Darkness Returns

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chapter ten

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confrontations and meetings

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When the kitchen door opened to reveal Crawford, Aya immediately called upon his power, ready to put it to use. His instructions from Cassandra were clear – Crawford was necessary to the future and was not to be badly harmed, yet the precog must be made to answer for the doubts his recent actions had caused.

"Crawford. I’ve been hoping to have some words with you," Roy purred with obvious relish, a ball of fire forming in his right hand. As soon as Aya felt the fire elemental bound’s power manifest, he enclosed the garden in shadows at the same time he shoved Roy, Jei and Crawford outside. He would *not* allow them to fight inside the Koneko, even if Cassandra had said that it was important that the fight took place. Outside, there was less chance of property damage or people being hurt.


"Come on, Cat," Yohji urged as he grabbed Aya’s left hand and dragged him outside, pausing only to fetch their garments from the hook hanging beside the kitchen door. Aya glared at his impatient mate when his cloak was tossed in his face and struggled to pull it on one-handedly.

Thankfully, Yohji released him once they were outside so he could pull on his coat. Aya used the time to drape his warm cloak over his shoulders and was almost amused to see that the others had joined them, most of them standing by the door. Jei approached him and Yohji while Roy and Crawford stood in the middle of the garden, eyeing each other warily.

"Mustang; you *will* limit the damage while in my garden," Aya called out, unwilling to allow months of hard work to be casually destroyed. As he spoke, Trowa came to stand at his right side, the hood of his cloak pulled forward as if to hide his face.

"Don’t worry, I’ll contain the fire," the water elemental bound said, his voice quiet and his attention seeming to be focused on Crawford.

"While it’s understandable to be concerned about the garden and the building, what about me?" Crawford asked, his voice as unruffled as his demeanor. One wouldn’t think that he had a very angry bound standing several feet away, ready to burn him to ash at any moment. "Am I the evening’s entertainment?"

"No, you’re a lying, conniving bastard," Roy spat, his entire body covered with dancing flames that didn’t burn him or his clothes. "Obviously I’m not the only person who thinks so."

Crawford sighed, the sound highly exasperated as he continued to step backwards, away from his brother. "Please, I thought we got past this childishness of yours, Roy. What is it this time? Did you have another fight with Edward? Or is it something else you’ve decided to blame on me?"

Moving toward the two men, Ed stopped a few feet from Roy. "Wow, he just doesn’t get it, does he?" he asked with a disdainful snort. Then he glanced over his shoulder at Aya and smiled. "Sorry about this, I’ll put things back to normal once I’m done." Trusting in his friend, Aya allowed the use of power.


The earth trembled around Crawford, rising up in a slow wave to form a wall behind him and around his sides, effectively trapping him in front of Roy. Jei chuckled as Crawford fidgeted with his glasses, still striving for an air of calm.

"He’s just digging himself in deep with both those boys. Oh, this is gonna be *fun*," Jei laughed, the lower part of his face split open by a huge grin that exposed bright, sharp teeth. Seeing Jei’s enjoyment in Crawford’s predicament, Aya readied the shadows at the flesh gaki bound’s feet, just in case Jei decided to join in the fight.

"Is that why you helped him, Jei? For fun?" This time, Crawford’s voice wasn’t so smooth. "I suggest that everyone calm down and stop using their talents; you could put the future in danger with foolish, vengeful actions." That only made Jei laugh even harder and for Roy to growl louder.

Aya had to give the precog credit: faced with at least two bounds who appeared after his blood and trapped by shadows and earth, and Crawford didn’t beg for mercy or back down. More than likely, he didn’t believe he’d be harmed or that he’d done anything to be harmed. Aya would correct the latter assumption, at least.

Clearing his throat, Aya motioned for Roy to remain still a little longer. "No, I think we’re merely attempting to set things aright," he said, his voice pitched loud enough to be heard through the garden. "While I’m not taking any part in the disagreement between you and your brother, I am bothered by the fact that you’ve acted in a manner to put off this confrontation as long as possible at the expense of others."

"I fail to see your reasoning, Aya." Crawford left his glasses alone and folded his arms over his chest. "How have my actions caused anyone any threat?"

Cassandra, standing beside Yohji, frowned as she stepped forward. "You’re not the only precog here, and I’ve seen things change over the last few days. You’ve avoided necessary meetings so as to not run into your brother, withheld your presence and insight from important discussions." Her lips pulled back in a delicate sneer. "Fool you call me and your brother, yet that best describes you. What you are doing is running from the consequences of your actions at the cost of the future. That stops tonight. You and Roy will discuss your issues and resolve them enough so that we can all work together again. This is not the time for division." She stamped her left foot and glared. "Fool."

Crawford pressed his fingers against his forehead as if he had a headache. "I can not believe that I’m standing here listening to this. Everything I’ve done is for the benefit of the future." He straightened his shoulders and scowled at everyone gathered in the garden, his gaze resting a moment on Trowa. "I repeat, don’t let hasty actions destroy what we’ve all been working toward for so long." Aya snorted at the way Crawford sounded like the voice of reason, so assured of himself even when put on the defensive. Not that Aya had expected Crawford to grovel or beg for forgiveness, but this level of arrogance was not making things easy.

Trowa bowed his head. "Aya and I are here to ensure that things don’t get out of hand. I’m sorry, Crawford, but if their allegations are correct, you’ve been putting all of us at risk by… running away. Birman has several important matters to discuss with you and each time she tries, you vanish."

"I am *not* running away," Crawford sniffed.

"Bullshit," Jei spat, his smile taking on a nasty edge that made the shadows at his feet writhed from Aya’s sudden concern. "You’re running as fast as you can, counting on your visions to keep you ahead of the people you’ve pissed off. I’ve told you before, Crawford, that you can’t treat people as puppets or sacrifices. You hand out orders and manipulate things to your benefit and never stop to think how that’ll impact others. Now it’s time that you learn," he growled.

"Exactly." Roy tossed a fireball between his hands, Ed now standing beside him. "I’ve wanted to speak to you for some time, Brother. The discussion would have been much more peaceful if you’d just seen me once you returned to Eto instead of doing your best to avoid me." His slightly civil tone faded more and more with each spoken word, until he was snarling. "Did you really think you could fool me forever?"

Crawford inhaled deeply, cracks appearing in his composure at last as he pushed his glasses further up his nose. "I thought I’d at least give you time to cool down from your latest bout of temper," he said, a note of grievance creeping into his voice.

Roy hissed and tossed the ball of fire, which stopped about a foot from Crawford and spun around him in a circle. "’Temper’? Now, what could possibly put me in a bad mood, hmmm? Let’s see, there’s the fact that you purposely sent me a child who you knew would be my mate, forcing Edward and I to consummate the relationship while he was too young just so you were assured that he’d be placed further under your control. When I dare complain about this, you brush my concerns aside." He stopped glaring at his brother long enough to look at Ed, his expression softening into an almost smile before he turned to Crawford again.

"Do you even care about the pain we’ve suffered because of the situation? The fact that neither of us were prepared for such a bond and that Edward should have been older when it happened? Not only have you put us in danger as we struggle to adapt, but Alphonse as well."

"You two were meant as mates, all I did was ensure that it happened sooner rather than later," Crawford replied to the furious accusation, finally exposing a hint of his own temper. "You’re still young as bounds consider things, Roy, so the age difference isn’t that great. If there are any problems with your relationship, it’s your fault, not mine."

"Sweet gods, the fool just doesn’t get it," Yohji muttered, his right arm draping over Aya’s shoulders. "I think we’re gonna be here a while, Cat. You gonna be able to keep the wards up that long?"

Aya nodded and leaned against his lover when he felt a trickle of energy flow into him. "Roy’s control won’t last forever." Really, Crawford wasn’t showing much common sense in brushing aside Roy’s upset over the forced mating bond. All he was doing was enraging Roy and Ed, as was evident in the way the ground trembled and the fireball around Roy grew larger and threw off a shower of sparks.

Aya handled the minor earthquakes in the same manner he’d used before, by extending the shadow ward into the ground. Ed scowled at him for a few seconds when the trembling stopped, then smiled sheepishly and mouthed an apology which Aya nodded to in acknowledgement. Meanwhile, Trowa handled the sparks, smothering them with moisture before they even reached any of the surrounding plants or trees.

Roy appeared to be struggling for control of himself, the flames around him burning brighter and also engulfing Ed as well. Aya became fascinated when he realized that they were acting like a ward, which he’d read about but never seen before. He’d have to ask Roy about them later.

"You simply don’t care, do you?" Roy asked, a note of incredibility evident through all the anger in his voice. "It’s like Jei said, we’re just pawns to you to be moved around as you see fit. Doesn’t matter what we feel or suffer, just as long as you get the results you want."

Aya went still at the question, suddenly finding a personal interest in the fight. While he mostly trusted Crawford, he was well aware that he’d been manipulated by the precog in the past. Considering the oath he’d been tricked into swearing to Crawford, he wanted to be sure that he’d not sworn control over to someone who might one day treat him the same way the Takatori had.

Crawford scoffed and made to step forward, only to be forced to stop by the fireball. "That’s ridiculous, Roy. What I’m doing is ensuring that we all get the future we want. I never claimed that there wouldn’t be any struggle or sacrifice, but it’ll be worth it in the end." His voice took on a cajoling tone. "You and Edward will be happy in the future, that I swear. How do a few years compare to hundreds?"

