache for his effort.  Sighing at the thought of how much more of the market there was left to scan, he turned to see how Masato was doing... and found his mate as the center of attention once again.  Only this time it was not because of sunlight or laughter or anything else - hell, Masato could be covered with mud and scowling and he would have people drooling over him.  The *bastard* was using his talent to charm the occupants of the gemstone stand he was currently at, the small crowd around him obviously infatuated with his presence.

<What the *hell* are you doing?>

Masato made no outward appearance of hearing Schuldig's angry question, his smile still steady as he leaned over the counter and pretended to examine a small garnet.  <Making small talk and trying to find out if Garcia was here.  It's called 'work', Schu.>  A hint of anger crept over their link.

Swallowing a hiss with so much effort it made his throat ache, Schuldig shoved his hands into his pockets before someone noticed his claws.  <Fuck 'work', you bastard!  Why are you charming a bunch of humans enough to get into their damn pants?>  He was *not* jealous, dammit!  He merely refused to see the sense in Masato risking their necks with such a blatant display of talent! Did the man have no sense of how much danger he was putting himself in?

<I'm only charming them enough to make them willing to talk to a stranger!  I know what I'm doing, I've used my talent for decades.>  When Schuldig responded back with a blast of anger and disbelief, Masato answered with tempered fury.  <What did expect from me?  You use your telepathy to find the truth, I use my glamour.  We both need to use our talents for this mission.  Now stop distracting me and get back to work.>

Schuldig stared after his lover for several seconds, very tempted to stalk after the bastard and punch him for that answer.  What did he expect?  For Masato to be there beside him while he scanned a bunch of minds and perhaps ask some questions, not to turn on the slut power and make half the damn market want him!  Schuldig's demon soul protested in the blatant desire he sensed from the humans gathered around *his* mate, yet....  Dammit!  He jerked his hands through his hair. To make matters worse, his human half kicked in and had to remind him of what would happen if assholes like the filth he had just come across realized that there was a powerful succubae bound a mere fifty yards away.

Think of the mission, he told himself.  If he gave in to the impulse to haul Masato out of the market then he would only catch hell from Crawford, his mother and probably Yohji for messing up the chance to find Garcia, not to mention Masato would be all pissy as well.  It was true that they increased their odds of finding the fucking wizard if they pooled their talents.  He could handle this.  Masato was only using a bit of glamour, and it was not as if he could feed from anyone but Schuldig anymore.  He had to keep that in mind.  They could do this, it was for work, and it would get the job done faster.

However, he thought with malicious resolve as he watched a woman damn near wet herself in happiness when Masato smiled at her, this was not the end of the matter.  Oh no.  He would think about it a little more and come up with a solution that would teach his mate a lesson about just assuming he could charm anyone whenever he wanted without thinking of Schuldig first.  All off Masato was *his*, and he refused to share or risk losing his possession.  Not even a damn war could make him change that.

*******

Birman approached the man standing before the rosebush, intent on examining the bi-color blooms before him.  The emissary from Xan was dressed in traditional robes, their dark blue color a stark contrast to the greenery of the many plants and the brilliant hues of the blooms scattered about the garden.

"Tell me, who would I have to ask permission from to take a cutting of this lovely plant back to Xan?" Shen asked as Birman came to a stop at his side, a rose cradled with care between the slender fingers of his left hand.  He stroked a petal of the flower, his attention seemingly focused on the red interior color of the otherwise cream-colored rose. 

"That would be Mariko Tachikawa, the Royal Gardener.  She is the only one who is authorized to allow the flowers to be cut or distributed."

Shen looked up from the bloom and smiled.  "Not even the king has authority over his own garden?"

"The king would be the first to admit that his expertise lies in dealing with people, not plants, and that he should defer to the expert on such matters," Birman replied with a calm tone and placid smile.  "Just as he would defer to the Royal Wizard if you asked about magic, or the Stablemaster if you wanted to take certain breeding stock home."  She left unsaid that a good ruler knew his own limitations.

The emissary bowed his head in acknowledgment, then gave her a sly look from dark eyes.  "And so I would assume that he would defer to his Spymaster if one should be so daring to ask about such topics that most good diplomats pretend don't exist?"

"Yes, I assume he would."  Her expression did not falter and her tone refused to reveal any of the annoyance she felt from the probing question.  Shen had been doing his best to feel her out on this 'topic' ever since he had arrived for Princess Ouka's Naming ceremony and Manx had revealed her true position to the man on the grounds of 'mutual trust' or some such nonsense.  The revelation had not been that much of a risk as Birman rarely showed her real face when going about collecting information for her king, rather it was an intrusion on her very busy schedule and she felt as if something had been... oh, scored against her.  Only the conversation she had with Crawford about Shen had kept her from taking action against him prying into her business like that, as she had some hope that he was doing it for a reason that would benefit Kritiker in the end.  Yet after managing to confirm that she was indeed the Spymaster, Shen had done little more than extend his stay in Eto.  "As I said, he knows when it's best to defer to the experts on things of importance."

