Darkness Returns

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chapter eleven

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shadow meets like

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"…. Lord Nohara is supposed to…"

Trowa caught a fragment of what Birman was trying to tell him, his focus wavering for a moment as he struggled to gather enough energy to affect the approaching storm. Then her voice faded away as he put that scarce amount of energy to use, doing his best to alter things enough that the storm began to dump the snow before it reached Eto. Unfortunately, the storm was fighting back.

For the last three days, he’d done his best to change the storm’s pattern enough to prevent a series of major blizzards from slamming into the city. Normally, it would take him a day of careful manipulation to lessen the damage, yet in three days he’d barely managed to do anything other than seriously drain his energy reserves. There was no doubt in his mind that the Elders had deliberately set this storm on their enemy’s capital – and that they had help.


Trowa suddenly felt better that he hadn’t mentioned the storm to Heero that day in the park or at dinner the other night. He’d been grateful for his composure when the air elemental bound had remarked to him about not straying far from home in the next few days, a rare, sly smile on Heero’s face. That explained why the storm was heading straight for Eto, increasing in speed despite its ungainly size.

Crawford had warned that the Elders would undoubtedly give Heero his own set of orders, and had been loathe to allow Schuldig inside the air elemental’s head to do more than plant a few suggestive thoughts and mental barriers. When Trowa had told his friend about the approaching storm, Crawford appeared worried yet warned him that the most important thing was that the Elders didn’t realize that Trowa was attempting to manipulate the weather in Kritiker’s favor.

"Trowa?"

Realizing that he was allowing himself to be distracted, Trowa extended his talent even further. There was so much moisture in the clouds that there was no hope that he could save Eto from a nasty storm. If he pushed it lower in the atmosphere, it would most likely turn into freezing rain due to the bitter cold, which would be more damaging than snow. If he had dared to ask Duo for some assistance, then something could be done about the temperature but the risk was too high. No, his best bet was to force some of the snow to start falling now, while the storm was still a couple of hours outside the city, and delay the rest of it. Struggling to gather enough energy, he pushed as much of the snow that he could higher up, hoping that it wouldn’t fall until past the city. His heart was beating so fast that all he could hear was the sound of blood racing through his ears. Just a little more energy….

Sudden pain startled him out from the trance, tearing his thoughts from the storm and forcing him to gather enough strength to lash out at whoever had attacked him. Never again, no more abuse – he drew in a ragged breath when he realized that he’d expended too much energy on the storm and he fought to open his eyes. Not again, not when he was defenseless, no-

"Trowa!" A clearly upset Birman stood before him, her right hand hovering in the air as if to smack him again. When she realized that he was awake, she quickly lowered her hand and stepped back a reassuring distance. "Trowa, are you all right?"

He could barely manage a nod, his body not wanting to obey commands. Birman, it was Birman. He should be safe with her, Crawford had promised. While he struggled to find the strength to speak, Birman frowned, seeming to be divided over something, and then pulled a small flask from the pouch she wore on her belt.

"I’m sorry about this," she murmured before stepping in close and grasping his jaw. He was about to lash out with the feeble remnants of his talent when he sensed what was in the flask that she pressed against his lips. Instead of attacking, he used the last of his precious energy to part his lips and swallow.

Pure whiskey flowed into his mouth, liquid fire that burned down his throat and settled in his stomach. It would take a minute or two, but the alcohol would quickly be converted into necessary energy; there were benefits to being a water elemental bound, after all, he thought with a hint of hysteria. Of course, he would have to wait until he regained some of that strength to negate the alcohol content of the drink or he’d end up drunk on top of exhausted.

Once the flask was empty, Birman swore under her breath and hurried to her desk. She tore off the lid to the ever present carafe of coffee the same time she fumbled inside one of her desk drawers with her left hand. Letting out a crow of victory, she yanked out another flask, this one much larger than the one she kept in her pouch, and poured its content into the carafe. When the flask was empty, she tossed it aside and picked up the carafe, swirling it carefully to mix what was inside as she returned to Trowa.

"Here, this should help," she said, and seemed surprise when he was able to lift his arms to grab the carafe. Birman kept hold of it still, which was good because Trowa wasn’t able to support its full weight. At least he could control how much of the whiskey-laced coffee flowed into his mouth.

It took a couple of minutes, but he managed to empty the carafe and not pass out. Fighting the urge to close his eyes, he trembled and attempted to brush aside the hair clinging to the left side of his face. He needed to see clearly, yet the stubborn strands didn’t want to move and his fingers felt so clumsy.

"Trowa, you’re burning up," Birman said as she went to the coat rack to fetch his cloak. She returned to drape it over his shoulders then went to the small washstand in the corner of the room, where she wet a towel. "What’s happening?" Her expression was carefully guarded; the note of concern in her voice was what prompted Trowa to answer.

"The storm – I went to check on its progress and got caught up in it," he whispered, slowly regaining some energy. "It’s still too strong," he warned, hugging the cloak to his chest as he began to shiver. Intellectually, he knew that he’d pushed too far and was paying for it with the lack of energy and a fever. That didn’t help settle the fear that he was surrounded by humans while basically deprived of his talent. Crawford had sworn that he could trust Birman, that the woman would never hurt him, and her recent actions seemed to support the promise. However, she wasn’t the only human in the palace.

Birman cursed under her breath while she tapped something onto the copper bracelet on her left wrist. "Trowa, I appreciate the effort, but I’d much rather not have you kill yourself while in my office. Jei seems very fond of you and I’m in no hurry to be bitten." She managed a shaky laugh and went to fetch a bottle from the top shelf of her closet, hidden behind some boxes. "This is mead," she explained as she handed it to him and then carefully pressed the cool, wet cloth against his forehead.

Attempting to distract himself from her touch, he quickly scanned the bottle’s contents before he lifted it to his lips. Mead wasn’t one of his favorite drinks; he never cared for its too sweet taste. However, the fermented honey was just want his body needed right now for more energy. "Should I be worried that… you have so much alcohol in your office?" he asked between sips once she’d set the cloth aside.

"Eri told me that when bounds overexert themselves, they need something with a high sugar content immediately to help restore energy. Alcohol seems to be good for that, and it’s easier to keep a few bottles of that around than jars of honey." She stared intently at him and returned to her desk. "Although I have some candies here that might help."

Trowa slowly shook his head, not sure if he was up to eating anything right now and unable to swallow anything more. His head felt dizzy, partially from the alcohol that he hadn’t fully converted and partially from the fever. He also felt utterly exhausted and was afraid that he’d pass out shortly. "Birman… the storm," he mumbled, fighting to stay awake.

"I’ll notify the crews in charge of clearing the roads and put them on standby, Trowa, as well as alert Yuushi." After taking back the mostly untouched bottle of mead, Birman was busy tapping on her bracelet once again, seated on the edge of her desk a comfortable distance from Trowa. "I’m sure you realize that we can’t do too much without it seeming as if we were forewarned." She paused for a moment, her expression just as concerned as her tone. "Are you all right?"

He managed a weak laugh and huddled beneath the cloak. "No. I spent too much energy masking what I was doing with the storm. Heero’s making sure it’s headed straight for us, and while he can’t sense the water in it, he’ll know something’s wrong if the clouds suddenly disperse." He wasn’t sure if what he said made any sense – how did humans live without being aware of the world around them?

"Don’t worry, Trowa, Eto can handle a blizzard. We’ve had practice a couple of times this winter, already," Birman soothed, her hand cupped over the bracelet. "What about water? Would you like some to drink?"

Her question set off a burst of hysteria-tinged laughter. "Oh, there’ll be lots of water soon. I can feel it racing toward us." A part of him was appalled to realize that he hadn’t negated enough of the alcohol. "They… they don’t realize it yet, but they’ve just caused a major drought. There won’t be much snow or rain for them in the next several months, though it’ll still be cold. You don’t use weather for a long-term weapon," he babbled, fighting the urge to slump in the chair and fall asleep. He couldn’t do that, not when he wasn’t safe. "The more they push things away from Esset, the more it’ll stay away. By the time they figure it out, the weather will be too fucked up to correct without months of work."

"I’ll fetch you some water. " Birman moved away from the desk, carefully skirting around Trowa as if he was a cornered animal. He realized that Eri must have warned her against being too close to a weak bound and wondered if he could manage an attack in his state. His body felt on fire even as it shivered, and his eyesight was growing hazy. Belatedly, he realized that he should have sent a message to Schuldig when his mind was clear enough to focus.

"Trowa. Trowa!"

He blinked his eyes and found Birman just outside of arm’s reach, a glass of water in her hand. "I’m sorry, but it… it feels weird whenever I get too close to you," she explained when she held the glass to him without stepping any closer.

"Defense," he slurred, too tired to explain how his talent struggled to protect him in such a vulnerable state. His hands trembled when he took the glass, but Birman remained where she was.

Even in his exhausted and muddled state, he could still feel the storm racing closer. When he attempted to check its progress, there was a stabbing pain in his head that made him hiss and drop the glass. Coldness splashed onto his lap, spreading along his legs as he doubled over.

"Call Crawford," he whispered, too dazed to attempt to use his own copper bracelet now that he’d remembered about it. Crawford would come, or Jei, and see him safely home.

"It’s all right," Birman replied, approaching him enough to tug the wet cloak away and drape something dry around his shoulders. He looked up and found it to be the thick blanket she kept on the sofa in her office for those times when she needed some rest.

He wanted to repeat the demand, but realized that he needed to conserve his energy. The drinks had helped, even if they’d left him inebriated. However, it wasn’t enough; he needed more if he wasn’t going to pass out, and that was something he refused to do while in a place of dubious safety.

His heavy eyelids had begun to droop when there was a knock at the door, startling him into a more upright position as he struggled to ready his talent to attack. Birman actually ran to the door and yanked it open, relief plain on her face. Before she could say anything, she was unceremoniously shoved aside.

Duo burst into the room, his eyes practically glowing and his lips pulled back from his teeth. He seemed to instantly notice Trowa and hurried to him, a soft growl rumbling in his throat as he knelt on the floor beside the chair. "Trowa? What’s wrong?"

Upon seeing the fire elemental bound, Trowa felt the panic building inside him instantly evaporate. He shook his head, puzzled by the odd reaction. "Duo," he whispered, slumping forward.

"He has a fever," Birman commented, sounding as if she stood on the other side of the room. "I was talking to him and he almost passed out, Duo. That’s why I asked for you to come here." Her voice sounded only slightly concerned, even as her heart raced.

Trowa struggled to lift his head and give his roommate a reassuring smile while he used precious energy to alter the remaining traces of alcohol in his mouth; he didn’t want Duo to smell it on him. "I think I’m sick," he said, the quietly spoken words slurring together.

Duo snorted and fussed the blanket. "I can see that, Trowa. You have a fever and look ready to faint at any moment." He tenderly touched the left side of Trowa’s face, the contact only lasting a second. "I’m gonna have to carry you out of here, okay?" he asked while he fussed with the blanket around Trowa’s shoulders.

Instantly wanting to argue that he could walk on his own, Trowa tried to stand on his feet and fell face-first toward Duo. He let out a startled breath at the contact, his body unwilling to pull away or move at all.

Duo’s body tensed and then slowly relaxed as his arms circled around Trowa’s back in a reassuring hold. "Yeah, you’re sick all right." His breath hit the left side of Trowa’s neck, making him shiver. "Energy drain?" Duo whispered, voice pitched low so Birman couldn’t hear.

All Trowa could do was nod in answer. He felt as if the world was spinning around him, too out of control for him to manage. Why wasn’t he panicking over Duo holding him like this? Why wasn’t he afraid?

"Here’s a dry cloak; he spilled water on his," Birman said, her voice sounding distant over the sound of Trowa’s frantically beating heart. "I’ve arranged for a coach to take you both home."

