Chasing Threads

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chapter nine

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tangled threads

*******

Victor looked up at the cloud-covered sky as rain began to fall and adjusted his cloak before he motioned to Sanji and the spy’s assistants to gather around him closer. "I need all of you to remain as near me as possible." He held up the charm of silver and hematite in his right hand. "I’ve magic that will get us through Shinra’s wards in one piece, but there’s no way to keep his gokenin from knowing that we’ve crossed over them. This, however, will confuse them and alert anyone tied to the wards that we’re really much smaller than we actually are." He had used the last of the earth elemental blood that he had on the charm, which should get them across the estate’s property and to the mansion without anyone suspecting their true identity. "With luck, they’ll just assume that a stray dog or two have crossed the wards."

Sanji eyed the charm with interest. "Hmm, after this is over, I think we’ll have to renegotiate your bill. Some things are more valuable than gold." Victor shared a smile with the man, perfectly willing to barter as he could always set his wards against his own magic. "Estelle, you said that Shinra took two of his gokenin with him this evening?"

The quiet woman nodded at the question and stepped forward as she answered. "Yes, sir. They rode out almost three ago, Lord Shinra and the two gokenin who usually attend Court with him, the man from Xan and the blond woman." Like all of Sanji’s people, Estelle had no distinguishing features other than she appeared young and fit.

Her partner, a dark complexioned man whom Sanji had introduced as Satish, continued the explanation. "Shinra should be attending Lady Kotone’s party this evening, which means he’ll be busy for the next several hours. We haven’t seen anyone else leave the estate."

Sanji nodded as if he had expected all of the details in their reports. "From what I’ve gathered, Shinra runs a tight household. He had just the four gokenin until just a couple of weeks ago, and it’s very rare that he goes out with all of them."

"He’s obviously leaving some of them behind to keep an eye on Reno." Victor grasped the charm between his fingers and squeezed it in excitement before hanging the chain it was on around his neck. "Your reports indicate that he uses him as little as possible, most likely because of his behavior." To think that the dubhach had been here all the time, hidden behind an illusion spell and estate walls…. Lord Shinra had been clever enough to hide the creature’s distinctive coloring and place him someplace that Victor would never think to look, but had been foolish enough to allow Reno to keep his name. Sanji had gone digging for more information on Rod and found the man’s fellow gokenin.

"Yes, well, let’s just hope that none of them are bounds as well, or wizards," Sanji cautioned as he motioned Victor toward the Shinra wall. "And let’s get this over with before someone notices us, rain or no rain."

The wall was higher than Victor’s height, but it was mainly built to impress and to allow privacy as the wards would protect the estate. Sanji provided the boost that Victor needed to reach the top of the walls, where he remained crouched until the three spies joined him before he jumped to the ground on the other side. He felt a slight heat from the charm as it pressed against his chest, which signaled that the wards had been safely circumvented. Whatever wizard had casted them had been good, but Victor was talented as well, and his research had allowed him many advantages as long as he had the proper resources on hand.

They remained close together as they crossed the estate’s grounds, the grass neatly cut and the trees well-trimmed as befitted the small, park-like space between the outer wall and the elaborate mansion. While the grounds were not as large as those estates belonging to families with closer ties to the king, there was still a good bit of distance to cover. Sanji and his assistants moved quietly and efficiently, making Victor feel clumsy and out of shape as he struggled to keep up with them in the dark and on the slippery grass. He was grateful for the chance to catch his breath as they came up to another wall, this one made of cedar. It probably housed a more formal garden around the mansion.

Sanji took the lead as he crept around the garden looking for a gate, which was soon found. Victor stepped forward to examine it for any obvious signs of wards or spells, and frowned when he was unable to find anything. Cautious of anyone overhearing them, he nodded to indicate that it should be fine to go through it, and Sanji checked to make sure that there were no physical traps or locks to worry about. After a minute, the spy opened the gate and ushered them through it.

*******

Reno stalked through the mansion’s hallway, feeling out of sorts and in a mood to destroy something. The rain had driven him inside – actually, he had been fine out in the rain, but a certain mother-hen had bitched and bitched and *bitched* until he had gotten tired of hearing it all and left the garden to go put on some dry clothes. What the hell? As if he had to worry about catching a cold or anything from being a little wet. The only time he had ever heard of a bound getting sick was if they had used their talent too much or, in Aya’s case, been drained too much by a succubae bound, and neither had happened to him. Not that he would mind trying out the latter one day….

That only made him think about Rufus, which darkened his mood even more and had him searching about for someone to shoot sparks at, dammit. Unfortunately, the staff had learned to stay the hell away from him and probably had retired to their quarters for the night, which meant he had to go looking for Rude, Rod and Cyril, who would just smack him for daring to zap them. Hmm, maybe starting a nice fight would be good- no, dammit, more than likely Rude would just sit on him while Cyril gave him those big blue eyes of his for being so ‘mean’ and Rod would take advantage of the situation to singe his toes or some other shit like that. As it was, his head still ached from Cyril chiding him over ‘traumatizing’ the ‘poor’ fish. How a bound could be so… so *nice*…. Reno shook his head as he searched out his friends. If he had not witnessed Cyril make several humans’ brains explode out of their ears he would have no respect for the water elemental.

He found his fellow gokenin enjoying some wine in the study, seated by the fire and appearing exhausted for some reason. "Hey! Why aren’t you sharing?"

Rude sighed and held out his full glass. "Just promise to behave, all right?" He sounded as tired as he looked.

"What the hell do you mean? Is the place still standing? Have I run off yet tonight? The staff still all alive?" Reno kept the destroyed vase in the bedroom to himself, a little present for Rufus to find whenever the bastard deigned to return home. He should consider himself lucky that Reno had refrained from the urge to burn all of the bastard’s clothes and merely smashed the hideous thing instead.

"You know… it’s pretty sad when that’s you being good," Rod commented, so sprawled out in the leather chair by the fire that it was amazing he could manage to drink from the wine glass without choking. "What’s it like when you’re in a really bad mood?"

Cyril managed a glare for his partner while he refilled his wine glass. "If you give him any ideas, you’ll find your boots filled with water for the next month." He glared for another few seconds after the warning before smiling in Reno’s direction. "If you’re hungry, I can go to the kitchen and fetch something for you."

"Thanks. Right now I’m more thirsty than hungry." He finished off the wine and held up the glass for a refill. There was an emptiness inside of him from the blocked link with Rufus, and a building pain as his two souls tore at each other, a growing tension that made his skin itch and madness creep into his thoughts, but being able to sit here and talk with his friends helped a little. Spending time with Aya would help even more, but he knew Rude was keeping too close an eye on him for him to be able to slip out to the Koneko.

His anger spiked at the thought of how he was trapped here yet Rufus was once again off frolicking at the palace, where he would be pawed at by all those human women. Once his glass was refilled, Reno gulped down the wine just to be able to do *something*. At first he thought it was his own emotions, so turbulent that they disturbed him and caused his souls to become even more unbalanced, that caused the prickle of discomfort that he felt. He shook his head in an attempt to clear it, and it finally dawned on him what it was that he had sensed. "Eh, somebody just passed through the outer wards," he growled.

Rod and Rude stopped whatever it was they were discussing in hushed voices to look at him, and Cyril scooted his chair a little closer to Reno’s. "I sensed something jumping the wall, but it must have been raccoons or maybe a dog." Rude spoke slowly, as if explaining things to a child.

Reno’s eyes narrowed in anger as he glowered at his best friend, unwilling to believe he was being argued with over wards. "And I’m telling ya that it wasn’t a fucking animal. They were too big for that." As if he was unable to tell the difference between a damn dog and a human.

"Uhm, if it were a human, they should have set off the defenses on the wall," Rod pointed out in a cheerful manner, as if trying to defuse the growing tension in the room. "So it had to be some critter looking for dinner. Maybe a raccoon interested in those fish you zapped, Reno."

Reno flung some sparks at the fire elemental. "Fuck you, those weren’t raccoons unless they happened to weigh well over a hundred pounds each."

Getting up from his chair, Rude reached over to grab Reno’s left hand and pushed it down onto the chair’s armrest. "They didn’t feel anywhere near as big to me, and as Rod mentioned, there’s been no other alarms. I think you’re just trying to get us to go outside and check things out so you can slip away and visit Aya." He still sounded tired, but his expression now was stern, a clear indicator that he was unwilling to budge from his opinion.

Some of the anger left Reno as he realized that Rude truly did believe that it was a bunch of animals out there and that he was lying. "Rude… dammit, it’s not a trick, I swear." When Rude’s expression remained the same, he cursed under his breath and attempted to jerk his arm free. "Look, tie me up and take me out there with you! Or shove me in a damn chest, have Cyril sit on it and go look yourself, or just send Rod out there but *do* something!"

"Like hell I’m going out in the rain for one of your jokes."

"Oh for *fuck’s* sake!" Reno bared his teeth at the asshole and wished that he had zapped Rod better a few minutes ago. "It’s not a fucking joke!" The room grew darker as he became more agitated, and for a moment he debated calling the shadows to him and vanishing. Dammit, Rude had a death-grip on his arm and was more tenacious than a starved flesh gaki, and he was willing to bet that the moment he tried to zap him, he would be punched. "I’m not lying! They just passed the second fence!"

Cyril rose from his chair and came over to stand beside Rude, appearing worried as he studied Reno. "Ease up a little on him, I don’t think it’s a trick."

"Eh, you willing to go get wet to check up on a bunch of damn oversized rodents?" Rod asked as he sat up in his chair.

"Why should I, when right now the world is filled with my element?" Cyril asked, a wry grin on his face as he motioned to the large bay windows along the eastern wall. He closed his eyes and seemed to concentrate on something, and Reno held his breath as the water elemental searched outside. Finally, someone was listening to him, and he sent a hurt look to Rude that it was not his friend. Rude had the grace to look away, a slight flush to his tan cheeks.

After a minute, Cyril gasped as his eyes flew open. "Oh hell, he’s telling the truth!" As he spoke, he flexed his wrists and caused the knives hidden up the sleeves of his black shirt to appear in his hands. "There’s four people outside in the inner garden!"

"What?" Rod snarled as jumped to his feet, his right hand snatching at the sword that had rested against the chair. "How the hell did they manage to slip past the wards?"

"One of them must be a wizard." Rude released Reno’s arm as he stepped back and hurried toward the door, his right hand busy tapping at the copper charm he wore at his neck. "Cyril, stay here and watch-"

"No." Reno cut off his partner as he raced after him. When Rude turned to glare and most likely order him to hide somewhere, he shook his head and held up his glowing hands. "If there’s a damn wizard out there, who do you think is gonna stand a chance against him, you or someone who’s immune to magic?"

"And what if it’s Garcia?" Rude asked, his broad face impassive but his voice worried. "He may have something prepared that can hurt you."

As if Reno had ever cared about being hurt. "Then he probably can hurt you, too, and I’m not gonna hide and wait for him to find me," he spat out, hoping that Rude had the sense to realize that there was no way he could accept an order to not fight.