"So I see."  Shen's attention returned to the flowers before him as he turned his attention inward, contemplating something as the expression on his broad, flat-featured face became inscrutable.  With his golden skin tone and black hair slicked back into a small ponytail, he looked one of the bronze statues that Birman had seen from Xan to represent past emperors, minus the finery of court costume.  Then Shen let out a slow breath and stepped back from the rose bush.  "I'll have to ask the Royal Gardner about this plant, and several others."  He motioned around him as he began to walk through the garden.  "There are some very lovely specimens here that would grace the Imperial garden with their beauty."

"I'm sure that Mariko would be interested in some sort of exchange," Birman offered as she fell in step beside the emissary.  "Something new that she could add or perhaps something to crossbreed, even."

"Ah, yes, your country is always open to creating something new."  Shen was smiling as he said that, yet there was an edge to both the words and his smile.  "It amazes me that you still are to this day, after all that has happened."

She tilted her head to the left and feigned a confused smile.  "I'm sorry, I'm not sure I understand what you mean."  Would he finally come out and say something directly about bounds, after skirting the issue for the last several weeks?

"Somehow I doubt that a woman of your intelligence has such a lack of understanding."  Shen folded his arms over his chest and gave her a knowing look.  "But shall we play a game?  I can pretend to be just as obtuse as well, and we can go on about plants for *hours*."

She knew that she should have had a shot or two of whiskey from her emergency stash before going in search of Shen today.  Rubbing her temples, she wondered if she could bribe Eri to scan the infuriating man's mind one day and find out what the hell it was he wanted.  "Tell me the truth, it's your job to torture suspects back in Xan."

Shen laughed at her muttered comment, the sound full of delight despite the words’ dark nature.  "Oh, I shall have to tell my superior that. He'll either be quite pleased with my progress or insist on more training."  His smile indicated that he lacked any fear over the latter prospect.  "To be perfectly honest, I haven't gotten that far yet.  It is a duty reserved for the most senior of officials, in part to spare the younger staff."  For a moment, he looked at her with pity.  "Your king asks much of you, to assign such duties regardless of age."

"He knows our limits, as do we," was all she answered.  There were some tasks that people would fail at regardless of their age, and one could go only so far as a spy or a Guard unless you were able to distance yourself from what needed to be done for the job.

"Then he is a wise king indeed, with wise subjects."  Shen bowed his head for a moment, then lifted it to look at her.  "So I ask of you to not play the fool any longer."  His demeanor was serious, void of the smiling, pleasant diplomat he had pretended to be for the last several weeks.  In its place was focus, sharp intelligent and careful judgment.

Birman did not need Crawford beside her to know that now was the time to find out why this man had come here to talk to her, and decided to risk the truth.  "Very well.  Am I to assume that you wish to talk about bounds?"

There was a slight lessening in the tension along Shen's silk-clad shoulders once she was finished speaking.  "Yes, it is safe to assume such a thing.  It is a topic that has been much discussed in my country lately, and that I may 'assume' has been in yours as well."

Figuring that the conversation would follow along the lines of 'revelation for revelation', she nodded in agreement.  "There are times when I feel that they are all we discuss, in one form or another."  It did not mean, however, that she would give away any more information than was necessary.

As if reading her thought, Shen smiled, a slight baring of teeth, and bowed the slightest bit.  "I can easily imagine that.  Would those discussions have anything to do with Esset?"  When she remained silent for several seconds, he motioned to a maple tree that loomed above them, its jagged leaves beginning to turn red.  "Xan shares a southern border with Esset and Kritiker, and so shares an interest in what happens in both countries.  I must admit that it's not the easiest of things to keep abreast of Esset's latest developments as they have shut themselves off from everyone, but we have noticed changes in the last few years."  He fell quiet for a minute, his right hand reaching for a branch that he pulled down to closer examine the leaves.  "First there was a shift in the weather patterns, a drawing of rain and snow away from our fields.  Then there were reports of people going missing, people who were suspected of having bound blood."  He released the branch as he spoke, as if to draw attention to his words.

"This brought to mind a great tragedy that occurred at a school not far from the border almost a decade ago, where many promising young students were believed to have died by fire.  We have begun to see patterns that make us suspect that Esset has been taking some of our brightest citizens from us over the years, hidden behind a cloak of bound talents."  A sharp edge of anger crept into his voice, shaking the cultured tone.  A maple leaf, which he had plucked from the tree, was crumpled in his right hand.

