Chasing Threads

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chapter six

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successors

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Rufus woke up to a sense of hunger gnawing away at him, the emotion tainting the half-dreams that chased him into consciousness. Something about starving with his hands tied behind his back while a feast was laid out before him and the knowledge that the delicious treat being offer to him was laced with poison, the images fading from his mind as he sat up in bed. Curled up an arm’s length away from him was his mate, draped more in shadows than blankets.

Anger tore through the sleepiness and hunger he felt and for a moment, he wanted to tear at the darkness that clung to Reno’s pale skin and made the redness of his hair appear all the more fiery in contrast. His hands clenched into fists as he fought the impulse, reminding himself that he would accomplish nothing against such insubstantial adversaries. For all he knew the shadows might be just that – though he doubted he could be so lucky. After the events of the yesterday, the shinigami had to be very pleased with the suicidal idiot and it was clear that Reno had chosen where to place his loyalty.

Rufus was careful to fold aside the covers and slide from the bed without waking his mate. After all of the yelling and arguments last night, he was not in the mood to pick up the fighting where they had left off before giving way to exhaustion when he had better things to do today. Besides, more screaming at each other would gain him nothing other than a sore throat and the equivalent of the sensation of banging his head against a very hard wall. Reno refused to understand that he had done anything wrong by going to the Temple district as he had been cloaked in shadows the entire time and the resulting death from his ‘adventure’ had been natural in causes – well, as ‘natural’ as could be when a dubhach and a kage had been involved in the mess. That Yohji had assured Rufus that the Shadow Guard had investigated the matter and reported that there was no mention at all of either bound did little to assuage his temper, nor did the fact that the love-besotted idiot seemed to have accepted his mate’s role in the ‘excursion’ as a necessary means of releasing some tension and a way of feeding. Personally, Rufus thought that Yohji would forgive Aya anything and wondered when that generous nature would land both bounds into the hands of a wizard.

*He* was unwilling to be fuel to some damn spell or end up dancing to the Elders’ tunes for several centuries, two facts which seemed to completely escape Reno’s concern. He spared a dark look for his mate before turning his back on the idiot and heading to the small bathing room to prepare for the day ahead. The feel of warm water splashing against his face helped to dispel the stubborn remnants of sleep still clinging to his mind, a detail that he put down to having not fed well in the last day. Normally it was easier to wake up and get started for the day, yet the hunger continued to plague him and made him want to crawl back into bed, where a certain oblivious idiot continued to sleep on.

There would be emotions for him to feed upon at Court, suspicions and distrust and hunger and hope. They would not be anywhere near as satisfying as Reno’s lust, desire and affection, but that was what he deserved for allowing his demon nature to feed so exclusively in the last few years. He should have known better than to allow himself such a weakness, and the excuse that they were now mates was unacceptable; he was not a succubae bound and forced to feed upon one person only. It was true that Reno’s emotions had the strongest appeal to him now because of their link, but he could still sense other emotions. He would force himself to make do with them for the time being.

Once suitably clean for the day, he went to get dressed, stepping back into the darkened bedroom to head for his closet. He was about to reach his destination when he realized that Reno was now sitting upright in the bed, his eyes glowing silver in the darkness as he stared in Rufus’ direction. Annoyed by the fact that he would no longer be able to leave without what most likely would be another fight as well as by the fact that he was unable to sense his mate’s emotions, Rufus felt his jaw clench as he opened the closet and began to sort through his clothes. "So, you’re up early." He kept as much emotion as he could out of his voice and blocked the link between them, unwilling to allow Reno to sense anything and have an advantage over him.

Reno cocked his head to the side as if contemplating something. "Eh, not happy about that, are you?" There was a sibilance to his voice that bled into the air even after he stopped talking, a sign that the shinigami were about. Rufus had begun to notice the faint hissing that signaled when they were conversing with his mate and once again cursed the fact that they were insubstantial.

"I had thought that there was enough drama last night," was all he said before focusing on selecting an outfit appropriate enough for Court.

Reno laughed at his response, the sound harsh and jagged and barely passing as anything human with the sibilance tainting his voice. "What, you tellin’ me you’re done yellin’ at me already? I thought you lived for shit like that anymore." Rufus shifted back from the closet door to look at Reno, who had leaned forward with his arms folded over his bent knees, a chilling smile on his lips as he rested his chin on his left forearm.

"More like I refuse to see the sense in yelling at you when it does little good," Rufus replied as he backed away from the closet, his clothes draped over his left arm. "I repeatedly remind you of the dangers to you and all of us in you wandering around when there is a wizard about who knows what you are, yet you ignore everything I’ve said and almost cause a riot. What part of ‘do not draw any attention to yourself’ do you fail to comprehend?" He was unable to keep some of the exasperation he felt from shading his voice, still amazed at how uncaring Reno was of consequences.

The smile on Reno’s face took on a bitter edge. "As I said, *repeatedly*, no one noticed us yesterday. So how the *hell* that draws attention to me, I’ve no fuckin’ clue." The shadows around him seemed to writhe and cover more of his pale skin, left bare by the blankets pooled in his lap. "Tell me, do you ever get bored goin’ over and over the same shit again?"

"It seems to be a common theme when dealing with you," Rufus grumbled. "But, to give you credit, it seems that I should realize by now that I’m merely wasting my breath since you’ll never listen to me." He set the clothes on the bed, mindful of wrinkles, and folded his arms over his chest. "So you’ll do what you want until you get all of us killed."

Reno frowned at the words, his left hand sliding through his tousled hair and tugging on the long strands. "Why do you assume that all I’ll ever do is fuck things up? Not even Aya’s worried about that bastard Garcia tracking us down from yesterday." A hint of annoyance crept into his tone.

"I worry because in the end, all you give a damn about is anything that gets you closer to the grave." In the process of reaching for his shirt, Rufus halted and chopped his right hand through the air. Why did they go through the same arguments yet again? "Listen, in light of the fact that I am supposed to be at Court this morning, let’s agree on this – I’m the mean bastard who does nothing but yell at you and keeps you chained up. You’re the poor tortured soul who will just have to suffer through my domineering behavior. Have another ‘fun’ jaunt like yesterday and you won’t be able to move an inch without someone watching over you," he warned, his patience at an end.

Yohji had told him that he and Reno needed to be equals, that he needed to be less ‘controlling’. Aya had told him that he needed to put faith in the link between them, to not shut out his mate so much. Fool that he was, he had tried it a little their way and Reno had ignored such compromises as he continued to do whatever it was that *he* wanted.

The hint of green that had begun to creep back into Reno’s eyes vanished, replaced by cold silver. "Eh, so what else is new? Thought we covered that more than enough last night." He leaned back onto the pile of pillows stacked behind him. "You don’t give a shit for my reasons, I can’t fathom any of yours and yet we’re stuck with each other. So go make a bunch of human women go into heat at the sight of you while I rot away here from uselessness. At least I had a decent meal yesterday." A sneer formed on his pretty face, partially obscured by shadows. "Not that you care."

In the process of dressing, Rufus left his pants on the bed to walk around and grab hold of Reno’s long hair, which had been left unbound during the night and was tangled from sleep. "Don’t *ever* presume to know my intentions. You never gave me a chance to address the issue before taking matters into your own hands." He had been working on a solution to Reno’s ‘need’ now that he had the additional gokenin, trying to find a way to appease Reno’s desire to hunt his own meal yet keep him out of sight when the idiot had gone out on his own and inadvertently caused a death.


The shadows shifted around the dubhach, causing Rufus’ right hand to grow cold as it held on to Reno’s hair. Reno bared his teeth yet made no attempt to free himself. "Why would I, when you don’t ever bother to listen to me? You just boss me around and only pay attention when I don’t follow your orders." He snorted in derision as he stared up at Rufus. ‘You really think that’s gonna work in the long run?"

Rufus was uncertain what disturbed him the most, the calm manner in which Reno asked the question or the way his mate looked up at him with such disdain. After several seconds, he finally let go of the crimson strands and went back to the other side of the bed to resume dressing. When it became clear that he had no answers just then, Reno snorted again and lay back down as if intent on going back to sleep. The room was quiet while Rufus finished getting ready for the day, the shadows deepening despite the fact that the morning sun continued to rise higher in the sky.

He left the room, mind whirling over the latest confrontation and his natures conflicted over what to do. Clearly, Reno was unhappy with the situation and growing more disgruntled with each passing day. That did not bode well with the remaining months left until the war. Yet Rufus’ demon nature insisted that he keep his mate safe, and it became more evident all the time that having Reno at Court would only put the dubhach and everyone associated with him in danger. What would make the suicidal idiot realize that, short of a wizard attempting to kidnap him and drain him dry of all his blood? Or worse, the Elders recognizing him for what he was at last and sending their bound lackeys to Eto to tear the city apart and drag Reno – and the rest of them - back to Esset by force?