His friend must have recognized something in his tone or expression, or maybe just knew him a hell of a lot better than Rufus did, which was a depressing thought. "All right. But if Rufus asks, you disobeyed us, okay?"

Reno smiled as he nodded. "Right. Speaking of which, you getting through to him?" He had not even tried, considering that their link was blocked and he refused to unblock it in case he was forced to go hide in the wine cellar or some similar bullshit.

"I’ve… been working on it," Cyril called out as he followed them out of the room. "But he’s distracted by something. At this point, he knows I’ve tried and Tseng’s been alerted, so I’d rather focus back on the intruders." He frowned as he approached Reno, the knives held at ready in his hands. "Dammit, they’ve reached shelter by the house. I can vaguely sense them by the water in their clothes and the blood in their bodies, but I won’t be able to do any true damage to them until they’re closer."

Rude muttered a curse beneath his breath and shoved Reno back, making it clear that he would take the lead, along with Rod. "Stick close to Reno and burst the hearts of anyone who comes in sight, all right?" Reno was about to complain about that, as Cyril’s range exceeded his own, then shrugged as he realized that could still feed off of the deaths. "Where does it feel like they are?"

Cyril concentrated for several seconds, while Rod was busy tapping something over his copper charm. Not for the first time, Reno felt some bitterness over being deprived of the communication charm and added it to his growing list of grievances with Rufus. "They-"

"Rufus’ office, dammit." He spat out the words as he shivered over the feel of wards being… ‘bent’ by whatever spell that damn wizard was using. He had his own wards around the room, as close as it was to the bedroom, weak ones that kept track of people’s comings and goings - *Rufus’ comings and goings – and he felt like gagging at the taint of that magic.

"Yes, Rufus’ office," Cyril echoed as he bared his teeth. "They’ve just entered the house through there." He was too polite to add ‘so get your ass in gear’, and Reno was just about to say it when Rude and Rod started running down the hallway.

"Give us five minutes," Rude called out over his left shoulder. There was no elaboration beyond that, as Reno and Cyril had been gokenin long enough to know that Rude and Rod could reach the office and take down any intruders in that amount of time with ease, or else that wizard had a hell of a lot more up his sleeve than spells to get around wards and they were all fucked.

Reno let a few sparks dance around his hands as he leaned against a wall and waited for those five minutes to be up. "So, who’s gonna be the lucky bastard to point out to Rufus that I was being a good boy an’ sitting on my ass at home when the wizard tracked me down, hmm?"

Cyril stared at him for several seconds before muttering a prayer to Kisei under his breath. "With any luck, we’ll all be dead and none of us will have to," he mumbled as he stared down the hallway."

"Killjoy."

*******

Birman followed behind Natsumi, mindful of how loud her footsteps seemed in regards to those of the soul gaki bound and Trowa’s, who was right behind her. Even if Natsumi was using her talent to ‘cloak’ them from the people on the street, she was annoyed by any failure on her part that caused extra work from her employees – never mind that most humans would probably fail to notice her or the sounds she was making. She had spent years learning how to go about unnoticed, first as an illegitimate child in the palace and then under Daiki’s tutelage. It was just that very few humans could come close to the skill of bounds, especially those who made their living sneaking around.

Natsumi held up her gloved left hand to motion for them to stop, her dark eyes narrowed as she stared across the street at the figure who had just vanished into a shop that bore the sign ‘Tanaka & Sons Accounting’. With her long black hair pulled back into a neat bun, the silver rimmed glasses and dressed in her usual long sleeved shirt, close fitting jerkin and long, narrow skirt, all in various shades of dark grey and purple for tonight, she came across more like some sort of prim governess than one of Birman’s best spies, yet that deceptive appearance gained her access into a wealth of places and underestimated by almost everyone. <I’m sensing at least four other people inside the building, and none of the thoughts I’m picking up have anything to do with numbers.> An amused smile brightened her lovely face. <Is it any surprise that all of them have some sort of mental shield?>

"I would hope not, considering that we’ve been following the target all the way from the eastern Glass district, and I’d rather not spend a night out in the rain for nothing." Birman allowed a hint of waspishness to creep into her voice; it was rare that she participated in the ‘legwork’ like this, but the Shadow Guard had done an excellent job of gathering information and following leads from the spies they had caught tailing Blair and Aya. When she and Trowa had compiled all of that data, she had noticed that there had been a point of reference that had stood out and so here they were, hoping that it led to bigger and better targets. From the little that Natsumi had picked up from the spy they had been tracking for the last two hours, this *should* be where the more trusted employees of the spy ring reported to turn in information and pick up new assignments that they would then dissimulate down the chain of command.

"So, five people… will that be a problem, considering that we don’t know which ones are the most important?"

Natsumi and Trowa glanced at each other as if gauging the other’s talents. "The ring lets me slip past their shields," Natsumi explained as she held up her left hand, even though the ring enhanced with Aya’s blood was hidden behind the glove, "but in order to ensure that there’s no damage to their memories, I’d have to be very close and it may take a minute or two in order to for me to incapacitate them all."

Trowa pulled the mottled grey cloak he wore tighter around him. "I have a wider range than Natsumi, but my problem is it’s easier for me to kill than to knock them out." He let out a slow breath and seemed to consider something. "That said, I think we should work together. If we get a little closer, she can take care of the targets nearest the door while I handle those who are farther inside the building."

"That will work," Natsumi agreed with an eager nod.

"Great, just remember that my contribution to this is authorizing your pay and looking good in front of the king." Birman smiled at her assistants, who smiled back and, in Natsumi’s case, stifled a giggle. If anything, she had to push her bound employees in receiving their due after a case was completed, as used to hiding in the background as they were.

"We know who’s going to do the paperwork, that’s certain," Trowa murmured as he slipped past her to sneak closer to the building, and she shook her head and grinned at the verbal jab. Ah well, that was one of the perks of being the Spymaster, after all, having someone else write all of the boring reports.

They crept along the deserted road, the area of the northern Wood district they found themselves in quiet at this time at night and in light of the inclement weather. When they reached the other side of the road and the front of the ‘accounting’ office, they paused in the shadows to the right of the front door.

Birman left Natsumi and Trowa in peace so they could use their talents undisturbed, paying attention to the street on the off chance that someone did come strolling along. Both bounds were quiet for several seconds before Trowa let out a slow breath. "It’s done."

She trusted him enough that she did not even wait for Natsumi to agree, but began to pick the lock of the front door. The black ring she wore would protect her from any wards or protective spells, and she had been breaking into buildings in the name of Kritiker for over ten years. It only took her a little over a minute to get past the lock and open the door, mindful of any physical traps.

Since all three of them wore rings that had been charmed with Aya’s blood, they slipped inside without any hesitation once she motioned that it was clear. Luckily, there were several candles burning since she lacked a bound’s enhanced vision, illuminating a room that most likely served as a ‘front’ for the spy ring. Several desks and bookshelves were scattered about, with two people, a young man and a middle-woman, slumped over two of the desks. Birman looked them over quickly before going through the door leading to a back room, only pausing to check for any more booby-traps of a mundane nature.

The back room held the other three spies, one of the men lying on the floor with the other two, including the spy they had followed, slumped at a table. Birman checked them as well and let out an angry curse. "None of them match the little bit of information that we have about the spymaster."

"No, but perhaps once Mayu, Keary and I finish going through their thoughts we can track him down." Natsumi’s voice was pitched to a soothing tone, as if she was speaking to an upset child.

Birman grimaced as she ran her hands through her damp hair then nodded. "I’m sorry, I don’t mean to complain. We found-"

She fell silent as the copper bracelet on her left wrist began to vibrate in a violent manner, which it only did in an emergency case. The quick threefold of dashes indicated that it came from the Shadow Guard, and she cursed again when she translated the vibrations and realized that Garcia had found Reno. About to order Natsumi and Trowa to rush to Shinra’s house, she stopped herself when it hit her that they would never reach the estate in time. Then came the news about Aya and Yohji.

"Dammit, I wonder if the spymaster is with Garcia." She began to type out a message to Yohji, hoping that the wizard had taken any hired help with him to catch Reno. Since Yohji was with Aya there was a chance that he could rein in the kage and prevent a massacre from happening at Shinra’s – if Reno was unharmed. Birman preferred better odds, but she really needed the knowledge in the rival spymaster’s head. Dammit, the gods owed her a bit of a break after the last few months, especially after inflicting Shen upon her. Yohji had better be able to reach the estate in time to help Reno and take Garcia and the spymaster alive for her.

*******

"Is everything all right, Lord Shinra?"

Rufus smiled at Lady Kotone, the expression a touch forced as he tried to concentrate on her presence despite the constant pressure against his mental shields. "My apologies, dear lady, but it seems that fate has picked a very inconvenient time to inflict an awful headache upon me."

Lady Kotone closed her eyes and bobbed her head slightly, her lips pursed as if she felt a similar pain. "Ah, yes, I remember how your mother, the lovely woman, suffered from them. I had been afraid that the party was not to your liking, but I would rather that had been the case."

He ignored Schuldig’s insistent pestering a little longer and managed a proper bow for the lady. Kotone was of slightly higher rank than him, and had become a confidante of the queen in the last few months as she was well respected at the Court and known for her moderating presence. He had considered her party tonight very important because of the favor she found herself in, and hoped to curry the past relationship between the woman and his mother to his benefit. Appearing to ‘worm’ his way into Lady Kotone’s good graces should appease the Elders while providing stable ground for his household after the war.

Now if only he could be left in peace long enough to achieve something, dammit.

"It’s been a thoroughly enjoyable evening until now, my lady." He let a hint of pain creep into his voice as he straightened up.

"I’m pleased to hear that. I had hoped to speak with you a bit about your mother, but perhaps that should wait for another time, when you’re feeling better." She looked him over for several seconds, and he felt a wave of sorrow, regret, longing and hope that he assumed had to do with the older woman’s relationship with his mother.

He managed a more authentic smile than before and bowed his head. "I would be delighted to receive an invitation from you." When she smiled in return, he bid her a good day and turned to leave.

The large room was crowded, filled with small groups of people gathered to talk and drink now that dinner was over, as well as the various servants who hurried about to serve them and the gokenin on guard. Rufus had yet to see Birman or Trowa all evening long, their prolonged absence growing more suspicious by the hour, and he wondered if that was what Crawford and now Schuldig wanted to talk to him about. Had they finally found Garcia or was there another matter that they wanted to bother him about, something related to Esset?

Distracted by Schuldig’s incessant mental ‘whaps’ that he refused to answer while surrounded by humans, many of whom wanted to speak to him before he could leave, Rufus noticed that Tseng was busy responding to something being sent to him by the other gokenin and felt a flare of anger at the thought that Reno was doing something foolish. Had his mate managed to slip away yet again? He barely managed to be civil to Lord Sasaki as the man bade him a good evening, especially when he felt Cyril try to catch his attention.

