Chasing Threads

*******

chapter 8

*******

converging leads

*******

Aya handed several books to Ed, grateful for the fact that they were working on the last stack. "After this we can go to the kitchen and see what Jo’s making for lunch." As diversions had gone, reorganizing the attic library had mostly worked, and while he had a new pile of reading material in the bedroom, it was nice to have the job almost done.

Ed flashed white, even teeth as he accepted the books. "You won’t get any arguments from me! I’ll be able to copy better on a full stomach!" He laughed for a few seconds as he checked the spines of the books. "I hope she made some pies today."

Over in the corner, where he had taken to sitting out of the way as if afraid of damaging the books or being put to work, Ken made a show of sniffing the air. "Hmm, smells like pumpkin and spices to me." He smiled, his teeth much sharper and numerous than Ed’s. "Masato’s gonna be upset to miss out on ‘em."

Miko gave him a slight whap to the back of his head. "How’s he going to find out about them, hmm?" When Ken tilted his head back on the chair and widened his grin, she rolled her eyes and shook her head. "Men," she said, the word laden with disgust that Aya doubted she truly felt with the way the corner of her lips twitched upward. "No brains, all stomach."

"Yep, which is why you shouldn’t look so tasty, Miko dear. You putting on a few pounds, lately?" Ken teased, and jumped from the chair before he could be hit in earnest. Miko began to chase him around the chair, and Aya only paid the two Guards enough attention to ensure that they kept their antics contained to that corner of the attic. After sharing a put-upon look with Ed, they went back to work so they could finish and go down to lunch sometime soon.

They were on the last few books when Aya felt the taint of unfamiliar magic breach his wards, a ‘greasy’ touch against his mind that made him shiver in reaction and call on his true nature. Ed stopped complaining about Murray’s lack of footnotes and asked him what was wrong, which prompted Ken and Miko to put an end to their latest squabble.

"Aya?"

Aya set the two books in his hands aside and hugged his arms around his chest, only then aware that the shadows in the room had increased and darkened in reaction to his emotions. "Someone just entered the inn wearing at least two powerful charms that weren’t made by Botan or Omi."

"Eh, are you certain?" Ed asked, while all traces of amusement and relaxation vanished from Ken and Miko.

"Yes. I’ve strengthened my wards lately." Aya struggled for a moment to control the shadows and felt his emotions slowly drain away as he realized that in all probability there was an enemy in his home right now. "It’s difficult to tell from up here, but it… it carried a hint of death with it." That would imply that at least one of the charms had been made with lifeblood.

Ken snarled as he threw aside his eye-patch and then tapped on his copper wristband. "Reiichi will be sure to warn Omi about that."

Even as his emotions faded, Aya managed to feel a faint pulse of surprise at that statement. "We should be able to handle it ourselves," he said as he took a step toward the door, the sibilance creeping into his voice and shadows racing ahead of him.

Before the shadows could reach the door, Miko got there first and Ken took a deliberate step into his path. Despite the beads of sweat on the other bound’s forehead, Ken met Aya’s eyes and braced his feet apart as if he refused to be budged. "No, Reiichi, Nagi and Omi will deal with whoever it is until Yohji gets back here. It’ll be worth my hide from him, Yuushi *and* Birman if I let you out of this room until we know for certain if the person’s a spy or just has lousy tastes in charms." There was a quiver in his voice, yet he refused to look away.

Aya knew that he was more powerful than Ken and he could easily push the man aside with shadows even if Ken had the advantage of physical strength. "I can handle the matter myself," he replied, with no effort to mask the sibilance this time.

Ken flinched, but that was the only movement he made. "Aya… the only reason Yohji left today to go talk to the shopkeepers about you was because Miko and I swore that if anyone suspicious came along, we’d keep you out of sight while Reiichi and Omi handled things. *Please*, don’t make me break my word." The desperation in his voice made it clear that, for someone who had been turned into a bound, Ken was well aware of the risk he faced for breaking any vows he had made as a magical being.

It would be so easy to push him aside, and Miko as well. Aya could go downstairs unseen and handle the matter himself, and he was certain that Ed would follow if he asked. A quick display of shadows and the person with the charms would most likely tell him whatever he wanted to know… and Yohji would be furious with him, as well as the others. Aya hissed as he jerked his hands through his hair and looked aside. Why did they insist on treating him as if he was so weak? He had retrieved information for the Takatori before, had placed himself in danger so many times…. Yet the prospect of upsetting the man he loved made him turn around and go back to the books he had set aside.

"We might as well finish this, even though I’ve no clue when we’ll be able to eat now." He looked over his shoulder at Ken. "Will you at least allow Ed downstairs to fetch us some lunch?" There was a sharp bite along with the sibilance, enough to make Ken flinch again and Miko pale, yet Ken managed a weak smile and nodded.

"Yeah, I think all of us could do with a bit to eat." Once again, Ken’s demon nature showed as he bared his teeth. "Though with luck, I’ll have a nice meal waiting for me when Reiichi and Omi are done."

"Men and their stomachs," Miko grumbled as she seated herself in front of the door, her sword unsheathed and placed across her knees. "It’s a good thing there’s no cookbooks up here or I bet we’d never get you out of the room."

Aya left the two Guards to their verbal sparring and did his best to focus on the books, even as he felt Omi and Nagi use their talents a couple of minutes later. No matter how much everyone wanted to keep him ‘safe’, even Yohji, soon enough the time would come when they would have to let him do what he was born for, and after that, he doubted that anyone would think he needed coddled or protected. Not even his mate.

*******

Yohji swore under his breath as he ran back to the Koneko, just barely keeping his speed within human limits. Dammit, the *one* day he left the inn to go talk to the various shopkeepers and friends who saw Aya on a regular basis to make sure that no one was speaking to any spies, and one of those bastards showed up at the Koneko. There was no doubt about it, the gods just *loved* to torment him.

At least he had received messages from both Ken and Reiichi to reassure him that Aya had remained up in the attic, far away from the spy while Reiichi, Omi and Nagi dealt with the bastard. He was unsure how Ken had managed that, considering how Aya had gone all kage on him the other week, but he was very grateful for it all the same. Oh, he knew that no one could see Aya if his lover wanted to remain cloaked in shadows, and that Aya was technically the most powerful bound around, but he refused to take any chances with Garcia and the spies that the wizard was sending out. There was no telling what magic the bastards might be carrying, especially since they were looking for a dubhach. Too little were known about dubhach and kage that with his luck, there just might be something that could affect Aya and Reno.

He garnered some confused looks along the way and had to wave off a couple of shouts of his name before he finally reached the Koneko, and Jason was quick to move the two horses he was walking out of the way as Yohji raced toward the kitchen door. The door slammed open as he hit it, the hinges creaking in protest, causing Jo and Mickey to whirl about at the noise, a rolling pin and a short sword held in their hands, respectively.

"Curse you, Yotan, don’t do that!" Jo yelled as she set the rolling pin down and clutched at her chest. She glared at him for a moment before motioning toward the other door. "In the library."

Unsurprised that he was answered before even asking the question, he took the time to skirt around the prep table and give her a quick kiss on the check. "Thanks, Jo. Aya still upstairs?" He was only able to pick up a hint of emotion over their link, and put it down to his mate’s kage nature and not an effort to block him out.

"As far as I know. Ed just took a bunch of food up there and mentioned that Ken and Miko are going so far as to bar the door, though he wasn’t quite clear if that was to keep Aya up there or anyone else out." Jo’s good humor seemed to return as she gave his right arm a comforting squeeze. "I’m sure he’ll be happy to see you."

"Yeah." Once he got over his temper at being kept upstairs, most likely, though Yohji refused to feel guilty about asking Ken to protect Aya like that. He patted Mickey’s back as he left the room, grateful that his normally placid brother had gone so far as arming himself to protect Yohji’s lover, and would bet whatever possessions he had left that Teddy was probably by the main door with about five knives tucked around his robe as well. The three of them might not be all related by blood and adore to tease each other, but they were family in all the ways it mattered. No one would harm what they loved while they were around.

He paused long enough to knock three times on the library door before he entered, and felt the tingle of wards as he crossed the threshold. Nagi and Naru looked over as he entered, which explained the wards, but Omi, Eri and Reiichi kept their attention trained on the middle-aged man sitting rigid in a wooden chair that had been brought in from the main room.

Yohji swallowed a growl when he realized that he must have been contacted late if Eri and Naru were here before him; the Guards were stationed near the Koneko because of the spies. "What’s going on?" The anger he felt roughened his voice and caused Eri to flinch the slightest bit.

Reiichi let out a slow breath as he straightened his back and looked toward Yohji. "Eri is about to start erasing this gentleman’s memories. Perhaps you would like to assist her with that?" He sounded as if he was asking Yohji to help Eri run an errand, all polite blandness.

