Darkness Returns

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chapter nine

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on the precipice...

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Emmie smiled when Neely handed her a stack of clean towels. "We’re done!" she cheered, feeling a sense of pride that they’d finished restocking all the bathing rooms. They hadn’t been assigned the task for very long, and as it was a welcome change from stripping beds or washing dishes, Emmie hoped that they’d be given the chore more often. Ever since Neely and Marta had moved into the Koneko, Jo usually made her and Neely work together, which meant that she got out of the kitchen more often.

Neely giggled, her right hand over her mouth as if to stifle the sounds. "We’re done for *now*. I bet people are already in the bathing rooms on the lower level."

Wrinkling her nose to show what she thought of people ruining all her hard work, Emmie rose to her feet and offered a hand to her friend. "Well, we’re supposed to go downstairs for the meeting, and then Jo said we’d be done for the day. Do… do you want to go to the ribbon store after we finish our homework?" she asked, still a little bit shy around the older girl. She hadn’t had a close friend her age in months, and Neely was so pretty that Emmie often felt that she shouldn’t be bothering her.

"That would be great." Once she was standing, Neely clapped her hands together and smiled. "Ani said she’d show me how to crochet a scarf with some ribbons and yarn, and I’d really like to make one for my mother. She was complaining the other day that she doesn’t have anything really nice to wear." Neely’s smile faded for a moment, and she seemed lost in contemplation.

Emmie tucked back her hair and felt a spark of jealousy and pain; how did it feel to have a mother who was there to fuss over you and braid your hair…. Her dad had done his best, but he’d usually left fussing like that to her aunts and cousins. While Emmie didn’t hate her mother anymore, she still wished that the woman had been able to stay a few years longer. Marta had kept Neely, after all, though Emmie got the impression that Marta had to leave her home to do that.

"Maybe I could embroider something for her on a pair of gloves," she offered as they left the fifth floor’s bathing room. While Ani was teaching Neely to crochet and knit, Kira kept showing Emmie new ways to embroider. Emmie was currently learning how to sew several different flowers, and had hopes that maybe one day she’d be able to make a set of curtains and pillows to match her quilt. If she ever got that good, she could even make something for Aya, maybe a few pillows or a new quilt that wouldn’t remind him of painful things.

"Does Jo hold these meetings very often?" Neely asked, shaking Emmie from her thoughts. "I mean, Ani seemed surprised that she asked for everyone to be in the kitchen this afternoon."

While Neely may be a couple of years older and very pretty, Emmie was proud that she’d worked at the Koneko for longer and got to teach her friend the many chores that needed attention. "This is the first one since I’ve been here," she admitted as they made their way to the staff’s staircase. "Jo usually just tells us whenever she sees us if she has a bit of news to share, like when we found out that you and your mother were moving in."

She brushed her fingers over one of the small charms on the gold chain that Yohji had given her as a solstice gift; the black stone in a silver wire cage that Omi and Aya had made for all of the staff so they could enter the private staircase or the library upstairs. Jo had insisted that the stairs were warded so only staff could use them after a customer had followed Emmie around one day.

"I know she’s been talking to Mickey a lot about something," she continued on the way to the kitchen. However, she didn’t know what they were talking about, as Jo and Mickey always went quiet whenever she or Maddox interrupted their conversation. Then, at lunch this morning, Jo had announced that she wanted to discuss something with all of the full-time staff after lunch. Emmie was often teased about her sense of curiosity, and all day long she’d felt a sense of frustration whenever she wondered about the meeting. Was Jo going to hire more people? Ask them to share rooms since the inn always seemed booked for the last month or two? She couldn’t stop thinking up new reasons for the meeting.

Reaching the first floor, Emmie slowly opened the door to make sure she didn’t hit someone again, then went straight to the kitchen. Neely followed her, humming a cheerful tune that they’d heard Koyu play last night.

Despite the fact that they’d worked as fast as possible on restocking the bathing rooms, they were the last to arrive. Jo and Mickey stood by the main fireplace while Teddy, Koyu, Maddox, Kira, Ani, Touya, Omi and Marta sat at a table covered with plates of food and pitchers of hot cider, chocolate and coffee. Even Ichiro was here, with the new stable boy sitting beside him. Jason ducked his head when Emmie waved to him, taking a sudden interest in the mug of hot cider he held between his hands. For some reason, he did that a lot whenever Emmie tried to talk to him or get his attention.

"Ah, there you two are," Jo commented while Emmie sat beside Maddox and Neely by her mother. Emmie smiled at her cousin when he handed her a mug of hot chocolate and pushed the plate of cheese danishes in her direction.

"I’m sorry, Jo," she apologized, afraid that she’d kept everyone waiting even though there were still a few minutes left until three o’clock. Neely echoed the apology while her mother tucked back the blond hair that had fallen onto the girl’s right shoulder. That made Emmie conscious of her barely more than shoulder length hair that was still too short – at least, until Jo cleared her throat to get everyone’s attention.

"That’s all right, girls, you’re not late or anything. I’ve just had to fend off everyone’s questions so I don’t have to repeat things twice." Jo glanced around the room, a stern look on her face that made everyone scramble to sit up straight. "I’ve no doubt you’re all wondering what it is I have to tell you, so I won’t mince words. Mickey’s going to be the new owner of the Koneko," she said, her voice perfectly flat as if she didn’t want to betray any emotion.

Whatever Emmie and the others had expected, that certainly didn’t seem to be it. Only Ichiro didn’t appear surprised by the news, while everyone else cried out or looked away.

"But, what about Yohji," Emmie demanded to know, confused as to how he could stop being the inn’s owner.

Meanwhile, Teddy jumped up from the bench and went to hug his brother while Kira clapped her hands and looked ready to cry. "Way to go, bro!" he cheered, doing his best to reach up to wrap his arms around Mickey’s neck. At that moment, Emmie hated Teddy for the way he could be so happy about the news. What about Yohji? He was Teddy’s brother, too.

"I don’t understand," Marta said, her voice pitched loud enough to be heard over everyone else’s. "Yohji is the inn’s owner; his mother passed it on to him."

Jo held her hand up, and when that failed to quiet everyone, cleared her throat again. "Now that you’ve heard the news, you can listen to me explain what’s happening." Her stern look slipped for a few seconds, revealing an expression of sadness. "Yohji was the one to ask for this. He feels that he and Aya can no longer devote the amount of time and attention that the Koneko deserves because of their work for Birman and Yuushi."

"I can’t recall Yohji ever being the most reliable of workers," Ani was quick to interrupt, her long braid clutched between her hands. "Why is he changing things now? None of us mind that he can’t take regular shifts because he’s always there when we really need him."

Teddy snorted, the sound loud and obnoxious. "Speak for yourself." When Emmie and several other people turned to glare at him, he held up his hands in apology. "Okay, I’m sorry, that didn’t come out right." He sighed and ran his hands through his hair, his gaze settling on Koyu for a minute. "Mom made it clear that she was leaving the inn to Yohji, even though he’d chosen the Guard. I never really minded that because… well, she gave Mickey and me more than enough over the years." As with Jo, his expression softened with sorrow. "That said, if Yohji is willing to give the Koneko to Mickey, then I’m not going to argue with him. The fact is, Mickey busts his a- erm, his butt to run the place. I think it’s great that he’s rewarded for all that hard work." Teddy crossed his arms over his chest when he finished, as if daring anyone to argue with him.

"Did Yohji give any reasons other than his busy work schedule?" Marta asked while Emmie attempted to think of something to say, her attention focused solely on Jo. "I’m sorry if I’m prying, but part of the reason bounds trust the Koneko is because its current owner is a bound. They might be more cautious if they find out a human has taken over."

Nodding as she poured herself a cup of coffee, Jo motioned for Ichiro to scoot over so she could sit down. "While he brought up the fact that Mickey is doing most of the work and that he and Aya will not be able to help out much from now on, the main reason he’s doing this is because he’s a bound." The cup held between her bony hands, she stared intently at Marta. "He said that if something should happen and he and Aya need to leave suddenly, he wants to be sure that there won’t be any trouble for the Koneko."

"It’s not as if we plan on announcing the new ownership," Mickey added, his deep voice easily filling the large room. "Yohji was the one to make this decision, and I’m sorry to say that I agree with him, for selfish reasons and not." He appeared a little guilty, and his eyes were shadowed as if he hadn’t gotten much rest lately. "I don’t care if no one knows I’ll be the owner in a few more weeks, only that the inn will be safe."

Omi, sitting on Emmie’s left side, tapped his mug against the table. "If anyone found out about Yohji and attempted to take the Koneko away from the Kudoh family, they’ll be in for an unpleasant surprise. The inn was given to your family under a royal charter," he pointed out, his attention fixed on Mickey. "I am more than confident that my father would simply give the inn’s title to the next in line to inherit it, which would be you."

"I agree, and I didn’t expect anyone to take away the inn if someone found out about Yohji," Mickey tried to explain. "However, I’d rather the inn not attract too much attention while people fight over who owns it and there’s talk of Yohji’s true nature. It’s…." He let out a deep breath. "Look, Yohji’s always made sure that I’ve been compensated for the work I do, and I never felt as if I wasn’t appreciated. If he hadn’t made the offer, I’d still be happy and remain here for the rest of my days. However, he *has* made the offer," he said with some force.

"Not only that, but it’s not so much an offer as an order," Jo elaborated. "He decided this on his own and sprung it on Mickey and me. If we try to stop him, I’ve no doubt that he’d just go to the nearest lawyer and have a new deed drawn up." She shook her head, a smile appearing on her face for the first time since the meeting had started. "The damn stubborn fool."

Kira rose from the table to stand beside Mickey as well, her arm sliding around his waist. "I’m sorry, I know I’m not impartial to things, but I think Mickey deserves to be the inn’s owner." She stared at her fiancé and smiled, and some of the exhaustion seemed to leave Mickey’s face.

"But the Koneko is Yohji’s," Emmie couldn’t help to mention, at a loss for how anyone could think otherwise. Why did everyone forget that fact, or think it was okay for him to just give it away?

Jo leaned across the table to pat her right hand. "Yes, it is, and in a way it’ll always be his. However, he has a set of obligations that means he won’t be able to look after it the way it should be," Jo explained. "I’m not happy with his decision, yet I see why he made it and I can’t argue too much with the stubborn idiot. What matters the most isn’t if he’s the one who legally owns the Koneko, but that he’ll always look after it and be able to live here."