"Thank you, Spymaster," Duo replied, the growl gone from his voice and his tone respectful as something heavy settled over Trowa’s back. "And thanks for sending for me."

"You’re his lover, who else would I call?" she asked, the words snapping Trowa back to reality. Duo was pretending to be his lover, that’s why Birman contacted him and not Crawford. It was normal for someone to look after their sick boyfriend, so that explained why Duo’s arms were so tight around him. It was all an act, one he had to carry out as well or risk the lives of his friend. He concentrated on those thoughts as best he could while the room began to spin around so fast that he had to close his eyes.

His heart faltered when he was lifted and draped over Duo’s shoulder, resuming its frantic pace when he felt Duo stand up and walk. "I don’t think he’s going to be able to report to work for a couple of days." Duo’s arm was firm around Trowa’s upper thighs to keep him in place.

"That’s fine. Just get him home and keep him warm."

Duo laughed in response, the same time that heat enveloped Trowa and made him feel even drowsier. "That won’t be a problem."

Birman responded, something unintelligible that made no sense to Trowa’s muddled senses. He lost the fight to remain conscious, lulled to sleep by warmth and Duo’s presence. His dreams were as muddled as his thoughts, filled with the sense of motion and comfort.

Then he suddenly found himself awake, his eyes struggling to focus and his right hand clenched weakly around Duo’s wrist as his friend attempted to remove his clothes. It slowly dawned on Trowa that he was home and laid out on his bed. Duo sat beside him with a nervous smile on his face.

"Ah, Trowa, I need to take off your clothes. I promise, I’m not trying anything," he said in a rush, a pleading look in his eyes as he held his arm still.

Duo. Home. Fever. Trowa let out a slow breath, unable to think straight while the panic that had briefly filled him disappeared. "Duo." He released the bound’s wrist and flopped his arm over his sweaty forehead. Duo had to take off his clothes and put him to bed. The part of him that was soothed by Duo’s presence urged him to relax and go back to sleep, even if another man was removing his clothes. He shouldn’t allow it, should be fighting back… but couldn’t make his body move or his mind to care.

Duo must have taken his inactivity for assent and carefully, slowly, unlaced Trowa’s shirt. Trowa realized that his boots were already off and didn’t struggle when his upper body was lifted enough for Duo to pull the garment over his head. He hissed quietly when Duo undid his belt and began to remove his pants, his power stubbornly refusing to cooperate when he attempted to gather it. The feel of air against his skin made his shivering increase and he braced himself for the feel of hands touching him, hurting him, forcing him to-

"Ah!" His eyes opened when something cool moved along his chest. Duo was wiping him with a wet cloth, staring directly at his face all the time. Trowa returned the stare as best he could, the hiss fading to a slight purr at how good it felt to be cleaned of sweat.

"All right, into bed now," Duo murmured as he set the cloth aside and tugged half of the bedding aside. His movements were slow when he picked up Trowa and shifted him on the bed. Warm, soft sheets covered Trowa’s body and were tucked around him, then the wet cloth returned and was draped over his forehead.

"We need to get something into you; I’ll make some tea with honey first, then heat up the soup." Duo was clearly worried, his expressive face pinched with the emotion and his lovely eyes shadowed. "After that, you can explain why you’re completely drained of energy."

There was a twinge of pain inside Trowa’s chest when he thought of Duo leaving, even if just to go to the kitchen. What if something happened? How could he defend himself while in this condition? He tried to grab the fire elemental’s wrist, but couldn’t since his arms were trapped beneath the blankets. "Storm," he whispered, unexpectedly stung into providing an answer.

"I know, Trowa, I can feel a wall of cold air approaching. Let me get the tea and then you can explain." Duo tenderly brushed aside a strand of hair that fell onto Trowa’s before he left, the touch leaving a sense of heat behind for several seconds.

Trowa was drifting off again when Duo returned with the sweet tea. He set the mug on the nightstand and sat on the bed. "Trowa, I’m gonna need to touch you again," he explained with a nervous tone. "Don’t panic, okay?"

The last remark gave Trowa the energy to glare as he was lifted into a more upright position and pillows placed behind his back. "I’m not an idiot," he snapped with as much venom as he could summon, which really was a pathetic amount.

Even worse, it got a smile from Duo. "I don’t know, you’re the one who’s weaker than a newborn kitten at the moment. If I was as much of a prankster as Heero claims, I’d be tempted to cut off your hair or something while you can’t fight back." His touch was gentle as he tugged Trowa’s long tail from behind his back and draped it over his chest. "Now drink this."

Doing as he was told, Trowa wrinkled his nose at the tea which had to be half honey. Duo left the room again, to return a minute later with a pot of tea and a bowl of soup on a tray. "Here’s the plan; you’re gonna drink and eat all of this, then go to sleep." He settled on the bed again and held the pot ready to refill Trowa’s mug. "After you tell me about the storm, that is."

Closing his eyes, Trowa slowly drank the tea. "I was trying to lessen it," he reluctantly admitted, cursing himself for the slip even as he knew he had to tell Duo something. His friend would insist on knowing what he’d been doing with his power to be so drained, and the truth was the only option.

"It’s nasty, I can tell that much." Duo’s smile turned sheepish as he refilled the mug. "I tried to warm up the air a bit and felt the winds instantly compensate, which means Heero’s messing with things." He set the teapot aside and bit into his bottom lip. "It’s really gonna screw with the weather for a while; I know *they* want the bad weather, but from what I can tell, the cold and warm fronts are all fucked up. No wonder you’re drained if you tried to fight that thing."

Trowa felt a sense of relief that Duo had attempted to weaken the storm as well. "There’ll be a drought in Esset this year and maybe the next," he admitted, looking for a way to explain his actions. "The moisture they’re sending here has to come from somewhere. I tried to stop it without Heero figuring out."

Duo’s laugh was sharp with bitterness. "Heero is a good little boy who does what he’s told." His demeanor grew thoughtful as he removed the cloth from Trowa’s forehead, held it for a moment and replaced the now cool compress. "Quatre confided in me that you and Wufei tried talking to the old fogies to warn them that they were just making things bad for Esset as well. I thought… well, I guess I thought you didn’t want to work with Heero and me on the weather." He fidgeted with the spoon on the tray, not looking at Trowa.

Trowa didn’t know how to respond, and was thankfully saved from having to do so by Duo motioning for him to drink more tea. Now that he was safely at home, he just wanted to sleep, even if his body desperately needed the tea and soup.

When the tea was finished, Duo handed him the bowl. "Ah well, we’ll get a couple of days off, at least. I was told to not report back for training until you feel better. So take your time, you hear," Duo informed him with a stern look that only lasted a few seconds before it melted into one of concern.

"Yes, sir," Trowa murmured, doing his best to eat the soup so he could just rest. He felt both hot and cold and his body began to ache. Managing only a few mouthfuls, he let the spoon fall into the bowl.

Duo took the bowl away and helped Trowa sit up so he could remove a few of the pillows. "Get some sleep; I’ll be here."

His eyes fluttering closed as he lay down, Trowa found an odd comfort in the words.

*******

Aya paced around the kitchen, feeling unaccountably restless. His nerves felt extra-sensitive and his hair stood on end as he struggled to understand what it was affecting him like this. He felt… he felt on edge, hovering over a black abyss that he wasn’t sure if he should be afraid of or not.

"Cat, you’re making me nervous," Yohji said from his seat at one of the long tables. He sat with his elbows resting on its surface and hands supporting his chin, his handsome face marred by a worried frown. "Not to play on the nickname too much, which I know you hate, but you put me in mind of a cat that’s just been tossed into a dog kennel." He seemed to be striving for a teasing tone and failed miserably.

"Sorry, Yotan," Aya murmured, doing his best to stop acting like this without a known cause. Letting out a deep sigh, he went to his lover and sat down. "Maybe it’s the weather that has me all in knots," he offered, and when Yohji’s left arm slid around his shoulders, he leaned against his lover.

Jo snorted quietly and set two mugs of hot chocolate on the table before them. "If Cassandra and Crawford are correct, then it’s going to be a hell of a storm. I’m just glad we had enough warning so we could schedule the part-time staff off tonight. Deborah, Toshiki and Bren have better things to do than be stuck here for a day or two."

"Not to mention it’s good that you managed to stock up on food for the next few days." Yohji shivered dramatically and hugged Aya closer. "I didn’t want Jei or Ken to get any ideas if we ran low on supplies. I may look great, but that doesn’t mean I taste that way." This time, he managed the teasing tone just right, which made Aya roll his eyes, Jo and Maddox laugh and Emmie giggle.

"Too bad they don’t feed off of egos, else they’d never go hungry around you," Jo shot back with a friendly wink. "Speaking of Ken, when will he and the others get home?" she asked, the fierce scowl on her face belied by her worried tone.

"They should be here soon." Yohji paused to sip his drink, sharing a smile with Aya who was already enjoying his own. "Yuushi wants all the Guard living on the Koneko here for the storm and even asked Eri to stay." Something that Yohji had just said made him smile as a burst of amusement flashed over their link, which had Aya staring at his mate in curiosity. There were times when he wished the link was telepathic so he could know what it was that Yohji had picked up with his emphatic sense. Considering all the powers that Yohji had gained from him, Aya was a little miffed that he hadn’t seemed to gain much in return.

"So even more mouths to feed," Maddox dared to point out from his spot by the sink, where he was occupied washing dishes. Beside him with a towel in her right hand, Emmie giggled again.

Jo looked as if she was about to curse until Emmie giggled, and then let out a slow breath instead. "If it wasn’t for the fact that we only need to deal with the overnight guests, I’d be really worried that we’ll run out of food." She went to the stove to stir the pot of hot chocolate and continued to complain. "With all the bounds around here, you’d think they could do something about this lousy weather!"

"Marta did point out that it’s very difficult to control a massive storm like this," Aya remarked, even though he knew that Jo really wasn’t complaining about his kind. He wondered if he wasn’t the only one who was on edge tonight and finished the mug of hot chocolate. Being near Yohji helped to soothe whatever it was that was agitating him, but didn’t make it completely go away.

While Jo fussed with the pots on the stove, Omi and Nagi entered the kitchen with sheepish looks on their faces. "Ah, there’s only a few people in the main room; Marta said she could handle them," Omi reported with a hopeful smile.

Jo stared back and forth between him and Nagi then turned toward Emmie. "Why don’t you go keep Neely company," she told the girl. "I’m sure she’ll love to help you with your homework, even if I don’t think you’ll be going to classes tomorrow."

Emmie glanced at Yohji for a moment, appearing torn between having him help her with her studies and Neely, before smiling and nodding. "Okay. Maybe we can play outside once we’re done?" she asked, the drying towel twisting between her hands.

Managing a stern look only for a few seconds, Jo laughed and nodded. "All right, as long as everyone dresses properly, I won’t object to a snowball fight before bed." She seemed in a good mood as she crossed the room to push aside the curtain on the window over the sink. "Sweet gods, no wonder the customers are all gone. There has to be several inches out there already."

"Which means it’ll be a really fun snowball fight." Yohji playfully tugged on one of Aya’s eartails and laughed when his hand was batted aside. "Winner gets a massage, okay?" His voice was low and husky, obviously meant for just Aya’s ears. Aya felt heat suffuse him at its sultry tone and could only nod in agreement.

"Good." If Yohji’s tone was sultry before, it was downright wicked now, as was the look he gave Aya. "That means I won’t be playing fair tonight."

Nagi bumping into the table as he sat down helped to remind Aya that they were in the kitchen and not their bedroom. "When do you ever?" he asked as he leaned back a little, needing some space to clear his muddled head. Yohji always affected him so strongly, the lure between them growing stronger with each passing month.

Clearing his throat, Nagi shifted on the bench closer to Aya. "A snowball fight?" he asked with a suspicious look on his face. "Isn’t that for children?"

Yohji sniffed loudly and raised his mug to his lips. "Yeah, and what exactly are you?"

