Darkness Returns

*******

chapter three

*******

of lies and manipulations

*******

Nagi poured himself a cup of coffee, and after adding a couple of teaspoons of honey and some cream, sipped the hot beverage. As he made his way to the table in their small kitchen, Jei quietly entered the room, dressed only in a loose undergarment that threatened to slide off his bony hips. "Keep drinking that and it’ll stunt your growth," he teased as he scratched his fingers through his cropped white hair.

"Very funny." Although Nagi frowned at the old joke, he happily fetched a mug from one of the cupboards with his talent and filled it with coffee for his friend. No one had ever teased him like Jei did, not even Aya. To have a friend who was always willing to push things with him while being well aware of his power was something he thought of as quite special. He knew that Jei never meant any malice behind the jabs, and whenever he felt lonely or confused or afraid, Jei would tease him mercilessly until the dark mood passed.

Jei smiled in thanks when he reached the counter where his coffee rested, then wrinkled his nose in disgust and pushed aside the jar of honey in favor of the bowl of sugar. "Can’t see how you stand to drink that stuff. If you were human, your teeth would’ve rotted away by now."

"This from a man who willingly drank a gallon of cow’s blood last night," Nagi sniffed, and was rewarded by another smile from Jei, this time one that showed almost all of the flesh gaki bound’s very impressive teeth. He wasn’t afraid of the display and didn’t feel the need to explain that as a lowly servant, he’d always had to make do with the less expensive honey in his drinks. Even now that there was always a bowl of sugar available, he found that he preferred honey. Omi knew that, which was why he’d sent so many honey treats over the last few months.

A sharp pain in his chest made Nagi frown into his mug, but he quickly did his best to put an end to it. Soon enough, he would be back with Omi. Just another week or two….

Jei placed a large iron skillet onto the stove and rummaged through the cold box to pull out a very large slab of bacon and a basket of eggs. "You hungry, Nagi? Bacon and eggs sound good?"

"Yes, please." There was another flash of pain, this one slightly less than the first, as Nagi thought about Aya. Soon enough he’d see his best friend as well, and if Yohji wasn’t doing a good enough job of looking after Aya, then he’d find himself being sent through the Koneko’s roof – from the basement level.

"Okay." Jei cut off several strips of bacon. "Schu and Masato are still sleeping, and will probably have a ‘snack’ before they manage to get out of bed." He chuckled a bit while he placed the strips into the frying pan. "And I don’t smell Crawford around."

This time, the emotion that Nagi felt was annoyance tinged with anger. "He went off to speak with Trowa and the other two." His brows furrowed in a scowl, he left the table to pour himself some more coffee.

"Still ticked off that we’re not leaving for another day, aren’t you?" Jei chuckled again, but the sound wasn’t as pleased as it had been moments before. "The bastard has his reasons – he always does. It wouldn’t do for us to leave here as if our asses were on fire. Might rouse some suspicions." Biting into a large chunk of uncooked bacon, Jei grimaced and smacked the heel of his left palm against the side of his head with a surprising amount of force. "Sweet gods, the world must be coming to an end. I just willingly defended Crawford."

The joke and the look of distress on Jei’s face made Nagi’s anger fade. "I know he’s making sure no one suspects us, it’s just…." He sighed and sipped his coffee. It was just so disappointing to have to wait a little longer to finally go back to the Koneko. He almost wished that Crawford hadn’t told them the good news yesterday, although he would have been furious if the mission had been kept secret from him for any amount of time. That didn’t make any sense and he knew that his emotions were getting the better of him, so he did his best to control his temper. He respected and trusted Crawford; he just got a bit tired of the man’s mysterious behavior at times.

"We technically got word about the mission last night, so it would look odd of we left too quickly. Still a few things to work out and all that." Jei munched on some more of the bacon and added several cracked eggs to the skillet. "But we’ll be on the road soon enough." There was a note of longing in his voice and a haunted look to his eye.

Ducking his head to hide his smile, Nagi got a plate from one of the cupboards and placed it on the counter by the stove. "Tomorrow, hopefully." If not, he was going to have some difficulty in holding back from slamming Crawford into the nearest wall.

"Yeah," Jei grunted as he picked up the skillet and dumped its contents onto the plate. "Then Jo can do all the cooking again."

"Maybe she’ll make some shepherd’s pie." Nagi felt an odd sense of homesickness as he sat down at the table. The Koneko wasn’t ‘home’, but it was the closest thing he’d ever had to one. Aya was there, and now Omi was, too, and Nagi had been safe at the inn. Jo and the others had looked after him and Aya, had kept them well fed and tended to their clothes and all the things that no one other than Aya had concerned themselves with before in his short life.

Cracking the remaining dozen eggs into the skillet, Jei then finished off the last of the bacon. "I’m sure if you asked her to, she would. Or get Omi to do it." The teasing tone in his voice turned slightly flat at the mention of Nagi’s boyfriend, but that was to be expected. Quite honestly, Nagi thought Jei was doing a wonderful job in not holding the fact that Omi was training to be a wizard against him. Considering how much the bound detested wizards, he knew that Jei was making a supreme effort to not let the madness affect his thoughts of Omi.

Hoping that his friend would be able to control his madness once they were back at the Koneko, Nagi began to eat his breakfast. Jei and Masato were the best cooks out of the five of them, unless Trowa was around and offered to make something. Nagi liked the water elemental; Trowa reminded him in some ways of Aya, with the way he so easily lost himself in a book or how he never really felt the need to talk to anyone. Heero wasn’t too bad, either, although Nagi never once forgot that he couldn’t entirely trust the too-focused bound. Nagi was certain that Duo was going to be a pest during their ride to Eto. First off, Schu couldn’t seem to resist goading the fire elemental, and Duo hated Masato. Nagi hoped that the eight of them wouldn’t be together for the entire time it took to reach Eto.

Just as Jei put his very full plate on the table and began shoving cooked eggs into his mouth, there was a very loud knock on the door. When Nagi rose from his chair to find out who was visiting them so early in the morning, the door slammed open and a whiff of smoke filled the air.

"Jei! I know you’re here! You were going to leave without seeing me, weren’t you?!"

There was no mistaking the owner of that very loud, angry, high pitched voice, though the sudden rush of heat into the apartment was a bit of a clue. Jei swore out loud and dropped his fork on his plate. Regardless of the fact that all he wore was a pair of underwear, he shot away from the table and was out the kitchen window in a matter of mere seconds. He also didn’t seem to care about the two story drop to the ground, though Nagi heard some more swearing from his friend as he stared at the window in shock and amazement.

Seconds later, Kaede stormed into the kitchen, her waist length black hair fanning out around her shoulders and her hazel eyes narrowed in anger. "Jei! Where are you hiding?" She turned to look at Nagi, who mutely pointed to the open window.

"Oooohhhh!" Kaede stomped her right foot against the floor and tossed a fireball out the window, seemingly unconcerned that she also set the curtains on fire. Nagi quickly used his power to toss the flaming fabric through the window and snapped the glass pane shut before Kaede decided to follow the very reluctant object of her affections.

"I don’t show up at your place and destroy things," he calmly pointed out to the young woman, unconcerned that she could set him on fire with a single thought.

"Oh." Her cheeks flushed as she seemed to stop using her power, her hair falling down against the pink shirt she wore. "Oh, I’m sorry." As always, Kaede remembered her manners once Jei had been proven beyond her reach or was firmly captured. She winced when she noticed the now curtain-less window and ducked her head. "I’ll replace them, I promise."

Nagi merely grunted in response and felt that the morning deserved another cup of coffee, this time with *lots* of honey. "Would you like something to drink?"

"Ah, yes please." Once more the usually quiet, pleasant young woman she could be when not obsessed with Jei, Kaede offered him a faint but sweet smile and sat down at the table. "I’m terribly sorry about that, I truly am." She accepted the mug of coffee with a stronger smile, one that made Nagi suddenly feel self-conscious.

"You’re welcome." He didn’t know why Jei was so adamant about not returning Kaede’s affections; she was very pretty, and was usually a lot of fun when she wasn’t flinging fireballs after runaway flesh gaki bounds. He had the feeling it had more to do with Jei than Kaede, and had to admit it was a bit funny how his friend didn’t seem to be scared of anything except a young girl only a couple of years older than Nagi himself. "Don’t worry about the curtains; we won’t need them for a while."

Kaede pressed her lips together and the room grew slightly warmer for a few heartbeats. "So I’ve heard." She glared at the window and made a slight ‘hmph’ sound. "I bet he wasn’t going to tell me good-bye. He always runs away whenever he can."

Yet for some reason, that didn’t discourage Kaede; it only made her chase after Jei all the harder. "This time he ran away in just his underwear. I imagine that he’s very cold right about now." Nagi couldn’t help but smile as he imagined Jei hopping around in the deep snow, cursing up a storm.

Kaede stared at the window with renewed interest, the blush returning to her cheeks for a few seconds. "And I missed that." She began to pout and pushed her mug away. "I won’t get another chance like that for *months*, I bet. Who knows when you’ll be coming back." There was a note of sadness in her voice, the emotion echoing in her eyes as well. Then she shook her head and attempted to smile. "But at least you should be able to take some letters to my dad for me, yes?" The sorrow appeared to have left her; she clutched the silver charm that hung around her neck in her right hand.