Forcing himself to take a deep breath before he growled or lashed out with his talent, something that could be fatal when surrounded by so many highborns and their alert gokenin, he concentrated on being civil and communicating verbally only until he left Lady Kotone’s party. The stress of reining in his demon soul helped to support the illusion that he was leaving because of a headache, as his manner became curt and his expression pinched from the effort it cost him to hold back. At least Elena had the sense to go running for his carriage, so once he was outside all he had to do was step into it.

He held up a hand to keep Tseng silent as he ripped into Schuldig, allowing his anger to take out the first convenient target. <What the *hell* is it? Do I go ‘banging’ on your mental shields at any time of the night? Or when you’re surrounded by a bunch of humans, you inconsiderate bastard? Now what the hell do you and your father want?>

There was a moment of silence, of shocked rage before Schuldig lashed back. <If it wasn’t Reno’s life on the line I’d tell you to go fuck a pack of oni and nothing else, you ungrateful asshole! I just thought you might like to know that Garcia’s at your fucking house right now!> Then Schuldig severed the connection as abruptly as possible, sending a spark of pain through the link as Rufus attempted to make sense of what he had just been told.

"Tseng…."

"Sir, we need to return home immediately." Tseng’s voice was a low growl, all signs of restraint gone as his teeth gleamed in the dim light inside of the carriage. "I’ve lost contact with Rude and Rod."

In a burst of motion, Rufus was across the carriage with his hands wrapped in the front of Tseng’s shirt. <You *knew*? Back in->

"*Sir!*" Tseng’s claws dug into Rufus’ wrists, just enough to prick his skin through the leather of his white gloves. "*Rufus*," he said in a deep growl, breaking through the red haze of fury that had overcome Rufus at the thought of Reno in danger. "This is why I waited until we got out of there to tell you, once it was clear you didn’t know."

"I… *dammit*." Rufus pushed himself away from his head gokenin and sat back in his seat. "I thought-" He shook his head as he attempted to find Reno with his talent. It was no surprise that Reno was still blocking their link, as he had been doing ever since Rufus had blocked his side of it, but Rufus had hoped that the idiot would relent considering the situation. At least he could pick up enough to know that his mate was still alive and did his best to work through the block. "Get us home, quickly," he snarled.

"Yes, sir."

Reno had survived long enough to be found by Reeve and to live past puberty, an almost unheard of feat for a dubhach. He had survived a mating bond being forced, however unknowingly, upon him, had managed to sneak past the Elders and out of Esset. The gods had to favor the suicidal bastard, so Rufus refused to believe that they would allow all the hard work that *he* had put into keeping Reno whole and relatively sane all these years go to waste just so a shitty wizard like Garcia could use him as a blood bank. No, they would get home in time, and Rufus would tear out the wizard’s heart with his own hands.

He kept repeating that to himself as the carriage barreled its way through the city streets, the snarl growling louder in his throat as he fought to reach through the blocked link.

*******

Yohji glanced at Aya out of the corner of his eye as they raced toward Shinra’s house. Aya’s eyes had turned silver, yet there was a look of concentration on his face, the emotions a faint echo over their link. As long as Yohji’s mate failed to go all ‘shinigami’ on him, he had some hope that he could hold him back from Garcia – as long as Reno was all right. If the dubhach was seriously injured or worse… well, then Birman would have to try getting some answers from a corpse.

Yohji hoped that they got there in time to prevent anything bad like that from happening. Hell, he was letting Aya drag him along – more like drag him *over* the city – as they ran to the southern Gold district. Right now, he was eternally grateful that he had developed some immunity to the cold shadows that were gathered around him and helped him to clamor up and down the various buildings as they raced along the rooftops. He almost hated to admit it, but he was beginning to understand why Aya and Reno had so much fun doing this. Though that first jump down from the top of a building had scared the hell out of him, and he doubted that he absorbed the impact quite as well as his lover did, judging from his first few limping steps as compared to Aya’s graceful ones.

But it was fun, running at speeds that he had never really allowed himself before, trusting the shadows to help keep his footing on the slate rooftops that were much, *much* less crowded than the streets below, other than the occasional cat or bird. They were going a hell of a lot faster than if they had taken a carriage or horse, and probably would beat the Shadow Guard, unless someone who had one of the charmed rings on hand happened to be stationed in the southern Gold district. Judging from Birman’s frantic message to Yohji, he doubted that was the case.

Still, he hoped that some of the Guard arrived around the same time that they did, or that Rufus got his ass out of the palace to come help save his own mate. Yohji was still afraid of Aya facing Garcia, but there had been no way to hold his mate back once word got out that Reno was in danger. Ah hell, he liked the troublesome bastard, too, and could hardly stand by when a friend was in danger, he just hoped Aya remembered their plan to keep the shadows around them and let Yohji handle things before the wizard could try anything that might hurt anyone with a shinigami soul.

He managed a burst of speed and grabbed hold of Aya’s left hand. His lover slowed a little and looked back at him, his cold expression softening for a moment and a smile curving his pale lips. Love and trust pulsed over their link and settled beneath the concentration, not vanishing entirely despite how much Aya was relying on his true nature right now. Yohji took that as all of the assurance that he needed.

Running along the rooftops at night with his ‘cat’. He would have fun teasing Aya about this once they had a wizard to hand over to Birman and Yuushi. And he would take telling those hissing shadows that they were right to say that Aya needed to do things like this if the gods saw them through tonight safe and sound. He bet Jo would know what would go well with a dish of crow.

*******

Victor readied several spells as soon as they slipped inside of the mansion, the same time that Sanji and his assistants prepared the charms that he had handed to the spies while out on the street. Estelle and Satish fanned out, quick to discard their oiled cloaks now that they were sheltered from the rain. Sanji did the same as he remained near Victor, and after a moment’s debate Victor followed his lead; he noticed that he could move about more quietly without the fabric swishing about. They made their way through what looked to be an office, the room filled with the silhouettes of bookshelves, a large desk and various tables.

They ignored the door leading to the room off to the side, as they had noticed from outdoors that it had been unoccupied. Satish was careful as he opened the door to the hallway and stepped through it, with Estelle following a moment later. Victor was next through it, all of his senses on alert to the sounds of people about or the sight of charms and ward markers.

Satish was halfway down a hallway filled withed paintings that screamed ‘antiques’ in the flickering light from the oil lamps when two men finally appeared, dressed in Shinra’s black and white colors. Identifying them as Lord Shinra’s gokenin, Victor readied a spell when the shorter of the two, the man with the reddish hair, raised his hands and suddenly the hallway was filled with brilliant light and heat. Victor barely had the time to cast a defensive ward around himself and Sanji. He thought he saw Estelle duck into something, but judging from the anguished scream that was abruptly cut off, Satish had not been so lucky.

"Is he a fucking mage?" Sanji yelled over the roar of the flames, his polite demeanor shattered by rage as he glared in the direction of the gokenin.

"No, a fire elemental bound." Their worst fears had been realized – Lord Shinra did have more bounds around him than just Reno.

The look Sanji gave him clearly meant ‘do something’, and he nodded to the spy as the flames began to die down. "Stay near me," he murmured, aware of bounds and their enhanced senses. The man nodded in return, his expression smoothing out as he regained control of his emotions.

Victor had never faced a fire elemental bound on his own, but he had talked to a wizard who swore that the best bound blood was that which you harvested fresh instead of buying. Nicholas had passed on various tricks to taking down bounds, including fire elementals, and as long as this one was of middling strength, Victor should be able to manage it. He readied the magic, a mix of warding, a spell one used for suppressing fire and another for causing intense pain, and waited until the hallway was free of flames. He dropped his wards long enough to cast the spell in the bound’s direction and brought them back up, a pleased smile on his face when there was a fresh round of screaming.

The fire elemental tried to fight off the magic at first, which would only cause it to strike all the harder, for the pain to become even more intense as the flames being suppressed fed that part of the spell. The bound fell writhing to the floor, and his fellow gokenin paused for a moment as if to help him before realizing that the best way to do so was to take out Victor. The large man, most likely another bound, then stalked down the hallway, his eyes hidden behind smoked glasses but his jaw set in anger as he approached Victor and Sanji.

Any doubt of his humanity was wiped away as he lashed out with his fists at Victor’s wards with strength that greatly exceeded that of a normal man. He had to be either flesh gaki or an earth elemental, and if he continued to pound on the wards with that much abuse, they would not last very long. Victor cursed out loud as he doubted that he could ready a spell in the amount of time it would take to drop the wards and dodge the bound’s fists, and any spell he cast would be more effective if he knew what exactly type of creature he was. Even with Sanji’s help, he doubted one or both of them would survive.

As the sweat began to run down his face from maintaining the wards, he thought he saw movement behind the bound. Yet Sanji failed to react at all, so he supposed that it was just an illusion in the smoke and concentrated on his magic. The bound snarled and pounded the wards again, enough to cause a spike of pain in Victor’s head, and suddenly the snarl turned into a choked off cry. The bound tried to turn around and stumbled as he did, with one of Estelle’s knives in his left side and a knock-out charm that Victor had given the petite spy clinging to the back of his neck.

Victor dropped the wards with a sigh of relief and lunged forward to prevent Estelle from stabbing another knife in the bound. "The charm will keep him out for several hours," he told the spy.

She jerked her hand back, her face covered with soot and some of her brown hair singed. He realized that the hand he had held was blistered, as was the right side of her jaw. "They killed Satish." She kept her voice low, but the hate she felt just then was still evident.

There was little he could say to make up for the loss of a human, and one he was certain she cared about as a partner and possibly more. "If you leave them alive, I can use their blood for spells that will help save other lives," was all he said, and hoped that she saw the logic in it.

She stared back for several seconds and then nodded. "Their kind hate that." She kicked the large bound before spinning around on her heel and heading down the hall, past the now unconscious fire elemental. Victor glanced over his shoulder at Sanji, who merely gave him an amused look before motioning him onward and followed in his footsteps.

"How many gokenin did you say that Shinra had?" he asked the spymaster in a quiet voice as they continued to search through the house, even though it was clear that their presence was known.

Sanji checked a room and closed the door after shaking his head. "Six, all total. Two of them are with him at the palace, two were just dealt with, so that leaves one more and Reno." He scanned the junction of a hallway before continuing on, with Estelle creeping forward with knives held at the ready in both hands. "Let’s hope that there are no more fire elementals, or that Shinra will be returning home any time soon."

"At the least, it will take him almost thirty minutes to get from the palace to here." Victor hoped that they found the dubhach by then and were already on their way out. "Am I imagining things or are the staff non-existent tonight?"

The spymaster smiled as he checked another room. "I think if we reached the servants’ quarters that we’d find them, but yes, it’s interesting that they’re not out and about. Ah well, less hassles to worry about."

They came to foyer, the large space lightened by the huge windows along the one wall, the rain a faint hissing sound against the glass that softened the thud of their footsteps along the carpeted floor. Estelle stepped into the center and looked around, as if to decide which direction to take, and slowly crumpled to the floor.

