Darkness Returns

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chapter thirteen

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oaths and glimpses of the future

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Omi watched as Rude stood on the just shoveled sidewalk leading from the Koneko’s front steps to along the inn’s property beside the street. The very tall, broad-shouldered man simply stood there quietly as usual, as the snow fell on top of the black cloak he wore. Despite the overcast nature of the sky, Rude still had on his tinted glasses, and between them, the dark cloak and the bound’s massive physique, he came across as rather sinister. Good thing that Nagi was a little more powerful than him, Omi thought with a slight shiver.

"He’s… something’s happening," Nagi whispered, pressed against Omi’s left side as they huddled together for warmth. "I can’t tell just what, but…."

"That’s because your natures are very different." Eri wrapped her dark blue cloak tighter against her body as she stared at Rude. "He draws energy from the earth, much like Marta, while you have the ability to control things," she explained in a hushed voice while using her own talent to ensure that no one noticed what was happening outside. Omi almost felt sorry for the inn’s human guests – they’d basically been telepathically manipulated to either stay in their rooms or to walk around the Koneko in a fugue-type state, clearly not seeing all the magic and oddities around them. With three soul-gaki bounds staying at the Koneko, they were taking advantage of their talents and ensuring that the bound residents and guests – as well as the trusted few humans who knew the truth about them – had a bit of respite from hiding their true selves.

Nagi grunted softly as he continued to stare at the other earth elemental bound. "But Marta uses her talent to heal, not to keep the sidewalks warm enough to prevent snow or ice from forming."

Omi thought he detected a hint of jealousy in his lover’s voice and was in the process of giving him a hug when Rude’s shoulders twitched and he picked the shovel in his large hands up from the sidewalk in front of him. "All done," he said in a rumbling voice that sounded as if it wasn’t used very often.

"Thank you, Rude." Omi offered the man a warm smile; he’d hoped to be able to use his magic to keep the sidewalks clear and spare everyone some work, but he just wasn’t able to create enough heat charms quickly enough to do that.

Rude nodded once and strolled toward the front porch. "Now for the garden and stables." He didn’t seem to mind the work at all, and had assured everyone that he could easily set wards to keep the ground beneath the cobblestones heated during his stay. When Nagi had asked why he was so certain that he’d be able to do so, Tseng had replied that Rude often did so at the Shinra estate.

As they walked along the narrow, just cleared path that led back to the garden, Omi thought about his fellow highborn. Lord Rufus was technically a cousin of his, albeit a rather distant one. He’d heard about the man and the Shinra family’s thriving business, and had never once thought that he might be related to a bound. Well, to another bound, since Aya was another distant cousin. Omi smirked a little at that thought – he was sure that if he looked up the Shinra and Fujimiya genealogies that he would find a connection or two, which would no doubt displease both men. They didn’t seem to be getting along very well, all thanks to Reno.

Coming to the back garden, Omi found several people gathered outside in a small group: the two strange bounds, Tseng and Elena, as well as Ken, Miko, Ichiro and Jason. All of the bounds had shovels in their hands, as did Miko. "It’s about time you guys showed up!" she called out, a bright smile plumping her cold-reddened cheeks.

"We had a lot to shovel!" Omi complained, even though he hadn’t done a tenth of the work that Rude and Nagi had done, between the former’s strength and the latter’s talent.

"Yeah, well, you missed seeing Naru slip and fall on his ass." Ken chuckled at his fellow Guard’s misfortune, which meant that Naru mustn’t have injured himself much in the fall. "He used that as an excuse to go inside and be pampered by Jo."

While they talked, Rude once again went still and used his talent to keep the now clear cobblestones free of snow. The Koneko would no longer be snowed in… well, past its property line. With over two feet of snow on the ground and more falling, it would take a while for the roads to be plowed, but the Koneko was assured that if a guest or friend made it to the inn, they wouldn’t be injured while walking on the sidewalks. Omi had thought the hard work to keep the paths clear was a bit senseless the first winter he’d been at the Koneko, but he understood the logic behind it now. The Koneko would do whatever was possible to ensure that someone in need could make it safely to its doors.

"The hot spring below must make his job a lot easier," Tseng murmured as he adjusted the hood of his black cloak. While he wasn’t quite as tall as Rude and not as big, he was another faintly menacing presence with his unnatural calm and intent, dark eyes. Omi had been around many gokenin in his life since only the royal family could count on the Guards to serve them, and he had to admit that Rufus’ were the most impressive ones he’d ever met. Even Elena who was barely bigger than him and always so deferential to Rufus, Tseng and Rude had a dangerous air to her. The fact that she could kill someone with a thought by preventing them from breathing might have something to do with it. Omi found it very interesting that he never really dwelled on how dangerous his friends and the bound Guards were, but he couldn’t make himself forget that with Rufus’ gokenin. Was it an Esset thing, or something to do with Rufus?

"You’re shivering," Nagi chided as he once again pressed against Omi’s side. "We should go inside, where it’s warmer."

Omi nodded and had to laugh a little. "Everyone just got out of the hot spring, and now they’ll be back in it." He was half-tempted to soak again, but he knew he wouldn’t be alone down there with Nagi so it wasn’t worth the effort. No, that could wait until later tonight, he promised himself as he rocked forward on the balls of his feet to brush a kiss against Nagi’s lips. "What do you say to us grabbing a spot by the fireplace before Ken and Miko get inside?"

"I heard that, Omi!" Ken yelled, turning his attention away from Tseng long enough to growl at Omi. "That’s our spot!"

"Only if you get there first!" Omi stuck his tongue out at his friend even as he ran for the kitchen’s door, laughing once more when he heard Ken and Miko curse about something. He was willing to bet that Nagi was using his talent to keep the Guards from getting there first, a suspicion that was verified by the way Nagi laughed as well and Miko took to shouting ‘not fair!’. When they reached the door, Omi gave his lover another brief kiss in thanks before yanking it open and dashing inside.

They both were quick to shed their snow-covered boots and cloaks before Jo yelled at them to do just that, and Omi was surprised when he almost bumped into Eri by the cloak rack. She smiled in amusement as she shook some snow from her hair.

"I want to be by the fire, too," she said in her soft voice, removing her cloak to reveal a pale blue sweater over dark brown leggings. She appeared so different when she wasn’t dressed in her Guard’s uniform; somehow more approachable and… Omi hoped that she didn’t pick up on this thought, but more feminine as well. Eri as a Guard was so focused and serious, while she appeared more open when she was off-duty.

<I’m sorry, I did pick it up and I’m not offended. I take my job very seriously and I’m glad that it shows.>

Omi shook his head a little at hearing Eri’s ‘voice’ whisper across his mind, but he wasn’t offended, either. If anything, he always felt honored when his bound friends used their talents around him, and he trusted Eri to not delve any deeper than his surface thoughts.

"I didn’t mean to think that you aren’t pretty," he tried to explain as all three of them made their way to the table closest to the fireplace, where Yohji, Aya, Jo, Yuushi and Reiichi were already seated. He smiled in gratitude when his friends shifted aside to allow him, Nagi and Eri the spots closest to the fire.

"Who’s not pretty? Eri? You’d have to be blind or insane to think that," Yuushi said, the compliment making Yohji and Reiichi grin very widely and Eri duck her head as she sat down.

"And here I always thought that I was the prettiest Guard," Reiichi said with a mock sniff as he pushed up his glasses to wipe away an imaginary tear. "Now I’m heartbroken."

"Oh, shut up, old man." Yohji tossed a cinnamon bun at Reiichi, who smiled as he caught it. "Everyone knows that *I’m* the prettiest Guard. Er, or was. Still, no one can approach my golden glory!" Yohji boasted, his chest puffing out and a smug smile on his face – until Aya knocked an elbow into his side.

"You sound like a Harper-wannabe," Aya hissed as he gave his mate a warning look.

While Yohji took to whining about how he was certainly the most abused Guard, or ex-Guard, at the least, Eri lifted her head, her cheeks faintly red. "You have my utmost sympathies," she told Aya, who sighed and nodded.

"Thank you."


"Hey!" Yohji grabbed hold of an ear tail and used it to yank Aya close enough for a kiss. Aya’s light tap to his ribs didn’t seem to deter him, but something whapping him on the back of the head did. Omi did his best to stifle a giggle since he was well aware of how the culprit was. "Damn little demon! Go back out and play in the snow!" Yohji snarled, his voice vicious but the light in his eyes amused.

Nagi wrinkled his nose and shook his head. "No, because you’ll just take advantage of Aya some more. He needs me here to watch after you." Nagi must be learning, since he’d switched from saying that Aya ‘needed protected’. That certainly didn’t seem the case now, with how much Aya had changed over the last few months.

Aya smiled at his protective friend and poured some spiced tea into three mugs. "I assume that the walkways are clear now?" He didn’t sound upset over the fact that Jo and Yohji had insisted that he stay inside, rather than spend any more time out in the dim sunlight today. There wouldn’t be another snowball battle until after the sunset, Omi was willing to bet.

"Rude was working on the back part of the Koneko when we came in." Omi helped himself to one of the cinnamon rolls, feeling hungry even though he had breakfast and a snack after the first snowball battle. Nagi had already eaten two, which was to be expected since he’d used his power to help move the thick and very heavy snow.

Jo tapped her fingers against the wooden tabletop before she rose up and went to the stove. "He’s a helpful one. I was almost wishing that Mustang was here before Rude offered to help with the sidewalks." She started fussing with various pots and pans, filling Omi with hope that more food was coming soon.

Yohji groaned as he settled his arms around Aya’s shoulders, sitting sideways on the bench so he could hold his mate close. "Thank the gods that he and Ed weren’t here when the storm started. I can’t imagine being snowed in for several days with that asshole."

"I think that the place would be in danger of burning with Mustang and Crawford here at the same time. We don’t need a repeat of their fight." Reiichi picked up his tea mug and held it cradled between his hands. "Though it is enjoyable to have some theoretical discussions with Ed and Al. I find their thoughts on ‘equivalent value’ to be most interesting."

Eri, getting over the teasing that had made her withdraw from the group somewhat, chuckled a couple of times and slowly unwound a cinnamon roll. "I can see you, the Elric brothers and Aya, holed up in the library for the entire storm." She popped a piece of pastry in her mouth and smiled.

