Darkness Returns

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chapter twelve

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snowball fights and different perspectives

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Aya lay in bed facing the curtained window with Yohji pressed against his back, one of his mate’s arms wrapped around his chest. A faint purr escaped his slightly curved lips as he closed his eyes and enjoyed the moment, the warmth and intoxicating scent of Yohji’s body.

Events from the night before played out in his mind as he lay there; Reno’s arrival, followed by Rufus’, the night’s many discussions then making love with Yohji before falling asleep. To say that it had been an ‘eventful’ evening was quite the understatement, yet Aya wasn’t concerned about anything that had happened. Well, he wasn’t very pleased with Rufus and he had to wonder what Crawford was up to, but that was it. Not even the conversation he’d had with Yohji about the precog before they’d fallen asleep had disturbed his mostly good mood.

Aya was certain that there was a lot going on that he didn’t know about and wouldn’t figure out until years later – if ever. To his surprise, it didn’t really bother him; he’d spent years with no hope for the future, and now…. Now, even if the future threatened to be filled with pain and loss, he knew he had Yohji through all of it, along with a few other friends. All he had to do was endure whatever the gods threw at him, and he was very good at enduring; it seemed to be part of the kage nature.

His smile strengthened when he thought about his nature and how he wasn’t so unique anymore. Reno might not be a kage, but a dubhach was very similar. For someone who had learned to always be suspicious of other people, Aya felt nothing but goodwill toward Reno. Somehow, he knew he could trust the dubhach, much the same way he trusted the Koneko’s staff. There was a special bond between him and Reno because of their shinigami souls, one that was almost like that of siblings. The same peace and comfort that he got from the shinigami, he felt around Reno.

The attachment didn’t spill over to Rufus, however, and Aya’s lips pulled back from his teeth when he thought about the soul gaki bound. Listening to Reno talk about his mate and then witnessing the way the man treated him made Aya want to put his shadows to good use. He’d only stood back and let Schuldig slap some sense into Rufus because he was afraid that he’d go too far if he attempted to do so. Reno was tied to the asshole, so Aya couldn’t hurt Rufus.

"Please say it’s not me who you’re all pissed off at right now," Yohji murmured in Aya’s right ear, making him hiss in surprise. The words were slurred by sleepiness and amusement, his mate’s emotions tinged with concern.

"I was just thinking about Rufus," Aya explained and reached back to comb his fingers through Yohji’s sleep-matted hair. "Sorry if I woke you."

Yohji chuckled for a few seconds, his face tucked against the back of Aya’s neck. "It’s not your fault, and I’m glad your bad mood isn’t because of me." He hugged Aya closer and kissed the side of his neck. "He’s an asshole; I’ve never heard anything good about the Shinra line, other than that they make excellent weapons."

Aya had never heard the name before; despite all the years he’d spent learning to fight, Shion had never discussed the production of weapons with him since he was able to make his own. "I’m not happy that he’s Reno’s mate," he hissed, voicing his displeasure.

<No, *that* golden one isn’t worthy. Each time the young one almost broke free, *he* would keep him trapped,> a shinigami whispered.

Letting out a heavy sigh, Aya turned around and pressed his face against the crook of Yohji’s shoulder. "The shinigami don’t like him, either."

"Those damn busybodies are still around?" There was a flash of anger and annoyance from Yohji, who hugged Aya close and growled in warning. "Go the hell away."

Imagining his mate glaring at darting shadows, Aya smiled and tilted his head enough so he could place a kiss against Yohji’s scarred shoulder. "They don’t want Reno or me to be lonely," he said, attempting to defend the shinigami. Part of him understood why they’d interfered last night and was grateful – though he’d never listen to them and leave Yohji. He felt it would be a very wise thing to never mention to his lover how the shinigami still thought he’d do that eventually. As he’d told Yohji last night, Reno and the shinigami made him feel happy, but Yohji was the person he loved, who could make him feel so good just by being here with him.

Yohji pressed a kiss against the top of Aya’s head. "You’ll never be lonely, Cat." Yohji growled a moment longer before he sighed and combed his fingers through Aya’s hair. "So, you really like Reno, don’t you? Figures you shinigami type can’t be like succubae bounds," he complained with the slightest note of jealousy in his voice.

Sensing that jealousy, Aya pushed Yohji flat against the mattress and straddled his mate’s waist, hissing slightly as he pulled the covers forward enough to stay warm. "Yotan… he’s like me. There are things we can talk about that no one else will understand, and that… that makes me happy," Aya admitted. "Shinigami always travel with other shinigami; that’s why kage are said to be so vulnerable to emotional manipulation." Why his kind usually bonded so strongly to someone, which led to their eventual downfall. Aya shivered slightly and stretched out on top of Yohji, determined to never lose his lover. No one would take Yohji away from him, *no one*.

"I know that, love." Yohji was quiet for a few seconds while he played with Aya’s left eartail. "I can feel how he makes you happy and that can’t be a bad thing in my opinion. I just don’t want you to go all insubstantial on me again or something." He laughed as he flicked the hair along Aya’s chin, the sound not very cheerful. "There’s something to be said for wanting to rip out a fellow bound’s throat, you know."

Aya captured Yohji’s hand in his and didn’t bat it away. "I’ll leave that to you succubae bounds." He stared intently at his mate. "I have you, Yohji. If Reno and the shinigami went away forever, I’d still be happy. That won’t be the case if you ever leave me."

"As if that’ll ever happen, Cat," Yohji growled while dragging him forward for toe-curling, breath-stealing, ardent kiss. Aya wrapped his arms around Yohji’s neck as he returned the kiss with all the passion and love he felt, basking in the emotions he sensed over their link. Oh yes, Yohji made him whole, made him *content*, and he’d tear the world apart to keep his mate at his side.

His body had just begun to react to the kiss when Yohji put an end to it, gasping slightly and sending regret over their link. "If we start something now, I’ll never let you leave the bed all day long," Yohji explained as he nuzzled Aya’s neck. "That’s not a good thing considering some of our guests."

"No," Aya sighed, feeling much the same as his lover. Between the snow storm and the lack of customers at the Koneko, he wouldn’t feel bad about not stepping outside the bedroom all day, but that wouldn’t be wise. Most likely, Jo was expecting them downstairs soon to handle the unexpected ‘guests’ who had shown up last night.

Moaning softly, Yohji slowly sat up in bed, Aya kept firmly on his lap. "Maybe there’ll be pancakes today," he said, his eyes shining with laughter and a hopeful note in his voice. "Jo usually makes them when we’re snowed in, and we never did have that snowball fight last night." He tugged on one of Aya’s eartails and quickly moved his hand aside before it could be smacked. "And we can make obscene snowmen and blame it on Teddy. What do you think about that, Cat?"

Smiling at the way that Yohji waggled his eyebrows for added effect, Aya shook his head and gave his mate a quick kiss before climbing off of Yohji and the bed. "I can imagine the entire garden filled with obscene snowmen as you and Teddy start a competition to see who can make the naughtiest. Then Jo will run around trying to knock both of you unconscious, and we’ll be left to fend for ourselves for dinner." His smile only grew stronger as he thought about the situation, despite the chill to the room. Tossing a few logs into the fireplace, he went to the washstand and hoped that its spell was still working properly.

Yohji joined him there a moment later, a warm presence against his back. "Maybe you’re a precog after all," Yohji teased as he brushed aside the hair on the back of Aya’s neck and gave him a kiss. "Wouldn’t it be a fun way to spend the day, hmmm?"

"Just as long as I don’t suffer a headache along with you." Aya turned around and gave Yohji the washcloth, pausing to nuzzle his mate’s neck before he went to get dressed. "And you give Jo time to make pancakes before you get into trouble."

"Oh well, at least you didn’t mention your precious bacon." Yohji laughed when Aya glared at the comment and blew Aya a kiss. "Dress warm, Cat. I don’t need to be an elemental bound to know it’s damn cold out there."


His mate’s concern always warmed him inside. Aya ducked his head after he nodded a couple of times, still caught off guard occasionally by someone being so worried over him. Yohji had learned to get his point across without fussing too much, for which he was very grateful.

Keeping in mind a potential snowball fight or two, Aya dressed in thick yet soft black leggings and a thick, pale grey cotton shirt and a heavy, dark blue wool sweater. While Yohji dressed in similar clothes, Aya thought about how Reno only had the outfit he’d worn last night and gathered a few garments for his new friend. They were the same height, though Reno was a bit thinner. Jo should have a lot of fun forcing the dubhach to put on some weight, Aya thought with an amused smile.

"Yohji, I’m going to leave some clothes outside of Reno’s door; I’ll meet you in the kitchen."

"Hang on a sec, Aya." Yohji smoothed his right hand down the front of his cream colored sweater and swore under his breath. "Damn it, Jo will bitch if she finds out we ignored the others. Let me get some things for Rufus, and I’ll ask down in the kitchen if anyone has spare clothes for the rest of them. I’m sure Kira’s clothes will fit the blonde… uhm, Elena, while Rude can wear Mickey’s. Maybe Yuushi or Reiichi can lend something to Tseng."

Aya nodded and waited for Yohji to gather together an outfit or two, amused to see that his lover was picking his least-favorite clothes. None of Ani’s handmade sweaters were added to the small pile, nor was anything remotely resembling Rufus’ fine, tailored garments of last night.

Giving Yohji a kiss, Aya accepted the clothes and left the room, using the staff stairs to go to the fifth floor. He asked the shinigami to point out Reno’s room, which they happily did with excited hisses and purrs. Setting the clothes outside the door, he requested that the shinigami to let Reno know they were there once the dubhach woke up.

<Pack, yes?> one of them purred as it wrapped around Aya like a tendril of smoke.

Aya gave thought to the question and reluctantly nodded. "Yes, pack." He felt an undeniable kinship with Reno and wanted to spend more time with the man. He was even a little upset that Reno was still sleeping.

Leaving the clothes behind, Aya went to the kitchen, wrapping his arms around Yohji when he found his mate standing by the stove teasing Jo, who was flipping pancakes. Yohji tugged on his left arm until Aya stood by his side and offered a piece of warm bacon. "Kira and Mickey are getting some clothes for the others," Yohji said while Aya happily munched on his treat.

