Darkness Returns

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by nekojita

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chapter one

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the hope of home

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"Hey! Schuldig! Wait up!"

Sighing in annoyance, Schuldig paused on his way to his quarters and looked behind him to see Duo and Heero headed in his direction. Wondering what those two wanted with him, he leaned against the hallway’s paneled wall and debated perusing through the bounds’ thoughts. The way Crawford’s voice instantly filled his head, a memory of the stern, droning lecture he’d been given before even arriving in Berin, made him even more annoyed, but he barely managed to resist the impulse to do the opposite of what it told him. He was deep in enemy territory, and any screw-ups on his part would affect Masato, Nagi and Jei, so he’d be good no matter how much it galled him. No frivolous mind-readings while he was in the Elders’ palace.

However, as Duo drew near, he really didn’t have to worry about keeping his promise to Crawford, not when the fire elemental was so clearly upset. Duo’s thoughts were as bright and potent as flames, easily discerned with little effort on Schuldig’s part. There was anger and disgust at the recent assignments that Duo had been given, and a simmering resentment at him being forced to talk to someone who was friends with Masato. If Schuldig hadn’t been a bit miffed himself at the deception that was currently bothering Duo so much, he’d have laughed.

Instead, he managed an annoyed frown and barely resisted the urge to play with the high collar of his tunic, which hid the marks that Masato had left on his neck last night. "What do you want, oh noisy one?"

Duo stuck his tongue out at the comment but quickly smiled. Behind him, Heero was still doing his ‘I am as emotional as a hunk of rock’ impersonation, which really made Schuldig want to see how the man dealt with being pounded on with a heavy stone chisel. Maybe that would make him show some emotion for once, right before the metal tool smashed into his head… or after, at least.

"I was wondering how well you knew the southwestern part of Kritiker," Duo said, which shook Schuldig from his violent mental wanderings. Schuldig didn’t know what it was exactly, but Heero always managed to piss him off whenever they ran into each other. If he wasn’t careful, he got lost in musing about various ways to make Heero cry like a frightened child – anything to show a bit of emotion. Duo was a bit annoying but mostly fun; Heero was just creepy.

Shaking his head slightly to help clear it of the distracting thoughts, Schuldig tamped down on his growing animosity and focused on Duo. "Southwestern Kritiker? I’m sorry to say that I’ve no fucking clue about that part of the country." He snorted in derision and pushed himself away from the wall to stand in front of Duo. "I’m a city boy born and bred; I rarely bothered with the more rural areas." He let a wicked grin spread across his face. "No need to go to the rubes to fleece them, not when enough of them came to Eto for me to make some money off of the idiots." Many a person fresh into the city from the countryside had had their pockets picked by him, but he really hadn’t singled them out. No, he had always enjoyed more of a challenge, and usually went for the ‘seasoned’ locals who thought they were educated enough to avoid pickpockets and petty thievery.

Duo rolled his eyes and shook his head. "Great, so much for pumping you for some information." He let out a long breath, clearly frustrated about something. "I’m a city boy myself, so I’ve no idea why I’m being sent to the middle of nowhere." However, from the thoughts that Schuldig picked up, Duo did indeed know why he was being sent to Kritiker, and that was why he was so unhappy. He’d always detested ‘retrieval’ missions, where he was sent to drag some poor bound back to Esset, by force if necessary. The Elders knew that too… which was most likely why Duo had been assigned so many of them lately, when he could be of more use in Berin trying to control the weather. That should teach him to behave better at parties and to be a good, meek lackey.

"Serendale is not ‘the middle of nowhere’." Just hearing Heero’s bland, impassive voice made Schuldig want to mess with the air elemental bound’s mind and give him a real personality. One that would make Heero cross-dress like a lower class Thracian whore. "There is a population of eight thousand in the area, and it is well known for its wheat production."

"Yeah, yeah, a bunch of crops and farmers and cow shit, more than likely." Duo waved aside Heero’s comments and frowned. "Just what my allergies need," he complained as he clutched the end of his long brown braid in his right hand and brushed its tip along his nose.

"You don’t suffer from any allergies," Heero pointed out.

"What, are you suddenly a healer now?" Duo asked, voice and demeanor distinctly peeved as he stepped closer to Heero. "Maybe I break out in hives when around massive quantities of cow shit, for all you know. Not all of us are ‘perfect’, after all." As he loudly went on with his tirade, Schuldig risked a very careful, subtle mental scan. Because of how upset Duo was over the mission, it didn’t take much ‘digging’ to find the identity of the bound he and Heero were being sent to bring back. Once he had a name and a description, he just as carefully sought out his father’s mind.

<Crawford.>

There was the sensation of annoyance, and beneath that, distrust and dislike. <Schuldig, now is not the best of times.>

Not really caring if Crawford minded the distraction or not, Schuldig sent along the information he’d just gathered. <Duo and Heero will be leaving tomorrow morning,> he added while he pretended to listen to Duo’s rant. <So get a move on.> He just loved it when he could boss the cold bastard around like this.

Crawford gave the impression that he wanted to add something to the ‘conversation’ but cut off the connection after a moment’s pause. Smiling at having gotten the last word in, more or less, Schuldig returned his attention to the two bounds beside him.

As Duo continued to elaborate upon just how adversely he was affected by the presence of animal manure, the slightest hint of exasperation colored Heero’s shielded thoughts and crept through his impassive visage. While Schuldig would dearly love to watch Duo manage to piss off the walking statue, he had better things to do right now. There’d been a reason why he’d been on his way home, after all, and he’d gotten all the information he needed at the moment.

"Ah, so is there anything else you wanted to know?" he asked, deftly breaking through the fire elemental bound’s tirade. "Sorry, but I can’t tell you much about cow shit, either."

Duo huffed for a moment while something suspiciously like an expression of relief flitted across Heero’s face, making Schuldig regret that he’d said anything. "No, just wondered if you could tell us anything about Serendale," Duo grumbled. "You think any of your friends are familiar with the area? Crawford or Masato, maybe?"

Schuldig couldn’t help but notice the anger Duo felt when he mentioned Masato, and he also couldn’t help rubbing something painful in the man’s face. After all, if he had to suffer, there was no reason why he had to do so alone, and the sooner Duo figured out that Trowa was his mate then the quicker this stupid charade would be over. "Masato might…," he drawled, "but I don’t think you want to bother him right now. I believe that he’s busy feeding." He managed a leer by thinking of what would happen as soon as he got back to their quarters.

Duo picked up on his insinuation and for the briefest of seconds the air turned scalding hot. Schuldig almost thought that he was imagining it, but he sensed Heero’s anger at Duo and the way the air in the hallway began to circulate much faster than before. Ignoring the glare sent his way by Heero, Duo managed a smile that was only a little more civil than bared teeth. "Thanks. Maybe I can catch him later." Catch him and set him on fire, from the sound and feel of it.

"Oh, I doubt it since he was *really* hungry this morning. I imagine he’s not going to let his snack get away any time soon," Schuldig taunted, another jab to set off Duo’s possessive nature. What he wouldn’t give for the idiot to figure out why he felt like turning whoever mentioned Trowa being fucked by someone else into a lump of charcoal. It never seemed to occur to Duo that just *perhaps*, they were mates. Screw Crawford’s grand scheme to hide the fact that Schuldig and Masato were bound together, Schuldig wanted the water elemental bound safely mated to someone else and away from *his* Masato.

"What about Crawford?" Heero asked, a hint of reproach in his voice. There was a brief flash of anger when he realized that Schuldig was intentionally antagonizing Duo, but it seemed he didn’t think it was for any reason other than Schuldig being a bastard. Reminding himself to mention that fact to Crawford later as proof that he was helping them out by being such a pain in the ass, Schuldig was amazed that the normally stoic man was being so ‘emotional’ today.

Schuldig forced his thoughts away from Heero and realized that if he was going to be branded a bastard, he might as well do a really good job of it. "Oh, he just might. He’s traveled around a lot, so go on and ask him." He reached out with his talent again, this time to scan thoughts instead of relay a message. "You can find him in the solarium in the south wing." Crawford was stuck in attendance to the old bastards; no wonder he’d been so ticked off at being ‘interrupted’. "Do me a favor and tell him that I’m headed home and am looking for some fun." He gave Heero a wink as a wicked grin curved the corners of his mouth. And that’s exactly what he was going to do, but it was *so* much more entertaining to make everyone think that he’d be ‘playing’ with Crawford. What better way was there to hide the fact that they were really father and son than to pretend to be lovers? Also, there was the added bonus that the rumors disturbed the hell out of Crawford, who didn’t dare dispute them because the last thing they needed was for the Elders to figure out their true relationship. Schuldig was too amused by Crawford’s discomfort to be squicked by the rumors himself and helped add to them whenever he could.

"Sounds like your quarters are the fun place to be," Duo said, his good humor seemingly restored. "Well, we’re off to try and get some information." He waved goodbye as he and Heero headed toward the south wing of the palace.

Schuldig didn’t bother to wave goodbye in return as he hurried to his assigned quarters. At least the old bastards had allowed him and the others a rather large and lavishly decorated suite so they could live together, which made things a lot easier. Crawford said it was to make it simpler to keep an eye on all of them, but Schuldig didn’t care as long as he didn’t have to sneak around any more than he already did to see Masato. Each of them had their own room, though he pretended to have one just for himself in case anyone came snooping around. Trowa ended up spending more time in it than he did.

His anger returning as he thought about the water elemental bound, Schuldig struggled to control it before he did something to piss off both Crawford and Masato. He couldn’t care less if he angered his father, but Masato might decide that he wasn’t ‘hungry’ after all if Schuldig was mean to Trowa. Feeling jealousy fuel his anger, he cursed himself and fought with his emotions.