Birman thought of Trowa and Duo, of how they had been forced into the Elders' service, and struggled to keep a similar anger under control.  "Are you asking me to confirm that the Elders are gathering bounds?"

Shen smiled, the expression completely lacking all civility.  "No, confirmation is unnecessary at this point, for either of us.  I was merely proving my point that Esset is gathering an army and my country is well aware of that fact."  He took a breath and regained some of his composure.  "Which brings us to Kritiker, yes?"

"If you stand here and tell me that we have conducted raids into your country, sir, I fear that I have a very uncomfortable discussion with the Army to look forward to," she answered in all seriousness.

For the first time in several minutes, Shen's smile was genuine.  "No, that is one accusation I can not make."  He gave her a low bow, his arms sweeping out at his sides.  "But you have been recruiting willing volunteers for your Army and Guard among your own people, yes?"  He seemed to notice the crushed leaf in his hand and watched it fall to the ground with a mournful expression before he once more focused his attention on her.  "I've heard reports of wonderful posters and the such."

"We did lose some good people during the... attempt on the king's life at his wedding," Birman admitted as they resumed their stroll through the garden.  "And if the Guard is having a recruitment drive, then the Army hates to feel left out.  I'm sure you are familiar with politics and rival groups."

Shen clapped his hands together several times.  "You are very good, Spymaster.  Perhaps that would work if not for Esset's actions."

She gave the man a rueful grin.  "I figured it was worth a try.  We are also aware of Esset's actions, and past history has taught us that when Esset goes to war, we are almost always the target," she admitted.  "So we are preparing."  She said nothing of certain predictions or reports from the Elders' own Court, which were unnecessary when one considered the country's past actions.

Shen nodded.  "Thank you.  So now that leaves us with the matter of bounds."  His arms were folded over his chest once more, his expression guarded as if to make sure he gave nothing away.

Deciding she had little to lose in asking, she gave voice to the question that had been bothering her the last several minutes.  "Why are you concerned about bounds?  It appears that the war will not involve your country, at least until Kritiker falls."

She received a blank look in return.  "Xan may have not welcomed bounds with open arms, but we have not persecuted them, either.  As long as they do not disturb the harmony of others, they are... ignored.  Allowed to live in relative peace if they respect the law and do not flaunt what they are."

"Yet you do little to protect them," she pointed out, reminded of the stories that Eri, Blair and the others had told her.  Some bounds had tried to flee to Xan, but it was difficult to blend in to the country and its culture.  It took more than 'harmony' and restraint of powers to gain a peaceful existence there, and bounds were still fair game to any wizard who recognized them for what they were and could capture them for their blood. 

A faint redness crept along Shen's cheeks.  "It's... not a perfect system.  Yet we do not openly hunt them down," he accused, his eyes dark with reproach.

"Not all policies are wise ones," she admitted as she came to a stop in the middle of the garden, feeling the irony of talking about such a grim subject when surrounded by such beauty.  "After such a terrible war, faced with the destruction...."  She shook her head.  "I believe King Keiichi made a bad decision, and bounds have paid for it ever since.  Some rulers have chosen to enforce it with more... efficiency than others.  King Shuiichi feels there are more important matters than hunting down bounds."  That was as close as she could come to admitting that Shuiichi had basically put a hold on the policy without making it official and risk exposing the Shadow Guard.

Shen stared at her for several seconds after she had finished speaking, as if contemplating what she had said.  "You know, in a thousand years since the last great war has ended, despite all attempts to the contrary, bounds have not vanished despite the best wishes of humans and wishes.  There are those who wonder if they are here for a reason, if the gods have given us a gift that they do not wish to be tossed aside with so little regard.  And now a second war is imminent, another war in which bounds may very well be a deciding factor.  It is my emperor's thought that if they did not vanish after the previous war and in the time between, what would make us believe that they simply go away this time?"

"That... is a very wise philosophy to have, I would think.  And I would believe that the winner of this war, unlike the previous war, would be the country who would offer true hope to the bounds of a future that would hold some sort of peace and freedom."  She felt that *this* was what Crawford's advice had been for, that whatever reason Shen had been sent to Eto and had spent all this time hovering around the palace was now coalescing on this moment.  While there was only so much she could say because of the oaths to her king and the trust of her people, she felt that she could risk this small truth.

"And does Kritiker offer something other than death?"  Shen's demeanor was impassive once more, a clear indication of how important her answer was.

"We can't erase the past, and we can't produce change merely by wishing for it, but yes, we are offering something more than death."  She met his eyes and hoped that she conveyed the honesty behind her words.  "There is much I can't say for my king's sake, but know that we are indeed offering hope and a chance for a new future."