Victor called up his wards again, but there was no flash of fire, no obviously sign of attack. Sanji was too far behind him this time, and out of the corner of his eye he saw something fly through the air, toward a hint of white off to the side. A moment later another gokenin stumbled forward, clutching at his left arm as he shook his head, doing his best to stand on his feet.

"There’s enough poison on that dart to take out a city block," Sanji commented as he approached Victor. "Where is Shinra finding all these bounds?"

"Perhaps you should ask the man." It was a question that Victor would dearly love to have answered. He lowered his wards and stepped closer to the dark haired bound, only to feel something in his chest tighten after a few steps. He cursed and stopped, as did Sanji. "What are you?"

The gokenin bared his teeth and took a shuddering step forward, and the pressure increased. Victor hurried to step back, and noticed that he as he was moving away from Estelle’s body that the pain lessened. "You have a range, don’t you?" He held up a hand to prevent Sanji from shooting another dart at the bound and studied the creature. As with most bounds, he was pleasing of feature and appeared young, but there was something else, something that drew Victor’s attention to him and summoned forth a sense of pity and attraction. "A water elemental! Don’t kill him, Sanji, he’s valuable as well."

"I’m not pleased to be collecting a bunch of monsters that killed my people," Sanji snapped, but he put the dart away.

"Trust me, the blood of this one is worth at least three times as much as those other two combined." The water elemental snarled at the words and attempted another step forward, only to end up falling to his knees.

In the shadows behind the bound, sparks shot out. "Eh, ya think I’m gonna let you assholes out of here alive?" A slim figured approached, illuminated by the bright sparks, a young man with long, reddish brown hair and almond-shaped eyes.

The coloring may have been altered, most likely by one of those earrings, but the boy had changed little over the years, other than to grow a few inches. He was still lanky, still had those eyes and his mother’s mouth, the impish face and unruly hair. "Reno, it’s about time you showed yourself." Victor smiled to see the object of his search finally appear.

Reno sneered as he stepped beside the gokenin, who tried to grab hold of his leg as if to pull him back. He patted the gokenin on the shoulder and whispered something before moving forward, the gesture almost protective. "Hey, if I’d had my way, would have faced you right away and saved these guys some pain." He held up his hands and sparks danced around them, their brilliance making the rest of the room behind Reno seem that much darker. "So why don’t we get this over with now, hmm?"

"Yes, why don’t we?" Victor smiled, and as they had discussed, Sanji slipped back and away as he called up his wards. He would distract the dubhach, have the creature focus his power and anger on him, and Sanji would release some more of his darts, *these* ones dosed with powerful narcotics that should affect even a bound. Magic might not work against a dubhach, but their bodies were still human to some degree. All they needed was for Reno to be disoriented long enough to be tied up, knocked unconscious and dragged out of here. Once they got him to Victor’s apartment, he could drain him to the point of being unable to use his powers and keep him that way.

Having a fellow gokenin to protect seemed to goad Reno’s temper, and he wasted no time in crossing the room to reach Victor. His speed made Victor gasp, and a moment later those sparks were raining down on his wards, blinding him and slowly sinking through his defenses. They burned wherever they touched flesh, seeming to sink into his skin much they way they did his wards, burning and robbing him of strength.

"Dammit, *now*," he yelled out to Sanji.

The only answer was laughter and more of the painful, luminous sparks.

"Hmm, think he was speaking to this guy?"

Victor heard the strange, amused voice just before Reno’s foot came slashing through his magical defenses and impacted into his chest, the force sending him flying through air until he slammed into a wall. His vision was dark for several seconds and his back felt as if on fire as he sat slumped forward, and gradually he began to make sense of the scene in front of him.

Reno stood only a few feet away, still surrounded by sparks and now he was joined by two other men, neither of whom were wearing the Shinra black and white. The taller of the two had blond hair and must have been the one who had spoken, as there was a sardonic grin on his face. At his feet was Sanji, who was unconscious and bound in what looked to be gold wires. Beside him….

Victor’s eyes widened as he took in the pale white skin, the pure red hue to the hair, the silver eyes that glowed in the dim light. Shadows clung to the bound as much as the dark grey and black clothes he wore, leaving possible only one thing that he could be.

"Kage…."

"What, ain’t I good enough for ya anymore?" Reno bridge the distance between him and Victor and shot out more sparks, enough to make Victor cry out in pain. "You come into my own damn house, hurt my friends and now gonna try for another of them?" He lashed out with his foot again, catching Victor in the ribs. Victor tried to ready a spell to defend himself, for whatever good it would do, only to be kicked yet again.

"Reno, *enough*." The kage seemed to just appear at Reno’s side and pull the dubhach back, and a moment later the blond man was there as well. "Birman wants him alive."

As the kage hissed out the words, Victor stuttered to cast a spell, desperate to do something to save himself. The blond man should be vulnerable, as well as the gokenin, and if he could get some leverage against the shinigami bounds… a *kage* and a *dubhach*, blood enough to power spells to protect the country for centuries-

Yet the spell had no effect on the blond man, who merely smiled as he touched the golden gauntlet around his left wrist. "Feel better for trying?" There was a nasty edge to the question, and he was allowed no chance for an answer before Victor found himself encased in golden wires that constricted around him tighter and tighter, cutting off all ability to speak and even to breathe. He struggled against them, struggled to inhale and found the world growing darker from the lack of oxygen. His last thoughts were of how he needed to stay awake, needed to get free and tell Andrew, tell someone that not only was there a dubhach but a kage, alive and in Kritiker….

*******

Aya watched as Reno kicked the unconscious wizard one more time. "I don’t think he can feel that now," he remarked, unbothered by the violence but feeling the need to comment in case anyone thought to blame him for the abuse.

Reno pouted as he stepped away from Garcia. "Yeah, you’re right, it’s not as much fun right now. Shoulda done it before Yohji went and ruined my fun."

Yohji arched his eyebrows as he sidled next to Aya and wrapped an arm around his waist. "Look, who is it that Birman, Yuushi and Botan will bitch out if we turn over a dead wizard to them, hmmm?" He waited until Aya and Reno looked in his direction. "Right, *me*, who for some damn reason they think is the sensible one when the two of you are involved." He smiled in the face of Aya and Reno’s annoyed hisses. "Must be the whole ‘well, what’s wrong with turning in a dead body when we get to snack on them dying’ mentality’."

Aya smacked his right elbow into his mate’s ribs and ignored the pained yelp that resulted from it. "Speaking of dying… the Shadow Guard has a few healers who should be able to help your friends," he told Reno, who had left the wizard alone to go check on the dark haired gokenin.

"Thanks." Reno helped the bound, a water elemental from the feel of it, into a sitting position. "You okay, Cyril?"

The bound nodded slowly. "Yeah. Jus’… jus’ abou’ go’ alla poison," Cyril slurred, his face flushed and his eyes heavy lidded. Judging from the lack of shinigami around the bound, Aya suspected that the man would be fine with a bit rest and something to eat. Cyril managed to lift his head enough to look in Aya and Yohji’s direction. "Thansss…."

"You’re welcome," Yohji assured the man, having guessed what it was that he had attempted to convey. "You helped to keep him out of trouble long enough for us to get here."

"Hey!" Reno left his friend to stomp over to Yohji. "Did you not see me kick that wizard’s ass or what?" he yelled.

"And obviously you didn’t see us snag the spy before he shot your back full of darts, but that’s what friends are for." Yohji smiled, showing all of his teeth at Reno. "Too bad you can’t do Aya’s shadow armor trick."

Reno snapped his mouth shut and his expression turned thoughtful. "Hmm…." He stared at Aya in a manner that made Aya think that they would be practicing with their talents in the near future, and made him a little fearful over what his friend would come up with. He sighed and nudged Yohji’s ribs again, determined to get a promise later from his mate to *not* get angry over whatever resulted from said training since it was Yohji’s big mouth that brought it about.

"I believe the Shadow Guard are going to be showing up any moment now, especially since we unlocked the gates for them," Aya informed his friend. "Is Rufus going to be far behind?"

Mention of his own mate made Reno grimace and rub his forehead. "Nah, he’s on his way here." He sighed as he looked over his shoulder at Cyril. "It can’t be pretty if Rude and Rod got taken down, but at least they’re still alive. Rufus is gonna flip when he finds out that half of his gokenin are injured and his place got trashed."

Aya was surprised that Reno refused to talk to Rufus, yet refrained from asking any personal questions. In the end it was their bond, and they had to figure out how to best handle it. He felt relief and gratitude that Yohji was his mate and pressed a little closer to his lover’s side, relaxing against him when Yohji hugged him a little tighter in response. If the two idiots failed to work out some differences after a situation like this… then he wondered if there was any hope for them after all.

Yohji pressed a kiss against his right temple. "Look, we’re gonna head to the palace before this place gets too crazy, okay? Birman let us know that she was checking out some stuff related to the spy ring, but I imagine she’s headed to her office right now and we’re gonna meet her there. Yuushi can bring those two back with him, and we’ll help Birman and Botan get some answers."

Aya sent a wave of relief over their link at the fact that he had an excuse to leave before Rufus showed up or the mansion became crowded. Yohji knew he became uneasy around people who were nervous in his presence, and he doubted it would be a good idea to remain here if Rufus was in a bad mood. As much as he liked Reno, he had done his duty as a friend in helping to keep him safe. Staying here and possibly choking the man’s mate with shadows… that would not be quite so helpful.

For a moment, Reno’s expression was wistful as if he wanted to go with them. Then he grinned and waved them away. "Go, get out of here before you get roped in giving a hand to clean up the mess. I can already feel people crossing the wards so you better hurry."

"Thanks." Aya reached out to touch Reno’s right arm. "Now that it’s safe, come by the Koneko sometime soon."

"I will." Reno spoke the words with the solemnity of a vow, and then grinned a moment later. "Now get, so I can tell everyone how I was the hero of the hour."

Yohji laughed as he pulled Aya toward the door. "Right, I’d love to hear how you explain the gold wire!"

"I’m such a sexy bastard that you gave me your weapon out of true love?"

Cool shadows and Yohji’s laughter wrapped around them as they left the Shinra mansion.

*******

Rufus watched as the last of the Shadow Guard left his home. He was grateful that they had taken the time and effort to attempt to protect his mate, and their earth elemental healers would ensure that Rude and Rod were back on their feet by tomorrow. It was… he *hated* feeling in debt to anyone, and as of right now he owed something to the Shadow Guard, even if they had been a bit late in arriving to stop Garcia. He definitely owed a debt to Aya and Yohji, although he had some hope because of the former’s shinigami nature that the latter might need a favor from him in the future – at the least, Yohji would have to be careful with what he requested from Rufus because of how much they both had to protect. However, Birman was already after him to use his talent to pry into certain minds for her, and Yuushi would gladly follow the Spymaster’s suggestions if it would benefit his people.