Masato was only being nice to Trowa because they needed the man, and for a hell of a lot more than to just hide the fact that Schuldig and Masato were mates. Trowa was the most powerful water elemental bound in Esset… and most likely in Kritiker as well. He was powerful enough that he could tell a person’s lineage just by looking at them, using his talent to read the blood that flowed through that person’s veins. He could also do some serious damage to the weather just by himself, unlike most of his kind. Trowa was not only very important because he would help ensure Esset’s defeat in the upcoming war, but he also kept some potentially devastating secrets from being revealed. He had lied and told the old bastards that Nagi was Crawford’s son rather than Schuldig.

There was also the fact about Trowa’s past, the way that the tragedies that often befell unprotected water elemental bounds had happened to him, and for so long. Schuldig knew that if Masato wasn’t mated to him, that Trowa would have nothing to do with the succubae bound. Trowa thought that sex was repellent and physical contact was to be avoided at almost all costs, and Schuldig couldn’t blame him one bit. He could feel sorry for the bound… once he was the one with Masato. Though it galled him to admit it, Crawford really had done a good job in finding someone to pretend to be Masato’s lover so no one wondered why he wasn’t feeding from various people. Trowa was powerful enough that he could handle being repeatedly drained, while everyone just assumed that Masato’s power was what had broken through the water elemental bound’s very impressive reserve.

Still, it was frustrating as hell to not be the one beside Masato when out in public. Schuldig had gotten past the point where he was disgusted at himself for needing his mate so much since it was a simple fact of his new life. He wasn’t exactly happy about it, but he was dealing with it. He’d just deal with it a hell of a lot better once the stupid war was over and he could fuck Masato in front of an audience to prove that the man was *his*.

Entering the suite, he found Nagi curled up on one of the main room’s many over-stuffed chairs, busy reading a book while chewing on the latest treats that Omi had sent. Smiling at the boy, he felt his mood improve somewhat when something chocolate-covered floated its way to him. "Thanks, Nagi." After it dropped into his open hand, he popped it into his mouth and groaned in delight. "Wow, it pays to sleep with royalty," he teased as he approached his friend. The dark chocolate had been filled with some sort of orange liqueur, something very tart and sweet.

"Go away if you’re going to be so crass," Nagi sniffed, doing a wonderful Crawford impersonation. Schu forbore telling the kid that his face was gonna end up frozen like that one day and then they’d never be able to tell him apart from Crawford; he stuck out his tongue instead and stole another candy.

"Then I better get going because I certainly won’t mess with perfection and change," he teased. "What did Aya send you this time?" he quickly asked when Nagi glared at him for the theft.

Giving him a cool look to show that he wasn’t fooled by the diversionary tactic, Nagi used his talent to slide the lid back onto the box of chocolates that rested on the small table beside him. "The diary of an earth elemental bound who fought in the War. He thought I might learn a few interesting new uses for my talent." He smiled at the book and stroked his hand over its cover in a reverent manner.

Well, a box of chocolates from his lover and a book from his best friend would definitely explain why Nagi was in such a good mood today. While he hadn’t taken the kid under his wing to the extent that Jei had, Schuldig felt a bit of pleasure at the fact that Nagi was happy. As much as he missed his mother and Yohji, he had to admit he’d found a new family of sorts here in Berin. Now if Crawford would just go fuck off, life would be damn near perfect.

"Yeah, well, let me know when you decide to try out those new tricks with Jei. I just love seeing him dangling in the air while hanging upside down." He winked at Nagi and left the room while chewing on the pilfered chocolate. Damn, maybe he should ask his mom to get him a box of the sweets. He’d left her a fair bit of his stash so she should be able to afford it. Worrying about her for a few seconds, he was distracted when he noticed that the door to ‘his’ room was cracked open.

Peering inside, he found a scene similar to the one in the main room. Sitting in the chair tucked into the corner was Trowa, a very large, thick book in his hands. In the process of turning a page, he looked up and nodded in greeting.

Unable to stop himself, Schuldig took a very slow, deep breath. He could only faintly smell his mate on Trowa, which eased the lingering sense of jealousy. The demon part of him wanted to use his talent to read Trowa’s mind and search through it to make sure that nothing had happened between him and Masato, but Schuldig was able to ignore it. Trowa’s mind was like a very deep lake. The surface was smooth and reflective but if he pushed in deep, he found himself immersed in something turbulent and frighteningly cold.

He’d heard what Trowa had done to the mercenaries who had ‘raised’ him once his power had manifested, and felt that they had gotten off too easy. For someone to be so emotionally stunted by repeated abuse that they couldn’t even recognize a potential mate, even after being in that person’s presence for several years…. If Schuldig wasn’t so damned jealous, he’d feel pity.

Reassured that Trowa hadn’t tried anything with his mate, Schuldig just flopped his hand up and down a couple of times in Trowa’s direction and closed the door. He felt the slightest bit of amusement from the other bound before Trowa’s mind resumed its normal smooth glassiness. In a way, Trowa’s thoughts reminded him of Heero’s, but there was definitely something going on in there, something that Schuldig wasn’t certain of when he had to deal with the air elemental bound. There was a huge difference between refusing to show the world any emotions for fear of them being used against you, as in Trowa’s case, and not seeming to have any emotions at all, as in Heero’s.

Whatever those old bastards had done to Heero, he didn’t want to know. The little he did know just fueled his desire to see them brought down, and gave him the patience to deal with being stuck in this shitty palace with his father, of all people. He also felt a fresh wave of gratitude and admiration for his mother who had risked so much to make sure he’d been raised free of the old bastards’ influence.

Entering the room he shared with Masato, he found his mate sprawled out on the bed, fast asleep and dressed only in a pair of pants. Taking another deep breath, the only scent of sex that Schuldig could smell was from last night, and his jealousy finally quieted down. Even though he *knew* that Masato wasn’t cheating on him, that it was impossible for either of them to want anyone else, he still felt the very annoying emotion of jealousy. In the back of his mind was the disturbing little thought that since he’d fought the bond between them so much, perhaps he’d done something to damage it, to make it weak. At least, on Masato’s part. No matter how much Schuldig had tried to deny it and prevent it from happening, he was too attracted to his mate to even imagine having sex with anyone else, even Yohji. More than a bit disgruntled by that thought, he kicked off his boots and made his way to the bed.

Masato was lying on his back, his right arm bent so his hand was tucked under the pillow. Standing beside the bed for a moment, Schuldig moved forward with a wicked grin plastered on his face. In a smooth motion, he jumped onto the bed and landed on Masato’s stomach, his knees on either side of his lover’s hips.

"Hell!" Masato yelled as he was jolted awake, his hands instinctively reaching for Schuldig. "What are you doing, you damn brat?" he asked when he was a little more aware, his eyes heavy-lidded and his voice thickened by sleep.

<Waking you up,> Schuldig purred as he caught Masato’s hands and entwined their fingers together. <Why are you so sleepy?>

"Maybe because some over-sexed young idiot kept me up all night," Masato grumbled; now that he was fully awake, his shock and annoyance melted into hunger and happiness. "Come here and give me a kiss," he purred as he freed his hands and wrapped his arms around Schuldig’s waist.

Grumbling under his breath about lazy old men even as he leaned forward, Schuldig braced his arms on either side of Masato’s head. The simple feel of his mate’s lips against his own made him shiver, and then they were kissing. There was another jolt of pleasure as he parted his lips, this one stretching out and growing the entire time that Masato’s tongue delved into his mouth, until he had to pull away to catch his breath. Damn, but such a strong reaction for such a simple thing; no wonder he wanted sex with Masato all the time.

"Get back here," Masato ordered with a growl, his lips curved in a smile and parting open as he dragged Schuldig back down. /Don’t you know by now that breathing’s over-rated?/ he asked as he thrust his tongue into Schuldig’s mouth again, his hands entangled in Schuldig’s hair to make sure he couldn’t pull away.

/You just want me to pass out so you can do naughty things to me,/ was Schuldig’s instant retort as he stretched out on top of his lover. /How many times do I have to tell you that I want to be awake during that, hmmm?/ He rocked his hips forward, against Masato’s erection, and smiled when he provoked a heartfelt groan.

/I don’t have to put up with as much talk from you if you’re passed out,/ Masato said as one of his large hands cupped Schuldig’s ass and pulled downward until they both groaned in need and delight. "This is sex, not a conversation," he complained when he was the one to break off the kiss, slightly out of breath and his face flushed with desire.

"The brain’s a sex organ too, didn’t you know?" Schuldig gave his mate a wicked grin and sent images of how he wanted to be fucked, of the thought of Masato naked and spread eagle on top of the bed, lying on his back and chained to the bedposts. Then Schuldig could do whatever he wanted to his mate, could fuck him or ride him or tease him for hours on end.

The hand in his hair tightened enough to spark pain but he didn’t complain, not when Masato yanked him down for a kiss that put the previous two to shame. Dammit, he wanted to be fucked but it was hard to think well enough to argue for it when his lower lip was being nibbled on.

Masato chuckled and squeezed his ass. /You’ll definitely be fucked, you impatient brat. I just want a bit more of a taste of you, first./ He sent his enjoyment as he flicked his tongue along the roof of Schuldig’s mouth, of how good it felt to have Schuldig squirming on top of him and the wonderful way their cloth-covered erections rubbed together. /Anticipation can be good./

/Is that your way of telling me that you’re so old that you need the extra time to get it up all the way?/ Schuldig taunted, not willing to wait for ‘anticipation’. There were too many things keeping them apart for most of the day; the time they had alone together was for important things like fast, great sex.

