Darkness Returns

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chapter four

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preparations for the future

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Rude shoved Reno back into his chair and wondered if Tseng would really give him any grief if he went over to the bar, snatched up a bottle of the strongest spirit available, and drank it all. "Reno, *stay*," he ordered, his voice a deep rumble from his frustration and also in an attempt to not let anyone else overhear the order.

For once Reno seemed inclined to obey him, thank all the gods and demons. Reno sulked and folded his arms over his chest, but his ass stayed in the chair. "This is boring." There was a hint of silver in his eyes and his lips were pressed together in a thin line, sure signs of a growing temper tantrum. Rude had had a lot of experience lately in catching most of them before they exploded, and he prayed some more that he’d be successful now. The last thing any of them needed was Reno going off during Lord Raberba-Winner’s party.

"Sit and eat your shrimp puffs," Rude sighed and ran his gloved right hand over his shaved head. Part of him felt sorry for his friend; Tseng had explained last night that it seemed that Reno’s extremely erratic behavior for the last month or so was because of his growing hunger. Being an elemental bound, Rude could very easily sympathize with how maddening it was to always be so hungry. He’d gone through some rough times growing up, after his powers had kicked in, and his mother and sister had done their best to keep his appetite fed and his true nature a secret. When it became clear that he was putting too much stress on his family and that he risked being discovered as a bound, he’d run away from home. That wasn’t an option for Reno.

His friend continued to sulk as he picked up a shrimp puff and nibbled on it. Rude used the opportunity to look around the room and check up on his lord and fellow gokenin. Rufus was holding court across the room, involved in some conversation with Lord Raberba-Winner and General Wufei. Tseng and Elena flanked their lord while he talked, and Tseng gave Rude a curt nod in acknowledgement.

Most of the party’s participants were on the other side of the room, gathered around their host, and everyone was definitely giving Reno a wide berth. Considering the rumors and what had happened during the last party Reno had attended, Rude wasn’t too surprised by people’s behavior, yet he wished that someone would pay Reno a bit of attention. He couldn’t talk to his friend while officially on duty as that wouldn’t look very ‘professional’. So he was stuck standing here quietly, hoping that Reno continued to behave.

"This is fucking ridiculous," Reno snarled, and Rude had to agree with him. Leaning forward in his chair, Reno plunked his elbows onto the table and began to carve what appeared to be obscenities into the furniture’s polished surface with a sharp fingernail. "I’d have more fun back in the apartment." There was a bleak look to his face, mostly hidden by the uneven hair that fell around his face. Rufus had made him wear it mostly pulled back, but some of the strands were too short to reach the silver clasp at the back of his neck. Knowing how fast Reno’s hair grew, Rude suspected that his friend was constantly cutting the shorter sections.

"I know, Reno." After a quick check to make sure that no one was paying them any attention, he reached out and gave his friend’s right shoulder a squeeze. He felt the tension in Reno’s body increase for a moment before it finally relaxed. "Just a little longer." Reno didn’t know that he wasn’t referring to just the party – that Rufus wouldn’t allow them to be trapped here much longer. Rude just hoped that they left soon as he wasn’t sure how much longer Reno could hold on. If Rude thought he had any hope of not being caught, he’d leave the palace grounds tonight and comb the surrounding forest for any thieves or farmers who wouldn’t be missed, drag the person back and let his partner feed.

"Fuck." Dressed in a perfectly ironed, dark blue silk shirt and silvery-grey vest, Reno would have easily fit in with the lords gathered across the room - until he opened his mouth. Reeve had been decidedly quiet on where he’d found Reno, who wasn’t saying anything either. Rude wasn’t sure where his friend was from, but he had a feeling that it was probably some city’s slums. "He’s trying to punish me by boring me to death." Tossing a shrimp puff in Rufus’ direction, Reno slumped across the table, his arms outstretched and hands flexing as if he was trying to strangle someone. "He wants me to fucking behave. He wants me to stay put in the apartment most of the time and only lets me out for boring as hell parties like this or for Tseng to kick my ass. He won’t let me play cards and he won’t let me do my job." Reno dragged his nails across the table and left deep claw marks behind. "Think he’ll object if I drag someone cute under the table and prove just how much of a whore I’m supposed to be?"

Rude leaned over his partner and pressed Reno’s hands flat against the table. "*No*." Just the one word, growled emphatically enough that Reno whined for a few seconds before relaxing his body. Slowly pulling away, Rude prayed that the party would end soon. "Don’t even joke about something like that." Rufus had made it clear once he’d taken Reno as a lover that he wasn’t going to share the dubhach with anyone, and lately he’d been even more… territorial over Reno.

Reno laughed in response, the sound bitter and confused. "You know the sad part?" he asked while he leaned back into his chair. "I can’t even work up the enthusiasm for a fuck with someone else. Only person I want lately is Rufus – how fucked up is that? He messed up my mind real good." Reno seemed tired and defeated, which set Rude on edge. When his friend was like this, there was no telling what would happen next.

"Perhaps you’re just falling in…." Rude didn’t finish that thought, not when he noticed that Wufei was headed in their direction, a bottle of some kind of liquor in his left hand and two glass tumblers in his right. Rude’s attention had been focused too much on Reno and he hadn’t been aware of the bound’s approach until Wufei was within hearing distance. Growing slightly apprehensive, he stood perfectly straight beside Reno, ready to defend or restrain his partner, whichever the situation demanded.

"Go away," Reno sulked as he reached back to undo his hair. "I’m not allowed to play cards with you so you’ll have to lose some more money to me another time." He didn’t sound the least bit afraid of being deliberately antagonistic to one of the most powerful bounds in Berin, and a renowned warrior at that.

To Rude’s surprise, Wufei didn’t seem to take any offense at Reno’s words. "So I hear. I understand that I’ll have to wait until you ‘learn some manners’ before you’re allowed to play again, and so I’m resigned to never having the opportunity to win my money back." He was terribly offhand with the insult as he sat down at the table, eyeing the claw marks and obscenities for a moment before he poured some of the liquor into the two glasses.

"Ha, ha." Reno sat up straight and folded his arms over his chest after he threw his hair clip right at Wufei’s head. The silver object halted in the air scant centimeters from Wufei’s forehead, hovered for a moment and then zipped back toward Reno. One second Reno sat there with his arms folded, the next second his left hand rested on the table, the hair clip in his grasp. "Manners are for people who get off on licking other people’s boots," he replied, a slight growl to his voice and a mocking smile on his face.

"Reno," Rude hissed while he drew some energy up from the marble floor. "No fighting," he reminded the idiot, unwilling to face Rufus’ wrath for failing in his duty.

To his surprise, Wufei merely waved his hand as if dismissing the insult and laughed. "I suspect there’s not much call for manners when you’re lying face down on a bed all the time." He didn’t sound particularly offended, nor was there much heat to the insult.

"Rufus prefers me on my back, or for me to ride him." Reno smiled and set the clasp aside so he could pick up another shrimp puff. "He likes to look at my face while he’s fucking me. Says I’m pretty and he has a thing for my hair." He acted as if he was talking about the weather with an old friend, while Rude began to sweat profusely and hoped that Rufus never learned about this conversation.

Wufei wrinkled his nose and slid one of the glasses across the table. "I did not need to know that, thank you very much." He didn’t seem surprised when Rude snatched up the glass before Reno could and took a sip. Whatever the liquor was, it was potent, thick and had a sweet aftertaste of plums. Using his talent, Rude judged its effect on his body and decided it was safe for Reno to drink.

Reno grabbed the glass from him and gave him a brief glare before gulping down its contents. For a moment he sat there, face drawn as if he wasn’t sure of something, then he smiled and slid the glass back to Wufei. "That’s good."

"It’s meant to be sipped," Wufei replied with a hint of censure. "You are an uncouth bastard, Reno."

"Aw, now I have to come up with something nice to say about you." Reno seemed to think for a few seconds and then smiled in such a manner that Rude prepared himself for trouble. "You look so cute right now that I can’t figure out who’s the bitch in your relationship, you or Lord Raberba-Wimp Ass over there." Reno even went so far as to bat his eyes at the other bound. "Is the foreplay over now? We gonna fuck on the table or you wanna do it on the floor?"

"No, but I’ll give you another drink." Wufei refilled Reno’s glass and sent it across the table once more. "While I will gladly fight you, Reno, I’ve a feeling that now isn’t the time or place." His eyes flicked to Rude before they returned to staring intently at Reno. "And there’s no need to be so crass – I know you’re not a whore."

"You’re about the only one," Reno mumbled before he popped the shrimp puff into his mouth. He chewed a few times while he returned Wufei’s stare. "So, what do you want? I can sit here all night and insult you if you like, but I don’t think that’s it." He picked up the glass and made a point of sipping the liquor. "Nor do I think you need a new drinking buddy, so you can just go fuck off." This time, he threw one of the puffs at Wufei, who barely knocked it aside in time with his right hand.

Wufei seemed to make a show out of sipping his own drink, never once looking away from Reno. "I wasn’t sure if you were an imbecile or not after your behavior the other day." He fell silent while Reno bristled at the remark, and Rude placed his right hand on his friend’s shoulder in case Reno decided to disobey orders and start a fight. Rude glared at the other earth elemental bound, his glasses sliding down his nose enough so Wufei would notice the look. He might not be as powerful as the Elders’ General, but he’d put up a good fight nonetheless.

Wufei noticed his look and frowned, seeming slightly taken aback by it. "No, you’re not an imbecile," he admitted when he focused his attention onto Reno once again. "Now I’m debating whether or not you’re suicidal, but you’re not lacking in intelligence." He suddenly drained his glass and set it onto the table with a loud ‘click’. "I want to fight you." When Reno laughed and Rude moved toward Wufei, he held up his hands and shook his head. "No, not now. *I* am not crass enough to disrupt a peaceful gathering." He returned Rude’s look until Rude judged that the bound was serious about not picking a fight here and stepped back to stand beside Reno.