Several of their friends were in the kitchen; Jo and Maddox cooked breakfast while Emmie and Neely, both of them giggling, set the tables. Reiichi gave Aya a pleasant smile while Eri nodded politely, and Ken and Miko didn’t stop arguing over something when they waved in greeting. Nagi and Omi very obviously made some space for Aya and Yohji to sit down, so Aya went to join them at the table.

"Where’s Marta and Yuushi?" he asked while Nagi poured him a cup of tea.

"Yuushi’s upstairs working," Reiichi explained as he buttered a slice of toasted bread. "While Marta’s doing something outside that I didn’t quite understand."

Neely gave Aya a very quick hug and set a plate in front of him. "She’s checking the trees to make sure that they weren’t harmed from the wind or snow. Mom said she’s sure no one wants any of them to come crashing down."

"No, especially not onto the inn or the stable." Jo elbowed Yohji aside to bring a large platter of pancakes to the table. "I don’t think the worst of the storm has passed yet, and we’ve already got almost two feet of snow out there. We can only thank the gods that there’s not much ice out there as well."

Aya had a feeling that Trowa was probably more to thank and nodded to Neely. He’d express his gratitude to Marta once she returned since he’d rather not lose any of the garden’s trees; some of them were very old.

"So, sounds like we’re gonna be stuck here for a couple of days since we’re away from the main roads," Yohji said, quite pleased about that. He sat beside Aya and slid an arm around his waist. "Nothing but snowball fights and snuggling in front of the fire!"

"And shoveling snow," Jo remarked as she and Maddox finished placing food on the table and sat down. "Even if it’s a nasty storm out there, I want everyone to take turns keeping the stairs and walkway out front and to the stables clear." She looked around the table at all of them to get her point across before sipping her coffee. "Reiichi, you of course are excused."

"I believe this is where I’m supposed to insist that I’m perfectly capable of shoveling snow, but I think I will gratefully accept my reprieve." Reiichi smiled in pleasure and poured some blueberry syrup over his pancakes. He glanced at Aya, his smile turning a little sly. "I’m sure Naru will take my turn for me. After all, he’s young and healthy."

Yohji laughed and accepted the syrup from the Guard. "Reiichi, one day you’ll pass on a chance to torment Naru and we’ll know that you’re horribly sick. Until then, I must admit it’s fun seeing what you think up for the poor guy." He handed the syrup to Aya, who was waiting anxiously for it. Jo didn’t make pancakes very often, and Aya was very hungry this morning.

"Ken and I will take the first shift once we finish eating," Miko volunteered before she poked Ken in the ribs with the back of her fork. "You know, why can’t you be a fire elemental bound, hmm?"

Ken, in the process of shoving a stack of uncut pancakes into his mouth, batted her hand aside and quickly swallowed. "Because I want to see you out there shoveling, Miko dear. You look so cute when you’re freezing and sweating at the same time."

"Bastard," Miko muttered and took to poking him again with an amused smile on her face.

"Obviously, I’ll be out there with Nagi," Omi said, his voice bubbling with laughter as Ken attempted to grab one of Miko’s hands and drag it to his mouth, just to have it snatched free before he could bite it. Omi’s grin faltered when he looked at Yohji and Aya. "Ah, that is, unless you were hoping to have him help you, Aya."

Shaking his head, Aya poured himself more tea. "No, I’ll be fine with Yohji," he said after exchanging a look with Nagi. He knew his friend would gladly help him, but Nagi appeared quite happy when Aya turned down the offer.

Omi’s good mood was instantly restored. "Well, once Ken and Miko get it cleared, maybe I can try a spell or two that’ll keep the paths clear." His expression turned thoughtful and he leaned against Nagi’s shoulder. The way Nagi’s slight smile turned into a look of happiness made Aya feel better about the fact that he hadn’t been able to spend much time with his friend. Nothing had changed in regards to their relationship, it was just that they each had someone they dearly loved who also deserved their attention.

"I wish there was something I could do," Neely said with a slight pout. "I can change the snow to water, but even if I direct it somewhere else, there will be some ice left behind."

Jo snorted loudly over the rim of her coffee mug. "Thank you, but no thanks. I’d rather deal with snow than ice."


Neely appeared crestfallen for a moment, then perked up. "I should be able to break up the snow a bit and make it easier to shovel."

Reaching over the table, Yohji tousled the girl’s hair then did the same to Emmie’s. "There you go. You can help Aya and me shovel, Sunshine," he told Emmie, which shouldn’t have cheered her up so much, Aya thought. He knew that he and Yohji would do most of the work, but still, Emmie should be happier with being able to stay inside the warm kitchen.

"And Eri can shovel with Yuushi, since I’m sure no one wants to be around when Naru sees if he can blow up the snow with his bombs," Reiichi remarked, the sly smirk back on his face. Yohji chuckled while Eri appeared slightly flustered, which once again left Aya with the impression that there was something he was missing. He didn’t get much of a chance to ask what, though, because everyone started talking about who would take what shift and if Omi could manage to magick the sidewalks free of snow for the rest of the storm.

Just when a schedule was mostly worked out, there was a soft scratching sound at the kitchen door. It opened slightly, and Reno peeked into the room. "Ah, is it okay if I come in?" he asked, sounding a bit subdued. He seemed to perk up a little when he noticed Aya, who returned his smile and felt a bit of joy upon seeing the dubhach.

Aya immediately glanced at Jo, who looked at Yohji before she nodded. "Come on in, I bet there’s not many people in the main dining room right now." Her eyes narrowed when Reno entered the room, Aya’s clothes hanging on his thin body. "I’ll fix you a plate," she said, a very determined expression on her face that Aya knew from personal experience meant that Reno was about to be fussed over.

Yohji nuzzled Aya’s left ear and chuckled softly. "He’s in for it now," Yohji whispered.

Looking around the table, Reno smiled at Emmie until she scooted over so he could sit across from Aya. "Thanks for the clothes," he said, rubbing his left hand over his right shoulder. "I, ah, don’t think it would have been fun wearing last night’s clothes again." His aquamarine eyes twinkled with amusement and his smile was a bit crooked. "Guess the next time I go out right before a bad storm, I’ll remember to pack."

Aya smile grew larger as he picked up a piece of bacon to nibble on. He felt oddly pleased that Reno was so close and that he didn’t stand out in the room so much with another redhead present, even if Reno was still wearing the illusion charm. "Just be lucky that we’re the same size," he replied.

"Mostly." Yohji scooted closer to Aya. "Though it’s a good thing your hair is longer than Aya’s or I could see some embarrassing moments over the next few days." He winked at Aya and tugged on an eartail. "Not that you wouldn’t look great with long hair."

Emmie turned toward Reno and closely examined him. "I wish we could see what you really look like. Can’t you take off the spell?"

"Nah, I didn’t get a chance to ask Rufus if I could remove it, and I’m sure he’ll say ‘no’ anyways." Reno wrinkled his nose to show his displeasure while he cupped his hand over his left ear. "Damn thing is really annoying, too."

"Be careful with your language," Jo warned as she set a plate overflowing with pancakes, bacon and eggs on the table in front of Reno, followed by a large mug of coffee.

His eyes lit up as he spied the coffee, barely managing to thank Jo before he gulped down the hot beverage. While he was drinking, Aya figured out which charm was the one that provided the illusion and covered it with a bit of shadow. "Hey!" Reno yelled, his startled expression quickly turning into a grin while everyone but Aya and Yohji reacted to his true appearance.

"You really do have red hair!" Emmie exclaimed as she and Neely rose from their seats to cluster around Reno and touch his hair. "It’s so pretty!"

"Oh, yes, Aya needs to grow his long as well!" Neely declared while she held up a crimson lock. "Don’t you agree, Yohji?"

Yohji winked at Aya and managed a serious expression. "It’s Aya’s hair, he can do what he wants with it."

Meanwhile, Reno ate his meal as if two young women weren’t busy playing with and braiding his hair. "As much as the spell annoys me, it comes in handy. You won’t believe how many times I get asked what dye I use to get it this red otherwise."

Aya nodded in agreement. "I’ve been offered money to tell someone that." He always replied with a stern look if Yohji hadn’t chased the person away before then. Admitting it was natural didn’t seem to be the wisest thing to do, yet Aya couldn’t bring himself to hide the color under dye or an illusion. As for growing it long… if it pleased Yohji then he’d consider doing so - *only* if he was assured of Neely and Emmie not trying to play with it like they were doing with Reno’s. He stared at his friend with a mix of horror and amazement.

"I can understand when it’s such a pure red," Miko said, her expression turning envious as she looked back and forth between Aya and Reno. "I’ve tried using henna before and lightening my hair, but I never managed anything as nice as your color."

"The color is very pretty." Eri spoke up for the first time since Aya had entered the kitchen, her chin resting in the palm of her left hand. "It would be perfect for attracting a man’s attention; I’ve yet to meet a man who didn’t look twice at a redhead."

Miko laughed and nodded in agreement. "Oh yes, guys are such suckers for redheads – right, Yohji?"

"No comment," Yohji replied with a chuckle and nuzzled Aya’s right temple. "Though let me just say that Aya could dye his hair any color and it wouldn’t matter to me."

"Because you’re a love-struck idiot," Ken teased, laughing hard when Yohji stuck out his tongue and threw a cinnamon roll at him. "Speaking from a man’s perspective… the color’s flashy. We like bright things." He winked at Aya, and had to avoid another roll being tossed at his head by Yohji.

"Find your own ‘bright thing’," Yohji muttered, an evil look on his face despite the fact that amusement and joy poured over their link. Aya knew that Yohji enjoyed teasing and fighting with Ken – and vice versa - and didn’t take anything personal.

Clearing his throat, Reiichi got everyone’s attention while he poured himself more coffee. "The color is lovely, and Ken has a bit of a point. However, ladies," he paused to nod to Miko and Eri in turn, "I think it would make you stand out a bit much, which could be bad during work."

"Always the killjoy, Reiichi," Miko said, a becoming pout on her face.

"So says the man who used to sneak around Court for a living," was Eri’s comment, and Reiichi raised his mug as if in a toast to her. "Of course you’d be against anything that makes a person stand out too much."

Marta, who had entered the kitchen during the discussion, sat beside her table and glanced with confusion between Eri and Reiichi after giving Aya a reassuring smile. "Why are you against standing out too much?" she asked, her smile turning warm when she looked at Reiichi.