Nagi didn’t care if Crawford might think that it could be a risk - he agreed. "Yes, I can. I’m sure Schu will see his mom as soon as he returns to Eto, if she’s not already waiting for us at the Koneko. She can give the letters to Botan." He felt a little uncomfortable mentioning Kaede’s father’s lover, but the fire elemental merely smiled in joy.

"Thank you. I’m sure she’ll get them to him as quickly as possible." Kaede had appeared a bit upset when Crawford told her about Cassandra, but she didn’t hold any grudge against her father for finding someone to love for very long. Which was a good thing, since Schu wouldn’t put up with anyone who thought ill of his beloved mother. Nagi couldn’t hold back a grin at the thought of how the two bounds took to calling each other ‘big brother’ and ‘sis’ – and how furious Jei got whenever he saw Schu hug Kaede and tease her. No doubt about it, Jei was an idiot, Nagi thought with a disdainful sniff.

"Maybe I should put together a few things for Cassandra, too, in return for all those wonderful clothes and shawls she made for me," Kaede dithered as she brushed her hand along the pale grey corset of her outfit. "A few spells, perhaps? But I’m sure she has plenty, thanks to my father. What can I get her in so short a time?" She tapped her fingers along her chest as she tried to think.

"I’m sure Cassandra will appreciate anything you’d like to send her." Nagi felt sorry for Kaede; he knew that she wouldn’t be able to leave the palace to shop for anything, and almost everything she owned had been given to her by Crawford. The Elders kept her close yet didn’t seem to care about her at all, other than that she was in excellent health. He had a chance to escape, even if just for a short while, and see the two people he loved the most while Kaede would be left behind. Knowing Crawford, he would arrange to have someone look after her during his absence - probably his friend Quatre - but she’d be parted from Jei and her father.

Kaede clapped her hands together and laughed, for a moment looking years younger than her real age. "I know! There’s the pearl bracelet Janine traded me for some charms. I’m sure I could work up a lovely heat spell on it, and Schu said that his mother likes pearls." She scrambled out of the chair, stood up and bowed her head as she smoothed her hands down her dark pink skirt. "Thank you for the coffee, and I really will do something about the curtains. I’d best be going if I want to get all the packages together, and I’m sure Jei’s ready to come inside now." She flashed Nagi such an utterly wicked grin that, only for a moment, he thought that she might actually be related to Schu by blood.

"Uhm, how do you know he hasn’t snuck back inside already?" he just had to ask, hoping that he didn’t set off her temper with the question.

"Because once I found out that he jumped outside, I activated my wards around the palace. He can’t get in until *I* let him in." She seemed very pleased with herself as she fussed with her long hair. "I guess I better fetch him some clothes first, and he can help me with the packages I need to assemble. That’ll teach him to run away from me, and in his underwear, no less." A dark scowl settled on her pretty face and flames licked along her fingers. "I don’t want everybody to see my man in a state of undress like that."

Nagi felt sorry for anyone who happened to be looking out the windows when Kaede went to fetch her wayward ‘man’. More than likely, there were going to be lots of burned curtains if she noticed them. He really was beginning to wonder if the two of them were supposed to be mates, but whenever he asked Crawford that question, all the precog did was smile for a few seconds and then grimace.

Nagi had thought that there was no way to resist being mated, and Aya and Yohji had certainly bonded together very quickly. He felt a little jealous over how fast Yohji had wormed his way into Aya’s life, and so thoroughly at that, but he could admit to himself that he was grateful that his friend had someone to love and look after him. Yohji just better be doing a *very* good job of it.

But then there was Schu and Masato, who had proved to be very stubborn about acknowledging their bond for at least a couple of weeks. Though one couldn’t tell now that either of them had resisted being mates, Nagi thought rather darkly as he picked up the plates and took them to the sink. More than likely, those two wouldn’t leave their room at all that day. They just better be ready to depart in the morning or he was dragging them out by force.

While he’d gotten the impression that Schu and Masato had been very stubborn about their bond, it was nothing compared to Duo and Trowa, who were painful to be around with the way it was so clear that they wanted each other. Well, clear to someone who knew that they were supposed to be mates. And now there was Kaede and Jei, and all the issues that kept them apart. Nagi was sure that Jei ran from her not because she was some ‘little kid he’d helped raise from an annoying bratling’, but for the same reasons that Schu and Masato hid their bond. Because it would be a very *bad* thing if the Elders found out that they had yet another chain around Kaede to use with impunity. That and the fact that her father was a wizard and she had some magical talent herself, and, of course, Jei detested wizards and magic.

The jealousy returned as Nagi thought about all the mated bounds he knew, even if some of them weren’t aware of the bond yet. There were times when he wished that he was mated with Omi, even if it meant that he wouldn’t live as long as a powerful bound could, or that their bond wouldn’t be as strong as that between two mated bounds. He already loved Omi so much that he didn’t think it would matter if he couldn’t sense his boyfriend’s thoughts or things like that. With knowing so many mated bounds, he often wondered why that hadn’t happened to him and his boyfriend. Crawford had made a comment about how the gods seemed to be pairing up very powerful bounds together, as if to influence upcoming events, and he felt a bit of anger that he was missing out on it because he loved a human. However, if he and Omi were mates, then he’d never be able to come to Berin and help fight the Elders without his boyfriend by his side, and he’d probably put Omi in danger if he were at the palace. Perhaps the gods had a reason for not binding them together so irrevocably. Not that it meant that they’d ever willingly give each other up.

He didn’t believe that someone had to be mated to love another person with all their heart. His feelings for Omi hadn’t faded the slightest in the past few months; in fact, they’d only gotten stronger. He missed Omi so *much* and couldn’t wait to get to the Koneko. He just wished that he’d be able to tell Omi that he was coming, which Crawford had forbidden him from doing.

Filling the sink with hot water, Nagi focused on all he wanted to do for the day. He had to see about gathering enough supplies to last them during the ride to Eto, mainly food, but a few other necessities as well. He was already packed so that wasn’t a problem, and he’d give Masato and Schu a few hours to ‘enjoy’ themselves before he barged into their room to make sure that they had everything they needed for the trip. Then he should probably go to the stables and ensure that the horses were all right. He wasn’t leaving anything to chance and risk having their departure pushed back another day. If he had to walk to Eto while telekinetically dragging everyone along with him in the morning, then he would.

He just hoped that they’d pass through some nice villages where he could buy a few things for Omi and Aya to thank them for all the sweets and gifts they’d sent along. Warmth filling his chest, Nagi smiled and glanced out the curtain-less and singed window, in the direction that would take him to the Koneko. Tomorrow he’d be on that road, and no blizzard, lazy mated bounds or even the Elders were going to keep him from it.

*******

Crawford had dozens of competing thoughts in his mind as he made his way to the room where Trowa, Duo and Heero were waiting for him. He wanted to focus on leaving the palace, the ride to Eto and what would happen once they returned to the Koneko, but there were matters here that still needed tending to before he left. There was another talk with Quatre, seeing Kaede, trying to convince the Elders to send Rufus to Eto, meeting with-

"Good morning, Crawford."

Instantly recognizing the purring voice, he suppressed a heavy sigh only with forceful application of will. "Good morning, Tan Xi." He paused and turned to face the succubae bound, who was dressed in a dark blue tunic and white pants. Tan Xi smiled and dipped her head in greeting, a very pleased smile on her round face.

"I was afraid that I wouldn’t see you before you left." She sidled closer and slipped her right arm into the crook of his left elbow. "I imagine that you’re very busy, yes?"

"Yes." Yet the woman chose to bother him all the same. Crawford allowed himself a moment to savor the vision from the other day, the one of her death, and it leant his smile some genuine warmth. "I’m on my way to a briefing, as a matter of fact."

Tan Xi hissed and shook her head, a slight smile curving her tinted lips. "Always so eager to do your duty. You’re both a cause of inspiration and a source of dread for the rest of us. We can only hope to be as loyal and efficient as you."


He thought it was rather odd, the Elders’ foremost lackey going on about how loyal he was, and found it was too early in the day to put up with both such heavy irony and Tan Xi. "I merely strive to do my best," he said, a bit proud at how he spoke the absolute truth. The fact that what he strove for made him a traitor of enormous magnitude was something he’d keep to himself for the time being.

"And you never disappoint." Tan Xi rubbed her cheek against his shoulder for a few seconds while she purred like a very content cat. He wanted nothing more than to shove her away but barely managed to control the impulse. She always enjoyed being very affectionate, yet he noticed how her eyes were slightly narrowed as she stared up at him. Always the Elders’ spy to the very end, eager to report anything of the slightest suspicion.

He patted her arm and managed a slight smile. "Again, I merely do the best I can. But what about you? You’re often very busy yourself," he asked, hoping to shift the conversation away from himself.

She laughed and pulled away slightly, but her true emotions didn’t match what she projected to the world. "Have you heard the latest rumors? Lord Rufus is passing off his lover as one of his gokenin."

Having talked to Quatre last night, Crawford felt amused and relieved that the new rumor was already proving so effective. If the Elders suspected that Reno was Rufus’ mate, then they wouldn’t have sent Tan Xi to sniff around; they would simply have taken the dubhach into their ‘custody’. "Which one?" He feigned some interest and pretended to think about the matter for a moment. "The pretty blond? She’s very protective of him."

Tan Xi sniffed in disgust while he motioned that they were going to turn down the hall on the left. "You would think so, or the tall one with the lovely black hair." A predatory grin crossed her face so strongly that Crawford hoped that Rufus kept a close eye on his gokenin. "No, it’s the scrawny one, the boy whom Floyd tried to proposition shortly after Lord Rufus and his entourage arrived." She sniffed again. "I would have thought that Lord Rufus had better taste than that."

