Chasing Threads

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chapter four

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old arguments and new appearances

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Growing bored with lying in bed and doing nothing, Reno decided that he might as well get up; his asshole of a mate had already left their room for the day, having snuck off at some point while Reno was sleeping.  As far as Reno could tell, Rufus was still at home, so he was not trying to get out of the house without hearing about how much of a bastard he was to go slink off to the palace and surround himself with a bunch of highborn whores while Reno slowly went insane with boredom.  That meant that something else must be up.

He took the time to wash off and dress in some clothes, figuring the time was well spent to try and clear his head of any remaining sleepiness.  A faint hunger thrummed through his body and mind, a warning that he would need to feed within the next week or so, and a bitter smile twisted his lips as he wondered how Rufus was going to handle that.  Have Tseng drag some poor sap home for him to feed on?  Or have the put-upon flesh gaki bound take him out into the city while holding his hand until they found a suitable victim?  Reno *detested* not being able to hunt on his own.

<Shameful, *shameful*, to chain one of our kind like this.  Break free, young one,> the shinigami urged as they stroked along his bare shoulders and through his unbound hair.

Reno shivered at the contact, part of him yearning for more while his human soul drew back in fear.  Oh, it would be so easy to just give in, to break free from all the stupid, *heavy* bonds that tied him to this inane existence, that confused him with its stupid and endless rules.  He wanted to be free to do whatever he desired, to push away all boundaries until they vanished, to burn the world in a shower of sparks....  He shook his head and pulled on a black tunic, the laces left undone as he combed his hands through his hair.  A pair of matching pants and he considered himself dressed for the day since there was no chance to leave the damn house grounds.

Slamming the bedroom door shut behind him, he went stalking through the still gaudy as hell mansion in search of the bastard who kept him trapped in this confusing existence and in the immediate vicinity in particular.  He flinched a little as he came across a patch of sunlight, as he had spent most of the last couple of days in his darkened bedroom.

The maid let out a little squeak of terror as he passed by her in the hall, all but pressed against the far wall in an effort to put as much distance between her and him as possible. He might not be allowed to throw knives at the staff any more, but the staff had learned over the last few days to not enter any room he was in unless a meal was being served or else have the remnants of Rufus’ mother’s horrid art collection thrown at them. The shinigami at least cheered him on when he threw the freakish babies with wings that were supposed to be some fucked-up artist’s depiction of them at his targets, and Rufus hated the damned ugly things too much to work up any true anger over their destruction.

Since Rufus was not in their bedroom or his office, that meant the most likely place he would be was in the dining room. Reno tried there first, refusing to reach out over their link and ask his mate where the hell he was. Ever since Rufus had ordered him to remain at the mansion, he had done his best to ignore the bond between them as much as he could, pissed off at how he was only considered anything remotely along the lines of a lover and a partner when it was convenient for the high and mighty bastard. For his part, Rufus kept the link partially stifled; Reno would have bet good money on it being completely blocked and had a sense of unease over the small amount of emotions that they still shared, certain that it was done only so said bastard could keep track of him.

Still, even though he refused to make things easy by asking where Rufus was, he had a sense of getting closer as he approached the smaller of the two dining rooms in the mansion that Rufus used on a daily basis unless hosting a party. He was unsurprised when he crossed paths with Elena a short distance from the room, the other gokenin heading in the opposite direction as if already sent on an assignment for the day.

Her blond eyebrows drew up beneath her bangs as she gave him a disapproving look. "You should try to appear the slightest bit respectful, you know!" she hissed as she walked past, in too much of a hurry to give him an earful on proper dress etiquette and whatever else nonsense was important to an annoying over-achiever like her.

"Tell me, how do ya manage to suck Tseng’s cock while telling him what an amazing boss he is at the same time?" he drawled as he sauntered past, a pleased grin spreading across his lips when she choked out his name in embarrassment to the question. Too bad that poor, prim Elena was never any good at the quick comeback, especially when she had to deliver something and so had no time to spare trading insults in a hallway. Reno would take his victories where he could since he had precious few opportunities to fight anymore, and hope she would come looking for him later.

Reaching the dining room, he stepped inside, mouth open to start haranguing his mate over his plans for the day and how they would most likely involve leaving Reno stuck at home bored out of his mind, when he noticed that Rufus had some guests. Unlike most of the time when there were people dining with the bastard, Reno *knew* these two men and knew them well. Rod had been a friend for almost the entire time he had worked for the Shinra family, Cyril for the last several years, and the last he had heard, they were supposed to be in Esset helping Reeve keep an eye on things. "What the hell are you stupid fucks doing here?"

Rod paused in shoveling food in his mouth to smile and lean back in his chair, his black and white uniform showing sign of road dust. "Well, nice to fucking see you, too!" He laughed before he resumed eating, his reddish brown hair falling onto the left side of his face. Beside him, Cyril gave a nod in greeting as he continued to eat, his blue eyes bright with amusement and a sense of peace radiating from him.

Rufus cleared his throat in a manner intended to cut short any more of a reunion between the gokenin. "Good morning, Reno. As you have noticed, Rod and Cyril have joined us. Sit down and eat your breakfast." He motioned at the chair nearest his own, a good distance from where Reno’s friends were currently seated.

Reno bared his teeth at being ordered to do anything, but sat down anyway since he wanted to know what the hell was going on. He waited for the serving maid to put down a cup of coffee near him and ignored the plate of fried eggs, potatoes and ham as he did not have much of an appetite for food that morning. "So, is something going on back home or what?" he asked after drinking half of his coffee.

He could tell from the faint emotions over the link and from the way that Rufus dragged out the last few bites of his buttered toast that the bastard was stalling for time, which meant that there was about to be an answer that he was *not* going to like. "Things are as well as can be expected at home. Reeve is doing a commendable job running the business in my absence, and the prospect of a war means that we have plenty of orders." He was pleased over the prospect of incoming money when he already had several times more than any person could spend in one lifetime. As with so many things, Reno failed to understand the sense of it and why people were happy over such a stupid thing, when he could just take whatever he needed.

"Oh, well, as long as you’re profiteering on upcoming massive death and destruction, then all is well and good," he drawled. As Rufus glared at him, he rolled his eyes and motioned toward his fellow gokenin. "That doesn’t explain what the hell they’re doing here."

"What else, to work." When Rufus turned his nasty look on Rod, the fire elemental decided it was a good time to shove a forkful of eggs into his mouth and not say anything else.

"Eh, they’re not here to deliver a message?" Reno stared at Rufus as if he could mentally will the bastard to give him a straight answer. "Did you call them here?"

Rufus wiped his mouth with a napkin and set his coffee cup perfectly centered on its plate before answering. "I need two functioning sets of gokenin."

"You already *have* two functioning sets of gokenin," Reno spat.

"We’ve already had this discussion, Reno. I fail to see how you’ll be able to perform your duties from now on so I requested that Rod and Cyril be sent to assist Tseng and Elena."

"And what about Rude?" Reno had a feeling that he knew where the conversation was going, but gave Rufus some time to light his own funeral pyre.

Proving that he had some semblance of intelligence, Rufus hesitated before answering. "Whenever not running necessary errands for me, he’ll be watching over you to make sure that no wizards or Esset hounds track you down." At least the asshole refrained from saying ‘and keep you out of trouble’.

Still, the implied insult that Reno needed to be babysat and would be kept from working when Rufus had all put promised that he would be allowed to carry through with his gokenin duties had Reno leaving his chair to rush onto his mate’s lap, where he grabbed two handful’s of the bastard’s immaculately combed hair and yanked his head back. "And what the fuck am I supposed to do, eh? Lose my fucking mind from boredom?"

"You don’t have a ‘fucking mind’ in the first place," Rufus replied, his voice only a shade louder than normal as his hands wrapped around Reno’s wrists. "I explained this to you already – there’s a damned wizard in the city who is most likely looking for you, so we can’t risk him or anyone else figuring out who and what you are!"

For someone who was supposed to be so ‘rare’ and ‘valuable’, all Reno felt like was somebody who was being used. "And I told you that you can’t keep hiding me away! Dammit, Rufus, don’t tell me that you’re gonna let things go back to normal after Aya offs that Garcia bastard when you pull shit like calling Rod and Cyril here!" Tseng and Elena were bounds, they could pull double-shifts for a few weeks if they were occasionally spelled by Rude and be none the worse for wear. That Rufus had felt the need for more gokenin meant that he was thinking in longer terms.

