Darkness Returns


chapter two


the first signs of motion


Masato groaned as he heard something faint that sounded like a sword being drawn from a sheath. Too many years spent on the run forced him awake to investigate the noise and make sure someone wasn’t drawing a weapon against him. He sat up in a hurry as he blinked repeatedly and clutched at his left wrist. His own weapon was in hand before he realized that it was just Schu and him in the room, and then he heard the sound of a whetstone being dragged along metal.

/For fuck’s sake, I was sleeping,/ Schu grumbled as he yawned and sat up to drape himself against Masato’s back. /It’s just Jei./ His attention seemed to drift off, and instantly, Schu was awake as well. "Something’s going on," he said as he scrambled from the bed.

Sensing his mate’s urgency and sudden hope, Masato moved as well, pausing only long enough to pull on the pants he’d worn yesterday. Schu found one of his shirts and deemed that good enough, which left Masato swearing to buy his lover a decent robe the next time he was allowed out of the palace to do a bit of shopping. The last thing he needed to focus on when a situation was occurring was how sexy Schu looked wearing an over-large shirt and nothing else.

"Keep thinking it, but save it until after we find out what’s going on," Schu said, with a pleased smirk on his face as they left the room. "I’ll definitely dress like this more often."

Patting his mate on his luscious ass, Masato made sure the last swat had a fair amount of force behind it. "Behave for once," he said, even though he knew it was a lost cause.

/Why should I, when you spank me if I don’t?/ Schu teased and stuck out his tongue. Masato didn’t bother with a reply as they were then in the main room and learned the reason for the morning’s commotion. Jei was busy polishing a sword, one of the many weapons scattered about on the room’s low table, while Nagi used his power to deposit several saddle bags on the floor.

"Okay, what the hell is going on? If we’re about to fight our way out of this place, you could have had the decency to wake Masato and me up," Schu grumbled as he sat on the padded arm of a chair.

Jei chuckled and critically examined the edge of the sword he was sharpening. "Nah, it’s much more fun to wait until they breach the apartment and have to deal with you for daring to interrupt you during sex." He drew back his lips in what was meant to be a smile but revealed too many sharp teeth to be of much comfort.

"We know better than to interrupt you when you’re in the bedroom," Nagi commented as four of the bags landed at Masato’s feet. "Here." He was obviously striving for a serious air, but his eyes were shining with happiness.

Masato toed the bags and sighed. "All right, you got your chance to make fun of us, now will you tell us what the hell is going on?" He turned to frown at his lover for not using his power to find out the reason for all of this yet, and got a tongue stuck out at him for his troubles.

/No mind reading before coffee./

Growling over how much of a brat Schu could be, Masato jerked the fingers of his right hand through his hair and glared at no one in particular. "Tell me what the hell is going on," he repeated, his temper growing dangerously short.

"All I know is Crawford woke me up this morning and told me to get ready to leave." Jei decided the sword was sharp enough and began to clean it. "He said we’ll be back in Kritiker before the end of the month."

Schu quickly stood up and stepped closer to Jei. "Really?" He frowned and finally put his talent to use. "We have a mission in Eto? A long one? Yes!" He let out a whoop of delight and clutched Masato’s right arm. "We’re going home!" A wide smile, for once bearing no malice, lust or dark amusement, spread across his face. "We’re outta here!"

"Not so loud," Nagi hissed as he began to stuff some books into one of the bags. "We’re not supposed to get official word until this evening."

Well, that explained the boy’s happiness. Masato hoped that Crawford’s vision was correct, or the precog would find himself smashed into a wall and most likely through it as well for raising false hopes. Nagi would soon be seeing his lover, Omi, and his best friend, Aya, while Schu would be reunited with his mother. Not feeling too happy with the prospect of his own little family reunion, Masato grunted noncommittally and wished he was still in bed.

/What’s wrong?/ Schu asked as he gave his arm a squeeze. /This means we’ll be out of here soon and back with friends. We won’t have to hide what we are any more./ That was first and foremost in Schu’s thoughts, that they could once more openly be mates. No more hiding their bond or slinking off to have sex.

Combing his fingers through his mate’s unruly hair to try and make the reddish-orange strands no longer stick up so much, Masato gave Schu a tired smile. /We don’t know what the mission is yet. It might not be something that we’ll enjoy./

Schu snorted in derision and leaned against him. /Please. If that was the case, Crawford would keep us in the dark until we reach the city gates, the bastard. He wouldn’t risk getting Nagi’s hopes up by telling him early like this./ The disdain that Schu normally felt for his father was tempered by the fact that the man did seem to care about Nagi’s happiness.

Masato shrugged and was going to pick up the bags when Schu squeezed his arm again and frowned. /That’s not what really has you upset. Tell me./

At least the brat was giving him the courtesy of not just searching through his mind for the answer. Feeling that he had to reward Schu’s restraint, Masato sighed and shook his head. /I imagine we’ll be back at the Koneko at some point./

/This has something to do with Yohji, doesn’t it?/ Schu asked as his frown became more pronounced. /Why does he have you all upset? You guys parted on good terms. Well, mostly,/ he admitted with great reluctance.

What was the best way to explain this? /Schu… how well do you get along with Lord Raberba-Winner or Lord Shinra?/ He knew the answer just from the way Schu’s pale green eyes narrowed and the wave of anger that flowed over their link.

/One’s a gossipy little wuss and the other one could give Crawford a run for his money as the coldest, most arrogant bastard alive./

/Come now, tell me what you truly think about them,/ Masato teased, and tugged on a strand of Schu’s hair when his mate sniffed in disdain. He felt that Schu was belittling both men but would point that out another time, when there weren’t so many sharp instruments around. /You dislike them not so much for their personalities, but for the fact that they’re almost as strong as you are. Also, both of them are very confident in their ability and not at all submissive. Each of you wants to be the dominant soul gaki bound./

/Yeah, well, they *aren’t* as powerful as me./ Schu growled softly and clicked his teeth together. /What are you trying to say, eh?/

No, the other bounds weren’t as powerful as Schu, but they didn’t fall short by much. /Yohji is the most powerful succubae bound that I’ve ever known. And while I’m not as powerful as he is, I’m pretty close./ Masato offered his lover a nervous smile. /I’m sure that in the past few months, he’s learned a lot more about his demon nature and his talent. Succubae bounds don’t do very well when grouped together in the first place, and now I fear we’ll be fighting each other for dominance./ Not to mention the whole ‘you left my mother, you bastard’ attitude that Yohji had toward him. He felt that Yohji had mostly gotten over it before he’d left Eto, but there was no way to know for sure. It was sad to think that Schu and Crawford got along better with each other than Masato did with his son.

Schu actually chuckled and bent down to pick up the bags, thankfully with his front to Nagi and Jei. "Idiot, as if Aya would let him get out of hand," he said as he straightened up. /Nor would Jo or my mom. He’ll be fine, and the Koneko won’t get knocked down by you two fighting with each other. Aya and I will just have to work extra hard on distracting you both./ He gave Masato a wicked grin and a slow wink.

/Walk around dressed like that all day and the last thing I’ll think about is fighting./ Masato slid his arm around Schu’s back and leaned in for a kiss – only to have it be cut short when something soft and odiferous hit his head.

Turning to see what had hit him, he noticed that the cloth that Jei was using to clean his weapons was floating back over to the man. "You two can fool around later - right now we need to get packed." Nagi glared at Masato and Schu as he used his power to rattle the bags in Schu’s hands. "We’re going to leave as soon as we’re officially told about the mission."

Masato could easily imagine Nagi using his power to force them and their horses toward Eto as fast as possible and had to stifle his laugh. Feeling Schu’s anger, he ran a soothing hand down his mate’s back. /He wants to see his lover. They might not be mates but they’ve been apart for several months. That’s a lot worse than having to sneak around./

Schu snarled under his breath and gave Nagi a dirty look as he slung the bags over his right shoulder. "You’re getting as bossy as Crawford, I’ll have you know. That’s not a good thing."

"It is if it gets me results." Nagi lifted his chin and stared defiantly at Schu and Masato. "Get moving." He backed the command with a not so gentle shove of his power.

"Dammit, Jei, you weren’t supposed to teach him to have this much of a backbone," Schu grumbled as he turned toward their bedroom. "I hope you kick his ass in the next training session."

Jei laughed and began to sharpen another weapon, the soft noise of stone over metal sending shivers down Masato’s spine. "I just showed him what he had in him, and I’m just as eager to get out of here as he is, so move your ass."

/He wants to get away from Kaede./ Even if he was a brat, Schu was smart enough not to mention that fact out loud while Jei was heavily armed.

/What do you expect after she tried to burn her way into his bedroom last week?/ They’d finally cleared out the scent of burnt wood from the apartment the other day. /If I were him, I’d want as much distance between me and her as possible./ He did feel sorry for Jei, who seemed desperate to avoid the young fire elemental bound. Kaede was pretty and bright and usually had a good sense of humor, unless she felt that the object of her affections was ignoring her. Reminded of his and Schu’s struggles with their bond, he had to wonder if the two of them weren’t meant to be mates. That might explain Kaede’s determination to win Jei over in the end. Either that or she was just very stubborn, which was more than possible.

/I wouldn’t be surprised, but he won’t get very far in the end. Look at us./ There wasn’t any regret or frustration in Schu’s thoughts about how they’d ended up as mates, which was heartening to sense. No, Schu seemed to have gone from one extreme to the other – from not wanting to be tied to Masato to doing his best to make sure that no one else got remotely close to him.

