Chasing Threads

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chapter seven

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following leads

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Yohji frowned as he noticed Aya staring out of the bedroom window, a neglected book dropped into his lap as he leaned against the glass panes. He felt very little over their link, which meant that Aya was once again lost in his shinigami nature, to the point where human emotions had shut down. As there had few reasons for him to withdraw into himself so far today, Yohji grew concerned for the sudden turn into kage behavior from his mate.

He crossed the room to go stand beside Aya, his right hand reaching out to comb through the thick red hair that fell onto his mate’s forehead. "Aya?"

Either the touch or the concern in his voice helped to bring his lover back to the present, Aya blinking his eyes several times as he looked away from the window. Silver fought with violet as his eyes focused on the sight before him, a slight smile curling on pale lips as Aya tilted his head up enough to look at Yohji. "Yotan?"

"You were away just now, Cat," Yohji explained as he gave an eartail a slight tug. "Something wrong?" As much as he could tell, the shinigami were leaving Aya alone and there was little cause for his mate to give in to his true nature since he had fed a few days ago.

"Hmm, don’t think so." Aya hissed for a couple of seconds as he snatched his hair free of Yohji’s teasing grasp yet motioned for Yohji to join him on the window seat. "I was checking the wards around the inn." A hint of sibilance remained in his deep voice, yet it warmed with emotion the longer he spoke.

Yohji took up the offer and slid behind his mate, grateful for the warmth of Aya’s body and the comfort he always derived from holding the man he loved close. "Ah, such a diligent cat," he teased. "You’re setting a good example for Aya Junior." He barely had time to block his ribs before a bony elbow did its best to crack them, laughter bubbling up as he hugged his mate close.

"That joke is getting very, *very* old already," Aya groused, his body tense with annoyance as he attempted to pull away. Yohji refused to allow him to escape and pressed a kiss against his left temple in apology.

"I’m sorry." He put as much sincerity as he could behind the words as he hugged his lover against his chest. "Allow me my perverse humor a little longer, love." There were so many touchy subjects from Aya’s abused past that he latched on to the ones that were pain-free whenever he could, and the new kitten out in the barn was definitely that. There was no taint from the Takatori, no pain from Aya’s lost family so yes, he had gone a little overboard in his teasing because it was one of the few subjects that he could be an idiot about. That Aya had collected the kitten while out and about when he should have been safe at the Koneko… well, Yohji figured that he should be allowed a bit of free rein in his jokes for the way he had behaved so well over Aya’s recent excursion.

"Hmph." Aya could convey so much with one little sound, and after implying that he was slightly annoyed by the topic but willing to suffer through the ‘abuse’ because of his love for an addle-brained idiot, settled back against Yohji in a boneless manner. "Other than Omi and Botan, no wizards have crossed the wards," he reported after a minute.

"That’s good." Poor Ken and Jei had no chance to feed, but other than that, good news indeed. Yohji tightened his hold around his mate for a moment. "As impatient as I am with Schu and Masato tracking down the bastard, I’m not in any hurry for him to come here and end things." He would never risk the chance that Garcia might be able to use any of the staff against Aya – or worse, that he would be the fatal weakness for his mate.

Things were quiet for a few minutes, until Aya grasped Yohji’s right hand and raised it to his mouth to give it a gentle nip. "Do you really think he’d take us unaware here?" His tone was thoughtful, as were his emotions over their link.

Tamping down the anger and hate that rose at the thought of anyone hurting his mate, Yohji forced himself to seriously contemplate the question. "I think we’ve taken as many precautions as we can, and between Jo, Ken and Miko, Reiichi and the rest of the staff, anyone would have a difficult time sneaking on in here. I just…" He freed his hand and once more gave Aya’s eartail a gentle tug. "I won’t risk anything happening to you." The words came out in a hoarse whisper, twisted by the thought of anyone harming the person he loved most in the world.

Aya tilted his head back onto Yohji’s shoulder and smiled, the expression tinged with sadness. "I know." The hint of sibilance was back in his voice, expressing so much more than he had said with the two words. With it he implied all that he would do to keep Yohji safe, all the terrible power that was his to command, that made kage so feared. For a moment, Yohji felt the weight of that on his shoulders; if he made any mistake, if he let his guard down and became a target for a wizard like Garcia, he could well cause the destruction of Eto as Aya lashed out to regain him. Or much worse, he could lose the man he loved as Aya sacrificed himself for his safety.

Both of those were very good reasons to go kick Schu’s ass and make the man find Garcia all the faster, never mind that Schu was staying away from him because of how Aya’s power interfered with any precognitive powers. Or the fact that Schu probably was working hard for once just so he could finish the mission and spend the rest of the month in bed with Masato. Yohji grimaced at the thought and buried his face in Aya’s lavender-scented hair. "The gods have such a fucked-up sense of humor," he mumbled, and sighed when he sensed Aya’s confusion. "No, I’m not gonna explain that."

"Hmm." Aya picked up the book, apparently done with checking the wards and not expecting to get any sense out of him any time soon. He resumed reading for a few pages before Yohji tugged on an eartail. "What," he snapped.

"So, are you done organizing the libraries?"

Aya sighed as he set the book back in his lap. "Ed is supposed to return tomorrow to help me finish with the attic. Then we’ll look at the downstairs one and decide if we want to start on it." He once more rested his head on Yohji’s shoulder. "I was hoping that Garcia would be found by now and we wouldn’t have to worry about the other one."

Yohji traced his finger along the curve of his lover’s right cheekbone. "Yeah, I was hoping that it wouldn’t take this long, too. It’s a good thing you fed the other day," he admitted, annoyed over the fact that Garcia was proving to be a pain in the ass and smarter than they had all expected. He was also grateful that he had managed to contain the initial panic and anger he had felt over Aya sneaking off with Reno, as there was no telling how much longer things would drag out at this point. "It’s pretty bad when the villains are beating the good guys."

Aya snorted in derision as he grabbed hold of Yohji’s finger. "It’s real life, what did you expect?" He gave Yohji’s finger a quick nibble. "Things are never resolved as quickly and easily as they are in books." He tapped the fingers of his left hand against the book in his lap.

"Probably because the gods would be too bored as they watched over us." Yohji sighed as he thought about the omnipotent beings getting their jollies from his suffering and shook his head. "Ah, dammit, this conversation is getting way too damn existential right now. We’ll catch his ass in the end, that’s all that matters." He waggled his eyebrows even though Aya could not see them just then, and did some nibbling of his own on his mate’s neck.

"Mmm." Aya began to purr as he relaxed against Yohji. "Ever the optimist." His breath hitched a couple of times as he spoke, the pleasure over their link growing stronger as he arched his neck to expose more of it to Yohji’s questing lips.

"One of us has to be," Yohji mumbled, daring to skirt around the fact that Aya was most likely to focus on the negative and how much things could go wrong. Considering that he had spent over half of his life hostage to royal assholes – literally – who had used him as a living weapon, Yohji could understand his dark outlook on life, but things were better now. Aya had to trust that the people around him would do whatever they had to in order to keep him safe. Hell, *Yohji* would do whatever it took to keep him safe. Somehow, he thought that Aya had less trouble believing the latter part than the former, and wondered how long it would take before Aya could easily trust people again. There were a few, such as himself, Nagi, Reno and probably Omi, Jo and Reiichi, yet Aya had difficulty opening himself up to anyone beyond that. Ah well, the gods willing, they should have the time for the prickly cat to learn that most of the world was not out to get him….

Aya let out an adorable squeak when Yohji hugged him close in order to pick him up from the window seat. Experience in fooling around on said window seat had taught him that there was insufficient space and padding for things to be comfortable enough for very long, especially when they had a nice, big, soft bed just a few feet away. A bed with dark green sheets upon which Aya’s coloring stood out in such delicious contrast, as if a scrumptious meal on display for Yohji’s enjoyment.

"Weren’t you supposed to help Mickey in the main room this evening," Aya grumbled as he sprawled out on the bed, the scowl on his face in contrast to the way his hands slid around to the back of Yohji’s neck.

"Nah, Mick just made a comment that if I had nothing better to do tonight, that I could hang out with him and Kira since they both have the evening off for once." He leaned forward to give his mate a kiss, savoring the way that Aya’s lips parted at once and the desire that flowed over their link at the contact. ‘Hmm, I think he’ll be much happier to spend the time alone with his fiancée, personally."

Sharp nails scratched with the slightest of pressure along the nape of his neck. "So you’ll confine yourself up here with me. Ever the giver you are, Yotan," Aya teased, his eyes heavy-lidded and darkened with passion.

"Oh, I’ll *give* you something all right," Yohji murmured against his mate’s lips as he rocked his hips forward. "I’ll give it until you’re drained dry and blissed out from the awesome dick." He did his best not to yelp in pain when those nails dug in earnest this time, and managed to turn the sound into a laugh when Aya eased up a moment later and settled for a stern glare. "All right, enough with the corny dialogue."