"And what happens when the Elders send more spies to the Court?" Rufus gave up on trying to pry Reno’s hands free from his hair and decided to do some hair pulling of his own. "We’ve already established to them that you’re my ‘lover’ and are ill-suited at being presented at any court. They shouldn’t be surprised that I’ve once again decided to isolate you, most likely because of some ill behavior on your behalf that Tseng and the others can foster the illusion of, yet keep you on because of the lack of other bounds in the vicinity. " His tone, along with his emotions, was perfectly serious, radiating the intent that he refused to be budged on this topic. As he spoke, he tugged on Reno’s hair, the pressure exerted making Reno arch his neck.

"Why would anyone give a damn about me?" He still failed to grasp why Rufus thought he was of any importance at all – he was a mere gokenin, a bound of seemingly little power who knew how to fight and be good in bed, if he managed to keep a lord interested this long.

"Because the Elders are always looking for new ways to control people, and the fact that there’s a tie between us means that you are a potential weakness to me. The less they know about and can see of you, the better. So as far as they are concerned, once more you’re a simple fuck-up who can’t do anything right but warm my bed." Rufus said each word with a stark clarity as if he hoped to drive them into Reno’s memory forever and save himself the trouble of ever having to repeat them again.

But how could the Elders tell the difference between a fuck-buddy and a true lover, and did they really have nothing better to do with their time than to nose about the affairs of all their subjects? To think that people repeatedly said that Reno did not make any sense, when as far as he was concerned, they all were babbling idiots with the way they insisted the world worked. His take on it was so much simpler; there were those who were fair game to be ‘food’ and those who were not, and while it might be amusing to play a little with ‘food’ before you ate, there was no sense in expending so much energy beyond the occasional game or two. You played a little, just enough for amusement’s sake, you ate, you fucked, you kept those who were yours safe, and all was right in the world. Those who lacked a shinigami soul just had to go and fuck up such a simple thing.

"Why do you assume that they really give a shit?" he asked, exasperated with how much his life was impacted over what he really considered a bunch of paranoid nonsense. "Ow! Dammit!"

"Why do you fail to realize the danger that we’re all in," Rufus hissed, his hands still tightly wrapped around Reno’s hair, which he had just yanked on yet again. "Do you really lack any type of internal sensor for danger? It can’t be a shinigami thing because Aya seems to realize when his nature may jeopardize others."

"Don’t bring him into this discussion! I think it’s just that you believe the world revolves around you!" Reno bared his teeth at his mate and did some hair pulling of his own. "And you like worming your way out of promises you mostly made!"

"Uhm, should we be here for this or should be leave?" Rod asked, his voice uncharacteristically tentative as he broke into the fight.

"You can stay and see what irrationality I have to put up with on a daily basis!" Rufus snarled out the words with a loss of temper that made Rod whimper and Reno reconsider his position on his mate’s lap. Maybe it would have been a good idea to remain in his seat a couple of safe feet away…. As if realizing that he had just terrorized the three bounds in the room, Rufus took a deep breath and relaxed his death grip on Reno’s hair. "I am very tired of having this same discussion over and over again. Rod and Cyril are here now and will assume the duties that had been assigned to you and Rude."

"And I’ll just go back to the bedroom, since all I am is your little fucktoy," Reno spat as he let go of Rufus’ hair, the words betraying all of the bitterness and hurt he felt. Dammit, how was it that Aya got Yohji to treat him as an equal? Sure, Aya was also staying home for the time being, but he was certain that once the damn wizard was caught, that Yohji would let Aya go about the city like he always had, and that Yohji had *asked* Aya to remain at the Koneko, not ordered him.

<Reno… if I had any faith in that you would not be seen and recognized by anyone, I could ask you to remain here only during Victor Garcia’s time in the city. However, you move in areas that Aya doesn’t, and you have… impulse issues that I need to consider as well.> Rufus released Reno’s hair to stroke his right hand along Reno’s left cheek. <If anything, this past week has brought to my attention that things are progressing in ways that I hadn’t anticipated when we were back in Esset. The Elders aren’t keeping me appraised of all of their agents here in Eto, and it’s entirely possible that some of them have been sent to keep an eye on us. There are also people here who are out for themselves and would have no issue with betraying a half-blood like me and any of my people.> He pushed his emotions over their link, sincerity, protection and something that made Reno want to squirm on Rufus’ lap in an attempt to escape.

<You keep using arguments to entrap me,> Reno complained as he shied his head away from the caress. Part of him understood that Rufus was trying to keep all of them safe, he just had trouble grasping why it was *him* who always had to make the sacrifice – all because of an accident of birth?

<You’re special, Reno. Unfortunately, it means that other people will want to use or harm you.> Rufus refused to let him avoid the caress, his hand cupping Reno’s cheek as that elusive emotion seared over their link, along with possessiveness. <I wish I knew a better way than seeming to hide you away from everything, but there are so many ways that things can go wrong. I’d rather take too many precautions than too little and chance you being harmed.>

<Even if I can’t live like that?> Reno stared at Rufus’ face as he asked that question, waiting for any sign of reaction. No emotion flickered across his mate’s face, though that sense of possession increased over their link.

<At least you’ll still be alive, and it won’t be forever.>

Reno felt the beginnings of a headache and sighed. Such a stubborn bastard, and people thought that he could be thickheaded. "Yeah, and could you live with these restrictions?" He did not wait for any response as he moved away from Rufus’ lap.

"You didn’t eat any breakfast."

"Eh, don’t really feel hungry right now." He waved aside Rufus’ dark look and concern. "I’ll eat something later." Right now, he wanted to go and sulk somewhere, and would probably seek out Rude for a sparring session to work out some frustration. He was certain his friend would not only provide a willing target but would smack some sense into him and drag him off to the kitchen for some food as well. That would be after Rufus had left for the day, though, along with the reminder that he had once again lost the chance to go outside the mansion’s walls and escape the monotonous boredom that was threatening to drive him to do something extreme sometime soon.

<Reno… perhaps we’ll go to the Koneko later.>

Reno paused at the dining room’s doorway and looked over his shoulder at his mate. He knew an appeasement when it was dangled in front of his face and wondered if he should care at all if it meant he got out for a bit. <That sounds like fun.> He managed a slight grin before he slipped out of the room to return to the shinigami.

*******

Aya entered the kitchen to find Reiichi sitting at the table, sharing a pot of coffee with Jo.  "Good morning."

"Good morning, Aya."  Reiichi smiled in welcome and motioned to the empty seats around him and then the plate of cinnamon rolls.  "Please, join us."

Jo smiled as well as she rose from the table and headed to the stove, most likely to fetch a pot of hot water to make some tea.  "Yohji stopped by on his way out to check up on Cassandra before running some errands for me.  I guess that means you have some peace and quiet for a couple of hours." 

"Yes."  He pushed aside the feelings of envy at his mate's freedom; he knew that Yohji was much less of a target than he was should Garcia come looking for a kage, but it still was a bit bitter that Yohji could walk around freely while he was for the most part stuck at the Koneko unless he left cloaked in shadows.  For now, he was still resolved to remain here to appease his mate and several other people, even though that resolve was seriously tested at times. 

Sitting down at the table, he gave Reiichi an inquisitive look, curious as to where the Guard had been the last few days.  For the most part, Reiichi was assigned to watch after him, so when he was tasked with something else, it usually was very important. 

Reiichi bowed his head slightly in acknowledgment.  "I hear that things have become interesting while I've been away."

"You... might say that.  We're supposed to have an unwanted guest in town sometime soon," Aya remarked as he picked a couple of rolls from the plate.  Over by the stove Jo chuckled as she filled the teapot with hot water. 

"So I've been told."  Reiichi paused to sip his coffee.  "It's a good thing that I finished up checking on the various delegates for Yuushi and Birman and am done with the Court for the time being."  He sounded relaxed and a little relieved, which implied that he was grateful to be back 'home'.

Aya assumed that since he was back at the Koneko that there had been no threat posed from the various diplomats that had been sent to the Court for Princess Ouka's Naming ceremony and not left in a timely fashion.  If any of them had been sent to spy on the Shadow Guard or find out about Aya, he doubted that Reiichi would be back here or acting so calm right now.  He also would hope that Birman would have notified him of any threat and given him a chance to enjoy a nice meal.  "So there was no reason for them to remain behind so long after the ceremony after all?"

Reiichi stared into his mug for a moment.  "Oh, I wouldn't say that.  Birman confided in me last night that one of the diplomats from Xan approached her for a rather frank discussion about how Kritiker intends to deal with bounds after the war."