He returned the expression and bowed slightly in greeting. "Eri and Miko are rather envious of Aya and Reno’s hair color, and I was just pointing out that it would attract a lot of attention their way during work."

"Ah." Marta cocked her head to the side and studied the two ladies in question. "I know some henna recipes that would make your hair redder, though not as much as Aya’s and his friend’s. Neither of you have the complexion for that shade, anyway."

"I told my mother that forcing me out to rake the lawn when I was a kid would ruin my skin," Miko said with a melodramatic air. She laughed when Ken rolled his eyes and draped her left arm around his shoulders. "All joking aside, I’d be interested in seeing what you can do for me." She fluffed her short, dark hair. "Change is good."

"Then stop by my room later and we’ll see what we can do. And Neely, *no*," she said, not even bothering to look at her daughter who suddenly had a very hopeful expression on her face. "Not until you’re a few years older." Aya didn’t see why age was so important, but he wasn’t about to ask Marta to explain. A faint pain built in his chest as he wondered if this was something his sister would have liked to do, and Yohji hugged him a bit closer in response.

Neely appeared upset for a moment, then shrugged and smiled. "I just think it would be fun to have different color hair."

The smile on Marta’s face slowly faded as she combed the fingers of her right hand through Neely’s long hair. "You took after your aunt with your hair color. It’s too pretty to change." She shook herself slightly and let out a deep breath. "That said, I think I’ve some herbs left that’ll let you and Emmie alter your color for a few days." Marta glanced at Jo while Emmie and Neely seemed to be holding their breath. "Unless you mind, that is."

"Let them have their fun; I think everyone’s going to get bored very soon with being trapped inside," Jo said, a slight smile on her face. Emmie and Neely loudly thanked Marta and hugged her, then Neely brought up the subject of shoveling the sidewalks and asked her mother about how she might use her talent to help. That led to more talk about shifts and checking Naru for bombs before being allowed to shovel snow, until once again the discussion was halted by an unexpected arrival.

Rude didn’t bother to knock or scratch at the door, just opened it enough to look inside and upon seeing Reno, entered. He did give Jo a polite nod before he took up space behind the dubhach, one of his very large hands reaching out to tug on a lock of Reno’s hair. "He won’t like this." Rude’s voice was deeper than Mickey’s, and he was clearly dressed in the large man’s clothes. Even with the lack of all the black he’d been wearing last night, Aya still thought he looked like someone who wasn’t to be messed with, in part because of the dark tinted glasses he wore.

Reno wrinkled his nose and tucked back his hair, which was now sporting several small braids. "Like I care. Besides, I didn’t touch the spell." Reno looked at Aya and smiled in gratitude while busy wiping his plate clean with a piece of bread.

Aya waited for Jo to curse out Rude for entering the kitchen like that, yet all she did was motion for him to sit down and muttered about having to make more pancakes. She picked up Reno’s plate while setting down another one filled with food before heading back to the stove. Turning to look at his mate, Aya arched his left eyebrow and waited for Yohji to explain.

Yohji nuzzled his ear again. "It’s clear that Rude’s supposed to watch over Reno, so Jo’s not gonna insist that he stay out of the kitchen."

Aya thought about gokenin and the way Rude had kept staring at the ceiling while he’d stayed in the main room to talk and eat for about an hour last night. Familiar with the concept of being watched himself, he sighed and wondered when people would realize that he didn’t need to be protected.

"You have to try the pancakes, Rude," Reno said around a mouthful of food. "They’re delicious."

"I will," Rude replied, his attention seeming to be divided between Reno and Aya, although he did mumble a polite ‘thanks’ when Jo set a plate of pancakes in front of him. "Just return the spell soon, all right?"

Reno stuck out his tongue while pulling on the shadows-covered earring. "Give me a few minutes to enjoy not being annoyed by its magic, okay? Sheesh, I’m about ready to try dying my hair again to get rid of all the buzzing," he grumbled. He glared at his plate for a minute before smiling and sliding an arm around Rude’s shoulders. "Hey, how do you feel about shoveling snow?"

"… fine, as long as you restore the spell." Rude slid the dark glasses on his nose down enough so he could glare at Reno over their rims. "We don’t need anymore fighting."

Reno sulked over the deal for a moment before nodding his head.

Leaving the table to refill the teapot, Omi looked over his shoulder at the dubhach. "I can see about creating a new illusion spell for you, if you like. I don’t know why it’s ‘buzzing’ like that."

"Because it’s magic, Omi," Aya explained since Reno was once again shoveling as much food into his mouth that he could fit. "I’m afraid your charm wouldn’t be any better." That was why Aya didn’t like wearing any charms, and why he’d only use the copper bracelet that Yuushi had given him if there was a mission. The magic associated to all the spells and charms around the Koneko didn’t bother him too much, unless he came in physical contact with them.

"Oh, okay. Sorry that I couldn’t be of any help," Omi replied with a slight shrug. Aya knew the boy was eager to put his magic to use and thought it was amusing how Omi was so ready to bespell everything.

"Save your strength for the sidewalks, kiddo," Yohji said while he dangled a piece of bacon in front of Aya. Snatching the food free, Aya hissed slightly and leaned against his mate, content to be well-fed and have Yohji beside him. Rude’s attention bothered him slightly, though he knocked his elbow into Yohji’s ribs when his mate took to growling softly at the earth elemental.

On the other side of him, Nagi sat up straighter and turned to face Rude. "We might not need your help if Omi’s spell works." There was a hint of a challenge in his voice, and Aya felt the urge to sigh at yet another example of bounds’ pack behavior. He knew that Nagi was trying to prove to Rude that he was the more powerful of the two, which was almost amusing considering that Rude was at least twice his size. Aya was also thankful that he and Reno didn’t need to do all that posturing, not after the initial ‘fight’ that had instantly settled who was stronger.

"My lord will want the sidewalks and entrances clear," Rude pointed out, a hint of a growl in his deep voice. "So I’ll make sure that they are." He stared coldly at Nagi, who returned the look until Omi sat beside him and tapped him on the shoulder.

"Save that for the snowball fight, okay?" Omi reminded him. "I’m sure Reno and Rude would love to join in." He glanced over Nagi’s shoulders at Aya, who smiled in gratitude and nodded slightly. Omi had done a great job learning about bounds in the last few months, and Aya would rather the two earth elementals settled their differences during a harmless snow fight.

Thumping his empty coffee mug on the table, Reno leaned forward with a huge grin on his face. "Snowball battle? Here?" When Aya nodded, he laughed with glee and quickly rose from the table, his hands wrapped around Rude’s right arm in an attempt to tug his friend upright as well. "What the hell are we waiting for, then?"

Yohji chuckled and rose from the table as well, his hand resting lightly on Aya’s left shoulder. "I think that’s a challenge, Cat. What say we show those two how it’s done?" The smile he gave Aya when Aya stood up was utterly wicked, and Aya foresaw some sneaky tricks in the future.

Everyone else at the table scrambled to stand up and fetch their coats, except for Marta who merely smiled and shook her head while reminding Neely and Emmie to bundle up. Jo repeated the sentiments, warning everyone that she would *not* be happy nursing anyone who caught a cold while acting like a bunch of idiots. She also added that if anyone was foolish enough to break a window that she’d break their heads.

Feeling excited and pleased, Aya hurried to the door, where Yohji stood with his cloak in hand.

*******

Rufus groaned as he sensed excitement and coldness seep into his mind, along with the sound of laughter. For a moment, he felt as if he was standing outside, the cold wind blowing snow into his face as his gloved hands brushed along something rough like the bark of the tree.

<Get him! Get that bastard and bury him in the damn snow!>

<Hey, Yohji’s the one who said everything’s fair, so quit bitching!> That voice was familiar, was all laughter and wickedness and warmth.

<Aw, poor Ken-ken, want me to help you get that snow out of your pants?>

<Nah, leave him alone, Miko. I haven’t seen anyone dance like that since Teddy got trashed on a barrel of cider two Kisei’s Nights back!>

<You’re the one who gave me that cider, Yotan! It’s time for revenge!>

There was more laughter and cold and what felt to be something mostly insubstantial striking against his back. Letting out a low moan of frustration, Rufus draped his right arm over his eyes as if that would block out the annoying thoughts.

As he continued to wake up, details became clearer of what was disturbing his rest. Reno and Rude were outside, in the middle of a snowball fight of all things. Disgusted that his gokenin were acting like children, Rufus used his talent to identify the other people involved in the idiocy. He was surprised to realize that the kage was out there as well, along with most of the people he’d briefly met last night. Schuldig and Masato weren’t outside – a quick scan of the inn revealed that they were still in ‘bed’. The thrill of lightly reading the mind of someone stronger than him put Rufus in a good mood, even if he really didn’t need to know so much about the other soul gaki bound’s sex life. Crawford was still inside too, down in the kitchen.

As for Rufus’ gokenin, Tseng was awake, sitting quietly in his room next door and listening for any sounds of Rufus waking up while Elena continued to sleep. Sending the flesh gaki bound a curt greeting, Rufus debated if he should attempt to get any more rest or not. He was annoyed to be woken up because of Reno, who wasn’t still in bed with him.

<Reno, what the hell are you doing?> he asked, his curiosity getting the better of him. Really, a snowball fight? <You were the one who didn’t want to spend the day outside,> he reminded his mate with growing annoyance.

<Well, there’s no sun because of all the snow and clouds, and yes, a snowball fight, Rufus. You should come out here and give me a hand!> Reno’s emotions were bright and warm, filled with a happiness that was usually only achieved when he was causing someone some grief. From his thoughts, that would be one of the Guards from last night.

Rufus almost sent Tseng and Elena down to collect the idiot before he decided to deal with the matter himself. <Stop that nonsense and come back to bed,> he ordered, not about to have his mate and gokenin act like a juvenile. Even *Rude* was out there, currently exchanging a barrage of snowballs with the young earth elemental; it was clear that Reno had been a bad influence on the older bound.

<No.> There was no animosity or annoyance to the word, merely firm resolve. <I’m having fun, Rufus. Just block the link and go back to bed, okay?> Reno seemed to be attempting to concentrate on something, his thoughts fading in and out.

<Come upstairs,> Rufus sent again, doing his best not to force the issue and start another fight first thing in the morning. He wanted Reno beside him, not out with a bunch of strangers tossing snow around. What was the attraction of being out in the cold having snow thrown in your face?