"Thank you," Aya snapped. He continued to act put upon until Yohji nibbled on his bottom lip for a few seconds, and then sighed. "What were the gods thinking…" he whispered against Yohji’s lips.

"That I’ll make you deliriously happy the same time I drive you mad," Yohji offered as he stroked his hands along his lover’s chest. Judging from the spike of wry humor he sensed from Aya, he would say that he had summed things up rather well just then. He smiled as he began to tug up Aya’s dark shirt. "’Every blessing must come with a price’, as they say."

The smile on Aya’s face just then was tinged with sadness, and he shook his head after he lifted up enough for Yohji to pull off his shirt. "Sometimes I worry that I don’t pay enough for you," he admitted in a quiet voice, his eyes laced with his silver.

Yohji captured his mate’s right hand and placed a kiss upon its palm. "Whereas I think you’re owed so much that it’ll take me centuries to make it up to you. Not that I’ll begrudge you any second of it." He put as much conviction as possible into his voice, his emotions, and felt vindicated when he received a wan smile in return. A year ago, Aya would have argued with him for hours on end about how he was unworthy of such devotion, of how it was foolish of Yohji to insinuate such a thing as one could never tell what the future would hold in store. But now… now Aya may still have his doubts, but not about Yohji’s feelings for him.

Deciding that any further talk would just ruin the moment, Yohji bridged the space between them for another kiss, this one gentler than the last, one more of love and confirmation than passion and lust. At least, it started out that way, lingering on for a couple of minutes before their desire for each other gradually took over. He loved Aya with all of his being, yet his hunger was a part of him as well, and it could never resist having his lover beneath him like this, so willing and inviting.

He resumed stroking his hands along Aya’s chest, adoring the way pale skin shivered beneath his fingers and breath hitched beneath his lips as he deepened the kiss. Nails dug once more into the nape of his neck for a moment, before Aya’s fingers slid into his hair and tightened amongst the strands. His hips moved in time with his lover’s, the friction another delicious sensation to be enjoyed as the hunger coiled tighter inside of him, fanned by the love and desire that flowed into him.

Needing more of those emotions, of the rejuvenating ‘sunlight’ that accompanied them and sated the hunger, he fumbled first with the laces of Aya’s pants and then his own in a desperate race to bare more skin. When he broke off the kiss to curse in frustration, Aya laughed over his antics, a deep, amused sound that made him pause in wonder and smile in delight. He swooped in for a quick kiss before devoting his attention to ridding his mate of the black material that insisted on clinging to such long, lovely legs. "You need to laugh more often, Cat."

"Mmm, it’s certainly not from the lack of you playing the fool." Aya teased him in such a deadpan manner that Yohji once more paused in the process of de-robing, this time to narrow his eyes at his mate. First he resumed pulling off his pants, and then he pounced on a certain cat who was being much too talkative just then.

"Maybe I like you quiet after all," he claimed right before leaning in for another kiss, this one much more ardent than the previous. He felt a spark of anger for a moment, followed by a rush of passion as he stroked his right hand along Aya’s neck. The sharp nails returned, this time digging into his left shoulder, before trailing along his back and then up beneath his loose shirt. Aya nipped at his tongue as he settled more firmly over his mate and reached for the jar tucked into the pile of pillows at the top of the bed.

He smiled as his shirt was pulled off and leaned back as he unscrewed the lid of the jar, once more enjoying the sight of Aya sprawled out on the bed, this time unspoiled by clothes. His mate’s crimson hair was tousled and silvered eyes heavy-lidded, and his pale skin glowed from the combination of dark sheets and clinging shadows. Yohji always swore that he would draw Aya like this one day, yet could never tear himself away from his lover long enough to fetch pencil and pad. Ah well, he had centuries to build up some sort of self-discipline, he supposed. Right now, all he wanted was to enjoy that beautiful body before him.

Aya reached for him as he shifted forward, legs splaying apart and hips tilting upward as his slick fingers pressed against tightness. "Yotan," Aya growled when he hesitated for a moment against pushing inside, such an adorable, frustrated sound that it made him smile.

"So impatient, Cat," Yohji drawled as he pushed into the tight heat with one finger, his breath hitching a little at the rush of sunlight the action caused. Oh yes, his hunger was well and truly awake now, fervent in its demand to be placated; for a moment he almost imagined it as a separate entity, like Aya’s shinigami. At least the thing pushed him toward something he always wanted, which was Aya, instead of attempting to pull them apart.

"Yo-tan!" Aya tossed his head back in an extremely appealing manner when another finger was added, such a blatant invitation that Yohji could never resist. He leaned forward to press his lips against the arched neck and felt the blood rushing just beneath pale skin. His teeth pressed downward, against the pulsing beat, causing Aya to cry out again and the sunlight to increase. Yet despite its potent rush, his hungry flared even brighter, insatiable before the promised feast of Aya so willing and open.

He pulled back when a hint of copper hit his tongue, needing more of his mate, needing *all* of him. Nails scratched along his arms as he moved, reluctant to let go, and he offered up a shaky smile as he prepared himself in quick, jerky movements. "What you don’t do to me," he murmured as he settled once more between Aya’s thighs, sliding Aya’s left leg over his arm as he pressed the head of his cock against his mate’s now slick entrance.

Aya, to no surprise, was quiet and only offered him a very small, pleased smile in return as his hands came to rest on Yohji’s shoulders. The smile faded as Yohji pushed inside, his eyes drifting closed and his lips parting as he exhaled, such a beautiful sight that along with the intense sensation of gripping heat it was enough for Yohji to forget to breathe for a few seconds.

Then the influx of sunlight and emotions pooling in his chest forced him to exhale, it grew so tight, and there was no way he could stop moving once he was thrusting into Aya’s wonderful, luscious body. Oh gods, this man really was made for him, was utterly perfect for him, from the grasping friction that threatened to drive him mad with pleasure, to the scent that crept into his head with each breath and the beauty that made it impossible to look away. Each glide of skin against skin was an electric tingle of pleasure, each scrape of nails a painful twist of ecstasy, each thrust another explosion of the addictive sunlight. And behind his own feelings were Aya’s, were an echo of rising ecstasy that only made his own ever stronger, made him want to increase the sensations until they consumed them both, until it inundated everything, even the hunger.

Yet as amazing as the sex could be, as intimately as it pulled them together and as pure as the hunger could drive their pleasure to reach, there was something to be said for the time afterward, Yohji thought as he lay beside Aya and tried to calm his breathing. The moment could never last for long, at least until his mate fully healed from what Hirofumi had done to him, but until Aya’s uneasiness grew strong enough to be noticed and drive him from the bed, they could lay there together, emotions and bodies still tangled together. There was the slight ache from healing scratches along his back that Aya must have left at some point, and a chill from drying sweat on exposed skin. He hugged Aya against him for warmth and smiled when his actions earned him a sleepy murmur.

"That good, was I?" he teased, and grinned when his left shoulder was nipped for his audacity. He stroked back the hair clinging to Aya’s forehead and returned some of the energy he had drained from his mate, body thrumming from the sunlight that had poured into him during the sex. Oh yes, he was a bit thankful for Aya and Reno’s little ‘excursion’ to the Temple district since it meant he got to feed without feeling so guilty. Well, just as long as Garcia failed to put two and two together about that day.

Aya sighed and rested his head against Yohji’s chest for a moment, his emotions for the most part calm and only revealing a bit of anxiety. "Are you going to stay up here tonight?"

"I had considered it, unless you’re bored with me already." Yohji combed his fingers through a tangled eartail. "This your way of telling me to go bother Jo or something?" He kept his tone light, leaving the option to Aya to have a night to himself if that was his wish.

His mate looked up, his eyes clear of any traces of silver. "I would think you’d be getting bored soon." Aya’s deep voice was neutral, devoid of emotion, and he strived to keep what he felt calm.

Yohji smiled as he tugged on the strands of hair wrapped around his fingers. "Such a silly cat. Don’t you know that you’re my favorite pastime?" He laughed as he was hissed at for his troubles and dared to give his mate a quick kiss. "I’m happiest up here with you, even if you neglect me for reading a book half the time. Since the weather’s nice, maybe we’ll go sit outside and stare at the moons until we’re mad," he offered.

"It wouldn’t make much of a difference with you," Aya grumbled as he tugged his hair free, yet his emotions revealed that he was pleased with the offer. "You just want an excuse to drink mulled wine and paw at me while out in the lavender patch." Even as he made his accusation, he gave Yohji’s left cheek a quick caress, perhaps in apology for him sliding out of the bed.