Now that was an interesting revelation.  "And?" Aya assumed that the discussion had gone well as there had been no news of a missing diplomat or Jei crowing about a good meal.

"She feels that he was satisfied with the answer that she was able to provide without revealing too much."  Reiichi set his mug on the table and adjusted his glasses.  "Now to wait to see what the official response will be."

Jo refilled his mug with fresh coffee, a sardonic twist to her lips.    "You have a talent for understatement, you do know that."

Reiichi laughed and bowed his head in acknowledgment.  "Well, there's not much we can do about the situation, na?  I trust Birman when she says that she came away from the discussion with a good feeling, and if there was any danger then it would have been dealt with already."  His thoughts on the matter were obviously similar to Aya's.  "The main thing is making certain that there is no obvious connection between the creation of the Shadow Guard and the influx of bounds into the capital, and of course your presence here."  He motioned in Aya's direction.  "Isn't it nice to be so important?" he asked with a wry smile.

"Oh, yes."  Yohji said that Aya had become more sarcastic lately, and there may be some truth to his complaints as Jo and Reiichi laughed at his tone.  "One day I hope to thank the gods for such a 'gift'."  Because of Yohji and their bond, he hoped that day was long in coming, but still, he had some things to say when his time finally came and he could face the gods to discuss why they had decided to send another kage and make it him.  Perhaps they should do their own work for once.

"Hmm, now that would be a conversation worth overhearing."  Reiichi sipped his refilled mug after nodding in thanks to Jo.  "It's bound to be much more interesting than what I've listened to these last couple of weeks.  I haven't missed being at Court at all."  He sighed as he reached for a cinnamon roll.  "So, we've Ken and Miko around most of the time, and a good bit of the Shadow Guard prowling the immediate vicinity.  Is there anything left for me to do?"

"You can help keep me from growing too bored with the occasional chess game," Aya offered.  "I'm currently reorganizing the upstairs library and may start on the other one if Schuldig takes too long."  His voice roughened to a growl at the thought of the perverse soul gaki bound dragging out his mission just to annoy Crawford.

"Ah.  Well, I can definitely be counted on for a few games, and can assist with the library if you want.  I might come across some interesting reading material that way."

Aya picked apart another cinnamon roll and ate a piece.  "Hmm, Ed's already putting together a new reading list while he's been helping me.  I've a feeling that Mustang will be complaining soon during an upcoming visit."  He smiled a little as he chewed on the delicious pastry at the thought of how Yohji would struggle to not insult the fire elemental and pick a fight at their home. 

"Perhaps we should make sure that Trowa's on hand that night!"  Reiichi shared a knowing look with him before focusing on his own roll, while Jo muttered something under her breath about idiotic men who deserved to be smacked upside the head with rolling pins.

*******

Kikyou strolled down the busy hallway of the palace, a polite smile on his face as various people bowed their heads in acknowledgment and stepped out of his way.  The morning hour was too early for most highborns to be up and about, leaving the passageways to be filled with staff hurrying about to set in motion the many necessary arrangements for the day, officials eager to reach their destinations, and uniformed Guards and Army personnel carrying on their assigned orders.  He was pleased to note the attentive nods he received from his people as they hurried past, the tidiness of their uniforms and the respect they were given from the rest of the people.

The Guard had always been a well-respected and mostly beloved organization, and the last year and a half had only increased its popularity.  People had heard how the Guard had fought for their king and new queen during the ill-fated wedding ceremony, and successful outcomes of cases such as the Timbergrey 'monsters', the Setan kidnappings and Jens Trautmann had been even more positive publicity in the organization's favor.  That it came at the time that Kikyou had taken over the Guard was almost a blessing from the gods - in fact, could be *seen* as such a blessing - as it gave absolutely no fodder to those who had campaigned against him to take over as Manx's successor.  There had been those who believed that having a highborn in charge of the Guard could destroy it or weaken the strong bonds between its more common-born employees, and so far none of the dire warnings or predictions against him had come true.

His ex-rival for the position waited outside of his office, a slight frown on his face and his blue eyes shadowed as if from a lack of sleep.  Yuushi Honjou gave him a respectful nod as he approached and stepped aside as Kikyou opened the door.  "Good morning, Captain."

"Good morning, Yuushi."  They spoke to each other with a respective rather than an affectionate tone; there had been some obvious bitterness from Honjou the first week or two after Manx had made her decision that the man had done his best to push aside, and from what Tsubasa had reported to Kikyou, Honjou had made the effort to suppress dissent from his supporters over his 'loss'.  Kikyou respected him for not putting on a false front and attempting a fake friendship, and they managed to create a working relationship between them.  He had to admit that Honjou did take care of a lot of the 'day to day' affairs of the Guard while he focused more on the politics, a necessary duty considering Manx's decision to force a better working relationship between the Army and the Guard and the approaching war. 

Kikyou never forgot the reason why he had renounced his family name and entered the Guard, and already his new position had granted him access to information about his sister's death that had been beyond his reach for years.  However, he *was* the Captain now, and he did have a duty to the Guard for more than personal revenge.  He would do his best to make sure that the organization emerged as unscathed through what increasingly seemed an inevitable war with Esset as possible as he could.  He would just be human enough to begrudge how much of his time the task was taking up, lately.

Sitting behind his desk, he waited for Honjou to give the morning report.  As his second in command began to speak, the door to his office opened up to admit Tsubasa, his burly personal assistant's hands full with a large tray. 

"It was a quiet third shift, with only a few domestic and disorderly disturbances, two attempted murders, an attempted rape and one murder, with all the suspects accounted for, and several thefts, four of which are currently unsolved."  Honjou set the paperwork for all of the crimes down on the desk.  "I've also included a list of the Court cases for the day and the Guards who will be reporting for them, and any changes to the schedule.  Per your request, there's also a copy of the names of the people who entered all of the city gates during the night."  Honjou spoke in a curt manner, the words unrushed thought not as if they were unimportant but brisk to convey a lack of time.  Considering all of the things that he had to look after on a daily basis, Kikyou took no offense at his brusque manner.

"Is there anything else?" he asked as Tsubasa poured a cup of the fresh coffee that he had just brought.  He motioned with his right hand in invitation to Honjou, who shook his head to decline the offer. 

"Only this."  Honjou paused for a moment before reaching into the dark blue leather pouch on his belt to retrieve a small note.  Kikyou's eyes narrowed when he noticed the familiar dark purple wax and the seal image of a playing kitten.  "Aya asked me to deliver it to you."

"Thank you."  He accepted the letter and handed over a list in exchange.  "Here are a few tasks that need to be completed within the next week.  I'll be in meetings with the Queen for the foreseeable future, but if there are any issues, contact me directly or send a message through Tsubasa."  He kept his voice as even as possible and refused to look at the note that now rested on his desk.

"Yes, sir."  Honjou bowed slightly and left the office with the list held in his hand; if he had any objections to being given even more work, he kept it from showing until he left the room.  Kikyou had his people in the Guard who reported to him and as of yet, there was no outward sign of Honjou being disloyal or unwilling to work.  The man might complain from time to time about being very busy, but no one could fault his loyalty to the Guard and, in extension, whoever was in charge of it.

Setting the cup of coffee out of the way, Kikyou picked up the note and his letter opener, and used the latter to break open the wax seal.  As to be expected from anything from Aya, the letter was brief and to the point; the man wrote as sparingly as he spoke.  That fact would make Kikyou smile if it were not for the letter's content - he was being told that Aya would be unable to accept any dates with him for the time being due to an illness that left him unable to venture far from his bed.

His people had reported that Aya had not been seen outside of the Koneko the last few days, nor in the inn's main room.  Being so busy with work lately, he had barely had any time to see the stubborn highborn for more than a brief meeting at the Koneko, and missed being able to take him out for a nice meal or an afternoon tea.  How could he make any headway convincing Aya to reclaim his Fujimiya title if the fool clung to his life at that inn and stayed by Kudoh's side? 

Kikyou wondered if Kudoh had a hand in this note.  He knew the former Guard detested the 'arrangement' between him and Aya, probably well aware of how little he could offer Aya in the long run when compared to Kikyou.  Not for the first time, he cursed the gods for letting the redhead come across Kudoh's path first.  If Kikyou had noticed him before Kudoh, he would have convinced Aya that he could protect him from Takatori, could have handled things so much better than he had.  Now, he was limited to chaste dates out that were too infrequent for his liking because of the demands of his job.