"Do me the favor of not angering your lord too much so he’ll give his approval for a sparring session," Wufei continued. "It’s not often that I find someone a worthy challenge, and I’ve been warned that it’ll create quite an incident if I fight you without Lord Shinra’s approval." He leaned forward to refill Reno’s glass then topped off his own. "You’re obviously faster than me, and we’ve about the same reach. I think you would be a very interesting challenge." There was an edge of excitement in his voice, his dark eyes shining with the emotion and a pleased smile on his face. "It’s been too long since I’ve had a proper challenge."

"Hey, it’s not *me* you gotta convince," Reno said, and this time threw a fork in Rufus’ direction. "Go argue with the bastard talking to your boyfriend." As if hearing that insult, Rufus turned to face Reno, a disapproving look on his face that made Rude stand up straighter and hope that it wasn’t directed at himself. He got the impression that his lord said something to Reno, considering the way Reno hunched his shoulders and muttered under his breath. "Soul gaki are a bunch of power-tripping, control freak bastards," Reno swore once Rufus returned his attention to Lord Raberba-Winner.

For someone who was known to be a very powerful soul gaki bound’s lover, Wufei merely smiled and chuckled. "They do have a thing about being the one in charge." He actually sounded as if he sympathized with Reno, which made the redhead eye him with some suspicion. When Wufei raised his glass in a toast, Reno chuckled and did the same. "Now do me the favor of not proving me wrong; I don’t offer to fight idiots or scoundrels."

"You really get a hard on at the thought of fighting, don’t you?" Reno asked, a smile on his lips and his posture relaxed. "Well, I’m all for it, but good luck with getting my lord and master to agree." He glanced back at Rufus… and his posture once again became rigid and a savage growl rumbled in his throat.

Responding immediately, Rude stood behind Reno and placed both hands on his shoulders, his fingers digging into his friend’s flesh to prevent him from moving. Both Rude and Wufei looked across the room to find out what had set Reno off, and found Tan Xi standing between Rufus and Lord Raberba-Winner. Rude leaned more of his weight onto his friend. "Reno, *stay here*," he snarled, afraid that he’d be ignored and that Reno would attack the woman he detested with a passion. Rufus must have done something, because Reno suddenly shook his head and whined, his eyes pressed tightly shut. When he opened them, Rude was stunned to see that they’d turned silver and quickly slid off his tinted glasses and placed them on Reno’s face. The *last* thing they needed right now was for Reno to lose control of his shinigami nature.

Rude noticed the curious look he was getting from Wufei and did his best to ignore it. He hated that there was a witness here, but with a bit of luck, the bound would block Reno from Tan Xi’s sight.

<Get him out of here, *now*.> Rufus’ command was so powerful that Rude felt his knees wobble for a few seconds and his head began to throb in pain.

<Yes, my lord.> Rufus must have done something to Reno since all he did was stare in Tan Xi’s direction while Rude more or less dragged him out of the chair. "I’m sorry, sir, but I’m afraid we’ll be leaving now." He bowed his head forward a little, his left arm wrapped around Reno’s waist and Reno’s right arm draped over his shoulders. He didn’t wait for an answer from Wufei before he stepped away from the table, half carrying his partner as they made their exit through the nearest door. Fortunately, they’d been sitting by the hallway all night, just in case Reno had to leave the party early – or under forced circumstances.

Since it was still early in the evening, the hallway wasn’t occupied. Most of the palace’s denizens were either at other social gatherings or in their quarters, so Rude and Reno were actually alone for a moment. Feeling a strong sense of cold on his left side, Rude glanced down and could only see a shimmering of shadows where his partner was supposed to be.

"Reno! Don’t do that!" he hissed and shook his partner.

The shadows faded away to reveal a dazed Reno, the glasses askew on his face. "Said… said don’t… let anyone see me." Reno spoke in a slurred manner, as if having to force out the words.

Not about to try to gain Rufus’ attention when his lord was so obviously upset, Rude swore under his breath and rubbed the top of his head for a couple of seconds. "Okay, get on my back," he said as he hunched down in front of Reno. "Then you can disappear again." This would look a bit odd if they came across anyone, but it wouldn’t attract as much attention as him appearing to carry nothing in his arms back to their apartment.


Reno did as he was told, his motions slow and clumsy. Rude worried about his friend and wondered what Rufus had done to him. "Hold on," he warned once Reno was more or less clinging to his back, and he fought the urge to shiver when the intense cold returned. Deciding that people wouldn’t notice his odd posture if he moved fast, he picked up his pace until he was loping down the hall, not quite running but acting as if he was on some type of urgent mission. Considering the number of lords, ladies and agents of the Elders who resided in the palace, it was pretty common to see people running up and down the halls several times a day.

He murmured a prayer to Kannon and Bunchokiyu when they reached the apartment without attracting too much attention. Once they were inside, he hurried to Rufus and Reno’s bedroom. "Reno, you can drop the shadows now."

His friend didn’t let go of the shadows until Rude set him on the bed. They melted away to reveal Reno, his eyes shut tight and his skin paler than normal. "Reno…," Rude said, his voice pitched low as he gingerly brushed back the hair on his friend’s forehead.

"Shouldn’t… shouldn’t be able… to do that." Reno attempted to sit up but gave up after a few seconds, his breath coming in harsh pants. "He… what did he… do? Can’t… can’t do this… to me. The bastard." There was a sharp, angry hiss and then Reno went limp, his breath slowly evening out. Concerned about his friend, Rude patted Reno’s face a few times, the last time with enough force to leave a red mark, and muttered a curse when Reno didn’t wake up.

"What the hell is going on?" He got up from the bed so he could better arrange Reno on top of it, removed his friend’s boots and pulled the comforter over him. Once Reno was comfortable on the bed, Rude went over to the fireplace to build up the small flame inside.

He desperately needed to talk to Tseng; something was going on here, something he didn’t understand and definitely didn’t like. In the past several years, Rufus had never been able to knock Reno out like this, *never*. Make him off-balance a few times, or make him fall asleep if he was badly injured, but that was about it. Yet in the past week, Rufus had managed to thoroughly daze Reno on several occasions and completely knock him out twice.

Rufus *had* to have done something to Reno, but Rude had no idea what. All he knew was that he didn’t like it, and didn’t think it was helping Reno’s situation at all. The more Reno fought against Rufus, the more energy he used and the sharper his hunger grew. While Rude would admit that Rufus had needed to subdue his friend the other day at Lord Raberba-Winner’s party, what had happened today and in the kitchen a few days ago had been… well, overkill.

Oh yes, something was going on. Replacing the wrought iron and mesh grill in front of the fireplace, Rude went to stand guard at the door. He hoped that Tseng had an idea what had happened to give Rufus this new and disturbing control over Reno because he didn’t know how much longer he could stand here and watch his friend be treated like this. Rufus was his lord and he’d given his word to the man, but Reno was his best friend. They’d saved each other’s lives countless times, and he wouldn’t just stand by while Reno was treated like this. And he couldn’t continue to serve a man who treated his lover so cavalierly, either. If he had to, he’d break his word and risk the wrath of the gods, and take Reno to Lord Raberba-Winner for sanctuary.

*******

Lord Quatre noticed Rufus’ attention once again drifting toward where Reno sat and cleared his throat. "I’m sure there’s no reason to worry, Lord Rufus. Wufei is probably only doing his best to make Reno play cards with him again."

Rufus forced himself to look away from his mate and grunted softly. "I’m afraid he has a bit of a wait ahead of him." He knew that wasn’t the real reason why Wufei was talking to Reno; he could sense the bound’s interest in sparring with Reno and had to fight not to growl.

"Ah yes, not until he responds to those lessons in manners." Quatre chuckled and shook his head. "I must say, he’s behaving himself so far today."

If one counted three tossed shrimp puffs and a glass of wine deliberately spilled on one of Quatre’s friends as ‘good behavior’. Rufus had ordered Reno to sit down after that incident, and he could feel his lover’s anger and displeasure. He had kept his promise to allow Reno to attend the party with him, but he had underestimated the attention his lover would attract. He’d used his talent to ‘discourage’ most of the people interested in Reno, but he couldn’t do anything about Quatre or Wufei. He couldn’t risk them noticing what he was doing, and had the feeling that it was somehow because of his bond with Reno that Quatre didn’t already suspect what was happening now.

He’d once read about a theory of how mates could have their powers enhanced or altered depending on the abilities of the bounds paired together. That had been several years ago, and he’d considered the hypothesis as highly unlikely, yet recent events was making him seriously consider it. The only way to explain the fact that Rufus could now sense what Quatre was hiding behind his shields was to take into account Reno’s nature; the only change that had occurred in his life lately was his bond with the dubhach. Somehow, Rufus appeared to have gained the limited ability to not be affected by magic and to do things he normally couldn’t. Oh, it took some effort and the thoughts he were reading were rather faint, but it was more than he could do only two weeks before and Quatre seemed oblivious to the fact. Rufus forced himself to rein in his talent before he did something to change that; one mistake could cause irreparable damage.

"You’re just grateful that he hasn’t broken your china service yet," Rufus remarked, his tone deliberately light and friendly. There were too many people around for him to seem concerned about his ‘toy’, and he didn’t want to lose the advantage he’d gained from Quatre’s rumors by actually appearing to care about someone he employed merely for sex.

Quatre laughed and clapped his hands together. "Do you know, I had Rashad order a new set just for tonight." He smiled as he glanced toward the table where his lover and Reno sat. "Though the service my great-aunt Melara brought to the family is truly hideous." He tilted his head to the side and nodded once. "I believe I’ll be having another party next week, Lord Rufus. If you want to bring Reno that night as well, and ensure that he’s in a bit of a mood, then I’d be very grateful. I’m sorry for not thinking of it for tonight."

