Darkness Returns

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chapter seven

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apprehension and avoiding the issue

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Trowa sat in the Koneko’s quiet library, a book of Thracian poetry on his lap. He’d retreated here after dinner, and had to fight the urge to flinch whenever he sensed someone approach the room. Crawford had said that he and Duo would be shown their apartment tonight, and he was rather apprehensive over being alone with the fire elemental.

Intellectually, Trowa understood why his friend had paired him with Duo; there was a very real rivalry between the Army and the Guard, so it was best that Duo and Heero didn’t have much interaction with each other. Since the Spymaster was known to work with the Captain of the Guard, it would not be unusual for one of her employees to associate with a Guard. And the best explanation for why a spy and a Guard were frequently in each other’s company was that they had some sort of relationship between them. Trowa would much have preferred if he and Duo were pretending to be friends, but there would be less questions asked if they appeared as lovers.

Let it not be said that he didn’t sacrifice for the approaching war.

Trying to rid himself of dark thoughts and anxious emotions, he picked up the book and attempted to read. He’d been more than delighted to find the inn’s library last night, filled with a wide range of rare books. While the library in the attic was very precious, this one deserved just as much attention; the books might not deal with bounds and magic, but history and literature and science. Some of the volumes were very old; Trowa was pleased to notice the spells that regulated the room’s humidity to keep the ancient tomes in as good a shape as possible. As someone who always enjoyed losing himself into the stories and emotions other poured onto paper, and gifted with the ability to easily learn languages, he had the feeling that he’d spend many an evening here. That was, unless he was able to convince Aya to allow him to take the books home.

The poem about falling leaves seemed to vanish from the vellum pages as Trowa once again lost his focus. Home. That word had never held much appeal to him, as he was always a prisoner of sorts, and now… now he wasn’t quite sure what it made him feel, other than anxious and a little scared. He was assigned to Eto most likely until right before the war was to begin, which meant that for the next two years or so, he was free of the Elders. Oh, he was sure that they had some spies in the city who would be keeping track of him, and didn’t foresee how any of his actions would be construed as betrayal to the Elders. He would only be doing his best to ‘fit in’, after all, working hard and socializing so no one suspected him of having any ulterior motives. No, Crawford had come through for him on this mission.

To not have to face the Elders or their lackeys, to be away from Berin and the palace…. As the most powerful water elemental bound in Esset, he’d been awarded some respect and had been watched closely, and now he was in a place where none of that mattered. Except to a handful of people, he was unknown and deserved no notice, and that was much how he preferred to pass through life. He didn’t want people to seek him out, to pay him any attention and force their wants on him. Once the war was over, he would be able to simply vanish, to find a quiet home in the middle of nowhere, free of both other bounds and humans. Perhaps a few cats to warm his lap and a dog or two to keep him company on walks, and he’d be perfectly content.

So why did Duo’s face flash through his mind when he thought of ‘home’? Trowa felt… something, an emotion that both warmed and terrified him at the same time. Ever since meeting the fire elemental bound, he’d done his best to keep some distance from Duo, from the one person who made him feel that way. The one person who he dreamed about at night, touching him and holding him close, provoking responses from his body until he woke up covered with sweat, ashamed and frustrated and filled with pain.

Intellectually, he knew that sex was a good thing, was something that people shared for mutual pleasure and to affirm emotions. There were a few times when his body felt the need and he’d masturbated himself to orgasm, and he had to agree that it did feel good. He knew that it rarely was about pain, degradation and control, that there might very well come a time when he would desire to experience the more pleasant aspects of sex. It didn’t have to be about anything more than wanting pleasure and release; a lot of people had sex to enjoy themselves.

Jei made the occasional offer to sneak him off to a whorehouse or help him find a suitable companion in some bar. Jei always made it perfectly clear that he didn’t expect Trowa to have sex with someone, but merely wanted him to be in an environment where it could happen if and when he felt an urge. Several times, Trowa almost took him up on it, just to see if he could respond or at the least learn how to properly behave in case a mission required him to go to such a place, yet he’d always turned his friend down. Simply put, he didn’t feel any desire to flirt or tease, to allow another person to touch him or to touch in return.

At least, he hadn’t felt anything until he met Duo. Trowa had heard that lust could be an incredibly irrational emotion and firmly believed that to be true after that first disturbing dream. Duo, while an intelligent, handsome young man, was also too impulsive, too loud, too… too… too….

Feeling disgusted with himself, Trowa slammed the book shut and practically jumped from the comfortable leather chair. He stalked over to the bookcase to return the volume of poetry and to find something to better occupy his attention. The last thing he wanted to do was think about Duo, not when he’d soon be living with the man. He also didn’t want to think about how if he went to Crawford and confessed to his friend the doubts and fears he had, that perhaps Crawford would arrange for him to pretend to be Heero’s lover instead. Heero, he trusted himself with. Duo….

// One of many elements, yet a necessary one.//

That was what Crawford had told Trowa, so he knew it would be a lost cause to ask that he be partnered with Heero instead of Duo. The gods were indeed unkind to require that of Trowa, well aware that he would do whatever was necessary to destroy the Elders. He felt a very strong urge to go to the nearest temple district and call forth enough water to wash away every last building to show the gods what he thought about their indifference.

Sensing someone approach the library, Trowa jerked his thoughts away from such personal matters and fought not to hold his breath in nervous anticipation. His body went perfectly still when the library’s door opened and closed.

"Ah, good evening."

Trowa turned to face the person, a human whom he belatedly recognized as being introduced to him as ‘Reiichi’. He recalled that the man was pretending to be a retired Guard so he could watch over Aya and Yohji, and that he usually acted as a go-between for the Guard and the Spymaster.

"Good evening," Trowa murmured as he slipped the book of poetry into its rightful space on the shelf.

Reiichi smiled, the expression pleasant on his handsome face. He was a quiet man, from the little that Trowa had observed, and possessed a clever wit that had left his companions flustered on more than one occasion. With that kind smile, the soft look in his eyes behind the gold-rimmed glasses and his slight limp, he didn’t come across as much of a threat. Yet Trowa felt something that warned him to not so much be on his guard around the human, but to not dismiss his presence. So he was understandably tense when Reiichi approached.

Just a few steps away from Trowa, Reiichi held up a slender book encased in dark linen and leather. "I’d thought to spend a couple of hours here doing some translating," he explained in his warm, deep voice then motioned to the Thracian dictionary not far from Trowa’s right hand.

"Oh, I see." Trowa took a quick step back, his attention mostly on the book in Reiichi’s grasp. "You are trying to learn about chess?" he asked, deciphering the visible letters on the book’s cover.

Reiichi’s smile grew wider. "’Trying’ is correct; I know how to play chess, but Aya thought I’d appreciate learning about the game’s origins and the strategies of its earliest masters. From the little I’ve been able to translate, I must say that he was right." He laughed as he grasped the dictionary, the sound rueful yet amused.

"But… you don’t know Thracian?" Trowa asked, feeling slightly confused. Why would anyone give a book in a foreign language to someone who didn’t understand it?

Reiichi chuckled again as he made his way to one of the room’s tables. "No, unfortunately I don’t, and I don’t believe that Aya was aware of that fact when he gave me the book. I believe he just takes it for granted that people know more than one language since he’s taught himself several." Seating himself in a padded chair, he motioned to the bookshelf that Trowa was still standing beside. "I assume that you know Thracian as well?"

"Yes." His interest in books wavering, Trowa cautiously approached the table. Reiichi was someone he needed to work with for his assignment, and seemed very knowledgeable about many things during the conversations that Trowa had listened to last night and today. "Would you like some assistance with the translating?"

Looking up from the dictionary, Reiichi arched his left eyebrow and stared directly at Trowa. "Some assistance would be greatly appreciated; I haven’t told Aya that I’m having difficulty reading the book because I don’t want him to feel bad about giving it to me without a translation."

"I see." Trowa sat down across from Reiichi. "You often work with him, correct?" He wasn’t too sure about his impressions of the kage just yet. Aya came off as a slightly distant, reclusive person who was easily annoyed by his mate. Then not a minute later, he seemed very affectionate yet shy, depending on who he was with, although he never came across as very outgoing. Trowa wasn’t sure what he had expected from such a powerful bound, but was sure it wasn’t that. However, there had been a few moments here and there when he’d caught a sinister side of Aya. Moments when the room would seem to darken and Aya go perfectly still, when his eyes would be cast silver, and Yohji would make an obvious effort to distract or placate him. That was when Trowa understood why Crawford put so much faith in Aya helping them to win the war.

Nodding as he flipped through the book on chess, Reiichi pushed it across the table so Trowa could read it. "I’ve assisted him on several missions as well as do my best to keep an eye on him and Yohji." He didn’t say anything else, just stared at Trowa with a slight smile on his face.

The man’s reticence put Trowa at ease. While they were both told that they’d be working together and could trust each other, it was reassuring to know that Reiichi seemed determined to form his own opinion of Trowa before he began a true information exchange. Trowa didn’t want to work with a ‘buddy’, but with someone he truly could trust and respect. What they were doing was very dangerous and risked death or worse not just for themselves but for many other people.

He glanced at the book and frowned after a few seconds. "I imagine that you’ve had a difficult time with the translation; this is a rather old Thracian dialect." He scooted his chair closer to the table so he could better read the neat but small handwriting.

"The book is an antique; it was a part of Aya’s father’s private collection." There was obvious pride in Reiichi’s voice and the fingers of his right hand gently stroked the book’s yellowed pages. "I’ve no doubt that it’s worth a fortune and so have been reluctant to take it anywhere to be translated. Not that I don’t appreciate learning to read Thracian!" he said with a warm chuckle. "I’m able to understand most of the spoken language, but the writing style is so odd. I’m sure Aya would help me, but he’s busy enough and I know he’d feel that his gift was inappropriate or thoughtless when it’s really very generous." As he spoke, he reached for one of the fountain pens and sheets of paper that were scattered about the table.

Looking up from the book, Trowa gazed evenly at the human. "He must think of you as a friend to have given you something so valuable."