"I’m not a child, Kudoh. I would think that anyone who’s been in your presence for more than two minutes would realize that age does not convey maturity," was Nagi’s cold reply, his eyes narrowed in anger.

"No, you’re a little demon," Yohji shot back, his arm sliding down Aya’s back until his hand rested on Aya’s left hip. "That’s why you think snowball fights are childish."

"I think them childish because you’re throwing snow at people." Nagi’s tone beneath the anger was incredulous. Aya could understand the difficulty his friend had in accepting the concept, considering that he hadn’t been in a snowball fight until this winter. Before he could attempt to explain, Omi chuckled softly and draped his right arm around Nagi’s waist.

"But it’s *fun*, Nagi," he said with an excited smile on his face. "I’ve been looking forward to playing with you."

Nagi seemed torn between frowning and looking confused, though he did manage a brief, nasty glare in Yohji’s direction for sniggering at Omi’s comment. "Ah, you play too, Omi?"

"Yep." Omi rested his head on Nagi’s left shoulder. "Everyone does, except for Jo and Ichiro."

"Because we’re mature enough to realize that being tackled to the ground isn’t a good idea for our poor, worn out bodies," Jo chuckled as she refilled Yohji and Aya’s mugs as well as put full ones in front of Omi and Nagi. "Just think, Nagi, you and Aya can team up against Yohji," she said with a wicked grin of her own.

Aya could feel Yohji’s shock at the betrayal and did his best not to smile. "Jo! How could you do that to me?" Yohji whined, clutching his chest as if heartbroken.

"Only too easily," Jo replied with a sweet tone. "I quite clearly remember all the times you and Schuldig teamed up against me when I still played. Now it’s your turn." She seemed very pleased with the situation.

Yohji hunched down on the bench and tugged Aya closer. "Stabbed in the back by someone I trust," he grumbled, only managing to maintain the false mood of abject suffering for a few heartbeats. "Ah well, you’d never team up with Nagi against me, would you love?"

"Most definitely," was Aya’s instant reply, and once again he fought not to smile when Yohji’s expression turned crestfallen. His mate tried to tug on his eartails again, which Aya fended him off until he felt people cross the wards he’d set up around the garden.

That brought his anxiety rushing back to the fore, even though he recognized the people making their way to the kitchen’s back door. A few seconds later, the door opened to reveal Ken, Miko, Eri, Naru and Reiichi.

"I would suggest that if you have any last minute errands to run, that you do it *now*," Reiichi commented in his smooth, warm voice as he brushed the snow from his cloak. "Yuushi better finish the paperwork soon or he won’t be able to reach the Koneko tonight."

"Make sure to hang up your cloaks properly and to remove your boots," Jo snapped while she and Maddox began to put platters covered with sliced pork and vegetables on the table. "And close the door!"

"Sorry!" Naru hurried to close the door behind him, almost catching the hem of his cloak in it. He smiled nervously at Joe while Eri attempted to hide her grin behind her gloved right hand. "Ah, something smells very good."

"When doesn’t it?" Ken asked as he quickly draped his cloak on the wall rack and fumbled to remove his boots. ""Gods, it’s fu-" He stopped and looked around the room, and continued after making sure Neely or Emmie weren’t present. "It’s fucking cold out there."

"If I weren’t too busy shivering, I’d offer to warm you up, big guy," Miko teased as she rubbed her hands up and down her Guard coat. "Anyone sitting right by the fire better move their ass."

She and Ken raced to the table to get the prized seat nearest one of the fireplaces, and of course Miko won. She stuck her tongue out at a grumbling Ken, who Aya was pretty sure had allowed his partner to get the better spot. That suspicion was confirmed when Ken noticed his attention and quickly winked.

Aya didn’t need Yohji’s talent to know that Ken was always pleased with the way that Miko teased and fought with him. It seemed important to the flesh gaki bound that someone he trusted and liked treated him normal and wasn’t afraid of his new nature. While he could recognize such feelings, Aya still didn’t quite understand them. All his life, he’d kept his distance from most people. When his true nature had been revealed, there was only his sister left who he cared about, and he honestly never knew if it bothered her or not. Oh, he knew that she still loved him, but they were never alone together so he could find out if she was afraid of him.


Then there’d been Nagi, who had been more concerned with Aya revealing his secret than what Aya was. Next came Yohji and the Koneko’s staff, and even though most of his new friends appeared to truly care for him, he knew there were moments when he scared them. It never bothered him; there was such a difference between he and them that it was like asking a house cat not to be terrified of a panther that had slinked its way into the house. All that mattered was that Yohji loved him despite those moments when his shinigami nature took over.

While Naru, Miko and Ken squabbled over the food, he glanced out the kitchen window and wondered if the shinigami were still gathered outside. There’d been a few moments during the evening when he’d sworn that he’d heard their voices, too faint to make out the words. However, they didn’t seem to be in the mood to talk to him, which caused him an odd pain.

"I was talking with Birman earlier." Reiichi smiled at Jo when she handed him a mug of hot chocolate and continued. "She requested that Duo take Trowa home; it appears that he did his best to weaken the storm and was drained of energy as a result."

Yohji stopped egging the battling Guards on to look in Reiichi’s direction. "Oh, that’s not good. For someone as powerful as him to be left exhausted, it has to be a bitch of a storm."

"He commented on it the other day," Aya said, hoping to distract himself with conversation. "He said that since Esset is largely behind the storm that he had to be very careful with altering it." He shared Yohji’s concern; Trowa was one of the strongest bounds he’d ever sensed.

Reiichi frowned at the slice of bread he was currently buttering. "I’ve a feeling we’re going to be snowed in for the next day or two. The standing orders will be to clear the main roads and keep the gates passable, which means the residential districts will be left to fend for themselves for a while. The king doesn’t want the entire city snowed in and will focus on the vital areas during the worst of the storm."

"Thank the gods for precogs." Jo rested her hip against the table as she looked around. "I hope people had the sense to go out for some supplies once the snow started."

Eri deftly snatched a slice of bread from the basket in Naru’s hands and nodded. "The streets were still crowded on our way here. I think the markets will all be picked clean shortly." She smiled in thanks when Reiichi handed her the crock of butter. "I just hope that Yuushi does finish soon, before the roads get so bad he’ll have to stay at the palace."

Once again, Yohji was amused by something that seemed to be eluding Aya. Frowning in confusion at his mate, Aya was about to knock his right elbow into Yohji’s side when he heard the pleased hiss of a shinigami. He inhaled sharply as several of them suddenly appeared in the room, darting about in obvious excitement.

/He’s here! Come, young one, come and see!/ While the other shinigami echoed the cry, shadow hands grasped Aya’s right arm and tugged him from the bench. The physical nature of the shinigami shocked Aya, since he was used to them touching him but rarely pushing or dragging him about.

"Aya?" Yohji asked, his eyes narrowing with suspicion as the shinigami tugged again. "What the hell is going on?"

/Come, come! Don’t make him wait!/ one of the shinigami crooned while Aya was yanked on so hard that he almost fell off the bench.

"The shinigami-" Aya didn’t get a chance to explain as the sense of *something* slammed into him, a feeling of warmth and coldness mingled together, jarring his nerves the same time that it soothed. He was faintly aware of Yohji cursing the shinigami and Nagi grabbing hold of his other arm to keep him on the bench, but the lure of… whatever it was that made the shinigami so excited made him shrug off his mate’s concern and friend’s hand.

The anxiety returned, twisting in his stomach so much that Aya almost felt sick. Yet there was also a sense of euphoria, coming from the shinigami so strongly that he was affected by the emotion. The shadows writhed around him, reacting to him and the shinigami, and he was dimly aware of Yohji following him.

Leaving the kitchen, he was pulled toward the main room both physically and psychically. The shinigami didn’t need to push and tug him in that direction, he found himself drawn to the room by that conflicting sensation. Something that felt so good yet not quite right, something that he’d never sensed before yet was so familiar. Nothing made sense, and that didn’t bother him for once.

"Cat! What the hell is going on?" Yohji managed to catch up with him right before he entered the main room, and despite the cold he suffered from grabbing Aya’s arm through the swarm of shinigami, he didn’t let go.

The intense concern Aya felt from Yohji helped to snap him out of his confusion a little. He ran the fingers of his right hand along Yohji’s cheek, sorry that he’d caused his mate so much worry. "I don’t know, Yotan, but I don’t think it’s bad," he attempted to explain.

Yohji was very upset and even begun to pull Aya away from the door before he sighed and motioned for him to move forward. "It probably has something to do with what’s had you on edge all night. Let’s find out what it is and handle it from there." He didn’t sound very happy, but he was determined to solve the mystery and to protect Aya.

Sparing his lover another caress, Aya stepped into the main room and searched for whatever it was the shinigami were so insistent that he see.

/There, there he is! One of us!/

/No need for the golden one now,/ another shinigami hissed while Aya felt the demons push at him to make him look to the left. He heard more hissing across the room, where a young man of similar build to his own stood.

At first, Aya noticed the man’s black clothing and the way his reddish hair was pulled back into a messy ponytail. He wasn’t sure if the red marks on the man’s cheeks were makeup or tattoos or scars, and that’s when he realized that there was a cloak of illusion over the stranger; an illusion that darkened too pale skin and added brown to brilliantly red hair. When the young man looked in Aya’s direction, the light from the room’s candles reflected from his eyes, turning them silver.

Hissing again, Aya reacted without thinking and enveloped the space around him, Yohji and the stranger with shadows. He heard Nagi yell his name and felt the shadow wards rebuff his friend’s power, but only as a mild distraction. What had his entire attention was the young man who looked so much like him – who *felt* like him.

"Sweet gods," Yohji muttered while the shinigami crooned their delight. "Again, what the *hell* is going on?"

"That’s what I’d like to know," the stranger hissed, his voice as sibilant as the shinigami’s. "Who the fuck are you?" he demanded to know as sparks burst into the air around him.

/The same you are. Cruelly trapped in flesh and rendered alone, but no more!/

/No, not alone. Now you are pack; two who are flesh and spirit./

"I’m not ‘pack’ with him." A katana formed in Aya’s hand as he approached the stranger. "Who are you? There are no other kage! Did Esset send you?" He held up his left hand to prevent Yohji from following, unwilling to allow the imposter to harm his mate. He wouldn’t risk Yohji to a plot from Esset.

The stranger hissed again, sparks gathering around his left hand until it glowed as bright as the sun. "There are no kage, period, you asshole! What are you, a wizard or something?" He stepped closer to Aya, his long hair shifting around his face as if a breeze blew around him.

One moment, several yards separated them and the next, they were within arm’s reach of each other. Aya swung the shadow katana at the man, who echoed the motion with his glowing left hand. When shadow and light met, power slammed into Aya, forceful enough to make him take a step backward. However, it didn’t hurt - it felt as if energy sizzled along his nerves, sharpening his senses and taking away any exhaustion. The shadow katana disintegrated, its shards merging with the light that slowly dimmed.

He and the stranger stood there, shocked still. The ability that enabled Aya to recognize magic and other bounds buzzed inside of his head, telling him that he stood before a shinigami. Yet he also sensed something human to the man, much like he did with other bounds. It was a faint presence, but there and jarring to his senses.

"Dubhach?" he asked, no longer afraid of the stranger or angry with him. Feeling the man’s power wash through him had quieted any doubts he had, made him feel the same way about the man as he did the shinigami.

The stranger grinned, revealing bright, sharp teeth. "Kage? Fucking gods, I guess I was wrong!" He wrapped his arms around his chest and laughed in amusement.

"I. Am. Getting. *Very*. Tired. Of asking," Yohji growled as he cautiously approached Aya, shimmering gold threads in his hands as he held his weapon at the ready.

