Darkness Returns

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chapter fourteen

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revelations and departures

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Maddox did his best to not seem to be eavesdropping while he washed the dishes. He’d been alone in the kitchen cleaning up from breakfast when Aya, Yohji and Reno had entered, intent on enjoying more coffee, tea and cinnamon rolls. Yohji had even offered to help with the cleaning, but it was Maddox’s responsibility for the day so he’d told the man to sit down with his lover and friend. Now they were talking as they enjoyed their snacks, and Maddox was learning things that would probably have Jo chasing the men around the room with a butcher’s knife.

"So, is it true what they say about you succubae bounds, eh?" Reno asked, his voice shaking with laughter. That question made Maddox glance over his shoulder to find the man leaning over the table, his head propped up by his right hand and his reddish-brown hair spilling onto the wooden surface. There was a sultry smile on his lips and his eyes were heavy-lidded; Maddox felt his cheeks grow warm and quickly turned around. Something about Reno always caught his attention and affected him, not like Yohji did but… he gave up on trying to figure it out and focused on Yohji’s laugh as a distraction.

"What?" Yohji laughed at the question for a few more seconds. "You’re going to have to narrow it down, Reno."

"Oh, don’t play dumb with me. You know, that you guys can get it up right again after you come." Maddox almost dropped the last of the plates as it was on its way to the drying rack.

Yohji laughed again; this time, the sound wasn’t one of amusement but something that made shivers of desire run up and down Maddox’s spine. He pulled the plug on the sink’s drained and turned around to watch the three men again.

"It’s not instant *boing*," Yohji said, his right forefinger lifting as he made the sound effect. "But yeah, there’s not a big wait for round two." He chuckled, the sound even more pleased and wanton than the previous laugh, and leaned over to nuzzle Aya’s neck. "Or three or four…. Ow." He pulled back, a pout on his face as he rubbed his right side, which had just been nailed by Aya’s elbow.

Reno laughed over their antics while Maddox did his best to find something to do that would allow him to listen to the conversation and explain why his cheeks were so red. He settled for chopping up the vegetables for the mutton stew at a table near the fire.

"And your thoughts on the matter, Aya?" Reno gave the redhead a suggestive leer before slurping his coffee.

Maddox didn’t think that Aya was going to say anything, then Aya smiled and brushed back the hair falling onto his forehead. "Now that he’s learned to not drain me too much, he’s an… adequate lover." His smile instantly faded when Yohji yanked on his left eartail. "Yotan!"

"Hmph, I’m damn more better than ‘adequate’, Cat." Yohji waggled his brows at his lover until Aya sighed and nodded. "From what Schu’s told me, you should get much of the same benefit," he said to Reno as he draped his arm around Aya’s shoulders and pulled him closer.

"Eh?" Reno blinked for several seconds, appearing so much as if he’d just gotten out of bed, complete with tousled hair, that he should still be wearing pajamas. "Oh, yeah, the feeding part and ‘boing’ fun." He straightened up on the bench, a wicked grin on his face and mug of coffee cupped between his hands. "Rufus gets it up faster than anyone else I’ve slept with, though none of them were succubae bounds." He frowned for a few seconds, his eyes going flat and as emotionless as pieces of glass. Then he shivered a little and once more seemed amused and happy. "Guess I tend to forget that he feeds off my emotions during sex. I’m not going to complain too much since we can have a lot of fun on his lunch break."

Yohji picked up the carafe and refilled his and Reno’s mugs while Maddox used the lull in conversation to break up some cloves of garlic with the flat of the knife’s blade. He had a lot of vegetables to prepare, but he didn’t want to miss anything. No wonder Aya was so tired some mornings if Yohji had no problem ‘getting it up’ again and again….

He thought that Yohji flashed a smug grin in his direction, but when he looked at the blond to see if he’d imagined things, Yohji was once more smiling at Reno. "He actually takes time away from work to have sex? I’m impressed. He seems much too uptight to have fun during business hours."

Reno stuck out his tongue while he added two cubes of sugar to his coffee. "I never said it was easy, but I can usually manage it if there’s not a problem or something. I think it feeds into his alpha male mentality; he just loves to fuck me on his desk." From the sounds of it, Reno was pretty happy about it, too. The very pleased note in the man’s voice almost made Maddox chop off his left thumb.

"Ah, doesn’t he ever like being fucked on the desk?" Yohji asked, which prompted Aya to look up from his mug of tea and nudge his lover in the ribs. "What?"

Aya glanced around the room, his gaze lingering for a couple of seconds on Maddox. "Do the two of you actually have nothing better to talk about?"

"No." Yohji and Reno replied at the exact same time, looked at each other and laughed while Aya sighed and shook his head.

"Come on, Cat, it’s not only women who enjoy a bit of juicy gossip. One of the first things I discovered in the Guard was that a little salacious talk could make a boring as hell shift go by a lot faster. That, and it’s a good way to learn things."

Aya snorted as he reached for the pot of tea. "Such as what? You can get it up very quickly, as can Rufus who likes having sex in his office. I’ll make sure to write all that down for posterity’s sake. I’d hate to think of that information being lost to future generations." The amount of sarcasm in his voice shocked Maddox, who realized that he hadn’t been cutting anything for the last minute and quickly chopped off the end of a carrot.

Yohji looked as if he was trying not to laugh and managed a not very impressive glare in Reno’s direction. "You’re already being a very bad influence on him."

Reno stuck out his tongue. "Ha, he’s just learning from the best." He and Aya smiled at each other while Yohji groaned and pressed his face against Aya’s shoulder.

"In answer to your question, no, Rufus doesn’t like to get fucked on the desk." Some of Reno’s good mood seemed to fade away. "He doesn’t like to get fucked at all."

"Really?" Aya gently pushed Yohji off his shoulder and leaned against his mate instead. "He didn’t like it when you did it?" When Yohji rather unsuccessfully tried to smother a snort of laughter, Aya rolled his eyes and gave his lover another elbow to the ribs. "Behave, Yotan."

"Yeah, behave." Reno threw a sugar cube at Yohji, who was too busy chortling to catch it. "*No*, I didn’t do a lousy job of it like you’re implying; bastard won’t even give me a chance." Reno slumped forward and glared into his mug. "He’s always got to be in charge."

Maybe it was the bitterness in Reno’s voice, but something made Yohji and Aya share a look for several seconds, leaving Maddox to puzzle out just what. It seemed to him that the conversation was still all about sex, though he was sure that Reno’s boyfriend would not be happy to know he was the focus of it right now. No, not the blond highborn who seemed so cold and commanding all the time.

Yohji took a deep breath before speaking. "The two of you are mates. There’s no such thing as ‘the one in charge’."

"Right." Reno rolled his eyes as his fingers easily crumbled a sugar cube onto the tabletop. "He’s Lord Rufus Shinra, in case you haven’t forgotten. I swore to him as a gokenin long before we got stuck with being mates." His face appeared much like Aya’s did whenever the kage was upset, something that made Maddox shiver and focus on his chore for a minute or two rather than look at an utterly expressionless Reno. He was once again left wondering what exactly was a dubhach and how they were so similar to kage, but he didn’t want to bother the people who would know best with questions right now. No, he’d leave it to Emmie to find out for him, once Rufus and Reno returned home.

"But you’re mates *now*," Aya said, his voice made raspy by a snarl. "I’m willing to bet that the reason you fight so much is because there’s no balance in your relationship." He fell silent for a moment and turned to look at Yohji, his expression tender and full of so much love that Maddox had to look away once again. "Yohji and I had some trouble with it ourselves, and things got much better once we realized that we were equals and didn’t need to be protected all the time."

"Well, mostly realize." Yohji chuckled for a moment and set something onto the table, from the sounds of it his mug. "I get the impression that Rufus likes to boss you around because he wants you… safe."

Something in what Yohji said made Reno swear, and Maddox looked up from slicing the carrots in time to see the man move about the kitchen while snarling something indecipherable under his breath. Reno went to the stove and fiddled with the lids on various pots, turned the water on and off at the sink, stuck a finger in the rising dough and swiped a peeled carrot from right in front of Maddox before finally stopping by the hearth nearest Yohji and Aya. He leaned against the bricks while he ate the carrot and didn’t seem affected by the heat of the fire. Sparks filled the air around him, prompting Maddox to cry out and rush to see if a log had rolled free of the hearth or something.

"Maddox, don’t worry about it," Yohji called out, effectively stopping Maddox before he got more than a few feet from the table. "Go back to the vegetables." Yohji even winked at him, which proved that his friends did know that he was eavesdropping and didn’t seem to mind. Doing as he was told, Maddox began to put the peeled and chopped vegetables into a large bowl.

Reno continued to mumble to himself, his hands wrapped around his long ponytail and occasionally tugging on it. After a minute, he let out a deep breath and glared at his friends. "Rufus just likes bossing me around. He orders me to stay in the apartment all the time and won’t let me guard him. I’ve been his gokenin for longer than Elena, but she’s the one he’s always taking with him when he goes off to fuck with people’s minds!" he snapped, and once again there was a shower of sparks. It slowly dawned on Maddox that they weren’t from the fire, and he almost knocked the heavy, clay bowl onto the floor with his reaction.