Reiichi returned the look, his expression serious. "I count him as one of my best friends, even though we’ve only known each other for a few months. He’s not someone to easily form friendships, and I know I’m honored by his trust and affection."

Trowa tilted his head to the side while he considered Reiichi’s words. Ever since… since his power awakened, he hadn’t had much to do with humans. Either he was in Berin, mostly surrounded by his own kind, or on a mission that required him to keep at least an emotional distance from people. While he knew in theory that not every human hated or feared his kind, this was the first time that he was working with people who were so open about their trust of bounds. "I understand," he said after a moment’s silence, to which Reiichi nodded once more and motioned to the book.

"My inexperience with translating the written Thracian language is not helped in the slightest by the fact that the book wasn’t printed, but written by hand. Sometimes it all looks like a bunch of squiggly lines," Reiichi complained and squinted at the small handwriting.

Grateful for his enhanced vision, Trowa leaned a little further over the table. "The dialect doesn’t help much, either. I believe they did away with using that particular flourish on the vowels about four centuries ago."

He finally found the distraction he’d been searching for all day by helping Reiichi with the translation, completing several pages and increasing his knowledge of Master level chess moves during that time. Focused on the translating, he wasn’t aware of anyone approaching the library until the door opened.

Duo stepped inside, a nervous smile on his face. "There you are, Tro… wa." He seemed to catch himself on the hated nickname before Trowa could object to its use. "Uhm, Cassandra wants to take us to the apartment now. She said it’s ready." He looked from Trowa to Reiichi, his nervous smile replaced by a disapproving frown. "You’re one of the Guards, aren’t you?"

"Reiichi Shirasaki, retired Guard," Reiichi said with a slight inclination of his head. "You’ll be seeing more of me since I help teach a class or two to all Guard cadets." He didn’t seem bothered by the coldness of Duo’s tone or the frown directed his way.

"Huh," Duo grunted as he stalked further into the room, his eyes narrowed as if he had trouble containing his temper. "Then you don’t have much of a reason to work with Trowa, right?" It was clear that he expected an answer, and his behavior thoroughly confused Trowa.

Reiichi, however, appeared to have no problem handling Duo. "I’m afraid you’re wrong. Even though I’m retired, I also assist the Spymaster from time to time since I’m very familiar with the Court. In fact, she asked me to teach Trowa all that I can so he’ll have no problem working in the palace." His slightly cool demeanor vanished as he looked at Trowa and smiled. "I was planning on telling you that, but got distracted by the translating. I expect that you’ll both need a day or two to settle in, and heard that Jei will show you around the city tomorrow. How about we meet here in two days time, after ten in the morning, and I’ll begin your lessons."

"Thank you." Trowa inclined his head in gratitude; he had some general knowledge about Kritiker’s highborn and their customs in Court, and would greatly appreciate increasing that knowledge. "I’ll see you then." He slowly rose from the chair and once more looked at Reiichi. "Do you know if Aya allows people to borrow books from this library?"

"As long as you’re not a customer and he feels you can be trusted, he does. Ask him the next time you see him and I’m sure he’ll be willing to let you take a few books home." Reiichi inclined his head and began to gather the papers with the translations. "Good evening, Trowa, Duo. I wish you much good luck and happiness in your new home."

"I’m sure we’ll be fine there," Duo replied, a cheerful grin on his face even though the words sounded a bit forced. He went to Trowa’s side, his right hand hovering around Trowa’s left arm as if he wanted to grasp it. "Let’s get going, Trowa. I’m pretty tired and can’t wait to get some sleep."

Trowa nodded and headed for the door. "Good night, Reiichi," he said before he left, the anxiety that he’d done his best to suppress for the last hour or so rushing back and making him glad that he hadn’t had much for dinner.

Crawford had promised that he’d never do anything to harm Trowa. As he left the library with Duo at his side, Trowa could only fervently hope that his friend didn’t let him down.

*******

 

Duo followed Trowa and Cassandra up the stairs that took them to the apartment, very grateful that Jei remained at the Koneko. No doubt the flesh gaki bound would have *lots* to say about the way Duo was unable to look anywhere other than Trowa’s ass. At firm flesh that flexed with each step, those long, lean thighs that he so desperately wanted to feel wrapped around him, the auburn brown hair that swayed back and forth…

"As I said before, it’s not much, but you’re supposed to be two young men newly arrived in the city so…." Cassandra’s voice trailed off as she came to the top of the stairs, and Duo forced himself to look away from Trowa’s ass to see her smiling at him. "But it’s clean and it’s cozy."

"Uhm, how many bedrooms?" Duo asked, glancing back and forth between the door and Trowa.

Cassandra didn’t say anything until after she opened the door and stepped inside. "Just the one." She glanced at the both of them, a slight frown on her face. "I thought… appearances, yes?"

"Yes," Trowa replied, his voice quieter than usual as he toed off his shoes while he placed the bags he was carrying on the floor and stepped further into the apartment’s living area. He looked around, as did Duo after he dumped his bags, and didn’t seem too disappointed with the place.

The living area was large enough for a nice sized, padded couch and a chair, along with a couple of small tables. Glancing to the left, Duo noticed the kitchen was big enough that he and Trowa shouldn’t be bumping into each other while cooking, but that was about it. There was another door, across from the kitchen, and he stepped forward to get a better look at what he assumed was the bedroom.

"Duo, your boots," Trowa said, the words almost coming out as a hiss. Immediately focusing his attention on his friend, Duo found Trowa staring at his feet.

Puzzled by what Trowa wanted, he suddenly realized that Trowa had removed his boots, and that the one time he’d had cause to visit Trowa in the water elemental’s room back in Berin that Trowa had asked him to remove his shoes. Feeling a slight heat creep over his face, Duo hurried to comply with the ‘request’, hopping around on one foot then the other as he pulled off his wet and dirty boots. "Sorry about that. Guess I better get used to it, eh?"


For the first time since they’d left for the apartment, Duo saw a glimpse of a smile on Trowa’s face. "Yes, please, unless you want to clean the floor and carpets every day," Trowa answered, his voice not as cold as it had been before.

"Okay, gotcha. No shoes while in the house." Duo smiled and stepped into the living area, turning around to get a look at it from all angles. "Wanna tell me any other rules that I should know?" More than anything, he didn’t want to upset Trowa or give the man some reason to be upset with him. He’d never bothered to remove his shoes unless he was going to lie down on his couch or bed back in his old home, but Duo was willing to change if it meant he got more than Trowa’s impassive or disapproving looks.

Trowa glanced at Cassandra, who stood by the doorway with her hand covering her mouth; it was clear that she was smiling and trying not to show it by the way her eyes were crinkled. When the soul gaki bound didn’t say anything, he took a deep breath and went to investigate the kitchen. "I ask that you help me to keep the place clean." He ran his hands over the faucets in the sink then turned to examine the small cold box. "I assume there are heat spells for the water? Do we have our own bathing room?" he asked, his expression impassive but voice tinged with worry. After spending the last few years keeping as close an eye on the man as he could, Duo was able to pick up on things like that.

Cassandra nodded and stepped further into the living room. "Yes. The apartment is a little small because it does have its own bathing room. Nothing fancy and it will be up to you to renew the heating spells." She twirled around in one full circle, her bright blue skirts swishing around her bootless feet. "Omi will be more than happy to renew them for you as he is always looking to practice his magic. The Koneko is gaining quite the reputation for always having reliable charmed items." This time she didn’t hide her smile or the faint giggle that accompanied it.

"Thanks, we’ll have to ask him about that," Duo said, not that he was too bothered by fading spells. All it took was a little effort on his part and there’d be no end to the hot water. "I’m guessing that the bathing room is in here." Finding a good enough of an excuse to check out the bedroom, he eagerly opened the door and stepped inside.

Like the living room, the south wall had several windows. The room wouldn’t get much warmth from the sunlight, which wasn’t much of a problem since he could easily heat and illuminate it with but a thought. There was a large, unmade bed in the middle of the small room, a pile of sheets and blankets stacked on top. The bed took up most of the room, leaving the two dressers, nightstand and tiny desk/secretary to be pushed along the walls, between the windows. On the west wall were several doors; the middle one proved to be a fair sized closet, the left door led to a small facilities room while the right door was for the bathing room. Not the biggest tub that Duo had ever seen, yet large enough that he would be able to soak his entire body if he bent his knees a bit. What it lacked in length it made up for in depth.

Like the living room, the bedroom had a tiny fireplace to help heat the apartment, so he wasted no time crossing the room and lighting the bit of wood already stacked inside of it. "All in all, the place is rather cozy," he called out as he left the bedroom. Upon seeing Cassandra standing beside the couch, he gave her a big smile. "Thanks for helping to get the place ready for us."

She returned the smile and bowed her head in acknowledgement while he lit the wood in the living room’s fireplace. "You are more than welcome. There is some tea and coffee in the kitchen for tomorrow morning; I assumed that you would have something to eat at the Koneko before Jei shows you the city. While you’re out, you can buy whatever food supplies that you need. Also, there are fresh linens for the bed and the bathing room, and I had the rooms stocked with enough wood to last you a couple of days." Her smile grew mischievous and she ducked her head as if a child who had been caught doing something naughty. "Most people buy coal since it burns longer and this winter is a truly cold one, but I thought that somehow, you could make do with wood."

Duo didn’t understand why whenever Crawford had mentioned the woman’s name, that there’d been an aggrieved tone to his voice. From what Duo could tell, she was a real sweetheart for setting things up for them like this. "Yeah, for some reason I’m thinking we’re not gonna need to worry about the place being too cold," he said with a laugh while he scratched the back of his head. "That or running out of water." He glanced at Trowa, who stood in the kitchen’s doorway, and felt his heart beat faster when he got a sliver of a smile in return. "I’ll set up some wards in a few minutes that’ll keep the place nice and warm, even when I’m not here," he offered.

Trowa nodded in acknowledgement. "Thank you. I fear I won’t be of much help other than ensuring that we don’t have any burst or leaky pipes." He looked at Cassandra and bowed. "Thank you."