He would have to try to find some time to pay Aya a visit and see just how 'sick' his erstwhile paramour really was.  If this was just a ploy to get out of their dates for a while, then he would clear a few hours to take Aya out for dinner just to prove a point.  He would not be dissuaded from getting what he wanted.

*******

Yohji entered his bedroom and smiled when he found his mate curled up in the window seat.  The afternoon sun cast shadows into the room, turning Aya into a dark, slender silhouette against the glimmer of light along the wall.  Two embers of silver blinked in Yohji's direction as he crossed the room, slowly warming to violet as he approached Aya.  "Watch'ya doing, Cat?" he asked as he settled next to his lover on the padded seat, a little concerned about the show of silver though he did not hear any faint hissing from the shadows.  "I thought you'd be up in the library."

Aya placed the book he had been reading in his lap and nudged his bare left foot against Yohji's right knee.  "Since Ed has to work today and Nagi and Omi are busy, I thought I'd take a bit of a break."  He closed his eyes for a couple of seconds, and when he opened them, there was no trace of silver to be seen.  "It's nice to take the time and do some reading."

"Hmm, is that all you've been doing?" Yohji captured his lover's foot and began to massage Aya's instep, smiling at the faint purr that he received for his ministrations.  

"Well, the shinigami were talking to me about Reno.  He's not happy, lately."  The purr left Aya's deep voice to be replaced with a hint of displeasure, his eyes narrowing and voice heating with the emotion.  Yohji had the impression that Rufus was going to get an earful if he showed his face at the Koneko in the near future.

He gave his mate's foot a gentle squeeze and set it back on the padded seat.  "And did they happen to have anything to say about me?"

The tired sigh from Aya was all of the answer he really needed - not that he had been in doubt of the answer in the first place.  "Shinigami-souls shouldn't be bound by any physical restrictions, you know."  Aya said the words with a weary bitterness that insinuated that he was more upset about being badgered about the fact than the actual restrictions.    "As if I have no say in what those restrictions those are," he followed with a disdainful sniff.

Yohji smiled as he leaned forward to give his mate a kiss, his hands on other side of Aya's hips.  "I happen to think that as restrictions go, I'm a damn fine one," he proclaimed, his voice husky with desire as his lips brushed against his mate's. 

"Huh.  You and your ego."  Despite his grouchy tone, Aya's emotions were a pure mix of love, lust and desire as his hands rose to tangle his fingers in Yohji's unbound hair, his eyelids growing heavy over his eyes as he tilted his chin up. 

"Well, if I'm going to be a 'restriction', then I'm gonna be the biggest, best restriction that I can possibly be.  I'll make those damn busybodies bow down to me in awe over my amazing restrictive powers."  He waggled his eyebrows as his right hand stroked along Aya's neck. 

Aya's neck arched a little more, into the touch.  "So everything about you is amazing?"  His voice was made even deeper by the purr, the silver from earlier back and swirling among violet beneath heavy lids.

Yohji did some purring of his own.  "Such a smart cat."  He shifted forward the slight distance between them for another kiss, this one no quick brush of the lips.  Now he savored the taste of his mate, the rush of sunlight into him everywhere their bodies touched and the influx of emotions as anticipation flared into need.  His hunger flared to life, held in check all day long as he did his best to drain Aya as little as possible.  He had come a long way in the last year or so in terms of control, could hold off so much more now than he had ever been able to in the past, yet all of that restraint came crashing down when he had Aya before him like this, desire so blatant over their link, neck bared in open invitation, mouth open beneath his.  The stress of the last few days, the need of constant vigilance, faded away as his world narrowed down to Aya being in his arms.  Rocking back onto his heels, he pulled his lover onto his lap, his right hand sliding around to the nape of Aya's neck and his left arm wrapping around Aya's waist.

The kiss deepened, fed by both of their need, Yohji's tongue stroking against Aya's as his left hand slid up beneath his mate's tunic.  He wanted to feel warm skin, his touch gentle along scarred flesh as he sought to provoke pleasure and not old memories.  Aya hissed as he skimmed over raised skin and kneaded taut muscles, yet his emotions remained passionate and untainted by pain.  Breaking off the kiss, Yohji grabbed his lover's top and pulled it over his head before holding onto Aya and picking him up so he could carry him over to the bed.

"Yotan!"

"What?  Don't you think this is a bit more comfortable than a window seat?" he asked as he settled Aya on top of the soft mattress and bedding, his smile gentle and emotions turbulent with want.  "Not to mention a whole lot roomier."  Aya grumbled something under his breath as he settled on the bed, his skin glowing against the dark green material, the strands of his hair appearing like liquid rubies and his eyes that stormy mix of silver and violet which always indicated when he was giving in to his own emotions.  As they currently focused on his desire for Yohji, that was a good thing, Yohji thought as he rid himself of his own shirt.

It always amazed him how such a little touch could convey so much, how just stroking along Aya's defined chest led to a prickle of sunlight into his hand and through his body, a rush of pleasure and need through their link and a sense of trust and love that filled him and made him whole.  He had so many lovers over the years, and even if he had failed to realize what he was, he had still fed from them, had still gained some sense of emotion and satiation from them.  Yet even before he had heard the word 'mates' from Aya, he had felt so much more from the redhead, had felt whole for the first time in his life.  The pleasure he derived from the act was only part of what drove him on to have sex with Aya as much as his mate was willing to indulge him, was only a physical part of something so much more complex than two bodies coupling.  He wanted to be one with Aya in every way possible, to take him in and bind him to him until they were irrevocably tied together for eternity.

He bent down to muzzle his mate's neck, just brushing his nose and lips against it at first, Aya's fingers tangling in his hair as he breathed in deep his mate's intoxicating scent.  Then he licked along the white skin, feeling Aya's pulse beneath his tongue, his hips pressing down in time to the increasing beats as Aya moaned out his name.  Unable to resist any longer, he pulled back his lips and pressed his teeth against the beating pulse, feeling it captured in his mouth as his name was cried out, bearing enough pressure until there was the faintest hint of blood.  Then he lapped at the forming bruise, hands busy stroking down Aya's heaving chest and sides until he reached soft fabric and could work on undoing the ties of his lover's pants.

The room darkened around him as he stripped Aya of his clothes, the shadows lengthening and growing cool against his sweat-slick flesh.  He leaned back so he could pull the pants along long, pale legs, pausing to kiss an exposed thigh before the garments were tossed aside, Aya now laying naked and sprawled on the bed.  His lover stared at him while he undid his own laces, hands resting on the bed by Aya's head and flexing sporadically as if wild things, itching to latch on to something.  Yohji smiled in anticipation as he pulled his cock free from pants and undergarments, then leaned forward to kiss pale lips that were parted slightly.  Those hands rose up to once more slide through his hair, tightened briefly on the strands for a possessive moment and then continued onward, raking down his back with enough force to make him hiss.  "Ah!"

"Hmm."  Aya shifted his legs to let Yohji slide between them, his eyes heavy-lidded with desire and a hint of a smile on his lips.  "Mine."  He reinforced the words by digging his nails into the small of Yohji's back.

"Ow. Yours indeed, Cat."  Yohji winced a little as he smiled, his right hand seeking out the jar of lubricant that they kept tucked between the mattress and the headboard.  "If a bit tattered around the edges because of your claws."  He winced again as Aya scratched a little deeper as if to show he cared not in the slightest for 'tattered property'.  Ah well, he knew that holding back on his hunger caused a little anxiety in his mate and part of him reveled in this show of possessiveness.  After all, he had already left one mark on Aya's neck and would be sure to leave another soon, a blatant sign that his 'cat' was taken and well cared for by an ardent lover.  "Such a lucky feline to own such 'awesomeness'."

He was a little unsure if he liked the derisive snort he got in response to his answer, and decided to show his mate the error of his ways by leaning forward for another kiss.  At the same time, he managed to undo the lid to the jar with one hand and scoop out some of the cool, slick gel as he shifted to the side, his left arm sliding beneath Aya's hips to lift him up a little onto his lap.  His mate gasped into his mouth as his fingers pressed against him, his head falling back onto the bed and eyes drifting shut as anticipation and need washed through their link.  Yohji spared a quick lick along Aya's arched neck before focusing on preparing his lover.

Oh hell, Aya's body was so hot and tight, filling his mind with memories of how incredibly *good* it would feel to thrust inside and feel it clench around him, his cock twitching as his fingers curled and scissored about.  He drank in the sight of Aya's supple body writhing on the bed, gleaming with sweat in the dim light as his back arched and legs splayed wider.  Yohji leaned down to place a kiss over Aya's heart before pulling his fingers free so he could slick up his own cock and settle between those slim thighs, Aya's half-lidded eyes staring at him as he pulled his mate's hips closer.  "Ready for the awesome dick?"

