Darkness Returns

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chapter six

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wistful thinking and quiet moments

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Rufus fought the urge to snarl when Tseng edged his horse close enough to Rufus’ so they could speak with hushed voices. His left arm, wrapped around Reno’s waist, tightened its hold on his mate while he bared his teeth in warning at his gokenin.

Tseng’s dark eyes widened and he bowed his head. "I’m sorry, my lord," he apologized, even though he’d done nothing wrong. "I’ve picked up the scent of horses and bounds, about two hundred meters away." He pointed downwind, his own lips pulled back slightly to reveal sharp fangs that almost shone in the darkness.

"I see." Inwardly cursing both himself and Reno, Rufus did his best to focus his power and search out the thoughts of those strange bounds. Since leaving Berin several hours ago, his talent and attention had been mostly consumed by his mate. Between slowly starving to death and being forced to ride in the sunlight, Reno’s energy levels were dangerously low. Once they’d put enough distance between themselves and the palace, Rufus had hauled his lover onto his own horse, concerned about the way Reno had been swaying from side to side, as if about to fall to the ground at any moment. The weaker that Reno became, the less Rufus cared about anything else.

There were distinct disadvantages to a mating bond, ones that made him want to slap Reno and break the link between them. He could *not* afford to lose his focus in times of trouble, not just because his mate wasn’t able to properly defend himself. Reno was his *gokenin*, dammit, he was supposed to watch after Rufus, not the other way around. Yet Rufus was so tied up in the idiot that he hadn’t even noticed the approach of potential enemies, nor had he been aware of Tseng trying to mentally contact him.

Finally able to pull his attention away from a nearly unconscious Reno, he sought out the strangers. A pleased purr rumbled in his throat when he confirmed that they were the bandits that he and Tseng had hoped to find tonight. The gamble to ride until they reached one of the area’s small temples that offered hospitality to travelers had paid off, and now Reno could finally feed.

"It’s them," he said in a quiet voice, and pulled on the reins until his horse came to a halt. While Tseng, Rude and Elena stopped their horses as well, he grasped Reno by the chin and shifted the head that rested against his shoulder until he could whisper in his mate’s ear. "Reno, wake up." He used his power to reinforce the command as gently as possible, so he didn’t provoke another fight.

Reno mumbled something, his eyes closed tight and a slight frown on his face. When Rufus nipped his left ear, he hissed and finally woke up. "Go ‘way." His voice was unusually low and weak, and his eyes were pure silver. "Wanna sleep."

<Then you’ll miss out on a wonderful meal,> Rufus informed his still groggy mate. <Five strange bounds will be here in another minute. Do you think you can handle them on your own or do you need some help?> Rude and Elena could subdue the bounds, if need be; all that mattered was that they died while Reno was in close proximity.

Shaking his head, Reno seemed to find a bit of strength. "No, I can do it." His voice was a sibilant hiss, and a strong wave of hunger and anticipation poured into Rufus. "Let me down."

Hoping he didn’t regret this, Rufus helped Reno off the horse and onto the ground. Reno wavered for a moment as if his legs wouldn’t support him, before he let out a shuddering breath and stepped away. "Go away," he murmured while making ‘shooing’ motions with his gloved hands.


Rufus remained still for a couple of seconds before he tugged on the reins to move his horse to the side of the road. A telepathic command to the gokenin had them joining him a moment later, Rude hesitating before obeying. The brush along the dirt road wasn’t very thick, so it was easy to ride a few feet into the forest. Rufus’ power would prevent the bandits from noticing anyone but Reno.

While the strange bounds approached, Rufus scanned their thoughts. As suspected, they had become emboldened by the Elders’ lack of response to their crimes, so they preyed on any humans or weak bounds who chose to travel the road without suitable protection. Two were flesh gaki bounds, while there were two soul gaki bounds and an earth elemental bound among the remaining three.

The wait for their arrival wasn’t very long. Reno stood in the weak moonlight, the hood of his cloak pushed back to reveal his pale face and brilliant hair, along with a disturbing grin. There was nothing human in that expression, and it was as if his emotions had utterly vanished, save for the hunger. Staring at his mate, Rufus could feel the shinigami soul take over and almost obliterate the human one, leaving Reno as a very cold presence in his mind.

When the bandits did arrive, they warily circled a motionless Reno. "I thought you said there were three riders, David," the one on the black horse called out. The five of them were dressed in dark cloaks with scarves wrapped around the bottom of their faces. Reading their thoughts, Rufus discovered it was more because of the bitter cold than any desire to hide their identities.

The man on the brown and white paint horse tugged at his scarf and revealed his frowning, stubble-covered face. "That’s how many I sensed. Now… now I’m not picking up anyone." He scanned the woods on either side of the road before he stared at Reno. "Not even this idiot," he said while he motioned with his right hand at Reno.

"Aw, you don’t even know me and you’re already insulting me." For a moment Reno’s disturbing smile switched to a pout, but that expression only lasted a few seconds before his face became utterly emotionless. Then there was a blur of black and red, Reno moving almost too fast to see, and the one soul gaki bound, David, ended up on the ground.

While the bandits’ horses began to whinny in panic and threatened to unseat their stunned riders, Reno slowed down long enough that he could be seen kneeling over his victim. His left arm blurred, slamming into the gasping soul gaki bound’s face, and there was the sound of bone shattering.

Rufus shivered when he felt energy rush into his mate, something so hot and vital and invigorating that some of his own exhaustion faded away, just from sharing the sensation. Reno quickly rose to his feet, the inhuman grin once more on his face, and flung out his hands. The attack had happened so fast that the bandits were still gathered around him, so the bolts of sizzling lightning didn’t have to travel far before they reached their targets. The air was made foul by the burning stench of flesh and the tang of ozone, but the human and animal screams only lasted for a couple of seconds before they abruptly ended. When the bright light and crackling sounds came to a stop, Reno stood in the middle of the road, his skin glowing and his hair moving about as if blown by a gentle breeze. The men and the horses were scattered about him, smoke rising from their dead bodies wherever Reno’s bolts had struck.

The sensation of hunger was gone, leaving Reno sated and pleased. His shinigami soul slowly retreated, his smile taking on a smug air as he combed his fingers through his hair. "Ah, that was fucking *great*." He sounded intoxicated, his emotions so elated that Rufus almost dampened the link between them before he decided to feed off of them instead. Energy poured into his body, making his mind grow sharper and his talent more focused, it and his body no longer hampered by exhaustion.

"Did you have to kill the horses as well?" Rufus asked in a sardonic voice as he slid off his horse, tied its reins to a nearby branch and approached his mate without any hesitation.

Reno opened his eyes and turned to face Rufus, his smile taking on a hungry edge. "What, you wanted them to run away or something? Wouldn’t that have attracted attention, hmmm?" His arms slinked their way around Rufus’ neck while Reno pressed close. "Besides, it’s been so long since I’ve fed," he continued in a husky voice, his eyes drifting shut as he nuzzled Rufus’ chin.

Reno didn’t just act intoxicated, he practically was intoxicated, Rufus realized as he held on to his purring lover. The sudden rush of energy had actually made Reno giddy. <Does it always affect you this way?> he asked while Tseng, Rude and Elena began to search through the bandits’ saddlebags.

<Only when it’s been so long,> Reno answered. He bit gently on Rufus’ bottom lip then licked it, pressing even closer. <Like drinking a whole bottle of whiskey in under a minute after not eating for a day or two.>

Rufus’ right hand grasped some of the hair at Reno’s nape and gave it a sharp tug. "Behave, Reno," he warned while trying to fight his body’s reaction to having his mate pressed against him like this, obviously eager for sex. When Reno chuckled and returned to nuzzling his jaw, Rufus looked for Tseng. "What did you find?" he asked, desperate for some sort of distraction. He should be able to push Reno aside, to focus… but all he did was hug the horny idiot closer. What the hell had the mating bond done to him?

Tseng held up a very full saddlebag. "Some money, a few interesting charms and what appears to be several letters that were meant to reach Berin. They look more along the lines of personal communication rather than official." He was a bit hungry himself, surrounded by the dead bodies, yet he controlled the impulse to feed.

"I’m sure the Elders told their messengers to avoid this area," Rufus said with growing anger. From the bandits’ minds it was clear that they hadn’t been warned to stop their thievery, so it was obvious that the Elders didn’t care about what they’d been doing. Surely the temple and the locals had complained about them, yet the Elders had done nothing – probably because it was mostly humans or weak bounds who were attacked. "Rude, make sure there are no signs of the bodies." Eventually, someone would notice that the bandits were gone; what mattered was that it wasn’t obvious that Rufus and his gokenin were responsible for their deaths.

The ground trembled for a moment, then the bodies sank downward as if the dirt was water. Rude stared at the ground for about a minute, long after the bodies had vanished, before he nodded once and looked at Rufus. "They’re down to the bedrock," he reported as he smoothed a gloved hand down the front of his thick, black cloak.

"Good." That should ensure that they were deep enough that only another earth elemental could find them for the next few days, which wouldn’t happen unless the bounds were specifically searching the area. Rude hadn’t left a single trace of their presence or burial on the road. Once they were rotted enough for a flesh gaki bound to smell them, there should be no signs left of how they’d been killed.

Rufus forced himself to let go of Reno, except for wrapping his left hand around Reno’s upper right arm. "Come," he ordered while he returned to his horse, unwilling to allow Reno to ride alone in his condition. There was no telling what the fool would do, or even if he could manage to sit in the saddle without support. Rufus refused to die because his mate fell off a horse and crushed his head.

"Hmmm." Reno was much too complacent to be disobedient, too lost in the aftereffects of his feeding to care that he was being bossed around. He got up on the horse without protest, only chuckling again when Rufus settled behind him. "Wanna have some fun?" he asked while sending a mental image of rather dubious reality that Rufus was not willing to try any time soon, even if he was hard as hell.