Aya motioned him to come closer. "Put the wire away, Yotan. There’s no threat here." Yohji hesitated for a moment, clearly doubting him, before doing as told. He pressed against Aya’s back, his arms wrapping around Aya’s waist, and Aya didn’t need to look over his shoulder to see his mate’s glare. "He’s a dubhach," he said, expecting that to explain everything.

While the dubhach continued to chuckle, Yohji pressed his face against the crook of Aya’s neck. "Cat, you’re gonna drive me nuts, you know."

Surprised that Yohji didn’t know what he was talking about, Aya combed the fingers of his right hand through his lover’s hair. "A dubhach is like a kage, except that they also have a human soul as well as a shinigami one. They’re even rarer than kage." He stared at the stranger, his head cocked to the side. "Why aren’t you dead?"

The stranger chuckled for another moment and walked over to the nearest table to sit down on it. "Well, that’s certainly nice!" he said and stuck out the tip of his tongue. "I’ve some stubborn friends who’ve kept me alive," he explained as he pulled the right sleeve of his black shirt up enough to reveal numerous scars along the inside of his arm. "I’m Reno, by the by."

Aya felt a slight flush creep over his face while Yohji regained enough humor to chuckle. "Ah, I’m Aya." Great, no doubt his mate would lecture him later about his ‘lack of manners’. "I’ve never heard of a dubhach surviving for so long. Why are you here?" His curiosity grew stronger the longer he knew about Reno. Around the room, the shinigami purred and crooned, obviously very pleased with themselves.

Reno shrugged and folded his hands in his lap, occasional sparks bursting into the air around them. "My lord and master dragged me to Eto," he sneered, his face twisting into a grimace for a moment. "Then these guys wouldn’t leave me alone until I came here." He motioned to the shinigami, some of which were gathered around him. "Kept telling me that I had to meet someone." A smile as bright as his sparks spread across his face. "Nice to know I wasn’t lied to for once!"

Aya couldn’t help but respond to the smile with one of his own. "Yes, very nice." He slowly realized that he felt better than he had in… in he didn’t know how long. Meeting Yohji had soothed most of the loneliness inside of him, and it wasn’t until just now when he recognized that some of it had remained until he met Reno. "’Lord and master’?" He didn’t like the sound of that.

"More or less." Reno reached back to undo the clasp that held his hair mostly contained and pulled it free. "Ah, you’re sorta right about the Esset part," he admitted, his expression now sheepish. "I work for Lord Rufus Shinra, though I wouldn’t exactly say that he’s siding with Esset. Bastard’s out for himself first and foremost."

"The Shinra family is famous for producing some of the best weapons around," Yohji provided when Aya failed to recognize the name. "If I remember correctly, Rufus has been the current lord for the past several years." He squeezed his arms around Aya. "Ah, you do realize that the wards are still up, don’t you, love? What about the others? They’re really freaking out."

Aya didn’t want to deal with others right now, not when he was so fascinated by meeting a dubhach. "We need to talk some more."

"Yeah, and have some drinks. You’re not the only one who wants to ask a few questions, you know," Reno pointed out as he lounged on top of the table. "Like who’s blondie there."

"He’s Yohji Kudoh, my mate." Aya tilted his head so he could smile at Yohji.

"Looks like we’ve got similar tastes," Reno muttered, and when Aya glanced at him with curiosity, found an expression of longing on the dubhach’s face. "Ah, Rufus is a bit more than just my boss," he explained after a moment’s hesitation. "He’s my mate as well, and any minute now he’s gonna be bitching up a storm in my head." The longing was wiped away by annoyance. "Didn’t tell him I was coming here."

Yohji held Aya close for a few seconds and let him go. "So, you’re a dubhach mated to a Lord from Esset who makes weapons, and I’m willing to bet is a bound from that comment." He let out a sharp breath and nudged Aya in the back. "Cat, drop the wards. This is getting complicated, and whenever that happens, there’s usually one hell of a closed-lip precog behind it. A precog who’s feeling pretty happy right now while everyone else is panicking."

Aya hoped that Crawford had a good explanation because Yohji wasn’t too pleased with the precog right now, judging from his lover’s emotions and tone of voice. Wishing that things could be quiet for a little longer, he reluctantly vanished the wards.


Reno sat up when the wards dropped, his easy-going demeanor disappearing as well and the sparks sizzling around him once more. Aya was surprised to see the few customers that had been in the room earlier were now gone, and that all of his friends were gathered around the walls. Nagi ran toward him and slammed into him, hugging him tight, while Omi went straight to Yohji. Reiichi had a pair of magicked knives in his hands and Yuushi was at his side, while Schuldig and Masato looked as if they’d grabbed the first garments they could find after getting out of bed. Crawford did indeed appear smug, while Naru and Eri stared back with evident curiosity. Even some of the staff were present; Jo, Marta, Mickey, Teddy and Maddox.

"Okay, who the fucking hell is the pretty boy over there?" Schuldig snapped as he attempted to comb back the very tousled hair falling onto his face. "He better be important enough to rate me getting out of bed in the middle of sex and messing with a bunch of human minds."

"You didn’t do all the work," Eri muttered, her expression going from curious to slightly annoyed.

"Look, don’t start-"

"Schuldig," Reno called out as he hopped off the table, his eyes narrowing with suspicion and his voice sibilant again. "You’re Schuldig, he’s Masato, the kid’s Nagi and glasses over there is Crawford." He approached Aya, sparks filling the air around him. "All of you should be in Esset."

Schuldig stopped bitching to stare in surprise at Reno while Masato pulled his mate closer the same time his weapon appeared in his right hand. Crawford motioned with his hand for the weapon to be lowered while he stepped forward. "You are correct. I didn’t think that you’d seen any of us in Berin; you were mostly confined to quarters, after all."

Reno hissed and came to a stop beside Aya. "You’re friends with these guys?" He glanced at Nagi before staring intently at Aya. "You want to know someone who works for Esset, it’s them."

"No, they don’t." Aya looked at Crawford, who smiled and nodded. "They only pretend to do so." He was suddenly very annoyed and wished that he’d allowed Roy to inflict a little more damage on Crawford. "I’ve the feeling there’s something we need to hear," he said, the last words coming out in a hiss as he glared in Crawford’s direction.

Crawford held up his hand, this time in a placating manner. "Yes, there’s quite a bit to discuss, actually. Let me just say this before anyone attempts to express their annoyance over my reticence," he said in a calm voice as he rubbed the left side of his chest, right where Roy had left the brand. "Aya, you’re a kage and Reno’s a dubhach." Reno started at the casual revelation and joined in with glaring at the precog. "Either one of you greatly affects my talent, so imagine what the two of you together can do." He arched an eyebrow while motioning for everyone to sit down. "I had my suspicions on what might happen, but nothing definite."

Not placated by the answer but sensing that was all he’d get for the moment, Aya patted Nagi’s back to make his friend stop hugging him. Nagi appeared to be trying to shield him from Reno or something. "It’s okay; you can let go."

"I can’t affect him with my power," Nagi said while staring at Reno, his expression slightly hostile. "Not directly." He reluctantly let go of Aya and continued to watch Reno.

"Because he’s like me." Just saying the words made Aya’s heart speed up and his lips curl into a smile.

/He’s pack. Now you won’t be so alone./

Not about to argue that he’d never be alone as long as he had Yohji, Aya nevertheless had to agree with the shinigami. Until today, he’d thought that he’d been the only shinigami encased in flesh, that no one would understand what that felt like. Reno wasn’t quite the same as him, yet there was an intense feeling of connection similar to the bond that Aya had with Yohji and his sister.

"Yeah, so if you try anything I’ll fry your ass," Reno said, his voice crackling with amusement and no longer sibilant. "Then my friend Rude, who has to be three times your size, kid, will sit on you. You’ll be a fried pancake." He wrinkled his nose at Nagi and leaned his left arm on Aya’s shoulder.

Yohji growled at the contact, and both Nagi and Omi seemed stunned by it. Aya felt that he should be, too, yet…. It wasn’t the feeling of warmth that Yohji’s touch provoked, but it didn’t bother him. He felt no urge to brush Reno aside, nor any fear for letting a stranger touch him like this.

Nagi glanced back and forth between Reno and Aya, his expression changing from surprise to the bland mask he usually wore. That was what finally surprised Aya, because he’d expected his friend to at least glare at Reno over the threat.

"Doesn’t matter how big he is, he’ll end up the one flattened," Nagi shot back as everyone made their way to the tables. "All it’ll take is a thought."

"Nah, Rude’s too big to be flattened, he’s solid muscle. Not to mention that he’s an earth elemental, too."

While Nagi and Reno attempted to one-up each other, Aya slid his arm around Yohji’s waist. "It’s okay," he whispered as he nuzzled his mate’s neck.

Yohji gave him a searching look before they sat down. "You’re happy, Cat. I still don’t know what the hell’s going on, but you’re happy." He looked at Reno, who sat on Aya’s left side, jealousy and possessiveness flowing over their link. "As long as that’s the case, I’ll listen what Crawford and Reno have to say before I make up my mind."

Pitching his voice low, Aya brushed his lips against Yohji’s ear. "Yotan… all I know is he’s like me." He nipped at Yohji’s earlobe before he continued. "And you’re my mate. While he makes me happy, you make me happy and whole."

The jealousy faded a little, replaced with love and relief. "Don’t you forget it, Aya, or you’ll be picking thorns out of your ass for weeks." Yohji waggled his brows, his good mood restored.

"All right, where’s the alcohol!" Reno shouted and pounded his fists against the table. "Ya gotta have alcohol when discussing serious shit; it’s the only thing that makes it bearable." He turned his head to give Aya a huge grin.

Yohji chuckled and wrapped his arm around Aya’s shoulders. "You know, I just may be beginning to like you, Reno."

*******

Feeling the carriage come to a halt, Rufus waited for Tseng to open its door before he stepped outside. The wind bit into him with a sharp coldness that made his breath catch in his throat for a second while he wished that he was a fire elemental bound. There was something to be said about never having to worry about being cold.

He tugged his cloak tighter around his body and hurried into the Highborn’s Retreat, somewhat sheltered from the brutal wind by Tseng and Rude’s bodies. He had a slight headache after spending several intense hours scanning and manipulating people’s thoughts, and wanted to soak in the tub before going to bed. At least tonight’s effort was worthwhile; he should be receiving plenty of invites in the future for both business and social events. The Elders would be please to hear that, even if Rufus wasn’t certain what information he would send them. So much depended on the upcoming months and what he could discover about Kritiker’s army.

Growing impatient with the elevator’s slow crawl upward, he decided to unblock the link with Reno so he could judge just how much of a bad mood his lover was in over being left behind. Rufus was sure he’d have to put up with Reno’s sulking for the evening, at the least, and had another argument to look forward to the next time he went out. No matter how angry Reno got about being restrained to the apartment and his fellow gokenin’s disapproval, Rufus was not going to change his mind about the situation. This wasn’t Esset, where people held enough respect for and fear of him to leave what was his alone. All it would take to make a royal mess out of things was for someone to make an improper advance to Reno, which Rufus couldn’t risk because of the bond between them.

He expected to feel anger or annoyance once the link was unblocked, and was surprised to feel happiness instead. Warm, tingly happiness that he hadn’t sensed from Reno in months, that made him smile in response and become eager to see what had happened to bring about the emotion. Reno’s thoughts were too hazy to make any sense of, which usually was a sign that his demon nature was in control.

Once the elevator door opened, Rufus didn’t wait for Tseng to step into the hallway before him and open the apartment’s door; he slipped out of the car and hurried to the apartment, still smiling from the warmth that filled him. As long as Reno wasn’t happy because he found some poor soul to torment, it was promising to be a good night.

"My lord," Tseng warned, hastening to keep up with Rufus.

"It’s all right," Rufus replied as he opened the apartment door, his fingers undoing the clasp of his heavy cloak once he was inside. "Reno!"