Shen continued to meet her gaze for several more seconds before bowing his head.  "Thank you.   The fact alone that you recognize the need for change...."  He bowed his head again.  "As I'm sure the Imperial Gardener will recognize once I tell him about the gardens here."  Once again, he was the smiling, flighty emissary he had been before their talk had turned serious.  "And the empress has a fondness of roses, which will put me in her favor if I return with those lovely bi-color blooms.  Do you think an offering of some tea will sweeten the Royal Gardner's mood?"

"If you have more of that green blend you gave to Lady Meara, then you may be in luck," Birman told the man, unable to hold back a smile when he beamed in delight.  They continued their walk, their discussion touching on nothing more serious than plants and the weather.

*******

Trowa stopped at Dell's stand, ducking under the green and blue striped awning and waiting for the stooped-shoulder man to finish with a customer before nodding in greeting. 

"Ah!  I thought you might stop by today!"  Dell smiled in welcome and motioned to his wares spread out on the two tables before him, the scales of the fish glinting in the shaded light of the fishmonger's stall.  "What are you in the mood for?"

"How is the red snapper?" Trowa asked as he leaned in closer to the fish, his bound sense of smell doing its best to differentiate between the various fish set out.  It looked fresh to him, and Dell's wares were usually good as he got them from his cousins down at the Southern docks.  Still, a lifetime of caution made him want to check things out on his own as much as possible, and he thought he made a wise choice as the fish were held up for closer inspection.  "I'll take six of them."

"Good choice!  You'll have a nice dinner for some company!"  Dell nodded in approval as he quickly wrapped the fish, along with some trimmings that he always added for Gin when Trowa or Duo bought something.  "Duo having some of his coworkers stopping by?"

Trowa managed a polite smile as he handed over several coins for the fish.  "One never knows when his work follows him home, so it's best to be prepared."  They were used to explaining their large grocery purchases in such a manner, and enough of the Shadow Guard did stop by on a regular basis, though rarely to eat, that no one questioned things other than in polite conversation or as a chance to increase their sales.  Trowa rarely minded as the sellers tended to add extra items to their purchases from time to time, either in thanks for their patronage or because of Duo being a Guard.  Gin in particular would appreciate the scraps of fish tonight, and hopefully leave Trowa and Duo in peace as they ate their dinner.

Bidding the fishmonger a good evening, Trowa resumed his way home, stopping again to pick up some herbs and vegetables along the way.  He nodded in greeting to several people and promised to purchase some quail the next evening from the butcher's son, Andrew, who stepped outside as he walked past.  Part of him was amazed and a bit taken back by how much he stood out in the neighborhood, that so many people recognized him and knew his patterns well enough to anticipate when he would be going home and to be able to judge what he would want to buy.  That inner voice chided him for being so predictable, so vulnerable... and he ignored it with a savagery that he would turn on an enemy.  This was his home now, was the safe haven that he was building with Duo.  These people may be human and have no idea that he was a bound, but that did not lessen the importance of what he had found here at all.  For the first time that he could ever remember, he had a home and he was happy.  While he was still a spy and would one day have to use his talent to fight and kill, here was a place where he could be as close to 'normal' as possible, and that... that was more important to him than he had ever suspected it would be.  He blamed that fact on Duo, who was a terrible influence.

Still, 'normal' or not, he paid careful attention to his surroundings so it came as no surprise when he saw the shadow detach from the side wall of the bakery and approach him with caution.  He made no outward sign of the panic he felt when he recognized Heero, his mind whirring with the possibility that the air elemental had been sent here by the Elders to take him back to Esset or to question him about his true loyalties.  As he forced his heartbeat to slow down by regulating the blood racing through his veins, it occurred to him how foolish he was being - if Heero had been sent here on a mission, then his friend would not be approaching him so openly.  Heero would take him out without any warning, well aware of how powerful he was, incapacitating him before he could lash out with his talent.

"Good evening," he called out to his friend, who was dressed in black pants and a blue tunic, bearing no signs of his Army uniform.  "There's fish for dinner."  He held up the paper-wrapped package in his left hand.

Heero appeared confused for several seconds, his black eyebrows drawing together before he shook his head.  "I wasn't planning on staying that long," he said as he fell in step beside Trowa.  "I'm sorry... it's... uhm, I should have given some sort of warning, shouldn't I?"  He sounded uncertain, which was very unlike the focused air elemental that Trowa had known back in Esset.

"It would have been polite if you had sent some sort of note, but it's not unheard of for friends to stop by like this," Trowa remarked as they entered the foyer of his apartment building.  He kept his voice calm and friendly, even as inwardly he winced and hoped that Duo ran into some sort of problem or troublesome case that would keep him busy at work for a couple of hours.  If Heero had thought *beforehand* about the niceties of social behavior, then he would not be so worried right now about his mate coming home and finding the man here.  Duo used to like Heero, before-

No, it would not do to think about certain things right now.  Schuldig made sure that Heero failed to realize how much Trowa and Duo's relationship had changed, but the air elemental was very observant and Trowa could not risk letting things slip when Schuldig was currently occupied with the mission of tracking down Victor Garcia.