Roy stared at his brother with a look of horror on his face. "Do you even realize that you’re turning into *him*? ‘The end justifies the means’, wasn’t that what he always said? ‘The future will always overcome the past’, that’s another one my mother told me he’d use as an answer for any hurt *he* caused."

"Oh boy, things just got a hell of a lot nastier," Jei swore under his breath, his hands held at his sides and his claws unsheathed. "But the kid’s right."

Beside Aya, Trowa began to shiver, and Yohji suddenly turned to look at the water elemental bound. Over their link, Aya could sense concern and sympathy, which made him curious as to what Yohji was sensing. However, now wasn’t a good time to ask any questions; something was going on between Roy and Crawford as the mention of that mysterious ‘him’ had clearly set both men on edge as well as Trowa.

"I am *not* turning into *him*," Crawford spat. "I’ve done my best to not do things *his* way, even if it’s cost me more time and effort!"

"Bullshit!" Roy screamed, the temperature of the air in the garden going up several degrees. "You toss bounds together with the deliberate intent of using the bond they form between them for your own purposes or as a fucking leash to control them! You purposely keep vital information away from the people you’re supposed to trust and rely upon! If you’re not turning into that bastard, then you’ve got one hell of a god complex!"

"I’m trying to keep hundreds of thousands of people from dying, dammit!" Crawford screamed back, any pretense of self-control now gone. "Every day I’m besieged with more visions of what’s approaching, of how things can go wrong if there’s the slightest misstep or miscalculation! You’re not a precog; all you have to do is fuck Edward and gather enough of your friends to you to strengthen the Army!"

Despite the wards in it, the ground did its best to shake, especially around Crawford. "Just burn the asshole," Ed growled, his eyes glowing like molten gold as he held up his right arm, a sharp blade formed over his hand. "Wait – after he tells me why it’s so damn important that I’m dragged into this mess."

"Because of your power and your bloodline," Roy said, clearly struggling to rein in his temper. "He’ll do anything to gather the strongest bounds possible to his side. That’s why you ended up mated to an ‘old pervert’. He probably saw Izumi’s death and didn’t do a damn thing to stop it, just so you and Alphonse would be driven for revenge."


Crawford flinched at the words, his hands rising as if to ward off a blow. "No. *No*. I don’t see everything. I swear to you by whatever vow you demand that I did not see her death. All I saw was the boys, covered with blood and in the Elders’ custody. That’s when I sent someone to find them and bring them to you."

Roy appeared to be in control of himself again, yet the fire ward or the flame by Crawford didn’t diminish. "That’s the problem we’re facing now, Crawford. All of us here have put our trust and faith in you, have given you control of our lives and are left wondering if we’ve made a mistake. I’ll admit that you’ve done some good." When he glanced in Aya’s direction, Aya noticed that Roy’s right hand moved to grasp Ed’s left. "But you’ve caused some harm as well, all in the name of the future. Then we see you avoiding important things that would cause you pain or force you to some sort of accountability, and the doubts grow larger."

Appearing worn out by the argument, Crawford removed his glasses and rubbed his right hand over his eyes. "I’ll admit that I wasn’t in the mood to face you when you’re furious, Roy. I was in no hurry to have my skin singed off. However, I’m not avoiding accountability. All too soon, the day will come when everyone will see why I’ve chosen certain actions, and if I was right to do so." His voice grew hard as he glared at Roy. "*Then* you can stand before me and make judgment."

Aya had the impression that the two men had forgotten about everyone else around them, with the possible exception of Ed. There were clearly unresolved issues between the brothers, and he was growing leery of Crawford’s belief that the future superceded the present. As far as he was concerned, there was already enough pain and sacrifice that he’d rather there be as little more as possible. He didn’t want the future tainted by what they’d done or suffered in the past.

"What about those of us who trust you *now*," Aya called out, determined that what he considered to be the most important issue was resolved. "Are we fools to do so? You’re the one who sees the future the clearest, Crawford, and we rely upon you because of it."

Crawford slipped on his glasses and shook his head the slightest bit. "I’ve never claimed to be perfect, Aya, nor the best person out there. My intentions are mostly good, even if it may not seem that way sometimes. I want what all of you want, for the Elders to be defeated and our kind to be safe. All that I do is to bring that about, and there are times when I’d rather one or two people suffer instead of thousands, that I’ll admit. But I’m well aware of the fact that there’s little I can do without your trust and cooperation, and I’d be fool to squander both."

"You’re not stupid, Crawford," Jei announced, a serious expression on his scarred face. "And I’m still your partner by my own choice. I didn’t arrange this little chat to make you suffer, though I’ll be honest and say that’s a bit of a bonus." He flashed his teeth at his partner. "My main concern is what others have said – that you’re forgetting that we’re flesh and blood. Once you’re no longer concerned about that, you’ll be just like your father."

"The gods forbid." Crawford actually laughed and attempted to comb back his disheveled hair. "There’s no need to be that insulting." He fell quiet for a moment, obviously struggling with something. "All right, I haven’t been thinking clearly about a few things. You’ve made your point." He turned to face his brother. "What now? Are you going to continue to castigate me for things you can’t change? Going to burn me bald in a fit of pique?"

Roy glanced between his brother and his mate several times. "I had considered that as well as removing a couple of layers of skin." He frowned and looked at Aya. "You said nothing permanent, right?"

"No permanent damage. Whatever doubts that remain, we need him alive and well," Aya calmly remarked.

"Thank you, Aya," Crawford said, his voice thick with sarcasm.

Aya looked at the precog who he still trusted to help them find the best way to fight the approaching war. "Tell me, did you bring me to the Koneko so I could find my mate and begin to heal, or because you knew that it would break the hold the Takatori had over me and so convince me to fight for you?" His voice was cold and sibilant as he asked the question.

To his credit, Crawford didn’t look away. "Both. I knew Yohji would give you the incentive to disobey the Takatori, and I also knew that you’d become stronger in many ways."

"I’m not sensing any lies from him," Yohji whispered as he scowled at Crawford, furious at the mention of Aya being used. "The entire time, he’s been telling the truth."

Aya took that into consideration, as well as everything that had happened in the last several months. "No permanent damage, Mustang."

"Oh well, it’s not like I won’t get another chance after the war, when we don’t need him so much," Roy muttered and called another fireball into being. He shared a look with Ed and his expression turned into a smile. "Though I can still have some fun now."

The fireball flew from his hand, growing larger as it raced toward Crawford. The precog didn’t even flinch, just stood there as it slammed into him in a burst of light and heat. Fire raged for several seconds, then instantly vanished to reveal a now naked Crawford, his skin red as if he’d suffered a painful sunburn. He remained on his feet for several seconds before he crumpled to the ground.

Roy finally vanquished the fire ward around him and Ed and approached his brother. He stood by Crawford’s side, another fireball forming in his right hand. "I swear to you before all the stars and gods that if you truly do become like our father, that I’ll do everything in my power to destroy you." He held his hand above Crawford’s chest and the fireball descended, burning into flesh.

Aya gathered his power, ready to smother the flame yet he didn’t sense any chance of death on Crawford’s part. After second or two, the fire died out, leaving a curious mark on Crawford’s left breast; two circles, one set inside the other, with interlocking triangles and a small flame. Magic hummed along the lines of darkened flesh, Roy’s and something else, something bound to it by the oath.

"To make sure that you don’t forget, I left a little reminder. I’ll be back tomorrow night so we can discuss the situation with the Army and why you’ve had Armstrong running around so much lately." Roy sounded in a good mood and he even waved to Crawford before he went to join Ed. "Thank you," he said with a slight bow to Jei, Aya, Cassandra and Trowa. "Sorry to have to drag all of you in on a family matter."

Ed motioned with his right hand and the wall of earth faded back into the ground. "I’ll see you tomorrow, Aya." He waved as well, to Jo who stood by the kitchen door, surrounded by Emi, Neely, Ken, Miko and Reiichi. "Thanks for the delicious dinner! I hope there’s still some pie left tomorrow!" he called out as he and Roy left by the back gate.

Jo, her cloak wrapped around her shoulders, appeared to be fighting the urge to smile. Her lips pressed together for a few seconds before she gave up and shook her head. "All right, are we done with the excitement for tonight?"

"Yes, Jo," Yohji called out. "You can drop the wards now, love," he said and nudged Aya in the ribs.

Doing as he was told, Aya let the wards fade away. "What about Crawford?"

"I’ll handle him." Jei approached his mostly unconscious partner and heaved him over his shoulder. "Cass, think he’ll need any burn salve?" When Crawford muttered something, Jei smacked his naked ass. "Oh, hush. Be thankful I don’t like my meat cooked, you arrogant bastard. You had that coming."

Cassandra ran over to him and gently touched Crawford’s back. "No, I don’t think Roy did any serious damage. He’ll be healed in an hour or two. Just put him to bed, Jei."

"Yes, ma’am." Jei tipped an imaginary hat in her direction and headed to the Koneko. "I’ll be back down for some dinner," he told Jo as he stepped past her to get through the door.

"Hmph. I’ll have Mickey fetch something from the cold room, then," she grumbled as she followed him inside. "And save you some pie."

Everyone else filed inside, except for Trowa, who quietly left the garden through the back gate as well, and Aya and Yohji. They stood outside as Aya looked up at the sky.

"What are you thinking about, Cat?" Yohji slipped his arms around Aya’s waist to hug him close.