"Sir." Elena, sitting on one of the living room’s over-stuffed couches, immediately set her book aside and stood to her feet, her back perfectly straight as if she was standing to attention for Rufus. He mostly ignored her once he realized that Reno must be in the bedroom, pausing only to hand her his cloak as he passed by. Pushing the bedroom door open, he once again looked about, expecting to see Reno sprawled out on the bed. The room was empty, so that left only one other place that Reno could be. Feeling some of his good mood begin to fade, Rufus went to the bathroom.


He stared at the tub for several seconds, filled only with faintly steaming water that fogged the room’s mirrors and windows. The anger was slow to build, obscured at first by the disappointment he felt over yet another betrayal. Despite his orders, despite the effort he took to make sure the damn fool was kept safe, Reno had disobeyed him.

<Reno,> he sent over the link, aided by the fury that continued to grow inside of him. <*Reno*.>

There was a flash of annoyance and guilt, then firm resolve and no verbal answer. Rufus’ eyes narrowed and his teeth ground together as he stalked out to the living room. <I know you can hear me, you disobedient bastard. Where are you?>

Again there was no answer, which prompted a vicious growl from him and the fury to intensify. Reno was his gokenin and mate, was bound to fucking obey him. Yet Reno did whatever the hell he wanted, no matter the risk to Rufus and the others, and had the gall to be so damn happy. Rufus let his emotions sear over the link, completely unchecked, and used the shock it produced to delve deep into Reno’s mind. <You will come home *now*.> Good thing that Reeve was back home, because Rufus was seriously considering tearing out his idiot mate’s throat.


Reno actually answered this time, in an unexpected manner that made Rufus’ temper burn even hotter. <No. Leave me alone.> Reno’s thoughts were still hazy, masked by the unsettling coldness of his demon soul.

Coming to a stop in the living room, Rufus motioned for the cloak that Elena was currently attempting to brush free of snow. <Come home, Reno, because if I have to drag you back here, you’ll spend all day out on the balcony tomorrow.> The sunlight and the freezing temperature should keep Reno too drained to cause any trouble.

<Fuck off,> Reno snarled, his thoughts growing even colder.

<No. You are *sworn* to me, and I am giving you a direct order. *Come home*.> Rufus put all of his strength into the command, certain that it would work as it had in the past. A slight smile formed on his lips when he sensed Reno’s resistance waver, felt the compulsion sink into his mate’s mind… and then there was a blast of cold so strong that he actually shivered in response.

<No.> Just the one word, uttered in such a sibilant tone that Rufus’ teeth ached as it reverberated inside his head.

At first stunned that Reno was daring to so blatantly disobey him, Rufus quickly regrouped his thoughts and tried a different tactic. He shoved even deeper into his mate’s mind, snarling at the pain he caused with the brutal invasion. Reno might be able to fight him on the compulsion, but wasn’t able to hide his thoughts very well. Rufus ignored the pain until he came up with a name, then with a savage mental twist, blocked the link between them as completely as possible. He trembled from the glancing blow of agony that had reached him before the block went into effect, struggling to remain on his feet.

Tseng reached out to grasp his left elbow and provide some necessary support. "My lord?" he asked, the quiet dread in his voice a clear sign that he suspected that something was wrong. More correctly, that he suspected that a certain dubhach had gone missing again.

"Get your cloaks," Rufus snarled as he snatched his own garment back from Elena. "Reno slipped out again." The look he gave the air elemental made it clear that he would speak to her about the matter later; right now, he’d deal with Reno first.

Elena’s complexion paled and, to her benefit, she didn’t attempt to make any excuses for failing at her duty. "I’ll summon the carriage, sir," she said in a choked whisper. When she turned to leave the apartment, Tseng stopped her by placing his hand on her shoulder.

"No, have the stable saddle our horses. Rude, go with her," he ordered, and both gokenin hurried to obey. Rufus thought with some bitterness that at least some of his people were willing to follow orders.

Tseng left too, heading to his room to return a few seconds later with a small black leather pouch in his hands. He untied its drawstring and pulled out several charms. "The carriage had enough trouble on the way back from Lord Cheung’s estate; with the approaching storm it’ll be best to ride on our own," he explained, an almost unnoticeable edge of concern in his usually smooth voice. "These charms should help to keep us warm." He handed one of them to Rufus before he spoke the questions roiling about in his mind. "Where is he and why did he leave this time?"

"Some inn called the Koneko in the western Green district," Rufus muttered and slipped the charm over his head. It settled in the middle of his chest, a warm lump that caused the heat to slowly infuse his entire body. "As to the why, I’ve no fucking clue." His motions were jerky as he draped the cloak over his shoulders and fastened it shut, then reaching for the thick leather gloves tucked into an inside pocket.

"Tseng, I know he’s a fellow gokenin, but I will brook no interference over how I handle his punishment." He stared intently at his most trusted employee, the man who had practically raised him and who had kept him safe for all of his life. "Try to defend him and you’ll suffer as well."

Tseng’s dark eyes narrowed and there was whisper of anger in Rufus’ mind, then the flesh gaki bound bowed his head. "My lord, may I just remind you that you’re mates now. You may want to moderate how you plan to handle the situation."

Rufus considered Tseng one of the wisest men he knew and always listened to what he said, but not tonight. He stepped closer to Tseng with his teeth bared. "If you think I’m going to ‘moderate’ his punishment because of a mistake on my part, then you’re as much of an idiot as he is. Reno is placing *all* of us in danger with his thoughtless actions, and even if I have to suffer along with him, I *will* ensure that he learns a lesson this time." Holding Tseng’s attention for a moment longer, he yanked the hood of his cloak over his head and stormed out of the apartment.

By the time he reached the elevator, Tseng was once more at his side, thoughts carefully masked and his cloak mostly fastened. Neither of them spoke the entire way to the stables, where they found Rude and Elena waiting for them astride their horses. "Reno’s horse is still here," Rude said, his deep voice subdued and what could be seen of his expression impassive.

That meant the idiot had left on foot, most likely, and used his powers publicly while in enemy territory. Swinging into the saddle of his horse, Rufus jerked on the reins until the horse spun around to the proper direction. "We’re going to the western Green district," he informed them through gritted teeth before he kicked the horse into a reckless gallop.

Even the short time he’d spent inside had seen a new layer of snow added to what had fallen all evening long. There had to be several inches by now and the snow showed no sign of stopping soon. The roads were slippery but mostly free of anyone else, as those with sense were safely indoors. If it wasn’t for the heat charm, Rufus was sure he’d have a case of frostbite by the time they reached the proper district.

Tseng took the lead on the unfamiliar roads, riding past various buildings surrounded by spacious lawns and gardens. The area wasn’t very wealthy, yet the greenery, cloaked as it was by snow, surprised Rufus. This was one of the older parts of the city and was tucked between a temple and shopping district. He looked about with mild curiosity as they rode, left clueless as to what in the hell would attract Reno out all this way.

<How much further?> he asked Tseng, his temper having cooled down just enough that he felt safe using his talent. The roads were becoming truly treacherous from snow and ice, and the horses were having serious difficulty remaining on their feet.

<Another block, my lord.> Tseng motioned at the crossroads just ahead.

<Have you been here before? Why would Reno be interested in such a place?>

Despite the thickness of his cloak and the dusting of snow that covered it, one could tell that Tseng’s shoulders became slightly hunched at the question. <The Koneko… my lord, I’ve heard an interesting rumor from an old friend who fled from Esset; he was certain that he’d find sanctuary at an inn called the Koneko.> From the hesitant manner that he shared the information, he must have suspected how Rufus would react to it.

Rufus’ temper flared to life again, and he was almost tempted to unblock the link and tear through Reno’s mind to find out if his mate had fled here for sanctuary. If his horse wasn’t already worn out from the fast ride here, he’d kick it into a gallop.

Upon turning left at the crossroads, he saw a large building surrounded by a high, red brick wall and correctly guessed that they’d reached their destination. Goading his horse on as fast as he could, he rode it almost to the front steps before he jumped to the ground. "Elena, handle the horses," he ordered as he ran up the steps, expecting Tseng and Rude to fall behind him. The doors opened easily, revealing a paneled hallway that glowed in the light of several candles. The warmth that Rufus felt once inside was almost painful; the heat charms had been hard-pressed to handle a fast ride on a bitterly cold night. Inviting as it was, the hallway was suspiciously empty; he could sense the thoughts of several people in a room not far away and headed for it.

Once more there were walls of glowing wood, along with a huge fireplace and dozens of tables. Despite the room’s size it was mostly empty, save for a small gathering not far from the fireplace. Rufus instantly spotted Reno sitting among the people, his head held supported in his hands as if he suffered from a headache. Everything else faded away as Rufus cracked open the link and approached his mate.

The pain he felt made him hiss in response, as did the cold, hurtful look that Reno gave him when the dubhach looked his way. Before Rufus could reach him, the person sitting beside him rose to block Rufus’ path.

"Get out of the way," Rufus snarled, readying his power to attack if not instantly obeyed. When the stranger refused to move, he lashed out – at nothing. His surprise intensified when shadows wrapped around his body and forced him to be still.

Two more men stood to their feet, and Rufus wasn’t alone in his shock when one of them threw out golden strands that stopped Rude from charging toward the table, the same time that Tseng began to growl loud enough that the sound echoed throughout the large room. Both men were trapped still as well, Rude by the strands and Tseng by some invisible force.

"Kudoh, I told you that *I* wanted to stop Rude," the smallest of the three said, sounding distinctly annoyed.

"Oh no, *you’re* the little demon so *you* get to deal with the guy with the sharp teeth. I’m too good looking to be gnawed upon. Aya’s the only one who can do that," the tallest man said with an indignant sniff.

Despite the fact that the two had managed to effectively neutralize two of Rufus’ best gokenin, his attention was focused mainly on the young man who seemed to be responsible for the freezing, black bindings wrapped around his body. As his anger was tempered by surprise and disbelief, he stared in wonder as Reno stood up to stand beside the stranger and lean his right arm on the man’s shoulder.

Whoever the stranger was, he shared Reno’s exotic coloring, down to the brilliant crimson hair, just as tousled and ragged even if it was cut mostly short. Both of their skin was unnaturally pale and glowing in the candlelight, and their eyes were cast over with silver. "That’s not possible," Rufus whispered, his mind struggling to accept what that coloring and the shadow restraints around him symbolized.

"I’m pleased to inform you that it is," a familiar voice remarked, forcing Rufus to draw his attention away from Reno and the strange redhead. He hadn’t thought it was possible to become even more shocked until he found Crawford staring at him with an inordinately pleased smirk on his face. "A dubhach and a kage, not only alive at the same time but drawn to each other as friends. Are you aware just how much the future has changed because of tonight?" the precog asked, his voice as pleased as his expression.

"Kage." Try as he might, Rufus couldn’t read the strange redhead’s mind – couldn’t read anyone’s mind, other than Rude and Tseng. The former was more worried about Reno than the fact that he couldn’t use his talent, while the latter was almost completely lost to madness. "You told the Elders that the kage was dead."

Crawford laughed and stepped closer, stopping not far from the tall blond with the golden wires. "I told the Elders that Ran Fujimiya was dead. I’d like you to meet Aya Kudoh." He motioned toward the redhead, who stared frostily back at Rufus. "I think you’ll also find it of interest that this is Yohji Kudoh, Aya’s mate." He rested his hand on the blond’s shoulder for a moment. "True mates, I might add. There was no forcing a link between them," he said, the smugness in his voice lost to disgust.

Rufus mostly ignored the jab as he stared at the two bounds. Aya showed no emotion as he met the look, while Yohji’s gaze held a very obvious warning that didn’t require Rufus’ telepathy to be deciphered. Even with his three strongest gokenin, he stood no chance of winning a fight started here, and it didn’t escape his notice that Reno hadn’t said or done a thing other than stand beside Aya.