His jab must have hit home because Masato began to growl, and the next thing he knew, he was lying on his back with his mate straddling his hips. As he slowly took in the reversal of positions, Masato ripped his tunic open and leaned down to kiss his neck. Make that more like maul his neck, Schuldig thought with amusement and pride as his lover’s teeth pressed against sensitive flesh. Groaning with pleasure, he threaded his fingers into Masato’s hair and spread his legs. "Oh, fuck yeah."

/I don’t need any time to ‘get it up’,/ Masato thought, his pride stung and his desire so potent that it was making Schuldig dizzy. /You’ll get your ‘fast, great’ fuck./ He was determined to make Schuldig scream and beg, to prove that he had all it took and then some to satisfy his stubborn, idiotic brat of a mate.

Smiling at getting his way, Schuldig arched his neck and scratched his nails down Masato’s back. "Oh, goody." He was pretty easy to please, really. All it took was Masato’s cock in his ass or his cock in Masato’s mouth. Or vice versa. Dammit, he just wanted sex. "I want it *now*." Before something happened to force them apart again, in which case he’d kill the person responsible.

Sucking hard on Schuldig’s neck, Masato went up onto his knees enough so he could tear at the laces of Schuldig’s pants. /Next time, don’t wake me up until you’re naked. Gods, you’re so damn impatient./

"Because you’re so slow." About to complain some more, Schuldig moaned at the feel of teeth pressing against his neck. "Ah!" His entire upper body arched as he was marked and his hands scrambled to push Masato’s pants down until he remembered about the laces.

Masato reluctantly released his hold on Schuldig’s neck so he could get rid of their annoying garments, quickly shedding his and then practically ripping Schuldig’s free from his legs. Gasping at the feel of cool air along his naked body, Schuldig hastily reached for his mate and pulled him back down on top of him. /*Now.*/ He didn’t care if Masato fucked him raw, he wanted him.

/But I do care,/ Masato pointed out as he nibbled on Schuldig’s bruised neck, proud of the marks he’d left there. He fumbled for the jar of lubricant and nudged Schuldig’s legs wider apart. /I don’t feed off of pain./

"But you do frustration?" Schuldig didn’t care that he was whining, he just wanted Masato. The jealousy and fear wouldn’t go away until his lover was buried inside of him, until they were both marked by each other. He was about to use his power to get what he wanted when Masato sighed out loud and pressed two slick fingers against his ass.

"On your knees, then." Masato sounded resigned and a bit disappointed. He was willing to forego being begged if it meant that Schuldig stopped bitching.

Schuldig hurried to comply, almost slipping on the bedspread in his haste to do as he was told. He shrugged off his tunic and then knelt on all fours before he looked over his shoulder at Masato to give him a dirty look. "Hurry up." They should already be having sex, but no, someone had to be an old, stubborn bastard.

With his left hand, Masato grabbed Schuldig’s chin and looked directly at him. "Next time, we do this my way or I show you just how much of a stubborn bastard I can be."

That meant nice and slow and lots of frustrating foreplay and so much pleasure and love that Schuldig wouldn’t feel hungry for emotions the rest of the week, and that was fine. But not right now. /Sure, however you want it…/

"As long as you get your way now," Masato finished for him with a chuckle. "Damn brat." He leaned in for a sloppy, awkward kiss as his lube-coated fingers slid along the crack of Schuldig’s ass. "You’ll be the death of me."

"I’ll kill you off during sex one day," Schuldig joked as his head hung down and his eyes closed. The feel of Masato’s fingers slowly circling his hole made him growl but he didn’t bitch for once, so close to getting what he wanted. He could usually goad his mate into getting his way, but once it was on the edge of sex like this, Masato could get damn mulish if he was rushed too much.

As if to reward his restraint, those fingers pushed inward, just the slightest bit, and then back out. Masato repeated the motions several times, the two fingers slipping inside just a little further, and he paused once to get some more lube. The feel of being stretched just a little too much was so wonderful it made Schuldig mewl in delight. His whole body thrummed with pleasure even though Masato was just touching his ass; his arms trembled so much that he leaned closer to the bed until his head rested on top of his forearms.

"*Now* you shut up," Masato mumbled and began to stroke his left hand along Schuldig’s abdomen, teasing caresses that got closer and closer to his hard cock. "Maybe I should do this more often."

/I’m saving my breath until you make me scream, which better be in about five more seconds./ Schuldig lifted his head to scowl at his mate but barely got it inches from the bed when he felt Masato’s fingers scissor wide inside of him. The motion was repeated several times and all he could do was gasp and moan. "Masato," he whined as he rocked his ass from side to side.

"Schuldig," Masato echoed and pulled his fingers away for a third time. If it wasn’t for the fact that Schuldig could feel how much his mate wanted him, how turned on Masato was from touching his ass and hearing him moan, he’d shove the bastard onto the bed and do the fucking. But now he could sense the demon in Masato take over and knew that he didn’t have to wait any longer. Breathing deeply as his mate’s strong hands gripped his hips, he barely had the time to brace himself before he was entered with delightful force.

"AH!" His face was pressed against the mattress from the force of the first thrust, the pace starting just as fast as he’d wanted. He had Masato’s huge cock in his ass, could feel it slide all the way in and then pull out, feel how much pleasure flowed from Masato and into him from those motions. They began to feed off of each other, Masato from the growing ecstasy that he felt and Schuldig from the same and the love, need and desire as well that his mate felt for him. Anymore, it wasn’t just about the sex, wasn’t about being fucked or fucking but the emotions the actions stirred up and made so potent that he felt that he could come from them alone.

He now craved those emotions desperately, needed to feel them every day until he was so sated from them that he didn’t want to leave the bed. Masato had become the center of his world and he’d accepted it by making damn sure that Masato gave him everything he needed and more.

/All you need and more,/ Masato promised, as deep within his mind as he was his body. From Masato was the sense that he would do whatever it took to keep Schuldig happy and at his side, would agree to any sacrifice without a moment’s hesitation. That soothed Schuldig’s jealousy and fear, made it vanish as long as they were together, bodies connected by ecstasy and need.

He arched his back and cried out when Masato thrust hard against his sweet spot, stars bursting behind his closed eyes from the intense pleasure. He swore he felt the low, pleased rumble of Masato’s chuckle as well as heard it, his body trembling from the assault of emotions and force, of being invaded and stroked, Masato’s left hand moving along his cock in the same time as the rapid, hard thrusts that shook the entire bed.

Schuldig had wanted this all day long, had felt deprived of the pleasure and the connection, of the addictive tang of his mate’s scent and the sound of his name being gasped with such need and delight. Masato felt much the same way, his hunger overwhelming them both in its need to be fed, in wringing every drop of pleasure possible from Schuldig.

Masato suddenly grabbed him around the waist and pulled him upward, back onto Masato’s lap. Moving his hips to keep the furious pace that sent bolts of ecstasy racing along his nerves, Schuldig tilted his head to the side and reached back to grab a handful of his mate’s hair as he was marked with a passionate frenzy that proved too much. Masato’s hard cock deep in his ass, big, calloused hand wrapped around his cock, and now sharp teeth pressed against his throat provoked such potent bliss that it seared through him, along with love and need, until he felt consumed by it. Crying out Masato’s name, he came in a sudden rush that robbed him of breath and sense.

Trying to breathe again was made difficult by the fact that Masato’s left arm clamped around his chest and hugged him so tightly that he squeaked, but thankfully his mate came as well a few seconds later, before he was squeezed to death. All thoughts of air were pushed aside by the intense wave of bliss that poured into him. He groaned in contentment when Masato slumped against his back, his mate’s mouth movingly silently against his neck.

"See, nothing wrong with fast and great," Schuldig quipped in a rough voice, his throat a little sore.

"But slow and intense can be even better," Masato murmured and pressed a kiss against Schuldig’s bruised neck. "You’ll see."

/By all means, I look forward to it./ Schuldig began to purr as he felt Masato gently lower him to the bed, keeping his arms wrapped tightly around him. He groaned when Masato’s cock slipped from his ass, but was otherwise happy with the way things had turned out.

/Such a brat./ The old complaint made him smile, especially when his mate nuzzled his left temple. /As much as I’d like it, we can’t spend our entire lives in bed. We need to eat and drink sometime./

/That’s what servants are for, to bring it to us./ Schuldig smiled and imagined having Crawford wait on them hand and foot.

Masato chuckled and poked him in the ribs. "That’s one fantasy that I highly doubt will ever come true." He chuckled some more and then sighed. "It won’t be forever, but we can spend the day in bed. Trowa’s got a new book so he won’t mind."

There was a quick bite of jealousy but the emotion couldn’t be sustained when Masato was holding him like this and his neck was sore from his mate’s marks. "Guess I can’t blame him since I wouldn’t want to be out there with all those idiots." They would just have to have really loud sex later on so Trowa would have no doubts that Masato was taken.

"Unlike Crawford, who seems to enjoy hanging out with those idiots." Masato stroked his left hand through Schuldig’s hair with a tenderness that made him sigh in contentment. "He’ll be upset by this, you know. He asked me to not feed too much from you for the next few days."

/Really?/ Schuldig searched through his lover’s memory for the conversation. He found the incident and frowned as he wondered what his father was up to now. Crawford had confessed to Masato that he didn’t know what exactly was going to happen, but he had the feeling something would soon, and that Schuldig shouldn’t be too drained to use his talent. /The bastard needs to get a hobby and stop meddling with my love life./

Masato clearly agreed. /I guess it has something to do with Aya or that other redhead, Reno. They must give your dad fits because of how they affect his talent./

/I’m glad someone does, just wish it was me,/ Schuldig grumbled. He took a deep breath to calm himself and couldn’t help but smile when he smelled his and Masato’s scent all mixed together.