"Now I’m even *more* grateful that they’re stuck in their own home," Yohji grumbled, the fingers of his right hand playing with the strands of Aya’s right eartail. He bent his head to whisper something in Aya’s ear, making the redhead smile and lean against him some more.

"Yes, the last thing we need is you sulking and going on about how horribly neglected you are." Jo’s tone was thick with sarcasm as she approached the table, a tray covered with several bowls of what smelled to be beef stew.

That was when Ken and Miko finally decided to arrive, which puzzled Omi somewhat since he’d expected them to show up several minutes ago. There was a smug grin on Ken’s face, which quickly turned into a very toothy smile. "See, we timed it just right, Miko. More food!"

Miko whapped the back of her right hand against her partner’s stomach before removing her cloak. "We could have waited for it inside, where it’s warmer! Idiot man." She put a lot of derision into the insult, but much like Yohji a few minutes before, one could tell it was all an act.

"Where are the others?" Jo asked as she set the bowls in front of Eri, Nagi and Omi.

"Ichiro and Jason went back into the stables; Ichiro asked that someone take them some lunch in about another hour. Tseng, Elena and Rude stayed outside for some reason or another." Miko shrugged and sat down at the bench, giving Omi and Nagi a dark look for a moment after staring at the fire. Nagi sniffed in answer, while Omi wrinkled his nose and laughed.

"I’ll have Mickey run something out to them in a little bit." Jo went back to the stove to prepare more bowls of stew. "As for the gokenin, they’re all adults so they can freeze if they want to."

"I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re surveying the grounds and setting up wards," Eri offered as she blew on her stew to cool it a little. "This would be the first chance for them to do so since arriving."

Yuushi groaned a little as he got up from the table, an empty carafe of coffee in his hands. Much like Eri, Omi thought it was a bit odd to see him out of uniform, dressed in a thick, colorful sweater much like the rest of them. "You’d think with the people living here they would feel that the Koneko is more than secure."

Eri tilted her head to the side as she stared at her boss. "It’s a bound thing. They might have settled in the power hierarchy, but they won’t feel comfortable until they’re certain that they won’t be caught unaware during an attack. Add to that the fact that they’re gokenin, and they’re just doing their job."

"Can you pick up anything from their thoughts?" Yohji asked, shifting away from Aya enough to sit forward, his right arm still around Aya’s shoulders.

"No." Eri shook her head and sighed. "I’m willing to bet that Rufus has more power than me since their minds are so tightly shielded. Schuldig might have better luck."

"You’re not sure about who’s more powerful?" Yuushi asked as he returned to the table. Omi began to notice that whenever the Guard focused his attention on Eri, she suddenly seemed to fidget and become a little bashful.

"His bond with Reno makes him very difficult to sense," Eri explained, her head ducking forward a little. "Also, I’m not crazy enough to go prying in the thoughts of a bound who’s furious with his mate."

Her answer made Yohji chuckle. "No, we’re not exactly the most rational at times like that. Not that Aya’s ever done *anything* to make me furious." He turned to blow a kiss at his mate.

"Speak for yourself," Aya muttered, glaring at his lover until Yohji leaned over to nuzzle his throat. As always, that seemed to put an end to any bad mood on Aya’s part; Omi made a mental note of that fact and scooted closer to his own lover. He and Nagi hadn’t been together long enough to have any real fights, but he was hoping that wouldn’t be the case now. Well, he didn’t want to fight with his boyfriend, he just wanted Nagi to stick around long enough that such a thing could happen if they were both idiots.

Pulling back a little, Yohji gave Aya a tender kiss before he resumed his conversation with Eri. "Anyway, I’m not the expert that Aya is, but he feels very powerful to me. Not quite as strong as Schu, but pretty damn close." His good mood seemed to vanish for a moment. "And now I insist that we change the topic from that degenerate bastard who’s currently busy screwing my father’s brains out." He shuddered in horror and yelped when Jo smacked the back of his head.

"None of us needed to know that," she snapped before giving the bowls of stew to Miko and Ken.

Miko stirred the stew with the spoon in her right hand while her left hand poked Ken in the ribs. "What about you? You more or less powerful than Tseng?" No one had to ask if Nagi or Rude was the more powerful one, Omi was pleased to note, and shared a grin with his boyfriend.

"Tseng’s more powerful, most definitely." Ken shuddered as well, the motion not interrupting him shoveling spoonfuls of stew into his mouth. "He’s gotta be as much demon as Jei."

"Which is why I’m willing to bet that we’re not seeing much of that gentleman." Reiichi pushed his empty tea mug forward an inch, and smiled when Aya quickly refilled it. "Thank you. Jo, may I say that this blend is particularly delicious and I beg you to buy more of it."

"Bat your pretty eyes at Cassandra and give her that smile; she’s the one who made it." Jo grinned at Reiichi, her hands busy twisting her hair into a bun. "Just don’t do it while Botan’s around, you charmer."

"I shall remember that." Reiichi’s expression just then was one of pure mischief, which made Yohji, Jo and Eri laugh while Yuushi groaned in horror. "Now, as I was saying, Jei made some comment about hunting before leaving a little bit ago."

"It’ll be easier for him to be around Tseng if his appetite’s appeased." This time it was Aya who left the table, picking up the tea pot and gently pushing on Jo’s shoulder when she tried to stand. "I’ll get this; you deserve to sit for a while."

Yohji actually looked a little forlorn that Aya had left the table, and it didn’t surprise Omi when his friend got up to join Aya at the sink. "And I’m willing to bet that Crawford’s waiting to have a chat with Rufus."

Yuushi went from staring at Reiichi in mock horror to a very serious disposition. "What do you think about him, Yohji? I hear that you talked to him earlier." The topic attracted Nagi’s attention, too, who straightened up beside Omi and looked expectantly at Yohji.

"Well, I don’t think he’s quite the asshole he came across as last night," Yohji said after a moment’s pause, leaning against the counter while Aya prepared another pot of tea. "Now I’m not saying that he’s a great guy, but…." He sighed and looked at Aya, his expression softening as he reached out to brush an eartail over Aya’s shoulder. "I don’t think it’s easy being mated to a dubhach."

"From what I understand, he forced the bond so I don’t feel sorry for him," Eri spat, her eyes narrowing in a rare show of anger that caught Omi by surprise. He was also surprised by talk of it being possible to force a mating bond on a bound.

Yohji sighed again, waiting until he and Aya returned to the table to say anything else. "He told me it happened by accident when he was trying to keep Reno from killing himself. While I’ll admit that I haven’t been using my talent as long as you, I know he wasn’t lying." He stared directly at Eri until she ducked her head and nodded once. "Also, he really cares for Reno. It can’t be easy to find out you’re mates with someone who wants to kill himself all the time, and I think we should cut him some slack over that." His expression hardened slightly. "Just not too much, mind you. That man needs to learn how to relax and stop being such an anal, controlling bastard." Aya nodded in agreement, while Omi was grateful that he hadn’t had much to do with his Esset-raised ‘cousin’ until now.

"An interesting assessment." Reiichi sipped his tea and set the mug on the table. "Birman’s been trying to sneak a spy or two into his estate for a few years, and now I think we know why that always failed." His smile turned a little grim just then. "Lord Shinra is a very powerful, rich Esset highborn, and the king hasn’t been fond of the idea of facing an army armed with swords made in Shinra’s forges." Omi started a little to hear his father mentioned, and soothed his hand down his lover’s back when Nagi gave him a curious look for his reaction.

"I sent Birman a message last night, and you can imagine that we’re to make sure that Lord Shinra is on our side," Yuushi added, his handsome face set with a deep frown. "I talked a little to Crawford today, and he said there isn’t much to worry about on that front. Said damn little else, though."

"Maybe we should let Mustang singe him again," Yohji mused as he played with a strand of his own hair.

Ken snorted as he got up to fetch more stew for him and Miko. "As if that’ll do any good." Omi thought that as well, and figured there was no sense in risking the inn catching on fire again.

"I think we should leave Crawford and Rufus to each other," Aya remarked as he poured more tea.

Nagi nodded and held his and Omi’s mugs out for refills. "They both seem an awful lot alike. From what I heard while in Berin, Lord Shinra isn’t someone you want to mess with since he’s ruthless and not afraid to use his talent. Crawford had me stay away from him."

"Probably so Rufus didn’t read your thoughts. Your shields are good, Nagi, but you’re still young," Eri murmured.

Omi draped his arm around Nagi’s waist to cheer up his boyfriend. "I’m sure he’ll be invited to the palace, soon. Can you imagine Reno there?" That made both Nagi and Aya smile, and everyone else either laughed or groaned.

"I’m trying to get used to the fact that he’s a dubhach." Eri turned her mug between her hands as she stared into its depths. "And so old, at that." Omi wanted to ask her what she meant since he didn’t know much about dubhach and Reno didn’t seem ‘old’ at all, but didn’t get a chance.

"These are definitely interesting times," Yohji said, his arm curled around Aya’s shoulders and his head resting against the top of his lover’s. Omi had to agree with the statement and wasn’t the only one who nodded. Everyone seemed lost in their own thoughts after that, which was a good thing because it wasn’t long after the room became quiet that the kitchen door opened to let in Tseng, Elena and Rude.

Once again, Omi was struck by how powerful and dangerous the gokenin seemed, and Nagi’s back went stiff as they approached the table. "The walkways are all warded," Tseng informed Jo with a slight bow. Omi had to give the man credit – he’d worked out Jo’s authority over the Koneko and was most respectful to her.

"Thank you for your help. Sit down and I’ll fetch you some stew," she urged the gokenin, once more on her feet to feed people. Omi hoped that Maddox would be in charge of dinner so she would have a chance to rest today and maybe spend some time with Ichiro.

The feeling of warmth and camaraderie, the ability to say anything and to tease each other, faded with the strange bounds’ presence. There was no way Omi could ask about dubhach or forced mate bonds now, so he’d wait until he got Aya or Eri alone to voice his questions. Instead, he watched as Tseng and Elena sat in the seats farthest from Ken, while Rude tried to squeeze himself into the space left between Reiichi and Eri.