What galled Rufus the most right now was all of his efforts, all of the fighting the last few weeks and it had been for nothing. He had put up with the alienation from Reno and suffered from the lack of his mate’s presence only for Garcia to track the dubhach down to his own home, to slip past his wards and attempt to snatch Reno away while he had been at some fancy party at the palace. Rufus had nearly lost two gokenin over the attempt, would have definitely lost one if Cyril had been anything other than a water elemental. As it was, Tseng and Elena would be on duty for at least two more days, which meant he would be restricted at home so as not to put any more strain on them.

He wanted to know *how* Garcia had tracked Reno down and slipped past his wards, but the answers would take a few more hours even with the Spymaster focused on breaking them from Garcia’s mind. The only consolation he had was that she had little compunction over the bastard suffering as the truth was unearthed, and then would hand him over to Jei and Aya without any qualms. Soon there would be one less wizard who sought to tame magic at bounds’ expenses, who thought that he could be a great hero by sacrificing the rarest type of bounds out there.

The thrice-dammed fools… when would they ever learn that shinigami bounds, being so incredibly rare, *had* to be alive for some special reason of the gods? One that did *not* include being a blood sacrifice for an overzealous and lazy wizard? All one had to do was read the history books and see that every kage had played some important part, had influenced fate in some monumental way. That Reno was the only dubhach to live so long meant that he had an equally important part to play as well, and Rufus refused to believe that he had ‘forced’ a mating bond with the suicidal idiot by pure accident. Maybe it had been the only way to achieve a mating bond with Reno after such a point in time, when it was clear that he would live long enough to survive through the war.

He stormed down the hallway to his bedroom quarters, past the staff who were busy cleaning up the damage from the fighting that had occurred. The scent of charred flesh lingered in the air, a foul odor that would probably remain for some time to come, and the hallway burned by Rod’s talent would need more than a good scrubbing. Yet the staff, perhaps in thanks of being out of harms way for the fighting, were doing their best to erase what damage they could, so he summoned up a grateful smile as he went past, the murmurs of ‘milord’ and emotions of relief following him along his way.

Reno had retreated to their bedroom soon after Rufus had returned home, having answered Yuushi’s questions and proving himself alive and unharmed to Rufus, who had been torn between kissing him breathless over that fact and throttling him for blocking their link. With so many people about, he had been unable to do either, and had just settled for the fact that Reno had been alive and well at the time.

Now that things were finally settling down, he could focus all of his attention on his mate. He eventually reached their quarters and locked the door behind him, then turned to look for Reno. That he found him standing on the balcony overlooking the garden, half-cloaked in shadows, came as no surprise. The rain had just stopped, the cool air heavy with moisture and the moons still hidden by clouds, yet Reno’s skin glowed in the darkness as he stared out over the grounds.

"Maybe I should invest in some guard dogs," Rufus said as he joined Reno by the balcony’s edge.

"Eh, they’d just give the gardeners more work and shed all over the place. Plus, we’d have dead dogs to worry about if something like tonight happened again, which would depress the hell out of Elena and probably Cyril." Reno continued to look out over the garden as if it held some special appeal as he spoke, his tone tired and a little bored.

"But it would be another way to tell if a wizard was sneaking through our wards."

Reno hissed and turned to glare at him. "What’s the point of having me around, then?" He leaned against the railing and motioned about with his hands. "There’s no way to hide magic from me, so unless you idiots refuse to listen to me, which is what caused us so many problems tonight, we’ll be just fine." He crossed his arms over his chest and continued to glare, a hint of his emotions creeping across the link. From what Rufus could tell, he was very upset, hurt and angry, which came as no surprise.

Rufus took a deep breath to buy himself time and smoothed his right hand down the front of his white coat. "From what Cyril said, the others were… reluctant at first because of your habit of slipping away." When Reno appeared ready to start ranting again, he held up his hand to silence his mate. "I admit, they should have realized that you wouldn’t jeopardize security like that. I think we all learned something important tonight," he admitted in a quiet tone.

"Oh yeah? What the hell got through into your thick head?" Reno asked in a voice dripping with absolute scorn.

Doing his best to hold on to his temper, well aware how little he had achieved in the past days with losing it, Rufus closed his eyes and answered in as civil a tone as he could manage. "That sometimes my best wishes only make things worse." If he had taken Reno with him tonight, he may still have come home to a damaged house and injured gokenin – may have come home to dead gokenin in fact, but Reno would never have been put into such danger. In the end, that was all that truly mattered. He had thought to keep Reno safe by hiding him away. All he had done was made it easier for Garcia to find his mate.

There was the sound of fabric brushing against stone and then Reno’s warmth against his front before Reno’s arms slid around his waist, the touch hesitant and light. What was more shocking than the feel of his mate touching him – willingly at that – was the slow fall of the block against their link after so many days and all his efforts earlier to batter it down. He could sense Reno’s uncertainty and confusion, loneliness and suffering, the thoughts that this might be a trap and how much Rufus would pay if that were the truth. Beneath all of that was the longing for peace: peace between Reno’s two souls and between them, for the balance that they had somehow found back before Garcia had re-entered their lives.

"You’re an asshole," Reno muttered against his chest, and for once, Rufus agreed with his mate.

<Yes, a possessive, over-protective one at that.> Rufus wrapped his arms around his mate, the embrace loose yet welcoming. <I’ve always wanted to keep you safe, that I swear before all the gods.>

Sharp nails dug into the small of his back. "You only do a half-ass job of it!" He grew angry at the jab, thinking that Reno referred to what had happened tonight. "What good is keeping me all locked up if I go mad with boredom?"

Rufus forced aside the anger to consider the question and what he could sense over the link, the damage to Reno’s self-being, the erosion between the dubhach’s two souls that had occurred recently. They had made such headway with their bond and in helping Reno grow more stable in the last few months, and all of it seemed to have vanished in recent weeks. Yet if he had allowed Reno to wander about town, to go with him to the palace, what were the chances of Garcia finding him all that much sooner? He refused to believe that his actions in the last few weeks had been all wrong… yet perhaps it was a sign from the gods that they were not all right, too. He had done what he had thought best, had attempted to lock Reno away and danger had still found his mate.

"I… honestly don’t know what to do anymore," he admitted in a hushed voice as he held on tight to Reno. He could feel his mate’s shock through their link and smiled despite himself.

Reno rested his chin against Rufus’ shoulder. "Eh, I’m gonna mark this day down, you finally admitting that you don’t know something." He nuzzled Rufus’ neck, the first blatant sign of affection from him in so many days that it surprised Rufus. "So, does this mean that I’m still locked up in the house or what?" He was a bit hopeful, and lurking in his thoughts was that he could do a hell of a lot more damage than what Rod had done if he was told ‘no’.

Rufus hid his smile against Reno’s hair and pretended to consider the question. <Hmm, it would be best to at least to wait until Birman is done interrogating Garcia and the rival spymaster so we know for certain that there’s no one else looking for you. After that…,> his smile grew wider as he felt Reno’s body stiffen in anticipation of being rejected, <it should be safe, as long as you make sure to only go out with someone else.>

He felt Reno grimace over the restriction, but in the end, there was little to complain about as long as Reno was allowed some freedom. "An’ I can be your gokenin again, right?"

Trust the bastard to drive a hard bargain. Rufus continued to hold him tightly and wished for once that he had some ability to foresee the future. "Let’s take it one day at a time, okay? I’ll allow you to resume some of your duties, on a conditional basis." For his generosity, he received a nipped throat. <Reno….>

<You can’t keep me locked up the whole damn time until the war,> Reno pointed out with growing anger. <Neither of us will last that long!>

"…I know," Rufus sighed before tilting his mate’s face up for a kiss. <But neither will you if you keep acting so recklessly.>

Reno growled deep in the back of his throat as he tugged Rufus away from the balcony. <Look, are ya gonna keep complaining about stuff like that or are ya going come in here and fuck me?> He was a little annoyed, as if there was doubt over what Rufus would do, and horny enough that even if Rufus had not been lusting after his mate for the last several days, that emotion alone would sway him beyond all reason.

There were dozens of things that needed done just then, and none of them mattered as much as claiming his mate, marking him, reveling in his emotions and reaffirming the bond between them. Besides, right now they were just repeating old arguments. Rufus tugged at his clothes as he allowed himself to be led toward their bed, desperate to be rid of all barriers between them during this rare moment when all hostilities were ceased. The previous discussion was still unfinished, yet it could wait for another time, a better time, when there was more information for stronger arguments. Right now, it had been much too long since he had fed from these wonderful emotions, since he had sense passion, desire, lust and need from his mate.

They managed to get to the bed without too much fumbling and any remaining clothes, and Rufus put all of his trust in Tseng, Elena and Cyril because at that point, all of his attention and talent was focused solely on Reno. Now that he was back in his mate’s mind, there was little else he could sense, and his world narrowed down to Reno’s body and reactions. Emotions that had been missing for too long came pouring back into him, so potent and searing that he felt scorched by them even as his entire being was invigorated by their energy. He did his best to encourage them, to fan them with each caress, each kiss.

Reno writhed beneath him, body open and willing, hands reaching for him at all times, nails digging into him to pull him closer and hold him there. As he thrust into his mate, feeling engulfed by such wonderful tight heat, he also felt Reno’s two souls come together, their union haphazard and fragile but whole none-the-less and soothing to his mind as his talent pushed in deeper. It was as if he sought to go as deeply as he could into Reno, physically and mentally, to burrow in so far that he could never be cast out. Each slide further in, each thrust, provoked such exquisite pleasure that he was unable to do anything but to keep going in search of more of it. Beneath his own emotions were Reno’s, the pleasure produced from his own actions, which only added to everything that he felt, soon creating an endless loop of pure ecstasy.

Panting against Reno’s neck, he closed his eyes as the emotions continued to build, his hands tight on his mate’s hips as he pulled him hard into each frantic thrust. He licked along sweat-slick skin that pulsed with the thundering heartbeat beneath and bit down, needing a sign to the world that Reno was his. He felt – physically, emotionally, mentally – Reno’s reactions to the spark of pleasure/pain, one more burst of sensation when they both were already drowning in so much sensory overload. Sharp tears along his left shoulder were lost to a maelstrom of ecstasy as Reno came, pulling Rufus down with him.

Rufus rested on top of Reno as reality slowly crept back through the haze in his mind, the world slowly sharpened by the energy he had absorbed from Reno’s emotions. As for his mate, Reno lay with his eyes closed and a pleased grin on his flushed face. There was a thought lurking in his addled head that if he was ‘nice’ enough to Rufus, he could probably finagle his way into a bit more freedom….

Hmm, someone was a bit used to having his thoughts private lately, Rufus thought with a predatory grin as he leaned down to nuzzle his mate’s bruised throat. He wished Reno good luck with that and looked forward to the attempts, especially after fighting for so long.

Reno’s hand threaded through his hair and held him close for a lingering sniff. "For once you don’t smell like a bunch of bitches now." He sounded rather proud of that.

"I certainly would hope not after all of that." Rufus groaned as he sat up, pulling a complaining Reno along with him. As for him, he was pleased that all traces of humans were gone from Reno and no longer lingered in the room. "So, I suppose we owe a visit to the Koneko sometime soon." As much as he hated any and all obligations, he knew what was due of him and that was to thank Yohji and Aya in making sure that Garcia’s plan to kidnap Reno had failed.