Yohji rolled onto his back as he watched his lover walk over to the wash bin. "Eh, I think even Emmie could figure that one out." He laughed at the glare he received over a shoulder and sat up. "All right, don’t tell Jo I said that and I’ll try to keep the pawing down to a minimum." At Aya’s dubious look, he shrugged and decided to go join his mate in washing off. "It’s a bit cold out, so I’ll just save the pawing until we’re back up here, where it’s warm."

He could have ducked the wet washcloth tossed at his face, really he could have, even with the way he was laughing in response to Aya’s disgusted spitting sound, but where was the fun in that? Now he had an excuse to use said washcloth to clean a very disgruntled lover and charm him into a better mood, which was a challenge he was always willing to take on. The night was still young and the moons would still be there for a few more hours.

******

Blair shifted the bag of groceries he held cradled in his left arm a little higher as he walked home, his mind mostly on what he would have for dinner and how work had gone that day. He had been craving crab cakes since reading about them on the menu for the queen’s luncheon with the ambassador from Cretia earlier in the week, and Moritaki had dropped off a fresh bucket of the crustaceans last night. Now he had everything he needed to make a nice meal for himself, and should Nicole stop by there would be enough for her as well. A smile spread across his face at the thought of his friend joining him for dinner, something she was doing more and more often as of late. While he had joined the Shadow Guard as a way to strike back at Esset and to do something worthwhile with his life, he had to admit that he was quite happy with the way it had reconnected him with a dear friend.

It also helped to make the long hours and endless paperwork bearable. He was a little regretful to have given up working around the Court so quickly to become Yuushi’s adjunct, yet while his days were for the most part spent behind desks and in meetings, the work was still very important. He was responsible for assisting in running the Shadow Guard, in ensuring that it functioned well, and he did his work with pride. Perhaps he was feeling his almost two centuries as he was growing to find the political intrigue he dealt with in assisting Yuushi and Birman more interesting than physically chasing down prey.

Besides, he doubted that being the Shadow Guard adjunct would keep him behind a desk when it came time to fight in the war, so his demon soul would have all the excitement it could crave then. His smile turned into a grimace for a moment, which he was quick to smooth out when a human who was walking past frowned and stepped aside in a hurry. Because of the cold, Blair wore a dark grey cloak over his Guard’s uniform, so he probably appeared as some random demented soul just then. His smile returned at the thought, his spirits also lifting as he turned off the main road.

All of his fellow bounds in the Guard talked about the joy of being able to have homes where they felt safe, where they could dare to make plans for more than a few months. They had secure jobs now, and Omi had begun to hand out illusion charms that would grant them the appearance of normal aging. Even with the threat of the war looming ahead, many of them had begun to buy apartments throughout the city, overwhelmed by the prospect of being able to *own* something that, barring Kritiker’s loss in the war, they should not have to leave against their will any time soon. Considering that they had Aya and Crawford on their side, Blair felt that few could blame them for being so optimistic. They conceded the risks the future held for them in often naming close friends or human lovers on the deeds, ‘just in case’, but refused to be denied something that humans took for granted any longer.

His own apartment was just a few more blocks ahead, and after a day spent re-arranging the next two week’s shifts schedule because a death in Eaton’s family and Johnston and Nicholas being assigned to assist Judge Saito on the Ashton case he was eager to reach it. Oh yes, he would uncork a bottle of wine, pound out some frustrations by cracking open the cooked crab shells, and have a delicious dinner to look forward to and hopefully some company as well. Judging from the thoughts of the people around him, they were just as eager to go home to their families and loved ones and have a nice meal.

There were a few dark emotions that he picked up on here and there, but for the most part it was a mix of anticipation, hunger, eagerness and weariness, a mild ‘hum’ that was less filling as pure happiness or excitement yet was soothing in its own right. It was the sense of people going on with their lives, content and in peace; there were usually few bad surprises in Blair’s experiences when humans ‘felt’ like this. He received pleasant smiles along his way, the expressions for the most part bland except for when they were from people who recognized him, and then the mild hum sharpened for a moment into something sweeter, more filling. He would smile back and nod, pleased and a little surprised at how well he had settled into the neighborhood. For so many years, he had done his best to blend in and not be noticed, yet now he was happy to stand out as ‘that nice young man who lives in 3A on Willow Lane’.

Despite his new home, some old habits were still retained, and he skimmed thoughts to make sure that he was still thought of as a ‘nice young *man*’. As always, his neighbors were happy to have a Guard living among them, there were several thoughts that he might be suitable for so and so’s daughter/niece/cousin if it was true that the woman who came to visit was just a friend, and that he would be even more handsome if he was a bit more animated. At least he had finally bought a new cloak so they could not complain about how ratty his old one was anymore. He shook his head as he thought to himself that soul gaki bounds had to have thick skins from hearing about what people really did think about them all the time. There were a few curious thoughts about the slight change in his hair color, but to his surprise not many people had noticed, and ones who did assumed that he had – rightly so – changed it for work and so refrained from commenting on it aloud.

He was about a block away from his house when he picked up a stray thought that was just a little too focused on him. Forcing himself not to show any reaction, he paused at the bread stand and looked at remaining loaves as he did a quick mental scan of the minds around him. Ali, the seller, chatted with him about the cool weather, and long practice of being able to carry a conversation while using his talent allowed him to respond while finally catching hold of a mind that had more than the usual amount of mental shields on it.

Blair might not be as powerful as Eri or Schuldig, but he had survived almost two centuries without falling prey to any wizard or the Elders’ lackeys by being able to spot those… it was best to avoid. Mental shields were a dead tell of someone who either had a bit of wizard’s training or hoped to avoid having their mind read, and it was rare when it was a good thing to come across them on a human. As the few thoughts that Blair could pick up through this man’s shields had to do with him – more importantly, with how he looked – chances were good either way as to why they were there. While Blair had one of the few spare black rings on him at the moment, he was still uncertain about how to use it to amplify his mental talents and mainly wore it to protect him from magic spells.

All he was certain about was that Birman and Reiichi’s hope that Garcia could be fooled into falling for a redhead other than Aya or Reno might just be paying off. That or Blair had stumbled across a wizard in training who had a thing for redheads, which would be a clear sign that he had annoyed the gods somehow and needed to spend a day in the nearest Temple district lighting incense and offering up prayers. As he paid Ali for the bread and held it tucked between his left arm and chest, his right arm supported his left arm with his fingers positioned over his copper wristband so he could tap out a message to Yuushi, he sincerely hoped that it was the former. Which in its own way was a rather messed up thought, he admitted to himself, but he would much rather deal with wizards than annoyed gods any day.

It looked as if the crab cakes were going to have to wait for another day. Even if the man tailing him was only supposed to watch and report, Blair doubted he would have enough food to feed the Guards who would be descending upon the area soon enough.

*******

Schuldig strolled through the crowded market, a mild grin on his face that was as false as his appearance, which today was that of a well off middle-age man. He made sure to pace himself so he would never be more than ten or so yards away from Masato, whose illusion today was that teenage girl barely old enough to excuse herself from school. Besides being a new way to torment his mate, the disguise served a two-fold purpose – it kept Masato from bitching about being a prostitute again and should help if the damn brat showed up in the market.

Schuldig slipped into an open space between booths and pulled out a small notebook from one of his coat’s pockets, which he pretended to squint at in the evening’s quickly fading light. <Any sign of the brat yet?> He held back on any attempt to mask his growing frustration, tired from another day spent searching too many minds.

<No.> For once, Masato held back on his usual complaints and did his best to send along what reassurance he could. <But if she’s buying for Garcia, she has to come back for more supplies eventually.>

<That’s what you said yesterday.> Schuldig gritted his teeth together and wished that he could lash out at something, either with his claws or his talent, but knew that it was too much of a risk to draw attention to himself like that. He could pick a fight with Masato, something that he had done an awful lot of the last few days, yet even that paled after a while when they had mostly worked out their issues and were mainly just venting their frustrations on each other. And sensing that the other person knew that you were being an asshole because you were pushed to the edge thanks to the job from hell and that they were taking the abuse because they loved you both took the edge off the righteous temper you had worked up and made you feel like even more of an asshole, which defeated the purpose of the whole thing.

Love, desire and slight annoyance washed into him, helping to dull the edge of his temper. <And I’ll say it again tomorrow, too, and the day after that, until she shows up. He’s shown that he’s a smart bastard, so he probably won’t send her out every day, but if he’s casting any spells then he’s going to use up what she bought and need more things,> Masato pointed out with that damned reasonable attitude of his. Schuldig could make him out now in the market, pretending to peruse charmed ribbons just a couple of booths away. Masato looked up and gave him a tired smile, the expression so familiar the last few days that it made something in Schuldig’s chest ache.

<Just be prepared to whammy her with your glamour when she does get here,> he chided his mate as he glanced back down at the notebook. When he felt a bit of disgust over their link, he sent a slight mental ‘whap’ in return. <Oh, don’t be such a wuss, it’s not like you’re gonna sleep with her or anything!> As if he would allow anything remotely sexual to happen between his mate and another person, let alone a young girl. First, serious ew factor, and second, he did *not* share.