"As I said, you are very welcome." She actually curtsied in response, her wrinkled face bright with joy. "Let me know if you like the tea; it’s my own blend and I’ll be happy to give you more when you run out."

Trowa bowed again, the motion so graceful that Duo just had to stare at him. "I usually enjoy a cup or two in the evening." As he straightened, he once more glanced at Duo. "I fear that there won’t be a pressing need for tea any time soon, however."

Making a face, Duo went to the door so he could pick up the bags he’d left there. "What can I say, I’m a coffee man. Don’t see any reason why a person should drink something made from a bunch of twigs and leaves," he said with an exaggerated grimace.

"I’m afraid that I can’t help with the coffee," Cassandra replied with another bright giggle. "Well, good night to the both of you. I wish you the best of luck in your new home." She stepped into her boots and stomped her feet once before she left the apartment.

Now it was just Duo and Trowa in the home they would share for the foreseeable future. Duo’s heart raced even faster and his stomach seemed to be doing its best to flop about in his belly. "Ah, I guess I’ll do the wards now. Best to get it taken care of, yes?" He was sure that he sounded like an idiot, especially since he was headed toward the bedroom with its lone bed to drop off the bags.

 

There was silence for a moment before Trowa cleared his throat. "That’s a good idea. I’ll make the bed." He also picked up his bags, and there was a moment of awkwardness when he tried to enter the bedroom the same time that Duo was leaving it. They accidentally brushed against each other as they attempted to step out of the way; wherever their bodies touched, Duo felt a lingering warmth that had nothing to do with his talent or the crackling fires.

Taking several deep breaths to calm himself, he decided to start with the doorway and living room. A wizard would be able to cast something to keep out all intruders; his wards would ensure that most of the apartment’s heat wouldn’t radiate away, and they would even attract some of the heat from the neighboring apartments. Between the wards and a small fire once or twice a day, the apartment would be kept nice and toasty. There was an added benefit that if Duo was home, he could easily command the wards to attack an intruder or enemy.

Once the living room was done, he went to the kitchen and warded it as well, even the small stove and the cold box. Heat would be contained or kept away from wherever he wanted, and there would be no need for Omi’s services at the moment.

Feeling as if he was going into enemy territory, Duo approached the bedroom where he found Trowa unfolding the bed linens. "This’ll just take a minute," he said, for some reason very self-conscious of Trowa watching him as he set the wards. Though he didn’t need to make them visible, he did so for this room, creating glowing red lines that faded when the wards took effect.

Trowa paused in making the bed to watch the lines appear and vanish. "There are advantages to fire over water; I can create wards to keep the air humid, but that’s about it in a building," he murmured, his voice barely heard above the crackling of the fire.

"Yeah, but I’m sure if you’re in a bad enough of a mood, breaking all the pipes and using the water as a weapon would be a snap." Duo shuddered as he thought about drowning while in a third floor apartment. He’d seen Trowa put his talent to use before, creating solid walls or shapes from water to encase a person or to keep them contained. Trowa could do things with water that were impossible with fire.

"At least we won’t have to worry about any leaks when it rains," was Trowa’s soft reply, and from the way he ducked his head in a manner similar to Cassandra, Duo was left with the impression that the bound might actually be joking.

"Why do I get the feeling that if I forget about taking off my boots, my side of the bed will be soaking wet?" he teased back, and instantly regretted it when the slight smile on Trowa’s face vanished. "Ah, I meant the couch," he quickly replied in an attempt to make things better. "I’m sleeping on the couch."

Trowa was quiet while he smoothed out the sheet he’d placed on the bed and tucked its edges between the mattresses. "The bed is more than large enough for two people, Duo," he answered in that perfectly flat tone of voice that always made Duo want to grab a hold of and shake him until he showed some true emotion. "There’s no need for you to sleep on the couch."

For once, Duo thought about what he was going to say before he opened his mouth. He wanted to point out that Trowa would be more comfortable if they didn’t share the bed together… and knew there was no real way to say that without implying the reason why Trowa would prefer to sleep alone. Any attempt on Duo’s part to swear that he wouldn’t touch Trowa would only lead to an uncomfortable situation, as well. "Look, we’re only pretending to be lovers so we don’t actually have to sleep in the same room. I’m fine with the couch," he said, his tone as even as possible. "Maybe you don’t want to have to put up with my snoring or me taking up too much space."

"While Heero has complained about your rather suspicious ability to sleep through any alarm, he’s never complained about you snoring or hogging the bed," Trowa remarked while he smoothed out the wrinkles on the second sheet. "I would prefer not to worry about someone stopping by at an inconvenient time and wondering why you were sleeping on the couch. As long as you keep to your side of the bed, we should be fine." As always, he sounded like the voice of reason, even though Duo caught a hint of stress in his usually smooth voice.

Duo didn’t say anything as he went to the bathing room to finish the wards. By the time he was done, Trowa had added several blankets to the bed and seemed in the process of unfolding the quilt cover for it. "So, which side do you want?" He wasn’t going to argue too much with Trowa, not when it was over something that he wanted in the first place. While he was certain that sleeping an arm’s breadth away from the water elemental would be sheer torture, it would also be the closest he’d ever get to him. Duo could withstand the yearning and the pain for a chance to see Trowa asleep, to wake up beside him every day.

When he was finished with the bed, Trowa stepped back and looked around the room. "I’ll take the left side, if you don’t mind."

That placed him closest to the door, and some part of Duo – his demon nature – wanted to argue that *he* should be the one to sleep in the potentially more dangerous spot. Before Duo could open his mouth and say something to piss off the water elemental, he managed to smack down the impulse and nodded instead. "Yeah," he croaked a few seconds later, "that’s fine. You can have the dresser closest to the bed, then." Trowa was a grown man and could more than take care of himself, not to mention that he *hated* to be coddled in any way, Duo thought. "And don’t worry, I’m not a slob. I’ll help you to keep the place clean."

In the process of opening one of the dresser’s drawers, Trowa looked over his shoulder at Duo. "Good. Then you won’t have to sleep on a soggy mattress." Then he resumed unpacking his clothes.

The problem with living with a gorgeous guy who was much too talented in hiding his emotions was that Duo had the sinking feeling that he’d spend most of his time trying to figure out when Trowa was being serious or just teasing him. Considering the fact that he preferred his bed warm and dry, not cold and soggy, he resolved to make sure to pick up after himself while he shared an apartment with Trowa.

*******

Yohji entered the kitchen with a tray filled with empty and dirty plates in his hands and a huge, very pleased grin on his face. "Good morning to you all!" he called out once the door closed behind him. Jo, Maddox and Teddy all turned to look at him and responded with smiles of their own.

"I’d ask you if you got lucky last night, but considering what you are…." Teddy finished that statement with a salacious wink and a warm chuckle. "Where’s Aya?"

Sticking his tongue out at his brother, Yohji went to the sink to place the dirty dishes in some hot water so they could soak. "He’s already in the attic library." Setting the tray on the counter, he turned to face Jo. "Needless to say, I’m gonna take him some breakfast soon."

"Hmph. One day the two of you will learn that you’re supposed to eat your meals at a table, not up in your room or in the libraries," Jo snapped while she rolled out the dough for cinnamon rolls. "Can he wait a little bit for the food or did you drain him dry again?" For all her scowling and snapping, Yohji could sense her concern and happiness.

Yohji answered while taking a swat at Teddy, who was chuckling under his breath about when *didn’t* Yohji drain Aya dry. "Breakfast can wait a while since I’m not the animal you two seem to think I am," he grumbled, his annoyance fading when he managed to get a good yank on Teddy’s long black braid. "And stop traumatizing poor Maddox!" From the embarrassment he was picking up, the kid’s cheeks weren’t red from the heat of the stove.

Leaving the dough sit for a minute, Jo snorted loudly and went to the stove to pour Yohji a cup of coffee. "It’s rather funny to hear you say something like that considering your own behavior." She patted Maddox on the left shoulder before she grabbed the enamel pot. "Perhaps you should begin to rethink molesting Aya in public."

"The kitchen isn’t ‘public’," Yohji replied with an indignant sniff. "And Aya’s too sexy to not molest whenever possible." He laughed at everyone’s reaction to that; another derisive snort from Jo, more laughter from Teddy and a fresh wave of embarrassment from Maddox. Really, the kid should be getting used to things soon – not to mention one hell of an education for whenever he got himself a boy or girlfriend. At least Yohji did his best to watch his behavior whenever Emmie was around.

While Jo poured the coffee, he grabbed a warm bread roll and split it open so he could butter it. Maddox continued to stir the porridge while Teddy prepared the baskets of toast, rolls and danishes for Touya to take to the common room. Yohji smiled in thanks for his drink and alternated sips between bites of his roll. He’d wait to have a proper breakfast until Jo fixed something for both him and Aya. Since he had a sneaking feeling that Aya would be spending yet another day in the library researching things for Crawford, he was determined to enjoy his mate’s presence as much as he could. Really, to be tossed aside for a pile of dusty old books… he sniffed and tried not to smile.

Just when he was about to pour himself some more coffee, there was a knock on the kitchen’s door. Since everyone he knew didn’t bother to either knock or wait for the door to be opened after knocking, he shared a worried look with Jo before he went to see who it was. Upon opening the door, he found two bedraggled bounds standing there, covered with travel-stained cloaks.

A man who appeared about Yohji’s age and height cleared his throat, radiating so much nervousness that it made Yohji’s stomach unsettled. "Ah, this is the Koneko, right?" Snowflakes clung to his shaggy brown hair and goatee.

Grateful for the fact that he could now easily tell bound from humans, Yohji allowed his right hand to move from his left wrist and push the door open wider. "Yes it is. They could have told you that at the front door, you know," he said as he waved for them to step inside. The morning was bitterly cold and he kept waiting for Jo to yell at him for letting all the room’s warm air to escape.

The woman, her dark brown hair pulled back into a neat bun, shoved the man aside and hurried into the kitchen. "I *told* you that we should have entered the main way, you nitwit," she snapped. Then she smiled at Yohji, the expression a little shaky. "I’m sorry to bother you like this. I’m Nicole and he’s Jared."