Reno’s annoyance slowly grew, along with his resolve. <Look, I’m busy right now and not about to quit just so I can be stuck in a room all day long. I’m not being bothered by the sun and Rude and I are defending our honor out there!>

Rufus had to snort over the ‘honor’ comment – he and Reeve had spent the last several years attempting to teach that particular principle to the dubhach and had failed miserably. Reno didn’t believe in what he was saying, he just wanted to have fun for a bit longer. And the faint sunlight was too affecting him, judging by the growing sense of weakness that Rufus felt.

<I fail to see how you’ll do the Shinra name proud by flinging about some snow, Reno.> Perhaps he should order Rude to drag Reno back into the inn.

<Dammit, stop bothering me! Just go back to bed and – hey! For fuck’s sake, Rude, put me – AH!>

Rufus quickly blocked the link as intense cold washed through him, along with the image of Rude shoving Reno into a huge pile of snow. Great, now Reno would attempt to get back at his fellow gokenin for the ‘betrayal’ and wouldn’t listen to sense until he was either exhausted or Rude sat on him. Perhaps Rufus should’ve used some coercion – although he wasn’t sure how well it would work with the kage involved. He wasn’t happy with how his power was affected while at the inn, and from what he could sense from the minds open to him, he wouldn’t be leaving soon. Enough snow had fallen during the night and continued to fall that all the roads around the inn were effectively shut down.

Growling softly, Rufus moved his arm and stared up at the room’s ceiling. There was a mural of knotwork along the edge of the ceiling painted in a light brown that was an unexpected detail. Sitting up in bed, he looked around at the room he hadn’t paid much attention to last night. The furniture was simple in design yet made of fine wood, and Reno must have stoked the fire before leaving since the air was warm. While their garments from last night were still scattered around the bed, Rufus noticed a pile of clothes on desk.

Leaving the comfort of the bed with great reluctance, he found a short note in Reno’s horrid handwriting saying that the clothes were for him. They smelled like the kage’s mate and were like the room’s furniture; plain yet finely made from wool and cotton. The colors were soft creams and browns, a far cry from Rufus’ usual white and black. For a few seconds he debated putting on his own clothes before he remembered that they were mostly dirty and torn. The Koneko better be able to wash and mend them during his enforced stay.

He went to the washbasin and was pleased that it was charmed to warm the water, a very comforting touch on such a cold morning. The inn wasn’t up to the Highborn’s Retreat’s high standards, yet was very bearable; there were worse places he could be stuck for the next few days. Then he remembered about Crawford and wondered if perhaps he could make it back to the other inn on foot.

Other than being a little tight along his shoulders, the clothes were a good fit. Rufus stared longingly at his own garments for a moment before leaving the room, feeling out of sorts from the unfamiliar outfit. He found Tseng standing in the hallway, dressed in borrowed clothes as well. Behind him was Elena, who looked almost strange in a long skirt and thick sweater of pale green and cream.

Brushing aside the hair that kept falling onto his forehead, Rufus nodded at his gokenin and motioned toward the stairs. "The storm worsened during the night so it appears we won’t be leaving for at least another two days. For now, we’ll get something to eat and see if anything can be done for our clothes."

Tseng nodded and waved his hand to signal Elena to head down the steps first. "Rude stopped by to report that the inn is mostly empty; there are the people in the main room last night who live here full-time, along with a few Guard cadets and some merchants." He paused for a moment, clearly bothered by something that he finally sent mentally with caution. <I’m rather surprised to find so many Guards here, considering all the bounds.>

<Some of those Guards *are* bounds,> Rufus reminded as he tugged on the hem of the light brown sweater. <I find it very interesting that they’re working for an organization that’s supposed to capture them, alongside humans who are aware of their true natures.> Not taking the kage into account, something was happening in Kritiker that seriously shifted the balance of power between it and Esset. The long-standing assumption was that only Esset would have bounds fighting on its side, which clearly was no longer true. Rufus had some very dark and annoyed thoughts about Crawford and what the precog had been hiding from him for so long – only to drag him right smack into the mess without a ‘by your leave’.

What annoyed him even more was that he probably should be grateful to the precog for revealing the truth to him; if he had decided to side with Esset then he would fall with the Elders. Between the kage and the bound Guards, he realized that he had no choice but to fight with Kritiker… and was in no hurry to inform Crawford or anyone else of that fact. He wasn’t an idiot and knew that what had happened last night was meant to bring him over to Kritiker and what appeared to be Crawford’s side. He’d let the precog sweat it out a bit before he announced his decision and see what concessions he could gain. The thought that Crawford probably already knew whose side he’d choose did nothing to help settle his temper.

Reaching the first floor, he motioned toward the kitchen since all he sensed in the main room were a couple of employees and a few of the trapped guests. The kitchen led to the outside, where his idiot mate was currently reliving his childhood or some such nonsense.

Tseng knocked on the door, waiting for it to be opened by a young woman with blond hair. "Oh, hello," she said, her slight frown turning into a smile when she spotted Elena. "They do fit!" she exclaimed as she opened the door wider and ushered them into the kitchen. "I’ll bring a few more outfits to your room later." From her thoughts, Rufus identified her as Kira, wayward daughter of a very rich merchant and for all intents the fiancée of the Koneko’s owner. Wait, soon to be owner. There was some confusion over the matter, which he ignored after giving the girl a polite nod in thanks for assisting his gokenin.

Elena ducked her head, blond hair falling over her face as she grasped the skirt’s thick material with her hands. "Yes, it fits… you wouldn’t happen to have any pants, would you? I’m sorry, I don’t mean to sound ungrateful but I’m more used to them."

Kira smiled and motioned for them to sit down at one of the tables. "No, I understand; I’ll see what I can do. Perhaps Ani has some she can lend you."

The older woman, Jo, straightened up and stepped away from the small group that was gathered around a child. "I supposed you lot want breakfast, too," she said with a derisive snort before heading toward the stove. The kage’s mate remained by the girl, appearing to try to soothe both her and another child standing by her and holding her hand. At the girl’s feet knelt a woman who turned out to be an earth elemental bound and healer. Digging around in everyone but Yohji’s thoughts, Rufus found out that the girl, Neely, was a water elemental bound who had sprained her left ankle rather badly while playing in the snow, and that her mother, Marta, was currently healing the damage. The other girl, Emmie, was the human child of a bound mother.

He found it very fascinating, all the connections to bounds that he came across at the inn, and had to wonder if that was why Tseng’s friend was so certain he’d receive sanctuary here. From Jo’s thoughts he gleaned that bounds were welcome at the Koneko.

"Thank you for the clothes," he told Yohji, his voice quiet so as not to disturb Marta. Part of him was annoyed that he couldn’t read the succubae bound’s mind when he’d gotten used to being able to do so with everyone else.

Yohji nodded in return. "You’re welcome." His tone was slightly cool, and Rufus didn’t need any telepathy to know that the man didn’t think very favorably about him. From across the room, he picked up some amusement from Crawford, who was quietly eating his breakfast. He decided he wasn’t in the mood to deal with the precog right now, unless it involved bloodshed and mutilation.

"There you go, sweetie," Marta said as she rose to her feet and tucked back the hair falling onto her daughter’s face. "It’s all better now – but don’t go running back outside and sprain it again!" she chided.

"Thank you. I’ll be careful this time!" Neely slowly stood up and wrapped her arms around her mother’s shoulders. Not wanting to be in the middle of a family scene, Rufus went to the table where Tseng and Elena were sitting. He was surprised when Yohji followed him, rather than returning outside with the two girls.

They both sat down, and Yohji poured himself some coffee while the sounds of people yelling and laughing outside could be heard. Rufus unblocked the link with Reno a little and found that his mate was currently teamed up with the kage. They were getting Rude back for dumping Reno in the snow, and despite the chill that Reno felt, he was having a great time. Everyone involved in the snowball fight were happy, enjoying the chance to be silly and throw things. Rufus didn’t understand that mentality and wasn’t pleased that Reno was bonding so closely with the kage, Aya.

"Tseng, go outside and fetch Reno," Rufus ordered, having enough of the ridiculous situation. Even if it was cloudy outside, Reno was still being drained and ran the risk of injury. There was also the fact that Reno couldn’t always be counted on to hide his dubhach abilities, and there were human guests at the inn.

In the middle of eating a cinnamon roll, Tseng set the roll aside and rose to his feet. "Yes, my lord," he replied with a slight bow of his head.

"Sit back down, Tseng," Yohji said, his voice sibilant and very strange. Rufus felt his attention instantly drawn to the succubae bound and noticed the way that Yohji’s green eyes glowed. "Let Reno enjoy himself and have some breakfast."


Something about the words made Tseng instantly sit down and pick up the roll. Rufus stared in shock at Yohji as he sensed Tseng’s complete obedience to the insolent command and Crawford’s pleased surprise.

"Excuse me," Rufus said, struggling to contain the anger he felt over the situation. "Tseng and Reno are my gokenin and are to obey *me*, not you." His eyes narrowed as he stared coldly at the unfamiliar bound.

The odd light in Yohji’s eyes faded and his tone turned to normal; he returned Rufus’ cold look and bared his teeth slightly. "Reno’s your mate, not your gokenin, and he’s having fun right now. Stop bossing him around for a while and let him enjoy himself."

"I fail to see how you’re involved in my relationship with Reno." Rufus struggled not to growl at the man, well aware that he was outnumbered and confused over how Yohji had ordered Tseng about just then. When he tried to mentally command Tseng to bring Reno inside, it was as if the command vanished rather than sinking into Tseng’s mind.

Yohji smiled, the expression containing no amusement or affection. "He’s a friend of Aya’s so he’s a concern of mine." He pushed away from the table and motioned for Rufus to do the same. "I think it’s time we have a little chat," he said, his tone suddenly friendly. However, his smile was still cool and his eyes had narrowed as well. <You will come with me, either willingly or not. Leave the gokenin here to eat their breakfast.>


Rufus was shocked to hear Yohji’s thoughts so clearly and feel the succubae bound’s utter conviction that he could coerce Rufus as well as Tseng and Elena. Feeling his gokenin’s concern, Rufus carefully considered the situation for several seconds. From Crawford he picked up the thought that Yohji could indeed order him about, and from the two human women he sensed growing animosity. Mentally assuring Tseng and Elena that he would be fine and instructing them to remain in the kitchen, he grudgingly nodded and waited for Yohji to lead him somewhere else.