"That we’re all prone to mistakes," he said after a moment’s hesitation, "and that whatever his intentions, I can’t be angry with Crawford for bringing us together." He wasn’t foolish to think that the precog had done it out of the goodness of his heart, but for once he agreed with Crawford’s belief in that it was the outcome that mattered.

"Well, I’ll certainly question him a bit more when he starts ordering us about, but yeah, I feel the same way." Yohji nuzzled right behind Aya’s left ear. "He did one thing right."

"Mmmm." Aya reached back to comb his fingers through his mate’s wavy hair. More than likely, they would have met somehow, but he’d had very little hope left when he’d been Ran. Any later than last spring and Yohji would have found him a broken shell. "At least the garden didn’t get burned."

Yohji laughed and urged Aya to move forward, toward the kitchen door. "Why did I know you’d be worried about it? No, Mustang controlled his power tonight." He wasn’t happy to have to say something good about the man, judging from a flash of annoyance. "Come on, Aya, it’s cold out here."

Aya sighed and allowed his lover to basically push him to the door. He’d been hoping to stay outside for a little longer and talk to the shinigami he sensed hovering nearby. For the last few days, they’d been gathering around the Koneko and wouldn’t tell him why. Whenever he asked, they just replied ‘wait’. Their odd behavior was slightly disturbing, even if he didn’t sense any menace or ill intent from them. If anything, they seemed excited and pleased. Glancing over his left shoulder to see several of them flickering beneath the huge oak tree, he frowned and hoped that they started acting normal soon.

*******

Sitting on the ground, Trowa held his right hand steady as one of the park deer nibbled on the unsweetened nuts. When the treat was gone, it extended its neck to nuzzle at the hood of his cloak. He was about to smile at the creature’s antics when something startled it away. The miniature deer disappeared back into the woods while Trowa slowly rose to his feet and brushed off the snow that clung to his cloak.

"Sorry," Heero murmured and handed him a cup of hot chocolate. "I didn’t think the park deer were tame."

"While they’re protected by royal edict, they’re not." Trowa accepted the drink with a slight inclination of his head. "It’s commendable that the Takatori set aside enough land in a crowded city for the creatures to thrive."

Heero’s dark eyebrows drew together as he looked in the direction which the deer had fled. "There’s nothing like this in Berin. Eto… isn’t what I expected," he said, a note of confusion in his voice.

Sipping the warm drink, Trowa noticed that Heero hadn’t said anything about the tactical disadvantages of having so much forested land in which an enemy could hide. That was the explanation the Elders gave for razing much of the area around the palace, after all. He glanced around the small park that he visited often after meeting Birman, and felt some peace. This was another thing worth fighting and betraying friends for, something to defend however he could.

"No, it’s quite different from Berin," he admitted in a quiet voice as he motioned for them to walk along one of the park’s paths. "Then again, Kritiker is very different from Esset." The country hadn’t closed itself off after the Binding War, as had Esset, and its rulers weren’t afraid to allow development at the risk of losing power. The thought of Esset winning the approaching war and turning Kritiker into a pale shadow of itself was depressing and helped to define just what was at stake. So much freedom and happiness could be so easily lost.

Heero grunted softly and used his power to blow aside some of the thick snow on the path before them. "Some things remain the same; the bureaucracy here is as slow as back home," he pointed out, his deep voice decidedly peevish.

Trowa’s lips curled slightly at his friend’s annoyance. "That’s to be expected. I understand that you’ve been accepted into the Army, what’s the delay now?" He pushed back the cloak’s hood enough so he could glance at Heero out of the corner of his eye.

"More paperwork to be processed before I can officially start my training," Heero huffed in annoyance. "I’m ashamed to say that it’ll be at least another week before I can begin."

No doubt the sitting about and waiting was exacting a toll on the air elemental. While Heero did possess an amazing amount of patience, he was probably very frustrated by the fact that Trowa and Duo had already been accepted into their respective organizations while he waited for his chance. Trowa could sympathize with that, even if he was grateful for the delays that prevented Heero from reporting any damaging information back to the Elders.

"I’m sure there are some platitudes of patience that I’m supposed to offer to you, but I won’t waste my breath." Trowa finished the last of the hot chocolate and held the crumpled waxed paper cup in his hand. "I will remind you, however, that it’ll only be a little longer until you are doing something."

"Thank you." From anyone other than Heero, those words would probably be thick with sarcasm, but the air elemental was sincere. "I am sorry to complain like this," he continued, still sounding perfectly serious. "I must keep in mind that I’ve been accepted into the Army, and that I’ll soon be joining a suitable division." He actually smiled, his dark blue eyes lighting up as he probably reflected upon his mission. "As you said, it’ll be just a little longer."

Trowa studied his friend for a moment, noting the shine on Heero’s black boots and the lack of wrinkles in his dark blue cloak. "You’ll do well in the Army, Heero. What division will you join?" He already knew the answer thanks to Crawford, but had a role to play.

"One of the infantry groups that assist Intelligence from time to time; I’m supposed to report to a Major Zechs Marquise," Heero’s smile faded as he mentioned his new commander. "I met him the other day. He seems a capable leader and is younger than I expected." There was an odd note in his voice and a slight furrow to his brow. Interestingly enough, his heart started to race when he mentioned the man.

"I’m glad that things have worked out so well for you," Trowa blithely lied. Whatever the reason that would make Heero betray the Elders – and he had an inkling now what that might possibly be – he hoped that it happened soon before Heero could send some critical intel back to Esset. At the least, he could notify the Elders about any security leaks, which could hurt people who Trowa knew. He didn’t understand how Crawford could so calmly arrange things with Heero when they weren’t a hundred percent sure that the bound would align himself with them before the war. Even with Armstrong and Hughes to manage damage control, it seemed a senselessly dangerous situation.

However, he wouldn’t waste any breath discussing the matter once more with Crawford. All he got for his troubles was a smug grin and pat assurances, even after the fight the other night at the Koneko. There were times when Trowa wanted to alter the precog’s blood chemistry enough to make him babble out all those carefully kept secrets, but he reined in that impulse. More than likely he would hear a lot of things he didn’t want to know and he’d break trust with a dear friend.

Crawford and Jei were the first people to truly friend him at Berin. Oh, some of the Elders’ lackeys had tried, but he wasn’t an idiot. By that point in his life, he was well schooled in recognizing people who were only interested in using him for one thing or another. Before, it had been his body, then it had been his talent. Crawford and Jei had been different.

Trowa knew that Jei saw him as an opportunity to rob the Elders of something they wanted and that Crawford had a use for him. Neither man had ever hidden those facts. Yet they also made it clear that they would do as they wished and protect Trowa without demanding anything from him in return. For the first time that Trowa could remember, he was given a choice, was allowed some control in his life. No doubt Crawford had taken that into consideration when dealing with him, but Trowa didn’t resent him for that. People manipulated each other, bound them in invisible chains of expectations, obligations, desires and oaths; it was part of the human condition, after all, and all bounds had some amount of humanity in them.

"Is it that bad?"

"Hmmm?" Heero’s question distracted Trowa from his thoughts and he found his friend smiling at him when he blinked his eyes and looked to the side. "I’m sorry, is what bad?"

"Your work for the Spymaster. I’ve asked you about it three times."

"Ah." Trowa offered a weak smile and combed his fingers through the hair that fell onto his face. "No, it’s not bad at all. She has me mostly running errands and tagging along with her while I learn what’s expected of me."

"I see." Heero frowned, the wind stirring around them and sparkling with twirling snowflakes. "Are you ever curious as to how Crawford manages these things? How he got all of us perfectly situated in enemy territory?" Suspicion lurked in his voice and hardened his expression.

Wondering if he needed to alert Schuldig to do some more mental tampering on Heero, Trowa forced his breathing to remain even as he thought about the best way to answer. Heero wasn’t a soul gaki bound, but had an uncanny knack of knowing when he was being told a lie.

"I speculate all the time on how Crawford does it," he admitted. "And though I know that I’m closer to him than many people, I grow frustrated at how he always seems to be manipulating things, including me. What it comes down to in the end, however, is that he always manages to get done what is needed. I firmly believe that he’s been seeing the future for so long and altering things to the Elders' benefit that it appears as of he does it without any real effort on his part." As he quietly spoke, he monitored Heero’s reactions, watching for anything to indicate that Heero saw Crawford as a threat. "You must also take into consideration his father," he mentioned, very careful to keep any virulent emotion from his voice.

Heero grunted softly, his expression changing into one of mild curiosity. "I’ve heard Tan Xi mention him an awful lot. Apparently, a lot of credit that Crawford takes can be attributed to the man." His suspicion seemed to vanish. "I’m sorry, I know he’s a friend and I didn’t mean to insult him. I just worry that since everything seems to be advancing so smoothly that there will be problems in the future."

"No, it’s all right." Trowa waved aside the apology. "Our missions are very important and I know you detest any failure. I just believe that Crawford’s been working on things for much longer than we can ever suspect. You and I found out about the mission a month ago – for him, it’s probably been years."

"Very true." Once again, Heero’s voice was thoughtful and quiet. "As I said, I’m very frustrated at the pace which my mission is proceeding." He shook his head and offered a smile of apology. "Before I put my foot in my mouth again, may I ask how you’re getting along with Duo?"

"I think I might prefer you to make insinuations against Crawford," Trowa replied without much thought, which made Heero laugh.

