Darkness Returns

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chapter fifteen

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things fall into place

*******

Jo sighed in enjoyment as she sipped her coffee. The bread was baking, the dough for the cinnamon rolls was rising, and she had a bit of a break before she had to start on breakfast; it was a relatively nice, peaceful and slow morning. While the roads had basically been cleared by yesterday afternoon, it was still taking people time to get around the city. Everyone was focusing more on restocking pantries and running important errands than to either travel for business or stop by an inn for a nice meal. That suited Jo just fine.

She was sure that the customers would be back in the next day or two, when life in Eto returned to normal. As it was, a few guests had left last night and some more would leave today, allowing her another chance to relax and enjoy the weather induced ‘break’.

There was also the fact that Aya’s odd friend Reno was gone, taking with him his arrogant lord and fellow gokenin. Jo was doing her best to reserve judgment in their cases; Reno didn’t seem all that bad a person even if he was one of those bounds who didn’t ‘get’ humans very well, and Rude had been very helpful. Tseng and Elena had been polite if distant, while Rufus…. She shook her head and remembered about the very full bag of silver that was currently tucked away in the office’s safe. That was more than enough to replace the bedding in the one room and actually went a good way to covering for the revenue lost because of the storm. Oh yes, Rufus was definitely a very arrogant highborn, but at least he was one of those who believed in paying for himself and his people. There had been a time or two when the Koneko had been left with the bills from highborns who felt that their patronage was payment enough.

Even if it was fun to see Aya enjoy himself and have a partner to take on Yohji in the snowball fights, it was also nice to have things return to normal. Not that things were very ‘normal’ around here in the first place, but it had settled into a comfortable pattern in the last couple of weeks. Jo had a feeling that she’d have to tell Mickey to take the rooms that Masato, Schu, Crawford and Jei were using off the available list as she didn’t think the men were going away any time soon. Crawford seemed to avoid telling her outright just how long they’d be saying, but he’d hinted that they could very well be here until the start of the war. She didn’t mind the loss of rooms since Nagi’s presence made Omi and Aya very happy, as Schuldig’s did for Cassandra and Yohji.

Jo smiled, the expression a mixture of ruefulness and amusement, and went to the stove to refill her mug. It was a very good thing that they’d built the new addition last year because they definitely needed the extra rooms. Ever since Aya had arrived, there’d been a stream of strays who never ended up leaving the Koneko. Emmie and Maddox, Marta and Neely, Jason… that wasn’t even taking into account the Guards who had moved in, too. Now her kitchen was almost always full of people laughing, talking and eating; even if it annoyed her sometimes, she felt a glowing warmth in her chest when she saw her ‘family’ so increased and happy.

She just wished that Miyuki had lived to see what had become of the Koneko. Even if the paperwork should be finished in a few more days that would make Mickey the inn’s new owner, Yohji had left an indelible mark on the place, first by having Aya live here and then involving himself with the Guard again. Jo had the feeling that for the first time in decades, if not centuries, the Koneko was living up to its true purpose. The inn was clearly prospering; it was more than the new addition and the restored gardens, it was the amount of life, happiness and hope that filled the place now. Miyuki would have been so joyful to be a part in things, to help all the bounds who came here seeking shelter or a way to start a new life, to tease Yohji about finding someone to truly love, to watch Mickey take steps to begin his own family that would inherit the Koneko some day.

Jo wasn’t foolish enough to not realize that some darkness and fear had crept into that happiness and hope, that the people she loved were busy preparing for war. No, she was very well aware that Crawford hadn’t brought the others back just so they could visit their loved ones, and that the influx of bounds wasn’t just the people taking advantage of a job opportunity. What mattered the most was that everyone, despite an increasing awareness of what awaited them in a couple more years, insisted on *living*. They were making plans, spending time with loved ones, strengthening bonds…which gave her hope that after the violence and sacrifice, her family would pull itself back together and her friends would return so that life would continue. That was one of the most important lessons that Miyuki had taught her; there would always be pain and loss in life, but there would also be happiness and love if you pushed past the darkness.

Oh yes, she so wished that her dear friend was sitting at the table with her, smiling over a mug of coffee and humming a cheerful tune. Miyuki’s eyes would be sparkling with the happiness she always refused to hide, and they’d discuss the plans for the day, figure out the meals and perhaps gossip about a few guests. Talk would eventually lead to Miyuki’s boys: about how many times Yohji would annoy Aya today and kiss him in an attempt to get back into his lover’s good graces, the ways that Mickey would think up to make the money that he would put toward Kira’s dowry, and what crazy antics Teddy would do to amuse them all.

That would be such a lovely way to start the day, but it wasn’t possible. However, Jo didn’t think the reality she had was that bad. There was something to be said to this quiet time to herself when she could indulge in her thoughts and fancies. The work would keep her busy and make her feel useful, and she’d take several breaks to visit Ichiro, ensuring that her lover had his fill of coffee and breakfast, listening to him talk about the horses and how well Jason was getting on. After that the rest of the staff would wake up and join her, Maddox eager to help in the kitchen, Emmie rushing through breakfast before Ken and Miko walked her to school, various Guards laughing and gossiping as they either readied themselves for work or came back from late shifts. Ani would talk about her plans to spend some time with her girlfriend, Touya would do his best to swap shifts so he could hang out with his friends, and Yohji would tease Aya over the quiet man’s love for bacon. The day would only pick up pace from there, until Jo found herself in her room, Ichiro waiting in bed for her so they could talk about the day at the least before falling asleep.

Despite the craziness, hard work, unexpected events and huge food bills, it was a good life. Jo had nothing to complain about for all the years she’d spent at the Koneko, other than the loss of Miyuki. Even though she’d found a promising successor, she wouldn’t step back from running the Koneko just yet, although she was beginning to see the allure of sitting by one of the kitchen’s hearths while Maddox was busy cooking, and watching over the various children that life brought to her beloved friends. She just hoped that Yohji and Aya would fit in there somehow, both still beautiful with their preserved youth and free from some of the pain and oaths they bore now.

However, that was the future and this was the now. She better put on another pot of coffee and then fetch the ingredients she’d need for breakfast. Once the remaining customers, Guard cadets and Koneko residents awoke, they’d be pestering her to be fed. For a bunch of adults, she couldn’t help but snort over the fact that they acted like needy children.

Yet several of them were her children, by choice if not blood. So she’d make sure the food and coffee was ready, and a pot of tea as well for Aya and Reiichi. No doubt that Botan would arrive at some point today, so she’d make the sweet bread that the wizard adored, and talk to Cassandra about a few new dresses for herself and Emmie once her friend showed up to join in the madness. It promised to be a lively day, one that Jo would enjoy to the fullest. The darkness might be waiting for them all, but there was no need to fear its looming presence until time to face it head on. Besides, she didn’t have the energy to worry about the future when the present kept her more than busy.

*******

Hughes sat slumped in the carriage’s seat, a look of much suffering on his face. "Please tell me that we won’t have to go back to the palace anytime soon. *Please*."

Roy fought the urge to smile at his friend’s act and tugged on the hem of his right glove until the leather garment fit snuggly over his hand. "If it weren’t for the fact that I’ll be there right beside you, I’d take great delight in pointing out that we’ll be there very often in the near future." What had the Queen been thinking when she’d decided to ‘bring about better understanding and cooperation’ between the Army and the Guard? Whatever headway that she’d been making in that regard had come to an abrupt halt as soon as she insisted that the Army alter its uniforms.

Now Roy and Hughes were faced with endless meetings as their superiors squabbled with the Queen, the Captain of the Guard and several Ministers. Roy spent half his week at the palace and the other half doing his best to catch up on things at his office. The only positive to the whole headache-inducing situation was that Hawkeye was helping him with his paperwork so he didn’t fall too far behind.

"You’re such a ray of sunshine, Roy, have I ever told you that?" Hughes’ upper lip pulled back in a sneer and he seemed mostly restored to his usual self.

"All the time, Maes." Roy gave his friend a smoldering look that made Hughes laugh, the exuberant sound filling the small carriage. Not for the first time, Roy found himself thanking the gods for his friendship with the ‘interesting’ human. If Hughes hadn’t been by his side, determined to support his rise through the ranks, he don’t know if he’d ever have lasted this long in the Army.

Hughes chuckled and snorted a few more times, his glasses in his right hand as his left hand brushed aside tears of laughter. "I think exposure to Court has made you delusional, old friend. You’re obviously confusing ‘ray of sunshine’ with ‘pain in the ass’." Hughes chortled again and replaced his glasses before smiling. "Now honestly, do you think we’ve accomplished anything today?"