Yohji gave him a smile that was a little too much teeth. "Maybe I could, after you tell me what the three of you managed to find out from him."

"Yotan, play nice," Omi cautioned as he tossed a charm at him. "Or else I’ll tell Aya how mean you’re being."

He caught the charm the same time he made a face at the not so veiled warning. "Oh, sure, make a threat like that when you know he’s not too happy with me right now." The grimace turned into disgust as he felt the tingle of magic associated with the charm, along with a sense of repulsion. "Uhm, what’s this?"

"It’s what set off Aya’s wards," Omi explained as he held up another charm. "That and this one as well. They’re charms to hide thoughts and make people trust you. From what I can tell, there’s a bit of succubae blood used with the one you’re holding." Judging from the anger and sorrow Yohji felt from his friend as well the grim look on Omi’s face, he guessed that the succubae bound had given his or her life when the blood had been taken.

"Our spy here was tasked with seeing if there was any truth to the rumors about a redheaded man shopping in this area." Reiichi held out his left hand as he spoke, and Yohji gave him the charms, which were tucked into one of the Guard’s pockets. "He decided to spend a couple of hours at the Koneko, listening to the conversation and speaking to the guests in hopes of finding some information."

For the first time since hearing about Garcia’s spies, Yohji felt a lessening of the tension in his chest. "So he hasn’t found anything out in the neighborhood?"

Eri spoke up, her voice quiet as if she was distracted. "No, everyone he’s spoken to claims not to know who the redhead is or to have even seen him." She finally looked directly at Yohji. "You have very loyal friends."

"Yeah, so I’m finding out." Everyone he had spoken to today had assured him that they would keep quiet about Aya, not even asking any questions about why someone was trying to find him or why Yohji was so worried. All that mattered to them was that Yohji was concerned and wanted to keep his lover safe, and that he had the support of the Guard, who had already been about asking much the same. "Though I’m surprised they managed to keep quiet if these bastards have charms like that," he growled as he rubbed his right hand against his pant leg, still feeling the skin itch from where the charm had touched it.

Eri managed a short, bitter laugh and shook her head. "They’re used to dealing with you, a very powerful succubae bound, all these years, so I doubt a simple charm like that would have much influence. Besides, the other spy we caught only had the one to protect his thoughts, so this I don’t think all of them are carrying something like it." She was obviously relieved about that fact, probably because it meant less succubae bound blood used as well as spies armed with the ability to ‘sweet-talk’ unsuspecting people.

"So is he another case of just knows enough to do his job and not enough to lead us back to Garcia?" Yohji asked, even though he was afraid that he already knew the answer.

"Yes." Reiichi put all of the frustration that he felt into the one word.

"Thought so." Yohji ran his hands through his hair and muttered a curse under his breath before he pushed back his temper and gave Eri a weak smile. "Well, if you still want my help…."

She nodded. "If you can glamour him a little, it’ll leave his mind more receptive to my manipulations. Then we can let him go and follow him to see if he leads us back to someone higher up the chain of command." She sounded hopeful that he would, which was a good chance since he had a stronger charm on him than the other spy.

"Okay. Just give me a second." He took a deep breath to help center his thoughts and push back any negative emotion, and then approached the spy. As he did so, he felt Eri do something with her talent, and the man lost some of the dazed expression on his face.

For a spy, he probably did a good job as there was nothing about him that would draw your attention, not his clothes which were plain but in good shape, nor his looks which were average, nor his build, which was lean without being too thin. He appeared like a middle-aged man who had enough money to keep himself fed and a roof over his head, who probably worked on his feet in an honorable trade and was trustworthy enough to not worry about. Someone you would not mind talking to if he sat down at your table or bumped into you at a crowded market.

Yet the look in his eyes as Eri’s mental hold on his thoughts relaxed was too sharp, and his hands were too smooth for someone in as good a shape as him, someone who supposedly worked hard for a living. That was reason enough to mistrust him, and knowledge of those charms… Yohji drew on his talent and smiled at the man, let his power wash over the spy with more potency than usual as he felt no need to restrain himself.

"Hello."

The man smiled at him, failing to react to the hint of coldness in his voice. "Hello."

"Feeling good yet?" He did not bother to ask the spy’s name, caring little about the man and hoping that once Garcia was found, Birman’s people would deal with him appropriately.

"Hmm, yeah."

He could feel adoration and desire, the need to please and a sense of happiness. It always amazed him how little it took to snare a person like this, and if it were not for Aya… there was only one person he wanted, and Aya loved him without the glamour. Sometimes, he wondered if the gods had given him a mate to keep him from turning into a monster. "That’s good." He allowed a little more of the coldness to creep inside of him, to add strength to his glamour. "Now I want you to close your eyes and imagine that you’re sitting in the main room." The spy did as he was told, a pleased smile on his tan face. "You’re having a nice meal and a beer as you do what you’ve been ordered to do, to ask about the redheaded man who’s supposed to be around here. It’s a busy inn, so a lot of people come and go, but some of them sit down and talk with you." As he spoke, he motioned for Eri to join in with her talent. "You’re good at your job, and you make sure that no one seems to know about him."

When she nodded to him, he stopped talking and moved away, leaving it to her to finish substituting the spy’s memories. A quick look at Reiichi confirmed that the Guard had no more use for him, so he hurried toward the door so he could go see Aya and do his best to placate his mate. On his way out of the room, Nagi intercepted him, the usual frown on his face and his emotions a mix of concern and contempt. For once, Yohji had the impression that the latter was not for him.

Then again, maybe he was wrong, once the kid opened his mouth. "Hmph, at least if you *had* to leave Aya alone, you made sure to keep him away from scum like this."

About to tear into the little demon over the fact that he had left the boy’s precious Aya ‘alone’ in order to keep scum like the spy as far as possible away from his mate, Yohji realized that, in a very roundabout way, Nagi was for once paying him a compliment. He swallowed his temper and managed a shaky smile. "Yeah, even an idiot like me can get things right once in a while." His smile strengthened when Nagi sniffed in a manner that the little demon had definitely learned from Aya.

Assured that everyone had things under control, he left the library so he could find out just how much trouble he was in. He was able to sense a bit more emotion from Aya now, and none of it was very reassuring. Oh yeah, with luck Jo would be in the mood to do some baking for him, or whip up a huge bowl of buttercream icing because he had a feeling he was going to need one hell of a bribe in a few minutes. His left shoulder was already aching as he ran up the stairs, as if in anticipation of the bites to come. When he reached the attic library, he only hesitated a moment before pushing open the door.

"Who- dammit, Yohji, give a bit of warning!" Miko yelled as she scooted out of the way of the door, her sword held away from her so she did not cut herself with the naked blade. She eyed him for a couple of seconds before sheathing the weapon. "I take it that everything’s all right now?"

"Yeah, Eri’s wiping the spy’s mind as we speak and setting things up so he can be tailed back to… well, wherever," he explained as he tried to surreptitiously glance at his mate while talking to the Guard. "I’m surprised that Reiichi didn’t let you know that I was on my way up."

"Why would he do a sensible thing like that? So much more fun to not warn us, I bet," Miko muttered, her brown eyes narrowed as if she was thinking some rather dark thoughts about Reiichi just then. Yohji wished her luck; no one he knew about had managed to one-up the man in all of his years at the Guard and since, and that included some of the bounds in the Shadow Guard. Reiichi was one hell of a charmed bastard – that or just pure evil. Opinion was pretty much split either way between his friends and colleagues, and Yuushi voted for both.

While Aya continued to ignore Yohji’s presence, Ed became busy organizing the notes he had been taking and Ken rushed to Yohji’s side. "Ah, well, if you’re here then I guess it means that Miko and I can leave." There was a strained note to Ken’s voice, and his emotions were a smashing wave of relief, panic-tinged stress, fear and exhaustion. He must have been fighting his demon soul the entire time he had been up here with Aya to keep the ‘stronger’ bound from leaving, all because Yohji had asked him a favor.

Yohji patted him on the back in thanks. "Yeah, I’m sure Jo has something for you down in the kitchen. I appreciate it, Ken." He truly did; he knew that Ken considered himself in debt to Yohji for taking him in after being turned into a bound, but as far as Yohji was concerned, that was nothing compared to him looking after Aya like this.

Ken struggled to produce a wan grin and then fled the room with Miko at his heels, that eager to get away from Aya. Yohji could not blame his friend with the way his mate was producing such an obvious ‘touch me not’ aura, half cloaked in shadows that crawled around him and hissed from time to time. While he was certain that Ken and Ed could not hear the shinigami or see them as anything other than shadows, they were bound enough to feel ‘something’. Add them knowing what Aya was, and they probably realized that ‘death’ was in the room and not very happy at the moment.