"So, if we’re gonna be busy with something in the next few days, we might as well enjoy ourselves *now*," he purred as he turned to face his lover. They’d put this rare time alone to good use, and annoying Crawford would just be an added bonus.

Masato, being a very smart man, just grinned and kissed him.

*******

Cutting off the conversation with Schuldig before it turned into a bout of insults, Crawford spared a brief thought for how much he had thoroughly detested his own father and then pushed the emotions aside. Now was not the time to think about things that couldn’t be changed – or the things that could, to be honest. He focused on the ‘now’, of being forced into attendance on the Elders and their lackeys, all because of his father’s grand schemes and visions.

Thought and Sense sat in well-padded chairs and had blankets of plush dark brown fur draped over their laps, never mind that they were in one of the palace’s warmest rooms, with sunlight streaming through the glass roof and walls. Behind them stood Strength, still massive in build despite his advanced age, silent and watchful. Clustered around the Elders were those lackeys ‘blessed’ enough with an invitation for this audience, most of whom appeared enraptured either with their luck or the Elders’ proximity.

All but one person, that was, who stood a little off to the side much like Crawford. Lord Rufus Shinra, dressed all in white save for a black vest, had a slight frown on his handsome face. Knowing that the younger bound was almost a match for him in intelligence and duplicity, Crawford decided that Rufus’ displeasure was for the woman who was doing her best to engage him in conversation. His opinion of the soul gaki bound, which had dipped perilously low when he found out that Rufus had forced a mating bond on Reno, improved. He was careful to observe the interaction as he sipped his tea, eager to spy an opening that would allow him to draft the young lord to his ‘side’. All he knew for certain was that Rufus and Reno’s participation would be critical during the approaching war and afterwards, but he had no clue how to bring that about just yet. Probably because of Reno and Aya’s natures, he thought with resigned annoyance.

That was another train of thought that was cut short with haste. Crawford knew that Schuldig was the only bound who could slip past his shields without his knowledge, but Rufus was almost as powerful and Thought still had an impressive command of his talent. So it was best to not tempt fate and risk so much. Looking away from Rufus and Tan Xi, Crawford returned to the table where a very terrified young bound poured him another cup of tea, her hands shaking so much that the lid rattled on the porcelain pot she held.

Feeling a fresh wave of disgust and fury at how his fellow bounds were treated in a place that was supposed to be a haven for them, Crawford was grateful for the iron control that his father had instilled in him, for the ability to keep his emotions from showing on his face or leaking through his mental shields. The Elders would order his capture at once, if he wasn’t killed by some of their over-zealous pawns.

He had just picked up a cranberry scone and taken a bite when he sensed someone approach him from behind. Setting the pastry on the plate that held his tea cup, he pretended to turn to better examine the selection of sweet curds displayed on the table.

"Are you enjoying yourself, Crawford?" Tan Xi inquired as she stepped to his side and smiled. Standing behind her was Rufus, an utterly implacable expression on his face although his hands were clenched into fists.

"I’m grateful for the chance to enjoy some warmth and nature during such a cold winter," Crawford remarked as he set his plate on the table and brushed his hands clean of any crumbs. He made a point to glance around the solarium and the abundance of exotic plants that crowded the room. "The flowering orange trees are a very nice touch, and a new one, I believe."

"They were a recent gift," Tan Xi conceded, a tiny smile on her broad face that was framed by thick, black hair shot with grey. The silver strands and the slight wrinkles around her dark eyes were the only signs of her advanced age. If a human was to guess when she’d been born, they would have said about forty years ago, not the correct five centuries. Crawford never forgot just how old she was, nor the fact that she was one of the Elders’ most fervent followers.

She stepped a little closer, her smile blossoming to one that contained much more warmth than before. "You should come to such gatherings more often," she said as she slid her right arm into the crook of his left elbow. "I’ve always appreciated the sight of you dressed so prim and proper," she teased with a low laugh, her eyes twinkling and her power put to abundant use.

Again, Crawford had to thank his father for the control so ruthlessly beaten into him; the anger this thought provoked helped him to evade the net of desire with which Tan Xi tried to ensnare him in. She was powerful for a succubae bound, but nowhere in Masato’s league, which meant that she was a mere child when compared to Yohji. Grateful also for the amount of time that he’d spent in the men’s company, he let out a calming breath to help clear his head of the last clinging vestiges of Tan Xi’s glamour. "It is an honor to be considered in such a way by a lady like yourself, but I fear that I am not always able to accept the rare invitations extended to me." He bowed his head. "I have much work to do for our lords and lady."

Tan Xi’s pleasant façade wavered for a few seconds to reveal her true nature, but she quickly recovered and was once more the image of a friendly, kind woman who loved to be a bit naughty. She must have worked hard on her mask during the long centuries, but Crawford wasn’t fooled. Even if his father hadn’t told him of the many ways she’d used that false mask to win people over and then betray them, his talent and his own intelligence would have warned him away.

"You and Lord Rufus are to be commended, then, for your loyalty to our sovereigns," Tan Xi commented, the picture of friendliness once again. She smiled and patted his arm before she released it so she could fetch a cup of tea for herself. "Always too busy to enjoy such pleasant afternoons like this."

To waste such pleasant afternoons was more the truth, but Crawford didn’t say anything, not even when Rufus joined them at the table for some tea and pastries. "I’m sure the Elders don’t mind as we’re of more use to them employing our talents than sipping tea." He thought he saw Rufus’ lips twitch into a smile for a fleeting second but couldn’t be sure.

"There’s a lot of effort and resources required to equip an army the size that the Elders demand, and I’m better at managing those than being here or taking part in a formal dinner," Rufus remarked as he accepted a cup of tea from the still trembling server. He frowned and must have done something, because a moment later, the young girl stopped trembling and stared dazedly at the tea pot in her hands. Crawford sensed that her anxiety had been muffled for the time being.

"Yes, but gatherings such as these enable you to meet and communicate with your fellow bounds while tonight’s dinner is an opportunity to update our sovereigns on your progress," Tan Xi said in a slow manner, as if telling something to a young child rather than offering a thinly veiled threat and reprimand. She reached up, being much shorter than Rufus, and brushed a speck of nothing from the shoulder of his coat, her hand lingering for a moment. Rufus’ blue eyes flashed brightly for a few seconds, but he hid his emotions so thoroughly that it could be either from desire or anger. Knowing that the soul gaki bound had a mate, Crawford recognized it was the latter.

"I am always willing to discuss the progress on the requested weapons," Rufus said as he took a step away from Tan Xi to pick up a cream puff. "As of yet, they haven’t been disappointed with my answers, although I’m not sure how much longer that will be the case. I can manage my business much more effectively at home than I can here." He stared intently at her as he bit into the puff, revealing a brief glimpse of bared teeth. There was another warning issued, but Tan Xi seemed too upset that another man had resisted her charms to notice.

Still, something sounded in Crawford’s head at Rufus’ statement, a slight click that was the tiniest of flares from his talent. An opportunity that he’d anticipated for months had finally presented itself, and he would not let it slip through his fingers. "I can imagine that being so far away from home must be very trying." He paused to sip his tea while both Rufus and Tan Xi focused their attention on him and what he was saying. "Berin, while very lovely, is a bit... separated from the rest of the world." The Elders held such a tight control of the capital and surrounding areas that few outsiders ventured here willingly.

"What is it that you’re trying to say?" Tan Xi asked with a displeased frown. "You precogs are always so vague with your words." The expression was quickly replaced with a pleased smirk. "Your father was much the same way."

His father was an utter bastard who had allowed Tan Xi to think him under her spell and had used her without her noticing, Crawford thought but didn’t voice. "I am told that I resemble him greatly," he said and gave a slight bow.

"Oh yes, in many ways," Tan Xi purred as she stroked her left hand through his hair. He refused to allow his body to stiffen at the caress or to lash out at the succubae bound.

"And one of the things that he always told me was that when dealing with an enemy, that it didn’t matter how well prepared you were if you had no sense of your enemy’s true status. While I understand why the Elders are gathering so many of our kind to them, the fact remains that our enemies are in Kritiker and our intelligence is sorely lacking." He had a fine line to tread here, one that didn’t insult the Elders too much and came across as a desire to be helpful, while at the same time not appearing too eager. To that effect, he decided to use Rufus.

"Take our Lord Shinra, for example," he said as he waved his right hand in Rufus’ direction and almost made the lord choke on his cream puff. "He is a well known weapons manufacturer of great skill, so highly regarded that even though he is from Esset, he has a fair amount of business in Kritiker. He could go there, pretend to be looking into setting up his business there and be readily accepted."

"An ideal situation for a spy, I imagine," Rufus commented as he dusted sugar powder from his hands. He allowed a rare display of anger, but it was an acknowledged fact that he didn’t get along very well with Crawford.

"The Elders… would surely have thought about that," Tan Xi said as she radiated a faint sense of puzzlement. If they had, they hadn’t mentioned it to her, and if they hadn’t….

Crawford allowed himself only the barest curve of a smile. If they hadn’t, she would be sure to report this conversation to them, which was what he wanted. He needed to get his team out of Kritiker, and all that he could foresee in regards to Rufus joining their side had something to do with Aya, he was certain of that. That meant that the lord and his mate would also have to leave Berin.

"Lord Shinra could provide insight on what, if any, steps Kritiker is taking in the manufacturing of weapons. There are many other areas where we’re lacking necessary intelligence as well; take the country’s military units, the Guard and the Army, for instance."