They entered the apartment that Trowa shared with Duo, the small space making Trowa's lips ache to smile with its familiarity as he crossed the threshold.  He distracted himself by shuffling all of his packages to his left arm and bending down to shoo Gin away with his right hand as the cat attempted to attack Heero's feet.  "Gin, behave," he warned the cat before straightening up to toe off his boots.  "I'm afraid he tends to think that stranger's feet are fair game as toys."  Mainly because he had learned that people other than Duo could not scare him away with sparks and for some reason he had always left Trowa's toes alone.  "Well, unless you're Jei.  All it took was one show of teeth and Gin learned where he fell in *that* pecking order."  This time the smile won out as he remembered that memory.  Duo had been torn between being cross and touched over Gin hiding behind him all evening that the flesh gaki bound had remained in the apartment, and had complained to Trowa that the cat had obviously been hoping that Jei would eat *him* and leave Gin alone.

"Jei usually manages to scare more than a cat."  For a moment it appeared that Heero was joining in on the good humor, his blue eyes shining with amusement and his lips curling upward ever so slightly.  Then the wall of reserved emotion overtook him as usual, reining in that amusement and leaving his face blank, his eyes almost cold from the lack of evident feeling.  Trowa knew that his friend still had emotions, that they were now kept tightly under check lest they interfere with his talent or his judgment, and felt another stab of hatred toward the Elders.  They had crippled the brave, powerful man that Heero could be by turning him into a living weapon... but there was some hope that their conditioning would fail, according to Crawford.

"That is true," Trowa said as he motioned for Heero to follow him into the kitchen.  "For all his bluff growling and snapping, Duo does his best to stay on Jei's good side."  Out of the corner of his eye, he caught a slight slip in Heero's reserved facade.  As much as the air elemental complained about being partnered with Duo in the past, he knew that Heero had a soft-spot for the fiery-tempered idiot.

"I believe it's a testament to Crawford's ability to control his partner that Jei hasn't gutted Duo yet."  Heero glanced around the sunny room with evident curiosity, his brows drawing close again as he noticed all of the personal touches: the mugs, the cheerful blue curtains and matching rugs, the pots of parsley and mint that Duo was doing his best to grow, among other things.   "You've... obviously settled in."

Trowa shrugged as he unwrapped the fish.  "As a member of the Guard, it's expected of Duo to socialize with his partner at the very least, and with others whom he shares shifts with from time to time.  Having an empty apartment would attract unwanted attention."  He began to rinse off the fish, setting the clean meat in a steam pan once he was done.  "I had to go with Duo's judgment on many items," he admitted in a quiet voice as he bent down to feed Gin the scraps.

From his position of leaning against the counter, arms folded across his chest, Heero looked around the room once more before staring at Trowa.  "But not the cat."

"No, not the cat."  Trowa stroked the back of his pet as Gin ate his meal, the grey cat purring in delight.  "I found myself unwilling to give them all away."  Ever since he could recall, he had dreamed of finding a safe place to live and sharing that home with several cats and a dog or two.  He knew it was foolish to take on a pet with the war so close at hand, yet....  Duo stressed the importance of them building a home together, of having something to come back to once the fighting was done, and he had found himself unable to put off that dream any longer.  Though he had not counted on sharing a home with a lover-  He shook his head and stood up straight.  "Who would expect two men in an apartment like this, with a cat, as being spies?"

Heero was quiet for several seconds and then nodded.  "Very true.  You always do treat your undercover missions with the utmost seriousness.  I suppose I'm mostly surprised by the fact that Duo is doing the same."  He sounded... almost jealous, or wistful, as if he wished that he played some part in bringing out that side in the fire elemental.  "But how can you take on a cat when you know it will die so soon?"  Now Heero was plainly confused, his expression troubled as he looked upon the half-grown cat as if Gin would fall over dead from old age at any second.

While they both had very long lives to look forward to, barring death from treachery or fighting, Trowa wondered how Heero could overlook the fact that as bounds considered things, that *they* were still very, very young.  They had only seen a tiny fraction of the amount of years that they could live, and Gin could match most of them if the gods were willing.  "Who’s to say that a cat won't outlive us?" he pointed out to his foolish friend.  "There's a war coming, and even when it's won, there's little guarantee that all will be peace and goodness.  Perhaps Xan or Thracia will fight us next, or maybe you'll fall off your horse.  The gods can be rather perverse, after all."  He rubbed his left wrist with his right hand, a faint memory of larger fingers wrapping around the fragile bones and squeezing them tight many years ago.  "Either we'll outlive most people and creatures or we won't.  If you count on the first happening, then you'll have to shut yourself away from almost all of the world to avoid dealing with things dying on you.  I'd rather enjoy the time that's been given to me and them while I can."  Perhaps he would regret it when Gin passed away, if he lived that long.  Or maybe centuries from now, he and Duo would still be together, smiling and laughing about the silver-grey cat who loved nothing better to do than to pounce on some unsuspecting soul's toes.