"You told me that he doesn’t use you," Aya hissed, his attention focused so intently on Reno that Maddox wondered if he noticed anyone else in the room.

"He *doesn’t*." Reno gave his hair another harsh yank and threw his hands up in the air. "That’s the fucking problem, Aya. He *doesn’t* use me. I’ve barely been able to feed for the last few months because-"

"Okay, we get the point," Yohji said, cutting across whatever it was that Reno was going to say with a very loud, firm tone of voice. "And he shouldn’t be doing that."

Maddox would dearly love to know what it was that Yohji didn’t want him to hear after the sex talk from earlier, but wasn’t about to ask what. Reno looked his way before meeting Yohji’s eyes and shrugging. "No, he shouldn’t."

Pushing away from the fireplace, Reno returned to the table and flopped down on the bench, appearing either too boneless or exhausted to sit up properly. "Anyway, that’s normal for us, I guess."

"But it shouldn’t be." Aya reached out to trail his fingers along the length of Reno’s ponytail. "We’ve friends who are also mates and there’s a problem of an age difference." Aya ignored Yohji mumbling about Mustang not being his friend. "The fights between them got very bad because of them blocking their link and their refusal to treat each other as equals. Things are better now."

"Eh, I think Rufus and I are a special case." Reno tilted his head to the side and smiled at Aya. "Thanks for trying, but we’re both too fucked-up for a normal relationship."

"You must be, if you make me think that what Mustang and Ed have is ‘normal’," Yohji commented as he got up from the table to fetch the bottle of whiskey that Jo kept mostly hidden. As he walked past Maddox, he winked and held his right forefinger to his lips. Once back at the table, he filled the rest of Reno’s mug with the strong alcohol. "I foresee a very interesting future ahead for you two."

"That sounds like some sort of curse." Reno grabbed the bottle before Yohji could pull it away and made sure his mug was filled to the rim, the liquid threatening to spill over at any moment. He leaned over his mug to slurp from it without raising it off the table. "Ah, that’s damn good. Must be nice to live in a bar."

Yohji’s smile faltered for a moment. "It has its advantages." He set the bottle to the side and once again draped his right arm over Aya’s shoulders. "Hey, Maddox, are there any danishes left?"

"Ah, yes, Yohji!" Maddox stopped cleaning the table of peelings and ends to hurry over to where he’d put the remaining danishes from breakfast. "Just save a cheese one for Emmie, all right?" He’d promised it to her after she finished her studying for the day with Neely and Marta. Jo had declared that just because Emmie couldn’t get to her classes because of the weather, there was no reason for her fall behind on her lessons. He got the impression that it was very important that Emmie did well in school if she wanted to be a Guard, and was grateful that he’d finished shortly before coming to Eto. His reading comprehension was pretty good and he knew enough math to balance a budget, which was all he really needed to help run the Koneko’s kitchen.

Carrying the plate of treats to the table, Maddox was surprised when Yohji motioned for him to sit down as well. "Take a break, Maddox." Yohji smiled as he picked up a cherry danish and gave it to Aya. "It’s not often that the Koneko has a lull like this, and soon enough everyone will want lunch."

"Which is why I need to get started on the stew," Maddox pointed out, but he didn’t see anything wrong with enjoying a danish and a cup of coffee. Sitting beside Yohji, he felt very adult all of a sudden.

"Might want to stop listening to us bitch, then," Reno said, his tone a bit mocking. Maddox looked at the man to see if he was being insulted or if Reno was offended and couldn’t figure out the man’s expression. Reno stared back at him with no anger or malice – with no emotion at all in his eyes and a confused twist to his lips.

"I’m sorry," Maddox said and lowered his gaze, afraid he had offended Reno and his friends.

Reno picked up his mug and slurped the whiskey, coffee and sugar mixture. "Hey, it’s the best way to learn anything, in my experience." Now he sounded amused, which still didn’t match his odd expression. Maddox couldn’t quite figure him out, and it took him a moment to realize that Reno was scrutinizing him just as intently. "You really don’t care, do you?"

Maddox started at the question and looked to Yohji and Aya in hopes that they knew what it meant. "I’m sorry, but what don’t I care about?"

"Us." Reno twirled the fingers of his left hand about, indicating him, Yohji and Aya. "Shouldn’t you be shitting your pants or something, having a bit of coffee with three bounds? You break pretty easily, after all." His full upper lip bowed even more into a cruel smile.

"Reno." Aya’s voice was lower and deeper than usual, and the room lost some of its light and warmth.

While Maddox shivered in response to the growing darkness and Reno’s words, Reno shrugged and once again propped his chin onto his right hand. "Relax, I’m not gonna play with him. Just not used to a human who isn’t sworn to Rufus knowing what I am and not freaking out with me being so near." He seemed to think about something for a moment. "Well, even then they freak a bit."

Yohji patted Maddox on the back before tossing across the table the sugar cube that Reno had thrown at him earlier, which was caught with ease. "The ‘freaking out’ and ‘playing’ stuff wouldn’t have anything to do with you throwing knives at anyone?"

Reno hissed in annoyance and sat up, his nails scratching along the top of the table. "For fuck’s sake, I do it once and Rufus won’t stop bitching about it!" He let out a short, angry breath and snapped his teeth. "I didn’t stab her or anything! Just hit her with the hilts a few times since she was the perfect running target. And she was a bound, too!" He waved in Maddox’s direction. "Even if I’d messed up, she would have healed, but I didn’t. Rufus gets all pissy if there’s blood on the rugs." Reno folded his arms over his chest and – there was no other way to describe it - *pouted*. "The bastard yelled at me for over an hour about ‘playing nice’. I was, dammit. Even used the dull knives on her."

In his sixteen years of life, Maddox had realized that he was attracted to both boys and girls, defied his family to run away from home, discovered that his beloved uncle had married a bound, ended up in an inn filled with bounds, met a crown prince and a kage, and that wasn’t counting what had happened in the last few months. Since settling at the Koneko, he saw things on an almost daily basis that would have his family back home running away in terror or standing dazed in complete befuddlement. He knew he was young and that there was a lot more strange and wonderful things to discover, but he could honestly say he had not a single clue on how to react to what Reno had just said. Should he be amused, like Yohji seemed, disapproving as was Aya’s case, both or utterly terrified?

"You will *not* use the Koneko’s staff for target practice," Aya warned in the harshest tone that Maddox had heard him take with Reno yet. Then he flushed a little and dipped his head over his mug of tea. "Well, outside of snowball fights." That got a mostly smothered laugh from Yohji. "You’re not helping, Yotan."

"I’m sorry; I’m just imagining Reno using Teddy as target practice." Yohji snickered while Aya sighed and shook his head, his expression slowly growing thoughtful as if he was imagining the same thing, too. Maddox hid a smile behind his right hand, grateful for his friends’ defense – and even more grateful that he wasn’t Teddy.

Reno snorted loudly and finished off his drink before pushing the empty mug towards Yohji. "Don’t worry, Rufus made me promise not to do that again." He rubbed his left hand over his eyes, his pout intensifying. "I just don’t get it; he can spin lies around a person and manipulate the hell of them to get what he wants, and I’m given a ton of grief over a few bruises that’ll heal." He dropped his hand back onto the table and frowned, appearing so troubled that Maddox felt some sympathy for the odd man. "He makes things so complicated. Everyone does."

Aya nodded, his expression as troubled as his new friend’s. "I know. It’s… it’s all a bunch of games that they believe are really important. Too many people take the wrong things seriously and ignore what’s important." He turned to Yohji and gave his boyfriend a small, loving smile.

Yohji returned the smile and leaned over to give Aya a kiss on the temple. "Sorry, Cat, but there’s a lot of baggage that comes with a human soul."

The words made Reno inhale sharply, a look of pain and suffering on his face for a few seconds as he bit his bottom lip harshly enough to draw blood. When Yohji and Aya called out his name, he shook his head violently several times, sending a drop of blood flying through the air.

"It’s okay," he answered after wiping the blood from his lip to reveal healed flesh. His voice sounded hoarse and as filled with pain as his previous expression, although he managed a shaky smile now. "Just some truth to what Yohji said." That was all the explanation he gave, and as Yohji and Aya stared at him with concern, he looked directly at Maddox. "So, why aren’t you, a human, afraid of me?" He cocked his head to the side as he waited for an answer.

Maddox considered the question, shaken up by the gleam of silver in Reno’s eyes and the utter lack of emotion in his voice. It wasn’t often that he remembered that his friends were part demon, but right now, Reno made him acutely aware of that fact. "Because Yohji and Aya won’t let you hurt me," he said, admitting the simple truth.

The silver faded from Reno’s eyes as his smile returned. "Good answer, kid." He seemed back to his normal self, a slightly cruel smile on his face and his eyes gleaming with amusement. "And my mug’s still empty, Yohji; thought you worked in a fucking inn or something."