Ed was the next to flee, and Yohji hoped that Aya realized what a true friend he had in the kid. Once Ed had his precious books and notes safely tucked away in his bag, he turned toward Aya and managed a nervous smile. "Ah, uhm, if you don’t mind, I’ll be back tomorrow. May… maybe we can go over Hayashi’s findings on the first generation soul gaki bounds."

Aya finally looked up from the book he was reading and nodded. "That would be nice." There was a faint hiss to his voice, which was echoed in the shadows around him.

"Okay." Ed nearly ran into Yohji in his haste to leave, and for a moment Yohji felt abandoned to be left alone with Aya. Then he shook his head to clear it of such foolish thoughts and decided to tackle the ‘problem’ directly.

"So, Cat, you happy to have freaked your friends out like that?" he asked as he leaned against the table, his arms folded over his chest as he stared at his mate.

Aya flipped through a page of his book before he answered. "All I did is what you wanted. I stayed up here." His emotions were still blunted and his voice was partially sibilant, while the shadows clung around him like a billowing cloak.

To think that there was a time when Yohji had *wanted* this… what, sarcastic defiance? To have Aya do something more than flinch away and deny his true feelings in an attempt to prevent a fight. Yohji should have remembered the saying of ‘be careful what you wish for’, dammit, and been a bit more specific.

"There are times when you really do drive me to drink, dammit," he snarled as his right hand snaked through his hair and gave the loose strands a harsh tug. "What I *wanted* was to keep you away from any and all agents of a damn wizard in case they had any spells on them that might harm you!"

Aya’s eyes narrowed as he finally shut the blasted book and put it aside. "Did you just so happen to forget the fact that I’m a kage?" The shadows around him writhed about as if furious over Yohji’s latest display of idiocy.

"No, dammit! But Garcia knows about dubhach so pardon me if I’d rather not take any chances!" He forced himself to take a breath and try to rein in his emotions, especially when he felt Aya’s begin to fade again. "Look, I know you’re impervious to magic, but this guy is actively looking for Reno and has had how many years to think about what he’s going to do when he finds him. So when we have a wizard, several Guards and bounds around here, I’d much rather you stay the hell away from whoever that bastard sends after you." He did his best to get his point across, his emotions earnest and the link wide open on his part.

Aya stared back at him, quiet for well over a minute, before he blinked several times and looked away. "I’ve dealt with wizards before. And there are chances that the Elders might know something about kage, so there’s a risk of that I’ll face someone who knows about me and my powers in the future. You can’t protect me forever." He sounded reasonable and calm, even as their link betrayed a hint of anger.

They had fought several times in the past about Yohji’s over-protectiveness, about how Aya refused to be treated as a ‘porcelain doll’. Yet Yohji honestly felt that he had not overstepped the bounds that they had sworn to do their best to avoid today. "I’m not trying to protect you forever, I’m just trying to keep you safe now." Okay, maybe his logic was a bit flawed, but it was the truth.

His mate heaved a heartfelt sigh and hissed something that made the shadows retreat a little. Then he looked at Yohji, his expression a mixture of forlornness and annoyance. "I don’t always mean this, but I do right now. You’re an idiot," Aya said, yet he sounded more confused than upset.

Yohji took that as a cue that he was on his way to being forgiven. "And I *always* mean this when I say it, ‘yes, but I’m *your* idiot," he proclaimed as he moved forward and settled on his knees by Aya’s chair.

Aya sighed again as he stroked his fingers through Yohji’s hair. "I could have helped interrogated the spy."

"Hmm, but sometimes it’s nice to let Eri and Reiichi feel all needed, and I’m sure Omi loved the chance to use some spells." He caught his lover’s hand and pressed a kiss against its palm. "Cat… this whole Garcia thing really bothers me. I’d truly prefer for you to have as little as possible to do with him or his people until Birman has him trussed up and Eri’s been through his head to make sure there’s nothing in there to hurt you. Maybe I can’t protect you from everything, but I’m going to do my damndest to keep you safe from what I can. "

"Just remember that there isn’t much that can harm a kage." Aya appeared so sad as he said those words, that it was clear he was thinking that the few things that could were themselves and those they loved. Yohji would much rather sacrifice himself before he would allow himself to be used against Aya, although they were so tied together at this point it might not do much good.

"Just remember that you’re not invincible and we’ll be fine," he answered back as he rose up enough to give his mate a kiss on the lips. "But together, we should be indestructible," he murmured against Aya’s mouth, certain that as long as they faced things together, they would always manage somehow.

"Hmph, you’re not arrogant or anything," Aya grumbled as he tugged Yohji down onto the chair beside him.

"I believe the word you’re looking for, Cat, is ‘cock-‘ ow!" He managed a scowl as he rubbed his sore ribs. "If I can survive those pointy as hell elbows of yours, I can survive anything."

"Yotan, it would be a very good thing if you were quiet for the next half an hour or so," Aya warned, a hint of silver in his eyes and his lips pulled back from his teeth as if he was prepared to sink them into some shoulders at any particular moment. Deciding that maybe he still had a little work to do in order to be forgiven, Yohji shut his mouth, squirmed a little more into the large chair and pulled his not-quite-so-happy mate against his chest. Aya gave a small warning huff before picking up his book and resuming reading, but he also slowly relaxed back against Yohji as the minutes ticked by.

Pleased just to have an armful of Aya, Yohji closed his eyes as he rested his head against his lover’s and breathed in Aya’s wonderful scent. Hopefully, by the time his half an hour was up, Jo would have something sweet prepared downstairs that would put an end to a certain cat’s grumpy mood and they could spend the rest of the evening in their bedroom. He was sure a massage and some more quiet time would get him back in Aya’s good graces – at least until the next time a spy came by the inn.

*******

Botan smiled at Takashi in an attempt to reassure the young man. "It’s all right. You passed the written exam with almost no mistakes so I’m sure you’ll do fine on the practical part. It’s usually much easier than the theoretical." At least, he had always found it to be so, and his assistants usually agreed with him. After studying magic for so long, it was easier to put it to practice than to sit down and try to explain all the various schools of thought and argument.

Takashi nodded in an absentminded manner as he stared about the large, mostly empty room that Botan used for practicing spells. He had to admit that he had gotten a bit spoiled by using the library at the Koneko, which was more personal and warmer in nature and warded by Aya’s shadows to prevent any stray magic from escaping, but this space served its purpose. He had built up its wards over the years, as had his various assistants and predecessors, so it would be safe enough for training purposes.

Omi was also staring about room, as he did all of his practicing at the Koneko. Botan had asked him to join them today to help test Takashi, wanting the boy’s opinion on the young wizard since if Takashi passed, they would be working and training together for the next few years. Once Omi finished looking around, he grinned at Botan and headed toward the center of the room.

"So I’ll be over here casting the offensive spells?" he asked as he motioned at the area marked in red.

"Yes, that’s fine. I’ll have you test Takashi’s defensive skills, and then you can watch while he has a go at mine." He laughed at the glint in Omi’s blue eyes, which were hidden behind his familiar illusion spell. "I’m sure you can tell him how fun that is."

That finally seemed to make an impression on Takashi. "Eh? He’s already done this test, sir?"

"Oh, Botan lets me lob spells at him from time to time," Omi explained, and made to look over his shoulder before he caught himself. The boy was used to having Nagi with him, but the earth elemental was currently waiting at Birman’s office for the test to finish in order to escort his boyfriend back home. "Ah, maybe he doesn’t think I’m much of a threat or anything."

Botan snorted to show what he thought of that bit of nonsense. "Yes, that’s why I had to soak in the Koneko’s hot spring for about an hour after that practice two weeks ago." He fell quiet for a moment as he thought about how many times his life was placed in danger at the Koneko and considered avoiding the inn, then thought about doing without Jo’s meals and figured that it was not worth the sacrifice. "You’ll have your hands full, fending him off," he warned Takashi.

"So I see!" Takashi laughed a little as he paid closer attention to Omi. He had greeted Omi with the same unguarded affection that he did everyone else, with no jealousy at all in the face of another of Botan’s students. He seemed to welcome Omi’s help, even though Omi was younger than him. "I’d say be gentle with me, but that sort of defeats the purpose of the whole thing, na?"

"Very true!" Omi executed a perfect bow. "I shall do my best so you may show Botan what you’re made of."

Well, it looked as if the two of them got along just fine. Now to see if Takashi could put into practice the theory he knew. "You’ll be over here, Takashi. As I said, cast your wards and just be on the defensive for this part of the exercise. I want to make sure that you can handle any attacks." Once he was certain that the young man had the basics down well enough, he would advance to combining defense with offensive magics. "As for you, Omi, you can be friendly with him *after* you try to kill him."