By the time they both entered the kitchen, Jo was at Yohji’s side with a mug of hot coffee in each hand. "For the sake of the gods, take off those cloaks and go sit by the fire," she chided, waiting impatiently for them to shed their outer garments. Proving that they had a bit of intelligence, Nicole and Jared quickly did as they were told and accepted the coffee with hushed thanks. "Have you eaten yet today?" Jo rolled her eyes when both of them shook their heads. "Of course not, why would anyone bother to do that before coming to my kitchen?" Once again, her show of short temper hid her concern, and Yohji felt the urge to smile at her behavior. The poor bounds sat at the table and made a show of drinking coffee that had to be scalding their tongues, looks of identical fear on their faces.

Yohji decided to take pity on them and picked up a basket of rolls along with some butter and honey while Maddox filled two large bowls with porridge. "I’m Yohji, she’s Jo," he informed their guests, deliberately leaving off his last name. "Despite the fact that many people will swear that *she’s* the demon trapped in human flesh, I’m the only bound in the room beside you two."

While Nicole and Jared stared at him in shock, he did his best to avoid Jo’s half-hearted swing at his head with the rolling pin and only managed to have its wooden handle brush against his hair. "Bet you weren’t expecting to hear that, na?" he had to ask as he set the food down and settled on the bench opposite the two bounds. Maddox remained at the stove with Jo now standing between him and the strange bounds, while a chuckling Teddy left the kitchen. Yohji had the feeling that he was going to tell Mickey and perhaps a Guard or two about their latest guests.

Nicole recovered first, her golden eyes narrowing as she cautiously reached for a roll. "We were told to come here by our friend Janice. She instructed us to mention the name ‘Cassandra’," she explained, her tone just as cautious as her movements.

Yohji nodded while he tipped the basket in Jared’s direction. This wasn’t the first time that bounds had shown up at the Koneko and mentioned Cassandra’s name, and Janice was one of the bounds she’d told him he could trust if the woman sent anyone his way. "If I haven’t taken too many blows to the head from Jo’s rolling pin, Janice is an air elemental who’s a friend of a friend of Cass’." Even though the three of them were bounds, it was clear that Nicole and Jared weren’t simply going to trust him and needed some reassurance. Not for the first time, Yohji wished his talent was a bit flashier so he could easily prove that he was indeed a bound without swamping people with overwhelming lust.

Both Nicole and Jared’s attention shifted from him to Maddox when the kid came to the table with the bowls of porridge. "Ah, I made a lot of porridge if you want more," he stuttered, seemingly conscious of being the center of attention all of a sudden. "It’s really good."

"You’re the- OW!" Jared howled and scooted about on the bench while patting his ass. "Nicki, don’t be such a bitch!" he growled and bared his very sharp teeth at his companion.

"And stop to think before you speak for once!" she hissed back. Struggling to smooth out her expression, she looked at Maddox and bowed her head. "Thank you, it smells delicious." Maddox blushed again and hurried back to the stove.

Meanwhile, Yohji was pleased that he seemed to have absorbed enough energy from Aya to be able to not only tell bounds apart from humans but to be correct in figuring out what type they were before they used their power. "So, why are you here?" he finally asked while they tried a small spoonful of the porridge. "Need a place to stay for a while or looking for a job?"

After the one taste, Jared stopped being angry and snatched the honey to pour half the jar’s contents on his porridge. "We’re here to be Guards," he muttered after shoving a huge spoonful of porridge into his mouth.

Nicole’s delicate features twisted with disgust and she shifted in her seat so her back was toward Jared. "We’ve heard that the Guard is hiring bounds and would like to join," she elaborated, just as pleased with the porridge but appearing to be more mindful of her manners.

"You made it here just in time; the Guard’s putting together a new class of cadets to start next week." Yohji left the table to fetch a carafe of coffee for the three of them to share, all the while sending reassurances to Aya who had caught the flare of Nicole’s talent all the way up in the attic.

Nicole nodded between spoonfuls of breakfast. "We were told that now was the best time to come – we would have been here earlier, but we got caught up in the blizzard two weeks ago." She was slowly losing her mistrust of Yohji and the inn as her hunger faded and her exhaustion grew.

Jared, on the other hand, had been put at ease just by being fed. "Now that was one hell of a nasty storm. We would have been frozen solid if it wasn’t for Nicki." He seemed to have forgotten his anger at having his ass singed a few minutes ago and smiled at his companion before holding up his empty bowl. "I’ll definitely take seconds." There was the sound of something solid being hit, and Jared made a faint huffing sound. "Please."

"Oaf," Nicole muttered under her breath.

"Shrew," Jared shot back, his smile still on his face while Maddox fetched his bowl to refill it.

Yohji couldn’t wait until Miko and Ken met these two. He was certain the two women and two men would be instant friends… as long as Ken and Jared settled who was the stronger of the two flesh gaki bounds between them. Yohji had his money on Ken, who ‘felt’ stronger to him than Jared. Ah, the benefits of having a kage as a lover.

Smiling at the two, Yohji poured all of them more coffee. "The Guard can always use a fire elemental and a flesh gaki bound, so as long as you pass the training, you’ll be accepted into the Shadow Guard." He was willing to bet that Cassandra knew about these two’s arrival and she would have said something if they weren’t up to the Guard’s standards.

Nicole picked up her mug and held it between her hands, staring into its dark contents for a moment before she looked intently at Yohji. "You seem to know an awful lot about us while we know nothing about you, other than that the Koneko is supposed to be a safe haven for bounds and where we go to join the Shadow Guard." Despite her cautious, controlled demeanor, he could easily sense her fear and a lingering pain.

Jared actually paused in his eating to glance back and forth between her and Yohji, while Yohji knew that the Koneko’s staff was focused on the discussion as well. He smiled at Nicole and held back on the impulse to use his talent to put her at ease; he wanted her to trust him for her own reasons, not because of the glamour.

"All you have to do is ask, it’s not like who and what I am is a secret to the people who know the truth about the Koneko." He fought the urge to grimace at that statement, somewhat wistful for the time when people hadn’t counted on him and Aya to set everything right. "I’m Yohji Kudoh, the Koneko’s owner, and I’m a succubae-bound. Sorry that I can’t flash an impressive set of fangs or set anything on fire to prove what I am."

Nicole’s eyes widened while Jared swore under his breath, his tanned skin taking on an ashen tone. "You’re the kage’s mate," she whispered with stunned disbelief. Her fear spiked for a moment and both she and Jared looked around the room as if expecting to be overcome by shadows at any second.

Yohji’s temper flared because of their fear and how it seemed more and more people knew about Aya with each passing day. For a moment all he could feel was the potent urge to take Aya away to someplace safe to protect him, and his lips instinctively pulled back from his teeth as a snarl rumbled in his throat. Just then, his demon nature completely submerged the spark of humanity in him, the same time that the room darkened. He felt a shock of coldness through his body, heard a faint sibilant hiss that reverberated inside of his head. That was followed by a wave of concern from Aya, which snapped Yohji out of the odd mood. He blinked his eyes to find Jo standing beside him, her trembling right hand resting on his shoulder while Nicole and Jared whimpered as they practically cowered over on their side of the table.

Yohji opened his mouth twice and couldn’t manage to say anything, and was successful on his third try. "Yes, I’m the kage’s mate and if you want to live a long, peaceful life, you better not say anything about Aya to anyone not in the Shadow Guard," he threatened, his voice roughened to a sibilant tone similar to Aya’s.

"No, sir," Nicole was quick to promise, echoed by Jared. There was still the sense of fear, but any doubts they had about Yohji were firmly put to rest. He had a feeling that if he asked them to go out to the common room, strip off their clothes and pretend to be chickens for the next few hours, they’d obey him in a heartbeat. It was more than odd and a bit… exhilarating, that certainty, and he’d never felt anything like it before.

However, before he had a chance to puzzle over that odd flash of power and the other bounds’ reaction to it, the kitchen did indeed darken as Aya suddenly appeared by his side. There was a tinge of silver to Aya’s violet eyes, and Yohji thought he could hear more hissing, fainter than before. "Ah, hey Cat, looks like we’ve got a few more recruits for the Shadow Guard," he said while he tugged his mate down to sit on the bench beside him.

Aya stared at Nicole and Jared with such a cold expression that they quickly averted their eyes and played with their spoons. "Fire and flesh gaki bound," was Aya’s only remark, his voice so sibilant that it sounded as if someone had forced a snake to speak.

"Two more empty bellies to feed," Jo complained as she set a pot of tea and an empty mug beside Aya. She shared a knowing look with Yohji, one that left him with the impression that she’d been biding her time until Aya’s arrival, and gave Aya’s left shoulder a gentle pat "How about some porridge, or would you prefer eggs and bacon?"

The silver faded from Aya’s eyes and he cocked his head to the side so he could look at Jo. "Some porridge and bacon?" he asked, his voice mostly returned to normal.

"I think I can manage that." Jo’s good humor seemed to be restored now that the kitchen was one more filled with sunlight and she had a few people to feed. "Looks like you won’t need to take a tray upstairs after all, Yotan."

Yohji smiled and slid his left arm around Aya’s waist. "Nope, and we’re eating at a proper table for once, too!" He leaned over to nuzzle Aya’s neck, just above the collar of the light grey hooded jerkin that he wore. "The lovely lady is Nicole, and her friend is Jared."

Aya didn’t say anything, he merely stared at the two as if he was waiting for them to attack at any moment. Feeling how possessive and protective his mate was at the moment, Yohji’s smile grew larger and a purr rumbled in his throat. "Be nice, Aya."

Nicole audibly swallowed and dared to look up from her mostly full bowl of porridge. "Ah, nice to meet you," she squeaked, a hint of embarrassment coloring her cheeks. She cleared her throat and tried again. "I’m honored to meet you, Aya."

When Aya continued to be disturbingly quiet, Yohji sighed and nudged his lover in the ribs. "Behave, Cat; I know you have some manners," he whispered.