"I highly doubt that Lord Shinra is concerned about anything other than how the boy is in bed." Crawford made a show of shaking his head in disapproval. "How did you find this out? I haven’t seen the boy since… ah, I believe during the last triple moon viewing."

"It appears that the boy sneaked out of Lord Rufus’ quarters and imposed himself upon Lord Quatre." Tan Xi leaned forward as if to share a juicy secret. "He cheated at cards and picked a fight with General Wufei. The boy clearly has no sense or manners. I hear that he’s some gutter rat and I can’t believe that Lord Rufus would dare to bring him along."

"As I said, Lord Shinra is probably only concerned with how the boy is in bed. If I remember correctly, the boy is rather pretty, and ‘gutter snipes’ are usually very grateful to find themselves…," he paused as if to imply something scandalous, "’appreciated’." He had to make sure that it was believed that Rufus had brought a sexual partner to Berin and not a lover.

"He might not be appreciated for long." Tan Xi bowed politely to someone as they walked past then frowned at Crawford. "I hear Lord Rufus beat him for causing such a scene."

Crawford acted as if it didn’t surprise him in the least. "I imagine that Lord Shinra is not the type of man to accept his plaything causing him embarrassment." He’d been furious to hear that Reno had slipped out yesterday and drawn attention to himself, attention that was only deflected because of Quatre’s very quick thinking. Crawford had the sinking suspicion that Reno would not be another Ran, cowed and obedient and malleable. Just what he needed - yet another complication.

"Well, he certainly acted very promptly." Slowing her steps, Tan Xi stared intently at Crawford. "You haven’t had any visions about the boy, have you? He won’t… cause any shame for Lord Rufus or us either?"

He’d noticed the slight pause in the question and knew that the Elders weren’t concerned about being scandalized by a lord’s toy. Well aware of the fact that Tan Xi could sense emotions, he was pleased that he could yet again tell her the truth. "I have seen no visions of the boy; it’s as if he doesn’t exist in the future." Which could be taken to mean that he wasn’t going to be alive for very long or was of no importance, either interpretation making Tan Xi smile in relief.

Of course, the fact that Reno would not appear in any of Crawford’s visions because he was a dubhach would never occur to her or the Elders – or so he hoped and prayed. Dubhach were even more rare than kage and since there already was a kage identified for this century, no one would think to look for another one. Reno should be protected in part because of his rare nature – but not if he picked fights with his mate in public.

"Ah, I take it, then, that Lord Rufus will be looking for a new ‘plaything’ soon." Smirking, Tan Xi gave Crawford’s arm a squeeze. "Such a shame." For a moment her true nature was evident, sly and malicious, before she managed to restore her cheerful mask.

Crawford didn’t know who he should feel sorry for; Rufus for having drawn the woman’s interest or Tan Xi for unwittingly taking on a mated pair, but found he couldn’t summon the emotion for either of them. Reno was the only one who deserved it for having to put up with them both.

He made small talk with the succubae bound until he finally reached his destination. Coming to a halt before the door of the private room he’d reserved, he bowed to Tan Xi. "I’m sorry, but I have some gentlemen waiting for me." He even managed to sound sincere.

She stood on her tiptoes to give him a lingering kiss on the lips. "I fear that you’ll have more than enough to occupy your time today, and so I must look forward to your return. Be safe, Crawford."

"Thank you, Tan Xi." The words sounded ominously like a threat; he had no doubt that Tan Xi and the Elders expected him to return, at the least to fight in the approaching war. He might have to at some point, but he would do his best to keep his men away from Berin for as long as possible.

The key to getting Nagi and the others safely out of Berin waited inside the room. Opening the door, he stepped into the small chamber and nodded to Trowa, Duo and Heero in greeting. "I’m sorry that I was late." No sunlight shone through the opened windows but the room’s white walls, along with several small mirrors, reflected what little light there was.

Sprawled out on a pale blue couch, Duo made a show of taking several deep breaths. "Eh, ran into Tan Xi, did ya? How’d you manage to escape unscathed and with your virtue intact?"

"Duo," Heero warned with a frown and leaned forward in his chair, his back ramrod straight and his dark grey outfit reminiscent of a military uniform.

"What? The woman’s a man-eater, and I mean that literally." Duo tugged on his black shirt as if to pull it off. "I think she left a scar the one time we-"

"Good morning, Crawford." Even though Trowa’s voice was as soft as ever, once he began to speak, Duo fell quiet. Leaning against the western wall with a book in his hand, Trowa gave Crawford a slight nod in greeting. "I hope that we can discuss more important matters now?" There was the slightest hint of reproach in his normally emotionless voice, and through the fall of his auburn hair, it appeared as if his jaw was clenched.

Duo’s face instantly flushed and he tugged his shirt straight as he stared at Trowa, an almost pained expression on his face. "Sorry, Tro."

"Don’t call me that," Trowa snapped, this time the anger in his voice very plain.

Before the two got into a fight or attracted any more of Heero’s attention, Crawford stepped forward and cleared his throat. "Gentlemen, time is short and we have a lot to discuss. I wish to leave by morning," so Nagi didn’t try to break all of his bones, "which doesn’t leave us very long to prepare for the journey."

Slowly looking away from Trowa, Duo let out a deep breath and sat upright on the couch. "Then we should have been given a bit of advanced warning about this latest mission."

"The Elders assign them to us when *they* feel it’s appropriate, not you," Heero chastised, his frown more pronounced than before. "Do not waste the morning with your incessant complaints, and be thankful that you’re no longer going to be ‘drowning in cow shit’."

In a show of maturity, Duo stuck his tongue out at the air elemental bound. "If I didn’t complain then everybody would think I was dead."

Crawford couldn’t help but smile a little at the comment, and even Heero appeared amused by it. Folding his arms over his chest, Heero looked at Crawford, the frown gone from his face. "Now that the bickering is out of the way, you can begin. I’ve been told that we’re leaving for Eto by horse and are to make as good a time as possible. What happens once we reach the capital?"

"May I point out that we’re only traveling together until we reach Sado, a town about half a day’s ride from Eto. Once there, we’ll split up and rendezvous within three days’ time at an inn in the Green District called the Koneko." Crawford pushed his glasses up and waited for any complaints so far with the plan. "My team and I will use some contacts there to ensure that you are enlisted in the Guard and the Army as undercover spies.

Duo nodded and began to play with the end of his long braid. "That’s a good idea; both the spying and not having all of us enter the city through the same gate at the same time. Might attract too much attention and put the mission in jeopardy." He flashed a smile that faded when he glanced at Trowa, who was silent once more. "What happens then? How exactly are you going to manage to get us into the Guard and the Army? I thought they did pretty good background checks for all the Guards, at the least."

Smoothing his hand down the left sleeve of his white coat, Crawford stared evenly at the fire elemental bound. "My associate, Schuldig, has a long-standing relationship with a former member of the Guard. You will pretend to be a friend that Schuldig met during his travels and that you told him that you hoped to become a Guard one day. He’ll use his relationship with Yohji Kudoh, who just so happens to own the Koneko, to get you included in the latest batch of recruits." He adjusted his glasses as his look turned cold. "Keep in mind that he won’t be able to do much for you once you begin your training without arousing suspicions, so do your best not to be tossed out for insubordination."

"Don’t know why everyone thinks I’m such a fuck-up," Duo grumbled as he brushed the tail of his braid back and forth beneath his chin. "I wouldn’t be given assignments like this if I was."

"This is your first undercover assignment of this scope and importance," Heero was very helpful to point out. "Pardon us if we hold our breaths until you’re recruited into the Guard and not fired within the first month."

And there were people who said that Heero had no sense of humor, Crawford thought as he hid his smile behind his right hand. The problem was that the man’s humor was just very dry and not often employed.

While Duo glowered and Trowa seemed to be trying to blend in with the wall, Heero nodded to Crawford. "What about me? I understand that I’m to be accepted into the Army?"

"Hopefully without all the effort that Duo will require." Crawford ignored the muttered ‘bastard’ that came from the direction of the couch and focused his attention on Heero. This would be a bit tricky, hiding his strongest connection to the Army while still pulling the strings that were expected of him by the Elders. "I am familiar with a Major in the Army – Major Armstrong. I am hoping that if I tell him about a promising recruit that he’ll take things from there." He couldn’t risk exposing Roy, not when that would lead to the Elders finding out about the Elric brothers, and he knew that he could count on Armstrong to make any necessary sacrifices. While Crawford had hopes of winning Heero over to their side eventually, the air elemental wasn’t as sure a convert as Duo. The best chance of that happening lay in placing Heero in Kritiker’s Army so he could meet the two people who could break his conditioning, but there were a lot of risks involved with that course of action.

Heero’s gaze seemed to turn inward as he thought about something. "It’s clear that I won’t be able to join with an officer’s commission since I’m not from a highborn family. It will take a lot of work for me to reach a position where I can be of some help to the Elders."

"That’s where I’m hoping that Major Armstrong can provide some assistance." Crawford’s slight smile took on a nasty edge. "I’ll be sure to express to him my hopes that you’ll advance rather quickly, which shouldn’t be unusual for a very talented and focused individual like yourself."

Duo looked as if he wanted to ask something but decided not to after a moment. Crawford was sure that Duo wanted to know what dirt he had on Armstrong, and that was probably what Heero assumed as well judging from the cool look and curt nod he received.