"Is he that much trouble?" Heero asked, a smile on his lips. "I’ll admit that he’s not the easiest person to get along with, but he’s an acceptable partner."

Trowa always suspected that Heero had more fondness for Duo than he let on, and that faint praise practically confirmed it. "The most damning thing I can think to mention is that he never remembers to take off his boots. While I would appreciate having a roommate who understood that my reading a book means that I don’t wish to be interrupted and that it’s not very sanitary to put his feet on the coffee table, we manage." He hunched his shoulders forward a little. "I simply much prefer to live on my own."

"I can understand that," Heero said in a soothing voice that contained a hint of pity. There were times when Trowa wished that most of his friends didn’t know what had happened in the past, although it allowed him some freedoms. "It is the easiest way to keep track of each other, though." He rubbed his hands up and down his arms. "Speaking of that, I was wondering if it would be possible for you to have dinner with me the night after tomorrow. I think it would be good for us to be seen together and establish our relationship before I begin training. I won’t be able to contact you for the first few weeks."

"I’ll meet you at the Gilded Sword at seven o’clock, if that’s acceptable," Trowa answered. "So, a nice dinner between friends."

"Exactly." Heero nodded in approval. "Now, if you don’t mind, there are a few errands I need to run."

"By all means." Trowa waved to Heero and bowed his head slightly at the smile he was given. "See you soon."

"Be well, Trowa." Heero returned the bow before he hurried on his way, an expression of concentration on his face as he probably focused on the best way to go about his errands. It almost made Trowa smile, until he remembered that the man’s almost inhuman concentration was still focused on how to defeat Kritiker.

No longer feeling any sense of peace, he made his way out of the park, pausing to toss the cup and empty paper bags that had held nuts into a bin set by the iron gates. Once out on the main street, people bustled around him, most of them complaining about the cold. That reminded Trowa that he’d wanted to discuss the weather with Heero, before he’d become distracted. A series of bad storms were on their way, several days out from the capital, and he wasn’t sure if they should attempt to moderate them before they formed together or shift them in another direction. He could feel the water accumulated in the clouds, a frightening amount of moisture that would result in several feet of snow. There was little he could do about it, however.

Perhaps he could ask Duo to do something about the storm by altering the temperatures that affected the wind patterns. Then he could make the snow begin to fall before the storm reached the city and prevent a nasty blizzard. The problem was, he wasn’t sure if either Duo or Heero could be trusted; the Elders wanted Kritiker battered by storms even if it meant the weather in Esset was just as messed up. Too much tinkering set everything off-kilter, and any effort on Trowa’s part could make the situation worse. No, it would be best to just control the moisture and ensure that Eto wasn’t hit by the worst of the storm. That meant an awful lot of energy expended on his part, but it would be the safest solution. There would still be a lot of snow and more bitter cold, but hopefully not enough to bring the city to a screeching halt for more than a day or two.

As he made his way back to the palace, he remembered Neely’s remarks on his ability to forecast the weather. That the girl could sense rain at her age meant that she’d be a powerful water elemental when she matured some more. Not enough to rival him, yet strong enough to attract unwanted attention. No wonder her mother was so protective of the child.

An overwhelming wave of bitterness slammed into him and made him almost double over, his shoulders hunched and his jaw clenched. What was it like to possess such innocence, to know that someone loved you so much? From what Crawford had told him, Marta had left her own sister behind in Esset to raise her child free of the Elders’ influence. She had used her powers several times to keep Neely safe from the predators drawn to a water elemental or those who sought to take the child back to Esset.

Trowa couldn’t remember his family. When he attempted to focus on his earliest memories, there was only the stench of blood and screeching fear. After that, it was the guards who had taken him in, their soft words and smiles that were meant to put him at ease. As young as he’d been, there had been moments of fear and pain, of flinching from unwanted touches. The captain had kept him safe and punished the offenders drawn to him by his nature. Then the guards had failed during an assignment and the captain had gone to the Elders to explain the situation. Trowa heard that Strength had literally torn him apart.

After that, there was no protection, no innocence. What followed had been pain, degradation and abuse with brief periods of respite while he was allowed to heal. He’d nearly been killed on several occasions by the guards’ zealousness; they’d acted as if forcing themselves on him was some sort of drug. In a way that had been true because of Trowa’s nature, which allowed no euphoria for himself. The worst moments had been when the Elders sent one of their emissaries to the guards to assign them new missions and saw the abuse. None of them had put a stop to it, although a few, including Tan Xi, had chastised the guards.

Crawford had asked him why he hated the Elders so much, for which there were many reasons. However, the main one that he’d never revealed to anyone was that the Elders had known what he was and ordered him to be left with his abusers. He’d overheard Tan Xi questioning the Elders shortly after he’d been brought to the palace, slipping back and forth between a catatonic state brought on by shock. They’d said that they’d been told he’d become a better weapon for them if he was allowed to suffer.

The ice on the buildings and sidewalks around him cracked and the man who accidentally brushed against his shoulder clutched at his chest when Trowa’s power flared in response to his emotions. Trowa never would tell the true reason why he would ensure that the Elders and their plans were utterly destroyed; he had the feeling that the only person who might possibly understand would be Aya. Oh, Quatre and Wufei would be horrified, Duo and Jei outraged and Crawford… Crawford would sympathize, but they couldn’t comprehend having one’s life torn apart and such deliberate agony inflicted upon them just because someone thought it would make them more useful.

That was why Trowa allowed Crawford to use him and why he would willingly betray some of the precious few friendships he’d formed. Why he continued to live with Duo when each passing day made him feel more tormented and divided. Why he continued to hone his talent so he could prove to the Elders just how powerful of a weapon he was, right before he decimated as much of their army that he could. One day he’d have his revenge, even though he wasn’t foolish enough to believe that it would make things better. Then he’d simply vanish, no longer to be used by anyone. Some days, that was all that kept him going.

He rubbed at his left wrist through his thick clothes, imagining that he could feel the faint scars left by the hardened leather cuff the guards had put there once he’d grown enough to fight back, and took a deep breath. Now was not the time to think about the past or the future; the future that required all of his skill and focus to navigate. He had to return to Birman and report about his conversation with Heero. Then he had to play the part of a servant during a small party being thrown by someone Birman suspected of being a sympathizer of the deceased Lord Eto. When the party was finished, he’d be free to return home after he stopped at the market for something to make for dinner. The rest of the night would be spent cooking and dealing with Duo, which would leave him utterly drained and increasingly frustrated. Tomorrow, the cycle would repeat itself with a few alterations, and again and again as the days passed.

Feeling himself grow calm, Trowa tugged his hood forward and quickened his pace. As Wufei would say, nothing can properly begin unless one steps forward. He took that step and another, determined to finish what he’d begun several years ago.

*******

Duo accepted the cup of cool water that a fellow recruit handed to him with a grateful smile then slowly slumped to the floor. Damn, but for a crippled human, Reiichi was pretty fast with the knife attacks. He blew at his sweat-soaked bangs to move them from his forehead and watched the ex-Guard attempt to show one of the women, Nicole, how to properly block an attack.

His smile widened when the talent-less human had to be shown the move two more times before she finally got it down well enough for Reiichi to give her a smile and motion for her to go wait by the wall near Duo. Nicole let out a slow breath and brushed back the dark hair that had escaped the long braid she’d tucked down the back of her white shirt before she headed toward Duo. Meanwhile, Reiichi moved on to the next recruit.

"You better get that move down pat if you don’t want to be gutted," Duo told Nicole when she hesitated to sit next to him. While he was doing his best to get along with his fellow recruits and not arouse any suspicions… Nicole *bothered* him. Judging from the way she acted around him, the feeling was mutual.

"I believe the point of training is to learn," she snapped as she yanked her braid from beneath her shirt and began to unravel it. Watching her do that reminded Duo that his own hair was a bit of a mess, but he didn’t see the point of fussing with it until it was time to rinse off before going home. Then he’d make sure it was all nice for Trowa, who always looked so presentable.

Thoughts of his roommate made him smile. Things were going a lot better than he would have thought a couple of weeks ago. He might still forget about his boots, but Trowa always reminded him before he tracked mud and slush all over the place. The apartment had become a wonderful little haven from winter, nice and warm without being too dry. The place usually smelled great, too, between the candles that Trowa had bought and the meals Trowa cooked if he was home early enough from work. Trowa had said something this morning about going to the market soon for some quail that he could make on their day off to celebrate the fact that Duo had gotten through another week of training. Remembering the slight smile on his roommate’s face as he’d been teased, Duo sighed in happiness.

Maybe it was his imagination, but Trowa was opening up a little. He didn’t always wear his hair over half of his face and hadn’t killed Duo for the few times they’d bumped into each other. Duo was also experiencing first-hand the sly, understated humor that he’d always suspected the water elemental to possess, and got to see Trowa show some real emotions from time to time.

If Wufei or Quatre knew that he was so happy to spend nights at home going over his notes while Trowa read a book or helped him to remember all the names, ranks and laws, they’d probably double over in laughter or ask him if he was all right. By all rights, Duo should be ecstatic that he had the chance to spend every night in an inn or bar, drinking himself silly but that wasn’t the case. Oh, he did a fair amount of that while socializing with his new friends and trainers, going to the Koneko a couple of nights a week. However, he didn’t enjoy those nights as much as the ones spent in his own apartment.