"I hope beef stew is acceptable," Jo said as she returned to the table with three very full bowls of the meal, along with a basket of bread. Her smile appeared pleased when the gokenin quickly assured her that it was perfectly fine.

Yohji whispered something in Aya’s ear that made the kage frown for a few seconds before nodding twice, then rose from the table. "I think I’m heading out to check on Cassandra. She probably needs her walks shoveled and possibly her roof as well, and I doubt the two morons upstairs will remember in time." He glanced up at the ceiling again, a faint smirk on his face. "Feel like walking a bit, Ken?"

Ken almost jumped off the bench when he heard his name, tearing his attention away from Tseng to look at Yohji. "Eh, why not? Not like I’ve anything better than to walk a few blocks during a nasty snowstorm." He didn’t sound too put out over the work, and had a big smile on his face as he pocketed several slices of bread as he moved from the table.

Omi exchanged a quick look with his lover and had to smile when Nagi let out a slow breath and nodded. They might not have the empathic link between them like Yohji and Aya, but they did a pretty good job of reading each other’s thoughts. "If you two don’t mind, we’d like to tag along, too." He was sure that Botan would appreciate him checking on Cassandra, since the royal wizard was trapped in the palace to offer assistance during the storm. Also, Omi was willing to bet that Cassandra could answer some of his questions about dubhach, if not all of them, and would be much more open to talking about the future than Crawford.

That thought must have occurred to Yuushi, too, since he quickly went to the cloak rack. "We might as well make a proper group out of it. This way I can find out how bad the roads are and report to Kikyou and my people." He paused in pulling on his scarf to look back at Eri. "I know you just came inside, but would you mind coming along as well? I could really use your help."

Eri’s back instantly straightened and she projected a hint of her Guard persona. This time, however, she didn’t look so closed-off but rather was pleased. "Of course, Yuushi," she said as she went to pull on her still damp cloak.

"I leave my idiot partner in your hands, Eri. Feel free to abuse him if he steps out of line." Miko grinned when Ken growled and snapped his teeth in her direction.

While Omi laughed at the friendly teasing, Nagi cast a regretful look in Aya’s direction. His boyfriend was probably either uncertain about leaving Aya alone or wishing that he could spend more time with him, and Omi felt some remorse that he was splitting up the two friends. Before he could offer for Nagi to stay behind, Reiichi cleared his throat and lightly tapped his mug against the table.


"Aya, would you mind helping me look up some books for Trowa? I’d promised to find him something on the history of the Court and on some of the more obscure laws."

Aya paused in sipping his tea to nod. "Yes." He didn’t seem to mind the request for help, and Omi noticed that Nagi and Yohji seemed more at ease, now. Most likely they had worried a little about leaving Aya behind and knew that Reiichi would watch over him.

"Great, Aya gets to stay in a nice, warm library drinking tea while I end up shoveling snow. Life’s so unfair," Yohji sniffed, barely managing to keep his dejected air when Aya smiled his way.

What made Omi laugh out loud, however, was Ken and Nagi berating his friend at the same time over the fact that Yohji had already gotten out of shoveling snow once today. With everyone in a good mood and slightly perplexed looks on the gokenin’s faces, Omi left the Koneko with his closest friends.

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Rufus couldn’t keep the smugness out of his voice as he spoke to his lover. "See, I told you that you were out in the sun too long."

Reno made a rude noise and waved his right hand in Rufus’ direction, a limp, naked bundle sprawled out on the bed. His thoughts were a mix of exhaustion, pleasure, happiness and annoyance. "Go away," he mumbled and pulled the sheets further up his back.

Sitting in bed beside his lover, Rufus slid his right arm beneath the sheets, his hand moving across smooth, warm skin. "One day you’ll learn to say ‘you’re right, Rufus’." For his teasing, Reno growled in annoyance and tried to push him away, the action failing when Rufus leaned forward a little more to brush his lips over Reno’s right shoulder. He nuzzled aside long, thick hair so he could press a kiss against the very dark bruise on his mate’s neck.

"Ah." Reno purred the word, his eyes fluttering shut and body turning toward Rufus, who allowed himself pulled closer for just an instant. The bed smelled so strongly of their recent passion, the sheets warm from their body heat and Reno looking so gorgeous with his pale skin mottled with various bruises from Rufus’ mouth and hands. Rufus’ cock stirred as he thought about how responsive and wanton Reno had been both times he’d been taken, delicious, addictive emotions pouring over their link to leave Rufus buzzing with energy. He almost gave in to the urge to fuck Reno again before he remembered that there were more important things to do first.

"Spoilsport," Reno complained when he pulled away, yelping slightly when Rufus smacked his ass in response before pulling the blankets up to Reno’s chin.

"So says someone lazy enough to spend the afternoon in bed," Rufus chided as he forced himself away from his lover and crossed the room to the water basin. Another soak would be wonderful, perhaps when he could manage to have the hot spring to just himself and Reno. His lips twitched at the memory of how Rude had to almost be forcibly ordered out of the pool of hot water and realized that the spring would probably be rarely left empty. Something about its nature strongly affected Rude, who had looked almost orgasmic during his soak.

Quickly washing off, Rufus went through his pile of borrowed clothes to find something suitable. While he knew that it was winter and that sweaters helped against the cold, he wanted something a little less casual looking to wear while talking to Crawford. He settled on a quilted jerkin worn over a thick, wool shirt and pants, all of them a soft, cream color. The clothes were finely made and felt great against his skin… but Rufus missed his tailored outfits that immediately identified him as Lord Shinra.

Reno was fast asleep by the time he was dressed, and Rufus only allowed himself a moment to brush aside the hair that fell onto his mate’s face before leaving the room. He was willing to bet that Reno would sleep for at least an hour, possibly two, sated from the sex and definitely a little worn down from the faint sunlight. That should be long enough for Rufus to figure out what was going on here and settle on a course for the future.

He made his way downstairs to the main room he’d briefly visited last night. That was where his talent told him that Crawford was waiting. He was a little surprised to enter the room to find most of the tables pushed aside and a small crowd gathered in the clear space. A tall, slim woman with short, dark hair stood in the center of the group, and Rufus recognized her as one of the Guards.

"Naru, stop laughing or I’ll use you for the next demonstration," she told a young man who was sitting on the edge of the stage. He flashed a cheerful grin, which made her shake her head and smile. "Okay, it’s your turn, Jared." A tall, stocky young man with brown hair and a goatee eagerly stepped forward.

Scanning the group’s thoughts, Rufus was surprised to discover that most of them were bounds, save for the woman, Miko, and the young man, Naru – who happened to have a bit of wizard talent. Those two were Shadow Guards, something that Rufus found very interesting as he riffled through their thoughts for all that he could learn about the organization. The bounds were Guard cadets, hoping to use the time during the blizzard to improve their fighting techniques. Rufus was surprised again with the amount of determination all of the bounds felt for joining the Shadow Guard.

Shaking his head slightly, he went in search of the man who could probably answer almost all of his questions, and found Crawford sitting alone at a table not too far from the huge fireplace. There was what smelled to be a pitcher of mulled wine and a platter of cheese and meat on the table top, enough to provide a nice snack for two bounds.

"Have I kept you waiting long?" Rufus asked, slightly amused despite himself. While he didn’t personally like the precog, he had to admit that Crawford was very powerful and used his talent to his benefit.

"Not really." Leaning back against the wall, Crawford motioned to the full cup of mulled wine across the table from him, steam rising faintly from the dark liquid’s surface. "How is Reno?"

Rufus told himself not to over-react to the question, since most likely Crawford had asked it to throw him off his guard. "Sleeping. The fool shouldn’t have been out in the sun."

"Not much in the way of sunlight because of the storm, but I know that Aya was slightly drained as well and forbidden to go back outside until nightfall." Crawford picked up a slice of meat and cheese then dipped both in what smelled to be a mustard sauce. "It’s very interesting how the rest of the world is terrified by the mere thought of kage and dubhach, yet the people here won’t hesitate to fuss over the creatures." He stared openly at Rufus as he ate the snack.

Sipping the wine, Rufus distracted himself for a moment with the drink’s spicy, delicious taste so he didn’t react to the casual mention of ‘kage’ and ‘dubhach’. They had most likely been said deliberately, and for a reason other than to convince Rufus that it was safe to talk in this room. He could skim the surface of Crawford’s thoughts, but the man had to be using his talent to muddle anything deeper than that. It wasn’t that Rufus couldn’t read those masked thoughts, just that they made little sense to him. "Never refer to Reno as a ‘creature’ again," he warned after a minute of silence, his voice raspy with a suppressed growl.

That actually seemed to startle Crawford, who frowned slightly and folded his arms over his chest. "My apologies. To be perfectly honest, I’ve spent the last few months trying to figure out if you’re only linked to him because of the bond or if you truly care for him." He inclined his head slightly.

Almost shocked that the precog had apologized, Rufus had another sip of wine. "I’ll say it for the last time – I didn’t knowingly or willingly force the bond on him. All I did was reach for the best way to keep him alive." Too many people were finding out about the link, and he could lose the trust of most bounds over the fact that he’d forced it.

Crawford regarded him intently for several seconds before sitting up straight. "Fine, I will accept that. After all, I doubt you’d smell so strongly of him if there wasn’t some positive emotion between the two of you." His lips curled the tiniest bit.

Wishing that he’d had a bath, Rufus reached for a piece of cheese so he could snap his teeth into something. "He’s my mate, after all."

"Yes, and a rather demanding one, from what I’ve seen. Not to mention very affectionate, considering the scene in the kitchen earlier."

Rufus didn’t quite stop the wince in time as he remembered being smacked in the head with a wooden spoon by the inn’s cook. "He’s a dubhach; they demand a lot of attention."

"I wouldn’t know, never having met one before Reno," Crawford murmured. "Let alone heard of one living to be so old." His demeanor took on a chilly edge. "You plan to use him in the war."

From the thoughts he could read, Rufus knew that Crawford was instigating a sort of knowledge exchange – if he answered truthfully, then Crawford would supply him with the information he desperately needed. "Yes, I do."

Crawford snorted, the sound soft and almost lost in the noise from the people training. "I’ve a vision of Esset’s army trapped between darkness and light. Is he really so powerful?"