Marta nodded, the worried frown on her face smoothing out. "To be truthful, I didn’t expect him to always own the inn; in a few years time he’ll need illusion spells to hide the fact that he’s not aging, and he’ll have to be declared dead at some point. I’m not arguing with his decision, I just wanted to know why he’s doing it now," she admitted with a rueful grin. The expression didn’t last for long as something seemed to sadden her. "Actually, he might not have to worry about illusion spells and the such," she said in a hushed tone.

Emmie was shaken from her anger and confusion by that cryptic comment. For the last few months, it seemed that the adult staff had been whispering about something that they kept from her, Maddox, Touya and even Neely. Something that had to do with why Yohji and Aya were working so often for Birman and Yuushi, and even several of the Guards seemed in on it. Emmie grew frustrated and a little scared each time she walked in a room and the topic was abruptly changed, or when she said something that made Yohji or Jo or Reiichi turn sad. Why would Yohji not have to worry about illusion spells in a few years? However, when she opened her mouth to ask that question, Jo chose that moment to speak.

"I’ve made it perfectly clear to Yohji that he and Aya will always have a place here, and that we want them to stay as long as they can." Jo folded her arms over her chest and glared at nothing in particular. "I think he’s being overly cautious, and I see no reason why we have to tell everyone that Mickey’s officially the owner once it happens."

Marta cast a sympathetic look in Jo’s direction. "I think he’s making a wise decision; he might not always be able to hide what he and Aya are, so it’s best to be prepared. I also agree that it would be best to not mention the change of ownership for as long as possible; we don’t want to scare away anyone hoping to find refuge at the Koneko."

"That and it’ll save us some grief," Koyu commented, his lovely voice sounding very amused. "Uncle Simon will not be pleased when he finds out about the new ownership."

While Emmie tried to figure out who this ‘Uncle Simon’ was, Teddy groaned theatrically and Mickey and Koyu exchanged looks. When she nudged Maddox in the side to see if he knew anything, he tapped his right forefinger against the mug in front of him. Then she made the connection with the frowning man who had hovered in the back of the Sakurai ceramic shop and only spoke to Mickey.

"Mom explained to him several times that the ‘true’ Kudoh bloodline ended centuries ago," Mickey said in clear exasperation. "There have been so many adoptions over the years that no one’s a direct descendent of the original owner. Uncle Simon hasn’t a hope of the inn passing on to his son, no matter what he thinks."

Jo grunted and rose from the table to put on a fresh pot of coffee. "Miyuki wanted to smack the idiot for always bringing it up; she made it perfectly clear that if something happened to Yohji that you or Teddy would get the inn." Jo stilled once she set the coffee pot on the stove. "I wish I knew what she was thinking when she drew up the will; even then it was clear that Yohji didn’t want to run the Koneko."

Ichiro spoke up, his deep voice startling more than Emmie. "She wanted to make sure he had a home, and if he was tied to the inn, he’d never really be able to leave." He set his empty mug on the table and snorted at the amazed looks everyone gave him. "If she left it straight to Mickey, then Yohji probably would have drifted away over time, especially after her death. She wrote that will after talking to Cassandra, you know."

"Dammit, I’m getting very annoyed at precogs and their love for secrets," Jo muttered as she slammed about various pots. "No wonder Cassandra’s been supporting Yohji; she probably knew something like this would happen years ago."

"In Cassandra’s defense, most likely she did because she knew Yohji was a bound," Marta pointed out, a hint of steel in her tone. "Not so much that she saw everything that would happen, just that he would discover his true nature and so wouldn’t be able to always remain at the Koneko."

Remembering that Marta and Cassandra were good friends, Emmie looked back and forth between her and Jo, anxious that they’d start a fight. Fortunately, Jo let out a slow breath and shook her head. "I know Cassandra hates to reveal too much of the future, it’s just…." She waved her right hand in a dismissive gesture. "What matters is that Yohji’s made up his mind, and as much as I wish it were otherwise, there are lots of reasons to give him our support. I felt all of you deserved to know the truth, as well as prepare you for the fact that he and Aya will be picking up even less shifts than normal." She wiped her hands on her apron and looked at all of them in turn. "If we need to, I’ll hire more help… if we don’t find someone to be full staff."

"Yohji always said the Koneko seems to draw people to it when it’s in need," Omi remarked as he helped himself to a cinnamon roll. "And I’ll gladly pick up an extra shift or two if it means that he and Aya can get some rest."

"So will I," Emmie was quick to reply, as did Ani and Maddox. Even Teddy nodded in agreement, which surprised Emmie.

"Right now we have enough staff and things are a bit quiet. Come spring, though," Jo pointed with a frown, "we’ll need some more help. Considering the fact that I didn’t expect to take on six new workers in the last few months, I’m not too worried!"

Mickey chuckled and moved from Kira and Teddy so he could help Jo clear the empty plates. "I’m not worried, either. Somehow, we always manage to make it through whatever the Fates toss our way." He paused to give Emmie’s shoulder a squeeze, as if he was aware just how upset and confused she felt at the moment. "Things will be fine."

Emmie stared into half-empty mug of hot chocolate and wondered if that was true. She’d found a new family, and now there was talk of people leaving. Not just people, but *Yohji*. What would the Koneko be like without him? He was almost always smiling or laughing about something, had so many friends who wanted to talk to him or share a drink that it would be so much colder with him gone. Yet everyone just seemed to accept the situation.

She looked up from her mug to find Neely staring in her direction, a sympathetic smile on her friend’s face. For some reason, that made her feel better, made the pain ease a little. Then, Emmie could focus on Jo and Mickey saying that Yohji would be around for a couple more years yet and that he’d always have a home here. That meant she didn’t have to lose him right away, and maybe she’d be able to think up something that would keep him from leaving. If Yohji could just sign over the Koneko, didn’t that mean that Mickey could give it back one day? Things didn’t have to be so permanent.

Maddox wrapped his left arm around her shoulders and hugged her close. She accepted the comfort and sympathy, though it didn’t warm her like when Yohji gave her a hug.

*******

Kikyou nodded to the stocky, brown-haired woman who appeared to be on door duty at the Koneko. "I’d like to see Aya, please," he said, mindful to keep his tone polite and even managing a shallow bow.

She pursed her lips together as if unhappy about something then nodded. "I’ll be right back." She vanished into the common room for a minute, to reappear with Declan’s sister Anna following behind her. "Wait here while I tell Aya that he has a visitor," the unfamiliar woman informed him with a stern look before she went upstairs.

Anna fidgeted behind the wooden stand and gave Kikyou a shaky smile. "Good day, Captain."

"Good day, Anna," he replied with a more successful smile of his own. "Are you still enjoying the work here?" he asked, at a loss of what else to say.

She nodded and her smile grew more certain. "Oh yes, Captain. I swear I see Declan more often now than I have in years!" she laughed. "And business has been so good that my husband and I have hope of buying our own apartment, soon."

"That sounds wonderful," Kikyou replied, even though he couldn’t help but think that for the Koneko to be so busy that Aya was working too hard. Why did the stubborn fool insist on living here?

Before he was forced to make any more small talk, Aya descended the stairs, his expression carefully blank. He was dressed in something colorful for once; a light violet shirt with a padded, pale grey jerkin over it. The jerkin’s hood was pulled up, although not far enough that Kikyou couldn’t see Aya’s face.

"Good afternoon, Aya," he wished the redhead, his right hand automatically smoothing down the front of his red coat as he bowed deeply.

"… Good afternoon, Kikyou," was Aya’s quiet reply. He paused for a moment at the bottom of the stairs then motioned down the hallway. "The library should be free right now." His deep voice was as emotionless as his expression, which wasn’t entirely heartwarming. Then again, Kikyou wasn’t being glared at, which was an improvement from a few months ago.

"That sounds perfect," he replied as he fell in step beside Aya. "If you don’t mind me asking, what makes you think that I want to talk for more than a minute or two?"

Aya grunted softly as he opened the library’s door and peered inside. "Because I hear that you’ve been very busy at the palace lately, and assume that if you didn’t have the time, that you’d have just sent a letter instead." He motioned for Kikyou to enter the room and closed the door behind them. During the entire time, he made sure to not get too close to Kikyou, and leaned against the edge of a bookcase rather than sit or stand near Kikyou. "What do you want?" Aya asked, his voice betraying emotion for the first time; annoyance.

One step forward, two steps back, Kikyou thought with some chagrin. While he continued to allow Aya some space, he was getting tired of the constant distance between them. If he wasn’t certain that forcing himself on the redhead again would have a disastrous result, he’d be more forward in showing his unwavering attraction. However, considering that his impulsive acts in the past were partially responsible for Aya keeping him at arm’s length, he was resolved not to attempt such a thing again.

"We haven’t seen each other for a couple of weeks," Kikyou reminded the wayward lord, removing his gloves so he could reveal the ring he wore on his right ring finger. The one that bore his family crest, which he only ever wore when he met with Aya as a subtle reminder.

"Yes, because of the conferences between the Guard and the Army," Aya commented, his arms folded over his chest and his head tilted downward so it was difficult for Kikyou to see much of his face.

Kikyou waited a few seconds to see if Aya would ask him about those talks and almost sighed in exasperation. If only Aya would show more interest in his true birthright; nevertheless, Kikyou would keep doing his best to get the stubborn man to accept his proper station in life.

"I’m afraid that the talks haven’t been as successful as the Queen would like and so will continue for the foreseeable future; however, I’ll have some free time tomorrow." He rose from the couch to go stand in front of Aya, carefully separated by a couple of feet. "I would like to take you out to lunch. I believe that you’ve always enjoyed yourself at Isabella’s," he said, deliberately mentioning the restaurant which Aya seemed to really like. The small establishment had a lovely hothouse that grew exquisite orchids, and allowed its patrons to enjoy the flowers during their visit. That the restaurant was favored by older highborns who would have known Ranmura and Arashi Fujimiya was a welcome bonus.

Aya appeared to be undecided for several seconds, and before Kikyou was forced to remind him that he really had no choice in the matter, nodded. "What time will we be leaving?" he asked, a tired note to his voice and his shoulders slightly hunched forward.

"I’ll pick you up at eleven, if that’s all right." Kikyou firmly suppressed the urge to gather Aya in his arms and hold him close. One day he’ll have gotten through the man’s defenses and be able to do that, unfortunately it wasn’t possible today. He would just have to keep proving himself as trustworthy and undo the damage he did last summer.