Masato shuddered, both in pain and disgust. <I just wish she wasn’t on the verge of coming into her talent and you could risk reading her mind.> He ended up selecting a few ribbons and buying them, and saved himself a much stronger mental whap when Schuldig picked up that they were for Neely and Emmie.

<Yeah, well, it’s our rotten luck that she’s a soul gaki bound and her demon soul is just about to ‘wake up’. Even with the black rings, I’m not certain what’ll happen if I grab her mind.> He tucked the notebook back into its pocket and then brought his right hand up to his mouth and began to nibble on one of his claws. Even though it was over a decade ago, he could clearly remember the time when his claws had emerged, signaling that his bound nature was taking over and his talent kicking in. Since his mother was a precog, she had known that would happen eventually and had prepared him for it, and she had been careful with any mental probes for almost a year as the transition neared and then occurred.

He had noticed the girl a couple of days ago, and when he had given her mind a quick scan, realized immediately that she was a bound who would mature into her nature within the next few months. He also realized that if he pushed too far into her thoughts, that he risked drawing out the gaki soul inside of her and damaging her talent and the balance between her two natures. Dammit, he had no idea if his talent enhanced by Aya’s blood and tears would worsen or lessen the risk, and was unwilling to take the chance with a young bound’s life. A human’s mind he could tear to shred with ease, uncaring about the result, but not his own kind when they were not the enemy.

The girl had slipped away in the crowd while he had hesitated, but he at least knew the feel of her mind and what she looked like. Now to wait for her to return and they would be able to charm the truth out of her; Masato’s nature should not affect her demon soul. Hell, she was young enough yet that the glamour should mostly just cause her to trust Masato, which was fine with the both of them. But they needed the damn brat to show up for her to be glamoured. Schuldig rubbed his temples and wondered why it was the gods hated him.

He had just resumed walking through the market when the copper bracelet Yuushi had insisted that he wear vibrated with an incoming message. At first prepared to ignore whatever it was that the Guards were bothering him with, he caught the word ‘Garcia’ and stopped where he was, earning a muttered curse from the people walking behind him. So someone was tracking the prude Blair?

<They want you, Schu.>

<Everyone always wants me,> Schuldig shot back as he sauntered over to Masato, smiling in the face of his mate’s concern. When he got the shake of a head and a weak chuckle in response, he motioned for the man to precede him as they hurried from the market. "But at least now there’s someone for me to play with until the brat shows up." He dropped their illusions as they went, pushing aside the people’s attention so no one noticed them. They needed to get to one of the main roads, where they could hail down a carriage which would take them to Blair’s neighborhood.

Masato glanced at him from the corner of his eye then shook his head again. "And Yohji calls Aya ‘cat’…. You know you need to leave this person alive, right?" His tone was one Schuldig heard often, one where Masato seemed determine to speak up even if he knew the futility of his words. So why bother wasting them in the first place? For once, he had something good to think about Aya, in that the kage tended to keep his mouth shut most of the time.

"Oh, he’ll still be breathing by the time I’m done with him." At Masato’s long-suffering sigh, Schuldig growled. "Look, it’s been an annoying as hell last few days so I should at least get to tear through someone’s mind by now! I’m owed a bit of fun." He sulked as he caught his mate’s thought that ‘someone’ was going to be disappointed. "What, there are *thousands* of humans around us, you telling me they’re gonna miss one of ‘em? Especially if he’s taking part in hunting down bounds?" He scoffed at the injustice of it all when Masato merely gave him ‘the look’ in return. "I should have been born in Esset," he complained under his breath.

"Which is yet more proof that the gods are on our side." Masato shook his head before glancing up at the heavens, a weary expression on his face. <Sometimes you’re bloodthirsty enough to be flesh gaki, Schu.> He reached out to grasp Schuldig’s right hand. <I don’t like what some of them do to us, but if you start treating them like convenient targets for your anger, then you’ll turn into the monster they think we all are,> he warned, concern and fear foremost over their link.

<Sometimes they deserve for us to be monsters to them, Old Man. Like when they treat us as trash.> He could tell that his mate mostly agreed with him on that point, but he also knew what Masato was trying to keep him from turning into; the Elders’ favorites had been all over the palace at Esset, ever so eager to prove their loyalty and fanaticism to the cause by using their powers against humans and even other bounds. While he might not be one of the old bastards’ hounds, he could easily let the anger and hatred warp him into one of those freaks if he let it get the best of him. So he took a deep, calming breath and squeezed Masato’s hand in return as he drank in the love, affection and concern he felt over their link.

"Don’t try to make me be all sappy and meek like Aya," he huffed as they approached the main road, his attention deliberately focused on the carriage down the street. Still, he caught the wave of amusement from Masato before he heard the brief chuckle.

"I would never think of it, Brat. First, I’d have to come up with a new nickname for you, and nothing else suits you quite so well. I don’t think ‘Puppy’ would work." When Schuldig spun around to smack the idiot, Masato laughed as he caught his fist and leaned in for a quick kiss. <See, now you’re thinking of killing me and not some human.>

<Just you wait until I get you home tonight,> Schuldig threatened as they climbed into the carriage once it came to a stop in front of them.

"I’m looking forward to it," Masato purred.

*******

Yuushi felt the urge to pace around the small room that the Shadow Guard had commandeered near the tavern where the target was and squashed it flat for the third time in the past hour. There was barely enough space for all the people in it as is, especially with Schuldig and Masato’s recent arrival. He should just sit down, as Eri, Naru and Reiichi were doing, yet he was filled with too much energy from the first decent lead they had in the Garcia case. "Well?"

Schuldig’s lips pulled back in a slight sneer, the only sign he gave over his annoyance in being at the Guard’s ‘beck and call’. "Yep, he’s a low level spy and tracker, sent out to look for any men matching the description of red hair, pale skin and blue-ish eyes and possible attempts to hide those characteristics. Blair fit the bill because of him living alone and being so quiet, especially about his past." His sneer became more pronounced. "Which I’m sure Eri told you, since she’s got some flash of her own," he said as he held up his right hand, "so why bother with dragging me all the way down here?"

Yuushi felt the beginnings of a headache coming on and wished that he had taken up the shopkeeper’s offer of a pot of tea. "Because as you insist on reminding us, you’re the best mind-reader we have and we wanted to be certain. Also, I thought you were involved in this case." He tried to keep his tone as civil as possible, but there was something about dealing with Schuldig when the man was being a pain the ass that caused a hint of childishness to creep in.

Looking as if he wanted to respond in kind, Schuldig shut his mouth when Masato touched his left shoulder. Then he shook his head and took a deep breath, during which Reiichi grabbed the opportunity to salvage the situation. "Eri’s doing her best to keep him distracted and from leaving, which is why we wanted another telepath with one of the rings to slip past his shields and scan his thoughts." He offered Schuldig an apologetic smile, one that Yuushi had seen directed thousands of times to blustering or offended highborns – and dammit, it worked each time. Maybe the man was some new type of bound. "We decided to err on the side of caution, not to cast doubts on either of your talents."

Grumbling under his breath for a moment, Schuldig eventually nodded in Reiichi’s direction. "Well, I still think you called me here for precious little, unless you want Masato to glamour the bastard." He spoke the last few words with a sharp gleam of teeth, a clear indication of just how little he favored the idea. Yuushi sent a silent prayer up to whichever god would listen to him to grant him the patience to deal with mated bounds.

After a quick glance at Reiichi to make sure it was all right to do his job again, Yuushi resumed speaking. "We can have Li handle that, once you make sure she won’t run into any spells or charms that would block her power."

"I’m not *Aya*, but I’m not picking up any thoughts about them," Schuldig muttered as he put on an air of dejected suffering. "He’s not high enough up the food chain for anything like that, just has enough training to keep out any soul gaki bounds who might be skimming thoughts and to counter weak illusion charms, and a charm on him to help with that."

"Thank you." Yuushi once more exchanged a look with Reiichi. "Then as I said, we can have Li go in and soften him up a bit, and then tail him back to someone ‘higher up the food chain’." He kept himself from shuddering at the thought, having been around bounds enough to know that not all references to food and nature were metaphorical. "Do you want-"

"Nope." Schuldig cut him off, a clear indication that he had been reading his thoughts, and motioned to Masato to head toward the door. "We’re done here. Get Eri and Yonekuni to track down these assholes for you. If you need more help, then drag Mathias out of the palace, but there are three strong soul gaki bounds right there. You don’t need me." He was almost growling by the time he finished.

"And what will you be doing?" Eri asked as she rose to her feet in a graceful motion, a hint of a snarl in her voice and her dark eyes narrowed as she stared at Schuldig. Naru scooted his chair away from her at the sign of her demon soul rushing to the fore in challenge to Schuldig.

