Darkness Returns

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chapter five

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homecomings and exposed secrets

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Flanked by Rude and Elena, Rufus struggled to keep his composure while he returned to his apartment. He wanted to crow in triumph, to burst into his apartment and order the servants to start packing; yet knew that he couldn’t do either of those things. If the Elders heard of him acting in that manner, they would be suspicious and take him into custody.

All morning long at the function that Tan Xi had invited him to, he’d been lightly scanning Strength’s thoughts. While he’d been able to pick up some stray thoughts and emotions from Sense and Thought, he’d felt it best to focus his power on the Elder without any mental powers and who had the weakest shields. He hadn’t wanted to risk being detected and having to explain that it seemed his mating bond with Reno enabled him to read the minds of people he shouldn’t be able to.

What he’d found in Strength’s mind was that the Elders were indeed prepared to send him to Kritiker as their agent. With Tan Xi now championing his cause, Strength had become more convinced that it was a good plan; Kritiker was sure to approach Rufus for weapons, which would give the Elders an idea of their enemy’s troop strength.

Rufus wished that he could slip a compulsion into the Elder’s mind, but that was too big a risk to take since Thought or Sense might notice. As it stood, he was certain that he’d be summoned into the Elders’ presence soon and given a mission, one that would allow him to get his people out of Berin and Reno away from danger. He’d break the news to Tseng once he was safely in his quarters; he didn’t want Reno to know just yet, in case his mate decided to do something outrageous in celebration of their approaching freedom.

Finally reaching his quarters, he waited for Rude to open the door. The gokenin moved to do his job and bowed slightly, yet he didn’t look at Rufus once he’d opened the door. For some reason, he’d avoided looking directly at Rufus all morning and was heavily cloaking his thoughts. Since Rufus tried to allow his closest servants some privacy and rarely delved into their thoughts on purpose, he frowned slightly when he passed Rude and entered the apartment. From what he could tell after a quick and light scan of the bald gokenin’s thoughts, Rude wasn’t happy with the way Reno had been treated lately.

Rufus was growing very annoyed with how his servants were interfering with him and his mate. Tseng, Rude and Elena were Reno’s fellow gokenin, but *he* was Reno’s lord and lover. Even if he hadn’t told anyone about the new bond with Reno, Tseng and the others had no right to question his treatment of Reno. He looked after all of his people – and none of them caused him as much trouble as a certain redhead.

Putting his talent to use, he searched for Tseng and found him in his bedroom. His temper flaring for some odd reason, Rufus mentally commanded all of the servants to either find something to do outside of the apartment or back in the kitchen, where there was no risk of him being overheard. Then he headed for his bedroom.

Tseng was standing guard by the bed, the chief gokenin back’s ramrod straight, black hair and uniform immaculate and his face impassive. On the bed lay Reno, still in the same position when Rufus had left a couple of hours ago.

Reno… Rufus had kept him unconscious all through the night and this morning. He’d undressed his lover after arriving home and slept with Reno held tightly in his arms, something that had bothered him since they’d never been the types to sleep tangled up with each other. Yet he hadn’t felt any true comfort until he’d held his mate and breathed Reno’s scent deeply with each inhalation.

"How did things go, my lord?" Tseng asked in an utterly flat tone of voice, the question distracting Rufus from his lover.

Shaking his head, Rufus directed his attention at Tseng. "I expect to have permission to leave Berin within the next day or two. Once the Elders speak to me about the mission, I want you, Elena and Rude to be ready to go." He’d thought about this all morning long. He could claim pressing business matters and immediately set off for home with his gokenin; the remaining servants could pack up and follow at a slower pace. He wouldn’t be taking them to Kritiker, after all.

"We’re already prepared, Sir. The only thing left to ready are the horses, which will have to wait until we have our new orders." Like Rude, Tseng was carefully shielding his thoughts and as he spoke, Rufus had the impression that he was positioning himself between Rufus and the bed. "I even packed for Reno this morning."

"Very good." Rufus’ eyes narrowed when Tseng moved slightly as he tried to approach his sleeping lover. Rufus began to relax the mental hold he had on Reno’s consciousness and focused his thoughts a little more intently on his gokenin. Rude and Elena had followed him into the room and stood by the door, something at odds with their normal behavior. "Is something wrong, Tseng?"

Tseng went perfectly still for a couple of seconds, then moved to directly stand between Rufus and Reno. "Sir, we feel that we must protest your recent treatment of Reno. While we understand what is at risk and that his behavior has been more irrational and unpredictable than usual, we believe that you’re being too harsh in your reactions."

From Tseng and Rude, Rufus could sense unhappiness and concern for their fellow gokenin and little else. Elena echoed those emotions as well; however, she wasn’t as old as Rude or Tseng or as experienced with shielding her thoughts. As she worried over how he would react to them talking to him like this, her mental control wavered until he could easily pick up a thought - if Rufus did not promise to stop mentally coercing Reno, they would take the dubhach to Lord Raberba-Winner’s for sanctuary. They didn’t plan to tell the lord what Reno was, just that Rufus was upset with him and that Reno needed a safe place to stay until Rufus’ temper cooled. They were counting on Lord Raberba-Winner, as Rufus’ equal in power and status, to prevent Rufus from causing a scene or taking Reno back by force. Then they could talk to their lord and work things out.

Part of Rufus understood why his gokenin were threatening to rebel against him – they were sworn to him, but they were also sworn to each other, to guard, protect and fight for one another if necessary. A few months ago he would have calmly defused the situation and assured his people that things were fine. Now… now all he could focus on was that they wanted to take Reno away from him.

<Try to take him from me and I’ll kill you!> he informed the gokenin as he leapt toward Tseng, his lips pulled back in a savage snarl. Using his mental power as much as his physical strength, he shoved the stunned bound aside and stood by his mate. Tseng, Rude and Elena had been utterly loyal to him and served him well, but right now he was ready to kill them. "How dare you-"

"Leave ‘em the fuck alone!" Reno growled, awake and furious with Rufus, against whom he used his power as he jerked Rufus onto the bed. As raw energy coursed through Rufus’ body and made his nerves scream in pain, Reno hissed and straddled his upper thighs. The attack was aborted when Reno whined and shook his head, his fingers digging into Rufus’ shoulders until nails broke through several layers of silk and wool and then skin. "Stop making me feel your pain!"

More than addled by Reno’s attack, Rufus fought to pull his scattered thoughts together while his mate lifted his upper body from the bed and slammed him back down, yelling at him all the while. "Stop it! Get out of my head, dammit! You shouldn’t be in there all the time, shouldn’t be able to make me do all that shit when I don’t want to! Stop!" Reno’s thoughts were just as shaken as Rufus’, and the feedback of pain and anger between them only made Reno’s panic grow. "Get out!" he screamed, his voice pitched high from hysteria.

"Reno!" Tseng moved to do something, to touch Reno to calm him or to pull him from Rufus, but jumped back with a curse when brilliant energy coursed from Reno toward him. "Calm down and let Rufus go!"

"Fuck no! He won’t stop doing it!" Reno whined and lowered his head for a moment to press against Rufus’ left shoulder, then gave Rufus a violent shake that, mercifully, only lasted for a mercifully few seconds. "What’s happening?"

Gathering enough control over his body to move, Rufus somehow managed to reverse their positions and pinned Reno’s hands to the bed. That didn’t prevent another energy attack… but either Reno was growing noticeably weaker or he was getting used to the things since it didn’t hurt as much as the previous one. <Behave!> Unfortunately, he didn’t have enough strength to put much force behind the command.

That seemed to be the worst thing he could do. With a vicious snarl, Reno somehow managed to get his feet between them and the next thing Rufus felt was intense pain followed by blackness.

He awoke, senses groggy and thoughts fractured, to find Rude healing him. He lay on the floor, surrounded by pieces of wood that looked like they belonged to the door. Make that ‘had’ belonged to the door. From Rude’s thoughts, Rufus discovered that Reno had flung him off the bed with enough force that he’d slammed into the door and broken it – mainly with his head and back.

"He’s conscious," Rude said, his deep voice tinged with concern. "What about Reno?"

"He’s waking up now, too," Tseng replied, sounding equally as worried.

Reno. Rufus shook off Rude’s hand and fumbled to stand to his feet. "Get away from him," he tried to snarl, the order coming out more as a pathetic whimper because of the pain and fear he felt… the same emotions he could sense from his lover. When his body didn’t obey, he struggled to crawl toward the bed.

"Rude, bring him here," Tseng ordered, and Rufus found himself easily lifted from the ground by the massive arm wrapped around his waist then carefully deposited on the bed. Forcing himself mostly upright, Rufus found Reno an arm’s length away, curled up tightly in a ball and alternating between whimpers and growls.

"What’s wrong?" He managed to half crawl/half flop his way to his mate and wrapped his arms around him. There was a frighteningly intense blast of hunger when he touched Reno, which thankfully began to fade as he hugged his mate close. <Stop that, I’m here,> he soothed as Reno uncurled and turned to press against Rufus’ chest. Reno’s thoughts were too muddled to be read easily, and he was still rather pissed off at Rufus, yet all he did was tuck his face against the side of Rufus’ and hug him back just as tightly.

The room was silent for what felt to be several minutes as Rufus struggled to control his and Reno’s emotions. While he slowly dulled the remaining pain, he only faintly heard Tseng mention his name. When it was repeated, he opened his eyes and glared at the bound. "What?" he snapped.

Tseng didn’t seem bothered by his obvious temper. "How long have you been mates?" the flesh gaki bound asked, his voice almost shaking from weariness.

"That’s nonsense, Tseng!" Rude exclaimed while Rufus tried to figure out how he’d answer that question. "They can’t be mates; they’ve been together for years and have only been acting this weird the past few months."

"And that ‘weird’ behavior is exactly what I’ve seen from other mated bounds, as is feeling each other’s pain to the extent that the uninjured mate passes out." Tseng wasn’t angry over the situation, just upset that an important piece of information had been kept from him and prevented him from doing his job properly. "I’m correct, aren’t I, my lord?"

Feeling Reno’s growing curiosity and confusion, Rufus spared a moment to mentally curse before he resigned himself to revealing the truth sooner than he’d have preferred. "Apparently, when I saved Reno’s life after the last suicide attempt, I somehow created a bond between us. It was *not* intentional," he quickly added, mindful of Tseng’s sudden frown and how furious Crawford had been when he realized that Rufus had created the bond with Reno.


Tseng and the others stared intently at him for a moment, and Rufus knew that it was critical that they believed him. If they’d been upset over his treatment of Reno, finding out that he’d forced Reno to become mates with him would definitely ensure that they broke their vow and took the dubhach away. "So you knew that you created such a bond with Reno several months ago?" Tseng asked, his voice deceptively quiet and calm.