That comment set off a round of twitters from the people who surrounded them, and Rufus forced himself not to lash out at the idiot who whispered a bit too loudly about his obvious preference for ‘feisty little gutter-rats’. He kept his expression slightly amused and his talent firmly under control. "I’m sure something could be arranged," he murmured. Hopefully, by next week he’d be too busy arranging to go back home to be able to attend the party.

Sensing a spike of anger from his mate, he looked over at the table again and found Reno glaring at him. <Behave yourself,> he reminded with growing exasperation.

<I’m fucking bored and it’s all your fault. Let me at least play a game of cards.> Reno’s glare became more virulent when Rufus sent a denial to the request. <Why the hell did you bring me here in the first place? To see how long it takes before I’m bashing my head against the wall in boredom?>

<I did it because *you* were the one whining about wanting to go somewhere. Cause a scene tonight, Reno, and you’ll be locked in the closet until it’s time for us to return home.> Rufus was serious about the threat, too, and let his lover sense that. <And pull your hair back.> He didn’t like it that people could see Reno with his hair down and dressed in fine clothes. Several people actually had the gall to compliment him on his tastes earlier.

Reno shook his head and didn’t bother to answer. Forcing out his breath in a slow, controlled manner, Rufus used his talent to find out what he’d missed during his discussion with Reno. It seemed that the topic had drifted onto the departure of several powerful bounds earlier.

"I know Trowa and Heero won’t be bothered by the cold weather, but I imagine that Duo is battering their ears with his complaints," Quatre remarked with an amused smile. "I almost feel sorry for them."

A young woman who was a distant cousin of Quatre’s shook her head. "Crawford and Jei always seem to be going on missions so I’m certain they don’t mind the weather, but Trowa hasn’t left the palace in several months." Rufus picked up a heavy dose of regret and longing from her, and filed away the knowledge that she could probably be manipulated in the future because of her crush on the water elemental bound. While he did that, he glanced to the side at Tseng and found his chief gokenin paying close attention to the conversation. <Crawford managed to get his people out of Esset,> he sent.

 

Tseng didn’t stop scanning the crowd for threats while he answered. <My lord, I think that’s an important sign. It’s never a good thing when a precog leaves, and from what you’ve said, he manipulated their departure.>

<Yes, and set things up so there’s a hope we’ll be leaving soon.> Rufus tugged on his outer white coat and refused to allow himself to grow angry over Crawford’s actions. Right now, he would have to use whatever got him and Reno out of the palace. He could feel Reno’s increasing hunger and weakness, the sensations gnawing at his mind along with a frighteningly powerful sense of worry and fear.

While the people gathered around him commented on the discomfort of traveling in such cold weather, he sensed from at least half of them the desire to leave Berin as soon as possible. Many of the bounds were gathered here against their will and just wanted to return home. He could sympathize with them, his annoyance growing at being kept from his business for so long.

<Sir.> Tseng’s emotions suddenly became upset and concerned. <Tan Xi has just arrived.>

Rufus forced himself not to look toward the door as he confirmed her presence. She was headed straight toward him, drawn to the party by the rumor that Rufus was in attendance with his ‘toy’. Dressed in a long, dark blue dress with a slit along the right side to her upper thigh and a pale gold bodice laced tight, it was clear that she wasn’t just here to be social. She had decided it would be fun to see what had ensnared Rufus’ attention and if she couldn’t steal him away in front of Reno. "Good evening, Lord Rufus, Lord Quatre," she purred as she sidled up to him.

The *last* thing Rufus needed was Reno to realize that she was here, so of course that was exactly what happened. The wave of hatred and desire to commit murder was so intense that Rufus almost trembled from it. <Reno, *NO*. Remember your promise, you idiot,> he sent with as much force as he could muster. <You will not kill her until I tell you that you can.> And, of course that was the moment when Tan Xi just had to put her hand on his left arm.

There was another blast of rage and murderous intent, and Rufus was grateful for both his control over his facial expressions as well as Rude’s hold on Reno. <You’ll do nothing but sit there,> he ordered his mate while he gave the cause of this trouble a friendly smile. "Good evening, Tan Xi. You appear lovely tonight." It was clear from both her and Quatre’s thoughts that she had not been invited to the gathering.

<She’s touching you! Let me kill her, dammit!> Reno snarled over their link, a blaze of hunger, rage and death. When Quatre distracted Tan Xi with his greeting and compliment, Rufus gathered all of the energy he could and forced his way deep into Reno’s mind. <You *will* obey. You will do *nothing*.> He did his best to disrupt his mate’s thoughts and emotions, and was stunned when he succeeded within a few seconds. That had been much easier than the other day, and he hadn’t needed Rude to supply him with extra energy this time. <Wait until you and Rude have left the party and then cloak yourself. You will remain in our apartment for the rest of the night and will *not* cause any damage to either yourself, anyone else or to the apartment. In fact, once you’re there, you will go to sleep.> He didn’t want to take any chances of Reno causing enough of a ruckus that he had to either leave the party suddenly or risk drawing unwanted attention.

Reno swayed in his chair, his eyes drifting shut as he fought against the orders with little success. <Get him out of here, *now*> Rufus sent to Rude before he had to focus his attention back onto Tan Xi.

"My, a lady must blush at such lovely compliments," Tan Xi said as she pressed her right hand against her blush-free cheek. "Especially when they come from such handsome gentlemen." She squeezed Rufus’s arm and pressed against his side; it was all he could do to not shove her away, her presence and attempt to use glamour against him equally repulsive. She had never affected him this badly in the past, before his bond with Reno, but now the use of her talent made him want to shred her mind to nothing.

Quatre, ever the proper young lord, bowed at the compliment. "What brings you to my humble gathering?" he asked, though there was a tight set to his lips that hinted that he might already know. He was powerful enough that he could probably sense a few thoughts behind Tan Xi’s mental shields, which had a tendency to weaken whenever she used her glamour.

"I felt the need for a drink," she blithely lied, so Quatre motioned toward a server who carried a tray of wine-filled glasses. As she waited, Tan Xi scanned the crowd and pouted slightly. If she’d looked toward the door two seconds earlier, she would have seen Rude helping Reno to leave the room.

"The wine is very good," Rufus commented, his voice smooth despite his fury at the way the woman meddled in his life. "Lord Quatre is an exemplary host." Quatre bowed his head in acknowledgement of the compliment.

"I felt inspired since I knew that Lord Rufus was to attend tonight; if I’d known of your interest, Tan Xi, I would have arranged for something truly spectacular!" Quatre was once more the image of a friendly, slightly foppish young lord, as harmless and adorable as a fluffy kitten. While Rufus would never demean himself in such a manner, he had to admit it worked brilliantly for the bound, with his slight build and youthful appearance. Rufus was aware that not many saw behind the mask that Quatre wore, and couldn’t help but wonder what it was the young lord wanted from him. All he could pick up from those faint thoughts was that Quatre sought him as an ally and not an enemy.

Tan Xi laughed and tilted her head to the side so it rested against Rufus’ upper arm for a few seconds. "Now there’s no need for such extravagance on my account. Handsome men and delicious wine are all I ask for in a party." She glanced up at Rufus through her eyelashes. "I must admit that I couldn’t resist attending when I heard that you would be here. There isn’t a more handsome and… unattached lord around than you," she purred.

Quatre coughed into his right hand, a slight blush on his face but his thoughts focused on his lover. "Actually, Lord Rufus did bring a guest tonight," he said, the words hesitant as if he was reluctant to speak. "Where did he go?" he asked as he looked around the room, everywhere but at the table where Reno had spent the last two hours. Rufus remained quiet, interested in what Quatre was trying to pull now.

He didn’t have to wait long – as Quatre and Tan Xi looked around the room, Wufei walked over to his lover, his step a bit unsteady. "Quatre," he murmured, his eyes appearing glassy and with the scent of potent alcohol on his breath. Interestingly enough, Rufus could sense that he was barely intoxicated.

"Ah, there you are, Wufei." Quatre beamed at his lover. "Did you have a nice talk with Reno?"

Wufei nodded slowly, the movement exaggerated. "I think… I think the brandy fermented for too long," he replied in a slurred voice. "Lord Shinra, I seem to have gotten your… well, he’s rather drunk right now. Your gokenin took him back to your quarters." He leaned against Quatre for a moment and then forced himself to stand up straight. "I believe I shall take my leave," he declared, the perfect picture of slightly ruffled dignity. Rufus knew that only he and Quatre were aware that the earth elemental bound was putting on a superb act, both to cover for Reno and to allow himself to depart before he drew the knife in his belt and slit Tan Xi’s throat. Oh no, Wufei felt no love but rather quite a bit of hate for the succubae bound, which he hid behind his impressive shields. This was the first time that Rufus had ever sensed Wufei’s true emotions for Tan Xi.

"Rashad," Quatre called out, and moments later one of his own gokenin, a very tall, broad shouldered human with a long beard and full mustache, hurried over and bowed low to the lord. "Please escort Wufei home."

"I am perfectly fine," Wufei loudly announced and sniffed. "But he can follow me if it makes you feel better." He bowed his head the slightest amount, his posture wobbly for a few seconds, then turned and left with Rashad at his heels.

Rufus had the feeling that he owed both Quatre and Wufei a debt now, but couldn’t really blame Reno this time. No, the cause was still pressed against his left side. "It seems that the two of you need to keep a better eye on your lovers," Tan Xi remarked with a slight titter.

"Wufei is more than capable of looking after himself," Quatre said with just the slightest hint of displeasure.

Tan Xi’s back stiffened at the reproach, but all she did was laugh again. "Of course." She patted Rufus’ arm and looked up. "And is your… Reno capable of looking after himself?"

Skillfully managing an expression of mild disgust, Rufus shook his head. "I fear he’s not as successful at it as Wufei; thankfully, I don’t expect much." He allowed boredom to creep into his voice as he discussed Reno. "I should be surprised that the only trouble he managed to get himself into tonight was too much alcohol."