<Tseng, control yourself,> he sent, needing the bound to be rational and alert. He had to repeat the command again before Tseng managed to regain control of his demon soul. Reaching out with his talent, he discovered that Tseng had ordered Elena to remain in the stables with the horses, where she was currently being berated by a human over the animals’ condition. He didn’t send an order for her to join them inside since he didn’t see how she could help the situation.

"Reno," he said aloud, jealousy creeping into the anger as he noticed that the dubhach hadn’t moved from Aya’s side. "Why are you here?"

Shaking his head, Reno patted Aya’s back and stepped forward, his face haggard with pain. "Nice to see you too, my lord." He let out a hissing breath and jerked his hands through his unbound hair, making the strands even more disarrayed. "Told you that I’d find some friends to keep me occupied," he said, his voice rough and cracking. "The shinigami wanted me to come here so I did. I just had to wait until you were ignoring me enough that you wouldn’t notice that I was gone." He lifted his chin and stared in defiance at Rufus. "You’re not going to order me back. Oath or no oath, I choose where I go."

The jealous and anger flared so strongly that Rufus was lost to it for a few seconds. "The hell you will! You’re *mine*," he snarled, sounding as mad as Tseng.

"Then fucking act like you want me," Reno snapped, sparks filling the air around him. "Either as your gokenin or somebody to fuck, not as some dirty secret you have to hide away. If you think I’m gonna be a good little slave and sit meekly on the fucking bed all damn day, you’re nuts!"

"It doesn’t matter how the hell I treat you, you’re *mine*, Reno! If I want you locked in the damn bathroom for the next month you’ll obey me." All Rufus could think about was how Reno wasn’t listening to him, wasn’t susceptible to the compulsion any more. That was unacceptable – he had to have control, had to have a way to keep Reno by his side and alive.

A low groan made him remember that there were other people in the room. The blond, Yohji, went to Aya and draped his arms around the kage’s upper chest. "Cat, if I *ever* become that bad, I give you permission to get Jo’s rolling pin and beat the shit out of me."

"Trust me, Kudoh, he’ll have to wait in line for his turn if you ever become that stupid," the young, dark-haired earth elemental muttered.

"Meanwhile, I suddenly feel the urge to express just how grateful I am that I got a good mate," another man who Rufus recognized as Schuldig said and gave Masato a lick on the ear.

"Do you mind?" Rufus asked, appalled that these people were sitting and standing there listening and making smart remarks while he attempted to bring Reno back under control.

Schuldig bared his teeth in Rufus’ direction. "Actually, I do. Here we were having some ‘quality time’ together, only to get dragged out of bed by your boyfriend showing up and throwing around more sparks than a damn thunderstorm. Then, as we try to figure out what’s going on, we find out about the asshole of a mate he’s stuck with, meaning you." The earlier humor was gone from Schuldig’s voice, replaced with intense dislike. " Just when things calm down again, you show up and prove that he wasn’t anywhere near close to describing just how much of a fucking bastard you are."

Schuldig left the table while everyone else remained quiet and watched. He approached Rufus and, almost too fast to stop, slapped him across the face. Reno growled in warning, but stopped when Aya reached out to squeeze his right shoulder.

Rufus rubbed his sore face and gazed evenly at Schuldig. "What was that for?" he asked after he sent a command to Rude and Tseng to not react to the blow. Yohji had removed the wire from Rude, but Nagi kept both men trapped still. If there was any hope of either of them being released and able to fight, they’d have to remain calm. A slap and some insults were a small price to pay for everyone’s safety.

His hands now tucked into the pockets of his pants, Schuldig bared his teeth again. "You know, I was here when Aya and Yohji became mates. I’d met a couple of other mated bounds while I was growing up, but they were the first ones I’d seen meet and get together. Quite honestly, I thought they were being a pair of idiots with how wrapped up they were with each other, and sappy as all hell. Then I met Masato." He looked away to flash a quick smile over his shoulder in the direction of the succubae bound. "I’ll admit it, I was a dumb fuck when it came to us being mates, but I eventually gave in; it hurt too much fighting it and I figured I wasn’t going to win in the end." He shrugged his shoulders and continued, his tone so matter of fact that it was almost like he wasn’t talking about such a personal matter.

"So I gave in, if not in the most gracious of manners, and waited to be miserable. Funny thing is, it never happened." Schuldig grinned, the expression sheepish. "Soon enough, I realized that I was being just as idiotic, if not quite as sappy, as my friends. Didn’t matter, though, because I found someone who loves me, puts up with all my shit and will *always* be there for me." His smile vanished, placed with a look of vitriolic disgust. "That’s what it fucking means to be someone’s mate. You claim that you didn’t force the bond intentionally, fine. Maybe you don’t deserve to have your brains fried for that, but for treating your own mate as if he was a fucking dog to be chained up and kicked around whenever you want?" As before, his right hand moved incredibly fast and slapped the other side of Rufus’ face. "If you weren’t mated to a dubhach, I’d shred your mind apart."

"Schuldig, *stop it*," Reno hissed, shrugging off Aya’s restraining hand. "Don’t touch him."

"Hey, okay." Schuldig moved away from Rufus, his hands help up in the air as if in surrender. "He’s your problem; you get to do the slapping." The soul gaki bound went to sit beside his mate and resumed glaring at Rufus.

Rubbing his sore face, Rufus wondered if the gods had decided to torment him for the hell of it or for some specific reason. He watched Reno approach and waited to see if he was going to be slapped again. The blows from Schuldig he’d accepted so as not to start a fight he had little chance of winning, yet he wouldn’t stand there and meekly accept any abuse from Reno.

Instead of slapping him, Reno grabbed him by the front of his cloak and gave him a violent shake. <Schuldig’s right; I’m not your fucking dog,> he sent, his furious thoughts coming in clear for the first time in over an hour.

Thankful that they’d be allowed some privacy, Rufus pushed into his mate’s mind as deeply as possible. He felt the lingering headache from his parting mental shot earlier and did his best to soothe it and Reno’s temper. <No, you’re my mate and my gokenin. Where does being either of those mean that you can disrespect my wishes and put all of us in danger?> He refused to feel guilty about any of this – the mess was entirely Reno’s fault.

Reno hissed, sounding like a furious cat. <What gives you the fucking right to keep me locked up? You make me wear a damn illusion spell and then you won’t let anyone see me. You tell me that I’m your gokenin and must obey you, then you won’t let me protect you. Fuck you, Rufus. Try dealing with me when you can’t compel me to do something.> He was livid, utterly livid, and there was still pain that Rufus slowly realized wasn’t associated with the headache.

Shaking his head in an attempt to clear his thoughts, Rufus dared to slide his arms around his lover’s shoulders and pulled him close when Reno didn’t shrug them off. <I’m doing everything I can to keep you safe,> he attempted to explain in hopes of ending this fight and getting Reno out of here, only to be cut off by a rude noise.

<You never worried this much about me before, Rufus,> Reno pointed out, going so far as to dredge up memories to support his claim. <Made me wear illusion spells, not move too fast or use my talent, yes, but you never kept me locked up before. You only started doing that the last few months.>

Rufus felt his eyes widen as he realized that Reno was telling the truth. When looking back on his actions the last few months, it became clear that he’d wanted Reno kept from everyone *after* they’d become mates. After they were irrevocably tied together, and what affected Reno, affected him. Then his concern of keeping the dubhach safe had turned into… damn it, there was no other way of putting it, it had turned into an obsession. "Fuck," he muttered as a terrible dread filled him while he wondered just how much the bond had altered his thoughts.

"Not right now, there’re no rugs here," Reno purred and gave his chin a lick, one moment completely enraged and the next amused and mostly content. Rufus wondered if a bound could catch insanity from a mate – it would explain his recent actions. <That shook something loose in your head, na?>

Rufus looked over his mate’s left shoulder to glare at Crawford. "You couldn’t have warned me about the effects of a mating bond when you told me about my link with Reno, could you, you meddling bastard?" he spat, furious over how out of control he’d been the last few months. All this time he’d yelled about Reno being a security risk, when he was just as big of one with his irrational behavior.

A mocking smile curled Crawford’s lips. "Where would the fun be in that? No, you were the one who forced the bond so you were to find out things the hard way." The smile vanished when he looked at Reno. "I’m sorry, but do you really think he would have listened to anyone if we tried to tell him the truth?"

"Nah, he’s a stubborn fool that way." Reno attempted to pull away; Rufus yanked him back against his chest. "Hey, what are you-"

Deciding he’d had enough of revelations and discussions, Rufus meant to remind everyone that, no matter how it had happened, he and Reno were still mates. He let his remaining anger and jealousy fuel the kiss, turning it into one of searing possession. His hands clasped behind the small of Reno’s back and kept his mate pressed tightly against him while he ravished Reno’s mouth, tongue thrusting in deep. When Reno stopped resisting and sucked on his tongue, it just made the emotions even more intense, until all he could sense was his mate.

That was, until something very cold slipped down the back of his shirt, startling him away from Reno. He scowled as he looked about, gasping for air so he could growl in displeasure.

Aya calmly met his nasty look and nodded in the direction of a middle-aged woman with grey-streaked brown hair. "Jo doesn’t care for such public display of affection," he said, never mind that his own mate was nuzzling his neck. While Rufus attempted to get his lust-addled brain to come up with a suitably savage retort, Aya glanced at the teenager who still stood by him. "Nagi, I think you can release Rude and Tseng now."

"Yeah, let ‘em go." Reno was panting for air as well, and it seemed that only Rufus’ arms around his waist were keeping him upright. He did some nuzzling of his own and made Rufus groan in pleasure, anger temporarily forgotten.

Someone laughed, and when Rufus managed to open his eyes – not even aware that he’d closed them – he realized it was Yohji. "I think someone better show those two to a room."

"We’ve several available because of the storm," the woman muttered, for some reason giving Rufus a very disapproving look. "Teddy can take you to one of them."

"We’re not staying the night," Rufus declared, even though he wanted nothing more to drag Reno someplace quiet and fuck until morning. In fact, he was beginning to think that ‘someplace quiet’ wasn’t very important….

He almost jumped when he felt a clawed hand press against his right shoulder. "My lord, even if the horses were in any condition to take us back to the inn, the roads will be impossible to manage. I’m afraid we’re stuck here for the time being." Tseng didn’t sound too upset with the situation, even if Rufus could pick up from his thoughts that he wasn’t pleased to be effectively trapped with two other flesh gaki bounds.

Glancing at Rude for a second opinion, Rufus swore when the earth elemental nodded in agreement and Reno began to purr. He was *not* happy with the thought of being stuck with a kage and Crawford, even if it would give him an opportunity to find out what was going on. Despite all that had happened tonight, he didn’t forget that Crawford had wanted him in Eto and he now believed that it had something to do with Aya.

Refusing to sigh in annoyance, he shifted Reno to his right side and bowed slightly to the woman, Jo. Judging from the thoughts that he was now able to read, she was the one in charge. "Thank you for your hospitality. I’m afraid we’ll be staying at least for the night, and assure you that we can pay for the rooms."

Jo snorted and looked at Aya for a moment. "We won’t turn away any money, and I think you’re going to be here for more than a night." Her gaze sharpened when she glanced in Crawford’s direction. "Is the excitement over for the time being?"

"I believe so," Crawford calmly remarked. He removed his glasses to wipe them clean with a cloth. "Look on the bright side; at least they’re already mates."

Jo did a pretty good hissing sound, considering that she was human. "Teddy, show them to a room; one without any neighbors." She snorted again and poured something into a mug. "You’d think you morons would have the sense to not pick fights in the middle of a storm," she mumbled. "Not when we’re trapped here with you. I’m about to go spend the night in the damn stables just for some peace and quiet."