<I am *not* engaging in sex with you while on horseback, Reno,> Rufus sent back, having to squirm a little in the saddle to find a comfortable position. <That will wait until we reach the temple.> His image was of Reno lying on the bed, his arms wrapped around a pillow as his chest pressed against the mattress, his ass pushed up for Rufus to fuck hard. Reno’s answering moan made Rufus smile with anticipation as he goaded the horse to return to the road. <Just about another half an hour.> He looked forward to sex with his rejuvenated mate, to feeding even more on the wonderful energy.

"I hope to the gods that it’s not a temple of Byakuren," Reno murmured as they made their way to the nearest resting place available.

"Considering everything else you’ve done, it shouldn’t be that much of a trial to be considered a heretic by the goddess of purity as well," Rufus pointed out and prodded his tired horse into a slow canter. Tseng, Rude and Elena closed around them, Reno’s horse running behind Rude’s, and Rufus sensed anticipation from his gokenin. For various reasons, everyone wanted out of the cold and into someplace warm to spend the night.

They’d only stay one night in the temple, and be back on the road shortly after dawn. Rufus wanted to reach home within the next two days, then be on the way to Eto by the end of the week. Now that Reno was fed, Rufus had several pressing concerns that required his attention, and the farther away from the Elders he got, the better he felt.

He just hoped that he wasn’t as disappointed in Eto as he’d been in Berin. With each passing day it became clearer that siding with the Elders would be a terrible risk. Yet it wasn’t a simple matter of choosing to fight for Kritiker, not when they hunted down bounds and had no reason to trust an Esset businessman and lord.

However, those concerns would have to wait until he was actually in Eto. Right now, he needed to get home and check on his business. And while he was there, he had to somehow figure out a way to break the news to a very protective Reeve that he’d accidentally formed a mating bond with Reno. He had a feeling that he better keep Tseng, Rude and Elena on hand for that ‘discussion’.

*******

Omi found himself drifting awake for what had to be the fifth time that morning. Between having gotten used to being up early to work his shift at the Koneko and the unexpected sensation of sharing his bed, he realized that he wasn’t going to get any more sleep. Not that he truly minded, considering that he was sharing his bed with Nagi. Smiling with pure joy, he snuggled closer to his boyfriend.

Nagi mumbled something in his sleep but didn’t wake up. Sliding his right arm over the sleeping boy’s chest, Omi lifted his head enough so he could look at Nagi. There was still a hint of darkness around Nagi’s eyes, and his breathing returned to a deep, slow pattern.

Omi still couldn’t believe that his lover was back at the Koneko. For the last several months, he’d dreamed about this, of being able to sleep with Nagi, to know that he was safe from harm. When Omi had entered the kitchen yesterday afternoon to see his boyfriend standing there, he had thought he was imagining things for a moment, or perhaps one of Eri’s soul gaki bound friends was casting an illusion or something. He hadn’t accepted it as real until he’d leapt at Nagi and felt his boyfriend’s power keep them both from falling onto the floor.

Now he could revel in the fact that Nagi was back home, that he could touch the person he loved; comb his fingers through short, black hair and smile at the way Nagi’s bangs had a bit of a cowlick to them.

There had been no discussion about Nagi staying anywhere other than in Omi’s room. Once everyone had been fed, Nagi had asked where Omi slept so he could leave his things before going to the hot spring. Omi had felt something in his chest swell then, something warm and almost painful, it was so strong. He’d realized a few minutes later, when Nagi had commented on how nice the room was, that the emotion was happiness; it had been so long since he’d felt it untainted by worry, fear or sadness.

Schu and Yohji had teased him a little when he and Nagi had retired to their room last night, and Nagi had seemed so tired that Omi hadn’t thought about doing anything more than hold his boyfriend close and sleep. But it had been several months since they’d last seen each other and Nagi said he wasn’t that tired, really; once they’d started kissing they hadn’t been able to stop, and….

Omi was glad that none of his friends were around right now; he knew the grin on his face was ridiculously big and he’d be teased something fierce about it, yet he was too happy to fight it. While the sex had been wonderful, the best part was that Nagi had curled up beside him under the sheets and blankets, and fallen asleep with the fingers of his left hand entwined with Omi’s. Even if Omi had woken up each time Nagi had moved, he felt incredibly good. Nagi was home and was safe.

Omi slowly became aware of the sounds that signaled that the inn’s customers were rousing for the day and leaving their rooms for either food or business. He felt a bit guilty about staying in bed when normally he’d be up to help serve the customers, but Jo had told him that he had the day off. Even Botan had cancelled the magic lesson for today so he could spend some time with Nagi. Since he knew that he’d have to work again tomorrow, he was determined to enjoy this time off with his boyfriend. They could spend the day at the Koneko, perhaps go soak in the hot spring for an hour or so, and then wander around the city in the evening. Omi still received an allowance of sorts from his father, and was perfectly willing to spend a good bit of it on Nagi.

He couldn’t stop smiling, he felt so happy, and he lay back on the bed, his face pressed against Nagi’s shoulder. Some time passed while he let his thoughts wander on where he could take his boyfriend over the next few weeks, of the upcoming festivals and events. They’d have to work around his schedule here, but it should be easier than in last summer, when he usually had to return to the palace each night.

"Mmmm." Nagi shifted as he groaned, his body going stiff while Omi felt an invisible pressure pin him to the bed. It vanished after a few seconds, when Nagi turned to look at him, his dark brown eyes blinking several times. "Omi?"

"Good morning." Omi smiled and brushed aside the hair falling onto Nagi’s forehead. "You can sleep a bit longer, you know."

"Meh, don’t want to spend the day asleep." Nagi closed his eyes and slid his right arm over Omi’s hips. Then he opened his eyes again and smiled, the expression a touch hesitant. "You’re already awake."

"Yeah." It was almost frightening, how good it felt just to lie in bed with his boyfriend and talk to each other face to face, no magic involved. Omi closed his eyes for a couple of seconds and shivered with joy. "I guess I’m used to being up early." That and he was too excited to get any more rest for the day.

Nagi actually giggled a couple of times, his left hand rising to cover his mouth. "The crown prince of Kritiker, waiting on tables. I couldn’t believe it when you told me that."

"Well, we can’t all be double agents," Omi teased back with a look of mock anger on his face. "And I don’t wait tables, I’m a food runner," he proudly stated and stuck out his tongue while he wrinkled his nose. "Get it straight."

"Oh, I’m so sorry." Nagi slowly bowed his head in an exaggerated manner. "Isn’t that a step below waiting tables?"

"Hey, if it wasn’t for me the customers wouldn’t get their food!" Omi grabbed Nagi by the right arm and began to wrestle, rolling around in the soft bed while both of them laughed. Since his boyfriend could easily subdue him with his talent, Omi knew that Nagi enjoyed their mock battle. Nagi’s telekinesis only came into play twice, and that was to keep them from falling onto the floor.

After several minutes of laughing and squirming around, they ended up with Omi flat on his back and Nagi draped half over him. The bed was a mess and the customer in the room next door had banged on the wall a couple of times, but they’d only really stopped because they were out of breath.

Several months apart, only able to communicate through letters and then dreams via the hikyaku, and this was what Omi had missed the most; to be able to just *enjoy* some time with Nagi, to touch him and make him laugh. Being able to have sex was very nice, too, but he remembered how sore he’d been after the ride to and from Timbergrey, and his boyfriend had winced a time or two during their wrestling. His hormones could wait a bit longer – he wasn’t Yohji, after all.

"How long can you stay?" he asked while he traced the fingers of his right hand along the curve of Nagi’s cheek.

"Hmmm, I don’t really know." Nagi grasped his hand and gave it a squeeze. "At least a few months, as we’re supposed to make sure that Trowa and the others are settled in their assignments. However, Crawford’s hinted that he’s going to do his best to keep us here until the war." Nagi closed his eyes and shivered. "I really don’t want to have to go back to Berin. Everyone is either terrified or hiding behind false smiles. I never thought I’d be more comfortable in a place filled with mostly humans rather than my own kind, but I can’t trust many people there." His voice was quiet, but the concern and fear he must have felt every day were clear in it.

"And here, no one will hurt you, I promise," Omi swore. "’I swear by all the stars that my word be true, may nothing but darkness reign if I break my troth’. I won’t let anyone harm you." As much as he was learning to use his wizard talent to fight in the upcoming war, his main concern was keeping his loved ones safe. In keeping *Nagi* safe. Crown Prince Mamoru couldn’t fight by Nagi’s side during a battle, but wizard apprentice Omi could, and he’d give up his birthright if anyone tried to prevent him from doing just that. Now that Manx was pregnant and Cassandra had confirmed that she’d successfully bear a daughter, he wasn’t that important any longer. Not really. Not important enough that he’d have to leave the love of his life to fight alone.

Nagi’s expression hardened for a moment as if he was angered by Omi’s oath, then it softened. "You may not be a bound, but it’s pretty stupid to make an oath like that. The gods expect it to be obeyed."

"And I expect to keep it." Omi tilted Nagi’s chin so he could kiss his boyfriend. Just a soft brush of the lips, one that made them both moan at the contact, and then he pulled back. "I know most people would tell me that I’m still really young, and Yohji would say that we’re not mates or anything, but I don’t need to be a precog to know you’re the person I’m going to love my entire life." He blushed as he spoke the words, stuttering slightly over such an important confession.

"I wish you wouldn’t promise things like that," Nagi said, his tone strained and voice hushed. The words actually caused Omi pain, even when Nagi gently caressed his lips. "I don’t want anything to happen to you."

The second statement made Omi feel better. "Nothing will. I told you, I’ve been spending the last few months learning magic." He offered his boyfriend a reassuring smile. "Botan says I have the best wards he’s ever seen." His smile weakened when he felt compelled to admit the truth. "Well, *now* he does. I finally learned to cast them properly a few weeks ago. And he’s finally teaching me offensive spells." While he loved the chance to spend an entire day with Nagi, he was a little sad that he wouldn’t practice any magic today. He didn’t have a lot of time to learn things that most apprentices had several years to master, yet Botan said he’d be prepared for the war.