Omi stuck out his tongue at Botan, something he had picked up from Schuldig over the years, but then straightened up and appeared to become serious and concentrate on something. Taking that as a sign that there would soon be magic flying about, Botan checked to make sure that Takashi was preparing his wards and hurried out of the way. He might be protected by one of the rings he had made from Aya’s tears, as was Omi, but that did not mean he wanted to see how effective the thing was – or for Takashi to ask some very inconvenient questions.

He stationed himself by the wall and called up his own wards just in time; Omi had a growing knack of sensing another wizard’s magic, something that made Botan wonder if it was an effect of training so much with a kage. Whatever the reason, once his and Takashi’s wards were up, Omi unleashed his spells on the poor young man as if he was indeed the enemy.

Botan had watched Omi grow up over the years, often as a pensive child while at Court and lately a happy teenager at the Koneko. He was charming, good natured, eager to learn and so damn bright it could be frightening at times, and beneath all of that was a core of strength that was just beginning to show as he stood up for his friends and lover. As Birman insisted, he would make a damn fine king one day, just as he would make one hell of a wizard, and both of those facts were evident as he stood there with his back straight, his head held high and his eyes narrowed as he whispered chants and channeled power from within himself and the various charms he had scattered about his pockets and pouches. He even fired off a few bolts from the silver gauntlets on his wrists, which caused Takashi to curse and duck behind his wards as the physical attack took him by surprise.

What Botan had difficulty believing was that Omi had only been his apprentice for a year. Even with all of the attention he had given the boy, Omi was casting spells that were beyond some of his current assistants, both with the amount of power and skill that they required. Yet Omi stood there and continued to cast, the air swirling around him as if thick with elemental spirits eager to do his bidding. For all Botan knew, that might be the case; did having a element bound for a lover give a wizard some benefit in that regard? Omi may very well be the first since Esset’s Wizard to have done so….

"Omi…" Botan hesitated, uncertain if he should call out anything and risk breaking either of the young men’s concentration. Takashi appeared strained, his face pale and damp with sweat as he kept his wards from breaking under Omi’s onslaught, while Omi continued to blast away with various spells – at least two of them ones that Botan *knew* he had not taught the boy.

Then Omi raised his right hand and whispered something that sounded like a faint, drawn out hiss, and a silver ball of energy formed in his palm. Botan had to shield his eyes with his hands, the ball burned so brightly, yet he swore that there was a hint to darkness to it. He looked away in time to see Takashi let out a curse and hold up his hands in front of him, to manage to concentrate his wards around them as if a shield just as the ball slammed into it. For a moment the ball was stopped by the wards… and then the young man was thrown backwards several feet through the air.

"Takashi!" Botan ran after him, half afraid that he would find him dead or badly wounded, yet before he got within ten feet of the young man, he could hear the idiot laughing. Takashi rolled onto his back, his skinny arms flopping out at his sides and his face still damp with sweat, and laughed as he looked up at the ceiling. Other than being a bit pale, he appeared unharmed.

"What… Omi… the ball?" Botan turned to the cause of his panic and found the boy standing there with a sheepish grin on his face. "I thought your spell vaporized him!"

"Ah, well, yeah, it just ate his wards, mostly," Omi explained with a nervous laugh. "I, ah, figured you weren’t serious about the ‘kill him’ part."

"I said *try* to kill him!" Botan realized that he was yelling and stopped to take a few deep, calming breaths. Or at least attempt on the calming part.

"He’s still alive, right? And you wanted it to be a good test." Omi must have figured out that he was in trouble and broke out his weapon of last resort, which was to look at Botan with his eyes as wide open as possible and with a faint tremble to his bottom lip. Even if the boy was over sixteen years old now and was practically living with his boyfriend, he still managed to look much too young and innocent to blame for almost killing another person. "I’m sorry."

"Oh, I’m all right!" Takashi managed to get back onto his feet and joined them, a huge grin on his narrow face despite the fact that he appeared barely able to stand up. "You’re amazing! What, have you been practicing since you were a toddler or something?"

"I’m actually a bit of a late bloomer," Omi admitted with a shy duck of his head. "It’s thanks to Botan’s lessons that I can do anything."

And now he was trying to sweet-talk his way out of trouble. Birman was right, the kid was going to be one hell of a king. Botan just hoped that he lived to see the coronation. Figuring that if he gave in now he saved himself from having a furious earth elemental bound, succubae bound, kage, spymaster and cook after his head – to be perfectly honest, he was uncertain which of the five scared him the most - he sighed and reached over to tousle Omi’s hair. "I didn’t teach you everything. That last spell was definitely something you came up with on your own."

Omi smiled as he glanced up through his bangs. "Well… I’ve been working a bit with Nagi and Aya." His eyes darted toward Takashi for a quick second, but he must have figured that if the young man was going to work with Botan, he would meet the two bounds eventually and find out that Omi practiced at the Koneko.

For the past year, Botan had put up with Omi’s pleas and disappointment and refused to teach him certain things – anything that had to do with using blood for spells, especially bound blood. There were other topics that he had considered off limits as well, similar ‘cheats’ that, in his opinion, often led to wizards using blood in spells as they sought to find ways to lessen their own efforts when casting magic. He believed that Omi was more than powerful enough to not need those shortcuts, not to mention so intelligent that the boy would be able to figure out other ways that would not involve sacrificing others for his own benefit. Omi had so much talent, so much brilliance… in a way, him coming into his power at a ‘late’ age and under such circumstances had been a godsend, as Botan had been able to train him in a manner that had been extremely unconventional. Omi… *Mamoru* was the Crown Prince, and such would never really be a ‘wizard’, so all he really focused on was learning to use his magic, not going through the many proper steps to be recognized so he could ply the trade and gain any status. The only thing that boy wanted was to learn enough magic to protect his friends.

That was exactly what he was doing. Omi was able to straddle two very different worlds, that of wizards and bounds, thanks to his close ties with his lover and friends, and he was clearly doing something no other wizard had done before. Botan would bet his position at Court that he had not imagined those shadows on that ball of magic, that Omi had somehow figured out a way to combine them and so had knocked through Takashi’s wards. In a little more than a year, he had learned enough magic to take down someone who had trained for several, and that was in a friendly contest.

"Maybe you can teach me those spells one day!" Takashi rubbed the back of his neck as if it were sore as he continued to smile at Omi. "I thought my wards were pretty good after years of Aunt Keiko lobbing spells at me, but clearly I’ve still a few things to learn!"

Botan gave him a sympathetic pat on the shoulder. "I think you managing to survive what Omi just put you through proves that you know quite a bit about wards. That was very quick thinking, what you did at the end." If Omi’s spell had not been enhanced with ‘shadows’, then it probably would have stood up to the blast of magic. "As far as I’m concerned, you passed that portion of the test."

Takashi appeared as if his knees would give in for a few seconds, he was clearly that relieved to know he had passed. "Really? I thought maybe I’d failed since my wards dropped."

"You’re not supposed to be perfect at this point, or else there’d be no sense in me taking you on! Just not completely hopeless, and proving that you can think on your feet is always a bonus." He winked at the young man as he motioned for Takashi to head over to where there were a couple of chairs along the one wall. "How about you sit down and rest up a little before the next part of the test?"

Takashi nodded as his shoulders slumped forward. "That would be great, sir. I don’t think I could hold back an oni if it leapt out at me right now." For the first time since Botan had met the young man, he sounded less than energetic.

Botan glanced over his shoulder to prevent Omi from making any comments, and got another tongue stuck out at him. "Hopefully there won’t be any repeats of that around here today." At Takashi’s confused look, he shook his head and motioned for him to sit down. "Omi, why don’t you go track down a page and order us something to eat?"

"Okay." Omi smiled as he strolled toward the door, leaving Botan to wonder if the page was going to be found around Birman’s office.

Takashi groaned as he leaned back in the chair. "He’s not even tired after all of that, is he?"

"Hmm, well, he did come prepared with several charms to use, but no, he’s an annoying bundle of energy who delights in making me feel old," Botan grumbled as he sat down himself. "It’s nice to know it’s not just me."

"Why do you even need another assistant when you have him?" Takashi looked genuinely curious as he asked the question, his brown eyes bright and free of malice or jealousy.

Botan thought about what he was going to say before he spoke. "Because most of the assistants I have now are ready to take on proper jobs, and it’s traditional to have at least one or two running around the palace tending to things for me. As much as I enjoy teaching Omi, he’s… more of an informal assistant since his training has been highly untraditional and can’t help me much at Court. He also has some family obligations, so while he’s very focused on learning all he can, it’s doubtful he’ll be able to ever hold a formal position in the future. So it’s only fair that I take on another assistant who can help out at Court and reap some of the benefits of the position."