"Both of which are human organizations notorious for their treatment of bounds," Tan Xi pointed out with a sneer, her golden face wrinkled with the disgust and hatred that she felt for humans. "Our sovereigns have thought about the matter and don’t believe that either prove enough of a threat to risk bound lives."

In other words, all their spies had been found out, mostly because of Crawford’s father and himself. "My associate, Schuldig, has a longstanding relationship with a former Guard," he said, his voice perfectly calm as if he was discussing a cup of tea. "Masato, another associate, has some acquaintances in the Army." Now that was a blatant lie, but there was no way he’d risk mentioning any direct connection between Roy and himself. "They would be more than willing to use those connections in any way that our sovereigns would see fit."

Tan Xi didn’t seem very impressed with that statement, but she would be a good little pet and repeat it to her masters anyway, which was what Crawford wanted. She wasn’t the one to make the decisions, after all. "You have made an interesting point, Crawford," she said as she smoothed a hand over the front of her light blue tunic and inclined her head the slightest bit. "Perhaps we’ll discuss it more later." She gave him a smoldering look while she set her untouched cup of tea aside then left.

He could take a deep breath now that her cloying presence was gone, but he didn’t relax. Not when he could feel the weight of Rufus’ furious stare.

/I don’t know what it is you’re planning, Crawford, but leave me and mine out of it./ Rufus’ voice was quiet yet deadly serious in his head, and the younger bound gave him a look that promised much pain if he wasn’t heeded.

/You’re here in the service of the Elders,/ Crawford couldn’t help but remind him, a mocking smile on his lips. /It’s not my plans that should concern you, but theirs. Besides, if I wished to cause you any harm, all I would have to do is reveal a couple of secrets./ He goaded Rufus’ temper deliberately, hoping to confuse the very intelligent and clever man. Rufus could not be allowed to even begin to suspect his real agenda until sworn to his cause.

/If I hear even the slightest mention of Reno to anyone, you will be killed,/ That was not a threat but a promise, one born from a bound’s protectiveness of his mate. Crawford couldn’t help but wonder if the young idiot realized just how much he revealed about the strength of his and Reno’s bond with that slip. Now would not be a good time to mention it, however, as there was a very real possibility that Rufus would react.

/You don’t deserve him, not after what you’ve done,/ Crawford pointed out, furious himself for a moment upon reflecting on Rufus’ past actions. /My silence is to protect him, not *you*./ Exposure of the link between Rufus and Reno would lead to exposure of Reno’s true nature, which could not be allowed. He wasn’t as powerful as Aya, but he would still give Esset too much power.

/Put him at risk, and it’s your death, and those of your companions as well./ Rufus snarled under his breath as he set his cup of tea on the table, the fragile handle breaking in his fingers as he glared at Crawford. He stayed still for a few heartbeats and then stalked away, his gokenin hurrying from their position by the door to fall in step behind him.

Crawford released a slow breath before he took a calming sip of tea. Playing such games with mates was never very smart but it did get him results. Now Rufus should be too distracted to wonder why Crawford wanted him in Kritiker, at least long enough for the decision to be taken out of his hands. Hiding his smile behind his cup, Crawford surveyed the room and mentally calculated how many of the gathered bounds he could sway to his cause within the next couple of years. His work would be cut out for him, but it promised to be very interesting.

As he glanced at Tan Xi, busy whispering something into Sense’s ear, he had a sudden flash of talent and had to have another sip of tea to steady himself. He wasn’t the only one playing with fire, it appeared, and though her fate had been mostly obscured, the little he’d seen made him smile again. There would be much pain, death and suffering, but some of the people would truly deserve every moment of it. At least the innocent would take down those truly worthy of death so their sacrifice wouldn’t be in vain.

He would make sure of it.

*******

Rufus fought to control his temper as he returned to his quarters, Tseng and Elena following quietly in his wake. As if it wasn’t bad enough to have to pretend to fawn over the Elders and put up with their pet bitch, he’d had to spend some time in Crawford’s company and listen to threats as well. The day could not get much worse, short of the Elders finding out that he still hadn’t made up his mind about siding with them or Kritiker. The thought of having to dine with all five of them later tonight did not help to quiet his mood in the least, not when he would gladly kill them all and go home.

He’d been here since late fall, and each day his anger had only increased, to the point that he was ready to side with Kritiker just to get away from the Elders and their sycophants. Despite the impressive collection of strong bounds that the Elders had pulled – sometimes with heavy force – to them, he wasn’t very sure how Esset would win the upcoming war. Too many bounds had been coerced into being here, were only fighting because they didn’t see any other choice available. That did not make for the most loyal or inspired fighters; instead, it created an army that would scatter to the winds if given the chance to do so. There was no way he was going to promise his people to the Elders’ cause and have them be unsupported during the war.

Still, he wasn’t sure if he was willing to side with Kritiker just yet. There was no sense in fighting for a country that would hunt him and his own down after the war was over. So many pros and cons to weigh… and he felt bereft of vital information while he was trapped here on some senile old bounds’ whims. Gritting his teeth as he fought back a growl, he wondered anew about what that bastard Crawford had mentioned earlier. Having spies in Kritiker’s Army and Guards was a very good idea, one he’d contemplated before and was slowly working towards. He’d sent several of his best agents to the country in the past year to establish new identities there in hopes of expanding his spy network.

Now the question was if he should offer some of his newly established spies to the Elders in hopes that they were selected to infiltrate the Army and the Guards and risk that carefully constructed network, or if he should recommend some of his people not already undercover. The latter posed a strong risk as the Elders might select someone he was not willing to give up. If Crawford dared to suggest that-

"My lord."

Tseng’s soft yet firm voice made Rufus glance back at his head of gokenin. He arched an eyebrow in inquiry as he lightly scanned Tseng’s thoughts. Picking up on the fact that he’d been growling in an extremely savage manner just moments before, he nodded in gratitude and resumed looking forward. Unknown to himself, he’d been so loud that both Tseng and Elena’s bound natures had reacted to his growls.

He felt even more upset now, largely because he knew that the reason for his strong reaction had been because he’d thought about the Elders choosing Reno as a spy. Dammit, he should have….

Violently shaking his head and just managing to prevent another series of growls, Rufus felt an overwhelming urge to hit something, to latch on to someone’s mind and tear it to shreds. He couldn’t even think about allowing Reno to come to harm without such an intense reaction, not since he’d been stupid enough to force a mating bond on the dubhach. Then he’d been stupid enough to not realize what he’d done, not until Crawford had pointed it out. The fact that the soul gaki bound now had information on him that he didn’t want known only added to his foul mood. There would be serious censure from his fellow bounds if they found out about that. As bad as it was to be known as a jealous, possessive lover, it would be much worse if people knew that he had a mate.

No, the Elders would love a chance to get their hands on Reno and use him against Rufus. Something very dark and possessive stirred inside of him, something that spurred him on to tear the Elders and Crawford apart with his bare hands if they threatened his mate. Sweet gods, he was royally fucked and it was *all* Reno’s fault.

"My lord, please stop that." This time it was Elena who spoke aloud, a faint quaver to her voice as she brought his attention to the fact that he was growling once again.

Clearing his now sore throat, Rufus tugged on the cuffs of his white velvet coat. "Tseng, I want you to have physical combat practice with Reno for at least three hours tomorrow." He couldn’t lash out at Reno now that they were mates, couldn’t unleash his anger as he longed to because of where they were and because he couldn’t do anything that would allow Reno to be hurt… but he could make the idiot responsible for this mess suffer a little. Tseng would ensure that Reno wasn’t injured other than a few bruises and scrapes, and Reno could always use a bit more skill when it came to fighting. If Rufus had to be miserable, then Reno would be as well. "Reserve one of the indoor rooms."

"Yes, sir." Tseng was clearly not very happy with the thought of training with Reno for that long but he was resolved to improve Reno’s hand to hand skills as well. For however long they were stuck here, Reno couldn’t use his power to fight people and so had to employ other means.

There was a pang of guilt and worry when Rufus sensed Tseng’s resolve and he caught himself just before he rescinded the order. Dammit, he couldn’t do this, couldn’t second guess himself and his decisions because of how important Reno had become to him. If he did that, if he softened the way the bond between them urged him to do, then Reno would become even more of a liability and cost more than just the two of them their lives. He *had* to be like this. "Make it four hours. Elena, you will partner with Rude and accompany me tomorrow."

"Yes, Lord Rufus," she replied, her thoughts torn between the pride at being at his side again tomorrow and concern for Reno. Rufus almost snarled upon sensing that, suddenly furious at the belief that Reno needed any concern. The idiot already had someone to look after him.

Rufus wasn’t that much calmer than when he’d left the solarium, although now his anger was focused on Reno alone. He didn’t wait for Tseng to open the door; he snatched it open and went inside, just wanting to be someplace where he wouldn’t worry about growling in public or appearing upset or angry.

Merely stepping into the lavishly decorated suite helped to soothe the anger that roiled inside of him. He inhaled deeply and felt his demon soul quiet a little. His people ensured that these rooms were safe and warded by wind and earth, and he didn’t smell or sense anyone he didn’t trust. More importantly, he could smell Reno and could easily pick up on his lover’s thoughts now that he was so close.

He wasn’t too surprised to find Reno and Rude sitting at the table in the suite’s small kitchen. On the table in front of them was a very large basket of fruit, and various rinds and seeds were scattered about.

"I don’t recall ordering any fruit," Rufus remarked as he fought the urge to go over to Reno and touch, to stroke his fingers through the long, crimson hair that was currently pulled back into a high, very messy ponytail.