/Because I don’t share what’s mine./ Schu bared his teeth and growled. /And that’s definitely what you are./

"Such a spoiled brat. I see that I need to have a talk with Cassandra about how she failed as a mother when we get to Eto," Masato teased as they entered their bedroom.

"Go ahead and she’ll beat you over the head with a tea kettle." Schu stuck his tongue out and let the bags drop to the floor before he yanked Masato closer. /You’re mine. Maybe it’s time that I remind you of that fact./

His head filled with images of Schu shoving him face first against the wall and fucking him hard, Masato groaned in delight and lust as he kissed his lover. His hunger had been pretty well sated last night yet still stirred at the feel of Schu’s lust. Deciding that they could pack after sex, his hands had just settled on his lover’s ass and began to pull up the shirt when the bedroom door began to rattle.

"No sex until you’re done packing!" Nagi shouted as the bed actually lifted all the way up to the ceiling. It remained there as all of the drawers in the room flew open and their entire collection of lube joined the bed on the ceiling.

Pulling away, Schu growled in frustration and attempted to jump high enough to grab one of the containers. "The little bastard!"

Sighing in frustration, Masato bent over to pick up the saddle bags. "Trust me, it’ll be much easier if we just pack now." He pointedly thought about how if Schu tried to retaliate, Jei would join in to defend Nagi, and then Masato would have to do his best to protect his mate. "Rather difficult to have sex when I’ve been stabbed in the gut so let’s just wait a while, okay? Savor the anticipation."

"I’d say ‘fuck anticipation’ but it won’t feel as good as your ass." Schu looked from the ceiling to the bedroom door, glaring at it as though Nagi could see him. "Once we’re in Eto he’ll be too busy screwing around with Omi to bother us," he muttered. "If his boyfriend wasn’t the fucking crown prince, I’d get even with him then."

Which meant that Schu would just wait for another time to get back at Nagi for today, most likely before they got to Eto. Feeling every one of his many years, Masato groaned and wondered just how he’d offended the gods to be stuck with someone like Schu. That was a thought he very carefully and wisely kept to himself.


Reno groaned as he slid beneath the hot water, bubbles escaping from his mouth as he bumped against the bottom of the very large tub. He swore that he ached from head to toe – thanks to Tseng not being above hair-pulling or toe-stomping – even though it had been almost half an hour since the workout from hell had finished. The bruises had mostly faded, but he still felt a hint of the pain from abraded skin, abused muscles and everything else. To think that he’d believed himself a pretty dirty fighter; Tseng sure as hell could hold his own in a fight that didn’t require weapons.

Still, Reno would have done better if he could have used his full speed, which he hadn’t been able to do thanks to the assholes who had decided to hang out in the gymnasium and watch Tseng smack him around. He was more than annoyed that his first opportunity to leave Rufus’ suite in over a month had been so he could get his ass kicked in front of an audience.

Anger welled inside of Reno, anger and annoyance. He thought about the bastard responsible for dragging him here and then making him sit on his ass all day – unless Tseng was smacking it to the floor – and couldn’t hold back on a growl. Since he couldn’t ‘feel’ Rufus in his head he assumed that his lover was blocking the odd link between them, most likely to spare himself some pain. The bastard hadn’t cared if Reno felt any, though.

Lying on the bottom of the tub, Reno scratched at the porcelain surface and wished that he could do something, that he could find someone to kick around and then grab by the throat and let his power surge forth. So long… too long since he’d been allowed to let go, since he’d felt the heady rush of energy that was always released when he killed someone. He hadn’t been able to do that since before they left home, and Rufus *refused* to allow him any fun here. Dammit, he’d start with that Tan Xi bitch who had a thing for rubbing all over his lover and he wouldn’t stop until he was exhausted but recharged.

His stomach rumbling loudly enough to be heard through the water reminded him that he was still submerged and hadn’t breathed for a few minutes. Allowing himself to float out of the water, Reno sat up in the tub and combed back his wet hair. There was an impulse to hack off the thick, long strands, to let them fall around him like a puddle of crimson ribbons, but he resisted the temptation. He liked how it looked floating in the water, like the time he’d slit his wrists while in the tub, his blood flowing out and staining it a deep red until Rude had barged in and put an end to it. Surely Rufus had to have a razor around here somewhere.

Something inside of Reno stirred and caused him pain at the thought. He hissed in displeasure and cradled his head between his hands as he tried to figure out what had caused that. Usually both his natures were all for death, but ever since his last attempt, whenever the thoughts grew serious, something stopped him from getting up and looking for that razor, or kept him from breaking the nearest window or mirror, or putting his sharp nails and teeth to use. Rufus was an idiot for thinking that he needed a knife or a sword to do any damage.

Still, Reno’s lover must have done something, because no matter how many times those thoughts arose, he was unable to carry them out. Maybe Rufus had put some sort of compulsion on him, something that made all of him no longer want death so badly. Pulling on his hair, Reno hissed again. He was Rufus’, that was something he couldn’t deny, but he was so damn tired of being bossed around, of being forced to stay indoors and do nothing, to not be allowed any weapons; he couldn’t even fucking think about a way to escape the utter boredom. He was good at his job, yet it was Tseng, Elena and Rude who always got to watch Rufus’ back.

Why hadn’t he been left at home? Did Rufus need the sex that badly? Reno found himself growling at the thought of his lover sleeping with anyone else, energy crackling around his hands as he sought to rid himself of that imaginary rival. As he fought to calm down from the sudden onslaught of jealousy and rage, he told himself that it wasn’t that. Rufus had allowed him to do his job the first couple of weeks here. He hadn’t gone with Rufus whenever his lover had seen the Elders, but he’d been there for everything else. No, all it took was one asshole hitting on him and he was stuck here with nothing to do but eat, sleep and harass Rude or whoever was his babysitter for the day. Hell, Elena owed him three months pay from all the times they’d played cards, Tseng had threatened to tie him up and put a gag over his mouth at least eighteen times, and Rude usually *pleaded* with him to just go back to bed and not cause any trouble. All because he’d set one of the couches on fire. Oh, and traumatized Elena’s maid by using her for target practice. And broken a window by seeing how far he could throw a pillow. Then there was that time when he had almost given Rude a heart attack by climbing up the wall and across the ceiling so he could get a better look at the crystal chandelier in the main room….

He was so *bored* and *hungry*, and he was damned if the only time he left the suite was so Tseng could repeatedly slam him against the floors of one of the gymnasiums. Dammit, Tseng had actually kept a hand on his arm the entire walk to and from the place. Stepping out of the tub, Reno bared his teeth as he thought about how he should just have a fucking collar and leash on him. That’s all he was here, after all, a pet to be kept indoors unless taken outside for exercise.

His anger growing with each passing second, he snatched up a towel and dried himself off. While drying his hair, his right hand brushed against the charmed earring that Rufus made him wear, and he felt the overwhelming urge to tear it off and toss it aside. He actually dropped the towel and grasped the annoying thing before he remembered his promise to Rufus. Whining in annoyance at being stopped by a fucking vow, he let the earring go and stomped into the bedroom.

The scent of this morning’s sex still hovered in the air, although the maid had remade the bed. Instead of calming Reno, it only fueled his temper until he went over to the bed and grabbed the plush down comforter. Once it was in his hands, he began to tear the thick velvet apart in such a frenzied manner that it appeared as if a blizzard filled the room. Instead of snowflakes there were fine white feathers *everywhere*, and all he could think about was how with one mere thought, the slightest use of his talent, he could set them all on fire, set the room ablaze with him in it. He hadn’t tried immolation yet.

Clutching his head as one of his natures fought against the idea, Reno crumpled to the floor, feathers clinging to his still damp skin and hair. He wanted something, wanted it so badly that he felt like tearing at his own flesh until the thought formed clearly in his head, but he only dug his nails into his shoulders and whined. Something was off, was wrong, and had been wrong for the last few months, but he didn’t know what it was. And it wasn’t so much ‘wrong’ as in bad as it was… not familiar, as in something inside of him being slightly askew, which was a condition he should be used to by now. Yet whatever it was, it spurred him to obey Rufus, to submit and arch his neck and do what he was told. That was largely what he’d done upon arriving in this fucking pit and he’d suddenly had *enough*.

He was hungry, bored and in a foul mood. His options were to go try to torment Tseng, which would just lead to more abuse on his part, gorge himself on whatever was in the kitchen and still feel empty, try to sleep or…. Or not be so fucking bored. Smiling for the first time in hours, he brushed aside the feathers clinging to his shoulders and rose to his feet. He was through listening to Rufus. Let his lover be furious; maybe he’d understand how Reno felt to be constantly trapped inside these fucking walls.

He was half-tempted to just walk out of the room as he was before he figured that his fun would come to an end much sooner than he wanted that way. Realizing that he wasn’t on duty, he ignored the white shirts and black coats hanging in the half of a closet allotted to him and reached for the dark grey shirt toward the back. Rufus had a thing for him in dark colors, but he liked the feel of the shirt’s sumptuous fabric, a heavy silk so soft that he couldn’t stop touching it. He picked that and a pair of dark blue pants that were a bit on the tight side, some black leather boots that were great for sneaking around and he was done. He ran his hands through his hair and was about to grab a tie or clasp before he decided not to bother. The heavy, wet strands fell unimpeded to the top of his thighs, save for the shorter locks that fell onto and around his face.

Smoothing his left hand along the front of the shirt, Reno glanced around the room to see if there was anything he’d missed. Deciding that it would be best to go outside rather than risk alerting Tseng to his departure, he hissed quietly and searched for his sunglasses. He found them tucked into one of the drawers of the small chest that rested on top of the dresser. Slipping them onto his face, he waved aside a few feathers and went over to the balcony door.

