Darkness Returns

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chapter eight

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new beginnings and plans set in motion

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Yohji paced around the library, wondering for at least the tenth time where the hell Masato was this morning. Soon enough, Omi and Botan would need the room to practice casting spells, and Aya had promised Jo to go shopping today. Yohji wanted to be with his mate when that happened, as the weather had taken to being very sunny lately; cold as hell, but sunny. He didn’t want Aya out there alone, especially in some crowded market.

He wasn’t going to miss an opportunity to train with his power, either. More than anything, he wanted to find something that would allow him to stand by Aya’s side as an equal during the upcoming battle, not as someone who needed protected. Sooner or later, he and Masato had to find some type of offensive talent for succubae bounds.

Hearing a faint knock on the door, Yohji fought against his instincts and managed to suppress the urge to growl when Masato slipped into the library – followed by Schuldig. "Schu, what the hell are you doing here?" Yohji asked, not too pleased to see the two men together. He wanted to learn magic today, not watch his father and best friend paw each other and make him sick to his stomach.

Schuldig, dressed in a dark green and grey outfit that was a recent present from Cassandra, flashed him an insolent grin and stretched out on the large, well-padded leather couch. "Consider me your test subject for the day."

Surprised over that fact, Yohji looked from his best friend to his father in search of an answer. Masato stood close to the door, his hands behind his back and his head hung forward. "We need someone to use our powers on," Masato pointed out, sounding rather unhappy about something.

 

Yohji couldn’t believe that his father had agreed to offer his mate for Yohji to use his talent on, even if only for practice. "Are you sure about this?" he asked, apprehensive about starting a fight when they began the lessons. He and Masato were already meeting in ‘neutral’ territory, rather than their bedrooms, in an attempt to placate their demon souls. There was no way that Yohji would allow Masato to use his power on Aya, and couldn’t believe his father wouldn’t get jealous over Schuldig being a volunteer. That went against their nature.

Masato shuffled his feet and lifted his head enough to glare at his chuckling mate. "Of course I’m not sure, but the damn brat insisted on it," he snarled, his expression turning into a disturbing mix of anger and desire while he stared at Schuldig. "I should tie him up and send him to his mother’s."

"Oh, you can definitely do the tying up, but I’m only going to play with you when I’m like that," Schuldig drawled, in a manner so lascivious that Yohji felt a strong yearning for Aya. Schuldig even squirmed on the couch for added effect, and Yohji had to look away before his aghast staring set off Masato.

"Schuldig…." Masato sighed, the sound loud and weary, and went over to the couch where he smacked his mate’s feet to the floor so he could sit down. "The gods hate me."

Yohji struggled to not laugh at that comment and the exhausted sincerity behind the words. Amazingly enough, he actually felt some sympathy for his father. While Aya might ignore him in favor for books or hissing shadows, he didn’t try Yohji’s patience anywhere near as often as Schuldig did Masato’s. Cassandra must have had a few telling visions before she dubbed her son ‘Trouble’.

"Now, now, Masato, they can only bestow so much blessing on one person and not expect something in recompense," Schuldig purred as he sat up and draped his arms around Masato’s broad shoulders.

Smoothing his hand down the front of his gold-colored sweater, Yohji stared at the floor and smiled. "All I’ll contribute to this conversation is that I believe the gods have one hell of a wicked sense of humor."

"Aren’t we supposed to be having a lesson?" Masato asked, his deep voice marred by annoyance as he pushed Schuldig away and redid the laces of his leather jerkin. "I want to get this over with so we can go track down Logan."

The flare of jealousy that Yohji caught from his friend made him look at the couple, his smile vanishing as he noted the way Schuldig tried to not show any emotion. He’d heard Masato talk about an old friend who was supposed to be in the city, and it was clear that Schuldig wasn’t anticipating the older bounds’ reunion with much joy. Yohji felt some pity for his friend; from what he could tell, this was the first person other than Yohji’s mother from Masato’s past whom his father had talked about. As unreasonable as it seemed, he thought that Schuldig had gotten used to being the center of Masato’s world and not having any competition for the succubae bound’s attention. Not even Yohji could be considered a rival, not when his and Masato’s natures kept them from getting too close to each other.

"By all means, I have other things to do today, too," Yohji replied, ending the uncomfortable silence that filled the room. He sat on the edge of one of the room’s tables and thumped a stack of books that he’d brought down from the attic. "Since a certain someone hasn’t wanted to leave the other library much for the last couple of days, I’ve been doing some research of my own." The general good mood that filled him these days was replaced by bitter frustration. "Please tell me you know something that these writers don’t and there is an offensive use for a succubae bound’s talent," he practically pleaded.

Masato shifted to the edge of the couch, his left hand settling on Schuldig’s right thigh. "I’d really like to look at those books if you’re done with them. And no, as far as I know, there’s compulsion and glamour, and if you combine the two and are powerful enough, you can make a person do something they normally won’t." Masato sighed again and brushed back the unruly hair that fell onto his forehead. "We’ve been over this before, Yohji."

The urge to bare his teeth and pick a fight was strong, but Yohji was just able to ignore it. If he got into an argument with his father now, it could turn very nasty and he’d never learn anything. "I’ve used it on a few people before, I know about it. Hell, that’s one of the handful of things that you taught me," he snapped, and had to take a deep breath before he said anything else. Dammit, right now he did not need his demon soul to dictate his actions, yet he wasn’t sure how to be entirely human anymore, either. "We have to be able to do something more than that. Maybe drain the energy from people bespelled by our glamour or something?" he asked, knowing that he was grasping at straws, but unwilling to accept the fact that his kind weren’t of very much use outside of a bedroom.

"You think a succubae bound hasn’t tried any of this before?" Masato asked, his voice shaded with anger and his breathing slightly labored. He became quiet when Schuldig gave his shoulder a squeeze and leaned in close, as if to whisper something in his ear. "Yohji, I really wish I had some answers for you that you’re willing to accept." His left hand stroked along Schuldig’s thigh, not in a sexual manner but more as if to reassure himself or Schuldig. "We can only drain energy from someone we’re feeding from or our mates. We can only coerce one person at a time, and that’s after we cast a glamour on them. There’s-"

"Wait, that’s wrong." Yohji jumped from the table and interrupted his father. "We can coerce more than one person at a time - I did it yesterday. And I didn’t use any glamour." It hadn’t been anything like the targets he’d dealt with for Birman or Yuushi.

A fierce frown settled on Masato’s tanned face and he brushed his bangs aside once more, the motion jerky with annoyance. "No, you couldn’t have. I know you’re powerful, Yohji, but that’s not possible."

"And I’m telling you it is," Yohji replied, his lips pulled back the slightest bit from his teeth. "I coerced the two new bounds, Nicole and Jared."

Masato’s frown grew stronger and he rose from the couch; however, he didn’t approach Yohji, he seemed to be trying to put more distance between them. "I’m telling you that’s not possible. I’ve only been able to coerce one person at a time, and I’m almost as strong as you. I’ve never heard of anyone coercing more than that." He went from pushing back his hair to tugging on the light brown strands. "Tell me what happened!" he snapped, a hint of a growl in his voice.

"I made them listen to me! I told them not to talk about Aya, and they *obeyed*. I could have told them anything and they would have done it," Yohji snarled, turning away from Masato as he spoke to slam his hands against the table’s surface. Taking a deep breath to calm himself, he tried again. "Masato, I’m not making this up."

"Yotan."

Yohji looked at Schuldig, and after staring at his friend for a moment, realized that the faint, tickling sensation he felt was Schuldig attempting to read his mind. He did… what, he wasn’t sure, something that allowed his friend to read his thoughts, much like Schuldig had done over the years.

"He’s not making this up, Masato," Schuldig said after a few seconds, a worried note to his voice. "And I just scanned the bounds’ minds as well, and they would have killed each other if Yohji had ordered them to do so."

Masato shuddered as he drew a deep breath. "That shouldn’t be possible." Then he laughed, the sound tinged with darkness. "But I keep forgetting what you are. As far as I know, no succubae bound has ever fed from a kage, let alone been mated to one." He offered Yohji a sheepish grin. "Maybe whatever makes you immune to magic is affecting your talent."

Doing his best to push his anger aside, especially since it was worrying Aya, Yohji returned the grin. "You know, I felt… oh, I don’t know, something cold and strange before I did whatever the hell it was I did. Something that felt more like Aya than myself."

Schuldig once more stretched out on the couch. "Well, there’s one way to settle this – Yohji, command me to do something." He smiled, the expression so mischievous that Yohji took a sudden step back in alarm. "Though try not to take advantage of my sexy-"

"*SCHULDIG*," Masato snarled, sounding so furious that Yohji instinctively bared his teeth in response, even though the anger wasn’t directed his way.

Pouting as he folded his arms over his chest, Schuldig turned his head so he wasn’t looking at Masato. "You’re no fun." He glanced at Yohji and waved his right hand. "Okay, order me to do something like stand on my head."