The disapproval on Yohji’s face faltered and was replaced with a rueful smile. Reaching for the carafe of coffee to refill his mug and then fill an empty one, he handed the latter to Rufus before turning to Jo. "I give everyone another twenty minutes until they’re running back in here to get warmed up. Aya’s already chilled to the bone but having too much fun to stop just yet."

Jo sighed and wiped her hands dry on her apron. "I’ll start a batch of hot chocolate, then." She glanced at Kira, her stern expression melting into an amused grin. "You might want to go lock up the hot spring so those idiots can thaw themselves out, especially since one of them belongs to you."

Kira laughed and headed for the door. "I’m sure he’s covered from head to toe with snow and loving every minute of it. He makes such a wonderfully large target, after all." She held the door open while giving Yohji a quizzical look.

Yohji nodded and went to leave the kitchen, looking over his shoulder to make sure that Rufus followed. "Mickey might be a great target, but he also is pretty darn good at nailing whoever he’s aiming for with snowballs." Yohji’s good mood seemed restored, and he whistled softly as he walked down the hallway. "We’ll talk in the office; I doubt Botan’s going to arrive today because of the weather, so Omi will probably drag Aya to the library and practice hurling spells at him."

"Botan, as in the Royal Wizard Botan," Rufus asked as he entered the office, a room filled with a large desk, a couple of chairs, several wooden filing cabinets and two walls covered with shelves.

"Yep." Yohji waved at a padded leather chair and sat behind the desk, leaning back in the chair as he looked at Rufus. "You know, I actually feel a little sorry for you; you’re in so far over your head and don’t know it yet."

Stung by the comment, Rufus sat on the edge of the chair, his back ramrod straight and his hands clenched around the coffee mug. "Is that why you’ve decided to have this little ‘chat’?" he asked, wishing he could read Yohji’s thoughts and tired of feeling off-balanced. Ever since arriving at the Koneko, things kept happening to distract and confuse him, as well as the fact that he wasn’t at his best because of Reno. He needed to stop reacting and begin to plan things out.

Yohji sipped his coffee then shrugged. "Yes and no. I mainly wanted to talk to you about Reno, seeing as Schuldig didn’t smack any sense into you last night. That’s the most important thing right now, and later we can fill you in on everything else. You’re not going anywhere," he added with a nasty grin.

"There’s a kage throwing snowballs at Guards who just happen to be bounds, Kritiker’s crown prince is waiting tables and several men assumed to be loyal to the Elders are staying at your inn. Yet you consider Reno the most important matter?" Rufus asked, seriously believing that there must be something wrong with Yohji’s mind.

Yohji’s grin became even nastier. "Yes, I do." He cocked his head to the side while setting his mug on the desk. "I’ve heard a bit about the Shinra lords over the years; you’re supposed to be brilliant and ruthless businessmen, not idiots."

"Why should I sit here if you’re just going to insult me?" Rufus glared at Yohji and barely resisted the urge to throw his mug at the bastard.

"Because you don’t have much choice," was Yohji’s calm reply. He sighed and combed his fingers through his wavy blond hair. "Look, I’m really not trying to pick a fight here, all right? And I can see why you think I’m butting my nose in, but the fact is that Reno and Aya are both shinigami and that makes them care for each other." A very annoyed frown appeared on his handsome face and his eyes narrowed. "While I may not be crazy with the idea of Aya making a friend so suddenly, Reno’s a hell of a lot better than the other shinigami."

Rufus pushed aside his anger as best he could, curious as to what Yohji was talking about. "Why did they become friends so quickly and what do you mean about the shinigami?" He hated to expose his ignorance like this and only did so because he desperately needed answers.

Yohji gave him a sympathetic look then sipped his coffee. "Funny, I used to know almost nothing about shinigami and now I could probably be considered an expert." He laughed for a moment, the sound bitter at first then mellowing as he glanced behind him at the window. There was a loud burst of laughter and someone complaining about being hit in the face with a snowball.

"All I know is that they both have a shinigami soul, and shinigami are never alone by their own preference," Yohji said after a moment’s pause. "Aya and Reno are the only two shinigami stuck in human bodies, so that makes them… I don’t know, Aya thinks of Reno as a brother." He grimaced slightly and shook his head. "Affection, trust, concern and happiness; that’s what I pick up from Aya when he thinks about Reno or when Reno is nearby. He feels something similar with the shinigami." His expression hardened and he pointed his right index finger at Rufus. "Trust me when I say that it’s better that Reno and Aya hang out with each other than with the other shinigami."

Rufus found himself nodding. He knew that the shinigami often urged Reno to commit suicide. "I thought they didn’t like Reno."

"Hell no. What they don’t like is a fellow shinigami being stuck in a human body." Yohji leaned forward, his elbows resting on the desk’s top. "They want Aya and I’m assuming Reno to get rid of their bodies and join them. They’re also not too keen on the idea of Aya having a mate, so that’s probably true for Reno. We’re attachments that keep them in those bodies, and those bastard shinigami don’t miss a chance to try to talk Aya into leaving me." He gave Rufus a very disapproving look. "Believe me when I say that I don’t give him any reason to want to do that, not intentionally. I don’t think you can say the same about you and Reno."

Rufus set his untouched mug aside. "Let me guess, here’s where I sit and listen to you attempt to give me advice on how to treat my mate," he sneered, very tired of everyone involving themselves in his relationship. "I don’t need your help."

"Oh hell yes you do," Yohji snapped. He swore under his breath and rose from the chair to stalk around the room. "Look, normally I wouldn’t say anything but Reno is Aya’s friend. Anything that upset Reno is going to upset Aya, and that’s not something I’ll allow to happen." He picked a small knickknack from one of the shelves and faced Rufus. "I don’t think you want Aya having this talk with you; he’s not big on words and would probably settle for removing a limb or two until you listen to him."

"I shall repeat myself," Rufus said through gritted teeth. "I don’t need any advice on how to handle my relationship with Reno."

"Bullshit." Yohji inhaled sharply as he looked at the object in his hand, a small statue of two cats curled around each other carved out of a piece of gleaming wood. Rufus noticed that there were all sorts of cats scattered throughout the shelves. "You two are meant to be lovers, to be *equals*, not servant and master. You can’t keep treating Reno as if he’s someone for you to order around."

Rufus’ temper finally snapped. He rose from his chair as well, stalking over to Yohji with his teeth bared. The little self-control that remained made him stop just out of arm’s reach from the other bound. "No, *you* and everyone else don’t fucking understand!" He jerked his fingers through his hair and fought the urge to destroy something. "Have you ever been inside the mind of a dubhach? From what I know about kage, they’re not driven to kill themselves like dubhach constantly are! Have you walked into your bedroom to find your lover lying on the floor, stabbed through the chest by a knife? Hanging from the ceiling as he tries to choke himself or break his own neck? Have you?" Rufus demanded to know, his voice growing louder and rougher with each question.

Yohji’s golden complexion paled and his frown faded. "No, I haven’t," he answered in a quiet voice.


"Well I fucking have!" Rufus wished he’d kept the mug so he could throw it at something and turned instead to punch a wall, his fist breaking through the plaster as years of frustration and concern and fear took over. "I’ve sat across from him at dinner and sensed his thoughts on how easy it would be to pick up the damn knife and shove it into his throat. I’ve read everything I could find on dubhach and only learned how inventive they can be when it comes to committing suicide." He closed his eyes and rested his forehead against the wall. "That’s how I became mates with the idiot; he sliced open his wrists while visiting the forge and almost bled to death. I did… *something* while I was trying to coerce him into not killing himself and ended up bound to him." He chuckled at the memory, at how oblivious he was to what he was setting into motion back then.

Pushing away from the wall, he brushed the plaster dust from his right hand and stared intently at Yohji. "Reno is intelligent and loyal and too clever for words; the last leaves me filled with constant dread because he uses that cleverness to find new ways around the oaths I force him to swear in an attempt to keep him alive. What I make him promise and what he believes he promises are often two very different things, so he’s officially not breaking his word when he disobeys. As a result, I am *constantly* having to give him orders in an attempt to check his behavior. What you see as me treating him as a servant is me doing my best to keep him alive."

Yohji seemed to be taking all of that in and eventually nodded. "Okay, you have a point. However, I still feel that you can’t keep on treating him the way you do. For the gods’ sake, you won’t even let him enjoy a damn snowball fight!"

Rufus brushed aside Yohji’s complaint. "What if he uses his speed and one of the guest notices it? Or if he vanishes into the shadows or uses his talent to lash out at someone?"

"You said he was intelligent," Yohji pointed out, his anger from earlier appearing to be gone. "He should know better than to do that."

Rufus laughed again, the sound just as bitter as before. "Why, because someone might notice what he is and try to kill him? You don’t get it, Kudoh, that’s what he wants. I’m terrified of unleashing him in a fight because he doesn’t give a damn if he gets killed or not; if he somehow manages to survive, he doesn’t care about the damage to himself." As much as he was appalled at himself for saying these things, he also felt a sense of relief – no one seemed to understand what he had to deal with, and while Aya wasn’t a dubhach, he might be similar enough in nature that Yohji could relate.

"That doesn’t sound very good." Yohji returned the carving to the shelf and went over to the desk, which he leaned his left hip against, his arms folded over his chest. "Do you ever think to give him a reason for not wanting to die by being nice to him?" He asked the question in a serious manner, not coming across as insulting or demeaning.

Rufus crossed the room to look outside. The window was covered with frost around the edges of each pane, and all he could see was white snow that covered everything but red bricks. "What, let him throw snowballs around and not become upset when he uses the maid as target practice? Is that what you mean?"

Yohji laughed, the sound rueful and nervous. "Ah, not quite the latter one. Look, when I met Aya, he’d spent years being abused by his masters and treated as nothing more than a living weapon." A savage growl roughened Yohji’s usually warm voice. "I’ll admit that I went overboard with the need to protect him since he didn’t give a damn what happened to him, much like Reno. I can still be a bit of an ass when he’s concerned, but at least I trust him now. He’d never be happy if I bossed him around and kept him locked away from everyone, and I want him to be happy."