Rufus lacked the ability to see the future, as did most soul gaki bounds. However, there were times when he swore that he could feel the danger press against him as if some steel trap waiting to be sprung if the wrong amount of force was applied. All it would take was some foolish part on Reno’s behalf, for the dubhach to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and he was *certain* that someone would recognize Reno for what he was. After that… one need not be a precog to know what would happen next.

He also knew that this latest rift between them would do their relationship little good, dammit. The shinigami would no doubt love to take advantage of it to push Reno into more foolish actions or worse, to try to take his life again. The question was how to mend things, when he still believed that every action he had taken was justified. He had to keep Reno from coming to Garcia’s attention.

The day had barely begun and he already felt an overwhelming urge for alcohol. Gritting his teeth, Rufus straightened his coats and headed for the dining room where his breakfast would be waiting for him, as well as Tseng. Hopefully a calm conversation with the man would help to center him and give him some insight on what he should do about some of his problems. At the very least, he could assure himself that the safety of his house was still uncompromised and that there was little to fear of leaving Reno here today with Rude, Rod and Cyril to watch over him, while he focused on important matters with Lady Meara.

No matter what Reno and his hissing shadows wished to believe, humans would have some say in this latest war and Rufus was determined to know as much as he could about their motives and their strengths as well as weaknesses so he could manipulate the outcome as much as possible. There was little doubt in his mind that Crawford was striving for some goal with the way that he was controlling things from the background, and Rufus wanted to be certain that his people were protected as much as possible by the changes that Esset losing would bring about. Only now he was being distracted by Reno pouting in the dark with a bunch of pissy shadows. Whoever said that the gods lacked a sense of humor deserved to be fodder for a pack of starving flesh gaki bounds.

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Yohji let himself into the kitchen, busy with the laces of his tunic as he shouldered opened the door. He paid just enough attention to make sure he was not about to run into someone on his way to one of the tables and finally looked about the room once his clothes were ‘respectable’ enough. As much as he loved having Emmie and Neely about the place, there was something to be said for the Koneko being a kids-free inn when it came to staff. He never… well, rarely got bitched at for having his shirt half-undone before Emmie had shown up at the place, he thought with a bit of long-sufferance as he slouched over the table and wondered where the hell the coffee was.

A goddess of mercy in the form of Ani appeared in front of him with a mug, a pot of the sweet nectar and a smile. "You look as if you didn’t get much sleep last night," she said with a knowing grin.

"Hmm, that’s the trouble of sleeping with cats, they hog all of the covers and tend to nibble on you during the night," he replied with a salacious wink, grinning when she laughed while pouring him a cup of coffee. Ani’s emotions were warm and sparkling, so full of happiness and affection that he felt invigorated before he took a sip of the hot beverage. Ah, someone must have spent the evening with her girlfriend to be in such a good mood.

"Somehow, I’ve the feeling that Aya was the one who was the ‘snack’ all last night," Jo said with obvious rebuke as she set a bowl full of oatmeal topped with raisins and honey in front of him. "Speaking of which, where is he?" Her eyes narrowed in disapproval at Aya’s absence.

Yohji held up his hands in defense. "He still felt pretty tired so I just woke him up long enough to let him know that I was heading down here for a bite to eat." Aya had looked so adorable, curled up in a nest of blankets, and he truly had ‘felt’ as if he needed a couple more hours of rest so Yohji had decided to let him sleep in a bit longer. Aya had merely blinked at him a few times and nodded once before falling back asleep, shadows settling over him as if a dark blanket. As long as Yohji’s mate knew where he was, he felt okay with leaving him alone in bed and figured that little could go wrong with Aya sleeping and the shinigami watching over him.

Jo glared at him for a few more seconds before huffing once and walking back to the stove. "I suppose he had enough excitement the other day." She fetched several cinnamon rolls and a few croissants and returned to the table. "He seems quieter now for having gotten that out of his system."

Yohji waited until he had a little to eat before answering. "I think he needed to get out a little, and, well, there was Reno to consider as well. Those two usually do get into something foolish when they’re alone together." He was beginning to see that there was little point in being angry over their antics; shinigami souls tended to congregate together and as such gatherings were rather rare, thinking first before acting was the last thing they considered. He supposed he should be happy that Aya could be so spontaneous, he just needed to get used to the fact that it was with someone other than him. Maybe in a few decades it would seem more natural for Aya to be that way with him, too.

"Hmm." As the other day, Jo did not seem in the mood to argue with him about Aya’s little ‘excursion’; if he refused to be upset over it, then she either would too or at least would keep any opinions otherwise to herself. "I’m surprised that Cassandra still hasn’t been by."

About to take a bite of a cinnamon roll, Yohji stopped and blinked a few times as he thought about what she had just said. "Oh. Huh. Well, supposedly she’s trying to help out Schu." He set the roll aside and sipped his coffee. "If she’s hanging around Aya and me, then that might block her talent." That was the reason why Crawford was being rather scarce lately as well.

Jo paused in sipping her own coffee and seemed to consider what he had just said. "Ah, that makes sense." She gave him an assessing look. "You can make things rather difficult on your friends."

"Hey! It’s *Aya* who’s to blame, you know!" He huffed in indignation, trying to figure out how he was being blamed for things when it was Aya’s shinigami nature that blocked precog talents. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Bethwynn over by the sink and the confused look she was giving him, and merely shrugged over the fact that the girl was eavesdropping. Sooner or later she would figure out what Aya was, and if she was a threat of any kind… well, he doubted that the inn would have accepted her as staff if she was, but Eri, Reiichi or the others would take care of her if he did not do it himself.

"Ow!"

He rubbed the side of his head that Jo had just whapped while she looked to the ceiling as if beseeching the gods. "No wonder the poor man is so exhausted when he has to put up with you all of the time!" Jo’s voice was thick with derision as she crossed her arms over her chest. "Why don’t you finish your breakfast so you can take something upstairs to him, hmm?"

"I swear, you live to abuse me," Yohji whined as he rubbed his head a couple of more times for show. When Jo looked ready to whap him again, he quickly picked up his spoon and had another bite of the oatmeal. At that point, his hunger reminded him that eating and not antagonizing someone who was more than willing to kick his ass was the better of ideas and he soon emptied the bowl. Jo gave him a cool look and a scoff as she picked up the bowl to refill it.

He made do with the cinnamon rolls while he waited for more oatmeal, and shared a quick grin with Ani, who was busy prepping several hams for lunch. Maddox was probably on dinner duty today, which meant that Jo would have the evening off and an opportunity to spend time with Ichiro. That would explain why she seemed a little short-tempered; whenever she had a chance to take some time off, she wanted to make sure that nothing would go wrong to ruin her break. He figured the best thing he could do was keep himself and Aya up in their room all day and out of trouble.

"So, we all stocked up on mulled wine spices? I was thinking of taking some mulled wine upstairs tonight along with some snacks." He supposed that Aya could have his night out in the garden another time, maybe some evening when it looked less likely to rain. Perhaps he should go out one evening and track Trowa down in the main room to find out what was the prevalent forecast among elemental bounds on the winter weather and if they would have any autumn to enjoy this year or not. The cousins were up in the mountains and out of the Elders’ control, but from what Crawford had said, they could only hope to slightly modify the weather at this point; they would be working against the elementals still left in Esset and they would need to conserve their strength for the war and reversing the damage afterward.

Jo set the refilled bowl down on the table and then twisted in her seat to look in the general vicinity of the pantry, as if the visual aid helped to jar her memory. "Hmm, I’m almost certain that we have all of the necessary spices. If not, then it’s just a quick run to the market." She shrugged as she turned back to sit straight on the bench, a slight smile on her face and her tone calm. "I’ve a few things for Maddox to pick up for me this afternoon."

"Admit it, we’re all your minions and you relish your authority over us, making us dash about to your orders," Yohji teased as he picked up his mug of coffee. At Jo’s rather impressive show of innocence, he laughed and shook his head. "You must have been a queen in your past life."

She snorted over that bit of news. "Maybe one night when we break out a cask of Mickey’s hard cider we’ll debate if this current one’s a step up or down for me," she drawled.

"Oh, definitely a step up!" Yohji waved his mug around, mindful not to spill any of the precious coffee. "Gorgeous men and lovely ladies all about, who are just dying to obey your every word." Ani, who had obviously been following the conversation, quickly curtseyed when Jo glanced in her direction. "Your own domain to rule over *and* you don’t have to put up with the Court. I’d say it’s a vast improvement over being queen." He waggled his eyebrows for added emphasis.