"All that power…." Takashi closed his eyes as if considering something. "He’s not going to try to take your place one day?"

"It’s not about status or wealth to him, he just wants to learn enough to protect his loved ones." Botan tried his best to not make it obvious that he was watching Takashi for his reaction.

"Ah." Takashi kept his eyes closed for several seconds. "Some would say status and wealth would help with that… but they never got blasted across a room." He laughed as he opened his eyes and sat up straight in the chair. "I just want to do my family proud and to be happy. So far learning magic seems to do both so I’ve been lucky." He sounded a little wistful as he admitted that, as if he was aware that it might not always be true.

Botan figured he might as well continue to pry a little while the young man was in such a talkative mood. "And do you want to take my place?"

Takashi laughed. "Ask me that after I’ve a better idea of what you do! All I know right now is you’re going to let me throw a bunch of spells at you, which sounds kind of crazy." He smiled at Botan as he motioned to the center of the room. "Considering what just happened and all."

"If you’re anything like Omi, just tell me now and I’ll save you the effort of taking the test."

"Mmm, I would have done a better job of defending myself if that were true," Takashi pointed out, impressing Botan with his logic and willingness to tell the truth. "But hopefully I’ll get there with a bit more practice."

"Just what I need, dealing with two of you," Botan grumbled as he slumped down in his chair. He realized that, barring Takashi being an absolute failure at offensive magics, which he somehow doubted, he was taking the young man on as his assistant. Maybe Cassandra would have some sort of revitalizing tea she could give him that would help him survive the next few years, he thought with a weary sigh.

*******

Schuldig wandered around the various stalls, his lips pressed together from the pain of mentally searching through the minds around him as he looked about the crowd of people busy haggling for various goods. Dammit, he had suffered his asshole father’s presence for over an *hour* the other day, only to be told that Crawford believed the best chance to catch the brat to be a cloudy evening when it threatened to rain. Since today was the first day since then when the sky was overcast and people actually came to the northern Magic market with umbrellas and rain slickers, the girl had better show up if she knew what was good for her. This assignment had dragged on way too long, cutting into Schuldig’s personal time and leaving him too drained to enjoy his mate.

Besides, if the last note that he had received from Yohji was any indication, it was affecting more relationships than that with Masato. He knew his friend was only half teasing about cutting off his alcohol tab at the Koneko if he failed to find Garcia soon; it was the demon soul in Yohji that was pushing for him to make it safe for precious little Aya to walk the streets again. Hell, if their situations were reversed, Schuldig would be giving his friend grief right now. It was just one more annoyance when he had already been through a couple of weeks of them. Yohji was going to treat him to a week’s worth of free alcohol once this was over.

He did his best to walk past Masato without touching his mate, who was back to wearing the old woman’s illusion today. A very old, ugly woman with horrid fashion sense. Schuldig’s temper was too on edge to even contemplate someone taking an interest in his mate, so Masato was using his talent to charm sympathy and affection from the people he came across, rather than desire. Besides, if they did find the girl, the illusion should help to put her at ease, or at least keep her from being too frightened. Schuldig only hid his natural coloring today, muting his hair to a dull brown and his eyes to a plain hazel so he attracted less attention.

Botan had said that the spies were wearing charms that cloaked their thoughts, which required mandrake, mugwort, wormwood and malachite. So he focused his wanderings around the booths that sold those goods, in hopes that the brat would come back there to purchase more items for Garcia. He also kept an eye on the booths that sold the stones more commonly used for wards, as Botan guessed that if Garcia were to try to sell any items to potential customers, those that would be of most interest right now were powerful charms of protection. Hmm, guess the short-lived humans were figuring out that something was going on in the near future that might impact their perfect little lives and they wanted to hide away from it in their homes. Good luck with that.

He had just passed the mandrake booth for the third time that afternoon when he finally caught sight of a small girl slipping between an older woman and some wizard’s apprentice who were busy perusing the booth’s wares. Careful not to give himself away, he slinked around to the back of the booth while he began to cloud the minds of the people in the immediate area.

<I think I’ve found her!>

Masato finished paying for a loaf of cinnamon bread and came toward the booth, appearing as if ‘she’ was in no hurry. <I see her, she’s buying at least a pound of mandrake root right now. It’ll take her another minute to finish.> As he spoke, he shoved the loaf of bread into the bag strapped across his chest so both his hands were free, and let Schuldig ‘see’ the thought in his head of where he pretended to be the girl’s grandmother.

<Hmm, that should work if you whammy her good to keep her quiet long enough for us to drag her away. I’ll distract everyone enough so we don’t have them screaming for the Guard.> Schuldig supposed that it was better than just grabbing the brat and running, as he had been about to do, and hated the fact that he was limited in how he could use his talent on the girl.

Even though his head ached, he pushed out with his talent to ‘cloud’ the minds of the people around them so they would barely notice when Masato got hold of the girl. She had just paid for the herb and was turning to leave when he grabbed hold of her left arm and smiled. "There you are, sweetie! I was worried when you didn’t meet me at Uri’s booth! Now let’s get home before it rains." To everyone around them, including the brat, ‘she’ was just an elderly woman fussing over ‘her’ granddaughter, who meekly went followed along.

In truth, Masato was laying so much glamour on the brat that she had no choice but to trust him as he dragged her through the market to where Schuldig was waiting for them, a small store that had gone out of business and had been locked up. It had been no test of Schuldig’s lock-picking skills to break in, and he used his talent to keep anyone from noticing that they were using the place. He might not be good for much after tonight with the way he had been abusing his talent the last few weeks, but at least he finally had something to show for all of his efforts.

He allowed the illusion around himself to drop and, after a moment’s debate, Masato’s as well. They had the girl alone now, and it might be more suspicious if Masato did not act like he appeared so best to get it out of the way before the brat noticed and got too suspicious. As it was, she barely seemed to notice the change, which made Schuldig sigh and rub his aching temples. "Masato… I think you’re overdoing it."

"Eh?" Masato looked away from the brat, and something made him swear under his breath and reach out to caress Schuldig’s left cheek, concern evident on his face and over their link. "Not half as much as you are, Brat."

The nickname just then made him smile, seeing as he had been thinking just the same about the girl. "Let up a bit so we can get some sense out of her, okay?" He smacked his mate’s arm and bared his teeth in a mock show of anger. "Gotta do all of the thinking around here, I swear."

Masato laughed as he did as he had been told, and moved so the kid was blocked from running for the door. "Such a hard life you have."

"And don’t you forget it. Better get some damn good sex when we get home tonight," he sniffed as he shifted a little closer to the girl. He might not be able to snare her with his talent, but he could physically grab hold of her if need be.

<Anything you want, as always,> Masato promised, right before the damn brat snapped out of the glamour-induced haze she had been in. She blinked her eyes a few times and, as Schuldig had thought, started a little and then tried to run for the door.

"Ah, ah, ah! Why don’t you stay for a bit since we went through all the trouble of finding you, eh?" he told her in a cheerful voice as he hauled her over to a dusty table and forced her down into a chair. "Now *stay*," he ordered, as if she was a dog. Wonder of all wonders, she actually listened.

"Who are you?" she asked as she clutched at the bag she wore draped across her narrow chest, as if afraid he would try to steal it from her. "I don’t have anything valuable, I promise!"

He rolled his eyes as he leaned across the table. "Oh, please, we’re not gonna rob you nor do we want your body. We just want to know about the bastard who paid you to buy those things you’re holding onto as if they’re solid gold."

"Schu," Masato complained as the girl huddled in the chair. <That’s not how you go about these things.> He crouched down in front of the brat and reached into his own bag for the loaf of bread he had bought earlier. "Look, I’m Masato and he’s Schuldig. We’re not going to hurt you," he said as he offered a piece a bread to the girl, all the while once more radiating trust and affection. "I promise."

The girl tried to resist at first, well aware that she was in a dark room with two strange men who had dragged her into it. Yet Masato for all of his scruffiness was very handsome, maybe even more so with the way his hair was always tousled and the faint hint of stubble on his chin, his clothes finely made yet creased and worn without much care. He came across as someone… not so much as normal as someone who was not *not* normal, if it made any sense, someone who did not stand out too much with exotic beauty and aloofness such as Aya, too distant and proper like Trowa or even too sensual like Yohji yet who deserved the attention and respect all the same. Combined with his talent, it was just enough for the girl to reach out and accept the food, which judging from the way her wrist bones stuck out she could really use.

"You… you’re bounds, aren’t you?" she asked after eating all of the bread, and accepted the rest of it that Masato gave her. The glamour that Masato was cranking out helped to keep her calm. "I mean, you don’t look like you did back in the market."

"Yes, we are." Masato glanced at Schuldig for a moment. "And so are you."