"Understood." Heero sat back in his chair, his attention clearly no longer on the discussion now that he understood his part in the plan. However, Duo still seemed to be curious about a few things.

"What about Trowa? What’s he supposed to do, join the Army or the Guard?" He tried for a cavalier tone and wasn’t entirely successful.

"Neither." Crawford’s body wanted to tense as the conversation drifted toward his friend’s role in the mission, but he refused to display any emotion. "He’s being asked to work for the Spymaster."

There was an instant change in Duo’s demeanor, from bored but easygoing to aware and slightly threatening. "You’re going to have him break into their spy ring? Do you know how dangerous that is?" he asked, his usually boisterous voice very subdued. He turned to look at Trowa, whose face was almost completely hidden by his hair. "You’re not saying anything, Trowa. You knew about this, didn’t you? I thought we were all told to get the mission specs from Crawford."

"I did. He spoke to me last night." If Trowa had been a soul gaki or succubae bound, he would have felt Duo’s vicious spike of jealousy and wouldn’t have been so calm. "I’ve accepted the mission and feel it won’t be as dangerous as you seem to believe." He lifted his chin, his hair sliding back a little to expose the left side of his face. "I *have* completed missions such as this before."

"Yeah, with your ‘buddy’ Crawford." The chuckle from Duo just then possessed no humor. "Here I thought you were just going to keep Masato from growing too hungry. Guess you’ll be working after all."

"Duo," Heero hissed, shaken from his contemplations by either the insult or the fact that the room was slowly growing very warm. "Control yourself."

Trowa made a graceful, dismissive motion with his right hand. "It’s all right, Heero."

Interrupting before Duo betrayed his jealousy and aroused Heero’s suspicions, Crawford only spared a moment’s thought for how this would affect his friend. "I sincerely hope that you can behave yourself on the mission, Duo. It’s paramount that you are able to fully cooperate with Trowa."

He had the full attention of everyone in the room after that statement; Heero staring at him with curiosity, Duo with confusion and Trowa with pure amazement. "I don’t understand your reasoning, Crawford," Trowa said, and only someone who was very familiar with him would pick up the hint of panic in his mostly smooth voice. "There’s no need for Duo and I to work together, other than to occasionally share information."

Reminding himself that this would eventually be for Trowa’s own good, Crawford shook his head. "I thought about what we discussed last night, and the unlikely probability of three candidates arriving from out of town in the same time period to join Kritiker’s security forces. It would be best if it didn’t seem so… coincidental. I want you and Duo to pair up; it shouldn’t be so unusual for a young couple to seek their fortune together in Eto, and will make the exchanges of information much easier." He didn’t allow himself to feel any pain at the betrayed look Trowa gave him.

His shock fading to ill-disguised delight, Duo couldn’t quite suppress a smile when he looked at Trowa. "That does make sense." The subdued notes of hope and longing that Crawford felt from him helped to appease the guilt he felt. Duo knew about Trowa’s past and clearly had been fighting his attraction to the water elemental bound so as to not upset Trowa, so he wouldn’t force himself on him in a situation like this. At least, he wouldn’t unless he wanted a very grouchy, hungry flesh gaki bound let loose on him. Trowa would only be affected by his death *after* they were mated.

Heero nodded and rose from the chair. "I agree; it would be best if the two of you worked together. Since I understand that the Guard and the Army have a rivalry going on between them, it would be dangerous for me to have any contact with Duo. Trowa should be able to move between the two of us without arousing any suspicions." He spoke as if explaining something simple and normal, such as going to the post office before stopping at the market so he could take the fresh produce and goods directly home after their purchase.

"I’m glad that you understand the reasoning behind my decision," Crawford said and purposely avoided looking in Trowa’s direction. "We’ll leave at sunrise tomorrow morning, so be ready to meet me at the southern stables." He nodded to Duo and Heero before he quickly left the room, not wanting Trowa to stop him and question the new orders. While he was sure that his friend would do just that eventually, he would prefer it to be somewhere that they wouldn’t be overheard and after Trowa had calmed down a little.

He couldn’t think about just one person and risk the entire future. Trowa would have a couple of rough months with Duo, but he would also finally see that the fire elemental was someone to trust, that he was someone who wouldn’t hurt him. They couldn’t keep dancing around each other for much longer, doing their best to deny the attraction, without the risk of severe emotional and mental damage. The two of them could begin to heal once they were mated, and Crawford would be assured of two very powerful elemental bounds fighting on the right side of the war. All that mattered was the eventual outcome. The present would bleed into the future and become the past, taking the pain with it as it was replaced by happiness.

Repeating the litany to himself, he continued on his way to another meeting. There were more manipulations and betrayals to do that day, and if he had any hope of stopping them one day, he wouldn’t let something silly like a conscience get in his way.

*******

Rufus sipped his coffee while he carried on a mental conversation with Reeve. <So the shipment will leave on time?>

<Yes, my lord.> There was a sense of assurance from Reeve along with the usual politeness. <Without any… distractions, we’ve been able to focus on work more diligently.>

Rufus smile with amusement when he felt the so-called ‘distraction’ that Reeve had mentioned finally wake up for the day. He could very easily imagine how much faster Reeve and the others could forge the weapons when Reno wasn’t hanging around and stirring up trouble. <Very good. I’ll be sending a special request your way a bit later.> Some of his good mood faded when he thought about his meeting with Quatre in the afternoon.

<A special order?> Reeve ‘sounded’ so eager that Rufus had a mental picture of his employee reaching for a sketch book and piece of charcoal, a happy smile on his face. Reeve always did enjoy the challenge most requests gave him. <Things have been very busy lately, but I’ll gladly find the time if it’s something of quality.>

<It should be; the current Lord Raberba-Winner has placed a commission for his lover, a renowned swordsman. I expect you to do your best.>

Even though he’d betrayed no emotion as he informed his employee about the commission, Reeve knew him too well. <Ah, you owe him a favor, do you? Or want to put him in your debt. I understand, my lord,> Reeve remarked. <Is there anything else?>

<No.> The response was more curt than Rufus had intended; he truly hated to be in another person’s debt, almost as much as he hated to be reminded of the fact. <We’ll talk about it more later.>

<Yes, sir.>

Ending the connection, Rufus held out his cup of coffee to be refilled by Anna. She did so without spilling a drop, then almost tripped over her own feet when she tried to quickly step back. The cause of the young maid’s panic was Reno, who arrived in the small dining room more or less dressed and with his hair a tangled mass down his back. His white shirt was mostly unlaced, his coat looked as if it had been crammed into a travel bag months ago and left there until just now, and his black pants were too big.

"Morning," he chirped, smiling widely. He wore his darkly tinted glasses pushed up onto his forehead, in an unsuccessful attempt to hold back his ragged bangs. Still smiling, he sat in the chair nearest Rufus and tapped the empty cup set there a couple of times against its porcelain plate before he held it up. "Coffee, please."

Anna wasn’t as successful at pouring the beverage this time, but that was to be expected when she had to be within arms reach of the madman who thought she made a great target because of the way she screamed and ran about whenever knives were thrown at her. Rufus used his talent to dampen her panic somewhat and mentally commanded her to set the carafe of coffee down and leave the room.

"This is a direct order; you will *not* use her for target practice of any sort." He stared coldly at his lover until Reno stopped fidgeting and sighed.

"I already promised not to do it again." Reno sulked for a few seconds before he sipped his coffee. <It’s not like I aimed at anything vital, and only the hilts hit her. Not like she’s human or something.>

The sad thing was that Reno really didn’t think he’d done anything wrong, from what Rufus could tell. Either because of his demon nature or some mental defect, Reno saw the world split into two main groups. There was his ‘pack’, the people he worked with or thought of as friends; Rufus, Reeve, Tseng, Elena, Rude and several others. Then there was ‘not pack’, which was basically everyone else in the world. That group was split into two more categories; humans and bounds. Bounds were to be humored and made wonderful ‘playthings’ because of how they fought back and could heal quickly, while humans were only interesting in the noises they made as they were electrocuted to death. Reeve had done his best to cure Reno of this mindset but had failed utterly. Not even Rufus had had much luck, though he could usually make Reno leave his other employees alone. Usually.

And the idiot wondered why Rufus kept him on such a short leash here in Berin. Rufus had extracted every promise that he could think of from Reno to force him to be on his best behavior while here, and *still* had nightmares about what Reno could do if left unsupervised. Yesterday had been a perfect example. That reminded him…. "You will not play any more card games with strangers unless you ask me first," Rufus informed his mate. He could see Reno starting a fight over his rather questionable luck at cards.

Sulking once more, Reno frowned as he helped himself to a huge stack of pancakes liberally drizzled with maple and blueberry syrup. "You did say I could play another game with Quatre and his boyfriend."

"Only if you promise not to cheat." Rufus met Reno’s angry glare with one of his own. "One of these days I’ll figure out how you do it." He’d lost a fair amount of money to his lover and no amount of mental searching had revealed just how Reno managed to win most hands. That annoyed Rufus to no end.

His glare turning into a smile, Reno shoved a forkful of pancakes into his mouth and barely bothered to chew and swallow before he answered. "That’s ‘cause I’m not cheating." He chose to continue eating rather than elaborating on just how he won.

Slightly appalled at the table manners of the man he was tied to for the rest of his very long life, Rufus shook his head and finished his coffee. From the looks of it, Reno expected to be allowed out of the apartment today, which Rufus was still uncertain about. There was nothing important that he had planned, other than the meeting with Lord Quatre, yet…. He frowned at the cause of that meeting and wondered if he shouldn’t wait another day or two.