Feeling another rush of sympathy for his father, Yohji settled back on the table and did his best to focus. He tried to recall what he’d done yesterday, how he’d made that startling talent appear. When nothing happened for several seconds, he recalled how he’d reacted because of a threat against Aya. Feeling Schuldig and Masato’s impatience, he dredged up the memory of the two of them up in his room that horrible night when Aya had-

The coldness poured into him again, the room darkening around him the same time it snapped into crystal clarity. He could *feel* Schuldig and Masato, more than just their emotions; it was as if he sensed their souls, could wrap his talent around them. "Schu," he hissed as he focused his attention on his dear friend. "Put your hand in the fire." He wanted to test his friend, to make him do something he’d never willingly do. To his horror, Schuldig rose from the couch as if in a daze and headed straight for the fireplace. Yohji watched as Schuldig actually opened the metal mesh screen that kept any stray sparks or embers from flying onto the floor and reached out with his right hand.

"Yohji!"

"Schu, *stop*," Yohji yelled, the same time his father screamed at him in panic. Schuldig went perfectly still, his hand only a few inches from the flames. Yohji shared in the sensation of heat and the steadily increasing ache that his friend felt. "Go back to the couch," he said, his voice shaking from the realization that he’d almost caused his friend intense pain. His entire body shuddering, he felt the coldness vanish and lost that frightening clarity. He sensed Aya’s concern and sent reassurances to his mate, forcing himself to calm down before Aya showed up to find out what was wrong.

"What the hell," Schuldig whispered, his voice ragged as he clutched his slightly reddened right hand to his chest. Masato hurried to him, patted him on the shoulders and stroked back his hair as if in an attempt to soothe them both.

"I’m sorry, Schu, I didn’t think you’d actually do it." Yohji buried his face in his hands and let out a slow breath. "I’m sorry."

"Nah, it’s okay, Yotan. You were just proving us wrong." Schuldig leaned against his mate and laughed, the sound faint yet still amused. "Maybe you should have made me strip off my clothes instead."

"Then how would we know that he forced you to do something you didn’t want to do?" Masato asked, the panic and anger gone from his voice though it was still a bit shaky. "Guess I should have believed you, Yohji."

Yohji tucked back the hair clinging to his forehead and dredged up a trembling smile for his father. "If you didn’t believe me after that, I was going to have to do something like make Schuldig pinch Jo on the ass." Aya finally seemed convinced that things were all right and, after sending a pulse of love and concern, retreated from their link to allow Yohji to concentrate on training.

"I’d rather burn my fucking hand than have her chop it off," Schuldig snorted, appearing restored to his normal self. "You are a very dangerous man." To Yohji’s relief, his friend looked directly at him as he spoke and grinned.

Masato nodded and sat down beside Schuldig so he could face Yohji. "You… I could sense you as a succubae bound until right before you commanded Schu. Then it was as if you weren’t there any more. I think whatever it is that you’re doing, it’s because of your bond with Aya."

His gaze grew distant, as if he was lost in thought. "You’re the most powerful succubae bound I’ve ever come across, which makes sense if you’re mated to a kage. Bound mates are almost always the same level of strength, and we only mate with very strong willed humans." Sorrow flashed over his face, the emotion fleeting yet potent. "Our kind tends to recognize and acknowledge who is stronger, and you’re definitely one of the strongest bounds out there. I think only Aya is stronger than you, and not by much."

Yohji shrugged before he folded his arms over his chest. "I know that I don’t have any problems with succubae bounds other than you. All I have to do is bare my teeth at them or focus my power and they’re shitting themselves," he admitted with some reluctance. He didn’t enjoy feeling like a bully, even if his demon soul insisted that he prove his dominance over others of his kind.

"Oh, I imagine you must terrify the hell out of them at times." Masato rubbed the back of his neck as if he was tired, his left arm firmly around Schuldig’s waist. "I need to think on this some more, and read those books." He stared directly at Yohji, his gaze even but his lips twisted in a worried frown. "You’re young, and you’re only going to become even more powerful as you age. Add to that the fact that you’re constantly feeding from Aya *as well as* honing your power, and…." His voice trailed off, and he was clearly reluctant to continue with his train of thought.

Unfortunately for Masato, Yohji really needed some answers right now. "’And’," he prompted his father, his voice roughened by a growl.

"And I think that you’ll basically be able to command any bound other than your mate once you master this new talent," Masato replied, his voice so quiet it was almost drowned out by the crackling of the fire. "Aya can kill someone with a thought; you’ll be able to kill them with a command. It’s a mix of authority, glamour and compulsion, I’d say."

Yohji felt as if the table vanished beneath him and clutched at it with his hands to keep upright. He’d wanted something to use against the enemy, perhaps a way to drain them or dazzle them enough so they didn’t fight, and gotten something much more than he’d bargained for. "What am I going to do?" he asked, utterly shaken up by what Masato had just said and more grateful than he could ever express that his father and best friend didn’t seem terrified of him.

"You learn how to use it, Yotan," Schuldig answered, for once sounding perfectly serious. "Just as if you were a soul gaki bound; we’re a danger to everyone around us until we learn to control our power, and so are you. Masato and I will help." He rose from the couch and approached Yohji, placed his hands on Yohji’s shoulders and squeezed. "I trust you, Yotan," he whispered, as if able to sense Yohji’s thoughts, and then hugged him tightly. "Just… please don’t make me pinch Jo’s ass."

"You bastard," Yohji sputtered as he pushed his best friend away, a reluctant smile teasing at his lips. "It would be worth my life to have you do something like that. If Jo left me alive, Ichiro would gut me and toss me in the manure heap!" A huge wave of relief threatened to make his knees buckle over the fact that Schuldig still felt the same way about him.

"Could we please stop with all the talk about pinching asses? I believe I’ve been very good about the joke but my tolerance has limits," Masato grumbled as he approached the table to pick up the books that Yohji had brought. "Do you think anyone will mind if we use this room to practice in on a daily basis?"

Yohji shook his head. "As long as we’re out in time for Omi’s lessons, it should be okay. No one really uses the library this early in the day."

"Good." Masato nodded once and tucked the books beneath his left arm. He seemed to hesitate a moment before he spoke again. "We’re going to need a few more volunteers, bound as well as human. Considering your nature, there’s a chance you might be able to affect more than just bounds."

The more people Yohji could affect, the more effective he would be in protecting Aya, yet he felt uneasy at the thought of too many people finding out about his latest talent. What Birman alone could do with him was enough to make him shiver. "Only people I trust and can rely on to keep quiet about things," he said. "The last thing I need is for people to try to use this talent to their advantage, or to wonder how I can do something other succubae bounds can’t." He had no doubt that if word of this got back to Esset, that things would go very, *very* bad for him and Aya.

He had a glimpse of what it must be like for his lover, to have a talent that made most people keep their distance in fear of it being used against them, in being able to do something no one else could. No wonder Aya kept to himself so much.

Then Yohji realized that he’d have to tell Aya about his new talent sometime soon, and wasn’t sure how his mate would react. He knew Aya wouldn’t be scared of him… he just didn’t know how well Aya would handle him being able to use magic during a fight. Once Yohji mastered the new skill, there would be no more reason for Aya to hide him behind shadows any more, and he felt that his lover would have some difficulty accepting that. Aya was still bothered by what he believed to be his failure to protect his sister, and Yohji knew that he was looked after very carefully as a result.

All the talk from Aya about Yohji not treating him like a fragile doll, and now the tables would be turned. If Yohji could manage a bit more control over the shadows and make them listen to him more often, then the next person who thought to find an easy target in a succubae bound was in for one hell of a rude shock.

Schuldig stepped back so he could lean against Masato. "And people say that *I* have an evil grin. What are you thinking about, Yohji?"

"That anyone who underestimates me is going to regret it for the rest of their very short lives," Yohji answered, his right hand toying with the gauntlet on his left wrist. While he honed his magical ability with Schuldig and Masato, he would continue to practice with Yuushi as well. To think that this time last year, he’d only been in shape to take on a keg of beer….

"I suggest that you downplay your new talent, considering how you don’t want many people to know about it," Masato pointed out, his demeanor quiet and worried. "You’ll have to be careful as well as discreet."

Yohji wrinkled his nose then nodded in agreement. "I know." He’d have to fight the urge to use the ability to protect Aya or to test its limits. "But you know what? I suddenly feel a lot better about the future." Should too many people find out about Aya, he could command them to forget that his mate had ever existed. Not to mention there was the matter of a very annoying, persistent Captain of the Guard….

Schuldig and Masato shared a look. "Yeah, we know the feeling," Schuldig sighed. "I’m just glad you’re on our side, Yotan."

Yohji wasn’t on anyone’s side but Aya’s; he kept quiet about that fact, though. He knew he could trust his friend and his father, and that their goals were the same. However, while he felt better about the approaching war, he had to wonder what would happen afterwards. He and Aya wouldn’t be able to hide their identities from everyone during the war, and even if most people didn’t know who they were, the knowledge would be out there of a kage and a bound who could command others. Sorrow made him hunch his shoulders and wrap his arms around his chest when he realized that chances seemed very good that he and Aya really wouldn’t be able to return home once the fighting stopped.