"Yes." Aya straightened his back against the wall and looked directly at Kikyou for the first time in several minutes. "As long as I’m back by early evening to help in the kitchen."

There would come a day when Aya would need him, and he was already seeing results from his subtle campaign. An elderly gardener from the Fujimiya castle had tried to request copies of the death certificates of Ranmura Fujimiya and his family a couple of months ago, and Kikyou had heard talk about perverse doings at the Timbergrey Castle. Wild rumors were being spread around about what Reiji and his sons had done over the years, and the lovely young men and women they’d held captive for various experiments and… other reasons. Sooner or later, people would begin to wonder if the Fujimiya family had really died, or if it Reiji had done something so he could keep the highborns captive in secret.

Until then, it was a waiting game, and Kikyou could only see Aya every week or so. Resolving to make tomorrow’s date a lovely affair, he decided to spare Aya any more discomfort today and bowed again. "Unfortunately, I only have a couple of hours to spend with you tomorrow. Even now, I have to return to the palace for another meeting, but I’ve enjoyed this chance to talk to you. Until tomorrow, Aya."

Aya only nodded in response and didn’t see Kikyou to the front door. Reminding himself that he’d have Aya all to himself for a couple of hours tomorrow, Kikyou closed the library door and headed for the Koneko’s front entrance, where he was given a cold look from the new employee. He easily ignored her obvious dislike for his person, not bothering to care what some lowborn woman thought about him. He was the Captain of the Guard, and eventually he’d be tied to the Fujimiya family. Even the approaching war that had the Queen forcing the Guard and the Army to cooperate together for would be to his benefit. Most of the Army’s officers were highborns, and there would be casualties during a war. That would make it easier for Aya to be accepted back at Court, as a younger, less prejudiced generation would soon be in charge.

All Kikyou had to do was wait. Considering all the years he’d put into the Guard as he worked his way up to Captain, and the plans he’d made to deal with his sister’s murderers, a couple of years wasn’t long at all.

*******

 

Yohji watched as Aya left the attic library, doing his best to not go downstairs and throttle a certain Captain of the Guard. Actually, that would be too easy on the bastard. What he really wanted to do was rip out Kikyou’s heart through his stomach.

"What’s going on, Yohji?" Nagi asked, a distinctly unhappy look on his face as he sorted through the books that he and Aya had been returning to the shelves. "Why is Aya having anything to do with that…."

"’Asshole’? ‘Bastard’? ‘Piece of demon shit’?" Yohji offered. "Come now, don’t hold back." He moved away from Aya’s precious books and kicked the wall with enough force to put a small hole in the plaster. "Fuck."

"I’ll repeat myself," Nagi said, his voice growing cold as he used his power to mostly repair the damage Yohji had done to the wall. "Why is Aya talking to that man?"

Oh, wasn’t that just lovely, Yohji thought as he tugged on a handful of his hair in frustration. Aya hadn’t mentioned being blackmailed into spending time with Kikyou to his little friend. Attempting to get his emotions under control, he took a deep breath and counted to ten. "Ask Aya," he said once he had calmed a little, and held up his right hand when Nagi instantly glared at his answer. "No, don’t give me any shit over this, Nagi. It’s Aya’s place to tell you. Let me just say that neither of us are happy about the situation." That was one hell of an understatement, and Yohji really wished that he could sic Schu or Eri on Kikyou. They should be able to find out if the bastard had told anyone else… but Aya wasn’t willing to risk the truth about his parents being revealed.

"Then let me ask this. Should I go downstairs and throw Kikyou through the nearest window? I won’t even use my talent." Nagi stood there with his arms folded over his chest, a look on his face that would have done Jei proud. For the first time since the little demon had come back, Yohji was struck by how much Nagi had grown over the last few months. Not only an inch or two in height; his entire demeanor had a maturity to it that had been lacking last summer. While Aya had worried about his friend, it was obvious that Nagi standing on his own had done him a world of good.

Very tempted to take him up on the offer, Yohji eventually shook his head and let out another deep breath. "As much as I’d love to say ‘yes’, it’s best that you don’t." As far as he could tell, Kikyou wasn’t doing anything to truly upset Aya, other than breathing. "Not unless you want to seriously piss off Aya."

Nagi shrugged and turned away to face the eastern wall, which was entirely covered by bookshelves. "I’ll wait until I talk to him before I do anything," he replied as he used his power to place the books back on the shelves.

That would be an interesting conversation that Yohji would do his best to not be there to hear. Shaking his head again, Yohji went to the small fireplace to toss a couple more logs onto the fire. Why had the bastard shown up today? Things had been so nice for the past month or so, with Kikyou too busy playing at politics to drag Aya off for a few hours. Yohji was willing to bet that he’d be without his mate for at least part of the day tomorrow, and that didn’t make him very happy. Just when they were working so hard to not be away from each other so much, this had to happen. He growled out loud while he replaced the screen over the fireplace.

Nagi gave him a cautious look over the growl but didn’t say anything, just continued re-shelving books. Glancing around the library, Yohji suddenly found the room too confining. He doubted Aya would be in any mood to come back here after the bastard was gone, and since Ed had left a couple of books and a huge stack of paper out on the table, he counted on the kid showing up in another hour or two to resume copying. He didn’t really want to be up here when that happened, since he’d probably pick a fight with the poor kid if Ed mentioned his asshole mate. Funny how a ‘simple’ visit could ruin what had been a pretty good day.

"I’m gonna head to my bedroom, and more than likely Aya will too," he informed Nagi, doing his best not to take his anger out on the earth elemental. While he wouldn’t go so far as to call Nagi a ‘friend’, they’d managed to interact with each other for the last few days without too many fights.

"Tell him I’ll finish this before I help Omi," Nagi said after a moment’s hesitation. His eyebrows drew together in a ferocious scowl. "Don’t be a possessive, gluttonous idiot, Kudoh."

"Oh for crying out loud," Yohji grumbled the same time he rolled his eyes. Would Aya really be upset with him if he strangled the brat for just a minute or two? Knowing the answer to that all too well, Yohji made do with baring his teeth at Nagi. "Don’t lecture me when you and Omi spend all of his free time together in his bedroom!" He smiled in victory when a brilliant flush appeared on Nagi’s cheeks.

"That’s not the same, Kudoh! Besides, I don’t drain him during-" Nagi pressed his lips closed, his dark brown eyes alight with fury.

Knowing that it would be best to get out of the room before a shelf of books launched itself at his head, Yohji merely bowed and continued to smirk. "And neither do I, not anymore. You weren’t the only one to learn how to control his talent better these last few months." Aya would be so proud of him; he didn’t make a single comment about how Nagi kept Omi up all night. That could wait until another time, when he had witnesses around to hopefully keep Nagi from attempting to kill him.

Leaving the library, he went down the staff stairs to reach his and Aya’s bedroom. Mindful of his mate’s emotions, he lit several lavender candles and built up the fire so the room would be nice and warm. He debated going to the kitchen for a pot of tea or fetching a few bottles of wine, then felt a wave of relief tempered by annoyance and anger. Huh, seemed like the bastard had left relatively quick for once. Yohji wasn’t sure if that was a good sign or not, and figured that Aya would tell him in another minute.

In the last month or so, they’d gotten very good at tracking each other down. All Yohji had to do was concentrate and he knew where Aya was, even on the days his mate wasn’t buried beneath a pile of books in the attic library. Laughing at that thought, he sat on the bed and waited for Aya to appear.

The wait wasn’t long; barely a minute later, Aya opened the door and stalked into the room, a silver cast to his lovely eyes. He looked around and upon spotting Yohji, immediately headed for the bed. Placing his knees on either side of Yohji’s thighs, Aya sat down and pressed his face against the crook of Yohji’s neck.

"What is it this time, Cat?" Yohji asked in a soft tone, his arms slowly wrapping around his lover’s tense back.

"Lunch at Isabella’s," Aya replied after taking several deep breaths. He leaned back far enough so he could look at Yohji. "Just for a couple of hours."

Aya dining at Isabella’s was better than spending the day looking at gardens or some other nonsense, Yohji supposed, yet he was still worried. Kikyou wouldn’t insist on these outing for the sheer hell of it, and clearly had something in mind. For a moment he wanted to ask Schuldig to scan the bastard’s thoughts, then remembered his promise to Aya. No tinkering with Kikyou’s mind, not when they weren’t sure that the bastard didn’t have any spells or such and might be alerted to what was happening. No, Yohji had to accept that the bastard was out of reach right now… but not forever. As soon as he mastered his latest talent enough to feel certain about its control over humans, he was going to have a nice ‘chat’ with Kikyou. Now to suffer for the next few months or so.

"At least you’ll have a good meal, even if you’re dining with an asshole," Yohji commented as his hands stroked through his lover’s hair. The caresses seemed to soothe Aya, whose eyes finally returned to their normal violet shade. "Order the most expensive thing on the menu, okay?" he teased, doing his best to control his own anger and annoyance.

"I’ll see what I can do." Aya actually smiled, even if the expression was barely more than a slight upturn of the corner of his lips. Yohji had spent the last several months studying his mate with an intensity he’d never spared for anything else, and knew an Aya smile when he saw one.

"Good." He leaned forward to brush his lips against Aya’s forehead. "Ah, the little demon said he’d put away all of the books." Since talking about Kikyou would only lead to frustration on both their parts and a possible fight, Yohji changed the topic. "That means we don’t have to do anything for the next few hours." They’d promised Birman that they’d check out some highborn who seemed much too adept at gambling lately, and was using debts owed to her by other highborns to extort unsavory favors. If Aya sensed any luck spells, Eri and Naru would have a nice ‘chat’ with the lady. As jobs went, it wasn’t too bad… it just meant that Aya would be expending a fair bit of energy without a chance to feed from any targets.

Aya began to purr, the sound so soft at first that Yohji barely noticed it. "What shall we do?" The purr strengthened as he spoke, his eyes becoming heavy-lidded with desire. He leaned forward until his lips almost brushed against Yohji’s.

Yohji had mostly gotten used to how Aya’s moods could change so suddenly, with no warning whatsoever. It was just the two of them, in their room, on their bed, and he hadn’t ‘snacked’ yet today…. Also, there was a strong need to reassure each other, to replace Kikyou’s faint scent with Yohji’s and reaffirm their bond.