Aya growled in annoyance as he wrapped his heels around Yohji's back.  "Yot-ah!"  His back arched again as Yohji thrust forward, into his body, empathy and familiarity judging the right amount of force for a rush of pleasure with only the slightest hint of pain.  He gave his mate's body a moment to recover as he placed kisses along Aya's collarbones, groaning a little at the feel of delicious heat clamping around him, and finally moved when he felt his mate exhale.  He licked along Aya's neck as he pulled back, up along his jaw as he thrust forward and captured another kiss as sunlight rushed into him, a hint of sweetness added to all the berry tartness/warmth that flowed through his veins from the energy that kept him alive and defined his world.   He could not keep their lips in contact for long, breaking apart the kiss as he shifted back for another thrust, his right hand tangling in one of Aya's eartails as his left began to fist his mate's cock in time to delving deeper and deeper into that delicious heat and friction, Aya's nails once more raking down his back.

Every day there was the love and need he felt for Aya and that was returned to him over their link, and moments like these it was amplified, was caught up with ecstasy and desire and passion until it was an addictive maelstrom that devour him whole.  There were times when he was convinced that knowing that Aya wanted him this much could destroy him, could make his heart burst as he gave his all to the man he loved, poured his whole being into him and through their link, yet he also wanted to take in every bit of Aya.  He leaned forward to lick the bruised throat before him once again, to feel that life, that sunlight pulsing beneath his tongue before he began to suck on the salty flesh, before his teeth pressed down as his hips thrust faster.  That Aya cried out his name and the ecstasy spiked, the sunlight burned hotter as the friction grew more intense spurred him on, driving harder, deeper, both in thrusts and in bite, wanting to take in and go in as deeply as he could, to claim the only person he had ever wanted this *much*.  The sunlight burst into him as if a supernova, so hot and potent it was like molten syrup in his veins, sweet viscous pleasure that filled him to the bursting.  He felt unable to contain it all, body trembling with the effort until the pleasure became too intense, too overwhelming and consumed him.

As he slowly regained control of his bliss-addled senses, he pushed himself up onto his elbows and struggled to control his breathing.  He stared down at his lover to find Aya lying beneath him with his eyes closed, a slight smile on his face and his neck bearing several new bruises that would probably get him whapped a soon as Jo saw them.  "Cat?"

"Huh."  Aya managed a languid swat in Yohji's general direction, reminding him that he still held ransom an eartail. 

"Oops."  Forcing himself back onto his knees, Yohji hissed as his cock slipped free from his mate's body and his clawed back gave a twinge in protest.  Someone sure had scratched him up real good, but judging from the energy rushing through his veins, he would be healed very soon and had no right to protest considering Aya's neck.  "So, was that 'awesome' enough for you?"

Aya managed another inarticulate answer, although this time he conveyed a true sense of annoyance along with a glare as he opened his eyes and lifted up on his elbows a little.  Yohji chuckled in nervousness at the prospect of facing a furious mate and gave him a quick kiss of appeasement.  "Just kidding, no need to tell me that I'm wearing out that joke."  That seemed to mollify his grouchy lover enough that he could get off the bed without danger of being smacked in earnest to go fetch a washcloth.  Along the way to the wash basin, he shed the rest of his clothes.

"Jo should have dinner ready soon.  I think she had some hams on the spits and was making that rice casserole you like, the one with mushrooms and herbs," he offered as he washed off, and was happy to feel some interest over their link.  "That and some fresh bread, maybe a pitcher or two of cider and some apple pie for dessert should be nice, hmm?"  He returned to the bed with a clean, damp cloth that Aya could use.

"The shinigami think that Reno and Rufus will be stopping by, which means that Reno can eat with us."  Aya knelt in the bed and began to clean himself, his long bangs falling onto his face.  He missed the slight grimace that Yohji made upon hearing the news, which was a good thing, and probably took the sudden drop in good mood to be over his need to clean himself after sex.  While Yohji still felt some sorrow over the fact that his lover bore scars from what had happened to him last year, he was more upset over the prospect of missing out dinner with Aya to see what Rufus wanted.  More than likely, it had to do with Garcia, and as much as he adored spending time with his mate and even enjoyed Reno's presence, he needed to be kept up to date on the wizard and any possible threat to Aya and the Koneko.

"Eh, is that what they were talking to you about?"

Aya tossed the dirty washcloth back to the basin and sat on the bed, his eyes violet once more and expression serious.  "They're upset over Reno and me staying home and not going out to feed, although Reno being ordered to do so means that they have a lot to say about Rufus."

Which meant that they still had a little to say about him, if Yohji knew anything about the shinigami and how careful Aya was with his blank expression and bland tone of voice just then.  "Yeah, as if they love me now, right?" he teased, well aware that the shinigami disliked him from keeping Aya 'body-bound'.

Aya's blank expression melted into annoyance, which for once did not seem directed at him.  "I keep telling them that you don't order me about and that it's *my* choice to stay like this."  He wrapped his right hand around Yohji's left forearm in a clearly possessive gesture.  "They need to respect my decision."

"And a damn good decision it is, love."  Yohji rewarded Aya's brilliant choice with a lingering kiss that stirred a trickle of sunlight.  He pulled back and cupped his mate's cheek with his right hand to send back a bit of energy, mindful of how much he had just consumed.  "I'm nothing like Rufus - he can't begin to approach my awesomeness," he teased as he waggled his eyebrows.

He was rewarded for his efforts with a slight smile.  "I don't think you'll get any arguments tonight."  Aya tilted his face into the caress and sighed.  "They don't understand the danger that Garcia poses to us.  I'm not happy about remaining at home for the time being, but I understand why it's important.  I don't think Reno grasps even that much, and the shinigami don't understand any sort of limitations."  He sounded tired, his emotions tinged with upset and a familiar pain.

If there was one good thing that had come out of his time spent with the Takatori, it was that Aya understood the need for restraint and personal sacrifice.  He knew when things that might not benefit himself could help out the greater good, something that seemed to completely escape Reno and the shinigami.  While Yohji felt terrible about the circumstances that brought about that understanding, he was grateful that his lover could appreciate the necessities for giving up some freedoms and benefits for a short time that would allow him more freedom and protection in the long run. 

"More than anything, I wish you could roam around the city as if nothing had changed," Yohji murmured as he stroked his thumb along his mate's cheekbone.  "But if there's the slightest chance of that damn wizard recognizing you and maybe even managing a spell that'll harm you... I'll tear Eto apart rather than see you be harmed.  It's not so much that I don't have any faith in you, it's that I know that if anything happened, I'd destroy everything to get you back."  He would, too.  Even though succubae bounds were supposed to have abilities that lay in seducing people, he would somehow manage to reduce an entire city to rubble if it meant saving Aya from harm.  That was what it meant to have a mating bond with someone, to love them that much - and having shadows sometimes obey your whims helped a bit, too.

Aya smiled and leaned forward to rest his forehead against Yohji's poor, scarred shoulder.  "I know, I'd do the same if our situations were reversed, which is why I'm listening to you.  If Garcia were to track me down, he'd find out about you, too, which is something I won't allow."  Aya's deep voice took on a sibilant tone as he spoke.  "So to keep us both safe, I'll try to just play with my books and stay where he shouldn't find me.  I just hope that Reno uses some common sense and does the same."

Yohji gave his lover a tender kiss on the forehead before chuckling in ill amusement.  "Uhm, I hate to break it to you, Cat, but Reno's not always one to use common sense.  I think our best hope right now is that Rufus is his usually controlling bastard self and manages to rein Reno in and keeps him out of Garcia's way until Schu tracks him down."  Judging from the sudden wave of panic over their link, Aya had his doubts about that plan.

What could he say, Yohji really did not blame his mate; try as he might, Rufus usually had problems making Reno listen to him under the best of situations.  Yohji attempted to not to remember hearing Rufus complain about how difficult it was to get Reno to obey his orders and follow common sense when his shinigami soul drove him on to suicidal impulses.  "Know any good prayers?  *Ow*, dammit!"  He glared at his mate as Aya pulled back from his freshly bitten shoulder.  Really, it was going to be a mass of scar tissue by the time of the war, he just knew it.

"That's not exactly what I want to hear right now," Aya snapped, his eyes gleaming with silver as his lips pulled back from sharp teeth.