Aya hissed slightly and finally stopped staring so intently. "You’re here for the Shadow Guard?" he asked, not quite remembering those manners that he insisted that he possessed.

Jared frantically nodded while Nicole swallowed again. "Ah, yes, we are." She forced her attention away from Aya and offered Yohji a trembling smile. "You said that they’ll accept us?" She was full of hope and fierce determination; Yohji didn’t know what had driven her to the Koneko, but it was clear that she truly wanted to be a Shadow Guard.

"As long as you both can pass the training, you’ll be accepted. Having Cassandra’s blessing really helps, though Yuushi Honshou, the Shadow Captain, will inquire among the bound Guards to see if anyone else can vouch for you." Yohji felt warmth bubble inside of him when Aya leaned against him, happily munching on a piece of bacon that Jo had brought, along with porridge for them both. Part of him missed being in the Guard and thought fondly of those weeks of training, but he was truly happy now.

Sensing that he had Nicole and Jared’s full attention, he snagged a piece of bacon and gave Aya’s left hip a squeeze when he was predictably hissed at for the theft. "The training will be both academic and physical. You’ll be required to memorize and understand the laws that you’re expected to enforce, as well as learn about the Guard’s history. You’ll also learn to identify the King’s Cabinet and their assistants, and all of the Judges." Mostly, it was a lot of memorization that was ruthlessly drilled into the cadets’ heads.

"And the physical part?" Jared asked as he eyed the plate of bacon with a hungry expression. "While I’m not the idiot that *some* people think I am, I’m sure I’ll do better on that part than learning a bunch of names and rules."

Yohji had to hide his grin when the plate of bacon skittered closer to Aya by the aid of shadows. He pretended to wipe his mouth with a napkin while he glanced over Aya’s shoulders to Maddox and motioned toward Jared with his head. "Basically, you’ll learn to fight, by yourself and along with the other recruits. That’s a lot trickier than it sounds; you’ll be expected to help protect each other in close combat." Some of his nostalgia for his training days in the Guard faded when he thought about the sword instructor. "Most of the recruits learn to fight with swords, but they make some allowance for the fact that it’s not a skill that everyone can master. In other words, you have to prove sufficient mastery with at least one weapon."

Jared nodded and smiled in gratitude at Maddox as a large plate of bacon was set between him and Nicole. "I’ve never had the chance to play with swords, but I’m pretty good with a staff." He seemed to gaze inward for a moment, and whatever he remembered provoked a flash of pain and sorrow that was quickly smothered. "You know, typical farm boy stuff."

"Staffs are very effective weapons," Aya commented while he sprinkled some raisons over his bowl of porridge. His animosity seemed to have vanished once his precious bacon was safe.

Nicole frowned and stared at the piece of bacon in her right hand. "I never really learned to fight with anything other than my talent, to be honest. Hopefully I’ll be able to pick up some weapons skill." She broke the bacon in half, popped part of it into her mouth and looked at Yohji while she chewed. "How do they go about training bounds? Will they ask us about our proficiency for our talents?" she asked after she swallowed.

Yohji waited until he finished sipping some coffee before he nodded. "Shadow Guard bounds with the same talent as you will evaluate your control over it." He purposely stared at Jared. "You’ll have to prove that you won’t let your demon nature take over and risk either exposing what you are or hurting an innocent." There weren’t many flesh gaki bounds in the Shadow Guard for that reason; they needed to be able to think beyond feeding themselves and rein in the strong desire to feed.

Jared ducked his head for a moment. "I don’t always think with my stomach. I can mostly control myself around blood, and the few times I’ve been overwhelmed, I’ve never hurt a friend," he admitted with obvious reluctance.

Yohji shrugged; it would be up to Yuushi to decide if he trusted Jared enough, not him. "As for your first question, Nicole, there are special allowances made for bound recruits. Not too many as you have to prove yourself intelligent and capable, but they know that you didn’t really need to learn to defend yourself with something other than your talent before now. Just keep in mind that not all of the cadets will be there to join the Shadow Guard," he cautioned the two bounds. "Yuushi will make sure you know who you can trust and look to for help, but not everyone who wants to join the Guard is suitable for the Shadow division." Unfortunately, not many people were willing to accept that bounds weren’t monsters and could be trusted.

"I look forward to meeting this Yuushi, then," Nicole remarked, once more filled with resolve.

"He’ll be around later tonight," Yohji said. "Until then, you two can get some rest and wash off, if you like. Someone should be seeing to rooms for you." He didn’t catch any romantic interest or feelings between the two bounds so hopefully they had enough rooms in reserve that they didn’t have to share one.

Both Nicole and Jared seemed to perk up at the mention of rooms and rest. "Thank you. I’d prefer to be more presentable when I meet the Shadow Captain," Nicole remarked as she smoothed a hand over her rumpled pale brown sweater. Yohji got the impression that she was several decades older than the mid-twenties that she projected to the world, while Jared just seemed young to him. Not all bounds slowed down their aging at the same point in their lives, making it rather difficult to tell just how old they were; Nicole possessed an emotional maturity that impressed Yohji. Well, at least when she wasn’t squabbling with Jared.

While Jo checked to see if anyone needed more porridge or coffee, Yohji sat there with his arm around the man he loved and wondered what type of image they’d present to the world in another decade or century. Sometimes it really hit home that he could live for so long, well past the time when Jo, Mickey, Teddy and other people he cared about would die. So much attention was given to the approaching war that he forgot about that fact. Would he and Aya have that core of sadness that he felt in so many of the older bounds? How would they deal with the loss of the few people they loved and trusted?

Shaking his head to clear it of such depressing thoughts before he worried Aya, Yohji resolved to enjoy the ‘now’ as much as possible. The time would come soon enough when he lost his loved ones, there was nothing he could do about it other than enjoy their presence while he could.

That and he’d have to have a nice chat with Birman soon about both his and Aya’s pension for working for her and the Shadow Guard.

*******

Birman huddled beneath her thick, dark blue wool coat as she made her way up the stairs to the Koneko’s front door. Just a few more steps and she’d be inside, by a roaring fire with a delicious dinner before her and a mug of warm cider in her hand. The best part about conducting business at the inn was the fact that she could enjoy a meal and a relaxing drink while she talked to Yohji, Yuushi, Reiichi or Botan. Not that Botan would be found inside the inn when Cassandra had invited him to dinner tonight. Birman hid her smile behind her soft scarf and wondered why the stubborn old fool didn’t just move in with his lover.

Opening the thick wooden doors, a high-pitched breath escaped her when she almost ran into Crawford. She recovered from the surprise quickly, pleased to see one of the people she’d hoped to talk to tonight, then noticed that he was wearing his cloak and seemed ready to go outside.

Crawford placed a steadying hand on her arm and inclined his head the slightest bit. "Birman, you are lovely as always. Here." He handed her a thick envelope and finished the last toggle on his cloak, right at his neck. "I’ll stop by tomorrow after lunch to discuss things with you. Good night."


"Crawford – you’re leaving?" she asked, a little stunned that it seemed as if Crawford was unwilling to spend even a minute in her presence. "There’s so much that we-"

"Tomorrow, Birman." Crawford’s tone as he interrupted her was sharp and, if he was anyone else, she’d say a little… panicked. Yet his expression was as impassive as always. "If you want to talk to me at all, it’ll have to be tomorrow. Now good night." He gave her another very slight bow and hurried out the door as if hell hounds were nipping at his heels. Birman stared at him in wonder for several seconds before she shook her head, tucked the letter carefully inside her cloak and began to remove the heavy garment.

"Is it just me or did he run out of here as if his ass was on fire or something?" Teddy asked, coming away from the small stand in the Koneko’s hallway to help her with her cloak.

"I’ve never seen him in such a rush, that’s certain," she remarked and smiled in gratitude for his assistance. "Is Koyu playing tonight?"

Teddy’s amused grin turned into a very tender and pleased expression. "Yes. That damn guild master of his finally finished running him ragged all over the city, so he’s able to play again. I’ll be off duty in another hour, right before he starts."

"Thank you." That meant she had an hour of relative quiet time to talk to Yohji and Aya, and by the time that Yuushi returned home, she should be able to hole up in the library with him to discuss the latest Guard recruits. More than likely it would be a late night for the both of them, but she didn’t have anything to do until lunchtime tomorrow. She tapped her right forefinger against the letter and wondered just what Crawford was up to now; she’d tried unsuccessfully to talk to him the last couple of days.

Heading to the Koneko’s common room, she wasn’t surprised to find it mostly full of people eating and drinking. She smiled when she noticed Omi *and* Naoe running around with large platters of food in their hands, amused to find Omi’s boyfriend working alongside of him. Earlier that day, she and Botan had a lovely conversation about how happy Omi was now that Naoe had returned, and both of them prayed to the gods that the young bound wouldn’t leave any time soon. Between Naoe being back and his job at the Koneko, she’d yet to see Omi in the last few days when he wasn’t beaming with joy. The boy deserved as much happiness as possible, especially with the way the Court was reacting to Manx’s pregnancy.

Stepping out of the way so Touya could wait on a customer, Birman turned and went to the corner by the fireplace where Aya and Yohji always sat when they decided to eat in the common room. She could barely see past the dark shadows at first, until they suddenly faded away when she was a few steps from the table. Both Yohji and Aya were present tonight, busy talking to Reiichi, Eri and Emmie.

"Good evening," she wished them as she set her cloak on the bench and sat beside it. "I hope none of you have to go outside tonight."

Yohji chuckled and reached for a pitcher of what smelled to be mulled cider and an empty mug. "Nope, I get to stay inside where it’s nice and warm all night long. Have fun going home tonight, Birman," he teased with a wink.

"To think that there are people who believe you to be a gentleman," she responded with a mock offended sniff. "You should be offering me your nice warm bed so I don’t have to leave."

"It’s not just my bed so you’ll have to suffer." Yohji winked again when he handed over the full mug and draped his left arm around Aya’s shoulders.