"Aw, but what else would we do for entertainment?" a young man with waist-length black hair asked while he moved away from another young man dressed in Harper red. "The fifth floor is mostly empty so I’ll take them up there." Reading the man’s thoughts, Rufus found out that this was Teddy.

<Elena, leave the horses alone and come inside the inn; we’re not leaving tonight,> Rufus sent while Teddy motioned for Reno and him to follow. <Tseng, you’ll come with us while Rude remains here to eat and find out what exactly is the relationship between Crawford and the kage, why they’re all here, why there are humans involved and what they expect from us.> He wished that he could order Tseng to stay since he was much more adept at extracting information than Rude; the presence of the other two flesh gaki bounds would mean that Tseng’s attention would be divided.

"I want three rooms next to each other," Rufus informed Teddy as they made their way up the stairs, his left arm firmly around Reno’s waist. "We’ll take the one in the middle."

"Hey, it’s your friends who have to listen to you to go at it all night, not me," Teddy replied with a sly grin that was aimed at Reno. From his mate’s thoughts, Rufus realized that Reno had spent a good half an hour or so chatting with the people gathered in the main room, and seemed to have already formed several new friendships. Give Reno a few beers and a chance to talk, and he either alienated the hell out of people or was adored.

Biting back on a retort that his sex life was none of the human’s business, Rufus continued to scan Teddy’s thoughts instead, hoping for a few answers. Teddy was Yohji’s adopted brother, and didn’t have any problems with bounds or the kage. There was something about strays that he was too distracted to figure out thanks to Reno nibbling on his ear, but he at least was certain that the humans didn’t plan to attack them during the night.

"Quit that," he hissed at Reno as they walked down a quiet hallway. How the idiot could go from livid to happy and horny so quickly, he didn’t understand… and he was growing concerned that his emotions had taken almost as drastic a turn. Once they got out of here, he had to devote some serious attention into finding out just how badly the mating bond was affecting him.

"I can start yelling at you again," Reno murmured, his lips brushing against Rufus’ jaw. "I’m in the mood to either fight or fuck, and fucking is much more fun."

"I’m stuck with an idiot until I die," Rufus sighed, and Teddy’s low chuckle reminded him that there were other people about. The dread from earlier returned when he realized that he was in deeper trouble than he suspected; how the hell did Reno do this to him all the time, and why did each time it seemed to bother him less and less? It was as if being wrapped up in his mate was natural.

Teddy opened a door and motioned inside. "Here’s your room." Stepping into it, he muttered ‘light’ and several candles lit as a result, revealing a large room filled with a huge bed with two nightstands, a small desk, a dresser and armoire, all made out of gleaming mahogany. There were two leather chairs for lounging as well, and a fireplace filled with wood that Teddy was currently lighting. "It’ll warm up in a few minutes. You should have enough water in here for tonight; if not, there’s a bathing room down the hall, look for the blue door, and a hot spring in the basement." After he stood to his feet and replaced the mesh screen in front of the lit fire, he held up a small bronze key.

Rufus pushed Reno toward the bed and stepped forward to claim the key. "Thank you," he said and motioned for the human to leave. <I sense nothing wrong with the room from him,> he informed Tseng, who stood just outside the door. <Check the other two rooms.>

"Good night, my lord," Tseng replied with a slight bow while he made sure that Teddy left the room. The door closed a moment later, and Rufus went to lock it before he placed the key on the desk and shrugged off his cloak, leaving it draped over the back of the chair.

Once rid of the garment, he went straight to the bed, not even pausing to remove his boots before he sat down beside Reno and yanked his mate into his arms. <If you’ve gotten any of us into trouble, I’ll have your hide,> he threatened, the fury from earlier returning as he allowed his thoughts to focus on their situation for a brief moment. This could be a trap arranged either by Esset or Kritiker, they were outnumbered and important secrets were revealed, and all he really gave a damn about was making Reno properly submissive. No matter the concerns that made his human soul scream in rage and fear, the demon side of him took over, pushing all that aside in favor of Reno.

Falling back onto the bed, Rufus dragged his mate with him, his hands tearing at the black shirt’s uneven laces so he could remove it from Reno. Pale hands scrabbled at his clothes as well, both of them moving forward to kiss only to growl and pull back enough to get rid of the damned garments. Once the shirts were gone and their boots kicked to the floor, they rolled further onto the bed.

Rufus made sure that he was on top, his fingers entwined with Reno’s and forcing his mate’s hands against the bed. <You’ve placed all of us in danger. What about the oaths you swore to me? The promise to obey?>

<I promised to be your gokenin and protect you; I can’t do that if I’m locked in a fucking room all the time so the orders didn’t affect me,> Reno shot back as he arched his back off the bed. <I never agreed to be your slave.>

No, he hadn’t, and part of Rufus didn’t want that, either. He just needed Reno to listen to him, to stay out of trouble that might lead to Reno being hurt. He *needed* Reno to lift his chin and expose his neck, to part his legs and give all of himself to Rufus. He craved for Reno to let him deep inside of his mind, no barriers to keep thoughts or emotions hidden. Rufus didn’t want a slave, he just wanted everything that Reno had to give.

However, he could never say that so he kissed his mate instead, pouring all of his emotions into the embrace as he sought to devour all that he could. Reno’s taste, Reno’s emotions and thoughts, Reno’s body. He released his mate’s hands so he could rake his nails along Reno’s sides, not enough to break skin but to make the body beneath his arch again, to feel the press of hard cock against his own and hear Reno gasp in pleasure. The feelings rushing across the link made him shiver in delight and hunger.

His right hand slipped between their bodies and ripped the laces of Reno’s pants. He wanted his mate naked, wanted to feel hot, smooth skin against his own. While Reno purred and writhed about, shedding his pants in the most erotic way possible, Rufus reluctantly pulled back enough to get rid of his own.

The feel of their naked bodies pressing together was a fiery jolt of pleasure that affected every nerve he possessed. Without any thought other than need and fulfillment, he pushed Reno’s legs apart and settled between them, his right hand fumbling for the jar of lube that was usually kept on the one nightstand.

"Fuck," he swore when he realized that it wasn’t there. "*Fuck*."

Reno, his eyes darkened and expression dazed with passion, wrapped his legs around Rufus’ thighs and pulled him down for a kiss. <What’s wrong?> he asked, his hips rocking forward and his nails lightly scratching down Rufus’ back.

Rufus could feel his cock rub against his mate’s ass, shivering as it pressed slightly against puckered flesh. Oh gods, what he wouldn’t give to just thrust forward, into delicious heat that would have him screaming as it wrapped so tightly around him. "No fucking lube," he muttered, his eyes closed as he fought with all his strength against the urge.

"What the hell?" Reno moved beneath him, the motion causing Rufus to groan almost in pain as he felt his control be sorely tempted. "Shit." Reno actually thought about it for a moment, letting Rufus fuck him without any preparation. Whatever damage would be healed within a minute or-

"No." Rufus rolled onto his side, dragging his idiotic mate with him. There were lines he wouldn’t cross; he saw nothing wrong in reprimanding Reno whenever his lover messed up, but forcing pain for his own pleasure could not be justified.

<You are the oddest man,> Reno said and squirmed against Rufus, adjusting his position until their cocks brushed together. <I’d be the one suffering, not you.> He believed that would make it okay for Rufus.

<You’re even more messed up than I thought,> Rufus replied, not even willing to deal with the matter right now. No, all he wanted was to make Reno scream his name and bare his throat, to give in. They could always use saliva and be careful… but he didn’t have enough control tonight to ensure that he’d go slow enough not to hurt his lover. Instead, he quickly spat in his right hand then grasped both their cocks before he leaned forward for another kiss.

Both of them moaned when his hand slowly stroked up their cocks, gently squeezing the sensitive flesh together to create wonderfully sensuous friction. He swiped his tongue inside of Reno’s mouth, allowed Reno to suck on it as his left hand tangled in his mate’s hair. Reno’s right arm, trapped beneath his hip, wriggled about until it could curl around his back, one hand clutching Rufus ass while sharp nails once more scratched up and down.

Rufus continued to stroke them off, the motions becoming faster, rougher as their bodies responded to the quickly increasing pleasure. Ten minutes ago, Reno had been ready to fight him, had disobeyed him, and now all Rufus’ mate could think about was the ecstasy Rufus made him feel. Using the pleasure as if a weapon, Rufus’s hand wrapped just around Reno’s cock as he broke off the kiss, his lips trailing along Reno’s chin as he shifted downward.

"Rufus!" Reno cried when Rufus’ thumb rubbed along the top of his cock, sliding easily over slick skin. He called out again when Rufus’ teeth skimmed along his neck.

Smiling at how Reno arched his neck with no urging on his part, Rufus thrust his hips forward, his cock sliding against his mate’s trembling thigh. The way Reno clung to him, desperately panting for air and thoughts utterly fractured were all the warning that he needed of what was soon to happen, and he used that knowledge along with the skill gained from years of manipulating his lover’s body to make sure the resulting orgasm was as intense and delicious as possible. He twisted his hand along Reno’s cock, the fingers of his other hand sliding between Reno’s ass just before he fastened his mouth to his mate’s sweat-slick neck.

He tasted salt, felt an inferno of need and ecstasy and heard the strangled moan of his name; he savored all of those sensations for a brief moment and then bit down, his teeth surrounding Reno’s windpipe.

Reno’s back arched, slamming his body against Rufus’ as he came, mental barriers all down, body unresisting and souls united. He completely surrendered to Rufus, the action as ecstatic as the pleasure that coursed over the link in a burning, thunderous wave. Rufus enjoyed the moment as fully as possible, allowing it to soothe his anger and ruffled pride before that pleasure engulfed him as well.

He tried to remain aware of the world around him during the orgasm, to not leave himself so vulnerable in a strange, potentially dangerous environment, but the orgasm was too potent to be controlled. When he finally felt that his body was his own to control again and could sense something other than pleasure, Rufus struggled to regulate his uneven breathing and slowly pulled away from his mate.

Reno lay bonelessly on the bed, his eyes closed and his lips curled into a sated grin. His hair clung to his flushed body like a crimson net, tangled and darkened by sweat. On his neck was a huge bruise, a few drops of blood glittering among the imprint of Rufus’ teeth. For once his mind was quiet, his two natures still united.

"Don’t you ever run away again, Reno," Rufus murmured as he settled against his mate again, not caring about the way their skin stuck together from sweat and their release. Right now, he just wanted to feel Reno against him, to smell his mate and hold him close.

"I wasn’t running away," Reno croaked and shifted about until his forehead pressed against Rufus’ chest. "Just had to see what the shinigami wanted. Wasn’t like I wouldn’t return – if you didn’t drag me back first."

Feeling the anger build in both of them, Rufus cursed under his breath and jerked his hand through his hair. Why did this always end in fights between them? A few minutes ago, Reno had surrendered everything, had given him complete control… and now that control was slipping through his fingers.

<Reno… give me a few days to figure out just how much this bond is affecting me, all right? Then we’ll talk about you resuming your duties.> He began to untangle his mate’s lovely hair, glad that Reno couldn’t see the expression on his face as he struggled to understand his own emotions. <That is, if we’re still alive in a few days,> he added darkly.

Reno nipped his chest and began to purr. <We’ll be fine; there’s no reason to distrust Aya. He won’t let the others harm me so that means you’re safe.>

Unwilling to discuss the kage when just mention of the man made jealousy flare to life inside of him, Rufus closed his eyes and sent a heartfelt curse to the gods. A few hours ago, he had some idea of his future, had set into motion plans that would give him some control over what was to come. Now, because of his idiot mate, he was left utterly clueless of what would happen next and jealous of a kage who was supposed to be dead. He bet the gods were having quite the laugh over his situation.

Letting out a slow breath, he reluctantly pulled away from Reno and left the bed to wash off. "At this point, I suppose it won’t hurt to wait until morning to see what they want from us." At the least, tempers should be cool and he should have gathered enough information to not be completely helpless when left dealing with Crawford.