Funny, that no matter how powerful they became, they always lost the things that they loved and cherished. All they would have was each other, especially if a time came that even their dear friends were too afraid to stand beside them. Yohji thought about the centuries that stretched ahead and wondered if he’d have anyone to keep him company besides Aya. Even if it was just the two of them, they’d survive… but it would be a little lonely without friends.

"And I’m glad that you’re on my side, Schu," Yohji replied, speaking from the heart. He just didn’t know how long that would continue to be true, yet couldn’t force himself to ignore his new talent. What mattered the most was keeping Aya safe, and if he had to become something that terrified the ones he loved, so be it. Aya would always accept him, of that he had no doubt. Yohji didn’t worry about that… it was… there was a deep, throbbing pain when he realized that the humanity he’d always prided himself in was so small, so fragile, so easily sacrificed. He felt as if the last twenty some years had been a dream, and just now he was waking up to his true self.

Somehow managing a smile, he pushed away from the desk. "Well, we better get going before Omi breaks down the door. I’ve an easily distracted ‘cat’ I need to drag to the kitchen for a bite to eat before we go shopping. See you two later tonight?" His voice was bright with cheer that was only partially faked. Thoughts of spending the day with Aya calmed his fears and made him more philosophical about the future. Whatever needed to be done so that the two of them would always be together, he would do and feel no regrets about.

Schuldig grunted and gave his mate a dirty look. "Depends on if I have to sit around in some grimy little bar all night, listening to two old fogies reminisce about the ‘good old days’," he complained.

Masato glanced upwards as if beseeching the gods then gave Schuldig a good, hard smack on the ass. "I just want to make sure he’s all right and maybe feel him out about a few things. Crawford wants as many bounds as possible in the Army and the Guard, and Logan’s a natural born drill sergeant." He rolled his eyes and shrugged before looking Yohji’s way. "We’ll be here for dinner."

"I’ll see you then." Yohji waved and headed for the door, desperate to be with his own mate. He knew that Aya had sensed a few things during the ‘lesson’, and that he’d have a fair bit of explaining to do while they shopped. It should be an interesting day.

*******

Heero surveyed his surroundings as he walked down the Gilded Sword’s steps on his way to the common room. Unlike his arrival last night, the inn was much quieter today and didn’t seem to contain as many soldiers. Considering the way they were drinking anything possessing an alcoholic nature, he assumed that they had just been here for the evening and wouldn’t be back until later. The inn should be quiet until lunchtime, which suited him just fine.

He’d been slightly perplexed to receive the telepathic message from Schuldig to come directly to the Gilded Sword rather than the Koneko as had been planned, but after seeing the inn’s patrons, he admitted that the decision made sense. He was just left to wonder why Crawford didn’t arrange for him to stay here from the beginning. Precogs were known for their eccentricity, so he would leave the matter to that unless he found any new information. Besides, if he was going to join the Army, it did make more sense to stay at an inn whose patrons were soldiers and not Guards.

Last night, he’d eaten his meal in a dark corner of the common room, aware of his role as a weary traveler and Army hopeful. While he hadn’t been down here for long, he’d picked up a wealth of information, including the fact that the Koneko was thought of with derision by most of the soldiers dining and drinking. He would have to arrange to meet with Trowa away from the inn, since he didn’t think it would look good if he hung out there once he’d joined the Army. Although some of the soldiers had remarked how a couple of officers had taken to hanging out at the Koneko lately….

Entering the common room with its paneled walls adorned with dulled swords and battered shields, he searched for any sign of Crawford, only to find none. Since he had arrived a few minutes early, he didn’t worry about the lack of company, and used the time instead to have some breakfast. There was no way to tell if Crawford expected to eat here or not, and Heero needed energy now in case he had to call upon his power today. During the two nights he’d remained camped in the woods outside of the city, he’d used his talent to keep the cold wind at bay. Not a very extensive use of his power, but a constant drain on energy levels that he preferred to be at full potential while he was in enemy territory.

When the server arrived, he gave the young woman an order for three omelets, some bacon, porridge and toast. She smiled and commented on how he must have woken up very hungry. He managed a weak smile and an off-hand remark about not eating much while traveling to the city, which seemed to placate her sense of curiosity. From now on, he’d have to make a point to eat some of his meals away from the inn, and to bring back spare food as well. One of the first lessons drilled into his head had been how a bound could draw attention to himself by his inhuman appetite; once Heero had reached puberty, the lesson had finally made sense.

He’d finished two of the omelets and the bowl of porridge before Crawford arrived, shedding a dark grey cloak to reveal black pants and a thick, white sweater. Behind him was one of the tallest men that Heero had ever seen, someone who had to top him by at least a foot, not to mention weigh three times as much. The stranger was dressed in an Army uniform that Heero would have mistaken for being the wrong color, if he hadn’t heard the soldiers last night complain about the change to their uniform. The fact that the pressed wool was dark blue in color meant that the man was an officer, a hypothesis that was proven true when the man shed his coat and revealed the various badges and pins that declared his rank. He was almost completely bald, save for a bright gold curl of hair, the same color as his thick mustache.

"Heero," Crawford greeted him with a slight inclination of his head. "I’m glad to see that you’ve safely arrived in Eto. I would like you to meet a good friend of mine, Major Louis Armstrong."

Wiping his hands on a napkin, Heero rose to his feet and bowed his head, his now clean hands smoothing out any wrinkles that had formed on his black tunic while he’d been eating. "I’m pleased to see you appearing so well yourself, Crawford, and to meet the acquaintance of your friend." He was never any good at introductions; usually he left matters such as these to whoever had been assigned as his partner for the mission. For once he actually missed Duo’s incessant yammering.

Crawford responded with a cheerful smile that looked odd on his usually impassive face and motioned to Heero’s server. "Two cups of coffee, please." When she hurried to fetch the drinks, he waved for Armstrong to sit down at the table. Once the men were seated and the young woman had returned with their coffee, Heero used his talent to create a slight buffer around the table that would distort whatever they said. People would be able to hear them talk, but not to make any sense of the words. As much as he’d rather have this conversation up in his room or somewhere private, it might raise suspicions on why they couldn’t talk in public.

Sipping his drink, Crawford spent several seconds looking around the inn. "I’ve heard about this place, but have never been here before. Jei would be offended at how the weapons have been treated," he remarked, in such a bland voice that made it almost impossible to believe that he was here on a matter as serious as bringing about the downfall of Kritiker.

Heero had known Crawford for most of his life, having been raised in Berin since a young child. In all that time, he’d never gotten a proper feel for the precog, a sense that he had any clue what the man was thinking at a given time. While he would never claim to be very good at understanding people, he usually had some skill at reading them and guessing their motives; not Crawford. While not as withdrawn as Trowa, Crawford was still impassive and loath to allow any emotion to show other than amusement. Heero would be willing to say that very few people knew the precog well, and he doubted he’d ever be included in that group. Not that it really mattered, as long as he could work well with Crawford, which he did.

"Considering how much the soldiers drank last night, I can understand why they’ve rendered the weapons useless for anything other than clubbing," he remarked as he neatly cut the remaining omelet into bite-sized pieces.

Major Armstrong laughed, the sound very deep and amused. "The boys do enjoy their drinks when they’re off-duty, and they’ve had a lot to drink about lately." He brushed his huge left hand against the front of his uniform, a sorrowful expression on his face. "I miss the green, though I understand the need for unity. Blue is the king’s color, and we’ve sworn to serve him well." There was no bitterness to his voice; that and Crawford’s intent stare reminded Heero that while Armstrong was helping him be accepted into the Army, that the man was not to be trusted for anything else.

"’Change is the one constant in life’", Crawford quoted, and Heero could pick up on the hint of irony in his tone. "There may very well come a time when the uniforms will return to their familiar green, or change to an entirely different color."

"Not for the foreseeable future, I’m willing to bet," Armstrong rumbled, his coffee mug held between his hands and dwarfed by their size. "The fact that several officers are still at the palace discussing matters with the Queen and the Captain does not give me much hope that the changes will end soon." He sighed, the sound so low that it made Heero’s ears ache, then shook his head. "Much benefit can come with change, or so I’ve been told." He managed to sound cheerful at the end.

An amused smile settled on Crawford’s face, the expression a touch sardonic. "I’ve always believed that to be true. However, gentlemen, we are not meeting today to discuss the color of uniforms or the fluid nature of the future." He cleared his throat and pushed his empty mug aside. "Major Armstrong, before you is a very talented candidate for the Army," he said with a nod in Heero’s direction.

"I’m terribly sorry, of course that’s why we’re here." Armstrong bowed his head to Heero, and may have attempted a smile as well; it was impossible to tell with the man’s thick mustache. "So you want to join the Army, do you?"