"If you say take a nap or read a book, I will bite you," Yohji joked and snapped his teeth. "Maybe even throw you out the window onto your precious rose bushes." His hands slid down Aya’s back to cup his mate’s ass.

The familiar threat made Aya’s smile return, this time much stronger than before. "If you do that, I’ll let Jo deal with you," Aya warned, the link between them thrumming with his amusement and love.

"Great, like I’ll survive that," Yohji groaned, so happy to be able to tease his lover like this. Before, any hint of physical violence would have upset Aya, who had finally healed enough to accept the threats for the joking lies that they were. Yohji would never do anything to hurt his mate, emotionally or physically, and Aya trusted him.

Nuzzling the left side of Yohji’s mouth, Aya threaded his fingers through Yohji’s hair. "I think that’s the point."

"Such a mean, mean cat," Yohji murmured, turning his head to capture his mate’s teasing lips. No more jokes, not when his hunger had stirred to life with a vengeance. He had learned to control it, but there was no way he wouldn’t want Aya when his sexy mate was straddling his lap and touching him.

No, he had to kiss Aya, to taste him as much as possible. He had to savor the way his lover tasted of tea and something sweet, the way Aya always moaned when he thrust his tongue in deep, the way sunlight began to pour into him at an increasing rate. There was so much warmth and love and need; a sharp, burning passion that always matched his own.

There was pleasure as well, intensifying with each touch, each kiss. A purr rumbled in Yohji’s chest as the kiss continued, his and Aya’s tongues darting back and forth, rubbing together as they stroked over teeth and lips. So little, yet it heightened the emotion as well as the need they both felt. Yohji had his hunger while there was something inside of Aya that always craved the affirmation that came when they gave themselves to each other.

Aya growled softly and pushed Yohji backward until they both fell onto the bed. His actions were unusually aggressive, which made Yohji shiver in delight and tilt up his chin. Most of the time, it was him who took the lead during sex, but he was always willing to allow Aya his turn. As much as he adored watching his mate bare his throat like this, there was such a thrill to do the same, to give himself to the man he loved. Before last spring, it had always been about whatever ended up with him getting pleasure and relief from the hunger he’d barely been aware of; it was so much more with Aya. Now it was about sharing and being equals, about trust and love. Whatever Aya wanted, Yohji was only too willing to give.

"Are you going to fuck me, Cat?" he asked when Aya’s nimble fingers quickly undid the laces of his quilted tunic. "Is it my turn to scream?"

"You don’t need to do that, Yotan," Aya replied as he nuzzled Yohji’s now exposed collarbones, his voice deepened by desire. "I can feel it." He shifted back enough so he could tug the tunic over Yohji’s head, who eagerly lifted up enough to help get rid of the garment. Then Aya shed his jerkin and shirt so easily that Yohji realized his lover had used the shadows to undo all the laces. Such a clever cat.

"Well, maybe I’ll scream anyway," Yohji chuckled as he worked the laces of Aya’s pants while Aya twisted around to remove their boots. "I like screaming."

Aya chuckled as well, the rare sound almost as pleasurable to Yohji as the feel of Aya’s hands stroking along his chest. "You just like making a lot of noise. I can never shut you up." As if to prove himself wrong, he leaned forward to kiss Yohji, his back slightly arched so there was enough space between their lower bodies that they could work on removing their pants.

This kiss was a bit rougher than the previous one, a bit more urgent. Yohji ached to thrust his fingers through his mate’s hair and tug on the strands, to use them to pull Aya closer but didn’t want to ruin the moment. So he settled for grabbing Aya by the shoulders, his nails biting slightly into pale flesh. The thought that it was his turn to do a bit of scratching made him laugh and break off the kiss.

One of the many wonderful things about their bond was knowing when another’s amusement wasn’t at their expense. When many a lover might have taken offense at the sudden laughter, Aya merely smiled and used it as an opportunity to remove his pants, quickly moving to lean over Yohji again once he was naked. Quiet as always save for the pleased purr, he began to place kisses across Yohji’s collarbones, going from right to left. Then he moved downward, taking a moment to suck on Yohji’s left nipple while he slowly tugged off Yohji’s pants.

His fingers once more digging into Aya’s shoulders, Yohji did his best to remember to breathe and not do anything he’d regret while a hot mouth and cool, inhuman fingers teased him. He wiggled a little to help Aya get rid of the damn pants, provoking a moan from his mate, and the feel of shadows stroking up and down his legs made him cry out in pleasure. The sensation was incredible, was too much for him to focus on so he surrendered to Aya’s ministrations, his eyes closed and his head tossed back. The shadows were but an extension of his mate, were Aya’s way of making him feel good.

And sweet gods, did Aya do an utterly amazing job of making him feel good. For someone who’d been a virgin until last spring, Aya had learned a lot from Yohji and delighted in putting that knowledge to use. His teeth scraped lightly over Yohji’s right nipple the same time as his calloused hand gently grasped Yohji’s cock. For a few torturous seconds, there was the almost painful friction of dry skin moving along his sensitive flesh, then Aya’s hand moved away for a brief moment. When it returned, it was slick enough that the pain vanished yet some of the friction remained.

"Gods, Aya… please don’t tease me." He was a bit of a hypocrite to ask for that when he adored driving his lover mad with anticipation and ecstasy, but he wasn’t sure how long he could last like this. Aya was using more shadows than he had recently; the cool tendrils seemed to be everywhere on Yohji’s body, which made the shocking contrast of Aya’s fingers and mouth burn along his skin. Aya’s hands stroked along his sides, moving toward his hips while Aya continued to suck on and nip at his nipples, alternating between them.

He could feel Aya’s cock press against his inner right thigh, its heat and smoothness another sensation to savor. While he wanted to see Aya’s face and the passion he’d inspired, Yohji couldn’t open his eyes, not when Aya resumed trailing kisses downward. He didn’t think he’d get a blowjob today, so he did his best to remain still so Aya didn’t assume that he was being encouraged to do just that. All Yohji did was continue to moan and call out his lover’s name, to pour his emotions over their link.

Aya’s mouth stopped just below his navel, pressing against his skin for a few seconds before Aya shifted upward. "Sorry," Aya whispered against his dry lips, strands of hair brushing against Yohji’s sweaty face and the shadow touches disappearing.

That gave Yohji the strength to open his eyes. "Don’t you dare be sorry for that, Cat," he replied, his voice as faint as Aya’s yet utterly sincere. "Whatever you give me is more than enough. And right now? I’d really love to feel your cock in my ass." He managed a smile as his right hand slipped along the curve of Aya’s spine, around his lover’s bony hip to grasp that wonderfully hot, smooth hardness. "Wanna hear me beg, hmmm?" He’d do it, too.

Shaking his head, Aya nudged his way between Yohji’s legs, his pleasure spiking when Yohji slowly stroked the tip of his cock. "You never need to do that," was Aya’s hushed reply, his eyes staring intently at Yohji as he held up the jar of lubricant.

"Sometimes begging’s fun, Cat; we’ll try it another time, though," Yohji said, amused and aroused and so damn hungry. Foreplay was well and good, but he was eager for something a bit ‘meatier’. The terrible pun made him laugh again as his hands reached for Aya’s sexy ass. "Gods, I want you."

"Hmmm." Aya coated his fingers with the lube and put the jar aside. He leaned in for another kiss as those fingers gently circled around Yohji’s opening, their touch just firm enough to keep it from being tormenting. Since it had been a couple of weeks since he’d bottomed, Yohji focused on that kiss, on squeezing firm flesh and drinking in that sunlight instead of asking Aya to speed things up. There was no way in any hell that Aya would go too fast and hurt him, so he had to be patient. That wasn’t too hard to do, not with the way Aya nibbled on his bottom lip and resumed pumping his cock, squeezing it gently when those fingers slowly pushed inside.

Yohji choked out his mate’s name at that moment, his head falling back against the mattress. Aya’s mouth immediately settled on his neck, barely sucking at first as teeth scraped over his skin. Then Aya bit down in earnest, not enough to make Yohji bleed, just enough to make him yell in pleasure and swear he was going to come. The fact that Aya’s fingers moved inside of him at the same time only added to the ecstasy, though they were only stretching him.

"Gods, Aya," he stuttered when he felt Aya’s rough tongue lap over the mark on his neck. "What did I say about teasing?"

Amusement so strong it almost tickled filled him; Aya pulled out his fingers and urged Yohji to roll onto his left side. "Patience, Yotan." The amusement faded and Yohji could feel Aya’s love, pleasure and need.

"I never was very good at that," Yohji grumbled as he rolled onto his side. The feel of Aya pressing against his back, his mate’s right hand sliding along his waist and wrapping around his cock again made him smile in anticipation.

Aya wasn’t usually up for much small talk during sex so it came as no surprise when he didn’t answer. All he did was brush aside the hair clinging to the back of Yohji’s neck and slowly enter Yohji’s body.

Letting out his breath in a slow hiss, Yohji reached back to grab Aya’s ass again, gritting his teeth as he fought to not force his lover to move even faster. It felt so damn good, that almost pain of being stretched, the way it made his nerves tingle and blood race. Sunlight poured into him, so hot and potent that that he felt as if fire filled his veins instead of blood.

When Aya had pushed inside as far as he could go, he paused for a moment and panted against the back of Yohji’s neck. However, his hand didn’t stop stroking Yohji’s cock and the sunlight only burned stronger, such a wonderful mix of love and desire that Yohji felt almost drunk.

Yohji struggled to breathe, all too aware that it would only become even more difficult when Aya moved again. As he felt his lover pull back and push inside again, the ecstasy grew even sharper, the sunlight even hotter. It wasn’t just the pleasure, it was so many things that made him wish time would stop just then: the feel of Aya pressed against him and hugging him close, the intimacy of the act, the way they both craved to give themselves to each other. All those things hadn’t mattered before he’d met Aya, and now they were an integral part to sex, much like the sunlight.

Then Aya thrust just *so*, sending sparks of ecstasy burning along Yohji’s nerves, and it once again became all about sensation and hunger. The feel of Aya moving inside him, the steady thrusts slowly increasing in speed and force, was so pleasurable that Yohji prayed his lover would never stop. There was wonderful motion and friction and heat, both inside of him and around his cock, and the feel of Aya’s mouth on the back of his neck made his overloaded nerves tingle even more.