There’d been the thought that perhaps his desire for Trowa would fade once they lived together and he stopped idealizing the man. Nope, no such luck. If anything, Duo wanted him even more after spending nights lying beside him, enraptured by how Trowa looked with his eyes closed and masks all gone, moonlight making his golden skin glow. Duo might not be getting a lot of sleep, but that wasn’t important. No, just being so close to Trowa was, and while having to stop himself from reaching for the water elemental in the middle of the night was almost agonizing, on the whole he felt better about everything. Trowa saw him and talked to him, made him dinner and teased him about being overzealous with the fire wards, and the attention made Duo feel at peace. Frustrated as hell from unfulfilled lust, yet oddly at peace.

He was jolted from his musings when water splashed onto his left arm. He glared at Nicole rather than Peter, who had just handed her something to drink. "I don’t care if you think I stink, I’m not taking a shower until we’re done practicing," he said, fighting hard not to snarl.

Nicole responded with a grimace, her lips pulling back slightly from her teeth. "You *do* stink, and I wasn’t even touching the cup when it happened." Her golden eyes were narrowed in anger and her lips pressed tightly together.

"Right," he scoffed, his good mood completely vanished. Why the hell did this woman annoy him so much? If he wasn’t surrounded by several Guards and four dozen people trying to be Guards, he’d think she was a fire elemental bound or something and they were struggling to prove who was more powerful. But that was impossible, because no bound other than him would be foolish enough to try to join an organization that hunted his kind down. "I can see you’re choked up by the incident."

"Oh, there can be choking going on if you like," she muttered, her right hand clenching around the tin cup strongly enough to cause it to dent slightly. "I can tell the trainers that I was practicing my restraining techniques on you."

Duo struggled not to bare his teeth. "They certainly wouldn’t be surprised that you screwed that up, too, considering that you fight as well as a four year old." The woman mustn’t have touched a weapon during her entire life.

"Meanwhile, you’re the expert because I’m sure people have wanted to throttle you for your entire life," Nicole shot back. "I hear the Guards are hoping you can survive the training so they can use you during hostage situations. The plan is to throw you at the kidnappers so you’ll annoy them into surrendering."

If the bitch didn’t annoy him so much, Duo would enjoy the verbal sparring. However, he was struggling too much right now to not give in to the impulse to rip out her throat. "While your greatest feat in the Guard will be to trip during a fight and knock the suspect to the ground. If you make it through training, they’ll have to give you a desk job so you don’t hurt anyone." He felt rather smug that Reiichi hadn’t had to correct him at any point during the practice session.

Nicole rolled her eyes and sipped some water. "Gods, you sound like a kid, Duo. Why don’t you go away for a few more years until you mature a bit? My friend Jared’s more of an adult than you, which is saying something." She frowned as she looked over at her friend, who was laughing with several other recruits while he attempted to learn how to toss a knife so it flipped in the air and landed hilt first in his hand.

Following her line of sight, Duo sniggered into his almost empty cup. "’Friend’, eh? Can’t come up with a better euphemism than that? Everyone knows the two of you are screwing around." That was a blatant lie, but he derived great satisfaction in the way she sputtered and choked on a mouthful of water. He refrained from patting her on the back since he might end up hitting her too hard.

Wiping the back of her right hand over her mouth, Nicole turned to glare at him, the look setting off the feeling that he was being challenged. "You’re a lying bastard."

"Aw, now you’re breaking my heart," Duo replied while batting his eyes. "Here I was hoping to snatch you away from the big lug and win you over."

"I’d rather be fed to a starving flesh gaki than ever have sex with you," Nicole retorted, her eyes almost glowing with anger. "I’d certainly get more pleasure out of that."

"I always thought you were a sick bitch." Cursing himself for letting the animosity he felt for the woman get out of hand, he jerked his right hand through his bangs and tugged on them to focus on the pain. "Sorry," he forced himself to say.

"Don’t be, not when you think it’s true. Not as if I care what an asshole like you thinks," Nicole sniffed, not seeming terribly offended by the insult.

Focus on Trowa, Duo told himself. Trowa wouldn’t let things get out of hand, wouldn’t show any emotion other than slight annoyance. Duo also had to remember that there was a lot at stake here; if he failed to become a Guard, not only would he have to leave Trowa, but the Elders would *not* be pleased.

"Well, then, it’s agreed that we loathe each other too much to ever be lovers, thank the gods. Let’s just pray that we don’t get assigned to each other as partners."

Nicole actually flinched at the idea. "Fates avert," she mumbled and clutched at a tiny silver amulet that she wore on a leather thong around her neck.

"Yeah, I’m not crazy about the idea either," Duo said. He just didn’t understand it – normally, he got along with everyone. Well, he got the occasional death threat from Heero and Wufei, and Jei seemed determined to bite a chunk or two out of him, but he didn’t take those things personally. No, he was generally liked by all, adored by babies and lusted after by the young and sexy. That was *not* the case with Nicole. He was very tempted to call upon his talent and see if that got a reaction from – no, that was utterly ridiculous. There would never be any other bounds in the Guard.

There was a sudden burst of applause, which made Duo and Nicole stop sniping at each other and look to see what prompted it. Reiichi had Dan, a recruit who had to be twice his size, lying flat on his back on the floor mats. A knife lay several feet from the poor kid, while the one in Reiichi’s hand hovered over Dan’s throat.

"Great! We’re getting into advance maneuvers, finally," Duo said with a smile, pleased that he’d have something to do now. Even if he had to hold back on his reflexes, it was fun sparring with other people. While he could always practice with Trowa… he had no desire for getting his ass handed to him by the very talented water elemental. That was another thing that Reiichi and Trowa had ‘bonded’ over, he thought as he scowled at the ex-Guard. Both men preferred knives as weapons and were damn deadly with the things.

Reiichi smiled at Dan as he sheathed the knife then helped the kid stand on his feet. When several recruits rushed forward to talk about the maneuver, Reiichi gently waved them aside and promised to show the move to them once they improved their skills. It was then that Duo realized that there were two new Guards standing off to the side of the floor mats. Dammit, he really needed to stay away from Nicole if the woman affected his concentration so much.

He recognized Yuushi immediately since the Guard lived at the Koneko. The tall, blond man appeared a bit frazzled, his thick hair falling onto his face since he repeatedly combed his fingers through it. The equally tall redhead beside him, though, was a stranger. Knowing it was his job to compile a list of as many Guards as possible, he let out an aggrieved sigh and turned to Nicole to see if she had any clue who the guy was.

Seeing the way her eyes lit up and her lips spread into a wide grin, he’d go out on a limb and guess that she just might know the Guard. "What, is he an old boyfriend or something?"

Nicole’s smile faded slightly when she looked his way. "As a matter of fact, he is." She quickly rose to her feet with a suspicious amount of grace, dusting off her hands as she moved. "I think it’s time I talk to someone who isn’t an asshole."

"Good luck with that one; I think you bring it out in people," Duo muttered, but he kept his attention focused on her. She certainly seemed to fuss a lot over her appearance as she approached the two Guards.

The strange Guard’s impassive expression turned into one of surprise and joy when he noticed Nicole. Duo was about to sneak closer to overhear them when Reiichi suddenly appeared beside him.

"Duo, since you’re highly skilled at knife play, I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind assisting me with the other recruits," Reiichi asked in that always smooth, polite tone of his. It made Duo want to do something to fluster him, to get him agitated and do something other than smile.

However, he had to keep in mind the mission, and any chance that he could ingratiate himself with the Guard was to be seized. He also reminded himself that Trowa, no matter how friendly he got, would never fuck around with a human. "Sure, Reiichi," he replied with false cheer, then nodded in the direction of the two Guards. "Ah, who’s that guy? I didn’t think there were any Guards I haven’t met yet at the Koneko!"

Reiichi’s smile weakened for a moment as he adjusted his wire rim glasses. "No, I imagine you wouldn’t have met before now. The gentleman is Blair. He’s recently been named Yuushi’s adjutant." His smile returning in full force, Reiichi waved to the gentleman in question. "Blair is somewhat more formal than the rest of us."

Duo couldn’t help but laugh at that remark. "Someone’s more formal than you, Reiichi? Say it ain’t so!"

"Yes, I must admit that it’s rather amusing, but I’m afraid I can’t compete with Blair." Reiichi chuckled and rubbed his left hand over his right wrist. "He’ll do well in the new position; the highborn at Court adore him for his manners and don’t seem to notice that he’s ordering them about. Also, his lack of public drinking aside, he’s well thought of in the Guard." He turned to Duo, his demeanor gone serious all of a sudden. "Blair hasn’t been in the Guard for very long. I would think it would be an inspiration to recruits that hard work, skill, loyalty and intelligence are clearly rewarded in the Guard."

Somehow, Duo had the impression that there was a message hidden in there, one that was meant to hit home. However, he was distracted when Blair put his arm around Nicole’s shoulders and gave her a hug. The embrace wasn’t a passionate one; rather it put him in mind of sympathy or reassurance. Nicole didn’t seem happy about something, at least not until Yuushi reached over and patted her right shoulder.

Reiichi cleared his throat and looked Duo’s way again. "I know you’ve been resting for a while, so why don’t you warm up and I’ll be back in a few minutes. The recruits seem to have gotten the basics of defense, and I’d like to show them some of the simpler attacks."