The curtains had been drawn to block out most of the sunlight; a quick shove got them out of his way. He sensed something around the door, some sort of ward, but grinned as he ignored it and turned the knob. Wards weren’t a problem for him; however the sunlight outside was a small one. Flinching from the feel of sunlight for the first time in weeks, he settled the glasses better on his face, allowed his hair to fall forward and tugged the cuffs of the long, full sleeves of his shirt over his hands.

The air was very cold but it was something he could ignore after a few seconds. He wouldn’t be outside for long, anyway. Looking at the palace’s outside wall, he snarled under his breath at the fact that it was too sunny of a winter day to use any shadows to crawl down to the ground. Oh well; it was only a four story drop. Smiling in joy at the sense of freedom that filled him, he went to the stone ledge of the balcony and hopped over it without a moment’s pause.

Falling was such a wonderful sensation. He spread his arms as if he could fly and barely resisted the impulse to cry out his joy. No sense in attracting any unwanted attention that could put an end to his fun before it started, after all. Landing crouched in snow two feet deep, he grimaced at the cold and stood up after a quick look around. It seemed that the cold was keeping everyone inside, the coddled wimps that they were. Grinning from ear to ear, Reno rubbed his hands up and down his arms and made a beeline for a door about a hundred meters off to the left. He didn’t want to barge into anyone’s private quarters today and that door didn’t look used very often. On his way, he made several snowballs and lobbed them at various windows, running the last few yards when he heard the sound of breaking glass.

This door was warded as well but again, it wasn’t a problem. Neither was its stubborn, partially rusted lock. Reno smirked as the door knob spun under his hand and he tugged the door open. Judging from the gardening tools hanging on the walls inside, the entrance was probably only used by the gardeners during the summer. He crept down the hallway, pausing now and then to investigate some of the storage rooms but not finding anything of interest. Growing a bit bored, he hurried along until he came to a series of doors. Listening carefully, he chose the middle one on the left and snuck through it.

He ended up in a staff corridor for a minute or two, and thankfully reached another door before he ran into anyone. Once through there, another hallway took him to one of the palace’s kitchens.

Smiling widely at a startled young man who almost walked into him, he ignored the curious looks that the various servants and cooks sent his way. He pushed his sunglasses up onto his forehead and snatched at various delicious looking items as he made his way across the busy room. One particularly tall cook looked as if he wanted to say something, but Reno just bared his teeth and growled under his breath. He guessed between that and the fact that he clearly wasn’t dressed like a servant, the man decided it was best to back down. Which was a shame, really, as he’d have dearly loved a good fight.

Munching on some sort of custard tart, he made his way out of the kitchen and into a fancy room filled with people just standing around and talking while a couple of musicians played in a corner. Once again he got the curious looks, several people frowning in confusion as he walked over to what appeared to be a bar and grabbed a bottle of wine that the bartender had just opened. Taking a sip, Reno decided it tasted pretty good and went looking for more food. The little shrimp snack that he’d tried had been delicious and there should be more out here. Sniffing the air, he thought there was a tray of them to the right of the bar.

Crowing in delight at finding them, he scooped up a handful and ate them between swallows of wine. People were definitely staring though no one seemed to want to come close… that was, until a short blond guy dressed in light blues and greys left the group gathered around him and approached with a smile.

"You’re Reno, correct?" the bound asked, a friendly smile on his face. He sort of reminded Reno of Rufus with his blond hair and blue eyes, but he came across as much too cheerful.

"Yeah." The bound looked familiar so Reno tilted his head to the side and tried to remember where he’d seen him before. "Aren’t you some lord or something?"

Blondie smiled some more and bowed his head. "Lord Quatre Raberba-Winner, at your service." He straightened up and glanced around the room, filled with at least twenty well dressed people who were pretending not to be staring their way. "I didn’t think that Lord Shinra was going to attend this afternoon."

Well, at least Reno had picked a good room and wasn’t going to run into his lover right away. He made the connection between the face and the name and grinned. "Oh, yeah, the fruit basket from yesterday. Thanks, the pomegranates were great." His grin faded a little as he remembered the fight with Rufus over the knife.

Lord Quatre’s smile widened and he bowed his head again. "You’re very welcome. I already received word from your lord and appreciate his prompt response." He turned a little to look back at the group of people he’d just left, his expression becoming tender when he stared at a black-haired man with golden skin. "I think it’s best to not say anything more under the circumstances."

"Sure, whatever." Reno shrugged and enjoyed some of his wine before he turned to get more of the shrimp snacks. He noticed that there were some tasty looking puffs next to the tray and grabbed a few of those as well. Was this what Rufus did all day? Get to drink good wine and eat stuff like this? The bastard was holding out on him.

"So, will Lord Shinra be attending?" Lord Quatre asked as he stepped closer to Reno. "Or did he send you in his place?"

Debating whether to lie or not, Reno decided to be honest for once. "Nah, he’s too busy kissing up to the Elders right now. I guess you could say I’m crashing the party." He took a long gulp of wine as he stared at the lord, practically daring him to say or do something. Reno couldn’t start a fight, he’d been ordered not to, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t fight back if someone else swung first.

Lord Quatre appeared taken back by the news, then his cheerful smile returned and he actually laughed. "I haven’t had a party crashed in years." He laughed some more and shook his head as he surveyed the room. "Not that this is much of a party." There was a note of disappointment to his high-pitched voice.

Draining the bottle of wine dry, Reno tossed it over his shoulder and reached for more food. "You’ve got lots of wine and food, all you need to do is to stir things up a bit." Wiping crumbs from his mouth with the back of his left hand, he grinned at the other bound. "Ever play a game called ‘black queen’?" He didn’t think to bring his cards with him but he was sure some could be found, and if he couldn’t provoke a fight with this lord then he might as well rob him and his cronies blind. Who knows, maybe a fight would break out over them losing.

Staring at him intently for a few seconds, Lord Quatre returned the grin and began to help himself to the remaining shrimp snacks. "No, I haven’t but I’m more than willing to learn."

This was going to be fun, Reno thought as he yelled to the bartender to bring him another bottle of wine.


Quatre looked up from the cards in his hands and had to stifle a laugh. When would Reno realize that he had small white feathers stuck in his hair? Each time Quatre saw them he wanted to laugh but hadn’t given in to the impulse. Yet. Although it was only going to be a matter of time if Reno ran his hands through his reddish-brown hair again and caused another flurry of feathers to fall about.

/Quatre, please tell me that he’s cheating./ Wufei’s mental voice sounded distinctly peevish, and the reason for that was the numerous stacks of coins around Reno.

Not looking at his lover as he discarded two bad cards and replaced them with even worse ones, he sighed and folded his hand. /As far as I can tell, he isn’t. Just accept the fact that someone is better than you at something and stop bidding so high,/ he advised.

He didn’t need to look at Wufei to see the angry scowl directed his way; he sipped his wine instead and resumed studying his unexpected guest. While he truly didn’t believe that Reno was cheating, he wasn’t entirely certain since he couldn’t read the man’s mind. Very few people had shields strong enough to block him out, and he wasn’t happy to find another one. Not when Crawford was so certain that they would need Reno’s help in the future.

Cocking his head to the side, Quatre pretended to be lost in thought as he tried to analyze what was so special about Reno. There was something, most definitely, but Crawford had told Quatre that it was best he didn’t know right now. He could understand the reasoning behind Crawford’s refusal; the less people who knew about a secret, the less chance it would be revealed through foolishness or torture. That didn’t prevent him from trying to figure it out on his own, when he would only have his own suspicions and no real proof.

Reno was a very handsome young bound, almost delicate with his pretty face and wiry build. Almost. He didn’t come across as weak or fragile, not at all. There was an… ‘air’ about him, one that made him stand out from the other men gathered around the table, almost as if there was an electrical charge of some sort around him.

All Quatre knew for certain about him was that he loved to drink and eat, that he was suspiciously good at cards and that he had a very jealous lover. Quatre had been at the social gathering where Rufus had literally picked up the man who had propositioned Reno and threw him across the room – after almost reducing the man’s brains to mush. Since then, almost no one had seen Reno.

That wasn’t a lot of information, which was something that Quatre thrived on; he would ferret it out as best he could, often employing a smile and an innocent expression as well as his talent. He knew people considered him a seemingly harmless lord possessing good manners and a gentle nature, and he used this to his advantage. Yet he couldn’t breach Rufus’ defenses, or find out anything about the young lord and the people around him. Hoping that he’d be able to charm something out of Reno, he was failing yet again, something that he hated. He felt as if he was letting Crawford down and that he would jeopardize all their efforts.

"Time to show me what ya got," Reno drawled as he placed his cards on the table. There were several loud groans when people saw that he possessed not only one of the two black queens but her king as well, which basically assured him the game. Glancing at the other hands as they were revealed, Quatre was proud of himself for folding early and not losing too much money. He’d actually won a few hands during the game, but nowhere near as many as Reno.

Chuckling, Reno scooped the coins scattered about the middle of the table toward him. "Anyone got enough money left for another hand?" he asked with a wide smirk on his face. Oddly enough, when he glanced at Quatre to see if he wanted to play, his hazel eyes were shockingly bereft of emotion. They gazed at Quatre with a flatness that reminded him of one of his hunting hawks. Then Reno blinked and they were filled with amusement.