Schuldig spun around to face her, a cocky smile on his face as he moved to stand in front of Masato. "Don’t get all pissy now, I’ll let you play with the human scum while I hunt more amusing game." He smiled at her, all white teeth and malice, his green eyes bright with the emotion as they locked gazes. Yuushi had a feeling that everyone else in the room had vanished for the two bounds and wished that he had thought to bring a bucket of cold water or one of Jo’s rolling pins.

Thankfully, Masato ended the stalemate before it went too far. "Brat, I’m sure your mother would have something to say about how to treat a lady." He sounded tired as he tugged on a lock of Schuldig’s unruly hair.

"Hey!" Schuldig broke off the staring contest to glare at his mate. "Who are you calling a-" Masato prevented a possible insult in Eri’s regard by kissing the troublesome bound.

Of course, Reiichi could not allow the two men to leave in peace once the kiss ended. "Ah, and what ‘amusing game’ would that be, Schu?" he asked before they could head for the door.

Schuldig blinked a few times and then seemed to recall his earlier statement. "Oh, that girl we almost caught a few days ago. The one whom I think is buying goods for Garcia." He sounded in a much better mood now.

Well, at least one of them was. "You seriously think it’s worth your time to chase after a child instead of a known spy ring searching for redheaded men?" Yuushi felt his headache increase just then.

He expected another sneer or a smug smile from Schuldig, and was surprised when he got a solemn nod and a faraway look instead. "Yes, I do. The girl’s a soul gaki bound, about to come into her power." Something in what he said made Eri hiss. "That makes things a bit more difficult, but we’ll find her, *if* you stop bothering us." He glared at Yuushi to get his point across.

"But if she’s a bound, why is she working for a wizard?"

Masato slid his left arm around Schuldig’s chest as he answered Naru’s question. "Most of us don’t know what we are until we come into our power. From the little we saw of the girl, she looks as if she’s out on the streets, so I doubt she has a bound parent to tell her what she is."

Reiichi nodded in understanding as he limped over to stand beside Yuushi. "But if Garcia could identify Reno, then he might be able to do so with other bounds." He spoke the words quietly, well aware that for most bounds, a wizard knowing what they were and capturing them when they were so young and defenseless would be a painful subject.

Schuldig bared his teeth. "Exactly. Like I said, that asshole out there is the bottom of the food chain, and it’s gonna take you guys a while to work your way up it, even with Eri, Yonekuni and Li charming away and reading thoughts. Any good spymaster will filter down the orders to make sure he keeps his clients confidential. But I’m willing to bet that Garcia keeps the brat under careful watch if he suspects that she’s a bound." He left out why Garcia would do so, as all of them were well aware why any wizard would be interested in the girl.

Having made his point, Schuldig gave Masato’s arm a squeeze, a sign for his mate to let him go so they could leave. Yuushi allowed them to depart without any complaints, not that he could stop them if he wanted. Schuldig could be more of a hindrance than help if he wanted, so it was best to let him do what interested him for the sake of the mission. Judging from the curt nod he received from Reiichi, it was the best thing to do.

The room felt larger once the two bounds left, and some of Yuushi’s headache eased along with the tension. "Well, that was… sort of productive," he commented as he leaned against the wall.

Eri combed her hands through her hair and let out a slow breath. "He did help verify a few things for us. Once Yonekuni and Li get here, we can set things up and then tail the man to see if he reports in tonight." She sounded a little annoyed, but when he pushed away from the wall to touch her arm, she gave him a slight smile. <I shouldn’t let him get under my skin like that.>

<Sweetie, if you can keep Schuldig from annoying you, then I’m afraid that Lady Meara is going to steal you away for the Diplomatic Corps.> The slight lack of professionalism was more than worth the way her smile strengthened.

<The gods avert. Though perhaps we should bring him to her attention so she can inflict him on some poor ambassador during tough negotiations,> she countered back, her mood seeming to have improved by the teasing.

<I believe that Birman has already considered it, especially after what Shen has been putting her through.> He gave her arm a squeeze before letting go and stepping away. "So, how long do you think it’ll take Li and Yonekuni to soften up the suspect?" They should have found a change of clothes by now and be on their way to the tavern.

Reiichi gave him a bland smile, as if just waiting until they returned home to do some teasing of his own. "They should be here in a few minutes, and then I’m sure it won’t be long after that. Li’s not as powerful as Yohji or Masato, but she’s strong enough to overwhelm most people’s resistance. She’d get along better with Yohji if she wasn’t," he added with a wry grin.

The poor woman did spend an awful lot of time running from the Koneko, it seemed. As for Yonekuni, he was almost as strong as Eri and had been given one of the newer black rings as a result. For a moment, Yuushi wished that they had a dozen more of the things before he thought of approaching Yohji for them. He decided that he must be working too hard and needed some rest.

At least they had a break in the case – two of them, if Schuldig’s hunch about the girl was true. Considering that the man’s mother was a precog, the odds were in Schuldig’s favor. Now the hard part would begin, waiting for those breaks to pay off. Yuushi rubbed his temples as he waited for Yonekuni and Li to arrive and wondered if more of his people would be targeted.

There was the frightening thought that if the spies had found Blair, what would happen if they reached the western Green district? He looked over at Reiichi, and judging from the troubled expression on his friend’s face, knew that he was not the only one to be thinking that.

*******

Jo had just finished wiping down the table for the night in preparation of Maddox being up early for the morning shift when Reiichi walked through the back door. Deciding that the rest of the tasks could wait a bit, she tossed the dishrag into the sink and headed toward the stove for the pot of fresh coffee. "I just made some about ten minutes ago," she called out while the Guard hesitated by the coat rack.

"Ah, there are times when I wonder if Cassandra and Crawford are the only precogs around." There was a hint of exhaustion beneath the good humor in Reiichi’s deep voice, although his smile was charming and his eyes twinkled with amusement. He went straight to one of the tables and sat down, his hands folded in front of him while he watched her put together a tray of sliced cake, coffee, sugar and a quart of cream whiskey.

His left eyebrow arched at the latter, though he reached for the bottle once she set the tray down and he added a good bit to his mug before he filled the rest with coffee. "Yes, I do wonder about you at times, Jo."

She smiled as she sat down and made ample use of the liquor as well. "One doesn’t need to be a bound to guess right about a few things." Once her coffee was ready, she pushed a large slice of spice cake his way. "Such as you being out so long and coming back without Yuushi, Eri and Naru can’t be a good thing. Now eat that, especially since I made sure to save some for you."

He laughed and bowed his head. "I appreciate that, since I know it’s one of Aya’s favorites." Nothing else was said until he had a few bites. "You know, you’re more than observant enough to be a Guard or a spy." There was a trace of admiration in his voice.

"I’ve always been content where I am, and it keeps me busy." One of the things she liked about the friends she had made over the years was that none of them looked down at her for being a ‘mere cook’, and that was even before they realized what all the Koneko did. There had been quite a few from the Guard and the Spymaster’s employ during that time, and some of them had extended offers. When she turned them down, they had just smiled and said they understood.

"Hmm, as much as I’m sure you’d make Yuushi or Birman very happy, I must admit that there’s a selfish pleasure in you remaining here." Reiichi smiled before he sipped his coffee. "And I’m certain that Aya would be after the hide of whomever it was that recruited you away!"

As if she would ever leave him or the rest of her family. She had some of her coffee as well, the drink a little hot but refreshing after a long day. "I’m afraid Yohji would be a bit worse for wear without some cakes to serve as appeasements for his more foolish moments." She took a few more careful sips before clearing her throat. "Are you going to tell me what happened tonight?" She allowed a hint of waspishness to creep into her tone, as it had been a rather long day and Reiichi could talk circles around the best of them if he put his mind to it.

He smiled and held up his fork. "I was planning to, once I finished my cake." Three more bites and he was done. "That was delicious, thank you." He sipped some coffee and then held the mug cradled between his hands. "From the little we can tell, someone has hired one of the city’s spy rings to track down men of certain… physical attributes."

Judging from the flat way he spoke the last three words and the grim twist to his lips, she had a very good idea what those attributes were. "Garcia’s hunting down redheads now, isn’t he?"

"He’s been hunting them down for a while, we just never noticed until… well, we had reason to be concerned about it," Reiichi pointed out. "Thanks to a charm that Omi gave Blair to enhance his own features, one of those spies noticed him and has been following him the last two days. Tonight he came close enough to be noticed in return, and Yuushi had Li ‘charm’ him a bit." His smile returned to normal at the last, and the news prompted Jo to roll her eyes as she drank her coffee.

"The poor dear," she drawled, more than familiar with how much succubae bounds loved their work.