"Watch the language or Jo will introduce you to her marble rolling pin," Yohji warned as he filled Reno’s mug halfway with coffee and the rest with whiskey. "And I’m adding this to your bill, you lazy bastard."


Reno wrinkled his nose in response. "Rufus pays it in the end so why the hell not?"

"Jo’s going to smack the both of you with the rolling pin, and I’m just going to watch." Aya looked inside his pot of tea and pushed it toward Yohji. "While you’re in such a helpful mood, Yotan…."

Yohji’s eyes widened and he leaned back, as if in shock. "What, you think I’m here to cater to your every whim or something?"


"Yes." Aya’s smile left no doubt that he believed just that, and was rather smug over the fact.

"Smart man." Yohji grabbed hold of his lover and dragged Aya in close for a kiss passionate enough to make Maddox squirm in his seat and Reno clap and cheer. When the couple finally broke apart, Yohji gave a gentle tug on one of Aya’s eartails and got up from the table. "One pot of tea, coming right up."

"I’ll trade you mates any time you like, Aya."

"Go to hell, Reno, and don’t you dare listen to him, Aya!"

Laughing at the men’s banter, Maddox left the table as well and went back to preparing the stew. Somehow, he didn’t think a bunch of starving bounds would understand how there was no lunch because he was having too much fun listening to Reno and Yohji exchange insults.

*******

Reno quietly closed the bedroom door behind him and crept into the room. Rufus was sprawled out on the bed, eyes closed and brows furrowed by a slight frown. He must still be ‘talking’ to Reeve, which explained why their link was still blocked. Reno bared a flash of teeth as he made his way to the desk with the armful of folded clothes that Ani had mended for him and Rufus. As he left them on the furniture, he began to frown himself, not happy with the thought that soon they’d return to the Highborn’s Retreat, leaving behind Aya and a chance to be themselves. Rufus would probably do his best to order Reno to remain at the inn while he went out and kissed ass with a bunch of stuck-up lords.

The frustration that Reno felt made him growl softly and spin around, sparks filling the air as he fought the urge to destroy something. All he wanted was to do his job, to be able to spend the day at Rufus’ side and feel that he was worth something. Then he wanted to come back to the Koneko at night, talk to Aya and listen to Yohji and Schu torment Rufus, go home and have sex with his lover then start the day all over again.

He wasn’t stupid; he knew that a war was approaching and that Rufus was determined to take an active part in it, and that didn’t really bother him. But the point of war was that people died and were hurt, that things were lost and destroyed. Reno wanted to enjoy himself as much as possible before then, to relax and have sex and drink and all the other things that made life worth living. Because sooner or later - as long as they survived what was going to happen - life would be waiting for them to resume doing all those things. The war wouldn’t last forever, and Reno would rather focus on the good stuff than the bad. Well, something good about the war was that he’d get to kill a lot of people and never go hungry, but still….

Meanwhile, Rufus seemed to be obsessed with the war, in making alliances and fucking people over and forging enough swords to make the Shinra family disgustingly wealthy for all time…. That shit was so boring that Reno wanted to go over to the bed and shake some sense into his lover. Rufus needed to get over the silly belief that he could easily control the world around him because it just wasn’t true. Hell, he could barely control Reno, after all.

Reno kicked the foot of the bed before crawling onto it and kneeling beside Rufus. He watched his lord for several minutes, searching for the link that would allow him to feel Rufus’ emotions and not finding a way past the block that had been in place for most of the day. At least Aya had taught him how to block Rufus from his mind in return, not that he’d ever have a chance of doing such a thing while Rufus was acting this way.

<Leave him, young one. There’s no shinigami to him, leave him behind and stay with Aya. With us.>

<That one holds you back. You don’t need him or his chains,> another shinigami urged. Reno felt their glancing caresses over his face and neck, the lightest of touches that made his body shiver and his heart ache. The demon part of him agreed with the shinigami, upset at the way Rufus treated him as less than an equal. They were mates, yet Rufus made no attempt to move past the lord/gokenin bond between them. Reno was growing tired of being treated as if he was just someone to be bossed around.

The human part of himself was very quiet, drawing inward from the shinigami. Tired of it and the confusing, conflicting emotions it stirred in him, Reno sought to push it as far into the darkness as possible to allow his demon nature to rush to the fore. All of a sudden he wanted free of it, free of the demands that made him suffer so much, that filled him with pain and conflict and so many things that he didn’t understand. With it gone, perhaps he’d be able to force Rufus to acknowledge him as an equal, like Yohji did Aya. Maybe he’d be able to ignore the stupid, senseless orders that would keep him imprisoned in a fucking inn suite, trapped and hungry and so bored that he didn’t have anything to distract him from the agony of his two natures tearing at each other. Tearing and ripping and shredding, much like he was doing to his own arms, the physical pain so much more bearable than the internal one and filling him with the hope that he’d soon be able to escape this awful, human soul-filled body.

<Yes, young one, shed the flesh! Leave it behind and join us!>

<More, more! The bond to the body is too strong, you must tear it to pieces to escape it. The pain will end soon, we promise.>

<*Stop*, dammit!>

The sharp pain in his arms was replaced by an instant throbbing inside his skull as Rufus’s mind pushed deep inside and the insistent snap of his body being shaken back and forth.

Gasping for air, Reno opened his eyes to find Rufus shaking him savagely, his mate stopping after a few seconds to let go of his shoulders and grab his arms instead. That caused the pain to flare strongly enough to prompt a whimper, and Reno finally realized that the room was scented strongly with his own blood which was splattered all over him, the bed and Rufus as well.

"What the hell are you doing? I *ordered* you not to kill yourself, you fucking bastard! Do you want me dead, too? I can’t turn my back on you for a single damn second!" As Rufus did his best to stop the flow of blood, all the while yelling his head off, Rude, Tseng and Elena burst into the room. The door was literally torn off its hinges by their arrival, prompting a weak laugh from Reno. They were really going to wear out their welcome here if shit like that kept up, he thought, his mind hazy with pain as his shinigami soul retreated before Rufus’ fury.

He closed his eyes when Rude approached the bed, his shinigami soul snatching back control for a moment when he felt his friend’s power try to send energy into his body. A vicious snarl from Rufus made it withdraw again, settling down quietly as Rufus’ presence once more filled Reno’s mind. Even if it was a furious, bitching presence, it was one that made the two parts of himself stop fighting and actually be at peace for once. Reno sighed at the lack of internal pain and conflict, his head lolling forward as he was filled with the desire to just lie down and rest.

"I’m going to cut those damn nails of yours every day and make you wear gloves," Rufus continued to rant, shifting his hands from Reno’s bloody arms to his shoulders when Rude began to heal the shredded flesh. "Did those bastard shinigami put you up to this?" Rufus pressed deeper into Reno’ mind looking for answers, pulling back slightly when Reno didn’t see any reason to keep the memories secret. No, he let his emotions and thoughts pour over the link, for once not caring that the asshole was getting exactly what he wanted.


That caused Rufus to pull back even more and begin to block the link yet again. In turn, that made Reno’s shinigami nature rush forward, his two souls in conflict once more. He fought against Rude’s power, didn’t want his arms to heal or the blood to stop flowing because he was so fucking sick of this and wanted it all to end.

<Yes, give in. The golden one isn’t shinigami and can’t be pack.>

"My lord!"

"Dammit, Reno!"

Fingers yanked on his hair and Rufus was back in his mind, even more furious yet also scared and determined. Despite the pain that Reno felt, Rufus entwined their minds together, pushing in so deep that for a moment, Reno saw himself sprawled on top of the bed, covered with blood and appearing as if unconscious. He opened his eyes at the odd vision to find Rufus kneeling beside him, looking just as confused as he felt.

Rude’s power was an annoying tingle through his body, but he stopped fighting it and allowed his own talent for healing to kick in as well. Hunger stirred in his body, a mere whisper in his mind that would steadily grow over time until he couldn’t ignore it any more. For now, though, he could, too worn out to feel much of anything.

<You’re hungry because you just lost a lot of blood. Dammit, Reno, why do you keep doing this to yourself? Because I ignored you?> Rufus looked as shaken as he ‘sounded’, such an oddity that Reno did his best to laugh and could only produce a choked sound instead. Some of his exhaustion was blood loss, the rest of it just being worn down by his own fucked-up nature.

<Don’t flatter yourself,> he managed to reply, the implication of the words not quite true; it was more a matter of Rufus shutting him out than anything. Whatever Rufus had done when he’d created the bond between them seemed to put Reno’s dual nature at peace, and when Rufus blocked things for too long, the effects of the bond weakened. He hadn’t really been trying to kill himself at first, it was… he wasn’t quite sure what it was.

<It’s the damn shinigami’s fault, and possibly Aya’s as well.> Rufus glared with a shocking amount of venom as he sent the words, his own thoughts revolving around how things had been fine before Reno had come to the Koneko.