"No." Rufus let out a slow breath and wished that he could start this day over again. "I didn’t find out about it until after we arrived here. Crawford approached me one day and made several insinuations about Reno and I." He could still recall his fury at the precog discussing Reno, and his shock when Crawford had offhandedly referred to them as mates. "That was when I figured out the truth, and Crawford realized that I must have accidentally created the bond to be so oblivious to it. I didn’t say anything to you because I didn’t want to risk anyone else finding out," he admitted with a weary sigh.

"That would explain Crawford’s… dislike of you," Tseng commented, his voice softening for a moment. "However, you should have informed me, Sir." He sounded very annoyed and disapproving. "I cannot adequately protect you and Reno if I’m not aware of such an important bond."

"He should have told *Reno*," Rude muttered, not taking the news as well as Tseng had. Rufus wanted to glare at the earth elemental bound but didn’t have the energy to lift his head that far.

"Yeah, you should have told me," Reno chided as he poked Rufus in the sternum. "You know, the person you’re fucking mated to!" He sounded upset, yet the emotion that Rufus felt over their link was more annoyance than anger.

Stroking his right hand through Reno’s tangled hair, Rufus slid deep into his mate’s mind. <I wasn’t sure how you would react and didn’t want to risk things while we were here,> he tried to explain.

<You mean you were enjoying being able to mess with my head and didn’t want me to know,> Reno replied, still not too upset over the matter. Even though he was frowning, a purr rumbled in his throat as he draped his left leg over Rufus’ thigh. Rufus then realized that Reno was still naked and now lying on top of the bedding.

<Leave us,> he ordered the others, prepared to back it by compulsion if necessary, before Tseng cleared his throat and ushered Rude and Elena from the room. Rufus was certain that the gokenin would want to talk to him some more later, but they felt that he needed to deal with Reno right now.

While Rude tried to piece together what remained of the door to offer them some privacy, Rufus tangled his fingers in Reno’s hair. <You’re a suicidal idiot with a knack for doing the worst thing possible; of course I was keeping the bond between us a secret so you didn’t either try to use it to your advantage or overreact to its existence.> Quite honestly, he had expected Reno to be *furious* about it, yet he seemed to be accepting it rather easily at the moment.

<You’re such a liar.> Reno still wasn’t angry. <It feels good… except when you’re fucking with my head.> *Now* he was pissed off. <Let me guess, the bond’s the reason why you’re able to do shit like that now, right?> He growled and closed his eyes as his nails dug into the small of Rufus’ back.

<Yes.> Thinking back on what had started this whole mess, Rufus sighed and set out to untangle the many knots in his lover’s crimson hair. <The longer we’re mated, it seems, the more we’ll be able to affect each other. I seem to be developing some immunity from magic from you. More importantly, you can’t hide your thoughts from me anymore.> He just hoped fervently that Reno could never easily read his thoughts.

"And you, being an asshole, have to use that fact against me. Have fun treating me like a… a fucking puppet or something?" That was what bothered Reno the most; having his control snatched away and Rufus’ will imposed on him, and unable to fight back against it.

<… I *may* have gone a little overboard in the last few days; in my defense, you were behaving like an idiot while we’re in enemy territory.> Rufus used his hold on Reno’s hair to make his lover look at him. <Obey my orders and fucking *behave* for once, and I won’t need to do that,> he thought with a heavy dose of exasperation.

"Then stay the hell away from that Tan Xi bitch or let me kill her." Reno’s hunger spiked at the thought, reluctantly settling back to a dull ache after a couple of seconds. Rufus sensed that the Elders’ mission would not come soon enough, especially after this morning. Reno desperately needed to feed.

And so did Rufus, after the fight and his injuries. Usually, he ‘fed’ from the emotions of the people around him; his gokenin’s loyalty and respect, the jealousy, desire and envy from the people he interacted with for business or social reason. Lately, however, it was Reno’s emotions that satisfied him best, that ‘tasted’ so good and left him tingling with energy. Not preferring to feed on anger or annoyance, he placed a soft kiss against Reno’s forehead then moved lower until his lips brushed against his mate’s.

Reno moaned as he parted his lips, his hands pressed flat against Rufus’ back. <Mates… that means… we can’t be apart, right?> he asked while he sucked on Rufus’ tongue, drawing it deeper into his mouth.

<No, we can’t, not for any real length of time.> Experience would teach them the exact amount. <And when one of us is injured, the other will feel that pain.> He gave Reno’s hair a quick tug. <Remember that the next time you decide to play with sharp objects or to pick a fight.>

Reno paused in the kiss for a moment, his thoughts suddenly dark, before he pulled away a little. "That’s why I can’t think about killing myself anymore." There were shards of silver in his eyes, and his emotions were a mix of fury and relief. Not wanting Reno to settle on the first, Rufus nuzzled his mate’s neck.

<We’re tied together until we die, Reno.> He scraped his teeth over Reno’s Adam’s apple then began to suck on the white skin. <Pardon me if I object to my life being cut short by your death-wish. Just think of it as having many, *many* years to torment me and drive me mad.>

Reno attempted to focus on his anger despite what Rufus had recently realized was an ingrained reaction amongst mates, but he couldn’t sustain the emotion when Rufus was marking him like this. Something inside called for him to fight back or surrender, and Reno had always considered himself as Rufus’ during their association. He begrudgingly gave in at first, growing more… ‘enthusiastic’ when Rufus bit down harder.

"Bastard," Reno muttered, his thoughts solely revolving around what Rufus damn well better be prepared to do to him in the next few minutes. There was a new hunger over their link, one for the pleasure and sense of connection Reno derived from sex with Rufus. He wanted that, wanted the relief and how *good* it felt to have Rufus inside both his body and mind.

<See, that lack of respect is why I always have to keep a close eye on you.> Rufus rolled his lover onto his back and settled firmly on top of him. When Reno didn’t protest the change of position or insult him again, he reluctantly pulled away so he could set about removing his clothes. He wanted to be as naked as Reno was, sprawled out beneath Rufus with his hair spread across the velvet comforter and his eyes darkened by passion. While there were many reasons for Rufus to regret the bond between them, he knew that few mattered when he had Reno beneath him like this, desiring him back and willing to do anything to have him.

Reno’s hands fumbled with the laces of Rufus’ pants while Rufus shed his coats and shirts. Once the pants were undone, Reno slipped his left hand inside; warm, calloused flesh pressed against Rufus’ hard cock. "Do I have to tell ya where to put this?" he asked, an amused, slightly depraved smile on his face.

Shuddering at the feel of Reno’s hand on his cock, Rufus struggled for control as he shifted away enough to shed his pants. "I think I’ve a good idea." Settling back between Reno’s thighs, he bent his lover’s right leg forward and rubbed his fingers along the exposed entrance. "Though you’ll shut up for once if I use your mouth."

Reno grabbed him by the upper arms and yanked him forward for another kiss. <You can do both.> He put all of his passion and need into that kiss, never one to be shy about his emotions when they would get him what he wanted. There was a fleeting thought that he couldn’t hide from Rufus anymore, couldn’t keep his emotions safe, but Rufus put an end to that by pressing his forefinger against that tight entrance.

Gasping in pleasure, Reno broke off the kiss and fumbled for something hidden beneath the pillows on the bed. Pulling out a small jar of lubricant, he tapped it several times with impatience against Rufus’ shoulder. "Want you, want you, want you," he chanted with obvious eagerness, his body writhing beneath Rufus’.

<I know,> Rufus informed his mate while he unscrewed the lid of the jar. That desire made his hand tremble, made him want to just thrust himself inside of Reno’s hot body. He tried to dampen the emotion a little, unwilling to give up all of his control, and begrudgingly admitted it would be a losing fight. He *wanted*, too, the sense of ecstasy, of satiation, and even of domination as Reno gave him all that and whatever else he desired. All that power, that deadliness wrapped up in a pale, sweat-slick body that he pressed into the mattress as he thrust inside; all that stubbornness and pride forgotten as Reno begged him for more.

His heart pounding and breath ragged, Rufus scooped some of the lubricant onto two of his right hand fingers and put them to use. There hadn’t been any sex last night since he’d kept Reno unconscious to avoid a fight, and his impatience and desire struggled with the need to properly prepare his lover. Matters were *not* helped by the way Reno mewled Rufus’ name, his voice deepening as he cursed about it taking too long and softening when he pleaded for Rufus to hurry up. All the while, he moved beneath Rufus, his legs spreading wider, his hands scratching lightly up and down Rufus’ spine, his head tossing back and forth as his neck arched.

The thought of how hot and tight Reno’s body felt to his fingers almost undid Rufus; he swore again, the words garbled by need and lust that threatened to rob him of coordination and control. Firming his resolve, he kept those fingers inside of his lover and scissored them apart, instead of yanking them out and replacing them with his cock. The way Reno called out his name and sent thoughts of how much he wanted Rufus to fuck him did *not* help, and Rufus could only hold out for another minute or so.

"Don’t complain to me if this hurts," Rufus told his mate, his voice as ragged as his self-control.

"I’ll heal," was Reno’s instant reply, his legs wrapping around Rufus’ waist until his heels crossed over the small of Rufus’ back. "Want, want, want," he chanted again, pulling Rufus closer all the while.

There was a flash of pain when Rufus entered Reno, a brief flare awash with pleasure and need. Fortunately, he’d done a better job than he’d suspected at preparing his mate and the pain quickly vanished, the pleasure growing stronger when he slowly thrust in as deeply as he could.

"Ah!" Reno arched his back, the crown of his head resting on the bed and his fingers once more digging into Rufus’ flesh. Judging from his thoughts, there was nothing he wanted more than Rufus moving, pulling back and thrusting forward, the motions repeated until-

Rufus inhaled sharply and echoed those images, his body unable to remain still while filled with such a wonderful sensation. He felt everything in almost painful detail; the slight, hot friction when his hips moved forward, a trickle of sweat down his spine, the way his skin stuck to Reno’s, sharp nails just about to break the skin of his shoulders…. *Everything*, and since he was also enmeshed in his lover’s thoughts, there was everything that Reno felt as well. Being filled until it was almost too much, the way Rufus’ hands grasped his ass and held it just right for each powerful thrust, the sudden explosion of ecstasy when he squirmed just *so*…..

The pleasure was so all-encompassing and had its sources in the most mundane actions and sensations that pieced together to a nerve-searing whole. The sight of Reno’s flushed face, the way strands of his hair clung to his forehead, the way he stared directly at Rufus… it was just as enjoyable as the feel of Reno’s body around his cock, the taste of salt against his tongue when he leaned down to lick the arch of Reno’s neck.

He continued to snap his hips forward and back, addicted to that friction and to the brilliant and ravishing emotions that poured into him with each motion. Making Reno feel as good as possible fed his hunger and left him aching for more, especially when some warm, *delicious* emotion meshed with the ecstasy and desire. Rufus wanted more of that elusive emotion just as his body craved the pleasure. Those needs drove him on, lending his thrusts more speed and his trembling hands the strength to hold tighter to Reno and tilt his mate’s hips up a little more, just enough to make Reno scream and claw down Rufus’ back.