"I think it may be wise to quit before I end up gambling away my title and lands," Quatre remarked as he bowed his head in regret. "I must thank you for teaching us this very amusing game, which we’ll be sure to play in your absence." He allowed the slightest bit of his true nature to show through his meek mask. "I’m also sure that you won’t win as much the next time." He would rise to the challenge and master the game before then.

Reno’s smile took on a frightening edge, one that reminded Quatre of flesh gaki bounds who became thoroughly lost to their demon natures, yet his eyes contained that same amused light as before. "Why do you think I took you for as much as I could today? Still, it’s always fun to play against someone who knows what he’s doing."

Several of Quatre’s associates, friends and fellow lords he’d invited to dispel the boredom of being trapped here in the palace, grumbled at Reno’s presumptuous nature. They didn’t appreciate losing, especially to someone so common, just as much as they didn’t appreciate being taken advantage of and parted from their money. Complaining the loudest was Wufei, whose pride was stung at not being able to master the game within just a couple of hours of playing.

Pushing his chair from the table, Wufei rose to his feet and glared with unrestrained fury at Reno. "I do not appreciate being played for a fool."

"Then stop acting like one," was Reno’s instant retort as he looked around for something to use as a bag while he scooped his spoils into a ridiculously large pile. He didn’t act the least bit upset that he’d managed to anger one of the Elders’ personal soldiers. Everyone else at the table and standing around it had gone perfectly still, only their eyes moving as they looked back and forth between Reno and Wufei.

/Wufei, sit down before you start a fight. There is no reason to blame Reno just because he knows a card game that you don’t./ Quatre stared with disappointment at his lover. /I know that you’re frustrated and annoyed at the Elders’ latest order, but don’t take it out on this man. We need him on our side./

/I will not ally myself with a cheater./ The ‘words’ were all but dripping with scorn as Wufei continued to glare at Reno. For his part, the strange bound gave up searching for a bag and began to rip a large section of fabric away from the tablecloth. "Look at me," Wufei hissed as his body trembled with barely restrained fury. "I will not be called a fool by a cretin such as yourself."

Reno did as told and gave him a sneer. "Don’t be such a fucking sore loser. You-" His sneer faded away, replaced by a worried frown that only lasted a few seconds. Reno cursed under his breath as he jerked his left hand through his hair and dislodged some more feathers. "I don’t have the time for this shit. Pick a day and I’ll gladly kick your ass at cards again," he said as he began to shove the coins onto the improvised carry sack. He didn’t look at Wufei as he spoke, but instead kept glancing back and forth between the service door and the entrance from the hallway as he tied it closed.

Moving around the table, Wufei stalked toward Reno in such a focused manner that it made Quatre scramble from his chair. Why did his lover have to be so stubborn and proud? "Wufei, don’t!"

Wufei had his right arm raised as he approached Reno; not even Quatre was sure whether he intended to strike out or grab the other bound. His lover’s thoughts were utterly muddled by thoughts of injustice, of being played for a fool and having to prove his dominance to some stranger who had slunk into this room uninvited. The other men seated at the table, and the guests who had gathered around it to watch the game suddenly scrambled away from Wufei and Reno, which only impeded Quatre’s attempt to stop what was about to happen.

"You will-" Wufei’s right hand was grasped about a foot away from Reno in a move so fast that Quatre wasn’t sure if he’d imagined it or not. One moment Reno’s left hand was at his side, the next it was wrapped around Wufei’s wrist. The inhuman gaze was back on Reno’s face, a look so utterly lacking in emotion that Wufei’s tirade came to an abrupt halt. He could only stare at the other bound who stood perfectly, unnaturally still. Then a powerful kick sent Wufei flying across the room, right into one of the walls.

Reno lowered his left leg and snatched up the bundled coins before he ran from the table, toward Wufei. Worried that he was going to attack the fallen man, Quatre gathered his power for a potent blow but when he unleashed it, it did nothing to Reno except make him shake his head and falter for two steps. He raced past Wufei, straight to the service door. However, right before he could touch it, it swung open to reveal one of Rufus’ gokenin. Reno stared in shock at the tall, dark-haired man for a couple of seconds, his eyes wide and his mouth hanging open, and then began to spin around. However, he hesitated too long because the man grasped a handful of the long hair that whipped around Reno and used it as a very effective leash.

"OW! For fuck’s sake, Tseng, let go!" Reno cried as he swung the bundle of coins at the other man. Tseng winced as the metal slammed into his chest but merely snatched the improvised weapon out of Reno’s hands.

"Reno, *shut* *up*." Rufus had entered from the hallway with two of his gokenin flanking his back as he stalked toward Reno. On his normally expressionless face was a look of pure fury, one that put Wufei’s earlier temper to shame. Hurrying to his lover’s side, Quatre helped Wufei regain his footing and could only look back and forth between the two bounds.

Reno stopped trying to claw his hair free from Tseng’s grip and scowled at Rufus. "Don’t-" His eyes suddenly widened and went glassy as his hands fell limply to his sides. For his part, Rufus’ temper only seemed to worsen as he finally reached his lover and grabbed him by the chin.

Some sort of mental conversation took place, that was certain, but Quatre couldn’t sense anything but the slightest hint of fury and embarrassment from Rufus, and anger and resignation from his gokenin. It was as if Reno wasn’t in the room at all, for all that he could sense from the strange bound.

Hissing softly, Reno regained enough awareness from whatever Rufus had done to him to try and jerk his chin free. His hands pushed at Rufus’ chest, and Quatre thought he saw a spark, of all things. Then Rufus let out such an infuriated growl that Quatre and Wufei growled in return while the rest of the people in the room fled with all due haste. For their parts, the gokenin closed in on Rufus and Reno and blocked the men from view. Tseng still had a handful of Reno’s hair, as if worried that Reno would try to run away again.

There was a sizzling sound and the hint of ozone, and someone cried out, just as a sudden burst of wind spun around Rufus and his people. Nothing could be seen for several seconds through the cyclone of spinning napkins, cards and dust, until the impromptu tempest came to an end. When the gokenin broke apart, Reno was held in Tseng’s arms, clearly unconscious. Rufus didn’t look much better; he swayed on his feet for a few seconds and rubbed his shaking hands across his chest as if to ease an ache. Then he brushed a strand of hair from Reno’s face, his hand lingering on his lover’s cheek, before he turned toward Quatre.

"Lord Quatre," he said, his deep voice rough and quieter than normal. "I apologize for any inconvenience my gokenin has caused you today." His teeth clenched as he said the word ‘apologize’, and it was clear that making amends wasn’t something that he normally did. "If you would like, stop by my apartment tomorrow afternoon so we may discuss how I may repay what I owe."

/Does he really think that’s going to settle everything?/ Wufei asked as he leaned ever so slightly against Quatre. /The room is trashed, all your guests have fled and that bastard *hit* me. If anyone should repay you, it’s Reno./ He had a clear idea of just how Reno could settle the damages, mainly by fighting Wufei. Where before there had only been dislike and disdain for the bound, Wufei now saw him as a potential equal in battle. It was rare that someone was faster than him or managed to land such a powerful blow.

/Wufei… please be quiet. I think we’d have quite the fight on our hands if I suggested that Reno pay for anything./ Quatre ignored Wufei’s derisive snort as he stared at Rufus. He was beginning to understand why Crawford was so certain that Reno would be the way to win Rufus over and why his friend felt that both men were so badly needed on their side. Whatever Reno was, he was very dangerous, and so was Rufus. He and Quatre were about evenly matched in power, two of the strongest soul gaki bounds in Berin… yet Quatre couldn’t meet Rufus’ harsh gaze directly for more than a few seconds. Whatever power Rufus lacked, he more than made up for it in ruthless determination.

"I do not see the need for any reparations," Quatre said once he was sure his voice would be steady. "We were having an enjoyable time until Wufei took offense over nothing," he felt his lover stiffen beside him and grow angry, but he could handle a furious Wufei with ease, "so I believe that I am just as much responsible for what happened as are you." /Don’t say anything,/ he warned his lover as he smiled politely at Rufus.

The soul gaki bound stared intently at him for several rapid heartbeats then bowed his head. "You’re more than welcome to stop by tomorrow. Perhaps I can return some of the hospitality you showed to one of my own." The sense of danger and ruthlessness was still there but it wasn’t as potent as before. When Rufus lifted his head, he only looked at Quatre long enough to receive a nod in response and then was on his way out of the room, Tseng immediately behind him and the other two gokenin bringing up the rear. As they swept past, it was clear that the air elemental bound was using her power to keep everyone at a distance.

/Would you care to tell me what that was about?/ Wufei asked as he moved away from Quatre in annoyance and surveyed the damage done to the room.

/If I had to hazard a guess, I would be willing to bet that Lord Shinra is hiding the fact that he’s mated to Reno,/ Quatre said as he went straight for the bar in hopes that some wine was still left.

Wufei paused in righting a chair and turned to stare at him, his left eyebrow arched and his dark eyes filled with surprise. /There is talk about him being very possessive of what’s his, but not of him being mated. Interesting./ There was a flash of pity at having one’s choices taken away by a mating bond, of not being free to pick who you loved.

/I think that may be why he’s kept Reno away from everyone these last few months./ Quatre had to admit that if he was mated to anyone that he would do his best to keep it a secret from the Elders and their followers. He had handed them enough of a collar to fasten around his neck by admitting his feelings for his lover, but he refused to dishonor that love and Wufei by sneaking around and pretending to care for someone else.