<Before I realized what it meant to be mates, you mean,> Reno sent back to the asshole, his eyelids fluttering shut as he concentrated on putting enough malice and force into it as possible. <You treat me like I’m a fucking burden, so just let me go.> If he was such a pain in the ass to everyone, why did they keep him alive? His eyes opened when he felt Rufus lift him up slightly and drape him over his lover’s lap.

For once Rufus was quiet, pressing his lips together as if desperate to hold back a snarl. He cradled Reno closer, his fingers digging into Reno’s already sore body, and refused to say anything else.

Tseng was the person to break the silence, shifting closer to the bed as he breathed through his mouth. "My lord, I suggest that you take Reno to another bedroom for a while. Stay there while we clean things in here." Poor old Tseng, always having to tidy up when Reno went suicidal – Reno wanted to tell him to save himself the work and just mind his own fucking business from now on, but Rufus’ nails dug into his left shoulder when he opened his mouth.

"The bleeding’s stopped and his wounds are closed, my lord," Rude added as he stepped away from the bed. "It… wasn’t as bad as the last time and looks worse than it is. He only nicked the veins, not sliced along them. I give him a couple of hours before he’s back to normal."

Reno’s failure to properly commit suicide this time didn’t seem to put Rufus at any ease. Sliding his arms beneath Reno, he picked him up and got off the bed. "I’ll take the room next to yours, Rude."

"Musical… rooms…" Reno slurred as his head lolled against his lover’s shoulders. He felt the approach of a shinigami soul, but was too tired right now to care.

As usual, Rufus ignored him with ease. "Elena, I’ll need some food brought to the room as well. Anything easy to eat and high in calories would be best." Rufus snapped out the orders, once more seeming to be in control of the situation. Reno thought with growing bitterness about how much of a shame it would be for the anal bastard to not be in charge for once.

"That won’t be necessary. Yohji, please go down and get something for Reno. Ask Jo for a pot of Cass’ special blend." Aya’s voice, so cold and sibilant, made Rufus stop along with everyone else in the room. Oops, so much for trying to hide the evidence of Reno’s latest ‘lapse’. Attempting to laugh once again, he found the strength to lift his head and tried to flop his left hand at his friend. For some odd reason, neither of his arms wanted to move, which made him laugh a little more.

Aya stood in the doorway with Yohji hovering anxiously by his right shoulder, surrounded by darkness and his eyes pure silver. Reno thought he could detect shapes among the shadows this time, faint outlines that moved as shinigami voices whispered to Aya that Rufus was being a terrible mate. Aya stared at Reno for a moment before turning his attention to Rufus. "What happened?" he asked, something in his tone making Rude, Tseng and Elena step between him and Rufus. Reno tried to protest when he lost sight of his friend.

 

"What does it look like? Reno injured himself and caused a mess," Rufus snapped as his arms tightened around Reno. "I’m moving him to a clean bed."

"Ruined your clothes, Aya. Sorry," Reno said, smiling a little at the flash of anger from his lover. Rufus gave him a warning squeeze and ordered Aya to step out of his way.

The shadows surged forward, pushing Reno’s fellow gokenin aside with ease and stifling their cries. Rufus’ body became tense and he put his talent to use, yet nothing stopped Aya from approaching with Yohji trailing behind. Aya looked directly at Reno, that inhuman expression on his face slowly changing into one of concern. "What happened, Reno?"

Now that the blood loss had been stopped, Reno felt himself growing the slightest bit stronger. He drew on that energy to answer his friend. "Too much fighting." He managed to move his head enough to bump it against Rufus’ shoulder a couple of times. "It hurts so much… I needed another type of pain." He didn’t think he was doing a good job of explaining, not even after so many years of trying to do just that whenever Rufus, Reeve or any of his friends asked him ‘why’. No one could accept that he just wanted the awful, tearing pain to *end*.

For the first time ever, a look of understanding was sent his way. Aya stepped closer, his hand reaching out to Reno despite the fact that Rufus snarled in response. "The few times a dubhach has left a note behind, that’s what they said." The hiss was mostly gone from Aya’s voice, its deepness now filled with sorrow. When Rufus stepped away, the emotion vanished from his face and the sibilance was back. "I thought you were supposed to prevent this from happening again," he accused Rufus.

"I can’t sense his thoughts every second of the day," Rufus gritted out, furious once again but not with Reno for once. "Let my gokenin go, Aya."

"Right, so we can have a bit more blood spilled in the room. No, don’t think so." Yohji pressed against Aya’s back, much like he had the first time Reno had met the couple. "The link between mates is such that you’re *always* aware of each other… unless it’s blocked. Schu tells me he’s always sensing Masato’s thoughts since he’s a soul gaki bound." His eyes narrowed as he stared at Rufus. "So you must be blocking the link a lot to miss the amount of damage Reno did to himself."

"Busted," Reno sniggered as he pressed his face against Rufus’ neck. He was being held like he was a fucking baby, the blood was tacky on his skin, his mind exhausted from all the pain and he felt cold on top of all of that. As much as he loved seeing Rufus be put on the spot, all he wanted was to curl up in bed.

<Shut up, you’re not helping things.> Rufus pressed his lips against Reno’s left temple for a moment before growling. "I’ve important things to do and can’t always be distracted by him. I’ll ask one more time – let my gokenin go." He was pretty ticked off at the situation, which Reno didn’t care about because it shifted the blame away from him. Now that he could think almost clearly, he realized that Jo was going to give him *hell* over the mess he’d made of the bed.

There was a lot of snarling and growling going on, which Reno thought was a bunch of senseless posturing and a waste of time. "Wanna go to bed," he said as loud as he could manage, nipping at Rufus’ neck to reinforce the command.

To his surprise, the room was actually quiet for a moment or two after that. Then Aya spoke, his voice still containing a hint of sibilant. "Rufus, I will say this only once. It is my solemn belief that if you continue to block the link that Reno’s dubhach nature will ensure that he kills himself. If by some chance you happen to survive your mate’s death, then *I* will kill you." Somehow, the fact that he didn’t sound all shinigami made what he said even worse.

Reno had to give his lover credit – Rufus didn’t back down in face of a threat. "I will handle the relationship between Reno and I as best as *I* see fit."

"Yeah, great job you’re doing so far," Yohji added to the discussion, his voice dripping with sarcasm. "The only other mates who I know who were blocking their link ended up fighting each other non-stop. If you both want to survive, I suggest you don’t do that from now on." He was quiet for a few seconds. "Unless everything you told me yesterday was a lie, Rufus."

Whatever that statement meant, it made Rufus grow more pensive than angry, which was fine with Reno since this ridiculous standoff meant that he was kept from a soft, warm, non-sticky bed. He struggled a little in an attempt to be set down on his feet and stopped when there was a sense of pressure inside his already sore head. Cursing his mate under his breath, he once more closed his eyes.

"No, it wasn’t." Rufus let out a deep breath and nodded, surprising Reno with how well he took that latest jab. <I hope one day you realize just how much trouble you cause me,> he told Reno, his emotions oddly resigned. "Blame your friend Crawford for not explaining the basics of a mating bond to me if you insist on remaining pissed off."

"Oh, trust us, we will," Yohji promised. "I don’t care if the two of you hate each other; he should have helped you out a little when he realized what had happened." That seemed to please Rufus. Next there were more hissing sounds and Reno heard Tseng growl softly as the flesh gaki bound approached the bed. "I’ll go get the food and tea now. Aya will show you to the other bedroom." Someone, presumably Yohji, left the room, and Reno felt a soft touch on the side of his head.

He tilted his head back to look at Aya, whose eyes were a mixture of silver and violet. "Don’t, Reno. It’ll be… lonesome if you give in." Aya sounded very sad and his expression was a bit guilty.

The hushed words reminded Reno that he wasn’t quite alone anymore, which prompted him to nod in response. Whenever Rufus blocked him in the future, he needed to focus on the fact that there was someone out there who would understand the awful pain and impulses. Maybe not completely, since Aya wasn’t stuck with a human soul, but there was definitely some level of understanding between them.

"The room, please," Rufus growled, his voice and emotions bitter with jealousy. Reno tilted his head far back enough to give his lover a frown, yelping softly when Rufus jostled him about to get a better grip on him. "He’s not as light as he looks and he reeks of blood."

"Someone will be up shortly to help your gokenin clean the room. Jo won’t be happy if she has to replace the mattress and draperies on the bed." Now Aya sounded slightly bored, though he kept giving Reno a concerned look over his shoulder. He led them a couple of doors down, to a room that looked a lot like the one they’d just left. Well, without blood all over the bed, thankfully.

Aya went to the washstand to fetch some towels, which he spread over the bed. "I’ll be back in a minute with more." However, he still hovered by the bed.

Rufus set Reno down on the towels and motioned toward the washbasin, which Rude went to physically pick up and carry closer to the bed. "Thank you. I don’t need your help for this, as I’m very familiar with cleaning him up by now."

<Bastard,> Reno glared at his mate for that comment.