"I guess that’s to be expected with… his kind," Tan Xi said, her voice and expression carefully blank as she waited to see if Rufus would take offense. When he didn’t, she smiled in delight and patted his arm again. "You deserve something better, my lord." Something better than the foolish, uneducated, and uncouth youth she pictured as Rufus’ lover, an image that she would share with the Elders. As her thoughts turned toward her masters, there was the flash of a memory about a conversation she’d overheard this morning; the Elders were debating Crawford’s suggestion to send Rufus to Eto as a spy who could assess the enemy’s weapons capabilities and possibly sabotage them as well.

Emboldened by his success in controlling Reno tonight, Rufus took a desperate gamble. He carefully slipped behind Tan Xi’s mental shields and planted a compulsion; she would invite him to a small gathering the Elders were having in the morning. That should give him a chance to talk to them about his business and work toward leaving Berin. He planted a second compulsion as well; if the Elders asked Tan Xi about her opinion on the matter, she would suggest that they listen to Crawford. Wishing he could plant an order for the woman to leave him alone, Rufus withdrew before he did something that would alert Tan Xi to his presence in her mind.

Monitoring her thoughts, he smiled slightly when he realized that she had no awareness of what he’d done. Whatever it was that allowed kage and dubhach to be unaffected by magic, be it created by wizards or other bounds, seemed to allow him the same ability. Despite his reservations and misgivings about the bond with Reno, he was seeing a definite benefit of them being mates.

He mentally searched for his lover and found him fighting the command to go to sleep. Assured that Reno was out of harm’s way for the moment, he reinforced the command until Reno passed out, unwilling to risk his mate leaving the apartment to find Tan Xi or in another fit of pique.

"Lord Rufus."

"Yes? I’m sorry, an employee had to bring something to my attention," he explained to Quatre and Tan Xi. "The perils of running a large, successful business; the work is never done."

"I know how you feel; if it weren’t for my sisters’ assistance, I’d never be able to manage all the Raberba-Winner estates from here," Quatre admitted, not sounding too upset over the matter. "Since you are an only child, you do not have that benefit. I hope your business doesn’t suffer too much from your absence." He was all smiles and good cheer, yet there seemed to be an emphasis placed on the remarks about his business. Rufus smiled in return and couldn’t help but wonder again what exactly it was that Quatre wanted from him. If only the man wasn’t a soul gaki bound – then he’d risk delving past Quatre’s shields right now. However, Rufus had expended too much energy between Reno and Tan Xi and could not take such a risk.

Tan Xi sipped her wine and appeared to be contemplating something. "The Elders are very concerned about your business, Lord Rufus. Perhaps you should discuss this issue with them." She suddenly smiled, obviously very pleased with herself. "Are you busy tomorrow morning? Would you care to attend a small gathering with me?" she asked. "That is, if it doesn’t get you in trouble with that Reno of yours," she purred, her smile now slightly naughty. It would be an enticing smile, if he didn’t have the ability to read her thoughts and sense her true nature.

The smile he gave her was for the success of his manipulations. "I can assure you that he won’t mind at all. I accept your very generous offer." He even went so far as to bow slightly to the woman.

While Tan Xi purred in delight, he sent a message to Tseng. <I want you to watch Reno tomorrow while I’m away. If I can, I’ll make sure he remains unconscious.>

Tseng was quiet for a moment, and was actually displeased when he replied. <Sir, that will mean he’ll be in a terrible mood when he wakes up. Let him awaken naturally and I’ll handle him tomorrow morning while you’re gone.> He clearly felt that Rufus was being too domineering lately, especially since it wasn’t truly Reno’s fault for his recent behavior.

<I will do what I think best, Tseng.> Rufus allowed Tseng to feel his anger at being second guessed. <He won’t be able to cause us any trouble if he’s not awake, and *I* will handle him when I return.> Hopefully with the news that they would be leaving soon.

<…as you wish, my lord.> Tseng still wasn’t very happy about the arrangement, yet deferred to Rufus, as he should. Rufus was Reno’s lord and mate, he was the one who knew what was best for the dubhach and had the most interest in keeping him well. Reno would be upset about tonight and tomorrow, but it wasn’t anything that Rufus couldn’t deal with by himself.

"More business?" Tan Xi asked as she trailed her fingers along the inside of his left arm.

"Yes." Seeing the server walk past with more wine, Rufus helped himself to a glass. He would remain at the party for another hour or so, then leave. As much as he’d felt that the event would be a waste of time when he’d asked Quatre for the invite, he was very pleased with how well things had turned out. Now if the gods would only be cooperative, he shouldn’t have to attend too many of the things in the near future.

*******

Crawford sighed in annoyance as he surveyed the clearing. He would have much preferred to spend the night at an inn since it was the middle of winter, but they didn’t have much of a choice. There was an unofficial no man’s land a few dozen kilometers outside of Berin, one that stretched on for quite a distance. In that territory, there were very few villages of the proper size to contain an inn and no temples large enough to host a party of eight.

That meant tonight would be spent outside. They’d made enough distance today that he had hope that he’d be able to find an inn tomorrow night, but it was a lost cause for tonight. At least they had a fire elemental bound with them who could help warm their camp and keep them from suffering frostbite. "This will have to do," he announced to his companions.

Duo grunted as he slid from the saddle to stand on his feet. "Give me about ten minutes and I’ll get it all warmed up." He glanced at Trowa, who had spent the day riding beside him in silence. "You’ll have to do something with the water once I melt all the snow."

Trowa didn’t reply save to nod his head. Duo stared at him for a few seconds before he rubbed his gloved hands over his face. "All right. I guess the spot underneath the trees would be best?"

"Yeah, if you don’t want to wake up buried in snow," Jei commented, busy removing the saddle from his horse, bags and all. "While you’re setting things up, I’m gonna go look for something fresh and juicy for dinner." He flashed a grin at Duo, his white teeth bright in the fading light, before he set the saddle aside and loped off into the forest.

"He can be one seriously creepy bastard when he wants," Duo muttered as he made his way to the overhang provided by a group of pine trees. Heero and Nagi followed, most likely to help set up the camp, while Masato and Schuldig made some ridiculous excuse about finding fresh water and some kindling and quickly vanished.

Remaining where he stood, Crawford shook his head over the mated bounds’ antics and swore to have another discussion with them about not revealing their bond to Heero and Duo. He dismounted from his horse and stood beside it, absentmindedly scratching the gelding’s neck while he watched his companions begin to set up their camp.

Dismounting as well, Trowa tied his horse to a nearby tree and approached Crawford. "There’s a small culvert about forty meters south of here. I’ll divert the melted snow to it and we can all have a hot bath tonight, as long as Duo agrees to keep the water heated," he said, his voice a little quieter than normal.

The thought of a nice soak after a long day of fast riding made Crawford smile in appreciation. "Thank you, that would be perfect." He had no doubt that Duo would do as asked, especially once it was pointed out that the ‘hot bath’ was Trowa’s idea. As pleased as Crawford was with the prospect of a bath, he was happier with the fact that Trowa was speaking to him once again. His friend had remained purposely quiet toward him ever since yesterday morning.

"Might as well do something with the water," Trowa remarked, his attention focused on Duo. The fire elemental bound had begun to clear away the snow, melting it and any ice that had formed on or around the trees.

Debating if he should risk upsetting his friend again or not, Crawford cleared his throat. "His control over his talent is rather remarkable," he commented while he stared at Duo as well.

"Yes. For all of his impetuousness, Duo rarely loses control of his power." Trowa let out a slow breath and pushed back the hood of his cloak, the motion causing the thick bangs that fell onto the left side of his face to shift aside for a moment. "I feel that we’re as alone as will be possible for the next day or two; tell me why you arranged for me to be partnered with Duo." His voice was perfectly flat, lacking any hint of emotion.

Crawford decided to go for the plainest truth he could manage. "Because that’s what is needed for the future we desire to come about." No other explanation than that, no assurances, just the words that he knew would affect Trowa the most.

The water elemental bound didn’t look away from Duo, didn’t move at all except for the slight motion of breathing. He was unnaturally still for a minute or two before he let out another slow breath. "That is required for us to win the war?" There was finally a hint of emotion in his voice; not the curiosity that Crawford had expected but sad resignation.

"Yes," he told his friend, a faint but growing pain in his chest. "One of many elements, yet a necessary one." Even though they pitched their voices low enough that Duo and the others should not be able to hear them, they still spoke in an ambiguous manner that hid which side of the war they were fighting on. Something perilously close to guilt spurred Crawford on to speak some more. "I swear to you, Trowa, that you will come to no harm because of the order." He felt so weak and foolish for saying that, when there were so many other things that would cause his friend pain.

A sad smile spreading across his face, Trowa turned toward Crawford. "’Harm’. You would never cause me ‘harm’… but you say nothing of hurt," he said, as if reading Crawford’s thoughts. "For the past fourteen years, I’ve seen you do whatever was necessary to bring about the proper future. I’ve never known you to apologize for the pain you have caused with your manipulations." Oddly enough, he didn’t sound upset, only tired. So very tired and resigned.

It was very rare for Crawford to be at a loss for words; this was one of those times. He honestly didn’t know what to say or if he should reassure his friend. What could he say, really? He wouldn’t dishonor his friendship with Trowa or the bound’s intelligence by lying, and he couldn’t offer any false hopes or promises.

Trowa’s smile wavered for a moment then strengthened, its sadness steadily increasing. "You don’t need to apologize, Crawford. I’ve been well aware of your motivations for over a decade, and I’ve never truly objected to them. You have my permission to use me however you must, as long as… as long as *they* are defeated." For a few, lingering seconds, honest emotion shaped Trowa’s face, twisted his thin lips and wrinkled his smooth, golden skin with hatred.

Crawford was surprised by the amount of animosity Trowa revealed when he spoke about the Elders. "Why do you hate them so much?" He had his suspicions, but had never broached the subject with the water elemental bound out of his respect for Trowa’s privacy. All that really had mattered was that Trowa could be trusted and depended upon, not the reasons why.