That shock of pain only heightened the pleasure, making it even sharper in contrast and Rufus’ entire body began to tremble. He knew he couldn’t hold out much longer and entangled his mind even deeper with his mate’s until there was no way to tell who felt what. All of it was intense pleasure and burning need and wonderful friction, a muddle of sensations that only grew stronger until it seemed that all either of them could do was *feel*. Their other senses slowly faded out and then snapped back with a frightening clarity, right before those senses were shattered by a potent climax.

Their thoughts were tangled together for an endless, glorious time, and then Rufus was back in his own head, his thoughts clear and distinct from Reno’s. He lay on top of his mate, utterly spent and tingling with the aftershocks of his orgasm. The only movement either of them could manage for what had to be several minutes were rapid inhalations and exhalations, their hearts struggling to slow down and their bodies craving air.

Rufus groaned when he could finally move the rest of his body, pausing for a moment to nuzzle Reno’s bruised neck before he tilted over enough to fall onto the bed. He landed on his left side, his right arm stretched out over Reno’s chest. It was so important to keep the physical contact for as long as possible, to inhale his mate’s intoxicating scent and feel the flickering thoughts and swirling emotions inside of Reno.

"Fuck, but that was *great*," Reno croaked, and attempted to manage a laugh that his sore and dry throat wasn’t willing to produce. He worked up a purr, though, the soft sound filling the room as he rolled onto his right side to face Rufus. "Almost makes up for you being a controlling bastard."

"Don’t make me punish you now," Rufus warned. He strove for a serious air, but couldn’t resist combing his fingers through Reno’s thoroughly tangled hair. "Everything I do is for your benefit."

"Hmmm." Reno closed his eyes and shifted closer. <And your benefit, too. You never do anything that doesn’t get you ahead somehow.> His thoughts didn’t feel bitter or angry; rather, they were resigned and tired.

Rufus didn’t know how to reply to that. He had the disturbing notion that Reno probably knew him better than almost anyone else, perhaps even Tseng, between their link and their relationship. Rufus did always strive to put himself first… and he wasn’t sure how to go about adjusting to the fact that Reno was a very important and necessary part of his life now. If he considered his lover’s needs and desires as equal to his own, would that weaken him? Would it distract him as he focused on getting himself, his people and his business as safely through the war as possible?

<That seems to have hit a sore spot.> Reno chuckled and licked along the curve of Rufus’ right shoulder. <You got all serious.>

Realizing that Reno was sensing his emotions, Rufus growled in annoyance and tamped down on the link between them so the idiot couldn’t ‘read’ him so easily. "I do whatever I have to," he said to Reno, his hand wrapped around his mate’s long, damp hair. "And as we’re tied together now, whatever benefits me, benefits you."

"But that won’t stop you from keeping me in here while you go out to plot and attend parties." Reno shifted back enough so he could rub his eyes, clearly frustrated over his lack of freedom and being utterly bored. "We should just go home." All of his frustration, yearning and hunger shaded his voice, his emotions so powerful that Rufus felt overwhelmed with sympathy for a few seconds.

Shaking his head, Rufus reminded himself that he couldn’t let pity or concern affect his judgment, not while they were still in Berin. Still, he had to offer Reno a little bit of hope. "Keep to the apartment and out of trouble, and it shouldn’t be too much longer now. I promise that you’ll be able to feed soon." If he had to, he’d send Rude out to kidnap someone and bring them back to the palace so Reno’s hunger could be temporarily sated.

Reno was clearly shocked that Rufus had actually *promised* him something, and was torn between the hope that his hunger would be satisfied soon and the dark thought of what Rufus was up to now. "We’re gonna have to fool around some more if it puts you in this kind of mood," he teased a moment later with a lascivious grin.

Rufus glanced at the broken door and sighed in regret. "You’ll have to see what else you can get from me another time; there are several things I need to get done today and there will be no more ‘fun’ until that door is fixed." Because of the bond, he’d lost the ability to remain just the slightest bit aloof during sex with Reno and wouldn’t leave himself so exposed again if he could help it. "Come on, we both need a bath." He held out his hand as he sat up, a warm smile on his face when he thought about Reno scrubbing his back. That was the least the bastard could do after clawing it almost to shreds, but the energy Rufus had fed upon had made it heal very quickly.

Reno wavered over starting a fight since he would be stuck here while Rufus went out, and thankfully did little more than grumble under his breath and give in several seconds later. He was too tired to do the fight any justice, and more than a little hopeful that he could wheedle something else out of Rufus while he was in a generous mood.

Smiling in amusement at his mate’s calculating thoughts, Rufus decided he’d see just how far Reno was prepared to go with that ‘wheedling’. He could always skip that luncheon, if necessary.

*******

Jo was in the office, enjoying a cup of coffee flavored by hazelnut liqueur, when there was a soft knock on the door. Before she could call out that it was okay to enter, the door opened and Cassandra peeked around its edge. "Is it all right to speak with you for a few minutes?" she asked, a slight frown on her face.

"What do you think?" Jo asked, her voice a little sharp even though she was amused at being asked such a question by a precog. Cassandra’s frown was replaced by a self-depreciative smile as she entered the room.

"I know you’ll almost never say ‘no’, but I didn’t want to bother you if you were truly busy," Cassandra explained. Once the door was safely closed behind her, the illusion that aged her appearance by at least thirty years faded away, revealing her beauty and physical youth. Jo’s lips pressed together for a moment while her friend approached the desk; Cassandra didn’t often drop the illusion unless she was certain that they wouldn’t be disturbed, and it was… surprisingly painful to see how little the woman had changed over the last two decades. Two decades which had seen Jo’s brown hair become streaked with grey and wrinkles line her mouth, eyes and forehead.

Sometimes, Jo could understand why humans tended to not get along very well with bounds. If it were just a matter of the bounds’ powers, perhaps there wouldn’t be such hatred and fear, but it struck something deep inside to see a bound not change over the amount of time it took a human to go from the prime of their youth to middle age and beyond. Cassandra would probably appear the same after Jo died from old age, and would live for centuries to come. There were days when Jo felt she’d give a lot to know that she wouldn’t get any older, that her strength and endurance wouldn’t fade any more.

"Is… is something wrong?" Cassandra asked as she stood in front of the desk, her hands clasped behind her back. She was dressed in a simple gown today, pale gold in color with a border of embroidered knots in rust colored thread along the edges of the sleeves, neckline and skirt. Jo guessed that she wasn’t here to spend time with Botan and sat up straighter in the padded leather chair.

"I’m afraid I’m just feeling my age today," Jo admitted with some reluctance; she hated to share her problems with people but Cassandra was a dear friend. Besides, while sitting in Miyuki’s old office surrounded by various mementos of her other dear friend, she could easily imagine that lovely woman giving her a frown and chiding her about hiding things from friends. "I always tend to get a bit maudlin when I prepare the food orders for the upcoming week." She couldn’t help but remember all the times she’d done this with Amanda and Miyuki.

"Ah." Cassandra didn’t seem to need any more of an explanation than that. For a moment she appeared very sad, before she sniffed a little and shook her head. "I’m sure it’s a very demanding job, ensuring that there’s enough food for all the customers and employees."

Jo laughed a couple of times before she sipped her coffee. "It’s demanding as hell just keeping all the Guards who’ve made the Koneko their second home fed! Ken alone can lay waste to my pantry on a bad day!" The food orders had more than doubled in the past few months, and she was grateful for the new addition to the building. Most of the Koneko’s suppliers just assumed that the renovations were responsible for the increased demand in goods, which was partially true. It was a much more acceptable answer than that the Koneko had become the inn of choice for the city’s bound population.

Thankfully, the inn’s odd luck held true. Despite all the money-less bounds and other strays they’d helped lately, the inn was making a huge profit. That in turn enabled Jo to order more food to have on hand in case strays showed up, which they inevitably did, and she couldn’t help but wonder just how active the Koneko’s supposedly forgotten god was lately. She didn’t mind the extra work, but the inn would definitely need to hire more employees soon.

"I don’t think you came here to watch me figure out how many dozens of eggs I need to order, did you?" she asked Cassandra as she set her mug aside. "And would you care for something to drink or eat?"

Cassandra shook her head while she moved away from the desk, toward a bookcase whose shelves were lined with old ledgers and various knickknacks. "Thank you, but no. Maddox and Kira already offered; I’ve several errands to run and only stopped here today to ask you a… a favor." Her voice turned sad when she picked up a small grey stuffed cat made out of patchwork fabric that her son had given Miyuki, many years ago. Beside it was the one that Yohji had made.

Enough reminiscing about the past, Jo scolded herself and carefully set some papers aside. "Cass, we’ve known each other far too long for you to be shy about asking for favors," she chided. "Spit it out."

Now it was Cassandra’s turn to laugh. The lovely woman did just that as she spun around, the patchwork cat clutched to her chest. "I’ve always adored how you often cut straight to the heart of the matter, Jo." She smiled and tilted her head to the side, her thick, curly black hair covering her face until it was pushed back. "That is a very refreshing trait for a human."

Probably, considering the fact that Cassandra was used to people who could read thoughts and sense emotions. Jo picked up her mug and enjoyed some more coffee. "I don’t believe in wasting time," she explained, grateful that her friends didn’t mind her sometimes blunt manner. "Now, about that favor."

"Well, it’s not much of a favor, I hope. I mean, after all, you’ll benefit from it." Cassandra patted the stuffed cat for a moment and sighed. "Would you terribly mind if Marta and Neely lived here?" she asked, her voice quiet as if she was afraid of how Jo would answer. "They, well, Marta would be prepared to help at the inn. Neely is, too, although Marta refuses to let her wait on any customers, like she wants." She spoke the words in a rush and fell quiet, clearly waiting for an answer.

Jo thought about what her friend had asked. Really, Cassandra didn’t have to worry about her turning the two bounds away; the Koneko owed a debt to Marta that would never be fully paid for her healing Teddy after the king’s wedding. And if she and her daughter were truly in need, there was no way to turn aside two strays. "How can you call yourself a precog and ask me if they can move here?" she asked with a disbelieving snort.

Cassandra appeared puzzled for a moment and then smiled. "I’m terribly sorry," she answered, her head hung low and her face once again covered by her thick hair. "I should have known better, but I didn’t want to presume." She pushed the hair aside and laughed, the sound warm and affectionate. "Marta is honest about working, you know."

Waving her left hand at her friend, Jo gave her a stern look as well. "I won’t turn away any able help, but it’s not necessary. It would be more than worth her and Neely’s room and board to know there’s a healer on the premises. And Neely’s always a delight to have around." Emmie should be very happy to know that her best friend would soon be living here. Jo was pleased that the young girl would have someone close to her own age to confide in, especially one so cheerful and… and innocent. Ani’s childhood had been too harsh for her to relate to Emmie about many things, and Kira was often too busy between the inn, her wedding chest and Mickey to spare Emmie much time.

"If I may ask, is there any specific reason why they need to move?" She didn’t like prying, but she had to know if there was any danger in them living at the Koneko.