"Just don’t use any magic around Jei if you can," Nagi asked, and began to nibble on his bottom lip. "He seems to still think of you as a friend, but…."

Omi could still remember how Jei had killed his cousin Masafumi during the reception. "Ah, yeah, that’s a very good suggestion." From the letters Nagi had sent him, he knew that Jei had looked after his boyfriend and they’d become good friends. He didn’t want to do anything to offend the flesh gaki bound. "Maybe… maybe we can go out later and pick up some of those roasted almonds he really likes. He’ll arrive today, right?" As far as Omi was concerned, a ‘bribe’ was not a bad thing, especially when the person he was bribing could eat him for dinner.

A pleased smile spread across Nagi’s still drawn face. "That’s a great idea. Yeah, he’s supposed to arrive this afternoon with Duo. Maybe we can go shopping after breakfast and another soak in the spring." He sounded tired, but not as bad as he had last night. Omi thought that getting up and leisurely walking around, spending the day snacking on what they bought at the various booths and stores they stopped at would be almost as good for Nagi as just resting in bed.

"Duo, huh? Who is he, and is he as quiet as Trowa?" Omi was very curious about the strangers that Crawford had brought with him, and worried that one of them might betray his lover and friends.

Nagi snorted and reached down to pull one of the blankets over the both of them. "No one’s as quiet as Trowa, not even Aya." He frowned for a moment then shook his head. "If anything, Duo’s a lot like Schu; always looking to cause a bit of trouble, but mostly harmless unless you make him angry."

"Ah." Omi wrapped his arms around Nagi’s shoulders and held him close. "I did my best to look after Aya, you know. He’s been pretty good for the last few months and isn’t as quiet any more. Well, not as quiet if you’re his friend." He couldn’t help but smile at the fact that Aya did consider him as such and trusted him.

"I know you did." Scooting down a little so his head rested on Omi’s chest, Nagi let out a deep sigh. "He really does look a lot better, and his letters to me sounded as if he’s been happy, lately. I guess Kudoh hasn’t been too much of an idiot to him."

Omi didn’t bother to defend his oldest friend – Nagi would see soon enough just how much Yohji doted on and fussed over Aya, even more so than he’d done back in the summer. The two men had grown even closer over the last few months, and Omi knew that almost all the positive changes in Aya were because of Yohji’s efforts in making him move on from his past. If only they could do something about Kikyou….

He let out a small yelp when Nagi pinched his left hip. "Ah, I’m starting to feel really hungry. Do you think we can go to the kitchen now?" Nagi asked, and Omi finally noticed how his boyfriend’s stomach had taken to rumbling.

"That sounds like a great idea. A nice, big breakfast and then the hot spring shouldn’t be so busy." He was sure that Jo would stuff Nagi full of delicious food, and was probably waiting for them to show. Giving Nagi one more kiss, he reluctantly pushed his boyfriend off of his chest. "Maybe there will be some cherry tarts and cinnamon rolls."

He swore he saw a bit of drool when Nagi wiped his mouth, but was soon distracted by the sight of his boyfriend’s naked body when Nagi hurried from the bed to the washbasin. Sternly reminding himself that they’d be back here later that night, Omi went to throw another log on the fire.

*******

Reiichi had just finished his breakfast and was sipping his second cup of coffee for the day when Botan walked through the door. He noted how the wizard was wearing yet another new robe, this one a fetching dark blue with gold embroidery along the bottom hem, and was willing to bet that he hadn’t returned to the palace last night. The Shadow Guard knew that there was a better chance of finding the Royal Wizard during his time off in a small garment shop not far from the Koneko, rather than in his official quarters anymore, though they and Birman did a good job in keeping the truth from the rest of the palace.

Botan smiled in greeting when he noticed Reiichi after turning down Maddox’s offer for breakfast and held up something wrapped in a pale grey cloth. "Ah, Reiichi, I was hoping to see you today. Have you finished eating?" he asked, his deep voice smooth and sounding well rested.

"Yes, just a few minutes ago." Setting his cup aside, Reiichi slowly rose to his feet. His injured leg didn’t care much for winter, it seemed, and he was very thankful for the Koneko’s hot spring and many fireplaces. "Where would you like to talk?" he asked with a hint of excitement, having the impression that this matter called for a little privacy. If that bundle was what he thought it might be…..

"Are Yohji and Aya in the main library?" Botan’s smile grew wider when Reiichi shook his head. "Very well, let’s go there. I told Omi to take today off so we should be left alone."

Following the wizard to the room, Reiichi bowed his head slightly. "Aya’s upstairs doing some research for Crawford, while Yohji’s talking to a few prospective candidates for the Guard," he explained. It was his day to look after the two bounds, and he was grateful that they seemed intent on remaining at the Koneko since it was a very chilly day outside. Part of him missed being an official Guard… while the rest of him admitted that he wasn’t quite so young anymore and there was something to be said for being warm and dry. "Is this anything that will require either of them to be present?"

The question effectively vanished Botan’s smile. "I think it best if neither of them were here for this, especially Yohji." Closing the library door behind them, Botan muttered something that made several runes glow around the frame. "As you may have guessed, I’ve brought you your weapons."

Despite having just told himself that he wasn’t all that young any more, Reiichi’s heart began to race with excitement. "Already? But Aya just… donated his blood the other day." He winced as he mentioned the event, not quite sure how to best phrase a friend giving blood for his sake.

Botan set the bundle on the table and began to unwind the fabric. "Technically, I’ve been working on these since I talked to you about them in the fall. Aya’s blood was merely the last component of many." He smiled, the expression very pleased. "While I had Omi’s help, as well as some weapons obtained from Timbergrey to go on, these are basically the first new magical weapons forged from scratch since the Binding War."

He unfolded the grey fabric to reveal a pair of large silver cuffs similar to Omi’s gold gauntlets. The silver appeared slightly tarnished with black streaks that, upon close examination, actually moved. Reiichi stepped forward to better inspect the weapons, curious as to how many of his suggestions Botan had been able to incorporate into their design.

"Go ahead and put them on," Botan urged. "They’ve been keyed to your bloodline, much like Yohji’s gauntlet. You’ll have to remove your Guard’s bracelet, though."

Reiichi felt a little odd removing the copper bracelet that he’d worn for several years, and the silver cuffs felt very cold against his skin. Then there was a sharp stab of pain and the cuffs actually vanished, leaving only the image of a smaller copper bracelet on his left wrist. "What?" he asked in surprise, his eyes wide as he turned toward Botan.


The wizard grinned with mad delight, obviously pleased with himself. "You did say that you wanted the weapons to be as unobtrusive as possible, didn’t you? If you tap your wrists together, that will temporarily deactivate the illusion spell, and you can still use the gauntlets while they’re ‘invisible’. The left gauntlet also acts in a similar manner to your Guard’s bracelet, so you’ll still be able to receive and send messages."

"Now I know why it took you so long to make them. Thank you, Botan." Reiichi did cross his wrists and tap them together, his amazement and gratitude growing when the silver bands reappeared on his wrist. "How do I use them? Just focus on a knife?" He was very familiar with Omi’s gauntlets and had requested something similar to them.

"Yes." Botan nodded his head and motioned with his right hand as if he was holding a knife. "You’ll have to concentrate the first few times, but the more you use the gauntlets, the easier it’ll become."

Reiichi hummed in response and held his hands up as if about to throw knives. There was a flicker of pain, almost as if he’d been pricked by small pins, and two silver and black knives appeared in his hands. They were cold to the touch and, as he discovered when he flipped them into the air and caught them, perfectly balanced. If he wasn’t in the library he’d throw them at something, but wasn’t about to damage anything in the newly built room. He tossed the knife in his right hand again and willed it to hover for a moment, which it did, until he willed it to return to his hand.

"I assume that they’re similar to Omi’s arrows in that they cost me a bit of blood whenever I form a new blade, and they’ll always return to me." Obvious delight colored his voice and made him grin like a love-struck idiot, which wasn’t far off the mark. He’d never been one to obsess over his weapons, but now he had something very… impressive to cherish.

Botan nodded and sat on the edge of the desk, his left hand stroking along his neatly trimmed beard. "Yes, and there are a few added benefits as well, thanks to Aya." He motioned to one of the knives. "Obviously, the gauntlets are impervious to magic… as are you while you’re wearing them. Aya also ‘donated’ some shadows that he tied to his blood. Let me show you." Without any warning, Botan rushed to his feet and muttered something indecipherable. From his cupped hands, held against his chest, a brilliant blue ball of energy formed then flew toward Reiichi.

He moved his right arm as if to ward off the blow, and was shocked when not only did the gauntlets reappear, but he was covered by a fine mesh of freezing cold shadows. The ball of energy hit his arm and chest, instantly dissipating on contact. The shadows writhed for another moment before they returned to the silver bands. Staring at them in shock for a few seconds, Reiichi cleared his throat so he could properly speak. "It seems I owe Aya my thanks as well."

"Just don’t do it while Yohji’s around," Botan advised and winced. "I was quite surprised to see him when Aya met with me to give me some blood, and it was very clear that he wasn’t happy over my acceptance of it. That said, Aya had some hope that he might be able to have the shadows form an armor of sorts around you when you’re physically attacked."

Reiichi considered the offer for a moment. "I need to discuss the matter further with him before I agree." He would hate to have the armor form just because he stumbled into a bar fight or something, since it would draw a lot of unwelcome attention his way. Perhaps if he could key in some sort of command to disable the armor for the times when he wasn’t on a mission…. Stroking his hands along the once more invisible gauntlets, Reiichi bowed deeply before Botan. "I truly thank you for the time and effort you spent on my behalf," he said, his voice thick with gratitude.