Feeling uneasy, he reached for Rude’s mind to see if there were any rumors about Reno’s antics yesterday. <Rude, have you heard anything?>

There was a slight pause before Rude replied, something that made Rufus sit up in his chair and set his cup aside. <Sir… people are talking about an interesting rumor this morning.> Rude focused his thoughts on the conversations he’d overheard so he could share them with Rufus.

<Did you hear? Lord Shinra is passing off his lover as one of his gokenin! You know, the pretty one he nearly killed Floyd over?>

< I highly doubt that Lord Shinra is concerned about anything other than how the boy is in bed.>

<I guess he barely lets the poor boy out of the bedroom. That or he found this one in some gutter somewhere, considering his behavior yesterday, and doesn’t want to be embarrassed by him. Still, the lack of manners aside, all that matters is if the boy has a tight ass, I suppose.>

<His father always favored young girls and was never without one on hand. I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that he brought his concubine here and tried to pass the man off as his gokenin. You know, his father was just as possessive over his latest plaything as Lord Rufus. As long as they’re enjoying themselves - they refuse to share, but there’s hope of having some fun once Lord Rufus grows bored.>

<No, he’s not the one. The guy Nick told me about is half his size with long hair. Maybe Lord Shinra makes him ‘dress up’ while they play->

As the thoughts poured into Rufus’ mind, he felt himself grow outraged. He wanted to track down all of those people and turn their brains into mush, to shred their thoughts until nothing was left. He wasn’t sure which made him more furious, the slander against him or against Reno. <Who started the rumors?> he demanded as he began to growl.

<I’m not entirely sure, my lord, but I’ve heard several references to people being told by Lord Raberba-Winner’s entourage. Should… should we do anything, sir?> Rude was just as furious that his friend and partner was being maligned and was eager to knock some sense into people’s heads.

As much as the gossip bothered him, Rufus calmed down and thought about things once he heard mention of Lord Quatre. He’d been worried about the talk focusing on his reaction to Reno’s behavior and their fight, but it seemed that all people cared about was a hint of something naughty. While he did not appreciate the assumption that he’d brought Reno here just for sex, he had to admit that there seemed to be no discussion about them possibly being mates.

<Do nothing,> he informed Rude after he debated the matter for a moment. <Return here so you can keep Reno company today.> He wouldn’t appease his anger and risk his people.

Rude was surprised about the order and concerned for his friend, which made Rufus growl even louder, but he sent his assent and didn’t object. Severing the connection, Rufus noticed that his mate was staring at him while confusion, concern and anticipation flowed over their link.

"What’s going on?" Reno asked, his voice very quiet and his eyes a mix of green and silver. There was a slight tang of ozone in the air and he had his lips pulled back from his teeth. "Is there going to be a fight?"

Rufus tried to tamp down on the link they shared and thought about the best way to break the news to his mate. What Rude had just revealed changed things and affected the agreement between Rufus and Reno. "You’re staying here today," Rufus told Reno, deciding to get the argument out of the way.

His eyes narrowing in anger, Reno shoved his chair away from the table. "The hell I am. You promised me that I could go out with you as long as you don’t have to see the Elders, and I know you’re not supposed to meet with them today." His voice possessed a slight, sibilant hiss woven through the words, a warning signal that he was losing control of his demon nature.

"No, I never *promised*. I agreed," Rufus tried to clarify before the situation got any worse, knowing that he was on a thin edge here between what he said and Reno’s temper. He very rarely promised anything and made sure to remember what he did. "Because of your impulsive actions yesterday, the entire palace is talking about how you’re not really one of my gokenin but are just the fucktoy I brought along so I wouldn’t be bored."

"So?" Reno picked up his cup and in a blur sent it flying across the room to shatter against the far wall. "You do fuck me! What the hell does it matter?"

Feeling both of their emotions start to spiral out of control, Rufus fought to calm himself. He was reacting to Reno’s anger and hurt, which was something that would affect his judgment if he wasn’t careful. "Because of whom I can offend if I bring you along! Because people believe what they hear and love to think the worst of everybody or any situation." He took a deep breath and prayed to whatever god would favor him that Reno listened to sense for once. "No one will consider you a gokenin now, which means you could be placed into danger." Someone might think that Reno was willing to sleep with whoever made him a good offer, and Rufus would have no luck in controlling his reaction in that event. Or worse, someone could do something to Reno that would provoke the dubhach and make him lash out with his talent. And Reno’s talent was very, *very* flashy.

"Fuck them!" This time it was the carafe that shattered against the wall and filled the room with the scent of coffee. Reno trembled with anger and desperation. "Tell them the truth!" He shoved his chair away and rushed toward Rufus, grabbing him by the lapels of his coat and shaking him. "I’m not hiding anymore!" His thoughts were a confusing jumble of emotions and images, the anger and desperation combined with hunger and disappointment.

Batting his mate’s hands aside, Rufus grabbed hold of Reno’s shirt and pulled him forward, across his lap. His hands then shifted to Reno’s hair and forced his mate to arch his neck. <You will do what I tell you to do! *You* were the one to promise! *You* were the one who disobeyed me in the first place! I won’t let you leave here now that the entire damn palace is talking about you! I *warned* you about attracting attention.> Reno fought to pull away, but Rufus’ fury and fear increased his strength. The suicidal idiot had to understand what was at stake here! <I won’t risk it! You only have yourself to blame.> He snarled and tugged on Reno’s long hair, his own teeth bared as if he were ready to plunge them into Reno’s throat.

Growling in return, Reno managed a hit to the right side of Rufus’ head with his fist before his anger… just seemed to crumble. He stopped struggling and lay sprawled across Rufus’ lap, his legs dangling over the edge of the chair as he pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes. "I don’t care. I’m fucking starving," he whispered, his shoulders hunched forward and his emotions a searing mix of hunger, desperation and need. "I’m going fucking crazy, not being able to do a damn thing about it."

Both of their anger suddenly vanished. Of all the things that Rufus had feared happening once they came to Berin, he hadn’t thought about Reno’s ‘appetite’. "Reno… damn." He tugged and pulled on his mate until Reno straddled his lap and leaned against him. Now that he could focus on it, he sensed that hunger and the way it gnawed on Reno. "Damn." Hugging his mate close, Rufus closed his eyes and combed the fingers of his right hand through Reno’s tangled hair.

He knew that Reno seemed to get some sort of rush of energy from being around someone who died. All that he could find in his studies of dubhach and kage was the belief that those forms of bounds fed not off of emotions or food but death itself. Over the years that Reno had been in his care, Reno hadn’t seemed to need to feed… but he’d also been around numerous deaths a year as he protected Rufus and the business. Reno was an ideal assassin and his skills were put to good use – except for the last couple of months.

Rufus had hoped that Reno would be able to manage to live without that energy for several months, at the least. He had thought that the Elders wouldn’t keep them here indefinitely, but that didn’t seem to be the case. Then there was the fact that their options were a lot more limited than he believed them to be before they left home. Because of their bond, there was no way that he could send Reno away, and he couldn’t risk having Reno kill anyone here since it might arouse unwelcome suspicions. Now, there only seemed to be one option.

Rufus pressed a tender kiss against his lover’s left temple. "Reno, I can’t allow you to leave the apartment as my gokenin." When Reno stiffened in his arms, Rufus soothed his hand along Reno’s back. While he couldn’t keep Reno locked up and not expect another incident like yesterday, he had to be careful because of the rumors and Reno’s hunger. "Don’t worry, I’ll think of something. I can always take you along to a few functions as my ‘date’ since the ‘secret’ seems to be out." He dreaded the idea, the risk he took by letting anyone see Reno and what his mate might do at a social gathering. He also detested the idea that he would probably be placing himself even more in Lord Quatre’s debt by asking the man to hold a few, small, private parties so Reno could hopefully be kept distracted.

Doing another emotional shift, Reno leaned back a little and smiled. "’Date’, eh? I want some presents, then. I’m not a cheap fuck." Then he grew serious, his emotions tinged with desperation and his expression pleading. "I can’t stay trapped in here much longer. Promise me that."

Not appreciating being backed into a corner, Rufus frowned as he tried to tuck aside Reno’s bangs. "I won’t allow you out for another day or two, at the least. And I won’t promise anything because I can’t foretell the future." He sighed in frustration and sent his emotions over their link so Reno would know that he wasn’t lying. "I promise you to do the best that I can." He felt as if he was enmeshed in a massive spider web, his every motion limited by numerous strands of obligation and responsibility. However, ever since he’d accidentally forced the bond with Reno, his mate had become the most important thing in his life. That fact both terrified and annoyed Rufus, and he had no choice but to acknowledge it.

Reno didn’t appear terribly appeased by the vow, yet he rested against Rufus once again and slowly relaxed. His thoughts revealed that the hunger wasn’t so bad when he was around Rufus, and he was worried about being punished for throwing expensive things.

Unable to hold back a smile at Reno’s attempt to distract him from the broken porcelain, Rufus reached for Tseng’s mind while he worked on a particularly stubborn knot in the crimson hair. <Tseng, we won’t be staying in Berin much longer. No more than a few weeks.> He let the bound feel his resolve. <Whatever we have to do, we’re leaving.> There was no way he could remain here and allow Reno’s hunger to get out of control.