"They want us to fight against Esset," Reno said, and with a muttered curse left the bed as well. "I mean, no one came right out and said it, but it’s pretty obvious." He joined Rufus at the washstand and tried to snatch the washcloth, wanting to quickly clean off and return to the comfortable bed.

Rufus didn’t respond to the comment; he had a feeling that Reno was correct and didn’t see what choice he had in the matter now. If Kritiker had a kage fighting on its side, the balance of power had definitely shifted out of Esset’s favor. However, he wouldn’t involve himself or his people in the war until he was certain of several important things.

Tossing the cloth at his mate, Rufus dried off, went to the window to find out just how badly the storm was raging outside and cursed to see how much new snow had piled up and went to the fireplace to add a few more pieces of wood. He sighed in annoyance at the sight of ripped clothing scattered about and decided he wasn’t going to worry about anything else tonight. Right now, he just wanted to go to sleep before tackling all of the problems awaiting him in the morning.

Reno joined him in bed, spooning against his back and hesitantly sliding his arm around Rufus’ waist. "So, am I going to spend the day outside tomorrow?" Reno asked, his voice unusually quiet and meek.

Turning around to face his mate, Rufus pulled him close and tucked Reno’s head beneath his chin. "Don’t be stupid," he said, having forgotten about the threat from earlier. "I’d never be able to concentrate on important matters while wondering what new trouble you’d be getting into out there."

Laughing softly, Reno went all boneless again, his body practically melting against Rufus’. Purring softly, he quickly fell asleep, leaving Rufus awake and debating whether to put his talent to use. If the kage and his friends were to be allies, they might resent any mental tampering on his part, and he wasn’t sure what he could get away with now because of Aya’s presence. He had a feeling that the kage was to blame for his inability to read minds earlier and how Reno had fought against the compulsion.

In the middle of putting together suitable plans for the morning, Rufus ended up falling asleep.

*******

"Well, let’s get these dishes to the kitchen," Jo declared as she slowly rose from the bench. "We can let them soak overnight; I don’t think we’re going to have much business tomorrow." She stretched her arms over her head once she was standing, then had to cover a yawn.

Aya rose to his feet in a graceful manner that made Yohji aware of how much his hunger had grown since this morning. Between the excitement from tonight and Reno’s unsettling presence, he wanted to feed from his mate, to feel Aya’s energy and love rush into him. While the feeling was possessive as hell, Yohji really wasn’t in the mood to fight it, not when Aya sensed his hunger and gave him a smoldering look before helping Jo with the dishes.

Omi, Nagi and Jei also helped collect the dirty plates and mugs; when Crawford got up to either assist or leave, Yohji grabbed the precog’s wrist to keep him seated at the table. "Do you mind if we sit here a little longer?" he asked the others while looking directly at Crawford.

"I’ll meet you upstairs," Aya said and trailed his fingers along Yohji’s shoulders before heading to the kitchen, sending a wave of understanding, desire and amusement over their link. Since Aya had given his approval, the others merely wished him a good night and left the room.

Yohji smiled at the emotions, grateful that Aya wasn’t fighting him on this or insisting on joining in. The trust he’d given Aya earlier tonight in accepting Reno was just returned, and he was happy that the relationship had progressed enough Aya didn’t think of him being too controlling or belittling in wanting to speak to Crawford alone.

"As I’m certain that you want to join your mate upstairs as quickly as possible, I suggest that you stop smiling at nothing and ask me your questions." Crawford was clearly amused and didn’t seem upset.

"Thanks." Yohji looked around and realized that his friends had collected all of the mugs and carafes of coffee. Ah well, he hoped to be in his bed in a few minutes, if not exactly falling asleep. Smiling once again, he looked directly at Crawford. "So, I can’t exactly set you on fire and I’ve no desire to bite you. That said, do us both a favor and give me honest, simple answers, okay?"

Still amused and possessed of good humor, Crawford nodded. "In light of the late hour and the fact that I have to deal with Rufus Shinra in the morning, I’ll be as direct as possible. Yes, I knew that Aya and Reno would meet tonight, and no, I didn’t tell anyone."

Removing his glasses to clean them with a cloth, Crawford paused for a moment, and Yohji let him be. As long as he sensed a willingness to talk and no hint of deception from the bound, he would remain quiet.

"As I told everyone earlier, I can’t ‘see’ very well when Aya is concerned. I didn’t even know about Reno until I saw him in Berin." Crawford slipped on his glasses and gave Yohji a slight smile. "Once that happened, several things that had been obscured from me had suddenly become very clear. I knew that if we want to win the war, that Reno and Rufus must be on our side, and that Reno would be how we won Rufus’ cooperation."

"So what does Reno have to do with Aya?" Yohji asked, wanting to be sure that his lover wasn’t about to be used again.

Crawford shrugged, appearing a little tired but otherwise unconcerned. "When Aya’s involved, I usually see… a hint of something. Not much, as most details are cloaked in darkness, but enough to have an idea or two on how to proceed. Once I realized what Reno was, the same went with future events involving him. So when I foresaw a powerful storm while we were all gathered in Eto, yet couldn’t see anything happen after that, I realized that Aya or Reno would be involved, possibly both. I had several other visions that showed Rufus fighting for Kritiker, something that had always been in doubt before." Crawford rubbed the back of his neck, a hint of exhaustion creeping into his voice. "I took a chance, Yohji. I was certain that both Aya and Reno would be involved, and that their meeting would lead to Reno and Rufus fighting for us and not against. But since I couldn’t see what exactly would happen tonight, I didn’t attempt to interfere in any way."

"Or give any warning," Yohji muttered. He still sensed that Crawford was being honest – surprisingly so, in fact, and did his best to not let his protectiveness of his mate antagonize the precog. Crawford was clearly trying to be a bit more open about his visions and plans.

Standing to his feet so he could pace back and forth, Crawford shook his head. "That would be interfering. Yohji, I didn’t see any harm to Aya, you or anyone else here after the darkness, and only saw benefits for us all. While I know that everyone’s not pleased with how little I choose to reveal about the future, I must remind you that there’s a danger in doing just that. People react differently when they think they know what will happen and will attempt to alter things when there’s no need; that just makes a mess of the situation." Anger slowly crept into his voice. "I make no pretenses in being unmotivated by my own desires, but I am doing all I can to ensure that Kritiker wins the approaching war. I wish everyone would remember that."

"Maybe we’re just concerned that you’ve spent so much time and effort manipulating things to get that result, that you think of us as expendable puppets," Yohji remarked, and waved his right hand when Crawford spun around to face him. "Look, forget I said it, okay? You know how we feel about the situation, and I think for the first time we’ve an inkling on your feelings and motivations. I know we’re here to fight and that you’re concerned with our feelings, and I also know you need us so you’ll make sure we’re still alive to fight. I just…." He sighed in frustration and tugged on a lock of hair. "I don’t like Aya being used by anyone. He suffered being the Takatori’s weapon for too long, and I’ve put a lot of effort into undoing that damage." Damage that seemed insurmountable some days, after a night spent holding Aya close to quiet the nightmares or having to explain some commonplace event or habit to Aya, who had spent too many years locked away from people. "I won’t let him be used again, by *anyone*," he warned, his voice roughened by a savage growl.

"I know," Crawford said, coming to a stop in front of Yohji. "He must fight in the war, Yohji, I won’t lie to you. I’ll do everything I can to make sure he remains alive and free until then." He fell quiet for a moment, thinking about something that made him feel sad then resolved. "Before the gods, I renounce the oath Aya made to me in this room months ago. He’s no longer bound to obey me." Giving Yohji an even look, Crawford nodded once. "Does that make you feel better?"

"It will, after you repeat those words to Aya," Yohji said once he regained his voice. Sweet gods, Crawford had just willingly given up control over a kage? "Why did you do that?" he had to ask, torn between hugging the man in thanks and throttling him to see if it was part of another plan.

Crawford shrugged, his expression unreadable. "As I said, I can’t see the future very well when it concerns Aya. I had him make that oath at a time when I wasn’t sure if I could control him enough to get him to fight for me. Now, it’s obvious that I don’t need to do anything and I’d rather not have any bad feelings between us. I need your cooperation." Crawford smiled a little just then, the gesture as enigmatic as its owner. "Good night, Yohji."

Yohji watched him leave the room, not sure if he’d gotten the answers and reassurances that he’d wanted. Crawford’s explanation made sense and he couldn’t wait to tell Aya that he was no longer sworn to the man, yet….

Crawford had said that the future had changed tonight, and that he’d do anything to make sure that Kritiker won the war; that Esset *lost*. He was also the type of person that wouldn’t toss aside any advantage unless it was no longer necessary.

Rubbing his hands over his tired eyes, Yohji got up and headed for his bedroom. Whatever it was that had made Crawford so sure that he didn’t need an oath to have Aya do his bidding, Yohji didn’t want to think about right now. He just wanted to make love to his mate and fall asleep with Aya in his arms, then deal with things tomorrow.

The war was still two years away, possibly longer, and things already seemed to be spinning out of control, Yohji thought with growing unease. What had once felt to be choices now seemed to be the only option left, and he didn’t like the sensation of being forced to do something, especially something unpleasant. All he wanted was to get his loved ones safely through the war. Once it was over… he thought about Aya, about his lover’s power and his own, the way Masato grew uneasy during their training sessions. He thought about Crawford so easily discussing using Reno to control Rufus and how the precog said nothing about what would happen after the war. With those unsettling thoughts in his head, he wondered if he and Aya would really be able to return home after the war.

A country falling in war meant a huge power struggle would result, with people fighting to seize control. He knew he wanted no part in any of the politics after the war, and that Aya didn’t, either. As pain and heartache filled his chest, he wondered how far away they would have to go to ensure that they were left out of the struggle that would arise from Esset’s defeat.

At least Crawford renouncing Aya’s oath meant that there was one less tie on Yohji and Aya. Yohji didn’t know if Crawford had done it so he and Aya could more easily disappear after the war, or if it all fit into some master plan. Shaking his head in response to that dark suspicion, he headed up the stairs, desperate to just hold Aya close and lose himself in love and pleasure. If there was one thing the last few months had taught him, it was to cherish what he had *now*, and that would always be Aya.

The closer he got to Aya, the better he felt. Just sensing the love and desire his mate had for him helped to soothe the doubts and dispel the fears. Reaching their room, Yohji went inside and found Aya standing in front of the fire, wearing only the scarlet robe. He approached his mate and enfolded him in his arms, Aya’s back pressed firmly against his chest.

Aya reached back to comb his fingers through Yohji’s hair. "You’re both happy and upset about something, Yotan," he said, but didn’t ask anything about the conversation. Yohji would tell him all about it… later. Right now, he wanted love and sunlight, wanted to feel how perfectly he fit inside of Aya and how much his lover craved him in return. There would come a time when they couldn’t push the darkness and pain away, so he was going to enjoy precious moments like this whenever he could.

"I love you," he whispered, letting all of his emotions flow over the link, holding nothing back.

"I know," Aya whispered, turning in Yohji’s arms to face him. "I love you, too," he admitted, the words hushed and hesitant yet still heartfelt. Yohji knew that he’d never have any reason to doubt them, and that made him happier than he’d ever be able to express in words.

"Good. Now, what do you say to me doing a bunch of obscene things to you, hmm?" he asked, turning the seriousness of the moment into joy and amusement. He waggled his eyebrows for added affect, wanting nothing more than to see the man he adored smile. Aya didn’t disappoint, even if he poked Yohji in the ribs at the same time.

"You’re hopeless," Aya purred, slowly backing Yohji toward the bed.

"I believe the correct term is ‘irrepressible’," Yohji chuckled. "Now, before you start spouting any more big words, the amazing dick and I have something to show you."

As Aya’s rare laughter filled the room, Yohji felt the darkness leave him.

*******