Rufus hesitated before answering. "Yes, he is." Reno could kill several people even when almost completely drained; the more deaths around him, the more powerful he became. "That’s why I refuse to let the Elders get their hands on him." He showed a hint of teeth in warning.

"I swear to you that the very last thing I want is for that to happen." For once there was no mockery, sarcasm or smugness in Crawford’s deep voice, though his face was carefully impassive, as always. "I know you don’t like me, but believe me when I say that I’ll do all that I can to keep them from knowing about his existence." He gave Rufus an even look, his eyebrows arched above the rims of his glasses.

It didn’t require any talent to know what the precog wanted from him. Rufus once more checked that no one was overhearing them while he sipped the wine. "You can’t possibly mean to tell me that you’re still uncertain about whether or not I’ll side with the Elders." He scoffed slightly before enjoying more of the hot, spicy drink.

Crawford let slip one of his rare, pleased smiles, the expression transforming him from an inscrutable, cold man into one who appeared to possess a sense of humor. "Forgive me if I feel the need to make you say it aloud."

That would be perilously close to an oath, Rufus thought, his hands tightening around the goblet of wine. Not willing to do so just yet, he nodded in the direction of the other people in the room. "Will the Shadow Guard truly make a difference in the war?"

The precog didn’t seem too upset in the shift of topic. "They will be one of several decisive forces, but their true importance will come after the war. They will help shape Kritiker into a country where bounds will be safe… eventually."


"Eventually." Rufus studied the group for several seconds. He didn’t sense any unease on Miko or Naru’s part over the fact that they were training bounds. Delving deep into their minds, he discovered that Naru was dating a bound, while Miko harbored strong feelings for her partner. What amazed Rufus the most was the fact that neither human had any interaction with bounds before the event that triggered the formation of the Shadow Guard, and had been able to overcome their fear and prejudice. "The Elders will never be able to grasp the concept of the Shadow Guard."

"No, they won’t." Crawford lost his sense of amusement to sorrow. "They fail to realize that for bounds to survive, we need to work together with humans. We still possess human souls, after all, and most of our children are humans."

Rufus nodded in agreement. He might not have the strongest of affection for the majority of humans around him, but he didn’t dismiss them as worthless. If they could learn to let bounds live in peace, he had no quarrel with the race. "Kritiker’s king is willing to support bounds?"

"Yes and no." Crawford’s lips pressed together as he poured more wine for them both. "He sees how the Shadow Guard will help him win the war and doesn’t believe in the senseless persecution of bounds. His son, however…."

"His son, who is busy serving food at an inn instead of being fostered at Lady Meara’s estate as the populace was told, is another matter I assume. A precocious child who has taken a young bound as his lover." Rufus gave Crawford a cool look, wondering if the bound truly thought that he wouldn’t have picked up on that. The boy would have attracted his attention for the fact alone that he wore an illusion spell.

"Yes, that son. Omi will be a good king for bounds." Crawford’s eyes gazed off into the distance for a moment as if seeing something that wasn’t physically there in the room.

"If you can see so much, why don’t you tell me what I’ll do?" Rufus asked, growing weary of this discussion. He wanted answers, not verbally dancing around the issue at hand.

Crawford grimaced slightly and had another piece of meat. "Because Reno’s nature obscures most of the future in regards to him," he explained, clearly not pleased that Rufus had asked that question. "That masks you from my vision as well."

Now that knowledge was worth everything that Rufus had been put through in the last two days. "So you’ve no clue what I’ll do next?"

"Not exactly." Crawford’s smile took on a sharp edge. "You and Reno are involved in events that will reshape our world – with so many other people involved, I can catch glimpses of things."

Such as that vision of darkness and light, Rufus reminded himself, only a bit disappointed that Crawford could see some things in regards to himself. "Well then, consider the fact that I’m mated to someone the Elders would kill thousands just for the chance to get their hands on him, that Kritiker seems to have a kage willing to fight for it and the best chance for my kind rests in the country that will eventually accept some sort of equality between human and bounds, and doesn’t the choice seem clear?" His tone was a little mocking, something he felt that he deserved for having to put up with Crawford like this.

Once again proving how much of a bastard he could be, Crawford smiled in victory and inclined his head. "Say it, Lord Rufus Shinra. The future won’t be entirely set until you do."

Snarling at the feeling that he was being boxed into a corner and allowed no manner of escape, Rufus struggled to regain his calm. While the part of him that kept him from uttering as few oaths as possible urged him to remain quiet, he knew that he would have to devote himself to a side sooner or later. By doing so now, he had a chance of gaining important information, whereas he didn’t see much use in dragging this moment out for much longer. "I will fight for Kritiker… that I swear." With so few words, he’d set himself and his people on a path that could lead to their destruction. However, it was better than a path that would definitely lead to their destruction.

Crawford’s pleased smile was wiped away in seconds, replaced by a blank look as his eyes lost focus. Something was going on in his mind, a muddled mix of images and thoughts and emotions that caused Rufus pain even as he did his best to make sense out of everything.

There was the vision of an army trapped between lightness and dark, the two forces meeting… and then the light changing to darkness. Next came a glimpse of a short young man with long blond hair, a taller, older bound with shaggy black hair at his back as they faced down the Elders. Then the Takatori family crest bounded in black, a clear sign of mourning. A vision of a room lined with books, the air scented with cedar, old paper, lemon oil and leather, someplace that seemed so familiar to Rufus that his heart ached. A young woman’s face, her eyes golden and hair black, smiling as if she was looking at her true love. Another young man with pale brown hair and bronze eyes cutting wood in the middle of a clearing surrounded by trees, the dark-haired man and the young blond – now appearing a few years older – laughing with him as he swings the ax. Four young men walking through a snow storm, the tallest who had reddish hair cradling the brown-haired one in his arms while a blond with a very sour expression yelled at the youngest in their group. This time an image of two young men, Quatre and Wufei, patiently teaching a girl who looked oddly familiar to Rufus. Those were just some of the images that Rufus could make out among a sea of faces and flashes of blood and death.

Gasping from the vision’s assault, he did his best not to slump on top of the table. While he struggled to make sense out of what he’d just scene, he felt something hard and warm bump against the side of his right hand. It turned out to be Crawford pushing the goblet of mulled wine toward him.

"Drink."

For once, Rufus obeyed an order, struggling to even out his breathing so he didn’t choke on the wine. A few swallows helped to calm him down, and he felt Reno as a sleepy, curious presence in his mind.

<What happened? You feel… different.>

<I inadvertently shared a few visions with Crawford,> he explained, aware that Reno would keep pressing for the truth. The best way to keep his mate in bed and out of trouble was to give him what he wanted.

<Huh, odd.> Reno drifted back to sleep, too warm and drowsy to fight exhaustion’s pull for long.

Setting the now empty glass on the table, Rufus looked over at Crawford and found the precog to be perfectly composed. "Was that good or bad?" he asked, certain that the man knew what he meant.

"Good, I’d say." For a moment there was a hint of weariness in the precog’s voice. "The future seems to be improving."

"Nice to know," Rufus grunted as he combed his fingers through his hair. "Now that I’ve clearly chosen a side, is there anything else you want to tell me?"

"Not at this particular moment. Once the storm is over, then everyone will gather to discuss strategy and make plans." Crawford adjusted his glasses, the firelight dancing off of the lenses. "I’m sure you and the Spymaster will have much to talk about."

Rufus was sure of that, too. He’d need to figure out a way to keep his shift in alliance secret, as well as do his best to aid Kritiker without arousing the Elders suspicion. He would have a lot of work cut out for him in the next couple of years, certain to keep him busy until the war finally occurred. "You better not have misinterpreted any of those visions," he warned. If he found out that all of this was a trick or a mistake on Crawford’s part, he wouldn’t be amused.

"I’m afraid you’ll have to wait your turn at me if I’ve messed up." The prospect of infuriating many powerful bounds didn’t seem to disturb Crawford very much.

Deciding that he’d had enough of the precog’s presence, Rufus nodded once and rose from the table. "I hope for all of our sakes that you play the game half as well as you think you’re doing." He had no doubt that Crawford was pulling a myriad of strings, more than enough to tangle anyone who didn’t pay enough attention or grew over-confident.

That seemed to dampen the precog’s smugness, and his expression turned thoughtful as he nodded once but didn’t say anything. Taking that to mean the conversation was finished for now, Rufus went to seek out Tseng, who was currently reading in the library. He’d need to speak in private with his chief gokenin, and sent instructions for Rude and Elena to offer to help teach the Guard cadets. Their future was now entangled with the Shadow Guard, so Rufus was going to leave as little to chance as possible.

*******

Yohji was sprawled out on a comfortably padded chair in the attic library and reading a book on the use of succubae bound spies during the Binding War when the room’s door opened. He and Aya looked up from what they were reading to find Reno entering the room, a wry grin on his face.

"So, this is where you went to." The dubhach turned around in a slow circle as he took in the room’s furnishing. "I’m getting the impression that someone here likes books."

Yohji had to smile at the amused comment. "Wow, you have to be the smartest man I’ve ever met to figure that out." He was interested in seeing how Reno reacted to being teased, and his smile strengthened when Reno stuck out his tongue and wrinkled his nose.

"Never claimed to be the brightest, but I’m definitely not the dumbest." Reno chuckled for a moment as he made his way to the nearest bookshelf to pull free a book. "Ah, is this really a book on earth elementals?" He sounded a bit incredulous and looked directly at Aya, who appeared very pleased.

"This is a library filled with books on and about bounds. You can research our race’s history and how to use our talents," Aya explained as he shelved the book he’d been flipping through and went over to Reno. Yohji felt a twinge of jealous when he noticed how close his mate stood to the dubhach, but the emotion was soothed over the fact that Aya didn’t feel any physical attraction for Reno. No, it was almost like what Yohji felt when around a litter of puppies or kittens; a deep, yearning comfort to be surrounded by others who were the same. He had to admit the whole ‘pack’ mentality was rather strong between anything with a shinigami soul, and at least he could see and hear Reno.

"Rufus would give someone’s left arm for a crack at these books. He’s got a library like this of his own, but about half the size." Reno whistled softly as he put the book back and took out another one. "Got anything on dubhach?"