The hatred disappeared from Trowa’s handsome face, replaced by intense sadness. His green eyes, normally so brilliant, were dulled with pain and his perfectly straight posture became hunched over. "They’re even part of my earliest memories, the guards who took me in. I can’t recall any details of my real family; I don’t know if they were humans or bounds." He stared intently at Duo while he spoke, like a man focused on his salvation. "When the guards were drunk, they would tell various stories of how they came across me, that they’d bought me or found me or I’d been traded for some ridiculous object or another.

"I grew up in the shadow of the palace," he continued, emotion leeching from his quiet voice with each word until it reminded Crawford of Aya’s sibilant speech. "A plaything for the human guards *they* employed for the duties too far beneath their bound guards. *They* knew about me, but *they* didn’t care as long as it seemed that I was human. Not until I finally used my power and-" Trowa stopped abruptly and shook his head violently, as if to chase away painful thoughts or memories. "I may not think much of humans on the whole, but no one deserves to suffer like that just because they’re born with no magic. And no leaders should ever be so uncaring."

Standing in a quiet forest, the most audible sounds being Duo’s loud voice as he proclaimed what a great job he’d done preparing a camp for them, Crawford shared in Trowa’s intense bitterness, pain and hatred. He himself had never suffered as his friend and others had – but he could see what the future held if the Elders won the approaching war. So much horror and pain and suffering that he would have nightmares about it the rest of his life, he was certain.

Crawford remembered the rush of his own power when Trowa had matured enough to reveal his true nature. He still remembered those glimpses of the future and what part the very powerful water elemental bound would play in it. Crawford had also heard about the bound from his father; he had the terrible suspicion that his father had been well aware of what young Trowa would endure and hadn’t cared in the least. The old bastard had probably seen it as a way to toughen up Trowa and bind him to their cause.

Crawford and Jei had been away from Berin when Trowa had slaughtered his ‘guardians’, and had come back to find the palace abuzz about the boy. He could clearly recall how thin Trowa had been, his face a perfect mask even then. There had been no need for Crawford to befriend the boy to bring his plans about, yet he’d introduced himself and extended his protection to the young bound.

Jei continuously called him out on his manipulations, cursing him for being a cold bastard and worse, and Crawford would never deny the truth of those words. He was all that and more, and there was no way he could change until after the war. So he did what he could, small rebellions against his father and the Elders, seemingly inconsequential kindnesses to repay the damage he did on a daily basis. He was very well aware of what he would turn into if he wasn’t careful, aware of what his father had slowly become, and he still felt a measure of gratitude to Hohenheim for doing away with the bastard.

"I can’t promise an end to all pain if our plans work out as we want," he said to what was probably his closest friend. "I can promise that there won’t be so much senseless pain. That there will be more people like you in a position to prevent such atrocities from happening, and support for our kind." There was no possible way to form a perfect future – he was sacrificing almost everything he had and there would still be suffering for both his kind and humans, but there also would be hope. If the Elders won the war and resurrected their beloved creator, they would only bring about destruction, misery and death.

"I don’t ask for that," Trowa replied, his expression and voice back to normal. "Pain is a part of life. All I ask is that those who revel in the pain and suffering of others aren’t in control of all of our fates."

What Crawford liked best about Trowa was that the bound wasn’t an idealist. He was aware of life and people’s limitations and didn’t bear any malice toward them. He didn’t expect… oh, some sort of heaven on earth, like Quatre did, or for their people to be embraced by humans with open arms. Trowa was a realist. "I hope to bring about that much," Crawford answered and began to remove his bags from the saddle so he could settle his horse in for the night. "After the war, it’ll be up to you and everyone else to make sure that the wrong people don’t come into power."

After the war, his part in the future would largely be done. The promise his father had forced from him would be fulfilled and all he would have to worry about was himself and those he cared about. The rest of the world could go to whatever hell was the most convenient as long as he and his friends were left alone.

"Hmm, when all of this is said and done, I plan to get you very drunk and pry some answers out of you," Trowa admitted with a hint of a smile as he unsaddled his own horse. "Including why you chose to make Duo my partner for this mission."

Crawford ducked his head to hide his own smile. "The thing about the future is that it usually reveals all the answers you want to know if given enough time." The reason for his actions would be clear to Trowa soon enough; he just hoped that his friend didn’t hold things against him for too long.

"And I won’t accept such vague answers from you any more." Settling the saddle against his left shoulder, Trowa arched his right eyebrow as he stared directly at Crawford.

"I have no idea what you’re talking about," Crawford answered with some smugness as he headed to the cleared camp. "I’ve never been vague in my entire life."

"You’ve certainly been delusional," Trowa remarked as he fell in step beside Crawford.

Happy that he hadn’t damaged his friendship with Trowa, Crawford decided to let the other bound get the last word in. ‘Vague’ was such a relative term – the day would come soon enough when his words would have their meaning understood.

*******

Yohji waited until Jo left the stables to approach his friend. With a charming smile, he bowed his head and held out his left arm in invitation. "Would such a lovely lady care to take a walk with me?"

Jo stared at him for a few seconds, her brows furrowed and a suspicious look on her face before she sighed and nodded. "I guess so, if only to find out what you’re up to now." There was a note of exasperation in her voice, which he couldn’t really be upset about. He was the one asking to talk outside on such a cold winter day.

At least it wasn’t snowing, he thought as Jo hooked her right arm around his left and they began to walk away from the stables. Jo’s pace faltered for a moment when she realized he was leading her to the family shrine. They would be ensured privacy there and have some shelter from the gently blowing wind.

"Yohji, what is this about?" Jo asked once they reached the shrine, her tone now anxious. "This better not be some new bout of silliness on your part," she warned; the threat lacked any potency because of the way she stared at him with such obvious concern.

Yohji took a deep breath and offered his dear friend and foster mother a reassuring smile. "I promise, it’s nothing bad. Er… well, it doesn’t have to be bad." While he still wasn’t quite sure how to broach the subject, he had to do it, at the least so Jo didn’t get a case of frostbite while standing out here. He allowed himself a minute’s hesitation while he lit a stick of incense for his mother and Aya’s family. "It’s about the Koneko."

Jo’s concerned look took on an annoyed edge and she rubbed her mittened hands up and down her arms. "I figured it was either that or about Aya, so get on with it before I turn into a block of ice."

Wondering if he should have risked them being interrupted and held the conversation in the library, Yohji smiled and shook his head. "It’s not about Aya, he’s fine." In fact, he was a happy purr in the back of Yohji’s head, busy organizing the attic library with Ed and Al’s assistance in anticipation of Crawford’s arrival. "At least, not directly," he amended. After all, he wouldn’t have to do what he was about to do if it wasn’t for his mate.

"Yotan, spit it out, please," Jo said and brushed past him to light another stick of incense, most likely for her son. "I’m too old to stand out in the cold."

For once ignoring a chance to tease the cook, Yohji took a deep breath and did as he was told. "I want to turn over ownership of the Koneko to Mickey as soon as possible." There, now it was out in the open, and he was a bit amused by Jo’s stunned expression as she slowly turned to face him.

"What? Why do you want to do such a thing now? You’re not leaving, are you?" Her dark eyes narrowed and she stepped closer to him. "You said you were staying at least until the war. This is your home, and Aya’s too." She was clearly upset by his announcement, her emotions a mix of hurt, astonishment and fear. "You’re not leaving." The last was as clear a declaration that Yohji had ever heard.

"No, we’re not going anywhere," he said in a rush to assuage Jo’s fear. "We’re here for as long as we can stay and not put the staff or ourselves in any danger." He took a deep breath and slowly let it out as a white cloud into the cold air. "But all Aya and I will really be doing is living here; we’re barely helping out anymore and I think it’s gonna get worse, not better. You’re lucky if we manage three or four shifts a week. I just… I don’t think it’s fair that everyone is working so hard to cover for us and we’re still sharing in the profits," he concluded with a wan smile.

Jo was silent for a few minutes, appearing lost in thought as she stared at the smoke rising from the burning incense sticks. "Yohji…. We never had a problem with you only being able to cover a couple of shifts a week back when you were a Guard, and we’re not bothered by it now that you’re working for them again as well as for Birman. Even if it’s only for an hour or two a day, having Aya run errands or do the morning baking is a big help, and Mickey can’t shift the kegs about by himself. If the staff doesn’t have a problem with that, why should you?" She didn’t sound angry any longer; her voice and demeanor calm, yet he could still feel her pain.

Yohji ran his fingers through his hair and realized he wasn’t doing a very good job of this. "Because I think the day is going to come pretty soon when Aya and I won’t be able to do even that much. The war is approaching, Jo, just ask Cass, or Crawford when he gets here. There are going to be more assignments from Birman and Yuushi in the near future, and Aya and I need to prepare for things. We need to train." He was hoping to talk to Yuushi later tonight about being his sparring partner. "Both Aya and I barely know what we can do with our powers, and I haven’t been in a real fight for ages. If we hope to survive the war, we need to prepare ourselves."

The expression on Jo’s face turned to sorrow and she returned to the shrine to stroke the wool-covered fingers of her right hand along the piece of wood that bore her son’s name. "I still don’t understand why you have to give up the Koneko. Your mother left it to *you*, Yohji."

"In part." Yohji took another deep breath and approached Jo; he stood behind her and wrapped her in his arms. "Maybe she knew that I wouldn’t last long in the Guard because… of what I am. Maybe she did it so Aunt Megumi couldn’t contest the will. I don’t really know, Jo." His mother’s death had taken everyone by surprise, and if he bore any ill feelings toward Cassandra, it was that his friend hadn’t given them any warning. "All I do know is the day will come when I’ll have to leave the Koneko, and it’s not fair to wait that long to hand it over to Mickey. He works even more hours than you do, paying the bills, placing the necessary orders, making sure there isn’t any trouble from the customers. You can’t tell me that he doesn’t love and care for the Koneko with all his heart. He’ll stay here until he dies."