Roy did indeed feel that they’d pushed a very important agenda, but now wasn’t the place to talk about it, in a hired carriage taking him and Hughes to the Koneko. He drew the first two fingers of his right hand along his lips, a signal that he’d talk more when they were somewhere safe. Too bad Hawkeye wasn’t here to create a sound-proof ward, so Hughes would have to wait a little longer.

Nodding in understanding, Hughes easily changed the topic. "Will we be meeting Ed at the Koneko?"

"Yes. He only worked half a day at the Library, and planned on doing more copying this afternoon."

"Ah, no wonder you’re in such a good mood," Hughes teased, a wicked smile forming on his lips. "You left it to the Koneko to keep him fed today, na?" He laughed again at Roy’s answering smile, his good humor melting away after a couple of blocks. "What about Al?"

Roy sighed and shook his head at mention of his other fosterling. "Alphonse asked for my permission to spend the night at the Rockbells’. There’s a lot of forging work to be done thanks to the recent storm to replace broken plows and the such." At his friend’s curious look, he felt the matter was one that they could discuss now. "I think… I think he’s trying to make a point to Edward and possibly myself. Since our bond has strengthened, he’s proving that he can lead a life of his own. I also believe that he’s trying to make Edward realize that he truly cares for Winry." He felt sorry for the boy; if Al remained at home, he often came across as uncomfortable for distracting Ed from Roy or vice versa. Also, Ed hadn’t given up on the ridiculous thought that if Al transferred his affections to a bound girl, that things would be better for his brother. As much as Roy didn’t like seeing either Elric brother be hurt, he was staying out of the situation. Ed and Al needed to resolve things themselves.

Hughes’s expression was one of sympathy and a little sadness. "Growing pains, eh? Al’s a good kid and I haven’t uncovered anything bad about the Rockbells." There was a sharp glint to his dark eyes for a moment that Roy knew better than to think was just an effect of his friend’s glasses. No, Hughes wouldn’t sit back and do nothing if he felt that someone might be a danger to his friends. The Rockbells had probably had their past researched back at least four generations, if he knew Hughes at all.

"As much as I miss seeing him every day, I must admit that he’s happy learning from Pinako and spending time with Winry. There’s also the fact that it allows Edward and I more time to… adjust to things, although I still come home to find those two engrossed with a large stack of books at least once a week."

That declaration made Hughes laugh again. "Some things will never change." He appeared ready to say something else, but the carriage came to a halt. They got out of it, Roy pausing to give a few coins to the driver before hurrying to the inn. The temperature had dropped after the storm, and while he had his power to keep him warm, it would look odd if he dawdled outside. Besides, Hughes was busy hissing out his name as his friend huddled by the inn’s front doors.

"Gracia will *never* forgive you if I freeze my balls off, I’ll have you know. We’re hoping for a little brother for Alicia sometime next year," Hughes huffed as they entered the thankfully very warm Koneko.

Roy wanted to ask if Gracia knew about her ‘hopes’ just yet, or if Hughes had decided that he needed another infant whose baby portraits he could inflict on everyone now that Alicia wouldn’t be a toddler for much longer. However, by that point they were entering the Koneko’s common room and Roy’s attention was focused on finding his mate.

Now that their bond had strengthened and they rarely blocked each other, he was getting a… sense of where Ed was whenever they were close enough to each other. He easily found Ed sitting at a table with Aya, Kudoh, Omi, Nagi, Masato, Schu and Reiichi. There was another person at the table, someone with reddish brown hair who Roy didn’t recognize and who was sitting next to Aya. Despite the crowded room, Ed just as easily noticed him, looking up in the middle of what appeared to be a friendly argument with Reiichi to smile at Roy.

Smiling in return, Roy motioned to the table next to Ed’s, where Crawford, Jei, Yuushi, Birman and a very large, baldheaded man he mistook for Armstrong for a few seconds sat. Ed grimaced but nodded in understanding, not upset that Roy wouldn’t join in the debate at his mate’s table just yet. Judging from the flushed look to Ed’s face and the predatory feel to his emotions, Roy was missing out on a very interesting theoretical or historical discussion.

"Come on, Roy, I haven’t eaten anything since lunch," Hughes whined as he grabbed Roy’s upper left arm and practically dragged him into the room. There were some cool stares from the Guards seated at various tables, while a few people who knew Hughes called out to him along the way. Hughes smiled and promised to have drinks with the people later, and Roy foresaw having to escort a very tipsy friend home later.

As they made their way to Crawford’s table, he noticed that Kudoh and Masato were headed there as well. That should make for some very interesting discussions and debates this evening, as well as productive information exchange – if he and Kudoh didn’t start fighting, that was.

"Good evening, gentlemen." Roy bowed slightly before he sat down across from his brother. Crawford gave him a chilly look and he waited for a comment about no use of his talent tonight, which never came. He had to give the secretive bastard credit – Crawford had brought up the ‘fight’ once and never again, determined to leave it in the past… for now. Roy didn’t have to be a precog to know he’d be bitched at once the war was over and he didn’t need to get along with his brother anymore.

"We were afraid that you’d be at the palace all night," Crawford responded, moments after the area around the table darkened slightly. Roy felt himself relax a little as Aya’s shadow wards took over, ensuring that no one would overhear them.

"I’d be seriously contemplating suicide if that was the case," Roy said as he pushed the empty goblet set on the table in front of him toward Jei.

"I’ll burn incense for you every damn day if you take Kikyou out before you kill yourself," Kudoh muttered, which prompted Yuushi to nearly choke on his drink and nod his head frantically. "Something messy and painful as hell, please."

"If it ever gets that bad, I’ll see what I can do."

"I’m under the impression that he’s not a very well liked man," Hughes chuckled as he pushed his goblet toward Jei as well, who growled but finally filled the vessels. "After listening to him complain about how the Guard would be the best choice to protect the king and queen during any battle while the Army serves as fodder for the enemy, I’m not too crazy about him myself."

Kudoh winced while Yuushi gave Roy and Hughes an apologetic look before speaking up. "Gods, and I thought Manx picked that prick over me because he was supposed to be ‘diplomatic’."

"In the Captain’s defense, he worded it much more… ‘diplomatically’ than Hughes, but the effect was much the same." Roy stared pointedly at the stranger at the table. "Hello, I’m Colonel Roy Mustang, and this is my associate, Major Maes Hughes." Hughes gave the man a jaunty wave in greeting.

Crawford nodded in the bald man’s direction. "I thought I’d let you vent first before making introductions. Gentlemen, this is Rude. He’s one of Lord Rufus Shinra’s most trusted gokenin." The large man bowed his head slightly, his expression impassive and his eyes hidden behind darkened glasses. There was a sense of power and stability to him that put Roy in mind of very powerful earth elementals, which would explain the more than passing resemblance to Armstrong.

Hughes whistled when he heard mention of Rude’s lord. "Sweet gods, that explains why General Marko has been very happy lately. He’d been sweating it over how to supply all the new recruits just a week ago." A thoughtful look crossed his face, more than likely him trying to figure out why he hadn’t heard about Lord Shinra supplying the Army just yet. Roy hid his smile behind the rim of his goblet and enjoyed the hot mulled wine.

Birman didn’t attempt to hide her smile. "Lord Shinra has been in Eto for a couple of weeks now, supposedly to look into his mother’s holdings. It won’t be common knowledge that he’s supplying the Army for some months, though he’ll be invited to the palace shortly." She would be the one to know, after all, so Roy nodded in thanks for the information.

"I’d heard that there was a foreign lord in Eto, but hadn’t managed to free up any time to investigate the matter before the blizzard," Hughes explained with a sheepish grin on his face. "And of course by the time it had passed, things were much too hectic." He stared intently at Rude, his glasses slid down his nose an inch. "What’s the story about him being here? Last I heard, he was supposed to be wintering in Berin."

Rude grunted softly and raised his goblet to his lips, pausing for a moment so he could answer the question. "The story is that he offended some very important people in Berin and felt it best to leave the country for a while. That, of course, is covered by the excuse of examining the property his mother left to him and making new business contacts in Kritiker." The man’s voice was very deep, and his attention seemed to wander over to the other table as he spoke. Roy noticed that he was positioned at the table to be able to look over there with ease, especially in Aya’s direction. Or… maybe not so much Aya as the other stranger sitting next to the kage, who was also dressed in white and black.