Aya frowned as he went to a nearby shelf and pulled out two books. "This is it. Your kind really are very rare." Yohji could feel some pain from his mate over their link and sorrow directed at Reno. "Sadly, they’re mostly descriptions of how previous dubhach have killed themselves. No one seemed to realize what they were until they were dead."

"Yeah, I’m the lucky one." For a moment Reno’s voice was thick with bitterness and pain, his expression so bleak that Yohji scrambled to sit up. He suddenly recalled Rufus yelling at him earlier that day, asking him if he knew what it felt like to find a lover in the middle of a suicide attempt. What he picked up from Reno just then was such a strong yearning mixed with something so cold and dark that he did his best to block out the dubhach. After experiencing that, Yohji had a little more understanding of what Rufus had to deal with.

Of course, Aya being Aya, he seemed to completely miss the moment and stared back and forth between Reno and Yohji in confusion. "So someone recognized what you were?" he asked, as always a curious cat. That helped to restore Yohji’s good mood, as did the fact that Reno seemed to snap back to normal.

Laughing softly, Reno held up the two books for a moment before returning them to Aya. "Reeve, who works for Rufus making and designing weapons, came across me one day while he was in town buying ore for swords." Reno shrugged and stepped backwards until he reached the room’s table, which he promptly sat upon. "I was picking pockets for a living and stumbled across him. He could sense all the metal coins I had on me, which I clearly shouldn’t have, and dragged me off for a meal." Reno scratched at the back of his head for a moment, his face twisting with confusion. Unlike Aya, he seemed to have no problem showing emotion… but Yohji got the impression that he was just as confused by it as Aya, and had difficulty grasping a lot of concepts that were natural to everyone else. "Still don’t know why he did that, because he didn’t recognize me as a dubhach until we got inside and I pushed back my cloak’s hood."

"Was he looking to hire you for ‘personal services’," Yohji asked, curious as to what type of person this Reeve was. Aya glared at him for the question, while Reno merely laughed.

"Nah, he’d freak if you even suggested that to him, picking up a kid for sex. He said I looked like I needed a meal and he didn’t want me to get into trouble by having to steal for one." Again there was a flash of confusion. "Anyway, he got a better look at me, and the next thing I knew, he had one of his friends in the city watching over me. Made sure I had a place to sleep and somewhere to go when I was hungry. A couple of years later, when I hit puberty and the changes kicked in, the friend pretty much worked my ass off to keep me out of trouble." He frowned as he spoke, his left hand rubbing along the inside of his scarred, right wrist. "When the friend couldn’t handle me anymore, Reeve took me to Rufus."

Yohji shuddered at the sight of all those scars, eerily similar to the ones that lined the inside of Aya’s arms. What made their presence even worse was the fact that Reno had done them to himself; what would have happened if someone had captured him and bled him? Would he have just laughed and goaded them to take too much blood in hopes of it killing him?

Feeling unsettled by those thoughts, Yohji rose from his chair to go embrace his mate. As much as the darkness inside of Aya worried him at times and it could get exasperating to explain simple concepts to his lover, he didn’t doubt that he was very lucky to be mated to a kage and not a dubhach.

Stroking his wrist a little longer, Reno stared at Aya and motioned to the pale bit of flesh left exposed by Aya’s sleeve. "So, you do that to yourself? I didn’t think your kind had a thing for your own death."

If he’d asked in a malicious manner, Yohji would have throttled the bastard, but Reno seemed merely curious. He’d told his story, now he was asking for Aya’s.

Aya took a deep breath and patted the arm that Yohji had wrapped around his upper chest. "The king’s older brother discovered what I was and had my parents killed so he could take me and my sister into his custody. He used her life and then soul against me to keep me obedient, and his son drained me of blood to use in spells." There was absolutely no emotion to Aya’s voice or expression, yet something made Reno give him a sympathetic look.

"I heard a bit about that – not the bloodletting, just that Reiji Takatori had a kage that he wanted to use against his brother, only for the kage to turn against him and die during the battle." Reno hissed out the words, sparks flying from his fingertips. "Rufus told me; he meant for it to be a warning on how I had to hide what I was, but I got pretty pissed off to hear about how you were used."

"And you don’t think you’re being used?" Aya asked, still hurting deep inside over talking about his past, but moving past the pain. Yohji kissed his lover on the left temple and held him tighter, proud on how Aya was dealing with that pain.

Reno’s face crumpled in confusion. "What the hell are you talking about?"

"Don’t you think that Rufus uses you?" Aya hissed as well, and Yohji thought he heard faint hisses all around the room as the shadows shifted about.

The confusion turned into anger as Reno held his hands up and slightly apart, more sparks arcing between his fingers. "I’m his fucking gokenin, of course he uses me. But he doesn’t bleed me at all, and he treats me like everyone else sworn to him." Reno glared at Aya, surprising Yohji a little since they’d gotten along so well until now. "He’s the man I’m sworn to, so I follow his orders." Quick as a flickering spark, Reno stopped glaring and appeared rueful instead of pissed off. "Well, mostly follow his orders. I won’t lie – he can be a bastard sometimes and a hell of a lot lately, but he doesn’t use me in the way you think. For one thing, Tseng and Reeve would give him too much shit if he treated me like that." After all the flaring emotions of the last several minutes, Reno seemed at ease and happy once more.

Yohji stared at the man for a few seconds, trying to figure out if it was act or not and having to go by his senses rather than his beliefs; Reno didn’t feel that he was being used at all, and mixed with exasperation, a little annoyance and a strong dose of possessiveness, Reno cared for Rufus. Yohji figured if there was one way sure to break up the new friendship, it would be if Aya insulted Rufus.

However, his mate must have come to the same realization since Aya sighed and patted Yohji’s arm again. "I had to be sure," he said, the response somewhat cryptic even to Yohji.

Laughing once more, Reno leaned back and stretched out on top of the table. "You’re okay, Aya." He then purred, the sound soft as he combed his fingers through his unruly hair. "I can look after myself, though. Bet you can, too." Turning his head to face them, Reno grinned and gave Yohji a wink. "Does Blondie give you any grief? ‘Don’t do that, it’ll break’, ‘you’re moving too fast, slow down’, ‘get your ass out of the sun’, ‘put the sharp thing down’." He wrinkled his nose to show what he thought about his mate’s concern.

Yohji laughed, part of it his own good mood and the rest from the amusement he felt from Aya. "I know I’ve yelled at him for the third one, and a time or two for the second."

Aya gently knocked his right elbow into Yohji’s ribs. "You have everyone after me for being out in the sun. Now we have to wait a few more hours for another snowball fight." He really enjoyed their battles, and Yohji knew that Aya was disappointed in being limited by his nature when it came to most things.

"Yeah, well, I need to borrow a cloak or something; I wouldn’t have been so tired if I could have kept my hood up, but no one could tell us apart that way." Reno smiled as he held up a shorter lock of hair before his eyes.


Yohji did find it very interesting how much alike the two men were physically; Aya’s hair might be the slightest bit darker, and Reno’s eyes were that striking mix of blue and green, but the differences in color weren’t noticeable from far away. Even Yohji had some difficulties telling them apart when they were both wrapped in similar black cloaks. "One of you should wear a collar with a bell," he joked as he tugged on Aya’s right eartail.

"Yotan, *enough* with the cat jokes," Aya hissed as he batted Yohji’s hand away, which made Yohji struggle not to laugh. That battle was lost when Reno sat up on the table, a thoughtful expression on his face as he stroked the fingers of his left hand over his neck.

"Huh. Rufus might actually go for something like that since he hates me sneaking up on him all the time." He tilted his head to the side as he seemed to consider the matter some more. "I mean, nothing too frilly but I’m sure we could agree on something. That should put him in a good mood for a while." Nodding once, he slinked off the table and gave Yohji a wink. "Thanks for the suggestion, Blondie. It might be enough to keep my ass from being locked up in a closet once we get back to the inn."

"The name’s Yohji," Yohji reminded the dubhach, some of his good mood vanishing at the thought of Reno being locked up by Rufus. "He won’t really do that to you, would he?" Despite the moments of jealousy, he found himself liking Reno and not wishing the crazy dubhach any harm; Reno seemed to share a similar personality with him, and there was the fact that Aya thought of Reno as a friend.

Reno waved his left hand about in lazy circles a few times. "Yohji, got it. And I’m not so much worried about Rufus as I am about Tseng." He chuckled for a moment, the sound more uneasy than amused. "He gets really pissed off whenever I vanish, and he can’t be happy that I got Elena in trouble yesterday. They may not be mates, but that won’t stop him from making sure I don’t have any fun for the foreseeable future unless Rufus intervenes."

"Ah, okay." Yohji could see Reno’s point when he recalled Tseng; the man did indeed appear to take his job very seriously and wasn’t someone to be messed with. "Good luck with that."

Reno waved his hand again and smiled. "I’ll see you two at dinner." He sauntered out of the room as easily as he’d entered it despite the fact that Aya had warded the doorway.

The room was quiet for a moment, then Aya began to growl as he turned in Yohji’s arms. "Yotan, do not even *think* about getting me a collar with a bell on it," he warned, his violet eyes flashing with anger.

"Aw, would I be that stupid?" Yohji asked, and snuck in a kiss before Aya could really answer that. He purred when he felt his lover’s fingers thread through his hair and the kiss be deepened, slowly growing ardent enough to make him stumble backwards to the chair. Falling onto it, he was quite happy when Aya curled up on his lap. "I would never do such a thing to you," he gasped when the kiss was finally broken off. He wouldn’t, either – though if Aya ever felt the need to buy his own collar, Yohji would certainly not complain.

"Good man," Aya crooned before he nuzzled Yohji’s left ear. Passion flowed over their link, passion and lust and love.

Hoping that no one felt the need to read a book on bounds any time soon, Yohji smiled as his hands slipped down the back of his mate’s pants. "I’m your man, and you’d never love an idiot," he murmured as he slowly massaged firm, smooth flesh.

It wasn’t a big surprise when Aya didn’t answer in words, not that Yohji minded. Nope, having his ear be nibbled on in the most delightful manner while Aya’s hips rocked against his was answer enough; he was indeed Aya’s man, so he couldn’t possibly be an idiot.

*******

"Reno, pull your hair back."