Botan bowed his head to acknowledge the thanks while at the same time he waved them away with his right hand. "Really, I should be thanking you for the challenge those gauntlets presented me and Omi. Now we’ll be able to produce something similar for others in the Shadow Guard."

Yes, the Shadow Guard would benefit from Reiichi’s request of Botan, but Reiichi knew that not all of them would be so blessed with invulnerability to magic. He would be one of the rare few who would be protected by Aya’s blood, and that meant that he probably wouldn’t just spend his time watching over Aya and Yohji. Again, he had mixed feelings about that… and knew he wouldn’t turn down any request that Yuushi or Birman made of him.

"Things seem to be falling into place now," he remarked in a voice barely more than a whisper. What had seemed like so much talk just a week or two before was slowly becoming a reality. Esset was sending new spies into his homeland in an effort to affect the outcome of the war, and Kritiker was about to recruit several more bounds to its cause.

"Again, I thank you," he said to Botan in a louder voice. "Even though I’ve the feeling that I’ll be spending the day standing outside in the cold after all." He couldn’t hold back a smile when he thought about the small training area that Yuushi and Mickey had built during the fall so that the Koneko’s boarders could have a place to practice their weapon skills. "Though I guess I should grow acclimated to ‘cold’ as soon as possible."

Nodding as he folded the grey cloth, Botan pointed at Reiichi’s left wrist. "An interesting side effect to Aya’s power, I’ve noticed. If he does work out a way to encase you in shadow armor, you’d best take to wearing sweaters."

"Perhaps I’ll stop by Cassandra’s and place an order for several quilted jerkins." Reiichi and Botan shared amused grins, the latter’s touched with great affection at the mention of the bound seamstress.

"Well, there are a few matters I need to attend to, so I’ll be taking my leave." Botan inclined his head before he made his way to the library’s door. "I’m sure that I’ll see you soon, Reiichi. Good day."

"Good day to you too, Botan." Reiichi willed a new knife into his hand and flipped it a few times. With Aya and Yohji currently occupied, he could spend an hour or two practicing with his new weapons. He’d have to go dress for the cold first, and while up in the attic, he could thank Aya for the kage’s part in their creation.

Just wait until Naru saw the gauntlets, he thought with a pleased chuckle as he headed up to his room.

*******

Duo did his best not to gawk as he and Jei rode through Eto. While he would never consider himself anything but a ‘city boy’, none of the Esset cities he’d lived in came close to Eto. Berin mainly consisted of the palace, and it was surrounded by a handful of shops and restaurants. Munick, in the south, was bigger than Esset’s capital, but was still only half the size of Kritiker’s. Apparently, the Elders hadn’t wanted any large cities where people could congregate and possibly set up some resistance to their leadership.

Meanwhile, Eto was *huge*. Not to mention diverse as hell. They’d just ridden through the Eastern gate about twenty minutes ago, and Duo had already seen several restaurants – including two for Thracian food and one for Xan – some clothing shops, a few stores selling various sweets and pastries, and several pubs. They hadn’t even gone through any of the specialty districts, and the streets seemed like some sort of complex maze. He couldn’t figure out how Jei knew when to make a turn because he wasn’t having much luck seeing any signs to identify the many roads.

"Ah, you do know where we’re going, right?" he had to ask after yet another mysterious turn. The weather was so cold that the outside of the scarf wrapped around his lower face was crusted with ice, and he was *very* grateful for his talent that kept him warm.

Jei chuckled and motioned around him with his gloved left hand. "Yeah, I do indeed know where we’re going; it’s just that I’m taking a bit of an indirect route. Since it’s lunchtime, that means the main roads will be pretty busy since everyone’s out shopping or eating." He sounded confident and at ease, which was more than Duo could say, considering how they were in enemy territory. That and he wished that Jei hadn’t mentioned ‘lunch’ since he was practically starving. He’d be less hungry if he wasn’t using his talent… but he’d gladly suffer hunger pangs rather than freeze his ass off.

"You really know the city well, don’t you?"

That produced another chuckle from the flesh gaki bound. "Been coming here for the last three decades, so yeah, I know it pretty well." Jei looked at him with a smile on his scarred face, then snorted. "What you need to know is that the city is laid out in a series of districts. You can tell which one by the color and pattern of the cobblestones." He pointed at the dark grey bricks beneath their horses’ feet that were only partially obscured by ice and slush. "At least, in regards to the main and secondary roads. Also, the main roads in the districts are set up in the same type of grid, barring a few temples or parks. Learn the basic grid and all the patterns, and it’s pretty easy to figure out where you are and how to get to where you want to be. It’s not as ‘organized’ as… where we left, but Eto has been evolving for almost two thousand years. Fires, wars, earthquakes and the like keep altering things, and the government doesn’t insist that stuff always has to remain the same." He sounded as if he enjoyed teaching Duo about the city, and Duo was willing to bet that not many people approached Jei to learn anything other than the best way to filet a piece of meat. The common saying about flesh gaki bounds was that they tended to think with their stomachs, yet it was clear that Jei was very intelligent.

Duo let out a slow breath. "Thanks. I’m gonna have to learn all of this if I want to be a Guard." He fell silent for a moment and then gathered the courage to ask Jei a favor. He didn’t really know the other bound very well since Jei had always been a bit standoffish to most people, but he didn’t want to fail in his mission. If that happened, then he’d have to return to Berin while Trowa remained here. "Ah, do you think you could spend a day or two showing me around the city? I’ll learn faster if I’m actually walking or riding as opposed to looking at a map."

Jei snorted again, the sound amused rather than annoyed. "Not like I’ve anything better to do, I guess. I’ll show both you and Trowa the city, as they’ll expect you to know something." A sly grin crossed Jei’s face. "And of course we’ll have to stop at some of the pubs, and that’ll be considered a ‘work expense’. Crawford will love that."

Not really concerned about how Jei seemed to get off on antagonizing his partner, Duo focused on how he’d be learning the city with Trowa. Just the thought made him both anxious and excited. "Ah, any clue where we’ll be living? Uhm, I mean me and Trowa." Just the two of them, alone in an apartment together. There’d be no way for Trowa to ignore him then, he told himself, feeling a little lightheaded over the fact.

Jei’s smile faded away and he regarded Duo intently for several seconds, his golden eye narrowed as if in suspicion. "All I know is that it’ll be close to the Koneko and it’s nothing too fancy. Crawford set it up so I’m sure you’ll find out once we get to the inn."

"As long as it’s not a hovel, I couldn’t care less," Duo mumbled, only concerned about his roommate. Would it have one bedroom or two? He knew better than to even think he’d be sharing a bed with Trowa, but they had to keep up some pretext of being lovers, right? So it would probably be something small….

"Turn here." The slight roughness to Jei’s voice made Duo snap out of his thoughts and do as he’d been told. They rode down a narrow, mostly deserted alley that seemed to parallel the road they’d just left. "Now, I’m not like Crawford, one to dance around the point until you don’t know what the fucking thing was in the first place, so I’ll just come out and say it." He paused for a moment, during which Duo felt it would be a very good idea to give the older bound his undivided attention. "Force yourself on Trowa and I’ll bite your fucking dick off and spit it down your throat. Are we clear on that, hmmm?"

Jei had spoken the threat in a mostly civil tone of voice, as if he was talking about the price of a beer in Eto, so it took a moment for it to sink in to Duo’s partially distracted brain. First he sorta tuned out the comment about Crawford, then he’d focused on Trowa, and then he realized that he’d just been told he’d lose his manhood in a very disturbing manner.

"… Holy hell, you don’t believe in pulling your punches, do you?" Duo asked, his temper growing with each word. "What makes you think I’d ever do anything like that to Trowa, huh? I’m not that fucking bastard, Masato!" he spat, doing his best to resist the urge to burn something.

This time, the growl was more evident in Jei’s voice and he made no effort to hide his sharp teeth. "Because I can *smell* it on you, asshole. Whenever someone mentions Trowa or he’s near you, I catch a strong whiff of lust. That’s the *last* thing he needs, especially from a prick like you who’ll fuck anything."

"Now wait a damn minute!" Duo shouted and rose in the stirrups. "I don’t ‘fuck anything’!" The air shimmered around them, suddenly very warm.

Jei didn’t seem very impressed with his display of temper. "You slept with Tan Xi, didn’t you?" he pointed out with a clear look of disgust.

That instantly deflated Duo’s anger and made him sit back in the saddle. "Ah, her." He felt a bit disgusted himself. "Look, you really think I stood much of a chance against her? The more I ran, the more she chased after me and I figured that once she got what she wanted, she’d leave me alone. The plan worked so it was mostly worth it," he muttered. He avoided looking at Jei for a few seconds, then stared directly at the bound. "Your friend Crawford’s pretty damn cozy with her." He knew a fair bit about Jei and Crawford since they’d looked after Trowa for a few years.

"There’s a difference between ‘cozy’ and ‘fucking’. She’s part of the reason why he won’t sleep around." Jei appeared uncomfortable as he talked and shifted about in the saddle until his horse snorted and bobbed its head. "All I’m saying is that if I find out you forced yourself on Trowa in any way, you’re gonna wish you were dead." He bared all of his teeth at Duo, which would probably give him nightmares for a few weeks, Duo was willing to bet. Hell, his left hand fell protectively between his thighs without any thought on his part.

"I’ll say it again; I’d never do anything like that to him." Just the thought of causing Trowa any pain made his chest ache. "Trowa’s made it perfectly clear that unless it’s Masato, he’s not to be touched." He felt a fresh stab of hatred for the bastard succubae bound and wasn’t successful in keeping the bitterness he felt over the situation from coloring his voice.

Dammit, why did he have to want someone so badly mistreated, so clearly off-limits that any idiot could tell that Trowa would willingly harm whoever touched him? "I know we’re just pretending to be lovers." Despite his happiness about being around Trowa so much, Duo couldn’t help but wonder how long it would be before the situation drove him mad. What he so desperately wanted, just out of reach….