"Says the man who has a psycho with a thing for disobeying orders for a best friend, along with a little demon.  Really, didn't you ever hear that your choice in friends reflect things about you?" Yohji teased as he did his best to avoid even more scar tissue.  Laughing as his mate snapped in the general direction of his left shoulder, he wrapped his arms around Aya and fell back onto the bed.  "Aw, you're really messed up in the head but I love you anyway."

"Idiot," Aya mumbled as he settled himself on top of Yohji, teeth bared in warning for a few seconds before he brushed them along Yohji's throat in a caress.  "What does one’s choice in a mate say, hmm?"

"Oh, it speaks *volumes*.  In your case, it says that you are very, very wise and have incredibly good taste."  He smiled as he brushed aside the crimson bangs falling into his lover's eyes. 

"Yes, you are definitely delusional."  Yet Aya smiled as he said the insult, his emotions pleased and mostly at peace. 

"But you love me anyway," Yohji murmured against Aya's lips.  When he felt assent over their link, he deepened the kiss for a few seconds, mindful of the energy he had just taken and his promise to not feed more than once a day.  Pulling away with a sigh of regret, he gave his mate's face one more caress before leaving the bed.  "I believe there was mention of dinner, yes?"

"Hmm."  Aya slowly rose from the bed and stretched his arms over his head, his back arched as he worked a kink or two out of some muscles.  "I guess we should get down there soon to make sure there's enough food left over for us."

As if Jo would ever let her darling Aya starve, Yohji thought but kept to himself, since it was a good idea to get out of the room just then before his demon nature made him do something he would regret.  Aya taking his time to get dressed did little to help matters, so he turned his back on his mate as he pulled on his own clothes, mindful that if Rufus was stopping by that he needed to be presentable.  That meant wearing a clean pair of pants and a newer shirt than what he had planned to put back on to just go downstairs to the kitchen.  He turned around to find Aya dressed in the dark grey outfit he had been wearing before, the leggings and tunic a gift from Cassandra, and bit back on any comments about 'storm crows'.  Aya did dress in various somber colors from time to time, he just saw little sense to bother to do otherwise when he would be spending the day doing chores or barely stepping out of his room.  Yohji took his appearance to mean that he would remain in the kitchen tonight and then return up here.

Yohji held out his left hand and smiled when his mate accepted it with a solemn nod.  Giving Aya's hand a gentle squeeze, he led him downstairs with the air of escorting nobility, fully expecting the elbow to his side for his audacity when they finally reached the kitchen and laughing with delight as he claimed a kiss to take away the slight sting of pain.

*******

Birman nodded to Touya as she entered the Koneko and continued to the main room, which was busy as expected for this time of the evening.  Things had seemed to settle down a little after the Naming ceremony, but would be picking up once again thanks to the caravans returning to the city.  She waved to several members of the Guard who either waved or called out in greeting, some of them in the Shadow Guard, and was pleased to note the mingling of bounds and humans.  Several of her own staff were present at the inn; the only acknowledgment she received from them were slight nods as for some it was not common knowledge of their work arrangement.  Trowa was over in one of the corners with Duo, enjoying a meal with his mate and a couple of other Shadow Guards so she left him alone even though she was certain that he was aware of her presence.  He was off duty and with his rather possessive mate, and anything they had to say to each other could wait until tomorrow.

She found Yuushi and Eri in one of the quieter sections of the large room, far away from the stage where Koyu and his friends played and partially cloaked by Aya's shadows.  Despite the crowd in the room, the table was empty except for the two Guards.  "Good evening," she bid them as she sat down.

"Good evening."  Eri nodded in greeting as she got up.  "I'll go get the others," she said as she stepped away from the table, her dark green skirt swishing around her legs in her haste to leave.

Birman blinked in surprise and shook her head.  "Was it something I thought?"

Yuushi laughed at the joke and poured her some hard cider.  "No offense, but the sooner we get this discussion over with, the sooner Eri and I can spend some time together.  It's been rather busy the last few days, with her assisting Judge Shigetoki and me running around for Kikyou, that while we understand the importance of tonight's meeting, we're still hoping it won't be a long one."

"Ah, so in other words, don't take it personally but speak my peace and get my butt back home.  I can live with that."  She smiled at her friend before sipping the cold drink.  That was the refreshing thing about Yuushi - he could be, well, blunt seemed a bit harsh, but he would tell the situation to you straight without the intent of hurting your feelings.  Sometimes a little tact would be appreciated, yet he had learned to lessen the impact of his words in the past year.  "I won't object to a decent night's sleep for once."  Her smile slipped as she thought about how long it had been since she had shared a night with a lover.  Dammit, Botan and Manx had warned her about falling for someone who was married, although in the end it was more her devotion to her job than his to his wife that had doomed the relationship.

Thankfully, Yuushi left that comment alone.  "I think Eri's going to ask for some food as well, so you should be able to have something to eat if you haven't had supper already."  That helped to restore her smile, as she always preferred to eat here if she could.  She had sufficient rank to order meals at any time at the palace, yet much enjoyed the simpler fare to be found at the Koneko.

"While I doubt I'm as much a threat to Jo's poor pantry as some people I could name, I might as well indulge myself since some of my budget goes to her grocery bills!" she joked as she lifted her mug of cider in the air.  Ah well, it was Shuuichi who paid the bill in the end.  She had finished her drink and held it out for a refill when several people approached the table bearing what looked to be plates of food.  The evening had taken on an interesting and hopeful turn.

Yohji grinned as he set down a platter of sliced ham and cheese, his blond hair pulled back from his face save for a few loose, wavy strands.  With his untucked and half unlaced light brown shirt, he was in stark contrast with Rufus, whose blond hair was neatly combed back and whose white and black clothes were much more elaborate, expensive and involved many more layers.  He seemed rather put out to have been enlisted to carry a basket of rolls, while Reiichi gave her a wink as he set a large dish of some sort of rice and mushroom casserole on the table.  "At your service, milady."

"I'm sure somewhere, there's a story that begins somewhat similar to this...."

Yohji laughed as he leaned across the table to fill his mug with cider.  "A young and lovely lady with four handsome men waiting on her hand and foot?  I don't think they'd be selling that one in the bookstores that Aya frequents."  His expression turned crestfallen for a moment.  "More's the pity."  Then he shook his head and smiled once more.  "You trying to get us in trouble or what?  Three out of four of us are taken, you know.  But you can have your wicked way with Reiichi if you want."

The man in question bowed his head as he reached for the pitcher of cider in turn.  "While I'd be very delighted by the offer, I'm sad to say 'duty before pleasure'."

"Ah, another hope dashed," Birman teased, mindful of her emotions with a soul gaki and a succubae bound sitting near her.  "I suppose I shall have to devote myself to work, then."

Yuushi glanced back and forth between them with a slight frown on his face, before he sighed and began to make a ham sandwich.  "I never know when the two of you are being serious or not.  So, what's the topic of tonight's discussion?"

Before she answered him, she turned toward Yohji, who seemed more interested in drinking than eating for once.  He either was getting very good at reading emotions or something must have showed on her face as he guessed what she wanted to know.  "Eh, Aya's gonna sit this one out.  He's too busy babysitting right now."  His tone took on a dark edge, and something in it made Rufus' back stiffen.

As Aya's shadows and the wards that Botan and Omi had set up would keep people from overhearing anything they said, she had no problem with the kage staying away tonight.  If anything, Yohji might be a bit more focused if he wanted to finish the conversation so he could get back to his mate.  "That's fine. I assume that he's babysitting Reno?" she asked, giving in to the impulse to ruffle Rufus' impassive demeanor a little.

He did not fail to provide her with a bit of fun as he glared at both her and Yohji.  "May I remind you that the man in question is an adult and *not* a child, and so does not need to be 'babysat'."  When everyone else seated around the table snorted in outright disbelief at his statement, his glare became more potent and he jerked a hand through his hair, ruffling the blond strands.  "I thought we were here to discuss Garcia," he snapped, his patience over all matters in regards to Reno having reached a clear end.  Birman wondered how much trouble the duhbach had been giving him in the last couple of days over staying out of sight until the wizard was found; from what Omi had told her the other day when she had visited him in Botan's office, Aya understood the necessity of remaining at the Koneko even if he was a bit displeased over the situation.  That Yohji sat here at the table with a slight smile on his handsome face and with his posture relaxed supported Omi's report, as there was no way he would be anywhere near this at peace if Aya was unhappy or distraught. 