"There are two," Cassandra said, her expression turning serious. "The first one is that Esset has stepped up its… ‘recruitment’ of all bounds able to heal. Marta would probably remain safe if she stayed in her apartment…."

"But she’ll be safer here, between the Koneko’s patron god and Aya," Jo finished for her.

"Yes, exactly." Cassandra’s smile was one of relief. "I’m glad you understand that. I don’t believe the Koneko will be placed in any danger from her presence, and she would feel more secure if she lived here. Also, she is trying to coordinate all the bound healers willing to assist Kritiker during the war, and it would be easier for her to do so while at the Koneko."

That made sense, considering how many bounds made it a point to visit the inn, Jo thought. "Is that the second reason?" she asked, her mug clasped between her two hands.

"Ah, no." Shaking her head, Cassandra made a rueful sound. "Perhaps there are three reasons." She glanced at the stuffed cat in her hand and smiled, the expression wistful. "The other reason I had in mind was that Crawford specifically asked that Neely spend as much time at the Koneko as possible."

More than confused by the odd request, Jo felt a spark of anger. "Don’t tell me he’s involving that sweet child in one of his schemes," she asked, her voice sharpening. "Marta will have his balls if that’s the case."

Cassandra laughed and shook her head. "No… well, mostly no. There’s a reason he wants the child here, but he swears that he means her no harm or manipulations. Apparently, one of his companions is a water elemental bound." Her smile slipped from her lips, and she looked so much like a heartbroken child that Jo found herself rising from the chair. Then Cassandra shook her head again and took a deep breath, appearing her normal, if a bit sad, self again.

"Neely has been truly blessed; she is a very lovely, gifted child born to a mother who has sacrificed almost everything so she would have a happy, safe childhood. Not all water elemental bounds are so lucky." A dark look crossed Cassandra’s face for a moment, something that threatened so much pain to a person.

"I’ve… heard stories," Jo said, her voice pitched soft and low. Aya had talked to her about Neely’s kind not long after he met the girl, and what he’d told her had made her very sad and furious. "I’ve also realized over the years that bound children such as Schuldig and Neely are the rare exceptions, and very lucky."

Cassandra blushed slightly and held up the patchwork cat. "I had to ensure that Schu was raised aware of his gift and destiny, as well as always protected. Perhaps I could have entrusted him to Miyuki, but she couldn’t have taught him how to control his talent. As for Neely, Marta suspected that she would birth a water elemental bound and wouldn’t risk her child being hurt or abused because of her nature. She left behind her beloved sister and has had to hide her true nature for so long."

Jo knew that the healer didn’t regret it for a moment; that was perfectly clear to anyone who saw how Marta smiled at her daughter. "So what does Crawford expect Neely to do?" she asked after a minute or two of silence.

"From the little he’s told me, the water elemental bound he’s bringing to the Koneko hasn’t been as fortunate as Neely. He’s hoping that she will be able to help his companion." Cassandra tugged on a lock of her hair with her left hand and frowned in frustration. "I am not quite sure what he is up to, but I don’t think it will harm Neely in any way. Also… it may be a good idea for her to better understand what could happen to her if she isn’t careful. Marta may have done too good of a job of protecting her."

Neely was an incredibly bright, inquisitive child who had very little ‘darkness’ to her. Jo thought about how beautiful she already was, both because of her bound blood and her sweet personality, and how she attracted people without any effort on her part. Then Jo thought of Ani and wished that she could hit something to vent the sudden rush of anger she felt. No, Neely did need to become aware that there were people out there who would be so very eager to harm or use her. "I take it you didn’t mention that to Marta?"

"Of course not." Her frown growing stronger, Cassandra returned to the bookcase and placed the cat beside its companion. "While Marta realizes that Neely needs to be more aware of the dangers she faces, she’s in no rush to see her daughter’s innocence fade. I don’t think that will happen anytime soon, but it wouldn’t be a bad thing to show her that the world will not always be so kind to her." There was a note of reluctance in her voice, one that Jo understood. It never was a pleasant task, ensuring that a child learned just how bad the world could be.

"As I said, both of them are more than welcome to live here. I could use Marta’s help in the common room, especially since she should be able to tell if a customer is too drunk." Jo shared a wide grin with Cassandra before she continued. "There would be the understanding that if her talent is needed she’ll be excused from work. As for Neely, I’m sure Aya wouldn’t object to her assistance with the garden, and she can work in the kitchen as well." That would free Touya up so he could spend more time in the common room, while Kira could tend to the guest rooms. Jo would still need to hire some more people to assist with the rooms and serving food; she was reluctant to let just anyone back in the kitchen, considering the conversations that took place there, not to mention Emmie, Maddox and now Neely.

"Good." Cassandra gave the cat one last pat and turned around, her full skirt twirling around her slim legs. "I’ll go tell them now. Expect them tomorrow afternoon." She nodded once and giggled. "Even though I told Marta that I needed to ask you first, she insisted on packing. She has more sense than I do."

"Such a poor excuse of a precog, you are," Jo couldn’t help but tease. Twenty years of being around bounds, having them raid her pantry, make her customers act as if they were enacting a fertility rite, read her thoughts and tell her if it was going to rain the next day or not, and she still felt some awe at their powers. She was also grateful for the times when they clearly reined in their talents so as not to seem to impinge upon her too much, such as now. "I must say, the timing is almost suspicious – Mickey has just finished a suite in the attic that will be perfect for them."

Cassandra closed her eyes and hummed for a moment. "I am not surprised to hear that. I’ve always suspected that he has the attention of the inn’s god." She opened her eyes and upon seeing Jo’s surprised expression, smiled. "I almost think I hear the god’s thoughts, from time to time, and am certain that he is very much aware of what goes on around here and is quite pleased." Her smile grew weaker and she faced the patchwork cats once again, this time stroking her fingers over the faded blue ribbon wrapped around the neck of Yohji’s. "Yotan told me about his plans to sign the inn over to Mickey when he and Aya stopped for tea the other day. He wanted to be sure that it was the right thing to do, and from what I could see, I told him it was." Her shoulders hunched forward the slightest bit. "You need to let him go, Jo. Much of his future is hidden from me because of Aya, but I know it’s not here. I can see a glimpse of a star-filled sky, smell cedar and pine scented air, hear the silence of an undisturbed forest. That is his true home."

She took a deep breath and faced Jo. "Meanwhile, Mickey’s future is the Koneko, and I feel he’s the god’s chosen successor to Miyuki. His line will stretch on for centuries to come and will prosper with the inn. Let Yohji and Aya go, and they will return to make sure both Mickey’s descendents and the inn are well, that I swear to you on the risk of eternal pain for my soul." She appeared so earnest, so certain, that Jo was stunned into silence. "It’s never easy to watch your son walk away from you, Jo, that I do understand. But however much you want to keep him here and make sure he’s safe, it would be the worst thing you could do. He’ll be safer and happier away from the Koneko; that and fate won’t let him stay." Cassandra fell silent, an apprehensive look on her face as if she wasn’t sure how Jo would react to what she had said.

Jo took a sip of her coffee and used the time to compose herself. Yohji was indeed a son to her, someone she loved and cherished and wanted only to be happy. "I understand what you’re saying, Cass, but there’s no need for him to leave just yet." She closed her eyes and fought with the pain that sprung up whenever she considered Yohji leaving the Koneko. "I won’t hold him back, not if it’s best that he’s gone; however, I’m not going to watch him leave his home before he has to do so," she tried to explain. Was it so wrong to want as much time with him as possible?

Cassandra bowed her head and smoothed her hands down the bodice of her dress. "Again, I understand, Jo. Right now, Yohji is caught up in the future and doesn’t understand that there is still time. He wants to be as prepared as possible for what’s to come. My advice is let him sign the inn over to Mickey; once that’s done, some of his fears will be assuaged and he’ll feel better. As you said, there’s no reason he has to go now, but there is comfort to be found in the fact that if he had to do so, that things would be in order and the people he’s leaving behind won’t suffer from the lack of preparation."

"I won’t let him just sign everything over to Mickey; Miyuki left him the inn for a reason, and he’ll need the Koneko from time to time." Jo set the mug on the desk, her resolve firm. "All that’s left to do is figure out a suitable compromise."

"Ah yes, that should be fun to watch!" Cassandra laughed and clasped her hands together. "I have every faith that you will work something out, Jo. Now, if it doesn’t offend, I must be going." She bowed her head and straightened out her skirts. "I shall see you tomorrow."

"Have a good day, Cass." Jo waved goodbye and watched her friend leave. Then she got up from the desk and went over to the bookcase.

She could still remember the day when Yohji and Schuldig had given the gifts to Miyuki, after spending so much time at Cassandra’s working on them in secret. Yohji’s cat was made from scraps of red and white velvet carefully pieced together, with what had once been bright green yarn for eyes. He’d liked cats even back then, and Jo couldn’t help but smile at thinking about his latest ‘feline’. Miyuki had been so happy with the gifts and made such a fuss over them. Yohji and Schuldig hadn’t been able to stop grinning all day because of her reaction.

There were bits of Yohji scattered throughout the inn, and Jo didn’t know how it would go on once they were all that remained of him. It had hurt so much to lose Miyuki, and Yohji was the biggest part of her that was left as well. He took after her with his looks and personality, that slightly askew cheerfulness and desire to laugh at the world that had resurfaced with Aya’s arrival.

"Why couldn’t it be him who stayed?" Jo asked, the question directed at the inn’s patron god. Yet even as she spoke, she guessed that she knew the answer. Yohji cared about the Koneko, but it was just a building to him, filled with the people he loved. And most of all, he loved Aya, who wouldn’t be able to stay for very long. Meanwhile, Mickey truly loved the Koneko, as much as he loved Kira, if not more. Mickey was the one who fussed over broken railings and scuffed floors and whether the chimneys were properly cleaned. He would never leave the Koneko, not willingly at least, and Jo had to wonder just how fated it had been that Miyuki had adopted him and Teddy. She couldn’t help but wonder if that had been what her dear friend had planned all those years ago, knowing about Yohji’s father and what her son would be. Perhaps the god had ‘spoken’ to her when she’d been told about the orphaned children of a fellow Guard.

"I’ve given twenty years of my life to the Koneko, and I plan on giving however many years I have left as well. Miyuki took me in and I have done my best to return her kindness by looking after her sons and her home. All this time, and I’ve been happy enough here that I never asked for anything more. Well, I’m asking now," Jo told the nameless god, her voice quiet yet more determined than reverent. "Whatever protection you can provide, give it to Yohji. Whatever healing you can endow, give it to Aya. And don’t you dare let those blessings end once they leave your threshold. Mickey and I may be the ones who stay, but Yohji and Aya will be the ones who will always protect this place. They deserve those blessings, dammit!" She glared at nothing in particular, her hand cupped over the velvet cat as if to protect it.


Several minutes passed that way, and just as she began to think she was being a bit silly, a gentle touch ran across her right cheek. She gasped and touched the oddly warm skin just as a feeling of assent washed through her.