The girl’s brown eyes went wide at the statement, then closed as they filled with tears. "No I’m not! I’m normal! I can’t do anything," she sobbed as she held the piece of bread to her chest.

"Give it a few more months and you’ll be able to do a lot. Tell me, have you been dreaming about your claws yet?" Schuldig asked the girl, remembering the dreams he had before his nails had fallen off as his claws grew in to replace them. When the girl opened her eyes to stare at him, he smiled and held up his right hand. "You dream where you’re using them, right? Tearing into things and how good it feels, catching things and the such." As he spoke, he extended the claws that he was so careful to keep hidden when around humans. "All gaki-soul bounds have ‘em. You’ll be like me, a soul gaki bound, or else you’d be dreaming about blood and flesh now, too."

She continued to stare at him until Masato reached out to give her left knee a gentle touch. "What’s your name?"

She was quiet for a few seconds before she answered. "Haru." When she began to nibble on the bread again, it was clear she had no family name to add to it.

"Haru, that’s pretty." Masato smiled, and even Schuldig could feel the warmth in it from where he stood, and it was not directed at him. "Are you having the dreams?"

"Yes," she admitted in a whisper. "But how do I know you’re not stealing my thoughts or something?"

Schuldig laughed and ran a hand through his hair. "Because that’s the one thing I can’t do right now. Since you’re like me but on the verge of coming into your talent, it’s a bad thing to go into your head. It can really hurt you." He let his lips pull back from his teeth to put an edge to his smile. "You have information we need. I *can* get it, but we don’t hurt fellow bounds if we can help it. That bastard Garcia can’t say the same, you know. He uses our blood for his spells."

"No he doesn’t!" Haru jumped to her feet as she defended the bastard wizard. "How do you know that? He’s always been nice to me!"

"Haru…." Masato grasped the girl’s hand and made her look at him. "We know that because we work for the Guard and we’re hunting Garcia down on the Royal Wizard’s orders. I swear that to you before all the gods, forsaking all darkness should I lie." The oath startled the girl and made her bite back any more protests she was about to make. "Garcia does use bound blood."

He glanced at Schuldig, and it was clear he was hesitant to tell the complete truth to the girl. <I don’t think she’s ready to hear that he might be planning to use her, too.>

<Yeah, you’re probably right. I doubt she’s had many people be nice to her over the years.> "Look, why do you think he needs you to get stuff for him, eh?" Schuldig asked in the faint hope that logic would work. "He’s hiding from Botan, so he sends a little girl out to do his shopping."

Haru looked back and forth between him and Masato, at a clear loss of what to do. For the second time in his life, Schuldig wished that he could tear into a mind and was frustrated by the inability to do just that. So he did the only thing he could. <Mom!>

<What is it? You don’t need to ‘shout’ so loud,> Cassandra chided.

<We found the brat, but the thing is, she’s not being convinced so easily. Any ideas how to beat the truth out of a kid?> He wondered if tying her upside down and starting a small fire beneath her would work. It had made Teddy tell him and Yohji where the pest had hidden their toys the one time….

<Trouble! How dare you think that! Bring her to me,> Cassandra ordered, furious enough that Schuldig had a new headache. <I’ll summon Botan, and he and I will convince the poor child. Torture her indeed. My own son. Ashamed, am I.> She severed the connection with a faint mental whap that left him with the impression that there would be no beignets in his near future. Damn.

He looked over to find two sets of eyes staring at him. "Well, looks like you get to meet the Royal Wizard himself, Haru. Let’s see if you know how to curtsey." He smiled as he motioned for the brat to start walking. Hopefully, his mother and Botan would have more luck getting the information out of her than he and Masato had, but at least they had laid some groundwork and caught her. With even more luck, once they dropped off the kid they could consider their part in this assignment done, as she would give up Garcia’s address and the Shadow Guard could finally catch the bastard.

*******

Masato glanced at his mate out of the corner of his eye and winced, the furious expression on Schuldig’s face confirming the emotions he sensed over their link. Oh yes, someone was *not happy* just then. He could hardly claim to be surprised after the way things had turned out at Cassandra’s house, after how the precog had eventually charmed the address out of the girl with nothing more than some sweets and a few smiles, along with Botan’s presence. Schuldig and Masato had tried their best the entire trip from the northern Magic market to Cassandra’s house to get the truth from Haru, and Masato knew that his glamour was pretty damn strong, but he had to hand it to Cassandra. Then again, he supposed that a young girl had a lot more to fear from strange men than she had from women, and Cassandra had a way about her, something about her small frame and tremulous smile, that put you at ease.

To make matters worse, not only did they fail to get the information out of the girl, but instead of being able to go home after turning her over to Cassandra, they were tasked with finding out if it were any good. Haru swore that she was telling the truth and Cassandra trusted her, but Cassandra also had trouble seeing anything when the girl had finally revealed where she was supposed to return with the goods she had purchased at the market. Also, Haru admitted that Garcia had been moving around a lot lately, and there was a chance that she might return to the apartment to find someone else there. Since the Shadow Guard were busy tracking down Garcia’s spies, that left them to continue to follow this lead.

Which left him to deal with one hell of a testy mate at the moment. <Schu… we’ll get there and either find Garcia or one of his lackeys. Either way, you should be able to read *that* person’s mind,> he assured his lover in an attempt to improve the brat’s mood.

<We should damn well be in bed right now fucking each other’s brains out, not working,> Schuldig shot back as he growled. <Don’t tell me you’re happy about this!>

Masato ran his hands through his hair in an effort to remain calm. <As if I’m ever happy missing out on an opportunity for sex with you. *However*, in a few more hours we should be *completely* done with this. Meaning that Cassandra, Crawford, Birman, Yohji and whoever else we can think of should have *no* *cause* *in* *ANY* *hell* to give us grief over slacking off on the job and leave us alone for a few weeks. A few weeks during which we can have a *lot* of sex. Didn’t I tell you to stop thinking of the present so much, brat?>

Praise the gods, but he could swear that he saw a slight twitch at the corners of Schuldig’s lips for a moment. <Okay, you *may* have a point there, Old Man.> Schuldig allowed his left hip to bump into Masato’s right as they hurried down the street. "For once," he muttered.

"It’s gotta happen now and then," Masato joked as he slid his right arm around his mate’s waist. For a moment he thought about the last couple of weeks and how he had been made to suffer, all of the various illusions of ugly crones, cheap prostitutes and virginal schoolgirls and then merely shook his head. Better to just let it go and hope that they returned home soon so they could put this assignment behind them. One of them had to be mature about things, after all, and it was obvious which of them that would be.

"I’m warning you now, if no one’s home, I’m torching the place. Seriously." Judging from the murderous glint in Schuldig’s jade green-colored eyes, he was telling the truth, so Masato sent a quick prayer that the bloodthirsty brat found someone to vent on when they reached their destination.

At least Schuldig felt more excited than angry by the time they reached the apartment building where Haru told them that Garcia was now staying, not too far from the northern Magic market. Masato felt it when Schuldig cloaked them with an illusion to keep anyone from noticing them, as the neighborhood was middle-class and liable to keep an eye out for strangers.

He stared at Schuldig for a moment, until his mate reluctantly nodded and allowed him to go first into the apartment building. He was bigger and the more experienced of the two, more likely to spot any traps and should he spring any, Schuldig would be able to use his telepathy to help fight off any attackers and call for help. They had their rings to protect them from magic, but it was foolish to expect the jewelry to keep them safe from everything.

Fortunately, they made it to the apartment without any attacks. Once at the correct door, Masato stepped aside with a similar reluctance that Schuldig had shown outside, as Schuldig would need to use his talent to push inside. His mate flashed him a knowing smile before he knocked.

After the fourth time, the door finally opened to reveal a man of stocky build with a weak chin and light brown hair. As far as Masato could recall, the description did *not* fit Garcia and the black ring enabled him to see through any illusion. "Can I help you?" The man radiated confusion and distrust, so Masato did his best to glamour him while Schuldig put his talent to work as well.

"Yes, you can let us in." Schuldig stared at him and hissed after a second. "Let us *in*, dammit."

The man paled as he did as he had been told.

<He has the same protection charm as the spy and some mental training as well. The asshole might not be Garcia, but he’s definitely a wizard,> Schuldig warned as they entered the apartment, cautious of any traps and grateful for the rings’ defenses against spells.

The wizard’s brown eyes widened as they made their way in, his mouth working several times before sound came out. "How-"

"Ah, I think we’ll be the ones asking questions," Schuldig chided as he moved with blinding speed to grab hold of the man’s right hand and twisted it back. "Get his pouch," he warned Masato. <It’s a good thing we came as the apartment’s warded. Anyone without a ring would have been killed.>

"Nasty," Masato commented as he did as he had been told, happy to ignore the wizard’s moan of pain as Schuldig continued to twist his arm. His mate had been very frustrated for a long time, so it was best to let him play with his latest toy. "Hmm, Birman will probably want him alive, you know," he decided to warn when he remembered just how frustrated Schuldig had been.