Birman pretended to pout a moment before she sipped her drink and sighed in happiness. Judging from the smile and nod that Reiichi gave her, she’d be allowed to spend the night on the very comfortable couch in his, Yuushi and Naru’s quarters if she didn’t feel like going home later. She smiled her thanks over the rim of the mug and had another sip of the delicious, delightfully warm cider. When she looked away from him, she noticed the way that Eri’s lips were pressed together as if the Guard was displeased by something.

"I hope I’m not interrupting anything important," Birman said after she began to feel a bit warmer.

"Well, you missed hearing Reiichi and Aya attempt to help Emmie with her history lesson, only to end up debating for the last half an hour just how the assassination of some Xiang emperor affected the country’s closure of its borders, hence the reason why they were neutral during the Binding War… help!" Yohji’s bright green eyes went wide and almost seemed to sparkle with unshed tears. "Make them stop!" Beside him, Emmie giggled, her face flushing red when he reached over to tap the tip of her nose. "Now you probably know more than your teacher does, Sunshine."

"All right, so perhaps we were a bit… exuberant about the topic," Reiichi said as he removed his glasses and cleaned them with a white cloth. "The gods forbid that you learn something, Yohji. The thing about history is that it does indeed repeat itself." For a moment, Reiichi’s expression turned grave and Yohji’s good humor vanished. Then both men smiled and it was as if nothing had happened.

"If it’s just gonna happen all over again, then I see no reason why I should waste my time on learning things." Yohji tipped his head until it rested against Aya’s. "I’ve better ways of amusing myself." When Aya hissed slightly, he laughed and turned once more to Emmie. "Why don’t you go see if Jo will put a plate together for Birman, okay? Things are pretty busy so I think it’ll take some time before Touya or the others work their way back here. In fact, I think the rest of us could use a snack, too."

Her happiness seeming to fade a little, Emmie nodded and gathered her books together. "Okay, Yohji." She waved to Birman before she left, easily making her way through the crowd.

Aya leaned forward to refill his and Yohji’s mugs. "What brings you here tonight, Birman?" he asked, as always cutting straight to the heart of the matter. Yohji could dance around a topic all night and distract her with jokes; Aya wanted answers and then to be left alone.

"I thought to inquire about the status of new recruits," she said and stared evenly at Aya. "The training begins next week." Then she turned to look at Reiichi. "Also, I wondered if there were any new candidates for my division."

Reiichi shook his head then rested his left elbow on the table and used his hand to support his chin. "The last one I know about is Trowa, and my understanding is that he’s still learning his way around the city."

"I believe I’m to meet him the day after tomorrow." At least, that was what Crawford had told her the other night; she wondered if there was something about her latest employee in the letter and really wished that Crawford had stayed around to talk to her. Sipping her wine, she arched her right eyebrow and stared expectantly at the bespectacled Guard.

Giving her a smile so sweet that she was instantly on alert, Reiichi waited a moment before he deigned to speak. "You’ll like him. He’s very intelligent, knows when to be quiet and can blend into a crowd right before your eyes. If Crawford hadn’t said that he was meant for your division, I’d do my best to convince him to be a Guard."

"He’s… unusual for a water elemental," Eri added, her soft voice startling Birman since the bound didn’t always choose to join in discussions. Eri twisted in her seat so she could look about the large room. "Somehow, he’s able to dampen the ‘attraction’ that draws people to his kind. I didn’t know that was possible."

"That’s reassuring to me, at the least." Eri had explained to Birman about water elemental bounds, and she was heartened to hear that Trowa wouldn’t always attract notice to himself. That would be very bad for a spy, although it could be useful at other times. "Oh well, between your friends and Trowa, that’s four new recruits for me." Birman couldn’t help but smile in satisfaction as she thought about her new employees. Two soul gaki, a water and an air elemental bound would be very helpful in the upcoming months as she did her best to keep track of the traitorous highborns in Court and Esset’s spies.

"We’ve two more bounds for the Shadow Guard; they arrived earlier today," Yohji mentioned while he toyed with one of Aya’s eartails. "Fire elemental and soul gaki bound. They’re upstairs resting."

So there were a total of seventeen bound candidates for the Shadow Guard now, Birman thought with growing satisfaction. She’d hoped for at least ten; word seemed to be getting out about the Shadow Guard, and while that gave her some worry, both Crawford and Cassandra assured her that things were being kept under control. Esset wouldn’t find out about the Shadow Guard yet, the secret was still safe.

Still, the Shadow Guard wasn’t growing anywhere near as fast as she’d liked, even though they couldn’t add too many new Guards without attracting unwanted attention. She really needed to talk to Crawford about what was going on in the Army. "I wish Crawford were here," she muttered as she stared at the bottom of her empty mug.

Eri accepted the pitcher from Aya and refilled Birman’s mug. "I thought he was going to join us tonight. That’s part of the reason I’m here instead of at home, sleeping."

When Eri, Reiichi and Birman looked in Yohji’s direction, he stopped nuzzling Aya’s left temple and shrugged. "Hey, don’t look at me; I’m not the man’s secretary or something. I thought he was gonna be here tonight, too." He didn’t sound too upset that Crawford was gone, and Birman had the impression that he and Aya would disappear to their rooms very soon. Since she didn’t have an assignment for them tonight, she wished them well and hoped that they got some rest.

"He hasn’t been spending much time at the Koneko, that’s certain. I would have thought that he’d like some rest after traveling so far," Reiichi said, a thoughtful expression on his handsome face. Knowing the Guard as well as she did, Birman suspected that his curiosity was piqued and that he’d be paying more attention to the precog in the future. "Perhaps he’s making sure that his companions are settling into their new homes; supposedly, the gentleman who’s meant to join the Army arrived yesterday."

"I know Crawford had Schu tell the guy, ah, Heero, to go to the Gilded Sword and not to come to the Koneko." For a moment, Yohji stared at the table as if it held secrets that he wanted to know. "Do you get the impression that he’s got a hell of a lot of plans in motion, and has for the longest time?"

"I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s been arranging the future as best as he can since he gained control of his talent. For something that affects so many people, it must take a lot of effort to direct the future to the outcome he wants." Aya reached up to caress Yohji’s face, his gaze intent on his mate. "Once we get past the war, we’re free." The last was spoken very quietly, with such an intimate tone that Birman quickly looked away to allow the two their privacy. Every day, it seemed that more of her life and job were consumed by the approaching war. She wasn’t foolish enough to believe that once it was over, things would be peaceful and perfect… but if they won the war, she could look forward to the future once again, would feel some of the increasingly overwhelming pressure fall from her shoulders. She also was sure that Aya and Yohji felt the same way – that there would still be hardship to overcome in the future, yet they would have more freedom in the choices they made.

A tense silence fell over the table, only broken when Marta arrived with a large platter of food, followed by Omi and Naoe. Her brown hair pulled back into a ponytail, save for the bangs clinging to her forehead, Marta smiled as she set the platter on the table. "I think it would be a good idea for everyone not working to stay out of the kitchen for the evening. Ken stopped by for a ‘snack’ during his break and accidentally ate a couple of chickens that Jo was preparing for a special request."

Omi snickered and set a full pitcher of cider by Birman. "She only stopped swearing when Emmie showed up. I think I learned a few new words." He gave her a one armed hug then set down the plate of cherry tarts that Naoe had brought before returning to work.

Yohji’s good mood seemed fully restored, and even Aya was smiling at the news. "Well, Cat, I think we should have ourselves a quick snack and then hide in our room. I don’t want to be anywhere near Jo when she’s pissed off!"

Reiichi nodded and helped himself to some of the lamb slices, making a hearty sandwich. "I believe it would be best to take this discussion upstairs as well. Birman, you’re more than welcome to wait for Yuushi in our quarters."

Again, there was that faint look of annoyance or upset on Eri’s face, gone too fast for Birman to figure out what it really was. Since she considered Eri a friend, Birman was bothered by the thought that she was doing something that upset the bound and would have to figure out what it was some other time. Though she wondered if it hadn’t something to do with Reiichi because of Eri’s reactions whenever he spoke to her.

Marta remained by the table, standing rather close to Reiichi. "I’ll be back in a few minutes with some more pitchers of cider that you can take upstairs." Her smile grew wider when Reiichi thanked her for her thoughtfulness, and she seemed reluctant to leave the table.

Birman had just made herself a plate with several slices of lamb and lots of potatoes and carrots when she heard Yohji groan as if in pain. Giving the man a curious look, she paused in her meal when he shook his head. "Mustang’s here, and since Ed went home a couple of hours ago, that means he’s not here to pick up the kid. So I think it’s time to head upstairs."

Twisting about on the bench, Birman chewed on a juicy piece of lamb while she searched for and found Mustang. The Army officer seemed to be looking for someone, walking around the room and staring intently at several people. "I wonder why he’s here?" she said, more a thought spoken out loud than a real request for information.

"I don’t know and I don’t *care*. All I do know is that if I start a fight with the bastard while Jo’s already pissed off, she’s not only going to hit me with her rolling pin, she won’t stop until my head’s caved in. Come on, Cat." Yohji picked up the plate of tarts with his left hand, his right hand clasped around Aya’s wrist. "I don’t want him to see us in case we’re the reason why he’s here." As soon as Yohji spoke the words, both he and Aya simply vanished from Birman’s sight.

Wondering why it was that Mustang and Yohji hated each other so much, Birman once more looked at Mustang and noted that he wasn’t dressed in his new uniform, so she assumed that he wasn’t here on official business. Watching him first approach and then walk away from a tall gentleman with dark hair, she gave Eri an inquisitive look.

Eri shrugged and nibbled on a carrot slice. "He’s angry – no, he’s *livid* about something, and he’s using the anger to help shield his thoughts. All I can pick up is that he’s looking for someone in particular, and the heavens help that person when he finds them. Him." She tilted her head to the side. "Them. I’m not a hundred percent certain, but I think he’s looking for Crawford and Jei."

Now that was odd. "I thought that he worked for Crawford," Birman said, her attention drawn back to the handsome, tall man.