Tseng took the news of potentially disobeying the Elders in stride. <Yes, my lord. You asked me to keep you informed of any bounds given permission to leave Berin. According to rumor, Crawford and his people, as well as Heero, Duo and Trowa, have all been assigned a mission.>

Rufus’ anger returned at the mention of Crawford. He remembered the discussion with Tan Xi in the solarium and how Crawford had hinted at Rufus leaving for Kritiker. The man was planning something…. Unfortunately, Rufus couldn’t really do anything to stop him, not if Crawford gave him an excuse to leave Berin. The thought of somehow being indebted to the bastard was a thousand times more appalling than his small debt to Lord Quatre.

He felt those sticky strands wrapping around him and pinning him down, as if Fate or the gods were meddling in his life, and he didn’t like that. He also didn’t like to be beholden to anyone or forced to comply with their wishes, yet something seemed to conspire to drive him from Berin. He wondered if it was a sign that he shouldn’t ally with the Elders.

In his arms, Reno stirred and pulled away again. "Well, if I don’t get to do anything today, I’m going back to bed." He sounded tired, and Rufus could sense that he was worn out from the argument and all its emotions. "Wake me for lunch, okay?" He slid from Rufus’ lap and sauntered out of the room, his hands tucked into the pockets of his jacket and his mouth twisted into a grim smile.

Rufus felt the urge to follow his mate and curl up in bed together. He knew that Reno was still upset with him despite the teasing and the cuddle, and the hunger would probably push Reno to act even more irrationally as it grew. Feeling a headache set in, Rufus rubbed his temples and ignored the urge to comfort Reno. Right now, the best thing for his mate was to get him out of Berin. Rufus wouldn’t allow himself much rest until he, Reno, and the others were safely out of Esset.

*******

Quatre handed Rufus the rough sketch that he had made last night. "I fear that I’m not an artist, but this should help better explain what I have in mind for the commission." Once Rufus accepted the piece of paper, he leaned back in his chair and sipped more of the delicious tea he’d been served. One could not say that Lord Shinra stinted in his hospitality to his guests, Quatre thought. "I am not concerned about the price, only that the quality of the metals is the best."

Rufus grunted softly as he held up the drawing. "I see you included the measurements; good." He stared intently for several seconds before he carefully rolled up the paper and set it aside. "My chief blacksmith has a fondness for curved blades, so he’ll be especially pleased to receive this commission. He also refuses to use anything other than the finest ores and metals that he can find, so I believe you’ll be very pleased with the result." He sounded calm and his face bore only the slightest sign of interest… until he heard the clatter of a porcelain cup against a plate and a muttered curse. Then a look of long suffering flashed over Rufus’ face.

"Dammit, why can’t they serve this damn stuff in a mug?" Reno glared at the tiny teacup before him and then tilted his head back against the top of his chair and looked upside down at the maid fussing over one of the very large platters of small sandwiches, fruit and cakes. "Oi! Get me a mug, okay?"

"Reno, we’re trying to discuss something. If you’re going to be a nuisance, return to bed," Rufus ordered, his voice as cold as his expression. However, he didn’t turn to look at Reno but the very tall, bald-headed man who hovered at the right side of Reno’s chair. The gokenin nodded once and put a warning hand on his charge’s shoulder.

Reno frowned and muttered another curse, but only made a half-hearted attempt to shrug off the hand on his shoulder. His hair was well-combed today and mostly pulled back into a ponytail, and there were no feathers clinging to the reddish-brown strands. His white shirt was very fine yet it was left unlaced around his neck, while the sleeves were rolled up to his elbows. He gave the impression of being not quite presentable, but he seemed in a more subdued mood than yesterday.

Quatre forced his attention from the mysterious bound before Rufus could take offense at his staring. "I would be very grateful if the sword could be forged from Thracian steel. This is not some ornamental request, I fear, but one that will hopefully be both beautiful and functional." He knew that Rufus was well aware of the approaching war and felt that he didn’t have to explain any more.

Nodding in understanding, Rufus clasped his hands together in front of his chest. "I’ve heard of General Wufei’s stellar reputation and would not think to insult him by having a dress sword made for his sake." Once again he was a picture of calmness and authority, and it annoyed Quatre to no end that he couldn’t sense any emotion from the man for more than a second or two – if at all. That was just not *normal*. He could sense the occasional emotion from Schuldig on a more frequent basis than he did from Rufus. In the past month or so, he had senses almost nothing.

What made him even more suspicious was the fact that he couldn’t sense *anything* from Reno. As far as Quatre could tell, Reno was a flesh gaki or elemental bound, since he showed no sign of mental powers. Yet he was a closed book to Quatre, a man who could only be judged by his conflicting actions. The frustration that Quatre felt while sitting in this room, only able to sense the emotion of Rufus’ gokenin, was enough to drive him to drink.

"Yes, he would be terribly insulted to be given a weapon that was not functional in some way," Quatre agreed, for a moment distracted from the annoyance he felt by thoughts of his lover. "Quite honestly, everyone agrees that you produce the best swords to be found. Wufei will be pleased to receive one and I shall feel better knowing that he has a weapon equal to his skill." A weapon that his lover would put to good use, quite possibly against Rufus and his men if Crawford failed to find a way to turn them to their side.

Finding something humorous in the exchange, Reno snorted in amusement and began to bang his cup against the table. Thankfully, the gokenin - Rude, Quatre picked up from the man’s thoughts – placed his very large hand over Reno’s left wrist after a few ‘thumps’ and forced it still. Reno stuck his tongue out in return.

"Thank you for the compliment," Rufus said as he tilted his head, seemingly oblivious to the ruckus his lover caused. "ShinRa Steel has prided itself in producing the finest products since my great-great-grandfather’s time." As he talked, the maid returned with a large mug, which prompted Reno to crow in delight. No matter how many times Quatre told himself not to stare at the man, he couldn’t look away when Reno dumped half the contents of the sugar bowl into the mug before filling it the rest of the way with some tea. "Is there a problem, Lord Quatre?"

Quatre might not be able to sense the menace of Rufus’ emotions, but he could certainly hear it in that seemingly innocuous question. "I think I just figured out where your… gokenin gets all of his energy," he tried to explain with a friendly smile.

Rufus didn’t even bother to look back at Reno to see what he was doing; he merely stared evenly at Quatre. "I think we can do away with the… misconception that he is one of my gokenin." Busy drinking his very sweet tea, Reno glared at Rufus and picked up a spoon, which Rude snatched from him before it could be thrown. The tall gokenin did the same with the bowl of sugar, the plate and even the mug, which earned him a nasty look from Reno that quickly turned into a pout when he realized that both his tea and his ammunition were gone.

Not quite sure how to proceed and cursing Rufus for his impenetrable mental shields, Quatre chuckled nervously and smoothed a hand down his blue silk tunic. "Would that be a reference to the rumors?" he asked, deciding not to play stupid with his fellow lord. He had a feeling that would only earn him Rufus’ contempt.

Holding up his tea cup to be refilled, Rufus continued to stare evenly at Quatre. "Yes, that would be what I was referring to just now. I understand that I have you to thank for them."

Again deciding to not play dumb and reacting to the fact that Rufus did not seem upset, Quatre bowed his head and held up his cup to be refilled as well. "To be quite honest, I wasn’t sure how you were going to react, but felt it would be best to downplay the mishap. Few people are talking about Reno’s fight with Wufei, as short as it was, or the fact that he gained the upper hand, but about what they assume to be your relationship." He didn’t come out and say ‘I thought it best that the Elders don’t know how well Reno can fight or that the two of you may be mates’ because he felt that Rude’s attention would quickly be directed his way, but he insinuated that he was willing to help Rufus hide those truths. That Rufus was talking to him about it meant that the bound must know that he was in Quatre’s debt for the lies.

"Hey!" Reno called out as he pushed his chair away from the table. "You’re the-" The rest of what he was about to say was muffled by Rude’s right hand as the gokenin muscled him back into the chair. This time Rufus did look at his lover, and after a minute of what Quatre assumed was a silent argument, Reno slumped down in his seat and glared. Rude removed his hand, only to replace it with a large puff pastry in hopes of keeping his charge quiet for a few more seconds.

Rufus smoothed his left hand over his right coat sleeve as if to brush dust from the pristine white material. "Yes. While he’s obviously a blithering idiot, I’m a bit attached to him and would rather not have the Elders become too interested in his… idiosyncrasies. He would behave badly then, and I dread to think of what they’d do in an attempt to keep him under control." There was a hint of exhaustion and worry just then, the emotions flickering out too quickly for Quatre to use them to pry behind Rufus’ shield. Rufus’ bright blue eyes narrowed, either in warning and anger, and he set the filled cup aside with a loud ‘clink’. "While admirable in many ways, the Elders are sometimes… a touch overzealous in their desire to ensure that we remain loyal and obedient. I’m sure you’ll agree."

Hearing the closest thing to a negative remark that Rufus had ever made about the Elders, Quatre was torn between smiling and giving the man a cold look of his own. Right there was what he imagined Crawford would use to bring Rufus to their side in the upcoming war; his feelings for Reno and his desire to keep the bound away from the Elders. Yet Quatre caught the very subtle allusion to his own lover and how Wufei was used against him to keep him here and appearing meek. He had to deal with the unspoken threats from the Elders regarding Wufei; he wouldn’t tolerate Rufus using his lover against him as well. "I can easily sympathize," he said with a slight bow of his head, "which is why I thought to spare you the same. You’re a very important and powerful lord; I’m sure the Elders would love to ensure that you will never cause them any problems." He didn’t need to say ‘so don’t give me a reason to tell them about Reno’ since he knew the message had been received from the way Rufus’ lips pressed together.