"Well, if you’re at this table then I doubt your lord is for Esset or even entirely human." Hughes tilted his head to the left side, the friendly smile on his face at odds with the calculating look in his eyes. There were few things he loved more than ferreting out information, after all.

Thankfully, Rude didn’t seem offended by the question. "No, and no." He took a long drink from his cup and set it back on the table. "Anything more than that, I’m not authorized to say tonight. I’m here so my lord remains abreast of current events."

"That and I bet Reno annoyed the hell out of him so Rufus finally gave in and allowed him to come for a visit." Kudoh was clearly amused by something and looked in the same direction that Rude had before. Roy was left with the impression that ‘Reno’ was the long-haired stranger who appeared to be sitting almost too close to Kudoh’s mate. He shared a look with his brother, and was given the signal that Crawford would explain better later.

"No comment," Rude replied, revealing with a slight twitch of the lips the first a hint of emotion since Roy had sat down. Several people laughed at the remark, the same time that Marta and Omi arrived bearing platters of food. Hughes crowed in joy as he helped himself to several slices of roast beef and some vegetables, and Roy managed to grab some food himself before Jei got hold of the serving platter.

"How did it go today?" Crawford asked while everyone busied themselves with grabbing at the available food before it vanished.

Roy waited for things to quiet down a little before responding. "The suggestion was brought up that it may be wiser for the Generals to remain close to the king during any battles, to best keep an eye on events and alter any strategies. Since the Royal Wizard has assured the queen that he’ll be able to supply adequate means of communication, younger, less important officers can remain with their squads and issue orders from the Generals." His smile just then was very pleased and revealed a hint of teeth, which made Jei growl softly and Crawford’s own slight smile to widen.

"And?" his brother asked, well aware of who had brought up the suggestion.

"It’s been favorably received." Roy allowed a bit of his demon nature to come through in his voice and expression, which prompted Kudoh to growl as well.

"What is the importance of that?" Rude asked, his attention completely focused on Roy for the first time that evening.

Crawford patted Jei on the left shoulder and poured more wine into the flesh gaki bound’s goblet. "In most of the major squads, those ‘younger, less important officers’ will either be bounds or humans sympathetic to our cause. That’ll make it easier to ensure that our people will be able to use their abilities during the fighting as well as provide some protection." He bowed as deeply as he could while seated at the table to Roy. "Well done."

Birman made an amused sound and turned toward Yuushi. "I believe that we didn’t just hear that."

"Hmm? I’m sorry, I was too busy going over some slight schedule changes to pay any attention right now," Yuushi replied, his lips curved in a wicked grin. "What were they saying?"

Hughes stopped eating long enough to give the two humans a mock glare. "Oh, sure, the Spymaster always sides with the Guard. I see how you two are," he sniffed.

Birman inclined her head slightly. "Wasn’t it the Army that insisted that it could supply its own intelligence? *I* knew about Lord Rufus entering the city within ten minutes of him clearing the Gate."

"Show off." Hughes actually stuck his tongue out at the woman. "That’s because you’re engaged in an affair with the Guard’s second in command, you know." At Birman and Yuushi’s shocked expression, he chuckled in glee. "Haven’t heard that rumor, have you? I’m actually ashamed to say it’s a matter of some discussion at the Gilded Sword." He really did appear guilty to mention the rumor.

"I guess… that’s one way to explain why I visit the Koneko often, though I assumed people would associate me with Botan, not you," Birman murmured as she looked at Yuushi.

The Guard shrugged and managed a shaky smile. "I’m not offended to be linked to such a lovely woman." His expression strengthened as he glanced across to the other table. "It’s better than to have people say that I’m involved with Reiichi!"

Everybody laughed at the joke, even Rude managed a chuckle or two. Kudoh reached over to pat Yuushi on the back and winked at Birman. "So, when’s the wedding?" That set off more laughter, especially when Jei asked if he could kiss the bride and Birman accused him of just wanting to take a bite out of her.

For Roy, it was a decidedly mixed moment. He was sitting at a table with bounds and humans, the two getting along well enough to joke with each other, let alone make plans for a war. He felt some remorse that more of his Army friends weren’t here, that this had to take place somewhere associated with the Guard, but had hopes that things would be better in that regard soon. Many of the new recruits were bounds, with more planning to join the Army in the near future.

Crawford had to clear his throat twice to get everyone to stop laughing and teasing each other. "Lady and gentlemen, I believe all of us have limited time for discussion. I suggest we focus on what we came here to talk about and save the jokes for later."

As much as Roy hated to admit it, his brother was correct. Hughes would want to leave for home to see his family before it got too late, and he needed some time tonight alone with Ed. Kudoh and Masato were already fidgeting as if anxious to return to their mates’ sides, and he was sure that Rude, Yuushi and Birman had a lot of work ahead of them tonight.

Masato pushed away his mostly finished plate of food before reaching into his leather vest for something. "Since we’re on the topic of the Army, I’ve a list of recruits for you." He pulled out a folded piece of paper and handed it to Roy. That seemed to sober everyone up; smiles were replaced by expressions of interest and concentration.

Roy allowed himself a slight smile when he saw over a dozen names neatly written down, with talents and specialties noted beside them. Handing the paper over to Hughes, he nodded in gratitude to Masato. "Thank you."

Jei put his elbows on the table and leaned forward. "I’ll have a list for you in about a week. The people I know won’t exactly fit in well with the Guard." He bared his very sharp teeth at Roy and Hughes as if in explanation. Roy assumed he meant other flesh gaki bounds; they would be better served with the ‘pack’ mentality of the Army rather than the more individualistic Guard.

Rude spoke up as well. "Lord Shinra has expressed some interest in placing people in both the Army and Shadow Guard." He smoothed the fingers of his right hand over his neatly trimmed goatee. "Several employees are willing to join either organization, based on wherever you feel they’ll fit best." He pointedly looked at Yuushi and Roy.

"If you don’t mind, please ask Lord Shinra for a list of their abilities and talents," Birman said, a pleased gleam in her eyes as she stared intently at the man. "Also, please let me know if anyone from his security or gokenin staff is on that list, as I could make very good use of people that skilled. Lord Shinra’s security is on par with that of the Elders and Lord Raberba-Winner."

"He’ll be very pleased to hear that."

"Guess Reiichi better get used to helping with cadet training," Kudoh remarked. "Which, if we’re done with this topic, brings us to the next one. How are the bound recruits doing, Yuushi?"

While Yuushi supplied Kudoh with a lengthy answer, Roy pushed his half empty goblet of wine aside and reached for one of the carafes of coffee that Marta had just brought to the table. Now was the time to focus on the information being exchanged and coming up with some necessary questions and answers. Hughes had given up dinner in favor of writing several things down in his notebook, and the sense that Roy got from Crawford was that his brother was increasingly happy with how things were going tonight. That could be interpreted in that the future would benefit from this discussion, which put Roy a bit at ease.

This was what he’d wanted from his brother, what had in part driven him to stand up to Crawford. The future would not and *could not* be decided by one man, even if he was a very powerful precog. No, it would be shaped by the people who worked hard and sacrificed for it, who did their best to increase the odds in their favor and limit the damage everyone would suffer. When all was said and done, Roy wanted to be able to know that he’d done his best and given his all so that the people he cared for survived and had a future ahead of them. He wanted to be able to come home to find Ed and Al arguing over some obscure principle, make dinner and spend the night with his mate. What Crawford wanted was to defeat the Elders. For Roy’s future to come about as well as his brother’s, he had to be an active participant in it and to fight for it.

One thing was certain, he thought with growing amusement and pride as he looked around the table, it would definitely be a very interesting fight.

*******

Heero smoothed his gloved right hand along the front of his uniform despite the fact that it was impeccably ironed. He made a slight adjustment to his belt to ensure that the buckle was settled properly and then forced his hand to drop back by his side. There was no reason at all for him to be so nervous; he’d completed dozens of successful missions, and even though this was more important and should last longer than any of the previous ones, it was just a mission. The hardest part – being accepted into the Army – was in the past, and now all he had to worry about was to make a good enough impression on his new commander. It was Heero’s duty to rise as quickly as he could through the organization’s rank so he could be of the most use to the Elders.

Resisting the urge to see if he’d smudged the mirror-like shine of his boots, he straightened his back even more when he heard someone walking down the hallway that led to Major Zech Marquis’ office, in front of which he was stationed.