Heero fell quiet again, seeming to consider what had been said, so Trowa left him to mull over the words while he finished preparing dinner.  Once that was done, he opened a bottle of white wine and offered a glass to his friend.  Heero accepted with a grateful nod.  "I'm sorry, I didn't come here to criticize what you're doing for the mission."

"I understand."  Trowa sipped his wine and held back on saying anything else, hopeful that Heero would tell him why he had come and then go on his way before Duo returned.

Heero swallowed half of the glass in one go and sputtered a little.  "Have you- did you find out anything more about Relena Peacecraft?"  He took a deep breath and set the glass aside.  "I've been unable to do more than run the occasional errand to the Palace lately, and so have had little chance to see her.  I've a feeling that she's my best chance to infiltrate the upper echelon of the High Court."  As he spoke, he did his best to portray the reserved expression that he wore when discussing a mission, but there was a spark of emotion in his eyes and his heartbeat was a tiny bit faster than normal.

Trowa was very careful to keep the fact well-hidden from Heero and the Elders that he knew a great deal about what was happening in the 'upper echelon of the High Court' due to his position as the Spymaster's trusted assistant, when they believed him to be nothing more than a lowly aide in her network.  He made sure his job came across as nothing more than that of a clerk and gopher, which gave him plenty of opportunities to pass notes to Relena on Heero's behalf.  "Little more than what I've already told you.  If you're looking for something to use as blackmail against her, the only weak spot she has is her brother, and everyone knows that he renounced his family name and inheritance to join the Army."  Trowa brushed a clinging, silvery scale that had escaped being washed off from his right hand and folded his arms over his chest.  "As to why he did so, nothing I've managed to uncover points to a scandal on his part, and I've even checked the Spymaster's records."  He was telling the truth; Birman had only found out recently that Milliardo Peacecraft had become Zechs Marquis because he was an air elemental and was very careful to keep that from any written record.

"Please keep looking."  Heero ran his right hand through his thick, dark hair.  He looked toward the potted herbs as if fascinated by the growing plants.  "Ah, have you spoken with Relena at all?"

Hmm, perhaps this was the true reason for the visit?  And for the question about Gin, Trowa wondered, feeling a bit sympathetic for the obviously uncomfortable bound.  "She's been asking about you," he admitted.  "She tried to pass me a note the other day, but a Page was closer and attempted to take it for her.  She pretended that she needed to add something else and I haven't seen her since."  There was no mistaking the way Heero's heartbeat sped up upon hearing the news.

"Please do your best to meet with her soon."  There was an unfamiliar edge to Heero's voice, a hint of need that shocked Trowa as he was unused to hearing it from his friend.  "I must have something to report to the Elders in the upcoming weeks, and I'm *certain* that she's my best hope for information."

The intense emotion that was so rarely seen in Heero's blue eyes unless he was facing off against an enemy or being praised by the Elders made Trowa wonder if Schuldig had tampered with his friend's mind.  Why else would Heero be so fervent in his belief that Relena was this important to his mission?  The young woman was a highborn of note, but she held strong to her family's belief in pacificism and was not involved in any planning for the war.  Despite her high rank, her youth and dislike of the military kept her out of the planning councils.  Birman felt that any information that she managed to 'pass on' to Heero was negligible and of little danger to Kritiker.  

He was about to say that perhaps he could manage to cross paths with her during one of the popular tea parties that always seemed to be held in the Palace's many gardens, when there was a rush of emotions that made him sip his wine to give himself a moment to recover.  Judging from the worry, anger and protectiveness that he had just felt, Duo was home and had realized that Heero was here, either from his scent or some observant neighbor.  Trowa sent back reassurance and braced himself as the door to their apartment opened and closed.

"Ah, something smells good! Trowa, you- stop it, you damn fleabag!  How many times do I have to tell you that I'm not your damn chew toy?"   There was the sound of scuffling and plaintive meowing, followed by faint cursing.  Some of Duo's anger faded, replaced by a mix of annoyance and affection, and his emotions seemed to be under control when he came into the kitchen a minute later, without his Guard's jacket and with Gin draped over his shoulder.  "*Your* cat is a menace," he growled at Trowa as he entered, and stopped a few feet from both Trowa and Heero.  "Hey, Heero, long time no see.  Something happen?"  There was evident tension in his voice, which might be accounted to the cat.