<Yet it still remains the truth.> Rufus’ eyes narrowed slightly as he returned the glare before looking at Aya once more. "Tell me, are there any other surprises I should know about? I mean anything besides treating my mate as an equal and not blocking the link even though it negatively affects my judgment and emotions?" He did sarcasm a hell of a lot better than Yohji.

Aya’s back went stiff and he moved a step away from the bed. "Most people don’t have to be told not to do those things in the first place. As far as I know, those are the most important things and I would have expected you to know them already." Great, Rufus and Aya were about to get into a fight, and Reno was too tired to get the hell out of their way.

For once, though, Rufus was the first one to look away and wrung out a washcloth to use it to clean the blood from Reno. "I never expected to be mates with anyone." He wiped clean the exposed parts of Reno’s arms before setting the damp cloth aside to undo the laces of Reno’s borrowed and now ruined jerkin.

"You weren’t supposed to be," Aya shot back, which made Reno grin because it was a good comeback. "I’ll go fetch those towels."

"Thank you." That had to be the frostiest ‘thanks’ that Reno had ever heard, and he quickly closed his eyes before Rufus returned his attention to him. He kept them closed as Aya left the room and Rufus and Elena stripped him of his bloodstained clothes.

The room was unnaturally quiet after that, even when Aya returned with the towels and Yohji with the food and tea. Reno pretended to be asleep as he was undressed, wiped clean and tucked into bed, growing anxious as he heard everyone but Rufus leave the room one by one. Rufus had to be issuing orders telepathically, since Reno was pretty sure that Rude and Tseng had something to say about the situation.

All too soon, it was just him and Rufus, and he found himself pulled forward and pillows shoved down behind his back so he was propped into a sitting position. "I know you’re awake; the one benefit of having this link open is I can clearly sense your thoughts."

Opening his eyes as he cursed himself for not blocking the link, Reno sighed and managed to rub his hands over his aching arms. The worst of the pain was past, the little left behind easy to ignore. "Gonna kill me now?"

"Don’t tempt me." Rufus’ eyes narrowed as he poured some tea and held it to Reno’s lips. Reno’s hands lightly grasped his, but didn’t try to take over holding the cup since Reno was still pretty weak. <Why, Reno?>

The tea was almost too hot and very sweet. Reno stalled for time by finishing the entire cup, not needing more of an explanation from his lover… his *mate*, to know what Rufus wanted since he could sense Rufus’ emotions.

<I’m not gonna let you lock me up in the suite when we go back,> he informed Rufus as he sipped another cup of tea. <You can’t treat me like that.> He recalled more of his thoughts from before the… attempt or whatever it was and bared them to Rufus. The way he felt at the thought of Rufus hiding him away, the need for Rufus to treat him as more of an equal, as someone whose opinion mattered, the way his shinigami nature lashed out at being seen as so ‘weak’. He didn’t want to dominate Rufus and still looked to him as being in charge… but that was by his *choice*. Rufus was smarter, was much more aware of the world around him and easily understood things that confused Reno, so that’s why Reno put his trust in his mate. It wasn’t because Reno was a pushover.

Rufus set the mostly empty tea cup aside and shrugged off his own bloodstained pants and sweater before stretching out on the bed beside Reno. <You’re going to drive me mad, you know. I don’t think of you as a ‘pushover’ – anything but that. However, I feel responsible for you and you have to admit you can get out of control unless I do keep a close watch over you.> He stroked his right hand along Reno’s face, the touch gentle and calming.

<I’m still your gokenin, Rufus,> Reno tried to explain as he seized this moment when Rufus seemed to actually be listening to him for once. <And I’ll always follow your lead. But you treating me like a fucking kid makes the demon part of me feel… worthless.> As divided as Reno was, he knew he couldn’t win a match of wills with his mate; that didn’t mean that he was so weak that he didn’t deserve any respect. Things weren’t very clear in his head right now, but he knew that he couldn’t bear Rufus depriving him of his duty any longer, not after seeing the way other mates acted around each other. Those relationships were based on deference, and while one mate might yield to the other, it didn’t seem a required action from anyone in particular.

Rufus sighed, the sound deep and wearisome. <For almost ten years I’ve been your lord, Reno. Even when we became lovers, that fact never changed. Being mates… it takes some getting used to, I’m afraid. I’m still trying to keep you safe and alive, but now there’s the fact that your injuries and death affect me. That alone would make me be more protective of you, and having my emotions be in so much flux because of the link isn’t helping.> There was sharp, biting anger for a moment, but it didn’t seem directed at Reno. <That’s in part why I’ve been blocking the link; it’s easier for me to figure out what *I’m* feeling when your emotions aren’t involved.>

Taking advantage of Rufus’ momentary distraction, Reno forced his aching right arm to move so he could comb his fingers through Rufus’ tousled hair. "Promise me that I can be beside you, like before. I’ll… I’ll promise you something in return." The offer was barely audible and a great risk on his part, so of course Rufus heard it.

<What will you promise me?> Rufus sat up again, once more eye level with Reno and appearing very alert and slightly sinister.

"Al… almost anything." Reno bit his bottom lip and hoped that he didn’t deeply regret this. However, living so long with Rufus had taught him that he’d have to give up something to gain anything of value from his lover.

Rufus’ sudden smile didn’t do much to put him at peace, especially when it was accompanied by a wave of happiness. "I promise that I’ll allow you to resume your duties as long as there’s no risk of you being harmed or in danger because of your nature." His hand quickly covered Reno’s mouth before he could protest. "That’s not an excuse to keep you locked up. I’ve always taken your dubhach nature into consideration before, and you know there are people out there who would raze this city to get their hands on you before the war starts." Some of the happiness slipped away, replaced by what could only be described as a guilty expression. "Although I’ll admit I’ve been acting overly paranoid lately. That doesn’t mean my ordering you to stay at home in the future won’t be justified, however." Quick as a blink, Rufus was back to normal, slightly cold and completely convinced that he was right.


Unfortunately, the bastard also had a point. Reno glared at his mate for a few seconds before giving in and nodding. "You better damn well better have a good enough explanation to please both me and Tseng if you’re gonna order me to remain home," he grumbled. "All right, what do you want?"

The pleased smile on Rufus’ face melted away, replaced by concern so strong that it made Reno’s breath catch in his face. Rufus picked up his right arm and trailed a feather-light caress down the new scars. "Whenever it gets this bad – no, *before* it gets this bad, *tell me*. I’ll do my best to block you out as little as possible from now on, but there are still times when I must do that so I can fully concentrate on other important matters. Throw a damn book at my head, bite me or yell in my ear, but *tell* me."

"Half the time it takes me by surprise," Reno admitted as he hunched forward, closer to his mate. "But okay, I promise to tell you." He rested his head against Rufus’ shoulder, exhausted by the conversation and doing his best to express his emotions. The link made the latter easier, but it still required a lot of effort from him.

Rufus gently massaged his back for a minute, allowing Reno to rest against him. Then he just as gently pushed Reno back against the pillows. "Finish the tea and the soup that Yohji brought. If the roads are passable tomorrow, I want us to return to the inn." He once more helped Reno sip from the tea cup, pulling his hands away when it seemed that enough energy had returned for Reno to manage on his own.

"Then what?" Reno asked when the tray with a bowl of soup and a couple of apple tarts was placed on his lap.

"I’ve been told there will be a meeting held after the storm with the Spymaster and several other people to discuss the best way to fight Esset." Rufus brushed back his hair and fetched the damp washcloth to wipe away a spot of blood that he’d missed on the back of his left hand. "Before and after that, I will be talking with Reeve and Tseng as much as possible to arrange something for our people and how to supply both Esset and Kritiker with weapons." He tossed the cloth aside and gave Reno an assessing look. "All of you will need new uniforms as I’m sure I’ll be spending a lot of time at Court. I also plan to move into the house my mother left me here in the city as soon as possible. Now that I know that the king will welcome me, we don’t have to wait at the inn any longer."

Reno grunted quietly and popped a tart into his mouth. "So I’ll be at Court?" he asked, making sure to wait until after he swallowed to open his mouth so Rufus didn’t have cause to bitch about his manners.

"Yes, and I actually feel a bit of pity for it." Rufus’ lips twitched as if he wanted to smile, and his emotions were a mix of amusement and exasperation. "You better behave yourself."

"I know." The worst part of it was that Reno really would have to be on his best behavior or Rufus would use it as an excuse to leave him at home. At least a house was better than some suite at an inn… even if Reno knew it was going to be decorated worse than a pretentious whorehouse. "You’re no fun," he complained as he stirred his soup; he knew he should finish everything, but all he wanted to do was sleep.

Rufus sighed and removed the tray from Reno’s lap. "I guess it’ll be better if you’re asleep for a few hours – it’ll be less trouble for me, at the least." He clasped his hands around Reno’s shoulders and pulled him forward, into a kiss lacking in passion yet still making Reno shiver in delight. It was unusually tender and filled him with warmth, prompting a purr as he rested against his lover’s strong body.