He’d met the man once before at the Gilded Sword, yet he was struck anew by the major’s appearance. Marquis’ long, silver-white hair was perfectly groomed, and the top half of his handsome face was mostly hidden behind thick bangs, a hat and a pair of sunglasses that he was rarely without. There was not a single thing wrong with the human’s dark blue uniform, the buttons in a straight row and not a single decoration or badge crooked.

Beside the tall, lean man walked Marquis’ adjutant, Lieutenant Lucrezia Noin. In sharp contrast to her commanding officer, her hair was cut short, the black strands slicked close to her head. There was a friendly smile on her lovely face, and her uniform was just as impeccable as Marquis’. Together with their contrasting appearance and height, they made an impressive sight striding down the corridor.

"Private Yuy, I see you believe in reporting early to duty," Marquis said, his smooth, cultured voice just as deep as Heero remembered. The major nodded to his secretary, the young woman blushing slightly as she murmured ‘good morning’ and handed over several documents.

"Yes, sir," Heero replied and performed a perfect bow. All the years at the Elders’ sides had taught him manners that would serve him very well in his latest career.

A faint smile turned up the edges of Marquis’ mouth while Noin expressed more evident amusement. "No wonder Major Armstrong was singing your praises." Marquis stared at Heero for a moment before turning his attention to the documents he’d been given the minute or two before. He quickly went through the stack and handed several to Noin. "Please wait here for a moment while I talk to Private Yuy, then have him accompany you while you handle completing those assignments."

"Yes, Major." Noin accepted the orders with a cheerful grace and opened the door for the major. Marquis then motioned for Heero to enter the room first and followed behind.

About a third of the room was taken up by a huge desk covered with neat stacks of paperwork and folders. There was a large window that was cracked open, its dark green curtains pushed aside to let in the weak winter sunlight. Two slim, leather covered chairs were stationed in front of the desk, and most of the room’s remaining space was occupied by filing cabinets and bookshelves. It was clear from looking around that Marquis was a busy officer entrusted with a lot of information. Since Heero hadn’t been able to find a position in the Army’s Intelligence departments, this appeared to be the next best assignment he could hope for.

Marquis placed the remaining documents on his desk, turned around and sat on the furniture’s edge, his long legs stretched out before him and crossed at the ankles. His arms were folded over his chest, and with half of his face effectively hidden from view, it was difficult to figure out what he was thinking. All Heero could do was continue to stand at attention.

"From what Major Armstrong had told me, you’re a very skilled fighter, Private Yuy. I expect you to spend several hours a week practicing with the rest of my unit, improving your abilities and assisting those less skilled."

"Yes, sir," Heero replied with a minor bow, his back straight once more as he regarded his new ‘commanding officer’. There was silence for at least a minute as they both looked at each other. "What are the rest of my duties, sir?" he dared to ask, uncomfortable with the human’s intent regard. What was it about Marquis that made his heart race and the air to get caught in his throat? Heero had met more attractive men in his years, but there was something about this man, something that commanded his interest and respect.

Marquis inclined his head about an inch to the left. "You’re a handsome young man with a deferential air, and while you come across as quiet, you do have the ability to speak when not spoken to, which is good." He pushed away from the desk and stood up straight. "Talks between the Army and the Guard are… not going well, which means that more of my time is required at the palace. That also means that there are matters which I usual handle here which have been left unattended, so Lieutenant Noin will be seeing to them in my absence. I accepted you into my unit because I’ve the need for someone who will be able to both blend in at Court and assist the lieutenant here. I believe that you may be such a person." There was almost no emotion in Marquis’ voice, both it and his visible expression utterly neutral. Heero was left unsure if he was receiving an honor or not.

"Sir, I am here to do whatever you require of me," he said after a slight pause, inwardly pleased to hear that he would have access to the palace. That would make it easier to see Trowa, and it would be a good place for him to eavesdrop on important discussions.

"A commendable attitude, Private Yuy. Let’s hope you have no qualms about your duty after a few days spent standing around the palace as my private page and running orders back and forth between me and Noin." He let out a slow breath and offered Heero a sliver of a smile. "Should there be any cause for fighting, our division will be at the front lines. Until then, we will do our best to be prepared, and I will supply the Spymaster with all the trivial information that she requests." His elegant, white-gloved right hand waved through the air and indicated all the documents stored about.


Heero would give almost anything to have a chance to go through all this information, and hoped that he’d have an opportunity to investigate the office at his leisure some day. As it was, Marquis or someone else had the sense to station wards above the window and doorframe, along the walls, ceiling, shelves and cabinets. The sigils were clearly displayed around the office, an obvious warning to any hopeful spy.

The war was still two years away, possibly three, so Heero would have to bide his time, obtain the major and the lieutenant’s confidences and find a way around those wards. It would take patience and skill on his part, but he was confident in his own abilities. He’d never assumed that he would be in an immediate position to retrieve the knowledge that the Elders wanted, but this was a good start. He wouldn’t fail this mission.

"Understood, sir." Heero performed another perfect bow and clasped his hands behind his back. "I am here to be of service to you and the Army," he blithely lied.

The major gave him an assessing look, and a slight breeze stirred around the office, brushing along Heero and leaving him slightly chilled by its coldness. "Let’s hope I can put your devotion to adequate use," Marquis remarked before taking a step forward. "If you have any questions, Lieutenant Noin will be able to answer them." He motioned to the door, his eyes still intent on Heero’s face.

Bowing once more, Heero made his leave. He felt both relieved and upset to leave the man’s office – no, to leave his presence. Something about Marquis called out to him, almost as if the man was a powerful bound, which was an utterly ridiculous thought. If Duo was here, he’d laugh at its improbable nature and tell Heero that his hormones had finally kicked in. Heero wasn’t sure about the second part of his thoughts, but refused to consider the possibility that there were any bounds in the Army; the Elders had stressed to him time and time again that they were the only ones who accepted bounds, that Kritiker did its best to ensure that no bound rose to a position of power.

No, he was just imagining things. That was a bit of foolishness that he had to set aside immediately, he told himself as he closed the office door behind him. Other than his companions from Esset, he was the only bound in the immediate vicinity. All around him were humans who would kill him for his demon nature, and it was his job to make sure that they didn’t win the war and doom his kind to extinction.

*******

Duo stalked into the kitchen, his hands busy doing up the many tiny buttons of his white shirt. He was sure that the uniform was designed to annoy the hell out of him, and couldn’t wait until he truly was a Guard so he didn’t have to wear this shit anymore.

Shirt now buttoned, he allowed his annoyance to switch to another target. "Trowa! It was my turn to make breakfast!" He’d actually gotten the hang of making eggs and bacon in the last few days, and had been looking forward to having breakfast ready for his friend. Trust Trowa to wake up early and ruin the surprise.

Trowa glanced over his shoulder and gave Duo a very faint smile. "I was in the mood for oatmeal." That was the only explanation from him, and before Duo could continue the argument, he caught a whiff of something that smelled delicious. He’d always loved cinnamon…

His smile growing stronger, Trowa left the stove, a large pot in his left hand as he approached the table, which was set with two bowls. "Fetch the coffee," he said as he filled the bowls with the oatmeal.

Hurrying to comply, Duo went to the stove for the percolating pot of coffee. Hmm, fresh coffee and what he was sure to be a tasty breakfast, the day didn’t start out much better than this. Well, having a bit of wake-up sex would make it damn near perfect in his book, but he wasn’t going to think about that too much while standing less than ten feet from Trowa. The water elemental was powerful enough to tell where all the blood in Duo’s body was rushing to, after all….

"There’s another cold front moving in," he said as way of a distraction as he filled their mugs with the wonderful-smelling beverage. "You’d better dress warm today."

Trowa nodded and set the pot on top of the potholder set in the middle of the table. "I sensed something, but there’s very little moisture associated with this front. It’ll flurry for a couple of hours today but that’s it. The air is very dry."

"Which means that it’s really cold. I hope Sandra remembered to get some coal yesterday," Duo said as he shrugged, mindful of the very full mug of coffee in his right hand. He’d talked to the woman yesterday and she said that she was doing pretty good; ever since the snowstorm, she was much more open and affectionate with him and Trowa, and Duo found himself liking the odd relationship. Solo was basically the only human friend he’d had before, so this was a rare experience with him. However, it was one he would have to get used to, as he’d soon be working closely with a bunch of humans.