The smile he received in return made the upcoming visit feel less onerous than it had to be. Reno wrapped his arms around Rufus’ shoulders and scooted closer, his emotions affectionate and his thoughts happy. "Aya did say something about that earlier tonight. I promise to even behave myself this time."

Rufus kept any and all comments about that being a first to himself as Reno began to nuzzle his neck. Instead, he decided that if his mate could make an effort, then so could he. "We’ll go once we’ve heard from Birman and spend an evening there." He slid his fingers through the long hair falling down Reno’s back and pulled his mate into his lap. Until then, he would have to hope that whatever Birman found did not give him more reasons to want to keep Reno hidden away.

As if somehow picking up on that thought, Reno frowned at him and then leaned in for a kiss, as if to erase away his doubts with passion. As a long term solution, it may not be very viable, but Rufus was more than willing to go along with it for now.

*******

Birman groaned as she stretched out her aching back as she left the interrogation room, and felt little surprise when she noticed Crawford following her. She waited until they were a few feet down the hallway before she spoke to him, her back resting against the wall and her arms crossed against her chest. "You’re not staying for the questioning?"

He smiled, the expression cold and distant, and pushed his glasses farther up his nose. His appearance was the most rumpled she could recall seeing it, his black pants shoved unevenly into his boots and his white shirt wrinkled with the sleeves rolled up; she believed that he had been caught unaware by the vision of Garcia attacking Reno and had run out of the house immediately.

"I thought a brief break might be beneficial, as well as a breath of fresh air." Crawford’s smile took on a cruel edge. "The scent of madness and desperation was getting a bit overwhelming in there."

She had no idea how soul gaki bounds such as Crawford, Eri and Mayu could stand the emotions in the room between Garcia and Jei, and suspected that Yohji managed only because Aya was by his side – was literally in his arms – during the interrogation. "You could just leave your questions with Jei, you know," she suggested. "Or with Botan, if you’re worried about Jei being carried away by his… well…."

Crawford chuckled, the sound too amused and warm given the grim topic. "Oh, Jei would remember each and every one of them just so he would have the excuse to ask them, but it’s best that I remain here." He shook his head and glanced back at the room. "Sometimes there are things mentioned that might reflect back onto a vision and suddenly help it make sense, or provoke some new ones."

"Even with Aya’s presence?" Birman would have thought that the kage being so near would negate the precog’s talent.

"All he’s doing is standing physically nearby to prevent Garcia from using his talent and to serve as executioner when all is said and done, so he’s a rather… null factor for once, unless I’m trying to predict Garcia’s fate." The cruelness from Crawford’s smile had bled into his tone. "No, my visions should be fine unless Aya, Yohji, Reno or Shinra have an important part to play in them."

She nodded to show that she understood. "Well then, I hope you enjoy your break. I’ll ask one of my pages to bring some refreshments for everyone." It was the middle of the night and she doubted that anyone had a bite to eat since dinner, if they had even managed that much.

"You’re not returning?" Crawford’s smile faded as he regarded her with curiosity.

It was her turn to brandish a cruel smile. "Garcia is hardly going anywhere, and I suspect that Aya and Jei will be denied their meals for at least a day or two, until Botan has exhausted all of the questions he wants from the man. I’ve gotten answers for the most pressing ones of my own and now I’ve someone else to deal with."

Crawford bowed slightly as if in acknowledgement of something, perhaps her position here at Court. "Ah yes, I would say your rival but it’s clear that he is somewhat lacking in that regard." She smiled at the compliment. "I’d see if there are any visions regarding your discussion with that gentleman, yet I’ve a feeling it would just be a waste of my time and energy as I’m sure we both know how it’ll end."

Before she answered, she smiled in a manner that she has learned from Jei and Ken, with an expression that was more about the baring of teeth and fierce intentions than a mere flexing of the lips. "There are *very* good reasons why *I* am the Spymaster."

Again, Crawford chuckled, and he gave her a slight bow. "I think you’ve been spending too much time with flesh gaki bounds, milady, which will only aid your future endeavors. I wish you much fun." He waved her good bye and turned to go back to the interrogation room.

Birman watched after him for a couple of seconds before going on her way, happy to find a page only two hallways down to fetch the food and drinks for the room. Then she continued on to where Garcia’s spymaster had been detained, a prudent distance away from the wizard. She smiled as she walked past Duo and Toshi, who were assigned to guard the area.

Trowa was waiting for her outside of the room, still dressed in the plain, dark clothes like she was that they had worn to trail the spy. They would have to question everyone they had taken into custody tonight, but right now it was Garcia and the spymaster, Sanji, who were their main concern.

"Is everything ready?"

Trowa nodded. "Katsumi and Mariela are inside waiting for us. He hasn’t said anything, but Natsumi’s picked up enough from his surface thoughts that he’s suspicious over the fact that the Guard took him from a residence that was harboring bounds." He spoke quietly, the words barely loud enough for her to hear, even though she carried the cat-shaped charm that would prevent others from eavesdropping on their conversation and no one besides the Shadow Guards were around.

"Hmm, he’ll probably try to twist things about somehow, for all the good it’ll do him." She had left Mariela in the room to help ‘soften’ up the spymaster, and judged that enough time had passed. "Let’s get started."

Motioning to his mate before opening the door, Trowa preceded her into the room, a quiet, calm presence that helped to center her. She could no longer recall how many interrogations she had conducted – had deliberately forgotten that number – and considered the pain and abuse that often went with them something she had to deal with in order to keep her country safe. To end up in these rooms there had to be a strong burden of proof against the suspect, a fact that she kept in mind to push the guilt away. Questioning the suspects with Trowa by her side was somehow easier, his bound nature helping her to focus better, to keep the negative emotions at bay and remember why she was doing this. It felt… cleaner somehow.

So did keeping in mind that this man was helping another track down innocent people to be drained of their blood.

Sanji Koguru sat at ease in his chair, a lazy smile on his face as he watched her and Trowa enter the room. Natsumi and Mariela were seated at the table off to the side, a study in contrast between Natsumi’s dark hair and conservative clothes and Mariela’s loose, honey blonde hair and fashionable bronze and white dress that she had worn to Lady Kotone’s party earlier while attending with her highborn lover.

"Ah, here I was hoping that someone important would be by to talk to me sometime tonight," Sanji remarked, his cuffed hands resting in his lap and his demeanor a bit bored. "I’m rather tired." He looked it, with bruises forming beneath his eyes and his dark clothes rumpled, in part from being brought unconscious to the palace.

Birman smiled as she grabbed a chair and positioned it in front of the table, facing Sanji. She sat down, while Trowa leaned against the table at her side, ready to move in an instant if Sanji attempted anything, even if he was basically warded onto the chair. Behind her, Mariela pretended to take notes.

"Why do you think that we’re unimportant?" Birman asked, her voice sweet enough to make anyone who knew her well very nervous.

"You’re not Guards and you don’t look highborn," Sanji answered with an insolent tone. "Are you just going to sit here and stare at me like those two?"

Ah, Mariela’s glamour had taken effect, eroding the man’s defenses. Excellent. <Natsumi, please thank Mariela for me.>

<She says that you’re welcome. It took a bit longer than she expected, softening him up, but he’s finally to the point that I can slip past all of his mental defenses without difficulty.> Natsumi ‘sounded’ rather pleased with herself and a touch predatory. If Birman glanced over her shoulder, she expected to see a sated smile on the succubae bound’s face and a sharp, hungry look on the soul gaki bound’s.

Birman smiled herself, one she usually reserved when dealing with rather obtuse highborn. "I would expect a spymaster such as yourself to always remember that people are rarely what they appear to be." Again, she said the words in a sickening sweet manner – for her – and this time it seemed that Sanji caught on.

He stared hard at her and Trowa for several seconds and then cursed under his breath. "They say the Spymaster is a woman, but I thought you’d be older."

She nodded in acknowledgement. "I was something of a prodigy and assumed the title at a young age. Now that we have that out of the way, we can move on to your charges. You’re guilty of knowingly aiding a wizard wanted on charges of abusing magic, hindering the Guard, breaking onto private property, assault, attempted homicide and attempted kidnapping." She paused for a moment and clicked her tongue in a chiding manner. "That’s just for starters. I’ve a feeling that once my people go through your records, we’ll find much, much more, if your most recent client is any indication."

<Oh yes, we’ll find enough to sign the death warrants for him and most of the people we took into custody tonight from what I just read of his thoughts.> Natsumi began to take down notes as well, her pen scratching furiously on paper.

"While you were committing several capital offenses against a highborn, the Spymaster and I paid an interesting visit to the offices of Tanaka and Sons," Trowa explained before Sanji could come up with some sort of rebuttal, and mention of the ‘accounting’ firm made the spy’s jaw clench for a quick moment.

The man was quiet for a minute, during which Natsumi confirmed he was doing his best to think of a way out of this situation. "So much effort to track down a simple man doing his best to make a living." Sanji smiled in a self-effacing manner. "I can’t help but wonder, what has Victor done to make you want him so badly?"

Ah, the man was intelligent, as befitted a spymaster who ran such a well organized ring. "Anyone who misuses magic is of grave concern to the well-being of Kritiker," was all Birman answered, careful to not give anything away.

Still, Sanji was clever and used to bartering information. "’Misuse of magic’? Really?" His demeanor became too confident for someone confined for interrogation. "All I saw was a wizard who was doing his best to research magic for the defense of his country. If anything, I would think the Spymaster, Royal Wizard and the Guard would be more interested in why a highborn with ties to Esset has bounds in his employ."

<He expects you to be surprised by the information and to use proving it to you as a means to buy his freedom.>

Birman again deployed the smile she had learned from too many nights spent drinking with Jei, too many meals shared with Ken, and something inside of her gloated when Sanji, an experienced spy, flinched upon seeing it. <It won’t get him anywhere, he’s still going to die at Aya’s hands soon for what he’s done and what he knows.> "You say that as if I’m supposed to be surprised." She spoke the words with an icy calm and her smile took on an even crueler edge when he stared at her in shock.

However, Sanji was still a fellow spymaster. "Ah, Victor had wondered why it was so difficult to find bound blood all of a sudden. I suppose the reason for that has something to do with your lack of surprise over Lord Shinra having bounds in his employ?"

All she did was continue to smile at the man, refusing to give out any information even if he would be unable to tell anyone what he knew. There was no sense in tempting the fates, after all, and she had been taught much better than that. "I believe we were discussing your crimes, not Lord Shinra’s."

He stared at her with no evident emotion on his face, yet she caught the way his hands clenched in reaction to her cold response. That was all she needed to know that she had him.

<He’s willing to tell you everything he knows about Garcia and his other clients in hopes it’ll buy his freedom,> Natsumi informed her, confirming her suspicions.