"Fuck… Cat…," Yohji stuttered, desperately forcing air past his dry lips. He felt as if he was floating, adrift on a warm sea that enveloped his entire body. The ecstasy was already so severe that he barely could breathe, yet it grew more potent with each thrust, each slide of skin and nails and hair against his body, each heartbeat, each pulse of searing sunlight. Altogether it was almost crushing in its intensity, so savage that it left Yohji almost mindless. All he could do was continue to push back against Aya, his body clenching around the hardness that filled him so thoroughly and sweetly.

Sunlight surged into him with enough force that he felt almost battered by the searing energy, his overloaded nerves unable to handle that much ecstasy. He tried to cry out Aya’s name as he came, his body too deprived of air to do more than gasp as he felt immolated with pleasure.

Throughout it all, he still felt Aya; his mate’s arm wrapped tightly around him, the love that continued to pour into him as the ecstasy and desire faded. As great as it felt to come, Yohji was addicted to the quiet moments afterward, when he felt as warmed by Aya’s love as he had the burning sunlight.

Rubbing his right hand over his face, he couldn’t help but laugh. "And everyone wonders why I’m always molesting the hell out of you."

"Mmmm?" Aya nuzzled Yohji’s neck, seeming perfectly content to remain curled up around him. "You’d think they’d notice that I never complain about said ‘molestations’." He sounded so pleased and happy; the lips pressed against Yohji’s nape were curved upward and the emotions that filled him were almost exuberant.

"What can I say; our friends are idiots." Yohji chuckled when he thought about how well Jo and Nagi would take hearing that comment. He hugged Aya’s arm closer against his chest, delighted that for once Aya wasn’t rushing away to wash off. Any sign of his mate healing was positive, and it was extra nice when Yohji got some snuggle time out of it as well.

Aya nuzzled him again and let out a weary sigh as his cock slipped from Yohji’s body. "All in all, I think it would be best to not go downstairs until after I take a nap." He was slightly drained from the sex, but not enough that it should affect him tonight. Yohji fretted for a moment before he decided that some rest and a nice, big meal would revitalize his lover.

Grabbing the nearest garment, Yohji used it to wipe Aya’s right hand and himself clean, then turned so he could face his mate. He tenderly brushed aside the bangs clinging to Aya’s sweaty forehead. "Get some rest, love." He kissed the tip of Aya’s nose, smiling when Aya grimaced as a result. "Jo said something about spice cakes earlier today." That got him a smile, and he was thankful that his dear friend had taken to baking extra sweets whenever he and Aya had a mission.

Aya mumbled something, the words slurred together and too faint for Yohji’s sharp hearing to make sense of them. All that mattered was that the smile remained on Aya’s lips as he fell asleep, held close to Yohji.

Figuring that his fastidious cat would probably want a good wash and soak before dinner, Yohji reluctantly released his hold on Aya so he could fumble around for the alarm. His hand had barely moved from Aya’s hip when the clock tumbled onto the bed, pushed by shadows. Smiling at how helpful the buggers could be – at least when it concerned Aya – he set the clock and put it aside. Most likely they’d be out late tonight, so he’d get some sleep as well. Even if it was supposed to be a pretty easy mission, he wanted his wits to be as sharp as possible. He’d never forgive himself if something happened to his lover because he’d been a bit too tired.

That and it just felt so good, lying next to a sleeping, faintly purring Aya. Something soft and warm settled over the both of them, and Yohji opened his eyes long enough to ascertain that it was the blanket they normally kept folded at the end of the bed. Helpful buggers indeed. As he drifted off to sleep, he thought he heard a faint hissing sound.

*******

Trowa had just added more herbs to the stew when he heard the front door open and close. "Take off your shoes," he called out after several loud stomps of hardened leather against wood.

The stomping stopped, followed by a muttered curse and two ‘thuds’ a minute later. When Duo entered the kitchen, he had a rueful grin on his face. "I’ll remember about that eventually," he remarked, no sign of the temper he had upon entering the apartment.

"Hmmm." Trowa sipped the stew’s broth and decided it needed just a little more parsley. He chopped up a few more sprigs and added them to the large pot, wiping his hands on the white apron he wore over a dark blue tunic. "Dinner will be ready in five minutes," he remarked as he gave the stew another stir. Birman had allowed him to leave work early because of a scheduled meeting with the king, and he’d been happy to have the opportunity to shop and make dinner.

"It smells delicious, Trowa," Duo said and fumbled with the buttons of his light blue coat. The ‘uniform’ was similar to what the Guard wore, though the pale color made it very easy to distinguish cadets from their betters. Unfortunately, Duo didn’t seem to have much luck with the many tiny buttons of the coat and swore under his breath. "Damn thing should be burned."

"I don’t think it would make a very good impression, you requesting a new uniform in your first week of training," Trowa pointed out, firmly suppressing the urge to smile at how frustrated Duo appeared at the moment. The fire elemental had a very disturbing effect on his emotions; oftentimes, Trowa found himself wanting to smile or laugh or frown.

Duo made a rude noise and succeeded in removing the coat to reveal the form fitting white shirt he wore beneath it. "Not unless I damage it while learning self-defense or swordplay," he muttered. "Doubt I could pass off burning it to ash as an ironing incident." He held the coat up to face level and grimaced in disgust. "What is it about humans and their need for fancy uniforms?"

Thinking on how the Elders dressed their guards, human and bound, Trowa decided it would be a good time to try another spoonful of the stew. While he didn’t have much to do with humans unless such interaction was called for on a mission, he wasn’t as prejudiced against them as Duo. After all, bounds were part human so the two races were often prone to the same foibles.

Duo set his coat on the back of a chair that he then fell onto, his elbows on the table and his chin held propped up by his hands. Trowa felt a rush of warmth when he looked at his roommate, at the way some of Duo’s chestnut hair escaped from his braid and framed his sharply angled face and large, bluish-purple eyes. The urge to smile returned, which confused Trowa even more; he looked away and stared into the pot of stew.

"Anyway, you wouldn’t believe the day I’ve had," Duo continued, rising from the chair to go to the cupboard that held their dishes. He removed two bowls and two plates, which he set on the table perpendicular to each other, instead of placing them on opposite ends of the table. Then he went to the cupboard nearest Trowa to fetch glasses, his left shoulder brushing against Trowa’s right arm.

Almost dropping the spoon into the large pot at the touch, Trowa fought to control his breathing and expression. He had to get used to that; they lived together and even shared the same bed, so it was normal that there would be occasional physical contact. What disturbed him, though, weren’t the unwanted touches but the emotions they provoked. For as long as he could remember, he felt disgust and dislike whenever someone touched him, even Jei and Crawford. Yet contact with Duo made him shiver as warmth flared throughout his body, his limbs growing heavy and a disturbing ache building in his groin.

Focusing on the stew, Trowa decided it was finished and grabbed the thick towels he used to prevent his hands from being burned. However, he’d barely touched the fabric when Duo gently nudged him away from the stove. "I’ve got that. Just put a towel on the table, okay?" The fire elemental easily picked the pot up by its very hot metal handles.

Trowa did as he’d been told. "I can do that," he protested in a quiet voice, and was surprised to see that Duo had finished setting the table, going so far as pouring them both glasses of wine.

Duo wrinkled his nose and put the pot on the table. "Yeah, well, you were the one who made dinner, didn’t seem fair to have you do anything more than that." He motioned for Trowa to sit down. "This really does smell delicious. I think I’m about to drool!" He laughed, the sound so lively and bright.

What type of person was able to laugh like that after being rendered a slave and dealing with all the loss that Duo had, Trowa couldn’t help but wonder. There were times when he didn’t understand his partner, and this was one of them. No one should be that cheerful, especially when assigned an unwanted mission that put his life in danger.

Appearing unbothered with the fact that Trowa rarely answered him, Duo used the spoon to fill both their bowls full of stew while Trowa reached for and buttered two slices of bread. Duo smiled when one of the slices was placed on his plate. "Thanks."

"You’re welcome," Trowa murmured. While Duo didn’t often cook any meals and usually forgot to remove his boots, he was a bearable roommate and always made it clear that he appreciated Trowa’s efforts. "There should be enough stew left over for dinner tomorrow," he added, feeling compelled to talk.

"And stew always tastes better the next day," Duo commented with a pleased grin. "I’ll be looking forward to it all day long while some human bitch screams at me that I’m holding my sword the wrong way." He rolled his eyes and dipped a piece of bread into the stew’s sauce.

"It’s her duty to properly train you," Trowa pointed out, uncomfortable about the way Duo talked about his trainers.

"Yeah, but she needs to know that yelling at people isn’t the best way to go about that." Duo paused to enjoy a bite of stew and moaned in appreciation. "The worst part is she’s not anywhere near as bad as Finnegan, who I swear gets off on making us do push-ups. I think he likes staring at our asses when we’re on the ground." Duo leered for a few seconds – then seemed to notice who he was talking to. He suddenly cleared his throat. "Ah, yeah, it’s such a pain to have to take orders from humans all day long. Don’t know how you manage to be so calm about it, Trowa," he finished in a much more subdued tone of voice.

Because he was dealing with a human woman who seemed to always keep in mind his need for personal space and hadn’t yelled at him yet, Trowa thought as he pushed a piece of beef around in his bowl. He found himself enjoying working for Birman; she usually kept him by her side as she walked around the palace, both of them dressed as pages to the king. She would quietly whisper to him about the various people they passed and talked to, expanding the knowledge he’d gained from Reiichi in the last few days. Birman had confided that she felt Trowa would be ready to assume more duties in another week or two, once it was clear he had the layout of the city and palace perfected in his memory and had a basic knowledge of the more important highborns and officials.

"It’s my job, Duo. Fortunately, it doesn’t seem to require the degree of training that yours does," he did admit, at least of a physical nature. "May I just point out that currently, the Guards are doing their best to weed out any unsuitable recruits."

"I know that," Duo replied with a longsuffering sigh. "It would be damn amusing to watch if I wasn’t one of those recruits, too." He shoved the last bite of bread into his mouth and reached for another slice. "I’m willing to bet we’ll be down a person or two by the end of the week."

"I’m sure, too." Trowa sipped his wine and reminded himself to pick up some more bottles tomorrow on his way home. "I believe that Yohji told me that it’s not unusual to lose a third of the cadets during training."