Feeling a headache coming on, Rufus rested his forehead against the cold glass. The thing was, he desperately wanted to keep Reno locked away; that was the only way he was certain that his mate would be safe. Every part of his being screamed at him to drag Reno inside and up to their room, to keep him there so there’d be no trouble, no pain, no danger. "I’m tied to Reno until one of us dies. I refuse to let him kill himself," he said, growing weary of this conversation.

"Treat him like a slave instead of the man you love and however long you live will be filled with misery."

The conviction in Yohji’s words as well as the mention of love made Rufus whirl around to stare at the succubae bound, who only smiled in return. "I don’t know much about forced mating bonds; from what I’ve been told, most of them fail because there’s no emotional bond between the two people involved. When it usually happens, it’s because one bound wants another person so desperately they try to force the emotion. For you and Reno to still be alive and mostly sane, you have to feel something for each other."

"He’s my lover," Rufus admitted, his voice hoarse because of an unexpected tightness in his throat. "I desire and care for him, that is all."

Yohji didn’t seem convinced, though all he did was shrug. "Trust him, Rufus. If Reno’s anything like Aya, the more you try to force him to do something, the more he’ll resist – that or he’ll break, and whatever it is about him that you care about will be shattered beyond repair. If he’s smart, he knows that his death will mean yours and that should keep the impulse in check." Yohji sighed, the sound heavy and tired, yet a pleased smile curled his lips as he played with the ring on his left hand. "Despite your intentions, you’re coming across as a controlling bastard; you don’t want that because the shinigami will just be more convinced that you don’t deserve Reno and do their best to break the two of you up." His smile changed into an annoyed frown when he looked up. "I’m not exaggerating when I say that those meddling bastards will use anything they can to their advantage."

As if Rufus didn’t have enough problems at the moment. At least he knew a few more things now, and had made his own situation a bit clearer. "All right, I’ve heard what you have to say." He gave Yohji a questioning look and stepped away from the window. "How long do you intend to lecture me?"

"I’ve said my peace for a moment, and I’ve heard what you’ve had to say as well." Yohji scratched the back of his head and shrugged again. "Just keep in mind that at some point, Aya will involve himself. He’s very protective about the people he cares for, and that seems to include Reno now." There was a hint of jealousy in his voice, which comforted Rufus somewhat since it was nice to know he wasn’t the only person unnerved by the sudden friendship. "Speaking of Aya, he’s back inside and enjoying some chocolate." The smile that spread across Yohji’s face was one of happiness and love, and Rufus felt the need to look away.


He followed Yohji back to the kitchen, which was filled with laughing and shivering people. Marta fussed over her daughter and the other girl while various couples huddled around the fireplace or stove for warmth, mugs of fragrant hot chocolate in their hands. Yohji headed straight for Aya, who smiled slightly and stepped away from Reno and Rude so he could lean against his mate. Yohji kissed the kage on the forehead and held him close.

Reno spotted Rufus and at first seemed to try to hide behind Rude. Rufus opened the link between them as he went to the stove for a cup of hot chocolate, feeling hungry since he hadn’t eaten any breakfast. From Reno there was a sense of mostly contentment and images of snowball battle, along with some concern.

Reno, worried about being yelled at for his actions that morning, cautiously approached while Jo handed Rufus a mug of the hot, sweet drink, sidling next to him while Rufus sipped the beverage and sighed in delight at its taste. His mate’s face was flushed from the cold and snowflakes sparkled in his hair… which was oddly braided. Rufus sighed again, determined that he didn’t want to know how that had happened.

When he didn’t do anything other than enjoy his drink, Reno crept closer until he was a shivering presence pressed against Rufus’ left side. Without any thought on Rufus’ part, he wrapped his arm around his mate’s waist and pulled him closer, shivering a little himself at the cold that clung to Reno.

<Did you eat anything?> he asked after a moment while they both finished their hot chocolate.

<Had a bit of breakfast,> Reno admitted as he closed his eyes and rested his head against Rufus’ shoulder, drinking in his body heat. <The pancakes were delicious.>

"Ah." Rufus hoped that someone would be willing to make more food soon since he’d missed out on the meal. His left hand rubbed up and down Reno’s back, and the tension that had filled his body since this morning slowly melted away. <There was some talk about a hot spring earlier.>

Purring softly, Reno opened his eyes and grinned. <Yep, we worked out a schedule right before you got here. You, Tseng, Elena, Rude and I’ll get a chance in about half an hour.> He shivered again while Rufus noticed that a few of the people had already left, presumably for their turn to soak in the hot water.

<That sounds good.> It did, too; from various minds he got an image of the hot spring in the basement and how warm the water was, how it seemed to soothe various aches and chills very well. <And how is the Shinra ‘honor’ right now?> he asked, a slight jab to his lover which he was sure Reno didn’t get, especially when the dubhach blinked his eyes in confusion.

"Uhm, okay, I guess." His confusion was replaced by savage amusement. <We kicked the Guards’ asses! Well, except for Reiichi’s. He’s very sneaky for a human.> Reno tilted his head to the side and puzzled over that. <It would be better if he were a bound.>

<He’s not, so remember that he breaks easily,> Rufus admonished his lover. Great, just what he didn’t need - being kicked out of the Koneko in the middle of a storm because a certain idiot ‘played’ too rough with a human resident.

"More hot chocolate?"

Jo’s voice made both of them jump, and Rufus was grateful that their mugs were empty. Instead of the disapproving look he’d gotten from the woman earlier, she actually smiled as she refilled their mugs. "There’ll be something warm to eat by the time you’re done soaking." She looked directly at Rufus and bowed her head slightly. "Thank you; your gokenin have offered to help keep the walkways cleared."

"You’re welcome," Rufus said while scanning his people’s minds. They had indeed volunteered to do that and whatever else the inn required during the storm. He was surprised by their eagerness to help, and found them relaxed for the first time since they’d entered Eto. Apparently, being around other bounds and not having to hide what they were, as they did at the Highborn’s Retreat, had put them at ease. They’d even managed to work out some sort of pecking order amongst their own kind during the fight and breakfast.

Remembering Yohji’s comment about being in over his head, Rufus managed not to sigh and sipped his drink instead. Nothing had gone right since he’d arrived at the Koneko, and all his plans were turned upside down. He’d have to talk to Tseng and Reeve very soon to discuss just how much things had changed and to make new arrangements for the future.

He refused to sacrifice his people by fighting for the losing side. From what he could tell by reading various minds, Kritiker was truly interested in working with bounds instead of persecuting them. That was much better than what the Elders had in mind, and more importantly, Kritiker now had the power to defeat the Elders.

However, things weren’t as simple as him declaring himself for Kritiker. Most of his people were in Esset and being closely watched. And while he thought it was a worthy endeavor to support a government that wouldn’t enslave or kill his people, he wasn’t going to toss aside everything his family had worked for over the last few centuries. No, he would need the power he had as Lord Shinra in the chaotic years after the war.

A flash of light over glass made him notice that Crawford stood by the fireplace, talking to Jei, Yohji and Aya. He finished what he was saying and while Yohji talked, glanced at Rufus. A smug smile spread across his face and he tipped his head slightly, obviously very pleased with himself.


Rufus reminded himself that killing the precog would *not* be a very good idea, nor would any sort of maiming, unfortunately. He’d have to let the matter slide for now, and hope to corner the precog somewhere private so he could get some honest answers. Even with his new ability to read almost all minds, Crawford’s thoughts were very difficult to make any sense of.

<You’re pissed off about someone,> Reno said and nudged him in the ribs. <It better not be me.>

<Now why would I be angry at you? All you did was run away, entangle us in a huge mess and get us trapped here for the next few days.> Rufus gave his mate a displeased look, which Reno merely shrugged aside.

<Could I make it up to you by telling you I’ve borrowed some lube?> Reno asked, a wicked grin on his pale face. While Rufus stared at him in astonishment, Reno rocked onto his toes and licked Rufus’ lips. <Since we’re snowed in, guess there’s not much to do, na?>

"That’s the first intelligent thing you’ve done in days," Rufus answered, his voice hoarse with desire. His left hand tangled in Reno’s wet, tousled hair as he pulled his mate closer for a kiss.

"Hey now, despite what Yohji may tell you, there’s no molesting in the kitchen!" Teddy called out. While Rufus debated if he could get away with Tseng eating the annoying bastard, Reno laughed and tugged his head down for another kiss.

<How about we show him some real ‘molesting’, okay?> Reno licked at his lips again before pressing against him, making his body tingle at the contact.

Well, how could anyone complain about Rufus ‘mistreating’ his mate when he so willingly gave in to Reno’s needs?

*******

Duo debated adding another log to the bedroom fireplace before he decided it was already warm enough in the apartment. Despite that fact, Trowa lay huddled in the bed, his face flushed and body shivering. Returning to his friend’s side, Duo tenderly tucked back the auburn strands clinging to Trowa’s forehead. Even while sick with worry for the water elemental, he smiled at how Trowa seemed to be put at ease by the touch. He’d despaired that any contact on his part would just upset Trowa, as sick as he was, and was delighted to be proven wrong.

He couldn’t resist the urge to gently trail his fingers along his friend’s face, along a fine cheekbone and down so his fingertips brushed against Trowa’s lips. The water elemental sighed in response but didn’t wake up.

As much as Duo was thrilled with being able to touch Trowa, he wished that his friend would wake up soon and be well. Bounds didn’t usually get colds once they reached puberty, unless they abused their power to the point that they were utterly drained. It was no surprise that Trowa had ended up sick; Duo just wished that the timing was better.

The snow was still falling, and from what he could sense, it wouldn’t stop until late tonight at the very least. However, by then there would be about three feet of snow on the ground, which meant that the city would be snowed in for a couple more days. Trowa had done a great job in making sure there wasn’t any freezing rain in the mix, and Duo had dared to tamper with the weather the slightest bit during the night to raise the temperature a degree or two. He figured that he could get away with that without Heero noticing - if the air elemental was still monitoring the storm. Knowing Heero, once the storm had reached the city, he’d probably stopped manipulating the winds so as to avoid being drained of energy like Trowa.

Duo spared a dark thought for his usual partner and reluctantly left the bedroom. Heero was holed up in some inn, warm and safe and most likely pleased with himself for doing the Elders’ will. Duo would give a lot to make the bound realize the damage he’d just done to the area’s weather system, but knew it wouldn’t do any good. The Elders had raised Heero from a small child and instilled in him the need to please them; Heero had never learned to think for himself. Oh, he could improvise brilliantly on a mission, which spoke volumes for his intelligence, but he only applied his mind to whatever it was that the Elders wanted.