Meanwhile, Yohji would only have another ten years or so at the Koneko, *if* everything went well after the war. He would feel some sorrow at leaving his family home, but that wouldn’t stop him from going. Aya was what mattered the most to him now. "I can’t make that promise, Jo, and I can’t give the inn the attention it deserves," he tried to explain as he hugged Jo tightly. "I don’t want to keep feeling guilty when Aya and I get a day off to recover from a mission and see everyone else working so hard." Or when they just needed the time alone to be with each other. "We’re not like you and the others; we need the time to ourselves or else…." He shook his head and sighed. There had been a few times last year, and during the New Year’s celebration, when he felt as if he was being slowly tortured because he hadn’t been able to spend more than a few minutes in Aya’s presence or to feed. At least while working for the Guard or Birman, they were almost always together.

Jo sighed as well and slumped against him. "I know, Yotan, I see how you get when the inn’s so busy. I guess… I thought maybe it would get better between you and Aya. Cassandra tried to warn me around New Year’s that you two didn’t have enough time alone together." She patted his arms several times until he reluctantly released her, then turned to face him. "None of us begrudge you the time, not when you’re trying to help people and you’re finally so happy." She tucked aside a lock of his bangs that had fallen onto his face. "Mickey knows that you’ll leave him the inn eventually; he’s in no hurry to become its owner."

"He’s already doing all the work," Yohji pointed out. "If you think it’ll raise too many questions, we can keep the fact a secret, but I want the paperwork drawn up and signed, Jo. That’ll be one less thing to worry about should Aya and I have to leave suddenly, and he’s entitled to the owner’s share of the profits." As a Kudoh, Yohji would still get part of the earnings, and that was fine. He’d refuse any money if it weren’t for the fact that he’d need it at some point; he had a very long life ahead of him and no guarantee of being able to work all the time, considering his nature. Managing to smile in the face of Jo’s stern frown, he chuckled as he bowed his head. "Just think, it means he’ll be able to marry Kira sooner than planned."

Jo’s frown wavered for a couple of seconds and soon she was chuckling as well. "You’ve clearly thought this out. Well, I’ll have you know that you set me thinking about a few things, too." She tapped her right hand against the left side of his head. "Your mom left the inn to you because she wanted to make sure you always had a home to return to, Yotan, and I think we should honor her wish." She waved the hand in front of his face when he opened his mouth to argue. "Hush. You’ve made some good points, and I think Mickey does deserve something for all the hard work he does. So that means the matter can rest a few days while we think up some sort of compromise. There’s Aya to consider as well, since he’s a Kudoh now, and this is just as much his home as yours and mine." She had a look on her face and an iron resolve to her emotions that told Yohji that any attempt to argue on his part would be in vain.

"All right, all right, you’ve got a point." He once more offered his arm to her and led her back to the Koneko. "I guess I really just wanted to bring up the subject now and warn you that Aya and I won’t be able to work too much. I’m sorry, Jo."

Jo snorted and bumped her rather bony hip into his. "Don’t be, Yotan. As I said, the work you two do is important, and there’s always been a Kudoh in the Guard so it’s not as if you have to work in the inn." She motioned toward the Koneko as they carefully made their way across the snow covered garden stones. "You know, not all the bounds who’ve shown up lately have been interested in joining the Guard or working for Birman. I’ve been debating offering a couple of them jobs. It’s clear they could use the money, and they’d be safe here."

"That’s a great idea, Jo." Yohji’s happiness faltered somewhat at the thought of how most of those bounds really needed a home and were here in the hopes of having some sort of a normal life. Just the other day, they’d taken on a new stable boy, some poor kid who had left his family in fear of being captured by Esset agents. Besides him, there were several other bounds waiting for the new Guard training session to start in another couple of weeks. Since not everyone accepted for training had what it took to be a Guard, more than likely one or two of them would need another job when they failed the program. Considering how busy the Koneko had become after the completion of the new addition, there was more than enough profit left over to pay a few more salaries.

The warmth of the kitchen was very welcome after the time spent outside. Yohji waved to Maddox, who was busy basting some of the roasting meat, and removed his charmed coat. His hands smoothed over the dark blue material as he smiled in appreciation of Aya’s Solstice gift. His gloves now tucked into one of the coat’s pockets, the platinum and amethyst ring he always wore sparkled on his left ring finger. He only ever took it off to sleep and was grateful that the ring had a fitting spell cast on it so it wouldn’t slip from his finger while he worked.

From their bond, he could tell that Aya was still busy in the library, and he picked up a sharp sense of hunger along with a hint of worry. "I think Aya and the Terrible Two will be down here soon," he warned Jo as he removed his scarf. "Better get ready to empty out the pantry!"

Jo glared at the stove, which was covered with large pots in which various contents bubbled and boiled and simmered. "I have better things to do than feed a bunch of teenagers!" she declared in a loud voice and with a stamp of her left foot, yet she immediately began to bustle about and put various dishes together. "Hmph, at least they appreciate my food! Not like a certain someone who’s always missing dinner!" She shot Yohji a dirty look to make it clear who she was talking about.

Unable to do anything but smile, Yohji sidled over to her and draped his right arm around her waist. "But I’m still eating, Jo… just not anything that’s on the menu." He laughed when she whapped him in the chest with a thankfully clean wooden spoon and spun around so he could help set the kitchen table. Aya really should eat soon, and as much as Yohji enjoyed tormenting Ed, he actually liked the kid. He just felt bad that Ed was stuck with such an asshole for a mate. Al was one of the sweetest kids he’d ever known, and he was relieved that the boy hadn’t been the Elric brother to end up mated to Mustang.

Yohji was mostly happy about the way his talk with Jo about the Koneko had turned out. He had the feeling that there was more convincing to do, but that she would eventually see things his way. Then they could approach Mickey about the matter, and with Jo on his side, he should be able to convince his brother to take over legal ownership of the inn. That was Mickey’s dream, after all, and the Kudoh line would pass through Mickey and Kira’s children. There was a slight pang of regret when Yohji realized that he’d never have kids of his own, one that vanished when he thought about Aya.

Nope, no kids of his own and he wouldn’t end his days as an innkeeper, and nothing could make him change the way his life was now. There would be hardships and times of isolation because of what he was, but Aya would be by his side for all of it. Compared to that, the Koneko was just a pile of bricks and wood.

*******

Yohji groaned as he flopped onto the bed. "Oh, I think Jo outdid herself on dinner tonight," he said as he rubbed his stomach and closed his eyes. "The roast beef was *wonderful*."

Kneeling beside his lover, Aya smiled and tucked his hands onto his lap. "No one would ever have guessed that, with the way you ate three helpings of it!" The best part of dinner for him had been the dessert, of course, several slices of Jo’s wonderful spice cake. He thought that between him, Ed and Al, they’d devoured an entire cake by themselves. Jo had made a rather biting comment as she served them that it was a good thing they had such fast metabolisms or they’d each weigh several hundred pounds by now.

Opening his left eye, Yohji sent a mild glare Aya’s way then pouted. "You’re not supposed to be making fun of me during my suffering."

"Perish the thought," Aya replied and carefully straddled his mate’s upper thighs. "Why would I ever make fun of you?"

"Because you’re a cruel, cruel cat," Yohji muttered, sounding terribly offended as he opened his other eye and continued to pout. "And I even let you have that last piece of cake."

"Thank you, Yotan." Still smiling, Aya leaned down, his hands braced on either side of Yohji’s head. "That was very sweet of you." He gave his mate’s lips a teasing lick, for a moment enjoying their banter. "Although Jo would have given me the slice if I’d asked her for it," he just had to point out. There was a small voice inside his head chiding him for being so foolish when there was something important to discuss, yet he couldn’t force himself to bring it up just now. Yohji was happy and he wanted to indulge his lover for a little longer.

Sliding his arms around Aya’s waist, Yohji’s pout turned into a grimace that quickly became a smile. "Have I ever mentioned how unfair it is that you had her wrapped around your finger practically from the moment you two met, while she lives to abuse me? Hmmm?" He didn’t seem terribly upset about that, judging from his feelings, and Aya knew that Jo spoiled Yohji in her own way. Most of the reason why she looked after Aya in the first place was because he was Yohji’s mate.

"You’re just upset that someone can resist your charm," Aya remarked, and leaned forward so he could give his lover’s lips another lick. Yohji was in such a good mood; perhaps he should wait until tomorrow to tell him what he’d discussed with Botan this morning. He was worried that his decision would lead to a huge fight, and that was something he didn’t want right now.

Yohji took a deep breath and let it out slowly while he combed back the hair falling onto the left side of Aya’s face. "Cat, are you going to tell me what’s been bothering you all day? At first I thought you were worried about the Elric brats stealing your books, but you’re still upset about something."

Aya mentally cursed their link for a moment, upset at himself for not blocking it well enough so that Yohji hadn’t picked up on his concern. He’d tried to dampen down on their link a little… it was a balancing act and one he wasn’t very good at in the first place. Blocking the link too much would make Yohji instantly suspicious that something was hurting him, and not blocking enough landed him into the predicament he currently found himself in.

Deciding that the best way to get through the fight was to just tell Yohji the plain, simple truth as quickly as possible, Aya shifted back a little. "I’m going to give Botan some of my blood for spells," he said, the words spilling from his mouth as he hurried to speak them before his courage gave out.

Yohji was quiet for several seconds, perhaps trying to make sense of the mad rush of words, and Aya could feel his anger build during that time. Yohji’s hands clenched around Aya’s hips, yet when he spoke, his voice was only slightly roughened by anger. "Why are you going to do such a thing?" Yohji asked, his mostly calm voice at odds with the anger, hurt, possessiveness and disappointment he felt.