<Good. Keep reading his thoughts as I’m sure he’ll hold something back, and ask Mariela to continue to blast away with the glamour. I’ve a feeling it’ll be a long night for us, but we’ll get as much as we can from him before he has a chance to think about what he’s doing.> If Sanji had a moment to wonder why he was spilling his secrets so easily, he just might piece together that if Shinra had bounds in his employ, it was possible that Birman did, too.

<Trowa asked me to pass along that he requested that refreshments be brought to us in another hour. He judged that the prisoner might respond well to a break then, and we could definitely use something to eat by then.> Natsumi seemed apologetic for that fact, as if her needing something to replace all of the energy she was using was an unforgiveable weakness.

<That is a wonderful idea.> Birman was grateful for Trowa’s thoughtfulness and glanced at her assistant with a slight smile on her face. "Now, let’s focus on what you’ve been up to with Victor Garcia, shall we?" she said to Sanji, ready to spend the next several hours unearthing as much information that she could with all of the tools that she had on hand. By the time she was finished, she would have every important piece of knowledge out of a traitor’s head, and all that would be left was something to feed two friends.

*******

Takashi stared around in amazement at all of the shops. All day long, Omi and Nagi had led him about the city, showing him one district after another and the wonders never seemed to stop. There had been the beautiful mansions with their vast grounds and elaborate gates, the temple districts with the various shrines, temples and tombs, all of the food stands and restaurants with their tempting aromas and vast arrays of cuisines…. It was an overload of the best kind, as used to small towns as he was between his home village of Matsuyama and Chiken, where he had gone to study magic. The recent letters his cousin Kaito had sent him had barely described the city at all.

"Oh, Eleanor has really good fudge and candied apples!" Omi exclaimed while pointing to one shop in particular. "Let’s stop in for some fudge!" He grabbed Nagi’s hand and dove into the shop without waiting for any answer, and Takashi laughed as he followed.

Inside the shop, it was filled with such wonderful, sweet scents and display cases filled with the aforementioned apples and various treats. A small woman with grey streaked hair smiled at Omi and came around one display case to give him a hug and a kiss, and even gave Nagi a quick kiss on the cheek. The small, quiet boy blushed at the sign of affection and ducked his head, while Omi laughed and hugged him close. "Eleanor, this is Takashi, who will be learning magic with me!"

Eleanor smiled at Takashi and bowed. "Hello. I assume you’ll want some sweets then, yes? I know magic requires a lot of energy."

"Uhmm…" Takashi blushed at the attention, as Eleanor was very pretty when she smiled.

"We’ll take five pounds of the chocolate walnut fudge and five pounds of the dark chocolate." Omi pulled out several coins from a pouch and handed it to her. "Maybe cut a pound of each separate so we can enjoy some while we shop, okay?"

She laughed as she accepted the money and went to fetch the fudge. "I can do that. I assume that there will be a few happy people at the Koneko, ne?"

Omi laughed and nodded, while Nagi wandered around the shop. Takashi watched the quiet boy for a moment, still trying to figure him out, before becoming distracted by all of the goods around him. He would have to remember this place, as his sisters would probably love the toffee and his mother might like some fudge.

When they were outside once again, he tried to hand Omi a few coins for the sweets and was refused. "No, Botan asked me to show you around so it’s on me." Omi smiled as he offered Takashi some fudge. "Besides, you haven’t been paid yet so save your money."

"You’ll have to let me pay once I do get some from Botan," Takashi said, torn between being upset over how he was being treated to everything all day and still overjoyed at being taken on as an assistant by the Royal Wizard. Being paid while learning was the last thing he had thought about in the last several days, though it was definitely a huge perk. His mother would definitely be able to put some of the money to good use, after all of the years of saving up to afford paying for his magic lessons.

Omi waved aside his offer and handed a large piece of fudge to Nagi with a tender smile. "Just bring some snacks when we’re training and it’ll be fine."

Takashi had the strong impression that it was more the fact that Omi refused to allow him to pay for anything that Nagi would share in than his limited funds and had to suddenly look aside. He remembered his great aunt telling him that things were a lot different in Eto than where he had grown up, and even Chiken had been a lot less… liberal about some things than the capital.

He knew some friends who had boyfriends instead of girlfriends back there, but they had never introduced their lovers as openly as Omi had Nagi, or had been so affectionate in public as the two. A slight blush crept onto his cheeks as he watched Omi pull Nagi close to lick away a spot of fudge, followed by a quick kiss between the two boys, yet he found himself more envious than disturbed. Omi was so very talented and powerful, had trained with Botan for over a year and known him for even longer, and had a lover who obviously cared about him very much. Meanwhile, Takashi was away from most of his family, in an unfamiliar city and had yet to find a girl who paid any real attention to him. Ah well, his great aunt was close enough if he needed her - even if she was a little scary - and his cousin was at the Army base, he had the opportunity of a lifetime in front of him and seemed to have made at least one friend so far – he just needed to not do anything remotely suspicious to said friend’s boyfriend. He could handle that.

"So, Botan said that I need new clothes if I’m going to be at the palace a lot," he announced after a few minutes, when Nagi’s face was clean and Omi a respectable distance away from the dark haired boy.

Omi smiled and gestured around him. "That’s part of the reason why we’re here, in the western Green district. We’re taking you to Cassandra’s shop, because she’s the best seamstress around."

Nagi muttered something that Takashi failed to catch, but it made Omi laugh. When he looked with confusion at the other boy, Omi’s smile grew wider and he shook his head. "Okay, I was gonna wait until you met her before letting you in on the secret, but I guess it’s fine to tell you beforehand. She really is the best seamstress I know, but she’s also Botan’s lover."

"Oh." Takashi thought about that for a moment. "Oh!" He laughed and scratched the back of his head. "Are you sure that’s a good idea? What if I say something that offends her?"

Omi waved aside his concern. "I don’t see that happening. Cassandra’s a really nice person, she’s nothing like what you’ll find at Court, which is part of why I think Botan loves her so much. Just be yourself and you’ll get along fine." He was quiet for a moment and glanced at Nagi. "Besides, you’ll have to deal with her eventually. Botan spends as much time as he can with her; when he’s not at Court he’s either at the Koneko or her place. That’s part of the reason why my lessons take place at the Koneko." His voice sounded serious, as if he was trying to convey something important. "Well, that and I live there," he added with a laugh a moment later.

"Okay." Takashi had wondered why they had come to this part of the city, when there was so much of it to be seen and Botan had said he would be busy for the next couple of days. "Will I get to see the Koneko soon?" He had heard about it from both Omi and Botan, and had overheard the Guards mention it as well. It sounded like a very popular place and any inn that allowed magic to be practiced on its premises had to be something special.

Omi shared a cryptic look with Nagi. "We’re pretty close to it right now. I figured once we’re done at Cassandra’s that we can stop by the Koneko for something to eat." He held up the bag of fudge. "The staff should be happy when we bring this back!"

He appeared so carefree and friendly that Takashi was more than willing to take it all at face value, yet he had some questions about everything. Deep down, he had the feeling that Omi knew more than he was saying, especially about what Botan was doing at the palace and why he was unwilling to involve either of them in whatever it was. All the Royal Wizard had said was that he had to question a rogue wizard about misusing magic and that Omi could spend the time helping Takashi become familiar with the city. Once Botan was done assisting the Spymaster with the questioning, then Takashi would be ready to assume his training.

He was fine with knowing his place, he just had an issue of being kept in the dark when it was obvious that he was the only one being treated that way. So he decided to try and resolve the situation. "Omi… do you know what Botan’s doing right now? I mean, why he doesn’t want us around?"

At first, Omi appeared to have not heard the question. "We need to turn left here," was all the other boy said. It was not until they had gone down half a block that he spoke again. "He’s trying to keep us from being involved in some unsavory things." His tone was quiet, more from his emotions being kept in check than from a lack of volume.

Takashi hugged his arms around his chest. "I gathered that, but isn’t it something we should know about if we’re going to be wizards?"

Omi stopped walking, causing Takashi to stop as well. He found himself flanked by the other boy and Nagi as well, who stared at him without any expression on his face. He started back from the quiet boy in shock and looked quickly to Omi. "I… is it so wrong to want to know the truth?"

The silence continued for a moment, a passerby walking around them in the narrow alleyway. "No, it’s not so wrong, I supposed," Omi answered with a sigh. He waited until the stranger was gone before speaking again. "Look, the reason why Botan didn’t say anything to you is that… well, I guess he wanted to protect you from a few things. What were you taught about using bound blood in spells?" The question came out in a sharp tone of voice, Omi’s grey eyes narrowed and his lips pressed in a thin line.

Takashi felt as if there was an invisible pressure in the air around him, making it difficult to breathe. "I… Aunt Keiko always told me that to use any blood in spells would transfer the suffering into my magic. She believed that it would taint the spell and invite bad luck." His great aunt had been very emphatic about that, swearing that any benefit from the short cut would be negated later on, citing what had happened to the great wizards of the Binding War as an example. Even when one of his tutors had lectured on the possibilities that opened up with the use of bound blood, he had been unable to escape Aunt Keiko’s voice in his head. "I can’t imagine using blood like that, it’s just *wrong*."

The pressure gradually eased and the cold look thawed from Omi’s eyes. "Well, just know that Botan is adamant about the use of any blood in spells, so much so that he won’t in any way pass on a shred of knowledge based on it to us." He glanced at Nagi, his expression softening as he looked at his lover. "There are some things he tries to shield me from, and it seems you as well, in the hopes that we’ll find a better way. I think that’s what he’s doing now. The wizard he’s questioning was using bound blood."

"Oh." Takashi rubbed his throat as he stepped closer to his new friend. "So he won’t let us participate because he doesn’t want us to learn anything that the wizard might have to say?" That made sense.

"Yes." Omi grabbed Nagi’s hand and pulled his boyfriend close to his side while motioning Takashi to continue. "I guess he didn’t bother to explain it to you very well because… well, maybe he didn’t want to scare you away or maybe he just got too caught up in things. He’s been after this wizard for a while so he’s been a bit preoccupied."

Nagi snorted in derision. "He’s always preoccupied."

Omi laughed as he draped his arm over his boyfriend’s shoulder. "Well, he is a busy man! I’m sure we’ll hear a lot of complaining from poor Cassandra about how he’s been too busy to visit her lately. At least Schu’s free now to spend some time with her."

"As if having a pervert of a son visit is any better than an addle-brained wizard," Nagi replied with deep scorn. Takashi would have been shocked, if he had not heard such similar answers for the last several hours. It seemed that the only good things Nagi had to say about were reserved for Omi and two people named Aya and Jo. He looked forward to meeting them, along with an apparently spectacular idiot called Kudoh.

Takashi missed his sisters and his mother as well as his friends back in Chiken, and he had a feeling that he would get lost in ten minutes without a set of directions or someone to lead him around, but he was excited about his new life. All he ever wanted was to learn magic, and there was no place better to learn than from the Royal Wizard. The capital was every bit as wonderful and diverse as he had heard it was, and he had the hopes that he had already made a friend in Omi. He was happy.