The anger in Rufus’ voice made Rude’s back straighten, even though he was basically standing at attention already. Over the rim of his tinted glasses, he caught sight of his best friend leaving the bedroom with his hair for once combed into order… but freely falling around his face. Reno hissed at Rufus as he used the back of his left hand to brush aside the strands falling into his eyes, much of his upper body cloaked behind the thick hair.

"I’m not working so what’s the big deal if I leave it down?" Reno asked, clearly not understanding how he looked at the moment with the unbound hair falling onto black and dark grey clothes. Even if most of the people downstairs wouldn’t see Reno’s exotic coloring because of the illusion, he was still a very attractive sight.

Rufus obviously thought that, too, and narrowed his eyes as he stepped closer to Reno. "Pull. It. Back." He was snarling as well, which never was a good sign since Rufus usually did his best to control his demon nature. Well, did his best until recently, but Rude and the others knew that it was the mating bond between their lord and Reno that caused Rufus to act abnormally.

Not wanting to have to stand here and watch another fight between the two stubborn men, Rude reached into the pouch at his waist and pulled out a silver clasp; Reno was always taking the things out of his hair and leaving them around, so Rude had to have at least three on him at all times from picking them up. He approached his friend and held it out, tilting his head forward enough so Reno could see his eyes.

Sighing in annoyance, Reno snatched at the clasp, his hand moving too fast to be seen. "Fine." He muttered something else under his breath while he pulled back his hair, the words almost too faint to be heard. "Bet Yohji doesn’t do this to Aya."

Rufus’ blue eyes narrowed again and Rude made sure to step away from the mates as quickly as possible, falling beside Elena. They watched as Rufus reached out to wrap his right hand around the back of Reno’s neck and pull him forward.

"Keep it up and I’ll order a gag as well as a collar."


Rude wasn’t quite sure what Rufus meant by that, but it seemed to put his lord back into a good mood, especially when Reno grinned and stepped forward. Rufus’ thumb caressed the front of Reno’s neck, moving slowly as the men kissed each other with enough passion that Rude had to look away.

After a few minutes, Tseng cleared his throat loudly enough that the sound echoed up and down the thankfully otherwise deserted hallway. "My lord, dinner should have started by now."

Moving with obvious reluctance, Rufus broke off the kiss and put a little distance between him and a dazed Reno. "Behave tonight, or I won’t get it for you."

Reno wrinkled his nose as he fell instep beside Rufus. "Oh, you’ll get it for me, and the bell will be silver. Wait, no, platinum, that way I won’t have to clean it all the time."

Whatever they were talking about, it had Rufus smiling and Reno appearing quite pleased with himself, so Rude was happy as well. The last few weeks around the two men had been very stressful, so it was a relief to see them not fighting with each other. While Rude felt some sympathy for his lord over the recent events, he believed that Rufus talking to other mated bounds was helping him to better understand the link with Reno. For the first time since they’d arrived in Eto, Rufus seemed at ease.

Rude shared a significant look with Tseng, who of course had been paying attention to the interaction between Rufus and Reno. Not for the first time, Rude wished that one of them was a soul gaki bound, but he understood what his fellow gokenin was trying to non-verbally say. Something was going on that he needed to know about, but whatever it was, Tseng wasn’t worried.


That helped Rude to relax a little more. The five of them were together so often, bound to Rufus and protective of Reno, that any turmoil amongst them would upset them all. Rufus was more than just a lord, and Rude knew that his fellow gokenin got away with more with Rufus than anyone else save Reeve. To have the peace restored amongst all of them again was very gratifying.

The main room was a lot more crowded than last night; not only were the inn’s staff and the Guards all present, but it seemed all the bound guests were here as well. The Shadow Guard candidates were gathered at one of the tables, laughing with each other as they ate and drank, forming the bounds that they would need to watch each other’s backs over the years. Therese, sitting next to Nicole, caught Rude’s attention and gave him a slow smile full of much promise. The wind elemental was a tall, willowy woman with long, light brown hair and dark brown eyes; Reno would probably give Rude grief about chasing after a woman who didn’t possess a ‘huge’ chest, but Rude didn’t rate breast-size as the most important criteria in women. No, Therese came across as intelligent, fun and not in the mood for a long-term relationship, which suited Rude perfectly right now. All that he needed was some time off in a few days so he could spend it with the woman.

He wasn’t surprised when Reno noticed his attention wandering in Therese’s direction and gave him a pleased grin. Reno even held his left thumb up in approval before sitting in the empty spot directly across from Aya. Rufus hesitated a moment before sitting beside the redhead, leaving Rude, Tseng and Elena to find seats of their own close enough to watch over their lord. While Reno was right beside Rufus and there seemed to be no danger at the Koneko, Rude wasn’t going to relax his guard while there were so many strangers about. From the looks of it, neither were Tseng and Elena.

They sat at a table that was two long ones pushed together, crammed with laughing and chatting bounds and humans. Rude was still amazed at how the two races got along so well: the way Miko merely laughed in the face of Ken’s sharp fangs and loud growls, how all the bounds seemed to cringe a little when Jo yelled at them about their manners. Rude interacted with quite a few humans while working for Rufus, but those who knew about his true nature always kept a bit of distance from him. Here, he had a young man dressed in Harper red sitting beside him and handing over a pitcher of mulled cider with a cheerful smile.

"I’m glad you can join us. In case you’ve had too many names tossed at you in the past day, I’m Koyu." He had one of the loveliest tenor voices that Rude had ever heard, and Rude recognized the man with the long, dark hair who was currently hanging on Koyu’s right shoulder as Teddy.

"Are you really a Harper?"

Koyu’s smile became wider while Teddy sniggered and pressed his face against Koyu’s shoulder. "Indeed I am. Just a journeyman at the time being, even if I’ve been assigned to the Koneko. I plan on playing after dinner if you still need some reassuring."

Rude smiled a little when he heard that. He’d listened to a Kritiker Harper play a few times in his life, and wished that the musicians were allowed in Esset. There weren’t many more pleasant ways to spend an evening than enjoying good food and drink with friends while great music was played and there was an opportunity to dance.

On his other side was a young woman who looked still in her teens with long brown hair and a pretty smile. She accepted the pitcher of cider from him and nodded in thanks. "I’m Ani." For some reason she smelled familiar.

"Rude," he said with a slight inclination of the head.

"Ah, the one who helped with the sidewalks and paths." Ani’s smile became even friendlier and she handed him a basket of soft, warm bread. "I’m part of the Koneko’s staff and spent the day changing linens, so we didn’t get much of a chance to meet."

That helped Rude to recall that he’d smelled her faintly in his room when he’d gone back before dinner, most likely to change his sheets and give him clean towels. He hadn’t really had a chance to remember the names of all the staff last night while he’d done his best to talk to Yohji, Crawford and the Guard Yuushi, and had spent most of today either outside or helping the cadets train. "What’s for dinner?" he asked, unsure of if he was expected to sit here and make idle chit-chat.

"Roasted pork and shepherd’s pie." Ani motioned down the table to where Nagi was sitting, as always with Omi by his side. "Since Nagi returned, Jo’s been making it often for him. I think it’s so Omi can learn the recipe." She laughed at the comment and next handed Rude some butter.

The younger earth elemental looked happy, a slight smile on his face as he leaned against the other teenager. Rude watched him for a minute, mindful to not make it seem like he was challenging the younger bound. Nagi had a slight advantage in power over him, but their talents were different enough that it would be interesting if they did truly try to fight each other. That didn’t seem likely to happen now, though, since Rufus would be allying himself with Nagi and his friends.

Back in Berin, Rude hadn’t run into Nagi at all in the palace, though he’d heard about the boy and the rumors that Nagi was Crawford’s son. However, Rude had been around Schuldig and Masato enough to be wary of the two men. He was still trying to adjust to the fact that they were mated to each other, though it made sense when one considered Trowa’s past. Rude always wondered how Masato had gotten around the water elemental’s strong aversion to being touched, and guessed that Trowa hadn’t much to fear from someone mated to another person. Rude had to commend whoever came up with that plan… and hoped that something similar wouldn’t be needed to keep Rufus and Reno’s bond a secret.

That thought made him wince and take a large gulp of his cider. Oh no, Reno would have too much fun flirting with someone else, which would drive Rufus over the edge. There was also the fact that Reno had always been a bit territorial of their lord and would be just as jealous of anyone pretending to be Rufus’ lover. No, that was the absolutely last thing they needed, and Rude hoped that they wouldn’t be back in Berin any time soon. They should be able to protect their lord from any of the Elders’ spies while here.

Speaking of his lord, Rufus appeared to be in deep discussion already, and the main course hadn’t even been served. He was talking to Yuushi, Reiichi and Yohji about something, a slight frown on his face that usually meant he wasn’t angry but focused on the matter at hand. Beside him, Reno leaned over the table to talk to Aya, Schuldig and Masato. Since Reno had basically been stuck in their quarters while at Berin, he hadn’t been on the receiving end of some of Schuldig’s ‘pranks’ and so didn’t have any grudges against the soul gaki bound other than him slapping Rufus last night. Rude winced again, this time over the fact that Reno and Schuldig seemed to be hitting it off rather well despite that fact… and that Masato was distinctly nervous about something.

Meanwhile, Tseng was talking with Crawford and Jo, in between glances in Rufus’ direction. He stared at Rude for a moment, his calm expression letting Rude know that he wasn’t concerned about anything going on in the large room.

That helped Rude to relax a little more and gave him hope that perhaps he’d be able to ask Therese for a dance tonight. Now all he had to do was wait for some real food to arrive and the night would be off to a great start. Just when Marta had called his name, the scent of something very delicious reached his nose.

"Would you believe I got put to work? Like asking the fox to guard the damn henhouse."

Wondering if he’d cursed himself, Rude looked up to see Jei set a very large platter of roast pork and vegetables down in front of him and then sit in the spot across the table and next to Marta. The flesh gaki bound grinned, lips pulling back to show almost all of his sharp teeth.

Ani, Koyu and Teddy didn’t seem bothered by the display, and neither did Marta. While Rude didn’t have anything against the man, other than believing him to be a loyal lackey to the Elders for the last decade or so, he was still cautious around the bound. The last thing they needed was for Jei and Tseng to get into a fight since both of them were about the same strength.