"Perhaps he didn’t care for his latest assignment or something." Reiichi began to make himself another sandwich, the first one wrapped up in a napkin. "Ladies, I suggest that we retreat upstairs once Marta returns." He glanced at Eri, his lips twitching as if he wanted to smile. "Naru is still out on his date with Elise, so it should be quiet. I’m sure Yuushi would be happy to have your thoughts on the new recruits and to learn what he’s missed in the Shadow Guard while doing all of Kikyou’s paperwork the past week."

Eri let out a slow breath as she combed her fingers through her hair. "All right, I’ll stay." She managed a shaky smile and began to make a sandwich of her own. "I probably won’t bother going home at this point; I’ll take Naru’s bed and he can sleep on the floor."

Judging from the subtle wink Reiichi gave Birman just then, she had the impression that she’d missed something important. She’d have to corner the amazingly sly man alone tomorrow and find out what was going on; for now, she concentrated on eating all the food on her plate and getting out of the Koneko’s common room before a fight really did break out. Not even her rank as the Spymaster and the fighting skills she’d learned over the years would keep her safe from a furious Jo.

*******

Reeve didn’t pay much attention to what was going on around him and continued to shuffle through the papers in his left hand on his way to Rufus’ office. He’d walked these halls for over forty years, reporting first to Rufus’ father and now to his current lord. There was comfort to be found in working for and owing allegiance to someone who deserved his respect and trust, to another bound and not a human, so he always did the best he could. Only for Rufus would he leave his comfortable forge and deal with the everyday headaches and nonsense of running such a large, important business. Thank the gods that Rufus was back, even if just for a few days, so they could go over a few things and Reeve would be assured that he was doing things properly.

So lost in organizing the paperwork and thinking of all the things he wanted to discuss with his lord, Reeve forgot to knock on Rufus’ door before pushing it open. He didn’t even realize what he’d done until it closed behind him, and was both stunned by his rude entrance and the scene that greeted him once he looked up from the papers.

Rufus sat behind the large desk, which was nothing new… except for the fact that he was half naked and had a mostly naked Reno in his lap. Rufus’ black and white shirts were unbuttoned and pushed halfway down his arms, his hair was disheveled and falling onto his flushed face. Reno was only clad in his undergarments, his hair unbound and falling down his back and shoulders. That sight alone was enough to give Reeve pause, but added to it was the fact that neither bound seemed to realize that he was in the room as well as their… positions. Reno’s neck was arched and bruised, and Rufus seemed to be biting into it hard enough to make the dubhach bleed.

"Stop, Rufus!" Reeve yelled, instinctively dropping the papers while calling the nearest piece of metal to his now empty hands. The iron curtain rod ripped itself free from the window just to his left, and he brandished it, curtains and all, at the man he’d sworn to obey. "You’ll kill him!"

Finally pulling away from Reno, Rufus stared at him in obvious shock for a second or two while Reno hissed and used his power to send bolts of electricity to the iron rod. Clenching his teeth against the pain that was only partially weakened by the thick fabric, Reeve did his best to hold on to it, now unable to raise his arms and swing the rod as a weapon.

<There is no need for you to do such a thing.> Rufus’ mental voice was angry and a little embarrassed, and he struggled to pull his shirts closed while Reno continued to sit hissing on his lap. "Reno, stop it," he ordered, his left arm firmly latched around Reno’s waist and his lips smeared with blood. "*Now*."

"You were biting his neck!" Reeve shouted, grateful that Reno had listened to Rufus and the bolts stopped, though he couldn’t understand why when the redhead had been the one being attacked. "Look at him! He’s covered with blood!" He felt the impulse to swing the weapon at Rufus, only to find that his body still refused to cooperate. This time it wasn’t because of pain, but that something had robbed him of the ability to move.

<Dammit, Reeve, do *not* attempt to attack me!> Standing to his feet, Rufus continued to hold on to a still hissing Reno. <What are you doing in here?> he asked, the words heavily colored with exasperation.

Not understanding why Reno remained so close to Rufus and seemed intent on defending the man who had nearly ripped out his throat, Reeve let the rod and curtains fall to the floor. He could easily call the metal back to his hands if he needed it, but right now he felt too uncomfortable brandishing a weapon at his lord. "I… the paperwork… what were you *doing*?" he demanded to know, fighting against the embarrassment he felt for attacking Rufus and standing before the man while he was so disheveled.

He was very well aware that Rufus and Reno were lovers; while he hadn’t exactly encouraged Rufus to begin a sexual relationship with the dubhach, he’d been happy with the fact that it seemed to calm Reno and make him less prone to suicide. He’d even walked in on them a time or two, when there were pressing matters that demanded Rufus’ attention after work or the rare occasions when Reno utterly infuriated their lord and Rufus didn’t care where he had sex with the dubhach. Until now, that had never occurred in Rufus’ office during the day, and Rufus had never physically harmed Reno.

"We were gonna have sex!" Reno snapped, annoyance plain on his face and in the way he stood with his fists resting on his hips. "Come on, Reeve, don’t tell me it’s been so long that you don’t recognize it when you see it!" He didn’t seem concerned at all over the weak flow of blood that trickled down his throat or the fact that he was almost naked.

"Reno," Rufus said in an utterly cold manner that he always used when doing his best to control his temper. "Shut up." He pulled Reno back against him, his left hand forcing Reno’s chin upward and to the side as they stared at each other. Even in his confused state, Reeve could tell that they were communicating; it was almost as if they were fighting for dominance, something that didn’t usually happen between bounds with different demon souls. After a minute or so, Reno whined, the sound soft and submissive, and rested his head against Rufus’ left shoulder, his eyes closed and his demeanor relaxed.

Something was wrong here; Rufus did not go around biting people’s necks, not even Reno’s, and Reno didn’t usually submit so… well, ‘graciously’. While he’d always obeyed Rufus, he’d never given in with good grace when he’d been upset about the order.

Nor was Rufus usually so demonstrative about his relationship with Reno as he was now. While Reeve stared in amazed confusion, Rufus stroked his right hand along Reno’s side, his attention seemingly utterly focused on the dubhach. He tilted his head to nuzzle Reno’s right temple before giving him a lingering kiss on the spot. "Get dressed and go bother the kitchen for some lunch."

"Don’t wanna," Reno grumbled, his eyes still closed and his right hand reaching for the back of Rufus’ head. "More," he breathed, the sound so full of yearning and desire that Reeve felt his cheeks heat up.

Once again seeming to have forgotten all about him, Rufus growled deep in his throat while his fingers brushed against the bite mark on Reno’s neck. "You’re still a bit weak; go eat something and leave me alone for a couple of hours. I’ve work to do." When Reno opened, his mouth, presumably to object, there was another silent match of wills.

A few seconds later, Reno stepped away from Rufus, his eyes narrowed in anger and his lips pressed together. He reached down to pick up his clothes but didn’t to put them on. "Bossy bastard. Don’t bitch about *me* when you’re responsible for this mess!" he yelled while he stormed out of the room

"Put on your damn clothes!" Rufus snarled, stepping forward as if to follow Reno before he found his way blocked by Reeve. He blinked his eyes a few times, leaving Reeve with the impression that the man had indeed completely forgotten about him. That was not a good sign, as Rufus was usually preternaturally aware of everything around him.

"What is going on?" Reeve asked, his tone polite for the moment. Bruised and bitten throats that appeared slow to heal, bounds completely enamored with each other, fights for dominance between different bound species… he had his suspicions, as ridiculous as they seemed, and he wanted answers. While he may have brought Reno here with the intention of having Rufus watch over the dubhach, he would tear away his demon soul before he allowed the boy to be abused. "What are you responsible for?"

In the forty-three years that Reeve had worked here, he’d known Rufus for all but six of them. Rufus was very skilled at masking his true emotions and motives, but Reeve usually did a decent job of guessing what the younger bound attempted to hide from him. Right now… right now he got the impression that it was something important, considering how Rufus’ eyes widened the slightest bit and the way he drew himself up as straight and tall as possible. "I’m not sure that I understand the question," Rufus replied in that frigid tone of voice that normally made other people shut up and leave him alone. "Don’t listen to Reno’s nonsense and hand me those papers." His right hand pointed to the paperwork scattered on the floor, and despite the fact that his clothes were in disarray and his hair was tousled, he projected a very strong, forceful presence.

Normally Reeve would bow his head and do what he’d been told; not today, after the scene he’d just witnessed. "What are you responsible for?" he repeated again, this time without any politeness to soften the request. All around the room, the various bits of metal began to vibrate and rattle. "Why were you biting Reno?"

Clicking his tongue in disgust, Rufus whirled around, his usually smooth movements jerky as if his entire body was tense. "It’s called ‘foreplay’, Reeve," he explained and sat in his chair, his fingers busy redoing the buttons of his shirt.

The room’s metal vibrated even louder as Reeve’s anger and suspicions grew. "Foreplay doesn’t include nearly ripping out his throat, not unless the two of you suddenly became flesh gaki bounds. Also, that doesn’t explain why Reno’s neck didn’t heal immediately." He held his hands at his sides, his fingers spread apart and ready for any weapon that he called to him. "There are only two explanations that I can think of for what I’ve seen, and I don’t particularly care for either of them." His voice was soft yet still lacking any of its normal politeness.

In the middle of combing back his hair, Rufus went still, his right hand falling onto the desk after a few seconds. He stared at Reeve, not quite meeting Reeve’s eyes, which was a telling and disturbing sign. "Reno is a very messed up individual who doesn’t mind pain. Go to the library and look up ‘kink’, Reeve. I’m sure it’ll be an eye-opening experience for you," Rufus sneered, his expression one of bored disdain and his voice roughened by a snarl. He shifted his gaze to his desk and the scattered paperwork on it, seeming to forget all about Reeve standing only a few feet away.

That disdainful demeanor was only partially rattled when the curtain rod resting on the floor flew through the air, one of its ends punching through the wall behind Rufus’ desk with enough force that the rod and its curtain extended over Rufus’ right shoulder. "I will repeat the question one more time, my lord. What are you responsible for?" Reeve asked, a very rare growl rumbling in his throat. He’d brought Reno here so the boy was his responsibility.