His long hair was pulled over his shoulder before Rufus removed the extra pillows and gently lowered Reno onto the bed, his right hand behind Reno’s head. Rufus followed him down for another kiss, just as tender although much shorter than before, and the covers were tucked around him once more.

<Get some rest. The next few weeks are going to be very busy.> As if to prove just how weird he was, Rufus was pleased and excited about the prospect of all the work he had waiting for him.

Tugging the covers a little more over his head, Reno let his mate’s emotions wash over him and fell asleep.

*******

Trowa stretched out in bed, his motions languorous as he savored the feel of warm, soft sheets. Part of him could never forget the old, scratchy and filthy blankets of his childhood bed, so much so that waking in a comfortable, clean bed always helped to settle him in the present. He was *here*, the pain was behind him and would never reach him again.

*Here* was his bed in the apartment that he shared with Duo while they lived in Eto, he slowly remembered as he opened his eyes. There’d been the blizzard, he’d done his best to lessen it as much as possible and became sick as a result. Duo had brought him home and tended to him, that memory stirring to life flashes of warmth, concern and tenderness inside his still sore head. Trowa frowned as he tried to make sense of those memories and what he was currently feeling.

The fever seemed to have broken, leaving him tired and achy but much better than the last time he could clearly recall his physical condition. He’d pushed himself to the limits of his power once before, which had left him weak and sick for about a week. He could only hope that being a bit older would hasten his recovery.

The most important thing was that the fever was gone, though he had no clue how long it had taken. His body still felt sore from the illness, his head and chest a bit congested, but he could think clearly again. While still very weak, he could also gather enough strength to use his power, which he quickly stifled before he used up that precious energy. The congestion wasn’t so bad that he had to do something about it right now, and the last thing he wanted was to make himself sick again.

So he lay there in the bed, growing discontent bit by bit with each passing minute. The sheets were warm and soft, lightly scented from the cedar chest, and the room was warm as well. In the fireplace a small fire burned, its crackling and popping sounds breaking up the eerie hush in the room. Whatever day it was, Trowa suspected that the storm hadn’t ended long ago since it was so quiet outside the window. Using his power again, he could vaguely feel it off in the distance, slowly losing strength now that it was past the capital.

He should be happy that the storm was gone, yet he still felt so… odd. As if something was missing, of all things. He’d even go so far as to say that he felt a bit lonely, which didn’t make any sense. For so long, he’d craved moments like this, when it was just him and quietude. Yet now, it filled him with a sense of discontent.

Not sure what to make of his strange emotions, he pulled the sheets further over his shoulder until they brushed against his nose. He could smell the cedar scent stronger now, along with a hint of herbs. On top of that was his own scent as well as Duo’s. When he recognized his friend’s scent, he found himself breathing in deeply, the discontent fading away with each inhalation. Duo mustn’t have left the bed very long ago for the sheets to smell so strongly of him, that enticing mix of sweat, musk and wood smoke. There was even a note of Duo’s shampoo, an intoxicating blend of citrus and mint.

The tangled scent of him and Duo made Trowa’s heart race and a low purr to build in his throat. His eyes widening at his body’s reaction, he closed his eyes and curled up beneath the sheets, trying to figure out what was going on. More flashes of memory filled his mind: Duo’s gentle touch as Trowa’s hair was combed and braided, the feel of wiry arms holding him close to warmth, Duo’s soothing voice telling him to relax. He should be panicking at the thought of another person, another *man* being so close to him, touching him when he was unable to defend himself, yet he couldn’t work up any anger or fear. No, his friend’s actions only made his heart race even faster, his body tingling with an unfamiliar pleasure.

"You hiding in there, Trowa?" Duo sounded a little worried and there was a clatter of dishes as he walked into the room.

Tossing back the sheets, Trowa did his best to slow his heartbeats and tuck back the hair falling onto his face. Duo stood at the end of the bed dressed in a dark grey robe, his hair pulled back into a loose ponytail and a tray held in his hands. On it was a pot of tea, a teacup, several slices of toast and what looked to be hard-boiled eggs.

"Duo," Trowa said, his voice weak at first. He cleared his throat and repeated the name.

"You sound a bit better." Duo slowly approached the top of the bed and set the tray on the nightstand before sitting on the bed’s edge. He cautiously reached out, his long fingers tangling in the bangs still falling onto Trowa’s face and pushing them aside. "Your fever’s broken." His fingertips lingered on Trowa’s forehead, pulling away slowly as if he was reluctant to break off the contact. Trowa found himself tilting his head to prolong it as much as possible, soothed by the touch.

"How long has it been?" he asked, pushing himself upright so he could drink some tea. Duo lurched forward to help, his hands warm around Trowa’s shoulders, once again lingering for a few searing seconds before pulling away.

"Sorry." Duo wrapped his arms around his chest and laughed, the sound lacking in amusement. "Guess I got used to doing that the last three days." He smiled at Trowa, the expression somber for a moment.

Adjusting the pillows behind his back, Trowa then held out his right hand for the teacup. "It’s okay." For some odd reason it really was; Duo helping and touching him didn’t bother him at all. "Three days?" He managed a small smile when handed the cup of fragrant tea, which strengthened Duo’s.

"Yeah." Duo sat more on the bed and lifted the tray to set it between him and Trowa. "I brought you home the afternoon you were sick, and you spent the next two days either asleep or delirious. Today’s the morning of the third day you’ve been home." He leaned against the headboard, his hands wrapped around the end of his ponytail. "The storm’s been over for about a day now, and I hear they finally got the main roads cleared. Shouldn’t be much longer before they get out here."

The tea tasted as wonderful as it smelled, and even a few sips made Trowa feel a bit more clearheaded. He didn’t recall having any of this blend in the apartment, though, and tapped his finger against the porcelain cup. "Has… everything been okay?" The fact that he couldn’t remember very well what had happened after leaving Birman’s office bothered him.

Duo shrugged and held out a piece of toast covered with apple jelly to Trowa, which was gratefully accepted. "Well, we’d be gnawing on each other for something to eat if Sandra hadn’t brought some food over the second day, and Jei stopped by yesterday with a few goodies as well." He held up the teapot and waited for Trowa to lower his cup so it could be refilled. "You can thank Cassandra for the tea."

"Ah." Cup now full, Trowa munched on the piece of toast, his stomach rumbling slightly as it was slowly filled. It wasn’t much of a surprise to know that Jei had checked up on him; the man had made a habit of doing such things over the years, watching over Trowa but leaving him plenty of space. Between two precogs and the Shadow Guard, Jei had probably heard about Trowa’s over-use of talent relatively quickly. "Did he have anything important to tell?" Jei wouldn’t be able to report too much to Duo at this point, but he may have passed on some important information.

"He gave me an update on the roads, said the Koneko was a real interesting place to be during the storm and mentioned something about going looking for a meal." Duo shuddered slightly. "I’m so glad I’m not a flesh gaki bound. I know some people argue that meat is meat, but I’ll stick to the variety that’s got either four legs, wings or fins." His eyebrows shot up as he gave Trowa a very amused grin.

Nodding as he continued to eat the toast, Trowa felt the urge to smile in return. Once the toast was gone, he sipped his tea and accepted another slice of bread from his roommate. "I sometimes wonder how his kind can differentiate between ‘meal’ and ‘friend’." He licked at the apple jelly clinging to his fingers, enjoying its sweet, cinnamon taste.

"Probably has something to do with the person being a bound or not." Duo’s smile began to fade and he fiddled with a couple of the hard-boiled eggs on the tray, making them roll into each other. "I’m not supposed to report back to training until you feel better, so don’t push yourself, okay?" The change of topic took Trowa somewhat by surprise.

"Ah." He should probably tell Duo that it was important for the fire elemental to attend training, but the thought of being left alone while still weak bothered him. "I’d rather not return to Court until my energy level is better." Until he could adequately defend himself, he meant.

Duo nodded and pushed the tray a little closer to Trowa. "That’s probably for the best. You seemed pretty ‘sick’ to the Spymaster, and she might be curious as to why you healed so suddenly. Stay home another couple of days."

Birman knew the real reason why Trowa had fallen ill, but he couldn’t explain that to Duo. Trowa longed for the day when he didn’t have to hold secrets from his friend anymore, when he could freely speak his mind and discuss things that were important to him. For some reason, it just didn’t feel right to hold things back from Duo, and he could only hope that whatever the event that had convinced Crawford that Duo would fight on their side happened soon.

"There’s still a few more pieces of toast left, and you should have some eggs." Duo’s worried tone shook Trowa from his thoughts, and he looked at his roommate to see Duo frowning. "I fed you as much as I could while you were sick, but you really need to eat." He held out another slice of toast, his forefinger smeared with jelly as it shifted in his hand. "Ooops."