That managed to win a laugh from the inn’s benevolent tyrant. "You *may* have a slight point there." Jo smiled, the expression small and mysterious, as she shook her head a couple of times. "To be so blessed by the gods…." She tapped the forefinger of her right hand against the rim of his refilled bowl. "Now, obey your queen and eat your breakfast."

"Yes, milady." Yohji made a half bow complete with an added flourish of his left hand. "I live to obey."

"If only that was true," Jo added with another derisive snort.

"Aw, come on now, you know you like it when I disobey and you get to spank me!" Yohji raised his eyebrows a few times as he took a bite of oatmeal, while over by one of the prep tables Ani did her best to stifle her giggles.

Propping her elbows on the table, Jo buried her face in her hands. "I think I’m back to believing that the gods must hate me."

"Aww, don’ say tha’." Yohji swallowed the oatmeal and reached over to pat Jo on the head. "You know that they’ve blessed you beyond compare."

Jo raised her head to give him a look of utter disdain. "Miyuki must have dropped you on your head before I came to live here since I never saw it happen."

Yohji grimaced as he scooped up some more oatmeal. "Eh, why does everyone think I was dropped on my head so much? Didn’t you hear that idiocy is favored by the gods? Maybe I’m just especially blessed!" He grinned before enjoying another bite.

He must be hearing things, because it sounded as if Jo actually whimpered just then. She rubbed her hands over her face and sat up straight. "I now understand why Aya’s so tired all of the time, and I *don’t* think it has to do with your succubae nature." She glared at him as she poured herself more coffee.

Making another face, Yohji waited to finish half of his meal before answering. "Why do you always take Aya’s side?" Not that he minded too much, as his mate was too quiet by half and could use a vocal defender on his behalf. But did it have to be Jo? That was like equipping a child with a claymore when a toy sword would do.

"Because you’ll take every advantage you can with that poor man." Jo sipped her coffee and gave him a knowing look over the rim of her mug. "*Someone* has to look after him and keep a degenerate like you in check. I can only pray to the gods that I am up to the task of doing both," she said in a rather pious tone.

Now it was Yohji’s turn to snort. "Oh yes, Aya’s a fluffy little kitten, all innocent and helpless." He rubbed his left shoulder as it twinged in sympathetic pain. "Where oh where would he be without you to protect his virtue and defend the poor, widdle powerless Aya." He rolled his eyes for added effect and so missed the sight of Jo’s hand slashing through the air toward his head. "OW! Dammit!" He rubbed his sore head and scowled at the cook. "I wanna know who the hell is gonna defend *me*!" Scarred shoulders and enough head shots for permanent brain damage, was it any wonder that people thought he was an idiot?

"Somehow I think you manage just fine on your own." Jo got up from the table to head over to the stove. "Do you think that Aya’s had enough time to sleep in yet?"

Yohji considered the question as he scraped his bowl clean. "Maybe fix him up a pot of tea and a basket of pastries for now. If he’s still sleeping, that should keep for a bit." From what he could tell over their link, his mate was still fast asleep; if he woke a bit earlier than he needed then they could always take a nap later on. With all of the excitement from the last few days – Aya’s excursion, Kikyou’s visit, the ongoing search for Garcia – it would be nice to just lounge around their bedroom for the day.

Jo nodded as she put on a pot of water. "We’ll be doing some baking once the breakfast rush is over. Perhaps I’ll check to see if we’ve enough spices for cakes."

"Oh! I’m sure Aya will enjoy that!" Ani went over to the sink to wash her hands, smiling at a quiet Bethwynn. "Though I’m sure Yohji will just grab a cake and take it upstairs so he has an excuse to keep Aya locked up all evening."

He sighed as he pushed aside his empty bowl. "Okay, I’ll settle for not being picked on so much, let alone have a defender." He sniffed as if holding back tears. "I’m so abused."

Ani giggled as she dried her hands. "So you say." She left the sink to come over and give him a hug. "But as you were just talking to Jo about spanking you, I think you secretly like it."

"Traitor," he grumbled as he put his bound speed to use and snatched the gold ribbon from her dark hair, causing the locks that had been pulled back from her face to tumble loose. "Can you blame me for hiding up in my room with such a delicious snack when all of you beat on me when I dare to come down here for breakfast?"

She giggled again as she took back her ribbon. "All I know is we’d see real ‘abuse’ if we mention to Aya that you just referred to him as a ‘delicious snack’." She smiled and patted him on the shoulder when he whimpered in only half mock terror. "But since you bought me ribbons the other day, I’ll let it slip this time."

"Whereas I’m sure I can think of an errand or two for you to run for me as means of ensuring my silence," Jo called out from over by the stove, where she was busy putting together a basket for her darling Aya.

Yohji began to wonder if it was too early to have a go at a bottle of whiskey. "And yet people wonder just why I want to spend the day holed up in my room," he said while looking up to the ceiling. Really, one day he would love to ask the gods what he had done to deserve this treatment, if in no particular hurry. He supposed he might have to suffer something to offset Aya’s presence in his life.

"It’s called ‘hormones’," was Jo’s instant retort, which had Ani laughing and Bethwynn blushing while Yohji wondered if he could get away with bending the ‘no growling in the kitchen’ rule.

Oh yes, it definitely was a good day to stay hidden in the room with one’s mate and as much food as he could carry upstairs.

*******

Birman had the key to her front door in her hand and saw the front porch of her home when she noticed the odd shadow lurking by her door. Her eyes narrowed and she began to reach for a knife when the shadow shifted forward enough for her to recognize who it was waiting for her arrival. "Didn’t your mother ever teach you that it’s not polite to lurk around in the dark, especially around ladies’ homes?" she called out a few feet from Crawford.

He snorted in amusement as he folded his arms over his chest, his dark clothes blending well with the shadows. "My mother taught me a great many of things, but I can honestly say that this particular topic never came up in any of our conversations."

"What did she teach you?" Birman asked as she opened her front door, certain that if Crawford was here, no other danger was present. The precog might not care so much for her safety, other than for how her being gone might affect his plans for the future, but he would always be looking after himself.

"As I said, a great many things," Crawford repeated, revealing as little as possible as always. As she called out the word that lit the candles in her living room, he regarded her with what appeared to be interest for several seconds. "I think she would like you, as you’ve several traits in common."

Oh, now that was intriguing, as he referred to his mother as still being alive when he, Jei and Mustang claimed that his father was dead, Birman thought as she picked up Deidra as the cat came out to greet her. "And would I like her?"

Crawford gave her a chilling grin, one that showed too much teeth and a bright gleam of eyes behind his glasses. "Probably not, as she knows even more secrets than you and gives nothing away for free." His disturbing grin fading, he nodded in acknowledgement to the cat. "I thought there were two of them."

"There are, but Maeve is probably curled up in my bed, now that the weather is starting to cool." She draped Deidra over her shoulder and headed to the kitchen, glad that she was rarely home to cause any mess to be ashamed over. As Spymaster, she could afford her own home complete with a small garden that she paid someone to tend, although considering the documents and books she kept neatly scattered about the house, she had to rely upon her own cleaning skills. There might be a little dust and a few disturbed book piles thanks to the cats, but the place was a far sight better than Botan’s home had been before he had started to date Cassandra.

She led Crawford into the kitchen, where she set Deidra onto the floor so she could put on a fresh pot of water for tea before reaching into the small bag she had brought home for the leftovers to feed the cats. Maeve came out of hiding to join her sister for the meal, earning a quick pet before Birman washed her hands and leaned against the counter to face Crawford, who had made himself comfortable at the small kitchen table. "So, I assume that you’ve finally gotten the word that I’ve left for you… oh, a few days ago?"

He had the grace to look ashamed for several seconds. "I am trying to limit my interaction at the Koneko and with people connected to Aya and Yohji because of their influence over my visions. I’m still having problems seeing anything related to Garcia, and that’s beginning to worry me."

In the process of splitting up some of the apple and cranberry pie that Jo had sent home with her, Birman decided to cut the man a bit of a break. "Botan’s passed on to me his recent conversation with his one contact, and the news isn’t good. We think that the wizards have begun to notice that the Guard and Army aren’t killing bounds anymore."

"Yes, that’s been a concern of mine as well, and a reason why I want Garcia in custody. Considering his knowledge and recent actions, I’ve a feeling that we can gain a wealth of knowledge if we take him alive." Crawford nodded in thanks for the pie set in front of him and picked up the fork. "He’s not the only one using bound blood and I highly doubt he’s the only one with knowledge about kage and dubhach." He dropped such depressing knowledge before having a bite of the delicious dessert.

The taste of tart fruit pie soured in her mouth for a moment. "Well, that’s a cheerful thought." For a moment, the warm comfort of being home faded as the reality of war pressed ever closer; she wondered when the time came if she would ever be able to return, if she would need to find someone to look after Deidra and Maeve, to take over this small bit of property and openly name a successor for Spymaster. What would Shuiichi and Manx say when the time for the latter arrived and she gave them Trowa’s name? The thought of their reaction helped to restore her to a better mood. "Is that the only reason you came here today?"