She stood there for another minute, her fingers pressed against her cheek, before she shook her head and returned to the desk. There were the orders to finish, and then she needed to get things set up for Marta’s and Neely’s arrival. Not to mention that Maddox was still learning and couldn’t be counted on to handle dinner without her help just yet. Oh, she had hope that in another couple of months he would; he was such a fast learner and seemed to thrive on the chaos that usually took place in the kitchen.

As she sat at the desk, she couldn’t help but feel that the nameless god was being a bit meddlesome lately. The Koneko now had a new cook in training, one who loved the work and seemed determined to take Jo’s place one day. Soon there would be a new server who was also a healer, and Jo was still serious about offering jobs to whatever bounds wanted them. Years ago, Miyuki had told her that the inn had a way of drawing to it all the help it needed, almost always in the form of strays, and she’d seen that be proved true over time.

She could only hope that it wasn’t a bad sign that the Koneko was suddenly drawing so many new people to it. First Aya, then Maddox and Emmie, followed by Omi, and now Marta and Neely. Oh, and she could probably count Ken, Yuushi, Reiichi and Naru as well, not to mention the fact that Eri practically lived here now. There was now a kage in residence, along with a flesh gaki bound, a soul gaki bound, two wizards – one with a frightening amount of potential, from what Botan said – an earth elemental bound and a water elemental bound. As well as a succubae bound, never forget, and soon enough another earth elemental bound, flesh gaki bound, succubae bound, and two soul gaki bounds…. Her head began to hurt.

"You better damn well keep that promise," she threatened the god as she doubled the amount of the food she was ordering. She’d seen Nagi and Schuldig decimate platters of food before and knew she’d have trouble keeping up with them. There were also the three strange bounds that Crawford was bringing, and oh sweet gods, how could she forget about Jei? Or the fact that the Guard would begin a new cadets class in another week, which meant that the inn would be flooded with even more bounds?

The Koneko’s suppliers would be *ecstatic* once they saw the orders she’d have to place. Meanwhile, she’d have to hide the bills from the Koneko’s ‘chosen successor’ until they added up the month’s profit, or poor Mickey would have a heart attack.

*******

Wufei hissed in frustration as he put yet another useless book back on the shelf. Both he and Quatre had very extensive libraries, which they had merged once they decided to live together - and when it was clear that the Elders wouldn’t allow them to return home any time soon. Yet in the collection belonging to one of Esset’s richest and most influential lords, or in Wufei’s own, there seemed to be nothing to support his theory. A theory that he had kept from his lover, unwilling to give it voice until he was sure it wasn’t just his imagination and foolish thinking.

He’d spent all of his free time in the past week scouring these books and hadn’t found anything definite yet. While he felt that he was on the right track, he had to admit that he was growing very frustrated with his search. Only his pride as a scholar made him reach for yet another book and scan an inner page for any suitable chapters that might provide the information that he sought.

Despite Wufei’s frustration, he felt an odd sort of peace here in the library. He had been raised to be both a scholar and a warrior. When he hadn’t been learning how to fight, he’d spent the rest of his time in a room much like this, poring over books that taught him about history, battle tactics and even poetry. The best warrior was a well-rounded one, capable of learning from the mistakes and successes of the past, and to see the world as more than just a battlefield.

Since he’d come to the attention of the Elders and had been given the choice of either willingly leaving for Berin or facing their soldiers, he’d had little time to do any research. He detested wasting his days at senseless parties being shown off and felt an increasing frustration with the Elders when it became apparent that they intended to fight the upcoming war the exact same way they’d fought the Binding War. The fools failed to grasp that they’d *lost* that one, even if the Captain’s intervention had largely contributed to Kritiker’s victory. While the Elders might believe that the last kage was dead, it was still idiotic to plan a war in that manner.

Thinking of Crawford’s biggest secret made Wufei redouble the efforts of his search. He’d hoped to find something in one of Le Fey’s books, as the writer had written extensively on the Captain and Ban, but was disappointed after almost an hour of research. Perhaps he should try some of Sang-il’s books….

"Should I start to accept the fact that I’ve been cruelly tossed aside for a library?"

Quatre’s amused voice and warm emotions pulled Wufei away from the book he was reading. He blinked slowly a couple of times and stared at his lover, needing a few seconds to shift from the analytical mindset he’d employed for the last several hours. "Quatre?"

"Ah, you remember my name at least." Quatre, dressed in an outfit of dark blue and white velvet and fine wool, hugged his arms around his chest as if to console himself. "Perhaps you just don’t find me attractive anymore. How can I possibly compete with history books and battle tactics?"

Wufei carefully closed the book in his hand and placed it back on the shelf, all the while looking down on his lover in a disapproving manner. "What I don’t find attractive is silliness, so please stop it," he sniffed. Quatre had the oddest sense of humor at times. "Are you done playing the fool for the day?" he asked as he descended the ladder.

"I certainly hope so." Quatre stopped pretending and sounded very tired, his expression a rare frown. "Lately I have this fear that one day I will pretend to be ‘Lord Raberba-Winner’ and won’t be able to return to my true self."

Going to his lover, Wufei tenderly brushed back the bright gold hair that fell over Quatre’s lovely blue eyes. "I will *not* allow that to happen," he swore, unwilling to lose the man he loved to that horrid false image. He understood why Quatre pretended to be a senseless fop and saw the need for it, but that didn’t make him tolerate it any less. The real Quatre was very intelligent, compassionate and possessed a ruthless streak that sometimes scared Wufei. Quatre would do whatever he needed to, and he’d shed his tears over his actions afterwards. Wufei would give almost anything to keep his lover from having to go too far.

Managing a smile, Quatre grasped Wufei’s right hand and gave it a squeeze. <I know you won’t,> he sent as he placed a kiss against the tips of Wufei’s fingers. <That gives me the courage to pull the mask on every day.>

<Soon you won’t have to employ the horrid thing.> Whatever the outcome of the war, Quatre could be his true self, if only to face the Elders before he was executed.

<Have I ever told you that you’re one of the most cheerful, optimistic souls I’ve ever met?> Those lovely eyes sparkled with mischief, and Quatre’s exhaustion appeared to have vanished.

"Hmph." Wufei snatched his hand away, but didn’t move from his lover’s side. "You are still being quite the fool. Go away if that’s how you’re going to be," he sniffed.

Quatre laughed and wrapped his arms around Wufei’s shoulders. "I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist." He laughed a little more and gave Wufei’s left cheek a kiss.

Pleased to have the man he adored so near, Wufei could only manage his mock annoyance for another minute. "In all seriousness, why are you here, Quatre?" The soul gaki bound had purposely given him some space in the last few days so Wufei could conduct his research. Quatre had even held back in mentally linking their thoughts together so he wouldn’t inadvertently pick up on Wufei’s suspicions.

"Mmm, I’ve some important news to report." Quatre pulled away, his right hand trailing down Wufei’s left arm until he intertwined their fingers. "Rufus and his gokenin have just left Berin under the rumor that he’s displeased the Elders."

Wufei found himself blinking once more, this time in surprise over the fact that people were actually supposed to believe the silly rumor. "If the Elders were displeased with Lord Shinra, he’d be dead or broken by now." Still, it was a very interesting bit of information. "Tell me more," he ordered.

Quatre bowed his head like an obedient servant, his amusement clear. "Yes, oh benevolent master." When he straightened up, his demeanor was perfectly serious. "I know the Elders have been busy plotting something for the last few days, ever since Rufus was in their morning attendance. Also, Rufus hasn’t allowed Reno to be seen in public since the party I held for him, and he hasn’t attended many gatherings himself lately. The few times I saw him, I got the impression that he was waiting for something, but was growing very impatient." He frowned as if contemplating something. "Not that I could *sense* anything from him, mind you." He was definitely annoyed at having his powers blocked.

Wufei felt a strong urge to return to his search at that thought. No, Rufus shouldn’t have been able to block Quatre like that, to the point where Quatre couldn’t even pick up a hint of emotion. That made him very suspicious, but it was a mystery that would wait for another day. Right now, he was trying to figure out what exactly Reno was, and hopefully find the key to making Rufus fight for them rather than against. "I can think of one reason why that ridiculous rumor is being spread about," he said after a moment of futile contemplation.

"He’ll be headed for Eto shortly. If Kritiker’s Spymaster thinks to investigate his recent activities, the rumor will be a good cover story for Rufus." Quatre shared a smile with Wufei; they both knew that the Spymaster wouldn’t be bothered to investigate too deeply, not when she had allied with Crawford, but the Elders didn’t know that. "Crawford should be pleased, as that’s what he wanted all along," Quatre continued after a moment’s pause, a hint of excitement to his voice.

"Yes, and Crawford can properly work on converting Rufus to our side," Wufei remarked, his thoughts already drifting off onto another tangent. Why was it that Crawford was so certain that Rufus would risk his very lucrative business and standing in Esset, not to mention betray the Elders, because of a visit to Eto? Just how exactly did Reno fit into the equation? For the last several days, ever since seeing Reno’s eyes turn silver and the bald gokenin’s efforts to hide that fact, the answer had been just out of his grasp. That was very frustrating, as Wufei did not like riddles when they affected him and those he loved. Not even the fact that Crawford didn’t seem to want him or Quatre to know Reno’s true nature would stop him; there were too many uncertainties between now and the war, and there was a chance that Crawford might not be able to communicate with them properly since he was now back in Eto. In order to make the most proper decisions about how to proceed in the next year or two, not to mention set up the Elders’ army so it failed, Wufei needed information.

"As I said, Rufus and his gokenin have already left. They only took enough supplies to get them back home; the servants will follow tomorrow." Quatre gave Wufei’s hand a squeeze then closed his eyes, probably so he could ‘talk’ to his own gokenin and spies. "Interestingly enough, Asok caught sight of Reno and claims that the man did not look very good. He appeared very weak."

Reno, a bound, appeared weak. Wufei focused on that fact, his thoughts whirling as he tried to make some sense of it, to break it down into solid, reliable information. There was no mention of Rufus appearing weak or sick as well, and what affected one mate should do the same for the other if it was any type of illness – which did not strike bounds very often in the first place. "What else did Asok report?" he asked with growing desperation. The answer was right… *right*… beyond his grasp, dammit!

<Reno was completely cloaked; Asok only noticed his appearance when Reno stumbled and his hood slipped back. He was even wearing a pair of tinted glasses.> Quatre sent the image supplied by the gokenin. <Now that I think about it, this is only the second time I’ve known for him to be out in sunlight. The first was when he arrived with Rufus. Even before Rufus kept him confined to quarters, Rufus never assigned him to run any errands that required leaving the palace.> Even Quatre was suspicious about that.

This latest bit of news made Wufei’s thoughts race even faster. "So we have someone who has weakened for some reason, something that Rufus should not allow to happen because it would affect him negatively as well. The most common cause for a bound to weaken would be the overuse of one’s talent; however, we have no clue what Reno’s talent is in the first place." Everything about the situation was unusual… was unnatural…. "Turner!" Wufei cried out, feeling victorious about figuring which historian he should have been researching all this time.