"What are you doing for training today?" Trowa asked with a quiet yet curious tone. He was so good at guessing Duo’s thoughts that Duo didn’t really hear the question at first. It sunk in after a mouthful of coffee that he’d been asked something.

Setting the mug aside, Duo grinned at his friend. "Sparring contests. We get to find out which of us are the best at fighting, which means I get to kick Nicole’s ass." He was sure that Wufei and Quatre would give him hell about looking forward to ‘beating’ up a woman, but they didn’t have to deal with the bitch almost every day. Whatever it was about her that annoyed the hell out of him hadn’t gotten any better in the last couple of weeks.

"I’d be a bit careful if I were you," Trowa admonished, doing his best to hide the fact that his lips were slightly curled by taking another bite of oatmeal, but Duo noticed. How the hell couldn’t he notice the slightest detail about the gorgeous man? Duo quickly reminded himself about Jei’s threats to calm himself down. "Women are known to be unpredictable so she may surprise you."

Duo wrinkled his nose at his friend before taking a bite of his own breakfast. He quickly forgot to mock Nicole and Trowa’s defense of her when he tasted delicious cinnamon, sugar and apples. "Damn, this is really good, Trowa!" Then Duo realized what he said and flushed a little, his hand busy scooping up more of the oatmeal. "I mean, well… where the hell did you learn to cook like this?" He didn’t mean to imply that he was shocked that Trowa was a decent cook, just that he had no clue how Trowa could make so many delicious meals.

Nodding in acknowledgement of the compliment, Trowa stirred his spoon around in the bowl. "I’ve been sent on enough solo missions that I either had to learn to feed myself or always order take-out all the time. So I bought a few simple cookbooks and taught myself."

The way he said it, so quiet and simple, made it seem like not much of a big deal. Duo knew better – the Elders didn’t exactly encourage any of their more powerful ‘subjects’ to be self-sufficient, wanting to keep everyone of value close at hand and unwilling or unable to go off on their own. Obviously, Trowa wouldn’t have learned how to cook while in Berin, so Duo had belated realized that there was a chance his friend might have picked up something while with those fucking assholes who’d abused him. He slowly let out a captive breath when he realized that he hadn’t dredged up any painful memories for Trowa.

He had another bite of the oatmeal before he nodded and chuckled a few times. "Heero and I always get our meals from wherever’s easiest: an inn, some roadside stand, a restaurant… hell, he even paid some farmer’s wife to fix us something we could take with us one day when we were stuck in the middle of nowhere." Oh yes, he was so much happier to be partnered with Trowa for this mission; not only could Trowa cook, but he was willing to bet that the quiet bound knew just how much he loved cinnamon and apples.

For the past two weeks, ever since Trowa had been sick, things had… well, they’d definitely changed, albeit in very minor ways. Duo hadn’t been aware of it at first, not until he got to thinking about several things and finally put the pieces together. If that hadn’t been enough, waking up in the middle of the night to find Trowa sleeping only a very scant inch away would have finally shocked some sense into him.

Perhaps it was because of the illness brought on by energy drain, but Trowa seemed to trust him so much more now. Duo hadn’t taken advantage of his sick friend when Trowa had been unable to defend himself, no matter how much he’d been tempted a time or two. After all, Trowa was so damn gorgeous, and so aloof during the best of times. Who couldn’t resist holding him close and being allowed to express desires that would be shunned when Trowa regained his senses?

Duo hated to think that he might have Masato partially to thank for the fact that Trowa seemed to be getting over some of his shyness and fear about intimacy, but at least he was comforted with the fact that Trowa was letting him get closer. Even if all he could do was give his friend an occasional gesture of affection such as brushing aside Trowa’s bangs or a squeeze on the shoulder, it was more than anyone other than him and a couple of people were allowed. Just the other night at the Koneko, some drunk had tried to pin Trowa against the wall and get ‘friendly’, only to stumble aside and pass out. Everyone else had assumed that the liquor had finally caught up to the asshole, but Duo knew better. There’d been that certain set to Trowa’s jaw, a hint of tension that didn’t usually show in his impassive façade that meant that the water elemental had lashed out with his talent. The drunken asshole was just lucky that Trowa had done something before Duo or Jei had gotten close enough to use their talents.

While he thought about such things, he finished the oatmeal in his bowl and helped himself to seconds, happy to have something so warm and filling to eat before walking to the palace. Trowa rose once from the table to refill their mugs, the expression on his face genuinely at peace. As much as Duo enjoyed talking, he’d learned to give Trowa this quiet time in the morning, something his friend seemed to need. If he held back on his desire for conversation until they left for work, then Trowa was usually in a good mood and actually talked to him along the long walk.

When they’d both had enough to eat, cleaned up the dishes and finished getting ready for the day, they headed out the door together. When they reached the bottom of the steps and faced the doors leading outside, Duo slid his right arm around Trowa’s shoulders, to all the world appearing as if he was giving his boyfriend a quick hug. What he was doing was enveloping Trowa with a pocket of warm air that would keep the water elemental from growing too cold during the walk – something that he could do without touching Trowa, but he would rather play down his talent and have an excuse to touch Trowa.

As always, Trowa gave him a smile in thanks, one that contained a hint of nervousness. However, Duo had realized recently that the nervousness had changed. Before, Trowa would quickly pull away while now… he leaned the slightest bit against Duo before moving away.

"Will we be meeting at the Koneko tonight?" Trowa asked, his voice partially muffled by him wrapping his scarf around the lower half of his face.

Doing the same, Duo nodded then pulled up the hood of his cloak. "Yeah, since the losers have to buy drinks today." He chuckled again as he thought about facing off against human opponents. The sound became even more pleased when his thoughts shifted to how everyone at the Koneko believed that Trowa was his boyfriend. As far as his fellow Guard cadets were concerned, Trowa was there because of Duo, so they could go home together after a hard day of work.

Duo used the excuse of crowded sidewalks to step closer to Trowa, doing his best to shield his friend from any accidental touches. One day soon, it wouldn’t be an act, he’d decided. He’d been able to mostly deny his feelings when Trowa had been sick or had seemed uninterested in him, but the way that Trowa had actually touched him in the last two weeks, had stopped being so bothered by Duo touching him…. Duo had no clue what it was that made Trowa even remotely interested in him, but he wasn’t going to let this opportunity pass him by. He focused as much of his attention as necessary on getting into the Guard, but the majority of it was for Trowa.

He didn’t know how long it would take to turn quick hugs and the brush of fingertips against cheek and hair into true caresses – more than likely, the answer was ‘a very long time’. However, he was prepared for that. What mattered the most was not hurting or spooking Trowa, so he’d have to move slowly. As much as Heero and Wufei bitched about Duo being impulsive or impatient, he wasn’t going to mess things up this time. Even if it took a couple of years, he’d have Trowa in the end which would make everything worth it.

Two men were busy carrying what appeared to be a burlap wrapped mattress along the sidewalk, taking up most of the space. It didn’t escape Duo’s notice that Trowa pressed against him rather than risk bumping into the two men… to the extent that they cleared Trowa by at least a foot. Or the fact that Trowa didn’t immediately move away.

Yes, Duo was going to do whatever he had to so he could walk down this sidewalk with Trowa pressed against him, his arm around his boyfriend’s waist. That wasn’t as lofty a goal as some of his friends would aspire to, such as Heero taking over Kritiker or Wufei breaking free of the Elders, but somehow he knew it was what would make him the happiest.

Now all he had to do was borrow a very long sword from someone, as well as a suit of armor, and let Jei know about his intentions. Maybe he could ask around and find something really foul-tasting to rub over his body, just in case the armor failed. Duo wasn’t sure how well Jei would take the news of him courting Trowa, but he had a feeling it was best to be prepared.

*******

Rufus motioned for Rude to leave his and Reno’s luggage near the bedroom’s closet door and then for the gokenin to leave. /Assist Tseng with checking the rest of the house then allow the staff in so they can prepare us some dinner./

/Yes, my lord./ Rude was clearly pleased with the thought of having bound servants to make life easier for them all again, and eager to finish the security checks of their new home. He and Tseng had already gone through the estate the other day, but it was safest to ensure that no one had tampered with things since then.

Rufus felt a sense of peace over leaving the Highborn’s Retreat and settling in his mother’s Eto home. The lavish estate was within a respectable distance of the palace, making it easier to attend business there and with other highborn. Also, the well-built mansion with its surrounding gardens and high gates was more secure than staying at an inn, and would allow him and his people necessary privacy. Since gaining the king’s approval to resume his business here in Kritiker, all that had held Rufus back from moving in was awaiting several servants from his Esset home. They would be joined by a few bounds who Kudoh and Jo had asked for him to take on.