Crawford waited until he finished the pie to answer, one of the few times he showed that he was a bound first and know-it-all precog second. "Well, I thought you might wish to talk about the ‘dignitary’ from Xan," he said as he leaned back in his chair.

Laughing as she collected their dirty plates to put into the sink, she took a moment to gather her thoughts as she poured the now boiling water into the waiting pot of tea. "Ah yes, dear Shen." She shook her head as she set the pot on a tray and returned to the table. "Maybe I should break out the alcohol for this discussion."

"From what I’ve heard and seen, I’m under the impression that you listened to my advice and the conversation with him went well." Crawford tilted his head to the side, a slight smile on his face and his demeanor somewhat confused. He was a very handsome man when he let down his guard and came across as fallible instead of inhuman.

"Hmm, so it seems." She poured them each a cup of fragrant black tea, the rose scent reminding her of that afternoon in the garden with Shen. "I’m sure it comes to no surprise to you that he brought up the topic of bounds." When Crawford only arched an eyebrow and remained silent, she continued. "He sought a guarantee that Kritiker was willing to… oh, I don’t know, embrace them for once instead of continuing our lovely policy of alternating between ignoring and exterminating them." Well, maybe ‘embrace’ was too strong of a word.

Crawford blew on his tea to cool it as he considered what was said. "Xan’s policy has largely been the former, as long as the bounds within their country don’t make a fuss or demand any rights or formal protection. This is more ‘liberal’ than Thracia, which has a policy similar to Kritiker’s, and in theory seems more enlightened than Cretia’s, which has a strict policy to keep out all bounds but is not known to be so persecuting of those born to its people."

"No, they just treat you like a dirty secret once you’re in the family, is my understanding." Birman had spent some time talking to Miriam and why the woman had left her island country.

"Better than living in fear of being drained by a wizard your entire life," Crawford shot back, his voice hard and bitter. She bowed her head in acknowledgement of the accusation.

After a minute or two of uncomfortable silence, she picked up the conversation. "I’ve talked to Shen since then, and he’s deliberately kept the discussion light and bound-free." She grimaced in disgust and picked up Deidra to give her hands something to do, the feel of soft fur soothing as the purring cat settled in her lap. "I’ve never known someone who can come up with so many inane topics, I swear. I’m not about to let him go back to Xan without a note to his Spymaster that he should be promoted to chief torturer."

The bitterness from before left Crawford and he actually chuckled for a moment. "And just how much did you give him during that discussion with him, hmm?"

Oh, the bastard just loved making his points, she thought with a glare in his direction. "I let him know that we were moving on from the ‘must kill all bounds’ mentality and that was it," she muttered, wishing that she had saved all of the pie for herself after all.

As if reading her thoughts, Crawford flashed her a very satisfied grin. "Perhaps he’s thinking much the same about you, then? While I’m a mere precog and not anything as glorified as an official spy – a Court-sanctioned one at that – I thought that these things tended to progress in a rather leisurely manner as both sides felt each other out, hmm?"

"I hate you," she told him in a very succinct manner, just in case he had any doubts of her emotions just then. "No wonder Jei’s always going on about when he can finally eat you. Haven’t you ever heard about how cathartic it is to let a person do a little bitching?"

"Ah, I think that’s another lesson my mother must have skipped." A slight smile curved Crawford’s lips as he removed his glasses and cleaned them with a white cloth from his pocket. Judging from the light in his blue eyes, he was enjoying the bantering just then, which left her to wonder if he had many opportunities to do this. Most people demanded answers from him, a precog, and complained whenever he hedged anything to twist the present into the future’s demands.

She sipped her tea as she thought about how similar their two ‘jobs’ were; having to know when to withhold information or parcel it out to best suit the needs of what they were sworn to. In her case, it was Kritiker, and in his it was seeing the Elders overthrown and bounds given the best chance at a possible future. That their two goals coincided meant that they got to work together.

"I tell you what, you arrange for me to meet your mother one day, and I’ll definitely schedule a little tea party for you and Shen." Oh, she would dearly love for the two men to meet; maybe if Jei was really good and promised not to eat all of the leftover roast duck next time Jo made some, she would include him on the invite as well.

Crawford appeared to stare off into the distant for a couple of minutes, which she was sure was not to contemplate what to wear to such an event. She sipped her tea while he was lost in whatever vision such an offer had induced, her left hand stroking along Deidra’s very soft fur.

"That… may very well come about," he finally said, his voice cracking a little as if his throat had gone dry. He cleared his throat a couple of times before having a sip of his tea. "I make no promises on my mother’s part, but it’s possible. However, I think it’s more than likely that I’ll meet this ‘Shen’ of yours some time soon."

"He’s not mine, other than a thorn in the side," she grumbled as she poured herself more tea. "I think he’s practicing his torture techniques on me, which is the height of ill manners," she said with an offended sniff.

"Hmm, I’m surprised that Reiichi hasn’t decided to set him straight, then."

She glanced up at that comment, her eyes narrowing at the teasing smile on Crawford’s lips. There were certain topics that she considered off-limits, especially by precogs, and Reiichi was one of them. "He’s rather busy at the moment," was all she chose to say, well aware of the folly of giving this man in particular any ammunition.

"He’s always busy," was all Crawford remarked before letting the smile slip away. "In all seriousness, this is an important sign. Until now, it’s been Esset and Kritiker at each other’s throats, inching toward another war. Now Xan’s stepping forward, and once they involve themselves, Thracia and Cretia will follow." His eyes grew unfocused once more and all trace of amusement was gone from his face and deep voice. "They can side with Esset out of fear or they can join with Kritiker out of a sense of common bonds. For the hope of my kind, an agreement for us to be left in peace is what we’ve strived for so many years."

Setting her half-finished tea aside, she wet her lips and risked breaking into the trance to ask what she felt to be an important question. "Is being left in peace really enough?"

He blinked several times before looking straight at her. "We’re not fools. Even with all the strides we’ve made in the last year between the Shadow Guard and at Court, we know that there’s no way that we can be openly accepted just yet. If we’re left in peace and no longer hunted – at least, other than by a few fanatics who we’ll deal with ourselves – then it’ll give us time to work on integrating ourselves to the point where we can be accepted. It’ll probably take centuries for the prejudice and hatred to die down, but it’s a beginning."

That was probably the most hopeful thing she had ever heard from him. She raised her cup in a toast to his words. "May the gods hear what you just said and bless it." She sipped the tea before continuing. "I agree with you." Sometimes she feared that her bound friends and allies would expect too much after the war, and had to remember that for most of them, they had experienced hatred and fear for decades if not centuries. They knew better than she did on what would happen.

"If only there were more humans like you," Crawford answered as if in a toast of his own. "Though then I’m sure Jei would be bitching incessantly about the lack of proper meals."

"Thank you for waiting until *after* dessert to mention that." Birman grimaced, but at this point it was mostly for show; she was developing a rather strong stomach from dealing with so many flesh gaki bounds.

The evil grin from earlier made its return. "You’ll be flattered to know that he’s declared you to be ‘his’ and that no other flesh gaki bound gets to eat you, you’ve made such a lasting impression on him." He leaned over to pat her on her hand. "You’re only the third person he’s done that to."

As she was sitting across from the first person and had a feeling that Masafumi Takatori was probably the second person, she had little to say about being included in such ‘rarified’ company. "Tell your partner that if he tries to piss on me to mark me or any other nonsense like that, I’ll knife him in the balls."

Laughing as he rose from the table, Crawford gave her a slight bow of respect. "I think it’s that attitude that earned you such a ‘privilege’. He really doesn’t want anyone else to take a bite out of you." His expression grew serious once again. "You do realize that you’re becoming more of a target as the war approaches."

She set Deidra aside so she could see him to the door. "Yes, I know." The good humor from before vanished as she realized that in his own way, Jei was trying to protect her. "Let’s hope that the Elders don’t find out that I plan on Trowa taking over for me anytime soon, then, or Jei might get his chance sooner than he thinks."

If Crawford had meant to startle her with his recent revelations, then she obviously had one-upped him just then. He stared at her for several seconds before resuming his walk toward the front door. "I don’t think he planned on staying in Eto after the war," was all he said.

Did that mean she had a chance of surviving until at least the war’s end? She would dwell on that statement later. "We don’t always get what we want. The only other person capable of the position is Reiichi, and he hasn’t spent the past several months working for me. Trowa is more than talented enough, he knows the system and my people trust him. Also, the Guard *and* the Shadow Guard know him." The water elemental might hate her for the added responsibility, yet she doubted that he would abandon the position if it came down to that.