While Quatre stared on in confusion and growing amusement, Wufei dashed across the room, dragging the ladder behind him, until he got to the appropriate section of the library. Then he quickly scaled the ladder and searched through the books on the second to the top row of shelves. Crowing in triumph, he grabbed ‘History of Unnatural Magic’ and jumped to the floor. As soon as he landed, he hurried to the nearest table, not bothering with any chairs but sitting on the table’s surface.

"Aversion to sunlight, silver eyes that reflect light, physical weakness without any apparent cause…," he murmured as he flipped through the pages, searching for a matching description.

He could feel his lover’s shock over the light link they shared. "Wufei… do you know you’re describing a kage?" Quatre said, his voice very quiet and concerned. <That’s not possible – Reno can’t be a kage because of… well, there’s already one and I’ve never heard of two kage existing at the same time; they’re too rare.>

"No, not a kage." Wufei was only able to say that word aloud because they were in a room in their own quarters, warded by charms that Quatre had paid dearly for to ensure that they weren’t overheard. "What people tend to forget is that there is something else out there even more rare and very similar in nature." He couldn’t help but smile when he found the description he’d been searching for all week long. <’A dubhach shares an aversion for sunlight and the silver-eyed phenomena of the kage’,> he quoted, his thoughts finally at peace since he’d found his answer.

Quatre looked as if he didn’t want to believe it, but the man was too intelligent to allow himself to be fooled for long. His expression soon turned thoughtful. <Reno doesn’t possess the pale skin of a kage or a dubhach,> he mentioned, his mental tone slightly detached as he tried to assess the situation in as neutral a mindset as possible.

Wufei snorted and pointed to one of the many charms hanging from the library’s walls and shelves. "All it would take was one very well crafted illusion spell and that wouldn’t be a problem. Reno wore several pieces of jewelry; any one of them could have masked his true appearance." He combed his left hand through his hair and let out a slow breath. <Think about it, Quatre. You told me that you smelled ozone and saw sparks when Rufus and Reno were fighting. The dubhach differs from a kage in that they attack with some sort of energy instead of shadows. A dubhach is also supposed to be invulnerable to magic, which would explain why you couldn’t read Reno’s thoughts.>

<Or Rufus’, which I should be able to do since he’s a soul gaki bound. Unless there’s some unknown benefit to being mated to a dubhach that we don’t know about, which is likely since I only know of one other adult dubhach.> Quatre’s tone remained slightly flat while his expression grew worried. <Reno being a dubhach would also explain why Crawford wasn’t able to see very much about Rufus and Reno, as well as why he believes that Reno meeting… well, how that will make Rufus change his mind on who to support during the war.>

That would explain a great many things, Wufei thought as he continued to read. The few dubhach who had lived long enough to be recognized had been highly irrational bounds, prone to suicide and violent mood swings. He recalled how he hadn’t seen any scars on Reno, which was odd for a gokenin who was obviously good at fighting. That leant support to the illusion theory, and he’d also noticed that Reno hadn’t had any weapons in his possession.

<How long had you suspected?> Quatre asked, the question faint enough that he could have ignored it if deep in thought.

<At the party you held for Rufus, I couldn’t help but notice his speed and his eyes. Also, when I tried to use my power against a piece of metal he was holding, I wasn’t able to move it at all.> He’d tried to pull the hair clip to him and toss it back in retaliation for the bit of food Reno had thrown, almost too fast for him to deflect. And the way the gokenin had tried to hide Reno’s eyes made it obvious that there was something important about them.

<Yes, I can see that now, and understand why Rufus was so protective about his mate. If the Elders found out that there’d been a dubhach within their grasp….> There was no need for Quatre to finish that thought.

Shivering slightly at the thought of the damage the Elders could inflict on Kritiker if they were able to use Reno however they wished, Wufei gently shut the book and set it aside <Quatre… I am… almost frightened by this,> he admitted with great reluctance to the man he trusted the most. <A kage and a dubhach born at the same time? While I should be pleased that it means our chances of winning the war are so much better, what are the odds that anyone would survive such a war?>

Quatre came to his side and leaned against him as if seeking reassurance. <There’s also the fact that if Rufus does keep his allegiance to the Elders, this war is going to become even more destructive. The kage would probably win out in the end, being pure shinigami, but I’ve no desire to witness a fight between kage and dubhach. I can only pray that Crawford wins Rufus and Reno to our side>

Wufei greatly respected and held much confidence in Crawford; if those feelings were misplaced, the result could be utterly disastrous. <We have to do whatever we can to ensure that Rufus does *not* return to Berin. Somehow, in part thanks to you and Crawford, he managed to get out of here without anyone discovering the truth. Pardon me if I hold little faith in him being able to duplicate that feat again.>

<We’re going to have to carefully shield any thoughts in regards to him and Reno as well,> Quatre calmly pointed out. <I believe there will be a new rumor tomorrow, one that I’m sure Rufus would be only too happy to gut me with his bare hands over.> Wufei got fleeting impressions about venereal diseases and Reno earning some money ‘on the side’. Oh yes, just the thing to infuriate a mated bound, yet a way to explain Reno’s weakness today and ensure that if he had to return, that no one would want to have anything to do with him.

"You, my lord, are a horrible gossipmonger," he sniffed in mock disapproval.

Pulling away, Quatre gave Wufei a very foppish, flamboyant bow. "Guilty as charged, General. How better to hide the truth than with salacious lies?" he inquired in a voice pitched slightly higher than normal and too cheerful for words before he joined Wufei on the table. They sat side by side with their arms wrapped around each other’s waists, the link between their minds unblocked once more.

"I cannot accept that people spend their days being amused by and spreading such ridiculous lies." Wufei promised himself that as soon as this war was over, he and his lover would retreat to the Raberba-Winner lands and spend at *least* a year in seclusion, possibly more. While Quatre did enjoy interacting with people, he didn’t think his lover would object, not after all they‘d had to endure here in Berin. And during that peaceful time, Wufei would put aside his sword and concentrate once more on the scholarly pursuits he’d always loved. As much as he felt whole with a weapon in his hand and a fight to look forward to, searching for knowledge was just as rewarding.

Now to do his best to ensure that there was a time for peace and knowledge after the war.

*******

Crawford fought to not grind his teeth together as he rode through Eto’s western Green district. Really, he should have known better, but he’d had the rather silly hope that perhaps common sense would prevail amongst his companions.

He’d planned on entering Kritiker’s capital with Jei and Trowa and had only been half correct. Trowa was indeed by his side, but instead of Jei there was Nagi, Masato and Schuldig. Nagi had refused to wait another day and take anything other than the most direct route to the Koneko because he wanted to see Aya and Omi. Schuldig had felt the same way, eager to see his mother again, and had joined the boy’s side. Which meant that Masato had to tag along as well, of course, and all three of them adamantly refused to listen to any attempts at reason that Crawford made. In the end, what should have been a small, mostly unnoticeable group entering Eto had doubled in size and taken on the air of a traveling carnival. At least Jei had agreed to wait another day and accompany Duo into the city, and Heero would arrive a day or two after them.

"You would do best to relax, ‘Brad’," Trowa remarked, his voice quiet and his demeanor focused as he rode along, only seeming to pay the slightest bit of attention to the city around them.

Not surprised that the water elemental bound had picked up on his annoyance, Crawford sighed and attempted to do as suggested. "I’ll feel much better when we reach our destination," he replied, then glanced over his shoulder to see Nagi’s plainly displeased countenance. "No, we will *not* hurry up," he informed the boy with a sour look of his own.

<Aw, come on, he wants to see Aya and fool around with Omi, you big grouch. If we turn left at the next crossroads, we can take a shortcut to the Koneko. Let’s get moving.> Schuldig’s thoughts were flavored with anticipation and happiness.

<No. We’re already attracting attention because of the size of our party; I won’t add to it by riding for the inn as if we’ve a cadre of Guards on our heels. However, I will allow the shortcut.> Crawford figured that it would make them seem more like locals rather than strangers if they appeared to know the area so well, and he would be more than happy to reach the Koneko sooner rather than later. Then he could wash his hands of these idiots for a few hours.

The ride to Eto had been a long, arduous one, all of them pushing their mounts as much as possible. They’d spent several nights camped outside and several days entirely in the saddle, and what Crawford longed for now was some quiet time, a soak in the Koneko’s hot spring and a decent meal. Oh, and a cask or two of cider would be greatly appreciated as well. But more than anything, he didn’t want to have to deal with Schuldig or Nagi for a short while. He was tired of the latter’s glares and mumbled comments about their ‘slow pace’, and Schuldig’s attempts at pranks during the trip had done nothing for his temper.

Schuldig took the lead when they reached the aforementioned crossroads; he increased their pace slightly, but for once seemed to mostly listen to Crawford as it wasn’t the flat out run that he’d been encouraging for the last two hours. Unfortunately, Crawford suspected that their still conservative pace had more to do with the narrowness of the alley and the number of people walking about more than a sense of restraint on his idiot son’s part.

"There it is!" Schuldig proclaimed after a few blocks, when through the narrow opening ahead they could see a familiar red brick wall. Crawford resumed the lead at that point, slightly surprised at the Koneko’s altered form once his horse trotted out onto the cobblestone street. He’d known about the new addition to the inn, but had continued to keep its old appearance in mind since he hadn’t had any visions of the inn’s new exterior. The Koneko seemed to be doing very well, if he was any judge of the matter.

Glaring at Schuldig to keep the idiot from racing down the street, he directed his horse toward the small entrance that would lead to the inn’s stables. His horse seemed to remember its previous stay here and quickened its tired pace, its head bobbing up and down as it made faint snorting sounds. Trowa was soon pushed aside by Nagi, who rode right beside Crawford through the arched entrance.

"Ichiro!" the boy called out, and was halfway out of his saddle even before his horse stopped. Both he and Schuldig were on the ground and removing their saddlebags by the time the inn’s stable master appeared, a wide smile spreading across Ichiro’s usually impassive face when he recognized them.

"Naoe and Schu, it’s good to see you again." He smiled at Schuldig and nodded in the direction of the kitchen. "I guess this explains why your mother’s been here all day, dressed in one of her finest gowns." He didn’t seem too surprised to see them, but Crawford could sense that emotion from the taciturn man, along with happiness and amusement. Ichiro looked over the rest of the group, his smile fading a little more whenever he noticed each new horse and rider.

"I think you’ve been riding those poor things a bit hard," he said after a moment, while he approached Nagi’s horse. "Jason!" he called out as he took the horse’s reins from Nagi, his voice only pitched a little louder than usual.

"Yes, Ichiro!" A young man only a little older than Nagi burst out of the stables, a rope halter draped over his left shoulder. He was dressed in plain clothes that were a little too big for him, and his black hair framed a gaunt face. When he looked at Crawford with a hint of fear in his dark brown eyes, Crawford had a… feeling about the boy.