Finding an intact, unopened bottle of wine, he laughed out loud and waved it in the direction of his lover as he searched for a corkscrew. "I believe it would be a good afternoon to get drunk." After he had his people spread the rumor that Rufus was furious at Reno for crashing a party and cheating at cards. That would go over much better than the lord tracking down his wayward mate, and it would help explain why Reno was kept away from everyone. With a little bit of skill and even less effort, Quatre could make everyone believe that Reno wasn’t a gokenin at all but Lord Shinra’s possession, an unruly one at that who was best kept in the bedroom where he belonged. Reno’s reputation would be in shambles but no one would look twice at Rufus for such behavior, and certainly no one would think to look beyond the rumor.

Then Rufus would be in true debt to Quatre, and was intelligent enough to realize that once the rumors reached his ears. That would be but one obligation placed on the man, and Quatre would keep adding to them as much as he could. Crawford didn’t see everything, after all, and Quatre didn’t believe in leaving everything to fate, not when he could make things happen on his own. Finding the corkscrew, he began to reach for his followers’ minds to give them orders. Once that was finished, he could enjoy the wine and placate his lover’s ruffled pride.


Rufus was aware of everyone who turned to stare at him along the way to his suite, the way people began to whisper behind him. From their thoughts he knew that they wondered why all of his gokenin were with him and why one of them carried an unconscious man. A few people recognized Reno, which made him want to use his talents to wipe their minds clean of *everything*. However, his head hurt so much and he’d used too much power to subdue Reno, not to mention that such a harsh reaction on his part would just attract more undesired attention.

He forced himself to look straight ahead and not glance back to see Reno in Tseng’s arms, complexion even paler than normal. As much as his demon nature clamored that *he* should be the one carrying Reno, he allowed Tseng to continue doing so. The impulse to strangle the idiotic bastard was still too strong and people would wonder why a lord carried a servant.

As if the gods smiled down on him after shitting all over his head, he made it to his suite without incident or anyone attempting to talk to him. Unwilling to seem in a hurry, he stepped aside to allow Elena to open the door for him rather than wrench it from its hinges. However, once he was inside he no longer had to pretend.

"Give him to me," Rufus snarled and held out his arms to Tseng. When the man actually paused for a moment, he bared his teeth as well. Bowing his head in immediate response, Tseng hurried to deposit a still unconscious Reno in his arms.

"I will not be available to anyone for the rest of the day," he informed his people. "I don’t care if the Elders themselves come knocking, tell them that I’m beating some sense into an idiot and will not be bothered until he actually learns something." He shifted Reno in his arms until his mate’s head lolled onto his right shoulder. "Is that clear?"

"Yes, my lord," Tseng said, the response echoed by Elena and Rude, who held something wrapped in cloth in the crook of his right arm. "I am sorry for failing you," Tseng continued, suffused with shame that Reno had escaped while under his watch.

"The next time you’re assigned to the bastard, you have my permission to chain him up and stuff him in the nearest closet." While Rufus was upset with Tseng for not realizing that Reno had left the suite for a couple of hours, he couldn’t entirely blame the man. Even if Tseng had been on guard, Reno could have walked right past him.

"Understood, my lord." Tseng was resolved to do just that, too, rather than fail Rufus again. Reno would be in for an interesting surprise the next time he was alone with the flesh gaki bound.

Nodding his approval, Rufus went to his bedroom, his pace increasing with each step. He needed to be alone with Reno, to have his mate somewhere safe and away from anyone who might do him any harm. Never mind the fact that Rufus wanted to beat the bastard until Reno grew a brain.

He found two of the maids in the process of ridding the room of what looked to be feathers, which might explain why the things were in Reno’s long hair. One cold look from him and they scurried from the room, curtsying on trembling legs as they inched past him toward the door.

There were feathers scattered about and a new comforter on the bed, and Rufus remembered a glimpse of Reno tearing something to shreds when he’d been in his mate’s mind. Taking a deep breath to help control the anger sparked by this latest annoyance, he strode over to the bed and unceremoniously dumped Reno on top of it.

He had already been tired from yet another fucking tea party; Tan Xi had been her usual annoying, flirtatious self while her masters were noticeably absent. That would have been a positive thing except that Crawford was missing as well, which couldn’t be anything but than a bad sign. Then he received a message from Tseng that Reno wasn’t anywhere to be found in the suite, and his lousy day had turned even worse. To find Reno playing cards with Quatre of all people, a bound powerful and intelligent enough to possibly figure out just what Reno was, had only made things worse. He was sure that Quatre would expect something from him in return for today, but he could do little but wait and see what the price would be.

All because of a bored idiot. Growling, Rufus climbed onto the plush bed and reached for his mate. He’d had no choice but render Reno unconscious at the first sign of him using his power, and was thankful for Elena and Rude’s quick actions. No one should have noticed the sparks because of Elena’s diversion, and Rude had given Rufus enough power to compel both of Reno’s natures to submit.

Now Rufus had to wake him up, a prospect that he didn’t relish because of what had happened yesterday. Looking down at Reno, Rufus then set about removing the dark grey tunic that he’d always liked. Next went the boots and the pants, followed by Reno’s underwear until he was naked. Leaving the bed, Rufus fetched the leather manacles that they used sometimes during sex, and had them attached to the bed in a couple of minutes. After buckling Reno’s wrists and ankles into them, he felt that he had taken enough precautions.

After removing his own boots, coat and vest, Rufus returned to the bed and sat beside his lover. Seeing Reno’s unbound hair laying tangled on the light grey duvet, he couldn’t resist combing his fingers through it to remove the remaining feathers. Some of his anger faded away as he touched Reno, something inside of him softening at the sight of Reno unconscious, the slightest of frowns on his face.

Rufus realized what was happening and shoved such feelings of sentimentality aside as forcefully as he could. Reno had put all of them at risk today, something that couldn’t be allowed. Focusing his talent, Rufus placed his right hand against Reno’s left temple and set about waking the bastard up.

Of course Reno fought him, making him draw on the dregs of his energy to force the stubborn fool awake. At least Reno was equally drained of energy, he was interested to note, and so hopefully wouldn’t be able to put up too much of a fight. Rufus deliberately didn’t wake his mate up all the way, much preferring a muddled, sleepy dubhach to an aware, furious one.

Moaning piteously, Reno tilted his head to the side and tried to move his arms, which were stretched above his head. That seemed to be the impetus that he needed to open his eyes and stare rather blearily at Rufus.

"Fuckin’ asshole," he managed to croak after a few seconds, his memory returning in confused bits. "Said… said don’ do that." The words came out as an angry hiss as he glared at Rufus, his eyes lightening in a very familiar and disturbing manner.

Moving quickly to straddle his mate, Rufus buried his hands in Reno’s hair, grasped the strands and gave them a tug. "*Think*, you idiot. You disobeyed an order and placed us all at risk," he spat, refusing to pay attention to the fizzling sparks that flew from Reno’s bound hands. "Not only did you attack me in public, but you did it using your power. You’re lucky you still have a brain left in your head, even if it’s defective as hell."

"You… first… so angry." Reno struggled to regroup his scattered thoughts and hissed again when Rufus used his talent to keep them disorganized. "Not fair," he whined, his teeth exposed to show his displeasure as his wrists twisted in the manacles’ cuffs and his fingers grasped at nothing. "Bastard. Not your pet." His fractured thoughts momentarily focused on his boredom, sharp hunger, the sense of isolation and the pain of being deprived of his job.

Rufus took a deep breath and loosened his hold on Reno’s hair as he chased after those thoughts. He could sense Reno’s frustration from basically being kept captive these last couple of months, of being made to feel useless unless Rufus wanted sex. That was what had driven him to break an order.

How the hell was Rufus supposed to remain furious at his lover for that? Cursing the gods for saddling him with someone as messed up and complex as Reno, he sighed and lowered his upper body until his forehead rested against Reno’s. "You are the biggest pain in the ass that I’ve ever had to deal with, you moron."

His thoughts slowly coalescing, Reno hissed again and tugged at the manacles. "Is that why I’m naked and tied up?"

The question seeming to come from out of the blue, Rufus raised his head and blinked as he stared into Reno’s once more aquamarine eyes. "Yes, not only the biggest pain in the ass, but also the must fucked up in here," he amended as he rapped the knuckles of his right hand against Reno’s temple.

"But a valuable fucked up pain in the ass," Reno muttered and tried to see if he could kick his legs free, which didn’t work. "I don’t like this; it’s not a game," he said, his voice deepening and silver returning to his eyes. "I won’t let you keep doing this to me, won’t let you act like you-"

Lying on top of his mate, Rufus stifled the complaints with a kiss as he pushed deep into Reno’s mind again. While Reno was more powerful than Rufus, he was also very easygoing unless provoked. That gave Rufus an edge, a hope of controlling Reno and preventing a repeat of what had happened today. He’d have to work out something other than keeping the redhead locked inside all the time, but once he was assured that his mate would *listen* to him for once, it might be possible.

/I didn’t want you running away again or hurting yourself,/ he explained as he combed the fingers of his right hand through Reno’s tangled hair. /If you promise to behave, I’ll undo them and return your clothes./ After they were searched for any weapons picked up during Reno’s excursion.

/Too late./

That was all the warning Rufus had before he found himself shoved off of Reno and the bed. Falling onto the floor, he swore at himself, both for thinking that it would take Reno longer to use his power to undo the restraints and for underestimating Reno’s aggressive streak. He scrambled to sit up and looked over to the bed where he found Reno crouched on top, warily eyeing him as if expecting an attack.

Part of Rufus ached for a fight as an opportunity to force Reno to bend to him, to prove that he was the stronger of the two. The problem with that was if Reno won, Rufus would have little chance of controlling his mate. He could try reason, which had never really worked well with Reno in the first place, or he could try something unexpected. Noticing how pale his lover’s eyes had become, he decided on the last option.