Heero nodded and echoed Crawford’s actions of pushing his empty mug and dishes to the side. "Yes, sir, I would." Crawford had told him that Armstrong was a low-ranking highborn from a family who possessed a tradition of enlisting their children in the Army. Many of Kritiker’s famous officers were from the Armstrong lineage, and while Heero had no hope of joining the Army as an officer, the human’s assistance would ensure that he was accepted and assigned to a decent division.

Armstrong chuckled for a moment, his massive body trembling from the laugh. "Good. More than anything, youth today needs discipline, both for the body and the mind." He lifted his right arm and flexed its muscles; the dark blue wool of his uniform actually groaned from the strain of covering the extended flesh. "The Army is the perfect place for that." Allowing his arm to return to his side, he peered at Heero with his bright blue eyes. "You look to be in good health; what skills do you possess?"

"I have trained to fight with a variety of weapons," Heero answered, with no inflection to his voice. "I am sufficient with sword, knives, staff, bow and mace." Only Wufei was more skilled with a sword than him, and he’d worked hard to ensure his proficiency with all projectile weapons without the aid of his talent. Combined with it, he was *always* accurate. However, when it came to hand-held weapons, he only relied on his skill and training.

"That is very good to hear." Armstrong stroked his chin with his right hand, his eyes closed as he hummed very faintly. "Hmm, I will need to discuss the matter with other people, but I believe you’d be the perfect fit in Major Marquis’ unit. I am sorry, Heero, but I am attached to Intelligence, and I fear your fighting skills would go to waste there." His shoulders slumped as he apologized, only to straighten out a moment later, and an odd glow appeared from nowhere to surround him. "But Marquis… yes, that would be a very good fit." He slapped his right hand on the table and made the plates and mugs bounce from the impact. "I shall talk to him today. The Army is about to begin a recruitment drive, and I’m sure he’d rather accept a skilled newcomer than have someone unfit forced upon him."

"Thank you, Armstrong," Crawford murmured, appearing so pleased that Heero knew that things must have turned out exactly as the precog had hoped. "I am in your debt, now."

"Nonsense," Armstrong boomed and waved aside Crawford’s words. "You’ve brought a promising recruit to my attention; there is no debt here except on my part as an officer of the Army." He slapped the table again and looked directly at Heero. "I’ll stop by tonight and inform you of Major Marquis’ decision. As soon as he accepts, I’ll be able to begin the paperwork for your enlistment, and it will take several days to get things settled." The glow that had surrounded him for the last minute or two faded as he stroked his mustache. "Ah, paperwork, the curse of a well-organized bureaucracy; very frustrating yet necessary. I shall have to ask Major Hughes for some assistance, but it will be done as soon as possible."

"Thank you very much," Heero said with a polite bow. Crawford had come through for him, and soon he’d be able to proceed with his mission. Once he was enlisted in the Army and achieved a suitable position, he’d be able to relay vital information back to the Elders.

Armstrong laughed and leaned across the table to clap Heero on his left shoulder. Over twenty years of rigorous training to push his body to its limits, to deal with pain and ignore it, and he had to struggle to not grunt from the impact. "Good! If it weren’t for the fact that I have to report for duty now, I’d say this calls for a drink! Not now, but later, yes? When I come back with the good news." Armstrong winked at Heero and gave his shoulder another smack before he stood up. "Until then, good day, Heero…."

"Heero Yuy," Crawford replied with a smoothness which indicated that he’d been waiting for this moment. He smiled that familiar mixture of sardonic humor, the light streaming in through the inn’s windows reflecting on the lenses of his glasses. "His name will become a legend."

"Ha, ha! First he must become a soldier before he goes down in history as a distinguished member of the Army!" Armstrong remarked and gave Crawford’s back a ‘friendly’ pat.

"It’s only a matter of time," was Crawford’s cryptic remark. Heero frowned because of it, not seeing the humor in being known as a ‘traitor’ when the history of the upcoming war was written, but willing to do his part to aid Esset. Sometimes, Crawford’s humor disturbed him.

He watched Crawford and Armstrong leave, remaining at the table for several more minutes. Considering the fact that he’d accomplished the first part of his mission, he should be pleased. Yet Crawford’s words reverberated inside his head and produced an uneasiness that he rarely felt. He shouldn’t be bothered; his instructions were clear and his duty obvious. There was no cause for any doubt, not when he knew what he needed to do. So why would the feeling not abate?

*******

Birman rubbed her gloved hands over her arms and wished that Crawford could have arranged the meeting someplace warm. Why he’d insisted on meeting in some obscure park, she wasn’t entirely certain, other than he had his reasons. Still, that thought did little to warm her up.

She debated returning to the small cart from which an elderly gentleman sold toasted almonds and sweet tea, and turned around to retrace her steps when she saw the two men headed her way. Jei was instantly recognized, even with the bright red wool cap he wore over his cropped white hair. Beside him was a tall, thin young man whose auburn brown hair fell over the left side of his face. Like Jei, he wore a thick cloak, his a dark green color with the hood pulled up. His handsome face was expressionless, his eyes a deep, clear green that she noticed right away.

When they reached her, Jei smiled, thankfully not exposing his vicious-looking fangs, and handed her a cup of tea and a bag of nuts. "If you had any balls, you’d be freezing them off. You Court types are so delicate," he said with a disapproving sniff that was belayed by the amused sparkle in his golden eye.

"I’ll have you know that it wasn’t my idea to meet here," she replied with a sniff of her own as she gratefully accepted the offerings. Looking around again, she saw no sign of Crawford, though there was another young man lurking a few yards behind Jei and who she assumed was Trowa. He had chestnut brown hair that fell in a thick braid down the front of his black coat.

Jei bared a hint of teeth when he noticed the direction that she was looking in and laughed. "Crawford’s not here. He suddenly had ‘urgent business elsewhere’ and couldn’t make it, so I got the honor of escorting Trowa." He managed a surprisingly graceful bow and even produced an elaborate flourish with his right hand. "Trowa, meet Birman. Birman, you know the rest." Standing up straight, he patted Trowa on the back then stepped aside. "Me and the idiot are going to be waiting for you at the bar I pointed out, so take your time." He chuckled about something as he turned around, and the other young man was close enough for Birman to make out his worried frown. Whoever the ‘idiot’ was, he opened his mouth as if to object to something, snapping it shut with a loud ‘click’ when Jei growled and grabbed his arm to drag him away.

"That’s Duo, my… associate. He’s to begin his training for the Guard in two more days," Trowa explained, his voice quiet, soothing and as emotionless as his expression.

"Ah, the young man who’s pretending to be your boyfriend and who isn’t supposed to know about the Shadow Guard." Birman smiled and fetched from her left pocket a small crystal charm cut in the shape of a sleeping cat to show to the bound. "Don’t worry, no one will overhear us." Tucking the charm safely away, she shifted the bag of nuts to her left hand and sipped the cup of tea in her right.

Trowa was perfectly still for a moment, then motioned for them to start walking down the snow-covered path. He had a bag of nuts as well, that he pulled from the inside of his cloak, though he didn’t eat them as they walked.

"Crawford sends his regards, as well as his belief that we’ll manage our introductions without his assistance," he said, his voice still quiet and without inflection. Birman recalled Reiichi’s description about the water elemental bound and had to agree with the assessment; Trowa was very handsome, but his reserved nature would make him easily blend into most crowds.

"I’m beginning to wonder if I’ve done something to offend him," she remarked, a slight smile on her face when she remembered the way the precog had practically run from the Koneko the other night.

"I believe… it’s not you who’s given offense, but Crawford himself. He seems to be avoiding someone," Trowa remarked, and she was willing to bet that he knew exactly who that person was.

"I suppose that makes me feel better, though I wouldn’t expect Crawford to run from anyone." She glanced at Trowa and was surprised to see a slight smile on his face as well. "Is there something that I should know?"

He shook his head and reached into his bag of nuts. "Just that sooner or later the person will catch up with him, and I’ve a feeling it would be very good if someone of my nature was on hand." He slowed his pace and approached the edge of a patch, where he placed a few nuts on a worn down tree stump. As Birman watched, a grey squirrel hopped onto it and, appearing unafraid of Trowa’s presence, eagerly snatched up its treat.

Birman recalled Colonel Mustang’s frantic search of the Koneko the other night, as well as the man’s true nature, and bit her lip in an attempt to not laugh. So Crawford really had done something to annoy the fire elemental bound? She would dearly love to know what, as well as be on hand when Mustang finally tracked down the precog. "My life is never dull anymore."

Trowa looked from the squirrel to her, and after leaving a few more nuts, continued their stroll along the path. "We live in ‘interesting’ times, that is certain." He tucked his hands back inside his cloak, though he didn’t appear to be bothered by the cold. In fact, he seemed completely unflappable. "Pardon my bluntness, but am I to assume that I will be working for you? While that’s what Crawford has arranged, the final decision is up to you." He didn’t sound at all bothered by the possibility that she might say ‘no’, and she didn’t think it was from over-confidence.