While he was happy to be here, his mate stalked around the room like a suspicious cat, lacking only the poofed-out tail lashing back and forth to show his unease. Reno poked into this and that, opening various drawers, vanishing into the closet and then the bathing room for a few minutes, even looking beneath the bed as he inspected the room. Several sparks flew about as he warded various things with his odd talent, the scent of ozone filling the room. Rufus watched him with growing amusement, pleased over Reno’s attention to duty and doing his best not to laugh at the disgruntled look on his lover’s face.

Finally coming to a halt in front of Rufus, Reno motioned with his left hand around the room. "Look, I know you’re not supposed to speak ill of the dead, but what is it about your mother decorating places to look like expensive but tacky whorehouses?"

If it weren’t for the fact that the room was more than a little ‘gaudy’ with all its gold furnishings, feminine sense of decoration and useless knickknacks that were never-the-less expensive antiques, Rufus would take some offense at the remark. However, he wasn’t blind and had never really understood his mother’s taste in furnishings, either. "What would you know about expensive whorehouses?" he asked, his arms folded over his chest as he stared back at Reno.

Reno’s disgruntled expression turned into a wicked grin. "More than you really want to know." He sounded rather happy about something, which prompted Rufus to stride forward and shove his mate onto the very plush and large bed. Sprawled on his back, his bright red hair, pale skin and finely made new black uniform in stark contrast to the bed’s gold velvet comforter, Reno didn’t seem worried about provoking Rufus’ anger.

Annoyed by that fact, Rufus pushed deep into his mate’s mind, the task requiring very little effort since their bond had strengthened ever since the blizzard had ended. Leaving their link unblocked except for on a couple of occasions made it so easy for Rufus to search out the memories that he wanted found. Reno responded with a faint hiss, the sound dying out when Rufus settled on top of his mate.

What would Reeve do if he knew that the dear friend he’d entrusted Reno to while the dubhach was still a child had taken Reno to several whorehouses? From what Rufus could tell, most of those times were when the man, Cid, had gone visiting succubae bound friends and didn’t want to leave Reno alone long enough to get into trouble… but he’d also enjoyed himself on several occasions. No wonder Reno was such a skilled lover, after spending quite a few afternoons chatting with prostitutes. After making sure that all those prostitutes had done was talk to Reno and provide a few decidedly risqué demonstrations, Rufus withdrew slightly from his lover’s mind.

"Now I know why you’re so messed up, considering your childhood," Rufus commented as he nudged Reno’s legs farther apart and nestled between them.

"Hey, I had a lot of fun at least, dammit." Reno stuck out the tip of his tongue and wriggled beneath Rufus. He reached out as if to push Rufus aside, but his hands were easily caught and pressed against the mattress, his arms stretched out above his head.

Rufus failed to see how being abandoned on the streets at an early age, forced to steal and scrounge around for food and shelter, and exposed to the seedier parts of life was ‘fun’. Even after Reeve had found Reno, he’d been brought up in a rather dubious environment, which explained his love of swearing, among other things. Dipping back into his lover’s memories, Rufus smiled when he caught one in particular. "You know how to properly serve tea? I’ll have to put that to the test one day soon."

This time more than the tip of Reno’s tongue was stuck out. /You’re a bastard./ He wiggled about some more, a half-hearted attempt to worm his way free. /I think I’m allergic to gold velvet or something./

/I plan on redecorating the place in the next few weeks./ Rufus leaned closer, his nose brushing against Reno’s forehead as he breathed in deep his mate’s scent. The room reeked of dust and the lilac perfume that his mother had always worn, never mind that the woman was dead these past five years. Even with her scent lingering in the room, he could barely recall what she looked like since she’d left his father over three decades ago. /And no, I’m not letting you have any say in decorating./

Reno pouted at that comment, his eyes narrowing slightly as he tested Rufus’ grip around his wrists. "I’m living here too, aren’t I?"

"Yes, but your idea of decorating is boarding up the windows and getting rid of all the furniture besides the bed and a comfortable couch." Rufus still remembered what Reno’s room had looked like before he’d taken the dubhach as a lover and had Reno move in with him. Oh, he forgot about the nest of pillows and blankets in one of the corners, with Reno spending equal time sleeping in all three places for some odd reason.

"Less stuff to clean that way," Reno pointed out, once more trying to pull his wrists free. Rufus growled in warning and tightened his grip on them until he felt bones shift beneath his fingers.

Wincing a little at the pain, Reno bared his teeth the same time that he arched his neck. "Ya gonna fuck me or not?" His legs wrapped around Rufus’ waist as desire and amusement washed over their link. "This bed needs broken in, na?"

"You finally say something sensible today," Rufus purred as he shifted his lover’s wrists to his left hand while his right reached down to hug Reno’s leg tighter around his waist. He had no problem with leaving the chore of security to Tseng and Rude while he ‘broke in’ the bed, replacing the stench of lilacs with that of sex. Besides, he was feeling a little hungry, too busy in the past day to devote much attention to his mate and feed from Reno’s intense emotions.

Reno snorted in derision and arched his back, his lips brushing against Rufus’ chin. "You’re being a bastard again." His thoughts circled around Rufus’ ‘neglect’ of him since yesterday morning, the need to feel Rufus deep inside his mind and body, and how he could get out of a bit of work by having some fun. Beneath it all were his two natures urging him to tilt back his head and expose his neck, to offer himself to Rufus and confirm the bond between them. They were unsettled by all the change and the lack of attention, about to tear into each other once more unless appeased.

Rufus found it amazing and a bit disconcerting how well he could pick up those dual natures now that he’d stopped fighting so much against the bond between him and Reno. Lately, Reno’s emotions had been more even, not switching from extreme to extreme so often as he was goaded by conflicting impulses. Rufus actually had hope of his mate behaving while at Court and of Reno not giving in to any destructive urges. It was quite the balancing act, keeping his and Reno’s emotions straight let alone their thoughts on occasion, but it was worth the added effort. The only bad thing about the recent changes was that Yohji Kudoh would be undeniably smug if he ever learned that Rufus was taking his and Aya’s advice.

/Pay attention to *me*,/ Reno commanded as he gave a sharp nip to Rufus’ chin. /I know you’re going to go back to all your scheming and boring meetings tomorrow, so this is *my* time with you./ He didn’t try to hide his emotions or thoughts of how much he wanted Rufus, of his determination to enjoy himself as much as possible today.

"So demanding," Rufus murmured as he ground his hips forward the same time he had his mouth hover over Reno’s. "I’m sorry to tell you this, but I’m pretty sure that my mother didn’t leave any lube available." He didn’t want to move from Reno and go fetch it from their luggage, not when it felt so good to rest on top of his lover, to feel Reno’s burgeoning arousal press against his hip.

Smiling in delight, Reno bridged the distance between them for a kiss. /Left pocket of my coat./ There was an image of a tiny jar tucked away in the pocket in anticipation of this moment. After that first night at the Koneko, Reno was determined to not be caught without again.

Even though he was enjoying the kiss, Rufus pulled back enough to laugh. "You can be frightening at times," he purred as he searched for the pocket, his left hand releasing his mate’s wrists so his fingers could slide through silky, tangled hair.

"I just want you." Reno’s hands came to rest on Rufus’ shoulders with a faint prick of nails. "Besides, I hear that Jouyoku blesses the house if you fuck in each of the rooms." He waggled his eyebrows and laughed when Rufus groaned and shook his head.

"You’ll use any excuse," Rufus scolded as he finally found the small jar. Forcing his fingers from Reno’s luxurious hair, he sat up so he could remove his clothes. "What about your fellow gokenin, currently working hard to ensure that our new home is safe?"

"They’re happy that I’ve gotten you out of their way," Reno shot back as he lifted up enough so he could shrug off his new coat and work on the laces of his white shirt. Rufus gave his lover a cold look for just tossing the garments aside, which Reno ignored in favor of helping him with the last of his shirts.

Deciding not to pursue the topic of his gokenin wanting him out of their way, Rufus pulled back a little more so he could undo the laces of his pants, hampered by the fact that he was fully erect at the moment. Once the pants were gone, he dragged Reno’s unlaced pants off his lover’s long legs, making a point to fold them neatly and toss them onto the bench at the foot of the bed. Reno laughed at his actions and pulled him back down, against smooth, warm skin.