He managed to move forward and grab some of Reno’s hair before his lover tried to pull away, and used that hold to yank Reno onto the floor. The redhead made a squalling sound like a cat being dropped into a tub of cold water and flailed about as he landed more or less in Rufus’ lap. Then Rufus tugged his head upward and forward enough that he could kiss him senseless.

Reno didn’t exactly give in gracefully, which showed that he must have still been recovering from all of the mental attacks. He nipped at Rufus’ tongue and scratched his nails down Rufus’ back, through the shirt. In his thoughts was the fact that he was still mad as hell and wouldn’t just bare his neck like usual, but there was also something that pushed him to respond to Rufus.

Seizing that, Rufus moaned deep in his throat and clutched Reno closer. He ruthlessly took advantage of the mating link between them, something that Reno still had no clue about. That would change someday but for today, Rufus would use whatever leverage he could without compunction, which right now was coaxing his mate’s demon soul to respond to the bond between them.

His efforts were rewarded when Reno mewled softly and practically melted against him, nails no longer digging into his skin and the kiss no longer thwarted. In a way, Reno had no one but him, no one to keep the intense loneliness at bay, and he would take advantage of that. Reno was *his*, a very valuable fucked up pain in the ass indeed, and Rufus had had no intentions of letting him go from the moment he’d first seen him. The bond between them, forced as it had been, had only cemented that fact.

He broke off the kiss so he could nibble along his lover’s left ear. Reno mewled again, the sound sending shivers of lust through his body and making his cock twitch as it grew hard. Wanting to hear more of that wonderful sound, he tugged on a silver earring with his teeth.

"Rufus… oh… don’t…. I mean… *fuck*." Reno’s nails dug into his shoulders again but he didn’t mind the pain this time, not when he could sense how deeply he affected his lover, how Reno had to cling to him for support to stop the room from seeming to spin around and around. "More."

As much as Rufus wanted his mate, was driven to claim him, he hadn’t lost all sense just yet. "Promise to always obey me," he whispered in Reno’s ear, his voice thickened by desire and resolve. "I can’t have you endangering us with your foolish whims."

Reno’s anger returned, hot and potent, and made him try to pull away. Rufus’ arms clamped around his waist prevented that, and a lick along the curve of his ear disrupted his agitated thoughts almost as much as a mental attack. "Don’t order me around, dammit," Reno stuttered as he squirmed, his left shoulder lifting to attempt to prevent Rufus from toying with his ear.

Time for a different tactic, Rufus thought as he began to kiss a trail along Reno’s jaw. /You’re not my slave, Reno, I know that./ He didn’t expect blind obedience from his people, but he wouldn’t brook outright defiance, either. /You have to trust me. I’ll keep you safe./

"Don’t… need you to do that," Reno moaned as he fought not to arch his neck in response to the nibbles Rufus gave to his chin.

Feeling some anger of his own, Rufus leaned forward, pushed Reno onto the floor and settled on top of the idiot. A growl building in his throat, he stared at his lover with narrowed eyes. "I’ll keep you safe. I’ll keep you whole. Now stop being a damn stubborn fool and *let* me." His patience was at an end; sometimes it was enjoyable, the way that Reno fought back but not today. /*Let me*./

They stared at each other for an indeterminable amount of time, Rufus deep within Reno’s mind as he tried to gauge his lover’s reaction. Their gazes locked on each other, they were both quiet… until a feather floated down from somewhere and landed on Reno’s tattooed right cheek.

Beginning to chuckle, Reno brushed the feather aside and closed his eyes. His arms wrapped around Rufus’ neck and pulled him down for a kiss. /I really don’t need to be kept safe./

/I beg to differ./ Even as he enjoyed the kiss and wondered at Reno’s change of temperament, Rufus didn’t forget what was important. /Without me, you’d either be dead or a slave./

Reno’s body stiffened at the cruel truth but he didn’t end the kiss. /So you turn me into your slave to keep me alive and well? Don’t make me promise so much./ He was angry about having to obey Rufus but there was also a hint of pleading. As much as he valued his independence, his demon nature pushed him to accept, to not drive Rufus away.

/You won’t be a slave, nothing will have changed from before,/ Rufus tried to assure his lover while his own nature urged him to make Reno give in. /Dammit, I can’t keep you safe if you don’t listen to me!/

Threading his fingers through Rufus’ hair, Reno pushed him back so they could look at each other. "I’m not gonna sit here and do nothing," he snapped, his thoughts turbulent with desire, need, annoyance and fear. "I’m not useless."

Taking a deep breath, Rufus wondered why things could never be easy with his lover. "You’re not useless. I… I can’t risk someone finding out what you are." He brushed aside a lock of crimson hair that lay over Reno’s pale forehead. Refusing to think too much of what he was about to do, he opened his mind so Reno could sense his emotions. "I won’t allow anyone to take you away. I won’t allow anyone to touch you. You’re mine and that will never change." He felt weak for exposing so much of himself, but believed that there was too much on the line to keep hiding. If his words couldn’t convince Reno, perhaps his emotions would.

The room grew quiet as Reno averted his gaze and began to chew on his bottom lip. He was surprised by Rufus’ action and wasn’t sure what to do. His human nature was suspicious while his demon soul delighted in the strengthening of the bond between them. When Rufus caressed his lover’s face, the latter won out.

"I won’t let you order me to stay here and do nothing. My job is to watch over you," Reno grumbled as he looked directly at Rufus, his chin slightly tilted to expose his neck.

Weighing the chance of someone finding out what Reno was and what Reno would do if forced to remain here for another couple of months, Rufus sighed and relented a little. "I’ll allow you to guard me twice a week, but not to any functions or meetings that involve the Elders or their top agents." He let his determination flow over the link; there was no way he’d allow Reno to catch the attention of certain people, not even if he had to render his lover unconscious for the remainder of their ‘stay’ here.

Frowning at the restrictions, Reno lowered his chin as he thought about the offer. "I want every other day."

Beginning to growl again, Rufus tugged on the charmed earring that Reno wore. "I won’t allow you out on such a set pattern. Two days a week, occasionally three and that’s *it*." He bared his teeth to show how serious he was.

Reno didn’t exactly pout, but his lower lip did jut out as his eyes narrowed in annoyance. "Do I have to obey *everything*?" he complained, already trying to worm out of the promise. "What if something changes, eh? I mean, you could- mmph!"

Stopping Reno before he could cobble together some nonsensical argument, Rufus stroked his hands along his lover’s naked sides as they kissed. /Everything that has to do with keeping you and the others safe, although I’ll allow Tseng to rescind the orders if the situation changes and I’m not around./ He was determined as hell to get his way and didn’t hide that fact. Reno couldn’t be trusted to always think of himself or what repercussions his actions would have. All that mattered for the redhead was the ‘now’.

Hissing slightly as he tilted his head to the side, Reno squirmed beneath Rufus, his body responding to the teasing touches. "I wanna go to more of those parties; the food and wine were really good." He clutched Rufus’ shoulders and whimpered as the skin behind his left ear was licked. "…okay."

The word was spoken in a broken whisper but Rufus heard it. He could feel his mate’s acceptance and submission, could feel their link strengthening at the trust given to him and was amazed. Panting slightly, he nuzzled Reno’s neck and groaned in delight when Reno tilted his head back and to the side.

A little voice inside his head goaded him on to push for more, to take advantage of Reno in this state and get complete obedience, but he ignored it. /No more fights, although I’ll let you play your card game again./ What attracted him to Reno was just that brash defiance, the fact that his lover would fight with him and not just give in. This latest promise was only sought after to keep Reno from harm, although Rufus reveled at the sense of power and control it gave him.

"Don’t get so smug," Reno grumbled as he yanked on the front of Rufus’ shirt in an effort to undo the buttons. "I won’t obey you if you ask for utter nonsense." He had only given in because Rufus had clarified what orders were to be followed.

"You can’t go back on your promise now," Rufus pointed out as he nipped at his mate’s arched neck. When Reno was about to reply with another smart comment, he scraped his teeth along the pale skin, which made Reno gasp and hug him close. /I told you to trust me,/ he sent as he began to bite.

"Ah!" Pleasure and need overwhelmed Reno as he was marked, his two souls united by the intense emotions. He couldn’t form the thought but there was the sense that he did trust Rufus, too much in fact, and was scared by it.

Trailing the fingers of his right hand along the outside of Reno’s left thigh, Rufus made a promise of his own to do his best to never betray that trust. Perhaps that was a sign of weakness but he couldn’t bear the thought of driving Reno away. The link between them was too strong, and though he chafed at its restrictions, he could no longer imagine not being able to slide into his mate’s mind whenever he wanted to savor the feelings that Reno had for him. Like the man himself, they were utterly addicting.

Now if he could just make Reno less of a suicidal idiot, then he’d be perfectly content.


Crawford accepted the cup of coffee from Trowa with a polite nod of his head. They were in Trowa’s quarters, a place rarely visited by anyone other than its owner, which Crawford took as a sign of acceptance and friendship. One of the walls was lined with shelves containing books, a disturbing number of knives, some truly lovely small paintings and sculptures – most having to do with animals or nature – and an eclectic collection of masks. He recognized the knife he’d found in the steel market during his last visit to Eto and smiled. "You’ll have to leave most of that behind."

Trowa shrugged as he leaned against a bit of wall not covered with wood or knickknacks. His demeanor said that he wasn’t bothered by the prospect of losing all the belongings, and his emotions revealed the same.