Duo’s smile faded and he poured both of them more wine. "Yohji, eh? I didn’t know that you’ve been talking to the great Kudoh. I hear an awful lot about him during training. Seems he would have been a candidate for the Captain’s position if he’d stayed in the Guard. Someone was saying that he left to go work at his inn and screw all the customers." The blatant dislike in Duo’s voice was not normal for him, who wore a mask of good humor much the way that Trowa did impassiveness.

Brushing aside the hair that fell onto the left side of his face, Trowa stared in confusion at his partner, that confusion growing when Duo’s anger seemed to disappear as quickly as it came. "He usually stops by the library while Reiichi and I are talking about the Court to spend time with his lover. Since he was mostly stationed at the palace during his years in the Guard, he often contributes to Reiichi’s lessons." Why did he feel the need to explain things to Duo? Why was Duo bothered in the first place?

Why did Duo appear mollified by the explanation? Duo’s smile returned and he grunted softly. "Ah, yeah, I forgot about that," he admitted with a sheepish grin and rubbed the back of his head, causing more hairs to come free from his long braid. "Guess… guess I… well, he has a bit of a reputation," he stuttered, his gaze focused on his bowl of stew.

"Hmm." Trowa paused to enjoy some more wine. He knew that Yohji was a succubae bound, and even though the man was mated to Aya, had witnessed the way that many people were attracted to Yohji to such an extent that they appeared enthralled. Still, Yohji was Aya’s mate, so Trowa never felt uncomfortable around the succubae bound; Yohji made it clear that there was only one person he desired, and it certainly wasn’t Trowa. "My understanding is that the reputation came to an end when he met Aya."

Duo’s smile slipped once again. "Aya Kudoh." He stabbed his spoon at a piece of carrot, breaking it in half. "Is it just me or does that guy give you the creeps?"

"Aya?" Trowa blinked in surprise the same time he called upon his power. Careful manipulation of the flow of blood to the brain could cause a black-out and memory loss without any lasting damage. If Duo seemed to suspect something about Aya, he would employ that talent and call for Schuldig to permanently erase that suspicion. "No, not really."

"Well, not so much creepy as… argh." Duo dropped the spoon into the bowl and reached for his wine. "He’s so damn quiet that he’s snuck up on me twice, and I’ve been told he has a habit of doing that to people. Then he’ll walk away in the middle of a conversation – I saw him do that when Naru was asking him something. He’s pretty damn rude, and I guess the only reason why he’s not punched for his lack of manners is that he’s also very sexy and that his boyfriend will punch back." Once he finished talking, he drained the glass of its wine and reached for the bottle to refill it. "You probably like him because he’s quiet and reads a lot."

"I would like to think that I prefer my friends to possess manners," Trowa remarked as he helped himself to more stew. "I’ve barely talked to the man, other than to ask for his permission to borrow some books and where certain volumes are located." He was still trying to get over his awe of the kage, and had the impression that his presence caused Aya some disquiet. He did have to admit that Aya had a habit of sneaking up on people, as well as being more discourteous than he should. Just last night, Aya and Yohji had argued for several minutes on whether or not Aya possessed any manners, while Reiichi had outright laughed and Trowa had done his best to fade into background.

"Then what are you doing with me, eh?" Duo asked, his smile back in place and his eyes sparkling with humor.

The first response that came to Trowa’s mind was a caustic remark that they weren’t friends but associates; however, he found himself unable to give it voice. "The gods are very strange beings," was what he said instead, while ducking his head over the bowl of stew.

He almost jumped out of his seat when he felt Duo brush aside his bangs and tuck them behind his left ear. "Ah, your hair was about to end up in your dinner," Duo said, his voice quavering with nervousness.

"Thank you." Trowa resisted the urge to both cup his left ear, which tingled from Duo’s touch, and to let his hair fall back onto his face. Duo was a trusted partner and someone he lived with, it didn’t matter if the elemental could see his face. "Perhaps I should braid it like yours."

The emotions that crossed Duo’s face flickered with such variety and speed that Trowa had no hope of deciphering them. "I like it pulled back the way you have it," Duo remarked in an oddly tight voice. "Though it would be nice if you wore your bangs like this more often."

Finding his stew to be of paramount interest, Trowa had several spoonfuls before he felt it safe to speak again. "Other than annoying instructors, how goes your training?" He was proud that his voice sounded normal.

Duo laughed, no longer seeming uncomfortable about something. "I really do hope they weed out a few of the cadets," he commented as he opened another bottle of wine. "Some of them are clearly there in hopes of landing a shiny uniform and a good pension, and can barely make it through the physical training." Setting the open bottle on the table, Duo flexed his right arm. While it was rather generous to describe him being of average build, there was no mistaking the muscle that pressed against the material of the white shirt.

"How are you doing on the non-physical training?" Trowa had to ask, the corners of his mouth twitching slightly.

Duo acted as if he was a bladder which was suddenly deflated of air; his shoulders hunched over and his arms dropped to his sides. "Are you saying I’m stupid?" he asked with a pout on his face.

"Perish the thought," Trowa answered, once more fighting against a smile.

"All right, *Heero*," Duo sniffed, unable to hold onto the injured air for more than a few seconds. Then he laughed and had another bite of stew. "Nah, I’m holding my own in those classes, though all we’ve done for the last two days is memorize a bunch of laws." He tapped his right forefinger against his right temple. "I’ll admit, I may look like an idiot but I’m not. I’ve always had a good memory, too."

Trowa spared a thought for Duo’s usual partner, and hoped that Heero was accepted into the Army soon. From what Crawford had told him, it was a matter of paperwork now, and after a few days spent at the Court, Trowa could well imagine what was taking so long. "You should have no problem being accepted as a Guard," he said, some of his good mood fading. Duo would be a Guard, and Trowa would have to worry about what his roommate would report back to the Elders. Exposing Kritiker secrets would be bad enough, but if the Elders found out about the Shadow Guard, things would turn very bad very quickly. Why Crawford was so certain that it wouldn’t happen, he wasn’t sure; he had a feeling that his friend was hiding a lot of things from him, and knew that it was most likely to prevent his reactions from ruining things. That was *not* a comforting thought.

"Yeah, in a couple of months I can trade up to a better uniform." Duo grimaced in disgust as he wiped his thankfully clean hand over his left pant leg. "Then I get to really work." He let out a slow breath and stared out the kitchen window for a few seconds. "Wonder who I’ll get stuck with for a partner. I just hope I can stomach working with a human for several hours a day."

Trowa wondered if Yuushi would arrange for Duo’s partner to be human or a bound, and thought of reasons why both would be good. "You’ll manage," was all he said, the warmth that had been in his tone the last few minutes utterly gone.

Duo sighed again. "Yeah, not like I have much of a choice in the matter." He shook his head, his right hand lifting to brush aside the hair that clung to his forehead. "It shouldn’t be too bad – whoever gets stuck with me will be pretty lucky, considering some of the other recruits! There’s this one guy from some hicksville town who looks as if he’s gonna take a bite out of the one instructor whenever he gets yelled at for forgetting a law." Chuckling between mouthfuls, Duo finished off all the stew in his bowl.

What would Duo do if he found out that more than likely, that ‘cadet’ really would like to take a bite out of the instructor? That some of the people that he assumed to be humans, weren’t? Trowa found himself wondering along these lines more and more; he knew that Duo hated the Elders and wasn’t happy working for them. What would happen if Trowa revealed the truth? If Crawford hadn’t made him promise to not do that until he’d been given permission, Trowa would be sorely tempted to do so now. Crawford had said that Duo would be on their side eventually, so why did they wait?

"Well, thanks for a delicious dinner, Trowa," Duo said, shaking Trowa from his thoughts. "How about I do the dishes and you put away the food, okay? Then we can leave for the Koneko." He laughed, the sound rueful, and stroked his right hand over his hair. "Here’s hoping we won’t be there all night."

"Yes," Trowa murmured, looking forward to an early night as well. He would talk with Reiichi for a couple of hours while Duo was social with his fellow cadets and Guards. Trowa couldn’t wait until he’d learned most of what he needed to know and didn’t have to be at the inn almost every night. At least he was able to spend the time in the usually quiet library, instead of the crowded, loud main room.

Getting up from the table, Trowa went to fetch a large enough ceramic bowl to hold the leftover stew while Duo began to clear the table. Once the stew was in the dish, he put it in the cold box, smiling slightly at the thought how he could just come home tomorrow and reheat something warm and delicious to eat. Turning from the cold box, he collided with Duo, who had returned to the table to get the last of the dishes.

They instinctively grabbed hold of each other, Trowa’s hands on Duo’s arms and Duo’s hands on his hips. That rush of tingle-inducing, mind-numbing warmth was back, centered wherever their bodies touched. Being slightly taller than Duo, Trowa stared into his roommate’s eyes, his hair falling to brush against Duo’s right cheek. The hands around his hips tightened and pulled him closer at the same time, until he was pressed against Duo.

If anyone other than his closest friends touched him, so much as rested their hand against his body, Trowa would either lash out with his talent or shake off the detested contact, depending on who it was. Even now, part of him insisted that he brush Duo aside – while another part of him purred and urged him to step even closer, to lower his head even more. He’d never felt this way, had never wanted to be this close to another person… yet he found himself unable to move.

The expression on Duo’s face was one of intense surprise, and Trowa was sure that the emotion he showed was the same. They stood there for what seemed to be several minutes, holding on to and staring at each other, even breathing at the same time. That disturbing warmth grew stronger; it burned through his body, pooling in his center while he fought the urge to move his hands from Duo’s arms so he could touch the other bound. Strange thoughts filled his head; how would Duo taste? Where would Duo touch him next? What would happen if he closed his eyes and gave-

Shuddering in shock, Trowa tore his hands from Duo’s arms and stepped away, his gait faltering at the stab of pain he felt when Duo finally let him go. He wrapped his arms around his waist, desperately missing that destructive warmth.

"Trowa! I’m sorry, Trowa, I just… I just went to steady you. Fuck, I’m an asshole, I really am," Duo babbled as he followed Trowa out of the kitchen.

Unnerved by the thought of Duo following him into the bedroom, Trowa forced himself to stop and take a deep breath. "It’s all right, Duo. You didn’t hurt me or anything," he said, and fought the urge to tremble. No, there had been no pain at all, nor disgust, and that was what had Trowa so off-balance. For the first time in his life, he found himself struggling with wanting another person. "I’m going to change before we leave for the Koneko."