Jei was thankfully quiet for a few minutes, but didn’t direct them back onto the road. When he did speak, the growl was gone from his voice. "Not everything’s what it seems, kid," Jei said, his voice tired and his shoulders hunched. "And sometimes, you have to make things seem like the exact opposite of what’s going on so things will turn out good. Whatever the hell you do, don’t assume that Trowa’s gotten over what those bastards did to him. But don’t treat him like he’s some delicate flower, either. I’ve been trying to convince Crawford of that for the past few years and he just ignores me." He turned to look at Duo again, a ferocious glare on his face. "He’s my partner so I can’t eat him, but there’s nothing holding me back from taking bites out of choice bits of *your* anatomy so fucking remember that. I like Trowa, he’s a good kid, and if you cause him any grief I’ll make you suffer more than you could possibly imagine. I *swear* it."

Duo audibly gulped and was thankful that he hadn’t had much to eat so far that day or he’d have embarrassed himself. Somehow, it was worse to have Jei threaten him while acting so… normal. "And I swear to you that I’ll never hurt Trowa." He was damn proud that his voice only wavered a little.

"Ah, are you going to keep threatening me?" he cautiously asked after a few minutes of silence.

Jei grunted softly and returned them to the secondary road. "I think you got the point I was trying to make. Let me just remind you that you’ll only have to deal with me after Trowa’s done with you, so keep your dick in your pants and use that brain of yours. It’s one thing if he wants you back, but you *don’t* want me to find out that you made a move before that was perfectly clear." Jei couldn’t bare his teeth since they were around people again, but the maniacal gleam in his eye was just as frightening.

Feeling like some kid in a story who had to go ask an overprotective father for his daughter’s hand in marriage, Duo just nodded in response. Not that he had much hope of Trowa ever wanting him back, so he should be pretty safe from both bounds. He would just settle for being able to see Trowa almost every day, to watch him read and maybe strike up a few conversations about everyday things. He just wanted Trowa to be happy, that was what it came down to in the end. For the life of him, he couldn’t figure out why the water elemental bound meant so much to him.

He’d lost a lot of people over the couple of decades he’d been alive, and swore he’d do his best to keep the rest of the world at an emotional arm’s length so he’d never suffer such pain again. Yet somehow, none of that mattered when it came to Trowa. Duo was only too willing to open himself up to that pain and loss again – had *already* opened himself up more than he’d ever thought possible – and only wanted a bit of acknowledgement in return. True, he dreamed of having sex with Trowa, of feeling that long, lithe body beneath his, but he wasn’t a stranger to controlling lust, no matter what others thought. He’d do it again, and thank the gods that Trowa didn’t have as sharp a sense of smell as Jei did.

He’d also thank the gods that he wouldn’t be living in the same place as Jei.

*******

"Brrrr, there are times when I wish I was an air or fire elemental," Al remarked as he and Ed stepped through the Koneko’s front gate on their way home. Giving his younger brother a warning glance, Ed quickly looked around to make sure no one had overheard the remark.

"Oh, don’t be so paranoid or stupid. I wouldn’t say anything if I’d sensed anyone around us," Al sniffed as he wrapped the bright green scarf Ani had made him for Winter Solstice around his neck.

Ed had been given a scarf as well, his made from red wool, and Ani had even managed to stitch their teacher’s design onto the scarves. He fingered the tasseled end of the scarf and wrinkled his nose.

"Pardon me if I’m not too eager to give Roy or Yohji an excuse to bitch at me because someone overheard you," Ed complained, his voice quiet for once. Even as he spoke, he couldn’t help but think that as much as the two men seemed to hate each other, they both had a lot of the same personality traits. Yohji appeared to enjoy teasing Ed almost as much as Roy did, and neither had a problem biting his head off if he did anything to endanger himself or other bounds.

Clutching his chest as if in shock, Al gasped like a carp caught out of water. "Did I really hear that? My brother is worried about being yelled at by Roy?" He laughed when Ed attempted to swat at his head and skipped two paces ahead. "I guess I’ll consider that a sign of maturity, as there’s no hope for your common sense."

"Ha, ha." Ed stuck his tongue out at his brother and glowered. "I do too have common sense, and I’m simply not going to be bothered with a fight over something that isn’t my fault." He sniffed and rubbed his hands together to warm them up, wishing for a moment that he had his mate’s talent. "I don’t know why people think *I’m* responsible for you."

Al laughed again, his smiling face tilted up so several falling snowflakes landed on it. "Not many people do hold you responsible for me; usually it’s the other way around since they think I’m older than you," he casually mentioned before he stuck his tongue out to catch a snowflake.

All of a sudden, Ed felt pretty warm. "Who’s so short they’re mistaken for a toddler, dammit!" he bellowed and attempted to give his brother another swat. Al being Al, he merely laughed and easily dodged the blow. If he wasn’t Ed’s brother…. "You are the worst pest ever," Ed growled, more than a bit miffed.

As if he could sense Ed’s disgruntlement, Al smiled, the expression so sweet that Ed had no choice but to smile in return and not feel so angry. "I’m sorry, Brother. You’re so fun to tease at times, and it doesn’t seem as if we have a lot of time alone together when I can do it," he explained, the words hushed.

Ed took a deep breath and slowly let it out as he draped his right arm around Al’s shoulders. Al did usually save the worst teasing for when they were alone, as if aware of how much it could bother Ed. Yet no matter how upset he got, he would never think of asking his brother to stop, not when Al was clearly having fun and Ed knew there was no malice behind the well-placed jabs. Often times, he was just happy that there was someone out there who knew him as well as his brother. "We’ve both been pretty busy," he said, his voice low and quiet as well. There wasn’t much traffic around the Koneko at the moment, as it was a time when most people were settled in someplace warm for their dinner, and the falling snow made it even more hushed than usual.

Between their shifts at the Royal Library, Al working even more hours for the Rockbells, and both of them spending whatever time they could at the Koneko doing research and eating Jo’s wonderful meals, they were away from home an awful lot, lately. And whenever they were there, Ed was usually preoccupied by Roy so it seemed that they rarely had a chance to be alone together any more.

"Yeah, and things are only going to get even more hectic," Al pointed out, the words said in a slow manner as if he was hesitant to give them voice. "I… I think I might have to give up working at the Library, Brother. The Rockbells are getting so much business any more that they need me on a full-time basis."

The news came as no surprise to Ed, not after Al had already cut his shifts down by half in the last two months, but it hurt nonetheless. "Al… are you sure that’s a good idea? I thought you wanted to learn about healing, not metalworking." Al’s strengths had always been in living things, be they plants, animals or humans, while Ed had the knack of taking a metal and transforming it into whatever he could think up.

Al blinked at the question and took a minute to think about it. "Brother… it’s not like I’m making knives or anything; Winry and her grandmother construct devices, not weapons. I learn a lot from seeing how things fit together and affect other components; it’s an awful lot like the human body, in a way." He held up his right arm, padded by his thick, emerald green coat, and twisted his hand about. "The joints are like gears, the bones are shafts."

"Bah, I liked Mom’s explanation about how we’re all dolls created by the gods much better," Ed teased, a hint of sadness in his voice as he thought about their dead mother. She’d always had a tale to tell whenever they asked her questions, most of them funny and amazing and filled with magic.

"And you call yourself a man of science. Oh, Brother, I am *so* ashamed." Al even hung his head low as if he couldn’t bear to lift it and look at Ed. This time, Ed managed to hit his brother, and Al laughed while he rubbed his head. "You’re so mean."

"I’m learning from Roy," Ed sniffed and settled the hood of his coat further over his forehead. He didn’t really mind snow, not really, but it was the thick, wet type of flakes that meant he’d probably have a hell of a time getting to the library tomorrow morning. The type of flakes that clung to his face and slid down it like cold tears. "Speaking of which, do you think he’ll be in a good mood tonight?"

Al smiled and tugged on his hood as well. "You’re the one who should know, Brother."

Heaving a particularly deep and loud sigh, Ed fought the urge to growl. "He’s been blocking me lately, thanks to those stupid meetings at the palace. Says he doesn’t want another anger loop starting between us." Considering how out of sorts the both of them had been when it had happened the last time, he couldn’t really blame Roy for stifling their link. Not that understanding why it was done made it any better. Ed had gotten used to always feeling Roy’s emotions since their last major fight. He’d made a point of not blocking the bond between them to prove that he wasn’t up to anything, and Roy had reciprocated the gesture. They’d learned better how to deal with each other’s mood swings as a result, and… and…. Ed hugged his arms around his chest. For some odd reason, he felt… cold and hollow when he couldn’t feel his mate. The bastard.

"All I know is he isn’t home yet," Ed admitted and did his best not to think about the pigheaded pervert he’d been forced to accept as his mate.

"Then I’m sure he’ll be very grateful that we’re bringing back some dinner for him." Al held up the large, cloth-wrapped package he held in his left hand. When all Ed did was grunt in response, he seemed to figure out that it wasn’t a good idea to talk about Roy. "Anyway, back to what we were discussing before – if I only work at the forge, then I should have more time to spend at the Koneko." He sounded so excited about that prospect that Ed managed to shake off his foul mood.

"So you asked Marta to teach you how to heal?" he asked, growing excited for his brother’s sake.

Al ducked his head and grinned. "Yeah, I did that today while you and Aya were trying to find that book about water elemental bounds." He hummed for a moment, the sound so happy that Ed felt a glow of warmth in his chest. No matter that he had a mate of his own, Al was his flesh and blood, his precious brother, and whenever Al was happy, so was he.

"Good." He knew that Al had been trying to work up the nerve to ask the woman for the last week, ever since they found out that she was moving to the Koneko. "Though I don’t know why you thought she’d turn you down; it’s pretty obvious that Neely would’ve begged her mom for your sake," he couldn’t help but tease.