For the first time in his life, Trowa wished that he was a soul gaki bound so he could let his mate know that everything was all right, and had to manage with sending as much reassurance and comfort that he could over their link while remaining as outwardly impassive as possible.  He continued to sip his wine and let Heero answer the question.

Heero nodded in acceptance of the greeting.  "Everything is fine."  He motioned around the room and then at Duo's uniform.  "You're doing an excellent job on this mission."

Duo latched onto the way Heero had phrased things to vent some of his anger against the air elemental.  "*This* mission.  What, I don't do a damn good job on all of my missions?  Is that what you're trying to say?"

Heero blinked at the vehemence in Duo's tone and frowned.  "That is not what I meant."  Then he straightened up and returned the glare.  "Though if I were to be honest, it's not every mission that you put so much effort into blending in and working so willingly.  For once, you seem to realize the importance of the assignment and are treating things seriously."

Duo growled for several seconds, his hands clenched into fists, and to Trowa's surprise shook his head and grew quiet.  He took a deep breath and removed Gin from his shoulder to gently set the cat onto the floor.  "Go pee in Heero's boots, okay?" he told the cat, his voice bereft of anger and possessing the jesting lilt that Trowa adored.  When he straightened up, his usual smile was on his face, a familiar mask that reassured Trowa that his lover was in control of himself. 

"That's not funny," Heero complained, a slight frown on his face as he watched the cat run out of the room.  "It won't actually do it, will it?"

Duo rolled his eyes as he fetched himself a wineglass.  "Oh, please, if I still have problems training the damn thing to stop biting my toes, do you seriously think I can teach him to pee on command?"  He used the excuse of pouring himself some wine to brush his right hand along Trowa's left arm.  Once he was finished, he leaned against the counter near Trowa, positioned closer to Heero as a subtle barrier between the two of them.  Trowa felt torn between smacking the over-protective idiot and wanting to reward him for remaining relatively calm in the face of what he knew Duo saw as a potential threat.  "So, what brings you here, other than the chance to yet again point out my many flaws?" Duo asked after a sip of wine, his voice still retaining the mocking lilt.

Put at ease by Duo's familiar attitude, Heero twirled his half-empty wineglass between his fingers and stared at the swirling pale liquid.  "I was hoping that Trowa could help me contact someone.  I've... been having a little difficulty putting part of my mission into action, I'm afraid."  His frown deepened, no doubt at the thought of letting the Elders down.  "I've had no troubles establishing myself in the Army, yet it hasn't been as easy as I'd hoped to put myself in a position to gain truly valuable information."  Rare frustration crept into his voice.

"I'm sure the Elders are aware that we may not be able to send anything of relevance until much closer to the war," Trowa offered as he refilled his wineglass, careful not to look at Duo and risk revealing too much.  "Missions such as this take time and effort, Heero."

"Yeah, and just the fact that we have managed to gain employment and have so far fit with a bunch of humans in is accomplishment enough, dammit.  Cut yourself a break for once."  Some of the affectionate annoyance that Duo had always felt for Heero resurfaced once more, perhaps because of the lack of threat the air elemental appeared to pose to them so far. 

Heero's eyes narrowed and he looked ready to argue with that statement, probably to take umbrage with the thought that he give himself any slack on anything that the Elders felt was important, when he instead sighed and looked away.  "Yes, we have accomplished much, but there's still much more to achieve.  We must keep that in mind."  He set the glass aside and nodded at Trowa.  "Please let me know if you manage to receive any messages for me."

"I will," Trowa promised.  He set his glass aside as well and escorted his friend to the door.  Along the way, it seemed that Heero had something else to say, but the air elemental remained quiet other than to wish him a good night at the door.  Trowa closed it behind him and used his talent to make sure that Heero did in fact leave the building before returning to the kitchen.  Once he was there, he was pulled into a tight hug and given a passionate kiss.  Fear, love, worry and possessiveness flowed over his link with Duo, taking away as much breath as did the kiss.

After what felt to be several minutes, the embrace loosened and the kiss came to an end.  As he gasped for breath, Duo tucked back the bangs falling onto his face and placed the wineglass into his right hand.  "Okay, so what the hell was that about?  Don't tell me that Heero was just being sociable, or I'll start to believe that the gods are about to end the world or something."

Trowa managed a shaky smile after a few sips of wine.  "No, he hasn't changed that much."  He took a deep breath and caressed his lover's jaw.  "Thank you," was all he said, the words enough to make Duo blush a little and grin.

"Yeah, well, I'll admit that I wanted to burn him to a crisp at first when I passed by Jenson and he mentioned that he saw you come home with some company and described Heero, then I figured if he was still alive that you had a good reason to leave him in that condition."  Duo grabbed Trowa's left hand and gently tugged him toward the counter, which Duo leaned against while Trowa stood between his legs.  "Still wanted to singe him a little, though, when I saw him standing here.  So what did he really want?"