"Yes, but Aya and Reno are concerns of mine since they are quite possibly targets," she pointed out to the disgruntled lord, annoyed at stating the obvious.  "I'm very grateful to both gentlemen for... removing themselves from his attention," she continued as she put together a sandwich.

Yohji seemed to understand what she was trying to say.  "I'm sure you know Aya's not too happy about the situation from previous conversations you've had with him, but he's willing to stick with the plan for the time being."  Something in his tone conveyed that he had a few less objections than his mate, which came as little surprise to her; Yohji always did put Aya's safety first and would face the kage's anger if it meant keeping him from harm.

Meanwhile, Rufus' slight grimace indicated that things were not going so well for him.  "Reno understands that he is to remain out of sight until Garcia is found."  He stared into his mug of cider and missed the quick looks that Yohji, Reiichi and Birman exchanged, and Birman was quick to stifle any thoughts about the duhbach until she was away from the Koneko. 

"Last I heard from Masato, he and Schu were concentrating around the northern Magic market for signs of Garcia," Yohji volunteered after a minute's silence.  "They found a couple of leads that might eventually pan out, but nothing solid as of yet."  Frustration was thick in his voice and his green eyes were narrowed, his shoulders tense as if he felt the need to do something.  For someone who had left the Guard so easily and fought being dragged back into it for so long, he was a damn good investigator and probably ached to unleash his talents in tracking down the wizard.  Only the fact that his connection to Aya might put his mate - and himself - at risk kept him from doing so.  He had definitely matured in the past year, so much so that she felt a twinge of regret that he had lost the chance to become the next Captain.  Who knew, perhaps in the future he could have another chance, if things worked out well after the war and the Shadow Guard became as firmly established as she hoped.

Reiichi wiped his lips with a napkin before he spoke, his tone even as if he carefully thought about what he said before saying anything.  "Between the little that Crawford has been able to see about him and what Schuldig and Masato have already found, it's reassuring that he seems to be staying away from the western Green district as of yet."

"'As of yet'," Yuushi just had to pick up on.  "I'm still not going to pull away the Guards I've stationed around here or have Ken 'recover' any time soon."  Judging from the way Yohji's back had straightened and he had taken to staring intently at the Shadow Guard Captain, poor Yuushi would have to fight off some serious compulsion to do just that if he happened to change his mind.  Yohji was not a typical 'male idiot' who would insist on being the only one 'manly' enough to protect his lover and probably had to calm the more prickly and private Aya down to accept the extra protection.

"While I'm pleased to hear that the Koneko appears to be safe, Garcia sounds to be stalking much too close to my home grounds for comfort," Rufus said with sharp intensity, each word snapped off and bristling with anger and frustration.  "If there's any indication that he's there because of Reno-"

"Then you'll do the investigation more harm than good by taking matters into your own hands," Birman was quick to point out.  "Schuldig and Masato know how to search without drawing unwanted attention to themselves.  You unleashing your gokenin onto the city will only catch the attention of Garcia and many other unwanted people."  She willed the man to see common sense.

Reiichi did his best to defuse the situation as well.  "The northern Magic district is one of the best ones around for magical items.  It makes sense that he would be there, shopping for items or looking for patrons.  I think it would be more suspicious if he came to the city and avoided the area, myself."  He spoke in a calm, soothing manner that bespoke of someone used to dealing with temperamental bounds.  To think that she had told herself that Yohji would be the moody one to deal with until Garcia was captured and dealt with....

"And we still don't know that Garcia's even aware of Aya and Reno," Yohji contributed to the situation, a slight growl in his voice that was the only indication that he was treating the matter seriously.  "If he's following any leads, it's most likely that he'll come here since Aya's the one without an illusion spell."  From the quick flash of silver in his green eyes, one could tell that he was very displeased with that thought. 

However, a reminder that there was another target beside his mate seemed to placate Rufus' foul temper.  "We have worked hard to mask Reno's unique appearance." He looked out across the room, his attention resting here and there for a few seconds before moving on.  "Have you given any thought to setting up any decoy targets?  If Garcia really did suspect what Reno was back then when he was child because of his coloring and didn't just have some sort of unsavory interest in him, then perhaps we can confuse the trail with decoys.  There are already several bounds in the area who posses reddish hair, after all."  He motioned toward the corner where Trowa was sitting.

Birman muttered a curse as she gave the idea some serious thought.  Some skillful henna application and Trowa's hair would be as red as Aya or Reno's, no need for any illusion spell, though his eyes would still be that lovely shade of dark green and his skin too dark.  Though Duo's eyes were that rare indigo shade that appeared almost violet in some light, and it would take a minor spell to cast his hair as red and his skin light enough.  Blair, too, would need only a minor spell to alter his coloring enough to fit a shinigami bound's description.  It was too late to hide Aya, but they might be able to make him a bit more difficult to find if he was not the only pale redhead in the area.  Also, if Garcia was looking for Reno, he might get sidetracked by the decoys if his spell no longer worked thanks to Reno's shinigami nature.  "Why didn't we think of it before?"

"Because you haven't spent the last several years trying to hide someone like Reno."  For once, there was no patronizing demeanor to Rufus, only a sense of weariness.  She felt some sympathy for the man, certain that it must have been difficult, hiding what Reno was and keeping him safe at the same time.  Still did not mean that he had the right to be such a pompous and controlling ass all of the time - and judging from the displeased look she was sent from said lord, she needed to remember that he was a very powerful telepath who had the ability to read past mental shields.  More food and less cider, she told herself as she took a bite out of the sandwich she had been neglecting.  As usual, the food was delicious, and her stomach reminded her how long it had been since she had last eaten.  She decided to devote the next minute or two to finishing off the sandwich before making another.

Reiichi and Yuushi shared a long look, enough to make one wonder if the men had developed some telepathy of their own.  "Hmm, it will take some careful planning. I think it would be best to limit the decoys to only one or two or it'll be suspicious, there being so many people fitting the descriptions of shinigami bounds living in the city," Yuushi finally said, his tone distant as if he was already contemplating possible candidates.

"I also believe we should try to ensure that they are equipped with the rings."  Reiichi cast an apologetic look Yohji's way as he tapped the gauntlet around his left wrist which had replaced the black and silver ring similar to the one that Birman always wore.  "If we can't move any of the usual bearers from their positions then they can lend their rings to the decoys," he said in a slight rush, as if to get the words out before Yohji could suspect that he meant for more to be created.

Seated beside her, Yohji tensed in his seat yet remained quiet, his eyes narrowed in anger and hands clenched in fists.  Birman hoped that what she said next did not anger the man.  "I have a spare ring that I can lend you if you need it.  I... well, I've kept it in case of something like this."  She did not want all of the precious and extremely rare rings that Botan had given her to be used at the same time in case of an emergency.  The look she did her best to give Yuushi on the sly made it clear that he could not always rely upon *her* spare as the needs of her people came first.

Yohji let out a slow breath and shook his head.  "Look, I'm glad that Aya's sacrifice has been put to good use, but can we talk about something else now?"  Everyone was quick to nod in agreement and food was shuffled about as a distraction.

"So I think at this point, we need to wait on more information from Schuldig and Crawford."  Despite the tension from moments before, Reiichi smiled and his blue eyes twinkled with amusement behind his glasses.  "Who wants to be the one to point out to Schuldig that he's much like his father when it comes to status reports?"

For the first time in several minutes, Yohji laughed.  "Ah hell, I want to be there for that!  Schu will go through the roof when he hears it, though he might tear the head off of whoever points out the truth to him."

"Then it's settled, I'll get Naru to do it," Reiichi said with a much too innocent to be believed smile.

Yuushi shook his head and reached for the pitcher of cider.  "Who has to worry about getting killed in the war when you're around?"

"Just think of how much I save the Guard by way of pensions," was Reiichi's breezy reply, which caused everyone to choke on their respective drinks and food.

Dammit, the spy organization had really lost out when Reiichi chose the Guard, Birman thought with much regret as she coughed up a piece of ham into her napkin.

*******

Masato surveyed the crowd before him and held back on a sigh. The street were full of people out shopping before heading home for a later dinner, or hoping to assuage a different type of appetite all together. As their leads at the market had not led to anything promising, they had decided to stake out the area a little later in the day to see if the different crowd brought about any better results.

He could think of several places he would rather be than standing around in a busy section of town with various people bumping into him as they hurried on their way. Top on his list would be at home, preferable in bed with his mate, but that did not seem likely to happen any time soon; not only did they have the mission to finish, but Schuldig for some reason had become upset with him over the last day or two.