Al actually blushed and ducked his head again, pulling his hood forward until his face was hidden. "I would never ask Neely to intercede on my behalf; besides, I’d think that would make Marta *never* want to teach me. She’s awfully protective about Neely." He sounded just as embarrassed as he looked.

Glaring at a falling snowflake, Ed clenched his hands into fists. "Yeah, she is." Marta had pretty good cause, too. Just today some creep had seen Neely while she’d fetched some spices for Jo and had tried to follow her into the kitchen. Good thing that Aya’s weird friend with all the scars had just arrived and was busy eating an entire leg of uncooked mutton. He’d left the kitchen table and done something that had sent the creep running from the inn, and Jo had given him another leg of mutton in thanks. If Marta had been there… well, Al would have had somebody to practice healing upon, if she had left the creep alive.

Shaking such thoughts from his head, he decided it was time to give a little payback to his brother. "Still, Marta seems to like you so I’m sure she’ll teach you. She’s probably thinking of it as passing on the family skills to the future son-in-law." He laughed when Al’s shoulders became even more hunched. "You know, Neely was asking Aya and me how it felt when we discovered our mates. Sounded like she’s hoping that you’re hers." He couldn’t help chortling at the image of Al stuck with Marta as a mother-in-law.

"Brother, *please*. Neely is still a child," Al pointed out with offended dignity. "I mean, I know I’m only a couple of years older than her, but still. You’re the last person I expect to hear about this from considering how much you fuss over Roy’s age."

"Because he’s several *decades* older than me, not years," Ed growled, and blushed a little himself when he realized they were out on a public street. Thankfully, no one was close enough to have overheard him. "Still, something like that won’t matter for long."

It was Al’s turn to sigh. "Brother… Ed, I don’t love her, okay? And we’re definitely not mates because all I feel for her is the same I feel for Alicia. She’s like a kid sister. I don’t know why you have such a hard time accepting this, but it’s Winry I love." It was clear from his tone that he was bothered by Ed’s teasing and refusal to accept how he felt for Winry.

Feeling guilty for making his brother upset, Ed gave Al’s left shoulder a gentle squeeze. "Her tendencies to throw wrenches at my head aside, Winry’s okay, Al. It’s just….." He pitched his voice low enough to make sure they weren’t overheard. "She’s human, Al. You’re better off with one of our own kind."

"Mom was an earth elemental, just like Dad, and it didn’t mean that they were happy together," Al just had to mention, which made Ed struggle to fight against the anger he felt whenever their father was brought up. "What matters is that you love and respect each other, not that you’re the same kind."

They walked for the rest of the block before Ed felt he was in control of his emotions again. "Al, Mom and… Dad were a special case." Their mom had loved their father, that much was evident, but he had left her and them one day, and didn’t even seem to care that she’d been killed. "Look at the Hughes, okay? They’re really happy together. And… and Aya and Yohji." He struggled to think of other suitable relationships and hoped that Al didn’t mention him and Roy.

Snorting softly, Al straightened his shoulders. "Those two don’t count since they’re mates. What about Aya’s friend Omi, hmmm? I mean, look at him and Nagi. I’ve only seen them together for two days, but it’s clear that they love each other and they’re not the same." He sounded smug for pointing out that couple.

Gritting his teeth in frustration, Ed finally said what was really bothering him. "At least Omi’s a wizard so he’ll live a lot longer than Winry. What are you going to do in another fifty years, Al? Or eighty? Dammit, there’s a chance she won’t even live that long, where you might live for centuries." He never willingly hurt Al, not his baby brother, but this was the type of situation where Al was going to feel pain regardless of what he did. He’d much rather it be a small amount now than too much later.

Al pulled away a little, then sighed and leaned back against Ed while they walked home. "I know, Brother."

"So why can’t you like Neely instead?" Ed didn’t really understand why Al didn’t do just that. While Ed had no choice in who he wanted because of the bond with Roy, it was different for his brother, right? People seemed to fall in and out of love all the time, why couldn’t Al? "She’s pretty, really sweet and she cares for you. I’m sure the two of you would be really happy together." He was sure of it; Neely and Al had such generous personalities, were the type of people who instantly put you at ease and made you smile. They’d be great together.

There was more silence, and when Ed dared to look at his brother, he saw Al staring back at him with pity. "Ed… you have Roy so I don’t think what I’m going to say will make much sense. Just because I’m not mates with Winry doesn’t mean I can easily love someone else. Love isn’t like that." When Ed only stared back in confusion, Al shifted Roy’s dinner to his right hand and gave Ed a one-armed hug, his left arm settling around Ed’s waist. "I can’t change my emotions because I think another person would suit me better. Winry is who I love, and believe it or not, I’m happy with that."

This conversation didn’t make any sense, Ed thought with growing confusion. Winry was human and would age. Al would barely change in the time it took her to grow old and die, so they’d constantly have to move around if they stayed together as it would attract attention if an eighty year old woman had a ‘twenty year old’ husband. While Ed would agree that Winry was pretty and loyal and usually fun to be around, it would be best for the both of them if they found someone else to love. So why didn’t they?

"Al, what are you going to do when she grows old? What if she gets sick? Oh, and if you have kids, they’ll probably take after her, too. Why are you setting yourself up for so much pain?" Ed asked, his voice breaking over the words as he thought about the heartache and loss that his brother faced. "Okay, you love her – I understand that it’ll hurt if you break things off with her now, but won’t it be better than seeing her grow old and die?"

Al came to a stop and tugged on Ed’s waist until they faced each other. "Either way it’ll hurt, Brother, but at least I’ll have all those years of happiness with her. Can’t you see why that makes it worthwhile?" When Ed stared mutely at him for a whole minute, Al shook his head. "You really don’t get it, do you?"

"No, Al, I don’t." They stared at each other for a few more seconds before they both turned to resume their way home. "I just want you to be happy," Ed admitted after a few blocks. "I hate seeing you be hurt." And he felt a bit guilty as well; he had Roy and knew that his mate was taking up more and more of his time, so he wanted Al to have a similar relationship, if possible. Well, except for all the fighting and control games and having to live with an old pervert.

"I know, Brother, which is why I’m not angry with you. Frustrated that I can’t make you understand what I’m feeling, but not angry." Al bumped his left hip into Ed’s right. "Worry about your own relationship and not mine, okay? At least Winry won’t drive me nuts like Roy’s doing to you." His good humor seemed to have returned, and he was smiling once again.

Ed sniffed and gave his brother a withering glare. "Ha, ha. Some brother you are, Al."

All of a sudden, Al was instant contrition. "I’m sorry, Brother. How about to make it up to you, I let you have the last of the cookies Gracia dropped off yesterday, okay?" His smile hinted at the fact that he was sure of victory. Considering how much Ed loved Gracia’s sugar cookies, the outcome really wasn’t in that much doubt.

"I think you’ve been hanging around Roy too much," Ed declared and sniffed with disdain for added effect. Maybe it would be a good thing if Al wasn’t home a lot.

*******

Yohji smiled in perfect contentment as he sipped his mulled wine. He sat in front of the fire, back propped up by a pile of pillows, with Aya tucked between his legs and resting against his chest. His right hand was wrapped around the ceramic mug while his left hand toyed with the ragged strands of his lover’s hair. Their brilliant red color sparkled in the room’s dim light, much like the flames in the fireplace. The evening was turning out just *perfect*, the quietness to be savored before his hunger took over and turned the contentment into passion. However, that could wait a little longer as it wasn’t very often he got a chance to just snuggle with Aya like this.

"Tell me, why do we even bother to leave the room?" he asked, a slight purr to his voice.

Aya leaned his head back against Yohji’s left shoulder and looked up at him. "Because I don’t think Jo would always bring us our meals, and there’s no hot spring up here." He was purring as well, a rare smile seeming to be permanently settled on his face for the evening. Yohji figured he was pretty happy after a day spent nosing around in books with Kikyou and Birman nowhere in sight. Hell, Yohji was pretty happy about that as well.

"Hmm, there is that." Giving in to temptation, he leaned forward so he could nibble on his mate’s right ear. The warmth that filled him when Aya’s purr became louder wasn’t just from the sunlight that trickled into him from the affectionate gesture, but from feeling how happy Aya was at the moment. He knew that times like these wouldn’t last long so he was determined to enjoy them as much as possible.

Jo had given them a huge pot of mulled wine, which was nestled by the fire to keep its contents warm, and a large platter of almond tarts, cheeses, bread and dried fruit to enjoy for the evening. After the excitement of yesterday and the busyness of today, they had eagerly retreated to their room after dinner. Yohji had the impression that Crawford was very relieved to see them turn in for the night since one of his companions had shown up that afternoon.

Wanting to get the serious discussion out of the way so he could better enjoy a quiet evening with Aya, Yohji forced himself to stop nibbling on Aya’s ear. "So, what do you think of Crawford’s friends and their plans?" he asked, settling back against the pillows with his left arm wrapped firmly around his mate’s waist.

Aya took his time before answering, selecting some bread and cheese for both himself and Yohji to snack on while he seemed to think about what to say. "Trowa is not what I’d expect for a water elemental bound, but I can see why he’d be picked for work for Birman." His voice was low and thoughtful, proof that he gave the discussion his full attention.

Yohji felt a spark of anger and pain when he compared the very reserved Trowa with Neely. Obviously, Trowa hadn’t had someone to look after him like she did. "He reminds me a bit of you, Cat," he admitted with some reluctance. Both men were the type who spoke only when they felt they had something to say and were obviously very intelligent. And they both had a sense of ‘touch me not’ to them, something that kept most people at arm’s length even though they were attractive as hell. Yet Aya didn’t give the same impression that he was cut off from everything as Trowa did – or, at least he no longer gave that impression. "I even think I heard him tell Crawford he was going to be in the library tonight."