Reno grinned through the random strands of hair that fell onto his face to reveal teeth that appeared to be stained with blood. "Someone sent it as a gift. I think he wants a new sword or something." He used his very sharp nails to peel off another section of the pomegranate held in his right hand, and his fingers were just as stained as his teeth from the fruit’s seeds.

Rude rose to his feet and presented Rufus with a card. From his thoughts, Rufus picked up on a slight embarrassment at having started on the basket without his approval, but Rude hadn’t been able to hold himself back once Reno had begun to eat. Many of the fruits were out of season, and an elemental bound was almost always hungry. "Here you are, my lord."

"Thank you, Rude." Rufus opened the envelope and read the note tucked inside. "It seems that Lord Quatre would like a blade commissioned for Wufei." He’d met the soul gaki bound several times and found him to be very courteous, very powerful and very concerned with the welfare of his people, many of whom were human. Having Reeve create a sword for the man’s lover would be a good way to strengthen ties with someone who could be a potential ally. Rufus looked at Tseng and nodded once.

Tseng bowed his head. "I shall send inquiries to Lord Raberba-Winner to find out what he has in mind." As he straightened, his attention was captured by the small basket of blueberries amidst all the other fruit. Elena was very partial to the berries, and Tseng enjoyed them as well.

Motioning to the fruit, Rufus tucked the note into a pocket of his black brocade vest with the resolve to formally answer it later. "Enjoy." Then he clicked his tongue in disgust and went over to his lover. "I don’t know how you manage to not get a mouthful of all this hair with the way it’s always falling onto your face." The ragged strands were long enough to touch Reno’s chin and somehow managed to escape any attempt to restrain them. Even as he tucked them behind Reno’s pierced ears, they just slithered free a moment later.

Reno grinned and made to touch Rufus’ arm before he thankfully remembered how his fingers were stained with pomegranate juice. "You’re the one who got all pissy when I cut it," he said as he set the remains of the fruit aside and reached for a napkin.

"Because I’ve seen three year olds do a better job of cutting hair than you," Rufus retorted. He couldn’t stop touching Reno’s hair, couldn’t help but shift closer to his lover and breathe in deeply. Now he felt calm, his emotions quiet save for a slowly growing burn of desire. He gave up on trying to control Reno’s bangs and stroked his fingers through the long fall of crimson that flowed down his lover’s back.

Leaning against him, Reno reached into the pocket of his rumpled black coat and pulled out a small, intricately carved knife that he used to clean his nails. "Well, sorry that-"

Stunned still for a moment at the sight of the knife, Rufus broke free from the paralysis and reacted by slapping the weapon from his mate’s left hand with as much force as he could muster. He felt Reno’s surprise and pain but that didn’t stop him, didn’t slow him down in the slightest as he tackled Reno to the floor and pinned him there, his hands clasped tight around his mate’s arms and his feet hooked around his mate’s legs.

"What the-"

<Where did you get the knife?> Rufus put all of his power into the question, all of the energy he could muster as he ripped through Reno’s thoughts and memories. One good thing about being mated to the suicidal idiot was that he could do this a lot more easily now, the effort required decreasing with every passing day. At this moment he was so utterly infuriated that his orders had been disobeyed, that Reno had come into possession of a weapon, that it only fueled his talent.

Reno’s eyes, a disturbing mix of silver and green, lolled upward behind his barely parted lids as the force of that question slammed into his mind. Rufus caught the image of the fruit basket, of how the knife was tucked inside and wrapped with a pretty ribbon. Reno had spied the knife before Rude had and snatched it, attracted by the carvings that graced its bright, folded handle. For once he hadn’t had any other intentions other than wanting something pretty that would also be useful, though Rufus wasn’t foolish enough to believe that Reno wouldn’t have used it to slice open his veins when he next turned suicidal.

"Get out," he ordered as he fought to pull his mind from Reno’s, to rein in his anger and fear. He’d have to have a talk with Rude and Tseng later about better checking *everything* that entered the suite and keeping a closer watch on Reno. Just because there hadn’t been any attempts since before they left for Berin didn’t mean that another one wouldn’t happen, and that was something Rufus *refused* to allow. He was thoroughly entangled with Reno now, body, mind and soul, and wasn’t about to lose his life to something like a fucking paring knife.

Tseng, Elena and Rude scrambled to leave the room while Reno moaned, the sound so piteous that Rufus felt some of his anger evaporate. He felt the beginnings of a headache that originated from his lover because of the way he’d tore into Reno’s mind. Shame and concern mixed in with the slowly fading anger and pain, helping him to finally control his temper enough to shut off his power.

Reno moaned again and shifted beneath Rufus, and the next thing Rufus knew, he was flying through the air, his body twitching from the feel of raw energy searing through his limbs and along his nerves. That hurt so much that he didn’t even notice the pain when he slammed into the wall, only that he was no longer moving. Before he could shake off the effects of the attack, Reno was in his face.

Kneeling in front of him, Reno grabbed hold of his coat’s lapels and began to shake. "*Don’t*. Just… don’t." His thoughts were badly fractured, his two natures demanding that he react to the assault, that he hurt Rufus in return while forbidding him from causing any harm, in feeling panic that his mind was so easily breached and hurt that Rufus had done such a thing to him and-

Taking a deep, shuddering breath, Rufus forced his trembling hands to lift and comb through Reno’s hair. He leaned forward until his forehead rested against his mate’s and tried to quiet both of their jumbled thoughts. <I’m… sorry.> He let his own emotions flow over the link, his fear and concern and even surprise at how he had managed to voice the apology.

Trembling as well, Reno growled softly and pressed against him, his arms encircling Rufus’ shoulders as his face pressed against Rufus’ neck. "Don’t do that again," he warned, his thoughts quieting enough that he could form the words into a sentence. "I’ll… don’t do it again." He hadn’t liked harming Rufus and had shared the pain but he couldn’t let Rufus hurt him like that or to treat him so cavalierly.

Managing to undo the silver clasp around Reno’s hair with his still-clumsy fingers, Rufus let the long, cool strands fall around them both. <Then don’t hide any knives, you idiot.> He held Reno close in return, unwilling to let go any time soon. The need to have his mate close, to soothe the hurt he had caused was more powerful than his fear at how little it took for Reno to get to him like this.

Reno sniffed and pulled back enough to look at Rufus. "I didn’t hide it," he said with a frown on his pale face. "You wouldn’t have known about it if I did."

The confident manner in which Reno stated that fact made Rufus’ guilt fade. He clutched the hair in his hands and gave it a sharp tug. "You picked it up and hid it from Rude, don’t you dare try to lie to me. You’re not allowed to have any knives and you know it." He sent an image of the last time Reno had tried to kill himself.

Hissing in annoyance, Reno tried to pull away but couldn’t without losing a lot of hair. "I wasn’t going to kill myself! Gods, Rufus, just forget about that already. You’re such a controlling, pessimistic bastard."

<And you’ve tried to kill yourself several times.> Few things infuriated Rufus like the way that Reno casually dismissed those suicide attempts. <I have every right to be concerned, especially since your death… can imperil all of us here!> He didn’t hold back on the anger and disgust he felt, but did his best to hide the fear and the reason behind it.

The frown on Reno’s face changed into a sorrowful expression. "Yeah, forgot about that part. Wouldn’t want anything to happen to you, would we?" His lips twitched into a sardonic smile but the sadness remained in his eyes, once more their normal aquamarine color. That same sadness flowed over their link.

So much for no longer feeling guilty, Rufus thought. He sighed and pulled Reno close enough to kiss. <I’m not letting go of you,> he reluctantly admitted as he pressed his lips against his lover’s mouth. <You’re too valuable.> He couldn’t admit that the value wasn’t only in Reno’s unique nature or talent, that he would be lost without the man’s presence in his life because Reno already had too much power over him. Besides, he had a sneaking suspicion that some of what he wanted to hide was conveyed by his emotions over their link.

Reno was unnaturally still for a few heartbeats and then once more wrapped his arms around Rufus’ neck as he kissed back. <You’re greedy, too,> he commented, the only pain in his thoughts now from the headache he had and what Rufus felt. <And you owe me something shiny now.>

Pulling his mate onto his lap, Rufus released his right hand from Reno’s hair so he could encircle Reno’s waist instead. <The basket was meant for me, so that means the knife was mine in the first place,> he pointed out as he kissed his way to Reno’s right ear. <I don’t owe you anything. Besides, you ate all the pomegranates.>

"Nnn… you think they’re too much work to eat," Reno said as he clung to Rufus, his two natures at peace once more. "And don’t be so cheap."

<If I have to feed you for the next few hundred years then I need to start conserving my money now.> Rufus chuckled at the annoyed hiss that comment provoked from his lover and nuzzled Reno’s neck. "I’ll send for a crate of pomegranate wine," he finally offered, willing to spoil his lover by way of an apology rather than repeat the words. He would enjoy the wine himself, and the amusement that only a tipsy, aroused Reno could provide.

"That’ll do, I guess," Reno drawled, then scraped his nails along the back of Rufus’ neck. "You reek of death and lust." He snarled to show his disapproval and stroked his hands along Rufus’ chest and arms.

"Because not all of us got to sit around and eat today," Rufus said as he gave Reno’s hair another tug, this one much gentler than the last. "The Elders felt the need to have me stand around in their presence for a couple of hours." Just thinking about this afternoon made Rufus grow annoyed again.

"Huh, then the lust would be that Tan Xi bitch." This time it was Reno’s turn to growl, and the jealousy that Rufus sensed over their link helped to restore most of his good mood. Reno was too far beneath Tan Xi’s notice to attract her attention but Rufus wasn’t. Tilting his head to the side, Reno stared at Rufus with eyes clouded with silver. "Why won’t you let me kill her? You keep me here in these rooms and you won’t let me kill her."