"Yes, ‘poor dear’ indeed." His smile took on a wicked edge that would have done Yohji proud for a moment, before he hid it behind his mug. "Ah, well, as Schuldig pointed out to us, the man couldn’t tell us much more than what he’d been hired to do, but we found out that this wasn’t the first time he’d done this and we’ve a lead that will hopefully trace back to Garcia… eventually."

Jo was certain that the Shadow Guard would worry at that lead until it did reveal where the wizard was hiding, but that was not her main concern just then – nor was it Reiichi’s, she was willing to bet. "So it sounds like a lot of effort goes in to trying to find Reno." Suddenly, she needed more of the cream whiskey in her coffee, or something stronger.

"Yes. From what we pieced together, Garcia must hire the spies whenever he’s in town on the hope that Reno’s showed up." He set his empty mug down on the table and stared into it, as if it were a scrying bowl. "Judging from how little this man knew other than how to get his assignments and to turn over any information he found, it’s a well organized ring. So there must be other agents out there looking for Reno." There was no emotion in his tone, just a calm stating of the facts.

And the facts were that Reno, who had indeed come to Eto, was hidden behind an illusion spell thanks to Rufus’ forethought. Or perhaps it was Rufus’ paranoia or need to be in absolute control, but whatever the reason, Reno no longer matched those ‘physical attributes’ that the spies were out there looking for. Meanwhile, upstairs there was a young man who *did*, at least the red hair part, and who usually spent part of his day outside visiting friends or running errands. Or at least he had, until news of Garcia’s return had reached the Koneko.

Aya had remained inside the inn out of concern of Garcia stumbling across his path. None of them had assumed that the wizard would go so far as to actually hire others to aid in his search, which increased the possibility of someone hearing about the redhead who lived at Koneko in the western Green district. Before, they had counted on removing the chance of a random encounter of keeping Aya safe. But now, if people were nosing about the city….

Reiichi sighed and slumped over his mug as if reading her thoughts. "Yohji… is going to be a bit displeased about this latest development."

It took Jo a moment to realize that the sound of bitter laughter was her own. She forced herself to stop as she reached for the bottle of alcohol. "You, sir, are a *master* of understatement." All the years of threatening Yohji with her best rolling pin, and she truly would have to keep it on hand for that discussion. She would make sure to have Mickey, Nagi and Ken around as well, and hope that the four of them could keep the hot-blooded idiot from tearing through the city to slice Garcia into shreds before the wizard could even think to track Aya down. As she poured herself another cup of coffee, this one half cream whiskey, she paled as she thought of something. "What are we going to do about Aya while we’re trying to keep Yohji from rushing off like a homicidal fool?"

Reiichi did not bother with any coffee as he reached for the bottle and refilled his mug. "The same thing that people have done when faced with a kage in centuries past. We calmly state our case, pray to the gods that he listens to reason and then step aside." He took a long swallow before he spoke again. "It’s that or get in his way and most likely end up dead, and while I’m sure that Aya will feel terrible about it afterwards, potential guilt won’t stay his hand if we’re attempting to stop Yohji." Even though he considered Aya a good friend, there was a bleakness to his voice that made it clear that he also considered his chances of surviving an encounter very slim.

"Not unless we convince him that it’s best for Yohji." That was the only way to get around Aya’s shinigami nature, after all, his desire to keep Yohji safe. Jo had come to care for the young man as much as she had Miyuki’s sons despite his reserved nature – perhaps because of it, knowing as she did of his painful past and how he could not help but be confused by human emotions. She could not hold against Aya those times when he acted true to his nature and abandoned the emotions that Yohji struggled so hard to teach his lover, especially when those times were in defense of the man who was as dear to her as the child she had lost so many years ago.

Just thinking about the situation made her head hurt and chest ache, and she reconsidered the logic of wasting good liquor with coffee. Ah well, there was more left in the bottle, she consoled herself as she had another sip.

"There are times when I seriously wonder if I’m going to live to collect my pension, and days like this are one of them," Reiichi mumbled over the rim of his mug. "Please tell me that at least they’re in a good mood tonight."

"Well, if you didn’t see them out in the garden then they must be in the lavender patch. I’d say that probably qualifies for ‘good mood’, then." Jo managed a smile as she set her mug on the table. "I sent them out there with a pot of mulled cider and a basket of fresh scones about three hours ago." Aya had appeared a little sleepy and Yohji very pleased with himself, so she assumed they were cloaked in shadows more for some quiet time alone than the need for ‘privacy’.

For the first time in several minutes, Reiichi smiled. "That’s a promising bit of news. Now if I can only get Yohji alone for a few minutes…. I’m thinking it’ll be easier to discuss the matter with him if Aya’s not there." The wry twist of his lips made it clear that he was in no way eager to face both an upset succubae bound and a kage at the same time.

She had always considered the man to be highly intelligent and inventive, and knew that he was well-thought of among the Guards. However, if he was about to face Yohji alone, then he also was insane. "Please tell me that you’ll have some of the others with you during that conversation." Her sharp tone and stern look made it clear that it was more of an order than a request.

"Hmm, yes." He finished his drink and set the mug aside. "I’m off in search of Ken and Nagi. When Yohji comes in, could you please ask him to see me in my room?"

That left her to deal with Aya, she assumed. However, if Reiichi was willing to face a furious and over-protective Yohji, then she could do her best to distract Aya long enough for the man to calm the idiot down. "It’s a good thing that I saved some cake from earlier," she grumbled as she rose from the table to go fetch the rest of the dessert.

Reiichi offered her a wide smile of gratitude and even bowed once he stood. "Your sacrifice is truly appreciated." He carried his mug over to the sink before he left the room, moving quietly and quickly despite his limp.

She finished getting things ready for the morning and had just brewed a pot of tea when the door opened again, this time to admit Yohji and Aya. Both men had a slight flush to their cheeks from the cool night air and their hair was tousled, but their clothes were decent and Aya’s eyes bright, not laced with silver and heavy-lidded as they often were if Yohji had been ‘feeding’.

She fixed Yohji with a stern look as he approached her with the basket of food and drink that she had given him to take out to the garden. "Yotan, Reiichi asked for you to stop by and see him. He’s up in his room."

"Eh?" He appeared confused for a few seconds, and his green eyes narrowed when she merely shrugged and took the basket off of his hands. "He wouldn’t happen to be planning on ravishing me, would he?" he teased, even as his eyes remained the slightest bit narrowed.

"I think the man has better taste than that," she shot back, certain that Aya would take no offense at the jab. "I believe it’s more along the line of discussing some Guard matters with you." After setting the basket on the sink, she picked up the pot of tea and made certain to think soothing thoughts to keep her emotions calm. "I’ll be sure to save a piece of cake for you, if you’ve any room left after this evening." Now it was her turn to narrow the eyes.

That served to distract Yohji from his burgeoning suspicions and make Aya sit down at the nearest table. "Please, I barely nibbled on your precious Aya, I’ll have you know," Yohji huffed as he took a hasty step away from Jo. He looked over at Aya and smiled. "I’ll be back down in a few minutes, Cat. Do try to save me some cake." His smile strengthened when Aya nodded back with a ghost of a smile of his own.

Well, that had been easy enough, Jo thought as she set the tea by Aya, who was quick to pour it into the two mugs that had been already set out. Then she went to fetch the spice cake, which she had kept out of sight from the rest of the ravenous staff. When she returned to the table, she found Aya already sipping his tea, a thoughtful expression on his pale face as he stared at her.

"What does Reiichi really want to talk to Yohji about?"

He asked the question in such a quiet manner that it startled her, causing her to jerk the knife through the cake and mangle the piece she was cutting a bit. She cursed under her breath as she pulled the slice from the cake and set it on the plate. "What makes you think I would know?" The question came out in a sharper tone than she had intended, yet Aya appeared to not take any offense at it.

He accepted the dessert and paused to lick some icing off of the fork. "Because you tend to know everything of importance," he explained. "Especially if it involves Yohji."

Well, there was a good bit of truth in what he had said. "I’m not omnipotent," she drawled as she picked up her mug of tea.

"No, but you’re also not a simple messenger, and I don’t remember you mentioning anything about a cake earlier." Aya paused to take a large bite of the cake. "I also don’t remember the last time that Reiichi asked to speak to Yohji privately about ‘Guard matters’." He took another bite of cake, his demeanor calm and eyes violet.

The good news was, so far Aya seemed unconcerned about whatever it was that they were plotting. The bad news was, he knew something was going on. Jo rubbed her forehead and wondered if things could ever go smoothly around here. "So why aren’t you running upstairs to see what’s happening?" Not that she wanted Aya to go all kage on them right now, but he was far from the only curious soul around here.

He shrugged as he had another bite of the dessert. "Because you always look out for Yohji and you offered me cake. That and I doubt Reiichi means him any harm." A hint of silver crept into his eyes. "I would still like to know what’s going on, though, especially since he’s just blocked our link."