"I thought you were supposed to be full," Rude commented as he forked several large chunks of juicy pork onto his plate, followed by potatoes, carrots and sauerkraut.

Jei’s smile grew a little wider. "Oh yes. Doesn’t matter how bad the weather is, there’s always someone tasty out looking for a victim in some parts of this city."

Ani wrinkled her nose and quickly dropped the fork she was using to put some pork onto her plate. "Ew, thanks, Jei. Not an image I want right now." She wrinkled her nose and settled on picking several vegetables instead.

"Yes, this is not the time or place for this discussion," Marta chided, her appetite not appearing to be affected any by the mention of a human being turned into dinner. Then again, she was a bound. Koyu only picked a few pieces of meat, while Teddy also seemed unaffected. At Rude’s curious look, the long-haired man shrugged and gave him an impish grin.

"I’ve seen Jei and Ken chow down so I guess I’m used to it."

Rude doubted the young man had seen them eat another human, but he guessed seeing them gnaw on raw meat and bones would inure a person to their true nature. "How’s the weather?" he asked after taking a bite of the delicious pork.

"I think the snow’s finally stopping." Jei’s grin faded and he poured himself some mulled cider. "No one’s going anywhere for at least another day since not even the main roads are completely plowed. I stopped by to visit some friends while I was out and dropped off a few supplies." Rude knew that a bound wouldn’t have as much trouble in the storm as humans, but since he and the others were supposed to be human, they’d have to stay at the Koneko a bit longer.

Marta motioned for the butter near Rude and gave him a polite smile when he passed it to her. "How is Trowa? I’d have gone with you, but there’s not much I can do for his condition right now." At Rude’s curious expression, Marta gave him an assessing look and smiled. "He spent too much energy on downgrading the blizzard enough so we weren’t snowed in for the next month." Her expression turned into one of anger and disgust, and Rude knew it wasn’t directed at Trowa.

As two bounds tied to the energy of the earth, they had a strong inkling of the impact of changing natural weather patterns. Marta was a better healer than Rude, his talent of a more offensive nature although he could speed up the time it took to recover from injuries and give another person some energy. They got the energy they manipulated from the ground and were very aware of seasonal fluctuations and the such. The amount of snow outside meant that a massive volume of water had to come from somewhere, and wind patterns had to have been shifted to dump it all *here*. That meant that there would be serious repercussions come spring, and this storm wasn’t the first time that Esset had meddled with the weather lately.

Taking all of that into account, as well as the fact that Rufus had allied himself with the bounds gathered in this room and that Rude didn’t want his kind to suffer needlessly, he stared directly at Marta, his glasses pushed down his nose to reveal his eyes. "All the powerful water elemental bounds had best get out of Esset." He spoke the words quietly and didn’t glance down the table to where Marta’s daughter was chatting with Neely and Maddox.

Marta’s jaw clenched and Jei stopped drinking his cider. Both bounds stared intently at him for several seconds, their eyes not blinking once, before moving. Jei set his mug down and reached for the pitcher to refill it and Rude’s as well while Marta cut up the pork on her plate into small pieces. "We’ve already warned those who can heal to leave the country, it won’t be too much more effort to warn the water elementals as well," she said, a slight growl in her voice.

Jei snorted as he raised his mug as in a toast. "Crawford cut it pretty damn fine, getting Trowa out of there. I knew he didn’t want him here just to work for Birman, not when we nearly froze our nuts off on the ride from Berin."

"Why is it so important that the water elementals leave the country?" Koyu asked, startling Rude with the question. He had to be better on his guard about the fact that there were so many humans around him; the way that Marta and the other bounds here spoke so openly about bound matters in front of them numbed Rude to their presence.

"Because I’ll bet you anything you want that the water for all this snow came from Esset, and that means that the rivers, lakes and springs will be seriously depleted," Marta explained. "They’ll need water elementals to draw some up from the ground, which isn’t as easy as it sounds."

Ani shifted beside Rude, her left hand wrapped around the end of her long ponytail. "Why don’t they just have it snow or rain a lot in Esset?"

"There’s a pattern to weather, sweetheart." Marta sighed and cast a hopeful look at Rude, who merely shrugged and didn’t say anything. He doubted that he could explain it better than she already was, though Elena might be able to help. "Wind currents move in certain directions and while an air elemental can shift them somewhat, they won’t be able to completely reverse them, and certainly not over anything larger than a battlefield or city. Those currents flow over Esset into Kritiker, so that’s why it’s easy to make Kritiker suffer bad rain or snow storms."

"What it comes down to is that those old bastards in Berin don’t care that they’re hurting their own country when they should know better. Part of what kept Esset so busy after the last war was recovering from the droughts created by messing with the weather." Jei’s claws flexed and scraped against the ceramic mug in his right hand. "They probably think it won’t matter as long as they win this time." He looked directly at Rude as he spoke those words.

"They won’t." Rude didn’t say anything else, but how he spoke seemed to convince Marta and Jei that he wasn’t on Esset’s side any longer. He was Rufus’ gokenin, sworn to his lord for almost two decades, and would follow him anywhere. That Rufus seemed to have finally picked the right side in the war only made it easier to do his duty.

"No, they won’t, but they’ll do a lot of damage before they lose." Jei sighed and slumped forward, his head supported by the heel of his left hand. "So, what do you do when you’re off duty, Rude?"

Grateful for the change in topic, Rude seriously considered the question. Normally he hung out with Reno, but he was willing to bet that wouldn’t be happening much now that his best friend was mates with his lord. "Downtime’s for enjoying oneself," was all he said before he had more of his meal.

Jei smiled again, and somehow, a mouthful of very sharp fangs didn’t seem threatening. "Now there’s an attitude I can respect. I’ve a mind to show you around Eto’s bars."

Rude nodded in agreement, perfectly willing to spend the night drinking in another bound’s presence. Besides, he could keep an eye on Jei and to some extent Crawford that way for Rufus. That he’d be enjoying himself at the same time was merely an added bonus.

*******

Ed moaned faintly when Roy’s hand skimmed along his stomach, his mate pressed against his back firmly enough that he could feel Roy’s erection. "Aren’t you supposed to be old?" he asked, the mock disdain in his voice ruined by the way his breath hitched in pleasure.

Roy’s chuckle was full of darkness, amusement and desire, so decadent that Ed’s cheeks burned the slightest bit. "I can’t wait until you’re almost fifty years old, then I can tease the hell out of you for being so ‘old’. Most bounds still consider me to be quite young, I’ll have you know," he purred.

Ed did know that, but it was too amusing to rib his lover over their age differences. Most of the time, it meant that Roy would prove to him just how ‘young’ he could be, which Ed never really minded. Well, he didn’t mind as long as poor Al wasn’t around, that was. That thought led him to think it was a very good thing that Al was staying with the Rockbells during the storm to make sure that they were all right. His brother’s choice saddened Ed a little, dampening the good mood as he tried once more to understand why Al was doing something that would only hurt him so much in the end.

Warm lips brushed along his left shoulder, pausing so Roy’s fingers could push aside Ed’s long hair before moving closer to his neck. "You’re worrying about something. It’s Al, right? He should be fine and is probably busy working in the forge right now." Soothing emotion flowed over the link; between that and feel of Roy’s lips on Ed’s neck, it helped him to slowly relax.

"I’m not worried about him," Ed lied as he reached back to slide his fingers through Roy’s thick hair. Oh, he knew that Al wasn’t in any danger at the Rockbells’ home, not from the storm at least. He just wished he could make Al see the heartache that lay in store for him a few decades down the road.

Roy didn’t say anything else, even though he could sense Ed’s emotions. Instead, he nuzzled Ed’s neck and slid his hand down Ed’s abdomen. Those two things made Ed suck in his breath as pleasure rushed through his body, back and forth between his groin and neck like an electric current. His nerves tingled and his limbs grew heavy from languorous desire.

"Gonna… think you’re a… succubae bound," he gasped and tugged on the strands of Roy’s hair, crying out when his mate’s teeth grazed along the side of his neck. Lying on his right side, he hooked his left leg back to entangle with Roy’s and draw the bastard closer. "You act as… as if you’re feeding from me." It was growing difficult to think, let alone speak. For someone who prided himself on his mental acuity, Ed was growing to crave these moments when Roy could reduce him to pure emotion.

There was another of those dark, decadent chuckles, just as the fingers of Roy’s left hand tugged on Ed’s pubic hair. "Feeding? No. Enjoying the fact that I’ve you alone in the house that we won’t be able to leave for at least another day? Hell yes." Once again his teeth scraped along Ed’s neck, leaving him to feel as if his body melted from the ecstasy.

He should probably make some comment that as the teenager in this relationship, *he* should be the one pressing for so much sex, not Roy, but he was all too happy with where this was going right now. They’d spent the day in bed, alternating naps with some reading and sex in no particular order. Ed was beginning to feel that something wasn’t right when Roy wasn’t pressed against him, filling him and fucking him and pouring so much desire and pleasure over the link that he felt overwhelmed by the emotion. Whining softly, he tugged on Roy’s hair again and wiggled his ass in impatience. Dammit, Roy needed to fuck him *now*.

Roy’s chuckle was so garbled by a pleased purr that it took Ed a moment to realize what it was. "Ah, the impatience of youth," Roy said, and only then did it dawn on Ed that he’d spoken that last thought aloud. However, the fact that he felt Roy shift behind him, his mate’s cock rubbing against his ass in a most promising manner, made the embarrassment fade away. "Remember that you wanted this." Roy sounded so damn pleased just then, his purr growing louder as he slowly pushed inside of Ed.

Still stretched and slick from before, Ed hissed slightly and his head lolled backward at the feel of increased friction and the return of that ‘full’ sensation. Not that he had any experience with lovers other than Roy, but Roy’s cock seemed almost too much for him and just right. Ed enjoyed the slight burn from being entered, the way his body seemed pushed to its limits and how Roy’s long arms would wrap around him. He was enveloped and invaded at the same time, filled with the sense of security and desire. And that was before Roy fucking moved and the fun really started.