"You have the job," she informed the quiet man before she popped one of the delicious nuts in her mouth. Sipping her tea to wash it down, she nodded once and smiled. "I trust Crawford to choose you for a reason, and you have Reiichi’s approval. While we’ve only known each other for a few minutes, I always trust my own instincts in matters such as this." She’d learned from an early age who she could trust and who she couldn’t, the skill honed even sharper when she began to work for the previous Spymaster. That instinct told her to grab Trowa and run; he was smart, observant, gorgeous and knew when to keep his mouth shut. That, in a nutshell, she thought with an amused grin, was a perfect employee in her opinion.

The fact that he was so easily hired didn’t seem to upset or surprise Trowa at all. "I do have experience in a job… such as this. That is primarily what I did for my previous employers." The first hint of emotion crept into his voice, the tone of mild dislike. She was sure for him to expose that much, that the emotion was much more powerful than he let on.

"So Crawford said." She enjoyed another sip of tea and watched while Trowa once more made an offering of nuts to the park’s wildlife. Perhaps this was why Crawford had insisted that they meet outside, since Trowa seemed to be someone who both thrived in quiet and solitude as well as had a fondness for animals. "I’ll be as ‘blunt’ as you, since I assume that you won’t mind. I’ve seen the results in employing bounds and am doing my best to hire as many as possible for my department. From conversations I’ve had with bounds I consider friends, I am aware that there are benefits to employing a water elemental bound as a spy. With your good looks and ability to draw people to you, I can use you at Court." She noticed the way that Trowa’s lithe body tensed and the way the small frown flattened. "You’d be surprised how much a person will tell another if they find them attractive and charismatic."

"Will I be expected to do anything more than ‘talk?" he asked, his tone so expressionless that Birman took instant note of it. Crawford had warned her to not expect anything remotely ‘physical’ from Trowa, and she only asked that from people who were comfortable with using their bodies to gain information.

They walked in silence for a minute, the only sound the soft crunch of snow beneath their feet. Well, her feet, as there was no way to tell that someone walked beside her if she closed her eyes. "What you’re alluding to requires special training and talent." She tucked back a strand of hair that kept falling into her eyes and offered Trowa a friendly smile. "I already have several agents skilled in that area, including a couple of succubae bounds who didn’t care for the thought of being in the Guard. Quite honestly, they’d be very offended if I hired someone else to do jobs that they thoroughly enjoy," she said with a warm chuckle, an attempt to put the water elemental bound back at ease.

While Trowa didn’t smile in return, he went from being utterly expressionless to something a bit more… human. "That’s what they were created for, after all, and I’m sure it’s a good way for them to feed." He looked up to the sky, his hood sliding back enough to reveal that his hair was long and pulled into a ponytail that was tucked down the back of his cloak. Even without the hood to frame his face, his eyes were still that startling green.

Crawford had informed her about Trowa’s past and what she could or could not expect from him as an employee. Looking at the young man, she felt a burst of anger at what had been done to him, by humans none the less. Would things really get better if Kritiker won the war? Would bounds be less likely to suffer the indignities inflicted on Trowa and Aya, the degradation and abuse that made them appear cut off from humanity? How much was the aloofness that she felt from most bounds because of their demon nature and how much was from what they’d suffered? No wonder Eri and the others had been so cautious of her and Yuushi, worried how they’d be used this time.

"I make it perfectly clear to *all* of my employees that they are not forced to accept any missions. As much as I’d love to claim that it’s only from the goodness of my heart, I will admit that part of the reason for that resolve is the fact that you can’t expect good results from people forced to do something they detest," she admitted. She never claimed to be the greatest person alive, but she *was* a good Spymaster and knew when to not push her people too far, as well as always look out for them. Well, other than that first month or two when Yohji and Aya had worked for her.

They walked another dozen yards or so in silence, then Trowa cleared his throat. "While a not altogether altruistic attitude, that’s a very sensible one, and very rare in this world. Too many people only care that they can force someone to do whatever they wish." He spoke the words in such a hesitant manner that made it clear he knew exactly what he talked about.

"All I want is to win this war," Birman admitted, feeling she had to reveal more of herself to truly gain Trowa’s trust. After all, he seemed more than clever enough to guess that Crawford had told her something about his past, considering their current conversation. "Perhaps I’ll lose the few moral reservations that I still cling to as it approaches, if it appears that we have a good chance of losing. Right now… I still have hope that we won’t have to become the enemy to defeat them."

"That would render the victory meaningless," Trowa pointed out, his hood once more pulled over his head to hide his face as well as did his hair.

"Yes, it would." Birman glanced at the ground, at the crisp, clean snow before her that she would soon leave sullied by her presence. "Sometimes I wonder if all this sacrifice is just to amuse the gods." Her voice was as quiet as Trowa’s, though thick with the fear and frustration she felt.

"Even if it is, we still have to live through it." Shaking the last few nuts from the bag, Trowa tossed them between two trees.

Despite the seriousness of the moment, Birman raised her right hand to her mouth to stifle a giggle. "No wonder Reiichi approves of you so much, you both have very similar thoughts and opinions. That sounds exactly like something he’d say." Although Reiichi would smile as he did, with a sad look in his eyes to convey his seriousness.

"Considering the fact that the man doesn’t strike me as much of a fool, I appreciate the comparison." Once more that slight smile was back on Trowa’s face, and she was beginning to understand that it was more than it appeared. She also felt a tingle of that special magic she’d learned to associate with water elemental bounds.

"I can easily remember how furious the previous Spymaster was when Reiichi chose the Guard over our department," she confided, her voice warm with amusement as she thought about the past. "I was still a page, then, and spent the day trembling outside of Yousuke’s door while he swore up a storm. He even threw a paperweight at the wall, although I believe it was more an opportunity to get rid of the horrid thing than an act of anger." Her grin widened at that memory, and she tossed the remainder of her nuts aside as well as an offering to the park’s residents. "The current Captain at that time was terribly smug over his victory."

Appearing interested in the story, Trowa pushed his hood back a couple of inches; the thick lock of hair that fell onto his face remained in place, however. "He doesn’t seem that old. Has he really been in the Guard that long?"

"Since he was eighteen. I was promoted to spy not long after that, and often saw Reiichi about Court while I worked. Because of his manners, reserve and intelligence, he was assigned to watch over the highborns." Her smile almost slipped when she thought about the Court. "That was not an enviable job to be given; highborns often think of themselves as above the law, and special care is needed to make them pay for any crimes committed." If at all, she thought with bitterness when she remembered Kikyou’s sister.

She pushed the dark thoughts away and continued with her story, sensing Trowa’s interest in the quiet Guard. "He was crippled during the fight at the king’s wedding reception. Between his skill as a Guard and his friend Yuushi’s insistence that he was more than capable to work, he was accepted into the Shadow Guard. Some of the new recruits look down on him at first, thinking him an invalid given an easy job of ‘watching’ over Yohji and Aya, and they couldn’t be more wrong. He’s assisted them on several missions, and it takes an immense amount of courage to stand by those two when they’re caught up in… strong emotions." Reiichi was one of the very few people she knew she could count on to rein in Yohji and Aya if there was a need.

"I noticed that he has a close friendship with them, especially Aya." Trowa’s lips pressed into a thin frowned as he seemed to contemplate something. "He’s offered to help me with learning about the Court, and even taught me the names of a few highborns last night. I won’t mind working with him in the future."

If there was anyone who should put Trowa at ease, it would be Reiichi, Birman thought with a large dose of smugness. For many of the same reasons that she’d assigned Reiichi to Aya, she’d asked the man to work with Trowa as well. Reiichi was intelligent, quick to pick up on the most subtle of clues, had no problem working with bounds and was unabashedly attracted to only women. Not even *Yohji* had cause to be jealous of him after a few days spent watching Reiichi befriend Aya with not a single attempt at seduction. There were times when she thought that her love life would be much less complicated if she’d listened to Botan years ago and tried to turn her relationship with Reiichi into more than just friends.

Drinking the last of her tea, she carefully folded the wax-coated paper cup and tucked it into a pocket. "I’m very glad to hear that. I’d like for you to start work for me tomorrow, if that’s possible, though I don’t expect you to know all of the Court by then. It would be best if Reiichi slowly brought you up to speed; for right now, you can work on learning the palace’s layout and watching the Court in action. I’ll ask Botan to create several illusion spells for you, and we can think up some aliases you can use for various assignments." She felt that Trowa would be very successful as a page or a highborn’s companion, considering his quiet, deferential temperament. He would have no problem blending in with the crowd gathered at Court, yet he’d be able to attract attention should it be required for the assignment.

"Tomorrow will be fine," Trowa said, and she thought she actually heard a hint of warmth in his tone. "I’m eager to begin working, and it would best to do so… for other reasons."

Birman was reminded that Trowa had been sent here as a spy for Esset. "Yes, we’ll also have to put our heads together and figure out just what exactly we can send back…." Even with the spell to prevent eavesdropping and the fact that no one else appeared to be in the park, she was hesitant to say certain things aloud. Less people were hurt by too much caution than too little, as Yousuke had always told her.

"I’m sure we’ll figure out something, and Crawford will assist in the matter as well – if he ever stops running away." Trowa actually smiled and brushed aside the hair falling onto his face, revealing all of it for a few seconds.