From what he could tell, Schuldig was angry over him using his glamour during the mission. He had trouble understanding just why exactly that was the case; he never had any issues with his mate using his talent during any of their assignments in the past as long as Schuldig kept some sort of focus on work. So why were there problems with him doing the same when all he had done was use just enough attraction to get people to cooperate with him to provide the answers that they needed? Schuldig was unable to scan the minds of everyone around them, and the benefit of glamour was that it would make people willing to search either of them out in the future if they happened across Garcia. This way, they were searching twice as quickly and leaving various ‘traps’ across the city to help track down the wizard. Yet the damn brat was acting jealous, of all things, as if Masato was feeding off of the people. It made no sense at all.

Careful to keep a tight shield around his thoughts, Masato glanced at his lover out of the corner of his eye. Schuldig stood a few feet away, his unruly hair held back from his face by a dark green cloth that matched the lightweight coat he wore over his pale grey tunic and pants. He appeared to be paying little attention to Masato, his eyes flickering about the crowd as people walked back and forth. There was a slight grin on his face, a hint of cruelty to the expression, and the emotions that carried over their link had a taint of it as well. That never bode well for anyone.

<Do you think tonight’s going to be any more productive than the last couple of days,> he risked sending over their link in an attempt to better gauge his lover’s mood.

Schuldig sneered as he continued to stare out over the crowded street. <I think we’re gonna have as much luck as usual, until Crawford gets his ass into gear and narrows things down a bit more with those visions of his and we put the whammy on more people.> His eyes narrowed and an older man stumbled as he crossed in front of the soul gaki bound. <Gotta say it, that thrice-damned wizard is pretty good at hiding his ass, but I’ll find him sooner or later. Then I’m gonna give him nightmares for however much of a life he’ll have left.>

Considering the pain that the human whose mind had just been ransacked for any connection to Garcia now suffered, Masato doubted that the wizard would be the only one suffering from nightmares. However, he had the impression that trying to rein in his mate just then would be a rather bad idea on his part. Schuldig in a snit was *not* something those faint at heart took on for the hell of it, unless massive pain and blood loss was the achieving goal in mind. So Masato just winced, felt sorry for the poor bastard and kept any comments about temper tantrums to himself.

<So… have any ideas that’ll help move things along?> he asked after several minutes had passed and two more people had stumbled along in pain. As much as he hated to chance Schuldig’s foul mood, they did have a job to do and the longer that Garcia ran loose in the city, the greater the chance there was of bounds being harmed. Not to mention that if Masato was to have any hope of surviving his next visit to the Koneko – Yohji was certain to give him more than a little grief over how long things were taking considering how *his* mate was confined to the inn until Garcia was caught.

For the first time in about an hour, Schuldig finally looked at him directly. <Well, you know, we need to consider what’s our ‘target’ here, besides Garcia. The odds of him just waltzing on past us is pretty unlikely, so at this point, we’re probably going to get things done by finding the people he’s dealt with and try to track him down that way.> His green eyes narrowed as he stared at Masato and the curve of his lips took on a crueler bite.

<Ah, so that would mean it’s up to me to ‘attract’ some attention, right?> Masato was more than little surprised that Schuldig would propose such a tactic, considering how upset he had been ever since he had used his glamour. It seemed that all they had done since that day was argue with each other whenever Schuldig was not giving him the cold shoulder, barely even being civil enough for sex.

<Such a smart man.> Schuldig motioned toward a gap in the crowd. <You can put out an attraction for something a bit naughty, which should draw the type of people who would work for Garcia or go to him for something illegal. I’ll scan their minds to see if they have any knowledge of him, and hopefully we’ll come up with some leads a lot faster than just randomly sifting our way through people.>

In *theory* it seemed like a good idea… Schuldig’s shoulders stiffened as if he picked up on that thought. Dammit, Masato lacked a better plan at the moment and wanted to smack Crawford for sending them out to look through a huge city with very little in the way of any true leads. <Okay, we’ll try things your way for right now.> He had a sudden bad feeling at the way Schuldig’s smile took on a very pleased edge yet did as he had been directed.

Once he was at the spot where his mate had directed him to stand, he made himself comfortable by leaning a little against the side of a pottery stand’s wall and drew in a deep breath. He let it out and slowly began to draw on his power, focused on his demon soul and allowed it to ‘exude’ what he had been trained to think of as glamour. It was that sense of people around him and their emotions, their desire and personal wants, tapping into some small part of their emotions and fantasies and using that link as a means of control. In the past, he would have been able to feed from them as well, but now barely siphoned off enough energy to sustain the magic he was creating. In the end, all that mattered was that he managed to ‘attract’ the attention that Schuldig had asked of him… although after a minute or two, he wondered about the gradual shift of emotion around him. Yes, he was putting out a more sexual undertone to the glamour, but that did not explain the sense of embarrassment he was picking up from some people as they hurried past, or the sharp interest from others before he sensed Schuldig’s intervention.

After a young woman walked past him with her face almost scarlet from blushing and yet another leering man tried to approach, only to stop a few feet away with a dazed expression on his face and then to meander away, Masato had enough. <All right, Brat, what in all of the hells is going on? I’m not using *that* much glamour on these people!> Some of the men were acting as if he was standing naked while holding an ‘I’m a virgin’ sign, or something equally perverted.

When his lover failed to respond and a hint of amusement came across their link, Masato *knew* the damn brat was up to something. <Schu! Tell me what the hell you’re doing or I’m stopping it right now.> He followed the threat up with the thought of how he would head straight for Cassandra’s house.

Schuldig made a face in complaint and shrugged. <So we’re dealing with people who might know about bounds, right? I figured it’s not a good idea for them to be noticing you, a succubae bound, then, especially if you’re gonna be doing your glamour thing for who the hell knows how long. So I’m using a bit of illusion to mask your true appearance and… enhance your glamour a bit.>

‘Enhance’ his ass, if Masato was any judge of people’s reactions. <What do I look like, some cheap rent boy?> he asked while barely holding back on a snarl. He was willing to bet that Schuldig made him appear like Naru had while working the Eastern leather district.

Judging from the blast of amusement that question received, he could consider himself lucky if he looked like some under-dressed teenaged kid. <Schu….>

<Well, you got the ‘cheap’ and ‘under-dressed’ parts right.> Schuldig’s smirk was out in full force; no doubt the brat was confident as hell in the fact that he was well out of arm’s reach at the moment. Also, that Masato needed to keep the damn brat alive and well for his own sake, and so could not throttle the hell out of him later when they got home.

<Schuldig! What the hell are you doing?!>

<Let’s just say you make such a cute woman for an old man, even if you’re a bit too far on the slutty side for my taste.> Schuldig made a disapproving sniffing sound as he shook his head. <Who would have thought that all these guys would have such low standards.>

Masato did his best to count to ten and not let anger overwhelm both his talent and his common sense. They were in the middle of a mission, and the last thing they needed was the negative attention him throttling Schuldig in the middle of a crowded street would bring.

<That’s right, it’s a *mission*. So don’t give me any shit, Old Man. We’re not exactly looking for nice people here, but assholes who buy illegal spells or possibly sell bound blood or human parts to a wizard.> The teasing nature from before vanished from Schuldig’s demeanor, replaced by cold, steely will. <So the last thing they need is some succubae bound who already has a target painted on him by some other old bastard of a wizard drawing attention to him again, making them wonder what the hell is going on. Maybe we need both of our talents to find Garcia, but that doesn’t mean I’m gonna let you flaunt your ass all over this damn city and maybe get it nailed by someone other than me.> He bared his teeth as he thought the last few words to make his intent loud and clear.

Masato stared back at his mate, thoughts racing about in his mind and impulses battling against each other. Part of him refused to let Schuldig take control like this, to have the upper hand, while the other part understood the logic behind the argument. Finding Garcia was the most important thing – as much as it grated on his nerves to have that flung back in his face right now, it was still the truth. It was just… <You are *not* going to make me look like a cheap whore for the entire mission, dammit!>

Schuldig’s smirk took on the evil edge from before. <I’ll make you look like whatever I think is necessary to get the job done and keep anyone from figuring out that the person attracting their attention or asking them a bunch of questions they just have to answer is the same person who lives on Arbor Street in the Western green district or who hangs out at the Koneko an awful lot. So you better get used to being in touch with your feminine side, sweetie.> He blew Masato a kiss.

The worst part of it was the spoiled, damn brat was going to love every minute of it, Masato thought to himself as he gritted his teeth together.

*******

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