Thankfully, Duo stopped trailing after him so he could flee to the privacy of the bedroom. Carefully closing the door behind him, Trowa went to the bed and collapsed onto its soft surface, pressing his face into one of the pillows. He took deep breaths to calm himself, the tactic working until he realized that it was Duo’s pillow, Duo’s *scent* that he inhaled. He attempted to push it away but found himself hugging it closer instead.

Trowa didn’t know what was going on, besieged as he was by unusual emotions and desires. If he did, it would make the situation a bit more bearable, yet he was left lying huddled on the large bed with Duo’s pillow clutched in his arms, torn between the impulse to run away and stay.

*******

Reno hissed when he noticed Rude’s right hand edging toward the hood of his black cloak. "Back off, partner!"

Rude grunted and stopped his attempt to pull the hood further over Reno’s face. Really, the bound didn’t need to worry so much since it was a wonderfully overcast day. Reno let the hood slide back another inch, just to annoy Rude as well as to enjoy the freedom bestowed upon him by a cloudy sky.

Why the hell it couldn’t have been overcast like this when they were riding to the fucking city, he didn’t know, other than the gods liked to make him suffer.

Still, what mattered was the fact that it was a very cloudy day and Rufus was nowhere to be seen. Reno’s lord and master had been invited to have lunch with some distant relative and had chosen to take Tseng and Elena with him. That meant that Reno was free to explore the city a bit, which he hadn’t done since the second night they’d been here. All that ‘adventure’ had consisted of was him being bustled out of the inn to a quiet alley a couple of blocks away, where Tseng had some half-unconscious guy waiting for him. If he hadn’t needed the energy and the shinigami weren’t urging him to eat, he’d have walked away; where was the thrill in that? Half the fun was seeing his prey shit themselves when they realized he wasn’t human and hearing them scream when his power hit them. What had pissed him off the most was the fact that Rufus had been behind the whole thing; arranging for him to have a bite to eat while not allowing him to hunt for himself.

Rufus had always kept him on a short ‘leash’ more or less, always trying to get him to swear more promises so he’d behave. However, since the whole mate thing had happened, his lover was being even more of an asshole than usual. Hell, if Rufus hadn’t blocked their link so he could focus on ‘business’, Reno would still be stuck in suite, bored out of his mind. Since Rufus hadn’t specifically ordered him to stay inside, he’d gone out for something to eat, rather than make Rude fetch it for him. No doubt Rufus would throw one hell of a hissy fit when he found out about this, then force Reno to promise not to leave the rooms without permission, so he was determined to enjoy himself now.

So, in that regard, he scanned the crowd, looking for a few likely targets. One thing to say about Eto; its streets were sufficiently crowded to make picking pockets too easy for words. Between sharp nails and inhuman speed, Reno was able to snag several pouches filled with nice jingling coins that he could spend on whatever he wanted. Some controlling bastard had taken all of his money away, probably in hopes to keep him from going out to buy anything.

"What are you in the mood for today?" he asked his friend, smiling when Rude glanced at his face and winced. "And don’t tell me to pull it back down."

"Then you can explain why you’re redder than usual and drained when *he* gets home," Rude muttered, his gloved hands clenching and unclenching as if he had to fight the urge to yank the hood forward. As if Reno would willingly burn in the sun just to tease Rude.

"Aw, come on, you act as if I’m ugly or something," Reno teased as he bumped into Rude.

"Far be it for me to comment on such a… distinctive visage as yours," Rude replied, a hint of laughter in his deep voice. Reno swore at his friend and tried to whap the back of Rude’s big bald head. Of course the bastard managed to dodge the blow – whoever said that big guys weren’t fast hadn’t met Rude.

"You’re just pissed off that the maid flirted with me and not you," Reno shot back, crowing in victory when Rude frowned. The girl that the inn sent up to clean their rooms was just Rude’s type, and so far she was resisting his significant charms. About to tell his friend to give up on the girl and go to a whorehouse instead, Reno caught the scent of something truly delicious. Without thinking, he disappeared into the crowd in search of its origin.

"Reno! Dammit!" Rude hollered, sounding distinctly upset over something. Reno didn’t pay him any mind, and soon enough found a small booth selling spiced chicken on a stick. He pulled out some coins to pay for several sticks and two pieces of flatbread. By the time Rude caught up to him, he’d wrapped one of the breads around three of the sticks and pulled free the wooden skewers.

"Don’t you dare vanish like that again," Rude growled, his face sweaty despite the fact that it was so cold outside.

"Dammit, Rude, don’t start that, too," Reno muttered and handed over the remaining chicken and flatbread. "I can look after myself, you know." Why did everyone panic when he went off by himself? Even if he ran into trouble and couldn’t take it down on his own, he’d just heal from the damage sustained during the fight.

Muttering what sounded to be a prayer of some kind under his breath, Rude accepted the food in his right hand and grabbed hold of the back of Reno’s cloak with his left. Then he steered Reno down the street. "It’s bad enough having to explain to Rufus how you managed to burn down this building or destroy that one; I don’t quite get into as much trouble if I tell him I saw it happen as opposed to finding you after the disaster." He gave Reno a warning glare as he took a bite out of his sandwich – then let go of Reno’s cloak to pat the pouch that was hidden beneath his own. "How the hell-"

Reno smiled and held up one of the pouches he’d collected. "Don’t worry, I didn’t steal any of your money or stiff that vendor." He tucked the pouch back beneath his cloak and finished off his sandwich.

Rude rubbed his left hand over his face and began muttering again. "You’re going to end up chained to a chair, you do know that, don’t you? Or locked up in a chest," he pointed out, his darkened glasses sliding down his nose enough so he could glare at Reno over them.

"As if I’m worried about that," Reno scoffed. There was no lock or ward that he couldn’t undo or get through, so it wasn’t as much of a threat as Rufus and the others liked to think it was. Well, the one time Tseng had backed him into a corner and sat in front of him for several hours with a truly vicious glare on his usually impassive face had been a bit scary, but the flesh gaki bound was too busy to do something like that now.

Reno was about to suggest that they find a bar to have something to drink and order more food when he heard the shinigami’s purring voice. /Go west,/ it urged him, the words echoed by several others. While he couldn’t see them, he could feel them, the soothing caresses against his skin that were unhampered by his cloak and thick, black sweater.

Without thinking, he found himself turning westward at the next crossroad – and immediately sputtering when the brooch holding his cloak shut bit into his neck. Rude didn’t release the hold on the back of his cloak until he was dragged down another street.

"We’re not going too far from the inn," Rude warned, giving him another glare over the rims of his glasses.

About to argue with his friend, Reno shivered instead when he felt invisible hands push him in the direction he’d just tried to go.

/West, west, young one./

/Leave this one, you’ll find someone more suitable if you go west,/ another voice said, this one pitched slightly higher than the last.

/Go, go, go. The loneliness will leave if you do, we promise. Best for both of you,/ yet another shinigami urged.

Feeling torn between Rude and the shinigami, Reno came to a halt in the middle of the busy sidewalk, which earned him a few curses and jostles from other people before Rude realized that he’d stop and came back to stand by him. Not many people felt like swearing at him when a guy who could clearly rip them in half gave them a warning look and motioned them away from Reno.

"Reno," Rude said, his voice low and worried.

"Yeah." More than anything, Reno wanted to give in to those voices and do what they said. He even turned toward the western part of the city, so tempted to take that first step. However, he knew that Rude wouldn’t allow it, and if he used his power to vanish, that his friend would immediately contact Rufus.

No, the best thing would be to play it cool. Something was waiting for him in a western district, something that pulled at him, but he couldn’t find out what it was until later. What he had to do now was return to the inn without incident so Rufus wouldn’t have any grounds to force a promise from him to remain inside. Then, when the timing was better, he’d leave and find out what it was the shinigami wanted him to see.

"Yeah," he repeated and faced Rude, a slight smile on his face. "I know." He resumed walking, this time in the direction of the inn. "Let’s see if we can find something else to eat on the way back, okay?" There’d be no drinks today, and he’d wait to have some fun another time. "I think the sun’s affecting me after all."

Rude eyed him warily for a few seconds then reached over to yank Reno’s hood down over his face. "That’s a good idea. Rufus should be back soon," he mentioned, sounding suspicious that Reno had given in so easily.

Everyone thought of Reno as impulsive and lacking any foresight, which was mostly true. He didn’t care much about most things to worry about consequences and the such, not unless it was important to him. The shinigami weren’t always so talkative, and he felt such a strong yearning to listen to them, to do something that would keep them by him so he didn’t feel so alone. Some of that loneliness had faded with his new bond with Rufus, but part of him still felt isolated from his lover and friends – especially whenever Rufus blocked their link. That part urged him to do whatever he had to in order to obey the shinigami.

So he’d do what was unexpected of him; he’d behave and bide his time. As long as he wasn’t bound by some stupid promise, he’d be able to sneak away in a night or two. By the time Rufus or the others figured out that he was gone, he’d find out who it was that the shinigami wanted him to see.

*******

Roy sat in the Koneko’s kitchen, more amused than he could remember being in ages and rather surprised at how well the day had turned out. Ed was seated beside him; they’d just finished a very nice meal and were currently sipping hot toddies. Not even the fact that Kudoh was across the table from Roy bothered him too much. However, what made the situation damn near perfect was that he’d received a note from Jei to stick around Aya all day long if he wanted to see his brother.

He owed Hughes dinner for creating a ‘situation’ which had gotten him free of more meetings at the palace today, and had probably learned more about bounds in a few hours than he had in the last ten years thanks to helping Ed copy books for most of the afternoon. All the while, he’d remained within a few feet of Aya, which had made the kage eye him warily a few times and once it had seemed that Kudoh was about to punch him. However, Kudoh’s friend Cassandra, who was hanging around an awful lot today, too, had pulled him aside and whispered something in his ear. After that, no one had seemed to mind that Roy was spending the day at the Koneko.

Now if Crawford would just show up, he’d be perfectly content. The bastard had managed to elude him for over two weeks, which only made him even more determined to get back a bit of revenge for things. Even if Roy didn’t mind so much being mated to Ed anymore, there was still the fact that Crawford had put them together when the boy was too young and not given Roy any warning. Not to mention the fact that Crawford was keeping secrets from him. On top of everything else, Hughes had just informed Roy that Armstrong was spending an awful lot of time with a dark-haired, bespectacled man. Oh yes, Crawford deserved to be singed.