He was perfectly serious about the request, his thoughts focused on how he could do the deed and not implicate Rufus at all. Not only did Reno’s shinigami side goad him on but his human nature also agreed that it would be best to remove a possible danger to Rufus sooner rather than later.

Just like that, Rufus was reminded that Reno wasn’t just his lover and gokenin, wasn’t someone who needed protection from others and himself. Because of his demon nature, he was a very efficient and ruthless killer. What the Elders could do with Reno if they ever got their hands on him…. Rufus almost shivered at the thought and tightened his grasp on his lover’s hair.

"Because competent employees, ones not like *you*, would be missed if they vanished." He tried to defuse the situation with a weak joke and began to rise to his feet. "Now is not the time to move against the Elders."

Reno flowed to his feet with an ease and an inhuman grace that made Rufus jealous. He was evidently recovered from the assault though he was still a little unsteady on his feet. "Okay, so I can’t play with her now. But later, right?" Reno’s thoughts were filled with how Tan Xi would hover around Rufus, daring to touch him even though she knew he had a lover. Although Reno didn’t usually bother to waste energy by hating people, he thoroughly detested the succubae bound.

"Later," Rufus promised, even though he wasn’t sure of the wisdom of it. He couldn’t help but smile when he thought about the surprise that the Elders’ pet had in store for her. "Not until I give the order, is that understood?" He narrowed his eyes and stared at his lover as he waited for an answer. <Promise me that you won’t touch her until I say so, and she’ll be yours.>

"I promise," Reno grumbled, a slight pout on his face as he realized he might have to wait years for his ‘fun’ but deferring to Rufus nonetheless. He slid his hands from Rufus’ shoulders until they clutched the wrinkled lapels of the white jacket. "You really do reek of her."

Feeling the desire from earlier return, Rufus used his hold on Reno’s hair to pull his mate closer. <Then I believe a bath is in order. Come and wash my back,> he commanded as he began to nibble on Reno’s neck. He needed to get ready for dinner and could hopefully distract his lover from the fact that he would have to go and spend more time in the presence of Tan Xi and her masters this evening. Reno would probably want to go with him, and he couldn’t allow that. The less the Elders saw of the dubhach, the better. Even with the illusion, Rufus couldn’t risk someone recognizing Reno for what he was.

"Hmm, make you smell like me, instead," Reno purred as he tilted his neck to the side. His thoughts quickly flitted to how he hoped that Rude didn’t eat all of the strawberries while he was having fun with Rufus.

Not liking how he barely rated above a basket of fruit, Rufus spun around, reversing their positions until Reno was pressed against the wall and pinned there by his body. As he made his purring mate arch his neck, he decided the bath could wait a little longer, but right now he had something to prove to a certain food-obsessed idiot. Licking along pale flesh, Rufus let the desire take over.

*******

 

Duo shoved another tunic into his carry sack, not concerned about wrinkles in the least. A bit of water and his talent and he could have a garment so neatly pressed that his anal-retentive partner would be proud. Not that he’d bother since he didn’t see anything wrong with a wrinkle or two as long as his clothes were clean.

"Like it really matters how I look when I’m basically kidnapping some poor guy," he muttered as he shoved another tunic into the bag. He wasn’t sure how often they’d be able to stay at an inn that could do his laundry for him, especially once they had Jor- the target in ‘custody’, so he’d rather over-pack. The bag wouldn’t be too heavy for him even if it held a few extra garments and he hated to wear dirty clothes. Grimacing in distaste, he shoved a few more pairs of underwear into the already crammed bag.

There, packing was done. All that was left now was getting as drunk as he could tonight so Heero would have a hell of a time dragging his ass from bed tomorrow, and the mission could begin. He would be a good, albeit hungover, lackey and do his job. The poor guy- the target didn’t have a clue what was headed his way in another few hours.

Reaching for a bottle of whiskey, Duo fell onto his bed and just barely choked back a bitter laugh. "Enjoy your freedom while you can," he said and raised the bottle up in a toast before he brought it to his lips and drank. The harsh liquor stung his throat on its way down, but soon enough that wouldn’t bother him. While whiskey tasted like shit, it was also very potent, and that was all that mattered.

He had three bottles of the home-brewed drink, and hopefully that would be enough. He had a disturbing thought that if he kept getting these gods-forsaken missions, he would have to really stock up on the stuff. While never shying away from alcohol before, he was starting to build up a very impressive tolerance for the stuff after the last few months.

The Elders really were sadistic bastards. They *had* to know how much he hated these assignments, how much it tore at him to kidnap some poor bound and drag them by force to Berin. Hell, the last one, he’d had to threaten to burn the woman’s human family to ash if she didn’t agree to come along. The only way he’d been able to convincingly pull off that threat was that he knew Heero would have killed one of the humans at any moment to prove to the woman that they were serious. Heero wouldn’t have bothered to give her a warning first, he would have just done it.

"And here’s to cold-hearted bastards who don’t have the sense to think for themselves," he said as he raised the bottle again. A lot of people didn’t like Heero, and they had good reason not to, but it wasn’t all Heero’s fault. Anyone raised by the Elders to be the perfect little ‘soldier’ would be just as fucked up and insistent on following orders. Still, Duo wanted to slam his partner’s head against a very hard wall until Heero saw that what they were doing was wrong.

"All this talk about freedom for bounds and we’re just gonna saddle ourselves with masters forever." He began a litany of curses in between swallows of whiskey as he thought of the Elders.

The alcohol began to affect him after the first bottle; he was halfway through the second one when he realized that someone was knocking softly on his door. For a moment he sat frozen on the bed and wondered if someone had overheard him or sensed his thoughts, but when the knocking stopped, he was free to move. Setting the bottle aside, he raced to the door and yanked it open. If someone was here to ‘complain’ about his disloyalty to the Elders, they sure as hell wouldn’t bother to knock.

Looking down the hallway, he saw someone walking away and instantly recognized the man by the long, auburn ponytail that hung down his back. "Trowa?"

Upon hearing his name, Trowa stopped and slowly turned around. "Duo." He spoke just as quietly as he knocked, in little more than a whisper as he approached. His face was its usual impassive mask and he was dressed in a dark green tunic that appeared so soft that Duo’s hands itched to reach out and touch it. At least, that’s what he told himself as he clutched the door frame in an effort to not give in to the impulse. It was either to feel the shirt or to push back the chin-length bangs that covered half of Trowa’s handsome face.

"Eh, you here to do some drinking, Trowa?" Duo asked, and forced himself to smile with false good cheer. No matter how much he wanted it, to sit in a small room with Trowa, to be able to see and hear and smell but not touch and taste, would drive him mad. Idiot that he was, he’d put up with it if it meant some time with the quiet water elemental bound.

Trowa shook his head twice, his bangs flaring out slightly to reveal all of his perfect, impassive face. "I was asked to deliver a message."

So the man wasn’t here for a social visit. Anger burst into life inside of Duo, especially since Trowa was close enough for him to smell Masato’s scent. "Eh, should have figured that it would be work that dragged you out of your boyfriend’s bed. I’m surprised you’re not limping," he leered.

For a moment he thought he saw a hint of emotion on Trowa’s face, he was staring at it so intently, but it vanished too quickly to be deciphered. "I was asked to inform you that you will remain on the palace grounds until further notice." He spoke in a perfectly civil, almost flat tone of voice, as if Duo hadn’t made any snide comments.

Duo needed a few seconds to make sense of the message, thanks to Trowa’s presence and the alcohol. "What… wait, what about the mission?" he stuttered as he reached out to grab Trowa’s right wrist without thinking about what he was doing.

As their skin came into contact, something… *hot*, and *potent*, and so thoroughly *disturbing* in all the right ways coursed through Duo and made him gasp. Something seemed to affect Trowa as well, something that made him begin to pant and his eyes to open wide.

Then Duo remembered how Trowa didn’t let anyone touch him, other than Masato, how Trowa had caused the last person to bleed from his eyeballs for daring to do what Duo was doing now. He forced his hand to move, reluctant to break off the contact but unwilling to cause Trowa any more pain.

"Ah, sorry about that." He curled the fingers of his left hand against his palm in an effort to savor the warmth from the touch. For his part, Trowa wrapped both arms around his chest and fought to regain his composure.

Glancing aside so he didn’t have to see how badly he’d affected the normally reserved man, Duo began to play with a strand of his bangs. "What about the mission?" he asked again, forcing himself to focus on something other than Trowa.

"I was asked to inform you that you are to remain on the palace grounds until further notice," Trowa repeated, his voice a little ragged but his face impassive once more. "There was no mention of the mission, although I am to ask Jin and Alicia to report to the Elders once I leave here."

Jin and Alicia had gone on their fair share of ‘retrieval’ missions, so Duo was left to assume that they were going to take over his job. Bad luck for them but good for him. "Why am I stuck here?" he dared to ask after a second’s pause. Trowa almost always did what the Elders asked of him but Duo knew he could be trusted. "Am I in trouble?"

Trowa shook his head and frowned, just a slight turn of the lips but Duo noticed anyway. "I do not believe that you’re in any trouble. All of us have been ordered to remain in the palace, even Heero."

"Well, if Heero’s been told the same thing then I can’t possibly be in trouble." Duo felt a sense of relief and sagged against the door frame. "He’s sheer perfection in *their* eyes, after all."


There was a hint of reproach in Trowa’s expression for a few heartbeats. "You should think before you say anything, Duo. Some people might not always appreciate such candor," he warned as he slowly turned around. "Do not leave the grounds, and go easy on the whiskey."