"He… would do Kritiker proud." There was an odd note to Crawford’s voice as if he knew beyond any doubt of what he was saying.

"Now to hope I’m being unduly paranoid and can count on him serving me tea for years to come." She refused to ask him what he had seen, and to his credit, Crawford merely smiled and nodded before wishing her a good night.

There were times when she thought about what it would be like to be a bound, to have powers like Aya or Eri. She never wished to be like Crawford or Cassandra, though, even if it would make her job easier. There were some things that would be too difficult to know, to bear day in and day out. As much as Crawford could annoy her, she had the utmost sympathy for the man and what he struggled to do, balancing his visions of the future with what had to be done in the present.

Locking the door behind her, she picked up Maeve and went back to the kitchen, where she planned to spike the rest of the tea with a little whiskey before heading to bed.

*******

Heero sat in the quiet garden and refused to let his left hand toy with the empty leather loop which normally supported the weight of his sword. Why he had to leave the weapon behind when reporting to the palace – there were countless weapons he could name upon entering the premises to take place of the military-issued sword, so really, it was a foolish move on the Guard’s part to insist that low-ranking soldiers such as he should leave it at the barracks near the front gate. Had the fiasco at their king’s wedding taught them nothing, as well?

He was bored and beginning to wonder if Trowa had failed him, and if he was being observed as well. As far as anyone should know, he was taking a well-deserved break in a quiet, out of the way garden… but no one *should* know. While not as good a spy as the water elemental bound, he had taken pains to be as unobtrusive as possible as he made his way from his post to this remote outdoor alcove. The people he had passed along the way had given no indication that a lowly Army soldier was of any interest and paid him little attention.

There were few flowers left blooming at this point in the year, but the plants’ foliage was still thick and just turning to its autumn hues. Somewhere in the garden was a small fountain, the sound of falling water almost musical in the quiet spot. He found himself ready to relax in such an atmosphere and grew angry each time he felt his shoulder slump forward or his hand start to wander to the belt loop to toy with it.

Just when he had decided to only give them a few more minutes, there was the soft, scraping sound of the garden’s bamboo gate opening. Trowa, clothed in finely made yet plain clothes of green and grey, as if some highborn family’s gokenin, nodded once to Heero before entering the garden. His hair color was darkened to black and his eyes brown, most likely from the aid of an illusion spell, and he made a twisting motion with the fingers of his right hand that indicated to Heero to refrain from saying anything.

As the water elemental slipped past the gate, Relena came into view, dressed in a gown of pink and cream-colored velvet. There was a slight frown on her face that changed into a hopeful smile when she noticed him sitting there. "Oh! You’re still here. I’m sorry, I had a little trouble getting here." She turned toward Trowa and her smile strengthened. "Thank you for your help."

He bowed and stepped aside, motioning for her to step into the garden. "I’ll wait for you outside." As he turned to go back through the gate, he eyes flicked in Heero’s direction, a silent message that he would stand guard during their conversation. During all of their years together in Esset, Heero knew that they had made little effort to ‘bond’ outside of assignments and gatherings where the Elders had requested their presence, yet he felt a fellowship with the other bound none-the-less. That Trowa was willing to assist him with setting up this meeting with the human highborn and watch over it as well…. He felt an odd warmth in his chest and had to look away for a few moments. Trowa was a true friend, devoted to the Elders’ cause and there to help a fellow bound.

"It’s… a nice place to enjoy my break," Heero tried to explain in an attempt to make it seem as if he had another reason to be here than to wait for her to arrive.

Relena nodded as if she understood. She came to a halt a few feet away and cupped her right hand around one of the remaining rose blooms. "I much prefer the smaller gardens like these. While the flowers might not be as exotic as what’s found in the larger, more formal gardens, they’re still lovely and of course you actually have a chance to enjoy what’s here and to talk." She gave him a shy smile and motioned to the pink rose she cradled between her fingers. "Sometimes I think that these gardens are like… well, they’re like the simple, favorite meals Ryusuke makes for me when I’m feeling down."

Heero had an idea of what she was referring to after observing several formal garden parties, filled with so many highborn flitting about and the bustle of an army of servants that he was amazed that anyone could notice the beautiful surroundings around them. "There aren’t many gardens that could live up to even this from where… from my hometown." There was the conservatory, filled with various fruit trees and tropical plants, but the Elders seemed to prefer exotic foliage to flowers. He wondered if the varied scents bothered them.

"I guess I have been spoiled by so much loveliness." Relena released the rose and clasped her hand behind her back. "I’m aware that there are so many people who aren’t blessed with the things that I, a highborn and now the heir, take for granted." Sorrow flickered across her face and darkened her voice as she mentioned her status. "There’s so much more to life than an endless succession of garden parties and discussing the latest gossip over tea, though I’m certain that there are some here who would disagree."

He was a little surprised to hear such words from a Kritiker highborn, although a part of him argued that she could just be mouthing them for appearances sake. Yet something, whatever it was that had drawn him to her in the first place and made this one particular human so difficult to ignore, told him that she was being honest, that it was not just an act.

"I wouldn’t know, as I’m not usually invited to many garden parties," he said as he began to play with the loop on his belt, just to have something to do other than to stare at the human. She was so different from what he was used to, so unconcerned about the obvious displays of power that most bounds and humans focused on.

Relena giggled at the comment, the sound a little embarrassed and quickly stifled. "No, somehow I can’t see you as the type to enjoy them. I would think you’d be much too bored." She flushed a little and ducked her head, once more intent on observing the roses. "Uhm, that wasn’t meant as an insult."

"It wasn’t taken as one." He had much, much better things to do than sip tea and wander around a bunch of useless plants, even if they smelled nice and were lovely to look at. If the day should come that bounds were free to do such things, he doubted that he would waste his time on such frivolous matters when there were more important things to learn and places to explore.

"Good." Relena sneaked a peek at him through her thick, light brown bangs and smiled. "You’re like… well, I’ve known people like you before. You tend to enjoy doing things much more exciting than sitting amongst a bunch of flowers," she said, her words almost echoing his thoughts that for a moment, he wondered if she was a soul gaki bound before he reminded himself that she was human. "I guess that’s why you joined the Army."

"I’d always hoped for a chance to serve my country," Heero began, the familiar half-lie coming easily before he realized that perhaps here was someone who did not care as much for his reasons for enlisting as for the fact that he was *in* the Army. "It’s a good fit," he continued after a brief pause, the words an honest truth that he did his best not to reflect upon very much the more time he spent in Kritiker’s Army.

"Hmm, somehow I imagine that to be true." She cocked her head to the side and stared intently at him for several seconds. "There’s a sense of… of order to you that I’m sure would find it appealing. Do you get along well with everyone in your unit?" There was a slight hitch to her voice and her breathing became a little accelerated.

This was not the first time she had made inquiries about his squad, and he had an idea what – or who – she was trying to find information about. The fact that she was going about asking anything in regards to her brother in such a roundabout manner only reinforced the belief that she was trying to protect Major Marquis’ real identity. This surprised Heero, as he would have thought that a human would show little sympathy and no support to a family member who had obviously cast aside any ties to their family and even brought about a measure of shame to the family name. Yet he detected no sense of maliciousness or falseness from Relena as she stared at him and waited for his answer, and only relief when he supplied one.

"Yes, we get along well. Our major is a good man and works us hard until we trust each other." Despite the fact that Major Marquis was human and a highborn, he found himself respecting the man. Was there something about the Peacecraft bloodline that made it more amiable to bounds? He never had much use for humans before, other than that of the role of servants, and now he found himself almost infatuated with two of them. Why did sitting so close to a human girl, breathing in her scent and discussing such inanities make him feel so… alive? So ‘normal’? For much of his life, all he had to look forward to were missions and pleasing the Elders, yet now small things such as receiving notes and seeing one person smile made him… happy. He kept telling himself that he was cultivating this… whatever it was… for the sake of the mission.

Relena nodded as if to show that she understood and played with the full skirts of her dress. "Yes, I’ve heard many good things about the Major. You’re very lucky to have him." For several seconds, it appeared as if she wanted to say something else, then she bit her bottom lip and shook her head twice. "Though I can only pray to all the gods that you’ll never need his guidance beyond training and daily duties. I understand why the Army exists, but there is *no* need to unleash it." As she spoke, the uncertainty and shyness that usually colored her movements and speech vanished, revealing a fervor that sparked her blue eyes and lent a blush to her pale cheeks. "War is not the only answer."

Heero knew that the Peacecraft family were avowed pacifists and that Relena argued that belief at Court, but this was the first time that he had heard her speak about it so directly. "Milady-" He faltered at the hurt look she gave him for the title. "Relena, surely you don’t believe that when it seems that Esset is preparing an army to invade your own county."