"That’s okay." Without thinking, Trowa grasped the toast by its edges with his left hand while his right hand pulled Duo’s fingers to his mouth. His tongue flicked out to clean the jelly away, and it wasn’t until he felt his friend’s fingers brush against his lips that he realized what he’d done. His heart racing once more, he released Duo’s hand and tried to force his body to put some distance between them. However, he couldn’t seem to make himself move.

Especially when Duo raised his now clean hand to his lips and brushed them over the spot that Trowa had just licked. An expression of pure longing formed on his face as he stared at Trowa, his indigo eyes seeming to glow from strong emotion.

Breathing heavily, Trowa forced himself to look away, a strange pain in his chest. He wanted to look back at Duo, to identify that emotion, yet he was so terrified to do so. Something… something would happen then, something that he almost understood, and things would never be the same again.

The room was quiet save for the sound of Trowa’s breathing and the crackling fire for a couple of minutes. Then Duo groaned and got off the bed. "You need to eat," he said, his voice unaccountably hoarse. "Then you should probably take a long soak. Let me… let me know if you need anything."

Still looking down at his lap, Trowa nodded but couldn’t force himself to say anything. He didn’t even know what he wanted to say, whether it was to thank Duo for his help the last few days or to call the fire elemental back. It was best for Duo to leave, to give Trowa some time to figure out what had just happened and what it meant.

His fingers pressing against his lips, Trowa could so clearly recall what he’d just done, the warmth of Duo’s hand and the taste of clean skin beneath the jelly. Shivering at the intensity of the memory, he pushed the tray across the bed and pulled the covers closer to him, enveloped in Duo’s scent. What had just happened, and why was he afraid not of Duo but himself? Nothing made sense anymore, and Trowa desperately wished that Crawford or Jei were here to explain things to him. There was no reason why he should act like this, not now that the fever and its delirium had passed. Yet the worst part of it all was that it felt so *natural*. Ten years of holding the world at bay, at barely being touched a dozen times a year by anyone else, if that, and he now found himself longing for the feel of Duo’s fingers combing through his hair and stroking along his body.

Something was… was ‘wrong’, and Trowa didn’t understand what it was. If he didn’t understand it, he had little hope to fight it… and possessed even less will to do just that.

*******

Yohji did his best not to feel jealous when Reno and Aya hugged goodbye. Judging from the glare on Rufus’ face, the other bound felt the same way he did, and both of them stepped closer to their mates when Reno and Aya broke apart.

"We need to get going." Rufus sounded as cold as the weather, his face impassive as he grabbed Reno’s left shoulder and pulled his mate back.

"I know," Reno sighed, busy wrapping his black scarf around his neck. "See you in a few days, Aya." Once the ends of the scarf were tucked in, he pulled the hood of his cloak forward so nothing could be seen of his face. The sun was busy setting in an overcast sky, but Reno didn’t seem to be taking any chances of being drained by the little light that remained.

"Be safe," Aya said as he stepped back, bumping into Yohji and relaxing when Yohji’s arms wrapped around his shoulders.

"We will." Reno’s gloved hand peeked out from the hem of his black cloak to wave, right before he was literally dragged toward the waiting horses. Yohji heard him hiss something about Rufus being an unsentimental bastard, which was ignored when Rufus shoved the dubhach in Tseng’s direction. Reno was immediately quiet, most likely because of the furious look that Tseng gave him. The flesh gaki bound mounted his large, dark brown horse and then hauled Reno up behind him.

Once they had all mounted their horses, Rufus turned toward Yohji and Aya. "Thank you for your hospitality." He nodded to Jo as well, waved once then turned his horse toward the garden gate. The poor animal didn’t seem happy to leave the Koneko, considering that it was cold as hell and the roads were still covered with some snow, but Rufus didn’t give it much of a choice. His gokenin fanned out around him, Reno waving once again before Tseng snarled at him to hold on tightly.

"I’m not sure if I should be happy to see them go," Jo remarked as she hugged her dark green cloak tighter around her body. "They caused a lot of fuss, but they also more than paid for their bill the last couple of days."

That last was probably what made her think that it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if they’d stuck around a few more days, as not many bound guests were able to pay their bills. Rufus had handed Jo a very nice-sized bag of silver coins back in the kitchen, apologizing for the ‘mess’ that Reno had made in the one bedroom and how much his gokenin had eaten.

"They’ll be back, Jo." Yohji looked at his dear friend and smiled. "Rufus has to talk to Crawford, Yuushi and Birman a lot about the future, and Reno’s made a few friends here." He hugged Aya closer as he sensed the loneliness that his mate felt over Reno’s absence. "That and this is one of the few places where they can be themselves."

Jo snorted loudly as she turned toward the stable, where Ichiro was standing at its front entrance with a slight smile on his face. "Let’s just hope those future visits are less eventful than this past one." She waved goodbye as she went to her lover, most likely to spend a little time alone together before they joined everyone for dinner.

Yohji watched her go then nuzzled Aya’s temple. "You okay, Cat?" He knew how strongly Aya and Reno had bonded over the last couple of days, so he imagined that Aya would probably be out of sorts for the rest of the night. Just as long as he didn’t lose his mate into the ‘darkness’ that had enveloped Aya after Nagi had left, he could cope with Aya being sad and lonely.

Aya twisted gracefully in his arms, turning to face Yohji. Only the sudden wave of desire and a need for comfort gave him any warning of what was to come, which was Aya kissing him passionately enough that his knees nearly gave out. Aya’s gloved hands slid through his hair, Aya’s tongue thrust into his mouth, and he swore he could feel the heat of his lover’s body through his thick coat and Aya’s cloak.

The kiss lasted several minutes, the weather’s chill no longer affecting Yohji as sunlight poured into his body through their link. It was only the fact that he was panting so heavily that he needed to break off the kiss to breathe that he pulled away, his arms clutching Aya close. "Oh hell… not that I’m complaining, Aya, but why?"

Aya nipped at his chin and gave him a not-so gentle shove backwards, toward the kitchen door. "I want you," Aya said, as if those three words would explain everything.

Well, it was already clear that Aya did in fact want him, and Yohji would never argue with his mate feeling that way. However, Aya’s reaction just now wasn’t what he’d expected to he dug in his heels and refused to budge any further. "Why *now*?" Okay, the question wasn’t exactly very detailed, but it was so damned difficult to think when he craved more of that sunlight and a naked, mewling Aya beneath him.

The smile Aya gave him stole away his just returned breath. "Because there are no distractions now," Aya purred, and when he gave Yohji another shove, Yohji eagerly stepped backward. They were wrapped in shadows; Yohji moved enough so they both faced the door and could make their way up to their room much easier.

He’d fed from his lover over the last few days, but Aya was right in that there’d been ‘distractions’ lately. Last night, Aya had been very worried about Reno, and the night before that they’d both been pretty exhausted from a snowball battle that had lasted for hours. Now they had some hope of being left alone for the night, the thought of which made him moan as they came to a stop before their bedroom door.

Thankfully, Aya’s shadows handled opening and closing the door for them, since Aya’s now ungloved hands were back in Yohji’s hair and Yohji was rather busy undoing the clasp of his mate’s heavy cloak. As soon as it fell to the floor, Aya’s hands shifted from his hair to the buttons of his coat, undoing them with a speed that left Yohji feeling impressed and amused. The shadows must have helped again, because he was barely three steps from the door and mostly out of his clothes, which had been yanked and pulled off fast enough to make his head spin. He did his best to catch up on removing Aya’s sweater, undershirt and pants, both of them kicking off their wet boots as they quickly made their way to the bed.

Once they were there, Aya pushed Yohji onto it, shedding his underwear before straddling Yohji’s naked body. "I want you," he repeated, his voice thickened by a loud purr and his eyes shining with desire. That emotion seared over their link, mixed with love and lust that were just as potent, making Yohji groan to feel them and their warmth.

"You’ve got me," Yohji groaned as he threaded his fingers through Aya’s hair, pushing the thick, silky strands backwards so he could better see his love’s beautiful face. "What are you going to do with me?" He didn’t care what it was, not with Aya wanting him this much, not when he felt ready to burst into flames from the emotions pouring into him. Oh gods, Birman better have a mission for them soon because Yohji was feasting on the energy right now

If there was one thing that Yohji was grateful to Reno for, it was that Aya had seemed to pick up an utterly wicked smile from the dubhach in the last few days. It was bestowed on him right now, filled with more than enough immoral, lascivious promise that Yohji’s breath was stolen once more. "How about I ride you until *you* scream," Aya purred, his nails raking along Yohji’s chest with enough pressure to leave red, tingling welts in their wake.

Hissing slightly at the spark of pleasure/pain, Yohji settled his hands on Aya’s ass and pulled his mate closer, until his cock rubbed against smooth, warm flesh. "Oh Cat, you’ve *got* to have your friends come over more often." He’d figure someway to get Reno back here as quickly as possible, then send him home a day or two later so he could enjoy a frisky mate.

Aya actually laughed at the joke, the sound warm and decadent. That was something that Yohji felt that his lover had learned from him, and prided himself over it. His fingers kneaded Aya’s ass, pulling apart slightly so his hard cock could slip into that heavenly cleft between the firm mounds. No, it wouldn’t take Aya much to make him scream, he thought as he moaned in need and his hips jerked forward.