"I know of a place where you can put the more precious items in storage," Crawford offered. He didn’t need to explain how Trowa couldn’t store everything because it would just be a waste of breath.

"Thank you." Trowa sipped his coffee and looked around the room, his face mostly hidden by his thick, long bangs. "I suppose I don’t have much time to pack?"

"No, you don’t." His smile growing stronger, Crawford held the mug between the palms of his hands and leaned forward in his chair. "We should have the orders in another hour or two, and be out of Berin within the week." He couldn’t see much of what would happen in Eto yet because of Aya’s presence, but his visions revealed that they would be on the road by the time the Harvest moon was full again, which was only six more days away. "Rufus and his gokenin will follow soon after."

Slightly brushing back his hair so he could drink his coffee, Trowa focused his attention on Crawford. "He has stirred Quatre’s attention. Both of them."

Trowa was not one to speak at length or often at all, but what Crawford enjoyed about him was that he didn’t waste those precious words on nonsense. There was a wealth of information in those sparse sentences if one listened correctly. "I’ve heard the new rumors and plan to see Quatre before I leave to thank him for them." Everyone mistook the lord as a very amiable young man who allowed his sisters to run his vast estates so he could enjoy himself with silly little parties and his lover. What made Quatre such a wonderful person to talk to also gave him control over the palace’s gossip, and that was a very handy and important power. "I have faith that he won’t search too deep."

"No, especially since Rufus will soon be gone." Moving from the wall, Trowa fetched the carafe of coffee and offered some to Crawford before pouring himself some more. "It should be interesting, when the two meet."

"Yes, it shall." Blocked by Aya and Reno’s natures, Crawford still had the impression of… *something* happening in the near future that involved the kage and the dubhach, something that was all but obscured from his talent but had a huge impact on the war to come.

Thankfully not lingering on that particular topic, even if they were safe in Trowa’s quarters, the water elemental bound turned his mostly full mug around in his hands, his long, slender fingers in constant motion. "You won’t be able to hide the Shadow Guard from Duo for long." His voice was perfectly calm but the fidgeting revealed his disquiet.

"By the time he finds out the truth, it will be too late." Crawford almost felt sorry for Trowa, one of his few true friends and someone who had never let him down. While he knew that having a mate would be good for the man, he also knew there would be a lot of pain before Trowa and Duo would be able to give in to each other. "I’ve no fear in that regard, however."

"Hmmm." Setting his mug aside, Trowa went over to the shelves that contained his masks and began to rearrange them. Every few masks, he would set one aside and redistribute the remaining ones on the shelves to hide the empty space. "You’ll find out just how good a job they’re doing of keeping the secret from the rest of the Guard. Duo isn’t known as an infiltrator but he’s clever, nosy and stubborn."

"I imagine that Yuushi and Reiichi will have their hands full with him, but they’re up to the task. At least Heero won’t cause us much trouble." Crawford smiled at what his visions had shown him in store for the air elemental bound… until he thought about his brother and felt an imaginary burn spread across his body, painful enough to make him squirm in the chair.

"Heero is very loyal." Looking over his shoulder, Trowa stared in curiosity for a few seconds before he shrugged his shoulders and resumed choosing what masks he wanted to save.

Now that was a very polite request for information and an even more polite acknowledgement of a refusal. Not for the first time, Crawford wished that his son was more like Trowa. "He isn’t the only one very devoted to a cause. Sometimes all it takes is a fresh perspective to make one rethink one’s beliefs." That was all he would say on the matter. While he trusted Trowa, he had learned from past experience that it was best to keep his visions to himself. Too much knowledge of the future could change it, not to mention that a secret revealed was no longer a secret. He imagined that his friend would be almost impossible to break - *almost* impossible.

"I hope you don’t mind that I’ve dragged you in on this," he said as he swirled the last bit of coffee in his mug. In a way, it was the truth – because of his actions Trowa would be placed in danger, yet he wouldn’t let that fact stay his hand.

Shrugging once more, Trowa moved on to his knives. "Once it became a mission to gather information, my participation was a foregone conclusion. I look forward to meeting Kritiker’s Spymaster, especially after your description of her, and it will be nice to travel." The latter was quite an understatement as few things pleased Trowa as much as seeing the world around him.

"You mentioned interesting meetings, and I believe the two of you crossing paths will be worthy of some note." Crawford actually chuckled as he thought about Birman and Trowa. The fact that they would be working together was enough to give him hope that the war would be won by Kritiker.

A very rare smile slightly curved the edges of Trowa’s mouth. "I imagine that she’s much like you. We should get along well." He tilted his head to the side and squinted at a blade that he had just unsheathed. "It’ll be quite the balancing act."

"I imagine so, but I’ve always had faith in your uncanny sense of balance." Staring into his mug, Crawford suddenly felt the urge for something stronger to drink. "At least the mission gets you out of Berin, possibly until the war is about to start."

"Yes, and I’m very thankful for that. I just wish that…." Trowa shook his head and set the knife aside. "Heero, for all his skill and intelligence, is easy to predict. Duo isn’t."

"Then it’s a very good thing that I’m a precog." Crawford wasn’t sure how he could soothe his friend’s upset over the matter without revealing a truth that Trowa wasn’t ready to face. "Nothing I’ve seen lately indicates that he won’t join our side at the right moment. That’s something I’ve been striving toward for the last six years, and I’ve taken adequate steps to ensure that *they* won’t have such a powerful weapon at their disposal."

"Weapon." Trowa’s face became perfectly impassive and Crawford felt a hint of something so cold and painful that it made him shiver. "We’ll find out how well we’ve been forged, won’t we?" he asked, his voice made even quieter than normal from those potent emotions.

Yes, they all were weapons, forged by various people in their pasts. Trowa’s forging had been inadvertent but powerful just the same, raised to be a soldier and forced to suffer terrible abuse. Crawford’s had been deliberate, and he felt a stab of hatred for his father. Not so much for his own childhood, which for all the manipulation and lack of love had been many times better that those of Trowa, Duo and Aya, but for the fact that he was forced to play such games with all the people in his life. Jei considered him a manipulative bastard, Cassandra a cold fish and his son someone in desperate need of sex. But he couldn’t allow himself human emotions or desires; one distraction at the wrong moment and all that he and countless of others had sacrificed for would be for nothing.

Unhappy at thinking such depressing thoughts, he blinked his eyes and raised his mug to drink the last of the coffee when he noticed Trowa. His friend stood perfectly still, barely breathing and not even blinking his eyes, until he realized that he’d caught Crawford’s attention. Then Trowa let out a slow breath and moved to pour him more coffee.

"That wasn’t a vision," Crawford explained as he held out his mug.

"Ah." Trowa set the carafe aside and picked up his own mug before he sat down in the room’s other chair. "I wish Wufei was going in Duo’s place. Is that not a possibility?" he asked, and Crawford had the impression that his impassive expression was meant to hide his inner anxiety.

"The Elders won’t allow Wufei or Quatre too far from each other, nor risk their brilliant General in an undercover mission."

"A shame, that. Wufei is dependable and mostly predictable. He would do well in the Guard and probably end up their new Captain in the space of a year." Once again there was a quick flash of a smile but it contained an anxious edge.

What bothered Trowa the most about Duo was never being able to figure out what he was going to do next. Crawford could understand why that would be such a bad thing, that impetuous nature, but Trowa needed someone who cared about him. Trowa also needed someone who wouldn’t try to coddle him, either; someone who would push him to react and to experience new things. Quatre and Wufei were too careful with their damaged friend, and even Crawford felt his hands were tied on certain occasions as he couldn’t risk alienating the water elemental bound. But much as Yohji had drawn Aya out, making him something other than obedient, deferential Ran, Duo would do the same for Trowa. Crawford had seen that much and used it to tamp down the guilt he felt for basically betraying a friend.

As he began to tell Trowa about his plans for everyone to split up before entering the capital and regrouping at the Koneko, he savagely stifled such thoughts. He used his own brother and son, so it mattered little that he used a friend as well. He would use whoever he had to in order to create the future in his visions and free himself from his father’s yoke. If everything went the way he’d planned, Crawford would have centuries to make it up to the people who mattered to him.

If he failed, then they’d all either be dead or longing for release.


"You know, you don’t have to be this ticked off when there’s going to be food and drinks there," Ed muttered as he fought to get Roy’s collar to lay flat.

Holding his chin up while his mate finished helping him with his tie, Roy sighed and allowed his ungloved fingers to slide into Ed’s unbound, waist-length hair. "I could do without the coffee and danishes to be quite honest, considering the company that I have to share them with." He gently pulled Ed a little closer once his collar was fixed.

"Still, it’s free food and no paperwork for the day. You should be in a better mood." Ed tilted his head back and glared, but there was a sense of uncertainty over their link, not anger.

Leaning forward, Roy brushed his lips against his much shorter lover’s forehead. "What are you up to now?" he asked, curious as to why Ed wanted him to be in a good mood.

Hesitating for a moment, Ed’s face wrinkled into a disgruntled look as his arms wrapped around Roy’s neck. "I’m going to spend the day at the Koneko. I have to return some books and pick up some new ones, and Hughes is going to stop by later to talk to Reiichi and Aya." His golden eyes widened slightly as his voice took on a beseeching tone. "You can make it there for dinner, right? Or are you going to bitch about coming home to an empty house?"