Rufus was now looking directly at him, dark red velvet material draped over his right shoulder and down his chest. <And what will you do if I refuse to answer?> He didn’t appear bothered by being threatened, but Reeve could feel the blood, rich with minerals, racing through his lord’s body faster than it had a minute before.

"I will gather every last mineral in your body inside your scrotum until it explodes," Reeve explained, all too willing to do such a vulgar and vicious thing if Rufus was ‘responsible’ for what he suspected. When Rufus’ face slowly turned white, he leaned forward and placed both his hands on the desk’s surface. "Now, you were either attempting to rip out Reno’s throat or you were marking him. Which was it?" For added emphasis, he called another two curtain rods from the walls to hover on either side of him like spears festooned with heraldic banners.

"You can’t do anything if I don’t allow you to use your power," Rufus pointed out, leaning back in his chair and folding his hands over his chest instead of carrying through with the threat.

Someone was avoiding the issue, which only stoked Reeve’s anger. "I would consider that a misuse of your talent and authority and no longer consider myself oath-bound to you, my lord. Also, you can’t block my power forever." Not unless Rufus destroyed Reeve’s mind and lost a very valuable employee.

Rufus’ unruffled demeanor was ruined by an annoyed frown, and his right hand once more combed back his hair. "I can’t believe you’re threatening me, Reeve," he sniffed as he batted at the velvet curtain draped over his body. "With curtain rods, none the less."

"I am usually considered a very resourceful man, my lord," Reeve pointed out, annoyed at another attempt to change the topic. "Now please, explain to me why I shouldn’t do what I just threatened because you had the… audacity to force a mating bond on Reno." When his request was met with infuriating silence, the curtain rod to his right slammed into the wall, pinning Rufus between two metal poles. "My lord."

"For an act that happens *maybe* once a century or two, everybody seems to be all too willing to blame me for it," Rufus said, his voice twisted with disgust that Reeve didn’t think was directed at him. "What makes you accuse me of that?"

Reeve knew that Rufus didn’t think him an idiot so he answered the question truthfully. "While I am not an expert on mated bounds, I’ve been around a couple during my lifetime. I’ve seen the way they become wrapped up in each other until the rest of the world fades away to them, the way some of them fight to decide who’s in control and how the dominant bound often marks his mate on the neck." His fingers flexed and his nails dug into the desk’s thick coat of lacquer when he recalled the bruise on Reno’s neck last night. There hadn’t been any time to enquire about what caused it before Rufus had hustled the dubhach into his room, ‘claiming’ that being out in the sun had worn Reno out. It was very obvious that Rufus had no intention of informing Reeve about the bond, which only made his lord look even more suspicious. "You were going to hide it from me," he snarled, angrier than he could recall having been in decades.

His right hand stroking along the dark material as if it was a cat, Rufus let out a deep breath. "I was hoping to avoid a discussion like this one, and to find a better way to bring up the topic," Rufus admitted after a moment’s pause. "Reeve, I *swear* to you before all the gods that it wasn’t intentional. After Reno’s last suicide attempt, I did whatever I could to keep him from making another one. I had no clue that by forcing a permanent link on him that I created a mating bond." For once the indifference and disdain was gone from Rufus’ voice and expression; there was almost a beseeching tone to the words that rushed past his lips. "I didn’t even know what I’d done until another bound made a remark about Reno and I being mates." As he spoke, he delved into Reeve’s thoughts and let him feel Rufus’ emotions. "I would have never willingly done such a thing."

Mostly because Rufus knew that his fellow bounds would turn on him in a moment if they found out what he’d done. "Have you told Tseng?" Reeve asked, curious to see how much Rufus was attempting to hide about the bond.

"He knows, as does Rude and Elena," Rufus replied, his posture relaxing slightly as his left arm lifted enough to rest on top of the curtain rod beside it. "His main concern is how to best protect me now that I can be attacked through Reno, not what I’ve accidentally done." He paused for a moment and shut the link between them. "Since the bond was forged, Reno hasn’t tried to kill himself, Reeve. Isn’t that why you brought him to me? To keep him alive?"

That was a rather ungentlemanly way for Rufus to extract himself from this mess, Reeve thought, and felt a twinge of guilt for inadvertently getting Reno into this situation. "I brought him to you because you are the strongest willed bound that I know," he admitted with great reluctance. "I had hope that he would listen to you and obey." That Rufus could force Reno to stay alive as long as possible, and it had mostly worked. When Rufus had done that in part through sex, Reeve had bit his tongue and remained quiet, willing to let the results put his fears at ease. Now… now he was wondering just what the hell he’d done.

"What I did *not* intend was for you to gain so much control over him," he continued, the metal rods vibrating once more. "My lord, for the most part I am very pleased to work for you; you protect your people and do what you feel is best for them. I did not mind you making Reno one of your gokenin and then your lover because… because…." Because Reno could have always walked away, could have said ‘no’ at one point should Rufus push too far or demand too much.

Reno was a dubhach, was a very powerful and rare bound whose will was weakened by the fact that he was constantly torn in two by his diverse nature. Rufus was indeed the most focused, strong-willed bound Reeve had ever met, able to stand his own with the very few bounds more powerful than himself because of that iron will. And now Rufus possessed a terrifying weapon who was bound to him for the rest of their lives.

Before Rufus could gather his power, Reeve lashed out with his, first causing the letter opener on the desk to hit Rufus on the side of the head with enough force to stun the soul gaki bound, then forcing all the minerals in Rufus’ body to flow downward, away from his brain. "My lord, I’ve sworn myself to you and for the most part trust you. Keeping that in mind, I swear to all the gods who will hear me, with my two souls and sanity at stake, that if you use Reno in some way to further your own ambitions, if you abuse the bond between you in any way, that I won’t hesitate to leave you crippled in such a manner that the rest of your very long life will be sheer hell." He held Rufus’ pain-filled and dazed gaze for a few seconds before he released his control over Rufus’ blood and called back the curtain rods.

To his benefit, Rufus didn’t immediately respond to the attack with one of his own. Instead he closed his eyes, his jaw clenching and sweat running down his forehead. When he did speak, his voice was surprisingly steady and quiet. "The next time you pull a stunt like that, I will *not* hold Reno back, is that clear, Reeve?" He opened his eyes and stared intently at Reeve, a hint of malevolency in the look. "I won’t need to lift a finger against you."

He rose from his chair, now that he was no longer fenced in by the curtain rods, and approached Reeve. "Keep in mind that what affects me affects him as well. For that reason, I can’t use him in the manner you seem to believe that I will." He stopped in front of Reeve, and faster than Reeve could anticipate, slapped him on the side of the face so hard that he staggered backwards several steps. "Don’t threaten me again or presume to know my actions, Reeve. Reno’s welfare is of the utmost importance to me now, and I’d think that you would be happy to know that. Perhaps we weren’t intended to be mates, but we are now."

Standing upright once more, Reeve nodded two times and bowed his head. "Yes, my lord." He’d made his point and accepted the blow for what he’d done to Rufus; what mattered was that he’d made his point clear. "Please understand that I consider him my responsibility. Reno wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t brought him to you."

Rufus inhaled sharply and stepped back. "He’s *my* responsibility now, Reeve." The possessiveness and anger in his deep voice was more proof to Reeve that the two bounds truly were mates. "I’ll make sure that he’s cared for from now on."

"Who says I need to be taken care of?" Both Reeve and Rufus jumped and turned toward the door as quickly as they could, to find Reno leaning against the door frame with a half eaten sandwich in his hand. "I do just fine on my own," he sniffed before he pushed away from the door and stepped into the office, eating more of the sandwich as he approached Rufus. "And what’s with the holes on the wall?" he asked, the words garbled as he chewed. When he reached the part of the room where sunlight streamed in from the curtain-less windows, he flinched and swore under his breath.

Rufus reached out to grab hold of Reno’s left arm and pulled him close, against his chest and away from the light. "You don’t even have the sense to get out of the sunlight," he snarled and smoothed his right hand over Reno’s reddened left cheek. "What have I told you about sneaking into my office?"

Reno bared his teeth and tossed the remains of the sandwich aside, then wrapped his arms around Rufus’ neck. "Good luck on getting me to promise to stop doing it," he taunted, his attention seeming to be focused entirely on Rufus. "Especially since you like to talk about me all the time."

"If you would just *behave* for once, there wouldn’t be a need to discuss your latest act of lunacy or means to keep you under control." Rufus was no longer the personification of calmness and control now that Reno was back. He stroked his right over Reno’s bruised neck, thankfully clean of blood, and toyed with the dubhach’s unlaced shirt.

"I’m your lover, not your fucking pet," Reno muttered as he pressed against Rufus. "I don’t ‘heel’ very well."

"Then perhaps I should look into muzzling you," was Rufus’ instant retort. Despite the fierce frown on his face, he didn’t try to push Reno away. "I have work to do," he stated when Reno leaned close to nuzzle Rufus’ neck. "We need to leave for Eto-" He let out a sudden hiss and tilted up Reno’s chin so he could kiss the dubhach with a ferocity that made Reeve avert his eyes and step away from the couple.

Feeling that now would be a good time to leave, Reeve made sure the paperwork he’d brought was in a neat stack on top of Rufus’ desk and resolved to stop back in another hour or two. Glancing over his shoulder as he left the office, he was struck by how enraptured Rufus had become in Reno, in how all that seemed to matter to the soul gaki bound was holding his lover – no, his mate – close. Well, that and a few other things, Reeve thought with a blush as he once more looked away.

Perhaps it wouldn’t be such a bad thing, Rufus being mated to Reno. Reeve would talk to Tseng, and between the two of them, he was sure they’d be able to ensure that Rufus didn’t try to use Reno’s unique nature for anything other than winning the upcoming war.

And perhaps there wouldn’t be a need for them to do anything. After all, if anyone could put the strong-willed Shinra lord in his place or make a mess of his grand schemes, it obviously was Reno.

*******