As renewed lust and sparkling pleasure poured into him, Rufus picked up the small jar and quickly unscrewed it while he did his best to kiss his mate senseless. That wasn’t really that difficult to do, not with the way that Reno surrendered to his emotions, almost desperate for whatever pleasure Rufus gave him. There was a flare of smug satisfaction on Rufus’ part that the strengthened bond benefited him in more ways than one, quickly lost to ecstasy when Reno’s left hand wrapped around his cock.

"Be… patient," Rufus hissed as he slicked his fingers and nudged Reno’s legs farther apart. Reno eagerly complied, spreading them wide and bringing his feet in close to his thighs to expose himself. His eyes were open to mere slits, showing a flash of green and silver, while his face was flushed with passion. An almost violent torrent of emotion rushed into Rufus, so much need and desire that he almost thrust into his mate just then. Fortunately, a remaining bit of control and common sense made him push one of his slick fingers inside instead, quickly followed by a second.

The burning, turbulent emotions both fanned and sated Rufus’ hunger, making him crave more as he feasted on them. It was as if he became addicted to pleasure, lust and need, able to only feed from Reno as no one felt those emotions as deeply or potently as his mate. While he could still feed from Reno’s emotions any other time, it was in the midst of sex that they tasted best and truly appeased his hunger.

Almost frantic to placate his craving for them, Rufus nuzzled the side of Reno’s jaw, urging his mate to tilt his head back even more. Once again Reno eagerly complied, his eyes closing completely and a low, needy moan building in his throat. Taking in a shuddering breath, the air scented so strongly by him and Reno, Rufus pulled his fingers free from his lover’s body the same time his mouth settled on Reno’s neck.

Reno’s hands returned to his shoulders while Rufus scooped out more lubricant, his tongue laving against smooth skin until he found the spot where he could feel Reno’s pulse. That distracted him enough to regain control of himself as he quickly stroked his slick hand along his cock and shifted his mate’s legs onto his shoulders. A moment taken to line himself up before his hands grabbed hold of his lover’s hips, he began to suck hard right when he snapped his hips forward.

There was tight resistance and then pure pleasure brought on by being sheathed in gripping, velvety heat. Reno’s pulse pounded against his lips, Reno’s cry of pleasure and desire heard both by his ears and inside his head. The emotions between them burned even hotter, a maelstrom of need and ecstasy that increased with each sharp, forceful thrust of Rufus’ hips.

Bending Reno almost in half and lifting his lower body from the bed, Rufus spared one hand to hold his lover in that position while his other wrapped around Reno’s cock. Suddenly, over a day without this was too much, Rufus’ control disintegrating until all he could do was move, to thrust in deep, rake his teeth along Reno’s neck, pump Reno’s with increasingly fast strokes. He rocked back onto his knees so he could put more force behind the motions, could better see Reno’s flushed face and bruised neck as the ecstasy seared through them both.

Reno’s hands tangled in his crimson hair, sparks flying about as he arched his back and screamed out Rufus’ name. His heels dug into Rufus’ back, pulling him even closer as if Rufus could push any deeper into his body. Rufus could feel his mate’s building orgasm, how each snap of his hips pushed Reno closer to it, Reno’s emotions growing more potent and overwhelming with each heartbeat. Rufus’ own emotions were closely tied to his mate’s as he feasted on them, his body filled with the ecstasy it felt and Reno’s as well.

One more forceful thrust aimed just *so* and Reno screamed again, his nails clawing down Rufus’ back as he came. That sudden inferno of pleasure raced through Rufus, mixing with his own ecstasy/pain until he couldn’t hold back any longer.

As his own orgasm tore through him, he slumped forward, Reno’s now limp legs sliding from his shoulders. He barely got his arms braced in time to prevent his face from smacking into his mate’s, somehow managing to hold himself up a little as his body trembled from the ecstasy and he struggled to breathe.

He started when he felt Reno’s arms wrap around his lower back, a slight sting from what had to be deep grooves carved into his skin from his mate’s nails. Bending his arms a little more, Rufus stretched out on top of Reno, the left side of his face pressing against slightly dusty velvet as his breathing slowly evened.

Hearing the faint purr from his lover, Rufus groaned and rolled over onto his left side, surprising a yelp from Reno who held onto him and rolled over as well. Facing each other, Rufus’s shaking right hand brushed back the sweat-darkened strands of hair clinging to his lover’s forehead.

/Now the maid’s going to have to remake the bed./ Rufus smiled as he sent that thought, imaging how the new bed linen would stand out in sharp contrast to all the gold and muted earth tones that filled the room.

Reno grunted as he reached over for a pillow which he then threw at one of the carved cherubs at the foot of the bed. /The woman had hideous taste, Rufus. What the hell is up with all the freaky brats with wings?/

/It was a fashion from about four hundred years ago; some artist’s rendition of messengers for the gods that became very popular./ Rufus looked over his shoulder at the ghastly things and shuddered. He had to be grateful to his mother for bringing him into the world, but that was about it. /I’ve already ordered a new bed./

"Hmm?" Reno tangled their legs together and shifted closer to Rufus. "New bed? This one is pretty comfy." Not to mention big enough that they could lay against it width-wise.

Rufus shrugged and continued to play with his mate’s hair. "Yohji mentioned something to me before we left the Koneko about a four poster bed." The succubae bound had brought it up when Rufus had made a passing comment about always stubbing his toes in a darkened bedroom; along with a smug grin and a comment about his sight improving the longer that he fed from Reno, Yohji had suggested the new bed. "The curtains will keep you out of the sunlight." He trailed the fingertips of his right hand along Reno’s curved, pale back.

Appearing surprised over the bed, Reno eyed Rufus with some suspicion and pulled back a little. "Really?" When Rufus nodded, Reno’s thoughts centered on how nice and warm such a bed would be, on him being able to sleep through the day and not be bothered by sunlight.

"Lazy bastard." Rufus hugged his mate closer again, shifting down a little so he could brush his lips against Reno’s marked neck. /You’ll have better things to do than sleep all day./

"No-nothing’s better than… oohhh." Reno gave up on what he was trying to say and let his head loll backwards, unable to think clearly about anything other than how good it felt when Rufus sucked on the spot right by his left ear. His fingers gripped Rufus’ tousled hair to keep him from pulling away too soon.

Quickly checking his other gokenin’s minds to make sure that there were no problems and to ascertain that dinner wouldn’t be for a few more hours, Rufus pressed his teeth against that very sensitive spot and inwardly smirked when Reno mewled his name. Tomorrow would be spent at Court, most of the day wasted as he waited to talk to various Ministers and highborns, so he would enjoy himself today. After all, the more he fed from Reno, the stronger he felt, both physically and mentally, so it was in his best interest. That it also felt so damn good to feel Reno’s purrs against his lips, to sense his mate’s desire and affection, to feed that increasingly insatiable hunger inside of him, were just added benefits.

Purring himself as he leaned further onto Reno, he gave up on the justifications to focus more intently on the pleasure.

*******

Slipping into the office, Aya padded silently across the room toward the desk, where Yohji was standing with his back to the door and his attention focused on some paperwork spread out before him. Even though Aya hadn’t made a sound, when he snaked his arm around his mate’s waist, Yohji only purred softly and hugged his left arm around Aya’s shoulders.

"Well, all it needs is Mickey’s signature, and Jo’s as a witness," Yohji said. His voice sounded light, but Aya could sense the sorrow that Yohji felt.

"You don’t have to do this, Yotan."

Yohji shook his head and turned around to face Aya, his hip resting against the edge of the desk. "Yes, I do." He pulled Aya closer as his emotions poured over their link: more of that sorrow, but also a sense of relief. "I don’t care what Jo and Omi say, but me leaving unexpectedly would cause the Koneko and Mickey a lot of problems. I’ve no doubts that Uncle Simon would contest the old will, and it would create a lot of gossip. I don’t want to take the chance of people talking about how the Koneko’s absent owner is a bound and draw some unwanted attention to the inn," Yohji explained, all the while his fingers combing through Aya’s hair.

Aya stepped forward to lean against his mate, both arms now wrapped around Yohji’s waist as his cheek rested against his mate’s shoulder. "It’s just a piece of paper, Yohji. I don’t think anyone’s going to think of you as other than the Koneko’s owner until you’re really gone." He felt some guilt at that – if it wasn’t for him, Yohji wouldn’t have to leave the Koneko for a couple of decades.