"Dammit, Roy." Ed struggled to breathe as his lover only gave him a few seconds to adjust to things before moving, Roy’s motions languid yet not lacking in force. Between Roy’s mouth on his neck, nibbling and sucking on already bruised skin, and Roy’s cock just glancing against that special spot inside of him, Ed felt like a tangled, sizzling bundle of nerves. Each thrust, each scrape of lips and teeth, each stroke of rough fingertips along his lower belly only added to the pleasure until it was as if Roy was searing him with his talent. "Roy…." The name came out in a long sigh, fraught with need and some other heavy, serious emotion.

For once, his lover chose not to torment him. Roy did something, shifted his hips a little and there were no more glancing thrusts that made him feel as if the pleasure was slipping through his grasping fingers. No, now it exploded inside of him, bursting even stronger when Roy’s hand wrapped around his cock. Ed gasped out his mate’s name, fingers scrambling along Roy’s upper thigh and against the sheet-covered mattress as his nerves no longer tingled with ecstasy but *burned* with it. Twisting as much as he could with Roy so deep inside of him, Ed couldn’t do anything but be carried away by so much potent emotion, let yet another orgasm immolate him with bliss.

Despite his own searing emotions, he could sense Roy’s pride and pleasure, the sharp, warm affection that made him feel oddly safe and cherished. He’d just about caught his breath when the bastard came as well, swamping him with ecstasy again, even if it wasn’t his own.

Each time they had sex today, it seemed to take a little longer to fully regain their senses, to unravel their emotions from each other’s. Ed swore that he wouldn’t be able to move from the bed any time soon, wore out by his pervert of a mate, and thanked the gods that Roy was a fire elemental since he couldn’t hear any crackling of burning wood from the fireplace. "I can’t believe I’m stuck with you," he mumbled as he pressed his face against the soft mattress, his neck sore from what had to be some rather impressive bite marks, he was betting.

There was no chuckle this time, but Roy’s amusement flowed over the link. "Perhaps you can talk to Aya and Cassandra about having another ‘chat’ with my asshole brother." His voice still contained a hint of a purr and he seemed to be over the majority of his anger with Crawford. At least that made one of them….

Ed snorted and dragged Roy’s left arm further over his shoulder. According to what Izumi had taught him, he and Roy would have become mates eventually since it was clear they were meant for each other; all Crawford had done was sped up the time of their initial meeting. Ed was finally accepting that Roy was a very huge, highly important part of his life to the point where he couldn’t even imagine what it would be like to not be mates. There were no more fantasies of him growing up unattached to an arrogant, perverted bastard, able to date other people and do whatever he wanted. No, Roy was as entangled in his life as much as Al was… even more so, Ed admitted to himself with growing sadness. Al was slowly yet surely moving away from him, while Roy was the one holding him close.

"Should I take it as a blow to my pride that you’re not terribly happy after all of that?" Roy asked as he nuzzled Ed’s temple, full of concern.

How did you ask someone to never go away? Ed had lost his mother so long ago, and then Izumi after that. Now he was losing Al, the only family he had left since he didn’t count the prick who’d fathered him as a relative. The thought of Roy going away, too, made his heart ache and eyes fill with tears.

"Ed?" Now Roy was worried as well, his emotions so strong that Ed closed his eyes and just drifted in them for a few seconds.

"I don’t care if you’re old, a pervert and think that you’ve the right to boss me around, but don’t you ever leave, Mustang," he growled as he hugged Roy’s arm tighter around his chest. "You made me your mate, so you’re stuck with me now."

Roy was actually quiet for a moment, his emotions slightly muffled before blazing across their link. "I consider it my solemn duty given by the gods to make sure that you don’t inflict yourself on some other poor, hapless soul," Roy said as he pulled Ed closer. "I should be a king in my next reincarnation for putting up with you until we both die."

"Bastard." Ed sniffed, the prickling in his eyes slowly going away. "You’re just looking forward to having someone to do force your perversions on, and starve them on top of that." He waited for his stomach to rumble before continuing. "Can’t have sex if I’m passed out you know." While Roy hadn’t formally sworn anything, Ed had felt his lover’s sincerity and honesty, and now wanted to move past his moment of weakness.

This time, Roy’s chuckle was pure perversion. "Of course we can, you just won’t remember any of it," he teased while nipping lightly at Ed’s left ear.

"*I’m gonna be the one born a king in his next life, while you’re just gonna be a… a damn *flea* or something for what you put me through!" Ed yelled as he rolled over and sat up so he could glare down at his mate. "You’re… you’re…."

"’An old pervert’. Yes, yes, we’ve been over that before." Roy merely turned until he was lying on his back and smirked at Ed.

"I’m thinking I need something worse than ‘pervert’ to call you." Ed crossed his arms over his chest and tried to think of something impressive and insulting enough. "Hmm… degenerate, sadist, hedonist-"

In a flash of motion, Roy was sitting up too and pressed a kiss against Ed’s lips. "I like that last one." He gave Ed a smoldering look as he tossed back the covers and moved from the bed. "And you do, too."

"Bastard," Ed muttered, stung by the truth. He felt a small thrill in watching his naked lover cross the room to where their robes were tossed onto a chair, and easily caught his garment when Roy threw it toward the bed. "What are you doing now?"

"Since it’s more fun having sex with you when you’re awake, I guess I’ll go make us some dinner." Roy’s grin right then was so smug that Ed’s right hand itched to smack it away. Then the words sunk into Ed’s head, and the next thing he knew, he was off the bed and pulling on his robe as he stalked after his mate to give him a peace of his mind. Oh hell yes, the gods definitely owed him a really good reincarnation for putting up with this shit.

*******

Noting the way that Trowa’s eyes seemed unable to focus, Duo sighed and gently rubbed the wet, soapy washcloth along his friend’s shoulders. This should be the worst of it, he thought, Trowa’s lack of energy and the cold working together to render his friend almost catatonic with exhaustion. As long as Duo made sure that Trowa ate and drank enough to replenish the expended energy, then hopefully Trowa would wake up feeling better tomorrow. Right now, he sat in the tub with his eyes half-closed, meekly allowing Duo to wash him clean.

Kneeling beside the tub, Duo dropped the washcloth and caught a lock of Trowa’s hair before it fell into the soapy water. He’d washed it first and didn’t seem to have much luck securing the wet strands in a bun to keep it free of soap. Cursing under his breath, he pulled free the makeshift hair stick to redo the bun, hoping that it stayed put this time. As this went on, he couldn’t help but notice the way Trowa sighed in what sounded to be pleasure as his hair was fussed with.

Once the bun was in place, Duo trailed his fingers along his friend’s hairline, watching the way that Trowa’s eyes drifted shut and Trowa’s lips parted slightly. Duo would give anything to be able to sense the water elemental’s emotions just then, but he *swore* that Trowa enjoyed his touch. Perhaps it was the delirium from being so sick, but Trowa had been worn down before and never accepted anyone touching him.

"Duo."

The hushed sound of his name being uttered made Duo jump in guilt, his gaze immediately drawn to Trowa’s eyes to gauge just how much his friend was aware of what was going on. Trowa still seemed pretty out of it, and he hoped to the gods that the bound wouldn’t remember any of this.

"Hey, you awake enough to finish up?" Duo asked with a nervous laugh as he draped the wet washcloth over Trowa’s floating right hand. There was no way he was going below a certain point on his friend’s chest or above his legs, so Trowa would have to clean there; he felt bad enough touching Trowa so intimately and didn’t want to risk causing his friend any pain.

Trowa moved his head a little so he could stare at the scrap of cloth. "I’m taking a bath?"

Duo smiled at the confusion in his friend’s voice. "Yeah, Trowa. You were pretty sweaty and congested, so I thought a soak might do you some good." He’d explained this twice already, and Trowa didn’t seem to remember either time – nor did he seem too upset about the circumstances.

"The water’s soapy." Trowa moved his hand to make the water lap along the sides of the tub.

"Yeah, because it was too much effort to scrub you clean before putting you in there." Besides, there was only so much Duo could take of seeing Trowa naked right now. Not that it was driving him crazy with desire, but the sight of the scars around Trowa’s wrists, the scattered, flushed lines of skin that indicated where Trowa had been cut or whipped was enough to threaten Duo’s hold on his demon nature. The scars weren’t really that numerous, but there were enough to show that Trowa had fought back against his abusers and suffered for it. Duo wished they were still alive so he could burn them to ash an inch at a time.

He wasn’t used to feeling this way. Solo was the only person he’d ever been concerned about before, willing to kill for or effectively sell his soul to save. Yet what Trowa made him feel was so much stronger, was so heady and unnerving yet reassuring at the same time…. What he wanted most to do right now was wrap his arms around Trowa, hold him close and press a kiss against those slightly parted lips, to move downward until he could feel Trowa’s pulse beat beneath his mouth.

Oh fuck, he desperately needed a cold soak right now, and that wasn’t happening since Trowa was currently in the tub. Duo closed his eyes and took deep breaths while his friend splashed about in the water, trying to figure out why the hell Trowa was affecting him like this. Was it because he’d seen a side of Trowa that he doubted few had before? Or the way that it was clear that Trowa trusted him? Perhaps because it seemed that Trowa wasn’t afraid of or repulsed by his touch? Which would mean that-

"Not going there," Duo muttered as he gave a harsh yank on his braid. Trowa glanced up from the water to give him a puzzled, slightly out of focus look. "Not you," Duo sighed and reached out to tuck back a lock of hair he’d missed that was falling onto Trowa’s lovely eyes.

"I think… I’m clean." Trowa sounded so tired just saying the words, but his voice wasn’t as congested as it had been before. The hot water and steam had obviously done him some good, and maybe after another pot of tea and a night’s rest, he’d wake up fully aware of what was going on. Then Duo wouldn’t be able to hold him close at night, to so easily brush back his hair or kiss him on the forehead, but it would be worth it. This really wasn’t Trowa right now, and Duo wasn’t going to settle for anything less than his friend’s true self. No, Trowa needed to be aware when he touched him, to be able to give him that cool, aloof look of his and then a shy smile. Then Duo could sidle closer and do a hell of a lot more than fleeting touches and stolen kisses.

It wasn’t until he had Trowa out of the tub, dried off with his talent and tucked back into bed that those thoughts sunk in and he realized just how fucked he truly was. If Jei didn’t kill him for his new, undeniable feelings, then Trowa certainly would.

*******