She straightened her back as her right hand smoothed down her skirt. "Why is it that everyone only sees meeting the threat of violence with more violence as the solution?" Bitterness tinged her soft, clear voice. "The Court won’t even try a diplomatic mission to Esset, to open communication and see if we can resolve our differences before meeting in battle." Turning away from him, she reached out to touch a finger to the pink rose, as if afraid of damaging the fragile blossom despite its abundant thorns. "They refuse to acknowledge bounds as anything other than monsters." The last few words were choked out as if they came at a high cost to her. "Such hatred will doom us all."

Those words jolted something inside of Heero, hearing a human talk of peace with bounds, of claiming bounds as something other than demons in human flesh. Was this why Relena had such an impact on him, why a mere human had slipped past his guard and become lodged in his thoughts? He stared at the girl as if he could will himself to read her thoughts and see if she truly meant what she had just said. "Surely you don’t mean that."

Looking up from the flower, Relena glared at him, the first sign of a temper she had ever shown. "Of course I do! I’m not some brainless… brainless Court lady obsessed with whom I’ll marry in order to make a good match for my family! I’m all that’s left of the Peacecrafts, and at times I think I’m the only one in Court if not the whole country who cares about stopping things before they end in a bunch of senseless deaths!" She began to pace around the garden, her full skirts swishing around her legs and her hands slashing through the air as if she was striking at invisible opponents.

"All they’re talking about are the bounds in Esset’s Court and in their army, and why we have to fight them. As if we’re so damn pure!" The obscenity from her lips, the first Heero had ever heard from her, made him blink in surprise. "We both used bounds in the last war, we both have bounds amongst our people, we both-" She stopped all at once, in motion and speech, then shook her head. "None of us are pure," was all she said after several seconds of silence, her voice much quieter than it had been. "If we fight, we’ll only be fighting ourselves." She raised her right hand to wipe at her face, and he was shocked to realize that she was crying.

He had witnessed countless humans cry in the past as he had retrieved bound members of their families to take back to Esset, as he had killed them or tortured them for information. None of those tears had bothered him in the slightest, other than to stir some disgust at their weakness or annoyance at how he would have to waste time getting what he wanted from his targets. Yet the sight of these tears made something in his chest ache, made him move from the stone bench and offer the girl his handkerchief, his eyes averted as he attempted to not look at droplets that caused such a confusing reaction in him. He heard Relena sniff and offer him a quiet, mumbled thanks as she took the piece of cotton fabric.

"You must think I’m terribly foolish," Relena said after a quiet moment, her tone hesitant and her face tilted downward as if she was too shy to look at him.

Heero forced himself to stop toying with his belt and offered her a smile, the expression a little stiff at first. "No, I don’t." To his surprise, he meant the words; despite the fact that he felt the war was inevitable, he admired her for her belief and passion. "It’s just… perhaps if more people had felt like you did back after the Binding War…." Maybe his kind would have less reasons to hate humans so much.

"Maybe things would be much better, ne?" Relena managed a smile as well, her nose wrinkling as she laughed a little. "Or maybe we would find ourselves on the verge of fighting for a whole new reason, as my- as someone I knew would say." Her expression grew a little sad again, but the smile remained.

"Very true." Heero nodded and then realized how close they were standing near each other. He felt his face heat up a little as he took a quick step backwards. "Ah, I just realized that I don’t have much time left on my break." That was the truth, but he also felt that today’s discussion had gone off in a direction that he had no idea of how to get back onto what he had hoped to cover, such as Relena’s brother. The recent revelations about Relena’s beliefs had him feeling too off-center to try to covertly gain new information on Major Marquis, and he felt the need to think about what he had just learned.

Relena blushed a little herself and her left hand raised to cover her mouth. "Oh! Oh, I’m sorry, here I’ve been carrying on and arriving late and – I’m terribly sorry." She bowed in apology, her long hair almost reaching the ground in her effort to show how sorry she was. "I hope this wasn’t your lunch break. Next time, let me arrange for some refreshments." Then she blushed again. "Uhm, I mean, if you want to meet again."

"That would be nice." Heero told himself that his eagerness in accepting the offer had to do with another opportunity to gather information from this human, not the chance to talk to her again and spend time in her presence. "And no, it wasn’t my lunch break," he assured her. For some reason, seeing her relieved smile made his chest ache in that odd manner again.

"Oh, good." Relena’s smile grew wider and she bowed her head again, a quick bob. "Please, send a note through Trowa when you’ll be free. Hopefully I’ll have an easier time getting away and won’t make you wait so long next time."

He nodded to show that he understood, and almost lashed out with his talent when she surprised him by reaching out toward him. Yet all she did was give his left arm a quick touch, a mere sliding of fingers along his sleeve, and the surprise/suspicion he felt melted into that weird ache in his chest once again. While he pondered the odd emotion, he almost missed her goodbye as she left the garden.

What was that emotion? Why did she inspire it in him? Was it a human thing? He would have to make another visit to Trowa’s sometime soon to ask his friend, and hope the water elemental knew what it was. Dealing with humans was so confusing, especially when they refused to live up to one’s expectations of them.

*******

Victor shifted in his chair as he read through Sanji’s reports, wishing that the desk in the plain room was as comfortable as the one back in his home in Irokawa. It had been weeks since he had last been there, the small cottage closed up as he made his rounds about the country looking for information, research material and funds for more experiments.

Sanji’s people had yet to find a redhead who bore the distinctive marks that Victor had left on the suspected shinigami-soul all those years ago, but they had come across a few redheads during their search who they were further investigating as they met some of the criteria. Not for the first time, Victor wondered if he was wasting money and effort on something that another wizard might have already found – what if the bound was hidden by an illusion spell? He would hate to think the effort he put into marking Reno would have only served for another of his kind to snatch the prize for themselves, but it was a possibility. He could only take consolation in the fact that he had heard of no rumors about a wizard coming into a new source of shinigami-soul blood.

Most likely he was chasing a dream, but as long as the marks he had put on the brat failed to notify him-

A knock on his door broke through his musings and made him set aside the letters in his hand. As he was not expecting any company that evening, he picked up a defensive charm next to one of his notebooks as he went to the door. There was another polite knock on his door, making him doubt it was the Guard on the other side, but it was best to be prepared all the same.

"Yes?" he called out as he opened the door a slight bit to look through the crack. He caught sight of a man who appeared a few years older than himself, dressed in a white shirt and grey pants, no sign of the dark blue of the Guard. "May I help you?" He kept his tone polite and slightly confused, which was only partly an act as the man seemed familiar.

"Perhaps." The man smiled and held up his hands; a faint glow surrounded them for a moment as he whispered under his breath. "May I come in?"

Victor recognized his guest as a fellow wizard, one he had not seen in several years. "Yes." He waited for Andrew to enter before saying anything else. "You shaved your beard."

Andrew Ilgner laughed as he rubbed his chin, the sound more a low rumble of annoyance than good humor. "It made me stand out too much." The pointed beard had given his face some distinction and hidden a weak chin, without it he appeared much like anyone you would see out on the street with his brown eyes, light brown hair, stocky build and ruddy complexion.

"And is it best to go unnoticed these days?" Victor asked, as he had been unaware of the man falling into the Royal Wizard’s ill graces as he had done.

Andrew shrugged as he looked about the room and walked over to the spare chair near the desk. He waited until Victor nodded before sitting down and pulling out a handkerchief to wipe his slightly damp forehead. "Eh, I don’t have the Guard looking for me, if that’s what you’re asking, but after all that’s happened in the last few months, I’ve decided that the less that certain people pay attention to me, the better." He grimaced as he shoved the square of fabric back into his pant’s pocket. "Botan’s cracking down on anyone whom he suspects of using blood in spells, so it’s probably only a matter of time until he finds out about me. Until then, I’ll slink about and get away with what I can." Despite the cowardly slant of his words, his voice shook with anger and made his face become flushed.

Victor leaned against the wall near his bed, his arms folded across his chest as he contemplated what his associate had said. "Are we really turning against each other to such an extent?" He had heard of wizards willingly ratting out ‘blood users’ to the Royal Wizards, yet had convinced himself that it was only the ‘worst’ offenders and that wizards such as Andrew would be fine. Andrew only dabbled in blood spells, barely having the stomach to buy a few pints of blood now and then and using it to enhance the spells he had no chance of casting otherwise.

Andrew shrugged as he leaned his left arm against the back of the chair. "You weren’t here when that creature was killing people, or when the city found out what happened to those kids." He closed his eyes for a moment and shook his head. "I think that’s what’s done us in the most. Maybe people could have forgotten about using bound blood for spells if it was just the creature, could write it off as a failed experiment if we’d been given time to say one of us was trying to come up with a weapon against Esset… but it’s not close enough to another war and it happened too soon after the kids were killed."