For the longest time, Duo had thought that Trowa was like that as well, but the water elemental’s attempt at weakening the storm proved that theory wrong. All yesterday and today, Duo had looked back on the last few years and was beginning to see things in a different light. What he’d thought were admonishments from Trowa had most likely been carefully worded warnings, and he suspected that Trowa hadn’t avoided him as much as he’d believed. He’d been such an idiot, he thought to himself with a rueful smile.

The smile faded when he reached the kitchen. He’d had every intention yesterday to stop by the market on the way home and stock up on food to help last out the storm; he was willing to bet that Trowa had intended the same before falling sick. However, all Duo had done was to come straight home and put Trowa to bed, then stay by his side during the night. Trowa seemed to have less nightmares and fits if he was nearby, so even if the weather wasn’t so lousy, Duo wouldn’t risk leaving the apartment to see if he could find any food. No, they’d have to make do with what was on hand, which wasn’t much: a thankfully large bag of rice and half a bag of potatoes, several other vegetables, an uncooked chicken, some cheese and a loaf of bread. That might have last two humans for a couple of days, but not two bounds. Trowa needed to eat as much as possible to regain some energy while Duo was feeling decidedly drained after playing with the weather.

During his training, he’d heard that the Guard would usually deliver food during bad storms or other disasters, and wondered how long it would be before someone showed up here. The apartment wasn’t near a main road and was in a mostly residential district, so it wouldn’t be a top priority to have the local roads cleared. Duo was trying to figure out if he could trap a few birds or something for a meal when there was a knock on the door.

Without any thought on his part, he called on his power, the wards around the apartment flaring briefly as he readied the defenses. Then his common sense kicked in and the flames surrounding him vanished. If it was an attack, he highly doubted they’d bother knocking on the door.

Opening the front door slightly, he smiled when he recognized who it was who’d knocked and opened the door further. "Sandra, come in," he said, not wanting to keep the door open for too long. Despite his attempt to be rational, his demon soul urged him to do whatever was necessary to keep Trowa safe.

While he didn’t know too many neighbors since he’d only been here a few weeks and he was leery about befriending a bunch of humans, Sandra was a special case. She lived next door with her two kids and often absent husband, and had been the first person to welcome him and Trowa to the building. Sandra had informed them of all the great and mostly hidden shops in the area and warned them of which vendors in the market to avoid, and in return, Duo and Trowa helped her carry her shopping home.

Sandra smiled and tucked back a strand of brown hair falling onto her forehead. She held a large basket in her left hand while her other hand smoothed down the light brown skirt she was wearing. "I don’t want to be a bother since I know Trowa’s not feeling well," she said, her voice pitched to not carry very far. When she entered the apartment, her smile strengthened and she sighed in pleasure. "Oh, it’s so warm in here!"

"Yeah, well, I don’t want Trowa to catch a chill," Duo explained, hoping that covered why the rooms were nice and warm on such a cold day. "Did you find any more herbs?" he asked, hoping that Sandra was here with more tea that he could give to Trowa for the fever and congestion.

"Hmmm? Oh, yes." Sandra laughed slightly and held up the large basket, struggling slightly as she lifted it above her waist. "In here."

Duo stared in confusion at the large basket, which smelled more like lamb and vegetables than tea. "Ah, that’s an awful lot of tea!" he replied with a nervous laugh, his right hand lifting to scratch at the back of his head.

Sandra blushed a little and ducked her head. "I’m sorry, I’m making a muddle of it. I think the cold’s affecting my brain," she said with a teasing smile. Duo noticed that she wore two shawls over a sweater and that the tip of her nose was a bit red. "Because of the storm, John and his friend couldn’t make it home for their days off, and I have all this food that the boys and I will never eat." She held out the basket. "Rather than let it go spoiled, I thought you and Trowa could use it."

They really could, which made Duo a bit suspicious of the offer. "But the weather’s going to be lousy for a bit longer – don’t you want to keep the food in case we’re stuck here for a few days?"

"No." Sandra shook her head and pushed the basket closer to Duo. "Trust me, I’ve so much food that it’s not funny. John practically gorges when he’s back home, and his friend Mark is like a bottomless pit. The boys and I will be fine for at least a week so take this," she said, her voice firm and a slight frown on his face.

Duo was torn – he was a bit doubtful of the situation, but Trowa needed the food. "Can I offer you some money for it?" he asked, not crazy about the idea of being obligated to anyone, even someone he mostly trusted.


Sandra shook her head, her frown intensifying. "No. You need the food, and it would have just gone to waste if I’d kept it, so *no*." She folded her arms over her chest and gave him a cool look.

Sighing loudly, Duo set the basket on the floor and smiled. "Thank you, then. We can really use it since neither of us got to shop yesterday." He laughed quietly and once more scratched his head. "What can I say – we’re two guys so there’s never enough food around here."

"Well, I’m glad you can use it." Sandra undid the shawls slightly. "I should get back home," she said, even though she was clearly reluctant to leave.

Duo had a sudden idea. "Ah, you know, something that we have more than enough of are bags of coal," he offered. His wards kept the place more than warm enough so they didn’t need any; Trowa insisted on buying a bag whenever the coal vendor stopped by so people wouldn’t wonder how they kept the apartment heated with just a few cords of wood. "We’ve enough to last a month, at least."

Looking at the fireplace, Sandra seemed to be debating something, her brows drawing together and her lips thinning. She must have noticed the stacked bags of coal because her worried look changed into a pleased smile. "Well… the food is free, you know, and I’ve more if you need it, but the truth is that I’ve only a bag left to get us through the next few days," she admitted with obvious reluctance. "I thought the coal vendor might stop by yesterday."

Holding up his hand to cut her off, Duo smiled and went to the fireplace to pick up two of the bags. "Say no more. There’s no chance we’re going to run out in a few days, so let me take these next door for you." He felt better now, and not just because he wasn’t in Sandra’s debt any longer; he knew how it felt to be cold, and she and the boys were too nice to suffer like that.

"Let me get the door," Sandra offered and moved to hold it open for Duo. "Thank you so much. Poor Jonathan and Heath are walking around with their blankets, trying not to complain. I didn’t want to borrow any wood or coal from anyone since it’s so cold."

He carried the bags to her apartment, pretending that the weight of the coal made him go slowly when instead it was him attempting to set up some quick heat wards. The apartment was freezing compared to his, and the kids were indeed wrapped in their blankets when they came out of the bedroom to see what was going on.

Sandra fussed over her sons while Duo put the bags by the fireplace and tossed in a few coals. There wasn’t any wood, and the open bag was already half gone. He used his talent to warm the air slightly, and the hastily erected wards would keep the heat from leaking out the windows or door. "There you go," he said as he dusted his hands clean. "Now *you* let *me* know if you need any more, okay?" he told Sandra with a stern look while the kids huddled around the fireplace.

"I’ll do that." Sandra hesitated for a moment before she stepped forward and gave him a hasty hug. "I’m sorry – usually John takes care of things like that when he’s home from work."

Duo gave her a timid pat on the left shoulder. "Ah, I know what you mean; Trowa does most of the shopping and cooking." He laughed, the sound a bit uneasy, and motioned toward his apartment. "Let’s just hope I don’t kill him while I try to figure out how to make some soup."

Sandra’s unhappy expression smoothed into a smile and she removed one of her shawls to drape over Jonathan’s shoulders. "Be a good boy and watch over Heath for a little bit, okay?" she asked the ten year old, and gave him a kiss on the cheek when he nodded. "I’ll be right back." Then she straightened up and went to Heath, who she gave her other shawl and a kiss on the cheek as well.


"Let’s go," she told Duo with a cheerful smile. "I don’t want to leave the boys alone too long, but I think we can get the soup started relatively quick." She motioned for Duo to leave the apartment, which he did after a moment’s hesitation.

"Thanks." Cheered by the idea that he wouldn’t end up poisoning Trowa just yet, he grinned and gave her another pat on the shoulder before leaving the no longer so cold apartment.

Once back in his own, he waved in the direction of the kitchen. "I’ll be there in a minute." Not waiting for an answer, he hurried to the bedroom to check on Trowa.

The water elemental was moaning softly, his brow furrowed and face flushed. Duo gently brushed his fingers over Trowa’s forehead, tucking back the bangs that clung to his golden skin. "Shhh, it’s okay," Duo soothed.

Trowa’s eyes opened briefly, not quite focusing on Duo’s face, then closed. He let out a rattling breath and curled onto his side while mumbling something. Duo pulled the sheets up to better cover his friend, and thought that he’d have to brush and re-braid Trowa’s hair tonight. He combed his fingers through the long bangs that once more had fallen onto Trowa’s face, somehow oddly at peace.

Then he remembered about Sandra and the soup, so with great reluctance he left the bedroom. The basket of food was no longer in the middle of the living room; he found Sandra in the kitchen, busy cutting up the chicken.

"I put the lamb away; you can always cook it and make some sandwiches later," she said, a cheerful tone to her voice and her face no longer red from the cold. "I hope you don’t mind that I pulled out the chicken and some herbs; I figured some chicken and barley soup would be perfect for Trowa right now."

"By all means, do whatever you want if it means we’ll have an edible meal!" Duo replied and laughed. All right, once Trowa was feeling better, he was going to make his quiet friend teach him a few simple meals.

"I need a very large pot to be filled about halfway with water," Sandra said, and Duo scrambled to obey. The water flowed easily from the kitchen faucet, and he had the pot that Trowa used for stews and soup on the stove in a couple of minutes.

"First you need to cook the chicken so you make the broth. Add some pepper and any other seasonings you want to the broth and let it simmer for an hour. Then you skim the top of the broth and add the vegetables. When you do that, you can make the barley in another pot and add it toward the end."

Duo nodded to show that he was following the instructions. "Okay. We’ve a bag of barley and enough potatoes, onions and carrots to make a nice soup. I may not cook much, but I’m often stuck on vegetable peeling and chopping duty that I shouldn’t mess up too much!" he said while wrinkling his nose.

Sandra giggled and continued to clean and cut up the chicken. "You’ll do fine, and I’m sure Trowa will feel better soon."