Ichiro seemed to notice his employee’s hesitant manner and motioned for Jason to take Schuldig’s horse. "You don’t have to worry about these people, I promise. Now look after their horses. We’ll need to rub all of them down and make sure they get a good meal."

<Schuldig, he’s an earth elemental, one we can trust,> Crawford sent to his son while he dismounted.

<Yeah, I just picked up on that. Poor kid traveled on foot almost all the way from the border because he heard it would be safe here. Ichiro just hired him a few days ago; his talent lies with animals, which is why he’s not serving food or making the beds,> Schuldig explained.

Despite the many times that Schuldig annoyed and flat out infuriated him, Crawford had to admit that his son was very talented and knew how to put his power to use. If only Schuldig would learn some self-restraint – he had hope that his son’s bond with Masato would help Schuldig to develop that trait one day. Perhaps then there could be some sort of cooperation between the two of them.

"Like Ichiro said, you don’t have to worry about us," Schuldig told the still-cautious bound and did something with his power that made Jason’s eyes go wide and the slightly panicked look on his face vanish.

"Oh, okay." Jason grabbed the reins with his right hand and tenderly scratched behind the ears of Schuldig’s horse. "Good day to you." He bowed his head slightly before he led Schuldig and Masato’s horses into the barn.

"As you can imagine, there’s been a few changes around here," Ichiro remarked as he accepted the reins from Crawford and Trowa. "’Friends’ of yours have been giving Jo fits, ever since you left. She now talks in her sleep about grocery bills and the like." A wry smile flashed across his face, almost too quickly to be noticed, and his brown eyes sparkled with amusement. "I think she’ll be happy to see you anyway." He nodded once before he led the horses into the stables, giving Jason a few more orders once he crossed the building’s threshold.

Trowa stared after the human and shook his head. "An interesting man," he commented, his saddlebags draped over his left shoulder.

"You won’t see too much of him, not unless you like hanging out in the stables. During our last visit here, I think I only saw him inside the Koneko about four times." Ichiro had an almost bound-like reserve about humans, gained from his time in the Army. He was happiest in the stables, ruling his own domain much like Jo did the rest of the Koneko. Crawford respected the man, who had never seemed bothered by his kind and who had clearly won the respect and admiration of young Jason. Even as he walked toward the Koneko’s kitchen door, he could sense the bound’s eagerness to please his new employer, the emotion not born out of fear but affection.

"I hope he doesn’t mind if I check on Airoso." Trowa was concerned about his horse, and Crawford knew that he also enjoyed dealing with animals. During the ride, Trowa had been the one to tend to the horses, using his powers to help them endure the grueling pace. He should get along very well with Ichiro.

"I don’t think he’ll mind at all," Crawford answered. He placed his saddlebags over his left shoulder as well, while Nagi and Schuldig practically jerked the Koneko’s kitchen door off its hinges in their hurry to open it.

"We’re back!" Schuldig cried out, loud enough to wake the dead; Crawford didn’t bother with a reprimand since he knew it was useless. Let the boy have his reunion with Cassandra and then vanish into the nearest bedroom with Masato; he and Nagi had until tomorrow night to settle down, before Duo and Heero arrived.

Stepping into the warm kitchen, Crawford was treated to the sight of Schuldig lifting a crying Cassandra up and twirling her around in his arms, while Nagi was *actually* giving Aya a bear hug. Masato stood off to the side, almost exactly opposite the room from Yohji, and the two succubae bounds were eyeing each other warily.

"Welcome to the Koneko," Crawford told his friend. "Excellent food, wonderful beds, a large hot spring and lots of insanity to go around."

Jo, who had only been standing a few feet away, her attention seemingly focused on Nagi and Aya, turned around and slapped a thankfully clean spoon against Crawford’s right arm. "I heard that, and I’ll have you know that there are actual moments of sanity in this inn." She glared for a moment then sniffed, her stern demeanor vanishing after a few seconds. "Well, we have our ‘almost’ sane moments, at least." She smiled at Trowa. "Hello, I’m Jo."

"Trowa." The water elemental bound bowed his head slightly, his face wearing its usual impassive mask. Despite the fact that Crawford had told him he could trust the Koneko staff, he didn’t seem willing to relax in the presence of humans.

However, Jo didn’t seem bothered by his reserved nature; she was more than used to it with Ichiro and Aya. "You may be happy to know that there are rooms waiting for you, and Mickey is on his way to the hot spring to lock it up once the guests currently there leave. I thought you might need a good soak and would appreciate some privacy," she told Crawford. Then she turned her attention back to the other people in the room, smiling in pleasure at the sight of Schuldig, Cassandra, Nagi and Aya.

Yohji had given up on his staring contest with Masato and approached his mate. "Now, now, he’s mine, Nagi," he informed the earth elemental bound who had just stopped hugging Aya. "You’ve got your own boyfriend, don’t you?"

Nagi looked at Yohji as if repulsed by the man, then carefully scrutinized Aya from head to toe. "He’s still a bit thin, Kudoh; I think you’ve been feeding too much from him, you gluttonous moron."

For a moment, Yohji appeared furious before he laughed and draped his arms over Aya’s shoulders to wrap them around the kage’s upper chest. "I missed you too, you little demon. Cat, tell Nagi that you’re fine." He nuzzled Aya’s right ear as he addressed his mate.

"I’m fine," Aya reassured his friend, giving him a good once-over as well. "You gained some weight yourself, and grew a little."

Whatever an obviously pleased Nagi was going to say in response was lost as Omi burst into the kitchen. He was dressed in plain but well-made clothes, and was still cloaked in the mild illusion that prevented people from recognizing him as the Crown Prince. "Jo, what did you-" His voice faded off when he realized who was standing by his two friends, and moved almost as fast as a bound to cross the distance between the door and Nagi.

"Nagi!" He almost toppled his boyfriend when he practically launched himself at Nagi, and the two of them held each other close as if they were trying to merge into one being. Aya tugged a grinning Yohji away from the couple, giving him a warning look as he did so.

They went over to the other embracing couple, Schuldig and Cassandra. Crawford noticed that Yohji’s grin weakened and his shoulders hunched forward a little, and when he came to a stop, he once again held Aya tightly to his chest. "Is that idiot making you dizzy yet, Gorgeous?"

Cassandra giggled as she was set on the floor, her right arm wrapped around Schuldig’s waist. "A little, Yotan."

Schuldig smiled at his friend and pressed a kiss against the top of his much shorter mother’s head. "I’m just showing her how happy I am to see her. Next, I’ll hit her up for one of her fish dinners." He shared a grin with Yohji and seemed about to reach for his friend before his right hand stopped in mid-air and fell back to his side. "It’s great to be back home."

Yohji’s grin grew a little strained. "Yeah, I can feel how happy you are." It was almost as if he had to force himself to look at Masato. "Welcome back," he told his father, the words a bit forced but surprisingly civil.

Masato twitched and nervously brushed aside the hair falling onto his forehead. "Thank you, Yohji. Ah, I’m glad to be back, too." He appeared distinctly uncomfortable, his smile not entirely successful and more than a bit stilted. However, considering the fact that both he and Yohji were powerful succubae bounds who had an unfortunate history between them, Crawford was amazed at how well they got along. ‘Stilted’ was much preferred to ‘antagonistic’.

Cassandra looked back and forth between the two succubae bounds and sighed. "Masato, I must thank you for watching over my Trouble so well." She stepped away from Schuldig to approach Masato and stood up on her tiptoes as she kissed him on his stubbled chin. "I know it couldn’t have been very easy." Then she turned to face Crawford. "And thank you as well."


There was no kiss for Crawford, but he didn’t really mind. "I would have had an easier time if he’d been born with any common sense, but I managed." That provoked a furious glower from his son and a smile that was quickly smothered from Cassandra.

"For once, I will not argue with you," Cassandra said, a hint of amusement in her voice, ignoring her son’s cry of protest. She looked at Trowa and curtseyed, her head low as she spread her lavender colored skirt. "I am Cassandra."

"Trowa." This time, there was the slightest warmth to Trowa’s voice and he looked directly at her while he spoke. "I’ve heard about you."

"And I you, one of the Elders’ elite." Her expression was sad as she smoothed the pleats of her skirt. "I am honored to meet you."

Now that everyone – except for Nagi and Omi, who were exchanging hushed whispers between kisses – seemed to be finished with their greetings, Crawford began the introductions. "Trowa, you’ve already met Jo and Cassandra, let me introduce you to Aya and Yohji." The bounds nodded when he said their names, Aya’s face almost as impassive as Trowa’s and Yohji’s arms once more wrapped protectively around his mate’s upper chest. "The young gentleman currently kissing Nagi is Omi. I’m sure you’ll meet the rest of the Koneko staff very shortly." He was surprised that there wasn’t anyone else in the kitchen other than Jo.

"Yes, Maddox and Neely should be back from the pantry soon enough," Jo remarked and made her way back to a table upon which there were several bowls of cored and sliced apples. "Mickey will be here once the hot spring is locked up while Touya is watching the door, and Teddy, Marta and Ani are busy setting up the common room and supervising the new staff. Kira went out with Emmie for a few groceries, which means you won’t be barraged by a thousand questions until Emmie returns." Her smile was warm with affection when she mentioned the strange girl’s name. Crawford had a faint mental image of the child, and knew about her from Schuldig and Nagi, along with the rest of the Koneko’s new staff.

Jo cleared her throat before she continued. "I just so happen to have several shepherd’s pies in the oven, along with roast beef and stuffed chickens. You can wash up first, if you like, but I insist that you have something to eat before your soak," she sternly informed everyone. She looked around the room once more. "Is Jei still with the horses?" she asked, a slight hint of panic to her emotions.

Schuldig chuckled as he grabbed Cassandra and Masato by the hand and led them to the nearest dining table. "Relax, Jo, he’s not eating the horses. *Someone* didn’t want us to all arrive at the same time, so Jei should be here tomorrow."

At Jo’s curious look, Crawford bowed his head and motioned for Trowa to sit down. He wasn’t the only one who was starving since they’d skipped lunch in their rush to arrive, and he figured that washing up could wait for later. "He’ll arrive tomorrow afternoon with another companion. Jei, Nagi, Schuldig, Masato and I will remain here, if you’ll have us, while Trowa, Duo and Heero will stay elsewhere." That way, the Koneko’s secrets would be safe from Duo and Heero until they’d been convinced to betray the Elders. "Trowa will spend the night."

"I have the apartment ready," Cassandra said while she poured hot cider for everyone. "Rest tonight; I’ll take you to your new home tomorrow," she told Trowa, a friendly smile on her face. "I think you’ll like it, and it’s only a few blocks from here." She tilted her head to the side and looked at Crawford. "I reserved a room for Heero at the Gilded Sword."

"Thank you. That is a very suitable inn for someone hoping to join the Army." Despite all the times she delighted in aggravating him, Cassandra was mostly reliable. She wanted the same future as he did, and now that the war was approaching, seemed to be moving past their differences. He could do the same.