A kiss was pressed against his left temple and Yohji held him closer. "Don’t feel like that, Cat. I’m a bound so I’d have to leave eventually. At least now I’ve a sexy lover who’ll go with me." Yohji gently nipped at his ear until Aya sighed and shook his head.

"Besides, it’s not like Jo and Mickey didn’t get their way." Yohji’s right hand left Aya’s waist long enough to tap against the desk’s surface two times. "I and my ‘descendents’ will always own a small share of the inn while Mickey’s family will own most of it."

This time it was Aya’s turn to nip his mate, on the thin skin of Yohji’s neck. "They want to make sure that you know you’ll always be welcome here, Yohji. Get over the fact that you didn’t completely get what you wanted." He smiled when his love grumbled, well aware that Yohji didn’t really mind that particular clause in the legal document. In the end, Mickey had insisted that Yohji retain enough ownership that he could safeguard the Koneko from being sold by an unscrupulous heir as well as provide some sort of income for him and Aya. They’d always have a home here over the years, and Aya was comforted by that fact. He’d given up on the concept so long ago, only to find himself in a place that truly welcomed him and strove to keep him safe. Even if his true home would be with Yohji wherever they ended up in their lifetime, it was nice to know they could return here whenever they wanted.

They stood there by the desk for a minute, Aya perfectly content to listen to Yohji’s heartbeat and sense his mate’s happiness. Then Yohji had to go and ruin the moment by yanking on one of his eartails.

"Yohji," Aya hissed, snapping his teeth in warning even if Yohji was wearing a thick, dark brown sweater today.

"Aya," Yohji replied in a sing-song tone of voice. "When did Mickey and Jo say they were coming here?"

"In a few more minutes; the meat order had just arrived so they’re a little busy now." Aya batted his lover’s hand aside and glared slightly. "Why, are you afraid that someone will change their mind?"

Yohji scoffed and gave Aya a very constrictive squeeze for a couple of seconds. "Funny, Cat. No, I just have to meet Masato and Schu soon for my lesson."

Mention of the lesson made Aya pull away a little and look up at his mate. He still wasn’t quite sure what to think of Yohji’s new talent; on the one hand, he was pleased about anything that would keep Yohji safe, but it would only make Yohji that much more attractive to those who sought to use and abuse bounds for their own sakes. "How are the lessons progressing?" he asked instead of voicing his fears.

Even though he’d kept quiet, he knew that Yohji had sensed his emotions and could guess what he was thinking; they both were getting very good at guessing each other’s thoughts. Yohji smiled tenderly and brushed aside the bangs falling into Aya’s eyes. "I’ve gotten much better at controlling it. Masato thinks I’ll be ready to try it on humans in another week or two."

That answer prompted a hiss from Aya. "Yohji… be careful who you use it against, *please*." He was uncomfortable with even Birman knowing about that talent as she’d make Yohji use it all the time on missions. The more that happened, the more likely it would be that someone would discover the talent before the war.

Yohji’s smile took on a pleased edge. "You’re getting all protective again, love." He bent down to nuzzle Aya’s neck. "Aya, I’ve already sworn that I’d be very careful about when and where I use my gift." A slight flush of embarrassment colored his golden cheeks. "I know I slipped when I used it on Tseng that one time, but as I said, I’m learning to control it."

Aya pushed his mate away, not so much in anger as wanting to be able to think clearly while discussing this topic. "You better, Yotan. And don’t even *think* to use that talent against me like you did your glamour." There was a faint hiss to his voice to make sure that Yohji realized that he was very serious.

Of course Yohji had the audacity to wear a completely innocent expression. "Would I ever do such a thing to you, Cat?" he asked, sounding just as innocent as he looked. When all Aya did was glare in response, Yohji laughed and shrugged. "Okay, would I do such a thing to you twice?"

"Not unless you want a bite taken out of your shoulder," Aya muttered, willing to do his best flesh gaki impersonation if it meant that Yohji learned a valuable lesson. If he was supposed to do his best to never shield Yohji behind shadows when his mate could still fight, then Yohji wasn’t going to dazzle him with lust or order him to safety.

Yohji laughed again and rubbed the tip of his nose against Aya’s. "I promise to you that I’ll… well, never willingly do that to you unless I feel it’ll save your life."

That was the strongest promise that Aya would ever get on the matter, and it went a way to mollify him. He knew that Yohji couldn’t promise outright, just like he couldn’t do the same. "Just as long as you know your life won’t be worth living if you use that talent on Jo," he warned, changing the subject before they began to fight. There was only so far their common sense could push their demon natures, after all.

The look that crossed Yohji’s face was one of sheer terror, although his emotions were amusement and respect. "I’d only *wish* she’d kill me once it wore off and she realized what I’d done." He shuddered in terror before giving Aya a saucy wink. "But imagine the fun I’d have until then!"

"Idiot." Aya poked Yohji in the ribs before leaning against his mate once more. "Just don’t try to use it any time soon during a mission, all right? Until you learn to control and use it properly, it could cause us some complications."

"I know, love." Yohji gently rubbed his hands up and down Aya’s back a couple of times. "Not that I think it’ll be of much help while we creep around the docks tonight."

No, their mission was to keep to the shadows and find the gang of smugglers who’d killed an entire ship’s crew to gain access to the ship’s holds. Aya’s hunger stirred at the thought of finding the people responsible and feeding for the first time in a few weeks. The Guard had already done a very good job in narrowing down the suspects, Aya and Yohji just had to catch them ‘red-handed’ and take out most of the smugglers.

His thoughts returning to the vellum papers just a foot or two away, Aya felt that Birman was already taking advantage of him and Yohji picking up less shifts at the Koneko. Aya couldn’t really complain since the missions helped him to hone his talents and usually provided a means for him to feed. He just hoped that Yohji wasn’t worn down by the often dark nature of their assignments.

"It’ll be all right, Cat." Yohji pressed another kiss against his temple, and while Aya didn’t think his mate had read his thoughts, he knew that Yohji was reacting to his suddenly dark mood.

"I know, Yotan." Aya nuzzled Yohji’s shoulder and breathed in deeply his mate’s scent. Almost a year together now, and it still struck him how easy it was to feel so good just by holding Yohji close. He didn’t think that would change over any amount of time, be it years or decades or centuries.

"So, now that we’re not working full-time here anymore, what do you say to us going away some weekend, hmmm?" Yohji brushed aside some of Aya’s hair so he could nibble on Aya’s left earlobe. "Maybe as our anniversary present? We could always go to an onsen or anyplace else you want." His voice contained a hint of a purr as he spoke, the sound rumbling in his chest as well.

Aya gave the matter some serious thought. "I think… that would be really nice." He nuzzled Yohji’s shoulder again. "Just the two of us someplace nice and quiet and warm."

"I’ll limit you to only four books for the entire weekend," Yohji laughed, growing more amused when Aya growled in response. "And I’ll do my best to make sure you don’t get a chance to read them at all." He tilted Aya’s chin up for a kiss, one that started gentle and languid, only to grow more passionate with every heartbeat.

If they weren’t in the office and expecting Jo and Mickey at any moment, Aya would sit down on the desk and drag Yohji on top of him. However, that’s where they were, and Yohji had a lesson right after the papers were signed while Aya had promised to do some shopping with Nagi once Omi’s magic lesson was finished.

His good mood wasn’t spoiled by those reminders, not when he was all too aware that there were no more plans until they left for the docks tonight. They could lock themselves in their room while Aya made sure that Yohji was properly fed for the mission. While Aya was sad that Yohji was giving up something that was important to him, he was thankful that they had more time to spend with and enjoy each other from now on.

Yohji broke off the kiss, pulling away enough so he could ghost his lips along Aya’s jaw. "Meet you upstairs after lunch?" he asked, his voice so husky with desire, his green eyes glowing the same emotion. Aya could only nod, which made Yohji laugh and take a step backward.

Thankfully, that was when Jo and Mickey entered the room and not a minute or two before. When Mickey asked Yohji if this was what he truly wanted, Aya was relieved to feel that Yohji truly didn’t have any doubts. While Mickey gathered and fussed over the papers, Yohji smiled at Aya, the expression full of love and contentment, the same emotions that washed through Aya and put him at peace.

The Koneko would always be a home to them, but Aya had no doubts that he and Yohji would fine their own home one day, someplace they would never have to leave unless by their choice.

*******