"Whatever you say," Duo replied, eager to do something other than sit on his ass all afternoon. He also couldn’t help but think that Trowa would probably be pleased to hear about him helping Reiichi with the class, since the two men were friends. Wondering when exactly he’d turn into a lovesick fool and why that fact didn’t bother him, Duo went over to one of the smaller mats and began to stretch. All the while, he continued to study the new Guard.

Nicole stood between Yuushi and Blair, seemingly restored from whatever had made her so upset minutes before. Not only did Reiichi approach the small group, but Jared did as well, and Nicole introduced him to Blair.

Duo would be the first to admit that he wasn’t the greatest expert on human emotion and interaction, but he’d spent the last few years working as the Elders’ agent. Staring at the small group, he had a strong feeling that there was more connecting them than was apparent. Something that bound Nicole and Jared together even though they fought like cats and dogs, and it wasn’t that they came from the same small village. And there was something about the way that Blair seemed to defer to Reiichi just as much as he did Yuushi, who not only was an active Guard but the second in command. Blair wasn’t the only one to act like that around Reiichi; on the few days when the retired Guard assisted with training, all of the other Guards involved with the training acted as if Reiichi was the one in charge.

Oh yes, something was definitely suspicious… and Duo was content to just wonder about things for the time being. His mission right now was to infiltrate the Guard; once he was accepted and given the job, then the Elders would expect him to report back information on the organization. Until then, he wasn’t going to tell them a damn thing.

He might work for the bastards, but never willingly. Somewhere in Berin, Solo continued to live because of the oath Duo had sworn to the Elders over ten years ago. While he had no choice other than to honor that oath, he didn’t have to exactly go about it in the best spirit. The Elders would get the information they needed to win the war, nothing more. And once the damn war was over, then Duo could hope to be allowed from their leash long enough to find his friend.

Duo just hoped that Trowa didn’t try to gather any information from him. So far, the water elemental appeared perfectly willing to allow him the time to become a Guard and didn’t talk much about their missions. From the very little that was said, Duo had the feeling that Trowa, whom he’d always assumed to be a good little soldier, wasn’t very pleased to be working for the Elders, either. Trowa’s expression would always go perfectly impassive whenever Duo mentioned the old bastards, and the subject would always end up changed, even if Duo couldn’t figure out how half the time.

If it wasn’t for that promise and the fact that Solo had saved his life, he’d be half-tempted to beg Trowa to run away. Trowa only worked for the Elders since he had no family or home outside of Berin. They’d be safe as long as they stayed in Kritiker, at least until the war. Even then, they were powerful enough to handle anyone sent to bring them back, even if it was Heero or Quatre or Wufei. Fire and water were a deadly combination; between the two of them they could easily control the weather and negate Heero’s talent. Duo could burn whatever Wufei threw at them, and no one could use their talent when Trowa drained all of the blood from their body or rushed it straight to their brain.

What it came down to in the end, though, was that Duo wasn’t willing to betray a friend. There was no way he’d walk away from the debt he owed Solo, for taking him in off the streets and remaining his friend when Solo found out that he was a bound. No, it was that which kept him tied to the Elders more than some silly promise. So he wouldn’t run away and he’d ultimately do what he’d been sent here to do, even if he tried to limit the amount of damage.

He felt an ache in his chest as he looked around the gym, at the people he’d befriended in the last couple of weeks. In the end, he’d betray them all, and the only people who might understand were stuck in the same lousy situation he was. That realization made him want to go home, gather Trowa in his arms and hold him close. To feel that someone else could sympathize with the pain and hatred he felt. If he thought he could get away with doing such a thing without Trowa causing an aneurysm in his brain, he’d do it, too.

Something inside of him stirred at the thought of holding Trowa close and filled his thoughts with images that were not appropriate in a public situation. Pushing aside the nagging fact that water elementals could keep their lovers going ‘all night’, or at least until they passed out from exhaustion, Duo focused on less arousing things like Nicole and having to train a bunch of clumsy idiots. That and he thanked the gods that Jei hadn’t been assigned to infiltrate the Guards as well. Good thing he’d have a chance to wash off before going to the Koneko to drink with his new ‘friends’.

*******

Masato added several logs to the fire before he removed his robe and stretched out naked on the bed, on top of the covers and quilt. "I’ve known women who took less time to get ready for bed than you," he couldn’t help but tease his mate.

Over at the washbasin, Schuldig raised his soap lather-covered face and squinted his closed eyes shut a little more, as if trying to convey a glare. The effort wasn’t needed since Masato could feel his emotions, but it was very amusing to see. That only seemed to increase Schuldig’s annoyance.

Rinsing off his face, Schuldig dried it with a towel and snatched up his hairbrush. "Well, nothing’s stopping you from being with one of them, is there?" he snapped as he knelt at the end of the bed and repeatedly smacked the back of the brush against his left palm.

Oh, nothing but a very irate and possessive soul gaki bound, Masato thought as quietly as possible. The Koneko had seen enough fighting lately – he wouldn’t even attempt to joke that he was going to go off in search of an ex-lover or two. "What can I say, you make up for it in many, *many* ways," he offered instead, his smile growing wider at the way that Schuldig’s anger immediately vanished.

"Hmph, you’re a wise man." Schuldig gave up on pretending to be upset and crawled up the bed to settle on top of Masato, still dressed in his robe. "I’ll let you live a little longer."

"Thank you." Masato pressed a kiss against the top of his lover’s head, his left arm wrapping around Schuldig’s waist as his right hand snatched away the brush. He loved brushing his lover’s hair and making the unruly strands shine; loved the way that Schuldig’s smaller body fit on top of his, as if he was sheltering his mate by holding him close. He’d give anything to keep Schuldig safe from harm.

Purring softly, Schuldig ran his hands up and down Masato’s sides while his hair was brushed free of any tangles. <You were talking to Crawford after dinner. What does the bastard want us to do now?> Schuldig sent, his thoughts tinged with sleepiness and pleasure.

"He wants me to talk to Logan again," Masato answered, not surprised that Schuldig had noticed that. "However, I told him it could wait. Logan needs a couple of weeks to get in touch with a few friends, and me hounding him all the time will just scare him off." Even though Schuldig’s hair was smooth like silk, he continued to brush it, enjoying the pleasure that flowed over their link from the action. "I know we don’t have that much time left, but rushing things can be just as bad as doing nothing."

Schuldig moved his head slightly as if trying to nod in agreement, but not possessing enough energy to do it properly. "Crawford drags his feet on some things and pushes for others to be done right away. Then he yells when things aren’t perfect. I can’t believe I’m related to him," he grumbled, his brows knotting together in a very adorable manner. He let out a slow breath and lightly scratched his claws along Masato’s ribs. "So, if we’re not running around for him tomorrow, what are we going to do?"

Finally setting the brush aside, Masato combed his fingers through the thick strands. No matter how much Cassandra and Crawford might complain about their son’s appearance, he was delighted that Schuldig refused to cut his hair or attempt to tame its wildness. "There’s Yohji’s lesson in the morning, and then we’ve the day to ourselves." He didn’t want to dwell on his son at the moment so he concentrated on his plans for the rest of the day. "Thought I might take you out someplace nice for dinner, then we could always sweet-talk Jo into a pot of mulled wine and a plate of goodies and spend the night up here." He arched his eyebrows as he stared at his mate, waiting for Schuldig’s opinion of the plans.

Appearing to think about it for several seconds, Schuldig smiled and once again dragged his claws along Masato’s sensitive ribs. "Hey, I’m all for spending the entire day up here, but if you want to wine and dine me, I won’t object too much." His smile took on a wicked edge and his emotions bubbled with amusement. "I’ll warn you now, I’m not cheap."

"Oh, yes you are," Masato said and gave his lover’s ass a squeeze. "You’re a sure thing."

Schuldig growled slightly at the teasing and poked him in the left side with one of those sharp claws. "That doesn’t mean I’m cheap," he replied with an indignant sniff before his expression turned serious. <Why don’t you want to think about Yohji too much? I thought the two of you were managing with the whole ‘me top dog’ thing.>

Trust Schuldig to pick up on his concerns and say something like that. He really was a spoiled brat, Masato thought with fondness and gave his mate’s ass a gentle whap. <You’ve been sneaking around in my thoughts lately?>

This time, Schuldig snorted, the sound loud and offended. <I don’t have to ‘sneak around’. Mates, remember? Idiot.> He wrinkled his nose and stuck out his tongue.

Masato gave him a sheepish smile in return. Dammit, how long until he got used to being mates with a soul gaki bound? Well, not so much ‘used’ to things, as…. The ‘problem’, if one could call it that, wasn’t that they were linked together emotionally and telepathically almost all the time. It was that it had happened so insidiously that Masato was barely aware of all the connections and currents between him and Schuldig. He would occasionally attempt to keep some thoughts private, but he rarely blocked the link or was blocked in return. As a result, he must have just gotten so used to it that he didn’t notice that his thoughts were so readily available to his lover.

As if to prove his theory, Schuldig nodded, easily following his train of thought. "Soul gaki and succubae bound; thought and emotion. Mom warned me that this might happen." He didn’t seem concerned about whatever ‘this’ was.

Masato did some poking of his own, right in a spot on Schuldig’s ribs where the brat was particularly ticklish. "What might happen that you didn’ think to warn me about?"

"That we won’t know where one begins and one ends at times," Schuldig explained after several seconds of glaring over his ‘assault’. "That our link would be so strong."