Crawford took a sip of the cider and groaned in appreciation. "I would like to speak to the Spymaster tomorrow, as early as possible."

Yohji paused in helping Jo and Aya set the table to nod. "I’ll send a message to her after we eat and won’t be surprised if she shows up tonight. She’s very eager to talk to you, too." He didn’t seem too happy to be talking about Birman, and his expression was worried when he glanced at Aya.

Crawford had to admit that Aya appeared much better than when he’d left. The kage had put on a few necessary pounds and seemed more at peace with himself. There was no more ‘Ran’ to him, a too-deferential shyness and skittishness. No, he calmly met Crawford’s gaze for a moment before he set down a couple of baskets of fresh bread.

"I take it that the Spymaster has been putting you and Aya to use?" Crawford asked as he reached for a slice of bread.

"She’s been keeping us pretty busy." Yohji didn’t seem very happy about that, either, his eyes narrowing in anger for a couple of seconds. "But I guess it can’t be helped. Yuushi and Reiichi are busy setting things up for the new recruits and are hoping to talk to you soon."

Omi made a sound that was a close approximation to a growl. "Was I the only person who didn’t know that they were coming back?" His right hand was held in Nagi’s left, and his angry look didn’t last for very long when Nagi shifted closer.

Yohji reached over to tousle his young friend’s hair and sat down beside him. "Sorry, kiddo, but we didn’t want to draw any attention to their return. If you knew, you’d have been running around between gates all day long, waiting for them."

Omi stuck out his tongue and laughed. "Okay, you have a point." He looked at Nagi and practically beamed with happiness. "I guess all that matters is that you’re here."

"Three guesses where Nagi’s gonna be spending the night," Schuldig remarked with a snide tone. Both Masato and Cassandra, sitting on either side of him, whapped him on the back of the head at the same time.

While he complained about the abuse, Cassandra smiled at her son’s mate. "You have to have a firm hand with him."

"I’ve noticed that," Masato chuckled. "In fact, I’m hoping to have a chance to sit down with you to discuss a few techniques for keeping this brat mostly under control."

"You are more than welcome to stop by for tea at any time." Cassandra smiled and tilted her head to the side, appearing barely older than Schuldig. "I’m so glad my Trouble has found someone like you. He needs a mate capable of putting him in his place."

"I’m sitting here, you know," Schuldig grumbled and rubbed his sore head. "Maybe it wasn’t a good idea to return home, after all."

This time it was Jo who gave him a smack on the head. "Hush your nonsense. Your mother’s been worried sick about you for the last few months while you’ve been off causing the gods only know what grief and mischief." She set a plate almost overflowing with roast beef, chicken and mashed potatoes in front of him. "Now shut up and eat."

Her gruff demeanor turned into friendliness as she approached Trowa, another full plate in her hand. "I’ve yet to meet a bound who hasn’t been starving, and you look as if you need some fattening up as well," she said as she set the plate down. "As anyone here will tell you, there’s always a lot of food so eat up. No dessert unless I’m satisfied that you’ve properly eaten first."

"Jo made spice cake today, so those damn Elric brats will be here soon. You better eat quick," Yohji growled while he tried to fight Nagi for the large dish of shepherd’s pie. He let out a yelp when Aya poked him in the ribs and lost to the earth elemental bound, a pout forming on his lips that lasted only until he tugged on one of his mate’s eartails and was hissed at in return. "Not to mention that Aya will eat a whole cake by himself."

"Behave, Yotan."

"Only if you insist, Cat." Yohji tangled his fingers in Aya’s eartail again, this time to pull his mate in close for a kiss that Aya certainly wasn’t objecting to in the slightest.

Seated beside Crawford, Trowa didn’t appear bothered by all the antics that went on around him, but Crawford could sense his friend’s amazement and confusion. "Yes, they’re always like that," he whispered as he passed the bread basket to his friend.

"… I see." Trowa seemed to draw a little more into himself, most likely because of all the strangers around him. "The mission keeps getting more interesting."

Crawford could only hope that it continued to be interesting for Trowa. Taking a bite of his bread, he nodded in thanks when Jo set a plate of roast beef and mashed potatoes before him. He’d been looking forward to eating at the Koneko all week long; the Elders employed several fine cooks who didn’t seem to understand that good food didn’t need to be complicated or over-spiced.

The room quickly fell quiet as everyone began to eat; only a few bites later the door opened to admit two more strangers. Crawford instantly recognized Neely from his visions, and assumed that the young man beside her, possessing a coloring very similar to Jason’s, was Maddox.

Neely clapped her hands together and hurried to the table once she noticed them, her long blonde hair and its blue ribbons flowing behind her. "You arrived! Oh, I wanted to be here for that!" She stopped behind Yohji and draped her arms over his shoulders, her chin resting on the top of his head while she looked around the table. "I’m Neely!"

"And they’ll never forget your name after meeting you, Bright Eyes." Yohji chuckled as he patted the arms wrapped loosely around his neck. "Neely, this is Nagi, Masato, Schuldig, Trowa and Crawford." He pointed to each of them in turn. "Don’t annoy them too much; between you and Emmie, I bet they’ll be sick of questions within half a day."

Neely pouted and stepped back from Yohji. She turned toward Aya and patted Yohji’s left shoulder. "He’s in a teasing mood today."

Aya didn’t seem to mind someone being so close and intimate with his mate; he merely shrugged and buttered a slice of bread. "Ken hasn’t been here all day."

"Ah." Neely giggled and burst into motion again, this time returning to Maddox’s side. "And this is Maddox." She gave his arm a squeeze then helped to unload the containers of spices tucked into his folded arms. "Hmmm, something smells delicious, Jo."

Even if Crawford hadn’t been a precog, he would have known in an instant that the girl was a water elemental bound. Everyone in the room, save for Aya and Trowa, were smiling, the mood lightened just by her presence. She would be powerful when she was fully matured, and he was pleased that Cassandra had managed to get the girl to live at the Koneko.

"It’ll smell even better once you and Maddox finish those apple pies," was Jo’s instant retort, her arms crossed over her chest and an annoyed look on her face. "I thought I sent you to the pantry for spices, not the market!"

Neely didn’t seem bothered by Jo’s apparent temper. She merely smiled and spun around so she could go over to the table with the bowls of apples. "We helped Touya at the door for a moment," she explained with a cheerful tone.

Maddox quickly nodded his head and sorted through the spices. "A few more people arrived, hoping for rooms while they try out for the Guard. Touya said all the spare rooms will be booked by tomorrow at this rate."

"That ought to make Mickey ecstatic." A wicked grin settled on Yohji’s face. "Or should that be ‘blissful’? It’s almost obscene, how happy he gets when he starts counting up all the money from the guests. Poor Kira’s going to be awfully neglected."

Jo ‘hmphed’ and slammed a lid onto a boiling pot. "Yohji," she warned, "don’t make me fetch my rolling pin."

Yohji hugged Aya close and pretended to be terrified. "I’m sorry, Jo, I’ll behave."

"Right, I’d love to see that," Schuldig teased, looking happier than Crawford could remember. "And you know you love it when she smacks you around."

"Only Aya gets to do that now," Yohji shot back, and stuck his tongue out at his friend for good measure. "He spanks me really good."

Meanwhile, Maddox had stopped measuring spices and placed his hands over a giggling Neely’s ears. "Yohji!" he pleaded, his cheeks a brilliant red.

"I see you haven’t learned any manners yet, Kudoh," Nagi said, actually pausing in his decimation of the dish of shepherd’s pie to chide the succubae bound. "I don’t know why I ever thought you would."

"Because you believed Aya and Jo would beat some into him by now," Omi replied and laughed. "Maybe one day they’ll be successful." That earned him a tongue stuck out in his direction as well.

All the while, Trowa continued to eat his dinner, the perfect image of calmness. However, Crawford could sense his friend’s emotions. "Yes, these are indeed the bounds upon whom our future rests. I promise, it’s not as bad as it looks," he whispered to ease Trowa’s doubts.

"I hope so," Trowa responded after a moment’s pause, his attention seemingly divided between Neely and Aya. "Though it’s not entirely encouraging."

"They’re young." Crawford shrugged as he answered, and glanced around the table. Other than Masato, the majority of the bounds who would matter the most to the upcoming war were half a century old or younger. They were young and mostly untried, and while he had faith in them, he could easily see how others would not give them and their talents a proper amount of respect. What mattered the most was how powerful they were and how resolved; older bounds who didn’t possess such offensive powers would be counted on to direct their younger, more talented compatriots.

Speaking of young, talented bounds, Crawford cleared his throat and looked at Yohji. "Did I hear you mention something about the Elric brothers?" he asked with a sense of growing unease. While his talent couldn’t be counted on to reveal all of the future to him, he was hoping it would help him avoid his very, *very* upset brother for as long as possible. If not, he’d need to have Trowa or Neely on hand when he did run into Roy so they could negate Roy’s power before Crawford was badly injured.

Yohji nodded, his left arm draped over Aya’s shoulder while he ate one-handedly. "Yeah, Ed and Al. They were supposed to work in the Royal Library today, so that means they’ll most likely stop by to drop off a few books for Aya, borrow a bunch more and con some food out of Jo." He wrinkled his nose and grunted. "They certainly can eat, those two."

Jo returned to the table with a platter of roast beef swimming in clear, savory juice. "As if you won’t stuff yourself silly tonight, just like the last time I made roast beef." She gave the back of his head a light tap before she returned to the stove to fuss over the pots some more.

"What about Roy, Ed’s mate?" Crawford asked, waiting a minute for Yohji to stop whining about how abused he was and glaring at Nagi for daring to voice that he wasn’t abused enough. To think he’d worried about how Yohji and Masato would get along, and had forgotten about Yohji and Nagi’s hostile ‘rivalry’.

"Oh, more than likely they’ll take something home for him. The past week, he’s been stuck in meetings at the Palace. Apparently, Manx is up to something involving the Army and the Guard, but Yuushi or Birman won’t tell me what." Yohji sounded very disappointed to be left out of the secret.

"Al’s been very worried about Roy and Ed," Neely said, pausing in mixing the apples and spices together, a slight blush to her cheeks.

Yohji rolled his eyes at her concern and made some barely heard comment about an ‘Army bastard’ under his breath. Crawford relaxed slightly, though he was still left with the problem that if the Elrics saw him at the Koneko, they would most likely tell Roy that he was in town. While he couldn’t hide from his brother forever, Crawford wanted to delay their inevitable reunion as long as possible.

"Perhaps I’ll meet with Birman tonight, after all," he announced, and almost grit his teeth together at Cassandra’s knowing and amused look. "The sooner I handle some important matters, the better." Not quite the truth, but he’d rather have people think he was eager to get to work instead of running from his kid brother.

"Judging from the looks of things, we’re going to need all the help we can get," Trowa quietly mumbled and helped himself to more of the beef.

*******

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