As if oblivious to the fact that he was the topic of their discussion, Reno rose from his chair and went over to the towering stack of trays covered with various delicacies. He moaned in delight and began to pop various things into his mouth, his face quickly becoming smeared with cream and chocolate. "These are really good!" Moving with amazing speed, he crossed the distance between the trays and Rufus’ chair before falling onto his lover’s lap. "Try this one!"

The mood was quite efficiently broken. Rufus stopped his staring contest with Quatre to curse beneath his breath and try to keep Reno from mashing what appeared to be a chocolate petit four against his lips. "Reno, will you st-mph!" He lost that battle, and Reno smiled in pleasure as Rufus licked at the cake and icing that clung to his face.

"Good, eh? They’re even better than the shrimp things at the party yesterday." Reno glanced over his shoulder to smile at Quatre before he turned back to his lover and began to lick at the remaining crumbs on Rufus’ face. "I want more of them."

Grasping his lover by his chin, Rufus kissed Reno passionately for what seemed to be several minutes, during which Quatre actually began to squirm in his seat. Pulling away, Rufus motioned to Rude, who yanked a stunned Reno to his feet and dragged him back to the other end of the table. Reno sat in his chair and sulked until his mug was returned and a large plate of petit fours was set down before him.

Rufus grimaced as he surveyed his no longer immaculate coat, which was now smeared with chocolate, and cream, as well as a few fruit stains. He dabbed futilely at the mess for a moment before he sighed and removed the garment. "I must admit that I never got the chance to enjoy the ‘shrimp things’ myself," he admitted as he flicked a cake crumb from his black vest.

Somewhat befuddled by what had just happened and at a loss as to what Rufus referred to, it took Quatre a moment to gather his wits. From Rude he got the impression that things like this happened *all* the time, especially in the last couple of months. Quatre actually felt a bit sorry for both the gokenin and Rufus for having to deal with Reno on a daily basis. He’d thought that maybe Reno had been in an off mood yesterday or something, but he was coming to realize that such behavior was normal for the bound.

"Ah, yes, they are quite good." He assumed that Reno and Rufus were talking about the shrimp puffs, and wondered for a moment why Rufus had brought them up before he got the hint. "I’m having another party in two days’ time, during the evening, if you’d like to attend." Rufus had never shown much interest in his get-togethers before, and he assumed that the inquiry had to do with Reno. "I believe that Reno owes me and several others a chance to win back our money."

Perking up as he heard that, Reno smiled and opened his mouth, only to have it covered again by Rude’s hand. His aquamarine eyes narrowed in anger, and a few seconds later, Rude made what sounded to be a choked cry of pain, echoed by Reno when his hair was tugged on hard enough to snap his head back.

"Wear your gloves next time," Rufus commented in a bland tone, once again not seeming to realize how surreal the situation was, before he nodded at Quatre. "I believe we’ll be free to attend, although Reno will not be able to play with you that evening. He has a few more manners to learn before he can have any fun. Perhaps in a few years time you’ll have a chance to win back your lost bets." This time, Rude wasn’t quick enough to stop Reno from throwing the mug, but he did manage to deflect it enough that it sailed through the air between Rufus and Quatre. "Make that a few decades." Rufus still appeared perfectly calm, other than the note of anger in his voice.

To think that Quatre had believed Duo to be a trouble-maker – he only hoped that Duo and Reno never met and was grateful that his friend was leaving in the morning. "Ah, he’s… quite the handful, isn’t he?"

Rufus exposed the first true, plainly obvious emotion that Quatre had seen that day. "You have no idea," he muttered, his shoulders hunched forward as if in exhaustion and his expression clearly very annoyed.

That only confirmed to Quatre that the two of them were mates. For a lord like Rufus to attach himself to someone so clearly out of control, there had to be a reason behind it, something that prevented him from either throttling Reno or ending their relationship. That was how they’d win over Rufus, by protecting Reno and exploiting the ties between them.

Quatre felt a sharp pang of guilt, but he ignored the emotion. He was very well aware of the damage the Elders would do if they defeated Kritiker and resurrected their creator, and he would do everything in his power to stop it. As much as he was able, he would put an end to all the suffering that they inflicted on his people and kind.

"I suppose there are worse options out there," he said in a cheerful manner, both to distract Rufus from what his mate was doing and to steer the conversation to safer ground. "I understand that Tan Xi has taken quite a… ‘shine’ to you." Unfortunately, mention of the succubae bound made Reno try to yell through the gag of Rude’s right hand.

Rufus gave his mate a warning look before he sighed in exasperation. "I can only hope that the rumors will make her leave me alone."

Ah, then there was yet *another* reason that the lord was now indebted to Quatre. He smiled in anticipation of reclaiming what was owed and hid the expression behind the rim of his tea cup. "She can be very aggressive, and isn’t used to being turned down. I think that’s why she’s drawn toward you. I will confess that she tried to pursue me for a month or two after my relationship with Wufei became public knowledge, but I think my lover and one of his ‘pointy toys’ had something to do with her finding someone else to chase."

Reno suddenly went quiet and Rufus snapped his head around so quickly to glare at his mate that Quatre heard a ‘crack’. "*No*," was all Rufus said aloud, but judging from the looks the two bounds gave each other and Rude’s emotions, that wasn’t the only thing said.

After several minutes of Rufus silently arguing with Reno, Quatre set his cup aside and offered an apology. "I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to start a fight." Rufus wouldn’t owe him for Tan Xi after all, not if he’d given Reno an idea that could get him in trouble. Feeling chagrined at slipping up in his eagerness, he decided that now might be a very good time to leave. "Thank you very much for the wonderful tea, Lord Rufus. I shall send along an invitation later today, and hope to speak to you again about the status of the commission."

"I will have the final design ready for your approval in a few days’ time," Rufus said, his voice roughened by a slight growl and his attention still focused on Reno, who glared back wholeheartedly at his lord. "Good day, Lord Quatre. Please excuse me for not seeing you to the door." Rufus rose from his chair and stalked over to Reno, then yanked him from his seat with considerable force and dragged him off to what Quatre assumed was the bedroom.

Rude shook his hand, and Quatre got a glimpse of a smear of blood and a very impressive set of teeth marks on the bound’s palm. Whatever Reno was, he wasn’t a flesh gaki bound or Rude would be short one hand by now. "If you’ll follow me," Rude said with a polite dip of his head, his deep voice reverberating through the room.

"By all means." Quatre waited for Rude to move and fell in step beside him. He couldn’t hold back on his curiosity for much longer, and Rude’s mental shields were strong enough to block him from easily picking up anything but surface thoughts. "Does this sort of thing… happen often?" He already knew the answer but he didn’t know why Rude and the other gokenin put up with things like this.

"Reno is more than just a… companion for Lord Shinra; he’s also a very good gokenin." Rude turned to look at Quatre and slid his smoked glasses down enough to give him a cold look. "He’s understandably upset at the rumors."

That was only part of the answer, but once again, Quatre was left with the feeling that he might not have earned as big a favor as he thought. At least he’d done what he could to protect Reno from the Elders and perhaps develop a better relationship with Rufus. Not to mention that he had a feeling that he’d just ensured that the upcoming party was going to be very, *very* interesting.

He sent a message to Rashad to triple the order for shrimp puffs and to buy a set of lovely but inexpensive porcelain that he wouldn’t mind being thrown across the room that evening.

 

*******

Yohji woke in a sudden rush, instantly awake as he realized that something was wrong. Even as he swept his right arm out over the bed, he realized that Aya was no longer beside him. "Aya?" he called out, a hint of panic bubbling to life in his chest and his heartbeat speeding up.

"Here, Yotan." Aya’s quiet murmur quickly put him at ease, the thoughts of Aya having been snatched away during the night or chased from the bed by nightmares fading at the sense of concern and weariness, not fear or pain.

Pushing aside the velvet curtains, Yohji slipped out of bed and padded over to where his mate sat, dressed in a heavy robe and tucked into the window seat with books stacked all around him. "Didn’t anyone ever tell you that you’re supposed to sleep at night, not read?" he teased as he leaned against the wall by the alcove. He couldn’t resist combing his fingers through Aya’s hair, attempting to tuck aside the thick bangs that hid Aya’s lovely eyes with shadows.

Aya sighed and leaned back, a tired smile on his face. "I used to read all night long; it was much quieter then and I wouldn’t be disturbed." He must have remembered something from his time at Timbergrey because there was a faint ache of pain, but the emotion was slowly fading over time, Yohji was certain. As Cassandra had said, the passage of days was slowly working its power over Aya, that, and having a safe, loving home.

Yohji risked disturbing a pile of books so he could sit by his lover. Aya hissed slightly in warning, but he got the impression it was more over not damaging the books than the desire to be left alone. The books were obviously ancient; Yohji had gained remarkable night vision in the last few months yet he could barely read the archaic language, the ink was so faded. "Why do I get the impression that you’re not reading the latest trashy romance novel? This doesn’t look like ‘The Passionate Guard’ or ‘Lust Among Enemies’ to me," he remarked as he carefully held up the topmost book from the pile now stacked on his lap.