"Oh, don’t worry, I’ll leave him in enough pieces for her to get something out of him." Schuldig smiled in a manner that would have done Jei proud, which caused the wizard to stutter out a spell. When nothing happened other than Masato and Schuldig shivering a little in reaction to the spell sliding past them, the man’s eyes bugged out in shock. "Oooh, I think we broke his brain just there."

"Who the hell are you?" the wizard spat out as he tried to twist his way free from Schuldig’s grip, only to cry out in pain as Schuldig dug in his claws.

"See, I think that’s our question for you. Obviously you’re not Garcia, but I’m thinking you might be able to tell us a bit about him, yes?" Schuldig smiled again, the expression cruel and hungry.

Masato hoped that Birman was not too upset over them turning over a very broken wizard.

*******

"We’ll arrange a meeting in the coming week to discuss the matter further," Rufus told Lord Shimane, having to stop himself from inviting the man to his house. That was out of the question while Reno was acting so irrationally, which most likely would continue until that damn wizard was caught.

"Of course. Perhaps you can pay me a visit. My wife hosts a wonderful dinner," Lord Shimane offered as he bowed slightly.

"That sounds lovely." Rufus forced himself to smile as he bowed in return. No doubt Shimane planned to show off his two daughters at the dinner, turning a discussion over weapons into possible marriage prospects. It was something he was growing used to lately, and that he knew to expect. He was a ‘single’ lord, after all, at least in the eyes of Kritiker’s highborns, and so was fair game.

Unfortunately, it would just make the situation between him and his mate that much more worse. He waited for Lord Shimane to leave before snatching the first glass of wine to go past him and gulp it down as he made his way to a quiet corner of the banquet room. There were several people he was supposed to talk to this evening about various matters, most of them business-related, but he needed a few minutes to gather his thoughts before he dove back into the crowd.

As he moved, Tseng shadowed him through the throng, a faithful presence only a few steps behind him. <Have you noticed anything suspicious this evening?>

<Nothing that directly impacts us, Sir,> Tseng reported, his emotions calm and a touch distant. <However, I’ve yet to notice the Spymaster or her assistant, Trowa, here tonight.>

Now that was curious. Rufus snagged another glass of wine as he glanced around the room. As Tseng had pointed out, Birman and Trowa appeared absent tonight, which was unusual. He thought he recognized Mariela, one of the succubae bounds who worked for Birman mingling among the crowd, but usually Trowa at least was present for gatherings as large as this to report back to his employer. Did that mean that something important was happening somewhere else?

<The last I’ve heard, they’re still tracking down the spies working for Garcia,> he commented to Tseng. <There have been no updates that I’m aware of.> And there would be updates if Crawford, Yuushi and Birman were smart, as he did *not* appreciate being kept in the dark about things. Especially not after finding out that Garcia had managed to trace Aya back to the western Green district.

He caught a faint hint of displeasure from his gokenin, lingering from his ongoing fight with Reno. Sipping his wine, he looked over the rim of his glass at Tseng as if daring the man to make a comment, mentally or out loud, about the matter. Tseng stared back for a few seconds before bowing his head and resuming his duty of paying attention to the crowd.

Rufus sighed before he finished the second glass of wine, suddenly weary and wanting…. He was uncertain what he wanted anymore. If he stayed here, he would have to put up with scheming humans, and if he went home, he would only have to put up with displeased gokenin and distant and unhappy mate. He was so hungry any more, doing his best to feed from the emotions of people around him when he really wanted Reno’s happiness and desire, two emotions that had been absent ever since he had dragged his mate back from the Koneko. All he had to satisfy himself with lately was that at least Reno was safe and out of harm’s way.

<Rude.>

<Yes, Sir?> Rude answered him with caution and respect.

<How is he tonight?> Rufus was less concerned with his mate’s temperament as to making sure that Reno had stayed put for once.

<He’s out in the garden. Cyril’s with him, making sure he doesn’t kill all of the fish.> There was a weary amusement to Rude’s thoughts.

<If he does, tell him he’ll be eating them for the next week,> Rufus warned before severing the connection. Assured that his mate was behaving for once, Rufus smoothed a hand down his white overcoat and felt some of the tension leave his shoulders. He could always test the link between him and Reno to find out what his mate was up to – as much as he was able to anymore when Reno was blocking it on his end - but he needed to concentrate on the minds around him tonight. If he gave in and searched out Reno now, he would allow himself to be distracted and possibly taken advantage of at a wrong moment. He was already putting enough business on hold because of Reno and all of the recent upheaval in their life.

Dammit, Crawford and Yuushi better catch Garcia soon. Once the wizard was dead then Rufus could work on fixing what was wrong with his relationship with Reno. If he kept telling himself that, it would happen sooner or later. They were mates, after all, they had no other choice but to make things work out, he thought as he returned his attention back to the gathering around him.

*******

Crawford scowled at the pot of brewing tea as if he could blame it for his lack of visions. All this time, and he had barely seen anything noteworthy, just a few flashes here and there that *might* be of use to Schuldig and the Shadow Guard. He had been unable to take any joy in how frustrated his son had been the other night with the few details he had been able to give the annoying brat to help track down the girl Garcia was using for errands, well aware that making Schuldig work hard for once was balanced with dragging out the assignment.

The longer that Garcia was out there, the more danger there was to bounds and the war in general. From the little that Crawford *had* seen, Garcia was doing his best to master spells that would use bound blood to aid Kritiker against Esset. As much as Crawford wanted the Elders to lose and knew it would be a disaster for everyone – bounds and humans – if they resurrected their creator, it would be just as disastrous for bounds if Garcia was the reason why Kritiker won the war. No bound would be spared as they were hunted down for their blood to fuel the spells to protect the country, and afterward there would be a new era where such spells would be freely practiced once again. Or… there was also the chance that Garcia and his ilk would try to bring about such an era, only to have something rise up and tear Kritiker, Esset and even the surrounding countries apart. Considering that Crawford’s talent was blocked by darkness over what exactly that ‘something’ was, he had a very strong suspicion he knew who would be the one behind such complete destruction.

All it would probably take was some fool attempting to harm Yohji or one of Aya’s close friends, and the kage would not stop until he laid the entire continent to waste. The Koneko would be spared, of course, and probably centers of knowledge, but little else as Aya made it clear that the price of bound blood was much too high. While Crawford was all for the humans learning that lesson once and for all, he was rather fond of comforts such as civilization and architecture and so would prefer for them to learn it in a less… absolute manner.

For a moment he contemplated all of that power, the ability to create the vast amount of destruction that he had caught glimpses of in his visions and shivered as if ice had formed along his spine. What *had* the gods been thinking when they allowed the creation of kage? To put that much power, which rivaled their own, in the hands of a being with a human body and human emotions they barely understood? At least this time the gods had the sense to tie the kage to a mate, one who was strong willed and intelligent enough to rein him in if need be.

Crawford shook his head as he poured the tea. He was supposed to be thinking about Garcia, *not* Aya and Yohji, who were part of the problem with his lack of visions. Focus on the wizard, he chided himself as he added honey to the hot liquid, in faint hopes of improving its taste. The brew was one of Cassandra’s, a blend to aid in visions and not one imbibed for its flavor. If he did not know for a fact that she used it herself, he would swear that she made it taste this vile on purpose, just to annoy him.

Taking his mug over to the kitchen table, he sat down while he gave the tea a minute to cool off. While he waited, he worked on some mental exercises that helped to focus his mind and clear it of unwanted thoughts. For the most part he accepted visions as they came to him, but there were times when he had to seek them out like this, to open up his talent and hope it was receptive to changes that were happening to the future. No precog could ‘see’ on demand all the time, but the stronger one’s talent, the better one’s chances were if there was an event about to happen that would impact the future.

Judging the tea to have cooled enough, he raised the mug to his lips and drank it down as quickly as he could, focusing on what he wanted to ‘see’ rather than the taste. He pictured Garcia in his mind, familiar with the wizard from various descriptions and the few glimpses he had caught from other visions. *Something* had to happen soon, either the wizard would make an attempt on Aya or would try to escape the city, and so would alter the future somewhat. Crawford searched with desperation for any impact from the man’s actions to the future he fought to protect.