"Yes, I’m sure he will, too." Birman didn’t bother stifling her giggle this time. "I think we’re done for now," she said and once more rubbed her arms in a futile attempt for warmth. Trowa didn’t seem affected by the cold at all. "I’ll ask Eri to bring you to the palace tomorrow morning; she’s always at the Koneko for breakfast and to drag her partner off to work. Now you can join Jei and your friend at the bar and get out of the cold."

Trowa’s good mood vanished when she mentioned his friend, which caused Birman to take careful note of that fact. She didn’t think the man, Duo, was there for Jei’s sake, and Crawford had actually smiled in such a secretive manner when she’d pressed him on why he was so sure that Duo wouldn’t betray them to Esset. Years of piecing together fragments of information told her that there was more than was apparent in regards to this situation, and it had a lot to do with Trowa and Duo. For a moment, she hoped that Mustang really did singe the precog, as she was growing annoyed at the way Crawford seemed to both delight in keeping her in the dark and in ordering everyone about. Though she was sure that Botan and Eri would delight in calling her out over being just as guilty over the latter.

"I supposed I should find them before they drink all the beer." He turned to face her, his demeanor expressionless once more, and executed a perfect bow so gracefully that she stared in awe for a few seconds. "I’ll see you tomorrow morning."

"Good-bye, Trowa," she called out while mentally filing away the fact to not mention Duo to the water elemental bound if she could help it. Then she wondered if she’d have any chance to talk to Crawford before Mustang managed to track the man down. What would happen if she tried to give the Army colonel some help in that regard, she thought with a mischievous grin. That would be fair payback for making her walk around a park in freezing cold weather.

*******

Roy did his best to control his temper before he entered the cottage he shared with Ed and Al. Dammit, it was *so* frustrating. For the last few days, he’d done his best to track down his bastard of a brother, only to come up empty handed every time. He’d even spent his lunch hour yesterday searching the park where he’d met Crawford several times before, and had almost run into the Spymaster. There’d been no sign of Crawford anywhere, even though he’d been so sure that morning that he’d find his brother there.

Every time he went to the Koneko, it was to hear that Crawford had just left or wasn’t expected back that night. If the inn was run by anyone other than Kudoh, he’d rent a room and stay there until the bastard was forced to return, but it would be a very bad idea to spend any more time than necessary at the inn when he was in such a foul mood. That would only lead to another fight with Kudoh, and he had a feeling that he wouldn’t be ‘forgiven’ so easily this time. No, he’d probably be banned from the Koneko, which would infuriate Ed if his mate was included in that ban, too.

He used a little more force than necessary when he stomped his boots to remove as much snow as possible before he opened the front door. Taking a deep breath, he could smell Ed but not Al, and he felt some of the tension leave his body. For once his mate was home, not spending the evening at some library. That was a welcome change for Roy, who wasn’t in the mood to be social tonight yet didn’t want to be alone, either. He only wanted to enjoy a good meal, have a few drinks and curl up in front of a fire with Ed. Between his failure to find Crawford and the never-ending meetings at the palace, his nerves were seriously frayed.

"Oi! Close the door!" Ed shouted, ruining the peaceful moment that Roy was enjoying. Letting out the air in his lungs in a long sigh, Roy did as he was told and used his power to warm the cool air he’d let in.

"You know, Edward, there are such things known as ‘manners’. You and I need to have a serious discussion about them one day soon," he called out as he made his way to the kitchen, hands busy unbuttoning his coats. By the time he reached the room, he was able to shrug off his outer coat and uniform jacket, which were draped over the back of a chair.

Ed stood by the stove, standing in his stocking feet, wearing a pair of worn leggings and an old sweater of Roy’s. His hair was mostly loose, only the sections around his face had been pulled back. The heat of the stove caused a faint blush to his cheeks, and Roy went still as he drank in the sight of his young lover. To imagine what Ed would look like in a few more years, when he matured a bit more, perhaps grew a few inches and….

"What, are you gonna stand there all day? Come over here and stir this," Ed barked, a stark frown on his pretty face.

"I thought you weren’t spending the day at the Koneko," Roy remarked when he moved toward the stove. Once he got there, he slid his left arm around Ed’s waist and nuzzled his mate’s right temple.

The feel of Ed leaning against him and the sound of a soft purr helped to soothe the anger and frustration he felt. "I didn’t. Today I worked at the Library and did some shopping before coming home." He closed his eyes and tilted his head so he could nuzzle Roy’s shoulder in return before he stepped aside. "Why do you ask?"

"Because you always bark orders like the Koneko’s cook when you’ve spent a few hours there," Roy answered with a wry grin on his face. To think that he’d worried about Ed picking up bad habits from Kudoh.

Ed snorted and smacked him gently in the ribs. "Stir that. Don’t complain about me sounding like Jo, not when she sends food home all the time and gives me recipes." For a moment the smile on his face faltered. "Al’s so rarely here to help with the cooking." Just then, he looked as young as he truly was, and Roy felt a hint of shame that quickly turned into anger at his brother.

"Ed… he’s happy with the Rockbells," Roy said, his voice barely more than a whisper. They’d talked about this a lot lately, Ed’s concern for his brother and his inability to see that he had to allow Al to live his own life.

Shaking his head, Ed went to the cold box and fetched a bowl of chopped vegetables, which he added to the fish stock that Roy was currently stirring. "The Library is still looking for his replacement; he could get his old job back if he asked. I still think he’d learn more stuff there than in some filthy forge," Ed muttered.

Roy waited until all the vegetables were safely in the hot broth then wrapped his arms around his lover and tugged him away from the stove. "Edward, it’s *his* life." Quite honestly, Roy was delighted that Al had found someone to care about and who cared about him in return, and more importantly, wasn’t so focused on revenge any more. He just wished that he could make Ed understand that even if Al dumped Winry and found himself a bound girlfriend, that it wouldn’t mean that Al wouldn’t be just as badly hurt in the end.

"He’s my little brother, Roy; I don’t want to see him get hurt."

Roy didn’t need their link to know that Ed was annoyed and serious; he could tell from the way Ed’s brows drew together and the fierce glare in those golden eyes. "Neither do I. Believe it or not, but I think of Alphonse like my little brother, too." He cared about the intelligent, slightly shy yet very loving boy, despite his initial intentions to not get too close to the Elric brothers. That was yet another thing he had to thank Crawford for, by way of burning off *all* of the bastard’s hair.

Ed smacked him on the left shoulder and tried to push him away. "I’m not going to argue about this now, okay? Dinner will get burned and you’ll just be in a nasty mood all week."

More like *Ed* would be in a nasty mood, but that would affect Roy so he didn’t try to correct that statement. "All right, I’ll say no more," Roy promised. For now, at least, since he was certain that Ed would bring up the matter soon enough, as long as Al insisted on living his own life.

"Hmph." Despite his concern for their dinner, Ed stood on the tips of his toes and gave Roy a lingering kiss on the lips. Savoring the affectionate caress, Roy moaned and threaded his hands through Ed’s long, silky hair, wishing there was a way to stop time. While moments like this happened more and more, they still had their fights, the moments when they tore into each other, determined to make each other feel the same pain and frustration that they felt. Something had happened to their bond in the last few months and it was all good, but Roy was well aware that they still had a ways to go before they were as… as ‘balanced’ as other mated couples he knew. A long way to go, and lots of opportunities to undo the progress that they’d made.

Still, he had learned to stop fighting that progress now that Ed had seemed to have matured a little. His mate was still much too young and quite the brat at times, but Ed had learned his lesson a few months ago. Roy could very easily imagine the man his mate would turn into, and was looking forward to an older, wiser Ed. Not to mention an end to being called an ‘old pervert’ all the time.

Ed whined softly as he pulled away, his eyelids fluttering and his cheeks flushed. "Dinner," he whispered, his voice ragged with desire.


"Don’t want it to burn," Roy repeated, his hands sliding through Ed’s hair, all the way down his lover’s slender back. "Though I think I’m doing a pretty good job of making sure it doesn’t happen yet," he murmured as his hands settled on Ed’s ass.

"Yeah, but you’re crap at doing stuff like that when you’re distracted, you old pervert." Ed once more stood on his tiptoes and nipped at Roy’s chin. "And you owe me for the groceries, too. Spent my entire pay on them," he grumbled as he pulled away and returned to the stove.

Knowing if he asked why he was the one to always be stuck with the grocery bill that Ed would just make another comment about his age, Roy shook his head and went to the cabinet that held the bottles of whiskey. "You know where I keep the money," he said and poured himself a glass of the potent-smelling liquor. Returning to the stove to help Ed with dinner, he offered his lover a sip.

Ed wrinkled his nose as he swallowed a small mouthful of the whiskey, but didn’t make a comment about its taste. It appeared that he was finally developing a tolerance for the stuff. "So, what are you doing tonight?" Ed asked, not doing a very good job of appearing nonchalant while he waited for an answer.