Fussing with the stove to get it to light, Duo grunted non-committally. From his experience with colds brought on by energy drain, Trowa was going to be miserable for a couple of days as his body struggled to both fight off the sickness and regain the necessary energy. Food would help that, as would getting a lot of rest and the tea that Duo found sitting out on the counter. "I’ll make him some tea while dinner’s cooking," he said, his voice quiet as he thought about looking after his friend. There should be some cookies left over that Trowa really liked, and the sugar would help. That would give Duo an excuse to sit beside Trowa and hold him upright while the water elemental ate and drank.

Finishing with the chicken, Sandra added it to the pot and went to the sink, a tender smile on her face. "You know, it may sound odd but I miss all the times when I’d help John get over a cold. He’s on the road so much with work that I barely see him some months, and we normally focus all our attention on the boys when he’s home. If he were sick, at least I’d have an excuse to spend some time alone with him." She laughed as she turned on the water, the sound a bit sad.

Thankfully, she continued before Duo was forced to say something. "I swear, I keep expecting the pipes to freeze any minute now; it usually happens during the really cold nights we’ve been having lately," she said, the sadness gone from her voice as she washed her hands.

"Burst or frozen pipes are the last thing we need right now," Duo remarked, sticking his head a bit further into the cupboard to hide the fact that he was grinning. That would be Trowa’s wards at work, keeping the water in a liquid state. He must have warded the entire building, which made sense; they couldn’t get any water if the pipes leading to their apartment froze. "Ah, found them," Duo crowed in victory as he pulled out a small tin of almond cookies.

Sandra looked up from drying her hands and tilted her head to the side. "Cookies?"

"Yep." Duo opened the tin to show her its contents, and when she gave him an inquiring look, nodded. "Try one; they’re really good. We know someone who’s always buying them for his boyfriend, so we decided to get a tin ourselves one day and try them." He laughed at the memory of Yohji sneaking into the Koneko’s library with a tin of the cookies to appease a very angry Aya. Trowa had told Duo the story behind the peace offering later, something about an ex-girlfriend of Yohji’s not taking news of the blond’s new relationship very well.

After trying a cookie, Sandra grinned motioned toward the tin. "If you don’t mind, let me know when you’re going to buy more so I can give you some money; Heath’s eighth birthday is in a few weeks and he loves almonds."

"Sure." For a moment, Duo’s answering smile was entirely false. What was it like to grow up with a loving mother and father who did kind things like buying your favorite sweets? He only had a few vague memories of his parents before they’d died, and then it had been a struggle to survive on his own until Solo had found him. He’d once more had someone who cared about him, though Solo had no money to buy treats like cookies or toys. Anything they ate, they’d either stolen or paid for with things they’d stolen.

Sandra wiped her hands on the towel and then neatly replaced it on its rack. "Okay, give the soup about an hour then add the vegetables. If you run into any trouble, just come next door and I’ll help."

"I will," Duo promised, and escorted Sandra to the door. "I hope you and the boys keep warm," he added, for once meaning the polite words he said all the time to humans.

"Thank you." Sandra waved goodbye before returning to her own apartment, and Duo was happy to close the front door and lock it. While he was very grateful about the food, he hadn’t liked having to take his attention away from Trowa. Not expecting any more company or diversions for the night, he returned to the kitchen to brew a pot of tea.

Since Sandra was gone, he used his talent to quickly boil the water and heat the porcelain pot that Trowa had bought not long after they moved in here. The apartment had come with dishes, cups and everything they needed for cooking, thankfully, yet Trowa had spent his money on the new tea set. Duo turned the fine porcelain in his hands, smiling at the artfully painted image of a cat, curled up asleep with a very curious and brave mouse staring at it.

Looking around the kitchen, he found a few things that he and Trowa had bought since arriving in Eto. He’d hated the bright curtains in the windows and bought new ones, preferring something not so cheerful to stare at while he waited for his coffee to brew in the morning. On the counter were two mugs, one for each of them; Trowa’s matched the tea pot while Duo’s was painted with the words ‘refill now’ in several different languages. There were little things like that scattered around the apartment even though they’d only lived here a few weeks, and Duo’s chest tightened in pain when he thought about having to leave once the mission was over. Here he and Trowa were mostly free of the scrutiny that they suffered through in Berin, and he felt that they were able to be their true selves for once.

He pushed away the dark thoughts when he judged that the tea had steeped enough and poured it into Trowa’s mug. The brew actually smelled pretty good for something that was healthy, enough so that Duo tried a quick sip before he added a few teaspoons of honey. Meh. While it wasn’t too bad, he’d stick with coffee and hope that he didn’t fall sick anytime soon.

Once the tea was ready, he put a few cookies onto a plate and headed for the bedroom. Trowa hadn’t moved at all since the last time Duo had checked on him, and Duo found himself rather reluctant to wake the water elemental. However, he figured that Trowa needed the food and tea more than sleep right now.

Setting the mug and plate aside, he slowly sat down on the bed and once more ran his fingers lightly over Trowa’s cheek. Gods, but the man was gorgeous; his skin so smooth and his eyelashes so long that Duo wanted to run his thumb over them. Just when he was about to give in to the impulse, they fluttered apart as Trowa opened his eyes.

Trowa’s hand fumbled out from the blanket to grasp Duo’s right wrist, its grip worryingly weak. "Duo," he mumbled, sounding more congested than he’d been in the morning.

"Yep, it’s me. Sorry if you were expecting a healer or something, but I’m a lot cuter than anyone a temple would send," Duo teased, reluctant to pull his hand away from Trowa’s cheek.

After a few seconds, Trowa closed his eyes and let his hand fall down. "Please kill me," he said, wheezing slightly as he tried to burrow deeper into the bed.

Taking the plea seriously for a moment, Duo started before he smiled and once more attempted to tuck aside his friend’s long bangs. "How about I give you some tea that will hopefully make you feel a bit better, hmmm? Getting rid of a body is such a pain at the best of times, let alone during a storm."

"Burn me to ash," Trowa wheezed, coughing slightly when he fell silent again for a moment. "I can’t even keep the mucus from settling in my lungs. Kill me."

"You’re too cute to be reduced to ash," Duo pointed out as seriously as he could. "That and Heero would be my partner again, and I refuse to live with that man. All you do is give me that disapproving frown of yours when I track mud into the apartment; Heero would try to run me through with his sword. Nope, you have to live a bit longer," he cheerfully replied.

"Sadistic bastard," Trowa muttered before being overtaken by a coughing spell. Duo used that distraction to peel his friend out from beneath the sheets and into a mostly sitting position. Only hesitating for a moment, he slipped behind Trowa so he could support the water elemental against his chest.

Trowa’s body jerked stiff at first, prompting Duo to gently comb his fingers through his friend’s disheveled hair. "It’s me, Trowa; I’ll never hurt you. Just need you to sit up so you can drink some tea and feel better, okay?" he said, his voice as soothing as possible. If Trowa wasn’t sick, he’d probably be killed or seriously maimed for this.

Trowa remained hunched over for a few more seconds before letting out a raspy breath and leaning against Duo, his head resting on Duo’s left shoulder. "I shouldn’t be trusting you like this," he mumbled as his body slowly relaxed. "Why am I trusting you?"

"I don’t know, Trowa," Duo whispered, turning his head so his lips could brush against Trowa’s very hot forehead. Knowing that his friend was suffering from a fever and probably wouldn’t remember any of this gave him the courage to continue speaking. "But I’m glad as hell that you are. I’ll *never* hurt you." He had the sinking feeling that the words were truer than he suspected, and refused to think about them right now. All that mattered was that he wasn’t lying and that Trowa was in his arms.

Picking up the mug of tea, he used his power to cool it enough so it wouldn’t scald Trowa’s mouth before he lifted it to the bound’s lips. Trowa mumbled something again before he began to drink, his hands lightly wrapped around Duo’s as Duo held the mug steady.

While Trowa drank the sweet tea, Duo did his best to use his talent to lower his friend’s body temperature. He didn’t often use his talent on other people like this, and wouldn’t attempt it now if he wasn’t so worried about Trowa. After a few fraught minutes, he succeeded in lowering Trowa’s temperature a degree or two and let out a shaky breath. As long as the water elemental suffered from energy drain and a cold the fever would return, but Duo should be able to prevent it from going too high. Although there was something to say about an out of it Trowa….

When the cup was empty, he reached over for a cookie, which Trowa accepted with a faint ‘thanks’. Not sure what to do or how far he could push things, Duo sat in the bed, his back uncomfortable against the wooden headboard and his legs growing cramped, but with Trowa leaning against him eating cookies.

Trowa managed most of them before drifting off to sleep again, so Duo ate the last two. He had a bit longer before he had to fuss with the soup, and he didn’t want to disturb Trowa right now. At least, that was what he’d say if Trowa remembered any of this clearly enough to object to what had happened. For now, he brushed his lips against Trowa’s forehead again and slid his arms around Trowa’s chest to hug the water elemental closer.

He’d always thought that touching Trowa like this would drive him mad with unresolved lust, yet the opposite seemed to be happening. Something that was wound tight inside of him, something that ached so quietly and persistently that he barely noticed it eased while he sat on the bed. He felt at peace for the first time that he could ever remember, a pleased smile curling his lips as he dared to press a kiss against Trowa’s damp temple.

However, reality would intrude soon enough and he’d have to go make the soup so Trowa would feel better. Another day or two, and Trowa would be back to normal, all standoffish and so quiet that Duo didn’t have a clue what was going on in the man’s head. Both of them would return to work and be so busy that they’d only be assured of seeing each other at night. He didn’t want that, yet he didn’t see any way of stopping time.

For a moment, he was tempted to mess with the storm and make it worse so they’d really be snowed in for a while. He didn’t do that, though, not when he knew that it would make Trowa upset. Somehow, the water elemental’s opinions and desires meant so much to Duo.

At least he still had about thirty minutes or so to enjoy this, Duo thought as he buried his face in Trowa’s soft hair. And tonight maybe he’d dare to hold Trowa again, saying that he wanted to make sure Trowa didn’t get cold during the night or his fever raise too high. That sounded like a decent excuse, one that would keep him alive if Trowa regained his senses any time soon. Hell, it should even please Jei.

Once more wishing he could stop time, Duo held Trowa close and breathed in his friend’s intoxicating yet soothing scent.

*******