Aya regarded his mate with some wariness and let his hands rest on Yohji’s chest. "Yotan… it’s something I’ve been thinking about since… since Timbergrey," he admitted. "Botan has never asked me to give him blood; it was an offer I made on my own." Some of Yohji’s anger disappeared after that statement, and Aya gathered more courage from the fact that he wasn’t yelled at or called an idiot yet. "This is something I want to do. My blood can help other people." He did his best to tamp down on the slight fear he still felt at the thought of being drained of his blood; he refused to allow that fear to rule him.

Yohji began to frown and skimmed his hands up Aya’s sides until they pushed into Aya’s hair and gently clasped around the back of his head. "You’re not even going to listen to me if I argue about this, are you?" he asked, his voice both sad and hurt. "You’ve already decided."

A bit confused about what Yohji was trying to say, Aya managed a weak smile for his mate. "I have decided; it’s my blood, Yotan. It’s something I have to do. With it, Botan will be able to create weapons for Reiichi and more of the black rings. Botan said he’d just need a cup or two." Such a small amount of blood, compared to all the times he’d been drained, and it would mean that a few of his friends would have a better chance of surviving the war to come. He hoped Yohji understood that after their talk the other night.

Sighing again, Yohji used just enough force to make Aya lean forward. "Cat…. Aya. I know it’s your life and your blood, I just hate it when you feel pain." Sadness crept into his expression, made his green eyes shimmer as if filled with tears. "Am I such a tyrant that you’re afraid to tell me something you’ve decided to do?"

Guilt and shame rushed through Aya, made him bow his head until it rested against Yohji’s forehead. "I… I know how upset you were before, for Aya-chan’s spell. I didn’t want to fight with you about this." He detested fighting with Yohji, despised the hurt they both felt when they lashed at each other with cruel words. However, this was something he felt seriously enough to risk doing just that, and he had only thought of his mate being angry and possessive. Yohji had come a very long way since the summer Solstice and their visit to Timbergrey.

"I won’t lie, Aya, I want to grab you and shake you until you forget all about giving any blood to Botan. I don’t like the thought of you being used for that, even if you’re willing." A slight growl roughened Yohji’s voice and his emotions were a mix of anger, pain and concern. His fingers clenched around Aya’s hair and he tilted his head enough so he could press a tender kiss against Aya’s forehead. "I’m your lover, Cat, not your master. A rather possessive, protective lover, I’ll admit, but I trust you to do what’s right."

Letting out a breath that he hadn’t been aware that he was holding, Aya slowly relaxed until he rested on top of his mate. "I’m sorry, Yotan." He now wished that he’d just talked to Yohji about it months ago, when he’d first thought about offering his blood to Botan, instead of worrying about it for so long. He’d put it off until Botan had informed him that Reiichi’s gauntlets were finally ready.

"And you call me an idiot." Yohji tugged on his left eartail rather harshly, but all Aya did was lift his head to glare at his mate and hiss quietly. He felt he deserved that, to be honest. Feeling how hurt Yohji was that Aya had been so reluctant to talk to him about the matter, Aya’s shame increased until he couldn’t look at his lover.

Yohji let out a slow, deep breath and caressed the bottom of Aya’s chin for a few seconds before he applied enough force to make Aya look up again. "Apology accepted." Yohji offered him such a sweet, sad smile that all Aya could do for a moment was stare. "Look, Aya, I think I know why you didn’t want to tell me until now. If Botan needed my blood for something, I’d expect you to be a bit upset and I’d probably consider going behind your back to spare you any pain. I’d rather you tell me, no matter how late, instead of do something like that."

Not that Aya had had much faith that he could sneak behind Yohji’s back and give Botan some blood, not with the painful memories associated with the Takatori draining him dry over the years. "I didn’t want to fight, Yohji," he tried to explain again. "I knew you wouldn’t force me to not do it; I just didn’t want us to yell at each other and cause us both pain while we argued about it." Yet he’d done just that, at least caused pain for his lover, and he wasn’t quite sure how it was that Yohji was so calmly accepting his decision. "You’re really not going to try to talk me out of it?"

Stroking aside the hair that fell onto Aya’s forehead, Yohji frowned and pressed his lips together. "Honestly? I want to, I really do. But, like you said, it would just lead to us yelling at each other, a lot of pain and frustration, and you’d still do it in the end. I can’t control you, Aya. I don’t *want* to control you," Yohji stated, his voice deepened by the conviction he felt. "I also want you to move past what… what the bastards did to you. If this is something you feel strongly about and it won’t happen very often, then I’ve no right to bitch about it." His hands trailed along Aya’s shoulders, back down his sides and once more settled on his hips. "I guess hanging out with Ed and his asshole of a mate has made me realize how important it is to trust you and treat you as an equal."

Aya sat still for a minute and just took in what his mate had told him. "I really am sorry," he whispered as he curled against Yohji. "I guess… I guess I forgot how hard you’ve been working to keep your end of our promise to not be too overprotective." His head now resting on Yohji’s chest, he held on tightly to his mate, their link not blocked in the slightest as he let Yohji feel his emotions. He was so proud of Yohji and loved him so much, while he still felt a bit ashamed at himself.

Yohji’s fingers brushed along the small of his back. "To be perfectly honest, I think I’m only managing to remain so calm because you said ‘just a cup or two’. There’s no way I’d sit back and let Botan drain you like he did the last time." Resolve and anger colored Yohji’s emotions and made his voice harsh. "I won’t let you be rendered helpless and in so much pain for a few fucking charms."

"No, and neither will I." Never again would Aya let anyone drain him to the point where he could barely move and couldn’t fight back. He would never be so helpless again. "So… will you be there when he does it?" he asked, desperately wanting Yohji by his side when Botan cut into his veins. No matter how much he’d recovered over the last few months from what the Takatori had done to him, there was still so much hurt and fear left. Yet if Yohji was with him, he had hopes of dulling the pain of one past abuse.

There was an amused chuckle at the same time that Yohji patted him on the ass. "As if I’d let Botan anywhere near you with a knife and not be there. Someone’s gotta make sure he doesn’t try to sneak some extra blood." While there was a teasing note to Yohji’s voice, there was a deadly seriousness to his emotions. Botan may be trusted by them, but Aya wouldn’t have allowed the wizard to take any of Yohji’s blood while he wasn’t there, either.

"It’s odd, isn’t it, how something like that can be so valuable," Aya said after a few seconds of silence. Lying on top of his lover like this, his right ear pressed against Yohji’s chest, he could hear each beat of Yohji’s heart. All that blood being pumped about, and for some people out there, they would see it as something they could trade for lots of gold. Anger and hatred made Aya’s lips pull back from his teeth and the shadows writhed along the walls of the bedroom. How could those people not care what they did to Aya and his kind when they took that blood?

Yohji grunted softly and continued to caress the top of Aya’s ass. "I can’t believe that someone would torture and practically destroy another person just so they could make a bit of money or cast a really impressive spell. But what do you expect when some humans have no problem doing it to their own kind? Bounds are just different enough that it means they feel even less guilt over their actions." He shook his head and grunted again. "You know, this isn’t exactly the romantic conversation I had planned on us sharing after dinner."

Aya shifted enough on top of his mate to offer an apologetic smile. "I really am sorry, Yotan. I was going to wait until a better time to tell you, but…."

"But I’m too smart and too concerned for you to hide things from me for long," Yohji finished for him, his left hand still cupped over Aya’s ass while his right hand stroked through the hair on Aya’s nape. "If you’re going to apologize for anything, it’s thinking that you can fool the amazing Yotan." He waggled his eyebrows for added effect, his emotions now amused, loving and lustful.

"I thought it was your cock that was amazing." Aya couldn’t help smiling as he corrected his melodramatic mate. "I didn’t know the rest of you was considered that, too."

Yohji’s left hand languidly slid beneath Aya’s shirt and under the waistband of his pants. "Oh, most definitely," Yohji said with a curt nod. "A hundred percent amazing, enough to leave you astounded and begging for more." His voice deepened into a pleased purr, his smile growing wider when Aya sucked in a sudden breath at the feel of Yohji’s fingers sliding along the crack of his ass.

"Didn’t you say something about being sorry?" Yohji asked while he flicked the end of Aya’s left eartail along Aya’s neck. "I’m thinking that perhaps you should prove just how sorry you really are to me." It was clear from his emotions and his tone that he was teasing, but Aya was more than willing to play along. Yohji deserved some recognition for being so understanding tonight, and he looked so wanton and sexy sprawled on top of the bed, his golden hair fanned out on the pillows and with that wicked smile on his face. Aya felt a powerful shock of lust, and while he wasn’t sure exactly who it had originated from, he had no problem giving in to it.

"How could I possibly do that?" Aya asked and began to slowly grind his hips into Yohji’s. He was purring as well, his body tingling with growing desire and need. "Would you like a backrub?"

"A massage sounds nice, but not of my back." Yohji’s grin grew even more wicked while he undid the laces of Aya’s tunic. "How about this – you on my lap with my wondrous, amazing cock buried inside that gorgeous ass of yours, facing me so I can see just how great it feels to be fucked by me, hmm?" Over their link, his lust and hunger grew so strong that Aya ached from the emotions and need provoked from them both.

Sitting up so he could pull off his tunic, Aya tossed it aside and rested his hands on Yohji’s chest. "I guess so, if that’s the only way you’ll accept my apology." He strove for a light, teasing tone but ended up stuttering the words when Yohji’s finger pressed against his hole. Just as he pulled his hands from his mate so he could undo the laces of his pants, Yohji slid his right hand along the back of Aya’s neck and pulled him down for a ravishing kiss.