He was shaken from his thoughts by Ed elbowing him in the ribs; looking up to glare at his mate, he realized that Jo had just put a large slice of apple cranberry pie in front of him. "Thank you," he told the frowning human, who grunted softly and returned to the stove.

"Don’t come crying to me if she doesn’t give you any seconds," Ed muttered between shoveling pie into his mouth.

"Then I’ll have to steal your piece," Roy replied with a smug smile on his face. Ed was just so adorable when he scowled like that, his left arm curling protectively around his plate of dessert.

Jo returned to the table to refill everyone’s cups with more hot, spiced rum, while Maddox supplied hot chocolate or coffee to those who weren’t imbibing. Kudoh sat beside the child, Emmie, and Aya was seated next to him. Two Guards were present, Ken and Miko, along with the ex-Guard, Reiichi. Seated beside the smiling man was another young girl, Neely, then Cassandra. All in all, it was a rather cozy scene, one filled with lots of food and good-natured teasing. Roy could easily understand why Ed was making the Koneko his second home, and while he was a bit jealous of the time his mate spent here, he had to admit there was relief also that Ed was safe and amongst friends. As much as he hated to give Kudoh credit for anything, the fact that he and Aya had befriended Ed seemed to have helped him grow up a bit in the last few months. Ed got to spend more time interacting with his own kind, and more importantly, learn how mates were supposed to act with each other.

"This is what we’re supposed to discuss tomorrow," Emmie said, pulling a sheet of paper out of a pale blue folder decorated with drawn flowers. Roy didn’t need to be a soul gaki bound to know that the child was very happy right now, and a lot of that joy seemed to be because Kudoh had his arm around her shoulders and was helping her with some homework.

Aya leaned forward to read the paper. "Marsham’s Principle? Do they really teach that in school?" he asked. Beside Roy, Ed stopped trying to scrape his plate clean of every last pie crumb and looked on in interest.

"They usually bring it up when they talk about magic," Kudoh explained. "Sunshine, that’s the belief that because of magic, our culture has reached a kind of, er…." He looked at Aya, a pleading expression on his face.

"That it’s reached a type of stasis," Aya explained with rare warmth to his deep voice. "Marsham proposed that if cultures didn’t rely upon magic so heavily, that they’d have to adapt better and there would be a wealth of new inventions."

"Yeah. There’s been several crack-pot cults who gave up magic to ‘allow the human race to fully develop’," Ed added, his golden eyes glowing with excitement. "They actually went to the middle of nowhere and made their followers give up any charms or spelled items they possessed. No praying to the gods for any intervention, no use of magic to make life easier; they only lived on what they could create for themselves."

Emmie glanced back and forth between Ed and Aya. "What happened to them?"

Ed wrinkled his nose and, after a look at Aya, answered the child. "They pretty much died out. While they did come up with some interesting inventions that didn’t require magic, they often poisoned the land around them."

"Some say that the gods were angered by the way they treated nature and sent illnesses and bad luck their way," Miko added, smiling brightly when everyone seemed surprised that she was contributing to the situation. "Hey, just because I’m partnered with an idiot doesn’t mean I’m one as well." She ignored the way Ken growled and bared his teeth at her with an ease that was very impressive. "I grew up in a small village in the middle of nowhere – there’d been one of the anti-magic cultists’ enclaves in the area a century or two before, and you could still see the damage they left in the earth and water. We were told as kids that they all died of a plague one day, a plague that never affected the surrounding villages or farms."

Ken reached for a basket of sweet rolls left on the table and helped himself to several of them. "You know, in a way I can understand why people think that magic’s not always good for them." He stared at his right hand, his claws flexing for a moment. "But humans are humans – if there’s a better way out there, they’ll find it, and if we’ve been using magic for so long then clearly that’s it."

Kudoh grinned, the expression slightly wicked as he stared at his friend. "Wow, Ken-ken, that was particularly deep for you!" He laughed when the Guard threw a roll at his head and easily caught it.

"No food fights," Jo growled, sounding just like a flesh gaki bound, and Roy would be amused at how every bound at the table suddenly sat up straighter… if he wasn’t doing the same. He felt a bit sheepish until he noticed Cassandra giving him a sympathetic look.

"Anyway," Ed remarked with a peevish sniff. "There aren’t any anti-magic cultists around anymore, though they do tend to appear every century or two." A look of sadness crossed his face. "You should really talk to Al; he works for a family who, while not cultists, believe that humans should rely a bit less on magic. They’re very careful that none of their inventions harm the environment, and some of them are very useful."

"Then why don’t more people use them?" Emmie asked, her cheeks slightly flushed from what appeared to be excitement and not embarrassment. "Back… back at home we had a few manual pumps and things, when everything here seems to be run by magic."

Roy decided to join the conversation. "Because it comes down to economics. Unless you live someplace where there isn’t a local wizard, it’s simply cheaper to purchase spells and charms to do things such as pump and heat water, or use charmed candles to light rooms. Many of the inventions that Edward mentioned are too expensive for most people to buy, and they often need a lot of maintenance. It’s easier to use magic," he explained with a shrug.

"Not to mention that magic is more than abundant and doesn’t cause much harm by itself," Cassandra added. "Many mechanical devices need to be powered somehow, and that’s what usually causes the damage that Miko mentioned. We are on this earth because of the gods’ blessing, and they don’t seem happy when we damage it." Her tone was serious and quiet, her attention focused on something that wasn’t there. Roy wondered if she’d seen a vision of what would happen if people used mechanical devices instead of magic.

"Oh." Emmie wrote a few things down then looked at Kudoh and smiled. "Thank you! Now I won’t have to hide from the teacher tomorrow."

Kudoh laughed and pinched the tip of her nose. "No one as smart as you should hide from the teacher, Sunshine."

While Emmie giggled and rubbed her nose, Neely stared at her friend, her expression wistful. "I wish I could go to school," she said, the words so faint that Roy was sure that none of the humans had heard them. Cassandra gave the girl a hug and whispered something to her.

Returning to the table with another pie, Jo scoffed loudly as she gave Emmie a cool look. "I agree with Yohji; you’re too smart to waste your and the teacher’s time like that." Emmie’s good mood seemed to wilt a little, until Kudoh gave her a hug.

"Yes, and you’ll be accepted into the Guard easier if you have good academic records," Reiichi pointed out. Then he smiled at Jo and held up his empty dessert plate. "I would love another piece of pie."

Everyone appeared to forget about Emmie’s lesson as they scrambled to hold up their plates as well. Roy felt no shame in joining them, as the pie was delicious. Besides, he had the impression that while he was accepted here on sufferance because of his and Kudoh’s dislike for each other, that angering Jo would have him banned from the inn. Not to mention he doubted that she’d send Ed and Al home with dinner for him anymore.

While Ken argued that he had gotten a smaller slice than Miko, there was a knock at the back door that made everyone but Aya and Cassandra turn in its direction. A moment later, Trowa slipped inside the kitchen, bundled up in a thick cloak against the bitter cold. He pushed back his hood and stared at Cassandra. "I can’t be here for long; Duo’s very curious tonight."

The precog smiled and nodded. "Don’t fret, he won’t come here tonight." She slanted a look at Roy and smiled. "You won’t be here for much longer."

Roy felt a rush of excitement at her words. Between them and the fact that Cassandra had asked a powerful water elemental bound to come to the Koneko, he had a feeling his brother would be here soon. Sparks danced around his fingertips for a couple of seconds, prompting Ed to give him a concerned look.

Trowa paused for a moment before he removed his cloak and settled at the table. The only seat available was near Neely, who smiled brightly at the young man. However, Trowa seemed discomforted by her presence and immediately stared at the table until Jo set a mug of coffee and a plate of pie before him. "Thank you," he murmured.

"Aya, I was wondering if you’d like to go shopping with me tomorrow," Reiichi said, ending the uncomfortable silence that had overcome the room. "I could use some candles, and it’s my sister’s birthday in another two weeks. I’d like to find a lovely brooch to go with the cloak that Cassandra is making me for her, and you always have very good luck in finding things in the market." He smiled at Kudoh. "You’re more than welcome to come as well, Yohji."

Kudoh didn’t appear happy about the request, but his frown smoothed out when he looked at his mate and found Aya smiling slightly. "Well… I guess we could use some candles, too, and we’re almost out of cookies. As long as it’s not too sunny tomorrow, it should be okay." Aya didn’t seem to appreciate Kudoh’s concern, judging from his sudden glare.

"It’ll snow tomorrow," Trowa commented, his voice pitched just loud enough to be heard. "I can feel it moving in. It’ll be here by early morning."

Neely clapped her hands and laughed. "You can sense it that well? I usually know when it’s going to rain but I haven’t had much luck with snow."

"You’re… still young," Trowa replied and busied himself with eating his pie. From what Ed had told him, Trowa was supposed to be one of the strongest water elementals around, if not the strongest, so it was no surprise that he could easily predict the weather.

"If you don’t mind, I’d like to give you a shopping list, Aya," Jo asked. "We’re running low on some spices." She stared pointedly at the remaining crumbs in the pie dish and snorted.

The kage nodded. "That won’t be a problem."

"How about we leave right after my session with Masato and Schu?" Kudoh suggested, to which Reiichi and Aya quickly agreed. The room was filled with goodwill once more, and Ed took to leaning against Roy’s side. Feeling a little self-conscious, Roy slid his arm around his lover’s waist and pulled him closer.

"Speaking of those two deviants, where are they?" Kudoh grumbled.

Cassandra giggled softly with her fingers pressed against her lips. "They won’t return until later tonight. I asked them to run an errand for me." Her smile turned wicked for a few seconds. "I hope Trouble forgives me."

"Best he’s not here since he’d just try to make things worse." Kudoh’s remark left Roy with the impression that the bastard definitely knew what was going to happen tonight. That made him feel a bit better; while he was intent on teaching his brother a valuable lesson, he didn’t want to antagonize the Koneko’s staff and owner any more than he had to.

Talk had just turned to some suggestions of where Reiichi could look for his sister’s present when Roy felt a presence that he hadn’t sensed in months. The kitchen door flew open to reveal one very stunned Crawford with a madly smiling Jei at his back. The flesh gaki bound appeared to be preventing him from running away.

Quickly moving from table, Roy smiled at his brother, the expression utterly lacking any warmth or affection. "Crawford. I’ve been hoping to have some words with you," he purred as he called a ball of fire into his right hand.

*******