Ah, so that was it, Roy thought with a mix of annoyance and amusement as he passionately kissed his mate. Ed didn’t want him to either be angry about Ed spending most of his day off at the Koneko or for him to show up at the Koneko in a bad mood. While the prospect of having to put up with Kudoh for a few hours tonight wasn’t a pleasant one, there would be good drinks and even better food, and Ed was always happy whenever he got to pillage Aya’s library. And a happy Ed would be a great companion with which to spend the rest of the night and this weekend. Refusing to grin, Roy pulled away with great reluctance and fought to maintain a serious expression, which wasn’t easy when Ed whimpered slightly and seemed to have trouble focusing his eyes once he opened them.

"On one condition: I refuse to be stuck carrying back all the books you borrow," Roy teased as somberly as he could manage, a slight scowl on his face.

Growling softly, Ed stepped away and smacked him on the left shoulder, but he was happy with Roy’s answer. "I wouldn’t expect such a thing from a wimp like you." He sniffed dramatically as he began to comb his fingers through his hair and gather it into a ponytail. "A fat wimp at that. Keep eating all those danishes and you’ll need a new uniform."

Roy couldn’t hold back on a chuckle as he went to the mirror to check his appearance. He hadn’t gained any weight in the last few months, but the severe cut of his formal uniform was more… restricting than his everyday one. "Says the young man who ate all of the cookies that Gracia made for us the other night. Not even Al got more than a crumb or two." He gave his lover a disapproving look as he pulled on his white gloves.

Ed actually looked a bit guilty at having that pointed out and stared at the ground as he fastened his hair back. "I thought Al was going to spend the night with the Rockbells."

Picking up his hat, Roy looked in the mirror once more to make sure it was placed properly on his head and that not a single black hair was out of place. Tilting its brim slightly to the left, he sighed and forced himself to move. There wasn’t any more time to spend verbally sparring with Ed, sad to say. His opponents for the rest of the day, lazy officers and spoiled lords, wouldn’t be anywhere near the challenge that his mate was. "I’ll just have to keep your mouth occupied the next time Gracia brings us some cookies so Al can have a bite or two for once." He gave Ed a salacious wink and strode from the room, in the process of pulling on his winter coat.

He could hear Ed sputter for a few seconds in the bedroom. "You’re such an old, nasty pervert!" Ed hollered as Roy made his way to the front door, and it sounded as if something heavy had been thrown in the bedroom as well. Smiling at the fact that, despite his lover’s furious insult, he’d felt a strong wave of lust from Ed at the comment, Roy fastened his coat closed and opened the door. Pulling a dark green scarf from his right pocket, he hastily wrapped it around his neck as he stepped out into the bracing weather.

This winter was definitely one to go down in the history books, he thought as he used his power to warm the interior of the heavy wool coat. Not even a full month past the Winter Solstice and they’d already had a few feet of snow fall from the skies. Roy had planned to borrow a horse to go to the palace since it would be too much effort to walk in this freezing cold when there was at least half a foot of fresh snow on the ground, but Ed’s request made him change his mind. He didn’t want to either have to return the horse before going to the Koneko or ride it there. No, he’d see about flagging down a carriage once he was outside the Army compound.

At least he had his power to keep him warm during the ten minute walk to the compound’s outer walls; though he had to pretend to be cold lest he raise anyone’s suspicions. He made a production of cursing about the weather and rubbing his hands together as he walked, and shared sympathetic smiles with fellow soldiers along the way. Still, even though his talent kept away the worst of the chill, he felt a little cold as he thought about the snow that had fallen yesterday and Hawkeye’s insistence that there would be more this weekend. Esset’s meddling with the weather was already causing Kritiker some difficulty, although Hughes assured him that Esset suffered as well. The fools, to try to tamper so much with nature like that.

Grateful to reach the gates that led out to the city, Roy groaned when he noticed the other soldiers gathered just outside in hopes of flagging down a carriage. Several were like him, officers with enough rank that meant they had to attend to business outside of the compound but not high enough yet to rate their own personal horse and driver. He wondered who, if any, were headed to the palace when he noticed a familiar fall of silver hair.

"Major Marquis," Roy called out as he approached his fellow officer. He noticed the frown on Zechs’ partially hidden face and was grateful when it turned into a slight smile. "Are you going to the palace?"

"Yes, Colonel Mustang, to see the Spymaster," Zechs said as he first bowed and then motioned Roy to his side. "I take it that you’re about to ask me if I’d mind some company?" He was third in line, and Roy’s rank should ensure that another officer didn’t try to cut into the queue in front of him.

Roy almost teased that Zechs had read his mind but stopped himself just in time. The man wouldn’t react well to the joke, even though he was an air elemental bound and not a soul gaki one. Roy wasn’t supposed to know that. "I am to attend General Basque’s morning briefing," he admitted as he stood beside Zechs and stared hopefully at the approaching carriages.

"Ah, my condolences," Zechs remarked in a very dry tone as he adjusted his glasses. The lenses were tinted such a dark color that Roy was amazed that no one had figured out Zechs’ true nature yet, considering that a human would have trouble seeing through them. Then again, Zechs came from a very respected highborn family, and no one would think to suspect his bloodline of having been tainted by a bound somewhere in the past. "Just a morning briefing?" Zechs asked while he motioned for one of the carriages to stop in front of him.

"Unfortunately, no. Afterwards, I have a meeting with the Captain of the Guards." Roy let out a deep breath and refused to growl; Zechs would hear it and might suspect him for what he truly was. "I believe I shall be sobbing madly for a drink by the end of the day."

The carriage did stop for them, which was a relief as now Roy shouldn’t be late for the briefing. Zechs, ever the polite one, motioned for him to enter first and told the driver of their destination. "I believe that a few officers will be at the Gilded Sword this evening." But most likely not Zechs, who held himself aloof from his fellow soldiers.

Roy tugged on his coat to make sure that it didn’t get wrinkled while he sat and loosened the scarf. "Thank you, but I already have plans to meet Hughes at the Koneko." He noticed Zechs’ sudden interest in their conversation when he mentioned the inn.

"The Koneko is a rather odd place for someone in the Army," Zechs mused, his hands folded on his lap as he stared out the carriage’s window. There was the slightest hint of curiosity in his voice, something that would have been lost to a human’s lesser sense of hearing.

"True, but Hughes has a Guard friend who lives there. Hmm, ex-Guard, I mean," Roy corrected himself and allowed a note of boredom to creep into his voice. "So we tend to get a few free drinks sent our way, which is nice." Blaming his presence at the Koneko on Hughes was the smartest course of action, as anyone who knew the man would agree that Hughes would indeed be crazy enough to hang out in a place filled with Guards. Also, Roy had established a reputation of watching his friend’s back, just as Hughes watched his, over the last few years.

A very rare chuckle slipped past Zechs’ pale lips. "Major Hughes. I would suspect that man of even having friends on every dock and a pack of them in the Eastern Leather District. I keep waiting for the day when I wake up to find that he’s been installed as the new king."

"He does have friends in the strangest of places, and all of them utterly loyal to him," Roy agreed. He smiled as he thought of his dear friend, of how Hughes could effortlessly win people to his side… when he wasn’t chasing them away by prattling on and on about his daughter or wife. If Hughes had been born a bound, he would have been a water elemental, most definitely.

Still, despite that laugh and the ease in which Zechs carried on their conversation about Hughes’ unique nature, Roy noticed the tension build in the man’s body the closer they came to the palace. Whoever had assigned him to report to the Spymaster had to be more than a little sadistic, even if Zechs had the perfect manners to manage at Court. Not many years had passed since Milliardo Peacecroft had renounced his title and joined the Army under a new name.

As they drove past the palace’s southern gate, Roy bowed his head and reached into one of his pockets for a few bronze coins. "Well, I thank you for the ride, Major. I hope you have a good day and are able to enjoy a few drinks of your own later tonight." He handed over the coins, which Zechs accepted with a gracious nod of his head.

"You’re more than welcome, Colonel. May I offer you my belated congratulations on your new rank and wish you a good day as well." Zechs bowed gracefully from his seated position as the carriage came to a stop. "I’m sorry to say that I won’t be able to join in the festivities tonight, but perhaps another time." His lips pressed together for a fleeting moment. "I’ve always been interested in the Koneko, and now that there are a couple of fellow Army officers there, perhaps I’ll stop by one night."

"They have very good food," Roy remarked as blandly as possible as he left the carriage. He really wasn’t happy with the thought of Zechs at the Koneko, not if Ed was there as well. He couldn’t risk the truth of his relationship with the teenager being made public, but at least he had something to hold over Zechs if the worst happened. However, he was hoping to put that knowledge to better use than keeping the fact that he was sleeping with his ‘ward’ secret.

Besides, it was very interesting that Zechs was revealing an interest in the Koneko, Roy thought as he hurried to the debriefing. Did it have anything to do with Zechs’ true nature or the fact that many bounds had begun to congregate at the inn, drawn there to be with others of their kind or in hopes of joining the Guard or the Spymaster’s organization? Perhaps it would be a good way for him to broach the subject of what they were and bring Zechs’ over to his side. Roy’s purpose was to gather as many bounds as he could in the Army in hopes of taking command once the war broke out. Zechs was an up and coming soldier, an officer renowned for his fighting skill despite his disowned family’s pacifistic past.

His mind whirling with possibilities and schemes, Roy strode down one of the palace’s many hallways, aware as always of the risks he took and the need that spurred him on. Less than three years now, possibly even as little as two, and there would be a war to make the Binding War look like a simple skirmish. If he wanted to survive it and spend many a year teasing Ed, then he had better ensure that he accomplished all that Crawford had demanded of him. He would not put the lives of those he cared about the most and the lives of those who trusted him in danger because he had failed.


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