Roy judged that whatever was in the oven had baked long enough and needed to be pulled out before it burned. He sighed in pleasure when he recognized the meal as the meat buns that he liked, and looked forward to having the leftovers for breakfast. There was a benefit to Al spending most of his time with the Rockbells, and that meant he didn’t have to fight two starving Elric brothers for food all the time. "I thought I’d stay home and torment you tonight."

"Hmph. Well, you get to watch me read, then. I’ve a couple of books that I need to take notes from and get back to Aya this week." Despite his annoyed act, Roy could feel Ed’s happiness and desire, and knew that they wouldn’t spend the entire night reading old books.

He took the opening that Ed had given him, and did a much better job at nonchalance than his lover. "Are these the books that his friends brought back from Esset? Have you seen Crawford, lately?"

Despite the calm way he’d asked the question, Ed gave him a knowing look and snorted. "No, I haven’t." Then his expression grew thoughtful. "Though I did see his friend Jei this afternoon while I was shopping." Ed smacked himself on the forehead and chuckled. "Guess I forgot all about it with getting dinner ready!" he said with a warm smile that Roy felt compelled to return, content to feel his mate so pleased.

"And what would that be? Hand me a basket for the rolls," Roy told his lover and began to pluck the rolls from the metal baking sheet. He did his best not to laugh at the way Ed had to climb up on the counter to fetch a basket from the top shelf, and got a nasty glare for his not entirely successful effort.

Ed smacked the basket against his chest. "He asked me to tell you ‘not to give up hope’, whatever that means, and to ‘be ready’. He also said that you’d probably only get one shot, so ‘make it impressive as hell’." Ed’s anger faded as he stirred the soup, replaced by confusion. "I’ll say it again; he’s a very odd man."

"I think Jei would prefer to be thought of as ‘unique’," Roy said, slightly distracted by Jei’s message. So, it seemed that Crawford’s partner was willing to commit an act of betrayal. Considering how the poor flesh gaki bound had been stuck with Crawford for the last few decades, Roy was sure that Jei was more than happy to see the smug bastard get what was coming to him.

His mood entirely changed from how it had been when he first got home, Roy once more wrapped his left arm around Ed’s waist and couldn’t stop smiling.

*******

Rufus followed Elena and Tseng, who carried some of the luggage, mindful of Rude behind him with the last of the bags and Reno. Image was everything at the Highborn’s Retreat; he noted three lords and their retinues as he and his gokenin made their way to their suite. Since his mother had been a Lady from Kritiker, he bowed his head the slightest bit, in acknowledgement rather than deference, and felt the highborns respond with interest to his presence. Word would be spread through Court very soon that Lord Rufus Shinra was in Eto, which should make his job much easier. For the next day or two, he would be able to get some rest and wait for the invitations to come from various highborns and royal officials.

The suite was located on the top floor, and Rufus was pleased to note that the Highborn’s Retreat boasted a lift that would save him from walking up eight flights of stairs. Then he remembered about his mate when Reno staggered into the wood paneled box. <Do *not* play with the contraption’s magic spells,> he warned, exerting as much of his will as possible. Reno already had the beginnings of a thought to see what would happen if he attempted to block or sever the spell that caused the lift to rise up or lower.

His shoulders hunched and face pinched, Reno managed to stick out the tip of his tongue as he leaned more against Rude’s side. <Spoilsport.> Traveling all day in bright sunlight had robbed him of much of his energy, so much so that he gave in to the order with a minimum of fuss for once. He closed his eyes and rested his head against Rude’s left arm, appearing ready to fall asleep on his feet. Rude shifted the straps of the luggage in his left hand to his right and slowly slid his left arm around Reno’s waist.

Feeling a burning jealousy burst into life inside of his chest, Rufus forced himself to stare straight ahead at the lift’s closed doors and cursed the magical device for being so slow. Until they were safely in the suite, he could in no way treat Reno as anything other than his gokenin.

After at least two minutes, the lift creaked to a halt and its doors opened. The top floor housed only two suites, both of them permanently reserved. Rufus turned left and approached the door to the suite that his family had owned for over a century and that he’d never used. The key that had been passed on to him by his father opened the door, revealing a lushly decorated foyer that was framed by two doors that led to rooms for his servants or gokenin. "Pick whichever room you want," he informed his people, not pausing to slow down as he walked through the living room. His bedroom would be at the back of the suite, and he heard Rude and Reno follow as he made his way there. Opening that door, he was pleased to note that the agent whom he’d contacted about readying the suite had obeyed his instructions. The windows’ curtains were appropriately thick and closed tightly enough that no sunlight leaked through, and there was a large fire along with over a dozen of candles and lamps lit in the room. He didn’t possess Reno’s ability to see in the dark and refused to bump into things because his mate couldn’t handle a bit of sunlight.

While he approached the fireplace to warm himself, Rude half-carried Reno toward the bed. "I will not have him muck up the linens," Rufus snapped, and watched as Rude turned slightly to the right and approach a dark gold lounge chair instead. Reno fell onto the plush velvet with a low groan, not bothering to move at all when Rude set the bags down and left the room.

Removing his cloak, Rufus stared at his mate, taking in Reno’s muddy and wet cloak, the way his hair clung to his face and the slight flush to his skin. Reno appeared to have passed out, yet he could still feel the dubhach’s active thoughts, most of them revolving around cursing him out.

<We could not wait to ride only at night for your sake,> he informed Reno while he draped his damp cloak over the appropriate hook by the fireplace. Since he’d ridden to Eto in such a hurry, he would have to rely upon the inn’s staff to tend to the laundry.

Reno hissed as he pushed his upper body away from the chair. "I know," he snapped, his voice sibilant and eyes glowing in the fire and candlelight. Once he managed to sit up, he tugged off his gloves, needing several attempts because of how much his hands were shaking. Next went the cloak, and he leaned over with a muttered curse to remove his boots.

Rufus frowned at his mate, unsure of what exactly had Reno in such a pissy mood. He’d stifled the emotional part of the link to avoid the pain that Reno had felt from exposure to sunlight, and wondered if he’d missed something during the long, arduous ride to the city. Opening up a small part of the link, all he could make sense of was a throbbing ache, a dull hunger, longing and hot anger. Since Reno was slipping back and forth between his human and demon nature with frightening speed and repetition, Rufus couldn’t clearly read his thoughts, other than to realize that Reno was *not* happy with him at the moment.

In other words, now would not be a good time to expect his ‘faithful’ gokenin to assist him in removing his boots, he thought with annoyance. Sitting on the bench at the foot of the large, sumptuous-looking bed, he grunted under his breath and struggled with the wet straps of his boots.

Reno had better luck than him in removing the footgear, and with a sorrowful moan, managed to stand on his own power. He wavered back and forth with each step, not helped in the slightest by the fact that he was shedding his clothes as fast as he could pull them off, leaving them to fall to the floor.

<You will pick up after yourself,> Rufus warned as he managed to get one of the damn boots off. <I will not have you make a mess out of my room!>

Not bothering with a verbal answer, Reno waved his left hand and sent a shower of sparks in Rufus’ direction that made him yelp more from surprise than pain. That had hurt less than the last time Reno had shocked him; he was getting very tired of Reno thinking he could treat him in such a manner. As Rufus rose to his feet to follow his idiotic mate into the bathing room, he was distracted by Tseng’s arrival.

"My lord," Tseng inquired, his voice unruffled by any sign of exhaustion. "Is everything all right?"

Glaring in the direction of the bathing room, Rufus motioned with his right hand and sat back on the bench. "Nothing I won’t handle in a moment," he said with exasperation then waved to the boot on his left foot. "I could use your assistance with this."

Tseng bowed his head and knelt in front of Rufus with a smoothness that belied the fact that he’d spent most of the last three days and nights on horseback. "We could all do with a meal, Sir. May I order something from the inn’s kitchens as well as send Elena out to bring something back for us?"

They wouldn’t be able to order enough food to satiate five starving bounds without attracting unwanted attention. Even though Rufus had left instructions to have the suite’s small kitchen fully stocked, meal arrangements were going to be tricky. "Order dinners for all of us, and then take turns going out for additional food," he instructed Tseng. "You’re to go last." He knew that Tseng needed something more ‘substantial’ than a robust stew, and felt his annoyance grow. Reno would need to ‘feed’ soon as well, and he was not happy with the thought of unleashing the unpredictable dubhach to hunt in enemy territory.

"Understood." The slight inclination of Tseng’s head didn’t reveal the relief and gratitude he felt over the order, or his concern for his fellow gokenin. "If you like, my lord, I could take Reno with me."

Rid of his boots, Rufus stood up in such a rush that Tseng hastily leaned back to get out of his way. "No. I won’t have you both feed at the same time." Tseng would be too distracted to keep a proper eye on Reno, which would lead to disaster. "He should be able to manage for another day." The hunger didn’t feel as bad as it had in Berin, largely because Reno had fed the other day. If he stayed out of the sun for a bit, he should be all right.