She sighed as she cut him another slice of cake. "So much for either of those two being subtle, the idiots," she muttered under her breath. "It’s a good thing it’s nothing… well, okay, I won’t say it isn’t serious, but the important thing was that we wanted the *both* of you to remain calm." When his eyes turned more silver, she sighed again and waved the cake knife through the air. "Let me explain before you start tearing things apart, okay?"

"Okay," he hissed, but at least after she set the second piece of cake on his plate, he blinked his eyes and the silver in them lessened a little.

 

And Yohji wondered why she ‘favored’ Aya so much. At least here was a young man who could be rationalized with if one had the proper tools on hand. A pot of tea and a bit of sweets, and he could mostly be counted on to keep the growling and bloodshed to a minimum as long as Yohji was safe from imminent danger. It was worth the increase in the food budget for flour, sugar, butter and spices to keep him happy and well-fed with cakes – even if the gods went so far as to be unfair enough to keep him and Yohji so thin despite all of the indulging in sweets that they did.

*******

Yohji smiled as he made his way to the attic, picking up on Aya’s pleasure on being offered spice cake. Whatever the reason that Reiichi wanted to see him alone, at least his mate was happy. He just hoped that whatever the Guard wanted to talk to him about was brief and he got back downstairs quickly enough to have some cake himself. While he was certain that Aya loved him very much, there were limits to that devotion when spice cake was involved. He shook his head and chuckled to himself as he knocked on the door to the Guards’ rooms.

He raised his eyebrows in surprise when the door opened without anyone touching it, and he stepped inside with caution a moment later. Reiichi was there waiting for him, seated in one of the main room’s comfortable chairs, but so were Nagi and Ken. While it was not much of a surprise to find Ken up here, being a fellow Shadow Guard, Nagi was almost always by Omi’s side and Yohji could recall only one other time of seeing him in Reiichi’s quarters, and that was during a party. That Omi was absent only made things even more suspicious. If Yohji were asked his opinion, he would say that Nagi and Ken were here as two bounds to possibly restrain him, while their more ‘fragile’ partners and lovers were out of harm’s way.

"Hmm, if this is your way of telling me that you’ve decided you like guys after all, Reiichi, I must admit that I’ve doubts about your taste in men," Yohji teased, breaking the tense silence of the room.

Reiichi chuckled while Ken turned a bright red and Nagi glared at him in a fair impression of Aya. "Now, now, I would never dream of cheating on Yuushi." If there was something sneaky about to go on, Reiichi gave no impression of it… but then again, the man was good at stuff like that. "Did you have a nice time in the garden?"

"Uh, yeah?" The shift in topic took Yohji off-guard. "Aya wanted to spend some time out there, so we did a bit of star gazing." At Nagi’s very loud, incredulous snort, he did some glaring of his own. "Oh, shut up, we just drank some cider and looked up at the moons, you ungrateful little demon."

"Probably because you drained him of all his energy earlier in the day," Nagi shot back, and would have stepped forward if not for Ken’s hand on his shoulder.

"Thank you, Ken." Reiichi rose from his chair and stepped closer to Yohji. "We’re not here to pick fights." He sounded tired, and for a moment he appeared older than his true age.

Yohji felt a little tired himself. "So why don’t you tell me the reason you asked me to come up here and why you feel the need to have Ken and Nagi on hand, hmm?" He ran his hands through his hair and massaged the back of his neck for a moment. "Not that they’ll have much luck in stopping me in a fight." He let a bit of the coldness creep into his voice as he spoke, a warning to Reiichi for whatever insanity he had planned.

"Oh, I don’t know, I was thinking that you’d have a hell of a problem getting out of the room with me wrapped around your legs and gnawing on your ankles."

Ken’s irreverent words and calm tone helped snap Yohji back to normal and startled a laugh at him. He looked away from Reiichi and glanced at his friend, who was smiling with all of his sharp teeth on display, yet it was a true smile and unthreatening. "Okay, Ken-ken, you might have a point there. That would make things a bit difficult." The tenacious bastard would do it, too.

Nagi opened his mouth to say something, most likely about dropping the roof on Yohji’s head, yet Ken once again reined him back in. Yohji smiled at Ken in thanks and focused his attention back on Reiichi, his temper once more under control. "So, why am I here?"

Reiichi smiled, once again looking like his usual self. "Before I tell you, please do me the favor of blocking your link with Aya." When Yohji’s smile slipped in suspicion at the request, Reiichi was quick to shake his head. "Please, I’m asking you to do it because I have some news for you that may be a bit… upsetting at first. I don’t want both of you reacting to it at the same time."

"Is it about his little excursion to the Temple district? Dammit, I’ll beat some sense into Reno if that’s the case!" Yohji snarled as he did as he had been asked. Reiichi would not want him to block the link if the news was good, so it had to be something really bad. The only thing he could think was that Aya had been spotted a few days ago after all, and that Garcia knew about him. Damn the gods, he would kick Reno’s ass for dragging his lover out that day! After he made sure that some blood-crazy wizard was not currently on his way here to capture Aya.

"No, it’s not that!" Reiichi shook his head and held out his right hand. "As far as we know, there’s still no connection to either of them and what happened in the Temple district that day."

"Then what the hell do you want to talk about?" He glared at the Guard, his right hand resting on his gauntleted left wrist. "Look, right now I’m running a little short of patience. It would be a really good idea to get to the point." When he heard Nagi muttering something under his breath, he looked over his shoulder to scowl at the brat. "And no comments from you for once. I’m *serious*." Now was *not* the time for their usual rivalry.

Reiichi pinched the bridge of his nose as if he was suffering from a headache. "Garcia has no idea about Reno and Aya from the Temple incident. However, we discovered tonight that he’s very serious about finding Reno." He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "We’ve been following Shinra’s suggestion of using a few ‘decoys’ in hopes of one of them attracting Garcia’s attention. Unfortunately, the man who followed Blair tonight turned out to be a minor spy hired by the wizard to help him find Reno or… men who resemble him."

It only took Yohji a few seconds to guess what Reiichi was implying. "You mean redheads." That was the whole point of using Blair as a decoy, since he had similar coloring that needed little enhancement to make him appear more like Reno did without the illusion.

"Yes."

It felt as if freezing water had been dumped on top of Yohji, causing a chill to run through his body. "He’s searching the city for someone who looks like Aya." His fears from the other day rushed to the fore, of how distinctive his lover was, of how for so long they had never given it a thought, Aya going out and about without any illusion charms. Dammit. All the time he had reassured his lover that he was fine, that he could lead a normal life, and that *bastard* Garcia had to show up.

The emotions he picked up from Reiichi indicated that it was worse than he thought. "From what we can tell, he’s hired spies each time he’s come into the city, in the hopes of finding Reno." Reiichi paused for a moment, as if he was uncertain if he should continue or not. When he resumed speaking, he put as much reassurance as he could into his deep voice. "He’s been here at least once before since Aya moved into the Koneko and he hasn’t found him yet. Maybe… we’ve all talked about whatever it is that makes the Koneko special…."

"I don’t know if the Koneko’s magic is strong enough to cover the whole fucking quarter!" Yohji snarled. He snapped his right hand away from his gauntlet, the golden strands pulling free with it even though he had no clear target in mind. More than anything he wanted to find Garcia and the bastard’s spies, to slice them to tiny chunks of flesh. Failing that, he wanted to spin the strands around his mate in a protective cocoon, to hide him away from the people who would use and harm him. It took every bit of control he had to let the gauntlet reform into a solid band and to rein in his temper before he harmed his friends, who were there to prevent him from doing something foolish. Charging out of the inn and screaming Garcia’s name in challenge would be at about the top of the list.

"Dammit!" He spun around and went over to a wall so he could punch something, his right fist slamming through the plaster as if it were thick paper. There was a slight pain in his hand, which he ignored as he pulled his fist back so he could punch it again. Only he found himself jerked back and around to face Ken, whom he punched without any thought, just reaction. Ken grunted at the impact, his head snapping back at the blow to his jaw, yet he merely gritted his teeth together and remained standing in front of Yohji. Furious at the lack of reaction, Yohji swung at the bound one more time, until it finally dawned on him that he was hitting one of his best friends.

"Dammit," he repeated again as he shook his sore hand. "Are you nuts, Ken?"

"Well, there was no way in hell I was just gonna stand here if you went for your weapon, but I figured I could take a few punches since I’ve sparred with you in the past." There was a slight hint of a growl in Ken’s voice, but other than that, he was remarkably calm for having been a living punching bag. He rubbed his sore jaw, the bruise already beginning to fade. "Besides, I’d rather deal with you like that than a pissed-off Jo if we’d let you get out of control."

"And I’m rather appreciative that it spared my room, too," Reiichi added, sounding too amused for the whole situation.