Whining faintly in need as well, Aya moved his right hand from Yohji’s chest to bump a container of lubricant against Yohji’s hand. Not knowing where the hell the jar had come from and not caring at all, Yohji reluctantly let go of his lover’s luscious ass and unscrewed the jar’s lid. Scooping the cool lotion onto the fingers of his right hand, he set about preparing his lover so they could both thoroughly enjoy themselves.

While his two fingers slid with little resistance into Aya’s body, Aya gasped and twisted Yohji’s nipples between his fingers, another spark of not-quite-pain that made Yohji’s breath catch in his throat and his cock twitch. He’d never had a problem with any of his lovers being a little rough with him; he felt it showed his trust in them and it spiced up the sex when done right. Well, there was *no one* he trusted more than Aya, and his mate could sense what was too much or too little for him.

He moaned in pleasure and squirmed a little on the bed, his fingers scissoring apart so he could thrust inside Aya’s hot, tight body as quickly as possible. His mate leaned forward, nails once more scratching down his chest, and kissed his panting mouth. Yohji moaned again, his tongue seeking the moist heat of Aya’s mouth, rubbing against smooth, sharp teeth before pushing in further.

From Aya he sensed impatience, a growing need, pleasure and love. The pleasure spiked as his left hand loosely grasped his mate’s cock; if his mouth wasn’t already occupied, he’d smile at how Aya seemed torn between thrusting forward into that loose grip or backward to take his fingers in even deeper. Figuring that it wouldn’t be fair if he was the only one screaming, he curled his fingers and searched for that special spot, this time actually smiling when Aya broke off the kiss to gasp in ecstasy.

"Oh." The sound came out in a long, heady sigh, Aya’s eyes fluttering shut as he rocked his hips backward. A moment later he opened them, staring intently at Yohji as his nails dug a little into the firm flesh above Yohji’s nipples. "*Now*." He was so unusually demanding that Yohji didn’t even think to argue. Especially not when it was getting him something that he desperately wanted.

He pulled his fingers from Aya’s clenching body and scooped up more lube, which he quickly slathered on his own cock. Even that hurried touch made him hiss in pleasure, driven close to the edge from both his and his mate’s emotions. The fact that Aya hissed in impatience the few seconds it took to prepare himself made him laugh in delight, and his hand had barely left his cock before Aya was grasping it tightly by his balls. That was all the warning Yohji had before Aya lowered himself onto it, so hot and velvety smooth, and oh fuck he was clenching his muscles every few seconds. Yohji’s eyes damn near rolled into the back of his head at that particular sensation.

After a few torturous seconds, Aya finally stopped descending, his ass firm against Yohji’s crotch. He seemed to struggle to breathe for a moment, so Yohji stilled his hand on his lover’s cock to allow Aya that time. As it was, he was having a few difficulties of his own in that regards, not to mention doing his best not to come just then.

Aya hadn’t been kidding when he said ‘ride you until you scream’, Yohji realized once his lover took a deep breath and began to move, his motions fast and containing a hint of force. Aya raised onto his knees to the point that only the thick head of Yohji’s cock remained inside, then dropped down hard enough to drive Yohji as deeply into his body as possible. That made Yohji yell out his lover’s name, his left hand latching onto Aya’s hip either to stop him or to move him faster, he didn’t even have a clue.

There was a flash of white, sharp teeth from Aya before he moved again, his eyes closed tight as if he was concentrating on his motions. His neck arched when Yohji’s slick hand tightened around his cock and he gasped when Yohji tugged his hips slightly forward. That slight adjustment rewarded Yohji with a blazing rush of sunlight over their link.

He wanted so desperately to pull Aya down so he could press his mouth against his mate’s pale neck, to feel Aya’s teeth against his own neck, but he pushed aside the urge, determined to let Aya dictate what would happen next. He didn’t attempt to hasten or slow Aya’s grueling, ecstatic pace, only allowed himself to become lost in the sharp, burning emotions it provoked in both of them. From Aya there was so much sunlight, so much pleasure, and threaded through it all was love and need. Yohji’s emotions were almost identical, his hunger a craving, yowling beast that drove him on to thrust his hips up each time Aya fell downward, to increase the stroking of his hand along Aya’s cock so more of that sunlight would pour into him. It was a heady, incessant rush at this point, hazing Yohji’s mind with ecstasy, happiness and love.

Then Aya’s nails scraped down his chest just as Aya’s body clenched around his cock and his love got the screams that he’d wanted. "Aya!" Yohji’s back arched off the bed as he shouted his mate’s name, then he fell back onto the bed and thrust his hips upward with an almost vicious amount of force as he yelled again. The sunlight was so powerful it felt to be incinerating his nerves, sending a torrent of fire along them until Yohji’s entire body trembled in ecstasy.

Aya managed to move a few more times, the potency of his emotions all the warning that Yohji needed to grab his lover by the back of his neck and pull him forward. Just as Aya’s orgasm burst forth, his mouth settled on Aya’s neck, teeth pressing against skin harshly enough to break it. That was all Yohji had to do to bring on his own orgasm, a searing jumble of pleasure and love and possession. He yelled Aya’s name one more time, the sound muffled by the fact that his lips were still pressed tight to his lover’s neck.

As the ecstasy gradually faded away in shivering waves, Yohji cradled Aya to his chest, his lips now pressed against his love’s left temple. Aya was as boneless as his namesake, purring loudly as his fingers flicked back and forth over Yohji’s left side.

"Note to self," Yohji said as he combed the sweaty tangles from his lover’s hair, his voice raspy and sounding pleased. "To make Aya very happy, just scream a lot."

Aya snorted in amusement and gently dragged a nail of his finger along Yohji’s slightly ticklish ribs. "There’s more to it than that."

"Yeah." Yohji rather liked that ‘more’, since it left him extremely well-fed and happy. His right hand cupped the back of his mate’s head as he returned some energy. "Are you really okay?" he asked after a moment’s silent, a little confused at the abrupt shift of Aya’s emotions. Even though Aya would often flip from one emotional extreme to another, that one… well, it seemed to have been a bit drastic even for him.

Shifting about until his chin rested on Yohji’s sternum, Aya regarded him with slightly silvered eyes. "Part of me wishes that Reno had stayed, but I knew it wouldn’t happen. I also know that I’ll see him again soon." His right hand soothed over the spot he’d just scratched. "Besides, I told you, Yotan, that you’re the one I need."

"I need you, too, Cat." There was a ridiculously pleased grin on Yohji’s face just then, but he felt he was allowed it. Fantastic sex followed by a declaration like that was enough to make him deliriously happy. "I guess… well, I worried you’d be like you were when Nagi left."

That admission prompted a slight frown from Aya. "That was about more than Nagi leaving, Yohji." Aya was saddened to recall that time, and Yohji wanted to kick himself for bringing it up. However, the sadness didn’t last long and Aya smiled once more. "You worry too much. Don’t tell me you’re going to lock me up in the room now and assign people to watch over me." He bared his teeth, the expression not quite a smile anymore even though he was very amused.

Chuckling at the image that came to mind of him doing just that, Yohji shook his head. "Cat, don’t even say such foolish things – my shoulder’s already twinging at the thought of how badly you’d bite it for me being that stupid."

"Hmph." Aya gave him a haughty look for a few seconds before closing his eyes. "At least I’m not mated to an idiot."

Yohji couldn’t resist poking his love in the side for that comment. "Remember that the next time you call me an idiot, moron, fool or any other of your ‘endearing’ nicknames." He laughed again when Aya opened his eyes to glare at him. "Come on, you know you love me."

Aya was silent for a few seconds then began to purr. "Yes, I do." That was all he said before closing his eyes and resting his head on Yohji’s chest, but it was more than enough.

Feeling even better than he had a few minutes ago, Yohji purred as well as he played with his lover’s hair. He actually felt a little sympathy for Rufus; the man was too busy trying to ‘deal’ with the ‘repercussions’ of his bond with Reno to truly enjoy it. Yohji knew that not all mated bounds had such a close and loving relationship as he did with Aya, but the potential was there. That was proven by how close Schu and Masato had become over the last few months, and could be seen now with Mustang and Ed. Maybe if Rufus stopped trying to pretend that nothing had changed between him and Reno, both men would be happier. All Yohji knew was that he didn’t want Aya to be upset by anything, and that meant he’d probably have to have another talk with Rufus if the arrogant moron hadn’t learned anything from what had happened yesterday.

However, that would be for another day. Right now, he was determined to enjoy the feel of a sleepy and happy Aya in his arms, and the prospect of sneaking down to the kitchen later for a belated dinner. Then they’d come back up here and spend the night alone together, something that they hadn’t been able to do for a few days.

Now that the storm was over, things would get busy once again. That fact just made Yohji more determined to enjoy himself tonight – and make sure that Aya enjoyed himself as well.

*******