"Nice of you or her to warn me," Masato muttered, even if he wasn’t really upset. After the almost none-existent link he’d shared with Miyuki, it felt so incredibly good to be strongly tied to Schuldig.

"Well, you were the idiot who insisted on us being mates, if I remember correctly," Schuldig replied at his bratty best. "So you just have yourself to blame."

"Yeah, for getting myself stuck to a bundle of trouble like you, Brat," Masato teased, laughing at the way Schuldig pouted in response. Gods, how he adored his mate. With Miyuki, he always had to hold himself back; that was something that Schuldig would never tolerate.

His mate poked him in the ribs again. "You’re thinking about Miyuki, which means you’re trying not to think about Yohji. I noticed how you got off that topic pretty quickly."

Thankfully, Schuldig had gotten over whatever jealousy he had over Masato’s first mate, which was good. There was no way to compare the two, really. However, life had been a bit easier when Masato’s mind wasn’t so easily read all the time.

Taking a deep breath, he tenderly tucked back the reddish-orange strands that fell onto his love’s forehead. "Yes, I’m avoiding talking about Yohji and no, it’s not because we’re fighting over who’s the strongest succubae bound." The more time he spent with his son, the clearer it became that Yohji was stronger and his demon soul finally accepted that.

"So, what’s the problem, eh? Don’t tell me you’re still worried that I’ll drag him to the nearest bed and molest him or something," Schuldig muttered, his emotions taking on the exasperated feel that always happened when Masato thought of his son as a rival for Schuldig’s affections.

"No." Masato took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Schu… aren’t you a bit worried about Yohji’s new talent?" he asked, finally daring to voice something that had bothered him for the last week.

Frowning in earnest, Schuldig searched through Masato’s thoughts for a better understanding of what he was talking about. As he did that, Masato could sense his lover’s thoughts; Schuldig’s concern for him and Yohji, and curiosity for what it was that had Masato so worried. As more time passed, Masato found it easier to guess what Schuldig was thinking and pick up stray thoughts.

<You’re really bothered by this new talent, aren’t you?> Schuldig asked, surprised by the depth of Masato’s feelings. <Why? It’s similar to what you can do. I’ve seen you cast glamour over a roomful of people.> He felt jealous over that memory.

"Not quite, Brat." Masato combed the fingers of both hands through his lover’s hair, brushing it back from Schuldig’s face. "I can *influence* a large amount of people at once, but can only command one at a time. Even then, if the person isn’t attracted to me or fully under the glamour’s influence, they can resist the order. Yohji seems to be able to command more than one person at a time, whether or not they’re attracted to him. As long as he uses the new talent, it’ll continue to grow stronger."

<Yohji won’t use it for the wrong reasons, Masato. He’s not interested in power.> Schuldig leaned his head to the side so he could nuzzle Masato’s arm. "You worry too much, old man."

"Hmph, and you don’t worry enough." Masato untangled his left hand from Schuldig’s hair so he could caress his mate’s cheek. "It’s not just Yohji, Schu. He’s mated to Aya, a kage. They’ll both become more powerful the longer they live, and they’re already the strongest bounds I know. One of them alone could be bad enough, but-"

"No," Schuldig snapped, his temper flaring as his claws dug slightly into Masato’s flesh. "Look, Yohji is *not* interested in power or being in charge or any of that shit. He wants to sit around all day, drink lots of wine and pounce on Aya, who only wants to be left alone so Yohji can pounce on him when he’s not reading books. I’m willing to bet both of our lives that if given a chance and the promise of care packages from Jo, those two will vanish off the face of the earth. Yohji’s already making plans to leave the Koneko – once that happens, they’ll find someplace quiet and out of the way to hide. While I don’t think that Yohji realizes how valuable his new talent makes him to some people, he’s well aware that there will always be people who want a kage and he’ll never let them use Aya."

He pulled away, sitting upright over Masato’s hips. "As for the question you’re trying not to ask me, no, I’m *not* afraid of Yohji." He made a hissing sound, his hair bristling like the fur of a seriously pissed off cat. "I’ve been in his head almost every day for about ten years; no one knows him as well as I do, not even Aya. The only thing that would make me terrified of Yohji was if I did something stupid and deliberately hurt Aya or another of his loved ones."

Staring at his infuriated mate, Masato sighed and stroked his hands down Schuldig’s arms. "Okay, I’m an idiot and you’ve set me straight." He focused on the thoughts and memories that were the root of his concern; all those years of Yoru hunting for him.

<I’ll admit that I don’t know Yohji or Aya as well as you, but I’m much more familiar with how people think about bounds,> he attempted to explain. <The blood of an almost pure demon succubae bound is in very high demand because of how it can drastically increase the potency of love, coercion and glamour spells. What about the blood of a succubae bound who’s mated to a kage and can compel people to obey his will? That would be almost as valuable as kage’s blood.>

Schuldig’s anger slowly evaporated, his scowl changing into a worried frown. <Only a couple of people know about Yohji’s talent, and no one will betray Aya.>

<No… not now. What happens in a few more years, Schu?> Masato sighed again as he finally voiced what had been bothering him these last few days. <Why have we spent the last week or so searching out fellow bounds? The war will be here soon enough, and then everyone will know about Aya and Yohji. Not who they are, but that there’s a kage and a very powerful succubae bound out there somewhere.> He felt so frustrated just thinking about it. To put an end to the war, Aya and Yohji would have to unleash their power. While Yohji had a chance of not being noticed, as soon as shadows descended upon the battlefield and began tearing people apart, everyone will know that a kage was fighting for Kritiker.

<Crawford and Mom will think of something, and Aya has his shadow armor. He’ll hide his and Yohji’s appearances, just like during the wedding reception.> Schuldig’s thoughts were hesitant, as if he knew he was grasping at straws.

Masato shook his head. "Too many people know about Aya as it is, even if they’ll keep the secret for the sake of the war. If a wizard or a human is determined enough, they’ll track him and Yohji down."

"Yohji and Aya will kill whoever tries to use or harm them," Schuldig pointed out, a grim smile on his face.

There were times when Masato was forced to face just how young Schuldig was, and how sheltered was his upbringing. Cassandra had done a great job of teaching him how to use his talent, but much like Marta, she’d been a bit too overzealous in protecting him from danger. "Every kage has been brought down because of someone they loved," Masato reminded his young lover with painful regret. "And everyone knows that if you hope to control a kage, you go after his or her loved one." He couldn’t help but to think that since Aya was mated to Yohji, it made the situation that much worse. "What do you think people will do when they realize that the two most powerful bounds are mated to each other?" he whispered.

Judging from the upheaval of Schuldig’s thoughts and emotions, he could very easily imagine what those people would attempt to do. "Those assholes will have to deal with me and mom, first." His glare returned, containing true vitriol this time. "You just gonna sit there and do nothing while someone tries to enslave your son?"

"No way in hell. I swear on my soul that I’ll die before that happens." Masato bared his teeth and shook his head. While he was still learning to love Yohji as his son, he did care for the boy and Aya as well. There was also the fact that Miyuki’s ghost would haunt him forever for failing in his promise to always protect their son. "The Koneko’s staff will protect them, and the Shadow Guard as well. I’m just worried what will happen in the future."

Mollified by the promise, Schuldig grumbled under his breath and once more lay against Masato’s chest. "See, you’re being an old man again. We’ve got enough to deal with in the next few years, don’t go giving us both grey hairs when that future’s a ways off." He lightly scratched Masato. "Besides, I’ll figure out something."

Masato picked up images of Omi and had the feeling that his mate and the prince would be putting their heads together on the matter. While Schuldig planning *anything* should terrify the hell out of him, he actually felt reassured. Schuldig and Omi were two of Yohji’s best friends and would think of something.

Expecting another scratch for his thoughts, Masato smiled when he realized that his lover was too focused on his own and tired as well. When a pleased smile spread across Schuldig’s face and he began to purr, Masato figured that a possible solution had been found.

"Whatever it is, warn me if it involves mass chaos or slaughter, all right? Then I can practice my ‘but I didn’t know a thing’ lines," he teased as his right hand stroked along the back of Schuldig’s neck.

"Bastard." Schuldig bared his teeth... the expression quickly ruined by a drawn-out yawn.

<You’re tired, Brat. Save the bitching until tomorrow.> Concerned for his lover, Masato sent a trickle of energy over their link.

<Dammit, I forgot how draining it can be to have so many unshielded minds around me. Got a bit soft in Berin,> Schuldig admitted with a fierce glower to hide his sheepishness. <Scanning a bunch of minds for Crawford hasn’t helped.>

"Then go to sleep." Masato leaned forward to press a kiss against Schuldig’s forehead.

"Meh." Schuldig narrowed his eyes and poked Masato in the ribs. "I’m only giving in now because I refuse to do any half-assed bitching. First thing in the morning, I’ll show you the error of your ways, then you better be prepared to be seriously pounced."

"I’d be shivering in my boots if I had any on," Masato replied, laughing when he got another glare in return. "Go to bed, Brat. You’re even grumpier than usual when you’re tired." And much more fun when he wasn’t, which was something that Masato looked forward to in the morning. By then, his hunger would be nice and sharp, demanding to be fed.

<Damn right I’m a lot of fun.> Schuldig shifted forward for a quick kiss and a nip to Masato’s bottom lip. <You’re lucky to have me.>

"I tell myself that every day." Masato spoke the words with true conviction, slightly dampening the teasing mood. Not that his mate seemed to mind, considering the longer and more passionate kiss Schuldig gave him, only ending when Schuldig yawned again.