"Ah, hell." Yohji now felt full of guilt between the hole in the wall and having hit Ken, which helped to push back the panic and anger that had overwhelmed him before. "I’d offer to fix it for you, but I suck at plastering." He rubbed his hands over his face, wincing a little at the ache in his right hand as it healed from the abuse he had just put it through. Damn, but Ken’s jaw was even harder than the wall….

"Are you done having your fit now, Kudoh?" Nagi’s tone was as frosty and disapproving as ever, yet his emotions were sympathetic and worried. When Yohji looked over at him, he got a brief nod in acknowledgement rather than a glare.

He nodded back and shook his right hand as it tingled from the healing. "Yeah, I think so." Though if he thought about Garcia too much, the anger threatened to get out of control again. "I can’t believe that they haven’t tracked down Aya yet."

Reiichi’s smile vanished as he leaned over to give Yohji’s left shoulder a quick squeeze. "You’re well thought of, Yohji, and people remember the trouble that was caused by Masafumi’s women asking questions around the time of the king’s wedding. It may very well be that the spies have been here already and no one’s saying anything. And, as I mentioned, there’s something about this inn that seems to look after its own. Why else would Crawford insist that Aya remain here?"

Well, there was the little fact that Yohji would kill anyone who tried to take Aya away from him, but the man had a point. And Aya usually did go outside with his hood up or while wearing a cloak, so he was difficult to spot unless you were a local and knew him from hanging out at the inn or him entering the shops.

"The Shadow Guard’s keeping a watch on the area," Ken reassured him. "Not to mention the fact that I’m always close by. If by some chance Aya wouldn’t tear the asshole to shreds himself or leave a few pieces for you to play with, we’re here."

He had been told these things before, yet it still helped to hear them again, to know that there were others who also wanted to keep Aya safe. The sad thing was, he would probably need all of them the closer it got to the war and the more desperate people became to find something that would give them the edge in winning it.

"Yeah, thanks, Ken." He managed a wan smile for his friend and for Reiichi in turn. "So, any other highly depressing news you were planning to tell me tonight, or was that it?" To think that it had been a pretty good day until just a few minutes ago. As unhappy as he was with what he had just been told, he would rather know the truth than be caught unaware, though.

"Yes, that’s it." Reiichi stepped back and motioned for Ken to do the same. "I think I’m going to head down to the main room and have myself a drink or two." From the smell of it, he had already been into the alcohol, but Yohji could hardly blame him. Hell, he thought he would hit Jo up some of the whiskey she hid in the kitchen once he got down there.

*******

Victor finished casting the spell on the ivory and golden topaz charm, aided by one of the few remaining drops of earth elemental bound blood that he had left in his possession. However, the charm was worth the effort and the precious resource as he already had a buyer lined up for it, someone who would pay very good money for the enhancement it would provide to any ward. With the uncertain future ahead with the growing tensions between Kritiker and Esset, the added safety of the charm made it very valuable. He hoped to replenish some much-needed resources by selling a few of them to various merchants and highborns that Andrew had found for him.

The money that had been given to him as a deposit for the charm had already arranged for better living quarters, and most of the rest of it would be spent in the search of more bound blood. Ah, what he would not give for water element bound blood…. He shook his head as he began to clean the table up of the tools he had used to cast the charm. That blood would be very helpful in charms to prevent property from flooding, which he was certain many highborn or wealthy farmers would pay good money to possess. In the long run, such charms would be necessary to keep the crops secure and prevent famines, yet water elementals were usually protected by their own kind more so than other bounds. Some of the books he had read about the creatures mentioned an effect similar to succubae bounds, but he had never come across one in person to fully understand the references. For a moment, he wondered if there was any chance of Haru possessing such a demon soul. He was not attracted to the girl in that manner, yet something must aid the girl in surviving on the streets alone at such a young age. Hmm….

He would observe her more carefully the next time he sent her out to replenish his supplies, which would be soon. Besides the charms that were rebuilding his finances and giving him some hope of slipping past Botan’s net, he still had his own research to finish. It annoyed him to have to devote time to other projects, yet he needed to secure patronage in order to protect himself from the meddling Royal Wizard. Somehow, he doubted that simply leaving Eto would be enough this time, unless he had the help of people powerful enough to stymie the Guard and the Spymaster. The promise of more charms along the lines of the one he had just made should go a long way into buying that help.

A knock at the door interrupted him as he was heading to the kitchen to brew a pot of tea, and he approached the door with caution. Only three people should know of his new address; the rune by the door glowed to show that the person on the other side of it was in possession of a charm that he had made. He let out a slow breath as he deactivated another ward and opened the door to let Sanji inside, after a quick check that the man was alone.

"Good evening, would you like some tea? I was just about to make a fresh pot."

"No thanks. The wife will be expecting me home shortly," Sanji answered with a quick smile and dip of the head. "I just wanted to stop by and give you an update on how things are going."

No doubt he also wanted to be paid, Victor thought to himself as he recalled where he had set aside the money for the spy in anticipation for this visit. He motioned for Sanji to precede him into the kitchen, and picked up the small bag of coins on the desk along the way through the small apartment. "Well, if you don’t mind, it’s been a busy evening and I could use something warm right about now."

Sanji noticed his movements and smiled again, the expression more sincere and lasting than before. "Of course, I’m sure you wizards need to keep up your strength."

"We do tend to neglect a few things when we focus so much on our magic. With that said…." Victor handed the thin man the bag of coins. "I appreciate you handling the more ‘mundane’ matters for me."

Sanji bowed, this time the gesture deeper and more formal than before, and despite his close-cropped dark hair and plain clothes, he managed enough grace to appear a courtier. "And I appreciate a generous client. As I said, I stopped by tonight to give you an update." He reached into some hidden pocket of his dark grey coat to pull out an envelope. "Here is this week’s surveillance report. You may be pleased to note that we’ve found several candidates." There was a sardonic tone to his voice, as if he knew what a mixed blessing that was.

Several candidates meant that it would take time figuring out if any of them were worthwhile leads. Victor sighed as he set the filled teapot on the stove and accepted the envelope. "Are any of them worth the effort, in your opinion?" he asked, even though he would go over the list himself and make up his own mind. Sanji had a better idea of what he was looking for than the man’s spies, and Victor trusted him enough to not try to prolong things just to pad out the job.

The spymaster pursed his thin lips for a moment as he gave the question some thought. "One of the targets moved into the area within the past year to join the Guard and mostly keeps to himself, which fits your profile rather well. Another has been cited in the southern Gold district within the past couple of weeks. He doesn’t fit the profile exactly, but you did caution us that he might be using an illusion spell. He’s a gokenin for Lord Shinra and just arrived from his Esset estate."

Victor discounted the Guard as he doubted the dubhach could be stable enough to hold such a position, let alone fool the organization about his true nature, and was about to discount the second possibility for a similar reason of working for a highborn when he heard mention of Lord Shinra. Reno had been born in Esset, and while there was never any proof that there was bound blood in the Shinra family bloodline, just being of high status in Esset cast some doubt on the matter. After all, that was the argument that had been made to Lady Miyu when she had announced her engagement to Lord Shinra, despite his enormous wealth.

"Focus on the gokenin. At this point in time, it’s probably best to not antagonize the Guard." He noticed Sanji’s predatory grin and arched his eyebrows. "At least, not for my sake."

"You deprive me of some fun," Sanji teased as he tucked the money away in another hidden pocket. "But who am I to argue with such a wise employer. There’s been mention of another redhead somewhere around the western districts, but my people haven’t had much luck in tracking him down yet. I’m beginning to think he’s a ghost or something." He sounded a bit disgruntled over that fact, leaving Victor to wonder if perhaps the spymaster was ready to go out and do some hunting of his own.

"As I said, focus on the gokenin. I’ll read through your report tonight, but from what you’ve told me, this one sounds the most promising. It fits what I last know about Reno." He was unable to restrain the excitement he felt from showing in his voice, and Sanji shrugged and seemed to push aside any upset he felt over the mystery redhead.

"You’re the one paying, so we’ll do as you ask." Sanji bowed to indicate that he was finished, and Victor followed him to the door, which he locked and reset the wards once the man was gone. Then he returned to the kitchen to fix his tea and prepare a light snack, his mind distracted from the simple task as he thought about what he had just been told.

What were the chances of Reno arriving in Eto around the same time that he had returned? Was it a sign from the gods? A blessing to go ahead with his plans? He knew better than to get his hopes up after so many disappointments, yet his research hinged so much on bound blood, and dubhach blood at that. The spells he could cast…. He washed his hands and was careful to dry them before he set his sandwich and mug of tea on the table, then sat down so he could read through Sanji’s report. His hands shook as he reached the part of the lanky gokenin from Esset with the reddish hair who was always in the presence of another gokenin. Was that a sign that Shinra knew what the man was and did his best to keep track of him? Or watch over him to ensure that he behaved? There were so many questions that Victor had right now, and all he could do was wait until Sanji returned with more information.

*******

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