"*Damn* Jens," Victor cursed, wishing he could bring back the dead so he could make Jens suffer for the man’s thoughtlessness. "Just because he wanted some money, he let this happen to us." Decades of research imperiled because of one wizard’s greed, and at such a dangerous time.

"Unfortunately, it’s not just Jens." Andrew pulled out the handkerchief again to wipe at his forehead, even though the window was open and the room cool from the evening’s breeze. "He helped Botan to get the ball rolling on an investigation, and quite a few secrets that have hurt our cause were uncovered." He sounded almost as disgusted as Victor felt over the situation.

"If it weren’t for the mess that they’ve left us in, I would say that they got what they deserved and it was long overdue. Bounds were created for our use, there was no need for any of those fools to sacrifice humans," Victor spat, his fingers digging into his forearms as he thought about what some wizards’ foolishness and greed were costing all of them. To have a tool at hand and to ignore it just because there was an easier ‘source’… to think of humans as expendable as those magical constructs was just *wrong*. Bounds were created to serve and protect humans, be it with their powers or their blood.

"And to go after children, at that…." Andrew shook his head. "No, Botan has been using his relationship with the Spymaster to the fullest extent, and as far as we can tell, the King and Queen are giving him full reign over this hunt." He made a disgusted sound. "He’s too busy being a host to a gaggle of ambassadors and their entourages, while she’s too busy playing with the Army and the Guard."

"Neither of which seem to be doing their duty of bringing in bounds." Victor forced his fingers to unclench and pushed away from the wall to go look out the window. "At the least, they’re not sharing the blood they’re draining from any captured bounds. It’s getting increasingly difficult to procure it from the usual sources and we know the Royal Wizard isn’t keeping it for himself," he said with a wry twist of the lips.

"Ha!" This time Andrew sounded properly amused. "Yeah, wouldn’t it be great to catch the bastard using it after him being so high and mighty all these years." He brushed back the strands of hair clinging to his forehead. "So, what do you think they’re doing with all of it?"

Not for the first time, Victor gave the question some thought. Some wizards had proposed that the Guard and Army had ceased rounding up bounds, which he found highly unlikely; even if Botan was against using their blood for spells, the country still had an anti-bound policy and were about to face a war with a country that was run by bounds. "That they’re either killing them outright on Botan’s orders or they’re keeping them hostage to use as a bargaining tool against Esset."

"Hmm, I guess some would consider a quick death an act of mercy." Andrew shifted about to rest his elbows on his knees. "Perhaps the king is hoping to use them in the war in some manner."

Victor held up the charm that he had grabbed upon Andrew’s arrival. "Then I hope Botan has some very good coercion spells prepared to get them to behave. Unlike the first generation, the current ones believe that they can do what they want." Many of them were likely to fight for Esset and not Kritiker.

"Who knows what Botan’s got up his sleeve. I highly doubt he’s gonna tell either of us."

"True." Victor regarded his associate for several seconds before speaking again. "Have you heard from Sreedhar?"

"Sreedhar Razak?" When he nodded, Andrew blinked a few times then shook his head. "He’s laying even lower than I am. I’ve heard that he’s been heavily involved in some research for several years now, but he’s been hard to keep track of ever since he had a falling out with Yoru. Since all anyone can agree about is that his research included the use of bound blood, it’s certain that Botan’s looking for him and that he’s doing his best not to be found."

"Hmm."

Andrew leaned forward a little more. "What, you know more?" His eyes gleamed with interest.

"Just that he supposedly had some very interesting results but wasn’t ready to share them with anyone." Victor was relieved to know that Sreedhar had managed to escape Botan and the Spymaster so far, even if it would make it difficult to meet up with the elusive man and compare notes any time soon. If he managed to find Reno, however…. Rumor was that Sreedhar and Yoru’s falling out was over the younger wizard taking off with something of Yoru’s, something very valuable. Considering Yoru’s former position and Sreedhar’s fascination with researching how using bound blood could increase the potency of spells and aid in the creation of new spells, Victor had the suspicion he knew what that item had been.

"If you think you know anyone who may be in contact with him, I would like you to pass on a letter for me," he told Andrew. Moving about as he did, he lacked the contacts that a lesser wizard who lived in the capital possessed. Should Botan manage to catch him before he could gather everything he need and move on, he wanted someone who carried on similar research as he did to have certain information – information that could be critical in deciding the outcome of a war.

‘Sure." Andrew’s answer was a little too flippant, which reinforced Victor’s resolve to ward the letter against prying eyes.

"Thank you." He bowed his head in acknowledgement. "Ah, I’ve been a terrible host." He went over to the small stand that held a bottle of wine and several glasses. "Would you like something to drink while we continue our discussion?"

Andrew accepted his offer of refreshment, and once the wine was poured, they began discussing possible highborn and merchants who could be approached as patrons.

*******

Botan stifled a yawn as he made his way back to his office. The next time Manx asked him to do her a favor and enhance some charms for several visiting ambassadors and parts of their entourage, he would remind her in no uncertain terms that he had much better things to do and ways to spend his valuable energy and time. He had only gone along with the request today because he had little choice and no way to back out of the request with any grace when it was made on the spot during one of the queen’s high teas.

He should have been suspicious when he had arrived and found out that Birman had been left off the invite list for that gathering. For a moment he wondered if Manx had run the idea by their friend first and been told just how much of a sycophantic, atrocious one it was – he was certain that Birman would use those exact words – or if Manx had the common sense to not even bother. If it was the former, something must have come up for Birman to be too busy to give him some sort of warning to keep him from attending or have a refusal ready.

Really, while he understood that Manx was doing her best to curry good ties with the people, there was such a thing as trying too hard. Having one of his assistants do the spells would have been more than good enough as anyone who received additional training with the Royal Wizard was considered among the best spellcasters that a country could produce. Politics usually did come into play when one was chosen for the position, but one had to have the talent to be a candidate in the first place. The only place where that rule may not be true was in Esset, as there was no telling what powers their Royal Wizard may possess as bounds controlled the Court and were not usually known to get along well with wizards.

He smiled a little as his right hand rose to touch the charm that hung around his neck. As long as he remembered to not involve Aya in anything dangerous, he managed to get along with bounds just fine – the ones from Kritiker, at least. Fortunately, Yohji had forgiven him just as Cassandra had predicted after his last bout of foolishness and never brought up the incident. Thinking about his lover made him feel even more tired for a few seconds, and miss her cheerful presence.

She had invited him over for dinner tonight, and nothing short than a direct order from Shuiichi would prevent him from attending. Botan nodded to several acquaintances as he strode through the crowded hallways, his pace fast enough to discourage any attempts at conversation. Lady Kotone appeared displeased at being put off with a faint smile and a quick nod, but as Birman would say, ‘rank has its privileges’. He would take a page from the Spymaster’s trick book and act as if he was in the middle of something important and so unable to be bothered with ‘trivial’ matters.

Finally reaching the sanctuary of his office, he let out a sigh of relief as he opened the door and slipped inside before anyone could stop him. Once inside, he was determined to ward the damn thing to prevent any unwanted interruptions until it was time to leave for Cassandra’s – and was surprised to find three people waiting for him. He came to a halt once the door closed behind him, his mouth open and his eyes blinking several times.

"Hello Botan." Eri bowed slightly in greeting, the motion more of politeness than of respect. Beside her stood Naru, who seemed to be attempting to appear serious for once and failing as he gave a quick wave. Sitting in the chair by his desk was a young man with dark brown hair and hazel-colored eyes, his hands busy twisting in his lap in an evident sign of his nervousness.

"Uhm, hello." Realizing how uncertain and meek he sounded, Botan cleared his throat and tried again. "Good afternoon. Is there a reason the three of you are in my office?"

Eri smiled, the expression faint yet a great show of emotion for the normally reserved while on duty bound. "We felt that it would attract too much attention if we stood in the hallway, and since he’s here to see you, there was little sense to keep him in the Guard’s quarters." She motioned toward the unfamiliar youth. "He arrived about an hour ago bearing a token of yours."

He stared at her for a couple of seconds before everything made sense. "Oh, *hell*, you’re Takashi Katou, aren’t you?" When the young man’s face paled at the question, he realized that his tone had come across as angry as he was upset at himself for forgetting that Keiko had said her nephew would arrive as soon as possible. "No, it’s good!" he explained in a rush as he stepped forward. "Things have just been a bit hectic around here and I forgot that you might be arriving today. My apologies."

Relief washed over Takashi’s face. "Ah! There’s no need to apologize! I’m sure someone with so much to do as you is easily distracted." He smiled for a moment before blushing. "That didn’t sound right, did it?" He laughed a little as he scratched at the back of his head, mussing his short-cut hair.