"So, are you going to tell me about this pervert of a son?" he asked as he hurried after Omi and Nagi.

Omi groaned while Nagi snorted again. "I don’t know if there’s enough time to explain all of Schu’s perversions," Omi commented with a wry grin.

"Better his than Kudoh’s," Nagi muttered under his breath.

Takashi caught Omi’s stifled laugh at Nagi’s comment and promised himself that he would definitely have to meet this ‘Kudoh’ very soon.

*******

Yohji heaved a dramatic sigh when he saw the list that Jo was busy writing down. "You know, Aya and I have to be able to carry all of that back." He took a cautious step away from the table as he complained, just in time to avoid a half-hearted swipe from Jo’s left hand.

"Oh hush, you. They’re small items that a big, strong man like yourself should be able to manage." Jo looked up from the list to give him a glare that would do Aya proud, the fierce look quickly changing into a sly grin. "Besides, a good bit of this list are spices that will find their way into cakes and mulled wine, so do *you* want to be the one to break it to Aya why I decided we could do without them, hmm?" She sounded very smug just then, gloating over the fact that she had effectively won the argument.

"You are pure evil," Yohji stated as he took to pouting. Without bothering to look, he picked up a sourdough roll to fling at the corner where a certain someone was sniggering. "And that’s enough from you, considering the way your boyfriend tortured us yesterday."

Teddy, being almost as evil as Jo, caught the roll and took a bite before answering, his mouth half-full of bread. "Better you than me, for once. It’s your fault for being so ‘historically significant’." He rolled his eyes to show what he thought about that, finished the roll and went back to helping Maddox prep the vegetables for the lamb stew.

"Yeah, well he should go see Birman about a job with the way he asked so many damn questions," Yohji grumbled as he picked up another roll and began to tear off pieces to eat. "And he could have waited until we got a few hours of sleep before he jumped us."

Teddy scoffed as he waved his knife around, prompting poor Maddox to jump a safe distance away. "Yeah, right. ‘Sleep’ was the last thing you two were gonna be doing." He waggled his eyebrows and seemed ready to say something else, until a stern look from Jo made him flinch and resume chopping the potatoes.

Yohji tried not to smile as he munched on the bread. Damn, but Teddy did have a point. He had been about to haul Aya up to their bedroom for a bit of fun when Koyu had found them in the kitchen and proceeded to drag every bit of information he could out of them over the whole Garcia affair. Koyu had wanted the facts while they were still fresh in Aya and Yohji’s minds, to be recorded for the future’s sake even if only a select few of the Harpers would ever be authorized to read them. Since that was the reason the Harper was allowed to stay at the Koneko instead of being back on the road finishing his journeyman status, Yohji had been unable to refuse him. As for Aya…. Yohji suspected his mate had complied just to get the story over and done with, when much of the Koneko’s staff was around to hear it so he would be saved from repeating it again.

They had been left in peace after that, stuffed full of food and drink during the storytelling and promised to have the rest of the day all to their selves. Botan and Birman had spent almost two days questioning Garcia and the other wizard, Ilgner, and asked that Aya remain on hand during the time to ensure that the wizards were unable to use any magic to escape. Birman had extended every courtesy that she could during their stay, but Yohji and Aya had been unable to relax while they were at the palace. As soon as Aya was able to carry out Garcia’s execution, and that of a couple of others, they had left.

Ah well, at least Aya was very well fed for the time being, with the strong probability of future meals in the upcoming weeks, and was able to leave the Koneko’s grounds once more. One of the first things that Botan had investigated was finding out how many of Garcia’s associates knew about a possible dubhach, and had been reassured that the wizard had kept it a close secret. Thank the gods for some favors.

"What’s taking Aya so long?" Jo asked as she finished her list and handed it to Yohji.

"He’s looking for a couple of books that are due back at the Royal Library." Yohji held up the list to see how bad of a job it would be to get everything and was relieved to find out that the task should be doable in an hour or two. Most of the spices should be available in the same area, meaning just a few stops and at nearby stores at that. Once the list was safely tucked into a pocket, he concentrated on his link to get an idea of what was keeping his lover. "Hmm, he’s been a bit frustrated, so either he wants my body in the worst way or one of the books has gone missing," he informed Jo with a wicked grin.

She sighed as she smacked his left shoulder without even looking in his direction. "Have I mentioned yet how quiet it was while the two of you were off at the palace?"

"Mmm, just a dozen or so times." His smile widened as he grabbed her for a hug. "Aw, come on, say you missed us!" His laugh turned into a low moan of pain when she managed to get an arm free and to smack the side of his head. "Okay, you missed abusing me, at the least!"

Jo laughed as she shook her head and straightened out her blue dress. "Perhaps I’ll admit to things being a tad boring without you here." She shook her head again and went over to the fireplace to turn the large side of pig that was roasting. "But I know well enough to enjoy the quiet while it lasts."

"What about it being quiet?" Aya asked, causing just about everyone in the room to jump in reaction to his sudden appearance except for Yohji, who had sensed his approach and his budding curiosity. He reached for and grabbed an armful of redhead and books and pulled Aya close.

"Dammit, I did *not* miss that," Jo muttered as she pressed her right hand to her heart as if to still its frantic beating. She gave Aya an annoyed look as she resumed turning the spit. "Did you find your books?"

He held up three of them before tucking them into the bag draped over his left shoulder. "I forgot to ask Ed to return them for me the last time he was here." He glanced at Yohji with a slight frown on his face. "What was so quiet?"

"It seems that we are a rowdy bunch, Cat." Yohji grinned as he tugged on an eartail trailing down Aya’s dark violet jerkin. "You need to curb your partying ways."

The look Aya gave him was one of pure disdain. "Has he been into the whiskey already?" he asked Jo as he batted Yohji’s hand aside.

"Not that I’m aware of, sadly." She left the poor dead, delicious pig alone to come stand by Aya’s side. "I think you’re going to have your hands full today."

The expression on Aya’s face was clearly one of ‘what else is new’, which prompted Yohji to laugh and lean in for a kiss. Aya hissed a little and nipped at his bottom lip to show his slight displeasure at such foolish behavior, but soon was kissing him back, a heartwarming mix of happiness, love and trust beneath the annoyance. Yohji stroked his mate’s cheek as he shifted away and stuck his tongue out at Jo. "He likes having his hands full." He laughed again at Aya’s aggrieved sigh. "All right, I’ll do my best to behave." Really, it was all Aya’s fault; he had fed recently so that meant the sunlight that poured into Yohji was that much more potent and heady.

"Now *that* would be something of ‘historical significance’," Jo remarked as she rubbed Aya’s back in sympathy, but there was a smile on her lips and a gleam in her brown eyes, along with happiness and love to her emotions that let Yohji know that she was pleased with him and enjoying the chance to tease.

"Please, it’s enough that Koyu’s gonna spend the next week or so writing songs about wizards and spies, the last thing I need is listening to him coming up with rhymes about Yohji’s impulse control issues," Teddy complained from across the room. Yohji was about to throw another roll at the smirking bastard and was stopped by Aya grabbing hold of his arm and dragging him off.

"Let’s get going before Jo tosses you on the spit as well," Aya hissed, pausing only long enough to grab his cloak. Yohji barely had the time to snatch his blue coat from the hook by the door, and then was busy fussing over his mate to make sure that Aya was sufficiently protected from the sun before they left the safety of the Koneko’s shadows. Ah well, he would just get even with Teddy later.

Aya had his gloves on and hood pulled forward by the time they reached the street, so Yohji buttoned up his coat against the chill in the air and slipped on his darkened glasses as his eyes protested the bright sunlight of the day. The autumn air was crisp and cool, scented with a hint of bonfires and decaying leaves already. As much as he missed the warm days of summer, the shorter days were a blessing to Aya’s nature and any missions that would come their way. Yohji glanced aside at his mate and wondered how Aya would react to an offer to run about one night as they had to Rufus’ house, the memory of the race along the rooftops one of exhilaration now that the panic over Reno had faded.

"What are you busy plotting?" Aya asked as he bumped his shoulder into Yohji’s. His curiosity from earlier was back, along with a strong sense of happiness to be out and about and a slight unease from the sunlight.

"Oh, just something that will have you purring and adoring me even more than usual." Yohji grinned as he was rewarded with another of those aggrieved sighs. "Come on, you know you do adore me."

Aya chose to refrain from commenting, which was as good as a ‘yes, I do’ because he was never shy about putting Yohji in his place. Yohji smiled as he stroked his left hand down the back of his lover’s cloaked back. "Want to stop for some tea on the way back from the Library? We might need something to give us a bit of energy before we tackle Jo’s shopping list."

The happiness increased and he caught a sliver of a smile from beneath the hood of Aya’s black cloak. "Is the list that bad?"

"Well, Jo definitely believes in putting us to work, I’ll say that! But I doubt you’ll have much to complain about for your efforts once we get everything back home." Yohji smiled himself when he felt Aya’s curiosity strengthen. Ah yes, that was his cat.

Aya was far from the only curious person; several friends and shopkeepers waved and called out Yohji’s name as they made their way through the district, surprised to see the familiar cloaked figure at his side. There was some hesitation to call out Aya’s name as well, until Aya waved back to some of the people he was more familiar with, but a sense of distance remained. Yohji frowned a little as they continued on their way, going over the emotions that he had picked up from the people as if they were a strange puzzle.

There had been the curiosity, which was only logical as they would wonder about Aya being out after missing for so long. And he supposed it did not help that he and the Guard asking about that no one mention Aya to strangers trying to track down redheads had done Aya’s reputation any favors. That might account for the distance and speculation, the almost sense of fear and honor that he had picked up. But that would go away soon, right? They just had to realize that Aya was Aya, the same as he had always been, a bit aloof and one to drive a hard bargain. It would just take a little time for all the excitement over the Garcia mess to die down.

He slid an arm around Aya’s waist and pulled him close, smiling absentmindedly at the pulse of confusion he sensed over the link he shard with Aya. "We’ll stop for some tea and sweets then make Jo happy by finding all the goods on her list. I think after that we’ll be owed a nice soak in the hot spring and dinner." By then there should at least be some mulled wine ready for them to take up to their room, where they could spend a few hours relaxing while curled up in front of the fire. If he thought that Cassandra was alone right now he would suggest that they pay their friend a visit, but he was willing to bet that a certain wizard was currently keeping her company.

"You’re sounding almost logical for once. Are you sure you haven’t been into the whiskey already?" Aya flashed him a quick grin before tugging his hood further over his face.

Yohji almost tripped in surprise over the grin and the verbal jab, then chuckled as he caught up with his mate. "Oh, just you *wait*, Cat, he murmured as he leaned in close. "It’s a good thing you’re nice and full, because I’m feeling *extra* hungry right about now." He let a hint of a growl creep into his voice, just for a few seconds since they were out in the street, and chuckled some more at the rush of desire he felt over their link. Hmm, maybe they could find a nice, quiet and dark bookshelf somewhere in the Royal Library while they were there. Jo could wait a little while for those spices….

*******

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