The look Tseng gave him was cooler than usual, though all he did was bow his head once more and rise to his feet. "As you wish." He wasn’t happy with the instructions, but would hold back any complaint for a while longer. "I’ll order a meal right away; would you like anything special?"

"Something hot and several bottles of wine," Rufus replied as he made his way to the bathing room. Reno was being very quiet, and his mind was the distant coldness that meant he’d lost himself in his shinigami soul.

Entering the small room composed of marble and glass, he looked at the large, partially submerged tub big enough to hold two people. Steam rose from the water’s surface, which was too smooth for his comfort. Crimson strands floated about as if tendrils of seaweed, the only color noticeable against white and pale grey marble.

Rufus sat on the tub’s edge and thrust his right arm into the hot water, leaning forward until he touched Reno’s back. Grabbing hold of the hair on the nape of his mate’s neck, he yanked on it until Reno burst through the water, his eyes silver and his lips pulled back in a snarl.

"I *hate* it when you do that," Rufus snapped, disturbed as always when Reno so blatantly displayed his shinigami nature. It wasn’t *natural* to be able to lie at the bottom of the tub and not breathe.

"It feels good, dammit," Reno growled, his voice still sibilant. "Lemme go!" He tried to swat away Rufus’ hand, sparks flying through the air. When Rufus didn’t let go of his mate’s hair, Reno hissed and, moving too fast to be stopped, yanked Rufus into the tub.

Water splashed everywhere, and Rufus’ savage growl echoed off the glass and marble walls when his head surfaced from the water. <What the hell is your problem?> he demanded to know while Reno scooted to the opposite side of the tub. The room was lit with several candles, which suddenly sputtered as shadows darted about.

Reno sat hunched in the water, his right hand pushing back his hair and his left rubbing his eyes. "Don’t start now, Rufus. Just go back to ignoring me." That said, he slipped beneath the water once more.

Rufus took a deep breath and barely resisted the urge to yell. About to snarl again, he flinched when he felt… *something* dark and cold brush against his skin. Once more, he reached for his lover, this time wrapping his hands around Reno’s arms and pulling until Reno rested against him, glaring through the matted tangle of his hair.

Rufus took advantage of their link, fully opening it for the first time that day. While Reno’s thoughts were still difficult to read, he could make sense of a few of them. <You’re upset that I blocked the link today? Why should both of us suffer?>

"Yeah, why indeed," Reno croaked, once more rubbing his face. "I’m such an inconvenience." He tucked back his hair as best as possible and stared off in the distance over Rufus’ right shoulder. "Leave me alone, okay? I’ll play with others and stay out of your way."

Something in the way Reno said the words, with the slight hiss to his voice and the way Rufus swore that the shadows were moving, made him shiver in apprehension. He was dressed in clothes thick and layered enough to keep him mostly warm during a long ride in the bitter cold, and he was tired and sore from all the riding, not to mention his fall into the tub. By all rights, he should be furious, not concerned. "Who are you going to play with?" he asked, suspicious that Reno wasn’t talking about Rude. When Reno didn’t answer, he nipped at his mate’s left ear. "Who, Reno?"

Reno muttered something about Rufus’ parentage under his breath and tried to push away, prevented from moving far by the arm wrapped firmly around his waist. "There’s lots of ‘em here." He tilted his head to the side, his eyes closing as he let out a slow hiss. "Never sensed so many at the same time."

Not liking how ‘cold’ Reno felt in his mind, Rufus pulled his mate back and gave him a desperate kiss. <You’re mine, damn you.> He forced his emotions onto Reno, his hands roaming over his mate’s wet back and ass. <You only ‘play’ with *me*.> Nothing he said made any sense, yet he felt compelled to say it none the less. Breaking off the kiss, he trailed his mouth along Reno’s jaw and began to suck on his neck.

Inhaling sharply, Reno shook his head and finally relaxed against him. <They’ve never been this… this talkative. Want me to join them, to let go.> Sharp nails dug into Rufus’ shoulders while Reno shuddered. He hissed, the sound loud and violent, and the shadows seemed to withdraw, the room to brighten. "Feels so weird," Reno whispered, his eyes and voice back to normal.

Rufus brushed back the hair falling onto his mate’s face and let out a slow breath of his own. "Shinigami?"

"Yeah." Waves of exhaustion and remorse poured into Rufus as Reno curled against him. "They don’t like Berin so I didn’t think there’d be so many here. And they don’t normally talk to me so much."

"No." The few times they did, Reno usually attempted suicide. Very carefully, Rufus delved into Reno’s mind, determined to stop an attempt before it happened, and while he found Reno’s natures sharply divided, there wasn’t a strong death wish for once. "Is that what had you in such a bad mood?"

Reno pulled away, gracing Rufus with an utterly disgusted look before he climbed out of the tub. "No one likes to suffer alone, Sir," he answered as he dried himself with a towel, his voice as disgusted as his expression. "Force me to spend several days in the sun, the least you could do is suffer a bit as well."

Sitting stunned in a bathtub while fully dressed, Rufus wondered if he was catching Reno’s insanity. "What good would that do either of us?" he asked, honestly confused by his mate’s train of thought.

The look Reno gave him just then was so disrespectful that Rufus was out of the tub before he even realized it. Unfortunately, Reno was faster than him, so he didn’t catch up to the idiot until in the bedroom, where Reno stood by the pile of luggage, looking for a change of clothes.

"Why should I be incapacitated by your pain, Reno?" Rufus really wanted to know, wanted a glimpse at how his mate thought at times like this.

Reno pulled out a pair of pants and a thick sweater, both of the garments pitch black. "No reason at all. I’m just here for you to fuck and to stop someone from stabbing you in the back, that’s all. Doesn’t matter if I can feel your pain whenever you piss off someone enough to smack you around, nope, as long as you’re not *inconvenienced*." As he spoke, the words rushed from anger, he pulled on the clothes. Once he was dressed, he picked up his bags and headed for the door.

Rufus barely managed to grab him by the right arm before he left. <Where are you going?>

"To my room with Rude." Reno let the bags fall to the floor as he turned to glare at Rufus. "What, you want to fuck now or something? I’ll come back after I drop off my shit, though I doubt I’ll be any good right now." He stifled a yawn and tried to yank his arm free.

Wondering what gods he’d so offended to be stuck with Reno, Rufus did some swearing of his own and kicked the bags aside. "You’re staying here, you fool. Attempt to leave this room and I’ll break your legs." Judging from the rush of anger and the silver gleam to his mate’s eyes, that was not one of the best things Rufus could have said; then again, he wasn’t exactly thinking clearly at the moment. He was soaking wet, freezing, worried about shinigami trying to make Reno kill himself – and Rufus because of their link – and the idiot wasn’t acting normal. Not that he’d really acted like he should for the past few months, save for a day or two back home, but this was yet another wild mood swing that left Rufus dreading the next few centuries.

"We’re not going to fuck now. I’m going to change my clothes, then we’ll both eat and you’ll get some rest," Rufus slowly explained, doing his best to not allow his temper to make a bad situation worse. "And you’ll fucking ignore the shinigami from now on!" The last came out as a shout, and for a moment he had a sinking feeling that it would start another fight so he prepared to be shocked.

Instead, Reno whined in the back of his throat and leaned against Rufus, never mind that Rufus was dripping water onto very expensive carpet. <Don’t fuck with me now, Rufus. I’m too… too tired for this.> He was, too, his exhaustion more evident with each passing second now that the pain had faded away.

Weakened by sunlight and the arduous ride, off-balance because of their link and then seduced by shinigami…. Rufus shoved aside the anger he felt for himself and his actions and wrapped his arms around Reno. "You’re making even less sense than normal; get into bed and I’ll make sure to order you something to eat when you wake up."

For a moment it felt as if Reno was going to protest; all Rufus had to do was shift them both around just enough so that Reno could see the bed. Rubbing his eyes with the heels of his hands, Reno pulled off his now wet clothes and crawled into the bed without saying anything else. Rufus watched him, his concern growing when the canopy of the bed seemed to darken, as if filled with shadows.

What was going on in Eto that its shinigami reached out to Reno as they’d never done before? There had been a time or two back home when he or Reeve had come across the dubhach ‘talking’ to them, and Rude reported that shadows seemed to gather around Reno during and after missions. Reno had reported that he couldn’t find more than one or two in the palace at Berin and stated that they avoided the place because of the Binding War. Yet Eto was where Kritiker’s wizard had successfully trapped a shinigami in a human’s body, so he would expect them to be scarce here as well. Something attracted them here, either an approaching massacre or an unknown magic, and Rufus was very displeased by the complication. Now he’d have to keep an even closer eye on his mate and make sure that the damn things didn’t try to sway Reno over to their side or inspire more ‘unusual’ behavior.

Reno was his; body, mind and soul. He wasn’t going to let some incorporeal demons take away his mate and quite possibly his own life. And for some damn reason, Crawford had wanted him here. Wishing that he was a precog, Rufus held back a vicious string of curses while he shed his wet clothes. Something was going on, something that left him worried and slightly afraid, because it didn’t seem to be something he could control.

*******