"Don’t worry, I understood what you meant." Botan glanced at Eri for a moment. <So, what are your impressions of the boy?>

<That he’s extremely nervous and wants to make a good impression, and that he’s basically an open book. What you see with him is what you get, a good-natured, friendly young man.> She looked down at the floor. <I almost feel bad to allow him into the palace, to be honest.>

<If he’s a wizard, I’m sure he knows enough to not take everyone at face value,> he assured the bound. <Thank you. What you’ve said is basically what his great-aunt told me.> So far, Keiko’s word seemed true, which was a relief. He had the nagging fear that the boy may have changed since the last time the witch had seen him, despite Keiko and Cassandra’s reassurances that he would make a good wizard.

Takashi was a good-looking young man, lacking the handsomeness that Botan had grown used to seeing around him as he associated with so many bounds but attractive in his own right with the open good humor he freely displayed. There was none of the aloofness that was characteristic of Aya or Trowa, nor the haughtiness of Crawford or Rufus; if anything, the boy reminded him a bit of Omi and Yohji with his friendly smile and bright eyes. Takashi did indeed appear as if he was willing to face the word with a smile and an openness to accept what it was offering.

He was dressed in what was probably his best clothes, the dark brown pants and cream-colored shirt fine for most occasions outside in the city but *not* for the palace. Botan would have to take the boy to Cassandra’s and have several new outfits made that would stand up to Court scrutiny.

Botan realized that, even without testing the boy’s magic ability, that he was willing to take Takashi on as an assistant. There was something about the boy, the openness to his emotions and the way that Eri and Naru, two people whom Botan considered good judges of characters, were at ease around him. Naru kept slouching and his expression easing into a grin while Eri lacked the usual tension that she possessed whenever she was around anyone she felt was a threat or was untrustworthy.

"Thank you, Guards. I’m sorry that I was unavailable for so long and have kept you from your duties," he told the Shadow Guards by way of dismissal, certain that they had much better things to do than babysit for him.

"Eh, I hope you don’t mind but I poked around your bookshelves a little," Naru admitted as he and Eri moved away from Takashi. "Too bad it’s all way over my head!"

From the look of things, Eri really wanted to tease her partner just then, yet showed remarkable restraint by saying nothing… yet. Botan had the feeling that she would at least wait until they were out in the hallway before doing so, and sent her a heartfelt mental thanks for sparing his office any damage. "Good day to you both."

"Good day." Eri gave him a polite nod before closing the door behind them. Sadly, the spells he put on it to keep any noise from distracting him prevented him from finding out if she waited any longer to tease Naru. Ah well, he could find out from either Eri or Birman later, right now he had more important things to attend to, such as a promising new assistant.

Takashi rose from his seat and bowed, his head bobbing to waist level in an attempt to show proper respect. "Ah, sir, I wasn’t sure if I should have allowed the Guard to look at your books or not." As he straightened up, he managed a wry grin and motioned to where the Shadow Guards had been standing. "Though I hadn’t quite figured out how to stop them…."

"Meaning you didn’t know what spells to cast?" Botan asked out of curiosity.

"Well, I’ve several that would have restrained them until your arrival, but the issue then would be what would happen next." Takashi laughed a few times, the sound a little nervous. "I don’t know anything that would make me impervious to wounds, and wards only last so long, and I’ve heard that Guards can hold a grudge for a long time."

So the boy at least had the sense to figure out that he could offend people at Court and have to bear the repercussions of such an action. Botan smiled as he motioned for Takashi to sit down again as he went around his desk to his own comfortable chair. "In this case, it’s wise that you did nothing. Naru is a very minor wizard in his own right and I’ve no problem in him looking through my library. As he said, everything is too advanced for him and he is knowledgeable enough to recognize that fact."

Takashi appeared surprised for a few seconds. "I didn’t know that wizards could be Guards."

"There’s no rule that blocks them from applying, it’s just that most would consider it a step down as there are no provisions allowing a wizard special privileges if they do join." Botan stroked his fingers along his goatee before resting his hands on top of his desk. "Naru realized during his training that he lacked the ability to learn more than most of the basic spells and refused to devote his life to the attempt of chasing after magic that was beyond him. He focused on things that could help the Guard and then joined the organization, where he has become a highly regarded member. Few people outside of the Guard even know that he can cast spells at all." He waited to see how the boy would react to that; most wizards looked down at Naru for his decision.

Takashi took a minute to take everything in. "We’re taught to learn everything we can and push our abilities as far as possible," he said, his tone neutral as if he wanted to give nothing away. For the first time since Botan had entered the room, his expression was blank.

"Yes, we are. Tell me, what would you have done in that situation?"

"I don’t know." Takashi’s response was immediate, his blank expression replaced by a rueful grin. "To be honest, I think it takes a lot of balls to walk away and join the Guard like that when I’m sure everyone expected him to be a wizard and pretend to have more power than he did. I’d like to think I would do the same, but I’d only know that if I were in the same situation, right? For myself, I want to learn as much as I can, see how far I *can* take my power and then decide what to do." He grinned for a few more seconds before his expression blanched. "Oh, *crap*, I just said ‘balls’ to the Royal Wizard. Aunt Keiko’s gonna kill me. I’m so sorry. I swear, my mom did raise me to have manners!" He bowed his head as he apologized.

Botan laughed as he reached into his drawer for what Birman called his ‘emergency’ stash. "Please, relax. I’m not that easily offended." Not after several years in the company of Birman, whom he swore adored offending him from time to time, and Omi, who never had once considered him someone who could be so easily offended. He set the bottle of whiskey on the table and followed it with two glasses, then opened the bottle so he could pour the potent drink into the glasses. "Here, have a drink."

"Ah, thanks." Takashi leaned forward to accept the drink and held it cupped in his hands. "So, uhm, I know Aunt Keiko told me to come here and everything, but what do I need to do? For the, uhm…."

"To be taken on as one of my assistants?" Botan finished for the boy, having taken pity on him. "Well, if I feel that you’re of suitable temperament for the position, the next step would be to test your magical ability and knowledge." He raised his glass into the air. "To the gods, may they allow us to prosper in peace."

"Ah, yes." Takashi was quick to raise his glass as well before sipping the drink. He only grimaced a little at the whiskey’s strong flavor, an indication that he was unused to such a potent beverage. "Just, uhm, let me know what I have to do." He sounded so earnest just then, his expression open and his eyes bright, that Botan felt any remaining doubts be put to rest.

"Well, I won’t expect you to pass any tests until you’re rested and prepared. Do you have a place to stay while you’re in town?"

Takashi blinked a few times, as if it took a minute for it to sink in that he had passed the first part of Botan’s requirements. "I’m staying with Aunt Keiko." He spoke the words quietly, yet his happiness was evident in his huge grin and the way he sat up straighter in the chair and his hand stilled.

"Good. If there are no issues with your talent or knowledge, then we’ll find a place for you here at the palace." Botan pulled out a small notebook and consulted his schedule. "How about two days for you to settle in and get prepared, and then we’ll hold the exam? Half of it will be theoretical and half practical." He could free a few hours in his day for it, and would like to have Omi on hand to help with the testing. It would do the boy good to partake in the more ‘formal’ part of a wizard’s training, considering how informal his own had been up until now, and he wanted Omi’s opinion on Takashi as the two boys would be learning together in the future.

"That will be fine!" Takashi put the empty glass down on the table with a little more force than necessary, his cheeks flushed with excitement and his hazel eyes bright once more. Then his expression turned rueful. "I’m sure Aunt Keiko is gonna spend all of the time until then lobbing spells at me! I might show up all wrapped up in bandages."

"Takashi, if you can survive everything your great-aunt can throw at you, I might consider that a suitable replacement for the exam." He was certain that Keiko would be harder on the boy than he would ever be, determined that Takashi would do the family proud and show how much magical ability it possessed.

Once again, Takashi grew pale. "Uhm, if it’s all the same to you, sir, I think I would rather go through your test." He proved that he was very intelligent, after all.

"Hopefully she won’t be too hard on you so you show up for the exam in one piece." Botan set the whiskey bottle back in his desk and stared into the drawer for a few seconds as he tried to remember where Birman was supposed to be just then. "Let’s take a walk. I assume that the Guards brought you straight to my office?" When Takashi nodded, he smiled and rose from the chair. "Then you didn’t get to see much of the palace."

"No, sir." Takashi stood up as well, his hands fidgeting once more as he smoothed them down his shirt and tucked them into the pockets of his pants.

"It’s a little busy right now because of all the visitors from the Naming ceremony, but there’s a lot to see. " He would also get a better idea of Takashi’s personality in seeing him interact with the people around the palace. If Birman was unavailable, then Trowa should be around and would be honest in his opinion of the boy.

Feeling better than he had a short while ago, he led Takashi from the office.

*******

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