Aya eagerly parted his lips and sucked on Yohji’s tongue, following it with his own when it retreated back into his mate’s mouth. Yohji scraped his teeth over Aya’s tongue then rubbed his own against it, sucking hard on it for a few seconds before releasing it to nibble on Aya’s bottom lip. When Aya moaned in pleasure, he thrust his tongue back into Aya’s mouth at the same time he circled Aya’s sensitive hole with his finger. He continued to tease Aya for several minutes, and all the while his right hand worked to untie the laces of both their pants. Just as Aya was left breathless from what his lover was doing to him, Yohji cupped his hand around Aya’s cock.

"Yotan!" Aya cried out, his breath ragged and chest heaving as he struggled for air. Yohji gave his cock a squeeze before he forced Aya to sit up.

"I want you naked, Cat. Wanna see all of you." He pushed the pants and Aya’s underwear past his hips, and Aya scrambled to quickly shed the garments. While he shifted about and stripped, Yohji did the same, then reached for the jar of lube on the nightstand before he lay back on the bed. "Come here."

Eager to obey, Aya straddled his mate’s lap. His hands stroked along Yohji’s defined chest, skimming over warm, golden skin. Feeling Yohji’s furious heartbeat against his fingertips, he flexed his fingers until he could gently drag his nails over his lover’s chest.

"Ah, again with the nails," Yohji grumbled as he set the jar aside. "Maybe if I’d called you something other than ‘cat’, you wouldn’t feel so inclined to use them."

"Perhaps I just like marking you as much as you do me," Aya explained and shifted his legs further apart when he felt Yohji’s slick fingers skim along his left hip. He gasped when those fingers began to rub against his opening, his hips tilting back, toward them. "Please, Yotan, don’t tease," he pleaded, not in the mood to have Yohji drive him crazy with anticipation.

"No, not tonight," Yohji groaned as one of his fingers slid inside of Aya. "Right now, I just want to fuck you and mark you so everyone knows that you’re mine." He sat up, his left arm encircling Aya’s waist while the fingers of his right hand continued to prepare Aya. "I’m working on not being too overprotective, but I’ll never stop being one hell of a possessive bastard when it comes to you, Cat." To prove his point, he nuzzled Aya’s neck until Aya tilted his head to the side, then sunk his teeth into the skin without any preamble.

Gasping again, Aya’s head tilted back further as Yohji almost bit hard enough to draw blood. Intense bolts of ecstasy burned through his body from his neck to his groin and rendered it almost useless. All he could do was cling to his mate as he was marked for the world to see that he was Yohji’s, a strangled moan emerging from his lips.

Energy flowed between them, strengthened by the emotions they felt and shared. So much love that it made Aya’s breath catch in his throat, almost matched by passion and need. Yohji’s hunger was as sharp and demanding as always, actually growing stronger for a few seconds when Yohji marked him.

Yohji trailed his lips along Aya’s neck and found another spot to mark, right on the front of Aya’s throat, while his fingers scissored wide apart and pushed in deeper. He sucked hard on Aya’s flesh and produced a pleased chuckle when Aya struggled to moan out his name. There was too much pleasure, heightened by anticipation of what was to come, and it felt too good for Aya to resist.

Pulling away so he could whisper in Aya’s ear, Yohji also removed his fingers from Aya’s ass. "Put me in you, Cat," Yohji purred, having to repeat the words two more times before they made any sense to Aya’s muddled mind.

Aya forced his eyes to open and mewled in regret when Yohji lay back on the bed, their bodies no longer pressed together. His neck felt both hot and cold, burning where Yohji had marked it yet missing his mate’s warmth like the rest of him. Reaching out with his trembling right hand, he was surprised to find Yohji’s thick cock already slick and had no clue as to when his mate had done that. Not that it mattered, really, not when it meant that he didn’t have to wait any more for the addictive pleasure that made him shiver in need.

He moved his knees forward until he knelt above Yohji’s cock and held it steady in his hand while he lowered himself. It felt so thick and hot to his fingers, twitching slightly when Yohji groaned and held onto his hips. Aya drank in the sight of his mate; the sheen of sweat on skin darkened to the color of honey by the room’s dim light, the gleam of passion in emerald green eyes and the way a lock of golden hair curled along Yohji’s forehead. The love and desire spiked even higher, for a moment overwhelmed by Yohji’s pleasure and hunger when the tip of his cock pushed into Aya’s body.

Closing his eyes to better savor the intense sensations, Aya forced himself to breathe evenly as Yohji’s cock inched inside him, sending the ecstasy pooled in his lower body shooting through his limbs until they trembled. He sank the rest of the way, not stopping until his ass came to rest against Yohji’s crotch, his breath hitching and gasping despite his best efforts. This just felt too good, too overwhelming, the solid, heated presence of his mate so deep inside of him.

Yohji’s hands flexed on his hips and urged him into motion. "Want to feel you, Cat. Move, please." Aya forced his eyes to open and did as he was told, already slowly coming undone with ecstasy. He bore Yohji’s mark on his neck and would soon be possessed again in an even more intimate manner, Yohji’s scent clinging to his body. Feeling his mate’s need and hunger, he moved a little faster, moaning quietly at the feel of heat and thickness rubbing inside of him, producing a wonderful friction that was only surpassed by sudden bolts of pleasure when his lover’s cock hit that special spot.

Aya’s own cock was so hard, his fingers moving easily along his slick flesh while his left hand curled against Yohji’s chest. He had to fight for air as the ecstasy built with each thrust of Yohji’s cock, his legs trembling so much that only his mate’s hands on his hips kept him steady as he continued to reluctantly raise himself and then quickly sink back down for more of that amazing friction.

With his blood pounding in his ears and his nerves sizzling from the consuming pleasure, he couldn’t understand what Yohji was saying, could only see his lover’s lips move and hear low growls that made him purr even louder and grind downward, desperate to take as much of Yohji’s cock inside of him as possible. He wanted more, wanted all that his mate could give with a demanding hunger that echoed Yohji’s; only it wasn’t energy that he craved.

He craved the love and pleasure that Yohji gave him, such potent emotions that they filled him much like his energy did his mate. Each thrust left him both sated and desperate for more, until his body couldn’t stop moving, his right hand sliding along his own cock at the same furious pace that he sought Yohji’s. His body felt seared by the emotions that poured into him like liquid fire, chasing away the cold and emptiness. He felt consumed by bliss, rendered into nothing more than raw nerves and need, and the only thing that soothed him was Yohji.

His mate’s hands clutched at his hips and began to practically slam him downward, and for a moment all there was to be felt was that ravenous hunger. Then the ecstasy returned, so powerful it exploded through Aya, devouring him with its intensity until the world blazed white then disappeared. For a time that could only be measured by his frantic heartbeats, all that he was able to sense or experience was the love and desire Yohji felt for him, the world slowly reforming around those emotions.

Aya found himself curled up on Yohji’s chest, his face pressed against the crook of his mate’s neck. Taking a few deep breaths, he tested to see if his still trembling body was ready to move and managed to lift his head.

Yohji had the most pleased and ridiculously large grin on his face, his eyes slowly opening while Aya stared down at him. He had to clear his throat a couple of times before he could speak, his words slightly distorted by his loud purr. "Damn, that was… amazing." He drawled out the last word until it almost sounded obscene.

"Yohji…." Aya took a deep, shuddering breath. "You’re irrepressible." Not that he minded it so much, not when Yohji’s antics usually made him happy and feel so good.

"Hmmm." Yohji began to play with Aya’s hair, combing his fingers through it and brushing it aside. "You know, I’m glad I’m mated to someone who loves books so much. I don’t always understand what you’re saying, but it always sounds so kinky. What part of me exactly should be pressed, eh?" he joked, so filled with happiness and love that Aya had no choice but smile.

"You’re also a terrible liar," Aya complained before he gave his mate a tender kiss.

Yohji’s smile had yet to fade, and his happiness settled into pure contentment. "Never when I’m telling you how much I love you." His voice was completely serious for once, and his emotions were so warm and bright that Aya felt as if he lay beside a blazing fire, one that poured heat onto his skin and chased away the darkness.

"You better not," he warned and snapped his teeth just above Yohji’s scarred left shoulder. He couldn’t say the words; they seemed too cliché and inadequate so he let his emotions speak instead until Yohji gathered him in his arms and hugged him close.

They lay together for several minutes, just enjoying holding on to each other since for once Aya didn’t run away to clean himself immediately after sex. Eventually, Yohji sighed dramatically and gave Aya a slight poke to the small of his back. "I believe there was some mention of mulled wine. How about I go fetch us some, and maybe a basket of those cheese rolls Maddox made."

"That sounds very good," Aya groaned as he reluctantly sat up. "I’ll restart the fire," he added after he noticed that it had almost burned out while they’d been making love.

Yohji nodded and slowly moved from the bed to the washstand. "Perhaps I’ll put together a plate of cold cuts, too." Once he was cleaned off and dressed in his blue robe, he approached the bed so he could gently tug on one of Aya’s eartails. "I know it’s not a lot of blood, but we’ll feed you until you’re stuffed tonight. I assume you want to get this over with soon, right?"

"Yes." Aya caught Yohji’s hand but didn’t bat it aside; instead, he twisted it in his grasp until he could place a kiss against his mate’s pulse. "All that I was waiting for was to tell you."

Yohji’s smile weakened and his eyes narrowed slightly. "I’m not fighting you on it this time, Cat. I know we need to make some sacrifices so I’m not arguing tonight. But if Botan thinks he can supply the Army with charms strengthened by your blood, I’m gutting him and locking you in the attic." There was a possessive growl to his voice, the emotion strong over their link.

"Just this one time, Yotan, I swear that’s all I intend to do it," Aya promised. He wanted to face an old fear and hopefully put it to rest while helping a dear friend.

"Good." Yohji pressed a kiss against his forehead before he moved away. "And when I come back, I have something to talk to you about," he said, a rueful grin on his face. "You’re not the only one planning for the future, Cat." With that cryptic remark, he left the room.

Sitting on the bed, Aya arched an eyebrow and stared at the closed door for several seconds before he went to clean off and stoke the fire. He had a feeling it would be an interesting night.

******* 

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