"See, more proof that it’s normal to like books," was Aya’s instant retort, the same time he knocked his right elbow gently into Yohji’s side.

"Only if those books have lots of naughty pictures in them," Yohji couldn’t help commenting, and this time he mostly blocked Aya’s too pointy elbow. Laughing at how predictable his lover could be, Yohji nuzzled Aya’s temple for a few seconds. "I like books well enough; I just don’t love them like you do." Probably because he’d been able to live a real life for the last ten years or so, unlike his mate who had only been able to retreat into books to escape his suffering.

 

Aya grunted loudly before he sipped his wine. His back was stiff against Yohji’s chest for several seconds before he gradually relaxed again. "Anyway, I get the impression that we should be thankful that Trowa’s on our side. For a water elemental, he tends to just blend in and vanish when surrounded by other people."

"Yeah." It wasn’t so much that Trowa wasn’t remarkable enough to be noticed, Yohji thought as he stared at the dancing flames. His elemental nature tended to put the people around him at ease, and that, coupled with Trowa’s reserved nature, made it easy to overlook him – if that was what the quiet bound wanted. He had no trouble attracting attention the few times he’d spoken in the last two days. And judging from the little he said, while Trowa might not be participating in many of the discussions, he was paying close attention to all of them.

"I wonder why Crawford paired him with Duo when it seems that Trowa isn’t happy about the arrangement," Aya remarked, more than a little curious about the two strange bounds. Yohji smiled and hugged his ‘cat’ closer, delighted as always when Aya took an interest in the world. A few months ago, Aya probably wouldn’t have noticed anything, but the more he came out of his shell, the more he took note of what was happening around him. Aya just needed to get used to the fact that he could interact with people once again.

Having Nagi and Crawford react in surprise to Aya’s behavior filled Yohji with a sense of pride for himself and his mate. Both of them had worked hard on moving Aya away from the pain of his past, and while they still had a lot of damage to undo, they’d also accomplished a lot.

"I wasn’t sure if you picked up on that," Yohji replied after a moment, a pleased smile on his face. "Trowa might not *seem* happy with living with Duo… but he’s not entirely unhappy, either." Aya wasn’t the only one who’d changed in the last few months; Yohji had worked diligently on using and controlling his talent, and while he still wasn’t an expert at reading all emotions, he had no trouble with Trowa’s. "I picked up a sense of fear, not so much of Duo but of Trowa himself, but an awful lot of yearning and a bit of desire as well. Needless to say, I sensed the same from Duo, only even more yearning and desire." He turned his face until he felt the soft strands of Aya’s hair against his skin and inhaled deeply. The two strange bounds reminded him of how he’d felt for Aya when they’d first met, and Aya’s reactions to him.

"I’m sure Crawford has something in mind." Aya sounded exhausted and a touch exasperated, which was understandable from someone who had been involved in one of Crawford’s plans before. "I just hope that Reiichi isn’t asked to help train the new recruits this time."

That surprised a bit of laughter from Yohji, who had to set his mug aside before he spilled its contents. "Considering that Duo’s going to be in the class, I don’t blame you for that!" The fire elemental was definitely a handful… and Yohji wished Yuushi much luck in both keeping Duo under control and hiding the Shadow Guard from the energetic and inquisitive bound. "I just hope that Crawford knows what he’s doing."

Aya tilted his head so he could nuzzle the side of Yohji’s neck. "As much as I may not always approve of his methods, I have faith in the man. He hasn’t let us down yet."

If someone like *Aya* was optimistic, Yohji figured he should stop worrying about the matter. Laughing once more, he gave his mate a hug and a kiss on the temple. "All right, I’ll stop worrying about things for the moment." It was pretty odd, for him to be stressed out about it while Aya seemed more relaxed. Then again, he had more than Crawford to deal with at the moment.

Picking up on his unease, Aya reached back to stroke his fingers through Yohji’s hair before he pulled away to refill their mugs. "I don’t sense Schuldig or Masato nearby," he commented, his voice quiet as if he wasn’t sure how Yohji would react to the news.

Waiting for Aya to settle against him once more, Yohji accepted the mug filled with steaming hot wine and smiled in thanks. "Schu said they were going out tonight. Something about visiting a few ‘old stomping grounds’." He snorted in amusement and blew on the wine to cool it a little. "If it was warmer outside, I’d say he just wants to have sex in public places, but it’s cold enough to freeze his balls off if he tried." Not that he’d really mind if that happened to his father….

"I think it has more to do with getting away from you for a while," Aya pointed out as he turned so he could face Yohji. "What’s going on between you and Masato? You’re acting like strangers with each other, and I can feel how…." He made a spitting noise and frowned. "I don’t like how you feel when you’re near each other."

Yohji didn’t either, which was part of the problem. "Cat… it’s sorta like that… fight I had with Li a few months ago. Part of me wants to prove to him that I’m more powerful." The only thing was, even though Yohji was sure he was the more powerful of the two, that Masato was pretty damn strong. He’d managed to best his father the one time they’d fought before, but he’d had the advantage of surprise and the fact that Masato hadn’t really tried to hurt him. "I want to make him bare his throat to me and tear out his eyes for even looking at you," he admitted, a bit disgusted at himself for his animalistic reactions.

Aya set his mug aside and tucked back the hair falling onto Yohji’s face. "That’s your demon nature. I don’t remember you having so much difficulty with him before, not about you both being succubae bounds." He was so confused and worried for Yohji that it could be felt over their link.

Once more wrapping his arms around Aya’s waist, Yohji pulled his mate closer. "Yeah, but I wasn’t really used to being a succubae bound last summer. Now…." He let out a slow breath and called up a bit of glamour, just enough to make Aya’s heart race. "Now I can’t remember what it was like to consider myself as ‘human’." To live without sensing people’s emotions or feeling the addictive tingle of sunlight from just caressing Aya’s cheek. Because of his mate, he had fully embraced his demon side and didn’t regret it in the slightest. "I guess we just need to build up a tolerance to each other and figure out how to make being around each other work." While he still felt a bit of resentment for Masato leaving his mother, he better understood why his father had done it since he’d learned so much more about bounds in the last few months. Now he wouldn’t mind some sort of relationship with the man. At the least, it would have made his mother happy, if she was still alive.

"I guess I don’t understand what you’re going through," Aya said after a minute or two of quiet. He felt a bit regretful about it, and confused. As the only one of his kind, Yohji supposed that Aya would never get a chance to deal with another kage and see if they’d be rivals or friends.

Yohji combed his fingers through his mate’s hair and gave the left eartail a gentle tug. "That’s okay, Cat. No need for both of us to be possessive, jealous idiots at the same time. At least Masato didn’t show up a couple of months ago!" He chuckled when Aya made the spitting noise again, as always amused at how easy it was to ruffle his lover’s feathers. Aya was just so fun to tease – as long as Yohji didn’t end up bitten or whapped for his troubles. One good thing about winter was that between the both of them wearing thick sweaters, Yohji’s shoulders and ribs were getting a bit of a break.

"Don’t see why I should be possessive of an idiot like you," Aya grumbled, but he once again settled against Yohji’s chest.


"Because you’re hopelessly in love with me." Yohji smiled and rested his cheek against the top of Aya’s head. He could feel that love, even now, and the next time he was around his father, he would try to center himself in that emotion and fight his nature. Aya was his mate, Schuldig was Masato’s, and he and his father were so thoroughly wrapped around their respective lover’s little fingers that they should know better than to feel the urge to defend what was ‘theirs’.

As the room grew quiet once more, save for the crackle of wood burning and the faint purrs from him and Aya, Yohji thought once again about how lucky he was. This time last year, he’d been wallowing in misery because of Asuka, doing a good job of either driving all his friends away or mad with worry. Now he had a mate he adored and who loved him just as much, was once again working for the Guard and happy with his life.

He couldn’t help but think of the bounds he’d talked to earlier today, how earnest they’d been about joining the Shadow Guard and doing something that would help their kind. They were struggling for the happiness that he’d finally found, and he wished them all the luck in the world in claiming it for themselves. With the war looming in the future, everyone would need something to cling to for faith and hope, be it loved ones or a cause for living. The past spring had brought him his, purring softly in his arms.

Once more kissing Aya on the temple, Yohji offered a silent thanks to whatever god or gods who had decided to take pity on him and make his life worth living again. He now had more than enough faith in the future because Aya would be there through it all.

*******

Roy shoved the door open and stomped into his house, straight into the kitchen where he found Ed and Al at the table eating cookies. Tossing the garment bag he carried onto an empty chair, he grabbed Ed by the left shoulder, hauled him out of the chair and backed him against the kitchen counter, where he proceeded to thoroughly kiss his mate.

Finally unblocking their link, he let all of his anger, annoyance and frustration flow across it, and drank in the confusion, surprise, growing anger and spark of lust he felt from Ed. Knowing that it wouldn’t be long before Ed shoved him away, he deepened the kiss, desperate for this little bit of pleasure. All through the many meetings today, the only thing that had kept him from burning the palace to the ground had been the thought of kissing Ed. He’d used the image of how it felt to rest against his lover’s body, the silky slide of long hair through his fingers, the heat and sharp emotions that Ed radiated as a distraction.

Perhaps some of that had filtered across their link, because while Ed finally pushed him away, it wasn’t with a violent shove and a shouted curse. "What the hell has gotten into you?" Ed gasped as he slowly forced Roy back to arm’s length. "Ever hear of saying ‘hello’?"

"Uhm, I’ll definitely just take a simple ‘hello’," Al contributed to the conversation while he left the chair and reached into the cold box to pull something out.

Roy took a deep breath to steady himself and played with the ends of Ed’s ponytail. "I’m sorry; I had a truly lousy day and figured it would just lead to one hell of a fight if I came home and started yelling."