There were flashes of visions, pictures from the future as his talent latched on to moments to come. Some were familiar, others were not, and he memorized all of them as he was trained to do. There was Cassandra cradling an infant in her arms, only now there was a young girl by her side, who seemed oddly familiar. Duo, holding on to an unconscious Trowa as he summoned a wall of fire, his eyes appearing made of flames as he bared his teeth in rage. Omi as he gave a blushing Helena a book while Nagi looked on. Time moved back and forth, causing Crawford to lose hope and feel the beginnings of a strain-induced headache when he finally caught a glimpse of the damn wizard.

Garcia wore a cloak, as did most people as the weather turned cold, yet the hood was pulled far over his face, as it was with the three people who were with him. Those three people, two men and a woman, moved with a grace that Crawford associated with fighters or spies, and as the one man turned to nod to Garcia, he caught sight of a face he had seen previously in a vision associated with Birman. Ah, so this was one of her business rivals, whom the Shadow Guard were even now busy attempting to track down.

They were outside and night had fallen, making it difficult to see any details other than the light rain which obscured the skies. He saw Garcia ready several charms, most likely to breach wards, and caught a hint of cedar. Then the vision faded into darkness, a sure sign that Aya or someone with close ties to a shinigami bound was involved.

He cursed as the disorientation of the vision faded, his talent shutting off as the link to the future vanished. Allowing himself a moment to regain his energy, he kept his eyes closed and took a few deep breaths before rising from the table and leaving the kitchen. His gait was uneven at first, as the use of his talent had drained him more than he had expected.

"Eh, you don’t look so good. Pass out in here and I’ll take a few bites out of you before I put you to bed," Jei warned, barely looking up from the book he was reading in his chair by the window.

"As always, your concern is very touching," Crawford answered with as much sarcasm as he could muster just then. He went over to sit in the other chair, grateful for its comfortable cushions as his body reminded him that while his talent was not a very physical one, it took its tool on him none the less.

"Yeah, that’s me, always the mother hen." Jei set his book aside and looked him over. "You have a vision, finally." He grinned, lips pulled back to expose all of his sharp teeth and an insane light made his golden-hued eye glow.

"Yes, and it’s not quite clear enough for you to get to eat a wizard any time soon, dammit." Crawford hissed as he ran his fingers through his hair, the motion making his head ache even more. "All I know is that Garcia and three others will try for Aya. Which makes no sense. The Shadow Guard have done everything they can to throw the bastard off of Aya’s trail with the decoys and having him stay at the Koneko." Feeling even more frustrated with the little bit the vision had shown him than he had been before, he rose from the chair and began to pace around.

"You were here when Trowa stopped by to relay Birman’s message about the spy and what Yohji and Eri did, so as far as Garcia should know, there’s no reason at all to suspect that there’s any dubhach or kage at the Koneko. Or even in the western Green district, with the way that Yohji’s friends are rallying around him and the tampering that was done to the spy. Even if Garcia suspects anything, I doubt even Schuldig could undo any coercion that’s been done by both Eri and Yohji." It just did not make any sense, and that was what annoyed him the most. His visions were *never* wrong, so it had to be that something was missing, that there was an important piece that was blocked from him that would make it all fall into place. He was simply unable to see it at this point and that annoyed him more than anything.

Jei regarded him with that hungry smile and insane look for a few seconds, enough for Crawford to stop feeling annoyed and begin to feel a bit uncomfortable, and then grunted softly. "Okay, so what did you see? Obviously not me eating the bastard’s heart, which is what I really want to hear right now."

"And once again, we find out what’s really important in the world, which is you," Crawford complained, but he had to smile as he did so. "I saw Garcia and three people who are either spies or fighters, one of which I’ve seen in a previous vision being interrogated by Birman so I know for a fact he’s a spy." He paused as he recalled something. "You were there, so your stomach will be happy to know it’ll be full at some point in the near future, assuming we can catch the human and stop either Garcia winning the war over the bodies of thousands of bounds corpses or Aya annihilating most of the continent."

"Hmm, the first and the last are fine with me, should mean food either way," Jei remarked as he flexed his claws.

Not for the first time wondering why the hell the gods had also allowed the creation of flesh gaki bounds, Crawford muttered a brief prayer for patience before he continued and paced back and forth in front of the window. "The four of them were out in the night and rain, using spells to breach wards. Then darkness ended my vision, which is usually a sign that Aya or those closely associated with him are involved. I *highly* doubt that they’re stopping by for tea and cake." This time, he managed to convey the usual amount of sarcasm.

"You never know with Aya involved." Jei flashed a little more teeth in what Crawford assumed was a smile and then managed to rein in a bit of the madness. "I’ve just one question, though, why do you assume it’s Aya?"

"Did you not hear me mention the part about the darkness ending the vision?"

"Yeah, nothing wrong with my ears, still got both of them." Jei even motioned to them. "But he’s not the only shinigami bound around, right? I mean, I thought Reno fucked up your talent as well, and isn’t he the one that Garcia’s going after?"

Crawford came to a stop and stared at his partner, stunned into silence for several seconds. "You’re… absolutely right. I’m so used to Aya blocking my visions that I forgot about Reno."

Jei flashed his teeth and nodded. "Well, everyone’s been worried about Aya because of the spy ending up at the Koneko, guess he’s been stuck in your head. But Reno’s out there, too."

"None of Birman’s or Yuushi’s reports have mentioned Garcia getting close to him, though." Crawford turned to look out the window as he recalled the vision. "Dammit, it was dark out so I didn’t see much. They were clearly outside, I only saw them and could smell cedar…." He had been to Shinra’s home once before, not long after the lord had settled into his mother’s house. There was little fear of his visit getting back to the Elders because supposedly, they both were ‘loyal’ to Esset, yet they limited contact as much as possible to avoid suspicion as there was little reason for them to associate other than the war. He remembered the outer gate with its brick walls and the Shinra family herald, but there was an inner fence as well, one around the private garden where Reno had spent much of the visit. That fence was made of cedar, some of the planks freshly cut this past spring…. "It’s definitely Shinra’s house."

"Great, now we just have to figure out when he’s gonna attempt to grab Reno and be there to stop him!" Jei snarled out the words, clearly eager to catch the wizard and have a bite or two before turning him over to the Shadow Guard. "Think we can come up with an excuse to hang out there without telling Shinra? He probably won’t be too happy to hear that the bastard tracked down Reno after all and not want to let us play."

Crawford was about to move from the window and tell Jei that if he could figure out a way to hide the truth from a powerful soul gaki bound mated to a shinigami bound, good luck with that when he noticed something. Between concentrating so much on his vision and then trying to decipher it, he had failed to remember the importance of the one he had told Schuldig the other night – that this evening could be one of the best times to catch Garcia’s errand girl. The foretold rain must have started at some point when he had been in the kitchen, as the streets outside were wet and people were walking about with umbrellas, water-proofed or charmed cloaks. There were no moons to be seen in the sky, as the clouds hid them and the stars from view. This was the light rain that he had seen in the vision.

"Curse the gods, they’re going after Reno *now*!" he told Jei as he spun from the window. "We have to get there! Grab my cloak!" He wasted no time as he ran for the door, right hand busy tapping on his copper bracelet as his left one grabbed his boots.

He managed a terse message to the Shadow Guard as he raced out of the apartment and down the steps, and almost tripped when he pulled on his boots without stopping. Once that was done, he attempted to contact Shinra, but the bastard refused his mental ‘taps’ and he lacked the power to make the man pay attention. Dammit. Instead, he reached out for his son, who despite all of his faults at least paid attention.

<What do you want? I’m trying to interrogate a wizard.>

Brushing aside his son’s annoyance, Crawford grabbed his cloak from Jei and then had to do his best to keep up with his partner. <Who? Not Garcia, he’s after Reno right now.>

The annoyance increased, along with anger. <Dammit, that’s what this asshole’s trying to hide! He’s Garcia’s partner, we got the address from Haru and found him here instead of Garcia. Now that I know what he’s been holding back, I can really tear into him.> Schuldig sent along the impression that he and Masato had just arrived at the apartment and he barely had any time to work through the man’s mental barriers.

<Do whatever you need to do, just try to warn Shinra about Garcia! The bastard’s refusing to talk to me.> He allowed some annoyance of his own to creep over the link.

<Figures. I’ll do what I can.> Schuldig severed the connection, but Crawford trusted his son to try to warn Shinra since Reno was Schuldig’s friend.

Jei had reached the stable where they kept their horses, and it was fortunate that the stablehand seemed on break at the moment because the flesh gaki bound was in full berserker mode. Figuring that he would be lucky to have a bridle on his horse, Crawford waited for his mare to be scared out of her stall in his direction and made note of the messages coming through the Shadow Guard as they scrambled toward the southern Gold district. He could only hope they got there on time, especially when Reiichi warned everyone that Yohji and Aya had just left the Koneko.

*******

Return to Archive

Next Chapter