Aya’s tired grin strengthened and he gently plucked the book from Yohji’s hand. "I don’t know if I should be worried that you know of books like that or not." He let out a slow breath and began to place the books on the shelves that lined the window alcove with the care of handling something priceless and fragile. "They’re about kage; more precisely, about the Captain," he explained.

While he hadn’t been able to make out many of the faded characters, Yohji had recognized a few. "About the Binding War, you mean. Cat, why are you reading stuff like this now?" He knew that his lover was fascinated by the subject, but usually Aya could wait to read about it during the day. Besides, he had picked up on a faint sense of unease and concern and wanted to know what was bothering Aya so much to drive him from their bed.

There was silence for several minutes, and Yohji noticed that the shadows around the room seemed to move. Aya took another deep breath and let it out slowly before he answered. "Because time’s running out." He shifted forward to rest his head against Yohji’s shoulder and wrapped an arm around Yohji’s waist. "The war is going to start soon."

His throat suddenly gone dry, Yohji hugged Aya and pressed a kiss against the top of his head. "Not for a couple more years, Cat." Even as he said the words, he realized how ridiculous they were. As if a few years really was that long of a time, especially since they were bounds.

Aya did, too, and snorted in derision. "Two years, maybe three, Yotan. We’ve already used up half a year of that time. Esset is moving ahead, bringing us closer to the war and we haven’t done much." He sounded tired and heartbroken, a faint hiss to his voice and a coldness to his emotions.

"We set up the Shadow Guard, Aya, that’s an awful lot. We’re gathering bounds together and they’re working with humans." Every day, a few bounds seemed to trickle into the capital, most of them stopping by the Koneko or Cassandra’s house before settling in somewhere. The Guard and the Army were swelling with new recruits, and very few suspected that not all of them were human.

"Yes, but Esset is trying to control the weather, and the Elders are sending Nagi, Schu and the others back here," Aya pointed out. "Cassandra couldn’t tell why, but you know they’re coming for a reason."

"I know." Yohji shook his head and pulled Aya closer. "Cat, don’t forget that we’re doing something, too. The weather would be even more messed up if it weren’t for Cass’ friends, and once he gets here, Crawford will be able to tell us a lot about what the Elders are planning." He was completely confident that Crawford would know just about everything; the man seemed to live to sniff out secrets and twist them to his advantage.

Moving forward, Aya curled against Yohji and lifted his head. "But we have to do more. We have the Guard mostly under control, but there’s still the Army." He frowned as he seemed to think about something; whatever it was, it made the room darker and cast a silver sheen to his eyes. "We have to learn how to fight."

Yohji didn’t like the sound of that, not when Aya seemed to lose himself in his demon nature whenever he used his talent too much. "Is that what you’re reading about, Cat? You think you can fight like the Captain?" The thought terrified him; all the stories about her were filled with so much death and destruction. He didn’t want to think of Aya doing what she did, of the horrifying slaughter she’d perpetrated. "Cat- Aya, we’ll have an army to do the fighting."

Aya’s eyes turned from violet to silver. "Yes, we will, and I’ll be leading it. All they can talk about is the feast to come." His voice was sibilant and cold, and there was an echoing response through the room as the shadows writhed and twined together. "The energy of *thousands* for us to feed on; human and bound and demon." He tilted his head to the side as a shadow stroked his left cheek. "All that energy, to be turned around and wielded as a weapon."

For a moment Yohji felt utterly appalled. He knew that Aya needed to feed on the energy released when humans or demons died, but he’d never thought of what would happen to his mate during a battle. Dozens, if not hundreds of deaths at the same time, and that was *before* Aya put his talent to use. "You’re not a weapon, love," he said, his voice cracking from the resolve he put into the words, as if he could will them to be true.

Emotion bled over their link, into Aya’s impassive expression, and it was one of intense sadness. "Yes, I am. We all are weapons, Yohji, every bound. I’ve spent over half my life training to serve my true purpose and I’ve barely scratched the surface of what I can do. When the war starts, I have to be prepared. All I can do is kill."

"No! That’s not fucking true!" Yohji dragged Aya onto his lap and gave the idiot a hard shake. "You can save people, Aya! Think of your wards, your… your armor." He desperately tried to come up with some other way for Aya’s power to save lives and failed. "You’re not a weapon." The Takatori had tried to make him into one, and now the damn war was about to finish the job. Yohji refused to allow the intelligent, honorable and kind man he loved to be used that way.

"Yotan." Aya rubbed his right hand over his face and hunched his shoulders. "Kage weren’t created for defense but offense. We breach wards, break locks, and steal life. We destroy. When all else fails, we’re to be unleashed, just like she was. Only now, Kritiker won’t have to wait that long." He tucked back his hair then trailed his fingers along Yohji’s face, the gentle touch in stark contrast to such harsh words. "Succubae bounds are diversionary, are the infiltrators and spies. Soul gaki bounds find the secrets and make soldiers betray each other. Elemental bounds turn the world against the enemy, twist their bodies until they break. Flesh gaki bounds unleash terror and destruction. And kage are death personified." His tired smile returned as he caressed Yohji’s cheek. "We’ve done our best to not think about the war, but we can’t go on like this. There’s a difference between fighting an army and chasing down criminals, and I have to be prepared."

"By reading what the Captain did? You gonna sink an entire island, Aya? Can you destroy several cities and all the people inside of them?" Yohji demanded to know, afraid of the answer that was sure to come. Yes, he had done his best to not think of the war because he didn’t want to taint his happiness with the thought of death and destruction.

"If I have enough energy, I can do all those things." Aya brushed his thumb along Yohji’s bottom lip. "If it comes down to me doing them or letting the Elders harm the people I love, I won’t hesitate." There was no doubt in his voice or his emotions, only a hint of a promise.

As much as he wanted to argue some sense into his mate, Yohji knew that if he had Aya’s power and if Aya was ever in danger, he’d tear everything apart that was between them. The only problem was that his power wasn’t a very offensive one. As Aya had said, his kind were the infiltrators and spies. He might be able to cast a glamour over some of the soldiers, perhaps even convince them to either stop fighting or kill themselves, but that would take too much time and effort. In a matter of seconds, Aya could kill them with his shadows, Mustang could burn them to ashes or Ed could make the ground swallow them up. There was something very unfair in the fact that the gods had given him someone to love and few means to protect him.

"You won’t be the only one fighting, remember that. You don’t have to destroy their army by yourself," Yohji reminded his mate. All of them would have blood on their hands, not just Aya. He swore that if he couldn’t use his power to protect Aya, then he’d use what he’d learned during his time in the Guard. Tomorrow, he would talk to Yuushi and arrange to practice with the Shadow Guard to hone his fighting skills. His father had left him a valuable, dangerous weapon; between that and the shadows, he would keep his mate safe.

But that would be in the morning, and right now, he wanted nothing more than to snuggle in bed with the man he loved. He grabbed Aya’s left hand and stood up. "Come on, there’s nothing you can do tonight other than get some rest." He didn’t want Aya reading about war and death alone, surrounded by darkness. And he especially didn’t want Aya reading about such a tragic figure as the Captain. She’d lost everything, her family and her soul, but that wouldn’t happen to Aya. Yohji would see to it. There would probably be some sacrifices made but Yohji refused to allow his mate to turn into a monster and lose the bit of humanity that made him Aya. "Come."

The silver slowly faded from Aya’s eyes and he nodded as he hopped from the window seat. "It can’t wait forever," he warned as he shed the robe then crawled back into bed.

"No, it can’t," Yohji reluctantly admitted. Deciding to add more wood to the fire, he went to the fireplace as he’d just noticed how chilled the air had become against his naked flesh. He’d been so worried about Aya that it hadn’t bothered him until now. "But a few more hours won’t hurt anyone." He fervently hoped that was the truth.

They would know more when Crawford and Schu returned, he told himself as he slid beneath the heavy, warm bedcovers and spooned against Aya’s back. Wrapping his arm around his mate, Yohji hugged him close and buried his face in Aya’s hair. There was only so much that Crawford had entrusted to the notes he’d sent along, that much was clear. In another week or two, they would have a better idea of what they would end up facing.

Also, Yohji would have a chance to speak privately to Crawford. He knew that the precog relied on Aya as a secret weapon, as someone very important in the upcoming war. Yohji would make it clear that Aya was *not* to be treated as if he was magical construct to be unleashed on the enemy. Crawford had brought them together, had given Ran the chance to become Aya and Yohji was not going to lose the man he adored, either to death or the shinigami. That was more important to him than some damn war. Aya was his life, and that was what he’d really be fighting for in a couple of years from now.

They’d had several months to get used to each other and their bond, for Yohji to grow accustomed to his talent and how it worked. While Yohji refused to devote his entire life to the approaching war, it was time to face the truth that it would be here one day soon. No more hiding from unpleasant facts, and no more relying on others. He may only be a succubae bound, but *no one* was going to harm his mate. When Masato arrived, he’d drag his father up to the library and see if there wasn’t something that they could do, other than inspire lust.

He felt a little guilty when he realized that studying and training would cut into his and Aya’s shifts at the Koneko, but there wasn’t much he could do about that. Perhaps it was time to turn everything over to Mickey; he would have to talk to Jo sometime soon about that. He had the feeling that the Koneko would be important in the years to come, and it deserved to be run by someone who could devote their full attention to it. Once Aya had become his mate, Yohji’s future no longer rested in the inn. He didn’t regret that in the least, not when he’d found someone to love forever. A pile of bricks and a pretty garden didn’t mean anything when compared to that.

*******

Return to Archive

Next Chapter