Duo stared after the water elemental bound for a minute or two, unable to believe that Trowa had actually given him a warning and some grief about his drinking. If that type of behavior kept up, he might begin to believe the impossible, such as Trowa giving a damn about him. Returning to his room and slamming the door shut behind him, he immediately snatched up the half empty bottle of whiskey.

Something was going on if he’d been pulled from a mission, but right now all he cared about was that he didn’t have to go and force some poor guy away from his loved ones and into a life of slavery. Besides, it was pretty late right now and people would notice if he was skulking around in search of answers. Tomorrow would be soon enough, when there would be more information available and he wouldn’t be the only one asking questions.

For now, he was going to finish this bottle of whiskey and then do his best to drink all of the third one. He might not have a mission in the morning, but he had the night to get through, one that would be filled with tormenting dreams of Trowa doing things to him that would never happen, not in this lifetime. Not even if he lived as long as those bastard Elders. That thought provoked so much pain that he crumpled onto the bed, the bottle clutched in his hands.


Why did Trowa of all people affect him so badly? Yes, the man was gorgeous but he was untouchable as well, as fucked up in his own way as Duo and Heero. He’d rebuffed all offers of help, seemingly content to be on his own until that asshole Masato had arrived. Anger burning through the pain, Duo tilted the bottle up and drained most of the whiskey in one long swallow. As bad as it would have been to go after the target, the prospect of being trapped here and forced to see someone else touch Trowa and make him smile was too painful to contemplate. Reminding himself to stock up on some more alcohol in the morning, Duo finished off the whiskey at hand and reached for the remaining bottle.

*******

"More tea?"

Disturbed from her thoughts by the quietly asked question, Cassandra looked at Aya and shook her head. "No, thank you." She smiled in appreciation as she pushed her empty cup aside.

"More cookies, then?" Yohji offered, not to be outdone by his mate’s manners. He gave her a wide smile and a sly wink as he motioned to the plate covered with almond cookies. "I promise that I’ll sit on Aya so you can have another one."

When Aya glared at his mate and complained that he was not keeping all of the cookies to himself, Cassandra could do nothing but giggle. Sitting in the Koneko’s warm kitchen, the lacy curtains on the windows opened to let the weak afternoon sunlight filter in, she felt at peace. Part of her waited for Miyuki to walk into the room and insist that she have more tea but she pushed the thought aside before it caused her any pain. Now was now, and this was Yohji’s Koneko, although he shared it equally with Jo and the others.

Daring to drape his arms over Aya’s shoulders, Yohji kissed his still-miffed mate on the right temple and smiled. "What about some coffee, then? Surely you didn’t brave all that snow just to have a cup of your own blend of tea," he said, and even without her talent, Cassandra could tell that Yohji was brimming with happiness. He practically glowed with the emotion, his green eyes bright and smile genuine. While Aya was a much quieter presence beside him, it was clear that he was just as content by the way he stared evenly at Cassandra, how his hand rested on Yohji’s arm while he leaned back against his lover.

"I just brewed a pot!" Over by the sink, Omi quickly poured a cup of coffee before Cassandra could even reply. Sitting beside her at one of the kitchen’s tables, Jo chuckled in amusement and helped herself to a cookie.

"How does it feel to have three young men fawn over you?" Jo asked, another source of happiness in a room full of it. Cassandra knew it was because Yohji and Aya were happy and on break from work for once, and that business was good.

"I feel an embarrassment of riches!" she exclaimed and accepted her coffee from Omi with a polite bow of her head. He was the lone note of discord among the otherwise bright emotions, but even though he felt some anxiety over his new job, he was very happy as well. He merely worried that he might do something that would cause Jo and Yohji to regret their agreement to let him stay and work. "Thank you," she told him and offered a smile in thanks.

"Omi, sit down for a few minutes. You’re making me tired seeing you flit all over the place." Yohji motioned to the spot on the bench beside him and began to play with one of Aya’s eartails. His lover, evidently still tired from their current assignment, didn’t bat his hand aside but merely leaned against him more. One of the gentlest, most content expressions that she’d ever seen spread across Yohji’s face as he once again kissed Aya’s temple. "Mmmm, maybe you should have some more tea, Cat."

Aya mumbled that he was fine and began to purr, ever so softly. Cassandra and Jo exchanged an amused look and raised their cups to each other. Their adopted sons were home and happy, which made them happy as well. "I fear I’ll get no rest tonight, with all this tea and coffee," Cassandra joked, touched that Yohji and Aya trusted the people in the kitchen enough to relax as they did.

Having just sat down on the bench, Omi began to rise. "Oh, maybe I should have offered you something else. Why don’t I-"

Jo tugged on his left sleeve and made him sit back down. "Omi, please relax for a few minutes." She sounded slightly exasperated as she shoved the plate of cookies his way. "The first rule of working in an inn is to know that when things quiet down, take it as an opportunity to get some rest." Staring evenly at him for a moment, she shook her head and stood up. "Let someone else wait on you. Who would like something a bit more filling than sweets?" she asked as she went over to the oven.

"Aya better get something to eat before he passes out." Yohji playfully tugged on an eartail and laughed when Aya opened his eyes and hissed in annoyance. "I think he’s about to hibernate for the season."

"Yotan, go away if you’re going to be so childish," Aya sniffed, but he didn’t push his lover away. Instead, he captured Yohji’s hands in his and held them a safe distance from his hair.

Jo made a disapproving noise as she gathered together several bowls and brought them over to the table, followed by a pitcher of mulled wine and a loaf of bread. "You said Birman promised you at least two weeks off from work, correct? She better keep her word this time, and this assignment not last too long." Omi tried to help but one stern look made him sit back down and settle for pouring everyone something to drink. "So, is it supposed to snow all day?" Jo asked as she carefully set a large casserole dish filled with shepherd’s pie on the table.

Knowing that question was directed her way, Cassandra shook her head. "No, I was told it should stop soon." She glanced at the windows and thought the sunlight seemed a little stronger already. Part of a snow-covered pine could be seen, and she thought about how beautiful the Koneko’s garden appeared, enshrined in snow. "I imagine the customers will arrive soon."

Jo grunted in agreement. "Yes, once they’re certain it won’t snow all night. We’re not hurting for business since the rooms are full, so I rather enjoy these quiet days after the fuss of the holiday." She glanced at the window as well and frowned. "Maybe I shouldn’t have sent Maddox and Emmie with Mickey."

"They’re fine, Jo, and I know Emmie was very excited about the chance to go outside the city for a few hours today." Yohji grabbed two bowls and filled them to the brim with the delicious-smelling concoction of meat, vegetables and gravy. "Besides, we really need more tankards and goblets, and Maddox should learn more than just recipes if he’s going to stay here."

Cutting the bread for everyone, Omi gave Yohji a puzzled look. "I still don’t understand why they had to go outside the city to get the cups. There are a lot of ceramic and glass makers here."

"Because the Koneko has always ordered its glass wares from the Sakurai family," Yohji explained as he stirred his stew with a fork. "They’re cousins, though not closely related." Beside him, Aya took a bite of his meal and gave Jo a small smile of appreciation.

"Oh, now I remember you mentioning them before." Making sure everyone got a slice of bread, Omi then helped himself to the shepherd’s pie. A sad expression formed on his face as he held up a slice of carrot on his fork. "Nagi really likes your shepherd’s pie, Jo." His previous happiness faded a little as he obviously thought about his lover.

Cassandra bowed her head over the food and held back on a sigh. The reason she’d come to the Koneko today was to tell Yohji and Aya about a dream she’d had last night. A dream that had awoken her with pleasure and relief, one where she could so clearly sense her son’s presence, even though many other details were obscured. She wasn’t the most experienced of precogs but she had been able to interpret that particular dream with ease. Schuldig would soon be on his way home, along with his friends. There had been a hint of danger and a whisper of spilled blood, but the overall feeling had been one of happiness. Her son would return to her, if only for a short time.

She knew that Yohji would be thrilled to hear that Schuldig would be home soon, and that Aya would probably appreciate a chance to talk to Crawford and find out more of the future. Jo would also be pleased to know that two of her more wayward charges would return, and so Cassandra had thought to tell them the news over a leisurely cup of tea. What she hadn’t counted on was Omi being present during the discussion, so she found herself unusually tongue-tied over the matter.

She could sense how much he missed Nagi. Even with his delight in living at the Koneko and being able to work, there was always a core of sadness to him. She found herself unable to tell him that Nagi would return when she wasn’t quite certain when exactly that would happen or for how long. Omi would do nothing but fret until his lover’s arrival, and if her son and his companions were coming to the Koneko for any sort of undercover mission, Omi’s reaction might jeopardize things. No, it would be best to wait until she could reveal her news when the boy wasn’t around.

Proving that he had indeed increased his powers in the last few months, Yohji gave her an inquiring look while everyone seemed occupied with eating their meal. He arched his right eyebrow and tilted his head to the side, the same mannerisms as his mother when she knew there was a secret about and wanted it revealed. This time there was a fleeting stab of pain as past and present collided, but Cassandra merely smiled at Yohji. She missed Miyuki so much but would have lost the woman’s companionship at some point, and at least she was here to watch over Miyuki’s beloved son. The past could not be changed and the present was to be savored in all its brief glory.

Her smile strengthened and she mouthed the word ‘later’ to Yohji before she blew on a forkful of Jo’s delicious stew. While Omi helped Kira, Maddox and Touya in the kitchen this evening, Cassandra would be able to have a quiet conversation with Jo, Yohji and Aya in the library. She would tell them her news then. Feeling an echo of the happiness that resided in the warm, wonderfully-scented room bloom inside of her, Cassandra smiled in joy and enjoyed this quiet meal with dear friends.

Her son was coming home.

*******

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