Glad that they’d have the day off tomorrow, Masato helped Schuldig get rid of the robe and to crawl beneath the covers. He made sure that the fire had enough wood to last through the night and put out all the candles with a quietly spoken word. Then he joined his mate in the bed, spooning behind Schuldig’s back and holding him close.

He still felt some concern for Yohji, but Schuldig was right; there was no sense in worrying about that far in the future when they had a lot to face before then. He just hoped that there came the day when his mate could tease him about tonight and call him a paranoid old man.

*******

Reno leaned against the marble mantle of the fireplace and tapped a deck of cards against its smooth surface. "Wanna play, Elena?" he asked with a mostly innocent expression on his face.

Elena looked up from her book, her brow furrowing when she noticed the cards. "No, Reno."

"Aw, come on, I’ll let you bet half as much as I do," he offered as he pushed away from the fireplace to stalk around the overly furnished main room. Rufus’ ancestors had some seriously bad taste, he thought as he kicked an ottoman covered with gold velvet. There was gold all throughout the apartment, enough to make him gag with the painted flourishes and useless bits of furniture.

"*No*, Reno; you cheat," Elena muttered, now holding the book in front of her face as if a shield. Reno stopped in front of her, his arms folded over his chest. "Why don’t you go make yourself a snack?" she said a moment later, as a slight breeze began to wind its way through the room.

"I don’t cheat and I’m not hungry." Growing annoyed that he was wasting one of his best pouts on the woman, he sighed in frustration and jerked his left hand through his hair. "Fine, I’ll go take another fucking bath, even if I’m about to turn into a damn fish by now." He stomped his feet as he left the room, shoulders hunched forward as he continued to sulk. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Elena wave ‘goodbye’ to him, and he suddenly didn’t feel so guilty about what he was going to do.

Slamming the bedroom door shut, he stomped around some more as he gathered his cloak, boots and a purse full of money that he’d hidden from Rufus. He’d discovered in the last couple of weeks that while Rufus could easily read his thoughts now, the controlling bastard didn’t spend the time or effort to read all of them. That meant as long as Reno didn’t focus on the thoughts or memories, or give Rufus any reason to search them out, he could get away with a few things.

Once he had everything he needed, he went to the bathroom. For the last few days, he’d spent an awful lot of time taking baths as something to do to escape the boredom. Rufus was only taking Rude, Tseng and Elena with him while he met with various highborns and businesspeople, leaving one of the gokenin behind to make sure that Reno behaved. Sneering at his absent mate, Reno even took the time to fill the bathtub with hot water.


Rufus’ biggest mistake was in blocking the link between them; he did it every time he left the apartment, unwilling to have his attention ‘be diverted during an important discussion’. Reno bet it was just so he couldn’t bitch about basically being imprisoned again. He knew that Tseng and Rude had asked Rufus to allow him to resume his duties, but someone was being a stubborn, stupid bastard.

Why was it so important that Rufus keep him locked up? They weren’t surrounded by bounds who might guess what Reno was anymore. Really, the man made no sense most of the time. However, Reno couldn’t complain too much when Rufus’ moronic behavior was giving him a great chance to find out what it was the shinigami wanted him to see.

Elena shouldn’t notice that he was gone for the next half an hour, possibly an hour. No doubt that she’d immediately contact Rufus once she realized what had happened, and Reno hoped to be in the western part of the city by then. He was certain that Rufus would try to force him to return, and he was determined not to give in to his mate this time. Unlike in Berin, he wasn’t starving to death and he knew what was going on. Rufus was in for one hell of a surprise tonight.

Pulling on the cloak and his boots, Reno went to the room’s biggest window, one set high in the wall to allow in as much light as possible while also allowing privacy. He easily climbed the wall and undid the lock while snorting at the lack of a challenge. True, the window was a bit on the narrow side, but he was skinny and flexible, so he was outside clinging to the wall in less than a minute. He took the time to close the window again, so Elena didn’t notice the air becoming colder or a change in pressure while he was gone.

It was a lovely, dark night outside, the slivers of moons in the sky mostly obscured by clouds that were steadily dropping thick snowflakes. All that darkness made it very easy for Reno to use shadows to both cloak himself and to crawl down the wall instead of jumping. Once on the ground, he faced west and waited for his friends.

<Ah, clever you are. Go now, go west,> one of the shinigami crooned while what felt to be several of them pushed Reno to move.

"This better be worth me getting in a shitload of trouble," he said, his voice a sibilant hiss.

<Oh yes, worth it indeed. Both of you will be so very happy.>

Once again left with the impression that he was supposed to meet a person, Reno shrugged and pulled the hood of his cloak over his head. The night was bitterly cold so few people were outside, but it didn’t really bother him. The shadows he pulled around him were comforting, a familiar coolness that soothed him and lessened the concern he felt about what would happen once Rufus found him gone. His mate needed to learn that Reno wasn’t his fucking slave.

He could have ‘borrowed’ a horse from the inn’s stables, yet he chose to run instead. It had been too long since he could let go like this, to unleash the speed he was told to keep restrained. Running for several blocks, he came to a section of the city that was comprised of mostly buildings, all of them a few stories tall.

Climbing the walls of one of them, he quickly scaled his way to the roof and headed west that way, the city laid out before him like glittering jewels on a dark velvet blanket. Up here he could see everything: the temple districts with their fanciful roofs and eternally burning fires, the palace lit up as if in invitation, the scattered pools of black that were the city’s many parks. Between them all were ribbons of light, the various streets with their lamps and storefronts. The snow continued to fall, slowly but thickly coating everything with a layer of sparkling white.

Up here, Reno could feel the cold breeze against his face, threatening to push back his hood as it blew the strands of his hair into his eyes and mouth. He laughed as he raced through the city, running and jumping and climbing over its various buildings. If he stayed on the ground it would be a more direct route, but this… this was *challenging*. It was *exhilarating*. He felt alive at times like these, above all the silly humans who confused and annoyed him.

He was tempted to return to the ground for a moment and grab a human, perhaps one of the lurkers he spotted in the darker alleys, and feed. However, he wasn’t sure if Rufus had blocked the link strongly enough to not notice the rush of emotion and energy Reno felt when he fed. No, it was best to continue onward, to not waste precious time when his hunger was mostly satisfied. Besides, when Rufus did his best to chain Reno to the bed for this little excursion, at least Reno would be allowed outside of the apartment every now and then to feed.

The buildings thinned out the farther west he went, moving away from the shopping districts to areas with more open ground. Disappointed that his fun had to end so soon, Reno returned to the ground, now running silently over cobblestone streets. He enjoyed himself spooking a horse and making it rear up in its harness, upending the cart behind it. Sniggering at the fuss he left in his wake, he slowed down when he reached a crossroads.

"Okay, now’s when I get a better answer than ‘go west’," he told the shinigami, certain they were still with him even if he couldn’t see them.

In answer, he felt a gentle nudge that urged him to turn left. <We’ll lead now, young one. Not much farther.>

<Such a fun run! We felt your joy along the way. No joy for you here until tonight,> one of the shinigami whispered.

<No, no joy at all. You shouldn’t be made to suffer, young one. Only your own kind can understand you.>

Reno felt a lump in his throat that he struggled to swallow. They were right – he hadn’t been happy since entering Eto, and Rufus didn’t understand him. No one did, not even Rude and Reeve, who at least tried. "He’s my lord and mate," he attempted to explain, feeling himself grow distant from Rufus while the shinigami swirled around him. Something inside of him ached so *deeply* at each gossamer touch and made him want to… to…. He took a shuddering breath and fought the impulse to tear at his flesh, to rip it away so it didn’t keep him trapped any longer. The only thing that helped to deny the urge was the thought of Rufus.

<Leave him in peace,> one of the voices, the high-pitched one, scolded the others. <Now he and the other young one won’t be alone. They’ll have their own pack.>

<They’re *our* pack. No flesh or oaths should bind them,> another snarled, most likely the shinigami that whirled violently around Reno then shoved him hard enough to make him stumble.

Invisible hands caught him and steadied him back on his feet then tugged him forward. <The golden one will not be happy. He refuses to share.>

<That one has no choice. Like draws to like, and the pack comes first.> That statement set of a spate of hissing, the faint voices crashing together in an argument.

"Please, stop it," Reno whimpered, his arms wrapped around himself as he felt himself be torn apart. The shinigami had never been as vocal as this before, so insistent that he do anything other than kill himself. He hurt so much, felt as if he was encased in lead and only wanted to be free. The human part of him screamed in terror.

Some of the touches faded and the voices quieted. <Poor young one – what they’ve done to create you is unforgivable. Better you’ll be, we promise. The human taint won’t hurt so much, soon,> one of them soothed.

"I fucking hope so," he muttered, slowly moving forward, toward a red brick and wood-covered inn. Much more of this and Rufus would notice, and after all of this pain and trouble, Reno wanted some answers before he was dragged back home.

Walking through the inn’s front gate, he went up the stairs and dropped the shadows hiding him from sight. "This the place? Who am I looking for?" he asked, relieved that he’d made it here before Rufus discovered he was gone and anxious about what was inside.

<Oh yes, you are here. Go inside, he’ll find you.>

"Let’s hope he’s buying drinks, whoever he is. I could certainly use one now." Taking a deep breath, Reno pushed open the inn’s front door.

*******