"Hmph, so you molest me in the kitchen in front of Al. Real nice." No matter how much Ed scowled at him, Roy could sense that his mate really wasn’t as upset as he acted. In fact, Ed was a bit turned on and more than a little pleased at Roy’s actions. After a few seconds of pretending that he was truly offended, Ed ‘hmphed’ again and relaxed his outstretched arm. "So what did those assholes do to you today?"

"Does it have something to do with this?" Al, ever the astute Elric brother, asked as he left setting out Roy’s dinner so he could investigate the bag that Roy had thrown aside.

"Very good, Alphonse." Roy regretfully released his hold on Ed’s hair so he could open the bag. He was sorely tempted to set the whole thing on fire, but he knew a lost cause when he saw one and wasn’t about to get his pay docked for the cost of a new uniform. Not with the way the Elrics seemed determined to eat him out of house and home.

"Gentlemen, I give you the latest action designed to bridge the divide between the Army and the Guard." He undid the bag’s buttons and held up his new uniform. On the whole, it was the exact same copy of the uniform he was currently wearing… but it was made out of fine dark blue wool instead of green.

Al blinked his eyes a couple of times while Ed merely stared at the garment. "Ah, it’s the same color as the Guard’s uniforms," Al mentioned in a sheepish manner.

"Exactly," Roy spat and draped the offensive uniform over the chair’s back. "All Army officers will have new uniforms in the next two days, and the rest will have them by the end of the month."

Ed left the kitchen counter to stand beside Roy. "Why the hell didn’t they make the Guard’s uniforms green, eh? There’re less of them!" He echoed Roy’s anger and disgust as he poked a finger at the dark blue wool.

Feeling the need for a drink, Roy trailed the fingers of his right hand along Ed’s shoulders before he went to the cabinet where he kept the good whiskey. "Because blue is the royal color, after all. The Guard’s uniform was picked to reflect the fact that they answer directly to whoever resides on the throne, more or less. The Army was given a green uniform to symbolize that we fight for the good of the country, not just the king or queen. That was important centuries ago when other lords had almost as much power as the ruling monarch." He filled the small tumbler all the way to the rim and gulped down the alcohol in three swallows. While he licked his fingers clean of whiskey, he used his left hand to pour another drink.

"However, our queen, in her infinite wisdom, has decided that some of the rivalry between the Guard and the Army is because we think of ourselves as answerable to different people. By uniting us under the Takatori colors, there should be less animosity between our organizations." He snorted in disgust to show what he thought about that before he drained the glass dry a second time.

"Of course the queen picked the Guard’s colors, which I’m sure has nothing to do with the fact that she used to be their Captain." Ed poked the uniform again before he turned to fully face Roy, his hands balled onto his hips. "While I think it’s a pretty shitty thing to do, is *that* what had you all pissed off today?"

Setting the empty glass aside, Roy wrapped a strand of Ed’s golden hair around his right forefinger and tugged. "No, it’s only part of it. I got the logistics of supplying several thousand soldiers their new uniforms dumped onto my lap, had to listen to Hakuro and Captain Kikyou snipe at each other for several hours, *and* could only sit there while the queen called all of us a bunch of children. On top of that, I get to spend tomorrow walking around base wearing Guard colors. All of this while you got to stuff your face at the Koneko and read books." He told himself that he wasn’t jealous – Ed was still a child, technically, and shouldn’t be working as much as he already was. And it wasn’t like he spent his time off at the Koneko because he had more than friendly feelings for Aya or that bastard, Kudoh. No, Roy just thought it was unfair that he had to suffer so much while his mate had fun.

Ed snorted and lightly whacked Roy on the chest. "Like Al and I sat on our butts all day and stuffed our faces with fancy food." When Al coughed into his hand, a faint redness spread across Ed’s pretty face. "Ah, well, Jo did keep us fed today… but we worked!" he rallied, his slight embarrassment changing into anger. "We didn’t get to look through the new books that Aya’s friends brought with them from Esset today! No, we had to do some research on battle tactics instead." Ed’s expression took on a distinctly sour expression. "One of those books is Montage’s notes on the first generation of elemental bounds, too. I’d give my right hand for a copy of it, and it just sat there, taunting me all day."

"Aya won’t let us borrow it until it’s been copied," Al added to the conversation, once again preparing Roy’s dinner. "I guess the books are only on loan to him so he doesn’t want to risk damaging them, but he did say that we could have copies of our own." His good mood seemed restored at that declaration, and Roy knew that he wouldn’t see much of the brothers until they had copies of the books in their possessions. Why did he have to be mated to someone who cared so much for a bunch of paper and ink?

Leaning forward to give Ed a lingering kiss, Roy pulled back with some reluctance a minute later and went to the table. He was fairly hungry and the food smelled delicious. "Thank you for bringing me some dinner," he said, letting his gratitude flow over the link to Ed. Sometimes he felt a bit… ‘exposed’ by not blocking the link like he had in the past, but the peace of the last few months convinced him that it was a smart decision.

Al beamed with joy and motioned to the plate filled with half of a chicken, a huge lump of mashed potatoes and a pile of asparagus. Beside it was a small loaf of bread and several almond tarts. "I hope it’s enough." He stepped out of the way when Roy approached and went to the stove to put on a pot of tea.

"This should be more than enough." As much as Roy looked down on the Koneko because of its owner and all the Guards who hung out at the inn, he had to admit that it employed some of the best cooks he’d ever known. Putting his power to good use, he quickly heated the food until fragrant steam rose from the plate. "I’m surprised that Ed left anything to be brought home, though," he couldn’t help saying before he began to eat.

Ed grunted in annoyance and sat down next to him, scooting his chair slightly forward until his knees bumped against Roy’s left leg. "Ha, ha, you old pervert." He actually stuck his tongue out for a moment then swiped an almond tart.

While Roy made a ring of fire appear around the plate of treats, Al returned to the table and sat across from Roy. "Actually, you are pretty lucky to have anything tonight. I know it’s very difficult to believe, but there’s someone who eats more than Brother." Al laughed when Ed made a futile attempt to whap the side of his head. "One of Aya’s friends from out of town is a flesh gaki bound. And I always thought that Ken could eat! Jei had to have eaten twice as much as him at dinner!"

Chewing on a mouthful of delicious chicken, Roy almost choked before he managed to swallow properly and take a breath. "Jei? That’s the name of Aya’s friend?" he sputtered while he looked around for something to drink. Al immediately got up from the table to fetch him a glass of water while Ed pounded on his back a couple of times.

"Yeah, though a few people called him ‘Farfarello’ as well," Ed explained. "Do you know him?" he asked, his golden eyes narrowed with suspicion.

Roy didn’t pause to debate the wisdom of his mate finding out about Crawford and Jei; sooner or later Ed and Al would discover the truth, and right now he had some important matters to discuss with his brother. "Possibly. Does he have white hair, a lot of scars and only one eye?"

"That’s him." Both Ed and Al nodded while Ed answered the question. "He’s a strange guy – one minute he’s making you laugh, the next he, well….."

"He can be quite scary," Al finished for his brother.

"Yeah." Ed leaned in closer. "How do you know him?"

"He’s the partner of the man who gave me the token." Roy would tell the boys about his brother later; right now, he wanted to make sure the bastard was really here in Eto. Crawford never went on any missions without Jei, so he *had* to be in town. "You haven’t seen a tall, dark-haired gentleman who appears a few years older than me at the Koneko, have you?"

Ed’s expression was *definitely* suspicious now. "He’s the one who brought the books to Aya and made him look for the information today. His name is Crawford." He could clearly sense Roy’s fury and determination since the link wasn’t blocked. "What the hell is going on? Don’t try to hide anything from me!" Although he strived for a defiant air, the order came out a bit more plaintively than he’d probably intended; Roy had done his best to treat Ed as an ‘adult’ lately and hadn’t hidden much from him.

So Crawford was indeed in town and hadn’t bothered to inform Roy of that fact. Roy wasn’t that surprised, not when his brother was a precog and he fully intended to singe off every single strand of the meddling bastard’s hair, not to mention at least one layer of skin. "What’s going on is I’ve just found out my ‘dear’ brother has decided to visit Eto."

Both Ed and Al were shocked by the statement; he’d told them before that he had an older brother, but had never named Crawford. "Brother! Crawford’s your brother?" Ed yelled while he leaned against Roy’s left side. "No wonder he comes across as an arrogant, know it all bastard!"

"Ed!" Al cried out with disapproval. "He didn’t mean it like that, Roy."

"Oh, I know only too well that he did," Roy said as he continued to cut up the chicken, unbothered by the insult. "In Crawford’s case it’s only the truth; he is a very arrogant, meddling bastard." Staring at his mate, Roy allowed his amusement to cross the link between them. "If you think I’m bad, just wait until you really get to know him."

Ed seemed surprised that he wasn’t being yelled at for the insult, but all too soon his insatiable curiosity took over. "You haven’t said much about your brother, only that he was a bound and that you’re both working to bring down the Elders." His voice was thick with hate when he mentioned the rulers of Esset.

"And there’s a lot about him that I can’t tell you, not *yet*." Roy started a staring contest with his idiot mate, one he was determined to win. "Don’t argue with me, Edward. There are some things I can’t tell you because it’s too much of a danger if you or Alphonse know even a little of the information." Such as the fact that their father was quite possibly dead, and what he’d done to put his life in so much jeopardy. Their two families were more connected than the Elric brothers ever suspected.

Sniffing in disdain, Ed looked away first. He held up his right hand until it was coated with a layer of metal from his thick bracelet and thrust it past the flames to snatch another almond tart. "That still doesn’t mean you can’t tell us *something*."

Feeling a bit of pleasure that Ed had finally seemed to be learning a sense of patience, Roy smiled at his young lover. "Very astute, Edward. Yes, I can indeed tell you something… after you tell me everything you know about why Crawford and Jei are here." Once he had the information, he could figure out the best way to approach his brother – and see just how flammable the meddling bastard was.

*******