Trowa finished his wine and set the glass aside, then massaged his temples to relieve a tension headache.  "I don't... no, I think it's that I have a problem accepting it.  Heero appears to have become infatuated with one of the highborn at the palace."

"That Relena Peacecraft you were telling me about?  The one who gives you messages for him from time to time?"  Duo wrapped his arms around Trowa's waist and massaged the small of his back, the touch comforting.  "I thought he was trying to use her to find out more about her brother, his commander."

He sighed and leaned forward, his chin resting on his mate's left shoulder.  "I think it's always been about more than that.  I suspect that you were more right than you meant to be when you joked about him developing emotions at last."  His mind whirled as he considered all of the facts, Heero's odd behavior, Crawford's cryptic comments and what would be needed for Kritiker to win the war.  Having Aya and his frightening power would go a very long way to defeating the Elders' army, yet he *knew* that Crawford would not rely on power alone to tear down the Elders' empire - that would only leave remnants behind that would haunt them far into the future. 

More tension left his body when Duo began to nibble on his right ear.  "I meant it when I said that something smells delicious.  How much time do we have until it's ready?"

Trowa smiled as he leaned back into his mate's comforting circle of arms.  "Not nearly long enough for what you have in mind, I'm afraid."

Duo's expression was one of extreme crestfallenness, belied by his amusement and simmering desire.  "Drat, a fine plan spoiled by hunger."  By his feet, Gin let out another plaintive meow as if to echo the sentiment. 

"Guess you'll have to learn to be a little more patient."  Trowa gave his lover a quick kiss and stepped free, Duo's hands slipping away without any attempt at restraint.  "Besides, think of how much better you'll be able to focus when you're not distracted by hunger," he pointed out as he went to check on the fish.

"Oh, I don't know, you usually manage to provoke some very intense focus from me," Duo drawled as he poured them both some more wine.  "So you really think Heero is falling for a human?"

"A human unlike any he's ever known before."  Trowa thought about Relena for a moment, her avowed pacificism, her kindness regardless of a person's social standing, her cheerful nature.  "That might account for part of his confusion.  I'm certain that Heero's finding himself in a lot of unfamiliar water on this mission."  He looked around the kitchen and reflected on his earlier thoughts.  "I can sympathize a little."

Duo met his eyes and smiled, his expression tender.  "Yeah, things certainly haven't been the same as they were back in... Esset."  For a moment his smile slipped.  "I just hope he realizes that it's a good thing."

"That might be a problem."  Trowa removed the fish from the oven.  "His loyalty to the Elders has been deeply ingrained, and Crawford hasn't insinuated anything about a mating bond between Heero and Relena.  I suspect that whatever is happening, it may take some time."  He set the pan aside and gave his mate a considering look.  "Please keep that in mind."

He got a grimace in return, Duo's nose scrunched up in distaste but assent over their link.  "Eh, just as long as he keeps from figuring out about our bond, I'll manage.  I mean, if I haven't throttled him for being thick-headed by now, I guess I can get through another couple of years."  Then he smiled, his eyes sparkling with amusement and his face transformed by the grin.  "I must admit, it will be funny as hell to watch him fall in love.  I feel a bit sorry for the girl, but if there's one thing I've learned from dealing with Aya, Shinra and Omi it's that highborns can be more than a match for Heero."

The truth in that comment made Trowa smile.  He suspected that if anything, Heero would underestimate Relena because of her lineage and human nature and be in for quite the surprise.  "May he not know it until it's too late."    He fetched a plate from a cupboard to put the fish and vegetables on for dinner, while Duo set the table.   

"It couldn't happen to a better guy," Duo said with a laugh as he arranged the plates.  "Seriously, though, I'm sure it'll mess with his head, but maybe falling in love is what Heero needs.  He thinks he can be a better weapon by being emotionless, but...."  He looked at Trowa and smiled, the expression tinged with sadness.  "It's not until you've got something to lose that you really can give a fight your all.  And if he can learn to love a human, then maybe he can learn to think for himself."

Trowa set their dinner on the table and reached out to brush the back of his fingers along Duo's left cheek.  "I don't see how he can't once he realizes his true feelings for the girl."  He suspected that was Crawford's grand plan for bringing the air elemental to Eto in the first place.

Duo caught his hand as it fell down and gave it a squeeze before releasing it.  "Just imagine how much enjoyment we'll have making him recognize his own emotions!"  He laughed as they sat down to enjoy their supper.  "Oh, this is going to be so much fun!"

Only Duo would find the prospect of tormenting an emotionally stunted yet very powerful bound over his burgeoning emotions for a human 'fun'.  Reflecting on how love did indeed make one do foolish things, Trowa shook his head and had a sip of wine before enjoying his meal.

*******

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